Another long one, hopefully you will all enjoy it.
As always, thanks to Liz Haze for being my gracious sounding board and generous editor.
It's early evening and the gulls are mobbing restaurant patrons for scraps as I make my way down the pontoons, weekend bag and backpack both slung carelessly over my shoulder. The air is still warm enough for my tank-top and shorts, though I suspect it will be a cool night later.
I turn onto pontoon F for Foxtrot and saunter along to my private berth, number seventeen. Indigo strains gently against her moorings, seeming as eager as I am to get going. Like me, she'll have to wait till the morning; my Day-skipper's qualification permits me to sail in daylight hours only, and I'm not in any hurry to run afoul of the Solent Coastguard this weekend.
I dump my bags on the jetty by her stern and do a quick reconnaissance down her port and starboard sides. All her fenders are in position and the mooring lines are as I left them last weekend. No sign of any tampering, not that I'd expect any. Lymington Yacht Haven is pretty upmarket, and they look after their clients well. I smile and touch my fingertips lightly to Indigo's side.
She's mine, my one extravagance, and I love her.
I walk back round to her stern, then climb onto her diving platform. I quickly unclip the guardrail wires and raise the hatchway seat out of the way, then grab my bag and heave it into the cockpit. The covers on the wheel and cockpit instruments are in place, but are a bit dirty thanks to the dusty air we've had this week. I'll deal with it in the morning, for now I'm more interested in getting on board, dumping my kit, and grabbing a bite to eat.
I unlock and open the cabin hatch and quickly climb down into the saloon, where I dump my bag and backpack on the saloon bench. I turn on Indigo's water heater, VHF radio set, and saloon downlights at the master panel. I check her batteries; all are steady at well over thirteen volts so there are no issues there. A small red LED shows that she's connected to shore power as she should be.
I smile again. Everything's as it should be. I reach up, running my hands through my hair and tightening my hair-band to ensure it all stays securely fastened in a ponytail. I collect my phone and wallet from my backpack and grab a lightweight thermal fleece from my overnight bag, then clamber out through the hatch into the cockpit, locking the hatch behind me as I go. I climb down to the jetty and clip the guardrails back into their rings.
I like to leave them closed. It discourages visitors from nosing around Indigo. Not that most yachties would, but there's always someone who'll be curious enough to try. The guardrails are a social engineering marker, and old habits are hard to break.
The sun is still a couple of degrees over the horizon and fleecy cumulus clouds dot the blue Hampshire sky. I take a deep, slow breath, enjoying the space and sense of calm that being near the water always brings to me.
All that's missing now is her.
I was nineteen years old when my numbers came up. I'd bought the EuroMillions lottery ticket in a fit of whimsy, picking my birthday, her birthday and some random numbers to fill the quota. I'd doubted I'd win anything. My luck is generally abysmal.
Instead, I won a three-way split of the jackpot, walking away with something in the order of thirty seven million Pounds. My parents know, of course, and so does she. I asked them all what I should do, and they each advised me to spend something on myself and follow the advice of Dad's financial advisor over the stashing of the rest in various investment portfolios.
It's a very weird experience to be just out of my teens, knowing that I'll never have to worry about money. It makes things somewhat surreal, I guess.
Of course, I made sure my parents are going to be comfortable for the rest of their lives. I tried to do the same for Emma, but she won't let me.
Emma Charlotte Richards, to give her her full name, is my elder sister. Elder, that is, by a scant two years, and truth be told we're so close we could be twins. Non-identical, of course.
Emma owns a design studio in Guildford, where in my opinion she works entirely too hard for far too little return. I view it as my mission in life to make sure she spends time outdoors. Indigo is my secret weapon; Em loves the ocean even more than I do, if that's possible, so I'm usually able to twist her rubber arm to get her to come with.
And she's a good crew. While Indigo is set up so that I can manage her by myself, the addition of my intelligent, agile, and mentally tough sister makes everything easier.
The added bonus is that her presence always makes the loneliness go away.
I sit at a table in the corner, watching the other restaurant patrons as I sip a glass of Riesling. Most of them are yachties, down here to socialise with their friends ahead of the weekend's racing. Some are locals out of Lymington. They're all raucous and laughing, jovially vying with each other with stories of mooring prangs they've witnessed or feats of terrible seamanship they've been party to; never their own, of course. There are one or two crews of school boats and I take note of them, making sure to give them a respectful distance out on the water.
