Captain by Sam Angus – Extract

Captain

Alexandria
August 1915

It was in Egypt that I saw Captain for the first time. The others had gone out drinking at the Cap d’Or Café, determined to live it up on our last night. I wandered out, feeling very alone, with no friend to go to but the horses, the men’s mockery still pinching a raw nerve. I was the youngest of us all by a long chalk and I took their ragging and teasing the wrong way. I had no whiskers to shave and didn’t drink, so I’d toyed with my knife, wanting it to look as though I wasn’t going to the Cap d’Or because there was still jam and bread on my plate.

‘Come on, boy,’ Lieutenant Straker had called. The Strakers had the Manor House at Bredicot back home. All of us Bayliss boys and Mother were a little in awe of Lady Straker, so I wished I were not in his platoon and that he wasn’t so familiar and joshing with me. It made me uncomfortable, what with him being a Second Lieutenant and his family being neighbours and him probably knowing my age, and anyway, I’d never had a drink.

‘Have a beer, Billy,’ Firkins said, then Merrick and Robins and Tandy and all of them joined in too.

‘Have a beer, Billy, come on, have a beer.’

Until the Lieutenant said, ‘Leave the boy alone. What does it matter to us if he doesn’t drink?’

That morning too, when he was shaving, Robins laughed at me and called me ‘girlie’, and it had been just like the schoolroom at Bredicot again when I’d stood with Abel Rudge and the others, before Divinity, measuring our chests with wooden rulers to work out our chances of being recruited. None of us were old enough, not by a long way, but Rudge had said to pick cards to see who’d try for it. I’d turned up the knave of clubs, and Rudge had smirked and said, ‘It’s Billy, little Billy Bayliss’s going to have a try.’

So I did have a try, you see – none of us Bayliss boys likes to let a challenge go by – and in the end it’d all been easy, being recruited. I’d half-inched my brother Francis’s papers and left Bredicot. We’d lined up at the town hall, there’d been other boys there from school too in that queue, and we’d been stripped and examined, and I’d stood in line, standing up tall and wide as I could, trying to add two years to my chest to make me look Francis’s seventeen.

‘Put on your clothes. You’ll do.’

There were three of us Bayliss boys – Francis, Geordie and me – and no one could tell us apart.

Francis had the right number of years, but bad feet, so I was all right and I passed muster, but none of the other boys from school did.

A Sergeant-Major had formed us into fours and marched us to the race track and I spent that night on a cement floor, wedged between lines of fold-up seats, trousers wrapped round our boots for a pillow.

I felt guilty about leaving home but I thought more about Abel Rudge’s surprise when he knew I’d got through than I did about Mother. With Father gone, things were a bit tight at home and she’d find it easier with one less.

When the training was over and we boarded the Saturnia, the others had stowed their kit in the steerage quarters, then rushed up to the poop deck to wave goodbye to their families, but there’d been no one on the wharf to see me off. There had been a parcel, though, from Mother, just before we’d entrained for Avonmouth. In it was a pair of field glasses and a note.

Dear Billy,

I understand you are now 17 and for your unexpected coming of age I thought these field glasses might come in useful. They were your father’s.

Billy, I know there’s no point trying to stop you. I’ve always said there’s no point trying to stop a Bayliss. You are all just like your father – you more than any of them – and there was never any stopping him.

Good luck, Billy.

Love, Mother.

I’d stayed below deck watching through a tight and greasy window as England ebbed away. She was always practical and brisk, Mother, in her letters, in everything really, as unfussing a sort of person as you could find anywhere.

There’d been no peace on the Saturnia, the food vile, the hammocks cheek by jowl, the heat fierce. We’d passed the snow-tipped mountains of southern Spain and the Algerian coast. No one knew where we were headed. ‘Smyrna,’ Robins said, and I’d taken little notice, such whispers changing as they did with each wind. We heard we were stopping at Alexandria and Lieutenant Straker said, ‘It’ll be Gallipoli then.’ Firkins told me in front of all the men that Gallipoli was the rocky tail-end of Europe, a place of myth and legend. It was embarrassing in front of the men, the way Firkins always spoke to me as if I were in a History lesson. He could speak through a corner of his mouth without removing the pipe that was always clamped in there, even when he didn’t have any tobacco to put in it.

