The lost flying boat, p.16
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       The Lost Flying Boat, p.16

           Alan Silltoe
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  The hollow-sounding signal began to bleed over my frequency, so I changed to the higher daytime band and reset the transmitter should I be asked to bleed back at him. I wanted to find out whether the other operator knew the day frequency. If he did, and called me, he was homing in and no mistake.

  I listened, laughing to myself. The longer I waited, the more it was certain that he was exploring a few other frequencies first. We were sharpening our wits on each other.

  Appleyard came up with breakfast, and a huge jug of coffee to fill our mugs. ‘We’ll soon be at Kerguelen,’ I said.

  ‘Where’s that?’

  ‘I never know where a place is when we fly there,’ I told him. Nash bustled up the monkey climber to join the queue: ‘Pull your finger out. I’m croaking.’

  I winked. ‘Do you know where Kerguelen is?’

  He cleared his throat, and paused before drinking. ‘I did ask the navigator, but he didn’t know. When he asked somebody in Blighty, they told him all he had to do was to go to fifty degrees south latitude, then turn left for a couple of thousand miles, being sure to cut all meridians at the same angle. I expect he’ll get us there.’

  ‘Sounds like something from Alice in Wonderland,’ I said.

  Armatage looked up. ‘I was born in Sunderland.’

  ‘Didn’t know there was such a place,’ said Nash. ‘Did you, Sparks?’

  ‘Thought it was blown up in the war.’

  ‘I left when I was eight,’ said Armatage. ‘The old man died, so we went south. My mother lived with her brother, and so did I. He was a real bastard.’ His lower lip trembled as he reached for the plate of toast and eggs that came as a second course for those still hungry. ‘Sunderland was a lovely place, all the same.’

  Nash lifted his coffee mug. ‘I’ll drink to it, then.’

  ‘So will I. It’s near Cullercoats, isn’t it? GCC, if I remember.’

  After some talk, Nash set his empty mug on the tray and gave Armatage a nudge. ‘Come on, then, get your nose out of that trough and let’s give the guns another lookover.’

  When the clandestine sender again trespassed on my beat, I jumped as if 250 volts had shocked up my spine, made worse by expecting him. He couldn’t know that he had made contact, but he had, though he seemed too wily not to realize. His morse was off-whistle, clicks like the rattle of a cup and saucer carried upstairs by a man who did not want to wake his wife until she could see his wonderful surprise. I brought him on frequency and back to the usual bird-whistle. He called every five minutes, cued in to the second, but he was fishing blind. When I passed an account of his antics to the flight deck, Bennett said: ‘Don’t answer,’ telling me that the ship certainly wasn’t that which carried our fuel for the return journey.


  Oil pressure on the starboard inner had gone down. Wilcox wiped a red inkblot from his mouth. The engine was healthy enough. Must be the gauges. Nothing to worry about on that score. He would check oil and all contacts when we were moored. You do your job, I’ll do mine, he said. We were touchy on that point.

  Bennett came up the ladder, after resting in his stateroom, but with hardly the energy to mount each step. I turned in time to hear the same ship calling for an answer. His hand shook, holding a message sheet before me. ‘Next time he fishes, send this.’

  I was to use the callsign GZZZ, and make my position known as QTH 49 50 SOUTH 69 10 EAST. Bennett laughed, the dim light emphasizing his pallor. ‘They’ll search for a ship, not a flying boat: on the south side of the island instead of the north.’

  Radio countermeasures had begun. All the same, he seemed unhealthily certain that they would work. ‘They may get a bearing while I’m sending.’

  ‘It won’t occur to them the first time. They’ll wait for a second message, which we’ll never send. So just transmit.’

  And shut up. We’ll make rings around them. He thrust the paper into my hand. I’ll lose my ticket for spreading false information. He couldn’t care less. He had lost everything already, though God alone knew what it was. The rest of us didn’t matter. I’d rather walk on top of the fuselage while the plane was in flight than pump out an inaccurate position.

