|“Good news, sir! We’re off tomorrow afternoon. She’s all fixed and checked. The bulletin from the Admiralty’s on your desk.” Sub-Lieutenant Robert Dean got up from John’s chair in a hurry and saluted him. |
“Really? Excellent. Has Commander Keeler sent anything?”
“Radiogram, it’s on your desk. All the lads know.”
“Good stuff… Robbie? Any other post?”
“Yes – personal. I left it all on your desk too.”
“Thanks. It’s late, you can go and turn in if you want.”
The first of his letters was a hastily-scribbled note from David, wishing him bon voyage. One other was in his mother’s writing, the last from Daniel. He took all three to his cabin and read them, Daniel’s first, and David’s last. He had enclosed a copy of the quarterly accounts for the San, as John, like many of his siblings and cousins, held shares. John glanced at cursorily, then blinked and looked again.
David had always kept late hours, it took the Naval operator a few tries to connect them, but eventually he answered.
“Jack! Everything OK?”
“I’m fine, thanks. Are you still working?”
“Mmm. We’ve got a little girl in Intensive Care,” David rubbed his eyes, tiredly. “Is there anything wrong?”
“No. I was just reading your letter. Those accounts you sent me – are they quite right? I mean, is that my return or the whole of the profits this quarter?”
“Not bad, eh?” David perked up considerably. “That’s your return, more or less. We’ve got the AGM in May, of course, but you won’t be back for that. Shame, I could do with the support.”
“You’ll be the shareholders’ blue-eyed boy with these figures,” John said, making calculations on the back of an envelope. “Do Dad and Mother still have shares?”
“A few. I think they’ll be pleased, don’t you?”
“They will. How did you do it? Rix said the San was in trouble at one point, I remember. Was that just the Swiss San or…”
“No, it was this place as well. There was no telling Dad when he was here, believe me. So – will you be back for the AGM? It’s in May. You’ll get the dividends then, if that’s all right.”
“I don’t expect I’ll be back. We sail tomorrow. Look, David, give my dividend to Mum and Dad, OK? I’ll write to you about it. Don’t make it a huge deal though.”
“I’ll sort it out for you,” David said, easily. “Write to me though, Jackie, for the auditors. It’s a lot of money.”
“Sure. What did Uncle Jem say? Has he seen these?”
“Not yet,” David sighed. “I’ve sent them to him, but the post will take a day or so. He’ll say we’re expanding too fast, that we can’t afford a new chief surgeon, that I’m paying myself too much and all the rest of it.”
“Hang on a sec – yes. Sorry, Jack, I’ve got to go. Have a good trip. I’ll write to you, OK? Take care of yourself.”
“See you,” Jack hung up and David left his office, to follow the Sister who had summoned him so urgently, with a heavy heart.
“Darling?” Con opened the door of her husband’s study, quietly. He had joined her briefly upstairs to say goodnight to the children, but left her reading Jonathan’s bedtime story to finish some urgent paperwork. As she caught his eye, she thought he looked tired.
“Are they asleep at last?” He smiled and held out his arms for her.
“Yes, thank goodness! I thought Jonathan would never settle. He wanted three stories…” Con’s glance fell upon the desk. “Is everything all right?”
“Oh yes. I’ve had the offer of a job. Here,” Frank Rayner handed over a letter, typewritten on expensive creamy paper and signed with a signature Con immediately recognised as belonging to her cousin.
“David’s offered you a job? At the San?” Con read the brief note quickly. “Are you going to accept?”
“What do you think?” he asked, neutrally, getting to his feet and leaving her in his chair as he went to fetch the coffee cups from the kitchen.
“I don’t know,” Con said, as he returned. “I don’t mind where we live, I can write anywhere, and the children are too young to care, but would you want to leave London? And work for David?”
He smiled, ruefully. “He’s offering a very attractive salary, and I’d like to go back to surgery.”
“You’d be working with Rix again,” Con sipped her coffee, sitting down on the edge of the desk.
“So I will, I’d forgotten that,” Frank looked thoughtful.
“Maurice?” Emerence Hope pushed open the door of the cowsheds and squelched across the muck in her borrowed Wellingtons. He was at the end of the long, narrow shed, leaning against a stall, staring into space, seemingly miles away, and it was only as she got closer he become aware of her presence, frowning at her.
“Jake said you were in here,” she said, puzzled how his expression cleared as she spoke. “He said if I asked nicely you might take me on a tour of Top Field.”
“Emerence.” Maurice said, running a hand nervously through his dark hair. “Of course. Would you give me a few minutes?”
“Sure.” Emerence studied him keenly, aware that something wasn’t quite right, but unable to put her finger on what it was. “Is everything OK?”
