The Rampa Story/Chapter Five

Published in 1960, the only one of Lobsang Rampa's books to have not been renewed.

CHAPTER FIVEEdit

The car droned on, surging with power that no mountainous pass could halt or impede my passenger sat silently by me, only occasionally speaking to point out landmarks of surpassing beauty. We approached the environs of Martigny and he spoke. “As an astute man like you will have guessed I am a Government official. Will you give me the pleasure of your company at dinner?”

“I should be delighted, sir,” I replied. “I had intended to drive on to Aigle before stopping, but I will stay at this town instead.”

We drove on, he directing me, until we arrived at a most excellent hotel. My luggage was carried in, I drove the car round to the garage and gave instructions for servicing.

Dinner was a most enjoyable meal, my ex-passenger, now host, was an interesting conversationalist, now that he had overcome his initial suspicion of me. On the old Tibetan principle that “He who listens most learns most,” I let him do all the talking. He discussed Customs cases, and told me of a recent case where an expensive car had false panels behind which were stored narcotics. “I am an ordinary tourist,” I said, “and one of the major dislikes in my life is drugs. Will you have my car examined to see if any false panels are in it? You have just told me of a case where they were installed without the owner's knowledge”. At my insistence, the car was driven to the local Police headquarters and left overnight for them to examine. In the morning I was greeted as an old and trusted friend. They had examined every inch of the car and had found it to be innocent. The Swiss Police, I found, were courteous and affable, and very ready to assist a tourist.

I drove on, alone with my thoughts, wondering what the future had in store for me. More trouble and hardship, that I knew, for all the Seers had simply drummed that into me!. Behind me in the luggage compartment I had the luggage of a man whose papers I had taken over. He had no known relatives, like me he seemed to have been alone in the world. In his—or mine, now—cases he had a few books on marine engineering. I stopped the car, and took out the Manual. As I drove I recited to myself various rules which, as a Ship's Engineer, I should have to know. I planned to get a ship of a different Line;the Discharge Book would show me which Lines to avoid for fear of being recognized.

The miles reeled out beneath me. Aigle, Lausanne, and across the frontier into Germany. The German Frontier Guards were very thorough, checking everything, even engine and tire numbers. They were also completely humorless and dour.

On and on I drove. At Karlsruhe I went to the address which I had been given and was told that the man whom I was to see was at Ludwigshafen. So on I drove to Ludwigshafen and there, at the best hotel, I found the American. “Aw, Gee Bud,” he said, “I could not take that auto over the mountain roads, my nerves are bad. Too much booze, I guess.” I “guessed” so, too. His room at the hotel was like a remarkably well-equipped bar, complete with barmaid! This one had more to show, and showed more, than the one he had left in Italy. She had just three thoughts in her head, German marks, drink, and sex, in that order. The American was very pleased with the condition of the car, not a scratch and spotlessly clean. He marked his appreciation by a substantial gift of American dollars.

For three months I worked for him, driving immense trucks to various cities and bringing back cars which had to be reconditioned or rebuilt. I did not know what it was all about, I still do not, but I was well paid, and I was having time to study my marine engineering books. In the various cities I visited the local museums and carefully examined all the ship models, and models of ship engines.

Three months later the American came to the poor little room I had rented, and flopped down on my bed, reeking cigar fairly stinking out the place. “Gee, Bud,” he said. “You sure don't go in for luxury! A U.S. prison cell is more comfortable than this. I gotta job for you, a big job. Want it?”

“If it will get me nearer the sea, to Le Havre or Cherbourg,” I said.

“Well, this will take you to Verdun and it is quite legitimate. I gotta rig with more wheels than a caterpillar has legs. It's a crazy thing to drive. There’s a lot of dollars in it.”

“Tell me more about it,” I answered. “I told you I could drive anything. Have you got clearance papers for it to enter France?”

“Yep,” he said. “Been waiting three months to get them. We have been keeping you on ice and letting you earn some pocket money. Guess I never thought you were living in a dump like this, though.”

He got up and motioned for me to follow him out. At the door he had his car, complete with girl-friend. “You drive,” he said, getting in the back with the woman. “I will direct you.” At what appeared to be an abandoned

airfield outside Ludwigshafen we stopped. There, in a huge shed, was the weirdest machine that I had ever seen. It seemed to be mainly yellow girders supported on a whole series of eight-foot wheels. Ridiculously high off the ground was a small glassed-in enclosure. Fixed on the back of the contraption were a whole series of lattice girders, and an immense steel scoop. Gingerly I climbed up to the seat. “Sa-ay,” yelled the American, “Don't you want the handbook?" He reached up, and passed me a Manual dealing with these contraptions. “I had a guy,” he said, “who was delivering a street sweeping truck, a new one. He would not read the book and when he got to his destination he found that he had had the brushes sweeping all the time and he had worn them out. I don't want you wrecking the road from here to Verdun,”

Fingering through the book I soon had the engine running. It made a roar like a plane taking off. Gingerly I let in the clutch and the mammoth machine lumbered out of the shed and on to what had once been a runway. I drove up and down a few times to become accustomed to the machine's controls, and as I turned to go back to the shed a German Police car drove up. A policeman got out, a savage looking fellow who appeared as if he had just shed the Gestapo badge. “You are driving that without an attendant,” he barked.

