The sky was blue, the sea was blue. It almost seemed that the air, itself, was blue. It was one of those summer days that made people happy to be alive. Still relatively early – just after 9am – the air had that delightfully crisp feel, it had not warmed up to what it would be by the afternoon. Then people would wish to sit in the shade and drink a cool drink and watch the world pass by. Paul walked down the hill from the small station to the harbour. He kept telling himself to stay cool, but he felt as excited as a child at their birthday party. He was going sailing! He grimaced as his leg started to ache and finally gave in and starting leaning on his stick, the wound was healing, but it would be at least another couple of weeks before he was back on active service.
An observer would have seen a young man in RAF uniform carrying a kit bag and walking with a limp. They might have noted his slightly less than perfect appearance; like many of the pilots, he took the view that it was his skill at flying that was important, rather than his parade ground perfection in dress. He had been hauled over the coals in Waterloo station by a Commodore, and had apologised profusely – that was the easy way to stop problems – done up his top button, walked stiffly to his train and got into first class (something he had swung by being handsome and young – the ticket girl had simply smiled winsomely and given him his ticket. This was not an official trip and the third class was full of soldiers, he enjoyed the better company of a surprised Colonel and his lady and two young women who were working in the Department of Home Affairs. After the Colonel and his wife got off at Horsham, Paul left at Flamford with two girls’ office telephone numbers. He was on a promise there, everybody liked a flyer, even after the Yanks had started arriving.
His blond hair was probably too long, but since he was recuperating, he had let it grow beyond regulation length. His blue eyes were the kind a girl could swoon over; and to cap it all he had some ribbons on his uniform. What girl (or even matronly Colonel’s wife) could fail to be attracted to him as he happily chatted about flying high in the sky, bursting through clouds. He was careful not to offend the Colonel by giving any details that could have been deemed secrets, but by the end, even that senior Army gentleman shook his hand as he left. “Well, done. Keep up the good work, young man. Hope the leg is better soon.”
He had learnt that wearing his uniform was a good idea. It prevented the questions on why he was not serving his country; his limp was less marked now, and people could sometimes think the stick was an aid in malingering rather than a genuine requirement. In uniform he was identified as ‘wounded hero’ and could be stood a drink in a bar, a biscuit in a station cafe, or, as in this case, a handshake from a bluff, ruddy faced colonel who had served in The Great War and was now ‘stuck behind a desk, I wish I could do more’. His wife looked at him and thought (though never said), ‘what would an overweight old buffer like you do on the battlefield, my love’. Still, most people were keen to do their bit when Britain was up against it.
At the harbour, he looked across the boats and ships and rowing boats, screwing up his eyes against the sun. A trickle of sweat ran down his forehead, the sun was increasing in strength and the air was starting to warm. Then he smiled, there it was: Thermopylae. He walked round the harbour wall to the gangplank and hailed the crew “Heh! Thermopylae! Can I come aboard?”
A head of flossy, blond hair appeared from the hatch at the back. “Paul? Yes, of course. You’re the skipper.” Still, he’d passed an unstated test. He hadn’t walked on like he owned it all, he was the new boy and wanted them to know that he respected them. A young woman climbed out as he stepped down onto the deck. He would have jumped down in the past, but he was being careful of the leg. She eyed it.
“The leg? Oh, it’s not as bad as it looks. I can walk about 25 yards with no problem, then it starts to ache and I need the stick. Getting better though ... I’d forgotten how lovely she is.” I replied.
“You talking about me?” a girlish voice laughed behind him; a brunette had walked up the gangplank. “Fiona.” She held her hand out. He dropped his bag and shook her hand.
“No, I was meaning the boat, but you two fit the bill too. Keith said you were...” He’d said ‘comely’ and Paul realised that could be misinterpreted. “ ... were good at sailing. You understand all the ropes. That’s excellent. I’m looking forward to this. Where will I stow the bag?” The master’s cabin was small; Keith had ignored it; used it for stowing gear and slept in the hold with the crew. Traditionally this would have had a crew of one, but the authorities had allocated two women both because they were women and therefore weak and feeble, and also because it would not be appropriate for a woman to be on the boat alone with a man. Keith laughed out loud when he was told that – since his record clearly stated he had ‘homosexual tendencies’, he thought the women would be safe. He said nothing, since this was not the time and place to ‘tell the public he was a poofter’ – that’s what he told the two girls once he knew them.
