Dead in the Water

Dead in the Water

A supernatural tale of treachery and revenge

They seldom talked—it had been a blur for some time—but deep down, Tim felt responsible. Tim Dougman and Jeff Hozell had served on the warship for three years, and they loved it. Dib, dab, dib, dab—if it didn’t move, paint it. As able seamen, close to the bottom rung of the pecking order, they knew their place.

Their job was to say “yes”—regardless of how stupid, idiotic or worthless the task was—they always obeyed. 

In a disciplined society, the lowest ranks must be ‘seen and not heard’. They did their part to upset the status quo—especially Tim. He was often in trouble—questioning orders, speaking of rights and baiting seniors. Whereas Jeff was a follower and many times regretted Tim’s guidance. But they were best friends. 

The HMAS Beware was not as dead as it appeared.

Then fourteen months ago, their friendship led to an event that changed their lives forever.  

Like two stowaways, they lay hidden in a compartment below the waterline. But unlike typical stowaways, they hadn’t planned this—they were dead. 

With no maintenance for a year, the old warship looked tired. Workers had stripped it of most things valuable and its reason for being was no more. Its once pristine hull, lovingly cared for by sailors, had not seen a paintbrush since well before decommissioning. The bubbled grey paint on the hull had lost its purpose and little by little, sheet by sheet, it separated itself from the derelict ship. The hulk’s three-strand manila mooring lines were decaying after working well past their retirement. Covered in mildew and bird droppings, they just hung on. The constant ebb and flow of the tide caused the hemp to stretch and relax—stretch and relax—they were always exhausted and they wanted an out too. Nobody cared—not even the rats.  

Rats Attack

The rodents tried to access the ship, but the Navy had fortified the six mooring lines with rat guards. The flat metal discs, positioned along the ropes half-way between the ship and the wharf, blocked the six lanes to rat traffic. But a metal disc can only take so much abuse and then one day the rat guard on the stern line gave up the ghost and dropped into the water below. Exhausted, it sank to the bottom—the ship lost a friend that day. Then the rats. The rat telegraph spread the welcome news and soon the stern mooring line felt the weight of the creatures scurrying from shore to ship in search of food and comfort.  

Throughout the ship, its hatches were closed tight. Over the years, thousands of sailors had opened and shut the steel gateways in harbour and at sea—in peace and at war. But as the ship came to its end, the hatches, too, felt abandoned. From being a critical part of the ship’s watertight integrity to becoming a nuisance. Usage went from always to sometimes to occasionally to rarely and now never. The last time the hatch was used was two months ago, when a spooked Navy inspector neglected to latch it shut. Now it creaked back and forth with every movement of the ship. A well-oiled hinge allows the hatch to swing freely, but no maintenance or use brings rust. The moan of the pathetic hatch gave the ship’s pain an identity. Almost daily, interloping ships passed at speed. Their wake caused the deserted decks to shiver with life. And every day the ship echoed with the same sounds—the banging hatch, the rats, the creaks—but every so often a new sound surfaced—another instrument to the floating mausoleum’s orchestra of death. That performance would only stop once the waves returned to the depths. 

Back to Sea

But today was different. Instead of the occasional splash on the hull, the waves sounded constant. HMAS Beware’s mooring lines were gone. It was moving—its umbilical to an old life gone forever. The ship started to pitch and roll. The hatch screamed back and forth. They were heading out to sea. 

The HMAS Beware had been laid up in the moth-ball fleet for nearly a year. Originally, the ship was destined to be taken to sea and used as target practice, but a change of government sold the hulk for scrap. Now it was to be dragged 6000 miles to its death in a ship breaking yard at Alang, India.

Retired Chief “Tubby” Andrews stood on the bridge as it left Sydney. He hated this rust bucket—he headed the decommissioning crew and oversaw the ship’s mutilation until it left service—then he retired as well. That was a year ago. Once he learned of the ship’s new disposal, he approached the towing company for a job. His knowledge of the ship had him hired instantly. The retired Chief’s job was to maintain radio contact with the tugs, check the ship for leaks, and monitor the towing lines.  

Tim and Jeff had also been part of the decommissioning crew, but the Navy discharged them as deserters. Their Chief reported to higher authorities that they had never returned from overnight leave. Tubby concocted a story that he had caught them stealing and was about to have them charged. He was upset. 

Of course he was. He’d murdered them. They’d never left the ship.

