A Place in the Sun by John Budden
‘For God’s sake woman, tie the bloody screwdriver in.’
As Anne Crawford looked up, shielding her eyes from the sun, she could only make out her husband’s backside around the edges of the Bosun’s chair and the peak of his skipper’s cap.
‘Into what?’ she shouted.
‘The line,’ he bellowed back.
‘In front of you. There! Christ alive!’
The line hung in the shadow her husband and his chair cast on the deck. As Anne took hold of it, she thought of Rachel and The Blue Mosque.
‘It’s just a boy’s adventure for him, as usual,’ her daughter had sighed. ‘Why are you even
going, mum? And with your hip. Why don’t you come to Istanbul with us?’
Jerry often spent weekends sailing near home, but he liked ‘at least one adventure a year on the high seas.’ She’d hoped there might be other holidays, now that he worked less, but when she’d mentioned this to him, minus any reference to Rachel of course, it had only triggered a tirade. ‘No sense of adventure…no spirit...bloody typical of you,’ before he screeched off in his Porsche to the sailing club.
As she watched him pull the screwdriver back up the mast, Anne leaned against the port side of The Bonus. How many times had she heard him at the club, ‘Hah! Why The Bonus? Because it was paid for by one. A bloody big one!’
She rubbed her hip, making an effort to stand up straight, and looked out over the endless miles of The Atlantic.
Jerry had swum in the sea on their first date, fifty two years ago. He’d only passed his driving test the day before and she remembered the journey down to Brighton, with him telling her stories and playing the fool, asking what she thought about all manner of things, things that were never discussed on trips with her parents.
As soon as they parked, he was off, running down the beach, scrambling into his trunks behind a towel. He leaped into the sea, calling her as she looked for somewhere to change.
‘Come on, Annie girl! What’s the matter with you?’
She couldn’t tell him she’d never been in the sea before, that her parents weren’t the sort to go to the seaside. Swimming had only ever meant paint-box blue chlorinated water at the local pool.
By the time she was standing up to her waist in the water, shivering, he had reached the bright orange buoy. He turned round and waved at her, smiling wildly. She’d waved back, smiling too, despite the cold. She pushed out a little towards him, straining her neck to keep her face out of the water, before turning back into the safety of the shallows. Then he was with her, lifting her up into the air, wrapping his arms around her back and legs. She felt the strength in his arms and she didn’t feel cold anymore; she felt light and alive.
On their return, he swept into the parking space outside her parents’ house like a visiting film star. Her mother watched them arrive from behind the net curtains. He escorted Anne, through the gate and for the few steps to the front door, his hand in the small of her back, before knocking loudly on the door. He shook her father’s hand and complimented her mother on the beautiful house. Her mother offered them a jug of squash and a plate of biscuits and Anne watched him standing in front of the old dresser, tingling with energy after a day in the sun, and she knew that the room, the terraced house, the street were all too small for him. She decided at that moment that she wanted to be with him, in a place that was big enough, wherever that was.
She pulled the cover-up around her. Her hip was aching this morning. The surgeon had warned her that she would have to work through some pain for the first few months. She’d told Jerry before they left that she was worried about doing any of the physical work on the trip.
‘You’re on light duties, Anne. Cooking, cleaning, making the drinks. You my Girl Friday. I’ll do the rest.’
It never helped when she didn’t sleep well, and she rarely slept well when Jerry snored. At home, she would move to the spare room, but here she stayed in the bed, not wanting to walk around the moving boat in the dark. So, she lay next to his snorts and gasps, watching his spittle dribble down his chin. Asleep, he looked just like his father after she’d cooked them Sunday dinner.
‘Lovely grub,’ his dad would say as he slumped into the chair. ‘He’s a lucky boy, my Jerry. It wasn’t easy for him you know, without his mum, but he’s got you now.’ Then the same line every week. ’And so, good lady, it’s time for some Egyptian PT.’ He would be snoring even before she’d cleared the table.
