Script: “Rock, Paper, Blubber”

Original script by NICK BROWNLEE


Coincidence is a convenient term to explain away the often inexplicable – those moments of seemingly unrelated synchronicity in time and space that we call “events”.

But when coincidence has a direct impact on a person’s fortunes we have another term for it: “luck”.

The man who chooses six random numbers to win the Lottery is described as lucky. Just as luck is said to have deserted the same man when he is hit by a bus on his way to collect his winnings.

For centuries, individuals have tried to make their own luck, to change the course of events, to manipulate coincidence in their own favour. Few, if any, have succeeded.

Far more common are stories of those who do not seek luck, but instead have it thrust upon them.

Of these, some will indeed turn out to be the winners of life’s Lottery. Most, however, will end up as its roadkill.

Picture two men on a raft, adrift in the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. It is January 1852, and the men are the only surviving crew of the Mary McBride, a whaling ship out of Nantucket on the Massachusetts coast. Their names are Ned Elderhive and Zebediah Cartwright.

It is 127 days since their vessel went down in a vicious storm off the Grand Banks with the loss of 25 crew. Clinging to their makeshift raft, they have survived on a single barrel of fresh water salvaged from the wreckage, and by taking turns to gnaw on Elderhive’s leather waistcoat – a present from his daughter.

Salvation seems a remote possibility. They are but a pinprick on an unfeasibly huge, watery wilderness. And so, with water supplies critical and the waistcoat reduced to its wooden buttons a decision must be made. Die together, or sacrifice one in the faint hope that the other may live to tell the tale.

You see, survival is the most primeval of mankind’s instincts –   and at that moment, alone on the ocean, it is the single human bond connecting these two desperate men.

The decision is taken: a game of rock, paper, scissors, with the loser being consumed by the other.

One can only imagine what is going through their minds as they begin their game of death.  For there are certain acts too terrible to contemplate, taboos so central to the function of a civilised society that we dare not mention them.

Cannibalism is one.

Yet when civilisation breaks down, when all that remains of life is survival itself, all rational judgement must be suspended.

After 241 indecisive rounds, Cartwright finally chooses scissors. Elderhive, to his horror, paper.

Elderhive suggests the best of three. Cartwright refuses. They have come too far to compromise now.

As Elderhive makes his peace before God, Zebediah Cartwright raises the heavy water barrel and prepares to bring it crashing down on his friend’s head.

But at that moment, fate intervenes. Without warning, and just a few feet from the raft, a vast primeval creature rises from the sea. It is a mighty spermwhale – one of the very creatures these two men set out to hunt 27 days earlier aboard the Mary McBride.

Their flimsy raft is no match for the power of the great sea monster’s thrashing tail. Cartwright and Elderhive are flung into the icy water.

Summoning up the last of his strength, his lungs screaming for air, Cartwright kicks for the surface. Scrabbling blindly in the water, he grabs hold of a single plank from the shattered raft and drags himself, exhausted, onto it before passing out.

When he awakes, the sea is calm and the whale has gone.

Instead, in the far distance, Cartwright sees a sail. A whaling ship, the Liza Muldoon out of New Bedford, heading in his direction.

He calls to his friend. “Ned! We’re saved! We’re saved, by God!’

But there is no reply. Elderhive is gone too – swallowed up by the deep. Another victim of the sinking of the Mary McBride.

There are those who would believe Zebediah Cartwright to be a lucky man. After all, not only was he the sole survivor of the Mary MacBride, but he was also spared the terrible fate of killing and eating his friend Ned Elderhive.

Yet what manner of luck was it that put him on that raft in the first place? That saw his ship torn apart by a storm, his crewmates despatched to a watery grave?

Such is the imponderable nature of luck – or as some would have it, coincidence.

When considering the case of Zebediah Cartwright, however, there is one further twist of fate to take into account. Having been rescued by the Liza Muldoon, and having relived his story in all its terrible detail to its crew, Cartwright sits down to enjoy a hearty meal – his first in almost a month.

Moments later he is dead…choked to death on a ship’s biscuit.

A year later, in January 1853, a monument was erected to the men who were lost aboard the Mary MacBride. The following month, it was taken down again after it was deemed to have contravened planning regulations.

Today the whaling industry is but a distant memory in Nantucket.

The name of Zebediah Cartwright forgotten entirely.