Ambrose

A Travel Mystery Novel

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3

To England: Surf's Up


Four bongs from Big Ben crackled faintly over the short wave, then the announcer, in measured British monotone almost suggesting understatement, came on the air: "Four o'clock Greenwich Mean Time. The news, read by Peter Winship . . . "


Sal punched the record button and swung her chair in front of the typewriter.


"Unrest continues in Iran, where throngs have taken to the streets in protest, demanding an immediate ouster of the shah . . . " Her fingers were a blur as the faint words poured out of the radio.


"Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched in defiance of military orders, many throwing bricks and stones at troops . . . "


There was a knock at the door to our stateroom-office, and an instant later it opened wide enough for Gordon's head to pop in.


"Am I interrupting anything?" His voice would be on the tape with the BBC announcer's. I motioned him in, pointed to a chair and then, with outstretched hands pumping up and down in the air, gave the international sign for "Sit down and button your lip."


The radio report went on: "The Ayatollah Khomeini has issued a statement saying a civilian government being formed in Tehran will not be acceptable . . ."'


"Insufferable coot," muttered Gordon, now sitting as ordered.


"Shhh," ordered Sal, turning toward our guest, her lightning tac-tac-tacs on the typewriter uninterrupted. "Can't you see we're recording?"


The Ayatollah, in a dispatch from Paris, told demonstrators to fight to the death if attacked . . ., " came the voice on the radio.


The next interruption came over the tannoy, the ship's public address system, pumped into the office through the intercom: "The lifeboat drill will be at one o'clock this afternoon. Passengers will please assemble at the Quarterdeck Ballroom."


That halted the staccato taps for a moment. "Lifeboat drill?" said Sal, dropping her hands to her side as a perplexed look came over her face.


"Oh, do skip it this crossing," suggested Gordon, taking Sal's query as his license to speak again. "Besides," he looked at his watch, "it's luncheon. Let's have that drink, shall we?"


"Hold on. Let me get the rest of this report so we'll have some news for tomorrow," answered Sal.


Gordon smiled and settled back in his chair, his hands at his vested chest, fingertips pushing against each other like a spider doing pushups on a mirror. "Certainly, Maria, 'ave it your way," he smirked.


Martial law has been declared in 13 cities in Turkey as civil unrest continues," said the BBC announcer, his voice ebbing and flowing through the incessant crackle of interference. "Some 6,000 commandos and paratroops declared an uneasy peace . . . " Gordon once again punctuated the machine-gun typing. "Turkey. Now that must make you want to take a break. I believe it's on the menu, but you can always order from the stew . . . "


"Hush!"



"And in Britain, a strike by lorry drivers and railway workers has threatened to paralyze the nation. Prime Minister James Callaghan has called an emergency . . . "


"What's a lorry?" I whispered. Gordon was leaning forward, hanging onto every crackling word, rapt by the strike report.


"Quiet!" he snapped.


" . . . to formulate plans to deal with the strikes. Mr. Callaghan said he hopes the pickets will comply with union orders to move food and other essential supplies .. ." The human jackhammer was still clacking away.


" . . . but some shortages of food and other essential supplies have occurred since the lorry drivers walked out a week ago . . . "


"Louts," sneered Gordon, now leaning back in his chair.


"They're louts? Lorries are louts?" I was a bit confused.


"No, the drivers. Uncompromising gang of legalized bloody thugs, they are. Pirates! Grave robbers!" grumped Gordon. "Fifteen pounds more a week they want. Do be realistic."


"So what's a lorry driver then?"


"It's, what do you Americans call truck drivers."


"Oh, truckers."


"I beg your pardon," said Gordon, taken aback by the sound of the word.


"Truckers."


"Oh, quite."


Sal, less than amused by the exchange, stopped typing. Besides, the radio signal had faded enough to make it impossible to make sense of the rest of the report. She got up and stretched, then snapped off the radio and recorder.


"We'll find some of those canned travel stories about England to fill the rest of the paper. But let's eat now, what do you say?" she directed.


Gordon was on his feet.


"Jolly good. Let me show you the Admiral Nelson Pub."


As we headed aft, the ship's rocking seemed to be more severe than it was last night, but I assumed it was because we were farther out at sea.


