Although Tom had a broken night’s sleep, he felt fit and well at breakfast on the Buron, having accepted Jack’s invitation. They reminisced about the past, long after the saloon had emptied of all the other occupants, and stopped only when Chris Jules came on the radio to call Tom back to the Kinos.
The morning sun was bright, the heat reflecting from the steel deck and Tom felt it, while inspecting the mooring lines with Juan. It was quite a walk, round the whole ship. He was enjoying a cup of tea and glass of water on the bridge when Jan called on the company radio.
“Get yourself back here. Zed boat will pick you up, pilot ladder, port side. Ship on fire Western Anchorage.”
Tom froze and did not reply.
“Did you copy?” asked Jan, fiercely.
“Understood, on the way,” replied Tom as firmly as he could, making a huge effort to control himself and move.
“I heard, I agree,” confirmed the voice of the Salvage Master.
Tom made his way on deck and walked quickly, the heat forgotten. Never run, he kept telling himself, to the pilot ladder. As he climbed over the rail, the Zed boat arrived on the plane, Rene’s hair streaming out behind him. He stopped the boat perfectly at the foot of the ladder, rocking a little in its own wash, and Tom climbed down the ladder and stepped on board. Remembering what had happened in the Malacca Strait on his first salvage, he sat and held on as the grinning Rene immediately put on full throttle to the powerful outboard and the boat leapt away on the plane. He headed ahead of the Kinos, past the mooring buoy and towards Sultan Shoal light, which could just be seen. The Sunda was already underway at some speed, a white moustache of a bow wave building up forward.
“Follow me!” ordered Jan on the radio, which Rene, with his legs wide open, wedging himself inside the boat, and sitting on the petrol can, heard and said, “It’s okay, cap, I can put you on board, no problem.”
It’s madness, thought Tom, but he did not want to lose face, so gritted his teeth. It was calm as the zed boat raced raced parallel to the tug her speed increasing all the time. Rene, no longer grinning, but with a face set hard in concentration, black hair streaming behind his head almost like some biblical figure, except for the baseball cap, closed the gap. When inches away, with the two rubber fenders just touching the huge rubbing strake of the tug, if the hull of the rubber boat ended up underneath, Tom knew they were finished; the boat was running at exactly the same speed. Jan was watching from the bridge wing, immobile, like some huge statue.
“Now, cap!” shouted Rene, his voice high-pitched with the strain. Tom, taking a huge breath, stepped onto the rubber side of the boat and clutched at the four arms waiting to help. In a second he was over the towing gunnel and standing on the tow deck, which vibrated beneath his feet. His whole body shook with delayed fear and current exertions. Rene gave a whoop of delight, or perhaps relief; accelerating away, the boat seemed to leap into the air as it overtook the tug.
“Mad but very good,” laughed Jan, as Tom made it to the bridge. “You need this,” and thrust a cold beer into his hand.
They had crossed the invisible port limit line into Singapore and started to pass the first of the anchored ships. Their wash was by now huge as the Sunda thundered along at full power, vibrating and shaking, the aerials rattling. The Chief Engineer must have over-ridden the governor, thought Tom. The rev counter was past the red line on the gauge mounted on the bulkhead, the tug must have been doing more than seventeen knots.
“Let Ops worry about clearance, this is an emergency,” said Jan, looking ahead through his binoculars. “There, look,” he pointed, while giving a helm order to the man standing at the wheel to steer around a ship dead ahead.
Tom could see smoke billowing up into the sky as the Sunda passed another ship close by, an angry man on the bridge waving his fist. They rapidly approached the smoke and then, between two coasters, they saw the old-fashioned, twelve passenger cargo ship that was on fire and Jan started to slow down.
“Port side to!” Jan shouted to Jesus on the foredeck.
Pedro was already manning the forward mast fire monitors with an AB, and they were giving a good jet of water, the fire pump humming, the pitch higher than the slowing engines. He is approaching too fast, thought Tom, as Jan pulled the engine levers back past the vertical and down, altering the pitch of the propellers into the astern position and increasing the power. The whole tug shuddered and shook as though having a fit and black smoke poured from the funnel. The Sunda stopped opposite the burning accommodation and Pedro directed the monitors onto the fire.
“Quick, get the hoses on board the casualty!” urged Jan, as Tom stared into the fire, the crew making fast the tug alongside. Steam hissed into the air from the water engulfing the fire.
“Move!” shouted Jan, but Tom still stood there, apparently transfixed by the flames flickering out of the port-holes on the boat deck.
“It’s the screaming,” he mumbled, “it’s in my head.”
He was back on another burning ship, inside the passenger accommodation on the tween deck and there was a man running towards him, screaming, covered in blood. More people were passing him, women and children, screaming, their mouths open in panic.
“What did you say?” shouted Jan over the noise of the fire, the fire pump, the monitors and the idling main engines. But Tom did not respond.
Jan hit him open-handed across the face. The helmsman looking shocked.
“Tom, come back!” and he hit him again.
