Hidden depths

On a supply ship I sailed on out of Aberdeen, we had a 6’5″. handlebar moustached cook who spoke with a lisp, always went ashore in a white tee-shirt and skin-tight leather trousers – and was known aboard as ‘Queenie’. He looked a bit like a super camp Freddy Mercury – although his moustache was far more flamboyant than that worn by Freddy. Oh and it was his idea to be called ‘Queenie’.

Cooks are a sort of housewife cum mother and in some, the feminine element comes to the fore. The nature of the job – the fussing, the meal  planning, attention to detail for an important on board function involving shore side staff, the general stewarding – leaves its mark on a man. No cook I ever sailed with did not possess a bit of femininity about him.

In his case, definitely more.

He was an excellent cook too. He’d served his time on the big passenger ships of Cunard before settling down to smaller ships as he got older. When he joined us, he was in his late 40’s – but the culinary skills he had learned aboard the ‘big ships’ had only got better with time.

Nothing was ever too much trouble for him to do for ‘his boys’. He would give each member of the crew a ‘choice meal’ during the month’s trip when he would cook whatever the individual wanted. As in my case,  Beef Wellington which was duly made and served – and as good as any restaurant ashore. He had a pride in his work – and it showed.

Whilst he was so obviously gay (or as he would say himself  ‘I’m as queer as a concrete parachute, love’ ) that was his business – as it always was at sea. Seafarers are the most tolerant people I ever knew, probably as a result of their travels around the world and their attitude of ‘each to his own’. It was – and probably still is – one of the marks of a tolerant society where a man is judged by his worth and not by what he is.

We were in Aberdeen – the ship was on the spot market, which meant she was waiting for work –  and myself and an AB  by the name of Davie  were watching TV in the crew mess.  We we were enjoying a chat over a cup of tea, speculating on what the next day would bring and wondering whether we’d get a charter or just lie alongside for the whole of the month. Which suited us. We were due to be relieved in two weeks time and it hardly seemed fair to spoil what had been a very easy month by actually going to sea.

With no warning, in crashes the Cook in a real flap. His hands were behind him and it took me a short while to realise that he was clutching something behind his back.

” Gawd…get me to a hospital! Quick! I need a doctor….”

The unflappable Davie nudges me and grins. ” He’s a lad, eh? Joker…..! Come on now Queenie, stop getting your knickers in  a twist and having hysterics. We’ve both been at sea longer than a weekend, eh? Too late at night for jokes…. “

” Oh! “ Queenie hissed at us like an angry goose, rolling his eyes theatrically. ”  Puh-lease! I am NOT joking! I need medical attention now! “

With that he slumps forward over the messroom table like a deflating rubber doll and it becomes obvious by his actions he is not camping anything up. Something is most definitely wrong. Both Davie and I get to our feet uncertainly – quite at a loss as to what to do next – when the 2nd Mate walks in, hands in pockets.

As he is viewing things from the ‘other side’ so to speak, his face pales and he looks at Davie and me.

” He’s bleeding…..”

” Is he? “

” Well, I know you can’t see from where you’re standing but aye, he’s bleeding. From his….um…arse…”

While Davie and I try to calm the by now mewing, whimpering Cook down, the 2nd Mate gets the Captain out of bed – He was not too happy about being disturbed but  soon realises that the 2nd Mate is not playing a joke on him. We did actually have an emergency aboard – one that is beyond anything in the pages of The Ship Captains Medical Guide – the nautical do-it-yourself that covers anything from toothache to childbirth. It’s a sort of Haynes Manual that can be found gathering dust on a shelf in the Captain’s cabin and is the one book that you really do not want to see in front the Old Man as you go to see him about a complaint you might have.

The Captain decides that it is serious and that someone has to accompany our casualty to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary to have him checked out. This is where he can pull rank – and he does.

” As you’re the duty officer, Adrian, then you should go and I’ll stay aboard. Oh and take Griffo with you – he’s the night watchman…..”

” Do I have to? Can’t Davie go with Griffo? “

” No. ”

The 2nd Mate knows when rank has been pulled. ” I’ll fetch my coat then….”

Famous last words by the skipper as the taxi pulls up to the foot of the gangway – “Let me know what’s up when you get back “. I still don’t think he meant it like that, though looking back…..

Myself and the 2nd Mate escort the distressed Cook to the hospital. Every bump, every lump every single bit of tarmac that was not on the level had Queenie crying out in agony like a theatrical Panto dame.

