Tom awoke in his bunk on the Sunda and thought with dread of the day ahead. The euphoria of New Year’s Day, both the party and the night with Shelia, had disappeared, to be replaced by a feeling of uselessness and lack of confidence. It had all happened so quickly and it was all due to one man.
Tom had done his best with the salvage reports and he knew in his heart of hearts that they were good, but the lawyer rubbished them, saying he was no good and would never make a good Salvage Master. He felt trapped because he had no option but to work with the man. The relationship with Shelia, which had started on such a sexual high, was turning sour and he knew it was all his fault. The union achieved on their first night together had not reoccurred, however hard he tried. He was out of balance, out of kilter with himself, and felt like resigning. The glittering future that had seemed mapped out before him, paled into insignificance against the daily meeting with the lawyer.
It was not so bad when they worked in the office, but now he was working, well, it was really drinking, in the hotel, the whole thing had turned into a disaster for Tom. He had tried drinking with the man but that did not work, except to make Tom ill. He had tried not drinking and that made it even worse.
He got up, showered and dressed in his shore-going gear, dark trousers, white shirt and tie; the man had even criticised his choice of tie, so Tom had bought some more, plain, un-patterned this time. Miguel, the mess-man, brought his breakfast and laid out the table with a white tablecloth, cutlery and china, on the bridge wing.
“This is the highlight of my day,” he thought, looking around at the anchored ships and the Singapore skyline. “And it’s downhill all the way from here. I am going to have to do something,” but he had said that every day for a week and done nothing.
“Perhaps I don’t really have the courage for all this,” then thrust such thoughts from his mind.
“Captain not well today,” said Miguel, his round, smooth face looking concerned.
“I am not the captain, Miguel, I keep telling you. Captain Jan is the captain.”
“But Captain Jan not here, so you are the captain,” and he gave a girlish giggle.
“Bugger off and get me some more toast and don’t burn it!” laughed Tom, feeling a little better.
“Yes, captain,” and Miguel scuttled off.
It was a pleasant start to the day and it would have to be a very good hotel which could better it. Freshly cooked eggs and bacon tasted so much better in the open, the early morning sun not yet hot. Tom admired some of the myriad ships around, almost a history of shipping for the last thirty years, from small tugs and barges to a Straits Steamship passenger ship from ex-Dutch coasters, and costal tankers to large, modern cargo ships, including, unusually, a small feeder container ship, and at the South China Sea end, three new LPG carriers, which were laid up. Only half a mile away he could see the competition tug, the black-hulled Misssisippi whose Master he had met in the Clifford Pier bar. The man on watch was instructed to keep watch on the other tug and to inform him and base if she moved.
“Tea, captain,” chirped Miguel, who poured from the fresh pot of tea he had brought with him.
“Your shoes, captain,” and he put Tom’s well-polished, black shore-going shoes on the deck.
“Thank you, Miguel, I don’t know what time I will be back,” said Tom.
“Girlfriend will be happy,” smiled the mess-man, but Tom ignored him and said curtly, “Tell the bosun I want to leave at 0830 and Rene to behave himself. I don’t want to arrive wet.”
The company radio squawked and Alfredo, the third mate, answered. He came out of the wheelhouse and said, “Ops say go to office.”
“Okay, Alfredo,” said Tom, thinking that in time, the young Filipino would make a good officer and salvor. He had initiative, an essential ingredient that Tom thought he, himself, was lacking at the moment and resolved to do something about the situation with the lawyer. He felt his spirits rise a little.
“You keep dry,” grinned Rene, his hair as long as ever, when Tom climbed into the zed boat. The surrounding brown water was uninviting and Rene stood at the bow wearing gloves, holding onto the painter. Rene, as usual, departed at speed and Tom literally rode the boat ashore, bending his knees as she bounced over the wash of numerous country craft and launches, which caused quite a chop on the otherwise smooth sea.
He climbed the green, seaweed-covered, concrete steps at Clifford Pier, giving Rene a cheery wave as he backed the boat away and set off at full speed, weaving his way through the approaching boats. The van was waiting for him and he read the Straits Times on the forty-minute journey to the office at Jurong.
The lawyer was late, which was not unusual, and when he did arrive in Mr R’s car he went straight into a meeting with the old man. He was in a foul mood when he finally came into the office assigned to him, a small room with the curtains drawn to shut out the bright sunshine. His secretary had been typing away since Tom arrived, while he read Lloyds List.
“Mr R says I have to finish with you within the week. Have you been talking to him?” he snarled.
“I have not seen Mr R since the New Year’s Day party, where he personally and publicly thanked us. The Kinos terminated the day before and that is three weeks ago. You have my report,” replied Tom, firmly beginning to become angry.
“Keep your temper,” he kept telling himself, sipping his third cup of tea.
“Well, someone must have said something, he wants the arbitration yesterday.”
