31. Save the whales


The prisoner cell that Brian Clough, Geoff Boycott, Tony Wilson, Mark E Smith and Tim Healy found themselves in was a minimalist nirvana. There were no windows with bars from which a poignant bird might sweetly trill and no scratched graffiti on the wall to add some much-needed human ingredient, although the sea-grey paint scheme was certainly to Wilson’s personal taste. German World War II camouflage colours suited the loft-apartment lifestyle to which he aspired. Furnishings were sparse. A low wooden bench would prove difficult for anyone over the age of 40 to get up from, and with no mattress and devoid of slats, a metal bedstead was as good as useless. However, there was a toilet tucked up against a wall should it be required but it offered nothing in the way of privacy. The only feature that gave any consideration to luxury was a rectangular ventilation grille in a corner of the ceiling for a few whiffs of fresh upland air.

Beyond the solid cell door, heavy boots clunked and scraped on stone as the ragtag bunch of Nazis dashed on the double from one emergency to another, blunders and cock-ups on a never-ceasing schedule for world domination.

Boycott fixed his stare on the vent’s pill-shaped holes and considered “Them”, these mysterious monstrous toddlers that he would shortly know so intimately. It was almost beyond the cricketer’s comprehension.

“If it’s to be believed that power of these-’ere Them is so potent that dead can co-exist among livin’, ’ow come we never ’eard owt about it till now?” Boycott queried. “I mean, is Maggie Thatcher aware of it? Maybe she confers wi’ Anthony Eden and Benjamin Disraeli on quiet.”

“It’s been covered up, man, Geoff,” Healy commented. “No kid’d ever go to bed again if they thought the Bogeyman under the bed was real, y’knaa. It’s not in the public interest.”

“In my book, whatever Them is, it seems a crackpot set-up, constantly playing daft beggars and demandin’ ’uman sacrifice – and for what aim?” Boycott pondered. “Surely Them ’as got bigger things to be gettin’ on wi’ than standin’ abart in their own realm ’opin’ that guillotine is goin’ to present it wi’ some poor bugger’s soul to fiddle abart wi’.”

“Well that’s the quandary, Geoff,” Wilson answered. “We’re not fucking gods and we don’t know how they think or what their raison d’etre might be. So how are we supposed to fucking react when we get a window to their world?”

Boycott tutted. “Do you mind not swearin’ and usin’ foul language all time?” he complained. “Wi’ ten minute left to live before enterin’ a new reality that makes ’Ell look like ’olidee camp, I can do wi’out effin’ and blindin’, thank you.”

“Eh, imaging having to see Adolf Hitler every bloody day,” Clough chimed. “Now there’s a fate worse than death.”

“It can’t be any worse than having Del Amitri as your warm-up group,” Smith added. “That’s become a benchmark of woe for me.”

“Is that right?” Wilson scowled. “I’ve booked them for the Haçienda next weekend.”

“Ha-ha-ha-ha!” cackled Smith. “Ha-ha-ha-ha! You’re better off in here.”

Boycott rested his heavy cannon-ball head against the hard wall and fixed his stare at the grille, lost in thought at the prospect of a sharpened blade violently smashing into his neck and the resultant clunk, and his seeing eyes falling into a wicker basket. Any ideas of ever representing Yorkshire again seemed a far-off notion now – bonkers, even. Despite the seriousness of his situation, Boycott couldn’t help but drift into daydream territory. The murmur of crowd expectation, more clobbering of deliveries on home territory, this time Essex’s Derek Pringle at Headingley.

Just after he’d raised a hand to the adoring Yorkshire crowd, Boycott was shaken from his reverie by a twinkle of light from behind the vent cover. Believing he must be suffering from the severe effects of an almost unique tiredness or a calcium build-up on his contact lenses, he studied the gaps in the grille for the merest hint of movement…

And there it was again! A pair of eyes – a pair of eyes that blinked! What the…?

There came a shuffling and scraping from beyond the cell, seemingly within the wall itself.

