The voyage of MS St Anthony

Something is wrong.

I pan along the horizon with my binoculars then track the rippling path of silver light across the sea to Selene.  She has started her silent rise in the East, replacing Helios until she hands back the watch as Eos arrives.  I see nothing untoward so I turn toward the telephone, capsizing my half unloaded mug of coffee as I fumble the manoeuvre.

‘Hi Ted. How are things at Portland tonight?’

Six bells and all’s well, calm night. How’s Falmouth Ken?’

‘All calm but something’s wrong. Nothing to see, no radio reports, no bad weather, I just feel it in my water.’

‘That’s just your prostate playing up you silly old fool. Try cutting down on the coffee.’

‘Thanks Ted.’

I look at the cooling pool of coffee on the window ledge, reflecting Selene’s silver radiance into the watch room. I must mop that up, coffee and computers don’t mix.

I step out on the balcony to scent the night air. For a long moment I am back on a ship’s bridge, spending another long watch with Selene as we tramp down to Laurenço Marques; endlessly corkscrewing over the long oily Indian Ocean swells, the Milky Way a wash of fairy dust across the black tropical night sky.

I activate the Automatic Information System – AIS, display and zoom in from the world view to the Western Approaches. The ship’s icons zip into line like motorway traffic entering a road work chicane to follow the designated flow lanes through the Channel. Port to port of course, ‘green to green should never be seen.’

The picture reminds me of a long-ago trip up the Amazon to Manaus where I had been fascinated by a procession of leaf cutter ants as they carried their foliage fragments back to the colony to supply the fungus they farm to feed the five million or so residents. What would happen if the fungus escaped?

I click on a few of the vessels to get a feel for their headings. They all approximate the expected sixty degrees as they head up channel or the reciprocal as they escape to the freedom of the open sea.

Wait! One is shown as heading North. Speed 0.2 knots. I click on the track. It’s random for the last two hours. I click on the icon.  St Anthony, cargo carrier routing Thunder Bay to Felixstowe, call sign UBK27. I pick up the VHF radio microphone.

‘This is Kenver Tonkin, coastguard watch officer at Falmouth calling UBK27, MS St Anthony.  Do you have a problem?’

Hilf, they are coming. Please help us!’

‘What is wrong? Identify yourself.’

‘I am Anton, the cook, my feet hurt.’

‘Let me speak to the Captain.’

‘He is not here.’

‘Where is he?’

‘He is on the deck under the starboard bridge wing.’

‘Well, call him and get him to the bridge.’

‘No. I cannot.’

‘Why not?’

‘He is dead, I think Gunnar killed him’

‘Who is Gunnar?’

‘He is the King of the Nibelungen of course, I do not like him.’

‘Is anyone else from the crew there?’

‘No, the First Officer said he was going for a swim and jumped over the side and the Chief Engineer said he was going to fly to the Isle of Wight for lunch. The deck hands are dancing naked on the hatches. I have not seen John, the cadet.’

‘Oh, OK. Standby on this frequency Anton, I will arrange for help to be sent.’

‘Please hurry.’

I dial.

‘Duty Search and Rescue – SAR, controller, Simon Maddick, Royal Navy Air Service – RNAS,  Culdrose.’

‘Hi Simon, Kenver here. We’ve got a crazy situation on a ship in the Approaches, the crew seem to have gone mad. The ship is drifting in the sea lanes. I have been told that some of the crew are dead, including the captain. I think we have a major emergency brewing here.’

I ask for a Sea King to land a boarding party on MS Anthony after explaining what details I knew.‘You’ll need a skeleton ship handling crew supported by an armed security detail, something really strange is going on out there. I’ll contact the Navy at Guz – Plymouth dockyard and get the duty frigate on it’s way, if all the fish heads – sailors,  aren’t on leave or drunk… Our first priority is to clear the Antony from the sea lanes and then investigate what is going on.’

‘OK, I can manage a ship handling crew and I’ll wake a couple of Special Boat Service – SBS, guys and offer them a trip out, you know how much they like getting their feet wet.’

‘That’s great. Thanks Simon.’

‘No problem Kenver, I’ll give you a sitrep once things are under way. I hope you know what you’re doing, the Commanding Officer – CO, has to justify all these costs to his masters in the Ministry of Defence – MOD, you know’

‘Yeah, I know, but what’s the worst that can happen?

‘Perhaps you being keelhauled?’

‘Mmmm, thanks for that thought.’

I nervously speed dial on my mobile. ‘Hi, it’s me. I’ll be late home tomorrow, there’s a problem with a ship in my area so I’ll have to stay on until it’s sorted.’

