Loneliness - Moving On
by Andrew Foote
I slept fitfully, I think my nerves were frayed beyond recognition after the last few days.
Christmas has passed us by somehow, a mixture of terrifying moments and strange occurrences had all but killed any hope of me finding that spirit of comfort and joy they sing about.
The highlight of it all was our exchange of pendants and our vows of love, that meant something at least but now the prospect of navigating a seriously swollen river confronted me head on and I was…… I want to say scared but that wasn't how I felt. It was more as if I was sad about leaving Mapledurham and everything it had come to represent. We were going to be in very safe hands, I knew that, Jus and I would be together so I kept that in the forefront of my mind but…… so many but's.
What had happened to those carefree days of summer? Times spent talking to Sir George, my Mum and Dad, Lady Eleanor, camping at Monkey Island, river swimming, walking the…… oh my GOD! What's going to happen to the dogs?? Another problem for the morning. Something else to think about, worry about.
Jus was well out of it so I gave him a squeeze, turned over and finally drifted off to sleep.
Amazingly Jus was awake before me!
I must have been in desperate need of sleep for that to have occurred but wonderful to have a mug of tea brought to me in bed!
"Wakey-wakey! Tea up! How did you sleep Alex?"
"Rough but made better by a mug of tea. What's the weather doing Jus?"
"Frosty and calm. Minus six degrees and the river's still up, I say that because I know that'll be your next question."
"Am I that predictable?"
"No but I understand what's on your mind.
We're going to be alright. You're way better with boats than you give yourself credit for so just keep that in mind! Drink your tea and guess what? I'm going to cook us breakfast!"
"Are you not feeling well?"
"Cheeky sod! The only reason you do it is because you're normally up before me! Today is my turn.
What do you want on your burnt toast anyway?"
Actually Jus's breakfast was every bit as good as mine despite his lack of practice! We did the washing up together then waited for our ride into Caversham to do the shopping. We didn't have to hang around very long before Peter knocked on the roof.
"All fit and ready to go lads?"
"Yeah ready. I thought Izzy was taking us Pete."
"He was but he's giving a statement to the police and as your escort is due in the next hour, I thought it best if I took you."
We trundled around the Supermarket and pretty much filled a complete shopping trolley before coming to the alcohol section.
"Do you boys need any wine?"
"Well, we've two bottles left for the New Year but otherwise nothing so…… yes I suppose we do."
"Okay. You prefer red don't you?"
"Umm, yeah actually we do."
"Okay then. My treat but don't go telling anyone!"
Pete collared a store attendant and asked him to get a case of Wolfe Blasé Yellow Tail Shiraz from the warehouse.
"Pete? Ordinary throwing down plonk would be okay!"
"Nonsense! Call it a late Christmas present. After what you two have been through, the least I can do is treat you to some decent wine. Once we're safe in Oxford, maybe we could share a bottle. Deal?"
We got back to 'Spook' and packed away all the provisions just as another of Peter's team poked his head through the hatch.
"Escort is just exiting the lock Pete. Should be here in about ten minutes."
"Thanks Mark. Everything done here?"
"Yes. Full diesel and water tanks on both boats, full gas bottles with spares on 'Casio'. Might I make a suggestion that the boys start their engine and warm it up? 'Casio's' is a modern unit and won't complain if it's run cold to begin with but these old motors like to run hot. I know, we have a fishing boat back home with much the same engine."
"Good idea boys?"
"Yes very. I was told to run it up for fifteen minutes before setting out. I'll get to it. I didn't realise they were only ten minutes out or I would've done so before."
"Plenty of time as two of these guys will be piloting 'Casio' so they'll have to transfer and get the feel of her before we go anywhere. Any questions before they arrive?"
Jus spoke up.
"Is there going to be anyone with us on 'Spook'?"
"Yes. Izzy and I. The other guys will stay here to look out for the house, the SBS can look after themselves well enough. During the two overnight stops, we will leave you on the boat and go elsewhere but you will be under surveillance constantly so you have no cause for concern."
I went aft and started the engine which, despite the penetrating cold, fired up first push of the starter.
