So I was rather chuffed when my historic fiction piece (abridged version) was published last week (Evening Echo Thursday, 7th May 2015) Written back in 2007, it was a originally a 3000 short story that had been written for the Fish Anthology Historic Short Story competition – I was short listed then and didn’t win, but was pleased with that result.
I pulled it out again this year, wanting to somehow make my own little contribution to mark the Lusitania centenary. I was delighted that the Evening Echo accepted it – my first ‘freelance’ piece.
Anyway, I know some who missed the feature in the paper, and were interested in reading the story, so I am happy to add it here (with some added images)
It is a fictionalised account, of factual events.
Bill Turner brushed the last of his lunch crumbs from his tunic as he stepped from his day cabin onto the crescent shaped bridge, with its broad bright windows, and gleaming array of instruments. The wheelhouse was filled with a quiet sunlight that streamed through the lazy fog, disturbed only by the comforting rhythm of the ship’s engine and busy clicking from the wireless room.
He inhaled a deep relaxing breath filling his lungs feeling satisfied and content. He would never tire of watching the bow of the ship stretch out before him, ploughing through the sapphire sea, revealing a continuous petticoat of white bow wave tumble along in her wake.
The Captain relished this private time, having had lunch in his day cabin and avoiding small talk with passengers. Fortunately for him, his staff captain Anderson, a master of diplomacy, was gifted with such pleasantries. Anderson always willing and able to stand in for the Captain’s public engagements when it allowed.
Captain Turner may have lacked the finesse that his employers, Cunard, expected but he was an extremely competent seaman. He had been at sea since a young lad and had captained ships since early adulthood. At the ripe age of fifty-nine, he enjoyed this position of authority. If only for a few days, he was monarch on his own floating kingdom and felt comfortable with her in his charge.
He strolled out on the port side facing land. Experience told him they were off the Old Head, but he would wait for the fog to clear before taking a bearing to plot their position. Once done, he would alter course, increase speed, and plan to catch the Mersey tide at Liverpool.
The Captain’s mind was drawn to the waters beneath. He was in a declared danger zone. Turner knew about the threat of U-boats. He was acutely aware that were Admiralty to escort the liner, it would only mark the ship as part of a Naval Unit, giving the enemy legitimate excuse to strike. The Admiralty were powerless. No, they had to go alone through the Irish Sea.
In preparation lookouts were doubled with men in the crow’s nest, on the bridge and a quartermaster on either side. The engine rooms had been readied to give full speed and highest steam on command. She could out run any submarine. No, he was not worried for the ship. His concern lay in her manpower. Her weakness lay in the event of an evacuation emergency. There was a shortage of crew. Ever since the war began, any decent sailor had already volunteered for service and Turner had to make do with what hands were left. Officially they had just over the number of hands needed, but that included inexperienced stewards and stokers. He knew that time had not allowed them the full training necessary to complete all emergency drills.
Below decks Kitty toyed with her soup. Her stomach was still tender and it was only in that day’s calm sailing, that she began to get her sea legs. Her friend Alice, had finished her lunch and was full of the joys of life. All a fuss and a bother about how close they were to the Irish coast, yet it would be another day’s sail before they would set foot on land.
Despite her previous late night at the Seaman’s Charities evening, Alice had been up since dawn in the hope of catching first sight of their native coast only to be disappointed by the fog. She felt a growing impatience with this sickly Kitty. She loved her dearly, but this constant lethargy was irritating. They were supposed to be enjoying the luxuries on board, returning home on a well-deserved break from years working in New York. It wasn’t fair that Kitty had to go and get sick and spoil their crossing.
Kitty tried another sip of her soup. She didn’t like traveling. It didn’t help to hear the talk of war and submarines. But they were on the fastest ship on the ocean, ‘Greyhound of the Sea’ they called her. And with lots of Americans on board, the U-boats wouldn’t dare attack.
Eleven miles off starboard, Pilot Lanz viewed the liner with his binoculars from the conning tower. The submarine had been sailing for some time on the surface in the thick fog without any sightings and now he had one that he was very pleased about. He alerted the Captain.
April had not been good for Captain Schwieger. He had been hoping for some good hunting, especially now with competition among his peers. If Lanz was correct, this target could give him huge kudos. He gave the order to dive.
The U-20’s ballast tanks drank their fill. Crew rushed to their posts. Watertight hatches slammed, klaxon signaled, valves spun as orders were issued and echoed. Compressed air hissed, as the big diesels went silent and a gentler whirring of the electric engines took up their cue below the surface. The u-boat slipped beneath, maintaining periscope depth. The atmosphere on board was palpable. Oppressive cramped conditions, the smell of bilge waters, diesel and stale sweat, now a stimulant for war.
Lurking beneath the surface, the U20 steered a silent stalking course. Schwieger stayed at the periscope. With calculating precision he issued his orders.
There was a shudder and a hiss. Driven forward by its two tiny propellers, powered by nothing more than compressed air, the armed torpedo and its three hundred pounds of high explosive made its way towards the liner. Schwieger followed the bubble-track through the water. A line of death. He thought of the human life on board the huge vessel. He took no pleasure from causing their demise. He was simply acting on duty. Quietening any foreboding thoughts he focused on the task ahead.
For Irish passengers on board the liner, they made their way to the port side to catch a better glimpse of shore. Noses raised they drunk deep the scent wafting off their home land.
Turner felt rather than heard the dull thud of the impact. The watch’s warning was still echoing in his head when he felt the ship wince beneath him. He rushed to starboard. A cloud of coal dust and smoke filled the air, the deck awash with water and debris. The ship was struck abaft the bridge, lifeboat number five demolished.
