BY: IAIN LANDLES
Captain Rider Garforth is traveling on the liner Imperator to New York in 1920, with the intention of visiting a renowned doctor in an attempt to be cured of his shell-shock. The first-class passenger list is sparse but inhabited by lords and ladies, the rich, a smattering of “bright young things,” respected professionals, and ex-soldiers. However, the bonhomie of the journey is shattered when a series of murders strikes terror into the hearts of the assembled cast. Rider, a former police inspector, is reluctantly coerced into investigating the murders, against the wishes of his trusted servant, Martins, who fears that the strain will be too much for the shell-shocked captain. As the pair investigates the mystery, Rider becomes embroiled with a beautiful woman and soon comes to realize that, in order to solve the murders, he must pay a painful, personal price…
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In 1920 by Iain Landles, Rider Garforth is taking a sea voyage from London to New York to see a doctor about his shell shock, or what we would call PTSD today. Rider, an army veteran and former police captain, is called upon to investigate when a murder takes place on board ship. Since there is no one else on board with his experience, he grudgingly agrees, but only until they reach New York. As he investigates the first murder, another murder is committed, and they don’t know if it is the same killer, or a copycat. As the bodies pile up, Rider has his hands full interviewing people who don’t want be interviewed, few of whom tell him the truth, and everyone seems to hiding something.
The story is set in 1920, as the title implies, and reminded me a lot of Agatha Christie mysteries of the same time period, though Landles’s voice has more of an edge to it, and the story has a much faster pace than hers did. With well-developed characters and an intriguing mystery, it’s a very enjoyable read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: 1920 by Iain Landles is the story of a man with severe PTSD. Rider Garforth is an army veteran as well as a retired police captain. He sails on the ocean liner Imperator in the year 1920, traveling to New York from London to see a doctor, who is supposed to have great success with cases like Rider’s. But he gets little peace on the ship. Not only is he traveling with a bunch of spoiled, rich, and misbehaving young adults, he is subjected to almost nightly dreams filled with the horrors of war. When one of the first-class passengers is murdered, the ship’s captain asks Rider to investigate. At first Rider turns him down, but he finally agrees after much persuasion. As he begins to investigate, another murder takes place, confusing the case even more. Was the first woman’s murder an accident, with the second murdered woman being the real victim, or were both women on the murderer’s hit list? And how can Rider get to the truth when his main suspect has an air-tight alibi.
Landles’s character development is superb and his voice is refreshing. The story caught my interest from the very beginning and I found it hard to put down.
Rider Ernest Garforth heard the banshee shrieking of the shell as it arced through the steel-colored clouds. He knew instinctively that the only way to save his men, sitting behind him in the trench, was to catch the missile before it landed, and so he leapt up and stood, arms out in front, slightly crouched, like a cricketer in the slips waiting for the first delivery in a new test match.
He looked up and spotted the dart of death as it buzzed and hissed, whirling and screeching toward him. He closed his eyes and cupped his hands, as if waiting for benediction while the jagged, scorching metal hurtled down. Its landing was as fragile as midnight snow, and Rider thought how odd it wasn’t any heavier. He opened his eyes and looked down into his hands.
There, standing looking up at him, was a silver-white butterfly with wings of lace that hummed and glowed, shimmying in the serrated air. With an incandescent joy, Rider turned to show off his prize to his men behind him, but he saw that they were preoccupied, and the chance to show them his plunder was lost forever.
Michaels stood clutching at his jaw which, with sickening slowness, detached itself and slumped to the ground. O’Reilly, on the other hand, crawled around the fetid trench trying to hold in his stomach which had been torn away, exposing a rancid jumble that oozed and gushed and writhed. Jones lay still, missing his limbs, and he looked up at Rider, whimpering quietly like a beaten dog.
Rider’s platoon atrophied in a swirl of gristle and flux, and all Rider could do was stand and watch. Some movement to his right distracted him from the scene, and he turned to see Corporal Henson stagger toward him, arms outstretched. Where there had been eyes, a mouth, a face, there was now only the wriggling of worms which feasted and gnawed at the still burning flesh. Moans such as Rider had never imagined struck him with terror and he turned to run, but the glutinous mud sucked and pulled his legs.