We’d waited a long time in Egypt. We’d marched in sand and eaten sand till I was sick of the stuff. I’d seen the men who came back from Gallipoli – they’d been Australians, mostly, big, well-made men. We’d unloaded them on the docks, the dead in the same tubs as the living, the green flies on their yellow-black wounds. But some of them joshed and asked for beers even as they lay there with their wounds all maggoty or their legs blown off.

Now I knew I was going to the place those men had come from and I was scared.

I was relieved, though, to be leaving Egypt, where I’d felt so alone. There were men in Egypt from all over the place: Indians, Gurkhas, Australians, Tommies, New Zealanders, Maoris, Sikhs, Frenchmen, and negroes from all our colonies, but I’d found no friend among them all. Somehow being in the army made me feel young and scared when I’d thought I’d feel manly and grown up. Living amongst men like Merriman and Merrick and all just made me more aware of the difference that the years make.

That last night in Egypt, as I walked towards the horse lines, the sun set and turned the sky to violet, and the sand to the pink of a Worcestershire apple. The sweetnesss of all that rosy light made me think of Bredicot. I’d write to Liza, I thought, because she’d keep a secret. I was the favourite of her brothers. She would’ve minded my going most, and I could remind her again how Trumpet was fond of apples and small wild strawberries and of being scratched behind the ears.

I stopped and turned. The lights of the camp were all twinkling and magical as fairyland, and I thought how I could tell Liza about our new issue of tropical kit: light shorts, shirts open at the throat, sleeves rolled up. I could tell her what fine men the Worcester Yeomanry were and that she’d read about us in the papers but I wouldn’t tell her that I was going to Gallipoli, nor that we were leaving our horses behind. I was worried, you see, that I wouldn’t look so good, to Liza or to Abel Rudge, now that I was going to fight on foot.

I don’t remember everything clearly, or the days, or the order in which things happened later, but what happened next I remember as if it were yesterday. I walked on through the balmy Egyptian night, over the moonlit sand, past where the Gurkhas liked to fish with string and bamboo canes, past the natives loading and unloading, past rows of khaki tents and towards the transport lines.

There were all sorts in the transport lines, mules and what have you, but I never so much as looked at them as I passed. A horse man is a horse man and won’t look at anything other than a horse, so I never gave the mules and suchlike a second thought.

I found the Yeomanry horse section and wandered idly from one horse to another. None of them stamped softly or snorted when I came to them in the way that Trumpet would, but I was glad Trumpet was at Bredicot with Liza and hadn’t crossed the sea in the stinking belly of a troopship, only to be abandoned here to the sand and flies.

I leaned against the neck of a tall bay horse that I liked the look of and blew into his nostrils. He lowered his head to me but didn’t close his eyes at the blowing, like Trumpet would. As I leaned there and heard the cosy snuffling of horses and looked up into the strangely close, swaying eastern stars, I breathed the peace of a desert night.

I stroked the bay, feeling sorry that there was no grass in all of Egypt for him, but he snatched his head from me and gazed ahead, over the top of the long- eared mules, surveying, in the far-sighted way of all horses, the distance. The horses – not one of them – so much as acknowledged the presence of the mules who were right in front of them, mules and suchlike being so far below their own dignity.

I waited for the bay to drop his head to my hand again.

There was a noise somewhere beneath the palm trees: a man’s voice raised in anger. Closer at hand, in the mule lines, there was a sudden darting shadow. The bay threw his head and whinnied. I glimpsed a slight figure, a boy, slim and naked to the waist, a pair of dark eyes, the whites of them bright as moons.

In the second that our eyes met, each assessed the other and knew, immediately and instinctively, that we were, there or thereabouts, the same age. He glanced towards the palms, then back to me. Eyes wide and imploring, he raised a finger to his lips. He dropped his hand to the neck of the animal immediately in front of me and whispered to it. I looked at it for the first time, saw how its silver ears were longer than those of the other mules, and beautifully marked with dark wavering edges, as wobbly as if the boy, in some lonely quiet moment, had once inked in those tips, because they had a sweet, uncertain line to them, as though put there by the hand of a child. It was smaller than the others, too; a donkey perhaps. It brayed: a smiling sort of bark, merry and loud for so small a creature. The boy flinched, shied, like a wild animal. He ducked under the neck of the silver donkey and into the shadow.

