Christmas Eve is definitely not the most popular day for sailing. In wartime you didn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing your date, and so it was a rather disgruntled crew who put to sea on a day when most people were starting their celebrations.

Massive posters everywhere shouted ‘CarelessTalk Costs Lives’, so another thing you had no choice about was your destination (you’d probably have jumped ship if you’d known it).The funny thing was, while the poor old seaman didn’t have a clue as to where he was bound, the ladies of easy virtue in the Clowes, the pub by Number 9 gate of Manchester docks, always seemed to be well-informed on this score.

This was only my second trip as a Merchant Navy apprentice, and it was blowing and snowing as we left the Mersey and crossed the Bar into a hostile Irish Sea.

Aggravated by a Force 6 wind, the cold struck with the ferocity of an iceberg ripping open the side of the Titanic, and working on deck, I was exposed to the full fury.

Within minutes I nearly keeled over as the icy blast sought out a tooth that had given no previous warning of vulnerability, and I literally screamed with pain.

On the other side of the hatch cover, the Bosun looked round, and with a feeling of
shame I pointed to the gulls wheeling storm-tossed overhead and yelled: “Noisy beggars, aren’t they?”

Then the pain struck again. Staggering up to the bridge, I presented myself to the Captain. By now the left side of my face had ballooned to twice its normal size, and I groaned: “Sorry, Sir. I just can’t work with this.”

Looking at me the Old Man nodded. “Right, Clayton. I know you’re not one for swinging the lead.” He gave me a sympathetic look. “You’re excused the rest of the watch, but before you go to your cabin have a word with the Chief Engineer. Tell him I sent you.”

Managing an indistinct: “Aye, aye, sir,” I headed for the Chief Engineer’s cabin. Knocking on the stout door, I waited until it opened and a round moon face, under a peaked uniform cap, appeared in the gap. “Well?” he boomed out.

“Captain sent me, Chief.”

Opening the door he stepped aside as I entered the warm, fuggy atmosphere. I know I shouldn’t have goggled. It was common knowledge among the crew, thanks to the Chief Engineer’s chatty steward, that when his boss was alone in his cabin, apart from the cap he went about totally naked. At 6ft 3in and around the 19 stone mark, Chiefy was not a pretty sight.

After the initial slight embarrassment I soon forgot the giant’s nakedness. For one thing, his pendulous stomach overhung his
genitals, masking them as effectively as any Victorian fig leaf, and if I couldn’t see his tackle I was sure he couldn’t either, without the aid of a mirror.

I indicated my swelling, and the naturist engineer, a man of few words, said: “Open up.”When I obeyed, he flicked a tooth with a horny fingernail, causing me to yelp like Gazza whenVinny Jones put the squeeze on him.

He went to the fitted shelf, an adjunct to every cabin, which held a water carafe and two drinking glasses. Planting one of the glasses on the table, he opened a cupboard and took out a bottle of rum. Glugging out a generous helping, more than half a tumbler full, he handed it to me with a laconic: “Get that down you, son.”

Picking up the glass of fiery liquid, I asked nervously:“W-will this make it better, Chief?”

In reply he gave a flick of his wrist, indicating that I was to drink up. Meanwhile, he was fiddling in a drawer. I obeyed this gesture and gave a shuddering cough as the raw spirit descended, searing throat and guts in its journey. Momentarily the pain of my tooth was superseded by the sensation caused by the rum, and I had a feeling of optimism that this might have done the trick. My eyes were running and I felt lightheaded so that I could hardly make out that he had pulled what looked like a metal pencil from the drawer.

Dabbing my eyes, I realised that it was a centre punch. Ah well, engineers used these, I supposed. In his other hand appeared a small hammer. As if in a dream I sensed rather than saw the centre punch placed against my tooth. Before I could move, the hammer was drawn back, and then rapped firmly against the metal punch.

I leapt so high that my head was in danger of hitting the low ceiling. When my feet returned to the deck, a finger and thumb the size, shape and colour of a pair of pork sausages was inserted into my mouth, emerging with the offending molar dripping with gore.

Half-dazed with the crude anaesthetic I staggered from the cabin, unable to decide in my hazy mind whether I was thankful for the removal of the root of my pain, or outraged by the brutal assault on my person.

All these years later, on my biannual dental check-up, sinking into the padded chair, I cast a wary eye on the napkin-covered tray bearing an array of shining implements,just in case there is a small hammer and centre punch among them.

Eric Clayton.