Saturday, 24 January 2009

Our Lusitania

by Ben Emlyn-Jones

“In 1915, a similar outrage occurred.” drawled George W Bush through the TV speakers. “An ocean liner of the Free World was callously sunk by the submarine U20 and thousands of innocent people, mostly women and children, perished. It was an act of cowardice and viciousness, that made our nation realize that Germany was a threat that had to be faced. Today almost a century later, that threat has resurfaced. This time the threat comes from the terrorist aggressor that haunts the globe. Al-Qaeda is out there; it has the Moroccan government as its servant. Are we going to turn away this time, or are we as a country and a people going to honour our duty as protectors of security and safe passage for the human race? And as this New Year begins, today, we can truthfully say that the destruction of the Ocean Princess is… our Lusitania…”
Gavin lifted the glass and drank, the harsh spirit burning his tongue. He saw that the glass was empty so he poured some more Scotch into it. He continued to stare at the TV screen while his son and daughter played together on the living room floor. They still marveled over their Christmas presents; the novelty of them had yet to wear off. He watched them sadly in his peripheral vision.
He knocked back his glass in one, went to pour out a new one and realized to his surprise that the bottle was already empty. He put his hands on the arms of the chair and heaved himself to his feet. He wobbled unsteadily and the room orbited around him as he shambled over to the drinks cabinet to retrieve another bottle.
“You ain’t still drinking are you, Gav?” called Stacey from the kitchen, her voice sounding loud in his ears.
“Why not? It’s Christmas.” he muttered.
“No, that was almost two weeks ago.”
Gavin ground his teeth. “Get off my back, Stace; you’re not the bloody Coxswain!” He pulled a bottle of cheap supermarket blend out of the cabinet.
“Gav?” she said. “Could you come here a sec?”
Gavin sighed and then walked over to the tiny kitchen of their prefab married quarters.
Stacey put down her rolling pin and stood there looking at him, a dirty apron, flour all over her hands; she was so beautiful that he felt tears budding in his eyes.
“How long have we been married, Gav?”
“Seven years and six months.”
“In those years I’ve known dozens of times when you’ve come home into port. Every time was the same except this one. Remember the fun and games we usually play? Dinner, wine, six or seven hours of mindless shagging… but not this time. When you stepped off that bloody boat last week the only things that got nibbled were your fingernails!”
He shrugged like a naughty schoolboy.
“What’s wrong with you, Gav?... Since you came home all you’ve done is sit there and booze yourself. Tell me why.”
He remained silent.
“I know there’s stuff you can’t talk to me about, but… for fuck's sake!” She ran a hand through her long black hair. “I feel like I’ve brought a stranger home by mistake and my husband is still somewhere out at sea!”
“Stace… I…” He faltered.
“OK” she said in a different tone. “Can you answer me this? Every ship in the Andrew is out there at the moment trying to find that terrorist boat… except Triumph. Why?”
“Busted lube oil pump.” recited Gavin.
“Is that what’s really wrong or just what you’ve been told to say?” She put her hands on her hips.
Gavin recoiled.
“I need to know, Gav!”
“Shut up!” he yelled. The children stopped playing and he could feel them looking towards the kitchen. Stacey just turned away from him and went back to her cherry pie. Gavin stomped angrily back to the armchair and cracked open the new bottle of Scotch.
The TV news story had changed to coverage of a mass demonstration in Washington DC. A million and a half Americans had come out onto the streets waving the Stars-and-Stripes and carrying banners that said things like: “NUKE ‘EM” and “PROTECT OUR CHILDREN- WAR NOW”, One huge banner declared: “HOW MUCH LONGER WILL YOU MAKE US WAIT?” with a graphic showing a mushroom cloud rising from a shattered White House. The scene changed to a report from the site of the disaster. Salvage robots had been lowered to the wreck of the Ocean Princess and showed pictures of the twisted hulk, lying on the seabed of the Straits of Gibraltar; the black water enveloped it, fish swimming in and out of its broken portholes. The few survivors, who’d been lucky enough to find a place in the two lifeboats that they’d had time to deploy, were interviewed, shaking and crying. The described how the explosion had ripped through the ship and the decks had listed, water gushing along passages, people screaming as the cruise ship was swallowed by the waves. The Moroccan president, Mohammed Evel al Kokhah, now the most hated man on Earth, was not available to confirm or deny the blame laid at his feet, strengthening the argument that he was keeping silent because he was guilty. The United States had sent a massive taskforce to Europe that was currently massing in Spain, after being redeployed from manoeuvres in the Mediterranean. A carrier battle group hovered in the vicinity of the Canary Islands. There was no doubt that they were plotting an invasion of Morocco. The TV broadcast a fact sheet on the Kilo-class diesel submarines, of which Morocco had recently bought three off the Russian Navy. “These vessels can also carry nuclear weapons…” the narrator said in a chilling tone.
Gavin felt himself tremble as he watched.
The next scene did it. It showed library footage of passengers enjoying themselves aboard the Ocean Princess, including children frolicking in the ship’s creche. The narrator said: “They were on their way home to the United States from a Christmas cruise and there were many families with children aboard…” Gavin shot to his feet, knocking his glass to the floor. He grabbed his jacket and strode out the house, leaving the inquisitive cries of his family behind him. He roamed the streets of Plymouth for an hour or more, ignoring the quiet Sunday pavements and the workmen taking down the Christmas lights. His feet crunched loudly through the snow. He eventually stopped at a newsagents and wandered in hesitantly. He bought a copy of a journal he’d never read before: a left-wing, anti-establishment weekly called The Other Side. He walked back into the street and read it. He then dropped his mobile phone in a bin and went to the nearest phone box, looking over his shoulder to ensure that nobody was watching him, and dialed a number.
“Hello, The Other Side.” said the voice at the end.
“Hello there.” said Gavin half-trying to put on a fake accent. “Could I speak to Morgan Dewsey please?”
“Who’s calling?”
“Er… it’s… Dave… Dave Jones.”
There was a pause. “Very well I’ll put you through.”

