The lost flying boat, p.21
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       The Lost Flying Boat, p.21

           Alan Silltoe
 
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  ‘I thought you’d died.’ Armatage woke me two hours later. ‘You didn’t even hear me shouting when I dropped a plate. I wouldn’t mind being twenty-five again!’

  ‘You never will be,’ said Nash, ‘and that’s a fact.’

  Intensive sleep had oven-dried my clothes. Daylight air billowed in. Nash stripped to his underpants by the hatchway, did half a dozen knee-bends, then lowered a canvas bucket and emptied water over himself. He shook and danced, shot the contents of his nose into the drink and wiped the final sleep from his eyes with the corner of a towel. A corpse edged between the dinghy and the hull. The shoulders went under. One arm ended at gnawed and mangled flesh. However it had been trapped, the motion of the rope and bucket caused its release. Perhaps Wilcox had fought himself to death in the kelp. Nash got a boat hook under the belt and we heaved to get him out, except Armatage who went chalk-white and sat at the bottom of the ladder with his face turned away.

  The open eyes looked up, as if the possibility of seeing horizontally would elude him for ever and he was doomed to view only the blank sky. The corpse stank of seawater as a cat’s fur stinks of rain.

  Bennett took off his cap, and pulled at his dry springy hair – unlike Wilcox’s which was short and pasted to the skull like a dummy’s. ‘We must give him a decent burial.’

  It would be kinder to fasten an anchor and let him go overboard, Nash said. He would sink to the bottom and stay put. ‘Wouldn’t mind such a resting place myself.’

  But Bennett found a canvas sack where the towing pennant was stored, and Appleyard stitched the body in. We lowered our cargo into the dinghy with as much care as if we had charge of Lord Nelson himself. Nash stayed on watch, and we rowed ashore.

  I had hoped never to leave the flying boat again, but was learning to respect the unexpected. Its homely confines were settled sparely on the water when I glanced round. We hauled at ropes through the mire, sledging the body uphill. So much for our day of rest. Wilcox hadn’t weighed more than seven stone, and though the mailbag slid well enough, we went slowly up the gradient, Bennett in front with a book under his arm, cap on and appearing taller than any of us at reaching higher ground first.

  The path had been worn already by transporting the gold, and in an hour we reached our former diggings. Bennett manoeuvred a stone as if worrying a football, to the point from which the most central box had been taken. With spades and entrenching tools we shovelled sufficiently to demarcate an oblong hole. The displaced soil eased our job of getting the grave deep enough. Armatage wiped his sweat with a handkerchief. ‘He might have picked a better place to die.’

  Rose picked up an earthworm, and dropped it. ‘Who can choose?’

  ‘I don’t suppose his next of kin will come with flowers.’ Appleyard’s shoulders were level with the surface, and only one man could work at a time. When Bennett signalled, he climbed over the parapet. We stood facing the skipper, hats in hands, senses blunted by geological layer-cakes at all points but for the slit of water on which the plane floated. ‘We shan’t do well without him,’ Appleyard said. ‘He was one of the best.’

  Bennett nodded. ‘No more talking. And throw those cigarettes down.’ I expected him to remind us that we were on parade. All he needed to complete the scene was a gatling gun and a pack of natives coming up the hill to dispute our claim. He paced the flattened surface of the ridge, and perused his slim book to decide what portions should be read. I anticipated a few mumbled words, though dragging Wilcox’s body to this spot obviously called for something more.

  ‘After the war I lost touch with him, and went to a lot of trouble to find him. I finally reached him through his mother, who told me he’d had tuberculosis, and had just left a sanatorium. I didn’t know he’d walked out without being cured. When I told him our plans, he produced a certificate to say he was fit for work. Where he got it I don’t know, but there seemed no reason to believe it wasn’t genuine. He was dead keen to come, and I was just as keen to have him. By the time I found out that he’d been given only a short time to live it was too late for me to replace him with anyone else. It was hard to believe he wouldn’t last the trip, and I’m sure he would if it hadn’t been for the accident.

