OUT OF THE BLUE
The Telegraph that morning was not particularly interesting. Once he had run through the County Cricket pages - the usual depressing end-of-season catalogue of rained-off matches and bowlers breaking down - Beaumont turned to the crossword and started sketching in tentative answers in a large, looping scrawl. Admiral Sir Clive (when he was feeling out of sorts he tended to refer to his father in this somewhat cynical fashion) usually polished off the Telegraph cryptic along with two boiled eggs and a slice of toast over the breakfast table; the Admiral's son, being a somewhat lesser light intellectually and devoid of his father's constant need to prove himself against such minor objectives, had settled for an elongated coffee break in the otherwise deserted wardroom of HMS Hero and was presently comfortably wreathed in cigarette smoke and resting, jacket undone and tie askew, with his feet up on the coffee table.
A seven-letter word meaning retributive justice was eluding him, despite the fact that he knew there was an 'E' in the middle; there must be, or 'DESERT' was wrong at 16 across. Annoyed, he was on the point of throwing the thing aside in frustration when he heard footsteps outside in the passage and recognised them as those of his Captain. With a certain savage satisfaction he scribbled the word 'NEMESIS' in the boxes on the blank and was on his feet stubbing the cigarette in an overflowing ashtray when Nialls appeared in the doorway.
"'Morning, Derek. May I come in?"
"Certainly, sir. Can I offer you a coffee?"
"Thank you. And - er - excuse my rig, would you?" Nialls was dressed for shoregoing in fawn trousers, white polo-neck sweater and brown leather jacket. A glance through the doorway showed Beaumont a battered leather weekend case dumped immediately outside the wardroom.
"If you'll excuse mine." Hastily buttoning his jacket, straightening his tie and running a guilty hand through delinquent hair, Beaumont crossed the room to switch on the electric kettle which the mess steward had set up with the emergency supplies of coffee and biscuits before going ashore for the day. The ship was crawling with fitters and other dockyard personnel, her complement reduced to a scarce handful barely sufficient for watch-keeping and the light administrative duties required while she was in home port for a refit. In particular the main galley was being upgraded, requiring the Supply Officer to run around in small circles arranging for the few officers and men who remained aboard to be fed from the wardroom galley for a day or two. In the circumstances the usual level of formality that prevailed aboard the Leander frigate had been allowed to lapse, and although that was perfectly acceptable practice Beaumont still found himself slightly embarrassed at being caught by his Captain at so much of a disadvantage.
"This isn't a tour of inspection," Nialls assured him, smiling. "In fact as I'm not supposed to be aboard myself at the moment, anything I may or may not happen to see while I'm here will instantly be forgotten." He sat himself down, carefully easing the knees of his civvy trousers, and accepted the mug of coffee his First Lieutenant handed him. "Not having one yourself?"
"Just finished one. I'll look like a cup of coffee by the time Bill Kiley gets here."
"What time's he due to relieve you?" Nialls asked.
"Good. If you don't have any plans for the evening, I thought maybe you'd care to dine ashore with me? I owe you a dinner from this last cruise."
Beaumont's brow furrowed as he parked himself on a chair arm opposite Nialls. "Sorry, sir. Other plans."
"Oh? I thought you were at a loose end this leave?"
"I was. Only my father called this morning. Old friend of his, Tommy Tennyson, has just been taken into hospital, and he's got a yacht charter booked for this weekend. Father asked me if I'd take it on instead. I should just be able to fit it in before I'm due back on duty."
"Which is ... ?"
"Eight hundred hours Tuesday. Channel Islands and back, to pick up a group of ornithologists. I'll have to sail from Brixham on this evening's tide, though."
Nialls shook his head dubiously. "Well, in theory ... " he agreed, with a shrug. "Going alone?"
"No sir. Taking the old man along as combined deckhand and galley-slave. He hasn't done a lot of small boat sailing but he can spell me long enough to get some rest occasionally. It won't make his day, though; he was planning to go Lord's for the final."
"Well, who was old ... Tennyson, was it? ... taking?"
"Well, then ... ?"
"What, sail with Lucy Tennyson as crew? No thank you!" Beaumont was emphatic. "That woman's been trying to get me to the altar since she was thirteen; if I asked her to crew for me she'd probably consider it a proposal of marriage."
Nialls took a good long swig of his coffee and glanced across at his First Lieutenant thoughtfully. "Well," he said, slowly, "if all you need is another pair of hands and someone who won't fall overboard, I'm unexpectedly free myself this weekend. Very little small boat experience, I'm afraid, but as a combination galley-slave and deckhand I should just about pass muster. To be perfectly honest, Derek, I could do with something to take my mind off ... things."
Thunderstruck, Beaumont reviewed his options in a split second. "Well, I'm sure my father would be jolly grateful," he acknowledged, his brain scrambling to consider the other implications of the suggestion. "And you're not actually due back on duty until ... "
"Twelve hundred Tuesday. Mind you, instead of having me buy you dinner you'll probably end up having me cook it - and that's rather a dubious privilege. What do you think?"
"I thought you were spending this weekend with Sara?"
The troubled brown eyes of his Captain suddenly turned away. "Sore point at the moment," Nialls admitted. "I'll tell you about it when I've stopped seething enough to be charitable. So - do I come island-hopping with you, or shall I look for an hotel ashore?"
Beaumont's grin was all the answer he needed. "I suppose it's too much to hope that you've got any kit of your own?"
"Far too much, I'm afraid. Can you borrow some for me?"
"I'll phone the old man," Beaumont told him, with a chuckle. "He'll be so relieved he'll probably give you a line of credit at the yacht chandler's. I've got a taxi booked for sixteen thirty; going home to pick up my mother's car. Evening tide's twenty-two fifteen and I'd like to try and be under way for twenty-three hundred."
Nialls looked at his watch briskly. "Right. I'll drop off my laundry with my steward, lunch ashore and probably go to the pictures this afternoon. I'll be back in plenty of time for the taxi."
"Yes, sir," Beaumont acknowledged, feeling vaguely stunned by the turn events had taken.
Jumping to his feet, suddenly imbued with enthusiasm, Nialls made for the door. "Jolly good," he said, briskly. "Only it's going to be rather an odd voyage if you insist on calling the galley-slave 'sir'."
Not allowing Beaumont time for a rejoinder he left the wardroom while his First Officer was still trying to collect his rather scattered wits.
Lieutenant Commander Bill Kiley, Hero's Weapons and Electrics Officer, appeared in the wardroom later that afternoon to discover the First Lieutenant diligently slaving over a sheaf of paperwork at the wardroom table. He'd appropriated a small typewriter from the Communications Office and was busy pecking away at outstanding correspondence, a chore he always left until there was no possibility of avoiding it any longer.
"'Afternoon, Bill." Beaumont was only too glad of any distraction from his stultifying task.
"Sir." Although good friends off duty, the two Lieutenant Commanders were strict in their observation of naval courtesy at other times. "Anything interesting happening?"
Beaumont stopped in his tracks and pushed the typewriter away determinedly.
"Oh, yes," he said, his deep voice dropping even further with irony. "Captain showed up this morning; I think his lady-love's chucked him out."
"Bad," Kiley commented laconically. "I suppose he'll be hanging around the ship looking over my shoulder for the next couple of days?"
Beaumont got to his feet and stretched the kinks out of his back. "It's even worse than that," he said, worriedly. "He's invited himself along on my jaunt to Vraiqhou. I couldn't very well turn him down, he seemed pretty keen to go," he added defensively.
"Well, if your father's going too ... "
"Couldn't he help you ... carry the load?"
The senior man shrugged eloquently. "Admiral Sir Clive will be spending the weekend watching cricket, Bill. I'm going to be alone on the high seas with Mark Nialls."
Amazed, Kiley sat down rather firmly and stared up at Beaumont. "That wasn't quite the plan, Derek, was it?"
"No. Not at all. Have you got a cigarette?" Shamelessly scrounging a smoke, Beaumont lit it from the lighter Kiley also proffered and for a moment the pair smoked in companionate silence. "I've run out," Beaumont confessed. "Got through a dozen since he turned up this morning."
"Nerves," Kiley supplied sympathetically. "Where is he, anyway?"
"What? Oh, pictures. Bill, what am I going to do?"
"Keep your head, old man," was the kindly suggestion. "What can happen? It's only a couple of days. You've managed to keep it from him all this time in Hero; is there any reason why it should all come out on your trip to Vraiqhou?"
Beaumont did not answer immediately but took a long drag on the cigarette and expelled the smoke in the direction of the ceiling. "I wish you were going instead of Nialls," he said wistfully.
"No you don't. I get seasick in anything smaller than a 'sweeper and my navigation would give Bob Last kittens. At least our Captain is a halfway competent seaman; I'm just a mechanic."
"Yes ... but I feel a lot more comfortable with you than I do with him."
"That's because you're not trying to decide whether or not you're in love with me," Kiley said, softly. "Fortunately for both of us," he added with a reassuring grin.
Beaumont blanched. "I'm bound to give myself away," he confided in some distress.
"No you won't. Just relax and be your usual charming self, Derek, and he won't notice a thing. Not unless you want him to," Kiley added wickedly, to Beaumont's infinite horror.
Confiding in Bill Kiley hadn't exactly been a spur of the moment thing. Nor had it - precisely - been planned. It had come to pass in the haphazard way of most of Derek Beaumont's major decisions, in the wake of Helen Danbury's very final rejection of his last-ditch proposal of marriage. Helen was the one woman he could see himself settling down with, the only female creature apart from his mother he could hope to co-exist with on a long-term basis, his last chance of matching up to the Navy's Identikit for a successful young Commander heading rapidly towards senior rank. However Helen had made it perfectly clear that she had no intention of becoming the wife of a serving Naval officer, and there was no-one else he would ever consider asking.
His disappointment - or was it relief? - when Helen closed the door on him for the last time had prompted a wash of confusing emotions through him, and he had taken the opportunity of indulging in a bout of drunken misery with the reassuring older presence of Bill Kiley as his only company.
"Problem is, Bill," he remembered saying without really thinking it through, "I'm temperamentally unsuited for marriage. Just not cut out for it, I suppose."
A dry chuckle, and Kiley's pale eyebrows had vanished in search of his long-departed hairline.
"Careful, Derek. Some people would probably get the wrong idea if they heard you say that. Might think you were ... Well, you know."
"Would it be the wrong idea? I don't know any more." And in the face of Kiley's massive fund of sympathy and goodwill all the demons had come tumbling out, one by one, from the dim recesses in which he'd kept them captive for so many years; the crush on an older Cadet at Dartmouth; close friendships which had never quite crossed the line into love affairs; the search for refuge in a relationship of any kind with Helen Danbury; his panicked determination to put as much searoom as possible between himself and a certain Commander Mark Nialls. Several years earlier, as First Lieutenant in a minesweeper commanded by the then Lieutenant Commander Nialls, their uneven blend of rivalry and friendship had gradually become a daily torture to him. When separate postings had taken them in opposite directions he'd genuinely hoped to hear that the ambitious Nialls had made some suitable marriage - or to have made one himself - before they met again. Their almost simultaneous postings to Hero two years previously had started up again the emotional turmoil he'd been doing his best to sublimate in empty pursuit of Helen Danbury. Now that he no longer had her as an excuse, a safety valve, he was left with the knowledge that an unrequited passion for Mark Nialls was almost certainly going to blight his career and the rest of his life.
And all this as if Admiral Sir Clive's determined fair-mindedness had not been punishment enough. Heaven only knew how his father had reached the conclusion that Derek was less interested in women than in other men - probably he'd seen it in junior officers throughout his career and learned to recognise the signs long since - but he had done so and challenged him about it, and Derek hadn't had the energy to deny it. It was at this point that his father had made it plain that his ambitions for his son were at an end. How, after all, could a young man aspire to rise to heights of excellence in his career when he laboured under the burden of such a serious handicap? No-one would expect a blind man to paint a masterpiece, the Admiral had advised him, or a cripple to run a marathon. Derek, being flawed, must lower his sights and set himself more modest targets; those generations of Beaumont ancestors who had served their country in the Navy as far back as Nelson's time would understand that it was not Derek's fault that he simply couldn't emulate their achievements.
He had made it sound so reasonable, so fair, that for a long time Derek hadn't quite realised that he was being written off as a failure, as an inferior species. It had never been suggested that he resign his commission but tactfully mentioned that as Nature had placed this cruel stain on his character he must always be prepared to settle for second-best. In its way, it was worse than any open rejection.