Keith and Paul had met at school. In the same class, Keith was accused, rightly as it happened, of propositioning a younger boy. The boy hadn’t objected, but the proposition was overheard by a squiky – as telltales were called in their school. Up before the head, Keith was likely to be thrashed and then expelled for gross indecency (which he said privately would be unfair since he hadn’t actually got as far as the indecency); Paul had simply stepped up and said it couldn’t be true because he and Keith were drinking cider behind the sports hall. They both got thrashed for alcohol, the squiky was given a talking to for making up stories, and Paul and Keith became friends despite Paul not having a homosexual bone in his body (‘certainly not a homosexual boner in his body’ was Keith’s reply). They went sailing in the summer. Paul was heading for Cambridge, Keith dropped off the radar and used an inheritance to buy Thermopylae and traded along the south coast for two years. In his summer breaks, Paul would help out as additional crew, sometimes the only crew (some boys leaving abruptly when they discovered Keith’s preferences. Keith promised that he never, ever tried it on with his crew. ‘They might have thrown me overboard, or complained to the police’). One winter he delighted in sailing back with Keith to the harbour in a raging storm; admiring Keith’s ability to navigate to pinpoint accuracy with no stars, moon or even light as spray poured over them. None of this ever set off his asthma. What set his asthma was London and other big cities. The dust, the noise, the smell, the pollution. He was a man of the open water. Then the war erupted.
Keith volunteered for the Army, and was found to have asthma which might erupt at any time. His tests showed what he already knew, that he liked men rather than women. For both reasons, he was rejected. Keith volunteered for the Navy, was accepted and invalided out after a single day on a warship when the heavy fuel oil smell gave him an asthma attack from which he nearly died. He was returned to his own ship and told he would be used for deliveries along the south coast. Coasters such as his could reduce the road traffic, and the pressure on the railways and the use of precious fuel. It was a small thing, but at least he was helping. Some Whitehall department allocated him two land girls as crew – also volunteers who wanted to do their bit.
Jenny – Jennifer Smythe-Pickson – had recently married a young lieutenant who was about to be posted to Egypt. They had brought their marriage forward (so she would get a widow’s pension if the worst happened. Terence Pickson was very practical.) Their wedding night had been a hurried, fumbling affair because he had to leave at 3:30 the next morning. They had combined their names. His letters implied, suggested or alluded to the need for some leeway in faithfulness. He was suggesting that he was not the jealous type. In other words, he wanted to feel comfortable about dating the young women of the consulate in Alexandria. It was really the hub of a spy and anti-spy network. He was a security officer for a regiment and so got to know three of the women. He had no favourites, he was married and intended to remain so; but a chap needed recreation; and he let her know he would understand if she did too. So far she hadn’t – either need or opportunity. She was slim, sun-tanned now, and quite strong. Like Fiona, she wore gloves on the lines, halyards, and sheets (we tended to call them all ropes unless they had specific names like peak and throat – as in ‘tighten that rope will you? No the other rope, no, the other, other rope. Yes!’ Land-lubbers, you see) so her hands were not the calloused, hard plates that Keith’s had become.
Fiona was not of the same class, lower-middle perhaps, or upper-working. Her mother had named her Fiona in the hope that a classy name would mean a classy job. She had married a pilot during the Battle of Britain, he had proposed and she had accepted and they had married. Almost as quickly as that took to read, they both realised it had been a mistake, but since he was now a POW in Germany, there had been no opportunity to rectify it. Like a lot of wartime weddings, the need to have sex, to hold someone, to feel wanted, had overwhelmed them both and when they realised that he liked plays and cocktails, and she liked films and beer, it had been too late. When he came back the marriage would be dissolved, they both knew; but she kept on writing to him because he needed support as he languished in a wooden hut ‘somewhere near a southern German city’ which was all the detail that he was allowed to write. Fiona was built more solidly, her bust was the first thing many (male and female) noticed; it was prominent and stretched her Land Army jumper enticingly. Her rump was similarly better upholstered; not fat, definitely not fat, just fulsome, rounded. When she bent to tidy a rope, the eye naturally observed the trouser material stretched over her buttocks. Her nut-brown hair was tied up in a bun, as was sensible. He was about to say this to Jenny when she piped up “I’d better tie my hair up if we are thinking of moving, don’t want to be scalped by a rope in a block do I?” She pulled a scarf from her pocket and tied her hair into some kind of bundle on her head. It was clear that she took little account of looks. Both of them, in fact, were efficient and effective as they moved around the deck. They weren’t just here for the tan.
