There was oil on his hands. Dark, glutinous; running down his brown wrist as he held them up in front of him. The sun was hot. He was sweating but couldn’t wipe his forehead, except ineffectually against his rolled up shirtsleeve. His shoulder cracked when he did so - not painfully, but a reminder that he had been scrunched under the car bonnet for too long in the same position.
There was nothing upon which to wipe his hands not even an old bit of rag. Cursing under his breath, he decided to leave the car where it was. It was safe on the drive of the big house. He headed towards the scullery. Cook might be there; she would let him wash there if he didn’t make too much of a mess. She probably wouldn’t even mind too much if he did make a mess. He was her favourite.
He had left his watch in the house but judging from the position of the sun – he squinted up at the sky – it was now mid-afternoon. The bridge of his nose itched; he’d caught the sun there and resignedly he thought about the new freckles that would have appeared. They made him look younger; people always told him so. Often they would quantify it with the irritating words, “Well, you are young.”
Sixteen was young; and he was restless. The summer of 1953 seemed endless.
The water in the taps was cold and the only soap was carbolic. It removed the majority of the motor oil but his hands didn’t look much better for his efforts. At least the car was going again.
He splashed his face, trying to cool himself down. Using his shirt tails to dry himself, he entered the adjoining kitchen which was deserted, and saw from the kitchen clock that the time was only ten minutes past two. Hours until tea.
He wondered where everyone was. The house was never empty like this. The silence was extraordinary.
He ran the others down in the drawing room. His mother was holding forth about new summer dresses for the girls. Peggy and Bride were looking through material on the floor with a tape measure and sewing things around them; Maeve sorting pins. Maurice and Rix sat in a corner playing chess. Nobody had even noticed he was missing until he opened the door, he could tell.
“There you are, John,” Aunt Bridget said, looking up from the book of patterns and regarding him over the top of her glasses.
“I’ve fixed the car.” He felt awkward, with everyone looking at him. “It was the carburettor.”
“I say, that’s good!” His father grinned at him. “Thank you, that’s saved me some expense I daresay.”
“You’ll have to check it yourself.”
“I will. Thanks old man.” Dick put down his newspaper and headed outside.
“John, come here, mavourneen. We’re going into Bideford tomorrow. Do you need anything?”
“No, I’m fine,” John couldn’t think of anything worse than going shopping in such heat. He sat down next to his mother and held out his arms for the baby, who cooed, and crawled into his lap.
“John. I didn’t tell you about the gentleman I met at Evensong,” Aunt Bridgie turned to him. She was his mother’s sister and had been living with them for ages now. She was supposed to be going to live with their cousin, Pat, but showed no signs of going. John privately wondered if Pat was enjoying her life too much out in Kenya to want the interfering old bag along. Now he shifted his expression into one of polite interest and prepared to listen to one of her everlasting stories.
“He was a very pleasant young man. He said he was an officer in the Royal Navy and I mentioned you at Dartmouth. He said he’d very much like to meet you.”
“Why?” John asked, before he could stop himself. His experience of naval officers hitherto had suggested that none of them would want to meet cadets through choice.
“Because he’s very kindly offered to tell you a little about naval life,” Bridgie replied, sharply. Daphne began to fuss to get down, and John let her, she crawled away on chubby little hands and knees to her sisters. “Passmore is his name. He was interested in you, goodness knows why. Anyway, he invited you to lunch tomorrow at one. He’s taken the Penworthys’ cottage, you know, just outside the village. The Laurels. He told me he plans to stay for the whole summer.”
“Okay,” he said, hoping he didn’t sound as ungracious as he felt. This sounded worse that going into Bideford.
“That will be nice for you, mavourneen,” Mollie patted his arm. John had seemed so restive this summer. Sixteen was a difficult age, of course, but she couldn’t remember Rix spending so much time alone or being so silent in company. “Why don’t you go and see what Daddy’s doing with the car?”
“We can go swimming later, if you like.” Rix offered, looking up from the chess match. “Half an hour after tea?”
“Yes, that would be great,” John brightened a little. He even smiled at Aunt Bridgie and thanked her before dashing outside.
“She’s running fine,” Dick was pleased. “Here – it would have cost me a lot more to take her into a garage.” He handed over a pound note from his back pocket.
“You don’t need to…” John said, but his father insisted and secretly he was glad. There wasn’t a lot of spare cash sloshing around in a family their size.
His offer to help out in the estate office was hastily accepted and they spent a companionable time until tea at four. Forty minutes after that saw John diving from a low rock into the still-warm sea.
