top of page

The Postman Fails to Knock

By Randolph Magri-Overend

Empress of Canada

I almost got into a lot of bother when delivering mail in Buenos Aires

The situation evolved because Canadian Pacific Steamships found itself in financial strife in the middle sixties. The subsidy for migrants to Canada had been dwindling for some time and sea journeys from Europe couldn't be sustained all year round plus the rivalry from other shipping companies was getting fiercer. Rumour had it that one of the Empresses, if not two, were on the verge of being fire-sold. As a last resort, the company decided to allow a London-based company called A.S.C. to charter two of the Empresses for domestic cruises to the Canary Islands and in the case of the "Britain" an extended set of cruises between South Africa and South America.

The charter company brought on its own Cruise Director, Social Hostesses, Entertainment Director and Band. The latter was a much-needed improvement. Musicians, previously had tended to be the ex-cream of the crop. A case of the flesh being willing but the consumption of spirits being far from weak. They loved jawing over a bottle and reminiscing of licks with Louis or Glenn or even gigs with Bing. Their music was never really up to scratch.

Appointing two Social Hostesses was both inspirational and innovative. They were both good sports. Ginger, whom I took a fancy to, was intellectual, vivacious and came from Liverpool. Jenny, a willowy blonde from Stepney Green was an extrovert and immediately took a shine to Keith Richards, our Crew Purser.

The Crew Purser’s office was almost in the hold, but not quite, and located in the forward part of the ship, away from the temptation of passengers. As the title indicated the Crew Purser’s main function was looking after the crews' wages. He was assisted by a junior member of staff. Being isolated from the frivolities of passengers had its advantages.

The working environment was free of distractions and the workload evenly paced until final landfall in Liverpool, when it became mildly frantic. At the end of every fourth or fifth trip, however, the complete crew (all 350 of them) signed off en-masse (the official marine term was termination of ship's articles) and the tempo of work in the crew office almost reached panic proportions. In those days, calculators were still light years away and computers the prized possessions of the privileged few who could afford them. Everything was calculated by trial and error and if you couldn't cope after running out of fingers and toes, the problem was handed to a junior.Each member of the ship's company had an individual account of wages and on signing off each received the balance of their pay in cash. The summary of those accounts was called a Porterage Bill and trying to balance the Porterage Bill was as welcome to all Crew Pursers as being lowered in a botswain's chair into a bowl of elephants’ droppings. Even nibbling ship's food had greater appeal. It took days of sweat and, sometimes tears, to balance a Porterage Bill. If it balanced the first time one thing was certain - something was wrong!

It sounds ridiculous but Keith Richards had the unique experience of losing a Porterage Bill once.

It was a disaster of gigantic proportions - a mishap in a million. But then Keith was known for his lack of luck…his life was dogged with it. On one occasion, he decided to eat his soft-boiled eggs in the office after discovering he hadn't allowed enough time to eat them in his cabin. Carefully placing each egg in a side pocket of his jacket he proceeded to canter towards the Crew Office. Alas, he chose the day when `A' deck was being scrubbed. Rounding the companionway leading to the deck, he was suddenly faced with a slippery deck and no traction. His body, airborne for a brief second, bounced off the deck, crashing into the reverberating bulkheads. The sounds of hilarity from witnesses still echo through the alleyways of 'A' deck. The cocktail of eggs and serge fibres was never consumed and the jacket was tossed over the side and allowed to get washed ashore!

The loss of the Porterage Bill was another matter but it was hardly surprising it occurred to Keith. On the fateful morning - well before dawn - it had been carefully bedded down on the countertopof of the crew office. By first light, when the office re-opened, it had disappeared.

What followed would have received plaudits and gold stars from the Office of Accidental-Matters-that-couldn’t-have-been-foreseen. After a lot guessing, most of it second hand, it transpired that the ship had lurched sharply sometime in the morning and the Bill had slid very slowly down the length of the counter. Somehow, it found its way to the end of the counter and deposited itself very neatly inside the garbage bin. The bell-boy, unaware of its precious contents, innocently emptied the bin where it was innocently consumed in everlasting fire. There was momentary panic when the enormity of the loss hit us, but we soon all buckled down and the pay-off took place as usual, albeit slightly late

But Keith really didn't deserve the attention that bad luck heaped on him. He was a niceguy. In his late thirties, he had the hang-down look of a man beset by the problems of the world. He'd never married and he went home to his mother at the end of each trip. He loved his gin, was humorous in a self-deprecating way, and the longer he disparaged himself the more hilarious he became.

