- Contributed by
- Harry Pratt
- People in story:
- Harry Pratt
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 10 May 2005
Harry Pratt 1940 (Age 19)
A group of shadows clambered up the embankment and on to the sun baked path alongside the metal rails. In a short time they were straggled out over a distance of a hundred yards. A regular rhythmic rattle of mess tins and water bottles accompanied by the padding of their bare feet on the beaten earth.
As dawn was breaking through the heavy, black-clouded sky, the silhouette of a group of swaying palm trees appeared, fighting it’s way up through the morning mist. Stretching away on both sides of the embankment were the familiar paddy fields with their leech-laden water, grey and still under a swirling blanket of mist which hung like steam in the Eastern morning air.
Harry, shivering and stiff, pulled his sacking closer around his aching shoulders. He wished the sun would break through, and warm some life into his chilled body. He heard a curse, spat out filthily and with feeling, by a man ahead of him who had stubbed his toe on an irregularly placed sleeper. As the light improved he could recognise the men ahead of him. Some were hurrying to keep warm, striding from sleeper to sleeper, others were stretched out alongside the dull, cold, and little used railway lines. They looked for all the world like a crowd of Red Indian extras in a Hollywood Western.
‘What a beautiful morning to finish building a bridge,’ said a voice beside Harry. Glancing out of the corner of his eye, he saw a round, hairy rice belly and a battered felt hat and recognised his friend Rochester.
‘It looks to me like any other morning, you cheerful beggar. Building a bridge, digging out a cutting, packing up an embankment. Today, tomorrow, next week, it’s all the same in this roasting, stinking, lousy pest ridden country.’ I ranted.
‘All right, all right, take it easy. Me? I’m thriving on this life, and enjoying every minute of it. What’s more this climate suits my complexion perfectly,’ shouted back Rochester, at the same time slapping his stomach with his hand. Harry grinned at this gesture. ‘Sorry Rocky, this must be my day for the gloom sessions.’
‘That’s all right boy, take a puff at this Rochester Special and blow your troubles away through this smoke ring. Hang on to your lungs though, this tobacco is dynamite.’
They jogged along together in silence, concentrating on the distances between each of the sleepers. ‘Do you think we will finish it today Rocky?’ He nodded his head without taking his eyes off the track. ‘I think so. If we don’t they will have to carry me out here tomorrow. I’m just about on my chin strap.’ Glancing quickly at the men around, Harry said ‘I don’t think any of us will have the strength to carry anybody anywhere. It’s a damn good rest we all want.’
‘Do you dream?’ asked Rochester
‘Food mostly, why?’
‘I was just wondering. When I dream it’s always about sleep.’
‘You dream about sleep?’ repeated Harry with an incredulous voice. Rochester nodded his head ‘I think that’s why I am always so tired these days.’
‘That couldn’t have anything to do with working like a slave for twelve hours a day on the swill they lash up and have the nerve to call food?’ asked his friend, with a laugh.
‘Perhaps you’re right, I never thought of that.’
A sharp bend in the embankment was followed by a straight run of quarter of a mile, and there ahead was the bridge. It lay, spanning the river from bank to bank, one hundred and fifty yards of rough-hewn teak, and a few thousand iron spikes. Each upright in the columns had been manhandled into position, and pile driven by hand. Each cross beam of timber had been hauled along treacherous jungle paths to the riverbanks - there to be assembled and spiked into position. Three weeks of ceaseless activity had seen the whole solid construction erected.
With much shouting, pushing and slapping the men from the surrounding camps were divided and organised into working parties. They were anxious to get started. In the chill morning air their underfed, fevered bodies needed warming.
This should have been the final ‘speedo’ day on the bridge, and there wasn’t a man that didn’t know it. The shouting had stopped and the men, like ants, were scattered over the working area. Another long tiring day had begun. Along the embankment leading to the bridge, soil was being carried in rough baskets, tipped and stamped into place.Along the jungle paths elephants hauled timbers — guided by men with long bamboo poles. Above on the bridge sleepers were being spiked into position, as men in groups of twelve, carried sections of railway line to be laid and secured.
The valley echoed with chanting and hammering. Apart from a short break to push down the eternal rice and jungle stew, the men were kept at their frantic work.
