Southern England, 1922
Cedric Cole looked up like a rabbit on hearing a shot. He was sitting in a hotel's dining room. Sounds of pounding feet reached his ears. What was wrong? Was there a fire? He hadn't heard an alarm. Then again, he had been lost in his own thoughts, going over a folk song he had collected. His fellow diners sat eating breakfast calmly. There wasn't a fire but something didn't seem right. Two Japanese vases sat on a window sill. Sinous dragons painted on them were reminiscent of sea serpants.
Cedric looked at a doorway into a corridor. A young waiter ran past, down the corridor and out of the hotel. His expression looked grim. Outside lay a harbour where fishing boats sat moored. A bay window gave a view of it. A maid was serving breakfast for Cedric. He asked her "why is that fellow in such a hurry?"
"He's a volunteer with our lifeboat crew sir," she replied.
"I'm sorry, I don't understand. What are you saying about lifeboats and volunteers? I come from an inland town so its strange to me."
"Havn't you heard of the R.N.L.I sir? Its a charity and it covers all the coast of Britain. They employ volunteers from all walks of life, and the waiter you saw running is one. If anyone's in trouble at sea, a boat in danger of sinking, a person cut off by the tide or any other emergency the volunteers run and launch a boat, then go to try and rescue them." There was pride in her voice as she explained.
Cedric inhaled sharply and raised greying eyebrows. Tobacco invaded his nostrils.
"You mean his employer allows him to drop everything and race off to help?" he asked.
"The owner has a brother who's a fisherman, so yes she allows it."
"Then in all likeliehood someone is in danger now."
Stress showed in her voice as she answered "yes sir. I've got to see to other people now, but there's a collection box at reception that you can put money for the lifeboat into."
Outside, a yellow light from a boat was reflected in the harbour. It looked like a spillage of egg yolk.
When he finished his meal Cedric Cole went to reception and saw the box in question. He fumbled in a pocket and accidently dropped a coin onto the floor. He bent and picked it up, then placed it in the collection box. He wondered what was happening out at sea and hoped the lifeboat's crew could help.
On the Lifeboat, eight hours later.
Nye ap Morgan was exhausted but he kept pulling on his oar. His crewmates were as tired as he so he couldn't let them down. They were searching for a fishing boat that had gone missing, feared sunk. There was still hope, wasn't there? His crewmates were all experienced and they had trained him well. Cox turned the vessel around and they headed for the shore. They were just double checking weren't they? They couldn't have failed, could they? He saw the looks in his colleague's eyes and realised they had.
Daylight was fading as they approached the shore. People were standing on a pebbly beach, waiting for news. Gentle waves rocked the timber vessel as though she was a baby. Dipping oars made sloshing sounds. Nye felt guilty for not bringing loved ones home. People he knew stood waiting, wrapped in shawls. One of them sang in the same choir as he. Nye wanted to scream with frustration but he had to stay strong for them.
At last the lifeboat came to rest on brown shingle. Her crew forced themselves out, though their muscles were screaming from hours at sea. Eyes were sore and throats felt dry. Their next drinks would feel like irrigation in a desert. Nye, at twenty the youngest, nearly lost his footing on loose pebbles. James, the waiter from the hotel, caught him by an arm and steadied him. Nye said 'thank you." It wasn't Nye's first time on the boat but it was his first failure so it hit hard.
Cox broke the news that all hope was gone.
Two women fainted. Pebbles rattled as they went down. Nye and James rushed to help them. Both men knew some first aid. A third woman shouted at Cox, above the swash of landing waves and the suck of their backwash.
"They can't have disappeared! There's got to be some hope! Go back an' 'ave another look!"
Cox shook his head and spread strong hands out. "We've done all we can Grace," he said.
Others in the group threw their arms around family and friends, then wept.
Days passed. Fishing boats lay at anchor. There was an empty space where one should have been. Inland, Jack's mother gripped her sink and shook from head to foot. She cried for hours every night. Jack's bedroom held a map of the Caribbean. He and Isac had hoped to go there someday. "I'll bring you a necklace of pearls Ma," he had promosed. They woul have graced her like drops of moonlight. In another house Grace's hands shook and spilt some of every drink she took. Elsewhere, Reuben's six year old daughter shouted at her mother "where's my Dad? Why won't he come home?"
