Authors: James Pattinson
|Ocean Prize (1972)|
When a valuable cargo ship is abandoned in the mid-Atlantic, Captain Barling of the S.S. Hopeful Enterprise has very special reasons for wishing to tow it into port. But is he justified in risking men's lives for the sake of his own desires? Shipmate Adam Loder thinks it is nothing but a wild goose chase and chief engineer Jonah Madden is worried about his ailing engines; but Charlie Wilson has a deeper worry that he is hiding.... However Barling has more than fearsome gales to contend with as a tenacious rival threatens his chances.
stood on the bridge of the s.s.
and watched the wheat dripping into number two hold. The huge grain silos overshadowed the Montreal wharf and dwarfed the vessel as she lay there taking her cargo, motionless, silent, her engines stopped, settling almost imperceptibly deeper and deeper into the water.
It was a fine, rather warm October day and the sun shone down on the grimy steel of decks and bulwarks and glinted on the windows of the wheelhouse. The wheat flowed from the spout suspended over the hold and turned to liquid gold in the bright sunlight. And it was indeed gold, Barling thought; the rich gold of the Canadian prairies; and it seemed scarcely right that it should be pouring into so timeworn and battered a ship.
was undoubtedly old. George Barling could remember standing on that same bridge some thirty years ago, watching wheat flow into the holds just as he was watching it now. He had been a young third mate then and there had been guns mounted on the wings of the bridge and on the poop. And the name of the ship had not been
that was the name he and Bruce Calthorp had given her years later; given her in hope and expectation of great things to come; hope that had
slowly faded, expectation that had never been fulfilled.
In 1942 Barling had been twenty-four years old and the s.s.
had been a new ship, a 7,000 ton British standard type, the kind that was being built as fast as the yards could manage in order to replace the immense tonnage that was being lost to U-boat and Nazi bomber. Barling had served in the
for a year before being transferred to another ship as second mate. It was twenty years later when he and Bruce Calthorp went into partnership and bought her on a fifty-fifty basis and changed the name to
Calthorp had been full of confidence. “We’ll make a go of it, George. With you as master and with me to look after things ashore, we’ll really make it work. Ten years from now Barling and Calthorp will be a shipping line to reckon with.”
It was by way of being a sentimental as well as a commercial project for Barling; he had not forgotten those early experiences of his in convoy with the
and it was with surprise and no little delight that he discovered that she was still afloat. She could so easily have been at the bottom of the Atlantic or the Pacific or the Arctic, lying in the ooze of any one of those seas where so many British ships had gone to their last resting places. That she should have survived the hazards of war was fine; that she should be up for sale just at the time when he and Calthorp had decided to pool their assets and break into the ship-owning business seemed nothing less than an omen.
“This,” Barling had said, “has got to be our ship.”
Calthorp had raised no objection. “If the price is right and the ship is sound, okay. We’ve got to start somewhere. You want to stand on that bridge again, don’t you, George? It’s calling you.”
“It brings back memories,” Barling admitted.
“Well, so long as you don’t let nostalgia cloud your judgement, I don’t mind. You’re the one with the practical know-how and I rely on you to make the right decision.”
Calthorp knew about shipping business, but not from the seaman’s viewpoint; his experience had all been gained ashore, in offices where he had become familiar with the procurement of cargoes, with marine insurance, freight charges, bills of lading and a hundred other matters connected with seaborne trade. He was a rather short, rather plump man, full of laughter, and Barling had known him since boyhood. They had been born in the same street in Harwich and had gone to school together. They had been friends ever since.
Yet it was a friendship of opposites, for Barling had always been lean, with a kind of Spartan look about him, smiling little, inclined to introspection. Where Calthorp was hail-fellow-well-met, generally at ease with strangers, Barling was reserved, giving an impression of brusqueness which those who did not know him well construed as a lack of sociability or even downright rudeness. The years, far from diminishing this reserve, seemed if anything to make it more pronounced, and the loss of his wife in a motor accident in the summer of 1966 cast a shadow on his life that time had failed to drive away.