A breeze rustled the palm leaves and I heard the man’s voice again, still loud and angry. Two men stood beneath the flickering palms, one a Major, the other a Sergeant. The bay tensed and pricked his ears. He was like Trumpet, I thought: a horse who missed nothing, a horse full of heart; not at all the sort to eat while grown men argued and young boys hid. I scratched him. He nuzzled me then swung his head away.

The Major stretched out his arms and tore at the stripes on the Corporal’s arm. I heard a stifled whimper and turned: there was the boy – clutching at a young palm, a hand raised to his mouth.

‘Sir, I do what you say, I do – I do everything you say,’ said the Corporal in halting English. ‘It was not me who stole the grain, sir . . .’ He wore standard British service dress, the stripes of a Corporal on his arm, but his cap badge was a star within three circles and his voice was thick and foreign.

The boy dropped his head, fear outlined in the dark cringing curve of his shadow on the white sand.

‘Not me, sir . . .’

‘I trusted you.’

The boy recoiled. I could see his face and glistening eyes. He turned and made as if to intervene, just as the Major, in a surge of anger, lurched towards the Corporal. The boy shrank back.

‘Damn you, Thomas, damn you for your thieving, you . . . Damn you – after all I’ve done!’

The Major grabbed the Corporal’s arm and tore at the cloth of his sleeve. Explosive with rage and irritation at the stubborn cloth, the Major wrenched and pulled till he had what he wanted.

‘You’re lucky it’s just your stripes I’m taking . . .’ The Major hurled the torn stripes down and ground them into the muck of the horse lines with his heel.

The Corporal’s face was wide with shock, eyes rheumy, arms outstretched.

‘And you’re lucky it’s just this.’ The Major’s heels swivelled again, as if to murder the cloth. ‘The official punishment for larceny . . .’ He thought better of whatever he was going to threaten, said, ‘Damn you, Thomas!’ then turned and swung furiously away.

The Corporal bent and nodded his head: once, very slowly, twice, then a third time.

The bay tossed and neighed. A good horse dislikes argument between men and I put a hand to his cheek to soothe him. The Corporal’s head sank lower still. He remained bent and bowed for a long while, the boy and I waiting and watching, separately and secretly.

When the Corporal raised his head, he turned to the mule lines, paused, then went straight away to the silvery donkey in front of my horse, and stood at the creature’s side a while, the boy staying hidden only feet away.

‘Hey-Ho,’ the Corporal whispered. ‘Hey-Ho.’ And there was the sadness of all the centuries in his whispering. He raised one hand to his arm, to where the stripes had been, fingers trembling there.

‘My friend,’ he said. ‘The Major was once my friend.’ He bent his head to the donkey’s neck and said, ‘Hey-Ho, even for you I would not steal.’

Something caught the old man’s eye and dragged him from his reverie. He moved to the nosebag and checked it, surprise dawning on his wide face. He cast around, moved on to the next animal. Again he stopped, scratched his head, weighed the nosebag in his hand, and went to the next, and so on, checking the knot and weight of each. He turned and walked back again along the line, again touching each animal, each bag.

‘Strange . . . strange . . . all done.’ He puzzled. He stopped and shook his head at the mystery of things, then the old man, for old he seemed to me, turned and walked, still shaking his head, till he was lost in the frond shadow.

After a minute or two, the boy crept towards the patch of sand on which the men had stood. His father was in the Army, I thought, watching, but the boy wasn’t because he had no badge, no tunic. He crouched and picked up the torn cloth, shook off the dirt and sand, wiped it on his knees, wiped again, smoothed it and lifted it to his streaked cheeks.

‘Father . . .’ he whispered. ‘Father, Apa, it was me . . .’ His voice melted into the sigh of the wind and I didn’t catch any more.

After a little while, he rose and went to the donkey and laid his head on the grey back.

‘I will stay with you, Hey-Ho, with you and with Apa. I will look after you both, Hey-Ho. Better.’

I waited an instant, then stepped forward. ‘Hello.’

He started, for he must’ve forgotten I was there. ‘I’m Billy,’ I said, and stuck out my hand in a very English sort of manner. He flinched and shrank away. ‘You’re not in the Army, are you?’ I said.

He started, now doubly wary. I looked at his swollen eyes and the smears of dust and tears on his cheeks.

‘Because if you were in the Army, you wouldn’t cry. You never cry, however much you want to.’

At this he paused and searched my face, running his eyes over my uniform. He made an almost imperceptible movement with his head: difficult to say if it were a yes or a no.

