The night was dark and moonless, but the spreader lights were shining down over the white mainsail, a warning to other ships, and spreading a low glow over the decks, too. The masthead light swung in an arc way above us. The ship was plunging through the small seas with energy, powered by her three big sails, although both the main and mizzen were carrying a couple of reefs, and we had set a smaller jib just before dusk. A little spray spattered back over us from time to time, but it wasn’t much, not enough to worry us. We left the side dodgers down.
We were heading north in Polaris, seventy-five feet of steel, teak and mahogany. We were on our way to Filner Island, a weekend trip to stock up on duty-free wine, to get some walking in, and some warmer, cleaner swimming than we could find in her home port of Somerville.
We had sailed late on Friday afternoon, making our course easily in a southwester of about force four, just right for a nice easy passage. The only difficulty we envisaged was, as usual in that busy corridor between the islands, the bloody freighters. You had to keep your eyes skinned, or they’d run you down without even noticing you, the bastards. Still, on a nice clear night we weren’t likely to get into trouble.
A light came on below. ‘Bugger,’ I whispered, and went to withdraw my hand from under her sweater. Susan held me tight, holding my arm so that I couldn’t move it away from her.
‘Don’t move,’ she whispered, and I could tell that she was enjoying the added excitement at the risk of being discovered. ‘No-one will come up, and they couldn’t see anything, anyway.’ A wisp of her hair blew across my face, her scent with it.
Somebody was banging around near the companionway, and
after a few moments the door opened and Evelyn, Susan’s mother, looked out. ‘How’s it going?’ she called.
‘On course at...’ I quickly checked the log, ‘... six knots, all quiet and shipshape,’ I reported as though I had been doing it all my life.
I could just see her smile in the light reflected from the companionway. ‘Fancy some cocoa?’
Susan stirred beside me. ‘That’d be nice, Mum,’ she said. ‘With maybe a tot of something in it to keep us warm?’
Evelyn looked knowingly at her daughter. ‘I’m not sure you need anything in that way,’ she said, but there was a hint of a chuckle in her voice.
I did take my hand from under her clothing then, though I left my arm around her shoulders; the night was going to be a long one, and we were to be on watch together until four in the morning. I squeezed her, and she sighed happily.
Polaris was steered with a wheel, of course, which I found a little difficult to get used to; I was used to much smaller boats, dinghies, which have tillers. I had to concentrate far more on the steering. I’d never steered by a compass, either, and that really was difficult, the card swinging from right to left, left to right, sometimes as much as twenty degrees either side of our course, as waves pushed the bow to one side, the sails pulled the yacht to the other, both sails and waves acting with varying force.
This was all a huge adventure to me. I’d met Susan almost a year before. At seventeen, she had had a lifetime of regular sailing on pretty big yachts, most of them owned by the family. I’d learned to sail a bit in whalers and dinghies. Though I had enjoyed it, I had had very limited opportunities to sail since then, and always in very small boats, dinghies mostly.
Despite our very different backgrounds, Susan’s family had accepted me readily and treated me almost as one of the family. I had slept on board often, usually after riding my old motorbike to meet Polaris wherever they had sailed to for the weekend. I usually had a very snug cabin in the bows, just one curving bunk in amongst the sails and ropes stored there. In the mornings Susan would bring me a mug of very strong sweet tea, and we would kiss and cuddle for half an hour or more until we were called for breakfast. My bunk was built into the boat above a row of lockers, very high, so Susan would lean forward and put her head on my chest without having to bend. My hands, of course, would be all over her.
Bill Harrison, Susan’s father, was exactly as you would expect him: a big, bluff, bearded man. He’d been a sergeant in Signals during the war, spending a lot of time on landing craft; but though he liked to pretend that he was an old salt, it hadn’t taken me long to realise that it was Evelyn who was the real sailor in the family. The army and the war had served him well, though: he had taken the radio experience learned on landing craft and built himself an electronics business after his de-mob. Compared to my family, they were loaded.
Susan was the second of three children, Philip being the oldest, and Meredith the titch of the brood. I seemed to be able to get on with them all pretty well, and none of them, including the parents, ever interfered with anything Susan or I wanted to do, or put any restrictions on us. When they had invited me on this trip, I knew the acceptance was complete.
There was the same banging away in the companionway before Evelyn emerged once more. Very discreet, Susan’s mother, making sure that we were alerted before appearing in the cockpit with three mugs of cocoa.
Evelyn was a striking woman: tall, a head of short, greying hair, her face slightly weatherbeaten, never a touch of makeup. She had a lithe, strong body and a ready smile. Even at nineteen, I found her... attractive. Attractive in very much the same way Susan was. Sexually attractive, with that tomboy manner I have always found irresistible. Mind you, at nineteen I found almost all women sexually attractive.
It was, I suppose, her tour of inspection. She stood in the cockpit, swaying with the movement of the ship, both hands around her mug, saying nothing. I could see from the angle of her head that she was checking everything out—the sails, the rigging, the deck, the horizon, the navigation lights. Clearly it was all the way she liked things, and I could tell from her body language the moment she was satisfied... the alertness subsided, and she sat for a moment on one of the side benches. ‘How’re you finding it, Reg?’
I didn’t want to sound too cocky. ‘Good, I think. Finding the compass a bit difficult to steer by, but I’m getting the hang of that.’
‘Don’t worry about it too much,’ she advised. ‘As long as she’s swinging roughly the same each side of our course, it’ll average out. Too much correction just wears out the steering gear.’
I nodded, though I doubt she could see me do so.
‘So are you okay for the next three hours?’ she asked.
‘We’re fine, Mum,’ Susan told her. ‘We’ll call you if we’re not sure of anything.’
‘Keep your eyes peeled for freighters,’ she reminded us. ‘They don’t give a damn about yachts. Time your Dad started working on radar.’
This was in 1965, and though radar sets for yachts were already available, they were not all that reliable, and very expensive. ‘Don’t worry, Mum,’ Susan said, and Evelyn made her way back below, leaving us alone once more in the night.
Filner in those days was a simple, old-fashioned place. A long sea wall protects a lovely harbour, but apart from the local fishing boats it was generally empty. When people think of the islands, they mostly think of the bigger ones, far bigger than their northern-most neighbour, so in those days Filner was a little gem of a holiday spot... clean, simple, almost empty.
Polaris swung past Spatchcock Reef at dawn, and by nine o’clock we were at anchor in the harbour. It was my first visit, and, woken by the clamour of the anchor chain rattling up the pipe and throwing itself, and the anchor, over the side into five fathoms of crystal-clear water, I climbed groggily out of my bunk and up through the forrard hatch.
Philip was there, stowing the foresail. ‘Give me a hand with this, Reg.’ It was a command, not a request.
I stretched in the morning light and looked around. There was a light off-shore breeze, and we faced the small town. There was the stump of the old harbour wall and a lifeboat station with its doors wide open at the head of the launching rails. Above the harbour on a little hillock stood a tiny building that I later learned was the Harbour Master’s office. Away to the east ran a short road which skirted the beach.
‘Come on,’ grumbled Philip. He was tying the sail into a long sausage using very light string, letting it lie along the port side of the ship.
Philip wasn’t at all like Susan. More like his mother, really, with the same short hair, the same scrubbed complexion. He was taller, of course, and very slim. He always dressed like a seaman in navy-blue trousers, a tight navy-blue sweater and spotted red handkerchief knotted around his neck. On his feet he wore either blue non-slip sailing shoes or similarly-soled ankle-length sailing boots. I liked him, liked him a lot.
I fiddled around with the string and the sail, copying what Philip was doing until at last he was satisfied. Bill, meanwhile, had been dealing with the mainsail, tying it down with rather stronger strips of nylon cloth, leaving the sail-cover off.
Meredith was doing the same with the mizzen sail, and it was clear that Evelyn was below cooking breakfast. The beautiful aroma of bacon was wafting up the companionway, making sure that we would have plenty of appetite.
Susan arrived on deck then with a big mug of coffee each, and we sat together on the cabin top, leaning back against the upturned dinghy. As we had kept the middle watch, we were not expected to do any work that morning. Which was just as well, really... missing out on four hours sleep in the middle of the night, exciting as that had turned out to be, took it out of you. I wasn’t used to it at all, and I was ready for more sleep.
Susan, though, had slept for an hour in the afternoon on the day before, anticipating our hours on deck, and now she was wide awake, while I drooped. I was happy to lean into her, savouring her bed-smell and leaning my head on her shoulder, gripping the mug in both hands for the warmth, though the morning wasn’t in the least cold.
‘What do you reckon, then Reg?’ she asked. ‘What’s the plan?’
I considered. ‘Well, how about we wait for the rest of them to go ashore, and then we hop back into bed? Your bed,’ I suggested.
‘I thought you were too tired?’ she said, laughing.
‘I’d soon wake up.’
‘Mmm, I expect you would,’ she said, squinting in the morning light reflected from the tiny wavelets. ‘No, I don’t think that would be a good idea. How about we take lunch and walk right around the island?’
‘Give me a break,’ I protested. ‘How far is it, anyway?’
