Sea Monster

1937

Muriel stared at the painting then took a sudden step back. Her lips screwed up into her nose and Paul smiled. He had been looking forward to her moment of shock.

Sea Monsters - JMW Turner “There’s a story that Queen Victoria said it was vile,” he said.

“I’m not surprised.”

“You agree then?”

“No, well, I wouldn’t want to run into one.”

“Don’t worry, you’re on dry land.”

“Why is it called Sea Monsters? I can only see the one, staring straight at us.”

“Look closely. There are two, one for each eye, big fish.”

Muriel took a step towards the canvas.

“I see, but if you only see the one, it’s much more horrible. It looks malevolent.”

“Death at sea.”

She turned and pinched his arm.

“Ow! What was that for?”

“Because you’re taking pleasure in showing me something horrible.”

“Something horrible? It’s a great work of art. People have been admiring it for nearly a hundred years.”

“And I bet I’m not the only girl to pinch her big brother for making her look at it.”

“I didn’t make you. I explained that JMW Turner was our greatest artist, and this is one of his finest works. You wanted to see it, and you react by assaulting me.”

“It’s what you deserve.”

“Well look at the other parts of the picture, all those variations in colour, the roughness, the blurring of the light, the way it depicts the violence of the storm in a few wild strokes of the brush. It says everything about the untamed nature of the sea.”

Muriel was quiet for a moment; he could see her eyes moving around the painting, avoiding the small yet deadly figure at its heart.

“Turner’s technique was incredible,” he said. “The way he conveyed the natural energy of the world in the roughness of his brush; the way he concentrated the strong colours in small patches of the canvas; the way he gives us such a primal perception of the world.”

“Primal?”

“And the way he can frighten teenage girls with a couple of little swirls in the middle.”

“Shut up!”

This time she punched his arm.

“That’s it,” he said. “I’m telling Mother and Father that you hit me again.”

“And I’ll tell them you’ve been trying to frighten me with a sea monster.”

“A great work of art. There are more Turners around here. Let’s see.”

“Not now. After that you have to make it up by buying me a cup of tea and some cake.”

She grabbed his arm and pulled him towards the gallery exit. He didn’t resist.

 

1942

As Paul reached the highest step the swell lifted the ship and threw him off balance. His left hand grabbed the rail, his right foot rose but slid as it hit the forecastle deck, so his left foot missed and he fell sideways. His feet flailed but he managed to wrap an arm around the rail and pull himself upwards. A sharp pain went through his left shin and instead of standing he rolled over. The two seamen followed, both keeping their footing as the Portcullis hit the top of the swell. They looked down at Paul, one offered a hand to haul him upwards then ran to the forward part of the deck. He staggered back against the rail and struggled to regain his balance as humiliation crashed into his fear. Sub-lieutenant Franklin on his arse while able seamen rushed to save lives.

He saw the men reach a point close to the bow and pull a lifebuoy from its casing. He knew he should be with them, but as the ship rose again he held onto the rail, tasted sea spray on his lips and breathed in the stench of burning oil. It triggered a violent lurch in his stomach and a mouthful of vomit spewed over his glove and onto the deck. He took two deep breaths staring at the mess, then looked towards the seamen, made eye contact with one and knew they had seen his fear. Then the ship fell back into the swell.

This was meant to be good – a rising storm meant the U-boats would dive, unable to renew the attack – but there was too much fear in the air, too many dead and dying in the sea for any sense of relief. Paul looked forwards to see the Tower listing badly to starboard as smoke bellowed from its stern. Beyond that two of the merchant ships had been hit, one spewing flame and smoke from the midship, the other already in a steep tilt as its bow dipped into the water. A couple of lifeboats tossed violently as they tried to escape the pull of the sinking vessel. Around them were dots, the heads of men splashing desperately to reach a temporary safety. He couldn’t hear, but his head filled with their screams.

“Lieutenant! Lieutenant!”

