It's not easy for me to announce that I'll have to delay the launch of Beneath the Sunlit Sea. This book was been stewing in my soul for the better part of a year and I so wanted to share it with you as soon as I could. BUT...the cause for delay is exciting and promising and happy. As soon as I'm able to give you details I will. Until then, I'd love to share the first chapter with you. Feel free to comment below and tell me what you think:
Beneath the Sunlit Sea
Copyright 2022 © by Callie Browning
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With the exception of quotes used in reviews, this book may not be reproduced in whole or in part by any means existing without written permission from the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, and some events is entirely coincidental.
This story is loosely based on the bombing of the CNS Cornwallis that occurred in Carlisle Bay on 11th September, 1942. Some of the events surrounding the bombing happened over the course of months are consolidated within two weeks for the sake of brevity and for creative license. Additionally many boats that came into Carlisle Bay offloaded both their passengers and cargo in the bay and both people and produce were then transported to the Careenage via lighters.
25th August, 1942
The new job I pretend to do is simple. I’m stationed at the bay office, a quaint wooden hut on a beachside dock where I handle cargo manifests and permits for passengers who traverse the colonies on the Lady Boats. An entire fleet of them dock at Carlson Bay: SS Lady Hawkins, SS Lady Nelson, SS Lady Drake, etcetera. The naming convention isn’t particularly interesting, but I suspect that the imagined grandiosity helps the owners charge more to the deck passengers who are just making stops between here and the other British isles. Now that the war is in full swing, it’s hard to tell how much longer these Lady Boats will stay in service. Two years ago, the Lady Somers was turned into a war boat, swapping daybeds for warheads, and deployed to Europe. Last year, it was sunk off the Bay of Biscay. Since then two more converted ships were attacked by German U-boats intent on disrupting our supply chains: Lady Hawkins and Lady Nelson. The Lady Boats provide a critical lifeline. Yes, they ferry passengers from here to Halifax and back, but they also carry mail, food, weapons and cargo. Every time one is sunk it throws a wrench in the machine that is war.
On the surface, I fill out permits, neatly affixing my signature and a stamp to the slips of paper, making sure the bearer’s photograph matches their face as close as I can tell. In reality, I’m here to observe suspicious travellers and take note of known enemy spies. It’s harder than it sounds and more critical than I make it out to be. If it weren’t for the persistent threat of danger, I’d find it quite boring. But then again I’ve always been attracted to danger even if I don’t look it. The recruiting officer’s voice dripped with sarcasm when he said I look like a librarian who inherited her rich aunt’s spoon collection. I was mildly offended and profusely amused by this assessment from a man who seemed so ill-suited for anything that involves stealth.
I’m neither rough-hewn like a fishmonger nor overly polished like London socialites, but I toe the line between the two, like a clerk to a low end machinist. like a secretary to a powerful industrialist.
We’re just past the summer rush. Ripened mangoes and cherries leach their scents into the air from bulky canvas bags. Heady parfums issue from a sturdy brown trunk being moved by a chubby stevedore. The dock teems with life, people from both high and low stations wearing suits and dresses eked out of rationed cloth. The plantocracy is returning from visiting relatives on the other colonies and poor people leave via scraped-together one-way passage to find work in similarly depressed economies, telling themselves that suffering in a new locale may be the morale boost they need. The conservative ones look scandalised as they give a wide berth to two women coming down the gangplank chatting gayly in blouses and boxy trousers. Only four years ago, a woman was jailed in Los Angeles for wearing pants to court. I quirk my eyebrow. It seems that everyone hasn’t caught on to the real travesty of war; that women were being forced to do men’s work and simultaneously refusing to stay in their place.
Whatever that meant.
