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