Untitled512. Aboard the Sea Princess

I have always been fascinated by ships, and this year, if it wasn’t for our present troubles, I would have got my first chance of a real sea voyage. For the first time ever there were plans for a cultural exchange between Rotterdam and Goodfleet; the idea had been suggested on the last Holland visit of the Sea Princess. A plan emerged for five Dutch teenagers to spend six months or so in England and in the spring of the following year, five Goodfleet children would arrive in Rotterdam for a similar stay. I had been one of the winners of the competition to select our five.

I’m not sure if I would want to go now. My future and Veer’s must follow the same track, whatever happens in the next few weeks. I need him and he needs me. Leaving him for six months would kill me. Going to Holland now is out of the question. My foreign adventures will have to wait.

“Of course, I could arrange for you to visit your father.” From the moment she had heard the Commander say these words, they had come to haunt Alice. On first waking and at the close of the day, when she tried to read, when cooking or washing or gardening. Completely unbidden, the words had invaded her mind whenever they had the chance. She was not sure why, but she had not told Adam about the encounter with the Commander, had not informed him that his father lived, that he was still cook on the Sea Princess. Far better to tell him of an actual meeting, she reasoned, when finally they sat together in the same room and exchanged news, although she suspected that the actual reason for her reticence was something she did not want to admit, even to herself. Right now, she couldn’t think about it; it would have to wait.

But it would not wait, and as Alice stood alone on the dock, looking up at the black shape of the unlit supply vessel, she at last admitted to herself why she had been so coy with Adam and the others. It was easy now to imagine his and Rob’s reaction when she told them she intended visiting her father on the Sea Princess, to be there at the invitation of the dangerous Commander Savage. There would quite certainly have been ructions, a huge fight, followed by threats and pleas not to be so stupid. And it was stupid, and she knew it. Clearly, Savage was not a man any sane person would trust, and yet here she was. She had to do it, she had to see her father, and now there was no going back.

Alice paused after her climb up the steep gangplank. She looked left and right along the dimly lit deck, and realised, like a small child who had lost the hand of her mother, that she was directionless, with no idea of what she should do next. A corrosive rudiment of terror had hatched somewhere deep within and now began to rise up towards her throat, and would have sunk her to her knees if she had not gripped the deck rail to steady herself.

Then, before she could descend further into panic, a movement in the shadows alerted her to the presence of another. One of the sailors who had been with the Commander at the Library stepped out of the shadows. She recognised his broad, puffy-lipped face with its small, cold eyes and impassive gaze, the same man who had propped up the limp body of the Major at the Town Hall meeting. It was hard to tell the man’s age but Alice guessed he was in his early twenties. Dressed in a dark blue naval uniform, he carried the standard machine pistol across his chest, the barrel pointed downwards toward the deck. The man showed no surprise at her presence; it was as if she was expected, and he addressed her as if they had spoken before. “Good evening, Miss Seamarsh. Follow me, please,” he said curtly, the Wendon twang unmistakable, before turning to lead the way.

After a short distance, they entered the ship through a steel hatchway. Once inside, the cool evening air she had left behind quickly became a memory. The ship’s internal atmosphere was intensely stifling: hot, stuffy, and brimming with mechanical burps and snufflings that echoed and rattled unpleasantly along the steel arteries anchored to the upper walls and ceiling. Alice felt as if she had been swallowed whole, consumed by an alien darkness, to find herself travelling downwards into the belly of a dyspeptic metal beast from whence she would never return. Her fate looked sealed. She would be digested, her skin burnt by chloric acids, her flesh dissolved from her bones, lost forever inside miles of intestinal passageways.

The man strode ahead, down seemingly endless semi-dark corridors, every so often stepping through a hatchway or descending a short flight of metal stairs. Alice stumbled along behind, the darkness sticking to her feet like treacle. They descended a last flight of stairs and continued past rows of closed wooden doors, numbered but anonymous. The unambiguous hexagonal bolt heads and ticking steel pipes told her that this was a male world. Male sweat and male cursing were the norm. Here, females were not welcomed as equals, only as subordinates, as lesser beings.

