On 28 December 1908, an earthquake devastated Messina and Reggio in Italy, with a horrific number of casualties. If you wish more detail, you can read about it on Wikipedia.
Jay Lewis Taylor has written a story set at that time, in acknowledgement of the anniversary of the earthquake. The story is offered in memory of those who were killed, injured or bereaved in this disaster, and also to honour and respect those men and women of all nations who contributed to the relief effort, reminding us of the perennial importance of hope, love and service in difficult times.
by Jay Lewis Taylor
There is a street called Strait in Valletta that a man can walk down with his finger-tips on the wall either side, if he so chooses. It’s easier when you’re sober, which I was, late in the evening of Boxing Day, 1908. Not what I’d planned, not at all.
HMS Scinde being at anchor in the Grand Harbour, and the crew (except for the poor bastards who dipped out with harbour watch) granted leave ashore, my thoughts had been bent entirely on the pleasures of the flesh. Beginning, you understand, with enough booze to get drunk on, but not enough to put a damper on things, and going on to – well, never mind that now. As they say, the best-laid schemes of mice and men can take a wrong turn, and my plans went overboard when Chief Peters got it into his head that I had looked at him with dumb insolence. By the time I’d peeled a few buckets of potatoes all my mess-mates were well out of earshot, and the best places were full to bursting.
Which is how I came to be walking, sober as a sea-judge but not quite as bright, down the middle of the Gut, as we call it in the Navy, with my arms out sideways, touching the walls, looking for a port of call that would solve the sobriety problem. Something made me swing in to the doorway of the Egyptian Queen. Out the back, or down below, the place sounded as if it was heaving, but the front room, open to the night air, was deserted except for one man and one flickering candle. The man was holding a pewter mug in both hands and staring straight ahead as if there was a magic lantern show in the air between him and me. I recognised him too; Scinde‘s newest surgeon, Dr Amery, fresh out from the hospital at Stonehouse two weeks ago and still wet behind the ears.
I was standing there gawping at him when something soft and massive collided with my back. I knew who it was at once, thanks to the strong scent of lily of the valley, and the husky voice that crooned in my ear, “Jesus Keerist! They done opened up a new box o’ sailor boys! Oh, ain’t he pretty?”
“Bugger off, Mary,” I muttered. “This one should never have been let out on his own.”
“Ah, you ol’ spoilsport.” Mary barged past, elbowing me hard enough in the ribs to bend me over, and made straight for Amery’s table. I didn’t know the man, since I was on a different watch and in a different branch, and had heard nothing good of him, but us West Country folk must stick together, so I went in after.
Mary sat down, landing in the chair the way a sack of feathers doesn’t. “‘So pretty!”
He turned his head to stare at her, and Mary caressed the side of his face. No change came over his expression, but his hands flexed on the tankard.
She said, “See here now, you listen up, little sailor boy. While you down the Gut – keep them big eyes open, that sweet mouth shut, and your hand on your ha’penny – if you don’t want to be all shook up. Or, you can come with Big Mary and be safe as pigs in clover.”
“Mary,” I said, sitting down on the other side of him and putting my cap down on the table where Amery could see the ship’s name on the tally. “Can’t you see he’s half-seas-over? Leave the poor lad alone.”
She ignored me, and leaned in closer. “My word, you’ll be in trouble if someone tell your captain you out without your cap, sailor boy.”
He slid his hand inside his coat then: and if he got his officer’s cap out, there was going to be a worse hoo-hah than anything our captain could dream of in his worst nightmares. I may have closed my eyes briefly, but I had to act fast, so I clamped my hand round his wrist and said, “Not indoors, you idiot. Mary darling, I love you till the stars fall, but bugger off. Right?”
“Ooh, you’re a hard man,” she said, and stuck out her tongue at me. “And me looking for a Christmas drink too.”
I fished the change out of my pocket. “Then go and find one. But not here.”
