FICTION

PETTICOAT INFLUENCE

If you’re skipper of a minesweeping trawler and your wife wants a bit of fresh fish, you start fishin’. Result: A blinkin’ medal

GEORGE STERN November 15 1943
FICTION

PETTICOAT INFLUENCE

If you’re skipper of a minesweeping trawler and your wife wants a bit of fresh fish, you start fishin’. Result: A blinkin’ medal

GEORGE STERN November 15 1943

PETTICOAT INFLUENCE

FICTION

GEORGE STERN

HE LOOKED at her photograph on the cabin bulkhead, then down at the letter, then back at the photograph. Aye—she were a good lass —and as pretty as the next. “Your loving wife” she signed herself—with “loving” twice underlined. And yet, as he stuffed the letter into his pocket and went on deck, he felt irritated. Irritated and annoyed because he didn’t full know why he was irritated. The crew were singling up as he clambered onto the bridge.

“Let go forrard!”

Hang it—why should she spoil such a nice letter by writing that—why... ?

“Let go aft!”

She must have been feeling a bit out.

“Slow ahead! One turn to starboard!”

Gently they moved away from the jetty and t oward the outer harbor.

Aye—that was it—must have been summat oop wi’ er—must have been feeling a bit out o’ sorts, or maybe the youngsters were worrying her. He smiled as he thought of the youngsters. Pretty as a picture the girl was—just like her ma. And as for the little lad, well. . .

“Midships! Steady as she goes!”

But woman had no right to take it out of her husband just ’cos the children were worrying her— didn’t ought to be a mother if she did that.

“Half ahead!”

They were threading their way across the outer harbor now, toward the boom gates, toward the sea.

Yet she were the best mother and the best wife that ever a chap could wish for—then, why did she write that P.S.? It made the letter like—like a snake or that funny animal he couldn’t remember the name of —with a sting in its tail.

“Take ’er through the middle, coxn!”

“Aye, aye, sir!”

Good lad the coxn. One of them public school boys, so they said, run away from school to join the merchant service, transferred to navy when the war came, wanted more excitement. Knew his stuff though, like all the merchant service chaps; plenty of book learning as well, couldn’t manage without him, what with the signals and orders and accounts and things which swamped the ship every time they returned to port; wrote all the ship’s letters too, he did—aye, and thinking of letters. . .

He pulled it out, turned to the last page and read the P.S. yet again. “Why don’t you never send no fish home like the others do? Mrs. Seddon gets a box reg’lar ever week and he’s only a trawler skipper same as you. Seems you never think of somethink nice for me and the children.”

“Slow ahead!”

A couple of squat, grey tank-landing craft were making their fussy way inward and he gave way to them.

Comparing him to old “skinny Seddon!” That was the limit, that was. Why the feller could no more handle a trawler than he could conduct that theer Alley orchestra in Manchester.

“Full ahead!”

Slowly the ship gathered speed and as they passed through the gates it dawned on him. Jealous! That’s what she was. Jealous of old Seddon’s missis. Come to think of it, it couldn’t be anything else—just jealous.

He gave a sigh of relief at having reached the right explanation of her letter at last.

“Stand by for outsweeps!”

AT LAST the weather had cleared after weeks of gales. -r\. The sun sparkled on the wavelets dancing past the trawler as she nosed her way up to No. one buoy. Sweeping was a pleasure in weather like this. Not that he’d ever shirked sweeping in bad weather. Why no ship in the navy had a better record of bad-weather sweeping than the “old cow,” as he affectionately called her; and why not? He’d joined the navy to sweep mines, to do his duty—not to go fishing like old Seddon. No wonder he had to send fish home—to keep that sour-faced wife of his in a good humor—to keep her from nagging when he went home on leave— what a treasure his own lass was by comparison. How different—how diff—how—how then could she be jealous of a woman like that?—And suddenly, in spite of himself, the sense of irritation came back again.

“Only a trawler skipper same as you.”

He remembered the words exactly.

Was she trying to belittle... ?

“All ready to stream, sir!” The coxn had finished with the wheel, now they had cleared the harbor, and were standing aft waiting for orders.

“Orright, coxn, carry on!” And then. ..

“Slow ahead!”

“—like the others,” he mused.

What others? Was he lacking in his duties as a husband? Did she mean—? Did she—? Fish! Fish, was it, she wanted? Well, she’d get it!—enough to

stink the place out—enough to turn Skipper Seddon’s wife green with envy—enough to. . .

“Coxn! Will ye coom oop ’ere a minute?”

“Coming up, sir!”

The coxn clambered nimbly up to the bridge and

waited.

The skipper coughed nervously.

“Er—coxn—er—I want yer add-vice.”

“Certainly, sir.”

“Er—are ye married?”

“No, sir.”