Tom responded, became alive again, the flashback to another time, another place, another ship, receded. His eyes refocused and he saw Jan looking at him with a strange face; was it contempt, Tom thought. His fist was raised as though to hit him again.
“It’s okay, Jan!” he shouted “I am okay now, sorry, I am okay now,” and Tom ran off the bridge, down onto the main deck where the crew were already dragging the fire hoses and nozzles across the ships side and into the accommodation, Jesus directing.
Tom felt utterly humiliated, drained, and his face felt on fire where Jan had hit him. He knew he had to redeem himself, not only in his own eyes but those of the crew as well. He threw himself into action, entering the burning ship without breathing apparatus, followed by an AB with a hose. The lower cabins were intact but when they climbed into the main passenger area, it was all but burnt out and the fire seemed mainly out, extinguished by the powerful monitors. They were met by Jesus and more men who had come through the aft door. It was a matter of extinguishing small pockets of fire with the hoses. It seemed it had all happened in minutes, but time passes quickly when in extreme danger.
Tom went out on deck and shouted up to Jan, who was watching from the bridge wing, to turn off the monitors. Jan signalled to Pedro, who swung them away from the casualty. The Captain and some of his crew, who had been sheltering on the forecastle, came aft and he shook Tom’s hand.
“Thank you for saving my ship,” he said.
“Are all your crew accounted for?” asked Tom, who saw the rest of them moving aft from the forecastle.
“Two missing, we must search for them,” urged the captain, regaining his confidence now the fire was out.
“Okay, Pedro,” said Tom, who had joined him, leaving an AB with the monitors, which were still running. Jan was taking no chances.
“We must make a search, cabin by cabin.”
They found the two corpses in a burnt-out passenger cabin. Tom froze again. The charred bodies were fused together, as though they had been burnt while making love, and so badly disfigured, it was difficult to realise they had once been human. Tom felt himself spinning in a vortex and knew he was in deep trouble if he did not fight this thing, which was beginning to destroy him. He felt himself sinking further into the spinning tunnel, fire and black, charred corpses flashing past him, the images so vivid they were real, like the two before him, wisps of smoke still rising, filling his nostrils with the smell of cooked human flesh. It was beginning to overwhelm him and all reality was leaving him when, as though from a great distance far above, he heard the voice of Pedro, calling.
“Cap, cap!” as he shook him. “Cap, cap, are you okay?” and the voice seemed louder as Tom, fighting with all his strength, felt himself rising, slowly coming back into the present, until at last, with a final effort, he shook himself free of the images and tunnel, sweating and shaking.
“I am okay now, Pedro,” Tom said. “Tell the captain.”
Tom and Pedro made their way back to the main deck and told the captain, who was visibly distressed when he heard of their find. The port official he had been talking to immediately spoke into his radio. A port authority tug had arrived and was alongside on the opposite side to the Sunda.
An AB handed him a radio and Tom spoke into it, keeping his voice calm and as normal as he could.
“Jan, Mike five, two corpses, fire out.”
“Good, well done. I am sending Ricky down with the LOF. Get the Master to sign it. DB should be here shortly to take over, they want us back at the Kinos.”
Ricky appeared and handed Tom the LOF on a clip board with pen attached. Tom held it clear of his body, his clothing wet from the fire-fighting. He saw that it had been completed in the name of the ship, Queen, and Jan had signed it. The Captain, an Asian dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt was still talking to the Port Official. Tom waited a little before he interposed.
“Excuse me, captain, I wonder if you would sign this?” and proffered the clip-board, indicating where the captain should sign.
The Asian took it and signed.
“Thank you, again,” he said, bursting into tears, which fell onto the paper. Tom quickly took back the clip-board before the signatures were made illegible by the tears and patted him on the back.
“Ah, hullo, Tom,” said DB, looking fresh and cool amongst the fire-fighters now taking the hoses back to the tug. Tom felt extremely hot and dirty.
“Well done, quick response and I see you have the LOF. I will take that.”
He checked it and saw it had been signed by both the master and Jan, folded it and put it into his shirt pocket.
“I will take over here. We want you back at the Kinos. Singapore will take over from the Sunda here and Coselhare will take Singapore’s place on the Kinos’s stern.”
“Understood,” and Tom made his way back on board the Sunda, where Jan handed him a beer but said nothing, looking very bleak. Jan shouted at Jesus that they were leaving and as the Singapore approached, the lines were let go and Jan left in his usual manner with full ahead.
Tom knew something was desperately wrong because Jan had said nothing on the short passage back to the anchorage off the two tankers, the Kinos higher and the Buron lower in the water. The sun was well past the meridian and beginning to fall as Jan almost shouted.
“Talk, Tom, talk!”
The tug swung to the tide, the anchor holding. The only sign anything was happening on the two tankers moored side by side close by was the changing height of each, the Buron now much lower in the water with the cargo loaded, the Kinos high above her with cargo discharged.
Jan addressed Tom with an intensity that shook him.
