Chapter 1 - To Strive, To Seek by A.J. Hall
“Spud, you’re making a big mistake.” Ralph took a cigarette from the case and tapped its end on the table. “I know why you want this, but trust me; it’ll do the boy no good in the long run. Better to face facts now.”
Laurie felt in his pocket for his lighter. The flame, once struck, burned clear and steady, like hope. He extended it towards Ralph. “Times have changed.”
“Attlee’s in Downing Street and all’s right with the world?”
Laurie winced. Even now, three years later, he sometimes lay restless in the small hours, reliving the worst bits of their Election Night row. Perhaps Ralph did the same. Though, especially when it came to the later stages, Ralph’s memories of that debacle were unlikely to be as sharp as Laurie’s.
He kept his voice level with an effort. “If we don’t create something better than what went before it’s hardly worth having fought at all. Just because next time round it won’t be our sons having to sort out the previous generation’s failures, it shouldn’t matter less, should it?”
“Oh.” The monosyllable carried a freight of understanding. “So that’s what brought you — My dear, you may think I’m a dyed-in-the-wool crusted old Tory, but compared to the lower decks I’m a red revolutionary. At least, when it comes to the wardroom. Call it what you like, but the average matelot doesn’twant an Old Man who might have grown up in the next street.”
Laurie, abruptly, recalled Willis and little Derek, at the EMS hospital. How long ago that seemed: disconnected images on the far side of a wall of pain. His intended rebuttal dried on his lips.
If Ralph noticed, he had either the delicacy or the tactical sense to pretend otherwise.
“That’s what the examination board will be thinking. Especially since it’s the first year they’ve opened up selection to the grammar school boys. Be realistic, Spud. How much chance do you think Mervyn’s going to stand against someone from Wellington or Marlborough, or from our school, for that matter? It’s not his brains — I’m sure he’ll do well enough on the examination —”
“Outstandingly.” Laurie, on his own ground, spoke with authority. Ralph described a spare, circular gesture with the end of his cigarette to acknowledge the point.
“If you say so. But it’s no good his passing the examination if he can’t pass for a gentleman at the interview. Or, worse still, if he scrapes through and then finds the other cadets make Dartmouth hell on earth for him.” A shadow passed across Ralph’s face. “Dreams have a habit of letting you down. You of all men should know that.”
Ghosts whispered in the sunlit study, crowded dense as on the further bank of Styx.
Laurie lit a cigarette for himself, and exhaled smoke. “Please, Ralph. I’ve written, the boy’s Head’s written, but the Admiralty may actually pay attention to a recommendation from Lt-Cmdr Ralph Lanyon D.S.O.”
Ralph snorted. “If so, it’d be a first. But, Spud, that’s not my point. What good does it down anyone to tear down things just for the sake of novelty? The old system had the odd spot in the planking that needed replacement, but the keel and the ribs were sound. Yet this lot’s come in and suddenly nothing’s off-limits. First it’s schools, and next it’s medicine and now they can’t even keep their meddling hands off the Navy. What are we going to be left with when the taxpayer finally runs out of patience, and the Labour mob gets kicked out? Just a heap of shards and dregs, and the worst crapula in history.”
“People say a stranger has arrived, some wizard, a conjuror from the land of Lydia —” The quotation came out almost without conscious thought. It was only when Laurie saw Ralph’s face he knew the blow had landed, deeper than he’d meant and in a more vital place.
“If that’s what you think of me —” He pulled open the table drawer with a savage jerk. “Well, then. Let’s sacrifice to the new gods and dance on the mountain-side with Cadmus and Tiresias, those gaudy old trimmers.”
A small strip of stamps nestled next to the notepaper and envelopes in the drawer. Memory spiked, sharp as guilt.
“Of course I don’t think that of you. I never have. I just —” Laurie’s voice tailed off.
“I meant what I said that night, you know. Mostly. Whatever you think, it wasn’t the whisky talking.” The corners of Ralph’s mouth quirked up in a self-aware, private smile. “Though I’ll grant, Spud, some of it may have been the whisky listening. Still, you can’t step into the same river twice. I’ve learned that, finally.”
