Boatman's dream 26
By Parson Thru
We came rolling into the Axe on the morning tide. A lone gull had been wheeling above us since we entered the channel alongside the promontory of Brean Down. I’d christened it Jonathan, but began wondering if it might answer to “Arthur”.
Merlin was keen to be back in the yard and stuck to the line of buoys like glue. The depth gauge was showing slightly more than a metre of water under the keel. Any deviation from the meandering red “cans” and we’d have grounded. The base of Blackrock off to port was still above water. We were cutting it tight.
Normally, this point on an early rising tide is something to gladden the heart: the joy of nature bringing access to the sea after eight or nine hours of staring at mud. Today, the mood on the boat was sombre.
Merlin cut the engine as we approached the mouth of the river, keeping to the four knot limit. The swell began to lift the boat as it passed beneath.
He turned around in his seat.
“I’m going to drop you at the club pontoon, if that’s ok. Me and Eddie’ll go up to the mooring and row back down. Can you grab our stuff with yours to save us carrying it back?”
“Ok, Merlin.” Dennis answered.
He looked at me. “Did Arthur bring anything?”
I shrugged. “I’ll have a look in the cabin.”
I went forward through the hatch and dug around the bunks. I couldn’t find anything that looked like it belonged to him, and carried everything else out to the cockpit.
Merlin set the engine astern and brought us nicely into the pontoon. Eddie was already on the bow and stepped lightly onto land – a man far younger that his years.
He put a turn on the pontoon cleat. Seconds later, Dennis stepped off and secured the stern-line. It was so well-rehearsed it seemed like telepathy.
As I looked up from the cockpit, I saw we had a welcoming committee. The photographer from The Herald was snapping the boat and the four of us. Two policemen that I recognised were standing a few yards back talking to Bellingham-Smythe and his son-in-law, Tim.
I picked the bags up and threw them onto the pontoon.
“Grab the lifejackets out of the locker, will you Kev?” Merlin said in a low voice. “You never know.”
I bobbed back through the hatch and took six lifejackets from the locker and carried them back to the pontoon, then stepped up from the boat. Dennis gave me his hand.
When I looked up, the man from the Herald was photographing me. I vaguely remembered that he was the son of someone I knew, but couldn’t place him.
Nobody spoke. Bellingham-Smythe picked some of the bags up. Eddie cast-off and stepped aboard. We watched the boat move away and ease between the moored vessels up the river. Merlin’s mooring was a couple of hundred metres up, just before the Pill.
“Are we taking these things to Merlin’s houseboat?” Bellingham-Smythe asked.
Dennis started walking up in silence.
“Yes, please, James.” I answered. I don’t know why, but I felt a need for some humanity.
We walked along the track up to the boatyard. One of the policemen took a heavy bag from Dennis. Tim tagged-along, a little uselessly, behind.
The photographer, who I suddenly remembered might be called Ben, walked with us.
We turned off at the wharf and took everything down to the houseboat. Dennis unlocked the door and we threw it all inside.
Bellingham-Smythe looked around at everyone. “The café’s just opened. Can I buy anyone breakfast?”
I looked at Dennis. We were famished.
“Yes, please, James. That would be lovely.”
We’d barely eaten anything in twenty-four hours.
“Can you text Merlin, Dennis, and suggest he comes up to the café?”
Dennis pulled his phone out. “Good idea.”
The café was adjacent to Bellingham-Smythe’s chandlery. He’d leased the space to Mags, the proprietor. Tim, the photographer and the two policemen remained in-tow as we walked through the door.
“Coffees all round?”
We all nodded.
“Seven coffees, please, Mags. Probably two more to come, and we’ll be ordering breakfast.”
“No worries, love.” Mags shouted back. “Coming up.”
The policemen sat down and took their hats off. Tim found a space. The photographer sat at the end.
Bellingham-Smythe looked at the two of us.
“It’s been a long day.”
“You could say that.” Dennis looked at the two policemen – a sergeant and a constable.
“No offence, but why are you here?”
“It's routine, Dennis. I think you know exactly why.”
“So why aren’t you up with the boat?”
“It's South Wales' evidence and they've released it. We’re just minding our patch.”
“And enjoying a free breakfast.” I regretted my words straight away. They looked uncomfortable.
Bellingham-Smythe gave me a look that made me want to get up and walk out.
“I’ve invited you.” He looked at all of us. “It’s my treat. Let’s just leave it for today.”
The coffees arrived. Mags had one of her young helpers on. Good job.
Merlin and Eddie walked through the door. Merlin stamped the sand and mud from his boots.
“Bloody hell. Just what I needed. I could eat a scabby horse. Who do I need to thank?”
Bellingham-Smythe waved his hand modestly.
Merlin and Eddie sat down. Eddie looked at the two policemen.
“Keeping an eye on us, Bob?”
“South Wales have asked us to check the boat and crew in. That’s all. There’s a crew-member missing.”
“I know, Bob.” Merlin muttered dryly. “Don’t I bloody know?”
Mags’ assistant came and took the orders.
Bellingham-Smythe laid his menu down.
“So you’ve given a statement to South Wales Police?”
“And the Coastguard, James, yes. The whole nine yards: Was he wearing a life-vest? Was he trained and competent?”
“No contact, then? With the casualty?”
“Are they still looking?”
“There’s been a helicopter search along the Welsh coast. The fog lifted within two hours.”
Bellingham-Smythe took a sip of his coffee. “The tide could take him in and out three or four times before washing the body up.”
“If that’s what’s happened, James. But I know what you’re saying. I’ve lived around here all my life.”
“No offence, Merlin.”
“So do we know who this Arthur is? Has he got ID?” We all turned to the photographer.
Bob, the sergeant, spoke first.
“Is this for The Herald, son?”
“My name’s Ben. And no, it doesn’t have to be.”
“Your question is the subject of an ongoing investigation, Ben.”
“Meaning what I just said.”
“You don’t trust me?”
Mags and her helper brought the breakfasts.
“Don’t touch the plates. They’re hot.”
“Any sauce, Mags?”
“Red or brown?”
“Can you bring both?”
She nodded and wiped her hands on her apron.
Ben seemed to be sulking.
“Look, son.” Bellingham-Smythe stopped pouring his sauce. “Don’t take it personally. This just isn't the right time.”
There was a murmur of agreement from around the table. The constable had spilled ketchup on his trousers and was trying to rub it off with a serviette. Sgt Bob watched him with the detachment of an old hand.
He looked at Merlin. “So have South Wales taken statements from all of you?”
Merlin chewed his sausage and beans.
“Yep. Statements to the Coastguard. Statements to the Police. Anyone else want one?”
“Who was last to see him?”
Dennis pointed his fork at me.
“Kev, there. They were both on deck. The rest of us were below.”
I felt the gaze of Sgt Bob, the constable and Ben. Mags was listening from the counter.
“I’ve given my statement.” I said.
Bob leaned back in his seat.
“Just between us. Did you notice anything? How did he seem? Did you see him go in?”
I thought about the splash of oars momentarily.
“He was fine when he went out. I couldn’t see him once we were above deck. The fog was too thick. That’s what I told them in my statement.”
Eddie looked at me.
“What about the oars?”
“It was imagination, Eddie. No sleep. Hangover. Tide running under the hull. Just my imagination.”
Everyone was watching me.
Merlin sniffed and pushed half a sausage into his mouth.
“If anyone rowed out across that current and found us in the fog, I’d like to meet them. That’s some seaman.”