An After Dinner Tale

This sort of thing could only have happened in a Britain that is, now, largely forgotten. Or at least one aspect of that Britain, her centuries old seafaring and mercantile tradition. A tradition  which seems to have passed from modern memory, except among those of us who followed the sea at a time when the Red Ensign could still be seen in every corner of the globe, flying above the taff rail of one in four of all the world’s ships.
There were four of us gathered that December evening around the distressed mahogany table of a favoured river side watering hole, taking refuge after dinner from a stinking, choking, pea soup fog. Despite the muffling of the fog and the tightly latched windows we could hear the mournful horns of the anchored ships warning those brave or reckless enough to be still trying to feel their way upstream or down. There was a Lecturer in navigation, a cross channel Ferry Captain, Carlton and myself. Carlton was the only one of us still wandering the globe. An itinerant master, one might hear of him in command of a crack liner, praised in Lloyd’s List for some outstanding feat of seamanship, or nursing some ageing tramp, which had almost been given up for lost, back into port with cement boxes and wooden wedges holding her battered plates together. Between the four of us there was a strong bond, forged from the shared experiences of service in the mercantile navy upon which the commercial wealth of this foggy capital and its island nation depended; not to mention its very survival during the recently ended world conflict.
Carlton, in response to some remark about the dreadfulness of the fog, drew our attention to an item of news that he had picked up while on his way to our gathering. “Damnable, these fogs? Yes it’s about time the government insisted on the burning of smokeless coals. But, tell me, have any of you fellows heard the news about Lightoller?”
“Lightoller?” The Lecturer mouthed the name while his brow furrowed with recollective endeavour. “Wasn’t he the chap on the Titantic, Second Mate, or something?”
Carlton affirmed that Lightoller had indeed been Second in that ill-fated leviathan. “Apparently he was a heavy pipe smoker and developed bronchitis in his later years. This dreadful fog was the end, he crossed the bar yesterday. But, you know, it’s a funny thing. We’ve all grown up knowing about the Titantic and the rescue of only a few hundred survivors while over fifteen hundred went with her to the bottom. Lightoller was one of those few, the only senior officer to survive. And that’s how most people remember him, frozen in temporal connection with that awful event.”
A horn hooted dismally on the invisible river. That ancient river, its vigorous current close to the end of its timeless journey from the heartland of our island, swollen now by the ebbing tide into a disgorgement of dark, swirling water that would normally bear the exports of the great capital seawards to join the dustless highways. But that evening, while the surging ebb tugged at the moorings of the fog-frozen ships, it felt as if time itself was flowing past and we waited for Carlton to resume, knowing that we were fated to listen to another of his tales which would divert us until the fog lifted or until closing time forced us to warily navigate our way homewards through its smelly, opaque, pervasiveness.
“Yes, it’s a funny thing,’ resumed Carlton. “There’s Lightoller, Second Officer and senior survivor of the Titanic and yet how many know what happened to him before or afterwards. Never got a command with White Star but commanded destroyers during the Great War and served again in the last one. Took his own yacht over to Dunkirk and was still active right to the end, well into his seventies, delivering small craft for the Admiralty.”
“Always thought he was a bit of show pony myself,” replied the Ferry Captain. “Seemed to enjoy playing the part. Centre of attention during the inquiries, very careful, almost self-serving about the way he gave evidence and then changed his tune later on.”
“I grant you there might have been some whitewash brushed into his testimony,” said Carlton. “But what’s the good of destroying reputations, if striking the iceberg was inevitable?”
“Inevitable!” snorted the Lecturer. “The only thing inevitable about it was the way the White Star men drove those ships, even into the teeth of storms. Refusing to slow down with deck plates buckled and hatch covers ripped off. Recklessly maintaining speed into an ice field was an accident just waiting to happen.”
And as the smart ship grew,” Carlton began to recite,
In shadowy silence grew the iceberg too.
Alien they seemed to be;  
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event.
“Glad to hear they taught you something of Thomas Hardy up there at Conway, Carlton. But meaning what, exactly?” said the Ferry Captain.
“Meaning that The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything, in other words fate, brought the paths of Titanic and its sinister mate, the iceberg, together.”
“Think you’re drawing a pretty long bow there,” said the Lecturer. “It’s hubris that sank the Titanic. Or to put it in your terms, tempting fate in imagining that frail, imperfect beings are capable of designing an unsinkable ship.”