Susan was used to this, coming from me. Actually, I loved walking with her, no matter if it was in forest, moorland or beach. We had so much in common, so much to tell each other, so much to explore about life.
‘Not too far, and anyway you’re getting as fat as a pig, the way we feed you here. You need all the exercise you can get.’
Meredith wanted to come with us when we explained the plan to the others at breakfast. Evelyn was serving everyone else first, of course, handing out plates of bacon, fried egg and beans; Meredith was making toast—great thick slabs of bread with a generous layer of butter. ‘I don’t see why I can’t go,’ Meredith complained, and
Philip gave her a quick jab in the ribs. ‘What?’ she exclaimed.
Bill and Evelyn were going shopping, of course, buying the duty-free wines, and spirits, then doing the normal shopping. Evelyn also wanted to talk to the Harbour Master about bringing Polaris over regularly for careening, and where would they find a convenient wall to lean the ship against so her bottom could be scrubbed as the tide fell?
That left Philip with the chore of keeping an eye on Meredith. ‘How about we go snorkeling?’ he suggested.
‘Oh, come on, Squirt; too cold in a wet suit?’
‘Well, I don’t know about snorkeling,’ she replied. ‘How about we just take a look at the town?’
‘Tide’s dropping,’ Philip pointed out. ‘How about seeing if we can get some crabs?’
‘That’s better,’ Meredith said.
Susan and I did the washing up, our only contribution to housekeeping that morning. The saloon, galley and chart table were all one in Polaris, meaning that virtually the whole of life was carried out communally. We watched, amused, as the rest of the family prepared for their day. Standing side by side in the galley, we could look out through the ports which were at eye level, but which were only inches above the deck. There was hardly a cloud in the sky, though it had obviously rained the day before, leaving the harbour and the town behind it looking well scrubbed. The long straight sea wall was bare and business-like.
There is an inner, much older, harbour, of course, tiny in comparison with the outer harbour. Polaris was lying about fifty metres from the wall of the inner harbour. Two sea walls curved like protective arms around the inner harbour, which was crowded with the little lobster boats and other small fishing vessels that the locals use to earn their living. The island is only three square miles in extent, and much of it is taken up with the town, leaving only small parcels of land for farming. Interesting to learn how they survived in those days, before tourism took over as their main occupation.
The downside of being at anchor was, of course, that you needed a boat to get to the shore. Polaris carried two, a nice little wooden boat that could carry six people in calm water, and an inflatable that could hold three at a push. Both were powered entirely by oars or sail, though I know there was a small outboard bolted to a bench in the engine room, ready for use whenever needed.
Bill Harrison was a strange bloke for an electronics expert: at his factory he built all sorts of modern gadgets, but on Polaris there were as few modern conveniences as possible, as though he wanted to cut himself off from his business life. Unlike most ships of her size, Polaris carried no fancy hydraulics for powering winches and anchor cables, no television sets to entertain the crew, not even a radio transmitter. The only real navigation aid was a direction-finding receiver which could also be used to pick up ordinary radio stations. Bill liked Polaris to be as simple as possible. Or was it Evelyn?
So Susan and I helped Philip and Meredith to launch the two boats, carried while at sea over the saloon skylight, and then, with a packed lunch, a pair of binoculars and a small camera, we took the inflatable and rowed ashore. I was glad to get away from Polaris and the family for the day. Firstly to have Susan all to myself, and secondly to get away from the rest of the Harrisons. There were some aspect of the Harrisons’ life that I enjoyed, but others that I found a bit stifling, a bit claustrophobic.
We carried the inflatable up the beach and tied her to a rusted ring set in concrete just below the Harbour Master’s office, and started off, hand in hand, on our tour of the island. We could see from the charts that much of the island was surrounded by cliffs. It would be low tide in two hours, so perhaps we could scramble over sand and rocks to complete our circumnavigation. If not, well, there were always the cliff-tops.
The island sand was very white and fine, so soft that we kept sinking in with every step, and before long we realised that the only sensible way to walk there was just beside the water, where the sand was still wet in the retreating tide. Happily, we swung along together, doing what I suppose young lovers do all over the world... being together. That was enough.
By lunchtime we had arrived at the easternmost tip of the island, having scrambled over enough rocks to last a lifetime. We climbed away from the sea and sat nestled in the long, tough grasses, gazing over the short stretch of sea that separated the islands from the mainland.
Susan sat in the long grass and I took up my favourite position, lying with my head in her lap, while she fed me sandwiches. ‘God,’ I said, ‘you’re so lucky, living the way you do.’
‘You don’t really have to call me God, you know; but yes, I know we’re lucky.’
‘I mean, look at you, sailing away for holidays, weekends on islands, or little harbours somewhere.’ It was true that I thought they led an enchanted life. Stuck in an office most of the time, I reckoned I was pretty lucky to have had Susan fall for me, and the fact that I was allowed, welcomed even, to join them so often was something that I really appreciated.
‘Yes,’ Susan replied tartly, ‘lucky to have to keep the middle watch in a force eight gale, or have to wash down the decks at the end of the morning watch, having been up since four o’clock.’
‘Get away with you, you love it!’
‘Well, seriously, yes I do, most of the time. I love watching the sun come up over an empty sea. I love being in storms, so long as everything is going alright and Mum and Dad have everything under control.’ She looked down at me and put the end of her sandwich in my mouth. Her hair fell forward, and tickled my nose. I had my arm around her back, and I hugged her to me. She was such... an unusual person.
She wasn’t the prettiest girl I had ever seen, but then again, I was no oil painting either. I was too skinny, my hair was all over the place, and I just didn’t have the knack of being a Romeo, the sort of bloke who could just glance at a girl and have her chasing after him. No, I was a pretty ordinary sort of bloke. And, really, Susan was my first proper girlfriend.
She had light brown wavy hair which she wore shoulder length. Her face was sprinkled with very pale freckles that extended, I can tell you, over most of her body. Her eyes were nearly grey, topped by eyebrows much darker than her hair. I suppose she was tall for a girl, and sturdy, too, though in a swimming costume she looked slim and bloody attractive.
She was pretty smart, though to tell the truth she hadn’t done too well at school. Maybe she thought school wasn’t too important, and though it’s unfashionable to say so, perhaps she was right. On the other hand, she wanted to be a journalist, so perhaps she could have worked just a tiny bit harder so as to get better marks.
‘Rubbish,’ she told me when I had raised the question when we had been talking about our futures. ‘To be a good journalist you have to be good with words, which I am, and to have an enquiring mind. A good imagination, too, especially if you’re going in for political reporting.’
I laughed. She had a point. In those days journalists simply started work with a paper or a magazine... none of your fancy university stuff.
I met Susan in a cinema. Not a particularly good film, I remember, and being mid-week the cinema was nearly empty. Just as well, as it turned out. I was sitting there in the dark with a couple of my friends when she fumbled her way into the seat beside me, leaned over and started whispering quite loudly in my ear, apparently continuing a conversation she had been holding with someone else, her eyes fixed on the screen the whole time. I was mystified by all of this, but she went on without stopping, recounting some incident or another.
When she eventually stopped talking I jumped in before she could get started again. ‘I’m afraid I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about,’ I said, and she recoiled as though I had slapped her.
She stared at me for a second, and I stared back. By the light from the screen I could see a fairly ordinary girl, a little younger than me, with very nice eyes and hair. ‘Oh my God,’ she said after her startled pause. ‘I thought you were Jill.’
She moved to get out of the seat, but I put my hand on hers. ‘Please, don’t go.’
I thought for a moment she was going to hit me, or scream; but instead she gently pulled her hand from under mine, lifted herself and sat in the next seat, leaving a seat between us. Ignoring the screen, she looked hard at me, as though making up her mind. Then suddenly she got up and left the row we were in, and went instead to where, I assume, her friend Jill was sitting two rows in front of me. I watched, intrigued, as she leaned towards her but didn’t sit. They were obviously discussing something; me, I expect.
Then she left Jill and came back and sat down again right next
‘Sorry about all that silliness,’ she said. ‘My name’s Susan. Who are you?’
A no-nonsense girl, that was clear. And so it started.
I found it quite difficult at first, getting involved with a girl who lived so far away... getting down to her took at least an hour and a half, depending on the traffic. I had an old motorbike in those days, a Velocette Viper, and as I had met Susan in March, my early trips were chilly affairs. Added to the distance, of course, was the complication of their sailing weekends in the summer, so that I ended up driving all over the place, catching up with her wherever Polaris was. In some respects, the winter months were much better. I knew where she was, and I got to know her home town very well.
I reached up and played with the hair at the back of her neck. The breeze was warm, the air full of seagulls hovering all around us, their feet hanging beneath them as though coming in to land. The tall, rough grasses of the headland moved like waves, uttering a low, sibilant hiss, a sound so soft and low that it formed a hardly-audible underline to the sighing of the wind and the sound of the sea, far below us, crashing onto the rocks.
‘It’s not all good,’ she said quietly. ‘Sailing nearly every weekend, and all through the holidays. There are other things in life. Don’t get me wrong, Reg. I love sailing. But perhaps I could do with a bit less of it. I’m getting to really like the winters, now, when Polaris is in the boatyard. The other thing is that it gets pretty crowded, all living on top of each other.’
