Celtic Illumination, part 63, four and twenty virgins.
My main form of travel between Ireland and England was the Belfast to Liverpool ferry. This was an overnight sailing where you chose to spend the complete journey in the lounge bar. I suppose the thinking around this trip was that the journey was not long enough to validate the extra cost of a cabin. Had you boarded the vessel and gone straight to your cabin then yes, the extra cost may have made sense, but as most of us would be in the bar till well after last orders, the cabin option made no financial sense at all.
There was a certain pecking order on the vessel and I am not talking about the first and second class definitions. I do remember once going to get a meal. I ordered fish and chips and beans, yes, I admit not a very exciting choice of menu but one reason was, that it was one of the very few dishes that these cooks could mess up. I could only eat lean meat. Fat and gristle made me ill and brought back memories that I had no wish to regurgitate.
It was Christmas, Belfast. Most of mum’s family had arrived for Christmas dinner. It was a fantastic affair, two parents, two priests, two nuns, one grandparent and the two children. As normal we had the best of everything. A Frisbee sized piece of boiled ham was slapped onto my plate. The pure white, half inch wide, rim of fat leered at me, daring me to eat it, so I cut it off and moved it to the side of my plate.
“What are you doing?” asked my father. “That’s the best bit of the meat. Get it eaten!”
I explained that if I put fat, or gristle, into my mouth I would be sick, it wasn’t so much the taste, but the texture that turned my stomach.
“Well then,” says he. “You can spend the rest of the day in your room.” Which I did. That night, having waited for them all to go to bed, I snuck downstairs and was helping myself to some chocolate biscuits when my mother came in and switched on the kitchen light. Even at that early stage my Ninja training was so far advanced I could operate in complete darkness most effectively.
I explained that I felt really bad letting my father down and had come downstairs to eat the fat.
My mother said that it had been thrown away but she would make me a sandwich. The incident may have been over but it was never forgotten about. So when out and about I would always choose simple food that I could almost guarantee would not turn my stomach. That is why I chose the fish and chips and beans, not much fat, or gristle, on a piece of fish. On the boat there was one long servery which was divided with a wall. You could tell that the servery had been planned and constructed and the wall, the dividing wall, had been added later. The other side was first class. A person on the other side, no doubt somebody extremely important with an awful lot of class, bought the exact same meal, fish, chips and beans.
I couldn’t believe that he had to pay three pounds fifty pence more than I did for the exact same amount of food from the same servery. But then what did I know. If I could ask you to imagine that the lounge was almost a triangular shape, being as it was at the front of the boat, vessel, ferry, ship, take your choice. Facing the sharp end of the triangle is where the bar would have been so there would be four main seating areas.
One clump in the centre and then two and three, running along each side, and the fourth along the back side of the lounge. I am sure that the regulations governing the seating arrangements came down the mountain with Moses himself.
In the centre area sat serving members of the armed forces. Along one side would sit one tribe and on the other side the opposite tribe, this was all dependant on which foot you kicked with. The back wall, or side, was reserved for non-combatants or people with more than six brain cells.
The bar wouldn’t open until the boat had sailed and that’s when the craic started. Depending on whether you measured the boats progress by knots covered per hour, or pints consumed per hour, after about eleventeen and a half fathoms or four pints imperial, the singing would start. One side would sing a song that showed allegiance to their tribe. Sing is perhaps not the correct word, for it was more like a football chant both in delivery and content. “♫ We are better than you, cause we are, and always have been. ♫”.
Respect was shown and whichever tribe was chanting would be allowed to finish. Now the other tribe would retaliate with one of their chants. “♫ No you are not better than us for we is more better than you, and we always have been. ♫” Now the soldiers would join in and perform one of their chants which were normally quite funny, being as they were rugby clubs songs and might involve such characters as four and twenty virgins coming down from inverness.
As the voyage continued and the beer went down, the singing was ramped up. I learned from very early on in my Liverpool to Belfast sailing experience to keep an eye on the number of people in the gent’s toilet. It wasn’t that I may have begun to experience pervert tendencies, but the gent’s toilet is where the choristers would meet and punches would be thrown. On a rough crossing there would be an inch deep mixture of sea water, urine, beer, vomit and blood, sploshing about and the last thing you would want to do would be to fall over in that swill.
For this journey however I survived and made it to Liverpool. I made my way to Lime Street station and got my ticket. The closest railway station to RAF Locking was Weston Super Mare which when I checked on the map showed as being near Bristol. It was almost exactly the opposite side of the country to London. I wondered what the pervert priest had been up to telling me he had been here before, and then I forgot about him as I borded the train and made my way off to another adventure.