E-mail for more information:
KENT, ENGLAND, OCTOBER 1946
The weathered masts were reaching into a driftwood sky that morning when I first saw the derelict ships, old square-riggers from a bygone era. Chained to makeshift moorings, they tugged like giant seahorses, but with nearly all the life gone out of them. Tattered rigging, loose fittings, and green unpolished bright work enough to make a sailor cry. They were the monarchs of sail in their day, but their day had long passed. Their once-proud masts now served as perches for the occasional passing gull among the twisted trees along the south shore of the River Thames. No more would they await the arriving tug for the tow upriver, with their holds full and lads eager to walk the shore again. They were used up and turned out like whores in the wind.
Gone were the days of the great clipper and packet ships, once a common sight here. They had fallen victim to progress. The steam engine had made them obsolete, and upriver, bridges of a newer more efficient time now restricted the passage of tall ships forever. Oh, but they made a magnificent picture when under full sail with a stiff wind at their backs! No wonder that hundreds of writers and millions of spectators have expressed the opinion that this was among the most splendid sights ever to be witnessed. Alas, even the greatest of spectacles fade from favour with the passage of time.
The three ships lay moored together along the Kent side of the Thames Estuary, not far from the great river's mouth, across the mud banks and sand that were tied together by a field of tussocky grass. Looking upriver I could see a number of support ships from the war painted grey and identified only by white numbers and letters rusting in the rains. Farthest from shore wallowed the remains of a once-proud four-masted barque, now a rusted hulk long since demasted. Rivets and steel plates had been peeled back to reveal the main hatchway in an attempt to use her as a coal barge, the ultimate humiliation for any sailing ship. She lay awash in the mud as if serving as a breakwater for the other two, and that she did quite well.
The ship closest in was a three-masted barque with a steel hull. She looked more sound than the wooden three-master in the middle, which had some of her yardarms either missing or in disrepair. The shoreward vessel had a gangway down to the nearby bank, so it appeared that one could use it to board all three. I took care walking across the wood and metal planking that made a path across the marshes and had a closer look. The name was still discernible on her bow: Bonnie Clyde.
As I wandered along the shore, I thought of all they had been. Aboard these ships seamen once lived in quarters that today would be considered intolerable; their diet dreadful, their work hard and extremely dangerous. Voyages often took months to reach destinations, and it was not uncommon for a man to spend several years travelling different trade routes before returning home with little money to show for his efforts. Voyages were always dependent upon the hope of favourable weather. Sailing had long been regarded as one of the most hazardous ways to travel, for ship disasters were commonplace. Vessels sometimes disappeared without a trace or clue as to their fate.
The busy Thames was every bit as challenging as the English Channel, for collisions and obstacles were a constant hazard to all craft navigating these waters. So it had been for centuries, but seafaring men were still drawn to sign on and ship out before the mast. Now the masts were gone, except for these.
I spent time walking along the bank looking each ship over, remembering when a friend arranged passage for me aboard such a vessel, and what a fine adventure it had been! I stood a long while at the bottom of the gangway waiting for some sign of life, but saw no one about. With absence of ceremony, I climbed the ageing wooden planks to the deck.
As I came aboard, there was no officer of the watch to speak with, so I was left to wander her deck alone. I thought of the past few years that had brought me from the war in Europe to this peaceful spot. It was a year after World War II and there were not enough jobs for sailors, or anyone else for that matter. Times were hard for those of us returning home as well as those who fought the war on their own doorsteps.
I looked about with a sigh at the twisted cable and untidy ropes. It was sad to see her in such a state. Her wooden deck was in remarkably good condition, as were the steel masts and standing rigging, with every yardarm accounted for. In fact, there was new rope around the main yardarm, showing that work had recently been done. Surely everyone here knew and cared little that these ships were nothing short of wrecks awaiting some grim fate. Damned shame, I thought. Damned waste of a good ship here!
Walking up through the fo'c's'le, I passed two new mechanical brace and halyard winches designed to ease the backbreaking task of hoisting and turning the enormous yards. With their use, much of the arduous work at the capstan could be avoided. Walking the capstan round is backbreaking work, as anyone knows who's done it.
The winches seemed out of place here, a little too modern for an old ship. They didn't look as though they were completely installed either. The main yard had been lowered, and rested on the port and starboard rails, lashed with new chain and good running rigging all around. I ducked under the huge yard and headed towards the stern. Of the two starboard lifeboats I passed, one had rotted out and collapsed on its chocks, the wood warped and split. The others were equally dismal, and were not even capable of retaining rainwater. I sighed. What a mess!
It was a crisp afternoon on the water. Turning my collar up and reaching for my pipe and lighter, I put one foot up against the old boat chock and struck the lighter. With a hand cupped around to deflect the wind, I was enjoying my third puff when the old timber under my foot suddenly gave way to my weight, sending me to the deck with a resounding crash. An indignant wharf rat scurried off down the deck to hide elsewhere, and a gull, equally offended, took wing. I was glad that the lifeboat didn't fall as well.
I collected myself and began to rise. I was startled as a booted figure, clad in a heavy sweater and with piercing blue eyes, appeared out of nowhere. With an embarrassed smile, the hello had just left my lips as he burst out in a hard Scottish burr, "What the bloody hell d'ye think ye're doin' here?"
"Well," I replied, "I was just passing, and-"
"Ye've been sent by those government officials, have ye?"
"What? Which officials?" I said, bewildered.
He pursed up his leather-like face and raised the brim of his cap an inch. "Those who want tae take her tae her grave," he answered darkly.
"Take who?" I gasped. I didn't know if he was just trying to scare me or was some old crank gone mad. Still, he was a bit frightening.
"This 'ere ship, lad. Are you telling me ye know nothing of it?" he demanded.
"Look, I'mthat is, I just returned from the war and"
"In the war? Army, eh?" he scoffed.
"Well! We have a sailor here, do we?" he said, looking me over with a keen eye.
"I was a ship's officer in the Royal Navy aboard the-"
"I don't bloody care about the Royal Navy!" he snapped. "This ship had nae a gun on her, but by gaw for two years we sailed through the U-boats carrying ammo and shells whilst the Jerries thought our hold was filled with guano."
"Guano?" I asked.
"Aye, bird shit!" he grimaced, taking his pipe from a pocket.
We laughed at having thus established ourselves as fellow seamen; then went and sat down on the main hatchway to relight our pipes and chat. Looking at this old man, a deep water square-rigger sailor, I could hardly wait to hear his story.
As I struggled with my lighter, the old man reached into his pocket and brought out a box of Swan Vestas to light his own pipe first, before passing the box to me without comment. The flaring match revealed every wrinkle in his face and hands, evidence of his many years of gruelling shipboard toil. He looked over at me, out of the corner of his eye, as I grew more self-conscious. I felt less like a naval officer, and more like some callow cabin boy.
