Tristan John S

Writer, Filmmaker, Musician

A Sea of Troubles

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One. Two. Three. He caressed each bullet in the palm of his hand before slipping it into its chamber..

“Are you sure about this?” asked Jones. “I mean – are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

“You won’t feel a thing,” assured Smith. Brown noticed his hesitation.
“I’m not happy about this, you know.”
“None of us is, my dear fellow,” said Smith. “But we’ve gone through it all now. To change our minds again would be foolish. Not to mention exhausting.”

He snapped the chamber into position. It rang a cold metallic note through the air as he brought the barrel parallel with Brown’s eyes.

Brown let out an involuntary laugh.
“What is it?” asked Smith.
“I was just thinking: whoever said ‘there are no atheists in a lifeboat’ would have to eat his hat right about now.”

“I wouldn’t let him,” interjected Smith. “A hat might just about be our salvation”

Jones knew not even a hat could save them now. It hadn’t rained for fifteen days and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. As far as any of them could see, the world stretched out in a eternal gradient of blue. The distinction between sea and sky, as imperceptible as the crumbling of their hope.

Brown was stalling for time and Smith knew it. He tightened his grip on the pistol.

In the first hours after the incident, their minds worked quickly – they pooled their resources, skills and expertise to ensure their best chance of survival.
In their haste (and to their everlasting shame), they had launched themselves off in the lifeboat before the women and children could board.
For the first week, this had been a topic of much debate and repentance; but after sixteen days, the men agreed it was just as well they had launched with only the three of them – for to share the meagre rations with any other would have simply prolonged the suffering of more people and reduced the chance of group survival. This comforted them for a further month, until their entire stock was depleted.

Four days after that, Smith had proposed the unthinkable:
Jones and Brown awoke to see him polishing the barrel of his gun with the end of his torn dress shirt.

"I say, what the devil are you doing?" demanded Brown. Smith, unperturbed, continued his polishing.

Jones was sitting at the stern, quite some feet away from the other two. He squinted at Smith as the sun sharply reflected off the pistol into his eyes.

"Just what do you think you're? –" Without warning, Smith put the barrel into his mouth and cocked it. Jones leapt from his position and rugby tackled the larger man to the ground.
Brown almost laughed: it was amusing. Two grown men with scraggly beards, attired in evening dress which had long -since turned to some sort of cardboard texture, diving about the place as if they were entertaining a stadium.

Smith soon sobered them.
“The fact of it all is: we're about done. Starvation is a beastly thing. Much better this way. Besides, you chaps could eat me afterwards. Might keep you going a bit longer.”

“What a horrid thing to say!” exclaimed Brown.
“No it isn’t. I shan’t have want of my body, I’ll be dead.”

The other two stared at him. Smith sniffed, casually. He was quite in earnest.

“But it’s just...wrong. You can’t do it! You simply can’t!” protested Brown. He had the hint of a stammer about him and shot a desperate look of appeal at Jones.

“Rot. Of course I can. In fact, it’s probably about the only thing that can be done.”

Jones said nothing but pursed his lips in disapproval.

“Do you believe it’s a mortal sin?” said Smith
“I’m not sure I’d put it quite like that, it’s just that – ”
“What, then?”
Jones made no reply?
“You’ve believed in God all your life?” asked Smith.
“I have. And you?”
“I’m not sure,” said Brown more to himself than the others.
“I most certainly do not!” said Smith. “And I’m surprised at you. You seem a reasonable man. I’ve seen you praying every day. What good has it done? There can be no God. There is only what we can see and hear and taste and touch and smell.”
“And what is it you see, Smith?”
“What do I see? Sea. An eternal mockery - a desert of hopelessness. What do I hear? The wind, taunting me. I taste the salt in my mouth – the tears my wife and children will shed for me. I feel their arms about me no more - only emptiness. I taste...death.”
“Well, when you put it like that, I wish you jolly well would shoot yourself and do us all a favour!”
“Because, my dear Brown, the thought occurred to me I might really do us all a favour.”
There was a new edge of excitement in Smith’s voice – almost as if he were rallying a rabble of students at a University hustings. He withrdrew three bullets from his jacket pocket and presented them triumphantly.
“Providence! Perhaps. An answer, at least, to the question.”
“What question? What are you talking about? Smith! You’re starting to frighten me.”
“Me, also,” added Brown for good measure.
“The question, gentleman! The ultimate question: that which sums up the epistemological trauma of the human condition - the epitome of all true philosophical enquiry, encapsulated so eloquently in Shakespeare: to be, or not to be.”
“That is the question.”
“To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes, or to take up arms against
a sea of troubles - and by opposing end die, to sleep No more; and by a sleep, to say we end The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks That Flesh is heir to? 'Tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished. To die to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream;”

“Precisely”. Interrupted Smith. “You know, Jones, you might have played the Dane. You were quite convincing.”
“You can’t be serious!”
“Well, perhaps in some provincial theatre…”
“I meant, about the subject. Self slaughter?”
“Look, Brown. It’s the only important philosophical question - should I kill myself or not? Have I right? Is it for the best? What’s this life for?”
“No.” said Jones firmly. “You haven’t the right. Only God – “
“Pish, posh, man. Don’t even you believe God gave us free will?”
“Yes, but what use if free will when you’re dead?”
“Besides,” added Brown, “if you’re going to kill yourself because you think it’s a free choice then it’s not really, is it? I mean, if you think it’s the only thing you can do…”
“Mr. Jones. Can you honestly tell me that, in this past month, you have seen the hand of God? Is there any evidence to suggest that He exists? That He is all powerful or all loving? Or just a little powerful or a little loving? If you, who have so faithfully prayed everyday are being so ignored by so great a being He is either cruel or inept. In either event I should never bow the knee to Him. Would it have been too much to ask for a little water - a fish or a ship? And you have asked. I’ve heard you. Every day.”
He could not deny it. Prayers and Bible verses, all the comforts of cathedrals, all the consolations of scripture could not shake his doubts.
“I don’t want to die having lost my faith,” he whimpered.
Smith continued to bombard them with a tirade about the futility of faith, and the freedom of suicide.
In seeing Jones’ faith falter, Brown began to see him as the more reasoned of the pair and came close to muttering a prayer himself, if only to halt Smith’s self-righteous sermon.

“The thing is, Smith, that if you’re right, you won’t get the chance of telling Jones you told him so, will you? And Jones won’t know about it either - because he’ll just be dead. But if Jones is right. Well, that’s better, surely?”

“Paschal’s wager? Very droll, Brown. Very droll. But perhaps you’re right. And so, you see, we might as well end it all and get to the conclusion right away, rather than drag out the whole ghastly affair. Besides. All this talking is making me thirsty.”

Perhaps they were just too tired to continue, or perhaps they longed for death. Either way, they conceded the argument and agreed to sleep one final night.
All were exhausted.

But now that the pistol was in his face and he was staring down at death, Brown found that he wanted to live.

It happened in slow motion: he could see Smith’s finger on the trigger, his face leering at him, the sea, lapping at the side of the boat, an eternity of water - the barrel of the gun again, and beyond it - the undiscovered country.
He gulped. With a scream, he lunged at Smith and made a grab for the pistol. Jones looked on in shock.
A shot.
Smith’s lifeless, wild eyes stared toward the horizon.
Brown held his body close to him in rage and regret for a moment and then let go.
Jones crossed himself and muttered something.
“Why do you still pray when there is no answer?”
"It's the same reason I'm still wearing this life jacket."
"Warmth? Comfort? I mean?"
"No, Brown. Hope."

They looked at each other and nodded.
Rain fell.