  ‘He wasn’t your ordinary everyday knobs-and-levers merchant. Not Wilcox. During the war we went through some hair-raising moments, as you know – except Mr Ad-cock – but we were part of a team, of which Wilcox was the perfect member. He would never hold back from doing more than his bit. We were all or nothing, and we came out with everything. On the other hand, we should never forget those who didn’t come out, who gave more than everything. But when we said goodbye at the end of the war none of us knew we’d meet again, and come to a place like this. Nor did I know that when we did, Wilcox would be killed in action. There were dozens of times when he could have gone, which leads me to wonder at the reason why God chooses the time and how He decides the place.’

  He turned a few pages of the book. ‘Blessed be the Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who formed you in judgement, who nourished and sustained you in judgement, who brought death on you in judgement, who knoweth the number of you all in judgement, and will hereafter restore you to life in judgement. May David Samuel Wilcox come to this place in peace.’

  In spite of such grand words, I felt he believed nothing of what he was reading, till in one pause came the faintest smile, a moment perhaps when he sensed the biting relevance of his text, suggesting that this ritual of getting Wilcox to such a burial spot was an attempt to work something human back into himself. Why else would he have done it? I recognized his peculiar smile as a mark of pain, which spread into every fibre of his body and soul.

  ‘He that dwelleth in the shelter of the Most High abideth under the shadow of the Almighty. I say of the Lord. He is my refuge and my fortress. Thou favourest man with knowledge, and teachest mortals understanding. Forgive us, O our Father, for we have sinned; pardon us, O our King, for we have transgressed. Look upon our affliction and plead our cause, and redeem us speedily for Thy name’s sake. Vouchsafe a perfect healing to all our wounds.’

  Appleyard wept.

  ‘As for man, his days are as grass; as the flower of the field so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.’

  Heads down, we saw a world of grit and ash. Whoever cannot weep is damned because he will not. But I couldn’t. Stinging wind made tears. I felt the power of desolation, in a country I had never known. The most unreal comes to be the most real, a truth apparent as I listened to the Ninetieth Psalm and the whine of the uprising gale behind each line. Death drummed us into a silence that was not bitter, but neutral. The only good was that the words of the Book rooted us in a common past, and held promise of a common future, provided we could get out with no more dead.

  ‘Lay him to rest. He’s better off than we are.’

  ‘God gave him a Blighty one,’ Appleyard murmured. Unable to deny it, I rolled the body to one side. We drew the rope under the middle, them steadied the sack down.

  Bennett set his cap on and stuffed the book inside his jacket. ‘Put plenty of stones on top.’

  We made a cairn on the hump of ground so that the location was unmistakable – which was what Bennett wanted. ‘A trig point,’ said Rose. ‘Let’s hope all of us get one.’

  Beyond the reverse slope a stream descended from the re-entrant. A cloud of birds wheeled clockwise above rushing water near the beach. We were close enough for the crying skuas to overlap the sky and investigate us. Distaste blighted Bennett’s expression when he lowered the field-glasses from what he had seen.

  Out of its wide circuit a skua came close. We avoided its scything beak. Black eyes glittered, swooping on a wide span of wing with proprietary rage, a flash of white near each tip. Armatage hurled his spade like a javelin. ‘I’d like to twist its bloody neck.’

  ‘Our necks would be bloody if it had half the chance,’ Appleyard said. I saw no advantage in such a fr
ay. To know when to stop is vital. A step forward due to curiosity, or because you move without realizing, makes you a plaything of some force which is beyond explanation.

  Bennett was halfway down. Other predatory outriders of the feast swirled about. Probably a seal, said Rose. There’s no animal protection society in these parts. I never liked birds. Nothing’s safe from them. Our voices became crazed as we advanced in line with spades and entrenching tools. ‘It may be king of the air,’ said Appleyard, ‘but if the bugger comes close, it’s had it.’

  They wheeled in pairs, riled that we would compete at their feed. I felt the wind of one sweep by, and swung at another coming near. Appleyard sicked them with salvoes of gravel, and stung the most daring which, unsuspecting, got it full against the head, swerving not to come back. There were a dozen by the river, and we fought off those which would not move. Armatage enjoyed the skirmishing. ‘They’re bloody game birds!’

