By Rena George
Ellie shivered as rain pattered noisily against the glass. She could picture the dark, storm-lashed seafront and the waves slapping the harbour wall.
Below their bedroom window the wind had caught the tall fronds of her prized Yucca, hurling the pot with a loud crash onto the patio.
She sighed. “The lifeboat is going to be called out again. Isn’t it?”
“I don’t know, maybe not.” Rob shrugged, following her gaze to the window. “Not many boat owners would launch in this. They’re not mad”
“But that’s exactly my point,” she insisted, annoyance creeping into her voice, “some of these little boat people are mad!”
But Rob had already turned to gather her up and smother any further comments with a kiss. He adored the way her eyes flashed with indignation when she was riled. In fact, he adored everything about her.
Bringing up another woman’s children was never going to be easy, but Ellie managed it with a compassion that touched his heart. And now they were a family – his lovely wife, Ellie, six-year-old Toby and Ben, who was four. Rob never doubted he was the luckiest man in the world. It was why he considered his role as coxswain of the Cromley Lifeboat a privileged way of repaying some of that good fortune.
Later, with the storm still raging, Rob considered what Ellie had said. She was wrong, of course. Not every would-be sailor who went out in choppy weather was mad, although he did often wish that some of them would be a bit more responsible.
Her voice cut through his reflections.
“…and then you and the others have to go and pick up the pieces,” she was saying, as though there had been no gap in the previous conversation.
“It’s my job, Ellie,” he said quietly.
“But it’s not your job! For heavens sake, Rob…” The old frustration flared, giving an edge to her voice. “The garden centre is your job, not the lifeboat. No-one makes you rush down there as soon as some idiot in a boat, he can’t handle, gets into trouble.”
“It’s not always like that, you know it’s not – ” but the piercing bleep from the RNLI pager left the rest of the sentence unsaid.
Ellie watched in the darkened room as he leapt out of bed, pulled on jeans, sweater and trainers and leant over to kiss her cheek.
“We’ll all be fine,” he assured her, “and back before you know it.”
The door closed quietly behind him, leaving Ellie alone in the big empty bed.
She listened for the sound of the twin maroons above the storm. These were set off from the lifeboathouse to signal the imminent launch of the town’s lifeboat. In days gone by they would have been the only alert to call the lifeboat crew to action.
Hardly necessary today, she knew, but it was a nice tradition that the town expected.
She could picture all of them at that moment – Rob, the lifeboat coxswain, Jamie Steel, its mechanic, big Dan McPherson, second cox, and all the others – hurrying down to the harbour. She could picture all of them struggling into their bright orange survival suits and climbing aboard the Mary Ellen before she hurtled down the slipway and into the sea.
These night call-outs were the worst. Ellie never sleep after Rob left. She couldn’t bear to lie in the dark imagining the dangers a tiny lifeboat might face out alone in the blackness of the sea.
As always, she went to the boys’ room because it was comforting just being close to them. Toby, big and boisterous in his waking hours, looked heartbreakingly small and innocent curled up under his duvet. The fringes of long, dark lashes flickered for a second and he smiled in his sleep as Ellie softly touched his cheek.
Ben was in his usual sleeping position in the other little bed, spread-eagle on his back, duvet flung aside. Ellie grinned down at him as she drew up the covers and tucked him in. She loved these little boys like her own.
Toby had been two and his little brother just six months old when she first met them at the pre-school nursery where she worked. She smiled wistfully, remembering Toby’s eyes, big and watchful, as he had gazed fascinated around the noisy room where the other children were playing. Baby Ben slept on, still tucked up in the car seat, slung over his father’s arm.
They were a solemn little group. And Ellie’s heart went out to them even before she knew the sadness of their circumstances.
In the following weeks Ellie saw Toby’s confidence grow. And she was pleased when Rob told her how much his little boy now looked forward to the play sessions. Even Ben stayed awake and positively basked in the attention lavished on him by adults and children alike.
There was something very restorative about watching youngsters at play. Despite the noise and, at times, apparent chaos, seeing that engrossment and sheer delight on the little faces was positively therapeutic.
