So this is how the big project first began, as an interior monologue that came to me quite spontaneously while I was still living in Japan, just over ten years ago. This was the voice of a soldier in the water after the Birkenhead went down on February 26, 1852, off Danger Point, a Victorian naval disaster that had fascinated me since I’d first come across the story as a student in the late-90s. It’s rough, but you can see the premise quite clearly. After writing two incomplete versions of the manuscript with the protagonist a soldier from the ranks, the first Irish, the second English, I realised he needed to be a journalist instead…
This piece, originally entitled ‘Black Irish,’ was published in the anthology VETO IV in 2010, a couple of years before I got seriously stuck into the final version of the book. A companion story, called ‘Two Soldiers at the Seaside,’ in which an African warrior contemplates the same event from the shore, had previously appeared in VETO II in 2007.
Hail Mary full of Grace. The Lord is with me. Twenty times, the Father said, and all for feeling a slip of a girl round the back of the old slaughterhouse. As if God’d care about a little thing like that. What’d he make men and women for, if he didn’t like ’em f—ing? Twenty times, repeat: I am all right. I am all right. I am all right. I am all right… I’m not all right. So cold. I can’t feel anything. Am I still real? Think. Bloody scratchy uniform gone. Maybe there’s a fish wearing it now. F—ing thing didn’t drag me down and drown me. That’s good. Now I’m freezing to death from its absence. That’s bad. Naked and wet I am, like a babe in some vast womb. I’m alright. The dawn tide swells and lifts me a bit closer to heaven. Then back to hell. I’m not alright. Am I to be born once more, coughing and spluttering and gasping like a landed fish? Sun’s rising now; soon I shall see what’s what. Am I alive or am I dead?
The soldier bobs in the waves like the float his grandfather fashioned with cork to fish for pike. He remembers those dawn trips to the river that snaked through fields of lazy cows and vicious horses in the years before the famine. Someone else’s land. Always someone else’s. Never their land. Not really poaching, only for sport. Pike taste muddy, full of bones. Only when the family were starving did coarse fish taste like caviar. What is caviar? And how the hell would he be knowing what caviar was like? Something nice, anyway, if the swells ate it. Fish eggs? Must be from a bloody great fish. He’d eaten frog’s spawn once, but only for a bet. Something nice. Eel pie and mash, a pipe, a pint o’ porter and a red-headed woman. When did I last have a woman? Will I ever have one again? Saw a pike take a moorhen once. One minute she’s in the reeds sunning herself, then bam! She’s lifted clean out of the water when the big fish hits her. Then she’s gone, just blood and feathers and a cold ripple kissing the bank. Heard tell they grab a horse’s snout when it dips its head to drink. Never saw that though. Hard fish. Nasty bastard. He was swimming once, on a clear blue summer’s day, when he saw one gliding beneath him, maybe four, five feet long. Looked like a bloody boat it did, sailing under water in a monstrous inversion of science and nature. Long thin snout, vicious teeth, mirthless smile, and dead eyes, like the eyes of a doll he saw one time, in a shop window in Cork. Evil eyes, like a devil drunk with sin. He swore later he walked on water that day, running not swimming for the safety of the bank. F—ing fish, river sharks they called ’em. He hated them.
Something brushes against his leg and he kicks out in horror. Dread-filled hands explore beneath the water, expecting warm blood and sharp bone where flesh once was. He is intact. Be calm man, it is nothing. A bit of seaweed, nothing more.
Grandfather reckoned he feared no animal what couldn’t get his head in its mouth. Fish hereabouts’ll do it though, and no mistake. Proper sharks. Ugly great grey grins, a mouth full of daggers opening in the water. No. Don’t be thinking that. Followed them for days the f—ers had. Snapping round the ship, every bit of rubbish a boiling frenzy when it hit the water. Waiting. Here be monsters.