‘You have Hey-Ho,’ I said. ‘I wish I had my horse.’

He looked up at me briefly, then dropped his eyes to Hey-Ho, his fingers tracing the black rim of an ear. ‘Hey-Ho’s bark is like a smile or a laugh,’ I said, because I could see the tenderness of the gesture and wanted to say something nice about Hey-Ho. ‘But his eyes are so sad . . .’

The boy looked up again then, and he was steady and serious when he said, ‘They have seen too many terrible things . . .’

His own eyes, too, I knew, must’ve seen those terrible things, but I didn’t ask then what they were.

‘I must look after him,’ he said. ‘After Hey-Ho and after Father.’ He put a hand on Hey-Ho, and the donkey answered loudly with that joyous laughter running in his hee-haw.

‘Hey-Ho? Why Hey-Ho?’ I asked, amused by the quaint Englishness of the name tongued in the boy’s foreign voice.

‘They told me . . . where I come from . . . that English donkeys go Hey-Ho.’ His voice hee-hawed up and down as he said it. ‘All other donkeys go Hee-haw.’ His face was so solemn that I had to laugh. He looked more puzzled at that, and I was still laughing when I asked, ‘Is he an English donkey?’

‘We will go to England, one day, Father says, so we called him Hey-Ho.’

I was still laughing but he was still puzzled, so I put on a straight face and asked, ‘What is your name?’

His limbs seemed to coil, as if he were readying himself to spring away. I caught him by the arm, wanting him to stay, this boy, with whom I didn’t have to pretend I was not scared, from whom I did not have to hide tears.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked again.

He studied me again, as if deciding whether to answer. When he spoke it was in his strange, faltering English.

‘Before . . . before . . . my name was Benjamin . . . Here, they call me Captain. The English Major, he used to call me Captain.’

As if regretting he’d said so much, he tugged his arm away, sprang to his feet and sped away, barefoot and silent on the sand.

Alexandria
14 August 1915

We Yeomen left the next morning while it was still dark, in silence but for the tramping of so many feet. By the time the sun was high we were in the seething stench and filth of Alexandria.

We halted to let a column of horses by, the men in files of threes, each man leading two mounts. I thought of Trumpet again as I watched them go by and felt glad he was not here in apple-less Egypt.

A troop of old soldiers pushed past us, laughing at the shine and polish of our kit, at the weight of it. We marched on through the quaint white streets and their pushing press of humanity and the jangle of foreign tongues. Arab hawkers swarmed round us, crying out their whining chants.

The dock was immense, forty quays or more, an Armada of vessels of all kinds in it – destroyers, troopships, cruisers, liners, hospital ships. Provisions stood in stacks on every quay: ammunition, water- cans, crates and tins. Everywhere were trains of horses, gun limbers, field kitchens; officers calling out, still recruiting men; lines of sick and wounded soldiers in blue hospital uniforms.

‘Gallipoli,’ Sparrow said, pointing to a row of wounded. ‘They’re from Gallipoli.’

I felt a tightening of the heart, the cold fingers of fear. Did no man leave Gallipoli standing? Was it only the dead or the near-dead that got out? There were only men with whiskers here, men who didn’t mind the yellow wounds and the burned flesh melded to khaki cloth. I was alone, very alone, among such men. What would Abel Rudge feel, I wondered if he’d seen those men from Gallipoli, would he be scared too? Yes, I was too young; if I told Lieutenant Straker my age, I could go home to Bredicot. That boy from last night, had he seen what men looked like when they came back from Gallipoli? How would he feel in my place? How would he feel if he were going to Gallipoli?

If only he were with us, there’d be at least someone else to talk to.

We halted beside two large ships: the Anglo-Egyptian and the Ascania. Behind us stood a great dock-shed, the side of it open to the harbour. I smelt the mules before I saw them – a mule makes an unholy stink compared to a horse, especially in the heat of Egypt. I looked into the dock-shed and glimpsed, behind the stores and equipment, three lines of pack-animals. Hey-Ho – was he in there?

‘Bayliss – into line!’