Just being with the little ones had certainly helped Ellie – and she suspected at the time that it was having a similar effect on Rob. No one had actually told her that Rob’s wife, Morven, had died earlier that year in a terrible car accident, leaving him to bring up his two little sons alone. But she’d overheard some of the other parents discussing it and was shocked.
Ellie’s own hurt over her broken engagement to Richard, who’d decided he wasn’t ready to settle down after all, could hardly compare with the trauma Rob must have been going through. But she could empathise with the sad, empty look she sometimes caught in his eyes.
Working with the nursery children had been her salvation. A new romance was the last thing on her mind – certainly not one that involved a ready-made family. However, over the weeks since Rob first started bringing his children to the nursery’s parent and toddler sessions, she found herself drawn to him.
Their initial brief, smiling greetings soon became more relaxed chats. By the end of that first year they had become firm friends and Ellie was increasingly included in family days out, trips to the zoo, park, even birthday parties. And so, their friendship had gradually blossomed into something much deeper.
Ellie and Rob were married two days after Ben’s third birthday – and there was hardly a dry eye in Cromley’s little church when the happy couple, followed by two excited little brothers, made their way up the aisle.
Eighteen blissfully happy months, she thought, watching from the boys’ window as a grey, watery dawn creep over the rooftops. Through the gap between the houses Ellie could just glimpse the sea. Soon the tourists would be emerging from their B& Bs, fully breakfasted, and hoping for a break in the weather so they could spill out onto the proms.
On warm summer days, when the waves were more docile and lapped the shingle beach, children were encouraged to paddle and take to the water in inflatable dinghies. Grown-ups would set sail in little leisure boats that had been stored away all winter.
But the sea was in a different mood this morning. Today it was dark and hostile – greedy for revenge on all who took it for granted.
Ellie tried to visualise them now. Rob, at the wheel of the Mary Ellen, steering a course through the buffering waves, the little lifeboat disappearing down into the troughs, and then re-appearing to bravely crest the peaks. She had no idea what the call was this time. She didn’t want to know. Not knowing was her way of dealing with the familiar knot of fear every time the lifeboat launched.
Rob’s family had a long tradition of producing lifeboatmen. His father, James, himself a much respected former coxswain, was the recipient of several RNLI bravery awards and during his years of service had saved many lives.
“It doesn’t get more special than that,” Rob had said. “Just imagine, Ellie,” his voice filling with pride, “imagine how it must feel to know you had a hand in saving all those people.”
Ellie was proud of her husband’s dedication to the lifeboat service, and she really did try to share his viewpoint. But the bottom line was, he was risking his life.
Rob wasn’t the one who stayed behind and worried when the lifeboat was being tossed on a vast seemingly empty sea as its crew searched for vessels in trouble. She
could only imagine how it would pitch and roll as the waves crashed over its bow, forcing those on board to grab the rails and hang on for dear life. Why did they do it? Why did they risk their lives for people they didn’t even know – when their own families were at home depending on them? They couldn’t save everybody!
She turned at the sound of Toby yawning and stretching as he opened his eyes. Ellie had first noticed the worsening weather during last night’s evening meal. The sunny room had grown dark within minutes amid the family chatter. Rob followed his wife’s gaze to the threatening sky.
“Storm’s coming,” he said, “The glass has been falling.”
Ellie shivered now at the memory.
Like most lifeboat people, Rob had a VHF radio at home, keeping him in touch with incidents happening around the coast. But it was never switched on when he was at sea. If his lifeboat work was to fit into their lives together then it had to be something that he went off to do on his own. Ellie would listen to his tales and share his adventures when he came home, but she didn’t want to be more a part of it than that.
With each call-out she would stifle the recurring, irrational fear that this might be the trip from which Rob didn’t return The thought was terrifying – and of course, irrational – but what if…just what if… it wasn’t?
If the boys sensed how tired and distracted she seemed later that morning, all thought of it vanished as they sat at the big, scrubbed wooden table tucking into their bowls of porridge and mashed banana.
The boys finished their breakfast then Toby went in search of his schoolbag as Ben, who had managed to get a moustache of sticky porridge around his mouth, struggling down from the table.
The everyday domestic scene, compared to what Rob might be facing at this very moment, turned her heart over. But she knew she must hide these fears from the boys.
