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Down To The Sea In Ships

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Ships That Pass in the Night

 

The train from Euston was crowded. Not, actually, that Morell had intended to travel by it at all; there were still two days of Compass Rose's refit leave left. But Elaine had unexpectedly announced that, as rehearsals for the new show were about to start, she'd be all at sixes and sevens until the company settled down into a routine, and rather than her be on edge all the time and risk them quarrelling just before he went to sea again surely he'd be better off rejoining his ship early? It was only just over a day, after all, and he did understand, didn't he, darling?

Which Morell had, only too well.

Even the discomforts of the journey - which were many and various, even for wartime - could scarcely compete with the turmoil in his mind, the weighing of chance comments and half-glimpsed expressions, not merely from this but from past leaves. Hateful to treat one's own wife like this, as though she were one's star witness and one feared she might not come up to proof in the box. But what option did she leave him?

And so back to the treadmill of well-worn anxieties once more.

It was a relief when his train reached Crewe - late, that was only to be expected. Morell, looking at his watch, realised he would be only able to make his last and final change by the skin of his teeth. Tomorrow's train, which he should have caught had it not been for Elaine's last minute change of heart, would have been direct. He suppressed the reflection with a faint sense of shame.

The Western Mail had come in a few minutes earlier, and the platform was a heaving mass of humanity, mostly in khaki though with here and there a splash of Navy blue, or Air Force grey. Morell, shouldering his way grimly through the hordes, held out no great hopes for the remainder of his journey.

Crewe platforms - even under the canopies - were lashed with cold rain, driven by a merciless wind. The North was not proposing to welcome him back with kindness, it seemed.

Unexpectedly, when he finally found the Liverpool stopper (which was waiting in an obscure bay on the far side of the station) it was almost empty. Morell scrambled into a first-class carriage as a flurry of whistle-blowing and flag-waving announced the train's imminent departure. The only other passenger - another Naval officer - was apparently asleep in a corner seat: his sleeve rings showed him to be a Lieutenant-Commander, RNVR.

Morell's vague hope was that he would remain asleep until the train reached Lime Street: the last thing he wanted in his current state of restlessness and exhaustion was to make polite conversation with a more senior officer. But - in tune with everything else in this out-of-joint day - the man in the corner did rouse himself, shortly after the train had rattled out of the second or third small station after Crewe and acknowledged Morell's presence with a curt nod.

He was sparely - even slightly - built, and fair-haired. His uniform - even after what no doubt had been as long, tedious and grimy a journey as Morell's own - was as sharply precise as though he had just come from an investiture at Buckingham Palace. His face, the hollows emphasised by the dimmed light of the railway carriage, was narrow, sharp-boned. His lips were drawn in a thin tight line: Morell found himself unexpectedly grateful for Ericson's squared-off good humour in the face of the stranger's intensity. "He must make some poor bastards one hell of an Old Man," he thought, and then laughed, inwardly. Despite the sleeve rings the other occupant of the compartment could hardly be older than himself.

The Lieutenant-Commander seemed, thankfully, disinclined to conversation. The train, already creeping, slowed yet further to take a incline (that was damnably bad wartime coal for you; if things got any worse the passengers would find themselves being exhorted to get out and walk, just as his grandmother had always anxiously insisted for the sake of the horse, when they came back up from the harbour at Perros-Guirec in the drugged hay-scented heat of long-ago summer holiday evenings). Plainly, this was going to be a long journey, whatever a hypothetical crow might have made of the distance.

The other officer started patting his pockets, doubtless in search of an errant lighter. His left hand was gloved and he used it awkwardly, Morell noticed: exhaustion and nerves strained to concert pitch together seemed to have given his perceptions an oddly supernatural clarity, like looking across the Minch on the eve of squall weather. Each detail of the dim carriage - the dull, gritty upholstery of the seats, the etching of Harlech Castle on the panelling opposite him - stood out as if he were seeing it for the first and last time.

