I was eighteen years old, young and fit and not a care in the world. The only thing that bothered me was work. I didn’t like my job but it was only temporary and it would get me over a financial hurdle. I was working for a civil engineering company called Molem. They had assigned me to work on the pontoon that carried Sir Winston Churchill’s body up the Thames to Westminster Abbey, where he was buried. Many people assume he was buried in the Abbey but he was in fact buried just inside the west entrance, near the grave of the unknown Warrior. A guy called Malcolm would be working with me. We knew each other. Malcolm and I were about the same age but very different in stature. He was a lot smaller than me. His teeth were crooked and his legs were bandy. He couldn’t stop a pig in a passage.
The company had a small base in one of the London docks. Pile driving equipment and heavy machinery were stored under huge corrugated canopies. Three barges and a boat were moored near a place nicknamed the ‘Bomb Hole’. During the Second World War a V2 rocket had blown up the quayside, creating a massive crater. It had never been filled in or repaired. That’s where Malcom and I had met. We were working there with an old carpenter called Arthur and another young guy called Laurence. Arthur wore jam jar glasses. He seemed to be stuck in a time warp, like he was born a century ago.
I digress …
The pontoon — a massive floating platform with a couple of wooden huts on it — would be fitted with a crane and eventually towed up the Thames to Tilbury. Heavy wire strops and ropes were strewn haphazardly about the rusting deck. They would have to be curled into tidy rings. Down in the bowels of the pontoon there was a system of rail tracks upon which stood four small trucks loaded with ballast. The trucks could be wheeled independently into a variety of positions, then locked in place. They stabilised the pontoon when heavy equipment was loaded upon it. Malcolm and I were tasked with making the pontoon bright and shiny and shipshape, which meant painting the huts in the company colours: a garish bright orange and sickly cream.
Captain Clayton — everybody called him Captain — picked us up from the Bomb Hole and drove us to the West Indian Dock where the pontoon was moored. He parked the car on the quayside. We walked a few yards to the pontoon. Standing on its huge deck, he reiterated what we had to do. “You have two weeks,” he said. “Get on with it.” Two weeks? That suited me. Two weeks was just about all I could stand. Two weeks of tedium. I drew some solace from the fact that we would be left alone to get on with the job.
Malcolm and I spent the first couple of days familiarising ourselves with the old pontoon, clearing the filthy decks and curling up the loose ropes and strops. Untangling the wire strops was a nightmare. They were heavy. Years of exposure in grimy conditions had caused them to deteriorate. Sharp bits of wire stuck out here and there and threatened to tear your flesh if you weren’t careful. Clayton hadn’t left any gloves. My hands were sore where the sharp wire had dug into them.
It was early December and beginning to get bitingly cold. One day we said fuck it and decided to spend our lunch break in the pub. We knew the pub had an open fire. Malcolm and I downed tools and headed for it. It was warm and cosy inside. After the second pint we didn’t care so much about getting back. The warm fire and beer were comforting — so comforting in fact that once again we said “fuck it” and decided to have another and another. After all we had two weeks to complete the job and so we could more or less please ourselves. We decided to make up for the missing hours when we left the pub, and if we were behind we would work harder the next day. But for now we would just bask in the warmth of the fire and the heaviness of the beer.
The pub closed at 3 o’clock and we made our way unsteadily back to the pontoon. Malcolm and I were in a jokey, slightly inebriated mood. Coming towards us was a suited man with a briefcase. There was no one else around. I don’t know why but I asked the man if he would like to buy a £5 note for a £1. He looked at me quizzically. I could see hostility in his eyes. He hurried passed. Malcolm and I laughed and headed for the dock entrance. We made it back to the pontoon and started work. Malcolm scraped away the loose paint on the wooden huts, while I chipped deep pockets of rust from the winching gear.
Suddenly two plainclothes detectives with a constable appeared on the quayside. They climbed aboard. We stopped working. “Were you trying to sell money?”
“Sell money?” I had almost forgotten about the incident on the way back from the pub. It meant nothing to me. We explained that it was just a joke but the detectives frisked us, then searched the huts and decks of the pontoon.
“You will have to accompany us to the station,” one of the detectives said, reciting our rights and telling us we were being arrested on suspicion of selling counterfeit money.
And so Malcolm and I spent the whole afternoon in the interrogation room of the local police station. To verify who we were, I gave them captain Clayton’s office phone number. An hour later he arrived at the station. By then Malcolm and I had sobered up. We were still seated. I sheepishly looked up at him. His eyes were blazing. We knew we were in deep shit. Not with the police — they had already ascertained that we were just stupid youths playing a prank — but with Clayton and the company.
He told us to gather our belongings. We were sacked. The detectives looked rather smug. I felt a complete idiot. It wasn’t so much being sacked or playing a prank that made me feel so stupid, it was the fact that I had wasted three days of my life on this shit hole of a pontoon. Once again fate had dealt its hand, gotten me out of a slimy hole.
“Your wages will be sent to you,” Clayton said before striding out of the police station. Malcolm and I didn’t bother going back to the pontoon. We went our separate ways, both of us heading home. That was the last time I ever saw him.