By Jane Clare
The creaking of the wood as the waves massaged the keel of the boat was the only sound to be heard on the return journey to Fethard. I was hesitant about going home after my time on the island, but I forced myself into the boat. The waves crashed over the bow of the boat forcing it to pitch and toss violently. A seasoned seaman such as myself shouldn’t get seasick, but I was overcome by waves of sickness. My body was wracked with spasms. I hadn’t eaten in days and the last pittance of food in my stomach was forcing its way out. Being a member of the lifeboat crew, it is understood that you cannot save everyone. But rarely does it cross your mind, that the ones you have to leave behind are your own, your own crew, your family, your brethren.
I was unprepared for the hero’s welcome that awaited us at the harbour. It was overwhelming. I didn’t feel like a hero. I felt like a traitor. Questions spun in my mind making it hard to speak. Words fell quiet before they reached my mouth, dry, gritty and salty. I would have to wait for my thoughts to settle before attempting to converse. My first thought was for my family, and my second was for the families of the men we lost. I was unsure about how I was going to face the families. Nine men were lost. Nine lives intricately woven into the community. co-workers, fathers, brothers. When we got into the Helen Blake last Friday afternoon, this surely was a scenario far from my mind.
There were no accusations at the pier. No recriminations or pointing fingers, only cheering faces, shouts of joy and relief on the faces of my family and friends. I smiled broadly, hoping that it was going to reach my eyes. Questions, hundreds of questions flooded over me. Again, I could not speak. I would need time, time to sort out the events of the last four days, time for the reality of surviving to sink in, time to realise, that I was a damaged man. Changed as much by being part of the rough and rugged landscape, as by the experience of loss.
I stood at my front door, grateful for it to be opened for me from the inside by my sister Molly. Strength was finally failing me as I stumbled through the door, but not forgetting to duck for the lintel. The fire burned bright in the hearth as the smell of home invaded my senses. My heart pounded in my chest as I sat aside the fire. Molly handed me a mug of milky tea, I held it without drinking, letting the scalding heat warm my stone cold hands.
‘I am going to stay with you for a few days Tom.’
‘You are a hero Tom….’
‘But even heroes need to be looked after sometimes.’
‘Well, I am delighted ye are home, but I can’t stay prating all day with ye about yer adventures… there is work to be done, and if we want a foggart of grub for our tae, I must head to the butchers.’
‘Why don’t ye take to the bed, and I’ll wake ye for tae. But be sure to wash yerself first, ye are like black lead himself. Outside mind you – I have me fingers gone down to the bone trying to get the place straight for ye. No need to be making a mess’
Molly handed me a warm towel and a jug of warm water.
‘Don’t get used to it mind you, even Shackleton didn’t have his dinner handed to him.’
And with that, she turned, picked up her shopping basket and headed out the door. A smile spread across my face as I headed outside to the Belfast sink. For the first time in almost a week, I looked at myself in the mirror. My eyebrows shot up in horror. Two piercing blue eyes stared back at me. They were made brighter by the weathering my face had taken. That coupled with five days of beard growth made me look like I had no one belonging to me. As I soaped up my badger brush, I thought of my father. He always maintained that I stood too far away from the razor. I tried for a close shave, bearing this in mind. As I finished I breathed in the smell of soap from the towel as I dried my face. It had taken a while but my reflection now bore a resemblance to me. More lines, grooves where previously there were none, altered, but much the same. That’ll do for me. A quick stand up wash and I was done.
I make my way back into the house. Sunlight casting shadows on the door frame. Familiar green paint from the Foundry in the town was reassuring. I never before had occasions to think of the memories that the particular shade of paint could invoke. But they are powerful and comforting. Looking closer at the door frame, it needed a coat of paint, a job for another day, if I have some time. The hall was dark in comparison to the sun splashed yard. The clack of my boots on the flagstone reminded me that I perhaps should have taken them off outside. Too tired now to turn back, I shall have to throw myself on Molly’s mercy. This sits uneasily with me, as I am unsure how much she has. I turn, head towards the backdoor and sit on the step. I eased them off one at a time. Encrusted with sea salt, sweat and sand, they land with a thud and don’t even bounce. Socks follow, and stand upright. Now bed, I normally don’t lie down in the middle of the day. Today, however, is exceptional. I need time to go over everything that happened, our failed rescue, the many attempted rescues, our lost friends, and that wait. That damned interminable wait.
