lundi 30 mars 2009

First three Chapters....

Where it all began.......

Message from the Author:

Okay, this is it. I can't get published the normal way....and there was no point in writing the novel if no one is ever going to read it. Not sure I have the courage to put the racey Chapter 13 on the net.....we shall see......perhaps a posthumous publication is the best idea after all?

BUT...if a girl working at a supermarket checkout can become famous in France for her blog relating life in front of a till..... and eventually find a publisher that way....there's no harm in trying.

If I get enough comments and requests for more chapters....I'll carry on publishing here. It's up to you.......

Chapter 1
The Beginning

It felt so strange to be arriving at a holiday destination on her own. Anna stepped off the coach and heaved her sailing bag onto her shoulder. First task to find the hotel. Although it was past 9.30 p.m. the streets of Oban were still light and bustling with people. She glanced up at the familiar landmark of McCaig's Tower; its arches silhouetted against the sky, and tried to draw some reassurance from the fact that this place was not totally new to her. The last time she had been here, she'd been with Mark and they'd walked up there, laughing at the fact that there was no tower. Now, after ten years of marriage, the laughter was fading and they were holidaying apart.
People jostled past her, chatting noisily and eating chips. Anna stood alone, her bag at her feet, and fumbled for her map. She studied the streets around her and turned it around to match the direction she was facing. Mark would have sniggered at that. Where was the Balmoral Hotel? How long had it been since she'd had to find her own way somewhere? Judging from her map-reading abilities, too long. She hated to be seen poring over directions. It announced so publicly to everyone that you didn't know which way to go and she felt nervous that someone might approach her and try to help. Silly really.
Pull yourself together. You're a grown woman, for God's sake.
She feigned an air of confidence, shrugged her bag back onto her shoulder and set off in what she hoped was the right direction. She moved with a slow and slightly leaning gait that she was sure made her look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. It certainly served to clear the pavement of people in front of her as she lurched along. They skirted round her unwieldy bag as she struggled past them. Some gave her looks of sympathy. Perhaps they were wondering how far such a slight person would get with such a load. They don’t think I’ll make it, she thought. They think I’m too small for this bag. Anna smiled to herself. I’m stronger than I look.
When she turned to apologise to someone, she noticed men turning, their eyes on her rear, as she passed. Still got it then, she thought, as she staggered past them. The bloody bag weighed a ton and she wished she hadn't packed so much, as always. But they were all essentials. She'd followed the instructions in the brochure. A holiday in the Hebrides meant that you had to be prepared for anything the elements might throw at you. So, she had thick jumpers, jeans, waterproof trousers and jacket, woolly hat and gloves (no fashion show, this holiday), deck shoes, walking boots, T-shirts, shorts, bikini (well, you never know,) bird, dolphin and whale identification books, 'Competent Crew' book (never one to do anything by halves), camera, binoculars…not to mention the cosmetics and toiletries, sunglasses, novel, nail varnish (was that wise?) and hairdryer. Okay, not all essentials then, but they’d seemed like it when she was packing.
The Balmoral Hotel loomed in front of her unexpectedly, thankfully nearer than she had anticipated, and she crashed through the doors with a sigh of relief. Inside all was warm and tartan. Typically Scottish. Her room had a massive double bed. A glaring reminder that she was alone this time. She dumped her bag on it and it didn't look so accusing. The heating was on full blast, so she turned it right down and threw the sash window open to let the evening air in. Better start preparing for the outdoor life.
She leaned out the window and allowed the breeze to blow her hair across her face. Oban was still buzzing with activity. It was too early to think of going to bed yet and she was far too agitated to sleep anyway. She needed to telephone Mark and let him know she'd arrived. She also realised that she was ravenous. The thought of chips down by the harbour made her stomach rumble. Phone call first, then chips. She dialled the number and told herself to sound jolly.

“Hello, Mark. 'Smee. I've arrived at last. I'm in the harbour. Can you hear the gulls? It's really noisy, isn’t it?”
“You don't have to shout, Anna, I can hear you. Good journey?”
“Bloody long. Not sure the coach was a good idea.” She told herself to be more positive. “I found my hotel though.”
“Major achievement. Well done. Seen the boat yet?”
“No. I thought I'd go looking after speaking to you. You all right?” She wondered if he was missing her but didn’t like to ask.
“Yep, fine. My turn next. Everest here I come.”
“Bet you're excited already and you’ve got to wait ‘til October.”
