‘So, which cheese do you use to hide a horse?’ Freeman’s voice was rough and grating but Straker could hear the note of amusement. He stopped paddling and twisted round, taking care not to unsettle the boat.
‘It’s hot. I am getting sunburnt. And all you can think about is telling jokes?’
‘Better than sitting here moaning. And anyway you need to lighten up Ed. It’s not that serious.’ Alec slid his paddle in the water and jerked it upwards, deliberately splashing the man in front.
‘Grow up, Colonel. I’m not in the mood.’ Straker twisted back to face the front of the bright orange dinghy and dip his oar into the sparkling blue water before hauling back on it with almost venomous anger. The small inflatable surged forward at an angle.
‘Ed if you intend going round in circles by all means feel free to do so, but I thought the intention was to aim for the island. After all I nearly bust a gut trying to get the bloody plane down safely and within reach of it.’ Freeman reclined against the stern and let the paddle rest across his thighs. ‘Damn it’s hot. Any chance you might let me have some water?’
There was a sigh from the man sat in front and Straker leaned back as well, laying the bright paddle alongside him with care before leaning over to cool his hands in the ocean. ‘No drinks yet. Wait until we get there. We might need it later. Depends.’
‘On what?’ Freeman trailed his hands over the stern of the lifeboat.
‘On whether anyone picked up our distress call. They should have done, but…’ Straker turned round again, a slow cautious movement this time as the tiny lifeboat rocked with the change in balance. ‘You said it yourself. Catastrophic failure of all systems. We have no idea whether anyone knows what’s happened and we could be stuck on that…’ he waved a hand at the small landmass that peeked out of the ocean ahead, ‘for longer than we might like.’
Freeman grunted and picked up his paddle again. ‘You’re the boss. Sooner we get to land the sooner we can get out of this sunshine. Ready?’
The rest of the journey was in silence.
Together they hauled the inflatable up the sand above the driftwood and dried seaweed that demarcated the limit of high tide. Freeman dusted the silvery sand from his hands. ‘Right. Let’s sit down and have that drink.’
‘Now?’ Straker trudged up to the shade of the treeline and stripped off his jacket before shaking sand from it and hanging it from a broken branch. He turned back to look across the horizon, shading his eyes with one hand. ‘We need to assess our situation and get organised.’
‘Ed.’ The tone was unmistakeable. ‘For heaven’s sake relax. Take your shoes off, feel the sand between your toes. Chill out for a bit. There’s no rush.’ Freeman sat down and tugged off his footwear with a sigh of relief before he threw his socks into the dinghy. He stood up. ‘I’m going for a paddle.’
‘Do I need to remind you Colonel Freeman that we are stranded here, with very few resources?’ Straker was careful not to come out of the shade. He could feel his skin already tight and reddened from the short exposure to the fierce sun. The last thing he needed right now was to come down with sunstroke. SHADO training was quite specific in this situation. Catalogue and sort out the equipment that you have, look for fresh water, find some form of shelter before nightfall and find materials to make a fire. And Alec was going paddling.
‘Pfff. I told you Ed. The lifeboat has emergency supplies. We’ll be fine. Look. Get some water out while I go and dip my toes in the sea. I’m parched after all that rowing.’ He headed off down the beach, hopping from foot to foot to avoid prolonged contact with the hot sand on the soles of his feet.
The water looked tempting, but Straker knew the procedures stated in the mandatory Survival Course. He went back down to the abandoned lifeboat and unstrapped the watertight emergency kit before carrying it back up to the relative shade of the trees. It was cooler under the coconut palms and dense undergrowth and he sat down to take off his sodden shoes and socks, before putting them on upright sticks in a cleared patch of ground to dry beneath where his jacket was hanging. He looked up to see what Alec was doing.
Colonel Freeman wandered along the water’s edge, his trousers rolled up and his jacket and shirt discarded with careless abandon further up the beach. He let the water soothe his feet until a slight wave soaked his trousers, whereupon he headed back to the dry sand to strip off his remaining clothes and leave them in a crumpled heap.
