Chapter 1 - We Jolly Well Did Mean to Go to 1973, You Tame Galoot by A.J. Hall
“Jibbooms and bobstays, Peggy, belay that noise!”
Nancy, sitting on Amazon’s cross-thwart wielding a sailmaker’s needle and palm, jabbed with savage emphasis through the canvas. “As if it weren’t bad enough that the summer holidays are practically over, you have to rub it in by humming the school song.”
Amazon’s first mate opened her mouth to speak, but whatever apology she might have intended was drowned in an abrupt cacophony of high-pitched mechanical whines, barks and squeals, ripping across the tranquil waters of the lake to the Beckfoot boathouse. Nancy cocked her head on one side.
“Golly, what a row those speedboat people are making. You’d never think they were right over by Rio. Doesn’t the engine noise jolly well carry?”
“Dead calm,” Peggy observed. She finished off the sail’s newly mended seam with a complicated over-and under arrangement, sliced off the ends of the waxed thread with her clasp knife, and stood up. “We’ll be rowing both ways to Swainsons and back…Still, if this weather holds ‘til tomorrow, they’ll have perfect conditions for the record attempt. The Ship’s Brat will be kicking himself he missed it.”
“Grisly little mechanically-minded beast. If Roger had been here he’d have been just like Uncle Jim and Timothy, hanging around the yard all day hoping to be allowed on board for one of the technical trials. Right, I’m done. You bend the sail back on while I shove all the sail-mending stuff in the kitchen. Cook won’t mind. I can grab our grog and sandwiches at the same time.”
Even for hardened pirates, rowing the entire length of the lake on an errand for their mother was not the way they would have chosen to spend one of the last few days of their summer holiday. As luck would have it, it also happened to be the hottest and stillest day of the summer so far. While Amazon, under sail, was undoubtedly the finest dinghy on the lake, neither of her owners was under any illusions about what a pig she was to row. By the time they cleared Horseshoe Bay on the return voyage, they were both wondering whether the three cups of tea and two sultana flapjacks apiece old Mrs Swainson had pressed upon them would be enough to sustain life all the way back to Beckfoot.
“Catspaws! Over by Cormorant Island!” Nancy sang out. “Ship oars, Mr Mate, and hoist sail.”
Peggy risked a glance over her left shoulder. “More like kitten-paws, really,” she said doubtfully. “Not much wind.”
“Even a slow sail’s got to be better than slogging at the oars the whole way home. Mother won’t mind if we’re a bit late for dinner. It’s only cold chicken and salad. I looked in the larder while I was swiping the grog. Which reminds me; the last two bottles are under that thwart. Once we’ve got the sail up we’ll broach them.”
It took little more than a couple of minutes for Amazon’s crew to have the little dinghy ghosting along the lake before a fitful breeze which almost died away altogether before they were a third of the way home. Nancy, settled in the stern with the tiller tucked under her elbow, ducked her head under Amazon’s drooping sail. They barely appeared to be moving against the wooded shores of Long Island, just off to starboard. From behind the island the sounds of the speedboat trials — sometimes a low buzzing, sometimes an ear-splitting screech — punctuated the late-afternoon calm. Resigning herself to a slow drift home, Nancy decided to revive the earlier discussion.
“It’s not even as if Forty Years On made sense for our school song. They’ve had to take all the proper words out to make it fit a girls’ school, and now there’s hardly anything left.”
Peggy shrugged. “Well, it’d make even less sense talking about football when all we play is netball and lacrosse — and tennis, I suppose, in the summer term.”
Nancy pitched her voice to carry above the approaching speed-boat noises. “It’s not that. The original one assumes that forty years on all the boys have grown up and gone off to captain destroyers and perish in glorious last stands in the far-flung fields of Africa…”
“Actually, that’s Newbolt. Vitai Lampada. We had to learn it just after we’d finished Casabianca.”
“Peggy, if you don’t stow your quibbling I’ll have you keel-hauled. What I’m trying to say is that our school song assumes that, because we’re girls, everything will be exactly the same as it is now forty years on, and anyone can see that’s nonsense. I mean, you only have to look back forty years ago. Back in 1893 Queen Victoria was still on the throne, Nansen was only starting his voyage in Fram - he hadn’t even been frozen in yet — and the GA had just arrived at Beckfoot to take charge of Mother…”
Peggy shuddered. “Piano practice and deportment and never a chance to get out of ghastlies into comfortables.”
