By Richard Herley
Awesome Indies Contemporary Fiction Pick
May 1944: dawn in the Bay of Biscay. A U-boat lies crippled on the seabed. Within earshot of the warship that sank her, a solitary survivor breaks the surface. Injured, in shock, hypothermic, his life-vest torn, he cries out for help.
The captain is on the bridge and brings his binoculars to bear.
The order he gives sets off a train of consequences reaching down through the landscape of post-war, post-colonial Britain, changing not only his own life and the lives of his men, but those of civilians ashore and of children yet unborn.
Spanning seventy years, set in England and in Nigeria during the Biafran crisis, this is a sweeping, compulsive story about conscience and selfishness and the far-reaching damage that cruelty can do.
The first 201 words.
The boat was done for. And so was he, but he would not admit it. During the second set of explosions he had been thrown against a bulkhead and he was in pain, but far worse was the noise inside his skull, a blare grown monstrous from a tiny seed: the very first sonar ping of the ASDIC.
Soon after the seawater had reached the batteries, those men who had not already been killed and who had been unable to don their Dräger lungs had been choked. Georg had heard some of them quacking like Donald Duck, their voices distorted by the chlorine gas; yet it was even now possible that, elsewhere in the hull, others were being kept alive by pockets of air. Such a pocket remained here in the middle of the boat, under the conning-tower hatch.
His conscience, as much as the pressure differential, would not let him open the hatch. As soon as he unscrewed it, the hull would flood completely.
But his lung – a rubber and canvas life-vest with a rebreather – could only keep him alive for so long. The rebreather comprised a canister of soda-lime to absorb carbon dioxide while breathing foul air.