The Life of Henry Fuckit
90 Alone and adrift
He awoke feeling remarkably calm. On being cast away in such a heinous fashion by the demented mariners he had quickly resolved to bear up like an honourable dilettante. He had located some brandy, taken a hefty slug, and removed all of his sodden clothing. After another swig he had climbed into a bunk, pulled the down duvet over him, and soon fallen asleep. The path he was wandering had taken another unexpected turn and, aside from having very little choice in the matter, he felt obliged to follow it. For the moment he felt secure, even though he was being tossed about in a storm and was adrift in a rarely traversed expanse of ocean. It was strange that he was untroubled by fear of drowning. His father had drowned at sea, the useless arsehole. It would be ironical if he was to share the same end, making it about the only thing they were destined to have in common. Cause of death: lost at sea. A sea death, mildest of all deaths known to man. Mildest? Drunken Irish blather. Anyhow, if the meandering path was about to peter out in the murky slime full fifty fathoms down it didn't seem to be perturbing him unduly. Was he suffering from paralysis of the imagination, or a form of cerebral atrophy producing fatuous complacence? Or was it temporary denial before the onset of bowel-emptying terror?
The perspex ovals which served as portholes were glowing with a faint grey fuzziness and he realised simultaneously that dawn had broken and the storm had abated. 'And the sea ceased from her raging.' So? All storms eventually blow themselves out. In all, he must have had well over twelve hours of sleep.
Without much difficulty he found the big canvas togbag containing his expedition clothes and got dressed. Coffee. He needed a mug of coffee, and Jesus he was hungry. The galley took some exploring and experimentation before he felt in charge of its contents, and with water heating on the gas stove he reconstituted a jug of powdered milk. A bowl of muesli for breakfast - that's what his stomach required. He poured in the milk and left it to soak in while he ventured forth to examine the day.
Behind thick cloud stacked like ramparts on the horizon the sun must have been coming up. The fury had gone but there was still some bluster left in the wind and it immediately bit into him, a vindictive reminder of where he was. Out there to the south were icebergs, pack ice and frozen wastes. With head and shoulders protruding from the black back he turned to take in the rest of the empty seascape. To his astonishment he found himself confronted by two airborne scouts come to investigate his presence. They were fluttering above the heaving sea not ten feet from him, maintaining their positions like hovering butterflies. One dropped down, its feet pattering on the surface as if treading water, then up it came again. Well, well, well. Storm petrels. Henry smiled. How pleasing to receive visitors. How sociable of them. They were grey and black with white underparts and black legs hanging down, loosely extended, and their wings were held pointing high. When Bob Avis had drawn his attention to this species they had been gliding in erratic crisscross patterns through the wake of the ship like swallows. Not much bigger than swallows. Hey, but it was far too cold to be out there communing with these members of the feathered race, even if it did do his spirits good to watch their cheerful antics on the wing. He dropped back into the comfortable warmth of the Whale's belly.
For the rest of the morning he tried to take stock of his situation, his plight, and to come up with a sensible plan of action. Should he fiddle with the radio and start sending out a mayday call? That was like shouting, Help! Rape! Fire! Better just to scream. Equally ineffective and less embarrassing. No, seeing he was here, somewhere in the proximity of what Bergson called the Vital Isle and Captain Cunt probably thought of as the Gates of Hell, he might as well try to find it, suss it out, and reach some sort of conclusion. Was there any substance to Oxyaston, telepathic communication and life forces, or was it all just an obsessive fantasy? Was there an island at all? At the very least he must make his way to where the one line of longitude cut the other of latitude and see for himself. Then he could think about being rescued, plucked from the sea, returned to his native shore.
But how to proceed? No point in starting the engine if he was unable to set a course. In a cabinet under the chart table he found sextant and books. Several volumes of Sight Reduction Tables, The Nautical Almanac for 1980, and Mary Blewitt's Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen. In accordance with his instructions the Whale was not lacking in stocks of his preferred beverages and he poured himself half a beermug of Vrotters stiffened with an extra dash of OB. He stoked up a bowl of Turkish Delight and began to get to grips with the in's and out's of establishing his exact position on the face of Planet Earth. Miss Blewitt led him through a whole lot of theory involving hour angles, the geographical position of heavenly bodies, declination, attitude, zenith distance, elevated poles, azimuth angles, great circles, the position line, the meridian passage, and how to use almanac and tables to solve the innumerable variations of the spherical triangle. She also explained the importance of time. If one didn't have accurate knowledge of time it was possible to navigate one's way to disaster. An error of four seconds amounted to one nautical mile!
