PRELUDE: “…Big Simmy lived for violence. He confronted the three Danish seaman with a huge grin writ large across his face. He snatched at the blade of the jack-knife ripping his own hand open as he did so and with his other hand he struck the larger of the three, the one in the middle, with his right fist. There was a twacking sound as the man’s nose exploded in scarlet and the look of surprise on his face still registered as he struck the pavement. The seaman who had held the knife made towards Simmy with his arms flayling wildly but he was met with a vicious swing of Simmy’s size eleven boot and he collapsed forward into Simmy’s hands which fastened about his throat and which throttled him viciously and mercilessly. The third man had turned and ran but Simmy left the other two and pursued him up the quay-side catching up with him close to an iron bollard. Simmy smashed the man’s head into the bollard and left him too unconscious in a pool of his own blood. He pushed his blonde ringlets away from his face coating them as he did so with blood from his hand. Again the broad grin became evident as he turned to the admiring group of onlookers and he laughed aloud as he made his way back to the Pub…”
In the small back room of the Pig-n-Whistle a group of seamen sat dejectedly. They were a disgruntled if democratic group and although the whole crew of seven men treated each other as equals dissent was more often the rule than the exception. Simmy, the deck-hand, was at this moment in time singularly annoyed with the Skipper for even daring to suggest that they should put to sea that night, the wind and the rain that had lashed them as they’d made their way from the ship to a taxi had been icy and fierce and Simmy had every intention of getting drunk, finding a woman and having what he termed a ‘good session’.
“Are we gettin them in then or what ? It’s your round Morrissy.” Simmy was offering a challenge to the Skipper directly. What he was really saying was that either the Skipper made his phone-call to the office for orders or bought a round of drinks. “We wont be sailin’ in this weather for Christ’s sake… Aww shite, Ahhhl get the bloody round in… tight bastard…”
As Simmy rose to go to the bar Morrissy pushed the small portable radio to the centre of the table and snapped at him. “I’ll get them. It’s only a few minutes ’til the weather report. We have time for one I suppose.”
Simmy returned to his seat and Morrissey rose and went to the bar.
“Bloody pea-picker” muttered Billy Stolle the stoker, “wants to get home ter see if anyone’s been at his wife.”
They called the Skipper the ‘pea-picker’ behind his back as rumour had it that the only time he’d ever taken his wife on holiday was to a pea-farm for a fortnight where they’d had free food and board in exchange for breaking their backs picking eight bushels of peas a day. The Skipper also had a reputation for wanting to get back home every week-end to enjoy his Sunday-dinner with his wife no matter what the weather. The crew, in the main, had looked forward to a night in Liverpool. The younger members of the crew had women they could telephone and even the number two and the mate were keen to sink a few pints and ride out the harsh weather. Pat, the Chief Engineer, who never drank alcohol and who lived with his wife and three daughters in a cottage overlooking Douglas Bay, was more tolerant, more inclined to side with the Skipper, as too was Les Crowe, known as ‘The Rook’, the ship’s mate.
“We’ve sailed in worse.” Pat announced shortly, sucking hard on his gorse-briar pipe.
“When ?” enquired Simmy, his head was bobbing aggressively and his long, blonde, curly hair tangled in his single gold ear-ring, “Come on. When have you ever sailed in weather like this without any ballast eh ?”
And the final phrase was the crunch. The Ben Moor weighed in at a little over three hundred and seventy tons unladen and she rode high in the water. With four hundred tons of coal or wheat on board she was as solid a proposition as anyone could hope for but unladen she bobbed like a cork even in a moderate gale.
The crew sat silently as Morrissey returned and unloaded six pints of bitter ale and an orange juice onto the table. He threw the tray on to a leather bench-seat and sat straddling a chair with a look of resignation on his face. “I’ve just rang the office again. Still no answer. That bastard Walsh knows we’ll sail if we can’t contact him.”
“What ? You can sail if you like, I’m not. If it’s more than force eight then I’m goin to stay put.” Simmy knew that he was laying-on the bravado as did everyone else. The silence crept over them once more until Simmy clicked the radio on and fiddled with the dial. “Here. It’s on already. You’d have missed it and what’d you have done then eh ?”
