Anna Scaife: Diving the wreck of the F69

Oct 2023 | Short story

Katherine Mansfield Sparkling Prose 2023 – 2nd place

short story


“Who wants to hear the story of the luckiest birthday ever?” Sally said, sitting down at the head of the table. She was bone-weary from the hot oven, but buoyed by the faces gathered around her extendable dining table. She shook her hair back out of her eyes and watched her only daughter, Bernadette, help herself to the platter of roasted lamb, potatoes smashed with butter and crushed garlic, and broccoli, steamed and bright as a crayon against the white ceramic dish.

“Me!” Bernadette’s father Paul sang, appearing in the kitchen doorway, the pepper grinder swinging from his left hand by its neck.

“Me!” said Selena.

It was Bernadette’s thirty-seventh birthday. Around the table sat her ex-husband Tim, their sixteen-year-old son, Ryan, and her oldest friend, Selena.

“No, not again. Do we have to?” laughed Bernadette.

“But Selena hasn’t heard it,” her father grinned.

“Yeah, I haven’t heard it,” said Selena.

“Well,” Sally said, upending her glass of sparkling grape juice an inch from her mouth to avoid leaving a kiss of Big Apple Red on the rim. “I was ten days passed my due date, and Bernadette was a big baby. Nine pounds eleven ounces. I’d been in labour for ten hours, and all of a sudden, out popped her head. And then – she got stuck.” She laughed, her pointed chin in the air, her fingers squeezing the tops of her thighs.

A crimson flush slid up Ryan’s neck.

“Bernie had this big, round, overcooked face,” Sally said. “You know, if the head comes and the shoulders don’t follow, you only have six minutes to get the baby out.”

“Six minutes isn’t long,” said Paul.

Sally reached out and collected her husband’s hand and pulled it towards her across the tabletop. “But the doctor wasn’t there. He was on his lunch break. You’d think he’d be in the staff tearoom having a sandwich, but he’d driven to Island Bay. It was the day they scuttled the F69 navy frigate in the Cook Strait. The on-call doctor went down there with the rest of Wellington to watch her go under.” She looked around the table. “And there I was, lying on the bed with Bernie half out!”

Bernadette winced and Ryan pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up over his hair.

Paul plucked at the back of the hoodie, sliding the fabric back off his grandson’s head. “We laugh about it now,” he said. “But at the time I was bloody terrified. There must have been a heap of babies born that day because no one was coming to help Bernie get her shoulders free, and our young midwife nearly pushed the emergency button through the wall.”

Sally nodded, her eyes on his. “I remember how loud the clock sounded, like a bomb, and the air conditioning was roaring,” she said. “I asked you if it was raining, didn’t I, darling?”

“You did.”

“How much time was left?” Selena asked. Her fork, laden with potato, was suspended in mid-air.

“Well, Sally didn’t know this, but I had my eye on my watch, and four minutes had already passed. The midwife gave up on the emergency bell, and legged it out into the corridor.”

“We were frozen, we didn’t know what to do,” said Sally. “I looked down and there was Bernie’s face, scrunched and furious, with a full head of dark hair like a Lego man.”

“Jesus,” said Tim into his glass of bubbles.

“So we waited, and then this woman appeared.” Paul continued “She thundered through the double doors, our wee midwife scuttling behind like a lamb after its mother.” Paul looked as if he might pop out of his seat. “She whipped Sally’s legs so far back her ankles were round her ears. Then she counted. One, two, three – and I remember thinking those were all seconds we couldn’t afford. Then she gave your belly a huge shove, eh Sal? She got in with her elbow and squeezed you out, Bernie, you slid across the bed like a bag of sausages.”

“Wow,” said Selena.

“Yes. Wow,” said Sally.

Paul relaxed and cupped his palm over Sally’s knee. “But the thing was, no one at the hospital had any idea who the woman was. She just appeared. She didn’t work there as far as anyone knew.”

“There was a real panic,” said Sally. “Everyone trying to nut out who the mystery woman was.”

“Maybe it was one of those people who dress up as doctors,” said Ryan. “Remember that random guy who was doing surgery on people for like three years?”

Paul raised his eyebrows and pushed his reading glasses back up his nose. “By then Sally had her baby girl, and she didn’t care much anymore how she got there. But I was wired, and I wanted to know. I went around the maternity ward asking questions. I tracked her down, and it turned out, the woman who delivered Bernie was there for the fish.”

“The fish?” said Tim.

“Yup. There was a fish tank in the family lounge. I found out she owned Fish Fleets, the business that leased the tanks out. They brought them in, installed it all and popped in once a month to clean them.”

“She just happened to be there that day and overheard the staff talking about our half-out daughter,” said Sally.

“But hang on,” said Selena. “How did she know what to do?”

“Aha,” said Paul. “She wasn’t always in the fish business. She was a midwife for the Red Cross for twenty-five years. She worked in Uganda and Sierra Leone, in the jungle, can you imagine? That woman had brought more babies into the world with her bare hands than everyone else in that hospital combined, I reckon.”

“Crazy,” said Ryan.

There was quiet around the table. Paul and Sally picked up their cutlery and began to eat.

“Maybe I was just unlucky to be born on the day they sank that boat,” said Bernadette.

“Or, maybe the hospital was lucky,” said Tim. “You could’ve filed a complaint.”

“Perhaps you were the lucky one, Tim, you never would have met Bernie otherwise,” said Selena.

“Or maybe Ryan’s lucky, he might never have existed,” said Tim.

Paul laughed, “We couldn’t have that.”

Ryan looked across the table at his grandmother. “Why did they sink the ship?” he said.

Sally paused and rested her wrists on the table. “So it wouldn’t be forgotten,” she said. “So that people in the future could dive down and swim through the wreck, and see how things were.”


Anna Scaife is a Christchurch writer and current MA Creative Writing student at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington. Anna’s short fiction has appeared in Takahē Magazine and the Pure Slush ‘Love’ Anthology from Bequem Publishing. Anna is currently working towards a short story collection with the working title Hiding Places.

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