As they walked, Alice tried to think hard about why she had come. She had definitely had a reason – to see her father – and had come prepared to do whatever might be necessary to make that happen. She remembered the way Don had taught her to breathe, focusing her attention on her in-breath, then her out-breath, counting her breaths to ten, but not losing count and not over-counting. As she applied her training, her senses cleared and she felt better able to direct her awareness to her leg movements, and as they walked she tried to picture her father, at that moment probably no more than fifty feet from here. She imagined him standing in his kitchen whites, hands on hips and laughing at something, or nothing. She pictured his dear smile and imagined the huge hug she would receive when they met, and this made her smile too. He would kiss her hair, stroke it, and say her name and, for a moment or two, everything would be all right.

Without warning, the man stopped and Alice halted behind, almost bumping into him. She realised they had reached their destination, for when she looked up she saw that the door in front of her had a name plate instead of a number. In discrete lettering, it said simply ‘CAPTAIN’.

The sailor knocked and waited. After a moment, the voice she recognised as that of Commander Savage responded with a muffled, “Come.”

The room, warm, stuffy, and weakly lit, was larger than she had been expecting. The walls, clad with dark wooden panelling, had been decorated with the typical paraphernalia of a captain’s quarters: paintings showing harbour scenes; a photograph of the ship somewhere at sea; another showing a previous captain sitting at dinner with his officers; a barometer and a map of the east coast. A long table and chairs, large enough to seat twelve at dinner, filled the centre of the room while in the far corner a sofa and two armchairs had been arranged around a television. Finished in dark blue velveteen with gold piping, the suite looked old but comfortable and lent the room a homely feel. The Commander sat with his back to the visitors, ignoring them while he continued writing in a large book that Alice guessed was the ship’s log. Hanging crookedly above the desk, a Wendon flag had been tied informally between two wall lights.

The writing continued for another minute, and then the man closed the book and put the top on his pen. The chair swivelled round slowly, bringing his face into view. That bored, impassive face, with its pinched cheeks and tired eyes, was exactly as Alice remembered it, although sitting without his peaked cap the Commander looked more ordinary, smaller somehow. His voice had not changed, however, still hard-edged and cold, like a dangerous dog tethered on a short leash. “That will be all, Martin,” he said. The sailor came to attention, saluted and left the room, silently closing the door behind him.

“And so, Miss Seamarsh, here you are.” He crossed his legs, settled his elbows on the chair’s armrests and pressed his fingertips together. His face remained impassive, the expression of a poker player. He glanced at his wristwatch. “Your father finishes his shift in twenty minutes. Time enough for us to get to know one other a little better, don’t you think?”

Alice said nothing but nodded assent. The less she did, she reasoned, the fewer were the chances that this could go wrong. She checked her breathing and willed her face to remain impassive, even though a profound feeling of powerlessness was robbing her of all free will. Nevertheless, she had, she struggled to reassure herself, come here of her own accord, knowing that anything associated with this man was likely to prove toxic and unsafe. Yet here she was. The desire for contact with her father overruled any considerations of personal safety. She simply had to see him, to hug him and to see for herself that he remained alive and of this world, because she knew that her visit would give him hope and that this hope would in turn be conveyed to the others. The Commander had surely calculated the likely effect himself, and yet he was allowing it. But why?

The man regarded her, his eyes travelling from her face down to her feet and then slowly back. It made her flesh crawl. The desire to flee the room almost overpowered her, but she stood and waited, breathing as steadily as she could. At last, the man looked into the distance and exhaled with a mirthless grunt probably intended as a sign of amusement. “Alice Seamarsh, child of the Great Death. You’re not difficult to read. I imagine that when you look at me you see a cold, calculating killer; a man who by ingrained nature acts with cruelty and callousness; a man prepared to stop at nothing to get what he wants. Savage by name, savage by nature, eh? Am I right?”

He motioned for Alice to sit. She perched herself on the edge of a nearby foot stool and pressed her hands together between her knees. She wanted to believe that listening to this man’s ramblings would be the price he would extract in order for her to visit her father, and she adopted a pose of interested attentiveness.