“Of course,” Tom pointed out, “he wants the money.”
“He shouldn’t be buying any more tugs until the arbitration is over, it puts me under a lot of pressure,” the lawyer complained.
“We have done the car carrier,” said Tom, quite curtly, “and I have signed my statement. The Kinos, as I said, is written up, as is the Queen. It should not be too difficult to finish.”
“If your reports were any good, which they are not,” growled the lawyer.
“Listen, Mr Dickinson, I have compared my car carrier statement against my report and it is almost word for word, with the occasional addition, so don’t tell me my reports are no good. You don’t really need me,” said Tom, beginning to flare up.
“Why, you little punk, you little prick, you little squirt with a poncy accent! Don’t forget who got you your job. I put in a good word with Mr R and it won’t take much to get rid of you.”
“What do you want, a commission, ten percent of my salary and bonuses?” Tom shouted, getting out of his chair and standing up, leaning over the table. Susan, the secretary, left the room.
“You poncy little bastard!” shouted the lawyer, heaving his not inconsiderable bulk out of his chair so the two men were standing inches apart, glaring at each other. Tom almost flinched at the stale smell of drink, but knew if he backed down now, he was finished as far as this person was concerned; he would be a slave.
“If you worked at the hotel instead of propping up the bar and making a fool of yourself and letting us down, we would have finished by now!” shouted Tom, almost beside himself with rage, staring the lawyer in the eye, the eyes bloodshot and red-rimmed.
The lawyer shouted back a string of obscenities and made as if to hit him, but Tom did not move, almost daring the infuriated older man. Suddenly the lawyer dropped his eyes and sat down. Tom, with a surge of triumph, knew he had won.
“Third World War,” said Mr R loudly. Tom had not heard the door open and turned round, looking a little abashed at the stern-looking old man, but held his ground.
“I think the position has been resolved, sir,” he said, looking directly at Mr R, who turned and shut the door.
Robert Dickinson, like all bullies, had backed down when confronted, but Tom thought he had probably made an enemy and would have to watch his back. He also wondered about the Salvage Master, who had yet to give his evidence. He suspected he just copied out the salvage reports, altering a few words here and there, as he had with Tom’s car carrier report.
Tom sat down and looked at the somehow diminished figure in front of him, the neatly parted sparse, fair hair, the round, chubby, slightly puffy white face with its bloodshot eyes and red eye lids, the thin lips, the bull neck above a plump, unfit body. But it was the hands that stood out. They were quite delicate for such a coarse man, the fingers, which never seemed to stop moving, as though permanently playing some obscure musical instrument, were long and slender. He could not quite visualise Mr Dickinson in charge of a tug, or any ship, for that matter, although it was said he was a Master Mariner.
“Come on, Robert, let bygones be bygones,” cajoled Tom, who knew it was in his own interests to finish the work. “Let’s get on with it and then you will be rid of me.”
“Get Susan back,” barked the lawyer.
The rest of the morning was spent with the lawyer, who had pulled himself together, dictating from Tom’s report and the log of the Singapore to the little, pert Chinese lady, Susan, who seemed to let his occasional rudeness wash over her. She arranged and brought in lunch, which consisted of a sandwich and tea.
At the end of the day, just after 1800, the lawyer said, “Be at the hotel at 0900 sharp tomorrow,” and was whisked off with Mr R in his luxurious, chauffeur-driven car.
Tom returned to Clifford Pier in a van, wondering where his future lay. He rang Shelia from the pay-phone on the pier but she was out. He felt very flat but extremely thankful he had had it out with Robert, who once had seemed such a friend. He decided to have a few beers in the pier bar before going back to his tug.
“Well, well, the competition,” said a cheery voice, looking up from the bar where it appeared he had been for some time; the Captain of the Mississippi, anchored half a mile from the Sunda.
“Congratulations on the Kinos and I don’t know how I let you get the Queen,” continued the fresh-faced Scotsman, his burr muted by years in the East.
“We were in the right place at the right time,” said Tom, taking the bar stool next to him. “I’ll have a Tiger, please.”
They had met before and become quite friendly, though competitive rivals. Frank Ings was a tall young man with a full head of red hair, fit and athletic, handsome in a rugged sort of way, who had come to Singapore as a young second mate and stayed ever since. The Mississippi had been a good rival for the Singapore, but no match for the Sunda.
“How long before your mob brings out a bigger tug to compete with the Sunda?” asked Tom, opening his third beer.
“Don’t know,” replied Frank, his speech beginning to show the length of time he had been in the bar. “It can’t be too long, especially as there is a rumour you have bought the one and only UK super-tug.”
Tom thought long and hard before replying but came to the conclusion it would do no harm, the old man had announced it publicly.
Frank sat up.
“Well, I’ll be damned, Cosel really is on the move! My mob were very angry with us that we didn’t get a look in on the Kinos. The Mississippi was – how should I say it? – temporarily hors de combat at the crucial moment.”
