40 - Lobster and a Stormy Sea

 

It was the summer of 1924 and Captain Joshua Bartlett was in New York in the lobster restaurant, the one near Madison Square Garden, with the waiter saying, “is that one pound or two pound lobster sir?” Having a British appetite he replied, “one pound please and hold the salad dressing.” Necessity had taught him the phrase - he had drowned in vinaigrette too many times that week. Staring out the window watching the pavement go by his gaze caught on a couple under the lamp post talking briskly and passionately as Italian New Yorkers do, gesticulating, dressed for the evening but going nowhere, probably disagreeing about nothing in particular before strolling off with his arm around her waist and his jacket hung over his shoulder.

He was jolted out of his contemplation by, “Hi there. Are you on your own? Want some company?”

Looking around at the extraordinary woman standing beside his table, full of life and bubbly smiles dressed to kill and likely to do it. “Sure,” he said laughing out loud and rising to pull out a chair and summon the waiter in one seamless motion. “How did you know I would be here?”

“Breakfast, it was at breakfast. That’s the advantage of sharing tables you get to hear all conversations. The dreary couple with the false smiles had said it was a nice place and you had said you would give it a go. Then got up and left.”

“I was late and had to sign off my cargo. That’s the last rust bucket I’m going to command.”

“A Captain huh, with an interesting past no doubt and happy go lucky to boot. See I have you pegged and these are the first words we have said.”

Their lobster arrived and Joshua grinned and said to the waiter, “I asked for one pound lobster. There are two here. What's the story?”

“We serve two pound lobster here Sir, with a choice. One two pound or two one pound. It’s all the same, just more claws is all.”

They ate, danced, drank champagne and laughed. Joshua naturally quiet with a quick, amusing wit and she garrulous, filling most of the space with her sassy words. They sparked, married and headed for Europe. 

    The cigarette had burnt to his fingers and a twinge of sudden scalding pain had broken his dreamy self indulgence. Shaded red from the Mediterranean sunset that looked as though an apocalyptic nightmare was unfolding, the steam yacht Naomi gracefully cut through the gentle sea heading west towards Nice and the final destination for the eleven passengers of his most prestigious cruise of the year.

 The Naomi, a magnificent vessel built of teak, oak and steel in 1904. A substantial craft and the perfect size to fulfil his dream. Leaving New York for Europe with his new wife and then to the Mediterranean purchasing Pegasus with the accumulation of funds from over twenty years of “private” trade secreted aboard his many commissions. Refitting and renaming the yacht after his wife, a fabulously luxurious vessel, to entertain the obscenely rich with the patience necessary to continually satisfy the contrary ways of people with too much money and expectations to match.

 His preoccupation had started with a twelve year old scamp, obsessed with the sea, a longing derived from the many books that were despised by his father. And being.caught. Reading. He was running from a strapping and his father’s drunken rage fuelled by the cheap, keg stored whisky that burnt the back of his throat. Donald Smith finding the boy starving behind a bonded warehouse on Liverpool docks. An exuberant Captain famous for anecdotes of deeds, death and shipwrecks in need of someone to brush his jacket, polish his buttons and buff his shoes. A shine was taken and Joshua learnt not only the ways of the world, the truth of all those tales but also the intricacies of navigation and seamanship and an imparted ebullience.

It was all those romantic conceptions that many associate with the sea that he found mysterious. A young boy’s dreams and imagination, a passion drawn from countless novels of adventure and daring do. The waters deep and full of unremitting movement and fusion of smells that are correlated and intrinsically entwined and the winds, the storms and the very present sense that disaster might just be over the horizon. But Joshua was now a sombre man having some years ago suffered tragedy, the loss of his true love, taking away his natural levity and leaving him with a vacant space that had once been full of all those notions.

 He was standing on the bridge watching the sea build and barometer slowly dropping - an indication of a pending storm. Joshua observed Alicia Maltravers come out of the stateroom below the bridge on route to the deck behind the main salon for evening cocktails.

