Vera Cruz was the place where the Spanish conquistadors landed in Mexico - this is their original fort protecting the entrance to the port.            

They all agreed that it was the best port that they had ever been to. The whole crew had taken to drinking tequila in the Mexican way, which needed a shot glass of spirit, a larger glass of mineral water, a copious quantity of lime and a bowl of salt. The technique required the drinker to sprinkle salt onto the back of the left hand, squeeze a slice of lime over it, suck the results into the mouth and then down a generous slug from the shot glass. If the warmth in the back of the throat was too much for the constitution to bear, this could be followed by a swallow of the mineral water.                

            Excessive quantities of tequila had the tendency to cut the chain of command between the brain and the legs without warning, One minute you could be walking along the street, and the next lying in the gutter.

            Even the death of the Third Engineer had done little to blunt their enthusiasm for the bright lights and pavement cafes, the tequila and the Cuba Libres. While his demise had been unexpected it had not, on reflection, been unlikely. After all he had been 67 years old, and the excitement of Vera Cruz must have been too much for his heart.

            We should remember that all this took place back in the days when it was customary to have crew members, who died during a voyage, certified locally and then interred, rather than transported  back home. Indeed it was not totally unknown for the dead to be buried at sea. And so a suitable plot in the Vera Cruz cemetery had been purchased and a hole dug, and arrangements made for a brief ceremony. The cemetery was full of ornate marble slabs, and life-sized angels portrayed with folded wings, reading from stone testaments or with their hands clasped together as if in prayer. These forbidding figures looked down with sightless eyes, as the crew made their way unsteadily to the graveside.

            Indeed it could have been an error on their part to call in at the El Bravo Cafe before the funeral for a couple of shots. While the priest was reading the eulogy over the open grave they found themselves having difficulty maintaining a suitable level of solemnity. The silence was punctuated by occasional titters, despite the presence of the Captain who cast a baleful eye over the proceedings.

            All pretense at reverence was lost when the Second Engineer fell into the grave and lay immobile face down on the top of the coffin. The service was temporarily interrupted while the Mate and The Chief Engineer lowered themselves unsteadily into the hole and passed up the limp body to those on the surface. They carried him to a nearby engraved slab and laid him out, then returned with an attempt at sobriety to hear the priest rushing through the final phrases.

            Their ship, the Centurion, was loading bagged sugar for eventual discharge in Boston. It was taking a long time. The Centurion was a Liberty ship, welded together in days during the Second World War, and intended to carry a single cargo from the East Coast ports of the States to beleaguered Britain. Now, twenty years later she was still in harness, rusting, unreliable and spartan, but making money for her owners.

             After they returned from the funeral it was evident that, as far as the Captain was concerned, they had gone too far. He emerged from his cabin even less than usual, preferring to sit at his desk learning tracts from the Bible. Calls at his door for information or instruction would result in monosyllabic grunts, as if words were too valuable a commodity to be thoughtlessly squandered.

            At the end of the day, when the Mexican dock workers departed, and the majority of the ship's complement followed them down the gangway, the Captain could be seen leaning over the bridge rail staring down, as if memorizing their names for later inclusion in a personal report to God. It could have been this habit which induced some wag to pin a small notice on the mess room board. It read, "Puritanism - the uneasy feeling that some-one somewhere may be enjoying themselves."

            The Captain's displeasure also manifested itself in a reluctance to give out "subs". The ban came to light when the Boatswain, on finding his funds had been reduced to two small coins, knocked on the Captain's door.

            "Yes, Mister. What do you want". It was a long sentence.

            "Could I have a sub please Captain," said the Boatswain.

            You're not due for one yet," was the reply. The Boatswain knew better than to ask him what he meant but was nevertheless mystified. They had always been able to get subs when they needed them, and the only reason for being refused one was if expenditure exceeded earnings. As long as the total earned during the voyage exceeded total money spent there should have been no problem.

            No-one else dared approach the Captain. Lack of money reduced the band of shore-goers to a trickle, and the former recipients of their largess soon became aware of their limited funds. They began to find it difficult to get service from the waiters. The marimba bands no longer lined up to play by their tables, and they got no attention at all from the ladies of the night who, almost to a woman, transferred their affections to the crew of a recently arrived German freighter.

            Finally no-one was going ashore at all. As the dock workers streamed down the gangway at the end of each day the Captain could still be seen leaning over the bridge rail. Those who got close enough to him swore they could see him smiling for the first time that any of them could remember. To make matters worse the loading would soon be completed.

            Each evening they sat glumly on the afterdeck and watched the lights of Vera Cruz twinkling in the dusk. If they strained their ears they could just hear the sound of the brass band in the main square.

            "There's nothing for it" said the Mate, "I'm going to have to ask him", and with that everybody, except the Mate cheered up a bit. It took considerable courage to confront the Captain about anything.

            "You're entitled to an advance every ten days," snapped the Captain "That's what it says in the Articles of Agreement, and those are the rules I play by."  The Mate had asked when next advances would be given out. He had not received an answer, but at least he had been given a clue, and if the Captain said they were entitled to a sub every ten days there was no doubt that he was right. They had all signed on many times but no-one ever bothered to read the small print, and there was little they could do if the Captain had decided to work to rule.

            The last person to receive a sub had been the Boatswain, and by means of relating events to dates they calculated that on the following day it was probable that they could ask for, and receive, a pocketful of Mexican pesos. It was also evident that in two days time the ship would be ready for sea.

