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Archive for July 31st, 2011

Black Sea Bolters

A short story set in the Crimean War. I can’t really decide where or why to submit it, so decided to publish it here. I thought it might be worthwhile trying my hand at an historical piece. Apologies to Steve Kilbey and Marty Wilson-Piper of The Church. I initially used their names as temporary place-holders, but got so used to them, I couldn’t imagine any alternatives.

 

“Quietly,” said Piper.

Kilbey took his hands off the boat and looked straight at Piper.

“I am bloody well bein’ quiet,” he hissed. “Keep your own noise down.”

“Push slowly,” said Piper, “so it don’t rasp on the gravel so much.”

Kilbey put his hands back to the boat. If there was one thing he knew, it was how to be quiet. It was, after all, he who had gotten them out of camp. Still, Kilbey didn’t mind. Piper was just a nervous lad who got wound up about everything. He’d been blubbering all week. He was afraid, but who wasn’t, and Kilbey liked him all the same. He was a good lad – a couple of years younger – and he seemed to think the world of Kilbey.

“There we go,” breathed Kilbey, as the stern of the rowboat took float.

The two young men were at the base of the cliffs just a few hundred yards outside the British camp at Balaclava, on the eastern side of the harbour. For the last half hour they’d picked their way through their own lines, surprised by the ease of it all. Keeping low on the slopes that rose steeply from the narrow inlet, they had worked their way down to the sea.

“You ever rowed a boat before?” asked Kilbey.

“It can’t be too hard,” said Piper.

“Lucky for you it isn’t.”

Kilbey held the boat by the prow and motioned to Piper to get in. Piper climbed aboard then Kilbey ran it out the rest of the way and hopped over.

“You keep your head down and I’ll get us out.”

Piper did as he was told and ducked down into the stern where they’d placed the rifles. Kilbey took up the oars and turned the boat so it faced west. With measured strokes he rowed away from the cliffs. About a hundred yards out he turned to follow the coast.

“Do you really reckon we can get a proper boat up Sevastopol way?” asked Piper, sitting up when the shore was no longer so near.

“Like I told you, there’s plenty of ‘em. Skiffs, yachts, fishers, the lot. Some of ‘em come just to watch poor bastards like you and me dying. Plus, there’s plenty others mooring up full of wares. If we keep our heads screwed on right, we can nick ourselves a nice little number and make off for warmer seas.”

“South, you reckon?”

“Yep. South.”

“But where?”

“I dunno. South is where ducks go, innit? South is where it’s warmer. It don’t matter where exactly, we just keep going, down into the south.”

“But what’ll we do when we get there?”

“Try to stay alive, that’s what.”

“But where?”

Kilbey took a deep breath. They’d already been over this several times. He was like a child sometimes, Piper: why this, why that, what now? Still, Kilbey was so pleased to have made it this far that he was willing to humour him. As his shoulders spread wide with the strokes of the oars, he felt warmer and looser than he had for weeks.

“Well,” he said, “like I told you, I hear old Greece is down there somewhere. Greece and all them islands. Once we got ourselves a proper boat, we head south and find a nice spot.”

“Then what?”

“We live off the land and sea, I suppose. See if anyone needs a spare pair of hands. I know all about fishing, and it ain’t that hard to pick fruit. Two years from now you’ll be speaking the lingo, drinking wine and lying in the sun with your blooming missus like all them other lazy bastards.”

Kilbey forced out a laugh. Piper said nothing, but turned his eyes into the wake of the boat. He wanted more than anything to believe Kilbey’s optimism wasn’t misplaced. He needed to believe it, if only for the sake of believing something, yet recent events had shaken all belief from his system.

“We can go anywhere we like,” said Kilbey. “Now get up here and lend us a hand.”

Piper moved up beside Kilbey and took the oar from him. It took him a few strokes to get the hang of it, but soon he was matching Kilbey for pace and strength. He was, for the most part, a well-built young man. Despite having gone half-hungry for the last two weeks, his constitution remained strong.

