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“You said it to his face, Rix,” David said, leaning back in his chair. “Don’t you remember? That time you got plastered here and shouted at everyone. Didn’t you hear, Jack?”

“No, obviously not.” John frowned, as Rix was looking upset. “Peggy’s funeral was a fraught time for everyone.”

“When we were at St Thomas’, someone said that he wasn’t interested in women – that he was homosexual. I’m not particularly proud of my behaviour that day…”

“I think it’s true,” David said. “You look shocked, Jackie.”

“No – surprised, that’s all.” John shrugged and drummed the cards in his hand against the table. “I didn’t know.”

“It was just a rumour and we’ve never discussed it.” Rix said, just as the sound of thunder made them all start. “I’m going to check on the kids.”

“I’ll close the drawing room windows,” Maurice stood up. “And then I’ll to turn in, I’ve got an early start tomorrow. Goodnight... Don't lose all your cash, David."

David reached out and took the cards from his cousin’s hand. “I just thought you should know,” he said, sounding quite serious for once. “You’d rather I told you, right?”

“I suppose so. It doesn’t really matter,” John said, thinking of how much it did change things. “You know why I’ve been going over to see him.”

“I’d forgotten.” David said. “Still, you’ll be going back soon, won’t you?”

“Three and a half weeks,” John said, rubbing his thumb over the scar on the inside of his arm.
*
He was dreaming that he was back on the HMS Albion and it was rough seas, he was being shaken from side to side. Taylor had the bunk above his and he talked in his sleep, it annoyed Lewis, who was a light sleeper… John sat up and realised that he was in his bedroom at the Quadrant, and it was Geoff, not a storm, that was shaking him.

“John, wake up! You said we could go for a sail. It’s sunny, look – and it’s stopped raining. Perfect sailing weather.” Geoff said, with an expert air.

“What time is it?”

“Quarter to six – please, John? We could go now and be back for breakfast, Auntie Mollie said it’ll be at nine. We could get a good two hours.”

John sat up and rubbed his eyes, but he wasn’t displeased. They could sail around the cove and it would give him the chance to think about things. “All right,” he said. “Go and get dressed and I’ll see you downstairs.”

*

Maurice was up of course, and pulling on his Wellingtons by the back door.

“Coming to help me with the milking, Geoff?” he teased.

“We’re going sailing… Are you all right?” Geoff asked curiously. Maurice had stopped smiling and was rubbing his eyes, an almost frightened expression on his face.

“Fine – just tired, that’s all.” Maurice spoke sharply and fumbled with the handle of the kitchen door. Geoff stared after him for a few moments, puzzled, but put it from his mind and made coffee for the thermos they always took with them.

*

“Maurice yelled at me,” Geoff said, as John steered away from the Quadrant cliffs.

Maurice did? Why?” John asked, surprised. Maurice had a well-deserved reputation for possessing the sweetest temper in the family.

“Don’t know.” Geoff shrugged and nearly lost his grasp on the line he had been told to hold. He fumbled for it, and luckily kept his grip. He looked round, embarrassed, but John had his eyes firmly fixed on Candlebury Cove in the far distance.
*
Jake had worked for the Bettanys for nearly ten years now and he had already started the milking with his usual quiet competence by the time Maurice arrived at the sheds. He nodded in response to Maurice’s greeting, but their conversations were habitually brief and related to the herd or farm. He was observant, however, and he noticed that Maurice looked distracted.


“Something wrong?” he asked, while they waited for the last of the herd to go through.


“No – nothing.” Maurice said, abruptly. Although the thought of the taciturn Jake gossiping about him was unimaginable, he had decided that he didn’t want to tell anyone about what was happening to him increasingly often. Not even his family, they had enough with their concerns over his father’s recent heart murmurs without having to deal with his problems too.


*


“Aren’t we going to the Cove?” Geoff asked. “Aren’t we going to see Dan?”


“No,” John replied. “We’ll go towards the Point, then back. I’ve got things to do this afternoon and I want to see Daph and Aunt Joey before they leave.”


“I thought he was coming out with us today.”