“Lucky feller!”

“Oh, I don’t know about that, sir.”

“Aye—well, p’raps y’are and p’raps not.”

The skipper shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. The coxn waited in amused anticipation.

“All ready to switch on, sirr.” The tousled head of “wires” peered over the bridge rail and made the daily announcement in solemn Scots tones. The skipper welcomed the break and looking aft pretended to survey their “tail,” which like some great sea snake that had bitten into the ship’s stern and refused to be shaken off now streamed its rippling length behind. “Switch on both, wires.”

“Verra gude, sirr!”

Wires disappeared below and the skipper was left alone again with the coxn. Suddenly he came out with it.

“It’s about fishing coxn. We ’ave a trawl aboard,

’aven’t we?”

“Yes, sir, but I don’t think it’s been used for a long time.”

If you’re skipper of a minesweeping trawler and your wife wants a bit of fresh fish, you start fishin’. Result: A blinkin’ medal

“Er—well—er—I— was—er—thinkin’.”

“That’s fine, sir! I’ll get the lads on to it right away.” The coxn moved to leave the bridge.

“Ere wait a minute, ’tisn’t as easy as all that ye know—we ’ave ter finish our sweep first, o’ course.” “Of course, sir, that’s understood.”

“Ay—well—aye, and the lads’ll ’ave to keep their gobs shut.”

The coxn couldn’t suppress his laughter.

“But why, sir? Fishing’s been authorized for quite a . . . ”

“What!” exclaimed the skipper. “Hauthorised? By the Admiralty?”

“Yes, it’s in the A.F.O.s, sir—so long as operations aren’t interfered with.”

“Well, I’m d-an’ I never knew! Eh, wish I’d

got book learnin’ like you, coxn.”

“Well, sir, it doesn’t need much learning to read the A.F.O.s—can’t understand why anyone should fight shy of them—just a minute, sir.”

He hopped over the rail and returned a few seconds later with his bundle.

“Here we are, sir—I’ll have a look in the index.” “No, ye don’t,” said the skipper with sudden determination. “I’ll look meself.”

He gave a little dignified cough and braced himself for the effort. High time he got the hang of these things. Not good to rely on the coxn always.

“Now—let’s see,” he said, scanning the first page— Admiralty Fleet Orders.

Index June—December, 1942.

Seemed simple enough. He opened a page at random

Pacific Fleet—general disposition of.

Packing cases—return of.

Crikey! Bit of a difference there! He turned over.

Passover—leave regulations as to.

H’m! Didn’t seem to miss much, the Admiralty.

Potato Peelings—collection for pig swill.

He began to chuckle. What would they think of next ! He turned up another page.

Wellington Bombers—adapttaion for use as torpedo planes.

The chuckle broadened. The page fluttered over in the breeze, and the chuckle developed into a small explosion. There, right in the middle was. . .

Wrens’ Underwear—revised allowance of.

The coxn joined in the merriment which took some moments to subside.

“Eh! Coxn is there owt these ’ere—what do they call thiselves—Lords Commissioners of Admirallity— is there owt they don’t bother about? Seems they ought to be called ladies’ commissioners too!”

The coxn laughed again, but the skipper suddenly became serious. He had a nimble little brain, and the coxn could almost see it working as he watched him pucker his brows.

Suddenly he sprang into activity again.

“Coxn, it’s fishin’ we’re lookin’ for, not underwear!” He found what he wanted all right.

There it was in black and white, just as the coxn said, and though some parts of the order did seem a bit complicated—a fact of which he certainly gave no hint to the coxn—it was clear that fishing was allowed —almost encouraged in fact—so long as it didn’t

interfere with operations. He smiled. A Heinkel 111 once tried to “interfere with his operations” and finished up in the sea, so a spot of fishing certainly wouldn’t harm.

None the less when he sang out. . .

“In sweeps! at No. six buoy!” he thought he’d never seen the lads heave the sweeps in so quickly.

HE WATCHED the lads, each with his share of the great black and glistening cable on his shoulder, staggering back and forth along the deck until at last the rubber floats came bouncing in like great sausages and up went the cry. . .

“All inboard, sir!”

A quick look at the chart and his expert eye had chosen the ground. Fifteen minutes at full ahead and they were over the spot, with the whole ship’s company excited as schoolboys as their skipper stopped the ship and clambered down on deck to supervise the “shooting” of the trawl. He was excited, too—and anxious to see if his hand still retained its cunning. But one or two of the lads were ex-fishermen like himself and he soon found that neither he nor they had forgotten much of their peacetime profession. The trawl was rigged in no time, and with quite a thrill of pride he watched the great net drop over the side and float gently aft, then slowly the weighty “doors” were lowered—a fine pair they were, bit of pre-war workmanship he reckoned.

“Pay away!”

