All The Nice Girls

By: John Winton


‘Not often we get a submarine up here,’ said the Oozemouth River Pilot, conversationally. The rain streamed off the back of his cap.

‘Not often we come up here,’ replied Lieutenant Gavin Doyle, the Navigating Officer, brusquely. The rain had penetrated the towel round his neck and was now soaking under his oilskin and into his shirt and vest.

‘Going to be here long?’

‘About a year, I expect.’

‘A year!’ The River Pilot grimaced. ‘Not often we get one for that long.’

‘Not often we send one here for refit.’

‘Refit? At Harvey McNichol and Drummond’s?’

‘That’s right.’ If there was one thing Gavin Doyle disliked more than navigating an industrial river in freezing rain, it was having to do it with a chatty Pilot. Still, Gavin consoled himself, this was the last time. This time tomorrow he would be on leave in London and then good-bye rain, good-bye watch-keeping, good-bye Seahorse. A roseate vision of inviting arms, seductively curved lips and warm comfortable bosoms fleeted across Gavin’s mind.

The rain increased in a vicious gust, driving horizontally into the faces of the men on the submarine’s bridge. Gavin and the River Pilot ducked and remained with their heads bowed, letting the water run off their noses.

Behind them, the Captain still stood bolt upright. He had a megaphone at his face, held reversed so that the wide end covered his face and he could look out through the narrow end into rain which would otherwise have blinded him. It was a resourceful little trick and it was typical of the man. The Captain had a reputation as one of the wiliest officers in the Submarine Service; he had been selected to go to America for nuclear submarine training and he was leaving the ship that night. This was now for him a moment of farewell. He was handling his ship, H.M.S. Seahorse, for the last time, bringing her into refit at the end of her commission, and reflecting as he did so how curious it was that the ends of commissions in H.M. Ships, like babies’ births and remote cousins’ weddings, always took place in disgusting weather.

The rain eased for short periods, before lashing the submarine’s bridge again with fresh violence. During one of the lulls, the Captain was able to lower his megaphone.

‘Mr Gillespie,’ he said, ‘I take it that’s the Great Iron Bridge I can see up there?’

‘Aye, that’s it.’ There was a note of pride in the River Pilot’s voice. The Great Iron Bridge was the City of Oozemouth’s main landmark and the symbol of her civic pride. Bristol might have the Clifton Bridge, London her Tower, Liverpool her Liver Birds which flap their wings when a virgin passes by - Oozemouth had the Great Iron Bridge, a hundred years old and a monument to its creator, the incomparable Brunel.

‘What’s that white post fine on the port bow, looking like a spar buoy?’ The Captain retreated behind his megaphone again.

‘That’s the beacon for Harvey McNichol and Drummond, Captain. You’ll leave that to port and then turn hard to port for the entrance. You’ll need to watch the tide just at the entrance, Captain. The current’s always ebbing past the entrance, even when the tide’s flooding. It’s just slack water now, but you’ll find it ebbing past the entrance.’

An easterly wind whipped the dun brown waters of the estuary, raising a short swell which was flattened and speckled by the sweeping rain. Even on a fine summer’s day the shoreline of Oozemouth was an unlovely prospect; on a dark February morning with visibility interrupted by drenching squalls the waterfront had taken on that appearance of aggressive squalor common to all industrial rivers. The waterfront was both the city’s blight and its strength. Although it chilled an onlooker’s heart to realise that man had actually laboured to create such an appearance, the city’s prosperity still largely depended upon those seven miles of docks, wharves, building slips, puddled roads, tangled railway sidings and heaps of coal tumbled haphazardly together just as they had grown under a skyline of cranes, elevators and tall chimneys.

Behind the Captain, Wilfred Garnham, the First Lieutenant, stooped and shook the rain off the rim of his oilskin hood. For him too, this was a moment of farewell, of nostalgia. This was his last hour on Seahorse’s bridge as First Lieutenant. He would be leaving the ship that night to join the training course for future submarine captains. The next time he stood on a submarine bridge in an executive capacity he hoped it would be as captain. In any case, there was no alternative; if he failed the course, he would never go to sea in a submarine again except as a spectator.

The fourth, and last, occupant of the bridge was the Leading Signalman. He was also leaving the ship that day and was glad of it. The Signalman was a bitter man, like all of his calling. (No branch of the Navy develops a more embittered view of life or a more cynical temperament than the Communications Branch.) The Leading Signalman had long ago formed his own final opinion of Oozemouth and its river.

‘Like a wet afternoon in a bloody Welsh graveyard,’ he told himself. ‘With no cigarettes.’