Prologue


He had just turned eighteen. They had planned to celebrate his coming-of-age here in Boston, with the family reunited after the race. He had already chosen the menu: whole buttery crab, which you were allowed to eat in your fingers, and fries, and wine if they could get him served, the legal age being twenty-one in Massachusetts.

Now none of that was going to happen.

He stood between his mother and his older brother, easily the tallest of the silent trio. The only other person on the quay was a shirt sleeved cop, who hung about at a discreet distance.

The salvage team had towed Quicksilver of Cowes as far as the harbour, but now she was coming in under her own power.

As the yacht came closer, the youth could see two crew, coast guards. Both wore bulky orange lifejackets. As he watched, they prepared the little sloop for docking at the police quay. The one in the bow coiled a line. The other stood with the tiller between his knees and steered for the quay.

Seagulls argued overhead.

Although it was before nine in the morning, the sun was well up. The youth squinted as Quicksilver approached. Her Perkins diesel engine was now clearly audible above the background noises of the harbour: an apologetic cough.

A stiff breeze blew from the west, fifteen knots at least, right off the quay. But the coast guards seemed to know what they were doing. They nosed Quicksilver’s bow right up to the rough wood and metal pontoon, but didn’t touch or scrape it. The man in the bow stepped smoothly ashore with his line, and in a few moments Quicksilver was secured fore and aft, with fenders to protect her topsides.

She looked very fragile among the police launches and workboats, and suddenly smaller than her thirty-two feet, as if she had shrunk as a result of her recent experiences.

From where the youth stood there did not appear to be any obvious damage and yes, the life raft was still in its holder, which was why the air-sea rescue people had given up so quickly.

“Come on, let’s get closer,” he said. After a moment he said it again, but still he got no response from either his mother or brother.

He had been told that no one would be allowed on board until the investigations were complete. But he couldn’t wait, and he couldn’t just turn, and walk away, as his mother and brother were now doing.

So, with his shoulder-length brown hair blowing across his face, he bounded down to where the yacht was docked.

The coast guards were fixing a long spring line on Quicksilver and adjusting the fenders, all very seamanlike.

“What did you find?” called the youth. “What did Dad’s log say? Any idea what happened yet?”

Coastguard One, who had been on the tiller, looked troubled. “Are you Martin? I’m Will Brown. Sorry, son, you’ll have to wait for the investigation.”

“What about the log? Did Dad report anything wrong—steering problems for example?”

“I’m sure they’ll look into all that. Is that your mother calling you? Look, we’re sorry for what happened.”

“Where’s the log? Can I see it please? Just quickly? I’ll be able to tell, you see—”

“I’ve got the log right here in my bag. It’s evidence and it must go to the police. I can’t let you have it, son. I haven’t looked at it myself, to be honest. Not my business.”

“Let’s move, Will,” said Coast Guard Two, speaking for the first time.

“Just one look, please, at the log, just one peep.”

“I’m sorry, Martin,” said One. I’ve got my instructions.”

“What instructions? Who from?”

“Just standing procedure, for securing evidence in cases like this. Now please step aside, son. We have to file our report.”

There was an awkward impasse.

Then the youth’s older brother stomped up, looking hot. His baggy trousers flapped around his legs. “Martin, come on,” he said. “We can’t do any more here. You’re upsetting your mother again. Leave the professionals to do their jobs.”

The youth muttered his thanks to the coast guards. Then, after a final glance at the little yacht, he loped back down the quay beside his brother. “How did they know I was Martin?” he suddenly wondered out loud.

Their mother was standing straight and rigid where they had left her. “I knew it was a mistake to come here,” she said. “Come on, boys. We’re leaving now.” She turned her head sharply and began to walk down the dusty road towards the dock gates and the waiting taxi.

His brother followed.

The youth hesitated a moment, then turned to follow too.

“Don’t worry, Dad,” he whispered to himself. “I won’t let you down.”



Chapter 1


Up in the attic, I gripped the pen-light between my teeth and thrust my head into the last-but-one tea chest. The narrow beam of light picked out yet more toys, comics and jigsaws. But what was that, right at the bottom? Something wrapped in brown paper.

Using both hands, I clawed aside the tangled playthings. No use—I couldn’t reach whatever it was. The whole lot would have to come out.

As if to deter me from this task, my mobile chirped to life.

With the torch still in my mouth, I straightened up to unclip the phone from my belt, and rapped my head sharply on a low rafter.

Damn this old house! We should have moved Mother out years ago.

The little colour picture of Victoria sprang up on the picture screen. She was calling from the London flat.

I took a moment to rub my head. The chirping grew more insistent.

Better answer it. I spat out the torch and pressed the button to accept the call.

My wife spoke immediately before I could open my mouth. “Are you still there?”

“Afraid so. It’s taking longer than I thought. But I’ll be away within the hour, promise.”  

“You did say you wouldn’t be late. Alice will be here at eight. Do please get back.”

Then my mother’s voice wafted up from the bottom of the attic stairs, her tone sharpened by impatience. “What was that, Martin? Have you got more for me to look at?”

I shouted to her, “Coming.” Then, into the phone, I said, “I can’t talk, love. I’ll call you from the car with my ETA.”

My mother called up again: “What was that, Martin? I wish you wouldn’t mumble. Come out and speak to me properly.”

