Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Dexter Petley

Dexter Petley | 20th December 2019

It’s time once again for the annual series of postings we like to call Shadows and Reflections, in which our contributors and friends look back on the past twelve months. From Dexter Petley:

Each morning, Miss Blakelock received a letter in a blue or pink envelope.  The writing was firm and square, block capitals underlined to look like terraced beach huts.  The postmark was Chorley, Lancashire, the envelopes as fat as a slice of toast. Miss Blakelock never seemed in a hurry to go downstairs to collect them.  Some days there was a second in the afternoon post.  They sat on the doormat until Miss Weaver moved them to the hall table on her way out to play tennis or lawn bowls.  She lived on the ground floor where the sun fell in stained glass pools onto a threadbare Axminster.  Miss Blakelock lived on the first floor where the staircase turned a dark corner beside her kitchen and bedsitting room.  My own rooms were on the top floor, under the roof off the open landing.  A large sombre bedroom at the back with a view of next door’s chimney bricks, a wash basin I peed in, a brass bed with wooden headboard and creaking springs. The half-kitchen was tucked under the sloping eaves, yellow and black chequered lino, a two-ringed Flavel Vanessa caravan stove.  The front room overlooked the garden square from its three sash windows in a canted bow. It was June 1978, number 5, St Matthews Gardens, St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, the first ever place of my own. 

St Leonards-on-Sea was a mere 50 minute bus ride from Hawkhurst, but a generation from childhood.  This abrupt distance between the lonely teenage nest and the independent joy of your own grown-up company, is probably the first and only great truth in life.  After leaving school, I’d failed to imagine how I could pass myself off as an adult in my father’s grim, joyless, workaday world.  Then, like any fledgling, that first impossible flight lifts you into the air.  You are finally yourself, to make of it what you will.  As my father’s empty van drove back to number 51 All Saints Road, my first thought was why, oh why had I not left home long ago?  

The chest of drawers at number 51 was like a sphinx, built of shadow and Victorian cherry. Thick footed, solid as a governess, home tutor to childhood’s imagination, the guardian outside my bedroom door.  In 1955, they tidied up, put their lives away inside the sphinx, where love in their day was only as long as school. They weren’t even 40, my parents. Tissue paper secrets, shoe box photographs, letters tied in silk ribbon, the dogs of war put down. 

As soon as I had eyes, I knew the sailor man with muscles like Popeye, the cold metallic peep of his bos’n’s whistle, mum’s dead brother’s letter, the bric-a-brac of reluctant memory. When the clockwork train set failed to run on time, or the rain a prison fell, I puzzled at the photographs and keepsakes a hundred times, pulling out the top drawer inch by inch to mask the yawn of swollen wood. The first fears are the best; the smell of mum’s Embassy oddly pure, always tasting like your first cigarette, this NAAFI girl who never inhaled with afternoon cuppas. One creak of the sphinx and she’d be under the door and up those stairs like her smoke.

In 1965, for a 10 year old, the war was only just back then. Stretch, and you could almost touch it with your fingertips. I’ve a thousand memories that long now, three times over, and each feels like all our yesterdays. They stopped sticking down the photographs before I was born. The 1950s grey and white. The 40s yellow brown. The 30s livid and myopic, the 20s silver tan. Box cameras, Baby Brownies, all Mac’s shipboard efforts blurred by rolling waves, good times on bad cameras.  

I’m at sea of a kind myself, pacing the empty decks of 2019, a Mary Celeste of a year, whichever wind it favoured.  I became last of the line when they found my sister dead, last keeper of the shoeboxes and stiff envelopes. When they arrived in January, I didn’t really know what to do with them. They haunted the place all year from unseen corners of my own life, the cheesy weddings of 50 Gravesend cousins, highlights of an uncle’s retirement, my sister in a Spanish disco 1970, that kind of moment, about as magic as a weighted dice; they photographed the gravestones not the funeral. I looked for days they’d photographed which leave me something more than this, those discordance-artists of the yellow brown years, a story to launch the cargo ship of tears.  I felt my way through layers of their time, a fake medium watching his parents’ whole life flash before him, cradles to war graves, runaway dogs and merchant ships, sepia bays of Wellington, the grey pebbledash back-to-backs of Kitchener Avenue.  I’d like to say I found it, some glowing centre of the family hearth, some secret happiness so startling they’d had to hide it from the rest of us.  But I can’t say anything of the sort.  I only saw the diminishing returns of two people out of place, their life a treasure map without an X, the wrong ending to a different story.

