Authors: Nicholas Monsarrat
The leading-stoker in charge of the windlass turned a valve, and there was a heartening hiss of steam followed by a clanking noise. ‘Ready, sir,’ he called out.
‘Right.’ Lockhart walked to the bows and, trying to disguise the fact that it was largely a process of trial and error, set to work on the task of casting off the spare mooring wires and reeling them in. From the tug alongside, a man with a large red reassuring face watched him: ready, he felt, to correct any mistakes and deal with any crisis. He might well be needed.
When ‘Hands to stations for leaving harbour’ was piped, Ferraby walked disconsolately aft to the quarterdeck, prepared to execute as best he could an order he barely understood. ‘Single up to the stern wire,’ Bennett had said, and left it at that – though not forgetting to add, by way of farewell: ‘And if you get a wire round the screw, Christ help you!’ To ‘single-up’ presumably meant to cast off all their mooring-lines except the last one needed to hold them to the quay; but only a process of elimination would tell him which one was the stern wire, and he hardly felt equal to the effort of concentration.
He felt, in fact, confused and wretched. All that he had read about the Navy, all that he had learned at the training establishment, all the eagerness which had driven him to enlist on the day war broke out – all these were being destroyed or poisoned by his present circumstances. He had been immensely proud of getting a commission: he had been ready to accept without question, as an unbreakable bond, the whole of the rigid discipline and the tradition of service which he had read or learnt about: but there had been no one like Bennett in the textbooks, and Bennett, it seemed, was the reality behind the fine phrases . . . He had known perfectly well, also, that he would be miserable as soon as he was separated from his wife: that was another thing he had been prepared to endure with a good heart; but the ache of separation was a high price – almost an impossible price – to pay for submitting to the present oafish tyranny. If the Navy were really Bennett, and Bennett’s manners and methods, then he had been cheated and betrayed from the beginning.
He had slipped out of last night’s party to telephone his wife in London. Waiting in the draughty dock office for the call to come through, the eagerness of anticipation had almost choked him; but as soon as he heard her voice, with its soft hesitant inflection, the eagerness had ebbed away and he was conscious only of the miles between them and the weeks and months that might still keep them apart. This moment was their goodbye: there was nothing else in prospect. And it was for this that he was treated like a backward child or ordered about like a convict . . .
But for her sake, and for his own, he had done his best.
‘Hallo,’ he started. ‘Hallo, darling! Can you hear me?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Oh, how wonderful! Where are you?’
‘Same place. I wanted to wish you a happy Christmas.’
‘And to you . . . What are you doing?’
‘Having a party.’
‘Oh . . .’
‘Not a very good one. A horrid one, really. I wish I could be with you. Are you taking care of yourself?’
‘Yes, darling. Are you?’
‘Are you in the ship?’
‘No. In the dock office. What are you wearing?’
‘The striped housecoat . . . Oh darling, I wish you were here. Is there any chance?’
‘I don’t think so. I’m afraid not.’
‘Can’t I come up, then?’
‘It’s too late.’
‘Why? What’s happening?’
‘I . . .’ Some phrase about careless talk pricked him, and he hesitated. ‘I can’t really tell you.’
‘Is the ship ready?’
‘Oh . . .’
The wires hummed between them. They were not doing well. He said again: ‘This is just to wish you a happy Christmas,’ and then suddenly he could not endure it any more and he said: ‘I must go, I’m afraid . . . Goodbye . . . Take care of yourself,’ and rang off. He had stood in the dock office, utterly defeated, for at least five minutes before he could bear to go back to the ship; and once on board he had slipped into his cabin, without a word to anyone, and lain down on his bunk, and felt the successive waves of wretchedness flood in, with nothing to check them and no hope to drive them out.
Now, on this queer Christmas morning, Ferraby stepped on to the quarterdeck repeating ‘Single up to the stern wire’ as if it were some pagan incantation. The six hands of the after-party, under their leading-hand – Leading-Seaman Tonbridge – were fallen in by the depth-charge rails, waiting for his orders.
