Jack Reynolds wiped the sweat from his eyes and stepped back. The afternoon was hot and he had been hard at for hours, least ways, it felt like hours.
"What're you doing?"
He started at the unexpected voice and turned. The owner of the voice was staring at him quizzically.
"Working on my boat. What does it look like?"
The girl said nothing but continued to stare. She moved closer and switched her gaze from the boat to Jack.
" How come you've got a boat then?"
Jack snorted. "She's a wreck. My Dad was goin' to scrap her but he said if I could fix her I could have her. So I'm fixin' her."
"What sort of boat is it, I mean, she?"
"Three ton Bermudan Sloop, clinker built, pitch pine on oak with teak decks. Lovely job, not her fault she got wrecked."
"So what're you doing now, then?
Jack regarded her in silence for a moment. He wasn't really used to talking to girls, spending all his spare time in the boatyard in the company of shipwrights and sail-makers. He reckoned she must be a couple of years younger than he was, which would make her about twelve and therefore in the 'nuisance' category. She was tall, nearly as tall as Jack himself, and skinny with long thin arms and legs. Her fairish hair was long and tangled by the stiff breeze that rattled the halyards of the moored boats and scattered white horses on the sparkling sea. She might be quite pretty one day, he decided.
"Well, the daft bugger who owned her managed to dismast her and she ran up on them rocks." He waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the headland. "I'm cutting out the planks that got stove in and goin' to fit new ones. Might have to replace this here rib first." He gestured into the gaping hole in the boat's side. "Don't know yet. I'll have to ask me Dad, I 'spect." The girl nodded in solemn agreement.
"What's she called?" She asked. Jack smiled. "Don't rightly know, yet. She was called 'Tiffin'. Just the sort o' daft name a daft bugger would call a boat. I'll think of something good, you wait 'n' see!" Again she nodded with apparent satisfaction.
"You on holiday, are you?" Jack said. For some reason he wanted the conversation to continue. She smiled and nodded. "Goin' to shake your fool head off, you keep doin' that." But his smile took away any sting. He noticed her eyes were green; the colour of the sea on certain days when a storm is coming and the sky is troubled and grey. "I'm Jack Reynolds. This is my Dad's yard. What's your name?"
"Elizabeth. Most people call me Beth, though. You are lucky to live her all the time. We live in London. My Dad's a Bank Manager."
"Never been to London. What's it like?"
"You've never been to London? How old are you?"
Jack bridled at the implied criticism. If he were honest, the furthest he had ever been was Plymouth. But he had sailed far and wide with the fishing boats and could navigate from here to Brittany. He could hand reef and steer and repair the clunky old diesel engines. He could patch a hole and caulk and make good sprung planking, but he had never been to his nation's capital city.
"Never had no call to go to London," he said. "Got everything I need here. An' if London's so great, why do all you Londoners come down here for the summer?"
She shrugged. "It's lovely here, so peaceful. And you've got the sea and not the smelly old Thames. We come every August." Jack said nothing but continued to glare at the girl who, as he saw it, had exposed some lack in him.
Beth looked at the boy. She had just started to notice boys in a different way. He was quite good-looking, she decided. She liked the way his hair curled, thick and dark over his ears. His skin was deeply tanned and smooth looking and he had bright blue eyes that still managed to look nice even when he was scowling at her.
"Can I help?" She said and was pleased when he looked surprised.
"S'pose you could help with the rubbin' down," he admitted and gave her a piece of rough sandpaper stretched over a block of scrap wood. "Easiest if you do it fore and aft, with the grain," he said and demonstrated.
The afternoon passed swiftly and they found themselves comfortable in each other's company. Neither was by nature especially talkative so they found no difficulty in the silences. Beth proved herself an adept pupil and it seemed to Jack that really listened to him when he was explaining something. At fourteen, he was not used to getting such wrapt attention. At six o'clock a whistle blew, the signal for the end of the day's labour, but Jack kept working.
"Aren't we going to stop, too?" She asked. Jack smiled. "We're not on wages, girl. I got to do as much as I can durin' the holiday. An' I got to go fishing with my Uncle Bill next week so won't get much done. You can stop now if you like, though."
"I think I'd better. My parents will be wondering where I am. Are you going to be here tomorrow?"
"Afternoon. Got my chores in the morning."