“Fine,” he stumbled slightly as he stood up straight, groping for the handrail clumsily. “I’m fine, all right?”
“Maurice, can you see me?” Emerence grabbed his arm to save him from falling. “You can’t, can you?”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he said, quietly, as their fingers met, and entwined.
Dick Bettany whistled as he drew back the curtain of Mollie’s sitting room. “Have you seen the latest developments, Moll?”
“What are you talking about?” Mollie looked up from her knitting, laid it down as he beckoned her and joined him at the window, to see her youngest son walking across the far fields with Emerence on his arm. “Oh, Dick! Do you think..?”
“I thought things were serious with that Susie girl.” Dick moved out of the way so his wife could fuss the curtain back into place. “But we’re always the last to know, aren’t we? Remember Rix and Mary-Lou.”
“I don’t think those two knew themselves, until that night,” Mollie smiled, remembering. She moved over to the mantelpiece to straighten the photograph of her son and daughter-in-law, and glanced at the one of John in his dress uniform. “John’s ship should have sailed by now,” she commented, looking at the carriage clock.
“He’ll be fine, Moll, don’t worry,” Dick said automatically, as he had previously, on every single one of John’s trips. “He said it would be easy.”
“I know, but, well, I can’t help it, can I?”
“No, but he’ll be fine. Shall we have tea?”
“You need to go to a doctor – an eye specialist. I’ll drive you to London if you like.”
“No,” Maurice said, stubbornly. “There’s too much to do here. Dad’s not up to it.”
“But it could be something serious. You shouldn’t wait.” Emerence sat down on a low wall near to the garden door to tug off her boots. “You could go one afternoon, stay overnight in a hotel and see a specialist first thing the next morning, and then you’d be back for the late afternoon rounds.”
“I could speak to Jake…”
“Good. I’ll book a hotel. Unless you want to tell Maeve?”
“No. I don’t want to tell any of them, until I know what it is.”
Emerence looked at him, with sympathy. “It mightn’t be anything serious, you know. You said the optician couldn’t find anything wrong.”
He shrugged. “You’re right. I should go, get it over with. If I’m going to be blind…”
“I’m sure it’ll be all right…”
“Maurice?” A voice, high-pitched and annoyed, interrupted them. “Maurice, what are you doing?”
“Susie – you know Emerence, don’t you? Maeve’s friend from school?” Maurice’s face lit up as he saw her. “I didn’t know you were coming today.”
“Your mother invited me for tea.” Susie offered her cheek to be kissed. “Hello,” she said to Emerence, defrosting a little as Maurice made no move to rejoin the other young woman. “Maurice’s mother invited me for tea.”
“Good… Will you come riding afterwards?” Maurice looked at Emerence, “You’ll join us, won’t you, Emmy?”
“Sure,” Emerence said, after a moment’s hesitation. She remembered Susie from Freddie Brentford’s party, where she had learnt they had nothing in common. Still, Maurice was a friend, and he seemed fond of Susie, so she smiled at her, noting that she wasn’t dressed at all appropriately for riding. “I can lend you some clothes if you like.”
“You’re a darling,” Susie said, much calmer and friendlier now she was pressed against Maurice’s side. “We won’t be going too far, will we? It’ll be dark soon – it’s nearly four now.”
“Maybe we could go tomorrow morning instead?” Emerence had already noted Susie’s small overnight case.
“Oh, yes, that’s a much better idea, isn’t it darling? We could go early – say, eight.”
Maurice laughed. “That’s not early, that’s late morning for me. I won’t be able to ride then; I’ve got the farm work to do. You two could go?”
Susie looked doubtful; Emerence felt the same, but inwardly. “That would be nice,” she said, politely.
“Good. I’ll show you the stables after tea instead.” Maurice effectively ended the matter by pulling off his muddy Wellingtons and entering the Quadrant through the scullery door.
Tea was a quiet affair, with Susie making most of the conversation. Mollie’s eyes kept straying towards the mantelpiece, and it wasn’t till afterwards, when Emerence was helping to clear the china, that she confessed she was thinking about John.
“He just seemed so quiet this summer, as though something was worrying him and he couldn’t tell us. Do you know very much about Rhodesia, Emerence? Do you think it’s going to be dangerous? Dick said it’s only peacekeeping and what have you, but I can’t help thinking John was anxious about going out there.”
“I’m sure Mr Bettany’s right,” Emerence soothed. “I don’t know much about it, but I could read up on it. Freddie said I could use his cousin’s library if I needed it. Apparently it’s quite famous?”