She looked up at Jerry, fifty or sixty feet above her, whistling ‘A Sailor’s Life for Me,’ into the vast sky.
‘Where are all the birds?’ she’d asked earlier, looking through the binoculars he kept hooked inside the flybridge.
‘Birds! Those binoculars are for looking at boats, woman. Birds aren’t going to be out here, are they? This far from the shore. God Almighty! How’s your geography? Besides, who wants seagulls? They’re a bloody pest.’ He shook his head. ‘Right, I’m going up to sort out the weather electronics. Captain’s responsibility.’
She’d watched as the remote-controlled winch took him up on the Bosun’s chair. She could see his delight as his newest piece of kit transported him upwards.
‘I’ll hook myself on at the top,’ he shouted halfway up, waving a large stainless steel clip at her, ‘I don’t want you wiping me off the deck just yet,’ he snorted.
The boat, and all its paraphernalia, was impressive. It didn’t surprise her. The equipment Jerry bought was always impressive.
‘It’s a magnificent vessel, The Bonus, and Sir Jeremy’s a first class skipper,’ David had told her at the Sailing Club bar, ‘but it’s a risky business, if I may say so, Tenerife to Antigua with just the two of you. No disrespect to you, Lady Crawford, but it’s really a job for at least two able seamen. We’ll be doing the trip just in front of you, and it’ll be me and Sandy, plus
Roger and Deborah. So, two able seamen, plus, two prosecco experts,’ he guffawed.
When she’d mentioned this to Jerry, he scoffed,
‘Hah! I’ll enjoy seeing his face when we sail into the harbour at Antigua. You watch. It’ll be bloody priceless.’
He’d spent the first morning talking her through the ‘aboard ship’ rules and equipment, as he did every trip. She nodded automatically as he spoke. Although she had learnt about the ‘radars’ and ‘satellites’ when he first got the boat, she knew Jerry would take care of all that stuff once they were at sea. He did the boat, she did the food.
With Jerry busy at the top of the mast, Anne opened her cover-up and looked down at her new bikini. She wouldn’t normally wear one, but she enjoyed the sun and no one would have to see her out here at sea. She would just stand on deck for a bit, to see how the bikini felt. To feel the sun on her skin. She took the cover-up off.
A moment later she heard him.
‘Christ. Put it away woman!’
She looked up at him, shielding her eyes from the sun. He was leaning away from the rigging, looming above her.
‘A woman of your age in that?...No, really. If I’d have wanted that, I’d have brought somebody else,’ he snorted.
She reached for the cover-up and wrapped it around herself.
She knew Jerry always said, ‘Men grow into their looks. Women wither,’ but was it silly to wear a bikini at her age? She looked at herself through his eyes and saw the long scar on her hip, the wrinkled skin across her knees and the liver spots on her shins that seemed to have multiplied since she last looked. She ran her finger down the scar. It was smooth and not unpleasant to touch. Without looking back up at her husband, she took the steps down to the cabin, always leading with her strong leg, and into the berth to change.
It wasn’t easy with him being around more. All their married life, Jerry had split his time between the offices in London and Geneva. ‘The Swiss are the financial law experts,’ he told her. By the time his sole partner died, ACC Group had over two hundred staff, with an additional office in Vaduz, all, ‘facilitating a global pathway to minimise our clients’ tax liabilities.’
He was away from home even more once he became CEO. ‘The Swiss need me there,’ he told her. And then came the new office in St Vincent, with additional business to oversee.
When he was home, he was more and more at The Carlton Club, ‘Having dinner with Ken, who assured me…really productive meeting with Michael, who thinks we can do something mutually beneficial…’She met him there for lunch once. They ate in the Members’ Dining Room, surrounded by portraits of Tory grandees.
‘Don’t wear trousers,’ he told her. ‘Remember, women weren’t PLU here, until recently.’
