I always liked Calvin, everybody on the ship did. He was tall and slender, shiny black hair and a big toothy grin that made you think he looked too young to be a junior officer in the merchant fleet, too young to be at sea without a note from his mum. He was always hurrying somewhere and when you spoke to him his cheeks were so girlishly pink he looked as if he was perpetually blushing. It was sweet. I was nearing retirement, one last trip on a tanker, one of the only civilian vessels in the Persian Gulf in 1991 when the missiles started flying. Wrong place, wrong time. He should never have been there. We should never have been there. I felt protective towards him, Mr Sunday School as I thought of him. The type that should have been teaching fresh-faced kids about Jesus. I’m sure he thought it would be alright.
I was flunk from my bunk when we were hit on the port beam. Well the rest, you know. It was in all the newspapers, The Sun and The Star and The Daily Mirror. They treated his death as a kind of punning joke: ‘Mutiny on the Bountiful’ read the front page of The Sun.
The Murdoch Press had an exclusive with his freckle-faced wife. The more I tried to explain what had happened the further we seemed to have got from the truth. In this day and age I guess even they didn’t expect mariners to get eaten by sharks. There was the usual casual racism. Sharks ate the dead first before they started on the living. And with the sea broiling with a thick coating of oil on fire those that made it into the water, the largely Filipino crew, didn’t last long. ‘Burnt toast,’ was one sub-headline.
I was a bit hazy at the hearing of what the drill was when we got hit. I remember saying we were travelling about 13 knots, but that doesn’t sound right now. It was still daylight and the world was burning. I’d third-degree burns to half my body which was still healing. I’m not an emotional type of chap but I concentrated the whole time on not breaking down. Letting the side down.
We were in a war zone and they didn’t expect to be any survivors and war ships couldn’t locate us on radar. Visibility was variable. It was dark by that time and it was doubtful if it could have picked us up anyway unless they used sonar. We were more under the water than in the water.
The captain, Calvin and me were in a half-sunk life-raft. Death-raft would probably be a better description. You’ll have heard about the no water and drinking our own pee. Let me tell you from experience about all those great paintings with angels holding out there hand and a single drop of water falling from a fingertip into the waiting mouth of a demon in hell. We’d have fought Beelzebub for that drop of water and it didn’t have to be drinking water. As long as it wasn’t salt water.
The captain was about six-foot tall, with broad shoulder. Like me, he had a bit of gut and liked to drink, but unlike me, he always held himself very straight. His hair was receding which made his Roman nose look bigger, he did everything by the book. God alone knows how he never went down with the ship, I’m sure he did his best to. But when he found himself in a life raft with two other sailors he assumed that since God hadn’t made an appearance, he was in charge.
The captain was worse than me, his ears were burnt off and he looked like hell. His father was a captain from Plymouth, and his father before him a captain and so on. But there was some sort of disgrace during the Second World War that was very hush hush and I only came to hear about it by accident. A friend of a friend in port in Alegiers telling me the story after he’d too much to drink.
With an extended fingers clinging to the raft as the storm hit us, I can still hear his resonant, ringing voice, ‘Keep bailing.’
That might have been the fourth night. It was useless, I think he knew that. You can’t empty the sea. I think he was speaking for Calvin’s purpose as the boy babbled prayers and entreaties.
Not many folk know that sharks are like dogs. They snuffle right up into the boat with you and try to put their head upon your lap. I guess it was the burning sun that flipped Calvin. The too white skin and his overly pink cheeks. He tried to flip the raft and he succeeded. We were too weak to resist his youthful strength.
The raft was slick with the captain’s blood when he got back on board, he’d lost his legs. I’d got lucky and a shark had just bumped me in a test run before I’d scrambled back out of the water. Calvin babbled and roared higher than the waves. He stood up, tipping the raft, trying to pull my fingers away and tip me back into the sea, where the sharks were waiting.
I heard a whoosh and a flare almost took Calvin’s head off, before falling sideways into the sea with the noise like a singed cigarette being extinguished in a glass of beer. I’m not sure if Calvin was still alive when the shark came out of the water and knocked him backwards to feed on his body.
The captain was little more alive than Calvin. He glared at me with those terrible pale blue eyes. ‘Calvin’s got a little wife and kid on the way,’ he said. ‘Don’t want no disgrace on the boy.’ Water dripped from his face and I could see it pained him to talk, but some part of him kept him alive and speaking. ‘Promise me, you’ll make him out to be a hero.’
I waited for him to die, but he kept those eyes upon me and croaked, ‘Promise me!’
‘Promise,’ I mumbled. And it seemed to me that I understood much of my life at that moment. That somehow he’d knew I’d live.
The captain’s blood ran from the end of his torn legs and pooled in a fold in the life raft. I leaned across his body and lapped it up to slake my thirst. I guess you know the rest, how I got rescued, and painted the captain blacker than Sadam. Calvin, poor Calvin, it grieved me how he got mixed up in my lies. I guess the truth I told later was that boy should never have been in a war zone and should never have died. And the captain died an honourable death—as he wanted. The truth is we all lost something. I’m sure when you find this note, you’ll understand.