Authors: Nicholas Monsarrat
Meals in the cramped wardroom never seemed to progress beyond the sort of constrained artificiality which marks a public banquet attended by people who are complete strangers to one another. The Captain was usually preoccupied with the last job or the next one; he sat in silence at the head of the table, staring straight ahead or occasionally jotting down a note. Ferraby, naturally shy, was still finding his way and never volunteered either a direct statement or a direct question: and Lockhart, who was the most articulate of the four, struggled through successive monologues which only rarely inspired any kind of answer. Bennett’s contribution lay in the realm of eating . . . He had formed an attachment for the crudest item in the wardroom store cupboard, tinned sausages, which he knew colloquially as ‘snorkers’: they made an almost daily appearance on the menu, either at lunch or dinner, and the recurrent exclamation – ‘Snorkers! Good-oh!’ – with which he greeted them, sounded the knell of appetite. Then he would sit down, rub his hands, help himself liberally to Worcester sauce, and go to with a will. In fishing circles he would have been described as a coarse feeder.
The leading-steward, a morose man named Carslake, watched this performance with a sardonic eye. Clearly he had been used to better things. He was not alone in that.
If Bennett talked at all, it was in a bombastic, contradictory whine which disposed of a subject almost before it had been introduced. One mealtime encounter which he had with Lockhart had an unusual sequel. The latter, talking about the ship’s lifesaving equipment, had remarked that in very cold weather one might have a better chance of survival swimming in the water, supported by a life jacket, than sitting wet through in an open boat exposed to the wind. Bennett, his mouth full, interrupted roughly: ‘Rot! Wait till the first time you’re fished. You’ll change your mind bloody quickly.’
‘But,’ said Lockhart mildly, ‘how do you know that? You can hardly have been torpedoed yet.’
Bennett glared, but did not answer. Later, when the Captain had left the wardroom, he said to Lockhart: ‘You talk to me like that again, and I’ll crown you.’
After a pause Lockhart said levelly: ‘That would get you into a great deal of trouble.’
‘Just watch it, that’s all!’ Baulked of an easy surrender, Bennett’s tone changed. He rubbed his hands together. ‘Now – who’s going to stand me a drink? Ferrabee!’
‘Yes,’ said Ferraby. ‘Of course. Er—please help yourself.’
‘Do we have to stand him drinks?’ asked Ferraby later, when Bennett had gone to his cabin. ‘He never stands them to us.’
‘We don’t have to stand him anything,’ answered Lockhart with decision. ‘It’s just a racket. Next time, pour him a drink and give him the chit book to sign at the same time. That’ll hold him.’
Ferraby shook his head. ‘He’ll make it up somehow. You know what he’s like.’
Ferraby spoke with some bitterness: he had indeed found out what Bennett was like, to his cost. A few days earlier, since it seemed likely that
would not be sailing for at least a fortnight, he had asked permission to send for his wife: she could stay at a hotel in Glasgow and he could see her on alternate evenings, when he was not Officer-of-the-Day. It would involve no sort of complication and he would not be dodging his fair share of the work. Bennett, however, had turned the request down, in a particularly offensive exchange.
‘Wife?’ he said, when Ferraby approached him in his cabin. ‘Didn’t know you had one. How long have you been married?’
‘Six weeks,’ said Ferraby.
Bennett smirked. ‘Time you gave it a rest, then.’
Ferraby said nothing. Bennett affected to consider the matter, frowning down at his desk. Then he shook his head. ‘No, sub,’ he said, ‘I don’t like the idea. There’s too much work to do.’
‘But when the work’s over—’ began Ferraby.
‘You’ve got to concentrate,’ said Bennett crisply. ‘What’s the good of you slipping off for a honeymoon every time the bell strikes? It’ll take your mind off the ship.’
Ferraby swallowed. He hated the conversation, but he persisted bravely. ‘All I want to do—’ he began again.
‘I know bloody well what you want to do.’ The crude leer on Bennett’s face was sufficient commentary, but he clinched it more crudely still. ‘You’ve quite enough to do without sleeping ashore every other night, and coming back clapped out. You’d better forget it.’
It was something which Ferraby did not forget . . . When he told Lockhart about it he was pitifully distressed.
