The Demon of the high seas
Over the course of my long and meandering life, I have broken most of the laws and regulations of man as well as one or two of nature. Through all of that however I have never considered myself to have done everything overtly wrong or dare I say it, evil. I put my clear conscience down to one thing; all of the unsavoury actions that I have performed have always and without exception had a good reason behind them. Before you ask; yes being very, very, drunk counted as a reason on several occasions. To be evil, in my opinion, to be really bad, you have to be unsavoury for no reason. At least no reason that is not totally bat-shit crazy. There have only been a few people who I have met which have been that kind of crazy. The first of which I met on my first job on the high seas.
I had that very day walked away from my Grandfather who had practically raised me and had arranged a nice job for me learning to drive trains and had made my way straight for the docks and the various ships arrayed along the banks of the Liffey. I had gone down there largely in hope, ships would occasionally hire hands at the port if they were in mid voyage. At the time there was a Spanish freighter, British Passenger liner and two tram steamers in the port. Both the Spanish and British ships told me to take a running jump as did the first tramp steamer. It was only at the final ship, a run down looking vessel that oddly enough seemed to have only been built during the war years, one of the decommissioned liberty ships. They said that the ships name was the Magnificent but it was anything but. Already rusting and filled with broken or breaking machinery.
Most interesting however was the crew. They seemed to be a wide and varied bunch, derived from all over the world, with Malays, Filipinos, Chinese, just being the most exotic. I talked to them in the most salty sea-dog language that I had ever learned from the pubs I frequented near my home, laced with nautical references and profanity. I thought that they bought it when I noticed that their expression turned a mixture of disgust and pity, a strange look indeed. I have to say that left me feeling confused to say the least. But since I had seen more than my fair share of sailors getting into fights over the years, I thought I knew when I would be in trouble; I was wrong.
Considering that I was largely bluffing my way, I was surprised when I was invited in the bursar’s cabin and told to sign my name on the dotted line, no papers, no questions, they needed a new kitchen helper and it would . I was told to “make my peace” with whoever I wanted to at the time and that the ship was going to be departing by early morning the following day.
I spent the next evening enjoying life in my native city, spending what little money I had saved over the course of my earlier employment working as a delivery boy. I went a little crazy. Buying rounds for everyone who would talk to me and nearly got taken away by one of the ladies of the night (not the regular kind either, but rather one of the really expensive ones that can bankrupt a regular man in a single night. But what a night!) Luckily my friend Darren was able to pull me away before anything happened, not that I was very pleased with him at the time. I got back home early the following morning, singing old rebel songs and half convinced that the ground was at a funny angle. Granddad was sleeping on his chair in front of the fire, he must have been waiting for me. I didn’t want to disturb the old bollix so I did not say anything and instead tip-toed to bed. When I woke to leave he had already gone to the train-yard. I never got to say goodbye.
The great engines of the Magnificent were already starting to come back to life when I scurried aboard in the wee hours of the morning. Another three lads had been signed on during the stay at Dublin and I was told that I would be bunking with them. I’m not quite sure how it was possible, but they seemed to know even less about the life of a sailor than I did. Whoever had decided to give us a job must have been a big believer on on-the-spot training. David was going to be cleaning the desks; John was an engine hand and Philip was supposed to be working with the radio operator. Little helpers really; no real need to hire them mid trip. Philip had very little sea legs, as we felt the engines start to pull the ship out of the harbour he turned a particular shade of green and rushed out the door to the deck. Not a very good start at all.