But I’m all right. No orders, no pack drill, no bastard officers. He dozed, just for a moment, and was rewarded with a gob full of water. Shite! Mustn’t sleep. Won’t never wake no more. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink. His granddad told him that. How did it go? Like one that on a dark…? No, that’s not it. Like one that on a lonesome road doth walk in fear and dread. That’s it. Because he knows a frightful fiend doth close behind him tread. Didn’t really understand it when he was a lad. The meaning dawns on him now. He wishes it hadn’t. Like one that in a lonesome sea… doth float, no, doth feel a little grim, because he knows a frightful fiend doth close behind him swim. How many were lost last night? Was he the only one left? If I was God I wouldn’t have created sharks – I would’ve left them out of the grand scheme of things. Snakes neither. He thought of what he had heard of the colonies: all sand, shit, and snakes they said. He fancied he wouldn’t see them now. Think of something else. Lying with Cath the night before he sailed for this bloody faraway war. Should join the blacks, fight the f—ing rich. Corinthian Cath, she brings good luck, cause every day she liked a… Can you hear me Cath? Did I say I loved you? No. I didn’t love you, but I love you now. Remember me, Catherine, when your flaming hair turns to ash, a grandchild on each knee. Say there was once a handsome soldier who left me for the sea. Poetry, you see? I should tell Cranky Jem; he could write it down for me. Well, not now. Saw him drown last night. Couldn’t save him. He always was a lucky c—.
Sunshine hurts. Skin blistered and cracked, he squints all around and finds only ocean. Where’s the bloody Point? How far has he drifted? What’s the bloody point? Calm yourself. There’ll be boats out by now. Can’t waste us on the ocean when there’s wars to be fought. Save us from a drowning or worse, all for a black’s spear, or a ball from a stolen English musket. Is it better to be stabbed or shot? Or drowned? Or eaten? Shut up. Shut up. Musket fire took Billy Malone’s bollocks off one scrap. He retreated with a limp, still loading and firing, being of a delicate sort and mortally embarrassed by the location of the wound. Screamed all night though, dead by dawn. Marching forward one time, the new fellow next to him had his head taken clean off by cannon shot. Kept on marchin’ though, like he didn’t know he was dead, blood gushing like some hellish fountain. You’d never know you had so much blood in you. Who the f— is this? Said the Colour Sergeant after the battle was done and dusted. You! Me sir? Yes, you sir. Go and find his head son, and be quick about it. Nothing to find though, not so you’d recognise it. What was that book his granddad loved? Frankenstein, yes. Enough bits and pieces in the water now to stitch a thousand monsters. Reckon none of the names on the graves will match the contents. When you die at sea, they bury an empty box. You die by water, nothing to hold a man in his grave, just plenty o’ things to put you in it. Will Cath leave flowers I wonder, at the place where I am not? No last rites, but prayed on deck we did, so I’ll be all right. Straight up to heaven, me. What is heaven like Mam? Like Dublin, only bigger. Anyway, we saved the babies. All women and children safely away sir bellowed the Colour Sergeant. Very good, said the officer in charge. Men, he says to us, we have died so that others may live. I am happy to report that all our families are safe in the boats. Not my bloody family mate, yours you c—. (Why did we stand? Why?) Only then does he give the order to abandon ship, all the bleeding good that did. Every man for himself boys, as if it was ever otherwise. In the water a man may make his choice. Do I fight, or do I sleep? So many slept, and I am so very tired.
Hold you hard my lad, what’s that? Sails on the horizon. Oh thank God. Look! Look you c—s. Hey! I’m over here you bastards! One of our cutters? Back to find her lost children. Might be pirates. Don’t be daft. Might be the enemy. Who cares? I’ll join them. Ahoy! Hurry up, I’ve a thirst on me so powerful boys, give me water, then give me rum. Such a story I’ll tell. No death by water for me my fine fishy folk. I’m to be saved after all.
Closer now. That’s it. Come you on.
Grey sails, dirty with salt.
Grey sails but no boats.
Not grey sails. Fins.