“You bet I am. Went to the climbing shop in London today to get some gear. It was great in there. I got a really good ice-axe.” The thought of it made Anna shiver.
“Rather you than me. You’ll have a great time.” Without me. It was her choice. She wasn’t up to it.
“And so will you this week. I’ll hear all about it when you get back. Take lots of photos, won’t you?”
“Wish you were here.” Anna regretted saying that immediately. It sounded pathetic.
“Anna, we decided we wanted different things this year didn't we? Remember?”
“I know, I know. An adventure for us both. Oh bugger, the money's running out. Do you want to ring back?”
“No time, I’m off out with Al. You know, lads’ night out.”
“Right. See you in a week then. Take care of the dog.”
Telephonus interruptus. She slowly put the receiver down, reluctant to sever the link, and stared at the phone. It blurred before her eyes and a lump rose in her throat. She was on her own. She would have to make the best of the adventure she had chosen for herself. She hoped it wasn’t all going to be a terrible mistake. Only thirty-four and already holidaying without her man. It didn’t say much for her marriage. All their friends had been surprised when they’d announced their separate holiday plans. She dashed the tears from her face with the back of her hand and sniffed. She couldn't walk through the streets like this. A grown woman behaving like a child. Time to get a grip and find some food. Nothing like a handful of hot, fat chips, covered in salt and vinegar, to restore the spirits.
The chip-seller looked jovial and was still doing a roaring trade.
“Hello, hen. Bonnie lass like you needs some chips, I'll bet?”
“Mmmm, yes please,” Anna laughed, ”'I'm ravenous.”
“No worries with your figure, I can see that.” He winked at her, “Double portion is it?”
“Er, no thanks. The single'll be fine.”
“On your holidays are you?”
Anna realised she was pleased to have someone to talk to.
“'I'm going whale and dolphin watching round the islands. Do you know the boat 'The Veronique’?”
“Salt ‘n’ vinegar? You bet I know it. Everyone round here knows Xander. You'll have the time of your life on his boat, hen, just you see if you don't.”
“I've only booked a week. Bit worried I might be horrendously seasick, actually. Never sailed before.” She gave a nervous laugh.
“You'll be fine. Our Xander'll make sure of that.”
The mysterious Xander. The person behind the brochure that had so intrigued her. Anna wondered what he'd be like.
“'Which boat is the Veronique?” she asked, waving her hand in the general direction of the harbour.
“You can’t miss her. There’s eighty foot of her and she stretches to the sky. All shining woodwork and brass. Very well looked after, she is.”
“I should find her easily then.”
“I reckon. Have a great time, hen.”
Anna wandered on down to the harbour, hoping to pick out the Veronique but it was gone ten o'clock and the light was beginning to fade. All the boats looked large with whopping great masts to her. The air was filled with clanking and creaking, as they jostled against each other with the lap of the tide. No sign of gleaming brass and woodwork in this light either. And even if she could remember the colour of the hull from the brochure, the colours had disappeared into the night. It didn't help that all the photos had shown the Veronique with her sails unfurled, like a great pirate ship of days gone by. The boats looked completely different with their sails rolled up, sort of 'naked' with only masts and rigging. Anna decided that none of them looked like the Veronique. All too old and shabby. Perhaps the chip-seller had got it wrong and she wasn't there yet? She detected signs of movement on one of the boats. Shadowy figures moving around and, from somewhere, came the sound of a guitar. Intriguing. She was too shy to call out and disturb people at this time. It would have to wait until tomorrow. Today all was a mystery. Tomorrow she would turn it into a reality. Although undeniably anxious, Anna felt a shiver of excitement.