The bar was set up like a British pub, with ale, bitter and lager on tap and rows of glasses for "shorts" -- drinks of liquor -- hung from wooden slats above the bar. A row of large windows faced the fantail, where the back-and-forth motion of the ship was visible. We could hear an occasional squeak and groan of the bulwarks, along with a slight vibration of the screws, which I gathered to be normal this far aft.


Spray rose from the hull as an occasional wave beat against the starboard side. Gordon ordered bloody Marys and then asked, as he had the previous night, if we had heard anything more about the weather. The giddy mood of our last few minutes in the office had lifted and he had a serious expression on his face.


"We haven't found a weather channel," said Sal, who had been doing most of the radio work so far. In fact, we hadn't really searched for one, being preoccupied by finding news from BBC, Voice of America, Radio Canada, Radio Switzerland or whatever Western nation's signal we could snatch.


"Are you leading to something, Gordon?" asked Sal.


"I've been talking to the radio room, and it appears a storm of some magnitude is heading our way," he said. "The bridge is pushing Madge the limit, 28 or 29 knots, but this appears to be a fast-moving storm." He took a sip, put down the glass, and gave a slight smile. "You may be in for quite a memorable ride. 'ave you both had the shot?"


"The shot?" I asked.


"If you're not used to quite a bit of motion, it may be a good idea. Such a dreadful sight when people are ill all over the place. You might want to visit the ship's hospital, down at Six Deck just forward the pool, before queasy passengers start queuing up. I'd suggest straight away this afternoon," advised Gordon.


I had felt fine when the conversation started, but all the talk about storms and seasickness were starting to get to me. The power of suggestion, no doubt.


"Well thanks for the good news," I said.


"Speaking of good news, I thought the Mail this morning was quite, uh, informative. Good. I see you're using Lefty's cartoons," said Gordon. "I wonder if the dentist will be drilling tomorrow."


We finished our drinks and Gordon signed a chit before heading off to his assigned first class dining room, the Seven Seas, for lunch.


The seas had indeed gotten rougher, I noticed as we walked to the Parisienne. The rocking was now compounded by a see-saw forward-to-aft pitching as the ship made her way through growing swells, resulting in a corkscrewing motion. Rain was beginning to patter against the windows at the starboard side.


The casino crowd was already seated when we got to our table. We nodded hellos, then got right down to ordering. We had had only a light breakfast in our cabin, rolls and coffee, but my appetite was disappearing fast. I asked for consomme, a salad and coffee. Sal went with the full plaice platter and dessert, topping it off with biscuits and cheese.


The room was only half full when we sat down, and was emptying fast before we were through. Waiters hefting silver trays shuffled and danced to the ever increasing movements of the ship, bending their knees and taking short steps back to keep their balance.


Back in the office, the creaking noise seemed louder as the ship pitched and rocked. Looking out the window to the promenade deck, I noticed a seaman with coils of ropes looped over his arm, making his way forward toward the big wooden door leading inside. He looped the line from the door handle to a spar mounted on the wall to keep the door from opening and tied a knot. Then he proceeded farther forward, bent low against the strong wind and spray.


I got back to work, pulling a file and photo about Stonehenge to fill a back page. Just as I turned toward my desk, the ship lurched. The metal drawers of the file cabinet shot out, one, two, three, like a set of cannon blasts, and the whole gray cabinet tumbled over.


"My God," said Sal, turning from the radio. "I think Gordon's right."


We grabbed armfuls of files that had been disgorged from the drawers and heaved the cabinet upright. As we were lifting, another sharp roll of the ship sent the contents of the bar, fortunately only a few glasses and the cognac bottle, clinking into a heap on the deck. The door to the bathroom swung open and slammed into the table next to it. An announcement came over the tannoy.


"Your attention please," said the calm voice. "Due to inclement weather, this afternoon's lifeboat drill is postponed until further notice. Repeat . . . "


"Inclement weather?" I said. "We're hitting some kind of hurricane or something. Hey, we've got to get a story. Let's get the radio room or bridge on the phone."


I persuaded the ship's operator to connect me to the radio room, where the officer, a Mr. Grigg, seemed nonchalant, even a tad bored, about the whole thing.


