We were fourth mates together, like a flock of hungry crows we junior staff officers would descend upon the newly arrived mail ship on Friday mornings, the sea officers with only one thought in mind, to get away on leave as soon as decency and work allowed, ignored us.
Our job was to tally out the hundreds of bags of mail, a chore worse than painting the Forth Bridge for at least that had some point to it. The mail bag tally we knew perfectly well even before it started would agree with the Post Office count, it was simply unthinkable for it not to. But it was one of the Company's rituals, similar to the Church's communion service, something held by the management and superintendents with the highest reverence.
Bill Smallwood was what could be described as a permanent member of the Staff Officer club, in general the membership changed weekly, some joining ships going to sea, others going off to study for a certificate whilst others joined. In all there could be as many as ten, sometimes as few as three or four, there was no set number for the club, there was but one certainty, one of the members was Bill Smallwood.
In making the choice of a sea going career many would think Bill had made an odd choice since his avowed aim was to avoid at all costs the actual sea going bit of the job. In fact Bill had chosen well for he recognised in the Company and the Marine Superintendent in Southampton a soft spot. The Company whilst not amongst the highest paying companies, and certainly not known for its luxurious crew accommodation was very generous with leave, sympathetic when struggling to pass an exam or understanding when it came to marital and family matters.
How Bill managed it was a mystery to all, but he carefully spaced his wife's pregnancies and repeated attempts to pass his mates certificate so that he never had to go to sea. It was just as simple as that, Bill did not like the sea, full stop.
I was on staff the day Bill's membership of the Staff Officers Club lapsed, he was as mad as a rattle snake. I only have hearsay for the following but to me it has a ring of truth. My father asked Captain Cummings, the senior Department of Transport examiner in Southampton whet Bill's problem was, where could he be helped to pass his mates exam. Captain Cummings made no bones about it, Bill had over the years held his mates certificate several times, but never all parts at once. Bill was informed by the Company that the Department of Transport would be ready to welcome him the following week. On the Monday Bill presented himself as instructed to begin his written's, there followed the signals and orals and on Friday Bill was the furious owner of a brand new shiny mates certificate. Worse still, a letter appointing him fourth mate of the mail ship sailing the following Friday. This was simply too much, Bill had not joined the Company to go to sea, "well" said he, "I'll be home within a month". We all laughed, Bill sailed, I was appointed to a ship shortly after so missed the sight of a triumphant Bill arriving back at Southampton on the next homeward mail.
I never saw him again, the indignity he had had to endure was obviously more than a Smallwood was prepared to stand for and he left the Company.
I am sure if Bill reads this it will be with a smile, for he was a good chap and was one of those colourful characters who, like the master chef adding that touch of spice, made the Union-Castle Line the special Company it was.