Stories from a Dublin Scientist

Category: I Enrique

The fruit of the vine

Romance is not something that is want of afflict me too often in my life but I have to say that I have seen it’s effects on others a great many times. This has been on occasion good, bad and indifferent and in one very interesting case, downright dangerous.

I had handed in my notice on the Eastern Star and was once again a free agent. I had served on different boats for over five years and I had grown tired of the constant travel, no settled location and the constant movement of the floor beneath my feet, I decided that enough was enough. I was going to try something new.

My final voyage on the Star ended in the port of Valparaiso on the coast of Chile, South America. It was a bustling port, with a mix of naval, fishing and regular good old fashioned cargo shipping constantly going to and fro. There is always something going on in port cities and I have found that there is always work for those with the gumption to take it. Having no intention to take a job on a ship again for the foreseeable future I decided not to hang by the walkways by the docks where the casual sailors would frequent but instead went further into the town to the main plaza.

No matter where you go in the world. There is always a place, be it a square or a bar, or just a place on the street where young men, and the occasional woman can stand and wait for someone to come round with work going. It is a form of advertising and I have found it considerably cheaper and often much more effective than any of those fancy agencies.

There were young boys, strong men and wizened old men all standing around the ratty benches and dusty trees of the Plaza, we were all waiting for the signal, be it a nod or a hand gesture or anything else that would signal that someone had use for our services. Usually this can take anything from a couple of hours to even a few weeks, patience is a virtue in this game, but I found that this time, my wait was very much shorter than I have ever experienced.

Within a minute of me joining the ranks of the hopeful there was the screech of tires as a truck came to rest right in front of me. The door opened and a shortish man, in fairly nice clothes, came out and walked straight in front of me. “Extranjero?” he asked, wondering if I was a foreigner. I looked at the line of black-haired, dark-skinned men around me and my own pasty white skin, already developing a hint of red under the blazing sun and I was about to say something along the lines of what gave me away but I thought better of it and instead replied with “Sí”, I was. He grinned broadly and asked “Tienes profesion?”, if I had a trade. I nodded and replied “Cocinero”, that I was a cook. The grin grew even broader and he said “Perfecto! Muy Bien! Tengo trabajo por ti. Vamos.”

I was dazed, I was confused, things had gone a lot faster than I had expected. But, in general, I have found that life always goes a lot better when I just go with it, so I did. I walked to the man, shook his hand, and followed him to the truck. He lead me to the back and opened the tarp at the rear, I clambered in and was faced with a wide diversity of faces. Once again, I was on the move.

We rode on the truck for what seemed like three hours. It wasn’t too bad, save for boredom, there was plenty of water and the movement of the truck sent cool air through vents in the sides to keep us cool. I spent the time getting to know everyone else that was there. I found something odd about them, there were Argentinians, Bolivians, Peruvians, Brazilians, people from all over South America. There were a few Europeans like myself and even one Korean refugee. What there was none of were natives. Not a single person from Chile was there. I have to say I found it unusual. But then, unusual has always been part and parcel of my existence. I decided to see where it would go.

It went, apparently into a beautiful courtyard set amongst rolling hills covered in acres and acres of vines. We exited the van and stood rubbing tired limbs and shielding our eyes from the Sun. Somewhere close by, a bell started to toll and into the courtyard, trundled dozens of scruffy looking men. They were all wearing dusty work clothes and their skin was burnt a dark brown. After them came another eight men, all on horses, who positioned themselves around us and the others. Their eyes darted from one person to the next, like an Alsatian eyeing steaks on a butcher’s stall. They each were carrying more than one weapon, from a rifle over their shoulders to an impressive knife at their hips. They did not look friendly.

After enough moments had passed to let all of this sink in, One of the doors in the the big house attached to the courtyard opened and out came a tall, middle-aged man in a white suit. He walked over to right in front of us new people and started to speak in broken English and Spanish. “Welcome to Santa Rosa” he said and started a long spiel that I had trouble keeping up with. There were the usual rules; no fighting, no drinking, go to mass every Sunday, follow the instructions. Then there was something weird. “Whatever you do..” He said. Don’t leave unaccompanied by either myself or another one of the managers”, he pointed at the men on horseback. “It can get very dangerous out there. we don’t want any of you to get hurt.”

There was something about the way he said that last sentence.. and how the look that the horseriders had when he said it which gave me the willies but I didn’t have much time to dwell on it. As soon as he finished the other workers walked over to us new people. taking the people around me and leading them out into the fields, presumably to show them how things were to be done. No one came to me and I was feeling a little left out until there was a tap on my shoulder, I turned to see Mr Grin. “You cook.” He said and lead me into the staff quarters.

As I have found it in every place I have been. I seldom find it difficult to get into the rhythm. I had to wake before dawn to get the breakfast ready and from then until well after sundown it was a hard slog of cooking, serving, cleaning and cooking again. But it has to be said; I’m pretty gifted when it comes to cooking, I can make any kind of shite taste good and I was soon everyone’s best friend.

My culinary skills also gave me another perk. Unlike all the other workers; I was allowed out. Every few days, I would go with Mr Grin (I never did learn his name) to the local town to get the flour, oils and other supplies that the kitchen garden could not supply itself. At first the locals were somewhat cagey with us. But as I made more and more visits and made a couple of limited attempts at conversation. I found that it was Mr Grin entirely who gave the shopkeepers the creeps. They would speak lively with me and then he would lurk into view and as quick as nothing there would be no talk, except for business. I thought that once or twice they were trying to tell me something but, I figure that Mr Grin must have some sort of sixth sense because that was when he would show and any chance of telling me anything would go right out of the window. So I continued on my merry way.

I gradually got to know everyone else amongst the workers, they were all like me, nomads in the world, never content to settle in one place too long. I even got on name terms with some of the guardsmen. Though Juan, Carlos and Miguel were never much for talking, they were all, the strong silent type.

I was happy enough. Hard work was no skin off my bones, I was used to that, and there was always food in my belly, and a warm bed at night. But tragedy did stalk my idyll, twice in the early evening I was disturbed from my duties by the sound gunfire followed not too soon later by the sight of one of the guards, coming through the gate with one of my fellow workers, bloody and immobile. Bandits, they said, they seemed like very vicious criminals. Still; sad though those events were, most of the days were good, I was close to content. I knew it couldn’t last.

The first sign of change was one lunch time when I was serving out duck dumplings in a soup which I has made with an spicy twist. I has all my attention one the pot and my ladle, the noise of my friends laughing and talking a soft wave flowing over me. The suddenly it stopped. I didn’t notice at first but after a few seconds of silence I lifted my head to see what was the cause and I too was brought to silence.

At the door to our canteen was, I’m not kidding here, easily the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, she was tall, elegant, with dark brown skin and a body as close to perfection as you are likely to find. She was literally stunning, I think some of us did not speak for days after seeing her. I think we were all instantly in love.

She stood at the door for what seemed like hours but what must have been less than a minute and walked, though glided may have been a better word, to my table and asked, with a voice as lovely as the rest of her, for some of my soup. I was delighted to oblige and while she took a tentative sip and then an eager slurp of my latest concoction she explained that she (maria was her name) was the wife of the owner of Santa Rosa, that she usually does the cooking at home but the boss was away and she could smell the delicious food coming from our side so decided to join us (I got a surreptitious slap on the back at that one), she was hoping if that was okay.

I’m sure that some of us got cricks in our necks so rapid was the nodding of our heads in allowing Maria to stay and from then on, she would make her occasional appearance amongst our ranks. Life in the big house was boring it seems. She thought the stories that we told of our lives were instantly fascinating, including my own somewhat macabre tales of youth.

Before you ask, dear reader. No! I didn’t do anything with her. I was infatuated with her, this is true, we all were, but she was so far beyond our league to make even the thought of something absolutely nonsensical. She was a Goddess, I was a mortal, mixing the two never ends well for the mortal, I kept my distance.

Not everyone, however, was so wise. Raúl, originally from Cuba, stared more than the rest of us. He stared so much that some of the rest of us grew uncomfortable for Maria. But Raúl was a handsome man, he had ebony skin, covering a frame that could have been chiseled from marble. Occasionally; I could see Maria stare back.

But I thought nothing of it. Just a bit of harmless flirting. Then there was the time I was rising early to prepare another culinary masterpiece. I walked softly from my room so as not to wake the others, made my way into the main hall way and nearly collided with Maria, with tussled hair and a guilty expression on her face. I didn’t have to look to know she was coming from Raul’s room.

Two days past before I had a chance to mention what I saw to Raúl. “Fair play and all.” I said “But the boss’s wife? You’ll get kicked on your arse if they ever find out.”

If they find out.” Raúl said with a smile. “We only ever do anything when the boss and his goons are a long, long, way away. The only way he would know was if someone,” He looked at me, “told him.”

The accusation hurt my pride. I would never tell on a colleague like that. There was a code, an unbreakable bond. My lips were sealed.

My silence; however did not buy Raúl too much time for his nighttime shenanigans. I am a light sleeper and was awoke early one morning by the sounds of horses pulling something heavy through the courtyard. I dressed as quietly as I could and walked a softly as a mouse to the door and slowly put my head around to see what was going on.

There was indeed a number of horses pulling something. The guards had caught something and were dragging it back to the Boss. Who was standing in the center of the courtyard with Mr Grin and Maria, who was in a disheveled dress.

When I saw her I realised who it must be tied by the ropes. I prayed to God that I was wrong but when the dust settled it truth was obvious, Raúl had been caught.

He struggled, his mouth was gagged but I could still tell that he was calling to Maria. She couldn’t move, Mr Grin had strong grip for a man of his size.

At a signal from the Boss, the ropes tying Raúl were loosened and he was allowed to stand, though any move he tried to make towards either the Boss or Maria were quickly stopped. The Boss let Raúl quieten down then he started to speak.

“It is typical of you people.” he said, “I take you in, give you work when no one else would, and what do you do? Betray me.” He looked at his wife “You. I will deal with later.” He then gestured to Mr Grin who smoothly but firmly lead her back to the house. When she was gone, the Boss made another gesture and the guards completely removed the ropes from Raúl. He was calmer now, I thought he believed he had been given his lumps and was going to be kicked out. It turns out, that didn’t happen.

The Boss pointed at the main gate. “Get moving” he said. He raised his hand and three more of the guards came out with their horses and a fourth in tow. “I said go!” the Boss shouted “We going to give you five minutes, then we are going to come after you.” the guards started to chuckle, they were cradling there rifles while he spoke. “We’re going to have some fun with you.”

Raúl stood there for a second; as if trying to think of something to say, a way to negotiate. But he saw the look in the Boss’s eyes and thought the better of it. He ran, as fast as his battered legs could take him, out the gate and into the night.

I didn’t see any more, I didn’t want to, I tottered as lightly as I could back into bed and stuffed the pillow as hard as I could against my head so I could not hear anything. Nevertheless; I heard three dull thumps, shots in the distance, not more than ten minutes later. I did not sleep again that night.

That morning I was burning in my desire to talk to someone about what had happened. The guards, and Mr Grin, were close, too close to speak.