She laughed, swept the handful of copper into somewhere among the shawls that wrapped her upper half, and got to her feet, leaning forward in a way designed to give Amery and me a view plumb down her cleavage. “Sure you won’t change your mind, boys?” she said, but went into the back room without stopping for an answer.
I didn’t like to look at Amery – one trooping for dumb insolence is enough in a day – but I let go his wrist and asked, quietly as I could, “You all right, sir?”
“None of your business.” The voice was a half-heard murmur as the hand resumed its grip on the mug.
“You’re not, then.” I lifted the drink out of his hands, sniffed, and gave it back. “What is that?”
“I don’t know. I asked for the strongest thing he had.” To judge by his breath, he must have been there for a while; the drink smelt as if it was mostly bad brandy.
“Mind if I join you?” I asked.
“Yes, I do mind, but I dare say that won’t stop you.” He took another swig. “I should know who you are.”
“Stoker Teague, forward port watch.” I groped in my pockets. “Shit, here comes Pirotta, and I gave all my money to Big Mary.”
Amory waited until Pirotta was right at the table and looking at me enquiringly. Then he said, “Tell the man what you want. I’ll pay.”
Once the drink was down me I said, “I can’t go on calling you sir, someone’ll notice. What’s your name?”
He trailed his fingers through a small puddle of drink on the table-top, and said, “What’s wrong with calling me sir?”
This time I definitely closed my eyes. “Did nobody tell you that officers do not, absolutely not, go adrift in the Gut?”
“No,” he said. “The executive branch seems to spend most of its time ensuring that the medical branch makes mistakes, and then criticises us for making them.” He hiccupped, and put his hand up to his mouth. “Pardon.”
The door to the back of the shop opened, letting out noise and smoke and the smell of bad beer in the wake of a sailor with one arm round as much of Big Mary as was possible under the circumstances. They got out into the street eventually, and the door slammed closed again.
Amery said, “Would I have been safe with her?”
“Safe enough, except from the possibility of being overlaid in the night.” I looked at him. “Why do you ask?”
“Is there a Small Mary?”
“Yes, but you might get a bit of a shock once her clothes are off. He goes back to his wife and family prompt at oh-two-hundred, no hanky-panky, just a bit of pleasant company and no harm done.”
“Oh.” His expression didn’t change, but he tipped up his drink and swallowed the last of it.
I tried again. “Why do you ask?”
Pirotta slipped in to the room again as promptly as if he had a spy hole that showed him when our mugs were empty; perhaps he did. Amery said, “Two more.” When the drinks arrived and Pirotta had gone again, he said, “Staff Surgeon Mackenzie.”
“I know him. Well, I know who he is.”
“He told me to go on leave.” Another gulp of the drink. “No, that’s not right. What he actually said was, ‘Get off the ship, and don’t come back until you’ve found yourself a sense of humour or a woman, one or the other, and preferably both.'” He drank down the rest of his own drink, and started on mine; I’d have complained, but he had paid for it, after all. Besides, I was having trouble not laughing.
“If you don’t mind pretending to be a rating for the rest of the night,” I said, “I can find you a woman easily enough.”
He took another gulp of my drink. “I don’t want a woman. I spend half my time aboard ship lecturing you lot on not going with that lot, and I think I should take my own advice.” The end of the word wobbled round the sibilant as he hiccupped again. His eyelids were beginning to droop.
“Pity,” I said. “Especially as you’ve had orders from your senior officer.”
“I do not,” he repeated, “want a woman.” And then he added the thing that persuaded me, more than anything else, that he was most mightily, unspeakably drunk; drunker than any officer ought to be even if he was gowk enough to take a run ashore in the Gut. “I want a man.”
For a moment I just blinked at him like a surprised owl. I wasn’t very sober myself by then; I can’t have been, because I said the stupidest thing that ever was in the history of sailors.
“In that case, how about me?”
He stared. I nodded, and drank down the remains of my second drink in one go.
“You can’t mean that,” he said.