“No,” John steered his boat sharply to port, thinking that he had never hated David - or himself - so much as he did now.


*


The tiny figure, just visible on the shore, had been waving, but his arm dropped to his side as the boat turned, and sailed away.

*


“You look peaky, John,” Joey Maynard said, as they ate breakfast. “If you wanted to fly out and spend a few weeks with us, you’d be very welcome. You’ve never seen the Gornetz Platz, have you?”


“No, I haven’t.” John considered the offer – an opportunity to escape - but was saved from having to make a decision by his mother’s comments that he had only a few weeks left with them.


“I haven’t seen my boy for five years, Joey,” she said, “And who knows when he’ll be home again? You wouldn’t thank me for taking your Michael away from you!”


“No, I wouldn’t,” Jo said, her dark eyes turning serious. “I hoped I could see him while we were here, but he’s too busy.”


“It’s a hectic time,” John said, inwardly wondering why Keeler hadn’t given Mike a few hours to see his mother.


“I haven’t seen him for nearly a year,” Jo was saying, “John, you’re sure he’s not going anywhere dangerous, aren’t you?”


“We’re only going to join the Beira Patrol. You know, to enforce sanctions. The only thing Mike should have to worry about is how boring it will be.”


“Thank goodness,” Joey and Mollie both looked relieved. “I can tell Jack, can’t I?” Jo asked.


“I expect they’ll announce it within the next few days, so I don’t see why not. It’s the current plan, anyhow.”


“And you’re going too?”

John nodded.


“Oh that’s wonderful! You’ll keep an eye on him won’t you?”


“Of course,” he had planned to do that anyway, as far as he could.


*


“Nick, are you expecting a client – name of Keeler?” Estelle Murray, newly-created partner of Garden & Murray, formerly Garden & Son, leaned into Nick Garden’s office. Nick looked up from the deeds he was studying with a frown.

“I’m sure he hasn’t got an appointment. Ask Mrs Upton to show him in, will you?”

Nick took his glasses off and cleared his desk, glancing at his watch. He hoped that this Keeler would not take too long, or he would be late for dinner with his family again.


He considered asking Estelle to take the case, but decided that it wasn’t fair, she was already overloaded. There was nothing else for it, they would have to take on more staff. Once he had time to interview, of course. He sighed.


“Sorry, I know I haven’t got an appointment. It’s decent of you to see me.” Keeler said, wryly, shaking hands.


“It’s no problem – have a seat.”


“Mind if I smoke?” Keeler sat down and produced an envelope full of documents.

Nick nodded, producing an ashtray from his desk drawer.

“I need someone to sort this out for me – I remember years ago a friend of mine said you handled all his family’s legal business, and as my sister lives in the area... It’s probably complicated. I don’t know. I’m in a bit of a mess,” Lewis Keeler had a very charming, self-deprecating smile. Nick took the envelope.

“Mr Keeler, do you want us to act for you?”

“Yes please. Do I need to sign anything saying so?” Keeler lit his cigarette.

“Let me get you the notice of our fees,” Nick studied him, covertly, being as conservative as most country solicitors he distrusted people who turned up without appointments and not enquiring about fees.

“Of course. It’s Commander, by the way. Commander Keeler. Lewis.”

“I do apologise. Nicholas Garden. Do you want me to look at this?”

“Please." Lewis leaned back in his chair, trying to look unconcerned and not divulge his irritation at the whole affair.

*

“And your vision is blurring?” The optician asked, looking into Maurice’s eyes with his light.

“Yes.”

“Are you under stress at the moment? Are you getting a decent amount of sleep?”

“I haven’t been sleeping very well,” Maurice admitted, “I have to be up early for the farm.”

“Your vision hasn’t changed at all. I’ll give you some eye drops. Try and get some more sleep and come back in three weeks if there’s no change. I can’t see any damage. Have you seen a doctor?”

“No – I can do. Could – I had something the other day when I couldn’t see anything, just for a few seconds. It was just black…”

“How long did it last?”

“Just a few seconds, maybe five? I’ve been worrying about it.”

