There were many incidents during our stay on the island, political, romantic, warlike and uncanny. One such incident that stays in my mind and which George and I discussed when we met many years after, occurred at nearly the end of the internment.
I was sitting alone in the garden of the Pino de Oro sipping a drink and enjoying my solitude for a brief moment, George and Frank had gone out for the evening with a Spanish friend named Perre whose company they had cultivated during our internment. Perre was a man of some wealth, bequeathed to him by his parents, he possessed a flat in Tenerife and a large house in Madrid. A few days before he had dashed off to Madrid on a family matter and had to cancel an appointment he had made with George and Frank, now on his return he had hastened to make good his promise to take them to dinner at his club.
At approximately 9.30 that evening I was therefore surprised to see crossing the gardens towards me, George, Frank and Perre, they all appeared to have something on their minds.
"I thought you were out for the evening," I said. "We were, but we would like to tell you something that has happened, for I know you'll be interested," answered George.
Perre told the story, corroborated by George and Frank at intervals. The reason Perre had been called to Madrid was that his only sister had died and he had to see to the duties thus entailed. Having returned and explained this to my mates at dinner, George had asked Perre if his sister was the girl he had seen sitting in the passage in Perre's flat a few days before, in fact the night before he had dashed off to Madrid. This had aroused a startled enquiry from Perre as to whether George would recognise the young lady again. On George stating that he could, Perre immediately asked him to accompany him to the flat. So the three of them had gone to the flat and Perre had asked George to point out the spot where he had seen the girl. George indicated the chair facing towards a window at the end of the hallway.
Apparently George had seen her sitting in the chair, looking out of the window and she had been wearing a white dress as was the custom on the island for young girls. He had refrained from mentioning this incident to Perre because of the standards of behaviour that were usual on the island.
It had now come out in the course of conversation, during their dinner, that George, recognising a photo that Perre had of his sister, must have seen her on the night she died, and she had died in Madrid.
The question arising from this episode, and which they expected me to answer, was why had the apparition appeared to George and not to Perre, her brother, who loved her dearly and whom she had equally loved?
There is of course no rational explanation, pure science balks at pooh-ing these odd occurrences. The only reason I could give, and which at the time seemed most acceptable, was that George, being in a more delicate state of health and mind than Perre, was in a more receptive state for any outside influences, this on the basis of the Yogi fasts and the Llama physical cleansing meditation.
A peculiar incident, but nevertheless mystifying and very disturbing. For days after we discussed it but never arrived at a suitable explanation.
The days continued to speed by and one day as we sat lazing, the sun warm on us and the ten o'clock breeze gently blowing across the Plaza, Frank the ever watchful gave a soft, "Aah." George and I looked up; crossing the Plaza towards us came Joan, Helen and their younger sister. Joan spoke first; she brought us a message from her father: would we three care to accept an invitation to dine at their home, their father would like to meet me, and my friends would also be welcome. I looked forward to meeting the man who had sent me the reviving brandy. I accepted the invitation on behalf of the three of us and said that tomorrow evening would be splendid.
The girls went on their way and George and I made a check on the number of pesetas we could muster between the three of us, we found we were alright, we could afford a taxi. So on the following evening we set forth to our dinner. The father of the three girls was a man of position and considerable wealth, his house was a large typically Spanish well-to-do residence.
The door was opened by a maid and we were announced in proper style, to be greeted by the man of the house who was a well-built mature man of pleasant looks, but the one who really drew our gaze was his wife, here was the reason for such lovely daughters. She was slim, erect, gracious, a real Spanish beauty, she eclipsed even the young beauty of her girls. The maid appeared with a tray of glasses and the sherry decanter, and we sat and talked. We were in a room that was used as a study and games room. A full sized billiard table sat in the centre; we decided to play a four hand of snooker. A pleasant half hour ensued and so the time came for us to dine, a delicious meal was enjoyed by all. And so the evening drew to a close, we wended our way back to the Spraggs'.
There had been many delightful incidents during the evening, one in particular which Frank reminded me of, was when the younger daughter had asked me some question and I had begun to answer at the exact moment her mother had addressed her. Before I could complete my answer the eldest girl said to her sister, "Mama spoke to you." The younger girl immediately turned from me, "Yes Mama." Her mother addressed her in fluent Spanish of liquid cadence. Her daughter then turned back to me to hear the completion of my answer to her question. This showed the standard of respect that existed on the island, a vast and sincere respect for their parents and elders.
We were constantly reminded of this, if we were out and about in the town, we would be ignored by those we knew, unless recognised by the elder of those present. Children would not cry 'good-day' to us; they would first draw the attention of their parents to us passing by. If the senior of the family then gave us a greeting the children would follow suit with happy faces. Should the elders not notice us and pass on the children would follow silently. We learned to respect this admirable protocol and we embarrassed no one by addressing the younger out of turn. This standard of behaviour was general about the island; it was delightful to see families so united and Old Spanish.
