Monday, March 26, 2007

Continuing Entry

I will give you one,  perhaps two continuing excerpts and then you get all of the story right from the beginning.  I promise you The Soldier and the Nurse will meet again but when and how  must remain secret for a while because they are only an ingredient in this tale.  Another, maybe a finer ingredient will be Rose's story. You will meet her later and her story is really interesting.    Jim.   xx

He jumped down from the hatch grinning at his own foolishness. She was right, he was mad. If he saw her again he would be dumbstruck, and she really would laugh at him. Dancing! He was twenty one today and a hairy arsed infantryman for Christ's sake. He had better get below out of this sun, Jesus, what a start to a birthday.


That was also the day when Fingers lost all his money at cards and promptly picked the pocket of the naval rating he had lost it to. When Nick asked him if he had stolen the man's own money too Fingers was indignant.


  "No, I just took what was mine. If I had taken his as well he wouldn't have been able to play, would he? What do you think I am, a thief?"


About to speak, David thought better about it and kept his mouth shut. Fingers had his own idea of ethics and it was best not to interfere.


Port Said was crowded with ships waiting to go through the Suez Canal. They could see two other large passenger ships, two destroyers and a frigate from the Royal Navy, and merchant ships of every size and description. Small boats and launches scurried to and fro between ship and shore or between ships. Then there were the bumboats that had been the subject of one of the tales from Big Donal. These floated round all the ships but the troop and passenger ships were besieged with by far the largest number. One man propelled the boat with an oar over the stern, while another tried to sell their wares to the people at the ship's rails. The boats were large and heavily laden with carpets, leather coshes and wallets, brassware, bracelets, Turkish fezzes, Arab djellabas, scimitars, daggers, knives of every other description including penknives, rings and earrings, necklaces and armbands, miniature copies of the Sphinx and Pyramids, camel skin wallets, purses and handbags, pictures of naked women, playing cards with the same pictures on the backs, and phials of Spanish Fly, a little of which dropped in a lady's drink, the sellers said, would within seconds transform even the most devout virgin into a raving nymphomaniac. They also claimed that all the goods on sale were genuine Persian carpets, or also genuine eighteen and twenty two carat gold and silver. Calling on Allah to be their witness they swore that all the diamonds, emeralds and rubies used in their work were real, not like the man in the next boat who was notorious all over Egypt for his fakes and shoddy workmanship that brought shame on all honest men like himself.


Endless circles of rope with a straw bag tied in the middle were thrown up to the grasping hands at the ship rails and the bargaining began. A price for something was shouted from below, and halved or more by those above. Soldiers shouted down, "Send the stuff up first," and the men in the boats shouted, "No Tommy, send the money down first." Some bargains were struck and the money sent down in the bags then the purchased item was sent back the same way. The bumboats were making plenty of sales, a few of the men were happy with their purchases, most, on closer inspection, were not but were too ashamed of their gullibility to say so. Everybody was having a good time, everybody that is except Donal. He had sent some money down to buy a carpet only to have the circle of rope twitched expertly from his fingers. The two men in the boat had then ignored his protesting shouts and rowed along to deal with the officers and women in the middle of the ship where the soldiers were not allowed to go. Two and a half hours later as the sales amidships dried up, and preparations were being made to enter the Canal, the offending boat came back under the soldiers. The owners, perhaps in hope of making one or two final sales must have thought it was safe to come back. They were wrong. For every minute of that time Donal had hung back from the rail, but watched and waited; now his time had come. Among others, David, Nick and Tiny were at the rail when they heard a roar behind them. They turned to find Donal staggering towards them with a huge section of hatch grating at arms length above his head. As they scattered, Donal, his face a bright scarlet, the veins at his temples standing out like ropes and his eyes bulging with the effort, made it to the rail. For a moment he stood taking careful aim, a six foot seven, eighteen stone modern Atlas. Too late, the men in the boat realised their awful danger and unable to get the boat away they dived into the water. The big man did not simply let the weight drop, he threw it perfectly out and down into the middle of the boat. There was a terrible sound of breaking timber as the bumboat broke completely in half and sank. One or two carpets floated briefly for a few moments then they too sank out of sight. There was a great cheer from the more than four hundred that had witnessed the incident but strangely, when officers came investigating a few minutes later,every person they asked about it had just that moment come on deck.


Their ship had arrived at Port Said with perfect timing, because they had only been anchored in the middle of the harbour for slightly less than four hours when the orders came to form convoy and they were the first to enter the Suez Canal. The trip down the Canal was an anticlimax to those on the Dilwara. There was very little to be seen except huge banks of sand on either side and the sun made the open deck an inferno. When they reached Aden everybody on board was offered four hours shore leave. Against Donal’s advice Tom Hatton joined the mass exodus from the ship but the others enjoyed instead cool drinks in the deserted bar. The value of the advice was proven to them when the crowds came back sun burnt, sore from insect bites and complaining about the insistent importuning of thousands of beggars.


