The Change of the Watch

For four days the stunted little warship had writhed and hammered her way through the green bowels of the storm until the most hardened member found himself praying. In their selfish agony a few prayed for death, little caring its cause or how many would die in its accomplishment. Men of sterner stuff prayed for respite and peace.

The watch-keeper descended the steep steel ladder, his glistening black oilskins stiffly standing out from his body as if shunning contact, while his smooth-heeled sea-boots skidded in the shallow, dirty water that was sloshing back and forth in the passageway, in time with the rhythm of the ship. His face, beneath four day’s growth of beard, was weathered to rawness and his fingers were pallid and stiff where they protruded from the over-long sleeves of his coat. He steadied his lurching body before the sliding door of the steel compartment that thrummed like a biscuit tin under the pounding of irritant fingers, braced himself against the fetid smell that he knew would heap nausea upon nausea and pushed back the door. A bucket hung stiffly on a rope from the deck-head, arcing to and fro like a stuttering pendulum in tempo with the buffeting hull, while an excess of heavily laden hammocks, suspended above like strung maize, mimicked the jerking pail.

Entering this sordid home of his to waken his relief, and then to try to sleep, he cursed as he always cursed his existence, where privacy and freshness were highlights shining from the past, or beacons of the future, where the present was dull, grey and featureless, and where it could be conceivable that the stale, greasy smell of sailors’ hot cocoa could herald warmth, comfort and a change of mood.

He shook the hammock above him and waited for the familiar wakening pattern to unfold. The grunt, the stretch, the short staccato oath and then the appearance of the grey sea-boot socks as the long legs bestraddled the hammock to be bumped alternately by the swing of the exhausted bundles on either side. While he waited for the next phase, he looked down and absentmindedly watched the articles on the Mess table skate back and forth, and with senses long since deadened felt neither surprise nor criticism as one of the stockinged feet descended to squash flat the wedge of margarine as it too tobogganed on its saucer across the table top beneath the hammocks. The face that looked down at him was bruised with exhaustion and sucked dry with fatigue.

“God save me from looking like that!” he thought.

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