Saturday, 8 September 2007

Today's story happened forty two years ago, only the names have been changed the rest is true.

Never Again

‘You know’ said Peter ‘that Kenneth Graham was right when he said that there is nothing - absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.’ He leant comfortably back in the cockpit, a glass of wine in one hand and a chicken leg in the other. ‘The six o’clock forecast was perfect. Four to five from the southwest, we should be having coffee and croissants in Cherbourg tomorrow morning.’
Peter was the skipper, a well seasoned ocean racer with a couple of Fastnet races to his credit so we knew we were in good hands. I had sailed with Peter for years but Jimmy had only started that summer and his girl friend Anne had never sailed before. With a forecast like that we would have nothing to worry about, Peter could have sailed the boat single handed so it was perfect weather for a training cruise.
The boat was the first Peter had owned and the pride of his life. Thirty feet on the water line and built for racing, the conditions below decks were fairly spartan but on a glorious evening like that we weren’t looking for creature comforts. The sun was warm and the waves lapping gently under the bow as we set out for France. Jimmy took Anne’s hand and led her onto the fore deck where they sat talking quietly, arms around each other’s waists. Peter grinned at me.
‘Happy love? It should be an easy run. Jimmy should get an easy run too. I think he’s hoping to propose to Anne before we get back. I thought I’d ask them to take the first watch – nice and romantic don’t you think?’ I knew that Peter wouldn’t really sleep till we got to the other side but at least we would make the gesture of going below and leaving them in charge.
Just then a slightly larger wave caused the boat to pitch and Peter looked at me with surprise. ‘I have a nasty feeling the wind is getting up – the barometer is dropping.’ The sun was disappearing into a bank of cloud that had risen out of the western horizon and there was a sudden chill in the air. ‘Shall I go and get you a sweater?’ Peter disappeared below and came back clutching not only my sweater but foul weather gear for all four of us and a handful of harnesses. ‘I don’t want to be alarmist, but with an inexperienced crew I don’t want to take any risks.’
By this time Jimmy and Anne had returned to the cock pit and Anne was looking distinctly green and frightened. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Peter, ‘Take a couple of these and you’ll soon feel fine’ and he handed a blister pack of Stugeron to Anne. ‘Even the most experienced sailors feel a bit queasy from time to time. Nelson was sick at Spithead!’ Anne didn’t look at all reassured and disappeared below.
The boat gave a sudden heave followed by the sound of something crashing on the cabin deck. Anne reappeared, her hands and arms an alarming red.
‘Dear God – what’s happened?’ said Peter.
‘All the supper things have fallen on the floor and the tomato ketchup has smashed,’ replied Anne, ‘And I’m -’ she scrambled back into the cockpit. Peter grabbed her and lifted her from one side of the boat to the other.
‘Never be sick into the wind,’ he said ‘You’ll only get your own back.’
Wiping her face Anne retreated miserably below again.
‘Damn’ said Jimmy ‘I hope I shall be forgiven.’
‘Worry about that later,’ replied Peter, ‘get that lot on and I’ll show you what we have to do to shorten sail. The storm jib is in the fore end in the bag with the green tag. Bee you’ll have to stay on the tiller.’ The wind was rising and a nasty lop was building up. If Peter wanted the storm jib then he was getting worried. I was glad that I hadn’t been asked to get it, I’m fine on deck in a bumpy sea but going below and I might easily throw up. Although I come from a sailing family and I’m quite competent I really don’t enjoy it. Peter doesn’t know but I only do it to be with him.
By eleven o’clock the clouds were hurrying across the sky, the sea was topped with white caps and the tiller was getting very heavy. It was all I could do to keep the boat on course.
‘It’s no good, I had hoped to keep going and get to Cherbourg before this lot really hit us,’ said our skipper, ‘but we’re going to have to shorten sail.’ At that moment Jimmy leant over the side and gave up his all. Whimpering he climbed into the hatch and disappeared below. ‘Poor wee thing – I don’t think he’ll want to come again. We’ll just have to get on with it Bee. I’ll look after the foredeck if you can keep going on the helm?’ I nodded. ‘Good girl – you’re more of a man than that one down there. Bring her head to wind and I’ll take in two reefs’ and he was gone to fight with the main sail.
The sails rattled and flogged as I brought the boat into the wind. What would I do if Peter slipped and went overboard? I didn’t know enough and I knew I wasn’t strong enough to get him back. He would drown and I would be left to bring the boat back on my own. I swore that if I survived that night I would never sail again without a strong, experienced crew.
As I brought the boat back onto the wind she heeled over and I wedged myself across the cockpit, watching the binnacle light as I struggled to keep her on course.
‘Well done that girl, in a moment you’ll have to do that again while I get the storm jib on. I’ll just go below and get the midnight forecast.’ He disappeared and I heard him turn the radio on.
‘Gale warnings for all sea area.’
‘Bit late to tell us now’ I heard Peter’s cheerful voice reply. His head appeared in the hatch. ‘Better turn round and head home. Jimmy and Anne are flaked out; there really isn’t any point in fighting this one.' We altered course and ran before the wind. ‘Probably only force seven,’ said Peter, but to me it felt far more; it probably was because several boats were lost in the Channel that night.

Sailing into the wind can be a noisy fight with nature; when you turn and run before it the wind is no longer in your face and the water hisses under the bow. That night the sea was lit up with fluorescence hanging from the white tipped waves as we raced northwards back across the Channel.
The wind was directly behind us and at times we almost flew as we caught and held the crest of a wave, the sails goose winged with the storm jib on one side and the rolled down main on the other. My chest was tight with fear that the wind might shift, bringing the main slamming across in a gybe. My head was filled with every story I had ever heard about dismasting. My hands were stiff and cold as I hung on to the tiller.

