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The Lost Flying Boat
By Alan Sillitoe
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Alan Sillitoe
All rights reserved.
A listener from birth should not be surprised if his first occupation turns out to be that of wireless operator. So with me. I listened through earphones to messages which came invisibly from the sky, and was able to write, though not always understand, any language which used morse symbols.
I listened with the greatest intensity of which two ears are capable. Such willingness opened a way to the inner voice, and twenty-five years later all details of what happened to the flying boat Aldebaran and its crew of eight became clear, so it is perhaps as well that I waited before writing my account. By paying attention to the faithful voice I leave out nothing which insists on being told.
The trio of Partagas cigars carried in the breast pocket of Captain Bennett's tunic were apt to crumble, so he coated each with cigarette paper as skilfully as if binding the broken limb of a pet monkey. He then puffed his whitened cigar into a simulation of alto-cumulus cloud above the blank spaces of the plotting chart, and gazed through the nebulosity in a way that showed he had his worries.
I had no qualms working for a man so preoccupied. It left me a great deal to myself while waiting for the rest of the crew to gather at the Driftwood Hotel, and that was what I liked. Going once a day to report my presence, I would find Bennett pencilling calculations concerning the range of the flying boat, the petrol its four engines would consume, and the distance to the Kerguelen Islands. At such times he would confide in me because he had no one else to talk to; though I think he wanted to listen to himself a shade more than he needed to hear what I had to say.
As he opened parallel rulers to draw the required track-line on the Admiralty Chart he expatiated on how essential maps and charts were for getting from place to place and for navigating over the water. 'We must always be aware in which direction we are going. I once knew someone who set out across the world with no more than a few sheets torn from an atlas.'
He looked at me with an enquiring smile, as if to get some reaction as to whether or not I fully understood. I gave no sign one way or the other. He walked to the large window, looked out for a while, and puffed as if to give the inhabitants of this obscure South African port the benefit of his cigar smoke as well. He turned and went on: 'Must have been an insensitive bod, to commit such desecration. I suppose he felt the need to bring a pretty diagram of his travels home for his children! They make people like that, these days.'
There was a bottle of whisky on the table, and he poured half a glass. 'Booze confuses, but in my case it reduces the speed of thought. I can then grasp what's in my mind. Otherwise my eyes slide across that vital small print of thought, and refuse to latch on.'
In the sitting room of his suite there were, besides the large rectangular table with a chair on each side, a sofa, a bureau, a separate wardrobe, and two huge armchairs. My cabin-like habitation on the floor above had a coathanger on the back of the door, a sink barely deep enough to get my hands in, and a cot. But it was all I needed.
'Maps and charts fix our position, and inform us where we can and can't go, Mr Adcock. We little men on earth are constrained by space and topography, God dammit! All we can do is sign on the dotted line, and stand by whatever it is we've half-wittingly agreed to.'
Why he said this I don't know. I had never thought of doing other than carrying out what I was being paid for. The chart of the South Indian Ocean was scored with wriggling fathom-lines and cut by veins of isogonals. Between South Africa, where we were, and the Kerguelen Islands, where we hoped to go, were undersea canyons thousands of fathoms deep; and, mulling on such figures and profundities, I felt myself floating half-drowned through the blackest of killer-whale hideouts.
He showed me a smaller chart on which I was to inscribe the callsigns of radio stations. Wireless bearings obtained along our route would be useful to the navigator, he told me, especially if cloud reached so high that sights on heavenly bodies became impossible. 'When we cannot see, we often hear.'
'So I understand.'
He folded the callsign chart and gave it to me. 'That's why we're taking you – to be our listener. And wireless navigator, if necessary. It'll be a hard job finding what we want. In fact some might call it an expedition no sane person would approve of.'
I found his sense of humour reassuring, and said that, no matter what anyone thought, I was glad to be going. Much more was in my mind, but I felt this to be neither the time nor the place to say it.
'Don't think for a moment that there's anything shady in our venture,' he added. 'There isn't, believe you me, though while you're here, Mr Adcock, I might tell you that this little job is more than a godsend to me.'
We had not reached that level of familiarity when he might have called me 'Sparks', the generic name for all wireless operators, but on my asking why he considered the job to be such a godsend, he resumed: 'Because the time will never come again when it will be possible to do what we're going to do. You may not have noticed, but let me tell you that the shutters are coming down on any individual with enterprising spirit. We fought the war in the cause of freedom, but as soon as it was over there was no freedom to inherit. Freedom was dying while we fought. The war turned us into slaves, by making the bureaucrat supreme. The only so-called virtues left are idleness and cheating. Show initiative, and you're under suspicion. A spiderweb of red tape is woven around inventiveness. Fall into line, you get your reward – but not unless. A nation wins a war over the Nazis, but what does it signify if your own guts get kicked out in the process? All self-respect gone. Strangled by rules and regulations designed to keep bureaucrats at their posts and people in their place. I'll have none of it, Adcock, not while I have this scheme up my sleeve.'