“You have no idea, absolutely no idea of what the world outside your bubble is really like,” he continued, and gestured with his arm to indicate the world beyond the room. “I’ve seen things you people would not believe. I watched a great city die. You cannot begin to imagine what it was like. The first plague carrier landed at Heathrow on October 5th. By Guy Fawkes Night, the city was dead. The country was dead. The spread of the contagion was so sudden and so deadly that for a while it seemed certain everyone would die. With care, some might have pulled through, but there was no care. The hospitals were empty of doctors and nurses – all dead. Ten million souls, all gone in the space of three weeks and in their place ten million piles of rotting flesh. Imagine the stink of that, girl. Imagine having to live with that stench for weeks, for months. Imagine, day after stinking day, dealing with corpses: lifting them, piling them on boats, dumping them in the sea. Imagine.

“Once upon a time I worked on a pleasure boat. We took tourists up and down the Tamis – an hour’s sailing for twenty pounds with a free drink thrown in. I liked the evening cruises best, the private charters, people with money throwing a party for their friends. It was easy to pick up girls and I had a very happy life. I took my exams and moved up to become second-in-command. I knew every nut and bolt of that ship. I could do every job, from wiping the tables to fixing the engine. I knew more about navigation than the captain did; I knew more about charts than a river pilot.

“Then the Great Death changed everything. The military requisitioned our boat. Soldiers wearing chemical suits and breathing gear brought bodies down to the river by the lorry load. They were only clearing certain strategic zones, they said. It would take an army to clear the whole city. I pointed out that they were the Army, but got a thick ear for my trouble. After that, we just got on with it. My crew and I took the bodies down the Tamis and dumped them at sea, going out only far enough for the tide to take them away. We didn’t care where they ended up as long as it wasn’t back in Wendon.”

Despite herself, Alice had become fascinated by Savage’s story. “You say ‘we’. Why didn’t your crew get sick, why didn’t you?”

“Yes, over the years that question has fascinated me, haunted me even. Why me? I expected my turn to come at any time. After all, you could not escape this plague because it was everywhere and it was carried on the wind. If you breathed it in you were a goner. Yet I didn’t die, I kept on living. And there were others like me. Over the weeks the work continued. People would come and go, but soon I started to see the same faces every day, day after day, arriving with the soldiers to unload the bodies. Others were immune, too. Of course, I had to teach them how to crew the boat, but we had to work or we didn’t get fed and so we all mucked in and got on with it.”

“Were there any children? In the crew, I mean.” Alice asked.

“Two were kids, both about twelve, both strong enough to lift their end of a body, so to me they weren’t children, merely deckhands like the others. The rest were all sorts: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. Six women and twelve men, black, Indian, white, Chinese – you name it. To my mind it appeared totally random.”

“What happened to the children?”

“The girl, Sophie, she ran away after a few months. I imagine she became fed up with being passed around the men at night. Never saw her again. As for the boy, you just met him. That was Martin. I never got around to starting a family; he is the nearest thing I’ve ever had to a son.”

Alice breathed in, and then out. ‘As I breathe in I bring calmness into my body. As I breathe out I release the tension in my body’, she intoned silently; she thought of her tropical island, of the blue pool where she floated on her air bed, the sun warming her body, a delicious fruit cocktail in her hand. Her hands trembled slightly and she gripped one tightly with the other.

“Then one fine morning in early spring, after a couple of months of this, a tank appeared on the riverbank along with about thirty soldiers. It turned out that they were the advanced guard of what would become the proper authorities.” Savage glanced at his watch, and then flicked his gaze towards the sofa. “You are about to be reminded, Miss Seamarsh, that everything in the world that we live in has a price. The visit to your father is no exception.”

The man stood and extended his arm. The gesture and the thin smile might have been inviting her to come and join him for a game of Scrabble. Alice made to speak but could think of nothing to say in reply. “I…” she faltered, but that was all she managed to utter. Her eyes had ceased to focus and her gaze free-ranged across the carpet in front of her. Her mouth had drained of all moisture and felt so dry that she could not move her jaw. Her swollen tongue had glued itself to the roof of her mouth and for a moment, she thought that she might choke. Then she had no thoughts at all; she could think of nothing to save herself. How foolish, how reckless she had been.

