The North Sea - 1964
Icy shards of jet-black water lashed the tiny vessel’s bows. The resulting spray tore at her only sail, threatening to wrench it from its mast. Reverend Billiton gasped. The salt water stung like needles piercing his skin. He closed his eyes for a moment in an effort to drive away the pain.
He opened them in time to face yet another giant black swell rising like leviathan from the deep. It towered above his vessel as if intent on crushing her under its weight. Billiton gulped and the boat lurched sideways, almost capsizing as it mounted the wall of water. At the crest the sail billowed its protest, caught in the shrieking winds that plagued the ocean’s surface.
He glanced back towards the shore – or at least where he believed it to be. No use. The sea’s inky surface swirled like a cauldron’s potion, melting together with equally ominous clouds in the deluge to form a single oppressive sphere of darkness. Is one soul really worth all this? Billiton issued a silent cry of protest, whether to himself or to God, he wasn’t quite sure.
His thoughts turned to Rose. He loved her like his own daughter. And after everything she’d already been through, this was all she wanted. Nothing could have made him refuse her request.
More waves stormed the bows like predators sensing the kill. The boat reeled under their onslaught and plunged beneath the spray. This time, freezing salt water flooded the minister’s nose and mouth. Reverend Billiton choked and spluttered, driving the water from his lungs. He gasped for fresh air and then winced at the searing pain that coursed through his sinuses. Please, God, just get me home.
The boat crested another angry swell and then plummeted into the trough beyond. He gazed up in terror at the giant walls of water, searching for some vain hope. Any sign that he might survive this. It was then that he spotted a single light just off starboard. It glimmered for only an instant and then it was gone.
In desperation, he threw himself across the deck to ensure that his own light had not been doused in the storm. To his relief, he saw that it still burned. With new hope, Billiton tried to swing his vessel towards the light but to no avail. Another wave swept him back to port and more icy spray pounded his cheeks and ears.
Billiton choked and blinked the stinging water from his eyes. He spotted the light again, closer this time. A moment later, it disappeared behind another shadowy swell. More wind and more water assaulted his tiny vessel but now, as he crested the next mountain of water, he could see the light had moved even closer.
After what felt like hours, but was probably no more than twenty minutes, the light took shape and a far larger sail-boat than his own loomed out of the darkness. A moment of irrational fear overcame Billiton. Is this the right vessel? What if it’s someone else?
He shook his head. It had to be the right boat. Who else would be out here in this ungodly weather? Another wave rocked his boat and the lamp swung around, illuminating the foreign craft in the water. The name, Black Sabbath, was emblazoned on the boat’s side in fiery letters. Billiton sighed with relief. He’d found his charge.
As he gazed upon the shadowy craft, it came about. A lone figure appeared. The man clamoured down from the bridge and disappeared into the hold. Minutes later he reappeared. A quick trip back to the helm gave him time to manoeuvre his boat closer to Billiton’s own. Then the man headed back down and dove off the port-side. With long, powerful strokes, he swam the distance between the two yachts. Despite his efforts, the current swept him aft.
Billiton reached for the lifebuoy. He checked that one end of the rope was securely fastened to his boat and then flung the buoy in the swimmer’s direction. It fell several yards short but the man adjusted his direction, heading for the red and white tube. Before he could reach it, a wave engulfed him and he disappeared beneath the surface. Billiton glanced about frantically, fearing for the man’s life, but a moment later, the rope snapped taut. The man bobbed to the surface, clutching the life-line Billiton had offered.
The priest was jubilant. Ignoring the lashing water and the wind, he grabbed the rope and began pulling the man to safety. Several minutes passed as Billiton did battle with the current. At one point, he glanced up and was surprised to see the Black Sabbath already beginning to list to port. The vessel was going down fast. At last, the swimmer reached him and clutched the vessel’s side.
“Thank you, Reverend.” The man’s voice was calm and measured despite the icy water. It seemed as if the swim through deathly currents had barely raised his pulse-rate.
“Are you alright?” the minister panted.
The man acted as if he hadn’t heard the question. “Rose promised you would baptise me at your earliest convenience.”
Billiton nodded and reached to pull his charge into the vessel. The man hung back. Billiton saw the question in the man’s eyes and understanding dawned. He recoiled in horror. “You want me to do it now!?”
The swimmer nodded. “You’re a priest. There’s lots of water. It seems all the necessary elements are in place.”
Billiton stared into the man’s eyes searching for a flicker of humour or sarcasm. There was none. The man was serious. “Why don’t we wait until we’re back at the Abbey? I can perform the ceremony there and Rose can –”
“We both know you can’t perform the ceremony in such a public place, Reverend. It has to be here. Otherwise, I fear, it may never happen.”
Billiton shook his head. “I don’t have the right equipment or anything that I –” the man’s pleading gaze ended all further protest.
“Please, Reverend. I need this.”
Billiton thought about it for a moment. As a Church of England priest, he didn’t even practice full immersion, to begin with. Not to mention this outlandish setting. There were no witnesses. What was the point? On the other hand, here was a man who had risked everything to make this proclamation of his faith. It would be a wicked priest, indeed, who refused such a desperate request.
“Alright. Grab my arm.” Billiton leaned over the starboard side, closing his eyes in terror as the charge’s hands clamped about his wrist. What if he went over the side with the swimmer? All their combined efforts would come to nothing.
He closed his mind to such thoughts. “Ready?”
The man nodded.
Billiton took a deep breath and clutched a clump of the man’s blond hair. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit…” He plunged the man beneath the water, only for an instant, and then dragged him back to the surface.
The man grabbed the yacht’s side with renewed vigour and clamoured aboard. He didn’t speak but the gratitude shone through his gaze. He took charge immediately, reaching for the helm. Billiton felt no ill will at the manner in which the stranger commandeered his vessel. He was awestruck at the sheer ease with which the man swung her about. She seemed to respond to his touch instinctively and, suddenly, the mammoth waves and shrieking wind lost their terror. What had been deadly opponents only moments before were now little more than tools in the sailor’s hands.
The boat glided effortlessly over the first swell, gathering the wind in her sails like a mother welcoming her children home from school. No longer fighting the elements, she now seemed to use them to her advantage and even the slashing rain felt less painful on Billiton’s cheeks.
He shook his head in wonder and gazed across at the blond stranger now at the helm. “Welcome aboard, Mr. Princeton.”
The man glanced up sharply. He frowned and his authoritative voice now turned slightly harsh. “That is no longer my name. Don’t ever call me that again.”
What Happened Next?
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