” ‘Old me ‘and, love, I’m scared…”

” B***er off! “

” Adrian, love? Will you….? “

” Er…..no. ”

Ooh, you pair of  ‘eartless sods! Just you wait ’til I’m fixed up, ducks!  You can count your favourites off the menu….”

I don’t know what the taxi driver thought of it but it must have sounded like a sort of mini-panto gone mad. What with two of us holding the Cook in a semi upright position as he could not – obviously –  sit down whilst also trying to avoid him surging forward and ending up in the area of the driver’s gear box. Quite difficult in the back of a Ford Orion.

Eventually, we arrive at the RI and he is trolleyed in by the porters and behaving like you’d expect him to with all the attention. As he is taken to one of the cubicles, he turns back and looking over his shoulder at the two of us looking back at him, shouts out in a very camp voice while waving madly.

” I’ll be fine loves…don’t go, will you? Wait for me….”

Trying our best to avoid the stares from the other folk in the A&E – Aberdeen A&E on a Saturday night is not exactly a good place to be in circumstances like that – we avail ourselves of coffee and studiously eye up the many pretty nurses, commenting on them in an obvious, gravelly voiced  macho sort of way because, well….it’s a man thing. We definitely – subconsciously perhaps – wanted to be real men just at that moment.

After a couple of hours of waiting with no news, a Surgeon turns up and asks ” Are you family? “

We shake our heads.

He shrugs. ” Partner – partners? ”

A very definite shake of the head! The 2nd Mate explains who we are, emphasising that we are from the same ship and inferring that whilst we know the man, we are acquaintances by circumstance. The Surgeon eyes us both up – I’m sure he thought we were telling porkies – and states that the Cook will be for a couple of days.

” What’s the matter with him? ” Asks the 2nd Mate.

” I believe that is a personal issue – suffice to say, he will not be coming back to you for a day or so. “

” I’ll need to tell the Captain. We can’t sail without a cook and he’ll need to make alternative arrangements. Besides, the company will need to know as if we sail, they’ll have to get Que….Colin…home. “

The Surgeon looks at us both and then asks which of us is the senior in rank? The 2nd Mate looks at me but I shrug, this is his moment. An Officer and a well, not quite a gentleman but you know what I mean.

” I am. “ He says. He also glares at me as if the sudden responsibility is now all his by rank and default.

The Surgeon nods and leads him away. When he comes back he is doing his best to maintain his composure whilst also sticking by the rules and refusing to tell me what he’d been told.

” It’s personal…..” is all I get on the way back, although the 2nd Mate is finding it hard to keep any semblance of composure. When we arrive back, he immediately goes to see the Captain. A short while later we are informed.

Apparently Queenie had pushed a small sex aid up his bottom which had somehow lodged there – but which had also ruptured a very delicate bit on the inside which would need stitches. They would need to remove the said article and stitch him up before allowing him back. Whilst he would be able to work, the medical team were advising that this was light work only. No lifting, things like that.

The Old Man – who had said that Queenie was the best Cook he’d sailed with for years – had thus allocated the deck hands to assist the Cook in any heavy work he might have to do – like lifting boxes in the stores and fridges right down to scrubbing the galley deck after work was done.

” We’ve got less than a fortnight to do so let’s help him out. If he has to leave – and it will be his choice – we’ll end up with a hash slinger….”

So we agreed with the Old Man to see what Queenie wanted to do when he got back.

Next morning – in the spirit of co-operation –  I prepared breakfast.  As the crew came down to breakfast – aiming for a cereal and toast start to the day, despite the sizzling bacon, egg,. sausage, black pudding and fried bread I’d got in the oven – they politely declined. Maybe I shouldn’t have cooked it whilst wearing my boiler suit? Then again I was a deckhand and just thought I’d do the lads a good turn.

No one could look at anyone else without smiling hugely and there was a lot of shaking of heads and tut tuttings going on. All of us had sailed with some pretty odd characters in the past – but this one took the biscuit.The Chief Engineer declared that the Cook only had to ask as they had lots of lubricating oil aboard whilst the Mate was adamant that we could have rigged up a block and tackle to get the thing out – had Queenie only asked.

Despite the laughter and ribaldry, we were concerned for him.

