entirely at seaLieutenant Murray was well aware that he was frequently characterised as ‘constantly bemused’. Generally speaking, he felt this was unfair. Anyone who had to deal with the crew of HMS Troutbridge on a regular basis would, he reasoned, be likely to end up bemused more often than not. Generally speaking, he was a jolly sight less bemused than most people would be in his situation.
That might still be the case now, but he was frankly too bemused to be sure.
“Mr Phillips – “
The Ward Room party was still going strong somewhere overhead. He’d thought it was probably time to make an exit at the point when Mr Phillips had just downed his third shandy and started swaying on his feet. Or, more pertinently, at the point when CPO Pertwee had started looking at the swaying Mr Phillips with an expression that suggested that he had already lined up a good home for a slightly used pair of sea-boots, that his second-cousin the rag-and-bone man would give him a good price for that coat, and that he’d already worked out the value of the gold thread in the braids of rank to the nearest ha’penny.
Wren Chasen’s look of increasingly murderous annoyance at the sub-lieutenant’s persistent flirtations had rather helped make up his mind, too.
He’d propelled the blond officer gently but firmly out of the crowded room and onto the deck, where the night air had been stingingly cold. It was probably a combination of the cold and the swaying which had made Mr Phillips sling his arm around his superior officer’s neck in an expression of drunken solidarity.
“I say, sir, are we at sea?” he’d slurred.
“No, Mr Phillips,” sighed Number One. “You can tell that from the way the little twinkly lights of the Island are all around us, rather than disappearing behind us in our wake. You can also tell from the way that we’re all at a party in the Ward Room, rather than, say, on the bridge.”
“Well, that’s not really any guarantee,” Mr Phillips had argued, with the complete reasonableness of the drunk. (And how he could *possibly* have got himself so sloshed on three halves of shandy, Lt. Murray would probably never know. He’d suspect one of the men of spiking his drink, if it wasn’t for the fact that wasting good alcohol on Sub.Lt. Phillips was far too altruistic for the Troutbridgers.) “I mean, we’ve been sailing at full steam – I mean steaming at full sail – oh, bother – “
“I don’t think the exact method of locomotion matters too much.”
“It certainly wasn’t locomotion, sir. I always wanted to be a train-driver, but I never had the Latin for it.”
“…I realise I’ll regret this, but could you please just continue with what you were saying?”
“Right-ho, sir. We’ve been fulling at steam sail – oh, bother it – before, right up until all the twinkly lights of the Island were around us. We were certainly at sea then.”
“Mr Phillips, you may not have realised, but the ‘bonk-bang-bonk-BANG’ noises when we put into our berth on those occasions indicated that perhaps we were rather more at sea than we should have been.”
“In any case,” said Mr Phillips, with slow dignity, as they went below decks. “We’ve certainly been in the Ward Room when we were at sea. In fact only last week you said that you needed a good stiff drink before – “
“Yes, thank you Mr Phillips,” said Number One, hastily, as they passed Lieutenant Commander Stanton’s cabin. “I think that’s quite enough of that.”
“All I meant, sir, was – “ Mr Phillips frowned, apparently trying to concentrate very hard on the end of his nose. “I really can’t remember what I meant, sir.”
“I don’t think it was terribly relevant,” said Lt. Murray. He propped the younger man up against a bulkhead, pushed open the door to his cabin, and attempted to bundle him into the room. Aforementioned bundling was rather complicated by several factors. Firstly, that Mr Phillips slung his arm back around Stephen’s neck as soon as he came within reach; secondly, that the floor of Mr Phillips’ cabin was, unsurprisingly, littered with crumpled laundry, silk neckties, and books with titles like ‘My First Book Of Navigation’ and ‘The Curse of the Crimson Crayfish’; thirdly, that Lt. Murray had himself had a couple of whiskeys that evening, and wasn’t necessarily the most graceful person in the world himself; and fourthly, that Mr Phillips when drunk apparently clung like a limpet.
All of which factors conspired to combine to leave Lt. Murray measuring his length on the floor of Sub. Lt. Phillips’ cabin, with Sub. Lt. Phillips lightly plastered on top of him, and in a state of even greater bemusement than usual.
“Mr Philips – “ he began, in a long-suffering voice.
His bemusement increased a hundredfold, and his voice increased in pitch by something approaching an octave, when Phillips nuzzled his neck.
He was perfectly well aware that Mr Phillips was drunk. (Even though Mr Phillips had drunk precisely three halves of shandy, and should by rights be sober as a judge.) He was also perfectly well aware that when Mr Phillips was drunk – or indeed when Mr Phillips was sober – he had a tendency to get a little…grabby. But this grabbiness had, as far as he was aware, always been limited to members of the fairer sex.
The Wrens had nicknamed him Octopus, amongst other things. Stephen hadn’t quite understood the full import of that nickname before. But now he could have cheerfully sworn that Mr Phillips had at least eight hands.
Lt. Murray cheerfully swore, albeit at a rather elevated pitch. At least three of Mr Phillips’ hands seemed to be making themselves at home inside his uniform jacket.
He cleared his voice, and tried again. “Mr Phillips – “
The mop of blond hair didn’t shift from where it was most comfortably nestled somewhere under Stephen’s jaw. He could feel the hot ghost of breath against his neck, and the occasional brush of lips or tongue.
“Mr Philips,” he managed, in what he fondly liked to hope was a rational and patient voice. “You are aware, I hope, that I am not in fact a woman?”
“I had noticed, sir, yes.”
Several of his hands were still inside Stephen’s jacket. They were now joined by at least a couple running firm fingers along his thighs.
Stephen jumped, and tried to stop his voice from shaking. “And you have noticed that I am not, in fact, Wren Chasen or Wren Judy – um, Wren Cornwall?”
Phillips tutted, concernedly. “Now, really sir, I know it’s been a long time since you took Judy to the pictures, but I’m sure even you can remember that there are some fairly – substantial differences between you and her.”
Mr Phillips pulled away far enough to look down at Lt. Murray; or, more accurately, to look down at one of the general bodily areas which embodied those substantial differences – coincidentally much the same area which he been looking at on Wren Chasen for the last hour or so. His face wore the exact opposite of his habitual leer; an expression which suggested that he was considering very seriously the difference between Wren Chasen and Lt. Murray in relation to this particular bodily area.
Then he laughed his incongruous laugh, like a schoolboy doing his best impression of a dirty old man.
Stephen caught himself on the verge of blushing, and stopped himself sternly.
“I’m happily married,” he protested, a little feebly, because Leslie had started nuzzling at his ear again.
“Don’t worry, your husband never needs to know,” Phillips murmured, before pausing briefly in his activity. “Sorry pardon, sir. Force of habit.”
Murray cast his eyes despairingly ceilingwards, an action facilitated by his position.
He could, of course, have ordered Phillips to desist, he reflected. However, that would have one of two possible effects. 1. Mr Phillips not stopping, which would necessitate having him up before a Court Marital for insubordination under rather embarrassing circumstances. 2. Mr Phillips stopping.
For some reason, neither of the two seemed like very good options at this precise moment.
Lieutenant Murray sighed, and allowed his hand to stray up to pet absently through tousled blond hair. All in all, it was probably best just to paste on his most bemused expression, and let events take care of themselves.
“Left hand down a bit.”