All at Sea - Pt 2
I described in the first post about my time with P&O how I was briefly introduced to the maritime gay scene in the Southampton pub.
The story now continues after we set sail for a two week Mediterranean cruise and I become the innocent object of a shipmate's amorous attention. They say "There's nowt so queer as folks". Well that was certainly true on the SS Himalaya in 1962 and it was a certainly a bit of a shock to the system.
This was the fore deck where the crew had their recreational area and where this little story unfolded
I must admit that the two weeks of that first trip passed in a bit of a blur – mostly alcohol induced. I wasn’t at that time of my life very experienced and certainly not a hardened drinker, but there was a certain pressure, particularly amongst us rookies to “keep up” so to speak in the boozing stakes.
That was probably the reason, apart from the headaches, that I don’t remember that much about the trip with a couple of notable exceptions.
The first of these occasions took place on the second night at sea. It was September and we were heading for Casablanca, our first port of call. We’d been lucky with the weather through the Bay of Biscay and it was a balmy evening as we cruised south, off the coast of Portugal towards North Africa.
Once off duty after the evening dishwashing session it was normal for the catering crew to sit around chatting and drinking in the crew’s bar or if the weather was good, in our outside recreational area. This was right up in the bow on the fore deck above our quarters and about as far away from the passenger decks as it was possible to get as off-duty fraternising with passengers was strictly forbidden.
Someone had a guitar and I’d had a really pleasant evening, smoking, singing along, having a few pints and basically getting to know some of my new shipmates.
One of these was a guy called Raymond that I’d met in the bar the previous evening. He was a waiter in the tourist class restaurant and had been on the ships for a few years since he ran away from an unhappy home life.
What I didn’t realise though was that these occasions were also seen by the gay fraternity on board as the perfect opportunity to start sizing up us innocent newcomers with a view to establishing future relationships.
I mean, how naïve can you be! After all, we’d seen the goings-on at the Queens Head pub. As the evening had gone on some of the obvious queens had started really camping it up and even some that we hadn’t sussed out up until then had really started to come out.
I don’t know what it is about the camp homosexual but they can be just so incredibly funny. Of course, we are used to it nowadays and this sort of camp or suggestive entertainment is the norm but back in the sixties it was risqué and quite exciting.
Sharp as nails and so quick-witted, they were a source of huge entertainment and yet so disarming that one quickly forgot about their sexual proclivity and the fact that to them the performance is simply part of the mating game as I was about to discover.
By about one o’clock in the morning it would be fair to say we were well mellow and the party started to break up. Several of us stood up, if a little unsteadily and amid a certain amount of general banter started to wander back towards our quarters, arms around shoulders and so on in a generally pleasant albeit inebriated intimacy.
I was shuffling along with Raymond who I’d been chatting to on and off most of the evening when, just as we were about to descend a short flight of stairs from the open deck to our cabins, he pulls me towards him, says “You know I love you don’t you?” and kisses me smack on the mouth.
Well, shock wasn’t in it. I was absolutely horrified.
I pulled away and without thinking, punched him straight in the face.
Now this really is not me at all. I’ve only ever hit, as in seriously punched, one other person in my life and that was at school, and to be honest, I would much rather avoid any potentially violent situation than confront it. On this occasion however, his action so repulsed me that I’m afraid it was a virtually automatic response.
I don’t remember if he looked surprised or not because as soon as I hit him he disappeared from view. Unfortunately for him he was on the edge of the stairs and as he went back with the force of my punch there was nothing behind him but space and he finished up flat on his back at the bottom of the, thankfully, short flight of stairs and out cold.
The next thing is someone has grabbed me shouting, “Christ! Brian, What the F*** was that all about?” and I’m shouting back “The bastard snogged me. Right on the mouth”
Mercifully for everyone concerned his alcohol induced relaxation must have saved him from any serious injury and he soon came too and was all over me again but this time full of apologies. “I’m so sorry. I thought you liked me too. Please forgive me.” Well, apparently ‘like’ had a whole new meaning on board ship and definitely more than it does on Facebook!
Apart from feeling guilty at having assaulted a shipmate, albeit justifiably in my view, I also felt embarrassed that he had seen me as being possibly amenable to his advances. And I spent hours mulling over whether I’d done or said anything to give him the wrong idea.
Fortunately one or two others had seen what happened and as I later discovered were not surprised, as this was apparently Raymond’s normal MO. No messing, just straight in. I just wish that someone had given me the nod.
However, as the dust settled over the next couple of days I discovered that the episode had worked to my advantage. I learned that I was seen, if not exactly as a hard man then certainly not someone to be messed with.
I also discovered that on board ship there were two types of homosexual.
There were the “queens” – often outrageously camp and effeminate but usually with hearts of gold and then there were the “black market queers” as they were known, like Raymond, who hide their inclination and were seen as potentially dangerous.
Over the next few months I had to make my own decisions about whom I chose to befriend and thankfully there were no more unpleasant incidents.
Over time I found to my surprise that many of my best friends on the ship were gay and that as long as they knew where I stood there was never an issue. Well let’s be honest, after that kiss incident there couldn’t have been many on board in any doubt. Thinking about the incident as I have many times over the years, I can’t believe how incredibly lucky I was. If Raymond had fallen harder or hit his head on something I could so easily have finished up on a charge of GBH or even manslaughter.
My next post will continue with the cruise taking in the port of Casablanca, a call-in at Naples where I take a trip to Capri and then to Palamos on the Costa Brava where I fall foul of the local San Miguel.