He sank inexorably, the rotting stench of Corporal Henson lumbering ever closer. Rider heaved, grappled, and sank smoothly as Henson stumbled and fumbled toward him. Rider sank as Henson lazily reached out, gripped Rider’s shoulders, and pushed him down and down, ever down, into the reeking sludge.
Rider thought that he had awoken at the sound of his own wail. He lay, shivering in the gloom, lost and abandoned.
Rider turned to the sound, shaking and gibbering. Light sliced through his eyes.
“It’s all right, sir, just a dream. Just another dream.”
Rider looked up into the concerned eyes of a man he knew somewhere, a man he trusted, perhaps with his life.
“I brought you your medication, sir. Here, wash them down with this water.”
Rider meekly obeyed as memory, existence, crept back into him.
“Yes, sir. Just lie back and rest a bit.”
Rider lay back into the soaked, clammy pillows. A faint waft of stale sweat lingered menacingly in the air. “You woke me?”
“Yes, sir, I thought–”
“You thought? I need all the sleep I can get, and, you thought?”
“Why did you wake me, damn it?”
“You were having a nightmare–”
“On what evidence do you base that idiotic thought?”
“You were thrashing around and–”
“I could have been dreaming of being locked in a harem for the night.”
“Cut out the thinking, Martins, it could find you back out on the streets.”
“You got annoyed yesterday when I didn’t wake you from a nightmare–what precisely do you want me to do, sir?”
Rider pondered the question for a moment, grew bored, and yawned. “Just use your initiative, Martins.”
Martins began slowly to count to ten.
“What time is it?”
“Seven o’clock, sir, just as you requested. I’ve run a bath for you in the next room. There are fresh towels, and I’ve got your shaving gear out. Breakfast with the captain at eight, sir.”
“Sod him, tell him I’m not hungry.”
“Do you wish to dictate a note, sir, or should I use my flawed initiative?”
Rider ignored the comment and sat up haltingly. “Is the room spinning?”
“That’s the swell, sir, the Atlantic.”
Another chink of memory fell into place and Rider, who lay in a cot under a large, curtained window, turned his head and perused his first class cabin. The mahogany paneling bordered a lush, patterned gold and brown wallpaper and gave the cabin a certain elegance. The deep, and obviously new, red carpet smelled of luxury and warmth. A small blue-and-yellow striped sofa adorned the right-hand wall while an Edwardian dressing table hugged the left wall.
Beyond them, either side of the main door, stood tall, imposing wardrobes of a lighter mahogany with gold handles. The sunken, nouveau-type wall lights spilled out a refined, muted light, and Rider noticed for the first time the intricate patterns of dragonflies and water lilies on them that sent greens and reds spiraling onto the floor. The small chandelier was presently off, but somehow it managed to capture the subdued light and reflect back into all corners of the room. To Rider’s right was the door leading to the bathroom, while on his left the door led to his private salon, where sofas and small, elaborate tables where framed by elegant etchings of steamships. All in all, the cabin was spacious, appealing, and cozy. He remembered the over-eager liner clerk who insisted on providing him with a state suite instead of a cabin.
He sat up and squelched in his damp bed clothing. “Martins, the bedclothes…”
“Of course, sir, I shall have them changed at once. I have taken the liberty of preparing a small gin and water. I thought it might set you up for the day.”
“Thanks, Martins. I’ll have it in the bath, if you don’t mind.”
“Begging your pardon, sir, but perhaps, when you are better, you might to pop along to the ship’s doctor–”
“What the bloody hell for? I can’t shake off these nightmares, Martins, and don’t think some ship’s quack is going to help, either. No, these things are eating into me: I feel them everywhere, like an echo you can’t quite place.”
“Well, sir, let us hope the doctor you are visiting in New York can help.”
“Doubt it,” Rider said gloomily.
“You bath should be comfortable now, sir.”
Rider watched Martins bustle about the wardrobes and Chester drawers and suddenly sighed, feeling the room inch in just a bit closer. He shook again and tears welled up in his blood-shot eyes. He wanted to sob and cling on to someone who would understand and, more importantly, care. But there was no one, and Rider found himself staring at the red carpet, noting that it was the exact shade of blood that leaked so terrifyingly from Corporal Henson’s shattered face.