“That’s exactly what I mean. And yet now — forty years on from then — women have got the vote and can be Cabinet Ministers if they want to. And look at Mildred Levett, having a jolly good shot at the world water speed record tomorrow. What’s the betting that forty years on from now it’ll be women who’re captaining warships and running the country? Golly — I wish I could skip forward forty years and see it happening.”
Her last words were almost drowned out in the roaring sound of a vast engine as Mildred Levett’s speedboat shot out from behind Long Island, mere yards away. Nancy shoved the tiller as hard over as possible, in a frantic effort to jibe. If there had been a breath more wind to power the sails she would have managed it. The speedboat prow hit the little dinghy amidships in a horrid mess of splintering wood and rending sailcloth. She heard Uncle Jim’s voice yell, “Nancy!” and then the green waters of the lake closed over them.
Voices sounded above her head. Loud, angry, native voices. Nancy kept her eyes shut and her cheek against the sun-warmed wood beneath it. She wasn’t sure she felt up to tackling – whoever these natives happened to be — for a bit. Not until she had somehow managed to lose this queer, shivery feeling and started to feel a bit more like the terror of the seas again. Stupid to be so shivery over just a capsize, Though that speedboat had been going a tremendous wallop. It was funny Uncle Jim had gone away and left them with these natives, but probably he was still overseeing salvage. Poor old Amazon! She ought to get up and look after the little ship herself, but somehow everything seemed too much of an effort — worse, even, than when she’d had mumps and had to teach herself to move again after a month in bed. But Uncle Jim would see to everything, see things were out right. Good old Uncle Jim. But it was a pity he couldn’t be here, now, and not these noisy natives. One in particular seemed to be unable to manage to moderate his voice below a bellow and that hurt, unexpectedly — though, come to think of it, probably the boom had hit her quite hard as they went over. There he was bellowing again…
“Let me remind you, DC Skelton, of a few salient facts. We are not here on some bloody Boy Scout adventure. We are not here for the cream buns and the lashings of ginger beer. We are here, DC Skelton, purely and simply because the top half of Chalky Lewis was discovered wrapped round the propeller of a steamer tied up to that pier over there this morning, the very day after he intimated to yours truly that he might be minded to unburden his non-existent conscience of a few salient facts regarding the Moston Moor payroll job. Once we have reunited Chalky’s arse with his elbow we will be out of here like shit off a shovel to somewhere it is possible to eat your cornflakes in the serene confidence that you are not going to be confronted with a rabbit in a bleeding blue waistcoat smirking up at you from the bottom of your cereal bowl. Is that understood, DC Skelton?”
“Yes, Guv. But —”
“Did I give you permission to open your cakehole? Well, shut it. You were supposed to be dragging the lake for the remains of Chalky Lewis, deceased. What I did not specify was for you to drag in two female Baden-Powell impersonators who seem to have been making a concerted attempt on the world underwater woggle-winding competition.”
“Dragging the lake?” Peggy’s voice sounded from somewhere above her left ear. “I hope someone let Jacky know. He was so disappointed when we didn’t need to drag for the GA.”
“Jacky? Who’s that you’re calling Jacky, young lady?”
“Jacky Warriner, of course — you know, from the farm at Watersmeet.”
Nancy ground her teech, wishing she had the energy to stop Peggy prattling away. The native with the bellowing voice, however, was under no handicap in that direction.
“That’s Detective-Superintendent Warriner to you, young lady. And of course he knows we’re dragging his lake - it’s hardly as if we’re going to come muscling in on someone else’s patch without letting their old man know what we’re up to. Not that Manchester doesn’t have rights, here — not only was Chalky Lewis almost certainly offed by one of our old acquaintances with an allergy to narks, half Manchester’s water comes from these lakes and the very last thing I wish to think about when enjoying a quiet pot of PG Tips is whether semi-decomposed shreds of prominent Higher Broughton villains are adding their indefinable bouquet to my cuppa.”
