The Good Ship Britannic sailed the high seas. The Captain of the Ship was seated at the top table of the sumptuous dining room, with the Captains of Industry. Gentle orchestral music played over the tables, while waiting staff glided past, hither and thither, laying down silver plates of delicacies almost beyond imagining.
A nervous Clerk appeared at the side of the Captain.
“Captain, we are headed toward the ice fields, might we slow the ship to navigate the ice more carefully”
The Captain reddened in the cheeks.
The clerk had been overheard by several of the bloated Captains of Industry who sneered in his direction.
“Slow down? Slow down?!” boomed the Captain. The Captains of Industry grinned. “Full speed ahead! We will make the fastest Atlantic crossing in history!”
The nervous clerk wrestled white knuckled hands and gulped as if swallowing a porcupine, a tortured look on his face.
“But, Captain, if I may. The ice fields do present quite some considerable danger…”
The Captain threw down his cotton napkin and stood, clearing his throat and tapping his knife against his champagne flute.
“Does any man in this room believe the Good Ship Britannic to be incapable of beating off some glorified ice cubes? If any man be of this opinion let him stand now!”
The room fell to utter stillness and silence, but for the music. All eyes were on the Clerk, the only person standing in the room who was not waiting a table. The Clerk grew red from the neck up.
“Clerk, you have had the judgement of your Captain, this was not enough. You have now had the judgement of the most learned, wealth creators of our land. Are you suggesting that you, the humble Clerk are in possession of some greater knowledge than them?”
The Clerk looked to the scattered, contorted faces of the Captains of Industry and back to the Captain.
“Of course not, Sir. I hope you understand I was merely seeking clarity of your instructions. I will dispatch your orders to the engine room immediately.”
The Clerk, satisfied with the confidence of the entire Dining Room set off below decks with his orders.
The engine room was full of blackened workers shovelling piles of coal into gaping mouths of fire. With each shovel, many floors above, a hand flicked slightly further round a dial and the Chief Officer smiled.
In the dark of the night and at enormous speed, the Good Ship Britannic met a titanic iceberg. The force of the impact sent a great shudder from bow to stern.
The Dining Room fell silent at the entry of the Clerk, who made his gentle way past their ashen faces toward the Captain.
“Clerk! What news?!”
“Captain we have struck an iceberg and are taking on water.” Muttered the Clerk with his eyes fixed on his shoes.
“You are saying we have a hole, Clerk?”
The Clerk nodded in reply.
“Well then, we simply need some metal to cover the hole do we not Clerk?”
“Any ideas where one might find some suitable metal?”
“Perhaps we could take the silver platters and use those to seal the hole?”
The Captains of Industry broke into mumbles of protest, some rising to their feet to glare at the Captain who once again flushed at the cheeks.
“Clerk, are not the shovels in the engine room metal? Use those!”
“Yes sir, but if we take the shovels from the engine room we will not be able to fill the stoves with coal and propel the ship”
The Captain looked out to the Captains of Industry and invited a response to the Clerk’s comment with a wave of his napkin. One of the Captains of Industry took to his feet and cleared his throat.
“Utter nonsense Clerk! Do not the workers have hands with which to shovel coal? Is not the shovel merely a luxury which this sinking ship cannot afford in this moment of crisis?”
Applause broke out across the dining room and the Clerk disappeared below the decks to transfer shovels from engine room to hull.
The Clerk witnessed such horrors below decks. The lowest steerage deck was flooded entirely. Many lives had been lost and frantic passengers ran about the place seeking shelter from the rising waters. Nevertheless he melted down the shovels and the workers in the engine room threw handfuls of coal into the ovens.
The Dining Room peeled with bells of laughter as the Captain spoke to the assembled Captains of Industry and hailed the sacrifices they had made to ensure the ships survival. The laughter stopped abruptly at the entrance of the Clerk. The Captain rolled his eyes and ushered the Clerk to his side.
“Captain, I am afraid the metal from the shovels was not ample to fit the size of the hole. Furthermore, the lack of shovels has significantly slowed the ship and we are now taking on water at a higher rate than before. An entire deck of steerage has been lost to flood and we risk losing more. Can I ask that we please use all metal from the dining room to plug the hole?”
