Originally I had included an exciting rescue at sea which explained why Harry and Eugene arrived together in Halifax …
It was one of those days. With the sea tossing and the wind howling, no one on board had gotten much sleep. At least the weather had discouraged the hunters, meaning the defenders had let their guard down for a few hours. They’d been watching a wolf pack for a couple of days, and their menace had grown with their numbers. The ASDIC had picked up three yesterday, but the readings had been up and down with the waves since then. Eugene had a bad feeling they’d multiplied overnight.
The men changed shifts; as the exhausted, soaked men went to the bunks, the sleepers rolled out, still in their life jackets. No one had been brave enough or stupid enough to go without last night. Eugene waited in line for the latrine, tried to wake himself up with a splash of water over his face, then finished up brushing his teeth. His head was pounding, and he was glad no one seemed in a mood for talking. Breakfast had been delayed since the storm had interrupted the kitchen duties, and he was hungry. They were in the tail end of the blast now, but the ship still rocked beneath their feet. The men braced themselves against the walls, one hand on either side of the walkway.
All at once the alarm sounded, shooting the familiar bolt of apprehension through him, and he sprinted towards the upper deck.
“All hands on deck! All guns manned and ready!” came the announcement.
He was halfway up the stairs, surrounded by men fresh off their shift and those just starting, when the ship jumped then shuddered all around him, knocking him back a few steps. Not a direct hit, but close. Ship or U-Boat? Another man tumbled on top of him, but he was instantly back on his feet, apologizing and climbing toward the grey sky.
The scene from the upper deck was chaotic, realizing Eugene’s concerns. They were surrounded, and a great plume of black smoke choked the air. Someone had been hit nearby, and it was one of theirs, but he couldn’t tell who. Within the pack’s formation the merchant ships lunged and dove in all directions, confused and panicked, and geysers ripped the water apart as more torpedoes were launched by the surrounding U-Boats. Eugene’s ship had accelerated, churning their wake to foam, and the others in the convoy seemed to have done the same, but this was not a one-ship attack. From the back of his ship billowed an ominous black cloud, and water streamed across the deck, aimed at the fire. Maybe they’d contain it. Maybe they wouldn’t.
“Sub-Lieutenant,” Eugene yelled, reaching for the man’s binoculars, “where’s the Duchess of York? Is she with us?”
He spotted them, felt his heart sink. Harry was surrounded, and smoke flowed over the aft deck. Through the binoculars he saw the tiny figures of men working the guns, doing what they could.
The next hit came before any of them were ready, tearing off the bulkhead of Harry’s ship, dropping men into the sea. Eugene’s heart leaped, and he could swear he felt Harry flying through the air. In the next minute he saw the activity on board abruptly change and he realized their captain had ordered the ship abandoned. Lifeboats dropped and the Sackville turned to port, intent on picking up survivors; no one would be safe for very long in the middle of this maelstrom. The small white boats saw her coming and aimed toward the corvette, their oars like toothpicks battling the angry sea. Once they came alongside, the men clambered up, their little boats smashing into the Sackville’s hull, rolling away, pulling back. As each man landed safely on the Sackville’s deck, Eugene leaned farther over the edge, seeking Harry. There was no sign of him.
“Excuse me,” he said, stopping one of the sailors. “Harry Baker. You know him?”
“Yes, sir. Of course.”
“Where is he?”
He turned back toward the lifeboats. “I dunno, sir. He was with us at the guns, he was firing, ordering us all to stay at our posts. He should be here.” He grabbed one of the other men. “You seen Baker?”
No one had seen him. But the Duchess was lilting hard, showing no sign of life on board.
Eugene swept his binoculars over the raging sea, trying to focus as torpedoes fired and depth charges rattled, blowing the ocean into the sky. He wasn’t dead, because Eugene could still feel him somehow, as if their hearts still beat in sync. He had to be out there somewhere. And if Harry was out there, Eugene wasn’t about to leave him to become shark food. He peered through the glass, scouting for something—anything—that could help him. The Duchess wasn’t too far, meaning anyone from it must be close as well. He kept his range close, searching back and forth over every ripple—and he found him.
“There!” he yelled, pointing.