I straighten the hummingbird brooch on my lapel and go back to updating my booking records, a task I’ve learned to do while keeping an eye on the people hurrying past my little desk inside the wooden office at the dock’s entrance. There’s an art to picking out who’s most likely to be gathering intelligence. They won’t be in large groups so that cuts today’s possibilities in half. Even if they’re solo, they probably won’t have big trunks — the less they can leave behind at a moment’s notice, the better. If they’re from outside of the Caribbean, they tend to be taken in by the brown pelicans swooping overhead, the white sandy beach, the undulating liquid topaz of the ocean. Regional travellers often hurry down the gangway, eager to reach their inn or cousin’s house so they can offload their heavy bags and take a piss. No, a spy’s eyes will flit back and forth, silently count the staff, take note of entrances and observe the patrols.
Lucille, the old woman with the hairy mole who trained me for the official non-threatening part of the job, had been thrilled to finally retire and get away from the bay. She’d shuddered as she handed me the keys, praying that it be the Lord that took her in her sleep and not bombs dropping in the middle of the night. Threats are no longer as mild as old white men, their blood thinned from overproof that they finished just before the boat docked. Even next to the tranquil turquoise sea and the pristine sand beaches, hints of turmoil are ever present. Merchant ships carrying flour and canned goods now have guns on their sterns to defend against air and submarine attacks. Torpedo boats were sent from Trinidad to patrol these waters and even the harbour authorities now have depth charges and mounted guns on their small boats.
Overhead, the pelicans seem restless as they swoop past, their gullets wobbling with silvery fish and seawater as they scurry back to their little island just up the coast. On bright, clear days, Pelican Island looks as though it’s breathing, humming with the to and fro of the brown birds as they squawk about. I used to envy their freedom, the ability to fly away from danger, the chance to pack up and leave it all behind when a situation gets tremulous. But now even the pelicans are under siege since their island was commandeered as an internment camp for enemy aliens. During the war, no-one and nothing is safe.
My grandmother always said humans are the most useless species; we need tools and telegrams and stoves to survive. Every other creature has something far more valuable: senses. “Watch them animals,” she always cautioned. “If ants ain’t eat it, you don’t touch it. If you see animals running, go behind them. Use the li’l bit of sense you got to follow them.” Animals detect drops in air pressure, changes in wind direction and vibrations in the earth that alert them to threats. My mother recalled that as a child she had been enchanted when thousands upon thousands of dragonflies had suddenly descended on the island like a black cloud of winged fairies.
“Hmph,” was all my grandmother had said as she rubbed flour from her hands and looked through the window at the sky. She’d tutted miserably and went back to rolling dumplings for the soup, even though the hair on her arms stood on end for weeks after that. When neighbouring St. Vincent’s volcano erupted two months later, raining heaps of ash down on our island, my mother said my grandmother simply smacked her lips and said, “The dragonflies tell we so evuh since.” I haven’t seen such things in my own lifetime, but watching those pelicans take flight with such fervour makes me anxious to get home.
And yet, if it’s possible, my anxiety doubles in an instant. The last passengers hustle off the gangplank, the boards flexing and quivering beneath polished black brogues and white leather peep-toes with shaky sea-worn steps. Something in the way the last man on the gangplank shifts the trilby hat on his head and hefts the suitcase in his hand makes my stomach clench. I know that jaunty gait, that upright posture. I know those coffee-coloured eyes as they catch sight of me for the first time in six months.
It’s those eyes that hint at what he truly is, what he sometimes denies. They’re so dark that they’re almost as black as his mother’s even though he has his father’s light skin, a complexion so pale that he picks and chooses his race depending on where he wants to go or who he wants to be.
My breath hitches in my chest as all of my training deserts me, leaving the pier unwatched as this man who looks everything like a Hollywood movie star walks toward me with a wrinkled brow and a smile plastered on his face.
I’d loved him, of course. Loved him in a way that made my heart sing and my stomach sink all at once. I’d thought I’d known hardships; hunger that ripped through my gut making air bubble inside my intestines until I bowed at the waist in pain. Or feeling faint every time my warm breath passed over an inflamed tooth. But none of those minor inconveniences compared to losing him. I wish I could say that I had fielded the loss with countless dalliances until he’d become nothing more than a vaguely remembered name. I couldn’t.
