“Not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment.”
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Kevin, Michael and I had just left the bar that night and were about to go our separate ways when we bumped into Jimmy in the mist, alone, in commune with the Thames. We had lost track of him soon after the war. Like us Jimmy was hardly fifty years old, yet he already had the emaciated look of an old man. He stank, like all those who sleep rough. We learn to recognise defeat. And defeated we are, in spite of any victory, all of us who were there. There is the Falklands. And we, now, swept under the rug. In Jimmy we could see the downtrodden guy who once, like us, had been young and, being a sailor, thought he was part of a grand tradition. One of us. But the sea, we have also learned, will always find a way to drown our hopes and desires. For the sea had made him an outcast. And us seafaring men, without a boat, are homeless.1 I think I said so already: Jimmy came talking by himself. Scraps of sentences, rising and falling. Sounded like prayer. He stopped suddenly, staring at us. Right in the eyes. But his gaze wasn’t for us. We slowly realised they were names he was reciting. In Spanish. Argie names. He knew them by heart. Each name he sent out into the darkness. But not one was answered.
– The Great Fish, we heard him say.
– Jimmy was not drunk.
– And this is his story.
My father, a parish priest, Jimmy told us. After being sent to Manchester he became convinced that he was Jonah, and Manchester, Nineveh. A messenger from the Lord. With a special calling: to propagate the faith. I was altar boy and caretaker in that temple with a roof of corrugated iron. Poor sod. He was eventually forsaken by his grumbling parishioners, ordinary working men. How to convince them there was a God when there was no bread. My mother, a cleaning lady in a school that looked more like a reformatory. And our narrow, two-storey home: the smell of fry-ups, footsteps on the stairs like nails being hammered into a coffin, TV laughter, an old fox terrier whose stench rose from the cushions, a scrawny, pimpled girlfriend with dyed-blue hair. We moved to London. My mother cleaned the latrines in a lunatic asylum in Bayswater. Better than nothing as the Iron Lady was closing factories, the newspapers reported there were two million unemployed, or three, and, meanwhile, Irish prisoners were dying on hunger strike. My father considered the move another sign from God: London, his new Nineveh. The Lord never ceased sending him signs. The Lord God and gin, too. At this stage his devotion to gin was equally fervid. He would drink until tadpoles, iguanas and snakes were crawling all over his body. My mother would shake her big behind and the loonies in the asylum would go wild. I got a job in a launderette run by a Hindu. My father wound up in a grotty hospital. I visited him one afternoon. What did I know about the whore of Babylon, he asked me. I didn’t answer. Nor did he insist. The last thing a man should lose is his faith, he said. I’m not clamorous for pardon, Lord. And am grateful for punishment. Even now run low, I preserve my faith. I told him that I had gotten into the Royal Navy. That I had been assigned to a submarine. As I was leaving he grabbed me by the hand. Little more than bone. If God chooses to test us, we cannot avoid it, he told me. He was hallucinating: Jonah, he called me. I was refusing to heed the signs, he told me. For him it was clear: the Great Fish. I said I would be back. Next time I went to the hospital, my father was no longer there. His last bottle and his life were finished on some corner of Park Lane.
London was Dickensian once more, if indeed it had ever ceased to be so.
At first Jimmy found it hard to believe not only that he had been accepted into the Royal Navy – but his destiny also. He wondered whether his father had foreseen what he was refusing to accept. Whether the submarine was nothing less than the sign sent by God, Almighty Father. Whether the submarine was the proof necessary for the son to convince himself of the existence of God and so take up the work left undone by the father. And if this was the case, then what? He preferred not to follow that line of thought. Besides, in the first place it suited him to think that if God did exist He surely would have paid out on the promissory note of faith his father held.
Fuck Nineveh, he decided.
His were routine missions: keeping an eye on the Soviets in the North Sea. He grew bored. The important thing: having forgotten his father’s prophecy. He was part of a team now, a member of an epic national enterprise: the Royal Navy. I think I said so already: one of us, etcetera. At times he was beset by anxiety: he couldn’t wait for the chance to become a hero. Hatches closed. Lump in the throat, impending glory.
Some guys come back from a war and never mention it again. Others, for whom it was the defining moment of their lives, never stop exaggerating the role they played, aggrandising their anecdotes and collecting souvenirs. Michael is one of these guys. He loves documentaries and books about the Falklands. Michael knows the Falklands war by heart. And, by extension, the specs of our submarine. Every chance he gets, in any given conversation, and quite unsolicited, he fires off the specs. Ninety metres long, with a ten metre beam and a nine metre draft, the nuclear class submarine Churchill Conqueror, the Great Fish, was launched from Cammel Laird shipyard in Birkenhead. It came equipped with six torpedo tubes that fired Mark 8s, Mark 24s and harpoon missiles. Submerged it had a top speed of twenty-eight knots. Its crew: one hundred sailors. Us, among them. The objective: to spy on the movements of the Soviet naval fleet. In April 1982 it was anchored in Faslane naval base. Until one day we received orders sending us into action. Our objective now was to keep watch on the Argentine fleet and in particular the Belgrano, which was patrolling south-east of the Falklands.
Some Argie military men were looking to save themselves and hang onto power by forging national unity through war. It was said that the Iron Lady was motivated by much the same concerns. Jimmy paid no attention. He didn’t care about politics. When our commanding officers told us of our destination, several of us wondered what the Argies were up to invading the Shetlands. We thought those islands must be close to the Shetlands. Why not invade sunny Barbados instead.
