As it happened, it was only luck that put Bill in a part of the ship that would give him any chance of survival. Not that that should be a surprise. Anyone who has ever studied history knows that being in the right place, at the right time, in any war, has always been the single most important factor in terms of who lives, and who dies.
As well as everything else he had to thank them for, Bill had his men to thank for this too. He had been sitting at a table, below deck, surrounded by the other senior officers who made up this advance evacuation party, when suddenly their mannerisms and pomposity overwhelmed him, and all Bill could think about was how much he was missing his men.
When he’d joined up, at the outbreak of war, all those months ago now, and taken a commission, he hadn’t been prepared for the level camaraderie he would start to feel as a part of a Company. Nor for the responsibility he feel towards his platoon. It was this sensation of a brotherhood that gave him a belonging, a sense of shared purpose, that he’d never found in the tatters of his family, and nor had it existed among complex fibres of the Colonial Police.
Now, a surge of intense anger at his separation from them, bubbled up inside him. He had a feeling of shame, as if he had abandoned them by choice, when in fact there was no question of choice, this had been forced on him. All of a sudden, he couldn’t stand it anymore. He had to get out of the crowded galley, to get away from this coterie of privilege, with their internal jostling for position, their belief in their own importance, and their total lack of concern over the fates of those comrades, decent chaps, ordinary men, left behind to fend for themselves.
Bill looked at his watch. It read 2330 hours. He’d stood up, said he was going to turn in. The men around the table barely glanced up at him. Their shared blank expression merged them into one. Not that he blamed them for that. He knew they didn’t really want him there either. In their collective opinion he was jumped up, walking in the shoes of a superior officer who was too injured to travel. He was too much of a junior to be part of such an elite group, but there was nothing they could do about it. Word had been given, floating down from above, that he should take his bosses place, and these others? Well,… they had no choice but to obey either. Or at least that was the way Bully Branwell told the rest of them to think of it. That was how he explained it to everyone, including Bill himself, as they’d waited in Rangoon to set off on this next leg of their mission. After all, everyone has to follow orders, even Branwell. Even Bill. Because if individuals were to start thinking for themselves, particularly in a time of war… where would we all be then? In the midst of anarchy; the whole system might well fall apart. The situation had left Bill feeling like laughing. Or crying. He wasn’t quite sure which.
When he got outside and into the corridor, the whirr of the engines below his feet and the crammed masses of bodies, - hanging around, brushing up against him as he tried to move along the narrow walkway, - all this added to the heat that stifled in the air. It was worse here than in the jungle; with that press of human flesh. At least in the jungle you could open your arms wide, expand your chest in an effort to breathe, and watch bugs moving over leaves. Sometimes you could even feel the warm rain as it burst against your face and trickled down your skin, damping the thick cloth of uniform.
Bill knew he needed to get out on deck: to stand for a few minutes in the night sea air, to look up at the stars and forget the turmoil of the last days.
The black lever handle had felt cool against the heat of his palm as he pushed it down and leant in to the heavy metal of the deck door. Heat and weight: such very normal sensations in such a crazy, crazy world.
As he pushed through, and stepped over the threshold into the outside world, he drew in a long breath. The air tasted of kippers, smoke and salt. The boat shuddered under his feet so that he almost tripped, but placing his hand on the firm of the wall he regained his balance and made his way across the smooth wooden deck to the railings, where he leant over. The clank of crockery wafted up in waves of sound from the windows below, the noise was alive with dancing words in foreign tongues, and the leftover smell of something savoury, the ghostly remnants of the evening meal - such as it was, such as it had been. Most nights it was a bowl of flavourless rice and vegetables, eaten in strict rotation, with each person vacating a seat, in an orderly fashion as soon as they could, to clear the way for the next man. But then, this is wartime, and the evacuation of a defeated army, and you had to tip your hat to these Chinky sailor boys, it was quite an achievement feeding five hundred on a ship built for three.
Outside the air cloyed. There was no wind to freshen him, but even so it was better to be here, where space could be seen, even if it couldn’t be felt. The ship was stuffed full of people. They’d scrambled and scrabbled aboard. Crammed into spaces where no spaces existed. All fleeing the capitulation: civilians, military personnel, policemen, medics, hospital staff, civilians - including women and children, all fighting to get away from the onward march of Yamashita’s blitzkrieg.
