Each morning I would breakfast with my fellow survivors and, being wounded, I would be excused showing my face at morning parade. During their absence I would sit in the sun loggia and read or play patience and every morning Spragg would send out Maria. She would arrive with a salver on which sat a glass of Canary sack, the same as that which I'd had with Mr Spragg on my first morning. Pirates drank it, Nelson drank it, so why not I? Some mornings there would be two glasses, at such times I would be joined by Mr Spragg and it was at such times that I learned more Spanish than the phrase book could possibly give.
In the Hotel was an English resident who gave lessons in English to the Spanish who wanted to extend their knowledge of foreign languages. On many mornings as I sat in the shade, there came from the Hotel a young Spanish senorita. Unusual though it may seem, she was a blonde, very rare in a Spaniard and by this virtue more attractive. She was blonde, nubile, attractive and young and each morning as she passed me on her way to the gates, I would give the British "Good morning," in response she would give the conventional, "Bueno dias senor." This continued for many days, then came the morning when I tired of this conventional response and said, "Bueno dias senorita," to my amazement, surprise and delight she replied, "Good morning, sir," the final thrust lay with her, I laughed quietly to myself.
The blonde beauty had barely passed through the gates when they opened to admit Dr Tomas; he was dressed for some ceremonial event, frock coat, striped trousers and top hat. Across his chest were displayed many decorations and across his shoulder to his waist, a sash of a distinguished order. Dr Tomas, who was nothing if not a man, glanced at me, looked over his shoulder at the gates, turned about, opened the gates and watched the blonde poppet vanish down the road. When he came back he said, "Who was that Sharkey?" Who it was I did not know; what is was and why it was I could guess. I gave Dr Tomas verse and chapter, "H'm," he murmured when I had finished, "Pity you're on crutches," he was right of course.
The doctor was due to attend an official parade, hence the decorations, but he had thought to visit Sharkey first. I was able to give him a good report, "Soon," he said, "You can dump those crutches, we'll try you on walking sticks." This was quite the best news I had received for a long time and I looked forward to the day.
After Dr Tomas's visit the boys returned from their morning parade and rounds, and while awaiting the gong for our midday meal we all played cards or Monopoly. One of our circle was a Petty Officer Telegraphist, his knowledge of cards and games was illimitable and as we played he would regale us with tales of his experiences in the Navy. The gong always rang just as he reached the climax. Good timing, on whose part I never discovered.
Our stay on Tenerife was not all drama or unpleasantness; there were many moments of great pleasure, of kindness and pure fun. For instance, there was the party we held on the roof of Spragg's Hotel. Some parties are reputed to lift the roof, this one held the roof down by sheer weight of numbers and by the fact that the others were dancing on it.
For days before the party all those able to do so had brought in odd bottles of various drinks that were to be found on the island. Some of these drinks had all the menace of Red Biddy. There was one bottle in particular that riveted my attention; it was labelled in flowery Spanish as rum. It was pale red in colour and on holding it to the light it gave forth a wicked glint that foreboded ill for those who tried it. There were also two bottles of Hock, these at least were presentable and I hoped that they would be treated with due respect. To add bulk to the liquid refreshment we also had a good store of the local produce, Vino Tinto and Vino Blanco.
The party was purported to be in celebration of one of our survivors' twenty-first birthday in conjunction with another's son's second birthday. These then were our excuses, our reason, to let off steam.
As the evening approached so the preparations advanced, more and more bottles were produced and a huge cocktail was prepared in a large jug. I was horrified to hear that the two bottles of Hock had been submerged into this alcoholic miasma. My only chance of tasting the hock was apparently to absorb a large quantity of the jug and bottle cocktail and hope to retain a percentage of the hock, the risks were imponderable.
At last the hour was nigh, I was helped up the narrow stair to the roof by George, Frank and our Petty Officer Telegraphist. On the large cool roof of the Hotel was laid a long table, on it was piled a vast amount of cakes and other alcohol absorbents. The place of honour in the centre of the table was held by the omnipotent jug. We elected as President of the Mess our Petty Officer Telegraphist. By common consent I was to be excluded from any penalties incurred by not drinking all the toasts that were to be called for, my pace was to be my own as I was still under the Doctor's orders. Moreover I had visions of descending the stairs with two crutches and a load of high octane alcoholic fuel.
We toasted the King, followed by loved ones, followed of course by the usual bloke who asked for a particular friend to be remembered (I hope she was pretty). After this display of mutual goodwill the President suggested that we settled down to play Admiral Puff. This drinking game has, after three or four rounds, terrible penalties, unbreakable rules and by the light of the next day, awful misgivings. Admiral Puff held court and we who were just minions obeyed the dictum of his rule. It was Frank who first broke the Admiral's spell, "I'm boiling hot," he shouted and, leaving his seat, he dashed to the nearest water tank and proceeded to hurl water over the entire gathering.
This of course was the open sesame to a rooftop Water Carnival, within seconds a twenty-four hour supply of water had been generously distributed amongst those present. By some queer fortune or individual good favour I was amazingly well protected, but George the ever ready and always sensible, suggested that I go below. Sense prevailing, I went. A little later George and the Petty Officer came to my room to finish the night in a more sedate manner. We polished off the remains of a couple of bottles.
There were many incidents that night which came back to mind later, but in that night there was too much of the inherent fun of the native British to recall it all at one time.
"Death is not much, but young men think it is and we were young," the poet has it so well. All relaxations, to those of us who had survived the terrors of the seas, were a gesture of defiance to death and a rude gesture at that.