“That was ripping,” Rix said, after making a far more conventional jump and resurfacing very near to his brother. “Did they teach you that at Dartmouth?”
“One of the fellows there showed me,” John floated on his back, lazily, just enjoying being in the sea. Rix had been studying or working in the estate office all summer; he was much less tanned than John himself, and looked tired. Thanks to the stupid rules that had been imposed on them since their aunt’s arrival, neither could swim alone, so it was very good of Rix to agree to come out. “I’ll teach you, if you like?”
“OK, thanks. Later though – it’s too hot for anything like work. Maybe we could go out tomorrow afternoon?”
“Yes – oh hang, no. I can’t. I’ve got to go and lunch with this old chap that Aunt Bridgie’s dug up from Evensong. Didn’t you hear?”
“Not really. Rather you than me. Who is he?”
“I imagine he’ll keep me for hours, droning on about the War and telling me all his campaigns. Like they do at the Ship, you know.” John affected boredom, just to impress his brother.
“It mightn’t be too dusty. One of the chaps at the hospital – one of the surgeons – he told me about some of the emergency ops he had to do during the War and it all sounded quite thrilling.”
“I can’t imagine any of Aunt Bridgie’s friends to be thrilling,” John replied. “Still, I’ll try and get away sharpish. Race you to the shore and back?”
“No… OK, you’re on,” Rix grinned as he struck out before John realised what he was doing; the usual trick. It never worked though. John was the best swimmer of them all.
The Penworthys’ cottage was small and covered in honeysuckle. They rented it to tourists in the summer but often it stood empty. John pushed open the gate, unenthusiastic. The old boy would be affable; lunch would be something suitably heavy – beef perhaps, following by a jam pudding. Passmore – John imagined he would be a retired Commander or Captain; Aunt Bridgie had done nothing useful like find out his rank - would jaw his way through some long stories, and then probably fall asleep, trapping him for hours.
He knocked, loudly. The old fellow was probably deaf.
The door was jerked open quite abruptly and the man behind it looked so different from John’s imaginings that it was quite a shock. They both stared at each other.
“Good afternoon. You must be John.” He was young; early thirties, probably, and very handsome. John felt shy of him. He nodded, tongue-tied.
“How do you do?” he muttered. They shook hands. John made a gargantuan effort. “My aunt told me you were in the Service, sir.”
“Yes – I’m on leave. Do come in. I’m Lieutenant Adam Passmore, by the way. It’s nice to meet you.”
“You, too.” John stepped into the cottage; it was even tinier inside and typical of the other cottages in Channing St Mary. The sitting room was a bright primrose yellow. He sat on the sofa, as directed, opposite Lt Passmore, who settled himself on an overstuffed armchair.
“How old are you, John?”
“And so you’ll be going to Dartmouth in September?”
“No. I was one of the last to enter before they changed the rules. I’ve been there for years.”
“Of course. I see. How d’you find it?”
“It’s fine.” No other answer about one’s school was acceptable when talking to adults. Especially Dartmouth.
“But good to be on holiday, I expect?” Lt Passmore nodded. “I remember. Well, shall we go through? It’s the kitchen, I’m afraid. There’s no dining-room.”
“Are you staying for the rest of the summer? Most people put up in the Devonshire Arms.”
“Yes. I wanted somewhere quiet. This is quiet enough. Please sit down. Have you lived here long? Your aunt told me you’re out towards Candlebury way.”
“We’re on the coast. We came here in ‘46, after the War. I was only a kid of ten or so. I was so excited to see the sea.”
This made the Lieutenant, who had been rather serious, smile. John smiled back, and it seemed a little easier.
“It’s a nice place. I hope to stay another two weeks. It’s quiet.”
“Too quiet,” John said, beginning to eat his soup.
“My doctor advised peace and quiet for me.”
“Are you ill?” John was surprised.
“I was wounded. In Korea. I just need to rest for a few months. Take a bit of the air. You’ll have to tell me the best places to walk.”
“I will.” John sat up straight and looked at the Lieutenant with renewed respect. Korea was serious stuff.
They ate lamb fairly companionably, talking about Dartmouth and the village. John wanted to ask about Korea but wasn’t sure how to start the conversation.
Lieutenant Passmore studied John and thought he was a good-looking kid; a little nervous, maybe, but he was becoming more confident as they talked. He remembered that awkward adolescent phase himself.
“My friend, the one who suggested I come here, told me there’s decent sailing off the coast. Is that true?” he asked, when John fell silent. Maybe he could offer to take the boy out one day.
