TUESDAY: U 995

BY MICHAEL JOLL

Copyright is held by the author.

“FUCKING DANES!”

Brooke stormed out of the office building in Copenhagen. Had it not been a revolving door, she would have slammed it behind her.

The Friday meeting had not gone well. Sure, she was nervous. Her first solo overseas business trip. The company paying for her to fly Business Class, front of the bus, making her feel important. “It’s a slam dunk,” they told her back in New York. “You’ve already met the head honcho here. Pretty well everything’s been arranged. Make the final presentations and get their signatures. We’re counting on you.”

Brooke’s prospective client, owners of a small fleet of tug boats, turned down her final proposal and awarded the contract to a rival firm and their blowsy, blond, big-busted representative. “Their offer gave us more of what we wanted,” they told Brooke in so many words while she fumed in silence in front of their smug faces. She knew that there was at least one area in which she couldn’t hope to compete. “Sorry.”

“Typical fucking males!” she fumed as she hailed a taxi in the early Copenhagen twilight. “Always thinking with the wrong bloody head!”

Gloom descended. Pissed, and then some, Brooke emptied the mini-bar in her hotel room, reasoning that the hangover would be worth it. Tomorrow she had a precious day to herself to decompress, a chance to get away from those bloody Danes before preparing for the final sales presentation next week to the harbour ferry operator.

The wipers of the rented Opel streaked the windshield with February drizzle and truck spray early the next morning. “Why always the driver’s side?” she muttered between clenched teeth, drumming her fingers on the steering wheel while she waited in line the few minutes it took to cross the German border with an American passport. “Even the bloody Danish weather won’t give me a break.”

If she could, she would have chosen a better day to drive to Kiel and on to Laboe’s maritime museum. Rain or sleet, though, this was the only day she knew she could spare. This was her one and only chance to see the captured German U-boat, U 995, up close, to experience it firsthand, to inspect every steel plate, every inch of pipe and every rivet with a professional eye — and a personal one as well.

Brooke lined up in front of the museum before it opened. She turned up her overcoat collar and huddled under an umbrella. She touched her beret, felt the damp misting its surface, and shrugged. She pulled the rim down over her ears and hunched deeper into her coat.

She turned and saw about a dozen others behind her waiting in line. Three or four bodies back she noticed a tall young man, late 20s, she guessed, good-looking and athletic in the way maybe a football or hockey player back home might look without the sweat or a helmet. He seemed to be staring at her, appraising her. She eased a hand under the strap of her shoulder purse and a moment later glanced back at him. His gaze had not moved. She turned her back fully and tried to ignore the twin gimlets boring into her shoulder blades.

He’s the first good-looking guy my age I’ve seen since leaving New York, and he’s ogling me. I bet he’s Danish. Asshole!

The museum opened and they filed in, bought tickets and dispersed. Brooke headed across the rotunda towards the far doors and her goal, U 995. Like the submarine she sought, the word “museum” surfaced in her mind. She stopped, wondering, Why is the plural “museums?” She dug deep into her Latin class, taught by the nuns at her boarding school. “Plural should be ‘musea,’ not ‘museums,’” she muttered. “Never heard of ‘musea.’ Even if it is correct.”

“I beg your pardon?” An English voice behind her broke into her one-sided conversation.

Brooke whipped round. Her hand flew to her mouth. The young man behind her in the line-up stood face to face with her. In a second she took in his wet hair, a couple of small scars on his face and a lump under his eye. His damp Gore-Tex jacket bore the words “London Scottish FC” beneath the red lion logo.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to startle you, but I thought you said something to me, and I didn’t quite catch what it was.”

“I didn’t say anything,” she said.

“I don’t want to belabour the point,” he said, “but I definitely heard you say something. But if it wasn’t directed at me, I apologize for intruding on your conversation.”

Brooke glanced around. There were just the two of them in the huge hall. I’m cornered in an empty space, she thought. Flight or fight? She was about to turn on her heel when good manners prevailed.

