The Northern Star

 

Northern Star 1The Star sailed on…
…like a giant manatee surfacing for breath, carving its icy path
on a course of 30 degrees, north, north west.

Sharp-nosed, flat-bottomed. 150,000 tons of steel, crude and cargo
in the middle of the Northern Passage, unstoppable
minus forty degrees and two weeks out of the sepulchral city.

Mykola Los stared through the cold darkness
barely making out the rise and fall of the bow light
riding the gentle swell. His thoughts turned to home.

He smiled as he pictured Mei and her pride in him,
born and bred in the Shanghai slums, now raising his own family
in a cement house in the new suburb of Song Jiang.

He’d done well to become the first Master of the Star
The company had sent him to the yard in Korea to help build her.
She was his ship, the largest in the world.

The Star sailed on…
… hardly shuddering as the massive, steel bow pierced its way
through three-foot thick ice shedding ton-weight shards like flotsam.

His cargo, entrusted to him for safe delivery:
Twelve thousand containers, four miles of them laid end to end,
bound for Hamburg, Rotterdam and Felixtowe.

There is no choice, Mykola thought, but to work day and night
You get dizzy and your eyes hurt – but there is no choice.
His country made three quarters of the world’s toys and they must be delivered

He wondered about those men and women, children, too
the long hours, low wages and dangerous work places.
Even in these enlightened times those who make trouble go to prison

Rich western buyers blame it on the Chinese factory owners
But, at home, they say increasing competition is the cause.
Who to believe? Anyway, what could he do?  The messenger.

The Star sailed on…
… at a steady ten knots, halfway through her first voyage to the North Pole.

The Master checked his navigation equipment and his draft
He knew strange things could happen at the Pole.
Two days less than the old Suez route, he thought.  Was it worth it?

Twelve months ago, on an earlier voyage
the Star had been hi-jacked in the Arabian Sea
Somalians had swarmed the ship with rocket-powered grenades.

All he had were fire hoses and pocket-knives
Pointless to resist, he had surrendered to protect his crew.
Still, he’d lost two men that night.  Two stupid, brave young men.

There would have been more killing had he not persuaded the company
to parachute a million dollars in cash from a small aircraft,
shrink-wrapped to a brick.  But his guilt at those deaths still haunted him.

The Star sailed on…
…crushing the protests of the icy sea.

But for the attack, Mykola wondered, would the company
have bothered with the Northern Sea Route at all?
They had told him the official line was ‘global warming’

The Captain knew the destiny of his cargo and its purpose
All the toys and decorations for the whole of Northern Europe
were in those containers.  Aboard his ship, the Star.

Last December, he had taken little Ching-Lan to a store in central Shanghai
To be photographed with the gift-bearing, jaunty-coloured Dun Che Lao Ren
Surrounded by his glittery, giggling sisters.

He had even bought a small tree which Mei had strung with coloured lights
Mykola wondered how it had all started, this western celebration
But, like many others, he found it helped fill the lull before the New Year

The Star sailed on…
... soon a change of course, steering south west out of Russian waters
hugging the coast of Norway and then to the North Sea…

Out on the freezing deck below, Jack Strong looked up at the dimly lit bridge
Now the only Englishman amongst the Star’s meagre crew of twenty-six.
he longed to finish his last shift at Felixtowe, then take the train home.

Jack had felt lost since the pirates seized the Star and Ricky died
that dreadful night.  He could not forgive Mykalos and still felt shame
that the Master had just given in, not even put up a fight

He saw the shifting, shadowy figure through the toughened glass
Two years at sea and Jack still could not decipher that alien mind
Spineless, passionless, inhuman, a company man to the core

For there, at the helm (thought anguished, grieving Jack) was his nemesis -
a man who could never see the point of Ricky’s sacrifice.
Goodwill to all men?  To hell with it.  He would not be re-joining the Star.

Mykola was no stranger to suffering, even on his own ship
You cannot vaccinate against misery as if it were a disease, he reflected
Only do what you can to spread a little happiness as an antidote.

The Star sailed on…
… over the North Pole with its cargo of toys for all the children of Europe.

PIP BURLEY, DECEMBER, 2012