“Oh yes, Candlebury. Daniel, Rix’s friend, he’s a nice young man.” Mollie glanced at Emerence, and smiled, distracted from her worries by the thought of matchmaking. “Yes, you should visit; it’s a lovely old house. It needs some work, of course, but these old houses do. The gardens are beautiful and I’m sure John said they were being restored. Let me find you his card, dear, and you can arrange a visit.”
“We could go tomorrow, Emerence, when we go riding,” Susie perked up, and Emerence had to swallow the uncharitable thought that to Susie, a large stately home and marvellous gardens held an attraction all of their own. “Maurice, you could telephone Dr Lyndhurst, couldn’t you?”
“I’m going over there after lunch anyway, to discuss the boundary. Our lands border his,” he added, for Emerence’s benefit. “I suppose we could ride. By the way, Dad, I need to go to London at some point this coming week.”
“That’s fine. We’ll sort something out.” Dick said. Maurice nodded, and left the room to make his telephone call.
“Sir? Radiogram from the Camaraderie.” Sub-Lieutenant Dean hurried in, forgetting his salute as he did four times out of every ten. John looked up, amusement quickly turning into seriousness as he realised that his private secretary was fidgeting and on edge.
“Nothing serious?” he asked, reaching for it and scanning the contents briefly. It was a short, impersonal message from Commander Keeler, announcing a tour of inspection at a ridiculous time the next morning. John sighed, before he could stop himself. They had barely set sail and already Lewis was playing petty games and attempting to assert his authority.
“I expected this,” he said, dropping the radiogram on top of the papers on his desk.
“We’ve never been inspected by that lot before.” Robbie Dean said, defensively. “There’s no need for them to start now.”
“We’ve never been in this situation before. Commander Keeler is technically in command…” John wondered why on earth he was debating the issue and wasting time. Tours of inspection were always a drag and in his opinion, the men had enough to do without them. It suddenly struck him that the company would wonder why it was happening, why Keeler was undermining his own authority and he frowned.
“God help us,” Dean added, rolling his eyes.
“Anyway,” John felt this had gone far enough. “We’ll have to let the company know. Could you call all the Divisional Officers here please for a start, then we’d better try and shift some of these reports.”
“Yes sir.” Dean turned smartly and left, as John ran his hand through his hair, wondering just how badly this inspection could go.
As John had suspected, none of the ship’s company were thrilled at the thought of the inspection. Although their mission was still very much in its infancy, they were already very busy and most of the men resented having to flotilla with another ship and the restrictions forced upon them.
Not that Lewis had given them much time, John mused, as he went below deck to visit the NAAFI, the previous day had been spent mostly locked away in his office, after he had informed his officers about the inspection, most of his time had been taken up with administrative work and reports. Now they were due in twenty minutes’ time and waiting in his office seemed an unattractive option. Too late, he realised it might look as though he was sneaking around checking up on people.
“Good morning, sir. We don’t often see you down here.” The young petty officer behind the counter, who had been looking bored, perked up a bit and grinned. John smiled back and, as was traditional, put his hat on the counter. “What can I do you for? Cigs?”
“Please.” John glanced over at the kitchens, obviously the NCS personnel were working, but there did seem to be a lot of shouting going on.
“Will the Captain of the Camaraderie want to look over the NAAFI accounts, sir?” The boy asked him, biting his lip.
“What? No – I don’t imagine so.” John studied his watch; Keeler would be on board any minute now. He would have to go into the kitchens and ask them to keep it down, it sounded like a real row was going to erupt any moment.
He scooped up his hat and the cigarettes and paying with cash, rather than having to wait to sign for them on his account, went into the kitchen.
“What’s going on in here?” He demanded, taking in the scene before him.
“Nothing, sir.” The cook, Andrews, said at once. The rating he had been arguing with said nothing, but looked horrified to see John.
“Nothing?” he asked, sceptically. The sailor who looked very young, about Daphne’s age, maybe, looked frightened and kept looking between the two of them. Most of the other personnel, many of them civilian members of the NCS, made valiant efforts to carry on with their work and pretend to ignore what was going on, though John knew they were all agog to hear what would happen. A few of them stared, curious to see their captain at close quarters, it was very unusual for John to come below deck like this.
He met Andrews’s eye, the large, gruff but usually good-natured cook was someone John did respect and he had no wish to usurp his authority. “I’m sorry to intrude, Petty Officer,” he said. “I heard raised voices.”
“You don’t need to apologise, sir,” Andrews said, with a glance at the young rating that told John that he did have everything under control.
John nodded, and was about to withdraw when he saw the cat. It was winding itself around the rating’s ankles.
“What the hell is that doing on board?” John snapped, his last nerve fraying.
“I – I – she’s mine, sir.”
The cat was young and detaching herself from her young owner, she came forward and sniffed at John’s foot. He stepped back with a frown.
