Short story VIII - Norge

"You and your maritime disasters". I smiled as my friend gently ribbed me. It was true. During my time in the Hebrides, I seemed to be focused on tragedies at sea. What do you expect though, in a community that is so inextricably linked to the sea. This week for instance, it was particularly hard to believe that weather and tides could possibly contrive to endanger life at sea. Autumn is here, however, and the gales are only just around the corner. We took a stroll out to the old graveyard, with the gentle southeasterly breeze taking the edge off the temperature. At the edge of Lower Sandwick, I took him into the Old Cemetery, a jumble of gravestones, obelisks and draped urns right above the sea. And there was a time that the dead were almost delivered into the very cemetery itself, short by only a few feet. That was not the object of this walk though. A solitary, large gravestone by the outer wall. Its inscriptions fading, like so many. The Norge Memorial.

"Norge?" my friend asked. "Doesn't that just mean Norway in Norwegian?" I nodded. I lifted my glance from the memorial to the sea which rippled only a few dozen feet from the cemetery wall. The dark hills behind the Fabrication Yard appeared to ripple as well under the warm September sun, and they led further south to the craggy outlines of the Shiants and the misty outline of Trotternish on the Isle of Skye, 35 miles away. "I've told you about the Iolaire", I continued. "That happened in poor weather. Heavy swell, strong wind - and it's suggested a navigational error. The Norge's tragedy unfolded in good weather." I paused as I turned to my friend, who was following my gaze south. "Almost like today."

Finally, the last outpost of Europe faded in the distance, as the Butt of Lewis lighthouse sank below the horizon. The ship doggedly chugged its way westsouthwest, on the curve that would see it into New York in a number of days. She had done well, in point of fact. Converted from a cattle boat to an emigrant steamer, captain Grendel was proud of her. The hundreds of people below decks were in relative comfortable surroundings, all things considered. Many of those down below were not at all sad to see the back of Europe and its persecution. Many had fled the pogroms of Russia and Poland, against all odds. They were the lucky ones. Or were they?

The Caribbean accents of the Radio 4 announcer were slightly muffled as the longwave carrier took them all the way north from Daventry. "Malin, Rockall, Hebrides, Bailey: southeast 4, rain in west; fair in east, poor in west. Fair Isle..." as the afternoon shipping forecast carried on to its close. The car ran down Oliver's Brae into Stornoway just as the time signal pipped out two in the afternoon. "And there is another connection", I told my friend. "Rockall is the island near to where the Norge came to grief". Two roundabouts later, I pulled the car into the carpark opposite the Town Hall. The ferry was just pulling away from the pier, on its way across to the mainland. I took the pedestrian shortcut into the ferry terminal, which was emptying of people, now that the MV Isle of Lewis had gone. With a cuppa from the caff in hand, I took my friend to the far side of the terminal building.

The emigrants on the Norge were awakening to a bright summer's morning in the North Atlantic. The ship was on its predetermined course, calculated to lose the latitude needed to reach New York in the shortest time possible. However, the islet of Rockall presented a challenge, which Captain Grendel thought he had overcome - but in doing so, had not taken account of a compass deviation. Not long after 7 in the morning, his ship came to a grinding and sudden halt, just north of Rockall.

Running aground is bad enough. Standard procedure is to try to get off with the tide or by putting the engines in full forward or astern. However, captain Gundel was not to know that the grounding of the Norge had ripped the keel out of the ship. So when he engaged his engines full astern, the bottom fell out of his world. Within twenty minutes, his ship had foundered.

My friend looked aghast at the commemorative plaque on the wall of the ferry terminal. The sun shone in, making it very warm behind the glass. But we did not feel warm at all. The hubbub of departure had died down, and only the intermittent voices of the staff behind the ticket desk broke the silence. "Surely some people got off in lifeboats?" he finally managed to utter. "You'd be surprised. In that short space of time, nearly two hundred got off."

The boats bobbed on the North Atlantic swell, slowly drifting away from the site of the sudden shipwreck. The strange outcrop receded into the distance, its based wreathed in the white of the continual waves crashing against it. It was a wreath to the hundreds lost that morning. The Norge was no more. Stunned, soaked, underdressed for the cold conditions, even in that June morning. Water, food and shelter at a premium. Families together at breakfast just an hour earlier were now torn apart, if alive at all. Scattered across more than one boat, their fates in the balance, at the mercy of the elements.

