Transmit and Receive is a sort of ghost story, written after I wrote an article about one of the men who served aboard HMS Repulse in 1941, and who, sadly, perished with hundreds of others when the ship was bombed by the Japanese. In essence, the story is based on true events, but explores the possibility that modern technology could tap into the past. This story is dedicated to the man who gave his life almost 70 years ago, and inspired the story.
This short story is included in the anthology Something From The Attic (shown on the right), available from Pill Hill Press.
Transmit and Receive
The sun flickered behind a cloud, almost made it translucent, and a bright corona seeped across the cobalt sky. Thick, hazy sunbeams struck the water.
The silence grew heavy, listless, as the water parried and bristled against the side of the ship. Hundreds of faces glanced skyward, waiting and watching. The brightness made them squint and most raised their hands as a barrier against the glare.
The heat had steadily been rising and shimmered in the distance like a fuzzy beer fuelled dream. Across the ocean, the remains of the British fleet burned beneath the pale, distended haze. Thirteen minutes earlier, the Japanese bombers had descended like angry hornets, dropping bombs in quick, ordered succession before making off into the azure sky. Thick, oily bands billowed up and soiled the vista. Three ships had spilled their innards; hundreds of men had been burned alive or had slowly drowned in the gallons of oil spilling across the surface of the ocean.
Able seaman Francis gripped his Vickers gun, felt a clammy film of sweat gild his fingertips. Unnerved, he wiped them on his shirt as though removing a terrible dark stain, readied himself. He looked up at the sky. Clouds drifted over, unhurried by the sense of foreboding and fear which clung to the surface of the ocean like an oil slick.
He’d never heard silence like it, a state not even broached by the hiss of the water, a sound they’d found so comforting over the last three months. Even from this distance, the scent of death parched his throat.
The bombers would come again. They all knew it. They came in waves; around thirteen minutes apart, attacking from a distant point across the Pacific ocean, then splitting into smaller attack groups before assailing them and bombarding them from all directions.
Francis was desperate for a cigarette, but daren’t leave his station, not now, not this close. He glanced round at the others standing at their ack-acks on the deck above, quite still, as though afraid to move. They too, watched the sky.
His ship was the only one left. No match for the countless bombers.
A churning sense of fear filtered across the deck; the smell of misery sullied the whole ship.
Francis wiped his brow, thought about his mother and his three sisters. A strange sensation permeated his conscience. Something within his very being knew that he would never see them again. The sensation crackled in his mind, singed the precious memories. His heart slowly flooded with sadness.
He had barely had time to write the date in his diary: 10th December 1941, before the first siren sounded the approach of the Japanese bombers.
This sound, scratchy and distant like a memory, made Francis turn to his mate, positioned just behind. “Did you say something?”
The young gunner shook his head. “No.”
Francis turned back to his gun, wiped fine beads of perspiration from his brow again as he peered at the horizon through the gun sight. He gripped the gun, ready, his heartbeat pulsing steadily in his fingertips as though tapping out a mayday signal against the cold iron of the gun handle. He took in a breath, but then he heard the sound again. A female voice, distant and yet strangely close. He turned; looked about, half-convinced the stress of the first wave of attacks had sent his mind into meltdown.
He looked up at the speaker mounted on the wall next to him, his pale blue eyes misted by uncertainty. He looked at his mate. “Tell me you heard that.”
His shipmate frowned. “Nothing but the silence, old chap.”
The fragmented female voice broke the silence again. “Can you hear me? This signal is terrible...”
“There!” Francis said, pointing at the speaker. “Just then, an English accent. I definitely heard it.”
The gunner peered up at the speaker. “I think you need to see the ship’s doctor...there’s nothing from the speakers, not yet.”
Not yet meant a long, stilted wait for the Captain’s word to man all stations. To ready themselves for the final battle. For every minute that passed, each man’s heart grew faster, heavier, louder.
Francis stepped away from his gun, stood tiptoe to listen to the speaker. “Allo? Can you hear me?”
The sound of static crackled softly through the air.
“Get back to your station, seaman,” the gunner said. “The Captain will have our hides.”
Francis ignored the young gunner. He listened to the static, heard the blips and hiccups in the transition of the sound, and the longer he listened the more attuned he became to her voice. “She’s transmitting.”
