. 1935 .
"Don't rock the boat; sit down as soon as you can," Bob added as an afterthought, "Not on his hand."
A moment later, all three were in the boat. One in the bows, one at the stern and one on the middle thwart.
"I hope you know how to row this thing, Bob." The one in the bows said, "I've heard it isn't as easily as it looks."
"It isn't, and I'm out of practice." Bob said, fending off from the dock. The rowboat glided out onto the silent water. Dusk was falling. A moment later, he dipped his blades and began to pull towards the middle of the lake, leaving the town behind. He looked over his shoulder, pulled hard with his port oar and made for a distant flagstaff on a promontory. The union jack rippled proudly.
"Where's our destination?" the man in the bows asked.
"Look over my shoulder; you can just see the flagstaff. Pity the light's going."
There was silence except for the dribbling of water from the oars and the gentle sound of the bow cutting through the lake.
"Will she recognize you?" The man in the bows asked the question they all had been secretly wondering.
"Don't know," Bob said shortly, pulling hard, "She hasn't remarried, that's all that matters. I asked the boat builders' when we hired the boat."
"I can imagine you don't look the same."
Bob pulled at the oars especially savagely, very nearly sending his friend in the stern overboard.
"Easy there old chap, I almost got dunked," the man in the stern said, "What if there are sharks?"
The man in the bow laughed.
"Sorry." Bob grunted.
The lake brought back so many memories. The smells were the same, the Old Man, the hill he had dubbed the Matterhorn when he was a boy still hunched on the skyline.
"Someone's taking the Union Jack down on the flagstaff." The man in the stern remarked and the man in the bow turned around to have a look.
"Night's coming." Bob said, glancing over his shoulder.
The mouth of a river opened up to port and Bob swung the rowboat around and headed up it.
"I can see the house."
"Is it gray?" Bob asked
"Can't tell, the light's too bad."
"There's the boat house…I say, it has a death's head on it." the man in the bow said.
"Jolly looking, eh?" the man in the stern said, looking over his shoulder.
The man in the stern laughed and said for no particular reason, "It's good to be home again."
Bob spun the boat around and nosed her into the bank next to the boathouse. The man in the bow grabbed some reeds, holding her there while Bob made his way forward, grabbed the coiled painter and climbed ashore. He made fast to a tree and turned to look at his friends as they climbed out of the boat.
"You'd better go in alone, Bob," The man who had been in the bows said. Bob nodded, though they could barely see it in the gathering gloom.
"All right, wait here, don't let the boat drift away."
Bob set out towards the house. It had not changed. The windows glowed and for a moment Bob felt as if he were twelve again, coming to call on the Turners.
"I wonder why there's a death's head on the boat house."
"Maybe they keep toxic wastes in there."
The voices of his friends brought Bob back to reality and he stopped, looked up at the front door, and realized that he was nervous. For weeks, months, years, he had waited for this moment and now it had come.
Finally, he took a deep breath and rang the bell, wondering what they would think of him in his cheap, ill fitting suit. He waited in silence for a few seconds before he heard footsteps pounding down the hallway and a clear ringing voice calling, "I'll get it!"
The next moment the door opened and light from the hallway fell on him. He found himself looking at a young women in a royal blue evening gown and a blue glass necklace with little gold beads that looked vaguely Egyptian. He caught his breath, startled, for she looked so much like the lady he had come to see. He knew it couldn't be, of course, she was far too young, and perhaps slightly taller.
"Are you one of the Blackett girls?" He asked hesitantly.
"Yes, I'm Nancy."
"Nancy?" He asked, "I thought there was only a Ruth and a Margaret. At least that was how I understood it."
"Properly I'm Ruth," Nancy said.
"But improperly you're Nancy?"
"What are you most often?" Bob asked, "Properly or improperly."
Nancy laughed, a clear ringing laugh. "Most times I'm Nancy, that probably tells you quite a bit."
He nodded, "Is your Mother in?"
"Yes, would you like to see her?" Nancy momentary became Ruth, "May I ask your name?"
"Tell her it's an old friend, tell her it's Bob."
"Well, if you're an old friend, would you like to come in? You can wait in the drawing room; shall I rouse Uncle Jim out of his study?"
"No-no, not just yet."
Bob followed her down the hallway, half noticing that she had bare feet.
