Would the signalman mind coming to the bridge, please. I get out of my hammock. 4am, pitch black.
I stand on deck and wait. Across the water the lights of a ship start flashing.
Am I allowed to turn 45 degrees? they say.
A 4am wakeup just for that. I pass the message on.
We’d been doing the landings in Korea – you know, all that James Bond stuff with people tilting guns over their shoulders and running up the beaches in the dead of night.
But now the troops are in trouble. The Yanks are retreating from a big attack but not our lot, the Glosters. They’ve been overwhelmed. Eventually we drag em out but there’s not many left. Some people reckon it’s the Yanks’ fault but I think it’s a communications mess up.
A lot of people didn’t like the Yanks but I got on well with them. Used to boost themselves up and that. On the side of their ship they’d painted: through these portholes live the best god darn soldiers in the world.
But I got on well with them.
I got back to Manchester and in the meantime my family had moved. Two and a half years out there and they’d moved. They sent me a message saying our new address is The Brown Cow Hotel, Butler Street, Ancoats.
They’d moved into a pub.
So I go out looking for it, hammock on one arm and kitbag on the other, and I see this copper stopped at the traffic lights. I ask if he can tell me where the Brown Cow is.
Goodness gracious he says. I was going there later.
This is half ten at night, you see, when it would’ve been closed.
So he takes me to it and he says: this is what you do after time. He knocks on the window. The door opens a bit. I’ve got someone to see you Kitty he says. The door opens fully and there they are, my family.
You usually get a fortnight of leave but I had two months. You can imagine what a time I had.
We were more like policemen in the Mediterranean, policing the waters. There were pirates and that and we were stopping the gun runners.
If you were a signalman, or bunting tossers as we were known, you were sent to all sorts of places.
And they always sent you where there was trouble.
A LAST SHOW OF THE LIGHTS
We lost a couple of trawlers in the Cod War.
Two ships got caught up in the ice. They couldn’t move – got all iced up. It was weighing down the ships, sinking them. Big seas there, big seas.
I got this call sign and he says: Can you take a message for me. To me wife and daughter, tell them I love them. We’re going now. My mate’s next.
And the other boat says to him: Right Bill. I’ll see you.
That was it, no messing about. I pass on the message.
A last show of the lights in the distance – and that’s it.
Then I get a message from the second one.
Oh right, my turn now. Take my details. Dead calm. And that was it.