"There is one more place to see in connection with the sinking of the Norge", I told my friend. I steered the car into the traffic on South Beach and passed in front of the Town Hall. We bumped over the speedramp in Castle Street, then followed the line of traffic down North Beach. The warm autumn sun had brought out the shoppers in droves, with kids in tow for the mid term holiday. The pedestrian lights were at red, so we had a few moments to take in the cheerful scene. Such a contrast. To the plight of the families in the lifeboats that had made it away from the Norge, more than a century previously.

Darkness fell over the northeastern Atlantic, for as much as there is darkness at that latitude in June. The sailors in the first boat distributed a mouthful of water to each person, followed by some indescribable emergency ration food. Blankets covered the smallest if only to cover them from the spray that came over every now and again. Fortunately, the nights are but short, and by 4 in the morning, it was fully daylight again. Was that a fishing boat on the horizon? Yes! After about an hour of frantically waving blankets and coats, and even setting old rags on fire, the fishing boat finally changed course. They were all taken on board, and quickly taken down below by the stunned fishermen. The news of the sinking was on its way to British shores. Not all boats were as lucky, that first day. And one was to continue on its northeasterly course, under the pale sky of the northern latitudes, the wind and currents steering it across the open ocean.

Traffic thinned out as we left the centre of town behind us. The trees in the Castle Grounds, still very much in leaf, rose up behind the basin of the Inner Harbour. I briefly pulled into the parking bays past Kenneth Street, to show my friend the mudflats that low tide was revealing. The yachts bobbed at the marina pontoons, with the bright orange of the RNLI lifeboat just moving away from its moorings, presently powering out of the seclusion of the inner harbour. Out on a mission of mercy. But there was no rescue mission for the survivors of the Norge. They had to fend for themselves, and take the hand that fate was dealing them.

The fishing boat passed the lighthouse, and a forest of sails and masts lay in front of a row of grey buildings above a quayside. Large stacks of barrels lined the quays, and groups of people were standing at tables, but it could not be seen clearly from the fishing boat what they were doing. Still in a state of shock after their ordeal, the former passengers of the Norge were helped on to dry land. They had lost everything, apart from the clothes they stood up in, and their lives. Many were missing friends and relatives, and as yet no word of others having been saved. Some of the emigrants were in a very poor state, having been exposed to the elements for some time.

"This is where the sick were taken", I explained. "Or at least, this is where the poorhouse was located back in 1904. It was demolished in 1968." I pointed to where a collection of low-slung buildings now comprised a residential and nursing home on the outskirts of Stornoway. Across the main road running along the northern periphery of town, fields sloped down to a river estuary, with the dark moorlands of central Lewis looming in the distance. "Not all made it, and those nine are commemorated in the Old Cemetery where we were earlier this afternoon. Quite a few were children". The occasional car whizzed by on Perceval Road, but it hardly created a disturbance. "You just can't imagine it, can you", my friend said quietly. "Here they were, bravely going off to a new life in the New World, and they never made it". I turned round to face him. "Some of them did, eventually. But hundreds were lost out there at Rockall. And not all the boats that were known to have been launched were recovered from the ocean". For a moment, we stood at the roadside, in a silence that was emphasised by the absence of traffic.

The sun dipped towards the horizon, casting a swathe of gold over the ceaseless motion of the waves. A gentle southwesterly breeze wafted over the ocean, carrying warmth from the distant tropics. Riding low in the water, no motion was apparent in the small boat. An oar was dangling from an oarlock, dragging beside the boat. Nobody was pulling it, although a hand held it. A foot of water sloshed in the bottom of the craft, which nonetheless remained afloat. The rudder veered left and right at will, although someone appeared to be reclining right beside it. Covered with blankets, smaller forms could be made out in the eerie light, lying against the bulwarks. Another oar just slid away from the boat as the arm holding it slumped inside the boat, relinquishing its hold on the wood. No motion was apparent, and although there were several dozen people on board, their eyes did not behold the pale blue sky of late evening. Their senses no longer perceived the coldness of the air, nor the fact that the sun never dipped below the horizon that night. The Atlantic carried their craft ever further into the polar realms, where the ice loomed on the far horizon, past the islands of the bears. Islands that were owned by the country whose name adorned the bow of their boat. Norge.


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