Back at the hotel, she pulled out the brochure again and studied the photos. Dawn over the island of Rhum. Sunset over the Treshnish Isles. The island of Soay. Anna thought the names sounded like poetry. She looked at the photos of deserted coves to swim in, dolphins leaping in the waves, seals basking on rocks, brightly-coloured puffins and swooping kittiwakes, porpoises and minke whales. The photos of the boat itself were magnificent. Huge sails billowing out like something from 'The Onedin Line'. A warm and inviting-looking saloon, with sunlight glowing through the hatch onto the polished wood: dolphin-identification books and shells strategically placed. Comfy wooden bunks, each with their own bright blue curtains in the fo'c'sle. (God, how on earth did you say that?) Guests being shown how to sail and navigate. Cook preparing meals. It was going to be a wonderful experience. She reread the text. It was this that had finally persuaded her she should have her holiday on the Veronique. Whoever had written it loved language, as she did, and was a master of vivid description. Adjectives and adverbs ran into each other and positively bounced off the page; each one outperforming the last and creating a detailed picture that was both bright and passionate. The Hebrides; a land of superlatives to take your breath away. Enchanted, deserted, stunning, magnificent, shell-white, turquoise blue, dazzling, barren, rocky. Swimming in bio-luminescence; the ocean’s watery stars. Then there were the descriptions of the birds and mammals. You couldn’t read this brochure without seeing them all. Gannets sky-diving, plunging headfirst into the sea, brightly-coloured puffins strutting like clowns, wide-eyed seals lazing on rocky outcrops, the promise of dolphins surfing the waves and stately whales gliding by. It sounded like paradise. Unspoiled. This writer loved nature with a passion. Dotted through the brochure were literary references and extracts from poems. Anna had built up a picture of a sensitive person. Someone she liked already. Could this be the captain? The factual explanations of facilities and life on board ship contained a sense of fun, a hint of the pleasure-seeker with mentions of delicious, home-cooked food made from local produce, the odd glass of ‘vino’, candlelit dinners, music and midnight swims. It would be disappointing if this person wasn’t on board. It sounded heavenly. And all provided by a crew of only four; the skipper, the first mate, the cook and skivvy. She reread the description of the captain, Alexander Stewart. Xander. He’d been in the Royal Navy for seventeen years before embarking on a career based entirely on water. Watch leader, diving and sailing instructor on board numerous ships. He sounded a real old ‘sea-dog’. She’d be in good hands.

Chapter 2
All Aboard

The next morning, Anna wandered down to the harbour again, the cries of the gulls filling the air around her. She wanted to reassure herself that the boat had arrived. Despite her reading of the brochure the night before, her feelings of nervousness had resurfaced when she awoke, alone, in her hotel room. As she picked her way gingerly over the ropes mooring the boats to the shore, she wondered if she looked as insecure as she felt.
In daylight it was easy to pick out the Veronique with her polished wood and brass gleaming in the sunlight. She was moored alongside another boat, not against the harbour wall, so how you got to her was anyone’s guess. She’d have to worry about that later. Someone was on deck, head bowed low over his task. Anna stopped herself from calling out. It was still too early to make herself known as one of the next round of guests. He looked so intent on what he was doing that she didn’t like to interrupt him. He probably had loads to do and she could hardly expect a warm welcome. Not yet, anyway. She wasn’t expected on board until after midday so she had some time to kill.
She made her way back along the quayside, wondering how best to while away the hours. She was always ahead of herself. Next term planned before the last one had finished, Governors’ reports written at least three weeks in advance, a five-year assembly plan so that she wouldn’t be caught ‘on the hop’ when some angry parent demanded to see her (thereby removing all capacity to think straight and search for that Bible-reading at the last minute). Being prepared. It was an obsession. She always made sure that she arrived anywhere an hour or so in advance. And here she was, early again, dammit. She was used to being the one in charge of her day, deciding when things should start and making all the rules. It felt strange to have to hang around, waiting to do someone else’s bidding. But maybe it would be good for her. A chance to shake off the straitjacket that her job imposed on her and pretend that she wasn’t a headmistress…just for a week.
A few hours later, new Celtic earrings swaying from her earlobes and a sizeable ‘dram’ of Oban whisky inside her, Anna was ready to meet the crew. She swayed across the quayside with her heavy bag and called across to the man working on deck.
“Hello there! Is this the Veronique?”
“That’s us all right. Come aboard!” He waved his arm at her, motioning her across.
Anna looked hesitantly across the chasm that lay between her and the boat. “Er…how exactly do I do that?”
“’Seasy…. just climb down that ladder in front of you and then come across the other boat.”
Anna looked down at the ladder fixed to the harbour wall. It was covered in green slime. The boat immediately next to it was moving up and down with the slap of the tide and the gap between them opened and closed ominously. She would have to time it right. She wasn’t quite sure whether the ‘tot’ of whisky had been a good idea after all and hoped that the chap on the boat wasn’t going to watch her every move. She lowered herself down, placing her feet carefully on the slippery rungs of the ladder. She moved down it one step at a time, pausing with both feet on each rung before moving on, like a child using stairs for the first time. Her bag bumped and slid against the slimy wall. She turned to face the boat moored alongside and waited for the gap to be at its smallest. Glancing up, she saw that she was still being watched so she gave an apologetic laugh,
“Not much used to boats. Shows, doesn’t it?”
