Star of Africa, p.5Scott Mariani
‘Shit, man, sorry to hear it.’
‘Yeah, whatever,’ Jude said, looking around at his new quarters. There wasn’t a lot to see. Being the most junior of the crew, he had been lodged in what he suspected to be – and later discovered was – the smallest and most cramped of the cabins allocated to the ABs. He had no problem with that, however. He intended to enjoy every minute of this adventure to the full. After stowing his backpack in the locker next to his berth, he followed Mitch back down onto the cargo deck and was immediately plunged into the hectic activity of helping to load the rest of the containers on board prior to shipping out.
Mitch, the amiable bigot who liked to poke into people’s personal lives, quickly turned out to be not such a bad guy at all, to Jude’s relief. ‘Don’t you mind Skinner,’ Mitch advised him as he showed him how to lash down a container to prevent it from slipping in heavy weather. ‘He’s one mean, tough, hard-assed sonofabitch and a hell of a screamer, but do your job, keep your head down and your nose clean and he won’t give you too much shit.’ Which was good to know.
‘What about the other officers?’ Jude asked.
‘We don’t call ’em officers in the merchant marine. You got Frank Wilson, the chief mate. We just say “the mate”. He’s okay, I guess. Between you and me, he likes a drink. Starts every trip with a full case of Jim Beam. Catch’m on a good day, you wouldn’t know it, but …’ Mitch rolled his eyes knowingly. ‘Then you got Diesel, he’s what we call the chief. Chief engineer,’ he explained for Jude’s benefit. ‘He’s only about a million years old, knows every nut, bolt and rivet of this ol’ tub like you wouldn’t believe. Guzman, second mate, he’s a slob, eats like a hog and he’s so full of lard he can’t hardly move. The boys call’m the Guzzler, but not to his face, okay? Then you got Ricky Marshall, the third mate. Real straight-up guy. You ask me, he oughta be captain.’
‘Got it,’ Jude said, making mental notes of it all. ‘And what about the captain? What’s he like?’
Mitch gave a noncommittal shrug. ‘I sailed with Cappy O’Keefe a bunch of times, been loop the loop around the damn world together twice, three times, maybe more. He’s comin’ up for retirement. Ain’t the guy he used to be. Spends most of his time in his cabin, writing long emails to his wife back home in Indiana, while he leaves it to Wilson and Skinner to do all the hard work. Then Wilson and Skinner pass it all down to the rest of us. That’s pretty much the system here, kid. Better get used to it. You’ll earn your money on board this ship, believe me.’
Jude was unafraid of hard work, which was just as well, because Mitch hadn’t been joking. By the time the Andromeda was finally loaded up and ready to set off, Jude was drenched with sweat and fit to drop from exhaustion – and his first day on board had barely even begun. He watched from the deck as, to the deep throb of the diesel engines, they made their way out of the port and through the lesser shipping towards open sea. It was a heady feeling for Jude, and tired as he was, he couldn’t keep the grin off his face. Before long, the land sank out of sight and they were alone under the vast empty bowl of the sky, with nothing but the deep blue-green waters of the Indian Ocean from horizon to horizon.
The voyage had begun.
And if Jude had known then how it was going to end, he would have dived straight into the sea and started swimming back to shore.
Before now, Jude had never been on any kind of boat for longer than a few hours at a time, and he’d wondered about things like ocean sickness. But the Indian Ocean was as smooth as an endless sheet of blue glass, and after a couple of days he’d found his sea legs and the gentle movement of the ship felt as natural as being on land.
It might take him a little longer to get used to the heat, which was oppressive and humid everywhere except on the outer deck, where it was just scorching. And the three hours’ sleep a night, four if you were lucky, took some adapting to as well. No time in the merchant navy to lounge on deck with a gin and tonic in your hand, admiring the view and counting dolphins. That was for sure.
