A Flock of Ships

Brian Callison

A Flock of Ships

About the Author

Brian Callison is the author of 22 best-sellers published by HarperCollins, Severn House, Futura, and Ostara. His novels have been translated into twelve languages including Japanese, Polish, Icelandic and Finnish. They have been printed in Braille, released as audio books, issued in large print editions and are used as creative writing references by many international learning institutions.

A former Merchant Navy officer in cargo liners sailing to the Far East and Australia, Callison subsequently worked in commerce before becoming a full-time author. Following service with the 51st Highland Division Provost Company (TA), Royal Military Police, he returned to his seafaring roots to maintain an active 35-year connection with ships as a Head of Unit and Naval Control of Shipping Officer in the volunteer Royal Naval Auxiliary Service.

More recently he completed a three-year appointment to the University of Dundee as a Fellow of The Royal Literary Fund. His latest title to be reprinted is A Flock Of Ships (Ostara Publishers 2011 and, here, available in eBook format). On first publication of this now-classic work, Alistair McLean wrote, ‘The best war story I have ever read. No qualifications, no reservations, no exceptions as to type and time: it’s the best. Makes All Quiet On The Western Front look like one of the lesser works of Enid Blyton’.

Currently he continues to work with private clients as a literary career adviser, manuscript editor and mentor (www.writermentoring.co.uk). 'Hopefully putting something back into a trade that has been good to me.' Guiding aspiring writers: teasing out the very essence of professionally competent authorship is what he excels at, and he submits a portfolio comprising some two million published words as evidence.

All Brian Callison novels are now published as eBooks. If you enjoy this one, then perhaps you'd care to keep a weather eye open for others among his twenty-one titles released in digital format?

Callison Titles

A Flock of Ships

A Plague of Sailors

The Dawn Attack

A Web of Salvage

Trapp’s War

A Ship is Dying

A Frenzy of Merchantmen

The Judas Ship

Trapp's Peace

The Auriga Madness

The Sextant

Spearfish

The Bone Collectors

A Thunder of Crude

Trapp and World War Three

The Trojan Hearse

Crocodile Trapp

Ferry Down

The Stollenberg Legacy

Redcap

Trapp's Secret War

Creatures (Writing as Richard Masson)

Dedication

TO HUGH C. KEITH

LATE CHIEF ENGINEER

BLUE FUNNEL LINE

PROLOGUE

The ship had lain there for many years — Ten? Fifteen? Maybe even twenty? One of the old pre-war cargo liners with her high, straight stack and the strangely antiquated vertical lines of her midships accommodation. From nearly two miles away at the entrance to the island’s inner lake it was hard to make out detail but it looked as though she was slightly down by the head, while there was an odd, untidy geometry in the ragged shape of her wheelhouse and bridge structure.

Which was very odd indeed, because this island hadn’t been visited for well over a century — or so the Navigator’s South and West Africa Pilot book said.

From his post in the bows of the slowly moving R.N. survey ship the First Lieutenant took one disbelieving glance and muttered, ‘Jesus!’ Farther aft the Commander — concentrating only on conning his ship through the narrow gap between the towering, nerve tensioning black cliffs that pressed in on either side — didn’t notice anything strange until, one hundred and ten seconds later, the bridge also broke out into the blinding South Atlantic sunlight that swamped down over the hitherto uncharted inland sea. He, too, stared for an incredulous moment at the ship that couldn’t be there and grabbed for the 8 x 50 Ministry of Defence (Navy) binoculars slung round his neck.

By the time the stern had crept infinitely slowly past the huge, weed-skirted rock marking the inner periphery of the apparently natural anchorage, the only man aboard who hadn’t expressed surprise was the phlegmatic Chief Petty Officer leadsman in the chains who, unconcernedly, continued to barrage all within earshot with the mystical information that the depth was now ‘By the deep… Six!’, or ‘And a quarter… Seven!’ as he leant precariously out over the silent green water yet again to heave the bunting and flannel-decorated line. Despite the several-million pounds’ worth of sophisticated electronic sounding and measuring gear condensed in the sleek hull below him the Commander still clung to the comfort of a good, old-fashioned leadsman when feeling his way into places strange and uncertain.