Old engines have a smell of their own. Hot metal and engine oil mixed with diesel fumes, a smell I now associate with a healthy unit which I find very comforting even if Jus thinks I'm weird in doing so!
All the vital signs were good. Plenty of oil pressure, the batteries charging nicely but then the thought struck me that this was the first time I'd taken 'Spook' out leaving aside our unplanned trip when we were cut loose. My tummy did a flip and I suddenly felt scared. Jus appeared in the engine room and gave me a hug.
"I know. You're crapping yourself aren't you? Everything's going to be okay. Once we're on our way I think you'll enjoy yourself. It's just the anticipation of doing something for the first time that's eating at you."
He was right as per normal. So annoying him always being right!
Our escort in the shape of a rather large PT boat arrived all painted battle ship grey. I was surprised it managed to fit through the locks but anyhow here it was.
I showed two of the crew around the simple controls on 'Casio' then went back on board 'Spook' to await instructions.
Jus came up with a Thermos of hot black coffee just as Peter's radio crackled into life.
"Corporal? Have your ships Master stand by with his mooring lines please. N.B. Casio will lead the convoy, N.B. Spook will follow her and we will come astern of you in case of problems. All understood?"
Ships Master?? Me?? Well okay I can live with that!
"I'll put the skipper on the wire. Wait please."
"Tell him what you intend to do Alexis and remember, you're the Master on this boat, not him whoever he is."
"PT 408? This is N.B. Spook. Casting off fore and aft holding the centre line and awaiting further instructions, go ahead."
"N.B. Spook. Am I talking to the Master? PT 408 go ahead."
"PT 408. Alexis Greening, Master and owner talking. Is there a problem here? This is N.B. Spook go ahead."
"You sound very young to be in command that was all. PT 408."
"PT 408. I'm fourteen, not that young. Maybe it is you who are old. This is N.B. Spook."
I could hear gales of laughter at the other end then a reply.
"Touché! It will be an interesting time when we get to meet each other! N.B. Casio? Leave your moorings please. PT 408."
Casio swung out into the current, slid backwards then began to gain momentum as her skipper applied more thrust and after about ten minutes she was a good two hundred yards ahead of us.
"N.B. Spook? Please cast off and leave your moorings. Follow N.B. Casio but pick a course to the port side of her so we have a clear view of both boats as we follow on behind. This is PT 408 off and listening."
Peter shook his head and giggled.
"Nice work Alexis! You made him sit up and think but also you were polite enough to make your point without being rude. I recon you two will get on quite well!"
We cast off, the force of the water shoving us backwards momentarily but as 'Casio' had done, a few more revolutions pushed us into the stream westwards towards Oxford where we were able to maintain a decent 5mph.
I looked back briefly at our old moorings and choked back a tear but then concentrated on the job in hand.
Down below we had two visitors in the shape of Peter and Izzy plus four Springer Spaniels, none of which were used to being afloat so perhaps being outside was the better option! I was dressed in thermal clothing, I had a flask of coffee and all I had to do was shout if I ran out and actually? Jus was right! I was beginning to enjoy myself!
The radio sparked up.
"N.B. Spook, PT 408. Please deploy your navigation lights. It's getting somewhat murky and we've got maybe another hour's running to make tonight's stopover. PT 408."
"Roger that PT 408. Lamps deployed as requested. N.B. Spook standing by."
Jus appeared at the hatchway.
"Needing anything Alex?"
"A relief for a few minutes would be nice. I need the bog!"
"Me? Am I okay to do it?"
"Yeah, you'll be just fine. Just steer a straight line and anyway, how long does it take to have a piss?"
"Promise me you won't take a newspaper in with you. Otherwise no deal!!"
"I won't! Just let me defrost my feet and take a leak and I'll be straight back up. Anyway who was it that said 'once you're out there you'll enjoy it?'"
"Me but I was talking about you, now bugger off before I change my mind!"
I walked into the boat and a wall of heat hit me. Obviously I'd forgotten how cold it was outside so a quick visit to the toilet then back outside to relieve Jus.
"Thanks for that. God did I need to go! You can go back in if you want."
