A Handful of Stories

This is a selection taken from the stories I wrote between 2003 and 2011. Nearly all of them have been previously published, many in publications no longer extant. Where they are still available in existing books or magazines, sufficient time has elapsed to permit their re-publication without fear of ethical impropriety or breach of contractual terms. Check the Blog Archive at the bottom of the page for individual titles.

Please be aware that each story was written by the person I was at the time. In a sense, therefore, each one was written by somebody different. None of them was written by the person I am now.

Anybody wanting to view my novel Odyssey can do so here. I’ve set the price very low because I’m more interested in the story being read than in making money out of it. It’s about a goddess and her rabbit companion taking a mortal man on a journey to teach him a few lessons about the nature of reality and higher consciousness, and it's probably more entertaining than I make it sound. I never was any good at selling myself. The Gift Horse, a story of reincarnation and karmic balancing, is also now available at the same place.

September 23, 2014

Simon Says

This story would have been difficult to place with a publisher; it’s too long, too ‘decompressed’ to suit the modern taste for snappy fiction. One publisher was interested, but asked me to cut it down. I declined. It is what it wanted to be.

The section dealing with the Dartmouth Training Squadron is mostly drawn from life, the difference being that Simon followed me safely up the rope. He didn’t disappear. For many years afterwards I had an abiding image of finding the old ship in a breakers yard and telling part of its story. Eventually, I did.

Approximate reading time: 30-40 minutes.

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It was mid afternoon towards the end of what had been a splendid July, but the condition of light and atmosphere was intriguingly unseasonal. The heavy mist seemed more in keeping with a damp day in November; it felt unnatural and even unhealthy on a hot, still afternoon in high summer. I was driving along a disarmingly straight road in the fen country somewhere in the vicinity of The Wash, and the straightness of the road allowed the facility to contemplate the scenery with relative ease.

The fenlands of Cambridgeshire are notable for their almost total absence of anything pleasing to the eye. Lonely roads run in straight lines for miles alongside bland, functional drainage ditches, only to be punctuated every so often by tight, ninety degree turns over small bridges. Drab farmhouses look out in grim isolation over endless miles of flat, featureless monotony. I once heard someone suggest that such monotony is interesting in itself. I could see the logic in the opinion, but I had never subscribed to it. To me the landscape was tedious, pure and simple.

Today, however, I was being spared the pallid panorama of dull greens and even duller browns. The view had a surreal quality about it, caused by the mist that washed the distant view into a succession of half tones, and by the luminous quality of the light that came with it. It had none of the greyness associated with those damp days of late autumn. The summer sun - invisible but still high, no doubt, somewhere beyond the thick atmosphere - lit up the mist and the featureless landscape with a rose pink glow. For once I was enjoying the view, and I was quite unconcerned that I had no idea exactly where I was.

I was a salesman working in agricultural seeds, and the intensely farmed arable counties of Eastern England formed the major part of my territory. A week earlier I had received a telephone call from my office asking me to visit a new client near The Wash. The premises were isolated I had been told, and I had been given a detailed set of directions to follow the next time I was in the area.

They began by taking the road north from Wisbech, and then took a complex route that required close concentration as I got nearer to the coast. It was the day for visiting my Wisbech customers and I had set off to find the new client at about three in the afternoon.

I had followed the directions carefully, and found myself an hour later driving the final long, straight stretch of road that promised to bring me to my destination about two miles further on. The landscape was different here and had a rare feature of its own to boast of. The road ran alongside a wide watercourse that was obviously more than a mere drainage ditch. It was the width of a dozen dykes, fringed with tall reeds on the far side and clearly very deep judging by the size of the boats that were tethered to buoys here and there. I assumed it to be a major channel running off the navigable stretch of some large river close to the coast.

There was a feeling of dereliction and decay about the scene. The tethered craft wallowed sadly in the still water, rusting slowly away and having about them an air of lifelessness. Some were listing heavily, looking forlorn and forgotten in the heavy, pink-tinged mist that suffused this nautical graveyard; and the fact that I hadn’t seen another vehicle for the last fifteen or twenty minutes lent the experience an added air of mystery.

I became engrossed in the other-worldly quality of the view before me and briefly forgot the practical reason for being there. It was brought back to me minutes later when I saw that I was approaching a group of buildings that stood at the water’s edge. I assumed I had arrived at my destination and prepared to pull the car off the road at a point where I saw a pair of metal gates. I was disappointed to see that they were shut. I stopped the car anyway and got out.

The premises looked as derelict as the rotting hulks standing out in the channel. The paint on the motley collection of corrugated iron sheds had flaked away so badly that it was all but gone in many places. Odd bits of rusting implements lay around the weed-strewn yard, and an old crane that I could see through a gap in the buildings was denuded of tackle. I had no doubt that it was an old boat breaker’s yard and clearly not the object of my journey. But I had followed the directions meticulously and this was where my new client should be located. I wondered whether someone might be running a business from one of the old buildings and felt that it was worth taking a few minutes to find out. There were plenty of gaps in the broken down fencing, and so I walked through one of them to investigate.

I crossed the open ground and looked in the nearest shed. It was empty. So was the next one, and my footsteps echoed around the bare metal walls as I walked through it to exit by the far door that led onto the water frontage. The sight that greeted me as I clambered through the wicket door brought me to an abrupt halt.

A short way across a patch of open ground, an old wooden jetty ran alongside the channel and there was a vessel tied up to it. This was much bigger than anything I had seen on my approach and its lines were familiar. Despite the fact that certain features had been stripped away, I recognised it at once as an old Whitby Class, Type 12 Royal Navy frigate. I was well qualified to be certain of my identification: I had crossed the Atlantic in such a ship thirty years earlier.

She lay at her mooring like the rest of her abandoned neighbours - still, silent and apparently long-forgotten. The purpose of my visit was forgotten, too, as I stood and surveyed the pitiful remains of the old warship. She made a sorry sight. A few small patches of light grey paint remained dotted here and there on what was left of the superstructure, but the rest was coloured the depressing red-brown of heavy rust.

