To Brave the Seas: A Boy at War

To Brave the Seas: A Boy at War

by David McRobbie


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781743313077
Publisher: Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited
Publication date: 10/01/2013
Pages: 234
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 10 - 13 Years

About the Author

David McRobbie is the author of more than 30 books for children and young adults, including Vinnie's War and A Whole Lot of Wayne. In To Brave the Seas he draws again on his Merchant Navy experiences to add color and realism to the story.

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To Brave the Seas

By David McRobbie

Allen & Unwin

Copyright © 2013 David McRobbie
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74343-110-8



Our house was battleship grey. All the others in my street were done in different colours. Blue ones, pink ones, green ones – take your pick. The place was like a rainbow, but not when you came to our house. Even the front door and cast-iron knocker were battleship grey. My father, Roy Chisholm, worked in Cammell Laird's shipyard at the time. He said some clerk had ordered too much paint for a Royal Navy sloop the yard was building. That was Dad's story, anyway. Always a man with a yarn.

Marion, my mother, was all for having a bit of colour in our life, but Dad won that battle, like he did most of them. I didn't mind that the house looked sort of shipshape; to tell the truth I was mad keen on being a sailor. And getting away from home. A lot of boys wanted that. When you grew up in a place with two big harbours, one on each side of the river, the dreams of leaving came thick and fast. Birkenhead, where I lived, stood on the south bank of the Mersey. Across from us lay Liverpool, the busiest seaport in the whole of Britain.

You could see big ships from the end of our street. When I knew one was coming in, I'd race home from school to be there in time to see it. I'd even nip off early when a really special one was due. I could watch those ships forever – just stand and gaze at their beauty, never mind the weather.

My favourites were the liners with white hulls and bright painted funnels, showing company colours. Sometimes they'd let out a huge, deep blast from their horn, and your whole body would jump with the shock of it. Then you'd laugh at being caught out like that.

I read about ships in the library, and took favourite books out time after time. Ma used to find pictures I'd drawn; not coloured ones, just pencil. She'd laugh and say, 'Adam, what's wrong with a nice scene – a still life, a bowl of flowers?' But for me it was ships, always ships.

And I had dreams. Not night-time ones, but during the day. I'd be grown-up, in a navy-blue uniform with brass buttons and a cap with an anchor badge on it. I'd be coming home on leave, maybe, and Ma would greet me at the front door, hugging me, admiring whatever gifts I'd brought back. Later, at night, still in my uniform, I'd take a wander three streets along to see Mavis Hill, because we'd got things sorted out between us. Well, in my dream, anyway.

Mavis Hill and I had been at school together for years when all at once, like a light going on, I'd discovered Mavis was beautiful. Of course I couldn't say that to anyone. Especially not to her. Even though I was nearly fourteen.

It had happened during the school summer holidays in 1938. Ma said suddenly, 'Oh, let's get out of this wretched, cooped-up house, Adam. Away for the day.'

So we went on a pleasure-steamer cruise, downriver to New Brighton. It was a Wednesday, and for some reason Dad was off work, but he didn't offer to come with us. Ma couldn't have cared less. If you asked me it was better that way, to keep them apart. So it was just us two, standing as far forward on the steamer as we could, then all of a sudden there was Mavis Hill, on the other side of the ship, with her mother, a small sister and younger twin brothers.

Mavis wore white shorts, canvas shoes and a blue blouse, her arms bare. She said something to her mother and went off to the upper deck, both hands on the rails as she climbed, taking two steps at a time. She had long legs. I liked to think Mavis had spotted me and this was her invitation, so I said to Ma, 'I might go up top. Watch the sailor at the wheel.'

'Yes, you go.'

Mavis was in front of the wheelhouse, leaning forward at the rail with her head up, eyes closed, hair streaming, enjoying the breeze on her face. She looked like a proud figurehead. I stood admiring her for a while, thinking she didn't know I was there, then I thought, What the hell. 'Hello, Mavis.'

'Oh!' She opened her eyes and turned around. 'It's you, Adam.' Maybe she hadn't noticed me earlier after all. But from then on, it was easy – we talked and talked, not about school stuff because we both knew that was coming to an end for us, but about what we wanted to do afterwards, our ambitions. Mavis went first and talked about doing typing and shorthand, working in an office. I listened happily. All it had taken was that first nudge. It made me wonder why I'd been so hesitant.

When we got off the steamer at New Brighton, Ma wanted to go and meet up with an old friend and have tea with him. Mrs Hill was fussing with the twins, so with both our mothers busy, Mavis suggested we stroll off together. We had an ice cream each, and visited the games arcade, although we didn't bother playing any of the games. If Mavis hadn't been there, I might have slipped a penny into one of the machines, but I let it be. Then afterwards, with our faces hot from the sun, we went back upriver on the steamer, side by side, and home.