“Don’t worry. You’ll soon get used to it. You’ll be shinning up and down things like there’s no tomorrow by the end of the week.”
Some hope, she thought. She stepped across and inwardly heaved a sigh of relief. There was a similar chasm between the two boats and a difference in height that meant quite a jump, but she was close to a strong hand and a firm grip now.
He reached out for her bag with one hand and grabbed her wrist with the other. Smiling, he hauled her across. “Welcome on board the Veronique. I’m Dan, the skivvy, and you are…?”
“I’m Anna,” she returned his smile and shook his hand, which was rough, the fingernails full of dirt. “What’s a skivvy do?”
“General slave to the captain’s wishes. Scrub the decks, haul the ropes, clean the showers. You name it, I do it. Whatever he wants.”
“Sounds like fun.” Anna wasn’t convinced.
“It is, believe me. Xander’s not here yet, so I’ll show you your quarters, where you can dump your bag. Then I’ll introduce you to the cook and first mate. You’ll get first pick of the bunks. You’re the first to arrive.”
Anna followed his stocky form and shock of curly, ginger hair across the deck. He disappeared down a hatch at the far end of the boat. She banged her knee as she climbed down and let out a yelp. The first of many bruises.
“Here we are. I’ve bagged this bunk ‘cos it’s near the anchor chain but you can have any of the others. I recommend the top ones. More room. These near the hatch are slightly larger too. Depends whether you want to be near the head. If you do, you’ll have to have one of the bunks at the far end.”
“The head?”
“That’s the loo, and the bathroom.”
Anna laughed, “It didn’t tell me that in my ‘Competent Crew’ book. Can see I’ve got a lot to learn.”
“You’ll get the hang of it. I’ll see you in the galley, when you’ve finished unpacking.”
Before Anna could say anything, he added, “That’s the kitchen, down in the stern. You know, the blunt end of the boat.”
His eyes were twinkling with amusement so Anna quipped, “Should think even a stupid person could find that, then.”
He winked at her and disappeared up the hatch.
Imagining herself clambering out sleepily from behind her curtains and creeping, semi-clad, to the loo in the middle of the night, Anna opted for one for the top bunks closest to the head. (Funny name for a toilet, she thought. How on earth did they arrive at that one?) She looked at the small space that was to be her territory for the next week. A single bunk. And there’d be no husband sleeping underneath her. Anna felt a wave of self-pity, as if she’d been abandoned. She unpacked the contents of her bag into one of the large drawers under the bottom bunk and arranged her personal possessions along the shelf above her own. Her own mini library. She gave a wry smile at her choice of novel for this holiday - Carol Shield’s ‘Happenstance’ - which was the story of a marriage break-up from both the wife’s and the husband’s point of view. Two different stories, back-to-back. She reflected that she and Mark seemed to be growing further apart these days. Already embarking on stories of their own for which the outcome was uncertain. She sighed and propped her bird and dolphin identification books against the novel, obliterating it from view. Alongside her books, she placed her camera, binoculars and notebook. It all looked very business-like. Her wash bag, make-up and hairbrush added a frivolous quality and looked slightly out of place in such spartan surroundings. This little shelf represented ‘Anna’. It was strange to be reduced to so few possessions. She wondered what the others would bring to put on their shelves and what they’d deduce about her personality from her things when they saw them there, all neatly arranged above her bunk. Would they guess her right? Probably not. Her possessions told something about her, but they didn’t reveal all. For one thing, her photo of Mark was tucked inside the novel. She couldn’t leave that out on show. It would look far too sentimental and wistful. What was she trying to prove? That she was a happily married woman?
At the hatch, she turned back to survey the scene. It looked like the set of a film. Empty, but full of the promise of events yet to take place. She clambered carefully up the ladder, taking care not to bang her knees this time, and walked across the deck.
A wonderful smell of freshly baked bread wafted up from the hatch leading to the galley. As Anna lowered herself down the steps, she saw Dan’s eyes travel swiftly from her feet, in her brand new deck shoes, up her calves and thighs, which were tightly clad in navy and white striped leggings. He raised an eyebrow appreciatively.
“Look out, Sally, here comes our first customer.”
Anna was expecting to see a capable, matronly person - what Mark would call ‘a ship in full sail’ - her large stomach bulging behind her frilly apron and her face beaming a welcoming, motherly smile. Instead she saw an elfin-faced girl with bright blue eyes, surrounded by pots and pans and stirring an enormous bowl of yellow cake mixture.
