Miss Australia 1978 – Part Four of Four
Kev sat down on my settee with a beer from my fridge to watch the racing results on my television. Jim in Glasgow had paid for all of these things, possibly even including the stake on Kev’s dead-cert horse that had come fifth in a race at the local track but which he unfortunately hadn’t been able to go to because he had been working; a somewhat less than subtle dig at me, I guessed.
True to his word, he had come knocking on the door of my hotel room on the stroke of five. As I was wearing fresh clean clothes and smelling less like one of his sheep shearing compatriots than I had done at our last meeting, Kev was happy to take me to his house where his wife had prepared a mixed grill for me, him, herself and their four lovely children. I could tell they were lovely children because they weren’t drinking ice cold cans of Toohey’s beer. During our meal his wife ignored all other contributors to the conversation, turning to me to conduct an intense interrogation about what the shopping was like in Leeds. She told me that her sister had once visited a place called Bolton which apparently was also in the north of England and where all the shops were rubbish apart from the butchers. Europe, for her, was the epitome of fine culture and she was desperate for more information about meat and potato pies. The kids asked me when I might be seeing them again because they only ever got sausages to eat when the people from the ships came to stay.
So when we had seen off all the sausages and all the beer and all the questions had been asked about how foggy it was in England and had I ever met the Queen or Ena Sharples, Kev announced that it was time for him to take me to the ship. It may seem strange but I was really pleased to know that I would at last be climbing up a gangway to spend the next nine months of my life afloat on twenty-odd thousand tonnes of iron and rust and coal in the company of a predominantly Scottish crew comprising of thirty-plus people who would each fit into at least one of the categories of alcoholic, pervert, stoner, psychopath or fiercely staunch Presbyterian. And I was looking upon the event as a return to normality.
As I walked towards the front gate and Kev’s car his wife gave me a peck on the cheek and the oldest of his lovely children growled, ‘Don’t forget!’
Twenty minutes later on a quayside covered with coal dust I said goodbye to Kev, thanking him profusely for his help and hospitality because my time with him and his family had been by far the best part of my incredible journey. I’ve always been very independent and able to laugh in the face of adversity but sometimes I need someone who knows what they’re doing to, figuratively speaking, hold my hand.
Suddenly the accents changed from broad Aussie to broad Scottish as half a dozen men in oil-stained boiler suits and holding cans of Tennant’s lager appeared and shook my hand, picked up my bag of Rolling Stones etc. and led me up a gangway and through a catacomb of alleyways to my cabin. Although I was more than seventeen thousand kilometres from home I at last felt like I was at home.
It’s common courtesy for navigation cadets to introduce themselves to the Captain within ten minutes of joining a ship so that they can hit the ground running in terms of being verbally abused but I was told that our ‘Old Man’ had already gone ashore and wasn’t expected back until the morning. Nudge nudge! Wink wink! So I didn’t need to bother looking for his office just yet.
Left alone, I started to unpack the Rolling Stones / Leeds United combination and a few clothes and all the books from my seat of learning (i.e. Glasgow College of Nautical Studies) that formed the basis of my seagoing correspondence course and stowed them away in seaworthy, storm-proof cupboards and drawers. But within just a few minutes the door of my cabin flew open and a dozen people who said they needed beer as a matter of urgency fell in and dragged me out for a night on the town. I didn’t really feel like I was in a party mood but I needed to make an impression and establish friendships with my latest batch of new colleagues and it wasn’t every night that we Jolly Jacks got the opportunity to let our tarred pigtails down, so I didn’t protest.
A big crowd of us going ashore was always a cause for great excitement. Such boisterous gatherings always meant that something interesting and worthy of being talked about for years afterwards was certain to happen, even though we often couldn’t remember with clarity what had really happened when discussing it the following morning. Collections of stains, cuts, bruises and beermats bearing the scribbled names and phone numbers of pretty ladies sometimes acted as physical memoranda. Our imaginations would fill in the gaps at the point of storytelling, much as mine has in the writing of this account of how things unfold when someone in a cosy city centre office sends you away all on your own to the other side of the world.
At the planning stage, a brief description of our soiree had been something along the lines of ‘just a few beers’. And that turned out to be fairly accurate for the first hour or so but the few beers led us on to a few whiskeys, which led us on to a wee drop more, which led us on to meeting a few Australians who were in the same sort of frame of mind as us and who then led us on to a spur of the moment party at the house of a woman who was a good friend of theirs out in the suburbs. It was great! Good craic, as we would say in the trade. Rum, bum and concertina, as we would say in nautical terms and which means lots of alcohol, lots of members of the opposite sex and lots of loud music, singing and dancing. The last time I had enjoyed a night out so much was the night before I had flown home from my previous ship berthed in Fremantle (near Perth, far far away on the other side of Australia) which was unbelievably similar to Newcastle and the only way you could tell the two places apart was from the fact that the people in Fremantle sign over their internal organs to the brewers of Swan lager rather than Toohey’s.
I hope my words so far have made you smile, or maybe even laugh, but I hope you’ll forgive me if you find the next few paragraphs a little less jolly.
The tale of our night ashore had what was a fairly common ending for such events. With the local police watching us in amusement, rather than the anger or fear that normal people might have expected, we arrived in taxis back at the quayside at round about 5:00 am. That wasn’t so bad really. The difficult bit was having to turn to (start work) at 8:00 am on deck supervising the local cargo handlers. In that particular port and on our company’s sort of ships (known as bulk carriers), that wasn’t too difficult as they only had to open the hydraulic covers on cathedral-size cargo hatches and tonnes of coal would be dropped in from a great height from a conveyor belt. But we also had to make sure they distributed the cargo evenly and in the correct quantities and ballast water had to be pumped out of enormous tanks to adjust the weight and strain on various parts of the ship’s hull and if we got that wrong, to put it in simple terms, it might snap in half and sink which would have caused an awful atmosphere.