Kilbey fell silent for a while and Piper watched him from the corner of his eye. There was a restrained urgency beneath Kilbey’s stroking. He looked to Piper like he was holding something big inside; something he was trying to leave behind. “It’s like a rope of terror coiled up in his breast,” thought Piper; “a rope tethered at Balaclava and slowly paying out. He’s just as scared as I am, but he’s gaining strength from his fear. He doesn’t show he’s afraid, but he acts on it, acts with it. He’s more decisive; he’s made a choice and he’ll stick to it, believe in it, no matter what.”

It occurred to Piper that only something truly awful could make a man so decisive. “Perhaps I’m right to be this scared,” he mused. “Things really must be that bad after all. I’ve got to turn the fear into strength; eat it all up like food.”

A sweat now broke on Piper’s brow. He felt his armpits flooding. Already his spirits were lifted by the rowing. His thinking was clearer, more rational, without the clouds of panic.

“If you’d seen what I’ve seen,” said Kilbey, after a long silence, “you wouldn’t give a tinker’s cuss for where we’re going. Just so long as it’s away from this place.”

Piper nodded as he pulled back on the oar.

“I guess,” he replied. “I reckon I’ve already seen enough myself.”

The past month had been a long and traumatic one for both young men. Just over two weeks ago, on the fifth of November, Kilbey had fought at the Battle of Inkerman. He didn’t like to talk about it and he liked to think about it even less, yet he couldn’t stop thinking about it most of the time and sometimes that got him talking. It was when things slowed down that his mind went back there, when he didn’t have much to do. At night, when he should have been sleeping, pictures flashed up that would tense his hands; memories that made his eyes twitch.

Inkerman was a bloody nightmare. The officers had been expecting a Russian attack for days, but no one thought it would come on a Sunday morning. Shortly before dawn all the bells of Sevastopol rang out. It was the most beautiful cacophony Kilbey had ever heard. He thought it must be a festival day; the feast for some Orthodox saint. He was up in the trenches, in the front lines, lying half asleep and half frozen in his dug out. As his mind echoed with the metal harmonies, his heart was carried off to the luxury of cities. The mud and mess and frost resolved itself into a peacetime urban morning. The stones of a street, the tilt of a hill and a wide vista of chimneys stacked before the sea. He heard amidst it all the ring of a shop bell; thought of glass and wrapping, of horses, carts, straw and stale ale; the footfalls of churchgoers. He could have lain listening like that for hours on end, seeing a different coloured gleam in every chime. Those were the last fine thoughts he remembered having. Shortly afterwards the day erupted with hot and bloody action.

Kilbey had nothing to be ashamed of. He’d fought like a demon, bracing and stabbing and fending with his bayonet. They were calling it a soldier’s battle; a battle decided by the bravery and steadfastness of men. In the gloomy fog and swirling showers they had fought their own fights, unaware of how things stood about them. Kilbey only knew that they were outnumbered, beset all day by poor brave devils with ancient muskets. They came on in the old-fashioned way and he and his comrades threw them back in the old-fashioned way. It was a day of seemingly endless duels; the slashing witchery of melee with all its freakish luck. Kilbey had seen how hard it was for the wounded. He’d seen men lying in the squalor of the battlefield – messes of men; muddied, bloodied and mostly come a cropper.

When it was over, in the late afternoon, victory found him so exhausted as to be nigh incapable of reflection. The need to stay alive had insulated him against the worst of it. He closed up and shut down and felt a great sleep settling on his shoulders; a sleep of forgetting, of disbelief, of abnegation. He hoped things might stay forgotten in the future just as easily as they were forgotten that very day. Yet later, when he was rested and had the energy, his mind called back all the terror. When he did speak of it, it was difficult to miss the quaver that entered Kilbey’s voice. Piper had certainly noticed it; the little quake in his throat, the way his eyes looked away then came back, creased with the intensity one sees before tears. Yet, he never cried.

“I saw what happens to people,” said Kilbey, in a whisper. “I saw how it’s going to end for us all.”