Driving along the A385 towards Brixham that evening in his mother's Renault with Nialls a silent passenger beside him and the back seat piled with a jumble of borrowed oilskins, sea boots and other kit, all these thoughts came back to Beaumont with the savage precision of the surgeon's lancet. It was not even as if he had some disgracefully sordid affair with a man in his past; he had never acted upon his impulses, going so far as to avoid the occasion of sin whenever it presented itself. He could scarcely help his feelings for Nialls, and there were times when he resented the man like hell for the distress he had unknowingly caused. There were other times, too, when his urbane and witty company was a delight, and when he made Derek Beaumont feel like the most important and valuable person in the entire world.
"I ... " Nialls sounded unduly hesitant as he broke the silence in the car.
"What?" Distracted, Beaumont just about managed to realise that they had reached a traffic light at red and he braked to wait for it to change.
"I was going to say I apologise for being so quiet," was the somewhat unexpected rejoinder. "I've got some things to think about, Derek, and it won't make me very good company I'm afraid."
Beaumont shrugged. "Not to worry," he said absently, letting in the clutch as they pulled away again. "The sea's the place to work out problems. I won't be offended if you don't feel particularly chatty. As a matter of fact I've got something on my mind as well."
"Yes, I gathered as much. Look, you haven't yet told me where we're going and why - there hasn't really been time. Why don't you fill me in on the details of our mystery tour?"
"Wouldn't you rather let it be a surprise?" Beaumont chuckled. "No, all right, I suppose you can't really navigate if you don't know where we're going."
"We're relying on my navigation?" Nialls asked with a laugh. "We'll never get there."
"Oh, come on, sir!" False modesty in Nialls was enough to provoke him almost to the point of exasperation; they were both fully aware of the man's capabilities.
"Oh, very well. Yes, if you tell me where we're going I can probably get us there. Satisfied?"
The edge of challenge in the tone did little to mollify Beaumont's mood. This terse exchange was not doing much for their chances of surviving the weekend without a major falling-out.
"Yes, sir," he acknowledged, subdued.
"Good. Now, there's something I want to ask you. Why is it so difficult for you to call me by my first name? I mean, we're going to be on a small boat surrounded by hundreds of square miles of empty sea; it's hardly likely to lead to disciplinary problems, is it? Is there any reason why we couldn't just be Derek and Mark for the duration?"
Beaumont's mind snapped back to the rushed hour spent at his parents' home earlier that evening. Of course he'd introduced his travelling companion as 'my Captain, Commander Nialls' - anything else would have been unforgivable - and of course Nialls had addressed Admiral Sir Clive as 'sir' and Beaumont had addressed Nialls as 'sir' throughout, even when they were all four sitting down to an unexpectedly convivial meal together. Despite the amount they had relaxed the niceties had been preserved; only the slight traces of amusement exhibited by Beaumont's mother at all this 'sirring' in her home served to remind them that in other households other ways prevailed. That was as it should be. Derek Beaumont would never be the one to push a working relationship with a superior officer over the border into informality; the impetus for that would have to come - as it had - from Nialls.
"I don't know," he said, guardedly. "I mean, if you like I'll certainly try - but I can't promise anything."
"Would it make you uncomfortable?" Reactions slow due to his own self-absorption, Nialls had not considered the possibility that Derek might prefer to preserve the formality in their relationship. "Don't do it, if so."
"I'll try," Beaumont reiterated. "Mark."
Nialls was satisfied for the moment, but the taste of the name remained on Beaumont's tongue long after it was spoken. It had a bitter flavour, so much gall and wormwood, from the associations it carried. Saying 'Helen' had never been so difficult. It was as if his mind had created two separate beings named 'Commander Nialls' and 'Mark', and while he could deal with the one on a formal basis he was frankly terrified of any implied closeness with the other. He had never expected to be placed in a situation where he was required to address his commander by his first name, although he supposed that if in the fullness of time they found themselves of equal rank he would have to get used to it. He'd expected to have several years to work up to that point, however; this request of Nialls' - of Mark's - had hit him like an express train, and he did not trust himself to relax enough around the man to address him as a friend without giving away his own very personal feelings.
The marina was a hive of activity when Beaumont pulled the car into its parking area shortly after nine that evening. Small family groups, couples and solitary men were busy provisioning vessels of all types ready for a mass exodus as soon as the tide was high enough. Nialls cast a disparaging eye around the motley collection of intending seafarers and managed somehow to suppress a sigh.
"Bit late in the season for all these weekend sailors, isn't it?"
"Not necessarily." Switching off the engine, Beaumont hauled out the ignition key and turned to regard the jumble in the back seat with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. "Most of this lot will still be going out in the middle of November, even if all they do is potter up to Shaldon Ness and back."
"Causing problems for the coastguard along the way? I'm sorry, Derek, you know what I think of amateurs mucking about in dinghies."
"True." Getting out of the car, Beaumont threw open the rear door and started disentangling the bundle of oilskins which he threw onto the vehicle's roof. Nialls' weekend case followed, then a large cardboard box full of tins and packets of food and a briefcase containing books and papers. "I'm sure most of this is surplus to requirements," he said, apologetically, "but there wasn't really time to argue about it; anything we don't need we can leave in the car over the weekend."
"Which way's the berth?" Nialls asked, glancing around.
"G14; behind you somewhere, over that way. Can you manage the oilskins and your bag if I take the rest?"
"Certainly." With a slightly twisted smile Nialls gathered up the items and waited while Beaumont locked the car, and then the pair headed off down the jetty in question.
Away from the carpark the evening was a soft indigo, traffic sounds from the road muted beneath the lively clattering of steel cables against aluminium masts and the occasional raucous cry of a bloody-minded gull. Even the air seemed to become fresher and freer as the familiar sensations of leaving the land behind to embark on a new voyage reminded them both what it was that had drawn them to the seafaring life in the first place; the constantly changing panorama of new horizons and new challenges would always call them away from the quiet life ashore to take their chances with what Kipling had called 'the old grey widow-maker'. The simple act of inhaling salt sea air on every breath seemed somehow to send the blood zinging through the veins more rapidly, and to stir the brain to sharper and more coherent thought. It was as if neither of them could ever be truly alive ashore.
"This is the Ginevra, sir," Beaumont said formally as they stopped beside a canvas-shrouded green-hulled yacht. "She was built as a Bristol Channel pilot cutter, like Mischief and Suhaili, but not as old. Ginevra, this is Commander Mark Nialls."
"Pleased to meet you, Ginevra," Nialls said urbanely, dumping his kit on the jetty whilst Beaumont stepped aboard and started unbuttoning the yacht's covers. This done, Nialls handed the baggage down to him and then followed it inboard. "You're sure two of us can manage her?" he asked suspiciously.
"Oh yes. I've taken her out alone in the past, but on a run like this you really need two. Stow the oilskins in the heads," he added, hauling the box of groceries into the microscopic galley area.
"Aye, skipper," Nialls retorted, grinning, and complied.
With the gear all stowed he returned aft to the chart table where Beaumont was just running his eyes over the buoyage pattern at the harbour mouth and picked up the dividers to skate them loosely across the chart, counting silently.
Beaumont shrugged easily. "Probably a little more," he said, unable to keep delight at the prospective voyage out of his tone. "The engine's not in the first flush of youth and the tidal race that runs south of Alderney could keep us standing off Vraiqhou for a couple of hours if we don't hit it just right. I should imagine we'd get there ... round about tea-time tomorrow. There's a deep-water anchorage close in under the island where we can spend the night, and run her up on the shingle Sunday morning to embark the bird-watchers. There's no jetty, unfortunately, the island's just too steep and the only really accessible part is to seaward."
"It sounds like a wonderful spot for a holiday. What do you want to do about watch-keeping?"
"Share the first one. As soon as we're clear of the shipping lanes you get some sleep, and then you can spell me for a couple of hours around dawn. We'll make the rest of it up as we go along."
"You're the Captain," Nialls acquiesced. "Any preference which bunk?"
"No, you choose. We won't have a lot of time for sleep until we get to Vraiqhou, anyway, and then for twelve hours or so we won't be able to do anything else. It's all 'hurry up and wait' in small boat sailing. And now I think I'd better open up the hatch and renew my acquaintance with the engine."
"Good," said Nialls. "I'll make us a brew."
Approaching noon the following day, with the bulk of the outward journey behind them, the self-consciousness that had characterised the early stages of their voyage had dissolved as the two men began to relax in one another's company. It was possible now to forget that there was another life, in Hero, which demanded that they play very different roles; indeed, for Beaumont, the scruffy and unshaven being who presented himself as watch-keeper at six that morning was about as far removed from the immaculate and together frigate commander as anything he could have imagined. Ruefully he supposed that after a night which had alternated between the Decca navigation, the self-steering gear and the coffee-pot he was no object of beauty himself and Nialls' amused expression as he handed over command of Ginevra for the next few hours did nothing to dispel this notion. However the only thing he cared about at that moment was sleep and he fell into the bunk in the main cabin without further thought, and woke more than five hours later to the smell of bacon frying in the galley a few feet away.
"Mark?" Odd how when rousing from sleep he should remember to call his commander by name; on the frigate it would have been a drowsy 'sir' as he tumbled out of his pit.
"'Morning, sleepyhead." Whatever the time or the circumstances, the sardonic tones were unmistakeable. Nialls in a good mood was insufferably cheerful. "You've got five minutes to wash and brush up, and then I'm serving ... well, brunch, I suppose. I know you said four hours but I thought you could probably do with the extra sleep."
"Thank you." Swinging his legs down from the bunk and casting around brainlessly for his boots, Beaumont reflected that he had never received quite this much consideration from Nialls in the past. This voyage was certainly teaching him things about the man - about their relationship - that he had never imagined existed. Unfortunately none of it served to quell in him the conviction that Mark Nialls was the only person he could ever truly love and the enforced proximity, although pleasant, held dangers he could not bear to contemplate.
"Well, you were on duty yesterday morning."
"Don't remind me," Beaumont groaned. "Kitchen fitters and dockyard mateys turning the ship into Vulcan's Forge, and every five minutes some little face appearing around the door to report something they hadn't got. I should think Monty Wakelin'll be in a strait-jacket by the time we get back to sea."
"Oh, Monty'll cope. So will Bill Kiley. But you ... you needed a rest, Number One."
The absent-minded inclusion of the title curved a smile on Beaumont's lips even before he had time to consider the words. His Captain was standing here in a four-foot by four-foot galley cooking him breakfast and was still worrying about how things were going with Hero. He had the impression that even six weeks dead Mark Nialls would be piping him instructions.
"Well, I've just had a rest," he said, flippantly. "Now what I need is something to eat. I'll be back in a minute." And he took himself off for'ard to splash his face with cold water, run a comb through the tangle that was his hair, and contemplate the luxury of shaving off a day's growth of grey stubble as soon as they were anchored for the night.
"I'm serious," Nialls said, resuming the conversation as soon as he returned. A plate of bacon, toast and tinned tomato was thrust into Beaumont's hands and he sat down to eat at the chart table, resting the plate against the fiddles around the edge and stolidly ignoring the rolling of the yacht. Nialls joined him with a similarly loaded plate and two mugs of tea.
"Since Helen Danbury chucked you I've been very worried about you," was the calm response. "I know you were unsettled, worried about whether you'd ever get your own command, but surely after you'd done the RAS* you realised I'd have no qualms about recommending you?"
"I felt better about my chances after that," Beaumont conceded, "but I still don't know what kind of report you're likely to give me."
"No. Neither do I. That's one of the things I'm wrestling with at the moment, Derek. One of those worries you so kindly assured me would all be sorted out at sea. I can't really say any more at the moment, but ... I need to know what you want from the rest of your career. Is a command of your own really important to you? You're an excellent First Lieutenant, you know; would it be so wrong to settle for that? As a Commander you could be XO to a four-ringer on a destroyer ... cruiser ... aircraft carrier ... sky's the limit. Couldn't you settle for doing what you do really well?"
"You sound like my father." The toast had turned to sawdust in his mouth and Beaumont took a sip of tea to help it down. "'You owe it to the service to keep a low profile, my boy'."
"That's not what I'm saying," Nialls told him, sharply. "Derek, I want you to go as far in the service as you can and to achieve whatever goals you've set yourself - but if you once get your own command, the chances of your ever being a First Lieutenant again are pretty remote."