Mavis and I spoke a few more times that year, but we were both too shy to ask for anything more, and I didn't know how to drop hints. Then it was 1939, and everyone knew there was going to be trouble with Germany. Two years before, in Spain, Adolf Hitler had helped a general called Franco to win his battles in the Spanish Civil War, sending German aeroplanes to bomb the Spanish town of Guernica. And in Italy, a swaggering bully named Mussolini was itching for a fight, building his army, navy and air force, tossing his weight around.

While all this was going on, there was a different kind of struggle in our house. Ma turned sickly for a while, then all at once it became serious. Dad helped me move her bed into the front room where there was a bit of sun in the afternoon and a hospital smell all the time.

Dad had more work at the shipyard – overtime, he said, because the whole country was getting ready for war, so factories built fighter planes, guns and ammunition, and shipyards like Cammell Laird's built warships. So it was mainly me helping Ma, along with a nurse who came in each morning. In the afternoon once home from school, I'd drop my bag, then go and see how Ma was doing. I always asked the same silly questions, even though I knew the answers before I'd even asked. It gave me something to say.

'How are you feeling?'

'Oh, a bit better. I suppose.'

'Did you get up today? You said you would.'

'I thought, maybe not. Take it easy for a while longer.'

'That's the way, Ma.'

'Oh, yes.'

One afternoon she patted the bedcovers and said, 'Sit for a while, Adam. Let's talk.'

I didn't care for 'talk', so I sat uneasily on the chair next to her bed. Ma smiled and reached up to smooth back a strand of hair that hung over my eyes. It was an effort for her, anyone could see that. I took her hand and laid it on her chest. There were red rubber tubes coming and going from her, so you had to be careful. 'Are you warm enough, Ma? Will I get you a hot water bottle?'

I half made to rise. Any excuse would do.

'No, stay, Adam. I'm warm enough.' She looked at me and smiled her lovely smile. I never told her, but that's what it was, warm-like and gentle. With that kind of smile everything was all right. But not this time. Ma asked, 'What would you do if I weren't here anymore?'

I thought about it before saying, 'You mean like —' There was no help for it. The horrible word had to come out. 'You mean like – dying?'

Ma smiled again, not her usual kind of smile, but one full of sad regret. 'Yes, that kind of "not here anymore". What would you do?'

'I'd be unhappy. I'd miss you. Then I'd be angry?'

'With me, Adam?'

'No, with it. Whatever's causing you to be this way.' I gave her my hand again. She took it and squeezed, but not hard.

'I've been through that, over and over. Asked myself the "Why me?" question. I want to talk about it with your dad, before it's – you know. But he's —' Ma could only cough and swallow, then whisper, 'When I need him.' She changed the subject. 'Your grandmother said, before he and I got married, "He's feckless. That's what he is."'

'It's not fair, Ma. Not about Dad. About you.'

'It never is fair, Adam. Never was. Never will be.'

And in September of that year, on the day our Prime Minister, Mr Chamberlain, announced that Britain was at war, my lovely mother died.

* * *

I did my crying in private – took myself to a park, sat under an autumn tree and let it happen. After that, I vowed there'd be no more tears, for I was certain there would never be a bigger tragedy in my life.

When I came out of the park gates Mavis was there, walking a new, small dog her family had got. It jumped up at my leg and Mavis had to pull him away. If she noticed my red eyes, she didn't mention them, just said, 'I heard about your mum, Adam. Really sorry about it.'

'Yes. Thanks.'

The dog was pulling at her, so she had to go. It was one of those times when I wanted to see her, but didn't want to see her. Right then she'd only get single words out of me. Any more would be too hard to say.

All that winter of 1939 Dad and I mucked in, sometimes together but more often not. The war took our minds off what we'd lost, gave us things to do and think about. There were new rules and regulations, places we couldn't go all of a sudden, and at night there was total darkness in every street.

The government only gave us a certain time to put up our Anderson air-raid shelter or they'd take the thing back, might even fine us. A lot of households had received their shelter at no cost, as we did. But Dad was busy with work, always busy, so I started digging the hole on my own. I didn't get very far. The winter frosts made the ground hard as iron, and all I managed was to make a mess where Ma once had her flower garden. A neighbour said that if the air-raid siren went I could come in with him and his family. He smoked a pipe, and his wife was never without a ciggie hanging from her lips. Take your pick, Adam, I thought. A slow death from tobacco fumes, or a quick one from Hitler's bombs.

Men and women were joining the military before they were called up, but Dad was in a reserved occupation, he said, doing important work at the shipyard. Not feckless things, but precision work, he told me, making ships' engine parts, measuring to fine tolerances, sometimes ten-thousandths of an inch.

A number of boys from my school had already left. A lot of the younger ones had been evacuated to the country, while some of the fifteen-year-olds from my class had started to do their bit in the war industry. My mates Bob, Reg and Sam were doing factory work, hoping they'd get an apprenticeship when they were old enough. I stayed on at school, but felt more and more keen to get out of Birkenhead and go to sea, even though there was bad news coming all the time.

