A Village in Devon, Southern England, August 1944
I never felt so relieved to be home. I looked in the hallway mirror and thought how I’d aged. What did I expect? But from tonight, I was starting a new life, a quieter, more peaceful existence. I’d had enough adventure to last a lifetime. All that was behind me now.
I called for Angie, my little Jack Russell. Mr Jenkins, the headmaster at the village primary school, had been looking after her during my long absence. She came to me, wagging her tail. She hadn’t forgotten me. I picked her up and ruffled her coarse fur and, laughing, turned my face away as she tried to lick me. Jenkins had been my first visitor, earlier in the afternoon, the dog at his feet. He shook my hand firmly and welcomed me home. He seemed sorry to have to return Angie to me. My next visitor, within minutes of Jenkins leaving, was Joe Hamilton, the village shopkeeper, wearing his habitual apron and bearing a basket of foodstuffs to ‘keep me going’. How kind. I thanked him profusely. I’ll have to settle up with him soon.
The third person to call was June Parker. She kissed me on the cheek and hovered at my doorway declining my offer to come in. The wife of a soldier, she wore a long dark coat despite the warmth of the afternoon sun and lipstick of the brightest red, her blonde hair curled at the back.
‘You’re to go the pub tonight, Robert,’ she said in a conspiratorial tone. ‘The White Ship, but no earlier than eight o’clock, you hear?’
‘That sounds intriguing.’
‘You’ll find out. Come and pick me up at eight and we’ll go together. That way I can keep an eye on you. Pleased to be back?’
‘I can’t tell you how pleased I am.’
‘And we’re all very pleased to have you back. It must have been awful.’
After she’d gone, I went up to my bedroom, the dog overtaking me on the stairs. The room was sparse – pastel flowery wallpaper, just the single bed, an ugly wardrobe, a bedside table. What does one expect from rented accommodation? Above a dresser was a pleasant moorland painting depicting Highland cattle with their long horns. And above the bed, a wooden crucifix supporting a metal figurine of Christ. I unhitched it off the wall and noticed the shadow of the cross left in its wake on the wallpaper. Sitting on the bed with Angie lying behind me, I studied it. It was heavy but crudely produced, the extended arms overly long, his nailed hands out of proportion with the rest of him. It was cheap. And ugly. The idea of his contorted face staring down at me every morning was unnerving. I hid it in the top draw of the bedside table.
Across the landing from my room, the second bedroom – Clarence’s room, a mirror image of my own. Although the same height, Clarence had been thinner than me, and looking in his wardrobe I found a number of his clothes that would fit me now. I’d lost so much weight that my own clothes, down to the last pair of trousers, were all too large for me. I stretched the fingers of my right hand. With a bit of manoeuvring, I slid the gold band off my index finger. It had lost none of its shine in the intervening weeks. I tossed it around in my palm. With this ring, I’d made a promise. To deliver it to a woman. A woman who lived in the village. It was all I had to do. To deliver this ring. Tomorrow. I placed it in the bedside table drawer – next to the crucifix.
It was almost eight now and having washed and shaved and changed my clothes for Clarence’s, I was ready to go. I wore a navy blue jacket and a plain dark green tie. The tie at least was mine. I swept the dashes of Angie’s white fur from my trousers and checked myself in the mirror one more time. Yes, I thought, I looked fine. It was time to reacquaint myself with the ordinary world encapsulated in this tiny Devonian village, a world I often thought I’d never see again. I patted Angie, promising her I wouldn’t be too long.
