This Year Maybe



This Year Maybe

West Indies Station. Leeward Islands. HMS Savage, 98, Captain Heron.

The Captain was in the great cabin, alone save for the ghosts of long dead comrades and vanquished foes. The seams of reason loosened by decades of war and unpicked by a steady trickle of laudanum. He couldn’t remember their names, couldn’t remember their lives but he could remember every face, every death. Lately the faces of the nameless dead crowded in on him until they had more substance, more reality, than his flesh and blood lieutenants. Heron was content with his ghosts, he knew them, trusted them. Not so the lieutenants. He trusted only the dead. Maybe this year he would join them.

North Sea Fleet. Leith Roads. December 31st 1800. HMS Duke , 74, First Lieutenant Kirkwood.

The First Lieutenant was alone on the weather side of the quarterdeck. As First Lieutenant of a ship of the line he was no longer required to stand watch. It was an enviable position for a young officer, a step away from the coveted rank of post captain. But Kirkwood was no longer a young officer. Thirty years he had served, thirty years doggedly climbing the ladder of promotion while those with interest and influence vaulted over him. In the bitter dead of the middle watch failure gloated over him. Not for him the gold swab hanging heavy on his shoulder. Kirkwood was dismissed as an “old officer”. His name would never appear on the hallowed list to progress slowly and inexorably upwards, reaching the rank of admiral in comfortable retirement. That was not to be his lot. But tonight the ship was his, as the door to the old year closed and the new year beckoned. The captain was ashore entertaining the port admiral, the lieutenant of the watch was on the forecastle, the weather side of the quarterdeck was his. This year, maybe this year Kirkwood’s name would join the list

Channel Fleet. Off Ushant. December 31st 1800. HMS Stag, 32, Sailing Master Cowan.

The Sailing Master was in the waist, aft of the mainmast shrouds, listening to the irregular hollow rattle of the deadeyes and the creak of the backstays. As master of the frigate the quarterdeck was his by rights but this was his chosen station. From here Cowan could listen. From here he could feel the mood of the ship as she heaved and rolled, sullen and obdurate as her truculent crew, worn down by endless months of blockade. There was no one else to listen. The captain cared more for his decanter than for his ship. The first lieutenant saw little beyond his own vanity. The new third lieutenant might have promise, Cowan didn’t have the measure of him yet. But he had the measure of the ship. He knew ships, had spent his life aboard them, and he knew this was a fine one. With a resolute captain, dauntless officers and a well drilled crew Cowan knew that he could all but make her talk. This year, maybe this year she would fly.

Mediterranean Fleet, Port Mahon. December 31st 1800. HMS Lyon, 28. Third Lieutenant Paton, Captain of Marines Maxwell.

The Third Lieutenant was standing awkwardly in the Captain of Marines’ cabin having presented him with a lump of coal bartered from the galley at considerable expense. He had no idea why Maxwell had been so insistent that he bring the coal to his cabin before the bell struck middle watch but he would have brought the moon without question had he been asked. The Marine Captain received the lump of coal with a broad smile.

“Thank you,” he said.

“You are most welcome,” Paton replied with an overly formal bow.

“Wait John.” Maxwell caught his hand. The Lieutenant glanced nervously at the thin canvas door partitioning the tiny cabin from the wardroom.

“I have the middle watch. I ought to go.”

“Wait, please. Just wait a moment.” The taller man pulled him closer. Paton could no more refuse him than he could stop the year from turning.

“It’s not safe Max…”

Maxwell pressed one warm rough finger to his lips.

“Let me hold you. Just for a moment. That’s all.”

Strong arms slid round his waist, dark hair brushing against his cheek. Maxwell was warm and solid in his arms. He smelt of tobacco and wool and something else that Paton could never quite put his finger on but which turned his head like wine. They stood in silent embrace, breathing each other in as the bell tolled the middle watch. And tolled and tolled and tolled, as all across the anchorage ship after ship after ship rang out the old year and rang in the new.

As the peals died away across the water Maxwell raised his head and kissed Lieutenant John Paton. His lips were cool and soft. He tasted of brandy.