“I really can’t see any damage or degeneration to your eyes though… Take some rest, maybe even a holiday and come back in three weeks. If necessary I’ll refer you to the eye hospital in Exeter for tests.”

“Thanks,” Maurice was slightly reassured. He had been working long hours on the farm with his father indisposed, and staying out late with Susie. Maybe it was stress. He wouldn’t mention it to his family anyway, no need to make them worry also.

*

Nick Garden opened the envelope with some trepidation. In his professional experience, clients who were nervy and said they were in trouble tended to be mixed up in criminal activity. It was a relief when it turned out to be a number of letters from a solicitors’ firm in Ludlow informing Commander Keeler that they would be sending him a petition for divorce.

“Was it unexpected?” he asked.

“Not really, I’ve been at sea for most of our marriage. We don’t have children. I just want it to be sorted out as quickly as possible.”

“Your wife will need to give grounds... Will you contest?”

Keeler shrugged. “I don’t really care what she says. I just want it to be over and done with. My only concern is how I stop her bankrupting me.”

“It depends on the magistrate.” Nick was scribbling notes as they talked. “You might reduce the award if you contest what your wife says. Will you counter-petition? I suppose it will depend on what grounds your wife will use. Do you have any idea what they might be?”

“What do you mean?” Keeler looked worried.

Nick gave him a quick summary of the divorce laws and asked how long the Keelers had been married.

“Eight years in June.”

“What reason do you think she will give?” Nick asked.

“I don’t know – probably everything you said.”

“Everything?” Nick was rather surprised. “I don’t expect so. She’ll have to give examples in court.”

“Believe me, Mr Garden, she’ll be looking forward to her chance to tell everyone what a failure of a husband I was.” Keeler laughed, humourlessly.

“Have you moved out of the family home?”

“I’ve been staying with a pal in London, but I’m based in Portsmouth at the moment and often I stay with my sister in Taunton. I'm there at the moment. We have a house in Ludlow, where my wife lives. I haven’t spoken to her since June or July. Christ, it’s just such a mess, isn’t it?”

Nick agreed, privately thankful that his own marriage was happy. He resolved to leave early that evening.

*

“Can I come to the party?” Geoff asked Maeve, curiously. She had tipped him splendidly for going back to school, nearly a month’s pocket money. He fingered the note in his pocket, wondering what he should buy with it.

“You may – for the first few hours, anyway,” she smiled. “Don’t tell Lucy or Annabelle though – or the triplets.”

“I’m years older than them,” Geoff pointed out, but he was pleased. “I can take people’s coats if you like.”

“Freddie couldn’t been seen to use child labour,” she laughed. “You can have champagne with us in the Orangery instead. Much more fun. Now, where is everybody?”

“Auntie Mollie an’ Uncle Dick have gone into Bideford with Rix. Maurice is with the cows and John’s upstairs, I think.”

“It’s so quiet with Daphne gone,” Maeve mused.

“I’m going to school next week.” Geoff sighed. “Daphne was mad at missing the party, but Mamma wanted to get back before term started at the Chalet School to see to Phil an’ Cecil.”

“I see. Did you say John’s upstairs?” Maeve got to her feet, awkwardly. Her stomach was on the large side now. Geoff stared in fascination.

“He’s packing, he said, then we might go out sailing. I love sailing.”

“Don’t tell me you’ll join the Navy too,” Maeve teased.

“No, I’m going to be an astronaut,” Geoff said.

“Hi Maeve,” John came in to the drawing room and kissed her. “I thought I heard your voice.”

“I’ve just come over to remind you all about the party on Friday,” Maeve walked over to the piano and studied the framed photographs that their mother had arranged on it. “David said he can make it, and so can the twins. I haven’t seen them for an age. And I’ve got a very special guest that you may remember. She’s a surprise.”

“That’s nice,” John helped himself to tea. “David’s only just left,” he observed.

“Have you ever known David to pass up a party? And Primula and Nick are coming... Who else, Con and Frank… all of you lot... Do you want to invite anyone, by the way? Maurice is bringing Susie.”