Most of the upper deck fittings had been removed. The turret was still in place, but the twin 4.5 inch guns had gone. So had the Bofors gun that had once stood proudly on the poop deck. The guard rails had been stripped from the stanchions, the radar dishes had all been taken, and the glass had gone from the bridge windows. I was surprised to see that the gangway was still in place. It seemed that no one had bothered to remove it once the final fittings had been taken, and I felt an irresistible urge to go aboard.

I walked across the cracked tarmac, avoiding the bigger gashes where hardy weeds were re-establishing the rule of nature. If the rest of that strange afternoon’s remarkable discoveries had evoked in me feelings of surprise and nostalgia, what I was about to see would come close to being breathtaking.

As I approached the edge of the jetty I could see the hull below the overhanging profile of the upper deck. The paintwork had fared better there, presumably being more protected from the elements, and the pennant number was still just about decipherable. The sight of it sent a thrill of excitement down my spine. There was not the slightest doubt that it read F63.

“My God,” I said out loud. “HMS Eastbourne!”

The revelation was hard to take in. HMS Eastbourne was a memorable part of my history. It was the very ship that I had served in all those years ago, and vibrant memories of those eventful days came crowding into my mind. Individual events followed quickly upon each other as I remembered the three life-changing months that I had spent on board that ship. It had been a period of intense learning about human nature, the ways of the sea, and my own strengths and weaknesses.

But one event would always be at the forefront, since it had cast a dark shadow over the rest and involved a mystery that had never been solved. A week into the voyage my best friend, Simon Hobart, had been lost overboard and his body never recovered. The memory of it swam into my mind as I looked nostalgically up the gangway of the rusty old frigate.

Three decades earlier, Simon and I had been part of a small intake of officer cadets at the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. We shared a six-berth cabin with four other cadets and, although the six of us did most things together as a group, a particular bond had developed quickly between Simon and me.

Exactly why is hard to say. I suppose it was partly a question of compatible personalities, but I suspect it was also due to the fact that I accepted in Simon something the others didn’t. Unlike most young men of our generation who had spent their teenage years revelling in the irreligious and hedonistic climate of liberation and benign anarchy, Simon had belonged to some very devout Christian group – the something-or-other Brethren is all I remember of its name – and the conditioning he had received from infancy showed impeccably in his attitudes and behaviour. He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t swear, and didn’t engage in loose, gratuitous relationships with girls. Neither did he tell lies or speak ill of others. By the standards of the time those qualities made him odd, and the other cadets, friendly though they were in general terms, thought of him as something of a fanatic.

I didn’t see him that way. I found his attitude refreshing and worthy of respect. I particularly liked his honesty and directness of speech, and was prepared to see him as a salutary antidote to my own attitudes and personality that were very much in keeping with the times. I think I might even have envied the one thing that he had and we lacked: a disarmingly clear conscience.

The first three months at Dartmouth were difficult for everybody. The regime was harsh, with early starts, late finishes, tough rules and constant psychological pressure. Friendships tend to grow strong in the face of shared adversity, and Simon and I were no exception. By April the bond was well established, and we went our separate ways on a three week leave the firmest of friends.

The next stage of our intensive, twelve month cadetship involved joining the Dartmouth Training Squadron. Three ageing Type 12 frigates had been seconded to the purpose. HMS Eastbourne was the flagship, with Brighton and Blackpool making up the rest. Our division was posted to Eastbourne and we found ourselves settling uneasily into a crowded mess deck one afternoon in late April.

The first couple of weeks were spent in various forms of preparation. The ships conducted their sea trials and the cadets needed to be acclimatised to a way of life that was far removed even from that of Dartmouth College, let alone civvy street. Getting our “sea legs” took a few days of uncertain tottering until we learned to ride the movements of the ship instinctively. Learning to live, eat and sleep in a space more suited to a quarter of our number took a little longer.

By the middle of May we were ready for the work of seasoned sailors. We sailed out of Plymouth Sound in fading light one cold, damp Thursday evening, and headed for the wide Atlantic. The weather forecast was bad: gales first, then storms for the whole week of our crossing. Our newly acquired sea legs were about to be severely tested, and so were our stomachs.

We awoke on the Friday morning to our first experience of a small ship pitching and rolling in a heavy sea. Simon told me that an uncle of his had served in destroyers during the war and had given him a tip for avoiding sea sickness.

“Fill your stomach,” he’d said, “preferably with porridge. It’s good and heavy and not greasy.”

Simon and I took his advice and had two bowls each. Most of the others avoided breakfast. Many of them were already starting to feel queasy, and there was a general reluctance to eat lest it should encourage the dreaded onset of symptoms. The force of the wind that morning was showing as eight on the Beaufort scale: gale force. By the end of the day it had risen to nine: severe gale. By Sunday it stood at eleven: severe storm force. Neither Simon nor I felt the slightest need to join our colleagues in the now common practice of vomiting into buckets. It seemed that his uncle’s advice had been worth taking.

By then we were well into the training schedule. Our duty time was divided between learning the skills necessary to our prospective status as officers, and performing the menial tasks that would normally have been done by the seamen whose places we had taken in the ship’s compliment. Between duties, we were both discovering a fascination with the sea.

Standing on the deck of a frigate in a force eleven storm is a singular experience. By then we were in the middle of the Atlantic, where the ocean is at its deepest and landfall furthest away.  Knowing that the nearest dry land is over a thousand miles distant is interesting enough, but watching the state of the sea in those conditions can hardly be adequately described. To say that the massive swell gives it the appearance of an ever-shifting mountain range does it scant justice. One minute the ship is in a trough, and the dark, foam flecked walls of water tower intimidatingly above the deck like gigantic rock faces. Then the omnipotent ocean lifts the puny vessel up onto a crest and the view suddenly becomes panoramic in all directions.