Her mother replied "h-he wanted to come home sweetheart but he just couldn't. The sea was too strong for him."
She threw her arms around the girl and they cried together. Both would weep every night for weeks to come.
Soon afterwards the sea gave up its dead, first Reuben then, the next day, Isac and Jack. Their bodies were found on the beach, faces down, arms spread out. "Food for ravens," Nye thought. "Food for bloody ravens!" Why had their boat gone down? Their loved ones would never know.
When evening came, Nye would call on Cathy Bladen. Her father was teaching Nye to be a commercial fisherman. It was her arms that he sought comfort in. As they sat before a coal fire he asked her a question.
"Cathy, do you think I'm good enough for the lifeboat crew?"
Startled she replied "why do you need to ask? You've already saved lives."
"Was that beginners luck? I couldn't help Reuben and his crew could I. What if I missed something? A head bobbing in the sea? A piece of wreckage? I'm still the new boy. If anyone did it was probably me."
"Nye, if you failed then so did everyone on the boat that day. All the others 'll carry on, bless your life."
Nye shifted his position on a soft cushion. Then he said "I keep thinking what Dad used to say to me. Every time I expressed an opinion he put me down. There was always some reason why I was wrong. What if he's right and I'm useless?" The fire grate was as dark as his mood.
Cathy retorted "if you ask me your Dad's a horrible man. Next time there's a shout be on it or I'll never speak to you again."
Nye leaned over and kissed her tenderly. "I will," he said.
Nye had run away while a teenager to escape from his father. Only when Cathy took him under her wing had he been accepted here.
Three funerals came and went. People went back to their daily lives, to farming, fishing and serving holidaymakers. Nye and Cathy practised their singing, for both were in a local choir. It was a hobby for both of them and each had a good voice.
The time came for their next concert. It would, as usual, be held in the church hall. Nye and Cathy walked there together. They saw rows of hotels on the sea front. Most were painted white. Steps led up to their front doors. Small but well maintained gardens lay before them.
In one of these hotels, Cedric Cole was staying on a second visit to collect songs. In a lounge he checked his watch. Then he rose from an armchair and made his way past a longcase clock, to the reception area. He whistled a jaunty tune called "Three Drunken Maidens."
Have you anything planned for this evening sir?" the receptionist asked.
"Yes," Cedric replied. "I'm going to hear a local choir."
"I'm sure they will be very good sir."
"My mind is whirling with anticipation." He explained why he had come.
Mr Cole headed for the exit. Then he spun round and hurried back to the lounge. He came back looking embarrassed and wearing a hat he had almost forgotten.
Meanwhile, Cathy and Nye were approaching pointed arches on the hall. A grey backed gull strutted in the road. It took flight to avoid a car, flapping across the evening sky. It made Nye think of a soul making its final journey. Where were Reuben, Isac and Jack now? He made himself stop thinking about them.
The choristors trooped out to face their audience. Nye took a deep breath. Cool air became raw material for making song.
As they sang, dinner jacketed Nye spotted a man in the audience. He stood out for he was better dressed than those around him. He wore a three piece suit of brown tweed and a silk shirt. Female heads turned towards him and he evidently enjoyed that. Nye remembered that a collector of folk songs was coming and deduced correctly that this must be him. Part of their programme consisted of folk songs. Whenever one of those began, the well dressed man opened a notebook and wrote in it.
The concert ended. Nye, Cathy and their fellow chorristors took their bows, accompanied by loud applause. They filed out of the hall and mingled with departing listeners. Once again Cedric caught Nye's attention. He was walking towards the kerb and whistling one of the folk tunes, the Welsh "All Through the Night." Nye had come from Wales and taught it to his singing partners. A car with a young driver wad approaching, but its headlights were on so Nye never thought it might pose a threat. Mr Cole was looking away from it, but surely he would turn towards it in a moment.
