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.

19 comments:

Dave said...
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Dave said...
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Dave said...

Guy Gibson went to the same school as Rog and I (although not at the same time, obviously). His VC scroll was on the wall in the hall.

By the way, were the salt flats really endless? There's a car advert on over here, which mentions the infinite seating arrangements in the car. It really quite annoys me. there may be quite a few permutations, but not an infinite number, surely? I feel like asking them if they've tried it.

Christopher said...

Dave, Dave, Dave: No, they weren't really endless, they just seemed so because they continued as far as the horizon and therefore might (if you weren't familiar with the Essex coast map) have continued much further. I daresay there have been endless permutations of the salt flats over the ages as well, as tides and rivers sculpt the landscape.

Fascinating about Guy Gibson, VC. Clearly you and Rog were closer to him on this account than I was through Reg's vain imaginings. So the Prince Regent, actually in Windsor at the time, came to believe he had taken part in the charge of the Union Brigade at Waterloo. Or something like that.

Dave said...

Indeed. As a child I had the book about the Dam Busters, and read it often. The film was on TV last weekend.

Barnes Wallis was my great-uncle.

Christopher said...

Clearly I should have consulted you before putting this post together, Dave. Early on in the film, as I remember, there were some kids helping Barnes Wallis in the garden with his first bouncing bomb experiments. I don't suppose...?

english inukshuk said...

Reg would have an interesting blog, wouldn't he

(-;

Dave said...

My uncle, yes.

Or no, as Reg would say.

Christopher said...

IE: He would indeed, tho' when I come to think of it I don't know of too many blogs entirely composed of fantasy...or do I?

Dave: Amazing. And very gratifying. I'm sure you knew of this long before you started your family tree researches, but maybe there are other surprise revelations to come?

Rog said...

OK I own up... it was me, Reg.

I got the idea from the portrait of Guy Gibson in the School Hall.

Christopher said...

I see, Rog/Reg. E & OE. He did tell me he was going to realise his potential by putting himself on Ebay. Sound familiar?

Sarah said...

I think C, people open up to you because you sound genuinely interested in what they have to say...even if you are not! I suspect bucket loads of charm, probably help too ?
I love to talk to people I don't know, dipping into their lives. Touching and sharing a moment with a complete stranger is a joy. No strings, no history, nothing, just that moment...
ooops gone off on one! Best get back into the freezing studio.....

Z said...

It reminds me of the Lyle Lovett song If I had a boat - 'If I had a boat I'd go out on the ocean, and if I had a pony I'd ride it on my boat." Sure am feeling sorry for the pony, to quote another song.

Christopher said...

Sah: You may have been seriously misinformed - but yes, I too enjoy talking to new people, just as long as they manage to hold back from murdering cows.

Z: Don't know the first (nothing to do with Sugar in the morning by Tate and Lyle Lovett?), but isn't the second from Oklahoma!? (Actually I think we've been here before.)

Vicus Scurra said...

I have nothing to say on this subject.

Anonymous said...

And, all that for just 'a coffee'?

He should have gone for wine, gin and tonic...even...absinthe...

What stories he could have told better than with a mere coffee.

Christopher said...

Thank you, Vicus. Paradoxically this comment says something about you, me and Reg.

Anon: Yes, well said. Perhaps I should have treated him, altho' the place mentioned, while specialising in redcurrant jelly, doesn't have a licence. He was The Times correspondent with Marco Polo? He was Buzz Aldrin's caddy?

letouttoplay said...

I suppose hospital boilers weren't enough for a man with such a large imagination.

Christopher said...

You may well be right, Mig. Next time we go there I'll do my best to trigger more unlikely fantasies. And next time I won't inhibit the flow by implying that I know something about what he's on about.