An urgently hailed warning from the First Lieutenant, hanging insecurely out over the ship’s stem, a few staccato commands to the Coxswain at the wheel, and she was turning on her screws, swinging fast to starboard with an almost complete absence of forward way while the anchor party on the foc’slehead watched as the thing they had nearly hit vanished again in the concealing anonymity of the waters.

The Commander flashed a look of relief at his Navigating Officer and leaned over the voice pipe. ‘Stop engines… Dead slow ahead both!’ Then, as the ship’s head steadied on a course to take her towards that non-existent freighter which still sat, nevertheless, as stolidly and patiently at the end of her rusty cable as she had done for at least two decades, the Commander swivelled slowly with the binoculars pressed hard under his bushy brows and surveyed the black, forbidding land formation that pressed in on them from all points.

A glint of yellow almost directly astern, down past the far side of the entrance they had just squeezed through. Sunlight, reflecting on billions of tiny, incandescent grains. A beach? Warm and beckoning after the bleak inhospitability of the surrounding rock. ‘Excellent,’ he thought. ‘Give the men a run ashore while we’re…’

Then he stopped thinking and fumbled for the knurled focusing wheel. ‘My dear God!’ he said this time, not so much compounding the blasphemy as requesting reassurance, and his stubby finger moved the wheel another eighth of an inch until the thing on the beach jumped into brilliant, clear-cut detail.

And the Commander had now found two ships where there couldn’t have been any.

Or, perhaps not two ships so much as one and a part, because the monstrous deformity on the beach couldn’t really be called a ship any more. It was still possible to make out the line of her hull form, with the greater proportion of her floors still sheathed in rusty red tank top plating. There was even a vaguely nautical suggestion in the few frames and pillars that rose from her bier of sand like the ribs of some skeletal, stranded whale. But, otherwise, the thousands of tons of corroded, heat-twisted steel that lay carelessly scattered by some incredible internal force were almost unrecognisable for what they had once been — the complex deck housings and engine parts and entrails of a mighty vessel.

The Commander had barely time to note the twin tracks that still marked the sand where the huge phosphor-bronze propellors had gouged deep into the surface as they drove the ship farther and farther up on to the beach; then the Navigator was pointing to yet another obscenely deformed mass that rose from the shallow water directly astern of the gutted steel corpse.

And, while the Commander swung his binoculars incredulously between what were now the three shells of that impossible fleet, the Navigating Officer whispered in a hushed voice: ‘She must’ve been doing bloody near twenty knots to drive herself up on the beach like that, for Chrissake!’

* * *

The Commander stood silently gazing around while the rest of the boarding party shinned sweatily up the grapnel line caught in the aftermast stays and gathered wonderingly about him abaft the ghost ship’s centrecastle. They could have come aboard by the bleached accommodation ladder which still hung dejectedly down her starboard side, but one glance at the rusty bridle and mildewed topping lift which suspended it had convinced the Commander of the folly of such a venture.

The First Lieutenant heaved himself over the bulwarks and uneasily took in the rotting hatch covers, the streaming, leprous steel of bulkheads and decks and the patches of creeping yellow fungus that sent out diseased fingers to explore every inch of wooden doors and awning spars. He shivered involuntarily despite the shimmering heat of the high sun and self-consciously eased the Webley and Scott .38 sitting so unaccustomedly in the sagging web belt around his white-shorted waist. The Commander saw him and smiled a little tightly. ‘There hasn’t been anyone to shoot at aboard this ship since you were getting your picture taken on a bearskin rug, Number One.’

The First Lieutenant coloured in embarrassment and tried, doubtfully, to l ...

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