He didn't. He stepped off the kerb without looking both ways. A horn sounded. Brakes screeched. Too late. A black painted bonnet collided with Cedric Cole and knocked him over. A deep thud resounded through chilly air. Rubber coated wheels halted abruptly. There was a brief silence as people struggled to take things in. Then someone screamed. Others gasped. Colour drained from cheeks. Hands clasped faces. People clutched boyfriends and girlfriends. The song collector lay on his back, motionless. Blood the colour of red wine was pooling around his head. The teeth of the young driver began to chatter. Then he vomited.
Nye turned to Cathy and said "call an ambulance." She lifted her pink skirt and ran to do so. Nye charged forward, heading for the casualty like an orca helping a packmate. Instinct said "get back, this is horrible." His reason retorted "go ahead, you can help." An elderly man tottered across his path, trying to see what had happened. Nye skidded to a halt. He shouted "out of my way!" then raced around the old man. Nye reached Cedric and knelt beside him.
Nye established that Cole was unconscious but still breathing. The young chorister pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, carefully raised Cedric's head and used white cloth to absorb red blood. Nye tilted Cedric's head so he wouldn't choke.Then the youngster pulled his coat off and laid it over his patient. Next he removed his dinner jacket, rolled it up and laid it under leather shod feet. Nye hoped that this would divert more blood to Cole's brain.
Two big men came alongside them. Both hunkered down, one by Cole's head and the other at his feet.
Nye cried "no-o! Don't move him! You could damage his spine!"
"He's lyin' in the road son."
"Yes, but cars will have to go round him to avoid this one."
Nye pointed to the car that hit Cedric. It hadn't moved for its driver was in shock. Those big men stepped back but stayed nearby, looking anxious.
Cathy returned. Her face was white and pink lips quivered. "There's an ambulance on its way," she announced. Then she noticed the driver. Cathy got into the passanger seat, took off her shawl and draped it over quaking shoulders.
"Its all right,' she assured him. "It wasn't your fault. Help's on its way."
He stopped shaking but was still distraught. A police officer arrived and took statements from witnesses.
An ambulance drove up and halted. Paramedics got out, took Cedric Cole and carefully placed him in it. One paramedic asked "who gave him first aid?"
Nye replied "I did sir."
What would this other man say? Nye's mind raced, trying to think if he had made any mistakes.
"You did a good job lad," the paramedic said. Then he got into the ambulance and drove away. Onlookers sighed with relief.
Nye let out a long, deep breath. He hadn't realised he had been holding it. That night was cool but sweat had drenched his hairline. Cathy threw herself into his arms and they held each other tight. Each drew comfort from the other.
Days passed. Nye and Cathy met on the stone arc of the sea front. They sat on a bench eating fish and chips. (The chips were what Americans would call French fries). A salty chip stuck out of Nye's mouth like a cigarette. He sucked it in. Two old ladies sat outside a tearoom, eating cream teas. Cathy was tense, like rigging in a gale. He was about to ask why when she spoke.
"Nye, is there any news about Mr Cole? I do 'ope he's gettin' better."
"Yes he is," Nye told her. "He's regained consciousness and he'll soon be out of hospital. He'll have to rest when he gets home, but if he does he'll be on the road to better days."
"For a miner's son you can be quite poetic."
"Mum brought me a book of poems when I was at school. Dad grumbled and said 'its not necessary woman!' But she ignored him. I'm glad she did."
Cathy relaxed. Then she asked "what about the driver? Are they goin' to do 'im?"
"No, the police and the prosecuton service decided it wasn't his fault. I don't think it was either."
"No, nor me."
They carried on eating. Slivers of fish lodged between their teeth. She stroked his brown, sea salted hair. A gull flew over them, then landed in the harbour.
Cathy enquired "well Mr Morgan, are you goin' on the next shout for that lifeboat?"
He put a muscular arm around her and she warmed him as no fire ever could. Then he smiled and said "try stopping me."
It was by joining the lifeboat crew that Nye had learned first aid.
If you walk those shores today you may see a rectangular platform paved with stones. Weeds grow in cracks between them. A ramp leads down from there to the beach. The lifeboat is still much needed, but she has a modern station now. You won't know their names but remember this; long ago, before your Dad was born, eight men launched a boat and did the best they could.