SPOTLIGHT: Drowning by the Sea by NJ Stephenson-Dickenson



 I was only a kid when I first expressed an interest in a life at sea. My Dad was a marine engineer in the navy. And my Uncle Jack used to be a navigator on a merchant vessel. But Uncle Jack died when I was six.

One of my Dad’s ships was once briefly docked on the Tyne. It was a family day. Me and Mam got to go aboard and have a tour of the ship.

 The ship seemed huge to me, but it was just a little frigate. It was magic seeing where my Dad lived when he didn’t live at home with us. He let me try on his cap and showed me around the decks. I wasn’t allowed in the engine room, but I wasn’t too bothered. I was more excited to see the bridge.

 ‘Can I be a sailor when I’m older?’ I asked my Dad.

 ‘If that’s what you want to do, Cal. Do you want to be an engineer like your Dad?’ he asked.


 Later in the day my parents had a bit of a heated discussion about when my Dad was coming home. I remember feeling scared that other sailors on the ship were looking at us.

 ‘So how come you can’t come home tonight?’ My Mam demanded.

 ‘I’m not getting relieved until tomorrow, remember? The ship can’t be without an engineer overnight, even if we are in port,’ he said.

 ‘That’s stupid. As if you’re the only Geordie on board and they won’t let you off in Newcastle!’

 ‘It doesn’t work like that, pet. We don’t get special treatment if we live close to port. P.O. will be back aboard in the morning, so I’ll hand over to him and see you then.’

 I didn’t know what a Petty Officer was back then, so I always thought my Dad had a friend on the ship called Pee-oh.

 ‘I can’t bloody stand it. I never get to see you!’ Mam said, audible to everyone. She was dangerously close to throwing a full-on temper tantrum right there on the ship.

 ‘Why don’t we head back out onto the main deck, eh? What do you reckon, Cal?’ Dad asked me. I nodded enthusiastically. Mam backed down.

 I knew back then how volatile my Mam could become in certain situations. But I didn’t think much of it as a kid. I just knew to default to my Dad’s recommendations whenever things got a bit heated. Or else it got loud.

 Me and Mam took the Metro home that afternoon. She sat, stewing, looking out the window. I tried to talk to her, but she ignored me. I was used to it. I was excited to have Dad back home the following night.


 ‘But why do I have to go to church?’ I begged.

 ‘Because we do,’ said my Mam.

 ‘That’s not a reason!’ I screamed.

 ‘Just shut up and get in the car!’


 ‘Callie. I’m very angry with you right now. You’re being a spoiled little brat. Why’ve you got to make this so difficult every week?’

 ‘Because I don’t see why I have to go! I hate it! And I don’t believe in God anyway!’ I spat.

 ‘Take that back right now! I’m warning you!’ she said.

 ‘Never! I hate it and I hate-’

 ‘Go on, say it!’


 ‘You were going to say you hate me?’ she asked.


 ‘You were, you selfish little sod!’

 ‘I was not. I want to go back in the house!’

 ‘Tough luck. We’re going to church. I’m not fighting you on this.’

 ‘Well you’ll have to drag me because I’m not going in your stupid car!’

 ‘Oh, when your Dad comes home next month, you’re in for a belting,’ she said.

 ‘Dad never has to go to church! Who’s going to belt him?’

 ‘Ach! This is what we do Callie, stop being difficult. We go to church because we go to church.’

 ‘You only go there to talk to people! It’s stupid. And God is a stupid, smelly old man! His house it full of pumps!’

 Then she smacked me on the bottom. Every week.


During basic training there’d been a young gay lad who was set to join the same unit as me. He was out and proud, and very loud. His name was Grant. He earned the nickname “Grunt” after the other guys in his barrack room allegedly heard him making sex noises in his sleep.