"Why would I want to be?"
"Well ... there might be an opportunity for us to serve together again."
The tone of Nialls' words was pretty unequivocal; this discussion would not be delving any deeper at the moment.
"Look," Beaumont said, softly, "I don't think this is the time or the place for this, do you? Can we save it until tonight?"
"That's what I was planning," was the brisk rejoinder. "I don't want to tread on your toes, Derek, but there are things we need to sort out between us, and we need peace and quiet to do it. I'd have carted you off to dinner last night and thrashed it all out in the restaurant, but getting you alone on a boat seemed too good a chance to miss. Besides, I'm enjoying this." He glanced around. "I thought I'd take the noon position with the sextant, just to remind myself I still know how to do it, although the DR and the Decca have us in exactly the same place."
Beaumont chuckled. "If you get a different reading from the sextant, what will you do about it?"
"Get you to check it, of course."
"You're joking; I'll probably have us tacking around Hyde Park Corner and heading for Marble Arch."
"Now who's hiding his light under a bushel?" Nialls asked with a laugh, and the world righted itself again.
Seven hours later Ginevra crossed the tidal race that sweeps across to the south of Alderney with an up-and-down motion like a car going over a level crossing, her elderly engine phuttering and wheezing as if in the last stages of consumption. Worried, Beaumont tried to put it out of his mind while he cut her speed and crept her towards the anchorage, a semi-sheltered spot under beetling cliffs on the south-eastern tip of Vraiqhou. The island, one of the lesser lights of the group and uninhabited by virtue of its complete absence of natural fresh water, stood some two hundred feet high for its quarter-mile length and supported very little in the way of wildlife but a large gannetry and various other sea-bird populations most of whom seemed completely unperturbed by the yacht's arrival.
"That's it," Beaumont said tiredly. "We can drop anchor here and call up the bird-watchers on the radio. Then a decent meal and an early pit, I think, although I really ought to take another look at the engine; I didn't like some of those noises it was making."
"Tomorrow first light'll be soon enough for that," Nialls told him, persuasively. "Whatever the problem is, it'll still be the same then."
The grin he received by way of answer was rueful but accepting. "Yes, I suppose you're right; one needn't feel under pressure to deal with it immediately."
"No, one jolly well needn't. Do you want me to crank up the radio while you drop anchor?"
"Yes, that would save time. The frequency's noted in the log."
Dark eyebrows lifted. "Thank you, Derek, I hadn't noticed."
A weary chuckle. "I'm sorry. I'm just not used to all this role-reversal."
"Don't get too used to it. We'll be back in Hero the day after tomorrow."
"We hope." Making a rapid exit Beaumont scrambled up on deck and lowered the anchor, aware when it grabbed and held firm in the deep layer of shingle below the water. Nine times out of ten it would not drag, but he would have to haul himself out of his bunk every couple of hours just to check. Even so, it looked like being a less disturbed night than the previous one. When he returned to the main cabin Nialls had already raised the shore party on the radio.
"Vraiqhou this is Ginevra, do you copy?"
"Welcome, Ginevra, we saw you crossing The Swinge. Anything we can do for you?" The voice was female and very young, Nialls decided, then remembered that the members of this party were all Exeter University students. A raised eyebrow in Beaumont's direction drew a negative response.
"Nothing, thank you, Vraiqhou. Will your party be ready to embark around 09.30 tomorrow morning? Do you have much luggage?"
"Quite a lot, I'm afraid, but we'll be ready on time. Sorry we can't offer you breakfast."
"That's all right, Vraiqhou, we understand."
"We'll see you in the morning, then. Oh, and we know Commander Tennyson's not aboard so what are your names please?"
"Mark and Derek." Amused, Nialls grinned across at his companion whose eyes lifted to the overhead in a silent pantomime of incredible forbearance. "And yours?"
"I'm Mickey Palmer - Michaela, really. The others are Jackie Cutts and Ronnie Williamson. Ronnie's a boy."
"We'll look forward to meeting you," Nialls said civilly. "Ginevra out."
"Good night, Ginevra. Vraiqhou out."
"Good night," Beaumont muttered darkly. "It's tea-time."
"It's getting dark," Nialls responded cheerfully. "Perhaps they all want an early night."
An indrawn breath of mock censure was the response this remark received. "I suppose if anybody was going to pick up a bird over the radio it would have to be you," Beaumont told him archly. "And you're not even in uniform. In fact I don't think I've ever seen you so out of uniform in my life."
"It's not the uniform, it's the personal charm they go for," he was told with a wink. "But I'm not in the market for picking up birds, Derek, by radio or any other way. Not when I know you probably wouldn't approve. You've spent the last two years trying to steer me away from unsuitable relationships, haven't you? You needn't think I haven't noticed."
"Is this the talk we were going to have? Only I'm tired and dirty and I could do with something to eat before we start putting the world to rights."
Intense brown eyes focused on him briefly, leaving a troubled impression, and then departed in the direction of good humour again.
"You're right. Let me see what I can throw together."
"Good. I could eat a horse between two mattresses."
"That's awfully lower deck for the best First Lieutenant in the Fleet."
"Was it?" Beaumont asked, startled, meaning; "Am I?"
"Absolutely," Nialls told him, meaning the same.
Within an hour it was almost full dark outside and they were pushing away empty plates from which they had demolished a tinned steak pie and tinned new potatoes.
"Thank god for the can-opener," Beaumont said, suppressing a yawn. "Is the catering Chez Nialls always this limited?"
"No, it's usually excellent. Chez Nialls, Derek, is a couple of cabins on a frigate. I don't have a home ashore these days."
"I thought you had an aunt or something in ... Broadstairs, wasn't it?"
"It was, and I did. She's gone into a home, though, and I really didn't see much point in keeping the house on when I'm at sea eleven months of the year."
"You didn't mention it."
"No? Well, no, I didn't. Fact is I've had to make rather a lot of changes in my life lately, one way and another, and I'm not entirely confident of the way they'll all turn out."
Without comment Beaumont reached for the bottle of gin that sat on the tabletop between them and poured two generous helpings. They both lit cigarettes and inhaled thoughtfully, enjoying a rare moment of complete empathy. Chances for deep and meaningful conversation came about only too infrequently in their profession, and they had never got around to letting their hair down enough together to indulge in any personal confidences before.
"Tell me about them," Beaumont encouraged. "It's obviously preying on your mind."
The very direct and searching look turned towards him was marginally uncomfortable, but Nialls' next words were enough to give him nightmares.
"Derek, I won't beat about the bush; I won't be in Hero much longer - only another couple of weeks, in fact. I'm moving over on to the Admiral's staff as SOO**; it's a preliminary to my next commission."
"My god, in your case accelerated promotion really is just that, isn't it? How long before you get your own flag? Ten years?"
"About that, if I keep my nose clean. I'd ... really rather not leave Hero just at the moment, but I don't seem to have a lot of choice. That's why I wanted to know ... " he gulped a mouthful of gin and took a deep breath, " ... whether you'd be prepared to forego a command of your own. In three years' time, Derek, we could have a destroyer."
"Or an aircraft carrier." Nialls' words of earlier in the voyage returned now with greater significance than they had held at the time.
"Well, one step at a time perhaps. But I don't want to split us up; we're a good team."
"Hmmm. I don't particularly want to have to break in a new Captain, either," Beaumont acknowledged. "I've got used to your ways."
"And I yours."
Needing to move, whether to good purpose or not, Beaumont got to his feet and took a few steps for'ard, resettling himself on the bunk he'd been inhabiting and resting his back up against the bulkhead as he stretched his legs out in front of him. Nialls moved too, to perch on the opposite bunk with the gin bottle still clutched in his hand. He poured another for each of them and relished the first mouthful he took.
"And of course there's Sara," Nialls said, matter-of-factly. "I did actually propose to her, you know, but she turned me down. She's marrying somebody called David Brown, if you can believe it. He's steady."
"He sounds it. In fact he sounds positively fossilised. Sara must want her head examined."
Nialls shrugged. "No, not Sara. But I think I probably do. Derek, I've been aware for a long time how you felt about me. In the beginning it made me uncomfortable, but gradually I began to realise how ... rare it is to have someone who'll go on loving you no matter how much of a fool you make of yourself. I never thought I could be worthy of that sort of affection, but god knows I've needed to know it was there."
"What? Do you have the monstrous arrogance to tell me you know how I feel about anything - particularly about you?"
"Oh, calm down, Derek. We've been together too long to start playing stupid games with each other now." Cynically Nialls stared down the wild-eyed fury that erupted from the opposite bunk, pink-cheeked with wrath. "I've leaned on you very heavily lately because I needed to prove something to myself ... that you'd still be there whatever happened. I'm sorry, perhaps I've been taking advantage of your feelings, but I wanted very much to convince myself I could trust what ... I'd begun to feel towards you." He glanced up, meeting eyes the same colour as his own but somehow far more vulnerable despite the ire that burned behind them. "You're not saying anything."
"I'm not getting a chance for a word in edgeways," the deep voice informed him. "This is a monologue."
The edge returned to the Captain's tone. "I need your help," he insisted. "I need to make sense of all of this. Damn it man I'm putting my career at risk for you, can't you see that?"
"No. As a matter of fact I can't. All I can see is you sitting there spouting vague inanities about my feelings and your feelings and none of it adds up to anything worth having. Oh, I can see why Sara Foulkes got sick of you; a few mealy-mouthed pleasantries and a couple of empty compliments don't constitute a courtship, Commander. And your career's about as copper-bottomed and bomb-proof as anybody's ever was. I'm the one under pressure to resign before I get a chance to disgrace myself."
Distracted, Nialls lost track of his annoyance long enough to pick up on the note of despair in Beaumont's voice. "You said something like that before, Derek," he reminded the other man softly. "Something about keeping a low profile. What did you mean?"
"What? Oh, my father. God knows how, but he got wind of my ... my preference for male company. He was frightfully tolerant, but he thinks it's going to handicap my career. In fact he's so sure I'm going to make an idiot of myself over some blue-eyed young middy one day that he wants me to resign my commission and go into business or something. Better to chicken out now than bring shame on the name of Beaumont."
"But you're not interested in this ... hypothetical midshipman, are you?"
"No." Beaumont could not meet the assessing gaze. "That part of it, at least, you got right. I do love you, I always have. But I can live with it. It doesn't frighten me any more."
The quality of defeat in the tone took the breath from Nialls and for a moment he merely remaining staring into his empty mug. Then resolutely he poured two more measures with a shaking hand.
"All right," he said, trying to calm his own emotions, "so it's out in the open and now we can both deal with it. For what it's worth, Derek, I think your father's wrong. I don't know whether it's ... that ... or something else, but you're about as loyal and as strong and as efficient as any officer could hope to be. Not only that but you care about people; you have great compassion. You know what your nickname is, below decks?"
An astonished look greeted this remark. "'Jimmy', I suppose?"
"That too. No, I have it on very good authority some of the lads call you 'Mother'. It was explained to me that as they call me 'Father' and as every happy family needs two parents it seemed only right."
"Oh, yes. I suppose they think I'm effeminate."
Nialls winced at the directness of the question. "I don't think anybody would make that mistake," he said soothingly. "But there's nothing wrong in having the finer qualities along with the others. I admire you for it. I admire you for your courage and your perseverance and your gentleness and your thoroughness ... and most of all for sticking to me through thick and thin. I didn't make it easy for you, did I?"
"No. You still aren't."
"I know. Only remember what I said, Derek, about my own feelings. I'm not entirely sure whether it is love or just another illusion - I've never really been able to tell. I do know that the thought of taking this promotion is becoming unbearable because it means parting from you. I'd ... like to think there was something more between us than just comradeship. Friendship. Whatever it is we've already shared."
"What's this, crumbs from the rich man's table?" The words were spoken dangerously, deliberately, laced with venom and gin and a terrible weariness. "I won't be your charitable cause, Mark. If Sara, in her infinite wisdom, has decided to have nothing more to do with you, why should you automatically think you can come crawling to me for sympathy? And what else are you expecting? Rum, sodomy and the lash? If you knew as much about me as you bloody well think you know, you must have realised that I've never had that kind of relationship with any man - and I'm not planning to start now."
"Not now? Or not with me?"
"Is that an offer?"