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I can see that would be a bit of pain. ‘Specially when I’m with you.’ The forepeak cabin was usually Susan’s, but when I was on board she moved aft to share the stern cabin with Meredith, which pleased neither of them.
It pleased me very much, though. Each night after we had all gone to bed Susan came forward to where I lay in her bunk, to tuck me in, so to speak. She didn’t stay long, not with her parents inches away from us on the other side of a wooden bulkhead, thick though it was. As she did in the morning, she would lean forward and rest her head on my chest, her hand under the bedclothes, and we would whisper and kiss, aching, both of us, for her to be able to climb in with me, but certain that that would be the end of our cabin games, for we would surely be caught.
And when, reluctantly, Susan retreated to the shared stern cabin, I would lie snugly in her bunk where the smell of her pervaded the bedding and much of the fabric of the cabin. Sure, it was combined with other maritime odours, like the pungent aroma of hemp, like the tang of the tar which waterproofed the seams of the deck, like the soft, smooth smell of teak; these odours have reminded me, throughout my life, of Susan and our times in that cabin.
‘But you all get on brilliantly together,’ I said. Since I had first been introduced to Susan’s family, I had envied the way the family worked together as a team, how they seemed, each of them, to be the closest of friends with all the rest of them.
‘Mmmm,’ Susan replied, and it seemed to me there was considerable doubt in her reply. ‘Yes, we do, mostly.’
‘Not like my mob,’ I said, thinking immediately of my slightly domineering mother and my two brothers, one older and one younger, who had seemed forever to have ganged up against me, or sometimes joined with me to fight with whoever was left of the triumvirate... a family to survive rather than to enjoy.
‘It’s about time I was introduced to your mob,’ she said, leaning forward suddenly and lifting her knees, so that I had to sit up quickly too, or be squashed. ‘Come on, time to get moving.’
Hand in hand we wandered over the grassy cliffs, stopping to peer over the edge from time to time, hoping to find a way down to sea-level again. The cliffs were sheer at that point, though the beach at the bottom was clear of water.
Eventually the rough pasture sloped down once more as a small stream cut its way through the rocks, and we came across a path through the undergrowth that flourished there, out of the wind and the spray. The stream spread out over the sand, and disappeared long before it reached the sea.
We stopped then and took off our shoes and socks. The sand on that side of the island was grainier than on the northern side, as though the sand was too young, too recently scraped from the underlying rock to have become worn down to finer stuff. It felt nice under our naked feet, as though we were being constantly massaged.
‘Why haven’t you introduced me to your family?’ she said, looking sideways at me.
I wasn’t sure, actually. Maybe I thought she’d find them abrasive;
maybe I wondered what my mother would think of Susan; maybe I was a bit nervous about her meeting Pete, my older brother, who had always sneered at my choice of friends. Maybe I felt a bit protective towards her. Maybe I just wanted her all to myself.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It’s just never come up. And in any case, except the day I met you you’ve never come up to Charleston.’
She laughed. ‘Soon fix that. How about next weekend?’
‘Okay,’ I agreed. ‘I’ll let Mum know, and probably Charley, too. He’ll probably have Mary with him. She’s okay.’
‘Doubt it. Heck, he only lives in Haversham but you’d think it was a thousand miles away. No, we’d have make a special trip if you want to meet Pete.’
We came then to the end of the beach, and we separated to clamber over the rocks. The wind was onshore, and the waves were growing bigger as the tide turned. The air was full of spray, spray and seagulls and the acrid smell of kelp drying on the rocks. Carrying our shoes and socks, we took care not to stub our toes or cut the soles of our feet, and I guess we looked as people always do who rarely walk without shoes... almost as though we were tippy-toeing cautiously though a field of landmines.
As we topped the patch of rocks it became obvious that there was to be no more sand for a while, so we sat and replaced our shoes. ‘Look,’ Susan said as I was about to get up, ‘just wait a sec. I have to tell you something.’
Her voice was tense, and I looked carefully at her. ‘What’s up?’ I asked.
She looked away to the south as though studying the route through the waves. There was quite a pause then, and I was about to press her to tell me what the problem was when she spoke again.
‘This is a bit difficult,’ she said, and she reached for my hand. ‘I’m going to tell you something important, and I don’t want you to interrupt until I’m finished.’
‘Sounds ominous,’ I replied. Oh no, I thought, she’s going to give me the boot.
She smiled self-consciously and looked at my hand. ‘No, nothing like that,’ she said as though she could read my mind.
‘Good,’ I said, and squeezed her hand encouragingly.
She took a deep breath. ‘We were talking about how all my family get on so well with each other,’ she started. ‘That’s almost true. You must have noticed how I don’t get on with my dad, though?’
‘Your dad?’ I protested. ‘No, I never noticed that.’
She smiled ruefully. ‘I guess I must be a better actor than I imagined.’ She squeezed my hand again. ‘I haven’t got on with him for the past five years. Haven’t you noticed that I make sure I’m never alone with him?’
I thought about it. ‘Can’t say I have,’ I replied. ‘So what’s it all about?’
Susan drew another deep breath. ‘It’s about abuse. Sexual abuse.’
I was shocked. Gobsmacked. I stared at her in something approaching amazement. I couldn’t think of anything to say. Instead, I pulled her towards me and hugged her, stroking her back and shoulders as though it were her suffering from shock. Perhaps she was.
She started to cry, burying her face in my shoulder; gently, at first, but gradually increasing until she was shaking and sobbing, rocking from side to side. I just held her, feeling totally inadequate to deal with the situation.
After a while I lifted her head from my shoulder and tried to look at her face, appalled by the snot running from her nose, smeared across her face, mixing with her tears and soaking the hair which was stuck to her cheeks. I’ve never seen a face so... stricken, I suppose. I would not have recognised her, looking the way she did, her mouth twisted horribly, her eyes swollen, her hair like seaweed plastered to her skin. I fished in my pocket for a handkerchief, but it would have taken a small towel to wipe away the volume of viscous liquids she was producing. I gave up the attempt, and just held her, rocking with her, stroking her as though she were a frightened animal.
In the end, of course, she calmed down and gradually the sobs became whimpers, the shaking slowed and finally stopped, and slowly her breathing returned to normal. She took the handkerchief then, blew her nose loudly, and curled herself into my arms again. ‘I’ve never told anyone about it,’ she said finally, running her hand through her hair and sweeping the wet mess away from her face. She smiled weakly at me.
‘I’m no good at this sort of thing,’ I said. ‘But if you want to talk about it, I’m listening.’
‘If we’re going anywhere, you’d better know about it.’ She smiled. ‘Not that we’re definitely going anywhere. I’m not promising anything.’
Like a knife through my heart. As a matter of fact, we broke up two years later; at the time, though, I’m pretty sure that, like me, she thought we would be together for ever. The optimism of youth.
‘It began when I was twelve,’ she started.
I found it very hard to listen, and even very hard to believe the story that she told. It was story of small things at first, her father accidentally entering the bathroom when she was in the shower, or squeezing past her in the narrow spaces of the yacht, arms around shoulders that would accidentally slip down over her breasts, just for a split second, to be pulled away quickly in apparent embarrassment. Of hands brushing thighs when she might have been helping him in some task.
I found myself wondering if all this was true, that he was deliberately doing these things, or if Susan was simply mistaking accidents for intentions. Fortunately I said nothing, sticking to her suggestion that I wait until the end of her story.
‘Then about a year after it all began, it got serious,’ Susan said, and she paused as though gathering courage before going on. With no-one else at home one late afternoon, he had come into the bathroom and just stared at her in the shower. She had tried to cover herself, but of course it was futile. He had pulled back the shower curtain, and put his hand on her shoulder. ‘Put your arms down,’ he said, and without thinking, she had done as she was told. She was thirteen years old, still a child, skinny and straight, with just a little puffiness beginning around her nipples.
His breathing was heavy and his eyes bored into her, and she knew she should cover up but couldn’t move and his hand slid down from her shoulder, the backs of his fingers running down her chest with the lather from the soap slowly washing away under the slow flow from the shower head.
‘Don’t, Daddy,’ she had said, her eyes cast down, ashamed and frightened; and he had removed his hand, standing looking at her for a few seconds before turning away and leaving the bathroom quietly.
‘It was never mentioned,’ Susan told me. ‘And for a while I thought he wouldn’t do it again. Oh, I knew all about it from girls at school, talking about brothers, uncles, fathers, and once even a mother. Everyone knew that it went on, but no-one ever admitted that it had happened to them. You could tell, though. You could tell
the girls who were going through it because they would suddenly stop talking about it, would leave a conversation when it turned to sex. I guess I was the same.’
But months later it happened again, in almost the same way. She had decided to take a shower, and had heard nothing to suggest she was wasn’t alone in the house until the door burst open again.
This time her father had gone straight to the shower curtain and pulled it back, reaching for her with both hands, pulling her to his chest and trying to kiss her on the lips as his hands roamed all over her.
This time she fought back, lashing out at his face, bringing her knee up and smashing him in the groin, wriggling and turning her body away from him, he shouting for her to stop it, stop it, while she screamed at him, too, to stop it and get out, get out, get out.
