Sea Poison

Arthur Jenner
21st January 2009, 10:09
Here is a story that is basically true with a little fiction added to make it more interesting. It was my second trip to sea. Names have been changed

Sea Poison

The convoy steamed slowly up the English Channel; homeward bound and slowed to a crawl by thick fog. It was early 1945; the last year of the war. The danger of U-boat attacks was almost over, but ships still travelled in convoy; almost, you would think, out of habit. Six years of regimentation had perhaps ingrained the convoy habit into ships in the same manner that queuing had grown on the people ashore.
Aboard the SS Nothington Court, George Adams, the Mate, turned restlessly in his bunk. Something was intruding into his dreams; a disturbing sound; he didn't know what the sound was, but it was forcing him awake. He woke with a strong feeling of unease. He strained his ears and after a few moments he heard it; faintly; a distant booming repeated at irregular intervals: a familiar sound to a man who had been at sea throughout the war.
`Depth charges', he thought to himself, `Almost home and we have to run into U- boats. Just my luck to get torpedoed at this late stage of the war.' The ship had crossed the South Atlantic alone twice that trip without a sight of an enemy.
He slipped from his bunk, pulled on his trousers and shoved his feet into his slippers. Wrapping his duffle coat around his shoulders, he left his cabin and made his way along the alleyway and out onto the deck. It was very cold. The chill of the slight breeze created by the movement of the ship bit into his skin. Shivering, he again strained his ears to catch the sound. He could hear the clanking of the great steam engine, muffled by the engineroom casing, and the rushing of the complaining sea as it was sliced by the ship. Then it came again, almost like distant thunder. He thought he could feel the vibrations in the plates under his feet. It was a long way off, he estimated, but there must be quite a big hunt going on judging by the frequency of the detonations. He looked at the luminous dial of his watch. It was two o'clock. He was not due on watch for another two hours, but thought he had better find out whether the Second Mate was aware of the depth charges.
He made his way along the deck, past number three hatch, and up the ladders to the bridge. Sliding open the wheelhouse door he entered. It was gloomy but warm in the wheelhouse. He could see the helmsman's face, made ghostly by the dim glow from the binnacle. He walked across the wheelhouse and into the chartroom. The Second Mate was sprawled across the chart table laying out a course.
"Bit early mister, aren't you," he said, "can't you sleep."
"I heard depth charges, so I came up to see whether you had heard them or not,” replied the Mate, in no mood for jocularity.
"Ha, we've been hearing them for the last three hours" said the Second, "I sent Stubbs down to investigate and he discovered that the firemen are throwing big lumps of coal about; trying to break them up. Its the only way they can use them."
"Well it certainly sounded like depth charges to me. I must be getting jittery.,” the Mate remarked sharply; feeling a little foolish.
"A bad case of the channels, if you ask me,” the Second responded. He was beginning to enjoy the mate's discomfiture.
"It’s a wonder it didn't wake the old man." said the Mate, ignoring the witticism, "He's a pretty light sleeper"
"It did. Like you he thought it was depth charges,” replied the Second, "but we satisfied him and he went back to bed."
The Mate, now reassured that he was not alone in his mistake, felt free to change the subject.
"When is this bloody fog going to lift,” he said, "Have you had a weather forecast?"
"No Sparks should get one in the next half an hour though. Do you want to wait for it?"
"No thanks I'm going to see if I can get another hours sleep.”
The Mate left the bridge, descending the ladder to the lower bridge. Walking past the Captain's door, he saw a shadowy figure standing beside the lifeboat davit.
"Who's that,” he asked. A pyjama clad figure came shivering towards him, shuffling in carpet slippers.
"Hello George, its only me. I heard strange noises like depth charges or something, and came out to see what they were. Did you hear them?,” the Chief Wireless Operator said hurriedly, to explain his presence.
"It’s only the firemen breaking up coal, Walter,” said the Mate, "You'll catch your death o' cold out here dressed like that. Go back to bed. I'll see you at four o'clock. Goodnight."
The Mate, eager to get back to his bunk, walked quickly away, and Walter, slowly climbed the ladder up to the bridge, and made his way to his room behind the radio room, which was in its turn, behind the chartroom. He entered his room and having made sure that the door was closed, he switched on the light and sat down on his bunk.
`Why', he wondered gloomily, `had the Mate appeared at that particular time. Fate I expect. So close to the end. Now he had doubts. Was it the wisest thing to do? He thought of himself floundering in the icy water in the fog and shuddered. Would anyone have heard the splash as he hit the water?. If it hadn't been for the `phoney depth charges' his worries would be all over by now. He looked at his watch: twenty past two: soon be time to go on watch. Another watch; another half-day nearer the end of the trip. Nearer to the dreaded meetings with his parents, his friends, his brother and sister; all with their sickening outward sympathy. Sympathy that was but a thin disguise for their inward sniggering. His mother would be the worst. She had warned him of Alice since the day she had first met her.
"Walter,” she had said, "that girl is not for you. She's nothing but a gold-digger. Trust your mother's instinct and drop her. She'll bring you nothing but misery."