 I got on well with Grunt. I felt safe knowing I wasn’t the only gay person in basic training. But a few of the other New Entries started giving him a hard time. They hid his kit before parades, and put boot polish around the rim of his dress uniform cap. It was the sort of bullying that people used to say was character building. But if you were on the receiving end of it throughout your school life, and continued to endure it as a young adult, it could really fuck you up.

 Eventually Grunt cracked. We were practising rifle drill early one morning, and someone handed him an SA80 with a condom stretched over the top of the bayonet. It looked fucking stupid.

 ‘I fixed the bayonet on this one already, it’s ready to go,’ said one of the other New Entries.

 ‘Oh, thanks a bunch!’ Grunt took the rifle without inspecting it. Completely oblivious.

 I went to say something, but the guy who handed it to him caught my eye and shook his head at me. Classic bullying. If I got involved, I’d be next in line for a good old set-up. Dog shit in my parade boots. Mayonnaise in my shampoo. Maybe something worse than that. I knew the rules, so I kept quiet.

 We dressed off and marched as a squad from the armoury, across the site to the parade square, with Grunt obliviously shouldering the Johnny gun. We fell into line, dressed off again, and stood at attention on the square, awaiting inspection.

 The Chief made his way down the front rank. Grunt was a lanky lad, so he stood at the end as the left-hand marker. The last of the rank to be inspected. I’m fairly tall too, so I was the right-hand marker, at the opposite end to Grunt. A few snickers emerged from the squad as the inspection went on.

 ‘Eyes front and pipe down!’ The Chief yelled. Then he reached the end of our line and came face to face with Grunt.

 ‘That beret looks better than it did yesterday, New Entry,’ said the Chief.

 ‘Thank you, sir,’ said Grunt.

 ‘Don’t call me sir. I work for a living,’ said the Chief.

 ‘Sorry Chief. I mean thank you Chief-‘

 ‘-and what the fuck is that?’ The Chief interrupted.

 ‘W-what? Sorry Chief?’ Grunt stuttered.

 ‘Do you think you’re funny or summit?’ The Chief clenched his jaw, waiting for an explanation, but Grunt still hadn’t realised.

 ‘I’m sorry Chief, nothing’s funny. I don’t know what you mean,’ said Grunt.

 ‘Your rifle, New Entry. It’s got a fucking blob on it!’

 ‘What’s that supposed to mean? Why would I- Oh!’ Grunt finally clocked on.

 ‘Explain,’ said the Chief.

 ‘I don’t know how that got there, sir. I mean Chief.’

 ‘I’m sure it didn’t get there itself, New Entry,’ said the Chief.

 ‘Well, obviously, no, but I didn’t do it,’ said Grunt.

 ‘You mean to tell me you didn’t inspect your weapon before shouldering it, New Entry? That’s day one shit. You’ve been here for weeks!’

 ‘I’m sorry Chief. I must’ve forgot. I was really tired this morning-‘

 ‘Don’t give me excuses, New Entry! Get it off now!’

 Grunt did as he was told and pulled the condom off the bayonet. In doing so, he managed to slice his finger on the sharp metal.

 ‘Shit!’ Grunt yelped.

 ‘Shit indeed,’ said the Chief. ‘Step forward, New Entry.’

 Grunt’s right finger was bleeding. He wiped it on the butt of the gun and re-shouldered it. He took one pace forward.

 ‘Now hold the rifle out to your side. Keep your arm straight… I mean horizontal.’

 Grunt followed the order, holding the weight of the rifle with his extended arm. He started to wobble, his arm shaking.

 ‘How long do I have to do this for, Chief?’ Grunt asked.

 ‘Until I tell you to stop,’ said the Chief.

 ‘Please. It’s really heavy. I think I need a plaster for my finger.’

 The Chief ignored him. He just stood there, with his pace stick under his arm. Everyone’s eyes were on Grunt. Nobody in the squad could see his face, but they heard the Chief growling with contempt for the poor lad, and a moment later they heard Grunt’s whimpers. He was crying. Game over.


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