Run Ashore on the
The slight bump as the submarine touched the jetty was the sign I had been waiting for. Many of the crew had been to Gibraltar before, but not me. I could hardly wait to see this fortress dependency. It was famous as a naval base and the guardian of the Mediterranean Sea. The order to fall out from harbour stations was given and there was a general rush towards the mess decks and the bunk spaces where holdalls, containing those precious civilian clothes were stored. I walked from the torpedo compartment along the passageway, past the mess. Up the ladder to the control room and it was only a short walk to the main access hatch and my first glimpse of Gibraltar.
I poked my head out of the hatch into bright sunlight and a deep blue sky. As I stepped onto the casing the panorama that is Gibraltar was before me. The Rock of Gibraltar, and what a rock it was. The steep sided limestone cliffs rose above the small town at its foot. There was very little room for the town or the people of Gibraltar to settle at its base. I was later to find out that there are more miles of road inside the rock itself than outside.
The sun was pleasantly warm without being overpowering and there was a cool breeze coming in from the sea. The harbour was packed with both Royal and Merchant Naval vessels of all shapes and sizes. The sea was the wonderful dark blue for which the Mediterranean is famous.
“Come on then, get out of the way,you dopey b******.”
Back to reality with a jolt. By standing in the middle of the narrow casing I had blocked the access to the gangway for those who were already disappearing ashore, mainly those who had visited Gibraltar before and were eager to visit their good friends, the bar staff of the local hostelries.
There are several differences between a visit abroad on a submarine and a visit abroad by a destroyer, frigate or other surface ship, or skimmers, as they are known to all submariners. The first difference is that, as a submariner, I earned more pay than the skimmer crews, which was known as submarine pay, thus I could buy more beer than they could. Secondly, a man working on a surface ship would be expected to work during the day, even when visiting a foreign port, and would only be allowed ashore after working hours. I, on the other hand, as a submariner , would not be expected to return to the submarine until the day it sailed, unless I was required as a member of the duty watch for a night during the visit, thus, I could drink more beer. A man on a surface ship would have to return to that ship to sleep each night and was subject to scrutiny by the regulating staff at the gangway and could be arrested if drunk. I, as a submariner, was accommodated in a hotel, paid for by the Royal Navy, breakfast included, and therefore I was not subject to scrutiny by anyone, thus, I could drink more beer. Finally, men on surface ships were provided, onboard, with their three meals a day. Submariners were not, and, to make up for this cruelly unfair state of nourishment, the Royal Navy gave me, in cash, an allowance each day to purchase lunch and dinner. Therefore I had loads of money, and who eats when abroad anyway, thus, I could buy more beer.
I fought my way back down the ladder against the oncoming tide of submariners who could smell the alcohol and hear the women calling their names. I collected my holdall from the torpedo compartment and made my way back up to the casing and onto the jetty. A coach had been provided to take us to our hotels. The officers were accommodated in the 5 star Rock Hotel, the senior rates in the 4 star Queens Hotel and the junior rates, well away from the others, in the 3 star Caleta Palace Hotel.
I was amazed by the number of cars on the limited number of roads in Gibraltar. It couldn’t take more than twenty minutes to walk from one side of the rock to the other and yet, the place was full of Mercedes saloons, all travelling at not much more than walking pace. My first glimpses of Gibraltar itself, Main Street, the airport and the cable car to the summit of the rock itself.
The bus pulled into the sweep in front of the Calenta Palace Hotel, right on one of the few beaches on Gibraltar at Catlan Bay. I managed to grab my key and dashed upstairs to my room. I wanted to have a shower, get changed and have a look around Gib. Oh, and buy some of that beer of course. I went into my room and was confronted by George, the steward I was sharing with. He was naked and standing next to the open window, overlooking the swimming pool and beach, with a can of beer in his hand. The window was full length, floor to ceiling. The swimming pool, with a corrugated perspex roof over it to protect the bathers from the sun was directly below and the view across Catlan Bay was superb. George was in full view of the other hotel guests lounging at the poolside. Now George was not, and would never be a bronzed Adonis type. He was about five foot four inches standing up and five foot six inches lying down. His pot belly told many a tale of nights spent in bars quaffing pint after pint of cheap ale. He was already as drunk as a skunk.
“Alright George?” I asked.
“Hello Pedro my old mate.” He replied.
He had eyes that looked like the columns on a football pools coupon, one at home and one away. I wondered how anyone could be that drunk so soon after arriving. After all, he hadn’t even been into town yet. I looked around the room and there, beside his bed, was his holdall. It contained what appeared to be one pair of jeans, one T-shirt, a couple of pairs of underpants and a rather large number of cans of beer, half of which were, by now, empty and were scattered across the floor by his bed. He grinned at me with that ‘I’ve either had a severe stroke or I’m completely smashed’ kind of grin.