“Can, so. I likes both. Only don’t you go telling anyone.” And Big Mary had been right: he was pretty. He hadn’t been out in the Med long enough to turn into the tanned strips of whipcord that most of us were, and there was a flush on his cheeks from drink, or maybe something else. His hair was very pale and fine, so that suddenly I wanted to feel it between my fingers, and his eyes were blue, or maybe grey, I couldn’t tell in that light. “I mean it,” I repeated.
“We can’t – not here …”
“I know somewhere.” I put one hand on his, still wrapped round the pewter mug. “Only tell me your name, because I don’t like mopping with someone as I don’t know the name of.”
He looked bewildered. “Mopping?”
“Flirting. Name, please.” I smiled at him. “I’m Pasco, on account of I was born at Easter.”
“Pasco Teague.” He said the name slowly, as if he were trying it, and then held out his hand. “John.”
“John Amery.” I smiled again. “Shall us go, then?”
That wasn’t as easy as it should have been. I don’t think he had ever been drunk before, let alone that drunk, and the place I wanted to take him to was uphill: nearer the Phoenicia Hotel and the peril of bumping into another officer, but a better class of place. Somehow that seemed important, and besides, I knew Caterina would let me settle up another time.
I had to prop Amery up most of the way. We were almost there when I turned a corner sharper than I meant, and he slung one arm round my shoulders. We hadn’t spoken since we left the Gypsy Queen, but he said, slowly, as if it was terribly important, “I’m a virgin, you know.”
“That’s all right, me handsome,” I told him. “I’m one of the wise men. You’ll be right with me.” All the while a voice in my head was telling me that this wasn’t wise, that I shouldn’t be doing this, but I ignored it, all the way to Caterina’s place and negotiating and getting him up the stairs, hoping that he wasn’t going to pass out from drink before he and I had our chance.
I don’t know what he was thinking about while he undressed; he said nothing. There was no light in the room except for a tiny glimmer from a wick lit in a saucer of oil. He lay on the bed and watched me, his eyes wide and dark. I lay down beside him, so that we were facing each other, and put my arms round his waist. He did not move; I pulled him a little closer, and ran my hands down his back, over his hips and down between his legs at the front. He made a small, surprised noise of pleasure.
“Your turn,” I said, and his hands touched me where I had touched him, except that when his fingertips slid over my hips their touch disappeared in the darkness. “It’s all right,” I said. “You can touch.”
“I don’t know what to do,” he whispered. “I don’t know anything.”
Anyone else, I might have laughed at. He had been a medical student, for God’s sake; he had to be at least twenty-six. And knew nothing.
“Oh, John,” was what I said. “Leave it to me, then?”
“Please, Pasco. Yes.” And he clung to me, arms round my chest, legs drawn up, face buried in the angle between my neck and my shoulder. I reached out and dipped one finger in the pot of fresh oil that stood beside the lamp. There’s a place, if you get your finger up a man’s backside, and know where you’re going and what you’re doing – and I found it, because this time the noise of pleasure that John let out was by no means so small. I went on doing what I was doing, gently, carefully, and he pushed his face harder into my neck, his lips moving against my collar-bone, while I got more and more roused by the sound of his pleasure and he must have been able to feel that, because he pressed against me, awkwardly it’s true, but still it was a response. His hair against my neck felt like silk, as smooth and fine as I had imagined it.
I pulled away, then, and knelt there; John, dazed, lips parted as if interrupted in a kiss, looked up at me. I took one of his hands and curled his fingers round my prick. “Feel that, John?”
“Inside you? Yes?”
A pause. His tongue flicked at his lips, as if they were dry. “Yes,” he said.
And that was all I needed to hear. I was careful still, of course, and gentle, and my God it was the best thing I ever did or ever had in my life, that time.
In the morning when I woke, John was already up and dressed. Sitting with his back to me on the edge of the bed, shoulders bowed, head in his hands.
“Morning,” I said, cautiously. “How do you feel?”
He said nothing.
His hands shifted, as if he would have liked to cover his ears. After a long pause he said, “I wondered if you were hoping I would be too drunk to remember, in the morning.”
“The thought occurred to me, but why should I hope for it?”
