The Dare

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Chapter 23

The tow continued uneventfully to Singapore, the Coselvenom out of sight and soon out of mind. Tom had other, more important things to worry about.

The Sealion was very visible, escorting on the starboard quarter of the Seahorse, and the Singapore ahead on the starboard bow of the Sunda. It was a fine morning with just enough white cloud to make the sky interesting, highlighting the the lush green of the Malaysian mainland, while the water of the Malacca Straits was its usual muddy brown, although smooth as silk. Singapore port control gave permission for the convoy to proceed straight to the berth in Keppel harbour. The Pilot boarded the Seahorse, entering the anchorage, and his assistant boarded the Sunda. Tom had shortened in the tow so the casualty was close to the stern of the tug, with the nylon stretcher above the water making it easy to manoeuvre. At times, the burnt patch on the port side was clearly visible on the white hull, smoke damage and blisters from the heat making it appear much larger than Tom envisaged.

In all the activity surrounding the arrival – the messages on the VHF and company radio, the arrival of the harbour tugs and pilot boat, Coselone with the old man and DB visible on deck, numerous launches with journalists, photographers and TV people on board – Tom almost missed seeing the Coselvenom zed boat come round the stern and the Salvage Master board from the pilot ladder.

“Trouble,” thought Tom, “the battle is beginning,” then thrust it from his mind, concentrating to ensure the final berthing was successful, for they were still bound under the LOF contract; no cure, no pay. The boat decks on the Seahorse were full of passengers waving at the press, some had with coloured streamers, turning the arrival at the berth under the bright sun into a tumultuous welcome. The damaged side alongside highlighted to the well wishers ashore the danger from which the ship had been saved. The ship’s orchestra and band playing on deck added to the occasion.

Tom and the Singapore senior pilot on board the Seahorse discussed the berthing. The Pilot knew his stuff, having berthed dead ships before and luckily, there was little wind.

“The timing is good,” he said, “the tide will be against us going in through the narrows and at the berth, but coming up to slack water so that makes it easy. Just tow to the berth and the tugs can push her alongside.”

“There is room ahead for me?” asked Tom.

“No, that is the only difficulty.”

“I am on a slip-hook so my men can slip me at any time. I have two of my own people standing by with a radio.”

“Cosel efficiency again,” laughed the Pilot. “I will connect a harbour tug before slipping your tug, but if we get it right she will have a headline or two ashore.”

The tow proceeded at slow speed through the anchorage to the narrow entrance of Keppel Harbour, where Tom had to increase power to get through. Harbour tugs seemed to be everywhere and two were connected astern of the Seahorse, making it easier to control her. The Sealion gave three blasts on her deep ship’s whistle, turned and proceeded to her own berth, her escort duties completed. Coming up to the berth, the headlines were towed ashore by the two line boats and once fast ashore, the pilot gave the order to slip the Sunda.

Tom suppressed his rage and anger when Gonzales reported to him over the radio that the Salvage Master had arrived on the bridge and ordered him forward. Not wishing to have a public row on the radio at this critical stage of the arrival, Tom had said nothing.

“Slip, Gonzales,” said Tom into his radio. He looked aft and saw the forerunner fall into the murky harbour waters from the bow of the Seahorse. He held the tug off until Pedro had recovered the towing gear. The Coselone came alongside and the old man and DB shouted their congratulations and then Tom saw the lawyer waving from inside the cabin, a little smile on his face. Enemy number one is planning something, thought Tom, and his heart sank.

“Why should success always cause trouble from others? The whole salvage has been a triumph for Cosel, salving not just the ship but the passengers, too,” Tom said to himself.

Once the towing gear had been heaved on board, with a slight delay when the shackle to the stretcher was caught at the towing gunwale, Tom looked to go alongside the Seahorse and pick up his gear and men. His way was blocked by the Coselvenom, which was alongside the loading door on the starboard side where Tom wished to go.