“Eh, d’you hear that?” Clough mumbled, looking from left to right and back again. “Maybe the mate of that elephant you slaughtered has come back to get its retribution.”

“I wish I’d brought its trunk back with me as a trophy,” Smith sneered. “I could’ve wrapped it round your neck like a feather boa.”

“Weeeaaaaayyyy, what you, you soft soak?” Clough laughed. “This is the problem with Man City supporters…”

“Button it,” Boycott warned, and he rose to his feet with anticipation. “Somethin’s afoot.”

Quiet wrenching and tapping brought ceiling fragments falling like a short-lived snow flurry. Next there was hissing – sssssss – and the flicker of a small blue flame shot through the bars. There followed the distinctive aroma of a school’s metalwork room and then a reverberating dooooiiinnnggggg as a blunt instrument struck the grille with force. Unable to withstand such an onslaught, the panel fell and clattered to the ground. Each individual remained still, frozen as if starring in a film that had been paused on videotape. To considerable relief the door to the cell remained bolted and closed. Could it be that not a single German had heard the commotion? Attention then fixed on the rectangular gap above them and slowly from the darkness emerged the narrow, craggy, humour-filled countenance of Peter O’Toole.

“Man, you’ve gotta be joking,” Healy grinned. “You came back for us, Pete.”

“Did somebody mention my name?” O’Toole grinned. “Now, I have two capable and eager members of the top-secret, supernatural wing of the Special Air Service with me. Gentleman, please refrain from putting your hands together, indeed remain resolutely silent, for Captain Wood and Corporal Hart.”

Two hands appeared on either side of O’Toole as a greeting.

“As Elvis Presley once crooned,” Healy joked, “‘Maybe I would die cos I don’t have a Wood and Hart’. Well, that’s no longer our problem.”

“Even so, get your Aristotles on the hop,” O’Toole directed. “It’s a bloody Nazi viper’s nest here. And be good fellows. Drag the bedstead over to this wall and hoist yourselves up. Once you do, you’ll need to go on all fours like a banker in the Irish Derby. It’s an aluminium tunnel and a bugger of a squeeze, but that’s the hand you’ve been dealt. I’m afraid there is no space for bulky coats or hats up here, but if all goes to plan, you won’t need them. You should have followed me up the bloody cliff face in the first place and all this could have been avoided.”

O’Toole was off like a toddler that was two weeks into serious crawling, scurrying behind a lightweight equipment pack being dragged by Captain Wood. Still above the cell, a camouflaged arm belonging to Corporal Hart reached down from the vent to assist the celebs’ ascent into the dusty, musty, cold, cramped environment of the ventilation system of Hangingbrow Hall and its Fourth Reich subterranean extension. Healy, his Army past never far from the surface, opted to be the final figure to leave the lock-up. He assumed that if there had been a guard by the door, they either had poor hearing or had nodded off. In this instance, both were correct and some long-overdue luck was on their side.

Once into the enclosed world of the supernatural site, Healy, his much-loved motorcycle leathers regrettably discarded, was greeted with a pat on the ankle and an SAS order: “Follow that arse.” Never had a British voice sounded so welcome to Healy’s ears and he began his chase into the darkness with a proud smile on his face. Hart wasn’t far behind, pulling his own bag of essentials. Up ahead Healy spotted shards of light at the front of the column. Soon there was light from his rear too – Hart’s torch.

At times, the space was so narrow that it was like taking part in a caving expedition deep beneath the Pennine’s limestone landscape. The ventilation network was post-war and brought in air for the huge, secretly constructed underground complex – a nice architectural touch when you considered the full picture of what was going on here. Despite the tight sections, the tunnel was fairly simple to slide along, although a 90-degree bend necessitated shifting to your side and pushing through the angle like a slug. Thankfully there were no clues as to the existence of rodents or much dampness, and most instances of spiders’ webs and long-departed arthropod skins had been cleared by the pioneering passage of O’Toole and his SAS acquaintances.