Our mother had nursed in the Crimea and Molly had inherited her intimidating approach to making beds. After a few minutes of wrestling with the sheets, I released enough to ease myself under the comforter, soft and heavy, enveloped in white. The sun streamed in through the window where I could see bits of dust floating in the stillness. I looked at the picture of St Christopher hanging forlornly on an old nail, and closed my eyes. There was no relief for me in slumber. The faces of the men washed off the rocks danced in front of my eyes. I lay with my eyes awake. The realisation that I had drifted asleep hit me at the same time as a deafening scream bursting through my ear drum.
‘By t’Lord Jaysus, and the Holy Mother of God, he’s alive!’
‘Tom ya gobshite, ye must have fallen asleep with yer eyes open, yer only after putting the heart crossways in me, ye were like a corpse in the bed.’
‘Aye, me eye! Gerrup out of that bed for dinner, I’ve a spread for ye, ye wouldn’t see the like of in the Gresham.’
Slowly, my heart started beating again. My eyes adjusted to the evening light, and I set about getting out of bed. After much effort, I was up and dressed. A fresh shirt and slacks had been laid out for me. I did my best to present myself tidily for dinner.
I sat stiffly at the dinner table. Molly had out a fine spread on the table, but my appetite was lacking. I ate heartily however. I knew I needed it, but there was something on my mind. Something that I knew I must do. Something that would help me put a handle on my grief and guilt.
‘There is something I must do Molly.’
‘I must return to the lifeboats.’
‘Are ye cracked or what!’
‘I might well be, but I can still help to prevent other losses. I cannot stay on land and not offer my service. I can’t do nothing . And with that I retired back to my bedroom and wrote a letter by the dim light of my paraffin lamp. Once it was finished, I stepped out into the velvety night. The soft rain fell in a mist as I made my way up the hill. At the door, I didn’t knock, preferring instead to push the letter under the door. I released my breath and turned homeward.
Dear Mr Duggan,
I am writing to you to express my profound gratitude for your efforts to rescue the crew of the Helen Blake, and the Mexico from the Keeragh Islands on the 24th Feb. Without your dedicated and consistent efforts, we would surely have perished that day. As a fellow lifeboat member I am proud to have worked with you, and I wish you every success in our future endeavours. You are the bravest man I have ever encountered, and you have inspired me to continue my work with the lifeboats and to continue to contribute to saving lives at sea. I have experienced great loss over the last week, but I have survived. Many times, I have wondered why I am still here, but I am sure it is because I can still make a difference. I offer to you my life in service as a lifeboat crew member, and I am forever indebted to you.
Yours in earnest gratitude,
A week later, I took a deep breath in. The smell of the sea filled my lungs. I felt the cool morning air on my face and I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of the water. From where I stood on the harbour wall, I could see the beach stretch out in front of me. In the distance I could see the Keeragh Islands. The scene of what people are calling one of the most heroic recues of all time. The most fantastic feat of human endurance possible they say. I never thought we would make it back. And certainly never thought I would feel like this. I am one of the lucky ones, or so they keep telling me.
The events of the 20th February 1914 are forever etched into my memory, and have stayed with me since their occurrence. I can only presume they continue to stay with me as I see out the rest of my days, days when I can feel the heat of the sun on my face, when I can look at the faces of my family, who look at me with admiration in their eyes, days when not a moment goes by without the screams of my crewmates ringing in my ears. But this is a silent pain, one I must bear myself. After all, I am one of the lucky ones. That day had started off well weather wise. Living in such close proximity to the sea, it becomes part of you, a sixth sense. A soft breeze from the south west gave us no indication of the storm that was brewing further out to sea. Nevertheless, I had an uneasy sense about me that day. One I should have listened to.
Every morning I have come to the harbour to see the sun rise over the sea. I give my thanks to God and I pray for the souls lost at sea. Like all rituals, my morning routine has helped me greatly, giving my day a focus point, a reason to heave myself from slumber every morning. Every morning for those four days I was awake as the twilight made way for day light. I have always thought there was something magical about that time of the day. Each morning it gave me hope. Perhaps it was the secret pagan in me, with the light streaked across the sky turning it from black to purple t blue… I thought of the Celtic sun god Lugh breaking through the darkness each day. And this gave me hope, a new determination every day to continue to fight for myself, and for the rest of the survivors. Each day that I return here to see the sunrise renews this determination in me. It reminds me that I have survived, despite not wanting to sometimes. I have learned to live with my guilt.
As the wind blows the sand from the rocks, so shall it cleanse my soul. Waiting for the inquiry results was endless, but now I am reassured of the part we played. Souls lost to the sea will never be forgotten. That would be the greatest tragedy of all. But they will never be far from our thoughts, and neither will the people who rescued me. Each morning, I will return to this place to see the sun rise over the sea. To continue to hope on the first light that breaks every day. For every day that you see the sun come up, is a good day.