"Of course it's a bloody offer!" Voices finally raised to shouting pitch, the two men were glaring into one another's faces at close quarters, more resentment in the words than could readily have been predicted in any proposal of the kind. With heavy heart Nialls acknowledged that he had let the situation spiral out of his control, and somewhat shamefacedly he shrugged his shoulders in apology. "This isn't how it's supposed to go," he said, sheepishly.
"No. I'm supposed to be pathetically grateful that you've deigned to notice my humble devotion, aren't I?"
"No, you're not. But you might spare me the sharp edge of your tongue long enough to hear what I have to say. I think ... that after two long spells of service together you probably owe me that."
"I ... " Embarrassed by his outburst, Beaumont coughed awkwardly. "I ... think I probably do. I'm sorry, Mark."
"So am I. I just ... find it very difficult to admit how much I've come to ... need you, Derek. I haven't been used to depending on anybody, and I'd always believed that it was weakness to care so much about someone you were afraid to be parted from them ... but that's why I'm not exactly viewing my departure from Hero with delight. I really don't want to leave you behind."
"What's the alternative?"
"There isn't one, I'm afraid. Except tell you I love you - and I'm not sure I'm ready for that yet."
The silence in the cabin, broken only by the lapping of wavelets against the boat's hull, suddenly shattered beneath an exhausted bass chuckling.
"Oh god, this is an awful bloody conversation. Somehow I'd come to believe that if ever we discussed this it would be somewhere ... I don't know, somewhere bright, elegant, classy ... at least somewhere clean ... "
"Somewhere else, in fact?"
"Yes. Anywhere else would have done."
"I'm sorry. My timing's appalling, isn't it?"
"Abysmal. Look, what exactly do you want from me?"
"To do what?"
"To be myself. Whoever that is."
"Commander Mark Nialls, Royal Navy, Captain of Her Majesty's Ship Hero." Beaumont drew on his cigarette, watching the smoke spiral to the overhead. "I've always thought that somewhere under the blue serge there was probably a man of that name looking for a way out. Oh you tried hard to make connections, to relate to people, but you never really seemed to make it. After Fiona Hunt was killed I thought you'd probably break down, but you didn't. You just went on getting stronger."
Fiona Hunt had been an aberration; stewardess of a crashed airliner, she'd been rescued from the ocean by Hero and had rapidly fallen in love with her Captain. A terrorist's bullet had ended her life only days afterwards.
"It was Fiona," Nialls said, "who made me realise how much you cared about me. She thought you were jealous; she and I were dining together every night, going out for long romantic walks on the beach ... She made me see that it could so easily have been you in her place."
"Long romantic walks on the beach? Only if you've really had enough of your career."
"Yes, well, there are times when I feel it would probably be worth it."
"Oh, no, you don't mean that. Besides which, you've promised me a destroyer; I'm not going to let you back out on that now."
Dark brown eyes flashed fire in his direction. "Does that mean you've made up your mind?"
The younger man shrugged. "You realise I can't turn down a command if it's offered?"
"No, I know. But I can make sure it isn't offered - assuming you're willing to wait in Hero until I can send for you?"
"Yes. Well, I've been running away from you ever since I was your First Lieutenant in Brassington. That's almost ten years - and I'm sick to death of running away. Maybe it's time I stopped running and let you catch up with me."
"I'd be obliged, Number One. I'm not getting any younger."
"Thirty-six is hardly pensionable age."
"No. But I've aged a lot in the last ten minutes and now I feel about seventy six."
The conversation lapsed briefly, both aware that something had been settled but not sure exactly how much. They had at least agreed to try and stay together for the rest of their service careers. Nialls was rapidly reaching the level of seniority where he could reasonably expect to get the officers of his choice to serve with him; he'd already succeeded in getting Beaumont assigned to Hero, and he'd insist on having him assigned to his next command - and the next and the next. There would be talk, of course. There always was, when two officers decided to stick together like that. That didn't make it impossible, though, and if the senior of the two was brilliant enough - and Nialls certainly was - he would probably go on getting away with it. The Navy would call it 'loyalty' and 'teamwork', and try not to be suspicious about the motives of the pair.
"I'd better go on deck," Beaumont said, more resolutely than he felt. "I ought to keep an eye on the anchor; we need to maintain a regular watch on it throughout the night."
"All right. Do you want me to make you a hot drink?"
"That would be nice - but I'd better not get too used to it, had I? Back in Hero the most you're ever allowed to do is pour out your own coffee."
"What, admit that the Captain can actually cook and even do his laundry without a local anaesthetic? It's against the traditions of the service, Derek; officially I'm supposed to be incapable even of polishing my own shoes."
"Yes, well I am. I'll be back in a moment."
Escaping onto the deck of the Ginevra, Beaumont had paused and hauled in a great long breath of fresh air before he noticed the soft, muffled quality it held. Fine cobwebby threads of mist clung to the upperworks of the yacht, beginning to fall like curtains of silk between themselves and the land and closing them off from the sea to the eastward as though secluding a hospital patient in a cubicle or a penitent in a confessional.
The anchor chain was fast. One tug on it was enough to convince him it would hold the Queen Mary in a typhoon. Nevertheless he was yachtsman enough to know that it must be checked at regular intervals if he and Nialls did not intend to spend whatever was left of their lives together disputing with Davy Jones.
Nialls' attitude had stunned him. Not only was he apparently quite receptive to the notion that his First Lieutenant had been nursing a deeply personal devotion to him for some years now, but he also seemed to be wrestling with a desire to reciprocate it. It wasn't that he was incapable either of feeling love or of expressing it, simply that he didn't trust his own judgement in the choosing of a partner. Perhaps it was to his advantage that Derek had chosen him.
The question was, where did they go from here?
Returning, he accepted the mug of tea Nialls handed him and settled down on the bunk opposite his Captain to remove his boots. Nialls had already done so and had swung his feet up onto the bunk.
Like an old married couple, Beaumont thought to himself wryly. So used to each other's little ways we'd be hopeless apart. I wouldn't know how to manage without him any more.
It was all so matter-of-fact and everyday that it was difficult to believe anything out of the ordinary was happening. Shouldn't there be fireworks, sea-serpents, shooting stars, larks singing ... or at the very least showers of rose petals from the sky? Yet when he thought about it, everything was just as it ought to be. If it was an earth-shattering moment for them, it was hardly so for the rest of the world.
"My lonely monastic pit again," he said, ironically. "I wish I had a quid for every night I've tucked myself up alone and dreamed about you. I sometimes think if I'm called in the night I'll refuse to turn out until I've finished the dream."
"Oh? Going to let me in on the secret?"
A pause, and then in deep and reminiscent tones; "Well, in Brassington I used to have wonderful fantasies about how you'd whisk me off to some plush restaurant or quiet country pub and proposition me. Then I'd see you on the bridge the next morning and you'd look at me as though my paint was flaking or something. I'm glad you've mellowed a bit; you didn't have much of a sense of humour in those days."
"And I do now?"
"You must have, or we wouldn't be having this conversation - would we?"
Since this was an indisputable point of view, Nialls acceded to it. "You needn't think you're the only one to have fantasies, though," he admitted, softly. "Mine don't go back as far as Brassington, I admit, but I've dreamed about being with you in some quiet spot miles from anywhere. Spending the night with you."
"I know. But this wasn't quite what I had in mind - and I haven't even plucked up the courage to kiss you yet. You must think I'm a complete coward."
"No, I don't. I think you're a heterosexual."
The gloom in the cabin had gathered to the point where there was little but tone of voice to guide their reactions to one another. Nialls took a moment to digest the import of this remark, then said; "Possibly. But possibly I don't want to be one."
"All right, but I'm not going to let you commit yourself to anything until you really understand what you're doing. The stakes are just too high."
"Protecting me again, Derek?" An immense wealth of gentle affection and gratitude in the tone. "One of these days your loyalty is going to get you into terrible trouble." Nialls rubbed his eyes and yawned. "I think I could murder half your family and blow up the Houses of Parliament and you'd still be making excuses for me."
"Absolutely. Especially if you murdered half my family."
"Idiot. Why do you let me get away with it all the time, eh?"
"Because I love you. Why else?"
A short laugh. "That's the second time you've said that. Does it become easier each time?"
"I want to say it to you, Derek, but I can't. Not until I believe it myself. Do you understand?"
"Of course. You stop being scared of it eventually; I've had nearly ten years to get used to it, remember?"
"Hmmm. You know what I wish? That we could actually spend the night in the same bed. These bunks weren't exactly designed to take two six-footers at a throw, were they?"
"You realise I haven't actually ... "
"I know," Nialls told him softly. "And I'm no keener to push you into anything than you are to push me. I care too much about you. But if we are going to consummate our relationship it ought to be somewhere better than this. Next time we both have leave maybe I'll drag you off to that quiet country pub you were mentioning."
"Maybe. But if we got caught you'd never make Admiral."
"True. All right then, I've got a better idea. I'll get a flat."
"Going to subject me to your cooking again?"
"No. In fact I might not give you any meal breaks at all."
Beaumont groaned and chuckled. "I'll mutiny, Captain," he warned.
"Then I'll clap you in irons." The smug mirthfulness acknowledged that Nialls had an answer for everything, yet annoying though it might have been in other circumstances it was also delightful to hear him batting about wittily trivial remarks like a man without a care in the world. Normally so serious, so dedicated, Nialls had a sense of humour that was not always apparent to his subordinates; he had unwound to such a startling degree in the simple affection of his First Lieutenant that he was in danger of turning into a different person altogether - a man without responsibilities, free to please himself as he chose. Free, if he wished, even to love Derek Beaumont.
"Oh hell, was I snoring?" Nialls snapped awake an indeterminate time later with the grim presentiment that he had been guilty of anti-social behaviour.
A groan from Beaumont confirmed that he, too, was wide awake; in fact he had never drifted closer than the shallow waters of sleep. "If you were, I didn't notice. Any idea what time it is? I can't see my watch."
Nialls wriggled around in his bunk, peering in the darkness at the faint luminescence of his watch face.
A movement like an earthquake from the other bunk as Beaumont struggled wearily to haul himself upright.
"I'd better check that anchor chain again."
"Stay where you are. Let me do it."
"You don't have to ... "
"I know. Stay there and keep warm." Pushing himself off the bunk in the darkness Nialls made no attempt to look for footwear but stumbled towards the hatch blindly, muttering under his breath. A couple of minutes later he was back, his skin cool and damp from exposure to the outside air.
"Thick fog," he said, without other comment. "A real pea-souper."
No answer was forthcoming so he leaned close over his First Lieutenant's bunk and heard only slow and relaxed breathing as Derek slid gently into a heavy sleep. He was flat on his back and threatening to begin snoring at any moment.
"All right, Derek, I'll let you sleep. But before we're both much older, my lad, we're going to spend a night getting to know each other a lot better. Goodnight, Derek."
"Goodnight, sir," Beaumont muttered loyally, not really aware where he was nor with whom but responding to Nialls' voice automatically.
Nialls stared into the unyielding darkness for a long time seeing in his mind's eye his First Lieutenant, stubbled and scruffy and got up in a jumble-sale of a rig, weary and happy and tucked beneath a rough blanket sleeping like a child. The vision sent a shaft of proprietorial pride surging through him; he'd got used to thinking of everything and everyone in Hero as his own personal property but he knew perfectly well that nobody owned Derek Beaumont unless he wanted them to. Derek gave his love sparingly and not without due consideration; to have merited that love, even though he was not sure he was worthy of it, made him feel like a combination of Lord Nelson and Superman. Being loved by this man was going to change his life.
He lay down on the other bunk, pulled the blanket close around him and settled down to sleep.
Morning reached Nialls first and he lumbered from the bunk to light the gas ring and draw some of their stock of fresh water to make an early morning drink. While the kettle was warming up he hauled himself onto the deck to check the anchor again, and found that like the previous night he was walking through a soft cloud of grey cotton-wool. Although the Ginevra had good radar it would be a foolhardy skipper indeed who attempted to take her around the rocky headland and run her up on the shingle beach without being able to see what he was doing, and he knew that neither he nor Derek had the kind of suicidal courage that would involve. It looked as though they would be stuck there until the afternoon tide once again deepened the water in the cove to the point where they could run ashore and pick up the three students; an experienced glance at the weather was enough to convince him the heavy mist was unlikely to lift in the next hour or so. Going below again, he switched on the radio for the BBC's shipping forecast and confirmed his worst suspicions.
