The lost flying boat, p.5
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       The Lost Flying Boat, p.5

           Alan Silltoe
 

  He looked around. ‘What a bloody shower!’

  The others laughed, having known him well, but only in the wartime pre-scar days, so that to some extent he was also new to them. Perhaps we did look a shower, with our open-necked shirts and various kinds of jackets. I had a tie in my luggage, and supposed the others had.

  ‘You may well turn out to be right,’ Nash said.

  ‘I sincerely hope not. You know how the skipper likes us to dress for dinner in mid-flight.’

  I laughed with the others.

  ‘We don’t want any crisis during the trip.’ In spite of twitting us, he had a gentle voice. He’d grown up in a small farming town on the northern edge of Salisbury Plain, and the pleasant burr to his speech remained. His father, a solicitor, had sent him to the local grammar school to which he had gone as a boy, and a distinction in mathematics for his Higher School Certificate had naturally led Rose to become a navigator on volunteering for aircrew.

  He sat with the knick-knacks of his trade: a Dalton Computer, plotting instruments, star-finder, and a Bubble Sextant Mark IX. Maps and charts were spilling from a black bag by his polished shoes. Even Bennett hadn’t such knife-edged creases in his trousers. He irons his laces at night, we used to say about such a type. Butter wouldn’t melt in his turnups. You could smell his haircream a mile off. How wrong we were.

  When the skipper came in, Rose, Nash and the others stood as at a pukka briefing, so I joined them. He looked at us one by one, then nodded. We sat down, and he talked for some time about the allocation of duties. We were informed that Rose, being the navigator and also capable of piloting the plane, was second in command. The flight engineer would, in spite of his cough, be able to control the aircraft and keep it on course during level flight, if necessary. He also knew some navigation. So did the wireless operator. It wasn’t unusual for such a crew to learn something of each other’s jobs, so we had the equivalent of three possible pilots and two good navigators, which was an advantage, considering what margins of error might develop on our lengthy flight.

  The fact that there was one wireless operator gave me some satisfaction, because it meant that the ears of the craft and the transmitter were my own. There would be no one to interfere with me working the dials and clickstops. If I went down with illness or injury Bennett and Rose could do a slow morse speed of six words a minute and tap out an SOS, but only providing the transmitter was on the right frequency.

  Bennett pointed at the chart with a piece of stick. ‘The first leg of the trip will be to the Kerguelen Islands, over two thousand nautical miles away. We reconnoitre the straits’ – more indication with his baton – ‘between one island and another, to find a certain cove’ – a definite stab at that point – ‘for anchorage. Using it as our base, we spend a few days exploring the west and north-west coast – a bit of surveying, you might say – and then set course for Freemantle, 2320 nautical miles further on. On our way to Kerguelen we overfly – or as near as dammit we do, won’t we, Mr Rose? – two small inhabited islands, with no facilities, I’m afraid, of either petrol or beer. Also, there aren’t any shipping lanes where we’re going, which is why we have a navigator like Mr Rose to plot our way. Cruising speed will be something in the region of 120 knots, though the prevailing wind, if it prevails as it should, ought to give us a bit more ground speed, so we’ll take about eighteen hours to reach our objective. The end of the second leg will get us to Freemantle, but after refuelling there may be no time to go ashore.’

  Such distances deadened my head, imagination unable to register the sight of endless sea. While Rose played with the knobs on his Dalton Computer – ‘You can do anything with it, except fry eggs’ – we others were supposed to think up questions. Wilcox, still wearing his hat, stopped coughing long enough to comment: ‘This place seems at the end of our range, Skipper, and the wind may not play ball with us. Is there a fill-up station on the way?’

  Bennett smiled. ‘I’ve stared at the chart till I’m blue in the face and still haven’t conjured one up. Nevertheless, I shouldn’t worry if I were you. We do have auxiliary tanks to give a range of two thousand five hundred miles, so we shouldn’t be forced to ditch on the way. I wish you’d suck some Zubes for that cough, though. When the trip’s over we’ll send you to Switzerland.’