Because he spoke calmly, his ideas seemed reasonable. I knew they were not, and in my unease hoped for an end so that I could go. He walked again to the window, closed it, and came back. 'The twentieth century has been poisoned by two bestial systems that have tainted everyone whether they embraced them or fought against them. For myself, I want to push this expedition through so that I can be independent of all systems. To become rich is the only defence against being without hope.'
Glancing over his shoulder at the blameless ocean of the chart, I did not know as much then as I do now. After a final puff he laid the whitened, still smouldering stub in the ashtray and began binding another, which I took as a sign that the conference was over. The last thing that occurred to me before going out was that the word PARTAGAS on the cigar box read SAGA TRAP backwards. I was going to mention this, but thought better of it.
On my way downstairs I passed Shottermill, a big coarse-featured man of about sixty, with thin white hair so wispy he was almost bald. On the middle finger of a huge hand which gripped the banister was a ring crested with the coat of arms of some regiment or ship. When his pale blue eyes saw my glance he withdrew the hand and continued upstairs as if he didn't care to be seen by a younger man as needing the assistance of the banister. His stolid alertness was as if maintained by arrogance, and primed by scorn at any of the world's weaknesses which threatened to infect him. In the Air Force his sort had been the mainstay of the lower ranks, a warrant officer without humour and always aloof.
At first I thought he was just another lay about at the Driftwood Hotel, perhaps an escapee from Attlee's socialism who no longer cared to live with rationing and government controls, and to whom settling at a job in a cold climate seemed a lack of birthright after the war years, when any thought of tomorrow had been obliterated by the possibility that it might never come.
However I might dislike the expressions gathered into the orbit of his face, they were nevertheless of value to him and, his scowl implied, no bloody business of yours. What he had done before the war was impossible to say, but he was now a chandler contracted to provide stores for the flying boat. I suspect he also did smuggling and currency exchange, using his tourist agency as a cover. I sensed something of failure about him, but it was well held in, and perhaps came to me because there was sufficient failure in me at that time to make the connection. I had seen him only for a few seconds, but was young enough at twenty-six to indulge in snap judgements, and sufficiently dense to believe that each one must apply to other people. Now at the age of fifty I risk nothing and learn nothing. Youth only learns because only youth has to.
I was on my way out for a ten-minute walk before going to bed. Since arriving in Ansynk I'd had difficulty getting to sleep, and hoped the exercise and midnight air might lull me into oblivion. But coming back I succumbed to the idea of a last smoke in my room, and on the hotel stairs felt in my jacket for my cigarette case and lighter. On not finding them I thought that an efficient rob-job had been done. My pocket had been picked. But I had passed no one during the walk except a policeman, and he had been on the other side of the street.
I would always distrust others rather than blame myself, which was unreasonable, because though I had lost things I had never been robbed. I was wary of everyone, however, in a minor way, which perhaps explained my painstaking attitude to work, as in those long night watches in the Air Force when no planes risked getting themselves knocked about in monsoon clouds. I would contact other ground stations to test my signals, and sense their anger at being drawn out of slumber for a triviality. But if a kite had been in need of directional assistance, or had been forced to ditch, and air-sea rescue wanted its position, then my attention would have saved lives. Flying Control said no aircraft were about, but a civvy plane might have failed to notify them, which sometimes happened, so I would comb a few kilocycles either side of the frequency, with earphones dutifully clamped.
I remembered leaving the cigarette case and lighter in Bennett's room and, thought and action being for once the same thing, went to the door and knocked. Shottermill opened it. 'Who the hell's that?' the Skipper shouted.
'The wireless operator. I left my cigarettes and lighter.'
Shottermill looked as if he wanted to knock me down. His eyes showed that he was terrifically angry about something, but he was also the sort of man who, once he hesitated, was lost. I pushed by when Bennett called that I should come in and find the bloody things.
During the day his hotel suite was noisy because main-street traffic rattled under the windows. But much of the time he was out making arrangements for the trip – though I imagined something more important than such affairs had brought Shottermill to see him now.
Shottermill grinned as I looked around the room. 'Perhaps it's under the table.' He was trying to rile Bennett more than me, though I couldn't fathom the reason. 'I don't see why you want a wireless operator.'
