Sea Monster (part 2/2)
It was in a different gallery. The museum had been hit by bombs and the paintings were hung on other walls when they were returned from storage. They stood at the entrance to the room and looked for the painting. Paul hoped it had been left in storage, but Muriel tugged gently at his arm.
“It’s over there.”
“I can see.”
Muriel pulled gently and led him towards the canvass, causing his heart to shake a little with every step. He stopped halfway across the room
“I can’t,” he said.
“You must.” Muriel’s voice was gentle but insistent. “If you want to break that fear, escape those sleepless nights.”
“It’s bringing it all back. I can feel it now.”
“It needs one moment of bravery, that’s all.”
She tugged again. They took small steps towards the canvass. At first he fixed his eyes on the top of the image, the yellows in which sunlight fought with clouds. Maybe he could ignore the sea monster, pretend he had faced it. But Muriel knew better.
“Look down,” she said. “You know where it is.”
His eyes swelled, wanting to cry and run, but he couldn’t do that his sister. She had endured his nightmares, and the conscious moments of tearful terror. He forced himself to look downwards at the two big fish. The vision twisted into the large, evil eyes that he had seen from the deck of the Portcullis. For a moment he endured the fear, then stepped back.
Big hands gripped his shoulders.
“You can. It’s only a picture. Lieutenant, just look at it.”
He knew the voice. The man relaxed the grip on Paul’s shoulders. He turned to look at Petty Officer Drake. For a moment their faces were close enough to feel each other’s breath. Paul flinched and took one step back. Drake’s face was hard, but there was no sign of the snarl that had inflicted the final wound on the ship’s deck. There was even a glint of sympathy in his eyes.
“What are you doing here?”
“I found him,” said Muriel. “You’ve told us the story, I knew his name. The Navy helped me find him.”
Drake spoke quietly.
“Look at the picture Lieutenant.”
“Why would you tell me to do that? You can see I’m afraid. You’ve seen me, when I …..”
Words garbled in Paul’s mouth. Tears threatened to rise.
“Don’t say it,” said Drake. “That was five years ago. You don’t have to say it.”
“But I cracked. I collapsed into cowardice.”
Paul felt Muriel squeeze his hand.
“You’re no coward,” said Drake. “I know of your record before you joined the Portcullis, when your other ship was strafed by German planes, and you stood at your post on deck directing the anti-aircraft fire. Then when it was torpedoed, the captain lost, and you saw half the crew into the lifeboats. You were the last man off the ship. And I know you were on other convoys when vessels were lost, men died. You endured for two years.”
“And then I broke!”
“All of us can break. We’ve only got so much courage and in the end it gets used up.”
“That’s what the psychiatrist told me, but they never depended on me.”
“That’s what I’m telling you. I broke, a year later, when the Portcullis went down south of Iceland. I made it to one of the boats, but I watched men die, then listened to others as they cried for help in the dark. When dawn came and there was no other ship in sight I cracked, sobbed myself silly in front of seven seamen and a first lieutenant. Cried on and off for thirty hours until we were picked up. And then I felt broken and pathetic and I was no use to anyone for months.”
Paul looked into Drake’s eyes and recognised the lingering hint of shame that he saw in his own. But there was also a glint of resolution.
“I recovered,” said Drake. “Worked in supplies at Plymouth for a while, then transferred to the Coast Guard and patrolled the Channel for the last year of the war. And your sister says that you spent two years in Naval Intelligence. I know you must have done good work or else they would have thrown you out in weeks.”
“And that was enough?”
“Of course. We did a dangerous job to our limits then we broke. We were wounded, not in our arms or legs but our minds, and we needed time to recover. Then when the wounds healed we did what we could, carried out our duty.”
“But, breaking down … the fear ….”
“We can’t change that, we live with it, but we carry on. Both of us have done that, but maybe you can’t see.”
Paul realised that Drake had succeeded in something that had eluded him for five years; shown he was still entitled to his pride.
“Look at the picture Lieutenant.”
Paul turned back to the canvass, took a couple of steps closer to the canvass and stared. The sea monster glared. Paul flinched, but forced himself to stand still and keep his eyes fixed on the monster’s malevolence. Again he felt the fear, but he looked hard at the picture, deeper into the monster. He began to examine the lines, smears of paint, scratches, tiny details that the artist had used to create a sense of danger. Then the fear began to recede. The monster faded, flattening into swirls of paint on canvass. Paul held his gaze and felt himself steady, that he was taking control.
“It’s just a painting,” he said. “It’s disturbing, effective, but it’s just a painting.”
Muriel touched his hand. Drake moved to his other side and passed judgement.
“A painting? It looks like a bloody mess to me.”
Brother and sister laughed. Then Muriel and Drake stepped back and wandered around the room while Paul stood looking at the monster, his fear draining away, acknowledging there was nothing that could hurt him. The war was over; there was no need for the nightmares. Then he turned, caught the eyes of his sister and the petty officer, and all three moved to the centre of the room.
“Thank you,” said Paul. “Now I think I owe both of you some tea and cake.”