“Have you any idea?” he said, his voice cold and harsh. “Any idea what I’ve just done? Christ, man, I’ve read things … there were officers hanged, for what we just did, and only fifty years ago. If they’d have murdered someone they’d more than likely have been pardoned, and they were equal rank – what are they going to think of an officer who takes advantage of a rating?”
I took a deep breath. “You don’t appear to recall that it was me as seduced you, for a start.”
“That’s nothing to do with it. I’m an officer, I shouldn’t have let you, you might claim that I pulled rank to make you -”
“You think I’d do that?” I put my hands on his shoulders. “You would be wrong.”
“It doesn’t matter. I shouldn’t have – we – it shouldn’t have happened.” He stood up and stepped forward, so that my hands fell away. “I’m going back to the ship.”
I dragged on my rig as fast as I could, cursing buttons and loops and laces that wouldn’t obey my fingers. “Nobody’s due back till tomorrow morning. Staff Surgeon Mackenzie, he’ll only send you ashore again. He’s that sort.” I followed him out on to the landing. “John – sir.”
“Don’t,” he said, and walked down the stairs with his back as straight as a ramrod. “I am going to the Phoenicia Hotel. I will spend the day there. And tomorrow night.”
When he stopped at the door to put his cap on I caught up with him, and put my hand on his arm again. He shrugged it off and stalked away, head up and shoulders squared. Two women in those huge black shawls or hoods that they wear in Malta crossed the road between me and him, and when they were gone I could not see him any more.
There was nothing to be said. I went to the next door along, which was Caterina’s, and knocked.
“Your money?” she said. “I do not want it. Your friend, he paid for last night while you were still asleep, and for tonight because you have no money. Anche, I am to feed you.”
She smiled at me. “He said you would not be pleased.”
“He was damn right.” I leaned against the door-jamb and applied my brain to the problem, as much as I could with last night’s brandy still bouncing round my veins. I wondered how John was feeling.
I could not go to the Phoenicia and demand to see him; I wasn’t going to turn down a free meal and bed. But there was still a day to pass, for both of us, and if I wandered round the sights of Valletta that travellers usually see, I might bump in to him again. I nodded. “See you later, Caterina.”
I spent a long, lonely day, mostly in the cathedral where between one saint’s day and another they never seemed to take the banners down; and then a longer, lonelier night. I was down at the harbour side early, round about 0715. Not much to my surprise, so was John Amery. He watched me cross the quay; I knew he was watching, by the angle of his head.
“If you weren’t an officer,” I said when I reached him, “I’d bloody fetch you one, so I would.” Above us the seagulls squawked, and the skies were dappled grey.
John glanced at me. “Sorry. But I couldn’t see what else you could do, without any money. And it was my fault you didn’t have it.” He moved his shoulders uncomfortably under the thin coat he was wearing.
I’ve never seen anyone look so unhappy, and yet a drawing of his face would have told you nothing of that. It was just an air that seemed to surround him.
“What’s the matter, John?” I said, quietly.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. If I did, I wouldn’t be in this situation.”
“There must be more. What was Staff Surgeon Mackenzie wanting?”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. And then, “Too much I don’t know. How – how come people laugh. Why they laugh. Why they fall in love. I know what makes their blood go round in their veins and I know why it hurts when you touch the fire and I know how to mend a broken bone. But after that – what use am I?”
There were people within sight of us, and I couldn’t touch him any more. But I wanted to. “You’re bloody good in bed, I can tell you that,” I muttered.
“Oh, don’t. What’s the use?” He turned away. “Here’s the dghaiso.”
He’d picked that word up soon enough, but they are everywhere round Malta, those boats like small gondolas that ferry sailors to and from their ships, among other things. We clambered aboard, and he paid my fare again.
“I’ll pay you back,” I said, thankful that it was only the two of us, trying not to breathe in too deeply because of the general smell of seaweed and unswept harbour-side. We sat as far aft as possible, facing the oarsman’s back, and kept our voices down.
“Nonsense. I owe you for two nights ago.”
