The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 20, No. 1


by Jim Shepard

To commemorate Easter Sunday, the captain has spread word of a ship–wide contest for the best news of 1942, the winner to receive a double tot of rum each evening for a week. The contestants have their work cut out for them. Singapore has fallen. The Prince of Wales and the Repulse have been sunk. The Dutch East Indies have fallen. Burma is in a state of collapse. Darwin has been so severely bombed it had to be abandoned as a naval base. The only combatants in the entire Indian Ocean standing between the Japanese Navy and a linkup with the Germans, who are currently having their way in Russia and North Africa, seem to be us. And one Dutch gunboat we came across a week ago with a spirited crew and a crippled rudder.
      We are the Telemachus, as our first lieutenant reminds us each morning on the voice–pipe: a T–class submarine—not so grand as a U, but not so dismal as an S. Most of us have served on S's and are grateful for the difference, even as we register the inferiority of our own boat to every other nation's. The Royal Navy leads the world in battleships and cruisers, we like to say, and trails the Belgians in submarine design.
      In the chaos following Singapore's surrender we've been provided no useful intelligence or patrol orders. A run through the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra ended in a hail of enemy fire on the approaches to Batavia. At our last dry dock the Ceylonese further undermined our morale by invariably gazing out their harborside windows at first light to see if the Japanese had arrived. We have no idea whether we will find any more ports available to us now that we've shipped back out to sea. We have no idea whether we will find more torpedoes once we've expended our store. "Heads up there, boys," our captain joked to those of us within earshot of his map table last night. "Is there anything more exhilarating than carrying on alone out on the edge of a doomed world?"
      "Sounds like Fisher's childhood, sir," Mills responded, and everyone looked at me and laughed.
      They view me as a sorry figure even by the standards of their meager histories. As a boy I was a horrid disappointment, pigeon–chested and gap–toothed, and as grandiose as I was untalented. The only activity for which I was any use at all was running, so I ran continually, though naturally not in competitions or road races but just all about the countryside, in fair weather and foul. It brought me not a trace of schoolboy glory, though it did at times alleviate my fury at being so awful at everything else.
      The characterization my parents favored for me was out of hand, as in, What does one do when a boy gets out of hand? My stepfather inclined toward the strap; my mother, the reproachful look. Her only brother had been killed in the first war, and her first husband had come to a bad end, as well; and my stepfather never tired of pointing out that a disapproving countenance was her solution to most of life's challenges. He said about me that by the time I was out of short pants and he was forced to introduce me at pubs or on the street, friends sympathized.
      My father had been presumed lost at sea on a bulk cargo ship that had gone missing between Indonesia and New South Wales. When I asked if he had loved me, my mother always replied that it hurt too much to recall such happiness in any detail. When I pressed for particulars nonetheless, she said only that he had been quick to laugh and that no man had possessed a greater capacity to forgive. When I asked my aunts they said they'd barely known the man, and when I asked if he'd been pleased with me, they said they were sure that had been the case, though they also remembered him not much liking children.
      My stepfather viewed my running as a method of avoiding achievement or honest labor and marveled at my capacity for sloth. He pressed upon me Engineering Principles for Boys and Elementary Statistics and all sorts of other impressive–looking volumes I refrained from opening. He asked if I was really so incurious about the world of men, and I reassured him that I was very curious about the world of men, and he responded that in such case I must bear in mind that the world of men was the sphere of industry, and I clarified that I meant the adventurous world of men, that arena of tropic seas and volcanic cataclysms and cannibal feasts and polar exploits. He said that if I wanted to grow up a fool I might as well join the navy, which was precisely what I had already resolved to do.

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