John had gone off to the Naval College at Greenwich, Susan was married, and even Titty had left home to study nursing. Dorothea Callum had gone up to Somerville College to study English literature. The last Nancy had heard from her was in a postcard, the summer after her first year. Dated July, it arrived in August and showed a scene of Venice, green water and grey stone under a marbled and watery sky. It is so beautiful here, it said in Dorothea's tidy handwriting. Writing up a storm. Wish you were here. Dorothea.
Nancy thought of corsairs, and pinned the postcard carefully to the wall, stepping back to look at it. Outside her bedroom window, the lake lapped ceaselessly against the green shore, as it always had.
Nancy herself had finished boarding school, taken her Highers with an indifference that had half surprised her, and then returned to Beckfoot, and Mother, and Peggy. There was no shortage of things to do at home, especially with the elderly Great Aunt now in residence. Mother had needed the help, and it was not right to think only of herself. Three and a half years later, she found herself still at home, waiting for new vistas and stranger seas to open before her. That was in 1939.
They called it the "Phony War," and for Nancy it was as remote as the Antarctic or the docks in Liverpool. Still, every morning she found herself lingering over the newspapers at the breakfast table long after Peggy was gone, with Cook waiting impatiently to clear up her half-eaten bowl of porridge.
"You used to be up and away of a morning before you'd even finished a piece of toast," said her mother. "Especially on a beautiful day like this."
Nancy looked up from the small print of the Times. Below her stretched out the maps of the Soviet advance across Poland and the news of the sinking of the HMS Courageous off the coast of Ireland. Outside, the birds were singing fiercely.
"I was going to go into town later," she said slowly, blinking the clouds from her eyes.
"I know you're worried about John," replied her mother, more sympathetically.
Nancy took the launch across to Bowness that morning to do the errands. It was indeed a beautiful day, warm for September and brilliantly clear, so that she could see the Langdale Pikes standing sharply against the blue sky. The fresh breeze in her face made her feel a little more like herself.
Outside the little sweet shop in Bowness--half a pound of Turkish delight for Peggy--she came across a poster that she had never seen before. It was freshly pasted, one corner curling downwards. It showed a young woman in hat and coat, pulling on her gloves, with a suitcase in front of her. She was looking out a window at the wide blue sea. "Join the Wrens," it said, "and free a man for the fleet. Apply to Director, W.R.N.S., Admiralty, S.W.1." Nancy reached out and pressed the curling corner more firmly against the rough brickwork.
The post office was only down the road. Nancy bought a sheet of letter paper, borrowed a fountain pen from the clerk, and stood at the counter writing a letter in her scrawling script.
To the Director--
I would like to enlist in the W.R.N.S. I am twenty-two years old, able to sail, and will do whatever I can to serve. My address for correspondence is:
Miss Ruth Blackett
Able to think of nothing else to add to this concise missive, she signed her name with a flourish, sealed the envelope, and thrust it at the bemused postal clerk, who had known her since she was too small to see over the counter.
"Miss Ruth," he said doubtfully, "does your mother know you're doing this?"
"Of course," said Nancy.
Nancy had been to London before, on occasional shopping trips when her mother sought out items that couldn't be bought in Kendal or Carlisle. Bored stiff by the endless parade of shops, she had sat looking out of plate-glass windows as Peggy tried on shoes or frocks. She had watched the bustling pavements and the red omnibuses pulling past, observing the city with the wide-eyed--and not half daunted--awe of the explorer.
Now she was twenty-two--grown up, and alone in a city at war. She arrived at King's Cross Station at seven o'clock at night, and carried her bags through the quiet, blacked-out streets, putting to one side her mother's entreaties to take a taxi. The city seemed reserved, hushed but not at all sleepy, holding itself in wait for whatever might come. The moon rode high over the spire of St. Pancras Station, and over the boughs of the trees lining the Bloomsbury streets. Nancy took a room at the Y.W.C.A. in Great Russell Street, and within three days she was an enlisted member of the Women's Royal Navy Service.
That afternoon she went walking in St. James's Park, trying to learn some sort of poise in her newly-acquired uniform, moving with careful gravity. The click of her heels on the tarmac was muted by the remains of the fallen leaves. At the fountain she paused, slipped off a glove so that she could retrieve a coin from her purse. Next to her stood a young Naval officer, tall and blond. He smiled at her politely, but it was not a smile of recognition.
"John!" exclaimed Nancy, all attempts at dignity forgotten. Then she remembered herself, standing to attention and offering him a salute. "Lieutenant Walker."
John broke into a broad smile and then, still smiling, returned the salute. "Captain Nancy."
Before she could stop herself, Nancy gave him a reproving look. "Probationary Third Officer Ruth Blackett," she said.
John nodded, and the look in his eyes showed that he understood. "Third Officer Blackett," he said, and this time his salute was crisp and careful, as impeccable as if she had been an admiral of the fleet. Nancy found that she didn't know what to say.
"Are you going to make a wish?" he asked.
"Oh," Nancy said, feeling the sixpence still clutched hot in her hand. "Yes, I suppose so." She looked at it, slightly tarnished and dated 1931, back when she and John had both still been children clambering around in the hills of the Lake District.
"You can't tell me what it is," he said solemnly, almost a stranger to her but sounding so very much like the John of old.
For a moment Nancy squeezed her eyes tight shut. When she opened them she found herself looking at the sunlit spires of the Admiralty over the treetops, and wishing for she knew not what. For an end to Hitler; for her family; for the safety of the fleet; and for John. For a wide ocean of possibilities, and no end of adventures.
She tossed the coin into the shallow fountain, and watched the ripples begin to spread.