Chaos. What would she need during the voyage, what could be left to lie deep in the hold? Need or want? The framed photograph of Duncan in his uniform: not needed – wanted, to be there by her bed. Or would it be a bunk? Surely not a hammock! Dawn’s only sea voyage had been the ferry from Dublin, eight hours of driving rain, between heaving sea and low sky, both the same leaden grey.
Clothes. Australia was hot and dry, people said, perhaps she should give all those winter woollens to the Salvation Army. And her umbrellas. But they would need all the crockery. Then down below the front door banged, and Dawn heard Duncan running lightly up the stairs and along the landing.
The door flew open. ‘I have my ticket! I have my ticket! The die is cast, my love. I sail in a month, two weeks after you.’
Dawn paused, teapot in hand, stooped over a tea chest near full of newspaper-wrapped bundles.
‘But still, ‘tis a pity you had to stay behind,’ she said, straightening, ‘It’ll be lonely on the voyage, and might I not meet some other handsome sailor?’
‘Well, I’m sure you’ll lead him like a puppy on a string if you do. But you’ll be there in Adelaide when I come. It won’t be long. Then at last we can be married.’
Duncan, Lieutenant Black, RNVR, had not been demobbed until January 1919, when his ship finally returned from the Indian Ocean. Once again being plain Mr Black, of no significance, authority, or responsibility, had been unsettling. It was hard to accept that this was not just another shore leave, and there was no longer the familiar world of the ship to return to. Before he had been called up in 1914 he had worked in a photographic studio, and he supposed he would return to that, but the narrow shabby streets of North London, icy under sulphurous low dark cloud, though they were familiar, seemed a poor exchange for the wide horizons and tumultuous green-bejewelled cities of the East African coast.
The idea of moving to Australia to be married had been Dawn’s. They had first met, briefly, in 1916, while he had been recovering from the torpedoing of his first ship. Although Duncan had only a few minor injuries, the blast from the exploding boilers had left him temporarily deaf, and he had nearly died of cold while in the sea for the few minutes of eternity before he had been hauled into a lifeboat.
Some weeks after his rescue, one clear, still summer evening, the convalescent home, a requisitioned country house, had arranged an outdoor performance by a touring string quartet, presenting a patriotically curated programme of Handel, Elgar, and Delius. After the performance, as the sun hovered over the misty horizon, patients and players met over drinks in the garden. Duncan’s exposure to music went little further than hymns, which had a moral purpose that he understood, and the ribald songs of pub and wardroom, or comic and sentimental music hall ballads, amusements, to be enjoyed in their own way. But the music he had heard that night, potent, intricate, transcendent, baffled him.
Duncan approached one of the players who stood by the ornamental pond. Pale nymphs and satyrs stood, marble still, attentive, throwing lengthening shadows on the grey water.
‘Songs have words, and that’s how I know if they are happy or sad, what they are supposed to mean. But your music talks to me without words, takes me to strange and wonderful places. How is that?’
She looked at him. ‘Oh. Well. Really, that would be a mystery. It’s the notes and how they dance together, I’m thinking. Some dances are happy, some are sad, you just know it, some are about beginnings, or endings, or light, dark, memory, hope. Nobody knows why, but we know how to dance the music. If it is not science it is magic, and I’m for it being the magic.’
‘I see,’ Duncan said, but didn’t. What he did see were pale green eyes, a mass of wild red curls about a pale, sculpted face. Her voice was unexpectedly deep and husky, Irish, lyrical.
‘You are a sailor, I’m thinking, from the blue of your uniform and the little anchor on your shoulder there.’
‘Yes, a lieutenant. I was a bit knocked about when my ship went down, but I’ll be posted soon, my hearing’s come back. Fit for duty.’
‘How terrible, to be sunk!’
‘It was. I have dreams about it.’ Duncan, for the first time, took his eyes from hers as the memory seeped up, of the ship tipping, tipping, the sea reaching for his legs, all in silence. The screams he could not hear. ‘Sorry. It was not that long ago.’
She put her hand on his arm. ‘I have a cousin, he was sunk last year. It’s hard, when you live, and others don’t.’
‘How is he now?’
‘Back at sea. But a changed man, quieter. It made him serious, he’s just got his third mate’s ticket. Next time he wants to be able to do something, know what to do.’
Duncan sighed. ‘There was nothing I could do. Even for myself. Everything I thought I knew …’ He seemed only then to notice her hand where it lay lightly on his sleeve, and put his over it. ‘But thank you, we have to move on, get back on the horse, as they say. What’s your name?’
‘Dawn. Dawn Delaney.’
‘Duncan Black, His Majesty’s Royal Wavy Navy, at your service, Miss Delaney.’
‘In which case you can get me another glass of this fizzy stuff, Lieutenant Black.’
Which he did, and they talked. He asked about her life in music, and confessed his love of photography, and suggested, tentatively, that she might like to sit for a portrait.
‘Yes, Duncan, that would be lovely.’