RMS Orcades set sail from Cape Town on 9 October, 1942, bound for Liverpool under its Master, Charles Fox.  It carried a crew of 290, 36 gunners, 741 armed service passengers, 3000 tons of general cargo, 2000 bags of parcel post, and crates and crates of oranges. Orcades was a 23,456 ton passenger liner owned by the Orient Steam Navigation Company, built in 1937 at Barrow-in-Furness, requisitioned in 1939 by the Ministry of War as a troopship.  The Architectural Review described Orcades as a landmark in the evolution of the modern liner.  Art Deco interiors fitted out for the tropics, air conditioning in public rooms, the informal layouts of a metropolitan peacetime.  

Among the crew was John McGregor, engaged as assistant steward in Glasgow on 16 May, 1942.  According to his Continuous Certificate of Discharge, he was born on 15 March, 1918 in Bristol. In Auckland, he jumped ship over a woman. When Orcades sailed on to Cape Town, my father took McGregor’s place, masquerading as “Mac”, 5ft 9½, hair brown, eyes brown, scar on left cheek.  He drew Mac’s wages at £9.17.6 per month and left home in New Zealand, never to return. He impersonated McGregor throughout the war, faking the scar, even keeping McGregor’s birthdate till the day he died, still known as Mac in his obituary.  From Cape Town, Orcades made its way unescorted, steaming on a zigzag course at 15 knots, a slow speed  to conserve fuel.  The sea was heavy, visibility poor. Thick mist and showers.  The fog of war.  

German U-boat 172 was on its third patrol since May under the orders of Kapitänleutnant Carl Emmermann.  U-172 had left its home port of Lorient on August 19 to join the Wolf Pack in the South Atlantic.  In mid September it crossed the Equator, officers cross-dressing in their ritual costumes to mark the passage; deck-mop wigs, gold cardboard crowns, stuffed yellow dresses, trans-Atlantic Neptunes toasting Schnapps, their own hair tied in pony tails, beards unshaven. My father and his shipmates crossed the equator in grass skirts, peeling potatoes on deck.  600 nautical miles south off St Helena, U-172 surfaced for refuelling and supplies, arriving at the zone of operations off the Cape on October 4.  Aged 27, Emmermann was already an ace, Iron Cross 1st& 2ndclass, soon to paint his oak leaves on the conning tower. Under the ocean, the cook would bake Emmermann a cake decorated with the Knight’s Cross.  Emmermann was a natural U-boat captain, could turn on a sixpence, play for runs of stupendous luck to save a half-stupid crew.  Much photographed and written about, he suited the world apart, the Kriegsmarine elite. Under the sea he looked like a hipster on a snow board, a U-boote Chatterton in his cramped attic quarters, reading Goethe between watches. In uniform he seemed amused, no hint of Nazi arrogance, only the philosophical forbearance of a man who’ll live till 1990. On 7 October, Emmermann began to hunt. It’s probable the Wolf Pack had been lured to the Cape through false intelligence, spread by the Allies to divert attention from the North African landings.  Agents reported 50 ships lying at anchor in the Cape Town roadstead. When the U-boats found none, they split up and went into action against largely unprotected merchant ships, three U-boats sinking 27 vessels.  Emmermann sank three in quick succession, interrogating survivors in their lifeboats. On 9 October U-172 was chased by HMS Rock Rose, a British corvette. Slightly damaged by a depth charge, U-172 outran the corvette and left the sector, surfacing at dawn well out to sea in a thick fog,  running across the biggest prize of all.  Orcades. When the fog began to thin mid morning, Emmermann dived on battle stations.

On board Orcades, perhaps Mac was serving morning coffee or laying out white linen tablecloths for lunch in the 1stclass dining room.  Propping up starched serviettes, menu cards in weighted holders against the swell. No indoors man, he’d not run away to sea for this.  The photographs before Orcades show life in Wellington, the sea on his boots, a harbour boy, a boat in every corner of his eye.  The photographs after 1942 show salt at every turn; honeymoon in a seaside hotel, my mother perched upon a Norfolk dory, fiancéd beside Tilbury fo’c’sles, Mac in deck shoes now an able seaman, that Popeye torso in the tropics, shipmates playing cards around the hatch, the seven seas beyond the railing. It’s still there in the wake of V-E Day; postage stamp-sized Velox prints, Mac anointing my sister in the tide 1948, holding me aged 1 in paddling spume on the beach at St Leonards-on-Sea, 1956. The Orcades floated through childhood as if always there, the family ship, the bedtime story. Perhaps it came with my book of ships, the touched up plates of World War 1, boatswains in bell bottoms swinging the lead, battleships so grey the publisher added thick black outlines.  Most likely it was reconstructed at bath time.  That curious toy Mac gave me aged 4, a grey submarine with a plastic tube you blew or sucked to make it surface or dive.  Or perhaps Orcades was memorial at Sunday visits to Mac’s old shipmates. Woolwich, Tilbury, Northfleet, the awkward tea in Southend with Master Charles Fox in 1961.  