“No, thanks. What’s the occasion, anyway?”

“Oh, Freddie’s trying to take over somewhere. It’s to charm the stockholders really, but it won’t all be business, I’m sure.”

“Is Dan coming?” Geoff asked.

“I don’t think so. I rather think he’s in London this weekend. He’s being a hermit at the moment. John, will you tell Mummy I’ll telephone her this evening, please?”

“Of course,”

“Ta muchly. When do you go back, by the way?”

“Two weeks on Saturday, should give me enough time to recover after your extravaganza.” John returned her smile with a faint one of his own.

“I’m going to school on Monday,” Geoff said, dispiritedly.

“Well, astronauts need to work hard,” Maeve said, kissing them both goodbye.

*
The doorbell rang again, Maurice cursed as he fumbled his way to the front door of the Quadrant that nobody ever used. He was alone in the house, even Cook and Loveday were out.

This week he had lost hope that it was something minor, perhaps a migraine or side-effect of getting too little sleep. The first time it had happened had been three weeks ago, when his sight had blurred and disappeared for a few seconds, momentarily worrying but he had soon forgotten about it. When he thought of it later, he put it down to stress. Last week it had happened twice, the first necessitating the visit to the optician; and the telephone call to book an appointment with the doctor next week; and this was the worst yet.

This was different; it was terrifying. He wrenched the front door open finally, hoping it wasn’t anyone he was expected to know.

“Can I help you?” he asked, desperately.

There was a brief, offended silence. Susie, he thought, biting his lip.

“That’s nice,” David huffed from the doorstep. “Sorry to bother you, I must say. Had you forgotten I was coming to Maeve’s party?”

“Sorry.” Maurice stepped back into the umbrella stand, knocking it over.

“What are you doing?” David demanded, irritably. “Here, take this bloody thing, won’t you?” He bundled clothing into Maurice’s arms. “It’s my spare, for John – he’ll need to try it on, I expect. Where is everyone?”

“I – I don’t know.”

“Have you just woken up? You seem disoriented – are you all right?”

Mercifully Maurice felt his sight return. He blinked a few times, and managed to focus on his cousin, who looked concerned.

“Got a bit of a headache.”

“I’ve got some aspirin in my bag. Are you giving tonight a miss?”

“No, I’ll come,” he didn’t want to, but Susie was desperate to attend one of Freddie Brentford’s glittering parties. She had read about her boyfriend’s affluent brother-in-law on the society pages many times. It would disappoint her if they didn’t attend, much as he longed to spend the evening at home in front of the fire just talking. Susie scorned the quiet life.

“You look a bit pale, old man,” David was contrite. “Take these and I’ll go and sort out some tea. Are we meeting everyone at the party?”

“No,” Maurice remembered the arrangements. “Loveday’s got the afternoon off so she can stay here with the triplets tonight. John and Geoff have gone out sailing, and the kids are with them. Mum and Dad have gone to Bideford to collect Mum’s new dress – she was having it altered, so Rix drove them. He’s coming back here tonight, but everyone else is going to stay at Brentford Hall.”

“Well, it’s big enough. Rix coming back for the kids, I presume? You know – I’ve been meaning to ask, is everything OK with him and Mary-Lou?”

“What do you mean? She’s finishing her archaeology book. Rix said it’s due in this week. I don’t think anything’s wrong.”

“Fair enough.” David had lost interest.

“Anyway, Susie’s coming over in an hour or so, and we’ll all leave at half past seven and go in two cars.”

“Right-o. I might wander down to the cove and see where the others are.” David said, cheerfully.

“David, can I talk to you tomorrow? After the party I mean. Just about – well, medical stuff…”

“Course you can. Remind me tomorrow.” David clapped him on the shoulder. “No problem at all.”

*
“Goodnight, girls,” Freddie had read them a story, heard their prayers and said goodnight to a menagerie of stuffed animals, now he kissed his daughters and bade them to go to sleep.

“What’s Mummy wearing?” Lucy asked, excitedly.

“I don’t know, darling. Please go to sleep, now.”