“Attendant?” I thought, “Does he think I need a keeper?” I drove up alongside him. “Well, what is the trouble with you?” I shouted. “This is private property. Get off!” To my utter surprise he did! He got in his car and just drove outside the grounds.

The American walked over to him. “What's biting you, Bud?” he said.

“I have come to tell you that that machine can only be driven on the roads when accompanied by an attendant on the back to watch for overtaking traffic. It can only be driven at night, unless you have a police car at front and rear.” For a moment I thought he was going to say “Heil, Hitler.” Then he turned, got in his car and drove off.

“Gee,” said the American. “That sure beats cockfighting. It sure do! I got a German named Ludvig who..."

“Not for me,” I exclaimed fervently. “Not a German, they are too stodgy for me.”

“Okay, Bud, okay. So no Kraut. Take it easy, don't get riled up. I got a Frenchie who you'll like. Marcel. C'mon. We will go see him.” I parked the machine in the shed, looked over it to see that everything was shut off, and sauntered out, locking the door. “Don't you ever get rattled?” said the American. “Guess you better drive us.”

Marcel had to be fished out of a bar. At first sight of him I thought his face had been stepped on by a horse. A second glance convinced me that his face would have been better if he had been stepped on by a horse. Marcel was ugly. Painfully ugly, but there was something about him which made me like him on sight. For some time we sat in the car discussing terms, then I returned to the machine to drive it and so become accustomed to it. As I lumbered round the track I saw a battered old car drive up. Marcel jumped out, waving frantically. I eased the machine to a standstill beside him. “I've got it, I've got it,” he cried, all excitement. With much gesticulation he turned to his car—and nearly brained himself on the low- roofed door. Rubbing his head, and muttering fearsome imprecations against the makers of small cars, he rummaged on the back seat and came out with a large parcel. “Intercom," he shouted. He always shouted, even when standing just a few inches from one. “Intercom, we talk, yes? You there, me here, wire between, we talk all time. Good?” Shouting away at the top of his voice, he jumped on to the Earthmover, trailing wires and bits all over the place. “You want headset, no?” he yelled. “You hear me so much better. Me. I have mike.” From the uproar he was making, I came to the conclusion that no intercom was necessary. His voice carried well above the throbbing of the mighty engine.

I drove along again, practicing turns, getting used to the thing. Marcel pranced and chattered from front to rear of the machine, twisting the wires around the girders. Coming to my “conning tower” he thrust an arm through the open window, thumped me on the shoulder, and bellowed, "The headset, you put her on, yes? You hear so good. Wait I go back!” He scuttled along the girders, plonked into his seat at the far end of the machine, and shrieked into the microphone. “You hear good? Yes? I come!” In his exuberance he had forgotten that I too had a microphone. Almost before I could collect my wits he was back, hammering at the window, “Good? Good? You hear good?”

“Say,” said the American. “You guys take off tonight. All the papers are here. Marcel knows how to get you to

Paris, with the chance of earning francs on the way. Sure been nice knowing you.” The American walked away, out of my life. Perhaps he will read this and get in touch with me through the publishers. I went off to my solitary room. Marcel went off to the local place of refreshment. For the rest of the day I slept.

With the coming of darkness I had a meal and took a cab out to the shed. My luggage, now reduced to a bare minimum, I stowed in the space behind my seat. Engine started, pressures satisfactory. Fuel gauge reading Full. Lights working normally. I trundled the machine out in the open and drove around the track to warm it up. The moon rose higher and higher. No sign of Marcel. With the engine off I got out and walked around. At long last a car drove into the grounds, and Marcel got out. “Party,” he roared. “Farewell party. We go now, yes?”

Disgustedly I restarted the engine, switched on the powerful lights, and rolled out into the road. Marcel was yelling so much that I just put the earphones around my neck and forgot all about him. Miles farther on a German police car pulled to a halt in front of me. “Your look-out is asleep. You are breaking Regulations by driving without a man keeping watch behind.” Marcel came bounding up, “Me? Asleep? You do not see straight, Policeman. Because I sit in comfort you become officious.” The policeman came closer and smelled my breath carefully. “No, he is a saint,” said Marcel. “He does not take drink. Nor women,” he added as an afterthought.