Even though the conditions were confined, a brisk pace was set by the human convoy but the distance proved painful work for chilled knees that had felt little in the way of warmth for days. Then suddenly, from some distance behind, Healy recognised raucous and outraged voices echoing along the metallic highway. It sounded like avenging Daleks.

“Time to gife up, Tommy!” came a barked warning with a German lilt. “You’re in trouble now, for sure!”

“Ah hell, it’s the Erics,” Healy whispered through the pitch-black to the nearby SAS hardnut. “They’re onto us, man.”

The reply from beneath a barely visible bushy moustache was lost among a sudden almighty rattle that ravaged eardrums, followed by fwiiiip, fwiiiip, wizzzz, cloing, patong, bing, ding, dang-dong. Healy was confident that the sharp bend they had navigated offered complete safety until a bullet with an orange glowing tip came to rest by his hand. It was now vividly apparent that their daring escape had been discovered and the chase was on.

“Right, stating the bleeding obvious, they’re in the vent,” Hart confirmed from the rear. “Quicken up and stay focused. We’re close to another 90-degree turn, then we’re pretty much in the clear. We’re on the final stretch.”

Through the brickwork the bass thud of a pair of RAF Chinook helicopters could be detected, which for now were maintaining height a safe distance from Hangingbrow Hall, circling in a nearby valley after dropping a crack squad of supremely trained soldiers and rescuers to the grounds. Healy’s mind flooded with thoughts of freedom but another menacing clang of distorted gunfire along the aluminium channel brought his stomach veering back to the vicinity of his mouth.

An anxious crawl along the dust-strewn duct resumed until a face-to-bottom traffic jam developed at a T-junction. At the front of the column, Wood, torch fastened above the ear on a head band, listened with precision and care along the left-hand spur and glanced back at O’Toole to his rear.

“What is it, Captain Marvel?” whispered O’Toole. “Have we dropped…” and stopped himself mid-sentence. “What was th…? Oh, bloody hell, German voices?”

“SNAFU,” replied Wood. “Situation normal: all fucked up. That’s our way out. Now it no longer is – they’ve found our way in and way out. They’re heading towards us. We’ll have to detour – right turn, Clyde.”

“Then let’s not waste time,” O’Toole replied. “We’ll take the high road – there might be better views.”

“Corporal!” Wood gruffly called through the darkness. “Change of plan. Leave a little gift at the junction.”

“Gotcha, sir,” Wood called back through the darkness and busied himself retrieving explosives from his pack.

Again, each manoeuvred through a precarious turn on their sides – in silence, stomachs tucked in, stretching muscles that now burned from strenuous exercise.

Alarmed at the prospect of an imminent explosion from the rear, Healy shuffled onwards with a rapid rhythm but soon found his nose pushed up against the flannel material of Brian Clough’s mud-caked grey trousers. There was another spray of stupendously loud bouncing gunfire from the rear, which made Healy jerk forward. In the darkness, his forehead nudged into Clough’s backside, who in turn agitatedly flapped his fingers in Healy’s face as a warning to leave space.

“Alright!” Healy grunted, but rocketing concern for his personal safety forced words from his mouth: “C’mon, c’mon, move, man, move…”

Clough edged forward, rose and was gone, a movement that momentarily stunned Healy until a guiding hand appeared in front of his face. He realised that a hole had now presented itself above his head and he was able to wriggle through the gap without need of SAS assistance.

The scene that greeted the troupe was astoundingly unsettling and would have made the average Greenpeace activist shocked, outrageously angry and tearfully helpless all at the same time. Within the subtly lit setting a 50-feet long sperm whale was stranded mid-air in a canvas sling, which itself was dangling above the body of a swastika-festooned, four-engined, propeller-driven Focke-Wulf Condor aircraft. On its fuselage was painted a cartoon depiction of a whale pointing forwards with an arm-like flipper. The eery silence was broken when the aircraft’s upper fuselage clanked into life and upwards-facing doors gradually opened to accommodate the unfortunate creature.