A very lively vivacious person in love with the dramatic, constantly standing at the rail or near the bow, giggling like a little schoolgirl, with the wind blowing through her long blonde hair watching the sea, watching the waves, waiting for that big one, the forty-ninth wave and the resultant crashing spray. Her husband, Preston, probably twice her age and a seemingly grumpy, short tempered, very rich man taking to strolling around the deck twice a day with the air of a nonchalant peacock. Then retreating to a comfy spot in the shade. Joshua had at first failed to understand why a wonderfully stylish and charming lady would be married to such a curmudgeon. It was not for money that was for sure, as an heiress she had inherited famous diamonds.

Then one evening after Preston had argued with the waiter about nothing in particular Joshua saw them together, alone, sitting outside the stateroom and intimately talking, whispering, touching, as though they were reliving a carefree teenage moment. Preston laughing tenderly at some snippet she said and their intense familiarity struck him that Preston actually adored her and it was meaningfully reciprocated, his angry outbursts clearly reserved solely for those unfortunate enough to momentarily irritate him. The casualness of their affections revived memories of moments with his similarly, wildly spirited wife as they sat in the same place when she accompanied him on his cruises when they would stay in the stateroom. But he would not dwell on those moments. Recently he had become determined to break his melancholy, lighten his depressive mood and regain some of his old composure.

 Joshua passed the watch to his lieutenant, an Australian affectionately known as Arvo due to his propensity to nap in the afternoons, giving him a warning of the pending storm saying, “call for me if necessary.” He left the bridge, went past the eight deck cabins and through the salon to the stern where all but Preston had gathered waiting for dinner. He could hear Lady Elizabeth long before he saw her, the deep, booming, mannish voice megaphoning across the waves. Tall and very good looking, she was the sort of person with that sort of voice and that sort of presence that even when she stopped talking she appeared noisy. Dominating and most certainly a stalwart of any situation.

“Ah Captain there you are, we have been talking about you. All nice things of course.” She trumpeted at him.

Joshua replied, “Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I hope you have had a good day and you all have drinks.”

“Thank you Captain,” Lady Elizabeth replied, lowering her voice to merely a lazy, deep throated, seductive rumbling. This was her third trip of the year and she had been flirting with him ever since their departure. “And I hope you’re going to join us although I have never seen you take a drop.”

“Not tonight, I might be needed. There is going to be a storm.” But he did not drink anymore, the memories of his father had seen to that after Naomi had died and he did not want to sink into that pit.

“A storm. How wonderful. How exciting. The wind and waves crashing. So exhilarating. Isn’t it though.” This was Alicia trying but failing to contain what was a mad demonstration of extreme excitement.

“Now, now dear,” said Lady Elizabeth, “let’s not get too carried away. Storms at sea can be most unsettling. We need to take care, do we not Captain?”

“That is correct, we do and on that note I have ordered dinner brought forward an hour. It will be served shortly. I apologise if this disappoints your cocktails but I feel it necessary. There are signs we could be in for quite a blow. I tell you this now not to alarm but to prepare. After dinner I will assess the situation and if necessary ask that you remain in your cabins until it abates.”

 Two hours later as dinner was concluding the sea state was becoming more than the casual annoyance of a moderate swell. The waves were building, developing into something much more serious with the wind speed approaching gale force driving spray over the bows. The crew had dogged down the watertight doors and hatches preparing the vessel for a turbulent time. Joshua had carried out his own inspection making sure all the dog handles were properly secured. He took no chances. Experience had taught him that the sea demanded all his respect.

He entered the salon where his passengers had nervously congregated waiting for his announcement.

“I hope dinner was not too troublesome given the conditions. I’m afraid we are going to experience some serious weather but there is no need to be concerned. Naomi is very sturdily constructed, perfectly capable of riding out a storm of this magnitude. I’ve been monitoring the expected conditions, looking at the forecasts and have been able to conclude that conditions will be rough but not severe enough to force us to seek a safe port. If you can remain in your cabins for your own safety all will be well by the morning. I, Arvo and my crew will be available if needed and will be periodically checking your well-being throughout the night. So unless there are any questions I wish you good night. The stewards will make sure you are settled as comfortably as possible.”

