The Quick and The Dead. Part two.

The ship was fitted with a 50 ton SWL crane on the starboard side aft that reached out over the stern and was used for recovery of diving kit, sea bed rubbish and the like. On that charter we picked up tons of maritime detritus off the sea bed that was in the way of the planned route.

Our job was to survey the route the pipeline would take. The Straits of Messina are a busy place and to minimise down time, we worked long hours with every other weekend off in port. This was the second part of the charter for us and work had increased tremendously as we neared the charter end. Whilst we were at liberty to go ashore, a lot of us tended to stay aboard to catch up on sleep, do our washing and generally chill out.

The hours we worked were 12 on and 12 off and it was all go as it was a full dive operation with surface and Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) work.  For the crew this meant constantly shifting bottom beacons (which marked the route and whose signals were picked up by the ship’s hydrophones) which meant lots of small boat work to recover the beacons and then move them to the next location. On top of this we still had the myriad of ship’s tasks to do such as basic maintenance aboard – so when the weekends came they were a welcome and well deserved chance to catch up.

One sunday morning alongside – on a beautiful, hazy mid July day – the Carabinieri made an unexpected official visit. All along the quayside were Police vehicles and a cordon was being erected just aft of the ship. Armed Police officers were everywhere so whatever the reason for it was, it was pretty heavy stuff.

Shortly after midday, as we were sitting in the messroom just after lunch, the Second Mate asked the ship’s crane driver – who was also the Leading Hand – to report to the Captain. The rest of us began to speculate as to what the Carabinieri wanted with our Leading Hand. We reckoned he had been doing his typical party trick of ordering a meal and then legging it out without paying which he was famous for in any port we called in at. He hadn’t earned his nickname of No Pay Neil for nothing.

About fifteen minutes later, Neil  called me out and told me that I was going to be his banksman.

“ Get a radio from the Mate. “

“ Why? “

“ There’s a car in the water astern of us with two people in it and they want us to lift it out. They’re using their own divers to hook it up. “

“ I can’t speak Italian! “

“ They’ll provide a translator. The Mate’s there, so speak to him first. “

The Mate was standing on the main deck with two Italian Police Officers. As I arrived he introduced me.

“ This is Griff. He’ll give the crane driver  all the comands by hand and radio “ he pointed to the crane.  Neil waved back from the cabin. He then handed me the VHF. The Mate introduced me to a small, swarthy Italian. “ This is Fabio. He speaks English and he will translate. You do not anticipate anything Griff. You listen to Fabio and then you tell Neil. Got that? “

I nodded. “ What’s going on Dave? “

“ There’s a car right off our stern. As we have a crane, the Carabinieri have requested we provide the lifting for them. They can’t get one here until tomorrow so we were happy to assist. “

“ Neil said there’s a couple of bodies in it? “

He nodded. “ Yes. I don’t know anymore than that but that’s not our issue – let’s just get the job done, okay? “

Within an hour the crane was swung out over the stern, the Police Divers were in the water and they had already attached strops to the car on the sea bed. A large crowd had gathered on the quayside by this time.  Ashore, the Carabinieri were pushing back locals and tourists attracted by the Police cars, a flat-bed truck – and an ambulance. Aboard, the dive contractors and off duty crew had also gathered, taking a vantage point on the boat deck. It felt like a circus.

The car was hooked on, the diver in the water giving a thumbs up and Fabio told me to ask Neil to take the weight. I gave him this by hand signal – slowly clenching and unclenching my fist – and the wire began to straighten out until it was vertical. Fabio told me to stop and again I did this by hand signal, a clenched fist. I’d banked for Neil many times so we understood each other well.

“ We have to wait for the frogmen to leave the water, yes? Then we lift the auto and land it on the trailer. Okay? “

I passed this by radio to Neil who confirmed it by clicking his transmit button twice – meaning that he understood.

I leant on the rail with the Police Officer alongside me. We were both staring at the oily water under which lay the car and its grisly cargo.

The day was hot, no wind. There was a haze in the near distance. The crowds were straining their eyes to catch sight of something whilst the Police held them back, occasionally pushing them away from the cordon. The hum of traffic on the Banchina Peloro and Via Luigi Rizzo was a constant hum, and the movements of the ferries  from where they crossed the Straits for  Reggio di Calabria seemed oblivious to this small drama being played out almost alongside them.

