The Lonely of the Scharnhorst
Hey, look at that, it’s Sunday again. Where did that week go?
And here I am with another spooky short story for you. Enjoy!
Barry went first. Barry always went first. No reason, that was just the way it always was, always had been.
Barry went first in everything. First girlfriend, first pint, first time having sex, first in a job, first to get married.
First to have an affair.
Greg was a follower, not a leader.
So Barry was always, always the first one in the water.
Using his fins he propelled himself down. The cold of the English Channel bit him even through the wetsuit. He was used to it.
A shadow cutting briefly through the rays of sunlight streaming through the water signaled Greg’s entry into the sea.
Barry was always first, but Greg was never far behind.
The two men dove deeper with practised kicks of their fins. Bubbles streamed past their masks from the tanks strapped to their backs. As they sank deeper into the depths of the Atlantic the two men switched on their head torches. The LEDs cut through the growing gloom like lasers.
The wreck appeared abruptly in their lights. A ghost ship, a relic of the past. A WWII German battleship, jammed upside down in a crevice on the ocean floor. Just visible between the dark green fronds of seaweed waving gently in the current and seeming to bring the ship to life, the hull was encrusted in barnacles. Tiny, silver fish darted around its grey hulking mass.
Barry dutifully snapped off a few photos with his Nikon, the bright flash startling the fish.
The Scharnhorst had been on Barry’s list of wrecks to explore for a long time. But, like everybody else in the diving community, he just never thought he would get the chance.
The problem was, with only its hull visible above the crevasse in the ocean floor, there was no way inside. No way of salvaging whatever might be left inside the battleship. You could swim over and around its hull, raised at an angle from its position on the sea bed, and you could take photographs. But nothing more.
The Scharnhorst had lain undisturbed here since it sank at the end of the Second World War. An ugly memorial to all the dead trapped inside.
And according to anyone you talked to who knew about these things, that was most likely the way it was going to stay.
But then Frank had got into trouble on that last dive he had done here. Barry hadn’t been on that one, but Greg had. And he’d heard Frank’s dying words, whispered into Greg’s ear with his last breath.
Greg told Barry what the dying man had told him.
Turned out there was a way inside the Scharnhorst after all.
If you were brave enough.
Greg said Frank had told him he had been inside. Frank had told him that he had swum through the ship’s corridors and rooms. Frank had told him he had seen the dead sailors. Frank had told him it was good that the ship was so inaccessible.
No one should go inside that monstrosity, Frank had said.
Why? Greg had said.
Because it’s filled with the ghosts of the dead, Frank had said. And they’re lonely. So very lonely.
Barry drew closer to the ship’s hull, Greg at his side. Ran his hand through the fronds of seaweed, his fingers brushing the barnacled hull.
Greg swam up beside him.
Barry hadn’t intended to shag Greg’s wife. Lisa wasn’t even that good looking., her doughy white flesh covered in badly inked tattoos. But, in another of Barry’s firsts, his wife had divorced him. On his own, with nothing but his hand and the internet to keep him company, he couldn’t be blamed really, could he?
Greg was away, at a conference. Barry and Lisa, they’d been mates forever. It was Barry who had introduced her to Greg in the first place. On that Saturday night, both of them alone with nothing to do, they’d gone out for a drink. Wound up back at his, in bed.
Turned out Lisa was down and dirty in the bedroom. Inventive. Said she’d been having these fantasies for a while now, but Greg wasn’t interested. He was more of ‘Wham, Bam, Thank you Ma’am’ kind of guy. He got his jollies off, but she was left wanting more.
No, Barry hadn’t planned on sleeping with Lisa. And once they had, he hadn’t intended to continue sleeping with her. Barry, he wasn’t big on morals or anything like that. Having an affair didn’t bother him. But it was Greg, you know? Greg was his mate. You don’t cheat on your mates.
Lisa got to him though, with her doughy, pasty flesh and her badly inked tattoos. Seemed like in bed there wasn’t anything she wasn’t prepared to do.
And Barry couldn’t get enough of her.
The two men swam slowly around the hull of the wreck. The Scharnhorst had been on a daylight dash through the English Channel, away from the port in Brest in occupied France, and back to Germany. The HMS Duke of York had intercepted her and engaged in battle. Two torpedoes had ripped open her hull and she was sunk with all 1,600 men aboard.
And as she disappeared beneath the surface of the water she upended and sank to the ocean floor upside down where she lodged herself into the ravine.
There was no way inside.