“Who is?” the gunner asked, looking round surreptitiously. “I don’t hear anything.”
Francis pointed to the speaker. “The woman...I can hear her in the static.” He frowned. The lines in his face had grown deeper these last few months, made him much older than his twenty-three years. “I’m receiving, but I can’t transmit.”
“You’ve lost your marbles, man. It’s a speaker – no one can hear you.”
Francis looked up at the speaker. The dark grille pricked his curiosity. “Allo? I can barely hear you and I can’t transmit.”
“Hello. Who’s this?” the female voice asked.
Francis straightened, eyes dilated. He stared at the speaker, surprised. “She heard me...that’s impossible...” He turned to the gunner, kept his voice quiet. “Tell me you heard that. That was loud and clear. A woman’s voice.”
The gunner looked at Francis with a blank expression. He slowly shook his head. “I don’t hear anything. What’s with you?”
“I’m telling you, I can hear her.” Francis cocked his head towards the speaker. “This is Able Seaman Francis Millford. Who are you?”
“Oh, I’m sorry; I’ve called you by mistake.”
“No no, don’t go. Who are you? It’s been a while since I’ve heard a female voice. We don’t get much female company around here except on leave.”
The cold whistle of static enveloped a short pause and then the woman’s voice broke through. “Sorry to have disturbed you, Mr Millford.”
The static returned and seemed louder. It seeped into his mind like waves washing against the rocks, jarred his thoughts and suffocated the droplet of rudimentary happiness at hearing a female voice.
“Damn,” Francis said. “Come back. Allo?”
The gunner snorted. “Get a grip and get back to your gun. Any minute now we’re going to have a sky full of Jap bombers.”
Francis reluctantly returned to his ack-ack. He eyed the speaker, curious, bewildered. He couldn’t figure out how a transmission had seeped through the ship’s system, or how she could hear him. He wondered whether the woman was trying to get through to the Captain, or whether she was a foreign spy, entangled in the airwaves. Just because she had an English accent didn’t mean she could be friendly.
He dismissed it, looked out across the water. A jaded light caressed the clouds. Dark distant specks freckled the horizon. The Japanese bombers were coming, bellies full with rage.
“Hello?” the female voice said.
Francis turned as though physically yanked. He gazed up at the speaker.
“Hello?” she asked again.
He left the gun and stepped over to the speaker again. “Allo? It’s Francis.”
The woman’s static encrusted voice broke through the palliative silence clinging to the deck. “Oh sorry, I’ve called you again, my mistake.”
“Who are you trying to reach? Is it the Captain you need to speak to? You’re on the wrong frequency.”
“Captain? No, I don’t want the Captain...wait, are you a crew member?”
Francis smiled and his voice lightened. “Yes, able seaman Francis Millford, HMS Redoubt.”
“Oh I see. I’m trying to call home,” the female said, brusque.
Francis placed his head against the wall. The ship’s cool outer skin soothed his sweat-peppered brow. Home. Such a powerful word that sank down his gullet like a shard of glass and sliced him from the inside out. Home, the little two-up, two-down red-bricked house he shared with his mother and three sisters in Liverpool.
Home, where he would rather be, instead of floating on a tin can in the Pacific. He imagined standing in the ripe fields just outside his home, catching rain spotted gusts of wind against his face and breathing in the potent grip of cool air that filtered down from the hills.
His voice wavered. “Where’s home?”
“London,” the voice replied. “I’m really sorry. I really don’t know why I’ve called you because my friend is on speed-dial.”
Francis frowned. “Say again? What’s speed-dial?”
“I’m sorry, I have to go.”
Francis looked back across the rail; saw that the black flecks in the distance had grown bigger, advancing in tight formation. His heart belted against his sternum, fear returning to flood the caverns within. Salty streams hurried down the side of his face, his body’s response to the latent fear inking his insides.
An imaginary clock ticked silently in his mind; a countdown to the inevitable.
“Listen, tell my mother, Agnes Millford, tell her...tell her we’re all in fine spirits here, we’re on one of the fastest ships in the fleet.” He hesitated, something caught in his throat. “Tell her that I’ll be home for the New Year, tell her that won’t you?”
The female voice changed. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand--”
The flecks in the distance now obscured the clouds as midday approached. The blackened shroud crept forward, undulated and churned out vapour trails in spiteful spurts.