“Are you going to tell me what all this is about, Max?”

Maxwell smiled sheepishly.

“Just nonsense. When I was a child in Scotland my seanair used to say that whatever you were doing at the Bells would be your lot for the rest of the year. So you see…”

Paton did see.

“And the coal?”

“The coal is for luck.”

Paton laughed, shook his head and turned to leave.

“Do you think we’ll need it?”

Maxwell held his gaze, blue and steady.

“This year? Maybe. Who knows. It won’t go amiss.”

Anteros is besotted with the Age of Sail and is particularly fascinated by issues relating to sexuality and gender during 18th and early 19th century.   She blogs regularly on a wide range of topics relating to this period.  Recent posts have explored the experiences of British prisoners of war during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and the use of “off colour” language in the Royal Navy in the late 18th century.   Along with Alex Broughton, Anteros is currently researching the lives and careers of the 1797 crew of HMS Indefatigable at the time of the frigate’s famous engagement with the French ship the Droits de L’Homme .   Alex and Anteros hope to retell the story of this iconic action from the perspective of the individual officers and men.

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38 Responses

  1. What a fascinating piece. I love the parallel construction of it. This, from a Midwesterner who has never seen the see and is scared to death of water. Is this part of a larger work? Thank you for posting it.

    • Thanks, glad you enjoyed this 🙂 This is a one off piece but you’ll find a range of related writing over at my blog if you’re interested.

  2. Very nice. It sounds lonely until the last one, where there is a spark of warmth and comfort.

  3. Aw, just lovely.

    Now, are you pimping this over at LJ Anything AOS? And if you’re not, can I?

  4. Oh, I liked this! Thanks for posting.


  5. Lovely! Nice angst and wonderful setting. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Oh, that was great. 🙂

  7. How very romantic of Maxwell 🙂
    Beautifully balanced story. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    • Thank you. I’m not sure if Maxwell is a hopeless romantic or just hoping to get his hands on Lt Paton as often as possible over the course of the coming year. Possibly both 😉

  8. Very interesting. The pictures of all the ships are a nice touch – though the moment between Max and John was definitely the highlight for me.

    • I suspect Max and John agree.

      All the ship pictures are public domain images taken from wikimedia commons. They are more or less representative of the ships descried in each passage. Just don’t look too closely at the image of HMS Savage, she is actually the Russian 74 Azov!

  9. I liked that a lot.

  10. Very impressive period detail, Anteros. Small, effective things like a canvas door, the rattle of deadeyes and the creak of the backstays, which give it believability. Nice work.

  11. I love the nested structure, and the very sweet moment between Paton and Maxwell. A wonderful bonbon of a story! Thanks for sharing it!

  12. What it must have been like for the sailors on those ships. A small but intimate look into their lives, Paton and Maxwell in particular. Just lovely.

  13. Who would’ve thought that coal could be such a romantic gift?! Very sweet. I liked the snippets of what the ordinary sailors were thinking. I can’t imagine how hard that life must’ve been for those men.

  14. Ahhh, I enjoyed that very much. I love the way you can sketch out and imply an entire character/background/story in such a small space, giving us an evocative snapshot before departing for another ship and another character.

  15. What a fascinating project! I look forward to seeing more.

    • It certainly is a fascinating project! Look out for Alex Broughton’s forthcoming Advent Calendar entry for a glimpse of one of the moving stories this research has uncovered.

  16. Ooh, that’s lovely! I could smell the sea. I must look your books up. What do you recommend I should try first?

    • Erm… books sorry! However if you pop over to my LJ blog there’s all kinds of other bits and pieces of writing on the subject of the Age of Sail. Thanks fore reading and commenting!

  17. It is very much too bad that you don’t have a book out. I would definitely buy it!

  18. The things sailors hope for – the worn down captain and especially the poor thwarted lieutenant – making post captain was such a bench amrk of dignity – and wat ouot of poverty even
    and as for being in love enough to find a piece of coal to bring – I feel very close to all of them!
    thank you – as always !

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