Bear Island - Alistair MacLean Page 0,2

Gerran could hardly be said to be at his ineffectual best when faced with crisis of any kind. But for young Moxen, the steward, this was routine : his own napkin at the ready and bearing a small plastic bucket he'd apparently conjured from nowhere he set about effecting running repairs while Gerran gazed downwards with an expression of perplexed distaste.

Seated, Otto Gerran, apart from his curiously narrow, pointed cranium that widened out to broad, fleshy Jowls, looked as if he might have been cast in one of the standard moulds which produce the vast majority of human shapes and forms: it was not until he stood up, a feat he performed with great difficulty and as infrequently as possible, that one appreciated how preposterous this misconception was. Gerran stood five feet two inches in his elevator shoes, weighed two hundred and forty-five pounds and, were it not for his extremely ill-fitting clothes-one would assume that the tailor just gave up-was the nearest thing to a perfect human sphere I'd ever clapped eyes on. He had no neck, long slender sensitive hands and the smallest feet I've ever seen for a man of his size. The salvage operation over, Gerran looked up and at Imrie. His complexion was puce in colour, with the purple much more in evidence than the brown. This did not mean that he was angry, for Gerran never showed anger and was widely believed to be incapable of it: puce was as standard for him as the peaches and cream of the mythical English rose. His coronary was at least fifteen years overdue.

"Really, Captain Imrie, this is preposterous." For a man of his vast bulk, Gerran had a surprisingly high-pitched voice: surprisingly, that is, if you weren't a medical practitioner. "Must we keep heading into this dreadful storm?"

"Storm?" Captain Imrie lowered his glass and looked at Gerran in genuine disbelief. "Did you say "storm'? A little blow like this?" He looked across to the table where I was sitting with Mr. Stokes. "Force 7, YOU would say, Mr. Stokes? A touch of eight, perhaps?"

Mr. Stokes helped himself to some more rum, leaned back and deliberated He was as bereft of cranial and facial hair as Captain Imrie was overendowed with it. With his gleaming pate, tightly drawn brown face seamed and wrinkled into a thousand fissures and a long, thin, scrawny neck he looked as aged and as ageless as a Galapagos turtle. He also moved at about the same speed. Both he and Captain Imrie had gone to sea together-in minesweepers, as incredibly far back as World War I-and had remained together until they had officially retired ten years previously. Nobody, the legend went, had ever heard them refer to each other except as Captain Imrie and Mr. Stokes. Some said that, in private, they used the terms Skipper and Chief (Mr. Stokes was the Chief Engineer) but this was discounted as an unsubstantiated and unworthy rumour which did justice to neither man.

Moments passed, then Mr. Stokes, having arrived at a measured opinion delivered himself of it. "Seven," he said.

"Seven." Captain Imrie accepted the judgement as unhesitatingly as if an oracle had spoken and poured himself another drink: I thanked whatever gods there be for the infinitely reassuring presence of Smithy, the mate, on the bridge. "You see, Mr. Gerran? Nothing." As Gerran was at that moment clinging frantically to a table that was inclined at an angle of thirty degrees, he made no reply. "A storm? Dearie me, dearie me. Why, I remember the very first time that Mr. Stokes and I took the Morning Rose up to the Bear Island fishing grounds, the very first trawler ever to fish those waters and come back with full holds, 1928, I think it was--'

“1929," Mr. Stokes said.

“1929." Captain Imrie fixed his bright blue eyes on Gerran and Johann Heissman, a small, lean, pale man with a permanently apprehensive expression : Heissman's hands were never still. "Now, that was a storm! We were with a trawler out of Aberdeen, I forget its name?

"The Silver Harvest," Mr. Stokes said.

"The Silver Harvest. Engine failure in a Force 10. Two hours she was broadside to the seas, two hours before we could get a line aboard. Her skipper-her skipper-"

"MacAndrew. John MacAndrew."

"Thank you, Mr. Stokes. Broke his neck. Towed his boat-and him with his broken neck in splints-for thirty hours in a Force 10, four of them in a Force 11. Man, you should have seen yon seas. I tell