To Run Before the Sea
AS I DROVE past Portsmouth naval barracks, the torrential rain that had harried me from Winchester grew more ferocious, as if trying to drown my resolve. I peered through the overwhelmed wipers into the deluge that was Queen Street while the jeep sweeshed down towards the Dockyard Gate. The armed plod opened the barrier and waved me through without leaving the shelter of the gatehouse, a mere glance at my blue dockyard pass inside the windscreen; the Threat Level was still ‘Substantial’, but they all knew my old Suzuki jeep.
At Southwest Wall I parked as close as possible and made a run for it, splashing across the jetty and up the gangway with rain thundering on my jacket hood and bouncing off the flight deck like peas on a drum. The bosun’s mate gave me a thumbs up from inside the hangar to let me know he’d checked me on-board – I waved my thanks then hurried down the starboard side and unclipped the screen door. Entering the lobby, I took off my jacket and gave it a shake before swinging down the ladder into the ionised air wafting along Eton Walkway – the wide thoroughfare running down the centre of Two Deck.
The soles of my wet trainers squeaked on the polished tiles, merging with the sounds of ventilation fans, boots ringing on ladders, and a zillion other noises that filled a busy destroyer’s working day. I was back where I belonged, but the sympathetic glances I collected on my way aft portended to what lay ahead, and I dreaded it. It was just after ten: Stand Easy, when everyone would be in the Mess on tea break – fucking perfect.
At Echo Section, I swung down the ladder to our cross passage and listened at the door – I could hear talking, a wave of laughter, gossipy chit-chat. So, was I prepared to be the bereaved messmate: expected to endure the condolences, the mumbled platitudes, the embarrassing silences? No, I fucking well wasn’t! Not going to happen. I took a deep breath, pushed open the door, and strode in.
It looked like I’d scored a full house: HMS Windsor Castle’s entire complement of female junior rates – all twenty-three of them. As faces turned up, the chatter died. Doc Halliday, my best friend, gave me a somewhat surprised and wary look. Every eye watched as I hung up my jacket, unlaced and stepped out of my soaked trainers. Every eye tracked me across the mess square. I dropped my holdall onto the carpet and poured myself a mug of tea – concentrating on holding it together. I set my drink on the table and shuffled down between beefy Weapons Technician, Karen Pitman, and the always perfectly groomed Wardroom Steward, Yvonne Taylor.
‘So, how are you, Rosie,’ Yvonne crooned, bringing a chain reaction as in droned all the soothing voices. I hid behind a bland mask until the murmuring subsided. I was Meryl Streep playing The Iron Lady in her new movie – I was out for an Oscar. When silence reigned, I paused a moment longer for effect, then laughed. Only instead of Meryl’s haughty chuckle, what came out was an unhinged giggle.
‘Shit happens, eh?’ I added rather stupidly.
I keened around at their stunned faces, felt my eyes beginning to pool and my resolve melting in a crucible of self-doubt. ‘I’m over it,’ I wailed. ‘It’s history, okay?’ Abandoning all hope of a grand homecoming, I made for the safety of the bunk-spaces. Reaching my locker, I realised I’d left my holdall in the mess square. Oh, God, I was going to have to face them again.
That was when Doc followed me in and dropped the bag at my feet.
‘Thanks,’ I mumbled.
‘What the fuck was that all about?’ she demanded.
I brushed savagely at my eyes. ‘Just— just being a dick, that’s all.’ Then I grinned at my friend through blurry pools, ‘Full marks for effort though, eh?’
‘Now you’re just a smart-arse,’ she snapped. She gave me that funny squint of hers through her rimless glasses. Made her look quite the nerd, despite her pale prettiness. ‘Trust me, Girl, the way you’re handling this—’
‘You think I’m handling it?’
She saw I was close to cracking up again; her face softened, and she laid a hand on my shoulder. ‘You should go home, Rosie, you’ve come back before you’re ready.’
For some unfathomable reason, her words angered me, and I shrugged her hand off me. ‘You finished, Doc?’
With a tired sigh, she slumped down on the bottom bunk and watched me change into my No 4 working dress.
‘Why are you back so soon?’ she said, eventually.
So I told her why. Told her how it felt, stuck alone at home, not knowing a soul in the village, getting out of my skull every night on Dad’s whisky collection and gradually turning into an alcoholic. Then I stopped blubbing, blew my nose, checked myself in the mirror and pulled on my beret.
