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Authors: James Pattinson

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Sea Fury (1971)

BOOK: Sea Fury (1971)
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Sea Fury (1971)
Pattinson, James
(1971)
Tags:
Action/Adventure
Action/Adventurettt

It was an oddly assorted company of passengers that boarded the S.S. Chetwynd in Hong Kong and Singapore to take passage to Fremantle. The old vessel, operated by a line that had a poor reputation, was the kind of ship that could hardly attract the finest officers or crew and was patronised only by the least demanding or affluent of passengers. In this company, living in such close quarters, there was inevitably a certain amount of friction. But human passions would prove insignificant by comparison when the indescribable fury of the storm hit.

Sea Fury

JAMES PATTINSON

W
HEN
N
ICK
H
OLT
went up to the boat-deck he found Sydney East and his wife Pearl already there. They were always there at that time in the morning practising their routine. They had an acrobatic and juggling act and called themselves East and West because Mrs. East’s maiden name had been West. They had boarded the s.s.
Chetwynd
in Singapore where, so East explained to anyone who was prepared to listen, they had just completed a highly successful engagement. Now they were on their way to further conquests in Australia.

“Always on the move, that’s us. Never let the grass grow under our feet. It’s a challenge, see? Mind you, we could’ve made a pile in the Old Country, but that’s not our way. Got to see the world and let the world see us.”

East was not in the first flush of youth; the skin of his face, which was long and narrow, had something of the appearance of an old leather glove and his black hair had flecks of grey which he did his best to disguise with applications of dye. He might have been forty-five, but was lean and well muscled, as a man in his line of business had need to be.

Mrs. East was a good deal younger, possibly no more than thirty. She had blonde hair packed in tight curls close to her
head, so that from a short distance it looked like a golden helmet, and her face had an immature innocence that was oddly appealing. She was not tall and her figure was a little too thick for perfection, but it was firm and well
proportioned
. No one could deny—no man certainly—that there was much in Pearl East to attract the eye.

When Holt appeared she was standing on her husband’s shoulders and doing something rather intricate with half a dozen wooden rings. East, meanwhile, was keeping four Indian clubs moving. Holt rested his back against one of the starboard lifeboats and watched them.

Nick Holt was twenty-five and had joined the
Chetwynd
in Hong Kong, and the way he had come to be in that colony was somewhat complicated. He had left England with a team of young people who were going to India to do voluntary work. Holt had spent a year in India, digging wells, helping with irrigation schemes, building houses, anything that needed doing; then he and another man named Curtis had decided to widen their horizons. They had travelled overland to Burma and thence to Thailand. They had spent six months in
Thailand
before getting a passage in a Japanese tramp steamer to the Philippines. In Luzon they had been caught up in a gun fight and Curtis had been killed by a stray bullet.

After that Holt had decided that the Philippines were not for him and had sailed for Hong Kong in another Japanese ship. By this time his money was running pretty low, but he had the good fortune to fall in with an Australian wool merchant who took a liking to him and offered him a job in Perth. The Australian was going on to Tokyo and San Francisco, but he said that if Holt wanted the job he would buy him a steamship ticket to Fremantle and give him a letter of introduction to his partner in Perth. Holt gave the matter two minutes’ consideration and decided to accept. Three days
later he was walking up the gangway of the s.s.
Chetwynd.

The
Chetwynd
was a five-thousand-ton steamer that had seen better days. She had been built on the Tyne in 1943 and had crossed the Atlantic many times in convoy. She had been present at the Normandy landings on D-Day and had just returned from a voyage to Russia on V.E. Day. The war over, she had done long and faithful service for her original owners before being sold to a Greek shipping
company
. The Greek firm had used her for five years and had then disposed of her to her present owners, the Barling-Orient Line, which operated a fleet of similarly ancient vessels, chiefly in the Eastern Hemisphere, and had a name for employing officers and seamen who might have found some difficulty in getting jobs with rather more selective companies.

The
Chetwynd
had accommodation for eight passengers in four double-berth cabins which were not by any standards luxurious. The kind of passengers who travelled in such ships as the
Chetwynd
did not, however, demand or expect luxury; they took what was provided, grumbled perhaps, but did not protest. They knew that complaints would be useless; if you wanted anything better you used some other line—and you paid a proportionately higher price for your passage. People who made use of the Barling-Orient Line were seldom in any position to pay more.