The sense of isolation is magnificent. Above, there is the enormity of endless sky; below, and all around, the unfathomable depth of brown, heaving water. The sense of nature’s immense power is awe-inspiring to the point of being hypnotic. Simon and I agreed readily on the fact. Where we differed was in our view of what lay behind it.

I was inclined towards the Gaia hypothesis: the notion that nature is more than an abstract concept, but rather has a life of its own in which every aspect of material is an interconnected part. Maybe it is even sentient and capable of using its will to say who shall survive and who shall not. And maybe there are other sentient powers, existing on different levels of reality and entrusted with the daily stewardship of the many aspects of nature’s realm - the gods of the ancient world, perhaps. I suggested to Simon that Poseidon might be alive and well and watching us at that very moment. It was the only time I ever saw him angry.

“There is only one God,” he declared, “and these are his works. One God, one heaven. One devil, one hell. God has his angels and the devil his demons. Apart from that, there is only one dimension and this is it.”

I was inclined to disagree, but my views on the matter were less entrenched than Simon’s and I knew how strongly he held to his beliefs. I had clearly touched a raw nerve and wasn’t about to fall out with my best friend, so I dropped the matter.

By the following Wednesday the storm had blown itself out and the sea had returned to a state of relative calm. We watched the schools of dolphins that came to ride the bow wave and marvelled at the bigger whales sounding in the distance. Hordes of hungry gulls pounced on the gash that was thrown over the stern to float away on the creamy wake. On Thursday morning we sailed past a number of icebergs drifting south from the Arctic, and it was then that we stopped to paint the ship in preparation for our entry into St John’s, Newfoundland.

Painting the superstructure of a ship is simple enough, but painting the hull was, in those days, a difficult and potentially hazardous operation. The paint stage consisted of a plank of wood big enough for two men to sit on. A cross member was attached at each end and a long rope was tied to each of them. The two ropes were taken around guard rail stanchions and then secured with simple turns around the cross members. Lowering the stage had to be done in situ, and it was a precarious business. One mistake could result in the two men being deposited in the icy sea below. When the job was finished, the only way to get back on deck was to climb up the ropes, and that isn’t easy with fingers that are wet from the blowing spray and rendered numb by a cold, cutting wind.

That was the job that Simon and I were detailed to do on that fateful Thursday morning. The week of heavy weather had taken its toll on the ship’s paintwork and the Royal Navy insisted on presenting a pristine face when putting into port. We were scheduled to do that the next day, and all the cadets had been mustered to paint duty.

The lucky ones had the simple job of painting the superstructure. The rest of us were consigned to dangle over the side in pairs, armed with pots of light grey paint and six inch paint brushes. The petty officer in charge of the operation had taken some delight in warning us of the inherent danger. Survival beyond two or three minutes was unlikely in water at that temperature he had told us, so it was in our best interests to avoid falling in.

Simon and I treated the challenge with scornful bravado. We decided to make a race of it and painted quickly, finishing our section ahead of the others either side of us.  It was time to climb back aboard and we agreed that I should go first.

I stood up carefully, gripping the ropes on my side, while Simon held fast to his in case the paint stage tipped. I grasped the ropes as high as I could and lifted my knees and feet into position. The climb was difficult but I kept going steadily until I reached the top where a welcome hand came over the gunwale to help me aboard. Once I was safely on deck, I turned around to do the same for Simon. I looked over the side, expecting him to be half way up the rope. There was no sign of him.

For a moment I felt confused. I looked hard at the ropes and the wooden stage. Simon definitely wasn’t there. I wondered whether he might have climbed simultaneously with me, but there was no way he could have done so without my seeing him. The only remaining possibility dawned on me quickly and I scoured the sea beneath the paint stage. There was nothing there either. I ran to the petty officer to report that Simon must have fallen from the stage, and that he had disappeared.

The duty boat crew was mustered and the boats lowered within minutes. They searched for more than an hour, but found nothing and were called back. It seemed a harsh and unfeeling decision at the time, but we all knew that there was no point in continuing. The sea swallows its victims quickly, and only returns them again some time later and a long way distant. I was interviewed at length by the captain, as were the others who had been painting the ship on that side. No one had seen Simon fall and no one had heard a cry or a splash. The mystery remained, but the fact was incontrovertibly established: Simon was gone.

The necessary formalities were attended to and the voyage continued, but Simon’s fate hung over me for the rest of the trip. I thought about him every day, and sometimes I found it difficult to muster the enthusiasm and commitment necessary to perform my duties and learn my lessons. Several times over the days that followed I thought I heard him call my name, just as I was going to sleep in the low-lit mess deck, or on being rudely woken up for some early morning duty. I put it down to imagination, just as I did one night when I was working the middle watch.

It was about two o’clock in the morning and a week after Simon’s disappearance. My duty that night was the one generally referred to, appropriately in the circumstances, as “the ghost watch.” It consisted of patrolling the quarterdeck in the stern of the ship, keeping a lookout for anything that might be worth reporting to the Officer of the Watch. Nothing ever happened and the duty was a tedious one. But it was peaceful at least, and allowed the opportunity to muse on the events of the day and the meaning of life.

My musings were mostly about Simon’s loss, and I was beginning to feel that I was also losing my interest in being a naval officer. We were sailing up the St Lawrence Seaway, bound for Quebec. It was a balmy night in early June and the river was as calm as a park boating lake. There was no wind to speak of, and the only sound was the gentle throbbing of the steam turbines deep in the bowels of the ship. I had been on duty for two hours and had two more to go before I could return to the welcome comfort of my hammock.

I was feeling drowsy, but the sound of the voice startled me. It was louder than usual and echoed slightly. It called my name clearly, and I would have sworn on oath that it was Simon’s. I looked over the port side at the inky darkness below. I walked quickly around the mortar well to the starboard side and did the same there. I looked up at the poop deck, and then turned to look at the ship’s wake trailing astern. I saw nothing, and there was no repetition of the eerie call.