“Paying me, as if I was a whore?” I said, which was impertinent of me, but I do not like to be beholden to people.
He closed his eyes. “No. I am eternally thankful, that is all. If I could have one night of my life again, it would be that one, because I was happy. And too drunk to know how stupid I was being.”
“Your trouble is,” I said, “that you think too much. If you wanted it enough you’d find a way and one of us would be flat on his back with the other one up his arse in no time flat.”
John’s eyes opened wide at that, but anything he might have going to say was stopped, because the dghaiso flung port, and then starboard, in a way that I’d never known one do. All across the Grand Harbour boats were jostling at their anchorage; even the big grey warships were moving uneasily, and through the narrow gap between the arms of the harbour I could see waves hurrying past. Our oarsman was swearing, or maybe praying, in a continuous stream of words.
It was 0730 or thereabouts, and although we did not know it then, what had just reached us was the outer ripples of a tidal wave.
Captain Paige cleared lower decks to brief us all. A signal had come in from Sutlej, off from Christmas leave at Syracuse, requesting permission to provide aid to the town of Messina. “Has anyone been to Messina?” he asked. About forty of us raised our hands, me included. Nice place, Messina, if you like that sort of thing: old buildings, opera house, promenade along the harbour.
Captain Paige went on. “I’m sorry to say that by all accounts you won’t recognise it; reports are that it is devastated by an earthquake which occurred before sunrise this morning. We are tasked to go and support the relief mission. Please clear the ship of all inessentials, to make space for casualties and other travellers. Galley staff, take on what extra supplies you can. Medical staff too. We depart on the early tide tomorrow.”
Down in the stoke-hold, we knew nothing except making full speed to the entrance to the strait between Sicily and the mainland, and after that slow ahead. We were only told later that the shore lights were gone, because the electricity on both sides of the water had failed. That the narrow straits were crowded with shipping, each vessel making its way with more than usual caution. Aboard HMS Scinde the navigators were taking soundings, in case the sea bed had been shifted upwards by the quake. On the weather deck, they knew when they were off Messina because of the smell; sewers and gas mains broken, and corpses beginning to rot in the streets.
We stopped engines eventually, and heard the rattle of the hawser overboard as we anchored. Mr Davison, the chief petty officer in charge of stokers on our watch, called us all together. “I’m to tell you that we’re anchored off Villa San Giovanni, on the Italian side. Messina is south-west of us, about six nautical miles. Starboard watch is going ashore first and we’re to make the ship ready for casualties and passengers. Any questions?”
I put my hand up. “Messina, Chief?”
He shook his head. “Gone, for all I could see of it through the spyglass. Piles of rubble in the streets. The walls were fine and strong, see, but the floors just fitted into them, not braced. Shake the foundations and the lot come down like a pack of cards, and people still in bed at that hour of the morning. Bigger the house, the worse the damage.”
“Shit,” somebody muttered, and someone else said, “How many dead, Chief?”
He shrugged. “Who knows? Lot of poor blighters thought they were safe from houses falling on them when they got to the quayside, says my oppo in Sutlej, and then the sea drains away like water out of a sink, till it comes back ten feet high and washes them all away. And nobody sleeps in nightclothes and it rained like hell right after the quake.”
“Shouldn’t we be at Messina, then?” I asked.
Chief Davison shook his head. “Russians are there, and plenty of the Mercantile Marine. All our mob in Valletta are on the way. The US Navy coming down from Naples or so they say, and a couple of German cruisers somewhere. Messina’s got all the help it needs. We need to help other places, so get to it, lads, and offload stores first.”
The next few hours were nothing but movement and hauling, up and down ladders with tents and food and medical kit. The sky continued grey, and the wind was unusually cold for the Med. We snatched our meals from the galley, and took half an hour on deck below if we couldn’t be bothered to sling hammocks. Then there was a call for relief party ashore, so I put my hand up. Four parties were landed, and the one that included me was sent off to the east of town, inland.