But Greg, he said there was a way inside the ship. That’s what Frank had told him, as the nitrogen bubbles in his bloodstream killed him.
You had to swim away from the battleship. You had to follow the line of the crevasse, now a narrow rip in the ocean floor. You had to keep following it, until the wreck disappeared in the underwater gloom and you thought that maybe you should just give up and head back to the surface.
You had to follow that crack in the ocean bed until it grew wider. Wide enough that you could dive down between its walls.
And you had to go down deep enough until you could turn back on yourself because the ravine grew wider down here, forming a tunnel that allowed you access back to the battleship.
But only if you were brave enough to attempt such a thing.
Barry went first, Greg close behind. Down in the ravine the darkness was complete. Barry’s LED cut dark shadows against the rocky outcrops on the crevasse’s sides. Long fronds of kelp attached to the walls shifted in the current, seeming to give the walls a life of their own in the beam of light from Barry’s torch. Reaching out, Barry was able to touch the sides of the ravine. His hands disappeared in between the strands of soft, waving kelp.
The crevasse began closing in on the two divers as they penetrated the gloom. Barry had to trust that Greg was still following him now as the walls were too close for him to be able to turn his head and look back. His tank scraped a rocky outcrop above him and Barry pushed himself a little deeper.
On he went as the gap grew narrower. Now, even with his torch, he could hardly see anything in front of him. He had to push his way through the fronds of kelp, waving in the current like long fingers trying to grasp hold of him. Pulling at his mask and his regulator. Trying to kill him.
Barry was suddenly aware of a pressure building in his chest. He was on the edge of panicking. The walls of the crevasse were too close, hemming him in, restricting his movement. The kelp was becoming like a solid mass he was having to fight his way through. He couldn’t turn around, he couldn’t go up.
He was trapped down here, and he couldn’t even tell if Greg had followed him, if he was behind him still.
The only thing to do was keep pushing forward, even though the walls of the underwater ravine were still closing in.
Barry pushed harder, his tank scraping along the rocky outcrops. He had to use his hands to find handholds and pull himself along. He had to work hard to keep his breathing steady, to keep the rising panic under control.
And then he was out. The ravine opened up and he was under the Scharnhorst. His LED illuminated the upside down deck, a bizarre ceiling of metal covering his underwater world. The giant structure was like an inverted pyramid of jutting funnels, the command deck, the bridge, the gun turrets.
Barry hovered in the water, gazing at the wreck. It was unbelievable. Like an alien superstructure, floating in the sky.
Barry snapped off a couple of photographs.
He felt a disturbance in the water beside him and turned to see Greg emerging from the crack in the sea wall.
He’d forgotten all about his diving buddy.
Greg gave him the OK signal and Barry returned it. Greg looked up at the bizarre structure above him. Barry closed his fist and pointed his thumb upwards, the signal for ascending. Greg gave him the OK signal again.
With graceful kicks of their fins they propelled themselves up to the deck of the battleship Scharnhorst.
At first they simply swam around the superstructure, gazing at the antiaircraft guns and other artillery ranged across the deck. Tiny fish darted around them, and in between the rusted guns and the raised decks. The two men swam upwards, past the bridge, up to the main deck.
Barry found an open doorway and guided himself inside. His torch beam cut through the darkness, illuminating the narrow cabin he had entered.
Greg followed him.
Barry checked his air supply. It would be too easy to forget how long they had been underwater, to lose themselves in exploring the German ship, and suddenly find they had run out of air. Especially when they faced the difficult job of swimming back through the narrow crevasse again before they could return to the surface. Despite his concerns though, Barry’s insides fluttered with excitement. They were inside the Scharnhorst, somewhere that hardly anybody else had been.
Barry went deeper into the gloom.
Greg followed him.
Through open doorways, down cramped passageways, their sub-aqua tanks bumping against the ceilings.
That’s what the dying man had told Greg. Keep going up, right into the bottom of the ship. It was dangerous to dive in there, a person could get lost in that maze of passageways. But if you wanted to see it, you had to take that risk.
It should have been Greg leading, he’d heard what Frank had said.
But it was Barry who went first. Always Barry.
The narrow hall ended at a set of iron stairs. Using the upside down steps as handholds they swam up, going deeper into the belly of the ship.
Another cramped passageway, past doors and hatchways.
They reached another set of steps and glided up along them. Past the ragged, twisted hole in the hull where the British torpedo had found its mark. The ship’s hull here was wedged up against the side of the ravine and so there was no access through the gaping wound.