The gathered menagerie of 1980s celebrities and niche soldiery exchanged anguished expressions. O’Toole visibly seethed. Casting his eyes towards the 40-ton beast he quietly growled, “What sort of deranged crackpot would devise such an idea? I’ll tell you who – a damn German!”

“Surely it would struggle to get off the ground due to the sheer weight,” Wilson quietly spoke. “It’s a dead-end idea – as I’ve said before, like ACR going jazz.”

“Aircraft ’angar, right? queried Boycott. “Not biggest one I’ve ever seen, but all same, it’s some size. It must be underneath lawn.”

“Far end of the room there’s a ramp, look,” pointed Hart. “There’ll be a set of doors to reach the grounds, probably with grass on the opposite side to conceal its purpose. It’s bloody impressive.”

Above the aircraft, fitting snugly within the dimensions of the hangar, stood a motorised crane on rails. Its operator was blissfully unaware of the British observers below but the dull crump of a subterranean explosion – the booby trap left in the ventilation tunnel by the SAS – and resultant muted screams made him slide open his cab window to listen for further unfathomable noises. It would be his final act on Earth as an expertly fired bullet from Hart thwacked into the German’s temple. The force pushed the crane driver back into his box where he sat awkwardly upright with a red gash in the side of his head. This brought a lower-case “b” pushed through 90 degrees smile to Boycott’s dirt-camouflaged face. At last, they were turning the tables on their Nazi and supernatural adversaries.

The whale remained dormant but then its tail began twitching caused by the gunfire and for a moment it seemed in danger of struggling free and falling to the ground. From the safety of darkness, Peter O’Toole edged forward. “Smashing creature!” he called upwards, clear and strong. “Boldness be my friend. Where were you born, fine fellow?”

There came an ear-piercing series of whale squeaks and rapid gunshot-loud clicks that made the weary travellers thrust their hands upwards to protect their ears.

“You don’t say!” O’Toole replied, as if taking part in a normal, everyday conversation. “A very noble waterway if you don’t mind me commenting. I sailed across its chop during national service, you know. A frightening place for a lad from Leeds! Now listen, you wonderful giant of the deep. If you want good news then I’m afraid I can furnish you with precious little. You’re a big brute and that’s a fact, and it’s unlikely we could ever get you out of here. But consider this, Basher – we’re lost and in terrible danger and you might be able to help us. Will you assist fellow travellers in their hour of need in this house of barbarity?” O’Toole froze with craggy face skywards.

The whale remained still, like it was processing O’Toole’s attempt at cross-mammal comradeship, before a hammer of pulses clattered human eardrums once again.

O’Toole instinctively flinched but broke into a smile. “I knew we could count on your support,” the actor called up to the dangling cetacean. “Now let’s see if we can lower you from this godforsaken contraption and at least make you more comfortable on the ground. I’d imagine vertigo would be a crippling affliction for one whose life has been spent leagues below.”

The actor volunteered to climb the crane ladder and locate the appropriate levers to lower the sling but the accompanying SAS were not keen on the idea and furthermore were worrying that the escape was veering violently adrift of the original plan. A near-silent debate about priorities quickly developed.

As if on cue, a door far beyond the aircraft’s tail opened providing a small rectangle of yellow light on the smooth concrete floor. Nonchalantly a pair of figures strode forward in pilot’s garb, footwear clipping, one in a full black leather suit and peaked cap that in the 1980s would be regarded as kinky, while his sidekick sported a lined sand-coloured suit with lightweight flying helmet and goggles. Each was carrying coffee in large mugs for their nightshift tasks and were blissfully untroubled by the British figures hidden in the shadows, crouched behind a series of mechanics’ tool drawers.

The pilot in the black leather gear loudly voiced his concerns about inactivity towards the crane operator and let out an audible groan of barely contained anger when his demands were met with no discernible movement from either crane or whale. In this test department, he was used to the animal not only being already strapped into the cavernous interior of the wide-bodied Focke-Wulf but for it to be rigged up through pipes and electrotrodes to allow the running of the “biofuel-fed” Bramo nine-cylinder piston engines. Peering up beyond the cradled creature the leading pilot noticed a protruding arm slide out limply from the operator’s cab.

