It's the day of the Great Escape — half a dozen trainees are to transfer from the Wilson Point site to the companion GEE station at Pokhari Ghat, in the wilderness some sixty miles north of Poona. We make a quick departure, piling on to a ration-run truck returning to Poona base camp in the afternoon, with a promise that our long-withheld kit will be sent on from Purandhar Fort.
In the event everyone's kit arrives at Poona except mine. We set out for Pokhari Ghat during the morning, with me still moaning about my missing gear, the truck driving along the main Bombay road before branching off on to a convoluted route, rough-surfaced and pot-holed, twisting and climbing up high into the ghats.
It's a parched deserted landscape we travel through. There are occasional signs of cultivation along the valley bottoms, but after several months with little or no rainfall the grass that spreads over low-lying areas and creeps up the hillsides is sun-scorched, a sere and yellow waste broken only by dark-green smudges where isolated trees and shrubs still cling to dust-smothered foliage.
Wedged uncomfortably between packages, we gaze over the tail of our transport, Greenie already brooding over his next meal, Joskins beefing about mail delays, Nark Harris bemoaning the pending ban on sending food parcels home, Alan up-dating his personal vendetta with the Labour government over the vexed question of postponement of the home leave he's legally entitled to after four years overseas war service, even if the time has largely been spent dodging falling coconuts in Ceylon. Nick, perched above us on a tall packing case, maintains an aloof silence, having heard it all before.
The ancient truck labours up yet another bend. Nick points ahead from his vantage point, yelling "We've arrived!", his voice almost lost in the sound of a protesting engine and creaking suspension. We turn to glimpse a large shed and a cluster of Nissen huts at the foot of a hill, still some way off, with the gash of a recently made path leading up to an operations unit and radar aerial tower on its crown.
The track levels out, the truck picks up speed. In minutes we pass through a barbed-wire perimeter fence to pull up on a cleared area alongside the shed. A cheery crowd of helpers rushes to unload supplies and pass down our gear, greeting us warmly as we stamp about easing cramped limbs after the journey.
The general atmosphere is so friendly that we all immediately feel at home, and our first meal in the small cookhouse is voted by Greenie to be a decided improvement on the poor catering we endured at Mahableshwar. Though we are put to the test next day when told that the station football team and supporters are due to depart for a match with the Wilson Point team, and find ourselves expected to keep the transmitter operational while they're all away.
We make a token protest about the sudden responsibility and us knowing sweet fa about the equipment after misinstruction at Mahableshwar. Our fears are swept aside with assurances that it never goes wrong. Despite misgivings, we wave them on their way, expressing the devout hope that they beat hell out of our late oppressors. Which they do, to our intense satisfaction, and our enforced spell of duty goes without a hitch, as promised.
A few days later, I scrounge a lift into Poona in search of my still-missing kit and in need of medical attention. A blister on the tip of my right index finger, the result of over-enthusiastic plucking of my improvised bedrope-stringed bass during impromptu music sessions at Wilson Point, has defied DIY first aid and turned septic. The medic lances it, covers the digit with a massive fingerstall and tells me I'd better stay the rest of the week, so he can check on progress. This conveniently gives me time to concentrate on tracking down my missing kit.
It turns up in a store where it has been locked away by a security-minded erk, then promptly forgotten. I have time to dash around the shops in the town to make up a couple of food parcels to supplement family rations back home, and post them before the ban comes into force. After that I'm short of funds and there's not much more I can do; it's payday tomorrow at Pokhari Ghat but I won't be there to collect it.
A further disincentive to action is that the temperature here is soaring into the nineties, even hotter than Bombay and Calcutta, according to the papers. Moving out of the shade into the sun is like walking into a furnace blast and immediately invites the restless attentions of clouds of hyperactive pestiferous flies. It cools off slightly in the evenings, when I wander over to the air transit camp where the lucky few travelling home by plane depart, all part of the RAF site but separated from our section by a two-and-a-half mile walk along the air strip.
It's a model camp with a canteen run on help-yourself lines, clean and well-kept, and boasts two small air-conditioned free cinemas, with a change of programme every night. I indulge myself, linger to watch James Mason and Ann Todd in The Seventh Veil, and return the following night for the Hope-Crosby-Lamour Road to Utopia.
When I go for a check-up, it seems my finger hasn't responded to treatment. I avert my gaze from the bloody sight of a freely wielded scalpel removing layers of mortified flesh, and am relieved that enough remains for another fingerstall to be put in place, with an assurance that this time everything will be all right. So I return to Pokhari Ghat, taking with me a large accumulation of mail that has been delayed because of bad flying weather over the Persian Gulf. The hut is very quiet that evening as everyone concentrates on catching up with family matters.
Next morning I'm introduced to a mobile shower installed outside the hut by Nick and Greenie during my absence. Finding a spare battered galvanised bucket, they drilled innumerable holes in one side immediately under the lip, fastened a rope to the handle so that the bucket, after being filled two-thirds full of water, may be raised over a handy tree branch. Another cord attached to the front enables the bather to tilt the bucket judiciously, so that the water sloshes through the holes. With a little practice the water descends at an effective rate where you expect it. Given the general lack of local washing facilities it is sheer luxury to be able to take a refreshingly cool shower on a hot day.
We are not overworked here. Thanks to the number of operators and mechanics now in the camp, even continuous running of the transmitter on test does not make inordinate demands on our time. The days pass uneventfully until rumours of an impending visit by the GEE Chain commanding officer induce a certain tension into our relaxed work schedule. Our man-in-charge decides that the practical but slap-dash arrangements need to be smartened up, and henceforth all due maintenance will be meticulously carried out.