After a couple more gins and another dose of medication–of which Martins had disapproved strongly–Rider felt almost human and went up for breakfast. He was looking for the famed Ritz Carlton restaurant on the upper promenade deck but took a wrong turning somewhere, got helplessly lost, and had to be redirected by a helpful steward. Rider stood by the entrance to the restaurant waiting for the maitre’d, marveling at the huge room.
Dressed in gilt and mahogany with supporting pillars and huge palms, the room resembled a top-class French restaurant. A central aisle split the room into two, the lighting was subdued and formal. Each table sat comfortably apart from others and could seat six. Naturally, the cutlery was pristine silver; the wine glasses, crystal; and the table clothes a fine, sparkling white linen.
At the far end of the restaurant opposite Rider was a grand set of stairs that took the passengers to the Winter Garden, which Rider could see comfortably. Decorated in white and gold, this area was laid out with low tables, each having four or six seats set in an informal groups, where passengers could meet, take tea, play cards, and generally socialize under a massive, domed glass ceiling. The light in the Winter Garden was dazzling, and the room had the feel of the country in summer.
The restaurant was virtually deserted, yet stewards bustled around at breakneck speeds delivering food, tea, or what seemed like coffee, trying to create an aura of energy and motion. The maitre’d spotted Rider, and soon he was ushered to the captain’s table.
Captain Strachan was an old friend of Rider’s and while Rider waited for him, his mind drifted back to their days at Edinburgh University. They had roomed together for a while, despite studying different degrees, and had indulged in the typical drinking, carousing, and general poor behavior of students let loose in a new city.
The realities of studying and university life soon took its hold, and, by the second year, the men had moved into their own rooms and had lost touch. Over the years, occasional letters were exchanged, but, during the war, Rider had signed for the infantry, while Strachan had gone into the navy.
It was only recently, when Rider booked his tickets for the voyage, that they had gotten in touch again: As luck would have it, Strachan was the ship’s captain. He had written Rider excitedly and declared that the trip would be “a marvelous chance to catch up again, Reggie.”
Rider thought about this. He wasn’t sure he wished to revisit the past, but he was intelligent enough to realize that the past was unavoidable–something that haunted you, like a presence, slightly out of focus, waiting patiently to reacquaint itself with you with venom and malice. To Rider, the past was not nostalgic, nor happy. Indeed, he had done his best to forget some parts of it, consigning it to the dark, dusty corners of his fragile mind. But, even now, as hard as he tried to avoid it, his thoughts slipped back into the painful, raw corners, and Rider slumped into a melancholic fuzz that gripped and buffeted him. He felt physically battered by the cascade of images and slowly, imperceptibly, his head lowered as if the weight of guilt and shame dragged it down.
An angry, piercing voice broke the stifling spell, and Rider was aware of the room flooding back in with all its noise, light, and drama. He searched for the voice that had snapped the dark fog and located it at a table to his left, slightly behind him.
The man he saw was of medium height with thinning brown hair combed in the latest fashion. He was clean-shaven, but Rider spotted a small cut under his left ear. His eyes were a penetrating green, but terribly bloodshot, and, for an instant, they stared straight into Rider’s, making him feel uncomfortable, as if his soul was being scrutinized and found wanting.
A sneer seemed to be a permanent feature of the man’s face, even when he laughed. Rider could have sworn he was drunk, certainly tipsy. The man wore a dinner jacket that seemed odd to Rider so early in the morning. The overlarge watch chain that hung across his waistcoat was garish, and obviously old. Even odder was the pink cravat and large handkerchief which protruded from his breast pocket.
All in all, thought Rider, an extraordinary ensemble if he wishes to draw attention to himself. Rider couldn’t be certain, but he thought the man might even be wearing eyeliner.
However, it was the man’s voice that caught Rider’s full attention, since its nasal whine grated on his nerves. What came out of it also offended Rider’s sensibilities.
“I mean, darling–rather, like a beastly dragon, all fire and…well, you know…Horrible woman, quite horrible. When I saw her–I mean, you know, darling, knock me down like a heap of sack clothes–You know, all reaper-black and false diamonds, darling, so passé. And let’s face it, her looks are the sludge at the bottom of industrial waste. I admit it, darling, freely you know, I would like her and her kind to–poof–vanish, darling. You know. God, she’s upset me so much. Breakfast is ruined, darling…”
The inane rant went on for some time and Rider wondered whether to say something. However, it was then that Rider focused on the man’s companion. She had her back to Rider, but her bobbed red hair and white silk evening dress gave her an elegance that charmed him. He itched to stand up and walk past her table just to see her face. Faintly he smelt her perfume waft around him. Caron, he thought, expensive and fashionable.