John’s face darkened. “Yes. It’s really good sailing. We’re not allowed to go out though.”
“Never?” Passmore was surprised. “Why ever not?”
“It’s my aunt. You see, my cousins drowned years ago when their boat overturned. We used to go out all the time but when it happened, Mother was nervous and didn’t like it, and then she was ill, so we stopped and then Aunt Bridgie came to live with us and it was completely forbidden. We aren’t even supposed to go swimming alone now.” John looked up, biting his lip. Could he trust him with a secret?”
“But you do anyway – go swimming alone, I mean.” Passmore anticipated him.
“Yes – sometimes in the early mornings when Dad’s busy with the farm and everyone else is asleep. It’s completely safe – I know all the currents. I know where all the rocks are.”
“Still, if you’re not supposed to…” Adam shifted in his seat. He knew what his position should be; that he should roundly censure this dishonesty, but he didn’t really want to do so. The kid would just ignore him and if he intervened, then he would lose the burgeoning friendship. They sat in silence for a moment; John expecting to be reprimanded and Adam unsure what to say.
“Maybe I could speak to your parents,” he said, finally. “No – I won’t tell them about the swimming! Take that look off your face. I’m a pretty experienced sailor and I don’t think my tub will overturn in a hurry. They might let me take you out occasionally.”
“Thank you.” John said, privately not holding out much hope.
“What time do you do this early swimming?” Lt Passmore asked as John made his farewells.
“Around half-past five,” John admitted.
“Christ,” The Lieutenant blasphemed, lighting a cigarette. “It’s still dark then. I’m not sure I shouldn’t say something to your father. Isn’t it cold? You should be careful. Swimming in cold water is dangerous.”
“It’s not that cold,” John fibbed. “Honestly, I only do it in summer when it’s not freezing cold. Please don’t tell him. He’d be furious.”
“Strict with you, is he?” Passmore hesitated then offered John the cigarette packet. John took one, although he hadn’t smoked before. The older man leant to light it for him and was amused when John coughed.
“No. Not over most things, but he would be angry with me over this. You aren’t really going to tell him?”
“No.” A curious expression crossed the Lieutenant’s face. John couldn’t understand it.
“Thank you for lunch, sir,” he said, eventually, breaking the moment.
“My pleasure. Drop in whenever you’re passing, won’t you? Bring your brothers and sisters if you want.”
“I will. Thanks again,” John shook hands, then checking his watch, decided to run home. He was very late, it was nearly four. Rix would be annoyed, but he couldn’t really argue about John having to lunch with one of their aunt’s acquaintances. As he jogged along the coast road; John decided he wouldn’t introduce his siblings to his new friend unless it was inevitable.
He woke early the next morning – just after five. The shadows of confused, vivid dreams lingered as he hurriedly threw on the first clothes to hand over his swimming trunks. He didn’t bother to wash but hurriedly brushed his teeth in the basin in his bedroom and sneaked downstairs, holding his breath at every creaky floorboard. It was still dark outside.
Once outside, he lit his torch and walked briskly to the twisty, steep path that led down to the beach. The water, when he waded in, wasn’t too bad. It had been so hot yesterday.
He swam hard and fast for several long minutes. The dawn was breaking over the sea; when he was sufficiently warmed up he turned onto his back, looking at it. He was quite far out and the tide was turning. Regretfully he turned back, and nearly went under as he saw someone watching him intently from the beach.
He spat water and cursed. Only his father and the farm workers were up this early. Trippers never came to the cove and besides, it was too early. He prepared to face the music and swam to shore.
It was Lieutenant Passmore. He sat on a large rock and smoked; watching John swim. The kid was good; very fast and neat.
“Hello,” he said, as John came ashore, slightly out of breath. The look of relief on John’s face surprised him.
“I thought you were my father,” John said, hastily drying himself on an old towel he had left behind on the rock, slightly disconcerted by the Lieutenant’s gaze.
“You must be freezing,” Passmore observed. John shook his head, but he was shivering. He dressed as quickly as he could, pulling his clothes over his damp trunks.
“Here,” Adam pulled off his own jumper and passed it to John, insisting when John tried to refuse. John put it on, combing his fingers through his damp curls.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Adam said, standing up and stubbing out his cigarette. “I thought I’d walk down and see if I could spot you. You’re a good swimmer. What do they think of you at the Ship?”
“I’m nothing special there,” John smiled.
“Come on, you’re cold. Why don’t we go for a walk? Tide’s started going out, I see. Good grief, kid, your hands are blue!” He reached out and took John’s hands between his own, just for a brief moment, before letting go and taking a step back.