"Chores? What are chores?"
Jack stared her in utter disbelief. "Jobs what I got to do, course! Don't you have no chores to do for your folk, then?" She shook her head. She felt awkward, sensing the gulf between their lives, the daughter of a Bank Manager and the son of a boat builder. "We're on holiday," she said lamely. Jack nodded as if this explanation was acceptable. "That'll be it, then," he said. "See you tomorrow?" He was surprised to discover how pleased he felt when she said yes.
The rest of the summer passed all too quickly for Jack. Beth met him each afternoon he went to the yard and proved such a quick learner he started to trust her with more complex tasks like stripping rigging blocks and cutting new thole pins for the boat's tiny dinghy. Her parents had come to the yard once to see how she was spending her summer. Jack had stood tongue-tied as she explained what they had done and pointed out the remaining work. Her parents were like creatures from another world to Jack. 'Big City Folk,' his father had called them but had greeted them politely enough and chatted a bit with Beth's Dad about the situation in Europe. It had come as a surprise, therefore, when Beth had announced she was leaving the next day. "Our time's up, I'm afraid. Back home and then back to school." Jack had nodded dumbly, bereft of words.
Still, he had put on his Sunday clothes and gone to the station to see her off. He was ill at ease as he stood on the platform. He wanted to be there but was desperately worried that any of the boys from the town would see him. His embarrassment was complete when she suddenly leaned forward and pecked him on the cheek. He mumbled something about seeing her next year and went even redder when her father had laughed something about 'holiday romances'. He wasn't too sure what one was but it didn't sound like something he would like.
"What will you do if there's a war, Jack?" Beth seemed able to read his mind.
"Join up, I s'pose. My dad says the Navy'll need proper sailors, just last time."
"Will you be an Officer?"
"What me? Not a chance!"
"Why ever not, Jack? I bet you know as much about boats as anyone."
"Oh, boats, yes. But it's the other stuff. I think I'd be happier takin' orders than giving 'em. Anyway, I'm not eighteen 'til next May. It might all be over be over 'fore then,"
Beth looked at him carefully. Each year she had come with her parents on holiday and each year she had renewed her friendship with Jack. He had grown taller, his voice deeper and his chest and shoulders had broadened, year by year. He was more man now than boy. She tried to picture him at war but her mind, or perhaps her heart, would not let her. She felt that was silly. It wasn't if they were lovers. They were friends. She thought he probably had a girlfriend from the town and felt a small pang of jealousy. She would soon be sixteen and quite grown up. Sometimes she wished that Jack would think of her like a girlfriend.
The boat was almost finished. The hull had been repaired and not one but three of the oaken ribs had had to be replaced. They had built a new interior from marine ply and fitted her out with new berth cushions and a gimballed paraffin stove paid for from Jack's earnings from the fishing. Jack had cut and made a new mast and spars and, with the help of one of the sail makers, had cut and sewn new sails and canvas dodgers bearing the name 'Maid Elizabeth'. Beth hadn't seen these yet; they were a surprise. Now his mind was on the coming war. Everyone knew it was going to happen. That Churchill had been warning the country for years; only now were people taking notice.
Out in the bay these days were warships instead of pleasure craft and in the last week he had seen two great Battlecruisers, Repulse and Renown, he thought, forging westwards towards Plymouth with attendant destroyers. If war were coming he would be ready for it. He wouldn't wait until he was called up. As soon as he was old enough he would catch the train to Plymouth and sign up at Devonport Navy Barracks. His Dad had fought in the last lot, had been in Warspite at Jutland, soon it would be his turn.
He came to himself and noticed Beth was very quiet. "You're not worried about me, girl?" He tried to make it sound like a joke but it came out wrongly.
She tossed her head angrily. "Of course I am, silly! Fine friend I'd be if I wasn't worried."
"It could all blow over, like Czechoslovakia," he said; but even to him it sounded unconvincing.
Beth frowned. "I don't think so this time. I think we really 'for it' this time."
"Well, then. We'd best get this boat in the water while there's still time."
Oh, Jack, is she really finished?"
"Pretty near. We'll step the mast and rig her in the water. First we got to christen her, though."
"A name! You've thought of a name at last!"
Jack grinned. "She's had her name since 1936. Tomorrow we christen her. I mean I'd like you to do it, Beth, if you will?"