He was getting to know his way around a little better, as well as getting to know his fellow crewmen. The mess and canteen were situated down on A Deck, two floors down from his quarters, where a lot of tired and hungry sailors would gather to recuperate from their shifts, to eat, smoke, gulp gallons of coffee and shoot the breeze. There were fourteen ABs aboard including himself – although, as far as he could see, some of them didn’t really seem to be that able-bodied at all after so many years at sea. A number of the sailors were in their sixties, work-hardened and leathery as hell but beginning to show the strains of a lifetime of physical hardship. For many of them, this was the only life they’d ever known, and Jude quickly learned that it was one that seemed to attract some very colourful characters. The casual, totally non-uniform dress code among the ABs wasn’t exactly what he could later expect to find aboard a Royal Navy ship, either. Tatty sweatshirts, faded jeans, military surplus gear, anything went. Steve Maisky, an ageing hippy who for reasons best known to himself insisted on being known as ‘Condor’ and claimed to have been hopping ships ever since dodging the draft for Vietnam in 1972, jangled with beads and bangles and had grey hair in a ratty ponytail that hung halfway down the back of his Grateful Dead T-shirt. He was benevolently disapproved of by Lou Gerber, a white-bearded ex-US Marine five years his senior, who strutted about in khakis and combat boots with a shapeless fatigue hat jammed on his balding pate to protect him from the sun.
Jude had developed a liking for Mitch and thought he could learn a lot from him. During work and breaks, the older man regaled him with all manner of colourful and sometimes improbable tales from his twenty-odd years in the merchant navy. Mitch had seen the world, all of it. There was, he claimed, not a bar or gambling den or whorehouse in any port town on the face of the planet that he hadn’t frequented and in some way left his mark on. He’d been thrown out of many, barred from several. He’d been carried back comatose to his ship on a wheelbarrow more than once or twice. He’d been knifed in the ribs over a card game in Sri Lanka and shot at by a disgruntled pimp in Hong Kong. He’d won more bare-knuckle fights and arm-wrestling bouts than he’d lost, made a ton of money on them, too. He’d had more women, and probably fathered more children, than he could count or remember. It had been, he told Jude with a contented grin, one hell of a crazy run and it wasn’t nearly over yet.
‘What the hell for?’ he asked when Jude told him of his own ambitions to join the Royal Navy. ‘Do yourself a favour, partner. You don’t wanna get in with that bunch of tight-assed dipshits. You wanna sail the world, Jude, then this is the way to do it. There is,’ he added grandly, ‘no better life for a free man than this one right here.’
‘A free man?’
‘You ain’t got no wife back home, do you? Not at your age, right?’
Jude shook his head. ‘Girlfriend. Nothing that serious.’ The truth was, he was pretty certain his thing with Helen, who’d been a year below him at university, was dead and buried now that he’d dropped out of his studies. Her parents disapproved of his ‘dissolute ways’ and were a little too much of an influence on their daughter. He still wore the little bracelet she’d given him, a string of beads that spelled her name. He hadn’t had the heart to throw it away.
‘I’m not one to go givin’ advice,’ Mitch said, happy to go on dispensing it freely. ‘But don’t go gettin’ yourself saddled. I finally had the good sense to walk away after number four. Lord knows there ain’t no ocean as cold nor no mountain on this earth as hard as a woman’s heart. These days I keep the bitches strictly on a payin’ basis, if you get my drift.’
‘I’ll take your word for it,’ Jude said, with a smile.
For all that he was making friends and feeling more comfortable by the hour in his new environment, Jude wasn’t so sure about all his fellow crewmen. In particular, a chisel-faced, greasy-haired ex-biker called Scagnetti, who wore a grimy wife-beater T-shirt to show off his muscles and tattoos, and wh
Mitch had already warned Jude not to get too close to Scagnetti. ‘Dude’s a decent enough mariner but there’s something ain’t quite right up here’ – tapping a finger to his head. ‘Watch’m, is all I’m sayin’.’
Another crew member Jude quickly warmed to was Hercules, the ship’s cook, a larger-than-life black man with a laugh that could vibrate the hull from stem to stern, and who always wore the same frayed old army jacket that was spattered with a thousand grease stains. Hercules’s constant companion in the galley, the mess, and everywhere else, perched on his shoulder, was an evil harpy of an African grey parrot that went by the name of Murphy and possessed an even more scatological vocabulary than most of the sailors. Not everyone appreciated the bird, especially after being screeched at repeatedly and at maximum volume to get the fuck out of here! – its favourite expression.
