Contains only characters belonging to Arthur Ransome.

Anchor-watch

It was not in her nature to mourn something that had not yet happened. This would be the last time, the last holiday all together. She was determined to make the most of it.

She loved all of it; she loved the details of life aboard the Sea Bear; she loved the long hours of daylight and waking up to the wind fresh off the Atlantic; she loved looking at charts and keeping the log with John; she loved everything to do with handling Sea Bear. She had loved rowing ashore to deserted beaches and tiny harbours. She loved the fact that her uncle was treating her (almost) as the adult she would have to be when she returned home. She loved the times when they were all on deck together. Most of all she had loved the mealtimes when everyone else was below. Her uncle had eaten with the others, leaving John at the tiller and her in the cockpit with him "just in case".

Uncle Jim had been almost apologetic the first time.

"If the wind wasn't quite so fresh or she wasn't someone else's ship or you were a little more used to her, I wouldn't mind leaving either of you to it alone."

Her hands had itched to feel the tiller in them, but not too badly. She knew that John had appreciated the moment as much as she did. For all his fast approaching seventeenth birthday, she had known that John was imagining that Sea Bear was his own, that the voyage would never have to end, that they were crossing wilder and more distant seas and that the others were not in the cabin eating dinner. She had wondered if his imagination had carefully removed her, too, from his private game of pretend. Perhaps he had felt her looking at him. He had caught her eye and a smile had flashed across his face. He had returned his attention to the ship and her sails and the feel of the wind on his cheek. She had known then that she had a part in his private imaginings. The thought had warmed her more than the bright sunlight and the mug of hot tea.

Now here she was sitting in the cockpit, the only soul awake in the Sea Bear, watching the very last vestige of the daylight fade in the west and wondering if it really would get truly dark. She was getting cold sitting so still in shorts. She still had not persuaded Mother about that pair of slacks. After last night's anchor-watch, she had brought the blanket from her bunk to wrap round her legs. She was wearing her jersey, but was still cold. Looking down the companion ladder, she could see John's jersey lying ready for his watch on the end of his bunk. She crept down the ladder and picked it up gently. He did not stir as she lifted its weight from his feet. This left one foot uncovered. She eased his blanket over it and crept back up the ladder to the cockpit before she put John's jersey over her own and settled her own blanket around her legs once more.

Their voyage had so nearly come to an abrupt end earlier in the day. It had been the simplest thing – not an error of navigation, a hidden rock, the wrong amount of sail for the conditions or anything really to do with Sea Bear. Uncle Jim had slipped on some seaweed, twisted his leg at an odd angle and come near to breaking it. He had gone ashore briefly with the four younger ones, leaving John and Nancy in charge of the anchored Sea Bear. Nancy, standing in the cockpit next to John, had seen it happen, seen the fall, seen the others gather round Uncle Jim and Roger and Dorothea help him up. It was not until Uncle Jim was back in the dinghy, rowing himself back to Sea bear that she turned to speak to John and had noticed how pale his face was, despite a suntan from two days of sunny sailing.

It was not until later, when they were all squashed around the table in the cabin eating supper that she had realised why John had blanched.

"What would have happened," Dorothea had said, "if Captain Flint had broken his leg?"

"John would be able to get us back easily." Titty had replied confidently.

"It would be nothing compared to crossing the North Sea." added Roger.

Susan and John had exchanged the briefest of flickering glances. The conversation had moved on then to tomorrow's plans.

Nancy stood up in the cockpit, wriggled a little and sat down again. The Swallows had told the Amazons the story of that wild and stormy crossing. They had heard about it, too, from the people at Pin Mill who had brought Nancy and Peggy and little Firefly round to the explorers' camp. Hearing about it afterwards, when it was all safely over and you knew everyone was still alive and your best friend was considered a hero was exciting. At the time she had been too young, no, she had simply not been brave enough, to try to imagine exactly what it must have felt like for John. She was sure that the worst moments would have been the private ones. The moments that you could only cope with by reminding yourself that you were the eldest, and had to protect the others.

Unwanted and jumbled memories rose up in her mind of the lightning and the desperate haste along the lakeside road slippery in the rain and Peggy, only a toddler, crying and saying over and over "Make it stop, Ruth, make it stop, I'm frightened." and the final realisation that sometimes, unlike in stories, being brave did not give you a happy ending. Nancy jumped to her feet, turned around and waved her arms about a bit for good measure. It would have to do. When she was very small she had called it, privately, "breaking the bad spell" and running uphill had worked best.

Had she made a noise? Had she woken anyone? She peered down the companion ladder. Uncle Jim was still peacefully asleep, mouth open, snoring. John, too, was asleep, but not peacefully. Nancy recognised the signs of a nightmare in progress. She hastily unwrapped herself from her blanket and climbed down the companion ladder. The trick, as she had discovered with a much younger Peggy, was to be heard enough to help but not so much as to wake the sleeper. If you woke in the middle of a nightmare, it remained in your memory. At least she had a pretty good idea what this one was about.

"Shhh. It's alright. You're safe now. There's nothing to worry about. It's just a dream. Everything's alright. I'm here. I'll look after you." The murmured reassurances came to her lips in a litany still familiar after years of disuse. She stroked his hair as she had used to stroke Peggy's. And then, because this was John, not Peggy, and she knew John very well, "I'll look after them for you. They're all fine and the ship's fine. Everyone's quite safe."

She did not know whether the nightmare had run its course or if she had helped. At any rate, he had fallen back into a quieter sleep and she began to stand up, intending to return to the cockpit.

"Nancy, stay with me, please, stay with me." He was still asleep, of course. Awake, he would never have let himself sound so vulnerable. A hand, hot and clammy, grasped her wrist in a surprisingly strong grip.

"Of course I'll stay with you." she murmured soothingly, managing to convert his grip on her wrist to a less painful one on her hand. She was crouching down awkwardly beside the bunk and the muscles of her back and legs were sending her messages threatening cramp. She ignored them. Gradually, his grip slackened and his breathing became peaceful. Softly, cautiously, she withdrew her hand. Then, because she was Nancy and could not help taking a risk sometimes, and because he was her friend and she would never embarrass him by such sentimentality while he was awake, and because he was John and she loved him, she kissed him gently on the cheek before she climbed back into the cockpit.

She let him sleep long past the time when she should have woken him. An hour later, he woke. To her dark-accustomed eyes the brief flash of his torch as he checked the time was too bright.

"You should have woken me."

"It's a lovely night, but it's quite cold. I borrowed your jersey. I hope you don't mind." She was wriggling out of it.

"Anything happen?"

"Everything's fine." The response was rather muffled in the grey wool. She handed him the jersey and gathered up her blanket, shivering slightly.

"Good night."

"Good night, sleep well."

And she had gone below, cheerful, friendly and matter-of-fact. She had no idea how much he had wanted to accompany that "Good night" with a kiss. She would probably be embarrassed and appalled that he was standing there, sentimentally hugging the jersey because he could not hug the wearer, the grey wool pressed to his face. When he was sure he had given her enough time to get into her bunk, he went and fetched his other jersey, folding the grey one carefully as he stowed it away.

An hour later, he realised that she had not given a direct answer to his question. Well, she had merely answered the spirit of the question, not the words. It was obvious that nothing had happened.

Note:

If you want to know what Nancy's unwanted and jumbled memories are, you could read chapter 2 of Baltic adventure.