I jabbed the Cancel button and sighed.

I could have called it a day then, given up and gone straight home to my wife and my daughter, and everything would have turned out differently.

But I didn’t call it a day. I bellowed “Coming,” towards the door, but I didn’t move.

Instead, I set the tiny phone down in the “V” between two roof beams, where I could see it, and where it wouldn’t get lost among the shredded newspaper that carpeted the floor for some reason. Mice, perhaps.

Then, despite the fact that I was already late and weary from the physical and emotional effort of clearing out Mother’s attic, I dived back into the tea chest.

I scrabbled, and re-emerged with a large jigsaw box. Inside were various pieces of Hornby train track. Next out was a Dunlop wooden tennis racquet, once mine, complete with press. Then a stack of Eagle comics from the sixties, my brother Ian’s. A baleful Mekon glared at me from under his hooded green eyelids. The little hovering alien had given me nightmares as a toddler, especially after Ian had informed me solemnly that the said Mekon could fly down our chimney, liked to eat younger brothers as they slept and had plans to kill Father Christmas with his ray gun.

A biscuit tin was next, circa 1950. It rattled. I prised off the lid. Inside were three rusty paperclips and a George VI postage stamp, used.

Finally, I extricated the two parcels that I’d seen.

They were wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.

I positioned the torch on a three-legged kitchen chair, squatted on my haunches, blew the dust carefully off the first package and untied it.

Inside was a heavyish, leather-bound photograph album. I opened it. The cover creaked slightly. The photos were tiny, in black-and-white, with crinkly edges. My father had stuck them in with those fiddly little adhesive corners that they used to use. Below each photo, he’d lovingly written a date and a caption in black fountain pen ink. I could imagine Dad sitting in his tiny Captain’s stateroom on some submarine, off watch and intent on his task.

They didn’t seem to be from any particular year. One showed a young Queen Elizabeth smashing the bubbly into HMS Dreadnought at Barrow in 1958, well before I was a twinkle in anyone’s eye. Another showed my father lifting me up to look into an attack periscope during an open day at Gosport, my hands stretched wide to grab the handles.

I turned the thick page and lifted up the translucent cover sheet on the next spread. Ian’s second birthday party. Children in smocks sat around the kitchen table of this very house, tucking into a cake decorated with Thomas the Tank Engine.

Plus ça change.

I studied my brother’s little face. He had mastered that sly sideways smirk of his at an early age. Perhaps he’d been born with it.

I turned the page. There was Dad sitting on a bollard on the dock in Valetta, almost exactly a year before I was born. And a nice one of him with one arm around Mother, the old garden rake under his other arm, a pipe in his mouth, a cigarette drooping elegantly from the corner of hers, dated November of the same year. Something about this picture didn’t seem quite right, but I couldn’t decide what.

My nose started to tickle.

“Martin, are we sorting out my attic or are you taking another trip down Memory Lane?”

I waited for the sneeze but it wouldn’t come. I put down the album, picked up the second, bigger package and untied the string.

I folded back the brown paper and saw a flash of bright blue, like a sparkling sea glimpsed through a brown forest.

Could it be?

I tore the paper away in haste. They were exercise books, not faded at all, clearly put away years ago. Yes, these were Dad’s old yachting logbooks.

There were twelve books. They were sequentially numbered on the spines and dated on the covers.

What a find. They’d been missing for years. But was the final logbook among them? Surely not. But maybe, just maybe, by some miracle …

With hasty fingers, I turned to the last entry in the volume numbered 12.

Left Cowes at 1000 to catch tide to Chichester. Wind N Force 4. Single handed. Choppy over the Bar.

No. It wasn’t the one. Not the final log. Never mind, I’d still struck gold. Although I hadn’t found the logbook of his final, fatal voyage, these books covered much of Dad’s sailing career, on Quicksilver I and before that on Gavotte.

I might even get some clues from these older Quicksilver logs as to what had really happened to him at the end.

In any event, this find made the whole grisly day worthwhile.

Next, I scanned the covers for the log covering the infamous 1979 Fastnet Rock race, the year the fleet was decimated by a freak summer storm. Yes. Here it was. Brilliant. I half-closed my eyes. Across the years I could still hear the scream of the wind, and feel the jarring blows as wave after wave hammered on the little hull, as if we were under attack from all directions by the sea itself …

“Martin, did you hear me?”

I snapped back to reality. I put the logbooks, photo album and other items into the big straw shopping bag that we had been using all day, and clambered down the steep, creaky stairs. I ducked my head low and clutched the banister to avoid further injury.

“This is the end of the last-but-one tea chest,” I said. “And look what I’ve found.”

My mother shot a suspicious glance at me, and sat down stiffly on the landing chair. She smoothed her skirt and raised her chin to indicate she was ready. I handed her the photo album. “Oh, these are nice,” she said. She turned the pages and smiled at the picture of Ian’s party. Then I got the logbooks out of the bag. After a moment’s puzzlement she recognised them, and her face went white. She patted her tightly-permed white curls with a cupped left hand as if playing for time. Then she said, “May I see those?” I handed the books to her. She leafed through the first volume as if it were pornography. She slammed it shut and turned her piercing gaze on me. “That wretched boat. I should have thrown these out at the time. Well, better late than never. Straight to the bonfire with them!”