“Perhaps I was. Talking to myself, I mean. I’m sorry for doubting you,” she said in as cool a tone as she could muster.

The young man smiled and waited as if expecting further amplification. Brooke fell for it.

“I was declining the Latin word ‘museum’ and trying to figure out the nominative plural, if you must know.” Plain statement of fact. Not defiant, Brooke. Even if it sounded like it was a reasonable response to his sarcasm, and take your hands off your hips.

“Which is . . . ?”

“It should be ‘musea,’ but I’ve never seen or heard the word.”

“Me neither, and I’ve been to musea all over Europe, including Rome. And if there are musea anywhere, you’d think they’d have then in Rome.”

Okay. She studied him for a moment with a finger on her chin. Good-looking and a sense of humour beneath the sarcasm, she decided. A taller version of James McAvoy. She let out a small laugh. “Brooke,” she said without thinking, and held out her hand.

He took it and held it lightly. “Ewan,” he said.

“You’re Scottish?”
“The jacket gives it away, doesn’t it? London Scottish Football Club,” he said, running the tip of a finger over the words. “That’s rugby football.”
“It was the accent.”

He almost pouted. “And you’re American, I’m guessing. I thought you’d be more pleased to meet a foreigner who speaks English.”

“My turn to apologize. I thought for a moment the way you were staring at me in the line-up you might be Danish.”

“Danes are arseholes,” he said. “If you’ll pardon the expression. They beat us in the football World Cup qualifying round. No Scot can forgive them for that.”

“I think we’re on the same side,” Brooke said. “At least, when it comes to Danes. What are you doing here?”
“I’m in Hamburg for the weekend,” Ewan said. “Our ground’s waterlogged after all the rain in London so our game was rescheduled. A couple of us decided to take in Hamburg’s nightlife for a change. I left him in the hotel, sleeping it off. On the spur of the moment, and out of curiosity I decided to come here and see the sub.”

“The night life met with his approval, obviously,” she said. “How about yours?”

He thought for a moment. “Not worth the price of admission,” he said with a grin.

Brooke had no idea how to take his reply. Don’t go there, she decided.

“I’m in Copenhagen on business,” Brooke said, the formality back in her voice and hoping to dampen any enthusiasm for graphic descriptions of the Reeperbahn’s night life — or his. “I came to see the U-boat. I’ve always wanted to see one up close. I wanted to find out what life was really like below decks, how cramped it must have been.”

Ewan shuffled his feet. “If you’re not here with someone,” he said, “perhaps we could conduct an investigative tour together?” He raised his voice at the end, turning it into a question, American-style.

Unstoppable adrenalin jolt. Risk/Reward. Brooke tried breath control to lower her pulse rate. Didn’t work. Not with Ewan grinning again and expecting a response. Risk equals there are worse ways to start a weekend. So why not? An alarm bell sounded in her brain. What are you getting yourself into, Brooke? Reward? I’m a big girl. It might be fun. It’s nothing I can’t unravel in a hurry if it turns south. She snapped back at her voice of caution and told it to take a hike. She flashed Ewan a Hollywood red carpet smile.

“Sure,” she said before he could change his mind. She turned towards the far end of the main exhibit hall with Ewan in tow. They pushed through the doors and stopped at the top of the steps overlooking Ostsee beach. Slightly below them, on the wet, desolate sands of the Baltic Sea, U 995 rested on cradles as if it was in dry dock, its grey paint slick in the drizzle, almost shining in the weak daylight.

“I’m not sure if it’s bigger or smaller than I thought it would be,” Ewan said.

“Smaller, I think,” Brook said, “if anything. Come on.” She started forward with Ewan in her wake.

At the end of their tour below decks they sat side by side on the narrow bunk crammed into the Captain’s stuffy cabin, their hips and shoulders touching. Brooke unbuttoned her coat. Ewan unzipped his jacket. Neither said a word for a long time.

