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Engineer MacKenzie
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Part The First

 

I have previously mentioned my days with the Merchant Marine in the South China Seas, but I have not before recounted one of the strangest episodes of my time at sea, or of my whole life come to that.

 

I had remained with the tramp steamer for several months as it plied its trade in Indonesia and I began to yearn for a change of scene, a trip to Freeport in Australia seemed attractive. The next time we put in to Singapore I left the ship and installed myself in a cheap boarding house intending to find another vessel bound for Australia. After several weeks of fruitless inquiries one morning I heard that a new ship had come into port and after some refitting work would be heading South. My first sight of the “Mary Anne” was impressive: she was a much bigger craft than I was used to and presented a imposing spectacle as she lay at  anchor with a mass of immaculately maintained white and gleaming pipework snaking around her superstructure. The Captain, by coincidence, turned out to be a fellow Scot, and he was happy enough to take me on board as part-deckhand and part-paying-passenger. He explained that the Mary Anne was crewed by an exclusively Malay crew, except for “Engineer McKenzie”, an Australian. “Ach, he’s a brilliant engineer yon MacKenzie” the Captain said, gesturing toward a bearded behemoth of an man up in the rigging supervising the placement of several new pieces of pipe which were being welded into place “Always with ideas to improve the efficiency of the engines … we have the most fuel efficient ship in the East already, but he loves a re-fit, does the Engineer !” chuckled the Captain. MacKenzie glanced towards us, his massive hands easily encircling what looked like a 4” diameter pipe.   

 

We put to sea after a few days and each day after my duties were over (largely swabbing the decks and general cleaning) I used to stroll around the ship familiarising myself with her. I occasionally came across MacKenzie supervising a maintenance task, but he was a taciturn fellow and beyond a muttered greeting I never got to know him. I put this down to shyness on his part – long years at sea can make one anti-social. One day I came upon him fishing off the stern of the boat, trolling a feathered lure through the waters – something the Malay crew also did to supplement their diets. Determined to make the acquaintance of MacKenzie I approached and hailed him. “Any luck ?”, I asked. He turned and glowered – “No – no fish today. It’s the wrong weather” he replied and apparently disturbed by my presence he swiftly packed up his equipment and stood to go back to the boiler room. As he walked away his oilskin jacket swung briefly open and I glimpsed, alarmingly, six glittering but bloodied eyes staring out at me from beneath his jacket – I realised with a start that he had half-a-dozen dead mackerel stuffed into his inside pocket . I watched him thoughtfully as he lumbered away to his cabin. This was the first indication I had that things were not as they seemed on board the Mary Anne.

 

Part The Second

 

Over the next few days I began to take more of an interest in MacKenzie and, unobtrusively, I began to monitor his movements. During his off-duty periods he largely stayed in his cabin which was specially located in an alcove off the engine room itself, so he was nearby in case of an emergency. During most of his working hours he remained in the boiler room except for excursions to all parts of the ship for maintenance, which seemed always to involve either adding additional pipework, or modifying existing pipes in some way – indeed the ship seemed to have many times the amount of piping that I have previously seen on other vessels. I mentioned this to the Captain, and he confirmed that to further increase the efficiency of the engines MacKenzie had devised several unique heat exchanger configurations which involved cooling flue gases and fuels against the sea air atop.

 

The engine room itself was one of my normal destinations for cleaning and whilst there I tried to get a glimpse into MacKenzie’s cabin but the door was always closed. I made it my goal to see inside – what I expected to see I don’t know, but I thought it might give me a clue about the mysterious antipodean. One day my chance came, I knew MacKenzie would be dining up in the galley as he always did at this time of day and I had taken  my mop and bucket into the engine room and was swabbing the deck. I edged closer to the door to Mackenzie’s cabin – it was slightly ajar ! I pushed the mop against the door and it swung slightly open. I peered in ..... what a disappointment ! The cabin looked no different to any other, save for being festooned with somewhat more pipes than any other – due to the proximity to the engine room I supposed. MacKenzie’s modest bunk occupied one wall, and against another wall stood a large chest, apparently made of metal, with its lid open. Clothes and personal possessions were laid tidily around. Suddenly, with a start MacKenzie himself came into view from the section of the cabin screened by the semi-open door, he saw me at the same instant I saw him. He looked shocked and leapt over to the metal chest and slammed the lid down. “Be off !! No cleaning required here !!!!” he shouted, and slammed the cabin door in my face. I moved away, startled but with only one question in my mind “What was in that trunk ?”