"Actually I'm enjoying myself. I was right after all! There's something empowering about driving one of these isn't there?"
"Yes I suppose there is now I think about it. You're in total control of what happens, there are four of us on board plus four dogs so if anything happens, you as the helmsman are responsible for their welfare and safety."
"Ouch! I've only been out here for what, ten minutes? Now I'm responsible for eight lives! Scary!
I'll tell you this much. Come the summer and half decent weather, I'd love to do more of this Alex? It's not just fun it's…… all absorbing like a good book."
"You have no idea how good it is to hear you say that. Remember all those months ago when we first met and I took you aboard 'Casio'? I was so afraid you'd be critical of her and our lifestyle but here you are wanting more."
I kissed him on the cheek.
"Love you Jus?"
"I love you too Alex.
I wasn't critical though was I? Perhaps this was always meant to be but I seriously love being on board and now learning to drive her is the icing on the cake and I could easily get hooked on it."
"Get hooked then. I'm happy to adopt my Dad's ethos of Gin and Tonics on the well deck and leave you to do all the work!"
"I don't really believe you'd let that happen. You enjoy helming too much and anyway she's your boat."
Jus I might be the registered owner but she's our boat! Get away from this notion of being a guest. We live here, both of us. Okay?"
"Sorry but it's difficult. I'll get it into my head eventually."
Just then the radio came to life.
"PT 408. N.B. Casio. There's a tributary on the starboard side just around the next bend. Head for it bow first and make your way up about one hundred yards where you will see a landing stage. Make fast at the far end, centre line only please. Understood? PT 408."
Due to the differences of transmit / receive frequencies we were unable to hear the response but then came a message for us.
"PT 408. N.B. Spook. Did you hear the last transmission to your sister? PT 408."
"N.B. Spook. PT 408. Yes we did. What are our instructions? N.B. Spook."
"From PT 408, slightly more of a challenge I'm afraid. Are you able to go in stern first? PT 408."
"From N.B. Spook, I'll have a better idea once I see where we're going but I'll give it a go. N.B. Spook."
"PT 408. That's the spirit man! Do your finest, this is important. PT 408 standing by."
Around the next bend I saw a cut-off, not a natural tributary, more man-made. It appeared to be rather narrow and I started to question my abilities but 'Casio' swung about and made access look easy but I was asked to reverse in, a much more testing manoeuvre.
I motored past the cut and brought 'Spook' ninety degrees across the river. The current caught me sending me back downstream then I went astern and gunned the engine. I thought we'd over-cooked it but by some miracle we bounced gently against the bank and once away from the main force of the flow, we floated effortlessly up the cutting and on reaching the landing stage, Jus threw our centreline to a waiting sailor who pulled us in and tied us off.
I begged a question of him.
"Okay to kill my engine?"
"Fuck me you really are just a kid!
Yeah do it. We're home for the night now.
Jesus H. Christ! Wait until the boss meets you. He honestly thought you were taking the piss when you said you were only fourteen! He'll have a baby!"
Just then I heard the burbling of powerful engines as the patrol boat eased its way backwards up the tributary, coming to a halt just in front of us.
I disappeared below to find Peter and Izzy talking on their radios so I ushered the dogs outside so they could partake of a well-deserved comfort break.
Poor little things! They'd not only kept it all in but apparently not so much as whimpered the entire trip!
We returned to the boat only to find Jus taking to a man off the PT boat.
"This is Alexis coming now with the dogs.
Alex? Commander Armstrong of family Armstrong fame. My Uncle who I've not seen since I was really little."
"Commander? I'm Alexis Greening. Are you really Justin's uncle?"
"Yes I am although meeting like this is pure coincidence. We were told this was a live training exercise and nothing more and on hearing your voice over the radio reinforced that idea especially when coupled with your etiquette in radio procedure, I was convinced you were not what you are.
Look I'm sorry to put business before pleasure but I'm led to believe you've a squad of Ghurkhas with you. I need to talk with them please."
"Hardly a squad, just the two of them actually but come this way and I'll introduce you."