“I think I’ll go for a swim.” He stated.
He made his way unsteadily across the room to his bag and, delving beneath the beer cans, produced the skimpiest pair of crimson swimming trunks I had ever seen. He fell onto the bed giggling as he put both legs through the same leg hole. Eventually, with a frown of deep concentration, he managed to extricate himself from the tangled shred of nylon and pulled them up around his waist. His beer belly was hanging over the front of the trunks and, at the rear, they were so tight that they disappeared up the crack of his backside leaving his bare, and not inconsiderable buttocks, open to full view. He selected another can of beer from his bag, inspecting it carefully to make sure that it was up to the required standard for such a connoisseur of the hop brew.
“George, you can’t walk through the hotel dressed like that.” I said.
He looked at me thoughtfully.
“You’re absolutely right Pedro,” he said, “I don’t want to upset the guests do I?” And with that, clutching the can of beer, he walked across to the window and, unsteadily, climbed onto the low windowsill.
“George, for Christ’s sake, what are you doing?”
Without a backward glance George flung himself out of the window and hurtled towards the ground, three floors below. I heard an enormous crash and screams echoed from the poolside beneath. I ran across to the window and looked out, expecting to see George dead, on the ground some thirty – five feet below.
As I peered out of the window I saw, instead, a George shaped hole in the perspex roof of the swimming pool. Half the water had left the pool as George had entered and many of the sunbathers were shaking themselves, like saturated spaniels. George was calmly treading water in the centre of the pool, directly below the hole in the roof. His head was bleeding, leaving a pink trail in the water. He looked up, waved at me, took a sip from the can of beer still clutched firmly in his hand and called.
“Pedro old boy, the water’s lovely, you really should come on in.”
There was general pandemonium as several white-shirted and bow-tied staff ran to the pool. George was unceremoniously dragged from the water and hauled away, bowing to the crowd as he went. The Naval Provost was called and I last saw George being placed in the rear of a naval minibus and thence off to HMS Rook, the naval shore establishment, where he was placed in cells, to await collection by the duty officer from the submarine. George’s run ashore had lasted a grand total of fifty seven minutes, a record for George from what I later came to know of him. I had a room to myself for the remainder of that visit to Gibraltar.
Gibraltar is thought of as an island. It is, in fact, connected to the Spanish mainland but, at that time, the continuing arguments between the British and Spanish governments, over the sovereignty of the state, were raging on. This had resulted in the border between the two being shut. The only way to travel to Spain was to catch the ferry across to Tangier and then another ferry back to Spain. This meant that Gibraltar was isolated. The town of Gibraltar itself, and that is all there is, can only be the size of a large English village. It has one main shopping street, funnily enough called Main Street, in which the majority of the shops and bars are situated. Any sailor in Gibraltar had only to walk along Main Street and look through the windows of the many bars and pubs to find his crew mates.
The shops were a mass of colour and bartering was the accepted method of deciding upon a price for any item that was for sale. I loved the place. Everyone spoke English, the locals seemed genuinely glad to see us and English sterling was the currency, so you knew if someone was trying to rip you off in the shops and bars, not that it happened often. Main Street was packed with people as I walked along it. The pubs and bars were doing a roaring trade, mainly from the sailors ashore from the numerous ships in the harbour. Unlike many towns where the majority of the people in the street are drunk, there was never any feeling of being threatened. The sun seemed to bring out the best in people and everyone was happily drunk rather than fighting drunk.
I met a group of the crew sauntering along in the opposite direction and discovered they were on a ‘rabbit run’ or at least one of them, ‘Sharkey’ Ward, was. Incidentally, for the uninitiated, a ‘rabbit run’ is sailor speak for souvenir shopping. Sharkey was a huge amiable guy who had received strict orders from his wife as to what she wanted him to purchase when in Gibraltar and this man mountain always followed her last instruction to the letter. Being a Navy boxing ex-champ, I don’t know many men who could have taken Sharkey on as he was a real hard case, but where his beloved better half was concerned he was like putty in her hands.
I tagged along with Sharkey and a couple of the other lads from the boat and we must have gone in every shop on Main Street. Nobody seemed to be buying anything though.
“There’s one” Sharkey exclaimed.
He was standing, somewhat unsteadily, in front of a shop window, pointing. There, in the middle of the display, was a huge fibre optic lamp. It was just what Sharkey wanted, or rather, it was just what Sharkey’s wife wanted. It seems that they sold considerably cheaper in Gibraltar than the rather high price they were demanding in England.
We entered the shop and Sharkey took up a gladiatorial stance. He was ready to barter and he was going to get a deal out of this shopkeeper, if it was the last thing he did. He thrust out his chest and demanded to know the price of the object of his wife’s desires.
