A diversion for those breathless readers who are finding the relentless action somewhat exhausting. Cats may wish to skip this chapter.
Beryl Clutterbuck had taxied her Dragon Rapide almost to the gates of the little Arab Legion fort. She was taking coffee with a gathering of Desert Patrol soldiers beneath an awning outside the walls. Their camels grumbled nearby and they chatted irrepressibly, switching without effort into English when Beryl’s Arabic proved inadequate. Shining black Bedouin curls peeped from under their scarlet keffiyahs, rakishly held in place by the cords of the agal. Their flamboyant uniform robes tumbled about them, long white sleeves turned back from the wrists.
Beryl spun round at the sudden sound of giggling, to see four youngsters running gaily by. In the lead were two barefooted lads, their grubby thawbs flapping around their shins. A girl in a cotton frock, with a tiny flower print, and a worn thin cardigan lagged closely behind and was overtaken by a skittering lamb that bleated in time with their laughter. The self-absorbed coterie rounded the corner of the fort and was lost to view.
The Desert Patrol sergeant took Beryl’s tiny cup and refilled it from a traditional brass coffee pot with an unnecessarily prominent beak like spout. The hot liquid was thick, dark and bitter.
“The lad, Abdulla, will be along in a moment. He will take you there.”
Beryl nodded her thanks.
She had barely started to sip the latest serving of coffee when a battered, white Toyota pick-up drew to a halt with a short skid, scattering loose stones. A young, cream coloured camel sat placidly in the back. The wiry youth who clambered down from the cab was unusually dark, with a mass of unkempt black hair and dazzling white teeth. His blue-grey shirt was buttoned at the wrists and up to the neck and tucked into baggy cargo pants. Dusty toes protruded from leather sandals. The sergeant approached him and they spoke for a while, glancing occasionally towards Beryl. When they came over the lad was grinning, his face in shadow and only those teeth and the whites of his eyes distinguishable against the ebony skin.
“Madam, I will gladly take you to that place. If we might go straight away you will have plenty of time before it gets dark.”
The Toyota sped across the wide, flat wadi floor, twitching off half buried rocks and trailing a long cloud of dust. The blistering heat was sticking Beryl’s sweat drenched bush shirt to her back as she braced herself in the seat next to Abdulla, his expert hands dominating the jerking steering wheel, as he concentrated on keeping to the rough contours of their track. Ahead towered a lonely outcrop of rock, never seemingly any closer for all their speed.
In time, however, they were at the foot of the rock cliff and parked in its shade.
“First I must attend to Zenobia.” Abdulla dropped the tailgate of the truck and set his camel free, but hobbled, to graze on the sparse, coarse vegetation. Then, signalling Beryl to follow, he led her into a deep cleft in the rock. The chasm was barely wider than her shoulders and irregular under foot. In places she could see scratches or drawings on the vertical walls, but they were too weathered to make out. It was cooler now, deep within the outcrop. After what must have been fifty yards or more the narrow gorge opened out into a grotto enclosing a still, deep pool. On the walls were pictographs – abstract circles, dots and triangles by the entrance, but deeper inside lively oryx, ibex and flocks of wild birds populated the rock and reflected in the water.
“I will go and prepare chai,” said Abdulla. “Be free, and enjoy yourself.”
Alone in a magic space, Beryl untied her laces, put the desert boots to one side and removed a very sweaty pair of socks. She discarded her bush shirt, dropped her knee-length khaki shorts and, unhooking a plain white cotton bra, she dipped a slender foot into the pool. The water was satisfyingly cool. Casting off a delicately lacy pair of Brazilian knickers she sank, naked, into the cistern. The silky water caressed her tanned, dry skin. Floating on her back, weightless, golden hair fanning out around her head, gentle ripples tantalising those intimate areas that had been imprisoned within too much perspiration soaked clothing for too many days, was exquisite. Without moving she studied the wall paintings. Among the desert animals there were cattle too, and a giraffe. When was there ever giraffe in this region? There were also stylised human figures in red-brown ochre. They were depicted floating horizontally in space, matchstick men with exaggerated erect penises. Anonymous and faceless they had extended arms and flexed knees as if they were swimming.
Beryl closed her eyes and allowed her long-tense muscles to relax, stress fleeing from her body as the calming stillness penetrated her being, visualising the brown bodied swimmers silently drifting around her.
