Authors: H.E. Bates
The thought of this depressed me, for a time, very much. It was now about half-past twelve. The time seemed crucial. Unless it stopped snowing very soon, so that coastal stations could send out patrols in the early afternoon, we must face another night on the dinghy. I knew that all of us, with the exception of Allison, felt this. We were very tired and cold and stiff from not stretching our bodies, and the snow, whirling and thick and wet, seemed to tangle us up into a circle from which we were never going to get out.
In such moments as this Ellis did the right thing. He had driven us rather hard all morning, getting us out of small depressed moments by saying: “Come on, we've got to keep going: Come on,” or with a dry joke, “No fish and chips for Ossy if' we don't keep going. It's tough tit for Ossy if he doesn't get his fish and chips.” He knew just when he could drive us no longer. Now he let up.
“O.K.,” he said. “Give it a rest.”
“Holy Moses,” Mac said “I used to love snow. Honest, I used to love the bloody stuff.”
Even Mac looked tired. The snow had collected, on his big head, giving him the look of an old man with white hair.
“Jesus,” he said. “I'll never feel the same way about snow again.”
“What time do you make it?” Ellis said to me.
“Twelve forty-five coming up to sixânow,” I said.
“O.K.,” he said. “Set your watches.”
While we set our watches, synchronising them, calling out the figures, Ellis got out the rum, the chocolate and the biscuits. Afterwards I looked back and knew it was not so much the food, as Ellis's order to synchronise the watches, that made me feel better at that moment. Time was our link with the outside world. From setting our watches together we got a sense of unity.
Ellis gave out the chocolate and the biscuits, in the same ration as before.
“Everybody all right? Ossy?”
“I'm a bloody snowball, if that's anything,” Ossy said.
“Good old Ossy.”
Ellis looked at each of us in turn. “All right, Ally?” he said.
Allison nodded. He still sat bolt upright and he still did not speak.
Ellis did not speak either until it was time to tot out the rum. He used the silver bottom of an ordinary pocket-flask for the rum and this, about a third full, was our ration. He always left himself till last, but this time he did not drink. “God, I always hate the stuff. It tastes like warm rubber,” he said.
“Drink it, Ally,” he said.
Allison held out his hand. I could see that the fingers were so cold that, like my own after the burning, they would not flex. I saw Ellis bend them and fold them, like a baby's, over the tot. I saw the hand remained outstretched, stiff in the falling snow, until finally Allison raised it slowly to his lips. I think we all expected to see that cup fall out of Allison's hands, and we were all relieved and glad when at last Ellis reached over and took it away.
As we sat there, rocking up and down, there was a slight lessening of the snow. Through the thinning
flakes we could see, soon, a little more of the sea. No sooner could I see more of it than I hated it more. I hated the long troughs and the barbarous slits of foam between them and the snow driving, curling and then flat, like white tracer above. I hated the ugliness and emptiness of it and above all the fact of its being there.
That afternoon a strange thing happened. By two o'clock the snow grew thinner and drew back into a grey mist that receded over the face of the sea. As it cleared away altogether the sky cleared too, breaking in a southerly direction to light patches of watery yellow which spread under the wind and became spaces of bright blue. Across these, spaces the sun poured in misty shafts and the inner edges of cloud were whiter than the snow had been. Far off, below them, we saw pools of light on the sea.
We were now paddling roughly in a straight line away from the sun. We were all, with the exception of Allison, quite cheerful. There was something tremendously hopeful about this breaking up of the sky after snow.
Allison alone sat there as if nothing had happened. He had not spoken since morning. He still looked terribly cold and tired and yet as if he did not know he was tired.
Suddenly he spoke.
“Very lights,” he said.
“Hell!” Mac said. “Where?”
“Look,” Allison said.
He was pointing straight before us. The sky had not broken much to the north and the cloud there was very low.
“I don't see a bloody thing,” Mac said.
“Christ, if it is,” Ossy said. “Christ, if it is.”
We were all very excited. The paddling and bailing stopped, and we rocked in the water.
