|A perfect people smuggler
It was in the late eighties. I arrived in Hamburg to catch the ferry to UK, early as usual, and as was my wont, repaired to a dockside bar to stuff myself with horsemeat frikadellas and drink myself to semi oblivion before slotting my car and myself onto the deck of a Scandinavian North Sea Ferry.
Winter, and a vicious gale was blowing freezing horizontal rain across that bleak North West European coastal plain. It was miserable. My favourite feeding hole was one the truckers used. It was rough, fecund with the aroma of moist clothes drying in the heat, burning fat from the fryers, spilled blood and alcohol and chain smoked cigarettes. So long as you avoided looking at anyone in that special way attracting a smack in the mouth and a dip in the harbor, you stood a good chance of enjoying a great meal and a gutful of beer.
To get there, however, I had to drive up a ramp out of the secure zone of the port and onto the dockside. Bugger me, I nearly ran this guy over. Don’t forget, it is pitch black freezing cold and I have just driven a million miles from the middle of Europe. There’s no lighting other than that provided by the headlights of my car and even the very smart centrally pivoted wipers of my Mercedes were struggling to clear the sleet. How I missed him stepping out of the shelter of the bridge buttress I have no idea. The guy was black as the ace of spades, he was dressed in a soaked through black suit and carrying a small black shoulder bag. And he wasn’t exactly big either. If I had stood him on his feet having lifted him from the foetal position he had sensibly adopted faced with two tonnes of Sindelfingen steel about to impress a three pointed star on his arse, he’d have had difficulty peering over the bonnet. I was mad as fucking hell.
‘Je m’excuse’ he said when I dragged him to his feet.
‘Je m’excuse? Je m’excuse you black fucking frog!’ I shouted, ‘I coulda killed yer you dozy fucking Aff!’
These were the days before political correctness. I had damn near died of a heart attack and stuffed my car off a bridge into a harbor because of him so je m'excuse too.
He stood there hanging his head low. He was shivering uncontrollably. If ever there was a perfect case of hypothermia, it was standing in front of me now. He didn’t even have a bloody coat. His black shoulder bag was lying soaked through inches in front of the car’s wheel, that’s how close it had been. I was still young so had never seen anyone as desperate and miserable.
I have no idea what possessed me. I was a Captain in the British Army, Adjutant of 5 Ordnance Battalion on my way home for a couple of weeks leave to visit my English father. Now I was standing on a cast iron bridge, my tunic soaking in all the North Sea could throw at it staring at this picture of human misery.
‘Parlez vous Anglais?’ I demanded.
‘En peux’ he replied.
‘Get in the fucking car’
I hoiked his bag off the road, tossed it into the cabin after him and headed to the greasy spoon. Fuck, the guy stank but it was the lesser of two evils, it was too cold to open all the windows.
I ordered food. Then I ordered some more. Then I asked the waitress to just keep feeding him until he hopefully just fell over unconcious and burst. He did not drink alcohol so I drank his share figuring that so long as I kept my hands and feet away from his mouth I’d be reasonably safe. He was in a bad way. I had been seriously knackered before in the course of my duties but this guy was wasted. He could barely sit upright and his upper eyelids obviously weighed about two tonnes each.
We got to chatting. I still had another hour before boarding. I was Commodore Class and pre booked so I could board at the last second. Turns out he was from the People’s Republic of Congo, a Marxist Leninist one party dictatorship. I had never met a real African before. Sure, I had met loads of people in UK who despite enjoying all the benefits English society can provide still claim to be African but they’re not really, just as I am not Polish although that’s where my family came from before they fled west in front of the Russians and became Germans. This guy in front of me now was a real African and he was quite clearly on death’s door.
Chatting to him I discovered that he was in Germany, East Germany, on a University scholarship paid for by the people of the People’s Republic of Congo. He was studying to be an engineer. This, apparently, was a great opportunity for the family. He would get qualified and then earn enough to support his extended family, most of whom, he explained, were in their villages in Congo. They had all contributed to place him where he was, in a University in East Germany. His family members were all gambling on his future.
It was a great opportunity for me. It meant I could abandon schoolboy French and talk to him in German.
So why had I nearly run him over in Hamburg on a cold and bastard lonely night if he was supposed to be in Berlin studying for his Engineer’s degree?
