It was night, the same as any night on the Island, warm and sultry and still. I had eaten my last meal of the day, my visitors had long departed and I lay in bed reading. The hour was not late, about 8 o'clock, when suddenly I heard in the distance the faint sound of music and singing. It came closer and as I listened I knew that whoever it was would pass beneath my window.
The cavalcade came on, the creaking of bullock carts, young voices laughing, singing, the strumming of guitars and mandolins could now be distinctly recognised. It was frustrating that I could not look out to see what was going on. The Doctor would still not let me out of bed on my own even though I was improving greatly in strength. I could contain my curiosity no longer, I pressed the bell-push at my bed-head, Maria came within seconds, "Si Don Alfredo," I gestured towards the window, "Que es Maria?" (What is it?) She crossed to the window and looked over the balcony, she turned smiling as she said, "It is the Fiesta de la Magos." Bit by bit Maria managed to convey to me the facts; apparently every year the peasants from the hills and valleys gathered for the Fiesta and, dressed for the event, they boarded the bullock carts and singing and playing they came to the town to celebrate.
I managed to get the gist of the story, Maria's English was nil and my Spanish very poor. Barely had she given me the main story when suddenly she said, "Una momento!" (Just a moment), and vanished. I assumed she had remembered a kettle on the boil or something of equally urgent nature and so I resumed my reading.
A few moments passed and as swiftly as she had disappeared so she reappeared and with her were three lovely girls, they were typical of young Spanish female beauty, olive-skinned, large dark brown eyes, delicate features and beautiful figures. Each one of them was lovely enough to arouse the admiration of any beholder and three such lovable creations were indeed a picture of delight.
They each wore a gay coloured silken kerchief over their hair, surmounted by a small round straw hat carrying a black band. White blouses with long sleeves over which they wore a little bolero jacket, red, green and gaily fringed. Their skirts came to below the knee and were bright stripes, red, green and white. To finish the gay ensemble they wore white socks and black shoes, and this was the costume of the Magos.
The girls pirouetted for me and brought something of the evening's gaiety into my sickroom, I was indeed very pleased and grateful. The girl in the middle spoke in fluent, liquid Spanish, Maria attempted to translate but it was very difficult for her. The following day I had the full story from Mary Golding.
Apparently the girl who had been trying to tell me something in her own language had a brother in the Spanish Navy, and during the Spanish Civil War he had been aboard a Spanish warship in the harbour. He had fallen overboard, could not swim, and a British Naval rating aboard a British cruiser, which was also in the harbour to protect the British residents, had dived in and rescued him.
When Maria had gone out to find someone to bring in for my benefit, this young lady and her friends had volunteered, she had felt that it was but a small gesture of kindness in return for her brother's rescue.
Maria must have told them of the condition of my leg, their three innocent faces puckered for a moment with compassion. "Aiee, Aiee," they murmured softly. The leader of the group fixed me with her large brown eyes, "Marinas Englishia es muy valiente," it was a sincere belief on her part, "English sailors are very brave." To her this was a statement of fact, had not her brother been rescued by one Marinas Englishia, was she not visiting one who had suffered the perils of the deep? I hoped her faith would never have reason to falter. They wished me goodnight and with gentle courtesies were gone.
During the next few days one of my many visitors was a young seaman rating who had been in the lifeboat with George and Frank. He was a rather feminine looking chap and had moreover one or two rather feminine little gestures. One, that of course all noticed, was the typical girlish habit of patting his hair when being addressed.
The resulting comments from his male companions can well be imagined.
On the day he visited me he was feeling somewhat depressed, the attitude of his fellow survivors had lowered his morale. He was in the mood to talk and talk he did.
He was the only son in a family of seven and all his sisters were hairdressers. This simple statement alone gave a clear picture of the influence under which he had been reared. The girls had pampered him and also used him as a model for their hairstyles. These conditions had attained for long enough to condition him to this female environment. The end result: a man suspect by fellow males.
We talked for some time and I had no doubt of his inherent manliness, only the minor gestures gave any reason for doubt. Eventually he left, as he went out Dr Tomas came in and, looking after my departing visitor, he said, "Have you been talking to that boy, Sharkey?" I told him of our conversation, Dr Tomas nodded, "I'm glad you talked with him, he's a much misunderstood lad." Then he went on to tell me that this boy had, during the action aboard the Britannia, received a large piece of shrapnel in his right buttock.