The Old Man explained that he had to pass on the incident to the Personnel Department who immediately wanted to know the full details. They did not, he said, seem too concerned about Queenie – more about the incident. Questions regarding hygiene had been asked. questions about whether he brought men back aboard. Was he HIV positive? Was he – in any way – a ‘risk’ to the crew? The Old Man felt that the questions were more about policy than people. He’d never had such a barrage of them in his life before and had said he was happy – as were the crew – with having the cook back.

Later that day, we got a temporary cook in. He did his job and didn’t mix – a change from the flamboyant Queenie whose larger than life presence and culinary skills were definitely missed. The new Temporary  Cook was – indeed – a hash slinger.

Queenie came back two days later. He opted to stay aboard and complete the trip on the basis that he had a contract to fulfil. We deck hands became a temporary part of the catering department and did all his heavy lifting and scrubbing of decks etc as required – although his scathing disdain of our own personal work hygiene standards was obvious and delivered with his unique  edge.

” You take that boiler suit off and wash your ‘ands before you go in my fridges, ducks…”

” I’ve only got my undies on under this! “

” Then strip, love. You can give me a thrill while I watch you work. God knows, I could do with one. “

” On yer bike…..”

” Ooh, go on! I’ll massage you in some vegetable oil and you can make my day…”

The boiler suits stayed on – although we did agree to change our working ones for clean ones before going anywhere near the galley!

Whilst he was recovering, his gait was slightly exaggerated and he kept complaining about twinges in his bum with many a hint that he literally would not be able to sit down, so proving he had – in his words –  ‘  worked my  arse off…’ He put up with jokes about self-inflicted injuries, never lost his temper when the Chief Engineer gave him a box of batteries, a small tin of Vaseline and a wink – in short, he was back in the fold.

When he shuffled into the messroom at the end of the evening meal on his first day back it was to find that us AB’s had got him an inner tube to sit on.

” In case you’re, you know, still a bit tender…”

His reply was typical. Looking at it on the messroom couch he shook his head and waggled his fingers at each of us.

” Don’t they do them in pink….? ”

He never came back for a second voyage. Maybe it was the embarrassment – which I doubt as he was too big a man for that to bother him. Maybe it was more underhand, which I am inclined to think it was. Whilst seafarers are, as I said before, tolerant of others  the same could not be said of the shore side Personnel Department, none of whom had ever served at sea and thus saw things in a different way to the way we did.

To them he was, I suspect,  ‘not wanted on voyage’.

Author: ddraigmor

What can I say? Used to write copiously - won many short story competitions, had a monthly column in an international specialist hobby magazine - and then it all suddenly dried up around the time I went academic and found myself, as a mature student, at Uni! Studied in Oxford, got a job on graduation - and stayed here in a rented house despite dreams to go back to the land of my birth,Wales. fat chance of that; I don't speak the language so that's a bar! Did 20 years at sea mostly on tugs or tug related shipping, as an Able Seaman. Als was a member of my home town lifeboat crew. Medically discharged around the same time as my wife decided it would be a good idea to get a divorce, I went to college aged 37. I now work as a s[pecialist forensic social worker. Well, up until last year when they dragged me back to do generic work part time and allowed me to stay the other half in forensics - which I adore. I am probably the only anti-social worker you will ever meet! Single, I enjoy reading, watching movies, drawing and generally being a bit of an eccntric - or am I just odd? I haven't decided yet!

8 thoughts on “Hidden depths”

  1. The merchant navy was a rum old place to work. I know nothing about tugs, but what would say was the connection between, Greasers, Stokers and Waiters? No need to be explicit. The Pig & Whistle could be a queer place at times.

    Nice blog, you have been around a bit and done a bit. Keep blogging I’m enjoying your seafaring tales.

  2. When you hear of a case like that in some generic sort of ‘tales from the Casualty Ward’ the natural instinct is to be cruelly dismissive of the individual. But, you have personalized Queenie and made him into a pleasant and decent human being. He attracts one’s sympathy. Good story. As an aside, your observation about tolerance of your shipmates rings true. The only occasion I was at sea for any length of time, I swore to myself that no matter what, I would not allow myself to become irritated by any of the crew or get into any arguments. I am glad I did.

  3. Kacey Rybeck!

    He was a ships cook, not feminine at all.

    In fact he kicked Tommy Lee Jones arse as I remember.

    Erica Eleniac, captains birthday cake, big assets.

    Brilliant story yet again chum, keep them coming.

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