The old man cleared his throat ceremoniously. "Now then," he began, "I've been at sea fifty-two years, man and boy. I was a master on other rigs thirty-some years and then five years master aboard this one. My taking charge of her now, is what any captain would call his last command. I hate tae waste a good ship because of government fools, who sit in small rooms and make big decisions. Three years ago they took her oot o' service and left her here to rust with the last of them. She's been a fine ship. Now it's either cut them up or scuttle them. If the government officials get their way, they'll take them out for target practise. And still another tap-dancing political twit thinks she'd make a fine pub if they put her up dry!"
"You mean permanent dry dock?" I asked.
"Aye," he said sadly.
"Well, I suppose that's better than the other two options."
"That's no bloody option at all!" he cried. "This ship belongs on the water and nae here getting weather beaten by the North Sea gales. Well, it's a mercy that at least the auld barque on the seaward side still makes a fair breakwater. Never wished any ship harm, except them German ones. She was slammin' into baith o' these, so we sank her to the mud, and a good job too."
"You sank her?" I exclaimed.
"You ask a lot o' questions, young man. For all I know you're in with some o' those government officials."
"I've got no reason to lie to you sir. I told you, I just returned -"
"Aye, aye, from the war. I heard ye. Can't be too careful. Anyway, I expect ye're too young."
"Too young! Too young for what?" I said, bristling.
"To be one of those government officials," he growled. "Are ye nae listening, lad?"
"Yes, well, I just wasn't sure what you meant," I said. I hadn't the slightest idea what he was on about and was about to tell him to put a sock in it.
He gave me a quizzical look. "What did ye think I meant, eh? Here, just what is your name, laddie?"
"Flynn," I said, putting out my hand.
"Right," he answered. "And Bowman's mine." He wiped his hand on his trousers and extended it to me. His grip was as firm and rough as his words. "Now answer me, Flynn. What was it you thought I meant? Eh, lad?"
"I thought you meant I was too young to understand the way you feel, and it isn't so. When I was fifteen, I sailed with the maritime service on the Jackson, a four-masted barque, training for entry into the Merchant Navy. I put in some good years, and just when I was ready to qualify, along came Hitler. I finished up as a lieutenant aboard a destroyer in the North Atlantic, escorting convoys. Wretched duty, that was."
The old man's mouth opened as if to speak, and then clamped down on his pipe. He sat quietly reflecting behind clouds of smoke. I hoped he had developed a bit of respect for me for the training I'd received, along with the dangers I'd faced. To this he said nothing.
I could hear only the sounds of the water and the creaking of the ship. The old man sat with eyes fixed, gazing within and beyond. The late afternoon sun was fading, and a fog was forming out beyond Sheerness. Still he took scant notice, and sat without a word. I could hardly continue sitting near without trying to make some conversation, so I pondered exactly what to say. I stood up and stretched, looking at the masts towering above us.
"Kind of romantic, the era of sail," I said, then stopped, realising how trite that sounded.
The old man jumped up as if he'd been stung by a bee. "Romantic!" he cried. "Romantic? Aloft, hauling in wet canvas sail in a damned cold ocean gale, hands so frozen they can hardly grip, with only the wind at yer back holding ye against the yardarms, hoping ye can make it down the ratlines without taking a fall to the pitching deck below? Ye hae a damn strange idea of romance, Flynn. Little wonder ye're not married."
"I didn't know it showed," I said in surprise.
"It does," he answered.
He knocked the ash from his pipe and refilled it before speaking. "Thirty-two years we were," he said at last in a low voice. "Lost her in the bombing. Stayed in London where we thought it safe. And at first Hitler only sent his packages over to the military targets. Nineteen-fortyOctober, it was. Direct hit on our house and me down river. I could hear the planes coming in from the deck of this very ship and the sirens wailing like lost soulsAye well, at least after that we had no more need to worry over one another when I was at sea. 'Missing,' they said." He cleared his throat. "She was a fine lass, my Meg."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Bowman," I said quietly.
I recalled when last I said goodbye to my best girl. I remember her in a nurse's uniform and cape. We both looked quite dapper in our new uniforms as we stood on a corner of a street with rows of flats, one with a large red cross.
"I'll be right here when you return," she said.
I recall looking at the name of the street on the sign. After the war, I stood alone on the same street corner surrounded by buildings reduced to rubble with the same sign bent and rusted-it was raining. A tattered awning slapped in the wind. Suddenly a flap of torn canvas made the same sound on the Bonnie Clyde, and Bowman's words brought me to conscious thought.
"No matter." He turned and walked aft up the ladder to the bridge deck so I followed him up to the helm. He then sat with one hand on the large double wheel, which I saw had a foot brake to help control or slow the turning of the helm in rough seas. "Put in many an hour at this helm. It seemed only fitting that I should be caring for the auld Bonnie once she was retired." He patted the wheel in a comforting manner.
"What do you do now?" I asked.
"Answer stupid questions," he said, turning away. After a moment he looked back at me almost apologetically. "I'm a pensioner of the company now. Enough to keep me in food and almost enough to keep the rain off me head."
"You live aboard?" I asked.
"Aye, till they drag me off," he said, looking grim.
I wasn't too sure who they were, the old shipping company or the government officials, but I said, "They wouldn't do that, would they? Surely they wouldn't bother you. After all, you've taken care of things around here."
"They don't want us around, Flynn. Taking care of things isn't what they want either. And bother us? Why ye'd think they'd naught better to do."
"Mr. Bowman," I began, "at the risk of asking another stupid question, who exactly are us?"
"Meself and some others who feel the same about this ship. Sailors, deep water men all."
"So then, that was who helped you sink the old coal barque. That's spot on, just grand," I said, thinking I was being complimentary.
"You keep that under yer hat, young man," he cautioned.
"Not to worry sir. I work at the inn down the end of the lane from here, so if I can help you"
"And what makes ye think help is needed? Besides, have ye naught better to spend your time at?" he snapped.
"Well, if you think being at the beck and call of a fussy bitty hen of a landlady is a better way to pass the time, then you must be mad."
"Mad I'm not," he snorted, "a bit daft I may be." A thought lit his eye. "Would that inn be the old Beasley place?"
I nodded. The path I'd followed down to the water led right back to the Beasley Inn. No one could miss it in passing, for it stood just off the roadway.
"I know it well," he laughed.
I returned to our original subject, "At the risk of sounding daft myself, this ship doesn't look as if she's a total loss. The standing rigging looks to be taut and sound. Now, if enough good line could be foundthe main running rigging could easily be replaced. Ah, and I couldn't help noticing those winches, they could certainly handle the yards if properly rigged."
I kept on, pointing out this and that as I went, and spouting on about everything that I came across. "This deck," I continued, "surely all it needs is a bit of caulk and holystone" I stopped suddenly, realising that my mouth was running away at a clip. I turned to meet Bowman's condescending stare. There was an uncomfortable silence.
"Well, first we'd need some sweepers fore and aft," he suggested.
"Right," I agreed.
With one quick motion, he snatched a broom from its resting place and shoved its handle into my hand. I blinked. He almost grinned, but his beard made it hard to tell. "Wouldn't ye agree that we've no need of officers on this ship as yet? Now manpower-of that we have need." I stared at him, surprised at the sudden steely ring of command in his voice.