She could have lain like this for several hours, or it may have been only minutes; she could not guess. But when she opened her eyes the boy was watching her from the pool’s edge. He was motionless except for the subtle rise and fall of his breast – statuesque, remote. He studied her with a detached curiosity, his eyes betraying no hint of lust. Yet, under his gaze Beryl felt her nipples respond. There was a stirring across the surface of the pool.
“You must come in,” she spoke in his native tongue, “the water is wonderful.”
The Coldwarspyship Lord Ancaster was holding position off the coast of Antarctica, surrounded by growlers and bergy-bits in a heaving swell of slush. Icebergs as big as a house or the size of a small principality surrounded them – white, ice blue, ultramarine, thrusting pinnacles, towers and cathedral spires skywards. Tall arches perched on tiny rafts of ice, sculpted by wind and sea, drifted by, escarpments stretched out towards the horizon. The trawler inched up to the pack ice, pushing forward till the crunching frozen sea no longer gave way. On deck a shore detail of Kronstadt sailors lined the rail, white parkas over their winter weight telnyashkas, AKS-74s slung, skis at the ready. The expansive ice flow brought to mind the last days of Kronstadt One – Trotsky’s assault across the frozen sea in 1921 and the fall of the fortress to the Red Army – the day that the revolution was finally lost. They began to hum a tune from the film Specnaz, haunting and baleful, whilst a lone tenor sang out lyrics that told of betrayal, lost hopes and exile in Finland, his mournful tones reverberating across the grumbling, crackling ice.
With grey clouds the sky is veiled
Nerves tensed like balalaika strings
Snow falling from morning to night
Frozen time seems an eternity
We are assaulted from all directions
Infantry, machine gun and artillery fire
The Reds are killing us, but some will survive
Once again, we sacrifice ourselves on waves of attack
We are few in number, but we are wearing our stripy t-shirts…
Skipper Harold Entwhistle scanned the shelf from the bridge-house. They were enjoying a welcome break after a succession of squalls. Spring was well on the way and the weather could only improve. Through his 7×50 watch keeping binoculars he could make out the cliffs where ice met the land. Beyond them was New Swabia, mystery and, without doubt, adventure – but not for him. Generations of Entwhistles had found adventure enough on the sea, someone else – these irrepressible Russians – could battle blizzards and Nazis, and who knew what else, down here on the wrong side of the world.
The capstan clanked and derrick groaned as two NK-26 propeller driven sledges were winched onto the frozen sea. The Comrade-Starshina leaned out of the open bridge window and shouted down to his lads below.
“Over the side, boys. Time to get cracking.”
Drivers and Petty Officer machine gunners clambered into the aerosanis whilst the ratings knelt down to attach their skis. The M-11G aircraft engines revved and gunners’ heads popped up behind the snowmobiles’ 7.62mm DT machine guns. The Chief Petty Officer, standing on the aft starboard ski of his lightly armoured sledge raised an arm and waved the group forward. As the sledges picked their way slowly and noisily across the ice, with the shore detail towed behind, it began to snow, flakes whipped into swirling tunnels by the whirling blades. Harold Entwhistle watched the party disappear as the weather closed in.
He rang for Half Astern on the engine room telegraph and spoke to the third hand without looking his way, “We’ll break free from this ice, Billy, and pull back to Stromness on South Georgia for a while, give the Ruskies time to do their thing.”
As they slowly backed up the bergs swirled. Some way off their stern the flows began to heave upwards and the sea churned. Slowly a huge dark grey conning tower rose from the depths, water pouring down its sides. Once at the surface the imposing submersible dwarfed the trawler. It was almost three times their length and the crew of the Ancaster watched as a group of sailors ran along the after deck to man a 14 cm/40 11th Year Type naval gun and target the radio room just aft of their bridge. Several officers appeared on top of the conning tower and their commander raised a megaphone to his mouth.
“Stand your men down, captain, and cut your engines. Touch the radio and we fire. For you, Tommy Atkins, this expedition is over.”
Several semi rigid inflatables detached from the submarine and sped across the narrow stretch of sea towards the trawler. As they approached Harold handed a weighted oilskin package containing the ships papers to his second in command.
“Dump this over the side where those buggers can’t see you, Smurthwait.”
