September, North Sea
“The wonder is always new that any sane man can be a sailor”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Pregnant with violence, dark with menace, the squall slid over the northern horizon like the anger of a Nordic god.
'That looks ugly,' Lauren nodded urgently toward the storm and nearly smiled at the expression on Kenny's face. 'I hope you don't get seasick!'
'Where the hell did that come from?' Kenny clutched at the side of the boat, staring at the black clouds that piled one on another in a multi-layered promise of gales and rain. He saw lightning flicker within the darkness, reflecting from the intervening sea, and he narrowed thoughtful eyes. Around them the waves rose in a sullen swell, ominously smooth, nearly oily but each one larger than its predecessor. 'It wasn't there a moment ago!'
Twenty two foot long and open save for the tiny wheelhouse in the bow, the fishing boat offered little protection against the weather. Already water was slopping inboard, splashing around their ankles in a cold foretaste of what was to come. In the past few minutes the movement increased from a slow, regular rise and fall to an irregular, plunging jerk.
'It looks like a bad one,' Lauren only had to glance at the approaching storm one more time; 'I think we'd best return.'
'You'll get no argument from me,' Kenny agreed quickly, 'and the sooner the better.' He began to pull in the fishing rods, staggering as a rogue wave broke on the stern.
Grinning briefly, Lauren took the two steps forward to the tiny wheelhouse-cum-cabin. 'The North Sea can be like that; one minute all balmy fine, the next it's a force eight and chucking it down.'
'I prefer the balmy bit,' Kenny clattered the long rods to the bottom of the boat. 'Look at that sky! It's going crazy!'
The dark band had expanded across the entire horizon, completely obscuring the secure pencil of the Bell Rock Lighthouse and blotting out anything beyond. It advanced rapidly on them, bringing unseasonably stinging hail and a wind that screamed its hate around their ears. Lauren raised her voice above the increasing wail. 'You'd best come in here, Kenny.'
He crouched in the meagre shelter of the wheelhouse as she pressed the self-starter. The engine coughed once, twice, gunned into life and then died with an apologetic grunt.
'Try again,' Kenny ordered. He glanced over his shoulder, where the darkness was already spreading, advancing visibly toward them. Sleet battered from the fibreglass body of the boat, bounced in the interior and rattled from the roof of the wheelhouse. 'Hurry up, Lauren; it's a monsoon out there!'
'It's something, anyway.' Lauren pressed the starter again, swearing frantically when the engine failed to respond. 'What the hell's wrong with this thing?'
'You're the expert,' Kenny reminded, 'you tell me!' He looked backward again, flinching as the storm clouds visibly increased in size so they rose endlessly upward, black and grey, tinged with an angry red that he had seldom seen before and with those flashes of lightning illuminating an interior that seemed more ominous with each passing minute.
Pushing past him, Lauren opened the access hatch and peered at the engine. 'I can't see anything wrong!' She shouted above the rising scream of the wind. 'Everything's connected and there's nothing broken.'
Peering helplessly over her shoulder, Kenny shrugged. 'It all looks OK to me. Try again!'
She did so, growing more frustrated with every failed attempt. 'It's no use,' she decided, 'it's buggered.' She looked at Kenny for a moment, flicking damp auburn hair from her eyes. 'We can either sit it out or call for help. They might send the Broughty Ferry lifeboat out for us.'
'Do that then,' there was genuine fear in Kenny's voice. He looked around, where the waves were now rising higher than the top of the wheelhouse, spattering spindrift and hissing as they passed. The darkness was advancing at speed, rolling over the sea, blotting out the light, pressing down upon them as if intent to thrust them into the depths of the waves. He heard thunder growling, and then it cracked like Neptune's wrath, calling the horrors of Hades onto the helpless boat. 'Jesus! What's happening here?'
'God knows; I've never seen anything like this before!' Lauren stared at the onrushing storm, wet hair clinging to her head, mouth slightly open and her eyes narrowed against the stinging sleet and spindrift. She knew that at any other time Kenny would have been distracted by the manner in which the sodden tee-shirt clung to her curves, but now the clouds mesmerised him.
'Call them, Lauren, for Christ's sake!'
'I've been sailing since I was eight,' Lauren spoke rapidly, glancing from the storm front to Kenny and back, 'and I've never called for help before. I checked that engine before we left!'
'Just call,' Kenny pleaded. 'Look at the weather and call for help!'
In the few moments since Lauren had been working on the engine, the dark clouds had closed, racing upon them with inexorable speed. The sleet and hail increased, hammering from the hull, clattering from the wheelhouse and battering into the clutching waves as if a malevolent sea god was hurling handfuls of hate.
'For God's sake,' Lauren blasphemed as she lifted the handset, 'I've never seen it get so bad so quickly!' Depressing the buttons, she looked at Kenny over her shoulder. 'Nothing's happening!' She tried again, fighting to keep the panic from her voice. 'Nothing; it's dead,' she shook her head, mouth open. 'There's nothing at all, Kenny, not even static.'
'There must be something …'
'There's nothing, I told you!' Anxiety shortened Lauren's temper so she snarled at him. 'It's dead.' Taking a deep breath, 'we'll have to try a flare.'
'You've got flares?'
There were four in the plastic screw top tub, two red handheld flares and two orange handheld smoke flares.
'They're for inshore use,' Lauren explained, so it's best to use them when we can see something definite, a ship or even the land.'
Kenny examined one. 'How do they work?'
'You wear that glove there' Lauren indicated a thick gardening glove, 'twist the top and hold it up; you have to be careful for falling bits; they'll burn your hand. The light can be seen for three miles.'
'Go on, then!' He urged her.
She fumbled the flare, nearly dropping it, but moved to the exposed stern, twisted off the cap and held it high. The light was shockingly intense, lasting for a little over half a minute, and when it died away they felt lonelier and more vulnerable than ever.