"Coselvenom, Sunda, move astern so I can come alongside and pick up my gear,” Tom politely called into the radio.

“Captain Rogers told me to remain here,” replied Juan, his chief officer, sounding apologetic.

“Just move astern, Juan. It is the best for me,” said Tom, quietly.

The radio was silent and then Tom saw the Venom moving astern.

“Sensible man, to do it quietly,” thought Tom. “It’s started, preliminary skirmishing,” and he sighed.

There were no passengers on the boat deck when Tom put the tug alongside in the 69 position, they were all on the other side taking part in the welcome. The tide was slack, making the manoeuvre easy. Tom boarded and made his way over to the burnt area where his crew were collecting up the pumps, fire hoses and equipment, and carrying it across to the Sunda, supervised by Gonzales.

“If you need to move the tug forward to collect the slip hook, do so,” said Tom. “I am going to see the Captain.”

“Okay, cap, nice man,” he smiled. “He was not very pleased when the Salvage Master arrived.”

The burnt area had been cleared but the place stank of the foam, which was made from animal waste, burnt wood panelling, fabric, paint and other un-nameable material. Tom put his handkerchief to his nose. The deformed metal, twisted and buckled as though some giant hand had been in a frenzy, was already starting to rust, indicating the intensity of the fire and Tom realised just how lucky they had been to have extinguished it so quickly.

Tom found his way up to the bridge through the accommodation but the Captain was in his day-room, one deck below. He was talking with officials, organising immigration and customs for the disembarkation of his passengers, and was dressed in fresh white shorts and shirt with epaulettes, long white socks and white shoes, looking very smart and every inch the Captain, unlike the worried man of the previous night. The Salvage Master was sitting in an easy chair, the greenish-coloured covers matched the carpet and curtains, rather a sickly decor and not one Tom would have chosen for himself. Captain Rogers was dressed in blue working shorts and shirt, short black socks and shoes, looking completely out of place, his inevitable notebook in hand, writing.

Captain Owen spotted Tom, who had changed into fresh whites himself, and stood up from his chair.

“My saviour,” he said, and laughed.

The Salvage Master looked daggers at Tom, pen in hand.

“Let me finish here and then we can have a celebratory drink. In fact, you can come with me and say goodbye to the passengers, they are dying to meet their hero.”

Tom sat in a vacant chair and immediately a Goanese steward, very smart in his No 10′s, appeared and asked what he would like to drink. The ensuing beer tasted delicious and Tom started to relax, the tension and excitement of the last fourteen or fifteen hours beginning to drain away.

“The port health officials say the funeral people can take Alfredo away,” said Ricky over Tom’s radio. ”Coselone has taken the ship’s papers to get a new port clearance.”

Tom immediately felt guilty. He had forgotten about poor Alfredo.

“Does anyone need me?” asked Tom.

“No, cap.”

“I think champagne is more in order,” said Captain Owen jovially, as the last official left the cabin, “steward.”

The silver ice bucket and champagne were ready in the fridge, which was hidden by a wooden door under the Captain’s desk. The Captain ceremoniously opened the Dom Perignon himself, handing the opened bottle to the steward to pour. The Salvage Master ostentatiously refused to take a glass.

“To the hero of the moment, ” laughed Charles and raised his glass, “and to my immediate retirement.”

They drank but the Salvage Master continued writing.

“Look after the Captain here, steward,” said Captain Owen, gesturing to the seated man in blue working gear. “We are going to meet the passengers,” and walked out of the room, indicating Tom should follow.

“Funny fellow, your man,” said Charles as they made their way down to the first class lounge. “Had to tell him to mind his P’s and Q’s, coming onto my bridge and ordering around your chief officer, Gonzales, I think that was his name. Good man, Gonzales, I could have done with him on my ship, might not have needed you if I had had someone like that as my chief officer. The chief said your electrician is some kind of genius, he’s even got the air-con going. Where on earth do you find these people? I am retiring, as I said. I’ll never be given another command so better pre-empt the inevitable. Anyway, I have decided I’m past it. The fire was a wake-up call, time to go. Just a warning, the passengers are in general a friendly lot, all dying to meet you, but free drinks have been available since the fire so some are, how should we say? A bit boisterous!”