Being alone on the dark quarterdeck, I found the sound of my dead friend’s voice unnerving. I stood for a while, listening intensely and half expecting to see his glowing form climb onto the deck and walk towards me. No spectre appeared and my nervousness subsided again. I put the experience down to the effect of sudden and shocking bereavement, and sat out the rest of my watch in sombre mood.

We spent another six or seven weeks conducting a variety of exercises and making courtesy calls around the eastern seaboard of North America. We took part in a major international review off Halifax, spent four days in New York and visited lots of smaller towns where we were regaled with civic functions in our honour. And, of course, the intensive seamanship training continued relentlessly.

I found the experience interesting, even exciting at times, but not compelling. A sense of apathy began to creep into my attitude, and it didn’t bode well for my future prospects. By the time we returned to Portsmouth in mid July I had already decided that I had made a wrong choice of career and applied to resign. I went home for the long summer leave and received a letter from the Admiralty a few weeks later. My application had been accepted and I was a civilian again.

Over the next few years I thought often of Simon. I intended to visit his parents at some time, but never got around to it. The memory of him and his tragic loss inevitably faded into the background as I got on with my life.

Thirty years on and here I was, standing on the rickety old jetty and looking up at the scene of it all. I was touched by the poignant contrast between the vessel that I had just been recalling so vividly, and the one that now stood before me.

I had lived again the world of HMS Eastbourne in her prime, ploughing through the deep ocean swell with the white ensign fluttering proudly from her stern. I had seen her decked out in her livery of light grey paintwork, bright green deck, black trimmings and polished brightwork. And now she languished in this abandoned breaker’s yard, rusting away in some forgotten creek that was too insignificant to be a fitting place of rest.

I had to go aboard one last time, and not just to the upper deck. I wanted to go below and see the old mess deck that I had called home for three months. I wanted to visit the galley, the ops room and the bridge. I realised that it would be pitch dark down there and that I would need a torch. I went back to my car to fetch the one that I kept in the glove compartment and returned with a tingle of expectation in my stomach. I noticed that the light had fallen in the short time that I had been there. The mist had thickened and the glow had turned from rose pink to a surreal shade of cerise.

I put my foot tentatively on the gangway and pressed the rusting metal in various places. It seemed solid enough and I walked up it. When I reached the top, the old instinct to salute the quarterdeck returned, but I knew that the point in doing so was to salute the flag that had flown there when the ship was in commission. There were no flags on Eastbourne now.

I turned right to walk towards the stern, and crossed the poop deck where the remains of the Bofors gun mounting were rusting badly along with everything else. I climbed carefully down the port side ladder that led to the quarterdeck. The memory of Simon’s voice that night on the St Lawrence returned strongly, and I looked around as I had done then. It was sad to see the guard rails and the flagstaff gone, and the mortar well was just a hole in the deck.

I walked to the open hatchway that led below decks and peered into the darkness. I could see nothing beyond the first few feet of the ladder, and switched on the torch to make the descent. It soon became the only form of illumination as I made my way past the heads and approached the top of the ladder that led down to my old mess deck. I made that descent as carefully as the others and was relieved to see that the bulkhead door was open. I went through it and shone the torch around.

I felt a lump come into my throat. Although I had never taken to the navy, the sheer richness and intensity of the experience had made my brief liaison with the Senior Service seem a much bigger part of my life than it had actually been, and I held it in great affection. I felt intensely sad to see my old living area in this state. What had once seemed an impossibly confined space bursting with overcrowded activity was now a large, empty shell. Everything had been removed: the lockers that had filled the centre portion, the bolted-down tables that had occupied the port side, and the bunk beds that had been fixed to the starboard bulkhead. The steel cross members on which the hammocks had been slung were still there, but that was all. I stayed for a few minutes and then pulled myself away. There was more to see yet and it would soon be time to go home.

I climbed back up the ladder and made my way forward along the main passageway. The hatch was closed on the galley servery, so I continued to the ops room. That was as indecently denuded as the messdeck. Radar plotting screens, chart tables and the mass of snaking cable were all gone.

I moved forward again to the wheelhouse in which I had always enjoyed working. It was the same in there. No wheel, no communication mic, no bearing display, no revs counter; everything that had given it life and purpose had been stripped away.

I climbed the ladder that led up to the bridge. That was empty too, and had suffered more corrosion than the other areas due to the elements having gained access through the glassless windows. I walked out onto the port bridge wing and looked forward at the dark water of the channel disappearing into the mist. I remembered standing on the same spot all those years ago, being continuously drenched by the ice cold spray thrown up when the bow dipped into a heavy swell. I was struck again by the sadness of the inglorious end to which the proud old warrior had been brought. I felt that I had seen enough and turned to make my way back.

As I looked astern towards the gangway I was shocked to see that I was not the only person who had crossed it to visit the remains of HMS Eastbourne. Standing close to the top of it was a small boy, looking up at me. He made a strange and ghostly sight, standing still and alone in the red-tinged mist. I descended the ladder and walked towards him. He seemed to be about eight or nine and was standing with his arms held rigidly at his side. He looked unwaveringly at me as I approached.

“Hello,” I said. “Who are you?”

He made no reply.

“What’s your name?” I continued.

Still he said nothing.

“OK, let’s try this one: where do you live?”

I assumed him to be a local child who probably used the breaker’s yard as a playground. I felt a duty to warn him of the dangers inherent in playing on old ships. But still he remained silent, just stood there stiffly and stared at me. Suddenly, he roused himself to speak. His words, delivered as though he were reading from a script, left me speechless.

“Simon says he’s not dead.”

His brief statement had been made clearly enough, but those five simple words left me feeling stunned. Why had he said that? Was it just a remarkable coincidence that he had used the name of a long-deceased friend whose memory had been filling my thoughts for the past half an hour? And what was he doing there anyway? I was at a loss to know how to reply and began to doubt that I had heard him correctly. There was a note of incredulity in my tone as I asked him the obvious question.