They looked at each other as Lauren hugged the remaining flares to her like a mother with a new born baby. 'Please God somebody saw it!'
'There are still three left,' Kenny pointed out.
'We'll save them in case we see another vessel.' There was no colour in her face. 'Let's get back into the wheelhouse.'
'Jesus,' Kenny stared toward the land, now invisible behind a screen of cloud and sleet. Their tiny boat was alone in a sea that heaved and boiled, shuddering under the onslaught of what was already a blizzard and promised to become much worse. 'What happens now?'
Lauren took a deep breath. 'Now we pray, Kenny' she said quietly. 'Now we pray like we've never prayed before.' Ducking out of the wheelhouse she looked around, shook her head and returned with water sluicing from her face and her hair lying in lank tendrils that dripped down her slim shoulders. 'Although I doubt even that will help.'
'I didn't know you were religious …' but when Kenny saw the expression of naked fear on her face he knew she had passed the point of disbelief. 'Oh Jesus: is it that bad?'
She said nothing, slumping onto the single seat in front of the wheel and staring at him, so he huddled at her side. Her hand slid around his shoulder, holding tight and he slipped his fingers inside hers.
'This was meant to be a fun trip,' Lauren's voice was surprisingly calm, 'just you and me alone for a while.' She was quiet for a long minute as the wind increased in volume and the darkness closed on them. 'I'm sorry, Kenny.'
'It's hardly your fault.' Suddenly it did not matter. They were about to die out there on the sea, and all his fears and worries were irrelevant. Nothing was important save the wind and the sea and the small hand that gripped his fingers so securely. 'How long have we known each other?'
'All our lives.' Lauren's voice was small, sounding as if it came from a long distance. 'Hold me tight.'
The fishing boat was out of control, rising and swooping at the whim of waves that seemed to have no pattern, so one second they were staring over a maelstrom of screaming waves, with white froth stretching to the black clouds, the next they were deep in the chasm of the swell, facing a wall of shining green water marbled with creamy white.
'Look.' Lauren pointed as they rose again, so the wind crashed into them, whipping the words from her mouth. 'Oh dear God, would you just look at that!'
The cloud had reached them. Dark and unbelievably solid, it formed a barrier that stretched as far upward as they could see and stretched right around so they appeared to be in the vortex of a cyclone.
'What the hell is happening here? This is Scotland, not Star Trek!' Kenny felt Lauren's hand crushing his fingers as she stared around her. 'I've never seen anything like this before.'
'Nor have I.' the clouds were moving anti-clockwise in a slow, dizzying swirl that was almost hypnotic and would have been beautiful save for the utter menace they carried. 'Try the radio again.'
Lauren did so, pressing buttons and turning dials in increasing panic. 'It's not working Kenny; nothing's working! What do we do now? What the hell do we do now?'
She felt him looking at her as if he had never seen her before in his life. Five foot five and shapely, she had always been a livewire, full of energy he could only admire and zest he tried to emulate. Now she was wet, cold and frightened, with her hair plastered like a mesh across her face, her voice rising and her breathing short and shallow.
'We think,' he told her.
Lauren nodded, surprised how calm he sounded when she only wanted to scream and hide in the bottom of the boat. 'You're right. But first we should put on something warmer. Did you bring foul weather gear like I said?'
Two zipped up bags in the locker contained bright orange weatherproof clothing that they slipped on over their sodden jeans and tee-shirts. 'Our body heat will soon warm us up in these,' Lauren was calmer now, using her nautical experience.
'It suits you,' Kenny tried to grin, but even the sight of her wallowing in orange could not diminish his fear.
'And you.' He was taller than her but surprisingly vulnerable out here, where she had more knowledge and skill. 'Kenny,' reaching forward, she touched his arm, pointing urgently into the middle of the clouds, 'would you look at that?'
'What?' Kenny turned round and stared. 'What in God's name is it?'
Looming through the darkness of the storm, it towered high above the tiny fishing boat. Eighty, ninety, a hundred feet high and three times as long, it gleamed white and blue, with a dark green band where it met the leaping waves.
'It's like an iceberg,' Lauren felt her heart hammering inside her chest. 'But you don't get icebergs in the North Sea.'
'You do now,' Kenny said quietly. 'And it's coming straight for us.' He looked at her, twisting his mouth into the semblance of a smile. 'Maybe we should start to pray even harder.'
'Maybe we should.' With neither engine nor radio, Lauren could only watch as the iceberg emerged from the gloom of the clouds. She shook her head, hoping she was mistaken and it was only a trick of the light, but she knew that she was not. It closed inexorably, a mountain of ice, blue tinged and with the sea splintering along the green banded base, sending spindrift high above, to hover uncertainly before descending, joining the sleet that continued to cascade upon them.
'It's going to hit us,' Lauren heard the false calm of hysteria in her voice. She tried to smile to Kenny, 'on your first ever fishing trip too.'
Kenny pressed against the far side of the small boat as if the few feet of distance would save him. 'Maybe we can swim ashore? Or paddle? Do you have any oars?'
She shook her head, surprised that she could appear so controlled when she wanted to scream in terror. The sea was leaping, with white frothed waves lunging at the boat as if determined to capsize them and drag them under. 'We wouldn't last a minute in that, and I've never had any need for oars before.'
They could only watch as the iceberg approached, and instinct drove them together so they held hands as the monster towered above them, high as a four storey building, dangerous but strangely beautiful as the seawater poured from it like a succession of waterfalls and the darkness within became visible.
Darkness within? What darkness was within an iceberg? Lauren shook her head. This was insane!
'What the hell's that?' Kenny saw it too and pointed a quivering finger. 'There's something inside the ice.'