In the dining rooms beneath, forks paused at gaping mouths. Kitty and Alice looked at each other unspeaking.
Then the hull shook from a second explosion.
Everyone felt and heard that one.
Orders were issued to head towards shore but the ship was taking on water too fast. The engines rendered useless from the inrush of water meant the ship’s thirty thousand tons ploughed on ahead. Quartermaster Johnston fought with the locked wheel. Gulping in as she went, the ship pulled herself under as she advanced, forcing more and more water into her breached hull. The Captain was powerless to stop her. A frantic tapping took up in the wireless room as distress signals were sent using battery power. Orders were issued to dispatch officers to their lifeboat stations.
A new wave of nausea passed through Kitty. Her eyes darted to the doors and back to Alice. Both abandoned their place rushing to the door. Coal dust and smoke filled the air. There was a numbing sense of unreality as people scurried about, others stood bewildered looking on as chaos swirled around them. Kitty pulled Alice close out of the way of the confused gathering crowd. The angle of ship was unnatural. Already there was a significant list in the deck.
Staff Captain Anderson and his officers struggled with the lifeboats. They could not be launched safely. The angle of the ship was such that only boats on the starboard side had any hope of being used. Those on the port side tilted inwards towards the decks, useless.
Anderson’s eyes scanned the deck and the water below. Diplomacy was not on the agenda now. High society manners ditched as some fought and trampled their way towards the lifeboats. Orders shouted over the din and screaming. Priority given to women and children but few risked the gaping distance between ship and lifeboats. Most seemed to prefer the surreal choice of ship to lifeboat.
A cold reality weighed in on Anderson.
Kitty and Alice both fumbled with the life jackets given by a stumbling steward. Kitty helped the transfixed Alice, trying to remain sure-footed as the great ship lost her feeling of solidity. Thuds and bangs reverberated beneath their feet. Kitty looked to the railing. The sharply increased list of the ship tipped a lifeboat tumbling passengers into the water; shrieking and struggling, the lifeboat crashed down among them. Alice looked on in horror and clung silently to Kitty. Turning to Alice, Kitty took her friend’s face gently in her hands and held her desperate eyes in her own.
Time stopped for Alice. She shut out the chaos around her. There was a great warmth and comfort in the dark pools of Kitty’s eyes. Alice wished to crawl into them. Be in a place of quiet and calm. Kitty was saying something about the ship and no time, and water. Swimming? She couldn’t. She thought of the rock pool where the stream tumbled down the valley at home. That was a happy place. It would be nice to go again. She could feel the water at her ankles now. But this was not the waters of home.
A torrent of the ocean came reaching for them. Steam and smoke vomited out of her funnels. The ship began her dying lament. Her innards moaned a new death song. The deck slipped away from beneath them. Kitty gasped but held on tight to Alice’s jacket. Clumsy in their sodden weight of useless lace and petticoats, breath caught by corseted prisons, the two friends fought to leave the sinking mass behind. Violently kicking against the pull, they pushed away from the mass of chaos. They were only two amongst a field of bobbing heads, debris and noise. Struggling amid the wreckage surrounding them, Kitty pushed herself and Alice forward, away from the liner. Alice took a terrified glance back over her shoulder. The ship struggled to stay on the surface. For a moment the ship paused. Her bow having found the seabed, her stern in the air, she stopped for a moment. And then the regal liner gave her last, spitting and hissing to her end. As if in slow motion, and the deep was not quite prepared to greet her. A few hesitant moments and she turned slightly and slid away to the depths. Hers was the last word, as wreckage and remains were expelled to the surface in the last of her death throes, sending a final tidal wave of debris over their heads.
Alice collided with a dead someone and moaned. It was all she could do. A battlefield of bodies bobbing off each other surrounded them. Those who were alive shouting names, shouting for rescue, shouting for life. Alice clung to Kitty.
Kitty searched the surface for the lifeboats. Her eyes scanned the dead and the drowning, those that clung to deck chairs and barrels. They were a residue of life and death floating with the tide. With little resistance to the creeping numbness and exhaustion, they drifted along with the current. With the dip and lull of the waves a collapsible boat came and went into view, they slowly made their way towards her. Eyes met with those clinging to debris nearby, hungry for survival and rescue. There was a feeble race toward the lifeboat. And there it was bumping against them and voices over them, debating room for one or two. Angry ones worried about being swamped, sympathetic ones willing to take on more. Kitty would not let go of Alice. And then they were lifted and dragged into the boat. Kitty tried to close out the shrieks of others left behind. She felt the jostle and beatings of oars as the rowers hit out at those snatching for life. Those on board tossed about struggling to stay upright. And then they were free, abandoning the rest.
Bill looked on at the retreating lifeboat in torment. Barely clinging onto a floating chair, his instinct was now about survival.
This had not been his first shipwreck. Feeling the cold grip him, he knew that it would not be long and exhaustion would take its toll.
Some hours later the first of the rescue boats arrived at the scene. They did not know it yet but Kitty and Alice would return home to Ireland. Kitty never forgetting. Alice choosing never to remember. Not in daylight hours anyway. It visited her often enough at night.
Bill, picked up by a rescue boat, would don his tunic once more for inquiries and official interviews. He would return to sea but his kingdom was lost, his crown of pride taken from him.
Schwieger had watched the ship’s last moments from his U-boat. The image of the ship’s name on the stern stealing away from them.
Named after an ancient Roman people.