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.