  In the journey from Algiers to Port Said, all down the Canal and in the crowds going ashore and coming back at Aden, David had looked for her and seen a number of Qaranc's but not her. He had told his best friend Nick about her and received a good-natured cursing for being stupid in quoting Shakespeare instead of getting her name. Nick had helped him look though. The ship maintained a guard just like an Army camp and when their turn came to provide it both volunteered for the post in the sweltering below decks that everybody hated. The single guard was supposed to stay as rigid and unseeing as those outside Buckingham Palace but sometimes women passed the post and they hoped one of them might be her. Between them they spent eight hours of the twenty-four hour guard down there but wherever she was in the ship, she failed to pass.


Beth Corbet had been on deck the morning she met her dancer because she had been helping in the ship's sickbay for a few days and it was her turn for the early shift, but she was in it as a patient going down the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. The combination of the unaccustomed heat and bad period pains had made her ill and she was only just recovering when the ship stopped at Aden. Still shaky,the doctor had ordered that she stay aboard but she  watched from the rail to see if he was among those who left and came back to the ship. He had worn only shorts so with no cap badge for her to recognise there was no way to trace him in the hundreds the ship was carrying, but if she saw him she knew she would know him, that beautiful golden hair would give him away completely. She had thought of him dozens of times a day since that morning.


He had been unaware of the picture he had made on the stage of the hatch; the sun had edged him exactly as it had edged the mountain. From where she stood she had seen him mostly in silhouette against the sun bright foredeck of the ship's bow and the gleam of the sea beyond. He had not combed his hair yet and the sun behind his left shoulder made it a golden halo round his head. She could see the continuation of the halo in the fine hairs of his forearms and thighs but she could not properly make out his features. He was young, the voice, the leap onto the hatch and his body as he danced had showed her that, but then wasn't nearly everybody on the ship young? She thought mostly of the moments when he had danced and just after she had giggled. He had appeared as if he had leaped from the sea, and she would not have been surprised if, at the end of his dozen steps of dance, he had dived overboard to disappear again, but he had ended it to bend and touch his toes and that ordinary act had made her giggle just as he had started to dance again. She had wished a hundred times she had not done that, he had been so beautiful as he moved from the ball of one foot to the toes of the other and the out flung arms had been like wings that were about to lift him into the early morning air. Then she had made that silly sound and he had whirled twice, the muscles of his body and thighs rippling under that edging of gold made by the sun. She had apologised and listened in delighted astonishment as she was called a bright angel and fair maid, then that stupid Tracy Parkes had staggered out to ask who was she talking to. She could have stayed but Tracy was clutching her cigarettes. She would have lit one of them and her usual morning paroxysm of coughing would have ruined the moment. Now she could not find him and by the time they left Port Said she was dreaming about him.


As they sailed out of the Gulf of Aden and began the long haul across the Indian Ocean to Colombo, Tiny Tanner was ecstatic, on two successive days he had won five pounds on Bingo. Fingers had lost his money again and borrowed three pounds from Tiny to get back into the game. David was a bit worried because Fingers already owed money to most of the group including himself and he was sure that Fingers owed Tiny a fair sum already. They endured a bad but mercifully brief storm and for a day seasickness made Nick's life a misery again, but after that they had perfect weather all the way to Ceylon. Day after day the sea was like a sheet of flat blue glass, disturbed only by the ripples from an odd school of flying fish. They saw no other ships and it seemed as though they were all alone in the world. Until they reached Ceylon and Colombo.

  The ship anchored about four hundred yards from the wharfs and they were carried ashore in groups of sixty aboard what seemed to be large waterbuses than boats. The five of them and Donal walked from the quay into the city and they knew that not even his warnings had prepared them for this. People were everywhere, stood on roofs and balconies and at almost every window. Old single deck buses were packed solid and more hung from the sides or were sat on the roof. Even cars and trucks had necklaces of people stood on running boards and rear fenders with another three or four on top. Ordinary pedal cycles carried two and sometimes three. There was a constant noise from car horns and bicycle bells, interspersed with bellows from bus and truck horns, as traffic moved slowly through the mass of humanity. Underneath it all, the low rumble of the crowds rose to meet the veil of brown dust that hung over the colour and movement below, never settling, only swirling as a new eddy in the crowd sent it first one way and then another.