‘You don’t have to but you want to because you miss the excitement of being at sea, you just cannot live a quotidian life can you?’

‘No, it’s just that I feel responsible.’

’You forget, Kenver Tonkin, that I can see through you as clearly as through a  window. You just want to spend more time with your mistress.’

‘I haven’t got a mistress, I’ve never been unfaithful to you.’

‘I’m talking about the sea, you idiot. I can smell her on you when you’ve been with her and I know when you’re thinking about her; you with your thousand yard stare!’

‘I really have to deal with this.’

‘Well please yourself, if you must go and play with  your toys, just don’t expect a hot meal when you finally get home.’

There was a click, leaving a loud silence full of unspoken words, a silence full of the grievances of years, a silence full of shared love and forgiveness.

I sigh. Surely Moira was used to my absences after so many years at sea? Never mind, I’ll make it up to her during my next four off, perhaps take her to visit her sister in Plymouth – she always enjoys a trip to Guz. Take in a bit of shopping in the afternoon at Drake Circus followed by a pub lunch down at the Barbican, that should be enough of a penance…

*

Anton  heard the  ‘whop whop’ of the Sea King’s rotor blades from the bridge where he had barricaded himself in.

The bright yellow helicopter hovered over the painted ‘H’ on number three hatch cover and four black-clad figures rappelled down to the deck. They immediately split up and disappeared from sight as the helicopter moved away and hovered close to the ship’s bow.

Moments later he saw a face in a black balaclava peering through the starboard bridge wing door porthole.

‘Are you Anton the cook?’ he asked quickly. ‘Is that the Captain’s body laying on the deck below the bridge wing?’

‘Ja, ja, I am so glad to see you. Are you Special Air Service – SAS?’

‘No, you wouldn’t get those crap hats on a ship, we’re SBS. We’ll get things sorted out quickly now so don’t worry. We’ll check over the ship and then get the skeleton crew to get us moving again. We’ve found the cadet in the accommodation, you two  seem to be the only ones alive so we’ll get you a casualty evacuation – CASEVAC, ashore to hospital OK?’

Anton didn’t understand most of what he was talking about but was just glad he was  there. The helicopter touched on the hatch cover while seven men jumped out and Anton and John, the cadet,  were stretchered on board. He was glad to be off that nightmare ship, away from the Nibelungen, away from Gunnar, away from the sea.

*

‘Hi Kenver, it’s Simon here from Culdrose. Time for that situation report – sitrep. Sorry it’s a bit later than I hoped.’

‘No problem, Simon, how’s it going?’

‘The good news is that you were right to press the panic button so your keel hauling is postponed. The bad news is that all the crew are dead except for Anton the cook and John the cadet. John is in intensive care in Truro but Anton is not so ill so we are debriefing him now at Porton Down. He keeps hallucinating and is suffering from incipient gangrene in both feet with possible anaemia. You will have seen the ship being escorted into Falmouth Roads by HMS Montrose and she will shortly be anchored in the quarantine zone.’

‘OK, thanks Simon, I’ll get off home now.’

‘No problem, thanks for staying on and seeing it through. I hope you don’t get too much grief from Moira when you get home.’

‘Me too!’

*

‘Where am I, who are you?’ He asked the tall, thin guy in a severe pin stripe sitting by the side of the bed.

‘First, tell me who you are, and how you are feeling’

‘I am Anton Neffendorf, I am the cook of the ship. My feet hurt and I am having some strange waking dreams. I feel very cold. What is wrong with me?’

‘I’m George Anthony a civil servant with the Home Office. You’re at Porton Down,  the UK’s chemical weapons defence research establishment. You appear to have taken a mix of drugs. One has reduced your blood circulation so giving you this very pale look and the blackening in your feet. This has been treated and you will soon recover. From what you have told us and from observing your irrational behaviour and your delusions, we think the other drug is similar to LSD. It will take time to recover from your bad trip and you will probably get flashbacks for several years.’

‘I never take drugs!’

‘OK, there is no need to get angry, I’m not accusing you of anything, I just want to find out what is going on.’

‘Then why am I in a  locked room with a police guard outside, will he save me from the Nibelungen?’

‘This is just for your own safety until we understand what happened. You are in no danger now from anyone, not even the Nibelungen .You have to understand that all the crew seem to have been affected and the only common factor we have found so far is that they all ate the same food – that you prepared. There are seven people either dead or missing and your surviving colleague is also ill. You seem to be the only coherent witness so we need to ask you some difficult questions and we would appreciate open and honest answers. We can get you a lawyer if you would like but we are only interested in getting to the truth at the moment.’