  I ran to unseat the last pair. What they had been dining on was scattered by the water, red flesh on black gravel. A bar of rock held gobbets at its rim, but most had been pulled ashore – cloth, a hat, a familiar boot, and pieces of kit as if thrown by some St Vitus-stricken murderer, discernible because soaked blood made them like wads of flesh.

  At another rush of air I cut with the spade, striking the head as a beak swept by. It crashed and flapped, and tried to run. The sight of Bull’s eyeless decapitation settled by green flies sent me chopping at the wings, cries mixing with the flash of nearby water, till I was pulled from my mad hacking.

  I wanted to be alone, block off their gloating and congratulations, to slaughter what other birds came close. Bennett’s command from his own world had no effect. He stood to one side while Armatage wrapped the wallet in his scarf.

  We would go back along the beach rather than over Wilcox Hill. Across a headland, thousands of white-chested penguins moved like the surface of a lake with indistinguishable shores. A pigeon-coop smell came on the breeze. Fate was intent on us dying like flies at the end of summer – till nothing was left but an oil stain on a sea without end. Rose said we should deposit Bull’s remains in the same grave as Wilcox. Bennett told him they could stay where they were. It was no more than he deserved for having deserted his post. We had work to do. And common graves were bad omens.

  9

  Bad luck, I muttered on our way back to the dinghy, till the others, realizing that anguish shared is anguish doubled, asked me to belt-up. How much bad luck can you have when two people die for no good reason? ‘Maybe we’ll have more.’ Rose walked along the beach with me. ‘And that’ll be worse.’

  I wanted to outpace him, but he kept up. ‘We’ll batten the hatches and have some respite against the island, even if the kite sinks under us, or falls from the clouds when we take off.’

  ‘Respite!’ he shouted, burned by the word. A lone bird lifted from a rock as if to take a bite out of the sky. No birds can penetrate the flying boat, or compete once we get into the air. We’re impervious to their evil eye. Bennett laughed at such logic. I was close, but he wouldn’t respond. Appleyard pressed my arm. ‘Hold off, or he’ll kill you. He’s no more responsible for what he does than you are for what happens to you. Shake yourself back into one piece.’

  Rocks and tussocks were alive. When I turned, a king penguin, out from the rookery, wondered who I was. His white breast blocked my way. I stood bemused, then stepped aside at the smell. The others laughed as it waddled away grumbling.

  I went in the second dinghy with Appleyard. ‘Row hard. Pull your guts out. It’s the only thing to do.’ The air was soft, no breeze. Each oar met its own image as it touched water, the boat sliding along the surface of a mirror. ‘Accidents happen, Sparks. You see a good many down the pit. And you never get used to them. There’s little you can do. That was a nasty one back there, though. Can’t say I’ve seen anything as bad. But such pictures rub off. Like those transfers we used to put on our arms as kids, that we thought would stay forever. Everything goes, sooner than you think. You don’t even know it’s worn off, and that’s the truth. I thought I’d had my chips this morning when I went into the drink after Wilcox, but I feel bang-on now.’

  Back at my wireless, half the day had gone. The Heaviside Layer was a band of spinning water, and I was a babe new born with a deafening overdose as I sensed a storm towards the prevailing wind. I told Bennett that weather could hit us within the hour.

  He poured a glass of brandy, which I drank straight off. ‘Shouldn’t bother us, in this anchorage. A few ups and downs. It might blow itself out before it gets here. Or change its mind at the last minute. Such things have been known.’

  ‘We’ll be carrying less weight back. Of the human sort, anyway.’ He pressed a clutch of fingers at his forehead, and on taking them away looked relaxed. Two men were dead, but the gold was aboard. What else mattered? ‘Stop worrying. Bull and Wilcox were careless. Luckily they only harmed themselves. I’m sorry, believe you me, but we can’t let their deaths interfere with our purpose.’ He pointed to a chair. ‘I’ve got more radio gen for you.’

  ‘Will we be able to take off with so much weight, and more than a full load of fuel?’ I couldn’t let the topic alone.

  His left eye was bloodshot, and his smile became a scowl. ‘Has Rose been talking? A good navigator – who’s losing his grip. He’s been tainted by four years of civvy life.’

  I sat down. ‘So have we all. But he got us here.’