 

Part The Third

For the next few days I determined to avoid MacKenzie so as to quell his suspicion, and I spent my free time mostly relaxing in my cabin. As I did so one day my gaze fell on one of Mackenzie's blessed pipes which traversed the cabin at ceiling height. Beyond hearing the occasional bubbling in the pipe which indicated that it was in use I had not before been conscious of it. It occurred to me that the cabin was never particularly warm so it probably did not carry hot flue gases, and I wondered what it did carry. Standing on my trunk I felt it - it was at room temperature, so possibly lagged - and I rapped it - it sounded empty, again maybe a layer of insulation. Intrigued, I noticed that at one end where the pipe disappeared into the bulkhead directly above my bunk it had a blind T-piece included with the blanked-off end pointing upwards, probably this metal disk was not lagged - I felt it, it was also cool. As I took my hand away though, it lifted upwards - it was not a blanking piece, but a hinged flap. Pushing my finger in, I could feel that the inside of the main pipe  was moist but empty . How odd, the pipe could NEVER carry fluid without it discharging through the flap into my cabin. What on earth was the purpose of that ?

Puzzled, I began to surreptitiously trace the ship's pipework, making a covert drawing of my survey, slowly adding to the plan, tracing pipes from deck to deck, making connections, slowly building up a complete diagram. Eventually, through the tangle of lines, an intriguing pattern started to emerge: there were two extensive, complex, but entirely unconnected networks of pipes on board. One, indeed, carried fuel and flue gases to and from the engine room, and these blew hot and cold as expected, but the second network, of which the mystery pipe in my cabin formed a leg, seemed to be entirely unconnected to the engines although its focus also seemed to be the engine room and (an uneasy feeling gripped me when I realised this) MacKenzie's cabin.

Part The Fourth

 

Eventually I judged that MacKenzie’s guard had lowered a little and I decided to make a determined effort to follow my previous line of enquiry and find out what secrets he had in his mysterious chest. The opportunity came sooner than I expected. The weather, which up to now had been bright and clear, turned for the worse. The skies darkened and the sea swell mounted. Reports indicated a severe tropical storm was in the area. One evening as the sun was going down and the sky was turning a sickly swirling olive green on the horizon the Captain summoned a snap all-hands meeting to discuss the worsening conditions. Although our ship was large and well-equipped there were certain procedures to be followed in severe weather to ensure the safety of crew and cargo. As a “passenger” I was not obliged to attend, and so I took my chance to head down  to the engine room. On the way down I passed MacKenzie passing the other way. His eyes briefly met mine. Did I see a flash of something ? Suspicion ? Fear ?? Anger ??? Probably not, I concluded.

 

I reached the engine room and moved swiftly across to MacKenzie’s cabin door, it would be unlocked – in fact without a lock – as all cabins were for safety reasons. I pushed the door open and strode over to the chest. A mighty crash of thunder and a lurch beneath my feet signalled the arrival of the storm. I grasped the lid of the chest and flung it open. Illuminated by sheet lightening flashing through the porthole I peered in. My first glance showed, incredibly, that it was empty ! But I did not have time to register disappointment as I quickly saw this was not strictly the case: it was half full of clear water. There was a bubbling sound behind me towards the cabin door. Startled, I turned expecting to see MacKenzie but with relief I saw no-one there. I turned back to study the chest. What I saw there now made me scream with terror and jump back several paces.

 

Part The Fifth

 

Out from an underwater pipe at the base of the chest – or tank as it more properly was – snaked a long, grey, thick and undeniably alive tendril which grew and grew until suddenly a large octopus slithered into view. I had heard that being invertebrates they were able to pass through openings much narrower than themselves, a fact confirmed as suddenly another huge specimen burst in from a small pipe on the other side of the tank, then another .... By now the first arrival was hideously flopping a slimy arm over the side of the tank and I feared it was about to escape. I slammed the chest’s lid down just in time and the octopus withdrew its tentacle except for the very tip which was sliced off by the descending steel lid and, disembodied, continued to squirm horribly on the floor. I fled to my cabin.