It seems that the diesel generators, on which we rely for power, have received little attention since coming into operation a couple of months back, following the service maxim that if it's working, don't bugger it up. Nick usually enjoys messing about with diesels, but he's been sent to Poona to take the place of the factotum, recently demobbed, who looked after the GEE Chain office. So I find myself, with Joskins, given the job of making up for any past neglect.
We carry out routine checks strictly as per manual, but when we get down to cleaning there are no rags to be had—I suspect they've been pinched by transport staff. We make do with some old empty sacks left lying around from the time the site was built. While they remove the worst of the muck off the generators, they leave fresh deposits of powdered cement and hemp fluff sticking to most surfaces.
We sacrifice some scruffy items of personal underwear, soak them in paraffin, and go over everything again. Both operational and standby units look the better for our attentions. A grateful officer, dazzled by the polished brasswork and gleaning paint, above all relieved that everything is still working, grants us the reward of a work-free day at some time in the future.
The new shower is put to extensive use to get rid of the muck that has been transferred to our persons with this task. Hard scrubbing gets us clean but fails noticeably in the area of personal freshness. Despite all our efforts, we exude a persistent sickly-sweet aroma of diesel fuel, and noses tend to twitch in our proximity. I fancy we'll be kept out of sniffing range when the commanding officer arrives...
When the inspection does materialise I happen to be back in Poona, seeing the doc about my finger. I am able to scrounge a lift in on the big articulated lorry and trailer, used for heavier equipment, which is due for a service at the depot. It's a vehicle that's awkward to manoeuver on the tighter bends, but we make good time travelling down the ghat stretch and are soon bowling cheerily along the main road, with Phil vocalising at the wheel.
Then disaster strikes: Clouds of steam belch out of the bonnet and the engine clatters noisily. Pulling up at the roadside for a quick check reveals that the radiator is bone dry. Phil swears and departs in search of water, leaving me turning the engine so the pistons don't seize up.
A nearby army depot help us out, but the water leaks out of the radiator as fast as it's poured in and Phil decides that the radiator bottom has cracked and is ready to drop off. I dash over to the depot, phone Nick, and request a tow into base. All we can do is squat at the roadside cursing our luck until rescued late that afternoon. I miss my medical appointment.
Fortunately Nick is able to wangle me into the surgery the following day when I learn that all has gone well. My fingernail has fallen off, the top of my finger looks curiously shrivelled, but an amused medic assures me it will soon be back to normal.
I return to Pokhari a couple of days later. The artic is still being serviced, if not scrapped, and I get a lift with Sammy, one of the Indian Air Force cooks, on the back of an open 3-tonner diverted to the ration run. A high wind is blowing, raising clouds of fine dust that obscure the sun. Rolling along the Bombay road we see a 'dust demon' in the distance, a murky column charging across the plain. It approaches the road, racing parallel with it for a stretch, a threatening pillar over thirty feet high and five feet across, then veers erratically away. The dust clouds worsen as we turn on to the ghat road and we are forced to abandon the back of the lorry and squeeze in the cabin, alongside Jack, who is having a job keeping his windscreen clear.
Within sight of the camp the truck judders to a halt. Jack gets out and impatiently strips and cleans a dust-clogged carburetter and during the pause the wind abruptly drops, the dust gradually settles. By the time we roll alongside the cookhouse the sun has emerged in all its glory.
Jack is a regular driver on the ration run, a goodnatured guy always ready to help out others despite his continual toubles with the worn-out transport. Like the time when Joe, one of our operators shortly due for demob, had done some last-minute shopping in Poona and bought an ice-cream mixer to take home. On hearing this, Jack swiftly negotiates with a mate in stores and a large slab of ice, well wrapped in sacking for insulation, is smuggled in with the rations. Fortunately, this is one trip when Jack suffers no breakdowns or delays, so a sizeable chunk of ice survives the journey and is delivered to the cookhouse. Jack having tipped off the cook in advance, a supply of cornflour custard has been saved from dinner preparations. By general consent it is decided there and then to convert it into ice-cream, both as a working test of the mixer and a farewell celebration for Joe.
Everyone herds into the small cookhouse for the occasion. The ice is broken and, after pranksters are restrained from dropping bits down people's pants, put into the machine. There is no shortage of volunteers to do the cranking. The first batch of ice cream is consumed as soon as ready, though there isn't enough to go round. A second batch of cornflour mixture hastily made by Barry the cook takes ages to cool before production can be resumed, but the ice-cream is eventually wuffed, amid appreciative comments, by the rest of the gang, and Joe's ice cream maker voted a great success.
There are still fragments of unmelted ice, and rather than see the remains of the cornflour go to waste, Barry proposes that we round off the evening with a final batch. Carried away by enthusiasm and our newly-acquired expertise, we crank away merrily to produce a really cold and solid batch. But folk have been yawning and drifting away to their beds. By the time this last offering is declared fit for consumption, most of the surrounding huts have already dowsed their lights and the cookhouse is empty apart from Joe, Jack, Barrie, Greenie, Joskins and me. So we sit and manfully try to dispose of the whole treat between us... It's good we decide, the best yet, really creamy and chilly, though it did seem a waste to be scoffing it after midnight rather than enjoying it in the heat of the afternoon. But there are limits, we can't manage it all. We take the remains with us to our separate huts to create mayhem by dropping it down the necks of peaceful sleepers.
Surprisingly, there are no ill-effects next day, either from over-consumption of ice-cream or the late-night punch-ups. When Joe departs for Bombay, complete with ice-cream mixer, in search of that troopship home, he leaves a pleasant memory behind him. ■
© Harry Turner, 2005.