"Here's the drawing room, you can switch on another light," Nancy said, "I'll go find Mother."
She closed the door and he heard her retreating down the hallway.
Bob turned to survey the room. The wallpaper was different and the furniture had somehow migrated to different parts of the room then he remembered, but mostly it was the same. There were yellow roses in a glass vase on the table in the window. On the floor was a box with tissue paper and a pair of blue shoes. Bob stooped down to pick up a card on the floor.
This gown is for your Eighteenth Birthday, try it on the moment it comes. I must know how it fits.
Bob grimaced, dropped the paper and watched it flutter down and land on the tissue paper. Bob turned to look at the roses, there were eighteen of them. Yellow roses were his favorite, and he went over to look at them.
He remembered the first time he bought yellow roses for a girl. It was a long time ago and he'd only been able to afford six. Curious, he picked up the card to see who the boy was that could buy eighteen yellow roses.
'To: Miss Ruth Blackett.
Many happy Returns on you birthday.
From: Thomas Jollyes the third.'
Thomas Jollyes the third? The grandson of Colonel Jollyes. Bob turned to sit on the sofa, Why he was only a fat baby last time...
The only light in the room was a lamp on the piano, illuminating a row of photographs in front of it. Bob found himself standing up again and walking over to look at them. There was dust along the top of the piano and someone had written a word in it, P-E-G-G-Y, Peggy. Bob smiled and looked up at the photographs.
There was a card sitting on the piano with roses beautifully done by hand in watercolors. In was on an envelope posted from Alexandria, Egypt. Bob picked it up.
'A girl's only eighteen once, Happy Birthday!
Love, Lt. John, Mate Susan, A.B. Titty, A.B. Roger, A.B. Bridget, Ship's Boy Andrew and Captain and Mrs. Walker.
PS: Do you like the roses? Titty.
PPS: Do you like the necklace? I helped pick it out at the Bazaar. Bridget
PPPS: I'm learning to fly. Roger
PPPPS: there's no room left on this card. John'
Next to the card were the photographs. The first photograph was of two boys…girls actually…in knickers and dark stocking caps in a small white sailed dingy. 'Amazon' was painted in large white letters on her stern.
The next photograph was of two boats this time, one with a white sail and the other with a dark sail. Only the dark sailed one had a good deal more children in it. The third photograph was of four children alone and after careful comparison, Bob surmised that they were the same four in the dark sailed dingy. A post card with a drawing of a small Bermuda cutter in enormous waves was leaning against the frame. He picked it up, turned it over and the words, 'now we are going to SAIL!' stood out to him.
Bob turned to the next picture. It was a professional photograph of a young man in a naval uniform, looking immensely proud of himself. Thomas Jollyes the third, perhaps? Beside it, lying down, was a card with an important looking seal on the front.
Bob opened it up.
'The Greenwich Royal Naval Academy is pleased to announce that cadet John Walker will graduate with the rank of Sub-lieutenant on the twelfth day of May in the year one thousand nine hundred and thirty three.'
Bob dropped the card and spun around. The door was opening. His fate was nigh.
That year was different for all of them. Bob watched his two daughters with awe, he followed them everywhere, strove to know their every peculiarity, strove to please them in every way. They in turn watched him, this small, quick man, his curly black hair long since gone silver.
"He's not very old," Peggy said, "He's only forty-two."
"I can only imagine what he's been through," Nancy said.
They sailed together and even camped on the island, all of them, Uncle Jim, Molly and Bob. They felt for a moment in time that somehow their lost childhood had been regained. Sometimes, like a cloud over the sun, Bob would suddenly stop laughing and his face would grow old and they wondered what memories came back to him like ghosts.
It was one summer night, dark and hot, that Nancy heard soft footsteps on the stairs. She got up quietly so as not to wake Peggy and slipped downstairs. She saw light under the kitchen door and she opened it to see dark shadows cast by a flickering candle.
"Nancy, what are you doing down here?" Bob asked, his hair ghostly in the wane light.
"What are you doing down here?" she replied.
"I-I couldn't sleep," he passed a hand over his eyes as if to wipe away the images too horrible to remember. "Sometimes I see them again, hear their voices, see their eyes staring out of their heads hopelessly."
"Won't you tell me about it?" Nancy asked, sitting down at the table.
"You wouldn't want to know," he said heavily.