****

“And now you may go and meet your father,” Savage said, as if they had merely finished tea together. “He’s not expecting you, so it will be a nice surprise for him.”

The door closed, leaving Alice standing in the narrow corridor, once again in the custody of the sailor called Martin.

The man leant against the opposite wall and observed her for longer than necessary, his half-shut eyes probing her like hands. At last, he pushed himself upright and turned to go. “Follow me,” he said, with a cold smirk that left little doubt that he knew everything.

Alice tried to walk. She was there but at the same time, she was not there. It felt as if her body had separated from her mind, and she wondered vaguely if they would ever again be re-joined. She felt most odd, suspended in a state between being and nothingness. She would not have been surprised if, at that moment, some hot draught coming from an opening door had picked her up and spun and wafted her into a swirling cloud of atoms that slowly drifted away, spreading out, becoming thinner and thinner until there was nothing left of her. She had to keep hold of something to prevent herself from scattering, from simply ceasing to be. Then, faintly, she heard her father’s voice calling to her gently. Alice, it’s your dad. Here I am, Alice, my dear Alice.

She felt the wall cold on her skin and realised she had returned. Thin and brittle, but at least she was there, still in one piece. Gripping a nearby handrail, she willed herself to move. She took a step forward and then another until once again she matched the pace of the man walking ahead.

He led her to an open space that she guessed served as the crew’s eating area. It contained rows of tables, with bench seats that could accommodate perhaps thirty people. It smelt of fried food and male bodies. A clattering of pots and pans and cutlery issued from the serving hatch at the far end of the room. She saw several white-clad figures busy cleaning or preparing food and knew instantly that her father was among them. Vic had his back to them, bellowing something operatic while writing in a book – a list of supplies needed for future meals perhaps.

“Sit there,” the man said. Then he shouted, “Cookie, get over here, now! You’ve got a visitor.”

Their meeting lasted no more than ten minutes, which at least was longer than Alice’s torment. After he recognised his visitor, her dad had acted precisely the way she knew he would. He had pelted the length of the room and lifted her off her feet, hugged her, and held her until she had no breath, and they’d kissed and he’d stroked her hair gently and murmured to her while the sailor watched. But he allowed them to embrace only once, and then ordered them to sit on opposite sides of a table.

Alice glanced at the sailor before enquiring about her father’s condition. He and the other crewmembers had so far been treated fairly, he said, but Alice knew this statement could not to be taken at face value. Her father knew what these men were capable of when acting under orders or if provoked – he had seen enough of service life to know the type – military attack dogs that, once released, were difficult to call off. Other crewmembers, who had tested the limits of these men’s patience, had suffered badly. Inevitably, provocation and frayed tempers had led to spilled blood and broken bones. Initial resistance had quickly evaporated.

Her father had lost some weight but otherwise looked the same as she remembered him. His jolliness was hard-wired, even if his girth was subject to variation. They talked about Adam and Terry and Rob, of course, and life at Walsham Road. She glossed over Marsha with a ‘same as ever’ remark that he appeared to believe, and why wouldn’t he? Nothing had really altered in that department for years.

“I’ve got a second job,” she told him. “I’m selling Jack’s ducks and geese in the market. He sends his regards.”

Vic looked nonplussed. Then his face cleared. “You mean Jack the Quack?” Alice nodded. “What’s he been up to? Has he gone into turkeys at last? Witchety Susan says he’s talked about it for years.”

“No, but he’s as busy as ever, full of big plans. You know Jack.”

“Yes, I know Jack.” Their guard had wandered over to the water cooler and now strolled back towards them, sipping his drink.

“He says he hopes to see you round about your birthday. He’s planning a big party. I think you can probably expect some fireworks.”

Alice could say no more, for the man had returned. “Time’s up,” he said tersely, and motioned with his machine pistol for them to stand.

Vic nodded at his daughter. He held her hands briefly and they hugged once more before Alice was prodded with the end of a gun barrel. “Perhaps see you on my birthday, then,” he said and turned to walk slowly back to the galley, wiping his face on his apron as he went.