If the sight of the flopping limb were not reason enough for alarm, the movement of the writhing whale in the sling couldn’t be ignored and the leading airmen called out, “Hey Rainer, wir sollten besser von hier verschwinden!” [“we’d better get out of here!”]

Aviation underling Rainer moved rapidly towards the large tyres of the aircraft for cover and gave a cautious scan of his surroundings. The pilot in black ostentatiously drew a pistol from his pocket and waved it towards the door. Slowly and silently, both airmen began to withdraw towards the hangar exit, arms held out as if they were on a tightrope walk. From above, the suspended whale let out an ear-wrecking squeak, which brought a snarl of anger from the leather-clad pilot.

“Damned vorthless creatures!” the German shouted at the whale – in English, as he believed all marine mammals captured in the North Atlantic were non-German speakers. “When we haff finished wiz you, you vill be fed to ze dogs!” To prove his superiority, he let loose a bullet in order to frighten the beast. Rather than land in a timber beam or masonry, the bullet pinged off a metal ceiling joint and ricocheted with a melodramatic perkowwwwww and lodged itself in one of the whale’s flukes – a lobe of the huge whale’s tail.

A tear of fabric and a riotous rattling of chains further unnerved the Germans, who began to dash in a panic for the exit – but the in-pain, partially freed whale swung earthwards, massive tail outstretched, and caught the German pilots in its furious arc. One moment the humans stood; a second later there were just two pairs of legs – and these stood resolutely while their upper torsos slid through blood and bile and came to a stop some distance beyond their meaty thighs. The sperm whale thumped at maximum force into the hangar wall, bursting through masonry and continuing in an upwards trajectory to smash a hole into the room above. The stricken marine predator, now freed from its canvas tether, crashed with a boom to the ground amid the rubble of its demolition work. It breathed a huge sigh and then its movement halted, eyes staring and open, but now no longer seeing.

The SAS fired volleys of bullets at the still moving German aviators and shifted towards the halved men to make sure they had no access to firepower. O’Toole, meanwhile, leapt from his hidden position, hurdled the mess of airmen’s legs – which had toppled – and slid to a stop by the stricken sea creature. He looked at its torn flesh and blood oozing from puncture marks. He patted the lifeless grey hulk and, walking around the animal, noticed that its long and narrow lower jaw had opened like a drawbridge.

The actor was soon joined by his fellow runaways.

“Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” voiced Boycott.

“Beg your pardon?” frowned Wilson.

“Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” Boycott repeated. “It’s somethin’ Columbo ses when ’e’s surprised by outcome.”

The SAS duo assessed the damaged walls and looked upwards towards a black gash in the upper masonry and ceiling.

“Gentlemen, that’s our safest way out,” Captain Wood ascertained, pointing at the hole.

“It should at least be at ground level and that’s where we need to be right now,” nodded Corporal Hart.

“Howay, man Captain, the ceilings too high up,” Healy spoke-whispered. “We’d need a rope or a winch or something. We’ll never get up there otherwise.”

“I noticed there was a ladder fixed to the crane,” Wood answered. “We could crowbar it off and I reckon it’ll be long enough to get us through that hole.”

Wood and Hart darted away on fleet feet with O’Toole and Healy following like faithful border collies, ready to assist. The Nazi climbing apparatus was rapidly requisitioned and placed against the wall, using the whale’s agape jaw as a makeshift chock.

“Well, that were a stroke of luck,” Boycott said, sounding genuinely pleased. “A ladder and a whale wi’ its gob open in just right place.”

Wood tightened his backpack and placed a foot on the bottom rung of the ladder.

Just move on up-uh,” sung Smith. “Towards your destination-uh.”

Though you may find, from time to time…” added Wilson…


Go to Chapter 32: Luftwaffe will tear us apart.