Petty Officer Drake had left the group he led to port side and staggered to the rail. He gripped Paul’s shoulder and growled.

“You’re in command of those men to starboard. Get over there!”

Paul nodded, tried to ignore his shame and staggered towards the two seamen near the bow. There were men in the water close to the ship, men who deserved a chance to survive if they could get the lifebuoys into the sea and hang on to the ropes. Paul stood beside the men, grasped the rail and looked into the water. There was a head and one arm little more than fifty feet from where they stood. Paul found a moment of clarity, pointed and yelled.

“There! Seventy degrees!”

The seaman beside him uncoiled the rope as the other held up the lifebuoy and stared into the swell. Then he froze. Paul saw the horror in his eyes, threw his gaze to the distance and spotted a dark grey line poking out the waves. He and the seaman both realised it was the turret of a U-boat, chancing the storm to claim one more victim. Then the Tower exploded.

In seconds the sky ahead filled with black smoke. The corvette was hit at both ends and tipping towards starboard. Paul could see men sliding across its decks and tumbling into the sea. Another lift of the waves took the sight beneath the bow of the Portcullis and he realised the two seamen were still trying to pull the man from the water. The one with the lifebuoy was leaning forwards, peering to recover sight of the lost man while the other tied the rope around his arms. Paul looked down into the water, searching again for the drowning man. Then the seaman beside him raised a leg and placed his knee on the side, extending the arm holding the lifebuoy backwards to lengthen the throw. Paul saw the danger to the man, moved to the grab the sides of his jacket, but in a moment the ship came off the top of the swell, the centre of balance changed, the seaman slipped forward and went overboard.

Paul and the other man looked down into the sea, saw the lifebuoy on the surface but no sign of their shipmate. The man beside him cried out.

“Bollocks! Fuck it!”

Paul looked further out, saw the man they had tried to save bob up once more then disappear beneath the waves. The air darkened further. Paul swung around, looked to the port side of the bow and saw the Tower on its side, half submerged and going down quickly. More heads bobbed in the sea, more arms raised in desperation.

Then he looked back to starboard, a last search for either of the men to their side. All he could see were waves curling and tossing and spraying their anger at the ships that remained on the surface. His eyes set on where he had seen the turret of the U-boat, saw only more waves, curling into malevolent swirls, the shape of two massive eyes rising from the water. Turner’s sea monster approached.

Paul fell to his knees, pressed his head against the rail, shook violently and began to cry. He tried closing his eyes but could still see the monster coming towards them, ready to drag them down and devour. It went on until two large hands clamped his shoulders and Petty Officer Drake snarled into his ear.

“Lieutenant! Get on your fucking feet!”

 

1947

It was in a different gallery. The museum had been hit by bombs and the paintings were hung on other walls when they were returned from storage. They stood at the entrance to the room and looked for the painting. Paul hoped it had been left in storage, but Muriel tugged gently at his arm.

“It’s over there.”

“I can see.”

“Closer.”

Muriel pulled gently and led him towards the canvass, causing his heart to shake a little with every step. He stopped halfway across the room

“I can’t,” he said.

“You must.” Muriel’s voice was gentle but insistent. “If you want to break that fear, escape those sleepless nights.”

“It’s bringing it all back. I can feel it now.”

“It needs one moment of bravery, that’s all.”

She tugged again. They took small steps towards the canvass. At first he fixed his eyes on the top of the image, the yellows in which sunlight fought with clouds. Maybe he could ignore the sea monster, pretend he had faced it. But Muriel knew better.

“Look down,” she said. “You know where it is.”

His eyes swelled, wanting to cry and run, but he couldn’t do that his sister. She had endured his nightmares, and the conscious moments of tearful terror. He forced himself to look downwards at the two big fish. The vision twisted into the large, evil eyes that he had seen from the deck of the Portcullis. For a moment he endured the fear, then stepped back.

“I can’t!”

