Sid Secombe did not like a nor’easter blowing into his left ear one little bit. Especially he didn’t like a wet March 1774 nor’easter that was blowing off the Downs and across Portsmouth Harbour right into his left ear, and that his sou’wester was not doing it’s job with. His left ear was one of a pair, matching his right ear over on the other side of his head, and he wouldn’t have liked it in his right ear, either, come to that, but that was not relevant, as it was his left ear that was under attack, as he headed down to Gosport Harbour, which he would not be doing at all but for the unnatural wailing that drove him from his warm and homely cottage.
“Anyone who thinks it’s easy being a father is a fool.” So ran the thoughts of Sid as he made his soggy way down to the dockside. He felt he was entitled to have an expert opinion on the trials of fatherhood, since he had been driven from homely cottage that, since three o’clock this morning [seven bells of the Middle Watch – for those to whom such details matter], was also the home of his new son, Oswald – the new-born producer of the unnatural wailing. Unnatural wailing to Sid, that is, though natural enough to Oswald, in all fairness, who did not know anything different. After some time suffering during and after the childbirth, pacing and wringing, the wise-woman helping his dear wife had told him to clear out of her way until the dust, and everything else, had settled. As a result of which Sid soon realized his fatherly duties were not just to watch the new strange nursery rituals and cringe at the noise and strange smells and wring his hands at his new found uselessness, but to get back to sea and earn his living to support all three of them – wife Gertie being the most important of the three of them, on account of her cooking abilities. In fact she was the cook at the Big House and she hoped to soon be getting back to it, leaving Sid in charge of baby Oswald – unless he could get a ship. Hence today’s quest with the unwelcome wet nor’easter blowing into his left was quieter and more welcome than staying at home.
Sid had decided he couldn’t be particular – being particular was his downfall more often than not in the past – he would even settle for a berth on a coaster, if he really had to, which was just as well because that is just what he got. “We catch the tide on Wednesday”, the skipper told him. “Fetch your bag tomorrow an’ ye can help fit her out an’ stand your watch ‘til then.”
So Sid returned home with glee that he had escaped his ‘extra duties’ at home by becoming the main breadwinner again, but glee tempered with the thought that he would miss his Gertie – and her cooking.
But Sid is not the hero of our story – he just has the role of curtain-raiser, which, the curtains having been raised, means we can leave Sid to explain to Gertie while we get on with the story.
Maisy Blake had made a huge silly blunder and was about to pay for it in the way only women know how to dread-and-yearn-for beforehand and rue-and-cherish afterhand. Childbirth.
She knew he would be a boy, of course – women do know, somehow – and she already called him Archie. The ‘blunder’ part of the situation was plain from the fact that his family name would be Blake, too. His father was a lovely man, but not available to provide a name, let alone fatherly duties – he was long gone, in fact. But, deep down, Maisy preferred it that way. Maisy could cope, as she had for years. She was a skilled and neat seamstress who had the toffs queuing up for her to make and mend for them, and she was comfortable in her small Deptford cottage.
So, in May 1782, Archibald Blake entered both the world, and our story, just as he should – quick and easy – and let his mum get back to normal very soon. Archie grew quick and easy too, soon becoming the envy of the local mums and, in very short time, the target of their daughters.
Archie was apprenticed to a printer when he was thirteen and soon showed promise, learning his letters during his first flush of enthusiasm. He showed promise to the boss’s daughter, too, and married her when he was just eighteen. A mistake. She soon forgot she was his wife and thought she, not her father, was his boss. They were not content and she sensed that Archie wanted to get away, so she called the press in ’02 and fixed him up with a position away from home. Then she ran off with the baker’s son and was never heard of again. Not by us, anyway – and it’s only us that counts.
Archie got married again in the year ’10, but that, as they say, is another story…
Back at Gosport etc.
Meanwhile, in Gosport, Oswald Secombe had also grown quickly and had taken his dad’s lead by going to sea. Oswald, though, had soon joined the Royal Navy, volunteering thirteen years before Archie Blake was pressed (technically, Archie had volunteered, too, but only after the press gang presented him with a lump on the head and limited choices).
Os, as he preferred to be known, had grown into a big lad (horizontally if not vertically or mentally), largely as a result of his mother’s good cooking and of her keeping on reminding him of all the starving children whenever he didn’t want to finish his food. He grew large thinking he was eating to save them, and feeling good about it.
In the Navy he was rated Ordinary Seaman in ‘94, when serving on HMS Vanguard, after which his preferred rank and the name of Os stuck fast.
Os had wed too, when he was twenty four, after coming home from The Nile in ‘98. He was wed to Eliza his childhood sweetheart, but she had drowned three years later when she fell in the harbour after a good night out with Os, who could not swim when he was drunk – he couldn’t swim when he was sober either, although the fact was never tested either way. He was serving on HMS Bellerophon at that time and went back aboard to lose himself in a mixture of duty, self-pity and grog – mostly grog.
The Billy Ruffian paid off in ’06 after which Os spent a spell (his second) in the merchant navy, until nostalgia for the discipline and orderliness of the RN (and the grog) got the better of him and he enlisted again in 1810, joining HMS Sardonique, where he met Archie Blake and his other messmates, not to mention Emily, the ship’s cat. Oh, she shouldn’t have been mentioned.
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