He looked over to the shade of the treeline and waved at the figure sitting there watching him, before running back to leap into the ocean with a loud yell as his warm skin made contact with the colder deep water. Then he flung himself forward in a shallow dive and plunged beneath the gentle swell to surface moments later shaking water out of his hair and shouting, ‘Come on, Ed. It’ll cool you down.’
Straker pretended not to hear the call, and continued to unpack the sealed box of supplies, mentally ticked each item off and examining them with meticulous precision before placing them in a straight line on the patch of ground that he had cleared of stones and driftwood and dead leaves. Sufficient water for several days. Water purification tablets. Plastic sheeting. Fishing line and hooks. Cord. Medical kit. Emergency food. Billy can. Firelighter. He continued unpacking. All the basics needed for survival. And finally, wrapped in an oiled cloth, a parang.
He hefted it. Good weight and balance. Well maintained and cared for; and sharp. Very sharp. He must remember to put a mention in his report. It was good to know that some, and he cast a baleful look at Alec Freeman splashing about in the water, that some SHADO staff were mindful of their responsibilities. The ocean looked tempting but he pulled his shoes on again, turned his back on the beach and headed inland, to see if there was any source of fresh water.
The parang sliced through the coastal scrub as he slashed his way past the coconut palms through to the hinterland, perhaps with more strength than was required. The blade made short work of the thicker woody vegetation and he took some pleasure hacking at one particularly stubborn branch that refused to submit to his first blow.
There was no sign of fresh water and he headed back to where Alec was still capering in the shallows. A coconut palm was leaning over at an extreme angle, the thin soil at the edge of the treeline too shallow to support its root system. The fruits were within easy reach and he cut down a couple of the green ones. It was a simple task to slice the top off one of them with his parang and then cut through to the inside. He took a mouthful of the clear fluid before he hesitated and put it aside. Alec would appreciate it. He opened one of the containers of water and drank some of that instead.
He busied himself with the tasks that had to be done. Digging out and setting up several water traps, getting hooks tied onto the fishing lines, although he somehow got one hook firmly embedded in the ball of his thumb before he managed to tug it out. He sucked the injured digit and scowled. The sun was lower now, and there was less chance of him getting sunburned so he ventured out to the high tide line and began to collect some of the copious driftwood that had been discarded by the ocean. He organised it into orderly piles; thicker branches at one end and the thinner ones at the other. The finest pieces, and the driest, he put to one side to use as tinder when he lit their fire later. Then he stood back and inspected. Yes. There would be enough wood for a few hours at least. He would collect more though, before it went dark.
Alec was still messing about, still submerging himself in the crystal clear water with no thoughts of the consequences of his actions, and forgetting the rules of survival. He would get tired soon enough. And thirsty.
Straker sighed and started his search for suitable branches and palm fronds with which to make a shelter.
‘Damn, that was fun. Haven’t done that in years.’ Alec trudged up the beach flicking water from his hair and wincing as he trod on half-buried shells and rounded pebbles.
‘Done what?’’ Straker paused in the act of dragging another branch out of the scrub.
‘Skinny dipping. You should have joined me.’ Alec picked up one of his socks and used it to rubbed his face dry, before wrinkling his nose and dropping the offending article back into the dinghy.
‘I was busy.’ Straker continued his work, trimming the branch with swift and efficient strokes. ‘There’s something to drink if you’re thirsty.’ He gestured with his blade at the coconut. ‘When you’re done we can use it to collect water.’
‘I should get castaway with you more often Ed.’ Alec drained the last drops of the fluid and wiped his mouth. ‘You’re good at this. Now. What’s for supper.’
‘You should put some clothes on. You don’t want to get sunburn.’
‘You know me Ed, I never get burned. That’s part of my fatal attraction to women. I just go brown. But if the sight of my naked butt offends you I’ll cover myself up.’ He sorted through the untidy bundle of clothing that he had brought back up the beach, before finding his boxers and holding them up. ‘These will do.’ He pulled them on and posed. ‘The latest fashion in beach shorts.’ He sat down and grinned up at Straker who was standing there looking distinctly unamused. ‘So. Supper? I’m starving. Amazing how a dip in the ocean gives you an appetite.’