The small shape of a man floated near the side of the Duchess. He was face-up, but he wasn’t moving on his own. The more he focused on it, the more he made out his brother’s slack features. The floundering ship shifted, shoving Harry closer to Eugene, but he was still too far. Only twenty feet or more away, but those were tough feet. And even if they threw Harry a rope it would be useless, because he wasn’t conscious.
The battle raged on around them, the boats rolling and reacting, the water an unbiased enemy to them all. Oil slicks darkened the surface of the sea, testament to the killing strikes already made both on ships and on the subs, and at any time it could burst into flames. The Sackville was fighting back; a great cheer went up when a U-Boat was forced to surface and surrender. Their orders would be to keep moving, get the convoy safely across and as close to schedule as possible.
One lone man floating in the sea would not be enough to stop a convoy.
Eugene grabbed a life preserver and threw himself over the side.
It was a long way down from the deck to the water, but it was longer getting to Harry. He still wore his life jacket, and he clung to the floating ring to help get him there quickly. All the way there he kept calling, swallowing salt water and panting with the effort, hoping Harry would look up. At last he got to his brother’s side, and Harry’s face was covered in blood. It looked like he’d struck it against something when he’d been blown off the ship. Struggling against the waves, he reached for Harry’s throat, hoping for a pulse. There it was, bravely drumming away.
“Okay then,” he grunted. “If you’re not going to swim I’ll have to do it for the both of us.” He wedged the life preserver over his brother’s body, keeping him afloat. “Sorry to truss you up like a turkey, but I gotta get you out of here. Linda would kill me if I came home without you.”
His brother was heavy behind him, resisting the forward motion—dead weight, his traitorous mind screamed, but no. Harry was not dead, was not going to be dead until the two of them were old and grey. He hauled him back to the ship where Harry’s shipmates lined up to help him. But once Harry was up safely, Eugene pulled himself up and pushed them away. He didn’t want anyone else coming between them. He draped his brother over his shoulder and half carried, half dragged him toward the infirmary, careful to keep Harry’s head cushioned against his own. The medical officer looked after him immediately, examining the wound, putting him together as well as possible.
“What is it?”
“He’s been hit by shrapnel. He needs surgery.”
Harry slept for the next three days, then they arrived in Halifax. He was put on a stretcher, carried to a waiting ambulance, and Eugene went with him. Just as he was about to climb inside, someone touched his arm.
Eugene spun toward the voice, stunned, then he opened his arms. “Uncle Mick! What in God’s name are you doing here?”
The older man hugged him tight. “When the story of a heroic, ginger haired lieutenant-commander leaping into the ocean to save his twin comes across my desk, I’m not about to assign it to anybody but me.”
Eugene grinned. “You’re not gonna write about us.”
“Sure I am.”
He winked the only eye he had. A patch covered the other side of his face, and though Mick was older now, Eugene still thought of him as a pirate. That’s what his father had always called him. Mick had lost his eye in the war, and Harry in the Explosion so long before, so they had a kind of connection.
“Wouldn’t your father love that?”
“Oh well. We’ll do it anyway.” He patted Eugene’s arm. “Come on, now. Let’s go find you a surgeon so we can get the lad home, right?”
Knowing the Editor-In-Chief of the newspaper was beneficial, it seemed, for Harry was quickly admitted and rolled into surgery. Four hours later he was out and wrapped in a neat new bandage.
“He should be fine,” the surgeon said. “It was superficial. The shrapnel was right near the surface, didn’t touch his brain. It could have affected his vision; however, it was on the eye that is already blind, so that wouldn’t have mattered, obviously.”
“When can we take him home?”
The surgeon crossed his arms. “I’d like him to rest here at least a week. He’s not quite ready yet.”
“Is he conscious?”
“Not yet. All the repair work’s been done, though. I think he just needs the swelling to go down and for his body to adjust. That’s why we want him to stay here.”
Eugene nodded. “I understand. I’ll let the family know. Thanks, doc. Can I see him?”
The nurse led Eugene and Mick to the recovery room, and to the bed where Harry lay. Most of his head was swathed in clean white bandages, though they’d left the good eye uncovered. Eugene stood by his pillow, looking down at the purple crescent moon under his sunken eye. It was very dark, striking against skin that was paler than ever, but his chest rose and fell softly under the light blue hospital pajamas. He was alive. Thank God.
“Tell your folks you’re all welcome to put their feet up at my house whenever they want to come see him.”