“Your papers!” said the policeman. Carefully he examined them, looking for any excuse to make trouble. Then he saw my American Ships' Engineer papers. “So. You are an American? Well, we want no trouble with your Consul. On your way.” Pushing back the papers as if they were contaminated with the plague, he hurried back to his car and sped away. Telling Marcel what I thought of him, I sent him back to his seat, and we drove on through the night. At twenty miles an hour, the speed at which we were instructed to travel, the seventy miles to the French border seemed endless. Just short of Saarhrucken we stopped, pulled off the road so as not to impede traffic, and prepared to spend the day. After a meal I took our papers and went to the local police station in order to obtain clearance across the border. With a police motor cyclist at front and rear, we crept along side roads until we reached the Customs post.

Marcel was in his element talking to his French compatriots. I gathered that he and one of the Customs men whom he had met in “the Resistance” had, almost alone, won the war! With our papers checked, we were allowed to move into French territory. The friendly Customs man took Marcel off for the day, and I curled up beside the girders of the machine and went to sleep.

Very, very late indeed Marcel returned in charge of two French policemen. With a wink at me, they strapped him in his seat, dead to the world, and cheerily waved me on my way. I roared on into the darkness, a mighty machine beneath me, a drunken “lookout” behind me. The whole time I kept careful watch for any prowling police cars. One came whizzing up, a policeman leaned out of his window, made a derisory gesture towards Marcel, waved his hand in greeting—and whizzed on.

With Metz well behind me, and no sign of life from Marcel, I pulled into the side of the road, got out and walked behind to look at him. He was fast asleep. No amount of shaking would rouse him, so I drove on again. As dawn was breaking I drove through the streets of Verdun, on, and into the large car park which was my destination.

“Lobsang”, called a sleepy voice from the back. “If you don't get started we shall be late.”

“Late?” I said. “We are at Verdun!”

There was a dead silence. Then an explosive “Verdun?”

“Listen, Marcel,” I said. “You were brought to me drunk and incapable. You were strapped in your seat. I had to do all the work, I had to find my way. Now you get going and bring me breakfast. Get moving.” A very chastened Marcel tottered off down the street to eventually return with breakfast.

Five hours later a short swarthy man drove up in an old Renault. Not a word to us, he walked round the Earthmover, carefully inspecting it, looking for scratches, looking for anything at which to complain. His thick eyebrows met like a bar across the bridge of his nose, a nose which had been broken at some time and badly set. At last he came up to us. “Which of you is the driver?”

“I am,” I said.

“You will take this back to Metz,” he said.

“No,” was my answer, “I have been paid to bring it here. All the papers are made out for here. I have finished with it.”

His face flushed with rage, and to my consternation he drew from his pocket a spring-loaded knife. I was easily able to disarm him, the knife flew over my shoulder, and the swarthy man was flat on his back. To my surprise, as I looked around, I saw that quite a crowd of workmen had arrived. “He's thrown the Boss,” said one; “He must have been taken by surprise,” muttered another. Violently the swarthy man erupted from the ground, like a rubber ball bouncing. Dashing into the workshop he picked up a steel bar with a claw on the end, a bar used for opening packing cases. Rushing out, yelling oaths, he swung at me, trying to rip my throat. I fell to my knees and grabbed his knees and pushed. He screamed horribly, and fell to the ground with his left leg broken. The steel bar left his nerveless hand, skidded along the ground, and clanged against metal somewhere.

“Well, Boss,” I said, as I rose to my feet. “You are not Boss of me, eh? Now apologize nicely, or I will beat you up some more. You tried to murder me.”

“Get a doctor, get a doctor,” he groaned, “I'm dying.”

“Apologize first,” I said fiercely, “or you will want an undertaker.”

“What's going on here? Eh? What is it?” Two French policemen pushed into the throng, looked at “the Boss” on the ground, and laughed uproariously. “Haw! Haw!” roared one. “So he has met a better man at last! This is worth all the trouble we have had with him.” The policemen looked at me with respect, and then demanded to see my papers. Satisfied on that point, and having heard the reports of the bystanders, they turned and walked away. The ex-Boss apologized, tears of mortification in his eyes, then I knelt beside him, set his leg, and fixed two boards from a packing case as a splint. Marcel had disappeared. He had run from trouble and out of my life.