"I suppose so," I responded. I had worked hard to become an officer, and sweeping was for ordinary seaman. Thankfully Bowman didn't pursue this line.
"Getting a bit cauld this day, eh lad? Care for a wee dram?" he asked.
I was surprised "Oh no! I couldn't deprive you of" but he waved me off impatiently.
"There's always a drop of the right stuff for lads like you. Come along now."
I followed him over to the hatch, where a shove at the cover revealed the ladder to the deck below. As we climbed down, my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, and many things began to make even less sense to me. Below decks, the wood on the bulkhead and ladder were every bit perfect. A brass lamp shone above a table I could see down another ladder below. So much for this being a wreck, I thought!
Through another bulkhead and down a small passage aft was the captain's cabin. The old man walked right in, so I followed suit. This room probably looked as good as it did the day she was launched, save for some upholstery. The aft ports gave a grand view of the Thames waterway and the light reflected the water on the overhead.
"Blimey, you do live here!" I exclaimed, wide-eyed.
"Thought I told ye that," he said.
"Yes, but this is wonderful! And the captain's cabin, no less."
"She's got a captain. She's got me, and I her captain remain." There was real pride of place in his voice. Even to be captain of a derelict was no cause for shame!
He reached inside the cabinet and placed an unlabelled green glass bottle and two heavy mugs on the chart table. With a steady hand, he poured two equal portions, handing one to me. "Air do slainte," he toasted.
"That's grand. Sure to warm the blood," I concurred. "Cheers," I added, lifting the mug to my lips. Another surprise: this was good malt whisky! We sat sipping and savouring the amber liquid as if it were gold itself.
"So then, Captain Bowman. Isn't that how I should address you?"
"I've been called worse," he assured me.
"Yes sir," I said under my breath. I looked about the cabin, "I must say sir, this ship isn't what she seems from above. Topside is a bloody wreck from a distance, yet close up she's not so bad. The wood is fine, the seams appear tight, and then there's down below here. Tell me, is her hull sound?"
He glanced up from his drink and sat back in the chair with a crafty look. Freed from his scarf and turned-up collar, his grey whiskers looked much like a lion's mane and thick dark eyebrows bristled over his eyes. He made quite a picture.
"Quite sound. Been easier to work below," he remarked. "No one to see."
"To see what?" I enquired.
"What ye noticed a'ready, lad. With a few weeks of bustin' arse topside, we could get her out with half or better sail."
"Out? Sail?" I cried. "This? Aboard this ship?"
"Aye, this very ship," he said.
"But her rigging is a mess! Those lines couldn't hold half their load. No one knows if the upper topsails or topgallant yards would stand the strain. Good lord, it would take a pretty penny to put it right!"
He laughed. "So you know a bit about sailing these ships, do ye? Ha! Now you sound just like those government officials. Well it don't take but strong backs and quick minds."
"That doesn't quite pay the piper." I said, and then wondered if that was a wise expression to use with a Scotsman.
"Bugger the bloody piper! Look here, young man." Taking up the bottle, he replenished our mugs and tucked the bottle into the pocket of his watch coat. Reaching under the table, he pulled out two large Navy torches and handed me one. "Come along now," he said, and it did sound like an order.
Down a darkened passage we went, shining our lights as if in a coal mine. We went from his cabin down another ladder to the 'tween deck, and moved forward until we came to another bulkhead amidships. The air was damp and musty, and the overhead so low in places, even ducking would lose my cap.
The old man stopped outside one of the hatches, "Know where this goes?" he asked.
"To the main cargo hold?" I guessed.
"Aye, that it does." Turning his light first on me, then onto my cup, he produced the bottle from his coat and refilled our cups. "Come now lad, drink up."
I leaned half sitting against the inside hatch with my mug, and had one more nip. If I tried to match him sip for sip, I'd be plastered in no time. I was already feeling a bit loose in the joints. Bowman's face was in shadow but I could see he was serious.
"I'm going to show ye something, Flynn, and ye must never speak of it to anyone. I ask ye now for yer word." He gravely put out his palm and I shook his hand and promised. Sounded quite the mystery to me, but I quietly listened on.
"Aye," he said, "ye're right about the rigging, but if it were replaced before we're ready, it might give us away."
"I don't follow," I said. "You'd be hard pressed to come up with half of what you'd need."
He made no answer to this, but simply reached over and threw open the dogs that secured the hatch. Because I was leaning against it, I fell through the opening like baggage, tumbling over a dozen or so objects before reaching the bottom, and finding myself once again in the unenviable position of being flat on my arse looking up at Bowman.
"Take care now, lad! Now up wi' ye," he said impatiently.
Angry and incensed, I stood up to confront him, but when I picked up my torch, what I saw took all the words from my lips. Filling the hold were hawsers and lines of every size, both hemp and wire. There were all types of line, modern winding tackle, and shrouds with ranks of manila, and nylon ropes hanging and piled neatly in coils. As I moved my light around, I thought this was a bo'sun's gold mine. I sat down on a barrel next to a makeshift table covered with marlinespikes, serving mallets, sail-maker's palms, and an assortment of tools for sail making and rigging work. I looked at Bowman.
Even in the sharp shadows cast by the torches, the grin on the old man's face was plain to see. Here was a cargo hold filled with enough line to re-rig the entire ship-and then some.
"Captain Bowman," I began, "Where on earth did you getI mean where did all this come from?"
"Not yet lad. Maybe all things being right, ye'll know enough in time. Come along now," he chuckled, and turned to go out.
I pulled on my cap and backed out of the hold. As I turned to follow him, I forgot about the low overhead and caught myself a hearty smack. It felt as though I'd nearly knocked my head off, but luckily it was only my cap. I snatched it up hastily, hoping the old man had not seen me, and hurried along the dark passage after him. Walking along the 'tween deck, I shone my torch into the old cabins and divided rooms, still looking in remarkably good condition. When we came back to the chart table, Bowman set the bottle on the table and fell into a chair.
"Well Flynn, do ye think I'm a crazy old fool?"
"I never thought you a fool, Captain Bowman. I don't know what to think. If you could re-rig this ship, what then? Surely she's property of the Crown. It would be much like an act of piracy to make off with her."
"Piracy? When something is thrown away and ye save it, is it theft?" he asked indignantly.
"Well no, but this isn't quite the same."
"No one said a word about stealing. Relocation is what we're talking about. Liberating her, ye might say. Taking her back to Scotland where she was built. There she'll be looked after."
"How do you know that?" I asked.
"We've people there and they have a real dock to give her a home port. 'Tis the only way, lad. We've tried everything and talked to everyone." His expression hardened. "A nod is as good as a wink to a blind man. They don't give a damn up in London," he said bitterly pounding the table with a gnarled fist. Giving a long sigh, he took up the bottle and added to our mugs.