“But who amongst us hasn’t at one time or another said ‘there but for the grace of God’?” replied Carlton. “Fate, or the grace of God both look pretty much the same to me. Granted that human intervention put the Titanic at 41 degrees 44 minutes north and 49 degrees 57 minutes west. But what put the iceberg there? I maintain it was fate. It could as easily not have been there if fate had dictated otherwise and Lightoller might have gone on to crown a stellar career as one of England’s best remembered Captains. Instead?” he shrugged his shoulders. “But my point is that if fate put the iceberg in Titanic’s path then what put Lightoller on the Titanic. Why was he on that particular ship on that particular night? What Lightoller did that night affected the lives of hundreds. For some he was the very difference between life and death itself. And I think one is entitled to ask how fate put him there.”
“But who can ever know that,” interjected the Ferry Captain. “None of us knows the future or the consequences of our actions. You can say what you like about the Tarot and gypsy fortune tellers but its only hindsight that comes with twenty-twenty vision.”
“Ah now, foresight, there’s the thing,” mused Carlton. “I’m not one to deny the possibility of foresight, intuition, premonition, call it what you will. I’ve seen it often enough and I challenge anyone to say that he hasn’t had some experience of it. Through a glass darkly for the most part, but real nonetheless. No, it’s not the act of foresight that matters as much as the effect of that oblique, obscure glimpse at the workings of fate. If you had a premonition that something was going to occur, a motor vehicle accident say, then you might, indeed you almost certainly would, if you knew for a certainty when and where, try to prevent it. But how would you know what the effect of doing so would be. You might save a man who would go on to find a cure for cancer or just as easily one who went on to commit mass murder.”
Once Carlton launched into one of his tales he had a tendency to ramble. But he was one of us and we had passed many a convivial hour together. So there was an air of forbearance as we sat and continued to listen in silence, taking occasional sips of our drinks, as he warmed to his theme.
“Come on Carlton, be specific, I hear you say. And so I shall, although I’m sure each of you could recite something similar. And while the intertwined threads that bind Lightoller to the iceberg can, no doubt, be traced back in multiple directions I’m going to focus on one and take for its beginning the barque Holt Hill  commanded by Jock Sutherland, one of the greatest crackers-on that ever sailed from Liverpool. He used to boast that he would never allow another ship to overtake him with any of his sails furled. Well, in late 1889 she had discharged in Rio and sailed in ballast for Calcutta. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, Jock headed south to pick up the roaring forties and then ran the easting down towards Saint Paul’s Island. Nearing Saint Paul’s a large four-masted barque hove into sight astern. True to form Jock ordered the crowd aloft to set everything. They soon ran the barque out of sight, thirteen and a half knots flying off the reel and two hands at the wheel to keep her from broaching. Old Jock pacing up and down on the starboard side of the poop and the Mate pacing the port, each hoping the other would be the first to suggest they shorten sail.
“At the change of watch they ran into a blinding rain squall and the Second Mate, Mowatt was his name, ordered the crew to shorten sail. They had hardly started when there was a gap in the clouds and Mowatt saw the loom of the island racing towards them. ‘Hard down,’ he yelled, intending to tack and claw clear of the cliffs. But Jock, running up on deck, realised that there was insufficient sea room to clear the island to windward and countermanded the order, deciding to wear ship instead and hoping to clear it to leeward. It was too late. By the time she had stopped coming up into the wind and started to pay off she was heading straight at the cliffs, and Jock, seeing that she would never get round in time, decided to run her straight up on the shore. One can only imagine the anguish the man must have suffered, choosing to deliberately sacrifice his ship in order to give the crew the best chance of preserving their lives.  He was lucky as she went up on a gradual rise almost at the top of high water and the bow came to rest wedged between two rocks with the bowsprit practically over dry land. And there she wedged tight, the seas battering her stern, the sails still set and the lights still burning. Her crew sliding down a rope from the bowsprit onto the storm-washed rocks below and struggling their way to safety.”
“It wasn’t only those old White Star men that drove their ships too hard then,” said the Lecturer, the corners of his mouth attempting to turn upwards as if with a mind of their own. “But you’re not going to suggest that the Immanent Will put Saint Paul’s in the way of the Holt Hill are you?”
When the laughter had subsided Carlton raised a pacifying hand. “The cog wheels of fate are already in motion as will become apparent soon enough if you will stop interrupting and let me skip forward more than few years to when I was newly promoted Third Mate in Waynegate, I’m sure you’ve heard of her. One of those, so called, economical steamers that made 9 knots on only 19 tons of coal a day. She was brand new when I joined her. Mind you if she was cheap to run then she was Spartan when it came to meals and accommodation. But despite that I always think of her dearly, as one does of one’s early loves.