His marriage to Mary Calthorp had strengthened his friendship with Bruce; they were now linked by an even stronger tie. But Mary’s death had strained the link, for Bruce had been driving the car in which she had been killed, while Bruce himself had escaped almost unscathed. And there was more to it even than that: Barling’s daughter Ann had been another passenger in the car and she had sustained injuries that had made her a cripple for life.
Barling, away on the other side of the world when the accident occurred, could not avoid a feeling of bitterness towards his partner and brother-in-law. Deep inside him there was a conviction that Calthorp was to blame; and this conviction on one side and a certain unavoidable sense of guilt on the other led to a degree of estrangement between the two men that did not augur well for the future of the partnership.
Moreover, unpalatable as it might be, there could be no blinking the fact that the venture had not been an unqualified success. The
had spent too much time in dock undergoing repairs and not enough time at sea earning money. Cargoes had often been difficult to come by, and a tramp steamer insufficiently employed was an expensive piece of property.
Barling watched the wheat going into the hold, building up into little hills which men with wooden shovels levelled out. There were shifting-boards fitted fore and aft in the holds to prevent the cargo sliding over to port or starboard. It was funny stuff, grain; half-way between solid and liquid. Without the shifting-boards a roll of the ship in a heavy sea might send it pouring over to one side, causing a dangerous list.
A fine dust rose from the wheat and drifted away. It settled on the decks, on the winches, on the derricks. It moved farther afield and penetrated into the accommodation, where it laid a thin deposit on tables and chairs and bunks. Barling drew a finger along the teak rail of the bridge, pushing up a small ridge of dust. He coughed, feeling the irritation of it in his throat.
He noticed out of the corner of his eye another person standing beside him. He turned his head and saw that it was Mr. Loder, the mate, and, as always, he was irritated
by the silent, almost furtive way in which the man moved, as though he found positive enjoyment in creeping up on people unobserved.
“They’ll be finishing that today,” Loder remarked.
Barling grunted. It had been a superfluous observation. He knew perfectly well that the loading would be completed that day, and Loder knew that he knew.
Adam Loder was about forty-five years old and as bowlegged as a jockey. He had heavy shoulders and a bullet head permanently thrust forward in a questing, inquisitive kind of way. His skin was blotchy and his mouth had a sardonic twist. The crew disliked him and it was probable that this dislike was returned in full measure and with a liberal addition of contempt, since he made no secret of the fact that he regarded seamen in general as little better than so much dirt, poor tools at best, but tools that were, unfortunately, necessary to the working of a ship.
Barling himself had no great liking for the mate and would have got rid of him long since had it not been so difficult to get an adequate replacement. Good men were not over keen to join vessels such as the
; they could see no future in it. And indeed there was no future in it; for though only Barling of those on board was aware of the fact, the ship was about to set out on her last voyage under the Barling and Calthorp house flag, and possibly her last voyage of all.
Yes, it had come to that. Bruce Calthorp had decided to pull out and he had made it only too plain to Barling at their last meeting that he would not change his mind.
“We’ve got to face facts, George. The business isn’t paying. The whole idea’s been a failure and it’s not worth going on.”
“Give it a bit longer, Bruce. Things will pick up.”
Calthorp had shaken his head. “You’ve been saying that for years, but you’re just deluding yourself. Why not face it, George? That ship is just a big white elephant. She needs a refit, new engines, the devil and all; but she just isn’t worth spending money on, even if we could raise it. No; it’s one more trip and then sell out; cut our losses.”
“And how much do you think the ship will make if we sell now?”
“Not much, and that’s a fact. Scrap price. But if we go on we’ll only lose more money. There comes a time when you have to call a halt and that time’s come.”