I never thought I’d see him again. A reasonable expectation since I’d been notified of his death five months earlier when his boat was torpedoed after a month at sea. Half the crew had been killed. But here he is without a scratch on him. My curiosity mingles with relief, tussling inside me until all that marks my face is stunned confusion. How did he get here? Why didn’t he write? Why was he still so achingly handsome?
He catches the look on my face and his shoulders tense as he takes the last few steps to the counter. He slides his permit over the mahogany surface and a light sheen of sweat dampens his forehead. His hand lingers on the paper and his eyes plead with mine as the words “Please, Jeannie” escape his lips as mere wisps of air.
His permit alleges that his name is James Walker and he’s come from New York to visit family.
It’s all lies.
I wonder if he realises that he’s asking me to do exactly what I shouldn’t. He wants me to break the Treachery Act and risk being hanged — all for what? So he can sally through the gates to enjoy a cold beverage while he watches the sunset? Why shouldn’t I let the Harbour and Bridge Police clap him in chains and drag him to Glendairy or worse, Pelican Island? My eyes flick toward two uniformed men passing behind him. Albert and Leonard are two of the strictest Harbour and Bridge Police officers and Leonard has been keen on me since my first day. Just a flick of my wrist and a small cry of alarm would be enough to make them hurt this man as much as he hurt me. But beneath the venom that courses through me, relief at knowing he’s alive causes my heart to melt. My eyes flick between the three men, ignoring Leonard’s tongue slowly tracing his lips as he winks at me, and relishing the sweat dripping from the liar’s forehead as I weigh my options.
The man masquerading as James Walker senses my indecision and whispers, “Meet me at our spot tonight at seven. You deserve an explanation.”
“And you deserve nothing but ticks and famine,” I grind out between my teeth as I clench my pen in my fist. I glare at him. He has no idea what life has been like for me since the boat went down, no compunction about looking me in the face and asking me to lie and forgive him for everything that’s taken place since he chose another life over me.
His voice grows lower, more urgent as he sees Leonard motioning to Albert that the passenger has been at the booth for an inordinately long time. “Please,” he begs out of the corner of his mouth. “If I don’t show up tonight, you can tell them I’m here.”
“Evenin’, Jeannie. Everythin’ good?” Leonard asks. His tone is deferential, the way it normally is when a black West Indian man approaches what may be a contentious situation with a white man. Still, his hand eases toward his truncheon and he takes a step closer to the booth. The war has put everyone on edge, it’s true, but the look in Leonard’s eyes lets me know that his reasons for intervening are more personal than patriotic.
“It’s fine,” I say airily as I stamp the permit and hand it back to its owner. “The gentleman needs directions to the nearest bar. The rough sea really did him in.”
Suspicion clouds Leonard’s eyes as he begrudgingly drops his hand and watches the passenger nod gratefully to me and stride off the pier without looking back. Leonard sidles up to the counter, his eyes aglow as he once again asks me to go to the dinner club with him. I envy him his confidence. Displaying a smile that is half gums, half teeth is beyond the scope of my courage.
“Tell the truth, darkie. A sexy thing like you, all hips and hair, gotta have a man overseas. That’s why you ain’t want me to keep you company?”
The problem with Leonard is he believes he’s juicier than an overripe orange and he makes sure every woman within spitting distance knows it. Frankly, if I wanted to be covered in bodily fluids, I would have been a nurse instead of a spy. I bite my tongue to restrain myself and again, I refuse.
As I prepare to close up the shutters, I notice a tiny slip of paper on the counter where the man’s permit was:
I'll send a car at six. Walk the rest of the way. Destroy this.
End of chapter 1. What do you think? Tell me below.