Big hands gripped his shoulders.

“You can. It’s only a picture. Lieutenant, just look at it.”

He knew the voice. The man relaxed the grip on Paul’s shoulders. He turned to look at Petty Officer Drake. For a moment their faces were close enough to feel each other’s breath. Paul flinched and took one step back. Drake’s face was hard, but there was no sign of the snarl that had inflicted the final wound on the ship’s deck. There was even a glint of sympathy in his eyes.

“What are you doing here?”

“I found him,” said Muriel. “You’ve told us the story, I knew his name. The Navy helped me find him.”

“Why?”

Drake spoke quietly.

“Look at the picture Lieutenant.”

“Why would you tell me to do that? You can see I’m afraid. You’ve seen me, when I …..”

Words garbled in Paul’s mouth. Tears threatened to rise.

“Don’t say it,” said Drake. “That was five years ago. You don’t have to say it.”

“But I cracked. I collapsed into cowardice.”

Paul felt Muriel squeeze his hand.

“You’re no coward,” said Drake. “I know of your record before you joined the Portcullis, when your other ship was strafed by German planes, and you stood at your post on deck directing the anti-aircraft fire. Then when it was torpedoed, the captain lost, and you saw half the crew into the lifeboats. You were the last man off the ship. And I know you were on other convoys when vessels were lost, men died. You endured for two years.”

“And then I broke!”

“All of us can break. We’ve only got so much courage and in the end it gets used up.”

“That’s what the psychiatrist told me, but they never depended on me.”

“That’s what I’m telling you. I broke, a year later, when the Portcullis went down south of Iceland. I made it to one of the boats, but I watched men die, then listened to others as they cried for help in the dark. When dawn came and there was no other ship in sight I cracked, sobbed myself silly in front of seven seamen and a first lieutenant. Cried on and off for thirty hours until we were picked up. And then I felt broken and pathetic and I was no use to anyone for months.”

“You?”

“Yes me.”

Paul looked into Drake’s eyes and recognised the lingering hint of shame that he saw in his own. But there was also a glint of resolution.

“I recovered,” said Drake. “Worked in supplies at Plymouth for a while, then transferred to the Coast Guard and patrolled the Channel for the last year of the war. And your sister says that you spent two years in Naval Intelligence. I know you must have done good work or else they would have thrown you out in weeks.”

“And that was enough?”

“Of course. We did a dangerous job to our limits then we broke. We were wounded, not in our arms or legs but our minds, and we needed time to recover. Then when the wounds healed we did what we could, carried out our duty.”

“But, breaking down … the fear ….”

“We can’t change that, we live with it, but we carry on. Both of us have done that, but maybe you can’t see.”

“Maybe.”

Paul realised that Drake had succeeded in something that had eluded him for five years; shown he was still entitled to his pride.

“Look at the picture Lieutenant.”

Paul turned back to the canvass, took a couple of steps closer to the canvass and stared. The sea monster glared. Paul flinched, but forced himself to stand still and keep his eyes fixed on the monster’s malevolence. Again he felt the fear, but he looked hard at the picture, deeper into the monster. He began to examine the lines, smears of paint, scratches, tiny details that the artist had used to create a sense of danger. Then the fear began to recede. The monster faded, flattening into swirls of paint on canvass. Paul held his gaze and felt himself steady, that he was taking control.

“It’s just a painting,” he said. “It’s disturbing, effective, but it’s just a painting.”

Muriel touched his hand. Drake moved to his other side and passed judgement.

“A painting? It looks like a bloody mess to me.”

Brother and sister laughed. Then Muriel and Drake stepped back and wandered around the room while Paul stood looking at the monster, his fear draining away, acknowledging there was nothing that could hurt him. The war was over; there was no need for the nightmares. Then he turned, caught the eyes of his sister and the petty officer, and all three moved to the centre of the room.

“Thank you,” said Paul. “Now I think I owe both of you some tea and cake.”

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