“What did you say?”

He rolled his eyes and repeated the statement.

“Simon says he’s not dead.”

There was another pause while I took it in.

“Simon who?”

“Don’t know,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders. “Just Simon.”

“Just Simon,” I repeated blankly. “OK, when did he say that?”

The boy shrugged again.

“Was it today, yesterday, last week?”

He nodded. Perceptions of time are vague to children of that age and I realised that it was a pointless line of questioning. I tried another one.

“OK then, where do you see Simon?”

“Everywhere,” he replied confidently.

“What do you mean ‘everywhere’? Everywhere on the ship?”

He nodded again.

“Sometimes he’s over there.” He pointed back towards the quarterdeck. “Sometimes he’s up there.” He pointed up towards the bridge. “Sometimes he’s down there.” He pointed over the side towards the water line.

I felt my skin begin to creep. A real person who just happened to be called Simon might be seen on the quarterdeck or the bridge, but hardly in the space between the hull and the jetty.

“Is he here now?” I asked.

“’Course not,” he replied, regarding me again with that disarming directness that children have when they think you’re stupid. I felt relieved. It was time for another change of tack.

“What does Simon look like?”

“He’s big,” said the boy. “With a big nose.”

“What colour hair does he have?”

“The same as me.”

He was blond.

“Is it straight like yours?”

The boy thought again, then shook his head.

“Is it wavy?”

He nodded. So far the description matched.

“How old is he? Is he as old as me?”

“No,” said the boy disdainfully. “You’re old.”

“Is he as old as your dad?”

The boy shook his head again and concentrated. Eventually he said with considered certainty

“He’s as old as my big brother.”

“And how old’s your big brother?”

“Eighteen.”

Simon was nineteen when I knew him.

The description fitted my old friend in every respect, but I was still finding it hard to take the matter seriously.

“But you only see him on the ship; you don’t see him anywhere else?”

He nodded again. I realised that I had committed the common error of asking two conflicting questions in the same sentence. I clarified it.

“Just on the ship?”

Another nod.

“What about when you see him down there?” I asked, pointing over the side. “Is he in the water?”

The boy shook his head.

“He sits on a piece of wood.”

The apparent reference to a paint stage was unmistakable, and I was beginning to believe that Simon’s disembodied spirit was still haunting the ship. I asked the boy if he was ever frightened when he saw Simon.

“’Course not,” he answered. “Simon’s nice. He’s not a ghost or anything”.

“How do you know he’s not a ghost?”

“I’ve told you, Simon says he’s not dead.”

So he had. What on earth was I to make of it all?

“Did Simon say anything else?” I asked.

He nodded again and frowned, clearly trying to remember the words correctly.

“He said ‘Tell the man who comes to look at the ship that he was right.’”

“Right about what?”

“Don’t know.”

Of course he didn’t. I realised that it was a stupid question.

“I’ve got to go now,” he said suddenly, and turned to walk away.

“Hang on a minute,” I said. “When you talk to Simon, does he ever say anything about God?”

The boy shook his head and ran down the gangway. I watched as he crossed the open ground and disappeared into the nearest shed.

I knew there would be no point in following him. For the time being I could think of no more questions worth asking. It was certain that the boy would be unable to answer the big one anyway. Was this “Simon” really my old friend, somehow continuing to exist in and around the rotting ship, or was there some other explanation?

I stood on the prow and pondered the enigma. I was alone again and conscious of the intense stillness all about me. There was no wind, and nothing stirred in the overgrown breaker’s yard or on the road that I could see beyond the fence. No wading bird called plaintively from the reeds on the far bank; and the water in the channel languished dark and silent, as though it had lost the will to lap the piles of the old jetty. The red mist was as thick as ever, obscuring the view beyond a hundred yards or so and turning the other sad vessels into ghostly grey shapes that hovered uncertainly between heaven and earth.

In those surreal circumstances it was easy to believe that my old companion had, indeed, found a way to send a message to me from whatever place he now found himself in. What had he meant by “not dead?” Was he trapped in some curious halfway house between life and death? Was I meant to help him in some way? Nothing in the brief messages suggested as much. And, assuming that I was the “man who had come to visit the ship,” what was it that I was right about? The stewardship of nature’s realm? Had Poseidon, or one of his minions, really been watching and listening on that cold May morning off the coast of Newfoundland?

I looked at my watch and decided that it was time to go home. I walked down the gangway and turned to say farewell to the old frigate before making my way back through the shed.

When I reached my car I decided that it might be useful to find the house where the young boy lived, just in case I should feel the need to talk to him again. It couldn’t be far away, I thought. I knew I hadn’t passed one on the way there, so I assumed that it must be a short distance further on. As I was about to climb into the driver’s seat I heard the faint strains of a melody that took me back again to my brief days before the mast. Lillibolero was the signature tune of the BBC World Service, and we had all become fond of its familiar rendition late every afternoon. It was quintessentially British and took us closer to dear old Blighty.

I stood and listened to it for a few moments, and took it as evidence that the boy’s house must be nearby. I got into the car and drove slowly along the road, looking in all directions over the flat landscape. I found no dwelling of any sort and stopped the car. It seemed that the boy and the music were as big a mystery as the enigmatic Simon. I didn’t know it at the time, but I have since discovered that the BBC had stopped using Lillibolero as its World Service theme tune some years earlier. I turned the car around and followed the directions in reverse until I got back to familiar territory. Then I went home.

As the mystifying effects of the afternoon’s strange events receded, I realised that I had failed to keep my appointment with the new client. Since I had followed the directions carefully, it seemed that they must have been copied wrongly. An apology was due and a new arrangement would have to be made. I knew, however, that I had only scant details: the man’s name, Mr Robin Thomas, and the directions. No address or phone number had been given and so there was no way of contacting him. I would have to ring the office the next morning, explain the situation and wait for him to call again.