"Of course I'd love to, silly! What are you going to call her?"
"Maid Elizabeth, of course, silly!" And he roared with laughter at her stunned expression. "Couldn't be nothin' else, now could it?"
That last summer of peace slipped away all too swiftly. Jack and Beth sailed 'Maid Elizabeth', abbreviated between them to the 'Maid', every day they could. She proved a lively sailer, quick and responsive if somewhat wet. Jack made plans for some modifications to the cockpit coaming to counteract this, but these could wait. After nearly four years of hard work and patience, The 'Maid' was in her element at last.
As if reflecting the change, things between Beth and Jack were different, too. Jack found himself looking at her surreptitiously whenever he got the opportunity. She had certainly filled out. The skinny arms and legs were shapely and he couldn't help notice how the front of her canvas sailing smock now bulged intriguingly. She was still a kid, he told himself, but he also had to acknowledge that she was a damn' pretty one. Her light brown hair was streaked in places by the sun and her face and arms were tanned to a delightful honey brown.
This time when he saw off at the station, he was no longer awkward but hoped instead that the town boys would see him with this lovely young girl, whom, he'd just discovered, now inhabited the body of his friend.
"Good God Almighty! Beth, would you look at this!" Beth jumped, unaccustomed to hearing her father blaspheme. He thrust the 'Daily Express' towards her. "Isn't that your friend, that Reynolds boy?" She gasped as she saw the photograph. It was Jack all right and the 'Maid Elizabeth'. The 'Maid' was crowded with weary-looking soldiers. There must have been over thirty crammed into her twenty-four foot length. Jack was unmistakeable in his canvas sailing smock, his thick dark hair tousled by the wind. She quickly scanned the story. It was about the 'little ships' that had gone to Dunkirk and plucked the British Army off the beaches. Already this massive defeat was being re-written as an epic. She supposed it was in a way but, like everyone else, she'd have preferred a real victory.
"Among the last of the gallant 'little ships' to leave," the story read, "was the sloop 'Maid Elizabeth' and her eighteen year old skipper, John Reynolds of Lyme Regis. 'Maid Elizabeth' undertook several trips from the beaches to the waiting destroyers and then brought home her own precious cargo after the bigger ships left."
The article continued in a jingoistic vein before concluding with the news that John Reynolds would shortly be joining the Royal Navy, after recovering from 'his ordeal'. Beth handed the newspaper back to her father. "It is him, isn't it?" he said. "Yes, Daddy," Beth replied. " It's Jack, all right. In fact, it's Jack all over."
The small grey ship inched its way up the Mersey to the naval dock. Another Atlantic convoy over. More 'tools to finish the job', as Churchill had called them, delivered safely but almost as many now littered the ocean floor. Petty Officer (Acting) Jack Reynolds, twenty-one and now a veteran, was at the wheel, as usual. As the coxswain of HM Corvette Speedwell, it was his job to steer the ship in action and at any other time when his experience and skill was needed, such as entering and leaving harbour. Jack's assistant, Leading Seaman 'Tom' Piper gave a gap-toothed grin. " Leave, 'swain. Two bloody glorious weeks! What you going to do?" Jack grunted. He hadn't really thought much about it. " Go home, I s'pose, Tom. What about you?" Piper danced a little jig. "Nookie, nookie, nookie!! Then a pint or ten to wash away the salt. Then more nookie!"
Jack looked away. He felt uncomfortable. It wasn't that he was prude. You couldn't survive three years and more on the lower deck and be a choirboy. Somehow he'd never felt it right to go whoring with his messmates. He was twenty-one and he'd never even kissed a girl properly. Always in the background was Beth. They had written to each other regularly. Well, to be honest, she had written regularly and he had replied when he could. Whenever the Fleet Mail caught up with Speedwell, he could be sure of a dozen or so letters in her neat, round hand. Jack didn't know how he felt about her. They had been friends for so long. She must be what, nineteen now. He hadn't seen her since 1939, since that last brief summer of peacetime.
He'd wanted to see her, of course. Somehow he couldn't quite gather together his courage and telephone her. He worried about her. Living in London through the Blitz was dangerous. Thousands had died. He'd had messmates who had learnt that their family, be it mum and dad or wife and children, had been obliterated by the nightly bombing. London, Coventry, Bristol, Plymouth and many, many more; they had all suffered the devastation of modern warfare. And then there was her. She probably had a proper man by now. London was crawling with young men in uniform. She'd be an officer's lady, he thought and felt a wounding stab.