“Where did you see this? “Ellis said,
“There,” Allison said. He was still pointing, but his eyes were as empty as they had always been.
“You're sure they were Very lights?”
“I saw them.”
“How long were they burning?”
“They just lit up and went out.”
“But where? Where exactly?”
“You see the dark bit of cloud under there? They came out of that.”
We all looked at that point for a long time. I stared until my eyeballs seemed to smart with hot smoke again.
“Ally, boy,” Mac said. “You must have awful good eyesight.”
“What would Very lights be doing at this time of day? “Ed said.
“I can't think,” Ellis said. “Probably Air-Sea Rescue. It's possible. They'd always be looking.”
“A kite wouldn't be dropping them unless it saw something.”
“It might. Funny things happen.”
“Hell they do,” Mac said.
“You couldn't expect even Air-Sea Rescue to see us in this muck,” I said.
Ossy and Ed began to paddle again. As we went forward we still kept our eyes on the dark patch of cloud, but nothing happened. Nor did Allison speak again; nor had any of us the heart to say we thought him mistaken.
For a time we hadn't the heart for much at all. The situation in the dinghy now looked messy and discouraging. The melting snow was sloppy in the bottom, a dirty yellow colour; there were too many feet. It was still very cold and when we tried to do exercisesâI could only beat my elbows against my
sidesâwe knocked clumsily against each other. We had done that before, in the morning, and once or twice it had seemed mildly funny. Now it was more irritating than the snow, the cold and the disappointment of Allison's false alarm.
All this time the sky was breaking up. In the west and south, through wide blue lakes of cloud, white shafts of sun fell as bright and cold as chromium on the sea. These shiny edges of sunlight sometimes produced an hallucination. They looked in the distance like very white cliffs, jagged and unbelievably real. Staring at them, it was easy to understand why Allison had seen a Very light in a cloud.
So we paddled until three o'clock; and I knew it was hopeless. We had another hour of daylight: the worst of the day. The sea, with the sun breaking on it, looked terribly empty; but with the darkness on it we should at least have nothing to look for. Ellis, as always, was very good at this moment. His face was red and fresh and his eyes, bright blue, did not look very tired. He had managed somehow to keep neater than the rest of us. You felt he had kept back enormous reserves of energy and hope and that he hadn't even begun to think of the worst. And now he suddenly urged us to sing. “Come on, a sing-song before tea, chaps,” he said. “Come on.”
So we began singing. We first sang
. Then we sang other songs, bits of jazz, and
, then we came back to
. We sang low and easy and there was no resonance about it because of the wind. But it was a good thing to sing because you could sing the disappointment out of yourself and it kept you from thinking. We must have gone on singing for nearly an hour and the only one of us who didn't sing much was Allison. From time to time I saw his mouth moving. It simply moved up and down, rather slowly, erratically, out of tune. Whatever
he was singing did not belong to us. He was very pale and the cavity of his mouth looked blue and his eyes were distant and dark as if they were still staring at those Very lights in the distant cloud.
It must have been about four o'clock when he fell into the dinghy. The sea pitched us upward and Allison fell forward on his face. He fell loosely and his head struck the feet crowded in the bottom of the dinghy, which rocked violently with the fall.
Ellis and Mac pulled him upright again. His face was dirty with snow water and his eyes were wide open. Ellis began to rub his hands. The veins on the back of them were big and blue, the colour of his lips, and he began to make a choking noise in his throat. His body was awkward and heavy in the well of the dinghy and it was hard to prevent him from slipping down again. The dinghy rocked badly and I thought we might capsize.
“Put him between my knees,” I said. “I can hold him like that.”
They propped him up and I locked his body with my knees, keeping it from falling. I held my bandaged hands against his face and he made a little bubbling noise with his mouth, not loud, but as if he was going to be gently sick.
As I held him like that and as we bumped about in the dinghy, badly balanced, swinging and rocking like one of those crazy boats at a fun fair, I looked at the sky.
The sun had suddenly gone down. Already above the sunset the sky was clear and green and I could feel the frost in the air.
