Her words rang loud and clear in my ears. I closed my eyes and leaned on the carriage window. Focusing my thoughts on the cool of the glass, I turned my thoughts away from Kitty. Well, I tried to.
“Stay John, You are only back from your last trip, you can jump ship. We can run away, far away from war, from all of this. You are only in the reserve”
‘I have to go Kitty, it’s the right thing to do. The war needs everyone to do their part. I need to do this, I can’t live in hiding for the rest of our lives. Its only one trip, we will get our second chance, I promise. I love you Kitty, I will always love you.’
‘Stay, please stay… Just stay….’
Huge sobs consumed her small frame as I had turned and left for the train. The whistle now shattered this memory and as I gathered my things to leave the train I glanced behind me. The empty seat glared back at me. This is your last chance John, your last chance to change your mind.
I turned back to head for the door. I must leave it behind, I must move forward. My brothers and I had all been called up for the war effort, and I was proud to say that I was serving alongside them. A smile formed on my face as I disembarked at Liverpool, a memory of playing cowboys and Indians as children flitted across my mind’s eye. In Ma’s garden mottled with sun spots, I held onto this as I made my way out of the station into the milling crowd. The din of street traders and hawkers filled the air, and the lilt of Danny Boy being played further down the street made me feel like I was in a familiar place. I picked my way through the crowded path toward the dock.
I had joined the naval reserve not thinking that I would ever be called up, but I had grown to love the job. Not that I actually saw that too much action, as I was a stoker in the engine room. Despite the constant grinding noise of the engine, I found it a peaceful place to be. I was halfway across the Atlantic when I received the news that I was called up to a new ship, the HMS Monmouth on a mission to Chile, which was lucky as it gave Ma some time to calm down and take to the bed. With four of her sons away, she hated getting official letters from the Navy. I got home to Wexford before I had to leave for Liverpool, and this had given me time to see home and Kitty my childhood sweetheart reared two doors up from me. I didn’t have a photograph of her yet, Wexford was generally slow at picking up on new things. We are great takers, but not people of action. Not like the Dubs, they had so many cars, people had stopped using them as walking was now quicker. Imagine. Only people living up in the Spawell Road had cars in Wexford. Sure why would you need a car, you have nowhere to go.
I can see Kitty’s face in front of me now, deep red hair curling softly around a noble face, eyes of the darkest brown, sparkling with wit, and the glint of fun shining brightly. The years of hard work and worry was yet to show on her young soft face. It was hard to stay serious around her, with her deadpan delivery, it was hard not to laugh.
The smell of the sea hung heavily in the air as I approached the quay. The Monmouth stood at the end of the quay, the military grey paintwork making it hard to distinguish from the dull sky. I had looked it up Chile in an old encyclopaedia at home during my lay over. It seemed surreal to be travelling to the other side of the world to be fighting a war with Germany. But here I am, and off I go.
As usual the heat from the fires in the engine room were stifling. An all-encompassing heat, there was sweat on my brow before I had found my place. My lungs burned being so close to the massive fires, breathing heavily from the exertion of the work was hard going, but once I got into a rhythm I could lose myself in the pace. In, up, over, down in time to the huge crank shafts turning the engine over. My watches passed quickly, and the rhythm of the days ensured that we had reached Chile before little had crossed my mind other than making sure I was scrubbed clean every evening before turning in. An onerous task after a hard day’s work as the soot and grime became like a second skin. My eyes shining brightly back at me in the mirror every evening. Some of the men had sent letters and postcards home, I had written a letter to Kitty, and it was sitting in the inside breast pocket of my boiler suit waiting to be sent after the next watch.
It was a Thursday at 15.00 when after scores of days of peaceful monotony, the engine note changed unexpectedly, and we heard what we had always feared but never spoken of. The shock of the large gun fire reverberated around the engine room. The massive impact of the shells leaving a silence in between, as if the air had been removed from the room, as if, the ship was breathing.
The Petty Stoke Officer picked me out of our group to go directly to the bridge for an update of what was happening. My steps on the iron staircase up to the bridge were oddly loud. Unsettled by the silence my hand shook as I knocked on the bridge door. I was halfway through explaining what I had been sent for to the rather sharp Midshipman when through the crack in the door, I could see a German dreadnought on the horizon. There was no smoke coming from her, but we had taken a number of hits, and were starting to list badly.
I knew my fate. At 21 I had seen much more of the world than I had ever imagined, and it was breath-taking. But I knew now there would be no second chance for me. I suddenly remembered Kitty’s letter. Given the grave nature of the situation – I decided to put a neck on myself.
‘Sir, I will relay the situation to the engine room crew and we will await orders there.’
‘You are dismissed stoker.’
‘Yes?’ His kind brown eyes looked at me in amazement at my interruption.
‘I have a letter Sir, of most urgency, it must make the mainland Sir. I beseech you to ple….’
‘Give it to me, and I will see that it is sent on the line to the HMS Glasgow with the rest of our official documents.’
As I was returning to the engine room, I saw the offer of surrender light the sky as I turned to take my last look at the ocean. I knew that we would not surrender, the Royal Navy never does. 765 crew members on this ship with the same fate, and I can only hope that if we have lost this battle, we will go on to win the war. But I had sent the letter. Kitty would know. She would know how much I loved her. She would find the ring, and think of me when she wears it. She would get her second chance, a chance of life.