‘People like us.’
They held the reception at The Carlton after he received his Knighthood. ‘For services to British commerce.’ The London office organised it but there were representatives from the other centres too. The women from the Swiss office in particular, smiling and immaculate, speaking perfect English, made her feel old and slightly dowdy, despite the dress she’d taken so long to choose. Jerry left her with a group from the London office, whose wives told her how proud she must be, before discussing the price of houses. Their husbands drifted over from time to time, to impress upon her what a privilege it was to work for the company under Sir Jeremy’s leadership, before making their excuses and moving back to their colleagues. As she listened to them talk about golf, she watched Jerry being guided around the room by his elegant Executive Assistant.
After dinner, an assured young woman from the extended Leadership Group, stood up and announced, ‘Our leader, Sir Jeremy Crawford.’ The whole room stood in appreciation, applauding loudly, whilst Jerry motioned with his hands for them to sit down. Listening, she realised that all of Jerry’s conversations these days, sounded like a speech.
She sometimes wondered if the Jerry she’d known was still in there at all.
She changed into a pair of three-quarter length, linen trousers to cover the liver spots, along with sandals and a loose, long-sleeved top. As she headed to the steps, she saw Jerry’s copy of The Telegraph on the table. The crossword was unfinished. After the knighthood, he had begun to have fairly frequent coverage in the press. One article in The Telegraph had called him, ‘The rich and powerful’s Mr Fix It.’ An unnamed source had said, ‘There doesn’t seem to be a problem he can’t solve,’ He’d hung a framed copy of the article in their downstairs loo.
She looked up at Jerry. He was leaning over to the right in the bosun’s seat, away from the mast and swaying gently. She shielded her eyes and squinted. He was still clipped in, but his torso, neck and head were lolling over the side of the seat. His skipper’s cap hung precariously at an angle.
She heard her voice. Slightly reedy.
‘Jerry!’ she called more strongly.
His skipper’s cap fell, landing at her feet on the deck. She stared at it then looked up, waiting for him to move, expecting him to spring to life and shout, ‘Don’t just stand there, woman, pick it up!’ But he didn’t. The seat had stopped swaying and now simply hung above her. She called up to him again, sharply now. But he didn’t reply. She took the binoculars off their hook.
The lens was filled with the blue of his shirt. She adjusted the focus, and could see the right-hand side of his face and forehead. His eye was open, unblinking, staring ahead. His mouth was open too. If his eyes had been shut, he could have been snoring in his sleep. She held the binoculars steady, looking for any breathing movement, or flicker of life. There was only his shirt, billowing in the breeze.
She sat down on the bench behind the flybridge. ‘Oh,’ she murmured. She counted to twenty, before looking up again, steadying the binoculars. He still hung in the same position.
She closed her eyes.
When Valerie’s Brian died earlier that year, she’d had the words. ‘Such a shock…sincere condolences…deepest sympathy…’ now they merged with the splash and lap of the water, the clicking of the rigging, the flap of the canvas and slipped away. She felt the heat of the sun on her eyelids and opened her eyes.
‘Jerry?’ She called up again.
‘Jerry?’ she shouted.
She would need to tell Rachel. She wondered if she would cry.
The controller for the winch was on the mast. She stepped over to it and tentatively tapped the down arrow. The winch moved a bit before stopping. She pressed it again, this time holding the button down, but the winch jerked and whirred. He was clipped in, fastened to the mast. His body bucked upwards, pressing against the strapping on the bosun’s chair, while the winch tried to pull him down. She took her finger off the button like she’d been burnt.
She sat back down on the bench.
‘Jerry,’ she whimpered. She knew it was pointless.
She looked up at the mast. It shook in a gust of wind. He can’t stay up there, she thought, he mustn’t. But she couldn’t climb the mast with her hip and even if she could, it was sixty-foot up to unclip Jerry, followed by a sixty-foot climb down to press the button for the chair. And what would she do with him, even if she did get him down?
