The New Year’s Day party was a much bigger and grander affair than Christmas Day. The old man was celebrating and he showed some style when he wanted to. The sitting room, which was very large, with a high, white ceiling and polished, light brown, wooden parquet floor, was laid out as the food and drink area. The tables, covered with white table cloths, almost groaning with food, kept cool and fresh by the air-conditioning, despite the French doors being open onto the green, beautifully manicured lawn. Handsome young waiters in tight black trousers, and good looking girls in black mini-skirts, both highlighting their black shirts or blouses with white bow ties, served champagne or whatever drink anyone fancied. The trees, a darker green at the far end of the lawn, were draped with tinsel, which glinted in the tropical sun, and the flower beds were colourful with newly-opened flowers, the earth freshly turned.
The old man greeted each guest personally, standing in the French windows, dressed in a black and white silk shirt. His black trousers, like those of the waiters, were well-pressed, and he was looking very smart, far removed from his usual, dowdy self. His thin, normally unruly wisps of hair were well-groomed. He was cheerful and full of life, belying his small stature and greater age. Hilda stood next to him, acting as hostess, and Tom wondered where the mother was, never having seen her before, although he knew she was alive.
Hilda looked fabulous, her black hair, piled on top of her head made her look taller, elongating her face, and enhancing her smooth skin while minimising her small nose. She was almost beautiful, the cheongsam enhancing the effect, and when she smiled, Tom was bewitched by her perfect white teeth, glimpsed between her subtly made-up lips. He stood there, staring at her, until he realised what he was doing and blushed, looking away in embarrassment. Hilda had noticed and gave an even more bewitching smile, which had a hint of triumph, or was it his imagination?
Mr R had been effusive in his welcome and Tom, unused to such overtly familiar behaviour, felt uneasy and somehow out of place. He drank the cool, amber, bubbling liquid from the tulip-shaped glass he had been given, and took another one from the waiter standing close by, who smiled at him, obviously noting his embarrassment.
There were many people Tom did not know, although he had met all those who worked for Cosel, as well as some of the nautical surveyors. He wandered over to the marine group, who all turned at his approach and wished him a happy and successful New Year.
“Man of the moment,” laughed Steve, his blue eyes twinkling. He was dressed in a blue silk shirt which matched his eyes, white trousers and white shoes, while this pretty wife smiled next to him, her flower-patterned frock in stark contrast to her husband’s plainness. Tom wondered if it was deliberate or coincidence as he replied, smiling.
“Hardly. Captain Rogers was the Salvage Master and Jan was in charge of the fire-fighting and Tow Master.”
“Ah, but we know, my spies have told me all,” and he laughed again, looking at Tom while Wayne Dawson, his bald head shining, and Dan Brown, laughed with him.
“No secrets in Cosel,” said Dan, who had on a shirt covered in brightly coloured flowers, which seemed out of place from his normal, rather dour, self.
“Well done,” said Barry Todd, the Marine Superintendent, his beard and moustache hiding his lips while his head was almost bald, shaking Tom’s hand.
Tony House was dressed completely differently from the bright shirt he wore on the sea trials of the Jurong; he was wearing a blue silk shirt with white dots, a burgundy-coloured cummerbund, fawn trousers and tan shoes. Tom, wondering if it was deliberate as nothing seemed to match, but the overall effect was quite startling.
“Well done, indeed,” he said. “I wonder if my spies are the same as everyone else’s but they all seem to say the same thing,” and he shook Tom’s hand vigorously. “We must meet up for a quiet drink.”
At that moment, the large figure of Jan, his moustache neatly trimmed and normally unruly greying hair well groomed, wearing an outrageously-coloured dragon shirt, red, gold and black, with white trousers and white shoes, appeared in the French windows, flanked by his wife, in a much more sober, rather plain, yellow frock, along with their three children. Someone clapped and it was taken up by the Cosel group, then the whole party on the lawn, everyone smiling, the old man appearing behind the children.