“You little monkey,” she said, breaking into a grin as she wiped Ben’s protesting face. “Just look at the mess you’ve made!”
Bundled into their outdoor clothes they headed for the car and drove through the rain-lashed streets to the little school that housed both the primary and nursery classes.
The ring of her mobile phone as she pulled into the school car park sent her heart racing. She grabbed the phone, not wanting to see the word that was flashing there. Lifeboathouse.
Her hand shook as she pressed the answer button.
“Ellie? Is that you?”
It was Frank Murray. He would only be ringing if Rob was in trouble!
In a voice that didn’t sound like her own, she said. “Yes, Frank, what’s wrong?”
The next few minutes passed in a daze. As she shepherded the boys into the school building, Maggie Todd, the head teacher came hurrying to greet them.
“We know about the lifeboat,” she said, “It’s been on the news.”
Other staff members came forward and took charge of Toby and Ben.
Mrs Todd’s smile attempted to calm a frantic Ellie. “Don’t worry about these two. We’ll take good care of them. Get yourself down to the lifeboathouse.”
Black clouds, chased by the wind, threw down squalls of stinging rain as Ellie sped
through the town to the harbour. She parked by the lifeboat station. Wet hair plastered to her face, she hurried through the boathouse, past the vast empty space where the lifeboat normally stood, to the crews’ quarters at the back. A little group of women – wives, mothers, girlfriends – were gathered around the VHF radio. Each tense face registering its owner’s concentration on intermittent snatches of conversation between coastguards and search vessels.
Frank Murray, his bushy brows drawn together, came forward to bring Ellie into the group. The others gave her a distracted nod. As lifeboat secretary the retired accountant regarded it his duty to be in the lifeboat house monitoring the progress of rescues like this one.
“We’ve got the Kenton Lifeboat out searching. We should hear something soon,” he said, in what he hoped was a comforting voice.
Ellie held her head. “I don’t believe this,” she said. “Lifeboats don’t go missing! Where are they, Frank?”
“They are in one of the safest vessels afloat, that’s where,” he assured. “Lifeboats don’t sink Ellie, you know that.”
She did know. How often had Rob told her that the RNLI insisted on having the best, most high tech vessels for the fleet? Crew safety was paramount.
“They’ll find them alright,” Frank said firmly, but couldn’t quite muster the assuring smile.
But will they find them alive, Ellie thought. The sea chose its victims randomly. It was no respecte of husband, families…lifeboat crews. She pushed the thought away.
“Tell me,” she said quietly, “Tell me everything!
He ran a hand across his forehead.
“We had call at five-thirty this morning, as you know. The yacht, Lively Lady, with two people on board was in trouble 12 miles north east of the headland. Her mast was down and she was pretty helpless. The skipper sent out a Mayday.
Someone put a mug of steaming coffee in front of Ellie, and Frank continued, “By the time Rob and the crew reached the yacht, the casualties were in a pretty bad way.”
He opened his hands to the ceiling and shrugged. “That was the last we heard.”
“How long ago was that?” asked Ellie, trying to keep her voice steady.
“Nearly three hours,” a small trembly voice behind her said. It was Jan McPherson, wife of the Second Cox, and Rob’s best friend, Dan.”
If, like everyone else in the room, she had been listening on the VHF radio that Rob kept at home, she would have known all this. She suddenly felt ashamed.
She actively avoided discovering any information about the lifeboat once it had launched. If Rob had a really difficult time out on a rescue then she didn’t want to know about it – certainly not while it was happening. That way she could convince herself that he was safe. What madness. What cowardliness.
Her man was out there with the others, all risking their lives to help people in trouble. She should be proud of that! She should be shouting it from the rooftops! Her husband was coxswain of the lifeboat. He was a hero – but his wife was a coward!
Ellie’s world had assumed new and frightening dimensions. The situation she had never allowed herself to consider, because it was too dreadful to face, was here…and this time, there was no turning her back on it.
It was then that she noticed a face she didn’t recognise. A woman, cheeks white and pinched, sat apart from the others.
Frank caught her questioning look. “This is Mrs Appleton,” he said, beckoning the woman over. Then more gently, “The Lively Lady is her husband’s yacht.”
