Chapter 1 - Suffer a Sea Change by A.J. Hall
Like all the best disasters, the HMS Barra affair came out of a clear blue sky.
All through the third day of the Lord’s Test, Ladbrokes were taking bets on whether the MCC Committee would repeat the infamous ruling of 1976, and permit Members to remove their jackets in the pavilion.
On Test Match Special, Henry Blofeld wittered interminably about the thermometer on the Air Ministry Roof, notwithstanding both roof and thermometer had been decommissioned for twenty-odd years.
In the Mound Stand, Nicola sprawled lizard-like across three seats (the crowd had thinned since tea) the better to soak up every available ray. Miranda applied another layer of Ambre Solaire, and remarked that at least in Tel Aviv people were sensible about shade.
Stumps were drawn. Batsmen, umpires and fielders retreated into the pavilion. The spectators flooded out of the ground, and Nicola and Miranda ambled along with the throng, bickering aimably about the final lbw decision and debating whether or not to risk the Lord’s Tavern. Presumably, this far from Kingscote, they were safe from Staff lurking to catch errant members of the Sixth breaching the rules about drinking in public while on weekend exeats. Miranda’s house, on the other hand, promised cool showers, and Pimms in the garden.
Decided, they turned toward the Tube.
The headline on the newstand at the St John’s Wood Underground entrance hit them straight between the eyes:
NAVY VESSEL SINKS IN BISCAY
Nicola found Giles in what she still thought of as Rowan’s office. The usual litter of Ministry forms spread across the desk, though the height of the stack of completed forms in the wire basket (certainly not a Munro, barely a Wainwright) showed his tolerance of them to be even less than Rowan’s. His feet on the desk, he was unashamedly reading a battered green hardback, missing its dust cover. About a finger of whisky remained in the tumbler at his right hand. That, too, was Rowan’s, one of the set Colebridge and District Young Farmers Club had presented to her at the end of her Presidential year.
Nicola bit back her instinctive protest. It was hardly as if Rowan had any use for cut-glass in India or Tibet or wherever her backpacking might have taken her since that last postcard, six weeks ago.
Her sister’s silence was, in itself, an eloquent commentary on things at Trennels, otherwise known as You know, that or The Incident or, at worst, That unfortunate business of Giles’. Sometimes, Nicola thought, her family should consider the option of actually saying something. With precision.
True to her upbringing, she had, to date, kept this opinion to herself.
“Well? What is it now?”
She’d rehearsed her words, all along the corridor from the living room.
“Mum wondered if you wanted to change your mind and come along after all. We can easily call and ask the restaurant to give us a bigger table. I would like you there. Please.”
“At the very last, Last Dinner of all? All those Marlows who’ve tucked into one last decent meal before a term of hard tack and ship’s biscuit, and now it’s your turn.”
He sounded surprisingly matey; she dared to hope it represented a corner turned. Or, recalling a Churchill phrase which she’d never previously seen the point of, at least the end of the beginning.
For a moment, she almost thought he would say yes. Then he shook his head.
“No offence, Nick, but I’m going to be a big enough albatross round your neck at Dartmouth, without being the spectre at the feast at your Last Dinner. No; best leave me at home with my book.”
Too honest to pretend not to know what he meant (there had, after all, been those odd, unconnected remarks at her Admiralty Interview Board) and too aware that her very presence here, on the eve of becoming an Officer Cadet, was the worse sort of salt in an open wound, she took the offered deflection with gratitude.
“One of yours, s’matter of fact. Do you remember that time ages ago, back in Hampstead, when you were down with some sort of plague — measles or chicken-pox or something — and the only way Mum could keep you in bed and not running around adding pneumonia as a complication was to read to you? And I came home on leave half-way through, and got deputed onto reading duty?”
Nicola craned her head to read the faded gilt letters on the spine. The Eagle of the Ninth.
“I remember. They’d just got to Trinimontium. You read me that bit.”
He’d read very well; almost as well as Lois Sanger. (Thank God the Barra disaster had the grace to happen when she’d been in the Sixth, not in the midst of Lower IV. What wouldn’t Lois have made of it, given the chance?) The depth and colour of his voice had made the words leap from the page and form pictures. Too vivid, those pictures, for someone running a temperature. Sometimes, she still dreamt she was Marcus Flavius Aquila, watching faceless legionaries at pilum practice in a ruined fort in an abandoned province. At nine, she would have died rather than tell Giles. It turned out to be still true.
“Trinimontium. Yes. They met Guern the hunter.” He let the book fall on top of the stacked forms. “I recall thinking at the time he was pretty poor stuff. Things life teaches you.”
“But it wasn’t — he wasn’t —”
She stumbled to a halt, his eye cocked sardonically on her.
“I’m not entirely sure whether losing an eagle would have been worse for a Roman centurion than losing an Island-class patrol boat for a First Lieutenant. But: ‘vessel lost, honour lost: honour lost, all lost’ was precisely the spirit in which my Board approached it.”