Rider took her silence and attentiveness as a sign of her youth, and decided that the man was twenty-four or thereabouts, making the woman twenty, perhaps twenty-one. He smiled sadly to himself. God, he thought, what in the world is she doing with him?
A steward arrived and poured Rider a strong black coffee. Once he had gone, Rider pulled out a small hip flask from his jacket pocket, and, after a cursory glance around, poured its contents into the steaming cup. He felt guilty, cheating Martins this way, but then he didn’t have to put up with Rider’s shakes and hallucinations.
Christ, who cares anyway what Martins thinks? But Rider immediately felt ashamed and guilty and brooded, staring at the gin-soaked coffee.
His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of Strachan. Rider watched him approach and studied him to see how much he had changed. Tall and blond, with piercing gray eyes, Strachan was a well-built, athletic man, although Rider noticed that he had lost a lot of weight.
However who hasn’t lost weight after the war?
There was an air of authority about Strachan that had little to do with his deep blue uniform. It exuded from him like the woman’s perfume, and everyone in the room noticed it and its calming influence upon them. Even the loudmouth from the next table seemed to recognize it and fell silent. Rider also remembered the excitable, passionate young man whom he had shared a room with in Edinburgh, and wondered if that part of Strachan still existed.
For his part, Strachan couldn’t see Rider at first, but when he noticed him, he was surprised how much Rider had changed. Outwardly, Rider seemed the same–tallish, with the kind of dark, gloomy looks that women somehow found alluring. Those soulful, strangely absent eyes, as if Rider were contemplating mystical visions, but when they looked at you with their emerald intensity, were piercing, discomforting. Physically, Rider looked just as strong and able as their younger days, but there was a different quality about him–a nervousness, as if a rabbit had stolen, ever so quietly, from its burrow to taste the air, but expected at any second to run for its life. He was a haunted man.
“Hello, Reggie, how’s tricks?” Strachan said, pumping his hand until Rider thought it would fall off. “Sorry about the time, bloody weather forecasts.”
“Anything I should worry about?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that, nothing to be alarmed over. No, rather it’s the cursed fog and low-lying bergs.”
“And what would they be?”
“Sorry. Reggie, ship-talk. ‘Low-lying’ means that the icebergs have drifted farther south than they normally do. This year they’ve drifted straight into the shipping lines. Coupled with the fog, it means we have to slow down considerably, bloody delays.”
“Better that than another Titanic.”
“God, don’t mention that, Reggie. It looms large like Hamlet’s father over all of us.”
The pair ordered breakfast and chatted about the old times, but mostly about who had lived through the war. Strachan took a good look at his old friend and noted with worry that Rider seemed to have a habit of scanning the room quickly, as if he had spotted something lurking in the recesses.
And too many pain lines, thought Strachan, far too many. “I heard Rogers lost both legs, bad show.”
“Maybe it’ll improve his dancing.”
The talk made Rider irritable and moody, and Strachan must have noticed it. He immediately changed the subject in his inimitable cheerful way. “Anyway, how does it feel to be royalty, old chap?”
“You in a state room. Blimey, Reggie, only kings and queens can afford that.”
“Nothing to do with me, I assure you. An over-zealous booking clerk. At least he recognized my true worth.”
“Bless their hearts. Did he charge you?”
“Funnily enough, no. I assume he was seduced by sheer force of personality.”
Strachan laughed. “Either that, Reggie, or you bullied him into it.”
“Hardly bullied, intensive persuasion would be more accurate.”
“Sorry to burst your bubble, old chap, but it’s more to do with the lack of passengers–hardly any in first class.”
“I noticed that too, is that usual?”
“Well, it’s true that most people are broke after the war. I mean, what with the government putting up taxes and the like, but–Look here, can you keep a secret?”
Rider raised his eyebrows and looked quizzically at Strachan.
“I didn’t mean to be rude, Reggie, but it’s a delicate matter.”
