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A Man In Full: 5. Epilogue: Never Surrender
"We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender ..."
Life changed after the loss of Titanic, and not just in the painfully obvious expedient of requiring lifeboats for all aboard a vessel. Never again would we feel quite so confident in the marvels the modern age had to offer. We had lost our innocence.
And I had lost mine. As the years passed it became all too clear that the bright career I'd had before me, my hope of becoming master of one of the great transatlantic liners, was not to be. The loyalty I'd shown the White Star lines on that fateful night in April and during the subsequent enquiries before the American Senate and the British Board of Trade, during which I told the truth but did not say much that might have been said, was not returned. At the end of twenty years' service it was, "Goodbye, good luck," and nothing more.
I never saw or heard of Andreas Ribeiro, or even thought of him, until that day out on the channel, on our way to Dunkirk. I brought my glasses to bear upon the man at the wheel of the Lasgalen, his face, framed by a mass of bright hair blowing in the easterly breeze, still unlined, his body youthfully slender. A dark-haired man-- none other than John Thomas Galwyn, unchanged since the last time I laid eyes on him -- busied himself cranking in the jib. Up at the bow, standing lookout over the sea ahead, I saw the same pale-haired chap who had met the two of them at the pier in New York City. I turned back to the helmsman. Yes, it was he. It could be no other.
I lowered my glasses and looked down at my own hands, wrinkled from years of exposure to the salt air and sun, the veins ropy, the knuckles gnarled and knotted. "Are you all right, Dad?" I heard my son Roger say. "Is anything wrong?"
I shook my head. The lash of time had fallen hard upon me, while Andreas Ribeiro had not aged a day since the last time I saw him in 1912. "It's nothing," I replied, and set my bafflement aside for the time being. I had other things to worry about.
Our little flotilla had a destroyer escort. The Germans knew what we were up to, of course, and from time to time the Luftwaffe did their best to hinder us, but the brave lads of the RAF kept them at bay. I put myself in the hands of fate and concentrated on getting us to the other side of the Channel.
We were met by what I could best describe as orderly chaos. While the Luftwaffe bombed the beach, British soldiers waited to be taken off. We boats with shallow drafts went in as close to the beach as we dared, some to ferry men out to the big warships that lay further off, some to take them on board directly.
Lines of soldiers snaked out into the surf, some standing up to their necks in the cold water, having waited for hours while waiting to be picked up. How well I could feel their plight, and my body quivered with unconscious sympathy in memory of that long ago April night. Meanwhile, the German bombs continued to fall, kicking up sand from the beach and spray from those that landed in the water.
Ribeiro took his boat in so close to the shore that I felt certain he must be scraping his keel. I watched as he turned the tiller over to his pale-haired companion and leapt into the surf to begin to toss men up into the waiting hands of his man. Such feats of strength were beyond me now. I held the Sundowner steady as Roger and Gerald Ashcroft, our Sea Scout, brought our own load of soldiers aboard. I do not know how many Ribeiro took on board his craft, but we had one hundred and thirty men as we set back towards England, and the over laden Sundowner was sluggish at the helm. I had my hands full just keeping her afloat in the swells.
In the air above, the Luftwaffe and the RAF battled like eagles over prey. The sea below seemed to wish to take me and my little boat, to reclaim what had slipped its grasp those many years ago. Right before we approached the harbor at Ramsgate the sea picked up and my top-heavy boat lurched sickeningly. I was barely aware of the Lasgalen beside me as I got her within the breakwater, just as I had reached the shelter of the Carpathia's bow almost thirty years before. We were safe.
Some of the boats were turning around after discharging their passengers, returning for a second trip. I stood on the dock feeling the sensation, known to every sailor after a long time at sea, of the solid land rolling beneath my feet, and I almost succumbed to the urge to kiss the ground. My son Roger laid a hand on my shoulder. "Dad, that's it for us. You've done enough."
I nodded. I had done my part.
I turned seaward to see the Lasgalen casting off her lines. Her helmsman favored me with a smile of recognition, first snapping me a military salute and then subtly tapping his right bicep where I knew that strange dark mark lay.
A stray breeze lifted a strand of bright hair off his ear, and suddenly a flood of memory washed over me, and again I was a child, sitting at my old Gran's knee while she spun her fanciful tales of the Fair Folk, the Sidhe, those people of wisdom and eternal youth.
'My God,' I thought. 'It's true, then!'
We live in dark times. That madman in Berlin will swallow the world if we let him. This war has already cost me dearly and may cost me even dearer before the end. There may be times when I am tempted to despair, but I will remember the words of Andreas Ribeiro, or whatever name he goes by now, about the power of the human spirit, and I shall hold onto hope.
I stood watching as the Lasgalen set out to sea with those three tall figures silhouetted against the horizon, bound back for Dunkirk, or the eastern seas, or perhaps Tír na nÓg for all I knew, and my heart swelled with joy to know that there were indeed such marvelous beings in this world.
There may come a day when the strength of men fails, when all we know is swept away and we fall to darkness. But today is not that day.
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