Saturday, November 7, 2015

"The Lonely Sea" by Alistair MacLean

"The Lonely Sea" is a collection of stories by Alistair MacLean. In this collection of stories you will find all his usual charm and sometimes even tension, as he spins yarn after yarn. For a lover of the sea like myself this book is a gift. For lovers of the English languauge it is a rare treat. His inimitable style is in rare form here- these are the sentences your English teacher told you were so wrong, but when reading them you can see that they are perfect. It's all in his punctuation.

Mr.MacLean saw heavy action in the Second World War, serving in the Royal Navy in both the European and Pacific theaters of action. This experience undoubtedly is what lends reality to his ability to chronicle life at sea.

Several of his novels were made into sucessful movies during the 1960's and his books have been read by millions worldwide. But I have always loved his short stories best.

Printing this following story, "The Gold Watch" is the only adequate way for me to even attempt a review of this book. Long one of my favorite authors, Mr. MacLean outdoes even himself here. It would be impossible for anyone but Mr. MacLean to have written it.

So here it is - I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

"The Gold Watch" by Alistair MacLean

His watch was the pride of our captain’s life. It was of massive construction, being no less than 3 inches in diameter; it was made of solid gold; it was beautifully engraved with cabalistic designs of extraordinary intricacy; and finally, it was attached to a chain, whose dimensions, with regard to both length and circumference, had to be seen to be believed. The chain also, needless to say, was made of gold. Anyone who had the temerity to doubt this last fact, was handed the chain and coldly asked to observe for himself that it was stamped on every link.

In addition to the aforementioned merits, the watch, our captain claimed, was completely moisture proof. We had, on several occasions, urged him to prove his words by submerging the subject of discussion in a basin of water, but on each occasion, the captain’s reply, uttered in a very injured tone, was to the same effect, namely, that if we did not believe his statement, he was not going to stoop to demonstrate it’s truth to us. From this, we could only conclude that the captain, like ourselves, had his doubts as to his watch’s ability to defy the ravages of water. It was indeed, we knew, a very, very sore point with our captain, one which he longed, with all his heart and soul, to prove, but lacked the courage to put it to the final test.

Usually, this watch was hidden from the plebian gaze- and fingers- in a locked case, which in its turn, lay in a locked drawer in the captain’s cabin. But today, it reposed in the captain’s waistcoat pocket, while the chain, such was its length, seemed almost to girdle the area of the captain’s maximum circumference. Waistcoats are very uncommon with “whites”, and it was maliciously rumored that the captain had had his specially made for the purpose of accommodating and displaying the watch and its accessories. Be that as it may, here was our captain, this blistering June afternoon, going ashore for his last interview with his Basrah agents, wearing a genial smile on his face, and, about two feet further south, his beloved time keeper.

When he came back a bare two hours later, his launch nosing its way through the date laden lighters surrounding our vessel which was anchored in mid-river, his genial expression was no longer there. Neither was his watch, and our deduction, that the latter accounted for the former, proved to be correct. Having solicitously helped the red faced, perspiring captain on board, we waited patiently.

He was, at first, incoherent with rage, with his clearly visible, ever mounting blood pressure, we feared an apoplectic stroke. Fortunately for him, he at last recovered the power of speech, and this undoubtedly relieved, to a great extent, his almost over powering feelings. He was very bitter. His language, in addition, was shocking, but we had to admit that he had full justification for it.

He had, apparently, been walking peacefully back to the ship from his agents, with malice in his heart towards none, but nevertheless, taking due and proper precautions for the safe guarding of wallet and watch, when among the riff raff of the street bazaars. Once clear of them, he had dropped these precautions, deeming them needless, and, at the entrance to the docks, he had had to push his way through a group of Arab sailors, whom he, in his great and regrettable ignorance, had thought to be as honest as himself. (His bitterness, at this juncture, was truly remarkable) Suddenly, he had been jostled in the rear with great violence, and on turning to remonstrate with the discourteous one, had not felt his watch and chain being slipped from their moorings, with that dexterity and efficiency which bespoke of long and arduous practice, so that, when about to resume his journey, he found his watch no longer there.

