I said they were a superb job, and meant it. The conversation drifted along awhile.
"I had to give the kiss of life to six eels," Bruce remarked. "Nearly done for, they were."
Bruce had lulled me into a sense of security, but now I rushed to confess all my wrong doing, pray for forgiveness, expunge the stain on my character.
"The fishermen got their eels back," he said. "They weren't bothered. But I don't want to kiss any more eels. See you next weekend."
That was the extent of the reprimand, but reprimand it surely was. It was only what you would expect from Nanny in this highly structured and supportive world, where nothing could go amiss, but Nanny knows - and puts it to rights.
But all that was learnt slowly, much of it after we had been broken in by our skipper. His real name was Frank Farrington, but we always called him Pilot. He skippered us for our summer vacation - the two of us, six children, two au pair girls, children's friends and a dog. It was to be our big adventure - actually to go to sea instead of sticking around mud flats.
When we arrived in Harwich the first evening, we couldn't make it up the Orwell against the ebb and so we anchored across from the commercial port at a place called Shotley, where there was a naval training establishment, HMS Ganges.
We felt like lions.
I would have stayed on board - I never like going ashore - but the dog needed to have a pee, and the eldest Edith, 13, and Virginia, 8, and their friend wanted to land. Pilot offered to mend a tear in the mainsail while we were absent. This meant he would have to go up the mast a little way in the bosun's chair. I offered to heave him up, but he said no, it was only a little way and he could manage by himself. We wandered around on shore for a bit, came back, went below, looked up through the hatch, and there was Pilot, on his back, about six feet off the deck, strapped into the bosun's chair, flailing like an overturned insect.
I had very little idea of how to get up and down a mast - that was to come later - so it was hard to get Pilot down on deck. Besides, he was not in the least cooperative, and became more and more belligerent as we got him into the saloon. Claire tried to get some sweet tea into him, but he was too quarrelsome and sick to swallow it.
He began to slip into a coma. I decided to go ashore for help. It was getting dark. If he recovered while I was gone, Claire would put out a stern light. That way, we would avoid making something which might be relatively minor into a major excitement.
I tied up at the jetty and climbed up the hill to run into two sailors loving it up with their girl friends.
"We need help," I said.
"Yeass? Ree-a-llll-y?" one of them answered, mimicking my accent.
"No, I mean it. We've had an accident. One of them's in a coma. He needs to go to hospital."
The boys snapped out of their love-making mode, and very soon quite a large group of sailors in off-duty clothes was gathering at the jetty head. This was just the kind of ostentation I wanted to avoid. I ran down the steps to have a look and there was that damn stern light showing. He'd recovered. This was all a fuss about nothing.
I ran up and began to say it was all right after all. A very unpleasant looking heavy-set man, a petty officer I thought, sidled over to me. "What yer mean? It's a Saturday night an' all. And Harry's up there digging out the ambulance crew, too."
"Well, we weren't certain when I left. My wife said she would exhibit a stern light if everything turned for the better." I took them down the steps.
"And what's everything, might I enquire? Having a bit of a lover's tiff on board? That what it was? Now she's sorry, wants you back, wants to make up? Getting us all out of the pubs this time of night? Huh!"
"No," I said. "Diabetes. He's in a diabetic coma. Or he was," I said covering myself, "when I left. But the light means he's recovered."
"My mate had diabetes," he said. "Get in." and he shoved me sprawling onto the bottomboards of their work boat.
Pilot had recovered, then relapsed. The seamen manhandled him into their boat, but there was nowhere for him to sit without danger of falling overboard. So we got a deck chair, put it on the engine room coachroof, and then surrounded it with men. Pilot got more and more agitated, tried to get out of the chair to throw himself overboard. At his last attempt he pretty much succeeded but by that time we were alongside. He was put on a stretcher. They passed a leather strap round him and the stretcher. And then another one.
First we went to the naval hospital, but there was no equipment for testing diabetes which is, after all, not the sort of thing you get from battle wounds. So we drove on to Ipswich hospital. Pilot vomited on me.
I was made to go outside while they wired him up at the hospital. The ambulance driver said he would wait for me. About half an hour later I was called in to see Pilot. He was looking pretty tired, but otherwise absolutely normal. He reminded me of one of those paper pellets you put in water, to blossom forthwith into paper flowers. It was miraculous.
"Dominick, I overdosed myself."
"Why, Pilot?"
"It wasn't enough for all the exercise I wasn't used to, so I upped it, and then I went too far."
"Poor Pilot," I said.
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