This is one of a series of Life Junctions posts. Each tells a story from my life that illustrates a wider human issue. This tale concerns honesty and justice. If you’re interested in writing or publishing stories from your own experiences or from family and friends, I can help you. Just get in touch.
What?! I couldn’t believe my ears and nor could Lorna beside me. The captain was delivering his words in a cold fury rather than ranting but they hit home hard. It was uncomfortable and humiliating to be accused of theft. Our genuine bafflement and protestations of innocence were lost on him. After all, it’s a cliche of police shows that the criminals always protest their innocence. The captain had the balances from the tills, from the times we were on duty. To him as judge and jury it was incontrovertible evidence.
Yet I was innocent and so was Lorna, and after this uncomfortable meeting we racked our brains to work out what might have happened. We were two of the agency staff aboard a cross-channel ferry for the Summer. We hadn’t had a lot of training and were all allocated to different jobs on board for our 12-hour shifts. In a shift we did two return Folkestone-Boulogne sailings.
During the four sailings you could be assigned four duties, and I found it interesting that passengers seemed to react in subtly different ways to each duty, especially as the same people might go out on the first sailing and return on the fourth. Cleaning the loos meant you were invisible; serving food in the restaurants was subject to criticism; bar stewards were treated more warmly; but working in the shop seemed to confer a certain respectability in tone and treatment.
The tills we’d been working were in the duty free shop, and they were quite complicated. The shop was small as the ferry was small, and it had to shut before the end of the short crossing. On the final sailing back to Folkestone the queues of trippers buying duty-free cigarettes and spirits could be long. It was further complicated by the sheer number of currencies taken, about 20 altogether. Giving prices and change under pressure, and reconciling the tills so fast at the end of the sailings was tricky for a novice. My first thought was sheer incompetence, perhaps mistaking Belgian francs for Italian lira or similar on a couple of sailings, or misfiling a credit card imprint.
Yet if it was actually theft, fiddling the tills, it had been done by somebody else who had access to them, and that meant other crew members we laughed and joked with, ate with and stacked shelves with. Surely not?
The ferry company was planning to shut the route, and there had been some bad murmurings that we seasonal agency staff should show solidarity with the regular crew by joining the union. Some had but, with my eyes fixed on going to start university 300 miles away in a few weeks, I hadn’t joined. Neither had Lorna. That suspicion niggled until the end of the season as it niggles now decades later. Were we framed by someone we trusted or simply incompetent and unlucky?
Once trust in a team breaks down, only bold moves like transparency and changing the people can help to rebuild. Now I would probably have joined the union for a couple of weeks, to put myself in my colleagues’ shoes as they faced uncertainty after the season. I should have tried harder to become one of the team instead of finding reasons to remain aloof. In the end I was glad to leave, and was too bruised to operate a till again, even though that meant I denied myself shop or bar work through university.
I should have put the past behind me to use my retail experience to get some more decent jobs. The moral is: lose your baggage and treat each situation on its merits.
A year later the ferry company sold the boats to a Greek company, and the route and the harbour are now history.