By late afternoon he felt ready to attempt his first sun sight. Armed with sextant, stopwatch, notebook and pencil he climbed the ladder and looked out. Damn it! Fuckall sun. It was still entirely overcast. He steadied himself at the top of the ladder and went through the motions of shooting the non-existent sun and bringing it down to kiss the horizon. Some horizon. Even if the skies had been open he would have battled in this heaving sea. Even though conditions were improving all the time there was still a stiff breeze and the Whale was bobbing about in hilly country. One moment she was high on a crest commanding a clear view all the way to where charcoal sea met leaden cloud. Then she was sliding down a slope and the approaching slaty mound of water shut all else from view. He would have to be patient.
Day one, he was thrown overboard. Day two, he got to know the Whale and study the rudiments of navigation. On the third day the clouds broke up, fell into disarray, scattered in all directions and, apart from the odd wounded straggler, disappeared without trace. By midday the sun rode high above the deserted battlefield, the repentant wind fell back meekly, apologetic, almost obsequious, and that most fickle and devious goddess the sea changed into something emerald green and royal blue and sequinned, and smiled enigmatically.
As instructed, he took five sights at approximately 40-second intervals in order to average out any slight errors. It was a pretty basic instrument and the technique was simple. This was proving easier than he had imagined. Pity it was faintly hazy just there on the horizon, though. Just where he needed to swing the sun and graze the line between sky and sea. A smudge of brownish grey haze. That haze might put him out by a couple of miles or so. Shouldn't be too serious. He stared hard. A haze or a mist? Why was it so localised? A suspicion reared up in his mind, he drew in a sharp breath and became aware of a sudden increase in the rate and force of the contraction of his heart.
In great haste he fetched the binoculars from below and stood out on the duckboarding, focusing the twelve magnification glasses on the horizon. It certainly wasn't haze. That was a bank of fog sitting there, just in that one spot. Surely it was the Vital Isle? It had to be.
Down in the cramped little compartment that was the engine room he depressed the black button and held it there whilst he counted to thirty. Then he pushed the red starter button, the motor whirred and the diesel engine clattered into life. Just as the Dockyard mateys in the ICE Shop had promised him it would. The electronic controls built into the underside of the hatch were uncomplicated and he soon had his craft surging forward, nose pointed at the hill of mist in the distance, rudder locked in position.
Unfamiliar as he was with the almanac and tables, not to mention the actual sequence of calculations itself, it took him more than half an hour before he was able to chart the position he had been in when he took the sight. According to his workings he was approximately ten nautical miles south southwest of the island. This confirmed his suspicion that the Vital Isle lay obscured behind the patch of fog towards which he was heading. He went to check the compass. He should be heading north northeast. But the needle was acting like a drunken water diviner, titling and veering all over the place, sometimes even describing a complete circle. Now he was convinced, and he suddenly realised he was trembling with excitement, as if he was about to enter a room and meet … Jesus, not now! Unbidden, unbidden. He must pour himself a stiffy.
By late afternoon, as the heap of fog grew in bulk at his approach, he noted how the seabirds were becoming more and more numerous. And most of them were heading in the same direction as he was. The sun set to his left, the temperature immediately dropped, and in the twilight the mist loomed high and wide before him. First he reduced speed to a walking pace and chugged on until dusk waned into darkness. Then he cut the engine and drifted in silence.
Sometime in the night he woke and lay in the dark, feeling the motion of the sea and wondering at the gentleness with which he was being rocked and swayed. The wind must have died away to nothing. He listened to the unaccustomed quiet and gradually became aware of a dim sound that baffled him. It was like a clamour of voices heard at a great distance, as if a crowd of people was passing on a far-off road. Could this be the onset of insanity?
In the light of his torch he climbed the ladder and lifted the hatch and put his head out. No, this wasn't a symptom of psychosis. This was a muffled tumult, a hubbub dampened by the fog, far away but from a distinct source, coming to him across the water. A mile off, five miles, it was impossible to tell. He shone the flashlight and its beam was instantly torn apart and flung up in a moving wall of vapour. He directed the light down onto the sea. The black surface was smooth and oily and formed a moat between him and the encircling mist. At about two o'clock on the periphery of his vision there was a fleeting movement, a dark shape glimpsed for the briefest of moments. It could only have been a bird. Before he could experience surprise or disbelief his mind made the connection and solved the mystery - what he could hear was the sound of a million breeding birds calling to each other. From the mouths of innumerable nesting burrows the air traffic was being guided in. This was what Captain Cunt had heard.
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