The Bootmaker of Berlin – extract

Throughout the first day of the voyage, Werner and I kept track of our course and tried to guess the destination. America? Canada? Not Greenland, surely. None of us had any idea where we were headed or how long it would take to get there. Initially the steamer chugged north-west, skirting the Isle of Man. Then she turned due north. Along one stretch, lines of blue hills could be seen on either side of the channel. Beyond the reach of land, the Arandora Star headed west into the North Atlantic Ocean.

Conditions on board were surprisingly comfortable. At dinner-time we had sufficient food and it was as appetising as British cooks could make it. Afterwards we stood on deck until the last rays of sunlight vanished. Werner said, ‘Wherever we are going, my dear boy, I’m sure it will be memorable.’ Never were truer words spoken.

With our stomachs content, we climbed into our bunks before lights out. I was on the upper bunk; Werner was down below. Exhausted from raw emotion and too little rest, my head no sooner touched the mattress than I fell into the deepest of slumbers. The gentle rocking of the swell soothed my nerves and freed me from the usual play-list of nightmares.

BAM!

I was rudely tossed from the bunk. As I fell, I collided with others. We landed on top of each other on the floor. The lights were out; the compartment was as black as pitch. Some shouted, some swore, some cried out for salvation. A pair of stray knees crunched down on my ribcage. Utter panic and confusion.

From the passageway came the cry in English. ‘Everyone out! Go! Get out!’

Blindly I stumbled out of the cabin into a cloud of fumes and smoke. Wheezing, I found a life jacket and fumbled it on. My ribs ached but there was no time to lick wounds. The place was in chaos. In darkness, I inched along the passageway wall. A crowd had gathered around the ladder to the deck. Everyone was jostling to get a foothold. One fellow slipped and skittled the others below.

Torpedo. The word spread like wildfire. Apparently, our ship had been blasted by a German U-boat. Attacked by one of our own.

‘Poetic justice for deserters like us,’ mumbled Werner from behind.

Up on deck, pandemonium. The ship was listing to starboard; men scrambled to hang on. The stench of burning oil made me cough, which made my ribs hurt even more. Precious few lifeboats and insufficient life-rafts. I fought to get in, but was beaten back. The second-last lifeboat was about to launch. Standing beside it was Werner. I yelled to him and waved my arms. He didn’t hear me. As he was about to climb aboard, the half-empty boat was released and crashed into the ocean. One lifeboat remained. It was within reach, just a few paces away. Head down, I barged forward. The boat dropped; I launched myself over the railing behind it.


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