In this account of a coastal voyage around New Zealand, some names and details have been changed to protect the innocent. And if we weren’t all innocent we were certainly very gullible.
Oliphant O’Malley was a distressed seafarer. Yes, distressed, but not emotionally or anything to do with antique furniture. It was an official term used to indicate that he had been left behind by his ship through an accident or illness and was waiting for another to carry him back to Europe. In Oliphant O’Malley’s case (and that really was his first name if not quite his second) a mysterious illness had struck him down while he was in Australia and he had spent several weeks in hospital. Now, a picture of health, and holding all his worldly belongings in two large matching brown paper parcels, he stood on the quayside in a worn pair of leather sandals and chatted to the captain.
‘So, Mr O’Malley, we have to repatriate you,’ said the captain.
‘Well, you can travel as a passenger or we can find you some light duties. It’s your choice.’
‘Oh, I couldn’t laze about in the sun, Sir,’ replied Oliphant. ‘Put me in your engine room. I’ve many years of experience and you won’t find a harder worker in the South Pacific.’
Though initially reluctant to accommodate this overweight nautical refugee, the captain was suitably impressed. ‘That’s what I like to hear. Get yourself aboard. The steward will show you to your cabin.’ So Oliphant O’Malley clambered up the steep gangway of the rusty tramp steamer Romantic and into our lives.
During the voyage to New Zealand, the engineers soon discovered that Oliphant’s knowledge of a ship’s engine was, to put it bluntly, incomplete. Indeed, one night, whilst unsupervised, he accidentally discharged most of our drinking water into the ocean. But this charming and sociable Irishman, with his ferocious red beard and enormous appetite, was soon forgiven. He was such a sparkling and witty conversationalist and eagerly joined every card school, invariably leaving with the winnings. As ship’s apprentice, I was the lowest of the low but he treated me like an equal and I was flattered. When he told me how a promising career in the Foreign Legion was ended prematurely by a stray bullet, I listened in awe. He was a little vague over dates and places, but I didn’t pry as it might evoke some painful memories.
‘So your mother was from Sligo?’
‘That’s right, Sir,’ I replied.
‘Oh, call me Ollie, dear boy. Sligo, I know it well. A fine place with grand people. Now what was your mother’s maiden name again? Goodness me, I think I may have met her right there in the Cafe Cairo!’
I was immensely impressed. ‘Oh I do hope so, Ollie. I do hope so. Let me get you another can of lager.’ You get the picture.
Then there was the prize-winning greyhound. Ollie had bought a champion greyhound in Australia but it died within a month. ‘Now don’t tell a soul, dear boy,’ he confided, ‘But in my distress I raffled it. Win a champion greyhound for a dollar - that sort of thing. I sold a stack of tickets.’
‘But what about the winner?’ I asked in astonishment.
‘Well, yer man was a bit upset but I gave him his dollar back.’
He clearly found this very amusing and collapsed in mirth at the memory of it all. Later, whilst immersed in yet another card game, he asked me to get some tobacco from his cabin. I opened the door only to find an Aladdin’s cave. For someone who had joined the ship with next to nothing, he seemed to have acquired a considerable array of possessions: books, a radio, pictures, ornaments, a small typewriter, plants, and so on. Unable to find the tobacco pouch, I looked inside his wardrobe. There, to my amazement, hung a most splendid naval uniform covered in medal ribbons and gold braid - hardly the right kit for a tramp ship. I didn’t dare ask him about it, but doubts about the enigmatic Mr O’Malley started to form.
Having only a limited supply of fresh water, tramp steamers are not usually furnished with baths, just showers. But the Romantic had one bath and that was in the ship’s hospital. This was a room in a deserted area that was seldom used and always locked; its security was one of my responsibilities. One night, whilst on my rounds, I heard strange noises coming from its vicinity; the door was unlocked so I peered in. There sat Ollie with his back covered in soap suds and singing ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’ with joyful abandon in a fine baritone. He may not have known how to pick a greyhound but he certainly knew how to pick a lock. Fortunately, he didn’t see me and I quietly locked the door. If he could pick his way in, he could pick his way out.
The following day, I was replacing a broken lamp in a storeroom when I heard him flapping along the deck in his leather sandals. He was deep in conversation with the ship’s electrician and I could hear every word. ‘So your mother came from Liverpool? I know it well. A fine place with grand people. What was her maiden name again? Goodness me, I think I may have met her right there in Yates Wine Lodge!’