He had family in UK he hadn’t seen in ages and just wanted to visit while he was in Europe. His battered bag was filled, not with many changes of clothes but with presents from family back in Africa. The UK family was in Quatarang he said. Hmmn, didn’t sound very English to me. Whereabouts in England is Quatarang? I enquired. He dug in his bag and pushed a bit of paper with an address over to me. Oh! Kettering! I would pass through Kettering on my way home to Leicestershire preferring, as I did, the fast A roads to the heavily policed motorways. These were the days before speed cameras as well.
Turned out, he’d had enough money to get to UK and then his Kettering relatives would have given him enough to get back to Berlin except he never made it. He’d taken a train from Berlin, got to the port, had boarded the ferry and been turned back by immigration at the port of entry. He’d actually landed on UK soil. He’d been so close but was now stranded, broke and freezing to death on the wrong side of the Channel begging for a lift back to Berlin.
So why hadn’t the UK arm of his family sent enough money to him in East Germany? This was 1987, two years before the Wall came down. West Berliners were not allowed to cross from west to east and East Berliners were shot just for trying to go the other way. Even though I was born in Berlin, with a British passport I could cross into the East and would carry letters and presents over to relatives even though, as a British serviceman, I wasn’t allowed to.
Now all this annoyed me. It annoyed me on so many levels. Firstly, I had nearly run the little sod over. Then I felt sorry for him and fed him. Now I was being inexorably sucked into something. This guy wasn’t a terrorist. He may have been an ardent communist but that’s a lifestyle choice, not a crime. All he wanted to do, since Berlin compared to Africa was so damn close, was visit members of his extended family. Now, here he was separated by the width of the North Sea, a distance, had its watery surface been able to support his weight, he would happily have walked. After all, it was probably no further than he’d been willing to walk with an empty stomach every day as a Kid just to get to school. It was so bloody unfair. He no longer had a ferry ticket anymore and I knew his passport had already been rejected by UK immigration. I was also annoyed that just because I had taken the Queen’s shilling, even though I had been baptized with water from the River Spree, I could not visit the city of my birth, Berlin, without the permission of the British Military authorities.
I paid the bill and told him to get in the back of the car. I was to attend a wedding in UK so had my No 1 Dress Uniform, still covered in clear plastic from the dry cleaners in the boot.
‘Lie down in the footwell’, I told him, ‘and don’t move, don’t even breathe until I tell you.’
I laid out my Blue Patrols over him, laid my forage cap and sword on top for good measure and drove back to the secure area.
I (we) were waved through. Don’t forget, these were the days when a casually waved British Passport in front of the face of Johnny Foreigner actually meant something, especially if you were leaving their country.
I always took a cabin on the ferry. Now this presented a bit of a problem as I knew, before the ferry staff handed any key over, they would check the passenger’s ticket, purely out of Scandinavian courtesy of course, so I was familiar with the form. Clearly, my unexpected guest didn’t have one and even if I had nailed his left hand to the capstan to keep him out of mischief while I went off and collected my cabin keys, he was so fucking nervous, he’d have blown it so I needed to keep him very close. That meant staying in the public areas.
While we were allowed to be in uniform in public in Germany, we were not supposed to travel in uniform so I was feeling bloody conspicuous. I had left straight from the office intending to shower and change into civvies in my cabin. Amongst the sea of civilians on board could easily be a senior British officer in mufti who might enquire of me what the hell I was doing in uniform. Somehow I had to figure out a way into my cabin.
I sat the guy down at a cafeteria table, bought him a coffee and told him not to move while I went on a recce. We were already over an hour underway so it was hardly surprising the usual Scandinavian officer was no longer at the reception desk when I arrived on the Commodore Class deck and I was met by a Filipino Steward instead. Scandinavians are, in general, incorruptible, but woefully underpaid Filipinos aren’t.
‘Do you speak English?’ I asked him as he showed me into my cabin, laid my suitcase out on the special table just for suitcases the cabins are all fitted with before standing there expecting his tip.
‘Quite by chance,’ I said, ‘I have just bumped into an old friend who is travelling in tourist class. I really would like to invite this person to join me here for dinner’ and handed over a couple of hundred German Marks.
The money disappeared in a flash.
‘Table for two Sir?’ he asked, his face a mask of oriental inscrutability.
‘Thank you, we’ll use my cabin to shower and change for dinner, neither of us are suitably dressed’
‘Get a bloody shower’ I told the Freedom Fighter as we got inside.
