Fiction,  Issue 6

Half Jack by Annabel Mahnoey

Victor handed over the watch, ceding what little he had written under the guise of quality over quantity. His relieving officer didn’t seem to care. The eight bells sounded midday. He had an hour and a half until he needed to report up for astro-navigation. He worked out the bells in his head; they restarted at eight and they sounded at half hour intervals. Half past one was three of them. He wondered if it would be worth tracking down a book on star charts, even in the daylight. He wasn’t sure where he would be able to find information on cloud formations at such short notice. There were books on the subject, surely. There must be some on board. Maybe he could borrow one. If he hadn’t left in such a hurry, he may have been able to track down one of his own, or at least found one at Dartmouth. Dartmouth library must be stacked with them.

He knew the rudimentaries, of course. He knew how to determine the latitude and plot a basic course. A lot of what he knew how to do had been automated before the war. He knew how to do them because when he was a child he had read Treasure Island and wanted to run away to sea. They were still taught, in case there were ever any mechanical difficulties.

The phrase ‘mechanical difficulties’ was used with nebulous ambiguity.

Out of boredom or habitual self-navigation, Victor found himself back along the gunroom corridor, and propped against the doorframe was a smart figure in a full lieutenant’s uniform. He heard Victor coming and turned and smiled.

In the omnipotent gloaming of the sub-waterline corridors, Fifth Lieutenant Wellard looked much the same as any lieutenant Victor had met. He was of medium size, medium build and had hair that could be classified on the medium side of dark. He had a wide and easy smile, and he directed it exactly at Victor.

“Good afternoon, Sub-Lieutenant,” he said. “I believe we’ve met?”

Victor smiled. “Briefly.”

Fifth Lieutenant Robert Wellard had just passed his lieutenant’s exam. Victor knew this because Lieutenant Wellard told him as soon as he could. The first thing he’d done had been to take Victor’s hand eagerly and tell him that all gunrooms looked the same, “have you noticed?”

“This is Victor’s first service,” said Henry, probably thinking that he was doing Victor a favour by sparing him the answer. Victor didn’t like that he was right.

Wellard’s eyes seemed to light up, but it was hard to tell if this was from delight at a new topic of conversation or at the opportunity to cover up his perceived social faux-pas.

“Straight from Dartmouth?” he asked, with his eyebrows as much as his voice. “They must have wanted you! What an ideal ship to begin on! I always did like the half-jacks. They get so much bad press, don’t you think? Far more than they deserve. They’re like a sibling. You can hate them all you like and so can your other sibs, but as soon as anyone else tries to join in they get a sock in the jaw. My last service was a full Borodino, and do you know what? I didn’t like it half as much. Bigger, of course, but with half the soul.” He blinked suddenly, as if awakening from a dream. “I’m sorry, am I speaking too much?”

You couldn’t have not known that, Victor thought as Henry smiled and pushed a chair out with his foot. “There’s no need to feel self-conscious, Lieutenant. You’ve got far more to say than most of us.”

Henry. Ever the diplomat.

Wellard took the proffered chair. It could have been Victor’s imagination, but he seemed smaller while he wasn’t talking. He had heard of some strange breed who spoke in earnest when they were nervous. He didn’t imagine he’d ever meet one in the flesh.

With Hether and Simpson on watch and with Clayton doing whatever it was that he was meant to be doing while he and Henry were relieved (Victor suspected sleep), he sat down at the table as well. Henry and Robert seemed to have formed a fragile sort of camaraderie, the way that new ice does. Like particles seeking one another out. Victor knew that they would be friends, and he would have to find another. It was the way of things.

But for all Henry’s easiness, Wellard seemed on edge. His new position, Victor thought. He didn’t know how to act as one of them without being one of them. Or worse; he only knew how to act like one of them.

A silence that might have been uncomfortable spread, had Wellard not decided to break with protocol and ask, “Did either of you know Mr. Lowe?”

Victor looked at Henry just as Henry looked at Victor. There wasn’t a good way to tell someone that their outgoing officer went missing and came back. Found on deck one night, alone with two tongues.

“I knew him slightly,” offered Henry. Not that Victor could have offered anything. “Seemed like a nice bloke. Not that anyone would – deserve that.”

Wellard nodded. Victor wondered exactly how much he’d been told.

They were all on edge when the door opened and Pete Clayton walked in holding a piece of toast. The atmosphere lifted.

“Oh?” asked Henry. “What are you doing up and about so early?”

Pete put the toast in his mouth, shut the door and pulled up a chair in a single motion. “Politeness, Kennedy.” He removed it to offer his hand to Wellard. “Sub-Lieutenant Peter Clayton, sir. Pleased to meet you.”

“Fifth Lieutenant Robert Wellard. Likewise. Been here long?”

Pete chewed, a hand over his mouth. “Justinian for seven months. Just enough to catch the tail end of Dogger Bank. Been in service since last June.”

“Coming up to nine months, Sub-Lieutenant. You’ll be able to try for a full lieutenancy soon.”

“Not seen enough action for that I don’t think, sir. Besides, Simpson’s next in line for the deck jump. He’s out on watch at the moment. Make sure we don’t run aground on the Isle of Wight.”

He took another bite of his toast. It was not lost on Victor that – for the first time in Victor’s hearing – it hadn’t been referred to as the ‘Pile of Shite’.

