Read Corporal Cotton's Little War Online

Authors: John Harris

Tags: #fiction

Corporal Cotton's Little War (23 page)

The bus was late and, as they continued to wait, the soldiers from the captured caique were halted nearby, their eyes bitter and angry, while the German soldiers who guarded them chatted to German pioneers who came up to stare. Cotton’s heart felt like ice. How much longer would it be before the whole of the civilized world was standing sullen and cowed in front of the triumphant Nazis?

One of the staring Germans, a blond, blue-eyed, ideal Nazi superman, pushed forward. He was staggeringly handsome and eager to show off his ability to speak English.

‘I sink ze var goes bedly for you, eh?’ he said to one of the soldiers. ‘But perhaps you do not know how to fight a bettle, hein?’

The man he addressed, a short, sturdy New Zealander with a face like a terrier, looked up under the lock of greasy dark hair that fell from beneath his helmet.

‘Fuck off, you Nazi bastard,’ he said quite clearly.

The other Germans gave a shout of laughter and the one who had spoken swung his fist in fury. The soldier staggered away, his lip bleeding. As he straightened up, the German glared.

‘Vat do you say?’ he demanded.

‘I say “Fuck off, you Nazi bastard”,’ the soldier repeated firmly.

The German was about to use his fist again when he was dragged away by his friends and a ripple of clapping ran through the cafe. The New Zealander heard it and gave a mock bow as he wiped the blood from his lip with the back of his hand.

Cotton’s big hands gripped the table in front of him. His face was like granite, his heavy jaw set, his eyes glittering and angry, and it required a tremendous physical effort to sit still. Annoula saw his distress and put her hand on his, staring at him intensely with her huge black eyes, transmitting her own quiet spirit through the touch of her fingers, trying to express without speaking her sorrow and her sympathy.

Then the German guards threw away their cigarettes and began to push the soldiers into line again. As they tramped off, their heavy boots crunching against the surface of the road, Annoula leaned forward. ‘It will not always be like this,’ she said.

Cotton found it hard to see a time when it might be different. The Nazis were swarming all over France, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Bulgaria, Rumania, Yugoslavia and now Greece. How much bloody worse could it get, he thought in an agony of shame.

Her hand was still on his, clutching it with thin strong fingers. It seemed to calm him and, as his heart stopped thudding in his chest, he let out his breath in a long shuddering sigh. Defeat was a terrible thing to watch.

The bus was already almost full as it arrived for the return journey. It seemed a good idea to go on into Ay Yithion to see Howard and ask the Varvaras’ help in the matter of extra petrol, and Cotton sat in silence the whole way, unaware that he was clutching Annoula’s small paw in his great fist.

Howard lay on a shabby bed in a whitewashed room, staring at the ceiling, and though he looked bored he seemed better and recognized Cotton at once.

‘ ‘Lo, Royal,’ he whispered. ‘Gi’e us a kiss.’

Cotton smiled and pushed a couple of packets of cigarettes into his hand.

‘We goin’ to get away, Royal?’

‘Yes,’ Cotton said with certainty. ‘We’ve nearly got the boat fixed. When we have, we’ll come and collect you.’

‘You won’t forget?’

‘No, We’ll not forget.’

‘Good old Royal. Always one to remember.’

Cotton flushed. ‘They’re red hot on remembering in the Marines,’ he said gruffly.

Out in the blinding sunshine again, Cotton felt faintly depressed at Howard’s weakness. Annoula was watching his expression. During the day, she had constantly studied him, almost able to read his thoughts. Her own family had been easy-going, devious and careless. Cotton was quite the opposite - meticulous, detailed, rigid in his attitude to duty and painfully honest in his execution of it. Disaster had drawn them together in a flood of fearful uncertainties and she had been conscious for some time of a growing warmth between them.

‘He’ll be all right,’ Cotton said to her, trying to reassure himself more than anything else, and she listened to him solemnly, worried by a sense of uncertainty and insecurity such as she’d never known before.

As they entered the cafe, looking for the Varvaras, the questioning gaze of twenty different people settled on Cotton; but then the Varvaras entered and, as they sat down alongside him, the suspicious eyes turned aside, satisfied.

‘They thought you might be a German,’ old Varvara explained. ‘There have been strangers about. They’re looking for partisans.’

‘Are
there really partisans?’ Cotton asked, thinking of the wretched group round Petrakis in the goatherds’ cave.