I did; however, have a chance to run. It was shopping day and I was to head with Mr Grin to the town. That was to be my ticket to escape. I made the usual motions to choosing what I needed for the next few days and when I walked past I whispered to the ladies who had so often tried to warn me. “Help me” I said.

They did not need to be told twice. One of them was mixing a paste of corn in a bowl and as Mr Grin walked by she suddenly upended it and let is spill all over his trousers. He roared in anger at the mess on his clothes and the woman grabbed him and made a show of cleaning off the gunk.

While that was going on, the other woman grabbed me, took me to a side door and pointed at a truck that was sitting on the street, idling. The driver looked at the woman and waved. She waved back and pointed at me, making running motions and pointing back at the truck. The driver nodded and opened the side door. I didn’t need to be told. I ran like hell.

When I got in the truck the driver told me to lay down while he started it moving. There were moments when it looked like he was signalling someone, or looking at something too intensely and I was convinced that Mr Grin had come for me, that I was going to be the one hunted that night.

But nothing happened. After what must have been a half an hour. He signalled I could get up. I moved into the passenger’s seat and I saw that we where out in the country side, mountains of the Andes before us. “Muchas Gracias” I thanked the driver. “De nada” he replied. He said that Santa Rosa was a bad place and that getting any one out of there was a good deed that God smiled upon. I agreed heartily.

We talked a little more. I talked about Santa Rosa and what I had seen, he talked about the other stories he had heard from that accursed place, I shivered at every one, as their fate could have been my own. After another hour were were approaching another town. The driver said he could drop me off there if I wanted. I thought for a second and asked where he was going. He replied to Argentina, would I like to go with him? I said sure.

That was the end of my time in Chile. I had more adventures in South America but those, dear reader, are for the next chapter.


Author’s note: This story is part of a series written about my character Enrique Ivan Hamish O’Brien and his adventures. There have been Eleven stories so far I EnriqueAn EdukayshunThe EmergencyThe Demon on the high seas, , Driving AmbitionViva la LeopoldvilleUp the river, Taking FlightDue SouthIn Every Port, What’s good for the goose, and Romeo and Julia . Stay posted to see what else Enrique comes up with.


Romeo and Julia

People often tell you that in travel the source of wisdom is not the destination but the journey. I can tell you that as someone who has spent many a year working on passenger liners that the journey can get very boring at times and in my opinion, if there was ever a chance to travel without actually having to move the world would be a much better place.

Still; whatever I may say there are still many young people who get it in their heads that they must travel to broaden their horizons. This travel often involves some form of grungy conveyance and you couldn’t get more grungy than the Eastern Star the liner were I was working. This meant that there was always a surplus of young ladies, from their late teens to early twenties around. And the best thing is when you have young women seeking to find themselves they also look for romantic adventure. Something we in the crew we only too willing to provide.

I am not going to lie to you and say that I never partook. I mean, I had Latin charm on my side. Hell! For some of these girls even the Irish Brogue was exotic. I did quite well in fact but I was an amateur, a mere runner up compared to our champion lady-killer, our own card-carrying Casanova, Raoul Jimenez.

Raoul’s origins were a little vague, the betting was that the barman came from Cuba but who could be sure? What we did know is that he had everything going for him. He had the name, he had the accent, he had the looks, and he had a smouldering stare that could defrost a fridge at fifteen paces. When he had you in his sights there was almost no escape.

That was not to say that Raoul had it absurdly easy. He really put the effort into his romantic conquests. He had flawless introduction on their first night on the ship. He had chat-up lines honed to a fine-edge. He wined them, he dined them he gave them a lifetime’s worth of wooing in the space of only a few days. He was our Romeo. Part of the package for one lucky customer.

With an alpha dog like Raoul aboard it would be safe to say that we did not even get a look in until he had chosen his target. This was usually quite early in, while they were embarking in port. He could tell the best prospects not only from looks, which were almost invariably of the highest calibre, but also from the way they held themselves. Raoul would claim that he could tell just from the way a woman climbed the gangway if she would be a screamer in bed. He tried on several occasions to impart this knowledge to us but I confess that the details were too subtle for me.

We all knew in our hearts that a life like Raoul’s would eventually end in tears. We didn’t think it would be quite as spectacular as it was.

It started when we were docked in Brisbane, preparing to cross the Pacific to the West Coast of the U S . All the catering staff where standing on deck ostensibly to inspect the provisions being loaded but in reality to inspect the new passengers for lookers. “Jaysus! Look at the rack on her!” I recall muttering to my compatriots, nodding at a particularly well-endowed young woman whose motion while walking may be best described in nautical terms as a ‘Mild Swell’. There were brunettes and red-heads, skinny waifs and others who were more ‘cuddly’. Some were prim and proper, others had the look of repressed wanton desire I knew all too well from growing up in Thirties Ireland. And then there was Her.

We didn’t spot her ourselves. It was Raoul who suddenly went quiet, like a hunter when he first spots his prey. When we followed his gaze we could tell straight forward that he had found his target. She was blonde, slightly above average height, and wearing a cream dress that hugged a perfect body. She moved with a complex hip action that brought to mind our most beloved movie starlets. It was stately, yet covered as much ground as everyone else around her. The look in Raoul’s eyes said it all. They exclaimed “She will be mine!”

As soon as we left port, Raoul started his opening moves. As soon as the woman, whom the porters identified as “Julia Slater, from Perth” made her way to the ship’s bar. There was a look, a kind hello, and of course, a complimentary drink. I didn’t see any of this of course. I was doing actual work at the time. But we in the kitchen were being provided with live intelligence by the waiters and by all accounts she was eating out of his hand within an hour. It was on.

The next day Raoul arranged to meet Julia on the forward deck to, in his words, “watch the world pass us by.” While they were there made use of chat up line numbers 15 and 27,  mysteriously deep philosophical statement number 6, and closing with impromptu affectation of desire number 12. Later that afternoon he told us that she was ripe for the picking and that he had arranged to meet her after his shift that night to “Seal the Deal”.

Kitchen work on a ship often starts early so I was already trying to sleep when Raoul made a flying visit to the crew quarters. There was jeering and cat calls as he told how he was going to meet her on the top-deck, cheap champagne in hand and some light music coming from the crow’s nest. “It is going to be a night to remember.” He said to everyone as he marched out to meet her.

That should have been that and it usually was but I was woken up at midnight by the sound of screaming coming from the top deck. We all ran up the stairs to find seven members of the ships watch gathered around the strangest sight I had ever seen.

Raoul had been handcuffed, stark naked, to the railings, no sign of any of his clothes or Julia. They had to send for the ship’s engineer with a hacksaw to get him out.

When he was finally free Raoul told us what had happened. They had met her on deck as they had arranged, shared the bubbly and a quick dance and then it was as if she completely changed. Gone was the demure, reserved lady and out came a vampish seductress. She kissed him passionately, tore all his clothes off and then, when it looked like she was about to strip too, she took the cuffs out and locked him in place. Then, calm as you like, grabbed up his clothes, threw them overboard and sauntered back to her cabin. The look on his face was both embarrassed and confused. We found it as funny as hell.   

The Captain did not however. Fraternizing with passengers was strictly against the rules and Raoul had been caught red-handed. He was confined to quarters for the rest of the voyage to be unceremoniously dropped when we arrived.

It also turned out that Julia was not all that she appeared. She was a professional actress, hired by the family of a previous conquest who had gotten pregnant to get Raoul. She didn’t say very much to anyone about it other than how easy he was to manipulate.

Romeo’s reign was over and with it most of the flavour of life on the Eastern Star. There was still fun to be had but the magic was gone. I moved on within a few months to pastures new and further adventure. I’ll tell you about them but that, dear reader is for the next chapter of my story.


Author’s note: This story is part of a series written about my character Enrique Ivan Hamish O’Brien and his adventures. There have been Ten stories so far I EnriqueAn Edukayshun, The EmergencyThe Demon on the high seas, Driving AmbitionViva la Leopoldville, Up the riverTaking FlightDue SouthIn Every Port and What’s good for the goose. Stay posted to see what else Enrique comes up with.

What’s Good For The Goose

After I left the Imperial, I was once again at odds over what I was going to do with my life. Thankfully, this time I had certificates that attested that I actually was able to do some things so my search for employment was not quite so fruitless as before. In fact I was only wandering the streets of Darwin for a couple of days before I found myself a new job.

Word of my “canned meat surprise” must have gotten out and I was snapped up as a chef on the Eastern Star, an ocean liner. This was definitely stepping up. Compared to the Imperial the galleys of the Eastern Star were massive. There were twelve of us working there, we were meant to handle the cooking for both the crew, for which I was evidently most suited, and for the passengers who tended to have more, shall we say, upmarket tastes.

We had two types of passengers on the Star. We had steerage, mostly poor, people traveling for work or to make a new life. They were easy enough to please, for them food was food and the stoge that I would supply would keep them happy enough. They would often talk to me about why they were traveling. Some of the stories were tragic, others funny, all were human. I have to say that I liked most of them.

I frankly could not say the same about those in “First Class”, the marks there because even in those by-gone times most of the real knobs were traveling by air already. First class was filled only by those pretenders who thought that a little extra money meant they were better then the rest of us and boy they acted that way.

Every single one of the crew was forced to deal with their constant demands from the top decks. There were requests to repaint rooms, constantly shift furniture around in ‘State Rooms’. Of course, the most demands we got was about the food.

Nearly every trip had a person that had an unusual demand. From a particular way of doing their eggs in the morning to an exact consistency of gravy with their dinner. We had to field a lot of complaints but the worst case we had, the most troublesome passenger I had ever dealt with really took matters into their own hands.

It actually began several months beforehand. I had been on the Eastern Star for over two years and I was going over the schedule and I figured that we were going to be at sea for Christmas. Talking with the boys we came to the conclusion that we were going to need a proper meal for the holidays, namely roast bird.

Traditionally we ate goose for Christmas but to get a full sized goose would have been far too expensive to buy let alone to get the at least seven we were going to need for the whole crew. Thankfully we were at port in Hong Kong at the time and I was able to slip out to a market one afternoon and set the wheels in motion.

I bought ten little goslings barely the size of your hand, for less than the cost of a full goose. The idea was that we were going to feed them on kitchen scraps over the five months before christmas and kill them ourselves when they were nice and fat. It was genius. The ship’s carpenter made a tiny pen for them which we stored in a disused room behind the galley. It was going really well. Then She came.

Her name was Giselle Olstead. She was American and her parents were incredibly rich. At the age of nineteen she had decided that she was going to drop out of college to tour the world and she was traveling from the far East to Australia so she could spend Christmas and New Year with her Family. At the start we were excited, because we figured that actually being a rich kid she was more deserving to be in first class than anyone who was there before. We quickly changed our tune on that one.

You see; Giselle was taking the boat and not flying which she could very much afford to because she had developed some very unusual ideas during the course of her travels. On her first day aboard she lectured us on the evils of smoking, and how airplanes in the sky were an abomination to “Father Sky”. We nodded at that and didn’t say a word until she had stalked off to meditate but we all agreed that she was as daft as a bag of hammers.