The roads were hardly worth the name except that they were half clear of rubble. There was a thin layer of stone-dust over everything, which the previous night’s rain had turned into a sort of black slurry. The air smelt of burning, and something more metallic that I couldn’t identify.
We arrived in an open square in front of a ruined church. Scinde‘s men were clustered in one corner, working at fallen beams and masonry. I saw a sick berth attendant, SBA Foster, in the centre of the square with lines of casualties lying or sitting all around him. The yeoman in charge of us marched up to the nearest officer and saluted. “Relief party, sir.”
“Thank God.” The lieutenant peered at us. “Any medics with you?”
“Yes, sir, SBA Roberts.”
“Good. This way, men.” He took us across to the square, leaving Roberts to relieve Foster, and said to the group at large, “Where’s Surgeon Amery?”
“Casualty down that road there, sir, trapped in the cellar,” said a petty officer, saluting. “He’s taken two of the men with him.”
“Thanks, PO. Two men – you,” he said, pointing at me, “and you,” pointing to Harris, one of the leading hands, “to relieve Surgeon Amery and his team.”
It had to be John, of course. I saluted, and set off with Fred Harris.
If I’d come upon him without warning, I wouldn’t have known it was John Amery. His face was streaked with dirt and charcoal, and there was a huge smear of dust and dirt all down the back of his uniform jacket. Somehow he had managed to keep his hands reasonably clean. As we came into sight he was lifting a child, wrapped in a red shawl, through a gap in a wall, which might once have been a window. He asked it a few questions, which was the first time I realised that he spoke Italian, and handed it over. “Look after this one, AB. It’s a girl, her name’s Maria.” Behind him one of our lads climbed out of the house, slithering on rubble and grabbing a fallen beam to stay upright. There was a rattle of falling debris.
“Aye, aye, sir.” The able seaman chucked her under the chin. “I got a little girl at home in Guz myself, so I have.”
I coughed, and saluted. “Relief party, Surgeon Amery, sir.”
He turned his head sharply at the sound of my voice. “Any surgeons with you?”
“Then I’m staying here.” He put his hand to his head for a moment. “AB Trebilcock, did I see some nuns back in the square?”
“Yes, sir.” That was Harris. “There was a group of religious ladies, had children with them.”
“Wait while I find out the mother’s name.” He climbed in through the window himself, and came out presently with a piece of paper which he pinned to Maria’s shawl. “Right, ABs Trebilcock, Martin, back to the ship with you. Teague, Harris – I have a casualty in here, trapped under some masonry. I need light to see by and that means removing debris. Unfortunately the debris is preventing the main beam from falling, so we need props.”
“Leave it to us, sir,” I said.
“Very well, Stoker.” And he made to climb back in through the window.
I took a deep breath. “With due respect, sir, would you not be better outside?”
“The casualty,” he said.
“Tell us what to look for and we’ll call you if need be.” I looked him in the eye. “Better for her afterwards if you take a rest, sir.”
After a moment, he nodded. “Carry on.”
It took us half an hour or thereabouts, and in the end the only way to get the woman out from under the fallen masonry was to amputate her foot. By that time HMS Minerva was anchored offshore, and her staff surgeon had set up the beginnings of a relief camp, so Amery sent me off at the double for chloroform.
When I came back Harris was out of earshot fetching water.
“You going to be all right, John?” I asked him.
He looked up at me, face very still. “You’re on duty, Stoker.”
I swallowed. “Aye, aye, sir. Beg pardon.”
Amery nodded. “Don’t do it again.” And, in a lower, quicker whisper, “Not on duty, anyway.” He scrubbed his hands in the bucket of water. “Thanks, Mr Harris. Hand my instrument case to Mr Teague once I’m through the window, would you? Mr Teague, I hope you can learn to administer chloroform in no time flat.” Maybe he recalled the time I’d used that last phrase to him, for he glanced up at me then, something of a flush on his cheeks.
I climbed into the room, whose walls and ceiling were tilted like something out of a nightmare, and braced an arm against Amery’s so that he didn’t need to touch anything with clean hands as he got himself in. I opened the instrument case for him while he had a few quiet words with the woman on the floor. Between us we administered the chloroform, and then Surgeon Amery started work.
