The Longest Distance
|Arctic Convoy copyright Warfare History Network
The clang of the wheelhouse bell marked the passing of another half-hour. Four bells, two o’clock in the afternoon watch and an even number. I reached for the tin of Senior Service. Mid-September, late summer but, deep inside the Arctic circle, with Spitzbergen only one hundred miles to the north-east, flurries of snow whirled about the ship and the weak sunlight barely penetrated the overcast. I cupped my hands around the match, grateful for the flare of warmth and, from habit, concealed the cigarette in my fist.
The reviving smell of freshly brewed coffee preceded Da Silva into the wheelhouse.
‘Regular as clockwork.’ Second mate Ian Lamont bustled in from the bridge wing, anticipation written across his blunt hewn face. ‘How does he do it?’
I shook my head. After three years of wartime rationing, where Da Silva managed to find real coffee beans was a mystery I preferred not to delve into. With his leather eye patch, hooked nose and grizzled tufts of hair, the piratical looking steward was a law unto himself.
Draining his coffee and handing the empty mug back to Da Silva, Lamont followed me out to the bridge wing. With the ice shelf not far over the horizon, the polar wind razored through our duffle coats. A larger than usual wave broke against the bow and we ducked below the dodger to avoid the freezing, pelting spray.
Lamont checked his watch and glanced at the lowering sky. ‘There was no sun for a noon altitude and there’ll be no stars, I’m afraid, Skipper. Hopefully the commodore knows where we are.’
I nodded. In the middle of the convoy, all we had to worry about, apart from being sunk by bomb or torpedo, was following the commodore’s orders on course and speed, and keeping two cables away from the adjacent merchant ships.
‘Have you ever wondered how our lives came to be so ruled by the clock?’
I laughed at Lamont’s unexpected question. ‘It’s the war. We’re just a cog in the navy’s clockwork precision plan for the defeat of Hitler. Ours not to ask the time, ours just to keep in line.’ I gestured toward the ship ahead, which had drifted across to port.
Lamont checked the heading, watched the helmsman bring the ship back on course and re-joined me, obviously keen to resume the conversation.
‘No, I meant apart from that, Skipper. Why are we all so obsessed with time? We have to be on time, there’s never enough time, women spend too much time putting on make-up. But what the hell is time?’
‘Time is what the chronometer says it is. You can blame Thomas Harrison for that.’
Lamont shook his head. ‘What the chronometer really does is give us an accurate measurement of the angular difference between meridians of longitude. Granted, the difference is measured in hours, minutes and seconds on the face of a clock, but that’s just by convention. Who says an hour has to be made up of sixty minutes, or that a day must be twenty-four hours’ long?’
‘Because that’s what they are.’
‘Aye, on this planet, sure. But what if we were on the moon. The sun would rise and set only once every twenty-seven days … our days that is. So, what does time mean on the moon, or in the middle of space for that matter? What would be the point of a chronometer out there,’ he gestured towards the heavens, ‘that only measured time on earth?’
What was the point of this conversation? I stubbed the butt of the cigarette into the sandbox and pulled the mittens back on. ‘It’s my remaining time on this planet I’m more worried about. It’s only a matter of … time,’ there was that word again, ‘before the bombers arrive. Assuming the U-boats don’t come back first.’
The escort destroyers had driven them off during the night but, even if they stayed away, the pre-sailing briefing at Loch Ewe had warned us to expect air attacks as soon as we entered the Barents Sea and came within range of the Nazi airfields in northern Norway.
‘Sorry, Skipper. I’m just making conversation. It keeps my mind off … you know.’ He glanced at the southern horizon for emphasis.
Shafts of pale sunlight streamed between breaks in the overcast, but the wind had freshened, and the sea was still running high. I stamped my feet to keep the blood circulating.
‘Yes, Ian, I know.’ I pointed towards the eastern sky where a floatplane had dropped below the cloud cover. ‘We’ve got company.’ I raised the binoculars, and the sinister shape of a Blohm & Voss 138 swam into focus. ‘That’s a flying clog come to look for us.’
‘The escort carrier’s launching Sea Hurricanes.’ Lamont’s voice rose with eagerness. ‘Go on, shoot the bastard down!’
‘Even if they catch him, it won’t be in time to stop him radioing the convoy’s position. It’s only three hundred and fifty miles to the coast. Ninety minutes flying time. Less if they’re already on their way.’
‘Do you want to go to action stations, Skipper?’
I shook my head. ‘Not yet. The escorts have radar. They’ll give us plenty of warning.’
The lookout rang the wheelhouse bell five times. Another half-hour of the watch gone. Odds. I left the tin of Senior Service in my pocket, and clapped my mittened hands together to restore feeling. Who was it had said that time was the longest distance between two places? They were right; the port of Archangel suddenly seemed a million miles away. I shrugged my shoulders. There was nothing to do now but wait. Perhaps Lamont had the right idea.
‘So, Ian, why this sudden interest in time? You been reading H.G. Wells in your watches below, or haven’t you got enough to do?’
A sheepish grin spread across Lamont’s face. ‘Something like that. I saw an article in an old edition of Science News Letter about Einstein’s theory of relativity.’
‘I didn’t know the Seafarers’ Education Service supplied it to merchant ships.’
‘I was kidding.’
‘I came across it on a run ashore in Leith while we were loading. Thought I’d take myself to the public library and find something interesting to read.’
‘Heaven help us when ships’ mates would rather read science magazines than drink beer and waste their time and money in brothels.’
‘Aye, well you know what they say. Time you enjoy wasting is time well spent, and I managed to find enough to satisfy all my interests.’ Lamont was grinning widely now. ‘Anyway, I didn’t understand most of the article, too many mathematical formulas, but it was the bit about time that caught my eye.’
‘Go on then, enlighten me.’
‘Well, it seems that time isn’t fixed, it varies depending on where you are and what you’re doing.’
‘Bollocks! And he won a Nobel Prize? Anyone who’s made love with a pretty woman knows that. The time just flies, whereas …’ It was a poor joke and Lamont wasn’t laughing.
He held up a hand. ‘No, seriously, Skipper. I don’t pretend to understand quite how but, according to Einstein’s theory, if it were possible for you to see two ships, one here in the Barents Sea and the other, say, in the Pacific, being attacked and appearing to sink simultaneously, you could check the time on the chronometer. But someone in space, watching from a rocket heading to the moon for example, would see them sink at different times on his chronometer.’
I thought about that for a moment. ‘So, you’re saying that the commodore might see me die at,’ I checked my watch, ‘eight bells, whereas someone watching from the edge of the Milky Way might see me live on for a week or two?’
‘Or the other way around, I think it depends on which way they’re heading and how fast they’re travelling.’
‘Ah, so I could already be dead. I suppose there’s no possibility of choosing which ship? Perhaps if we were heading home, it might help.’ I reached into my pocket for the tin and extracted a cigarette. We were not heading home, and six bells was not far off. I could skip one later, if Einstein’s theory permitted.
Frantic chatter from the radiotelephone dragged us back to the present. The ‘air attack imminent’ signal broke out at the masthead of the commodore’s ship. More Sea Hurricanes scrambled from the deck of the escort carrier. Lamont leaped for the ship’s bell and rang it furiously. The repeated yells of ‘action stations’ were accompanied by the clatter of boots as men scrambled to their guns, pulling on duffle coats and tin helmets. A swarm of bombers climbed over the horizon, flying below the overcast. The escorts opened fire, but they roared straight past them coming in low over the starboard bow until they filled the sky. It was us, and the cargoes we carried, they wanted. It was time.
This story first appeared in Tempus, Out of the Asylum Writers, 2022