FIRST, DEAR READER, I want to share with you one of my earliest memories; 3rd October 1991, my fifth Birthday. I stared goggle-eyed at my little bike, truly the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. After a rapt moment I clapped my hands and squealed with delight, ran up to it, touched its bright shiny handlebars, stroked its smooth pink and silver frame, ran my hands over the saddle, pressing my fingers into its pliant softness. A whoop of sheer happiness welled up in me.
But never reached my lips.
Mum told me later that the doctor said it was probably caused by overexcitement and that my floppy body that wouldn’t work was quite common in such cases. And it hadn’t lasted more than a few minutes, a good sign, nothing to worry about.
But I would never tell what I saw in those frightful moments before darkness had closed around me.
Fast forward now twenty-one years, and the very worst day of my life; the 17th of June 2012.
I LOOKED UP from the grey lino floor-tiles that for some unknowable reason had been the centre of my numbed attention, at the paper cup that had arrived at the table in front of me, and up at the blonde-haired police constable who’d delivered it; dolly-pretty, her smile unbearably kind.
“Tea, no sugar, okay Rosemary?”
“Thanks. And it’s Rosie.”
I gazed around at the small, magnolia-coloured room, posters on the walls; Irritable Bowel Syndrome, what it is, and how to avoid it. A colourful diagram of intestines. Depression? Recognise the signs. Your doctor can help you to stop smoking.
I wondered vaguely how long I’d been sitting here.
Nobody except Dad ever called me Rosemary.
I was distraught when I first discovered what rosemary was. It had been Granny who’d pointed it out to me one day in late summer in her rambling garden behind her rambling great house.
Though it wasn’t until much later I discovered it was Granny’s house. I’d always assumed the old place was ours, and Granny had come to live with us. It was mainly because of Granny that I’d been raised with an elevated sense of our family’s social standing, and when the truth was revealed to me, I was terrified my school friends would find out we were not the owners of our grand and rather charming country house.
I guess the rosemary thing was hubristic as well, but as an aspiring six-year-old it was a dreadful disappointment to find I’d been named after a rather dull and uninteresting shrub.
Eventually Mum had conceded Rose; no mere commonplace herb, but “a bloom of the most noble sort.”
She was like that, my Mum; cultured and poetic, while Dad, staid and unmoved by such whimsical notions, stuck doggedly with my given name.
‘Course, in the Navy it soon became Rosie, which aristocratic Granny would have hated, had she lived.
I could feel the copper’s eyes on me. She wanted to talk, I could tell, but I wouldn’t look at her. Nothing she could say to help. Silence was okay.
After another eternity the door squeaked open. A man lifted a chair over to sit facing me, pale, hairy hands resting motionless on denim knees, green surgical mask hanging loose around his neck. His hushed tones came down a long tunnel from somewhere in another universe...
Coming back from leave should be a happy rekindling of the comradely bond, catching up on gossip, stories from home, friends and family, but secretly glad to be back with your real family.
But when it’s compassionate leave you’re back from, really?
Apart from the mumbled platitudes, nobody knows what to say. Sneaky looks to see how you’re coping, sudden silence when you walk in the mess. You know they’ve been discussing you.
“Listen up,” I said, shuffling my bum down amongst them in the mess square, “Sympathy, as we all know, comes between ‘shit’ and ‘syphilis’ in the dictionary, right?”
I smirked at their gobsmacked faces.
“I’m over it, it’s history, okay?”
Even Doc, with whom I’d had a quiet word earlier, looked shell-shocked.
“Spread the word, girls – I don’t need pity, and don’t fucking want it.”
I left them to discuss me in the new light. Doc followed me out into the passageway and grabbed my arm.
“That was bullshit.”
“Yeah,” I said, pulling out of her grip, then grinned at her, “Good bullshit though, eh?”
She didn’t even crack a smile, just gave me that funny squint of hers that, through her rimless glasses, made her look quite the nerd, despite her pale prettiness.
“Now you’re just being a smart-arse,” she snapped, “Trust me, the way you’re handling this, you’re heading for trouble.”
“You finished, Doc?”
She stared at me a moment, then sighed and shook her head, “Don’t know why I bothered,” and strode back into the mess.
She was right though, I didn’t feel nearly as sanguine as I was acting. Doc was my best friend and knew me better than anyone, maybe even myself.
My Div. Officer, Lieutenant Redfern, didn’t think I was handling it well either. She sent for me later that morning to see her in her cabin.
“You don’t think you’ve come back too early, Rosie?”
My hackles rose defensively. “What makes you say that, Ma’am?”
I shouldn’t have been so obtuse, I know. She was a good egg, really, even came up for the funeral with Doc, bless her.
“Well, let’s see,” she said, meeting my hostility with infuriating calm, “it’s only three days since you buried your mother, your father’s still in hospital, and you’ve got another week’s leave. Don’t you think you should be at home?”
“My Dad’s out of it,” I grumbled, “solicitor’s sorting out the paperwork, there’s nothing for me to do until he’s completed the probate, and nothing for me at home. Reckon I’m better off onboard, with my mates, you know?”
“All the same, Rosie…”
“Look at it this way, Ma’am, we’re sailing in a few days for a work up, I’ve got my Board coming up next month, how would it look if I bunked off now?”
She paused, measuring me up, then said, “I’m sure the Board will be sympathetic…”
“I don’t need sympathy, Ma’am, I need action. With the MarDet away I’ll be needed on the boarding party. You know what the blokes will say if I skip this trip, the ‘girls can’t hack it’ nonsense. You know what it’s like.”
