Jella: From Lagos to Liverpool - A Woman at
Sea in a Man's World
ship was now working to in-port periods of duty, the engineers
on from about seven in the morning to five in the afternoon, while
the mates, if they were not wanted at the hatches, could go ashore.
No one did. Instead they wrote up their notes, caught up on any
office work in their cabins, and hung around the bar. The following
evening I watched the lights from the dock being switched on through
my cabin porthole. The phone rang. It was Roger, the Chief Engineer,
‘There are seven British Caledonian airhostesses in the bar if you fancy
a bit of female company. Why don’t you come down?’
I muttered a listless ‘Great’, and replaced the receiver.
‘Women,’ I tutted, plonking myself down heavily on the bed. I had
grown used to sitting amongst the men in the evenings, drinking too much beer
and listening to their tales.
‘Women! What do they want coming on board?’
. . . I snatched up my boilersuit from the bed, pulled it over
my shoulders and tied it with a belt. This could be considered
trendy, I thought. I
the mirror and liked what I saw.
The officers’ saloon was always smoky.
‘Hey, come on over,’ Roger shouted, waving an arm
already beginning to have a life of its own. He was struggling
with the cellophane on a carton of beer
cans, simultaneously trying to entertain the two women on the other
side of the bar.
‘This is Shirley. And this is – ‘ he smiled, too familiar already,
he thought, for any offence to be taken by the mere forgetting of a
Two heads turned and smiled at me, one brunette, one blonde.
‘Dea,’ Roger gestured with the flat palm of his spare hand as if
a priest offering me up as the host. ‘This is Dea. She’s sailing
with us. Beer?’
He ripped out a can for me. I pulled the ring and swigged exaggeratedly
back. Shirley and her friend took a sip from urine-coloured drinks.
A glance around the bar revealed more Shirleys, all, except one,
very pretty. Their hair was long, their nails long, their bare
long in high heels. They all looked so happy. They appeared to
be a herd of strange
animals, of an entirely different species to my own. I saw grotesquely
painted exaggerated lips, scarlet talons on the end of creeper-like
‘Our plane is grounded at Accra,’ explained Shirley. ‘We’re
waiting for the bit to be flown out.’ . . .
Drinks and cigarettes were being plied gallantly upon the girls,
accepted in moderation. The officers had been starved of white
for two months.
But while the women’s eyes flirted, their backs stayed straight, refusing
to accommodate the contorted shapes of the officers’ bodies bending to
almost – but never actually – touch their scented female
I was spectator to this sport. I was angry and upset. I
maybe, being accepted by these men. Now these women – these women – had come along
and reminded them that I, too was female. They could go back to their fancy Ghanaian
Hilton that night. This was where I lived . . .’