A young blonde waitress with cute pigtails and a lovely smile takes my order, and I catch myself watching her as she saunters off to the next table. I snort at myself. I may be a young-at-heart twenty-four, but this girl looks like she's barely out of school. Never mind that she's likely into boys.
I shake my head ruefully. I can't help who I am. Sometimes I wish I could; I might have the cheat-codes for life, but I've been perpetually unlucky in my abortive attempts at love. I tell myself that it's easier that way, that it frees me to follow my dreams.
When I wake up in an empty bed, though, that platitude seems like very cold comfort.
I twirl my glass, watching the pale gold wine sloshing gently from side to side. Condensation beads on the outside, and a small droplet slides down the stem of the glass till it meets my fingers and dissipates.
Outside, dusk has fallen, and the green and red navigation lights on the channel markers have been turned on.
Many people would kill for the life I lead. I graduated from University with a degree in Architecture, but thanks to that fickle bitch Fortune's whim I've never needed to use it to earn a living.
Instead, I was able to set up a small non-profit consultancy doing volunteer work for charities who need designs for low-cost buildings in African countries. It keeps me busy for about four days a week, leaving me Fridays and weekends to do with what I want.
And mostly what I want is to be here, in the Solent, on Indigo.
I bought Indigo directly from the Beneteau yacht factory in Saint Hilaire de Riez and spent two glorious weeks there ensuring that she was fitted out and customised as I wanted her. Electric in-mast-furling mainsail, roller-furling genoa adjustable from the cockpit, the latest in touch-screen GPS, Radar and and other gimmicks, folding propeller system and bow thrusters. She's an Oceanis 31, only a year old now, and she's my second home. While she has a shallow enough draft to go pretty much anywhere in the Solent without issue, she's still big and stable enough to handle any wind and sea that I'd be comfortable going out in.
I try to live like a normal person. I still drive the same second-hand Peugeot 207 I bought four years ago, I socialise with my University friends, and if anyone ever asks me, I tell them I inherited some money and bought a boat. So far, I've been able to fly under the radar. But it's a constant strain to not let it slip, so sometimes its easier to just be by myself.
Thankfully, Em understands.
I'm jerked out of my reverie as my phone vibrates on the table top. I grab it with my left hand, and am surprised to see it's Em phoning. Quickly, I answer.
"Hullo darling!" I bubble.
Silence and background noise.
"Em?" I ask, puzzled. "Em, are you there?"
"I'm here," she answers, softly. I can tell something's wrong.
"What's going on?" I ask.
She's quiet again.
"Em, you're worrying me. What's wrong? I can tell that something's wrong. I can smell it."
"It's been a... rough day, Bella."
"Where are you?" I ask, concerned.
"In the car, on the way home. You?"
"Lymington," I answer.
"Yeah. Just Indigo and I."
"Can I... can I come visit, Bella?"
"Jesus, Em, do you even need to ask? Of course. I'll sort out the aft cabin for you."
"Thanks Bella. I'll... I'll see you soon."
She hangs up. I frown, deeply unsettled. Emma sounds stressed and sad. Stressed is normal for her, but sad isn't; she doesn't let things affect her unless they're really serious.
I pick up my phone and dial Mum, hoping to be able to get some inside intel, but I get no answer. My fish and chips (another guilty indulgence) arrives, but I eat it mechanically, deriving no real pleasure from it. I'm too worried about my sister's emotional state and the long drive she now faces to pay attention to much of anything.
I grab spare sheets and pillows out of the storage locker; they're a bit musty so I leave them on the saloon table to air for a while. I make sure that I still have a bottle of wine on board; it's a random Tuscan red, but it will do in a pinch.
I climb up onto the deck and busy myself checking Indigo over properly. The various sheets and lines are secure, and my genoa is still tightly furled with no visible damage. I check the winches, and make sure all the lines are free to travel.
Impulsively, I check the time. Less than an hour has passed since Emma phoned me. I pause, consider, and send her a quick text, telling her to drive safely and to be careful. Then I give the deck one more once-over and head back down below.
