Sea Monster (part 1/2)
Muriel stared at the painting then took a sudden step back. Her lips screwed up into her nose and Paul smiled. He had been looking forward to her moment of shock.
“There’s a story that Queen Victoria said it was vile,” he said.
“I’m not surprised.”
“You agree then?”
“No, well, I wouldn’t want to run into one.”
“Don’t worry, you’re on dry land.”
“Why is it called Sea Monsters? I can only see the one, staring straight at us.”
“Look closely. There are two, one for each eye, big fish.”
Muriel took a step towards the canvas.
“I see, but if you only see the one, it’s much more horrible. It looks malevolent.”
“Death at sea.”
She turned and pinched his arm.
“Ow! What was that for?”
“Because you’re taking pleasure in showing me something horrible.”
“Something horrible? It’s a great work of art. People have been admiring it for nearly a hundred years.”
“And I bet I’m not the only girl to pinch her big brother for making her look at it.”
“I didn’t make you. I explained that Turner was our greatest artist, and this is one of his finest works. You wanted to see it, and you react by assaulting me.”
“It’s what you deserve.”
“Well look at the other parts of the picture, all those variations in colour, the roughness, the blurring of the light, the way it depicts the violence of the storm in a few wild strokes of the brush. It says everything about the untamed nature of the sea.”
Muriel was quiet for a moment; he could see her eyes moving around the painting, avoiding the small yet deadly figure at its heart.
“Turner’s technique was incredible,” he said. “The way he conveyed the natural energy of the world in the roughness of his brush; the way he concentrated the strong colours in small patches of the canvas; the way he gives us such a primal perception of the world.”
“And the way he can frighten teenage girls with a couple of little swirls in the middle.”
This time she punched his arm.
“That’s it,” he said. “I’m telling Mother and Father that you hit me again.”
“And I’ll tell them you’ve been trying to frighten me with a sea monster.”
“A great work of art. There are more Turners around here. Let’s see.”
“Not now. After that you have to make it up by buying me a cup of tea and some cake.”
She grabbed his arm and pulled him towards the gallery exit. He didn’t resist.
As Paul reached the highest step the swell lifted the ship and threw him off balance. His left hand grabbed the rail, his right foot rose but slid as it hit the forecastle deck, so his left foot missed and he fell sideways. His feet flailed but he managed to wrap an arm around the rail and pull himself upwards. A sharp pain went through his left shin and instead of standing he rolled over. The two seamen followed, both keeping their footing as the Portcullis hit the top of the swell. They looked down at Paul, one offered a hand to haul him upwards then ran to the forward part of the deck. He staggered back against the rail and struggled to regain his balance as humiliation crashed into his fear. Sub-lieutenant Franklin on his arse while able seamen rushed to save lives.
He saw the men reach a point close to the bow and pull a lifebuoy from its casing. He knew he should be with them, but as the ship rose again he held onto the rail, tasted sea spray on his lips and breathed in the stench of burning oil. It triggered a violent lurch in his stomach and a mouthful of vomit spewed over his glove and onto the deck. He took two deep breaths staring at the mess, then looked towards the seamen, made eye contact with one and knew they had seen his fear. Then the ship fell back into the swell.
This was meant to be good – a rising storm meant the U-boats would dive, unable to renew the attack – but there was too much fear in the air, too many dead and dying in the sea for any sense of relief. Paul looked forwards to see the Tower listing badly to starboard as smoke bellowed from its stern. Beyond that two of the merchant ships had been hit, one spewing flame and smoke from the midship, the other already in a steep tilt as its bow dipped into the water. A couple of lifeboats tossed violently as they tried to escape the pull of the sinking vessel. Around them were dots, the heads of men splashing desperately to reach a temporary safety. He couldn’t hear, but his head filled with their screams.
Petty Officer Drake had left the group he led to port side and staggered to the rail. He gripped Paul’s shoulder and growled.
“You’re in command of those men to starboard. Get over there!”
Paul nodded, tried to ignore his shame and staggered towards the two seamen near the bow. There were men in the water close to the ship, men who deserved a chance to survive if they could get the lifebuoys into the sea and hang on to the ropes. Paul stood beside the men, grasped the rail and looked into the water. There was a head and one arm little more than fifty feet from where they stood. Paul found a moment of clarity, pointed and yelled.
“There! Seventy degrees!”
The seaman beside him uncoiled the rope as the other held up the lifebuoy and stared into the swell. Then he froze. Paul saw the horror in his eyes, threw his gaze to the distance and spotted a dark grey line poking out the waves. He and the seaman both realised it was the turret of a U-boat, chancing the storm to claim one more victim. Then the Tower exploded.
In seconds the sky ahead filled with black smoke. The corvette was hit at both ends and tipping towards starboard. Paul could see men sliding across its decks and tumbling into the sea. Another lift of the waves took the sight beneath the bow of the Portcullis and he realised the two seamen were still trying to pull the man from the water. The one with the lifebuoy was leaning forwards, peering to recover sight of the lost man while the other tied the rope around his arms. Paul looked down into the water, searching again for the drowning man. Then the seaman beside him raised a leg and placed his knee on the side, extending the arm holding the lifebuoy backwards to lengthen the throw. Paul saw the danger to the man, moved to the grab the sides of his jacket, but in a moment the ship came off the top of the swell, the centre of balance changed, the seaman slipped forward and went overboard.
Paul and the other man looked down into the sea, saw the lifebuoy on the surface but no sign of their shipmate. The man beside him cried out.
“Bollocks! Fuck it!”
Paul looked further out, saw the man they had tried to save bob up once more then disappear beneath the waves. The air darkened further. Paul swung around, looked to the port side of the bow and saw the Tower on its side, half submerged and going down quickly. More heads bobbed in the sea, more arms raised in desperation.
Then he looked back to starboard, a last search for either of the men to their side. All he could see were waves curling and tossing and spraying their anger at the ships that remained on the surface. His eyes set on where he had seen the turret of the U-boat, saw only more waves, curling into malevolent swirls, the shape of two massive eyes rising from the water. Turner’s sea monster approached.
Paul fell to his knees, pressed his head against the rail, shook violently and began to cry. He tried closing his eyes but could still see the monster coming towards them, ready to drag them down and devour. It went on until two large hands clamped his shoulders and Petty Officer Drake snarled into his ear.
“Lieutenant! Get on your fucking feet!”