“Well, we had carried coal out to Aden and then loaded bagged sugar in Mauritius which we discharged in Adelaide. We berthed at Queen’s Wharf and astern of us was on old collier undergoing boiler de-scaling. There was only a skeleton crew aboard and a watchman came down at night to keep an eye on things. Isaac Frears was his name, an old square-rig man from Whitehaven. Over thirty years in Australia and he still spoke with the accents of Cumberland. Anyway we got on speaking terms after a couple of nights and he invited me aboard the old collier late one evening for a mug of bitter cocoa fortified with more than a nip of colonial rum. He had seen that we were discharging sugar and when I told him that it was from Mauritius his ears pricked up and I was expecting to hear some sage advice on the carriage and preservation of bagged Demerara. But the tale he told was a horse of quite another colour.
“It seems that back in the 1880s Frears had shipped aboard the colonial barque Coorong as Mate under Captain Hayward. In November 1889 Coorong left Mauritius with a cargo of bagged sugar for Adelaide. The winds were favourable that year and they picked up the westerlies well north of the Forties and hauled east. And here’s where the strands of fate start to entangle. Coorong was then some several hundred miles from Saint Paul’s and would, had Captain Hayward held his course, have passed well to the north of it. But Hayward started to develop a feeling about the island. At first, Frears told me, it was just the thought of taking a look at a place that he had not seen for several years, but as they got closer he just couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“It was a fine afternoon, the wind was steady in the west and they had all plain sail set, Captain Hayward had gone below for an afternoon nap and Frears had the watch. And then Hayward comes back on deck saying that he can’t sleep for worrying about Saint Paul’s and orders Frears to change course for the wretched place. So he put the helm up, braced the yards round and the Captain went back down below and got his head down again. An hour later he’s back on deck and pacing the poop. ‘It’s a crying shame to be wasting this fine fair wind,’ he calls to Frears. ‘By standing away towards Saint Paul’s we’re wasting precious time. So I’ve changed my mind. Put the helm down and put her back on course for Cape Leeuwin.’
“Frears didn’t need to told twice and soon had her squared away. At eight bells he was heartily glad to be able to tell the Second Mate that the nonsense about Saint Paul’s was done with. But then, half way through his watch below, he hears the call for all hands and sure enough when he gained the deck he found Captain Hayward bareheaded and staring fixedly in the direction of Saint Pauls as if his eyes could penetrate the darkness. ‘I can’t sleep,’ he muttered to Frears. ‘Every time I nod off I have this vision of Saint Paul’s Island and I seem to hear a voice telling me that I have to sight it. There’s nothing for it, we’ll just have run down there and see what’s what.’
“By this time they were almost abeam of Saint Paul’s so they had to head due south and Frears said there was a fair amount of grumbling from all hands that they were off on some wild goose chase just to satisfy Captain Hayward’s whim. They sighted the peak of the island at dawn and by mid-way through the forenoon watch – well, Frears said you could have knocked him down with a scrap of bunting - they were close enough to see what looked like a distress signal, just a piece of tattered canvas lashed to a spar erected close to the peak. Captain Hayward was skipping up and down on the spot as he ordered them to crack on. ‘I knew it, I just knew it,’ he said, ‘I’ve rescued men here once before and I had the feeling in that dream that we would find something.’
 “Of course Frears told me that he felt mighty foolish, wondering what would have happened if Captain Hayward had listened to his objections and, in defiance of the voices, or whatever it was that set him so firmly towards Saint Paul’s, had sailed on for Cape Leeuwin. They rescued thirty seven survivors from the wreck of the Holt Hill which had been smashed to pieces by the swell. The poor devils had little more than the clothes they stood up in and nothing had been salvageable from the wreck. They’d been reduced to eating raw shellfish and seaweed and were in dreadful state. Frears doubted they could lasted another week and now he had thirty seven extra mouths to feed. So it was half rations all round for the twenty two days it took to reach Adelaide, for the wind failed as soon as they bore away for Cape Leeuwin. Ah, but there was one thing they had in abundance and, like a nautical version of Marie Antoinette, Captain Hayward broached the cargo and offered the men as much sugar as they cared to eat. Let them eat sugar! Frears said that even the youngsters were sick of the sight of it by the time they reached Adelaide and he hadn’t been able to abide the taste since.”