Plainly, the futile search was generating increasing exasperation, the more profound because it was expressed with nothing more than the odd indrawn breath. Having exhausted the possibilities of his uniform pockets, the stranger tried those of his coat, which was neatly folded on the luggage rack above him, and his attaché case. These, too, drew blank.

The situation was becoming farcical. Morell reached into his own pocket.

"Allow me, Sir," he said.

The stranger gave him another narrowed look - no doubt assessing whether Morell had managed to cross one of the unspoken boundaries which governed relations between senior and junior officers off-duty, and which precluded equally disrespect and sycophancy. The internal verdict was a favourable one, evidently; he held out his cigarette to the flame.

"Thanks," he said. A smile suddenly transformed that narrow, austere face. "How is it, do you suppose, that one always seems to have friends who, while scrupulously honest in every other particular, fasten upon one's lighters like magpies onto tinsel? Mine's doubtless halfway to Oxford by now."

Morell laughed out loud. "My wife's exactly like that. She -"

A cold hand clutched at his entrails. His hand closed over the smooth weight of the lighter, and he brought it up to his face so as to view it closer. It was the first one he had been able to lay his hand on as he left the flat; a heavy gun-metal grey object, of a pattern currently affected by the flashier type of RAF officer. Elaine claimed that someone had left it at the theatre, and she'd appropriated it once it became clear no-one had appeared to retrieve it. But if one were to suppose -

He was suddenly embarrassingly conscious of the other officer's studiedly blank expression. With a hand that only just stayed steady Morell took a cigarette from the case he belatedly realised the other man was holding out to him, nodded thanks and lit it. He dropped the lighter - difficult, in context, not to think of it as "the Exhibit" - into his pocket.

The other officer was extending his right hand. "Lanyon. Nightshade."

Morell held out his own hand in return. "Morell. Compass Rose".

The other man raised his eyebrows fractionally.

"Ah? I believe we were just after you at Gibraltar last year. You were with A.G.93, weren't you? Lucky to have Ericson, in the circumstances."

"Lucky all round." And that, Morell thought, was quite enough said on that topic. If this - Lanyon - thought he was fool enough to be drawn into comment on his skipper's performance, even by way of assent to a self-evident proposition, then it was high time he learned better.

Whether because he sensed the constraint in Morell's tone, or because Lanyon, too, had recalled the code, his next comment was reassuringly neutral.

"How have you found Gladstone Dock? You've been in Liverpool pretty much since the start, haven't you? They reassigned us from the Clyde a couple of months ago, and I imagine the men will be looking for any excuse they can to find fault, so I'd find it useful to have another angle on where the problems actually are."

That of course was the cue for shop talk, and shop talk turned - as it always did - to yarning of victory and defeat in the ceaseless war - not the official one, which was waged out on the restless deeps, and spoken of, even to those who understood it, in a curt, abbreviated notation, and that seldom; but the eternal bitter struggle between those who used the stores, and wanted to ensure that the ship had enough and to spare for any eventualities which she might encounter, whether on her projected or any other voyage, and those who regarded it as their sacred duty not to let a single shackle pass out of their protective custody without orders signed in triplicate by Winston Churchill, General De Gaulle and Roosevelt in person.

Morell reached the conclusion of an anecdote about his triumph over some wretched C.P.O. (Stores) in the matter of two hundredweight of corned beef (demonstrably unfit for human consumption), fourteen quarts of pickled eggs (ditto) and one gross of jam in four-pound jars (carrot: strictly, in Morell's personal opinion, senior officials of the Ministry of Food for the consumption of) and leaned back in his seat, steepling his hands; rather, he thought with sudden amusement, as though he just concluded a particularly penetrating peroration before the Court of Appeal. Lanyon grinned, and passed across the bottle of whisky which had appeared from his attaché case at some earlier point. Morell could not, precisely, remember when the whisky had arrived on the scene, and it occurred briefly to him to wonder when he had last eaten: there had been something unappetising involving spam, had there not, at a station buffet somewhere like Rugby?

"Clearly you could give my Number One lessons in enterprising mendacity," Lanyon observed, with a sort of conscious precision in his enunciation which caused Morell to wonder if he, too, was feeling the effects of neat whisky on exhaustion and a near-empty stomach.