  A hundred yards behind the group of soldiers a girl with black hair in nursing uniform who had landed from the next water bus, cursed the two friends who had accepted the invitations of three young second lieutenants to accompany them ashore. Now she was expected to be girlishly entertaining when all she wanted to do was look for a golden helmet of hair in all these thousands of black ones. Some way in front of them as they browsed past shops she could see a big man with red hair surmounted with a side hat like the Scots regiments wore, for a moment her heart had bounced but she knew the hair was the wrong colour and the man was far too big.


In front of the red haired mountain David looked for the pale face and red lips of his shipboard Juliet. He had already christened her in his mind, and wondered if they were to be two more ‘star crossed lovers’. He dismissed the fanciful thought with an inward smile and continued looking for a downfall of tangled black hair among all these sleek ones.


Children begged for annas and small boys pulled at their fingers extolling the beauty of their sisters who charged an especially low rate for handsome British soldiers. When these temptations were refused they offered themselves, a suggestion that caused Donal to bristle menacingly and utter a roar of disgust. The young pimps and beggars were cuffed away by shopkeepers anxious to show the young English gentlemen the finest bargains in their Eastern world. Being described as English raised a deep laugh from Donal, resplendent in side hat and tartan trews. His height, combined with a chest to match, made him tower over the local populace like a liner among rowing boats and the crowd melted away from his path. Sometimes David was in the lead and his blondness had something of the same effect, but mostly the other five followed Donal in a line like ducklings after their mother. For over three hours they strolled and browsed through the shops, then it was time to make their way back to the ship. A languorous look from an Indian girl drew Nick like a magnet into a shop and David and Tom, intent on rescue dived in after him. On the other side of the street three nurses thinking they were late, ignored the over attentiveness of their escorts and passed the shop to hurry back to the ship.


David and Tom came out ten minutes later, each twenty rupees lighter but the proud possessors of eighteen carat gold rings. Nick was in the next shop having left when the girl magically disappeared. When he saw the rings he wanted one so they had to go back. His haggling powers were greater than their's so when they went back aboard all five were wearing rings that had only cost twelve rupees each. They wondered at the stupidity of these Indians who sold eighteen carat gold rings for the equivalent of three or four shillings in back home money. Donal had refused to have one. Late in the evening two days after, when the bands of green around each finger had already drawn several unkind comments, he watched in amusement as they lined up at the rail and after a suitable ceremony threw the "gold" rings into the sea. Most of the ceremony had been the cheerful consigning to their own particular brand of hell, the souls of the villainous thieves who would cheat innocent British boys. As Fingers said,  

  "Bloody hell, the Brits were in India for years looking after them, see what happens when they are left on their own? They all develop into robbing bastards, it wouldn’t have happened if we were still in charge, and there’s another bloody thing. For years they said, "go home Tommy" so we give 'em their flaming country back and look what happens, they all want to go home with us. You can't walk round Longsight these days without falling over a bloody curry bowl

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Beginning or From Here?

In my blog I told of the beginning of a love story but there is an earlier beginning than that. The original story tells of the adventures of three young men who have to join the Army because their country demands that all young men attaining the age of eighteen must serve two years National Service. Some are deferred until they have finished an apprenticeship or have finished a college or university education usually by the age of twenty one. What happens to them during that two years varies. Some return to civilian life virtually unchanged. Some are changed just a little by hardships they had not expected and others return with a watchfullness that shows in men that have experienced the sights and sounds of death. Some don't return at all, they die.

You have a choice. Through my words you can experience all that they did or you can read a version of it that has almost no nasty parts. These young men, mostly working class men, had their naivety drummed out of them and discipline drummed in. It was not their fault or even their instructors fault that a sometimes macabre sense of humour settled within them too. It was laugh or go mad. Oh, yes. Some of them fell in love and a few were saved by it.

Friday, March 23, 2007


 Early the next morning David, unable to sleep, slipped on a pair of gym shorts and rolling the legs up high on his thighs to radiate the heat that had awoke him, he went out on deck to find the paling sky of dawn rising on the port side of the ship instead of directly ahead. When he asked a passing crewman why this was so the answer surprised him.


  "One of the crew had a bad fall, he broke an arm and a couple of ribs and he might have a fractured pelvis so the ship is diverting to Algiers to get him to a hospital."


At his next question the man laughed and made a show of sniffing the air


  "No, we won't be landing, the ship will stand off and send the injured man in by boat and no damn wonder, who the hell wants to land in Algiers? We are still ten or twelve miles out and you can smell it from here."