“I’ve only just discovered this,” Andrews said, scooping the cat up. “I’ll deal with it, sir.”
“What – what will you do with her? Sir...” John turned round, half-amazed that the kid would dare to appeal to him.
“It can’t stay on board.” John was terse. “We are being inspected within the next hour. Get rid of it.”
“Yes, sir.” Andrews said.
“But, sir, you can’t…” The sailor pleaded.
“I said, get rid of it. Just – hide it. For now. For Christ’s sake, Keeler will be here any minute. We’ll discuss this later. The second Commander Keeler and co are off my ship, you will report to my office!”
“I’ll hide her in the store cupboard…”
“Wherever,” John snapped and stalked out, scowling.
Naturally, Keeler and his gang had arrived during his brief absence. John saluted, trying to relax.
“Good morning, Lieutenant Commander. Where’s your EO?” Keeler immediately got down to business.
“Lieutenant McLaughlin. On the bridge, sir,” John nodded. “Perhaps we should start there?”
Keeler looked at him. “Why not?” he said, his tone entirely cordial. “Lead the way.”
Keeler had sent his officers to view the armaments, but seemed disinclined to go below decks himself. The tour of inspection hadn’t gone too badly, John thought, as he watched him.
“Shall we sojourn to your office?” Keeler said with a careless smile.
“OK, Lieutenant Commander,” Keeler was only amused at the formality. “After you.”
“Walsh sent me,” Keeler said, as he followed John down the narrow corridor “So take that look off your face. It wasn’t my idea to waste my time traipsing all over your ship.”
“Walsh sent you?” There wasn’t really room to stop and talk, but John paused anyway and turned to face him.
“He’s worried about you, my good kid.” Keeler smirked, but as John turned away, annoyed, his carefree fašade dropped slightly. “I wanted to see you.”
“Why? I thought you were satisfied with weekly reports.” John pushed the door open, glad to see that Sub-Lieutenant Dean had gone elsewhere.
“We’ll reach Valetta in two days.” Keeler changed tack. “We’ll rest there for at least 48 hours, then carry on to Mozambique. That OK with you?”
John nodded, sitting down on a nearby chair. “Are you giving your lot shore leave?”
“24 hour passes only. I’d advise you to do the same, and they can sleep off the drink before we head out. You know, we first met in Valetta.”
“No we didn’t. We were on the bridge of the Albion. You were supposed to be navigating.”
“No, you were navigating, you were training with that bastard, Hargreaves. I was bringing the Captain his afternoon tea, important task you know... Anyway, we went to Valetta the next day and went on the bus to that beach. You were so shy you barely said a dozen words.” Lewis looked thoughtful.
“You said you wouldn’t do this.”
“Oh, come on. What am I doing? I’m only reminiscing. We used to be friends once, remember? We could have dinner in port,” Lewis continued, idly flicking through a book from the ship’s library that John had left on his desk. “You could give me this week’s report then, maybe.”
“All right,” John shrugged.
Lewis stood up. “You know, I think this is going to be a long haul – the Patrol, I mean. A pal of mine said it could be ten years or so. You can’t freeze me out for ten years, John.”
“Ten years?” John considered the boredom of the blockade, a decade of it; unimaginable, even with leave, yet once he couldn’t have thought of anything we would like more than a peaceful mission, working so closely with Lewis; and to see his thoughts mirrored so closely on Lewis’s face was disturbing. He looked away. “Still, better than going to the Middle East, I would imagine, or Cambodia.”
“I’d rather see some action,” Lewis, who had seen considerably less action than John during their respective careers, and who rather resented the fact, stood up, the conversation over.
“We’ve got a cat,” John said, impulsively. “I forgot to tell you before we sailed.”
Lewis pulled a face, he hated cats, as John knew. “Where is it?” he demanded, looking about him as though he expected it to burst into the room any moment.
“In the kitchen.”
“Well, it’s your business.” Lewis, possibly mollified by John’s agreement to have dinner, shrugged, instead of making a fuss. “Just keep the blessed thing out of my sight.”
“Have you heard anything more from Yvonne?” John asked, deciding to meet him halfway.
“No, her solicitors have told her to stop writing. God knows when I’m supposed to go to court – I suppose they’ll let me organise some leave. Typical of her, isn’t it…” John switched off for most of Lewis’s tirade, he’d heard it often during those last weeks at Portsmouth, but the basic politeness that had made him ask now dictated that he should listen sympathetically.
“I should go – they’ll be waiting for me.” Lewis felt genuinely regretful. Whilst he was under no illusions about their friendship, he was perceptive enough to recognise that John was starting to thaw slightly, and was pleased with himself, content to bide his time.