The sound of the radio and the gentle hissing of the kettle conspired to wake Derek and he sat up abruptly, rubbing his eyes.
"Was that fog?" he asked, semi-coherently.
"Visibility less than fifty yards," Nialls told him sadly.
"Oh. We daren't move from here until we have at least half a mile."
"That's what I thought. We're really quite vulnerable in a little boat like this, aren't we? It's like being afloat in a walnut-shell."
The whimsical remark fell rather flat; Derek merely stared at his commander and then looked away suddenly, as if remembering without pleasure the conversation that had felt perfectly acceptable in the darkness the night before but now seemed tainted with an air of the ridiculous.
"About last night ... " he said painfully, knowing he sounded like every clichéd bad romance he'd ever read.
"Yes. Do I have anything to apologise for?" Nialls countered, to his amazement. "Did I try and push you to say and do things you weren't ready for? Derek, I don't want to force the issue but my departure from Hero is getting too damned close for subtlety. I need to sort out how we feel ... about each other ... "
"Well as far as I'm concerned I shouldn't have thought you were in any doubt." Levering himself off the bunk, Derek moved to the galley to take over the tea-making. He was on automatic pilot, throwing together tea and sugar and condensed milk in two already dirty mugs and handing one to Nialls without ceremony and without meeting his enquiring gaze.
"Does that mean you don't believe my feelings for you are genuine?"
Derek propped himself against the chart table and took a long swallow of his tea. "No, I didn't mean that," he said heavily. "But it's the things you didn't say that worry me. For example when you left the ship you said you were going to stay with Sara, but when you came back you said Sara was marrying someone else. Did you know that already?"
"Before I left the ship on Thursday? Yes."
"Then you were lying when you said you were going to Sara's? You didn't go anywhere near her?"
"That's right. Oh I did go to Exeter, but I spent the night at the County Hotel. Stayed in my room and watched television; I was bored out of my mind. I just wanted to leave enough time for everybody to get away from the ship, and then I intended to come back and whisk you off to dinner. Your father's friend being taken into hospital rather changed all that."
"Then were you planning to ... to try and get me into bed this weekend?"
"No, Derek! God, if you persist in mistrusting my motives we're never going to have much of a relationship, are we?"
Beaumont's softer brown eyes challenged him. "All right, then; explain it to me again."
Nialls' mouth became a thin, stubborn line, and then he said carefully; "While we were serving as Captain and First Lieutenant in Hero I wouldn't have dared discuss this with you. If it had gone wrong, if you had been ... insulted or frightened by what I had to say ... we could hardly have avoided a scandal. I have too much respect and affection for you to want to damage your career just because I can't string together three simple words without making a mess of things. Now we've reached a point where our career paths are diverging - temporarily, I hope - and it's safer for both of us to talk about this now. If you decide you don't want me I'll go off to the Admiral's staff and give you the best bloody recommendation for command a man ever got. But I hope you'll be willing at least to let me try to prove myself; spend some time with me, let me get closer to you. I'm thoroughly confused by what I feel for you, Derek. Sometimes it's simple and I know I love you and nobody else; sometimes I get so worried by the implications of it that I almost talk myself out of it. I'm not used to being so uncertain about anything."
Watching him slack-jawed, Beaumont could barely suppress the flood of sympathy that welled through him. He'd always been so used to considering Nialls' feelings before his own that it stunned him to think he had missed such a strong emotional conflict in the man. Oh, he'd noticed evidence of stress that had nothing to do with commanding Hero, but he'd put that down to Nialls debating some decision over Sara Foulkes. A complete split with Sara and a promotion to the Admiral's staff hadn't entered into his calculations at all.
"Poor Mark," he said instinctively, without thinking how odd it might sound. "I fought all these battles years ago; you've still got them to come. All the uncertainty and the abject terror of saying and doing the wrong thing. Everything's always been so simple for you and now you're ... " inspiration struck suddenly, " ... casting around in the fog. I wish I could help you."
"You can. Hold my hand." He'd meant it figuratively at first, but then impulsively stuck out a hand and waited a thousand or more years until Derek's fingers slowly wrapped around it.
"All right. But no promises. I want to take this very slowly."
"Best way in fog," Nialls agreed with a grin, squeezing the hand that held his and which squeezed back with deep and genuine affection.
Shortly before nine the radio leaped to life again, the shore party calling them in cheerful tones.
"Vraiqhou to Ginevra, Vraiqhou to Ginevra, Mickey for Mark, do you copy?"
"Vraiqhou, Ginevra, Mark speaking. Good morning Mickey; how do you like this weather?"
"Not a lot, Mark. We're assuming you won't be able to take us off until the fog lifts, over?"
"Roger. Derek's got the engine in bits at the moment anyway. We'll try for the afternoon tide about sixteen-hundred; that should give us plenty of time to get you and your luggage off the island before dark. We've already radioed an altered passage plan to Portishead. If we can get under way late afternoon or early evening we shouldn't be too far behind schedule for you. Over."
"All understood, Mark, thank you. Is there a problem with the engine?"
"Not exactly. Derek thought it sounded a bit unhappy, that's all; I'm always telling him he worries too much. We'll keep you advised but it's just routine maintenance, over."
"Roger, Ginevra. By the way, have you any coffee on board? We ran out about ten days ago and we've had to manage on teabags ever since. We're all dying for a decent cup of coffee, over."
"Oh, I think we can manage that, Mickey. All the coffee you can drink. We'll call you at noon to report progress, over."
"That's fine, Mark, thank you. Tell Derek we wish him the best of luck. Vraiqhou out."
"Roger, Vraiqhou, over and out."
"What was all that about?"
A dishevelled and oil-stained Beaumont appeared from under the engine hatch wiping his hands on an oily rag, his mid-brown curls a matted tangle where sweat and engine grease had combined against them. Nialls had seen his First Lieutenant in every rig the Navy could devise from Arctic gear to NBCD coveralls to Mess Undress black tie and bumfreezer but at the sight of this untidy apparition he felt his heart give a sudden lurch as though the boat had unexpectedly keeled over to starboard.
Disciplining his unruly emotions, he said; "Mickey, just checking we were still here. What kind of accommodation have they got up there, do you know?"
"About half a stone farmhouse, I think."
"The Germans on Alderney during the war used it for target practice. There are several walls still standing but not much of a roof. They probably brought canvas sheeting to roof it with and just moved in to what was left."
"Oh. I thought they might be in tents."
"I doubt it. Too windy up on the top there."
Nialls nodded. "So what's the prognosis on the engine?" he asked, brightly.
Beaumont shrugged eloquently. "Fuel injection pump's breaking down," he said. "Tommy Tennyson obviously expected it to; there's a new pump still in its packaging stored in the forepeak. Problem is of course the old one's bolted to the engine and looks as if it's been there since Pontius was a Pilot, but I think I can probably use brute force on it."
"What, you mean you'll replace the pump here and now? Are you sure that's necessary?"
"Do you want to risk it breaking down when we're crossing the commercial shipping lanes?" Beaumont asked him sharply. "We're not in Hero now, you know; if we're adrift in the main lanes when the fog comes down again, we'll barely be a blip on the radar for the bigger vessels coming through. I doubt we'd get out of the way very quickly under sail, so we'd be stuck there; they could run us down without ever seeing us. I ... don't want to be responsible for depriving the Admiral of his new Staff Officer Ops."
"Nor I for depriving Hero of her much loved First Lieutenant," was the surprisingly tender reply. "Can I help in any way?"
"Yes. Come and talk to me while I'm working. If you're leaving the ship soon I want to spend as much time as possible with you while I have the chance."
"Gladly," Nialls acquiesced, thinking he would be only too pleased to spend time with Derek wherever and whenever he got the opportunity and delighted that Derek felt the same way about him.
Unity of purpose was nothing new for Mark Nialls and Derek Beaumont. They had known each other a long time - an on-off friendship, admittedly, in the long gap between Brassington and Hero, but the moment Nialls had stepped over the brow in Gibraltar to be greeted by his First Lieutenant and his new command the past had dissolved and it was as if they had never been apart. Not that he had been aware, then, of Derek's personal affection for him. That knowledge had only grown slowly, along with recognition of his own feelings. At first it had simply been a shared glee in a command that was so extraordinary, so challenging. Then, gradually, watching the quietly competent way Derek went about his duties and being the beneficiary of his endless care and perfectionism had become an especial pleasure. Not only that, but there had been surges of mind-numbing terror when the situations they met in the course of their duties had suddenly seemed to conspire against them and it had looked as if they might be torn apart with nothing resolved between them.
One incident in particular still haunted his nightmares. Taking a boarding party onto an abandoned freighter Derek had found himself coping with a seriously injured crewman and several unstable explosive charges. Oh, he'd done the demolition course and he knew his stuff, but that didn't stop Nialls from worrying about him. And there had been that horrifying moment when one of the detonators had gone off accidentally inside the freighter's hold and for a moment Nialls thought the bomb would follow and that the First Lieutenant, the Master-at-Arms and the boarding party of four seamen would go straight to the bottom along with the rusty old tub they were trying to salvage. He'd nearly lost control of himself then; he could still recall the way sweat had prickled on his temples and at the back of his neck, the way his throat had closed over, the way his anger and frustration had overflowed when he had ordered Lieutenant Taff Parry over to the freighter to sort things out. Never mind Derek's selfless assertion that this was a job for bachelors and that Parry would be leaving the Navy soon; one couldn't protect these people from the career they themselves had chosen. Rationalising it he could just about make himself believe that Parry had been the only sensible choice to defuse the bomb; he was supposed to be the expert, after all. In his heart, though, he wondered whether he hadn't just been trying desperately to ensure that Derek came back to Hero in one piece.
The rot had undoubtedly started back then. It had worsened when a fiery-eyed Beaumont had shouted him down over the fate of one Sub-Lieutenant Timothy Penn, a young misfit whose sole desire had been to cause trouble. When Penn had repeatedly interrupted one of Nialls' wardroom speeches - for which in cynical moments Nialls could scarcely blame him - Derek had almost reached boiling point. Only a gentle hand on the shoulder from his Captain had stopped him ordering Penn out of the room. It had been an extraordinary moment of non-verbal communication in a room full of people, but it had been in vain. Penn's iniquities persisted, and eventually Nialls had given way to the silent pleading and agreed that Penn should be dismissed. Later he and Derek had got into a shouting match on the subject - their one and only so far - and he had been faced with the choice of getting rid of Penn or finding himself a new First Lieutenant. They had landed Penn at Gib the following morning, additional to Flag Officer's staff, and Nialls had lived ever since with the knowledge that he, too, had his price.
After that, Sara's rejection of him hadn't seemed so much like a setback as a blessed relief. He could never marry her while he was so wound up in his emotional conflict over Derek, but he'd asked her because he thought that was what she was expecting. Mercifully she'd refused, and he'd spent the rest of that evening with her in a kind of blissful haze seeing - instead of her shining red hair and hazel eyes - the tangled brown mop and uncritical brown eyes of his First Lieutenant. He had been so anxious to get back to the ship he doubted he'd even said 'goodbye' properly. And then he'd been taken ill with gastric flu of all bloody things and had to lean on Derek so heavily he thought the man might buckle under the strain, and somewhere in the haze that represented that week in his memory he vaguely recalled receiving several visits in his cabin from someone who spoke softly and reassuringly and promised him that he needn't worry about a thing. There had been many nights since when he'd wished that deep and gentle voice, that affectionate tone, would once again grace the hermit's cell that was his night-cabin - but there were limits to what even the Captain could accomplish. Their relationship had returned to its usual arms'-length businesslike self, except that he had known for certain that there was now no escape from his feelings for Derek Beaumont. Hence the subterfuge in Plymouth. Hence, indirectly, last night in Ginevra, and the turmoil caused by his lame and oafish attempts to admit to those feelings - to the love he had come to realise existed in him for this man.
"God, you bastard!" Gritting his teeth, Derek slotted the wrench round one of the lugs that held the pump in place and bent all his weight to trying to jolt it free. Nothing happened, and he raised a grimed hand to shift the sweaty lock of hair that had dropped into his eyes.
Nialls, flat on his belly on the cabin floor and hanging over the open hatchway, reached down.
"Need another pair of hands?"
"I need a dry dock, a workshop, about three assistants and a dolly bird to make the tea," Derek told him with a light laugh, "but I suppose you'll have to do. Can you drop some of that oil down onto this bolt?"