The waves below her churned white, pushed apart by the boat’s bow. Once the boat had cut through them, she watched them settle back into the roll and pull of the current, restored and in their element. Beyond them, the horizon dipped and rose.
It’ll come later, the grief, she thought.
She went down to check the autopilot. The boat was moving towards the Caribbean. Jerry had typed their destination in the night before, ‘Making the miles while we sleep.’ He’d patted the control panel when it was done. ‘That should see us straight. Three-week journey, wind and weather permitting. Part of the old Rally Route. Bloody marvellous.’
She sat down in front of the communications suite and studied the equipment. She’d walked past it countless times every trip, taking breakfast, lunch and dinner up on deck, and their gin and tonics and nibbles at 6pm. As she stared at the equipment, she was struck by the realisation that she couldn’t ask Jerry to help. That he wouldn’t walk past and say, ‘Give it here, woman.’
She stood up and took a long breath.
‘Come on, Anne,’ she told herself, ‘put your mind to it.’
She sat back down in the chair and concentrated on the technology.
She played around with the radio. It tuned into someone speaking in Spanish. Were they talking about the sea, she wondered? There was no panic in the voice, they were going about their daily business. ‘Life goes on, duck,’ as her mother said when they left her father’s hospital room for the last time. She moved the radio on and it found some calypso music, with a man singing, ‘Girl be smart, play your part…’ She left it playing, while she investigated the panel. After a few more songs, and a bit of trial and error, she remembered how the panel worked.
She climbed back on deck. He was still swaying from the mast. She had hoped for a moment that it had all been a mistake, that he’d somehow dozed off and was now sitting upright, administering to the electronics. Seeing her, he’d shout down, ‘What’s for lunch?’ But he didn’t. He remained slumped over in the chair, the back of his shirt flapping as the seat and mast rocked in the wind. She could see his calf poking out from under the khaki shorts and knew that the patch of psoriasis on his right shin would be facing the sun.
He felt a long way away up there, turned away from her.
A seagull landed on the railing just along from her, its pink feet gripped the boat whilst its wings settled into its large body. It cast its pale, orange rimmed eye sharply across the deck.
Its body was still but the eyes and head were alert and alive.
‘Hello Mr Gully Gully. I’ve got nothing for you to eat up here, I’m afraid.’
The bird walked up and down the railing.
‘Where are all your friends? Are you lost?’
She paused but the bird made no noise.
‘That’s my Jerry up there. Can you see him? We’ve been married fifty years. Have you come to keep me company? If you stay, I’ll go and get you something to eat. Will you wait? If I give you some nice food, will you take a message to Rachel for me? To ask her if Yusef would mind me coming to The Blue Mosque with them?’
It was just after the final argument with Rachel, that the stories in the papers started. The Knight, the Swiss and the billion-dollar Ponzi scheme, was the headline in The Guardian.
‘You don’t need to worry about it,’ he’d told her. ’It’s press nonsense.’
He would say no more about it, but she read all the stories and followed the coverage online.
‘They don’t know what they’re bloody talking about. And since when have you shown the slightest bit of interest in my work, anyway?’ he snapped.
She read about the settlement in the paper. US$ 137 million. ACC Group did not file a defence.
‘He’s a criminal, mum,’ said Rachel on the phone.
‘Oh, I’m sure he’s not,’ she’d replied. ‘And you mustn’t say that about your father.’
She asked him about it that night.
‘If I’d have done anything wrong, they’d have taken my knighthood away, wouldn’t they? Now, let’s bloody drop it.’
She told her mother all about it when she visited her in hospital. By that stage, she could only repeat, ‘I feel so dopey. I feel so dopey,’ over and over again. Anne talked alongside her in a whisper, telling her all the things she’d read in the papers. She knew what her mother would say, if she could. ‘Your ship’s come in, duck. And there’s you now, with everything you could ever want. You hang on to him. And be sure to have your make-up on when he gets home from work. There are women in that office you know. You’re not so special, duck.’