Nick Holt put one hand on the gunwale of the boat and watched East and West going through their routine. East was wearing a pair of cotton shorts and the muscles could be seen moving under his skin; his stomach looked flat and hard. Pearl was in a bikini and as she juggled with the rings Holt caught momentary glimpses of the paler skin of her breasts where the sun-tan ended. The deck heaved gently, but not enough to throw the performers off balance; they anticipated the movement and made instinctive compensation.

When they had finished the act Pearl did a back somersault off East’s shoulders and landed lightly on her feet with the funnel of the
Chetwynd
as a kind of scenic backcloth. It was a somewhat grimy backcloth, the green paint with the two pale blue rings and the silver lozenge of the Barling-Orient house being badly disfigured with smoke, and here and there rust pushing up blisters, some of which had streaks of red trailing down from them like a metallic pus.

Holt clapped. Sydney East made a mock bow. Pearl curtsied, her breathing a shade rapid.

“Nice to have an appreciative audience,” East said.

He was sweating lightly; the sun was already hot. He gathered up the Indian clubs and the rings.

Pearl smiled at Holt. “Our most faithful fan.”

“With the complimentary ticket,” Holt said. He thought them good. He was not expert enough to see any
imperfections
.

East flicked sweat from his forehead with his index finger. “Maybe we ought to pass the hat round.”

There was a smell of drying timber; the deck had been hosed down earlier; crystals of salt could be seen on the bleached boards and the black lines of pitch dividing them. From the open engine-room skylights came another odour—of hot oil; now and then a clanging sound rose from below, as though someone in the depths of the ship were working at an anvil.

“I’d like to see you on the stage,” Holt said; and he meant it. “I wouldn’t object to paying.”

Sydney East tapped the gunwale of the lifeboat lightly with an Indian club; he had hooked the rings over his arm like bangles. “Some people do. Too many.” He gazed across the awning of the boat at the wide expanse of the Indian Ocean, scarcely ruffled; blue water glittering like a gigantic
jewel under the sun. He sounded gloomy, unlike his usual effervescent self. “It’s television that’s done it. It killed the music-hall stone dead. Once every town of any size in England had its variety theatre, but not now. People stay at home, look at the box.”

“Is that the real reason why you went abroad?”

East looked at him. Holt could see the wrinkles fanning out from his eyes, the perceptible thinning of the hair. How long, he wondered, could a man go on in that profession which called for split-second timing and instant reflexes? How long before it became physically beyond him?

“Maybe,” East admitted.

“But you were doing all right, weren’t you? I’ve heard you say so.”

East grinned with a hint of wryness. “Doing well? Oh, yes. We were doing fine. Offers galore. It was just that we needed a change. Be seeing you.”

He walked away aft and disappeared down the ladder to the next deck.

Pearl lingered. Holt wondered how she had come to team up with Sydney East. How did partnerships like that get started? Two entertainers deciding to pool their talents and start a new act, then falling in love and deciding to make it a partnership for life? Or did the falling in love come first? He would have liked to know.

“You look thoughtful, Nick,” Pearl said. “Something bothering you?”

He grinned. “Nothing bothering me. I was just
wondering
.”

“Wondering about what?”

“How an act like yours gets started. I suppose you’ve always been on the stage?”

“You’d suppose wrong then. I used to be a waitress.”

Holt looked surprised. He could not imagine her carrying round trays, making out bills.

She said, “You didn’t expect that, did you?”

“You’ll be telling me next that Syd was a waiter.”

“Oh, no. He’s the real thing. He was born in a circus. His father and mother had a dog act.”

“Dog act?”

“Performing dogs. Walking on their hind legs, riding
seesaws
, jumping through hoops, that sort of thing.”

“Oh, I see.”

Two lascar seamen were doing something with one of the ventilator cowls just abaft the funnel. They were small dark men in faded blue dungarees that hung loosely on their meagre bodies. They seemed to be arguing about the job in hand; their excited voices rose like the chatter of starlings. The serang appeared, a thick-set man with a pockmarked face and a drooping moustache. He settled the argument with a few sharp words. The chattering ceased.