The voice on the radio sounded almost jovial amidst the doom and gloom being expounded regarding gales everywhere. and in the Irish Sea it informed them of “…severe gales force eight to nine… moderating force eight… Northerly…”
Simmy was jubilant. “Right. Let’s get them in and forget sailing tonight.” He was on his feet. “Anyone for a short then ?”
“Whiskey for me.” Volunteered Billy and with varying degrees of enthusiasm or reticence the rest threw in their orders each one averting their eyes from Morrissy until he too ordered his glass of rum and the group relaxed and began to drink seriously.
Five or six rounds later the Chief disappeared. It was his custom. He’d be back in the ship rubbing a paraffin rag over his beloved engine and swigging cold tea from a tannin-coated pint mug humming a song about bloomin heather and sunrises over Douglas bay. His departure hardly evoked a comment but a muttered phrase from Morrisey caused Simmy to explode again. “What the hell are yer talkin’ about yussir ? We aint sailin and that’s the end of it isn’t it ? What yer want to be phoning the office again for ?”
“Got to check things. We have to know where we’re going next trip don’t we ? We all want to know that.” Morrisey looked accusingly at all of them. “Want to be knowing whether or not to phone that woman of yours in Larne don’t you Billy lad ? Or whether to organise another free trip around the Bushmills Brewery eh Eddy ? You Simmy, you’d fancy another night out with the natives on the Welsh coast wouldn’t you ? Gaynor… whatsername… that there bar-maid eh ?”
“Yer right there,” Simmy was smiling broadly, “See if you can arrange that then Morrisey an I’ll buy you a bottle to take back with yer.”
Simmy, Bulla and Billy had women all over the place. Whether it was back home in the Isle of Man or on the Irish, Welsh or Scottish coast all three had their own private harems to call upon. That’s why they sailed on the Ben Moor. It sure as hell wasn’t for the money. The pea-picker, pleased that he had them hooked to his way of thinking, went out into the corridor and picked up the telephone. This time Bernie Walsh answered almost immediately. His voice betrayed where he’d been for the past few hours when Morrissey had been trying to contact him.
“Hallllo Morrissey… just been down to the yacht-club for a quick glass of supper. Are you ready to sail then ?”
“Are you serious ? Have you heard the forecast ?”
“Got to have you back here for the weekend. We’ve got the new parts for the Chief. They’ll take a couple of days to fit and then I want you to pick up cement at Larne. No excuses Morrissey. I want you steaming into RamseyBay before ten o’ clock in the morning. You’ll have two or three days home then… with the missus…”
Morrisey glanced back towards the snug room where laughter was echoing and the table was littered with empty glasses. “The lads have had a few Bernie, we tried to get you earlier.” He had already made up his mind however and all that worried him was how to break the news to Simmy. When he replaced the telephone he crossed to the bar and ordered six large measures of spirits and six halves of bitter which he carried through to the snug and laid before his crew.
“Did yer get through then ?”
“Aye, Billy. The bastard had been out for a bevvy wouldn’t you just know it.”
“What have we got on the cards then ? Any chance of me seein my young Welsh one eh ?”
Morrissey bent over his drink and then raised it swiftly to his lips casting it back into his throat so that it hardly touched the sides. As he placed the glass back on the table he turned to Eddy the number two. “He’s got them there parts in. They’re ready to be fitted… have to be fitted in fact before we can sail again… it could mean a week maybe lying back in the Commy getting paid for looking out the window at the gulls…” He hurried on as Simmy leaned forward suspiciously, “There’ll be loads of women still over for the season, loads of new talent…”
“You’ve said we’ll sail haven’t you.” It was a statement not a question. “You pea-pickin, miserable, soddin bastard you’ve told him we’ll be there in the morning haven’t you ?” Simmy was furious and his hugely muscled arms were leaning on the table trusting him close to Morrissey, the veins standing proud like purple strips of wire. “I aint going. That’s it ! I’m tellin yer… I aint goin.”
“Mutiny !” Yelped Eddy gleefully. “Can’t you hang him for that Skipper ?”