"I would and I do," Nancy said. "Tell me. You haven't told mother, or Uncle Jim. I think we ought to know what you've been through. You are my father, but I hardly know anything about you."
"Yes," Bob said, "that is the bitterest thought of all. I have missed your growing up. A parent never knows what he has until he has lost it."
"Please tell me," Nancy said gently, she picked up his hand and looked down at it. It was thickened by work, the nails were chipped and the end of one finger was missing.
"I'm a spy, was a spy, you know that." Bob stared into the depths of the candle flame. "I was I Russia in 1919, part of MI-6. I was posing as a newspaper reporter. The war had just ended, I'd just received a telegram that my second daughter was born, I thought I'd be going home to see her – to see both my daughters."
"But you never did," Nancy said softly.
"I never did," Bob replied. "In the middle of the night on the second of January, I heard pounding on the door of the flat I shared with my two friends. It was Russian police. They told us they were taking us in for routine questioning. The next day, it turned into a trial for a charge of spying on the Russian government. We didn't confess and they didn't have the evidence to prove it. It was evening they came to a verdict. Life in a work camp, they renamed them gulags around 1930. We and lines of other prisoners were herded onto stock cars, crammed together like cattle. There was no water, no air and we were crushed as everyone fought for the sides of the car and fresh air. Some of us were able to eat icicles, others were not so fortunate."
He paused, staring down at the table.
"And that was the last you saw of civilization for sixteen years," Nancy said.
"Sixteen years," he echoed hollowly, "mine was a mining camp in Siberia. We were kept in huts behind barbed wire, the guards watched us like hawks from the top of observation towers. Those trying to escape were shot, even those who weren't trying to escape were shot. Others were crushed under the stones we moved.
"I think we started tunneling about the second year in. There were fifteen of us in the hut and we started our tunnel under the stove. We carried the dirt out in our pockets and held up the walls with bed boards. We could only work on it in the summers, because the ground would freeze so deep in the winter. Parts of it would collapse and one of us was killed. He was a bookseller from Moscow who had told an anti communist joke.
"Our tunnel was finished around May and fourteen of us broke out. I remember the shots fired in the night, the flashes of red and the screaming of the men who were killed. Only four of us made it away. We dared not make a fire and we walked as far as we could on the tundra. Even then, I had no real hope of getting away. They followed us all night, on our trail with dogs. They had to catch us or they would be punished severely.
"We walked for days until we were sure they had given up on us. Sergei died of hypothermia, he was the worst off of any of us, seventy or eighty pounds under weight. We shot a reindeer with a hand gun one of us had managed to steal from the guards before we escaped and we ate grubs and caterpillars when there was nothing else. We had thought to walk toward China, but I knew we had little hope of succeeding. At last, we came across a soviet truck that had blown a tire. There were three of them and we took their uniforms and identifications and the truck. We found out that in the month we had been walking on the tundra we had gone in a large circle and were practically where we started. Siberia is like a great frozen, empty desert.
"At last we were able to hitch a ride on the Trans Siberia railroad. A thing that we had helped to build. By August, we were a hundred miles from the boarder of Poland. That was the hardest walk yet, we tried to stick to where there were no people, but there was a close call with the police more than once. Once we got over the border, the Polish were convinced we were Russian spies. We tried to tell them we were British, but they wouldn't believe us. They finally agreed to send us to England in custody and let the English deal with us. That crossing of the channel. I think I wept the whole way across. I saw a fighter over the channel. It was the first drop winged aircraft I had ever seen, even the cockpit was closed, and I realized just how long I'd been away.
"My old boss verified who we were and we were set free for good. I got myself on the first train out of London and you know the rest."
Nancy looked up at him with new respect. He had been through so much and survived to tell about it. It was hard to imagine that he really was her father; he looked so different then that jolly young man in the pictures she'd seen. She had always known he existed, but at last, here he was, really, truly alive.
"I shouldn't have told you," he said heavily, "You shouldn't have your life darkened by such a story."
"Don't be a tame galoot," Nancy said, "I think everyone should know, how else can we keep it from happening to us? We must know the evil to stop it."
August the 2nd. 1901.
We climbed the Matterhorn
"That's Mother and Uncle Jim," said Peggy in a queer voice.
"Who is Bob Blackett?" asked Susan.
"He was father," said Nancy.