Lanyon added,

"An excellent officer, but cursed an iron sense of probity when wrestling with the seamier exigencies of the Service. A handicap only to be expected of a Wykehamist, of course."

Morell snorted. "Actually, Sir, that hardly follows. I'm a Wykehamist myself." It suddenly occurred to him that this meant that in high probability he knew Lanyon's Number One, at least by name and reputation, and it would be grossly unfair to spill school reminiscences about the First Lieutenant to his skipper behind his back - not that Lanyon looked the sort to encourage that sort of thing, but one never actually knew - take the captain of the Euryalus, for example -

Rather hastily, Morell went on with the first thing that came into his head.

"And what about your school, Sir? As a matter of fact, you weren't a cricketer, by any chance? I seem to remember -"

There was a jolt, and the train came to an abrupt halt. Lanyon swung up from his seat and let down the window, leaning out.

"Just another of these bloody one-horse halts," he reported, turning back from the window. "What are they recruiting as engine drivers these days? I've seen a Wren three weeks out of training bring a fuelling launch alongside in a following sea with less of a bump."

He turned back to his seat.

Morell was about to renew the question of cricket - now he thought about it, Lanyon's face brought back buried memories: a pair of intense blue eyes staring dispassionately out on the enemy as their owner combatted, for the whole of a long afternoon, everything he and Gibson could throw at him. Good Lord, Gibson. He hadn't thought of the School's legendary fast man in years. Played two games for Gloucestershire Seconds in his final summer hols and won undying fame in consequence. Gibson. Diplomatic, or was it Consular? Somewhere far-flung, anyway. Whatever had happened to Gibson?

Before he could say anything there came the sudden sound of voices from outside, getting nearer.

"My dear chap! That was quite the most inspiring address. I'm sure they took it fully into their hearts. And that is so important, as we both agree. After all, they may be Boy Scouts now, but who is to say where they may not be in the next year or so, if this dreadful war continues? Exposed to temptations you and I can barely imagine!"

This last ended in a high, fluting, clerical near-giggle, right outside the train door. Morell and Lanyon exchanged a mutely expressive glance of amused desperation. Lanyon captured the incriminating whisky bottle and rose to conceal it in the luggage rack.

The handle to the carriage door started to turn, and then stopped midway. Another voice broke in, slightly deeper, and with a quavering note that to Morell's critical ear trembled on the edge of hysteria.

"One does what one can, of course. But the pressures on the young today - horrible, completely horrible. And the Forces Authorities simply cannot understand that these things have to be stamped out - stamped out! They talk about putting the war against Hitler first - but I tell them: What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul? What then, I ask them, what then? I have seen these things, and I know where they lead. Filth, sir, nothing but filth!"

The voice had an almost lip-smacking glee. Morell turned to Lanyon, grateful to have someone to hand who would share his disgust.

It was the man's utter stillness that held him. He had heard of rabbits mesmerised by stoats, but never thought to witness it in another human being.

Outside the other voice chimed in.

"Quite so! Jepson, my dear chap, you must assure the Bishop -"

Morell was moving to the carriage door almost before he was aware of his decision to do so.

Fortunately Lanyon had left the window down. He leaned out.

The two clerics - the foremost one, the evident traveller with his Gladstone bag and his warm travelling cape, of antique pattern - had an unctuous appearance, one that Morell associated, very vaguely, with distasteful police-court cases in his early near briefless days; a period mercifully short, and now all-but forgotten. His companion was withered, ancient, swathed in black, his clerical collar hanging off a stringy neck.

Finding words - except with Elaine, of course - had never been Morell's problem.

"I'm so sorry," he said with a courtesy which was no less profound for being wholly feigned, "but I think it might be best if you take seats in another carriage. The Commander seems to be running quite a temperature, and although of course most probably it's only a touch of influenza, I'd rather not take chances until I've had the M.O.'s opinion. Our last landfall was Barbados, not that long ago, and one would rather be safe than sorry, wouldn't you think?"

