Star of africa, p.20
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       Star of Africa, p.20

           Scott Mariani
 

  His recollection of the cyclone was hazy, like half-forgotten snatches of a nightmare that returned to him in flashes. That last towering wave was still vivid in his mind’s eye, and the crush of the water as it crashed down. The pain in his skull was a reminder that he’d whacked his head against something hard as he went under; but after that his memory was blank and there was nothing more until he’d snapped awake, drifting alone on a calm sea under a brightly starlit sky, an arm and a leg still hooked through the piece of deck railing that had somehow become snagged on a half-submerged cargo container and kept him afloat. Just him and the wide open sea and the vast dome of space stretching overhead, its billions of twinkling lights shimmering on the spangled ocean, broken here and there by the bobbing dark rectangles of scores of loose shipping containers that trapped enough air inside their iron shells to keep them afloat, drifting slowly outwards in a spreading circle half a mile or more across. They were a strange, surreal sight. Like floating tombstones, markers for the dead at sea.

  At first he’d thought he was the only one to have made it, and his despair almost made him let go and allow the depths to swallow him up, too. Then out of the darkness he’d heard a voice calling his name, pulling him back from the brink.

  Jude’s voice.

  Ben had powered splashing across fifty metres of cold sea and discovered Jude clinging to another container, submerged up to the neck and treading water. Ben had cried as he held him, and Jude had cried too, though that was something neither of them would talk about for as long as they lived.

  Then, through the hours of night that followed, the rest of the survivors had gradually come together. Or what was left of them. Two became four when Jude spotted Lou Gerber’s white, balding head struggling to stay afloat with the dead weight of the injured, semi-conscious Condor dragging him down. Ben and Jude had swum out together to haul them to safety. Then four became seven when, with a triumphant yell, Jeff Dekker pulled himself to stand on the lopsided top of a container far away in the distance, and waved his arms wildly to show that he had Tuesday and Hercules with him.

  Seven was as many as they would ever see again.

  It had been the longest time before anybody spoke, too stunned for words and too occupied with pulling together what pieces of flotsam they could to build some kind, any kind, of raft. The brightness of the stars enabled them to work, without which the wreckage might all have been dispersed on the ocean current before daybreak. The raft consisted of a makeshift, uneven platform that straddled two waterlogged containers like a catamaran designed by a blind man, lashed together out of anything they could harvest from the floating wreckage and their own clothing – bits of electrical wire and cable, bootlaces, belts. It was fragile and would easily break apart at any hint of the sea becoming rough again, but it was all they had, and they were alive, here and now. What little they had managed to save in the way of materials was bundled carefully at its centre, well clear of the water. No medical supplies, signalling equipment or anything edible had survived. Just seven weary men, one diver’s knife, one submachine gun, one pistol, a water-damaged short-range radio and the tenuous hope that, somehow, they would get through this.

  Then, slowly, as they lay spent with nothing left to do except float under the stars, and wait for dawn to break, and pray, and count and recount their dead, they began to share their stories about what had happened.

  Hercules had been bringing a jug of hot coffee up to Jeff and Tuesday on the bridge, the ever-present Murphy perched on his shoulder, when the deck crane had swung loose and crashed through the windows, showering them with glass. Then the floor tilted crazily under them as the weight of the toppled crane dragged the ship over, sending them all sprawling just before the freak wave hit and a wall of water surged through the smashed bridge. Hercules had only just managed to keep Murphy alive by stuffing him inside the empty coffee jug. The three had fought and swum their way out in pitch-darkness, only by luck grabbing three life jackets in the fleeting moments before the ship went under.

  Lou Gerber had been making for the outer deck, concerned about Jude’s whereabouts after Condor had told him Jude was looking for Ben. Seawater had barrelled through the hatch like a high-pressure hose just as Gerber was opening it to step outside, and almost drowned him. Condor had been less lucky, pummelled head-first against a bulkhead by the force of the water and knocked unconscious. Gerber had grabbed his crewmate by the belt, dragged him bodily up to the next level and the next as the ship tilted over. When the rising torrent of water reached up as far as E Deck and seemed set to swallow up the bridge, Gerber had jumped for it from one of the external walkways, still hanging onto Condor’s belt as the two of them dropped clear over the listing rail and into the fury of the sea. How they’d made it, Gerber would never know.