The old cargo ship lumbered out into the Irish sea and made a course due south. We were told that it was making its way to South Africa; apparently there was a big market for Irish Whiskey down there, especially if it could be obtained through ‘cheap’ channels. We had loaded up with crates of different brands as well as other sundry food and drink “A voyage of temptation” many of the other hands called it. Not that we had very much of a chance to get at them. Life on a wreck was one of constant toil. Every piece of equipment had to be constantly maintained and the general dirt and rust kept at bay. This was hungry work and the men needed three big meals a day to keep going. I was kept busy with Hans, our German cook, insistent he wasn’t a Nazi, even though I never brought it up. They woke me up before sunrise to prepare the breakfast usually massive vats of porridge. The rest of the day was spent preparing dinner from the wide supply of canned foods and not overly rat infested fresh stores in the larder. We usually made enough to cover supper too, albeit a more congealed mess than we would have started with. The crew ate it all the same.
Being at the centre of the meals meant that I quickly got to know all of the other crew members. They still all gave me chilling looks but they might have been starting to warm a little. The only crew member that I never saw was the Captain. A man by the name of Edward Williamson. He apparently spent his time either in his cabin or on the bridge. Hans would deliver his food personally. When I tried to ask anything about him I was told to “Mind your own business” and that was that.
That was until a week into our voyage. We were just passing the west coast of Africa, the smell of five long years of war still in the air. There was a call on the telephone in the galley. Hans rushed over to answer it before I could even move. He listened with a number of shallow grunts then placed the phone down. He had a look on his face like his puppy just died. He was about to say something but seemed to talk better of it. He just ordered me to get out of the Galley. Instead I went from cabin to cabin looking for something to do. I found Manuel in the radio room alone, no sign of Philip and he asked me to help him. I figured he trusted me, one Argentinian to another. I thought I was just covering for Philip for a short while but I got so busy helping the Manuel keep the barely working radio system from breaking that I was shocked to find that it was already time for supper.
I followed the rest of the crew into the mess expecting the usual left over but instead I smelt the most delicious aroma coming from the large pot that Hans was working over. He ladled each of us a heaping dollop of stew filled with pieces of diced meat, real meat. I had been over every square foot of the larder and I had never seen so much as a pork chop. The closest thing to fresh meat there was the rats. I imagined there must have been a secret stash somewhere; not that difficult in a ship so filled with nooks and crannies. Whatever the meat was it seems that the older members of the crew were reluctant to eat it. I checked then sniffed at a spoon-full of the stew then took a taste. The stew was so good, especially after a week of canned muck. I sat with the rest of the new lads while we ate, still no sign of Philip, the rest hadn’t seen him either none of the older crew men would even entertain our questions. We weren’t really in a mood to question anyway. While we were getting stuck the door opened and an old man stepped in. It was the captain, I was sure of it. The whole mood of the room changed, it seemed to get colder by a few degrees and all of the conversation ceased. He eye settled on each and every one of us in the room and when it did, everyone took pains to each their stew, the three of us, who had no idea what was going on, just ate faster. He then left the cabin, the cold air remaining long after he had gone.
The next morning there was an announcement. Philip; apparently, had been ill all day the day before and had died during the night. The whole crew was told to gather on the foredeck for the funeral service. It was a simple affair, the coffin was closed so no one could see the body. The captain came out again, mumbled a few words from his pocket bible and the coffin was slid off the side into the blue depths. We all took a moment to reflect and then got back to the job at hand. I couldn’t help but feel were not directed at poor Philip but at us remaining new people.
Things got back to more or less normal, the food was as horrible as it had ever been and there was no sign of the captain. The only real difference was that both me and David were getting asked to help Manuel with the radio. It wasn’t a very heavy burden, Manuel knew his trade, so we were able to cope just was well as before. I let the fate of Philip leave my mind.
It was another couple of days when the phone rang again and again I was ordered to get out of the galley. I figured I could be just as busy with Manuel. The radio was open, wires strewn all over the place. Manuel was too engrossed to see me and I was just about to start helping him when I realised that I had left my penknife in the Galley. It was a gift I had gotten from James O’Malley when I had turned twelve and I had found it very useful over the years. I made my way back to the galley, figuring that if I made only a quick visit then Hans would not get mad. I walked through the ship and I saw the captain exiting the Galley, with an even colder face than before. Thinking it odd but little else about it I made my way through the door into the Galley only to come face to face with the sight of Hans slicing off the flesh from a body, a dead body.
