“It’s a beautiful night and no mistake. You would never think there was a war somewhere.”
These less than prophetic words were spoken by a young navy second lieutenant, on the wide, night-bedarkened deck of our supply ship, bound for Accra. He was a tubby little man, whom the day’s sun had scorched red. Happy to hear an Irish accent I asked him where he was from and he said, with that special enthusiasm Irish people reserve for each other when they accidentally meet abroad, Donegal. We talked then about Bundoran in the summer, where my father had often brought his band. It was a pleasure to shoot the breeze with him for a few moments as the engines growled on, deep below.
The cargo was eight hundred men and officers, all headed for various parts of British Africa. There was the noise of the little parliaments of the card-players, and the impromptu music-halls of the whisky drinkers, and true enough a lovely mole-grey air moved across the ship in a beneficent wave. We could see the coast of Africa lying out along a minutely fidgeting shoreline. The only illuminations were the merry lights of the ship, and the sombre philosophical lights of God above. Otherwise the land ahead was favoured only by darkness, a confident brushstroke of rich, black ink.
I had been in an excellent mood for days, having picked the winner of the Middle Park Stakes at Notting-ham. Every so often, I stuck a hand in my right pocket and jingled part of my winnings in the shape of a few half-crowns. The rest of it was inserted into an inside pocket of my uniform—a fold of lovely crisp white banknotes. I’d got up to Nottingham on a brief furlough, having been given a length of time not quite long enough to justify the long trek across England and Ireland to Sligo.
France had fallen to Hitler, and suddenly, bizarrely, colonies like the Gold Coast were surrounded by the new enemy, the forces of the Vichy French. No one knew what was going to happen, but we were being shunted down quickly to be in place to blow bridges, burst canals, and break up roads, if the need arose. We had heard the colonial regiments were being swelled by new recruits, thousands of Gold Coast men rushing to defend the Empire. I suppose this was when Tom Quaye, though of course I didn’t know him then, joined up.
So I was standing there, flush with my winnings, not thinking of much, as always somewhat intoxicated by being at sea, somewhat in love with an unknown coastline, and the intriguing country lying in behind. I had also about a bottle of Scotch whisky in me, though I stood rooted as a tree for all that. It was a moment of simple exhilaration. My red hair, the selfsame red hair that had first brought me to the attention of Mai, for it was not I who said hello to her first, but she, with her playful question in the simple neat quadrangle of the university, “I suppose you put a colour in that?”—my red hair was brushed flat back from my forehead, my second lieutenant’s cap holding it down like a pot lid, my cheeks had been shaved by my batman Percy Welsh, my under-clothes were starched, my trousers were creased, my shoes were signalling back brightly to the moon—when suddenly the whole port side of the ship seemed to go up, right in front of my eyes, an enormous gush and geyser of water, a shuddering explosion, an ear-numbing rip of metallic noise, and a vast red cornet of flames the size of the torch on the Statue of Liberty. The young second lieutenant from Donegal was suddenly as dead as one of those porpoises you will see washed up on the beach at Enniscrone after a storm, on the deck beside me, felled by a jagged missile of stray metal. Men came tearing up from below, the doorways oozing them out as if so much boiling molasses, there were cries and questions even as the gigantic fountain of displaced water collapsed and found the deck, and hammered us flat there as if we were blobs of dough. Two of my sappers were trying to peel me back up from the deck, itself splintered and cratered from the force, and now other stray bits of the ship rained down, clattering and banging and boasting and killing.
“That was a fucking torpedo” said my sergeant, with perfect redundancy, a little man called Ned Johns from Cornwall, the most knowledgeable man for a fuze I ever worked with. He probably knew the make and pound-age of the torpedo, but if he did he didn’t say. The next second the huge ship started to pitch to port, and before I could grab him, Ned Johns went off sliding down the new slope and smashing into the rail, gathered himself, stood up, looked back at me, and then was wrenched across the rail and out of view. I knew we were holed deep under the waterline, I could more or less feel it in my body, something vital torn out of the ship echoed in the pit of my stomach, some mischief done, deep, deep in some engine room or cargo hold.
My other helper, Johnny “Fats” Talbott, a man so lean you could have used him for spare wire, as poor Ned Johns once said, in truth was using me now as a kind of bollard, but that was no good, because the ship seemed to make a delayed reaction to its wound, and shuddered upward, the ship’s rail rearing up ten feet in a bizarre and impossible movement, catching poor Johnny completely off guard, since he had been bracing himself against a force from the other direction, and off he went behind me, pulling the trouser leg off my uniform as he did so, sending my precious half-crowns firing in every direction.
This piece was excerpted from the novel The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group.