  The rest were presumed lost. Trent and Lang had been resting in their cabins when the ship capsized, and might not even have known what was happening until it was too late. Allen and Lorenz were unaccounted for, too. As for Cherry and Peters down in the engine room, once the Andromeda began to go down and the holds and passages below filled with water, there was no possible hope of escape as the bowels of the ship became their tomb. The slow, agonising death they must have suffered down there was too terrible to imagine.

  Strangely, nobody asked about Scagnetti.

  Dawn ground inch by inch into view, the horizon lightening to a pure gold the likes of which Ben had never seen before, as if the sky had been rinsed clean by the fury of the storm. The huge orb of the sun gradually rose over a sea as calm and flat as the day the Andromeda had set off from Salalah.

  Ben had finally fallen into an exhausted sleep, until the gull awoke him and he was plucked back to the reality of their predicament. Jude lay curled up close by on the raft, with his legs pulled up well clear of the water in case of sharks. None had been spotted during the night, but Ben expected them to make an appearance sooner or later. Each of the three life jackets that Jeff had salvaged from the sinking ship came equipped with a small flashlight and a tube of shark repellent, which were on standby for the first sign of trouble.

  It had taken every bit of persuasion Ben could muster to get Jude to put on one of the life jackets. Gerber was wearing another because he was the oldest, something he was unhappy being reminded of. The third jacket had been allocated to Condor, who was still too weak to swim if anything happened to the raft. Ben had examined his head injury and suspected concussion, as his speech was slurred and he kept drifting in and out of consciousness. Gerber was especially worried about him, but there was nothing anyone could do but keep an eye on his condition and hope for the best.

  Ben reached over and touched Jude’s shoulder. Jude opened his eyes.

  ‘You all right?’ Ben asked him.

  ‘I keep thinking about the others,’ Jude said softly.

  ‘How’s the hand?’

  ‘Hurts a little.’

  ‘Let me see.’ Ben inspected the laceration on Jude’s palm that Scagnetti’s knife had made. It looked worse than it probably was. ‘Keep bathing it with saltwater,’ he advised Jude. ‘Then it won’t get infected.’

  Tension was high aboard their makeshift little vessel. Ben could feel it, and it was only a question of time before the stress started getting to them. He wondered who would begin to crack first. Gerber seemed a tough old salt, but he was worn down with fatigue and worry. Hercules was a physically huge and powerful man but, psychologically, Ben sensed a growing strain inside him that threatened to snap if he was pushed much further. Either of them could be the first to lose it.

  The only one doing much talking was Murphy, who had recovered from the ordeal of being stuffed into an aluminium coffee jug and now stood perched on the end of the raft, beadily eyeing the gull that was still circling overhead, and breaking out into screeching cries of ‘Get the fuck out of here! Get the fuck out of here!’

  ‘Yeah, right. Wish we could,’ Jeff muttered.

  ‘Couldn’t you have taught him an
ything nicer to say?’ Tuesday asked Hercules, frowning. He was trying to get the damaged radio working, and had it all taken apart in his lap, sifting through the pieces.

  ‘He didn’t get none of it from me,’ Hercules protested.

  ‘Eat my shit, motherfucker!’ squawked the bird.

  ‘Tell you what,’ Gerber said bitterly. ‘I’d rather be at the bottom of the sea along with the rest of the guys than stuck here having to listen to that feathered sonofabitch.’

  Hercules glowered at Gerber and gestured at the waves. ‘Be my guest.’

  ‘Can’t you shut it up? It’s driving me crazy.’

  ‘Bro, you already crazy as a road lizard.’

  ‘Then again, at least we got something to eat, right?’ Gerber said, grinning a nasty grin. ‘Once you get past the beak, there’s gotta be a few scraps of meat on it. You want to pass me that weapon, Jeff?’

  ‘Kiss my weenie, butt breath!’ Murphy screeched, more loudly than ever.