‘Where are you going now?’ she asked.
‘Up to see Redfern,’ I said with a resolute sniff. ‘Tell her I’m back.’
‘Well don’t,’ she said, standing up and grabbing my shoulders. ‘You need to get your head out of your arse, Girl. So go home and get your bike out, or take a short break to the Algarve, or fuck off to Wales and climb a fucking mountain. Anything. Just don’t sail with us while you’re feeling like this. Trust me, Sweetie—’
‘OUT PIPES,’ the tannoy interrupted her. ‘HANDS CARRY ON WITH YOUR WORK’
‘Go on then,’ I told her. ‘Toddle off back to your office and give me a break.’
She stared at me a moment longer, then sighed and shook her head, ‘Don’t know why I fucking bothered.’
Left alone in the bunk space, I listened as everybody filed out of the mess and back to their workplaces. Only when I heard the mess door slam shut on silence did I come out of hiding, step out into the cross passage and zip up the three ladders to where my Divisional Officer, Lieutenant Redfern, had her cabin. Her door was open, and she was typing into her laptop. She looked up when I knocked – her brow furrowed.
‘Rosie, what are you doing back? You’ve got another—’
‘I’ve had enough wallowing at home, Ma’am,’ I said briskly. ‘Time I was back at work.’
She pulled around a chair from behind her. ‘Come in and take a seat. You don’t think you’ve come back too early?’
‘What makes you say that, Ma’am?’ I said, shuffling into the cramped cabin.
She stared at me a moment, then gave a sigh and closed the lid of her laptop.
‘Well, let’s see, it’s only been what, five days since you buried your mother? You’ve got another week’s leave, more if you need it. And your father’s still in hospital – don’t you think you should be home, supporting him?’
‘There’s nothing for me to support,’ I argued. ‘My Dad’s unresponsive and might never wake up.’
She looked down at her computer and scattered paperwork as if for inspiration. Sensing my advantage, I pressed on. ‘There’s nothing for me at home, Ma’am. Reckon I’m better off on-board with people I know.’
‘Don’t you have friends at home? There seemed to be a lot of people there last week for the funeral.’
I shook my head, ‘My parents moved to the village after I joined up – they had different lives. Apart from Lester Granville and Father Donahue, the only people I knew were you and Leading Writer Halliday – thanks for coming, by the way, appreciated.’
‘Rosie, are you sure—’
‘Look at it this way, Ma’am, we’re sailing for SAT’s and Workup on Friday, I’ve got my Board coming up next month that I need to pass to transfer to commissioned rank. How would it look if I wimped out now?’
She gave me a look of infinite tolerance, ‘I’m sure the Board will be sympathetic—’
‘Besides,’ I interrupted, ‘you know what the blokes will say if I skip this trip – that “girls can’t hack it” crap. You’ve been there, Ma’am, you know what it’s like.’
That won a silent stare – she didn’t like to admit she’d come to her commission from the Lower Deck – as I intended to do.
‘Please, Ma’am, I need to be on-board.’
She had the patience of a saint, my DO, but no bottle.
I went to find ‘Dinger’ Bell next – he was my PO on the Fo’c’sle, and I needed him on-side. I found him in the Ops Room yarning with his pal, CPO Reg Gardiner, the ship’s Air Controller, over a cup of tea. When he saw me, he took me to one side.
‘Rosie, what’re you doing back already?’
‘I’ve been cleared to come back to work, PO.’ A small deception – I didn’t say who had ‘cleared’ me.
He paused a moment, not sure he believed me. ‘You sure you’re ready?’ he said. ‘Only—’
‘Yes, PO, I need to be here, and my DO agrees.’ I was trying not to let my lower lip tremble.
He could have checked with Redfern, but like everyone else, he was too busy getting ready for Friday to bother, so he let it ride like I knew he would.
Morale got a significant boost from the lads that afternoon – it was big Pincher Martin who spoke for the fo'c'slemens’ delegation:
‘Rosie, we’re all really sorry— about, you know, your Mum, and that—’
The others quickly rallied to his rescue, and a chorus of supportive murmurs broke out amid shy shuffling of steaming-boots. I was touched by their clumsy efforts, until that mutinous opportunist, Tony Rawlidge, stepped forward.
‘Aww, shipmate’s hug?’ he cooed, coming at me like a Dalek.
‘Get off me you silly sod!’ I said, sidestepping his illicit embrace. ‘But thanks, Guys. Now back to work, the lot of you.’
