The lost flying boat, p.24
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       The Lost Flying Boat, p.24

           Alan Silltoe
 
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  ‘If you let it.’

  ‘There’s no option.’

  After a silence he said: ‘Oh yes, there is.’

  It was useless to deny it. ‘You’ll feel different once we’re airborne.’

  He shifted in his seat. ‘When I’m in England, wherever I am, I feel that if I stretch my arms I’ll touch walls. It’s comforting. But here, even inside the flying boat, there are neither walls nor limits. I don’t like it.’

  ‘That’s just what makes me glad to be here.’

  He wasn’t interested. ‘It’s a long night. Low cloud, not much visibility, no stars to guide us. Like life itself.’

  ‘You’ll see plenty of stars on the way to Colombo. Good fixes all the way.’

  Was it a mistake? It depends on what you believe. Fate may be cruel, but he who blames it must be guilty of something, a thought which justified what I had said. In the dim light I watched his various grimaces registering the fact that I had blurted out the truth when I mentioned Colombo.

  Or some such place, I was about to add. But I had too much respect. To make good with false words was unworthy, by which I meant to imply that it would have been less worthy of myself. That second more distant pucker of his face wanted me to admit that I had made a mistake, but any half-hearted statement would not be acceptable. My paralysis lasted until speaking would do no good, and it was too late in any case. When he had waited too long to feel any benefit, and his features had settled into the permanent expression of a disappointed child, I said: ‘At least it looked like Colombo.’

  His flicker of gratitude was broken by a bitter smile, which seemed unconnected to my error of saying we were going to Colombo when he had assumed that we would set course for Perth. I should have kept my mouth shut, but it wasn’t me who had spoken – or so I could not but assume. There was something pathetic in his anguish. Nothing could justify it, and anger with myself turned to annoyance at Rose being upset because he thought that such common knowledge among the lesser grades of the crew had not been passed to him first. I could not say that my information was only a faint line seen before Bennett had time to get the chart out of my sight. The glimpse was enough to show, however, that between Kerguelen and Perth no track was drawn at all.

  ‘How do you know it’s Colombo?’ The fight to ask this took time, and by not volunteering the gen, and forcing the effort out of him, I had at last done what was right.

  ‘No one knows except you and me.’

  He leaned over the chart table, as if to read a description of how his life had been wasted. ‘Nash must.’

  ‘I don’t see why. But does it matter?’

  He didn’t answer. I was to wish he had. In the gap before responding lay the waste of his life – and its loss. The two hour watch was up. ‘I’m going to find a place to sleep,’ he said. ‘We’re a pretty clapped-out lot, aren’t we?’

  ‘Depends which way you look at it.’

  ‘The last of the many, if you ask me.’ He scribbled calculations, erased them, wrote a couple of lines, then threw the pencil down. I thought he was making too much fuss and was glad when my turn for watch came because, though tired, and not knowing when I would sleep again, the radio waves would keep me alert.

  15

  Every few minutes I detached myself from the ambrosia of static and walked to the flight deck, hardly able to imagine the cold flying boat coming to life and getting us beyond the surrounding wall of night and rock. I was cheered by the magic eye of the Marconi, and knew that inevitably the darkness would lift and my watch reach its end. I felt some trepidation, for when it did, with a ton of gold and such a quantity of fuel, we would need limitless visibility and the longest run for take-off that a flying boat ever had. At supper we agreed that only Bennett could get the Aldebaran airborne. ‘A good captain never reflects on danger until he is right near it,’ said Nash. We needed luck, however, and who in the history of the world had as much as they needed? The bold prospered, the just progressed, the skilful succeeded, but now and again someone fell from on high because his luck ran out, no matter what qualities he had.

  On my way to the wireless I examined Rose’s chart, and saw that his sharp pencil had written: ‘Not enough petrol for Colombo. God no longer with us.’

  I laughed at such effrontery, wondering how long it was since God had been with anyone, never mind us. It seemed to me you had to be with Him, not Him with you. Rose didn’t think so, and I hoped his madness wasn’t catching. Was Bennett passing his insanity onto him via me, and was Rose, in sensing this, trying to push it back down my throat? Of course we had enough fuel for Colombo, if Bennett said so.

