In Every Port
You see it often enough in the movies. Some guy comes walking in off the street and says to the other guy behind a counter or whatever that they want to fly a plane for them, or fix cars, any kind of skilled job and the guy takes one look at him and then says “You’re hired”. That’s not how it happens in real life.
What really happens is that you are asked if you have your license, or certificate or any other of a host of pieces of paper that will tell them that I am capable of doing the job that they want done.
Now during my time in the Congo I had driven trucks, piloted and ran a river boat and flew a plane. These were skills I should have been able to exploit when I arrived in Cape Town to make myself a bit of cash. The problem was, I never got either a license or professional qualification in any of those things. James had never had much interest in papers apart from the notes he used to had to officials to keep them out of his business so there was no incentive to get them at that end. So I found that whenever I went for a job that I knew I could do, I was told “no papers, no job” and sent on my way. It was all very frustrating.
In the end I had to rely on the technique that had served me before and try my luck finding a job in the docks. There was, as is the case with most ports, a few ships in. Amongst them was what I hoped would be the answer to my prayers. It was another tramp steamer almost identical to the magnificent, probably an identikit ship. It was called the Imperial and again was anything but yet my options were limited so I decided to try my luck.
Without any licenses I was unable to apply for any skilled positions but instead I showed them the one skill I could, I cooked for them. Twenty blood-soaked jungle mercenaries can’t be wrong, I had really developed a knack for making simple fare delicious. The purser took one taste of my Spam surprise and his eyes lit up. I was immediately offered the job of ship’s cook and I was once again on my way.
To say that I fell on my feet with my choice of ship to apply on would be something of an understatement. Captain Raj and his whole crew were some of the nicest bunch of people who I have ever worked with. They were of a similar mix to all of the other companies that I have worked with over the years. People from all over the world, every colour and creed, united in that noble task, the pursuit of money. They had been looking for a half-way decent cook for several ports by the time I walked onboard so they treated me like something of a God-send! I must say I got on very well with all of them from the start.
Like every tramp steamer, the Imperial was living very much hand to mouth. Every port was a search for a new consignment to transport and there was very little by way of regular work. Captain Raj had his head screwed on right. Never above a little wheeling and dealing and was always thinking up new and better ways to keep us employed. After three months onboard we were berthed in a a port in northern Australia when the captain announced that he had secured a contract for us. We were going to do some government work.
Australia, it turns out doesn’t just consist of that great big continent. Their government also administrates a whole plethora of islands out in the oceans. Needless to say they can be quite isolated and the government tries to arrange for a regular service to each of them for the every day essentials like certain foods and medicines as well as the mail. The Australian navy had been doing it for a while but with budget cuts they wanted to foist it off on a cheaper contractor. Captain Raj saw the opportunity and grabbed for it. It wasn’t glamourous but the pay was a lot better than we had been making.
From then on our lives were lived in something of a loop. We set off from Darwin loaded with whatever the authorities said they needed and we would then visit ten of these islands in turn, spending no more than a full day in each and arrive back in Darwin after about a month with whatever the islands needed to send back and get promptly reloaded and sent back out again to re-do the loop. It was all as regular as clockwork.
Officially the islanders were getting this service for free. Food and medicine and other odds and ends were just what was expected for any citizen. Nevertheless the official inventory did not cover every need of the population. To that end every member of the crew, when we were on the mainland would stock up on everything we thought they lacked on the islands. Things like proper chocolate, drinks, nylons, perfumes, records, decent cigarettes and anything else we could afford on our pay and fit in our lockers.
After the official unloading and handover of merchandise. We would often spend the night and that was when the unofficial trading would begin. The denizens of these islands would pay two or three times the going rate for what we had to sell. If you were an attractive woman, or man in some of the lad’s cases, we would be willing to forgo money in exchange for “services rendered”. After two years on the Imperial I had cultivated at least one woman in every port we visited.
There was one woman I was quite fond of. Rachel was the daughter of one of the local administrators and quite a looker. I had last seen her when I gave her some good whiskey to help usher in the new decade and we had our usual pleasant evening together. For five other visits there was no sign of her in the port, I was disappointed not to see her but there were plenty of other women to keep my attention. She soon became an enjoyable memory.
Imagine my surprise when I found her waiting at the end of the gangway one warm tropical June. Her face looked the same as it always had, that sun tinted youthfulness that had entranced me before, it was the rest of her that so shocked me. Beneath her clothes her belly was clearly visible. She told me that it was mine, that the doctor told her that she was nearly ready to pop and that her father had kept her away but that she had run away and needed to go with me.
I wrestled with my conscience over this one but in the end I relented and somehow convinced Captain Raj that it would be a good idea. Somehow his chivalrous regard for a woman in need usurped his fear of offending a man in charge and he let Rachel aboard, provided she stay in my cabin.
It wasn’t too difficult, I popped up another hammock and we ended up being rather cozy. We would spend our nights at sea talking about what everything meant. I for one was quite excited with idea of being a father, I had never known mine and wanted to break the trend. I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t ask the captain to marry us there and then. Maybe I was too busy.
I certainly was nervous enough. I got myself training as ship’s medic (Proper certification; I was learning) and I spent my spare-time studying a section in the textbook on how to help women give birth. I figured I could do it but I would rather have a doctor there to help.
We stopped in three other ports and in each my regular ladies found me strangely absent. I instead negotiated hard with my more conventional customers, I needed to gather up some more money.
When we were berthing in our fourth and final stop of that trip I was called from the galley by the sound of a woman in labour. I shouted out over the side for someone to fetch the local doctor and ran back down to get Rachel as comfortable as possible. The doctor was quick enough but the baby took it’s sweet time. Rachel was nearly an hour in labour.
Though the rest of the crew were busy enough at the time they took the time between their hectic unloading schedule to pop in their head and see how things were going. Some of them even brought gifts. Mason; the ship’s carpenter had made a little crib for us I thanked him profusely before another scream brought me back to Rachel’s side.
The whole process was soon over. With one last push the doctor announced that it was all over. Then he went silent. I let go of Rachel’s hand to see my new baby. That’s when I got the next shock of my life.
See; I was white, Rachel was white.
The baby was a nice brown.
I have to say that I was not in any way angry with Rachel. After all; I was certainly not faithful to her and we were not the only ship to pay her home a visit. I doubt she even knew who the father was when she first found she was pregnant, though I guess she could narrow it down after the birth. We silently agreed that I was not going to stay with them and three days later when we sailed into Darwin I wished her well as she prepared to go.
The whole crew had a whip around, I gave the same as everyone else and Captain Raj put Rachel in contact with an acquaintance who helped single mothers get on their feet.
Not long after Rachel left I too said goodbye to the Imperial. The rest of the crew had been discretion itself on our journey back but I still felt that something had changed. I couldn’t stay there. There was hand shakes and back slaps and promises to write and I set off again, out into a busy port looking for what was available.
It wasn’t too long before I found a new opportunity for adventure. It would take me again into the unknown that I so often found myself. I won’t say anymore about it because that, dear reader, is for the next part of my story.