uss shark (SS-314)

Posted on May 21, 2013


Here we have it. I have finally caught up with my short stories. This is my latest, so from now on they can go up as soon as they are written.

I cheated a bit with this story – it isn’t really about submarines at all. I fancied having a go at some Young Adult fiction on the popular topic of how crap it is to be an adolescent in an adults’ world.

Life Under Water

“I don’t know why you’re so obsessed with the SS-314,” said Tom. “It didn’t even make it out of the war. And anyway, it’s not very girly, is it.”

Lara frowned at him, exaggerating the expression because she knew it would annoy him. “What does that even mean?”

“Well. You know. It’s obvious, isn’t it?” he stuck out his tongue. “The USS Sealion was way better.”

Their parents could never work out where their children’s fascination with American submarines from the Second World War had come from. The old naval vessels were a subject far removed from the realities of the boring town on the coast of Cornwall. The kids themselves would have struggled to explain their interest – it was just one of those things that had caught their adolescent imaginations and become something of a competition for who could absorb the most trivia, and who could best champion whichever vessel they had chosen as their favourite on that particular day. Some of them proved more constant in their favouritism than others.

“I thought you liked the Baya,” Lara said.

Tom assumed an expression of innocence. “What? I never said that. The Sealion is the best.”

Edward, who was the de facto leader of their little group by virtue of his utter disinterest in adult authority or the feelings of his peers, waved a hand dismissively at Tom. “She’s right, y’know. You change your mind every day.” He ignored Tom’s muttered denial and rolled over to look at Lara as if the nearby cliff edge did not offer a 30-metre drop onto jagged rocks. “But yeah, what gives? There are loads of boats –“ the trio made show of adopting the correct naval terms “– that finished the war in one piece. Why don’t you choose one of them?”

As it is with many preferences – particularly the passionate ones – Lara struggled to put her feelings into words. Surviving World War II did not seem to her to be a particularly good reason to prefer one boat over the other. Most of those that had survived had limped on, sometimes for decades, before being sold as scrap or used as target practice by newer, more advanced subs. It was the mystery of the Shark – the USS Shark (SS-314), to give it its full name – that drew her to it. The boat had probably been sunk by the Japanese in 1944, but that had never been proven. There was a romantic part of her – Tom would have called it the ‘girly’ part – that liked to imagine that the Shark had not been destroyed, but that the crew had decided to give up the world of land and sky forever for a new existence beneath the waves, perhaps in the immortal service of Poseidon, Neptune or one of those other bearded sea gods. She had dreamed more than once that it had risen in the water beneath the cliffs on a moonlit night, wreathed in seaweed and armoured in barnacles, its metal hull brought to life by the marriage of machine and the life of the deep. She would take the narrow, forbidden steps down to the equally narrow beach. The hatch would open of its own according and she would accept that invitation to leave her boring life behind.

If her friends were puzzled by her passion, her stepfather was entirely bemused. He had daughters of his own – older than Lara – and they had never indulged in such atypical interests. Her mother may be happy, in a benignly disinterested way, to let her daughter enjoy what she chose, but he was concerned. Young girls were supposed to like clothes, makeup, pop stars and – if absolutely necessary – boys. And it was not even as if Lara did not like those things, too. She was not a ‘tomboy’ – with all the extra concerns that would bring – but her stepfather remained troubled by her unusual fixation.

Lara knew that her stepfather was a well-meaning if unimaginative man, but she reserved some hatred for him – with a vagueness that she had inherited from her mother – because he was her stepfather and that is how you were supposed to approach them until the time came when adulthood allowed the crime of his marriage to be forgiven. This distrust and distance were not the things that bothered him; being a man who understood how things were supposed to be, they made perfect sense. It was only the submarine that enchanted Lara’s dreams that troubled his.

“Another submarine, Lara?” said her art teacher, Miss Capra, blocking out the light as she leant in over her shoulder. “Can’t you choose something else to draw for a change?”

Lara thought about this for a moment. “I could do. But why?”

It was Miss Capra’s turn to consider the situation. “Variety is the spice of life.” She wandered away down the row of desks, her brow furrowed.

“It’s important to do what you want to,” said Edward, throwing another stone into the pond. They had been told not to throw things into the water at the edge of the woods for years now, not that any reason had been forthcoming. The pond showed no signs of filling up with stones, that was for sure. She was willing to bet that her mother and Edward’s dad, who were childhood friends themselves, had misbehaved similarly in their turn.

She threw her own stone, aiming for the centre of the fading ripples where Edward’s had vanished. It went wide, sending out its own rings to interfere with and rapidly erase the former.

“I don’t think that’s exactly how it works. If we all did what we wanted, who would do the dishes or…” Her mind struck out for a chore of more gravity. “Or fill up the potholes in the road?”

“Some people like doing the dishes,” he said. Neither of them felt that this was entirely convincing, but Lara decided to let it pass.

“Do you think we’ll ever get out of this place?” she asked him.

“What? Or course we will.”

“It’s easy to say so. I bet our parents sat here when they were young and said the same thing.”