  Perhaps the night was eating into my soul because it was the last through which I would live. I did not believe it. We were a cohesive crew, whether or not we had attempted one operation too many. Those bombing trips in the war had been undertaken from different motives and in another spirit, but what happened to one ricocheted through all, to test the strength of our mutual dependence. We were a pilot, navigator, wireless operator and two gunners, a competent team to work the plane on its final leg to safety. Wherever we set out for did not matter, and I couldn’t believe that Bennett would take risks with treasure that had already cost so much blood. To cut things fine was another matter. We had all done that a time or two in our lives.

  I dozed, twiddled at the receiver and smoked a cigarette, walked to the galley and back, looked through the astrodome and saw one star above the gully in which we were stranded. Otherwise, I listened on the common frequency of distress and waited for the dawn. Though at peace, there was no understanding.

  The naval operators swapped the strength of their signals, but on my own low frequency no one called. Whoever the other ship was, why did it observe radio silence? Silence was more ominous than a manifestation of sound. To the ear it was a lack, but a positive one, and had qualities which sound could never know about. With sound you had a clue to what was going on. Silence, though it kept you guessing, was a tactical weapon which could be used with double the effect of sound. All the same, silence worried me more than noise.

  I kept my personal belongings in a hold-all by the radio, feet sometimes resting on it while at work. The Smith and Wesson was wrapped in underwear and spare clothes, and should Bennett call me to a duty that would transcend the rules of human behaviour – as it were – the gun might be of use. The body of the flying boat was cold, and after a premonitory pre-dawn shiver I reached to take out the gun. Having been much thrown about since beginning the trip, and rummaged in for changes of clothes, the bag was not in a tidy state. Allowed only one piece of luggage, it was also large, and wondering why the pistol was not there, I heard an ear-splitting clap of noise in the distance which sounded like a salvo of anti-aircraft fire in the war.

  Meteorologically, nothing surprised me. On the line of the Antarctic Convergence two antipathetic systems produced weather quick to change and impossible to predict. A summer thunderstorm, at whatever part of the day, caused no surprise. Those with more experience believed it to be no such thing and, as I wondered why the revolver I had packed so carefully was missing, several more echoing clouts erupted which could be nothing less than cannonfire.

  ‘Somebody’s hitting the flak,’ Nash shouted. I fumbled in my kit, unable to imagine what was happening till I heard the awesome rhythm of an SOS coming out of the earphones.

  Appleyard, with the reflection that some poor sod was getting it over Hamburg, levered himself into the mid-upper in the hope that the view might explain where the gunfire was coming from. The clack and follow-up along the fjord and over the heights was like trains leaving a station and going in different directions across the sky. There was six-tenths cloud at 4000 feet, and visibility was good for take-off. A floorcloth of cloud was about to wipe the ridgeline of the mountains clean.

  My hand shook as I wrote. The operator was separating the SOS letters instead of running the dots and dashes together, indicating that he had not sent one before, and probably no
t heard one, either. ‘SHIP FIRED AT STOP SHOTS ACROSS BOWS STOP BUT NOT STOPPING STOP POSITION 4901 SOUTH 6910 EAST WAIT WAIT WAIT’ – a sense of humour to the end.

  A fast modern steamer came out of the dawn and ordered the Difda by lamp to heave-to and accept a boarding party. Captain Ellis told his flash-man to send something he wouldn’t dare say in front of his mother, and the operator added a few unprintabilities of his own, which puzzled the other ship whose signaller didn’t understand that kind of English.

  I tore the sheet from the pad and took it to Bennett in his room. He shaved before a mirror, insistent to the end, in spite of the gunfire, on being the smart captain, while the Difda, having kept her part of the bargain, was being pounded to ashes in the next fjord. ‘I should at least tell him we’re getting the message, Skipper.’