Bulla MacNally, the eighteen year old deckie with a neck so thick that it gave lend to his nickname, was slumped in a corner. “Am with you Skipper, ahh’ve gorra get some time in if I wanna pass me A.B.’s ticket, lez sail through the bloody storms eh…”
Simmy rounded on him. “Piss off Bulla. Who asked you then ? You wont pass no A.B. as long as there’s a hole in your arse, you couldn’t even pass your eleven plus…”
“Aww give it a rest Simmy. Yerr always sayin’ that.”
Morrissey nodded towards ‘The Rook’, his mate, who sat impassively taking it all in. He’d heard it all before. “Don’t mind. Sail if you like it don’t bother me none. Like Pat said, been in worse.”
“Worse shit !” Simmy’s eyes were blood-shot and his gall was up, “you always side with him you arse-lickin bastard.”
Les Crowe leaned close to Simmy and laid a hand on his arm. “I lick no arse Matey, I just aint afraid of a bit of a breeze.”
The insinuation that he was afraid of anything struck home and Simmy leapt at the number two grabbing his lapels and trying desperately to butt him as he flayed with his feet and sent chairs and glasses scattering across the floor. In a moment Billy and the Skipper had him under control pushing him down into his seat with force while easing his temper with soft words.
“Easy Simmy,” the Skipper knew that he’d won and was prepared to be magnanimous, “I know you’re not afraid of anything. Take it easy. And you Les, take that back do you hear… ?” He nodded straight at Les who had hardly ruffled his hair during the brief fracas, “Take it back. You can’t say things like that to Simmy…”
When peace reigned again the Skipper phoned for a taxi and within fifteen minutes the crew were back aboard the Ben Moor. She was a solid old tramp-steamer painted in patches with red-lead over the original black paint. Rust bled down her sides and even an inexperienced eye could see that she was too broad in the beam to be stable. In front of her single stack squatted the open wheel-house exposed to all the elements and the main crew slept forward crushed into a steel shell ten feet by six, furnished with four bunks, two wooden chairs and heated by a pot-bellied cast-iron stove. Simmy dived straight into his bunk as they entered the sleeping quarters and before he began snoring he bellowed, “I’m on the second watch and no one’s to wake me for four hours. Got that… ?” And his voice sizzled away as Billy pulled the curtain round him and began to change into his steel-shod boots and denim jeans. He wore nothing else in the heat of the stoko but he threw an oilskin sarwester about his shoulders to protect him from the rain as he and Bulla made their way aft towards the wheel-house and the engine-room.
As they steamed into the river the Pilot questioned their sailing but Morrisey who was taking the first watch in the wheel-house informed him that they’d been in worse. When they reached the Bar light-ship however the Pilot insisted on ‘phoning the coast-guard for an update on the sea-conditions. He handed the ship-to-shore to Morrissey and suggested he lay-to for a few hours. The voice on the radio-phone was not optimistic, “Could be force nine or ten in an hour or so… maybe even worse…”
“Aye. And it could be force seven in an hour or two and we’d miss the tide into Ramsey. We’ll chance it.”
Bulla, who was at the wheel chipped in his opinion that it was O.K. with him. Truth was that the lad was looking forward to what he called ‘a bit o real sailin’. Most of his friends had gone deep-sea and they frequently taunted him about life on board a coaster, ‘tin-can sailoring’ they called it but Bulla knew that to face a gale in a three hundred ton ship in the middle of the Irish Sea was better than sailing through a hurricane with a thousand tons of steel beneath you. He was a real-sailor and maybe this night would give him something to tell them all about. He was looking forward to it and as the Pilot climbed onto the tender he shouted after him, “D’yer think it’ll hit a hurricane ? A force twelve ?” The reply was whipped away in the wind but Bulla was already peering through the sheets of rain past the mast head-light and out into the Irish Sea where his hopes and expectancy lay.
In the engine room Billy was lacing the fires with an even coating of small coal fragments which radiated the heat through the tubes until the needle on the pressure gauge hovered just a fraction below the red line. Although they were still in the river the ship was rolling but his movements were smooth and precise. One foot was wedged tight against the furnace wall and his back lay against the warm steel plates behind him fixing his body immobile in the four feet wide space. Then, as the ship rolled in the swell, his foot came loose and crashed to the deck below him and he launched the broad, steel shovel into the coal stack and in a single motion turned and swung its contents in an even spray onto the fiery coals in the starboard furnace raising his other foot as he did so to wedge himself facing the other way ready for the next assault on the port-side furnace. Sometimes in a heavy sea he miss-timed and he had the black scars tattooed on his forearms to prove it, his hairless forearms, that contrasted greatly with the mop of slack-caked hair that covered his chest.