“We were given a choice, this boat, sorry, ship – Keith is very particular – or a farm. I was offered a farm in Yorkshire. Nothing against Yorkshire, but it rains all the time doesn’t it? Anyway, this seemed more interesting. Keith has been great, patient, bullying, commanding and kind. He’s taught us a lot and we’ve both done things we never knew we could.” explained Jenny. They had climbed the mast in a bosun’s chair to free a rope; lifted anchors with the windlass (the donkey engine could be attached to do that, but the hand crank was good to understand; sailed and steered and cooked and loaded and unloaded and stood up to good natured (and not so good natured) ribbing from dock workers. They were a crew now, but still needed a proper skipper, hence Paul’s arrival.
Paul assumed they already knew, but explained anyway. Keith had been called to London for another interview to see if the Navy could find some use for his undoubted skills. Training perhaps? It was the kind of invitation that did not brook a negative. But he had a load of wood to collect and deliver along the coast for the Mosquito factory. That really should be the same day. At the delivery end the factory were expecting receipt and would send a lorry for the wood, at the collection end the wood should not be left on the loading wharf too long – both because it might spoil if it rained and because it might get ‘lost’ if it was unguarded. Knowing Paul was in need of recreation whilst he recovered, a letter offered a day or two of sailing. Paul was impressed that Keith would allow him control of his pride and joy, but then it was summer and he had shown he had some ability in navigation.
They had met at Waterloo station, had a quick chat over a tea and then Keith had continued his way to the Admiralty and Paul had caught the early train to Flamford. Some might say that if he could sail then he could fly; but the Battle of Britain crisis was over now and so the more bureaucratic nature of the armed forces had returned. He would not be allowed back into a cockpit until he had finished his recovery period (six weeks) and been signed off by a doctor.
The silver lining of the bullet through his leg was that he would not be flying Hurricanes when he returned to active service. His was one of the last squadrons with them and, as they engaged a small enemy flight, he had felt his leg explode with pain as a lucky (for the gunner shooting at him) shot had hit him. He was lucky that it was him, not the plane, that’s what he thought. He managed to fly back and land it rather than having to bail out of a ball of fire. The enemy bomber was not so lucky, crashing in the sea with the crew still in it. When he returned, he had already been told, he would be trained on Mosquitos. He couldn’t wait.
“So we’re delivering the wood to make your plane?” said Jenny, “How romantic.”
“I suppose it is, yes.”
He dropped into the small cabin, quickly changed and climbed back out; leaving the stick in the cabin. He could walk to the end of the ship quite easily and didn’t want to seem to be an invalid. They started up the donkey engine, engaged to propeller and the two girls untied fore and aft. He had offered them to ‘drive’, but they had both said no. Pleased to be asked, but also a little nervous in harbour – any mistake would be put down to them being mere slips of girls, whereas if he sank three rowing boats it would be said that ‘it got caught by a wind I expect’ or ‘these things happen’; but they also wanted to see how he handled the ship. After all, they wanted to know they were in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing.
The crowded little harbour had small fishing skiffs setting out, a navy cutter was pootling around for some unknown reason, and rowing boats in all directions. “Like Piccadilly Circus” said Paul as he edged away from the harbour wall and slowly went across to the timber wharf. He went much slower than Keith would have done, but he wasn’t worried about showing off, he was worried about doing it right. A good seaman will always recognise someone taking his time as better than someone trusting to luck.
At the wharf, he watch, impressed as the two girls used the boom as a crane to load bound bundles of spars. He dropped into the hold to catch them, and stow them and tie them. It was obvious that part of the hold was being used by the girls as living quarters. The master’s cabin was full of charts, shackles, spare anchors, tool boxes, and other stowage. There appeared to be some order to it, but it wasn’t clear what that order was. Since the two cots were both heaped with sails and an old canvas hatch cover (with a rip – a repair job waiting for the quieter winter months), it was obvious he would be using the hold as well. He wondered how they would manage the ablutions. The toilet, he knew, was of the ‘bucket and chuckit’ variety; but presumably the girls washed sometimes too?
The hold filled with wood, the two women looked approvingly at his knots; he knew how to steer and how to tie knots, that was good. They rearranged a couple of bundles of spars. “We can sleep on these, wedged in, see? That way even if it is stormy, one of us can be sleeping safe and sound. That’s the theory, anyway.” Fiona explained. It made sense, he still was wondering where he would sleep.
The hatch canvas was dragged over the hole and battened down. Then they returned to their original berth; they would sail on the tide in a couple of hours to get the currents flowing along the coast; if they left now the light winds would be battling the contrary currents for the first two hours and they wouldn’t make much head way.