Inside, with the cramped conditions and general lack of everything, Bill, and everyone else, knew that the smell of the overcrowded ship, in the relentless heat, was only going to get worse. Even out here in the dark, there were people everywhere: sitting on luggage, alone or in groups, lying on blankets, or boxes, or even directly on the wooden deck.
Looking round for a space, Bill noticed the ladder leading up to the boat deck. Listening to the splash of the water and thrum of the engine he’d climbed his way up there and walked in that space between the lifeboats and the belching black chimneystack. Even up here people were tucked under everything, in everything, between everything, including the lifeboats. People talked in low voices, everyone with a story to tell, about how they’d got away, who was waiting for them, who they’d lost or left behind.
Up ahead, in the lights from the bridge, and through the window, he could see an outline of the men steering the ship. He knows from conversations, overheard downstairs, that they’re taking an unconventional route, trying to outfox the U-boats lurking beneath the waves.
And that’s how it happened. As simply as that. One minute, Bill was standing there, taking in all the signs of life, allowing hope to find a place in his heart, as they chugged along on the wide empty ocean, with lights from the portholes sending trails over the gentle sea.
The next minute…
The explosion, when it came, came out of nowhere.
It was the noise that ripped through him first. Waves of sound picked him up and flung him into the air. Then, just as he reached the top of its arc, and was about to start falling, he saw a flash of bright light out of the corner of his eye, and felt the full, swirling, impact of the blast.
All around him, smoke and dust. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t see. Shapes in wood and metal flew beside him. Something sharp hit him in the head. He was spinning on his back. He was upside down.
Then, just when he felt that his chest might explode for want of air, the energy changed, the forces tossed him against the ship’s wall, then dropped him back beside the railings, forcing him in between two lifeboats. It cracked his ribs, split his lip, then ricocheted off into the night, echoing as it went.
For a long moment the ship seemed to hang silently in the air. Time appeared to stretch. Dust and debris fell silently, like snow. The lights had all gone out. It was only then, when it was possible to believe in the existence of nothingness, that the uproar started. It began slowly, with soft moans and the strains of voices crying. Then then the cries started to build. They turned and twisted, they grew into shouts, whipped up into screams. Feet were running, alarms wailing, bells ringing, wood cracking.
Bill picked himself up, slowly. He leant on the railing, testing his limbs for damage. He dusted himself down, took a moment to fill his lungs and wiped the dirt from around his eyes. Then, as soon as he had done so, a second explosion knocked his feet out from under him. He lay on the deck, his back curled, knees to his chest, facing out through the railings. He was trying to remember who he was and where, when he saw a burst of gasses shoot up the chimneystack, to send fireworks up in to the spangled blue velvet sky.
As he lay there, aided by the light from those flares, Bill could see the already crowded deck below, moving. For a moment it seemed to writhe, like a single living creature. Then, the pieces became defined and he saw it as packed with people. People, at all angles, fallen against each other, pushed over by the impact. And past them, through the railings of the deck below, Bill could see the shadow of smoke pouring out of the portholes, an ectoplasm floating off across the complicit sea.
The ship was on fire, and the fire was taking hold.
Within seconds more people started spewing up from the cabins below. Men in military uniforms, sailors, walking wounded, women and children. They all poured out through the watertight doors. Bill saw Pettit, and Fitzgerald, two of his fellow officers, as they pushed their way out, chased by a wall of flames, their characteristic authority crumbling in the face of their personal panic. He could see clearly from his vantage point how the flames were licking up the backs of their uniforms. And how Fitzgerald’s red hair was already alight, but how he kept moving on as if he couldn’t feel pain, propelled and anaesthetised by the primal need to keep alive.