There was no answer. Straker had walked back into the shade of the trees and was even now half-hidden in the lush growth. Alec could hear the sound of a machete chopping into branches, even though there seemed to be plenty of wood already cut.
‘Ed? What are you doing?’ he called.
‘Why bother? Come on. Let’s eat.’ Alec started up the gentle slope to where he could hear Straker at work.
‘You go ahead. I want to finish this. I’ll get something later.’ The voice was decidedly curt and Alec shrugged his shoulders before rifling through the foil packets of MRE. He picked one up and grimaced. Meals Ready to Eat. A better name might be Meals Ready to Regurgitate. But, he was hungry. It would be better than having his stomach growling all night. He pulled the tab, leaned back against a convenient palm tree and enjoyed the shade as he ate his beef patty and drank some water. The sun was low in the sky, and it was quiet, apart from the rustles of palm fronds being dragged out of the undergrowth, the creak of branches being forced to submit and the occasional muttered comment from Straker working on his shelter a few feet away.
‘What do you want to eat Ed? There’s....’ Alec flipped through the pouches. ‘Chicken Fajita or perhaps you’d prefer Cheese Tortellini.’
He heard a muffled curse then ropes creaking and more rustling of leaves and plastic. ‘I’ll get my own thanks.’
‘Suit yourself.’ Alec muttered under his breath and flung the empty packet into the dinghy. Not a very satisfying meal, but at least he had eaten. He closed his eyes and dozed. The way things were going they could be rescued tomorrow. One night camping out under the stars and lulled to sleep by the sound of waves. If Straker wanted to waste his time making shelters, then fine. But Alec would sleep here on the sand.
He ignored Straker as the other man, still wearing shoes and trousers and shirt, walked out of the shade and down the beach the long blade that he carried in one hand glinting in the sunshine.
Straker scooped the crab out of the rock pool and dispatched it with a swift upward stab into its brain before adding it to the pile of assorted shellfish on the rocks. He needed to hurry up though, the sun was getting low on the horizon and he had no intention of being out here and away from the safety of the shelter after dark. He stripped off his shirt and bundled his catch up before heading back to the small blaze coloured splash of brightness that denoted their lifeboat. He would move it into a more noticeable position in the morning. Somewhere a search plane would be more likely to spot it. And then he needed to collect rocks and logs to make a signal on the beach.
But that would have to wait until the morning. He was getting hungry now and although the MRE’s were there it was more logical, he persuaded himself, to conserve their emergency supplies. There were sufficient natural foodstuffs here so he would do as the survivalists had taught them on the SHADO training sessions and he would eat off the land. He had no problem with doing that, he just didn’t like boiling crabs to kill them.
Alec was humming to himself when he got back. Straker dropped the bundle on the sand and started to build a fire. Fine tinder at the bottom and the thin twigs close at hand ready to add once he had got that initial spark going. He opened the fire kit and, aware that Alec was now watching with unfeigned curiosity, set to work holding the sparking stick over one of the handfuls of dry grass that he had collected. Tomorrow he would have to search for mature coconuts and use the coir for tinder. It would be more efficient. He bent over and started striking.
‘Want a light?’ The voice from behind startled him. Alec had been so silent that Straker had almost forgotten that he was not alone here.
‘No. I’ll get it going soon enough.’ He struck with more force and a shower of sparks fell towards the small handful of grass.
‘Quick. Blow on it. Hurry up or it’ll go out.’ Alec advised, with a definite smirk in his voice.
Straker cast him a slightly malevolent look before turning back to the little heap of grass and scooping it into his hands, to blow on it with the utmost softness.
‘Harder. Don’t be afraid of it. It won’t bite you know.’ Alec’s voice again and Straker didn’t even bother to look at him.
‘Shut up Colonel Freeman.’