The major beef that Giselle had was the eating of meat! We had had vegetarians before, vegans even and we could cater for them in so far as it we were able in that day and age but Giselle was intolerable. She was not of the opinion that she alone could not eat meat. But that no one should eat meat in her presence. The first meal on our voyage descended into a shouting match and Giselle attempting to throw pots of stew overboard. It took a good three hours and the combined negotiating skills of the Captain and Chief steward to calm her down.

From then on a fragile peace reigned over the Eastern Star Giselle would eat her vegan food in her cabin and we in the galley would do our damnedest to make sure any sign of meat either being cooked or prepared was kept away from her presence. It worked, but I think we all had the feeling that it wouldn’t last.

The weather had been good on our journey and two days in myself and the rest of the galley staff decided that our goslings, who by then were getting nicely fat and rapidly approaching their appointment with the carving knife, would do good to get out in the sun. To that end, and with the captain’s permission we moved their pen out onto the upper deck on an out of the way place, with a little bit of shade of course. It was nice to sit out on the deck in the sun and hear them give out and fight over a couple of scraps.

Now, I wasn’t there when it happened but I was told that one of the deck hands was feeding scraps to the geese when Giselle came over and offered to help. I swear that I would have thought of something to say but the idiot told her straight out what the birds were there for. The woman looked aghast for a moment. And then exploded.

There was shouting. There were tears. Mostly there were demands that “Those poor innocent birds be set free”. Most of the deck hands looked at her puzzled and let her move on. She went to the captain but he wanted the goose dinner as much as anyone and flatly refused her. She has a cold, determined look on her face as she left saying “This isn’t over”.

That evening it was a quiet night and the sea was as calm as glass. It was warm that I kept the porthole in my cabin open while I slept to let in some air. The night was quiet and the engines only a low thrum in the background, I slept very well.

I was awoken though by a noise from outside it sounded like something breaking followed by muffled cries then….

HONK! HONK! HONK! HONK! HONK! HONK! HONK! HONK! HONK! Followed by a splash.

I rushed to the porthole only to see another goose honking and flapping madly as it fell down to the water. I twisted my head only to see Giselle shouting down “Fly! Fly away to freedom”

I woke as many of the crew as I could and rushed up to the deck. There where four geese in what was left of the cage and one in her Giselle’s when we got there. A Norwegian engineer rugby-tackled her to the deck while two cooks wrestled the frightened bird from her hands. She spat venom while three burly men took her below decks but I did not pay any attention I looked out over the water but straining I could only see two white smudges floating in the dark.

The geese were in the water. Their wings were clipped so they couldn’t fly. They wouldn’t last long.

I thought on my feet. “Man overboard!” I shouted at the top of my lungs “Ready the boat!” The second mate who was slightly worse for wear over a glass or two of brandy instantly cut the engines and the deck-hands worked quickly launching a small skiff. I lead the way directing them out into the dark.

We found three of them by their constant calls in the water. At first the others on the boat were confused thinking they were trying to find real people but a quick word made them remember they wanted goose for Christmas too.

Of the other two there was no sign. Sharks patrol those waters and would have made short work of a floundering goose. But within an hour we were back and the eight geese reunited in their reconstructed cage.

The captain was not best pleased that we has stopped but relieved when I suggested we still had enough goose to go around. As for Giselle, she was confined to her room after that, ostensibly for her own protection. True enough I did know a few crew members who would have happily thrown her over board.

We dropped Giselle off at Sydney and went back to sea and I am happy to say that when Christmas came, the goose was as good as we hoped it would be and more. The stint in the ocean did not do the meat too much harm but some wags did suggest that they could tell that they had gotten one of the ones who had been thrown by the salty taste of the meat. I did not dignify that with a response.

I spent in all four years on the Eastern Star and had a great many adventures. Some of them a may deal with here but that, dear reader, is for the next part of my story.

Author’s note: This story is part of a series written about my character Enrique Ivan Hamish O’Brien and his adventures. There have been Ten stories so far I Enrique, An Edukayshun, The Emergency, The Demon on the high seas, , Driving Ambition, Viva la Leopoldville, Up the river, Taking Flight, Due South, and In Every Port. Stay posted to see what else Enrique comes up with.

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.

Due South

Fear can be a horrible thing, paralyzing you in your moments of greatest danger. Fear comes from many sources sometimes you can get away from whatever is causing it simply by running. In other cases, your fear is right there beside you, reminding you every moment exactly why you should be terrified. The kind of fear you have when I Tiger comes out of the bushes right beside you or in my case watching the fuel gauge of a plane slowly drop to zero when you’re in midair.

I had started my flight in the middle of the deep-dark Congo jungle. The shot-up WW2 surplus transport plane I was flying hadn’t been fueled since I had left Leopoldville that morning. I had them put in enough fuel to get me from the city air-strip out to the Jungle clearing that was to be our base-camp and to then get us back with maybe a half and hour leeway. Heading south in the direction of British Africa I was going towards the unknown and not entirely sure I had enough fuel to get there.

First I raised the plane up to its optimal altitude, well over the lowest tropical clouds. The reason was twofold; I would get the greatest possible distance out of the remaining fuel and should I have run out in mid-air, with the height I would have been able to glide a fair distance to find a place amiable enough to put down with maybe even a chance of living (I was very optimistic in my youth!). As I pressed on, I took the opportunity to look out, the whenever I could to check out the window at gaps in the cloud deck. I figured that if I could still see jungle then I was probably still over Belgian territory and likely still likely to be shot should I land. I watched the window and the fuel gauge and as the needle passed below one tenth left I could still see just an expanse of green through the white. I was starting to get nervous.

There was now not enough left to even think about going back to the airfields that I knew about so I had no choice but to continue on. As I passed further on the clouds started to thin more and the ground itself changed.
Gone was the never-ending green forest and instead was more open country. I was out of the rainforest but I still had much further to travel.

With the fuel gauge starting to play chicken with the empty mark the open country itself gave way to a more agrarian scene with patchwork of cultivated fields and small villages. I figured by then that I must have gotten far enough away from whoever had attacked my friends that I could use the radio and call for help. I switched on the wireless and spoke into the ether.

“Hello!” I pleaded “Is there anyone there? I..I.. Need some help! I am flying due south and running low on fuel. Does anyone know a place to land?”

I switched to receive and peeled my ears for any response. There was a blast of static and some garbled words came out of the speaker. I only made out one word but it was clear and unmistakable “Jackeen!” I was talking to a Corkman.

It had been so long since I had last heard another Irishman I was almost willing to ignore that he came from the pretender city to the south. I switched again to send.

“Not reading! Please repeat!”

There was laughing from the speaker and the accented voice said “Only a Jackeen would be flying all the way out here with no fuel or clue where he was going. Isn’t that right boy?”

I asked him where he was and he asked me “Tell me! Can you see a great big lump of rock that looks like a bald man’s head?” I looked around and sure enough there was a great big granite chrome-dome sitting in the middle of the landscape. I told him I could see it and he said “Our airstrip is about three miles Northwest from that. Follow the river; you can’t miss it!”

That was to the left of me so I banked the plane in that direction and looked frantically for the airstrip. I found it quickly enough, a narrow cut in the loose bush of sub Saharan Africa and I immediately lined myself up for a landing. It might have been my nerves but I swear I could hear the engines starting to stall as I hit the runway. I was on the ground again, and very thankful not dying in the process.

The airstrip was a very simple affair. It consisted of a dirt runway and a small shack with a small fuel tanker parked beside it. It looked like one of those quick-build bases for fighters during the war, I strongly suspected that was exactly what it was. There were a number of other planes parked along the scrub verges of the strip. Most of them were single seaters, crop dusters and the like. My transport was easily the largest plane there.

As I stepped down the ladder of the plane I noticed movement by the door of the shack. There was a shout “Good Afternoon!” and I could see a  middle-aged man in grubby overalls step out into the Sun. He came over and introduced himself as Gerald, he stood back from the plane. “Jaysus! Look at the size of her!” He breathed out ” I don’t think I have enough to fill her up but I can sell you enough to get her to the big airport in Harare.”

It was at that moment that I made the sickening realisation that once again I was out without nothing. My money and all the rest of my possessions had been left in the hotel Royal in Leopoldville and were probably in the hands of whoever had killed the rest of my friends. Apart from a few pieces of gear on the plane I had nothing to buy fuel with or anything for that matter. I told this to Gerald.

“Hmmm!” He had his hand on his chin in the manner of a man contemplating existence, “I could buy it off you, that should give you enough money to get home maybe. How does three hundred pounds sound?”

Three hundred pounds was a lot back in those days but I knew for a fact that a plane like mine could have fetched over three grand in the condition it was in. If I could have I would have flown away and got a better offer but I had no fuel or money for that. As they say “Beggars can’t be choosers” so instead I looked around. There was a number of reasonable looking vehicles parked around the shack so I said “Throw in one of the cars over there and we have a deal.”

Over the two years with James I had driven worse than the old Jalopy that Gerald had shafted on me, but not by much. I think on down-hill slopes I might have been more scared than I was in the plane running on empty. But somehow I made it to town and from there I was able to sell the car for scrap and get myself a ticket, second class, nice enough for a train to Cape Town, South Africa.

The journey was uneventful and thankfully so. I spent it going through what had happened, contemplating what had changed and what now I was going to do.

Cape Town and beyond would provide its own problems dear reader, new challenges and opportunities for me to find. I would go into greater detail but that is all for the next part of my story.

Taking Flight

“Stop there!” I heard a voice behind me in heavily accented English. I turned to find a young man. I looked at him. He looked at me. He was also looking into the trees, he had a lazy eye. The gun he held however was pointed at my chest. “Who are you and what are you doing?” he asked menacingly. I knew that answering truthfully would probably be my undoing. I had to think, and fast. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get out of this. Yet somehow I found a way.

I won’t start this tale by telling you how I got away, that part is kind of hard to believe. But it did happen; you can trust me on that, I’ll get back to it later. My story instead begins about six months before that happened. I had been working for James for over two years and by all accounts I was moderately successful. I had become an indispensable part of his little crew, still very much in a support capacity. I still acted as the chef most of the time, I had even started to develop some skills in that direction, I no longer made inedible slop, it was slightly edible slop which for field work is about as good as it gets. The regular conversations I had had with Billy had paid off over the course of the two years I was having those little chats with him. I was now capable of piloting the boat along the more sedate parts of the river while Billy stay in Leopoldville arranging things for us there. This added skill meant that I was getting more of a fair share from every job we did. It wasn’t steak for every meal and whiskey older than I was to wash it down but I was very very comfortable. That is not to say that I still didn’t have issues with what these guys were doing, I did, but the money went a long way towards silencing my qualms on that front.

James was always on the look out for new jobs and new methods that we could apply to accomplish them. I was in the wheel house of the river boat preparing to set off after another completed job when James stuck his head in and asked me “Hey Enrique! How do you feel about flying?” I was a bit caught out by that but could only respond with “I don’t know boss! I have never been in one of those things.” James put his hand on my shoulder “You’ll get used to it! I have a new idea.”

