Richard Gordon: DOCTOR AT SEA

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Richard Gordon


First Published in 1953 To THE MERCHANT NAVY They have a lot to put up with


The Lotus and her crew are as fictitious as the _Flying Dutchman_ and her insubstantial company.

Chapter One

It would be unfair to describe the Lotus as an unlucky ship. It was just that she was accident prone, like a big, awkward schoolgirl.

Even her period of gestation in the shipyard was full of mishaps. She was laid down in Wallsend in 1929, and had advanced to the shape of a huge picked chicken when the depression blew down bitterly on Tyneside. For the next four years she rusted untouched behind locked gates, and when they started work again her design was changed on the drawing-board from a North Atlantic ship to a Far East trader. Shortly afterwards the company ordering her went bankrupt and she was bought on the stocks by another, who began to turn her into a whaler. They too rapidly slid into insolvency and abandoned her to a fourth, the Fathom Steamship Company of St. Mary Axe. It was this concern that succeeded in launching her, after she had been through as many fruitless changes in construction as a human embryo.

At her launch she holed and almost sunk a small tug, and on her maiden voyage as a cargo-passenger ship she lost a propeller during a gale in the Australian Bight. At the beginning of the war she came home from New Zealand, painted grey, and was one of the first vessels to reveal to the Admiralty the effectiveness of the magnetic mine. She lost most of her bows in the Thames Estuary, but stayed afloat long enough to be dragged into dock for repairs. After several months she set off again to join a convoy, and had her stern blown away by a bomb twenty-five minutes after leaving port.

The stern was patched up, and she managed to pass the rest of the hostilities without getting herself involved in any dangerous action, apart from shooting down an American Mustang in error with her Oerlikons in 1945. At the end of the war she refitted and returned to peaceful trading, disturbed only by an explosion in the engine-room in the Caribbean and the cook going abruptly insane one insupportably hot afternoon in the Red Sea and passing among his shipmates with the meat hatchet.

Much of the damage from both these accidents was repaired, but the repeated structural changes had induced in the Lotus a premature senility, a state of chronic invalidism. She was too cold in the higher latitudes, too hot in the Tropics, and she groaned pitifully in bad weather. But the Fathom Steamship Company unmercifully sent her anywhere in the world where she could find the shareholders a profit. She carried lead and lemons, boiler-tubes and barley, copra and cows. She took steel from Baltimore to Brisbane, wool from Auckland to Archangel, coal from Swansea to Singapore. She was one of the world's shopping baskets.

There was enough room on board for thirty passengers, though she rarely carried more than a dozen and often none at all. They were people going to unusual places, or too poor to afford a big ship, or experienced travellers who cringed before the bonhomie of the boatdeck and the deadly gin-and-sin routine of a sophisticated liner. The Company was indifferent to them: passengers earned little more than complaints, but freight meant money.

In the opinion of the crew, one of the severest disasters to overtake the Lotus since the war was her Commander, Captain Vincent Hogg, who was officially required to act at various times once his ship was at sea as the sole representative on board of the Fathom Steamship Company, the King, and God, for all three of whom he substituted himself with impartial grandeur. His officers accepted him as farmers tolerate a prolonged drought, giving daily prayers for Divine removal of the affliction. The weight of his personality fell most heavily on the Mate, Mr. Hornbeam, who had passed his Master's examination twenty years before and was waiting for a command with the pitiful patience of an impoverished expectant relative. Promotion in the Company was simply a matter of dead men's shoes. He had in a drawer in his cabin an alphabetical list of the Fathom Line's Captains, with their exact ages and notes on their partiality for drink, loose women, and other items reputed to shorten life, but all of them retained irritatingly good health. He enjoyed the unstinted sympathy of the Chief Engineer, Mr. McDougall, who hated the Captain like a red-hot bearing; and the Captain disliked the Chief Engineer like fog round the Goodwins. McDougall looked upon the ship as a shell for the transportation of his engines, and complained daily when the navigational position from the bridge was some miles astern of the one he calculated from his revolutions. Indeed, according to the Chief Engineer, the machinery and boilers of the Lotus should have arrived in any port several days in advance of the rest of the vessel.

There were two other Mates, a gang of engineers, a wireless operator and-as the Lotus carried more than ninety-nine souls when she was full-a doctor.

The doctor was by order of the Ministry of Transport, the uncompromising power who prescribes on every item of a sailor's life from the number of lifeboats to be available in emergency to the number of times he shall have eggs for his breakfast. Ninety-eight souls can sail the seas until they are carried away with obscure nautical illness, like the shipmates of the Ancient Mariner: their health is preserved with a bottle of black draught, the _Ship Captain's Medical Guide,_ and a scalpel also used for sharpening the chart-room pencil. The Second Mate or the Chief Steward holds the keys of the drug chest and practises daily, after breakfast. All pains below the umbilicus are treated with strong purgative, all disturbances above with Ministry cough mixture, and lesions on the remainder of the body with turpentine liniment. Obviously there occur from time to time more alarming complaints, and these are submitted to surgery under wireless instructions by the Captain on the saloon table, after the patient and the surgeon have taken sufficient brandy to instil in each other confidence that both will survive the operation.

But one more soul on board brings to all the benefits of medical science-or as much of it as the doctor can remember, because ship surgeons are notoriously forgetful of these things. The sea induces an attitude of pleasant detachment towards problems that strain thought ashore, including those of the diagnosis and prognosis of disease, and the doctor has few professional obligations to distract him from his pastimes or enrich him with experience. For these reasons the companies naturally dislike the expense of carrying him-but then, the Fathom Steamship Company would have objected to the expense of life-boats.

When I met the Lotus she was lying in Liverpool, due to sail with a cargo of machinery and motor cars to Santos, in Brazil. It had then been raining on Merseyside for four days. The damp November wind channelled itself down the river, broke against the waterfront buildings, and ran up the cold streets behind. The birds on the Liver building, that are unfairly supposed by Liverpool seafarers to flap their wings when passed by a woman of untarnished virtue, wept ceaselessly onto the bleak pierhead. The Birkenhead ferry forced its way miserably across the choppy harbour, the landing-stage looked as forlorn as a bandstand in midwinter, and even the stonework of the St. George's Hall appeared in danger of showing through its crust of soot.

It was about eight in the evening, the hour when the shipowners are fed in the Adelphi. As they glumly finished their Martinis in the little American bar they calculated among themselves the rain's cost in delayed cargo working. Outside in Lime Street the adolescent tarts already clung hopefully to their damp doorways. The dripping buses took home the last pale shipping clerks, the overhead railway rattled along its grotesque track, and the dock police steamed themselves warm in front of the stoves in their cabins. The Lotus herself lay lifeless at her quay with tarpaulins tented over her hatches, creaking gently at her mooring ropes like an old bed in a bad dream.

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