We sat back in silence, listening to the waves. The last of the sun was streaming through the round porthole, casting an amber hued spotlight beam over the chart table. The ship's clock on the bulkhead sounded its bell, and I reached for my pocket watch to check the hour. Just then, the distant sound of voices and footsteps of men coming aboard could be heard. I looked to Bowman for some reaction, but he showed no surprise. He got up slowly and drew out his pocket watch. Mumbling something under his breath, he took three more mugs from the shelf and placed them on the table. The voices grew louder, the compartment hatch opened, and down came three figures of a distinctly salty character, all well bundled against the wind.
Two made directly for the bottle, greeting Bowman with jokes and chaffing, while the third ploughed his way towards the warmth of the cabin's pot-bellied stove near my end of the table. He was swathed in a long macintosh and his face was muffled by yards of scarf. As he set to unwinding himself, a blunt old face emerged. The watery grey eyes suddenly grew large as they lit upon me, and quickly narrowed with suspicion. I started to put on my best smile, but it didn't get far. His lips quivered, then twitched open.
"And what would it be you're doin' here?" he asked in a heavy Irish brogue. The room was instantly silent, as all eyes were cast on me. I didn't feel like defending my presence to this lot, but I had to say something.
"That's the second time today someone's asked me that." I said, motioning to Bowman, who now remembered to introduce me.
"This is Flynn, lads. Royal Navy. But in spite o' that, he's worked on proper ships and could be of real use to us."
"Oh," stuttered the scarved one, "and how is it you'll be doin' that?"
"I'm not sure really," I admitted, "but I've a strong back and some real sailing experience"
"Ah, experience!" he said sarcastically. "Perhaps I'll learn something."
"Yes," I agreed with equal sarcasm, "perhaps you will." I turned away, leaving him muttering soundlessly.
"That's our NedEdward, if ye will," said Bowman. "Bloody good navigator. Not much on first impressions, just what you'd expect from an old mick." I looked to Edward for some sort of reaction, but his face was quite expressionless.
Bowman turned to the next man, "This is Boris. He's a Russian. Not good with English, but a damned fine rigger. None like him."
Boris pulled off his woollen cap and gave me a nod, dark eyes glinting.
I held out my hand, "Flynn's the name."
Though not an especially large man, Boris seemed impressively fit. He had a likeable earnestness about him. A smile gleamed through his moustache as he took my hand in a wiry grip. Ironically, as I would learn, Boris had left Russia years earlier, and had come to London to get a better life. Then the war came and life got worse. Here we were, impoverished and war-torn in England, but it was really the sea he regarded as his home now.
"Boris," he grinned. He pointed to the bottle on the chart table. "Is good, yes?"
"Excellent," I agreed.
My thoughts turned to the rigging. "I must say, you have a daunting task ahead of you."
"Thank you very good, Na Zdorovye!" Boris said, taking a long drink.
Bowman cleared his throat. "Told ye, not much on English."
"But big in heart," added Boris modestly, with an expansive gesture.
I lifted my cup. What a strange lot. I began to wonder if my tentative offer to help was wise. I decided to reserve judgment for the time being.
Edward fixed a sharp look on me, "Young man," he began then paused for a swallow of Scotch. His lips took on a quivering.
"If your work is as good as your words, well eh, a strong back is welcome. There's much to be done, and no time to do it all."
I was about to say something in return but the last of the three, a huge burly great bear of a man, now leaned towards Bowman and spoke in a quiet voice, "You'll want to know, no one followed. As soon as it's dark, we'll unload."
"Good show," nodded Bowman. He jerked a thumb in my direction, "This chap calls himself Flynn."
"Yes, I heard." The giant hove near and loomed over me.
"Harris," he said, extending a massive hand that all but swallowed up my own. I had to wonder if I'd get it back whole.
The expression on the face above me, with its sandy jaw-lined beard, was reassuringly mild. The beard was repeated in a fringe of hair around the back of his head, which left the top bare and shining pink. The overall effect was that of a vast benevolence, yet one had the overwhelming impression that in any fray this was someone you'd want to see in your own corner.
Finally he released my hand, which I cautiously flexed. "Excuse me a moment," he said, and made his way to a large armchair. He lowered himself with a grateful sigh, and with a piteous groan from the chair, poured himself a measure of whisky.
Giving me an appraising glance, he then looked towards Bowman. "How much does he know?" he asked.
"Enough," grunted Bowman.
Harris turned back to me, "Well Flynn, as Edward said, we've much to do and it means the world to us. I hope you'll not give us up, but bust your arse along with the rest of us, else I'll kick it into proper shape for you." And he gave a gentle, kindly smile that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. "Cheers," he added, lifting his mug.
"I'll do my very best, Harris," I gulped. Good God, I did seem to be committing myself, and, intriguing as it all sounded, I hadn't even known Bowman more than a few hours. "Never a good idea to always do your best. People will then always expect it of you," Harris joked.
The company looked about at one another and took this in without further comment, then pulled up their chairs closer to the pot-bellied stove. Harris leaned forward, opened the door, and stirred the coals with the poker. Taking up the tongs, he extracted a large bit of coal from a nearby box and tossed it in, then fell back into his chair and began his report.
"The spare wireless parts were hard to find, but I've enough to put the radio right with the exception of a proper handset. I've got two pumps and several tins of petrol to keep them going a few days. Good new hoses and lots of rigging parts. Boris, go through and see what's of use and what's rubbish."
"Aha, yes," said Boris, pulling on his watch cap.
Harris waved a hand, "Not yet, wait until dark. Oh, and deep-six anything with ship's markings if we can't paint over them." Boris nodded that he understood.
Whilst we waited for darkness, Harris and Bowman sat and told tales of their innumerable adventures during their many years at sea, some of it as shipmates. Between them, they had lived an odyssey that spanned many years and could probably fill a score of volumes if written down. Edward and Boris howled with laughter and volunteered little stories of their own as the evening wore on.
The place was cheery now, and we were starting to get to know one another. I could see that Edward, except when giving forth his low choked laugh, was a taciturn and reserved man. When he began to speak, his lips took on a nervous quiver, as if the words were stirring within, waiting to fall out. Boris was more easygoing and casually accepted most of life's tasks as not too much trouble. He'd been a rigger most of his life and was more at home aloft than on deck. That Russian accent of his was thicker than a London fog, but I suspected that he knew or understood more English than Bowman gave him credit for.
About seven o'clock, Harris got up and looked out of the porthole. "Well, Flynn, let's put that strong back of yours to some use. You help Boris unload. Bowman and I need to chat a moment. You too, Edward."
"Right," I replied. Rising, I laid hold of my coat and followed Boris up to the main deck. The instant the hatch opened we were greeted by a blast of frigid night air.
I hustled shivering into my coat, while Boris turned his face into the breeze as though it were a balmy summer's evening.
"Good night, not too cold," observed Boris.
"I expect it is, if you live in Siberia," I said.
He gave me an amused look. "No my friend, Siberia very, very cold."
I shuddered, "I'll take your word for it, Boris."