Varvara’s eyes blazed. ‘Greeks are fighters,’ he said. ‘Didn’t we throw Mussolini out? There are men in the hills near Cape Asigonia.’

‘Communists?’

Varvara looked shrewdly at Cotton. ‘There are Communists and Fascists and farmers and probably a priest or two. They have no politics. They are simply Greeks.’ He shrugged. ‘Unfortunately, they have no guns and soon they’ll need guns.’

His son indicated the radio. ‘They say the Germans are after the Corinth Canal. If they get that, they’ll cut off the Peloponnese peninsula from the rest of Greece. There’ll be no Thermopylae this time. It would leave the passes over the Pindus Mountains unguarded.’

His father leaned forward. ‘You have this from the Prime Minister - Koryzis himself?’

The young man slammed a hand down on the table. ‘I read!’ he snapped. ‘I listen to the radio! I am not blinded by a pride left over from the Golden Age. It’s the end of the British army. The Germans are already saying that they will start the final evacuation of the mainland any day now and that then their aeroplanes at Yanitsa will have a better killing than they did in France and Norway! After that there will be only local resistance - and without guns.’

Cotton had been listening gloomily, feeling hopeless and helpless. Then he remembered he was a Royal - not somebody out of the back row of the chorus at the Windmill Theatre. He was supposed to know what to do, because his training told him what it was. And even if he weren’t
sure
what it was, he could still go on trying, couldn’t he?

His head jerked up. ‘I know where there are guns,’ he said abruptly.

The Varvaras sat up. ‘Where?’

‘In the goatherds’ cave on the slope overlooking Xiloparissia Bay.’

The girl’s eyes lifted quickly to Cotton’s face but he ignored her.

‘You sure?’

‘May my eyes fall out.’ Cotton fell back on his mother’s way of insisting. ‘May my tongue dry up.’

Varvara looked at the girl then back at Cotton.

‘Do you know the cave?’ Cotton asked.

‘Everybody knows it. We shelter there when we’re searching for snails. They come out when it rains and everybody goes looking for them. Sometimes we get caught in a second storm.’

‘There are guns there. They were being carried by the British boat in Xiloparissia Bay to Antipalia for any resistance movement that might be started when the Germans came. When the Germans searched her, they missed them. They were taken up there by Greeks.’

‘Which Greeks?’

The girl lifted her head. ‘My cousin Chrysostomos,’ she said quietly.

The Varvaras exchanged glances. ‘That man!’ In the old fisherman’s words there was a whole world of contempt. ‘He’s nothing but a gangster, good only for boasting round the Kalani bars. Who’s with him?’

‘Two others. One of them came from Antipalia. Perhaps he learned about the guns there.’

Varvara reached across the table and laid a hand on Cotton’s arm. ‘You have done the island a great favour, my son,’ he said.

‘I want one from you in return,’ Cotton said frankly.

The old man sat back and glanced at his son. ‘Which is?’ he said slowly.

Cotton explained their need for any extra petrol they could get.

Varvara smiled. He seemed relieved it was no more. ‘Leave it to me,’ he said.

When Cotton started back the track was deep with mud, and rivulets of water were running off the mountains, but suddenly the clouds rolled back and the sun came out hotly, and steam began to rise from the rinsed earth. Somehow it gave him encouragement. At the top of the hill, looking down into Xiloparissia Bay, he stopped, listening to the hum of an aircraft. A flight of Junkers 87s - the dreaded Stuka dive-bombers - were flying along the coastline and he watched them swing inland to where the new airstrip was being built, knowing that they meant death to some poor bastard, and probably the end for some fine ship.

Feeling unbelievably alone, he set off down the hill in silence. At the bottom, Docherty met him. He seemed to have forgotten the beating he’d received. ‘See anything?’ he asked.

‘Only a bunch of swaddies the caiques brought in. The poor bastards were marched away to be prisoners of war.’

Docherty said nothing because the idea of being a prisoner, of standing behind a barbed wire fence for the rest of the war, without girls and dancing and fornication, was a horror beyond his imagination. Then he forced a grin. ‘One thing,’ he said. ‘I’ve finished the starboard engine. Tomorrow I’ll finish the port engine. All we need now is some more petrol.’

Cotton was so surprised at Docherty’s success he managed a smile through his depression. ‘I’ve arranged it,’ he said.