“If you mean to tell me of the state of the British Shipping Industry, forget it. We both know that last year, August as a matter of fact, the Americans handed over the Imperator to the British Ministry of Shipping. She had been a Jerry ship as you know, and the Yanks took it off them after the war in lieu of payment for the Lusitania. Anyway, the point is that the government got her and handed her over to Cunard officially about a year ago–some sort of lease deal. Now, taking the current economic climate into consideration, it is obvious that Cunard, or the directors, are deliberately running the ship with few passengers–costing them about ten thousand pounds per trip I should say.”
“How on earth?” said an astonished Strachan.
“Losing so much money per trip plays down the potential of the ship, so when Cunard approaches the MoS to buy it outright, they get a cheaper deal.”
Strachan shook his head incredulously. How Rider knew about all this was beyond him.
“So Cunard bleeds itself dry to get a cheap ship,” Rider continued. “Once Cunard gets the ship full time, prices will shoot up, and the passengers will be stacked in ten at a time. Especially in third class and steerage, and bingo! A huge profit.”
“Blood hell, Reggie,” Strachan said, bursting with a hundred questions to ask.
However, before he could begin, their breakfast arrived. Rider felt queasy and looked down in disdain at the scrambled eggs, sausages, and bacon. He sipped his coffee and fussed with his napkin. “So who is on board? It was like the Mary Celeste last night,” he said.
“Don’t exaggerate, Reggie, you’re the one who locked himself in his room last night. Had you ventured forth, you would have met our passengers.”
Rider remembered his scorching headache, one of the ones that made him sick, disorientated. Without Martins, Rider felt he could have died last night. Another prang of guilt shot through him, and he nudged his coffee away, as if seeking redemption.
“Anyway, twenty-one total in first class, although three of them are servants.”
“My man, Martins, isn’t a servant,” Rider shot back, still thinking of the man.
“You know what I mean, Reggie, so don’t be pernickety. Lord Poole, his wife, and daughter, and Lady Arbuthnott, and her sons. The rests are peasants, as we used to say.”
Despite himself, Rider smiled.
“We do have a professor of something, and a doctor, which is just as well since our doctor got drunk and missed the sailing. We’ve got some nurse who looks suspiciously like Brünnhilde, a big one at that!”
“Keep her away from matches then–”
“But that’s it, a pretty poor turn out, it has to be said. Luckily, there’s the usual hordes in second and third, but they are there purely so that we don’t lose too much money.”
“What about the couple behind us?”
“Oh, them! God, Reggie, what a pair–well, him really, a right idiot.”
“There’s a group of them, six or so, all spoiled rotten by their parents and having a gas of a time. We’ve only been out for a day and they’ve already got rip-roaring drunk, danced until God knows what time, and pretty much upset the other passengers, and all of my stewards.”
“Who would have thought that the combination of rich idleness, booze, and free sex could turn out so bad?”
“Oh, it’s not that they’re enjoying themselves that’s the problem. Christ, Reggie, we used to have some bashes, didn’t we? No, it’s not that. It’s their attitude: aloof, superior, disdainful. As if we were beneath them. God, man, the blokes even walk around with make-up on. My bursar wondered if that wasn’t illegal, and that we couldn’t lock ’em up in the brig.”
“Your bursar shouldn’t comment on other people’s attire, wearing such a monstrous wig as he does, Strachan.”
“You know he wears a wig?”
“I have doubts about his moustache, too.”
“I tell you, Reggie, they’re obnoxious. And that fellow there, Archie Atkins, is the worst–foul-mouthed, loud–and he’s got some kind of beef with Lady Arbuthnott. Spent most of last night in the bar talking utter rot about how some dinosaurs should be burned at the stake! I mean, Reggie, that kind of thing is unacceptable.”
“And most of them have only just gone to bed after almost drinking the bar dry and fighting amongst themselves. Christ, Rider, two of my stewards had to intervene and break up the fight. The girls were just as bad. Now that fellow over there insisted on breakfast before going to bed. Can you believe the man’s front?”
“In a way, I admire it. Perhaps we all need a dose of chaos once in a while. I seem to remember you were a raving anarchist at university. ‘Bring down society, hang the toffs.’ What happened, did the paychecks become too big?”
“Yes, I know, but we didn’t mean it. It was all high-jinxes with us, wasn’t it? With this lot–there’s a kind of menace about them. It’s difficult to put into words.”
“What about the girl, who is she?”
