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Authors: Bernard Cornwell


BOOK: Stormchild
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is for Art and Maggie Taylor

















he sea was weeping.

It was a gray sea being kicked into life by a sudden wind; a sea being torn into raggedness and flecked white. The fishermen called it a weeping sea, and claimed it presaged disaster.

“It won’t last.” My wife, Joanna, spoke of the sea’s sudden spite.

The two of us were standing on the quay of our boatyard watching the black clouds fly up the English channel. It was the late afternoon of Good Friday, yet the air temperature felt like November and the bitter gray sea looked like January. The deteriorating weather had inevitably brought out the wind-surfers whose bright sails scudded through the gloom and bounced dangerously across the broken waters of the estuary’s bar where the high bows of a returning fishing boat battered the sea into wind-slavered ruin. Our own boat, a Contessa 32 called
jerked and pitched and thudded against her fenders on the outer pontoon beneath our quay.

“It can’t last,” Joanna insisted in her most robust voice as though she could enforce decent Easter weather by sheer willpower.

“It’ll get worse before it gets better,” I said with idle pessimism.

“So we won’t sail tonight,” Joanna said more usefully, “but we’ll surely get away at dawn tomorrow.” We had been planning a night passage to Guernsey, where Joanna’s sister lived, and where, after church on Easter morning, my wife’s family would sit down to roast lamb and new potatoes. The Easter family reunion had become a tradition, and that year Joanna and I had been looking forward to it with a special relish, for it seemed we had both at last recovered from the tragedies of our son’s death and our daughter’s disappearance. Time might not have completely healed those twin wounds, but it had layered them over with skins of tough scar tissue, and Joanna and I were aware of ordinary happinesses once again intruding on what had been a long period of mourning and bafflement. Life, in short, was becoming normal, and being normal, it presented its usual crop of problems.

Our biggest immediate problem was a damaged four-and-a-half-ton yawl which had been standing ready to be launched when our crane-driver had rammed it with the jib of his machine. The damage was superficial, merely some mangled guardrails and a nasty gash in the hull’s gelcoat, but the yawl’s owner, a petulant obstetrician from Basingstoke, was driving to the yard next lunchtime and expected to find his boat launched, rigged, and ready. Billy, our foreman, had offered to stay and make good the damage, but Billy was already covering for my absence over the Easter weekend and I had been unhappy about adding to his workload.

So the ill wind that had made the sea weep at least blew Billy some good, for I sent him home to his new wife while I towed the big yawl into the shed where wind and rain rattled the corrugated tin roof as I stripped out the damage under the big lamps. I planned the next morning’s sail as I worked. If the marine forecast was right and this sudden hard weather abated, we could leave the river at daybreak and endure an hour of foul tide before the ebb swept us past the Anvil and out into mid-channel. We would make Guernsey in time for supper, and the only possible inconvenience in our revised plans was the probability that the visitor’s marina in St. Peter’s Port would be filled by the time of our arrival and we would have to find a mooring in the outer harbor.

As night fell it seemed improbable that the weather would relent by dawn. The shrieking wind was flaying the river with white foam. The gale was strong enough to persuade some of the Sailing Club members to borrow our launch and tow a gaggle of the club’s dinghies off the midstream buoys and into the shelter of our pontoons. Joanna helped them, then spent two hours bringing the boatyard accounts up to date before braving the filthy weather to fetch two bags of cod and chips from the high street. It was while she was gone that Harry Carstairs phoned. “Thank God you’re still there,” Carstairs greeted me, “I thought you might have gone away for Easter.”

Carstairs was a yacht broker who worked out of an air-conditioned office in London’s Mayfair. His clients were not the small-boat sailors who were my bread and butter, but rather the hyper-rich who could afford professional skippers at the helm, naked starlets on the foredeck, and stroll-on, stroll-off berths in Monte Carlo. Our yard’s normal business was much too paltry for Carstairs’s expensive trade, but that year Joanna and I happened to have a great steel-hulled sloop for sale and, though at over a hundred and fifty thousand pounds
was at the very upper range of our stock, she barely scraped in at the slum end of Harry’s business. “I’ve got a likely client who wants to look at the beast tomorrow,” he told me in his champagne and caviar accent. “Is that all right with you?”

I hesitated before answering. Of late, as our life returned to normal, Joanna and I had discussed buying
for ourselves. We had dreamed of selling our house, hiring a manager to look after the yard, then sailing away to far white beaches and exotic harbors.
would have been the perfect boat to make those dreams come true, but the trouble was they were only dreams, not plans, and I knew we were not ready to make the change, just as I knew I could not pass up a proper offer for the big steel boat.
still here,” I reluctantly told Carstairs, “and the yard’s open from eight until six, so help yourself to a viewing. You can get
keys from my foreman. His name’s Billy and I’ll make sure he puts some heat into the boat.”