Docherty whistled and did a few fancy steps round him. ‘Good old Royal,’ he chirruped. ‘You’re enough to make a man grow two heads.’

Suddenly Cotton felt better, and part of a team once more.

12

Lieutenant Ehrhardt’s face was worried. ‘Our two hundred and fifty friends at Panyioti’s place,’ he said. ‘Perhaps the islanders don’t know who they are, Herr Major, but you know and I know, and, now it seems, so do the men at the airstrip.’

Baldamus’ eyes grew cold. ‘I hope they’re not talking,’ he said.

‘Only among themselves. They’re grumbling that they ought to be used to help. They claim there’s a hell of a lot to do and they feel they should give a hand.’

Baldamus’ nose wrinkled. ‘It’s nothing to do with them. If they want special treatment, they should join special units.’

Ehrhardt shrugged. ‘It’s not as simple as that,’ he said. ‘We’re also getting complaints from the villagers at Xinthos. A girl was raped. Chickens have been stolen. Pigs have vanished. They know damn well who was responsible and they’ll soon start asking themselves, who the hell
are
these damn people?’

Baldamus said nothing and Ehrhardt went on indignantly. ‘They need to do something instead of simply sitting on their backsides wrecking Panyioti’s place. According to my information, they’ve torn it apart. What they haven’t stuffed into kitbags to take back to Germany, they’re burning to make fires, or swapping with the villagers for food and booze.’

Baldamus stared at his fingernails. ‘Try having a word with their commanding officer, Captain Haussmann,’ he said. ‘I’m told he’s a reasonable chap.’

‘Not that reasonable,’ Ehrhardt said shortly. ‘I can’t get near him. I’ve tried. They’re not allowing anyone within a mile of the place. They’ve thrown up road blocks and they stop everyone who goes near. Needless to say, nobody tries.’

Baldamus began to frown again. He hadn’t really expected trouble of this sort and it was clear that Ehrhardt’s sympathies lay with the men at the airfield.

‘They’re not very popular, are they?’ he said.

‘Elite units never are. What they need is some hard work or some hard fighting.’

Baldamus pulled a face. ‘I suspect they’ll get plenty of both of those before long,’ he observed mildly. ‘Very well, I’ll go and see Haussmann. Perhaps he’ll listen to me. I’ll tell him my instructions about keeping the place sweet, and ask him to keep his men under control. After all, they’re not barbarians. They’ve got to measure up to the rules. If necessary, I’ll see that one or two of them are picked up by the Provost Department and offer to court martial them. That ought to make them think.’

‘Unless it brings the whole damn lot down on our necks,’ Ehrhardt said. ‘These special units are very much their own masters; especially since Holland and France. They’ve got it firmly in their heads that they’ve won the war and deserve special treatment.’

‘Not from me,’ Baldamus said. ‘There’s too much going on, on this island.’

There was indeed, even beyond the scope of Baldamus’ command.

The following day, they decided there was nothing much more they could do and that night they were all so exhausted they slept like logs. Except for Cotton, who sat dry-mouthed and red-eyed on the deck on watch until Bisset appeared, languid as ever, just before dawn to take his place.

‘I’il try to get a couple of hours,’ Cotton said.

‘Make it four.’

‘Two’ll do.’

Cotton woke as if to an alarm clock to get them all on their feet. Shoving the canister of chloro-sulphonic from
Claudia
alongside the other, they poured the contents of two of the drums of petrol into the tanks by means of a home-made funnel.

‘If we use one engine at a time,’ Cotton said, ‘we can stretch out the juice.’

‘Not to Crete,’ Docherty pointed out.

‘Doesn’t matter. However far away we get from here, we’re that much nearer safety. The number of RN ships there are in this neck of the woods at the moment is bound to help. We’ve only to get across their course for them to spot us.’

They examined the work they’d done on the hull and the engines minutely, and during the afternoon Annoula returned from Yithion with a basket of food and two bottles of wine. Her eyes were alight and she seemed pleased, as though their escape was a matter of great importance to her. She seemed even to have forgiven Docherty, who went out of his way to exert his crazy charm on her. With Cotton she was thoughtful and silent and he had a feeling that in her silence there was an accusation.

‘I
had
to tell the Varvaras about the guns,’ he explained. ‘They weren’t brought here for your cousin and his friends. Men died bringing them. Besides, I don’t trust him and I’ll feel safer now he’s not got them.’

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