  My hand drew back from the morse key. There was an atmosphere of tension on board. Clouds lined up on the horizon resembled an escarpment of ice. Bennett’s breath stank when, sensing my hesitation, he leaned closer. ‘Not only does our getting the gold hinge on you sending that decoy position, but our lives are going to depend on it.’

  If I obeyed, I would be up the creek, in a leaking canoe, and without a paddle. Should engine trouble force us to ditch, who would answer our distress call when we had already sent one fake message? The issue was as simple as that. To pay for a falsehood with our lives was not my idea of a bargain. There was no point in telling him. The captain’s word is law. I knocked the morse key by way of assent as he returned to the cockpit, which brought such an immediate response that for a moment I believed the other operator’s signal to be no more than a freak echo of my own.

  His gleeful reply registered my surrender to an illegal act. If he was listening so intently, what chance had I of sending a false position without him taking a bearing on my message and knowing soon enough that I was not where I said I was? Our dirty tricks so early on would nudge them into their own deceptions. Perhaps snares were already spread, and Bennett was right to take precautions. Since they also were after the gold, dirty tricks would be a necessity rather than an exception. Thus I justified complying with the skipper’s immoral request.

  Their ship could not cover more than a single entrance or exit of the extensively indented islands. We had the location of the gold, and they would have to trace us before we could lead them to it. Because my bearing confirmed them to be north of the island, Bennett wanted me to give our QTH as being to the south, so that they would look for us in that area while we, unmolested in the northwest, could find the gold, load it, tank up from our supply ship, and take off into the wide blue yonder.

  The plan made sense, but would they dance to our tune? If they already knew the location of our fuel vessel, they had only to keep it in view till we came close, as we would sooner or later have to do. Probably they had sighted nothing, but suspected that a ship (which might be us) was on its way, because my inadvertent tapping had advertised the fact to their alert operator.

  To steel myself into carrying out Bennett’s instruction, I sent two dots instead of one, and no sooner had they gone than two dots bounced from the Heaviside Layer as if in an attempt to meet mine before they got into his receiver – stabs of morse that set my brain going like a jelly. But I already had a bearing on him, and he did not know. Such was his speedy self-confident response to my tap of the key, that he could not believe me to have been so quick. We were already in contact. I wanted to take full advantage of his underestimation of me, and the best way was to make sure I would not make a similar assessment of him.

  The multiplying strands of the situation were hard to disentangle. To strip down a transmitter, and disembowel a receiver, and put them together again, is a matter of following circuit diagrams; but the complexity of the relationship between myself and the other operator, and between the eight of us and whatever numbers he represented, would be impossible to illustrate by any blueprint.

  The result of our kittenish game was that my scruples at sending Bennett’s false position vanished, to the extent that I worried as to whether or not the one I had been ordered to transmit would get the most advantage out of our situation. Would it not be best, I thought, to hand out two position reports? First, I would send Bennett’s, on which I hoped the other operator would not get a bearing. Then the second, which would be my own, would put us two hundred miles further away from the island than we were, and it wouldn’t matter whether he got a bearing or not, because it wouldn’t in any way confirm our distance.

  For Bennett’s message I would vary the note of my transmitter, and disguise the pulse of my sending to make the operator
assume that we were a ship. The chart of the island showed that sixty miles separated one side from the other, with a six-thousand foot peak and sundry glaciers between. The signals of a ship on the southern shore would not bounce as evenly as those coming from a ship – especially a flying boat – approaching over level sea from the west. So apart from reducing the power of my transmitter for the first false message, I would also alter the tone, and make sure the rhythm of the morse bore no similarity to that which would bounce out the second false message to be sent later.

