18. Storm at Sea

The three men sat talking for a whole two hours. Each explaining their reasons for leaving East Germany, each knowing fully that any one of them could implicate the other two and they would end up either incarcerated in Hohenschönhausen prison or worse. Some people simply disappeared.

For Jens it would probably be the latter. Both his parents had passed away a few years ago, his wife had left him on the advice of her father and his sister had gone on a field trip to Italy with a group of Young Pioneers from which she never returned. Both sets of grandparents had left East Berlin for West Berlin via the Palace of Tears although there weren’t any tears, just goodbyes. The family weren’t really that close. He didn’t even know where any of them lived anymore. The Stasi would already know there was nobody to whom it would matter if he merely disappeared.

Karl put his finger to his lips and turned the sound down. There was a noise outside the door. Then a knock. Stefan shouted “2 seconds” and turned the tape recorder down. He walked over to the door, opened it slightly to see the captain standing there. “Have you got everything you want? he asked. “We cast off in two hours, I just thought you’d need to know if you are going on a deck patrol.”
“Thanks” said Stefan. “Have all the crew returned?”
“Yes, two of them are pissed out of their heads, but they’re galley mates and won’t affect the cast off so I’ll deal with them when they’ve sobered up, you needn’t bother” said the captain, knowing the trouble he’d be in if he lost even one of his crew.

Stefan made a sharp in audible comment to the captain and gently closed the door. The noise of the ship’s engines made loud constant clattering noises so if tere was a big in the room, it was highly improbable that one word would be heard.

The three men sat and looked at each other.
Karl motioned Jens to him and talked in the low voice again “We will be going out on deck shortly, stay here, nobody will come in.”

Shortly the two men excused themselves to Jens and went above deck. Jens could only sit there and reflect on what seemed more like an elaborate trick than an escape plan. But then why would they tell him all this, then leave him alone in an unlocked room? Okay, he couldn’t really escape anywhere, he was trapped to all intents and purposes on a ship. A prison ship! The only escape was by the lifeboat and he had no idea how far they were from Stavanger by now. In anycase the North Sea could be treacherous at times so there was no guarantee he’d survive.

Karl and Stefan walked stealthily around the ship, popping their heads into various cabins and compartments, much to the disgust and mistrust of the occupants, often drawing abusive or ascerbic comments. Instruments of the state like Karl and Stefan were not trusted one iota by anyone. There was even mistrust within the ranks of the armed forces or the Stasi. Even government officials place other government officials under covert surveillance. Friends were only friends by name. Almost anyone could be turned to report their neighbour for sedition. This could be achieved by various means, normally blackmail or in exchange for being promoted up the waiting list for a flat or a car.

The sea was quite calm, there was a swell of about 4 metres so it rolled slightly but nothing much. Jens was well past the feeling seasick stage. He was accustomed to the movement, judders and crashing noises when the ship hit a bigger wave. There was always something on the ship that made a banging noise.

It wasn’t like his Trabant, nothing could break or drop off. Doors banged, lamps squeaked as they swung on their rusty hooks and chains and the room panels creaked with the movement of the vessel.

After about 2 hours the two men came back and knocked before they entered. They smiled at him in a friendly way, it was as if they too were relieved to see him. Strangely Jens felt comfortable with this. He really believed they were genuine now, the trust in their eyes, like that of a dog, made him feel that way.
Stefan turned the radio on. “Get some sleep Jens, and you Stefan” said Karl. “I’ll read and wake you up in 9 hours, we should be nearly half way by then.”
“To where?” asked Jens.
“Londonderry” replied Stefan “The ship refuels there and unloads some cargo before going out into the Atlantic.”

“England?” blurted out Jens in a childlike manner. “Atlantic?”
“Ireland” replied Jens. “We won’t be in the Atlantic for long if everything goes to plan, you need to listen to what we say so you can be ready to jump ship with us.”
“But, why don’t you jump ship at Londonderry, wouldn’t that be easier? said Jens with what he thought was incredible logic.
“Because if we got caught, the British would blow it all over the papers and our own agents would hunt us down and try to eliminate us. All of us” said Stefan. “It’s got be on the way out, we have to show our faces on deck as we leave the port, that way nobody will notice we’re not on the ship until it’s too late to do anything about it. They’ll think we’ve fallen overboard”.

“So where are we…..” was as far as Jens got before Stefan asked him to trust them and get his head down. “Try to sleep, trust us, we will share watch, then just before we get into port we’ll need to do our rounds again.”
“We have to be extra vigilant in Londonderry, hopefully nobody will do anything stupid” said Karl.
“Like escape” joked Jens. The other two laughed softly, Karl gently cuffed Jens on the back of his head and gave him a gentle push towards the bunk.

The fueling stop at Londonderry went off seamlessly. They were berthed for just 7 hours during which time the three of them took it in turns to sleep, an atmosphere of trust was developing between them. There seemed a palpable sense of relief that belied the difficulties they had still to encounter if their dreams were to be fulfilled.

At 3am there was a gentle knock on the door. Stefan motioned for Jens to stay behind the partition then answered the door. The captain stood there with a piece of paper in his hand. “Storm ahead, 35 knots, pretty bad, I just thought I’d tell you” he said. “And there’s something else, Meier has bad chest pains and the doctor says he needs urgent medication. Dr Schmidt thinks he’s had a heart attack, we don’t have the facilities on board to help him, I need clearance to return to Londonderry for medical assistance”.
Karl stared at the captain’s face. How could anyone be so clean shaven at sea?
“Denied, Schmidt will know what to do”
Thinking about the timing of the explosion he asked “Okay then, if I give you permission, what are your plans?
“We’re about 5 hours away from the storm and it’s predicted to last two days according to British coastal weather reports. I’m going to change course towards Londonderry and wait in the estuary to try and avoid the worst of it” said the captain. “If that’s okay with you!”
“Do we have clearance to do that?” asked Stefan.
“We don’t need it except from yourself and Herr Heiden, you’re the senior party officials onboard” stated the captain with more than a hint of pleading. “We’ve been through storms before but I’m worried about Meier, he’s my best engineer, I’d like to put into port”.
“I see. I don’t see why not, and isn’t it safer closer to shore in a storm?” commented Stefan, who knew very little about life at sea, he wasn’t the best of sailors so presumed the closer you were to the shore, if anything happened it would be a shorter swim to dry land.
“It will be calmer behind Malin Head under the shelter of the mountains but we’ll probably hit the storm before we reach Londonderry so it will be rough to to say the least” warned the captain.
Stefan concurred with the captain’s decision and closed the door.
“Well, you heard that” he said to the other two.
“We can’t get off at Londonderry Stefan” said Karl.
“I know. We stick to our plan, although stepping off a ship in harbour would be far easier than jumping in a lifeboat”.

“Why can’t you get off at Londonderry, is it the British?” enquired Jens.
“Exactly the British, yes, unless we could make contact with Republicans” said Stefan “Which would be highly risky as all the English and Irish sound alike to me”.

It was about 7.30 when the seas started to heave the ship around.