Even before being shipped across to Balaclava, Piper had been hearing such stories. They had not done him any good; denting his morale and feeding his fears. He was only twenty and had never been brave as such; more naïvely willing. Like so many others he took the King’s shilling because he was down on his luck, but also because he believed there might truly be something noble in it. He did not think that anything could be as degrading as poverty, yet from the start the army had proved to be an ugly experience. He was not callous enough to condone the bullying and could not stomach the bluff indifference of so many to open cruelty. It was a harsh environment and his sentimentality did him no favours. Yet, despite his many misgivings, it would never have occurred to him to desert. If not for the hurricane, that is, for it was the hurricane that broke him.

Like everyone else who lived through it, Piper would never forget the awful air of apocalypse that cursed that entire day. It had begun eerily enough: the moon was still up when the sun rose flanked by bright red clouds. Woken by a draft of chilly air, Piper left his tent to urinate. He stood by the ditch in the steam of his piss, watching as the sky thickened into black thunderheads. It had rained the night before, rained for nearly a week. Everything was damp and miserable in the camp, with little solace to be had from shortened rations. Piper took one last look at the fading red cloud bank, drinking up the rare, warm colours, then crept back to his tent.

A quarter of an hour later the rain began its drumming. All around the camp men were woken by the roaring of the canvas. The rain gathered quickly into rivulets and soon the ground was laden with water, spitting with heavy drops. As the fall grew heavier, so the wind grew more fierce; flapping and whipping and howling so loudly that voices were lost in the din. Then, as though some magician had pulled the lever on a great weather machine, the hurricane struck in full.

Tents were torn from the ground and blown away like tissue. Tins and bottles flew through the air like leaves. Rocks were picked up and hurled like sling stones, cutting and bruising the men. Heavy barrels and boxes skipped across the ground. Horses broke their tethers to run panicked through the camp; wagons rolled free and crushed men in their wake. Many of the men were caught undressed and lost not only their shelter but their clothes. Barely able to stay on their feet, bent double in their underwear, they chased their possessions on the plateau.

In the harbour the devastation was even more pronounced. Pots and pans, crates of medical supplies, sacks of flour, boxes of ammunition were smashed and strewn about; driven into piles at the base of walls, stacked in heaps behind wind-blown ridges of mud. The sea was a mess of splintered wood and rope, full of dead and drowning men and beasts. Several ships went down in the heaving waters – the Resolute, the Wanderer, the Mary Anne, the Marquis, the Rip van Winkle among them; splintered on the rocks and reefs. Many rescues were attempted, many rescues failed, many of the rescuers themselves were lost to the sea.

Though he lost his tent, Piper was at least fortunate in having dressed. His uniform, sodden and filthy as it was, protected him from the lacerating wind. He staggered through that day in terror, silenced by the screaming gusts. In the chaos it was every man for himself. They took shelter where they could; backs against the walls of the few buildings in the harbour, crouched in ditches, curled up behind rocks. For some there was simply nowhere to hide; they wrapped themselves in their blankets and lay in the driving rain and wind. The hospital tents collapsed to leave the sick and dying exposed. Officers, weak with dysentery, lay in pools of frozen water. Ghastly, ghoulish figures, clawing their way through the mud.

It was not until the middle of the afternoon that the winds slackened. The troops tried to put things in order, without knowing where to begin. Most looked first to the recovery of their tents. Like many other men, Piper, who spent most of the storm huddled in a freezing, shallow trench, went all day without food. In the early evening the coffee ration was distributed; a handful each of raw, green beans, with no means to roast or grind it. Some threw the beans away in disgust while others chewed them in resignation. Piper put his in his sodden pocket then went back to picking through the mud. Shortly after five o’clock the heavy rain turned to snow.

In the days that followed his despair quickly deepened. Piper was not alone in fearing that the Russians would come and throw them back into the sea. They did their best to put things to rights, but the camp remained a scene of complaint and exhaustion; full of injured, broken men. The dead were carted off to shallow graves; their bodies heaped in wait.