A brew was made, drunk and people each busied themselves with tasks – tidying ropes, repairing a frayed whipping, checking the charts and pilot notes once more – without needing to be supervised. The two girls agreed that they were pleased he had changed from his uniform. They had wondered if the uniform had been to show that he was a professional (even if it was the wrong service), and they were just amateurs. He explained, when they got underway, how a fly-boys uniform got him free drinks and less hassle; they could approve of that. He seemed willing to muck in and get on with stuff. They had both noticed the appraising look, if the authorities had needlessly thought they might need to preserve decorum with Keith, Paul was more what they had in mind.
Whilst he read the pilot notes, he thought about how they buckled down to their work. He knew about Keith of course, and knew the two women were safe with him. They were safe with himself too, he would not take advantage, even if there had only been one woman on board. But he’d noticed the appraising look they both gave him, it was clear that neither of them were sapphic in their preferences. Both wore a simple wedding band, so he assumed they were young marrieds, wanting to do their bit. The land army had originally only taken unmarried, but there were plenty of able bodied women who could help so the criteria had been relaxed. Still, the view of their pretty bodies bending and stretching was better than some old codger in trousers held up with string. He wasn’t complaining.
The light onshore wind meant that the donkey engine was once again utilised to leave port, then as quickly as possible, the sails were raised. The spars and heavy canvas were not easy to haul up and Paul was pleased to show his temporary disability did not prevent him from playing his full part in hauling up the peak and throat of the main sail yard. They could have put a topsail up too, in such slight winds, but all seemed to tacitly agree that operating within their abilities was preferable to stretching themselves beyond their competence. The main sail and jib caught the wind, the engine was shut down and the ship began to make its way steadily south west along the coast towards the little harbour near Southampton. A larger ship could have carried more, but would have needed to use the main docks, and they were all heavily in use in preparation for some military event. That much was obvious, there was a build up, but what that event was was all but invisible to them. If they had suspicions, all opted to leave them unsaid.
Thermopylae was ship common for her period. She had been built around 1902 on the Deben by one of the many wooden shipbuilders still operating at the time. Like most of the coasting class of sailing trading vessels, she had a shallow draft, near flat bottom and large hold. She wasn’t a Thames Barge or a Severn Trow, or a Norfolk Wherry, or a Humber Keel; but she was similarly constructed for similar work. Able to use the small ports and harbours of the coastal towns and, if necessary, even to take the beach to unload. Competition from road and rail was telling on this class of ship now, soon very few would exist and even fewer would trade. She was the end of an era when sail and wind and tide was in the blood and timetables were as accurate as ‘Thursday – probably’ rather than thinking a particular hour or minute was vital. Keith had sailed her to Dunkirk with his ship’s boy at the time – Duncan McIntyre – and rescued a load of French troops. The row of caulked holes on one side told the story of the Messerschmitt attack. That plane had only attacked once, and then thought it beneath him to strafe a wooden sailing boat of exhausted men. Duncan had joined up when they returned to Britain, and that led to the arrival of the two girls.
On one journey to Dover, they had seen a mine bobbing nearby, and roped it and towed it in. The harbour master was not happy, but then the alternative would have been to leave a contact mine to float free. Keith had a rifle on board now, obtained by the kind of flexible thinking that was disappearing again under the civil service and military control, to dispatch any other contact mines they saw. They weren’t overly vulnerable to magnetic mines except when waste iron was being transport to be ‘turned into tanks’. Keith was pretty sure that Mrs Bagshaw’s rusty kettle would not be suitable for a gun turret, but it was a psychological boost for people wanting to contribute somehow.
The run down the coast would take about 20 hours, they would arrive around lunchtime the following day. Paul took logs, plotted their speed, estimated tides (for and against) and announced “We shall arrive at 13:07 precisely ... give or take three hours” and they all laughed. They had got used to the pleasantly imprecise nature of sailing. If the wind veered or lessened the time would change. Keith was good at this, he was usually within half an hour of his estimations, Paul was in no hurry and knew his calculations were probably misleading. The tidal currents might have local variations near shore. As a shallow draft sailing vessel, it was safer and easier to keep out of the general shipping lanes since Aircraft Carriers rarely observed the rule that power should give way to sail.
Paul got Fiona and Jenny to each take a turn at steering; he was open about this; he wanted to assess whether he could trust his friend’s ship to them whilst he slept or should he be awake for 20 hours. They understood, like him, they knew how much Keith loved his boat and they didn’t want to be responsible for damaging her. As it happens, with a clear course, they were both as competent as he was; so, as long as the wind stayed constant, only one person needed to be on deck at a time. They all breathed a sigh of relief and Paul emphasised this trust by going below to make some drinks.