“Sorry – can’t shake hands – covered in ‘goo’ – as you can see.”
She waved her sticky fingers and Anna, rather ridiculously, waved back, not knowing what else to do. Better than a ‘pretend handshake’, she thought. First impressions were so important and she was desperate to get these first few moments with the crew right.
“Hello, I’m Anna. Pleased to meet you.” She couldn’t believe how unbearably formal that sounded. She’d been a headmistress for too long. Stuffy and pompous. She might as well have worn a suit and announced it to the world. Bugger.
“And I’m the cook, as you can see. I cater for all diets but not for people on diets. Can’t be bothered with them.”
She had obviously given Anna the ‘once-over’ and already put her in the ‘no cakes and biscuits’ category. As if to make her point, she plonked a large mug of tea and a plate of homemade biscuits firmly down in front of her.
Anna nibbled appreciatively at a chocolate-chip cookie. No point in upsetting the cook on the first day. She wondered what Mark would say if he could see her succumbing to sweet things after ten years’ denial. He’d told her he hated the little paunch that women often got and that he liked her with an entirely flat stomach. Although she had a metabolism that burned calories extremely fast, she had always refused cakes and biscuits because of him. Oh well, he wasn’t here to see, was he?
Suddenly, a clatter and a whoosh of air broke the peace, as a wiry form bounded through the hatch and down the ladder. Raw energy bursting in on them.
“Anyone seen Xander yet?”
Dan and Sally both shook their heads in unison. Without acknowledging Anna, the stranger turned to go as quickly as he’d arrived. She just had the time to take in his closely-cropped black hair, unshaven chin, tanned face and oriental eyes. Another youngster. He was as thin as a rake and dressed in shabby clothes, which were covered in grease. He obviously didn’t have time to hang about.
“Want a biscuit, Krish?” Sally called after him.
He turned back briefly, took four, grinned and shot back up the steps.
“Hey, leave some for the guests!” she shouted.
“Let them eat cake!” came the biscuit-filled retort.
“That was Krish, our first mate. He might slow down eventually so that we can introduce you,” laughed Dan.
“Not likely, though.” Sally poured the mixture into the tin and popped it in the Raeburn.
Anna liked the team atmosphere of the crew already. It reminded her of herself and her staff. At times she felt as though she was a captain of a ship. The burdens of the job certainly felt akin to sinking. She found herself wishing she could be part of this instead.
“Anything I can do to help?” She had a feeling the request would be refused by the extremely capable and ultra-efficient Sally, but her offer was genuine.
“Have another biscuit before the others arrive and consume the lot,” Sally beamed at her.
The others, it seemed, were arriving at last. The sound of footsteps overhead and bags being dragged across the deck was Dan’s signal to return to his post as welcoming committee. He swigged down his tea, grabbed a biscuit and, winking at Sally, disappeared.
Two by two, ‘the others’ came down to be plied with tea and biscuits. Introductions were brief and consisted of name, hometown and occupation. Why this need to categorise who you meet by what they do? Anna, despite herself, admitted that she was a headmistress of a girls’ school and regretted it instantly. They would all have her in twin-set and pearls now. Her fellow guests were Elizabeth and Paul (a nurse and a doctor), Simon and Sarah (computers and photography - but Sarah’s luggage included full diving gear, mask and flippers and so all were in awe of her), James and Rebecca from Surrey (she was a speech therapist and he was obviously so bored with his job that he didn’t even want to mention it. Could it have been accountancy?), Frank, a retired policeman and Wendy, a retired teacher. Except for the last two, they were all young couples without children, like Anna and Mark. Anna wondered where she would fit in to this group. Frank and Wendy had already struck a chord, being of roughly the same age and in similar circumstances. Anna was on her own. This time no Mark. If only he were here. She wondered what he was doing and immediately scolded herself for her weakness. She couldn’t spend the whole week thinking of him and wishing he were here, that would be really pathetic. She would have to try to put him out of her mind. She had a vision of herself teaming up with the ‘single spirits’ amongst the crew. Only one more of them to meet. The most important one was still missing.
Half an hour later, she got her first glimpse of him, when she was sitting up on the deck, gazing out over the harbour. He came striding confidently across the quayside, thick blue jacket tied up with rope, a ragged necktie like an old handkerchief at his throat, trousers that had ‘divorced his ankles and married his knees’ and bare feet in old, battered deck shoes. A real ‘sea dog’, but not old as she’d imagined.