My two suitcases were heavy. Taking them from the Earthmover I walked out into the street on another stage of my journey. I had no job and knew no one. Marcel had proved to be a broken reed with his brains pickled in drink. Verdun did not attract me at all at that moment. I stopped passer-by after passer-by for directions on how to get to the railway station so that I could leave my suitcases. Everyone seemed to think that I would be better off looking at the battlefields than looking for a station, but eventually I succeeded in obtaining the directions. Along the Rue Poincare I plodded, resting every so often and wondering what I could throw away to lighten my cases. Books? No, I had to keep those very carefully. Merchant Navy uniforms? Definitely a “must”. Reluctantly I came to the conclusion that I had only essentials with me. On to the Place Chevert I trudged. Turning right I arrived at the Quai de la Republique. Looking at the traffic on the River Meuse and wondering about ships I decided to sit a while and rest. A large Citroen slid silently along, slowed up, and finally stopped by me. A tall, dark-haired man looked at me for some moments and then got out. Walking towards me, he said, “You are the man who earned our gratitude by beating up The Boss”

“I am,” I replied. “Does he want some more?”

The man laughed and answered, “For years he has terrorized the district, even the police were afraid of him. He did great things in the war, he says. Now, do you want a job?”

I looked the man over carefully before replying. “Yes I do,” I answered, “if it is legitimate!”

“The job I have to offer is very legitimate.” He paused and smiled at me. “You see, I know all about you. Marcel was instructed to bring you to me, but he ran away. I know of your Russian journey and of your travels since. Marcel delivered a letter from ‘the American’ about you and then ran off from me as he did from you.” What a network, I thought. However, I consoled myself, these Europeans did things in a manner different from us of the East.

The man motioned to me. “Put your cases in the car and I will take you off to lunch so that we may talk.” This was sense indeed. At least it would get those horrid cases off my hands for a time. Gladly I put them in the luggage compartment and then got into the seat beside him. He drove off to the best hotel, the du Coq Hardi, where he was very obviously well known. With many exclamations at my modest requirements in the refreshment line, he came to the point.

“There are two elderly ladies, one of eighty-four and the other of seventy-nine,” he told me, looking carefully around. “They are most anxious to go to the son of one of them who is living in Paris. They, are afraid of bandits —old people have such fears, and they have been through two severe wars—and they want a capable man who is able to protect them. They can pay well.”

Women? Old women? Better than young ones, I thought. But I still did not like the idea much. Then I considered my heavy cases. Considered how I was going to get to Paris. “They are generous old ladies,” said the man. “There is only one drawback. You must not exceed thirty five miles an hour.” Cautiously I glanced round the big room. Two old ladies! Sitting three tables away. “Holy Buddha's Tooth,” I said to myself. “What have I come to?” A picture of those suitcases rose before my mind's eye. Heavy cases, cases that I could not lighten. Money, too, the more money I had the easier I would live in America while looking for a job. I sighed dolefully, and said, “They pay well, you said. And how about the car? I am not coming back this way.”

“Yes, my friend, they pay exceedingly well. The Countess is a wealthy woman. The car? She is taking a new Fiat to her son as a gift. Come—meet them.” He rose and led the way to the two old ladies. Bowing so low that I was reminded of a pilgrim in the Holy Way in Lhasa, he introduced me. The Countess looked at me haughtily through her lorgnette.

“So you consider yourself to be capable of driving us safely, my man?”

I looked at her equally haughtily and replied, “Madam, I am not ‘your man’. As to the question of safety, my life is as valuable to me as yours evidently is to you. I have been asked to discuss this driving matter with you, but I confess that now I have my doubts.”

For long moments she stared icily at me, then the stony rigidity of her jaws relaxed, and she broke into quite a girlish laugh. “Ah!” she exclaimed, “I do like a bit of spirit. It is so rare in these difficult days. When can we start?”

“We have not discussed terms yet, nor have I seen your car. When do you want to go, if I agree? And why do you want me to drive? Surely there are plenty of Frenchmen willing to drive?”

The terms she offered were generous, the reasons she gave were good. “I prefer a bold man, a man of spirit, one who has been places and seen life. When do we leave? As soon as you are ready.”

Two days I gave them, then we started out in a de-luxe Fiat. We cruised along the road to Reims, about eighty miles away, and there we spent the night. Dawdling along at thirty to thirty five miles an hour gave me time to see the countryside and to collect my thoughts which had hardly time to catch up with my travels. On the following day we started at midday and arrived in Paris in time for tea. At her son's house in the suburbs I garaged the car, and started off again with my two suitcases. That night I slept in a cheap Paris lodging house. The next day I looked about for anything that would take me to Cherbourg or Le Havre.