There was a moment of almost vindictive relief as the sparks lit and a tiny flame burst into life in the heart of the dry grass. Straker placed it in the shallow bowl-shaped pit that he had prepared and added tiny sticks and more tinder. There was great satisfaction in watching it grow, in seeing the flames take hold and he was aware that Alec was moving closer to the fire, not seeking the warmth, but from the comfort provided as the flames took hold and the driftwood began to burn with a gentle crackling sound.
‘Not a bad campfire. We just need some beer now.’ Freeman laughed as he rubbed his hands together.
Straker ignored him and opened up the bundle to pull out the shellfish and prepare each one before dropping them in the billy can along with several orange chunks. He reached for the remaining coconut and cut it open with a few vicious swipes then poured some of the liquid into his billycan. By the time he had finished Alec was warming his hands on the fire and the sun had nearly set. Straker hung the can over the flames and sat in silence as the liquid began to boil. He let it simmer.
‘Fish stew?’ Alec sounded jealous.
‘Shellfish chowder.’ Straker used a stick to stir the contents. ‘I don‘t like Fajitas or tortellini.’ He lifted the pot off and inspected it. ‘Crabs, crayfish, a small lobster, a couple of clams. Stuff like that. And I found some sweet potatoes earlier. Should be safe to eat.’ Straker dipped his spoon into the stew and tasted it. ‘Needs some better seasoning but I didn’t have time to look today.’ He took the can and lifted a crayfish out, blowing on it to cool it before ripping it apart and pulling the meat out.
Neither man spoke.
Straker rinsed the can in the ocean while letting the seawater wash the sand from between his toes. He still had things to do before he could turn in for the night. There was wood to collect from the high tide line if he was going to make sure that there was enough fuel for the night. And he would have to make regular checks to make sure it didn’t go out.
He walked past Alec to sit down on the other side of the fire and start whittling at a piece of wood he had selected. Alec, with slapdash negligence, yanked branches out of Straker’s carefully constructed piles of logs and tossed them onto the ever growing fire.
‘Don’t waste it.’ Straker muttered as he continued shaping the small piece of wood in his hand.
‘There’s plenty.’ Alec picked up a long stick and poked at the glowing embers in the centre of the fire. A column of red sparks rose up as the fire crackled and he pulled the stick out to extinguish the burning tip in the ground before doodling patterns in the sand with the blackened end.
The stars came out. Unfamiliar stars. The Moon looked huge. Alec added more branches to the fire before he stood up and felt around for his pile of clothes. He untangled his trousers and shirt and pulled them on, wriggling as the sand rubbed him. Straker carried on with his carving. Minute and meticulous scrapes against the wood, small flakes slicing off under the sharp edge of his parang.
Alec shifted his position and craned his neck to see what was going on. ‘What’s that you’re doing?’ he asked.
‘Nothing.’ Straker put the blade down. He looked at the fire. ‘We need more wood.’
‘Nah. It’s fine.’ Alec waved a hand. ‘It’s a warm night. What do we need a fire for anyway?’
Straker sighed with frustration and stood up. ‘Forget it Alec.’ He stabbed the blade into the sand and walked away. It was Alec’s turn to scowl this time as he watched Straker drag more driftwood from the line of accumulated debris that the sea had discarded. He sat there fiddling with the stick and stabbing at the white hot ash in the centre of the fire as behind him he heard the sounds of timber being dragged up the beach.
Straker dropped a final piece onto what was once a neat pile of firewood then picked up the coconut and drank the last of the contents. He dropped it on the sand. ‘I’m going to get some sleep. Are you....?’ he waited.
Alec deliberately misunderstood. ‘Yep. I’ll stay out here. Nice to sleep under the stars and listen to the waves.’ He turned away.
Straker’s shirt had dried and he shook the sand and salt from it before tossing it over his shoulders. His shelter was close to the beach and the fire, close enough so that the flames might deter unwanted animals. He had put a thick layer of dried leaves and grasses on the ground on top of the plastic sheet and the mosquito net was tucked under to keep out insects. He wriggled underneath the edge of the net and secured it, then once he had stripped off, wrapped his space blanket around more for comfort than warmth. The fire was only a few feet away from the opening and he could see Alec sitting there, watching the waves and adding branches to the fire.