He jumped down onto the deck, clapped his hands together, and smiled at everyone.
“Ready for the off, troops?”No doubt that this was Xander. He bustled round the deck, finding out everyone’s name but treating them all like old friends that had been on board for years. He gripped Anna’s hand and she found herself looking into piercing, sea-blue eyes that twinkled and undressed her instantly. His maleness hit her like a shockwave sending warmth coursing through her body. As he smiled at her, Anna knew that he had detected her body’s reaction to him and was amused at her inability to introduce herself with words. He winked and placed a hand on her shoulder, which only made matters worse. If this was the effect of his hand on her shoulder, what could his hands do to the rest of her body? Anna was shocked at herself for even thinking about it. She watched, still speechless, as he called to Dan and Krish to cast the ropes off. The crew went into action, like a fine-tuned machine, no words needed. Xander started up the engine and stood at the wheel, gazing out to sea. Suddenly it was as if no one else was there. Just him and his boat. He turned the wheel swiftly, first one way then the other, throwing his body weight with his movements, like a dance. Anna watched, impressed by his strength and control. As the Veronique slowly chugged out of the harbour, she couldn’t help feeling that she too had cast herself adrift in Xander’s hands. No turning back now.

Chapter 3
Safety at Sea

All the guests were gathered on deck. Time for Xander’s ‘safety talk’. Anna watched as Sally moved round, asking what everyone wanted to drink. Quite a choice. Tea - ordinary or herbal, coffee - ‘real’ or ‘decaff’ (with or without milk and sugar), hot chocolate or plain milk. Something for everyone. How was she going to remember it all? Anna had already forgotten what the first person had ordered! Sally disappeared below deck and emerged a few moments later with a heavy tray of steaming mugs and slabs of glistening cake. Everyone’s order was there. Impressive.
Anna got the feeling that Xander gave his safety talk simply because he had to. She sympathised and thought of her own job where safety of children was becoming so ridiculous that parents might as well wrap them up in cotton wool and not allow them out at all. The more she listened to Xander, the more she liked him.
“The Veronique is an excellent vessel,” he beamed at them, his pride obvious. “She is well equipped and conforms to all the endless regulations required by today’s safety-conscious society. We have lifejackets for everyone if you want to wear them when in the dinghy, but the choice is yours. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t have to and I certainly won’t insist on it. There are harnesses if you want to be attached to climb the rigging. Again, the choice is yours. You can do it with or without.”
He paused and looked at them, waiting for this information to sink in. Anna grinned at him. She liked what she was hearing and it fitted in with everything she’d imagined about the mysterious Xander before coming aboard. Here was someone who still believed in life being an adventure. Who still took risks. It was all a question of personal choice. You either went for it or you didn’t. And the way he offered the options also made it clear that he wouldn’t judge anyone by the decision they made. Anna couldn’t see herself wearing an enormous inflated orange lifejacket but she wasn’t so dismissive of the idea of a harness for the rigging. That crow’s nest was a helluva a way up.
Xander went on, “Emergency procedures are simple. All taken care of. There is no need to panic, we are prepared for everything. I can assure you she’s not going to sink but in case she did, you can all sit calmly and carry on blithely with whatever you are doing – drawing, painting, writing – and, as if by magic, life rafts will materialize complete with food, drink and shelter. Veritable little floating hotels.”
Anna thought his idea of hotels was slightly different to hers. She raised an eyebrow and he smiled.
“We also have EPIRBS on board which, although it sounds like a nasty disease, is in fact an emergency position indicating device which will relay our latitude and longitude to the rescue services.”
Everyone looked pretty impressed with this piece of information and those with a bit of boating experience nodded their heads knowingly.
“We haven’t had anyone go overboard yet, but there’s always a first.” He winked at Anna and she blushed, thinking that she was already going slightly overboard for him. It wasn’t going to take much. He looked amused and carried on, “IF someone goes overboard, those on deck should keep pointing to show the spot where the person fell in and shout ‘Man overboard!’ and the position based on the hands of the clock.” He gave a swift demonstration with straight, decisive arms and hands. “It’s also a good idea to throw something in the water to make the person more visible, as they can quickly disappear in a choppy sea. A towel is good….or a lifebelt, of course.”
Anna began to wonder what she had let herself in for. She wanted to feel safe but to ask for a lifejacket was rather wimpish so she obviously wasn’t going to do that. And, as for climbing the rigging, well, she’d need to be drunk to go up that high.