‘No, no please no lawyer, I will help you all I can.’

‘OK then. Let’s start with Captain Salvesen. When and where did he have his last meal?’

‘He asked me to serve his lunch in his cabin, he said he had many e mails from the owners and  he wanted to stay close to the bridge as we approached the Channel.’

‘What did he have to eat.’

‘It was Dienstag…/ excuse, Tuesday, steak day, so he asked for a rib eye with boiled potatoes and broad beans. That was his favourite, so it was the same every Tuesday, a kind of ritual. He didn’t like desserts so he  always had  two slices of my Schwarzbrot , you know, German rye bread. He liked that with Nutella.’

‘Let’s focus on this meal then. Where did the food come from?’

‘ The steak had been in the freezer since we left Thunder Bay. Beans and potatoes  were in the vegetable fridge.’

‘What about the rye for the bread?’

‘The ship carried 190,000 cubic metres of rye. I didn’t think they would miss two kilos so I took it from number three hold sample valve.’

‘You loaded this cargo at Thunder Bay?’

‘Yes, at Port Arthur, Cargill grain elevator berth.’

‘Do you know which silo the cargo came from?’

‘Look, I’m the cook, I don’t know these things . Can I sleep now.’

‘OK, get some rest,’ said the man in the suit. ‘I’ll come back if there is anything else I need to ask you.’

‘OK, Auf Wiedersehen!’

He had said he was a civil servant but Anton had grown up in Leipzig and knew a Stasi when he saw one.

*

‘Right Tony, your sitrep please. Could you make it short please, I need to be back in the House for a division on giving sixteen year olds the vote. If mine are anything to go by they would rather spend time on their X Box than get involved in democracy.’

A dutiful laugh rippled around the COBRA table then the head of MI6 started his report.

‘Thank you Home Secretary. The cause of the problem was ergotism caused by ingestion of a toxin called ergotamine which is produced by a fungus, Claviceps purpurea, that grows on damp rye grain. It has two main effects. One is as a vaso constrictor which reduces blood flow to the extremities, hence the gangrene. The other effect is similar to LSD, mania and delusions of being outside the body.

A leaking water pipe has been found in a grain silo at Thunder Bay in Ontario. The owners of the silos, the Canadian Grain Commission will pay compensation to the families of the eight victims – John, the cadet died this morning –  and also for the value of the cargo.

I think we can also lift the  press ‘D’ notice and brief them to show how decisive we have been in dealing with a potential threat to the UK. Just imagine the consequences if that grain had got into the food chain…

‘Are there any other precautions we should take for the future?’

‘Perhaps avoid eating Schwartzbrot, Home Secretary?’

‘Thank you for that advice Tony,’ said Antonia Merkel, with a rye smile.

*

We loaded the shopping into the car then left Drake Circus and wandered hand in hand through the narrow Barbican streets in the thin late summer sun, pausing to  look at the tat in the many craft shops on the way as Moira’s fancy took her. I guided us slowly to the marina quayside where we chose a table under one of the square rigged canvas umbrellas in front of the Jolly Sailor.

‘I’ll get the drinks and a menu, back in a minute,’ I said, walking into the gloom of the bar. I soon returned, with a figure in chef’s whites.

‘Moira, this is Anton from the ship that had all those problems back in the Spring. Anton, this is my wife, Moira.’

‘Very pleased to meet you Moira. It was your husband who saved my life when we had that disaster. I wanted to meet you and thank you both.  When I heard Kenver’s voice on the radio I felt that we were in good hands and he would save us.’

‘Good to meet you Anton. Kenver has told me what happened to you, I’m just glad you got through it. I do understand now but I wasn’t happy at the time that he was spending so much time at work. I’m so sorry that your shipmates died.’

‘Yes, the court of inquiry cleared me of any fault but I still feel very guilty and think of them every day.

Now, on to happier things. Please choose anything you would like to eat and it will be my treat.’

‘Thank you Anton, what would you recommend?’

‘The fish was freshly caught this morning. It is very good.’

‘That sounds great, we’ll go with your suggestion but please, no Schwarzbrot.’

‘OK, I’ll get the fish cooked and don’t worry, I don’t cook anything with rye in it any more.’

We are getting on better now that I have retired. Moira understands what the sea means to me so our holiday this year will be a Mediterranean cruise. I’m not driving this time and I hope there will be no need for me to rescue anyone.

 

© Richard Kefford                                                                                                        Eorðdraca

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