“We know,” laughed Tom.
“You won’t be so lucky next time,” said Frank, seriously.
“How about a curry?” asked Tom. “I’ve had a difficult day and I’m starving.”
“Heard your lawyer was in town,” Frank chortled. “Let’s go to that roadside place for a coolie curry, very tasty and down-market.”
Tom returned on board late that night a little the worse for wear, Rene driving at a sedate speed consistent with his state. He almost fell into the black, murky water when trying to climb on board the tug, a passing country boat causing a wash that upset his already unsteady balance.
“Happy night?” asked Miguel on the bridge the next morning, as Tom nursed a cup of coffee.
“Shut up, Miguel. Go and get my breakfast,” he ordered, as the mess-man left the bridge, giggling.
Tom was at the Goodwood Park Hotel right on time but he need not have bothered, Robert Dickinson did not appear until 1100, his eyes looking more bloodshot than ever. He sat at the just-opened bar, nursing a beer.
“Susan is typing,” is all he said, so Tom read an out-of-date Daily Telegraph. No work was done all day and Tom resisted Robert’s attempt to get him to drink with him. Eventually, mid-afternoon, Tom left, saying he would be at the hotel at 0900 the next morning and suggesting they do some work, they might get a salvage and Tom would be gone.
“Bugger off, you little prick!” mumbled Robert, draped over the bar, much to the disapproval of the barman, who could do nothing unless he fell off the bar stool.
Tom had a date with Shelia that night.
“Well, you seem in a better frame of mind,” she said as they sat down to an early evening drink in the Ming Court lounge bar, sinking into the cream-coloured armchairs, the pianist playing cheerful tunes.
“Confrontation over, I won, but I have an enemy,” said Tom, briskly.
“Let’s hope your better mood lasts, you were such fun to be with,” said Shelia, smiling. “Tell me about your lawyer.”
“I would rather not,” said Tom, and they went on to talk of other things, enjoying each other’s company again. A good dinner with wine in the hotel bistro, which was really quite good, and the evening ended in bed with a much more satisfactory outcome.
“I am busy with business for the next two days,” said Shelia from the bed, her blond hair flared out over the pink pillowcase, “but free on Friday.”
“Dinner at the Mandarin, they have a seafood special in their small restaurant. I will book, say seven-thirty? Meet me in the lobby bar at 1900.”
“Yes, Sir!” said Shelia, giving a mock salute from the pillow as Tom bent over, her his hand fumbling below the bed clothes, his lips glued to her as he made his farewell.
Mr Dickinson was in a better mood.
“On the wagon bloke,” he greeted Tom, almost cheerfully for him. They finished the Kinos late in the evening and Tom left without staying for the offered drink.
Tom was called to the office on Thursday morning, which interrupted their progress. The old man called him in.
“You don’t get on with Robert?”
“It seems to have resolved itself for the moment, sir,” answered Tom. “We only have the Queen to do.”
“Call me, Mr R, Tom, you have been around long enough to know that. Robert can be difficult, awkward, downright rude and drinks too much. Don’t forget, I pay his bills, but he is good and he pulled a couple of chestnuts out of the fire for me in the past. So, you will just have to put up with him. Your salvage reports are good, as I would expect, and I suspect he just copies them out, as he does with the Salvage Master, but no matter, he gets us good awards, which is all that matters.”
“Understood, Mr R.”
“I am taking Robert and a few guests out in the Coseltina, the company yacht, on Sunday and I would like you to join us. Hilda will be coming too. She has become interested in our business and might join Cosel. She was very impressed by your story and the way you told it.”
The old man smiled. “Finish off the Queen and see you on Sunday at Jurong pier, 1100 sharp.”
“Thank you, Mr R, I will enjoy the trip.”
The Queen was finished on Friday afternoon and Tom joined Robert at the bar for a celebratory drink. The wagon trip had not lasted, but when it looked like turning into a session, Tom departed, not wanting to mess up his evening with Shelia. They left on better terms, Robert saying, “You are better than that illiterate Dutch man,” and laughed.
“See you on Sunday, Robert,” said Tom, as he was leaving the bar.
“Coming up in the world, are we?” said Robert. “I’ll have to nip this in the bud with Mr R,” he continued, only half jokingly. Tom was glad his dealings with the lawyer were over.
The night with Shelia went well, dinner was excellent and they laughed and joked together just like old times.
“It was less than a month ago it started,” thought Tom, with a shock, discounting the original encounter in the Orchid Inn. They even sounded each other out about living together when Tom was in Singapore, she had her own apartment. The sex was back to being good, they got on well again now Tom had made his stand against Robert and life was on the up. How quickly things change, thought Tom the following morning, as he lay next to Shelia, contemplating a morning glory when she awoke, his body already responding to his erotic thoughts.