Car dealers were my first choice; did anyone want a car delivered in Cherbourg or Le Havre? I trudged miles, from dealer to dealer. No, no one wanted my services. At the end of the day I went back to that cheap little lodging house and walked into a scene of trouble. A man was being carried in by a policeman and another lodger. A wrecked bicycle, the front wheel completely twisted, lay at the side of the road. The man, coming home from work had looked behind over his shoulder, his front wheel had caught in a drain, and he was flung over the handlebars. His right ankle was badly sprained. “I shall lose my job, I shall lose my job,” he was moaning. “I have to go to Caen on a furniture delivery tomorrow.”

Caen? The name was vaguely familiar. Caen? I looked it up. A town some hundred and twenty-five miles from Paris and on the way to Cherbourg, it was roughly seventy five miles from Cherbourg. I thought it over and went to him.

“I want to get to Cherbourg or Le Havre,” I said. “I will go on the furniture van and do your job if there is someone to bring the van back. You can collect the money for it. I will be satisfied with the trip.”

He looked at me in joy. “But yes, it can be arranged, my mate drives, we have to load furniture from a big house here and take it to Caen and unload it.” By fast work it was arranged. On the morrow I was going to be a furniture remover's assistant, unpaid.

Henri, the driver, could easily have obtained a certificate of incompetence. In one thing only was he a past-master. He knew every dodge imaginable to get out of doing work. Just out of sight of the house, he stopped and said, “You drive, I'm tired.” He wandered round to the back, perched on the most comfortable furnishings he could find, and went to sleep. I drove.

At Caen he said, “You start unloading, I must get these papers signed.” Everything except the two-man things were in the house by the time he returned. Slouching off again, he returned with the gardener who helped me carry things in. He “directed” us so that the walls would not be damaged! Unloaded, I climbed into the driver's seat. Henri unthinkingly climbed up beside me. I turned the van and drove to the railway station which I had noticed some way up the road. There I stopped, took out my two cases, and said to Henri, “Now you drive!” With that I turned and entered the station.

There was a train for Cherbourg in twenty minutes. I bought my ticket, had something to eat, and then the train just pulled in. We rattled off into the growing dusk. At Cherbourg Town Station I left my two cases and wandered off down the Quai de 1'Entrepot looking for accommodation At last I found it, Lodgings for Seamen. I entered, booked a very modest room, paid in advance, and went back for my luggage. Being tired, I went to bed and slept.

In the morning I associated as much as possible with other lodger-seamen who were waiting for ships. By great good fortune I was during the next few days able to visit the engine rooms of vessels at the Port. During the week I haunted the Shipping Agents in search of an appointment which would take me across the Atlantic. The Agents would look at my papers, examine my Discharge Book, and ask, “So you ran out of funds on vacation? and want to work a one-way trick? All right, we will keep you in mind and let you know if anything turns up.” I mixed more and more with seamen, learning their terminology, learning all that I could of personalities. Above all I learned that the less one said and the more one listened, the greater one's reputation for intelligence became.

At last, after some ten days, I was called to a Shipping Agent’s Office. A short, square looking man was sitting with the Agent. “Are you free to sail tonight, if wanted?” asked the Agent.

“I am free to sail now, sir,” I replied. The short, square man was watching me closely. Then he shot out a spate of questions in an accent which I found hard to follow. “The Chief here is a Scotsman, his Third Engineer has fallen sick and has been taken to hospital. He wants you to go aboard with him immediately,” translated the Agent. By great concentration I was able to follow the rest of the Scotsman's speech and was able to answer his questions satisfactorily. “Get your dunnage,” he said at last, “and come aboard.”

Back at the Lodging House I hastily settled my bill, picked up my cases, and hired a cab to the ship's side. She was a battered old thing, rust streaked, sadly in need of a coat of paint, and woefully small for Atlantic crossings. “Aye,” said a man on the dockside, “she's past her prime ye ken, and in a following sea she wallows fit t' twist yer guts out!”

I hurried up the gangplank, left my cases by the galley, and clattered down the iron ladder to the engine room where Chief Mac was waiting. He discussed the engines with me and was satisfied with my answers. “Okay, Laddie,” he said at last, “we'll go an' sign the Articles. The Steward will show you to your cabin.” We hastened back to the Shipping Office, “signed Articles”, and then returned to the ship. “Ye're on straight away, Laddie,” said Mac. So, probably for the first time in history, a Tibetan Lama, posing as an American, took his place aboard ship as a watch-keeping engineer. The eight hours I first served, with the ship moored, was a blessing to me. My intensive reading was now supplemented by some practical experience, and I felt fully confident.

