Sunday, March 01, 2009

Krishno - IV

The Queen Mary at the British Nautical Museum today is a replica. The wood is shinier, they have panels of oak, carpets where there weren't any earlier and a captain's deck that wasn't on the original ship. Some say this model won't even float. Only the helm on this replica, blackened from the fire, reminds visitors of that inky '37 night.

It was just past midnight and The Queen Mary was supposed to dock within the hour when suddenly the radio at the Port Authority burst into life. Cries of "Mayday!" cut quickly through the inebriation. Her Majesty's Coastguard rallied two rescue boats to set out immediately to sea. A group of docksmen scrambled to assemble Manby's mortar, to reach the wrecked vessel with a line from the shore. Someone else was on the phone with the Royal Navy to see if they had a ship near the QM.

Krishno and three young officers were at the docks at the time, celebrating their new appointment to the vessel, when they saw the commotion. The rescue-boats needed able bodies - strong swimmers, ship-climbers, firefighters, life-boat rowers - so they jumped in without a thought.

The Queen Mary was a mere 20 miles from the docks. She was sighted easily enough against the black sea. The balls of orange erupting into the night sky lit up the ship like a festival.

The headlines the next day reported a fuel leak. One of the lesser known dailies reported survivors hearing cries of "Bomb!!" before the first blast happened, but the rumours died soon. Back then, talk of foreign hands, of conspiracies by non-state actors wasn't given much credence. Back then, the ship's body makers simply apologised and shut shop.

Out on the sea though, the situation was dire. The Coastguard boats circled the Queen Mary as the fire raged on board. Those not trapped on the lower decks jumped into the water and were lifted onto the rescue boats. There were others that were panic-stricken, rooted to where they stood as fires blazed around them. Krishno cried out to a young lady to jump, but he was left watching helplessly as she was swallowed by the flames. The ship wouldn't last much longer, and by now, the fates of the passengers had been decided. Those that had managed to jump ship would live if the coastguard spotted them, and those that remained on board were likely dead.

Shahadat was lost to the fire long before Krishno drew his body up on shore. Asma and he were in their cabin when the screaming began. The flames swept through the narrow passageway connecting each cabin. The doorknob on the inside of the cabin had become too hot to touch and viscous smoke had started to billow through the slip between door and frame. Shahadat and Asma held towels to their faces as he elbowed the glass in the porthole. The glass wouldn't give, it was that thick. The wooden door was aglow by then. It would be only moments before the monster outside swallowed it. Shahadat picked up a chair and Asma helped him smash the window till a crack appeared around the rim.

The wooden door caved just then. Shahadat stood tall behind Asma as the flames licked at his back. He delivered a final mighty blow to the window and the glass fell out into the sea. The splash caught the attention of a rescue dinghy. Asma climbed through where the glass had been and saw the dinghy below her. The porthole was a couple of stories above the sea, but she couldn't be scared. Not now, not while her uncle was still inside. The fire tore at his back as Asma jumped out. Shahadat lurched to the window behind her, hoping that the ship would have rehem, that the ship would spit him out. The adrenalin had numbed the sear till now, but as his body dangled out the window, his last memory was the smell of his burning flesh.

From the dinghy below, Krishno could tell that the man in the window, body ablaze, was unconscious at the very least. The girl had swum onto the dinghy, but to save the man, they needed the Queen Mary to roll toward them, to have him drop from the porthole. Even as they watched, the infernal vessel obliged. Shahadat dropped into the water, and Krishno dove in after him.

Newspapers were delivered late the next morning. The major publications had stopped presses to report the tragedy. 410 passengers in all, 110 women, 44 children. Survivors 30. All thanks to the brazen disregard for life shown by Her Majesty's Coastguard. The enduring image was of an officer thumping the chest of an elderly gentleman as he lay breathless on the shore. A young girl looked on disbelievingly.


Maitreyee said...

Have you planned the ending?

indra said...

:) I've been slow with the posting, but yes, the story's planned out. Just been too busy to write. Next installment in the works though, so thanks for keeping me honest