As we reached the gangway, I could make out an old ex-Royal Navy lorry parked on the bank. With the grace of a cat, Boris shot down the creaking old planks of the gangway, not even bothering to use the rope handrails. As I started after him I felt the ship roll a bit with the tide, and grasped the ropes whilst my knees struggled to keep my two feet under them. Finally reaching the bank, I looked over at Boris. "You make it look so easy!"
"Is only hard up top there," he said, pointing aloft to the towering masts. "You slip here, you only splash. You slip there, you splat."
"Right, well I shall try not to splat," but I wasn't feeling at all reassured as I looked up into the darkness.
Reaching into the back of the lorry, Boris threw back the tarpaulin. There were buckets of paint, great tins of petrol, and boxes of damned near everything one could wish for. It was staggering.
"Where did all this come from?" I asked in amazement.
Boris looked through the mass of goods, and lifted out a hauling block marked HMS Princeton. "From this," he said, indicating the letters on it.
"Good Lord man, don't tell me we're reduced to theft," I said in alarm.
"Hardly," came a voice behind me. I turned to see Harris making his way towards us. "The Princeton is in the scrap yard. Damned pig of a ship. She'll be broken up soon and needing none of this."
Then it came to me. Harris was more than a mere deckhand, and might be the inside connection to the scrap yards of the Royal Navy, whence he could easily smuggle things out bit by bit unnoticed. After a moment I worked up the courage to ask him about the possible connection. Even as I spoke, I thought I might have overstepped so I made my question short. He could always laugh it off, but I was rewarded with a ready reply.
"Aye that's true, every word," he said carefully. Then he looked me in the eyes and gave me that kindly smile again. "And a word to no one," he added sweetly.
I suppressed a shiver. "Well, I have to say it's brilliant. Up to now I was thinking that the ship couldn't ever be saved, but with that main cargo hold, you might carry it off."
Harris smiled, "Not a thing done slapdash."
"I had no idea that you were so well organised," I added lamely. "So much in fact, you must be the one who organises the endless supply of whisky in green unmarked bottles."
"No, that was sent up by Betty, a long-time friend of Bowman's wife, Meg. She runs a distillery on the Isle of Islay and gave a gift of a keg some time ago."
Harris once more bent his disquieting smile upon me, but mercifully at this point took his smile and clambered up into the back of the lorry with Boris. Each threw out a sack to me. I caught one while the other well-nigh caught me. I gathered them both awkwardly into my arms and began to trudge back towards the gangway. The fog that I had earlier seen gathering was now rolling in thicker by the minute.
"I feel like a grave robber in a Sherlock Holmes mystery," I called back to Harris.
"Sherlock Holmes robs graves?" asked Boris.
Harris looked up with an amused glint in his eye. "Yes indeed, simply doted on it," he remarked blandly. "Everyone knows that grave-robbing and the violin were the great Sherlock's favourite pastimes, mate."
Boris turned and gazed at him narrowly. Harris rolled his eyes skyward, "Oh never mind," he said absently, "let's have at it now."
It took a long hour to unload that bloody lorry. It seemed as though a bit of every ship scrapped must have been in there. Bowman, Edward, and Harris sorted things for storage locked together in a constant fray over what was or wasn't useful. Boris stood by silently, perhaps unable to determine what exactly they were on about. I envied him his poor English; then again he seemed to have an unflappable nature.
When the last bit of gear was safely stowed on board, we all filed back below deck. Between the pot-bellied stove and the heat of our labours, the cabin seemed positively tropical, a welcome change from the crisp night and the thickening fog.
"I must be getting soft," I groaned as I pulled off my coat, and fell into a chair. I was ready for a nice cup of tea, but Bowman was busily pouring another round of whisky, so I held out my hand for a mug of the restorative.
"It's a shame the sail locker doesn't shape up to the cargo hold," Bowman said.
"Why?" I asked, "How much sail is there?"
"Not much that's useful. Too much mildew and rot. Ha! I know what ye're thinking. All that rigging won't move a wind ship with nothing to catch the wind. Aye, but we're hoping to get lucky."
"Lucky?" I asked. I turned to Harris, who sat back with his eyes closed smoking a pipe comfortably held in the corner of his mouth.
"Good canvas is hard to come by, and what we do find is too small," Harris sighed. "Why, you'd have to stitch so much together, it'd probably split in a dozen places in the first hard blow. It's simply not for the doing."
"How would you sew it if you had it?" I asked. "Doing it by hand would take forever."
Harris settled back even further and blew out a smoke ring. "No need for that. We've friends in the garment trade, Jewish folk I helped get out of Europe when things got bad. Really nice people and they have quite a fleet of sewing machines, including some heavy-duty industrial ones. They're watching out for a volume of canvas. We already contacted some retired sail-makers to help with the sewing on the bolt ropes, making the cringles, and all those other finishes, without which the sails would be useless. I think I'll pop by there tomorrow and see if there's anything in the wind, so to speak. Care to come along Flynn?"
My aching muscles reproached me. "Well, I work all day, you know. I'm not sure that I could tackle another load so soon."
Harris laughed, "Small chance we'll fetch a cargo tomorrow."
I thought for a moment, "I'll give it a go, but it has to be at teatime."
"Not to worry," said Harris airily. "No place is far away when I'm driving."
"I've just remembered, I've some work to finish up at the inn," I said. Reaching for my pocket watch, I winced as I saw that it was after two o'clock in the morning. It was lateor early, depending how you looked at it. "I really must be going. I've enjoyed this evening, despite the work, and I look forward to seeing you again soon. Captain Bowman, Boris, Edward, and you, Harris-good night, everyone."
As I bundled up against the night, I was wondering just what the devil I had blundered into, and what I had let myself in for. Soon I would have to be making other plans, and this sounded a good deal more exciting than working at the inn. We shook hands all around, and I quickly climbed the ladder into the night.
THE BEASLEY INN
Next morning the shrill voice of Mrs. Beasley, landlady of the Beasley Inn, woke me. As she was directly beneath the window of my attic room, I couldn't pretend to ignore her presence.
"Oh, Mr. Flynn, please come straightaway. Purdy has a poor little bird!"
I rolled out of bed and pulled on my shirt, then went to the old casement and peered out. Below, my esteemed landlady and employer, her round figure swathed in an overcoat and a most astonishing nightdress, flitted heavily about the garden, arms flailing helplessly and grizzled hair flying. "Mr. Flyn-n-n," she wailed.
I had to wonder why people who own cats seem surprised whenever their pets capture a prize. These conquests, of course, customarily finish up with the termination of the luckless victim, following a lively round of recreational torture. Poor bird indeed. Miserable cat!
Purdy! Overweight, overindulged, and into trouble several times daily. Damned thing. Until I pruned back a branch that was too close to my little room, I never dared leave my window open for air, since Purdy made it his job to creep in whilst I was asleep or away. Once inside, he would not only give the bedclothes a liberal spraying, but was also thoughtful enough to leave a similar, more solid gift in my shoe. Once he ate a bird-or part of it-on my pillow. Of course, Mrs. Beasley refused to believe that her darling could be guilty of such villainy and in fact now regarded me with a degree of suspicion for having suggested it. I thought wistfully, what a handsome fur neckpiece one could fashion from a large cat pelt.