The frogmen left the oily water, their rubber suits glistening as they walked up the stone steps from the dock and to where their companions waited to strip their gear off them. Policemen with radios glued to their faces walked around, the horns of the ferries sounded sharp and sudden, gulls mewled – and yet despite the normal feeling of the day, there was something hidden behind it all.  Something ominous.

Fabio nudged me. “ Heave. “

I signalled to Neil again and confirmed it by radio. “ Slow, mate. Nice and easy. “

The cable was bar tight as the weight of the car began to tell. I watched the cable, deep in the water like a stiletto where it pierced the surface. I could hear the crunching of the wire as it was going over the top jib roller, could see the water splashes from it falling like diamond rain in the brightness of the day. At my side, I felt Fabio stiffen and then he was on his radio talking quickly. There was a surge from the crowd. Policemen moved to the edge of the dock – and in the water the roof of the car appeared, breaking surface.

I called Neil and he replied “ Aye. I see it. “

Slowly, the car began to appear from the sea. Fountains of water were gushing from the bodywork as it was slowly raised. The windows were dark but, as the water level drained back into the sea, they lightened. I strained my eyes to look.

“ Stop. “

I raised a clenched fist and the crane stopped. The Police Officer shrugged.

“ They move the crowd back now. The lorry, she will come to closer. Then the auto, you drop it on. Yes? “

I nodded. I called it in to Neil, high above us in his bird’s eye view cab.

“ Okay. “

More of the car began to appear until it was all out and Neil held it there as the water drained from it, disturbing the surface of the dock as it foamed back, a dirty oil sheened grey. The car swung slowly, lazily, on the end of the strops and I could just make out two shapes – indistinct things – in the front seats. If I had not been told there were two bodies inside, would I have noticed them? I doubt it. It was a macabre scene – the car, pouring water from every panel join, swinging slowly on the end of the wire and inside, two shapes. Two formless shapes blurred behind the stained glass.

When the water was drained off, the car was landed onto the flat-bed trailer and men in white one piece suits were soon swarming over it. The ambulance backed up. The Police began to close up on the crowd who were now pushing forward to see what was going on. A door were  opened – the driver’s door, which was facing the ship and so not in view of the crowd. A stretcher was brought up and then they began to remove the first body.

It was still just a lump. Not human. Just a something that they carefully – yet almost reverently – brought out of the driver’s side door and laid down onto the stretcher in a human chain of white suits and grasping hands. As soon as it was on the stretcher they knelt and examined it briefly before they pulled a cover over it. Then they moved the trailer around until the passenger side was to the ship and away from the crowd. They went through the same routine – only this time, I saw long black hair, white as plaster legs under a short skirt. Stiff white legs. Legs that were discoloured by the sea bed mud and the immersion in the water. It was a woman.

Neil’s voice crackled into my radio.

“ It’s a bird. Hang on, there’s a priest on his way..No show without Punch – I bet we’ll be here all afternoon, now.”

As they laid the second body down, a priest approached, prayer-book clutched to his chest and followed by a small gaggle of other dark clothed figures like crows as they fluttered around him. He spoke with the Chief of Police and there was much gesticulating, much shaking of heads and a lot of looks at the two shapes under blankets on the quayside, the water from their sodden clothing making the white sheets that covered them darken.

Then the priest turned and just walked away, followed by the dark gaggle at his heels. I looked at Fabio and he shook his head.

“ Non permisso. Commettere suicidio. Suicidio? “

“ Yeah. “ I said. “ I understand that. “

I watched the priest with his prayer-book and his God,  his loving God, walk away. The Catholic argument is that one’s life is the property of God and a gift to the world, and to destroy that life is to wrongly assert dominion over what is God’s and is a tragic loss of hope. Now, on this bright Sunday afternoon, two people had beenpublicly rejected by the same church that preaches love. I shook my head.

The crowd, seeing the priest walked away, sensed the disgrace, the abomination on God’s own day it and also began to disperse – apart from a few who stayed for reasons to do with voyuerism and scandal.