 About midnight Joshua was on the bridge when Arvo returned from a routine inspection. The storm was nearing its peak and giving Naomi a good thrashing. The wind was howling and now rain was lashing down with lightning illuminating the sky all around them.

“All is secure Captain. The engine room reports no problems but the passengers are suffering. They don’t like the tossing about and of course seasickness is taking hold.”

“Well this will not last much longer. I feel we have reached the peak. This should start to dissipate now. In an hour or so things will be much calmer.”

 There was a sudden frantic flashing of multiple lightning bolts crisscrossing the sky directly overhead and filling their whole arena with an almost daylight glow, so intense it made Joshua flinch and instinctively look towards the bow anticipating an immediate strike. On the starboard side of the bow there was a figure standing at the rail, gripping tightly, leaning into the wind, head thrown back, blond hair soaked but flailing in the wind. The sea was frothing around the sculptured flaring like a rabid dog, throwing up a constant stream of spray that concentrated on the starboard side where Alicia was standing. 

“Not again,” yelled Joshua, “it cannot happen again. Arvo, take the helm, try and lessen the impact of the waves. I’m going down there.”

He grabbed his oilskin from the peg by the door, took one more look and saw Preston shouting at Alicia from outside the stateroom but helpless to intervene. She was oblivious, relishing the euphoria, totally absorbed within a make believe world of tempest fuelled seduction. 

 He exited the bridge on the lee-side then absorbed the full force of the wind as he moved towards the bow reaching her side just as a huge wave swept across the deck. He grabbed her around the waist as they were both swept off their feet and washed across the boards to the starboard rail. Locking his arm around a stanchion and firmly gripping Alicia protecting her as wave after wave crashed over the deck. He could feel his grip slackening. He started to feel despair. That she would slip from his grasp and disappear into the boiling cauldron below. Then cutting powerfully through all the deafening uproar came a familiar billowing voice, “Captain, Captain I have a line.” Lady Elizabeth gripping tightly to the starboard bridge ladder, sheltered from the worst, a coiled rope in her right hand. “Captain,” she yelled again. Again with such penetrating volume, “catch this.” She threw the coil the short distance and with such accuracy that Joshua was able to grab it and in a moment secure it around Alicia’s waist.

 Slowly Joshua was able to pull them along the line until out of the wind next to the sheltering Lady Elizabeth. Bringing blankets, Preston arrived and helped the now swaddled Alicia to their cabin.

Lady Elizabeth, with her voice uncustomary quiet, drained of energy with a slight trembling and clearly extremely shaken said, “My porthole looks forward as you know and I saw her standing there and then you and both of you struggling. I had to help, I just simply had to. Do tell me I did the right thing.”

Joshua held her face between his freezing hands and kissed her full on the lips and then said, “You are an angel. I had feared we were lost. If not for you we would have gone. I would not have let her go and would have perished with her. I could not have let her go on her own. I lost my wife you know. She was so similar to Alicia. Loved the sea and spray. Standing on the bow, absorbing the sheer thrill it gave her. She was at home on board and enjoyed our life. The stateroom was our domain. On nights similar to this she would be on deck thrilled to be where the wind and sea was worst. I told her of the dangers. Repeatedly told her. But she would not listen and no matter what I did she would always test her strength.. One time I had told her to stay in the cabin, insisted in fact, as the storm was likely to be worse than any she had experienced before and she said she would. But the draw was too great and at the height of the storm she went out. I saw her, tried to reach her but it was too late. Before I could get to her she was swept overboard. I was only a few feet from her and I could not help her.”

Lady Elizabeth put her arms around him and said, “I know. I know the story. Arvo told me. I know the torment you have been under. I can help you make it better you know. I know how. We would be good together, you and I.”

“Maybe we would. Do you know I feel a great weight lifted, as though saving Alicia has in some way expunged my guilt about losing Naomi. I always felt I did not try hard enough, that I could have and should have done more. But now I see that it was futile. She was out of reach but even if I had reached her I could not have saved her. Alicia is only safe because of you and you were not there that night with Naomi.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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