‘I don’t mind so much having it turned down,’ he said. ‘But to talk like that about it . . . It’s—it’s beastly!’
Lockhart shook his head. ‘You might have guessed it. He’s that sort of man.’
‘I hate him!’
Lockhart tried to steer him away from the emotional aspect. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘I don’t believe it’s even necessary for you to get permission for this sort of thing. They can’t possibly stop your wife coming up here. Ask the Captain about it.’
‘But even if she were here, Bennett could stop me going to Glasgow to see her.’
‘Not on your days off duty.’
‘I bet he could.’
Lockhart nodded. ‘Yes, I bet he could too. He’d find some way, especially if you asked the Captain after being refused permission.’ He smiled at Ferraby across the wardroom table. ‘Better forget it, as that bastard said. There’ll be other chances later.’
When the duty petty officer appeared in the wardroom doorway, cap in hand, to say that
was ‘ready for Rounds’, Lockhart, who was Officer-of-the-Day, stood up, and followed him out of the wardroom and up the ladder towards the fo’c’sle, and the last job of his 24-hour turn of duty. Evening Rounds were part of the daily routine which, established stage by stage, was already changing
from a shipyard item into a working ship-of-war.
In establishing this routine, Petty Officer Tallow, as coxswain, had had a great deal to do: more, indeed, than he would normally have needed to take on with a First Lieutenant who knew his job properly. But, seeing that the First Lieutenant was Bennett, there were a number of gaps which someone else had to fill if the ship were to function properly: unobtrusively, by a hint here and there or by direct action, Tallow saw that they were accounted for.
The Officer-of-the-Day’s Rounds every evening, a short tour through the mess decks and along the upper decks to check the mooring wires and see that the ship was properly darkened, marked the end of a daily programme which covered every phase of the ship’s life in harbour. The hands fell in at 6.30 every morning, and washed down the upper deck – a cold job in winter, with daylight barely established: Colours were hoisted at eight, then there was breakfast, and then the day’s work proper began – mostly, at this stage, cleaning, and stowing stores. At 10.30 Stand-Easy and Up-Spirits – the issue of a tot of rum to every man on board. After that, work continued until four, when liberty men went ashore and the duty watch settled down to their evening on board. Letters came down to the wardroom for censoring soon after dinner: Rounds were at nine o’clock, and Pipe Down at ten. The men who had all-night leave could stay ashore till 6.30 next morning.
The coxswain’s particular responsibility, the ship’s canteen, where duty-free cigarettes and tobacco were on sale, had already been established: Tallow ran it from his own minute cabin aft, being practically crowded through the porthole in the process. His other special duty, the rounding up of defaulters, was also under way, beginning with an odd breach of decorum which caused Ferraby, who happened to be Officer-of-the-Day, a good deal of embarrassment. He was routed out of the wardroom at nine o’clock one evening, after noises from the upper deck had warned him that one of the returning liberty men was making a considerable disturbance. At the top of the ladder he found Petty Officer Tallow, and by his side a sullen-looking stoker swaying slightly on his feet.
‘Stoker Grey, sir,’ began Tallow grimly: and then, to the culprit: ‘Tenshun! Off caps! Stoker Grey, sir. Urinating on the upper deck.’
‘What!’ exclaimed Ferraby, genuinely shocked.
‘Urinating on the upper deck, sir,’ repeated Tallow. ‘Just came back on board. The quartermaster reported him.’
Ferraby swallowed. He was inclined to be out of his depth, and it was his first defaulter as well.
‘What have you got to say?’ he asked after a moment.
Stoker Grey swayed forward, and back again, and muttered something.
‘Speak up!’ barked Tallow.
Grey tried again. ‘Must have had a few drinks, sir.’
‘It’s absolutely disgusting,’ said Ferraby. ‘I never heard of—’
‘Sorry, sir,’ muttered Grey.
‘Keep silence!’ said Tallow.
‘It’s disgusting,’ repeated Ferraby weakly. ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself. First Lieutenant’s report, coxswain.’
‘First Lieutenant’s report,’ echoed Tallow. ‘On caps! About turn! Quick march.’
The man shambled off. Presently a heavy thud resounded along the iron deck.