  ‘Too true. And he’ll get us back. We’re a team, Sparks, and I need you all, because a hundred things can go wrong – though there’s no reason why they should. The task is straightforward, but the execution is complicated. There’s no mystery. When the goods are delivered we’ll set up a pay parade, and everyone will be on a first class boat back to Blighty. Or you can hitch the flying boat service – if you still have the stomach for it!’

  I topped up the next glass with water. ‘I suppose you wanted Wilcox’s grave to be visible for miles, as a decoy? The seaplane looking for us yesterday was after the site of the gold diggings. And now they might assume that’s where it is.’

  He laughed. ‘Any ruse in a storm. You’re right, Sparks. A man after my own heart. They may think we haven’t got the stuff out, and concentrate on that spot rather than on us. Wilcox wouldn’t mind. With a bit of luck, such as bad visibility for another fifteen hours, we’ll be up and away.’

  ‘And if the weather clears?’

  ‘We shoot our way out of trouble. Take off on a wing and a prayer, if need be. But that’s speculation. I’ve no time for it. Our fuel ship should now be near the northwest corner of the island, at 48 45 South and 69 15 East. The schedule was worked out three months ago. It’s a single deck 600-tonner built in 1928, 145 feet long, manned by the captain, two mates, chief engineer, nine sailors and a radio operator. It’s carrying the best aviation juice money can buy. The master will bring it through the bay at 4 knots, on a zig-zag course for 24 nautical miles, and then he’ll do 2 knots for 96 minutes while negotiating the tricky bits – before picking us up on his radar. It’s the smartest piece of navigation in uncharted waters without a pilot as any captain who’s lost his ticket is ever likely to undertake.’

  ‘What’s the ship called?’

  ‘My memory seems to have gone for a Burton.’

  ‘Where’s it registered?’

  He gave that Dambuster smile. ‘Where hasn’t it been registered? The last name painted on its stern was the Difda. Not much of a star, but we’ll call it that, shall we?’

  Dizzy from the brandy, I pressed my eyes back into alertness with such force I thought they would stay stuck to the plates of my cranium forever. When they shook loose I looked at him. ‘Do you want me to give him a call?’

  ‘This is what you’ll do: send the letter K every hour on the half hour, on 425 kilocycles. If you don’t hear the answering letter L, tap it out again after five minutes. But if there’s no response don’t bother for 55 minutes. Carry on till you get something bac
k. But no call signs. Nothing except that single letter. When you finally get an L in answer to your K, send nothing for another hour. Then send K again, and wait for the answering L. When you get the first response, let me know. And tell me, on the hour, when the other answers come.’

  ‘What if I don’t hear anything?’

  He gripped my shoulder. ‘We’re in trouble. But we’ll talk about that if it happens.’

  10

  There was a while to go before the half hour struck, but I knew that the bell had gonged for Bennett. The barren world had a more human aspect than the wilderness in him. I felt dead in his presence, and alive out of it. I did not expect him to tear his hair or cover himself with ashes about Bull and Wilcox. We were beyond that. No deaths could interfere with a dream that had turned real. It was easy to understand. The presence of an alien metal aboard the flying boat infected us all. I glanced at the boxes as if each held human remains, musing that a few more dead would make no difference as far as Bennett was concerned.

  Rose bent over his chart, working out a course for Perth.

  ‘Do we have the petrol?’

  ‘We will.’ He closed his dividers. ‘Though without Wilcox to work his fruit machines we’ll be lucky. And that old wind god will have to blow hard at our tail.’

  From the astrodome I looked east to the steep-sided channel in which we had landed. Like a fly in a bottle, could we get out? A kelp patch lay under the southern cliffs. Where the throat widened, the waters were mined. The north-south channel which we could use for take-off was hidden by a headland. Mist swirled along the water. Bays, capes, glaciers and mountains were weather-pots continually boiling. When a squall peppered the glass I got back to my radio and listened so intently for that bit of short-long-short-short squeaking that I heard it coming when it wasn’t there. Would I recognize the sounds if they suddenly turned up? I sent the letter K five minutes later, but at no answer leaping back I stayed by the set as if my sanity was bolstered by the glowing button of its magic eye.

 
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