If I had any idea what he had been thinking I would have ran in the opposite direction as fast as my little lanky legs could take me! It seems that James was of the opinion that he was missing out on most of the vast wealth of the Congo rainforest because he was restricted to traveling by boat. Air; he thought, would provide access to all of the little hidden places in the jungle. Since Billy was already nearly fully occupied with holding the fort in Leopoldville I was as good an option to be trained as he could find. By the time I realized what was happening I was too far gone to turn back.

Flight training was provided in a small airstrip an few miles out of the city. The trainer was an old and grizzled American and he taught me on an old and grizzled trainer. Jeff; as he liked to be called, wasn’t a big believer in “theory” based training. He much preferred taking a total greenhorn high up into the air and then taking his hands off the controls. “The higher the better!” He told me once, mid panic “Means that if you fuck up I have a chance to level her off again before we hit the ground!” Then adding “Most of the time” with a slap on my back that nearly sent us into a tail-spin.

I somehow found over the course of two months that I developed what might be conceivably called flying skills, I was able to find my way to and from the airstrip outside the city out across the expanse of forest using a mixture of dead reckoning and hastily consulted maps. I wasn’t expected to go too far, a few hours at most would bring me to the furthest possible distance that James would ever conceivably need me to travel.

It was only a few short days after Jeff told me “I think you finally figured this crap out!” when I arrived at the airstrip to find a considerably larger plane there than the little trainer I was used to. A large white star and the words “US ARMY” had been imperfectly painted over on the sides. The plane, like many of the equipment we used, was war surplus. James; who had driven me out that morning said to me “Beautiful isn’t she? Say hello to our new air arm. Now there is nothing we won’t be able to do.”

James wasn’t in too much of hurry to get started. They gave me a whole two days to get familiar with the aircraft. This I found to be a much more frightening experience than I had found with my first flying lessons with Jeff. The first time I went up I noticed an annoying whistling sound coming from somewhere behind me in flight. It was only on the ground later that I noticed the bullet holes in the fuselage, the painted masking tape having blown away while in the air. There was also a reddish brown stain on the floor of the cabin near one of the holes. Whatever it was I did not want to pry around further.

The eventual operation that James had worked for me and our new plane was simplicity itself. I would fly in as close as possible to the place that we needed to do the job and then either land where that was possible (you’d be surprised how many little airfields people had cut out of the forest over the years.) of if the guys were feeling particularly lucky, I would fly over and they would jump out of the plane and parachute down to their target. Most of them were experienced with that kind of thing so there wasn’t much of a problem with that. And when the lads were finished they would either move out to the nearest airfield or get the company men who had come to set up their mine or start logging to bulldoze one for us. Then I would simply fly back in and pick them up. It meant that I got to spend a lot more time in Leopoldville, which suited me grand, I appreciated creature comforts a lot more after so long in the little cabin and galley of James’ river boat.

Over the following months our operation expanded our list of clients and I transported our little band further into the deep forest. It was only inevitable, given our rapid growth, that we would eventually step on someone else’s toes.

The first sign of trouble was when we were all back in our hotel base of operations after a weeks excursion out in the forest. There was a thump on the door and a large man forced his way inside. Usually, visitors would take one look at the impressive collection of mean looking weapons and equally mean looking men tending them and they beat a quick and nervous retreat. This man had no such qualms, he was obviously well used to weapons.

He demanded to see James and when shown to the bosses small office slammed the door behind him. We could hear some a strong exchange of words followed by muffled shouting after which the man exited with some speed. He barraged out through us, ignoring stares that would have terrified the average man off the street. James never explained what exactly it was that the man had come to talk to him about. However he did ask the lads to be extra careful on the next few jobs.

A month passed and mostly we had forgotten about the man being so busy and all. We had been called in to clear out a village over a particularly rich diamond mine. The mining company had thoughtfully cut an airstrip into the forest only six miles from the site so no parachuting was necessary and all I would need to do was wait and maybe do a little cooking. So far so run of the mill.

We landed a little after nine in the morning and the lads set off long the little trail that the maps said led to the village. While they were waiting I started setting up a small camp to cook the lunch. The was also a portable radio that could receive the BBC world service and in a pinch could be used to summon help. I kept it tuned on some nice jazz as I began getting everything arranged to start cooking.

As I lit the flames in a large pot to start heating the oil I heard the all too familiar popping of gunfire from the approximate direction of the village. I barely even noticed it now apart from in a professional time-keeping capacity. I drowned it out and started to chop up five giant onions as a base for soup.

Twenty minutes later, as I listened to the onions sizzling in the pot I remarked to myself that they seemed to be popping more than usual. It was only then that I realised that it wasn’t the onions but the gunfire that was still going on. That was very unusual; mostly they were finished in a couple of minutes with the possible exception of the odd rattle of intimidation fire. I figured that something was going on so I went to the radio and switched it back to the frequencies that we were using to talk to each other. I was greeted by a piece of hell.

“Gunther has disappeared and it looks like like nine of us have definitely bought the farm” James screamed over the radio, partially drowned out by the sound of gunfire. Billy’s calm voice could be heard on the other side asking questions about the men’s deployment over the sound of maps being thrown about. In a short period of time it became clear that James and the rest of my colleagues had walked right into a trap. There were no simple farmers and country folk here, rather heavily armed militia or troops, neither of which we were prepared for.

From the sound of it, James and the rest of the lads were pinned against a stone wall and were using up their ammunition trying to prevent themselves being flanked. Billy was discussing ways out when he announced that there was loud knocking at the door. There was a lull at James’ end and it lasted long enough for us to hear a loud thump followed by several gunshots. Billy’s radio then stopped transmitting.

In a mixture of panic and grief I shouted down the microphone, pleading for Billy to answer back. Only James heard me. “Is that you Enrique? Thank fuck! Listen to me. I want you to get in that plane and get it pointed down the runway with the engines running. I think Billy figured out a way for me and a few others to get out of this shit and back to you. When you are ready to go I want you to wait for ten minutes and if we don’t show or someone else does I want you to take off and get the hell out of here. do you understand?”

I answered in the affirmative and immediately headed over to the plane when I was stopped by the gunman with the lazy eye. Just how I made it out with my skin intact is just another of the little tricks I have learned hanging out with so many ‘interesting’ individuals. The gunman may have been armed but he was young, younger than I was at the time and very, very nervous. I had been thought a way to exploit that.

Gunther had told me, during one nighttime sail down the Congo, that he had very nearly been captured during the war. “After one bloody battle; when all seemed lost” he said “A friend and I set off across the desert in search of others who we could try and escape with. But we were found” They were American G.I.s, fresh off the boat and as wet as winter compared to British Gunther had been fighting the last two years.

“I looked at them Enrique” Gunther told me “and I knew they would not shoot me, It was not in them yet, they still had to think” Gunther and his friend rushed them, faster then the Americans could react and got the upper hand. It was risky Gunther told me “If it was a veteran Tommy I would not have tried it. He would have shot me without thinking. But when they are new; you might as well take a chance.”

I saw that same uncertainty in the eyes of this gunman. I think he might have been more frightened than I was. Too scared to think properly. I tried my luck. With my hands still in the air I started to run towards him. The fear in his eyes turned to terror and I could see the gun shift in his hands as he forgot that it was there. Lowering my head I smashed into him and rugby-tackled him to the ground. Grabbing the gun from his hands I lifted the stock and dropped it hard down on his head. He was out cold.

Flushed with adrenaline I trotted up into the plane and went through the checks faster than even Jeff would have thought safe. I throttled up the engines and swung her on her axis to face back down the tree-lined runway and there I waited.

I didn’t have long. I caught movement between the trees and a jeep burst out from the trail, tearing up the ground in my direction. Whatever hope I had were immediately dashed by the realisation that they were not my friends and what relief I felt was replaced with fear as I saw the small arsenal of weapons pointed in the plane’s direction.

So I throttled up the engines, their loud drone accompanied by clangs of bullets ricocheting off the metal hull. The little jeep tried to keep up with me but I quickly left them behind and soared into the sky.

Now safely in the air I put some serious thought into where I should now go. James and his Gang most likely did not make it so it would have been foolhardy to stay close to the airstrip. However Billy’s apparent demise meant that Leopoldville was now a likely fool’s errand also. This was unfortunate since I had left most of my money and all of my clothes there. But lady luck had favoured me once that day, I would have been pushing it asking her again so soon.

Thinking fast I put the still rising sun to my left and set a course to the south. With little on me and a plane rapidly using up fuel over unfamiliar territory I found myself once again adrift in the sea of fate. Where I would end up from there, well that dear reader is for the next part of my story.

Up the river

War! What is it good for? As the wise man once said; absolutely nothing. For the vast majority of people that is completely true but there is a certain subset, comparatively rare, for whom war is an opportunity to make vast sums of money. They are the smugglers, arms dealers and mercenaries of the world. Most like just to retire once the fighting is over, to enjoy their not quite ill-gotten gains in peace. But there are an even rarer subset who positively love war and anarchy and all that go with it. When everyone is indecent enough to go and stop fighting and start being nice to one another they decide to take matters into their own hands and go about setting up little islands of chaos around a much more peaceful world. It was just such a bunch of people that I found myself attached to when I joined James’ band. Though of course I did not know that at the time.

I was still severely drugged when I was dragged back to my feet after I got out of the taxi in front of the Hotel Royal by two of James’ burly compatriots. “Somebody must have tried to get the best of you eh Enrique?.” James said as I tried again to stand and the promptly fell again to the ground “Still you managed to make your way back here. Gunther!” he said to one of the men, “See! I told you this guy has spunk. Let’s see what we can make of him.”Somehow I was able to drag myself back to my feet and staggered waveringly back into the hotel.

It was there that I was introduced to the rest of the group. There was twenty men from many countries and walks of life, I can’t recall all of them it was so long ago but there where three who really stuck with me, mainly because they scared the pants off me. There was a French man by the name of Christoph who had the air of someone who could cut the neck off you as soon as look at you. There was a Black Brazilian called Pedro who was as built like a tank and had a tendency to take out a large knife and start stabbing at things (not people as far as I have seen) and looking at someone he wanted to intimidate. Finally I remember Gunther who was German. There were several former axis soldiers in James’ cabal but the other Germans all made it a point of denying they had ever been Nazis, even though I had never asked them. Gunther though when he heard the other Germans denying so vehemently just took a look at them and they shut up. Gunther, I soon found, was very much James’ second in command. As harsh an unforgiving leader as James was generous. Notwithstanding the veritable United Nations of hard men around whom I was rapidly sobering up. They all got on reasonably well and it were actively engaged in work together which at that particular case referred to barking orders at me while I did a lot of the heavy lifting.

There was plenty to move. Boxes covered with lines of numbers and other packages that I was unable to identify littered the ground as well as all the available tables and shelf space. Most of the boxes were grand, if not a little heavy and I was able to move them with about much bother and a little elbow grease. A few on the other hand, I was warned not to go near and they were carefully wheeled out by the others with all the care the could muster. In all it took us nearly an hours to load two trucks at which point it was near 10 O’Clock.

