Galley Slave
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List of 2014 stories

Galley Slave

I'll call him Lionel, mainly because that was his name. He was a quiet, little ball of a man, not tall and a bit over weight. He reminded me of one of those Asian statuettes of the Buddha except he seldom smiled. He was not a dour man, just one of those slightly shy, phlegmatic types. He was from the Home Counties but had lost most of his accent and many were surprised when they discovered he was a Pom. Normally he sat at the back of the class during lectures at our U3A, not saying much and only occasionally asking a considered question. So it was with a little surprise that I found that he was to give a lecture as part of a series on individuals' life stories. I knew he had spent some time as crew on a Thames barge, but nothing more, so I was very interested when he started to describe that part of his early life. He had done a lot of preparation and had written up extensive notes. Unfortunately his presentation skill left a lot to be desired when he was reading directly from his notes. He tended to rub his hand across his mouth and lose his place and misread some words. Pity, because the stuff he was describing was quite interesting. Thames barges are magnificent looking vessels with their mass of red sails. Their masts are stepped so that they can be lowered to pass under bridges, but how a crew of three can handle such an array of spars, ropes and canvas just boggles the imagination. So I listened intently and tried to ignore Lionel's unfortunate lecturing mannerisms.

Then he started to describe one of his tasks on board. He lowered his notes and spoke from memory. The change was magic. Gone were the nervous movements and there was just the smooth flow of words. I was transported to the small cabin in the stern in moments. He told of how he, as the "boy" on board, probably still in his teens, it was his job to prepare dinner. In the cabin was a small coal-fired stove. The coal would have been obtained as it had been for centuries by taking the barge alongside some coal barge moored at some wharf or some dock and liberating or trading for the fuel. On the stove-top there was a pot partially filled with water. A hunk of corned beef, usually brisket all tied up nicely with butcher's string, was dropped in together with some carrots, potatoes and cabbage. The fire was stoked and the pot brought to the boil. The pot continued to simmer for a prolonged period, possibly a couple of hours. But then came the clincher. Having got the main course cooking, Lionel then prepared "afters", which was invariably suet pudding. He mixed the fat and flour, added the water to make the stodgy dough, rolled it into a ball, wrapped it in a cloth, tied the neck of the cloth bag so formed and dropped it into the pot with the meat and veg. Who said the British can't cook? Everybody!

Lionel told other stories about encounters with mines and being stranded literally up the creek, but the one about his efforts in the galley was the one that really stuck in my memory.

F. Brown. ©