"Oh yes, we're encountering some heavy seas," he confirmed, "nothing but a North Atlantic blow you see this time of year. I suppose it could get a little bumpy this evening but I doubt it will interrupt tea. Certainly not cocktail hour. Must go, chap. And we must have that drink together. Boat deck is your office, you say? Very good. Cheers." The guy's clip sounded like Morse Code.


Sal had been fiddling with the tuner through the wasted conversation. When I hung up the phone, she stood and announced, "It's time."


"Time? What are you gonna do, jump?"


"The shot," she said. "Want to join me?"


"I suppose it's better than tea."


---


Gordon was right again. A queue had formed, running from the hospital door past the entrance to the Six Deck pool, one of the two indoor pools on the ship. Although it was half drained, water sloshed back and forth, occasionally sending a torrent toward the window along the hallway. About 20 people were lined up, some standing stoically and quietly waiting their turn. Others groaned and griped unpleasantries as they swayed awkwardly along the corridor.


A steward staggered down the corridor like a drunk as he contended with the unstoppable pitching and rocking, bracing himself every 20 feet or so to loop a big garbage bag over the handrails that ran the length of the way.


"Just in case, madam," the young man said shyly as he looped one of the bags in front of where a woman was standing.


"So kind of you," she said sarcastically.


As we got toward the front of the line, we could see the nurse in charge of the busy sick bay going about her business. She wore a stiffly starched uniform that nearly matched her chalky complexion, and a navy blue tie was neatly knotted tight to her neck. Her blue-striped cap was attached by bobby pins to the back of her permed hair, which looked like steel wool spraypainted day-glow orange. Her razor-thin slices of eyebrows were a matching color, but her thin lips, from which a cigarette dangled, were ruby red. The lady did not smile.


"Dramamine or injection?" she asked in a surly tone as each new agonized patient approached.


The line had grown twice as long by the time Sal and were facing the nurse at the doorway to the medical office. Through slits of eyes she peered laser-like at me first, then to Sal, and back over to me.


"Dramamine or injection?" I was momentarily distracted by her name tag, which said Connie D. Frank, Nursing Sister.


"Uh, I don't care for shots. The pills, please."


She reached into a white cardboard box and handed me a sealed panel of four pills, while waiting for Sal's response.


"Oh, the shot. It will last much longer won't it?"


"It should, miss. Step this way, please." I followed Nurse Frank and Sal to a back room, poking at the pill pack, and closed the door.


"Up with the skirt, then," the nurse commanded, while two red stilettos of nails on her long fingers pinced a cotton ball from a box. "This will take but a second."


The door swung open and a young assistant popped in.


"Oh, 'scuse me madam. Nurse, a gentleman at the end of the line says he is dreadfully ill and demands attention at once. What shall I tell him? There are all these people."


"Whining, is he then? Has he passed out?" said Nurse Frank. Her cigarette, now with a half-inch ash at the end, was still dangling from her lips.


"No, I don't believe so," said the young woman. There was a brief pause.


"Not bleeding?"


"No."


"Just green, then? Let 'im bloody wait his turn."


Nurse Frank administered the shot to Sal and in a few seconds was back at the door. "Dramamine or injection?" she asked the next patient.


I chewed on a couple of the pills as we made our way to the lift, then swallowed hard as we half-tripped into the car, whose stainless steel handrails had also been bedangled with sick bags. The combination of pitch, roll and upward surge as the car shot up eight decks made me feel like I was in a giant screw being torqued by power drive toward the heavens.


Topside, stewards and stewardesses were on barf-bag red alert. Those who weren't draping them from handrails and stairways were mopping up the messes left by passengers.


In the office, the filing cabinet had taken another tumble and the bathroom door was whapping back and forth with each violent jerk of the ship. I latched the door and set a chair in front of it, then we sat at our desks to finish up the paper. I was feeling a little warm and lightheaded, but not sick, not just yet. Sal looked fine, but after a couple of minutes playing with the radio she announced matter-of-factly that the injection had made her tired and she needed some rest. She decided to go to our cabin and take a nap. I walked her to the door and told her not to worry; I would get the paper finished and we'd meet later when all this nasty business was finished.


I caught a Radio Canada broadcast and wrote a World News Briefs package, then dummied in a canned piece about London's tourist haunts, killing a couple of pages within an hour. One page to go. I was feeling shitty. No, I needed some air. I pushed by chair back and stared straight ahead, watching the window curtains shift back and forth.