The two trucks left behind the hotel and we all followed in a third. It was there that James told me that I had arrived on an auspicious day “We are going on a mission!” he said with evident glee. These trucks are going to deliver us and those supplies to our boat in the docks and we will then make our way up the river. I know you understand that it is sometimes better to do these things at night.” I nodded pretending I understood.

We emerged by the Congo river in a more industrial setting than the ferry dock that I had arrived in early that day. Moored along the pier was a old riverboat that looked, if anything more old and decrepit than the Magnificent that I had so readily abandoned. Whatever reservations I had were silenced when Gunther barked orders for us to leave the truck and start loading all the boxes into the boat. We all worked this time and were joined in our exertions by and old-looking man who had come off the boat. This man; the others just called him Billy, somehow whipped all the men into an efficient frenzy and the trucks were empty in less than half an hour. By just after midnight we were cast off and on our way.

The Congo is a wide river, without much in the way of obstructions along its path but there was still the need for constant vigilance on the part of the pilot to avoid the unexpected. Billy, William Mackintosh to his mother, was in late middle age and hailed from (heavens praised) Scotland. I immediately highlighted the Hamish in my name and tried to play up the Scottishness of my ancestry as well as I could (It might have been true!). I doubt Billy cared. He had worked for the royal navy during the first great war and sailed on cargo ships and river boats for over twenty years. He hadn’t seen Scotland in all that time and didn’t much care for that fact. Billy loved the river and to hear him he knew it better than anyone else.

Though it was as dark as pitch for all of the night, thanks to some miracle and no doubt Billy’s skill, we were still free and heading up river when the sun rose above the trees. I had spent most of the previous days travelling through jungle but to really appreciate its scale, you have to see it from a distance like in the middle of a river. The tall trees and sheer distance that the carpet of green extends can only be seen if you step back a little, the wood literally cannot be seen  for the trees. The assortment of men were busy at work amongst the boxes. With the benefit of the fresh light they had opened them and started to remove and prepare a frightening assortment of weapons. Most of them I had never seen before with the possible exception of war film and even then it was hazy. Boyhood fascination aside, I found myself increasingly nervous with this and decided to join Billy in the pilot’s house.

Billy; whether he believed my Scottish dimension or not, seemed to like me and while the sun rose he started to tell me the ins and outs of river navigation. The way he spoke it sounded so incredibly easy. It was only when I tried to remember that I realised that I didn’t understand half of it. Still I learned some new things from him that morning and every time I came to speak with him. This was to be a defining feature of our relationship.

When the sun was close to its zenith. James summoned me and announced what he expected me to do. There was a small galley in the bowels of the boat and I was to go there and fix them up something. I did know how, didn’t I?

I once again lied through my teeth and heading into the stifling heart of the boat found the small remedial galley and tried to summon what little I had learned from Granny and Hans. A number of packages had been stashed into the galley and a quick survey of their contents found that they were filled with canned and dried foods of several kinds. These were all fighting men, simple folk, they wouldn’t want fancy, they would want filling and warm, or cold, depending on the weather. I worked as well as I could.

Soon enough. I was dishing out “O’Brien’s Broth” to each and everyone. A light, simple chicken broth with some added spices and vegetables. Perfect for a warm day. The comments were generally favourable and I was told in no uncertain terms that they expected more of the same for dinner at nightfall. My mind started spinning with ideas.

Food prep if you do it right is not all-consuming and I found plenty of time to spend on deck talking with the others mostly Billy mind. I had found that after you watch a man slurp down a bowl of food, you can never be truly scared of him. That had worked for most of them, except for Gunther and the other three. Nothing could make them seem non-threatening. But even they treated me a little better after I had fed them. I asked a few what they were doing, mostly it was cleaning and fixing guns, bombs, general mischief matériel. They were a little reticent to talk about what they were going to do, even Billy, I figured I would soon find out.

I made boiled rice with fish of some sort for dinner then after everyone had finished and the galley and dishes were clean, I made my way back to Billy for another chat. I must have fallen asleep in the Pilot’s house because I was awoken with it still dark and was met by James telling me to go to the galley and stay put. He said they wouldn’t be needing any breakfast that morning but if I could rustle up some coffee, that would be good.

I rustled up four pots of steaming coffee and handed them to Christoph and another man who had seemingly been sent down for the purpose of collecting them. They didn’t seem too non-plussed about their errand work, the looked excited, eager even. Like they had already drank too much. When they had gone I couldn’t tell too much more. The galley window showed that the sun was already coming back but it only looked like the river bank was even further away than it had been the previous day.

It was then that I felt a lurch and was nearly knocked onto the still warm oven. We must had hit something. A sandbank maybe? Not likely with Billy in charge. Heard voices and the unmistakable tones of Gunther barking something harsh. This continued for a few minutes, then, nothing.

I waiting down in my station for it must have been half an hour without any sign or visit when I gathered the courage to climb back up to the deck. The place was deserted. I quickly realised that we where not in the middle of the river any more, we had pulled up in a little inlet, right against the bank. A long gantry had been extended and was lost in the greenery of the undergrowth. I was about to step onto it and investigate when I heard behind me “Hey you! I thought they told you to stay down in the galley!” It was Billy. I asked him where everyone had gone. He sighed and said “I’m sure you were going to ask sooner or later.”

Before he could say anything else there was a popping sound from further up the river, like fireworks in the distance From my youth I knew what they were, that was  gunfire, occasionally the popping would be accompanied by a muffled thump, the sound of explosives going off. The sounds continued at a rapid pace for a few minutes, then gradually subsided down to only a few pops a minute then there was silence. I looked in the direction of the sounds and then back at Billy, his face was stoic, he was looking at the river. I was confused a little at what could have grabbed his attention and then I saw it.

On the river, running down with the flow was a veritable armada of boats. The first were large metal boats,  I could just pick up the whirr of their motors. With each passing moment the boats got more and more simple going from modern diesels to steam junkers and finally to dugout canoes, moving on human power. They all had one thing in common; they were all filled with people and not much else.

“That is why we were here.” Sniffed Billy, his eyes not showing much emotion at all. I was confused again, “We were there to protect them?” I asked. Billy choked out a laugh “What! Of course not! We were here to get rid of them” He put a hand on my shoulder “You see son; there are hundreds of little settlements like that which have grown along the river in the past few years, all of them without permission. Sometimes they find that they are sitting on something valuable, like gold, or diamonds, or the like. Well then; there are powerful, people with powerful companies that would want to use that. So they send us in to scare them away and then they can come in and claim the site like the village was never there. We get paid plenty for our work and there is enough to make sure certain Belgian officials look the other way as well. Everybody wins!”

“What about them?” I asked pointing at the flotilla “What do they get?” Billy sniffed again “If their lucky they won’t get killed. We don’t want them dead, we just want them gone, it’s too hot to be burying people. They can set up somewhere else just as fast and if they have sense they wouldn’t stay were there is something valuable. Listen to me, we all are going to get very,very well paid for this, if you have any kind of moral issues about it then you are free to walk away.”

But that was the thing. I wasn’t free to walk; I couldn’t go anywhere. James had found me with literally nothing and had taken me in, at the very least I owed him, and I would have to stay until that debt was repaid. I resigned to my fate. “So what happens next?” Billy looked back in the direction of the original noise, already some wisps of smoke could be seen. “Well it looks like they have already started razing the village. They will burn everything they can and then they will wait for a crew from whoever hired us to show up and bulldoze what is left. Then it is back to Leopoldville. Soon I will be getting a message from them on the radio to sail up the river and land where they are. Son! They would be expected some lunch when their done, something good. The job makes you hungry.”

I stepped back down to the galley and started to put together what I could from what I had. They had devilled ham and it I lightly fried that with some onions I might be able to pass that off as steak. I wouldn’t be exactly but they might appreciate it all the same. They did.

That was my first excursion with James and his band but it wasn’t my last. I never saw much more than I did that first day; I wasn’t meant to, I was support staff. Still what little I saw gradually hardened my heart. A testament to what familiarity can breed in us all.

I wouldn’t stay with James forever though and the tale how I finally left his service was every bit as weird as how I entered it. But that; dear reader, is for the next part of my story.

Viva La Leopoldville

A wise man, I think he might have been a drunk of some sort, told be once that “You should never make a decision in the heat of the moment. Whenever possible sit down somewhere quiet, drink something suitably strong and let the decision come in its own time. This is good advice to live by but sometimes it can be difficult to put into practice.

I remember standing on the main river side dock of Braazaville, looking somewhat scared and confused as a very tall, very large man talked me into cross the Congo river with him over to Leopoldville. It should really have been something to think about, when James invited me to join him on his “Business Venture” whatever that was going to be. But in reality it was the case that I was stuck in a foreign city, without the language or any usable currency, with no idea how I was going to get out of there. I was looking for options and James was the only one I had. So I said “Yes”

We walked together over to the ticket office where James told me he was going to get passage for the both of us. The boat was apparently casting off in only a few minutes so he was in a bit of a rush, pushing his way through the queue of people, his big bulk preventing anyone being too vocal in their annoyance. Within a few short minutes, James came back out of the office with a giant grin on his face and two tickets in his hand. He then took me by the hand and led me onto the small river boat.

While I had been led to believe that there were several crossings per day. I seemed that everyone wanted to be on our boat. There was several dozen squeezed into a small cabin only. Thankfully the voyage was only around twenty minutes or I would have passed out from the mixture of tropical heat and overwhelming hum of body odour filling my nostrils.

We made it to the opposite docks and poured out onto the sun-kissed stone surface. There was a small open hut with a large sign in several languages. The word I could understand was immigration. The crowd formed an orderly queue and moved up, each person showing their papers to the official looking men sitting in the hut. Now in my sudden flight from the Magnificent I had left my passport and all other forms of identification behind me in my cabin. I had known that this was going to be a problem but I figured that I would be able to contact an embassy or consulate before I needed to left the French Congo, not be lead out the second I reached the river.

I had told all this to James so I assumed he would be as nervous as me as we quickly made our way up, yet he seemed a picture of calm and confidence. I was bricking it, definitely looked unwell when we two finally stepped up in front of the two officials.

They looked at us and I just froze unable to say or do anything. James just leaned in to them. I heard some words in French and the name “Enrique O’Brien” and gestured over at me. He then passed a number of books over to them. There appeared to be a large number of notes stuffed into them. The officers looked at him, then me, then at each other. They passed the books, somewhat lighter, back to James and signalled for us to continue. James grabbed me by the arm, helping to give me still wobbly legs a boost and pulled me away from the hut. “Ah!” he said, looking around at all the sights “Welcome to Leopoldville”

James immediately summoned a taxi and spoke to the driver, it was in French so I still didn’t have any idea what it was he was saying. Thankfully the driver understood and immediately set off into the main town.

Leopoldville like most colonial towns of the time, was an interesting mix of European grandeur and local culture. I saw large numbers of the natives going about there business on foot while we drove through them in our taxi. The going was slow enough and it was already into the afternoon when we arrived at a somewhat run-down building, the words Hotel Royale, half-broken and fading, along the front façade. “Well Enrique!” my companion said to me “Home sweet home!”