“Twenty one pounds” said the Asian shopkeeper.
Sharkey threw a glance over his shoulder. He raised his eyebrows in that ‘I don’t think so’ kind of way. This was where the serious bartering was about to begin.
“Twenty one pounds.”
“Now come along, we must be able to do better than that.”
My God, he was good.
“Twenty one pounds is my final price.”
Sharkey threw another glance toward the group behind him. He grinned and cocked his head.
“Now I think we can change your mind here,” he said to the shopkeeper, “I’ll give you twenty two.”
There was a fit of laughter from one of the group and Sharkey whipped round with his finger to his lips.
“Shut up. You’ll ruin my chances if you p*** him off by laughing at him.” He hissed at the guilty party.
He turned to the shopkeeper.
“Look, I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” he said, “I’ll give you twenty three, and that’s my final offer.”
“Twenty four” said the shopkeeper.
I was trying so hard not to laugh that my stomach was hurting. Several other members of our group had made their way to the door and were desperately trying not to burst out laughing.
“Now I’m not an unfair man, but I will not be fobbed off,” said Sharkey, “I can go to twenty five, and no more.”
“Twenty six,” said the shopkeeper.
The tears were rolling down my face. One of the sonar operators was laughing so much that he had to stuff the bottom of his T-shirt into his mouth to keep from making any distracting noises.
Sharkey took a deep breath, threw back his shoulders and continued to barter.
“Twenty seven and not a penny more,” retorted Sharkey.
“Twenty eight,” insisted the shopkeeper.
Sharkey took his wallet from his pocket and counted the notes inside. He delved into his pockets and took out a handful of loose change. He turned to the group who, by now, were helpless with mirth.
“Can someone lend me some dosh till we get back to the hotel?” He asked.
It was worth a few quid to see a spectacle like this. We all searched through the coins in our pockets and handed over a few more pounds. Sharkey laid it out on the counter of the shop and meticulously counted it.
“I have here, with the help of my good friends, a grand total of twenty nine pounds and eighty three pence, it is all I have and I will not be moved on the price.”
The shopkeeper made his final push.
“If you can make it thirty pounds I will reluctantly sell it to you, but I am losing money on the deal.”
Sharkey looked again through his pockets. He managed to find a few more coppers and he turned again to the group for help. One of the lads handed over the difference. Sharkey turned and placed the money on the counter. He carefully counted out the notes and then the coins, placing the cash in neat and tidy piles on the cluttered counter. He insisted the shopkeeper also count it with him, a process that took some considerable time. Sharkey wanted to make sure that the shopkeeper knew who had won this round. Eventually the thirty pounds was handed over and the trophy transferred to Sharkey’s custodianship. He turned to the group with a grin.
“Yeah!” He shouted, punching the air in victorious celebration.
The group erupted into fits of uncontrollable laughter, the shopkeeper rubbed his hands and Sharkey strolled from the shop his head held high and his trophy under his arm.
We retired to the nearest bar for a celebratory drink. We had to buy Sharkey’s beer for him; he had spent all his available money in the shop. Talking to other members of the group I learned that this was a regular performance after Sharkey had had a few beers. He never could get the hang of haggling and bartering but he thought he was brilliant at it. He could not understand why people found it so difficult. I loved the guy as a character, but I sometimes wondered whether all those punches sustained in his boxing heyday had somehow addled and reversed his thought processes. His maxim was explained to the group, “It’s rude not to barter. It’s a local custom and one must respect local culture.”
After a few hours I decided to call it a night as my beer level was full and I was becoming tired and confused. I made my way back to the hotel where I fell into a deep sleep for the night.
The following morning I woke just in time for breakfast. I went downstairs to the dining room where many of the crew were sitting around tables sipping coffee and nursing their throbbing heads. I hoped I looked better than they did, because I felt like death warmed up. I saw Sharkey’s group sitting at a table in the corner and joined them. I ordered a strong black coffee and some toast. I noticed that Sharkey looked particularly ill.
“Are you alright Sharkey?” I asked.
“My wife is going to bloody well kill me when I get home.” He said, looking around the group through bloodshot eyes, “I’m right in deep s*** now.”
“What’s the matter then?” I asked, concerned.
“I only went and left my fibre optic lamp in the pub last night didn’t I?”
There was uproar as three of the lads fell off their chairs laughing. My head was throbbing and laughing that much isn’t good for you when you have a hangover. Sharkey just sat there dejectedly, his head in his hands.
“I really bartered hard for that frigging lamp.”
I just had to leave the table before I cracked up altogether. The thought crossing my mind as I walked away was that we were going to have to change his nickname to 'Aladdin' from now on.