As he came up, Leading-Seaman Tonbridge saluted and said: ‘Take off the breast rope, sir?’
‘Just a minute.’ Ferraby looked at the moorings. There were four separate ropes – two leading aft, one leading forward, and one, a short one, going out at right angles to the ship’s side. He hesitated, while Tonbridge, a tough, self-reliant young man who knew it all by heart, adjusted the thick leather gauntlets which all the mooring parties wore. Then Ferraby had a sudden idea – a purely Bennett-idea which he was almost ashamed to use. He nodded to Tonbridge, and said, simply: ‘Single up to the stern wire.’
Tonbridge said: ‘Aye, aye, sir,’ and then, to the nearest seamen: ‘Take off those wrappings,’ and then, to the hands waiting on the jetty: ‘Cast off breast rope and spring.’ Men moved: the wires splashed in the water, and were hauled in: the moorings quickly simplified themselves, to one single rope running aft. It was as easy as that.
With a sudden surprised flicker of confidence, Ferraby turned to the voice-pipe that led to the bridge. His ring was answered by the signalman. He said: ‘Singled up aft. Tell the First Lieutenant.’
He felt humbly pleased with himself. He had cheated, but now, as far as moorings were concerned, he knew the right answer and he need not cheat again.
Down in the Captain’s cabin, Watts, the Chief Engine room Artificer, was reporting to the Captain about the engines under his charge. There could be no mistaking Watts, or the job he was busy on – his white overalls were stained and splashed with grease, and his hands incredibly grimy. After working most of the night on a refractory valve, he was tired, and his face grey and lined.
‘She’s ready to move, sir,’ he said, without much enthusiasm. ‘As ready as I can make her, that is, with twenty dockyard mateys climbing all over her. I’ve had her turning over at ten revs for the past hour. She’s a little rough yet, but it’ll settle itself.’
‘What about the steering engine?’ asked Ericson. Earlier, there had been trouble over this, and they had been waiting for replacements.
‘Seems all right now, sir.’ Watts scratched his bald head, leaving a smear of grease like a painted quiff on his forehead. ‘There’s a lot of loose stuff in the steering compartment – wires and dry provisions and such – it’ll have to be secured when we’re properly at sea. But I’ve tried the engine out a dozen times, hard a-port to hard a-starboard, and she’s smooth as you could wish. And if we want to steer by hand, it’s simple enough – too simple, mebbe.’ He sniffed. He had no very high opinion of the machinery in his charge, which had few refinements of any sort and was scarcely more complicated than the stationary steam engine, run on methylated spirits, which had been his first real toy. Corvettes, it was clear, were going to be turned out simply and economically, like pins or plastic ashtrays: as such, they hardly deserved a Chief E.R.A. to look after them.
‘All right. Chief,’ said Ericson. ‘We’ll leave it at that. You know the programme: we’ll be towed down to the oiler and then steam the rest of the way. I’ve allowed two hours for oiling: the tide’s flooding all the afternoon so there’s no hurry.’
‘Two hours should do us, sir. What about the revs, then?’
‘That’s something we can only settle finally when we’ve been running for some time.’ Ericson looked at one of the many slips of paper on his desk. ‘I see the builders’ recommendations are: Slow Ahead, 35 revs: Half Ahead, 100 revs. We’d better try that, to start with. If it’s too fast, or too slow, I’ll give you the alterations on the voice-pipe.’
‘Aye, aye, sir.’ Watts, preparing to leave, summoned the vague and rare outlines of a smile. ‘Funny sort of Christmas morning,’ he commented. ‘Makes you think a bit.’
‘It won’t be the last, Chief.’
‘D’you think it’ll be as long as the other war, sir?’
‘Longer, probably.’ Ericson stretched out his hand, and rang the bell to the bridge. ‘That’s what we’ve got to be ready for, anyway.’
Watts, leaving the cabin, shook his head in doubt. His favourite Sunday paper had said that the war would be over in a year, and, on this Christmas morning, he wanted very much to believe it.