  ‘Don’t even think about it, man,’ Hercules said to Gerber. ‘I’m serious.’

  ‘One shot. It won’t know what hit it.’

  ‘You touch my bird, dude,’ Hercules warned him, ‘you best hitch yo’self a ride on another boat.’

  Gerber laughed. ‘You call this a boat? It’s the freakin’ raft of the Medusa. Like the painting.’

  Hercules snorted. ‘Painting my ass.’

  ‘Yeah, painting. That’s what I said.’

  ‘You got shit for brains, dumbass old geezer. It’s head of the Medusa. You know, like snakes for hair and shit. Ever’body knows that.’

  ‘Yeah, well, you might have seen that in some knuckleheaded movie, but some of us are educated around here. Even this dumbass old geezer.’

  Hercules’s face turned to thunder. ‘You sayin’ I ain’t educated?’

  ‘I’m saying, learn your history. The wreck of the French forty-gun frigate Medusa on reefs off the coast of Mauritania in 1810. Bunch of the crew managed to get away on a raft before she went down. Picasso painted it.’

  Tuesday looked up from the dismantled pieces of the radio handset. ‘Uh-uh. Not Picasso. The artist was Géricault.’

  Gerber stared at him. ‘Jericho? No way. I’m telling you it was fuckin’ Picasso.’

  Tuesday shook his head. ‘Théodore Géricault. Painted the Raft of the Medusa in 1818. An icon of French Romanticism, though not strictly accurate in its depiction of the historical events.’

  ‘Listen to m’man there,’ Hercules said, nodding.

  Gerber blinked. ‘How in the world would you know that?’

  ‘I know all kinds of useless crap,’ Tuesday said. ‘Wish I knew how to get this radio working again, though. Think the saltwater’s got to the circuitry.’

  ‘Did they survive?’ Jude asked.

  ‘Who?’ Tuesday said.

  ‘The French sailors of the Medusa.’

  Tuesday shrugged. ‘Depends what you mean by survived. There were a hundred and fifty men on board the raft to start with. Fifteen were rescued two weeks later. Storms, suicide, fighting and cannibalism took the rest.’

  Which ended the squabble between Hercules and Gerber, but put such a damper on the conversation that everyone shut up for a long time and lapsed into their own thoughts. Jude went back to scanning the water for sharks while Ben kept his eyes on the sky and his ears open for sight or sound of an aircraft, in case the coastguard was out patrolling for shipwrecks in the wake of the storm. The Andromeda had been out of radio contact a long time. Someone must surely have raised the alarm by now. But the only thing circling in the air was the solitary gull, following the drifting raft in the vain hope of scavenging any scraps of food.

  The presence of the gull told Ben that they were within a hundred miles or so of land. Few seabirds would venture out further than that. They were drifting slowly eastwards, judging by the sun, but in these still conditions they were unlikely to cover more than six or eight miles a day, assuming that the raft held together.

  The morning wore on. After a long, cold night of shivering in their wet clothes, the heat of the sun was now baking them. Even Murphy became subdued. Ben used the diver’s knife to fashion a makeshift bivouac out of the torn sheet of plastic tarpaulin and a length of wooden pole they’d rescued from the wreckage. Jude and Gerber helped him to move Condor under the shade of the shelter. If the wind came up, as Ben silently prayed it would, the plastic sheet could be hoisted upright to make a sail of sorts that would speed their progress towards landfall.

  But if it didn’t, and if nobody came to rescue them, the biggest concern was going to be drinking water. Many yachtsmen carried solar stills and desalinisation kits for treating seawater, in case of emergency. But such luxuries were lacking on board the raft, and unless it rained they were going to have a real problem. Depending on the temperature, an adult could just about survive on as little as two ounces of water a day, which would have been hard enough to provide for one man alone. Multiply that by seven and it became an impossible proposition to keep everyone hydrated, especially as bodies began to swelter under the hot sun.

  Ration your sweat, not your water, was a piece of wisdom drummed long ago into Ben’s mind from his SAS survival training. The secret was to use up as little energy as possible. Day one was less of a worry, as the body carried its own store of water and could get by without extra intake for twenty-four hours. The second day would see the first signs of water deprivation setting in for all of them, especially for Condor, who was already dehydrated from his bout of seasickness during the build-up to the storm.