Jenny, the new, blonde, statuesque social hostess, loved him at first sight. She was a nurse by profession and found a kindred spirit in Keith. He had a keen interest in medical matters and was fond of poring through musty medical books. It was this interest that convinced Keith at one stage that he bore the symptoms of some grave disease and that salvation could only come through strict tobacco and alcoholic abstinence. For a person whose principal diet revolved around smoking, drinking and a supply of aspirins, this created quite a stir. But Keith proved himself a man of substance and for a couple of months never wavered. It was Paul Bertrand, the Deputy Purser, who noticed the first signs of weakness. It occurred soon after the start of the A.S.C. cruises.

When confronted, Keith explained: "It's quite simple." he said, filling his lungs with nicotine while sipping a large G & T. "I mentioned my condition to Jenny and she was convinced I'd got it wrong. So I picked up the medical encyclopaedia and read a bit more. I turned the page and discovered the only persons who were likely to carry the symptoms and eventually succumb were ……. pregnant women!"

Jenny proved beneficial to Keith. His outlook on life became more positive and though his drinking did not subside, the bouts of moroseness became less frequent. It was Jenny's boss, however, who became a problem as the days progressed.

As Cruise Director, Bill Carridane, had in many ways much more power than the ship’s captain. He was the representative of the ship's charterers and without them there would have been no cruises, no work and no wages. In matters of the day to day running of the ship, his word was law. Crew discipline and matters of navigation and safety were still the captain's domain but in practically all other matters Carridane was in charge.

Rumour had it he was an ex-crocodile hunter from Southern Rhodesia. He was certainly a quixotic person; at first glance affable and genial he hid a streak of nasty megalomania that only became apparent when crossing swords with him. Initially he hosted numerous cocktail parties for the ship's officers in which we mixed quite freely with the A.S.C. staff. It therefore came as a rude shock when one of his first edicts forbade any ship's officer to fraternise with the social hostesses. Thereafter, both Keith's and my relationship with the girls went ‘underground’ and we had to be increasingly discreet about our liaisons.

Initially, meeting in the girls' cabin was no problem. They shared a cabin that was a good distance from Carridane's. However, it became more difficult as soon as the South Africa leg was under way and the girls found themselves sharing the same bulkhead with their boss…meaning he occupied the adjoining cabin.

Somehow, we managed without any great degree of difficulty until Keith decided to play a soccer match in Durban and broke his ankle. The local hospital confirmed a clean break and Keith was left behind. Eventually he was shipped back to England on the first available British vessel.

Jenny was devastated. When the incident occurred, a further two months of cruising lay ahead. Jenny joked about joining our soccer team disguised as a boy and breaking her own ankle so she could be reunited with her soulmate. She called him her ‘Keefer’.

Ginger and I did our best to console her. Often, we'd go ashore as a threesome. Somehow the romance of Rio or Santos wasn't quite as alluring.

It was an ordeal for all concerned. Jenny didn't exactly mope but she made it abundantly clear she was pining for Keith. At every port of call, she would be the first one queueing for mail and when no letters arrived, she'd sulk until the next port of call.

One such occasion occurred when we arrived in Buenos Aires. No letter from "Keefer"! Jenny stormed back to her cabin leaving a lonely Ginger to explore the city by herself. Fortunately, I was rostered on the early shift and within half an hour the agent arrived with a second mailbag and a letter from Keith. The bellboy was still doing the rounds with the first batch of mail. I was faced with a dilemma. Should I wait for the bellboy to come back and risk prolonging Jenny's agony, or should I deliver the letter in person knowing that Carridane was resting in his cabin next door, and was certain to create an international incident if he came out to investigate? I took a deep breath and with letter in shaky hand tip-toed to the cabin. Carridane's door was down a short alleyway and at right angles to Jenny's.

I knew that knocking on the door would rouse the slumbering Carridane - so I didn't knock. I turned the handle and opened the door in one jerky movement.

Not more than two paces away stood Jenny admiring herself in front of a full length mirror. She was standing sideways enchantingly and …….. completely naked!

I stood there - frozen.

She screamed. I tossed the letter on the deck, shut the door as quietly as I could under the circumstances and ran for the safety of our office.

Other Stories by

Randolph Magri-Overend

If you have a story to tell please share it. (Here)

312 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


     Please subscribe to  Salty Seadog

Thanks for joining us

bottom of page