Anne didn’t bother telling her mother about Rachel. She knew what her view would be on a man called Yusef.
‘Not PLU,’ Jerry had said after Rachel and Yusef’s first visit.
‘Anyway, it won’t last. It can’t last. She can’t live her life like it’s a bloody Beach Bar in Turkey.’
In those months after Rachel returned from travelling, Anne watched him as he railed at this ‘ridiculous bloody thing,’ worrying at it, unable to grasp it.
‘I just don’t know what she’s thinking. I don’t think she is thinking!’
Until the night Rachel and Yusef stayed over, and he said those things he shouldn’t have said.
Anne cried when Rachel told her they wouldn’t visit anymore.
‘I’ve got to stand by your dad, but you know I don’t agree with him about you and Yusef.’
When she told Jerry, he shook his head and shouted,
‘Am I the only one who knows what the bloody Turk’s up to.’
Anne was scattering some crisps for the seagull when she heard the voices from the communications panel.
‘Hello, Sir Jeremy? Can you hear us, Commodore? It’s David and Roger, reporting for duty, sir.’ She heard the two men laugh. ‘Just wondering how you and Lady Crawford are getting on? We’re having a fine old time. Weather’s wonderful, isn’t it? Perfect sailing conditions.
Still waiting for the wives to surface from the drinks’ cabinet, but what can you expect?’ The men guffawed again. ’Well, keep the lines of communication open. Look forward to hearing from you soon, Commodore. Over and Out.’
Anne listened from the steps. As they signed off, she sighed. She thought about all the people at the Sailing Club. The people at his work. Their friends. All those people she would have to tell. All those conversations. All those arrangements to be made. She felt the weight, hanging over her. She looked out at the sea, surrounding her, protecting her. It could wait. She would decide when to start it. She threw more crisps for the bird.
‘Will Rachel come to the funeral, Mr Gully Gully?’
The bird hopped across the deck on its webbed feet. It stood over Jerry’s skipper’s cap. Anne moved towards it and the bird flew away. She picked the cap up. Stitched into the front in red lettering was,
Sir Jeremy Crawford
She fingered the lettering, then span the cap out into the ocean. It briefly lifted on the air, before settling onto the surface. The current pulled at it and as the boat moved on, she watched it disappear, submerged below the waves.
In bed that night, she listened to the autopilot, pushing her towards Antigua. The bed felt large and quiet. The sheets were cool on Jerry’s side. She looked at the space next to her. She smelled his pillow. She’d always liked his smell. She lay looking at the cabin ceiling, remembering them arguing about whether Rachel and Yusef should share a room when they stayed over.
‘Not under my bloody roof.’
But Anne had made up the spare room for them,
‘She’s an adult, Jerry.’
Then him coming to bed having walked in on them kissing in the kitchen.
‘Does he have to rub my nose in it? They didn’t even look embarrassed.’
‘Oh, it’s nice. They like each other.’
‘And now we’re going to have to listen to God knows what going on.’
‘Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Jerry. You won’t hear anything, unless you go and stand outside their door.’
‘I’m not a bloody pervert, Anne. It’s just not what I wanted for her...’
‘Well, don’t you say anything.’
The following morning was very hot again. She wasn’t looking forward to looking through the binoculars. She went to the front end of the boat to see his face better. She’d suggested he put sun cream on before he went up the mast, but he’d scoffed, ‘I won’t be up there a minute,’ and now she could see that a full day in the 35 degrees sunshine and the night’s winds, had left any exposed flesh burnt bright red and his forehead blistered. His eyes looked dull and crusty. His shirt was ripped, and she could see his exposed gut, glowing and angry.
