It was only right that I should eventually rejoin my fellow survivors and say farewell to my little life of luxury and good living.
I arrived at Spragg's hotel at a time when the rest of the lads were out and about town. I was met at the gates by Mr and Mrs Spragg and welcomed most warmly, then I was conducted to a ground floor room which looked most comfortable. I was introduced to Maria, the cook and housekeeper, aunt to the three young Spanish girls who acted as maids.
After a look around the rest of the hotel I sat in the garden and to my pleasant surprise Mr Spragg joined me there with two glasses of Canary sack, this is a golden wine, sweet and very pleasant to the palate. This was to become a morning routine during my stay at Spragg's.
My host told me that on the day I left my crutches he would open a bottle of champagne. I learned during my first conversation with Mr Spragg that he kept a good cellar and a good table.
George and Frank then arrived and came to find me in the garden, immediately they started to make plans for a visit down town. Dinner interrupted our scheming and we trooped in to the food that awaited us. I spent the rest of the day relaxing in the sun and reading in the library.
Evening brought together all the survivors who were staying at the Spragg's. I was surprised to find Lt Cox there, he had been on the first raft that I had clung to after leaving the stricken Britannia. He invited me to finish a bottle of wine with him and told me of his experience aboard the raft after I had left. Apparently, the day before they had been rescued he had seen a 'Portuguese-man-o-war' nearing the raft, this was a type of jellyfish that would extend above the water a membranous balloon to catch the wind, this was its means of propulsion. Below water it extended hundreds of tentacles with which to sting and kill its prey. The length of these sting feelers could be up to four feet across.
Cox, in an attempt to drive away these new perils had splashed wildly at the water, in so doing some of the tentacles had wrapped round his hand, the Portuguese-man-o-war then sheared off but left a reminder of his visit. Cox attempted to remove the stinging jelly-like traces from his hand, in his weakened condition the pain was agonising. He wiped his hands on his clothing and even in his hair in a frenzied attempt to ease himself. This latter move was the worst thing he could have done, the poisonous jelly slid down his face and a little even worked its way into his mouth and eventually to his stomach. He told me that his stomach felt as if a giant hand was crushing it. He began to lose control, he felt madness overtaking him, how long he was in this condition he had no recollection. The arrival of the Cabo de Hornos was the only thing that saved him.
I could then well understand why Dr Tomas had attended to Lt Cox first on our arrival, he must have been in a terribly bad state. While he talked to me he was in a rather excited frame of mind, like a man released from a death sentence. I could see this in another man, but I think we were all in a similar state. For myself, I know that life was very sweet, all colours had a new brilliance, all men and women were handsome or beautiful. The sun had a new glory, the nights were balmy and romantic, it was a rebirth, a new look at an old world, a chance to start again. It felt good, very very good.
He also told me of the steward who was attacked and killed by sharks, and after the many battles for survival three of them survived to tell the tale.
This first night at my new abode, although very exciting and a little saddening, gave me a good night's sleep, maybe the sherry and vino blanco may have helped.
The following day, George, Frank and I took a taxi to the favourite meeting place of our lads, the Café Atlantica, this was where they, and now I, took morning elevenses.
To ask for a cup of tea was a bilingual feat. Tea called 'te' was easy, but for tea with milk and sugar I was soon to learn to ask for: 'Te con leche y sucre'. The result was a pallid sugary mixture that even my starved stomach could not happily accept. I joined the majority and drank coffee interspersed at intervals with 'Anis', and bright conversation.
Our gathering at the Atlantica was strengthened by the Indian Army Officer who had been aboard the Britannia and whose swordstick I had honed.
One morning at parade, held in the Protestant church, next door to Spragg's Hotel, the Commander had found pinned to the church door the notice which said, 'Muerte la Inglesia, ariba España', this translated meant: 'Death to the English, Spain arise'. The Spanish Phalangist party, akin to the Nazis, were beginning an anti-British campaign.
The Commander advised us to stay off the streets and conduct ourselves in a British manner, we therefore didn't go to the café that morning. We marked time playing Monopoly, then George, Frank and I decided to take a short stroll as far as the Plaza de Zapetos just beyond the Hotel Spragg. It was on this saunter along the Avenida that George told me of certain events which had occurred while I was still in Seraldo's clinic.