  ‘It’s only ‘flu, Skipper.’

  Nash folded an old Daily Mail into his jacket pocket. ‘And where’s the juice coming from for the flight to Freemantle?’

  ‘A ship will meet us in a convenient stretch of calm water.’ He waved his stick so that no one could be certain where it was, and I couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t being sarcastic. ‘All hands will set to with gusto, and stock up the tanks.’

  The notion that we would be a flying petrol tank for over two thousand miles gave me a strange feeling in the stomach. ‘Do we have a dummy run to see if we can get off with such a load?’

  ‘We’ve got the longest runway in the world, Adcock, a thousand miles, if the sea’s calm enough. Let me worry about that. I’ve worked things out, never you fear.’

  ‘It’s safer to chug along with an extra ton or two of petrol than carry the same in depth-charges,’ Rose said to me as he opened a stubby tin of Flowerdew’s Cut Golden Bar and refilled his pipe. He smoked contentedly, but to puff such twist in the same room as Wilcox seemed inconsiderate, though I don’t suppose he would have coughed much less without it. Bennett advised him to sit by the open window, but he didn’t bother, saying his cough was sure to go as soon as the old kite got above the clouds.

  Appleyard, one of the gunners, wanted to know how much airborne time we’d need before reaching Freemantle. He had a cousin there. Rose nodded, the scarred side of his face towards the skipper: ‘Thirty-eight hours, give or take a day or two!’

  Bennett came out of his reverie. ‘How long we stay at Kerguelen depends on all of you. Intelligent co-operation is what I want, like in the good old days. We’re a bit rusty, but we’ll shine up. As captain of this enterprise – and God help me with such a shower – even I may have to lend a hand when it comes to picking up the goods at Kerguelen.’

  ‘What goods?’

  ‘That’s between me and the company. Till we get on board, it’s classified gen.’

  I asked if there was a W/T met. station on the island.

  ‘You’ll be briefed on that later. But the short answer is no.’

  ‘We’ll hope for calm weather,’ Rose said, ‘and a good anchorage.’

  ‘I’ll pray fervently for both,’ said Nash.

  It all sounded, Appleyard observed, that a few prayers might not be out of order.

  ‘Prayers never did an air gunner any harm,’ Bennett said. ‘As for myself, I muttered a quick one to the old God every time I had to get you lot off the ground. And gave special thanks when I got back.’

  Armatage, another gunner, sat upright in the heavily upholstered chair. He had fair wavy hair and a handlebar moustache, as if he had always hoped to be taken from a distance for a pilot or navigator, which would at least have given a short burst of glory before whoever it was got close enough to see the badge on his battledress. He had worked in the office of an insurance company, but his spare time was given to running a youth club from which he led expeditions across Dartmoor at Easter ‘when conditions can be fair to Arctic’ and summer ‘when it wasn’t so good either.’ Nash told me he had lost his job after something he’d done had got into the newspapers.

  ‘Whoever thought up this stunt must have been round the bend,’ he shouted. ‘If I don’t do a bunk it’s only because I’m half way up the zig-zags already.’ Then he laughed, a bray without humour, and lay back with irritation that would not let him say more.

  Maybe he had spoken for more than himself, but before anyone could say so Bennett put in that if he lacked moral fibre he had better go now, and that if he didn’t he had better shut up.

  ‘He was often like that,’ Rose said. ‘Don’t you remember?’

  ‘Too bloody wel
l,’ said Nash.

  ‘He was all right at the first upshot of flak, though.’

  Armatage didn’t answer.