He hoped he would rise to the occasion. Kevin was in charge of sonar, and Jimmy, of torpedoes. They were the first to report that our target was within striking distance. The Belgrano was refuelling at sea. A satellite had detected the petrol tanker Rosales, easy to pick up due to its diesel engines. Michael identified the target on his screen. We closed in. We rose up to the surface the minimum required for the use of the periscope. In addition to the Belgrano and the Rosales, the destroyer Piedrabuena was also in the vicinity. We reported back to London and received orders to shadow the Belgrano. We were to await further orders. Two days later, on a Sunday afternoon, before nightfall, from almost two kilometres, the submarine fired its torpedoes. Jimmy fired them.
Michael, the history buff with the obsessive enthusiasm of a stamp collector, seeks to fill out the story. He can remember every detail of Pearl Harbour. The Phoenix came from the yards of New York Shipbuilding. One hundred and eighty-five metres long, with a twenty-one metre beam and a seven metre draft. Fifteen cannon, three in each of its five towers. Eight anti-air missiles. Twenty-eight Bofors guns. Twenty-four twenty millimetre cannon. A hangar that could accommodate four planes. Two four-rail Sea Cat missile launchers. It was launched one Sunday in 1938. Not soon after, it anchored in Argentine waters on its maiden voyage. Some years later it survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. One might call it superstition but Sunday was the day of Pearl Harbour and Sunday, too, would be the day of its destruction. At Pearl Harbour it fought back but managed to stay out of the way of Japanese bombs. It was ordered to pursue the enemy aircraft carriers. Subsequently during the war it participated in various missions. It came to glory in the Philippines. It inflicted serious casualties on the Japanese navy. Once the war was over it was bought by Peron. You will have heard of that copycat Mussolini. Changing the name of a boat is not recommended. It’s bad luck. The Argies should have known better. Its name came from popular lore: the 17th of October. Yet it didn’t last. A different set of military men, friends of the Americans who fancied themselves true democrats, bombarded a square full of civilians. And they used the 17th of October – now under another name, that of a revolutionary hero – to land in Buenos Aires and overthrow the tyrant. The rebellious generals were no better than the tyrant, but that’s another story.
If it is true that changing the name of a ship is to be eschewed, the Argies were certainly tempting fate. The Phoenix had undergone two further baptisms. Two Sundays, two baptisms, two torpedoes. It was damned from the very moment it had changed flags. And its destiny was sealed that evening in ’82 when two torpedoes from the Conqueror sank it in less than fourty minutes. There were one hundred and twenty kilometre and hour winds and waves twelve metres high, the temperature was ten below. The Phoenix was positioned east of the Isla de los Estados and south of the Falklands. From over one thousand crew members, more than three hundred lost their lives.
The sea was choppy and the torpedoes were travelling at a depth of five metres. The Argies couldn’t see them coming. Walking along a corridor, a sailor felt an explosion. The whole ship shuddered. The floor shook. The lights went off. Pitch black. Deafening silence. Someone shouting: “Take it easy, it’s nothing.” Between the first and the second explosion, thirty seconds. The first torpedo struck the after machine room, close to the mess and sleeping quarters. The dead, the injured. The nauseating smell of petrol. The blast tears upward, ripping a fifteen metre chimney that cuts through five decks. Thirty seconds. The second torpedo lands on the bow. A column of water and iron is thrown up into the air. Fifteen metres of hull disappear. Afterwards it will be said that of the three hundred people who died on the Belgrano the majority went in the first blast. As the first life rafts are deployed by the crew, the order to abandon ship has yet to be issued. Wrapped in flames, naked sailors writhe screaming. Their comrades try to blanket them, but it’s too late. The Belgrano lists to one side, the life rafts continue falling into the sea, the sailors jump. The Belgrano is sinking. A thick black cloud a silhouette on a grey sky. The shipwrecked try to put distance between themselves and the ship. They might be sucked down with it when it goes. At five in the evening, as the survivors drift away from the Belgrano, they watch it submerge. In less than fourty minutes there only remain the floating bodies of the survivors and the rafts. Night is falling.
They can make out a few escorting vessels. But the ships withdraw fearing they are under attack. A few hours later the rafts are tossed about in a storm. The waves threaten to capsize them and hinder attempts to attend to the wounded. The sailors are vomiting. They struggle to close over the canvas roofs. The temperature drops. No-one sleeps a wink on a tempestuous night. Waves over ten metres high. The life rafts fill with water. The men use their footwear to bail them out. Nipping, biting cold. The shipwrecked urinate in plastic bags meant for collecting water to avail of the warmth. The wind sweeps the rafts towards the Antarctic.
Meanwhile, the Conqueror, employing the tactics of any submarine after an attack, leaves the area so as to avoid detection by enemy forces that might come to their aid.
When the submarine was safely out of danger, some wondered where Jimmy was. We found him. In his bunk, in a foetal position, murmuring. The Great Fish, he whispered. Lord forgive me, me whispered. He was holding his head in his hands, blocking his ears.
When Jimmy had finished telling us his version of the story, we tried to console him. He took out a Bible. He showed it to us. I wanted to tell him that the soul’s salvation cannot depend on a book. Especially one of fables. Michael, too, kept quiet. Despite all his knowledge of naval battles he was lost for words. Kevin sought to console Jimmy by humouring him: when all is said and done, it was those torpedoes that brought democracy to Nineveh. History advances over a sea of bodies. He looked at us as if in forgiveness. He receded into the mist mumbling more names.