Taking the packet the mate, a rough and ready bruiser with the unlikely and exotic name of Easter Smurthwaite, scuttled out of sight behind the accommodation, tossed it into the sea and watched it sink. He returned to the cluster of trawlermen as a large St Bernard dog padded nonchalantly across the deck to slip unobserved down the foc’sle scuttle. Moments later a heavily armed boarding party swarmed over the rail, formally arrested the crew of the Lord Ancaster and manhandled them firmly into the rubber ducks. A Prize Crew took charge of the trawler and it was underway towards an undeclared destination before Harold and his fellow prisoners had been ferried half way to the submarine. As they came alongside the hard, curving hull smart darkly uniformed matrosen (seamen) efficiently caught painters, made the inflatables fast and reached down to help the hostages in clambering up the side. Others pointed “Schmeisser” MP40 Maschinenpistolen down at the little group. Once on deck and still eyed warily by the armed sailors they were greeted politely by the vessel’s captain. He was tall and amiable with the easy air of a European aristocrat.
“I am Kapitänleutnant Felix Graf von Luckner and you, I believe are Kapitän Harold Entwhistle. Welcome aboard the Seeadler. She is, as I am sure you have observed, an ex-Japanese Sen Toku I-400-class submarine aircraft carrier.”
Harold had observed no such thing. At about 400 feet long with a large tube shaped aircraft hanger amidships and a fortress-like conning tower above and to port of the hanger he had never in his life seen any thing like this vessel. She sported eighty-five feet of compressed-air catapult along the forward deck, triple one-inch anti-aircraft guns around the conning tower, the 5.5-inch naval gun aft of the superstructure and exuded menace. Before he could register anything more about the warship Harold Entwhistle and his crew were escorted below. Billy Tate paused for one more look around him and was jabbed in the ribs with one of the Schmeissers. Kapitänleutnant von Luckner scowled.
“That will do, Heinrich.”
From the bottom of the ladder they were ushered into the main saloon and from the trawler crew there came a communal gasp. The room was palatial. There were leather chesterfield sofas and armchairs bolted to the floor, a full size snooker table in the middle of the room and, in one corner, a grand piano.
“If you could find your way to giving me your parole and that of your men, Kapitän Entwhistle, we will not need to chain you all in the brig.”
The lads all looked pleadingly at Harold.
“Not much hope of us escaping from a submarine. I expect tunnelling would be impractical. While we are aboard, you have my word we will not try anything.”
There was a joint sigh of relief and his crew having rushed the cocktail bar were soon having a sing along round the grand, where young Tate vamped Ilkley Moor Bar T’at.
Von Luckner’s ‘cabin’ was a suite of rooms with a desk, daybed, coffee table and lounge chairs in the sitting room and doors leading off to a bedroom and to a shower/toilet. The captains were facing each other across the coffee table sipping at generous tots of Scotch from heavy cut-glass whisky tumblers. The Kapitänleutnant reluctantly opened the conversation.
“I am afraid I must ask you what you are doing here.”
“Just a fishing trip.”
“And you expect me to believe that? What exactly were you dropping off when we caught you? What are you up to?”
Harold thrust forwards, his nose aggressively close to von Luckner’s face.
“Look matey, I don’t give a toss what you believe. We’ll accept your hospitality, ‘cos we don’t have a choice. But you took my vessel in international waters and that’s piracy in any Yorkshireman’s book. If I say I’m fishing then fishing it is and if you don’t like it you can stick it in your bloody gesteckpfeife and smoke it.”
“Do I look like I give a fuck?”
Von Luckner was halfway to his feet, red faced, white knuckles clenched round the arms of his chair…
“Blut und eisen, sie übermütig fischer…”
…when he hesitated and, letting out a long sigh, slumped back into his chair.
“Pax, Kapitän, I have to ask these things, it is expected. You are too few and too far from home for any of it to matter. Let us not spoil this fine whisky or miss the rare opportunity for stimulating conversation. Tell me, have you strong views regarding Kirkegard?”
Entwhistle had read little in his life other than the Racing Times and his dad’s hand written diaries entitled Where to Fish When, 1867-1972.
“Bit skittish last season, but she’s steadier now and could hold her own on the flat.”
Von Luckner took a large swig from his glass.
“And this song of your men, explain to me the meaning of Bar T’at.”