‘If that vulture of yours shits in my plate, I’m going to chew its goddamned head off and spit out the beak,’ complained Gerber, absolutely serious. Which, Hercules later confessed to Jude with a grin, earned Gerber a dollop of green parrot excreta mixed in with his gravy. Gerber either didn’t notice, or thought it was an improvement on the usual slop the galley served up. Jude had to secretly agree that, whatever else Hercules might be, he certainly was no chef.
Strangely, Murphy never swore at Jude. On the third day of the voyage, the bird even flapped off its master’s shoulder to swoop across the mess and perch on Jude’s. ‘First time he’s ever done that,’ Hercules said, mightily impressed, while Jude sat very still and hoped the thing wasn’t about to rip his earlobe off with its nutcracker beak.
‘Murph has real good taste in people,’ Hercules chuckled while pouring Jude a mug of stewed coffee later that day. ‘If he don’t take kindly to a guy, that’s how I know they’s an asshole. He’s like my early warnin’ system.’
‘Everyone seems okay to me,’ Jude said, playing the diplomatic newbie. ‘Mostly, anyway.’
‘Ain’t such a bad bunch crew on this run,’ Hercules said. ‘Just that lousy prick Scagnetti and the three a-holes up on D Deck.’
D Deck was where the engineers and mates had their slightly more comfortable quarters than the common crewmen, and for a moment Jude thought Hercules must be referring to some of them.
‘Nah, man. Talking about our esteemed fuckin’ passengers. Bird don’t think too much of them neither, believe me.’
This was the first Jude had heard of passengers on board. No mention of it had been made by anyone until now, which struck him as being odd. ‘I didn’t realise merchant ships carried anybody but the working crew.’
Hercules sniffed. ‘That’s ’cause we don’t, not as a rule leastways. I been at sea twelve years and I ain’t never seen it. This ain’t no damn cruise liner. Ain’t no Sunday picnic neither. Like I don’t already got enough to be doin’ down here without I’ve got to carry up their meals twice a fuckin’ day. What, are their asses too high an’ mighty to chow down here with the rest of us? Ain’t no room for freeloaders in this here merchant marine. Everybody pulls their weight or they ain’t got no right bein’ here in the first place.’
‘What are they, friends of the captain?’
‘You bet I already asked the bosun the same question ’fore we shipped out.’
‘And what did he say?’ Jude asked, wondering whether maybe Jack Skinner wasn’t quite as unapproachable as Mitch had suggested.
Hercules grunted. ‘Didn’t say shit. Just gave me the look that says, don’t even fuckin’ ask.’
As he went about his duties that day, Jude kept an eye open in case he might spot one of the mystery passengers. He saw no sign of them, and presumed they must be confining themselves to their quarters and choosing not to mix with the others on board. But what he did start to pick up more signs of were the grumbles of resentment among the crew against the unknown, nameless, faceless freeloaders up on D Deck. None of his business, he decided, reminding himself that he, too, was just passing through and only here thanks to some favour called in, some string or other pulled by one of Jeff Dekker’s connections in the maritime world. He wasn’t one of these guys. He was only here to gain knowledge and experience.
Which he was doing, every waking moment. Jude had always been a fast learner, effortlessly remaining top of his class at uni before he’d decided that Marine Biology was not what he wanted to spend his life doing. He was constantly full of questions for Mitch and the others, though careful not to overdo it. He soon filled in the gaps in his knowledge concerning the roles of the senior crewmen. The impressively named Henry Hainsworth O’Keefe was, as he’d supposed, the supreme authority aboard ship, directing things from his throne room up on the bridge. Frank Wilson, the chief mate, was responsible for overseeing the loading and unloading cargo, as well as handling security and the general day-to-day running of the ship. The chief engineer, Diesel, was a rare sight above decks, he and his assistants seldom emerging from their domain in the engine room down below. When not filling his already capacious belly, Guzman, second mate, was the so-called ‘paper mate’ in charge of navigation, charts and all the electronics up on the bridge. The third mate, Marshall, acted as an assistant. And as Jude had already inferred, the fearsome Skinner’s job as bosun was to mediate between the mates and the rest of the crew, as well as ensure discipline on board.