I stepped back and waited in file as steep gangways were placed to the lowest deck of the Anglo-Egyptian. Still we waited and while we waited, I wondered about the mules and wondered if the boy – Captain he’d said he was known as – if Captain were with them. Further down the quay, a bit of a palaver was going on, an officer trying to get sixty-odd stubborn transport horses up the gangway on to a battleship called the Pasha. A chestnut mare was walking peacefully up, neat as ninepence, her nose calmly in her nosebag but halfway up, she stopped dead. She raised her head and pulled at the rope, every line of her firm in the determination to go no further. I smiled, thinking how Trumpet would do just the same if I were to bring him to a filthy Egyptian dock and force him up a narrow gangplank. Behind the mare, horses were whinnying and pulling back. Two subalterns, red-faced and ruffled, were whipping the mare’s rump. We were all laughing then at the subalterns, but at the same time I knew I’d not want to be behind her on that plank if she kicked or reared.

We waited in the hot sun. I was standing near John Merriman, Ernest Sparrow, Archie Spade and Harry Beasley, half listening to their talk about the Turks and their fear of a bayonet, half thinking of the night before, of Captain’s secrecy and stealth, wondering what lay behind it, wondering about his attachment to Hey-Ho. What were the terrible things the donkey’s eyes had seen? I smiled to myself at the notion of all the English donkeys that said ‘Hey-ho, hey-ho’.

‘They say the Turk dislikes our bayonets.’ Merriman was grinning. ‘They say he’s scared of a hand-to-hand fight.’ Then Firkins started going on about how we were off to a great and tragic battlefield, a land of romance and myth, the land of Dionysius and Ariadne and Jason and all the others. Beasley and Spade groaned and rolled their eyes.

Old Colonel Colville ordered us into the dock- shed. The Colonel was from somewhere around Bredicot. He’d been a contemporary of Father’s, I think, maybe a friend too, the name being familiar to me. Both Lieutenant Straker and the Colonel made me uncomfortable, and there were times I wished I hadn’t joined a Worcestershire Regiment, it all being so sort of close to home if you were under-age. Dixies of sugary tea and greasy bacon from the Tommy cookhouse on the dock were handed round.

‘Lead out the mules!’ someone ordered.

I stood a little apart from the others, watching as each mule was led out, but they were all short-eared, run-of-the-mill-looking things.

‘They go below,’ Lieutenant Straker said, joining me. ‘In the stalls below the officers’ horses.’

The mules were tied in slings alongside the Ascania. ‘Lieutenant, sir, do you know . . .’ I began hesitantly.

‘Are the mules coming with us?’

All the usual shenanigans and kerfuffle were going on, the biting and the kicking and the whole palaver that you get when you tie an innocent, unsuspecting quadruped up in a sling and whisk it twenty foot off the ground into an ocean-bound ship.

The Lieutenant answered, grinning, ‘Looks as though they have their own view on the matter.’

I’d wanted to ask if he knew of Captain, but how could you ask after someone if you didn’t even know his surname and he wasn’t in the Army?

‘First Yeomanry, prepare to board!’ growled old Colonel Colville.

I smiled at Merrick’s reluctant, mocking salute, his teasing imitation of the accent of the commanding classes. I wouldn’t want to be the Turk that faced his bayonet, or Spade’s, or Beasley’s, or the Lieutenant’s, such a tight, strong-looking bunch they were, proud and fierce and caring only for their own. Lieutenant Straker seemed old to me then. He wasn’t older than the other men, but there was an angry kind of courage in him and a natural authority.

We emerged into the white light of the midday sun. ‘First Yeomanry, board the Ascania.’

She was the ship the mules had boarded, but I’d not seen Hey-Ho, so Captain would most likely not be on the Ascania either. I sighed, feeling tired of living up to men like Merriman and Beasley and Spade, tired of trying to be jolly about bayonets, tired of having no one around with whom I could be myself.

That first day aboard the Ascania we started training in the use of a bayonet. A bayonet is a different thing altogether to a rifle. I thought I could fire at a man with a rifle, but I didn’t know then if I could ever kill a man with a bayonet.

‘Go in with the point,’ Colonel Colville told us.

As I stood there on the hot deck, the bayonet in hand, I looked at Merrick’s face, and Beasley’s, and Sparrow’s but they, none of them, seemed to quail at the idea of going in with the point.

I’m fifteen, I thought as I fixed the bayonet. Only fifteen, and I will have to kill men. I have to go in with the point and I have to kill. I will kill or I will be killed.

The Colonel must’ve seen something on my face, because he marched up to me and barked, ‘Get this into your head! This is war, and the only thing that’ll count out there is that you win and that you stay alive. Make sure it’s the enemy that dies and not you.’