The front door of this little house opens straight into the village square. In front of me, at the opposite end of the square, the church, too big, I always thought, for a village this size. The air was still warm, the evening fully light, the last hints of sun fading away leaving long shadows. A small group of children were playing around the bus shelter, most of them on bikes, cycling between the parked cars. The church clock chimed eight as I strolled down the lane towards June’s. I felt almost giddy with contentment. A tractor passed me from the opposite direction, the farmer waving at me enthusiastically. I could feel my shoulders relax as I breathed in the country air, the smell of freshly-cut grass drifting in on the breeze. I slowed down and listened to the silence. Somewhere, from within one of the houses, a peal of laughter; the rumble of the tractor fading into the distance; the children playing; a swallow whooshing overhead. How I’d become accustomed to silence when, for days on end, I lived in a world without sound, and how awful and oppressive it felt, the menace of the quiet. But not this, this was heaven-sent and I felt pathetically grateful for it. Nothing mattered to me now. I was twenty-three years old. I had my whole future to worry about but none of it mattered. I refused to be hurried, things would fall into place bit by bit. At this point, I had only the one task, a simple one but a difficult one… to deliver the ring.
I knocked on June’s door. It opened and I was momentarily taken aback. Standing in front of me was a girl of about sixteen dressed in a swirling yellow dress with small red spots. For a moment, I thought I’d come to the wrong house but then I remembered – this was Abigail, June’s daughter and only child. The last time I saw her she was still a little girl. Not now.
‘Is that you, Abigail?’
‘Yeah. Mum will be down in a minute.’
I nodded and waited on the doorstep, half expecting to be invited in. Instead we stood in awkward silence. ‘Enjoying your summer holidays?’
‘It’s all right.’
‘And erm, how’s your father?’
Her eyes scanned the village square behind me. ‘Yeah, he’ll be back in a few days.’
Fortunately, the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs relieved of us both of further conversation. ‘Robert, you look nice,’ said June, appearing behind her daughter.
‘And you, June, you look lovely.’ She did – wearing an attractive mauve dress, her hair loose at her shoulders decorated with a yellow bow.
‘Abigail, you could have asked Robert in, poor chap.’ Abigail stepped back into the house and disappeared up the stairs. ‘She’s expecting Dan, her boyfriend,’ said June in hushed tones.
‘Dan? I don’t remember a Dan.’
‘From the next village. Walks with a limp. Shall we go then?’
As we walked the short distance to the pub, I asked about her husband.
‘He’s out in Italy. But he’s got a week’s leave – the first since he left some two years ago.’
‘You haven’t seen him in that long? You must be looking forward to his return.’
‘Of course.’ She leant towards me as we walked. ‘I’m a little nervous about it, if truth be told. I’ve got so used to him not being around. Sounds awful, I know.’
I remembered Pete Parker all too well. I too wouldn’t relish his return.
We reached the White Ship and I noticed how dark it was and how quiet it seemed from the outside. ‘Is it open?’ I asked.
‘Why wouldn’t it be? Come.’ To my surprise, she took my hand. She pushed open the heavy doors. Following her in, I found the place to be in complete darkness. It was still light outside but someone had closed all the curtains. I knew what was coming next…
June, standing behind me, slid her arm round my waist and said, ‘Welcome home, Robert.’
The noise of cheering and applause broke upon my senses. Lights came on, curtains drawn back, and there, in front of me, a gathering of smiling faces and raised glasses. Hanging high from the wall behind, a banner that read Welcome home!! I stood, open-mouthed. Although I may have anticipated this seconds before, I was still taken aback. June laughed out loud, ‘Oh, Robert, your face.’ Someone on the piano slammed down a couple of introductory chords then started playing For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. Everyone in the pub, it seemed, joined in while I stood there, abashed, but my heart brimming with pride.
‘Get that down yer,’ said Pearce, the village blacksmith, thrusting a pint of something in my hand.
As the music came to an end, Mr Jenkins stepped out of the crowd, offering his hand, beaming. ‘Robert, dear man, on behalf of the village, I’d like to formally welcome you back home.’
My audience cheered and again raised their glasses. ‘Aye, aye. Cheers,’ came the shouts.
I lifted my glass and took a gulp. Ale. Foul stuff. ‘Thank you, thank you, everyone. I’m touched, I really am; I’m quite lost for words.’ All these people that had turned out for me, this gathering of villagers, many of whom I’d known for years without knowing them at all. I knew of course they weren’t really here for me – I was simply an excuse. But I was touched nonetheless.
