A Most Unexpected Gift
Clayton surreptitiously took a sip of gin from his flask as he looked around the midshipmen's berth. At the table across from where he sat on the bench, Hether and Cleveland were engaged in a game of cards, otherwise the berth was empty. He felt no need for company and let them play without interruption.
Earlier, Clayton had passed Jack Simpson coming out of the midshipmen's berth as he had returned from his watch. Simpson appeared to be heading up onto deck. Kennedy was on watch, and he could not help but be slightly anxious for him. Simpson could find some way to wreak havoc, even interfere with the watch, when it suited his need for power, and Kennedy was a favourite victim.
Taking a deep breath he let his mind wander, and for a short moment considered going up on deck to 'take the air' and ascertain if Simpson was up to his tricks again. Fatalism took over, and again reaching for the flask, he took a sip. Better to stay here and pick up the pieces, if indeed, as he suspected, Simpson had found a new game. Simpson was always finding new games
The ship rocked gently at anchor, and Clayton tired of the motion. He wished to be at sea again, to do something productive. This idle time fostered trouble and unrest. But Captain Keene, his illness getting worse as the months progressed, seemed untroubled by their inactivity. Justinian was nearing the end of her life, seemingly in tune with her captain. Clayton could envisage the day when Justinian would become a prison hulk, with her inhabitants waiting for the inevitable voyage to the colony of New South Wales.
Relaxing further as the drink finally took hold, Clayton became aware of the whispered conversation between Hether and Cleveland.
" what do you think he wants 'im for?"
"Who knows? But I'm wonderin' if it'd be best if we were gone before he gets back."
"If Jack has to look for us," Hether looked around nervously, "there'll be hell to pay."
Cleveland nodded his agreement and dealt the cards. Soon, the only sound was the swish of cards being thrown on the table, and the business of play.
The ship's bell clanged and with it came the clatter of footsteps down the stairs. It was not yet change of watch, but perhaps one or two of the middies lucky enough to go ashore today, had returned. Clayton looked up; only half interested, to see whom it was.
Jack Simpson had returned and was leaning through the door, hands on the frame, but not entering, scanning the berth. He seemed to be reading the inhabitants, judging their level of fear ahead of making an announcement.
Hether and Cleveland, the game now abandoned, looked at him expectantly, their tension almost palpable. Clayton simply raised his eyebrows at Jack, waiting for him to speak.
"Gentlemen," Jack said whilst sidling through the entrance, "I have good news. You now have the pleasure of addressing Acting Lieutenant Jack Simpson. As a result I will be leaving your august company." A mocking bow accompanied the speech.
Speaking simultaneously, both Hether and Cleveland stumbled over themselves in an effort to congratulate him.
"Jack, congratulations - "
"Jack, I'm glad Keene's finally made you up."
Clayton sensed the need to say something appropriate, so he added his voice to the chorus, the sentiment behind his words no warmer or sincere than that of Hether and Cleveland. It was enough, though, to satisfy Simpson's overweening need for attention.
"I will leave you gentlemen to ensure my dunnage is delivered to the wardroom." Simpson then left the berth, a stunned silence left in his wake.
The import of Simpson's announcement had started to sink in. Hether glanced at the entrance, before breaking out in a smile. Abruptly, Cleveland and Hether rose from their seats at the table, Cleveland slapping Hether on the arm. Without even packing up their cards they were out of the berth. Clayton was now alone.
But Clayton no longer felt the need for solitude, and instead headed up onto deck. He found Kennedy by the railing on the waist, staring out over the water, almost trancelike, with a wistful expression on his face. A small smile creased the corner of Clayton's lips. He spoke before Kennedy realised that he was there.
"Good afternoon, Mr Kennedy."
Archie gave a start at being addressed, and turned to Clayton with a slight flush on his face. Recovering he answered, "Good afternoon, Mr Clayton. What brings you up onto deck?"
"Mr Kennedy, I have news. Good news, that I believe you will be happy to hear."
Archie looked doubtful.
He related Simpson's earlier announcement. For a moment Archie appeared dumbfounded, and then his face broke into a wide grin. "Clayton, that makes you senior in the berth."
Clayton nodded his agreement, "Jack has already sent for his dunnage, so by the time you return from watch he'll be gone. I doubt he'll have the time to interfere with us, not if he expects to impress the officers. If he can manage to pass the exam he will have to leave the ship. We already have a full complement of officers."
"Yes, we do." Archie looked thoughtful, "I think this might be the best birthday gift I have ever received."
"It's your birthday, Archie? You didn't say anything." Clayton said, surprised.
"Well, there didn't seem any reason to celebrate. And under the circumstances I felt it best not to say anything." Archie smiled again, the type of infectious smile that Clayton had not seen in months. Clayton felt himself smile in return, and his spirit lifted. "But you have given me a most unexpected gift, Clayton. I now see reason to celebrate."
"My pleasure, Archie, my pleasure. I'll see you below after watch."
A most unexpected gift, indeed, Clayton thought, smiling still as he made his way below.