  ‘You’ll do no such thing. He’s being attacked because it’s thought he has the gold on board. They don’t know about us. They have their suspicions, but won’t know for certain unless you do something bloody silly.’ He laughed at how the play was working to our advantage. His luck could not have been better if he had planned everything with God Almighty. There is no one more cynical than he who is always lucky – at least so he seems to those who get in his way. That he never thinks himself merely fortunate is part of his cynicism. ‘Isn’t there anything we can do for them?’

  When he wiped his face a fleck of soap fell across the dead dragonfly not yet removed. ‘We have neither bombs nor depth charges. They’ve got an 88-millimetre by the sound of it, not to mention a couple of seaplanes. You should be glad we’ve got the Difda as a decoy. While it’s being dealt with we’ll up anchor and away. When they find that the Difda has no gold they’ll come for us with greed and murder in their hearts. It’s time to get weaving.’

  I too wanted the scheme to work, and caught his smile of satisfaction in the mirror as he ringed his neck with collar and tie. His expression said that each move had been planned. While knowing that Fate could not work eternally in anyone’s favour, he may well have sat down months ago and plotted as far forward as possible. Optimism and hard work made each event come to pass, and so drew me as much under his spell as the rest of the crew.

  But I refused to believe in him, and maintained a small area of freedom by telling my fellow operator on the Difda that he was being heard. If Bennett and all of us paid the price of my disobedience, or stupidity, or integrity, it was because my actions were as much out of my control as Bennett’s were out of his.

  I continued to search my hold-all, and had to conclude that the revolver was missing, which meant that if Bennett told me to account for my actions (in the same way that Armatage might have been ordered to say his prayers before the promised execution) I would be defenceless. Perhaps Armatage had taken the pistol, in which case he would be able to look after himself, a solacing thought as I worked at my radio to receive what details I could of the Difda’s tribulation.

  Bennett did not think to ask why the ship continued sending, otherwise he might have guessed that it was because I encouraged the operator to do so. In any case, did he really expect me to put a bit of cardboard between the contacts of the key? My occasional letter R was not a long enough exposure for our direction to be fixed, and the Difda was not sending for my benefit alone, but to any other ship which might hear and go to his assistance.

  ‘STRUCK AMIDSHIPS STOP MAKING FOR COVE 485930 SOUTH STOP BOARDING PARTY ON WAY STOP GUN FIRING FROM DECK TWO SEAPLANES ALSO ON DECK STOP WAIT WAIT WAIT.’ Then came the request: ‘DO SOMETHING STOP GET GOING.’

  I felt a kind of triumph at handing the message to Bennett. That I listen and send nothing in return was the cry of someone who still relied on chance to protect him. The drill of departure left no flexibility of manoeuvre. Seaplanes would reconnoitre for whatever vessel acknowledged each message from the Difda. If Bennett’s luck held and the attacker, assuming the Difda to be the only ship in the area, ceased all W/T listening – hearing neither their pleas for help nor my responses – they would only look for us on finding no gold on the fuel ship, by which time it would be too late because we would be away.

  I handed in the message. ‘Who are they?’

  He let the paper drop. ‘A rival company. They want the stuff too. Who wouldn’t? I thought we would beat them to it by a few days. But you can’t win every leg on the chart.’

  ‘You knew we’d bump into them?’

  ‘I supposed there was a chance.’

  ‘It seems we’re trapped.’

  He was grey at the face. ‘I wouldn’t say so. The sum of the probability of errors has usually managed to avoid the fickle finger of fate – at least in my experience. So get back to your box of tricks, and leave the cogitations to me.’

  The pennant showed little wind, and the sky had the markings of a fine morning. We had a sufficient stretch of water to get airborne, despite our perilous overload, but the latter part of our long runway ended in a minefield. To avoid this by going around the headland into the western fjord for take-off, where there were no mines, would bring us against the armed ship still in the process of persuading the Difda to heave-to. We would be blown to pieces by mines or blasted by shell-fire. Either way would mean an enormous fireball when several thousand gallons of high octane spirit exploded. And yet the enemy would not fire once it was realized that we carried the gold. Again, Bennett had them nailed, but we had to get airborne because if they caught us on the water they would force us into surrender. Five of us would be no match for them, and the gold would be theirs. Fate’s finger was never more fickle than at that moment.

