On an oak and iron bench, dulled by generations of dark, park regulation paint, Commander John Conway sat quietly waiting. Head bent he kept his focus narrow: his eyes monitoring the feet and lower legs of those passing. Turn-ups were back, he noted, at least they were in with the men of the pinstripe and the cavalry twill sets. Women, too, had turn-ups but there was no regularity in what they did with the bottoms of their trouser legs, or with their shoes for that matter. The path was still damp, despite the prolonged period of bright spring sunshine that prompted a proliferation of feminine sandals with piss poor straps, and heels that lasted for only a dozen or so outings. Brown and ox-blood brogues furnished the twills while only black, tightly laced, Oxfords with double locked bows would do for the city slaves.
A pair of slave shoes came to rest beside his military, hard-toed, wonder shoes propped one on the other at the end of his long, outstretched, legs. He could, as he usually did on these occasions, rise and greet his client, but today he remained seated, and continued to stare down the soft creases of his fine wool slacks. A second or two passed before a sigh indicated that his client had yielded his position, and was confirmed as he lowered himself to the high, front edge of the bench where he remained upright for a few more seconds before slouching back in complete submission.
“Sunshine front just opened up,” John said without looking up. He felt his client’s awareness step up a notch. “Popped out of the woodwork in Paris she did, then quickly scurried away to the sunny south.”
Sir Nigel Harper came sharply upright again. “You have them both? Mother and daughter?”
“Just the daughter. No sign of mother.”
Sir Nigel settled back, grinning to himself. ‘No sign of mother,’ that must be really getting to the commander. All through that messy fiasco two years ago when Absolom McMahon was so quickly dispatched, and bodies where strewn from Cairo to Seam Reap, Commander John Conway had chased a young woman around the world and still found no sign of the mother. “T’was ever thus John.”
“Just thought you should know is all. You wanted her dead last time we spoke of her.”
“Indeed. She was a loose cannon then. Could have wreaked havoc in all directions. As it turned out no harm was done. It’s a different game now. Now she’s learned more we might be able to use her. ‘. . . Course if you can find the mother . . . then we’d have a different story.”
“Way I see it, Sir Nigel, every mother got to teach her young enough to survive her. Even this mother won’t live forever. She’s got to pass the word on somehow. Time’s on our side.”
“Not really true John. There’s a storm brewing. Darkening clouds and all that. Oil’s already too expensive . . . more companies looking for alternatives. We really need to track the mother down, get the edge on the alternate energy Johnnies.” He paused in his reflections for only a second. “Still if you have the daughter, we just might be able to stay ahea.”
John Conway stood quickly to turn and look down on his client, “We’ve always managed to give you enough to stay ahead, Sir Nigel. No doubt we’ll continue to do so.”
“Give, is not the word I would choose to describe your highly priced services John.” He paused, his eyes cool with the confidence of knowledge. “None of us would.”
“Is business is all, Sir Nigel. Nothing more.” As if dismissing the subject Commander Conway lifted his eyes to the sun, shrinking away behind the clouds gathering from the east, and waited a second or two before observing, “Just a passing shower I think. Not much likelihood of heavy rain.”
Sir Nigel stood and following his gaze added, “No point in taking chances though.” He tapped the steel tip of his umbrella on the hard tarmacadam as if to bring their attention back to earth. “No point in taking chances when a little cover cost so little.” He raised the umbrella to his shoulder. “It’s such a comfort to have a little extra cover.”
John Conway walked back along Flower Walk to the south exit of Kensington Gardens. The edge in Nigel Harper’s voice, and the jibe at his business practices, had not been lost on him; he was annoyed. His client of twenty years was showing signs of anxiety; hairline cracks were appearing in the pristine alabaster of his English boarding school facade. The invasion of Iraq had raised the stakes, ‘course they had,’ he reflected. ‘What with all that mayhem in Basra, British troops killed in front of the press, and the Americans running around like castrated billy goats in Mosul and Fallujah . . .’ of course the stakes had been raised, but so has the anti. Stands to reason that. No reason to be nervous though. It’s just a tougher game, is all.