  Using the trimmings from the plastic tarp that he pushed into a hollow in the middle of the raft and secured into place by weighing the edges down, Ben made a rudimentary water-catcher. They had no other receptacles or cups to drink out of, but you could ladle it up with a shoe if you had to. All they needed now was for the heavens to reopen and provide their fill of sweet, beautiful, quenching rainwater. Though judging by the burning white-hot sky and the searing fireball cooking them from the middle of it, that wasn’t likely to happen any time soon.

  Ben had already donated one bootlace to the raft. Now he removed the other and attached a piece of bent wire to one end to use as a fishing line. Something shiny like a piece of mirror or even a coin could work as ‘bait’ to attract the attention of a curious fish, and Ben used a spent brass cartridge case. His survival instructors had warned that in an emergency situation, eating without a ready supply of drinking water could increase the threat of dehydration, because the body used up precious reserves of moisture in the digestion process. However, Ben also knew that marine life was more than just a source of food. The aqueous fluids from a dead fish’s body could be drained or sucked from its eye as a water substitute. The idea might not go down too well with the sailors, at least initially. But a man would drink almost anything, no matter how revolting, if he got thirsty enough.

  Ben crawled to the edge of the raft and lowered his makeshift line into the water. The hook had barely sunk below the surface before Jude called out, ‘Fin! Two o’clock, thirty yards.’

  ‘Hello, boys,’ Jeff said. ‘Wondered when they’d show up.’

  ‘This just keeps getting better and better,’ Tuesday muttered.

  Ben looked in the direction Jude was pointing, and spotted the ominous steely dark grey triangle of a dorsal fin splitting the water a stone’s throw away from the raft. The shark was cruising past them in a lazy curve. It wasn’t in a hurry. It had a captive audience, and all the time in the world to check out the floating larder and the juicy life forms aboard it.

  ‘Tiger shark,’ Jude said, following the fin under the shade of his good hand. ‘See the stripes down his back?’ It was the most excited he’d looked all day.

  Jude knew his sharks. Before Ben had ever met him, he’d been on an adventure tourism diving expedition to New Zealand, doing the man-in-a-cage Jaws thing with the great whites. Coming face to face with a thirty-foot eating machine in its own watery element
was some people’s idea of a fun leisure activity. Maybe that was because Jude had never seen a man torn kicking and screaming to bloody shreds by one of them, right in front of him. Ben had. It wasn’t a sight you could easily forget. Even though the guy in question had had it coming, and the shark in question had been doing Ben a favour, not to mention saving him some effort.

  The dorsal fin glided below the surface until its tip vanished under, leaving just a thin streak of bubbles to mark its presence. But the shark wouldn’t be far away, that was for sure.

  ‘Looks like I picked a hell of a lousy time to go for my afternoon swim,’ Gerber said dryly.

  ‘If it’s any consolation, tigers are mostly night hunters,’ Jude explained. ‘If we leave him alone, he’ll probably leave us alone.’

  ‘Thank you. That makes all the difference for me,’ Gerber replied. ‘And if he changes his mind?’

  Jude shrugged. ‘Then I suppose he might come up underneath us and tip us all into the water for his dinner.’

  ‘Sorry I asked.’

  Ben reluctantly reeled in his improvised line. Fishing with sharks around was just asking for trouble, as was hanging your head and shoulders out over the side of the raft. The first fin was joined soon afterwards by a second, then a third. Impossible to tell how many unwanted visitors there were lurking unseen beneath the calm surface. Like vultures circling, except below them rather than above.

  And so they drifted on through the hours, huddled together, moving little to conserve their energy, trying to shield themselves from exposure to the fierce sun. Condor went on sleeping under the shade of the bivouac, with Gerber watching anxiously over him. Tuesday eventually gave up trying to fix the radio. Jeff occupied himself by stripping their only surviving weapon down to its component parts and carefully cleaning the saltwater residue off each one with a strip of his T-shirt before reassembling it. ‘Wish we had some gun oil.’

 
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