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Saturday, 7 February 2015

Saturday Story - 'Tealeaf'

A-class submarine - Wikipedia commons


Nik Morton

Indian Ocean, 1965

‘Ten bloody weeks at sea!’ Rusty Steele moaned as Eric Murton, the submarine’s steward, joined him at the control-room’s steering console. ‘I’ll be glad when this damned so-called Confrontation ends! Damn Sukarno, I say!’

Eric’s bony fingers slipped a scrounged cigarette between pale thin lips. ‘Got a light?’ he asked. Rusty’s America zippo glinted in the red-lighting. ‘Thanks…’ Eric fondled the lighter as Rusty made a course correction; the lever hissed; the calibrated repeater clicked round to the new course.

‘Steward – Wardroom!’ called the stooped Office of the Watch peering round the raised attack periscope.

‘What’s up now?’ Eric sidled out of the control-room, pocketing the zippo as he went.

Voices reached him on approaching the confined Wardroom: ‘This Exercise Blunt Pin, sir – on top of our patrol duties… The constant strain’s showing… The men are getting testy…’

‘I know, Number One – but we’re the only operational boat in the area at present. We’ve got to maintain efficiency. All of us have frayed nerves…’ Lieutenant Commander Gregson sighed. ‘Our run ashore in Singers can’t be postponed much longer… They’ll soon have Argosy seaworthy again…’

Eric cleared his throat, ducked through the low doorway, over the coaming. ‘You wanted to see me, sir?’

‘Ah, Murton! Yes.’ Gregson’s light-blue eyes held a hint of weariness. ‘We’ll be exercising again tonight so I’d like Tea early, out of the way – say, thirty minutes’ time.’
‘Yes, sir!’
Later, after the meal, Eric cleared the dishes. Lathering the grease off into the steel sink, he spotted Rusty coming off watch, ambling along the narrow greyish cream passage bedecked with interlacing wires and pipes and protruding cupboards – the boat’s innards that they all took for granted.

Rusty stopped outside Eric’s tiny cramped pantry opposite the Wardroom on the port side and glowered. ‘Got my zippo?’ he demanded, resting huge hands on a fresh-water pipe that snaked above his curly ginger head.
‘But… I gave it back – before I got called out…’ Eric pouted. ‘I’m sure…’
‘You’re lying!’ Rusty growled, fists balling.
Eric backed against the steel bulkhead, paling now.
Suddenly, hands appeared from behind the green senior rates’ mess curtains to his right and held Rusty in check. It was Hooky Cripps – he’d know those tattoos anywhere.

The curtain flew back as Hooky released Rusty. ‘You’d better shove off, Eric,’ Hooky warned, his deep eyes flashing menacingly.

As he shuffled for’ard to the mess, Eric overheard, ‘His turn’ll come, Rusty. Be patient, man.’ Eric shivered.
Dirty supper plates, cans of beer and packets of duty-free cigarettes cluttered the small mess-table. Eric huddled up in his corner bunk and feigned sleep. According to the duty roster, it was his turn to dhoby the dishes.
Whisky Walker was in a nasty mood, since he’d been caught snoozing in the sonar-room. ‘Who’s pinched me paperback?’ His black beard bristled. ‘Just getting’ to the good bit, I was!’ he snarled, cheeks a mottled flush.
Tightly packed along the bunk seats, like commuters on a squashed rush-hour train, they began discussing other lost property.

‘Two cans of squash – just vanished…’
‘And my beer issue from yesterday – I was on watch, see?’
‘I’d like t’ lay ‘ands on th’ swine that thieved me pack o’ fags an’ coupons – two hun’ed there was…’

‘That’s the sixth lousy cap-tally I’ve missed, and then there’s those kinky playing cards – gone, just like that!’
The little things seemed to gain disproportionate importance as their mood turned ugly.
Small, trivial things, Eric told himself. Like Bungy’s toothpaste, Whisky’s biro and book, Chalky’s soap-powder – dhoby dust – and Hooky’s marline spike… Really, he had no use for any of it – nor any idea why he took the stuff. He just liked collecting things, especially other people’s. He never thought about it much, though.
Sighing resignedly, he clambered up and collected the plates. Instantly, the whole mess lapsed into silence.
Surely they didn’t suspect?
Feeling every eye on him, he edged past their sweating bodies and reached the curtain with the dishes stacked in his hands.  He paused, looking back, first at them gathered as if in conspiracy round the table, then at the swaying mess mascot – a cuddly miniature koala bear in its own mini-hammock slung from the blistered fan-trunking. He slowly licked his lips. He must steal their mascot!
Twelve long claustrophobic hours passed by with the insistent sonar pe-e-e-ngging into the subconscious.
Returning from the morning watch, Big Alf stared, and his sleepy eyes widened. ‘The mascot!’ he wailed, waking the others. ‘It’s gorn!’
Snug in his sleeping bag, Eric smiled to himself. They wouldn’t find it. He’d safely hidden it away.

But there was something amiss. His smile deserted him as he noticed the unusual hush in the mess.
‘Exercise Collision Stations!’ the tannoy blared, cracking the tense tableau. Everyone off watch and not essential to the direct running of the submarine immediately rushed into their assigned escape compartments.
Watertight doors clanged reverberatingly shut. Orders were barked, feet hammered on the corticene tiles.
There wasn’t much room in the fore-ends. Stacked torpedoes flanked one side, wire-mesh vegetable lockers the other, while rows of cabinets containing first aid gear and hand weapons and grenades were crammed elsewhere.
Behind him he heard some oil and water swirling on the bottom of the torpedo compartment.

It was then that he sensed his messmates crowding in.
He tried to yell. But Hooky’s huge tattooed hand clamped over his mouth before he could utter even a squeal. The heady odour of oil and grease pervaded his nostrils.
Hemmed in, he ranged his wide staring eyes over his messmates’ features. What could they do? If they as much as bruised him…
Painfully, he was bundled into the torpedo compartment and cannonaded against No.2 tube’s hatch.
‘Please, I can’t help it – I – I just take things,’ he whimpered, head bowed. ‘That’s all…’
But his pleas seemed futile. Damn them!
Abruptly, his tone lowered. ‘Okay, have it your own way!’ He suddenly brandished a stolen marline spike from his faded blue cotton shirt now swamped in sweat.
He stabbed at Hooky. The stiletto-like blade grazed the seaman’s forearm. Hooky swore, backing off in pain.
Shadows leaped. Eric’s arms were pinned down. His wrist cracked under Alf’s wrench. The sudden stark lancing pain thrust his mind into turmoil. The marline spike fell noisily to the metal deck.

Ashen faced, he held his limp wrist and impotently watched Rusty swing open the port torpedo tube. His heart lurched.
‘Well, look at this, lads…’
Trembling uncontrollably, he saw Rusty lift the koala mascot and hammock, the carcass dripping oil.

He swivelled round. But his exit was blocked by Chalky and Alf. ‘No go, Eric.’

At the exercise’s conclusion, Lieutenant Commander Gregson received a signal from the target vessel:


‘Yes,’ Gregson replied emphatically, puzzled.

‘Sir,’ interrupted the Coxswain, ‘Steward Murton – he’s missing…’


‘Tealeaf’ is slang for ‘thief’. Society rightly frowns on thieves. Theft is despicable. Even more so in a closed community, such as a ship or submarine.

Previously published in Clyde Base Chronicle, 1977, and Centurion Magazine, 1980.
Copyright Nik Morton, 2014.

If you liked this story, you might also like my collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat (2013), which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’.  He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.

Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book.


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