He did get out in the end, unable to get a firm grip on her soapy, soaking body, his hands useless and his body bent over in pain from her knee, and she collapsed in the bottom of the shower cubicle, sobbing in fright and anger, almost hysterical, but beginning to recognise already that she had had the power to protect herself, the power, now, to protect herself forever.
Why didn’t she tell her mother, I asked myself? Surely she should have reported it to someone? But the answer became clear as she talked about her feelings of guilt, and of the fear of destroying the family if she had, indeed, dobbed her father in.
‘I find it very hard to believe that I kept it all to myself,’ she admitted. ‘But having said nothing the first time, I was afraid that no-one would believe me. And of course, I felt it was all my fault for having... well, stupid as it sounds now, I felt it was all my fault for leading him on or something, for not having locked the bathroom door, the second time at least.’ She paused then, looking into my eyes to see if I believed her. ‘The whole thing is bizarre, you see, everything about it. What did he want with me, flat as a pancake, more like a skinned rabbit than a woman; and my own feelings of fear and guilt, the feeling of being dirty, of having committed some dreadful crime...’
She turned once more and looked me straight in the eyes. ‘You see, there’s no sense in any of it. And if I had told my mother, what would she have done?’
‘Protect you, perhaps.’
‘Or told me I was making it all up? That’s what a lot of mothers do, you know.’
‘So what happened then?’
‘There was just one more incident,’ she said. ‘I was fourteen by then, and developing nicely. I made bloody sure not to be alone with him, ever, or giving him any sort of opportunity. It’s not easy, you know, always making sure you are protected without giving the game away to the rest of the family. There have been some raised eyebrows, I can tell you, and I’m beginning to wonder how Mum hasn’t twigged that something’s up.’
‘Well I was certainly unaware of it,’ I said.
‘You made it much easier, actually, because when you’re around I’ve always had a ready-made excuse. It’s not always that easy.’
‘So you were saying about the last time,’ I reminded her.
‘I slipped up,’ she admitted. ‘I had done the middle watch with Philip one night, and we got in to harbour just before dawn, while I was sleeping. By the time I had got up, Mum, Meredith and Philip had gone into town. You can imagine my surprise to find no-one on board except him. When I realised we were alone, I made to go up on deck for something, but he grabbed me by the arm and tried to kiss me again just as I was leaving.’
‘Couldn’t you have shouted or something?’
‘I did better than that,’ she replied. ‘Ever since the bathroom episodes I’ve always made sure I have one of those box cutter things in my pocket, one of the little ones. At night I have it under my pillow. Without thinking about it, I whipped it out and sliced it right across his arm as deeply as I could.’
‘Christ,’ I exclaimed in surprise.
‘Mmm, I know. He screamed like a stuck pig, jumping back and clutching his arm, staring at me in disbelief. There was blood everywhere. I was as cool as a cucumber, even pleased that things had come to a head.’
‘Bloody hell,’ I said.
She nodded. ‘I slid the blade back in, put it back in my pocket, and threw him a towel from the galley. ‘I’m going ashore now,’ I told him. ‘If you ever try to touch me again, I’ll cut your bloody balls off.’ He didn’t say a word, just looked devastated. I swung around and went up on deck, and didn’t come back until the rest of the family did.’
‘What did he do about it?’
‘Nothing. He had made up some cock-and-bull story about how he had cut his arm in the engineroom, and went off to hospital to have it stitched up in casualty, and that was the end of that.’
‘Bloody hell,’ I said again. ‘I guess I’d better watch myself with you around, hey?’
She smiled and hugged my arm. ‘You’ll be safe with me,’ she said.
‘Do you still carry it? The box cutter?’
She reached into her pocket and showed me. ‘It’s still got his blood on it,’ she said, and showed me the dark brown clumps caught in the plastic body of the knife.
‘And that was the last time?’
She nodded. We sat in silence for some time. She was obviously relieved at having told someone about it, while I was reliving the scene in my head, wondering about the kind of girl I was holding.
The tide was coming in quite quickly, driven by the southerly wind which was rising all the time. ‘Come on,’ I said, making to get up. ‘We’d better get a move on if we’re not going to be caught by the tide.’
Susan held me down. ‘There’s more,’ she said.
‘He’s started on Meredith.’
‘Shit.’ Meredith was just coming up to thirteen years old. ‘How do you know?’
‘Found her crying one day, and immediately suspected something. Then I wouldn’t let her alone until she told me. We’re going to have to do something. We can’t just leave her at his mercy.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Of course not. But what?’
‘That’s the hard part,’ she said. ‘It’s still the same sort of problem: we want him to stop, not to break the family up.’
‘Well, I think that might be impossible. Look, even if you stop him molesting Meredith, how do you know he hasn’t been molesting other girls? Or that he won’t in the future?’
‘I know. But we have to try.’
Oh God, what a mess, I thought. I had no idea how to deal with this. I was little more than a kid myself.
‘Look, do you want me to talk to him? Tell him I know all about it, and threaten him that if he does it again I’ll report him?’ This was actually the last thing I wanted to do; but, you know, a bloke has to
‘I don’t think that’s going to work, not when you’re not around most of the time.’
‘Well what, then?’
‘I don’t know. I think maybe we have to bring Philip in on this.’
Not a bad idea for a start, I thought, glad to be relieved of being the only male to protect these girls.
‘If you tell Philip, then at least he’s around most of the time to keep his eye on things.’
‘Don’t be silly, Reg; we don’t need a bloke to do that. I can keep an eye on things myself. No, I mean we need a real physical threat. Okay, I cut him once, but if he really wanted to he could easily overpower me.’
‘Jesus,’ I said, running my hand through my hair in despair. ‘This is not my scene, you know. I’ve no idea what to do. I think we should go to the police.’
Whatever else you could say about Susan, she is always practical. ‘It might come to that in the end, you know. But we’ve got to try simply keeping him away from Meredith first.’
We had been sitting there on the rocks for nearly an hour, and when I checked, the tide was belting in. The beach behind us was already nearly covered, the air full of salt and spray, the waves pounding. ‘Come on,’ I said, getting up. ‘Time we were moving.’
It was clouding over, too, and not only the sky. ‘Sorry to have buggered up our day,’ Susan said.
‘No, you haven’t done that. But I know what you mean. Come on, we’d better find a way up that cliff, because I don’t think we’ll be doing any more circumnavigation.’
The cliff was only about ten metres high at that point, but almost vertical and covered with tough, wiry bushes about waist high, clinging to the shaley rocks and making it very difficult to climb. A quick look showed me that it was the same as far as we could see, so we set in to climb it, scrabbling our way up, dislodging showers of stones and small rocks as we went, pulling ourselves up by the roots of the bushes, and using them as footholds, too. It was hot work, and it was nearly a quarter of an hour before we pulled ourselves over the grassy rim of the cliff to find ourselves on the edge of what looked like a pasture. Despite the cliff, there was no fencing at all. ‘Wonder if they lose a lot of cattle over the cliff?’ Susan speculated.
‘There’d be a fence if they did, I imagine.’ I said. ‘Look, when are you going to tell Philip? D’you want me there, or are you going to do it by yourself?
‘By myself, I think. I don’t want him to feel I haven’t trusted him all those years. I’d better find a way to tell him as soon as possible.’
I couldn’t have agreed more, and frankly, I was glad she wanted to do it by herself.
With the incoming cloud and the rising wind, the weather was beginning to look pretty dirty, so we set off briskly towards the town, hand in hand, though no longer full of joy. That’s the trouble with relationships... you have to start being serious about life sometime, and this new responsibility, I have to admit, I found daunting.
Only the inflatable was still on the beach when we reached it, and we could see the other dinghy tied astern of Polaris. We rowed quickly out to the yacht and climbed aboard, but I found myself reluctant to go below, knowing what I now knew. However, I had to deal with that sometime, so with a quick kiss to bolster our confidence, we went down through the companionway and into the saloon.
Only Evelyn was there, clearly preparing some sort of stew. ‘Hi Mum,’ called Susan. ‘where is everyone?’
Evelyn smiled. ‘Your dad’s in the engine room, and the others aren’t back yet. How did you go with your circumnavigation?’
‘Caught out by the rising tide,’ Susan admitted. ‘Spent too much time talking. Had to climb the cliff in the end. Got about two thirds of the way round, though.’
I found it quite difficult to behave normally, even with Evelyn. I went forward to my cabin, to hide, really. ‘You two okay?’ I heard Evelyn ask as I disappeared through the bulkhead door.
I sat at Susan’s desk, and considered gloomily what this business was going to mean to us, Susan and I. I already felt terrible about it. Guilty, too. I felt as though I should be dealing with the whole thing myself. She was my girlfriend, and blokes are supposed to look after their girlfriends, protect them, defend them. It wasn’t enough to just love them. Shit, I thought, this is going to ruin everything.
‘What’re you doing up here all on your own,’ Susan said as she pushed the cabin door open. She had two mugs of coffee and some biscuits.
‘Hiding,’ I said. ‘I feel bloody uncomfortable now, after what you’ve told me.’
