|The rain was remorseless. John watched it battering against the windows of the Bridge as they drew closer to the other ship. He was outwardly calm but his thoughts were in turmoil. McLaughlin was silent next to him; concentrating hard. Everyone else was working steadily; years of training coming together when it was most needed. |
“We’ll try to go alongside. We can throw the lines. They’ll be able to see what we’re doing… Lt Groves, is it working now?”
“I’m transmitting again, sir. They might pick it up. We could signal with light when we get closer.”
“Ten minutes till we’re alongside, sir.” McLaughlin said, calmly. “I think your idea will work. I think I can hold her steady for about twenty minutes, thirty with this wind.”
“We’ll have to let Commander Keeler know. That’s not long. They’ll need to be prepared to get across straight away. Turn off the searchlights, then signal – keep it as short as possible!”
It took barely three minutes for the answering light from the Camaraderie, but it felt like a lifetime. John let go of the breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding and smiled. It would work. It had to.
Please keep us safe, he prayed, as they inched ever closer.
“Con,” Rayner said, throwing open the door of Jonathan’s room, unheeding that his wife was trying to settle their boy to sleep. “What ship is your cousin on?”
“What do you mean?” Con asked, surprised. Jonathan and she both stared up at him, their bedtime prayers forgotten.
“Your cousin – I can’t remember his name. Richard’s brother, the Lieutenant Commander. What is the name of his ship?” Rayner drew her out of the room, closing the door.
“I haven’t the faintest idea. I know he was with Mike – Mamma said they were on the same mission but not on the same ship… I meant to ask Auntie Mollie actually, I have John’s birthday card to post…” Con stopped abruptly. “Is something wrong?”
“Could it be HMS Commitment?”
“It sounds familiar. Oh tell me what’s wrong, won’t you?”
He put his arms around her. “There was something on the television. It’s been lost. There was a hurricane. They mentioned him by name; they said he was the Captain. They said because of the conditions that survivors would be unlikely. I’m so sorry, darling.”
Daphne, tears falling freely down her face, ran from room to room calling her brother’s name; but Rix remained elusive. Maurice was with their parents, frightened to leave them.
“Where are you?” she sobbed, but then her ears caught the sound of someone playing on the old nursery piano.
“Rix!” she said, as she burst in. He turned to look at her, unreasonably annoyed at being disturbed when he was despondent; but then saw her tear-stricken face and, with an exclamation, stood up and took hold of her shoulders.
“Daph – what on earth’s wrong?”
“Rix – please come. It’s John. It was on the radio…” Daphne broke down and Rix could get no more sense from her.
“Come on,” he said, with a sense of foreboding, his arm around her shoulders, as they left the airy old attic and went downstairs.
He left Daphne on the stairs as they reached the bottom and he could hear his mother crying. She was almost hysterical and clinging to her husband; Rix had to physically separate them and order his grey-faced father to sit down at once. The radio was still blaring away; a sports report. He switched it off.
“Tell me what’s happened,” he demanded, Mollie still in his arms. Maurice was very pale. Emerence had her hand over her mouth, her eyes large in her face.
“John’s ship – it’s been lost. No survivors…” Maurice said, unevenly.
“What? That can’t be true.”
“They said… There was bad weather.”
“I’m going to phone the Admiralty.”
The nearest telephone was just outside the drawing room, on a large sideboard. The operator couldn't connect the call. The Ministry of Defence was not accepting any.
Rix slammed the phone down, then pulled himself together and hunted for his medical bag.
“It’s a mistake, that’s all,” he said, firmly, as he went back into the drawing room. “Mother, I’m going to give you an injection if you don’t stop howling. We don’t even know what’s happened yet… The news could have it completely wrong. Dad, please… I need you to rest. Please sit down.”
“Did the Admiralty say it was a mistake?” The hope in Mollie’s tear-filled voice was heartbreaking.
"I couldn't get through. It – it could be propaganda. It could be anything. He – Nothing has happened to Jackie.” He realised how unconvincing he sounded, his ridiculous justifications. “Maurice – what did they say on the radio? Tell me everything.”
Maurice was holding his mother’s hand. “It was very short. They said reports were coming in of the loss of John’s ship – one of the Beira Patrol - off the coast of Africa. There was a bad storm or a hurricane. Conditions meant that survivors were unlikely – that was it... I can’t believe it…”
“There is no way the Admiralty wouldn’t let us know first.” Rix said, with more feeling than faith. He turned the radio on again, and tuned it from station to station, but there was nothing.