  ‘In view of the circumstances,’ Bennett said, ‘you can say goodbye to any celebratory booze-up, or aircrew hanky-panky the night before we go on board for take-off. Have your party, if you must, but make it at least twenty-four hours prior to getting your clearance chits signed from this hotel. In which case I might join you. You’ll collect more than soldiers’ pay when this operation is over, and you can go to pieces then if you care to. But for the trip, you’ll be like teetotal parsons – if they ever existed – keeping an eye on each other to make sure there’s no flouting that one. I want no hymn singing, though, on your part, nor any need for the riot act to be read on mine. We’ve got a tricky job, I don’t mind telling you, and we want to come through successfully. Once we’re airborne we’ll fall into our allotted places, even Mr Adcock, who hasn’t flown with us before, so that after a few hours up top it’ll seem as if we’ve never had a break from the last time we were together. Twenty hours is a long run, and I won’t say that anybody caught slipping into the land of nod will be thrown overboard; but I will frown severely, and he might get his head knocked off. As for you gunners, you won’t be playing poker in the galley, either. Nash will see to that. You’ll keep your eyes peeled, and eat carrot-pudding in case any strange or otherwise unexplainable object comes into view. I want as sharp a lookout as for JU88s when flying up Happy Valley or across Biscay. Close to the Islands, the more you might have to do in the gunnery line, and when we land it’ll be sleeves rolled up for everyone.’

  The sooner we eight luminaries were into the wide blue yonder the better; then at least I would have no further illusions about being followed. I wondered whether I was the only one, and though we were as friendly as a crew should be there seemed no sane opening for me to broach the matter. If my fears reached Bennett he might throw me off the job as unsuitable, especially if the work we were about to undertake was as legitimate as he made out.

  15

  In a ship without guns there was a superfluity of gunners. The pilot, the navigator, the flight-engineer and the wireless operator had well-defined tasks, but so many gunners worried me – though no one else seemed perturbed. Perhaps they assumed that having filled such a role during the war, ‘gunner’ was now an identification tag, no more than a badge stitched under the lapel of jacket or windcheater.

  All of us belonged to a crew in which no member could claim more importance than the next, but gunners were in the majority, which was valid only if they were to be employed as look-outs, or loaders, or stewards, or riggers, or bowmen, or whatever work Bennett was to find necessary. In which case it was easy to explain their presence.

  The existence of each crew member had to be individually acknowledged. Bennett talked to Rose about routes and possible wind vectors, cloud ceilings and departure times, such a parley between pilot and navigator being long and involved. With the flight-engineer he broached engine performances and miles per gallon: how long the flying boat could stay in the air on a given quantity of fuel. Nash, as supercargo in charge of supplies and their loading, had to go over details of tool-stowage and survival rations, in case an accident should keep us on sub-Antarctic terrain, or if the flying boat alighted far from land and we had to wait for rescue by a passing ship. Distances were vast, and emptiness complete. Precautions had to be taken.

  Away from air or sea lanes, the trip was exploratory, which was why we would collect a year’s pay for a bare two months. The earth would turn sixty-one times on its axis and if, as the Bible says, life is seventy years long, what difference will it make whether the pole-axe falls at seventy years and four months or seventy years and two months? The contract was indeed generous, and whoever devised such terms put high value on sixty-one days, or 1,464 hours or 87,840 minutes. And which of the 5,270,400 seconds would justify the payment of what all of us took to be danger money? Sixty-one days sounded more sober as a period of employment, less perilous yet demanding a full sense of responsibility while living through the heaviest that were obviously yet to come.

  And beyond the end of two full moons there was nothing. A medieval sailor thought he might fall off the world. So would I when our time ran out. Visibility had closed in regarding the future, allowing me to see no more than a day ahead in those two months which might contain the moment of my death. It was better to be blind and unfeeling than think too far in front, though after Bennett had said what he expected by way of duty I was able to see a picture of the flying boat lifting, and setting course towards Kerguelen.

  ‘I tried to get eleven in the crew,’ he said, ‘but I was over-ruled in the matter and told to manage with eight. A hendecker – that is to say, eleven – would have given us an extra pilot, navigator, and wireless operator. To keep awake for twenty hours is asking a lot.’