“Thanks, Uncle Mick. I guess I’ll go call now.”
And later, Mick wrote an article …
“Well, Maman,” Harry said, “Do you want to hear the story or—” He tilted his head towards Mick. “—do you want to just wait and read it? I have a feeling Uncle Mick’s will be more colourful than mine.”
“Never mind him,” their father said. “Tell us what happened.”
Harry’s expression tightened a little, and Grace shifted seats, wanting to be beside him. She took his hand and nodded encouragement, which seemed to help.
“Well, it was one of those days, you know?” He squeezed her hand, but his eyes didn’t quite match his smile. He stared straight ahead, remembering. “Stormy all night, so none of us got much sleep. We’d been watching a wolfpack for a couple of days, and they’d closed in while our boats tossed around on the surface. We all knew it was gonna be trouble in the morning.
“By the time the alarm sounded, everything was so loud we almost couldn’t hear it. I was halfway up the stairs when the first shot hit, just off our bow. As soon as I got on deck I could see I was right. We were surrounded. Eugene’s ship, the Duchess of York, was right beside ours, but it was pouring smoke. They had the hoses out, and water streamed across the deck, but I didn’t think they were gonna contain it. There was just too much smoke.”
He hesitated then glanced up at Mick, who held out his cigarette case.
“Thanks,” Harry said, taking one then leaning towards Mick’s lighter. He inhaled and blew out a stream of smoke, and that’s when Grace noticed his hand shaking. She’d never seen it do that before.
“The next hit came before any of us were ready. It tore off the Duchess’s bulkhead and dropped her men into the sea.” He shook his head. “And here’s the weirdest thing: I felt as if I felt Eugene flying through the air. As if I was flying instead of him, almost. I kept looking overboard, but I couldn’t see him. Their captain ordered the ship abandoned, and lifeboats were lowered so they could pick up the men to bring them to us. There was no sign of Eugene.”
He took a long drag on his cigarette. “I asked around, but no one had seen him. The Duchess was lilting hard, showing no sign of life on board, and I just knew he had to still be in the water. I had to find him fast, because there was too much going on out there. A man couldn’t survive all that for too long.
“Then I saw him.” His mouth opened slightly, and his eyes were far away. Grace squeezed his hand, but he didn’t appear to feel it; he was thousands of miles away on the angry Atlantic. “He was floating beside the Duchess, no more than twenty feet from me, and he wasn’t moving.”
“Those would be some impossibly tough twenty feet,” Mick said softly, getting to his feet. He walked over to the bar and poured out five small glasses of brandy then handed them out. “I’ve seen film footage of what it’s like during one of those battles.”
Harry didn’t talk for a moment, didn’t seem to remember he was holding a cigarette in one hand and a glass in the other. Then he looked at their mother, his chin twitching with emotion. “I . . . I couldn’t just leave him there. The boats were moving on, but how was I supposed to just go without him?”
She pressed both hands to her mouth, not blinking. No one spoke, and once again Grace found herself crying, aching for her brothers’ misery.
“So he jumped in,” Mick said, matter of fact. “Yep. Tossed in a life preserver then threw himself over the side. He swam all that way, calling to his brother, swallowing the salt water, trying to keep his head up so he could keep an eye on Eugene. When he finally got there, well, he saw his brother’s face was covered in blood. The doctor said the shrapnel caught him on the way by, then he hit his head when he went overboard.”
“I never was so happy as when I felt for his pulse and found it there,” Harry said. “’Okay then, I told him, if you’re not going to swim I’ll have to do it for the both of us. Linda’ll kill me if I came home without you.’”
He was trying to make them smile, but no one did.
“He was so heavy,” Harry said, remembering. “I carried him out and dragged him to the infirmary. He had a concussion, the doctor said. He slept on the Sackville for the next three days, then they arrived in Halifax. I stayed with him when they were carrying his stretcher out to an ambulance, and that’s when I ran into this guy.”
“What were you doing there?” his father asked Mick.
“Being a newspaper man, of course.” He grinned and reached beside his chair, pulled out a folded newspaper. “When the story of a heroic, ginger haired lieutenant-commander leaping into the ocean to save his twin comes across my desk, I’m not about to assign it to anybody but me.” He handed Grace’s mother the paper. “Here you go. Let me know if you need more copies.”