Barry swam on, followed by Greg, deeper into the ship’s bowels.
When it happened, it happened suddenly, shockingly.
As the beam of light from Barry’s torch suddenly revealed the twisted remains of the engine room he caught a glimmer of refracted light above him. And then his head was out of the water, above the surface. He grasped hold of something, a part of the ship’s structure he didn’t recognise beside him as Greg emerged from the water. The two men pulled the regulators out of their mouths and sucked in deep breaths.
Barry started laughing.
“Can you believe this?” he said. “That bloody bastard Frank, he was telling the truth!”
Greg grinned at him, blinking water from his eyes. “Did you doubt it?”
“Of course I did.” Barry hauled himself out of the water and onto a ledge, slippery and cold with slime. His air tank clanged against the side of the ship’s hull, a dull reverberation echoing all around them.
Greg hauled himself up beside Barry.
“I don’t understand how there is still air down here,” Barry said.
“When the ship sank and overturned, this pocket of air got trapped in here,” Greg said.
“Duh, I know that,” Barry said. “But that was over seventy years ago, there can’t still possibly be air down here.”
“It’s got something to do with that current,” Greg said, his voice echoing in the dark chamber. “As it rushes past the wreck, water rushes through tiny gaps into the ship and bubbles of air escape into here.”
Barry had lost interest in what Greg was saying.
“Look over there,” he said, his LED cutting through the darkness.
At first Greg couldn’t see what Barry was pointing at. The maze of pipes and iron grills, the banks of walls filled with dials and levers, wheels and gang planks, all dripping with moisture and seaweed, obscured what Barry was trying to show him.
And then he saw it.
The skeleton huddled in a small corner beneath part of a huge turbine. Scraps of uniform still clung to its remains.
“Let’s take a closer look,” Barry said.
“Do you think we should?” Greg said.
Barry ignored him. He unstrapped the sub aqua tank and slid it off his back. He pulled the fins off his feet and laid them beside the tank. On his hands and knees, keeping his head low to avoid banging it against the pipes running overhead, he began shuffling along the iron grillwork towards the sailor’s remains.
“What the hell are you doing?” Greg said.
“Come on, if we’re going to explore there’s no way we’re going to fit through these gaps with all this kit on,” Barry said, his voice echoing in the chamber.
Greg pulled his tank off too and placed it beside Barry’s. He followed his friend.
Barry always went first.
They got up close to the skeleton. There wasn’t a scrap of flesh left on it, and the bones were dark and covered in a scummy green. Remnants of its uniform still clung to it, but most of it had rotted away.
“Poor bastard must have starved to death down here,” Barry said.
“What a horrible way to go,” Greg said. “Trapped in here, in the darkness, slowly dying of starvation.”
The ship creaked, a metallic groan seeming to shiver through their bodies.
“You think this thing is still shifting further down into the ravine?” Greg said.
“Can’t be,” Barry said. “Bloody wreck’s been here since nineteen forty-five.”
He shone his torch into a dark passageway behind the skeleton, the floor sloping upwards into the gloom. The steady plink, plink, plink of dripping water echoed down the narrow passage. Bary shone his torch up. The floor, now the ceiling, was a metal grill. He shone his torch down. The ceiling, now the floor, was also metal grillwork. There was another passageway below them, but that one was half filled with seawater.
“Come on, let’s explore,” Barry said.
“Are you sure?” Greg said. “If we get lost, or the wreck shifts and traps us down here—”
“Don’t be a pussy,” Barry said. “I know what’s wrong with you, you’re scared you might meet a ghost, aren’t you?”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Gerg said.
Barry dropped his voice low, and said, “The ghosts of the Dead, they’re lonely, so very lonely.”
“Fuck off, Barry,” Greg said.
Laughing, Barry began crawling up the sloping floor. Greg followed him. At regular junctures they had to climb over girders on which the grillwork was attached. The floor was slippery with moisture and green algae.
They came to a door. Barry grabbed the wheel set into the middle of the door and pulled. It opened slowly, a rusty squeal rending the silence.
“Bloody hell,” Greg whispered, and his breath billowed around his face in a cloud.
Suddenly he started to shiver. He hadn’t realised how cold it was.
Barry climbed through the open doorway and Greg followed him.
Doors, many of them open, lined the passage. Barry crawled on, looking through the doorways as he passed them.
“Looks like this might be the living quarters,” he said.
The beds were bolted to the floor above them. Below them on the ceiling were the remains of bedding and clothing.