  Having done fourteen-hour watches, I told him I could cope, at which he said that no doubt all of us would do our duty. He sat so that he could stretch his legs and rest both feet on a corner of his desk. His worn face showed the battered spirit of a man at the end of a journey from which he had barely escaped with life and sanity, rather than the commander of an expedition about to depart and whose purpose none of us could understand. Perhaps the burden weighed so heavily on him because he was not so clear about it himself.

  The deeply fixed lines down his face hadn’t been so obvious ten days ago. I waited, thinking he would never talk again, wondering whether I ought not to go out of the room. On the table was a fold-out stand of photographs, with a woman in the middle panel and a child on either side. She was dark-haired, with delicately lidded eyes and a sad smile, and a hand at her face as if to stop her long hair obscuring it. The children were ten or twelve years old, a boy and a girl on whom Bennett also gazed, though I don’t think he saw them as clearly as he wanted to.

  ‘I suppose now the gunners have arrived we’ll be taking off, Skipper?’

  He reached for a pencil, spoke after a while, turning the leaves of a springbound notebook. ‘They’re my old crew right enough, but I get to thinking they’re here to make sure we don’t go north instead of east. They had a stopover in London, which may have put a different picture into their minds.’

  ‘Why should we want to go north instead of east?’

  He gripped the notebook to prevent his hands trembling. ‘We might. Then again, we might not. After Kerguelen, no radio stations en route. Nothing but empty sea. At Freemantle the owners’ representatives are waiting. We hand over the cargo we picked up. That’s the picture. All arranged and agreed to, and the gunners are on board from take-off to see that we follow the plan and that none of it goes according to my wayward geographical proclivities. Our orders must coincide, Adcock.’

  I lit a cigarette, wondering what the hell he meant. ‘Don’t you want the trip to go right?’ – speaking not because I wanted to, or even out of any particular interest in his puzzling talk, but because my senses told me that it was expected. I was never one to recognize the crucial moment when it was obscured by a morass of deception. I should have demanded that he cut the crap and tell me what the stunt was all about.

  But he floated back unchallenged into the great Bennett silence, leaving me to mull on the fact that he had only wished for a double crew on the flight deck so that we would then outnumber the gunners. With a single crew, working every minute and fighting to keep awake, the gunners would have no difficulty in keeping us under observation. ‘Perhaps they were sent to protect us from something else,’ I suggested.

  He wanted to find out whether I was wholly on his side. If so, then it was five against three, supposing we could count on Nash; but if not, he would be lumbered with the problem of having only four of us to four of them.

  ‘Both,’ he answered. ‘How far can you reach with the 1154 transmitter, Adcock?’

  No distance could be guaranteed. Depended on your luck. One night I worked a Lancastrian from fifteen hundre
d miles away. His signals were faint but audible. I brought him right across the Dutch East Indies.

  ‘And if we get up to eighteen thousand feet?’

  Flukes were possible, sometimes prevalent, mostly out of the question. I didn’t like giving figures. He craved them, however. ‘Let’s say, five hundred during the day, and twelve hundred at night. I’ll do what I can.’

  He wanted to buy something, and demanded that I sell, so I did in order to give him ease of mind. I could have been right, after all. But there seemed something lunatic about the conversation: he’d been familiar with my transmitter for ten years and knew exactly what it could and could not do. He threw the pad and pencil on the table and rubbed his hands. ‘That’s all I need. I don’t want you to be God and promise me the earth. You’ll have the usual three frequencies, unless I tell you otherwise.’ I took out my notebook, though knowing them well. ‘Listen on 500 as much as practicable, except when I put you on 6500 during the day and 3805 as soon as it gets dark. But as far as the gunners are concerned, you’ll be on 500. They’re very particular about safety. Some bloody clot said that the Sparks should always be listening out on 500. But there’ll be no sending, Adcock. Keep your claws away from that tapper, unless and until I say so; but listen all the time and take down anything interesting. Swivel the knob every few minutes and let me know of anything else. Get what bearings you can with the loop aerial to help with the navigation. Leave the half-convergency business to Rose. He’s used to that.’

 
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