“Morgan, Dave Jones is here to see you.”
“Send him in.” Morgan Dewsey flicked off the intercom and poured two drinks. He gazed vacantly out of his office window at the cars and busses crawling slowly along the cold winter tarmac of Fleet Street. There was a knock at the door and a man entered who made Morgan sit up in surprise. He was dressed in a hoodie, a baseball cap, sunglasses and a scarf covering his nose and mouth. Only patches of his cheeks were visible behind the disguise. “Hello, it’s Dave Jones, isn’t it?” Morgan held out his hand.
Jones shook it, his own hand clad in a leather driving glove. “Thanks for seeing me.” He said, his voice was neutral and without accent, muffled behind the scarf. “Will you keep your promise that you’ll not reveal my identity?”
“What identity?” said Morgan with a half-smile, raising his eyebrows. He passed Jones a drink, but the stranger refused it. “I’ll come straight to the point.” he said: “We’re being lied to about the attack on the Ocean Princess.”
“Our publication specializes in uncovering lies.” said Morgan. “We consider ourselves a public watchdog.”
“Not lies as big as this one I’d say”
“No lie is too big for The Other Side.”
Jones snorted ironically. “Is that so? Even if I told you that the Ocean Princess was not sunk by Moroccan terrorists? What if I told you it was sunk by the Royal Navy?”
Morgan leaned forward. “Excuse me?”
There was a pause. “Will you hear me out?”
Morgan nodded.
Jones hesitated. It was hard to see behind his disguise, but he seemed to be shuddering as if in great pain or anguish. “I’m a tactical systems operator on a Royal Navy submarine. We were out on patrol as usual in the western Atlantic. Suddenly, on Christmas day, a radio message comes in redeploying us to the seas off the Straits of Gibraltar with all haste. We head there at full speed. When we arrive, the day after Boxing Day, we slow down and listen out for sonar contacts. The captain then tells us that we’ve been ordered to track an American cruise ship. I assume it’s just part of our everyday drill. Sonar soon picks up the target’s sound signature. It’s quite easy because we know where abouts she will be, emerging from the Strait. She’s also very loud, with no silencing measures like warships have. Then the captain makes an announcement through the ship’s tannoy. He sounds strange, like something’s bothering him. He says ‘Attention all hands. We’re about to go through a very difficult experience. We’ve been ordered by the OCC at Northwood to attack the cruise ship Ocean Princess. We are to sink her with torpedoes.’ Well, you could hear a pin drop from one end of the boat to the other. Half of us guffaw, as if we think this is the captain’s Christmas joke… But it ain’t. He’s deadly serious. ‘Every man on this boat will do his duty in accordance with his oath of allegiance to Queen and Country. We don’t get a choice over what orders we obey and do not obey. I, as much as any of you, are also bound by that oath. I expect nothing less from you than total, professional, delivery of our role as Britain’s senior service. But just to make sure, I am posting the First Lieutenant to control and the Coxswain to the torpedo room; both will carry a sidearm and have orders to immediately shoot any man who deserts his post! Even if that man is myself... When this operation is over, as always, you will not discuss what we have done with anyone.’” Jones coughs. “So you see I’m breaching my orders and my oath by telling you about this.”
“Go on.” said Morgan.
The man starts weeping. He puts his fingers under the bottom edge of his sunglasses to wipe his eyes. “The other lads just sit there beside me, stone-faced. Well… I’ve never seen anything like it; they were more than stone-faced. Their faces looked like I didn’t recognize them… They stopped being my shipmates and turned into robots! We carry out the firing procedure, like we have done a thousand times before, just feeling unreal and detached. It was a turkey-shoot! The torpedoes leave the tubes, like they do on any exercise. We listen to them run out towards the target and warheads detonate. There’s none of the cheering or whooping that I expected when we achieved the boat’s first kill, like they cheered and whooped in Conqueror when they took out the General Belgrano. Then Sonar picks up the sound of the cruiser sinking; the crunching and cracking of the hull as it’s crushed under the water pressure, the thump as it hits the seabed two thousand feet down..” He sobs. “I was on fire control; it was my finger that pushed the button! I sank the Ocean Princess!... You see? The governments are lying to us! This New Moroccan Islamic Republic didn’t do it. We did it!”
“But…” Morgan was shivering almost as much as his interviewee. “But what you’re saying is impossible! Why would they do this? How could they do this?... Are you for real!? This isn’t a ruse is it?”
“You think I’m kidding you!?” Jones demanded, tears soaking into the scarf that covered his cheeks.
“So what are you going to do about it!?”
“But… why would they kill eighteen hundred of their own people; American civilians!? How would they expect to get away with it?”
“I don’t fuckin’ know!” shouted Jones. “I can’t get my head round it! This whole fuckin’ world has gone mad!”
There was a pause. “What happened after that?” asked Morgan.
“We went to periscope depth and sent a ‘mission accomplished’ signal to Northwood. They immediately ordered us home to Devonport for debrief. When we tied up alongside none of us were permitted to go ashore. These civilian blokes in dark suits came aboard and debriefed every single hand personally. I was called into the mess on my own where these suited blokes were standing round me. Neither the captain nor any of the officers were present. They said: ‘So what did you do on this deployment?’ Well I ain’t stupid; I answered: ‘Just the usual, Sir. Monitoring surface traffic, looking out for unknown submarines.’ The suit grinned and nodded. ‘That’s good, Petty Officer. Just you remember that. If any other memories come to your mind then I urge you to forget them. If you do then it will certainly benefit your health… and the health of your wife and your two children. And if anyone asks you why HMS Triumph is not being deployed over the New Year you’d be wise to tell them it’s because the lubrication oil pump is damaged.’ And that was it. So you see why me being anonymous to you is so important.” He signed. “And then we get ashore to hear in the news about how a rogue Kilo sunk the Ocean Princess! Everyone’s talking about it; everyone’s heard about it! Nobody realizes the truth! How do you think that makes us feel!?”
“Have you discussed this with your shipmates since you came home?”
He shook his head. “No way! We’re just acting like it never happened.”
“Well… thank you for bring this to my attention.” said Morgan.

