The Aftermath of Devastation

This book in my series represented the most severe challenge: naturally, every author believes their first book is a wondrous thing, as as for their second one… well, the seven wonders of the world ain’t in it! And then we take stock, a sobering moment for reflection… are we really writing something that will reach beyond our own interest, will offer pleasure and fascination to other readers? Do we ever know? I reflected on the justifiable acclaim for the greatest writer ever (in my humble opinion) of naval historic fiction – for it was (you guessed) Patrick O’Brian; and the answer is plain: yes, true wonders are, eventually, recognised. They are, really; his series is truly the eighth wonder of the world. OK, I have been enjoying my grog ration. However, it is enough to keep us mere scribblers at the keyboard, plugging away, close-hauled and approaching that distant sun… Time to stop, time to put down a few words; and here they are, from my latest book. I am sure my second one built on the first (I can’t, even now, bring myself to say “better” – can I?) and this latest one has, I think, stretched my hitherto unknown (I’m talking about my own perceptions here), unsuspected abilities to new… new… OK, here’s the words, below. I hope you enjoy this tiny taster.

Pellew extended his hand, ‘And the finest of good mornings it is too, O’Connor. Indeed, it is a damn fine morning whenever I find myself aboard ship these days; there it is… too many infernal days ashore, but enough of that else we may run foul of speaking of higher authorities, and I would not care for that.’

‘Top of the morning to you, sir. How I most heartily wish the ship was in better order for your visit.’

‘It don’t signify in the least, not at all. I do so hate a flash ship,’ replied Pellew in a friendly tone and with the kindliest of look.

‘I regret, sir, that we have enjoyed neither the time nor the materials to remedy her prodigious damages, these past days…’ Pat’s voice tailed off.

‘Never be so concerned, O’Connor. Do not stand on ceremony,’ declared the admiral with great benevolence.

‘You are very good, sir.’

‘Now, pray be so good as to show me the barky, and perhaps we will enjoy a tint of coffee later… you do have coffee?

‘Be so good as to follow me, sir,’ Pat was feeling a little more relaxed, Pellew’s informality a huge relief. ‘Yes, it pleases me to say we have a fine coffee, a Turkish coffee, so it is.’

‘Excellent, pray lead on.’

Pat paced slowly about the quarterdeck; that there were none of the customary carronades present was readily apparent. To a fighting man such as Edward Pellew the glaring vacancy loomed large. ‘The smashers went overboard, sir, to lighten ship,’ said Pat, anticipating the admiral’s question, one framed in his thoughts if not on his lips, ‘… so much water in the hold… seven feet at one time…’ The admiral’s smile vanished, his face darkened; he nodded his understanding. They turned at the taffrail to gaze forward the length of the ship; the void presented by the absent mizzen mast was stark, glaring. ‘The mizzen was cut down to release her, when she was knocked down in the storm,’ explained Pat, ‘a beam sea… the drag of the mast in the water preventing her from finishing her turn… to fall off the wind, the fury of it pressing her down.’ Pat swallowed hard, the recounting of the terrible minutes constricting his throat, his breathing coming faster, his tone of voice deepening, ‘She would not come back, rise up, until the mast was gone, the rigging severed.’

‘Good God Almighty!’ Pellew gazed at the stump of the mast in something akin to disbelief, his mind struggling to visualise the scene of horror, ‘An infernal close run thing, I venture?’

‘Indeed it was, sir,’ the whispered reply, ‘Perilously close.’

Pellew stared hard at the deck planking; to his practised eye the indelible dark stains in large patches on the oak planking – holystoning long accepted in the fleet as being utterly useless – could not be missed, could be only one thing: blood, buckets of it, dried in the sun to a permanence. There was no other explanation for such that he could think of. His eyes narrowed, yet he said nothing, the bloody causation of the now near black residues perfectly plain to him. Together they paced past the wheel, towards the mainmast, the remainder of the ship before them. ‘The foretop don’t look like anything that ever came out of Pompey, O’Connor,’ remarked the admiral, ‘Cut short, would it be?’

‘Yes sir; the original was struck by Turk shot, cut away, cast overboard…’ Pat’s spirits were diminishing by the minute even as his heart, it seemed to him, beat louder, his anxieties rising. ‘

‘On my life…’ Pellew muttered to himself, and more loudly, ‘She was damnably knocked about.’