His smile had a cool and deadly blandness; when he had first determined to read for the Bar he had practised expressions assiduously in front of the mirror. They had not, in the end, proved particularly useful; but then juries, he assumed, were on the whole more sophisticated than these two.

The leading cleric murmured something; it was blown away on the wind. But they were turning away, reaching for another door, they had found another carriage -

Morell threw up the window and turned as another storm of whistle-blowing indicated the train's imminent departure.

"So," Lanyon said. His eyes seemed remarkably bright. Morell noted, irrelevantly, that he had retrieved the whisky bottle from the luggage rack. "As I said. Behold a duplicitous man in Winchester."

His voice was not entirely steady; it would be foolish, Morell realised, to attribute that to the whisky. Lanyon continued.

"I hope your maiden aunts don't have shares in the railway. Fumigating for a case of suspected yellow fever could prove so expensive."

His voice steadied. "Thank you. You were asking about school, a little earlier. For your information, the Rev. Mr Jepson used to be my housemaster. Our last interview was - short. And, I venture to suggest, unsatisfactory. On both sides. I'm not sure, entirely, you know, which of us your - timely and imaginative - intervention really spared, you know. But in any case, I am - profoundly - grateful."

He gestured with the whisky bottle.

"Would you care for a drink?"

Much later, it seemed, they had arrived at Lime Street. He had stumbled, moving from the carriage into the harsh blast of the windswept platform, and Lanyon had caught his elbow to steady him; there had been someone getting out of a neighbouring carriage at the time - a Major, he rather thought - who seemed to recognise Lanyon and had made some sort of remark, which he hadn't caught, but which Lanyon had plainly taken badly.

It had not turned to a fight, though: they had turned sharply away, and then, suddenly, he had found himself having drinks at one of the Adelphi bars.

Morell knew it was the Adelphi because he and Lockhart, once, had given captions to each of the classical friezes on the ceiling that was, currently, spinning above his head. Three Nude Tarts and a Costermonger was the only one he could, now, remember.

"I think my wife is unfaithful," he said, abruptly and inconsequentially, cutting through whatever it was that Lanyon had been saying. He tried to stop them, but tears welled up behind his eyelids.

"Yes. I gather," Lanyon said. The abruptness brought him up short in the midst of his maudlin self-pity.

"What?"

"I said yes. So I gather. If I may say so, that's something you've been talking about ever since you got on the train at Crewe. One way or another. Your suspicion, that is. Whether you're right or wrong - how can I say? I've never met the woman. But surely, what you need to ask yourself is, how do you feel about it? Isn't the real question whether - if she wanted you at all - you could bear to share her?"

"Share her?"

He had always thought of Elaine as alone and indivisible. Certainly that was how he had conceived his love.

Across the swimming bar he saw Lanyon's face; clear, pitying, and unjudgmental.

"If there - I mean, if you were quite sure you wanted no-one else in your entire life - would you prefer to allow her to see someone else, if she were infatuated with him, or say goodbye forever?"

Morell's judgment hung, momentarily, in the balance.

"I think it depends," he said cautiously.

Lanyon laughed; it was almost a snort.

"Wykehamist." He looked at his watch. "Good Lord. It's high time I was back on board. I've got to do battle with the dockyard about repairs to Number 2 boiler at 0900 tomorrow. Waiter! Could you get me a cab, please, and look out a room of some sort for the Lieutenant?"

Lanyon waved away, rather impatiently, Morell's offer to pay for the drinks, and rose, gathering his things. He smiled down at Morell.

"About the only thing Fate has finally managed to batter into my thick skull over a long and misspent life is that you can't make other people's choices for them. It's taken long enough, but I think I've finally come to realise that you have to make people decide for themselves, and then navigate your own way round that. Well. I hope it works out for you."

His smile deepened; it lit his entire face. "Anyway, at least there's this. You're off to sea again in a couple of days, and I never found a better remedy than dodging U-Boats to take one's mind off love troubles. Whatever form they choose to take."

He was gone. Morell stumbled upstairs to the room they had found for him.