Tuesday, 15 February 2011

An elderly seafaring man

Sometimes during our occasional forays into Essex we go for lunch to a little quayside place, a café-cum-restaurant with an art gallery and gift shop next door. If the weather allows we sit outside, overlooking endless salt flats, low-tide mudbanks and skeletons of derelict boats. We go there chiefly because they do an excellent dressed crab.

On a recent occasion a small, squat, elderly man with cropped hair, nothing like the drawing above, came and sat alone at the table next to us. When a waitress passed, he asked her to bring his coffee. So she did a minute or two later.

I'd seen him there before, but had never spoken to him. Did he recognise me? I don't know, but catching my eye he cocked his head and said 'All right, mate?' I told him I was fine, and so began an extraordinary conversation. I don't know why people open up to me uninvited. Maybe I look gullible.

Far - for the moment - from being an elderly seafaring man, he told me he had been in the RAF. He was now 86, so that was all a long way behind him. He'd been in Bomber Command in the war. In fact he'd flown with 617 Squadron, the famous Dambusters.

'Ah,' I said. 'Guy Gibson, VC.'

'I knew him well. Very well. Actually I was his navigator.'

This was astounding. I had an idea that Gibson's navigator on the famous Dambusters raid was someone called Terry Taerum. An unusual name, which is perhaps why it stuck with me for so many years after reading Enemy Coast Ahead, Gibson's own account of the raid on the Ruhr dams, when I was 12 or so. Was this really Terry Taerum?

'So your name's Terry?' I asked. I'd never met a war hero before. A dwindling breed, as the years pass. I shook his hand, with some pride.

'The name's Reg,' he said, looking away. 'I'm not long back.'

'Where from?' I asked.

'Belgium. I go there most weekends. I got a 42' yacht. Sail it out of Ramsgate. Put in at Ostend. Load up with stuff. Smokes for the lads. A few crates of beer. Have a mosey round. Put the car on the back, go for spin. Look up old pals. Got a girl there too.'

'You put a car on the back of your yacht?'

'Sure,' he said. 'A little Citroën.'

I supposed it might be possible. There might be other possibilities too. Fancy took over: some lines of W.S.Gilbert, the words half of Gilbert and Sullivan, swam into my head:

O, I am a cook and a Captain bold
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And the bosun tight, and the midshipmite,
And the crew of the Captain's gig.

- and this person, the elderly seafaring man in Gilbert's drawing above, claimed to be all these personages because once, having been shipwrecked in the Indian ocean, he'd survived in an I'm an elderly seafaring celebrity: get me out of here sort of way by eating them all. Had Reg's Lancaster bomber once ditched in the North Sea? Had he been obliged to eat his fellow crew members to stay alive? Was this why he was so cagey about the whole business?

In due course Reg got up and left, apparently without paying. We shook hands again. He'd parked his car, a blue Fiesta, at the foot of the sea wall.

When we went in to pay our bill I asked the woman at the cash desk about Reg.

'Oh, don't pay any attention to him,' she said. 'He's harmless. He'll tell you anything. He used to be a hospital boilerman. He comes in every day. No, of course he doesn't have a yacht. We give him his coffee. He's all right, is Reg. Only he does imagine things.'

'So he's not a cannibal, either?'

'He told you that? That's a new one. Here, Linda, you know what Reg has been telling this gentleman...?'

I shouldn't have let him start, really.

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