Monday, January 19, 2009

Saturday 11th December 1943

With all our small kit except razors we assembled in the concert hall. (In accordance with Regulations, our razors had been taken away from us – but not the nice, sharp blades!) This might be called the Beginning of the Journey.

Right at the start our plans for keeping together were foiled, for we were now fallen -in, in alphabetical order, in two squads, which were kept widely apart. The first was the PP squad, the second the PN squad. I was in the second party, thank heavens!

The roll-call went on, and all the old “characters” of the compound (except the Sisters, orderlies and ants) were there.
“Cohen!” The maniac who always jabbered in Hebrew, German or English with a Colonial accent, was proved English at last.
Coporal Collis!”...
“AC1 Hardy!” “Here we are, son,” drawled Hardy lazily, and sauntered into the ranks...
“S/Sgt. Meek!”... “L/Cpl. Murray!” He hurried forward eagerly, carrying a respirator and tin hat.
“Private Parry!” Sgt. Taffy Parry of the Commandos, threw his chest out and strode across. He had made and sewn on to his cap the letters “SS” in cloth. He had pinned a dingy medal onto his blouse.
“Signalman Porter!”... “Cpl. Pritchard!” “Alright! Here I am!” replied “Grumpy” irritably...
“LAC Styles!” “Yes! Here we are, old man! What!” cried the Stinker.

They then went through the alphabet a second time. For the purposes of the journey at any rate, these were all PN cases.

“Pte. Brown!”... “Bdr. Dawson!”...
“Sapper Grindall!” The Boat Toucher glared around and trotted into the ranks...
“Gunner Horrocks” The mathematical genius wasted some time, as he entered into an argument re his regimental number, correcting the sergeant in his precise, high-piched voice...

“Cpl. Lias!” “Sir!” said William stiffly...
“Murdoch!”... “Sapper Parkes!”...
“Skinner!” “Yeah!” cried Yorkie, “Give it some bang-bang!”
“Cpl. Vernon!” And blind Ginger, suddenly worse, was led to his place in the ranks.

We didn't have to wait long, then, but whilst we were waiting, Styles saw Murray, pacing uncertainly to and fro in a state of subdued excitement. Muttering “Ha! Old man – good show...” through his clenched teeth and pipe stem, Styles went to meet him, hand outstretched. Murray smiled and came forward too, face dead white, hair lank.

“Jolly good, old man...” began Styles and shook hands. Murray's restraint went and he screamed wildly. There was an uneasy laugh, but no one thought it funny. Styles came back, still smiling genially, but somewhat shaken.

Shortly afterwards we were taken down to the train, in lorries. I found myself in a carriage with Murdoch and five comparative strangers. Tea. Sleep. We awoke at 7a.m.and found he train had moved only five miles from Cantara. They'd said we should have a late breakfast on the ship, but we of course had breakfast on the train.

That concludes “The Beginning of the Journey.”
Now – The Journey.

The train got under way again. Sand and Army camps. Green, fertile fields. Villages. Flies. Dirt. Hundreds of Wogs, crying out for baksheesh. All as usual, except that now the women also smiled and waved. They ignored us in 1940. Perhaps now they knew this particular train load of the “Ingles” was going away for good! We were allowed to lean out of the windows but saw no heads poked out of the PP coaches, further along.

Egypt passed. And the day. Dusk – and the Delta country looked at it's best. It was flat and green, with little ditches, and trees all leaning over because of the strong winds. But there was no wind blowing at this dusk. It was as though hateful, zift Egypt wanted to give us a pleasant final impression, so that in later years, we'd say, “Oh! It wasn't such a bad place, really.”

“It's lik' a summer evenin', back hame,” said Jock Murdoch, who was looking out beside me. There could be no greater compliment!

Then, the quiet salt marshes. Creeks, muddy pools, weeds.

Then, Alexandria and the docks. The train halted beneath the side of a towering white hospital ship, the “Atlantis.” We lined up below the gangway, in the dark.
“They're giving us a good look at it!” commented someone behind me and turning, I found Bill Lias there.

Forward! Up the gangway. I heard old Bill muttering, “Well, this is it! Unless the bloody thing vanishes as soon as we set our feet on it!” We were led through intricate passages; through a ward where sickly “medicals” gazed in surprise at the crowd of healthy-looking, glaring magdnoons who came striding past.

A mess-deck (Ward AZ) of double tiered bunks. Bill was put in the bunk under mine. “Together again, after all, at the end, William!” “Yes, old man, yes my winged steed, my Pegasus!”

Our hopes soared when a gramophone record was played somewhere and came through the amplifiers: “I'm dreaming of a white Christmas...” There was another thrill when they took away our piastres and gave us shillings and sixpences and threepenny bits in exchange. English currancy!

It was really, really true, then!

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