Photograph copyright: DAVID McMAHON
I was probably about five or six years old when I realised that my father had a bit of clout. Y'know. Leverage. We were driving past the docks to get to school when I caught sight of official signs at the entrance of the docks, where the guards stood. The sign was a stern reminder that any visitors needed to have the appropriate paperwork. No skylarking, in other words.
Each of the metal boards was signed "Traffic Manager, Calcutta Port Trust". My father was the traffic manager. I puffed my chest out. Hah - my father had official signs around the huge, sprawling dockyard and every sign bore his title. Big thing, when you're just a little tacker. Of course, the signs would have probably been posted years before my father became traffic manager, before his younger brother became docks manager - and are probably still there today, long after they relinquished those jobs.
But it was of supreme importance to me back then. I probably swaggered a bit on the playground that day. Okay, so swaggering's not my style, but maybe I assumed a slightly exaggerated air of self-importance.
But I already knew how important it was for everyone to have a dock pass. My Dad didn't need one because all the guards knew his car - and I guess because (in my mind at least) all those signs had been personally given the thumbs-up by him. But no one came and went without a dock pass. No one.
When I was seven, my older brother Brian, a merchant navy apprentice officer, was due back any day after his first voyage. He was seventeen and he'd been away a whole year, basically circumnavigating the globe. When I got back home from school, I remember Mum telling me that she'd had a call from one of the other Port Trust wives, saying that his ship, the Kohinoor, was at Sandheads, up the river, and was due to berth soon.
Mum figured Dad was keeping the arrival a secret so that he could bring Brian home in the car to a tumultuous welcome. (In case you're wondering, yes, that's just the sort of thing he would have done.)
But Mum was nothing if not resourceful. She had that steely look in her eye. "We're going to the docks," she announced.
So we took a taxi to the berths near Remount Road. Remember, Mum didn't have a dock pass. But we just walked through that gate and no one stopped us, no one challenged us, no one yelled out "Halt" and no one came running after us with the sound of hobnailed boots on the hot concrete. We walked up and down the forbidden territory, but there was no Kohinoor, nor anything that remotely resembled the Kohinoor.
Eventually Mum buttonholed a stevedore, who had a word to someone, who had a word to someone, who - oh, you get my drift, don't you? In short, we found out - reliably and accurately - that the Kohinoor was not expected to berth until the next morning. Slightly crestfallen, Mum and I turned towards the gate we had walked through so airily. This time we were stopped. And given the third degree.
Mum wasn't the sort of person to lose her cool. She just explained that she was looking for her son's ship. The guard's jaw dropped. He was befuddled by Mum's honesty when she said she was the traffic manager's wife. But he was also befuddled by her deliberate flouting of the law (Dad's law, remember) that every visitor had to have a dock pass, and no exceptions.
Could Mum prove who she was, asked the guard.
So, resourceful woman that she was, she reached into her handbag and pulled out a letter addressed to her. The guard now had incontrovertible proof that Mum was indeed who she claimed she was. He let us through and we took a taxi back home.
There was no hickory-dickory at the dock.
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