“Talk. You are lost, Tom, if you don’t.”
“What do you mean, Jan?” asked Tom, feeling foolish because he knew he was playing for time, his thoughts in turmoil.
“I am not a fool, Tom. You are the first man I have ever hit in my life and it was not because I don’t like you. Pedro tells me you froze on the Queen when you saw those corpses. Fire and corpses, Tom, talk to me.”
The company radio crackled.
“Mike five...” and Jan leapt up, moving very fast for such a large man and spoke into the microphone.
“Bog,” and he switched off the radio, indicating to Tom he should do the same with the portable one round his neck.
“Listen, Tom,” said Jan in a quieter voice.
“Go away!” he shouted at the second mate, who had appeared in the wheelhouse.
“Listen, Tom,” he repeated, “you almost froze just before the tanker exploded, but it was not just fear, which can be controlled. I mean, I was frightened, anyone would be, but for you it was the beginning of panic. Now the Queen, so not once, but twice.”
Tom felt as though his heart had stopped. His life, his very self, was disintegrating around him and he had to hold on to the bridge table to stop himself falling. He remained silent as he shuffled to the vacant chair on the port side, his head spinning, filled with unconnected thoughts.
“I performed okay, Jan, on the Kinos fire and the Queen, it was only a momentary thing,” he said in a small voice.
“Not good enough, Tom, I had to hit you. In extremis, we cannot afford weakness, we are leaders, our men’s lives depend on us. We don’t have the luxury of panic or fear, it must be overcome.”
Tom felt terrible and near to tears. He saw Jan staring at him, his face hard and strong, all bonhomie removed, willing him to talk, but he was not sure if he should say anything. He knew it was a flaw, a weakness in him, which he thought he had overcome with the exploding tanker, but the Queen had shown him it was worse than he hoped. The flashbacks, the spinning vortex, had shown him up to himself but he had not realised how perceptive Jan was in seeing the flaw, despite the intense activity at the time. Pedro had confirmed it.
He felt so tired, he felt himself sinking again. The flashback was returning and he knew he had to make a supreme mental effort or he was lost. He had to shut out the screaming, it was the screaming in his head which seemed to unnerve him. With a huge mental effort, with a strength he did not know he possessed, he said, “I was blown up as a cadet. Many lives were lost, some burnt. We were told not to talk about it and I have not.”
“Ah,” and the breath hissed out of Jan like a deflating tyre. “I knew something was wrong but it had to come from you, it was no good me asking questions,” and he picked up the internal phone by his chair. “Cold coffee,” he barked.
“Well, thank the good lord you told me. I thought I had lost you, and you would go the way many others have after a trauma, or in your case, traumas. Suicide, drink or the lunatic asylum. Oh, I have seen it,” and he laughed, but it was a mirthless laugh, his face remained hard. “Now, listen carefully, I will only say this once.”
He paused while he opened a can of beer given to him by the mess man, who brought one over to Tom.
“It is only just being recognised how important it is for some people who have survived extreme danger and seen awful scenes, to talk about it. I went through a war, Tom, and saw things no man, let alone women or children, should ever see. But thank heavens I married an advanced, thinking wife and we have talked about it and been able to put it all behind us! You have not been able to do so. In fact, you were told to do the very thing which would make it worse, not talk about it. Rest assured, if you do nothing, it will overwhelm you in extremis, like the tanker blowing up or the corpses on the Queen, and will ultimately destroy you. And worse, in my thinking, you will be a liability to your men.”
He took a long draught from the tin, while appearing to collect his thoughts, and went on.
“It is not a normal event for a tanker to blow up alongside one, and few people experience such a thing, and very few go through a shipwreck, so you have done well to get this far, instead of walking inland as far away from the sea as you could reach. However, if you are to remain a salvor, and from what I have seen so far you could be a very good one, you must address your problem. Now is not the time, in the middle of a major salvage, and you are wanted over there,” and he waved in the direction of the two tankers, a heat haze rising above them.
“But you must talk it through with someone. If not me, then someone else. A priest is quite good, a Catholic one, use the confessional. It is essential. If you don’t, it will finish you. Once done, you will know if you have to do more or have been able to put it behind you. The flashbacks may reoccur but they will not be so intense and eventually they will stop. You owe it to yourself and the men you may lead in the future.”
He was silent and then said, “You are good, Tom, very good, and will make a fine salvor, but you must repair the flaw, the darkness, within you.”
Tom was silent, feeling humbled but grateful. He realised that what he had thought was his epiphany was the only the beginning of what could be his epiphany.
Jan got up and switched on the radios, indicating Tom should turn on his as well, which broke the silence and brought Tom back to the present.
“Don’t delay, Tom.”
“Mike five, this is Mike four, is something wrong? You should be over here now, I need you,” said the quite agitated voice of the Salvage Master.
“On the way,” said Tom brightly, and he sprang out of his chair.
The fast ride over with Rene seemed to finally clear his mind and he knew what he must do.