They had gone as close as they could; they had rigged lines between the two ships. It was the best they could do. John went on deck to watch the Camaraderie’s company swarm over, thankful his plan had worked.
He saw a few injured men; their friends had to help them. Mainly superficial, but the medical officers dealt with them at once. Someone else took a roll call with the ship’s records. Things were in hand.
He had looked for Lewis Keeler, and for Mike, his cousin, but had seen neither. Most of the crew were across now; the great exodus had slowed to a trickle and the deck was becoming very crowded.
“Once they’re checked off, send some men down below,” he ordered two Lieutenants, and they immediately set to work to make sure his orders were followed.
John walked closer to the lines, holding on to the ship’s rail. The wind was still strong. He suddenly stepped forward and gripped the shoulder of a young sailor; Mike’s friend from Portsmouth. He couldn’t remember the boy’s name.
“Where’s Mike Maynard? Have you seen him?” he demanded.
“No – no, sir. He was with Lieutenant Murray, disarming the depth charges…”
“Are they still there?”
The boy nodded. “I was waiting for him, but my D.O. told me to get myself over. I haven’t seen him yet.”
“Right.” John’s looked over at the stricken Camaraderie. Mike would be deep below deck; maybe the sea was already coming in. He shuddered. It could be that he and this Lieutenant hadn’t even reached their destination before being cut off by the sea. The thought was chilling. If they didn’t reach the depth charges, though – were they still live? Oh Christ, John thought, he had been wrong. HMS Camaraderie was sinking too fast. They were too close. In bringing the Commitment so close he had doomed them all.
John turned to the boy again. A few quick questions and young Baker told him everything he could about the Camaraderie’s condition.
“Where’s Commander Keeler? On the Bridge? Is he staying to abandon ship?” John asked, finally.
“Yes, my D.O. said so. He’s alone, though. He told everyone else to go. Sir.” Baker suddenly remembered to whom he was speaking.” Sir? I can go back – I could help.”
John looked around and considered. The last men were still scrambling across, but the line nearest to them was free. McLaughlin had his orders and John knew he could trust him. There was no time to fetch someone else and send them, but if the depth charges on the Camaraderie were not disarmed; they would all be in danger – and it had been his decision to bring the Commitment so close. He knew without question that he had to see it through. He took hold of young Baker’s shoulder again, and shouted to be heard above the wind.
“No. Go to the Bridge. Tell Lieutenant McLaughlin I’m going over to check everything’s safe and that I’ll go through the abandon ship routine with Keeler. He’s not to wait, understand? He can come back for us when it’s safe. Go!”
Baker ran off at once, slipping slightly on the wet deck. John set his teeth and climbed across to the Camaraderie. It was already listing badly. There wasn’t long to go.
One of the evacuating sailors, not seeing his rank, tried to grab him but John shook him off and went below deck, thankful that he knew the Camaraderie almost as well as his own ship. Nonetheless, he took a wrong turn and had to retrace his steps before he came across the weapons store, and throwing the door open, saw Mike and an older officer, quickly yet calmly re-checking their work. The water was already up to their knees.
“John! How did you get here?” Michael was wide-eyed.
John didn’t take the time to explain. “Did you manage to put them all out of action?” he demanded.
“Yes.” Lieutenant Murray looked John in the eye. “I can’t guarantee that some of ‘em might go off anyway though sir. They’ve been knocked about.”
John didn’t falter. “Then you should go now and tell McLaughlin, on the Bridge of my ship, to get away as fast as possible. That’s an order, Lieutenant.” He quickly explained how the rescue operation had been constructed and told them to hurry. There would just be time for them to get across.
“Aren’t you coming?” Mike asked at once, shaking off Lieutenant Murray’s arm, distressed.
“I’m going to the Bridge to help Commander Keeler. Mike…” he put his hands on his young cousin’s shoulders. “You did good work here. Now go to the deck and get across. I’ll see you soon. I’m proud of you,” he added, and then left to go to the Bridge, knowing that Murray would drag Mike to safety if necessary.
I see two ships. Waves – Wind - Death… So much death if you do not act.
The words from that beautiful summer’s day hit him again like a sledgehammer. Daniel would think he was insane to risk his own life on the words of an old gypsy… But how could he not?
Lewis Keeler watched the lights of HMS Commitment as they grew fainter and further away. The Bridge was normally a noisy place, but apart from the sounds of the Camaraderie’s death-throes, now it was silent. He had done as much as he could to lessen the ship’s hazard to shipping when it eventually went down, now he was cursed with time to sit and reflect.