In the darkness of that storeroom, I pictured my mother as a young woman sitting at a gingham-topped table in the Cafe Cairo and saw Ollie making a beeline for her. I shuddered and prayed that their paths had never crossed. In the Cafe Cairo or anywhere else. Ever.
So the SS Romantic reached New Zealand and worked its way around the main ports loading lamb, apples and butter for Europe. In each port, a telephone was installed aboard and Ollie lost no time in scrounging invitations to several parties and other social events. Though I was often tired after a day’s work, he insisted that I accompanied him and brought along my battered guitar. He even encouraged me to buy a proper case for it, though I couldn’t see anything wrong with the old kit bag I carried it in. Unknown to me, he had told his hosts that among the ship’s passengers was a very talented young musician en route to London to sign a lucrative recording contract. Fortunately, by the time I strummed my three chords and squawked through half a dozen numbers, everyone was too merry to notice, or care about, my complete lack of skill. By the end of the evening, Ollie would have escorted some wealthy widow off the premises and I was left to trudge several miles back to the ship. Ollie clearly used these occasions to enrich his network of contacts; I was merely a useful stepping stone to greater things. How great, I can only guess, for one wet night in Wellington I saw what looked like a Japanese Sea Lord sneaking down the gangway and boarding a taxi. It was Ollie in his magnificent naval uniform and not a sniff of those sandals. A day or two later, I saluted him and called him Admiral O’Malley; thereafter, he began to avoid me.
My shipmates, however, were still impressed by Ollie and continued to buy him drinks and lend him their money and their possessions. They found him very knowledgeable about horses and, as luck would have it, he discovered that a horse called Romantic was due to race. It could be a lucky omen, he declared, but he wouldn’t dream of encouraging them to squander their hard-earned cash, even if it was a ‘dead cert’. But seafarers are simple souls and even the Chief Engineer wagered a week’s salary on this promising thoroughbred. Predictably, Ollie took the money ashore to place the bets, ‘Now if I hurry, I’ll just make it.’ Just as predictably, the poor nag was the last to pass the winning post. Ollie consoled each of the luckless punters with a drink at the bar. I’m not saying that he didn’t lay those bets, but it was the only time I ever saw him buy a round.
The Romantic’s stay in New Zealand was drawing to a close and we were preparing to leave for Polynesia. In the rather aptly-named port of Bluff, Ollie sat in his cabin reminiscing about the time he landed as a sunburned mariner on some deserted palm-fringed atoll to search for buried gold. The expedition had run out of money and was abandoned, but he was determined to return. My shipmates were enthralled and demanded to know more. Ollie produced a rather tatty map and lowered his voice to a whisper. He had acquired the rights to explore the atoll but the government’s annual fee was overdue and his enforced stay in Australia had left him short of savings. It was a modest sum but a worthwhile investment for anyone willing to contribute. The fee could be paid through a bank right here in New Zealand.
Then, why hadn’t he thought of it before? The atoll was just a few miles from our course across the South Pacific and we might even see it. It all sounded pretty exciting, but I couldn’t take any more and went out on deck for some fresh air. That evening, at dinner, there was a buzz of excitement and everyone seemed mesmerised by the thought of that treasure just waiting to be dug out of the sands of a lonely atoll. Ollie sat at the table beaming smugly; it was to be his final meal aboard the good ship Romantic.
The next day, as the final items of cargo were being loaded, the Captain mreceived a phone call from a hospital further up the coast. A Mr Oliphant O’Malley, said the caller, had been seen earlier that morning with an unusual and rare medical condition. The doctors wished to detain him for tests. There was no need to forward his personal effects. How true - his cabin was completely empty. Later, I would find a long queue of disgruntled shipmates outside the captain’s door. Indeed, I was to see the captain himself ruefully inspect an IOU note before crumpling it up and tossing it into the vast Pacific Ocean.
But these events lay ahead and our immediate concern was the hustle and bustle of leaving port and the prospect of heavy weather at sea. That evening, as the Romantic slipped away from the jetty, I spotted a familiar bearded figure standing in the shadow of a warehouse. It was Ollie. He was still wearing those sandals and, upon seeing me, grinned and gave a little wave. ‘Good Luck, dear boy!’ Then he turned and flapped off into the darkness. I never saw him again.
Tony Crowley (c)1998