A little later, the chaplain found me and invited me for tea in his office. God, at this rate, I’d need an appointment book. But at least I could tell the vicar about Dad, knowing it wouldn’t go any further – how I felt about him being four times over the limit when he’d crashed the car. When I finished, he offered no comment, no advice, no urging me to forgive. Just aimed those sympathetic brown eyes at me for a few moments, and then asked if I was sure I was ready to come back to work. I assured him I was.
That’s when he changed tactics. ‘Tell me about your Mum, Rosie. The good, happy things you remember about her.’
I had to think about that for a moment. If the vicar had asked me to recall happy things about Dad, I would have had no hesitation in raving on about our sailing weekends. Mum never sailed. There were, of course, plenty of lovely memories of her, but I hadn’t given them much thought over the years, believing she’d always be there. So now I was being forced to acknowledge my loss, a kaleidoscope of random recollections appeared out of nowhere. It was when I began narrating them for the chaplain that I realised something bizarre had happened to my memory.
The date still raw, of course, was Sunday the 17th of June, 2012, Father’s Day, just ten days ago – the Day of the Accident. But now all my childhood memories also came with a date stamp. I knew that the three of us had climbed Snowdon on June the 19th,1999, and that it was a Saturday. I knew Mum had let go of me on my bike without stabilizers on 7th May 1991, a Tuesday.
‘I remember her pulling me onto her knee,’ I told a by now bewildered chaplain, ‘when I was bawling my eyes out after Granny Bee showed me the rosemary bush in her garden. I was five, and it was Sunday, the 7th of June 1992 – Mum told me I was simply a beautiful rose called Mary. I was Rose from then on, Rosie after I joined up. Now it’s only Dad that calls me Rosemary—’ I stopped rambling and stared bug-eyed at the vicar, shaking my head. ‘How do I know all those dates?’
He was looking at me quite startled.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I was rambling, wasn’t I?’
‘Um, that’s quite alright, Rosie. Is there—’
‘I need to get back to work, Padre. Thanks for the tea.’
I almost ran from his office, mortified by this strange new ability I seemed to have acquired. My exceptional memory was something I was never comfortable with, especially in the close confines of a warship where it was essential to fit in, to appear normal. This thing with dates was a whole new source of potential embarrassment.
In hindsight, they were right, of course: Doc, Redfern, Dinger Bell, and the chaplain – I had no business being on-board in my state of mind. But everyone that could have intervened, from the Captain downwards, was focussed on getting us into shape for Sea Acceptance Trials and Workup. Like a glass-eel slipping in under cover of night, I infiltrated my sane and sober shipmates.
I WOKE UP to the lights flickering on, followed by the blarting of the Action Alarm. I looked up at the clock and groaned; twenty-past seven in the morning, barely an hour since I’d turned in after my six-hour defence watch. I flumped over onto my side and watched Doc and Yvonne hauling out their action kits.
Noticing I hadn’t got up, Doc said, ‘You not playing?’
I shrugged. ‘Can’t be arsed.’
‘Rosie, don’t sod about, you need to—’
‘HANDS TO BOARDING —’
At the word ‘Boarding’, I swung out of my bunk and opened my locker.
‘—STATIONS, HANDS TO BOARDING STATIONS. BOARDING PARTY MUSTER OUTSIDE THE ARMOURY.’
‘Do you suppose she’s got a boat to drive?’ Doc quipped to Yvonne.
‘Beats fires and floods any day,’ I said, spilling the foul-weather gear and lifejacket from my locker onto the deck. I didn’t rush into my kit. With the ship still rumbling along at twenty-odd knots, there’d be plenty of time yet.
I was last to arrive at the armoury lobby down on Five Deck, which won me a sour glance from Dinger Bell, standing in for the Royal Marine Colour Sergeant who usually led the boarding party.
I signed for my Glock and holstered it, then stood back with my crew as the six boarders checked their assault rifles under the supervision of the PO. The officer in nominal command was Sub Lieutenant Francis – a pimply twenty-two-year-old barely out of Naval College.