I held Allison's body with my knees all that night and his face with my damaged hands. My legs are long and gradually the feeling went out of them.
But once I had got into that position it was too complicated to move.
As darkness came down ice began to form like thin rough glass on the outer sides of the dinghy, where the snow had first settled and thawed. Frost seemed to tighten up the rubber, which cracked off the ice as it moved with the waves. It was bitterly cold, very clear and brittle, without much wind. The sky was very clear too and there was a splintering brightness in the stars.
At intervals of about an hour we gave Allison drinks of rum. At these moments he did not speak. He would make the gentle, bubbling noise with his lips and then leave his mouth open, so that a little of the rum ran out again. I would shut his mouth with my hand. Sometimes I put my unbandaged wrists on his face and it was as cold as stone.
All that night, in between these times, I thought a lot. The cold seemed to clear my brain. All the feeling had gone from my hands and from my legs and thighs, and my head seemed almost the only part of me alive. For the first time I thought of what might be happening, or what might yet happen, at home. I thought of base, where they would be wondering about us. I could see the Mess anteroom: the long cream room with the fire at one end, the pictures of Stirlings on the walls, the chaps playing cards, someone drumming to a Duke Ellington record on the lid of the radio. I wondered if they had given us up. I wondered too about the papers. If they had already said anything about us it could only be in the dead phrase: one of our aircraft is missing. Hearing it, did anyone think about it again? We had been drifting for two days on the sea and for a long time we had been on fire in the air. If we didn't come back no one would ever know. If we did come back the boys at the station would be glad, and perhaps the papers would give
us a line in a bottom corner. I didn't feel very bitter but that night, as I sat there, holding Allison with my burnt hands, I saw the whole thing very clearly. We had been doing things that no one had ever done before. Almost every week you read of aircraft on fire in the air. You read it in the papers and then you turned over and read the sports news. You heard it on the radio and the next moment you heard a dance band. You sat eating in restaurants and read casually of men floating for days in dinghies. God, I was hungry. I began to think of food, sickly and ravenously, and then put it out of my mind. You read and heard of these things, and they stopped having meaning. Well, they had meaning for me now. I suddenly realised that what we were doing was a new experience in the world. Until our time no one had ever been on fire in the air. Until our time there had never been so many people to hear of such things and then to forget them again.
I wanted to speak. Where my stomach should have been there was a distended bladder of air. I pressed Allison's head against it. I must have moved sharply, not thinking, and he groaned.
“Ally?” I said. “Are you all right, Ally?”
He did not answer. Ellis gave him a little more rum and then I held his mouth closed again.
I looked at the stars and went on thinking. The stars were very frosty and brittle and green. One of them grew bright enough to be reflected, broken up, in the black water. Did my wife care? This, I thought, is a nice moment to reason it out. Neither of us had wanted to have children. We hadn't really wanted much at all except a flat, a lot of small social show, and a good time. Looking back, I felt we were pretty despicable. We had really been attracted by a mutual selfishness. And then we got to hating each other because the selfishness of one threatened the
selfishness of another. A selfishness that surrenders is unselfishness. Neither of us would surrender. We were too selfish to have children; we were too selfish to trouble about obligations. Finally, we were too selfish to want each other.
All this, it seemed, had happened a long time ago. Life in the dinghy had gone on a thousand years. I had never had the use of my hands, and I had never eaten anything but chocolate and biscuit and rum. Curious that they were luxuries. I had never sat anywhere exception the edge of that dinghy, with the sea beating me up and down, the ice cracking on the sides, and my feet in freezing water. I had never done anything except hold Allison with my hands and knees. And now I had held him so long that we seemed frozen together.
Every time we gave Allison the rum that night, I smelled it for a long time in the air, thick and sweet. Once it ran down out of his open mouth over my wrists and very slowly, so as not to disturb him, I raised my wrists and licked it off. My lips were sore with salt and, because it was not like drinking from a cup, the rum burnt the cracks in them. I was cold too and moving my hands was like moving some part of Allison's body, not my own.