He put his hand over hers. As young children they had been delighted to find that their hands were almost identical; now his fingers felt long and strong against hers. She looked over in surprise and met his eyes, which shone in the evening light.

“I don’t think that’s what our parents used to do down here,” he said.

The sorts of films where the heroine is taken by surprise and kissed by the unwelcome admirer had always annoyed Lara. Why didn’t they just move out of the way or push at the pair of lips bearing down on them? For several milliseconds she discovered that these mistakes were easier to make than she had guessed.

She pushed him away with enough force to send him toppling over backwards.

He peered up from his prone position, trying to get an arm free to right himself. “What did you do that for?”

“It’s not what I want.”

He glared. “You’re such a bloody tease.”

Various responses to this went through her head, ranging from the petty and spiteful to ones that expressed the true pain that what he had done, and more importantly, what he had said, had caused her. That she had thought that she meant more to him than that. But even the most meaningful utterances sounded hollow and childish when she said them in her head, so instead she just got up and walked away. He called after her, but she refused to hear the meaning in his words. She did not think that she would like it.

Her stepfather was waiting in the kitchen when she got home. His arms were folded in a pose that deliberately conveyed the message, We need to talk.

“We need to talk,” he said to her in his serious voice. Lara’s mother looked up from her laptop on the table behind him, startled.

“Can’t this wait for tomorrow?” said Lara. “I’m not feeling great.”

“I’m afraid it can’t. We take calls from your teachers very seriously, young lady.” He knew instantly that the ‘young lady’ had been a mistake, but it was too late to take it back now, so he forged ahead. “Your art teacher isn’t happy with your attitude.”

Lara felt a muscle begin to twitch under her eye. This struck her as a disturbingly adult reaction. She pressed her fingers to the spot.

“I can’t deal with any more of this right now,” said Lara, and made a quick exit to her room.

She didn’t have to wait long for the expected knock. She ignored it, continuing to lie on her bed staring at the poor-quality printed pictures of the SS-314 that she had blu-tacked to her wall. She had looked everywhere for a proper poster and had failed, which in some ways felt like a victory. The knock came again, but the voice that accompanied it was not the one she expected.

“I’m coming in,” said her mother, and opened the door. She turned Lara’s desk chair around to face the bed and sat down. Her daughter watched her, saying nothing.

“You have to forgive your father. You know that some people struggle with forceful characters that know their own minds, especially when they are young. Luckily, your father loves us enough to overlook that quality in both of us. So if you could just try to tone it down, we might find our lives a little easier. As long as you know what’s important – what you care about – on the inside, a few pictures of flowers for Miss Capra aren’t go to hurt you are they?” She reached out and put a hand on Lara’s closest foot. She squeezed gently, and Lara felt better in spite of herself.

“When you are a bit older you will find that you can pursue whatever interests you like. I was just like you when I was young. Do you know what I loved more than anything else?”

Lara thought about this. Her mother was a successful freelance editor, with a few published novels under her belt, literary things that Lara found both beautiful and boring. When she went to speak, she found her voice wedged somewhere in her throat by her silence. She forced it up.

“Was it books? Reading?”

Her mother laughed. “God, no. It was horses. I loved them more than anything in the world. I had a few lessons – my parents couldn’t afford any more – but I always wanted a horse to call my own. The trivia I used to know about them.” She shook her head. “My teachers and parents never seemed to understand how deep my passion ran.”

“What happened?”

“I never let them change me. And so I went to university to be a vet, and I quickly discovered a new hatred for the terrifying things. But I learned that on my own.”

Lara looked at her mother, imagining her cringing away from an angry stallion, and burst into laughter. The older woman joined in, and for a while the quiet was chased from the room.

When her mother had caught her breath, she leant further forward to take her daughter’s hand. “Try to be good, Lara. But if you can’t manage that, at least make sure that you’re happy.”

The storm had transformed the night sky to a flickering chaos of sound and light. It sat over the town, reaching fingers out over the sea in an attempt to dominate the dark waters. Town, storm, sea – each dwarfed the other in its turn.

Lara ran, although why she was doing so was not entirely clear to her. It was not from the storm, she knew that. Something drew her on. Her bare feet squelched in wet grass and mud but did not slip on the turf of her childhood. The land sloped at a gentle gradient up to the sharp fall of the cliffs.

She reached its crest. Rising from the dark waters below, lit by lightning flashes and its own dim luminescence, as she had seen it in her mind a thousand times before, the USS Shark (SS-314) was surfacing. There was nothing even vaguely modern in its appearance any more. It looked like a gigantic armoured weapon out of some fantastical mediaeval past, all plates and spikes and pitted metal. Anemones clung in sheltered angles, tentacles limp under the weight of air; coral was spun into enclosing cages. It was more terrifying and beautiful than Lara had ever imagined.

The hatch opened slowly. No one was visible within, but the comforting, steady yellow of an electric light spilled out into the raging darkness.

Lara peered forwards at the perilous steps – almost invisible in the night – that lay as both bridge and barrier between her and the boat, and wondered whether to take them.

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