I rang at eight thirty. I wanted to get the call out of the way early so that I could begin my day’s visits. I spoke to the woman who had given me the message in the first place, and was about to give a brief account of the missed appointment when she launched into an explanation of her own.

“I’m glad you’ve rung,” she began. “I had a call from Mr Thomas last night, the chap I gave you directions for.”

“Oh yes,” I said, expecting a complaint.

“Yes, he rang to apologise for not being there when you called.”

That was a stroke of luck. New customers are valuable, and it was fortunate that he thought the responsibility for the missed appointment was his. I could tell him the truth when we met, but for the time being it was better that he wasn’t offended.

But then I realised that I hadn’t made an appointment; I hadn’t had his phone number. In my concern at missing the call I had forgotten the fact. There had been no reason to apologise to him after all. So why had he assumed that I would call that day? Perhaps someone in the office had told him it was my day for visiting Wisbech. All this was running through my mind as the woman continued.

“Apparently, he couldn’t see you yesterday and had no way of getting in touch with you. Hopes you’ll excuse him for having to leave a message with the boy. I take it you saw a boy, did you?”

I felt my flesh creep again when I heard that. It seemed that the directions had been spot on after all. I had been exactly where I was meant to be.

“I did, yes,”

“And he asked me to give you a message. Bit of a strange one actually. I’ve got it written down somewhere. Yes, here it is. He said to tell you that what you said about the stewards was right, whatever that means. That’s who he’s working with at the moment. Does that make sense?”

“Yes it does,” I said quietly.

“Oh good,” she continued. “I thought I might have misheard him and he’d said ‘Stewarts’ or something. Anyway, then he said that he was going to be busy for a while, ‘working offshore’ he said, and that he’d get in touch with you direct when the conditions were right. I offered to give him your number but he said he’d already got it. That’s about it. Leave it with you then, can I?”

“Yes,” I said. “Thanks.”

For a while I felt numb. The whole episode of the directions, the breaker’s yard and the boy had apparently been deliberately engineered. As I started to come to terms with the fact, a number of questions began to present themselves.

Why had Simon chosen to communicate with me through the medium of third parties? It was evident that he had appeared and spoken to the boy regularly. Why not me? Perhaps children are more readily approachable to people in Simon’s state, whatever that might be. Perhaps they are more open minded and sensitive to such things. But he had also, apparently, spoken at some length to the woman in the office. Why had he not contacted me in the first place to make the appointment? He could still have used a false name and could still have relied on the child to give me his messages, if that was the way it had to be.

It seemed that some barrier existed, something that prevented direct communication for the time being. So why was he doing all this now? Was there some reason for him wanting to give me the final answer to what had happened that day? What did he mean by “when the conditions are right?” But then another thought occurred to me. Using a false name amounted to a lie, and Simon didn’t tell lies. It threw a sudden doubt on my certainty that that he had been the caller. But, of course, Simon hadn’t lied. A few seconds with a pencil and paper revealed that Robin Thomas is an anagram of Simon Hobart.

I didn’t feel like going to work that day. The heady cocktail of feelings engendered by the events of the previous eighteen hours was distracting. Could I really bring myself to spend a day talking yield rates and wholesale prices after what had happened? I decided to go anyway. I needed my commission payments and there was nothing to be gained by staying at home. I did consider going back to the breaker’s yard, but decided there would be no point. Simon would choose the time for our next communication. I would have to be patient.

The day was difficult. My lack of interest was evident at every call I made, and my sluggish efforts produced little in the way of business. I finished early and went home feeling listless. By nightfall, a sense of exhaustion weighed heavily on me and I took myself to bed early.

I switched off the light, expecting sleep to engulf me quickly. It didn’t. I dozed fitfully and kept hearing the throb of ship’s engines and smelling the salty sweetness of sea air. It was a warm night and I drifted in and out of consciousness, pushing the suffocating duvet away from my neck and chest. I turned back and forth many times and shifted my position in an attempt to find a cooler part of the bed. I became increasingly irritated and decided to get up.

I was lying on my back as I opened my eyes. What I saw was unfamiliar and confusing. Above me, the ceiling was made of riveted metal, light coloured in parts with rusty brown patches here and there, and it was illuminated by a dull, red glow. I looked to the side and then all around. I was no longer in my bedroom, but in the empty mess deck of the ship. It was different in only two respects. Firstly, I was lying in a solitary hammock slung from the cross members exactly where mine had been slung during my time in the ship; and secondly, the dull glow came from the red security lamp that I remembered had always been left on at night to allow safe passage to those on late duties. 

My reaction was not what I would have expected. I was surprised and confused, but not particularly disturbed. There was something inevitable about it, and I knew that I had to get out of the hammock and go up top.

I grasped the cross member close to my head, swung my legs over the side and lowered myself to the deck with familiar ease. I tottered slightly and realised that the ship was moving, but there was nothing difficult about the walk to the bulkhead hatch. My sea legs came back instantly. It was as though I had never been away.

I took the familiar route up to the quarterdeck. It was night, but there was a brilliant full moon rising over the stern and I could see that the ship was ploughing through a moderate sea. I could feel the pitching and rolling movements of the rusty deck, and hear the sound of the spray being thrown up by the bow forcing its way into the swell.

I walked beyond the mortar well to the open part of the deck and looked around. There was no one else in sight. I assumed I was alone on the ship and could see no land in any direction.

I climbed the ladder onto the poop deck and made my way forward until I reached the bridge. It was unlit and as empty as it had been when I saw it in the breaker’s yard. Whatever was controlling the ship, it was not human. I knew that there would be no point in going down to the wheelhouse, since the man who steers the ship does so on orders from the bridge, and there was no one there to give any. I stood on the port bridge wing for a few moments, revelling in the cool showers of salt spray thrown back from the dipping bow.

I returned to the quarterdeck and waited. I stood looking astern, watching the wake trail back into the distance and wondering where I was - on this earth, or some other. The air was balmy and reminded me of that night in the St Lawrence Seaway, but this time there was no sound of throbbing engines.

