Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The women who haunt the wreck of SS Schokland

Stories persisted amongst Islanders
       that there had been women
         aboard the SS Schokland
    on that night of January 4th 1943
      as the commandeered merchant steamer
       departed St Helier Harbour for St Malo
    an unscheduled voyage
       as a makeshift troop carrier
  steered by a Dutch skipper
      who didn’t know the local waters.

             Women who sat
          with German soldiers
         crammed in walkways
             squatting in holds
        - alongside steel girders
     and sacks of concrete
        for Hitler’s formidable
              Atlantic Wall.

     A few women perhaps
         in a travelling concert party
            who joined the troops in singing
       - soldiers so happy to be on Christmas leave
         after a year cooped in Jersey.

            Or German nurses
        fräuleins going home
    destined to breed solid German citizens
          when peace came to Europe.

    Or maybe French mademoiselles
         from the local brothel
   girls who had swapped
     a life of drudgery
on muddy farms
  or in war-worn towns
      for plentiful food and cigarettes
          and German arms.

   Women not recorded
  on the hurriedly-put-together manifest
       as the ship was designated a troop carrier
           leaving port after dark
              to dodge Allied bombing.

             But anyway real women
        wearing earrings
           carrying gilt handbags
        women pulled shivering and pale
      from the chill January seas
           their stories absent and insignificant
              in the news blackout
          that concealed German losses
              women lingering only in local rumours…

               And aboard the Schokland that night
             young soldiers must have been dreaming
              of all their women expecting them
          in German towns, in German farms
              mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives
        maybe had photographs to visualize
            faces not seen for a year
          as they counted down
            to this moment of leaving the Island.

                And that jolt of emotion
                  as the ship struck the reef
                        sank rapidly
                were those women’s faces with them
as if real
                 as the soldiers jumped
                      into the wintry waters off Noirmont
                   an ice blanket numbing their hearts
                in those final brief minutes
                        saying their last goodbyes
                    before the cold drowned them?

                      Those last moments
                   imagined a thousand times
              by all the women who waited
                  by wives and mothers back home
             willing themselves to have been there
                 as their men succumbed
                    but separated by war and water
                         by barbed wire and mines
                     reaching invisible arms out
                over the land and sea
                          receiving only
                             a ghostly déjà vu
                      from men pulled into
                         the surrogate arms of the ocean
                    wombed in the hold of the ship
                            looped in rolls of steel wire
                 gathered in by sirens of water
                        a cold courtesan’s embrace.

                And over the years
                   divers to the wreck reported finding
               jewellery and perfume bottles
                 stiletto shoes
                    steel-ware stamped ‘Sandringham Hotel’
               - souvenirs perhaps from the Island posting
                 Christmas gifts for girlfriends and wives back home -
                     and a woman’s chain-work purse
                    containing a roll of film
                        of undeveloped memories
lost to the brine…

                          Under the waves
                  skirting out from the ship’s hull
            the sea world is a boudoir of white lace
       adorned with purse sponges   and necklace shells
               mermaid’s tresses   and slipper limpets
           eyelash weeds     and cushion stars
              comb jellies    and pink sea fans
         beadlet anemones    and lady crabs
              turban top shells     and queen scallops
                 fairy shrimps   and banded venuses.

                   A shoal of pouting flicks the water
                      into a quicksilver curtain
             and cool waves swell
               in the form of a woman
                      a dream of a woman
                         a ghost of a woman
                   in all the drowned ships
              the hole in hearts the shape of a woman.

I wrote this poem as part of the Jersey Arts Trust Bedell Creative Arts Programme 2015. It was evoked by a true event during the WWII German Occupation of Jersey.

No comments:

Post a Comment