“Are you sure, Admiral?” said Morgan. “Very well; thank you for your time.” He put down the phone and wrote in his new document: Admiral Abdullah Hussein of the Moroccan Navy has confirmed that his three ex-Russian Kilo-class submarines Hurmat, Terak and Jebel were all in port during the time Ocean Princess was sunk.
There was a knock at his door and his editor walked in. “Morgan, I’ve just been reading your latest draft on the network.”
“That’s right, Steve. I think we’re onto something big here…”
“I’m dropping it”.
“Sorry, Morgan. A bod from the MoD has just called me. They’ve slapped a D-notice on it. If we pursue it further then they could close us down”
“But… not for something like this!?”
“Yes, Morgan. For something like this.”
“Morgan leaned over his desk. “Steve… don’t you see what’s happening!? They’re trying to cover it up…”
“Cover up what?” he retorted. “Morgan, there’s nothing to cover up. Nothing happened. Nothing except what we’ve already seen: The New Islamic Republic of Morocco attacked and destroyed a cruise liner and killed eighteen hundred people… end of story.”
“Silence!” The editor held up his hand. “The subject is closed. We never discussed it. Understand?”
Morgan nodded
The editor shrugged and added in a gentler tone. “It’s just a fucking conspiracy theory anyway; check out the internet. A bunch of losers and loonies! They said the same thing after 9/11. I don’t blame the Government for clamping down on nonsense like that. How do you think it makes the relatives feel?”