At 10.28 on October 10, 220 miles Southwest of Cape Town, at 35° 51’S, 14° 40’E,  Orcades was hit by two torpedoes on the port side.  The first torpedo struck between numbers 1 and 2 holds, the second hit number 6 hold, disabling the port engine and steering gear. Mac ran for his false papers, Fox ordered the crew to prepare lifeboats and send distress signals. Emmermann sat still and waited.  At 10.45, he fired a third torpedo. It hit Orcades port side amidships, blowing hatches off holds 3 and 6.  The ship settled slowly on an even keel, slightly down at the head, still making way in rough seas and heavy swell.  Fox ordered the crew and passengers to abandon ship.  20 lifeboats were launched. Mac’s lifeboat capsized and he clung on till picked up by one of the motor launches.  Another boat waterlogged at launching and drifted away, eventually sinking, its occupants reported missing.  A skeleton crew with gunners remained on board.  A telegraphist sent a second distress signal.

At 10.54 Emmermann fired a fourth torpedo which malfunctioned and missed.  All bow torpedoes gone, U-172 had to reload forward tubes with stern torpedoes. Orcades was now running in circles at 5 knots.  Engineers managed to restart the port engines and the ship headed towards the coast at 8 knots, steering with screws only.  Emmermann surfaced to overtake and it was probably now that photographs were taken from the bridge.  Orcades gunners suddenly opened fire on debris they mistook for a periscope. U-172, having surfaced to interrogate survivors, now dived, unaware they hadn’t been spotted.  At 12.49 it fired another torpedo which hit the starboard aft in number 6 hold.  At 12.50 a fifth torpedo hit the engine room.  At 12.54 the last hit forward of amidships.  At 13.00, with a heavy list to starboard and a broken back, Orcades sank. Moments later, U-172 was spotted at periscope depth and attacked by a Catalina. Emmermann left the sector at full speed.  Mac was alive in a sea of bobbing oranges. He scooped them into the lifeboat before the sea became an oil slick.  

Orcades at 11pm

The rent was £12.50 a week, my landlord a Barclays Bank manager along the coast in Rottingdean, a pompous Captain Mainwaring type, only much less human.  He kept the best suite of rooms on the ground floor for himself, spending infrequent weekends in residence with a vacuum cleaner and toolbox.  He collected the rent himself, dusted the plastic roses on the hall stand, screwed a plaster head of Christ’s agony to the wall.  His sky-blue sedan was often the only car in the street.  

Miss Blakelock rarely fetched her letter before the boiled fish and potatoes were steaming on her plate.  The stuffy smell clogged up the stairwell, school-dinner thick with guff of sage and pudding rag.  She was a lumpen woman who boiled her clothes in a saucepan too, loud and jolly, a pudding breast on each hip pocket.  She dressed in pre-war skirts, grey jumpers and surgical stockings.  A schoolmistress in the blitz, a spinster with an admirer in Chorley she’d never met, she filled the stairwell with gossip and hummed like a church organ in the shared bathroom which butted onto her kitchen.  Miss Weaver, in comparison, was a dainty spinster who skipped and trilled like a budgerigar in her yellow suits, pleated skirts and white tennis shoes.  She practiced keep-fit at the Derby and Joan and kept her cooking smells to herself, attending Mass at the Roman Catholic Church.  Miss Blakelock was Church of England, her Sunday Service at the Anglican Church of St Matthew’s was boisterously social.  I heard their lively exchanges in the hallway now and then, but most days Miss Weaver was out mixing with her “set” of retired flappers and ex-Spitfire pilots who spent their days in deckchairs or at the White Rock Hotel tearoom opposite the Victorian pier.  

