Authors: H.E. Bates
“No, sir,” Ossy said. “I'm bloody wet.”
We all laughed with extra heartiness at that.
“What was the last contact with base?”
“Half an hour before we hit the drink,” Allison said.
“You think they got you?”
“They were getting me then,” Allison said. “But afterwards we were off course. The transmitter was u.s. after the fix.
“All right,” Ellis said. “And listen to me.” He shone the torch on his wrist. “It's now eleven ten. I'm going to call out the time every half hour.”
The torch went out. It seemed darker than ever. The dinghy “rocked on the sea.
“Remember what the wind was, Mac?”
“She was north north-east,” Mac said. “About thirty on the ground.”
“Any idea where we should be?”
“We were on course until that bloody fire started. But Jesus, you did some evasive action after that. Christ knows where we went.”
“We ought to be in the North Sea somewhere, just north-west of Holland.”
“I guess so,” said Mac.
“North north-eastâthat might blow us down-Channel.”
“In time it might blow us to Canada,” Mac said.
“As soon as it gets light we can get the direction of the wind,” Ellis said. “We'll use the compass and then you'll all paddle like hell.”
I sat there and did not say anything. I knew now that my hands were burnt, but I did not know how badly. I tried putting them in my pockets, but with the rocking of the dinghy I could not balance myself. The pain of my hands all that night was my chief concern. The pain of my eyes, which were scorched too, did not seem so bad. I could shut them against the wind, and for long intervals I did so, riding on the dinghy blindly, the swell of the wave magnified because I could not see. It was better to close my eyes. If I did so the wind, cold and steady but not really strong, could not reach the raw eyeballs. The sea-spray could not hit them and pain them any more.
But I could not shut my hands. Fire seemed to have destroyed the reflex action of the muscles. The fingers stood straight out. It was not so much the pain of burning as the pain of a paralysis in which the nerves had been stripped raw. I had to hold them in one position. In whatever way my body moved my hands remained outstretched and stiff. When the sea broke over the dinghy, as it did at the most unexpected moments, the spray splashed my hands and the salt was like acid on the burns and I could riot dry it off. I had to sit there until the wind dried it for me. And then it was as if the wind was freezing every spit of spray into a flake of ice and that the flakes were burning my hands all over again.
I sat there all night, facing the wind. Every half hour Ellis gave out the time. He said nothing about rations or about the rum. From this I gathered that
he was not hopeful about our position. It seemed to mean that he expected us to be a long time in the dinghy and that we must apportion rations for two, three, or perhaps four days. I had noticed too that all through the period of snow, for the last week, the wind rose steadily with the sun. By mid-afternoon, on land, it blew at forty or fifty miles an hour, raising white frozen dust in savage little clouds on the runways. Then it dropped with the sun. So if in the morning the wind strengthened we should I thought, have a hard job to paddle crossways against it; which was our way to England. We should drift towards the Channel into the Straits, and then down Channel. Nothing could stop us. The wind would be strongest when we could paddle best, and weakest when we could not steer well. I saw that we might drift for days and end up, even if we were lucky, far down the French coast, certainly not east of Cherbourg. I did not see how we could reach England.
Perhaps it did me good to think like this. I know that afterwards Ellis thought much like it; except that he had a worse fearâthat we might be so near the coast of Europe that, that night before we could realise our position, we might be blown into the shore of Germany or Holland. It was at least better than thinking like Ossy, who seemed so sure he would be in England in the morning and in Newcastle, on crash leave, in the afternoon.
And to think of this kept me from thinking of my hands. My mind, thinking of the possibility of future difficulties, went ahead of my pain. All night, too, there was little danger from the sea. It was, very cold but the dinghy rode easily, if rather sluggishly, in the water. Our clothes were very wet and I could feel the water slapping about my boots in the well of the dinghy. We simply rode blindly in the darkness, without direction, under a sky completely
without stars and on a sea completely without noise except for the flat slapping of waves on the rubber curve of the dinghy.
