IF NOT DUFFERS... By Lilachigh2

The little boat's engine chugged relentlessly on as it ploughed through the choppy grey sea. Cold and hungry, Roger Walker crouched over the wheel, listening, straining his ears for a different note, for a sign that something was going badly wrong with all that stood between him and big trouble. But the engine that had been built long before he was born, just sixteen years ago, laboured on, sending the Daisy Belle butting through the oily grey waters of the English Channel.

He stared out across the waves; dawn had just broken and everywhere he looked he could see lights of other vessels, large and small, although to be fair, none of them were quite as small as his Daisy. She was a river launch, once used for puttering around harbours on the east coast of England, exploring up rivers, giving daytrippers a jolly outing as they ate their ice-creams and sandwiches, drank their bottles of lemonade and exclaimed how beautiful the sea looked from a distance.

Daisy was a very old boat who'd been enjoying an easy retirement until Roger had been given her by his parents for his fourteenth birthday. He'd spent hours repairing her engine. Now she was out here in the middle of the sea, feeling deep water under her keel for the first time, her brave new coat of bright blue paint jaunty and slightly ridiculous. He wondered if she felt as scared as he did.

Roger gazed swiftly at his compass and turned the wheel slightly to starboard. Was he being ridiculous, too? What was it his Dad had said in that telegram all those years ago up in the Lake District? "Better drowned than duffers if not duffers won't drown". Was he being a duffer? Had he been wrong to come?

He bit his lip, found a dust-covered toffee in his pocket and jammed it between his jaws. He'd tried to stay at home, to do what was expected of him, but he'd felt so helpless, so useless. They wouldn't let him join the navy like his brother. His big sister, Susan, was away nursing and even his other sister Titty had left school and was helping their mother with the evacuees from London.

He knew the Blackett girls, Nancy and Ruth had joined the WRENS but where the rest of the gang were, he had no idea, but he was sure they were all helping in the war effort. He was the only one, apart from Bridget, who was doing nothing. And no one seemed to care how he felt. He was tired of being told, "Oh there's plenty of time. Don't be in such a hurry." But there might not be a lot of time. The war could be over by Christmas! Although to be fair, that didn't look very likely now.

A bigger wave caught Daisy Belle under her beam and she wallowed in a trough for a few nasty minutes until her engine valiantly pushed her forward again. Roger wiped spray out of his eyes and peered forward. There would be all sorts of a row when he got back home. Luckily Dad was at sea, but Mum would be furious. He'd left a note, but had the uneasy feeling that wouldn't be good enough. But he just wanted to do something to help! It wasn't his fault he was young. He was as brave as John. A roar of engines overhead made him duck his head, then gaze up to see two planes screaming away in the same direction as he was headed.

It was much lighter now, the colour of the sea was changing, the coast of France was looming ahead and in the air he could see the dark puffs of shell fire, hear the crump, crump, crump of heavy artillery. His teeth began to chatter. "Just cold," he muttered. He refused to be scared. He could almost hear Nancy's voice in his head, "Roger! Jump to it! No shirking." But he was scared! There, he'd said it, admitted it. And the sky hadn't fallen in on him. Nothing had changed. Daisy Belle still sailed on, every second taking her further and further from home.

A shriek of sirens made him jump out of his skin as with a high white spray cascading from her bows, a destroyer sped past. The little boat rocked wildly in its wake and for a second Roger was convinced she was going to capsize. He fought to hold her steady, shaking his fist at the slim grey shape disappearing into the morning mists; he didn't think they had even seen him; Daisy was so small.

He steered for the shore. The sands were covered with black, ant like figures and then, with a sinking heart he realised that the water was full of them, too. Some of the bigger boats couldn't get too close; soldiers were floundering, swimming, trying to reach safety. Roger watched in blank horror as one in full battle gear went under the waves, slipped and never appeared. He could feel tears on his face and knew that it didn't matter. Then he was close to the beach; two oil blackened hands appeared over the side and a squaddie fell into the boat, gasping for air, gasping his thanks.

Roger stared out over the water. A sodden shape was floating past and for some reason he put the engine in neutral, picked up the long boat hook and made a grab for it. For a long second he was back on Jim's boat, fishing for Sinbad the kitten when they all went to sea by mistake. Then the hook caught under a piece of webbing and he hauled a boy who looked no older than him towards the boat. But he was so heavy, Roger knew he'd never be able to pull him on board.

Just then, the soldier scrambled to his feet and, with Daisy Belle rocking madly under them, helped Roger drag the lad out of the sea to lie, choking and gasping across the seats that usually carried day trippers round the harbour for a shilling.

"That's it, lad. She won't take any more," the squaddie grunted. "Get us out of here."

Roger pushed the engine into gear then froze as he turned Daisy's prow to the north and the little boat hesitated, as if she had reached the end of her tether. Then, like an old horse facing a final fence, she pushed the blood stained waves aside, left Dunkirk behind and headed for England.