It looked now as though his mother had been right. It was very hard to believe though. He had been all through this many times since leaving Freetown, but his mind, miserably obsessed, insisted on allowing nothing else to penetrate its preoccupation. He had tried to read, but so fully occupied was he with his unhappiness, that he could not concentrate for more than a few lines, and having read the first half page of the book about ten times without comprehension, had abandoned it, and not tried since. It had been a typical wartime marriage. They had met while waiting for a train; both going home on leave; she from the WAAF and he from the Merchant Service. They had become engaged that leave and were married by special licence not very long after. She had quickly become pregnant and been discharged from the service. They had managed to find a flatette (a bed-sitter and share a bathroom) and had started to prepare for the post-war future. It had not been easy. She was lonely, living in the flat on her own. She had no support from his family, and on the few occasions when they were obliged to meet, they had made no attempt to hide their dislike of her.
As her pregnancy became more advanced, she found it difficult to climb the stairs to their flat, and moved back to her mother's house. This arrangement continued, and worked very well. They moved back into their flat whenever Walter came home on leave. When their daughter was born, Alice moved back into it permanently. The hostility of Walter's family served to draw them ever closer together. Then this letter - he had received it in Freetown - about two weeks ago. They had received a lot of mail there. It was quite common during the war, to receive great bunches of mail at irregular intervals.
The anonymous writer had not addressed him by name, nor had he mentioned Alice by name - just stated baldly - You are in for a shock when you get home pal, your wife has moved to London, and is living with an American army officer.
The handwriting was totally unfamiliar to Walter, and in the past two weeks he had practically turned his brain inside out trying to work out who the writer could possibly be. His anguish and his frustration at being so far away, unable to communicate with Alice or anyone else, paradoxically allied with the dread of going home; the ship slowly coming nearer to England, played such havoc with his normally rational mind, that he was verging on insanity. He looked again at his watch; half an hour and he would be seated in the radio room; the headphones enclosing his ears; deaf to all the world except for the twittering Morse from the airwaves and the self-pitying thoughts running constantly through his mind. `Would there be anyone around on deck now ?' he wondered. `I can end it now. I can find peace of mind . They say its quite a pleasant way to die - drowning.' He opened the door and stepped out onto the deck and looked both ways. No-one in sight. He went down the ladder to the lower bridge.
At four thirty, the Second Wireless Operator emerged from the wireless room. The Mate was standing on the wing of the bridge just outside the wheelhouse door.
"Walter must have overslept, he's half an hour late. I'm going to give him a shake.,” said the Second `sparks'," I don't know what's up with him lately."
He walked to the Chief Operator's room and looked in. "He's not here,” he said.
In his day room, Captain Brakenock with the aid of the Mate and Ivan Sparks, the Chief Steward, was just finalising an ad hoc inquest. The Mate had been the last person to have seen the Chief Wireless Operator, and it had been generally agreed, that having been disturbed while about to jump, Walter had waited until the coast was clear, and had made a second, and this time successful, attempt.
"Let's go up to his room and see if we can find anything that could have caused him to take his life,” said the Captain.
The Mate and the Chief Steward followed him up to the radio Operator's room and the three of them crowded into the small space.
"See what's in his waste-paper basket, steward,” said the Captain.
The steward picked up the basket and emptied the contents on to the desk. Among the debris they found the shredded fragments of a photograph, which when roughly pieced together was of a young and comely woman.
"Must be his wife,” said the Steward.
"Or girl friend,” added the Mate.
"Hey, what's this,” the Steward suddenly exclaimed; a note of indignation appearing in his voice. "A letter addressed to me."
He picked from the pile on the desk a crumpled envelope. They all looked at the name of the addressee, `I. Sparks.'
"Whoever distributed the mail must have thought it meant First Wireless Operator and gave it to him,” he said, "There's no letter in it now so I'll never know who it was from."
He scrabbled unsuccessfully through the rubbish from the wastepaper basket, but the deadly missive had departed in the pocket of its first victim.

21st January 2009, 13:10
Arthur a rather nice tragic story. Looking forward to another yarn later on.

Harvey Williams
21st January 2009, 13:50
Very moving story A.J. Would be interesting to know what was fact and what was fiction, still,it was a good read.
Ever thought of taking up writing novels as a living, you do have a nice way with words if you dont mind me saying. Look forward to another instalment very soon.

John Briggs
21st January 2009, 23:50
Good story Arthur.
Can you let us know what parts are true?

Arthur Jenner
22nd January 2009, 01:19
The true part is the beginning right upto the mate returning from the bridge and he did meet the Radio Operator on his way back from the bridge after the depth charge scare. The Radio Operator was missing next morning. It was said that the Radio Operator received a letter in Freetown about his wife having an affair. The rest is fiction.

John Briggs
22nd January 2009, 01:27
Thanks Arthur. Even without the fiction still a good story!