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A SAILOR DIES AT SEA first appeared in Jon Manchip White’s book of stories, Whistling Past the Churchyard: Strange Tales From a Superstitiious Welshman which was published by The Atlantic Monthly Press in 1992. It was also included on the audio tape released in 1997 by Iris Audio Publications entitled The Commodore and Other Stories Read by the Author.
 

A SAILOR DIES AT SEA

     The Englishman was growing irritated. With one hand he waved away the waiter who was hovering beside him with the coffeepot, with the other he drummed on the tablecloth. He bumped his chair in closer to the table and leaned forward.

     "Look," he said, "I came down here to Wales to put the final touches on this business. I thought we'd more or less agreed on everything during the visits you made to London. I'm deputizing for the chairman at a board meeting tomorrow afternoon. I was hoping to get back to town this evening, not spend another night stuck down here in bloody Wales."
     His irritation hadn't affected his appetite. He'd eaten his way through a substantial dinner of soup, steak, and trifle, washed down with a carafe of Burgundy. He was gulping brandy with his second cup of coffee.
     His companion, a slight, dark Welshman, regarded him with an expression of mixed amusement and distaste. He leaned back in his own chair and watched as the Englishman dabbed with his napkin at his meaty face. Then the pasty fingers stopped drumming on the cloth and began playing with the cutlery. They reminded the Welshman of fat, white worms.
     "Well?" The Englishman's voice was thickened by the food and drink. "What's it to be? Do you want the loan? Do you want our money, or don't you?"
     Evans, the Welshman, studied him coolly. God help him, he did need the money. With the shipping business in the way it was, he had to lay his hands on a fresh infusion of capital or go under. His warehouses down there on the Cardiff docks and in Swansea and Llanelly were stuffed full with an inventory he couldn't get rid of. He needed the loan to tide him over until business picked up again. Still, he wasn't yet mired down so badly that he couldn't afford to hang on for a few more days and try to find a lender with fairer terms. The trouble was, things were so grim all over. All the same, it was a pity that when he'd contacted Freytag's, the London bankers, his old friend Jack Williams had just left them for another firm: so he'd got stuck with this fellow Douglas Upton instead.
     Upton had picked up a fork and was scoring deep lines with it on the cloth, among the scattered crumbs and flakes of bread around his plate.
     "Well?" His tone was growing even more exasperated. He tossed off the last drops of his brandy and dug down with the fork. "You know, I've got other clients to deal with. And this thing is really very small potatoes as far as Freytag's is concerned. So do we have to go dragging it out forever?"
     Evans, still smiling, sat there stubborn and silent. The Welshman's attitude was beginning to provoke Upton into losing his temper. The white worms tightened on the fork. He drew it back and struck it hard on his brandy glass. The big balloonshaped glass resounded with a high, sharp, clear note that made the diners at the surrounding tables look around and stare.
     Evans tilted his chair quickly forward and reached out a hand. He put his forefinger on the rim of the glass in order to cut off the bright, ringing note. He sat back and let out his breath in a slow sigh.
     Upton, fork in hand, stared at him with a look of baffled inquiry upon his face.
     Evans said, in his soft Welsh voice, "I'd be grateful if you didn't do that. You see, here in Wales there's a belief among our old seafaring families that if somebody accidentally knocks a glass, and you don't stop it ringing, then somewhere or other a sailor dies at sea."
     Upton, still staring, uttered something between a snort and a laugh.
     "Wherever it comes from," said Evans calmly, "it's a very old belief. It's very strong."
     And suddenly, as he sat there in the warm dining room of Cardiff's biggest hotel, Evans had a glimpse of the black, tumbling ocean, of his dead father and grandfather, of his dead uncles. He saw them seated around the family dining table, bolt upright, drinking port, cracking walnuts with their gnarled brown fingers. Their blue eyes were washed to aquamarine by a lifetime of sun and wind. They smelled of salt and boot polish, of rum and whiskey and dark blue serge. Shrewd, simple, dangerous old men, they seemed to the little boy sitting there playing with his model ships on the carpet at their feet like ancient, white-haired skippers on the bridge. And if one of them, joking and roaring with laughter, happened to knock over a glass, causing it to ring, he would immediately lick the broad tip of a scarred forefinger and lay it on the glass.
     He looked at Upton. What could a man like that know about ships and seaports and the men who spent their lives in them? Men like Upton knew nothing except how to stuff themselves, how to haggle, finagle with contracts, fondle bank notes. What were the gales and the deeps and the vast black oceans to them? He stared at Upton's pallid hands and sweaty features. He felt a profound revulsion. Freytag's. It was insulting, to him and to those white-headed men, to the whole wide traffic of the seas, to find himself in such a fix, stuck here opposite a man like that.
     Upton was slumped back, shaking his head and regarding Evans with amazement and disbelief. Evidently he felt outraged that a serious conversation about money had been sidetracked by a typical bit of bloody Welsh nonsense. What sort of people were Freytag's dealing with, for Christ's sake?
     His face grew even redder. He put down his fork, heaved himself to his feet, and threw down his napkin. He shoved back his chair so that it almost tottered over.
     He said, "Is it really worth going on like this, Evans? I'm going to the gents'. Maybe when I come back you'll have a sensible answer?"


