Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960

   

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in Western Literature

An Anthology by  Adrienne Nater

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Nevil Shute, Trustee From the Tool Room, 1960

 

Death of John Dermott
and his wife Joanna

Death of John Dermott and his wife Joanna:

As the full daylight came they could see the binnacle, and see the wind was now west-southwest by their compass. At the same time, it had risen higher than ever, and was now screaming in their ears, deafening them, so that John judged it to be Force 10 or more. The sky cleared with the morning so that they could see much further than before, and away from the south there seemed to be a line of blue sky just above the sea. John pointed it out to Jo, and put his lips to her cold ear. “That’ll be the eye of the storm,” he shouted.

“Passing south of us?”

He nodded. There were no great waves now, just a smoking, hissing sea flattened by the insensate torrent of wind. To talk was an effort and a strain; it was better to conserve their strength. They sat in silence, each busy with their own thoughts turning over slowly in their stunned minds.

John Dermott was thinking always of the ship. She was still sound and practically undamaged. The mainsail and the trysail were still lashed firm upon the boom, ready for use. No sails could stand a minute in such wind; it was no good thinking about them.
There was one resource still left to them, however. They still had a little engine.

He had scant faith in it, but it was still there. In dead calm weather it would give the ship a speed of about four knots for going in and out of harbour or up windless estuaries, the wind was now blowing sixty knots or more. This puny little engine, if he could make it work, could not affect the major issues of their course, get it going it might serve to pull them out of trouble somehow. It was the last resource still left unused.

He gave the helm to Jo and went below, shutting the companion after him. In the light of his torch he saw that the battery had been thrown from its crate when the ship broached to and was lying on its side; everything was streaming with sea water. He stood the battery upright, checked the leads, and tried the light switch. There was the faintest of red glimmers from the filament, which faded as he watched.

There was no help in the starter. He wiped the magneto and the plug leads with a wet handkerchief, having searched in vain for a dry cloth, and tried her on the handle. For a quarter of an hour he laboured over her, and never got a kick. Finally he gave up the effort and went back on deck. There was no help from the engine.

While he was below, Jo sat at the helm in dull despair. The huge efforts needed to pull the tiller continuously one way or the other to keep the ship stern on to the seas were draining the last of he strength; she could still make them mechanically but now she was near collapse. There was no ending to this storm and would not be for days and days and days; the ship might see it through if she had fresh hands at the helm, but they would not. She was near failure now, she knew; half an hour longer or perhaps an hour, and she would be no longer to swing the tiller. Then the ship would broach to and lie swept by every sea; they would be drowned. Shearwater would fill and sink, and Janice’s future would sink with her. She was too tired now to care about themselves, but Janice was a sharp pain. Keith would look after her and bring her up, and he would do it well. But he would have to bring her up into his own way of life, not theirs; at sixteen she would have to start work in a shop.

John Dermott came back to the cockpit and took the helm from her, “No good,” he shouted in her ear. 

She shouted back, “Won’t it go?” He shook his head, and she settled down beside him, listless.

About the middle of the morning something in the water ahead drew John’s attention. He gave the helm to Jo and stood up against the companion, the wind tearing at his clothing lashed by the spray. Visibility was between one and two miles. There was something different half a mile or so ahead of him; the backs of the seas looked different in some way. Then, over to the left a little, in a quick, passing glimpse, he saw what looked like the tops of palm trees above the waves.

He turned with a heavy heart and went back to his wife. “There seems to be an island dead ahead.” He shouted. “I think we’re driving down on a reef.”

She nodded. She was now past caring.

He took her hand. “I’m sorry about this, Jo.”

She smiled at him. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Can you take her a bit longer?” he asked. “I want to see if we can dodge it.”

She nodded, and she stood up against the companion. It was clearer now for they were closer. What he had seen was the backs of great combers breaking on a coral reef; the line of different surf extended both on port and starboard hands as far as he could see. He searched desperately for a break in the surf, something to indicate a passage through the reef into the sheltered lagoon that might lie beyond. If there were any break he would try to steer her off and run in through it, even though they might be overwhelmed in the process. He could see no break at all; it all looked the same on either hand as far as he could see. There was no escape for them now. Shearwater was driving straight on to a coral reef in the Tuamotus somewhere, and would leave her bones upon the coral as many a tall ship had done before. He had not the remotest idea where they were.

He came back to her and took the helm. In bad moments in the last forty-eight hours he had imagined this situation, and had thought it our. Better to take the coral straight, head on, than to be thrown on to it on their beam ends, to have the hull crushed like an eggshell by the fury of the waves. Better to take it head on, taking the shock on the lead keel and trying to keep the stern on to the seas. Reefs were seldom uniform in height; if they had the luck to strike a fissure, a patch where in calm water the coral was a couple of feet or more below the surface, they might possibly be driven over it into the lagoon, and still float, and live. He bent to explain this to his wife,

“I want you to go below,” he shouted. “When we strike, stay in the hull. She’ll probably get full of water, but stay in the hull. Just keep your head above the water, but stay inside.” 

She shouted, “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to stay up here and steer her on, I’ll join you down below as soon as she strikes. It’s our best chance, I don’t think she’ll break up.”

“If she breaks up, she’ll stay on the reef, won’t she?”

He knew what was on her mind. “The keel will, and probably the frames.” He paused, and then leaned across and kissed her, “Now go below. I’m sorry to have got you into this.”

She kissed him in return. “It’s not your fault.” She stood up, waited her chance, opened the hatch and slipped down below, leaving it open for him to follow her.

She sat down on one of the settees, the first-aid box in her hands. There were now only a few minutes to go. She thought she ought to say a prayer, but it seemed mean to have neglected God and her religion for so long and then to pray when death was imminent; the words would not come. She could only think of Janice, Janice whose future happiness lay buried in the concrete beneath her feet. The concrete would survive upon the coral reef, but nobody would ever know of it but Keith. Keith had never made much of his life; Keith, who had never been anywhere or done anything. Keith, to whose keeping she had trusted Janice.

From the cockpit John Dermott shouted above the screaming of the wind, “Next one, Jo!”

In those last moments the power of prayer came to her and she muttered in the accents of her childhood, “Lord, gie Keith a bit o’guid sense.”

Then they struck.

   
 

Adrienne Nater, 2008

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