St Leonards-on-Sea was postcard quiet, a last century outpost of the genteel poor beyond the seafront, its Gothic grandeur falling into neglect.  Sunday best, wide empty carriageways, the houses arranged round squares, crescents and residents-only gardens. They stood like mausoleums, the ferment of James and Decimus Burton’s new town vision.  Regency lodges, villas, campaniles and turrets, fake battlements, crenelated towers and porticos with stained glass, from the Grand Parade and colonnaded seafront to North Lodge, a civilized resort from the man who built Bloomsbury.  Its grand design around tear drop shaped parks, Burton’s St Leonards spread down valley through old woods towards the sea, on land owned by a family descended from the Norman barons. Beside it stretched the road to Battle Abbey, site of the Battle of Hastings.  St Matthews Gardens was 1890s, respectable detached, suburban fashion, a semi-residential hotel called The Chimes at No 1, where colonels lived off their savings and vicar’s widows assembled jigsaws in the lounge.  The hotel was as quiet as the houses round the gardens.  Any noise to manifest itself was always discreet, respectful and distant.  

Miss Weaver began to leave me notes at the earliest opportunity. My furnished rooms were spread along an open landing, making every common sound bound to carry.  Door handles, footsteps, typewriter.  The floors were wooden, the heavy 1930s sideboard needed slamming. The 60s radiogram I’d purchased in a London Road junk shop had dust in its volume knob. The bedroom became a painting studio at night and the dining table in the bow window seemed ideal to sledgehammer my first novel at 2am on a 1949 typewriter.  It soon drove Miss Weaver to patent medicines, sleeping pills and wax ear plugs. It was an iron framed office Imperial 60, weighing 40lbs.  I placed it on a pillow and this seemed to muffle half its din.  Then she objected to Debussy and Ravel, so I turned them so low that the hum of the radiogram was louder than the record itself.

I’ve remained rather grateful to this sensitive budgerigar most of my life.  It could so easily have gone the other way.  A 22 year old escapee from parental claustrophobia is an unlikely recluse, schooled early in the ways of good neighbourliness.  I felt released into the world, as if from captivity.  The uplifting wonders of moving into this dusty Victorian hologram had not been anticipated.  Diving headlong into freedom surpassed everything I’d read about the world so far.  I was too excited to sleep, too full of words and pictures to waste a moment without hammering poems into the dining room table like they were nails, scratching pastels across sugar paper in the bedroom like an insatiable itch. No insomniac mother whose Mogadon addiction made her sick with worry at my every waking moment.  No moaning father in the dead of night to strangle my poems at birth.  

Mac’s discharge note from Orcades was handwritten beside the ship’s rubber stamp: Discharged at sea 10.10.42.  He sailed the same month from Cape Town on the P&O liner SS Maloja. To take their minds off U-boats, the ship’s company put on a variety show.  The Souvenir Programme was printed on board: SS Maloja presents Shipmates Afloat, incorporating the Orcadians and Malojians, by kind permission of Commander J.A. Smith. The Orcadians were the 1000 survivors. The lifeboats had awaited rescue tied together, staying close to Orcades’ last position.  A Polish steam merchant Narwik picked up the Catalina’s report.  By evening it located the lifeboats, taking seven hours to rescue the survivors in rough seas.  3 boats were lost, 45 men missing.  Captain Czeslaw Zawada gave up the search at 03.00 on 11 October, turning Narwik for Cape Town at 8 knots, narrowly avoiding contact with U-159.   The variety show ran for two nights, the 29th and 30th October.  Under the circumstances, the Orcadians could only muster five of the twenty acts.  Two sketches, two burlesques, titles like Bread and Jam, In Town Tonight, a chorus of Roll Out the Barrel.  

Mac’s first days of England in the midwinter of 1942 coincided with mild weather, a break from the run of hard wartime winters, the blizzards of the century, the 16ft high snowdrifts.  He wouldn’t yet know that this muted island at war made lilac wine of its crushed hearts.  By New Year’s Eve, Mac was ordinary seaman on HMS Ubiquity.  In Scotland the wild geese were back in droves, signs of spring appeared at Christmas, shepherd’s purse and red campion in flower, partridges had paired, the hazel flowered in January. In west Cumberland the wild trout were hatching a month early.  All over England, the yellow winter jasmine was the most spectacular in decades.  The song-thrush and skylark sang early, the mistel-thrush was on the nest in February. This foreign country, Mac’s own first ever place.  It’s as far as I’ve come myself this year, my curation of his dashed hope after such unimaginable demands upon courage. All in a box of old photographs.  Behind the wake of such enquiry, the new year can only be a lifeboat on dark waters.