“Tell her, please just tell her,” Francis urged. “I don’t have much time...”
“Okay okay...Agnes Millford, I got it.”
A different sound boomed across the tannoy and sliced through the silence like a rigid heavy cleaver. “Attention! Enemy aircraft approaching. Man all stations!”
Francis stared across the side of the ship. Something trickled into his guts. His anus tightened.
The gunner gestured. “They’re coming. Get back to your station, Millford!”
“I really do have to go,” the voice said. “I’m sorry to have disturbed you again.”
The sound of a hundred aircraft engines swept across the surface of the ocean and resonated against the ship with a contemptible thud. The sound pulsed against his skin. He shuddered as a rolling cloud of vapour oozed forward.
“What’s your name?” Francis asked, watching the sky darken. “I need to know.”
The blackened cloud approached quickly, blotted out the sun and darkened the entire ship.
“It’s Aimee,” she replied.
Francis smiled, closed his eyes for a second. The sound of his heart calmed a little, no longer thumped hard against his chest, nor pounded in the side of his temples. Somewhere outside of his fear, he heard the multiple sound of gunfire; the scream of engines overhead, the whistling of strafing bullets against the ship’s skin and the sharp clank of shells against the deck as the AA’s discharged. Then he heard the explosions and then the screams, the distended cries of men ripped from their stations and flung into oblivion.
The guttural tear of metal formed a gash through the hull, and yet Francis remained huddled against the wall, eyes shut, and in his mind, he was walking through the tall grasses, heading toward home, the little red-bricked building at the end of the street.
His voice remained calm. He opened his eyes. “Aimee? Tell them we fought well. Tell them that, won’t you? Tell everyone.”
The static fizzled into the void, crushed by silence.
* * *
The connection pitched and squawked in Aimee Rutter’s ear, startled her. “Shit.” She glanced at the phone. The signal stuttered. She peered at her watch. It was just a minute after midday.
“I said you wouldn’t get a signal out here,” John Rutter muttered to his wife. “Not in the middle of the Pacific.”
She looked at him with a silent scowl.
“Who were you talking to anyway?” he asked, flicking the newspaper.
Aimee looked at her phone. “Wrong number. Some man called Francis, a crewman on another cruise ship.” She stood up, looked out across the stern. The horizon remained barren, an empty sky and an empty ocean separated by a hazy horizon. They were on a cruise ship in the middle of the largest ocean on the planet, alone, looking forward to the upcoming Christmas festivities. “He said he was on one of the fastest ships in the fleet...what was it...oh yeah...Redoubt.” Quietly perturbed, she gazed at the empty vista. After a while, she turned to her husband and her expression drooped. “He said to tell everyone that they fought well. I don’t get what he was talking about.”
John Rutter placed his newspaper down. “Fought well? What was the name of the ship again, HMS what?”
“Redoubt,” she said.
His lips slowly turned into a wry smile, and then, without warning, he laughed at her. “Redoubt! I think someone’s pulling your chain, babe.”
She moved away from the rail. “What do you mean?”
He eyed her disquieted expression. “HMS Redoubt aint a cruise ship. It was a large battle cruiser, part of a big British fleet, joining the Americans and ambushed by Japanese bombers 10th December 1941. She was practically bombed in half and sank to the bottom of the Pacific right beneath us, just after midday, along with three other ships. Thousands lost. No survivors.” He raised a furtive eyebrow. “Sounds like some weirdo is having a laugh with you.”
Aimee stared at him for a while, unsure what to believe. Her brows lowered, puzzled yet defensive. “Francis isn’t a weirdo. He told me to tell his mother he’d be home for New Year...”
John Rutter tutted, raised the newspaper and continued to read.
Aimee sighed as though defeated by her husband’s logic, and yet the sound of Francis Millford’s voice seemed as clear as the water that shimmered in the swimming pool beside her.
She looked down at the date and time on her mobile phone. Her throat tightened when she realised.
It was 10th December, approximately seven minutes past midday.
She quickly pressed redial, rang the number again, put it to her ear.
But all she heard was static.
Dedicated to Able Seaman CF Young who heroically died in battle in the Pacific, aboard HMS Repulse, 10th December 1941.