I don't have a passage plan or anything worked out for the weekend, and it's something useful to do to keep my navigation skills sharp, so I break out my set of nautical charts and get to work. Tides for the weekend would favour heading east up the Solent in the direction of Portsmouth during the morning and late afternoon, midmorning would favour heading Southwest towards the Needles and Hurst Castle. I like to get an early start so perhaps it would make sense to plan to overnight in Cowes or Gosport marinas. I'll make a final decision tomorrow when we're underway, but this is good enough for now.
I turn on the VHF radio set again and leave it set to channel sixteen, waiting for the inshore weather forecast which should be in an hour or so's time. Then I just sit, listening to the sounds of the boats moving around me, fretting about Emma.
Emma was the first person I came out to. I'd agonized for weeks over how to tell her before she finally cornered me one evening when we were home alone and flat out asked me if I was gay. She'd laughed and high-fived me when I'd confessed. I'd been so stressed that she'd despise me, but instead she'd wrapped her arms around me, hugged me till I squeaked, and told me that she didn't care what or who I loved so long as I was happy.
"Make sure she's a hottie though," she'd teased me.
Emma, my awesome big sister. I've lost count of the times she's been the one I've run to for advice or comfort, or even just for some appreciation. Mum and Dad are lovely, but they're wrapped up in their jobs and lives. Don't get me wrong, they love us both, but neither of them have ever really understood me.
Emma's the bridge between us; she ties the family together and keeps the rest of us from killing one another.
I suppose you could accuse me of hero worship, though I don't think it's a fair accusation. Emma has her faults, like her sharp tongue and firecracker temper, but she's careful to moderate herself and would rather say nothing than say something harmful.
Emma's also quiet about what's going on inside her mind. She talks to me, sometimes, but not as much as I'd like and certainly not as much as I think she should. She's a private person, mostly, except when she forgets herself.
That's when I see flashes of her freed from her walls, and that's the Emma that I love most of all: a ready smile, twinkling blue eyes, and a warm, rich laugh that she lets out all too seldom.
Sometimes I wish I could just hug her and make the barricades go away.
My phone rings and I answer it hurriedly. It's Em.
"Where are you?" I ask her.
"About twenty miles from Lymington."
"Are you ok?"
"Can't talk now, Bella. Will tell you when I get there."
"Drive safe. I've got wine ready."
"I hope there's more than one bottle of it."
She hangs up. I purse my lips, then grab a jacket and my wallet and, locking Indigo behind me, take a brisk stroll to the Tesco in Lymington town. I quickly lay in some supplies: crackers, some dubious cheddar, tomatoes, fresh milk and eggs, and some apples that look passable. Knowing Emma, she probably hasn't eaten since lunchtime. I add margarine and some Marmite to the basket, and then grab two more bottles of red wine for us.
Emma arrives as I make it back to the car park. I wave at her, and wait for her to park her Volkswagen in one of the visitor's bays. She climbs out and turns to me and for the first time I can see how thoroughly upset she is.
I put the groceries down and walk towards her, arms open. Emma's shoulders slump, and she leans into me as I wrap my arms around her. I squeeze her hard against me. She holds me for a long, long time but says nothing, and I for one am loathe to interrupt her obvious need for comfort.
"You got a weekend bag, Em?" I ask her gently, eventually.
She nods, still clinging to me like a limpet. "In the boot. Random stuff that was lying around. Hope it will be enough."
"You can borrow my warm clothes if you're short," I say, as I release her and walk around to the rear of her car. I open the boot and retrieve her black tog-bag, then let the boot lid slam closed. Emma heaves a sigh and picks up the groceries.
I sling her bag over my shoulder, then take her free right hand with my left. "Come on," I say. "The wine's waiting and you look like you need a glass."
"Thanks for being my port in a storm, Bella."
"Em, you're my sister. No thanks are necessary. Come. Lets go get on board, it's going to get chilly soon."
I turn on the catalytic diesel heater while Emma rummages around in her cabin. As I open the wine she emerges, fetchingly attired in a baggy pair of tracksuit pants and a thermal fleece. Wordlessly, she takes the wine I offer, and sits down at the saloon table near the heater vent.
Emma dangles her feet in front of the vent, and slumps against the backrest of the saloon benches. I take position opposite her and watch as she proceeds to drain the glass of wine without pause for breath.
