Eye of the Storm

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

September 1917. While out crabbing in the English Channel off the coast of Devon, 10-year-old William and his older cousin Ella are caught in a storm. But it is more than just a rage of nature, but one of war as they come across a torpedoed American ship... Based on a true story.

The English Channel, near Hallsands, South Devon, September, 1917

‘So will I be able to see the eye?’ William asked as the first spots of rain began to fall. The young boy pulled the heavy oilskin over his thick jumper and turned to watch his older cousin Ella reel in the coarse rope to lift the crab pot from the bottom of the Channel.

William enjoyed the trips out on Ella’s crabbing boat and liked having her to himself. She was fun to be with, if a little melancholy, particularly since her older sister Patience had been stepping out with the tall Canadian pilot. Patience used to crab with Ella. But now Ella had to go out alone. William would stand on the shore at Hallsands and watch Ella drag the wooden crabbing boat she had inherited from her father down the shingle and push it out into the water. He would tell himself that he would ask if he could go with her next time. But when the next time came, he never got the chance, for she asked him first. And now they were out, out on the brine.

William may be just 10-years-old and Ella 21, but he felt he could talk to her about anything, no matter how silly. Like about the eye. And that was something that greatly concerned him. It had been a bright afternoon, but the sky had darkened, and the swell was beginning to rise. They were in for a tempest, and all the other fishermen had already turned back for home. Except for one. William could see the smoke puffing away from the funnel of Bill Stone’s boat away to their left.

‘I hope not, Willy.’ Ella finally answered his question about the eye as she heaved the heavy crab pot over the gunwale.

‘Golly,’ William gasped, eyes transfixed on the brown crabs crawling over each other inside the crude wooden pot.

‘A good haul, huh?’ Ella smiled. She pushed a blonde curl out of her vision and pulled her oilskin hat tightly down on her head. She scooped up the rope and began to coil it up before stowing it with the buoy under the stern seat. ‘How’s yours?’

She watched as William continued to heave his pot up from the water. But he was struggling. His hands were already red-raw from the friction of the rope, and the salt was beginning to sting.

‘It’s… heavy,’ he spluttered.

Ella nodded, but she didn’t offer to help, and William was glad. He had to do it on his own. He gave a last grunt of effort and yanked his crab pot up and into the boat.

He grinned. ‘I win, I think.’

Ella nodded. ‘Jolly good. They look like nice fat ones. But let’s see if Davy Jones has beaten the both of us.’

William frowned.

‘Why Davy Jones, Ella?’ he asked as his cousin picked up the oars and began to row against the swell towards the last buoy.

‘“One for me, one for thee, and one for the sea.” It’s what my father used to say,’ she explained. ‘Always give thanks for your haul. Keep one to feed your family, one to sell, and one to give back to Davy Jones in thanks.’

William sat at the stern and took hold of the rudder. It was his job to steer. He liked the feel of the rudder handle. A section of it was rotting away, and the wood beneath his palm was as soft as cloth. ‘Why not Poseidon?’ he asked.

Ella laughed. ‘I don’t know. But it’s tradition, and it served my father well. He never once had a bad day’s crabbing.’

William’s eyes drifted out to the Channel and over to the angry black clouds slowly heading in their direction. They filled the entire skyline and reached down to the sea's surface like a vast, thick veil.

When people talked of bad weather, they mentioned “the eye of the storm." And in his mind, he saw the storm as a giant hulking monster, a Cyclops, wailing and moaning as it crept over the sea, looking for ships to capsize. It didn’t frighten him, though, for he wasn’t easily scared. Instead, he wanted to see it for himself and bravely say, “My name is William Trout, and I am not afraid.”.

‘There it is,’ Ella said. ‘Hold her steady while I haul it in.’

As Ella strained to lift the final crab pot out of the water, a crack of thunder smacked against the surface of the sea, and William started. Lightning momentarily illuminated the clouds, and then something else caught his eye. A ship. First, it was there, and then it disappeared as their boat dipped down in the swell.

‘Ella, look!’  William pointed out to his cousin.

She turned and squinted into the spray. ‘I think we’d better head for home.’ And then she gasped.

As they rose once more on the swell, the ship came into view again, its bow poking out just at the edge of the storm clouds.

‘Is it another fishing boat?’ William wondered.

Ella shook her head. ‘It’s too big.’

‘Do you think it’s German?’ William asked excitedly.

‘I hope not. It’s a bit close to home. Perhaps we’d better get back to shore. Just in case,’ Ella added reassuringly, trying to keep the worry from her voice. She glanced over her left shoulder.

‘Maybe he’s returned home, too,’ William said.

‘Who?’ Ella asked.

‘Bill Stone.’

Ella turned back and smiled. ‘Yes, that’s what I was thinking. Right, help me turn her, Willy,’ she said and lifted the left oar out of the water.

William banked the rudder hard to the right, but his eyes remained glued to the black mass of clouds. Another flash of lightning illuminated them again, quickly followed by a massive crack of thunder, louder than before and closer. The smell of electricity made William’s nostrils twitch.

And then the rain came heavy and hard.

‘Hold on, Willy!’ Ella shouted and heaved on the oars.

An almighty clap filled the air, and a second flash of lightning lit up the cloud bank, but this time it wasn’t white but red and orange. The two cousins gasped as the ship powered out of the storm, its stern a mass of smoke and flame.