He shrugged, folded his shirt and trousers into a makeshift pillow and settled to sleep.
Alec wriggled into the warm sand to make a hollow for his hips. He had crumpled his jacket into a pillow but the sand was not as comfortable as he had expected. He could hear soft snores. Ed was asleep. He shuffled again, and realised that there was an itch at his back. More than an itch actually. Something was crawling up him. And up his thigh. And his shoulders. Wriggling and alive. He stood up to strip off his clothes and brush whatever it was off his skin and away from him. He shuddered. Sandflies. And he heard the unmistakable drone of a mosquito. There was nothing else for it. He headed for the shelter.
‘Ed,’ he hissed, as if he was trying not to disturb anyone else.
‘Ed.’ Alec groped for the edge of the mosquito net. There were ominous rustles in the undergrowth at ground level. He remembered that spiders tended to grow very large in these areas. He scrabbled with sudden fear and then the net was lifted in one hand. ‘Thanks.’
‘Get in Alec. But shut up. I’m tired.’ Straker waited until Alec had squirmed under the protection of the net. ‘Make sure it’s tucked under. I don’t want to get bitten and there are scorpions around. Sleep well Colonel.’ He rolled over, his back now to Freeman, a wide space between them. ‘Oh, and the spiders here are huge.’ There was a distinct note of triumph in his voice.
It was some time before Alec finally fell asleep, lulled by the regular snores of the man lying as far away as possible from him.
Freeman stirred and rolled over, his arm reaching out instinctively to hit the man sleeping near him in an attempt to stop the snores. But there was no one next to him and he realised that it was daylight outside. He jerked upright, all thoughts of spiders gone, and scrabbled his way out of the safety of the mosquito net looking around for Straker. The fire had been replenished, the glowing embers that might have died away were now coming to life. He shaded his eyes against the early morning sun and peered out. Ed. Standing there, arm raised and home-made spear in hand. A heap of silver fish clustered on the beach. Alec watched him for long minutes. Then with a smile he turned and headed into the privacy of the trees to take a leak.
Straker was waist deep in the ocean. Patient, still, watching. He had been standing here since just after dawn but he was not bored. The water was warm. He was, he was almost scared to admit, enjoying himself. The temperature was still moderate and the early sun was not fierce. He waited with the same diligence that he utilised at work. There was nothing else but the water and the sun glinting and those brief flashes of silver. He struck. Another kill. He was getting better at this.
He waded through the shallows to where he had left his shirt neatly folded out of reach of the incoming tide and pulled the fish off his spear to join the others he had caught over the last hour. A fine catch all in all. Enough for breakfast for both of them, and, if he could catch more crabs and perhaps another lobster or two, sufficient for supper as well. With baked sweet potato? He mulled over the possibilities as he stood once more in the water and waited, arm raised and spear ready. After all, it was his responsibility to ensure the well-being of his staff and fresh food was much better than emergency rations.
The sun was warm on his bare back, and the warm swell washed around him. There was no rush, no need to hurry today. They had food, and water and shelter, although after last night he might be able to persuade Alec to help him build a sleeping platform. He looked up at the horizon wondering if, even now Skydiver was heading for them. They would probably see the first search planes overhead later today. It might be worth walking along the coastline to look for a discarded tyre or some plastic containers. That would provide a decent amount of thick smoke to advise any planes of their position. But for now he was collecting food.
He struck down and felt the impact as he speared another fish. The biggest one so far. Straker dispatched it with swift efficiency and tossed it onto the pile then drove the spearhead into the sand beside his catch. The sun was getting hotter and he walked back into the waves to pitch himself forward in a shallow dive. He knew the importance of keeping himself fit, and he swam out into the deeper water with strenuous strokes that stretched his muscles. He focussed on the technique and immersed his face in the water to keep his breathing regular.
He was some distance away from the shoreline before he eased up and twisted over to let himself float as he thought about recent events. There was a shout in the distance and he jerked upright with a feeling of guilt. He had gone further out than he had realised and Alec was awake and looking for him. As he swam back he wondered what comments Alec would make now.