As the hot afternoon sweated its hours away, men with aching legs and tired arms sweated and swore as they hauled, lifted and hammered the final timbers into shape. The completion of the tremendous task was in sight as they urged their overworked bodies for just a little more effort. The promise of a long rest was like a carrot dangling in front of each man’s eyes, as he wiped away the blinding sweat. Their hopes however, were banked on a relaxation of the heart breaking pressure, a long rest sounded too good to be true.
Rochester and Harry had worked together since the bridge building had begun. An understanding of each other’s temperament had enabled them to get through their tasks with the minimum effort. They both saw humour when their spirits were low, each could coax the other through his moods of depression. Their company and friendship was now a vital part of each other’s life. High up near the centre of the bridge, they were swinging long handled hammers. Up and down, each taking alternative strikes as they drove the iron spikes into the wood. Harry, with a satisfied grunt, hammered home the spike. Straightening his back, Harry wiped off the stinging sweat that ran in rivulets from his armpits to his groin. All around him echoed the noise of the saws, the hammers, and the chisels, as they ate their hungry way through the hard, solid teak. The whole atmosphere was alive with the fervent activity of the men. It was difficult for him to realise that the valley, with its beautiful surrounding hills, had ever known the peace and quiet of solitude. Overhead a cloudless sky offered no protection from the relentless heat of the sun’s rays. Down below, the muddy water of the swollen river rushed past, carrying in its current debris of bushes, branches and bamboos. Rochester picked up the spare spikes and with his hammer over his shoulder, started to make his way along the newly laid track. Harry followed along, still wiping his sweating body.
As if a door had been slammed shut, the noises around the bridge suddenly stopped. For a split second time stood still, while the whole valley hung poised in indecision, listening and waiting. Then pandemonium broke loose, tools and timbers were dropped as the running, jumping, stumbling and shouting men fought their frightened way into the jungle, up the riverbanks or along the railway embankment - anywhere, away from the bridge. Rochester and Harry stood transfixed, not knowing which way to move, watching the aeroplanes approaching along the valley. They saw them swoop down over the ridge of the hills, guns and cannon rattling and snarling out death and destruction. The air was filled with an overpowering and deafening roar as Harry, galvanised into action, leaped at Rochester and flung him off the top of the bridge, and jumped into the swirling water after him. They were caught in the fast flowing current, which swept them rapidly down stream and away from the exploding bombs.
Harry could see Rochester at the bend of the river, dragging himself along some half submerged branches towards the bank. Kicking and splashing his way out of the current, he too managed to pull himself into the side and struggled up on to the sandy dune where his friend lay. Both were gasping for breath, and lay doubled up, belching and spitting out filthy, rancid water. Harry rolled over and could feel the comfort of the warm sand on his straining stomach and chest. Shading his eyes he watched the bombers swooping down on their errand of destruction. The river was a cauldron of threshing timbers, as column after column were plucked out of their positions, flinging all their supported cross beams and sleepers into the raging water.
Soon the last bomb had fallen, and the hum of the engines grew fainter as they flew further away. A strange silence hung over the valley. Rochester stood up and looked towards the bridge. All that remained were a few shattered chunks of timber sticking up out of the river at fantastic angles.
‘Just look at the mess they’ve left behind Harry.’
‘Is there anything left?’
‘A little bit - a few odd uprights by the look of things - perhaps a bent spike somewhere.’
‘It’s nice of them to leave that much, the big-hearted bastards. I’d give a months rice ration to get that spike in the guts of the bastard who sent that load down here.’
Heavy clouds were ambling over the hills towards them. Down the river, a whirlwind of dead bamboo leaves gyrated itself out into the midstream and disappeared. Rochester looked down and asked, ‘How do you think they will take this lot?’
‘Not too good.’
‘Will they take it out on us?’
‘They’ll be mad all right Rocky. Life isn’t going to be very pleasant around these parts. We thought it was tough going building that bridge. It was tough all right, but nothing compared with the time we are going to have rebuilding the bitch. There’s an awful lot of us not going to live to see it finished again.’
He got to his feet and brushed the sand off his body. As they pushed through a banana grove, a spasmodic plopping of raindrops fell on the flat, smooth leaves. A gust of wind suddenly rushed towards them, and lashing rain beat down, knocking the breath out of their stinging bodies. Mud splashed up their legs as they slipped and slithered their weary way along the path - back towards the bridge.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.