With the clanging of bells, and the noisy hissing of steam, the shining steel rods rose and fell, rose and fell. Wheels turned faster and faster, bringing the ship to life. There was the smell of heated oil and steam. To me this was a strange life, as strange as life in a lamasery would be to Chief Mac who now stood so stolidly, pipe between his teeth, one hand resting lightly on a glittering steel control wheel. The bell clanged again and the telegraph dial indicated “half astern”. With scarcely a glance Mac spun the wheel and flicked a lever. The thudding of the engine increased and the whole hull quivered lightly. “Stop!” said the telegraph dial, followed quickly by “half ahead”. Almost before Mac could spin the controls, the bell clanged again for “full-ahead”. Smoothly the ship forged ahead. Mac stepped forward to me, “Ah, Laddie,” he said, “ye've done yer eight hours. Be off with ye. Tell the Steward Ah want ma cocoa as ye step by.”

Cocoa, food! It reminded me that I had not eaten for more than twelve hours. Hastily I climbed the steel ladders, reaching the deck and the open air. Spray was breaking over the bows, and the ship plunged somewhat as we headed out into open sea. Behind me the lights of the French coast were fading into the darkness. A sharp voice behind me brought me back to the present: “Who are you, my man?” I turned and saw the First Mate standing beside me.

“Third Engineer, sir,” I answered.

“Then why are you not in uniform?”

“I am a relief engineer, sir, joined at Cherbourg and went on watch immediately.”

“Hrrumph,” said the Mate. “Get into uniform right away, we must have discipline here.” With that he stalked off as if he were First Mate on one of the Queens instead of just on a dirty, rusty old tramp ship.

At the galley door I gave Chief Mac’s order. “You the new Third?” said a voice behind me. I turned and saw the Second Engineer who had just entered. “Yes, sir,” I replied. “I am just on my way to get into uniform and then I want some food.”

He nodded, “I will come along with you. The Mate has just complained that you are out of uniform. Said he thought you were a stowaway. Told him you had just joined and had gone straight on duty.” He walked along with me and pointed out that my cabin was just across the alley from his. “Call when you are ready,” he said, “and we will go for dinner.”

I had had to have the uniforms altered to fit me. Now as I stood dressed as a Merchant Marine Officer I wondered what my Guide the Lama Mingyar Dondup would say if he could see me. It made me chuckle to think what a sensation I would be in Lhasa if I appeared there dressed thus. Calling for the Second Engineer, we walked together back to the Officers' Mess for dinner. The Captain, already at his table, gave us a scowling glance from beneath his bushy eyebrows.

“Faugh!” said the Second Engineer, when the first course was placed before him. “Same old pig-swill, don't you ever get a change round here?”

“Mister!” The Captain's voice nearly lifted us from our seats. “Mister! You are always complaining, you should change to another ship when we get to New York.”

Somebody started to snigger, a snigger which changed to an embarrassed cough as the Captain looked angrily in his direction. The rest of the meal was in silence until the Captain, finished before us, left. “Hell ship,” said one officer. “The Old Man was a Jimmy-the-One (First Mate) in the British Navy during the war. He was on a transport and he cannot get it out of his system.”

“Aw, you guys is nuts, always bellyachin',” said another voice.

“No,” whispered the Second to me, “he is not American, just a Puerto Rican who has seen too many movies.”

I was tired, and went out on deck before turning in. Just off to the lee side the men were dumping the hot ashes in the sea and getting rid of the accumulated garbage of a stay in port. The ship was tossing a bit, and I walked off to my cabin. The walls were plastered with pin-up girls, which I ripped off and tossed into the waste paper basket. As I undressed and tumbled into my bunk I knew that I would be able to carry out my duties.

“Time up!” yelled a voice, and a hand opened the door and flicked on the light switch. “Time already?” I thought to myself. Why, it seemed that I had barely got to sleep. I glanced at my watch, and rolled out. A wash, dressed, and I was on my way to breakfast. The Mess was deserted now, and I ate alone and quickly. With a glance outside at the first streaks of light across the side, I hurried down the steel ladders to the engine room. “You're punctual,” said the Second Engineer. “That I like. Nothing to report except that there are two greasers in the tunnel. Oh well, I'm going,” he said, yawning heavily.

The engines thudded on rhythmically, monotonously, every revolution bringing us nearer to New York. Outside in the stokehold the “black-gang” tended their fires, raking and slicing, keeping the head of steam just short of the red line. From out of the tunnel housing the propeller shaft two sweat-stained and dirty men emerged. Fortune was with me, bearing temperatures were normal, there was nothing to report. Grubby papers were shoved at me, coal consumed, C percentages, and other data. I signed, sat down, and wrote up the Engine Room Log for my watch. “How she doin' Mister?” said Mac as he came clattering down the companionway.

“All right,” I answered. “Everything normal.”

“Good,” said Mac. “I wish I could make that– Captain normal. He says we used too much coal last trip. What should I do? Tell him to row the ship. He sighed, put on steel-framed glasses, read the Log and signed it.