Rousing himself, Bill used a smooth moulded piece of wood sticking out from the railings beside his head to pull himself up. His chest was hurting. His mouth felt singed. He rubbed his hand down the side of his uniform to feel for damage. As he did a Chinese sailor appeared beside him and pushed him out of the way to take hold of the wood he was leaning on. It was a handle. The sailor had taken hold of it with both his hands and was leaning into it with all his strength. Nothing was happening. The sailor shouted at Bill, gesticulating He used words Bill didn’t understand and gestured with his head. Luckily, survival is a language that knows no national boundaries, Bill took hold of the winch alongside the man and pulled. It was a relief take control of something, anything. The two worked together in silence, in rythmn, as the noise and the chaos churned all around them.
Screeching and calling. Banging and cracking. The air was getting denser. Each breath was strongly laced with cordite and wood smoke, building and building, thicker and thicker, until they were almost useless, starved of air, breathless, fighting for the resources to make each turn. Slowly the lifeboat creaked its way down the chain. Inch by inch. Link by link. It gave them purpose, and purpose gave them hope. But then, as it moved, the floor started to slip beneath their feet. The ship was beginning to tilt in the water. Bill could see passengers in the queue forming below. They had to grab hold of the railings to stop themselves slipping down the deck.
As the lifeboat drew level with the queue, the sailor anchored it. Bill paused and watched as people scrambled over each other to try to climb on to the sloping, suspended craft.
Everybody on board knew that this was an overcrowded ship. Everybody knew there was never going to be enough space for everyone on the lifeboats. Lightheaded and floating above himself, Bill scanned the crowd. All of those lives, all of those families who would lose someone dear tonight.
In that moment Bill knew he was dying, but for some reason he didn’t care. His life had taught him that the worst part of anything is the waiting. And here, in that gap between the dark blue sky and deep black sea, by the lights of the flickering fires, he could clearly make out fear on the faces of the people waiting around for someone else to offer them a way out of their shared nightmare. But that just wasn’t going to happen. There was nowhere for anyone to go.
All around him, in a smoky haze, and the stench of burning. Bill started to move forward towards the ladder that would get him to the deck below, just in case he was able to help, but when he looked over the edge, he could see flames licking up through the deck. The soles of his shoes were melting and becoming unstable. The next moment, he skidded and fell, landing on his hands. He felt a ripping pain as skin seared off his palms, stripping them to the tips of his fingers.
He dragged himself upright again. He knew couldn’t carry on in that direction, so he turned to go back to the other side of the ship. The ship was beginning to list seriously now. When he got to the other side he looked over. Men were jumping out into the sea, through open portholes, and beneath them, the water was rushing back into the ship.
A sudden lurch and the vessel, weighed down by the water in the hold, jolted violently almost throwing him overboard. Through the haze, as he hung on there, steadying himself, that same Chinese sailor, who he had helped to winch down the boat, pushed towards him again with something in his arms. As he passed, the man thrust a lifejacket into Bill’s skin stripped fingers, before rushing on to be engulfed by the smoke again.
Bill pulled on the jacket. The fabric was course and strong. He fumbled with the buckles, ignoring the pain and was just pulling it straight across his shoulders when he saw someone cowering beside the bulkhead, a look of terror in his eyes. It was a boy in uniform, a man but barely more than a child.
Bill moved towards him and, putting his face against the boy’s ear, he shouted.
‘What’s your name lad?’
‘Tom.’ The boy squeaked, wide-eyed.
‘Where are you from Tom?’
‘Norwich.’ He almost whispered.
‘Very close to where I’m from, then.’ Bill smiled at him, his voice was calm and steady. ‘Well, Tom, I see you’ve got your jacket on already, and there’s no point in staying here. Let me tell you, life’s better if you go out and face it head on. Always go to the fight; never let the fight come to you.’
‘Come on, come with me.’ He held out a hand towards the boy. ‘Let’s do this together. Then, when we get back and have a beer together, back home in Norwich, we can tell people all about how we escaped.’
The boy calculated for a minute. He knew he was up against it. He reached up and took the hand of the older man. Together they climbed carefully over the railing, and side by side, facing seaward, holding tightly on to the top bar, they dangled themselves down the side of the ship. Below them, the sloping hull was covered with people climbing like rats, slipping and sliding down into the smoking water.
The man turned and looked at the boy.
‘Ready?’ He called.
The boy’s eyes met his, and he nodded.
‘After three then. One. Two…’
And, when it came to three they jumped, into the sea, together.