Table of Contents: Book Four

4. Storm clouds continue to gather as the clock counts down towards destiny. - Book Four - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall

According to ship’s time it was just after four bells of the Morning Watch; according to “local” time (if the concept had any meaning out here a few thousand feet above the faceless grey heaving mass of the wintry North Atlantic) it was 06.02; according to the chronometer in the Captain’s cabin which dutifully showed GMT for the purposes of log keeping and sundry other official purposes, it was two minutes past eight in the morning, and, according to the Captain herself it was the wrong bloody time, they were in the wrong bloody place and the Albion’s bow was pointed in the wrong bloody direction.

Also, the bloody signals lieutenant was late. Briefly Franky revelled in the angry anticipation of knowing that whenever the lazy young sod choose to show his miserable pimpled face there would undoubtedly be at least one person on board the Albion who regretted being where he was even more than she did -

At last!

There was the knock on her cabin door she had been expecting for the last five minutes.

She pitched her voice at a carefully-modulated official snarl.

“Come in!”

Her head was bent over the pile of Captain’s Reports, orders and sundry official paperwork which was her daily portion. She did not look up as her errant Scratcher entered: an intimidating trick she’d learnt from her first ever skipper, a hard-bitten veteran who’d served in HMS Dreadnought (the gunroom claimed it had been the Agamemnon) and who frequently asserted that women, grand pianos and Pekinese spaniels were equally useless at sea.

It was the echo of his step which - too late - gave her the clue. Her signals lieutenant had never let his boot fall on her cabin sole with so decisive a tread. Franky’s head jerked up - and into the muzzle of an automatic pistol.

“Hands on the table,” Lieutenant-Commander Ferguson said, a slow, gloating enjoyment alive in his face. “You are relieved of command. Consider yourself confined to your cabin until further orders. Oh - for your information. We have already secured your co-conspirator. Surgeon-Commander Davies has been apprehended. We aren’t quite sure if he was shot resisting arrest or not. Your cooperation over the next few minutes could be quite important in clarifying our thoughts on that point.”

There was no point in saying anything. She raged, briefly, inwardly, and then went through a suitable pantomime of acquiescence. Hatred hotter than a thousand fiery suns burned within her, not just for Ferguson but for all he represented. That could wait.

Survive - regroup - counter-attack.

The words of an old poem - learned in the nursery but never, she thought, fully appreciated until now - began to run through her head.

When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride -

It was 08.03 on the morning of 23 December, and on Royal Deeside the sun would not rise for another three-quarters of an hour.

PC McDonald was proceeding on his rounds from Crathes village along the perimeters of the Balmoral estate when he apprehended an intruder -

Someone was in the very act of shinning the wall into the Royal purlieus.

McDonald leapt from his bicycle and ran towards the dim shape he could just distinguish on the crest of the wall, blowing his whistle as he went. He knew there had been autograph hunters and fanatics before - heaven help us, during the Great Crisis a couple of years ago there had even been journalists - but nevertheless this was an appalling transgression of the proper order of things: something McDonald had always classed - and would class, while there was breath left in his body - as one of the Things That Mustn’t Be.

The intruder dropped from the wall, and turned to face McDonald as he came puffing up.

“Now then, laddie, that’s no way to -“

The knife was in and out so quickly McDonald never saw it. It would be a day and a half before anyone thought to look for his body. By which time the world had changed.

And that was the first death of the morning.

Half an hour later and half an ocean away Mr Midshipman Ives was enduring the mockery of his coevals over breakfast, and plotting, like Lear, such revenges which, though he knew not what they might be at the present time, would, when delivered, prove the terrors of the earth.

Love and a cough, he had read once during his casual brush with what the world regarded as education, cannot be hid. He had noted that pronouncement with the bland scepticism with which he had greeted any other attempt to confine his behaviour by the pressures of law, morality, public opinion or confiscating his chocolate supplies.

But this time, it seemed, he had miscalculated. He might be the skylarker par non aboard the Albion; he might have a ready tongue, a forceful right hand and comfortable independent means, enough to ensure that if the Royal Navy chose to dispense with his services - by no means an unlikely outcome - he would not be reduced to playing the fiddle outside the local Palais de Dance in order to earn an honest crust.