On her way to Canada, the liner Athenia had been torpedoed by a German submarine. Another U-boat had sunk the battleship Royal Oak, and Atlantic convoys were being attacked and ships sent to the bottom with men, women, even evacuated children lost under the waves. Sea lanes were mined. But I still wanted to go. Ambition is ambition.

In the first week of April 1940 I put it to Dad. 'I'm old enough now, everyone says that. I can be a deck boy on a ship. Cabin boy, if I want. There are lots of jobs. I could work my way up to being an officer.'

Dad gave me one of his looks that I'd seen before: a quick flicker of hope. Like an idea coming. Then he hid it, put on a caring face and said, 'M-mmm, you're a bit young. You don't fancy waiting a while?'

'If I hang around I'll get called up anyway. Into the army. When I'm eighteen.'

'The war might be over by then.'

I lied a bit, although there was no need to. 'Sam and Reg have already signed on for the Merchant Navy.'

'If it's what you want.'

'I'll go to the shipping office tomorrow. But might need your signature or something.'

'Oh, Adam, lad.' Dad sucked in a long breath; showed his teeth like he was making a big decision. 'There's a lot on at the yard. Job's to be finished by three.'

'What about dinnertime? Twelve o'clock. Can you get away then? For ten minutes?'

After a nod and a sigh, he said, 'Right, I'll meet you there.'

* * *

It was well after one o'clock, and there was no sign of him. I'd been outside the shipping office since twelve, looking up and down the street. I made excuses to myself: he must have had to work through the dinner hour to get his high-precision job done.

Eventually I went in alone. The man behind the shipping-office counter looked me up and down and said, 'You're a tall one. You could sign on as a flagpole, except ships've already got them.' I laughed. That was the best way with officials: keep on their good side and everything was easy. He went on, 'You need your dad to sign for you. Or your mum.'

I was quick with a lie. 'I'm an orphan.' That was half true.

The official persisted. 'Then somebody from the orphanage should vouch for you. Give their permission.'

'Nobody said anything about that. They just told me to get a job.'

'Right, then.' He consulted a large book. 'How about being a deck boy?'

'That sounds good.'

'You'll get four pounds a month, and another four because it's wartime. Do overtime and they'll pay you a shilling an hour.' He studied the book again.

This was an unbelievable amount of money. I'd only ever earned a penny or two for running errands, or going with the baker on his rounds. I used to hold his horse while he delivered bread and rolls. As the baker said at the time, 'She's a wayward mare who won't take whoa for an answer.' I'd liked that joke and told it to Ma. She laughed. But that was then.

The official lifted his head from the book. 'There's a ship lying over in Liverpool. Make it easy for you, eh? Not far to travel.'

'When's it to be?'

'You can join her tomorrow. The Staplehurst. She's berthed in Huskisson Dock. You know where that is?'

'Been there dozens of times.'

'So get your gear together, son, and off you go.'

The official gave me a paper to say I was now in the Merchant Navy, joining the Staplehurst.

Outside the shipping office there was still no sign of my father.

* * *

Dad was late home that night, and he didn't say anything to me about the shipping office. He clattered about in the kitchen, getting something to eat, always with his back to me.

'I signed on today, Dad.'

'Oh, yes, I meant to ask about that. All fixed, then?'

'I join the Staplehurst tomorrow.'

He spoke over his shoulder. 'That soon, eh?'

'I've got my gear together, shoes and stuff. Is it okay if I take the kitbag from the back room?' I'd already packed my gear in it, so asking was only polite.

'Of course. Take it, son.' The navy-blue kitbag had been in the house for ages. Dad had brought it home from the shipyard, said he'd found it and would hand it in. But he never did. It had a name stencilled on it: KETTLE J. It also had a white rope to fasten it together at the top. It was a proper sailor's thing.

'How'd the big job go, Dad?'

'Job?' He looked at me for the first time, a quick, puzzled glance.

'The three o'clock one?'

'Oh, yes.' He remembered. 'Ah – went off like clockwork.' He paused. 'So, what time are you going tomorrow?'

'I'll catch an early ferry.'

'When's the ship sailing?'

'Don't know yet. I'll find out.'

Dad brought his plate and cup of tea to the table and sat down. 'You know, Adam, maybe it's not such a bad idea, you going. The thing is, the firm wants me to go to Glasgow. I'd be training other men, and some women, too. War work. There'd be a lot of travelling. Staying away overnight, that sort of business.'

'It will be easier if you don't have to worry about me.'

'That's what I'm thinking.' He concentrated on his food.

'And this place?'

'I'll give it up. I mean, what's the point?' He shrugged, eyes down. 'You away, me away.'

I remembered my dream of coming home to Ma from one of my sea journeys. Suddenly I was more sad about leaving our battleship-grey house than I was about saying goodbye to my father.


Excerpted from To Brave the Seas by David McRobbie. Copyright © 2013 David McRobbie. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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