And then I heard my name called. It was loud and clear and echoed slightly. I turned around to see Simon standing at the bottom of the port ladder. He looked exactly as I remembered him and was smiling his usual, open smile. I was thrilled but not surprised to see him. He walked towards me until he was only a few feet away.

“Hello me old ’oppo,” he said, feigning the slang of the sailor.

“Hello Simon.”

“You’re getting the picture, aren’t you?”

Considering the circumstances, I felt surprisingly calm. There was an easy inevitability about the situation. But there was nothing dreamlike about it. I was fully awake and full of curiosity. I did, however, feel slightly guarded. As excited as I was to see Simon, I couldn’t know for sure whether he was flesh and blood, a ghost, or some sort of projection. It isn’t easy to relate to somebody in those circumstances.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “Am I?”

“I think so,” he said. “You’re not surprised to see me. That’s good. You’re beginning to realise that all that stuff about the appointment and the boy was necessary for preparation. You had to be attuned to this meeting through a series of steps, so that you’d be open to it.”

I suppose I had begun to realise something of the sort when I woke up on the mess deck. He continued.

“I tried to contact you before, just after it happened. Remember that night when you were on ghost watch? I was standing right here, calling you. You couldn’t see me of course. Couldn’t even hear me once you were fully awake. I didn’t realise how these things worked then; I was still coming to terms with what had happened. I needed to learn a lot before I could make contact - and so did you.”

“Learn what?” I asked. “I don’t suppose you fancy starting at the beginning and telling me what happened that day. Why you disappeared, where you disappeared to, what you’ve been doing all these years, why you’ve made contact with me again - that sort of thing?”

My voice had a note of impatience in it. For some reason I wasn’t intimidated by the strangeness of the situation and Simon’s sudden appearance. I continued:

“You do realise that going to bed in a common-or-garden semi in Northampton, and then waking up somewhere in the middle of an ocean on a rusty, fifty-year-old ship that should have been broken up long ago is a bit weird. It must be time for an explanation.”

Simon chuckled in his old, relaxed way.

“It was broken up, actually, years ago.”

“What?”

“At a breaker’s yard in Blyth, about ten years after we sailed in her.”

“So what’s this, then?” I asked, waving my hand in the general direction of the superstructure.

“This is what she looked like after she’d been lying around for several years, just before the final dismantling.”

“So if it’s not real, what is it? A copy? An illusion?”

“Everything’s an illusion, you should know that. You’ve learned a lot, too, over the last thirty years.”

I suppose I had, theoretically at least. But I’d never come across an illusion quite as convincing as this one.

“And what about the ship in the old place up near The Wash? Was that really there or not?”

“Yes and no,” he said.

“And the boy?”

“Oh yes, he was there. He lives in a farm down a track that you missed when you went looking for him. Getting you to hear Lillibolero was a nice touch, don’t you think? It took me years to learn how to do that.”

I must have looked confused. Simon took the pause in my questioning as his opportunity to begin the story.

“Look,” he said, “there’s a limit to how much I can tell you. I’m still a bit of a novice myself. Time isn’t the same in my world. Thirty years is a long time to you, but it doesn’t work like that here.”

“Where’s ‘here’?” I asked.

“Don’t worry about that for now. My job is to give you a brief explanation of the facts. Others will teach you much more in due course, if you want them to.”

“What others?”

“Patience,” he replied. “Let me get on with the story. The first thing you should know is that you and I have a strong bond. We’re sort of soul mates, if you want to put it that way; that’s why we became such good friends. Still are, for that matter. But we’ve taken different roads and become sort of opposites in one important respect.

“When we met up at Dartmouth, I was more spiritually advanced than you were. I don’t like the word ‘advanced’ but it’ll do for now. Mentally, however, I was closed off. I’d never broken free of the old Brethren teaching and couldn’t see beyond one God, one life and so on. You were the other side of the coin; spiritually a bit backward, if you’ll forgive me saying so, but mentally much more open to the bigger, truer picture. You might say that I had the better nature, you had the greater wisdom. You were more prepared to learn than I was. That meant that you were at least moving forward, albeit a bit slowly, whereas I’d got stuck.

“Things must have come to a head that day I sounded off about God and the Devil and so on. I was angry that anyone should challenge my cherished beliefs, and couldn’t accept that there might be anything beyond them.

“It was a few days later that we found ourselves hanging over the side on that paint stage. When we finished, I watched you climb the rope and disappear over the gunwale. Then I climbed up after you. I expected you to give me a hand aboard and was a bit miffed when I got to the top and you’d disappeared. But then I realised that everybody else had disappeared too. I looked over the side. No paint stages. I came back here to the quarterdeck. Empty. I went below decks and searched the ship, even went down to the engine room. Not a soul in sight.

“Needless to say I was pretty confused, and finally went up to the bridge. There was a man there I’d never seen before, sitting in the captain’s chair and wearing a full four-ringer's uniform. He turned to look at me and beckoned me over. He somehow looked as old as the hills, and yet he didn’t have any of the usual physical signs of ageing. And I was struck by an immense feeling of wisdom that seemed to emanate from him. I stood in front of him and he began to talk to me in a calm, fatherly sort of way. I thought he might be God at first, but he must have read my thoughts because he smiled and shook his head in a way that seemed to say ‘oh my goodness, you have got a lot to learn.’

“Then he explained to me about the rut that I’d got into and gave me two choices. I could either die and move on in the conventional way, in which case my body would be found floating in the sea and that would be the end of my current incarnation, or I could join him and learn my lessons quicker that way. I found the former a bit daunting – I still thought of death as something final and intimidating, you understand – so I chose the latter. I’ve been working here ever since.”

“Doing what?” I asked.

“Oh, generally stewarding the affairs of the sea, and those who live their lives on it. Using the subtle forces that lie behind the physical ones. Anyway, because of our link you’re going to be given the same choice.”

“What?!” I wasn’t sure that I relished such a choice.