After a time I managed to bandage my hands very roughly with my handkerchief. The handkerchief was in my left trouser pocket. I could not stand up or, in the confined space of the well that was full of feet, move my leg more than a few inches. But at last I straightened my thigh downwards a little, and then my left hand downward against my thigh. The pain of touching the fabric filled my mouth with sickness. It was like pushing your hand into fire. When I pushed my hand still further down the sickness dried in my mouth and the roof of it and my tongue were dry and contracted, as if with alum. Then I pushed my hand further down. I could just feel the handkerchief between the tips of my fingers. I drew it out very slowly. The opening of the pocket, chafing against my hand, seemed to take off the flesh. The raw pain seemed to split my hand and long afterwards, when my hands were covered by the handkerchief and warm and almost painless, my head was cold with the awful sweat of pain.
I sat like that for the rest of the night, my hands roughly bound together.
We were all quite cheerful in the morning. The sky in the east was split into flat yellow bars of wintry light. As they fell on the yellow fabric of the dinghy it looked big and safe and friendly. The wind was not strong and the air no colder. The sea was everywhere the colour of dirty ice.
Ellis then told us what our position was.
“I am dividing the rations for three days,” he said. I knew afterwards that this was not true. He
was reckoning on their lasting for six days. “We eat in the morning. You get a tot of rum at midday. Then a biscuit at night. That's all you'll get.”
We did not say anything.
“Now we paddle in turns, two at a time, fifteen minutes each. If the wind is still north north-east it means steering at right angles across it. We can soon check the wind when the sun comes up. It ought to come almost behind the sun. It means paddling almost north. The risk is that we'll bloody well go down Channel and never get back.”
None of us said anything again.
“I'll dish the rations out and then we'll start. We'll start with a drop of rum now, because it's the first time. Then Ossy and Ed start paddling; then Mac and Ally; then Thompson andâwhat's the matter with your hands?” he said to me.
“Burnt a bit,” I said.
“Can you hold anything?”
“They won't reflex or anything,” I said. “But my wrists are all right. I could hold the paddle with my wrists.”
“Don't talk cock!” he said.
“I can't sit here doing nothing,” I said.
“O.K.” he said, “you can call out the time. Every hour now. And anyway it'll take us an hour to bandage those hands.”
Ossy and Ed started paddling. They were fresh and paddled rather raggedly at first, over-eager, one long-armed and one short so that the dinghy rocked.
“Take it steady,” Ellis said. “Keep the sun on your right cheek. Take long strokes. You've got all day.”
“Not if I know it,” Ossy said. “I got crash-leave coming, so I'll catch the midnight to Newcastle.”
“You've got damn all coming if you don't keep
your mouth shut. Do you want your guts full of cold air?”
Ellis got out his first-aid pack and peeled off the adhesive tape. He had changed places with Thompson and was sitting next to me.
“What did you do?” he said. “Try to fry yourself?”
“I dropped my gloves,” I said.
“Take it easy,” he said. “I'll take the handkerchief off.”
He took off the handkerchief and for some moments I could not move my hands. The air seemed to burn again the shining swollen blisters. I sat in a vacuum of pain. Oh! Christ, I thought: Oh, Jesus, Jesus! I fixed my eyes on the horizon and held them there, blind to everything except the rising and falling line below the faint yellow bars of sun. I held my hands raw in the cold air and the wind savagely drove white hot needles of agony down my fingers. Jesus, I thought, please, Jesus. I knew I could not bear it any more and then I did bear it. The pain came in waves that rose and fell with the motion of the dinghy: The waves swung me sickeningly up and down, my hands part of me for one second and then no longer part of me, the pain stretching away and then driving back like hot needles into my naked flesh.
I became aware after a time of a change of colour in the sea. This colour travelled slowly before my eyes and spewed violently into the dinghy. It was bright violet. I realised that it seemed one moment part of the sea and one moment part of the dinghy because it was, in reality, all over my hands. The motion of the dinghy raised it to the line of sea and spewed it down into the yellow wall of fabric.