He reached inside his jacket for his fountain pen.
“So, my dear, let’s make the best of it. How do these things go? I have the honour respectfully to commend to your Lordships’ consideration …”
It took a moment before Mervyn realised his father was holding out two half-crowns.
“Iwona and me, we thought you might fancy pushing off on your own for the day, rather than trailing around with the fuddy-duddies. There’s a regatta or something happening down on the bay; the bloke at the farm told Iwona when she went up for the milk. There’ll be an ice-cream van and a brass band, and they’re having swimming and dinghy races and such like.”
Under the bonhomie, Mervyn could hear that note in Dad’s voice, as if he, Mervyn, had unexpectedly grown an extra head or turned into a cockroach, like the bloke in that weird German story Iwona had lent him, in case it was the sort of thing he might be asked about at the interview.
People had been doing the cockroach thing to him ever since Dad had got the letter from the Admiralty, informing him their Lordships would have great pleasure in welcoming his son as a cadet at Britannia Royal Naval College in the new term’s intake.
Mervyn, who had woken gloomy, could see the cockroach people’s point. That morning in his cramped caravan bunk he’d realised that the comfortable cushion of weeks before he had to brave the unknown terrors of Dartmouth had dwindled down to days; by Sunday he would be saying “the day after tomorrow”.
I don’t want to go.
But he couldn’t possibly say that, not after old Jefferson and Peaky Cunliffe and Mr Odell and even Commander Lanyon had all gone to such lengths to get him in. And it wasn’t as if he didn’t want to go like not wanting to go; it was more that his confidence had been leaking out of his boot heels ever since the interview board, with that line-up of officers all with BBC voices that sounded even more posh when there wasn’t a radio between you and them, and more gold-braid on their uniforms than —
Than an explosion in a tinsel factory. The voice in his head sounded just like Mrs Cheeseman at the fish-and-chip shop on the corner, who was a great believer in beef dripping and keeping your chin up. Mrs Cheeseman, quite plainly, would have nothing but scorn for anyone who turned down a chance to wander round Mulcross Bay on his lonesome with two unexpected half-crowns in his pocket. ‘Specially on a day like today. Not a cloud in the sky and it’d be a scorcher when the dew burnt off.
He grinned at his father.
“Thanks, Dad.” Behind Dad he could see Iwona, chopping salad on the neatly shaped board which slotted over the galley sink, and grinned at her, too. “Ta, Iwona. I know Dad wouldn’t have come across with five bob if you hadn’t talked him into it.”
Dad made a little harumphring sound, like he was too old a soldier actually to make an admission of guilt, but wasn’t going to lie direct, either. Iwona sniffed. “Best to make the most of the holiday. Dziadek told me, in the academy in Krakow the officers allowed the cadets not two seconds to call their souls their own. I do not suppose Dartmouth will be any different.”
The knife — blunt, like all the ones in the van — skidded off the skin of a tomato and into her finger. She said something expressive in Polish. Mervyn reflected, not for the first time, what a smashing language it sounded to swear in. Perhaps he should ask Iwona to teach him, it might come in useful if he was going to be an officer —
He sheered away from the thought, as if from a toothache. “Anyway, thanks, Dad. Be seeing you.”
The regatta turned out to be something which was probably a great deal more fun to participate in than to watch, especially if you knew no-one in any of the races, and so had no-one to cheer for.
Having watched the first few events and had a swim, Mervyn decided to climb up one of the narrow tracks winding up from the beach to the cliff top, and eat his sandwiches there. Up here, with just the sound of larks and the bees buzzing, it was easy to drop into a blissful state between sleep and wakefulness. Even the tannoy, rounding up competitors and announcing winners, was not an irritant, just part of the day like the light, warm breeze and the mingled smells of gorse and rabbit droppings.
After a bit he decided it might be worth exploring. The white road led back into the rolling country behind the cliffs, but there was no fun in road walking, not on a day as hot as today. Furthermore, with the crops all harvested, there was no particular reason to keep out of the fields, especially since any farmer who might care or feel territorial about it would probably be watching the regatta anyway.
