Poetry Competition 2013
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Short Story Competition 2018

Gillan Drew

4th Prize – Gillan Drew with:

The Embrace of the Sea

His first emotion was disgust – disgust and a dawning horror at what he’d just witnessed in the sweaty bowels of the ship.

Crouching low, he crept back through the cable tier, feeling for the beams overhead. He had followed them out of suspicion, certain they were up to no good, but had never expected this. As a boy, merely ten years old, the feelings aroused in his breast and his loins were overwhelming – he felt guilty, ashamed, tainted to have shared such a moment. And curious, too; enticed; afraid. He had seen men killed and maimed, ships wrecked on a lee shore, but none of it had prepared him for this.

Hurrying up the companionway onto the orlop deck, the young midshipman breathed a sigh of relief, glad to be free of the darkness and indignity of the cable tier. He was not on watch for another hour, but the thought of the foetid cockpit and the malicious jibes of the other ‘young gentlemen’ aboard His Majesty’s frigate Fearless was too much for him to bear. Instead, he sought out the deck.

The ship was on the larboard tack, heeling over in the wind. Clouds scudded across the firmament above the spread of canvas, and somewhere to leeward the French coast hid out of sight. It was the world he knew – wood and ropes and sea and sky; organisation and duty; every piece part of a purposeful whole. It should have been calming to see the officers on the quarterdeck, the jacks before the mast – everything in its proper place.

But it wasn’t. Everything had been thrown into disarray. The orderly lines had become entangled, the men, so predictable, were now enigmas to him. He was used to feeling alone, apart, but the loneliness within him grew so strong just then that he felt hollowed out, empty and cold. Human kindness was so far beyond his reach he worried he would never feel warm again.

‘Find yourself some work or get below, Mr White, I do not permit idlers on my deck.’

The boy turned to the approaching third lieutenant, a bullying tyrant named Parker that he lived in terror of.

‘Get moving or I’ll have you at the masthead till midnight.’

The boy knew he should have left then, kept his secret, bury the sin deep down below decks where it belonged. But the urge to unburden himself, to pass it on to somebody, anybody, who could take it away from him, was too much.

He glanced forward along the line of cannons, saw one of the two men coming up from below to take his place among the larbowlines, and knew he couldn’t keep it to himself.


* * * * *

‘It’s a damned awkward position you’ve put me in,’ said Captain James from behind his desk in the great cabin. ‘I don’t suppose we can pretend it never happened?’

‘No, sir, I’m afraid not,’ replied Lieutenant Evans, with genuine regret. ‘Lieutenant Parker made such a fuss, there’s not a man jack of them doesn’t know about it.’ He shifted in his chair. ‘You might consider charging them with indecency, sir. Three dozen lashes apiece and place them on opposite watches.’

‘Can’t do it, Evans,’ the Captain replied. ‘My duty is clear. Their actions are punishable by death.’

‘We are but one ship,’ Evans pointed out. He did not need to explain that they were two captains short of the three needed for a court-martial.

‘In time of war, I may act as I see fit.’ James stared across the desk at the first lieutenant. ‘I cannot abide sodomites, Evans. They infect a ship’s company. Would that we had a thousand rats than a pair of buggers.’

Evans met the Captain’s eyes. In truth, he had some sympathy for the men. Both had been pressganged – kidnapped from the streets of their home towns, cooped up below decks and forced to live under the harsh regime of the Royal Navy, with no shore leave and no idea when they would next see their loved ones. That they should seek some form of relief, however unnatural, was not so difficult to understand.

‘In spite of their proclivities, Richards and Brown are good seamen, sir,’ he said in their defence. ‘And we are short-handed as it is.’

‘Don’t you think I don’t know that, man? An example must be made, else discipline will falter. We cannot be seen to accept this sort of thing. Before we knew it, there’d be coupling in cockpit and spooning in the dog watches.’

Gazing down at the desk, Evans watched the squares of light from the stern windows drifting across the array of papers as the ship rolled in the swell. ‘Could you not make an example of one of them, sir?’ he asked cautiously. ‘It would be a shame to lose two hands when one was sufficient to send an appropriate message.’

‘Your compassion does you no good, Thomas,’ said Captain James. But he stroked his chin as he thought on it, then sighed. ‘Very well, send them in.’

Moments later the two sailors stood before him, along with the young midshipman, the third lieutenant and the purser to record proceedings.

Richards and Brown were a sorry looking pair, Evans thought, both in their mid-twenties, Richards a good deal taller than Brown and with a glint of defiance in his eyes.

The Captain regarded them with evident distaste. ‘You stand accused that in the forenoon watch you did both commit the unnatural act of sodomy, in contravention of the Twenty-Ninth Article of War. Do you have anything to say for yourselves?’

Richards stared fixedly at the bulkhead, while Brown could not lift his eyes from the deck.

‘Will any man speak for you?’

It was a time-worn routine. Evans said, ‘They are fine seamen, sir.’

‘Very well,’ the Captain replied. ‘You have betrayed the ship’s company for a sordid moment of pleasure, and rightly you should both hang, but I do not think we need lose two men for so repugnant a crime. Here is my decision. Tomorrow, one of you will be executed.’ But with sudden cruelty, he added, ‘The other will haul the rope and then receive three dozen at the grating. I care not which of you takes which part. You may decide between yourselves, but if you cannot reach an accommodation, I will decide for you. That is all. Take them away.’