She shook her head, “In these circumstances I’m sure…”
“Please, Ma’am, trust me on this, I need to be onboard.”
The Padre had a go next, tea and sympathy in his cabin, that’s all I needed. Not. At least I could tell him about Dad, and how I really felt about him, knowing it wouldn’t go any further, and I guess that helped a bit.
That afternoon up on the fo’csle, me in overalls cleaning the guardrail bottle-screws with a wire brush and WD40, a couple of the guys came up to commiserate and give me a quick hug.
“Geroff me, yer wankers!” I said. Yeah, I could be common as muck when it came to the lads. Helped a girl fit in.
I WOKE UP to the insistent blaring of the General Alarm and the bunk-space lights flickering on. Yvonne was first out, dropping down from her top bunk and nearly catching Doc an ear-swipe as she clambered out of her middle one.
I looked at my watch and groaned, twenty-past five in the morning, barely an hour since I’d turned in after the Middle Watch. While Doc and Yvonne hauled out their action kit from their lockers, I waited in my pit to hear what was up this time.
“HANDS TO BOARDING STATIONS, HANDS TO BOARDING STATIONS. BOARDING PARTY MUSTER OUTSIDE THE ARMOURY.”
I groaned again and rolled out of bed while Doc and Yvonne grinned on sympathetically. There was no urgency for them now; their Boarding Station was in the Sick Bay, and wouldn’t be needed till we got back, if at all.
We gathered at the armoury, eleven of us, me the coxswain, my two crew, and eight boarders, including the Boarding Officer, a freckly-faced twenty-year-old called Sub Lieutenant Francis, nicknamed ‘Dick’ behind his back, because he was; and his second-in-command, Petty Officer ‘Dinger’ Bell, the guy really in charge.
We were issued helmets and weapons, 9mm Glocks for the officer, PO, and boat’s crew, SA80 Assault Rifles for the boarders. No ammo, of course, this was an exercise. Thus armed, we clattered noisily up ladders, the Boarding Officer to the Bridge for briefing, the rest of us to the boat deck to await further orders.
Reaching the boat deck lobby first, I unclipped the door and swung it open. It was wet and windy; spindrift swept across the deck in pulsing swathes. At least it wasn’t raining. I stepped out and braced against the sudden wind and looked out at the grey waters of the Western Approaches, that wide strip of ocean between the Scilly Isles and France leading into the English Channel.
Six-foot waves lashed towards the starboard beam, their tops clipped to white manes of spume by the near-gale-force wind. Not yet too rough for the sea-boat, a sturdy 20-foot rigid-hulled inflatable that could hold her own in the roughest of seas.
Some of the younger guys in the boarding party looked a bit apprehensive, milling around and glancing up at the RHIB in its davits. They were a scratch crew, cobbled together from various departments to fill the gap left by the professionals, the Royal Marine Detachment, who normally filled the role. The MarDet were currently away with their Commando Unit rolling in the snows of Norway. Me and my two crew, Able Seamen Tony Briggs, and Andy Rice, were Seaman Specialists. We’d worked together for the past year, including a stint in the Caribbean rescuing boats in trouble and intercepting drug-runners.
“Right chaps,” shouted the officer, joining us from his briefing, “gather round. The target’s a trawler suspected of gun-running, She’s now six miles ahead. When she spotted us, she turned north, making twelve knots. Our ETA alongside her is in one hour. We’re to board and search and interview the four crew. Any questions?”
“Yes sir,” I piped up, glancing out at the burgeoning seas, “best boarding points, amount of freeboard on the vessel?”
“Unknown, Carter, we’ll have to assess her and decide on the way over. I’ll tell you then what’s required.”
I bristled but said nothing.
“Granny to suck eggs,” muttered Andy Rice from behind me. I turned and shot him a warning glance.
“Anything else?” asked the officer, a little flushed I thought, he must have heard Andy’s comment despite the howling gale.
When nobody answered he rubbed his hands together and said, “Right then, Carter, get the boat ready to slip and…”
I held up a hand, barely keeping my temper, “Sir,” I gritted, “I know my job, just make sure you know yours.”
He reddened visibly, obvious to all, “Right, okay then,” he blustered, “let’s er… okay, right then, carry on, Cox’n.” He turned and walked briskly to where the Boarding Party now sat huddled against the bulkhead.
I turned from him and came face to face with Dinger, the PO, frowning. “Watch it, Leading Hand,” he growled, “you were sailing a bit close there.”
I didn’t answer, my hackles still high.
He pursed his lips and gave his head a sideways shake, “It’s not like you to gob off at officers, Rosie. What’s up?”
“Sorry, PO, but he’s such a… okay, I’ll keep it cool.”
An hour later the target came into view on the starboard bow, an old steel-hulled MFV, a motor fishing vessel requisitioned by the navy in the sixties. At twelve knots into a gale, she was making heavy weather of it, battering into the troughs, green water breaking over the bow, then rearing up to expose her keel back to the pilothouse. I felt sorry for the crew, and even sorrier for us if we had to try a boarding. Thankfully, a short time later, the pipe came over the Tannoy:
“D’YA HEAR THERE. REVERT TO DEFENCE STATIONS. BOARDING PARTY STAND DOWN – EXERCISE CANCELLED DUE TO ADVERSE CONDITIONS.”
After returning weapons I went to the mess and crawled back into my pit. I was on watch in three hours.
End of Episode 1. If you enjoyed this episode please comment below on how keen you are to read more.
Please note: to access the next episode you need to be signed up to the Weatherdeck Books Newsletter