He made friends with an affectionate pony, whose affections waned once it had eaten the three boiled sweets he’d dredged up from a trouser pocket and ascertained he had no more. Then, crossing the sharp stubble of a mowed cornfield, he happened upon pure magic. A hawk, its wings and back battleship-grey, its cream breast patterned with broken black lines, was perched on top of a dead pigeon, which it was tearing to shreds with a fastidious brutality Mervyn found utterly entrancing.
He had expected the hawk to fly up immediately it became aware of his presence. Instead, having surveyed him through untameable yellow eyes, it dismissed him as of no account and returned to its meal. He walked forward, trying to look as unthreatening as possible. When he was no more than a few feet away, the hawk raised its head again.
“Aih say, mah man, don’tcha know Ai’m an officer cahdet?” Mervyn tried out. The unimpressed bird glared at him, and then, with an air of infinite leisure, rose from the pigeon and flapped off into the woodland.
“Oh, well.” Mervyn put his hands in his pockets and made tracks across the stubble towards the wall which, he judged, bordered a lane tracking back towards the bay.
On the far side of the wall, down in the lane and approaching from the inland direction, he could hear a girl’s voice calling out.
“Gin, it’s me! Can you hear me? Are you all right? Where are you? Gin!”
The defiant brightness in her voice brought back that hopeless half-day he’d spent walking round the neighbourhood where Aunt Edie’ house had stood, calling for Smoky, because a boy at school had told him that dogs almost always sensed when a direct hit was coming and bolted out in time.
He’d never heard of a dog called Gin, but he’d met at least two called Whisky, as well as a cat called Rumtoddy, so it seemed as likely a name as any.
“Gin? Where’ve you got to? It’s me, Ann.”
She sounded a lot closer. Thinking on how he’d have felt to know someone had eavesdropped on him while he was looking for Smoky, it was high time he made himself known.
“Hello!” he called, and scrambled over the wall, dropping into the lane. The girl — Ann — was no more than five yards away.
She had thick, corn-gold hair in two long plaits, beneath a white linen hat, and the kind of face that you wanted to keep looking at, even though she hadn’t dolled herself up at all. Gladys and Vera, from across the street, would have done more to themselves to nip out to the corner shop. And a proper mess they’d have looked, by now, in this sort of sun, with all that make-up running.
In fact, no two ways about it, she was a bit of all right.
“I’m sorry,” Mervyn added, because she was looking at him a non-plussed sort of way. “I heard you calling and wondered — have you lost your dog? Can I help?”
“My dog?” She let out a shaky laugh which, Mervyn suspected, sounded a lot closer to a sob than she’d have liked. “No! My sister. Gin short for Virginia. She didn’t turn up for her swimming race.”
Now he remembered. He’d been on the edge of sleep when the tannoy had blared out its call for a missing competitor, but the name had stuck in his head. Mostly, of course, because he thought calling anyone Virginia was simply nuts. Imagine a girl stuck with a name like that in the districts down by Bridstow docks, or the streets he’d grown up in. She’d need a front of brass to handle the ribaldry.
Partly, though, it had been the surname. Will Virginia Marlow come to the starting point now, please. We are waiting.
At his interview board they’d ushered him into a long, high-ceiling, oak-panelled room with five officers, all in full uniform, on the far side of a long white-clothed table. To Mervyn, his guts churning almost as bad as they had before his appendix burst, it looked like a court-martial scene from a film.
When asked where was from, he’d only managed to squeak out, “Bridstow”. From the looks on their faces he realised he’d made a gaffe — it seemed they’d been expecting a school, not a city — but then the officer at the end had eased the moment by a question about the famous suspension bridge.
Mervyn had spent the whole of one entranced summer holidays on the bridge, getting under the feet of the men carrying out the maintenance which had been put off for the duration. Nerves again, he’d started rattling off all he knew. He’d been just in the middle of explaining how the bridge’s design had ensured it had never been shut for wind, not once in its eighty-year history, when the chairman of the board had raised his hand for silence, glared in mock-ferocity at the officer on the end and said, “Marlow, I blame you entirely. No more Brunel, or I’ll put you on a charge.”