At one point he said, “If you’re going to faint, do it where you won’t fall on us, for God’s sake.”
“I won’t faint.”
“Look the other way, then,” he said, but although I did that, I could still hear. And smell. I was never in a battle; it never occurred to me that blood and bone – well, enough to say that I didn’t disgrace myself, but it was a damned close-run thing.
Afterwards, Harris and I got the woman out of the house, on a couple of planks from the door. Amery climbed out behind us. He was kneeling on the ground, washing his hands again, when Staff Surgeon Mackenzie arrived, so had to scramble to his feet and salute.
Mackenzie looked him up and down. “You’re a remarkably filthy object, Dr Amery. Going to join a minstrel troupe, are you?”
“Not my intention, sir.”
The staff surgeon grunted. “It would appear you didn’t find that sense of humour I sent you looking for.”
“And the other thing?” The seagulls above us cried like raucous laughter.
Amery actually lifted his chin and stared Mackenzie straight in the face. “I don’t believe you’re entitled to ask that question, sir.”
There was a long silence.
“Hm. You may well be right,” Mackenzie said. He got down on the floor and looked at the woman where she lay, turning back the blanket to inspect Amery’s work. “Ever performed an amputation before?”
“Only in a dissecting room, sir.”
Mackenzie got to his feet, dusted down his knees, and said, “Remarkably competent job. Well done, Surgeon Amery. I begin to think you may be -” He noticed that Harris and I were standing there doing our best imitation of statues, and stopped. It doesn’t do to hint at certain things when a man’s subordinates are standing by. “Well done,” he said again, and left us to it.
We were two days there before sailing for Valletta again, and I tell you the stink of seaweed and the Grand Harbour was perfumes of Arabia compared to what we endured at Villa San Giovanni. That, and after the rough crossing we had it was sheer heaven to be in still water. To top it all, Captain Paige granted a day’s leave to anyone who’d been ashore on relief work.
I was more-or-less dancing down the gangplank on my way to the Gut when Fred Harris tapped me on the shoulder. “Hey, mate. Surgeon Amery’s compliments, and he said I was to ask you to deliver this letter if I saw you.”
“But I’m -” It seemed that people were determined to keep me from getting to the Gut first go; but John had asked. I sighed. “All right. Give it here.”
The address was in Theatre Street, a room on an upper floor somewhere near the Casa Ellul, in one of those rambling houses that has extra corridors round corners and up one small flight of stairs and down another, and the numbers in no particular order. At last I found number 31, and knocked.
A floorboard creaked on the other side of the door. Hesitant footsteps. The latch clicked.
It was John. Clean again, face a little pale, cheeks flushed. He pulled me inside. “Pasco. Thank God. I wasn’t sure …” And then his arms went round me, once, hard and fierce, before he let me go and backed away. “I want it enough, and this is the only way I could find.” He was unbuttoning his uniform jacket; his cap was already on a hook on the wall. “I’ve been offered a transfer to Bighi. Will you still be here?”
“As long as I can manage it.” I was dealing with my own buttons now. “Shall I make sure to drop my shovel on my foot now and then? I never made it in to Bighi in any tour of duty to Malta yet.”
“You keep yourself out of hospital. If anyone has to patch you up I don’t want it to be me.” He undid his waistband. “When I was doing that amputation – I thought, suddenly, supposing it had been you? I nearly had to stop.”
“Thought you were looking a bit green about the gills,” I agreed, getting my boots off at last and taking a good long stare at John. With each piece of uniform he had removed he was more like that first night, more like – I smiled at him. “My pretty sailor boy,” I said, doing my best to copy Big Mary’s gin-soaked disaster of a voice.
He actually smiled. “Shut up, Pasco. No time flat, I think you said, and you’re adrift.”
So I put both hands on his shoulders, and began to make up for lost time, and it was bloody wonderful.
♦ ♦ ♦