 

Attempting to make sense of events later the only small part of the episode I could explain was the sudden appearance of the three creatures when I opened the chest lid – they had obviously thought it was feeding time.

 

As I lay on my bunk my gaze fell on the section of mysterious pipe passing across the top of my cabin. I shivered.

 

Part The Sixth

 

The next day the storm had passed and life on board returned to normal. MacKenzie went about his business as usual with no indication that anything was wrong. I wondered if he had found the piece of severed tentacle on the floor of his cabin. Maybe not as, apparently with a life of its own, it could have squirmed away under the chest.

 

After a couple of days further sailing a frisson of more domestic excitement occurred when it was announced that a gold watch had been stolen from the Captain’s cabin. Awarded for 20 years service with the company, he was very proud of it and it was usually on display on a shelf near the door. Given the control that he exerted over the vessel and crew, and the respect he engendered, it seemed impossible that anyone would have had the nerve to steal it. However the Captain announced that all cabins on board would be searched, starting with those of the two Malay cooks which flanked my own modest berth. The Captain duly arrived with his trusted Boson and the search began – I heard them scrambling about next door. Then there was a rap on my door and the Captain spoke. “Excuse me Mr. Woodley, sorry to intrude, but to demonstrate fairness to the crew I must include your cabin in the search”. “Of course” I said. The Boson entered and began a swift and cursory search feeling around the sides of my bunk. He rose, as I thought, to go. He looked at me curiously .... there in his hand was the gold watch ! “Mr. Woodley”, said the Captain, “If you would accompany me to my cabin please”.

 

Part The Seventh

 

The Captain poured us both a tot of rum. “Well, Mr. Woodley, this puts me in a somewhat invidious position. Of course I do not suspect you of stealing the watch, obviously the true criminal has panicked and secreted the watch in your cabin to deflect the blame”. I agreed but was privately doubtful, I had been in my cabin from the previous evening when the watch had been stolen until the time of the search save for a brief trip to the galley when anyone entering the cabin would have been clearly visible to both the Malay cooks who had been smoking with their own cabin doors propped open. The watch could have been planted in the night, when I was asleep, but I was sure I would have heard my steel cabin door creaking loudly open. “In any event, I’m afraid I must ask you to leave the ship at the next port, the crew have seen that the watch was with you, and to maintain morale I can’t be seen to be favouring anyone”. “Of course, I understand, I said”.

 

“Ach, its a fine watch”, said the Captain, “it’s an unmanly thing to be attached to such a gee-gaw but I’m glad to have it back nevertheless”. He proffered it to me. “It is fine indeed” I said and turned it over in my hand. Glittering gold, burnished and sparkling, cherished and polished, with a bright white face, the glass of which, I saw, had a strange green smear across it, a dried liquid it looked like. Or slime.

 

Part The Final

 

The next port of call was Port Moresby, the benighted capital of  Papua New Guinea, a grim and troubled island, a place of which Shakespeare might have said (as he did in another context). “O my poor kingdom, sick with civil blows”. It was a place that matched my current mood.

 

A short while after the ship docked I departed down the gangplank with my meagre few bags of belongings slung over my shoulder – downcast and demoralised – branded a thief in the eyes of the crew and so with no “goodbyes” or “fare-ye-wells”. The Captain stood grim-faced and supervised my departure, having previously privately bidden me a heart-felt “good luck” in his cabin. Once I disembarked the ship immediately cast off in order to catch the tides and she steamed away. I stood on the dockside looking after her, sunk in contemplation and depression.

 

After several minutes, when the Mary Anne was already quite distant, an all too familiar figure appeared on deck. MacKenzie stood motionless at the stern of the vessel facing me. Above him the vast superstructure of pipes, his creation, glinted and sparkled pink and silver in the early evening sun. As the ship receded they came to resemble a filigree web, delicate and airy, resting like a tangled crown upon his head. But I knew that within them, for some deep, dark, and opaque purpose, MacKenzie’s cephalopod army was on patrol.

As the ship steamed away, when it was at the furthest range visible, MacKenzie raised his arm and saluted.

FINIS

 

 

Many Thanks, Ted Woodley