The Year is 1950. In the North Atlantic west of Ireland the destinies of two ships fuse. One, an English tramp, breaks apart in a winter storm. Five survivors cling to the wreckage. Chance puts the novel's central character--an officer of a nearby liner--at the helm of a boat that must battle its way through the mountainous waves in a desperate attempt to reach the castaways. In this evocation of the life of the sea, author Alan Littell has created a world of isolation, frailty and endurance whose overarching theme is the test of courage.
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A Novel of the Sea
By Alan Littell
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Alan Littell
All rights reserved.
There was no war that year. There was a lack of cargoes and little shipping.
At summer's end Driscoll joined a rusted and antediluvian freighter, Ocean Star, out of New York. The sorry billet was the only one on offer; he signed aboard as third mate. After the first voyage, to Le Havre with half-filled holds, jobs began rotating to men on the beach. Driscoll made one more crossing. Homeward bound, his name appeared on a list radioed from shore.
"You'll pay off in New York," the chief mate said. "The old man will give you a good letter."
"Not much use, is it?"
"All he can do. Look for something ashore."
"There's nothing for me ashore."
The chief mate glanced for a moment over the bridge rail. Brown patches of sargasso weed floated by on the Gulf Stream.
"Hard times," the mate said. He turned away. Driscoll went below and packed his gear.
The ship docked in the rain at the foot of Twenty-third Street. Driscoll walked along cargoes piled high in the dark, dank shed. He went through the customs post and found a pay phone at the head of the pier. For a minute or two he stood listening to the whistles of river craft. All the time he was thinking about his hard luck. He looked at his watch. Nearly six. The light was fading fast. She answered on the third ring. Where in heaven's name was he? North River, just ashore.
Stepping into West Street, he walked with a lurching gait. A taxi drew alongside. Driscoll lifted in two leather suitcases, his sextant box strapped to one of them. His dark hair and forehead were wet from the rain. He had hollow cheeks and faint lines spreading back from the corners of his eyes. He was of medium height and meager build, a youngish man, not older than thirty. He wore khaki drill and a white shirt, for the day was warm. "Go up Twenty-third to Fifth," he said to the driver. He gave the driver an address on Seventy-seventh Street east of the park.
At Fifth Avenue the cab turned north. Once more Driscoll thought about his hard luck. And now again, her flat as refuge; she herself as refuge. Intimation of a larger life. Less hedged about than that of the trade of ships. But the notion had not taken root; had not endured the length of his stays ashore.
Through the window of the cab he could see pigeons sheltering under the eaves of rain-stained buildings. The equestrian statue in the square in front of the Plaza Hotel was greened over with verdigris and pigeon droppings. A horse pulling a black carriage struck off smartly into Central Park. An open carriage: two couples laughing in the rain. The coachman wore a red slicker, gleaming. Driscoll thought of Istanbul: after the war.
A small woman. Delicate oval face; hectic coloring. A red cloth bag hung from her shoulder. On the railed platform atop the ship's ladder, one of her feet groped for the first step. It would go no farther. She swayed. She clutched the wire bannister for support. Her eyes darted in fright. Driscoll, the second mate, passing on some errand, caught her arm; gripped both of her hands as she descended backward to the landing stage.
Later in the day he roamed the dim meanders of the covered bazaar. A throng pressed round him. He let himself be carried on the flood: elbowed, pushed. Someone plucked childishly at the back of his sleeve. He turned, surprised.
"I am a nuisance."
She pointed, irresolute, impatient.
"It must be the way out. I'm certain I came from that direction."
"No," he said. "Not that way."
He guided her along vaulted passageways, past a lute shop with its fragrant scent of wood shavings; past stalls and shops whose recesses glimmered with brass. They emerged squinting in the sun on the old tentmakers' street and followed the lanes spilling downhill from Süleyman mosque to the spice markets at Eminönü. Along the quays they could see the ferries that plied the harbor east to the breakwater at Harem. On the far side of the Galata Bridge, in Karaköy, a Black Sea steamer for Trabzon was casting off from the Maritime Terminal. Driscoll's ship, the City of Tampa — bright gold funnel, dangling accommodation ladder — lay a hawser's length abaft.
Now, crossing the bridge, the metropolis rising in tiers before them, the woman apologized for being so stupid about the ladder. It was inexcusable. But it could not be helped. She had found it impossible to master her fear.
And Driscoll thought: the woman's timidity. Her funk. His own? He admitted it. He pondered old ghosts. They evoked the caprice of fortune. Hauled once from the water choking on oil. Tidied up; sent back to sea — no time then for the niceties. Still, no damage done. As good as new. He might have been immortal. None of it would touch him.
They walked on Istaklal Caddesi. Horse carts and trucks jostled for space. The thoroughfare was pungent with the smell of dung and hot dust. Impulsively the woman grasped Driscoll's hand, for the city unsettled her. Near Taksim Square they entered a hotel. It was high-ceilinged, cool, austere. They drank Tom Collinses on a terrace with a view of the Bosporus. Acrossthe strait, minarets scraped the sky like darts above Üsküdar.