The chart on the table curled at one corner, and I saw my belongings half obscured, though did not go to them. Bennett gripped the bridge of his nose as if trying to think his way out of a puzzle. Pressing at that spot brought back the pain of the bone being broken at boxing, which minimized his irritation. 'The supply ship will have a wireless operator, and I'll have one as well. I'm not crossing so much water without all the aids I can lay my hands on. There's no air-sea rescue if we get into trouble.'
'I just wondered what use he'd be.' Shottermill occupied an armchair, and pulled the whisky towards him but didn't pour. I amused myself by thinking that if I weren't too tired I would go outside and let down the tyres of his car. Bennett controlled his irritation: 'When I think of what you'll get out of the deal, he's cheap at the price. We all are, in fact.'
I was glad to hear it, and wondered how high Shottermill was in the scheme of the expedition, rightly supposing it was he who had sold Bennett the box of ancient and worm-eaten cigars.
'Fair enough, Captain,' he said. 'I only wanted to know.'
'We're here to talk about supplies.' Bennett nodded towards my lighter and told me to get it. 'All other arrangements were settled in London.'
Judging by Shottermill's frown and broad uplifted hand I was to hear nothing of any importance, though my suspicions began from that moment, the worst being that Bennett did not have any. Whoever supposed that a wireless operator on such a trip was superfluous could not in his heart wish the expedition success. There were certain things he did not want me to hear, or messages to send, or vital contacts to make. Because as yet I knew almost nothing, these reflections fell into a vacuum, but I was to remember them.
I scooped up my stuff and went, hearing them arguing even from as far away as the stairs which led to the third floor – at which I gathered that someone had helped himself to Bennett's whisky without permission.
Of all the things dead and living, only God has no name, but the newly discovered is immediately delineated on becoming known. A name, a number, or a callsign identifies. A boat, plane or even a motor car is given a name because until then it doesn't properly belong. When possession is nine tenths of the law, a name puts a stamp of ownership on it. Possessions come by easily are named so that they are not blithely lost.
Everything has a name. From the door of my radio hut in Malaya I watched a C-47 Dakota come in to land. I had given bearings on the long haul from Burma, so took an interest in its safe arrival. Through Barr and Stroud binoculars I saw, as it turned into the dispersal point by the ramshackle control tower, stencilled letters on its fuselage which said Sheffield Star.
The aircraft had a name, and also a call sign, the letters of which rarely made word-sense – though there were exceptions. To while away the time at the Driftwood Hotel I thumbed through the book of radio navigation aids and picked out three- and four-letter callsigns which made a word in themselves, hoping that a wireless operator sending morse from the coast station at Nordeich DAN did not sit in a lion's den. Neither could it be supposed that the operator at Cape Lookout NAN was a woman, or that some stray Scotsman was employed at Nagoya JOCK, or that the radio officer on the Estonian icebreaker ESAU despised his birthright. At Skagerrak SAM was not necessarily established as a prophet, though still sending morse when Oulu signed OFF. Maybe signals transmitted VIA Adelaide were relayed with VIM by Melbourne and picked up by a VIP at Perth. In France one could have FUN at Lorient, but find it cold enough to wear FUR at Rochefort, though it might be better to go to Madagascar and keep FIT at Tulear.
Perhaps a long association with the letters and rhythms of morse created a tandem proclivity to verbal dexterity. Perhaps not. But I remembered that anyone sending morse on our Malayan network whom we could not identify was called OOJERKERPIV, a nonsense word signifying (to us) 'unknown'. Some operator might be clacking two bits of wire together above the jungles of Indo-China, or doing the same from a mangrove swamp by the mouth of a Borneo river. Most attempts to make an OOJERKERPIV admit his identity failed because he had no business being on an official frequency. Occasionally the squelch of dots and dashes came from an aircraft too far away to make contact, so that on getting close he was no longer an OOJERKERPIV but had a callsign and a right to be there.
No contact could be confirmed unless the formality of identification had taken place. Duty as well as courtesy meant that you obeyed the rules. An exchange of identity and signals strengths, of where coming and where going, and of latitude and longitude should the aircraft, for reasons known only unto God, suddenly plunge into the sea, were given with as much alacrity as those messages flashed between ships that pass in the middle of the ocean.
An OOJERKERPIV was not therefore regarded in friendly fashion. One wanted him to transfer his interfering pip-squeak morse elsewhere. But sitting in my hut beyond the runway, earphones on so that the rest of the world was shut out, I was one day called by an aircraft which identified itself by the actual name OOJERKERPIV. I could hardly believe it, but made contact nevertheless. On mentioning this to a fellow operator he said I should stop being a bloody liar, but when he saw details timed to the minute and neatly written in the logbook, each bearing sent to the plane underlined by the usual steel straightedge, he admitted I was right.
Excerpted from The Lost Flying Boat by Alan Sillitoe. Copyright © 1983 Alan Sillitoe. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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