What if the world turned wrong one day and the deep sea gave up its dead?
What would we of the land's end spy? A hundred thousand pale corpses, bobbing like fishermen's floats in the green swell? Several millions, from chain-mailed Norman lords to the black-clad crews of Spanish galleons, from ladies in silk ballgowns who went down on liners to poor Connacht fishermen swept overboard in the lonely nights by sudden swinging booms? And flaunty yachtsmen, cocksure but capsized by white squalls, the implacable destroyers of pretty boats?
Would the endless waters become a sort of peat bog on which, stepping so carefully, we might walk from here all the way to America? Would the corpses' eyes be open, watching and resentful? Or would they be closed tight as a baby's at the moment of birth?
This isn't a decent vision. It's one I would not have. But it has been with me for years, sometimes asleep and sometimes awake.
The worst ever was the night I was loving my first boy for the first time, my breath going into him and his into me, skin to skin and my skin shimmering with pleasure, when suddenly the thought of the sea giving up its dead came and made me feel like one of the drowned ones, perfectly preserved by the cold and dark, but dead, and senseless. The boy drew away from me.
It was my grandda Rawney Moss's curse, though I doubt he ever knew he put it on me.
On calm nights, when the soft wash of the sea on the shingle of our bay seemed like the whispers of a dream, my grandda told me stories of the ocean's dead. I was little and never doubted the answers to the questions I asked. We lived at the far side of Cobh, seaward from the quay and the lofty dun cathedral that loomed above it, close to where the water met the shore. Cobh is at the head of Cork Harbor. A dark place, Cobh. The coffin ships sailed from there overburdened with convicts for Australia, later with those fleeing the Famine for America. So many never arrived. Only God knows where those rotten hulks packed with ragged, hungry Irish folk and their kids went down. The doomed Titanic made its last landfall at Cobh, then steamed west (and cut north) toward an iceberg that nobody saw until too late. And it's Cobh soil covering most of the eight hundred bodies from the torpedoed Lusitania.
Plenty of ghosts to scare a little girl. Plenty of tales for an old man to tell before the girl drifted into sleep to the droning of his voice and the gentle sweep of waves over the pebbled beach.
My grandda had somewhere acquired the belief that the sea becomes denser and denser under the pressure of its own vast weight the deeper you go. So nothing could ever sink all the way to the bottom in blue water. The lightest wrack from a sunken ship-china plates, ladies' satin slippers, monogrammed tortoiseshell hairbrushes, an infant's silver teething ring-remained forever in a layer at four or five hundred feet down, just where all the light vanishes and the abyssal cold begins. Perhaps a few hundred feet lower was an unstirring mass of all the drowned, little children at the top, women next, and then the heavier men. A thousand feet deeper would be old cannons, cargo crates filled with goods of iron and brass and lead, the hulls of small ships whose backs had been broken by huge waves. Finally, at four thousand feet or so by Rawney's reckoning, there'd be the monstrous wrecks-the Titanic and the Lusitania, the Bismarck and the Hood-frozen in the black cold, held fast by the thickened ocean.
The layers never rose, never fell, never so much as trembled even if Force Ten storms raged above.
And so the bottoms of the great seas were as tidy as a well-scythed hurling field, except that instead of rich green grass there was sand, every grain fixed eternally in its appointed place.
My grandda said ordinary fishermen of the coasts hadn't the nets to trawl at such depths, and would have had a mortal fear of doing that anyway. So the sea hid and preserved the remains of all disasters. But recently, he told me, Jap and Russki factory ships with miles-long nets were going deeper than anyone before, scraping the secret layers. Sometimes even hauling in the wrinkled little bodies of children drowned a hundred years ago, bodies that gleamed whitely amidst the writhing mess of pollock and halibut. The Japs and the Russkis tried to keep this quiet-they were damned high and low for raping the seas as it was-but Rawney had heard what he had heard. "From them that know," he said. They put the children's bodies in weighted canvas bags and sent them down again, to a deeper place than the one from which they'd been so rudely disturbed.
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