‘My God!’ Ella gasped.

‘What happened? Did lightning hit it? Ella?’ William sounded frightened now.

Ella bit her lip. ‘I think it’s been torpedoed. Or struck a mine...’

William furtively glanced at the water to his left and right. He expected to see a periscope peering up from the depths at them like some hideous leviathan.

‘Shall we help them?’ Ella asked calmly, trying to reassure her young cousin.

William glanced at the faltering vessel, then back to Ella. She looked pale despite the fires from the ship illuminating her soft face. William nodded.

‘Yes, I think we must,’ he said calmly.

‘Good lad,’ Ella said, ‘I knew you would be brave!’

William puffed out his chest and swallowed hard. His heart was racing, but he knew that it was the right thing to do, to help the sailors, whether they be friend or foe. So he banked the rudder to the left, and Ella rowed furiously towards the stricken vessel.

The storm clouds loomed up menacingly ahead of them, the thunder and lightning continued to dance in the air, and now the stench of burning oil reached them. It made William gag.

‘It’s one of ours!’ Ella shouted into the wind.

As they moved closer to the ship, William could make out its name emblazoned on the bow. The SS Newholm.

Ella rowed on.

The fire onboard the stricken vessel was raging hard, and the flames illuminated the water's surface in vivid colours. The heat was incredible, too, and reminded William of how he would sometimes stand with his face up towards the blazing sun on a hot summer’s day.

‘There!’ William pointed to their right. Ella spun the other way. A man, alone, was struggling to keep his head above water. Ella pulled the boat towards him, and as they approached, she held out an oar. The man grabbed hold of it, and Ella and William helped to drag his sodden oil-slicked form on board. He collapsed to the floor of the boat, gasping. He mumbled something and tried to sit up, but his eyes rolled back in his head, and he collapsed into unconsciousness.

‘Are there any more, Willy?’ Ella shouted as she removed her oilskin and placed it over the sailor.

William was scanning the water, but all he could see was dead fish, hundreds of them littering the surface, as well as debris from the ship and bodies floating face down. William shook his head.

Ella put the oars back in the oarlocks and began to struggle to turn the boat.

‘Help me, Willy, back to the rudder!’ she called.

William stumbled over to the stern.

As they slowly turned, the SS Newholm gave a great moan and then began to slip under the surface. The fires still raged onboard, even under the waterline. It was an eerie sight, and William shuddered and turned his gaze away. He concentrated on Ella’s face. It was pained and close to tears.

The howling wind was so intense now that Ella was fighting a losing battle. The boat wasn’t moving forward. With her every stroke, it was pushed back towards the sinking ship. ‘I… can’t!’ she cried.

William quickly tied off the rudder to keep it straight and moved over to his cousin’s side. He grabbed one of the oars, and together they pulled into the wind. Another explosion from the stricken ship threw a mass of water into the air and rocked the sea around them.

‘Pull!’ Ella screamed. But still, they couldn’t move. The wind and the tide were against them, and William could sense his cousin’s panic. He, too, knew that very soon the burning ship would sink completely and would suck them down with her.

A horn broke their desperation. Ella and William turned and saw a figure towering above them, rope in hand. Bill Stone had found them.

‘Reckoned you could use a hand, Miss Trout!’ he called down from the bow of his boat.

‘Yes, Mr. Stone!’ Ella shouted up into the wind, laughing in relief.

Bill Stone nodded vigorously. ‘I see you’ve caught a sailor. I’ve a few myself. They’re Americans! Here, I’ll throw you a line!’

‘Thank you!’ Ella called back.

William caught the towrope the first time. He tied it off, and Ella signalled to Bill that they were ready, and, with a raised hand, he disappeared into the wheelhouse. His fishing boat spewed black smoke into the air as its engine coughed into life, and then the boat slowly turned in the waves.

Ella and William sat tightly huddled together, and, as they moved further away, they watched the SS Newholm. A second explosion came from below the water, and the ship slipped down to its watery grave. One minute it was there, and the next there was nothing but the swell.

William glanced at Ella, but her gaze was fixed upon the handsome American sailor they had pulled from the sea. He looked peaceful in his slumber wrapped in Ella’s oilskin. William wondered if the sailor was a cowboy from Texas. He hoped so.

‘Ella?’

‘Yes, Willy?’

‘Was it the eye that destroyed the American ship?’

Ella looked at her cousin quizzically. ‘No, Willy. It was the Huns.’

William went quiet and thought on this for a while. He wasn’t so sure. He peered over his shoulder at the storm cloud, still angry and still alive with electricity. Even the Huns would be wary of that cloud.

He turned back and pulled the three crab pots over towards him.

‘One for me,’ he said as he pushed the first pot under his seat. ‘One for thee.’ He pushed the second pot next to the first, looked at the American and then smiled up at Ella. He then hauled the third pot up onto the gunwale, opened the catch, and tipped the crabs and the pot into the water.

‘And one for the sea.’


Submitted: August 16, 2022

© Copyright 2022 I.D. Roberts. All rights reserved.

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HOUDINI

Very well done. Excellent work! Appreciate the story very much!

Tue, August 16th, 2022 9:39pm

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Thank you, Houdini. The fact you have read and commented means a lot.

Thu, August 18th, 2022 1:27am

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