The Quick and The Dead. Part One

I’m submitting this in two parts, mainly because it is a pretty long one but also because two bites will probably be easier to swallow.

I did some time on a Dive Support Vessel for a year or so. It was a welcome break from anchor-handling which – if you know about it – can be pretty exhausting as well as seriously dangerous work. In the winter North Sea it is also no joke – especially when you have four out of eight rig anchors to do as well as a hook up to tow the rig itself – and once you have started the job, you can’t finish, no matter how bad the weather gets in the meantime.

She usually worked in the North Sea – straying over to Denmark now and again – but when a long-term charter came to an end, she landed a four-month charter out of  Messina, Sicily, mapping the route for an underwater cable from  Messina to the mainland. Back then, it was a very rare experience to leave the North Sea on a job so the opportunity to do a little ‘foreign’ run was well received aboard.

Maybe it was because we had been cooped up offshore North Sea for too long or maybe we just got that devil-may-care attitude that Merchant Seamen used to get when trips were longer and ships voayaged further afield but we were determined to make the charter one to remember.

In a run ashore one night shortly after arriving I ended up pairing with the Chief Steward and one of the other AB’s. Deciding not to hit the night life on the main drag we found a little bar up a poorly lit side street filled with locals.  No noisy juke boxes or posing young adolescents on scooters here – just real people. As we were greeted well enough when we sauntered in, we settled.

The hospitality was awesome. The locals seemed genuinely happy to accommodate us and the place was lively with Sicilian folk music, laughter and lots of impromptu dancing. I never met any dark flashing eyed young Sicilian beauties – but I did dance a lot with their mothers!

By the time we had reached that state of international understanding  – via the mythical power of alcohol – everyone in the bar was friends with of us and vice versa. Alas, the Chief Steward had probably drunk more than was good for him and had settled at a table with an elderly man and his middle-aged companions – none of whom would have looked out ofplace in ‘The Godfather’.

Mike – the Chief Steward – was a Scouser. When we’d bumped into him as we made for the town I knew that the other AB was thinking the same as I was; this would be like taking your grandfather for a drink. In his early 50’s, he was as sharp a customer as any you could ever meet and believed that without his ability to ‘wheel and deal’ things with the suppliers ashore, we’d be getting ripped off big style. According to Mike, there was no one aboard the ship was less important than he was. Now he was ashore and we seemed to have settled somewhere where he was with folk his own age, we two younger men could get on with having a good time. The fact that none of us spoke Italian and none of the locals spoke English was neither here nor there. Looking at Mike, he seemed to be doing OK.

The other AB and myself were having a great time with the many ladies, all of whom were eager to dance under the watchful eyes of their husbands, brothers, uncles and many other males who were probably related – and who were quite happy for us to dance away as long as we were in plain view.  The fact that we were up for dancing with the ladies seemed to please them. In no time at all they’d formed into small groups of men only, talking animatedly – but also keeping a weather eye on us two snake hipped youngsters. It never crossed my mind to try anything on. You only had to look at the men folk to believe you would live to regret it!

Mike, meanwhile, was banging on about gangsters. Even above the small band at the rear, you could hear his thick Scouse accent asking about Al Capone and the like. We kept a wary eye on him – in case – but his companions seemed to find him amusing and, in any case, were asking him about ‘The Beatles’ and ‘Lee-ver-pol’.Football was mentioned more than a few times and Mike’s support for his home town team was obvious – despite the raucous laughing of his table companions. Meanwhile, the band played on…..

In an interval when the band stopped to have a few jars, we decided to sit down next to Mike. He was at that drunken stage where he was exasperated by the one-sided on both sides conversation. Sitting back and sighing heavily, he shrugged – almost upsetting the table in the process which drew smiles and nods from the others. He looked at myself and the other AB and raised his eyebrows.

“ All I am asking, right? Right? You know….this is the home of the Mafia…the home of it…and they ain’t around….The gangsters. They jus’ ain’t ‘round. I can’t be telling folks back ‘ome that I was in Sicily an’ I didn’t see any Mafia, can I?“

“ Leave it, Mike – just have a good time, mate. They’re really friendly here so let’s not spoil the welcome. “

He shook his head, unconvinced and then pointed at one of the older men in the group.