The ship forged on through the rough Atlantic. Day followed day in monotonous sameness. This was not a happy ship, the Deck Officers sneered at the Engine staff. The Captain was a gloomy man who thought he commanded an Atlantic liner instead of a wallowing old tub of a freighter. Even the weather was bad. One night I could not sleep for the heaving and tossing, and I went on deck. The wind was howling through the rigging in a depressing threnody, reminding me irresistibly of the time when I had stood upon the roof of the Chakpori with the Lama Mingyar Dondup and Jigme, and went off into the astral. At the lee side of the ship, amidships, a lonely figure clutched desperately at the rail and heaved and heaved, almost “bringing his heart up”, as he later said. I was quite immune to seasickness, and found considerable amusement at the sight of life-long sailors being bowled over like this. The binnacle light in the bridge cast the faintest glow upwards. In the Captain's cabin all was dark. Spray rushed over the bows and swept aft to where I was standing. The ship rolled and tossed like a thing demented, with the masts describing a crazy arc across the night sky. Far off to starboard an Atlantic liner, all lights blazing, came towards us, corkscrewing with a motion which must have left the passengers unhappy. With a following wind she was making good time, her immense superstructure acting as a sail. “She'll soon be in Southampton Roads,” I thought to myself as I turned to go below.

At the height of the storm one of the bilge pump intakes clogged on something dislodged by the violence of the ship's motion, and I had to go right down in the bilge and supervise the men who were working on it. The noise was terrific, the propeller shaft was vibrating as the propeller alternately raced madly when the ship's stern was in the air, and juddered when the stern dipped in the water before bouncing to the crest of the next wave.

In the holds the deckmen were working feverishly securing a heavy crate of machinery which had broken loose. It seemed to me so strange that there was so much friction on this ship, we were all doing our jobs to the best of our abilities. What did it matter if one man worked among machines in the bowels of the ship, while another walked the deck, or stood in the Docking Bridge to watch the water slide along the side of the ship?

Work? There was plenty of work here, pumps to be overhauled, stuffing boxes to be repacked, glands to be inspected and checked, and the lines to the winches overhauled in preparation for docking at New York.

Chief Mac himself was a good worker and a fair man. He loved his engines as a mother loves her first born child. One afternoon I was sitting on a grating waiting to go on watch. Light storm-clouds scudded across the sky, and there was a hint of the heavy rain which was to follow. I sat in the shelter of a ventilator, reading. Suddenly a heavy hand descended upon my shoulder, and a booming Scottish voice said, “Ah! Laddie, I wondered what ye did with yer spare time. What is it? Westerns? Sex ?”

Smilingly I passed the book to him. “Marine engines,” I said. “More interesting to me than Westerns—or Sex!”

He grunted approvingly as he glanced through the book before passing it back to me. “Guid fer ye, Laddie,” he said. “We'll make an engineer of ye yet, and ye'll soon be a Chief yer'sel if ye stick to that.” Pushing his battered old pipe back in his mouth, he nodded amiably to me and said, “Ye can take over now, Laddie.”

The ship was abustle. “Captain's Inspection, Third,” whispered the Second. “He's a crazy guy, thinks he's on a liner, inspects the whole ship—cabins and all—every trip.”

I stood beside my bunk as the Captain entered, followed by the First Mate and the Purser. “Hum,” muttered the Great Man as he glanced disdainfully around. “No pin-ups?" he said. “I thought all Americans were leg-crazy!” He glanced at my engineering books, and a cynical smile played round his mouth. “Is there a novel inside that technical cover?” he asked. Without a word I stepped forward and opened every book at random. The Captain rubbed a finger here and there, on a rail, beneath the bunk, and on top of the door ledge. Looking at his still clean fingertips, he nodded in disappointment and stalked out. The Second smiled knowingly, “You got him that time, he's a nosey—!”

There was an air of tense expectancy. Men were getting out their shore-going togs, cleaning themselves up, trying to decide how to get their parcels through Customs. Men were talking of their families, of their girl-friends. All tongues were loosened, all restraints thrown off. Soon they would be ashore to go to friends and loved ones. Only I had nowhere to go, no one of whom to talk. Only I would walk ashore at New York as a stranger, friendless, unknown.

On the skyline stood the tall towers of Manhattan glistening in the sunlight after being washed by the rainstorm. Isolated windows threw back the rays of the sun after turning them to burnished gold. The Statue of Liberty— I noticed with her back to America—loomed up before us. “Half ahead,” clanged the telegraph. The ship slowed, and the little bow wave died as our momentum dropped. “Stop,” said the telegraph as we nosed to our berth. Lines were thrown, and caught, and the ship was once more tied to the land. “Finished with engines,” said the telegraph. Steam died in the pipes with wailing hisses. The giant piston rods were stilled, and the ship wallowed gently at her moorings, but faintly disturbed by the wake of passing ships. We worked turning valves, bringing the auxiliary equipment to life, hoists and winches.