            The following evening saw every member of the crew, except for the Second Mate, who was due to keep ship, lined up outside the Captain's cabin. They filed in and out, the Captain wordlessly handing out the sums for which they asked, and pointing to the place in the sub book where they were to sign their names. Worried frowns on entry, in case he found any more rules to work to, changed to smiles of elation once they were out of sight.

            Dusk found them seated round the pavement tables of the El Bravo. The band played in the centre of the square and the senoritas in white blouses and tight skirts sauntered by on their evening promenade.

            As the tequila started to take effect the group began to fragment. Two of the younger and more personable seamen had, by means of sign language, persuaded a couple of very beautiful young Mexican girls to sit down, and were charming them entirely with smiles and gestures. The girls giggled, looked across the table through dark lashes and swung their legs provocatively. The Boatswain and the Cook were walking round the square in the opposite direction to the general flow of pedestrians in an attempt to cause some sort of a traffic jam, and the Steward had removed his shoes and socks and was wading in the fountain.

            When the police car arrived to remove the Steward from the fountain, and raised voices could be heard from the other side of the square where the Cook had collapsed onto a park bench, already occupied by three elderly senoras, the Mate, the Third Mate, the Second Engineer and the Apprentice decided that it was time to move on.

            They hailed a passing taxi and got in. "Take us to somewhere where we may enjoy wine, women and song, for the night is yet young." said the Second, who had a tendency to become more verbose but less original with the passing of time.

            The driver looked puzzled. "Nightclub!" translated the Mate.

            “OK," the driver smiled. "I know good nightclub." And with that took off at high speed out of the square.

            The taxi raced a breakneck speed on tarmac between lines of villas, on gravel between lines of shacks and on sand between forests of cacti, and finally skidded to a halt in a cloud of dust outside a long low barn.

            "This Ranchito," said the driver. "Very good nightclub. You pay me 300 pesos."

            An hour in the Ranchito convinced them that the driver had been right. They sat at a long table surrounded by bottles of tequila, bowls of salt and plates of sliced limes, listening to a Mexican band on a stage at the end of the saw-dust covered floor. It was offering its interpretation of the latest Beatles hit. We should bear in mind that this was when the Beatles were still a band, not a legend.

            The Apprentice who was seventeen and on his first trip to sea, was being mildly molested by two ladies in figure hugging dresses, one of whom might have been old enough to be his mother. He was blushing furiously, and was doing his best to repulse their advances without causing offence. The other girls sitting at the table laughed and chattered in Spanish, and the Mate and the Second Engineer thought wistfully of their own lost youth.

            The laughter died when a swarthy Mexican, in jeans and sweat stained check shirt, grabbed one of the girls by the arm and dragged her away from the table. In the corner of the room he could be seen holding her wrists and speaking rapidly. The girl squirmed and cried silently in his grasp.

            "What's happening", remarked the Second Engineer to no-one in particular.

            "He is telling her she must make money," said one of the remaining young women, "not make jokes".

            "I'll sort this out," said the Second, who had some reputation as a boxer, having trained as a middle-weight contender in his youth.

            With that he strode over to the couple. A sequence of events followed which left the aggressive Mexican flat out on the sawdust, and the four seafarers dashing out of the door of the Ranchito, pursued by a group of bandits brandishing an assortment of blunt and sharp instruments.

            Their elation at finding a taxi with the engine running out on the road, and the relief as they sped away into the night, faded when it drew up in the centre of the huge open space which was the approach to the port.

            "Centurion over there," said the Mate, pointing to the dim shape which could be seen leaning against the quay in the distance.

            "You pay 1000 pesos," responded the driver pulling a short knife from an inside pocket to emphasize the point. The Mate dropped the 300 pesos, which he already had in his hand, onto the bench seat between them and leapt out of the car. He was closely followed by the others.

            As they ran towards the ship they realized that they were silhouetted in the taxi's headlights.

            "He's trying to run us down," gasped the Second. "Quick. Over there." He gestured towards a small domed building in the centre of the quay.

            Scattering they raced individually towards the welcome of its glassless windows. The taxi, tyres squealing, turned to follow them, and was ominously close when the Second, the Mate and the Apprentice piled through the windows and ended up heaped on the floor.

            The Third Mate, who was less fleet of foot than the others, was propelled through the window by the front bumper of the taxi. He bounced once and, to everyone's amazement, disappeared down a large hole in the middle of the floor.

            To their relief the taxi-driver, having failed to dispatch them at the first attempt, seemed to have lost interest and had driven off in search of easier prey. Looking down into the hole they could see the Third Mate standing up to his waist in dark putrid liquid. A terrible smell assailed their nostrils.

            The Third Mate looked up. "Help," he croaked, un-necessarily.

            They reached down and grabbed him by his shirt cuffs.

            "OK pull," ordered the Mate, and they pulled. There was a violent ripping of clothing and the Mate and the Second found themselves holding a shirt sleeve each. The Third Mate was still at the bottom of the hole, his now bare arms still reaching upward.

            Grabbing his wrists they pulled him up over the edge and steadied him on his feet. The Third Mate carefully unzipped his trousers and allowed them to drop round his ankles, Then he stepped out of them and kicked sodden stinking mass into the hole. "Come on," he said, and strode of towards the ship, his shirt tail flapping in the breeze.

            The Second Mate looked up from his book as they wandered into the mess room.

            "Wow, something smells", he remarked. "Did you have a good run ashore."

            "Oh, not bad," replied the Mate, picking up a mug to get himself some coffee.

 
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