Friday

Week 2 : Text : Extract from Captain's Log, HMS Calvary, Feb. 16th, 1920

Morning Watch: (0401-0800) Couldn't sleep. The same dream waits for me each time I go under. I report to the bridge and take the helm. Odd reports from Middle Watch. Laughter heard in the fog. The port sentry rushes in. He’s heard it again. I order the engine room All Stop. Dead calm. Our search lights bounce back at us from off the Baltic fog. I order them cut. No stars to know our position by. We drift in darkness, heads bowed like penitents, listening.

The sounds of my dream are there in the silence. Great thuds shuddering underwater. The scream of metal tearing. I brace and listen through them into the night. And then I hear it. Music. Brass and voices. Men’s and women’s rising and falling in chorus. Then out of the East a glow, though it’s hours yet ‘til the sun shall rise. It’s a star nonetheless. A great red five-pointed star floating towards us through the murk, twenty feet above board, headed straight for the bridge, escorted by a twinkling flotilla of starlets.

The Executive Officer, woken by the brass cacophony, ascends the bridge and, at first sight of the star, calls all hands to battle stations. The sirens wake me from my trance and I see the visitation for what it is, a Russian vessel, but unlike any I’ve yet seen on open water. She’s a riverboat, a paddle steamer, bedecked fore and aft with faerie lights. Atop her funnel an electric red star lamp. She bares no visible arms. No cannon. None of her crew appeared to be armed, nor capable of any seamanlike activity apart from staggering about decks nine sheets to the wind. There are trapezists swinging from the rigging, some blowing into horns. The rest of the band are scattered amongst the revelers, working feverishly at fiddles or banging upon any surface that will return a satisfying clang. And women too. All in uniform and utterly unruly, yet at the sound of our alarm they snap to like actors on stage bid silent by their director.

The Ex O and I debate the rules of engagement. He points out that His Majesty’s government is opposed to the Bolshevik usurpation of its ally, Tsar Nicholas, and is committed to assist the counter-revolutionary White Army currently engaged in civil war against the Reds. The Calvary should forthwith assume command of the “renegade” vessel and escort her to Kaliningrad, the nearest White port. The Ex O goes to pains to stress his contempt for the Boslheviks, their atheistic philosophy, and the betrayal they wrought upon His Majesty’s armed forces by withdrawing Russia’s armies from The Great War against Germany. I remind him that the so called Great War is now over and that His Majesty’s support for the White Army is to be expressed, according to the Admiralty, “with the utmost discretion”, lest another pointless bloody conflict begin. Hence, we will not board the alien vessel without invitation from her captain.

We are currently astern of her. All her crew have disappeared below decks. Her paddle wheel is still. All our hails have been met with silence. We are at stalemate. The Calvary is all hushed in confusion and fascination at the once raucous circus now floating mutely beside us. Waiting for some red Jack to spring from the box.


Forenoon Watch: (0801-1200) Still no response. I surmise the steamboat’s crew are sleeping off the night’s revels. It gives us time to ponder her purpose. She is painted, every plank of her three decks, a rich red, all but for huge white letters in backwards script across her hull. She’s like those advertising hoardings you see on Picadilly. The Ex O spends all morning at an English-Russian dictionary. “Got a talent for codes and trained to break them,” he brags. Just before noon he hands me a piece of paper that reads, “The sun of the soviet republic illuminates the path of truth, knowledge and right. THOSE WHO KNOW THIS, SO WILL THEY TRIUMPH.”

Afternoon Watch: (1201-1600) We watch a man walk out onto the steamboat’s bottom deck pulling with him a huge trunk on wheels. He’s clean-shaven, uniform pressed, every motion deliberate and exact, a proper military sailor. From the trunk he pulls a red cone hailer and in perfect English identifies himself as Yevgeny Gavrilov, Chief Commissar of the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment aboard the agit-ship Red Star. I identify myself and ask him what his purpose is piloting a river boat out into the Baltic Sea. He asks if the Calvary is equipped with a projector. It is. He asks if he may come aboard and screen for me a film that will explain the purpose of The Red Star. The Ex O practically licks his lips. He’s already regaling the Admiralty, over brandy and cigars, with the story of how he captured a Red Devil. But I want to hear what this devil’s got to say. I tell him we’ll send over a dinghy to collect him. As he takes the metal film canister out of his trunk he smiles to himself. The smile looks wicked from afar. It’s not ‘til he’s on board that I can see his eyes properly and recognise his smile as something mixed of relief and joy. He is seated across from me now in my cabin as I write this, beaming like a child at Christmas. The film is being readied in the mess and his only response to the Ex O’s interrogations is that, “Film shall explain all.”