Obediently Nialls did as he was told, and then Derek braced himself to try again. In the confined space he was hot and cramped; he could not stretch his legs out and they were sending painful messages to his brain that no-one who valued his legs should ignore.
"Keep your hands out of the way, Mark," Derek advised softly. "When this thing goes, it's going to go suddenly."
It was the last bolt holding the pump in place, and it had been resisting his best efforts for several minutes now despite the amount of degreasant he had poured over it. Everything - the spanners, hammers, wrenches, and particularly the First Lieutenant - had become almost unecogniseable under a coat of oil and perspiration, and it was necessary to stop every few minutes and clean hands and implements with oddments of scrim. Under the mask of oil Derek was white with tiredness, dark rings under his serious eyes, and Mark would have done anything to lift his self-imposed burden. He had asked once whether this was necessary; he would not do so again, trusting Derek's word as he had always done. If they wanted to get themselves and the ornithologists away from Vraiqhou the pump had to be replaced, and since Derek apparently knew what he was doing it was really not a subject for debate.
"One last push should do it," Derek said optimistically, and with a groan and a tortured expression similar to that of a weightlifter squaring up to one supreme effort he applied himself to the task. The bolt stood firm, gripped and fought back, and then yielded suddenly and with a cry of alarm Derek fell sideways across the pump with his arms tangled beneath him. The cry did not end but turned into a kind of high-pitched wail of pain and frustration, and as the other man half-turned and faced him Nialls could see why. Derek's left hand was a bloody mess - no other words could describe it - with a flap of skin hanging loose and blood welling from a large wound across the knuckles.
"Crushed my hand," Derek said, limply, a shudder of shock passing across his face.
"Out of there, now." Nialls' arms reached down and somehow he got his hands into Derek's underarms, half-dragging him upwards and extracting him through the hatch to sit him jammed against the base of one of the bunks. In the tiny space Nialls took one look at the abused hand and reached for the first-aid kit.
"Tell me," he said firmly.
"Smashed it between the wrench and the pump," was the curt reply.
"Wiggle your fingers."
A pathetic effort with thumb, index and middle fingers dancing manically, ring and little fingers remaining idle.
"Of course it's bloody painful, I've got two broken fingers!"
Nialls nodded. "Yes, I thought as much. Take it easy, Derek, I'll clean the wound and splint them for you, and then you can talk me through installing the new pump."
"You?" Beaumont was frankly incredulous.
"Me. Why, did you think my role was purely decorative? Captains have occasionally been known to get their hands dirty, you know!"
"Yes, but ... "
"Derek!" Quelling the incipient protest with a stern tone and an even sterner look, Nialls melted immediately in the face of the woebegone expression that turned on him. "Isn't it time you let me look after you, just for a change?" he asked beseechingly. "Let me make up for all those times when I had to send you off to do some god-awful job while I stayed safe and cosy on the bridge." As he spoke he was busy with gauze pads and fine muslin bandages, mopping blood from the wound, gently settling the flap of skin back in place and splinting the two damaged fingers to the rest of the hand with clean wrappings around them. "All I wanted, Derek, was some sign that you needed me - an indication that there might be some quality in me you couldn't manage without. I can't imagine what it could be, but I hoped one day ... you might want to lean on me."
"You mean that?"
"Of course I mean it!"
"Then for god's sake don't leave Hero!"
Stricken, Nialls met the horrified gaze that turned on him and realised only belatedly what he had done.
"Too late," he confessed hoarsely. "I can't stop it now. Your new Captain's appointed, and I'm going in less than three weeks."
"You and your bloody ambition," Derek spat sourly.
"Yes, I know. It's rebounded on me this time - but I promise I'll never make another career move without consulting you first."
A long silence, and then with an infinite weariness; "Mark?"
Nialls did not ask him what he meant. Since stepping aboard Ginevra at Brixham he had been struggling with the words, and now he had got as close to them as he could without actually employing them. He had wriggled and thrashed like a fish on a line, fought against the inevitable with the sort of foolhardy energy he usually condemned in others, and now at last he knew that he was landed.
"Oh, Derek," he said in a tone of infinite long-suffering and resignation, "of course I love you. You knew it long before I did, didn't you?"
"No. I didn't know until you wandered into the wardroom on Friday morning - and then I was just as bloody terrified of it as you were. I told Bill Kiley I was afraid of being alone with you; he said I should just relax and be my usual charming self."
"You've confided in Bill?"
"I didn't mean to."
"I wasn't criticising. He's a good choice. He's the only one?"
"The only one who knows? Yes. Mark?"
Nialls swallowed. "I know. You're determined not to let me off lightly, aren't you?"
"Adamant," Beaumont told him, with a gentle chuckle, the pain in his hand almost forgotten as a delightful lassitude flooded through him, a sudden total conviction that he could relax at last and that it would be all right.
"That's why you're the best First Lieutenant in the Fleet," Commander Nialls said, quite softly, and without further ado kissed him warmly and tenderly and very, very thoroughly indeed.
It seemed to take ages, a sweet collision of lips and tongues and teeth, the flavours of gin and coffee and cigarettes and the familiar-unfamiliar scents of one another mingling in an intoxicating mélange with the little sounds they made, the gasps and sighs and half-heard whispers of appreciation and mutual delight.
"Don't," Derek whispered when Mark at last tried to draw away just far enough to catch his breath, and Mark allowed himself to be pulled back into the mad psychedelic whirlpool of sensation and kissed him over and over again until his lips tingled and not a scrap of air remained in his lungs. Then he rested a moment with his forehead leaning against Derek's and listened to the way their hearts were thudding in unison, and to Derek's anguished breathing.
"There," Nialls whispered, trying to make light of the trembling in his limbs "Two instant Courts Martial."
Derek studiously ignored the remark, off on some dreamlike tangent of his own. "It's unbelievable," he breathed.
"Kissing a man. I hadn't expected it to be so ... beautiful."
"Oh. I was hoping you'd find it quite sexy, actually."
"It was. It was."
He shifted a little, leaning into the readily offered embrace until his head was on Nialls' shoulder and his Captain's arms were around him. Bill Kiley would never believe it - if he ever dared tell him. As for Bob and Monty and the other officers - utter incredulity, he imagined. The men, though - they were different. They'd seen it all before. Officers and officers, officers and men, men and men ... in all wars and on all foreign stations, it happened. Sometimes it was just expediency, sometimes it was love.
This time, definitely, it was love; neither of them could possibly entertain another moment's doubt. Nialls, indeed, for all the escape manoeuvres he had attempted, had known it all along; the simple difference between his rather ordinary emotions towards Sara and the strange excitement of his feelings for Derek had been more than enough to convince him. He had merely hesitated over the hugeness of the step they would be taking, over the gulf between his devotion to duty and his devotion to Derek. He had rationalised it all he could, and now he had stopped caring for anything beyond the world encompassed by Ginevra and the expression in his First Lieutenant's eyes.
"I never thought we'd have the courage," Derek laughed softly, still leaning weakly against the bunk and grinning at him.
"O, ye of little faith!" Nialls chided in reply. "Still, I don't know that it solves anything, at least as far as my promotion is concerned."
"It doesn't. In fact it makes things worse. But we won't be the first couple to be parted by the service, and we won't be the last. Nearly everyone in the Navy has a wife or girlfriend or sweetheart somewhere ashore."
"Do I qualify as a 'sweetheart somewhere ashore'?"
"Probably. And Hero will definitely be looking for special treatment from the SOO in future; it never hurts to have friends on the Admiral's staff."
Nialls' lips pursed wickedly. "I'm not so sure about that," he said dubiously, "but I should think Hero's First Lieutenant would qualify for special treatment - wouldn't you?"
"It's not for me to say, sir," Beaumont responded at his most po-faced, using the tone with which he had sometimes respectfully corrected his Captain.
"Damn right," was the affectionate reply. Then, with great reluctance, Nialls tore himself free of the precious embrace and helped the other man up to sit on the bunk instead of languishing against it. "You know," he said, "unless we want to spend the rest of our lives here - or, worse still, be rescued by the Royal Navy - I'm going to have to bite the bullet and go and wrestle with that damned engine."
"Oh, you'll be all right," Derek told him cheerfully. "I've done the difficult part. Want me to lean over the hatch and heckle you?"
"As long as you can do it without making your hand worse."
"Okay, I'll back-seat drive. Only you won't want that sweater; it's hot down there."
Dark eyebrows lifted, and then in one economical movement Nialls stripped off the dark green sweater and chucked it on the bunk. Underneath, his companion was amused to see, he wore a standard HMS Hero crew teeshirt.
"Where on Earth did you get that?"
"Canteen stores. Sent the Tiger for it."
"You ought to wear it on board - give the crew a whole new opinion of you."
"Not likely; most of that lot think I've got three rings of gold lace on my pyjamas! We Captains have to preserve a certain mystique, you know - a certain detachment."
Looking at the suddenly boyish figure with the ruffled hair and the cheeky grin, Derek was overwhelmed with the most possessive love he had ever known in his life.
"Oh yes," he said. "Mystique. Detachment. I'll make a note of that. Now get below, galley-slave, and make a start on that bloody engine!"
Mickey was blonde and curly-haired, Jackie dark and vivacious, Ronnie a thin-faced scholarly type with glasses and an incipient beard. They were assembled on a shelf of rock above the steep shingle beach in a light sprinkling of rain when Nialls and Beaumont ran Ginevra ashore that afternoon. Nialls leaped down to the beach carrying two strong ropes attached to cleats on the deck.
"Ronnie! Come and grab one of these ropes. We'll hold her steady while Derek and the girls load the luggage."
"I know," Ronnie muttered resentfully. "I had to do this when we landed."
"Good. Then you've had plenty of practice."
Ronnie's expression was unpleasant and rebellious but he did as he was told while the girls ferried bundles and packages across the sloping shingle and thrust them at Derek who, despite his injury, made a reasonable job of hauling them inboard and dumping them in the main cabin. It was a hot and exhausting interlude for them all, enlivened only by the backchat between Nialls and Mickey every time the girl passed him on her way up the beach. Jackie, although she had been polite enough, seemed not to have nearly as much to say for herself and to be concentrating on the task in hand. Nialls noticed that Ronnie spoke to neither girl, but he supposed that after three months together on an otherwise uninhabited island they had all run out of small talk - hence Mickey's somewhat exaggerated delight in his company.
At length the last package was loaded and Derek held out a gentlemanly hand to help the two girls onto the boat. They immediately disappeared below to start reorganising their Everest of belongings, and he leaned over the stern to signal to the two on the beach that it was time to leave.
"Off you go, Ronnie," Nialls instructed briskly. "Give me your rope."
The youth obeyed, handing him the rope and passing on his way to Ginevra without a word or an unnecessary look in Nialls' direction.
"Ready?" Beaumont called from the stern as Ronnie scrambled aboard.
"Ready, Derek. Try not to leave me behind."
"I'll try. But I think you're going to get your feet wet."
"Shame." Coiling the ropes swiftly, Nialls dodged back down the beach and put his whole weight against Ginevra's hull. For a moment she resisted, but although she was much heavier now than when she had grounded the tide was on the rise and taking the stern gently and by the time he found himself wading in ankle-deep water the yacht was floating away from the beach and he was running to grab Derek's outstretched hand, falling aboard wet and filthy and laughing outrageously. Then in a moment the engine cut in and they were edging cautiously out of the shallows, Derek chuckling maniacally at the draggled mess at his feet which gradually resolved itself into a semblance of a human being.
"Mystique?" he said again. "Detachment? Sounds like a counsel of perfection to me."
"Sorry, Derek, have I shot a hole in the image?"
His companion grinned. "Your image is so full of holes already you could use it as a mosquito net. Are you going to keep an eye on our passengers while I take the first watch?"
"Yes, as long as you promise to call me the moment you need me."
"I never stop needing you."
"Fool," Nialls admonished. "At least give me time to change my clothes and get everything organised below."
"All right. But send up one of the girls with a cup of tea, will you?"
"And a tot? It's going to be a long night."
"You're leading me into bad ways, Mark."
"God, yes," was the immediate response. "I hope so."
Nialls and Mickey returned simultaneously a few minutes later, he now dressed in a disreputable pair of jeans and his old dark green sweater and carrying his own mug of tea, she bearing one for Derek and one for herself.
"Jackie's starting a meal," Mickey said, handing Beaumont his drink. "Ronnie's gone to bed. He's sulking."