He tapped the gauge and the needle leapt slightly to rest above the red line and he heard the Chief in the engine-room pull the steel rod which controlled the steam. With a loud whoosh the excess steam escaped and the needle dropped back to the red line “Cum out of it Billy. get a swalla of tea here.”
Billy entered the spotless domain of the engine room where the carbide lamp bathed the engines in its pale, white light as the Chief was descending the steel-mesh stairs polishing away each footprint behind him as he came. Pat lifted an enamel jug and poured a tin mug full of cold, strong, sweet and milky tea for Billy who swallowed the full pint back without pause. The sweat sprouted from every visible pore and ran in rivulets which left white streaks on his dust-washed body, he sighed a huge sigh and accepted a top-up from the jug and settled on a steel bench to enjoy it more slowly.
“It’ll be a rough un,” volunteered Pat, “doubt we’ll make the tide anyway so’s I don’t know what Walsh is in such a rush about.”
“Likes to feel important. Gettin’ us out in this weather makes the bastard feel better when he’s reportin’ to the share-holders.”
The chief, with his pipe clenched firmly between yellowed teeth, was always moving, stroking his paraffin rag over the brass pistons which rose and fell like blurs of yellow light, plunging away into the darkness of the bilges and rising again to pause for a milli-second before entering their downward tack again. As they plummeted past the Chief squirted oil into their silver pockets and mopped up the excess on the return journey. Close to Billy’s ear the faint plop of the carbide lamp could be heard as another droplet of water struck the raw carbide and allowed another cloud of gas to escape brightening the engine room briefly before it settled into a steady glow. He filled his mug for a third time with cold tea.
“I’d better get up to the galley and re-fill the jug Pat.”
Pat never replied. Billy threw his oil-skin about his shoulders and set off up the steel stairs and as he slammed the heavy door shut behind him the Chief followed his path dabbing here and there with his rag at where Billy’s steel-shod boots had left faint marks.
The Rook was in the narrow galley which ran from port to starboard the width of the ship. He was laying slices of bacon onto thick cuts of white bread and a black kettle, held in place by a steel frame, bubbled away over the coal flames. The Rook held himself wedged between the rear plates and the coal-bunker as he ladled the bacon from the huge frying pan and Billy stood close watching him re-fill the jug from the kettle.
“Should never have left the pub eh Les ? Better off where we were.”
The Rook grunted and lurched towards the far door and out onto the deck holding his bacon sandwich in his teeth and steadying himself against the wind with both hands.
“Cheerful bugger,” muttered Billy behind him, “what’d yer expect from a pig but a grunt.”
The small ship had cleared the river as Billy returned to the engine room. Morrissey, Les Crowe and young Bulla were huddled in the open wheel-house and Pat and Billy were in the engine rooms. Forward in the general quarters Simmy had secured himself by winding a sheet completely about his middle and down under his mattress and was sleeping fitfully as the ship rolled him about in the narrow confines of his bunk. In the cramped room which he shared with the chief Eddy was trying to shave in front of a mirror which bobbed out of his line of vision every time the ship lurched. He cursed as the water-jug spilled its contents onto the front of his vest but he completed his task without even nicking his skin once. He felt better.
For four hours, as the wind steadily increased and shifted its tack until it met them head on, the steam-ship butted its way out into the Irish sea. She made a steady five knots initially but slowed to three as the wind became more persistent. Flashes of lightning lit up the horizon at regular intervals and the rain, which lashed in their faces in squally, discordant gusts, became icy and stung young Bulla’s cheeks to a fiery glow as he wrestled with the wind and fought to keep the compass bearing north by north-west. Occasionally Morrissey helped him to steady the wheel or to drag it back to its set course but The Rook never intervened until at last the Skipper told him he could go below and try to grab some rest. Morrissey noticed that the sea was empty. No other ships accompanied them or signalled as they passed in the darkness. Most would be tied up safe in port or lying at anchor whilst the crews played cards or drank cans of beer around warm fires. He motioned for the lad to take a rest, to brew up some tea whilst he himself laid into the wheel. He was glad that he’d be home for the week-end but it really was turning into a storm. He felt the old ship groan beneath him as she leapt forward and fell with a thud into yet another trough of billowing foam.