He watched them sinking, each one dead upright— if they didn’t keep the net well stretched to its task, nothing would.

He took his place on the bridge again.

“Slow ahead!”

And never had time passed so slowly as did the next hour. He paced impatiently round the bridge while every now and then one of the lads would glance enquiringly up at him.

“Eh! It’s no good putting trawl down and takkin’ it oop in five minutes,” he would say, somewhat irascibly—and the lads would pipe down again disappointed.

But “stop ’er!” came again, at last, and he was over the rail and down on deck almost before the engine room could reply.

“’Eave away!”

“’Eave away, sir!” echoed the crew enthusiastically. Clang-a-chuff, clang-a-chuff, clang-a-chuff! wheezed the winch, thrum-thrum-thrum ! sang the warps as they came in through the fairleads.

“Sixty fathom mark up, sir!”

Necks were craned, eyes strained, heads bobbing for better views.

“Forty fathom mark, sir!”

Even the old winch seemed to be going just a bit faster than usual.

“Twenty fathom, sir!”

The doors would soon be up now—yes, here they came.

“Vast ’eavin’.”

The winch stopped in a cloud of steam.

“Come on, lads, hands to it now!”

A dozen eager hands seized the rope.

“One—two—six—all together; one—two—six!” The net was alongside now.

“Up with ’er, lads!”

They heaved again, but the net refused to come inboard.

“One more, lads!” t But it was no go.

“Put ’er back on t’winch, lads.”

Clang-a-chuff, clang-a-chuff, the winch wheezed again.

“Now she’s cornin’.”

Slowly the net came in over the side—slowly—. “Look!” There they were. Silvery. Glistening. Thousands of them!

“Crikey! What a bulge in the bottom of the net.” Here she comes.

“Jumpin’Mackerel! What’s that!”

“Look out!” In one great metallic crash the end of the net leaped over the bulwark, the crew scattered in all directions, and—there it was! There it was on the deck, its fat body glistening, leering, menacing, yet unmistakable, there it was—a mine!

It was a second or two before the crew recovered their equilibrium.

“Looks ’armless enough,” said a voice, somewhat shaky.

The rest of the crew laughed nervously—and

Continued on page 53

Petticoat Influence

Continued from page 11

they all turned toward the skipper.

“Chief!” His voice burst in on the engine room, through the open casing.

“Screw driver! Spanner! All the tools ye’ve got!”

“Coxn! Yer knife!”

He whipped it from the coxn’s belt before the latter could reach it.

“Away in the boat, all of yer!”

The crew were on their toes now, and unwilling as they were, the tone of the skipper’s order brooked no delay. But quick as they moved the skipper moved quicker. A few strokes with the knife and the net was clear, and then as they lowered the boat they saw him bending over the mine, screw driver in hand, steadily, coolly, rapidly —working—working.

They pulled away with long strokes. Stopped and waited. No one spoke. The wavelets lapping the boat’s sides seemed the only sound they heard, or would ever hear—and they waited— and waited—and waited—eyes glued on that solitary bent figure on the trawler’s deck.

Suddenly the figure straightened itself and waved. The spell was broken. A great cheer spread over the evening sea, and as they rowed back they saw the skipper standing on deck, a broad grin on his face, and something— something that looked like the works of a clock in his hand.

Back at the base that evening, the skipper found himself in the captain’s room surrounded by a group of smiling, chattering officers who seemed to him to have come from all over England in no time.

“What made you tackle the thing

there and then instead of bringing it in?" asked one. "\AT~11 . I~. T

“Well, sir—some’ow or other, I suddenly remembered summat about T type—T for Tommy, ye know, sir— short and fat—summat about fifteen minutes after coming to the surface— ye know, sir—explodin’ like—dunno exactly, sir—ye know, sir—what they teach yer on that theer course up in Scotland—dunno, sir—exactly.”

“I do though!” chipped in another. “Grand bit of work, skipper—not quite what you thought it was, but a later model, we’ve been wanting one for months, given us a deal of trouble, and would have given more but for you!”

“Wonderful bit of luck, wonderful bit of luck,” chanted another rather younger officer, rubbing his hands and gloating over the curious bit of mechanism on the captain’s table.

“Tell me, skipper, how did you come to be at that particular spot?”

“Well, sir—’er I—er—well—sir— the wife ’ad been worryin’ me for a bit of fish, sir, an’...”

The rest of the explanation was drowned in the general merriment.

A few weeks later when the festivities were over, he sat down to write to his wife, feeling very guilty over the quite unusually long delay. It was a very short letter—just a few lines in fact.

Dear Wife:

In reply to your last letter I’m sorry I can’t send you no fish like Skipper Seddon, but here’s me new George Cross ribbon instead. Will be home on leave nex’ Friday.

your loving husband. ALF.