At which point they’d all laughed, and Mervyn had started to feel he might get out of the room, just, without dying from sheer fright.
Which — especially given how things had turned out — had left him kindly disposed to the surname. Not that he wouldn’t have helped out a girl like Ann, even if she’d been called Murgitroyd.
“She’s bound to turn up soon.” Mervyn put as much conviction in his voice as he could muster. It was clear Ann’s imagination was running on white slave traders or broken necks; it was equally clear that she’d deny the thought of either had ever crossed her mind if he mentioned it. “Most likely she’s just gone for a walk and got a bit lost. I nearly did, up on the downs. Are you local or just on holiday?”
Ann’s face fell, almost as if he had mentioned white slavers after all.
“Um — well, it’s a bit complicated. We were on holiday, from London, but now it turns out we’re going to live here, all the time, I mean, when we aren’t at school.”
Her expression shut down further enquiry, not that Mervyn had planned on it. Unexplained moves had been frequent when Dad had been away at the war, usually because Mum had got in a muddle with the rent again. It was hard to imagine Ann coming from a moonlight flit sort of family, but equally, if she was, she’d mind dreadfully about the shame of it all, rather than thinking of it as a sort of Western, with the bailiffs the hired guns driving the settlers off their ranch at the instigation of the black-hatted sheriff. Best to change the subject.
“I could pray to St Anthony,” he offered.
“Oh, no —” Ann’s forehead crinkled. “I don’t think one should use prayer for that sort of thing at all; the Vicar said last year that asking God for things like yourself was disrespectful, it was treating Him like a sort of penny-in-the slot chocolate machine. And as for prayers to saints — I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but don’t you think it sounds a bit strange when you think of it, sort of compartmentalising heaven into departmental specialisms and chains of command?”
Mervyn hesitated. He and Dad weren’t any more religious than they had to be, which in Dad’s case meant not at all and in Mervyn’s case only when school or scouts demanded it. But Iwona was fiercely, proudly Catholic, and surprisingly well informed about the complicated bits; Dad always claimed she could give the priest a run for his money. She had very definite views on the subject of Protestant ignorance with regard to intercessory prayers.
To be honest, Iwona’s explanation had pretty much gone over his head when she’d made it, especially as her English hadn’t been very good at the time. But he owed it to her as well as to Ann to make the attempt.
“Iwona — she married Dad after Mum died, she’s Catholic, from Poland, she’s smashing — she said that lots of people got prayers to saints wrong. She said it isn’t that God isn’t big enough to hear everyone, it’s that we’re too small to comprehend him without help.”
Ann took this in with a grave, but somehow approving composure. “I hadn’t thought of it that way. Though I expect it’s like lots of things to do with religion; people start off doing something for quite sensible reasons, and then a lot of silly superstition grows up round it. And then other people just see the superstition, and don’t have the patience to look for the true things, underneath.”
He, Frank and Ernie had spent most breaks at the grammar school discussing the theory and practice of chatting up girls; Mervyn could confidently say it had never occurred to him that talking about religion would do the trick. And now they were at the field with the cupboard-love pony again, and from the expression on Ann’s face she was plainly scared stiff of horses, and would die rather than admit it.
He felt a surge of protectiveness, not unmixed with a cocky sense that the Fates were smiling on him. It might not be a dragon, but it would do to be going on with. And then, provided Ann’s wretched sister got herself found, sooner rather than later — well, he’d still got Dad’s five bob in his pocket, all but sixpence, and there was that cafe by the beach that did a smashing ice-cream soda. And then he could tell her about Dartmouth — she wouldn’t do the cockroach thing, he’d bet any money — and perhaps, just perhaps, if things went well, ask her to write …
He turned to help her over the stile and found she was already over, with an understated efficiency which he approved of, even if it did cramp his Sir Galahad act a bit. He smiled at her and gestured to the pony.