I was shocked, I was terrified. I was so put off by it that I crashed into the door trying to back away. I made such a noise that Hans heard it and looked around. His was face a mixture of fear and shame. When he turned I was able to get a better view of the body. I realised that it was David, the second of the young men they had picked up in Dublin. My mind started to race, putting two and two together and getting murder and worse, the thought of the food we had eaten that last day. If we were just lambs for the slaughter food for this demon crew. It was barbaric, it was demonic, it was downright nasty.
Hans started trying to say something but I preempted him. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?!!” I shouted grabbing my penknife and a carving knife from the table top, brandishing it in a protective stance “Why did you kill him? Are you going to eat him? Are you going to try and get the rest of us?!! This is sick!” Hans’ face, at the start passive, suddenly became filled with emotion, he broke down weeping right there in front of me.”It is not I who killed David” he cried “Or Philip! It was the captain!”
I snorted at this. “Why? Why would any man do such a thing?” Hans looked at me pleadingly, “When I signed on here, I had no idea what was going to happen. But the captain has these ideas, we cannot say, he will get us too if we do! He takes on young men at every port, kills them, makes me cook them, then makes us eat them. He wants us all to share in the guilt!”
I was shocked even more by this. “But why?” Hans was sobbing quietly to himself through his sobs he said “He told me once that during the war sometimes a ship would be torpedoed and the crew run adrift, sometimes for days, weeks if it was bad weather, little food or water. He told me that the longer they would be adrift the more desperate the survivors would get and sometimes they would turn on each other, kill each other, eat each other. They would be changed he said. It was monstrous ”
“Are you saying that happened to the captain?” Hans’ response was quick, “Nein! The captain worked in front of a desk for the war, never even saw the sea for most of it, desk-job in the navy. I cannot tell of a reason why he would do it. Maybe morbid curiosity.”
I didn’t know why at the time but I was more shocked that all this seemed to happen for no reason, that it was senseless terrified me far more than if it was due to the captain’s experiences. He seemed even more inhuman because of it, more dangerous also. I had to ask Hans. “Will he come for me next?”. “Probably Enrique” He said, “That is why you are here” Maybe if he finds you know the secret he might make you stay with the rest of us damned, but I doubt it.”
“Will you tell the captain I saw this?” I asked. “Of course not!” protested the cook “I like you! It is terrible what happens to all of you youngsters.” I had calmed somewhat while talking with the cook but I still held the knife close to my chest, as if to protect myself. Hans started to look at the body again. “Enrique.” He said “I have to keep preparing the dinner, if it is not ready than the captain will have to know why. If you want I will prepare a small stew of leftovers you can eat. I doubt the captain will inspect everyone’s plate.”
I nodded in agreement and moved to leave the galley while Hans set back to the grim task of butchering David. I was unable to close the door fast enough to miss the sound of metal against flesh. It left me with a queer feeling in my stomach. I returned to Manuel in the radio room and half-heartedly helped him. My mind was on other things. All of the looks, the unusual attitude throughout the ship, the mystery of the meat. Now that they were explained my world was even stranger and more terrifying than I had thought possible. Here I was, still a boy, yet now little more than fodder for a deranged captain and his fearfully compliant crew. This was not a very healthy situation, I had to get out.
Supper-time came once again and unable to think of a better plan, I made my way back to the mess, praying that Hans had not shopped me. I queued with the rest of the men and when my time came Hans reached underneath the table where he lay the pot of stew and fished a bowl from beneath it. I saw him place the ladle inside the pot but raise it again empty. He then made the motion of filling the bowl and handed it to me. There was no stew in there only the congealed mess of leftover surprise. I could have kissed him.