The movement of the ship was their awakening. The fuzzy past came into focus. Echoes became distinct. Speech was now decipherable.  

Clarity replaced confusion.

“You know, Jeff, he was pilfering everything he could during the decommissioning – the stuff we packed on barges for him—the electronics, cabling, ammunition, medical supplies—one for the Navy, one for Tubby. It just wasn’t right—we were doing all his dirty work. He must have thought we were stupid.”

“We were. We should have just done as we were told—but you had to confront him—and look where it got us, Tim.”

“Yea, well I’m dead too,” he was quick to add.

“We should have seen it coming—ordering us to unbolt this bilge hatch so deep down in the ship. Shit, we were digging our own grave—one bolt at a time. And we didn’t suspect a thing—and that nice cool drink—man, we should have realised it then. That prick did nothing for anyone.”

An Unhappy Death

They remembered their last day of life with unsettling clarity. They were in the engine room, their overalls covered in thick black grease, their palms blackened by work. Their tongues dry. The chief slithered in. His usual unsettling smile was nothing new. 

“Enjoy a few drinks, compliments of the Navy. You guys have worked hard. I’ve got some ice too.” 

His simple act of kindness was out of character, but he had kicked them down so many times any hint of kindness was welcome. That smile. Those thin lips. The prolonged agony of his presence. They drank hastily just to get rid of him. But he was getting rid of them. They had become a liability to his future.

They recalled the drugged drink—and how Tubby must have had done them in with a marlin spike through the head. Then dropped them into the bilge and re-bolted the hatch. There seemed to be no time in death—was it five minutes or 14 months since they woke? It didn’t matter.  

But where were they going? The ship’s movement was invigorating. Leaving their mutilated cocoons, the boys found a new strength. Not a physical strength, but a driving force they were yet to understand. They moved effortlessly into the engine room and then upward, transcending physical barriers as they ascended through deck after deck. Their bodies, no longer bound by flesh and bone, slipped through bulkheads and machinery, each level a new discovery. They laughed at the absurdity of their newfound existence, the thrill of exploring the ship as never before, feeling its very essence with a connection deeper than life itself.

Their friendship was alive as they screamed through the boiler room, the generator room, the main galley and then—a sudden stop. The mess deck. This was where they used to sleep. Sixty empty bunks stretching into the darkness. Locker doors lying open—all flapping in unison. The silence. The engines and air-conditioning spoke no more. No lights, no life, no rowdy sailors. But there were remnants of life, the groans of a dying ship as it pitched and rolled. They knew each creak was another cry for help. 

They moved through a large hatch and onto the upper decks. They were at sea.  

“Tim—look at that. We’re being towed.”

“Towed?”

The two ocean-going tugs strained to pull the old ship. Black smoke spewed from each vessel as they climbed the troughs. The tense chains and ropes were taut. Singing their own tunes—desperate to snap. The boys looked up to the bridge and saw movement. Jeff ducked immediately.

“You know we’re dead. I don’t think anyone can see us,” smiled Tim. 

That mysterious person on the bridge had their attention.

Tim froze as he got closer. “You’re fucking joking. It’s him—Tubby!” Jeff was emotional. His tears fell. 

“He can’t hurt you, Jeff. Hang on to me, buddy.”

They both crept up the ladder and onto the bridge wing. They edged inside. Someone had converted the once grand control centre of the ship into a living space. It was him—writing. He didn’t see or sense them. It was a checklist. They freaked out when he spoke.

“One—check the tow lines. Two—check for leaks. Three—radio the tug.” He wrote number four as the boys read it.

“Clear the bilge,” they recited together.

Tubby jumped. He’d heard them. His imagination was playing tricks. He only had four weeks to unbolt that hatch and remove any evidence that might incriminate him. He knew when they dismantled the ship in India, they would find bodies in the bilge. 

“Now I’ve got the spooks,” he shook his head and laughed. 

Tim and Jeff looked at each other—Tubby had reacted to their voices. What did this mean? Tim felt a surge of hatred as Tubby left the bridge. Instinctively, he picked up the pen—he could actually hold it—the boys stared at each other. 

Jeff smiled as Tim added a fifth item to Tubby’s list. 

‘Kill the Chief.’

The decaying warship surged with life.

(This story is special for me. It was crafted as part of an online writing program at the University of Iowa many years ago. I wanted to share it. The image was created using Mid Journey, with extra visual content from Digital Juice and editing in Affinity Photo.)