Two cream cakes sat on the deck, uneaten, possibly untouched – and that begs the question: how did they get there? The Marie Celeste of the nice-but-naughty set.
We were the crew set to tow this craft into harbour before the storm struck. Tom and I who simply enjoyed tug-work and did it for nothing as volunteers. And when we weren’t tugging, we were in the Lifeboat under Cox Swain’s jurisdiction. Cox did not suffer fools gladly, but Tom and I were trusted crew, I’m pleased to say, woken many mornings – during the fog and its resounding horns – by the Lifeboat Cannon itself resounding in the open cavities of the grounded air and the imaginary skies beyond. We’d race into our wet-gear, then continue racing along the seagull-missing streets towards the Lifeboat Ramp. Our sight often obscured by darkness as well as fog.
Cox Swain would then set the craft slipping, sliding towards the sea, wondering what misbegotten souls had chosen these conditions for sailing through. Becalmed or sinking, we were never sure, till we found those stricken. Tom often grasped my hand as a sign of our togetherness, our spirit of doing-good and never doing bad. We’d even rescue heretics or other bereft souls rather than let them drift away forever towards invisible horizons. But there were some people Tom and I would have simply drowned so as to put them out of their spiritual misery, if not to relieve the world of their corruption. Burial at sea, you see, is just one method of cleansing existence of its foul flotsam. But Cox Swain would never allow any cherry-picking of the crews we saved. His was a simple world. Black and white. Save their souls, to save ours. SOS by mutual selfish consent. Tom once said that he thought some of the missing crews actually went missing at sea in the first place to ignite some redemption for everyone, them as well as us.
Cox Swain – an inscrutable man whom we only ever met on board his lifeboat – allowed Tom and me to moonlight on the coastal Tug, we being volunteers, not paid employees of the Lifeboat Charity. The Tug’s company didn’t pay us, either, as they considered the experience they were giving us was payment enough. Since the Government’s abolishment of apprenticeships, there was more need of apprentice ships (we laughed at that), and we were lucky enough, I suppose, to be allowed on board the Tug as it plied its towing duties from quay to oilrig, from pier to windfarm. We were eventually allowed to crew it alone together.
The stricken craft that day could be clearly seen: etched between the slowly spinning turbines. No fog that day. Just the threat of immediate rain and gales by night-time. We knew, as if instinctively, that the craft was uncrewed even when first spotting it like a dead bug balanced on the taut line of the horizon between two turbines. The swell of the undertow made it seem alive.
Which brings us full circle to the two cream cakes sitting on the deck. And the conundrum of those who had jumped overboard before eating them. Too nice to be naughty, I guess.
Tom looked doleful. I don’t know how I looked to him. The Tug ripped into an engine roar fit to burst our ear-drums as it turned – almost instantaneously – towards its tow of duty. Each turn of the nearest turbine blades punctuated the silence after the engine unexpectedly died. Swish swish. The rain started to soak through even our skinny wet-gear. We had evidently come for the cream cakes as today was someone’s birthday. As well as the day of someone else’s death. A coincidence of epochs. Each worth celebrating. Squish squish.