On 7th July 1977 I was working on a ship called the m/v Cape Grenville as we lay at anchor in the Persian Gulf, waiting to be piloted up the Shatt al-Arab waterway to discharge a cargo of grain in Iraq's busy port of Basrah. Now that’s what I call travelling. The Chippenham branch of the Ramblers’ Association never goes there!
It was a lovely sunny day with the temperature very close to fifty degrees. This meant that almost everything on the metal ship was too hot to touch. The freshwater tanks heated up so much that we could only have a hot shower and the swimming pool had to be refilled with seawater every time someone wanted to use it because after an hour or two in the relentless blistering sunshine it was so hot that it was painful to dip even a toe in. As you might imagine, other appendages went through agony. The air conditioning system had been switched off a week earlier as it spat out only hot, dust filled air into our normally cool and comfortable living quarters and the fridge behind the bar came close to a mental breakdown as well as a mechanical one.
My nautical task for that particular day was to chip and paint the rusty bits on lifeboat davits. At the crack of dawn, whilst it was still relatively cool, I started work on the davit on the shady side of the ship but had to swap to the other side when the tide turned and the ship swung round, as if to ensure it was evenly roasted on both sides. Even at such an early hour I was sweating profusely. I felt as though I had been basted. I'll leave you to make your own jokes about the stuffing.
Round about mid morning the captain’s wife, Mrs. Dootson, brought me out a jug of cold water and stood for twenty minutes or so to talk to me. Life for an officer’s wife on a bulk carrier could be a bit dull at times, especially when the ship was at anchor and going nowhere. So to brighten up her monotonous life a bit she ventured onto the after deck to have a chat with nineteen year old, sweaty old, shit and paint covered old me.
We talked about the intense heat of the Gulf and compared it to what we were used to on a summer's day back home in England. We talked about how much we would enjoy a cool pint of bitter at the pub or a long glass of Pimm’s filled with fruit and ice on the croquet lawn. We talked about the things we missed doing in England such as going to watch Leeds United or sitting down to a hand of cards at the bridge club. Fish and chips wrapped in newspaper and a generous serving of jugged hare were discussed too. I suspect you can tell which of these I had yearned for the most and which were Mrs. Dootson’s favourites.
And then Mrs. Dootson pointed out that the date on 7th July 1977 could be written as 7/7/77. We worked out (not hard really) that this would probably only happen again eleven years, one month and one day later and wondered what we would each be doing on 8th August 1988, and so on. Mrs. Dootson suggested that we should both remember that day and each other and think back to our conversation on future days when all the numbers in the date were the same.
I strongly suspect that Mrs. Dootson has sadly gone to a better place now but, ever since our morning chat on that horrendously hot day thirty five years ago, I have done exactly what she proposed. In fact, I have even taken matters a bit further and remembered that day and her on every 7th July since then too. I haven't put any effort into it. It just seems to happen.
Mrs. Dootson and I had nothing in common except for the fact that we were both very bored and very hot. So it seems so strange that she has always commanded a place in my mind on this day. I would have loved to have known how long she went on remembering me.
One day I’ll tell you about Mrs. Dootson and the chickens. A funny story which illuminates the chronic state of boredom she must have endured at sea.