After he had paid the driver. James looked at me and said “Do you have any other clothes?” I looked down, looking at my grubby porter’s outfit, encrusted in salt and shook my head. He stuck his hand back into his jacket pocket and removed a wad of cash. “Here Enrique. Go to a tailors and get yourself some good clothes. Something more suiting for the climate. While your at it get yourself some dinner and maybe a drink or two. But I want you here by eight O’Clock. I expect the rest of my associates to be here by then.”

I was about to walk off when I realised I hadn’t the foggiest notion where I was. I turned back and noticed that James was already writing something onto a piece of paper. “Take this!” he said, “It is the address of here. Just hand that to a taxi driver or policeman and they will be able to help you get back. You should be alright, it isn’t that far.” After that he just pointed me in the direction of the nearest tailor and set me along.

Despite the somewhat ageing hotel, the area we where in was generally fancy with clean streets and well turned-out houses and businesses. There was a tailors at the end of a side alley exactly where James said it would be. When I stepped in through the door the well-dressed proprietor looked down his nose at my grubby exterior and seemed just about to throw me out when I stuck my hands in my pocket and removed the wad of cash I had there. At that moment it was as if his whole demeanor changed and I was no longer boy, I was monsieur. Some things never change. He got quickly setting me up with some new clothes.

Within half an hour of stepping into the tailors I had two brand new suits in the colonial style and assorted wear for my adventuring. I’m sure that I was paying way over the odds but I didn’t really care, it wasn’t my money. I showed the tailor the address on the paper for the hotel and he said in broken english that he would send the finished clothing there for me. I left with a pair of beige slacks and a casual shirt on that the tailor informed me would be most suitable for Leopoldville at night. with about half my money left I set back out to get myself some dinner.

As luck would have it. The tailor told me about a nice restaurant/club only a few minutes walk from his shop. It wasn’t that difficult to find, even under the blazing sun, the neon signs could be clearly seen. In my new get-up I was able to enter past the serious looking door man without any difficulty and was shown to a booth by a busily efficient waiter.

They had a wide range of fare and while looking through the menu that I seemed to suddenly realised how hungry I was. I am not a particularly adventurous man when it comes to food so I just ordered the steak with whatever version of potatoes they happened to have. I was so engrossed with eating as well as the half bottle of red wine that came with it that I nearly missed the look that I was getting from the other side of a room.

Now I am sure that people always say this kind of thing when they first go to a foreign country, but they didn’t have the likes of this woman back home in Dublin. She was quite a looker, her white dress clinging in just the right places to show off her curves, reddish-blonde hair cascading round her face framing her plunging neckline. If I would see a woman like that anywhere in the world I would fall instantly in love. Here was no exception.

In fact I became so enamoured with this mystery woman that I almost failed to notice her looking right at me. She smiled and nodded her head at me, I instinctively looked behind me, convinced she must have been referring to someone else. She looked right at me again, her smiling face beaming in mirth. I gave up, pointed at myself and made a questioning gesture. She nodded again and walked over to my booth.

Now, I come from before such things as video players and recorders and the like. I had never heard of such a thing as slow motion. But whatever that woman was doing was a very good impression of what I thought it would be. She glided more than walked, a sliding motion that gave the impression her feet never left the ground. She came arpund beside me and without so much as a by you leave she had sat beside me.

Now if my French was non-existent, her English was even worse. Through a combination of gestures, sign language and slow talking I was able to get her name, Yvette, and how she like to drink champagne given by rich friends. Since I considered myself flush that afternoon, I decided I could be her friend so I beckoned a waiter and got a bottle of bubbly.

I had never drunk it before and I found it a strange experience. Yvette seemed thrilled with my generosity and was getting very friendly herself, muttering French sweet nothings in my ear. I enjoyed this very much, so much I fact that I was surprised to find that the time was nearly 7 O’Clock.

Though I only knew him a short while I was of the impression that you did not come late for James. So as much fun as I was having with my new best friend, I figured I had to go. I got up and started making my apologies. Yvette acted upset, pretending to throw a tantrum in a uniquely sexy manner, in the end she begged me to have one last toast wih her. She filled the glasses herself and with a Bon Chance, we drank it down.

The sun had already set as I left the bar, there was a nip in the air which hit me right in the head as I walked into the night. I walked another ten paces and my steps became more uneven, I blamed the champagne. I began to suspect something else as my vision blurred and I could just make out Yvette and two men approaching me.

The drug she used on me was pretty strong; I can’t say I have experienced many stronger, but they failed to realise one thing, where I was from.

If Irishmen are known for one thing, it is the ability to fight while drunk, if another race can also do that it is the Scottish. Thus I was covered on two fronts as I prepared to make my stand.

They must have thought it comical, me swaying like that, spitting slurred curses at all three of them and especially Yvette. They thought otherwise when I lunged forward, delivering a precisely aimed kick to the bollix of the larger of the two men. He went down like a sack of potatoes. His friend was too dumbfounded to do anything about the left hook I launched straight into his jaw. He went down too.

Yvette, robbed of her male escorts, fell to her knees and started pleading in French, something along the lines of “They made me do it!” I was in no mood for revenge however, so I just set off in the direction of the main road as fast as my drugged legs could carry me.

As bad as I was, I was still able to find and get into a taxi. Thankfully, I still had the address in my pocket and at a quarter to seven we pulled up back in front of the old hotel.

I somehow opened the door and fell out landing face first on the path, right in front of a pair of shoes, James’s shoes.

He looked down at me “Seems like you had an interesting time! Well don’t just lie there. We have work to do!” at which point I felt a strong pair of hands lifting me up.

I was back with James and safe for the time being, but I still didn’t have a clue what it was he intended for me to do. I was soon to find out, and that of course, is the next part of my story.

Driving Ambition

I have been asked several times “Can you describe yourself in one word?” and I would have to reply to that “Lucky” Being lucky has gotten me more in life than any amount of preparation or hard work. It is through luck, being at the right place at the right time and the like that has gotten me out of more situations than anything else. Take for example the situation after my hurried escape from the magnificent. 

I had come ashore in my lifeboat after nearly three days rowing through the sea. My legs were shadows of their former selves, my hands had calluses on their calluses, and my arms were burning worse than they ever had before. I was a wreck and the first thing I wanted to do the second I hit dry land was sleep. After kissing the beach and spitting out all of the sand that I had thus ingested I threw myself back into the boat, wrapped a blanket around myself and fell asleep. In retrospect it was a rather foolish move to collapse back into the boat on a strange shore when I had no idea about the tides in the place but figuring out that something is foolish is best left to someone with a fully functioning brain, and mine was off at the time so I was only concerned with getting my rest.

I was woken by heavy shaking of the boat. The sky was already starting to darken and I found it difficult to see. I thought for a second that the tide had come in and washed me back out to sea. But I could hear the gentle lap of the waves and it was coming from far behind the bow of the boat. It seems that the tide had gone far down the beach. But the boat was rocking, what was causing that? It was only with my eyes adapting to the low light levels that I noted a dark figure finish coming over the side. I scrabbled for a torch under my blanket. Turning on the light I shone it at the dark figure and found that it was still dark. It was a black man.

He seemed a little taken aback when the light went into his face. For a moment I entertained the notion that this man had never seen a torch before but the way he moved made me realised that I must have blinded him with its glare. He groped around the boat for a few seconds stumbling over the many haphazard boxes and pieces of equipment that I had left strewn on the deck. When he regained his vision. He started to talk to me in a questioning manner, I couldn’t understand what it was he was saying, but it sounded oddly familiar. He kept on gesturing for me to get out of the boat, continuing to speak to me loudly and slowly. This man had obviously learned his communicating with foreigners etiquette from the English. Thinking of nothing better to do I nodded. Gathered what things I thought I might need and followed him.

I found it difficult to see this fella as he walked off the beach and into the surrounding jungle. I kept my torch shining on him, occasionally flicking it down to make sure there were no roots or holes in my path. I don’t think he liked that very much, he kept on looking back and speaking loudly at me angrily. I didn’t really care, I was not going to get lost. It was only a few minutes later that we emerged from amid the trees and I saw lights ahead of us. It was a collection of buildings, white sided against the tropical sun. The black man bid me to enter with him. Thinking of nothing better to do, I followed.

I found myself walking through hallways in what looked to me to be a schoolhouse. The place was deserted and I looked into each room seeing the rows of empty desks freaked me out a little. I had never liked school much at the best of times so being in one after dark was especially unnerving.

We continued through until we reached a room with a lone light swinging from the ceiling. At a desk beside a window was a man, a white man in the garb of a priest. He was writing furiously into a ledger and didn’t seem to notice our entering. My companion went over to the desk, placed his hand on the priest’s shoulder to get his attention and started speaking in that strangely familiar language. I had been thinking about it on my walk from the beach and I had come to the conclusion that I had taken in enough of the chatter from the “Tribesmen” in the Tarzan serials to recognise what they were speaking. But when the priest started to reply my heart sank a little. I knew the language they were speaking well enough. It was French.

The priest bade me to come over and sit in a chair in front of his desk. He started speaking in heavily accented English asking who I was and where did I come from. He hadn’t heard of any shipwreck he said so he might have found my being washed up on the beach somewhat dubious. I endeavoured to set his mind at ease by telling him my story including the details of the cannibalism. He was, needless to say, even more sceptical. Thankfully he was a true Christian man and offered me a place to stay for the night.

I was in, apparently, The French Congo, on the south coast, only a couple of miles from the border with the Belgian Congo. The Priest, Father Julian,  ran a convent cum school and small hospital with a number of nuns which was stationed in what could be best described as the middle of nowhere. Thankfully, he told me, they were going to send a van over to Brazzaville the next morning and that I would be welcome to hitch a ride.

I had more questions about how I might be able to find my way out and hopefully home but Father Julian was seemingly busy. I instead was placed in a bare room by a dour faced nun. I had not slept off my three days of rowing and had been living off the adrenaline of my sudden discovery so within seconds of hitting the rough sheets I was asleep again.

The next morning I was awoken by a nun bringing me in something small to eat; different nun, same dour face. Having just eaten and by then fully rested I was much more able to face the world. I retraced my steps to Father Julian’s office only to find him having an animated conversation through a telephone. I only have a few of the saltier French words in my vocabulary and I caught most of them coming out of the enraged priest. In the end he slammed the receiver down shouting “Merde!” only then realising that I was present.

I felt suddenly like a very large, very vulnerable target. I instinctively started trying to hide myself from his gaze. He was looking like he was about to explode on me as well when he calmed down, though still annoyed, and said to me “That was about my driver. He got drunk last night and has been thrown in prison. I don’t know when he will be released. I have no one to drive my van over to Leopoldville. I have people and medicine over there that we really need here. Things that cannot wait. What am I going to do?” He put his head in his hands the lifted his head and looked at me, a smile developing on his face. “Enrique.” He asked me “Can you drive my van?”

Since I went to a catholic school I have developed a well-honed ability to lie to clergy. “Why of course I can drive a van” I said “I used to drive a van for my Job back in Dublin” This was what I like to call a ‘truth in technicality’. While I had ridden in the van with Daithi while we made the boat run. I never drove it for work. Daithi did show me how to handle the van. He even let me handle it once. I think I managed to make about twenty yards when, ashen-faced, he wrenched the wheel from my hands and decreed that he would never let me drive a vehicle in his presence again. I think he was jesting.

