They gathered on the quarter deck at the change of watch. The wind had come down for the first time in weeks and above them the vast rigging hemmed and hawed as if in a state of quandary. Two days ago they’d lost Jackson as he went aloft to replace the port lower-topsail sheet in the kind of monstrous swell the southern oceans were famous for. He’d had a length of chain and rope around his neck and those that saw him go said there was but one splash. He never surfaced.
‘Straight down he went,’ said Maddox, a bullish fresh-faced lad from London. ‘Never came up for even a gasp of air.’
It was Jackson’s sea chest they were stood around that evening.
‘Let’s not waste time ‘ere,’ said the Captain, a rotund mountain of a man from Cornwall. ‘There’s business to be done and no sense in dilly-dallying,’ and with that he flipped the chest open unceremoniously with his boot, its contents then apparent before them.
Crenshaw did not need to see what was in there to know what he wanted, nay needed, such that he’d spend his last bob and arrive back in England skint to acquire them. Jackson’s oilskins. His own were split and frayed beyond salvage and many was the night he’d gone to bed soaked to the skin, as when all about you there is wind and water and the blown spume and frigid temperatures, the only way to dry your clothes out was to sleep in them. Well sod that, he thought to himself. No more. Not one more bleeding night.
They’d become close mates. Crenshaw slept on the bunk above him and they shared the watch. Six on six off for the last 8 months. Jesus Christ, you’d either get close with someone or you’d kill them, he supposed. The work was brutally hard, he’d expected that. But he had not factored in the lack of sleep, the terrible food, the endless harassment of the officers and the incredible ferocity of the wind and the enormity of the waves in the southern ocean. The plodding schedule that left men half-dead, unaware if it were day or night, not that it mattered in those latitudes where there were only degrees of grey. They were a crew of 36 on a ship that would’ve carried 90 just ten years previous. The war had sapped the spirit of adventure for many young men and the companies no longer wanted to pay out wages for near a hundred.
He and Jackson had thought there’d be respite in Australia but there was only the mindless heat and wild-eyed stevedores with faces blasted red by the sun, and sad-looking black fellas that walked around the dusty streets like whipped dogs and watery beer that left a rancid taste in his mouth. Not a woman to be seen in all of South Australia he had thought. He was relieved when the last of the grain went ashore and the unload was finished. A small steamer towed them out to sea.
There was little of note in the chest. Some wool socks and thumb worn books. Clothes in no better or worse shape than his own. Jackson’s ditty bag and knife and spike had gone down with him. No, Crenshaw had his eye on the prize. Let the others squabble over the scraps.
The bidding was fierce, but he was not going to lose. He’d come up fighting on dingy, coal blackened streets and though this wasn’t going to be resolved with his fists it was that same stray-mongrel mentality that got him those oilskins in the end. He barely considered the months wages they cost him.
Later that night the wind rose again. A rip-roaring gale that made the rigging shriek and saw them buck and toss on the tarry swell like they were a small skiff and not a thousand-ton steel clipper with 100 miles of rope and rigging.
‘It’s the southern oceans last chance to claim us,’ said the bosun, knowing they were approaching the calmer waters of the equator. Crenshaw and eight others went aloft in the pitch black to take in the fore royal and upper t’gallant, feeling more than seeing their way. The wind and rain lashed at them pitilessly as they laid out on the yard 120’ above the deck. The oilskins fit him well and did not restrict his movement.
Back on deck and it was straight up the main to take in the royal there. They punched and pressed their fists into that billowing canvas and a gasket whipped taut by the wind caught him in the eye and he put his head down and bellowed into that rigid sail as loud as he could, but neither man to his left or right could hear a whimper for the cacophony about them already.
After watch, Crenshaw only just managed to shuck his new oilskins before collapsing into his bunk. His eye continued to weep. He hoped it would not get infected. As if this job weren’t hard enough, doing it one-eyed would be near impossible, but showing up back home with an eye patch, now that would be a lark. His new bunk was the lower, just two nights previous warmed by his dead shipmates’ body. He thought of him then, in the seconds before he fell asleep. He was dry and his shipmate was wet and would never not be. Pinned there on the sea bed 1000 fathoms deep with all that weight about his neck like a marionette dancing a dead man’s jig, it’s strings pulled and slacked, fast or slow according to the fickle moods of the ocean currents.
Crenshaw slept soundly that night. He thought little of his friend thereafter.