Monday, 9 May 2011

Loose lips sink ships - a short story

"There'd never be anyone like Billy for me, ever again." That thought ran obsessively, over and over, in Eileen's mind for the past three years, endlessly; cruelly. She kept tormenting herself at the loss of her boyfriend who went down with his ship in the North Atlantic, just as the war was starting to go Britain's way. With his shock of bright red hair and his permanent grin, a short man so full of energy and life, Billy had given her so many wonderful moments among the dance halls, tea rooms and picture houses of wartime Liverpool.
At first she denied his death. He could have been picked up by a U-boat and then kept a prisoner by the Germans. But the war ended, her hopes diminished then finally faded. She kept that photo of the two of them taken at Jerome's photo studios when he was on shore leave before Christmas 1942; a small one in her purse, a larger one in her lodgings and a similar one above her workplace at the Dunlop factory.

She'd gaze upon it so many times each day. Billy. One day, looking at the calendar, she realised he'd been gone for longer than they'd actually been going out together. And a year later, she could still not get him out of the forefront of her mind. Billy. Six months younger than her, he was. Always 'exuberant', though never crossing that border into 'wild'. Self-control, her mam called it; her mam loved him just as dearly as she did. “An actor giving it all just to his one girl,” that's how her mam described him.

In all her life, Eileen had never been as happy as during those two years and three months during which she and Billy had been together. And all those little gifts, those little luxuries he'd brought Eileen back from New York. Every trip over. Now she kept them in a little museum-shrine on her dressing table. He'd spend every minute of his shore leave with her whenever his ship docked in Liverpool. Kissing passionately under the Ovie.

“What on earth did he see in me?”, she'd ask herself while they were on the town, dancing so energetically at the Rialto or Locarno. She thought of herself as plain, even though objectively speaking she did have a good figure, a narrow waist and longish legs. Eileen was lacking in self-confidence all her life, and Billy gave it to her. And all of her girlfriends and workmates looked on at them admiringly, jealously even.

Two years and three months of bliss, followed by three years of morbid despair. Guilt at the pleasure gone; Catholic guilt. "The sin of pride", Father Boyle used to called it when she confessed to him about how pleased she was when the other girls would watch her dancing with Billy. When she shared her loss with her parish priest, the sympathy he offered was tempered by his knowledge that the dead boy was a Protestant from North Wales. But the dark church interior with its stone floor, statues, candles and smell of incense and wax offered her temporary relief from the constant association of happier places with memories of Billy, all those places where they'd stroll and chat, and spend time together.

For weeks after hearing the news that Billy's ship had gone down with all hands off Iceland, Eileen still held out hope that maybe he'd been picked up by some other vessel, but that hope took a long time to die. Had it taken Billy a long time to die? Had he drowned, trapped in a diminishing pocket of air below decks, his lungs fighting to the very last to expel sea water? Had he died of exposure in the pitiless cold of the North Atlantic in winter? Had he burned alive in a sea of flaming gasoline or been blasted to pieces as a torpedo ripped into the side of the ship? Or drifted in a lifeboat until hunger and thirst had claimed the last man on board? These thoughts dwelt in her mind; wanted but unwanted, they would pierce her consciousness day after day, at work and at rest, summer and winter; these thoughts could be brought on by the sight of the open sea from Wallasey, or of a Merchant Navy seaman on the tram or the strains of a tune they'd danced to; there was no avoiding Billy's memory.

"Loose Lips Sink Ships," the visiting American sailors would say. "Careless Talk Costs Lives" was on posters in the pubs and on the brick walls. Whose lips? Whose careless talk? Which of her workmates at the Dunlop factory, in a fit of jealousy at her happiness, had informed a Nazi agent as to when Billy's ship was setting sail? Father Boyle? Was it Irish nationalists? The longer she wallowed in the tragedy, the more convinced she was that some blabbermouth was to blame for her unending sorrow.

This time three years ago:
Driving home at the end of the working day
(Funny that; once I'd drive to work and consider it normal. Today I consider it odd and anti-social.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


You're doing it deliberately!