At this point he again lost the power of speech, and to our fearful and dreading eyes, his entire disintegration appeared not only probable, but imminent. Recovering himself with a masterly effort, however, he resumed his narrative. Although unable to espy the actual perpetrator of the theft, who had, with commendable discretion and alacrity, completely vanished, he had realized that the jostler must have been his confederate, and had pursued the said confederate for over half a mile, before being eluded by the Arab in a crowded thoroughfare. This, we realized, accounted for our captain’s complexion and superabundance of perspiration.

Here again, having once more relapsed into incoherency, he was left to his vengeful meditations, alternately muttering “My watch” and “the villain”, the former with a touching pathos, and the latter, preceded by some highly descriptive adjectives, with an extraordinary depth of feeling.

Thirty hours later found no appreciable dimunition in our captain’s just and righteous anger, although he could now speak like a rational being, albeit forcefully, concerning his grievous misfortunes of the previous afternoon. We had loaded our last case of dates just on sunset, and, early that morning, even as the first faint streak of grey in the eastern sky heralded the burning day, had gratefully cleared the malodorous port of Basrah. We were, by this time, fairly into the Gulf and proceeding serenely on our way, South by East, through the stifling tropical night, the darkness of which was but infinitesimally relived by the cold, unthinkably distant pinpoints of stars in the moonless night sky.
Our captain, whose outraged feelings evidently refused him the blessed solace of slumber, had recently come up to the bridge, which he was now ceaselessly pacing, very much after the manner of a caged leopard, all the time informing us as to the dire retribution which he intended meting out to the present illegal possessor of his watch, should he ever be fortunate enough to lay hands on him. The lascar Quartermaster, very zealous in our captain’s presence, was poring over the compass box, while in the bows, the lookout man was either thinking of his native village in far off Bombay, or had found sleep vastly easier to come by than our captain.

This last, was of course, pure conjecture, but it must have approximated very closely to the truth, for the first the lookout knew of the dhow lying dead in our path, was when a loud splintering crash, accompanied by even louder frenzied yells, informed him that our steel bows had smashed the unfortunate dhow to matchwood.

“Don’t say we’ve run down another of these bloody dhows,” groaned our captain wearily (it is a surprisingly common occurrence), ringing the engines down to Stop, and bellowing for a boat to be lowered with the utmost expedition. This was done, and then minutes later the lifeboat returned with the shivering, brine soaked crew of the erstwhile dhow; the captain, duty bound, went down on deck to inspect them, as they came on board.

The rope ladder twitched, and as the first luckless victim- how luckless, he did not then completely realize- appeared over the side, the captain’s jaw dropped fully two inches, and he stood as if transfixed.

“That’s the gentleman I chased yesterday,” he ejaculated joyfully (“gentleman”, as will be readily understood, is employed euphemistically) then stopped, staring, with rapidly glazing eyes, at the second apparition, who had just then topped the railing. Dependent from this, the second, “gentleman’s” undeniably filthy neck, and reaching to his waist, was a most unusual ornament for an impoverished Arab- no less an object than our captain’s purloined watch and chain, thus miraculously restored to him, by the joyful caprices of Fortune.

With drawn breath, and with sincere pity in our hearts, we waited for the heavens to fall, for the captain to execute the oft repeated, blood thirsty promises, for, in short, the instant and complete annihilation of the Arabs (four in all) who were regarding the captain with the utmost trepidation, which they were at no pains to conceal.

To our small astonishment- and it may be added, relief- the expected Arab massacre failed to materialize. Instead, stepping quietly forward and lovingly removing his watch and chain from the neck of the cringing, violently shivering Arab, the captain, in a strangely gentle tone, in which there seemed, to us, to be a barely repressed inflection of triumph, merely said, “Take these men below and give them something warm to eat; we’ll hand them over to the Bahrain police, in the morning.”

We were astounded. We were amazed. We were utterly and completely dumbfounded.
Our modest comprehension could not grasp it. What, we asked ourselves, wonderingly, was the reason for this incredible change of front? We were not left long in ignorance.

Swinging round on us, and brandishing his watch on high, the captain shouted: “See!- er, I mean, hear!” We heard. The clamorous tick tock, tick tock of his watch would have put any self respecting alarm clock to shame.

“Waterproof!” he cried exultingly. “Waterproof, you blasted unbelievers! Waterproof!”

It was, I believe, the supreme moment of our captain’s life.

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