‘Uncomfortable with me?’
‘No, of course not. No, just with the thought of facing your family, especially your dad.’
There was only one chair in the cabin, of course, but in the centre, where the ship tapers to a point, was a triangular locker, and she sat on that.
‘Mmmm, well, I suppose you would. Difficult, isn’t it? Do you wish I hadn’t told you?’
‘I wish it had never happened,’ I said. ‘I wish you had never had to tell me.’ I sipped my coffee. ‘But given that it did happen, I guess I’m glad you shared it with me.’
‘When the others get back, we’ll row ashore to get them,’ she said. ‘I’ll tell Philip I need to speak to him, and we’ll get it over as soon as possible.’
‘But Meredith will be with him’.
‘Of course. Your job will be to distract her while I talk to Philip.’
‘How am I going to do that?’
‘Come on, Reg, use your imagination.’
Mmmm... I suppose I was being a bit dense. I expected I would be able to think of something when the time came.
‘Now, come back with me to the saloon. There’s only Mum there.’
‘It’s still difficult, even with just her.’
She poked me in the back to get a move on. ‘Don’t be such a baby,’ she said, and I suppose she was right.
The saloon was a large space in the middle of the ship, split into three main areas - the galley to starboard, the chart table to port, a long table bolted to the floor just off the centreline, with a comfortable built-in settee running down one side and a bench seat running down the other. The skylight was exactly in the centre of the saloon, and when the dinghies were removed, as always in harbour, there was plenty of light making the saloon a friendly place to be.
As with the rest of the yacht, everything was built in. There were lockers everywhere, and everything on board had a special place. There were bookshelves taking up every spare inch. There was a heater which burned charcoal, with a nice flue running up through the coachroof, but the yacht was so snug the stove was rarely lit.
Evelyn looked at me closely as I entered the saloon, but I smiled as naturally as I could, and she returned it and turned back to her
cooking. Feeding five from such a small cooking space was clearly a very specialised skill, but as far as I could tell she managed it easily and without fuss.
The stove was a paraffin pressure-stove, which took a bit of maintenance, I had already learned. The refrigerator burned the same fuel, much safer than gas, though a lot smellier.
Susan and I laid the table and then she stood with her mother, discussing the menu for the following day. Sailing home would take all day, so lunch would be sandwiches, and dinner would be prepared in the morning before we sailed.
I took a look at the chart. As usual, all the navigation tools were carefully and economically stowed, each in its special place. Under the large chart table were a set of chart-sized drawers, each only two inches deep. On Polaris, I knew, they carried all the charts for that part of the Pacific, both the coastal ones and those for each of the island groups. That amounted to a very great number of charts, all carefully stowed in labelled drawers.
Above the chart table stood the Radio Direction Finder, screwed to the bulkhead to the left. Beside it was the portable aerial, which was used to pin-point the direction from which any radio signal was sent, and the headphones that allowed the navigator to hear the variations in signal strength as the aerial was turned.
The other navigation tools were stored on a shelf at the back of the chart table—a sextant and two chronometers, each in separate mahogany boxes, and each clipped into place on the shelf. I knew almost nothing about navigation, but the charts and the tools, especially the sextant, made me keen to know more... it was like being on the outskirts of a secret society, longing to be allowed in.
The chart on the table was that for the archipelago, and along the southern edge it showed the mainland. Our course out from Somerville was marked with a series of small triangles, with the time of the observation penciled neatly beside it. The triangles formed a shallow double curve like the letter ‘s’, which was the effect of the powerful tides sweeping us first to the east as the tide rushed in, then for the next six hours setting us back to the west, the two tides more-or-less cancelling each other out during the twelve hour trip.
I saw that a line had been drawn from Filner back to Somerville, our course home for the following day, with the compass course corrected for variation and deviation alongside. Apart from Spatchcock Reef, which we would have to leave to port as we left
Filner, there was nothing else to hinder us until we approached the mainland.
There was a series of high-pitched whistles from the shore. ‘That’ll be Philip,’ Susan said. ‘Come on lazy bones, let’s go and get them.’ I felt myself blushing immediately, unable to disguise the guilt I felt at trying to deceive Evelyn.
Fortunately, though, she wasn’t looking, and we left the saloon. ‘You’re a hopeless actor, Reg,’ Susan said in a low voice as we regained the deck. ‘Don’t decide on a life of crime, you’d give yourself away in no time.’ I smiled ruefully at that.
We took the bigger dinghy, and of course Susan rowed because she was so much better at it than me. I was going to have to increase my learning rate if I was going to carry on with Susan. We reached the beach in minutes, and Susan feathered the oars as we approached the sand. Philip caught the bow of the dinghy and Susan leaped out immediately. ‘How did you go? Show me what you caught.’
She leaned over the bucket Meredith was guarding, at the same time giving me a flick of the head... okay, I thought, give me a chance.
I crowded to the other side, dipping my hand in the water. ‘Wow, look at the blighters! How many did you get?’
‘Watch they don’t nip you,’ Meredith warned. ‘They’re awfully quick.’
Susan had drawn Philip aside, and they wandered away, heads close together. ‘Show me how you pick them up,’ I said, wondering how long it would take Susan to explain.
Meredith had done this many times before, and she dipped her hand quickly into the bucket and came up with a slim blue and cream crab. She held it squarely from behind, and though it waved its claws athletically, it was clear it didn’t stand a chance of grabbing Meredith’s hand. Just as well, I thought, because the two pincer claws looked very powerfull. ‘I think we’ve got about ten,’ Meredith said. ‘Look, you have to grip them just here at the back, and hold on tight because they move around very quickly.’
‘How are we going to cook them?’
‘That’s the bit I don’t like. You’ll have to ask mum, because I think it’s cruel.’
‘So you refuse to eat them, then?’ I asked.
She smiled shyly. ‘No, I eat them all right. I just don’t like to see them being cooked.’
‘I see,’ I said, and ruffled her hair. Susan and Philip were quite
a distance away, facing each other and leaning forward. Philip was gesticulating, and Susan was clearly standing her ground. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it looked a bit like a row. I just hoped Susan knew what she was doing. Fat chance, I thought to myself: she’s just doing what she can, and hoping for the best.
I kept Meredith occupied as long as could, but after a while she ignored me and looked at her brother and sister. ‘What are they doing, those two?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Tell you what, why don’t I row you back?’
She looked at me dubiously. No-one on Polaris trusted my nautical skills, not even Meredith. ‘How about I row, and you can bring her back to the beach after?’ It was true, she rowed much better than I did, and we got back to Polaris in half the time I would have taken.
As I pulled the dinghy up on to the sand once more, Susan and Philip stood awkwardly beside me. Philip looked like thunder, and I could understand the way he felt. ‘So,’ I said hesitantly, ‘what’s the plan?’
They looked at each other as though each was urging the other to say something. ‘No real plan,’ Philip said after a few moments. ‘Just, keep an eye open and make sure nothing happens.’
‘Okay,’ I said uncertainly. ‘It’s just... well, I think we should report it to the police or someone.’
‘But he’s my dad,’ Philip said, his voice sounding anguished.
‘And she’s your sister,’ Susan added.
He nodded. ‘How did I miss all this?’
Susan squeezed his arm. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘It’s a shock. I was hoping no-one would ever have to know.’
‘Shit,’ Philip spat. ‘C’mon, we’d better get back on board.’
‘Where’s Squirt?’ asked Philip. As we had come down the companionway and found only Evelyn in the saloon I had noticed his back stiffen.
‘Helping your dad in the engine room, I think.’
Philip immediately moved aft. Susan and I looked at each other. She gave a slight shrug, and we moved together to the table.
Philip reappeared with a look of relief on his face. ‘She’s in her cabin,’ he reported.
Evelyn noticed the change in his voice, and turned to face him.
‘Everyone’s behaving a bit oddly,’ she commented with a question in her raised eyebrow. ‘What’s going on?’
Susan laughed. ‘D’you think so? I hadn’t noticed.’
Evelyn looked at each of us in turn, skeptical. But she turned again to her cooking, and the moment passed.
‘How about Scrabble?’ Susan asked. ‘Philip?’
‘Uh, no. No, I’ve got stuff I should do. He turned abruptly, and went aft once more.
So Susan and I played Scrabble until dinner, and she beat me. Good with words, she had said: she certainly was.
Almost as soon as the family assembled for dinner I began to have misgivings about sharing the problem with Philip. Normally at mealtimes Meredith would sit next to Bill, but this time Philip insisted she swap places with him.
‘But I always sit there,’ Meredith complained. ‘I don’t see why I have change my place just because he wants to.’
Evelyn was immediately attentive, I could see. ‘Just be a good girl this time, Meredith,’ she said. ‘We’ll sort it out later.’
‘Come and sit over here,’ Susan suggested, pointing to the seat beside me.
Her face cleared. ‘Okay,’ she said. Meredith had liked me right from the start, and she immediately forgot her argument with Philip.
Philip took Meredith’s usual place at the table, but you could tell from his stiff posture that he was still ill at ease. Evelyn looked searchingly at his face, but he looked away, reaching for bread.