Discontented muttering once again broke out across the Dining Room and a new Captain of Industry took to his feet and cleared his throat.
“Utter nonsense, Clerk! The ship has slowed because these steerage passengers are lazy! Why are they not in the engine room helping the workers to shovel coal?! Any steerage passenger not in the engine room should be thrown overboard for treason!”
Applause filled the Dining Room and the Captain smiled broadly.
“Tough times call for tough measures. Clerk, please make such an order of the steerage passengers.”
The Clerk shifted his weight uneasily between his feet.
“Yes Sir, but what of the hole?” The Captain and all assembled in the Dining Room looked back to the Captain of Industry who’d recently spoken. He smiled.
“It is quite simple. If the lowest steerage deck is already lost, what are we wasting the metal in its hull for? We must eliminate the waste. Use the metal from the hull on the flooded deck to patch up the hole on the deck above.”
The captain took a large mouthful of red wine as he settled back into his seat and applause once again filled the air of the Dining Room. The Captain nodded his affirmation to the Clerk, who disappeared below decks with his order.
The Clerk witnessed yet further degrees of horrors below decks. He stood atop a suitcase to deliver his order to the steerage passengers. While some objected and called upon their fellow passengers to mutiny and regain control of the ship from the Captain, the vast majority formed a line and marched to the engine room. A smaller group set off to dismantle the hull of the sunken deck.
The Dining Room had begun to list a little to the right. The diamond chandeliers tinkled as they swang with the ship. The waiters were under orders to push napkins under table legs to ensure the diners could continue to east and drink unimpeded. The sudden appearance of the Clerk caused eager conversations to drop off. This time, not only the Captain but many other diners rolled their eyes. The Clerk was soaking wet from head to toe and his shoes squelched as he made his way to the Captain.
“Captain, I am afraid that there has been a disaster. When we removed the metal from the hull of the sunken deck, we saw a massive increase in the water intake. We have now flooded all lower decks of the ship. The engine room was also flooded, so the ship is slowing to a full stop. We have no engineers, steerage passengers or anyone else below decks to support any further plans. Captain, the ship is lost.”
The Captains of Industry looked solemn and bowed their heads. The Captain joined in the slow, sincere action. After a few moments came the sound of a knife against a glass at the floor of the dining room. One of the Captains of Industry stood.
“This really is a tragedy. Might I suggest we now abandon ship? Captain, I understand there are life boats which we might tender and wait until rescue?”
Slowly but surely all those in the Dining Room made their way out to the lifeboats. They would have moved more urgently, but they were full from several courses of rich and delicious food, and wobbly from the wine. They assembled in the lifeboats while the waiting staff worked the pulleys to lower them to the sea. The Clerk noticed that the lifeboats were filling rapidly and as the Captain was about to take the last seat, the Clerk called to him.
“But Captain, what of myself and the waiting staff? How are we to get safely from the ship?”
The Captain looked most forlornly into the eyes of the Clerk. His lifeboat now settled in the water. One of the Captains of Industry called up from the boat.
“Your sacrifice will not be forgotten Clerk!”
Applause floated up from the lifeboats to the waiting staff and the Clerk stranded on their sinking ship. The Captains of Industry and the captain shed tears as they watched the ship’s stern rise and then sink beneath the sea. The Captain rose to his feet in his lifeboat, took hold of a megaphone and spoke to the assembled floating lifeboats.
“Captains of Industry, this has been a most unfortunate and tragic night. We have lost so very much. What lessons can we learn, such that this loss is never suffered again? Perhaps if those workers in the engine room had abandoned their shovels sooner, they would have been sufficient to plug the hole? Maybe if those members of steerage who had to be ordered to support their brothers in the engine room had acted sooner, the ship could have been saved? But of one thing I am certain. These assembled here did our utmost to prevent the tragedy that befell the Good Ship Britannic. Now let us pray for our swift recovery from the high seas on this dark night.”