Saturday 6 June 2020

'Comfortless Cove' by Linda Walsh

I grip the sides of the swaying rowing boat, my face scorched by a cold-hearted sun. Ahead is Ascension Island, Queen Victoria’s lonely outpost, lying between Africa and the New World, a desolate rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. As Assistant Surgeon, it fell to me to order Captain Butt to evacuate the sickest men to the shore. I concentrate on the sailors rowing in front of me, averting my eyes from the other souls, most of whom are lying low, covered in a greasy sweat, yellow-fever consuming their bodies. Behind us, the paddle-sloop HMS Trident lies anchored in deep water. Her decks are clear, a ghost ship shimmering in the daylight, her white ensign waves to us in the heightening wind. A gravelly voice startles me.

‘Nearly there, Sir.’

Staring at me is Isaac Mann, a Yorkshireman and old friend. We’ve both served in the West Africa Squadron for many years. Our eyes meet for a moment.

‘Comfortless Cove,’ I say, ‘I’d no wish to see it again.’

The rowing boat is pulled ashore. The able-bodied help the sick to disembark. I move amongst them dripping water unto parched lips. After a brief rest, we move along the beach, climb down into a deep hollow surrounded by jagged rocks. Everyone, no matter how frail, is handed a spade and ordered to dig.

The sun sinks early in this part of the world. The hollow provides shelter from the wind but it also obscures the sound of the sea. I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t hear its song and I feel unsteady, nauseous. The men finish their work, line their spades against the sides of the hollow.

The sick and the dying lie down in their shallow graves, their eyes fixed on the darkening sky above. No words are spoken, no farewells are called to the sailors who retreat to the comfort of the Trident. They’ll return at dawn with fresh food and water for those who survive the night. They’ll shovel earth over those who do not.

There’s a whisper of prayers and despair circling the hollow, I mop my brow and lie down; strain to hear the sound of the sea. My strangled voice cries out for water, for relief. To no avail.

I slam my fists against the sides of my newly dug grave and weep.

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