For a variety of reasons, and despite the appearance of an Australian sausage sandwich and a beautiful sunrise, I wasn’t exactly feeling at my best as I stood on the deck of the ship trying very hard to look like I was still alive. I’d like to be able to say that I love the smell of coal dust, heavy oil and whiskey fumes in the morning but really the opposite was true. After about half an hour of this suffering I was approached by the Third Mate, who I had never met before. He told me that the Captain wanted to see me in his office immediately. My heart sank. I was sure I was in trouble for not going to introduce myself and/or for being an active member of a group of rowdies who might have had a drop more of the rum, bum and concertina than their brains and bodies could cope with, and on my first night on the ship too.
As we climbed the stairs to an upper deck where the Captain’s office was located, I asked the Third Mate if he knew what it was all about. As a junior officer it wouldn’t have been very long since he had been a cadet himself so I thought he might let me in on the secret but he just shook his head, avoided eye contact and looked very miserable.
The Captain introduced himself and shook my hand. He didn’t seem to be in such a bad mood at all. I thought there was a possibility that I might grow to like him.
And then he said, ‘I have a telex that I want you to read’.
I took the piece of paper and saw that it was from Jimmy in Glasgow. Perhaps I was in bother because I had bought too many cheese and pickle sandwiches in the shop at Heathrow. But it wasn’t that at all. It was much more serious. I’ll never forget those words…
CADET TERENCE MULLAN TO RETURN HOME IMMEDIATELY.
FATHER DIED SUDDENLY. MOTHER HAS NO MALE SUPPORT.
‘Go and pack your case. There’ll be a taxi here in twenty minutes and there’s a plane to Sydney in an hour’ he said. He didn’t seem to know what else to say and I was totally speechless.
Brian, the Irish Radio Officer who I’d sailed with on a previous ship, came to my cabin with a large glass of whiskey and asked me if I was alright. He said that he’d phone my mother in England later in the day to tell her I was on my way. He didn’t think it was a good idea to call her there and then because it would have been the middle of the night where she was, though I doubted that she would have been asleep.
Within four hours I had been driven to the AeroPelican Airways terminal in Newcastle, flown to the AeroPelican Airways terminal in Sydney, transferred to the international airport and was sitting on a Qantas Boeing 747 waiting to take off for London. Unlike on the outward journey, everything fell into place perfectly.
On the way to Sydney I saw again some of the people I had seen on my way out to join the ship. I had to explain to some of them why I was there but some of them already knew. They all said nice things to me. They were all so very kind.
From Sydney I was the only passenger on the jumbo jet, its emptiness making it feel even more jumbo-esque than usual. Jimmy in Glasgow and Qantas and probably a few other people in positions of authority had obviously gone right out of their way to get me back to Leeds as quickly as possible. There were only two cabin crew members. They told me that once we were up in the air I could put the armrests up on four of the seats in the middle block, lie across them and hopefully sleep. They said they wouldn’t disturb me but if I wanted anything to eat or drink I should let them know. They told me that we would be having a couple of refuelling stops but there would be nobody else getting on the plane until we got to Damascus in Syria, at which point I’d have to wake up and sit up. They were absolutely lovely.
When we arrived in Damascus the doors opened and almost all of the seats were filled up by male passengers wearing the famous all-white Arab attire and headdress. In my tee-shirt and jeans, I felt a bit conspicuous sitting amongst them. The scene must have looked like something from a Monty Python comedy sketch, especially after they had all paid their pounds to buy Qantas in-flight entertainment headphones which made them look like they were wearing stethoscopes. I never found out why there was so many of them and only one of me. The plane must have been chartered by some big Middle Eastern organisation. I think they knew why I was there though. Some of the ones sitting near to me chatted a little and others looked at me with an expression of pity on their faces. Maybe they knew that my dad had died or maybe they just felt sorry for me because I was the only one who wasn’t a millionaire oil sheikh.
Although this all happened more than forty years ago, the memory of the events up to this point remains sharp in my head; at least I think so. From Damascus onwards it’s a complete fuzz. I have absolutely no recollection of the journey from London to Leeds or of arriving home. The combined effects of the stress caused from worrying about possibly missing a plane, the stress caused by the worry of actually having missed a plane, a cumulative total of around forty-eight hours spent hanging around airports waiting for planes, two lots of jetlag, a shocking hangover, the raw emotion of unexpectedly losing my fifty-year-old father to a heart attack, having to sit through a screening of Smokey and the Bandit and drinking my own body weight in ice cold Toohey’s lager left my mind in a complete and utter mess.
As mentioned somewhere near the beginning of my story, since that difficult time in July 1978 I have never missed another plane. But sometimes I miss the life on the ships, sometimes I miss Miss Surrey, sometimes I miss the boat and sometimes I miss Australia. And I’ve often missed my father, though he’s been dead now almost as long as he was living, and time’s such a healer.
Without the kindness of the warm hearted people at Scottish Ship Management, at Qantas Airlines, and at AeroPelican Airlines together with Kev and his family in Newcastle, and without the humour of Spike Milligan and the gentlemen of Damascus, I would never have got through all this.
Every image I use is from a photograph I have taken myself.
On this occasion – One sixth of half a dozen men in oil-stained boiler suits holding a can of beer. His real name was Bob but we called him Ring-pull, a nickname he earned because working in the noise of the bottom plates of a ship’s engine room where voices could never be heard, he used to gesture the opening of a ring-pull beer can to signify that it was time for us to go off for a tea break.