Lyme had changed. It was now the base for Motor Torpedo Boats and the harbour was off-limits to civilians. Reynolds' Boat Yard was building for the Navy. Motor Boats and Landing Craft. The previous month the allies had invaded Sicily; everyone knew that France would be next; perhaps not this year but soon. After a week at home, Jack was climbing the walls with boredom. After a couple of nights in the local pub he has stopped going out. The complaints about shortages angered him the most. He had seen the cost of keeping the country fed. The shattered ships and drowning men were engraved forever on his consciousness. As for his parents well of course they were pleased to see him but seemed remote, separated from him by experiences unshared. In desperation, he resolved to go to London.
He telephoned her from the station. "Beth? It's Jack Reynolds." He took her silence as disapproval; could imagine her mouthing to someone ' what does he want?' When she spoke it was like hearing music for the very first time. " "Jack. Oh God! Fantastic! Where are you?"
"Um, I'm in London. Just got off the train. I, er, I don't s'pose you're free this evening?"
"Of course I am for you, silly!"
He'd still never been to London. He'd passed through a few times, en route from one naval base to another but he'd never stopped. He realised he hadn't the least idea where to take her. 'Oh well,' he thought, 'it's her town, I 'spect she'll know somewhere.' He found her house in Palmers Green without too much difficulty but then spent twenty minutes or so walking up and down to gather his courage. She must have seen him from the window because suddenly she was there beside him. Her arm slipped through his and she kissed his cheek. "You could've come in, you old silly. We don't bite you know." Jack looked sheepish and smiled down at her. He was overwhelmed with how wonderful she looked. Yes, he could still see the remains of the skinny girl from the boatyard but as for the rest… The only word that came to mind was 'lovely'. Her long hair was twisted up into something Jack thought of as 'French-looking'. Her green eyes sparkled and her clear complexion seemed to positively glow.
For her part, she thought Jack looked older. There were signs of strain in his face and lines that did not belong on the face of a young man of twenty one. It suddenly made the war seem more personal, somehow. She leaned into him and squeezed his arm.
Beth's mother looked out at her daughter and the smiling young man. She turned to her husband and said, "She's made her mind up you know. He doesn't know it yet but I do!" Her husband snorted in reply and went on reading his paper.
"It's all very well, dear, but this war, it's changed things. Young people are in a hurry now. You can't really blame them. Look at the Owens's girl, married at eighteen and a widow four months later. You're going to have to speak to her, make sure she doesn't do anything rash."
Beth's father put the newspaper down with slow deliberation. "Since when has anything I've said made the slightest difference? She's her mother's daughter, that one. Pretty as a picture and stubborn as a mule – just like you!" He smiled fondly. "She's old enough now to know her own mind and young Jack's a steady sort. I can't see him rushing into anything. To be honest, I don't think I'd object if they did. This war won't last for ever and that Boatyard is a sound little business. It wouldn't surprise me if Reynolds didn't do very well out of this war and all those Government contracts."
"Spoken like a Bank Manager! I just don't want to see her hurt."
"And would it hurt less if they weren't married? Anyway, I thinking you're jumping the gun. It takes two to Tango, you know, and he's probably got a girl in every port. You know what sailors are!"
"Not that one. He's been mad about her for years, he just hasn't realised it yet"
But he had. As Beth dragged him towards the house, Jack knew, for the first time, that he was in love.
The rest of that week passed in a blur for Jack. He felt giddy, exalted. They went dancing at the Hammersmith Palais and found quiet pubs in which to sit and talk. Once they went to the pictures and Jack fell asleep while Beth wept silently at the heroine's demise. All too soon they found themselves on Euston station, clinging to each other until the very last minute the crowded train was due to leave.
Jack kissed her hair. "You're my girl, now, right?"
"Oh, you silly, I've always been your girl! Right from that first afternoon in the boatyard when you were trying to be so grown up and fierce. It's just taken you a little time to catch up, that's all!"
Jack hugged her tightly. She was right, of course. It had taken him time but then, he'd never dared to hope. He had no experience, not like Tom Piper. Jack only knew that now he had Beth there could never be anyone else.