“The customer will be with you at midday”—Harry ignored everything I had said—”and he’ll try to knock you down to a hundred and ten, but I told him you wouldn’t go a penny below one-thirty.”

“Hang on!” I protested angrily. It was not the suggested price that was making me bridle but rather Harry’s bland assumption that I would be available to show
to his customer. “I’ll be halfway to the Channel Islands by midday tomorrow. Why can’t you show the boat yourself?”

“Because I shall be in Majorca, selling a triple-decked whorehouse to a Sheik of Araby,” Harry said carelessly. Then, after a deliberately worrying pause, “OK, Tim, if you don’t want to sell your sloop, what about that big German yawl at Cobb’s Quay? Do you know if she’s still available?”

“Sod you,” I growled, thus provoking an evil chuckle from Harry, who knew Joanna and I should never have taken
onto our brokerage list. The big yacht was out of our league, but she was an estate sale and the widow was an old friend of the family, and we had been unable to refuse her request that we look after the sale. Out of sentimentality we had even waived our brokerage fee, but not even that concession had shifted the big sloop off our jackstands, and thus, for over a year now,
fifty-two-foot hull had taken up precious space in our yard, and she looked like she would be staying for at least another year unless we found a buyer who was immune to Britain’s sky-high interest rates. Harry Carstairs knew just how desperately I needed to make room in my cramped yard, which was why he was so blithely confident that I would change my Easter plans. For a few seconds I contemplated letting Billy handle the London lawyer, but I knew my foreman was neither good at nor happy with such negotiations, which meant I would have to stay and deal with the sale myself. “OK, Harry”—I resigned myself to the inevitable—”I’ll be here.”

“Good man, Tim. The customer’s name is John Miller, got it? He’s a more than the usually poisonous lawyer but he’s rich, of course, which is why I promise I’m not wasting your time.”

I put the phone down and ducked into the pouring rain to see if Joanna had returned. The streetlights on the far side of the river shook and danced their reflections in the black water and I thought I saw a moving shadow silhouetted against one of those liquid spears. The movement seemed to be on board
and I assumed Joanna must have taken our supper down into the Contessa’s cozy cabin. “Jo!” I shouted toward the shadow.

The yard gate clanged shut behind me. “I’m here.” Joanna ran through the pelting rain to the shelter of the yard’s office. “Come and eat while it’s hot!”

“Just a minute!” I turned on the yard’s security lights. Rain sliced past the yellow lamps, but otherwise nothing untoward moved on the wave-rocked pontoons and I guessed the shadow by
had been my imagination, or perhaps one of the dozen stray cats that had taken up residence in the yard.

“What is it?” Joanna asked me from the office doorway.

“Nothing.” I killed the lights, but still gazed toward the rain-hammered river where, at the midstream buoys that the Sailing Club had emptied at dusk, I now thought I could see a big, dark yacht moored, but the smeared afterimage of the bright security lights blurred my sight and made me uncertain whether I was seeing true or just imagining shadows in the darkness.

I went to the office and told Joanna about Harry’s prospective customer, and we agreed that the opportunity of selling the big yacht was too good to pass up. The widow of
owner was feeling the pinch and, in consequence, we were feeling responsible. That guilt was unreasonable, for the state of the economy was the fault of the bloody politicians, but reasonable or not that guilt meant I would have to sacrifice this weekend’s family reunion in an effort to sell the boat. Joanna offered to stay as well, but I knew how eagerly she was looking forward to Easter day, so I encouraged her to sail alone to Guernsey. “Perhaps you can get a flight?” Joanna suggested, though without much optimism for she knew that the chance of finding a spare seat to the Channel Islands on an Easter Saturday flight was remote. “But look on the bright side,” Joanna said wickedly, “because now you’ve got no reason not to hear your brother’s Easter sermon.”

“Oh, Christ, I hadn’t thought of that.” My brother David, rural dean in the local diocese and rector of our parish church, frequently complained that while he often patronized my place of work I rarely patronized his. David’s muscular Christianity was not entirely to my taste, but, thanks to a London lawyer, it looked as if I would have to grin and bear a dose this Easter.

I left Joanna with the accounts and went back to finish the yawl’s repairs. As I ran across the yard I noted that the midstream buoys were empty, which meant that the big yacht I thought I had seen there must have been a figment of my imagination, which made sense for no one in their right mind would have slipped and gone to sea in the teeth of this vicious wind. The weather seemed to be worsening, making a mockery of the marine forecast’s promise of a fair morning, but Joanna, more trusting than I, went home at nine o’clock to get a good night’s sleep before her early start. When I followed her up the hill three hours later the gale was still blowing the sky ragged, yet, when the alarm woke me before dawn, the wind had indeed veered westerly and lost its spitting venom. “I told you so,” Joanna said sleepily. “Did you finish the yawl?”

BOOK: Stormchild
9.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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