Carlton broke off from the narration and took a mouthful of the pint the Ferry Captain had ordered for him. A baleful horn sounded in the darkness and a sulphurous waft of cold air swept the room as someone opened the front door and slipped out into the inhospitable embrace of the foggy tentacles that curled inside the opening. We waited for him to continue but he seemed to be in no hurry and took another slow, measured draught of his ale. Like those of a latter day Marlow, Carlton’s stories were often as convoluted as the meanderings of a tropical rainforest river, the meaning emerging slowly and mysteriously as the enigmatic threads were unravelled, teased and woven into the unique fabric of his revelation. In fact I had once remarked to the Ferry Captain that there was something slightly, romantically, Conradian about Carlton with his short, seaman’s beard and his piercing grey blue eyes that seemed forever gazing at the distant horizon as if judging the exact moment to shorten sail. ‘Conrad! Never could get into him, myself,’ he had snorted. ‘Far too wordy and complicated for me, although it’s probably the fault of the translation. I expect he reads better in the original Polish.’
“I suppose you’re wondering what all this has to do with the Titanic?” Carlton voiced the question we were all inwardly postulating. “Well among the survivors of the Holt Hill was one Charles Herbert Lightoller, second trip apprentice.”
“Are you making this up?” asked the Ferry Captain. “It sounds like the sort of ghost story we used to tell each other to keep awake on long, boring, mid-ocean night watches.”
“I’m offended you would even doubt me,” replied Carlton, smiling. “Every word is true, just as Frears related it to me. Including, as I’m about to tell you, my asking his impressions of Lightoller. Wondering whether, in Frears response, I might be able to detect some glimmer of the reason why fate saved him for the Titanic. To Frears, of course, Lightoller was not already locked into the temporal embrace of that cataclysmic event. He told me that Lightoller was little more than a gangly, awkward youth who spent most of his time aboard the Coorong trying to steal or scrounge food from the galley or the officers’ pantry. He might have perished on Saint Paul’s Island, lamented by his family certainly, but making no greater impression on his shipmates than that of just another skylarking, perpetually hungry apprentice. No inkling of the icon he was to become, the glamour boy White Star officer, heroic survivor of the Titanic and whitewashing knight of official reputations.”
“I’m not sure I believe in fate,” said the Lecturer. “It seems to be an excuse used by the superstitious to justify actions and events they don’t understand.”
“But isn’t superstition just another way of saying that some things are not fully understood,” said Carlton. “We can’t explain coincidences anymore than reports of ghosts, but perhaps we could if we better understood the workings of cause and effect. And Lightoller’s surviving the wreck of the Holt Hill allows us a glimpse of those workings. The Immanent Will nudged Captain Hayward in the direction of Saint Paul’s, just as it nudged the iceberg into the path of the Titanic. And for what purpose? Well, I confess I don’t have the answer, any more than I expect any of you do. But there has to be one. I think it was Einstein who said that God doesn’t play dice with the world and for my money God is just another name for fate. Things happen for a reason and it’s our lot, or perhaps our curse, to try and fathom out what that reason might be.”
He paused for another drink but as there was no comment forthcoming from anyone around the table he picked up the thread of his thought and continued.
“I don’t know about you fellows but I sometimes see life as a voyage into a vast and unknown ocean with a blank chart. We can continue to sail around in ignorance, accepting what comes our way, or we can attempt to fill in as much of the blank as we can. What might at first appear to be randomly encountered sheltering bays and threatening reefs could turn out to be a new continent that we can map and make sense of. We might even have to devise a referencing system to record the positions of things we observe so that we can find our way back to them. And while each encounter might have the appearance of chance, particularly early on in life when our chart is blank, the more we fill in the empty spaces, constructing … what? - I don’t have words to describe it - the best I can come up with is a sort of spatial-spiritual cartography, the more chance we have of understanding the workings of fate and of our position in this vast eternity, relative to whatever destination it is that waits for us to drop a final anchor.”
He fell silent again in contemplation and it was the Ferry Captain that spoke first. “I say Carlton that’s jolly interesting and I would love to stay on and discuss it further but the fog appears to be lifting and it’s getting late, the Memsahib will be worrying.” The Lecturer, too, made his excuses and to my discredit I heard myself express the opinion that I was fated for a watch below.
And so there were murmurs of agreement and a scraping of chairs pushed back on the scrubbed deal floorboards. Then coats were donned, hands shaken and promises exchanged to meet again as soon as time, tide and sailing schedules permitted. And as we left I thought, perhaps unfairly, that we sometimes treated Carlton’s yarns as if we were men of a type that Conrad had once reflected upon. Men to whom the whole of life is like an after-dinner hour; easy, pleasant, empty, perhaps enlivened by some fable of strife. To be forgotten -- before the end is told -- even if there happens to be any end to it.         


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