“ You a Don, then? You know? Mafia? Ca peach? “

I was about to apologise for my well oiled shipmare but the man had stiffened somewhat before having a whispered conversation with the younger man standing behind him. There was lots of eye contact, furtive looks and finger-pointing and I was just wondering where this was going when the younger man nodded, A small circle closed around them – and he drew a 9mm automatic pistol from a shoulder holster.

This had the effect of sobering me up quicker than anything I have ever known while the Mike’s mouth fell open and his eyes went wide. You could have heard a pin drop.

I heard the AB next to me hiss quietly. ” Fug gin hell. Fug gin hell…..shit….”

Then the young man grinned, shrugged his shoulders – and put the gun away.

The older man smiled, spreading his arms in an open gesture and nodded at the three of us staring back at him. We must gave looked like fishes with our mouths open like that. Very scared fishes!

“ Si, Mafia. Famiglia. Capice? “ He then pointed at the Chief Steward and put a finger to his lips.  ” Segreto. Grande segreto….”

We all laughed together then but ours was definitely more on the edges of hysteria. However, drinks were ordered, we raised a glass to each other – and the band once again played on.

Whilst Mike sat there for the rest of the evening looking completely stunned, myself and the other AB got back into the dancing and drinking. Mike had the answer to the burning question he had so obviously wanted and could now hold his head up in his golf club in the leafy suburbs of Liveropol as he regales them all with his story of The Night I met Don Hugo.  Myself and the other AB were pulled back to the floor by a pair of the ladies and, amidst the laughter and the flirtatious looks as I was  clasped to an impossibly large busom, the night resumed.

At the end of the evening – which was somewhere around 3am – the older man at Mike’s table indicated that we should wait. As the other folk left, with much back slapping and shaking of hands – and hugs and kisses from the women –  a Mercedes pulled up outside of the door and we were ushered into it. Mike was paralysed by this stage – probably believing we were going to be driven up to the hills and shot!  However, with a strong handshake, a wave and a nod from the old man, we were chauffeured back to the ship in style – a perfect end to what had been a perfect night.

Myself and the other AB went back to the bar a few times that trip and were always made welcome. The story of Mike’s brush with the Mafia was bever mentioned and the old man was always hospitable and generous towards us. It felt like we were accepted which meant a great deal and left an impression on me, proving that runs ashore need not always be something like a riotous assembly.

As for Mike, he vowed he would never set foot ashore again in Italy on account of the Mafia having taken out a contract on him for exposing them.

I think, by the time we got home that month’s end, he believed it as well…..

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!

4 thoughts on “The Quick and The Dead. Part One”

  1. A jolly good blog, I was in Melbourne once and went to an Italian party with a friend, we were both fairly young, about 17.

    At the party I engaged in a short conversation with a very old man for some time, (in Italian) and when the party was finished I returned to the old man and offered my hand for a goodbye handshake.

    The entire room froze and everybody stopped talking. The old man casually said “it’s OK, he’s a Latino” and then shook my hand, said goodbye and gave me a smile, everybody started talking again.

    I left feeling like I done something wrong. To this day I don’t understand what happened but I did feel like I met some kind of a Don, he probably wasn’t but I think I know how you felt when the room went silent. 😦

  2. My aunt married an Italian. They have a bar restaurant cum pizzeria up in the hills from Punta della Venturina at a place called Pavana. His family own half the valley and make their own wine.

    I went there for a two week break years ago – the people were absolutely amazing. Hospitable,. friendly, engaging. I met a caricature journalist – with crumpled off white mac and a hat like they wear in films. The local carabinieri had a barrcks there so they were in every night –

    – and I also met an old man who had a permanent group of flashily dressed young men with him. He was – according to my uncle – Mafia.

    To see him sit and drink quietly across the room from five or six heavily armed Carabinieri was off the wall. He was a well regarded, respected man who made his living from crime (and a good one by what I could see) – and yet he was there, in full view of the Police. It could only be Italy!

    Thanks for the comments.

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