The period details and connection to historic boat sinkings are intriguing.
An "immersive and period-specific picaresque, which manages to capture its milieu in a way that feels simultaneously timeless and contemporary" (Kirkus Reviews).
Dockyard mansex adventurer Olli Turner has stowed away on the biggest ship the world has ever known, forced to sail incomplete.
Built up rivet by rivet through his formative years, RMS Queen Elizabeth watched over Olli's sexual awakening. Staying with her seems to promise passage to a new world of landed men.
Yet in March 1940 war is churning. That short coastal voyage to Southampton he was expecting turns into a daring dash across the Atlantic and plants instead seeds of a years-long life at sea.
Conspiring undercurrents sabotage his troopship to troopship bounce as need for a place, however perilous, in arms of to-war men proves a powerful piece in this war's chess match of primal evils.
She waited for him in the Clyde, her hull a heavy mass of metal born from the sweat of the labour of men. Her tender, Romsey, steamed her way in the early hours of a misty February 1940 morning. On board this tug was a Clydebank boy, bent on his mission to stow away within her, all the way to Southampton. She had a sister come before her who had long towered above the tenements of the workers that built her. But it was around the time of the building-up on this one, in slipway four, that men who riveted her together had started working on him, too. He was young. Young enough to take in the conflict-clouded Glasgow air with excitement rather than dread. He was drawn to her, his Queen. She who had brought hard men to him.
Elizabeth lay in wait in the Tail o’ the Bank – the part of the Clyde where the draught was large enough to take her. She wore a drab military grey that made her features uncertain from a distance, keeping her mystery. They were called the monsters, and he could understand why as they approached her. She was the leviathan, drawing curious men from the shallows into the deep where she could snag them. The tender took them to her stern, and, once in swimming distance, her vastness was revealed, stretching into the mist, no sign of her end in sight. The Clyde was motionless that morning. Seeing her in the water was alien to him still. Even though she had a hull in Clydebank, in a fitting-out station since her launch in September of the previous year, the image conjured of her was still land-based. Even now, in water, she sat high, not in the water, not yet. Yet still, the point where her belly dipped below the surface, dropped deep and disappeared into the darkness of the Clyde channel drew him in like a deadly siren. She had propellers, he remembered. The size of workhouses with room for a pub underneath. Submerged and laying dormant down there, somewhere; ready to spin into life at command, ready to take him away, if he could successfully, stow away.
“Ready, sir,” a flat-faced, young-but-aged-by-fat member of the tender staff said to his father, who nodded.
A rope ladder draped down from her side, but on account of its disappearing into the white above-mist, was more a fable set-piece than any rational man’s stable entry into a modern Atlantic liner. He searched his father’s face. It had bloated and become blood-blotched since the death. After losing his mother, he had come of age, found experience in the docks – while his father had found the bottle and neglect of his son and his own sanity. This latter part, though, his father had managed to keep from the attentions of employers.
“Stay,” his father said. A stern-yet-low volume that did not carry above the engines of the tender. The fatherly ascent up the ladder, when it did come, came with some difficulty and clumsy-clutching of an attaché case.
His father was a representative of John Brown & Co., her builders. He was followed up and into her by the final contingent of her crew, who numbered less than a dozen and made their ascent with competency and a knowledge of ship ropes, and in apparent rank: the men of the tug averaging a younger and more boisterous bunch as the numbers thinned out.
In accord with his plan, he folded himself among the more youthful among them. The fibres of the rope-rungs prickled against his palms as he climbed.
Slower than the rest, dangling between the threshold of the tug and her side – the churning channel between the two boat-ly bodies promising to pull him under should he show the slightest sign of a slip. Cheeks and nose red, a slip that would be into the cold blue of the Clyde, all the way to the silty bottom.
He fortified when he burst through the mist canopy toward the cargo portal in her side. He was helped into her by two sailors. They were clean and in-white, with crisp Cunard White Star caps. The space into which they pulled him was stacked high with materials for her fitting out, jettisoned there, abandoned after war cry. He joined the clamber of the crew assembled – his father gone, set about his business; if all went to plan, he would not see him again.
“Stewards aft, seamen front,” one of the sailors from her opening said, closing in behind the last of those from the tug.
Him, who spoke, as with his friend, was tall and tight in his service whites – a titillation, totally, of the treats in store for the journey. Stewards did not need to travel far, the tug having delivered them into a space already among their station. Seamen, however, had a trek to their beds – a path to follow that would meander them through her service corridors toward her front. Those were the men he followed when the group assembled divided in two.
His rationale was real simple: they the seamen were the fitter breed of his two choices. Stowaway-ing was like that. It swayed on impulse mostly.
In following the seamen, the incompleteness of her corridors became clear. There were bundles of wire where light fittings and switches should have been; portable lighting guiding the way. Following the young and athletic lads through her dimly-lit passages was akin to moving through a mineral mine shaft. The exposed wires of makeshift illumination were sufficient, glinting with deposits, but also: had a temporariness and otherworldliness to them. There was adventure lighted through them. Conspicuous without a rucksack of his own and knowing how vital it was to disappear within her belly soon for the plan to succeed, he actively looked for a chance to slip away. It came near signage for the first-class restaurant when the lads took a stairway up to the A deck promenade – to walk her length in open air.
Any chance for a smoke, lads, he thought.
He wanted to join them. Puff among their tight-buttocks-ness. But this was his opportunity to slip away into a first-class cabin.
Like the corridors outside, it was unfinished. Furniture and fabrics stacked at the points where its walls met in anticipation of a fitting that may not now come.
He felt his back pocket; sewn over his own plump buttock. From it, he retrieved a folded deck-plan that he had smuggled from his father’s stacked-papers-study the night before. It helped un-jumble the maze of her. He traced a path to the seamen’s quarters in her front. Knowing working men had tended to her for at least a day by this point, he would dip into the laundry rooms to retrieve a disguise for the journey. Finger on plan, the path brought him below where his father was meeting, in the Tourist dining salon, as he had sleuthed out earlier and marked on his map.
In the washing room, crew uniforms awaited cleaning in lumps according to a man’s role on the ship: officer, seaman, engineer and steward, among others. Seeing the garments awaiting washing made him imagine the naked bodies of the men themselves, queuing up for the showers. He found himself picturing their musculature according to the state of their spent dress: the engineers and seamen piles were especially soiled from the degree of labour and oil of grease their duties demanded. Drawing up one of the engineers’ overalls, still damp with sweat and turbine grease, he pulled the crotch seam to his face, covering his nostrils and absorbing in its ripeness like a breathing apparatus. He took in the scent like it were a Sunday dinner of the finest beast, envisioning the sweat-laced muscular contours of the man who had worn and worked it, grasping his arse as he did… then going in for a serving of a different species of fragrant meat.
After the third, temptation to grab for a fourth coverall, or even bury himself in the whole spent workwear mess and wallow a while, came as a test of the faith. But sensitivity to time pulled him away; it was barely enough, a short reprieve, a tease of his resolve in the decision to stow away on Elizabeth for her short journey to Southampton.