Jan looked quite astonished and grabbed a foaming mug of beer from a waitress holding a tray. The old man squeezed his way through the children and raised his hands into the air.
“I just want to say thank you to the salvors, Captain Smit and Captain Matravers, and sorry Captain Rogers is not able to be here. Cosel is on the move,” and there was renewed clapping. “I was going to wait to make an announcement, which will make the salvage world sit up and take notice of our company, which no doubt they already are after the successful conclusion of the Kinos only half a day ago, but now seems as good a time as any. We are buying what, when she was built, was the largest tug in the world, the world’s first super tug, delivery in six months, Southampton, UK.”
The effect was more than the old man could have wished for. Some of the Nautical fraternity literally had their mouths open as they all clapped and some shouted, “Well done, Mr R, you are really putting Singapore on the salvage map.”
“An even more successful New Year to Cosel!”
Tom noted that even DB looked surprised, and wondered.
“The buffet is open,” finished the old man. “Enjoy!”
Jan, still looking embarrassed, with his proud wife on his right, his children obviously adoring him, moved over to the Cosel group.
“I have never been so embarrassed in my life,” boomed Jan, his mug already empty, looking for a waiter.
“Hush, hush, dear, you were secretly thrilled. Anyway, your wife and children are proud of you,” said Gerda, smiling.
Jan grabbed another mug while Peter, Jan’s eldest, took a glass of champagne for himself and handed Coca Cola to his younger siblings. Jan was about to remonstrate with the twelve-year-old, but thought better of it.
“Learn to drink sensibly, Peter, drink it slowly and enjoy,” he said, while emptying his own mug. Gerda held on to his arm as Jan started talking to Dan and Steve. Tom listened, while scanning the room for Hilda.
Looking at one of the beds full of red flowers, he noticed a figure wearing a white frock. The contrast with the colours was startling, and started to walk towards the figure. She – for it was a woman – turned and he stopped, in shock. It was Shelia, and she was smiling at him. Tom looked round but could not see Hilda, so continued walking.
“Happy New Year,” she said, kissing him on both cheeks.
“And to you,” he said, pleased to see her. “I thought you had left Singapore.”
“I did but I came back, as you can see. I’m glad to see you again, despite the last time we parted,” she laughed, as Tom blushed, squirming with embarrassment.
“I came to understand later that in your scheme of things, a salvage is more important,” and she hesitated, “than any female,” and she laughed again, her face crinkling with amusement.
“Quite a party Mr R is throwing,” said Tom, waving his arm at the crowd on the lawn, some sitting with full plates at the numerous white, wrought iron tables scattered under the shade of the trees.
“Why are you here?” asked Tom.
“Because I was invited,” she said, quite coldly.
“Sorry, I mean you are not a salvor or marine-orientated,” he said quickly, to cover his confusion, and not wishing to upset her.
“Well, some people have a social life and have friends outside their work, you know,” she said, looking into his eyes, her own twinkling, the colour in her peach-like cheeks not entirely due to make up.
“My word, she is pretty,” thought Tom, as he thought back to the night in the Orchid Inn.
“Actually, Hilda invited me. I got to know her through my job in advertising and I am sure even you know that fashion needs constant promotion and advertising.”
“And did she mention me?” asked Tom after some thought.
“Well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it, Captain Matravers?” she laughed merrily, a little tinkle, like a brook running over stones.
They were still standing by the flowers, fresh glasses supplied by the attentive young man who had been surreptitiously looking at Shelia, until Tom gave him a look that made him move away, when Tom saw Hilda in the French windows. He started to turn but she had spotted him and waved, moving slowly across the beautiful lawn towards them.
“So you know each other?” asked Hilda, gaily.
“We have met before,” answered Shelia, looking at Tom, “but I didn’t mention it when you were telling me about him.”