“Detective-Superintendent Warriner? That can’t be our Jacky. He’s only about ten…”
“Well, given we celebrated his 25 years in the Force last year — and a very fine evening was enjoyed by all — that would seem to rule him out, yes. He has not been ten for some considerable time: in fact, I recall his mentioning that his profound aversion to our Kraut chums began when they chose to commemorate his tenth birthday by electing Adolf Hitler as Chancellor, thus setting in train a sequence of events which ultimately led to his losing a substantial piece out of his left buttock at Monte Cassino. Though that’s probably lost on you, young lady; given the state of education these days, you no doubt think Hitler’s the manager of the German football team.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Peggy’s voice was shrill with indignation; Nancy, head throbbing, thought that on the whole she preferred bellowing. “Of course I know who the German chancellor is —”
“Is? Is? Now, come off it, young lady. As anyone who knows me will be happy to tell you, winding me up is classified officially as a dangerous sport, along with big-game hunting and balancing on the snouts of hammer-headed sharks shouting, ‘Well, come on and take a bite, Fishfinger, if you think you’re hard enough.’ I do not take kindly to jokes, japes, merry pranks, send-ups or tomfoolery generally. As a result —”
“What’s going on?” A new voice broke into the conversation, a soothing voice, this one, neither shrill nor bellowing. Nancy warmed to its owner immediately.
“Oh, this one’s right up your alley; a proper Sam Tyler special, with a free side order of bonus lunacy. Chris pulled these two clowns out of the lake about twenty minutes ago. The little one — the one doing all the talking — claims they were run down by a speed-boat, but there’s no sign of any wreckage — of any boat — and even a dozy bugger like Skelton would probably have noticed a speed-boat crashing into a dinghy right in front of his nose, and he says he didn’t. And now, to put the tin lid on it, she’s just declared her belief that Adolf Hitler is still running Germany. What is it about me and nutters? Do I have some sort of sign on my forehead that attracts them?”
Peggy, blast the girl, was still prattling away. “But Herr Hitler is Chancellor of Germany. I won half a crown off Uncle Jim, because he bet me I couldn’t name 5 European chief ministers, not counting Ramsay MacDonald, and I gave him Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and de Valera, and then he said he’d stretch a point and let me have Daladier, because the way the French changed Governments, for all he knew he’d be back in power in the time it took to fish out the half-crown.”
“Stop chattering, Peggy, you tame galoot.” It was an enormous effort to drag the words out. Nancy opened her eyes and struggled to sit up. She was sitting on one of the jetties at Rio, running out into the lake. The water was dotted with visitors windmilling about in hired rowing boats and flecked with the sails of yachts. The railway company steamer, white and massive, sat on the end of the steamer pier in the usual place. That was all right. But on the Rio shore —
Her hand went to her mouth, not quite stifling a most unpiratical gasp of shock. The houses spread a lot further along and up the hillside than she remembered — why, the lakeside village and the village around the railway station which took its name from the lake were practically joined up. And those things whizzing along the lakeshore road — cars, yes, but as different from old Rattletrap as Amazon was from a J-class yacht. And so many of them — phew, the air stank of petrol, no wonder she still felt so ill.
There were three men standing around on the jetty — a heavily built one with a surly expression — that must be the bellower; a younger one who seemed to be trying to efface himself, as if he really didn’t want to be there at all, and the third, who seemed about the same age and build as Timothy, and who had a most peculiar expression on his face; somewhere between shock and recognition. She addressed herself to him.
“So — what year is this, then?”
His jaw dropped. Before he could say anything, the bellower — yes, she had guessed right — shrugged and said, “1973. And that ‘s the last stupid question I’m answering today. I’m not sure whether I should just tell Chris to throw you two back in or cart you off to the funny farm or cart myself off to the funny farm. So while I’m making my mind up I’ll leave you in DI Tyler’s supposedly capable hands. Chris; pull up that rowing boat. I’m going back out to look for the remains of Chalky Lewis. I’m likely to get more sense out of them.”
He turned and clambered heavily down into the rowing boat held against the jetty side by the younger man, who climbed aboard after him and took his seat at the oars. Nancy privately thought both of them could have done with a few lessons in seamanship, but only when the splashing of the oars had faded into the background did she turn to the man left on the jetty with them.
“So,” she said, “is this really 1973?”
He winced. “I’m really not sure I’m the right person to answer that question. But for what it’s worth —”
He pulled a rather crumpled newspaper — called, bafflingly, The Guardian — out of his pocket and his finger stabbed down on the date. 17 August, 1973. Peggy, beside her, let out a little squeak, as if the penny had only just dropped. Nancy felt her mouth spread in a broad grin.
“Forty years on. We really did it. We really, really did.” She turned back to the policeman. “Take us to whoever’s in charge round here. We’ve got a lot to talk to her about.”