In addition to learning about the men he was sailing with, Jude was also getting to know the ship pretty well. His first impression of a floating city had been perfectly right: you could lose yourself for days in the bewildering, endless maze of passageways and storerooms both above and below decks. Maybe it was because he was the youngest and most fleet of foot out of the crew, or maybe it was just because he was the new meat; either way, Jude found himself running back and forth all day on gopher duty. Clattering up and down rusty iron steps. Fetching this, fetching that, passing messages here and there.
On his errands about ship he was constantly intrigued by the heavy steel-mesh gates that barred virtually every external walkway and ladder, coming up from the deck to the superstructure. Every time you passed through one of the gates, you had to close and lock it behind you. It meant you couldn’t go anywhere without first getting a set of keys from the bosun, and returning it afterwards. Unable to think what purpose the gates served, Jude quizzed the old salt Gerber on the matter.
‘Those are pirate cages,’ Gerber explained with a bristly scowl.
On the flight to Oman, Jude had contemplated the possible dangers of a voyage down the east coast of Africa. Typhoons, reefs, sharks, heatstroke, getting arrested in port for unruly behaviour and ending up incarcerated in some African jail had all occurred to him. He hadn’t once thought about pirates. How could they even still exist, in this day and age? Terrorists, sure. But pirates? To him, the word conjured up images of snarling buccaneers with cutlasses and eye-patches, and the Jolly Roger flying at the masthead. Wasn’t that ancient history?
Gerber, however, seemed very certain of the risk. ‘Yup. That’s what those are, all right. So’s if we get boarded by the little darlings, they can’t get access to enough key points, the bridge especially, to take over the ship. Only way we can even try to keep those scumsucking bastards off our asses. That, or hose ’em with water as they come up our sides. Some ships pour oily foam on ’em, gunks ’em up good. Needless to say, we got jack shit except a bunch of flimsy wire mesh.’
To Jude’s amazement, Gerber explained how little shipping companies did to protect either their property, the cargo they carried or the men they paid to ferry it from the risk of violent armed pirate attacks that kept growing year on year in certain waters. Ships on the East Africa run, Gerber
‘That’s just how it is,’ he told Jude. ‘Personally, I’d like to see a whole damn locker of M16s on board. Been saying it for years, but who’d listen? Those corporate sonsofbitches would rather leave us out here like sitting ducks than trust us to defend ourselves.’
Jude hated to ask the inevitable question. ‘What happens if pirates manage to get past the cages and take over the ship?’
Gerber shrugged. ‘Best case, all they want is cash. Every vessel carries a few thousand bucks’ worth in reserve in the captain’s safe, for emergencies and such. If you get lucky, you might be able to just pay them off, and they’ll beat it back to shore to get rat-assed and whored up, and you can go on your way rejoicing. That’s how it used to be, more often than not, but it’s rare you get off so lightly now. See, when these shit-eaters first started showing up twenty years ago, you were dealing with a few rag-tag fishermen making six hundred dollars a year, who thought five, ten thousand was the haul of a lifetime. Didn’t take ’em long to figure out you could make a whole lot more by snapping up the whole ship and holding the cargo and crew for ransom.’
Jude was staring at him. ‘They kidnap the crews?’
‘This is all news to you, huh, sonny? Sure, these fuckers would kidnap their own mothers for a buck. They’re taking hundreds of millions a year now in ransoms. It’s big business. Instead of wooden skiffs they’re coming out in speedboats, tooled up to the nines with Kalashnikovs, high as kites on fuckin’ khat and ready to murder anyone who gets in their way. And they don’t just cover a few miles out from the coast like they used to. Not when they can use stolen vessels as mother ships and hunt over the whole ocean looking for a juicy tanker to knock off. It’s a whole other ball game now, and it’s about goddamn time someone did something about it.’
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