Why Bother To Travel

“Stop right there, Sailor. Sailor Sam here will pick up his own property.”

Nudged by the long menacing stick gripped in his hand, Sailor Sam was encouraged to pick up his own property: Suitcase, holdall, and large tool-filled chest with me sweating just looking at the strain of it all.

Papers were exchanged, confirmation of the orders.

“No funny business.”

“Certainly not, sir!”

The three of us walked around and behind Sam as he wrestled his way from the street into Glasgow’s Central railway station. I flashed our travel permits at the turn style to the platform and marvelled at how the wee fellow managed to keep moving under the weight of it all along the platform, past women in headscarves sitting on benches trying not to stare, towards the footbridge that passed over the rail line to our platform.

Pausing, I looked back, we were being watched.

“On you go,” I said, firmly, with an authoritative swing of my arm.

Up the stairs, one slow step at a time, each foot thundering down on the wood causing echoes to bounce around in the evening air. The shuffling continued along the covered bridge. Plenty of time for us to gaze through the side panels at any young ladies down below, nudging at each other if there was one with a V-neck sweater. Over the rail lines to our platform with arriving passengers flowing either side of us like water past a giant rock in the middle of a river.

The sun was setting and bursts of red light shot through the roof of the station, our train throbbing on the platform, odd bursts of noise reminding us of its presence, the train arcing to the right at the end of the platform as if to the edge of the horizon.

Onboard, carriages hung off the single long corridor, in each, a bench of seats punctuated by arm rests, perpendicular to the window, affording one good viewing seat, towards the horizon, one lesser view of where you had been and the rest of the occupants straining their necks for what was left of the view. Empty save for the four of us, Sailor Sam, me Whitey, in charge, the Navy a place for nicknames, watching as Sam muscled his belongings into the carriage, all but the tool chest onto the luggage rack.

Sam dropped into the seat with clear relief, sweat pouring off him, but no sooner had his buttocks touched down then he was fishing something out of his pocket.

A crumpled twenty pound note appeared, his ill-gotten gains.

The other two looked at me and looked at it. I shook my head. If it was a bribe, he’d have to do quite a bit better.

The train slowly edged out of the station leaving Glasgow, and our dockyard repairs, behind.

“Can’t take it with me,” and he nodded at the note.

“It’s going to be a long journey. Care for a drink, boys?”

A glint in his eye and in ours.

The other two looked at me for assent. Clapping my hands together and without thinking rubbing the palms against each other it was clear I agreed - licking my lips didn’t hurt either. Twenty pounds was a lot of money in 1958.
Padlocked to the luggage rack, surprised but smiling, he watched as two of us tore down the train for a beer.

Each round, we ordered four, and one went in each of our pockets. Six concealed cans later, two for the guard, two for the prisoner, and two for good measure.

Emboldened, on our next run we took him with us and manacled him to the conveniently located luggage rack in the bar car. Looser all round he told us his story but not before I asked him why he’d been picked up in Glasgow since he plainly wasn’t from there.

“Ship was in with the fleet. I bought a platform ticket in Portsmouth, said I was meeting someone. The Glasgow train was on the platform and I jumped on, managed to avoid paying by dodging in and out of the toilets. When I got here, I was exhausted.”

“How long have you been gone?” Asked one of my crew.

“Six weeks.”

“Six weeks?” We said in disbelieving unison.

“I’ve been doing walk up dish washing. Them posh hotels, they’re always looking for dish-washers and porters. Pay cash. I’d have been there now if it hadn’t been for the night patrol.”

On the edge of our seats, most young sailors would be a liar if they said they hadn’t thought about it.

“I’d heard that one of the big warships had come into town. Glasgow or not, there’d be trouble from the locals. Some officers had come into my hotel. Bloody cheek. According to one of the waiters, two of them started to have what he described as a loud disagreement with a regular, more like a punch-up. Talk of a girl. Can’t stand them myself always trouble.

“Military Police were called. Never gonna end well, not even with officers.
“All friendly like after the trouble was sorted out the Manager invited the two MPs into the kitchen for a bite of supper. My back to them I am trying not look at them but my arm tatt’ was screaming my service to them and I knew it was just a matter of time before they clocked it and asked questions.

“The kitchen was already hot but I felt myself getting hotter. I was washing stemware. You have to be careful with that. Bang it with your finger and it makes a tune you know.”

This guy was boring I thought, deserved to be caught, what idiot runs away to the second biggest naval port but then I remembered the twenty and I let it go.

He continued.

“I broke it. Sliced my hand. With the hot water, turned red. Messy. Chef noticed, of course, hollered at me. Not worried about me, just the glass. Shouting caught the attention of the MPs and they rose to their feet and came over.

“One of the MPs took my hand out of the water and wrapped a towel around my arm. Brought me over to the table. I felt his eyes on my tattoo, ‘HMS Bruntsfield 1952 – ‘.”

We nodded, the year was missing.

“The silence killed me. I couldn’t stand it. I confessed. I was body-slammed to the table and cuffed, blood dripping onto my pants.”

“Did you have all this stuff with you?” I asked in disbelief.

“Bought the tools here.”

A plan then.

Then he added, “I got thirty day’s. Probably kick me out when I’m done.”
He had given himself up. Idiot. He was lucky they’d only nicknamed him Sailor Sam. We had nothing to worry about with this guy.

“Sorry you lads have to travel all the way to Portsmouth with me.”

Not me. Overnight Glasgow to Portsmouth. Volunteered. Four-day pass. Free trip to see my girl.

Back in the carriage, we decided to take it in turns to act as guard. The other two slept while I tried to stay awake, the weight of beer pressing down hard on my eyelids. Sailor Sam dozed, chained now to his tool chest.

Coming to, the chest was gone, and so was Sailor Sam. I leapt to my feet and shook the other two awake. We fled down the train frantically searching carriages for him and on the point of utter despair, spotted him in the bar car, nice as ninepence, sat on the tool box, chatting to the bartender, beer in one hand, cigarette in the other.

As we charged towards him, he beamed at us:

“Hey lads. Good sleep? Sausage roll? Another beer?”

Turning to both of my crew, my hand up, “Tea only. Yes, to the sausage roll. Clear?”

They nodded, didn’t need any persuasion, we’d all seen thirty day’s in detention flash across our minds.

Hands clenched at my side, I walked up close and leant into his ear. I muttered something we both understood and he nodded, paler now.
He dropped his final twenty on the bar, we drank up and headed back to our carriage.

Small talk was over and we drifted into a card game played atop the tool-set with Sailor Sam manacled to it, and to me.

Pulling into Portsmouth I saw her before she saw me, collar up, black nylons, heels. Perfect. I waved with Sailor Sam’s sleepy hand flopping next to mine. She blushed and smiled.

We got off the train. The transport was waiting for us. She was in uniform but still they wouldn’t let her come with us.

“I’ll see you at the base,” I called as she receded into the distance, coat fluttering.

“Can’t stand them myself,” said Sam, “always trouble.”

“Yes, but that’s trouble worth travelling for,” said I.