It was in this bleak aftermath that Piper found himself bedding down with Kilbey. They found camaraderie in their despondency. For Kilbey, with the acrid glory, the intense savagery of Inkerman still ringing in his blood, the foetid filth of Balaclava seemed far, far worse. The apparent pitilessness, the hunger, the cold and the sickness, hung in his chest like a carcass. It was then that he made his mind up to escape. When he confessed to Piper his plans to desert, he found a willing accomplice. So sure was Piper that he would die if he stayed in Balaclava – if not in battle, then of sickness, cold or malnutrition – and so incapable had he become of seeing any future for himself in the bleakness, that the very suggestion of an alternative opened a door in his mind. It did not matter what sort of future Kilbey was offering; the mere fact that there might be one at all was enough for Piper to count himself in.

They rowed steadily, with unhurried rhythm. Both men steamed in the mild, still air. Kilbey estimated that it might take them a good three hours to reach the Bay of Sevastopol. After an hour and a quarter, however, he realised he had no way of judging the distance. Their hands began to grow raw upon the oars.

“It’s a bloody long way,” said Piper, as they stopped to sip from their canteens.

“Not much choice now,” said Kilbey. “It can’t be too much longer. Maybe another hour.”

“Isn’t there some other way?”

“Well, if you got strength to row for god knows how many weeks and you’ve got food and money and all else, then let me know and off we go with what we got. Otherwise, I’m telling you, it’s up that way we’ll get a decent boat. There’s boats like big old larders up there.”

Kilbey nudged him with his elbow. “Some of ‘em even have their women on board.”

Piper whistled. It was a long time since he’d been with a woman, and even then it was just three times over a couple of scented days. In his lowest moments the only woman he’d been able to think of was his mother. He did not believe Kilbey about the women. He wasn’t sure he believed Kilbey about anything much any more.

“What makes you think it’ll be so easy getting a boat?”

“I didn’t say it was going to be easy. I just said it’s our best hope of getting away.”

Piper frowned.

“All I know,” said Kilbey, “is I saw loads of ‘em anchored out there from where we were dug in. Boats of all different shapes and sizes.”

Piper shook his head, his sore hands resting on the oar. He wondered what he was doing. Now that he was away from the camp, out here on the water, warmed up and sweaty with work, he felt strength in his mind and body. The quiet, flat sea and the queer broad light of the moon filled him with a calm sense of freedom. For the first time in weeks he was in control of his destiny. His head was clear at last. The more he thought about Kilbey’s plan, the more it struck him as an utterly mad idea. What could they possibly hope to do even if they did get hold of a boat? Sail to Greece? He wondered how on earth he had ever agreed to this madness. Would he ever see England again?

“Come on,” said Kilbey. “Let’s get going.”

Piper took up the oar and began to row. At least it was better to take action than to do nothing. He should have realised that once they escaped there would be a new set of obstacles. Still, he couldn’t exactly go back now. Or could he? He thought about this a moment, but soon ruled it out on account of Kilbey. Kilbey would never go back; he was as mad as his bloody plan. Piper had just better keep going forward and hoping.

They continued around the coast. In places the cliffs slumped into beaches, yet mostly they stood straight and square. Kilbey, who had thought it a simple matter of rowing a few miles up the coast, was beginning to have doubts himself. He knew he was going the right way, but was surprised by how long it was taking. He had figured on the distance between Balaclava and Sevastopol as being around six miles, whereas in fact it was closer to eleven. He also hadn’t reckoned on the triangular shape of the promontory, which practically doubled the distance by sea. Little did he know that they were less than a tenth of the way there. Kilbey, who had never seen a map of the area, was working from inaccurate observations.

Then he spotted something.

“There,” he whispered. “Look at that.”

Piper turned to look forward over his shoulder. Ahead of them, perhaps only a couple of hundred yards off, anchored in a small rocky bay, was a boat.

“Look at that,” said Kilbey, emitting a whistle. “That’ll do nicely, I reckon.”

“Bloomin’ hell,” said Piper. “There’s a bloody boat alright.”