“Let’s have some lunch and I’ll join you and we can all catch up with each other. I am sure Tom has lots to tell us since Christmas Day,” she chuckled. “My father can’t stop talking about it.”
She turned and left them, walking towards Mr R, who was talking to a bunch of people who were quite obviously not marine. Business associates of one sort and another, bankers perhaps, thought Tom, Tony’s colourful clothing standing out amongst them.
“To the buffet, Shelia. I, for one, am starving,” suggested Tom, guiding her across the lawn with an easy familiarity. “I still can’t believe it was only Christmas Day when I was last standing on this lawn. So much has happened in such a short time.”
The buffet was the most impressive Tom had ever seen: lobsters not crayfish, he noticed; Belon oysters from France; a huge salmon, flown in from Scotland; big prawns, partly shelled; a York ham; a side of beef, rich and red inside; a huge turkey, guinea fowl, duck; all with chefs ready to carve for them, along with an assortment of salads with different lettuce, every conceivable salad vegetable, and numerous dressings. There were opened bottles of red and white French wine for those who had consumed enough champagne, which they were encouraged to take, or a waiter would bring over to them.
They all met at a table in the shade of a tree, for the afternoon sun was hot, their plates piled high. The three of them made a jolly party, turning some heads, but Tom did not notice, too engrossed in playing the host to his two pretty guests.
“Now, you can’t run away! I want you to tell us all about your exploits,” said Hilda, her eyes betraying a hint of mischief. “I’ve listened to my father talk about the business of salvage, which I find fascinating, and how the latest two salvage operations will transform the finances of the company. Now I want to hear what happens on the frontline.”
“Yes, do,” said Shelia, brightly. “I used to sail, so have some knowledge of the sea.”
“Are you sure?” said Tom. “It’s not the usual party talk.”
“It is here,” laughed Hilda.
“Well, stop me if I bore you,” said Tom, suddenly making the decision to talk. “Where to begin?”
He stopped and thought.
“Christmas Day, of course, just seven days ago. And you, Hilda, were in at the beginning, when I asked you to get your father into the sitting room because I had been paged, and now I am in the same place, almost at the same time as then, a full circle. But it encloses much, and as Hilda has just said, may transform the finances of the company.”
“And you, Captain Matravers, have changed a lot in that short time,” said Shelia seriously. “Something happened to you out there. You are more assured, more self confident, perhaps? You hold yourself slightly differently, you are more grown up. It’s quite noticeable to me, more interesting,” and she gave him a wicked little smile.
Hilda looked surprised and Tom, too, for different reasons. He did not think Shelia was so perceptive but maybe he did not know too much about women’s thought processes. He certainly felt different and it seemed months had passed, rather than just a few days, so much had happened to him, not just physically but mentally, too. The difference from being on board a salvage tug and this glittering party was so immense, he felt it was almost as though a different person was involved, as if there were two Tom’s. The champagne and wine and the proximity of these two attractive women seemed to open his mind.
Their glasses were topped up by a waiter and Tom launched into his account, starting with Hilda manipulating her father into the sitting room without alerting the nautical guests that anything was happening.
“It started with Jan’s mad drive to Clifford Pier. He drives his car in the same way as his tug, full ahead or stop, there’s no in-between. I suppose his family are used to it, but it frightens the life out of me. The children think it’s exciting and fun, while Gerda just grits her teeth and bears it,” he laughed, “but it is exciting.”
He tried to articulate not just the excitement but the sense of purpose in taking risks, the big tug proceeding at full speed out of the anchorage, through the narrow Singapore Straits and the race through the night to beat any competition. It was difficult to describe the fear approaching the burning ship, the empty tanker, and the subsequent explosion and sinking, missing out his momentary hesitation, but emphasising Jan’s bravery, courage and leadership in extreme danger. He was so carried away, he lost all sense of time, caught up in his recollections, until he came to.
“Sorry, I must be boring you.”