The rating who answered the Captain’s bell and presently stood before him was Leading-Signalman Wells, the senior of the three signalmen who made up
communications complement. He was rather older than his rank suggested; and Ericson, looking over his Conduct Sheet a few days previously, had discovered why. Wells had been a full yeoman of signals up to two months previously: then he had been disrated, and sentenced to eighteen days detention, for (in the bleak words of King’s Regulations & Admiralty Instructions) ‘conduct prejudicial to good order and naval discipline in that he
was absent over leave 76 hours and 35 minutes,
did return on board drunk,
did resist the duty petty officer detailed to supervise him, and
did destroy by fire nine signal flags, value 27s.’ Reading between the lines, it must have been a lively occasion. But the implications were not encouraging, however much allowance one made for extenuating circumstances which could only be guessed at – a birthday party that got out of hand, a woman too acquiescent, a wife unfaithful: the odd part was that Wells looked the least likely candidate for this sort of escapade.
He was small, with a quick decisive manner and an air of competence: he kept a firm hand on his department, and Ericson had already found him helpful with suggestions, as well as absolutely dependable. Now, as he stood waiting in the cabin, cap neatly tucked under his arm, signal pad ready, pencil poised, he was a heartening picture of a highly-trained, wide-awake signalman – the sort of man worth his weight in gold to any ship. Ericson hoped that this picture would prove to be the true one: the other story – the one in the Conduct Sheet – would mean, in a ship the size of
endless trouble and endless waste of energy before it was brought under control.
‘I want to send a signal about our leaving,’ Ericson began. ‘Take this down, and send it off by telephone from the dock office.’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Wells. He prepared to write.
‘”To Flag-Officer-in-Charge, Glasgow”,’ the Captain dictated, ‘”from
Sailed in accordance with your 0945 stroke twenty-three stroke twelve. Estimated time of arrival at Greenock, sixteen hundred hours”.’
Wells read the signal back when he had written it down, and then said: ‘Should we repeat it to Flag-Officer, Greenock, sir? They’ll have to give us an anchor berth as soon as we arrive.’
‘Yes,’ agreed Ericson, conscious, as happened quite often nowadays, that his memory of naval procedure was rusty and needed constant prodding. ‘You’d better do that . . . We’ll fly our pendant numbers going downriver, of course.’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Wells. ‘Pendant numbers, pilot flag, and Under Tow signal. I’ll see to all that, sir.’
When the Leading-Signalman withdrew, Ericson sat on in his cabin, waiting for the First Lieutenant. By the normal routine, Bennett should report the ship ‘Ready to proceed’, just as the Chief E.R.A. had reported that his engines were ready to move; but though it was already past their sailing time, Ericson did not want to issue a reminder until it was absolutely necessary. He was by now aware that in Bennett he had got a bad bargain, a lazy and largely ignorant young man who should never have been given his present appointment; but he had not yet made up his mind whether to ask for a replacement, or whether Bennett could be trained to do his job properly, and he wished to give him every chance. The added complication – that Bennett bullied Ferraby constantly, and was in a state of imminent collision with Lockhart – was another thing that time might or might not solve. He did not want to step in unless the efficiency and well-being of the ship were seriously threatened; and it had not got to that point yet.
At ten minutes past their appointed sailing time, he pressed the bridge bell, and was answered by the signalman of the watch.
‘Is the First Lieutenant there?’
‘He’s on the fo’c’sle, sir, talking to Mr Lockhart.’
‘Ask him to come to my cabin.’
‘Aye, aye, sir.’
Presently Bennett knocked on the door, and came in. He was wearing a bridge coat, with the collar turned up in a vaguely dramatic manner.
‘You wanted me, sir?’
‘Yes,’ said Ericson. ‘Are we ready to move, Number One?’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Bennett cheerfully. ‘Any time you like.’
‘You should come and tell me. I can’t guess at it, you know.’
‘Oh . . . Sorry, sir.’
‘Are all the hands on board?’
‘Er—I reckon so, sir.’