It appeared that on one occasion one of our lads had negotiated with an American ship to embark for a passage to America, the news had reached the ears of the Military Governor; he had immediately ordered that all the service survivors be moved to a concentration camp, which normally housed communist prisoners.
The Spanish Army trucks had arrived outside Spragg's, the lads had been shepherded aboard and then Ted, a large dark-haired cockney lad expressed the British attitude to trouble. He turned to one of the armed guards, who with fixed bayonets stood at the rear of the truck, fingered the keen blade and looking the sentry straight in the eye, said, "You want to watch out mate or you'll be hurting some poor bugger." The Spaniard, unknowing, merely grinned a sympathetic acknowledgement.
Another of the boys, tapping his pockets, realised that he was in for a prolonged incarceration without the aid of tobacco, so with an "Excuse me," to the guard, he left the truck and returned to the Hotel for the cigarettes and matches. His return prompted enquiries, leading to a stream of others who needed soap, towels, razors and various articles. This story, as I heard it, painted an amusing picture of a poor Spanish private on guard not knowing whether to shoot, spit, cry or laugh. The British abroad bewilder everyone else and even themselves.
It was Mr Davy who was the prime mover in having the whole affair quashed; he and Mr Carr, the British Consul, approached the Military Governor and paroled all our boys.
The sunny days passed and the clear air and good food made me recover my strength at a good pace; there were many happy hours spent at the Atlantica and along the Avenida.
Most mornings were spent at the café and then we used to return to play cards in the sun loggia and await dinner. Mrs Spragg was most motherly in her attempts to see that our meals were appetising. After our meal it was routine to gather in the Spragg's study to hear the news, we were avid listeners, what was happening to the war in our absence was most important to us.
It was on one of these nights that we were in the study as usual and at the end of the news we rose from our seats to leave, Mr Spragg motioned to George, Frank and me to stay. When we were re-seated he opened his wine cupboard and poured us a glass of fine sherry. He next produced a box of Havana Habana cigars and we relaxed and enjoyed the smoke and the sherry. Spragg entering into the spirit of the hour drew from the cupboard a bottle of brandy, this he told us was eighty-five years of age and he only used it on special occasions. He turned, bottle in hand, to the cupboard, "Blimey, he's putting it back," said George. Whether Mr Spragg heard this aside I do not know but he put the bottle on the side table and drew from the cupboard four brandy thimbles. He then poured the elixir carefully into the glasses, reverently he handed them round and as reverently we took and tasted the priceless drink. It justified his praise, smooth, warming, gentle to the palate. We bent fond glances on the bottle, but it was not to be, he replaced it carefully back in the cupboard.
He then gave us a lesson in the art of lighting and enjoying a cigar, we were being taught by a master and we were willing pupils.
Another evening when we gathered in the study listening to the news we heard of the sinking of the 'Hood'. The news was a shock to us all, the Hood was the mightiest of them all, to the Navy, indestructible.
The following morning the Commander told the boys to put on a good face, as he put it, "It's a big ship, but we have a bigger Navy." The lads went out in force to the usual rendezvous, the Atlantica. The Germans were there too but they were celebrating, we were merely putting on a show. The Italian consul was also there, basking in the reflected glory of his masters.
Every night after this we listened avidly to Spragg's wireless, the news was good, bad, indifferent, and we fluctuated with it. Nevertheless the news we awaited eventually came, the 'Bismark' had been sunk, the Hood had been avenged.
Once more the Commander gave us words of wisdom, "The Navy was bound to get the Bismark, go out and celebrate but treat it as if it was a foregone conclusion."
So, forth we sallied to the Atlantica, the Indian Army wallah, Jack Easton, Ted the cockney, George, Frank and I. We sat at our usual table and to our surprise there arrived a large salver filled with brimming glasses. I asked the waiter, "Que es?" he turned and looked across the café, three or four tables away there rose to his feet a giant blond male. The waiter said, "El Norge," he's Norwegian. We rose to our feet and raised our glasses, we drank and never was a drink sweeter. It must have been bitter to the watching Germans, but to give them their due they did at least show up.
The Italian consul came shambling along later like a guilty schoolboy, he doubtless had received orders to turn out.
The night drew on to a riotous conclusion, we rolled back to the Hotel, happy, relieved and more than a little drunk.