In the engine-room Pat thought of his wife and his daughters and his dog who’d be asleep in the basket under the kitchen sink. The girls couldn’t be called pretty, indeed he suspected that none of them would ever leave home. But he liked it like that. Liked having them all fussing about him every time he returned back to their cottage filled to bursting with welsh-dolls, souvenir-mugs and sea-shells laid out on the dresser. He could smell the bread which his wife baked every other day and he could hear ‘Mariner’ bark a greeting as he aimed his oil-gun and squirted accurately into the silver cup which whizzed past him at speed. In the stoko he could hear Billy working and he took time to climb the stairway and look out at the smoke billowing from the stack, he was pleased to note that it was white, he didn’t fancy cleaning the tubes in weather like this.
The wind caused the sea to form dark mountains all around them. At the top of each mountain a small line of white froth rolled glowing in the night but for the most part the sea was black from the troughs to the peaks and rose and fell with a regular monotony which carried the small ship with it and which only occasionally surprising the crew aboard by rolling when she should have pitched or pitching deeper into a trough than was expected. Bulla was enjoying himself. This was real sailing and when a jagged arc of lightening plunged into the sea striking a peak above his eye level he was ecstatic.
“Did yer see that Skipper ? Bloody hell ! Will it hit us d’yer think ?”
“Aye. Might well. If it does it’ll hit the forward mast and might shift that idle bugger out of his bunk,” he was referring to Simmy. Morrisey glanced at his watch. “Better get him up anyway. Get your head-down for an hour or so if you can.”
Bulla passed the wheel to the Skipper and made his way down the narrow ladder to the deck. He had no intention of turning-in but he was curious to know if Simmy was actually sleeping through this lot. He turned his head as the Skipper leaned over and bellowed to him. He raised a hand to his ear and screamed back “What ?” but the roar of the wind made it impossible to hear clearly. Morrissey was waving him back. He climbed a couple of steps and leaned close as the Skipper bent towards him. “Get a line on. Don’t cross the hold without a line on.” Bulla nodded and fastened the painter which was coiled at the foot of the wheel-house about his middle, he kept to the centre of the hold keeping both hands on the canvass ridge and sliding on his back-side towards the forward end of the ship. As the gale carried the ship to the top of a hillock of sea he threw himself flat and hung on tightly, she nosed deep into the black-green depths and covered him with icy water before allowing him to scurry on his way as the nose lifted again and she began to climb once more towards the black sky. When he burst into the crew’s quarters he heard Simmy snoring loudly and in the half-light from the coal-stove he saw that he was half-in and half-out of his bunk with the sheet about his middle just preventing him from crashing to the deck. Bulla was delighted. Although Simmy frequently teased him about his not being able to read very well and his ‘greenness’ he was nevertheless a hero to the boy who tried always to be as independent as big Simmy so obviously was. He enjoyed listening to Simmy tell yarns about bar-room brawls in Ireland or drinking bouts in Scotland and indeed he’d seen him ‘in action’ as it were on several occasions when his raw strength and brutal courage had sorted out many an unwary hard-case who’d stepped out of line or who’d thought that Simmy with his curled feminine hair was a soft-touch. It was said that once, when he’d been on a whaling boat in the arctic, the harpoon had jammed and that Big Simmy had leapt over the side of the ship and strangled the whale with his bare hands. Bulla knew that this wasn’t true of course but he liked to picture the scene in his mind and he always smiled when he did so. He smiled now as he crossed to Simmy and lifted his heavy shoulders back onto the mattress.
“Simmy… Your watch Simmy… The pea-picker’s up there, the Rook’s turned to… Simmy ? Simmy ?” He shook his shoulders gently noticing that he was still in his shore-gear. “S’blowin a storm out there, lightnin’ an’ all, great it is…” As Simmy stirred Bulla handed him his cigarettes and then lit a match as he sat upright and steadied himself with one hand on the side of the bunk. Drawing the smoke deep into his lungs Simmy looked at the lad and smiled.