* * *
There was a complication. Although they were as well matched a couple as you could imagine, and marriage seemed an obvious step, Dawn, being Irish, was, unsurprisingly, Catholic, and Duncan, a lowland Scot, equally unsurprisingly, Presbyterian. This did not matter to either of them, over the past few years faith had ceased to be a matter of observances, but something you carried with you. Labels no longer mattered. But families take these things seriously; the Delaneys and the Blacks, each from their own bastion, would be horrified.
Australia, Dawn suggested, would be the solution. She had an aunt who, like her, had fallen in love with a Protestant. She had joined his family in Adelaide, married there, with nobody to stop them, and prospered. Dawn saw that she and Duncan could do the same, and make a life all their own at the other end of the world. At the War’s end, in a new and better world.
Duncan was entranced. Here was a future to live for, to stay alive for, a promise of freedom such as he had never imagined. They read all they could about Australia and made plans, though the opaque imperative of war rendered all hope provisional.
Duncan’s new ship, a cruiser, was, for a while still, in the hands of the dockyard, and then there were trials and a period of working up. Through the Autumn he and Dawn could meet quite often, and in spite of the ongoing carnage across the Channel and the mounting merchant ship sinkings, life for him was brighter than it had been for many years, since childhood maybe.
Dawn corresponded with her aunt in Adelaide, provisional plans were laid, secrecy maintained. Eventually, inevitably, Duncan’s ship was dispatched to the far side of the world, closer, at times to Adelaide than to Portsmouth.
The Indian Ocean, now that the German commerce raiders had been sunk or stranded in neutral ports, was eerily peaceful. Duncan’s duties as an officer of the watch were routine, diversions few, his books soon read, letters infrequent. While at sea there was too much time to think, and in port, too many ways to obliterate thought.
The prospect of living with Dawn in Adelaide was at once exciting and alarming, nothing in his life had prepared him for this. Memories of the England of the century just past, and of his life before the Navy, were by contrast calm and reassuring. His parents were taciturn and undemonstrative, unlike Dawn. He had never lived away from home until 1914. School, chemistry, and sailing on the broad reaches of the Clyde had led to the photographer’s darkroom and the volunteer reserve, until the threat of war called him to take up his commission.
Between the past and the future stood … the demonic roar of steam as seawater flooded into the engine room, the wall of solid sound as the boiler blew – cut off so suddenly, the silent screams. The sea taking him, as if by right. But he lived. Why did he live? How did he live? How could he live? Another Pink Gin. Dawn, Dawn would come and with her light would banish darkness forever.
* * *
Returning to civilian life had been difficult for Duncan. Being permitted to continue wearing his uniform for a month only made him more acutely aware that he was now nobody, nothing. Not free – adrift. There was no chart to guide him, only the promise of a life with Dawn, a life unimaginable. Like a traveller exhausted who sees at nightfall the lights of an inn that are forever distant, despair, like a chill, crept into his bones.
At the RNVR Club Duncan met other demobbed officers, all looking for clues as how to pick up old lives in a world changed in unexpected ways. Among them was Derek Younghusband, a wartime engineering officer and peacetime photographer. Finding Duncan had been a darkroom man, Derek offered him a partnership in a new business up in the seaside town of Cleethorpes, near Grimsby in Lincolnshire, anticipating a surge of holidaymakers. Duncan prevaricated. He did not like to say an outright no to a decent chap like Derek, without explaining why, and he could not do that in case the news reached his parents. He had been to Cleethorpes, long ago, when he was small, on family holidays. Fragments of bright memories remained, just out of reach. He said he’d talk it over with his family, hoping the matter would just go away and Younghusband would find a more enthusiastic prospect.
Dawn’s quartet had disbanded, the members now preparing for marriage and other adventures. Dawn had given notice to her landlord and bought her ticket. They had at first intended to sail on the same ship, but Duncan delayed buying his ticket, there were family and Naval matters to clear up, he would have to follow on in a few days, a week or so maybe, later. Dawn had been looking forward to the voyage. Very much looking forward, but she hid her disappointment. But now Duncan had a ticket and she was happy, they would each have a restful voyage with a reunion at the end of it.
They took the train to the docks together, luggage having gone on ahead. Goodbyes are never easy, even if not forever. They held each other close, each knowing well what there was to lose. The tweed of Duncan’s jacket was stiff under Dawn’s fingers, she breathed in the mingled scents of hair oil, soap, and tobacco that had become so familiar. Duncan’s eyes fell on the black sides of the ship, the lines of rivets, the streaks of rust. Over the dry, sweet smell of Dawn’s perfume lay the odours of salt and seaweed, the steel and rope and coal dust of the ship. He had forgotten, in so short a time, so much.
Dawn stood at the ship’s rail as it drew away from the quay, watched Duncan, waving still, sink back into the crowd. Suddenly lonely, the future fell blank, as grey as the sky above.
Heart beating like a drum, Duncan walked rapidly back towards the station. All that was left to be done was to pack and go. No forwarding address, he would stay in a hotel once he reached Cleethorpes. In the quiet of the darkroom, as images of other people’s lives slowly developed under dim red light, he could perhaps escape the memories, the dreams. All but the last, and such a wonderful dream that had been.