My grandfather's stories about the sea trials he so dreaded came back to me. As a pipefitter, George "Buster" McGeehan spent most of his time below decks in the boiler rooms of the destroyers and cargo ships Gloucester Iron Works built, doing things that involved water pressure, temperature, and metal-stress tests in the steam power units. Everybody, even Grandma, always called him "Buster," I'm not sure why, but I think it had something to do with one of his more unpleasant outings aboard ship.


Grandpa Buster, a tall, broad-shouldered man with thick gray hair he combed straight back, wasn't much of a smoker, but he was a confirmed tobacco chewer. One of his favorite stories was about trial run off the Delaware coast. As the sea got rougher, he kept swallowing back his breakfast, carefully tucking his wad to the side of his cheek so he wouldn't have to break from his job and run for the deck to hurl. But on one fateful swallow, he forgot to move the wad to the side and the plug went right down his throat.


"I kept right on a-working," I remembered old Buster saying, "till this big smasheroo really walloped that old boat. I must've been green as pond scum and felt like my innards was tied into a sheepshank, so I just walked up to the deck, took a breath of fresh air, and let 'er all rip. I felt much better." A half-dozen of his pals watched the performance in astonishment, then broke into applause, so his tale went. Grandma hated the story, although she always let him finish. "Oh, stop, Buster," she would always say in postscript, her polite disclaimer to the story.


I decided to swallow a lot, like Buster would have done.


No, I needed some air, a few gulps of fresh air, and a walk. When does this Dramamine kick in? I wondered.


I got out of my chair and walked across the office, the deck dropping below my feet as the giant ship slid off a huge swell into a valley of ocean. I made my way out of the stateroom and headed toward the door leading to the promenade deck. I knew it was lashed shut, but I leaned close to it to suck in some of the air hissing through the crack by the jamb. Volleys of waves washed against the ship as the wind screamed. A loose end of rope tied to the davit above the deck stood out straight, then banged against the lifeboat three or four times, as if an invisible schoolmaster was tapping his pointer to wake up a dozing class. The rope froze to a stop in the hard wind, and then the process started again. A tap on my shoulder so startled me it nearly knocked me off my feet.


"All right, then?"


It was Hallsford.


"All right? You look like you've just seen a ghost," he said calmly. "Quite the storm we're having tonight, isn't it? Where's your wife, still working on the newspaper?"


"Oh, she's all right. I guess the shot -- you know, the anti-seasick potion -- it knocked her out, so she's sleeping. But I don't know how anyone can sleep through this," I said.


"I don't either. But I can assure you, no one's sleeping on the bridge. We're in a gale, mate," Hallsford said as the deck dropped from under my feet again. I grabbed a handrail.


"You don't look so well," Hallsford said with a half-smile. He started to walk down the corridor, back toward the office. "Take anything for it?"


"A couple of pills. They didn't do much for me."


As the ship lurched again, there was a loud whap, and a thump, as the canvas covering ripped from a launch and unfurled against the side of the ship. Up the corridor, someone was retching into one of the garbage bags.


We stumbled our way back to the office, walked in and Hallsford reached for his cigarettes. He offered me a light, then lit his own. I took a long drag, then plopped down in a chair. The ship pitched, then dropped again, the final insult to my stomach. I bolted from the chair, headed for the bathroom and tossed aside the chair that had been blocking the door. I bent over and, just like old Buster would have done, "let 'er all rip."


"Ah," I heard Hallsford say, as he observed the process from his chair. "You've hit the bidet. Jolly good."


I heard the office door open, then Sal's voice.


"David? Where's Mike?"


I was still hunched over, cupping the Dunhill in my hand behind my back, when she walked in. My head was reeling.


"I'm starved," she said. Maybe 30 seconds passed. "Are you going to be OK?"


It took a me few minutes to compose myself, but I was soon back in the office, where Sal and Hallsford were talking about England, our next stop. The very mention of land made me feel better, but not great.


The shot must have worked on Sal. She swore she felt fine and talked about going to dinner. Hallsford tucked a couple of cigarettes between the keys on the typewriter, wished me good health, and rose.


