Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Further Adventures of Captain Danny Roberts

Today we spend some time in the company of Captain Roberts

The Further Adventures of Captain Danny Roberts

Ship’s Log, day something or other.

May you live in interesting times, so the Chinese curse goes. Well life on board the Anna Livia Plurabelle has certainly been interesting for the last few days. And goddam noisy.

It’s a rarity that I sail as far north as the North Atlantic, but reading out a random page in the Wake (page 310 for anyone keeping count: The harmonic condenser enginium (the Mole) etc.), I happened to find myself in that part of the world in some version of the summer of 1953 and some presentiment told me I should sail around for a time and see what I might find.

It may have been summer, but it was still raining and spraying sea water all over the shop, so I sealed the forward section around the instrument panels off from the elements, lowered and inclined the wheel on its housing, just to the right height so I could grab a copy of Toni Morrison’s Jazz out of the library, pull up a chair and rest my feet on the plane of the wheel and steer with my feet as I read.

The weather was atrocious, too rough for straight sailing, so I deployed the external engines port and starboard, the power of their tubular lengths reducing the pitching and rolling of the North Atlantic waters to mere pitching, which is more manageable. The hemisphere of holographic sensor displays hung in the air above my head. The sounds of Count Basie, Billy Holiday and Duke Ellington pumped through the ship’s speakers. Issy slept on a sofa in the alcove behind me.

I was fifty pages into Jazz when the sensors registered the first object in the water. I calmly finished the chapter I was on then turned hard to starboard. It wasn’t long before the on board cameras started to pick out the first bodies in the water.

Wrapped in an oilskin, I headed out on deck, giving control to Anna and telling her to bring the ship to manoeuvring speed. The engines retreated inside the ship’s trunk and we crawled ahead on thruster jets.

There were bodies everywhere. More than a hundred. Obviously a ship had gone down, but the was no sight of a wreck above the surface. Sonar was picking up a faint signal. I ordered Anna to launch one of the remote submersibles to get a fix on its location, but simply by heading in the direction of the greatest density of bodies, I figured I could get a rough reckoning. Whatever had happened had obviously happened fast, but I still wanted to scout around for any survivors in the water.

I wasn’t finding any. Everybody in the water had been there for some time and were starting to bloat. Some had injuries so horrific that I guessed they’d been dead long before they’d had time to drown. I thought about what Leonardo Da Vinci says in his notebooks, that drowned men float on the water face up, but drowned women float face down. I hadn’t really believed him until that point, but I could see that he was right. I morbidly wondered whether this was nature’s kindness to women or a cruel joke on those of us that would have to fish them out of the sea.

The submersible tracked the wreck to the ocean floor, a couple thousand feet down. From the video feed I guessed it to be a small passenger liner. Looked pretty obsolete even for 1953. I ordered it back whilst I brought the ship to as near above the wreck as possible and then sent out all three aerial remotes in sweeps of ever increasing circles to see if there was any Ishmael that had managed to survive by clinging to some piece of flotsam.  

Better than Ishmael, Remote no 2 (I call him Dick) sent back images of one wooden lifeboat. Whilst the other two remotes (Tom and Harry) increased their sweeps in the hope of finding anyone else, I steered the A.L.P. north-north-east in the direction of the lifeboat.

The craft had drifted fifteen miles away from the site of the wreck, which probably meant the ship had gone down in the last six to eight hours. I cleared the outer ring of bodies at a respectful speed then increased to full ahead in their direction, only slowing down for the last half a mile. Conditions had deteriorated fast. I could have sailed a couple of hundred yards from their location and they would never have even known I was there. Thank the maker (i.e. Andy) for infrared sensors. And thank the heavens for the weather, for I do love to make a dramatic entrance. I put on my captain’s jacket and hat and brought the ship abaft of them, where I could open the back doors to the dry dock.

“Looks to me like you folks could use some assistance.”

If you can’t get a cheer as the conquering hero, a woman’s plaintive tears of relief will do just as well. There were nine of them in the boat, the only nine survivors, as I was to discover, from the RMS Cairngorm. I threw out a rope to secure to a ring at the stern, then deployed the winch mechanism to bring the whole boat on board.

Nine survivors, two men, three women and four children, three boys and a girl. All but one of the women consisted to form two families. Clarissa, the one lone woman, had been travelling with her sister but they’d been separated in the melee and she feared the worst. Her demeanour quickly deteriorated into one of hysteria, but they were all suffering from a mixture of shock and relief and I thought the first thing I should do was get them up to the Ward Room and fix them all a drink.