Up on deck men rushed round knocking the wedges off the hatch covers, dragging off tarpaulins, opening the holds. The Ship's Agents came aboard, followed by the stevedores. Soon the ship was a madhouse of raucous voices bellowing commands. The cranes rattled and chuffed, and there was the continuous scuffle of heavy feet. The Port Medical Officer's Deputy pored over the crew records. Police came aboard and took off a wretched stowaway of whom we in the Engine Room had heard nothing. The unfortunate man was led off in handcuffs, escorted by two burly, rough- looking policemen who led him to a waiting Police car and urgently pushed him inside.

We lined up, collected our money, signed for it and went on to get our Discharge Books. Chief Mac had written in mine, “Great devotion to duty. Efficient in all branches. Shall welcome him as a shipmate at any time.” “What a pity,” I thought, “that I have to scrap all this, that I cannot continue.”

I went back to my cabin and tidied up, folding the blankets and putting them aside. Packing my books, dressing in civilian clothes, and placing my gear in the two suitcases. With a last look round I went out and shut the door behind me.

“Will ye no' change yer mind?” said Chief Mac. “Yer a guid shipmate, and I'd be glad t' put ye in fer Second after this round trip.”

“No, Chief,” I answered, “I want to move around a bit and get more experience.”

“Experience is a wunnerful thing. Guid luck t' ye!”

I walked down the gangplank carrying my two cases. Off by the side of the moored ships. Another life before me; how I hated all this moving round, all this uncertainty, with no one to call “friend”.

“Where ya born?” said the Customs man.

Pasadena,” I replied, thinking of the papers in my hand.

“What ya got?” he demanded.

“Nothing,” I told him. He looked at me sharply, “Okay, open up,” he snarled. Placing my cases before him I opened them. He rummaged and rummaged, then tipped everything out and examined the linings. “Pack 'em up,” he said as he walked away and left me.

I packed my cases again, and walked out of the gates. Outside, in the mad roar of traffic, I stopped a moment to get my bearings and my breath. “Wassamadderwidyabud ? Disisnooyoik!” said a crude voice behind me. Turning, I saw a policeman glaring at me.

“Any crime in stopping?” I answered him.

“Awgitmovin!” he bellowed.

Slowly I picked up my suitcases and wandered up the road, marveling at the man-made metal mountains of Manhattan, I had never felt lonelier than now, completely alien to this part of the world. Behind me the roaring cop bellowed at some other unfortunate, “Wedontdodisinnooyoik. Git!” The people looked harassed, strained. Motor vehicles zoomed by at crazy speeds. There was the continual squeal of tyres and the smell of burning rubber.

I walked on. At last I saw before me the sign “Seamen's Hostel,” and I gratefully turned in at the door. “Sign,” said a cold, impersonal voice. Carefully I completed the form thrust roughly at me, and handed it back with a “thank you”. “Don't thank me,” said the cold voice, “I am not doing you any favor, this is my job.” I stood waiting. “Well, what is it?” said the voice. “Room three-oh-three, it said so on the form and on the key tag.”

I turned away. How could one argue with a human automaton. I walked over to a man, obviously a sailor, sitting in a chair looking at a man's magazine. “We guys sure get in Jenny's hair,” he said before I could speak. “What is your room number?”

“Three-oh-three,” I answered miserably. “My first time here.”

“Three floors up,” he said. “It'll be the third room to starboard.” Thanking him, I walked over to a door marked “Elevator.” “Go and press the button,” said the man in the chair. I did so, and after some moments the door was flung open, and a Negro boy beckoned me in. “Number?” he asked.

“Three-oh-three,” I replied. He pressed a button and the little room moved swiftly up and came to a sudden halt. The Negro boy opened the door and said, “Toid.” The door closed behind me, and I was alone once more.

Fumblingly, I looked at the key tag to again check the number, and then moved along to find my room. Yes— there it was—the number “303” was on a small plate above the third door to the right of the elevator. I inserted the key and turned it. The door opened, and I entered the room. Quite a small room, I saw, something like a ship's cabin. As soon as I shut the door I saw a printed list of Rules. Carefully reading them, I found that I could stay only twenty-four hours unless I was actually joining a ship, then the maximum time one was permitted to stay was forty-eight hours. Twenty four hours! So even now there was no peace. I set down my cases, brushed the dust from me, and went out in search of food and newspapers so that I could see if there were any jobs advertised which I could do.