I was not fully aware of what was happening now. I knew that the violet colour was the colour of the gentian ointment Ellis was squeezing on my hands;
I knew that the pure whiteness that covered it was the white of bandage. For brief moments my mind was awake and fixed. Then violet and white and yellow and the grey of the sea were confused together. They suddenly became black and the blackness covered me.
When I could look at the sea again and not see those violent changes of colour the sun was well above the horizon and Mac and Allison were paddling. I did not then know they were paddling for the second time. I held my hands straight out, the wrists on my knees, and stared at the sea. It was roughened with tiny waves like frosted glass. I did not speak for a long time and the men in the dinghy did not speak to me. There was no pain in my hands now. And in my mind the only pain was the level negative pain of relief, the pain after pain, that had no violence or change.
I must have sat there all morning, not speaking. We might have drifted into the coast and I shouldn't have known it. I watched the sun clear itself of the low cloud lying above the sea, and then the sky itself clear slowly about the sun. It became a pale wintry blue and as the sun rose the sea was smoothed down, until it was like clean rough ice as far as you could see.
It must have been about midday that I was troubled with the idea that I ought to paddle. From watching the sea I found myself watching the faces of the others. They looked tired in the sun. I realised that I had been sitting there all morning, doing nothing. I did not know till afterwards that I had called out the time, from the watch on my wrist, every hour.
But now I wanted to paddle. I had to paddle. I had to pull my weight. It seemed agonizing and stupid to sit there, not moving or speaking, but only watching with sore and half-dazed eyes that
enormous empty expanse of sea and sky. I had to do something to break the level pain of that monotony.
Thinking this, I must have tried to stand up.
“Sit down, you bloody fool! Sit down!” Ellis yelled. “Sit down!”
The words did not hurt me. I must have obeyed automatically, not knowing it. But in the second that Ellis shouted I was myself again. The stupefaction of pain was broken. For the first time since daybreak I looked at the men about me. They ceased being anonymous. I really saw their faces. They were no longer brown-yellow shapes, vague parts of the greater yellow shape of the dinghy. They were the men I knew, and I was consciously and fully with them, alive again.
“You feel better?” Ellis said.
“I'm all right.”
“I gave you a shot,” he said.
“I'm all right. I could paddle.”
“You could bloody hell,” he said.
“I could do something,” I said. “I want to do something.”
“O.K. Keep a look-out. Bawl as soon as you see anything that looks like a kite or a sail.”
From that moment I felt better. I could not use my hands, but I had something on which to use my eyes. The situation in the morning had seemed bad. Now I turned it round. There was nothing so bad that it couldn't be worse. Supposing my eyes had been burnt out, and not my hands? I felt relieved and grateful and really quite hopeful now.
At one o'clock exactly we had a small tot of rum. The wind had risen, as I thought it would with the sun. But there was no cloud and no danger, that afternoon, of snow. Visibility was down to two or three miles and in the far distance there was a slight colourless haze on the face of the sea. But it was, as far as you could tell, good flying weather.
“So,” as Ellis said, “there is a chance of a patrol. The vis. isn't improving, but it ought to be good enough. It all depends anyway on the next two hours.”
No one paddled as we drank the rum. We rested for ten minutes. Then Ossy and Ed began paddling again. Helped by the rest, the rum, and the fact that the sun was so clear and bright on the water, we all felt much more hopeful. Occasionally a little water swilled over into the dinghy, but the next moment Allison, calm and methodical, baled it out again with his hands.
I kept watching the sea and the sky. At two o'clock I called out the time. The hour seemed to have gone very quickly. I realised that we had one more hour in which we could hope to be seen by an aircraft; only two in which we could hope, even remotely, to be picked up. But I was not depressed. I do not think any of us were depressed. It was good that we were together, dependent, as we always had been, on each other. And we were so far only looking forward, not backward. We had no disappointment to feed on, but only the full hope of the afternoon. None of us knew that Ellis had already prepared himself, as early as one o'clock, for another night in the dinghy.