These two short chapters of Empress will introduce you to the Empress of the Oceans and the community that built her. The rest of the novel focuses on two generations of a family intimately connected with the magnificent liner–from her launch, through the fabulous years carrying the rich and famous over the world’s oceans to the dark days of World War II.
In the climax, set against the glamour of the Cannes Film Festival in the 1960s, justice is served and an astonishing family secret is revealed.
There is much more on the historical background to the true story that inspired the novel.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoy it.
Empress was inspired by a true story
From the Wikipedia entry for the
Empress of Britain:
‘In 1995, salvagers found Empress of Britain…The bullion room was still intact. Inside was a skeleton but no gold …’
Extracted June 2017
UNDER THE ATLANTIC OCEAN
After three failed attempts to open the massive door, the team had spent twelve tedious hours cutting an inspection hole into the wreck’s bullion room.
Now the lead diver warily slid his head through the new opening, mentally cursing his bulky full-face mask. A few seconds later, Steve eased in an arm and switched on his powerful flashlight.
He was looking down on what had become the floor of the strongroom when the great ship had finally settled on the seabed.
There was nothing to see.
He drifted a little further into the hole, mindful of the sharp edges waiting to cut him or his dry suit.
Now he could see the entire floor. Apart from a small pile of debris in the far corner, it was completely bare, empty.
No gold, nothing.
As he began to gingerly back out, Steve felt something brush the back of his head.
“Oh God! Oh God! Oh sweet Jesus!”
With one panicked heave, the diver shot back from the opening, arms thrashing wildly, a maelstrom of silver bubbles bursting from his exhaust vent, heading exuberantly for the surface. His abandoned flashlight swung at the end of its thin tether, casting weird shadows that danced and swayed around their comforting circle of artificial light.
“Steve, Steve, calm down. Think about your breathing. Come on, man. Breathe.”
Andy came alongside his boss and saw he was regaining control; his breathing returning to normal.
“Look, look at the bloody thing.”
Steve’s trembling finger pointed to the opening.
Andy turned to look, and his own stream of bubbles ceased for a very long moment.
Dreadfully slowly, the head of a corpse was falling past the freshly cut hole. It was not quite a skeleton; here and there ragged strips of pale flesh clung tenaciously to the skull. As they watched, appalled but spellbound, the head drifted out of view, followed by the rest of the body, clad in a black diving suit, much like their own. Just before the ghastly apparition disappeared, they glimpsed a rubber swim fin trailing from a skeletal foot.
The women leaned heavily on their windowsills, strong arms red and chapped; hand-rolled cigarettes held lazily between nicotine-stained fingers. They had paused their assorted conversations; words thrown from one window to the next, or all the way across the street or, by twisting themselves unnaturally, to a neighbour on a higher floor.
For some reason, the man had ordered his taxicab to stop thirty yards back along the road. He looked up at the windows as he unfolded himself from the cab. The women stared unflinchingly back.
The stranger was aware of the watchers following his progress along the uneven pavement. They carefully calibrated his meticulously crafted appearance; the shine on his shoes, the subtle sheen of his hat, the flash of white above the grey gloved hand carrying a soft leather briefcase emblazoned with a gold crown. This one was accustomed to privilege and power.
The stationary taxicab radiated periodic clicks from its cooling engine. It would wait for its passenger’s return journey to Glasgow Central Station and the early evening London train. The man’s visit north would be as brief as he could possibly make it.
The visitor reached the corner and froze. After a beat, he slowly raised his head to properly take in the leviathan before him. The enormous, unworldly hull soared high over the grey tenements, dominating the mean streets around, even the sky itself. It was truly an awesome sight, vastly more imposing than he had pictured in his wood-panelled Whitehall office. The cliff face of steel was taller than Nelson’s Column, almost as long as three football pitches.
The pyramids of Egypt, the cathedrals of Europe, New York’s skyscrapers–all were magnificent; but they were planted firmly in the earth. The colossus before him was expected to glide across the oceans under man’s direction. It struck him as preposterous that something so massively solid would even float.
As he slowly walked towards the behemoth, the man briefly caught, and then lost, a panorama of the entire vessel. He retraced his steps to appreciate it properly. But he looked in vain: there was simply no way his imagination could grasp the entirety of the hull–its immense scale defeated him.
The cranes looming over the abandoned hull were themselves enormous, the largest ever constructed. There were eight of them marching down each side of the ship, towering over it, spanning its width; each ready to hoist materials inboard to be lowered into the depths of the great vessel.
But for now they stood motionless, silent sentinels awaiting the command to spring to life.
As he moved closer, the civil servant began to pick out details in the scene before him. Most prominent and revealing were the mournful streaks of rust staining the massive sheets of metal that clad the ship.
It was ten o’clock on a Wednesday morning, but the shipyard was eerily silent. No men clambered over the hull, driving in red-hot rivets; no incandescent sparks cascaded from welding torches. The great iron gates barring the rail tracks were padlocked. The powerful yard locomotives, which should have been operating continuously, ferrying materials to the work crews, stood sullen in their sidings. Scraps of metal, bits of broken bottles, shattered wooden cases, all were reflected in fetid black puddles. Great wooden beams lay scattered carelessly all around. Scrawny grasses and rank weeds exploded from ominous black crevices; finishing touches to the scene of desolation.
In the echoing distance he could hear the faint cries of children; there was a school somewhere nearby, he guessed. But the fathers of the schoolchildren were sitting silent at home, or they milled around the Labour Exchange; a place where hope came to die. Even highly skilled men, who had long ago swallowed their pride, were lucky if they picked up a couple of days’ labouring work each month.
Hull 384 spoke to everything wrong with the times and the country. Conceived as a monument to national pride and wealth, Hull 384 had instead become the manifest symbol of the decay of a community and the dizzying decline of a once-proud nation–and a silent howl of rebuke to politicians and business leaders.
The man from the Finance Ministry lifted his gaze once more to the magnificent bow, looming high over his head. As if on cue, a shaft of sunlight sought out a patch of bare metal and its reflection illuminated the detritus and decay around him.
To the curious watchers, the man was tiny, insignificant; but the papers in his elegant briefcase would transform the hull, the yard and the lives of the families in the rows of tenements.
For Hull 384 was to be resurrected. Steelworkers, joiners, painters, engineers, plumbers, electricians – thousands of men of every trade and none would be employed once again to realise the dreams of her designer. She would be launched and fitted out here, on Scotland’s River Clyde.
Then the fastest, most elegant, most luxurious liner afloat would bear the rich, the famous and the powerful across the oceans and around the world.
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Copyright © 2017 Brian McPhee
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