Meredith chatted away during the meal, apparently the only one who hadn’t noticed the tension in the air.
When the meal was finished and the dishes cleared away, Evelyn relaxed while Meredith and Philip did the washing up. ‘So what’s the routine for tomorrow, Bill?’ she asked.
‘Up at six, breakfast half past, and away by seven, I think. How does that suit?’ There was always a level of democracy on Polaris, at least nominally.
No-one argued. It was always good to get away early, especially if it reduced the chance of getting to our destination in the dark.
‘Good,’ said Bill. ‘Usual watches. I’ll take the morning watch with Meredith, Susan and Reg can take the afternoon watch, and Philip, you can take first dog with Evelyn.’ He meant the first dog-watch, four till six in the afternoon.
‘I’m just wondering if it isn’t time we changed the watches about,’ Philip said, his eyes lowered to the table. ‘Time I was given a bit of responsibility, eh? How about we have Meredith and me in one watch, Susan and Mum in the other, and you by yourself, Dad,’
We all looked doubtful, each, by the look of it, for different reasons. ‘Not when Reg is with us, obviously,’ he went on. ‘No, when Reg is with us it evens it out, so Susan and Reg, Mum and Dad, and finally Meredith and me.’
‘I’ll back you in that,’ Susan said. ‘We’re not kids any more, and we all have heaps of experience. I vote we adopt the proposed new watches.’
Evelyn hesitated. I could see she was working things out for herself; is this what all the tension was about earlier? ‘Okay,’ she said slowly. ‘I don’t mind giving it a try.’
Bill looked a bit bemused, but he couldn’t come up with any reason for further debate. ‘Right.’ he said. ‘So it’ll be me for the morning watch with Evelyn, then Susan and Reg for the afternoon, and Meredith and Philip for first dog. Everyone happy?
‘What’s the forecast?’ Evelyn asked.
‘Not too brilliant, by the look of it. Showers, wind from the south force four to five. Viz down, of course, in the rain. Possibility of fog’
‘Oh well, sounds about normal,’ said Evelyn.
It started raining in the night, and I lay in my bunk, Susan’s bunk, listening to it pattering down on the deck just a short distance above my face. Rainy days on Polaris weren’t too bad, with a doghouse or shelter over the cockpit, and transparent dodgers like windows keeping the crew out of the weather except when they had to go out on deck to deal with something or another.
By the time the alarm clock went off in the morning, it was really chucking it down, though there was only a light wind behind it. Each of us, I noticed, went up to the cockpit to have a look, and turned away without enthusiasm. Breakfast was a hurried affair, but well up to the usual Polaris standards of eggs, bacon, tomatoes and toast, followed by coffee.
A few minutes after seven we left the warmth and dryness of the saloon and went about our tasks. We had hoisted the two dinghies aboard and lashed them into place over the skylight the evening before, so all that remained to do before leaving harbour was to raise the anchor using a hand operated winch, lash it into place on the forepeak, untie the lashings on the sails and hoist them all. This was my favourite time on Polaris, as the sails filled and she slowly got under way, turning towards the end of the harbour wall and gathering speed, beginning to heel a little under the press of the sails as we cleared the end of the wall and savoured the full strength of the wind.
With no messing about, Bill turned her to her course, not the one marked on the chart because the direction of the wind wouldn’t allow us to sail home directly, but as close as we could sail to the wind, a course that would take us towards Somerville. Our route home would have to be a series of tacks, a zig-zag course, unless the wind came round quite a bit to the west.
We didn’t hang around on deck, because the rain was coming down in buckets, and the uniform grey of the sky suggested that it wasn’t going to stop any time soon.
‘Visibility’s none too good,’ Evelyn pointed out. I think we should have a pair of extra eyes on deck keeping a lookout.’
Bill looked around what he could see of the horizon. ‘You’re probably right, Ev,’ he said. ‘Reckon we’re okay for the moment, though. How about one of them stays in the coachhouse, lifejacket and anorak on, ready to hop out when needed?’
‘I’d rather have someone out on deck right now,’ Evelyn said.
‘Sorry about this, Philip, but I think we’re going to need extra eyes and ears on deck until this rain clears,’ Evelyn said as he dragged himself unwillingly from the shelter of the doghouse.
‘In the bow?’ Phillip asked.
‘Yes, but we need to keep a good lookout all round, okay? Half an hour, and someone will relieve you,’ Evelyn told him.
‘Okay,’ he replied, and went forrard. After a few minutes he called back to his mother, ‘Mum, I can’t hear if I put my hood up. Chuck me a sou-wester, will you?’
She pulled a sou-wester from the locker at the back of the doghouse, and took it forward, ‘What you’re mostly listening for
is the sound of a freighter’s propellor... d’you remember what they sound like?’
‘Give over, Mum,’ Philip said.
She smiled. ‘Yes, I know, you’re not a kid any more. Keep your eyes peeled, and your ears wide open, okay?’
It was like that all morning, and everyone was feeling strained and tense, though by lunchtime the rain was slowing and the visibility improving.
We had lunch in the cockpit. As we got further out into the narrows we would have to cross the inward lane, where so many ships passed each day, heading for the mainland ports from all over the world. Further on we’d meet the outward lane, just as busy as the inward, of course. If the rain cleared we’d be alright, but in heavy showers the freighters wouldn’t be able to see us, even if they were keeping a proper lookout. They had a reputation for being pretty slack about lookouts.
Evelyn kept a close eye on the RDF set above the chart table, plotting our position as we progressed, marking in the triangles gained from radio stations all over the place, not only the mainland but also from the various archipelagos in that part of the Pacific. Despite the lousy conditions, we managed to keep pretty close to our anticipated positions.
The extra lookouts paid off. We managed to pinpoint several ships crossing our paths from left to right just from the sound of their engines, though one of them passed so close that we could hear, but not see, their bow-wave. Minutes later we were tossing in the wake of the unseen ship. ‘Too close for comfort,’ breathed Philip.
As the rain decreased so did the wind, leaving only an oily swell. Visibility continued to improve, and despite everything our spirits rose. Everything was a dull grey just like the first light of day when there is almost no colour to be seen. We were averaging only about four knots by then, which meant we would be late in to harbour at the end of the day. The only sounds were the creaking of the rigging as the ship passed over the swell, and the occasional muttered conversation between Philip and Meredith. At about two o’clock, Philip called Evelyn up on deck.
Half a mile to the west rose an almost solid bank of fog, white and menacing.
‘Oh,’ Evelyn said in surprise. ‘Haven’t seen fog like that for a
while.’ The fog spread as far as we could see from north to south, an impenetrable wall. It was advancing towards us.
Bill joined her. ‘Damn,’ he said. ‘Bloody bad luck.’
Evelyn agreed. ‘Nothing to be done about it. Philip, put her about and let’s run back to Filner. Sorry about that, everyone, but we can’t sail through that safely.’
Bill watched the approaching fog bank and shook his head. ‘Hang on, Philip. Look, Ev, it’s going to sweep right over us, whichever course we make. I don’t want to approach the Spatchcocks in thick fog.’
Evelyn bit her lip, and watched how quickly the fog was approaching. ‘You’re right there, Bill. Problem is, we’re close to the outward lane.’
‘Outward, inward, it doesn’t make a lot of difference, Ev. We’re just about in the middle of the narrows, and going back will be as dangerous as going on. More dangerous, actually.’
Evelyn considered our options. ‘Okay, we go on,’ she decided. ‘But I want everyone on deck the whole time, life-jackets on.’ The tension of the morning was back, even more so than before.
‘How about the engine?’ Philip asked.
‘What’re we making?’
Philip checked the log hanging from the rail behind him. ‘Four knots, give or take.’
‘If our speed drops we’ll start the engine. It makes too much noise to hear ships crossing our course, but if we slow much more we’ll be safer with it on.’
I was tucked away in a corner of the doghouse, reading. Evelyn went below, concentrating on navigation. Bill sat in the cockpit. Philip immediately became wary as his father dropped an arm around Meredith’s shoulder.
‘Squirt,’ Philip said, ‘can you go down and make a cup of coffee for me?’
Bill left his arm around her shoulders as he called down to Evelyn, ‘Can you bring us all some coffee, Ev?’
‘Give me a minute or two to get this fix,’ she called up from below.
‘Squirt’s on watch,’ Philip called out. ‘She can do it.’ Meredith moved to stand up, but Bill put his other hand on her knee, not exactly holding her down, but certainly discouraging her from rising.
‘Leave it, Philip. Your mum will bring it in a minute.’
‘Mum’s got quite enough to do.’ Philip narrowed his eyes. ‘Why don’t you get the coffee?’
‘What’s got into you, Philip? Getting a bit above yourself, aren’t you?’
Philip struggled to keep himself under control. I glanced up from my book, suddenly aware of the tension in the doghouse. Evelyn appeared in the companionway. ‘Just passed the half-way mark,’ she said, then she caught the look on Philip’s face. ‘What’s up?’ she asked of no one in particular.
‘What’s up is that our young master-of-the-watch here seems to think he’s the skipper, all of a sudden,’ replied Bill. I put my book down.