“This is what yer wanted eh ? You wanted ter sail in this didn’ yer ?”
Apologetically Bulla nodded but didn’t reply.
“Thought yer was daft Lad but now I know it.” He swung his legs over the side of the bunk taking care not to strike his head on the one above. He threw off his trousers and pulled on an old pair of jeans which he’d been lying on and a denim shirt and finally a thick, navy-blue, polo-necked sweater. He slipped into his boots and fastened them tightly before standing and moving towards the door. “Better stick some coal in that thing, if it’s still got any fire in it.” And he lurched out of the doorway with an oil-skin in his hand and stood in the lee of the bulkhead waiting for the ship to raise her nose. When she did he leapt with a whoop onto the hold and ran the length of it diving the last few feet to grab the ladder and haul himself round and into the galley. From the wheel-house the Skipper yelled curses at him which were carried away and lost in the Irish sea. When Simmy arrived in the wheel-house the Skipper grudgingly accepted the proffered mug of tea laced with condensed milk and admonished him half-heartedly.
“You should set an example to the lad. Not leaping across the deck like that without a line. It’s force nine out there.”
“Right. An’ we shouldn’ be out in it should we.” It wasn’t a question, it was an accusation. The Skipper handed the wheel to Simmy.
“Keep her steady and call me if things get worse. Take the forecast at five o clock.” He looked across to the horizon where the black night was allowing a muted glow to emerge and then to his watch. He stood aside as Bulla entered the wheel-house and then he handed the tea to the lad before he swung himself down onto the deck.
As the hours wore on and Simmy and Bulla grew cold and silent the storm increased her fury and showered the sea about them with her wrath. Suddenly a bolt of lightening lit up the forward mast and when its brightness died away the uppermost eight feet of the mast and its head-light had gone. Almost simultaneously the air about them was filled with a whining, rattling screech as if a child’s humming-top were being amplified to the point where it almost blotted out the sounds of the storm which raged about them. Bulla clung to the wheel and his mouth was working like a ventriloquist’s dummy but Simmy couldn’t hear a word. He could however hear the high-pitched scream of the intercomm blower. He grabbed the tube and ripped off its cover placing it tight against his ear and instantly he heard the voice of the chief bellowing loudly.
“It’s the prop. She’s clearing the water. If she does it too often it’ll sheer off and then… Get the lad to tie himself astern and watch for it clearing. Eddy’s here. He’ll be by the engine-room door. Tell Bulla to shout as soon as the prop looks like lifting out of the water. He’ll have ter tie himself fast… have you got that ?”
Simmy switched the tube from his ear to his lips and bellowed his reply. He leaned close to Bulla and explained to him what needed to be done. As Bulla swung himself down the ladder the Skipper and The Rook pushed their way past him moving towards the bridge. The wind tore the words from the Skipper’s lips with such fervour that he had to grab hold of the boy’s hair and almost bite his ear in order that he might be heard.
“Help the Chief… Go down and help the Chief…”
“I’m going. I’m going to help the chief astern…” He too was screaming his reply into the Skipper’s ear, “I’m going astern. Eddy’s there…”
“Eddy ? You’ll need to go astern and watch for the prop…” He shook the lad violently, “Do you hear me ? Help the Chief…”
Bulla tore himself free from the Skipper’s grasp and noticed as he did so that the Skipper’s eyes were alive with fear. The Rook was hanging on tightly to the ladder and appeared to be equally terrified. Bulla didn’t know enough to be frightened and for a second he despised them.
“I’ll sort it out. Look, I’ll tie myself to the rail. Look, I aint afraid…” But his words were lost as the Skipper and The Rook made their way up to the wheel-house and Eddy appeared in front of him standing by the open engine-room door. As the two of them tried in vain to converse the ship pitched forward at a fearsome angle and nose-dived into a trough of icy-blackness and the screaming roar of the props spinning furiously against the night air almost deafened them. Eddy turned inside and shouted to the Chief.
“She’s out Chief. Can you hear her ? She’s out !”