“Now we get to the really important bit.” He smiled at them. He was obviously enjoying himself now.
“The loos on a boat are called the heads. After use you must open the valve and flush noisily for at least twenty seconds. You must count before closing the valve. We’ll all be listening. It’ll seem like the longest twenty seconds you’ve ever known, especially if it’s in the middle of the night and you are waking everyone up. But if you don’t do it, the boat’s in danger of sinking. Also, no tampons, sanitary towels and the like down the head. Blocks the system. Understood?”
Everyone nodded and decided to put off going to the loo for as long as possible. Anna felt ridiculous because she’d blushed like a sixteen-year-old when this man had mentioned tampons and looked her straight in the eye. She was relieved when he changed the subject and produced his ocean chart to show them where they were going. She’d never seen a proper sea chart before. It was beautiful, all blue and yellow with the mountains and valleys beneath the sea’s surface mapped out. An unknown territory, waiting to be explored. They were heading through the Sound of Mull to Loch Sunart on the mainland. Who wanted to be woken early to see sea otters? Everyone.
The evening cooled but it remained light for a long time. Xander pointed out some porpoises slipping between the waves but Anna saw nothing. This was going to take some learning. She wondered if would she ever spot anything. They passed an eagle’s nest and seals and their pups lounging on rocks. It was magical. Sally appeared with mulled wine and nibbles and everything became a fuzz. A good start. Anna felt exhausted.

She had four and a half hour’s sleep. At 4.30 a.m. someone was whispering down the hatch about sea otters. They struggled into their clothes and crept, bleary-eyed and carrying their binoculars, up on deck where Xander was already crouched low, staring fixedly at a spot a few metres ahead. He didn’t look as though he had slept at all, or even got out of his clothes. His hair was a tousled, tangled mess. But his eyes, when they turned to Anna to acknowledge her, were alert and sparkling with enthusiasm.
“There’s a mother and her pup, just there in the reeds, see?”
You couldn’t fail to be infected by his excitement. It was as if he was seeing one for the first time. Anna focused her binoculars and watched, spellbound, as the mother played with her infant in the water, letting it ride on her stomach and, every so often, with a flip of her tail, disappearing beneath the surface. Lines of water and bubbles trailed after them. Anna gasped with delight. Xander watched her and smiled. When Anna turned away from the otters, she found his eyes looking straight into hers. Piercing blue. Now he didn’t even need to touch her. His eyes had the same effect. She felt the warmth of his gaze travel down through her body. Her heart skipped a beat and the warmth carried on down.
After breakfast, he produced the sea-chart again and showed where he planned to take them. They’d head up past the Point of Ardnamurchan and on to the Treshnish Isles and the promise of a Puffin colony.
Anna followed Xander’s finger on the map and wondered where she could get a copy. Apart from the fact that it intrigued her, with its contours showing the hidden landscape beneath the seabed, she knew she’d never remember all the facts for her diary. A map would help. She’d ask Xander later. At the moment he was too busy telling them what to look out for. He said they’d see porpoises and seals on the way. Larger ‘game’ would depend on sea conditions and luck.
Everyone listened intently as he described how they should post themselves around the boat and keep their eyes on the sea, looking for changes in the surface. A sighting meant calling out a position based on the numbers on a clock face just as for man overboard. You also needed to say whether the creature was travelling left to right or right to left. He told them that it was better to scan the whole horizon with the naked eye rather than focus on one tiny area with binoculars. Everyone nodded and those who’d already begun to scan the horizon through their binoculars as he was speaking, lowered them self-consciously and squinted into the distance.
“Porpoise! Two o’clock. Right to left!” shouted Krish.
Anna turned and it was gone. Typical. The same thing happened again and again with the crew doing most of the sighting. She simply wasn’t quick enough. When some of the guests began to spot them, Anna began to feel desperate.
“I’m going to sue my optician when I get home. This is hopeless,” she wailed. “Contacts or binoculars, I can’t see a thing.”
A hearty laugh behind her made her turn. Xander. He patted her gently on the back, unleashing a physical magnetism that swamped her. Weak at the knees was such a cliché, but it was true. It got worse. He moved his head closer to hers and leaned in so that they shared the same view of the ocean as he explained. Anna tried to listen but it was difficult with pulses of electrical warmth coursing through her body.