‘Alec.’ He ran his hands down his arms and thighs to swipe off the excess water.
‘Skinny dipping Ed?’ The grin was there. Straker avoided meeting Alec’s eyes.
‘Exercise. It’s a key requirement to staying healthy. And it isn’t too hot this early in the morning.’ He brushed past Freeman and pulled the spear out of the sand. ‘Do you want fresh fish for breakfast, or would you rather have...’ he grimaced at the thought of MREs.
‘Fish stew? Or do you have something else in mind?’ Freeman sounded interested.
‘I’m not sure yet. Depends.’ Straker stacked the fish onto his shirt and lifted the bundle. It was surprisingly heavy he noted.
Alec snorted. ‘You’re enjoying this aren’t you?’ There was no response. He followed up the beach and waited as Straker retrieved shorts and trousers from the shelter, noticing that his friend held up his linen trousers for scrutiny before replacing them in the shelter and pulling on just his shorts. Perhaps they wouldn’t get rescued today. ‘What can I do?’
Straker had his knife positioned ready to gut one of the fish on a stone. He looked up with a slight frown. ‘Do?’
‘Yes. Do. As in... give you a hand.’
Straker smiled. ‘You don’t fancy cheese tortellini either? Okay. I need several flat rocks. About so big.’ He gestured with his hands. ‘From above the high tide mark.’ He carried on gutting the fish with neat movements.
Alec wasn’t sure whether Ed was pulling his leg or not. But he’d offered to help so he would. It took longer than he thought to find what Straker wanted and he laid them down for scrutiny, expecting a complaint. But no.
‘Thanks.’ Straker was now absorbed in the fiddly task of filleting and there was little Alec could do now except wait and watch and maybe learn. And perhaps understand.
He leaned back and sighed. ‘Damn. That was good. Never had that before.’
‘Baked fish?’ Straker smiled and shrugged. ‘I would have liked some herbs for it, but it was okay. And we should really save the emergency rations in case we need them later.’ He stared at Alec. ‘Do you think they’ll find us today?’
Alec paused and looked up at the sky. No contrails, no helicopters. ‘Probably not. I think we ended up way off course. It might take a couple of days before they trace us. Doesn’t matter does it?’ He sounded worried.
Straker picked up the piece of wood he had been carving the previous night. ‘No. We have food and sufficient water and we’re not in any danger. Might as well enjoy it. While we’re stuck here.’
Alec looked down at the remains of his fish. Straker had even served the meal on two of the rocks that he had not used to bake the fish over the glowing embers. Even though they had had to eat with plastic spoons supplied with the MREs it had been delicious. And there were four fish left over that Ed had baked to eat later on. ‘We need more wood. I’ll see to that.’ He stood up.
‘No need yet. And anyway I want to look for clams so we may as well do it together.’ Straker carried on working at the wood with delicate scraping actions. ‘And you might want to help make a platform shelter. That way we’ve got more protection from any wandering scorpions.’ He grinned up at Freeman. ‘And spiders.’
Late that night Alec lay awake on the raised bed area in their shelter. Straker was sleeping noiselessly this time and the SHADO Colonel was tired. Yet there was a sense of satisfaction in the achievements of the day. They’d wandered along the coast, beachcombing like children. Straker had hauled a perished tyre back to their camp, but had hidden it out of sight until it was needed. Alec had found driftwood and other treasures; long strands of orange nylon ropes that they had used when they built the platform, a bedraggled piece of fishing net, a couple of plastic drums that were sturdy enough to sit on, scallop shells to use as small plates. They’d found large clams and cooked them on a layer of glowing embers together with sweet potatoes. A good meal.
An evening spent telling tales around the fire, as Straker whittled with the knife, turning the wood over and running his fingers over the emerging shape. Alec still had no idea what he was making, but Ed was enjoying doing it, and that was all that mattered. And in the morning they would be able to inspect the net that they had fixed in the sea like old-fashioned fishermen used to do. Alec wanted to try spear fishing as well. Ed had promised to show him the techniques and he anticipated some friendly rivalry to see who could be most successful.