Barling knew what it was: Calthorp had lost interest in the business. They were not doing as badly as all that, but Calthorp meant to get out, come what might. Barling had heard a whisper, though Calthorp himself had not mentioned it, that his brother-in-law had had the offer of something good in the way of a seat on the board of another company. He had heard no details but he wondered just how much Calthorp was planning to invest, how much capital in fact he had apart from the half-share he would take from the wreck of the partnership; for that would not amount to a great deal. A thought came into his head, a suspicion which five years ago he would have rejected out of hand: had Calthorp been altogether honest? Had he, with his fingers on the financial side of the business, contrived to extract more than his fair share of the profits and salt away a nice little nest-egg for his own use? Barling knew that it was possible; he had trusted his partner implicitly, scarcely bothering to glance at the accounts. But had he been a little too trusting? Well, it was too late to think about that now.
“Of course,” Calthorp had said, “if you want to carry on you’ve only got to buy me out.”
It was a cynical suggestion, for he must have known that Barling was in no position to do anything of the kind.
“That’s out of the question.”
“Then there’s only one thing for it. Sell up.”
For Barling the outlook was bleak. When all debts had been settled he doubted whether there would be much left over to share between himself and Calthorp. He had no savings, no investments; and at his age it might not be easy to obtain acceptable employment. The big shipping companies had their own men and he was an outsider. He would, as it were, be starting again from scratch. And he had Ann to consider.
Ann Barling was eighteen and would never walk again. She was in a private nursing home and spent her days in a wheelchair. The nursing home was in Berkshire in pleasant country surroundings; it had every advantage except cheapness; it was very expensive indeed. Barling knew that with the break-up of the Company it would almost certainly become impossible for him to keep Ann at the nursing home where she was reasonably happy. Other arrangements would have to be made and those other arrangements would without doubt be far less satisfactory. Suppose he even found it impossible to get a job. What then was to happen to Ann?
Thinking it over now, he saw that he ought to have sued Calthorp for damages; but the idea of doing so had not even occurred to him at the time. Did one sue one’s partner and brother-in-law? And there had been no suggestion then that Calthorp might be thinking of pulling out. Now it was too late.
“Madden says the engines are in poor shape,” Loder remarked.
“They’ll do,” Barling said.
Jonah Madden was the chief engineer. For a man who earned his living in ships he had an unfortunate Christian name. He was of a gloomy disposition, perpetually moaning. He moaned to Loder about the engines, knowing that Loder would take delight in relaying these complaints to Captain Barling. Madden knew that the engines needed so many jobs done on them, needed so many parts replaced, that it would have been difficult to know where to start. He knew also that nothing would be done. He was expected to work miracles, expected to keep machinery going when the only place for it was not in a ship at all but in a scrap-metal yard. One day the miracle would fail, and that day might not be long in arriving.
“Madden is an old woman,” Barling said, and regretted it at once. Loder would, of course, tell Madden and the chief engineer would be resentful.
Loder gave a sly grin; he had caught Barling in an indiscretion. “Oh, he is that; but he’s right all the same. Those engines have just about had it.”
“They’ll do,” Barling said again with a touch of bitterness. Loder did not know how little more they had to do. They would push the
one more time across the Atlantic and that would be the lot. After that they could fall to bits for all he cared.
Loder shrugged. “Well, if you think so. It’s not my pigeon.”
“No, it’s not your pigeon.”
It was a dismissal, an order to the mate to mind his own business, which was above decks, not in the engine-room. There was plenty for Loder to do without bothering his head with matters that did not concern him. Though, of course, the engines were some concern of his, as they were the concern of everyone on board, since a failure in the
machinery could have repercussions affecting the entire ship’s company.
But Barling had more pressing matters on his mind: his future, Ann’s future. The machinery would not fail; it had only to keep going for another couple of weeks, and Madden would see to that. At the end of that time he would be finished with the engines for good, perhaps finished with the sea which had been his life for nearly forty years.
Loder was still there. He was regarding his captain with a slightly quizzical expression, as though trying to read his thoughts. Barling, suddenly conscious of Loder’s unwavering gaze, wondered for a moment whether the mate had somehow discovered that this was to be the last voyage of the
for her present owners. Yet how could he have found out anything about that? It was a secret known only to the two partners. Unless Bruce had let something slip out. Unless the rumour had got around. Was it perhaps common talk amongst the officers and crew? Talk of which he alone was ignorant.