"Mr. Flynn, Martin, Katherine!" Mrs. Beasley cried. "You bad puss! Drop it! Drop it, I say!" I knew that neither the barman, Martin nor Katherine, the combined pastry cook and waitress, would pay any attention to her. It was my job. What a fearsome spectacle, to see this formidable lady acting the helpless female.
I heaved a martyr's sigh as I pulled on my trousers and shoes. I descended stairs and stepped into the sunshine, blinking with a slight bit of hangover from the night before. I was new to this area and had been here almost a week. Aside from Mrs. Beasley's alarms and her abrasive personality, it was quiet and restful. It was just a temporary job, but I was pleased with my position as gardener and groundsman for the property. The main pub building boasted a few guestrooms with combination pub and dining room in addition to three small one-bedroom cottages in the surrounding gardens. Mrs. Beasley was proud of her culinary prowess but she was not opposed to taking some credit for the skill of the pastry cook as well. A placard at the door of the pub read: Serving Luncheon, Tea, High Tea And Late Suppers By Arrangement. Another card advised: Bed And Breakfast Seasonally. By all accounts, the place was quite lively in the summer.
As I crossed the lawn, I encountered the thoroughly dishevelled Mrs. Beasley standing near her parlour door holding Purdy, a bulky ginger tom. "You nasty thing! How could you?" she was saying, as if the cat understood or cared in the least. He simply yawned as some stray bits of down floated gently off his mouth in the morning breeze. She turned and spied me. I averted my eyes from the undesired sight of her filmy nightdress, which may have looked more at home on Lana Turner or Hedy Lamarr.
"Oh Mr. Flynn, isn't it dreadful?" and she pointed to a scattering of feathers spread over the lawn.
"Yes. I'll see to it," I said, and fled off to the shed for a rake.
Nothing meant more to Mrs. Beasley than her cat and her birds, though tragedy was the frequent and inevitable result of combining the two interests. The suet and crumbs she lavished on her little feathered friends would have been more sustaining if they'd been placed where a cat couldn't reach them.
Bells rang out from the old stone church, for it was Sunday. I planned to get a bit of work done on this quieter day. It was not until later in the day that I saw Mrs. Beasley neatly dressed in tweed, with her salt-and-pepper locks perfectly coifed. It was quite a contrast to the wood nymph of the morning.
"Oh, there you are Mr. Flynn. Out till all hours last night?" she enquired.
"I suppose so," I began. "I took the footpath at the bottom of the garden to have a look at those old moored-up ships." Her expression grew stiffer. Now what? Talking to her was like having to answer to my mum when I was younger. "It's a grand sight," I added.
She looked down her nose at me and adjusted her glasses. "It will be far nicer when those wretched things are gone, and the people off them. Why, they're like shanties on the tide and home to a pack of tramps on the dole."
"Oh?" I said in surprise.
"Indeed, yes," she nodded. She lowered her voice to speak confidentially, eyes widening in dread, "And there is one worse than the lot, a horrid person called Bowman."
I laughed. "I think I may have met the man," I said as I clipped away at the hedge.
She became annoyed at this, "He's forever after the children."
"Children?" I asked.
"Yes, from what's left of the orphanage up there." She pointed to where the gently sloping downs climbed higher to the east above the water. I could make out part of a grey stone building. "The boys are drawn to those old wrecks and he's forever filling their heads with stories, even letting them climb the masts as if they weren't bad enough off loitering about such a filthy place. Oh! What a world!" She threw up her arms, and giving a tragic sigh, stalked back to the inn.
By the location of the orphanage, I guessed it afforded a tantalising view of the vessels and waterway below. It came as no surprise that children were drawn there. I remember many times when I was young how my elders disapproved of me "hanging about that unsavoury element," but to no avail. Nor did I find it surprising that Mrs. Beasley should find Bowman less than enchanting, remembering my own first encounter with him.
As I worked through the afternoon, I thought of last night and the courage and devotion each man brought to that grand old shanty on the tide. I had to laugh at the way Mrs. Beasley regarded it all, but I resolved to be very careful of what I said in her presence.
Promptly at four, a battered old Morris came bumping along the road and rolled to a stop with a jerk a few feet away. There was a loud hoot of the horn. Having never seen it before, I didn't look round until there was another hoot. It was Harris, and the little car was all but bursting at the seams with him. "Hello!" I called out.
Harris looked from the driver's window. "Get in before the old bat comes round again," he said, trying to whisper.
I glanced back at the inn amused. "I take it you mean Mrs. Beasley?"
"Aye, her Royal Hind-Arse," he growled, keeping his voice low. "She's into everyone's back garden, has a kettle on the whole of mankind with a paddle that reaches clear to the bottom of the pot. You'd best watch yourself around her."
He shook his head in disgust, and then creased his face up into the sinister leer of a cinema underworld chief. "Look 'ere mate, if that old tabby peaches on our mob, she won't live to see us do porridge," he grated.
I chuckled, "Point taken," I said. "She'll hear nothing from me. I just need a moment to clean myself up."
"No time for that. In the car, in the car!" He insisted.
As I squeezed in beside him, Harris's knees seemed to be bent up under his chin. I pitied his discomfort until we got under way. I found I had to slump down and shrink against my door to allow room for his elbow whilst he changed gears. The car rattled, shook, and clanked in an ominous manner. Once we left the inn behind, he raised his cap and slowly pulled it off. Now he was getting down to business. I found his driving skilful, but very fast. I held on like a white-knuckle flyer as he took the bends and weaved in and out of cars, carts, pedestrians, and bicycles.
I was surprised by the sight of others' equally startled faces flashing by outside my window.
"Is it really necessary to drive this fast?" I gasped.
"Oh, absolutely," he replied cheerfully, giving the throttle an extra boost. The car shuddered, as did I.
Harris told me he had served over twenty years on various ships, and had known Bowman since he was a boy, even serving with him and under him on occasion and was perhaps the only living person to get away with calling him Uncle Billy. Harris currently worked for the Royal Navy as a storeman in the Chatham Dockyard. It was not just fate that brought him and Bowman together this time; it was now the items in the scrap yards from many ships no longer useable.
I wondered what "Uncle Billy" thought of Harris's driving as I clung on for dear life, watching trees, houses, and villages rush by at a perilous speed. After a time I remembered to breathe. I had to remind myself that it was only the county of Kent, and not my life, which was passing before my eyes.
"Are we almost there?" I asked as we ran through Gravesend. "Surely it can't be much farther."
"Almost there m'boy," said Harris, his eyes fixed on the road.
Half reassured I watched the countryside as we passed, and suffered silently through another stretch of the journey. Behind the clouds, daylight would soon be failing. I became aware that we had moved into a built-up area and the traffic was increasing.
"Harris! I do need to be back soon. Where exactly are we going?"
He glanced at me from the corner of his eye. "Well, it's sort of East End-ish."
