I didn't have time to think. I grabbed the stick, and tried to pull us out of the dive. The rapid descent made my ears pop, deafening me.
Despite my best endeavours with the stick and the flaps, we were still too steep, and the ocean was coming up fast. The starboard engine was out, but one part of my mind noted that the port engine was far from full power, or else I should have been able to pull her out much more easily.
It's amazing how time slows down when you're in a jam. Just like when one of the bigger boys came to tackle me at football when I was starting at St. Andrew's. I remember thinking then that this was going to hurt, and not being able to do anything in time. I had a similar feeling here, as the water rushed up to meet us. I needed to keep the port wing down, or we'd flip over when we hit.
I could see a few white tips on the waves, and absently thought that the wind must be moderate at least. Part of me wondered how Taffer and the Wirral were doing, but I had no time to think about it.
Then another thought forced its way to the front of my mind: Had they closed the camera bay? If we ditched with a big hole underneath, we were going to flood pretty quickly.
Somehow, during all of this, the crate was starting to level slightly. I could gain more control and the angle of descent wasn't so steep. That was the end of the good news, for I could feel that we weren't going to make it.
"Hold On!" I shouted, just before the inevitable.
The impact knocked me right back, and then forward again. For a moment I didn't know which way was up. I must have undone my straps, but I can't remember the next bit very clearly.
I recall water, which didn't feel too cold. It entered almost immediately. It was already up to my ankles by the time I got out of my seat, and up to my knees by the time I got George out of his. He was still groggy, but had some strength in his arms. Unfortunately, he tried to stand and promptly collapsed.
I turned round to look for assistance, and saw Taffer struggling with Wirral. The latter was white as a sheet, and Taffer had his mouth set firm as he pulled his assistant along.
I managed to get two hands under George's shoulders, and pulled him along. The rising water actually helped, as his legs just floated behind. I managed to keep him with one hand, and open the door with the other. Taffer was just behind.
It's strange what you notice under these circumstances. At that moment the latrine floated past, and I was worried we were all going to get infected. I also remember thinking that my sidearm was now waterlogged.
I backed out of the door, on to what should have been the wing, but there was almost nothing solid beneath my feet. I pulled out George, and kept one hand on him, while helping Taffer with the other. It was clear the Wirral was in a bad way, and he didn't move at all on his own, just a dead weight in Taffer's arms. Fortunately the skipper was just about compus mentus enough to breathe for himself.
We were all in the water, but I knew we had to get away. Otherwise the undertow would get us when the crate sank. I looked around, and noticed that part of the rear had broken off. We had a life raft.
I nodded to Taffer and then in the direction of the rear. We both held our charges underneath the chin as we made our way back. Taffer made it to the rudder first, and grabbed hold. Then I led Beaner to the same point, and he managed to put out a hand and attach it.
Somehow Taffer managed to get off the Wirral's belt, and used it to tie him to our improvised raft. After a lot more trouble, I managed to do the same for Officer Hughes. He was clearly at the end of his tether, and passed out.
I pulled myself up, and there was just room to get my torso out of the water. I drew a deep breath.
"So, what now, sir?" said Taffer.
I realised that I was now in charge, and he was looking to me to lead. I looked around to see if anything was visible, and it was! There, between the sea and the sky: A dark line of the coast. I pointed.
"Ah, yes," said Taffer, "we've got some lively paddling to do, now."
I noted the sun. "Nice day for it."
With grim determination, we started.
The sun was high in the sky, and all too soon my flying helmet became unbearable. I took it off, but tried to keep it on our improvised raft.
My watch was waterlogged - so much for RAF issue - but I reckoned we had been going for a good half hour. I looked towards our goal, but I couldn't see the land getting any nearer. My estimate of the distance went up, and that of our chances went down. Both Taffer and I lashed ourselves to our raft like the others.
I heard Taffer start to sing under his breath. I realised that he had started on a hymn. When he got to "Bread of Heaven" I joined in. We had a rousing chorus and got to the end.
"Are you a church-going man, sir?" asked Taffer.
"No, not really," I replied, "...and call me Charlie, or Gunner." I'd never been one for bothering God, but now seemed as good a time as any.
"Chapel-goer, myself," he said, "every Sunday back home. Thought I might say a little prayer, mind."
"That would be a good thing, Taffer."
So he began, and I closed my eyes and prayed with him. It's a truism that there are no atheists on a raft at sea.
Time went on, and we shared the water canteen between us. I managed to get Beaner to swallow a few drops, but the Wirral was completely out of it, and we couldn't get any response from him.
The sun was baking, and we baked as well. The water at the surface was warm at this time of year, but cooler than being in the sun. We continued at a slow pace, and every time I looked up, the coastline didn't seem to be any nearer. I wondered bitterly if there were an offshore current hereabouts.
The sun was easing as we finished the last of the water. All too quickly, it seemed to fall from the sky. Our efforts to paddle had almost stopped, with only a few desultory kicks every minute. My arms were aching more than they ever had before, and I could hardly feel my soaking legs. Taffer told me his life story, and I told him mine. We managed to work our way through every hymn we knew, rather more in his case than mine. But as we drank the last of the water, our mouths started to dry out, and we fell silent.
Then I looked closer: I could see some hills in the distance, whereas before I couldn’t make out anything. We must be closer. My heart leapt a little; perhaps we were going to make it after all.
The cool was a welcome relief, but I soon realised we were going to get cold if we were in the water all night. Taffer tapped my hand, and nodded off to the left. There was some kind of sailing boat in the distance, but it was much too far away to notice us, and we were in no condition to shout loudly. One part of me noted that life went on for the natives, despite the war.
The temperature was all too pleasant now, and that was dangerous as well. I felt tired to my bones. We had been lucky that there was almost no breeze, so the waves were not too much trouble.
I jerked awake, having nodded off. The belt had tightened around me. I looked over at Taffer, who also seemed to be asleep. The skipper was out of it, and both he and Wirral were completely silent.
I looked ahead, and was puzzled for a moment.
There were no stars ahead, and it looked like a big black cloud was coming up. Then with a start I realised that it was a headland. I prodded Taffer, and pointed lazily.
He grinned at me in the moonlight, and we started to kick again. Now we could hear the waves on the shore. For several minutes I wondered if we were heading for rocks, but gradually we moved to the left.
Agonizingly slowly, we drifted in to the shore. I’d like to think it was our kicking that drove us there, but it was more to do with the currents and tides.
Then I felt the bottom beneath my feet. I could have cried. That was still not the end of it, as our raft got stuck. The breaking waves pushed us in and out several times, before we managed to release ourselves.
Taffer took the Wirral, and I took Beaner by mutual agreement, but we didn’t really have the strength to lift them. The best we could do was help drag them further as every wave came in. It seemed to take ages, but eventually we were in a pile out of the water. I collapsed and closed my eyes.
"I’ll go to get help, you being hurt and all."
What did he mean? I must have looked blank, but he gestured to my feet.
The end of my left boot was missing, and half of my big toe was sticking out. As it was dark, I couldn’t see any blood, but what was left was somewhat shorter than it should be.
I honestly think I passed out.
I came round several times, with the sound of the waves. The skipper was awake a little, as I felt him move.
Then hands were grabbing me. I wondered if the natives were robbing us, but then a bottle was put to my lips. I was half carried to a vehicle, and gladly sank into semi-consciousness.
The Hunter and the Hunted completed novel
A Slice of Life short story (horror)