“I’m fine,” John was stubborn at times. “I have to be in for breakfast at eight.”
“Plenty of time. What’s along here?” Lieutenant Passmore strode ahead. John was tired after the swim and had a job to keep up with him.
“Caves. Some of them are quite deep. Would you like to see, sir?”
“Maybe another day… I think you should stay in the sun. It’s quite rough here, isn’t it – that tide’s pretty fierce. Do people sail around here?”
“Not that I’ve ever seen. Only us. It’s pretty sheltered and quiet. You could do it though. I know where the rocks are and the tides.”
“I’d better speak with your folks then, hadn’t I?” Passmore smiled.
“If you wait until Aunt Bridgie isn’t there, they might say yes. Would you like to come for breakfast?”
“I can’t just land on them without any warning. Do you all go to St Michael’s or just your aunt?” Passmore named the village church.
“We go on Sundays to the early service.”
“Right. And today is…?”
“Saturday. It’s market day in the village. Second Twins take our eggs there to sell.”
“Who or what is Second Twins?”
“I forgot how mad that must sound. Maeve and Maurice. They’re younger than me. My oldest brother and sister are twins too, you see.”
“Yes, Mrs Daly told me when we met that there were quite a few of you.”
“Seven.” John nodded.
“And where do you fit in?”
“Fourth - right in the middle.” John stopped to put on the shoes he had been carrying; the Lieutenant obligingly providing an arm to lean on. This part of the cove was rocky, unlike the sand nearer to the sea. They had walked quite far in a relatively short amount of time. “Rix – Peggy – Bride – me – Maeve - Maurice - Daphne.”
“No wonder you need that big house,” Lt Passmore gestured towards the white walls of the Quadrant looming over the high cliffs above.
“We don’t use half of the rooms. Dad inherited it during the war.”
“You told me. Where did you live before?”
“We – well, four of us lived in Armiford, with my aunt and uncle. Mother and Dad were stuck out in India with Maeve and Maurice.”
“I see. Your aunt that I met?”
“No fear! She was in Ireland. My Auntie Madge. We lived in Austria before the War. We left just after Hitler marched in.”
“Really?” Passmore stopped; his hand against his side. He looked like he was in pain.
“Are you all right, sir?”
“Yes. You don’t have to call me sir. My name’s Adam.”
“I – I couldn’t call you by your Christian name.” John faltered. The Lieutenant was only a few years younger than his mother.
“You can when we’re alone.” Adam took a deep breath and resumed his walking. He looked irritated now. “Please.”
“I – Okay.”
“You were telling me about Austria.”
“I don’t remember it. I was only a kid when we left.”
“You’re only a kid now.” Passmore smiled. “Look, I’m sorry I snapped at you. I’m tired. Will your brothers and sisters be awake by now?”
John glanced at his watch. “I expect so. Why?”
“I just thought they’d be coming to look for you.”
“Oh no. They – well, they don’t do that. I mean, Rix used to, he came swimming with me yesterday, but he’s studying medicine and helps Dad and the girls have each other, and Maurice spends all his time with Maeve in the holidays.”
“You should have your friends from Dartmouth come and visit.”
John shrugged. “I like being on my own.”
“Do you? Your aunt said you spent far too much time on your own.”
“I don’t care what she thinks; she should mind her own business.”
“She just cares about you. She wants you to be happy. It’ll get better you know. When you join your first ship…”
“I doubt it.” John turned away. Lieutenant Passmore barely heard his next words. “I don’t have any friends at Dartmouth. I’m different.”
“Hey,” Adam took hold of his shoulder. John froze; but he didn’t pull away. They stood there for a moment or two, like actors in a play awaiting their cue. John was trembling.
Lieutenant Passmore stroked John’s cheek; his hands were warm.
“There’s nothing wrong with being different,” he whispered.
“I-I have to go,” John stepped back, and ran, straight along the beach. He didn't look back.
Or whether doth my mind, being crowned with you,
Drink up the monarch's plague, this flattery?
Or whether shall I say mine eye saith true,
And that your love taught it this alchemy,
To make of monsters and things indigest
Such cheubins as your sweet self resemble,
Creating every bad a perfect best
As fast as objects to his beams assemble?
O 'tis the first; 'tis flattery in my seeing,
And my great mind most kingly drinks it up.
Mine eye well knows what with his gust is greeing,
And to his palate doth prepare the cup.
If it be poisoned, tis the lesser sin
That mine eye loes it and doth first begin.