The boat was Turkish; a two-masted Gulet, around forty-odd feet in length. At the sight of it Piper’s blood raced. He never expected they’d find a single, isolated boat like this. The way Kilbey had described things, he’d imagined sliding quietly in amongst a whole flotilla of boats. It was the other boats that had worried him; that they’d all be looking out for each other. If anything went wrong, the alarm would go round and they’d be sitting ducks, out on the sea, to be caught and shot or worse. This boat was a real chance. It was waiting there like a prize.

Kilbey felt fate congealing around him. Two years before, after the tragic drowning of his father, he had walked away from the coastal village where he was born. There his fate as a fisherman would have been sealed, yet a dispute with his uncle had brought forth his latent stubbornness. It was a long process of protest and denial, combined with his hatred of navy types that led him to the army. It was not something he had ever imagined himself doing, but as with so many others, finding himself short of coin he had taken the shilling. Once he was in, his skill and vitality served him well. His ready wit and jocularity made his an easier ride than that of many others, yet his heart would forever remain on the glittering sea. Despite Piper’s protestations, Kilbey had never doubted himself enough to feel vindicated on finding a boat such as this. It seemed to him instead to be the resumption of a lost destiny.

Both men lay low in the rowboat, peering over the side. They edged slowly closer; the water was flat and still.

“So,” said Piper, “how do we do it?”

“Firstly,” said Kilbey, “I’m going up front.”

He reached down into the stern and picked up his rifle, then edged up against the prow.

“Right,” he said. “You row us in, nice and quiet. Easy strokes, mind. Don’t drop the oars in the water. We don’t want no splashing. When we get close, you hold the boat off the hull and I’ll try go up the side. As soon as I’m up, take your rifle and get ready to shoot any bastard who shows his face. Any bastard who isn’t me.”

Piper swallowed. He didn’t like the idea of shooting anyone.

“How am I supposed to aim right with this thing bobbing up and down?”

“Just do your bloomin’ best.”

“I hope it’s as easy as you say.”

“It’ll be as easy as you like. It’s all about surprise.”

Kilbey lay down in the front of the boat, while Piper sat hunched at the oars. He took a last look at where he was heading. He could see only the outlines and none of the detail. The danger was always in the detail. A cliff is one thing, but a cliff with a man hidden on it was something else. Same with a boat. How was he supposed to know there wasn’t a man on deck? He felt exposed sitting there on the thwart, his back to the land. He was afraid of being shot.

They soon pulled in close. The boat had taken a battering in the storm; the rigging was a mess and the gunwale bruised and splintered. How and where it had weathered the recent hurricane was anyone’s guess. Still, it was afloat and the masts looked intact. Kilbey found it just to his liking and he spat on his palms. His blood was up. He felt the energy in his hands; the nervy quickness that had come when he was fighting. At Inkerman his hands had been strong all day, holding tight his rifle; locked to it like clamps. Now, warm and red with rowing, fuelled by fear and excitement, they felt once again like tools.

Piper slid the oars in, then he and Kilbey leaned out to stop the boat thudding against the hull. Piper held the boat away from the side while Kilbey reached up for the gunwale. It was a low gunwale and he reached it easily. Once his right hand had a grip, he steadied himself then flung up his left arm as the rowboat slid out from under him. He pushed off with his feet and got his elbows up on the deck, his body bouncing lightly against the hull. With both arms up, he rested on his elbows a moment, gathering his strength. Then, working himself into a swing, he threw his leg up and over. He balanced a moment on the edge, adjusted his holds, then pulled himself up onto the deck.

Once Kilbey was up, he leaned back over the side and Piper passed up his rifle. Piper sat down again and pushed the boat away a little, taking hold of his own Minié rifle. He sat back down on the thwart and propped it against his shoulder, ready to fire if need be. He knew he wasn’t much good with it, but, despite what they were doing, it had never occurred to him that he might actually use it. He watched intently as Kilbey crouched on the deck.