I led the way down through the engine room and into the galley where Peter was making coffee. As soon as he saw Commander Armstrong he snapped to attention and shouted "Officer on the boat!"
"At ease Corporal. We need to talk about what's going on here so if you two boys could make yourselves scarce please?"
I was incensed! Typical bloody Armstrong flashed through my mind but instead of getting upset I kept my nerve and said "This is my vessel Commander, you are on board at my invitation so if what you need to discuss with Corporal Baines is restricted then I suggest it is you who make yourself scarce."
"Commander Armstrong, six foot four, wiry blond hair and steely blue eyes held my gaze before replying.
"My apologies Mr Greening. You are quite correct. Corporal? We can talk outside."
Peter wasn't fazed either.
"Sir? These two lads have been to the wire and back over the last couple of weeks, they have been subject to a number of threats on their lives and if you don't mind me saying, whatever we have to discuss can be done in their presence. They know well enough how it works."
Commander Armstrong thought for a few moments then shrugged his broad shoulders.
"Very well. I haven't been briefed so I'll go with your advice. Mr Greening? I don't suppose there's any of that coffee left is there?"
Peter laid down all the background, fortunately leaving out the true relationship between Jus and I. The cutting adrift of 'Spook' and the episode at Balmore Hill.
"So we have been charged with protecting them should another attempt be made on their lives Sir."
"I see. How many of you are there?"
"Two on this boat, two watching the property at Mapledurham and another two stalking our convoy."
"You're in radio contact with all of them I assume?"
"Yes Sir and so far there's been nothing to report out of the ordinary."
"They're all of them armed I presume?"
"Yes Sir. Nine millimetre machine pistols, our standard issue weapons."
"Very well. We will stay here overnight and head out at first light. I find it hard to believe that anyone would dream of transiting the Thames in these conditions so my guess is we're safe enough but our problem, if there is going to be one, is when we have to lock through as that is when we'll be at our most vulnerable so if you could have your boys there before we arrive?"
"I'll arrange it Sir. They'll be there."
"Thank you Corporal and by the way, I've just noticed your cap badge. Don't salute me, I'd prefer to shake your hand if I may."
Commander Armstrong finished his coffee, acknowledged Jus and I showed him off the boat. Peter breathed a sigh of relief.
"I can never get used to the correctness that other regiments have. Yes we are respectful to our officers but we work together, not separately. They're Special Forces and should lighten up a bit."
"He did notice the badge on your beret though? That must count for something at least?"
"Justin? It's not that that's the issue here. Do his men respect him? The important thing is they should operate as a team and cut out the crap.
Look, I'd better go. You're being watched but anyone who tries to get across that field will be in for a nasty surprise like they'll sink up to their knees in mud! Good night and sleep well and oh…… don't drink all that wine! Remember we're going to share a bottle or two once we get to Oxford!"
In the event we didn't have any wine that night instead we opted to cook dinner and have a reasonable if not an early night.
Helming 'Spook' had taken it out of me, not so much the physical effort but more the mental concentration coupled with the bitter cold and so by the time we'd eaten and done the washing up I was ready to get my head down.
"I'm sorry Jus but I'm shattered. I'm off to bed, alright?"
"You go ahead, I'll join you so long as my reading won't disturb you."
"Ha! I don't think anything could do that and anyway, it would be nice to know you're with me and not the other side of the door."
I lay down in bed and snuffed out like a candle only waking with the alarm clock at six-thirty the following morning.
As is the norm, Jus slept through. I swear that had he been born before the war he would've slept through the blitz!
He had spooned into me and I could feel his early morning stiffie in the small of my back. Tempting as it was to take full advantage of the situation, something I know he would've thoroughly enjoyed just as much as me, I untangled myself and used the shower room before brewing a pot of coffee.
By the time I'd poured us a mug each Jus was awake.
"What's the time Alex? No don't tell me, it's too early whatever it is! Thanks for the tea."
"You're welcome and actually its coffee. What time did you eventually turn out the light last night?"
"Dunno. Gone midnight I think. I finished my book then started another. You started snoring so I had to knacker myself unless I wanted to be kept awake half the night!"