It was now only myself and John at the newbie table as we ate. John asked a few time if I had seen David, they had been chummy since before signing up, I just grunted a negative. I was about halfway through my leftovers when the Mess door opened and the captain entered. Once again, noise ceased and eating commenced. I tried to keep my head down but I could feel his eyes on my back, burning into me. It took all of my courage to turn and nod an acknowledgement to the wizened old man. He did not respond and his eyes moved on. I realised I had to get off the boat.
I walked out of the mess with the rest of the crew and caught up with John, he had told me that they needed him to change an oil filter down in the engine room “They need a young pair of hands” he had boasted, blissfully ignorant. I pushed him to one side and after I was sure that the coast was clear I told him what I had seen. John’s face turned from mocking, to disgust, to terror. He tried to refute what I was saying. “David is sick!” he insisted, weakly “he’ll be okay tomorrow” I looked John in the eye and said “Tomorrow they will say that David died during the night and there will be a funeral with the coffin closed because all that is left in there is the bits that Hans couldn’t cook. I for one do not want to be around for them to try that trick on me.” John agreed with me “But what will we do?” he asked.
The ship was making a south-south-easterly course past western Africa. I was fairly sure that if we were to get in the ocean and just head east we would reach land within a day or two. The Magnificent had five lifeboats with enough water and food aboard each to keep ten men alive for over a week. If we could get if down into the water and away without anyone catching wise then we would be scot-free. The sun had already set, once we were a few hundred yards away then they would never find us.
The port forward life boat was our best bet by our reckoning. People seldom went there after dark and there was no direct view from the bridge. Myself and John made our way onto the deck, telling anyone we met that we were going for a smoke. Quietly scurrying down the length of the ship I found the life-boat stowed against the side of the ship. Coordinating with John through a collection of whispers we were able to pull off the tarp protecting the insides and push the boat out on its hoists. Working together and oh so quietly we both slowly lowered the boat to just below the surf coming off the bow. I didn’t know much about sailing, but I knew that if we were forced against the side of the ship we would be crushed. I gauged the time when the bow wave ebbed enough to push us off and at that time both me and John cut the ropes holding the boat.
The boat fell about five feet and hit the water with some violence, the bow wave pushed the boat this way and that and it was all I could do to hold on. But the violence quickly ended and it was left spinning slowly in the surf. I sat that for few seconds watching the lights of the ship heading out into the distance praying that it would not turn back. It was only then that I remembered my companion and turned to congratulate him. He was not there, I searched the boat the looked out into the quickly settling ocean, calling softly. With the ship still in sight I dared not use the flash-light to search for him so I just sat there, calling, and listening. But there was nothing, he was gone.
John’s loss put a sting into the relief I was feeling for escaping from that bloodthirsty captain and his cannibal crew but I couldn’t sit forlorn for too long. I was now stuck out in the ocean and the Magnificent could turn around at any time. Using a compass that came with the survival gear I turned the boat due east and started to row. It was back-breaking but I felt that I could not stop, that I owed it to John and David and Philip to survive.
The tropical sun rose, and began to beat down on me and still I rowed, hiding my head under some rags I had found. The night fell again and I fell asleep from exhaustion but when I awoke again I kept on rowing, keeping my heading east, straining my eyes for signs of land.
I was three days on that boat when I saw a curious sight on the horizon. It seemed that the sea in the distance had turned green. But as I got closer and my eyes could focus better I realised that it was in fact mountains, covered in green jungle. I was in sight of land. The thought that I was nearly off the ocean gave me extra energy and I rowed with renewed vigour. I did not stop to rest, nor drink, nor eat until I felt the grinding of the sand against the keel of the boat. Throwing myself off the boat and into the light surf I grabbed the boat by what was left of the rope on the bow and dragged it up on the beach as far as I could. I then collapsed onto the white sands of the beach, laughing in relief that I was still alive and safe.
But I was far from safe. I was stuck on the west coast of Africa, thousands of miles from home, with no idea how to get out. It would take all of my luck and skill to get a handle on things. And that; of course, is the next part of my story