This coming back to a full world could be dangerous to someone who did not think and I was foolish. Wine was to be my danger; a bottle of wine on the island was cheap, too cheap.
One evening George, Frank and I were polishing up our use of the Spanish language and constantly we asked Pepita to bring us another bottle; for reading old, dusty Spanish primers was thirsty work. Also the day's sun had drunk our perspiration and we were refilling. Our capacity was good and we tested it to the brink and stayed sober. There was nothing in this that threatened my recovery but I did not stop there, the following morning on our rounds we met some of the lads and thence to the Café Atlantica. The wine was as good in the morning as it was at night, I imbibed again. The next day as I swung out of my bed I noticed my injured foot was swollen, the swelling ran over the ankle and into the torn muscles. As it happened it was the morning for a visit from the Spanish Army doctor so I stayed in bed until he came. He examined the leg and, looking at me reproachfully, said, "Malo, malo, muches vino!!" "It is bad, you have had too much wine." I felt rebuffed and vowed that from then on I would take things a little more sedately.
The doctor advised that I bathe the foot in hot and cold water alternately to reduce the swelling. This I had to do religiously for a week before my foot returned to normal. I had learned my lesson, the hard way.
One night after this little episode George, Frank and I were taking our usual walk through the Plaza de Zapetos and along the Calle when, as we passed the trees and entered into the Plaza, we saw gathered in the centre and in our path a large number of men seemingly dressed alike. There were approximately twenty of them, all wearing white shirts and, in the evening light, what appeared to be dark trousers. They were all dark haired and olive skinned and I took them for a group of young Spaniards gathered for some purpose best known to themselves.
It was George who voiced the truth of the matter, "Italian survivors." Later I was to learn the full story: apparently when we arrived on the island there had been in the harbour four German merchant ships and six Italian merchantmen. During my stay in hospital, and therefore not being fully acquainted with all that went on, two of the German ships had sailed out to try and return to their home port. They had been immediately sunk by a British submarine which had been lying in wait for such an attempt. Three of the Italian merchantmen had taken the same risk and suffered the same fate. The group who stood across our path were the survivors of the third ship.
Frank on my left, George on my right, me in the centre, swinging along on my crutches, we were still moving along the Plaza. "Are we turning back?" asked Frank, without breaking pace, "How do you feel, Alf?" said George, without taking his eyes off the group in front.
I had not been on my crutches long enough to be nimble with them and I was sure I was not adept enough to do a smart about face. My crutches swung forward at the same rhythm and I am sure it was of their own motivation, I am also just as sure that it was a shorter swing.
"What if they start something?" this from George. Frank hunched his shoulders a little, "We'll do 'em." His tone was emphatic, his posture aggressive, there was no doubt about Frank when the issue showed clear.
George was his usual confident capable self, I was the weak link, I was their concern, they would protect me at all costs. The distance between the two groups shortened, I suggested that if trouble ensued I should prop myself on one crutch and whirl the other around at high speed. If George and Frank managed to push a few of the I-ties into the magic circle then I might succeed in shortening a few of them between neck and shoulder.
The idea tickled Frank, he laughed. George, more serious, considered the suggestion and decided that it had merit. We were still chuckling as we came up to the Italians who were standing in a circle, one more swing of my crutches and they would be poking some Italian in the heels. We could not stop, we were committed, we must go on, we must have been mad.
My foot felt and held the ground, my crutches swung forward, one of the I-ties, back towards us, looked quickly over his shoulder and touched his companion on the arm, they parted and the group opened up. The three of us swung into the circle and on across, the far side of the group opened with a side shuffling movement, we went on and out.
About thirty yards further up the Calle, George said, "I think we'd enjoy a fag," we paused in a tight bunch to light up. George lit mine first, he paused before lighting his own, "Look round, Alf, not too obviously," his tone conveyed an awareness and so I did as he suggested. Twenty yards behind us followed a Spanish Civilia Guardia, a rifle slung over his shoulder.
We resumed our walk pensively. At the Café we sat over our drinks and asked each other, if a bother had started who would the Civilia Guardia have protected? Spain was not at that time very friendly towards Britain and, moreover, had commitments with Italy and Germany. The Civilia Guardia were also a trigger happy lot, it was therefore lucky for us that the question had not arisen.
The days progressed and I with them, my strength and confidence returned. Then came the morning when Dr Tomas arrived and placed on the table in the loggia a pair of walking sticks. "Now then Sharkey, let's see you start running." I rose with the aid of the crutches and, standing, I exchanged them for the sticks. So far so good but move I could not. Maria, who had come out to watch, was called, she stood on one side of me, Mr Spragg on the other and Dr Tomas in front, a few paces away. He called me towards him and he was insistent, I had no alternative but to make the attempt. I found it difficult to move the injured leg normally, it had been a passenger for a long time, nervously I forced it forward in the first pace. It worked and so I did another one and a third. Spragg was as jubilant as me, "Champagne," he cried and Maria dashed off for the bottle and glasses. George and Frank arrived at this auspicious moment and back in the loggia we emptied the sparkling drink down our yearning throats.
"This," said Spragg, "Is only a taster, tonight after the news we'll open a good bottle." He was as good as his word, that evening he poured champagne for all the officers and men who crowded his study. George, Frank and I were invited to stay on after the others had gone and we finished off the rest of the champagne.
After a pleasant chat with Spragg and a fair addition to our Spanish phraseology, we went on to the Atlantica, once more we celebrated, it was pleasant to see how many of our lads, and Santa Cruzians too, were glad to see my progress from crutches to walking sticks. I was moved and grateful. My movements were enlarged and more agile, even though not yet normal, this would follow in course of time.