Barry slipped on the algae and fell on his side. He started sliding back down the slope towards Greg until he grabbed a doorway and stopped himself.
“Oh shit,” he said, looking through the doorway.
He crawled into the box like room and Greg followed him. The ceiling was a soggy mass of rotting mattresses and bedsheets. Something scuttled out from underneath a mattress, all spiny legs and quick, darting movements. Bunk bed frames and lockers hung from the floor above their heads. Water ran down the metal edges and dripped onto the two men.
“Careful where you go,” Barry said. “There are rusty springs sticking out of these mattresses, if you’re not careful you’ll slash open a hand or a knee.”
Placing a hand against a wall, Barry carefully stood up.
Greg did the same.
The two men looked at the scattered bones and crushed skulls lying on the ceiling, along with the soggy mattresses and sheets.
“What the hell do you think happened here?” Greg said.
“Don’t know,” Barry said. “But it’s weird, isn’t it?”
“They must have gone mad with fear and hunger, attacked each other,” Greg said.
“Wonder if this is what Frank saw, panicked him and sent him back out and up to the surface too fast?”
The ship groaned again, almost seeming to protest at the intrusion of these two foreign bodies in its system.
Barry bent down and took a closer look at one of the skulls. He sucked in his breath.
The skull stared back up at Barry, its empty eye sockets dark and filled with squirming life. Barry stood up and turned away. He couldn’t look at it any more.
A metallic screeching echoed through the wreck and the ship shivered slightly.
The two men looked at each other wide eyed.
“I think maybe we should get out of here after all,” Barry said.
Greg was over by the open door, standing with his back to it. He didn’t move.
“Come on, bud,” Barry said. “Let’s get going.”
“No,” Greg said. “Not yet.”
“Not yet? What the hell are you talking about?”
Greg said nothing. Stared at Barry.
“I gotta tell you mate, you’re acting weird all of a sudden,” Barry said. “What the hell’s got into you?”
“Frank,” Greg said, almost shouted at Barry.
“Yeah? What about him.”
“Frank told me everything.”
“Yeah, I know he did,” Barry said. “That’s how we ended up down here, and now we’ve got to get going and get the hell out.”
“No,” Greg shook his head. Now that it had come to it he was having trouble getting his words out. “Not just about the wreck, he told me other stuff too.”
“What are you talking about, Greg?”
The ship creaked and groaned softly. Something banged once, deep below them.
“Frank told me all about you, and Lisa,” Greg said.
Barry felt like he had been punched in the gut. He tried to keep his face passive, show no emotion.
“Greg, I haven’t got a bloody clue what you’re talking about, mate. Can’t we just get out of here first and have a chinwag when we get back on dry land?”
“Frank told me about you and Lisa, shagging each other every chance you got,” Greg said. “Fucking each other’s brains out, is what he said.”
Barry shook his head. “Mate, come on. Frank was off his head with nitrogen poisoning, he didn’t know what he was saying. I mean, think about it. Even if it was true, which it isn’t, how the hell would he know?”
“Because he was shagging her too,” Greg said. “And she used to tell him all about her nights with you, what the two of you got up to, because he got off on it.”
Barry shook his head again. “You’re having me on, right? This is a joke? Frank couldn’t have told you all that, not the state he was in when they pulled him out of the water.”
“No, you’re right, he didn’t. He told me all that shit the night before. We went out, had a skinful of beer. You know what Frank was like, always had to drink one more pint than everybody else. He got shitfaced, spilled his guts, told me everything. I didn’t expect him to turn up for the dive the next day. He must have been hungover something bad. Probably why he came up too fast. Easy to make a mistake like that when you’re groggy headed.”
Barry kept his mouth shut.
The ship creaked and groaned.
“All right, mate, it’s true,” Barry said, softly. “And you’re angry, I can understand that. But I suggest we get out of this bloody deathtrap first, and then when we’re back on the boat, then you can beat the shit out of me. All right?”
Greg said nothing.
Another groan shivered through the wreck.
“Come on, fella, we can’t stay here, I don’t like the way this old thing is making all those noises,” Barry said.
Greg stepped backwards through the doorway. Barry’s eyes widened as he realised what Greg was doing. He ran for the door, skidding on the wet, soft floor and fell over amongst the broken skeletons.
Greg slammed the door shut. He heard the latch click into place. He gripped the wheel and turned it, the rusty levers protesting at the movement. Barry was on the other side of the door now, banging his fist against it.
“Greg, for fuck’s sake, stop dicking about and let me out of here!”