For an instant, Ellie felt her anger flare. This woman’s family had caused all this distress, put their men at risk! But the feeling disappeared almost as soon as it started. One look at the distraught face told her this woman was suffering like the rest of them.
“Frank says there were two people on the yacht?”
“My husband Pete, and our son, Simon.” The woman’s face crumpled. “Simon’s only 12,” she cried.
Ellie’s arm went round Louise Appleton’s heaving shoulders. The others watched… a sea of sad faces, each with her own thoughts. But none of them walked over to join them.
“It wouldn’t have been their fault, you know, Louise was insisting tearfully, whatever happened out there, it wasn’t down to them. Nobody can sail a boat better than Pete!”
Ellie felt sorry for the woman. “No-one blames your husband,” she said gently. But she feared the body language of the others might be telling a different story.
For a while nobody spoke, then Louise’s thin, shaky voice broke the silence.
“They don’t take any chances” she said defiantly, “Pete wouldn’t, not with Simon on board. The Lady is always properly equipped. He checks everything before sailing.”
Ellie squeezed her shoulders and managed a reassuring smile. “Lets just concentrate on getting everybody back safely,” she said.
The high tide was ebbing back now, leaving an untidy deposit of seaweed and debris on the beach. Louise Appleton was staring unseeingly at the window – and the waves beyond. She looked lost.
Was she right? Ellie wondered, did the others resent this poor woman? Did they resent Ellie herself? She had certainly suspected that when Rob first introduced her into this close-knit fishing community to which most of the lifeboat crew belonged. For even though she had now lived in the town for more than five years, the vague suspicion that she was not quite “one of them” had still lingered.
Did these women still feel like that about her? Ellie glanced at each anxious face – and saw a mirror image of herself.
Whatever had gone before, she realised with a start, there were no “outsiders” here now! Not even Louise Appleton, she thought. She’s one of us!
Ellie suddenly felt a desperate need to hug Toby and Ben. They didn’t know what was going on, and they were too little to be told. But before long they would sense that something was happening – something different – something frightening. She wanted so much to protect them from that.
Fishing in her bag for her mobile, she rang Mrs Todd.
“Toby and Ben are fine,” assured the head teacher. “Don’t worry about them, Ellie. We’ll take good care of the boys until you come to pick them up.”
Ellie thanked Mrs Todd. But the reassurance she needed was to have these little boys, who looked so much like their father, hugged tightly in her arms. She swallowed the lump in her throat. She would go to them soon, and she would tell them how much she loved them. She would take care of them…always! She knew that!
Louise’s voice brought her back to the present.
“It was supposed to have been a treat for Simon,” she was saying.
“Simon, our son, Simon. He’s been poorly, you see. He broke his leg playing football and has been in plaster for weeks. This trip on the Lively Lady was to celebrate his plaster coming off.”
The memory of her son’s delight made her smile. “He was so excited about this trip…just him and his dad, out together,” she went on. Then, realising she had an audience, “They don’t do that very often, you see. Pete runs this little electronics company. It’s a full-time job just keeping it going – sometimes he’s working eighteen hours a day. He has this idea that he is building up the business for Simon. But really,” she said sadly, “all Simon wants is to see his father more often. That’s why this was going to be so special.”
“How long have you had the boat?” Ellie asked.
“Then your husband must be a very experienced sailor.”
“Very,” replied Louise with pride. “Good enough to have been in the Fastnet.”
Ellie wasn’t sure she knew what the Fastnet was – some kind of yacht race – she thought, but it obviously contributed to his being a competent yachtsman.
She frowned. “Why did they sail when the weather was so bad? It was a question all the women wanted answered.
“It wasn’t like this when they left.”
“But the forecasts…?”
“No, you don’t understand,” said Louise. “These storms can spring up from nowhere along this coast – and disappear just as quickly.”
Her glance around the room appealed for support and one or two nodded sympathetically.
Louise bit her lip. “The first I knew of the trouble they were in was when Pete rang on his mobile. He said the mast was going and he had radioed the coastguards.” Her voice shook. “That was when I heard a terrible crack. Then the phone went dead!”