“It makes you think, doesn’t it?” Ewan said at last. “Seventy, 80 sailors shoehorned into a sardine can, occupying bunks on a rotation basis.”

“Forty-two,” she said.

“Forty two what?”

“Forty-two men, plus 10 officers. That was the ship’s complement.”

Ewan shrugged. “No showers for weeks on end. No fresh food. No daylight for days at a time. Foul air except on the surface. One head forward, one aft, if they’re not bunged up with toilet paper and crap. Christ, what an existence!”

The red light bulb illuminating the cabin flickered and went out accompanied by the sound of a motor winding down. Brooke pulled back the curtain that separated the Captain’s cabin from the control room. The red light there had gone out as well. In the total darkness they might have been 500 feet below the surface of the Atlantic.

A metallic crack rang out from somewhere close by, aft, and echoed through the hull. Brooke jumped. Beneath her overcoat goose bumps tingled her arms. Fear. She hoped Ewan couldn’t smell it. Since the night of the storm when the tree fell on her dad’s car while they were all in it, back when she was a child, she had hated the dark and unexplained noises. She pulled her coat closer to her chest, wrapped her arms around herself and stood up.

“Depth charge overhead,” Ewan said. “How many more in the pattern would you guess?”

You really can be a total asshole, Ewan, raced through her mind. It’s as if you know. Don’t let on, Brooke. Don’t show weakness. How long have you been in the ship business? Right! That noise is only the bones of the ship creaking on the cradle.

“Four all told on this pass,” she said, playing the game.

“They’ll be back,” Ewan said. “They’ve got our depth. It’s only a matter of time before the hull’s crushed.”

“And the sea pours in. If you’re trying to scare me,” Brooke said. “You’re not.”

“Damn! I was hoping you would faint into my arms and I could revive you in some appropriate way.”

“Forget it. Not happening. Either part.”

“The lights will come back on in a moment,” Ewan said. “Here, take my hand.” He reached out and touched Brooke’s back.

Brooke groped behind her and fastened onto Ewan’s sleeve. He pulled her gently towards him. She hopped back onto the bunk.

“I want you to know that I didn’t arrange this,” he said. “Though it came at a fortuitous time.”

“Do you always talk like an English Professor?”

“Only to beautiful young damsels in need of rescuing from distress.”

“I’m not in distress, and you’re less like St. George and more like the dragon.” She slipped her hand in his and squeezed. Damn it, if he wasn’t so good looking . . . And I’m sending the wrong signal if I’m going to stay true to Greg, not that I’ll admit it even if he asks. He wouldn’t be that stupid, surely. Would he? Well, he’s possessive enough that he just might.

“Dragons ‘R’ Us,” Ewan said, “if that’s what you prefer.” He returned the pressure. She liked that. Instant reward. “Did you turn the lights out when I wasn’t looking?”

“No,” she said, and giggled. Not adult, Brooke. You’re losing it. Careful, now. Smarten up!

The lights came on with a whirring of an electric motor somewhere deep in the hull. Brooke looked sheepishly at her hand in Ewan’s. “I’m not afraid of the dark, you understand,” she said, but made no attempt to disengage herself.

“Or dragons, apparently,” Ewan said. “I’m only afraid of the dark when I’m alone in a captured U-boat. On this occasion I wasn’t alone. Ergo, brave.”

Brooke turned serious, gripped the edge of the bunk leaned forward. “There are only three German U-boats left, world-wide,” she said. “This one, U 505 in Chicago, and U 2540 in Bremerhaven.”

“Chicago? That’s a long way to haul a U-boat by lorry,” Ewan said. “I only knew about this one. How do you know all about them?”

She took a deep breath. No harm in telling him, she decided. Not that he absolutely needs to know. It’s better than a lie, and I’ll never see him again after today — or maybe tomorrow.