“Don’t worry,” said Simon. “Your choice won’t be quite as stark as mine. I said earlier that you’re moving forward, whereas I was stuck. I had to be forced on. But you’ll be able to choose between living out your life as you are now, or coming over here and working with me. You’ve also been given the privilege of having advance knowledge, so you’ve got time to think about it.”

“And when will I get this choice?” I asked, feeling only slightly relieved.

“Can’t tell you that. It’ll be up to powers way above me to decide when the time’s right.”

The prospect of having to make such a decision was daunting. I had been a keen student of metaphysic all my life, but had recently become conscious of the fact that my knowledge had all come from books and the accounts of others. It lacked first hand experience or practical application, and I knew that my life was drifting along rather aimlessly. But was that enough to justify such a giant leap into the unknown? And one thing, in particular, was bothering me.

“There’s something I need to know,” I said. “Are you trapped where you are now? I can’t help noticing that you haven’t aged.”

“Of course not,” he said. “When my time comes to move on – die, if you like – I’ll do it just the same as you will. This world is just one of many in which we can spend an incarnation and learn a set of lessons. Who knows which of them either of us will take the next time round? What’s so unusual here – and why it’s such a privilege – is being able to switch from one form of reality to another in the same incarnation. As for the ageing - as I said, time works differently here.”

I thought for a moment and wondered what else worked differently there.

“So what’s it like over there?” I asked. “Do you do the same things that we do: eat, drink, sleep, have holidays, go shopping for clothes?”

I regretted the facetious undertone, but Simon was unruffled.

“Some things are the same, some different. But I’m not here to talk about pay and conditions. If you do decide to come over, it has to be for the right reason: the opportunity to learn about the greater nature of reality faster than you would in the physical world. There, you have to set yourself apart from the mainstream to learn what it’s all about, and that’s not easy in a world that’s dominated by forces determined to keep you on the bottom rung. Here, spiritual awareness is the mainstream. You’d soon get used to the new conditions. I did; I’m happy enough. If you choose to stay there you’ll learn what you need to know eventually, it’ll just take longer. And I’m talking lifetimes, not years. This is a sort of ‘fast tracking’ if you like. Think about it.”

“But you can’t tell me how long I’ve got?”

“’Fraid not, sorry.”

“And I don’t suppose you can tell me anything about the circumstances under which this offer will be made?”

“No.”

“No, thought not. This is a bit of a tall order you know. And how do I know that all this isn’t just a dream?”

“It doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “The offer will come anyway, whether you think it’s a dream or not. But, so that you can be as sure as possible, I’ve sent you a small gift.”

“Really?” I said. “What’s that?”

“You’ll know it when you see it,” he replied. “And now it’s time for me to go. I’m glad we got to meet again. We had some good times, didn’t we? Perhaps we’ll become shipmates again before too long.”

“Yes, you too,” I said, referring to his first sentiment but feeling distinctly unsure about the second.

I was interested to know how he would take his leave of me. I hadn’t seen him come but I was going to watch him go. Predictably, I suppose, he read my thoughts and laughed.

“I have to keep the illusion going,” he said. “It’s one of the rules.”

He turned and climbed the ladder that led onto the poop deck. He walked forward a few yards, waved briefly and then climbed over the gunwale. I saw his hands release their grip and he dropped out of sight. I ran to the port side to see whether he was in the water. It didn’t surprise me that there was no sign of him. There had been no sound of a splash the first time he had disappeared, and there was none this time. I was alone again.

I felt uneasy, now that the very existence of the deck that separated me from the deep ocean had been brought into question. But I reasoned that the ship was probably just as real as the sea through which it moved its illusory course.

So what should I do now? Get back into my hammock and go to sleep in the expectation of waking in my own bed at home? It seemed too much like the stuff of film scripts, but I could think of no other course of action.

I took a final look around at the expanse of sea and the deserted ship; I smelt the air and revelled in the recollection one last time. And then I made my way back below decks.

I walked into the mess deck to find that the security light was out and it was pitch dark. I felt my way around the door and put my hand on the bulkhead, meaning to feel my way around the perimeter until I reached my hammock. My fingers rested on what felt like a modern light switch. I pressed it and found myself standing in my own brightly lit bedroom. The movement stopped as the light came on and I knew that I was home. The transition from one world to the other was as quick and simple as that. And still I wasn’t surprised.

I went downstairs, made a drink and opened the curtains, just to be sure that I was back in the familiar landscape of English suburbia. The dawn was beginning to break, but the full moon was clearly visible high in the cloudless sky. I wondered whether it was shining on a rusty old ship, still ploughing its way across some nameless ocean in another dimension somewhere. Or had that illusion now been consigned to its own breaker’s yard? I suddenly felt overwhelmingly tired and left my mug of tea half drunk. Within minutes I was settled into a deep and dreamless sleep.

It was Saturday and I slept late. I awoke to a faint smell of salt and realised that my pyjamas felt slightly damp. Was that an illusion too? I got dressed and went downstairs, picking up the mail as I made my way to the kitchen.

Among it was the final, small mystery that was to convince me that I must start examining my life deeply and honestly. I needed to decide between the comfort of a life in the safe and steady world that was my lot this time around, and an opportunity to fast track myself to higher things.

Tucked in between the junk mail was a postcard. The picture was of the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, taken from across the river at Kingswear. I turned it over. It was properly addressed to me by name, and the message box simply said:

“Simon says to send you this.”

There was no signature.

About Me

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I've never had money because I've never been driven by money. I received little formal education beyond the age of sixteen, which isn't such a bad thing since you get a different angle on life that way. Learning what you want and need to learn often reveals things that the system's road keeps hidden.
JJ Beazley asserts his ownership of copyright in all works of fiction and non-fiction contained herein unless otherwise stated. Feel free to quote anything if you want to, but please don't nick a story and claim it for your own. That would compromise my chances of getting an anthology published and I'd be a bit miffed.



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