At six in the morning the sun was already well risen in the eastern sky, sparkling on a barely ruffled sea and casting a warmth into the beginning of the day. John Hinkley lay back in his armchair with his legs stretched out, his sea boots discarded to one side, done with the work of the night and glad to be home. He regarded the red tunic of his commission draped over a wooden chair and closed his eyes.
He thought of the night spent offshore. Four men in a small cutter on a moonlit night, calm water under the boat and hardly a breeze to fill the sail. They had taken to rowing down the coast which displeased the men, although they knew better than to argue. Still, on such a night there was no trade to distract them. John had constantly scanned the coastline with a glass to his eye, out to sea where the vast sky met the line of the horizon, and south past the bay to the distant headland where the spiky fingers of the old, ruined castle stood in silhouette against the skyline. No villain would be abroad tonight. They would see no shadowy boats drifting silently towards the shore. There would be no cluster of men at the shoreline bent over barrels and cases. Those men would be waiting for the cover of dark nights, storm and a moon obscured by heavy grey cloud. This night they will be busy elsewhere, exchanging their ill-gotten shillings for whatever pleasures might take their fancy.
John had occupied the men with some exercises, navigation and seamanship, at which they grumbled. Eventually he had given way to the magnanimous goodwill that only authority and years of experience can afford, brought the boat to anchor and let the men cast their fishing lines over the side. He had sat in the bow with his glass to his eye and took in the beauty of the coastline. He had watched the long sweep of the bay, the thin white line where the waves lapped at the shore, and the black fingers of rock that spread out from beneath the headland. A light had shone from the stern and their presence would be enough to deter any villain tempted to try their luck this night. John had relaxed and felt the comfortable light swell beneath the keel. And now there were two fat mackerel on the heavy wooden table in the back room. Mary will cook them for breakfast. Then he will rest a while.
John opened his eyes at the sound of his wife’s voice from the back room. “You’re back, John. How was it?”
“Quiet. Nothing doing. Too calm, too much light. I let the lads set their fishing lines in the end. Did you see the mackerel on the table?”
“Yes, they look fine ones. Do you want them for your breakfast?”
“Aye, I will if you’ve a mind to see to them.” A welcome change, John thought. He had been in this posting up on the remote north east coast for five years now, and he could get used to pretty much anything, except for the heavy bread and the yellow putty they called pease pudding that seemed to form a good part of the local diet. He sighed to himself at the thought of it.
John leaned forward in the chair and bent down to pull off his heavy, woollen socks. He grimaced at the effort and the ache in his back and silently cursed his fifty two years and the arrival of complaining bones. He eased himself back up and draped the socks, damp from the boat, across the top of the black range.
Mary put her head around the door from the back room. She was a fair looking woman of a similar age to John, and now with five children behind her well past the age for more, a fact John was glad of. A career in the coastguard service meant endless nights out on patrol, and not without its dangers either, and he had always been grateful for her undemanding companionship. When John had received his posting up to this remote station from the south coast five years ago she had accepted it and supported him with a smile and not a word of complaint. Now that the children were grown up and busy with their own lives John and Mary had grown into a contented companionship that was, in truth, much envied by others.
Mary’s smile put dimples in her cheeks. She was a generously built woman, for which John often gently teased her, and she stood at the doorway in a long pinafore dress with her fair hair pulled into a bun at the back. She noticed John’s slight stoop as he straightened himself from getting up. She crossed her arms across her ample bosom and shook her head. “You’re getting too old for this sort of thing.” John looked up at her and raised an eyebrow. “And you’re too good to those boys,” she said. “Fishing indeed, when you’re out on patrol. Whatever do you think the Lieutenant would have to say if he knew?”
“Mr Brunton will be too busy gaining favour with His Lordship, or the Duke up at the castle, to be bothered with any of that,” John said. “He’s more comfortable in a braided uniform and a tricorn hat than in a small boat.” The Lieutenant, the man who held the command of the station was a navy man, as was usually the case. “Nelson”, the men called him, which was not entirely affectionate.
“Oh John, he’s a good man.”
“He is, I grant you. He’s a good seaman. But he couldn’t catch a boy with a barrel of gin on the beach any more than you could. Nor would he be bothered to when there’s me to do it.”
Mary stepped forward and kissed him on his whiskery cheek. “I’ll get your breakfast then you can rest a while.” John smiled. He smiled without showing his teeth. Mary said he smiled with his lips. It was his way, and when he smiled his eyes creased at the edges. He eased himself back into his chair and closed his eyes again.
John fell into a natural doze, the half sleep that comes from contented tiredness and fresh, sea air. His wandering thoughts took him back to the sea and the coastline he did his best to protect from the dark, nefarious trade of those who dealt in contraband. Criminal gangs, organised and ruthless, operating under cover of darkness and storm, they profited well from their endeavours. It was a constant struggle for John and his small band of officers to keep up with them, even with the other stations every few miles up and down the coast. The smugglers intimidated the local communities and bribed the authorities. When he sat in the guardroom with Will, his best boatman, and the other lads setting out a plan, considering some intelligence from a friendly informant or trying to imagine where the next landing would come, John sometimes wondered if it was all worth it. He thought of the nights spent on the shore or out in the cutter scanning the horizon for the tell-tale masts of a Dutchman full to the gunwales with barrels of gin and cases of tea. They came, they caught some, but they came again.
John opened his eyes briefly, then closed them again in submission to the comfort of his drowsiness. His half-conscious thoughts wandered, from the patrol of the night to the spectacular wilderness of the coastline and to the comfortable whitewashed cottage in which he dozed.