I’d been an infrequent visitor of the pub for years – low ceiling, sturdy wooden beams painted black and decorated with a row of horse brasses, polished wooden floor, and a large oil painting of a black pot-bellied pig. Others came to say hello, shaking my hand, slapping me on the back, asking how I was, whether I’d settled back in. I felt quite overwhelmed as I acknowledged people’s greetings and thanked them for their good wishes. Gradually, the crescendo faded, people returned to their seats and to their conversations. Jenkins beckoned June and me over to his table where he was sitting with Joe Hamilton and an old cove with a pipe, Bill Fraser, who was disappearing into his chair.
‘So,’ said Hamilton, ‘what’s it like to be back?’
‘Well, cheers, Robert,’ said Jenkins. ‘We’re all glad to see you safe and sound.’
June raised her glass and smiled at me. ‘We were worried for you, you know, when we heard that the Academic had gone down, we all thought, well, you can imagine…’
‘It must have been terribly difficult,’ said Jenkins.
‘Yes. It was. Extremely.’
‘Do you want to tell us about it?’ asked Fraser, sucking on his pipe.
‘Bill, really, that’s not the sort of thing one can ask,’ said Hamilton.
‘Listen,’ said Fraser, jabbing the table top, ‘I’ll be eighty-eight next birthday, so I can ask what I bloody well like.’
‘You’ve only just turned eighty-seven–’
‘It’s a long story,’ I said. ‘Too long.’ And not, I thought, for the likes of pub entertainment. It was my story and I knew that before I could move on, I would need to confront it, come to terms with it, to replay every ghastly detail and tonight was not the night to do it.
‘You might get a medal,’ said June.
‘Just for surviving? I doubt it, I’m afraid.’
‘Well, I’d give you a medal. Now, gents, if you’ll excuse me…’
We all stood politely as June left us and joined another table. Still watching her, Fraser muttered, ‘They say he’s back soon enough.’
‘You mean Pete Parker?’ asked Jenkins.
‘He’s bad news, that one.’
‘Yes. I remember him at school,’ said Jenkins. The headmaster had been at the school for so long that he could lay claim at having taught virtually every villager under the age of thirty. I remembered Jenkins myself – his face continuously flushed, strands of his thinning red hair always out of place. When he came up close to, one could smell his breath. I still can’t smell kippers without thinking of Jenkins. One of his more recent teachers was Joanna, and it was Joanna I was hoping to see. I asked Jenkins whether she was around.
‘No, she left.’
‘Oh.’ I hadn’t expected this. ‘Do you know…’
‘Nope. She just upped and left one day. Not a word. Didn’t even have the decency to hand in her notice. The house is empty. Frightfully inconvenient. Luckily, I’ve found a new teacher before the term starts in September.’
In the background, the piano started up again, a raucous tune.
I caught a glimpse of June standing at a table a few feet away. One of the seated men had his arm round her waist. She made no attempt to remove it. Hamilton started talking about the war in Russia and Jenkins interrupted with his views on Stalin. I only half paid attention.
‘What do you think, Robert? Has Herr Hitler overstretched himself?’
‘Sorry, it’s a bit noisy in here. Is that Gregory on the piano?’ Gregory Linden-Smith, an old friend of mine, a talent at the piano with a love for the classics – Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, composers that were continually usurped by demands for Roll Out the Barrel, Knees up, Mother Brown and other pub favourites.
‘That’s Gregory, all right,’ said Hamilton.
‘Silly bugger,’ growled Fraser. ‘Tried to get into the army. They wouldn’t have him, of course.’
Yes, I thought, that would figure. Poor stuttering Gregory, always trying to do what was best and invariably failing. Bright as a spark but very few were clever enough to realise it. To most, he just came across as a fool, the village idiot.
‘We’ve organised a football match,’ said Jenkins. ‘The men of our village against another. For charity. Half of the proceeds will go towards restoring our church roof, the other half to them to do with as they like. I’m to be referee.’
‘Men?’ snorted Fraser. ‘No men left, apart from the imbeciles.’
‘Nonetheless, it’s in a good cause. Now that you’re back, Robert, perhaps you could play?’
‘I doubt it. I don’t think I’d be up to a football match.’