Greg unsheathed his knife and jammed it into one of the metal latches holding the door closed.
“Greg!” Barry roared, pounding even harder at the door.
The lever jiggled in place as Barry tried unlocking the door.
Greg began making his way back down the passageway. Back to his tank and mask and fins.
“Greg, you shit!” Barry shouted.
Greg kept moving.
Greg thought about Barry fucking Lisa.
Greg thought about what he might do to Lisa when he got back.
By the time he got back to his air tank, and the pool of black water waiting for him to enter it, Greg could hardly hear Barry at all.
He strapped the tank on his back, slipped the fins on his feet, pulled the mask over his face.
He fitted the regulator in his mouth and bit down on it.
The wreck let out another long, anguished groan. Seemed as though Barry and Greg had disturbed it somehow. That it might move, slide deeper into the ravine.
Greg was out of here now.
He slipped into the dark, cold water, his LED lighting his way.
Greg swam down, along the cramped passageways, through doorways and down stairs. He just had to keep going down, through the wreck’s maze of passageways and corridors until he reached the deck. And then swim further down, past the artillery and the bridge, until he found the sliver of a gap in the side of the ravine. Back through the narrow cave beneath the ocean floor until it opened out and he could swim up again.
Back to the surface.
Poor Barry. Greg told him not to attempt getting inside the Scharnhorst. He told him it was dangerous.
But that was the thing about Barry, he wouldn’t listen.
He always wanted to be the first at everything.
Out of the ship’s innards, Greg turned and twisted in the water, his LED cutting a beam of bright light through the darkness. He couldn’t see the narrow gap in the ravine wall. He felt the urge to panic rising in his chest.
He reminded himself to keep his breathing level and calm. Didn’t want to use up his air too quickly.
All he had to do was keep looking.
It was here somewhere.
He had plenty of air in his tanks, there was no rush.
Greg noticed movement beneath him. Down in the darkness of the ravine.
Just a fish of some kind, that was all.
He wondered how far it went down, what things lived in the darkness down there.
Greg swam over to the wall of rock, covered in fronds waving gently in the current.
His torchlight caught the shadow in the rocky outcrop. The entrance to the long cave which led to freedom.
He wondered what Barry was doing right now. If the lonely ghosts had found him. Frank had come down here on his own, hungover. He had always been reckless and stupid. And he had obviously seen the skeletons and imagined the ghosts, and that had sent him into a panic.
Greg wondered how long it would take Barry to start imagining things. How long it would take him to die.
Greg noticed a flash of something pale in the gloom. A disturbance on the periphery of his vision.
He turned and looked. Down into the darkness.
More movement. Much more.
Greg screamed when he realised what that disturbance was.
A mass of naked bodies clawing its way up to him. The flesh was dripping off these ghastly corpses, their black eyes fastened on Greg as they swam closer. Their hair drifted like seaweed, and they opened and closed their mouths like fish, lying on the deck of a fishing boat and gasping for breath.
Greg screamed again, the bubbles obscuring his vision for a second before they floated up towards the upside down wreck of the Scharnhorst.
The first of the dead sailors reached him, hands clawing at his legs and torso. More quickly followed and within seconds he was surrounded. They ran their hands over him, their black fingernails tearing holes in his wetsuit, in his flesh. Mouths opening and closing, revealing blackened, pointed teeth. Their skin was wrinkled and soft, some of it ripped into open sores, the rotting flesh waving in the water like the sea kelp on the rock walls.
Greg struggled to escape, but there were too many of them. A hand reached out and grasped his mask, pulling it off his face. He was plunged into darkness as his head torch drifted down into the pit of the ravine, its beam of light swirling around and around. Another one tugged at his regulator, yanking it from his mouth. The rush of air bubbles startled the dead sailors, giving Greg a moment’s freedom. He used the rock face to kick off with and propel himself up to the ship. If he could get back inside, get back to Barry’s kit, he would have another chance at getting out.
He pulled a spare torch from his belt and flicked the switch. The beam, weaker than the head torch, illuminated the upside down ship.
He swam for the wreck’s deck, looming over him like an alien spaceship.
He was almost at the door when he felt the cold hand grasping hold of his ankle. Greg was pulled down with a violent jerk. The bodies enclosed him, hands running over him, open mouths drawing closer.
Greg screamed again, letting all the precious air out of his lungs.
And the crew of the Scharnhorst pulled him deeper and deeper with them, down into the murky depths of the ravine.
And you thought you had it bad!
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