Evelyn looked from one to the other, disconcerted. ‘Are we on course, Philip?’
Philip looked down and checked the compass. He gave a sudden twist of the wheel, then slowly brought it back to centre. ‘Of course we are,’ he said, but you could tell that he hadn’t been.
‘Was it coffee you all wanted?’ Evelyn asked, and without waiting for an answer she said, ‘Bill, why don’t you go and make some for everyone?’
Bill stood, and glared at Philip for a moment, then he turned suddenly and slammed his way below. Meredith sat as though paralysed, not understanding what she had just witnessed. Evelyn smiled, and Philip relaxed. Evelyn unzipped the side dodger, and went forward to talk to Susan. It was time I relieved her, and I put my book down and followed Evelyn forward.
‘... well something’s going on, and I think you should tell me about it,’ Evelyn was saying. Susan’s eyes followed me as I came forward to where they were standing beside the fore-stay, getting a little shelter from the rain from the foresail.
‘Have you come to relieve me, Reg?’ Susan said, clearly pleased that my arrival might have saved her from a tricky scene.
‘Yeah,’ I said with mock cheerfulness. ‘I love standing about in the fog.’
Evelyn turned to me then. ‘Do you know what’s going on, Reg?’
‘Me? Haven’t a clue,’ I lied.
Left in the bow, with the fog and the endless sea, the hiss from the bow-wave, the rhythmic rise and fall of the ship as she climbed over each swell, it was easy to believe that Polaris was alone in the world, driving on forever but seeing nothing, witnessing nothing. A strange sensation, and I had to deliberately make some sort of noise every now and again to convince myself that I wasn’t actually dreaming. The solitude was appealing, especially after the tensions of the past quarter of an hour.
At first I thought it was my heart-beat that I was hearing, a low, throbbing sort of sound that I couldn’t put my finger on. Imperceptibly the sound grew louder, but I couldn’t tell from which direction it was coming. Suddenly I realised that it must be a ship, perhaps a long way off, but, if the sound was growing louder, it must be drawing closer.
‘There’s something out there,’ I shouted.
I saw Philip’s gazing around the horizon. ‘Where?’ he shouted.
‘I don’t know. It’s getting closer.’ I put both hands behind my ears, and slowly turned. The sound seemed loudest almost dead ahead. ‘Dead ahead,’ I shouted, hoping I was right.
Polaris swung to starboard, heading west now, and I heard the screeching of the winches as the sails were loosed, then tightened to their correct positions for the new course.
‘Point to the sound, Reg,’ Philip shouted.
I put my hands to my ears again, and pointed towards the steadily increasing noise, which had changed to become the thump thump thump that Evelyn had described before. It was now coming from my left, the port side.
‘Keep pointing,’ shouted Philip.
I did so, the direction being much easier to discern with each passing minute. My pointing hand moved further and further to the right, until it was once more pointing dead ahead.
‘Shit,’ Philip shouted, and he span the wheel quickly to port, letting fly the foresail as he did so. Suddenly through the curtain of fog I saw a ghostly hull looming over us, moving quickly from left to right, Polaris spinning just in time to prevent us smashing into the massive vessel. She must have passed less than twenty feet from us.
The foresail was flapping crazily, and once again I heard the winch as someone brought the sail under control. We were in the lee of the ship, the wind having been cut off by the hull seemingly as tall as a sky-scraper. She was very high out of the water, the black paint of her bottom looming at least fifteen feet above the sea, an ugly brown paint above. As her stern drew level with us, I could see her propellor, almost half of it exposed above the surface of the sea, turning lazily and throwing up a wall of foam. As each blade hit the surface, the noise it made was very distinctive - thump thump thump. I will never forget that noise.
As the ship retreated once more behind the curtain of fog I breathed a sigh of relief. I turned forward again, determined to spot the next one, if a next one there was to be, a darned sight earlier. Polaris swung back to her original course, and after a few moments while her sails were adjusted she sailed on towards Somerville.
Susan came forward. ‘Close, eh?’ she said, hugging me.
‘Too close for comfort. Jees, she came on quickly.’
‘Mmmm, they do that. Shall I stay with you for a while?’
I took her hand, and squeezed. ‘What’s going on back there?’
‘Philip’s being a bit silly, I think. I wish I hadn’t told him. He just can’t seem to restrain himself. It’s as though he suddenly hates Dad.’
‘Well, yes. But that’s different, isn’t it? Phil seems to want to stop Dad even looking at Meredith.’
‘Can’t say I blame him,’ I told her. ‘I can’t stand him looking at either Meredith or you.’
‘Philip’s going to make it even more difficult. He’s so angry.’
Suddenly all hell seemed to break loose in the cockpit. I looked at Susan and she looked at me, and we both dashed aft.
The wheel was spinning unattended, Philip had hold of Bill’s neck, Bill was kicking Philip’s legs as though trying to dislodge him or knock him over. Meredith was screaming with her hands over her face, and Evelyn was standing with her mouth open in the companionway.
‘Get the wheel, Susan,’ I shouted, and as she jumped to do so I dived at Bill, knocking him over and out of Philip’s grasp. Philip stumbled forward, but I was on my feet between them before either of them could reach the other.
‘Stop it,’ I shouted, and miraculously they both did, Bill lying there rubbing his leg, Philip standing as though paralysed. Evelyn came alive then. ‘What the bloody hell is going on?’ she demanded.
Philip took a deep breath and pointed to his father. ‘He,’ he said in a voice like thunder, ‘has been trying to have sex with Susan for years, and now he’s started the same thing with Meredith.’
It was as though we were turned to stone. We each looked at the others, as though wondering what would come next. Evelyn was the first to recover. She turned to her husband. ‘Is this true?’ she asked.
Bill struggled to his feet. ‘Of course it’s not true,’ he said. ‘Bloody nonsense. Why would you believe him?’
Susan said quietly, ‘It’s true.’
Meredith whimpered. ‘Yes,’ she said, pointing at her father, then bursting into tears and dashing below.
‘I can hardly believe it,’ Evelyn said. ‘But it explains so many things.’ She stood shaking her head, tears beginning to flow.
‘It’s not true, they’re making it up, all of them.’
‘All of them?’ asked Evelyn.
Bill looked away. ‘It’s not true,’ he said, more quietly.
There was a few moments of silence then, before Evelyn wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. ‘Susan, what course are you steering?’
‘Don’t know,’ Susan replied. She looked down at the compass. ‘We’re on 352 degrees mag now.’
‘Philip, take over. 345 degrees, please. Susan, bow lookout. Bill, go to our cabin and don’t come out.’
She turned to me. ‘Sorry to air our dirty washing like this, Reg. Can you go now and pour each of us a tot of Rum? None for Bill or Meredith, of course.’
I was just turning to do as she asked when there was a shout from Susan. ‘Five degrees on the starboard bow,’ she shouted. ‘Close.’ There was an unmistakable urgency in her voice.
Bill leaped at Philip and attempted to wrestle the wheel from him, but Philip, adrenalin pumping from the tussle before, threw him off and span the wheel to port once more. The approaching ship must have been immediately behind the previous one, its bow pointing straight at us and this time even closer than before. The huge wave pushing before her seemed to fill the sky as she bore down on us, her bow towering directly above us.
There was a terrific crash above as her plating smashed into the mainmast, and at the same time her bow wave hit us almost amidships, the curling water throwing Polaris on her port side and pushing her forward like a barrel in an angry surf. For a second we were held there, almost smothered in the rushing wave, until at last, like a branch tossed to the side by a gale, the force of water dragged us to one side, and the huge hull, glistening white, scraped down our side, tearing the rigging from the mast, or what was left of it.
I was clutching the binnacle for dear life; Philip held the
wheel, his legs streaming out across the deck. Evelyn clung to the companionway door, out of the worst of the wave. As we were tossed aside by the ship, I looked forward. I couldn’t see Susan anywhere amongst the tangle of rigging and sails, and the ruin of the mast. I looked around, and I could see her hand raised from the sea a hundred yards away to starboard. Without thinking I dived overboard and, hampered by the lifejacket and the waterproofs I was wearing, swam towards where I had seen her. I could feel the thump thump of the retreating propellor through the water, hitting me like being swiped by a wet towel as I tried to swim.
As I rose on the next swell I could see her ahead of me, one hand waving but not attempting to swim. I slipped the toe of my right boot onto the heel of the left, kicking the first boot off and freeing myself of the weight. The other boot followed it. That was slightly better. There was no way I could do any stroke but the breast stroke, and I wondered if I should take off my waterproof pants.
Bit by bit, though, I struggled towards her, panting from the exertion. She had stopped waving now, but she was still not swimming. ‘You okay?’ I shouted?
‘Broken arm, at least,’ she gasped. ‘I can’t reach the inflation toggle.’
Shit. What a fix to be in.
I found the toggle and tugged it. With an explosive rush of gas, it filled and supported her. ‘Thank heavens you saw me,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t have kept afloat for much longer.’
‘Which arm is it?’
‘The left. Bugger, it hurts.’