So there I was, a Commissioned Officer in the British Army with a Congolese Communist in my cabin on my way over the North Sea to England. Brilliant. How the fuck did they ever leave me in charge of soldiers? My father used to leave me in charge of heavy machinery but I always disappointed him by surviving. While the lad was showering, I went for a walk.
DFDS, certainly in those days, was by far and away the nicest way to cross the North Sea. Sure there were quicker ways but while everyone else was driving across Belgium with their heads on fire, I was willing to sacrifice a couple of days either end of my leave and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet and some decent service before disembarking completely refreshed after a gutful of excellent food and a good night’s sleep. No wonder there wasn’t a traffic cop either side of La Manche who could catch me. They were running on doughnuts while I was fuelled with Swedish smoked salmon served on rye bread with Russian caviar and as much Cottage Cheese as I could choke down. And if you want to come out of Harwich docks in excess of 125 mph, a glass of champagne or two for breakfast beforehand will not go amiss.
As I stalked the decks of the vessel, however, I was acutely conscious I was starving, missing out on all my fun and had an illegal immigrant in my cabin.
When I got back to the cabin, it was like walking into a sauna. There he was, in the bathroom, squeaky clean washing his undies in the sink. DFDS is a Scandinavian company so all their décor is minimalist yet attractive. I am sure the designer of the curtain rails had not envisaged their use as a drying rack.
‘Have you anything left that is dry?’ I asked him.
I trudged back down to the Duty Free shop deck and picked up a ridiculously expensive Melka shirt (which I coveted), a pair of Chinos and a pair of deck shoes. They may, just, have allowed him to dine in the Commodore Class A La Carte restaurant in his stinky suit but naked was stretching it and, like I said, I was bloody hungry.
As we lay in our bunks in the cabin after dinner (I made him take the top bunk because I know how rough the North Sea can be and it hurts more rolling unexpectedly out of a top bunk onto a thinly carpeted but nevertheless unforgiving steel deck) I asked him what it was like living in a one party Marxist Leninist state. Inexplicably invigorated, he launched into a discourse and five minutes later I was fast asleep as the vessel slipped passed Cuxhaven and turned left out into the North Sea on its way to Harwich.
I was awoken at five by the gentle tap of the steward on the cabin door bringing us breakfast. His face as I let him in was a bit of a picture as he surveyed, instead of an immaculate DFDS suite, the interior of a Chinese laundry.
‘Just lay it out on the table,’ I said as I hurriedly cleared away a still damp T shirt and a pair of socks.
‘Lose the suit’, I told the boy after breakfast before we made our way down to the car deck, ‘you’re not going to Buckingham Palace, we’re just trying to get by immigration so wear the kit I got you last night’
As we got down to the car, I dug in the boot and fetched out the jacket of a tweed suit of mine and told him to put that on. He looked ridiculously small in it but it would have to do.
‘Right, seat belt on and give me yer passport,’ I told him as the deck hands waved us off towards the ramp.
In those days British passports where a work of art. Shoddily constructed with cardboard covers but they were black and instantly recognizable. I was in a left hand drive car so was on the wrong side when I pulled up to immigration. Placing the communist’s passport behind mine and fanning them like a Las Vegas card sharp, I told the lad just to lower the window and hold them up. We were waved through.
‘Erstaunlich!’ he said. I could imagine, and have since discovered, that crossing an African border can be a damn sight more painful but what this astonished young man failed to realize, because 24 hours earlier he had never made it that far, was that we still had the hated Revenue Men to deal with. Did I have anything to declare? Nothing. Apart from an illegal immigrant, what’s the duty on one of those?
I had done this trip once every four months. Every time I had just been waved through. This time I was pulled into a search bay.
‘Can you open the boot, Sir?’
Of course I can open the boot. Is opening the boot of your own car such a mysterious art? How is it that when you stick a uniform on these guys they adopt a whole new manner of speech? It’s like policemen in court giving evidence.
‘I was proceeding on my duties down Market Street in a southerly direction on my regular beat when I observed the accused behaving in a manner that aroused my suspicion.’
‘Suspicion? In what way did the accused arouse your suspicion?’
‘May I consult me notes, M’Lord?’
‘You may, please continue’
‘The accused had Mr Patel, the owner of the grocery shop at number fifty four Market Street just next to the National Westminster Bank, round the neck and was beating him with a 1948 Morris Oxford starting handle shouting, “I’ll fucking do you, you Paki bastard”. Pardon my French yer Honour’.