‘Better keep an eye on him,’ said Ferraby.
‘I’ll do that, sir,’ said Tallow bleakly.
‘I hope there won’t be too much of this sort of thing.’
‘You know what beer is, sir.’
‘But still—’ began Ferraby. Then he left it at that. War, it was clear, was not for the squeamish.
Two days before Christmas, the Captain went up to Glasgow for a final visit to headquarters: he returned with a fresh sheaf of papers which he studied for some time in his cabin. Then he went down to the wardroom, where the others were assembled.
‘Sailing orders,’ he said briefly as he sat down. ‘We go downriver the day after tomorrow – and in case you’ve forgotten, the date will be December the twenty-fifth.’
‘A nice present,’ said Lockhart in the pause that followed.
‘I hope so . . . Here’s the rough programme, anyway.’ He consulted a sheet of paper in his hand. ‘We’ll be towed down to the oiling berth, about five miles downriver. We’ll oil there, and then steam the rest of the way down to Greenock. There we stay at anchor for about a fortnight, taking on stores and ammunition, and adjusting compasses. Then we go out on our full-power trials, probably down to Ailsa Craig and back: we’ll test the guns and the depth-charge gear on the way. That takes us to—’ he looked at the programme again ‘—to January 12th. Then if everything’s all right, we go north to Ardnacraish for our working-up exercises.’
‘How long will they take, sir?’ asked Bennett.
‘The programme says three weeks. It won’t be less, and if we don’t put up a good show they can keep us there as long as they like. So it’s up to us.’
‘Do you hear that, subs?’ interjected Bennett unnecessarily. ‘We don’t want any mistakes from either of you.’
Ericson frowned slightly. ‘We don’t want any mistakes from anyone, whether it’s me or a second-class stoker.’ It was the first time the Captain had been heard to correct anything Bennett said: momentarily Lockhart found himself wondering if it had happened before, in private, and whether the Captain was actually as blind to the situation in the wardroom, and elsewhere, as he seemed to be. If he really had a critical eye on Bennett, then there was hope for the future . . . ‘Well, there it is,’ Ericson continued: ‘we have to be ready to move in forty-eight hours from now.’ He raised his voice, and called: ‘Pantry!’
Leading-Steward Carslake, who had been listening attentively outside, waited a decent interval before appearing in the doorway: ‘Yes, sir?’
‘Gin, please – and whatever anyone else wants.’ And later, over the second round of drinks, he said: ‘I think we’d better have a wardroom party tomorrow night. We may not get another chance for some time.’
At ten o’clock on Christmas morning, waiting on the cold windswept fo’c’sle for steam to come to the windlass, Lockhart was conscious of a slight headache. He had drunk more than usual at the previous night’s party: it would scarcely have been tolerable otherwise. Mrs Ericson had presided, and done it rather well; but the rest of the company had been comparative strangers to one another – some officers off another corvette, a couple of dockyard officials, a friend of the Captain’s from Naval Headquarters; and Bennett, coming in at about ten o’clock with a bedraggled-looking woman clearly picked up in the nearest hotel, had struck an unfortunate note. The sense of well-being, and the accompanying slight haze, induced by a dozen pink gins, had come as an essential relief; but Lockhart felt he was paying for it now. A biting wind, varied with an occasional drift of snow, was no cure for a hangover.
In the apportioning of jobs and stations on board, the fo’c’sle had been allotted to him as the senior sub-lieutenant, together with the two most interesting assignments – gunnery, and chart correcting. Ferraby, with the second choice of everything, was put in charge aft: he was responsible for the depth-charges, and in harbour he would have to deal with correspondence, the crew’s pay, and the wardroom accounts as well. Certainly, thought Lockhart, he himself had come off best: it couldn’t be helped, but it was bad luck on Ferraby having all the finicking little oddments while everyone else had the glamour. Stamping up and down the fo’c’sle, wishing that his job (of which he had only the vaguest outline) were not so directly under the eye of the bridge, he found himself wondering once again how Ferraby – shy, inexperienced, defenceless – was going to meet the trials that lay in the future. He could be helped to a certain extent, but in the last analysis it depended on his own resources, and they were patently meagre.