Brandy, cognac is you please, is a great settler of mood and warmer of frozen limbs. The children aged between eight and fifteen, but I dished out the Remy Martin nonetheless, despite their parents half-hearted objections, doses given according to age, the youngest, Peter, receiving two tea spoons worth of bronze fire. He clacked his tongue against the roof of his mouth like he’d been fed cough medicine. “Burns.” he said.

“Means it’s working.” I said, winking.

I was keen to hear their story, but everyone was soaked to the skin from having spent uncertain hours being tossed around by the North Atlantic waters, so I thought it best to get them shown to their quarters so everyone could get cleaned up and dry their clothes and meet up later for something to eat and hear their tale.

Ship’s protocol was easy enough to decipher in this instant (it isn’t always so easy, even though I made the rules up myself). The two families would take the state rooms, the Isis and Lucia cabins, Clarissa was given the V.I.P. quarters in the Barnacle Suite. I made sure the heat in each set of rooms was turned up hot enough that everyone would feel drowsy. I figured what they most needed now was a few hour’s sleep.

Clarissa was the first to emerge a few hours later, the evening light starting to fade. She took an immediate interest in Issy (it’s not every day that you meet a Jaguar on board a ship), but was understandably pensive, petting the amenable Issy with a faraway look in her eye. She wanted to know if there was only the two of us aboard and how I could sail such a ship all by myself. Given the time period, I had powered down all of the computer and holographic readouts. Anna held her silence. I received all on board information projected through a single contact lens in my left eye and an microscopic earpiece in my right ear.

The families emerged soon after. There was Malcolm and Agnes, with their son, Peter, and Terrence and Marjorie, with their sons, Terrence and Clive and daughter, Jane. I knew Terrence, Snr was going to be a royal pain in my arse right from the off. His family “had had a gander” around the ship and wanted to know why Clarissa had been given the much larger Barnacle Suite when him and his family were crammed into the Isis Cabin. Crammed, I ask you, on any other ship the Isis Cabin would be the state room. I explained that ship’s protocol demanded that two families of equal status receive equal living space. He started on about how it wasn’t fair, he had three kids compared to one in the other family, and growing bored with his shitty attitude I matter of factly told him it wasn’t my fault if he couldn’t keep it in his pants. He made to start afresh, but an angry growl from Issy brought his gob shutting with a pop. I love that cat. Such a good judge of character.

As they’d slept, I’d already set to work preparing a meal down in the main kitchen, a novelty given that I usually only need to cook for myself and rarely stray away from the smaller kitchen in my own quarters. I went for something traditional, roast beef and potatoes, boiled carrots, cabbage and corn on the cob, along with an excellent batch of Yorkshire pudding that Gaynor taught me how to make back before the rift. You superheat a glass dish in the oven, coated in olive oil, then pour the pudding mix into the heated dish and cook for quarter of an hour for perfect results. Apple crumble and custard or ice cream followed for desert and as we ate at the Captain’s Table, they told me what had happened.

As far as anyone could tell, they’d hit a mine. Probably left over from the war. Actually, there was some disagreement, with Terrence Snr thinking it was a mine, but Malcolm, Agnes and Clarissa thinking it sounded more like two mines had exploded. Certainly they had heard two explosions. Loathed as I was to agree with Terrence Snr, the injuries that I had seen on the corpses in the water suggested that an engine had exploded, which would have accounted for the two explosions, one a mine going off in near enough proximity to cause something mechanical to explode.

It had all happened so fast, it was only because the two families were at that point taking some air on the observation deck and Malcolm had reacted quickly in getting one of the lifeboats deployed (Malcolm had served in the Royal Navy during the war and been torpedoed by a German U-Boat during convoy duties) that they had lived to tell the tale. Clarissa, getting lost in the confusion, had come floundering onto deck just as they’d been in the process of abandoning ship and been manhandled aboard the lifeboat despite her protestations.

Everyone became quiet after a while and seeing no right time to bring the subject up, I asked what was to be done about the bodies. “Leave them.” was Terrence Snr’s predictable reply. “Sea creatures will take care of them. We just want to get home to Blighty.”

“You can’t just leave them.” Malcolm responded. “They’re human beings, they have the right to simple dignity. Their families have the right to give them a proper Christian burial.”

“Well what are we supposed to do about it?” Terrence Snr asked.

“Captain Roberts, I take it that you would have no objections to retrieving the bodies. You seem to have the space”

“None at all. I have a small infirmary on board that’s served as a morgue on more than one occasion. There’s also a utility room on deck and the dry dock. Any room can be made a cold as ice or as hot as hell. It’s a grim job, but manageable.”

“This is ridiculous, I won’t have any part of this.”

