The Brayhead

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The Brayhead

Flash Fiction

by Justine Sweeney

‘Abandon! Abandon!’ Captain paces a stretch of starboard deck. ‘We’re hit.’ 

I count heads. Thirty-eight. All here. First lifeboat launched. 

Second raft. ‘Come on, Captain, get in!’ 

‘Yes, Boyle. Right.’ 

Captain climbs in behind me and we push off into thick darkness with a smooth splash. Quick – get away from the creaking vessel, smoke, and heat. Count again – Geordie, Higgins, Bobcat, Monroe, the three Larne boys. Did I see Wells on the other raft? Stretch fingers. Keep circulation going. Hands freezing cold, fingertips like ice. Keep arms moving, keep oars going. Pull. Pull. Pull. Plunging in sync, eight paddles glide back, then surface, gasping for air. 

No sign of that German sub now. They’ll not see us, we’ve no lamps on and we’re nearly out of the liner’s burning shadow. They’ll be celebrating they took our steamer down, but they’ll not care to come after us in a dinghy, will they? 

‘Did we radio for help?’ Monroe shouts. ‘Do they know we’re torpedoed? Are they coming for us?’ 

I can’t answer him. I was down in the belly stoking the fires when we were struck. Fell back, thumped against a coal pile. Did they get through on the radio? 

‘Help’s coming,’ Captain tells us, ‘they know we’re here.’ 

But is help coming? Is it? Who did we radio to? Are any boats even nearby? 

Can barely see my own hands. Grey faces all around me. Bright eyes reflecting flames. I start to laugh. Can’t stop. Thinking of Matheson an hour ago, loading shells into our mounted gun. Hoy – firing in the direction of the U-boat until all our ammo was done. What good is one three-pound gun and two gunners on a two-hundred-foot Merchant Navy steamer? Ha! No use at all. Germans not interested in us they said. Ha! We should have had more guns. 

Blazing up rightly now. Stern underwater. Sinking fast, she’s heavy. Full of farm machinery. Cattle. All them Irish calves thought they were going to Canada! Crates of linen – thousands of them. Linen from the mill. Sarah-Jane, are you in the mill now? In the Spinning Room? 

Atlantic water spills in and the dinghy is one-third filled. Frozen fingers. Can hardly hold the paddle. There she goes! Our ship’s tip slips under. Such blackness. Can’t even see the water but it slaps against the canvas and tosses us along. A whistle blows. That’ll be the other raft. We huddle in. Who’s that whimpering? Monroe. What are you crying for, Monroe? Sure, we got off the sinking boat. Help’s coming. And it’s warmer now. I can’t feel the cold in my legs and arms anymore. It’s hard to ignore Monroe sobbing. I’ll close my eyes for a minute, the rocking is making me sleepy. Sarah-Jane, stop crying – I’m fine, help is coming. There you are, Sarah-Jane, that smile.  

About the Author

Justine is a writer and IT professional from Belfast. Recently she’s had short fiction published in The Dublin Review, and she was longlisted in the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2024. She has an MA in Creative Writing and is working on her first novel.