Handforth descended to the ocean floor with the silken embrace of its tepid waters coursing beneath the membrane of his dive-suit. Visibility was very good, excellent even; something he was coming to take for granted from the Indian Ocean.
As he began to orientate himself, a familiar tightness began to grip his head until, by holding his nose then forcing air out through his ears, the pressure regulated and relief came. He adjusted the inflatable dive jacket to the depth he wanted, which would be about twenty metres, and then peered up towards ‘Bells’ where the deep-vee hull hung inert in a windless sea with no visible play in the anchor chain. Despite it all, he was proud of her. ‘Bells’ was not yet in the condition she should be, or one day would be, but she was functional and her down-to-basics look had a curious appeal. He watched her outline shimmer in the delicate web of his bubbles. Now there was only the guttural murmur of the regulator to disturb an otherworldly quiet as he began to follow the follow the contours of the reef in a southerly direction.
After a thorough study of the charts, the configuration of the reef and the prevailing winds plus every other scrap of information he had been able to lay his hands on, he had calculated that he should start the search for the wreck at a point roughly three hundred metres further on in that direction. It was a long shot, but he had to start somewhere; the reef shelf was not that long and, if ‘Valorous’ was down there, she must have struck it somewhere along its length.
Handforth guessed the ship may well have come in towards the lagoon on a reach which would have placed her, unknowingly, on a collision course with the south-eastern side of the atoll. The satellite picture showed that’s where one of the chief hazards for shipping lay, and so that was the assumption he would start with. Logically, it was now a matter of scouring the perimeter of the reef where ‘Valorous’ should have collided with some coral outcrop, filled with water, and sunk.
Somewhere ahead, a small shoal of caranx flashed a signal of electric blue which immediately became shot through with the silver streak of a predatory barracuda. Watching the silver missile slash left and right at its prey with needle teeth, Handforth could not help but admire the simple dictate of the ocean’s food chain: eat and be eaten.
The current was favourable and nudging him along very nicely in the direction he wanted to go without his having to move much. That suited him because the effect of the drinking bout of the night before was still misting his senses like a cloying fog; not unpleasant, just present.
To his left was the rampart of the reef, the natural coral barrier protecting a coralline island from the surrounding ocean and, to his right, the open sea. He hugged the barrier, knowing that after a certain time it would absorb the skeleton of a broken boat and then camouflage and hoard it, living creature that it was. As he free-floated through this silent underwater realm, false cleaner-wrasse came from their stations to nip morsels of skin from his unprotected legs while the rainbow forms of tiny clown fish ducked into the protective embrace of their anemones.
Different forms of coral made up the exterior wall of the lagoon, each colony with its own particular tenants and each one playing a specific role which would ensure the existence of the whole. Handforth noticed them without paying particular attention to them. As he rounded the promontory of the south point, he began looking for the tell-tale signs of coral overgrowing a ship’s hull, searching the dullness of the ocean floor for its presence and for the tell-tale signs of its disintegration.
Two and a half kilometres out, the sea floor plummeted to a depth of several hundred metres and Handforth knew great fish would often rise from there to inspect the shallower waters for food: marlin, swordfish and the great ocean-going sharks. They would ride the swell at the border of the deep and the shallows whose journey would end only when it exploded onto the bulwark of the lagoon with massive force.
Today’s swell was lethargic, like a beast that had fed. Nevertheless, Handforth remained alert and occasionally scanned the surface for any surge which might signal its quickening. He had passed the promontory now and was swimming across the straight, south-eastern face of the coral barrier where the sea floor was like a pitted and scarred moonscape with depressions and dark ravines which reflected little light. For the most part, they were too narrow to conceal a wreck but he peeked into all but the smallest just the same, the concentrated beam of his torch picking out the faces of its startled inhabitants.
The way they looked at him triggered an impression that something about these fish was different; the majority of them seemed frightened and did not swim about in the nonchalant, relaxed way he had seen elsewhere. Now that he thought about it, they seemed to be on their guard and even the green job-fish which could usually be found brazenly cruising in open water, here kept close to the coral. He stopped for a moment, as if the feeling he was developing required immediate confirmation then spun around to face the open sea and stared out into the black-green universe but nothing seemed to move.
The same sense of unease as before touched him with an icy finger as if something extant in the waters was percolating through him. Handforth noticed it in the involuntary tightening of the muscles around his neck and in the ever-so-slight increase in the rhythm of his breathing.
Noticing that he had already been in the water for forty minutes, he forced himself to ignore these unpleasant sensations as he turned back towards the reef and continued his search. Clouds were forming overhead as the weather forecast had predicted and the sky was darkening as all around him as the vivid colours of the corals began turning drab in the fading light.
