As with most lifeboat stories, it starts on a dark and stormy night. The rain beats violently against the window of our family home on the Essex coast. The wind howls down the chimney and creates a small gale in the living room. The phone rings. I put down my book and wander over to the chest of drawers, where the phone is perched precariously on a pile of telephone directories and table mats. I lift the receiver.
I hear nothing but a dialling tone. And the phone continues to ring. I replace the handset and glance at the other telephone, the one sat on the desk in the corner. My dad’s phone. The work phone. I reach for the receiver and start the process again.
A faint voice echoes through the wires.
“Is Dick in?”
A gruff voice. A voice that doesn’t have time for niceties or small talk. A voice with a message to impart.
“Er, yes. I’ll get him. Who is it, please?”
“OK, hang on.”
I place the handset gently on the desk and holler for my father, in the way that only teenagers can do. I hear footsteps thumping down the stairs. I settle back on the settee and reach for my book.
This was a common occurrence in our house as I was growing up. As Deputy Divisional Inspector and then Divisional Inspector for all of the lifeboats on the east coast of England, from Berwick-upon-Tweed to – if my memory serves me correctly – Rye Harbour, my dad was always on call. And when there was a problem at one of the lifeboat stations in his ‘patch’, he was the one they wanted on the phone.
Usually, it was because they’d broken the lifeboat. You could tell when this was the case, because the person on the other end spoke really quietly and you could practically hear them hoping that my Dad was out.
Perhaps for this reason, we didn’t really deal in names. They’d occasionally remember mine, but could never distinguish between my three sisters. And they identified themselves not by name, but by location. Hence ‘Hunstanton’, who I think may in real life have been called Roger, but I’m not sure.
You could tell when there was a new Honorary Secretary at a station, too, because they’d be extremely formal when they called.
“Good evening, Simon. It’s XXX here, the Honorary Secretary at YYY lifeboat station. Is your father there, by any chance?”
But within weeks, things would go back to normal.
“Is Dick in?”.
With my Dad out on the coast for most of the week, Dick was quite frequently not in. So in this pre-mobile phone era, my sisters and I fought a constant battle to keep track of his movements and to make sure that calls got through.
“Would you like me to take a message? He’ll be ringing later, so I can pass it on then. Oh, OK. Well, he’s staying at Filey tonight. You could call the Hon. Sec. there and see if he knows where Dad’s staying. And he’ll be at Mablethorpe first thing tomorrow, so you might be able to catch him at the boathouse.”
Perhaps inevitably, we didn’t always get it right.
I remember one time when, due to a slight mis-communication from one of my siblings, my Dad picked up the phone thinking that it was his pal Oggy.
“Oggy, you *******. How the **** are you, you old ********?”
It turned out that it wasn’t, in fact, Oggy. It was the new Hon. Sec. from one of my Dad’s stations, who was a little surprised at the tone with which he was greeted by someone who was supposed to be in charge.
“Oh, I’m most terribly sorry,” I heard my Dad apologise. “I thought you were someone else. Please do excuse me.”
According to my Dad, the response was unexpected.
“Ach, no worry. To be honest, it’s nice to have a ******* I know I’ll be able to ******* talk to like a ******* human being.”
So life in our house was a little unusual. When we picked up the phone, we never knew quite what to expect. But it did wonders for our logistical skills.
And for our geographical knowledge, as it turns out. I wouldn’t be able to find inland cities like Leicester, Leeds or Lancaster if my life depended on it. But I can pinpoint coastal towns like Craster, Cullercoats, Cleethorpes, Cromer and Clacton in my sleep.