An announcement came over the tannoy: "Due to the rough sea conditions, this evening's cocktail party in the Quarterdeck Ballroom is canceled. We regret any inconvenience due to this unforeseeable situation. Your hotel staff will be on call . . . "


"No cocktail party? Smashing! Come up to the Wardroom for a drink," said Hallsford.


If a cigarette didn't work, maybe a drink would, I figured. Sal accepted the invitation. The three of us headed forward to the officers' club, two decks below the bridge. With the storm raging, walking was not easy; we either lost one step as a wave hit, or were thrown into two extra ones as it pitched forward. We finally made it to the stairs leading to the Wardroom. Up this high, the motion was all the more noticeable, like being at the top of a tree in a windstorm.


A pitch of the ship threw us forward as Hallsford opened the door to the Wardroom, knocking me off my feet. Sal tumbled over me onto the carpeted deck. Hallsford blithely stepped over the two of us, offered Sal his hand and helped her to her feet, and proceeded to the bar.


"Tanqueray? Or perhaps some scotch? You Americans like bourbon, don't you?"


A couple of other officers stood at the windows at the forward side of the room, hardly noticing our awkward entry as they peered straight ahead. I stumbled over to the windows also, to watch as the bow buried itself into huge waves of 20, maybe 25 feet, which crashed across the forecastle and then shattered into a spray that covered the windows. Once the wind cleared the windows, I could see the bow rise again, only to slam another volley of angry sea.


"Yanks," one of the officers said dryly, still peering straight ahead. "How very delightful. Are you enjoying your cruise so far?"


"Well, to tell you the truth, I could have done without a roller-coaster ride first time out," I said. The ship bashed another wave, dipped and went into a pair of rolls. I felt my knees knock together. Spray washed against a smaller window at the starboard side of the wood-paneled room, then brine dripped from the bridge wing above for a moment before another blast sideswiped the ship.


"It has been a rough one," said the officer. ``Nor'easter. The radio room says it's force 10 or 11, but I think they're exaggerating. By the way, I'm Griffin. Engineering staff. And you are . . ."


"McGeehan."


Hallsford walked over and handed me a big pint mug of beer. Sal had a small glass of wine. Griffin, a stocky guy whose curly, lime hair stopped at the crown of his head, continued talking.


"Anyway, McGeehan, we've taken on a bit of water at the anchor ports, and the bow anchor is jammed into its housing. Way forward the Pig's flooded, and the water pumps are on the blink, so passengers are getting a murky backup in their tubs, but no one's taking a bath in all this, are they? It'll blow past before you go know.


"Just as a precaution, they've evacuated all of the forward cabins because of this dreadful pitching. We've lost a couple of covers off the launches and Grigg tells me one of the radar screens is all mangled. A few bent handrails on deck too, but all and all, we look like we're OK. How are the galleys, Hallsford?"


"A bloody mess," said our host, sipping a gin and tonic. "There's so much food slopped on the decks that they had to lay blankets about so the waiters can walk. Then, once they get the food to the tables, it either sails off or nobody can eat it. Well almost nobody. Some passengers would eat for the sake of eating even if we were on our way straight down. They'd eat the tables themselves I reckon. Why, I saw one Yankee -- sorry you two -- go sprinting out of the Parisienne with her hand over her mouth. She was back at her table five minutes later, feeding her bloody gob again.


"And, oh yes, we've lost about 14 dozen tea services. Good thing it's an American crossing," said Hallsford.


An American crossing, I took it, was west-to-east, mostly U.S. citizens, who don't crave tea like British do. The Pig, Griffin explained, was the Piggin Whistle, the crew's pub, located dead forward just above the normal water line. Seawater blasting through the port and starboard anchor openings had flooded the place, forcing thirsty crew to abandon it and seek refuge in the Rat - officially the Rathskellar - one of their other half-dozen or so bars.


"Something wrong with the lager?" said Hallsford, noticing I had barely taken a sip from my mug. Actually, I was feeling slightly better, perhaps because I was picking up the cadence of the rocking. Across the forecastle, the bow kept pounding into the waves.


"All the performers are sick," Hallsford continued. "That magician fellow, Stuart Benton, Breton, whatever, is in his cabin crying like a blasted loon when he's not puking. They've offered to give him the shot, but he says he hates needles. Big sissy, his steward wants to put him in one of those magic boxes and saw him in half. And the singer, Cecile Boucher, is on a tear again with the staff."