‘Parker will be back in time, though, won’t he?’ asked Fraser.
‘Yes,’ said Jenkins. ‘He’ll be wanting to play, that’s for sure.’
I heard my name being called. A group of men around a table beckoned me over. They’d got me another drink, they said. As long as they didn’t ask me about my war, I thought.
Two or three hours later, I found myself staggering home with June. I was drunk and perfectly aware of the fact. Before leaving the White Ship, I’d made a point of thanking everyone, lurching from table to table like a demented fool, becoming more emotional with each ‘thank you’. And now I was lumbering the short distance home, holding onto June for support.
‘I never knew you could sing,’ she said.
‘Sing? Was I singing?’
She laughed. ‘Of course you were, like a good ’un.’
‘Good God, I was, wasn’t I?’
‘Oops, mind your step. Don’t want you collapsing now, do we?’
‘Where we going?’
‘Back to yours, of course.’
After a couple of failed attempts at opening my front door, I had to give June the key. Angie came bounding over to me, her tail wagging. ‘Good girl,’ I said as she jumped up.
‘Will you be all right?’ asked June.
‘Probably not. You’d better come in.’
She smiled knowingly. ‘I think I’ll leave you to it. I’m sure you’ll be fine. Good night, Robert, and welcome home again.’
I staggered upstairs into the bedroom, and fell onto the bed. Eventually I managed to stir myself and get undressed and into my pyjamas. Lying on the bed, feeling nauseous, I stretched over, opened the drawer of the bedside table and found the ring. A simple ring, just a gold band. I twirled it round my palm. Simple but so important.
Part One: The Boat
Karachi, India, Two Months Earlier
It is dark, but voices surround me. They sound faraway, as if from underwater. The words are but a blur yet distinctly female. I listen out for the noise of water lapping against the boat but, for once, I can’t hear it. I open my eyes and expect to see the sky above me, expect to feel the torturous burning of the sun on my blackened skin. Instead, I see a ceiling, an actual man-made ceiling with a whirring fan. Flies buzz round. And then it comes back to me – I’m not on the boat any more. What, until recently, I thought would last forever, is no more; I was rescued. I am not on the boat. I repeat it several times in my mind, hoping the words will be a source of joy. They are not. I’m too tired for joy or indeed any emotion whatsoever. I feel nothing at all. I am not on the boat. Instead, I am on a bed. Oh, the luxury of lying on a bed, looking up at a ceiling, watching the blur of the fan blades whishing around. My fingers brush the sheets, lovely clean sheets. I feel my chin – the beard’s gone. Someone has shaved me. I have no recollection of it happening. A face appears within my vision, a woman’s face looming over me. She’s young, a girl – dark complexion, long eyelashes. I hear her speak. ‘Are you awake?’ The words form in my mind – yes, I am awake, but the words don’t come. The inside of my mouth feels as if it’s been stuffed with cobwebs, my tongue a heavy pebble. I may have emitted a croak, I’m not sure. A second woman appears, older, a deeper voice. ‘He’s awake. Second Mate Searight,’ she says much louder. ‘You are alive. Welcome back.’
I slept so much in that first week or two in Karachi that the days merged into one. I sat in an office that looked out over the sand dunes and beyond that the sea; a large, spacious office, white walls, large windows, another ceiling fan, a set of bookshelves to one side, a portrait of the king. Outside, a lorry passed, a cloud of sand in its wake. Behind a desk in front of me were two men and a woman. The younger man, perhaps in his forties, was a medic, a doctor perhaps, wearing a cloak so white to be almost painful on the eye. The woman, an army private named Sophie Jones, sat to one side of her companions, her legs crossed, a notebook and pen poised in her hand. She was young, probably no more than twenty. The major, sitting in the middle, introduced himself as Bryant and the medic as Doctor Karr. I recognised the doctor from one of the many quacks that had stood next to my bed. I’d become a bit of a curiosity amongst the medical staff and indeed everyone in the camp. I could imagine the talk – hey, come see our new patient. This is what you look like after two weeks on a lifeboat. On first sitting down on the chair placed in front of the desk, I complained apologetically that the chair was too hard. They understood – I still had no flesh on my buttocks. Private Jones fetched me a cushion and pointed to a glass of water on the desk. I thanked her. Major Bryant leant forward, his fingers steepled. He was a gaunt man, his eyes large, a red mark on the bridge of his nose. With his head cocked to one side, he asked how I was. I told him I was fine, that I was feeling much stronger. And it was true – the staff had been feeding me up slowly – bowls of watery soup replaced by thicker soup, then dishes of rice with little bits of chicken and vegetables. I savoured every mouthful. Never again will I take food for granted. But, I told the nurses, I didn’t want any more chicken. In fact, I never wanted to eat meat again. I told them about my diet of pills and Doctor Karr confirmed my daily intake of vitamin and protein tablets. Private Jones took notes.