“Eleonora Grieves, daughter of some minister or another, I think. Anyway, nice girl, very quiet, which makes you think ‘what is she doing with him?’ I hear they’re engaged to be married. I tell you, Reggie, makes you wonder what we fought for.”
“But surely he was old enough to fight?”
“Daddy made sure he had a ‘home position,’ whatever that means.”
“Well, it’s good to see someone enjoying themselves. It’s all been pretty grim.”
“Yes, I know. Are you going to eat that?”
To cover the question, Rider, forgetting his earlier resolve, picked up his coffee and slurped it down in one.
“You ill, Reggie?”
“Bit under the weather,” mumbled an embarrassed Rider.
“Oh, no need to explain. We all need a gin or two some mornings.”
Rider started to defend himself, but smiled sheepishly instead.
“I say, Reggie, did you get it hard. I mean, I don’t want to pry or anything. It’s just that I heard some pretty outrageous stories, that’s all.”
Rider didn’t feel like talking, but Strachan seemed so concerned that tears welled up in Rider’s eyes.
“I heard about Arras. What a bloody, messy affair that was. Didn’t you get hit a couple of times? Led the counter-attack before they dragged you off the field. Christ, Reggie, I didn’t know you had it in you.”
“Sheer luck that’s all. I was looking for the bar. At least they sent me back.”
“France first, but then, yes, somewhere in brain-dead Hampshire. Recovery through boredom and abstinence. Pestered by stupid doctors and idiotic nurses. Don’t you hate do-gooders, like the fussing aunt you want to shoot.”
“I saw you limping yesterday when you came aboard.”
“Part of my disguise.”
“What about–well, I–I get these dreams, you see,” Strachan said, refusing to be put off.
Rider looked at his friend and saw the anguish spread across his normally cheerful face. Christ, he thought, did it scar all of us?
“Don’t mind admitting it,” Strachan continued. “Work is good for it. At least that’s what the quacks say. Damn difficult to forget, eh? Damn difficult.”
Rider couldn’t speak, and the gloom shrouded his thoughts again. “You know, Strachan, I think people get what they deserve.”
Rider said this with such ferocity that Strachan flinched, as if avoiding a punch thrown at him.
“Well, anyway, Reggie, it’s good to see you so well. Although, you could do with some honest food in you, my boy.”
“Breakfast is an overrated event–like losing your virginity.”
“It was you that got the MC, wasn’t it?”
“They had to give it to somebody, didn’t they?”
Strachan laughed and even Rider relaxed. The men eased back somewhat into their chairs, but before they could continue their chat, an officer approached Strachan, and it was clear that he would have to leave.
“Sorry, old chap, those bloody icebergs again. My table for dinner tonight?”
“Only if you buy the booze, Strachan.”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to share me, got a table full, so put on your sociable face.”
Rider scowled and the smiling Strachan left with purpose and energy.
Rider stared into his cup of coffee for a while, pondering the things Strachan had said, particularly about Rider’s injuries. A doctor at the front had told Rider that, while his physical injuries would heal, it was “those under the skin” that he couldn’t heal. Rider doubted any quack could, the occupation being made up of tricksters and con men.
“Damn cold eggs and–you know, the bloody tea, man–fit only for–for builders–”
“Forget it, you imbecile. Ruined, you know. The whole bloody day ruined. Come on, Elle.”
Rider turned and saw Archie Atkins stomp off like a petulant child. Behind him, Eleonora Grieves gently put her hand out and patted the shoulder of a distraught steward, who stood by their table pathetically clutching his tray as if it were a shield.
As she turned, Eleonora caught Rider’s gaze and held it for a moment, the merest of moments, then she smiled slightly, as if awakening from a bad dream into the sunlight morning. Rider’s heart did funny flip-flops and then she was gone, leaving a trail of perfume and hope.
Rider felt strangely moved by her actions, vowing to get to know her, despite the presence of the imbecile, as he had now christened Archie Atkins. She had looked extremely tired, boyish in her fragility, as if the slightest touch would have broken her. He wondered again how such a woman could be with that kind of man, but then he realized he knew nothing about her, and that her character may also be lacking in any sort of grace.
Somehow, he doubted that, though. He had seen how concerned she was for the steward. Rider shook his head sadly, confused and somewhat angered by human emotions and desires.