     He couldn't tell how long he'd been in the water. Body and brain were growing numb. There was no longer any feeling in his hands and lower arms. When he drifted back into something like consciousness he thought vaguely he must still be clinging to the same object he'd bumped into shortly after the ship went down. Could be a crate, a suitcase, some kind of trunk? Couldn't say if it was leather, or metal, or wood. Scarcely mattered.
     How long till dawn? He seemed to remember he'd been off watch and asleep below when the vessel hit—or was hit. There'd been shrieks and yells and shouted orders. Still, he knew they'd rescue him. Somehow he had to endure the icy water and the blackness and the ceaseless rolling of the waves. No light. Was he blind? Hold on. Hold on. There was still that curious, far-off ringing inside his skull, like a small, clear note struck on a bell. A blow on the head, maybe, as he went overboard?
     His struggle to keep himself afloat was growing feebler. Images bubbled into his mind. He saw the windswept farm with the black cattle and the straggling hedges. He saw the port with the narrow streets running up into the hills. He saw a woman with reddish hair standing on the wharf and holding her scarf tightly around her head and gazing out to sea.
     He began to feel stronger. He was conscious that the ringing in his head had stopped. He felt an immense relief. If there wasn't a further setback, a further blow, he would survive. The rescuers were on their way. He knew it.


     The Englishman came back from the men's room. He flopped down on his chair. He took up his soiled napkin and mopped at his face. His expression was surly and challenging.
     "Well, then?" he demanded. "How about it, Evans? What's it to be?"
     The Welshman was hesitating. During the Englishman's absence he had been agonizing over the situation, revolving and revising his options. He needed the money. Needed it badly. But Upton? Did it make sense to do business with a man he had taken such a dislike to? Wouldn't Upton make sure he'd come to regret it, sooner or later—maybe sooner rather than later? Why not try to wait until Jack Williams had found his bearings in his new job in the City? Yes—but how long might that take? Was it actually possible for him to hold on till Jack could bail him out, instead of delivering himself over bound hand and foot to Douglas Upton?
     He was doing his best, while the Englishman was settling his big bulk back in his chair, to keep his anxieties from appearing on his face. He wasn't succeeding. The Englishman might be unpleasant, but he was astute. The uncertainty and distaste on the Welshman's features was plain for him to see.
     He gave a grunt, then belched, sending a breath of sour wine in the Welshman's direction.
     "So it's like that, is it?" he said.
     He picked up his empty balloon glass and pushed his chair away from the table, leaning back so that the glass would be out of Evan's reach.
     The fat, white worms reached for the fork that had been thrown down earlier. Then, with a grin and a flip of the thick wrist, he deliberately struck the glass a violent blow, breaking it and sending a high, sharp note reverberating through the dining room.

 

Jon Manchip White, 1992, 1997.

 

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