“Better let me go first. I met it earlier and it’ll probably remember me.”
As the taxi deposited him and his trunk, Peter thought he had never been so glad to see the red-brick and Portland stone facade of the Ship. It wasn’t that the summer holidays had been a disaster, precisely, though they’d veered close once or twice (Jael, he thought, and, slightly guilty at the order of things, Cousin Jon). Nevertheless, he had left Trennels that morning with a deep sense that Christmas would be quite soon enough to see the old dump again, thank you very much. If Selby or someone half-way decent were to invite him to stay for half-term he’d be more than delighted to jump at the offer.
Besides, it would be interesting to see what the summer’s distance had done to the Ship. Last term, he’d glimpsed the shade of Lieutenant Foley round every corner of the grounds, especially down by the boathouses. Worse still, everyone seemed to have engaged in a conspiracy to pretend not merely that the ghost wasn’t there, but that the man himself had never existed either.
“The Navy has a procedure for everything,” Lieutenant Bethune told each incoming term. Peter supposed that included a procedure for postumously cashiering traitors who got themselves blown up by depth charges while attempting to desert to enemy U-boats. And, for that matter, for ensuring no-one outside the need-to-know circle asked any questions afterwards.
Peter, loaded down with the freight of unutterable secrets, had felt like that traveller in the remote inn, ears cocked for the man in the bedroom above to drop the other shoe, waiting and waiting until at last a red stain appeared on the plaster ceiling and started to spread —
This term, of course, everything would be different. He was a second year man, to begin with, with the new intake to — well, obviously not boss around, because he’d been given the sternest of stern lectures by Father and Giles on that sort of thing when he’d first come here — but at least to make their own idiotic mistakes and distract official attention from the likes of him.
And there was Selby — mirabubbles ducktoes — amid a gaggle of the most unlikely people: Corcoran, and Hervey, and that utter ass Welby-Ffoulkes. Sel was looking distinctly pink and flustered, too. Something was plainly Up.
Peter beetled sharply towards them across the Ship’s official gravel, fending off passing enquiries — Not too mouldy. Could have been worse. How were yours? — until he got to the edge of the group.
Selby acknowledged his arrival with a quick, sidelong glance, but continued unabated.
“What on earth has got into you all about the new intake? You’re acting like the school bullies in some putrid school story — The Scholarship Boy at St Cuthbert’s or something.”
Welby-Ffoulkes, Peter noticed for the first time, had the kind of eyes that bulged when he was in a flap; at the moment he looked like someone out of a Low cartoon.
“Oh, don’t be such a socialist, Selby. You can’t change basic human nature just by issuing orders about it. It’s obvious it’s going to bring standards down. They’ve had to play about with the admission process because these elementary schools types haven’t had the same grounding people get at prep school, and sooner or later they’re going to come unstuck. Stands to reason; if you bring in a whole lot of people into the College from all sorts of backgrounds, who don’t have any Service tradition, they’re going to have trouble adjusting and we’re all going to have to rush about helping them out and everyone’s going to suffer. Either a whole lot of people are going to end up being kicked out for failing or they’ll bring down the overall pass mark to make it look OK, and whichever happens that’ll make all of us look bad, too.”
Peter thought, uneasily, that when the new policy had been announced last term the same thoughts had crossed his mind. They had seemed quite reasonable in the privacy of his own head; it was only when an ass like Welby-Ffoulkes came out with them that they sounded blimpish and absurd — any minute now, and he’d be exhorting them to protect their mothers and sisters from the beastly advances of the barbarian horde.
And, after all, people had probably come out with very similar objections when the Navy had brought in steam, and later still submarines, and goodness only knew that if a thing had been going since the days of King Alfred, it couldn’t do that by standing still.
And here was the issue, advancing hard upon them and no longer to be avoided. Lieutenant Bethune was crossing the Ship’s gravel with a gaggle of very new-looking cadets in tow, plainly in search of people who he could press-gang into showing them the ropes.
Peter took a deep breath and turned to face the future.