The days were hot and slow. A bugle woke us at six for breakfast, we drilled on deck from nine to eleven, then in the height of the day, struck senseless with the force of the sun, the boards of the Ascania blistering, the colour stolen from the sea, we were allowed to rest. Everyone else had a mucker, someone to play cards with or chat to. I would always be on my own then. No one said so, but they knew I was younger. Lieutenant Straker almost certainly had some idea, but I don’t think, now, looking back, that he ever breathed a word to anyone.

Onesuch afternoon, I lay on myown on theshadowy side of the deck and thought about the bayonets. Merrick had taken me aside after the training that day and told me the easy part was the pushing it in, that a bayonet sticks in a stomach and is hard to pull out, that you have to twist it and tug. Then the others had laughed when they’d seen my face – they’d all been laughing at me. I’d never thought of any of this in the Bredicot schoolroom – of bayonet wounds, nor of the twist of steel in a stomach – and wondered if Abel Rudge or Francis could kill a man in hand-to- hand combat. I wasn’t sure. Perhaps it was easier to kill a man if you were older. My thoughts drifted then to Captain. I’d begun to wonder, you see, by then, if he’d been only the melting figment of my lonely mind, for there’d been no sign of him nor Hey-Ho since that night in the horse lines in Egypt.

I stretched my arms out, inspecting my tanned skin. We’d marched ten times around the first-class deck that morning, two and a half miles in all, to the beat of the band, the brassy thump of the sun on our backs and the ships from all the oceans of the world going about on either side.

At Bredicot, when I felt most alone, I’d always go to Trumpet and the other horses. That afternoon, too, I left the deck and crept below to the officers’ horses. They were all jammed together in restless lines – no air, no room to exercise or groom them. Somewhere one was thrashing, rearing and striking at the wood with his forelegs. Men were shouting, the horse smashing against his stall, a vet trying to calm him, then taking a needle to him. I crept away, nauseous with the heat, and the swell of the sea, and the stink. I longed for the companionship of Trumpet as there’s no finer friend than a horse when you’re lonely, but was glad really that I hadn’t brought him with me to the burning bowels of the Ascania, to be driven mad with the heat. I left and went down the steep gangways: two decks down was where the mules were kept. I searched the lines stall by stall, just in case I’d missed Hey-Ho before, but they were all ordinary-looking things, no long black-tipped ears.

The sunset was a melancholy thing, all purples and greens and chromes, and I felt lonelier for its loveliness. Hour after hour, I watched the wash of the water along the bow, gazed at all the tiny passing islands of the Greek Aegean, all strung out, till I was almost hypnotized by the hiss of the bow wave. It grew dark and I set to tramping up and down the deck with my tinful of thick, sugary tea. The boards were wet with dew beneath my bare feet, the touch of the breeze sweet and soft on my bare skin, those strange, eastern stars above. I heard Merrick and the others laughing like drains at something or other, and I wished Liza were with me, or Francis, or almost anyone.

A hospital ship passed, her green starboard light burning in the dark. Our own portholes were darkened, and we crossed her like a shadow, dark and silent, the captaincy wary, watching to the left and to the right for what might lie below.

The Ascania steered around two tiny islets, turned, and navigated a passage deep between two great hills into the harbour of Moudros. A grey destroyer drew up alongside, her sailors all waving their caps at us, her band playing us in. At anchor there were cruisers, destroyers, mine-sweepers, mine-layers, hospital ships, launches, submarines – a terrific spirit-stirring display of sea power. Francis would have liked to see this, I thought. He had a collection of lead ships in his room at Bredicot. On the hills above the bay, white tents seemed to have bloomed like desert roses, each one fluttering with an ensign or hospital cross or French tricolour.

There at Moudros, pinnaces and packet boats dashed around in all directions day and night. The right food or equipment was always on the wrong boat; there were no water carts on the shore, no kettles, cookers, or signalling equipment to be had anywhere. We Yeomanry were to sleep aboard the

Ascania, Colonel Colville told us, our departure for Gallipoli being so imminent, but we were kept there in the harbour for three days practising going up and down the rope ladders they dropped over the sides of the ship. On the third day the Lieutenant sent me ashore on some errand or other so I got a break from all the climbing up and climbing down.