“But that’s not fair.” She kicked herself mentally before the words were out; they sounded so kiddish.
Giles took a swig from his glass. “Wasn’t it? I’m inclined to think the Board was dead on the nose. Fortunately, they didn’t know enough to add, ‘Losing one vessel might be accounted a misfortune; losing two looks remarkably like carelessness.’”
“Two? But —” Abruptly, her brain caught up with her mouth. “You mean Surfrider? But that was sheer bad luck. You couldn’t have predicted being hit on the head with the boom. Or getting pitchpoled by a rogue wave.”
Giles’ feet met the floor with a thump. “Nick. Listen. You of all people simply can’t afford that kind of thinking. Look where it got me.”
There was no possible answer to that. He drew a deep breath, as if considering something. Then he rose, and extracted another tumbler and the decanter from the cupboard.
“Look, I mean it about Last Dinner, grinning spectre at, no desire to be cast as. But drag up a chair, and let me pour you one of these and I’ll tell you something they won’t mention at Dartmouth. At least, not unless they’ve changed the curriculum since my days. Which, just poss. as a result of my efforts, they might have.”
Shattered by the hitherto unsuspected prospect that she might end up having to discuss the Barra Incident in public, with everyone looking at her, she dropped into a chair and took the offered drink without protest.
“Now. Point number one. No boat sinks because of one thing going wrong, or even three. Point number two: root-cause analysis is first cousin to metaphysics. Take Surfrider. Her end was declared in her beginning, the moment Jon sat down at his drawing board.”
“You make it sound like Miss Keith, and her coughing bear,” Nicola said, less because she didn’t understand what Giles was driving at than because she thought she did. A question from a past General paper floated into her mind. The essence of classical tragedy is its inevitability. Discuss.
Except that wasn’t true, at least, not when it came to drama. Take Lawrie’s Antigone, last year: at every step someone — Creon, or Ismene, or Antigone herself, or that bloody useless self-congratulatory Chorus — could have stepped in and yelled, “Stop! You’re all being idiots!”
Giles gave a passably bear-like growl on his own account. “No: listen. Jon’s reflexes were extraordinary — fighter pilots’ have to be, and test pilots’ are a level above that — and he was at the top of his game when he designed Surfrider. There wasn’t an ounce of forgiveness for human frailty built into her.”
“No more there is in hawks,” Nicola observed, suddenly making a connection.
“If you say so. Anyway, I sailed her to the Scillies with Jon, we barely made it back, and I heard all Dad had to say on the subject when we landed. Yet I still decided to use her to sail to the Isle of Wight in January. And then, when Peter had his bright idea of taking her out to sea, while I was asleep, instead of heading for Poole or Weymouth like I’d told him —”
She jolted upright. “Binks never said a word about that —”
Giles eyed her, and refreshed his own glass from the decanter. “Colour me unsurprised. But, of course, I could have told him to turn her round, pronto. I should have told him to turn her round, pronto. But I bottled it. Same as I bottled — well. I can’t tell you about that one. But anyway; Surfrider was destined to end smashed on a beach somewhere from the moment Jon had her built, and every thread in the chain of events which led to that particular beach at that particular time was woven by yours truly — with enthusiastic help from a few others, granted.”
Acutely conscious of how prominent she’d been among those others, Nicola ventured, “You’re right. It does sound like metaphysics. At least, the way I’ve heard Patrick talking about them.”
“Free will and Divine omniscience reconciled through the medium of marine accident investigation?”
Encouraged by Giles coming even so close to a joke, she grinned at him, a little tentatively, over the rim of her tumbler.
“Something like that. But how far back does one go? I’ve wondered —”
“Nick, have you died in there? And is Giles coming out, or not?”
A voice echoed down the corridor: Ginty, on edge and trying to pretend she wasn’t.
The moment shattered beyond repair. Giles rose to his feet, leaning over the desk.
“Oh, for God’s sake! Pestilential woman! For the last time: NO. I’M NOT.”
His extravagant, last-strawish gesture caught the wire basket and swept it off the desk, scattering its contents over the office floor. Silently, Nicola bent forward to pick them up.
“Leave them. It’s my fault. Don’t hold up your Last Dinner on my account.”
Doggedly, Nicola continued with her self-imposed task. It did not take long; there were, as she had thought, not all that many completed forms. The book was last; it had fallen open at what the crease in the spine suggested was an often-read passage. Trinimontium again, but later, in the next chapter:
It was very slow at first — I have served with men no older than myself, who remembered the Ninth when it was only a little rough and run to seed. But at the last it was terribly swift, and when I joined the Legion, two years before the end, the rind seemed sound enough, but the heart was rotten. Stinking rotten.
She handed it over in silence, still open. Giles avoided her eyes.