‘I regret she was, sir,’ Pat waved his hand toward the remaining companionway as if to lead the admiral away from further scrutiny of more ravages, unrepaired and greatly demoralising. ‘Please to step this way.’ Pat started quickly down the steps, as if in doing so it would hasten Pellew’s practised eyes away from the sight of so much more yet unseen damage, perhaps towards rather safer havens. ‘The other was smashed by a ball strike, off Samos,’ declared Pat, anticipating  the admiral’s obvious enquiry.

Pellew nodded, thinking hard. He reached the bottom of the steps and stared down the length of the gun deck. ‘In the storm…  the carronades gone… you did not care to cast the great guns overboard?’

‘It was not for want of intention, for with never less than two feet of water all over the deck, no sails and rolling most severely…’ Pat shuddered as he spoke. ‘I dare say she was heeled over to some sixty degrees, and it was not possible… we dare not untie them… we could never have held… controlled them… else they too would have gone…’ Pat’s voice tailed off.

‘I am fully persuaded of it,’ the words were uttered quietly, the gravity of Surprise’s situation revealed with crystal clarity, the depth of her distress and that of her men all clear to him, and Pellew’s tone of voice was low; the terrifying nature and extent of the ship’s catastrophic danger had registered with him as they paced the length of the deck to stand under the foc’sle. The admiral gazed in silent astonishment at the bow hull, hundreds of tiny wooden wedges remaining tapped into the gaps in the oak timbers where, bereft of the caulking which had dried and shrunk in Greece’s summer and which had then been battered out by the repetitive pounding of monstrous wave after storm wave, the seawater had pressed in, the accumulation of a myriad of tiny jets becoming an unstoppable, unceasing and flooding torrent, much worse on the decks below where it could find no escape.

Pat led on, down the steps to the lower deck. In the immediate area at the bottom of them, a dim light persisting, Pellew noticed more enduring stains proliferating on the planking, many of them large indeed. Shocked and unspeaking, he looked down all about him in dismay, dozens more of dark blotches visible, stretching away into the far gloom. The illumination of the solitary lantern not affording him any more than an impression of the whole of the deck, an image, a picture came to mind, his imagination affording him a vision of the surgeons working in this dark place, dozens of wounded men lying here in their agonies, bleeding, crying, dying. The admiral’s steps and words were halted entirely. He stood in enduring silence, rigid, unmoving, staring the length of the lower deck.

Eventually a grim nod from Pellew and they stepped on, down to the orlop, halting above the hold, two feet of water even now still swilling about, for the extra pumps procured from ashore had enabled the water depth to be reduced from the former four feet still present on arrival but no further. ‘Good God!’ exclaimed Pellew. That so many pumps were still working he had noted on his arrival aboard, great streams of water visibly gushing out in a torrent from the larboard side where he had boarded, the same being visible from the deck on the starboard side; and then the rhythmical, noisy, mechanical workings of the pumps could not fail to reach his ear even now, six of them going non-stop, always a dozen men working them, the laborious toil unceasing, day and night.

Up they stepped, up from the near absolute darkness of the hold to the enduring gloom of the lower deck, both men uncomfortable, aware they were returning to the surgeons’ scene of horror; slowly they stepped towards the stern, towards the gunroom, Edward Pellew dawdling, deep in reflection, Pat striving to quicken his step but holding back to stay with his distinguished visitor, the admiral taking in everything about him, every detail, every nuance, every visible vestige of record of the events. Pat too began to reflect on the battle; he stared as if seeing for the first time the old bloodstains, never completely cleansed since the battles of Samos, and the fresh ones from injuries re-opened by the hurricane’s horrors. All had been scrubbed a dozen times since the Falmouth arrival, but with very limited success, and Pat too was now reduced to keeping his silence; indeed, he would have omitted the lower deck from his tour, had that been possible, for the unspeakable horrors he had witnessed in the aftermath of the Samos battle endured painfully in his mind, and simply being here, in the place where Simon had endured the gruesome and ghastly burdens which had precipitated his brief breakdown, was hard. The admiral, Pat’s long silence registering with him, reined in the innocuous platitude about to escape his lips, bit down on his tongue, turned and faced his guide, shaken, deeply moved, unsettled, his heart turning within him, his voice a mere whisper, ‘I have been afloat since I was thirteen… on many ships… in many battles. I have seen unspeakable horrors at sea… terrible things, which no man would care to reflect on,’ Pellew took a deep breath, ‘ but it is plain to me, O’Connor… it is perfectly plain to me,’ he reiterated, ‘… that you and your men…’ a long pause, ‘… have been to hell.’