After the errand I had time to spare and reckoned I wouldn’t be missed for a while, so, for the joy of being on solid land again, I walked over the sun-scorched grass between the hospital tents and on upwards. The heat was as fierce as the blast from a furnace but there was a village up there ahead, gleaming white in the hollow of a hill and it might’ve been that, or the fear of what might happen in the days to come, that made me want to climb that hill. At the top, I told myself, there’d be a view, perhaps, and I might see Gallipoli. I climbed past the village and on, then sat there at the top and caught my breath and wiped my streaming face and fought away the flies. The sheep bells echoed across the still water of the bay and all the great ships down there looked like tiny painted toys. Across the sea somewhere lay Gallipoli. I scanned the horizon. Far away, through a quivering violet haze, I saw what looked like a whale-backed hump in the silvery surface of the sea. The tail-end of Europe. Gallipoli. I raised Father’s field glasses to my eyes. I was rather proud of them, and took them everywhere, because in the Army only the officers are given glasses.

I caught, or thought I caught, a distant pulsing in the air. I started and tensed and wiped the glasses and looked again. My fingers trembled on the field glasses. That throbbing, that pulsing was the sound of guns: the guns of Gallipoli.

The heat fell away. The buzzing of the flies quieted and still I stared towards that blue-grey ridge; was still staring as the sun sank in a blaze, blood-red and pink. I thought wistfully how that sun would soon set too on the hills of Worcestershire. In two hours it would be sundown at home, and the throbbing of those guns, the fear of what lay ahead, made me long to hang on to the reins of the sun and be galloped westward on her rays, to Bredicot.

The end of the day was bugled, and the call taken up from camp to camp. Then the French trumpets began their wailing and the mournful cries echoed up to the tops of the hill and soon it seemed that the whole island was crying out the sad news of the sun’s setting once again. I watched the dusty mules nibble at scorched thistles, listened to the wailing of the trumpets and the ringing of the sheep bells, and felt lonelier then than I’d ever felt, and smaller. When the first campfire was lit I started on down, slipping on the loose stones that glowed rose-pink in the last of the sun’s rays.

Merrick and Firkins were there on the dock.

‘Young Bayliss, you’ll get it in the neck,’ hissed Merrick. ‘Where’ve you been? There’ll be the devil to pay – the Lieutenant’s been looking for you.’

‘We’re under orders to proceed to the peninsula. Tonight,’ said Firkins, very solemn and portentous. ‘History is in the making, young Bayliss.’ He removed his pipe to illustrate the importance of the moment. ‘The dawn of a new chapter.’ His cap was adrift, his tunic all wrongly buttoned and he didn’t look at all like the dawn of a new chapter, but I felt a tremor of fear. By morning I would be at Gallipoli. By morning I would see action for the first time.

We worked to breaking point on the dock, Firkins and Merrick and Beasley and I, loading stack after stack of provisions. The bay was all feverish commotion: forage, equipment, ammunition, mules, all being moved from jetties to barges, trawlers towing strings of rowboats to the ships. Hour after hour, boatload after boatload of troops were ferried to the ships, till there was moonshine on the water and the ships all twinkling with their strings of red and green lights and the bands all playing on the warships and the tom-toms beating from the Indian camps.

‘Embark at once. Board the Queen Victoria.’

The order was passed mouth to mouth, along the jetty. I lifted the last crate of many hundreds labelled ‘Medical Supplies’ on to a lighter, and looked up to watch a liner steam out of the bay, her band playing a rousing air and every vessel at anchor waving as she disappeared into the dark of the open sea.

Firkins and I squeezed ourselves on to a barge and found a place to sit between the crates of medical supplies. We crossed the flickering water in eerie silence, dark forms gliding to and fro in the balmy night.

As we rounded the stern of the Victoria, I saw a pair of mules being hustled into a sling. They were making their usual song and dance about the whole thing, protesting and kicking and yanking and biting and the whole shebang. They were suddenly whistled off their hoofs and hoisted, still and silent with shock, their four hoofs dangling, then swung and plunged on to the deck.

Merrick looked up at the moon and frowned, then Beasley and Sparrow did, and one by one, each man looked up at her. She was bright and full and her light would be no friend to us that night. A tot was passed hand to hand, from bow to stern.

‘Young Billy,’ said Merrick, passing it to me, and there was amusement and challenge in his eyes, so I, in a spurt of defiance, lifted it to my lips and swallowed, and the shock of the stuff in my throat was burning and violent.