“Mr Madden, I am captain of this ship and I will decide what is to be done. What’s more, so long as you are on board my ship, you will be treated as guests or crew as I see fit. If you don’t like that, I can always put you back in your lifeboat and you can float home on your own. Blighty is about eight hundred miles west of here, though I’d be happy to loan you the use of a compass and sextant. Do I make myself completely and unemphatically clear?” He grunted. “I’m sorry, what was that?”

“You do.”


“Though I should like to say that I think you are a bully.”

“And I should like to say that I think that you are a self-centred cunt.” There was a gasp. “Excuse my foul language ladies, but sometime a Captain has to stamp out a mutiny before it gets started. Do not test me Mr Madden, or you will discover just how much of a bully I can be. If you wish, you may try to gain control of my ship, though I should warn you, she has eyes and ears only for me.”

“If I may speak at this point. “ Clarissa spoke up.

“Of course.” I said.

“I should like to help recover what bodies can be recovered as I should like to find my sister, if she is out there. Oh I know she may have gone down with the Cairngorm, but even if we don’t find her, I know that anybody we can recover will save a family the anguish of never knowing.” She burst into tears at this point and even the shameless Terrence Snr was sufficiently moved to become misty eyes. Everyone around the table shed a few tears at least.

“It’s settled then.” I said, clearing the lump in my throat. “We’ve been treading water here since I picked you up. At first light I’ll turn the ship around and head back. I don’t think there’s any need to involve the children and there’s plenty of entertainments on board to keep them distracted. Yet even between the six of us, it shouldn’t take more than a day or two to get everyone stowed on board. Madame et Monsieur, I know that you’ve all had a sleep already this afternoon, but I think it’s best if you all retire for the evening. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”

The following day came and some of what I saw that day will haunt me for years, even after having travelled to some of the least civilised periods in human history. I’ve seen hangings and beheadings, poor souls burned at the stake and corpses left to rot upon high as a warning to others, but there’s nothing quite as disturbing as body that’s been left in the water for a day or two. I’ve heard talk of bodies literally falling apart as they’re being pulled out of the water, but luckily we didn’t have any of that nonsense. I said it was nature’s cruel joke to let women float face down and the way the facial features start to dissolve are not something I will soon forget.

It took a day and a half to get the 126 corpses aboard, deploying the smaller boat, Issy-la-Chappelle for greater manoeuvrability. Myself, Malcolm and Terrence, Snr retrievied the bodies and returned them to the A.L.P. for the women to move into storage. The infirmary above the dock quickly filled up, at which point we used the utility room. The last forty bodies or so were laid out on the deck of the dock once the Issy-la-Chappelle was safely back on board. Peter, Clive and Jane happily played games on deck as we worked, but Terrence, Jnr showed great fortitude in helping the women with moving bodies. Greater fortitude that his father, certainly. I lost count of the amount of times we had to stop to let him be sick over the side. Sea sickness he claimed. Cunt.

A grim task but we got it done and then it was time to sail for England. The Madden family were Londoners, the rest of the passenger from Scotland, so I decided to compromise and head for my favourite port of Liverpool, radioing ahead with news of our unpleasant cargo. At near full speed, we were able reach port in a little under a day. The authorities were waiting for us and despite the year, they did a fine job of continuing the respect we had shown in bringing so many loved ones home. We never did find Clarissa’s sister, Emily. It’s my one regret.

Despite our disagreements, Terrence thanked me for saving his family and offered me his hand. I gave him a hug instead and apologised for what I had called him. I hoped that he now saw that it was right what we had done and he agreed that it was. We left on reasonably good terms.

The family were put on a train for London and I ended up sailing the Scottish contingent home as far as Ayr. It was good to be heading back to the country in which I was born and nice to enjoy the company of my guests without Terrence, Snr’s bullish attitude. I usually have little patience for children, but I found Peter to be pleasant company, so inquisitive and full of questions, which I did my best to answer. After they disembarked, I did some checking. He went on to be an engineer. Ship design. Excellent career choice.

Well the ship’s been hosed down and disinfected, but the nightmares are quite bad for the moment. Apart from having so many dead things on board, I always get like this when I’ve had company on board. Nothing to do now but get stoned and stare into space. Maybe watch The Abyss. I’m joking of course. I quite like the 1950s. Bought myself some 50s shirts while I was on Merseyside, waiting for the inquest to conclude. Heading back across the Atlantic at the moment, heading for a break in the Caribbean while I figure out what to do next (m’m, black women). Might head for Cuba, see if Hemingway’s knocking about. If I remember rightly, he’s either there or in Africa about now.

“Hey Anna, do we have Michael Palin’s Hemingway series in the data banks? Excellent, be a love and pull up the entire thing and rout it through the digital projector in the alcove. Full speed ahead for Cuba.”

Until next time…

Get it done.

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