"Yes, what's his problem?" Nialls asked. "Not very talkative, is he?"
"He thinks you two are competition. He's had Jackie all to himself for three months and he doesn't like the thought of having to share her with anybody."
"But we're not ... " Halfway into the sentence, Derek suddenly wondered how it was supposed to end. We're not interested in women? A bit blatant, surely. We're not interested in Jackie? Unnecessarily rude.
"We're just here to do a job," Nialls put in, smoothly. "Do you honestly mean to tell me those two were carrying on a relationship all the time you were on that island?"
"Three solid months of it," Mickey confirmed. "Now do you understand why I'm so glad to see the pair of you? When we started out, Jackie and I shared the big room and Ronnie had the other one, but after a few nights she moved in with him. The partitions were only canvas, and they didn't much care about being quiet. Night after night ... "
She didn't specify, but they could well imagine. How heedless young love could be, how selfish. A glance passed between them.
"You did quite well to remain on good terms, under the circumstances," Beaumont commended gently.
"I think so. You see Ronnie was my boyfriend, but I wouldn't ... I wanted to wait, that's all. Jackie didn't care about that sort of thing. I imagine she's learned her lesson now, though."
Nialls' eyes widened. "She's pregnant? I thought she looked a bit queasy."
"Silly cow," Mickey confirmed, scathingly. "Still, I don't entirely blame her. I mean, it wasn't all her fault, was it? Ronnie could have been a bit more sensible."
"He could have been a lot more sensible," Derek agreed, disgustedly. "Damage is done, though, isn't it?"
Mickey stared morosely into her mug. "Can't we talk about something else? How did you hurt your hand, Derek? And where do you both come from and what do you do?"
"I broke two fingers trying to get the fuel injection pump off the engine this morning," Beaumont told her cheerily. "And as for where we come from - I was born in Devon and Mark's from Kent."
"But we're both living in Plymouth these days," Nialls said quickly, the unholy gleam in his eye alerting his First Lieutenant that a little gentle leg-pulling was in order. "I'm a bus driver, Derek's a ... window cleaner," he finished with a burst of inspiration.
"You're like some kind of double-act," the girl laughed. "Both talking at once. So where did you meet?"
Struggling, Derek said limply; "It was ... at a party, wasn't it, Mark?"
A stultifying wardroom party in Brassington it had certainly been, but Nialls took the memory and elaborated on it mercilessly.
"A mutual friend's stag party," he supplied, delightedly. "Derek was standing on the table with his trousers round his ankles singing 'How much is that doggie in the window?'"
"I don't remember that!" Beaumont laughed, his expression promising a novel retribution one of these days.
"I'm not surprised. You were out of your mind on Pernod and lemonade - I virtually had to pour you into the taxi. Heaven knows how you got through the wedding - he was Best Man," he added, wickedly. "His speech at the Reception consisted of 'Ladies and Gentlemen - oh God, excuse me' just before he fainted into the cake."
"You're making it all up," Mickey accused, staring at Derek with level blue eyes that seemed capable of absolving him of all sorts of wickedness.
"Well, not all of it," Nialls conceded with a twinkle. "Tell us about your studies on the island - or did you spend the entire time trying to get away from Ronnie and Jackie?"
Looking back on the homeward voyage afterwards, it would have been difficult to imagine a greater contrast to the outward leg of their journey. Jackie, somewhat green around the gills, was hardly an inspired choice of galley-slave and the meal she turned in that evening was a grim experience for all concerned; no worse concoction of sawdust, rat droppings and worms' eyeballs had ever been served out of Monty Wakelin's now defunct main galley. Ronnie appeared at table reluctantly and with scarcely a concession to good form, consumed his meal like a pelican stuffing its beak and departed bunkwards again without a lot to say for himself. Nialls and Mickey maintained what they could of the repartee that had developed during their earliest radio contacts, but Derek found tiredness and the pain of his broken hand beginning to take their toll as the night closed in and the shipping lanes approached.
"Why don't you go P7R for a couple of hours?" his commanding officer asked him softly as Jackie and Mickey disposed of the debris of the meal. "You could do with your sleep."
"I know." Beaumont rubbed his eyes tiredly with his undamaged hand. "If Ronnie was any more use than a chocolate fireguard I would, but I don't like the thought of leaving you a nightwatch in a commercial shipping area when your yachtsmanship's so rusty."
"Which is a polite euphemism for 'non-existent'?" Nialls surmised. "Point taken, Derek, but if you're going to be any use in a crisis shouldn't you actually get some sleep while you can? Mickey can help me maintain the watch - the other two might as well turn in in the forecabin, for all the help they'll be. You kip down in the main cabin and I can wake you if I need you."
His commander grinned, that mischievous smile the flotilla had come to recognise as his I'm not beaten yet expression.
"Every hour on the hour," Nialls told him sentimentally, his voice soft and low. "I love you, remember?"
"I do seem to remember hearing something of the sort," Beaumont told him. "All right, all right, I'm going. Never let it be said I refused a senior officer's order."
"I should think not. That would be mutiny. I'd come and tuck you in, but I'd be too tempted to creep in alongside you."
"I wish you could," Beaumont told him wistfully.
"That'll have to wait until we're back in Hero," was his Captain's parting shot, and Beaumont went below while the mindbending images the words conjured up were still fresh in his mind. He was asleep almost before his head had touched the pillow.
After dusk Mickey once again gravitated to Nialls' side, the two of them now the only ones awake on the small vessel. He had dropped his bantering manner by the time she settled down in the wheelhouse beside him, staring across an endless expanse of black and now rain-swept sea.
"It gives you a completely different perspective on everything, doesn't it?" she asked suddenly.
"The sea? Yes. Just walking down a city street is different afterwards. When you get back from a voyage everything ashore seems so ... small. Confined. Even open countryside seems to close in on you somehow."
"I know. I went to the Arctic Circle on an expedition last year; it took me weeks afterwards to get my land-legs back - and to stop expecting long, grey horizons."
He shot a sudden look at her; at a conservative estimate the girl could only be half his age, but there was something in her which struck a chord with him.
"I'm not really a bus driver," he said, abruptly.
"No. Not with that haircut." She chuckled, and he had to concede that in an era when people were wearing their hair at least collar-length and their clothes flamboyant he and Derek probably stood out as the squarest of the square. "If I had to guess, I'd put you down for one of the services - and Plymouth and sailing narrows the field a bit."
"I'm not just a pretty face," she quipped. "Surface or submarines?"
"Surface. I'm not completely mad." He thought about that a moment, then qualified it. "Well, I probably am, actually."
"What rank are you - Lieutenant-Commander?"
"Commander. I'm Derek's Captain."
The light from the instruments in the indigo darkness was enough to show Nialls that his companion was smiling.
"Yes, Derek," she mused, as though he had been the real subject of the conversation from its inception. "Tell me if I'm intruding, but I get the impression you and he are very close ... a little more than just 'brother officers'. Am I right?"
"I can't answer that," Nialls told her, momentarily alarmed by her sudden insight. "You wouldn't expect me to."
A mild chuckle. "You already have. Oh, don't worry, I have no intention of shopping you to the Ministry of Defence - it's just that there's something about the way you look at each other. Have you been together a long time?" There was just the suspicion of a special emphasis on the word 'together'.
"It depends what you mean by 'together'." He was aware even as he spoke that darkness and the girl's congenial company had made him reckless, but he continued anyway. "Years," he said, and the tenderness in his tone surprised him. "Not long enough; one more cruise, and then I'm moving to a new posting." He had spoken as if the separation from Derek was more important in his mind than the challenge of a new job, and he was not surprised when she picked up on it.
"What will you do?"
"I don't know. It's not going to be easy." If she wanted to talk in ambiguities, dammit, so would he. It was somewhat uncomfortable to be seen through as though he was a pane of glass, and by someone he barely knew, but at the same time there was an element of exhilaration to know what he was risking by being so outspoken. "I think ... I think I might get a flat in Plymouth," he said, a wicked chuckle not far from his voice. "Borrow one perhaps, or even rent one. I could do with a pied-a-terre."
"That sounds like a good idea," she said. "You could have lots of lady visitors, couldn't you? Perhaps I'll even come and visit you myself, if you'd like me to?"
Uncertain at first what she was offering, Nialls was about to refuse politely when another explanation entirely crossed his mind. He remembered that she'd refused to sleep with Ronnie; had lost him rather than give in to his blandishments. She'd hardly be throwing herself at him if she'd turned down her beloved Ronnie.
"Do you like dining out?" he asked neutrally.
"In very public restaurants? Love it."
"Yes, so do I. Perhaps we might dine together some time?"
"Definitely. And do you think you could tolerate the theatre occasionally? It would be so nice to have someone to go with."
"Certainly - but I ought to warn you, my taste isn't very intellectual."
"Neither is mine," the girl said. "We'll stick to comedy and Agatha Christie. You know, Mark, I think we could be very good for one another - at least in the short term. I'm not going to be in Plymouth forever, I'm afraid."
"I'm not going to be in the Navy forever. Neither is Derek."
"Just taking each day as it comes?" she asked.
"It's the only way," Mickey said softly, squeezing his arm in the darkness. "Believe me, I know."
Taking the gangplank in giant strides, Derek Beaumont was up over the brow of HMS Hero more rapidly than he would have thought possible and turning aft to snap a quick salute to the quarterdeck with slightly more enthusiasm than he could usually muster. The duty quartermaster stepped forward briskly, and he was delighted to discover that by some quirk of fate Leading Regulator Pat Fuller had drawn the duty this morning. Later he suspected Nialls of collusion with the Master-at-Arms, but for now he merely absorbed it as a hopeful omen.
Fuller fired off a smart salute which Beaumont returned with gusto.
"Welcome back, sir, glad to see you're better. Captain's compliments, sir, and the moment you're aboard would you step along to his cabin please?"
"No sooner said than done, Fuller. Could you get someone to take care of my bag, do you think?"
"See to it myself, sir." With another salute as Beaumont strode away, Fuller commandeered the brown leather overnight bag the First Lieutenant had dropped at his feet. It was a long time since he had seen the languid senior officer so animated; no-one could ever dispute Beaumont's efficiency, but the man never seemed to get particularly excited about anything - except his Trafalgar Night party, of course. Fuller had vague recollections of being expected to dress up as a sailor of Nelson's time and do a Long John Silver number with a parrot and a crutch, but he'd long ago forgiven Beaumont for that. The Jimmy was a vital part of HMS Hero's machinery; without him things just wouldn't work the same. A good Jimmy was even more important than a good Captain, as far as the lower deck was concerned; changing Captains was one thing, but losing a decent First Officer was another. Whatever the new Captain was like - and Fuller had seen an order naming him as a certain Commander Charles Brentford - Beaumont would soon have him trained in the way HMS Hero liked to do things.
For the time being, Fuller was just grateful the man was back; in his two weeks' absence on sick leave following his injury the ship had been standing in as emergency ship, which had involved one rather lacklustre fishery patrol around the Scilly Isles and the rest of the time polishing everything that moved and painting everything that didn't. Everyone was bored, the Captain particularly. Aware that Nialls was sweating out his last couple of weeks in command Fuller couldn't blame him for champing at the bit, but his temper hadn't improved. Maybe Beaumont's return would mellow him.
The curtain was across Nialls' day-cabin doorway when Beaumont arrived outside the room, a signal that although he was busy he was available if necessary. A closed door would have deterred even the First Lieutenant; only the safety of the ship could have induced him to seek admission then.
He hung his cap on a hook outside, smoothed his hair back nervously, then rapped on the open door and pushed aside the curtain. Nialls was nowhere to be seen.
"Derek, that you? I'm in the night-cabin. Come on through."
The tiny lobby between the two cabins had a minuscule bathroom leading from it; the Captain could not be expected to queue up with the senior officers for his morning shower. It was only on submarines that sort of thing became necessary.
Beaumont pushed aside the half-open door and entered the night-cabin. Nialls was in shirtsleeves, his hair slightly rumpled, sorting through a collection of thirty or forty books which were arrayed on the bunk. Neither man paid much heed to the formalities the Navy would have expected of them in the circumstances.
"I don't suppose you want any of these, do you?" Nialls asked. "It's amazing what one accumulates during a commission."
A quick, hazy glance across the titles left Beaumont no wiser. "Possibly," he temporised. "You're not taking them with you?"
"Only half a dozen. I'll donate most of them to the wardroom library, but you can have first pick. How are you?"