“She was wearing a dressing gown when she came in to say goodnight,” Annabelle said, sleepily.

“Yes, lie down now, close your eyes. We’ll see you in the morning. OK, give me another kiss.”

They clung to him and he returned their embraces; nothing brought him as much pleasure as his two beautiful daughters, his adored wife and the baby she was carrying, so nearly due.

He thought of his own mother coming in to say goodnight, the scent of her perfume, the brief kiss on his cheek, before she had gone downstairs for a party here. He had been about Lucy’s age. He had crept onto the landing to watch the guests arrive. It had been so exciting.

“God bless,” he said, turning out the light and going to find his wife.

*

“Do I look awful?” Maeve asked, as he came into their bedroom.

“You look beautiful,” he said, appreciatively. “You’re not too tired?”

“No, I’ll be fine. Are the girls asleep?”

“Bella is, Lucy nearly,” he kissed her neck, as the doorbell rang with the first of the guests.

*

Geoff was thrilled, his name had been announced to the room and he had even had champagne. He made careful mental notes to relate to the boys in his dormitory. And Freddie had given him some money to take back to school as well. There was dancing and some people were sitting or standing around in small, laughing groups. Geoff took it all in. He would describe it all in his next letter to Phil.

He heard voices behind him, slightly discordant with the gentle hum of conversation, and turned round. Maurice was talking with his blonde girlfriend. Geoff studied her covertly, unsure if he liked her or not. He had sat next to her on the car journey and found her conversation very dull, but then she had only talked of herself and her clothes and her make-up.

*
His tooth had been hurting off and on for over a week, but John had ignored it. Now it was agonising and he couldn’t sleep. He looked at the luminous dial on his watch, it was coming up to the last hour of Middle Watch.

John turned over carefully, and tried to sleep, but the pain was too much and the motion of the ship wasn’t helping. Taylor was muttering in his sleep, and one or two others were snoring loudly and he suddenly felt very alone. He stifled a sob, he couldn’t cry in the cabin, no matter how ill or homesick he felt, but he was still only seventeen and it was hard feeling so insignificant on the huge destroyer, in the middle of an enormous ocean and so far from home.

The hand on his shoulder made him start, which jarred his tooth and he had to smother a cry.

“Ssh, you’ll wake them. What’s wrong?” Lewis had been sleeping in his warmest clothes. His breath made smoke in the cabin’s cold air. “Are you ill?”

“Toothache,” John said, sitting up.

“Why didn’t you wake me? Here, come next door before they all wake up. Bring that blanket, it’s bloody freezing.”

John sat at the mess table, as Lewis tried to light the small and extremely temperamental gas-fire, before giving up in disgust.

“You look terrible… want me to get Egerton?” Lewis named the Surgeon-Commander, widely reputed to be a terrifying and unsympathetic personage.

“I don’t know what he can do about it.” It hurt to speak.

“If it’s as bad as all that, he’ll pull it. Let’s have a look at it. Hey, you’re really shivering. I’m going to fetch someone.”

“It’s nothing. I’m just cold in here.”

“I didn’t think you’d funk the dentist, Jack.” Lewis laughed, but continued, sympathetically. “It’s better to get it seen to, surely, than just put up with it? Is it one of the back ones? If you don’t want to see the Surgeon-Commander, maybe I could pull it…”

“No, I’ll see him. Won’t he be asleep?”

“There’ll be someone down there, I’m sure. You’d better get dressed.”

“Lewis…?”

“Mmm?” Keeler was tying his bootlaces.

“Have I annoyed you or something? It’s just that – well, we are still friends aren’t we?”
Could I sound any more pathetic, John thought, unhappily. But it needed to be said, their trip to Tangiers they had planned hadn’t come off and with Keeler’s new Sub-Lieutenant duties, their one-time close friendship had lessened considerably. He had been noticeably cooler when their paths crossed during the day, but now he was entirely his old self. John was confused.

“You haven’t annoyed me. Don’t go on about it, of course we’re friends.” Lewis frowned and stood up straight. “Come on – we’d better get you to the dentist.”



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