Though it could hold a dozen oarsmen, the longboat had a draft shallow enough to get it within a few yards of the shore. Jennifer had to clutch hard to steady herself as a sudden ebbing of the waves made it scrape on the shingle. With an easy motion, Count Robert was straight over the side. For a moment, the sea came up to his waist. Then it dropped below his knees.
“Come on, my Little Bear!” he cried in Latin. He laughed and said more, but the massive roar of the waves on shingle swamped all other sound. He stepped back for a better position and held his arms out. Jennifer looked for a moment at his teeth, bared in a smile that, with his neat beard, made him look like the predatory barbarian that he really was. But it was either those strong arms or the certainty of ruining a pair of trainers that she’d have great trouble replacing—great trouble, that is, unless the Government was telling the truth about an eventual reversion to normality. She stretched forward and let him take her in a massive embrace. He swung straight round and dumped her on the dark and glistening stones of St Margaret’s Bay. “Your father did well to trust you in my hands!” he added, now speaking above the roar. Jennifer scrambled farther up to the dry stones just in time to avoid another wave.
She waited for Robert to finish squeezing seawater out of his cloak and to take her hand and lead her towards the concrete wall separating the beach from what had once been the car park. She told herself to forget the little grope he’d just given her and sat beside him on the wall. He lit a cigarette and looked up at the sky. Fifty yards away, the boat was rising and falling with every movement of the waves. A hundred yards or so beyond that, the English Channel faded into mist. She looked up to her right. Here, where the cliff separated the bay from Dover, was the most likely point of surveillance. As usual, no one was watching.
With an ostentatious wave he’d developed for showing off to his own people, Robert looked at his wrist watch. “Another forty minutes, I think, before the flying machine floats into view.” He showed her the two inch display. Nine months earlier, her father had offered him something more elegant. What he’d chosen, though, was large and plastic, with a picture of Peppa Pig within its ring of numbers. He’d still done nothing about the alarm. Twice a day, it would play the theme tune and end with a double grunt. It had pleased him at once. His only change since then had been to replace the plastic strap with gold.
“But where is your father?” He looked again at his watch and then along the abandoned shore. Jennifer had already wondered that. Ever since the boat had started its swift crossing, she’d been worrying about the degree of the embarrassment that might be waiting—not just her father on the beach, hopping up and down with rage, but her mother too. A clip round the ear for going off alone like this might have been the least she could expect. The one thing she hadn’t considered was that the beach would be deserted. She looked briefly over to where the road to the village was hidden by trees. Robert was right about the timings. The boat had come in on schedule. The little box it carried would jam the radar defences. Another forty minutes, though, and the darkness of the airship against the sky would expose them all to visual inspection by the Border Protection Service and the certainty of an air to sea missile. Robert gave her another of his thoughtful stares. Even without her father there to set him off, he might start picking away at the lies she’d told him five days before.
Out in the boat, the oarsmen were straining to keep it steady with the shore. The monk who’d come over with them was on his feet and praying with outstretched arms towards the accursed shore of England. Robert flicked his cigarette end onto the beach, and, with a sudden scrape of leather on concrete that spoke of his growing impatience, swung over the wall and began walking across the expanse of asphalt towards a heap of canvas. After another look up the hill to see if her father were hurrying towards them, Jennifer followed.
Robert lifted the stiff canvas with one hand and pulled out her bicycle with the other. It was just as she’d left it. Doubtless, the saddlebag still contained the letter of apologies her father had sent her out to deliver. Jennifer looked round again. Still nothing. Robert held up the bicycle and spun the front wheel, admiring how smooth and silently it moved. He put it onto the asphalt and squeezed the brakes. Watching him lean onto the handlebars, she thought he’d get on and try a slow and wobbly circuit of the car park. If he fell off, it would be a loss of face in front of his men. But he smiled grimly and let her take it and prop it upright against a fence. He reached inside his padded tunic and took out a sealed bag about the size and appearance of a deflated football. “Do you wish to count it?” he asked. She shook her head. There was no need for that. Besides, it would only complete the souring of his temper. She took its heavy weight into both hands and put it into her large saddlebag. Yes, if now rather limp from five days in the open, there was the letter she’d been supposed to deliver. She made sure the bag of silver covered it entirely. Robert stood back and watched as she pulled off the woollen robe she’d worn in France. He clicked his tongue appreciatively as she stood before him in her jeans and sweatshirt. In a silence broken only by the crash of another big wave on the shore, she screwed her robe into a ball and pushed it into the saddlebag on top of the purse.
Robert still hadn’t turned back. Much longer, though, and he’d need to be off again. He glanced over at the boat and again at his watch. “I feel a strong obligation to come with you,” he muttered. He turned and stared at the tree-covered road that led up to St Margaret’s. “After all, my Lord
She heard a stray noise from the boat. The oarsmen had joined the monk in a long and worried prayer. They had no watches of their own, but knew the movements of the Border Protection Service as well as didn’t matter. Robert went into his businesslike tone. “I am informed by His Excellency of Flanders that his wife is much pleased by the contraptions that were sent over. So were her ladies.” He blushed slightly and looked away. “They prefer the ones that are called Tampax. Those called Tesco are, I am told, of much lower quality.” He cleared his throat. “Since all the officials in Dover were replaced, the illegal trade out of that port has had problems.” His face blackened and he pushed his chest out. “They may think we are nothing but savages. But we do know when medicines don’t work, or cause rather than cure sickness. I need to sit over wine with your father and discuss many things—many, many things. A much enlarged order is just one of them.”
He might have said more, but the monk was now leaning over the side of the boat and calling in a loud voice. Robert stepped back and bowed. Then, with a bound, he was over the wall and onto the beach and hurrying towards where his men were visibly impatient as well as scared.
Jennifer stood watching till the boat vanished into the dawn mist. Alone, she looked up into the sky. By all appearances, it would be another glorious March morning. Across the water, it would be a morning in June, plus nearly two hours ahead and a different day of the week. But, just as there was no need any more to reset the time after a crossing, it was best not to think about the larger question of the date. It was enough to know that the boat would be half way across the Channel before the mist burned away—and that would be enough, now that Border Protection had given up on sinking anything outside the Exclusion Zone.
Even with no additional weight to carry, the road up to the village was too steep for cycling. Still, she mounted up and pedalled to where, under cover of the trees, she’d have to get off and start pushing.
Once through the village and on to Station Road, Jennifer went into top gear. It was a road of steep descents and rises. But, if she could build up enough momentum going down, she could usually coast all the way to the top again. Th ...