The first class lounge was full, all sign of the campers gone. A buffet ran across the starboard side and forward of it a temporary bar had been set up. The afternoon sun streamed in through the windows but the air-conditioning kept the food cool. Enrico’s doing, thought Tom. Some were outside on the boat deck where there was apparently nothing wrong, but underneath was the charred, burnt-out area and the hull, bare and rusty, the paint on the edges curled and blackened. Coloured streamers still littered the deck and the dock side. The public address system was working and the Captain, standing very straight for a man of his age, led Tom to the platform and the microphone, on the opposite side of the lounge.

“Ladies and gentlemen, quiet, please,” and the lounge became silent. “I would like to present Captain Matravers, the Salvage Master, who is my, and your, saviour.”

Prolonged applause followed, along with shouts of, “He’s a jolly good fellow!” which left Tom squirming with embarrassment, wishing he was anywhere but that lounge and remembering Alfredo’s body was at that moment being carried ashore beneath them.

“My thanks are to him and his fine crew. But for their timely arrival and bravery the outcome would have been very different.”

Charles spoke clearly and in measured tones, which gave added emphasis to the words.

“I apologise for the drama but thank you for your forbearance and good nature, and give thanks none of you were hurt.”

More clapping and cheering broke out. A tall, distinguished, white-haired man stood and walked purposely to the microphone. When the noise died down, he spoke in a mid-Atlantic accent.

“On behalf of the passengers I would like to thank Captain Owen for the way he handled the emergency, and Captain Matravers for his timely intervention.”

There was more clapping and cheering. Captain Owen took Tom by the arm and led him into the crowd, saying, “You will have to shake hands with them.”

For the next half hour, Tom was clapped on the back, his hand shaken, sometimes more vigorously than was pleasant, until it felt as though it had been put through a mangle.

“Everything on board and ready, cap, including Enrico.”

Tom just heard Gonzales’ voice above the noise of the crowd, holding the radio close to his ear.

Captain Owen and Tom then escaped what was turning into a very lively party at the company’s expense. The more mature certainly knew how to enjoy themselves, thought Tom.

Back in his day-room, Captain Owen sat down.

“I see your man has gone,” he said, as the steward poured another glass of champagne. “I’ve had a long and interesting life and as I said earlier, it is time to go. This type of passenger ship has had its day, they are on the way out, fire being a particular hazard as we know to our or my cost. The world is changing. Thank the good Lord no-one was hurt, but very sorry for your man lost. I shall have to turn the drink off soon or the passengers will never leave,” he laughed. “Well, don’t need you now, so better sign you off.”

“I need to borrow a typewriter, please, Charles,” said Tom.

Captain Owen picked up his telephone.

“Send the writer,” he ordered into it.

A very smart Asian appeared shortly afterwards, immaculate in whites, which set off his smooth, light coffee-coloured skin and black hair.

“Dictate and Rico will deliver,” ordered Charles. “I will miss all this,” he added, and laughed.

Half an hour later, Tom returned to the Sunda with the signed termination letter in his pocket. He was full of champagne and beginning to feel tired, the action and drama-filled, sleepless night catching up with him. There was no sign of the Coselvenom and Tom knew there was trouble ahead. He put it aside as the ship’s crew, organised by Pedro, let go the lines and Tom steamed the Sunda round to her normal anchorage, noting the Mississippi had not moved. It was late afternoon and once anchored, Tom fell into his bunk and was instantly dead to the world. It seemed only minutes, not the couple hours he had been in his dreamless sleep, when Tom was woken by Miguel, with a message in one hand and a cup of tea in the other.

“Report to the Mandarin Hotel at 1930, lobby bar.”

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