First Dog Watch: (1201-1600) Gavrilov stood to attention beside the projector all through the screening and translated, for the benefit of myself, the Ex O and the other commissioned officers, the motion picture’s title cards. The effect was startling. Like peering into the mind of The Russian Soldier. And all the more real to me for how completely in spirit it reflected my own. The film, Frozen Angels, tells the story of a lone soldier, a hostage to war, a pawn in the great game of kings. He is isolated in a frozen outpost. A blizzard rages outside. His only contact with the world is a radio. He plays chess with the operator at the other end in St. Petersberg. This operator, who refers to himself as the White King, is a tsarist through and through. He keeps the outpost soldier in check all through the movie and lords it over him. The soldier is caught in an interminable endgame. The film only lasts about half an hour but by the end I felt like I had spent a lifetime cooped up at the centre of that wasteland. Perhaps I have. And the sparrow. That poor sparrow. The only glimpse of life from outside to enter the cabin is one of futility. Relief does not come until the very end. A new voice comes over the radio. (The talented Gavrilov manages to create wholly different voices for each character.) It is a Red Brigade soldier who has just liberated the military headquarters in St Petersberg. He tells the soldier that “The Great Game is over!” and that now he must take up arms against the White King for real. The soldier springs from his desk, loads his rifle and flings open the door of his cell to reveal the sun rising over the steppes. It is quite an exhilarating close to the film and one of the younger officers was so taken with it he quite forgot himself and applauded. There was a hushed commotion in the galley from where I knew some of the non-commissioned men had been watching. The Ex O took me aside to tell me that he had noted several aspects of the chess game sequences that might reveal further intelligence upon repeat viewing. I have assented to this and Gavrilov is currently performing his parts again, now for a mess hall packed with non-coms. I feel exhausted. The film has emptied me out like a long swim out to sea and back again. I will sleep for an hour and when I awake decide then what to do with Gavrilov and his Frozen Angels.

Last Dog Watch: (1601-2000) Slept through the alarm. Woken by the Ex O pounding at my door. He claims to have found a code in the various positions and maneuvers of Frozen Angels’ chess game. The message is as follows, “Auntie Margaret knows little Charlie’s secret. Out by the pond three ducks died. Send cake quickly.” He says he’s checked it and double checked it against known ciphers to no avail, but he’s developed one that makes the message of the movie clear: Lenin wants to unite with Germany against England and her allies in a new bid for supremacy in Europe. I ask the Ex O if we even saw the same movie and leave him to check again his scribbled sheets of chessboard lexicography.

In the mess hall Gavrilov is screening Frozen Angels for what must be the sixth time straight. Still at attention, translating with as much character and zeal as the first time. Not that he needs to. It’s clear that most of the men crammed into the mess have seen the film at least once before. They don’t have to wait for Gavrilov to recite the words. They sing them out, some even substituting “King George” for any mention of the Tsar. The film ends and they cheer. Once they’ve calmed down they fling questions at the Commissar about the socialist utopia he claims Lenin is building for the workers of the world. They are particularly eager to hear about the liberation of sexual intercourse from the bounds of holy matrimony. “I feel a certain part of me going red right now!” quips one able seaman. “Commissar Gavrilov!” I call out, and immediately the room is silent. “Commissar Gavrilov, your movie shows war for what it is: pure horror that eats away at a man from the inside. It feeds on his sense of honour and duty and turns them both into shit.” Some men grumble agreement. “Is the conclusion of the film therefore not hypocritical? Is it not just more lies from on high designed to whip good men like these into bloodlust?” All eyes move to Gavrilov whose smile does not falter, but softens as one does when speaking to a beloved child. “It is as you say, Captain,” he begins. “There is no just war. And only those who are naive cheer at the movie’s ending. But those who have fought, as you have Captain, when they see this film, they want to put away their weapons forever. Is this not so?” I say nothing. “This movie is not meant to be seen by our comrades in the Red Army. It is for the Whites. We are on our way to show this to our brothers on the other side of the chessboard.” My heart drops. “But they’ll bleedin’ execute you,” one Chief Petty Officer calls out. “What’ll that prove, you mug?” “Perhaps nothing,” Gavrilov replies, “But in this new game we play, we pawns move ourselves and we only know one way forward.”

First Watch: (2001-0000) The band has struck up again aboard The Red Star. Gavrilov has returned to her. The question is there in the eyes of every crewman I pass as I pace about the deck, “Shall we follow her?” The Ex O reports that he has raised HQ on the radio, told them about the film’s “dire coded message” and we have been commanded to detain The Red Star, take possession of all her propaganda materials including Frozen Angels. He adds with some relish, “If she resists, sir, we are to sink her.” I tell the Ex O to return to his cabin where I shall join him shortly to help him locate his marbles. I order the Chief Petty Officer to radio HQ and report the Ex O’s diminished capacity. The Ex O practically snarls as he rushes past me to the 20-pounder on the foredeck. We are too shocked to react at first as he loads the cannon. He begins to turn the capstan and level the cannon at The Red Star’s deck, crying “If I’m wrong then how does Lenin know about my Aunt Margaret, eh?” I bring my pistol out from its holster, and with the still, blank feeling of death I have called upon so many times before, end the Ex O’s madness.

The Red Star goes silent. The gunshot rings in the air. The players turn to me. They are now the audience and the deck of The Calvary has become the stage. They await the hero’s next move. He has no choice. As in all good tragedy, he must go deeper into trouble.

Middle Watch: (0001-0400) Our wives will not understand. We will be branded outlaws. Traitors to king and country. But we cannot go home. We hope that one day our children will learn of The Calvary. That on her deck the revolution came to England. We joke that a movie will be made of our story. Gallows humour, but I can see it in my mind. I see The Red Star paddling meekly through a valley of tall White battleships. Their cannon turn down to rain hell upon her, but we swoop to catch the blast. As the Calvary shields her, The Red Star projects her vision of peace upon their towering hulls. The sparrow flies against the storm. We are pummeled on either cheek but we do not shoot back. Then one by one the death-white guns fall silent. The ocean is still. Slow, The Calvary sinks beneath the waves. Reluctantly the mighty titan goes to sleep. Boom underwater its heartbeat. Keen its metal joints as they come to rest. Whilst overhead The Red Star follows its course East, bearing souls towards the promised land.

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