Extract from: ‘Every Man for Himself’ by Beryl Bainbridge, 1996. Duckworth

by

“The orchestra had decamped to the deck outside. And in spite of the cold the cellist wore no gloves and I marveled that he managed to hold his bow so steady on the strings.  There was terrible confusion below, the passageways jammed with people, their possessions stowed in pillowcases slung across their shoulders.  In the public lounge an untidy circle of men and women surrounded a priest reciting the rosary

Coming to a bend in the passage near the dormitories, we had to flatten ourselves against the tiled wall as a dozen or more stokers, faces black with grease and some carrying shovels, swept headlong past.  I couldn’t help contrasting their subterranean hell with the Eden above, where, under the twinkling stars, they paced to the swoon of violins.

I was told that once on the boat deck to climb the companionway up to the officers’ house which was forward of the first funnel.  There were seamen on the roof, struggling to release the collapsible.  I could hear the orchestra which was playing rag-time to raise our spirits then the orchestra changed tune and struck up a hymn, it was a favourite … E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me, Still all my song shall be, Nearer my God to Thee, Nearer to Thee.

And now, the moment was almost upon us.  The stern began to lift from the water.  The hymn turned ragged; ceased altogether.  The musicians scrambled upwards, the spike of the cello scraping the deck.  Clinging to the rung of the ladder I tried to climb to the roof but there was such a sideways slant that I waved like a flag on a pole.  I thought I must make a leap for it.  The water, first slithering, then tumbling, over us.

The ship staggered and tipped, a great volume of water flowed over the submerged bows and tossed me like a cork to the roof.  My fingers touched some kind of bolt near the ventilation grille, and I grabbed it tight.  I filled my lungs with air and fixed my eyes on the blurred horizon, determined to hang on until I was sure I could float free rather than be swilled back and forth in a maelstrom.  I wouldn’t waste my strength in swimming, not yet, for I knew the ship was now my enemy and if I wasn’t vigilant would drag me with her to the grave.

I waited for the next slithering dip and when it came and the waves rushed in and swept me higher, I released my grip and let myself be carried away, over the tangle of ropes and wires and davits, clear of the rails and out into the darkness.  I heard the angry roaring of the dying ship, the deafening cacophony as she stood on end and all her guts tore loose.  I choked on soot and cringed beneath the sparks dancing like fire-flies as the forward funnel broke and smashed the sea in two.  I was sucked under, as I knew I would be, down, down, and still I waited, waited until the pull slackened – then I struck out with all my strength.

I don’t know how long I swam under that lidded sea – time had stopped with my breath – and just as it seemed as if my lungs would burst the blackness paled and I kicked to the surface.  I had thought I was entering paradise, for I was alive and about to breathe again”

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