As the tug that had held the mules prepared to pull away, a dark figure sprang from the stern of the last boat, leaped to the rope ladder and pulled swiftly up.

I leaped to my feet – the boy – Captain! A stowaway? I forced my way along the deck between the crates, through the Lovat Scouts, the Yeomanry, the Essex, and all the different sorts that were in the barge, to the front. When we were finally alongside, I was the first off the barge, the first to scale the ladder up the Victoria, climbing hastily and clumsily, my pack lurching and swinging. I searched the top deck, the deck below, the deck below that, then deeper still to the mule lines. I was quiet and went on tiptoe, keeping to the places where there was straw on the ground because Captain didn’t want to be seen, didn’t want to be found.

A shadow moved fleetingly on the ceiling somewhere, but when I stopped to listen there was only the familiar breathing and chomping and shuffling of the animals.

There was a loud hee-haw, and another. I heard the laugh running through those hee-haws, so I knew them straight away for Hey-Ho’s. I waited, and after a while picked out, amidst the shuffling hoofs, the wincing scrape of metal on metal. I moved along the line, past one mule after another – all run-of-the-mill things, short-eared and plain as pikestaffs. From tail to tail I went, all the way to the stern of the Victoria, and there – there it was again, louder, the clink of a shovel on an iron-clad floor: clink, scrape, scrape. Then silence. The steady, rhythmic work had stopped. I listened and peered into the dim light. A hand placed a bucket in the passage and a voice whispered, ‘Still, Hey-Ho, keep still.’

Hey-Ho barked again. ‘Shh, Hey-Ho!’

I tiptoed closer and saw him, head low and chomping, only the long black-tipped ears poking above the trough, and I smiled at the sweetness of that: one upright, the other lopsided and drooping.

Hey-Ho nosed Captain and brayed again.

‘Sssh . . .’ Captain whispered. ‘Not talk so much.’

He set the shovel down between the lines. I slipped behind the rump of a copper-coloured she-mule, hoping she was not a kicker. Captain was walking towards me, the bucket in his hands. I shrank back against the she-mule. With whip-crack speed, a hind leg lifted, crooked, and a hoof hit my shin. I yelped and doubled over. Captain dropped the bucket and ran. I tried to call out to him, but there was no answer except for the clanking of the bucket as it rolled lonesomely down the aisle. I sank to the ground, just out of reach of the she-mule and I was cursing her for a miserable, mincing, malevolent, malicious, murderous, monstrous molly, and I don’t know how long I went on like that but I was sitting there cursing and whimpering when it slowly dawned on me that someone was laughing – just like that: laughing – while I whimpered, and the sound of it was sort of tumbling and twinkling, like water running over stone. I looked up, and Captain was standing there, all shiny-eyed with mirth, so I scowled at him. Still laughing, he crouched and lifted my leg and ran his hands over the shinbone; small hands, but assured and competent.

‘All right, bone is all right,’ he said, pressing the skin just where it was turning the colour of one of Mother’s ripest aubergines. ‘Father is a doctor,’ he added.

‘I was looking for you,’ I said, still scowling at him. He made as if to stand and I clutched at his arm. He was as light on his feet as a bird, you see, always ready to take flight then; thin, too, as a sparrow.

‘Does anyone know – your father, does he know you’re here?’ I asked. He started a little at that, so I held his arm firmly,

‘You can trust me,’ I told him. ‘I won’t say anything to anyone.’

Still ready to fly, he watched me carefully, then said – and his gaze was frank and open as his eyes met mine: ‘Father always told me, trust nobody.’

‘I won’t say anything,’ I repeated. ‘You see, I’m not supposed to be here either.’ I waited an instant, then with my forefinger drew two numbers on the dusty surface of the floor:

15

Captain raised his eyes and a smile opened slowly across his face. He moved his hand to the ground. His forefinger hesitated an instant, then wrote:

14

‘Why’re you here?’ I asked.

Fear and regret flickered across his face but I went on clumsily, ‘Are you in the Army too?’

He was suddenly free, and on his feet, and running, silent and barefoot, down the aisle. I stayed there, cursing myself now for asking, because I already knew he wasn’t in the army.


Excerpted from Captain by Sam Angus. Copyright © 2014 by Sam Angus.
First published 2014 by Macmillan Children’s Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s