I digested this morosely. "You rotten cheat!" I exclaimed. "You knew I'd never come along if I'd known we were going all the way to London. Haven't you heard that petrol is still being rationed?"
"Don't worry over that, it's special Navy reserve fuel. It's a nice outing for you, laddie," he said. "Don't tell me you prefer the company of La Belle Beasley?"
This deserved no answer from me and I kept some colourful language to myself as we swung down Shooters Hill. Passing Greenwich and New Cross onto the Old Kent Road, we turned right and rattled over Tower Bridge. The traffic seemed to part miraculously at our approach; when it didn't, Harris cursed and chafed. I think he would have driven over the vehicles if he could. As we came into Whitechapel, looking at the bomb devastation was rather humbling. Whole stretches were flattened from the Blitz and by the latest super weapons. My own worries seemed very trivial by comparison. The East End had been hard hit, with the Luftwaffe being especially attentive to dockland warehouses, treating them to its full menu of destruction. The Germans used high explosives, incendiaries, and landmines in 1940, and then "doodlebugs" and V1 and V2 rockets in 1944. Of poor old Limehouse, the setting for many a tale of dark suspense, little remained. The Port of London had never shut down during the war, and river traffic had been periodically interrupted for mine sweeps.
We rumbled along for a time, before turning into a street having ruins to the left and the occasional intact structure to the right. Harris suddenly swerved, the engine whining, as he changed into bottom gear and ran into the kerb. That was how he stopped his car when there was no uphill available. "Here we are," he said.
After bouncing for the past two hours, I sat numbly in the silence. I felt that some comment was warranted, but reproaches were pointless. "Wherever did you come by this car?" I asked.
"'Tis all mine," he said. "I traded some magic beans for it," then grunted as he pried himself out from behind the wheel.
I opened my door and all but fell out. I stretched my limbs painfully, wondering if my spine was now permanently deformed.
"What about that lorry you had last night?" I asked.
He looked at me blankly, "Why?"
"Well," I said, "I thought we were coming to pick up sails. This car won't carry much."
"As I said last night, I doubt we'll be so lucky as to have much to carry," he said, "but we'll soon see." He turned and crossed the battered cobbles of the street. I hurried along behind him, his pace nearly twice my own. He halted before one of the few undamaged buildings, an ancient-looking brick warehouse, and stood surveying its blackened faade.
"I don't suppose that Whitechapel is anyone's idea of heaven, but compared to what der Fuhrer had in mind for them" He shook his head, led the way up the steps to the loading platform, and went to the warehouse door. Removing his glove, he knocked on the door with a heavy hand. The door opened a crack and an eye peered out at us.
"Don't break it in!" protested a foreign-sounding male voice. "My God, you sound just like the Gestapo."
"Sorry," Harris replied.
"Never mind. I should know by now it could only be you," said a slender middle-aged man as he opened the door. He had dark curly hair and a thick beard. In his eyes I could see the shadow of grief, which was all too familiar these days. He wore his tailor's apron with an air of dauntless professionalism. The scissors at his belt and tape measure about his neck he wore as though they were the insignia of office.
As we entered, I looked about with interest. There were massive cutting tables heaped with bolts of cloth. Next to them a line of sewing machines, including some large heavy-duty ones, able to sew all sorts of materials. The whole place was a well-organised and successful workshop. Harris's refugees had done very well for themselves, and they had him to thank for making it possible.
The tailor was looking at me with curiosity, but Harris was already asking for news. "We've seen nothing," he said to Harris. "There are many small lots of material as heavy as you need, not nearly enough. It would take too long to sew it together, and I couldn't guarantee the results in a strong wind. We have to find some very big rolls, long pieces large enough to sew for sails. Oh, but how rude I am!" He turned to me and held out his hand, "Brian," he smiled.
"Flynn," I replied, giving him a warm handshake.
"Harris got us out of France you know, only two steps ahead of the German army. Never was there such a great heart! I know he put his life at hazard for us many times over. My family and I will always be happy to help him, and any friend of his. We can sew almost anything, but we must have the material. Not even the black market people have enough of the canvas you need." Brian threw up his hands in resignation.
Harris tried not to show his disappointment. "Well my friend, please keep your ears open," he said, "We'll have to be getting straight back as it's already late and we have a good drive ahead of us."
"Won't you stay for dinner?" Brian asked. "You never seem to have time for social visits these days."
"No, I'm sorry," Harris answered, "but thanks anyway. Could we have a couple of these?" he said eyeing a bowl of apples. "We missed our tea." He pulled out two, tossing one to me.
"Come along, Flynn." He made a quick exit, forcing me to scurry after him.
"Nice meeting you Brian," I said waving goodbye. "Thanks for the apples."
"Stay well, my friends," he called, and closed the door.
We were making for the car when suddenly Harris turned aside. He climbed over the bench at a nearby bus stop and slid down onto the seat, looking glum. The gaslight from a twisted street lamp emerging from a pile of rubble cast a wan light over us.
"That wasn't the news I'd hoped for," Harris said. "I don't think that much canvas exists in all of London." He gave a great sigh. We sat in silence for a time. To put the proper finish to our dismal mood, it now began to drizzle in the grey twilight. Harris gave no sign that he was even aware of this dampness.
Looking up the street, a red double-deck London bus had appeared and was making its way in our direction. Arriving at our stop, it drew up to let off two children. The conductor stepped off briefly, and walked to the front to have a quick word with the driver. As he got back on board and pulled on the bell cord, I happened to glance up at the advertising on the side of the bus. There were pictures of lions, tigers, and elephants, with blaring letters trumpeting CHIPPERTON'S CIRCUS, UNDER THE BIG TOP. A large circus tent occupied the background. All at once my mouth grew dry and I gulped.
"I say, Harris?"
"Yes?" he rumbled, chewing on his apple.
"When was the last time you saw the circus?"
"Circus?" he said, giving me an unfavourable look. "Have you gone round the bend Flynn? Who cares about that rubbish when there are more important matters at hand?"
"No, no," I said with a smile. "I have a friend I think you should meet."
"I've no time to run around a bloody circus," he protested.
"You'll have nothing but time for what I've in mind." I cajoled.
"Oh? And why do you think so?" he gazed at me with suspiciously.
"You'll just have to trust me on this one," I said.
"Beats pissin' to windward. That's what this day has come to," he muttered as he pitched his apple core.
The bus advertisement had also mentioned the place: Gravesend. It was not so far from the ships. I got Harris to agree to pick me up the next day. It was too late to go now, as my circus friend Robert would be busy with the evening performance.
We crossed the street, crammed ourselves into the car, and set off for Kent. With a roar of the mighty Morris engine, Harris resumed terrorizing the populace at large. I wondered what sort of reception I'd get back at the inn after my flagrant truancy. Fortunately, Mrs. Beasley had gone to the village of St. Mary Hoo on a long visit and never noticed my absence. Relieved at surviving the excursion and not facing an inquisition, I found myself some cold dinner from the kitchen and then crept into bed by ten o'clock. I had a feeling that I'd need all the sleep I could manage in the days to come.