‘By the way, Searight,’ said Major Bryant, ‘it says here your first name is George.’
‘Yes, sir. But I’ve always preferred my middle name.’
He looked at me as if I was a circus oddity.
‘We want you to tell us everything,’ he said.
‘It’s a long story.’
‘That’s fine. We have all the time in the world. We need to know everything.’
‘There were forty-two men on board the Academic plus a couple of Indian coolies – you were the only one to survive. It’s important we establish the facts, as far as you can remember them, so we can account for the ship and the men that went down with her. We know you suffered a terrible ordeal so if you think you’re not up to it yet…’
The three of them looked at me expectantly, waiting for my answer. Major Bryant may have offered me the option but somehow, having gathered together, I knew they would prefer not to wait. Anyway, I thought, there was no point in delaying it. I knew I had to tell the tale at some point, so I might as well get on with it. Who knows, perhaps at the end of it I would feel better.
‘I think, sir, I’d rather tell you now.’
I felt the sigh of relief. ‘Good. Well, there’s water if you need it, and if you get tired as you go along, we can always take a break. Feel free to smoke.’
‘I did smoke, sir, but with so long without I don’t feel the need to any more.’
‘Understandable. Right…’ He glanced at his companions. The doctor nodded. ‘So, these are the facts as we know them…’ He picked up a sheet of paper, and reaching for a pair of spectacles began to read. ‘The HMS Academic left Gibraltar on 11 May heading here, for Karachi, a distance of some six thousand miles, expected to take four weeks. You were hit by a torpedo fired from a German U-boat some nine hundred miles from land. Correct?’ I nodded.
‘And it says here that although you had a companion ship, the HMS Heritage, you were unescorted.’
‘And you were transporting mules – six hundred of them.’
‘Yes, odd as it sounds. They were destined for Burma to move supplies through the jungles there.’
Doctor Karr chortled. ‘What was it like with six hundred mules on board?’
‘Smelly and noisy.’
‘I bet it was.’
Bryant turned the sheet of paper. ‘So, the Heritage, which was carrying some five thousand tons of coal, had to turn back after two days because of… it says here jammed steering gears.’
‘Yes, sir, it was unfortunate.’
‘Unfortunate indeed. So you were out on the seas without any escort of any kind?’
‘Yes, we’d been in that situation before, and it’s not a pleasant experience. We knew we were sitting targets for any U-boat in the area, although we’d been assured that they were few and far between in that stretch of water. But of course, that’s exactly what happened.’
‘Yes, of course. And that’s where I want you to start, Searight. What was exactly the sequence of events that allowed you to live while every one of your forty-one comrades perished?’
I looked at the three of them, Major Bryant with his eyes fixed hard on me, Doctor Karr, his arms stretched behind his head, and Private Jones, crossing and uncrossing her legs. A shout from outside distracted me. A group of soldiers were jogging along the sea front, a sergeant on a bicycle yelling at them. Two middle-aged women, arms linked, stepped aside to allow them to pass. ‘I don’t really know where to start, sir.’
‘Just start at the beginning. What time of day was it? What was the weather like?’
‘You want to know that much detail?’
He nodded. ‘I think it’s important. Don’t you?’
Read the rest of The Unforgiving Sea.