It was true. David had been wondering about the foul musty odour coming over the water and as he sniffed too the smell made his nose wrinkle in disgust. As the ship stopped at least half a mile from the shore, the stink might have been terrible but the sight of Algiers was beautiful. A huge mountain ridge black against the dawn, rose from the left towered above the town then sank away to the right. The still rising sun was behind the ridge giving it a bright golden edge against a sky that was in the process of turning from black to an eggshell blue. The town or city at the base of the mountain was still mostly in darkness although white walls were beginning to reflect a little light. Here and there twinkling lights lent mysterious enchantment to the view and his eyes drank it in hungrily as his mind filed it away among the special things. Dawn over Algiers. He would never forget it. The boat that had carried the injured man ashore was hoisted back on board and the ship turned away to the east.


The crewman had disappeared and for what seemed like the first time in months he was completely alone. He was on the foredeck of a ship that was carrying maybe fifteen hundred people, every one of whom, except for the crew in the engine room or those on the bridge far above him were fast asleep. The troop deck he had left would be hot and sweaty, the air stinking of hot oil and the fetid body odours of the hundred and fifty men in there. Above and below it were more decks of the same, every man no more than a foot or so away from a neighbour. The deck where he was now stood was normally crowded with hundreds of men, standing, sitting, lying down where they could, so many of them, lines had been painted on the deck to define paths for the use of the crew as they went about their duties. Notices on the rails warned against bodies blocking the paths but now he was alone and the entire deck was his.


Stood as he was, where the rail of the forward deck ran into the bridge superstructure he could almost feel the steel wall he was leaning on getting warmer from the sun, which was now shining directly on it. He started to move and then paused. He was young, he had seen a city that had once made it's living almost entirely from piracy and slavery, he had seen and passed through the Pillars of Hercules into a sea that had been sailed by ancient Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans. Perhaps drops of this water bubbling along the steel sides of this ship had touched the wooden walls of battling fleets at Brindisium or been pushed aside by the passage of Nelson on his way to glory. My God, he suddenly remembered. It was the sixth of May, his birthday. He was twenty one and in weeks he would see sights and hear sounds in lands that at one time men may have taken years to reach and return from.


He looked at the square of a hatch athwart the ship’s middle only a yard or two from him. Four foot higher than the deck and twelve to fourteen foot on each side it was like a stage. Affected by the sea, the warm sun and the exhilaration of being truly alone for the first time in months, he ran to leap on the sheeted hatch covers. pirouetting from one corner almost to the other as he did so. Another spin brought him back to the centre where he did a few dance steps with his arms still raised from the spins. As they came down he continued the movement to touch his toes twice and straightened to dance again, only to come to a halt as a woman giggled. He whirled, twice and only the second time thought to look up instead of down. Fourteen feet away and only ten feet higher, from the end of the second amidships rail on the port side of the superstructure, a face surrounded by a mass of curly black hair looked down and smiled. For a few seconds they contemplated each other and then she spoke.


  "I'm sorry.I didn't mean to surprise you, but you appeared so suddenly from under there and you looked so happy."


He looked down to the corner he had just left and she was right. To see him from where she was on the amidships deck, she would have had to lean forward at an impossible angle and look directly down and inwards. Troops were not allowed amidships except for a special route from bow to stern three decks below, and the women aboard were not allowed on the troop decks, though a few were always present in the Bingo sessions. Somehow the fact that they were inaccessible to each other gave him a recklessness that he would not normally have dared. He struck a pose,


           ‘O, speak again, bright angel, for thou art

      as glorious to this night, being o’er my head,

          as is a wing-ed messenger of heaven  

     unto the white-upturned wond’ring eyes of mortals.’ 


 She frowned and a finger touched a pouting lip, then she smiled again.


  "Hey, I did that at school. That's Romeo isn't it?  Are you being Romeo?"


He put forward a leg and made a sweeping bow that an Italian nobleman or an Elizabethan courtier would have been proud of.


    What's in a name? That which we call a rose,

        By any other name would smell as sweet;


    Call me but Love and I'll be new baptis'd;

          Henceforth I ne’er will be, Romeo.


  "You're mad." Small teeth shone behind full red lips and on the spur of the moment he added words of his own. Words that Shakespeare might never have owned to.


  "Nay, call me not Mad, fair maid. Since mine eyes have been caressed by thy sweet beauty call me instead Conquered, for tho' I have little of this world's treasures to lay before thee in humble tribute, thou hast plundered the riches of my heart and kindled a remembrance in this adoring mind that will surely light even the darkest days of my life."


From somewhere beyond her there was another female voice and visible only from the waist up as she turned to answer, he could see she wore the uniform of the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps. She turned again to smile and blow him a kiss that he pretended to catch and press to his lips, then she was gone.


He jumped down from the hatch grinning at his own foolishness. She was right, he was mad. If he saw her again he would be dumbstruck, and she really would laugh at him. Dancing! He was twenty one today and a hairy arsed infantryman for Christ's sake. He had better get below out of this sun, Jesus, what a start to a birthday.