The Chief leant hard on the release-valve and cut the feed of boiling steam to the engines and the scream from the props began to fade almost imperceptibly as the single screw began to slow. Bulla was astern by now and Eddy leapt out into the darkness and helped him lash the rope about his waist and under the aft-rail. In the freezing night, with the ship pitching and rolling and the thunder roaring and the propellers screaming they clung to each other and to the rail until Bulla was secure and then Eddy lurched back towards the engine-room door. Bulla watched the sea. He stared into the blackness that rolled beneath him and above him and watched intently for the golden brass screw to rise again. He timed it that on every fourth pitch of the ship she lifted her prop clear off the water and so he was able to anticipate the scream which seared the storm and burnt its way into his brain and then he’d wave furiously to Eddy who in turn would shout to the Chief who’d do his best to dampen the steam-flow and cut the power to the prop and prevent it from racing to its own destruction, beating as it did against nothing, churning air and racing until it threatened to sheer clear away and leave them powerless in the storm.
On the bridge a flash or lightening close-by lit up the wheel-house and revealed the Skipper’s pale-face. Both The Rook and Simmy were leaning hard against the wheel trying deperately now to keep the Ben Moor head-on into the wind. Neither noticed that behind them the Skipper was screaming into the ship-to-shore in a vain effort to summon help.
“This is the Steam Ship Ben Moor in need of assistance twelve miles off Ramsey bay. Hullo. This is a general call to all stations or ships in the area we need assistance. Over.” He laid the receiver close to his ear and listened but heard nothing but the crackle of static. “This is the Steam Ship Ben Moor. We need assistance. The props are lifting and…” He broke off and dropped the receiver. Another sound was conflicting with the others in the darkness, a sound like rifle-fire… The Rook heard it too and turned to roar at the Skipper as the sound ricocheted below them, it was the sound of rivets in the hold snapping and springing clear of the plates to hurl themselves like bullets across the emptiness and to bounce off the opposite plates. Both The Rook and the Skipper knew that beneath them tears in the ship’s side would be opening and the cruel icy sea would be gushing into the hold intent on dragging them down beneath its horrific blackness. The Rook grabbed at the Skipper and dragged him to the wheel. “Hold her steady, hold on whatever you do… Simmy, we have to get the covers off. We have to set the pumps working.”
“The covers on the hold. We’ve sprung a plate. We’re sinking.” A sudden lurch as the props waved helplessly sent The Rook’s head crashing into Simmy’s face and the two men fell in a heap on the varnished deck with blood gushing from a wound in Simmy’s head. The Rook was on top of Simmy and he was struggling to make himself heard. “The plates have sprung.” He dragged Simmy to his knees and then the two men regained their footing. The Rook pushed Simmy to the ladder and followed him down to the deck and towards the hold. By his example he encouraged Simmy to assist him in tearing away the wedges which held the canvass tight over the planks which battened down the hold. Together in the darkness they lifted several planks free and Simmy knew then what the problem was as he looked into the blackness of the hold and heard the rush of water, saw the whiteness of it as it streamed in a seven-foot jet from a split in the ship’s side. Together the two men freed the pump and manhandled it across the deck. Together they fed the thick canvass tubes which ripped at their finger-nails and bruised their bodies, down into the hold. Together they primed the pump with sea water and swung the handle which injected life into the small diesel engine. Together they fought to lash the canvass tube securely to the rail with its plume of jettisoned water pouring itself in jerking, pulsating gasps all over them initially and finally over the side-rail and into the billowing sea. Together they pulled the canvass cover back over the exposed section of the hold securing it firmly with the wooden wedges and together they struggled back towards the wheel-house to wrestle once more with the stark, wooden spokes of the ship’s wheel.