Was it he who proposed they take a room? Perhaps it had been understood. There was some bother about a passport: Driscoll carried a mariner's identity card. The desk clerk wagged a cautionary finger. It would not do. But from her cloth bag the woman, whose name was Isabel Tennant, produced the requisite document, bound in dull green linen, eagle rampant. It was she who signed the register. They were Mr. and Mrs. Tennant that first night, clumsily entwined and instantly asleep, chaste from a surfeit of gin (when he awoke she was gone). And they were Tennant again, in Naples, where she — artist, amateur of the arts — would disembark with her charcoals and sketchbook for excursions to the galleries of Rome and Florence before re-boarding in Leghorn; and yet again in the lake country above the Liguri, in the north. And over the years, he drifted into and out of her flat, in New York, when the vessels he sailed in called at that city or at some other port on the East Coast.
The driver stopped in a block of brownstones and tall shade trees. Driscoll went up to Isabel's landing. She stood waiting in the hall.
He bent to kiss her.
"Your shirt is soaked. You had better change. Have you had anything to eat?"
"Is there something to drink?"
"Do you want whiskey?"
In front of him, through the doorway, was a large room. An easel stood next to a window. There were trays of oils and brushes. Paintings were propped in a corner. He could see vistas of rivers, mountains, vineyards, idyllic fields; lanes edged with poplars.
A lace curtain softened the outline of the building opposite and of a tree trunk that was dark with rain. A bed leaned against one wall; a sofa against another. Shelves propped on bricks served as a bookcase, and magazines and newspapers overflowed a footstool. There were three chairs in the room, also a pretty rosewood table. There was a chest of drawers. A door opened onto a narrow passage. A kitchen and bath were at the end of the passage.
He grubbed in his kit for a shirt. Isabel returned from the kitchen with a glass.
"How long will you stay?"
"I don't know. There isn't any work."
He gazed round the room. He seemed puzzled. It was as if he had not seen it before. Here was a reality he could not comprehend. His face was pale with fatigue.
Isabel shook her head in sudden anger. Would he not give it up?
"Damn you, Johnny."
In early October Achilles discharged her coal at Montreal and made a quick turnaround, with wheat for London. Clearing the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the tramp set a course for the open sea. Captain Tyrrel paced the wheelhouse. With an ocean yet to cross he thought about tides: the London tides. He would fetch the pilot station at Gravesend on the half flood; he was deeply laden and wanted plenty of water under his keel. Then up London River the twenty or so miles to Limehouse Reach, timing his arrival at Millwall for slack water or the first of the ebb.
London was his and his ship's home port. He lived with a widowed sister in a tidy brick row house off Bishop's Park in the Stevenage Road, miles upriver from the East End grain docks. He had never married. It occurred to him that a sailor was a fool to take a wife. He was a solitary man, a taciturn man. In some other age he would have been a Schoolman. The cloister attracted him. He sought order and continuity. He rummaged obsessively in an idealized English past. He read Stubbs and Maitland on the sanctity of English law. He read Macaulay and the younger Trevelyan, celebrants and elegists of the English countryside. He was fastidious in his person, abstemious in his habits. His sole indulgences were a Heath sextant of uncommonly fine workmanship (engraved silver arc inlaid in brass, the instrument boxed in polished mahogany) and a rack of handsome briars charged with a favored tobacco — Three Nuns — which he crushed to crumbs from tarry coils. The metaphor of the recluse did not cross his mind: he simply fancied the aroma and taste.
As master of his ship, Captain Tyrrel was accustomed to deference and obedience. The sea was his dominion. It was where he ruled. If truth be told, he cared little for London. He disliked the crush of the crowds, the sulphurous stink of coal smoke. The city was an abomination. And he loathed especially, at voyage end, the obligatory interview, on Fenchurch Street, with the line's senior partner, old Shawcross. The man was a tightlipped mercenary who, to his credit, spared no expense in the building of his ships but was singularly parsimonious in the running of them. There would be Shawcross jabbing a finger at entirely unremarkable invoices for stores, fuel, pilotage, port duties. "Indeed, sir, indeed! What possibly could have possessed you? The firm will be in ruin with costs like these!" Inwardly, Captain Tyrrel shrank from the man facing him. He recoiled from the dark oak wainscot surrounding him. The tedium and tyranny of the office suffocated him. Enraged by therebuke, he would rise, hands trembling (Shawcross in the meantime having summoned from an anteroom another hapless master mariner or chief engineer), and flee to the street.
Still, the captain thought — with Achilles cruising south now of Eastern Shoals, and Cape Race astern — a few days ashore would not be unwelcome. Mind you, he admitted this only to himself. Shawcross be damned!
