An officer never, ever goes adrift in the Gut, the most infamous street in Malta. However John Amery, Surgeon RN, loses his way, his innocence and his virginity there one December night of 1908 when he meets Pasco Teague.
From Malta to Devonport to Gallipoli, from the Mediterranean to the Channel to the Dardanelles, John and Pasco meet and part, in peace and war and peace again. Duty and Pasco are the fixed points in John’s life, but there comes a time when he has no power over either and must find his way to another kind of peace.
41,000 words / 152 pages
Publication 1 February 2018
There is a street called Strait in Valletta that a man can walk down with his finger-tips on the wall either side, if he so chooses. It’s easier when you’re sober, which I was, late in the evening of Boxing Day, 1908. Not what I’d planned, not at all.
HMS Scinde being at anchor in the Grand Harbour, and the crew (except for the poor bastards who dipped out with harbour watch) granted leave ashore, my thoughts had been bent entirely on the pleasures of the flesh. Beginning, you understand, with enough booze to get drunk on, but not enough to put a damper on things, and going on to – well, never mind that now. As they say, the best-laid schemes of mice and men can take a wrong turn, and my plans went overboard when Chief Peters got it into his head that I had looked at him with dumb insolence. By the time I’d peeled a few buckets of potatoes all my mess-mates were well out of earshot, and the best places were full to bursting.
Which is how I came to be walking, sober as a sea-judge but not quite as bright, down the middle of the Gut, as we call it in the Navy, with my arms out sideways, touching the walls, looking for a port of call that would solve the sobriety problem. Something made me swing in to the doorway of the Egyptian Queen. Out the back, or down below, the place sounded as if it was heaving, but the front room, open to the night air, was deserted except for one man and one flickering candle. The man was holding a pewter mug in both hands and staring straight ahead as if there was a magic lantern show in the air between him and me. I recognised him too; Scinde‘s newest surgeon, Dr Amery, fresh out from the hospital at Plymouth two weeks ago and still wet behind the ears.
I was standing there gawping at him when something soft and massive collided with my back. I knew who it was at once, thanks to the strong scent of lily of the valley, and the husky voice that crooned in my ear, “Jesus Keerist! They done opened up a new box o’ sailor boys! Oh, ain’t he pretty?”
“Bugger off, Mary,” I muttered. “This one should never have been let out on his own.”
“Ah, you ol’ spoilsport.” Mary barged past, elbowing me hard enough in the ribs to bend me over, and made straight for Amery’s table. I didn’t know the man, since I was on a different watch and in a different branch, and had heard nothing good of him, but us West Country folk must stick together, so I went in after.
Mary sat down, landing in the chair the way a sack of feathers doesn’t. “So pretty!”
He turned his head to stare at her, and Mary caressed the side of his face. No change came over his expression, but his hands flexed on the tankard.
She said, “See here now, you listen up, little sailor boy. While you down the Gut – keep them big eyes open, that sweet mouth shut, and your hand on your ha’penny – if you don’t want to be all shook up. Or, you can come with Big Mary and be safe as pigs in clover.”
“Mary,” I said, sitting down on the other side of him and putting my cap down on the table where Amery could see the ship’s name on the tally. “Can’t you see he’s half-seas-over? Leave the poor lad alone.”
She ignored me, and leaned in closer. “My word, you’ll be in trouble if someone tell your captain you out without your cap, sailor boy.”
He slid his hand inside his coat then: and if he got his officer’s cap out, there was going to be a worse hoo-hah than anything our captain could dream of in his worst nightmares. I may have closed my eyes briefly, but I had to act fast, so I clamped my hand round his wrist and said, “Not indoors, you idiot. Mary darling, I love you till the stars fall, but bugger off. Right?”
“Ooh, you’re a hard man,” she said, and stuck out her tongue at me. “And me looking for a Christmas drink too.”
I fished the change out of my pocket. “Then go and find one. But not here.”
She laughed, swept the handful of copper into somewhere among the shawls that wrapped her upper half, and got to her feet, leaning forward in a way designed to give Amery and me a view plumb down her cleavage. “Sure you won’t change your mind, boys?” she said, but went into the back room without stopping for an answer.
I didn’t like to look at Amery – one trooping for dumb insolence is enough in a day – but I let go his wrist and asked, quietly as I could, “You all right, sir?”
“None of your business.” The voice was a half-heard murmur as the hand resumed its grip on the mug.
“You’re not, then.” I lifted the drink out of his hands, sniffed, and gave it back. “What is that?”
“I don’t know. I asked for the strongest thing he had.” To judge by his breath, he must have been there for a while; the drink smelt as if it was mostly bad brandy.
“Mind if I join you?” I asked.
“Yes, I do mind, but I dare say that won’t stop you.” He took another swig. “I should know who you are.”
“Stoker Teague, forward port watch.” I groped in my pockets. “Shit, here comes Pirotta, and I gave all my money to Big Mary.”
Amery waited until Pirotta was right at the table and looking at me enquiringly. Then he said, “Tell the man what you want. I’ll pay.”
Once the drink was down me I said, “I can’t go on calling you sir, someone’ll notice. What’s your name?”
He trailed his fingers through a small puddle of drink on the table-top, and said, “What’s wrong with calling me sir?”
This time I definitely closed my eyes. “Did nobody tell you that officers do not, absolutely not, go adrift in the Gut?”