Morgan leaned back in his seat as the aircraft ascended into the sky. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have just taken off from Heathrow Airport; our journey to Mohammed the Fifth Airport in Casablanca will take about three hours and ten minutes. I hope you enjoy the flight.” Morgan felt guilty. He didn’t like going behind Steve’s back but he had to. He knew that when he joined The Other Side. He knew the score. There was only a limited level that the term “anti-establishment” could ascend to. And he’d often wondered throughout his career if his own definition of this term matched that of his employers; now he knew. A printout of his email of invitation from President Mohammed Evel al Kokhah was in his hand luggage in the locker above his head. He was going to speak to the Moroccan leader personally, face to face, and sort out this discrepancy once and for all. Jones was a liar and a nut case; he had to be… surely!
Morgan accepted the stewardess’ offer of a drink, started watching a movie on the screen on the back of the seat in front of him and settled back to relax before the hard work and stress he would have to endure when he got to Morocco.
He felt the explosion rather then heard it. It was an infrasonic thud that seemed to begin in his belly and radiate out to his extremities. The sidewalls of the compartment split apart like tearing cardboard and the world turned upside down and inside out. The freezing blast of the wind and the terrified screams of his fellow passengers filled the air around him. Morgan looked up and the calm blue waves of the English Channel rushed up towards his face.

A man in a dark suit stood in a boat a few miles away. He watched dispassionately as the aircraft broke into several flaming parts as it pirouetted down to crash noisily into the sea. He lifted his mobile phone to his mouth. “Flight 107 from Heathrow to Casablanca has crashed due to an explosion caused by freak mechanical failure. Two hundred and seven people were killed, including the famous liberal journalist, Morgan Dewsey. Deepest condolences to all involved.”

Gavin drove back towards Plymouth, feeling a slight sense of relief. But it was not complete absolution; nothing ever would be and he understood that now. The action he’d carried out a week ago aboard HMS Triumph was a burden that he’d have to bear, and he’d have to bear it for the rest of his life, no matter what happened. The only comfort he had was the intellectual knowledge that in speaking out he’d done the right thing. Intellectual knowledge conflicted with his intuition. There was a part of him that still felt like a traitor to his country. He cruised slowly along the dark snow-upholstered motorway, leaning forward to peer through the driving blizzard; the windscreen wipers flicked back and forth in front of his eyes. Few vehicles were out in these conditions and their headlights were like desiccated coconut beams in the night ahead. Suddenly the car veered. Gavin turned the steering-wheel, but nothing happened. He turned it the other way, but the car didn’t respond. It bumped violently as it mounted the verge and a crumbling concrete wall rushed towards him, his own headlights reflecting off it more and more brightly.

Another man in a dark suit stood beside the motorway, the noise of vehicles rushing along was a steady roar beside him. A few feet away, the mangled remains of a car lay embedded in the rotting wall of a derelict service station. Inside was the lifeless body of the driver, slumped over the wheel. The cold of the night was already chilling his corpse. The suited man put down the Boston Brakes control and lifted his mobile phone to his mouth. “Gavin Pearson, a submariner in the Royal Navy, was killed in a freak road traffic accident on the M4 westbound this evening. He lost control of his vehicle in the wintry conditions and ploughed into an abandoned Little Chef. We trust that our colleagues will ensure that the other members of his family will be processed in a similar way.”

The scene was set: The New Islamic Republic of Morocco was a threat to international security and needed a regime change. US and British forces invaded Morocco and deposed President al Kokhah. As a result his navy was also seized, along with the fleet of Kilo-class submarines that he’d bought off the Russians, one of which had of course sunk the Ocean Princess. So from then on the world was a safer place, and passenger and merchant ships could sail far more securely than they had before the invasion… but not completely securely of course. There were still rogue states out there; there were always plenty of other enemies to be dealt with. It was only a matter of time before there was another 9/11, 7/7 or Lusitania.

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