His father had died in the sea; when Lewis was a small boy. His ship had been torpedoed by a U-Boat and had sank in three minutes. Lewis had grown up on a steady diet of stories about how brave his father must have been. He grimly thought that his father must have been much stronger than himself. He didn’t want to drown. He was frightened.
The sea was too rough for a lifeboat; he would be in the water before the Commitment could turn around; that would be if he wasn’t dragged under with his own ship first. His hand shook as he reached for the ship’s log. He should have sent it away with one of the other officers. A disciplinary offence, if he even lived. He laughed, a cold and bitter sound.
Next to it on the table was his small, silver revolver and the cause of his most troubled inner thoughts.
“Lewis?” John opened the door, warily. Keeler, stared back at him, as though John were a ghost.
“I came to help you.” John said, stepping forward.
“You shouldn’t have,” Keeler said harshly. “What’s the point in us both dying?”
“We’re not going to die,” John said calmly, ignoring the facts of their predicament. He knew Lewis’s black moods all too well. “We need to go through the abandon ship routine. Let’s see if we can remember it from Dartmouth. Where d’you keep your life jackets?”
Keeler pointed, automatically. As John moved across the room, he saw the gun on the table and stopped.
“Lewis, what are you doing?” he asked. “Where did you get that?”
“It doesn’t matter. You shouldn’t have come here.” Keeler was shaking like a leaf.
“Lewis, please. Give it to me. You don’t need to do anything stupid.”
“I don’t want to drown.”
“We won’t drown. We’ll abandon ship and then, when it’s safe, McLaughlin will come back for us.” John held out his hands; the unease turning to real fear when Keeler didn’t respond but just picked up the weapon, rolling it over in his hands.
“Lewis, please,” he continued, trying to stay calm. “We need to put on life jackets. I’m going to get them from the store. I’ll be right back.”
“You shouldn’t have come here to die with me,” was the only, and chilling, response.
John sloshed through the seawater in the corridor, just as the ship’s lights gave one last flicker and cut out. He cursed, fumbling through the pockets of his coat for his torch; waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness when he failed to find it.
It was pointless to grope his way down an unfamiliar ship, in search of lifejackets that might not even still remain in their store, in darkness, but without them, they had no chance. Very little chance, even with them, John supposed, but giving up felt like defeat.
He didn’t want to go back and deal with Lewis in that mood.
He couldn’t leave him.
Where was his blasted torch?
Lightning illuminated the corridor for a brief moment, and he took advantage. The door opposite was open; the storage area he had hunted.
The shelves were muddled; sailors had obviously grabbed things they needed in a hurry, and he cut his hand on something sharp, but eventually his fingers closed over a torch and then life was easier.
He caught up the lifejackets with a feeling of relief. The torch wasn’t well-charged but it would last long enough – probably longer than the ship herself, he though, with a feeling of grim hysteria.
“Lewis? It’s me. I’m coming back in,” John pushed open the door. Keeler had lit a lamp; its glow cast an eerie light across the disarrayed room. The gun was still in his hand. “We should go.”
“Where?” Lewis spat.
“On deck. They’ll send a helicopter for us. We can’t stay here – there’s too much water coming in, we’ll get trapped. Look – bring that lamp. Put this on.”
“We might as well die here together.”
“You said you didn’t want to drown.”
“I’m not talking about drowning,” Lewis Keeler looked down at his revolver.
Daniel didn’t know what had happened until six, when he saw the headline on a newsboard, in Westminster. With shaking hands, he unfurled the paper and read of the loss of the HMS Commitment whilst trying to save the HMS Camaraderie, deployed in the Beira Patrol, just off the coast of Mozambique.
John’s last letter flashed through his mind.
Mozambique has some pretty beaches, I was thinking it would be nice to visit them, when it was warmer. Have you ever been to Africa? I do think you’d like it here, though it can’t compare to the Devon coast, of course…
He took a taxi to the Eaton Square flat. John’s presence still seemed palpable, it was inconceivable to think of him drowned and gone. I hope it was quick, that you didn’t suffer. Daniel thought, sitting at his desk, the newspaper in front of him. They had few details, it was the early edition; but there, written clearly in black text, was the name Lieutenant Commander John Bettany, and a grainy photograph, of John in uniform, looking young and determined. He stared at it as it blurred, and he had to wipe his eyes.
Next to him, the phone started to ring.