But he had not reckoned on the fact that he was - for the first time in the whole of his seventeen previous years of existence – in love. Helplessly, hopelessly (he might be besotted, but he was far from stupid; he had calculated the odds over the dark watches of the night and he knew that his inamorata no doubt only distinguished between him and a ship’s rat on the basis that the rat’s conspicuous departure from the vessel might damage morale) In Love.

He had tried fighting it. He had even tried sublimating it, along the lines of helpful advice offered by an elderly crumbling volume borrowed from his uncle’s library, in which the Rev Elias Peppercorn had devoted chapter upon chapter to The Moral Rocks On Which A Young Chap May Wreck Himself.

He could only assume that the Rev Elias Peppercorn had never spent months at sea under (and God forgive him for the expression and all the visions it conjured up!) Commander Francesca Cook, DSO and bar.

“So what are you doing, Ives,?” Gilchrist demanded.

“Another demmed thick book, always scribble, scribble eh, Mr Ives?” Vernon commented, managing by dint of a deft wriggle to capture the penny exercise book and hold it aloft out of Ives’s reach as a trophy of war.

“Hey, give me that back, it’s private,” Ives protested, making a futile snatch.

“Why? What deep dark secrets do you have, if you can’t share them with your brother officers? Let it all out, Ivesy: confession’s good for the soul. You’d know that if you’d ever been a Buchmanite.”

Ives, on the point of retrieving his belongs by outright frontal attack, suddenly caught the eye of the Senior Officer of the watch on them, surveying them coldly from the other side of the messroom, and desisted. Justice, when it emanated from that particular quarter, was, in Ives’s extensive experience, swift, and wholly untempered with mercy.

It was too late, anyway; Vernon had stuck his big nose into the exercise book, and any moment now -

“Chaps!” Vernon crowed. “Ivesy’s writing poems! To his lady love!”

A chorus of wititcisms broke out around him.

“Ivesy! You devil! Who is she?”

“Top totty, if this is anything to go by - ooh, this is hot stuff - “

“That proves it - it isn’t always the quiet ones that are the worst -“

Ives gritted his teeth, and prayed, hard for a surprise attack in the next two seconds by an overwhelmingly superior force. Vernon was flicking through the execise book in an effort to find the identity of the woman concerned - briefly, Ives felt enhanced respect for that Shakespeare chap - call her the Dark Lady and people would still be trying to guess who she was three hundred years later - and it would have solved the problem of trying to find a rhyme for Francesca, too -

Vernon’s expression mingled unholy glee with incredulity - he must have got to poem ten, then -

“Chaps! This is priceless! Ten million pounds to one you don’t guess who she is!” And he collapsed onto the cabin sole in a paroxysm of pantomimed mirth.

Ives collared the exercise book and got to his feet with a parody of dignity.

“I shall take myself somewhere where the company is capable of appreciating the finer things in life, and where a fellow’s innermost feelings are treated with a semblance of respect,” he announced, and beat a swift retreat from the messroom. Behind him he heard Gilchrist roar, “The Old Lady? Tell me you’re having us on, Verners?”

Fortunately, he got out before the tide of red washing over his face betrayed how much he felt about the disaster. It was only a matter of time, though; his guts writhed inwardly. With Vernon and Gilchrist shooting off their mouths, and old Rodney in earshot too - anyway, popular rumour had it that the Old Lady knew everything that happened aboard her ship, usually before it had.

Half way down the corridor Ives was seized with the sort of brilliant inspiration which simply couldn’t not be acted on. It mattered not a jot that the half-dozen or so times before when he’d been afflicted by a similar inspiration had all ended in interviews with Higher Authority of greater or less painfulness.

Given the Old Lady was bound to find out in short order, why not make a virtue of necessity and present her with a selection of the best of his work, hand-calligraphed? He had the best part of two hours before he was required to be on watch, and she - he knew her schedule better than he knew his own - would undoubtedly be on the bridge at this hour. He could write out his personal favourite poem, and leave it in her cabin for her to find. Of course, her cabin door would be locked, but Ives was a man of considerable resource and ingenuity. Furthermore, his last course aboard the Albion had been maintenance, technical and structural, and he’d found it deeply fascinating. In fact, he prided himself that he now knew more about the Albion’s infrastructure than her own designers did -

Whistling an air from Pinafore Mr Midshipman Ives made tracks towards his own cabin.