"Oh, much better, sir. Only I'll never play the piano again."
"Which is a mercy for the rest of us," Nialls said jauntily, dropping a Desmond Morris paperback on the bed and turning to look properly at his visitor. "You've been missing two and a half bloody weeks, Derek. Seventeen days, to be precise. I've spent those seventeen days trying to work out what the hell to say to you when you got back."
Beaumont grinned. "Oh? And what conclusion did you come to?"
Nialls shrugged. "That actions speak louder than words," he said. "Come here." And with a completely unexpected movement he pulled Beaumont to him and kissed his mouth with forceful intensity. The kiss seemed to go on and on for dangerous aeons while every Admiral within a hundred miles of Devonport wandered into the day-cabin and caught sight of them, while Naval ratings and dockyard staff lined the quay to jeer at them through the porthole, while a whole battalion of lawyers started thumbing through the Naval Discipline Act looking for charges to level against them. For Beaumont, though, Hero disappeared and they were back again in the cramped but comfortable cabin of Ginevra waiting for the tide; that was the first time Nialls had kissed him, and the taste of his mouth would always send Beaumont's thoughts flying back to that extraordinarily tranquil moment.
It was Nialls who broke the kiss, with the greatest possible reluctance, and stepped back looking a little flushed and bashful.
"I thought here - on board - you would probably believe I was serious," he said, awkwardly. "I wasn't sure if I'd convinced you ... before."
Beaumont blinked back a sudden stinging sensation in his eyes. "Oh," he said, deeply and softly, "I believed you, Mark. I just wasn't sure if, with hindsight, you'd feel you'd made a mistake."
"Captains don't make mistakes. Remember that when Commander Brentford comes aboard."
"And when's that?"
Nialls swallowed ruefully. "Day after tomorrow," he said. "You're off to the Arctic with him - fishery protection again. Quite a good way to help him get settled in, I should think. Oh, and you'll have a new flight commander and a new navigator too - Peter's gone already, Bob's got a pierhead jump to Dido - leaving tomorrow afternoon. I thought we'd have a wardroom party before he goes, sort of a bon voyage thing. Monty's promised to put something together - I've got Bill Kiley as Mess Vice President to do the running around. I hope you don't mind?"
As Mess President entertaining should strictly have been Beaumont's responsibility, but he had not known for certain when he would be able to resume his duties until he had been seen by the doctor the previous afternoon. "Only so long as you promise not to ask me to dance," he answered, grinning.
"Oh. I thought we might be treated to your half-naked version of 'How much is that doggie in the window' again."
"That only ever existed in your fevered imagination," Beaumont reminded him.
"True. But I live in hope."
Relaxing in Nialls' presence, Beaumont stepped closer to the bunk and began turning over the books. He set aside two showbiz autobiographies, a book of wartime reminiscences by an ex-Admiral, and a Lord Peter Wimsey.
"I ought to write something foolish and fond in the flyleaf of one of them," Nialls told him wryly.
"Not a good idea. I don't think we should have anything in writing at all."
"No. Only this." Nialls produced an addressed envelope containing - to judge by its shape - a key. "It's on the top floor above the ironmonger's," he said diffidently. "It's furnished - with some of King Kong's throwouts, I think. Pop round whenever you get leave - I'll be living there, if I can stand my own company. Oh, and Mickey's promised to take me out to dinner and the theatre occasionally to stop me getting too bored."
"Mickey Palmer. So tall, blond and bubbly? She's looking for an escort who won't try to wrestle her into bed at every opportunity, and I ... "
" ... need camouflage?" Beaumont speculated. "Does she know that's what she'll be?"
"Her idea," was the cautious response. "You ... don't object?"
"To you seeing Mickey? No. She's a bit young, though; it could get you noticed."
"Yes, but it'll deflect attention from you. The rest we'll cope with as it comes."
Beaumont nodded thoughtfully. "All right," he said, "let's just see what happens."
"Good man. And no getting yourself killed on that Arctic patrol, my boy; I've waited too long for all this - I'm not prepared to let you go now."
Even though Hero wasn't flying a gin-pennant, it didn't seem to take long for word to spread around the dockyard that her Commander was saying farewell by holding open house in his wardroom. Admiral Staunton, an early arrival, could usually be relied upon to prop up the bar at any gathering so long as he wasn't personally footing the bill, but on this occasion he was merciful and after half an hour and three pink gins he pleaded other business and excused himself, leaving the younger element to get on with their drinking in peace. Nialls was on white rum, and although not a man to get drunk while in uniform and disgrace himself he had a substantial capacity for alcohol and a gregarious nature which involved him in a good many loud and cheerful exchanges with visiting officers.
Last, too, was determined to enjoy himself; his new Captain in Dido was a Scottish Presbyterian with a reputation for disdaining strong drink and strong drinkers, and although Commander Macaulay could hardly expect his wardroom to be dry he could - and apparently did - express his opinion of drunkenness with some freedom.
"Father's enjoying himself," Kiley grinned, sidling up to Beaumont who had just detached himself from a rather intense conversation with Dido's gunnery officer.
"Yes." Morosely Beaumont inspected the last quarter inch of fino sherry in his glass and swigged it back as if it had been fruit juice. "Oh, God, Bill I need a drink."
"You do? What was that, then?"
The First Lieutenant groaned. "Coloured water. Come on, let's fight our way through to the bar."
Moments later, leaning against the tiny mahogany-panelled bar with its uncanny resemblance to a parson's pulpit, Beaumont ordered a double Scotch. On the other side of the room Nialls was telling some story which involved the sound effect of a machine gun and actions representing a diving plane, his enthralled audience laughing in all the right places. Silently Beaumont raised his glass in his Captain's direction and then sank most of his drink in one long gulp.
"Better?" Kiley asked sympathetically. He had accepted from the barman a refill of his gin glass but confined himself to a couple of cautious sips.
A firm hand on Beaumont's arm steered him away from the bar and back across the room to a relatively untenanted area by the bookshelves where the Manual of Seamanship sat cheek-by-jowl with a James Hadley Chase paperback featuring an unclothed young lady on its cover.
"Derek, I know it's none of my business ... but you never did tell me what happened. On the yacht, I mean. Did you and Father fall out? Only he was like a bear with a sore head while you were away. I think that was the longest patrol of my life."
Beaumont shrugged. "Bill," he said, "there's nothing to tell. Not if we both want to stay in the Navy."
Kiley's pale eyes opened widely, turning in Nialls' direction compulsively. "Oh. How ... How far has it gone?"
"Not as far as bed, if that's what you're asking. We ... said some things..."
Although they were as safe discussing this in the middle of this disinterested multitude as they would have been in a locked and soundproof room, Beaumont's instinct for discretion would not let him elaborate.
"So ... you both feel the same way. About each other, I mean?" The habit of obliquity was catching.
"Isn't that ... good?"
Tiredly Beaumont stared at him over the rim of the Scotch glass. "Yes," he said slowly. "It's wonderful. I should be ecstatically happy, shouldn't I?"
A further glance at their Commander entertaining his guests, and Kiley chuckled ruefully. "Not necessarily," he said. "It's not going to be easy on either of you, is it? If you need a shoulder to cry on, Derek, don't forget where I live."
"I won't. I'm going to be relying on you rather a lot, I'm afraid, Bill. At least at first."
"Hah. Well, let's see how long it takes for a rumour to start about us," was the only response.
Any counter-remark from Beaumont was knocked out of him by a rather over-hearty slap on the back.
"I'm off, Derek," a familiar voice said through a cloud of alcohol, and Beaumont half-turned and looked up into the somewhat hazed blue eyes of Hero's erstwhile navigator. Dido's extremely competent and exceptionally boring gunnery officer was at his elbow, ready to escort him to his new home.
"You'll go down well with your new Captain if you stagger aboard drunk," Beaumont said coolly.
"All under control, sir," 'Guns' put in briskly. "Going to take him over to the dockyard café and pour a couple of gallons of coffee into him; not due on board until fifteen hundred."
"Oh, good thinking," Kiley commended smoothly, noting as he did so that here was a grade one bootlicker obviously determined to grease his way to the top as quickly as possible.
"Said 'goodbye' to the Captain?" was all Beaumont said.
"Yup," was Last's cavalier response. "Just got to collect my bag from my cabin. Oh, and by the way ... I've just met my replacement."
"Lieutenant Peek? Is he here?" Genuinely interested, Beaumont scanned the faces for one of the right age that he didn't already recognise. Then a small group in the middle of the room broke apart and he saw a young dark-haired officer stretched out asleep in one of the wardroom's only two comfortable armchairs. "Oh no," he said, his already deep voice dropping into another register altogether. "Tell me that isn't him."
Last obliged. "That isn't him," he said. "Actually it is, but the senior officer always knows best."
A kaleidoscope of nightmares crowded through Beaumont's mind in a split second. He was losing Nialls under trying circumstances, the new Captain was an unknown quantity, and now it appeared that the new Pilot had no better sense than to pass out drunk in the wardroom before he'd even been decently introduced. If it wasn't all quite so desperate it would be laughable.
"Get the hell off my ship, you reprobate," he chuckled, feeling the tension begin to seep from him inexplicably. With half his mind he recalled some sage saying about God, human folly and laughter - that as the first two are truly beyond our understanding, we must do what we can with the third. And just at the moment - in the brief interregnum between the official end of Nialls' command and the arrival of Brentford - he was Captain of Hero. Whatever his feelings about Nialls and about the state of the world in general, that was something he was determined to enjoy.
A brief handshake with Last, and then he was turning towards the bright presence of Mark Nialls who was exuding bonhomie like a lighthouse radiating light. Goodbyes were in the air, Nialls making his way across the room towards them with a greeting for everyone he passed and an answering comment to every verbal dart thrown in his direction.
"Bill," he said warmly, stopping in front of Kiley, "we'll meet again."
"No doubt of it, sir." Their handshake was hearty and friendly.
"Keep an eye on Derek for me," Nialls told him loudly, as though it were part of some on-going in-joke between them. "Don't let him get into too much trouble."
"Leave it to me, sir."
Nialls nodded, and turned his attention to Beaumont. Like their very public greeting when Nialls had first stepped aboard Hero their parting, too, was to be carried out under the scrutiny of others.
This, thought Beaumont madly, is where I burst into tears, fall weeping on his neck and beg him not to go. But he did not.
"Good luck, sir," he said. "I hope everything goes well for you."
"Thank you, Derek - and for all your support the last couple of years. Good luck with your new Captain, too. If you have any problems let me know; I'll come back and sort him out."
"Appreciate that, sir," Beaumont told him cheerfully. "Oh, by the way, I didn't get a chance to mention it before - I've returned that book you lent me. It's in your cabin."
He'd dropped it in earlier; Nialls' bags were already packed and the cabin was once again an empty shell waiting for its new inhabitant to imprint it with his personality.
Nialls had lent him no book, but took the comment in stride. Coded remarks and things left unsaid had already become such a part of their relationship that he did not so much as lift an eyebrow.
"All right, Derek, thank you. And stay in touch; I'd like to hear how you get on."
"Will do, sir. Goodbye."
The last word was swamped in an echoing sea of other 'goodbyes' and expressions of goodwill. Within moments the wardroom had begun to empty of its guests and the barman had started to make the rounds, emptying ashtrays and picking up glasses.
After the Lord Mayor's show comes the dustcart, Beaumont thought gloomily. He wondered whether Nialls would understand that the gift of a copy of The Good Food Guide was intended as tacit permission to take Mickey out to dinner wherever and whenever he chose. Even if he did not, as a Naval officer fully conversant with the oft-used biblical code for signalling he could scarcely misinterpret the 'fond and foolish' message on the flyleaf. Unsigned, it read: Ruth 1: 16-17.
The words had been going round and round in his head for days - weeks, if he acknowledged the truth. It was all he wanted to say to Nialls, and it was far too much.
Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest I will go; and where thou lodgest I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.
It was only when he wrote it down that he forced himself to face it honestly; that wherever Mark Nialls was, he wanted to be at his side.
"Derek?" Loyal Bill Kiley, hovering close by to make sure he was all right.
"I'm fine," Beaumont told him, but it was an effort. "Come on, let's go and salute the old bastard over the side. And after that ... "
He paused, contemplatively, long enough for Kiley to interrupt.
"We've got a ship to run," HMS Hero's temporary Captain informed him with a smile.
* * *