During the hours that followed the two men made repeated journeys back and forth from the pump to the wheel-house as the tube broke from its lashings or the canvass cover flapped free exposing the hold to waves which threw themselves into the hole as though they deliberately sought to swamp the ship. And all the while the Skipper repeated his message into the radio and all the while Bulla, lashed to the stern rail, was freezing slowly and Eddy was finding it more and more difficult to interpret his calls and his increasingly erratic and spasmodic arm-wavings. In the stoko Billy lurched from coal-hold to furnace and back again in a giddy circular dance which left him burnt and battered from head to toe. His knuckles were gashed and bleeding and a huge blister which had covered his cheek and his left eye had burst and was weeping blood and puss onto his naked body. The wound was filled with black dust and had burned the sight away from his eye. The less he could see the more he miss-timed his swing and the more he fell against the red-heat of the furnace walls and the more his flesh seared. He was lying on the deck now, wedged between a wall of coal at his back and with his boots against the lip of the port furnace. He couldn’t stay there for long as his boots were already bubbling and sizzling in the heat but he needed to regain his strength… he could hear Eddy’s cries every few minutes followed as they were by the whoosh of the steam-release valve and he knew well what was happening. He had to keep steam up. He had to fire the furnaces. If the props sheered they were all done for but equally if the fires faded and the props slowed or stopped then the ship would turn away from the wind and she’d be swamped in seconds. He reached out for his shovel and levered himself upright and began his crazy dance again as the ship tossed and rolled and the storm spewed fire into the sky and thunder into the night and the tiny ship, although mortally wounded, butted defiantly against it.
The Skipper made contact with the Ramsey life-boat as dawn was breaking dull and grey over the horizon. The life-boat had immediately put to sea and was standing some several hundred metres off the stricken ship. There was little that they could do but the Coxswain noted that the Ben Moor’s stack had been partially torn away and that both life-rafts had disappeared. Should the stack sustain further damage and water enter down into the engine room and stoko then the ship would lose all power, turn turtle and sink within minutes. He relayed this information to Morrissey who in turn dispatched Les Crowe to check on the damage. It was as feared. One life-raft lay smashed and fragmented on the lower starboard deck and the other had completely disappeared. The stack had shifted some inches to stern and a huge gash had torn away the starboard side exposing the tubes below in the engine room. The Skipper held the ship slightly to lee of the wind and this prevented the sea crashing in on top of the furnaces.
Directly ahead lay the lights of Ramsey bay and the small life-boat hovered intermittently in and out of view. With the props running at full steam they had progressed but a few miles in the last three hours. The hold was filling. The screws threatened to sever. The life-boat couldn’t get near enough to fire a line. There were no life-rafts on board ship. The sea threatened at every pitch and turn to send iced, salt water onto the tubes and to smother the ship’s power and everyone on board feared for their lives. Everyone except Bulla.
And softly and quietly in the engine room the Chief prayed for his soul and for his wife and children that they should not mourn his going.
By eight o, clock however the little ship had powered on another mile or so and the lee of the bay began to offer some small shelter. The life-boat came to within eighty metres of the Ben Moor and twice a rocket-powered line had sailed close to the ship. On the third effort Simmy rescued the line from atop of the hold and Eddy leapt forward to assist him in hauling it through the sea until they had secured a loop of thick rope which they dragged and fastened to a bollard near the shattered forward mast. The slack was taken and inch by inch and pound by pound the life-boat took over the Ben Moor’s power and began to tow her slowly through the mountainous seas towards the full shelter of the bay. By noon they had entered the narrow harbour to be greeted by the welcoming cheers of several hundred people gathered on the quayside. A few moments after noon the Chief and Billy emerged from the engine room and discovered the body of young Bulla MacNally strapped firm to the stern rail, his lips were blue and his pale skin was streaked with blood from his cracked lips and white salt streaks raked furrows like dry tears across his face. He was quite dead.
Father Woods, the parish priest, spoke emotionally at the lad’s funeral oration. He spoke of his youth and his dedication to his allotted task and how, though his lack of formal education had often been commented upon, he possessed the most precious gift of all, courage. Courage which had contributed greatly in saving the lives of his ship-mates. He noted that the severe storm had reached over force eleven on the fateful night and through the cloistered church his voice informed the hundreds of towns-folk who had gathered that “…this brave youth had passed an eleven plus that few would have even had the courage to undertake…”
And near the front of the Church, Simmy, his head bowed and his shoulders trembling, allowed at last his emotions to surface and he wept aloud for the boy and his youth and all that had gone before.
* * * * *
Alan Corkish is a writer, editor, academic and book reviewer who also works as a psychotherapist in the NHS. Based in Liverpool UK from where he runs erbacce-press jointly with Dr. Andrew Taylor he ventures but rarely into the creative-fields of late preferring instead to concentrate on book editing and cover design. Once upon a time he was a street-fighting drunkard, now however he prefers to sip quality wine and to mourn the demise of perceptive short-story writing. His submissions to Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure can be seen here.