I tugged the inflation toggle on my own lifejacket then, and we lay side by side bobbing slightly on the swell. The water was very cold, but already I could feel it warming inside my clothes. The less I moved, the warmer it seemed. I looked around, and not too far away I could see Polaris, looking a mess. I could still feel the pulse of the ship’s propellor, but the ship itself was nowhere to be seen. ‘Let’s just hope there are no more ships coming,’ Susan said. There probably were, but I guess it was unlikely that there would be yet another on that exact track. Nevertheless, we had an urgent need to get out of the shipping lane as quickly as possible. I pulled Susan to me, and started swimming on my back, towing her towards Polaris.
It was slow work, and I was tiring quickly. I turned every now
and then to see how we were progressing, but Polaris seemed still to be an ocean away. Susan tried a few strokes with her legs, but I soon asked her to stop, to just lie still in the water, because she was kicking me in the shins. Slowly, we made our way back to Polaris.
Philip was working in the bow, hacking at the tangle of rigging with an axe. Evelyn was behind him pulling the sails out of the way, but when she saw us nearing the yacht she stopped and called, ‘Is she alright?’
‘Broken arm,’ Susan called.
As we drew alongside, I wondered how we were going to get Susan on board. The deck of Polaris was more than three feet above the waterline, and her sides, of course, were sheer. Evelyn tossed me a rope, and we held on, exhausted by then.
The was a lot of commotion on deck, but out of our sight. Then the smaller dinghy was lowered into the water ahead of us, the inflatable tubes just six inches or so above the water. I towed Susan over to the dinghy and made her hold on to the rope which ran right around the dinghy while I climbed in over the stern. I leaned down and grabbed the collar of her lifejacket, and tried to heave her into the dinghy backwards. She screamed in pain, and I stopped pulling. That’s not going to work, I thought to myself.
Then Meredith appeared above us. She looked for a moment. ‘Why don’t you let the starboard tube of the dinghy deflate a bit?’ I saw what she meant, but I couldn’t find the valve. ‘There,’ she said, ‘right by the transom.’ I quickly found the valve, and unscrewed the cap. Inside was a simple flap valve, and I pushed it down and held it there until the starboard side of the dinghy began to sink. ‘Brilliant, Meredith,’ I told her, and she hopped down beside me and between the two of us we managed to drag Susan into the dinghy, where she lay, sobbing in pain.
‘We’ve got to immobilise it,’ she gasped at last.
‘Can you get to your feet?’
Holding her broken arm tightly to her chest with the other arm, she moved gingerly to her knees, and then tentatively raised herself, with me helping her balance.
Philip and Evelyn were still desperately clearing the debris of the broken mast, the smothering sails and the seemingly miles of stainless steel wire that littered the deck. They stopped work on that for a moment, and between all of us, Susan part climbed and was part lifted from the dinghy onto the deck of Polaris. ‘Christ,’ she said, ‘what a mess. Where’s Dad?’
Philip and Meredith looked around suddenly, as though having only then noticed that Bill was no-where to be seen.
Meredith ran to the companionway and leaned in. ‘Daddy,’ she shouted. There was no reply.
Evelyn turned back to the task of clearing the decks of the debris. ‘We’ve got to get this rubbish overboard and start the engine,’ she said.
‘Mum,’ Susan said, ‘where’s Dad?’
Evelyn didn’t look up. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. Then after a pause, ‘I don’t care, either.’
We all looked at her in dismay, and she stopped what she was doing to wipe the hair from her face. ‘Look, the first priority is to get away from here before we get run down again. Susan, show Reg how to start the engine, but make sure she’s not in gear. Just leave her idling. After that, Reg, strap Susan’s arm to her chest, stop it moving. Meredith, see if you can see your father in the water, but stay out of our way. Philip, as quick as you can, please; we can’t use the engine until we’re sure there are no wires left in the water.’
The sound of Philip hacking the wires clear echoed through the stricken hull as I helped Susan down the companionway. The engine room was really a very small sound-proofed compartment just behind the main bulkhead separating the saloon from the sleeping cabins towards the rear of the yacht.
‘Under there is the fuel tap,’ Susan showed me. ‘That lever is the gear stick. Make sure it’s centred.’ The gear stick was connected to a system of levers that ran up to the cockpit, to allow control of the engine from there. ‘Turn the tap on... yes, like that. Now press that button on the bulkhead until the light beside it glows. It’ll take about twenty seconds. That’s it. Now let that button go and press the green one beside it.’
The starter motor turned over slowly then, with a sudden roar, the engine came to life.
I backed out of the engine room and shut the door. ‘Should I take your wet gear off?’ I asked Susan.
‘No way I’m going to be able to undress. You’ll have to cut my clothes off. My box cutter is in my jacket pocket here.’ She patted the pocket, and I reached in carefully. It was the perfect tool for the job, and I carefully sliced away the anorak, the sweater she wore
beneath it, and her shirt.
I dried her as quickly as I could, and went forrard to get the sheet from my bunk, tearing it into wide strips as I went. I had no idea how it should be done, so I simply wound the sheet around her chest and the broken arm, keeping it tight enough to prevent any movement.
As I was doing so, the engine changed its tempo and I was aware that we were moving forward. I could hear shouts from the deck, but couldn’t work out what they were saying. Susan showed me where her jumpers were kept, and I pulled a thick one over her head, tucking the spare arm away, then bent to strip off her waterproofs and her jeans, throwing the wet clothing down and fetching dry things from her cabin.
I searched for painkillers. ‘In the medicine cabinet in the bathroom,’ she told me. I gave her four paracetamol.
‘We need to get up on deck,’ she said.
‘Don’t be silly, Susan, you need to lie down.’
‘No time for that,’ she said, and climbed up through the companionway, with me following.
The deck of Polaris looked horrible. Her mainmast was snapped off at about head height, the remaining stump warped and useless. Each of the thick stainless wire stays had been hacked away, the frayed ends spreading like straw from an opened bale. The deck near the stump was horribly scarred with Philip’s repeated attempts to cut through the wires with the axe: stainless steel rigging wire is incredibly tough.
The timber dinghy had been roughly thrown to one side in the rush to get the inflatable dinghy into the water. The guard-rail which ran around the whole ship was bent inboard all along the starboard side, several of the stanchions snapped off at deck level, lying now across the deck like surrealistic bear-traps, ready to bring down unwary sailors.
The mizzen mast stood undamaged, the sail amidships and flapping in the wind of our motion as Evelyn, standing at the wheel, steered the Polaris in circles while Philip and Meredith vainly scanned the surface of the sea for any sign of Bill. ‘He didn’t have his life-jacket on,’ Meredith said, and started crying again.
Every moment spent searching in the middle of the shipping lane was extremely dangerous, as we all knew very well. But we couldn’t abandon the search. ‘Susan, search dead ahead. Reg, from dead
ahead to starboard amidships. Philip, you take the starboard quarter, and you, Meredith, from dead ahead to port amidships. I’ll take the port quarter.’
Evelyn clutched the wheel, and concentrated on her section, making the circle of search wider, turning in a spiral.
‘A ship dead ahead,’ called Susan. It was impossible to resist a quick look where she pointed, but the fog hung in a moving circle around us, impenetrable, no more than a couple of hundred yards in diameter. I could hear nothing, but within a few seconds Meredith had reported that she, too could hear it. ‘It’s not all that close,’ Meredith added, and we all relaxed slightly.
The spot were we had been hit was dotted with bits of debris from the yacht: one of the cockpit cushions, the boathook, a bucket and lots of other rubbish that had been washed overboard in the collision, including the book I had been reading in the cockpit. Evelyn tried to keep them in view in the centre of our search, but as the spiral widened we lost sight of them. We heard two more ships pass, the second close enough to set us bobbing in its wake, though once again we saw no sign of its hull.
It was now nearly half an hour since the accident. ‘I don’t think we stand a chance of finding him,’ Philip said. We looked at one another, and I could see that everyone felt the same.
‘We can’t give up,’ Susan said. ‘We have to keep looking.’
‘Even if we get run down again in the process?’
‘Yes,’ she said.
And then a third ship passed, this time so close that Evelyn only just had time to swing Polaris around in time as a rusty hull pounded past us almost close enough to touch, narrowly avoiding being capsized by the bow wave.
‘That’s it,’ she shouted. ‘We’ve got to get out of here.’ She swung the head of the yacht around to the south, opening the throttle. Within a few moments the circle of debris was lost in the fog. Meredith began to cry again, and Susan turned to me as I wrapped my arms around her. Philip hung his head and awkwardly held Meredith who was sobbing loudly. Only Evelyn was dry-eyed as she stood at the wheel and steered us away from danger, never turning to glance once more at the spot her husband had disappeared.
None of us moved. All but Evelyn were looking back in the direction from which we had come, trying to penetrate the fog for one last look at the scene of the tragedy.
Until Evelyn suddenly pulled back the throttle. We all turned to look at her, wondering why she was stopping before we were out of danger. She slowly pointed ahead, and there he was, a little to port of us, struggling to stay afloat.
As we approached, Philip threw the inflatable over the side once more, and jumped down into it.
Evelyn put the engine into reverse for a moment or two until we had lost way, then wiped her face with the side of her arm. ‘Shit,’ she said quietly.