“Not a lot of action in these parts, I understand?” He phrased it as a question, but they all knew what he had meant. There’s not much I can do here, is there? What have I done? Have I really got to live here?

Henry picked it up, with his patrician grace. “Not that we’ve seen, sir. I understand you’ve been through the mill a bit?”

Wellard was obviously not a proud man, but Victor recognised a stroked ego when he saw one. “Just doing my bit,” he demurred. “Besides, it all seems quite ordinary once you get there. You spend so much of your time training for what could happen that when the situation does arise it’s never as bad as you’d think. And it’s not like I’ve seen anything-”

He stopped himself, but the word still hung in the air. Else.

“I suppose you’ve heard,” said Clayton. He scratched at some crumbs which had stuck to the table. “Toast, by the way, anyone? The galley’s just done a whole batch, that bread is on the turn.”

“I think we’ll manage, Pete,” said Henry, not taking his eyes off Wellard.

Wellard smiled tightly. “Yes. It was part of my coming over here that they disclosed exactly what – happened.”

And you still came? thought Victor.

“Yet here you are,” said Henry. “A braver man than most.”

A self-conscious smile tugged at Wellard once more. A tic, realised Victor.

“’Brave’ may be the wrong word, Sub-Lieutenant. ‘Foolhardy’, perhaps. It all seems so close, doesn’t it? A duplicator in the Channel.”

An unpleasant sensation passed through the gunroom. Wellard had just said something he wasn’t supposed to say, and they knew it.

A ‘duplicator’. Wellard must be a Navy man. There were so many terms thrown around so liberally that it was often the most lurid that got picked up. Not that there was ever much to pick up, literally or metaphorically. It reminded Victor of the papers which had stalked Jack the Ripper into infamy. All sound, all fury. Signifying – in the end – nothing.

And yet picked up they were. Earlier, before the War had got going in earnest, the Home Office had decided that they couldn’t keep the story at an arm’s length and had devised a several pronged beast to attack with. The first mode of attack had been to offload as much as they could to the Ministry of Defence. Whatever they couldn’t manage went to the Foreign Office. No unsubstantiated claims or deliberately misleading headlines, op-eds or otherwise were to be published without being signed off on threefold by either the FO or the MoD, whichever academic was closest at the time and the Home Office itself. Any budding stories or witness accounts were to be investigated by a member of the Home Office and the Natural History Museum before the journalists were allowed within fifty feet of the case. Supposedly. It was all very Defence of the Realm.

Secondly, there was the matter of nomenclature.

Not that such a field existed. Whatever was found – or whatever was left – had been given an indefinite and ambiguous way of grouping whatever it was they were dealing with that wasn’t Jerry. By this point, Jerry were seen as rather an imbuggerance than a threat. The names being thrown around by the press had been far too panic-worthy to be run unchecked. Victor remembered why. The Deboner. Striator. Bleeders. The Puppeteer. Most of them inaccurate and hurriedly assigned, reflecting very little of what had actually happened (or, reflecting what had happened without the appropriate context. Victor couldn’t parse how context would make those names better). Each name was gained from each victim. They didn’t know what had caused it. They couldn’t. One thing? Many of them? Where, and how? The more anaemic, objective labels foisted by the Home Office tried to temper it. Victor didn’t know if Robert was using them to try and quell their fears or because he was just that Navy.

The Duplicator. The Mimeo, he remembered. Not from anywhere he knew. A sheep farmer in Otago had lost some of his flock over a cliff, and those that came back came back with too much of them. When was this? He’d still been in school. Five, six years? The Mimeograph. That had been one of the very, very first, as he remembered it. Thinking back, it couldn’t have been. They’d had names for them by then. They hadn’t even been aware of how much worse things could be, until 1913.

The Mimeograph. It sounded so playful. A child’s silent picture film.

Somewhere, over time, over change and over the War, that name had become the Duplicator. Named because it duplicates. It doesn’t duplicate well.

“Well,” said Henry, smiling like a punctuation mark. “It’s all very-”

Whatever he was going to say, he never got a chance to finish. Three things then happened at once. Firstly, Clayton’s crumb-wrangling boiled out of hand and finessed with him knocking his whole, half-eaten slice onto the deck head. There was no great tragedy in that. Secondly, the two bells sounded. One o’clock. Thirdly, Styles appeared at the door. Victor hadn’t seen the steward since he was woken up by him this morning. He assumed he’d gone to bed.

“Begging your pardon, sirs, but you’re needed out on deck.”

Pete slid his piece of toast as far away as it could go with his foot. Henry and Wellard were already almost out of their seats.

“Is there a problem, Styles?” Clayton asked.

Styles’s face remained impassive. “You might say that, sir. It looks like Jerry wants to take things up a notch. Captain’s out on deck now. You’ll all want to hear this.”

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Annabel Mahoney is the Editor-in-Chief of the Wellington Street Review and the Creative Director of Royal Rose Magazine. She has been widely published in a number of literary journals and anthologies and shortlisted for a handful of poetry and prose prizes by the Human Rights Watch and The Literary Association. In October, she will join the English Department at the University of Durham, researching the intersection of touch, trauma and masculinity in exploration and combat literature of the 20th Century.

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