The blog will now be devoted not to boat building but to my 82-year-old Vertue, Sally II, now undergoing a well needed refit at Johnson & Loftus in Ullapool (and gliding...)

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

My, How those Long Winter Nights Fly Past....

An extract from The Trouble With Old Boats (available from all good remainder shops, Blythswood, Oxfam and secondhand bookshops, priced from 99p, slightly foxed)

Dark and windy night in our Highland crofthouse, no telly, read everything, so we had the Ouija board out. It took me a moment to twig that I’d picked up Horatio Nelson, and it came as quite a shock, especially as I’d asked to be put through either to Horace, a forebear on my mother’s side who was purported to have stashed away a fortune in Kruger rands before passing away while fishing the Test last August, or failing that another relative, Horatio Sprague, US consul in Gibraltar when they towed in the Mary Celeste. No matter; what did England’s most celebrated admiral want, I wondered?
‘Need to set a few things straight, young man.’
Bee in his cocked hat about yachtsman’s ignorance of flag etiquette maybe? Something trivial from the great man. That was often the way with Nelson.
‘’Bout time we buried this Trafalgar nonsense once and for all. What’s it bin? Two hundred years? Bless me soul. Can’t ye leave me old bones in peace?’
Things were looking up. I grabbed my notebook. ‘But we do it to honour your memory, our hero.’
 ‘Well don’t. And that popinjay who prances around impersonating me with that woman on his arm, ’strewth, they trouble me sorely.' At which I think he meant that actor who impersonates Nelson at nautical gatherings, with a slim Ms Hamilton on his arm.
'Pah! My Emma was, bless me soul, a deuced sight more generously endowed than that slip of a girl. No tumblehome to speak of. Careening her’d be like heaving down a pinnace. My Emma was a first rate. Ship o’ the line. Broad in the beam, well fastened. When I came alongside, threw the grapples and fired me opening broadside…’
I tried to cut him short but he carried on it that vein for some time, speaking of buttock lines, bottoms and stays – naval stuff, you can probably imagine – until I managed to interrupt him, and advise that we lived in more prurient times, and besides, my editor was a Quaker. I lied. He sighed.
‘Pish. Where was I?’
‘Ah yes. Trafalgar. Struck down in the thick of the fighting.Ticket to immortality and a prime spot in St Paul’s. Athough I’d have preferred a more weatherly gage. The Abbey perhaps?’
‘So the sparkly medals and the full uniform on the poop deck was on purpose, to attract attention? Kind of, how do I put it, "death wish"?' I ventured.
‘Nonsense. Remember when I left Portsmouth? Dashing down the steps to me cutter in full kit? Gets on board the old Vicky, stows me gear, weighs anchor and we're off Cornwall when – bless me – seems Emma’s forgotten to pack me second best. She’s not only forgot me old brown trousers, me smalls, me cravats, me silk stockings, but she’s sent me off with a trunk load of her stuff. So there I am, off to fight the Frenchies with seventy-two pairs of camisole knickers, in a fetching shade of pink, a t’gallant’s-worth of lace petticoats, fourteen bodices and seven ostrich feather bonnets. 
'Typical of the woman. Body like a goddess, brain like a colander.’
‘So it was either the full dress, medals and all, or Emma’s underwear on deck, your lordship?’
‘Exactly. Pink knickers and a feathery hat - not likely to inspire men in the thick of a sea battle. Of course, I kept that for the privacy of me own cabin. Nothing like a freshly laundered pair of knickers on a long passage. Remember we chased them  from Ushant to the Indies and back before we cornered them off Trafalgar. Clean underwear twice a week. Splendid.’
‘One more thing, your admiralship. That “Kiss me Hardy” stuff?’
‘Pah. Delirium. I was fast fading and here’s this vision of sobbing loveliness in lace bending over me, bodice heaving, eyes brimming. By my life! It was my Emma! Here at my last! Bliss! So, indeed, yes; I did whisper the immortal words “Kiss me” and “Hardy”, but not in the same breath.
‘When I saw Emma me heart leapt. “Kiss me”, I croaked. Then a pause as the mist cleared and there, instead of my dear one, was me old whiskery mate, flag captain Hardy, inches from me face, ear cocked for me last words, not the blessed Emma after all. “… Hardy?!!!”, I cried, with some measure of surprise. 
'Too late. Great wet smacker, on the forehead thank God. Ah well. Beats that fellow whose last words were something about bringing him one of Mr Bellamy’s meat pies, though I wished I’d thought of “I think I can smell burning”. Who said that? Brilliant, quite brilliant, don’t yer think, young man? Must look him up. He'll be lurking about up here somewhere...’

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