Short Story: The Catherine Jane
It was the kind of cold that could freeze a man where he was sitting. It was the kind of cold that steals the air from your lungs as you breathe, replacing it with a pain that travels all the way down your spine and makes you ache from the inside out. Nathan felt heavy and although in agony he could sense a numbness spreading across his toes and fingers, which were bent into a claw he could not open. His arms didn’t even feel like his own as he drew them in circles through the water, just enough to keep his head above the surface and to get him away from the yacht which was slowly sinking into the darkness. They were arms which only a day before had been winching the main sheet and had spent days tacking and jibing The Catherine Jane with the forged experience of any thirty-year-old who thought he knew how to sail.
Nathan and Steve had been racing partners since they met ten years ago. They were twenty years old and training to race around the UK, sailing around the Solent in the day and spending evenings warming up in The World’s End, trying to put the world to rights over two pints of Guinness and a packet of peanuts. It was in that pub that Steve had had the idea that they should strive for more than just home waters. The Northern Challenge was a race that only happened every five years. It was one of the stupidest things a man could do, but the idea of a challenge like that proved too hard to resist; a two man race from Norway to Jan Mayen Land. They both thought deep down they wouldn’t ever get round to it; Steve was training to be a doctor and Nathan, after the race was over, was going to settle at his dad’s accounting firm while doing an apprenticeship on the side so he could stay in Poole with his girlfriend, Ellie, who had recently found out she was expecting a little girl.
There is a warmth which comes with remembering cherished moments of the past. Nathan almost forgot the purple-grey tone of his skin, or the ice crystals growing on his face. Unlike all the times Steve had complained about the ‘cold’ in their previous expeditions in the Hebrides or Norway, Nathan was literally freezing. That well-to-do bastard didn’t have a clue what he was moaning about. He took everything for granted and thought sailing was like playing chess.
Nathan could hear the water sloshing against the rubber of his lifejacket. With every breathe his lungs burned, and he ached as he tried to stay upright. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could struggle, but it seemed to be futile. Throughout the race the only boats Nathan had seen were other competitors, but they were long gone. He wasn’t even looking out for lights on the horizon. When the Titanic sank terrified passengers jumped from the railings and into the black water below in a bid to swim to safety, only to be sucked to the bottom of the North Atlantic. Someone had once said that the items of clothing recovered from the wreck over a hundred years later were the only grave markers some of these people had. They shouldn’t have been removed. Would Nathan’s grave marker be his red oilskins, which had been the first investment from his divorce settlement? That would be ironic.
He knew, of course, that no one would ever find him. His hand radio was water logged so he couldn’t reach out to the other racers in the distance. He hadn’t told anyone at home other than his daughter where he was going, and she wouldn’t tell anyone. His parents thought he was on a stag-do with Steve, because he knew he would be convinced not to go if he’d told them that they were celebrating Steve’s commitment and Nathan’s freedom by racing against death itself. The sky looked nice. The first time Nathan had seen a shooting star had been on a night passage from Southampton to Cherbourg when he was twelve. He had taken Ellie sailing in Skye before their wedding. The sky looked nice.
He was sprung back to some kind of alertness when the yacht several feet behind him slipped further beneath the water, letting out a groan and a creek which disrupted the tranquillity of the middle-of-nowhere. It was the same sound the yacht had made a few hours before as it drifted into a growler, a vicious little iceberg which sliced through the hull. From the tugging of the water around him he knew he needed to distance himself further if he didn’t want to be dragged under the surface with the yacht. He tried to paddle but his bones were too heavy. Nathan could hear someone cursing and screaming. He sounded terrified.
“Not this now. Not fucking this. Not this!”
Nathan strained his eyes, looking into the darkness to see where the sound was coming from. The screaming was so close to him. No, it was coming from him, erupting from his mouth in hoarse, almost incoherent bursts. The same voice, the same words he had used when his daughter was four years old and they had found a growth on her brain. He had sat in the waiting room, barely an adult himself, mourning her childhood. When Ellie carried Cathy out of the doctor’s office she was cheerful enough, babbling about the Christmas play and her role as the Angel Gabriel. It was malignant and terminal and Nathan had zoned out because he didn’t want to believe it. Those were also the words he screamed at Ellie when she told him she was leaving him, and he raised a fist but let it drop because in this woman’s eyes he could see his daughter. It felt like it was Cathy who took her bags and left in the middle of the night.
He had prayed the night they discovered Cathy’s tumour and he had prayed as he realised he and Steve might not make it to the end of the race. God seemed to have a ball ignoring him because they couldn’t operate on Cathy and he sat back and watched as the hull of the yacht was sliced open and began to flood. He didn’t care when the motion of the yacht hitting the growler threw Steve down the gangway, rendering him unconscious below deck. Nathan hadn’t even bothered praying when he decided to jump overboard. His brain had gone numb in panic.
He could imagine what Steve would be saying if he hadn’t been fucking around with the sails when rather than paying attention when the swell of the ocean was more than either of them imagined it would be. He would probably paddle up to Nathan in the dingy, perhaps having a smoke, resigned to death but in the most Steve way possible.
“It’s a relief really, Nat. At least now I don’t have to marry Sheila and you don’t have to write a soppy speech,” he would say, dragging on his cigarette and flicking the ash into the water. He would probably rest his head back on his lifejacket collar and close his eyes, maybe quoting some poncey poetry he had learned from a retired deep-sea fisherman on his Yacht Masters training.
“The Ice was here, the Ice was there,
The Ice was all around;
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises of a swound.”
Steve wasn’t there. Nathan briefly thought about him lying in the galley as the grey ocean surrounded him. It just reminded him that he was alone, and no living person knew where he was. He tried to get some feeling back into his body by clenching and unclenching his fingers, but he could only twitch his thumb. He felt more comfortable with death now he didn’t hurt so much. He supposed this must be how it feels to feel weightless. Despite the numbness, he knew he had some severe nerve damage or maybe even frostbite. If by any chance he was found, he might walk with a limp like Cathy did when her tumour was in its final stages. She lost most motor function and could only walk if Nathan or Ellie held her on either side. She would pocket her chubby fist in Nathan’s hand and let him guide her from one side of the sitting room to the other. She would do the same when she was in hospital for the final time, and when she lost consciousness Nathan didn’t let go, thinking he could keep her warm and safe forever that way.
Nathan sensed somehow that he too might be losing consciousness. He felt a warmth in his palm through the water, soft and comforting.
“I found you! You told me you’d be here.”
“I also told you not to tell your mother,”
“I won’t, I promise.”
Nathan could feel himself getting lower in the water as it weighed down his clothes. It was reaching his chin. He felt the water around him tremble as the yacht, now distant, gave one final creak before it was swallowed by the sea. Ripples spread like seismic waves before the water went glassy and still. Nathan leaned back and looked up at the sky. Somewhere in the eye of the hurricane of his brain he knew that Steve was getting closer and closer to the ocean floor.
He thought he saw a shooting star just above Orion’s Belt.
The sky looked nice.
“With throat unslaked, with black lips baked,
Ne could we laugh, ne wail;”
Steve had wanted to be a GP when he started uni but ultimately decided to be a psychiatrist.
“Then while through drouth all dumb they stood,”
Nathan was pretty sure he could float like a starfish.
“I bit my arm, and sucked the blood,
And cried, “A Sail! A sail!”
The water was very cold. He’d been numb before but now he was cold. The sky looked nice. He leaned back in the water and gazed at the stars. The water rushed over him like soil on top of a coffin.
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