"Oh God, I'm sorry! You should've given me a kick."
"No it's okay. You were bushed and needed the sleep. I mean all I have to do is brew coffee and make sandwiches during the day whereas you are out there in the cold. Talking of the weather? What's it doing this morning?"
"I haven't looked. Hang on."
I peered through the curtains.
"Hey! It's snowing again! That means it'll be a bit warmer today!"
"Prettier too. Yesterday was really miserable. I felt really sorry for you. I must learn how to drive then we could take turns."
"You won't find me complaining if that's what you want to do!"
"I do want. I enjoyed doing it yesterday."
"Then just as soon as this situation is resolved you'll have to give it a real go."
"Which is easier? Canals or rivers?"
"Like I'm expert Jus!"
"No okay but you still know more about it than I so?"
"They both have their plusses and minuses. Rivers are generally wider so easier to navigate but they flow faster and there are a lot fewer places to moor whereas canals are narrow and meeting an oncoming vessel can be awkward given the risk of colliding with them but the flow is minimal and you can moor just about anywhere."
A knock on the roof which Jus answered, an SBS man was on the jetty.
"Can you be ready to move in say half an hour?"
Jus shouted down through the boat,
"Ready to ship out in thirty Alex?"
"Yeah okay tell him."
Jus came back in to the galley.
"Anything you want me to do Alex?"
"Do you know how to start the engine?"
"Yeah. I've seen you do it a number of times."
"Go wind her up then and I'll make inroads into breakfast."
Half an hour later we were ready to go. Commander Armstrong walked along the jetty and spoke to me.
"Right, here's the plan for today.
I want you to lead the way then 'Casio' with us trailing a little way behind you. I don't particularly want to draw attention to ourselves by being right up your arse. Should you see an oncoming vessel then you have a radio. Use it and given that we can pull forty knots on a river, we'll be with you in a matter of a couple of minutes. Understood?"
"Not hard. You seem nervous Commander. Am I right?"
"Today we're going to be in open countryside pretty much the entire day. The river gets very wide with tributaries running off it here and there so if we've been sussed out, this is where someone with half a brain would make their move.
When I say if you see an oncoming vessel, I do mean any oncoming vessel whether you recognise it as a Conservancy launch or whatever, you are to radio in."
"Now I'm nervous."
"Good. Maybe it'll keep you on your mettle.
Let's be away then."
Peter and his colleague came aboard as the PT boat left its moorings, I cast off our centre line and followed on and reaching the mainstream, gave the engine some stick giving 'Spook' her head as she ploughed through the water at a frightening pace.
The dawn hadn't completely broken and so when I looked back I was able to see 'Casio's' tunnel and navigation lights way back in the distance so I throttled back to a more comfortable speed.
Jus appeared from below with a mug of hot chocolate for me.
"Here you go. That should warm you up or is there something else…… I…… could…… do?"
"Sod off Jus!! For now the drink will do! Now later on maybe……?"
"Just say the word. I've been as horny as hell ever since I woke! Can I stay up here with you for a bit?"
"Thanks. I love you to. Want to have a drive?"
"Can I? I'd really like to have another try."
"Sure you can. Let me show you what to do first, I could use going to the toilet anyway."
Ten minutes later and I was relieved but I stayed below decks in the engine room to give Jus a feel of what it was like but then I heard him shout.
"Alex? We've got company!!"
I raced up the companionway and ushered Jus below.
"Stay in the engine room. Shut both the side hatches and keep your head down. I'll radio in."
I picked up the radio and hit the transmit key.
"PT 408. N.B. Spook. We have an oncoming craft about half a mile ahead of us, a cruiser I think, not showing any lights. N.B. Spook."
"N.B. Spook from PT 408. On our way. Keep to the right hand bank and reduce your speed so you're just about making headway. Understood? PT 408."
"Understood. Am complying. N.B. Spook standing by."
I swung the tiller arm hard over and made for the right hand bank, straightened out and cut my revolutions until we were hardy making way against the flow. I radioed back to the patrol boat.
"PT 408. N.B. Spook. In position and barely making way. Do you want me to kill my lights? N.B. Spook."
