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Clement's Corner: The Spectre In The Sea

Owen Clement remembers a sad event on a voyage from India to England in 1946 – and a strange spectral appearance while travelling on the Madras Mail to join the ship.

The sudden silence following the ship’s huge turbines shutting down awoke and alarmed those of us asleep on board. One passenger wrongly surmised that a floating mine broken free from its corroded wartime moorings had been sighted.

The time was the moonless pitch dark of the early hours in March, 1946.

The place was somewhere in the middle of the Arabian Sea between Bombay and Port Said.

The ship was the “Empress of Scotland” the first troopship to leave India after the war, repatriating British service men back to Britain. The ship also carried paying passengers. My parents, sister and I were among that small number of civilians. We were allotted sleeping accommodation in metal-framed triple-decker bunks crowded into once first class cabins of the ship’s earlier peacetime voyages. The male passengers were housed starboard, while the women’s accommodation was portside.

The incident was the apparent suicide of a mentally disturbed serviceman who seemed more terrified of what lay ahead than the inky sea into which he plunged. The sailor on watch, who saw the naked young man climb the ship’s rail and leap overboard, signalled the alert.

Lifeboats and motor cruisers lowered into the sea were soon underway in their arduous task with searchlights from the ship and the rescue vessels spraying the sea to guide them. The passengers lining the rails watching the proceedings also scanned the choppy surface for any telltale sign of a bobbing head.

After three or four fruitless hours of the rescue craft zigzagging across the restless sea, a short blast of the ships horn saw the boats return be hauled up and secured.

The passengers made their way back to their cabins to reflect on what drove the poor man to such drastic action.

Not wanting to return to the hot stuffy cabin and finding the balmy night more comforting, I moved to the ship’s stern rail where I often studied the sea in its various moods.

Standing there watching the phosphorous wake trail into the darkness behind taking me away from the land of my roots, my India; I reflected on why I was on board.

I knew that I was one of the prime reasons for my family deciding to emigrate. They realized that when India gained independence from colonial rule, which was soon inevitable, my future prospects would be severely restricted.

I found myself overwhelmed with melancholy when I thought back to a few weeks before boarding the ship. My parents, sister and I had taken the “Madras Mail” train south along the rim of the Bay of Bombay to Bangalore to visit my beloved Grandparents. I was sad knowing that I would probably never see them again.

I also remembered an extraordinary incident that took place during that train trip. We broke our three-day journey at Madras where we booked a room at the railway station for the night. I had woken in the early hours and looking over to where my parents were sleeping saw a white haired man dressed in white pyjamas leaning over my mother. The figure stayed there for some time and then vanished. For some reason I was unconcerned and went back to sleep. I mentioned this to my mother on our next leg between Madras and Bangalore.

At first she pooh-poohed the idea saying that it must have been a dream. Later she called me aside to say that it was odd that the day we were there, was the anniversary of her father’s death and also that he was buried in a cemetery in Madras.

After returning to our house in the railway junction town of Kharagpur, we sold off our household effects and packed our cabin luggage, which had to be no more than forty pounds per passenger. Our two Indian carpets and my mother’s treadle Singer sewing machine would be shipped as hold cargo.

In the excitement of my forthcoming voyage it had not registered to me that we were leaving India and that we had no intention of returning. It was only when we climbed into our railway carriage in the “Bombay Mail” alongside Kharagpur’s platform, the longest in the world at the time, to take us across the Indian sub-continent to Bombay that I finally broke down completely sobbing like a child, a very embarrassing business for a seventeen year old. It was something of which I had no control.

While watching the ship’s percolating wake, to my amazement, I saw a large marine creature swim swiftly across the shimmering wash. It moved so quickly that I was unable to determine whether it was a shark, a porpoise or a marlin. My immediate thought at the time was that, like my mother’s father, it could have been the spectre of the drowned young man.

Despite the steamy night I shivered.

I was startled out of my dark thoughts by the words, “Come on young feller, inside you go,” spoken by a stocky balding sailor wearing nothing but a pair of trousers rolled up to his knees, his square-shaped hands wrapped around a hose spewing salt water over the decks. Paying passenger or not, the deck was his and his shipmates at this hour. Slightly annoyed, I reluctantly moved into the ship’s main recreation room.

My sombre mood changed completely when I witnessed the most glorious sunrise coming over the sparkling sea from the East and India.

I vowed then that some day I would return. It would take fifty-four years before I finally was able to do so, but I kept my promise.

© 2005


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