He decided to clear his head and walk along the promenade deck, braving the hostile weather. Before leaving, he made sure that he left a big tip for the steward, but then he thought about it and decided it wasn’t his fault the steward felt so bad, and so Rider pocketed the money again. Looking down, Rider saw his uneaten breakfast and murky, gin-spiked, cold coffee and realized that, yet again, he would have to lie to Martins. The thought depressed him, and, with an audible sigh, he left the dining hall.
The promenade deck was an enclosed pathway that ran the whole length of the ship. At both ends of the colossal gallery were thick doors that took the passenger to either aft and fore. Here he was exposed to the barren weather outside and, as yet, Rider had seen no one go through the doors. The designers had enclosed the promenade deck with reinforced glass that flooded the area with gray light, protecting the walkers from the harsh wind and spray that even now, despite the calm conditions, lashed at the windows.
Rider stood at the doorway, debating whether his projected walk was a good thing or not, when his attention was drawn by a sob, somewhere to right.
By an open window stood an older lady dressed head to toe in a huge black, mink overcoat. A black sable hat completed her reaper-like appearance, and though Rider could not see her face, he saw that she held a rosary in her hands. He could also hear her crying and faintly muttering melodic phrases that Rider took to be a prayer, or hymn perhaps. He stepped back into the shadow of the doorway and watched her for a moment.
She looked out over the churning, restless ocean and shook her head slowly. Then she threw the rosary out into the metallic gloom. With a final glance, she turned and walked away from Rider and disappeared into a doorway.
The boat moaned and swayed, dipping before it righted itself again. Rider stepped forward and walked to the open window. Spray brushed his face as the wind keened and shrilled. Slowly, Rider closed the window and stared out into the intimidating scene.
Man, he thought, has devised numerous, ingenious ways to kill themselves with, but nature is more vicious than man can ever be. Rider thought of Darwin, and a line returned to him that had terrified him when he had first read it as a child:
…thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so.
The image disturbed Rider, and he felt the creatures of the earth howl and shriek at the brutality of existence. Thoughts came pouring in, the thoughts of the uselessness of life, the finality of death, and the unending chaos of the universe. The thoughts cascaded one after another and Rider stumbled, dazed by the enormity of death. He clung desperately to the rail, bent down, and vomited. He gasped, gagging until blood stained the mess and he forced himself to stop.
He walked away from the filth and opened a window, leaning out, letting the slicing wind batter him until he felt numb. He hauled himself back in and leaned his pounding head against the frozen glass, sobbing.
It took a while for Rider to compose himself and stagger back downstairs to the first class suites. Perhaps dazed by the wave of nausea, he found himself on the wrong side of the ship and walked down the corridor, looking for a passage which could transfer him to the port side. He felt it rather than heard it at first–a deep booming sound, like huge shells exploding distantly. As Rider came closer to the noise, it became apparent that it was a man, incredibly angry and scathing, screaming almost hysterically.
“…call that clean? Christ, man, I wouldn’t let my dogs be seen with them. You are a lazy bugger who’s leeching off me, and I’ll tell you something. This is going to stop. When we land, you’re fired, pal, fired and dumped. Let’s see how you fancy that!”
Up ahead of Rider, a figure emerged and slammed his cabin door, sending reverberations all through the corridor. Rider wondered whether to turn back and avoid the man, but the man turned and stormed toward Rider like an avenging angel.
He was tall, broad, and gleaming with health. His fashionable blond hair framed a square jaw and green eyes that glowered. He strode with confidence, almost aggressively, and he seemed to take up all the space in the corridor. Despite this, however, Rider felt a giggle erupting, since the man was wearing an open robe, sandals, and swimming trunks, a rolled-up towel in his left arm. The emotion of the man jarred with his image. An infuriated bather, thought Rider, whatever next? But all thoughts of laughing faded, for as the man approached, the younger man glared at Rider with such open hostility that Rider almost flinched.
“All servants are bloody useless and should be put down like diseased dogs,” the man snarled.
“And their masters slowly drowned in an ice-cold bath,” Rider replied.
“Pardon? I was talking about servants. Kill the lot of ’em, no bloody good any of ’em.”
“Then who would you get to wake you up in the morning?” Rider stood his ground, refuting the violence in the man’s eyes, which at present seemed to be on the point of bursting.
The man did not answer, but rather studied Rider carefully, as a hawk eyeing its prey. “I know you,” the man said slowly. “Army chap?”
