The following story was originally published by Alien Pub Magazine in May 2018.
For many, the 25th January 1953 was just another Sunday. For me, it was the day I lost my friends.
We dropped anchor a few weeks before in Liverpool's Gladstone Dock for the winter overhaul. I was excited to be back in the city. I'd been just once before and had fond memories of the place. I think it was the people. Their harsh and hostile accents masked a warm friendliness you'd struggle to find anywhere in the world, and it had a buzzing atmosphere only a port city could generate. I loved wandering the pub-filled streets listening to the fiddles and flutes of Ireland, the beats of the Caribbean, and the guitars of America.
I'd spent Saturday night drinking until the early hours in a pit of a boozer called Ye Hole in Ye Wall with an RAF vet called Alf. I lost count of how many Aussie White's we’d had. He told me stories of battles and people he'd met, none of which I can remember.
I nursed a sore head in my bunk for most of Sunday. A lot of the crew were scousers and had beds and families waiting for them when we docked. I was saving for a house back home in Montreal so chose to crash on the Empress. The others still on board weren't there by choice either. Drink, cigs, cards, and women had left them with empty pockets. The sailor's life.
In the late afternoon, I left my bunk and went up to the deck for a smoke to try and shake the throbbing behind my eyes. That's when I saw Johnny for the last time.
Johnny always had a cig in his mouth. Sometimes it turned to ash without him taking a pull. Other times he held it there without lighting it. He always seemed more at ease, more focused, when he had a white stick between his lips. Johnny worked in the engine room. The captain didn't like people smoking in there. One time he found a 'prentice puffing away and threw him overboard. Heck, he complained about us smoking anywhere on the ship. A couple of years before they told us we couldn't any more. I remember the day they put the signs up. Pictures of cigs with a red cross over them. It only took a few days for them to be covered in soot and grime. We'd smoked on-board for as long as we’d sailed the seas. What was the problem?
Do you think Johnny paid any mind to the signs? Did he fuck. He'd worked in that engine room for longer than most of us had been alive. Johnny was deaf anyway; you could hammer a sheet of steel behind his head and he wouldn't flinch. He just did his job and paid no mind to anyone else.
They said it was the cig that did poor old Johnny. The first explosion, the one which nearly sent me overboard, got everyone in the engine room. I scrambled to my feet and realised the Empress was tilting port side. My first thought was of Mickey and my pictures from home, so I ran below deck, back to my room. That's where I found Mickey on the floor.
The blast must’ve knocked him out of his berth. I couldn't move the fat bastard. I slapped his face and shouted down his ear but he wouldn't budge. When I tried to turn his face toward mine I got a handful of blood. I heaved him across the floor but only got as far as the door before water began to fill the room. I could hear the rush of water beneath my feet, hear the steel of the hull groaning. Then the lights cut out. No hopeful flicker first. Just dead.
I had no choice but to leave Mickey. It was harder than saying goodbye to Ma. Me and Mickey signed on back in Montreal five years before and we'd bunked together since day one. But my toes were swimming. Minutes later it was up to my chin, splashing up my nose. I can still remember the smell of shit from the brown water of the Mersey.
At the ladder leading to the deck, I found Dave Murphy helping fellas up. Blood poured from a cut above his eye, but he didn't look bothered. I never had time to ask what happened. He pulled me up and I shouted for him to follow. He ignored me, searching the rising water. I shouted as loud as my lungs would allow but it was lost amongst the blast of a second explosion. The ship jolted and Dave lost his grip and slipped into the foetid darkness. I never saw him again.
By the time I got to the deck the Empress was listing at a forty-five degree angle. I met Anders the gentle giant clinging to a pole. Bet the poor guy didn't expect this when he left Denmark. We had to get up onto the starboard rail before the Empress went completely on her side. Anders grabbed a loose rope and together we began to climb. My arms burned worse than if I'd done twenty rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard. It was then the third explosion came. The whole boat rocked and the rope swung like a whip. We both clung on, but the bottom half of the rope snapped back toward the deck. Anders struck it hard and, letting go, plummeted through the window of a burning cabin.
All I could do was continue to climb. At the top, I saw that a few of the others had jumped into the murky water of the dock and were swimming to the ramp. Without waiting to see if the Empress was going to blow, I jumped after them. The cool water stole my breath but I followed my training and didn't panic and soon I staggered up the slick concrete ramp where a stevedore met me with a blanket.
"You're all right now, lad," he said in that harsh Liverpool accent, his voice filled with compassion. I refused to go to the ambulances. Instead, I stood on the side of the dock and watched the Empress of Canada sink. Watched as the last few sailors made it to land. None of them were my friends.
It took hours for the fire brigade to douse the flames. Hundreds of fighters came from all over the North West of England to help. They did a fine job, but nothing they could do could save my friends.
The days after proved long and lonely. I knew nobody in the city and Canadian Pacific sent no word or aid. Despite spending most of the past six years aboard a ship I had no desire to get one home. In those days after, all alone and far from home, Liverpool scooped me up and cradled me against its bosom. The man who had given me a blanket let me stay the night at his house. Gary is his name. Now, he's my best friend and brother-in-law.
Each year I return to the Gladstone Dock on 25th January. Much has changed over the years. There are fewer ships, and I'm no longer alone. I have my beautiful wife at my side holding my hand, and my best friend to pat me on the back.
I'm one of those people who like to think things happen for a reason. I don't know why the Empress of Canada sank that day or why the people I lived with and loved died just feet from the shore. But I've found a new life, perhaps the one I'd crossed oceans to find, and though the losses will always scar my heart, I've found happiness. For that, I'll forever be grateful.
Richie Billing writes historical fiction, fantasy and stories of a darker nature. His short fiction has featured in Kzine, Aphelion Webzine and Far Horizons, and his debut novel will be published by Fiction Vortex in Spring 2020. Most nights you can find him up into the wee hours either scribbling away or watching the NBA. Find out more at richiebilling.com.