"Ok, now I'm really worried," I say as she sets the glass down.
She laughs bitterly.
"Em. Tell me what's wrong?" I beg.
"He's been cheating on me."
"Alan. He's been cheating on me. With some intern from his work. I don't know for how long."
"Jesus Christ. How'd you find this out?"
"He sent me a text he obviously meant to send to her."
I lean back, exhaling. "Did you confront him?"
"Yeah. It was... loud. Vocal. I think he's aware that I am less than impressed."
I shake my head in disgust. Em's been dating Alan for over two years; I was beginning to think that they were going to last.
"Jesus, Emma... I... I don't know what to say."
Emma rests her head tiredly on her left hand and closes her eyes. "I needed to get away from Guildford, Bella. You were the only person I could be with tonight."
"Em, seriously. Don't you dare start apologising to me. You know you're always welcome, wherever and whenever."
I top up her glass, and she takes a listless sip, then shakes her head again.
"What are you going to do?"
"Right now? I plan to get drunk. In an hour or so, I'll probably have a good cry. Then I plan to delete the fucker's number from my phone and try to enjoy a weekend with you. Then... I guess I'll be changing the locks on my flat."
I sigh. "Are you hungry, Em? I've bought some basics, we need to do a proper shop tomorrow though."
"Not hungry, no."
"You should eat something, Em."
"I know, Bella. I know I should."
I make an executive decision and quickly prepare some cheese and tomato crackers. Em watches me, sipping her wine quietly. I set a plate down in front of her.
She listlessly selects a cracker and chews it slowly. I take one as well, then slip in beside her at the table, close enough that we're almost touching. Gently I reach out; gently I stroke her back.
As I do so, Emma's walls crumble.
Emma's always cried silently. She'll sit motionless, barely breathing, as whatever's upset her tears away at her insides with its horrid barbed claws. These spells never last long, but I hate them because I know there's nothing I can do to help her. She has to work her way through them by herself, and all I can do is hold her, touch her, and show her that I'm there for her when she can let me be.
This time is no different. So I sit, lightly rubbing her shoulders, squeezing her gently against me, while she shivers quietly through the hurt and rage, sprinkling the tabletop in front of her with a bumper crop of hot, salty tears. I lean my head against her shoulder, and close my eyes.
I hate it when she's hurting. It's my worst thing in the world.
"You need a hug?" I ask her after a while.
She nods, not saying anything, and I wrap my arms around her, pulling her hard against me. It's an awkward position with us both sitting where we are, but I don't care; I'm consumed by the need to comfort her.
"What a shitty day," she whispers. I squeeze her harder.
"I can't believe he was such a complete turd," I mutter.
"Should have seen it coming, I suppose."
"What? Emma, are you out of your cotton-picking mind? How could you have seen this coming?"
"It's happened before is all."
"Emma, seriously, I know where you're going with this and you need to stop now."
"Why do they cheat on me, Isabel?" she asks plaintively.
"I can't answer that, Em, but it's not because of you, ok?"
Emma raises her hands and scrubs angrily at her eyes. "How can you be so sure? I'm the common factor here."
"You're the awesome factor here," I say, irritated. "Don't let a bunch of retarded men fuck with your mojo. You're awesome. They're losers. Fuck them."
She sighs, then reaches up to squeeze my hand gently. She wriggles free of me, takes a deep breath, and sits up a bit straighter.
"So tell me about your day," she says, with a sigh.
I snort, but decide to play along for now.
"It was fantastic, thanks. I woke up, went to gym, went to the office, read my email, went for coffee, sat in a park, and decided to knock off early to come here."
She leans her head against my shoulder. "You have a nice life, Bella."
"I can't say I deserve it, but I am enjoying it, yes," I say quietly. I sip my wine, relieved to see that she's calmed down a bit now.
She eats another cheese and tomato cracker, and takes another sip of wine. "I'm glad money hasn't spoiled you," she says.
"I have you as a role model, Em. I couldn't go off the rails with you to look up to."
"You're sweet, but I'm a terrible role model."
"Nope, you're a brilliant one. You work hard, you tell the truth, you refuse to take advantage of anyone, and the people you love know that you love them. I'd say that's a pretty good way to be," I answer. "If more people in the world were like you, we'd be in a far happier space. And I'd be out of a job."