Achilles worked her way east in damp air patched with fog. It was warm for the season, and the sea, undulating easily, was gray and smooth. Soon the fathometer stylus fell away, tracing a shallow ramp on the chartroom recorder. The stylus leveled at the hundred-fathom mark, then plunged to its stops, signifying the Atlantic deeps. The rollers lengthened. Haze veiled the horizon. Sea and sky merged in a white continuum.
Captain Tyrrel had recalculated the stowage of his ship, apportioning weight yet higher in the 'tween-decks, with the grain, which flows like oil, penned securely in place by temporary wooden bulkheads. He noted with approval the easy rolling under his feet. Achilles rose and dipped to the swell like a floating duck. The stiffness is out, the captain said to himself; we'll see how she does when it comes on to blow. He strode the starboard wing of the bridge, pleased with his command.
At the far end of the wing, a stocky, muscular youth washed paintwork with a bucketful of caustic solution. He had ginger hair and a ruddy face. His hands were blistered from the caustic, which sailors called soogee. He rubbed the paintwork with a rag, then straightened momentarily to look out over the dodger. He liked the way a breath of wind touched his cheek. He liked to watch the sharpbow cleave the water and turn back a furrow of foam. As the deckboy gazed at the ocean, the chief officer, Mr. Rowe, filled the wheelhouse door.
"Get on with it," the mate said sternly.
The boy — his name was Joe Corcum — bent to the task. He did not mind. He was happy he had come to sea. Secretly he yearned for officers' braid. From time to time he glanced in awe and admiration at Captain Tyrrel, who, deep in thought, continued his perambulation, remote, aloof, unheeding. Yet the deckboy felt a singular affinity with that magisterial figure. For Joe, too, like the master, was a Londoner, though hardly from the sober precincts west of Whitehall. He was a Thameside tough: with a bit of drink in him, a cheerful brawler. Shadwell and Wapping had been his nursery: the derelict terraces of the Cockney east: a blitzed and broken landscape. He had grown to young manhood prowling the ruins of dockland. And for as long as he could remember, he had loved the river and been drawn to the ships that called there.
Now he would put in his time; sit for his ticket. One day, he was sure, he would be a shipmaster.CHAPTER 2
The next day it was raining still. Harder now. Isabel kept a car in a garage close by. She wished to see the ship he had left. With Driscoll at her side she drove across the city. She turned south at the river. Where the road climbed to an elevated highway the masts and raked funnels of ocean liners came into view. Hatch tents were suspended from the vessels' cargo booms, and pallets laden with freight swung in and out through openings in the canvas cones.
The rain fell. The river was wan. A glimmer of light shone through the windows of a ship's wheelhouse.
"Is that the one?"
"No. Keep going."
Yet he contemplated the light with secret intelligence. He knew the world that lay round it. Beneath its aureole an officer (unseen, surmised) would stand writing at a waist-high desk. Housekeeping details of a ship in port: a note about cargo handling, the loading of bunker fuel. The man would be bareheaded, his badge cap pushed to the edge of the desk. He wore brass-bound blue serge and sturdy black shoes. He would be absorbed in his ledger. He was isolated from humanity: his withdrawal the essence of seafaring. He would hear the solemn ticking of the wheelhouse clock and the chiming of the hour.
There was something about the man (still unseen, still imagined) that Driscoll was unable to grasp. A vital link of understanding. It eluded him. It had to do with rectitude. Driscoll was the man on the bridge. A ship that fed and housed him — there must be more to the matter. Life itself might be the potent sacrifice for this artifice of steel, or was that a romantic illusion? And he thought: in the proper conduct of his profession, was he not a moral man, a man of rectitude? Yet the shore in its corruption and conceit was the nettle that tempted him.
Isabel, concentrating on the road, did not observe his reverie. She could have been far away. She turned in half profile. The sharp line of her jaw tipped upward questioningly. Her beauty dazzled him. In the light without shadows it had a febrile intensity. It was, again, a liberating fantasy of the future. It was also a torment and a warning, for his future would not be divined.
The rain beat against the windshield. He dozed.
"Johnny." Isabel prodded him awake. The booms of a freighter poked at odd angles out of the rain.
"Slow a bit."
The car coasted in gear.
"That's the one," he said.
"Somehow I expected more of you." But the ship was real, proof enough.
Mooring lines drooped from the vessel's bows. A spill of bunker oil, rain pocked and iridescent, awash with planks and dead fish, lapped against the hull. Ocean Star: letters rust-white on corroded black.
Driscoll had come to fancy that antique. It was nothing Isabel would fathom, and he was not much closer to the truth of it himself. It needed effort to work through riddles. "There's something to this," he said.
And Isabel, too, mused on his sea life, though with repugnance. The metaphysics of it was beyond her. It was too abstruse. She put it out of mind. She knew only that she was comfortable with him. She cherished him. And she said to herself: I want to keep him.
Excerpted from Courage by Alan Littell. Copyright © 2007 Alan Littell. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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