THE SHIP OF LIFE
by Malcolm Bowden
It had been a good trip so far, mused Reg, as he lay back in the comfortable armchairs provided in the ship's ballroom. He watched the passengers as they enjoyed themselves, laughing and chattering away. The air was a bit thick with cigarette smoke and a few people had had a little too much to drink. As the band played, the ballroom floor was packed with people dancing together. Some of the young couples were dancing a little too closely, Reg thought, but mentally shrugged his shoulders. ''You don't want to appear fuddy duddy in this age of enlightenment.''
He had been on the trip for quite some time now and he suddenly thought he really ought to start making some arrangements for disembarking, when they arrived at Port Haven. People were strangely reluctant to talk about the end of the trip, but rumour had it that the city was a very nice place and everybody there was very happy.
His eye roamed to a drunkard lying senseless with his head on the table and Reg looked at him rather disdainfully, priding himself that he hadn't lowered himself to that state. After all, wasn't he a man of position and importance? Was he not the Chairman of the ship's Carnival sub Committee? Why, only yesterday the Committee had been wrangling for hours, but he had finally made up his mind and given his decision in a firm but pleasant manner. He felt pleased with the way in which he had handled that tricky problem of whether the clowns' hats in the fancy dress parade should be white or blue. Yes - certainly an individualist, who was quite different from your run-of-the-mill passenger.
Just then he saw his old friend, Paul, reading a book by a porthole through which the sun shone for a brief moment. While he was watching him, he saw Paul look keenly through the porthole. Then to his amazement, Paul lept on a table and began speaking to those around him. Reg couldn't hear him as the band was playing noisily, but Paul was clearly very earnest in what he was saying, and pointed to the book and out through the porthole frequently. Gradually, however, those listening began to drift away, and as the band seemed to be playing a particularly catchy tune at that moment, they all returned to the dance floor.
Paul eventually stepped down from the table and made his way towards the exit. As he passed by, Reg called out, ''Feeling seasick then?''
Paul turned to him. ''No, I'm leaving.''
''Leaving? Where are you going to?''
''To the little ship alongside.''
Peering through a nearby porthole, Reg, to his surprise, saw a small boat being tossed by the waves.
''You must be crazy to go on an old tub like that.''
''But Reg, this boat is heading for the rocks!''
''Don't be stupid. Where did you get that from?''
''I came across this book in a corner of the ballroom. It's amazing, for it clearly tells us all about this boat and where it's heading.''
Paul produced a faded, dog-eared book, which was so old it almost fell to pieces in his hands. Looking at the title carefully, Reg made out the words ''Advice to Mariners''. Taking it closer to the porthole, he tried to decipher what the book was saying, but just at that time the sun had gone in and the lighting in that part of the room was very poor, and he could only make out occasional words - ''rocks ... danger ... Evangel''. Finally he gave it up and handed it back to Paul.
''Look, why don't you forget it? Come and have a drink!''
''Thanks a lot,'' said Paul, ''but I must go now. If this ship's heading for the rocks, I don't want to stay on it a minute longer. Won't you come, Reg?'' He looked at him appealingly. Reg turned away.
''I think you're just trying to frighten me. I'm quite happy where I am. Anyway, it looks pretty cold out there and I prefer to stay with everybody here."; and he watched Paul go through the swing doors.
Returning to the porthole, he saw the small ship edging closer to the liner and noticed with some surprise the cheerfulness of the crew. Each seemed to be going about his work in a businesslike manner, as preparations were made to put out the strong wooden gang plank that crossed between the two ships. He watched Paul hold on to it firmly, and as he stepped aboard the ship, a cheer went up from all the crew members of the little vessel. Finally, the gang plank was raised and the ship turned away, heading in the opposite direction.
He could see she was strongly built, but the paintwork was peeling badly, unlike the smart appearance of his own vessel. Although it looked very battered, he could still see the first part of its name, ''Eva-...'' As he watched, the vessel was suddenly caught in the wash of the huge liner's propeller and was badly tossed. He could see the crew clinging grimly to the handrails, but it was some time before she was clear of the liner and sailing in calm waters.
Despite the jollity in the ballroom, Reg felt uneasy. Supposing they were heading for the rocks? How could he find out? Reg decided that on a matter as important as this he would see no less a person than the Captain himself. Going through the exit doors he was faced with a large sign saying, ''Crew members only. Passengers not admitted''.
Ignoring this, he pressed on. He became almost lost in a maze of corridors and passages, but finally reached an imposing entrance labelled ''Captain's quarters''. Timidly knocking on the door, he heard a voice calling him in.
On opening the door he was faced with a tall middle aged man of imposing appearance, superbly dressed in the uniform of a high ranking officer, wearing a formidable array of decorations.
''Do come in and sit down. What can I do for you?'' the Captain murmured in a kindly voice. Reg, feeling very embarrassed, blurted out the story of his encounter with Paul and even as he told of his fear of the rocks lying ahead, he felt foolish in the presence of the Captain.
''You say Paul got his strange ideas from reading this old book. It's rather sad, really. We've had experts checking the accuracy of the ''Advice to Mariners'' for years and everyone has found it to be most unreliable. Our seamen are trained in much more up to date methods nowadays.''
''Do you steer by compass, then?''
''We can't rely on that either. We found that when we brought magnets near it, the needle wandered all over the place.''
''How do you steer the ship, then?'' asked Reg.
''My dear fellow, every morning a Committee of the ship's highly qualified officers meets to decide the course, and I think with me as its Chairman you have little to fear. If you are still unhappy, why not attend the Passengers' Representative sub Committee which meets once a week? They are kept fully informed of the ship's progress. As well as a variety of absorbing activities, carefully selected passages of the ''Advice to mariners'' are read out and then debated. Now if you'll excuse me, I think your Carnival sub Committee is meeting any minute now, and I am sure you will be greatly missed.''
It was only as Reg made his way out that he sensed the air had a strange pungency which he could not quite place. He returned to the ballroom, somewhat bemused, but was soon caught up in the frantic organisation for the Carnival Night.
The Carnival was in full swing, when it happened. Reg felt the ship lurch beneath his feet and realised to his horror that they had stopped. There were a few seconds of deathly silence, but suddenly the band struck up, playing even louder. Many carried on dancing, but several began to edge nervously towards the door. It was only then that he realised he had never seen a lifeboat on the ship, and the seriousness of the situation hit him like a thunderbolt. Angrily he raced for the exit, determined to have things out with that fool of a Captain.
He found his way only with difficulty, as the lights were beginning to falter and grow dim, and smoke was filling the corridors. Flinging open the Captan's door, he stood at the entrance, staggered at the spectacle before him. The Captain was tearing off his uniform and facemask, laughing uproariously as he did so. It was the fumes, however, that almost overpowered him. It was the same smell he had met before, but this time he recognized it for what it was ...
. . burning sulphur ...
. . . . . . and just then,
. . . . . . . . . .all the lights
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .went
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .out . . . . . . .
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