Quietly Peter got up and clutching the guard rail crawled along the edge of the deck. Reaching into his pocket he took a line and passing it round the guard rail attached it to the boom. Back beside me he said quietly ‘Quit worrying love, we won’t gybe now with a preventer on the boom.’ At last in the distance we could see the gleam of Portland Bill light as it swept across the horizon welcoming us home.
Dawn was breaking and the wind was still gaining in strength as we rounded the wall into Portland harbour and entered sheltered water.

‘Bring her head to wind’ shouted Peter from the bow and dropped the mainsail onto the deck. Suddenly all movement stopped as we ran gently alongside our mooring. Two heads appeared through the hatch.
‘Are we in France now?’ asked Anne. Peter explained that there would be no croissants for breakfast and suggested that we should all try and get a little sleep before doing anything else.
When we woke up the wind was shrieking in the rigging and the tops of the waves were being blown off, clouding the harbour with a light salt mist. It was blowing too hard to lower the dinghy and row ashore so Peter started the engine and we motored round to the shelter of Weymouth Harbour and tied up alongside the quay below the Customs House.
Jimmy and Anne went ashore never to return while we settled down to a day of cleaning and sorting to make Peter’s great love whole and beautiful again, stopping every now and then to share a of bottle of wine with friends who came to commiserate. We were storm bound for three days before the storm blew out and we were able to set off to Cherbourg again, this time with a couple of very experienced friends.
What do you do storm bound in your home port? I can tell you. We ate well, we slept well, we played piquet and talked ourselves into feeling quite heroic. Nine months later I had the perfect excuse for staying ashore. Peter has promised that his next boat will be perfect for family cruising!

Saturday, 1 September 2007

The phone rang ‘Your aunt died last night. Can you come?’ I hastily arranged cover for the family and drove the two hundred or so miles to the village that had once been my home.

I had thought my aunt’s life was tragic until the day when I was clearing her cottage out and found a few notes in her desk. She had written ‘I never regarded myself as disabled’ although she had been born with a congenitally dislocated hip which was not identified till she was two and led to twenty seven operations before she was five. In those days parents were not allowed to stay with children in hospital so at times of great pain she was abandoned to the care of strangers. She had been baptised Naomi Avis Primrose and my grandmother insisted that she was called Primrose despite her dark complexion and nearly black hair. Her father had been killed in the first month of World War I and her mother spent much of the remainder of the war in deep depression, quite unable to meet the needs of her little girl.

Primrose turned out to have a beautiful contralto voice and a good mathematical brain but with her limp and dark visage she had not the looks for the stage and in 1920, though she gained a BSc in civil engineering, there were no opportunities for young women. She was presented at court and did a season but most eligible young men were frightened of girls with brains, especially ones who had an aggressive determination to survive. World War II gave her the opportunity she craved and for five years her talents were in demand. Despite being in constant pain and having one leg substantially shorter than the other she clambered over bomb sites and cycled to work through the black out until she was knocked unconscious by a passing car and remained in a coma for five months. After that she became a recluse, living with her cats and seldom talking to anyone except in monosyllables.

The cottage where she died had been given to me by my father as a wedding present and because my husband had a sea going job I had lived there on my own when I was first married and my son had been born there. The cottage was full of happy memories. After a time I was able to travel with my husband so I was overseas when she, having run out of money, finally asked for help so it made sense for her to have it. The post mortem showed she had died of malnutrition and hypothermia. The family would have employed a local contractor who advertised house clearances to sort things out but I stepped in and said I would do it. The RSPCA took the skeletal cats away and I began my self appointed task.

The smell was terrible but by opening the doors back and front the air began to clear. Aunt Prim had stored carefully sorted rubbish in hundredweight paper meal sacks; one filled with dead matches, one with the inner match box, a third with the outer covering. Bright red Bournville chocolate wrappers were packed in one sack, gold wrappings in another. As I heaved the sacks outside the floor began to creak and crack until the boards, soft with wood worm and wet rot, gave way in one corner.

A village worthy came bustling in and began poking in corners. ‘No need for her to be cold’ she said as she lifted the lid of a metal meal bin ‘Look she had fuel for the boiler in here and there’s pies in this box. She didn’t have to go hungry.’

I didn’t point out that she had had a stroke and sat for a week in her own urine before anyone thought she might need help, no one brought her a blanket or a hot drink. She had nothing but her indomitable courage and determination to keep her going, and her books to keep her company.

I worked on through the day putting aside anything of value, her books, a small oil painting, a silver fob watch with raised numbers and no glass made for a blind person and ideal for someone working in the blackout. All the while I could hear rustlings as I disturbed the mice the cats had been too weak to catch.

Tied firmly to the top shelf of the book case was a blue felt parcel. Carefully I cut away the string and sat down for the first time that day to examine this thing that had been so precious that it had to be tied down. Layer after layer came off and I thought of the little girl who would have played pass the parcel long ago. Finally the heart of the treasure was displayed on my lap, a Victorian carriage clock in working order. I have it still.

Outside the sun was setting, the cottage bathed in golden evening light. The small garden that I had tended as a bride was a tangle of briars and brambles but half hidden and unnoticed by the front door I found a perfect white tulip. Next morning I cut it carefully and took it with me to the funeral. There were no flowers on the coffin. After the service the coffin was carried to the grave yard below the church. As the undertakers prepared to lower their burden into the grave I placed the single white flower on it. No, my aunt’s life was not a tragedy for she certainly would not have considered it so, she lived her life heroically and maintained her independence to the end.

© Carenza Hayhoe 2007