‘I see. So basically you were walking down the High Street and you witnessed a violent assault?’
‘Not exactly, M’lud, but once we identified it was a Morris starting handle, we could prove intent and subsequently had grounds to happrehend the accused and charge him with carrying a concealed weapon’
Would you open the boot, I thought as I climbed out and stuck the key in the lock. I could have just popped the boot lid from where I was sitting behind the wheel but I know these guys, any sign of arrogance and they are all over you. Best just to climb out of the car and humour them.
‘Can you remove the suitcases and place them on this counter?’
Not ‘would you please’ but ‘can you’.
I hauled out the two suitcases, lugged them over to the counter. Apparently these customs people can’t touch the bags until the punter has dumped them voluntarily onto the counter. Actually, I think they are just bored witless and can’t be bothered. If you can talk faster than they can think, which is really no faster than an amateur can type, you’re in the clear.
‘Are these your bags, Sir?’ they asked me.
Please, I ask you, try and keep a straight face. Of course they’re my bags; they’re the ones they just told me to drag out of the boot of my car while all the time I have a recently washed illegal immigrant trembling in the passenger seat.
‘Yes, they are my bags’
‘Can you open them’
I opened the cases on top of the contents of one of which was my tunic.
‘Oh, you’re an officer, Sir!’
‘Yes’ I confirmed, ‘I used to command the bomb squad out of Colchester. Remember a couple of years ago you guys did a rumble search on a container of bottled mineral water from the Lebanon and discovered some booby trapped weapons and explosives? Yes? Well I cleared the container for you. Tell me is ‘so and so’ still working out of Harwich?’
‘He’s our boss, Sir!’
‘Well give him my regards, will you please. I’m visiting my father on leave, this is his number,’ I said helping myself to the official’s biro and scribbling it down on his notepad, ‘ask him to give me a call. Tell him I’ll be coming through again in two weeks but will arrive early if I can meet up with him. Remind him I still owe him a decent curry and a few pints’
I closed my cases and allowed the officials to load them back into the boot of my car.
As I accelerated out of the docks up to a speed the comfortable side of 100mph on the A120 prior to dodging north via Manningtree to pick up the A12 at Bergholt and then the A14 at Ipswich before heading west, I turned to the lad and said, ‘Well, me old son, you’re on your way to Kettering! What do you think of England?’
‘Does everyone drive this fast?’ he squeaked.
A couple of hours later, I dropped him off with his relatives in Kettering. They insisted on feeding me. We exchanged addresses, we professed undying love and affection, we promised to stay in touch. Their house was mine. If ever I was too tired to drive all the way to Leicestershire, there was always a bed there for me. I warned them, the lad didn’t have a valid entry visa so getting him out may cause an issue. No problems, they assured me, they knew people who could fix that. It just shows how shallow I am, had they had a decent looking daughter, I may have visited them again. I never did.
Nearly a year later, I walked into the Officer’s Mess and found a note from the Postie in my pigeon hole; there was a parcel waiting for me in the post room. I wheeled myself over the next day. It wasn’t a parcel, it was a box and it was bloody heavy.
‘That’s been on its travels!’ said the postie as I signed for it, ‘Berlin to UK then here via BFPO’ he observed. ‘Know many people in Berlin, do you Sir?’
‘I was born there’, I said.
‘Ah, well that explains it then, doesn’t it Sir?’ A future Customs official if ever I saw one, I thought.
I had ridden to the post room on a Harley Davidson Soft Tail Custom painted in Candy Apple Red, a colour only the Americans could come up with but so striking that even Lord Arran, seeing my ‘bike for the first time, stated it was the most beautiful motorcycle he had ever seen. I asked the postie if he had some string so I could tie this box on the back of the ‘bike before going back to the Mess. I had plenty of relatives in Berlin but none of them had ever sent me a letter, let alone a packing case before.
I unwrapped it in the mess. It was a case of Russian Champagne; the bottles all packed in straw. Tucked in amongst the bottles was an envelope containing a British postal order for fifty pounds. No letter, not even a return address. I guess the sender was being discreet and for good reason I suppose, given our relative situations.
Not sure how this young communist freedom fighter would feel about a load of capitalist Army officers toasting his health, but toast it we did.