Father Julian seemed to take what I said at face-value. He was relieved and explained the situation to me. I was to drive the hospital’s van cum ambulance to Brazzaville with the Matron and two nurses. There we would meet one of the hospital’s doctors with the medicine and other supplies on the docks and the boat from Leopoldville. This doctor could drive himself so I would be free to make my way wherever I wanted once I reached Brazzaville. It was a win-win situation I thought. How difficult could it be?

Father Julian explained that the terrain was so ‘difficult’ that it was likely to take half the day to get there so it would be best to set off as soon as possible. He took me out from his office and around back. The van was a dilapidated old thing which from the looks of it had been through the wars and considering the time probably had been. My intended passengers Sister Concepta, the Matron, and Sisters Bridget and Bernadette the nurses, were already loading the little cargo for the outbound trip. I made a show of inspecting the vehicle, in reality checking that all the pedals and levers that I remembered where there, and announced that I was satisfied for our journey and would go and get my things. Father Julian, bless his soul, was so grateful to me he had given me an old duffel-bag that he had for my assortment of crap. I wasn’t sure what was important so I took everything and took it back to the van.

The front cabin was a snug affair so it was just going to be me and Matron in the back while the two younger, and much better looking, nurses stayed in the seats in the back. It was probably for the best, the other two didn’t have any English while Matron had enough to communicate effectively.

With Father Julian and some of the rest of the staff looking on I went through the start-up procedure in my head, said a few prayers and turned the ignition. The engine came to life and immediately jutted forward. Remembering Daithi’s screamed advice I put the gears into first and slowly released the clutch. Slowly, ever so slowly, the van edged out of the little compound and out into the tree-lined road.

Hubris is a sin I am intimately acquainted with and as soon as the hospital was out of sight I figured that I had gotten the hand of this driving lark and was going to show this old nun how things were done. I increased my speed shifting up the gears as I had remembered Daithi telling me and pretty soon we were moving down the road at a fair rate of knots.

How I say road, But this is in the loosest possible definition of the word. It was not paved, more of a track, a muddy, bumpy, trail through the jungle. Moving at any speed through this was causing the van to jump up and down like an over excited stallion and I started to feel sorry for the two nuns in the back. That very thought brought to my mind the image of two nuns bouncing around in the back of the van, an image so bizarre that I almost started laughing and which distracted me enough that I ended up hitting a bump in the road and knocking the van into a hedge.

Our landing was soft so neither me of the Matron had visible injuries. She did however, have a look that could curdle milk, “Sorry!” I murmured “I’m a little rusty”, the look remained. We both got out. Me to check the van and if we could get back on the road and Sister Concepta to check on the other two. The hedge had no nasty surprises so I was confident I could just reverse out without difficulty. I asked the Matron about the nurses, still feeling concern but she just replied gruffly “They’re alright. Tied down!”

After reversing back onto the road I set on ahead at a more sedate pace, making good time but nothing flashy. Time moved remarkably fast, me being kept busy with constantly watching for uneven ground, and in no time we were over an hour on the road. It was then that we came to something frankly disturbing.

Growing up in Dublin when I did, it was not unusual for me to see horses attached to carriages out on the road, delivering milk, coal, and whatnot. Occasionally there would be an accident when one of these horse would get injured and more rarely it would be nasty. What I saw on that road was horrific.

It looked to my vantage that three different carriages had collided with each other within the last few minutes. One, it appeared, had been overloaded and slipped on the mud careering into the other two. The horse on the first carriage had tried to hold on to the road so strongly that it had torn something in its front leg and it was lying face down, its hoof in an unusual position. The second had been impaled with some metal bars from the first wagon killing it, dead. The third horse’s front hoof had been crushed by the second wagon lurching back. It was trying to move, crying in pain and panic. There was assorted bits of freight like chickens and papers lying around and to top it off the drivers were each running around, wailing at what had happened and shouting at each other.

While I was watching this chaos in front of me, a large man stepped down from the third wagon. He held a box in one hand and a gun in the other. While the drivers argued he went to third horse put the gun against its head and fired. This silenced everybody else. The man then went in silence to the first horse and put a bullet in its head too. He then turn and started walking, straight towards us. I was petrified but Sister Concepta was made of stern stuff and bade me to keep quiet with a shush. The man knocked on my door with the barrel of the gun I opened it and he said something in French. The nun replied in kind and he said “I am sorry. My name is James! Are you going to Brazzaville?”

It is good advice not to refuse a man with a loaded gun who has recently used it. We welcomed James in the cabin and somehow he was able to fit his big bulk between me and the Matron without crushing us. Under James’ eye the carriage drivers had already made a hole for the van to pass through allowing us to continue on our way.

As soon as he had settled, James lost whatever menacing countenance that he had possessed on the road. His gun had seemingly vanished and his started to talk with us openly and exuberantly. In fact he very much monopolised the conversation, Sister Concepta not having very good English and me being busy driving. That didn’t seem to bother James though, he certainly had enough to talk about.  He was on his way to Brazzaville to cross over to Leopoldville on the other side of the Congo river and meet his compatriots. From there he was planning an expedition to go into the heart of Africa and “find his fortune” Though the details were “hush-hush”. We didn’t pry.

On my part I told him of my experience at sea and he listened most attentively. At the end he looked at me with a mixture of pity and admiration in his eyes “So you are going to this city without a clue what you’re going to do next? That takes courage my friend!” At which point he slapped me on the back so hard that I had to scrabble to stop running into trees again.

With James’ talking and my avoiding potholes time passed even faster for me. The roads gradually improved too first into wider dirt tracks and then paved roads so I was able to increase my speed more. Within another three hours we were entering the outskirts of Brazzaville. Following Sister Concepta’s directions I made my way, slowly, through the maze of bustling streets down to the docks where we found a straight-laced looking doctor waiting for us.

I offered to help loading but the doctor and nuns insisted that only they could do it properly. They told me I was free, giving me their thanks. I then stood for a second, looking around, thinking about what to do next when I came face to face with James again.

“Enrique, my friend!” He said to me “I have been thinking about how you have nothing here and it saddens me. But I think again and I know you are in luck. I could use a person like you. A man with courage and quick thinking.” He pointed at the small ferry docked close to us “That boat is heading for Leopoldville in half an hour. If you come with me I can offer you a chance at great riches, enough to go wherever you want. You would be a fool to say no.”

I said at the start of this part of my story that I consider luck a strong part of my life. I never said it was good luck all the time. I have a few decisions in my life that I have come to regret later, this was one of them. “Why not!” I said to James, he immediately began grinning, “It will be an adventure!”

It  most certainly was an adventure, which more than once nearly saw the end of me. But that is left, dear reader, for the next part of my story.

The Demon of the high seas

Over the course of my long and meandering life, I have broken most of the laws and regulations of man as well as one or two of nature. Through all of that however I have never considered myself to have done everything overtly wrong or dare I say it, evil. I put my clear conscience down to one thing; all of the unsavoury actions that I have performed have always and without exception had a good reason behind them. Before you ask; yes being very, very, drunk counted as a reason on several occasions. To be evil, in my opinion, to be really bad, you have to be unsavoury for no reason. At least no reason that is not totally bat-shit crazy. There have only been a few people who I have met which have been that kind of crazy. The first of which I met on my first job on the high seas.

I had that very day walked away from my Grandfather who had practically raised me and had arranged a nice job for me learning to drive trains and had made my way straight for the docks and the various ships arrayed along the banks of the Liffey. I had gone down there largely in hope, ships would occasionally hire hands at the port if they were in mid voyage. At the time there was a Spanish freighter, British Passenger liner and two tram steamers in the port. Both the Spanish and British ships told me to take a running jump as did the first tramp steamer. It was only at the final ship, a run down looking vessel that oddly enough seemed to have only been built during the war years, one of the decommissioned liberty ships. They said that the ships name was the Magnificent but it was anything but. Already rusting and filled with broken or breaking machinery.

Most interesting however was the crew. They seemed to be a wide and varied bunch, derived from all over the world, with Malays, Filipinos, Chinese, just being the most exotic. I talked to them in the most salty sea-dog language that I had ever learned from the pubs I frequented near my home, laced with nautical references and profanity. I thought that they bought it when I noticed that their expression turned a mixture of disgust and pity, a strange look indeed. I have to say that left me feeling confused to say the least. But since I had seen more than my fair share of sailors getting into fights over the years, I thought I knew when I would be in trouble; I was wrong.

Considering that I was largely bluffing my way, I was surprised when I was invited in the bursar’s cabin and told to sign my name on the dotted line, no papers, no questions, they needed a new kitchen helper and it would . I was told to “make my peace” with whoever I wanted to at the time and that the ship was going to be departing by early morning the following day.

I spent the next evening enjoying life in my native city, spending what little money I had saved over the course of my earlier employment working as a delivery boy. I went a little crazy. Buying rounds for everyone who would talk to me and nearly got taken away by one of the ladies of the night (not the regular kind either, but rather one of the really expensive ones that can bankrupt a regular man in a single night. But what a night!) Luckily my friend Darren was able to pull me away before anything happened, not that I was very pleased with him at the time. I got back home early the following morning, singing old rebel songs and half convinced that the ground was at a funny angle. Granddad was sleeping on his chair in front of the fire, he must have been waiting for me. I didn’t want to disturb the old bollix so I did not say anything and instead tip-toed to bed. When I woke to leave he had already gone to the train-yard. I never got to say goodbye.

The great engines of the Magnificent were already starting to come back to life when I scurried aboard in the wee hours of the morning. Another three lads had been signed on during the stay at Dublin and I was told that I would be bunking with them. I’m not quite sure how it was possible, but they seemed to know even less about the life of a sailor than I did. Whoever had decided to give us a job must have been a big believer on on-the-spot training. David was going to be cleaning the desks; John was an engine hand and Philip was supposed to be working with the radio operator. Little helpers really; no real need to hire them mid trip. Philip had very little sea legs, as we felt the engines start to pull the ship out of the harbour he turned a particular shade of green and rushed out the door to the deck. Not a very good start at all.

The old cargo ship lumbered out into the Irish sea and made a course due south. We were told that it was making its way to South Africa; apparently there was a big market for Irish Whiskey down there, especially if it could be obtained through ‘cheap’ channels. We had loaded up with crates of different brands as well as other sundry food and drink “A voyage of temptation” many of the other hands called it. Not that we had very much of a chance to get at them. Life on a wreck was one of constant toil. Every piece of equipment had to be constantly maintained and the general dirt and rust kept at bay. This was hungry work  and the men needed three big meals a day to keep going. I was kept busy with Hans, our German cook, insistent he wasn’t a Nazi, even though I never brought it up. They woke me up before sunrise to prepare the breakfast usually massive vats of porridge. The rest of the day was spent preparing dinner from the wide supply of canned foods and not overly rat infested fresh stores in the larder. We usually made enough to cover supper too, albeit a more congealed mess than we would have started with.  The crew ate it all the same.

