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Stranger on the Run Part 6
Stranger on the Run Part 6

Stranger on the Run Part 6


Southern England, 1920

There was a brief moment when Nye didn't feel the cold, but then it washed over him from head to toe. His breath caught in his throat. Where was the casualty? Which way was up? How deep was this water? A strong undertow siezed Nye. He struggled against it but resistance was futile. Only brown rope around his middle stopped him from being swept away. He felt a sharp tug on it, halted and started flailing. His right hand felt something and he grabbed hold of it. Could this be the other person's arm? Nye tightened his grip and pulled hard. Now he was sure he had hold of the casualty. Strong currants took both of them and tossed them around like rag dolls. Nye kicked with as much force as he could muster. It felt as if his clothes had quadrupled in weight. They surfaced. Nye gasped and kicked again, but that was useless against powerfull currants. Both of their lives depended on his colleagues on Blue Dolphin.

Cox barked a command. Sleek as a female orca, the boat pulled away from cast iron pillars, over a sea that knew her name. Oars rose and fell helping her humming engine. A trail of white foam appeared in her wake, like a bridal veil. Nye and the other man were pulled along after her. Blue Dolphin halted and oarsmen heaved on strong rope. Nye and his companion were hauled aboard. Millward helped in pulling them in. Nye's crewmates untied sodden knots as his hands were shaking from cold and fear. Blue Dolphin started up again and her engine made her stern vibrate a little. Nye reached out to Millward and shook his hand, then each of them took an oar and pulled hard on it.

Back on shore, lumps of sea foam blew around their feet. The crewmen learned that the casualty had been to an illegal gambolling den and had too much to drink there. He was taken to hospital, but when he recovered would be questioned by police officers.

In the boathouse, while they got changed, Millward said to Nye "well Spaniel, I hear you're hoping to join our choir."

"That's right," said he while drying his hair.

"If you need a dinner jacket you can have one of mine. Its not new, but I've bought myself another one so I can spare it."

"Thank you."

Nye asked "how could that man have been so stupid?"

Cox replied "its not our place to judge. If someone's in trouble we answer their call; it doesn't matter what they've done. If they're bad then there's other folk who can and will punish them."

Out at sea, trails of white foam lay on dark water, like chalk on grey slate. Cox went over to someone else. Millward spoke to Nye in a low voice.

"In his younger days Cox got into a few scrapes," the waiter explained. "He was in at least one brawl in a bar, down in France. Cathy's dad was on the same ship and they got out of it side by side. "A few years later they were in West Africa together. Both of them caught some tropical fever and it was touch and go as to whether they'd pull through. Of course they did, but one of their crewmates died from it. An experience like that can make you reasess your life. When they came home they started training for the lifeboat because of it."

"Ah, I see."

"For me it was the war. I want to make amends by saving lives instead of taking them. I won't say if I killed anyone but if not I'd have supported those who did."

That night Nye slept in a third rate boarding house. Salt lingered on his tastebuds. He dreamt of cliftop walks with Cathy, of outcrops of chalk in verdant turf, of damp hollows like sweaty armpits of mother earth, of bees flying to pink heather, of a green lizard basking on white gravel. Far below them a fishing boat set out from harbour. Cathy's dad was on board. Nye awoke next morning feeling happier than he had for a long time.

Word reached Nye that last night's casualty had been reunited with his wife and children. The young Welshman wondered if he would ever be reunited with his family. He missed his mother. There were still times when he smelt tobacco, remembered it was a favourite brand of a dead friend, and he struggled to hold back tears.

One morning Nye rose earlier than usual. He went out and walked through town, then to the shingle beach. Trees were turning yellow, copper and crimson. On the shore waves kept breaking. Their edges looked like the fringes of pancakes. Nye trudged past fishing boats that were drawn up on grey pebbles. He wanted to ask Cathy something but didn't feel able to. He needed his father's permission until he turned twenty-one. There was no chance of getting it. They would need somewhere to live and he couldn't see how they would afford one. How long would his job last? Sooner or later those houses would be finished. When that happened what could he do for a living? He was an unpaid volunteer on the lifeboat, they all were. What if another young man came along and won Cathy's heart? White bellied gulls flew overhead. Some landed at the water's edge. Nye's brain was getting overloaded with worries.

Then he remembered that soon he would make his debut with the choir. It wouldn't solve everything but it might break the tension and so help him to think later.

One dark evening Nye, Cathy and the rest of the choir arrived at a stone Church Hall. They all got changed backstage. Up front people sat down on timber chairs. Some pulled their feet in so others could get past. Smoke rose from cigarettes. Heels clattered on polished floorboards. A little boy sucked on a citrus flavoured sweet. Cox and Cathy's Dad were in the audience. Millward had to be at work. No one noticed when a man positioned himself outside the hall, waiting for, what?

The building filled to capacity, then bright lights went down. Nye shivered with nerves and excitement. Cathy squeezed his right arm. "Its the same for all of us," she assured him.

Their fellow singers walked onto the stage. A pianist took her seat. Her perfume mingled with smells of tobacco. A board squeeked under a tenor's foot. Nye and Cathy followed and took their places. The hall warmed up as bodies gave off heat. They began with a song from "The Mikado" called "If You Want to Know Who We Are." Nye blended with his fellow baritones and his timing was perfect. It went without a hitch and drew applause from the audience.

Then the women stepped forward and lainched themselves into a folk song.

"Blow the wind southery, southery Southerly

Blow bonny breeze and bring him to me

Cathy's mezzo added depth and she too blended with her colleagues. Her tone was as warm as a mother's milk. The song evoked a woman waiting for a loved one to return from out at sea. Many of that audience were fishermen or from families of fisherfolk, so it struck a chord with them. More than one listener was dabbing their eyes with a handkerchief when it ended. Who had written that song? Had she endured a long wait for a husband, brother or son? If so, did he return safely or was he lost at sea? The singers would never know her name but, that autumn night, it felt as if she stood among them.

The man outside looked in through an arched window and he scowled. One boy turned in his direction and he stepped back quickly.

The concert went on for two hours. Nye's confidence grew with each round of applause. Their final number was the policeman's chorus from "The Pirates of Penzance." To the youngster's relief a more experienced man took the solo part. Nye and his fellow singers achieved an impressive vocal range and strong characterisation. Powerful voices filled the hall and could be heard outside it. After singing those final words Nye felt a surge of relief, then joy. There came a long and enthusiastic round of applause and he felt tempted to punch the air but resisted. He and the other choristers took their bows and beamed at those listening. Was he really being accepted here? Part of him could hardly believe it.

Bright eyed choristers retreated backstage and talked about their performance. Happy listeners trooped out down stone steps. Later on, the singers donned autumn coats and set out for home. Cathy and Nye walked side by side. As they reached the exit they linked arms. Both of them stepped outside and cold air hit warm skins.

Then Nye stopped in his tracks. His jaw dropped, eyes popped and hairs rose on his nape. He threw an arm round Cathy and she looked bewildered. His muscles went rigid as if for a fight. Other singers turned to see what was wrong.

A middle aged man stood in front of Nye and Cathy. His coat had seen better days and he smelt like he hadn't washed for some time. A cigarette protruded from whiskery lips. He pulled it out and spoke in a Welsh accent.

"Hello son," he said. "I've come to take you home."

Cathy inhaled sharply and raised her eyebrows. She threw both arms around Nye. He would rather have been out at sea in a howling gale, with thunder and lightning overhead.

To be continued.

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15 Jul, 2022
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