She closed her eyes and thought of him as a young man. How handsome he was. But that was all finished now. All of Jerry was finished – young, middle aged, old, home, work, husband, father, son - and every single part of her life with Jerry was over.
She heard the radio.
‘Hello. Hello. Sir Jeremy, are you there? It’s David Wilmslow, again. Please pick up, if you can hear me. I left a message last night. Not like you to not reply. Just checking all’s okay. Please pick up if you can hear this.’
She picked up the controller.
‘Hello David, this is Anne Crawford.’
‘Ah, Lady Crawford. Hope all’s well. I was hoping to speak to Sir Jeremy?’
‘Jerry’s dead, David.’
The radio fell silent.
‘I think he had a heart attack.’
‘Oh, good Lord...I’m so sorry. You must call in to the coastguard. I don’t suppose you’re familiar with the controls. You need to…’
‘I know how to do it, David.’
‘Oh, right.’ He paused. ‘I’ll turn back immediately, then we’ll pick you up on the radar. I’ll speak to the coastguard. Shouldn’t be more than three or four hours. Now, be sure to drink plenty of water and don’t touch any of the equipment. I’ll be there as soon as I can, Lady Crawford. Then you can have a good cry with Sandy and we’ll get you home. Terrible business.’
‘Yes, Lady Crawford?’
‘Please, call me Anne.’
After his voice shut off, she turned off the autopilot. The boat settled in the water. Her senses adjusted, freed from the constant thrum of the engine. She could hear the water lapping against the hull. The seagull squawked from the railing.
Only when she got back on deck did she realise that she’d taken the steps like she used to, before the hip started to hurt, long before the operation. She looked towards the horizon. It moved with the boat, but she planted her feet and rolled with the motion, fixing her eyes on it. The water around the boat was turquoise green, but where she was looking it was deepest blue until it washed into the white of the horizon.
She removed her cover-up. The sun enveloped her body and she luxuriated in it. Closing her eyes, she turned her face to the sun. The warmth sank into her. She took a breath and held it in. After she exhaled, she climbed onto the bench and placed her feet on the side of the boat, her toes hooked over the top of the steps. She waited for her eyes to adjust after the sunshine.
The whole ocean lay before her.
She dived in.
All sound disappeared and the cold rushed over her. She opened her eyes into the blue, holding her breath as her body adjusted to the shock. She stayed under until she could push out her breath, watching it disturb the water in front of her, then shot to the surface, into the light. Her body felt electrified. She looked up at the sky and screamed. She threw her arms around, slapping the water’s surface, then dipped back under before bursting up again. She floated on the surface and breathed deeply, suspended and cradled by the ocean.
The water dripped onto the deck. Her body was tingling. She removed her bikini. Top first, then bottoms. She looked down at her body, with its scars and red spots, its veins and faded stretch marks and felt the sun caress it. She lay down on the deck and let the sun dry her.
By the time she was helped onto The Albion by David Wilmslow, Anne was back in her linen trousers, a top and light cardigan and sun hat.
‘I’d like to call Rachel, please,’ was all she’d said as she stepped aboard and David had assured her this would be arranged as soon as they were underway.
‘No, I’d like to call her now, please.’
Roger took the helm of The Bonus, whilst David stayed on The Albion, insisting that Sandy and Deborah stay below deck, for fear of exposing them to the sight of Sir Jeremy’s battered and blistered corpse. The wind was up and the men could hear his body being thrown about in the bosun’s chair, his shirt inflated like a sail. Anne watched them repeatedly glancing at the mast, despite themselves.
The seagull sat on top of The Bonus’s mast, a couple of feet away from Jerry’s body. It looked around the boat and across the sea, then hopped onto Jerry’s body and pulled at the shirt fabric. Anne watched it tug at the shirt before flying away with a strip of the pale blue cotton in its mouth.
David Wilmslow turned to see Lady Crawford waving at nothing in the sky and shook his head, fearful of what such an experience would have done to the woman.