Being at the centre of the meals meant that I quickly got to know all of the other crew members. They still all gave me chilling looks but they might have been starting to warm a little. The only crew member that I never saw was the Captain. A man by the name of Edward Williamson. He apparently spent his time either in his cabin or on the bridge. Hans would deliver his food personally. When I tried to ask anything about him I was told to “Mind your own business” and that was that.

That was until a week into our voyage. We were just passing the west coast of Africa, the smell of five long years of war still in the air. There was a call on the telephone in the galley. Hans rushed over to answer it before I could even move.  He listened with a number of shallow grunts then placed the phone down. He had a look on his face like his puppy just died. He was about to say something but seemed to talk better of it. He just ordered me to get out of the Galley. Instead I went from cabin to cabin looking for something to do. I found Manuel in the radio room alone, no sign of Philip and he asked me to help him. I figured he trusted me, one Argentinian to another. I thought I was just covering for Philip for a short while but I got so busy helping the Manuel keep the barely working radio system from breaking that I was shocked to find that it was already time for supper.

I followed the rest of the crew into the mess expecting the usual left over but instead I smelt the most delicious aroma coming from the large pot that Hans was working over. He ladled each of us a heaping dollop of stew filled with pieces of diced meat, real meat. I had been over every square foot of the larder and I had never seen so much as a pork chop. The closest thing to fresh meat there was the rats. I imagined there must have been a secret stash somewhere; not that difficult in a ship so filled with nooks and crannies. Whatever the meat was it seems that the older members of the crew were reluctant to eat it. I checked then sniffed at a spoon-full of the stew then took a taste. The stew was so good, especially after a week of canned muck.  I sat with the rest of the new lads while we ate, still no sign of Philip, the rest hadn’t seen him either none of the older crew men would even entertain our questions. We weren’t really in a mood to question anyway. While we were getting stuck the door opened and an old man stepped in. It was the captain, I was sure of it. The whole mood of the room changed, it seemed to get colder by a few degrees and all of the conversation ceased. He eye settled on each and every one of us in the room and when it did, everyone took pains to each their stew, the three of us, who had no idea what was going on, just ate faster. He then left the cabin, the cold air remaining long after he had gone.

The next morning there was an announcement. Philip; apparently, had been ill all day the day before and had died during the night. The whole crew was told to gather on the foredeck for the funeral service. It was a simple affair, the coffin was closed so no one could see the body. The captain came out again, mumbled a few words from his pocket bible and the coffin was slid off the side into the blue depths. We all took a moment to reflect and then got back to the job at hand. I couldn’t help but feel were not directed at poor Philip but at us remaining new people.

Things got back to more or less normal, the food was as horrible as it had ever been and there was no sign of the captain. The only real difference was that both me and David were getting asked to help Manuel with the radio. It wasn’t a very heavy burden, Manuel knew his trade, so we were able to cope just was well as before. I let the fate of Philip leave my mind.

It was another couple of days when the phone rang again and again I was ordered to get out of the galley. I figured I could be just as busy with Manuel. The radio was open, wires strewn all over the place. Manuel was too engrossed to see me and I was just about to start helping him when I realised that I had left my penknife in the Galley. It was a gift I had gotten from James O’Malley when I had turned twelve and I had found it very useful over the years. I made my way back to the galley, figuring that if I made only a quick visit then Hans would not get mad. I walked through the ship and I saw the captain exiting the Galley, with an even colder face than before. Thinking it odd but little else about it I made my way through the door into the Galley only to come face to face with the sight of Hans slicing off the flesh from a body, a dead body.

I was shocked, I was terrified. I was so put off by it that I crashed into the door trying to back away. I made such a noise  that Hans heard it and looked around. His was face a mixture of fear and shame. When he turned I was able to get a better view of the body. I realised that it was David, the second of the young men they had picked up in Dublin. My mind started to race, putting two and two together and getting murder and worse, the thought of the food we had eaten that last day. If we were just lambs for the slaughter food for this demon crew. It was barbaric, it was demonic, it was downright nasty.

Hans started trying to say something but I preempted him. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?!!” I shouted grabbing my penknife and a carving knife from the table top, brandishing it in a protective stance “Why did you kill him? Are you going to eat him? Are you going to try and get the rest of us?!! This is sick!” Hans’ face, at the start passive, suddenly became filled with emotion, he broke down weeping right there in front of me.”It is not I who killed David” he cried “Or Philip! It was the captain!”

I snorted at this. “Why? Why would any man do such a thing?” Hans looked at me pleadingly, “When I signed on here, I had no idea what was going to happen. But the captain has these ideas, we cannot say, he will get us too if we do! He takes on young men at every port, kills them, makes me cook them, then makes us eat them. He wants us all to share in the guilt!”

I was shocked even more by this. “But why?” Hans was sobbing quietly to himself through his sobs he said “He told me once that during the war sometimes a ship would be torpedoed and the crew run adrift, sometimes for days, weeks if it was bad weather, little food or water. He told me that the longer they would be adrift the more desperate the survivors would get and sometimes they would turn on each other, kill each other, eat each other. They would be changed he said. It was monstrous ”

“Are you saying that happened to the captain?” Hans’ response was quick, “Nein! The captain worked in front of a desk for the war, never even saw the sea for most of it, desk-job in the navy. I cannot tell of a reason why he would do it. Maybe morbid curiosity.”

I didn’t know why at the time but I was more shocked that all this seemed to happen for no reason, that it was senseless terrified me far more than if it was due to the captain’s experiences. He seemed even more inhuman because of it, more dangerous also. I had to ask Hans. “Will he come for me next?”. “Probably Enrique” He said, “That is why you are here” Maybe if he finds you know the secret he might make you stay with the rest of us damned, but I doubt it.”

“Will you tell the captain I saw this?” I asked. “Of course not!” protested the cook “I like you! It is terrible what happens to all of you youngsters.” I had calmed somewhat while talking with the cook but I still held the knife close to my chest, as if to protect myself. Hans started to look at the body again. “Enrique.” He said “I have to keep preparing the dinner, if it is not ready than the captain will have to know why. If you want I will prepare a small stew of leftovers you can eat. I doubt the captain will inspect everyone’s plate.”

I nodded in agreement and moved to leave the galley while Hans set back to the grim task of butchering David. I was unable to close the door fast enough to miss the sound of metal against flesh. It left me with a queer feeling in my stomach. I returned to Manuel in the radio room and half-heartedly helped him. My mind was on other things. All of the looks, the unusual attitude throughout the ship, the mystery of the meat. Now that they were explained my world was even stranger and more terrifying than I had thought possible. Here I was, still a boy, yet now little more than fodder for a deranged captain and his fearfully compliant crew. This was not a very healthy situation, I had to get out.

Supper-time came once again and unable to think of a better plan, I made my way back to the mess, praying that Hans had not shopped me. I queued with the rest of the men and when my time came Hans reached underneath the table where he lay the pot of stew and fished a bowl from beneath it. I saw him place the ladle inside the pot but raise it again empty. He then made the motion of filling the bowl and handed it to me. There was no stew in there only the congealed mess of leftover surprise. I could have kissed him.

It was now only myself and John at the newbie table as we ate. John asked a few time if I had seen David, they had been chummy since before signing up, I just grunted a negative. I was about halfway through my leftovers when the Mess door opened and the captain entered. Once again, noise ceased and eating commenced. I tried to keep my head down but I could feel his eyes on my back, burning into me. It took all of my courage to turn and nod an acknowledgement to the wizened old man. He did not respond and his eyes moved on. I realised I had to get off the boat.

I walked out of the mess with the rest of the crew and caught up with John, he had told me that they needed him to change an oil filter down in the engine room “They need a young pair of hands” he had boasted, blissfully ignorant. I pushed him to one side and after I was sure that the coast was clear I told him what I had seen. John’s face turned from mocking, to disgust, to terror. He tried to refute what I was saying. “David is sick!” he insisted, weakly “he’ll be okay tomorrow” I looked John in the eye and said “Tomorrow they will say that David died during the night and there will be a funeral with the coffin closed because all that is left in there is the bits that Hans couldn’t cook. I for one do not want to be around for them to try that trick on me.” John agreed with me “But what will we do?” he asked.

The ship was making a south-south-easterly course past western Africa. I was fairly sure that if we were to get in the ocean and just head east we would reach land within a day or two. The Magnificent had five lifeboats with enough water and food aboard each to keep ten men alive for over a week. If we could get if down into the water and away without anyone catching wise then we would be scot-free. The sun had already set, once we were a few hundred yards away then they would never find us.

The port forward life boat was our best bet by our reckoning. People seldom went there after dark and there was no direct view from the bridge. Myself and John made our way onto the deck, telling anyone we met that we were going for a smoke. Quietly scurrying down the length of the ship I found the life-boat stowed against the side of the ship. Coordinating with John through a collection of whispers we were able to pull off the tarp protecting the insides and push the boat out on its hoists. Working together and oh so quietly we both slowly lowered the boat to just below the surf coming off the bow. I didn’t know much about sailing, but I knew that if we were forced against the side of the ship we would be crushed. I gauged the time when the bow wave ebbed enough to push us off and at that time both me and John cut the ropes holding the boat.

The boat fell about five feet and hit the water with some violence, the bow wave pushed the boat this way and that and it was all I could do to hold on. But the violence quickly ended and it was left spinning  slowly in the surf. I sat that for few seconds watching the lights of the ship heading out into the distance praying that it would not turn back. It was only then that I remembered my companion and turned to congratulate him. He was not there, I searched the boat the looked out into the quickly settling ocean, calling softly. With the ship still in sight I dared not use the flash-light to search for him so I just sat there, calling, and listening. But there was nothing, he was gone.

John’s loss put a sting into the relief I was feeling for escaping from that bloodthirsty captain and his cannibal crew but I couldn’t sit forlorn for too long. I was now stuck out in the ocean and the Magnificent could turn around at any time. Using a compass that came with the survival gear I turned the boat due east and started to row. It was back-breaking but I felt that I could not stop, that I owed it to John and David and Philip to survive.

The tropical sun rose, and began to beat down on me and still I rowed, hiding my head under some rags I had found. The night fell again and I fell asleep from exhaustion but when I awoke again I kept on rowing, keeping my heading east, straining my eyes for signs of land.

I was three days on that boat when I saw a curious sight on the horizon. It seemed that the sea in the distance had turned green. But as I got closer and my eyes could focus better I realised that it was in fact mountains, covered in green jungle. I was in sight of land. The thought that I was nearly off the ocean gave me extra energy and I rowed with renewed vigour. I did not stop to rest, nor drink, nor eat until I felt the grinding of the sand against the keel of the boat. Throwing myself off the boat and into the light surf I grabbed the boat by what was left of the rope on the bow and dragged it up on the beach as far as I could. I then collapsed onto the white sands of the beach, laughing in relief that I was still alive and safe.

But I was far from safe. I was stuck on the west coast of Africa, thousands of miles from home, with no idea how to get out. It would take all of my luck and skill to get a handle on things. And that; of course, is the next part of my story