The festive tree took pride of place in front of the window, the same place it had stood year upon year, dating back to when I myself was just a small boy. Some of the decorations, made by my own fair hands at school and received with a beaming smile from my waiting mother, were lovingly unwrapped and placed with those bought new for the year; replacing those broken or deemed no longer on theme.
Upon the hearth, cards from friends and family stood alongside festive ornaments that saw the light of day for just two weeks before being packed away into their various boxes and returned to the attic for the remaining fifty. Paper decorations hung from the ceiling as tinsel lined whatever surface seemed appropriate to complete the festive wonderland as seen in shop windows and on the cover of magazines. There had never been a sense of ‘bah humbug’ when it came to Christmas in our house, and the tradition stayed as I’d grown into a man.
A homely scent of cinnamon and chocolate wafted the nostrils teasingly, tempting anyone that visited into dipping into the array of assorted confectionary that sat invitingly in various bowls. There were nuts too, although despite the nutcracker sitting with them, these were nowhere near as tempting as the candy treats for wandering fingers. And of course there was mulled wine. A solitary half consumed glass stood upon the side board, long since cooled to the point of being cold.
The sweet memory and aromas of home were a sanctuary far away from where I found myself on this, one of my most memorable of Christmas Eve’s. Gone was the scent of festive treats, replaced with the bitterly cold salty spray of the unforgiving North Sea that slapped us all in the face with as much venom as winter’s icy cold breath. It was a rough and foreboding night to be at the mercy of nature’s fury, and yet that was where we found ourselves. Myself and three other selfless brave volunteers, answering the distress calls of a merchant vessel being torn apart far out at sea.
Sitting at the rear of our boat was Jack and Tom, both built like the proverbial brick outhouse, they provided the rowing muscle. Jack, the village handyman and builder, left behind a sleeping wife Geraldine, and two children, Rose and Emily. Tom, the school sports teacher, a sleeping wife Eliza. Michael sat by my side to the right. Shop keeper by day, he was much trimmer than the other two, but no less adept at cutting the blade of an oar through the roughest of seas. He had awaiting his return his wife Fiona and son, David. My thoughts once again turned to home, to the wife I too had left behind, and our unborn child that she carried, already six months.
Whilst my dearly beloved Rachel had learned to accept that the dangers we each faced when we put our fate in the hands of Mother Nature, it never sat with ease within her thoughts. It was with pleading words that I did not go, that the responsibility should be carried by others, that we parted. And whilst I understand her fear that we may meet our demise that she would then be left with a fatherless child and she herself be without the support of a husband, my thoughts turn to those men already at peril awaiting our help. They too are a mother’s son, possibly a child’s father or wife’s husband. I could not sleep comfortably without cause to question my own mortality if I were to turn a deaf ear to pleas of help, knowing that it was help I could give, but had chosen not to.
Gathering my bearings, I watched as the milky white of the moon drifted in and out of view. Dark rain laden clouds, at times, suffocated her from sight completely. A wry smile passed my lips as the representation of my Rachel’s mood this eve was perfectly being played out within the night’s sky. On one hand there was the radiance of the moon, the epitome of my beloved’s own fair complexion and a guiding light even through the darkest of times. Then there were the clouds, her current fury and anger at the circumstances for which she felt so strongly, and yet had no control. The rain was her tears. Whilst they did not fall within my company, to wager they fell upon my departure was a safe bet indeed.
A hefty aggressive wave cascaded down upon us, threatening to consume the boat and condemn our bodies to the watery depths. So cold was the sea, it was if it had reached inside and pulled out the very breath from my lungs. It took all my strength to keep the oar within by grasp, whilst also maintaining my balance. Looking at my three companions, they too were struggling against the will of Mother Nature, and with this, I took some comfort. It seemed that for every mile we rowed, our arms and backs straining to keep a forward momentum, the sea fought back and returned us a quarter distance. Through gritted teeth and stubborn determination, none were for abandoning the cause.