“Me too. Guards, Special Operations unit. Charles Arbuthnott.”
He held out his huge hand and Rider was forced to shake it, grimacing at the squeeze and pressure Charles put into it.
“Saw you were an army man. You’ve got the look.”
“And what is that then?” Rider replied, massaging his hand.
“Oh, you know, the look of a man whose not quite sure what day it is. Still can’t get used to civvy life myself, like meeting an old girlfriend whose suddenly turned beautiful. That look, although the limp helped.”
“Well, this has been fun–”
“I knew a man in the Royal Scots, Captain, at least I knew a chap who knew the chap, if you follow me. Bloody impressed with his antics, let me tell you. Saw it in The Times and I said to Jarvis, my batman at the time, ‘That man is a bloody hero and make no mistake. Captured trenches single-handed, shot three times, and still managed to hold his position. Bloody good soldiering, that.’ Glad to meet another chap from the Scots, old man.” He grabbed Rider’s hand and indulged in another bout of rigorous torture. “As for me, stuck in that special operations unit–sniper, me boy–the general picked the twenty best shots and put them on special duty. We sat in no man’s land, three days on, three days off, picking off any jerry who dared shove his head above the trench. I bagged twenty-two of the fellows, not all kills, admittedly.”
“Do you eat raw meat?” Rider asked.
“Pardon?” said an astonished Arbuthnott.
“Out in no man’s land, you must have–”
“Oh, no. Stale biscuits and water, rations for a rat as we used to say.”
By now Rider was searching for some way out of the situation. He felt the man was too over-bearing and condescending, and deserved a slap. “You must have had a big gun. Didn’t the hun spot it?” he asked, needing more than ever to lie down and rest.
“You mean the silencer? Wasn’t that big, no. You just line it up, take a breath, and—-Bang! Got the bastard!”
Rider felt the corridor tilt, distort, fall through time.
“Anyway, what brings you on to this old tub?” said the effervescent Charles.
“I couldn’t be bothered to swim–” But Rider was falling, shrinking. He grabbed the handrail that run down the entire corridor and held on. But the space around him elongated, twisted, and Rider, sweating profusely, sank further.
“Talking of that, I’d better go off and have my swim. Stink like a pig. But we must get together and chew the cud, cocktails and all that, eh? I’m always around the bar before dinner, can’t miss me. I’m the good looking one.”
With a gust of laughter and more hand torture, Charles hurtled down the corridor and vanished from sight.
They’re coming, brace yourselves. Mitchell, set up the gun to the right. Whiz bangs. Keep your heads down. Someone grab Hensman! They’re in the trench! Bayonets! Keep down, dammit. Medics! Medics! My legs! My legs…My legs…
“Are you all right, sir?”
Rider looked up at a diminutive man of about thirty who had suddenly appeared in front of him. Rider lunged at him like a drowning man.
“It’s all right, sir, it’s all right,” said the concerned man.
“They’re in the trench,” Rider gasped, “in the trench.”
“It’s all right, sir, we aren’t there anymore. No, sir, we’ve left it behind. On the ship, remember? The ship, sir.”
Slowly, like drifting snow, memory came back to Rider, and he found himself clutching at this man frantically. He pushed the man away and sat slumped in the corridor, sweating and freezing at the same time. Rider grimaced weakly and examined the man. He was short but powerfully built, with gray-black hair and a pronounced stoop. He reminded Rider of the mole in The Wind and the Willows, all nerves and completely overawed by the hustle and bustle of life. The man seemed on the point of running for his life.
“Eh…what do you want?”
“You look pale, sir.”
“I’m fine,” Rider said gruffly.
“Maybe I should–”
“No, just help me get up! And stop staring!”
The man helped Rider up, and, despite his sharpness, for a second the men understood one another. There was nothing more to say.
“Well, if there’s nothing I can do, sir…”
The man turned to go. “Pardon me, sir, but did you happen to see Lord Arbuthnott pass this way?”
“Yes, he’s just left that way. Follow the trail of ego and self-importance.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Rider watched Charles Arbuthnott’s manservant disappear down the corridor. So that’s whom Arbuthnott was shouting at. What an odd pair they are. But Rider gave it no more thought as his stomach gripped, and the corridor lurched and turned around him. So he staggered off to find the haven of his cabin, and perhaps another gin.
© 2017 by Iain Landles