  The scheme was like something cooked up in the officers’ mess of RAF Bigglesworth, so simple that it would trick no one. And yet simplicity was the essence of duplicity, the first step towards success. When a plot begins to unfold, only direct moves can lead to subtlety. Effects might grow out of patience and cunning, and seem no moves at all, but certain doses of noise can have the desired result. A wireless operator is not a man of action, but an interpreter and manipulator of sounds, and however much our scheme was open to detection, it was the only confusion to which we could put them.

  I would be going against the skipper’s instructions in sending a message of my own, but I would do so because I was in two minds about entering into the scheme at all. Of those two minds, the primitive won, claimed acknowledgement and stated its price – which was that I should reserve the right to send a further decoy message. My own sensibility could cross from one mind to the other only at the orders of some force over which I had no control. One side of my brain deployed the values I believed in, of obedience to someone who knew more, who was older, perhaps stronger for that reason, who was rightly in command because of experience, and who deserved loyalty because not only my life but the safety of the aircraft depended on it. The other side of my brain was unpredictable and chaotic, yet equally fitted to deal with whatever seemed to be threatening us from the world beyond the flying boat.

  I was also breaking the law on sending false data. Perhaps the other ship only wanted to make contact for reasons of mutual safety in an unpredictable sea thousands of miles from the depots of civilization. This I would not believe. Once the rules had been put aside, it seemed easy to disobey the skipper in our interests, and from there but a short step to deceiving another ship in the hope that it would be to our advantage.

  The flying boat droned on, and I was never more part of it than now. I tapped the key twice, and the other operator, as expected, wanted to know who I was. Without preamble, and using the four letter ship’s call sign that Bennett had given, I sent the decoy location in a jazzed and rapid rhythm: 49 50 SOUTH 69 10 EAST. When the operator requested further information, I jubilantly concluded that he had not taken my bearing and now wished he had. I made as if to send what he needed to hear, at the same time diminishing my power into a natural fade out, and winding in the trailing aerial, as if the frying pan noise of atmospherics, as well as the glacier that was supposed to separate us, together with the uncertain bounce of the Heaviside Layer, had between them done for my signals.


  The milky white of the sky was the kind from which visions came. We went through the air as if all sails were spread, but the ribs of actual green water raced each other towards land, while we were the umpire-clipper left behind. I remarked that I didn’t yet have my airlegs, otherwise I would not have noticed when the boat lost its smooth ride and seemed to strike solid but invisible rocks underfoot, but Nash, the stubbled flesh slack at his cheeks, said every tremor registered because you were never up long enough to become deadened.

  The following wind which had given a satisfactory groundspeed had saved much fuel, but such luck was too good and now, instead of the prevailing westerly on which Bennett had depended, the wind backed sufficient to clip our speed by almost thirty knots. When Rose had adjusted his airplot I reflected that the change of wind had worked to the advantage of the false message Bennett had induced me to send. I had transmitted almost at sea-level when the smoke flare was released to confirm the new bent of the wind, which helped the authenticity of my morse as coming from a surface ship, and the uncertain power of our signals coincided with the supposedly intervening mountains and coastlines. Another advantage was that when our enemy (the only word I could use), believing the message to be genuine, went full steam ahead for that gold-taking vessel on the south side of the island, he would sensibly avoid the old whaling settlements on the east in case they were inhabited, and sail down the west coast instead, in which case there could be a danger of his seeing the Aldebaran approach from the west. But because the change of wind made us an hour late, there would be less chance of this.

  Now that the time for my own false signal came, I wanted him to believe I was on a ship much further away, and that I was not the same person who had condescended to give him a position report twenty minutes ago. This illusion was helped by us being back at five thousand feet. Unlike his ham-fisted music, I rattled away in my own sharp style, giving him world enough and time for all the bearings he liked – though I wondered whether he had had sufficient wireless direction-finding experience to take the opportunity. His requests to make myself known – QRZ? QRA? QTH? – had been brash, the blade of his morse cutting sharply through the layer-cake of atmospherics, and so well pumped as to be almost aggressive.