“I’m a naval architect,” Brooke said. “I know this one, almost personally.” She thought for a moment. “U 995’s keel was laid down on November 25, 1942. 759 tons, 220 feet long by 20 feet wide. It was launched on July 22, 1943 and commissioned on the 16th of September the same year under the command of Oberleutnant zur See Walter Köhntopp. U 995 saw active service in the North Atlantic until the end of the war.”

“I’m impressed,” Ewan said.

“My grandfather was a torpedo man in this U-boat when it was damaged by depth charges off Iceland in April 1945. They limped in to Trondheim, Norway, for repairs, and they were there when the war ended the following month. This is the Captain’s bunk we’re sitting on, Oberleutnant zur See Hans-Georg Hess’s.”

For a long time neither spoke. Clanging footsteps on the steel ladder leading from the conning tower to the control room broke the silence.

“My grandfather was on HMS Falkirk,” he said after the footsteps and guttural voices disappeared forward. “A destroyer guarding the Atlantic convoys. His station was aft, with the depth charges. They took a torpedo off Iceland one night early in 1945. All he ever told me about it was that it was bloody cold and dark in the water.”

He turned and looked at Brooke. Even in the red light her face seemed pale.

“Your grandfather was trying to kill mine,” she said quietly.

“While yours was trying to do the same to mine,” Ewan said. “Just doing their job.”

“Doing what they were paid to do, you mean?” Brooke retorted. “Killing people.”

“Probably, or two bitter rivals today fighting to win the contract in peacetime. We’re human. We take it personally when it hits home.”

A pulse throbbed in Brooke’s temple. She wanted to massage it, but she was still holding Ewan’s hand. She willed herself to breathe easily. The throb subsided. No, she decided, focusing on the threadbare rug beneath her boots; he can’t possibly know about the blond with the big boobs who made the tug boat owners an offer they couldn’t refuse. Don’t take it personally, Brooke. Still, that shot was too close for comfort.

In the angry silence that followed, Brooke calmed herself and mentally ticked off Ewan’s assets: He’s good-looking. He can be charming and serious. And amusing. He’s pleasant to talk to. But he’s still a boy at heart. He could be an entertaining interlude, a change from over-demanding, suffocatingly attentive Greg. Don’t be hasty, Brooke. Give him another chance. You’re on the pill. Let’s see what happens. There’s nothing in Copenhagen that can’t wait until after lunch tomorrow.

She made her decision.

She squeezed his hand, released it and eased herself off the bunk. “Coffee and a pastry?” she said as she swept aside the curtain. “But not a Danish.”

“Love to,” he said. Ewan followed her to the foot of the conning tower ladder. She had nearly reached the hatch when she heard, “Great mini-skirt you’re wearing. Nice view.”

Brooke froze in mid stride, one foot above the other, fuming. “Fuck you, Ewan,” she flung over her shoulder. “You’re no better than the fucking Danes. Enjoy your coffee on your own. I’m going back to Copenhagen.”

4 comments

  1. JAZZ

    I didn’t quite get this story, Michael.
    A xenophobic, potty-mouthed American doesn’t get a contract from a bunch of misogynistic Danes and then drowns her sorrows at the mini-bar.
    Then comes morning and a trip to the museum with a lesson in Latin grammar thrown in.
    Then off to the submarine with a history lesson thrown in.
    Perhaps if you had drawn the MC as more of a sophisticate and less of a valley girl, the story would have held my interest more.

  2. Michael Joll

    I had no wish to write a genre Romance, even for Valentine’s Day. Instead I chose a feisty, if confused, potty-mouthed protagonist, and an immature antagonist. Not the ideal couple for a marshmallow story.
    Men seem to be born with this self-destruct gene which can torpedo even the most willing of one-night-stand arrangements.
    I take JAZZ’s critique as a compliment. If nothing else, I provoked a response. Thanks, JAZZ.
    And thanks too, GJ.

  3. Frank Sikora

    There is a challenge in writing unloveable characters. No one comes clean in this story or appealing.
    My favorite aspects of all your stories are the settings, almost always exotic to this Midwest boy, and the historical content, always interesting to this WWII buff.

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