He hurried on, walking off his anger. ‘None of us would,’ indeed. That’s what he said, ‘None of us would,’ his exact words. Did he really believe he was my only client? Did he think I could run a business like mine on the few million I glean from the Federation of Fossil Fuels? Information is expensive; it has to be competitive; it has to be sold more than once. Makes sense that. ‘You can’t run a business on one customer,’ his dad would say. ‘You can’t sell the whole pig more’n once, but if you cut him up, make sausages from the offal, grind the bones for fertilizer, and sell the soft skin separate, you get more than four times what you could sell the whole pig for, and you spread your risk. That way one client going broke wont hurt you much. It’s only good business sense.’ And that quip about ‘A little extra cover.’ Crap. Arrogant crap, and that is what he is: Downright arrogant.
He picked up his pace as he passed through Queen’s Gate and out onto the Kensington Road, his mind still buzzing. Naturally he had a little extra cover of his own, and until this meeting, was content with it. Now he was unsure. George Hastings was dependable because he needed money to maintain his racy yachting lifestyle. If his ex-wife ever learned how much money he received from the commander’s company her lawyers would be snuffling through his bank accounts like pigs in a potato patch. Which made George a loyal dependant, but at the same time left him vulnerable to others. He needed close watching then, did our George, lest he be turned. A little extra, extra, cover was required. Maybe he should take a hand himself . . . ‘If you want to be sure a job’s done right . . . ‘ his dad would always say.
Seahorse rode the waves with a gentle, corkscrew, motion: the bows twisting into the quartering seas then backing away, as if repelled, before turning in again and repeating the cycle. Sometimes taking water across the fore deck, sometimes just bowing maidenly, but always moving on, she endlessly pushed the miles astern. For the first hour or so out past the breakwater, where the Mediterranean swells met the short waves of the inshore waters, Mina was nauseated by the sensation. Motion sickness was new to her and it left her drained as it pulled on her resources. The experience was not without some value, she reflected, as her stomach reached up into her throat and hung there while her centre of gravity swung violently high, then low, and her brow turned clammy. At least she had some understanding of the malaise now and would have more sympathy when next she saw the safety rails lined with the retching and heaving.
After hour or so she found her Seahorse legs, or her inner ears adjusted, or whatever it is that causes, the mal de mer, left her. The bloated sensation had definitely dwindled, leaving her secure enough to return to the main cabin where George was at home in front of his wide, flat, computer screen. She recognised the navigation program on the display and could see Seahorse’s position marked by a bright yellow arrow on the green background a mile or so south of the French coast. Dotted lines suggested their course and prospective tracks towards Gibraltar and the mid Atlantic.
“Better?” He asked. A self-satisfied smile told her he knew she was and that his advice for her to go on deck, maybe even take the helm, had been just the ticket.
“Much, thank you.” She remained standing though, not quite confident enough to return to the bench seat where the nausea first overtook her.
“Motion sickness,” he expounded with a knowing smile and avuncular ease, “is the result of over stimulation of the semicircular canals. Visual, and physical, distraction prevents the onset of nausea, which is why you should go out on deck. Large catamarans have a unique motion over the water . . . it takes a little getting used too.”
So there, she thought, not looking at him but at the screen and the graticule of latitude and longitude, and the little side bars of distance and time, and menus to highlight, zoom in and out, change scales, convert knots to miles an hour, kilometres to miles, fathoms to feet, feet to metres . . . . “Did you learn all that stuff as a pilot?” She asked, ignoring his smug attention to her face.
He turned back to the display, his mood broken. “Most of it,” he said. “Most of it is the same as flying you know. You have more time at sea of course, and a different set of problems, but the navigation and tactical planning are much the same.”
It wasn’t so much what he said, she decided, as to how he said it: so full of his own importance. Nothing was up for discussion. He was right; so there. “Did Gloria understand this stuff,” she asked, probing her position relative to the bag totting, table crashing, lover-down-the-quay predecessor, who, even though she was paid crew, was effectively a benchmark.
“No. Haven’t met a woman vaguely interested in navigation, although Carina likes me to read her the weather forecast. Computers, too, are a bit of a no-go area for many women except of course for e-mail.” He paused, she thought, to reflect on what he had just said, and possibly to wait for a reaction from her. She out-paused him by saying nothing. He gave in, “How about you? Do you get along with computers?”