Holding his rifle, Kilbey crept towards the cabin entrance. Until this point he hadn’t felt any fear of what was to come. Buoyed by his own positive assertions to Piper and the surprise of actually finding a boat out here, his confidence had held. Yet now, standing before the door and knowing how close and quick things would be inside, he was afraid to go ahead. He crouched and examined the door in detail; the grain of the wood, the hinges, the jamb. He told himself that he was searching for how best to deal with the lock, if it was indeed locked, but really he was staring at the wood. He hovered a moment longer, waiting and expecting his body to move, yet it did not move, and he continued to hover. Now he began to wonder if he had made too much noise coming over the side; if the rocking of the boat had alerted anyone who might be on board. He was sure there must be someone on board.

He tried the small knob on the door. It turned easily, quietly, but the door would not open. He pushed gently against it, but it did not budge. It must be bolted on the other side. He grew nervous now, knowing that he would have to do it all in a rush; get the door open and plunge straight in before they could pull themselves together. He could only take one shot, so he’d have to make sure he got it right and do the rest with his bayonet. He thought of getting Piper up on deck, but in truth he didn’t think much of Piper’s ability. He was a good lad, but he was lily-livered and he wasn’t sure he could trust him in a fight.

Kilbey’s bayonet was fixed. He took a deep, sharp breath, braced himself and turned his rifle around. He held the butt just above the door handle where he suspected the bolt might be, then rammed it against the wood. The door flew open with a loud crash and Kilbey charged down the stairs, eyes scanning the darkness ahead. He couldn’t hear a thing beyond his own breathing and clatter, but he thought he could make out two bunks to his left and right. His rifle was ready, his bayonet sharp and deadly, and with his arms primed for a thrust, he charged at the bunk and plunged his bayonet into the dimness. In the second in which his bayonet made contact there was a loud bang and a flash behind him and Kilbey was sent sprawling on the floor.

“Jesus,” was all he managed to say. The flesh of his breast was open and hot; he felt as though a burning lance was thrust right through him. A moment later something heavy and wooden began to clobber into him. A blow struck him across the back of the head and he blacked out. With the next blow, Kilbey was dead.

When Piper heard the shot, he jumped so much he nearly fell over backwards. In a flurry he stood up, half lost his balance, sat down then tried to stand again. He was shaking so badly he could not steady himself and, sitting down once more, he picked up the oars and began to stroke hard, away from the boat. Kilbey, Kilbey, Kilbey, he thought, then, rowing a few strokes more, he let go the oars. He stared at the boat ahead, feeling vulnerable in the filtered moonlight. Where was Kilbey? Was there a fight going on? Why hadn’t he emerged yet?

Piper remained seated, slowly drifting, peering through the hazy light. In the cold air, he flushed with prickly heat, knowing he must act immediately, but uncertain of what to do. Every second that he failed to make a decision his anxiety and his helplessness grew. Kilbey still had not emerged. Something was terribly wrong; awfully wrong. It could only be the very worst, thought Piper, surely only the worst.

Christ, how he couldn’t stand not knowing!

Piper waited on. He figured almost a minute must have passed since the gunshot. He sat, fretting on the thwart, clutching his rifle. The boat had continued drifting and now lay some thirty feet from the Gulet. He could hear nothing at all. Why had Kilbey not yet come back on deck?

“Kilbey!” he cried. “Kilbey!” His voice took him by surprise in the stillness. That muffled gunshot was still echoing in his mind, yet save from the odd plash against the side he could hear nothing else.

“Kilbey!” he called.

He put his rifle between his legs and picked up the oars, determined that he must row across and find out for himself. It was then that he saw a man, running up onto the deck, a quick rush of silhouette; the outline of a man with a rifle.

“Kilbey!” shouted Piper. He tried to stand up, yet again his legs were shaking so badly he could not get to his feet. He fell back heavily onto his bottom, just as the silhouette on the deck reached the gunwale and took aim with Kilbey’s rifle.

“Kilbey,” he called one more time. But now he knew the silhouette’s shape was wrong.