“No, no,” said Hilda and Shelia together, their rapt attention evidence that he had managed to convey some of the drama, and they were with him. He refilled his glass, long empty, and continued with his taking over the Singapore and finally extinguishing the fire on the Kinos.
“It’s not so exciting now,” he said, as a waiter removed the empty bottles and replaced them with full ones, but he described the skill and stamina of Jan in controlling the difficult tow to Singapore, highlighting the drama of the coaster in the middle of the night and the container ship crossing the tow wires.
It was late afternoon when he reached the fire on the Queen, hesitating when it came to how he froze, glossing over it and missing out altogether the horror of the burn, intertwined corpses. It was difficult to generate any excitement in the cargo transfer and if there had been, it would have reflected badly on the salvors. He could not possibly tell them of his conversation with Jan, although he mentioned the Salvage Master’s son in hospital, a personal tragedy. He described feeling almost exalted at the berthing and un-berthing, and his personal sense of achievement.
The daylight was failing as he told them of the build-up in tension during the final passage to Sembawang, where he was acting as pilot, following the Sunda; so much had been achieved, but it was all still ‘no cure, no pay’ and Cosel would not earn one cent until the casualty was safely moored alongside the wharf and the termination letter signed.
He had been so engrossed in his account, he had not noticed the old man joining them, sitting just behind the two women, with the same spellbound attention. Tom was covered with confusion and embarrassment; what he might say to the women, he would not have said to a man? He wondered how much Mr R had heard.
“Sorry, sir, I got carried away,” he apologized. “I must go, everyone seems to have left. I have overstayed my welcome,” and he stood up.
“Not at all, Tom,” said Mr R. “I just wish I had been here when you started. If you can keep these two non-seafaring ladies quiet for hours with your story, it must be good. Let’s hope you can do the same with the Lloyds Arbitrators so they give us the awards we deserve,” he laughed.
“It’s later than I thought,” said Shelia. “Tom’s story made me lose all sense of time. I found it absolutely fascinating. I wonder, Mr R, if I could take you up on your offer for your driver to take me home?”
“Of course, my dear,” he replied, putting his hand on her knee.
It was almost dark and someone inside the house switched on the fairy lights draped over the trees, transforming the darkness into a fairyland of coloured light. It was quite magical.
“I wonder if I could go with Shelia, and your driver drop me off at Clifford Pier?” said Tom.
“Of course,” said Mr R, and Hilda looked at Tom with a questioning look, which Tom ignored.
A figure came out of the French windows as they made their way back to the house. The light from the sitting room showed this to be a small woman, and from her walk, an elderly one.
“Catherine, meet Captain Matravers and Miss Stirling,” said Mr R, tenderly.
“Good evening,” said a quiet, well-modulated voice, and Tom saw an elderly lady with almost translucent skin and white hair.
“They are just leaving, mother,” said Hilda, taking her mother’s arm and leading her back into the house.
Shelia and Tom held hands in the luxurious car, her head resting on his shoulder, then quite spontaneously kissed each other, arousing a desire in Tom, honed by the wine and his talking. The car stopped outside an apartment block.
“Come in for a drink, Tom.”
Sheila’s voice was light and breathless.
“Thank you,” he replied, loudly, so the driver who was getting out of the car could hear. “Just a quick one and I must get back to the tug.”
They got out of the car and Tom said to the driver, “I’ll get a taxi from here, thank you,” dismissing him.
They rode up in the lift, not touching one another, but the sexual tension was electric. Once inside the flat, Tom said sharply, “The telephone,” and Shelia pointed.
Once he had told ops the telephone number of the flat, they touched and it set them on fire. They ripped off each other’s clothes as Shelia guided him into the bedroom, where they finished off what they had begun all those months earlier, the afternoon enhancing the natural passion of two young people on the verge of love, Tom reaching a place he had never been before, his whole body full of feeling, his head a kaleidoscope of colour and bright lights.