“Anyone as lazy as me has some empathy for computers. They save you so much tedious calculating, not to mention litres of white out, and of course e-mail. As to whether or not I would prefer to see the rail lined with fresh faced young seamen self consciously measuring the height of the sun each noon rather than watch a dot inching across a computer screen, I am not so sure.” She had his absolute attention she realised. Maybe she had already given too much away. Go easy girl. She decided to take a step down: give him a little encouragement. “How does your computer know where we are?”
He beamed. “My computer can speak to the Global Positioning System, which, if you think about it, removes the latent human error.” He waited again. She said nothing – again out-waiting him. “If I don’t read the GPS,” he explained as if to a child, “how can I make a mistake transferring the information to the computer.”
There see. How simple. You pompous dork. “Wonderful,” she beamed. “If only you could connect the computer to the auto-helm.”
“Yes, yes,” he enthused, “you catch on fast young lady. If only the computer would steer the boat. If the computer could read the radar, measure the state of the sea, the trim of the sails . . . . Ah, when that is the case, the boat won’t need me.”
Just like the aeroplane, she thought. Aeroplanes don’t need pilots very much nowadays. Certainly they don’t need pilots for landing in bad weather. In fact airline pilots are not allowed to land the aeroplane in the fog because autopilots can see runways even when pilots cannot. She was willing to bet the big oil tankers and huge passenger liners didn’t need anyone on the helm very much either. But if you take the big ‘I’ out of this boat, what is left for this ego to feed upon?
George split the days into eight, 3 hour, watches to be shared by himself, Andy, Mina, and Ramsey, the hired hand she had first spoken to in St. Tropez and whose bunk was cramped forward in the starboard hull. Almost devoid of headroom, it was accessed through a small deck hatch. After only the briefest discussion Mina was assigned the nine to noon, and nine to midnight watches, which suited her perfectly as she had no desire to sit late around the dinner table talking, and tapping into the wine, where she might reveal more about herself than was comfortable. Andy would take over from her, covering the midnight to 3 a.m., and midday to 3 p.m. periods, while Ramsey followed him. “I’ll do the six to nines,” George announced, “that way you can be sure your captain will always be well rested.”
George stayed with Mina for an hour or so of her first watch, taking her though the routines of recording their position, the weather, the state of the sea, and any relevant details regarding their journey or the condition of the boat. “Good habits make good sailors,” he told her. “Do your checks and stick to your routines. That way accidents will have a hard time creeping up on you.” All the time, she noted, his eyes were darting, taking in the information around them, even as he lectured. He encouraged her to look back through the log to get the feel of what goes on during a passage at sea. “Good log keeping,” he said, “is evidence of a careful sailor, with an eye for detail, but always keeping his mind on the big picture.” This was a different George Hastings from the poser lounging on the aft deck, or the know-it-all genius at the navigation station. This was George Hastings the sailor and pilot: the man who had safely steered hundreds of thousands of people over millions of miles during a thirty year career in aviation. Why can’t you always be like that, she thought? Why can’t you just give us your wisdom and leave out the cynicism? People might actually come to like you.
By the second day the motion that had made her ill had become a source of comfort. The soft rolling and twisting was now the norm: its very action re-assuring as it told of their progress, spoke of the well being of Seahorse: their sanctuary from the sun, and the sea, and any who might pursue.
George had suggested that the Greek Islands were a bit ‘Old hat.’ “Perhaps we should go somewhere more exciting,” he said over breakfast on the first morning at sea. “Perhaps we should head west. Cut around the bulge of Africa. Go down the Ivory coast.” Mina watched as Carina’s eyes bulged at the suggestion. Unable to finish her food, the dark little woman rose from the table and began clattering dishes, and cutlery in the sink, then clearing the table of dishes before people were finished eating.
Andy had reservations. “Pretty rugged coastline,” he offered. “Atlantic coasts are rarely benign. Not wild about wandering down there, and there’s always pirates to worry about.”
“Pirates! There are still pirates?” Mina was shocked.
“Oh, yes,” said George. “Piracy is pretty common. Not just tankers and freighters – they will take a soft target like this yacht. Andy’s right, we would need to stay well out to sea if we went down there.”
“We could always stay way out,” Mina suggested. “We could always just head off to Rio, or San Paolo.”
There was a long silence while that idea ran through minds, which, until now, had not reached so far. Did that include George, Mina wondered? Was there just a trace of satisfaction in his smile as they all sat around the table wondering?