Before he could duck the gun went off. Piper saw the flash and flew backwards into the belly of the boat. The lightning touch of the bullet struck a spark behind his eyes, and it was this light that shone through the arc of his fall. When his head struck the stern sheets it sparked again like a bolt of hot glass, then he felt a stifling blankness and a strange smell of static, as when once he was punched in the nose; the stench of biff. For a while afterwards there was nothing. The boat drifted slowly away and the cloud overhead, which was already thinning, grew thinner.

When Piper opened his eyes again he was lying in the dip of the tub, his legs hanging over the thwart. He flinched and blinked, for the hazy moonlight was very bright. His head was throbbing all over. He reached up and rubbed at it. There was a lump just above the base of his skull that hurt dreadfully. Touching it, he recalled the flash; the twin sparks of glass and heat, but not quite anything else. He felt his forehead. There was a stinging welt that ran a short distance from his hairline. He rubbed at this and it hurt, god it hurt.

Piper turned on his side, reached over and dipped his hand in the water, then brought it up and washed his face. He reached again, this time throwing the water across his eyes, massaging the damp hand into his forehead, then into the back of his head. He lay a moment with his eyes closed, breathing steadily and trying to stay relaxed. When he shook his head he felt the thickness of his lump, but otherwise, he felt strangely rested.

Piper let his eyes search the sky. It looked to him as it had before. The moon seemed hardly to have moved. That was one thing he remembered, the moon and the stars. He lifted himself slowly on his elbows and peered down the length of the boat. He could see nothing beyond his feet. He sat up again, looking to the left and right, but before he could see a thing, it all came back to him. He ducked down in fright.

Kilbey! he thought. Blooming Kilbey.

Slowly Piper began to lift his head by inches, peering left and right. He could see nothing at all, just open sea and the cloudy sky. He lifted his head higher still, but in a bolt of paranoia pulled it straight back, afraid of something behind him. He cursed and pulled his legs down off the seat, curling up in the base of the boat. Then, lifting himself into a half-crouch, he looked out over the stern.

At last he spotted the cliffs and the shoreline; directly behind where he had lain. He held the side of the boat with both hands and studied the scene carefully. There was no sign of the Gulet, nor the small bay where it was anchored. The boat must have drifted away as he lay unconscious.

Piper breathed a sigh of relief. Thank Christ he was still alive. He pushed himself back up onto the thwart and rubbed his head and shoulders. He was surprised to find himself so intact. The pain in his head was dull and constant, but it was not more than he could bear. His shoulders and back felt very stiff.

Kilbey, thought Piper, poor bloody Kilbey. He was sure he must be dead.

Piper sat with his lips pursed, blinking. He wondered why he wasn’t crying. In the tent with Kilbey, at the height of his terror, he’d kept the worst of his despair to himself, yet now that there was no one to see him and make him feel ashamed, and now that he had more reason than ever to feel desperate, he felt no inclination to cry. Perhaps it was the bang on the head, or perhaps it was the pointlessness of despair in these circumstances, but when he failed to cry, he knew that the fear had been shaken from him. He was beyond being scared.

Piper washed his face again, then took up the oars and began to row. He steered the boat towards the cliffs. There was little wind and the sea was still. He felt no impediment and he made smooth progress. He rowed on across the easy still water, clear in his decision. There was, after all, only one place to which he could now go.

Two hours later, exhausted, his hands wrapped in his socks to keep them proof against blisters, Piper ran the boat up against the rocks just outside Balaclava. Following the route that Kilbey had picked so carefully, he snuck his way back around the harbour, up onto the plateau and into the camp.

The sky was beginning to lighten in the east as Piper pulled back the flap of Kilbey’s dishevelled tent. He no longer felt afraid of anything. Whatever the Russians or the very earth itself might throw at him, all he needed was a rest now. He had his own plan for staying alive. The lump on his head would explain his lack of complicity in Kilbey’s desertion. He pulled together the two filthy blankets and lay down to rest at last. He soon fell into a deep sleep.

With help from: Christopher Hibbert, The Destruction of Lord Raglan; a tragedy of the Crimean War, 1854-55, Longmans, 1961.

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