Battleship. I guess this came into London recently as KL Caley’s post on New2Writing.com suggests a news item. I missed it. But I had a vivid thought of another time and place. So I wrote it pretty much straight away, before I forgot it. A thousand words later I stopped. I’m sure I had a better ending in my head when I started, but stories change as they are written.
It was almost three in the afternoon, and Jennifer was finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate. It wasn’t that she was tired. She was used to early starts. Despite Arthur’s protests, she had risen at 4 a.m. to make him a proper breakfast before he left.
“It’s only rumour,” he’d said. “And we do get really well fed on board.”
“I know you do.”
So much else she could have said. Praising Larry’s cooking, for a start, since he and Miriam were their best friends. It may be rumour, but there was that buzz in the air that said today they’d go. Besides, normal report time was 6 a.m., not 5.
After sending David to school, she’d started cleaning. It was the only thing to do. Keep busy. Busy hands, busy mind, but the mind caught the rhythm of the cleaning, rather than racing off in all directions at once. It would do that if she tried to sit still.
The sound of bicycle tyres on the gravel caught her attention. It wasn’t that time yet, surely?
Her son appeared at the kitchen door. “They let us out early, Mummy. Mrs Smithson wanted to go down to the headland for a walk, she said, and most of the teachers were going too, there or Portsdown Hill.”
Jennifer’s shoulders dropped. “Why didn’t I think of that? But… how do they know?
“About the battleship? Nobody knows. Tommy Turner didn’t, but his mum took him with her. She was waiting at the gate.”
“You don’t need me waiting at the gate though, do you?”
“No, I’ve got my bike. And Paulie, Suzy and Adam and I all raced home.”
The phone pinged. That would be the party line. She wondered who was calling Sarah, their neighbour and Suzy and Adam’s mother. Then the phone rang.
“Jennifer! It’s on. Harry the coastguard said they’re on standby for the next forty minutes. Coming?”
Of course she was coming. “Are you ready for another bike ride, my lovely?”
“Of course, Mummy! Are we going to see the ship?”
“Hush dear, we’re just going to look at the sea on a lovely sunny day. Careless talk, you know.”
David grinned. He knew ‘careless talk costs lives.’ It was drilled into them along with several other slogans.
Jennifer tucked her hair into a snood, took off her apron, and put on her tweed jacket. The rest of her cleaning outfit was perfectly respectable for a walk on a cliff on a lovely spring day, even if the wind was appropriately cold.
She put a bag of apples and a thermos she’d had standing by into the basket on the front of her bike, and stepped across the pedals to position herself on the leather saddle.
“Portsdown Hill, I think, don’t you?”
They swung the bikes out of the narrow gateway and turned into the lane. Three figures were ahead of them.
“Suzy and Adam are going too! Fun!”
Jennifer’s heart swerved. Yes, a fun and exciting event for the children, but for Sarah and herself… There were no words, really. Not like before the war. That was full of tears at the quayside, when the boys were off on a tour of duty. This would be no tour. Every man knew his duty, and the wives knew theirs, too.
It was downhill most of the way, then they turned at the crossroads and started the long haul up the steep slope to the cliffs. They would get a brilliant view of the Solent as it became the English Channel. Jennifer puffed as they reached the final stretch, but they had long since passed their neighbours, since they were going at Adam’s pace, and his little legs would be tired by now.
“Look at all the people! Where shall we stand, Mummy?”
“Let’s go over there, near the vicar and Mrs McMurray. Sarah will see us there, too.”
They exchanged greetings with the vicar and his wife, but nobody was saying much. Most were just gazing out to sea.
Then there was a ripple of conversation, which built into a feeling like electricity passing through the crowd. People pointed, and fell silent.
Jennifer didn’t know whether to cheer, wave, or weep. She wanted to do all of them, all at once. She snorted a bit and wiped her nose.
David was grinning. “Is that her? Doesn’t she look grand! And the cruisers coming after her. They’ll all stay together, won’t they?”
“Probably, dear. Although they may join up with others, who knows.”
“From Chatham? And Plymouth?”
“Yes, dear, but don’t say it out loud…”
“Careless talk, sorry, Mummy.”
The crowd fell silent, watching the flotilla as it manoeuvred down the Solent and took the turn to go around Bembridge Point on the Isle of Wight.
“There are more ships out there, Mummy, look.”
“I can’t see as far as you, Davy boy, but I expect you’re right. They’re all going to go together.” Her eyes brimmed, but she managed to keep her voice steady.
The ships moved on, following the proud battleship as it led the way into the English Channel and the British fleet beyond, all heading west, destination unknown.
Slowly the crowd dispersed, some sniffing into their handkerchiefs, others with heads held high and stern faces.
Jennifer and David just stood and watched. There were only a few others scattered along the edge of the cliff when David looked up and said, “But he will come back, won’t he? It’s only for a while.”
Jennifer paused. What to say to an eight year old?
“If we are lucky, if he is lucky, he will come back safe and sound. But we don’t know how long he’ll be away. He’ll be fighting for our freedom, Davy, for us and for all the rest of the British people, and for the people in France and Belgium as well. We must be proud of him, and all the people who have gone to war.”
David looked out to sea where the barest shadows of the battleship and its cruisers were still clear in his eyes.
“He will come back. I know it.”
© J M Pett 2023