Next day, Harris and I stood on Windmill Hill at Gravesend overlooking the circus. It was a crisp October day with enough wind to set the bunting and flags fluttering in the sun, but we only had eyes for the tents. There was the big top itself, a huge circle with its twin poles climbing up at least sixty feet. There were three other tents, where animal cages were kept, and several caravans dotted around the site.
"I thought you weren't keen on being reduced to theft?" Harris chuckled.
"Well, yes, but I thought where there's some canvas, there might be more. I have a friend who works here, so I'm hoping that we can find out."
"No harm in a bit of a look-see, eh?" Harris said with a smile. With that, we started down the hill. He looked over the tents gloatingly, as though they were already in the cutting room. As we were walking, one of the circus staff passed carrying a monkey that reached over and pulled off Harris's cap. Some passersby laughed, but Harris was not amused. He snatched it back, and put it back on his head. He drew himself up, the picture of wounded dignity, and cast a chilly eye upon the little creature. "Cheeky bugger, ought to be put in a pie," he growled. The monkey made a rude noise as it was borne off. Harris's eyes bulged out.
"Steady on," I laughed.
We'd been walking for a while taking in the festivities when I decided to ask a gateman for my friend. He directed us to one of the animal tents. There we found him cleaning out a lion's cage.
"Attention on deck!" I called out. Robert looked up and then dropped everything he held into a clattering heap.
"Flynn!" he cried. "You're a sight for sore eyes! How the devil are you? I haven't seen you in months. I thought you'd moved on without leaving word."
Robert and I were old friends and served two years as shipmates. Being demobbed from the Navy, or as some say "mustered out," we were doing what we could, and times were hard. There were no more convoys to escort and not much work available.
"No, I'm still around, Robert," I said, giving his hand a good pumping. "Oh, and this is my friend Harris."
"Hello," Robert said, "welcome to show business," and he reached out for his first Harris handshake. Robert's face may have turned a bit purple, but he bore this unexpected initiation in the spirit it was intended. He held his released hand out before him as a dog would an injured paw. "Here, sit down," he said, indicating some bales of straw with the other hand.
"How have you been?" I asked.
"Bare-arsed and bleeding from every pore," said Robert. "And you?"
"Much the same mate. Just going at it day by day," I responded. "I wasn't sure I'd still find you working here."
"Not much else for the doing. I was aspiring to become a rich drunk by now, but I'm afraid I've only achieved the latter." He laughed ruefully; then he gave me an enquiring look.
"Well, let's have it. You didn't come here to see a lion hula-dance in the sideshow." Robert was always one for getting to the point.
"Right you are," I answered. "We are looking for a large amount of canvas. Where does all this come from?"
"Is that all? Well then, how much of a supply? I've got enough to make suits for an elephant or two," and he waved a hand at the nearest tent.
Harris spoke, "I was thinking of a bit more, say perhaps 3500 square yards."
Robert's mouth opened to speak, and then he burst into laughter. "You're not serious? Starting up a circus of your own, are you?"
"No, just interested in the canvas." Harris replied.
"You could rig sail on a lot of small craft with all that," he said.
"Or a large one," added Harris. He stood up, his immense frame casting the only shade around. He pulled off his cap with one hand and with the other mopped his head with a handkerchief. "Let's take a walk round," he said in a low voice.
We strolled off away from the crowd. "Now how would one go about finding that much canvas, Robert?" Harris asked.
"Join the circus?" Robert said with a shrug.
"Why, it would never have crossed my mind without you asking," Harris returned with faint sarcasm.
Robert waved a hand at the large tents. "All this will be taken down and packed away a week from now, and I'll soon be looking for work again." He turned to me. "What the devil would you be wanting sail canvas for anyway?"
"Care for a drop?" Harris suggested, producing a flask from his coat.
"Not here," said Robert nervously. "I'd get sacked if someone saw me. What's all this about sail canvas? Doing a bit of seamanship these days, Flynn?"
"It's a long story, but if you come for a drink tonight, perhaps we can shed more light on the matter," said Harris.
Robert frowned, "Right. Where and what time?"
"Eight o'clock," Harris began. "From Gravesend take the country lane that goes east out across the marshes signposted to Lower Higham, then follow it onto High Halstow and head south past St. Mary Hoo to Allhallows. Allhallows is a tiny village with a few houses and an old Norman Church on a slight hill overlooking the estuary, literally in the middle of nowhere. There is a cosy little pub with the nicest barman and the nastiest landlady-"
"Oh my God," Robert exclaimed, rolling his eyes, "you don't mean the Beasley place?"
"Then you've met Mrs. Beasley?" I asked. "I just started working there."
"That old bat! She's gone completely doolally tap. We should have dropped her on the Germans. The bloody war would have been over years earlier," he laughed. "A couple of months back, she ordered me out of the pub because there was a fight. Mind you, I wasn't even in the fight-I just happened to be the last one in the place when she arrived. 'Out!' she said, 'you young hooligan! You ruffian, just look at my floor! I'll have the authorities on you!' Well, her beastly floor had nothing to do with me, and I was a bit annoyed. When I left, I slammed the door a bit too hard, and it came completely off its hinges. The blasted door chased me down the steps. She raised bloody hell and told me to 'never set foot in here again, you young jackanapes!'" He chuckled, "I wonder if she'd recognise me again."
"She's a bit of a strange one. She's also quite touchy and rude. After all, she's been a widow since the Great War," I said.
"Oh, and this war wasn't great enough?" Robert replied sarcastically.
"Ha!" Harris burst in, "Poor blighter. Her old man probably committed suicide after the Armistice when he realised he was being sent home to her." We all laughed.
Robert said, "See you at eight o'clock."
It was time for us to get back. Fortunately, the circus grounds were less than twenty miles from Allhallows, and the return trip to the inn was not long, especially in a flying Morris. I had taken a very generous break for lunch, and hoped it wouldn't arouse any suspicions. I had Harris leave me down the road from the inn just to be sure that Mrs. Beasley wouldn't see his car. I then got back to my work, thinking about everything that had transpired. It was good to see Robert again, for it had been several months since our last visit. I was now curious what would come of our meeting at the inn. The last twenty-four hours had held more intrigue than I'd been accustomed to. Although there was an element of intrigue, I had to admit all this made me extremely nervous.
AN EVENING AT THE INN
The fog was billowing up like great clouds of smoke in the chilly air as I went to the pub side of the inn. It was one place we were not likely to run into Mrs. Beasley. Even though the pub bore her name, the licensee was actually a seasoned tapster by the name of Martin who was a pleasant character and well liked by his customers. In the evening Mrs. Beasley liked to stay safely in her parlour sipping sherry.
I paused at the shed long enough to throw in the rake and clippers I'd been using in the garden. I was too tired to walk in and hang them up. I'd find them tomorrow right enough.
As I got to the entrance, Harris's car came bumping along the road and parked on the other side. A young lad ran over to meet it, and after a few words disappeared into the fog. Bowman and Edward had just arrived and we all met up at the door of the pub.
Purchase A Ship's Tale