In boots and helmets, armed and not very dangerous, we clattered up seven ladders to the boat deck, while the officer went to the Bridge for our orders. Reaching the lobby first, I unclipped the door and swung it open, catching a face-full of cold spindrift. The Watch-on-Deck were already out there removing the seaboat’s covers and lashings. Helen Redhead was Leading Hand of the Watch and grinned when I stepped out and staggered against the sudden gust. I sneered at her briefly then turned to assess the sea conditions – relentless waves rolled in from starboard like charging cavalry, their breaking manes torn away by the near-gale-force wind. The Pacific seaboat, hanging there on its davits, looked mean and purposeful. I revelled in anticipation of driving her again, the thrill and the fear.
Maybe too rough for our novice boarding party, though. Our Royal Marine Detachment – currently rolling in the snows of Norway – would have been chomping at the bit. But this shambling lot just loitered nervously around the deck, plainly unfamiliar with their weapons, casting apprehensive glances up at the boat, out at the hurtling seas – checking lifejackets and grimacing at each other. I exchanged grins with my boat crew: Tony Briggs and Andy Rice.
‘Okay everybody,’ shouted the officer, joining us from his briefing, ‘gather round.’
As we shuffled into a loose semi-circle around him, the Watch-on-Deck crowded in behind us. The subby looked uncertainly at his swollen audience, then at Dinger Bell for guidance.
‘Right, listen up, you lot, ’ the PO growled, hinting to the young officer that curious bystanders were not something he should worry about and to just get on with it.
The officer checked his notes once more and cleared his throat.
‘The trawler, MV Brownlea, is suspected of running guns from Libya to Northern Ireland. Windsor Castle’s orders are to intercept her, board and search. She’s now six miles ahead, making twelve knots on a northerly heading. Our Estimated Time of Arrival alongside her is in one hour. Any questions?’
‘Yes sir,’ I piped up, glancing out at the burgeoning seas. ‘How big is this trawler – if she is a trawler – and do we know how much freeboard she has?’
‘That’s an unknown, Winterbourne,’ he said dismissively.
‘It’s a bit lively out there, Sir,’ I prompted. ‘Best we have a plan of where and how to board.’
He should have asked about that at his briefing on the Bridge. Basic question.
‘We’ll have to assess her when we see her,’ he blustered. ‘Then I’ll tell you what’s required.’
‘Dickhead,’ muttered Andy from behind me, echoing my thoughts. I turned and gave him a warning glance.
‘Anything else?’ asked the officer, a little flushed I thought – perhaps he’d heard Andy’s comment. When nobody answered he rubbed his hands together and said, ‘Right then, Winterbourne, get the boat ready to slip and—’
‘Sir!’ I interrupted, angered at how he addressed me and feeling he needed a reality check. ‘I know my job, just make sure you know your’s— Sir!’
Some of the guys were smirking, and the officer reddened visibly. I hadn’t meant to sound quite so sharp.
‘Right, okay then—’ he floundered, trying to recover his authority. ‘Right then, carry on, Cox’n.’
Which is what he should have called me in the first place, the twat. He turned and walked briskly to where his Boarding Party sat huddled against the bulkhead. Fuck! I’d screwed up – any officer worth his stripe would have called me out for that. I turned and came face to face with Dinger. His face was thunder.
‘You crossed a line there, Leading Seaman Winterbourne.’
I didn’t answer, just glared back defiantly.
He pursed his lips and shook his head. ‘Not like you to gob off at officers, Rosie.’
‘Sorry, PO, but he’s out of his depth, he should’ve—’
‘Steady!’ he growled. ‘Come over here.’ He led me out of earshot then turned to me, stony-faced. ‘I know what you’ve been through, Rosie, and you shouldn’t have been allowed to come back so soon after – it wasn’t my decision. But while you’re on-board this ship, you’ll maintain good order and discipline and show the leadership expected of a senior leading hand. And you don’t fuck off junior officers in front of the troops, understood?’
‘PO,’ I said. Despite the cold wind, I could feel my face heating up.
He glanced around, then softened his tone and said, ‘A word to the wise, Rosie. I want you to make Dartmouth and I’ve supported you all the way. But you’re not an officer yet, and you can’t afford lapses of judgement like that. So get yourself back on track and don’t let me down, okay?’
I chewed my lip and nodded.
‘Right, let’s have no more of it. I’ll have a quiet word with young Mr Francis later and persuade him not to press charges.’
