Another favourite passage: The Account of ‘Captain Grief’ III

To continue the tale of the most singular Captain Grief….

“‘Tis, not so wide as a church door, but ’tis enough, ’twill serve!” said Grief happily. “Now, corporal, eyes down, look in – we can’t use it against tanks, ‘cos Jap hasn’t any – and I wouldn’t fancy it against low-flying aircraft, but since he hasn’t got any of those left either, we’re quids in! How about boats?”

“Boats, sir?”

“The very word I was looking for! Note it down, Jones. Yes, good ancient – boats! Floating vehicles, and I don’t mean the Queen Mary. Wooden jobs, sampans, lifeboats, rafts, one-round-the-lighthouse-in-the-ruddy-Skylark-things.” He cupped his hand to his ear, expectantly. “Take your time, writing on one side of the paper only.”

The line between affected eccentricity and jungle-happiness is a fine one, but I was sure by now that this was your normal wild man, and not permanently tap. Apart from his three pips he wore no insignia, and I wondered if he was a Sapper, which would account for a lot. The reckless confidence with which he handled H.E. was right in character – I once knew a Sapper who corrected a wobbly table by shoving a land-mine under one leg, and it was weeks before we discovered the thing was armed and ready to blow.

I said it should sink any small craft, but that if burst in the open rather than a confined space its explosive force would be dissipated. He nodded gravely and said, in a heavy Deep South drawl: “Naow, ain’t that a goddam sha-ame…. In other words, not much of an anti-personnel job. Be honest, hold nothing back.”

I said it ought to do as much damage as a 36 grenade, perhaps more, and he brightened.

“You wouldn’t want to be within fifteen yards, wearing your best battle-dress?”

“Not even wearing denims, sir,” I said, entering into the spirit of the thing and he regarded me with alarm.

“I doubt if there’s a suit of denim this side of Cox’s Bazaar,” he said in a hushed voice. “Oh well, it can’t be helped.” He gave a sudden explosive laugh, slapped his hands on the table, and was off again. “Right – Sarn’t Jones, this is the form! We’ll have a practice shoot, with good old Whatsit here pressing the doodah and shouting ‘Fore’! Everyone on parade, no exceptions, summon ’em from the four corners – every man in this unit must be thoroughly clued up on this supreme example of the ballistic engineer’s art, so that if our young friend should cop his lot, which -“ he flashed me a cheerful smile and assumed another American accent ” – which we will do all in our power to ensure is a calamity that does not eventuate – “ he became British again ” – some other poor bugger will be able to fire the thing.” He gave me a sad stare. “But we shall miss you. corporal. Yes. . . yes we shall.”

Jones asked when he wanted the parade, and Grief resumed his seat. “In one hour, neither more nor less! All mustered, Mr Colman, everybody out, bags o’bull, bags ‘panic, tallest on the right, shortest on the left, and heigh-ho for the governor’s gouty foot!” He waved in dismissal. “Find the good corporal a modest lodging, give him his fill of meat and drink, and put a sentry on his beastly bombs, twenty-four hours a day or longer if need be. Away, avaunt!”

You may have noticed that for all his idiotic persiflage, Captain Grief had mastered the basics of the Piat, asked sensible questions, and was wasting no time in having it demonstrated to his men, all of which was reassuring. True, as I gathered up the Piat and Jones collected the bomb-cases, he was lying back in his canvas seat, doing physical jerks with his arms and crooning, to the tune of “Maisie doats”:

Liberty boats and Carley floats
And little rubber dinghies
Paddle your own canoe
Up your flue…..

but then, as I saluted before withdrawing, he suddenly sat upright and took me flat aback by saying, in a normal. quiet voice, and a smile that was both sane and friendly:  “Hold on a minute – don’t know what I have been thinking of.  Corporal, I haven’t even asked your name.”

Relieved, I told him, and handed over the chit from my company commander, explaining that I had to be back at my unit within the week.  He nodded and promised to see to it, shook hands, and said he was glad to have me on the strength. Then he glanced at the note, frowned, turned it over, and said:

“That’s strange…. no, your company commander doesn’t seem to have mentioned it…. i wonder why? Still. you can tell me. “ He looked at me, clear-eyed and rational: “Are you a lurkin’ firkin or a peepin’ gremlin?”

To be continued….

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