“It’s just practice, Anna. You’ll get the hang of it. You have to know what you are looking for. Familiarise yourself with how the sea’s surface looks normally and then watch for changes. Only a small part of a porpoise emerges from the water as it swims. There’s one now, straight ahead of you, see?”
Anna scrutinised the sea’s surface and saw a sliver of black, like a semi-circle, peep above the surface and then, finally, a tiny fin before it disappeared.
“I saw it, I saw it!” She jiggled up and down with excitement like one of her six-year-old pupils, beamed at Xander and began scanning the horizon again, frowning with concentration. She was aware of him looking at her for a moment, obviously amused by her intensity, before moving off round the boat to talk to the other guests.
Their next visitor was larger and easier to spot. Dan saw it first. He pointed to a group of gannets in the distance. They were feeding by dive-bombing into the sea, beaks first and wings closing for the final bullet-like entry. A flurry of activity over a larger sea creature.
“Minke whale! Ten o’clock, left to right!”
Xander motored a little nearer, expertly steering the Veronique to a better vantage point, then cut her engine. He called down to Sally so that she wouldn’t miss out on the action. Both she and Krish shinned up the rigging and sat in the crow’s nest. One or two of the guests climbed up halfway. No one asked for a harness.
Dead calm. The boat swayed gently, creaking slightly. No one moved. No one spoke. All eyes were fixed on the water to see where the whale would surface next. Anna chanced a look up at the crow’s nest where Sally’s and Krish’s legs were swaying precariously as they traced an arc in the sky. Mmmm, don’t think you’ll get me up there, with or without a harness, she thought. The mere act of looking up there made her feel sick. How she wished she could be brave and fearless like Sally. She would have to get up there if she wanted to impress Xander and she knew that, in a crazy way, that was what she wanted to do. Not today though, so it was eyes back on the horizon and feet firmly planted on deck.
Suddenly the whale surfaced again. Everyone cheered loudly. She had travelled a huge distance under the water and was tracing a circle around the Veronique.
They tracked her for an hour, whooping for joy each time she emerged. Anna looked around at her. Something was happening on board this boat. People were becoming less inhibited and this was only their first day. An exhilarating feeling of freedom had overtaken them all. It was like a drug. It felt like you could do whatever you wanted and no one would care. Anna had been leaping into the air and cheering with Xander right beside her doing the same.
She turned to him, her eyes sparkling with excitement, “MAGIC! But I didn’t get a single photo. Oh dear. Forgot all about my camera.” She looked down at her flashy Olympus, bought especially for this holiday, and sighed. It was no good hanging round her waist, was it?
“Breathe it in, Anna. Live the moment.” He held her gaze and they both breathed in deeply together. He was right. How could she forget this moment? Living life was better than trying to record it. God this man was something else.
And then the whale was gone, the spell broken. Everyone returned to normal. Sally disappeared below deck to prepare lunch and Xander started up the motor. Krish followed him.
Anna watched them as they stood chatting at the helm. Now, there was a good photo. Krish so dark and slim and Xander standing beside him, looking strong and, well, magnificently muscular. They were laughing together and, once or twice, Xander glanced back at her. She raised her camera. She hadn’t a clue what they were saying but something about the way Xander looked over his shoulder and smiled at her made her body fizz with anticipation. Were they talking about her or was she imagining it?
She got her answer later on. After lunch Krish and Xander disappeared to the engine room down in the bowels of the boat and Anna, who was sitting at the stern taking pictures of the spectacular scenery, overheard their conversation when they returned to the cabin. They were obviously filling in the log at first and planning the route for the rest of the afternoon and were unaware that anyone was close enough on deck to hear them. When Anna heard her name she wished herself a thousand miles away but she couldn’t move without making a noise. It was Krish who started it.
“That Anna’s a live-wire, isn’t she?”
“Not what I imagined when I read her booking form. Headmistress indeed. Hard to believe.” Anna smiled. Who said eavesdroppers never heard good of themselves?
“Bet she’s one sparky headmistress”
“Reckon I could handle a bit of discipline coming from her.” They both laughed and Anna flushed.
“Shame about your golden rule ‘No Fraternising with the Punters”. Looks like the captain might be the first to break it if you ask me.”
Anna imagined Krish wagging his finger in reproof.
Xander’s voice turned serious. “I like people like her on board, you know that. People who’re not afraid to show their enthusiasm. People who haven’t lost their sense of wonder. It fires the others up.”
“Fires you up, more like. You’d better watch it, Xander. I can feel the flames from here.”