We’ll Meet Again by Anton du Beke


May, 1940

THE FIRST WAVE THAT CRASHES over him sends him sprawling. The second drives all the breath from his lungs. The third pitches him into the fisherman’s son standing at his side, and the fourth nearly sweeps him over the stern, down into the depths of the English Channel. It isn’t until the fifth and sixth times the sea nearly claims him that Frank Nettleton realises he can stand upright. Another hour has passed before he starts to think he might even be of some use out here after all. He has to tell himself to take ordinary breaths. He has to tell himself to be brave. It’s what his friends have been doing, those out there on the other side of the water, those desperate to get back to the safety and sanctity of English shores. The least Frank can do for them is to pick himself up every time he gets smashed down. The least he can do is stay loyal and steadfast and true as this little fishing boat, the CamberQueen, ploughs through the dark water on its way to the beaches at Dunkirk. Frank has dancer’s feet. He has balance and poise. The men he’s with would tell him it’s not the same thing as having sea legs, but Frank thinks it will do. He’ll glide across the English Channel, just the same as he’s spent the last few years gliding across dance halls and ballrooms in pursuit of his life’s dream, and bring back the friends who matter to him most in the world.

Darkness creeps upon them. The other boats fanning out across the Channel begin to disappear into the encroaching night – but Frank knows they’re out there. He knows he’s not alone. Hundreds of other small vessels have answered the calling. Hundreds of fathers and grandfathers, rushing to their boats for the defence of the realm. Sometimes, he hears the guttering of engines up above – and, through the cloud, he can see planes turning overhead; it’s English boys, he knows, going to harry the enemy, and the thought gives him cheer. The grizzled old captain of the CamberQueen roars out his approval every time a plane roars past. Pride like that fills Frank’s heart. It helps him banish the fear he’s trying hard not to show.

He hasn’t told them his secret. They’d have thrown him back on to the jetty when he rushed down to volunteer if he had. Because Frank Nettleton cannot swim a stroke. He’s a miner’s son, who’s spent his life between the Lancashire pit village where he was born and the gilded hallways of the Buckingham Hotel, that jewel in London’s crown where he has latterly made his home. He’s as far from home now as he’s ever been, and he’s scared, more scared than he could ever imagine.

‘Captain!’ comes a voice. Frank wheels around, to see the fisherman’s son pointing across the dark, churning water. ‘Survivors!’

Frank scrambles to the port-side railings. The captain sees it before Frank does, but soon he too can make out the flotsam being tossed around in the water: the wreckage of some vessel much greater than his, blown apart by fire from above or torpedo from below. So little of it is left: just driftwood, thrashed around by the waves.

And, clinging to it, the unmistakable shape of a human body.

‘He’s alive, Captain!’ shouts one of the lads. ‘Alive!’

‘Bring her round,’ says the captain, his meaty hand slapping Frank on the shoulder. ‘We got ourselves a live one.’

Manoeuvring a small fishing boat in this inky black expanse of the unforgiving sea is not like dancing the waltz – though it seems to Frank that it is just as skilful, just as elemental, just as much a partnership as the boat and its crew work together to pull off a remarkable feat. Defying the wind, defying the waves, they bring the boat close to the thrashing flotsam.

Frank peers over the railings. His heart skips a beat. Then it skips another.

‘I know him!’ he gasps. ‘Captain, I—’

‘Step aside, young Frank,’ comes the grizzled voice.

The captain is preparing to throw a rope down to the survivor – but Frank has found his courage and takes the rope in his own hands.

‘It’s on you then, boy!’ the captain cries. ‘Has he got a hold of it? Then heave!’

Frank watches as, down below, the survivor flails once, twice, three times for the loop of rope. Only when he wraps his hands around it – the roar of another plane puncturing the night sky above – does Frank start to heave. The other boat-hands are heaving, too. They’re working together, just like the dance troupe back at the Buckingham Hotel, and, soon, the survivor – or what’s left of him, because his leg is broken and bent, twisted round at an unnatural angle – is collapsing over the railing, on to the deck of the CamberQueen.

He’s hawking up salt water, retching and retching again, when Frank drops to his side. Yes, he’s certain of it now – he’d know this face anywhere. It’s the face of his closest friend in the world. The friend who went off to war without him.

‘Billy?’ he whispers, wrapping his arms around the frozen young soldier while the others rush for blankets and whisky. ‘Billy, can you hear me? It’s me, Frank.’

The young soldier is a scarecrow, sodden through. Every part of him shakes as he lifts his head, as his eyes – with a cadaverous, faraway look in them – fix on Frank Nettleton.

‘Frank,’ says Billy Brogan, in a soft Irish brogue, ‘what are you—’

‘I had to come, Billy. I just had to. I’ll tell you everything when we get you home. But Billy, your leg! Billy, what happened?’

There is a moment of perfect stillness. Even the sea, it seems, grants them a momentary respite. Billy’s eyes, which have been black and empty, spark suddenly with life. They lock on to Frank Nettleton for the very first time.

‘Frank,’ he whispers, ‘we have to go back. Turn the boat around. Back! Back towards Dunkirk!’ He lifts himself, tries to stand, grapples with Frank and plunges back to the deck again. ‘I left him, Frank. I lost him. I lost Mr de Guise.’