Michael offered a glance over his shoulder, and I found myself compelled to follow suit. In the distance, a large dark mass sat lifeless upon the horizon. Its silhouette betrayed its true identity; however we both looked at each other knowingly. No matter what adversity the weather and sea posed, time was now our cruel master. With the merchant ship keeled over, all those aboard would undoubtedly be clinging to whatever they could within the icy cold water. We prayed that time had been with them, that they’d manned their own life boats, but past history has a cruel way of repeating itself. I gave word to Tom and Jack that we were getting close.
Still the sea raged as if we were attempting to deprive her of a bounty she considered rightfully hers. The wind too, howling as if in disapproval of our presence. Time and time again our boat threatened to succumb just as the ship had, but for all of Mother Nature’s venom, it was as though we had Lady Luck rolling the dice in our favour. Sodden and cold, we pushed on. Cursing every wave that pushed us back and cursing more those that soaked us further. I recall a fisherman once disputing the saying ‘once you’re wet you’re wet’, and never really understood why he argued it so. That was until nights like this. It was one thing being wet from the rain whilst walking home, another to be so soaked that even your skin feels like sponge absorbing water.
It seemed as though we’d been fighting our own personal battle with the elements for hours, each of us reaching the point of mental and physical exhaustion at some point, before then digging deeper within ourselves to find it within us to carry out. Such was the impossibility to hear the calls for help above the howling wind, that it was the remnants of floating cargo buffeting against the side of our boat that alerted us to our close proximity to the distressed ship. Lifting our oars we called out into the night for those that could hear us.
Under the watchful gaze of the moon, as she appeared and then momentarily disappeared behind blackened clouds, we searched the water that was littered with debris and boxes. The storm kept pushing us away as we listened, forcing us to lower our oars and row again examining as much of the area as we could. For every moment slipped away, so too were the chances of anyone likely to survive being within the bitterly cold sea. I found myself thinking the worst, that we’d put ourselves through so much and we’d been too late. That there would be mothers, fathers and children waking to a Christmas day with news of a lost loved one. It was true that the sea was indeed a cruel mistress.
It was Tom that heard them, pleas for help from within the darkness.
A small boat crammed full of frightened men, shivering from being soaked to the bone. At the full mercy of the storm, they bobbed uncontrollably and violently with seemingly no means with which to move themselves. Tom hurled one end of a coiled rope in their direction, instructing them to catch and keep hold, whilst Michael, Jack and I rowed furiously trying to get ourselves closer to the stricken crew. Despite the still raging winds, the sound of euphoric relief from their boat was welcome encouragement. Tom’s aim was true, no doubt honed from days on the cricket pitch with his students, as we felt the weight of their boat tethered to ours.
The turbulent sea, that was once our adversary for so long, had now become an invaluable aid now that our backs were turned upon the storm. Our oars cut through the water as we focused our direction on the flickering lights so as to guide us towards shore, the waves carrying us homeward to our loved ones. We thanked those that looked down upon us as both boats were brought up onto the pebbled beach. The sailors were quickly ushered to the school by Tom where warmth and blankets would be afforded them, welcome reprieve from the biting wind and a chance to remove the sodden clothes that clung like a second skin.
News spread of our successful return, and soon all the village was bringing food and clothing. The fear and shivering that we had witnessed when we first encountered them, huddled for warmth within their tiny boat, was replaced with smiles and handshakes for everyone. There was no reason to justify our taking to the sea this evening, but here was the perfect conclusion to why we did.
A delicate hand touched my shoulder causing me to turn quickly. Stood before me was my beloved Rachel, still as milky white as the moon, but flushed with red and awash with tears. Her arms flung around me, pulling me as close as the bump of her belly would allow. Gone was her fury and obstinate demeanour, replaced with overwhelming relief that we’d made it home. That Christmas would be spent rejoicing and not a day forever remembered in mourning.
We continued to risk our lives so as to save the lives of others when the timed called, and we did so voluntarily knowing it was the right thing to do.