"Negative Alexis. Keep them burning. Make it seem as if you're nervous and giving them the water. We are in sight of you so hang in there. PT 408."
For what seemed like an eternity we waited for the cruiser to get near enough to us to make out exactly what she was. Jus poked his head out of the hatch and almost as if he was reading my mind, handed me a pair of binoculars.
I focused them to see a large GRP vessel, probably a ten berth job, actually rather beautiful with its flying bridge but it was on that bridge I saw something that made me almost shit myself.
I hit the radio.
"PT 408. N.B. Spook. The guy on the bridge is wearing a black wetsuit, diving mask and dark glasses and oh, by the way, he's armed. N.B. Spook."
"Not dark glasses, night vision glasses. We see him but thanks anyway. If you have some rope handy, tie you tiller so you're going sort of in a straight line then get below out of harm's way. Everyone is aware of this so don't worry. PT 408 standing by."
I'd just finished tying off the tiller when I felt 'Spook' shudder and a yell from below.
"Jesus Christ! We're being shot at!"
"Are you okay Jus? Talk to me?"
"I'm alright but your boat isn't. There's a fucking great hole in the hull and the fridge is bolloxed."
By now the patrol boat was between us and the cruiser so I stayed put outside.
There was a brief exchange of conversation which I couldn't make out then a burst of automatic weapon fire.
Again another brief conversation then PT 408 wheeled around and pushed the cruiser midstream then hanging off for a moment, opened up her engines. Gone the nice powerful burble, now a monster had been unleashed.
She ploughed broadside into the cruiser smashing it to matchwood. Bodies jumped into the freezing water, I counted nine, there might've been more but then the radio sounded at me.
"N.B. Spook. This is PT 408. Make yourself scarce. Understood?"
"PT 408. N.B. Spook. We're gone."
"One other thing Alexis. Give Justin a hug for me will you? I've not been much of an Uncle to him, in fact we're not much of a family come to think of it?
We'll see you in Oxford. This is PT 408 signing clear and listening."
The rest of the day was thankfully, uneventful. I gave 'Spook' her head and with Jus and I taking turns on the helm made good time reaching Oxford just as the light started to fail.
We had gained an extra passenger in the shape of one of the SBS guys who guided us to our moorings where we tied off and awaited the patrol boat.
At first glance the entrance to these moorings looked like a disused arm off the South Oxford Canal, seemingly weeded up and shallow, a rather rickety old lock some one hundred yards down the cut which we passed through to find ourselves in a well-managed and smart looking harbour, a total contrast to its entrance.
I asked our escort where we were.
"This is a Ministry of Defence facility used for storage mainly but it's very secure, nobody can get in or out without being caught on camera and challenged so you're very safe here."
"But it looks deserted."
"Deliberately so but things aren't always as they seem as I believe you discovered up at Emmer Green House. More than that I'm not authorised to tell you, I suggest you talk to Commander Armstrong, he might be able to tell you more."
Jus and I went below. Izzy and Peter were busy collecting their gear together.
"Okay lads, we're off to give you some space. You're still being looked after but don't stray too far from your boat until you've had a chat with Commander Armstrong okay? This is new territory for us so I don't know what you are or are not permitted to do or where you may go."
"Okay. We'll probably just get supper on the go, maybe crack open some wine now we're out of harm's way then grab an early night."
"Okay, enjoy your evening and I'll see you in the morning. Good night fellas."
We did a joint operation on supper. Nothing spectacular, just a Spaghetti Bolognaise but it was really tasty and there wasn't anything left over to chuck away so with a bottle of wine and two glasses we sat down for the evening.
Just then I thought of something.
"Jus? I didn't see any sign of 'Casio' here. Did you?"
"Yes. She's over the other side of the basin and I think I know why.
If you look outside there's a security camera pointed at us and where 'Casio' is berthed there's another one pointed at her. I recon these are the most secure moorings here so they've separated the two boats so there's no interrupted view."
"Well spotted. I never noticed! As soon as we were told where we were I was just pleased to be able to relax.
Talking of which, glass of wine?"
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]