At that moment, I had seen the lie of everlasting life in God’s love for what it had always been to me. Doctrine. I felt cold and angry about the visible display of dismissal, of rejection on this, God’s own day. The Lord is my shepherd – unless you committed suicide, in which case you became persona non grata. Play by the rules and you get a ticket to glory – break them and you are cast out so that even in death, there is just eternal damnation.

Later, when we had stowed the crane and the quayside had cleared of people, the Carabinieri came again. This time it was the Chief of Police himself. He was taken to the Captain first and then came to thank us for doing what we had done. He spoke no English, we spoke no Italian and the Agent – who was translating – obviously thought we were no more than the hired hands who were there to do what we were paid to do. Hands were pumped, brief smiles were given – and then he was gone.

The suicide? We found out a couple of days later from the Agent. No-one seemed to know – or was really interested in knowing –  so Neil and myself decided to ask for ourselves. The Agent had arrived aboard on the Monday morning as we loaded the ROV’s ready to sail out for more survey work at midday.

We blocked him as he was about to leave down the gangway.

The Agent tried to shove past.“ ‘Scusi. “

“ The dead bodies. What happened? “

He looked up at us from down his nose. A diminutive little man in a sharp suit and a huge air of self-importance about him like the cloud of perfume hanging around him like a veil. Maybe, deep inside him, some small spark ignited and he  felt we should know. Maybe he just thought we were bigger than he was and – as we were idly but intentionally  blocking the gangway – decided to tell us so he could get back to his sports car and away from the comune degli uomini we so obviously were.

“ Suicidio. “

“ We know that. Why? “

He sighed, looking between us down the gangway to where his car was. Then looked at us again.

“ He was a-married. Professore. She was  uno studente.  Una ragazza? Young, young girl? They was to be exposed, yes? So they think to kill each other. Is all it is. Is nothing.“

Neil stood back and the Agent, realising that his way was not blocked any longer, scuttled past. He gave us a long look of disgust – but only when he was in his car. His words echoed.  Is nothing.

We watched him drive off down the quayside towards the Viale. The sun was shining brightly, there was a heat haze over the whole city that made the hills shimmer and dance in the distance. People walked along the quayside, some hand in hand, and in the blue of the sky above it all birds called. God’s in his Heaven – All’s right with the world.

Neil and I went back to work.

Author: ddraigmor

What can I say? Used to write copiously - won many short story competitions, had a monthly column in an international specialist hobby magazine - and then it all suddenly dried up around the time I went academic and found myself, as a mature student, at Uni! Studied in Oxford, got a job on graduation - and stayed here in a rented house despite dreams to go back to the land of my birth,Wales. fat chance of that; I don't speak the language so that's a bar! Did 20 years at sea mostly on tugs or tug related shipping, as an Able Seaman. Als was a member of my home town lifeboat crew. Medically discharged around the same time as my wife decided it would be a good idea to get a divorce, I went to college aged 37. I now work as a s[pecialist forensic social worker. Well, up until last year when they dragged me back to do generic work part time and allowed me to stay the other half in forensics - which I adore. I am probably the only anti-social worker you will ever meet! Single, I enjoy reading, watching movies, drawing and generally being a bit of an eccntric - or am I just odd? I haven't decided yet!

3 thoughts on “The Quick and The Dead. Part two.”

  1. Ddraigmor – And in two parts too. I know c*ck all about the sea and seamanship, yet I can lose myself in your stories every time.

    I have two seafaring friends – One a master mariner, former captain of large cargo vessels, now retired to Queensland and the other still working, back in the UK, and in his spare time coxwain of an RNLI inshore rescue boat. Fine men both.


  2. Zangado, I was crew on my local inshore boat when I was back home. They’re a totally different breed. None of them were experienced or professional seafarers. They were a Head Teacher, a crane driver, a waiter….normal blokes – but they were excellent small boat handlers and fearless folk. When I had to leave (due to failing the medical for seafaring as I was just diagnosed diabetic, so it followed the RNLI had to let me go) I was told I had been put forward for the Cox’s post. It’s actually called Senior Helmsman on ILB’s. They gave me a farewell dinner, an inscribed tankard – and as I was off to college, the RNLI gave me a £300 cheque for books and other stuff to help in my study.

    I look back on those 5 years as the very best of my time with no exceptions.

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