The first seven years after my twenty-first birthday were spent as an engineer officer in the British Merchant Navy. Those were the days when we had more than five ferries and a yacht on the register. (but I digress) As with just about every ship which has ever sailed after the introduction of steampower, the engineer complement worked hard, played harder, and always moaned about their lot, and our specific moan was about the service provided by the cooks and stewards on board our medium-sized rust heap. They, in our opinion, were the laziest bunch ever to ship out on any ship in the fleet, and they continued to cultivate this image.
The holiest time on board any ship is ‘‘Smoko’’, which translates as twenty minutes up from the engine-room up to the duty messroom for coffee, biscuits, smokes and gossip. Dirty overalls and boots were allowed in the duty mess, whereas uniforms only were required in the mess. With our Second Engineer to work with, no ‘‘smoko; was extended, nor was any attempt made to do so, as he was a hard man, and brooked no dissent. The arrangement was therefore made that I would be allowed up five minutes early, so as to ensure that the galley crew had done their bit, and the coffee etc. was ready for consumption.
I duly arrived up top, poked my head through the galley door, and asked the galley boy, busy washing up, “Coffee ready?”
“There’’s a pot heating up on the back range plate,” came the reply. I waltzed across, grabbed the full silver-plated pot and brought it back through to the duty mess, then got the cups, saucers, sugar, milk, biscuits, all out and ready to go, then sat back, lit up a smoke and contemplated our run ashore that evening. As we were docked in Piraeus, Athens port, it was going to be, as ever, liquid. I poured out a cup of coffee, added milk, and sugar and idly stirred it as the other lads came charging up from the engine room for the blessed ‘‘smoko’’ rest time. Simply because I knew it would be hot, I took a cautious sip from my cup, and was immediately aware of the vilest taste possible on my tongue. I spat out the few drops I had sipped, shouted, “”Don’’t drink that coffee, it’’s awful,”” pushed past all the lads who were trying to pile into the duty mess, rushed in to the galley and washed my mouth out at least ten times before that horrible taste subsided.
The second cook watched this frantic activity with interest, “”Whassamatter, Leccy?””
“That bloody coffee is ’’effing awful, Harry, you gotta do better than that!” I replied, through the mouth washing.
“We haven’’t put the coffee out yet, Leccy!” came the calm reply.
“Course you have, the pot was on the back range. The galley boy pointed it out.”
“Er, no, Leccy; We were cleaning that pot out because it was badly stained and starting to ruin the coffee. Hope you didn’t swallow any of that, That was Caustic Soda! “