In his mind’s eye Handforth pictured ‘Valorous’ caught in a maelstrom of heavy swells. He could well imagine the panic on board as the frigate foundered, probably at night; the crew finding themselves in the water, caught between the sinking vessel, the monstrous waves, the razor-sharp coral and, of course, the predators.
The big sharks would have feasted that day, speeding in from the abyss with their bodies gyrating in expectation of the kill and propelled forward by the excited, jerky movements of their sickle-shaped tails. He conjured up the screams as men were guillotined at the torso by hideous jaws thrust forward at the moment of impact and armed with forests of razor teeth.
He imagined the concerto of shrieks from the helpless victims which were never enough to express the pain. He could almost see the blood spilling out and mingling with the sea’s spume, summoning the final frenzy as sharks, most of them probably tigers or white-tips, competed for bleeding ribbons of human flesh as they pulled their victims limb from limb. Yes, he was sure that these waters had once witnessed a scene like that and in his uneasiness he turned around once more to face the ocean but nothing moved in waters which seemed to mock him with their stillness.
He found himself wondering how many of the hundred or so men on board had survived; women, too. The little he had been able to make out from the papers indicated that a certain Sir John Furlough’s wife and daughter had been present on board. Had they survived? Strangely, Handforth felt himself wishing they had not.
Something in those yellowed notes pointed to a deeply divided band of survivors but, also, to something more ominous still. And what of the enmity between the captain, Liddle, and this Furlough which seemed to have torn the voyage apart; had that survived? The fate of the drowned and the devoured may have been a terrible one but Handforth was left with the chill impression that to have survived may have been far more terrible still.
The most pressing question concerned the captain himself. That he had lived was clear from the fragmented contents of the papers but what, exactly, were the circumstances in play at the time of the wreck?
Handforth usually had a first-hand instinct about people and the captain, in particular, interested him and he was developing suspicions about him which would surely make it worthwhile to comb any wreck for items of value which might have been carried aboard the frigate.
The answers to these questions, and more, were locked inside that yellow stain; of that he was sure. Even now, the few fragments of the papers he had been able to decipher seemed to swirl before him and, sometimes, if only for a split second, promised to come together and make sense, only to burst again into obscurity. The simple fact remained: someone had taken the trouble to preserve the papers and there had to have been a reason for that.
The water was murkier now, disturbed by a stiffening current. The double tank would give him air for roughly another hour but the sight which now greeted him meant he would not need it because, sprawled out amid the gloom of the ocean floor no more than twenty metres ahead of him, was the wreck of ‘Valorous.’ It had to be her and, judging by her condition, she looked as if she may have lain there for ages.
In the exquisite excitement of the moment he felt that he was being starved of air as every sinew in his body demanded oxygen at once and euphoria threatened to suffocate him as he fought back by focusing on the rhythm of his breathing.
The vessel had, somehow, remained relatively intact; the impact of the collision had smashed a gaping hole in the hull but it was still very much recognisable as a frigate. A large potato grouper swam close-by and, as Handforth approached, it darted inside the gloom of the wreck. Little remained of her various fittings and the cleanly cut stumps of her masts told of a salvage operation by the survivors which suggested that she had not sunk immediately.
When she did, ‘Valorous’ must have fallen into the small channel that now held her captive in stony jaws and which had, most likely, preserved the hull in the state he now found it. Otherwise, she would have disintegrated long ago in the violent undertow of the giant swells. Looking her over, Handforth guessed she might have been eighty-odd feet in length and roughly twenty-five abeam.
A quick inspection satisfied him that nothing much of value remained for the coral had long since claimed it for its own and was giving little back now. He scouted the immediate vicinity for remnants of the catastrophe; they were undoubtedly there, part and parcel of the reef now, but to look for them would mean turning a search into an archaeological dig and that would have to wait. As he drew level with the gaping hole which exposed the cross-section of the ship he saw the sullen eyes of the giant grouper peering out at him.
Rounding the hull on the other side, he registered movement at the edge of his field of vision. Further along the reef, a form seemed to have darted into the cover of a lozenge-shaped coral outcrop and he paused for a moment to watch, scarcely breathing. Again, there was nothing.
Then it struck him: there should be something in the open water; a shoal of mackerel; a stingray; or any number of those fish which liked to patrol offshore. Here, they were most conspicuous by their absence and every other living thing seemed to cling to the main body of the reef for cover, watching him from the safety of their warrens like colonies of terrified underwater troglodytes.
Movement again and more pronounced this time. Handforth squinted up the reef wall, glanced down at his air gauge and began to make his way towards it.
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