Initial hostility was turning to sympathy and Louise could feel the other women warming to her.
Waves of shame began to flood in. She couldn’t continue to lie.
She hadn’t been honest with them – not completely – and they deserved better.
In a quiet, hesitant voice, she told them, “I haven’t told you everything, and I feel ashamed. It – didn’t happen like I said.”
She had everyone’s attention now.
“Pete would never have set out when bad weather was forecast. He is far too responsible to do that. But this time he felt he had no choice. He went to find our son!”
Ellie was astonished.
“But you said…I thought they were together.”
“Not at that point,” explained Louise. “Simon was devastated when his father told him they would have to postpone the trip because of the weather. He thought it was an excuse. It was sunny at that time, you see. Anyway, Simon slammed out of the house.
“Pete and I thought he had just gone to cool off. We didn’t know he had taken the Lively Lady’s little dinghy and set off for… well.. goodness knows where. He wasn’t thinking straight.”
She drew another laboured breath and continued.
“The first we knew about this was when Simon got through on his mobile. The dinghy’s little outboard had stalled and he couldn’t restart it. He was stranded.
“The weather was getting worse, but he was still in sight of land and was able to give his dad a rough position.
“ Pete didn’t waste any time. He rushed off in the Lively Lady to find Simon. But the weather…” her voice trailed off. She shrugged.
“The rest you know.”
Jan McPherson was the first to join them. “It’ll be alright, love,” she said, putting her arms around both women. “The lifeboat will find them.”
Glancing at Ellie, she added: “Our men know what they are doing, ask Ellie here.”
All three exchanged tearful smiles. They didn’t notice the others gathering round, but the two groups of women had suddenly become one and everybody was hugging each other.
Ellie felt the tears she had been fighting back all day suddenly come brimming over.
But they were now tears of pride, not self-pity. Her family here in Cromley was much bigger than she had imagined. She was part of this lifeboat family and they would support each other.
Mugs of coffee were handed round and words fell away as everyone listened to the intermittent snatches of conversation from the radio. The calm, professional voices of the coastguards were interspersed with the familiar burr of local fishing boat skippers who were also taking parting the search.
All these people far out at sea, when they could have been safely ashore, were combining to help Rob and his crew. She felt humble, more tears pricked her eyes and she turned away so that the others would not see.
“It’s not good, is it?” said one of the younger women, and she began to sob.
One or two of the other wives began dabbing eyes.
“Come on now,” Ellie tried to rally them. “Our men have been through worse than this. They’re depending on us. We can’t let them down now.”
Ellie noticed a couple of the wives exchanging looks, but she held her ground.
“Remember when they rescued the crew of the Eastern Star and the lifeboat almost went aground rounding the Headland? Well they came through that all right, didn’t they?”
She was in her stride now.
“Then there was the time when that Spanish coaster was sinking. Our men got bravery awards for that rescue.”
“No medal is worth losing your husband for,” Jan said forlornly.
Ellie patted the younger woman’s arm. “I know what you mean, but this is what they do. I suppose it’s what makes them the men they are…the men we married.”
As she spoke, Ellie realised for the first time that she actually meant the words. If her prayers were answered, and Rob and the others did come back safely, then she would never again try to persuade him to give up the lifeboat.
Suddenly, a familiar voice, distant at first, then stronger, was filling the room. “Cromley Coastguards? Cromley Coastguards? This is Cromley Lifeboat! Are you receiving?”
It was Rob! Everyone sat up as disbelieving looks were exchanged. They all stared at the radio. Rob’s voice came again. “Cromley Coastguards? This is Cromley Lifeboat! Are you receiving?”
By now smiles were spreading across elated faces and everyone was on their feet as the coastguard watch officer responded. “Come in Cromley Lifeboat.”
Rob spoke again, “We’ve had a few problems out here, but we are all safe and accounted for now. Two casualties from the Lively Lady are on board the lifeboat. They might need checking over by a doctor when we get back, but I think they are fine.”
More questions and answers followed but no one in the lifeboat house was listening. Everyone had jumped up to hug each other. Tears, kept in check by many over the last few fraught hours, now flowed freely.
Then Ellie heard Rob say. “Can someone tell our wives we’re coming home?”