An hour later, the target came into view on the starboard bow, and we all crowded to the guardrail for a look. She was an old steel-hulled motor fishing vessel requisitioned by the navy in the sixties. She was making heavy weather of it, battering into the troughs – green water breaking over the bow – then pointing skywards to show off her red-painted bottom. I could see there was no way we would be able to board her – not even the Bootnecks would risk that. Nevertheless, I felt a pang of disappointment when a short time later, the pipe came over the Tannoy:
‘D’YA HEAR THERE. REVERT TO DEFENCE STATIONS. BOARDING PARTY STAND DOWN – EXERCISE CANCELLED DUE TO ADVERSE CONDITIONS.’
Waiting in line back down in the armoury lobby I unholstered my Glock to return it, thinking perhaps it was just as well we had no ammo. Afterwards, I went and crawled back into my pit. I was on watch in three hours, but couldn’t sleep; beating myself up, feeling like an idiot, but also aware that I had little defence against it happening again.
Talking to Dad
IT WAS SATURDAY. Windy C was back in Pompey for the weekend, and I’d finally summoned up the courage to come and see Dad.
They’d moved him out of ICU into a private room; open windows to let in the summer, chintzy curtains billowing in the breeze. It was good to see him unhooked from life-support: just a feeding tube up his nose, a cannula in his forearm, and a catheter tube sneaking discretely from under his bedclothes. He looked at peace.
I didn’t say much about Workup – Dad had done his twenty-two and had been in a real war at sea – he didn’t need any reminders. I wanted to tell him about my disciplinary issues at work, feeling a need for some of his fatherly wisdom; Dad could always find a handy aphorism or two to set my world to rights. But even if he had been able to comfort me, I was still far too angry with him.
I gave his limp hand a shake as if he would wake up. It was hard to pretend he was awake and listening, harder still to act the devoted daughter. Touching his lank hair, I made a note to ask the nurses when they’d last washed it. I gave his forelock a little tug, gripped it tighter, feeling my temper rise. It was all I could do not to yank it out by the roots. I released his hair and watched his blank face. Not a flicker. I took a breath, counted slowly to ten, then popped a grape into my mouth.
‘Mm. Nice grapes. Those big seedless ones from Sainsbury’s, sweet and juicy. Sorry, Dad, you’ll just have to take my word for it.’
I studied his face more closely. He was sixty-seven but had always looked so much younger than his age. Now he looked eighty. I used to worship this man.
And now I— what, despised him?
‘Mm, met a couple of your mates in the Dragon last night: Er, Don and Eddie? — Yeah, those two. I was with Doc – you remember my friend, Doc Halliday? Yeah, the Leading Writer. She’s staying with me at the house. I reckon your mates think we’re an item.’
That happened a lot, I reflected. Life on-board tended to erode a girl’s ladylike coyness in favour of mannish manners and flavoursome language. We both wore our hair short; Doc was petite and pretty, while I, with my five-foot-nine athletic frame and gamine looks, was usually taken for the dominant partner. In truth, both of us were drawn exclusively to the male gender – we were simply too career-focused at that time to be distracted by romance.
‘Too polite to say so, of course,’ I continued. ‘You know, those funny old-fashioned looks? My generation, they’d just ask. Yeah, I know. Anyway, Dad, they all send their best.’
I paused my rambling and picked up his big floppy hand again.
‘Hey, Dad, twitch a finger if you can hear me...’
Oh well, worth a try. According to Dad’s bedside chart, he had a GCS of seven. Glasgow Coma Scale, I’d looked it up online: three was brain-dead, and fifteen was fully awake and healthy. So seven was, what? I’d asked the nurse about it earlier.
‘Julie tells me Mister Murchison – that’s your quack by the way – reckons your latest brain scan shows a faint glimmer of activity. So, hey, Dad,’ I tapped an index finger on his brow, ‘looks like something’s going on in that brain after all.’
I sat back and studied the ceiling, waiting for calm to return. But in the end, I just surrendered to my fury and hissed, ‘So, if you can hear me in there—’ I leaned in close to whisper something horrible, then stopped myself. Instead, I sat back, watching his face. One day, he was going to wake up. I hoped so because I wanted to ask him what the fuck he was thinking, getting behind the wheel drunk.
‘I’ve asked Lester about Power of Attorney.’ I snorted. ‘Doc calls it Power of Eternity. So I can raid your bank account to pay the bills. Of course, Dad. That’s what Power of Attorney means, dur. But he said it might take months to sort out. Until then, well, I’m in Limbo.’ I looked around, then leaned into him, speaking softly, and just let it go: ‘If you were properly brain-dead I’d just tell them to turn you off.’
I drove home, hating myself.