Griffin broke into a big smile. "Ah, the price we do pay to keep our travelers contented," he said as he made his way for the bar.


"Once she decides she's seasick, she demands men to make her feel better, one right after another," said Hallsford, taking a sip of his drink. "She's been through half the social staff, three officers and that sea cadet with the red cheeks and big ears from Swansea -- what's his name, Fish, Fisher, Fishwick or something -- and the storm will probably last through the night. Once the lad wears out, you could be next Griffin. Best keep watch."


Griffin rolled his eyes and asked the other officer, who had been silent, what he wanted to drink. He asked for scotch, then, as if sensing it was his turn to speak, politely introduced himself to us: Peter, second officer, navigator. His tie was pulled tight to the neck in a perfectly symmetrical Windsor knot; every button on his uniform gleamed and his black shoes were like polished mirrors. His epaulets carried three gold stripes. Though he was tall, his feet seemed cemented to the deck even as the ship pitched and heaved. While the rest of us danced little sidesteps or occasionally grabbed a chair or table to keep our balance, Peter seemed a part of the ship, a statue growing out of the steel plating under us.


Speaking in a hushed, professorial tone, Peter set out to assuage any fears the storm may have raised, while displaying a complete confidence in the ship's technology, the most advanced of its day, he declared, to pull it through the best and worst of conditions.


"You may envision the captain two decks up there in the wheelhouse, pacing about, yelling out orders and so on as spray washes in his face. Not at all. He's probably reading a book or taking a nap or having dinner. The ship's piloted by satellite, so all we do is double check the bearings and make sure everything's running all right," he explained. "The only time the human touch is crucial is when we're putting in or casting off," he said. "But even then, we have bow thrusters, sort of big underwater fans, to help push us out." Another big wave hit and the ship rocked. Peter went on talking.


"All he does is shake hands with the passengers and, well, look important. Captain's table, Captain's mast, that sort of thing. Sort of figurehead, you know."



The 72,000-ton ship was equipped with two sets of stabilizers, which stuck out from the hull below the water line about midships. Although the fin-like devices are supposed to reduce a roll of 20 degrees to as little as three degrees, Peter said, they have little effect in extreme conditions such as these.


The Majestic's bulbous bow, which stuck forward like a blunted torpedo under the waterline to flatten out the sea as the ship approached, also had little effect in stormy seas, Peter explained.


Nonetheless, the ship was inherently safe, if somewhat uncomfortable, in these conditions, he assured us. "Really," Peter concluded coolly, "the biggest danger at sea isn't capsizing or sinking. It's fire. And the Majestic has a sprinkler system." He reached into the pocket of his blue jacket and pulled out a pack of Rothmans, and without a word flipped it open and held toward me.


The sight of a cigarette made my stomach churn. Sal had finished her wine, and I took a couple of gentle swallows of beer, mostly to be polite, before we told our hosts we must be leaving so we can finish the newspaper.


"Newspaper?" said Griffin, his eyes widening. "Ship's newspaper? You aren't going to print, you know, the singer, Benton the magician and all of that sort of rubbish . . . "


"Don't worry," smiled Sal as we headed for the doorway. "The paper's almost filled up. Nobody would believe all that anyway."


She once again pronounced herself starved and persuaded me to go to the dining room. Although I had no interest in eating, I wanted to take in the scene. Much as Hallsford had described, waiters were having a miserable time keeping anything on their trays, and dinners that made it to tables were being dumped onto the deck. Diners darted out of the restaurant. Sounds of smashing dinnerware punctuated the constant groaning and creaking of the deck and bulwarks until the final exclamation point came: One of the large glass panels along the port wall disappeared in a giant woosh, sucked by the vicious wind out to sea, taking in its wake two or three table settings as well as the curtains at its sides. A couple of women screamed, but they were quickly escorted from the dining room. Luckily, no one was sitting at any of the tables near the window at the time. Before Sal could order, the dining room was cleared as a precaution. As Griffin would explain later, the window popped along a line especially vulnerable to heavy stress: where the steel hull meets the ship's aluminum superstructure.

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© By Buzz Adams