  Bennett called from the top of the steps that he wanted to see Rose for a navigation briefing. The dinghy had been hauled aboard, and I helped Nash rope it down. Sweat poured from him after the effort. He wiped his chest with a rag and stood up to reach his shirt which lay across one of the boxes. ‘I haven’t seen him, sir.’

  ‘Then where the devil is he?’

  ‘He was in the tail, at stand-to.’

  ‘Get him.’ He went back into his room.

  There was no crawling on your belly to reach a thimble-sized turret – as at the end of a bomber. The flying boat had a cat-walk and you could go in comfort. The door was half open, Rose slumped over the guns inside. Sleep was our only escape, and I hesitated to wake him. The strain of going out on a limb, forever forward and with no prospect of return, had shagged us utterly. All the same, I reached forward and gripped his shoulder.

  An inch of tongue protruded from between his teeth. He fell to one side and grinned at me. Getting the turret door open, I pulled him free. The Smith and Wesson clattered. Accustomed to pinpointing the stars, he had made no mistake in finding his heart. I felt more dead for a few moments than he could ever be. The vast scar which we thought he had learned to live with looked as if he had merely slept awhile with his face against the corrugations of a heavily embroidered cushion. In another half hour, if he had been alive, all marks would have disappeared.

  An explosion of cannonfire must have hidden the sound of his last star sight. The heavenly body came down to the horizon. Flak got him, I told myself. He’s been killed in action as we all might be, so shed no tears while there’s work to be done. Who wants a memorial service that you can’t take part in? I put the gun, wet with Rose’s blood, into my jacket and made my way back to the flight deck.

  16

  Bennett reasoned – if you could call it that – that the dead were dead. Fair enough. Old times would not return. If you mourned the dead by letting them disrupt your life, new and better days would never come. Even so, Nash said, I thought the skipper had had it when I told him. He asked for an apple, but there were none left. He had to chew on something else. Shouted he was surrounded by desertion, treachery and incompetence – as he lit a cigar. There would be a Court of Enquiry when we got back. Count on it. He would notify all concerned, taking care to record illegal absences, accidental deaths, deficiencies in property, oaths taken and not kept. Separate courts w
ould be convened to account for sub-headings yet to be defined. Nothing would be left out to prevent the court from putting together the true state of affairs. If I didn’t know the skipper, said Nash, I’d have thought he was off his rocker.

  In the meantime, Mr Nash, there’s work to be done. The late navigator perished in the highest traditions of the Service. Bring his effects to me so that I can put them in a special box. As soon as practicable the next of kin of those men lost must be informed, and you may be sure I shall write proper letters of condolence, explaining how they died doing their duty while on active service. As there is no time to inter Flying Officer Rose on land we shall do it now, since we have to shed unnecessary cargo in order to get away. Find a weight to help him under the water.

  It was action stations, and we prepared to cast off. A message was halfway through when I got back to the radio: … ‘HEMMED IN COVE STOP LIFEBOAT HIT STOP YOUR CHAP KILLED SLEEPING IN STOP TWO OTHERS DOWN WAIT WAIT WAIT.’

  Bennett carried out pre-flight checks: controls free and fuel cocks off while the exactors were bled. Should I tell him about Armatage? He’s had it, Skipper. A shell struck the lifeboat and gave their ship a coat of paint. He couldn’t escape the net of God Almighty. Nor would I talk to Nash, or let lack of moral fibre take me over.

  Vibrations from the port outer brought back life, and a willingness to do the utmost. Not to question showed pure health: stiff upper lip and press on regardless. The sound of propellers beating the air beyond the portholes set us breathing freely in our separate corners. The starboard outer roared its music up as if to push the cliffs further apart and reach the rest of the world so that even the deaf would hear. Bennett signalled Nash in the bows to slip our moorings. Outers and inners were run up in pairs, and we moved from the shore.

  ‘BOARDING PARTY ON US STOP SHIP GOING SOUTH TO YOU.’

  I passed the chit to Bennett who, involved in the complications of take-off, relayed the info over the intercom. Nash responded from the tail, blood still wet. ‘Who forgot to swab the turret, then?’

 
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