* * * * *

In a cruel irony, they had been chained in the cable tier, the scene of their transgression, to mull over their fates. The marine guard was out of earshot, his back to them. Brown sat silently on the ropes, his head bowed in the dark.

Richards was incandescent.

‘Bastards,’ he muttered. ‘Bloody murdering bastards.’ He glanced at the shadow beside him. ‘I’m sorry, Jim. Sorry it’s come to this.’

Brown cleared his throat. ‘Tomorrow,’ he said softly. ‘Make it quick.’

Richards snorted. ‘You got plenty of years left in you yet.’

‘I won’t do it.’

‘Sure you will,’ said Richards. ‘You’ll haul me up to the yardarm and take your stripes without complaint.’

‘Do you really think I could hang you?’ Brown asked, aghast. ‘Do you think I could go on after? I don’t have the strength.’

‘You’re stronger than you think, lad. And besides,’ said Richards, softening his voice, ‘do you think I could hang you either? They’d have to string me up right alongside you.’

‘Please, Jack. I couldn’t bear it if you died because of me.’

‘A man makes his own choices,’ said Richards. ‘I’ll be dying for you.’

‘No.’

‘I’m giving you your life.’

‘I don’t want it,’ said Brown. ‘Not without you.’ He wiped at his eyes with his palms, the chains jangling. ‘Even though it’s ending like this, I want you to know – I don’t regret it, Jack. Not for a moment. Is that odd?’

‘No,’ said Richards. ‘If I could do it all again, I wouldn’t even hesitate.’

‘I love you.’

‘Don’t go all soppy on me.’

‘I do, Jack. To the death.’

And he started to cry.

‘Come on mate, keep your chin up.’ Richards couldn’t endure the sobbing. He reached for his lover, to reassure him, to hold him, but he was pulled short by the chain. ‘I love you too, mate,’ he said instead. ‘I never said that to no one.’

In the dark, Brown sniffed, and though Richards couldn’t see him, he knew that he was smiling through his tears.

‘See, lad,’ said Richards. ‘It ain’t so bad.’

‘What are we going to do, Jack? They’re going to hang one of us.’

Richards shook his head. ‘Don’t reckon we should give them the satisfaction.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean, let’s show ‘em how wrong they are about us.’

He waited in the dark an eternity before Brown said the words that made his heart swell. ‘Together.’

‘That’s the spirit, mate. You and me both.’

‘I’m scared.’

‘We’ll be together,’ said Richards. ‘That’s all that matters.’


* * * * *

Midshipman White watched from the quarterdeck as the Captain read the final words of the burial service.
‘We commit their bodies to the deep, to be turned into corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body, when the sea shall give up her dead.’

On the forecastle, the bodies, sewn up in their hammocks with the last stitch through the nose, were slid off the board and into the water below. The crew, gathered in the waist, were unusually sombre, and indeed a melancholy hung over the entire ship, as though all had been complicit, and all had been punished.

Weak in the knees and sick to his stomach, Midshipman White pulled his bicorn hat back onto his head. He hurried towards the companionway but was stopped by the first lieutenant, who gestured him over to the leeward rail. There was a fair breeze and a large swell, and White fought to keep his composure.

‘Bad business,’ said Lieutenant Evans.

‘Yes, sir,’ the boy agreed, swallowing down his nausea.

‘If ever you reach higher rank, you must learn the difference between duty and responsibility.’

‘Sir?’

‘You had a duty to report those men to your senior. In this you cannot be censured.’

‘Thank you, sir.’

‘But you also had a responsibility to the men under you,’ Evans continued, his voice heavy. ‘In this you failed, and here we are.’

As Evans turned to walk away, White, in desperation, cried out, ‘They were sodomites, sir.’

The first lieutenant turned back to him, his eyes cold. ‘Life is hard, Mr White, and men are weak. Let us hope that, should you ever need to seek solace, you do not find it in a place that others deem unpardonable. That is all.’

White thumbed the tears from his eyes, wishing beyond hope he had kept his mouth shut about what he’d seen. That Richards and Brown had found comfort in one another was clear – that their feelings had been as deep and powerful as any other’s was undeniable. He was no longer sure why he had found it so terrifying, so disturbing and beguiling. Maybe he simply envied their ability to find something soft and beautiful amid the brutality that surrounded him.

When he’d been summoned to the cable tier the night before, he had seen them, hanging in their chains, arms outstretched towards one another but unable to touch. That image would forever be etched in his mind, alongside the memory of the pair slipping over the standing part of the foresheet and into the eternal embrace of the sea.

 

About the Author

Gillan Drew is a writer, public speaker and stay-at-home dad who lives in the New Forest with his wife and two infant daughters. He has wanted to be an author ever since he can remember and writes in whatever time he can snatch between nappy changes, bottle feeds and trips to the park. After studying Media, History and Criminology, and working various jobs from nursing to the police, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome as an adult, which formed the basis of his non-fiction book An Adult With An Autism Diagnosis: A Guide for the Newly Diagnosed, published last year. He blogs about the experience of being a parent with autism at Aspie Daddy (www.asdaddy.com).

 

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