  Now that it was my turn, I knew that any attempt to match him would create suspicion, so I merely kept my signals healthy and distinct. No distance to travel, the flutey chirping came off a conveyor belt set into motion by my hand on the key, and I sent as if my only object was, out of courtesy and safety, to contact whoever was in the area.

  A line of sun from between rolls of cloud marked my receiver. When he thanked me for my reply, I requested a weather report from his area, since I would be passing to the north on my way to Hobart. He told me to wait, meaning he had gone outside to cook one up, or was consulting with others as to whether or not I should have one. If he didn’t send any gen, my suspicions that he was not friendly would be confirmed – something he would want to avoid. But if he was not well-intentioned the report would be false, or at least unhelpful. He would reason, in the latter case, that since we were, as I had indicated, two or three days distant, it wouldn’t matter if it was false or not, because weather changes so rapidly in this part of the world that we would never be able to accuse him of having lied. He could not know that we were in a flying boat, and barely an hour away.

  While he was sending I got a rough bearing – though in the phase of minimum signal I missed the temperature – and afterwards jotted down: = WIND WEST 35 KTS ............... VISIBILITY 10 CLOUD 2/10 AT 8000 SEA FRESH = + There was no certainty that close to the island the weather wasn’t spinning around in circles, but from where we were visibility was half of what he said, and the cloud base four instead of eight thousand feet. His wind direction was the opposite to the one we had ascertained with the smoke flare. But what proved beyond doubt that he was lying was that the latitude and longitude he gave in no way tallied with the bearing I had taken – as approximate as it had been under the circumstances.

  My work was done. I had him taped. He would not call me for a while, and I would not be calling him. Who had used who was hard to say, but I was beyond caring, and went to the bunks where I slept as one who had no interest in the future. The scarred side of Rose’s face pushed me into sleep of a kind, and kept me away from billows of snow, but guilt with good reason weighed on me like a sack of bloody offal. I felt as if I had given up my soul.


  We came through a three dimensional archipelago of cloud and sighted the jagged basalt of northern Kerguelen. From four thousand feet and twenty miles away, the black rock, three parts surrounded by turbulent water, acknowledged the accuracy of Rose’s navigation. We cheered. Bennett had existed by the minute to get this view, keeping his impatience in check before entering the flying boat for a long grind over the water area of Mother Earth.

  We had ten minutes to look at the black cone over whose summit course would be altere
d towards the Tucker Straits. I had visualized Mount Oben, on the thick paper chart, as rising to a seventeen-hundred foot peak above the three-sided blue sea, witnessing a benign image when confronted by hachures surrounding a dot. I got the coast right, and the hilly configuration more or less correct, but the elements were missing, and the black rock of desolation only came alive at the impact of reality.

  Rose showed no pride at his navigational success, but Nash came up to tap him on the back: ‘Bang-on! A bloody good show, Nav!’ No more than a flicker passed Bennett’s lips. His determination had driven luck before him like an explorer his dog team over the snow. From the moment he sighted Mount Oben he orientated himself by every islet and feature that he had studied four years on the chart. There were slight variations, but the view was tormented into conformity, and he hardly counted the nine main capes before turning into the allotted fjord. As each passed under the hull he felt as if he had taken part in creating the splashed shape of this island by the fact of his own birth, which he was revisiting after decades of painful absence. Mine, all mine. We weren’t meant to hear, his voice fainter over the intercom than the normal drone of instructions.

  Ebony cliffs stood in yellowish vegetation along the starboard shore. Dark sand formed a moustache on either side of Elijah Cove, and shadows of brown kelp swayed in the water. The wind was feeling its way around the compass. Lines of foam streaked up the cliffs like desert religionists in white robes intent on making everyone in the world the same as themselves.

  The plane bucked, and grated on its descent between rocks sticking out of the water like blunt pencils. I listened on 500 kc/s, setting the needle at the bottom left of the yellow semicircle, the volume two thirds over in spite of static, the filter button down, and the green eye glowing steadily because nothing came.

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