It was days after that the Doctor, having attended to all the other wounded, had his attention drawn to the youngster who had great difficulty in sitting down. The lad was X-rayed and Dr Tomas spotted a piece of shrapnel very deeply lodged in his flesh. Without anaesthetic the doctor probed for it, this he had to do four or five times before he managed to extract the metal. The lad's tight-lipped, uncomplaining attitude under this ordeal had earned great respect from Dr Tomas.
I thanked the doctor for telling me, one hates to hear of cowardice and feels respect for the courageous. I took the earliest opportunity that presented itself to repeat the story, I thought it was about time the lads had new thoughts on our young friend. I'm glad to say it had the desired effect.
For some little time now I had been the only Britisher in the clinic, Lt S... the only other of our party had long since departed into the world. I awoke one morning to find that there was a new patient, the captain of a British tanker; there were also new additions to the list of British survivors on the island of Tenerife.
The Captain's story was typical of the hazards facing our merchantmen during the war. The ship had been torpedoed in the early hours of the morning two days before and had been holed in one tank. The Captain had re-ballasted ship, increased his speed and evaded the Nazi submarine. That night the submarine caught up with them again and put another four torpedoes into the ship.
The Captain told me that one of the torpedoes must have struck under the bridge; he remembered nothing until he became aware that he was in a lifeboat with his crew. Having knowledge of where they were sunk, and realising that the Canary Islands were the nearest landfall, he had navigated the survivors until they sighted Gemera, one of the smaller islands in the group of seven. From Gemera they had been brought to Santa Cruz.
The Captain's belief that a torpedo had struck beneath the bridge was borne out by the fact that his right leg was black from toe to the top of his thigh. It was apparent that the shockwave had travelled through the deck; it was a wonder that his legs had not been broken by the explosion. Having to sit for a prolonged period in the ship's boat, unable to move or lie down, the ruptured blood vessels had congealed and stiffened his leg in a bent position; it looked to be in a bad condition.
Dr Tomas had instructed Maria to massage the Captain's leg each morning. Maria's duties were many and varied and of course her time as a masseuse was limited.
I was now able to get about on my crutches and I would visit the Captain each morning for our elevenses, then after morning coffee I would carry on where Maria had left off and massage the skipper's legs for another half an hour. He was a dour Tyneside man and unhappy at being tied to a bed.
One morning Dr Tomas came in as I was trying to get a little more movement into the Captain's leg, he voiced his approval. "The more often those legs are massaged the better."
In exchange for my amateur nursing attendance the Captain taught me to play crib and each day after morning and afternoon coffee the Captain and I played cards.
We both progressed and eventually graduated to the balcony and looked out on the passing scene. One day we were on the balcony enjoying the sun, when there passed below a small group of children, they called up to us and we responded. They enquired after our health and we joked with them, suddenly I remembered that Mary Golding had brought me some sweets to eat, I fetched them and one by one dropped them into their eager hands.
Our little interlude of fun was halted by the arrival of Maria, "Avante, avante," she cried to the wee ones below and off they scurried. Maria then turned her attention to us, we listened shamefaced, we too were children again. Maria was voluble and vehement and on her departure we grinned at each other.
The Captain's leg made good progress and the day eventually came when he was allowed out. We ordered a taxi and went on a little tour, ending up in a small park, there we sat enjoying the sun and swapping yarns with each other.
During the Captain's convalescence his crew had been shipped out, but before leaving had come to visit him. I was there at the time and one of the younger members of the crew said he knew Birmingham and would be visiting there. I asked him if he would take a message to my wife, he said he would be delighted to do so. Amazing though it may seem there was not, amongst the crowd of us, a large enough piece of paper to write a message on. The embarrassing conclusion to our search was that my message was conveyed on a square of toilet paper. The means were poor, the intention sincere; Vera laughed about the incident when I eventually returned home.
Among the merchant survivors was a young lad who was but fifteen years of age, I have a photo of him taken with the rest of the crew. I asked him how he felt about being torpedoed, he grinned, "I didn't expect that on my first trip out," he went on to say though that he would stay in the Merchant Marine.
Fifteen years of age and already a man; when Nelson died he must have left much of his spirit behind.
The day came when the Captain also had to move on, I missed him, I had a great respect for him, his typical merchant spirit, his desire to get back to a ship and get on with the war.