“They’re both dead now,” Pearl said, “According to Syd, it was a good act.”

“You never saw them?”

“No.” She rested her arms on the boat and gazed out to sea as her husband had done. “How long will it be before we reach Fremantle?”

“Four or five days, I should think. You’ve got an
engagement
there?”

“No. No engagement in Fremantle.”

“In Perth perhaps?”

“Nor Perth either.”

“Oh.” He regretted asking. It had perhaps been tactless. He glanced at her profile, at the small, tilted nose, the full lips and the firm, curving line of chin and throat and breast. “I’m sorry.”

She turned her head and smiled at him, a little sadly, he thought. “No need to be sorry. Sometimes, Nick, you just travel in hope.”

“Yes,” he said, “I suppose so. Maybe we’re all travelling in hope.”

 

On the bridge of the
Chetwynd
Captain Leach had just joined the third mate, William Finch. As soon as Leach opened his mouth Finch could smell the alcohol on his breath and knew that the Old Man had been drinking again. Finch was not surprised; it was normal. Only if Leach had not been drinking would Finch have remarked the fact and wondered why.

“Good morning, Mr. Finch.”

“Good morning, sir.”

Batholomew Leach never addressed any of his officers by their first names; he did not believe in such familiarity. Even Mr. Henderson, the chief engineer, with whom he might have been expected to be on terms of more or less equality, was never anything less formal than “Chief”; but this might have been attributed more to the fact that he detested
Henderson
than to any other reason. The dislike was mutual, and it would never have occurred to Henderson to call Leach Bart, or even Bartholomew, though often enough in his own mind he did refer to the master of the
Chetwynd
as “That drunken old swine”. Henderson himself was a strict
teetotaller
and believed that anyone who allowed intoxicating liquor to pass his lips was on the road to the devil and the torments of hellfire.

Mr. Finch looked a little nervously at Captain Leach; at this time in the morning you never knew what sort of mood he would be in. In a bad mood he could be a scourge to Mr. Finch, who was a thin, nervous young man, almost completely
lacking in self-confidence and with a distressing tendency to make mistakes. He had entered the Merchant Service with a head crammed with romantic notions about the sea drawn from tales of Drake and other heroes, and only when fully committed to a maritime career had he realised that it was not at all as he had imagined it to be and that he himself was as little suited to his chosen profession as a tone-deaf man to the trade of piano tuning.

Many times he had vowed to give it up and get a shore job, but always when it came to the point he hesitated to make the change; natural inertia, which was part of his character, kept him chained to a service in which he knew in his heart that he could never be a success. The normal goal of every young Merchant Navy deck officer was a
command
of his own, but not so with Finch; he knew that such responsibility would be more than he could bear, and the prospect of ever being master of a ship filled him with dismay.

Not that he need have had any fears in that respect, since he was as unlikely to be thrust into such a position of authority as Captain Leach was to give up drinking. Nevertheless, it did worry him.

Leach stared at Finch. This was a habit of his which the young man found singularly disconcerting. Leach was slightly above average height and of considerably more than average girth; he had a paunch which put Finch in mind of a
pregnant
woman, and his imagination dredged up the incongruous and faintly obscene picture of Captain Leach giving birth to a child. The desire to laugh made him even more nervous, so that he could not keep his hands from shaking. In order to control them he held them pressed tightly against his thighs and could feel the warmth of flesh through the thin material of the white shorts he was wearing.

Leach regarded him in silence, as though taking a mental inventory of all the weak points of this thing called Finch. Leach’s eyes were like large boiled sweets that had been sucked briefly and then rejected; protuberant, watery and bloodshot. Innumerable small veins gave his skin something of the appearance of Gorgonzola cheese; there were hairs growing out of his nostrils and his ears; his chin sagged into flabby bands of flesh that descended to his chest like ocean rollers lazily approaching a shore.

“Have you shaved, Mr. Finch?” Leach demanded at last.

Finch began to stutter, as he always did when particularly nervous. “Y-y-yes, sir. Th-that is, n-n-not th-this morning.”

“What d’you mean—not this morning? Why in hell not?”

BOOK: Sea Fury (1971)
12.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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