Somehow he didn’t think that the SHADO Search and Rescue team would find them tomorrow either. Perhaps not even for a couple of days. He smiled to himself, wrapped the blanket round his shoulders and curled up close to his friend.
Straker put one hand over his eyes to watch as the helicopter began its approach then he backed away under the trees to stand beside Alec and give the pilot clear room. He could tell by its position that the sun would be setting in just under an hour although he had no idea what the time was right now, and he didn’t care either. He looked at the horizon, half expecting to see Skydiver surface as well. The SHADO Search plane had flown over a couple of hours ago and circled for several minutes before heading back to base and Straker and Alec had shared a look before they both stripped off for a final swim. Now it was time to get back to work. He buttoned his shirt and lifted his jacket down from the branch where he had hung it on that first day, giving it a hard shake to dislodge any insects that might have taken sanctuary there. Four nights. Five days all in all. Swimming and fishing and walking. Simple meals. Evenings round their camp fire, talking.
Alec pulled on his socks, grimacing as he felt the salt-stiff material rub against his toes. It had been long enough. Straker had started to get restless earlier this morning, worrying about SHADO and why they had not been found and Alec had seen the search plane in the distance a couple of hours later. They had not even needed to burn the tyre on their campfire. He was glad about that; it would have spoiled the quiet beauty of this place which they were about to leave forever.
One lasting image came into his mind. They had been spear fishing in the early evening, more for the pleasure than in the anticipation of catching anything, and Ed had shouted across to him ‘It’s going to rain.’ Huge clouds had gathered behind the island and already Alec could see the first heavy droplets splatter the surface of the ocean. The dinghy. He ran for the shore and tipped the inflatable over to empty it of the litter of socks and foil packets and dried leaves that had accumulated within it, before pulling the boat out of the shelter of the treeline and onto the open beach. It would make a fine water collection point, not that they were short of water, but it was the sensible thing to do.
Warm rain began to fall in torrents and he looked up, expecting to see Ed coming to help him but Straker was standing in the ocean, his spear forgotten and floating on the surface, his arms outstretched to relish that sensation of warm rain on his face and arms and body. It poured over him and he tilted his head back to let it fill his mouth. There was no thought of his responsibilities. Alec had sat back and watched him with a sense of relief.
That had been two days ago, and now it was time to clear up and leave.
Straker’s parang sliced into the thick rubber of the dinghy but the hiss of escaping air was drowned by the noise of the rotors as the helicopter landed. The last glowing embers of the fire had been covered by sand. Soon there would be no trace of them having stayed here. The remains of the dinghy would be taken in the copter, they had burned what little rubbish they had made, and it was time to go. One last thing though. Straker picked up the oiled cloth that had protected his parang and unfolded it to place the sharp blade and his piece of shaped wood on the material. He wrapped the two items together and carried the neat package to the helicopter where he tucked it under his seat before climbing in.
‘Welcome back Commander, and you Colonel.’ Doug Jackson greeted them from the co-pilot’s seat. ‘I see that neither of you seem to have suffered any ill-effects from your experience. But I will of course need to give you both a thorough medical check once we have returned to headquarters.’
Straker stared out of the window as the copter rose. The island was smaller than he had imagined, but they had survived. Not against the odds though. He knew the truth. He looked at Freeman. He had not missed that quick nod that Alec had given in reply to Jackson’s raised eyebrows and unspoken question. But he would keep quiet. Sometimes even Commanders needed time to recover and to forget their obligations, however much they might baulk at the idea. He would finish carving the spoon later, and then leave it on Alec’s desk. There would be no need to say anything about that either.
He looked down one last time as the small speck of colour disappeared into the distance then straightened up and closed his eyes for a moment. Without a doubt there would be more horrors to face in the future, but for now, thanks to Alec and Doug, he had regained some equilibrium in his life.
But there was one thing he had to do, before he forgot.
He turned to Alec and nudged him. ‘Cheese to hide a horse?’ he shouted over the engine noise and grinned. ‘Mascarpone.’