Sometimes on Saturdays we three would go to the Avenida, this was the widest street in the town, tree lined and for two way traffic, in the centre a wide walkway. Each Saturday the girls, resplendent in their finery, would walk up the length and back again. This they did in pairs or threes, arm in arm, chatting demurely together. The boys would line the sides of the walk, talking quietly, admiring greatly. No boy approached the girls, they did not mix, this was not the way of Old Spain, the approach to these maids had to be made through a member of the family. This was carrying the mediaeval over into the twentieth century.
Almost from our first day on the island there had been constant rumours that we would be taken off by a British ship. These rumours had gained momentum and then failed with the passage of time, now they had started again.
Behind the scenes and far from the islands political manoeuvres had been going on; Sir Samuel Hoare, the British Ambassador in Madrid, had been trying to free us and many more British who were interned in Spain. Spain on her part had been trying to raise a loan from Britain. The situation was made for a straight deal but there were other factors to be taken into account. The Germans tried at all costs to prevent the release of British personnel, they were allied in this way by the Italians of course and so negotiations dragged on.
I think we were all amazed when one day we were told to be ready to move on the morrow. I don't think that we really believed it was true, but true it was. A British merchantman had arrived in port; I believe she was an Elder Dempster boat.
I busied myself that night packing up the odd presents that I intended to take home, made sure I had enough cigarettes for the journey and then had a good night's rest. The new day dawned and we were ready to go. It was to be early afternoon before we were to go aboard; this delay gave us time to say our farewells to our good friends on the island.
Eventually there arrived a number of cars and taxis and those of us who were at Spaggs hotel said our last farewells to Mr and Mrs Spragg. There were tears in Mrs Spragg's eyes as she wished me a safe voyage and wished me well for the future. She had been like a mother to us lads and had seemed especially loving and kind to me, always making sure that my meals were tempting and tasty, I was sorry to see that our going caused her grief.
We boarded the taxis and were on our way to the quay, many of the Spaniards who we passed en route waved to us, for the word had gone round that we were leaving. On arriving at the quay I was surprised to see a large number of the islanders waiting to see us off. The Military Governor had issued instructions that there was to be no demonstration on our departure, whether this was directed at the Phalangists, the populace or ourselves, I do not know.
We were welcomed aboard by the First Officer and crew, the Captain was on the bridge, keeping an eye on things. She was not a big ship, covered in the usual wartime grey and carrying, I believe, a four inch gun. I was to hear later that her gunner had beaten off the attack of an enemy submarine sometime previously, true or not it gave us confidence in our rescuers and we were content.
Shortly after boarding we could hear the engines start to turn, the order to cast off was given and we were under way. One of the ship's officers cried, "Come on lads, we can't go out like this. Let's give them 'There'll always be an England'," and he started singing. A little self-consciously we joined in and were eventually roaring it out at the tops of our voices. The crowd on the quay, now very large, waved us off but the crew of the last German merchantman in the harbour lined the rail and silently watched us go.
Now that we were on board ship again we had to carry out shipboard routine, the lads were formed into watches, but this was merely a gesture to reintroduce service discipline, the ship was already very well organised.
The rest of the lads were bedded down in the hold, I was fortunate, I was bunked in one of the officer's cabins. In the same cabin were two Naval Lieutenants and an Army Officer. The officer and one of the Lieutenants were always up at the crack of dawn patrolling the decks, the Britannia had been caught in the small ours of the morning. These two had been asleep in their cabins at that time. They had no intention of being caught a second time with their pyjamas on. Neither were they the only two on the alert, there were quite a few extra, unofficial, lookouts.
It had been decided that I could not clamber about the companionways or ladders, so I had my meals in the galley with the ship's cook; accordingly I dined well. The cook of course ate the best and as his guest I lived 'high up the pig'.
I was able to get about the ship on my walking sticks but my progress about the rolling decks was after the style of a four-legged crab, lively if not beautiful.
On the first day out, the bosun came to see me, "You've nought to worry about lad, should we be attacked or sunk, there are men detailed to see that you get safely into a boat." The crew were typical of British merchant seamen, unassumingly efficient and with a fine disregard for the threat of Nazi submarines or surface raiders. In fact I got the impression that the crew were spoiling for a fight, fortunately for us the opportunity did not arise.
It was on the second day out that Commander Spurgeon saw me in my cabin and enquired after my wounded leg. He had not seen a shark-bite before and after seeing the scarred muscles he said, "You'll be discharged wounded with that laddie." After talking for a little while he wished me well for the future and left to prepare his report. We were now close to Gibraltar and the next day would bring us into the harbour.