The wood-panelled elevator looked and smelt familiar and welcoming but I was aware of butterflies in my stomach. I had been this way before, had rejected the comradeship and was not sure of my welcome.
As I exited, I cursed myself again for the slight stoop, as if my height would put my head in the door jamb, and for my lateness. Never once had I been late on the Patrick Henry, for all those briefings and missions. Here, I knew by the feel of the air that I was late.
I walked into the bullpen – no-one I knew – a marine gunnery sergeant away on the other side, beginning to stand up as I headed to my office…oops ! this office, with its prime view and sheltered location, looked very inhabited. Damn ! Exactly why I should think I would get “MY” office back…
“Can I help you, Commander ?” the Gunnery Sergeant had that tone of crisp respect combined with a total lack of trust that noncoms have for unfamiliar officers. I snapped: “I was stowing my gear in my office” – why I snapped I don’t know, it was clear to a babe that this was not MY office, I had no reason to be on my high horse, Gunnery Sergeants are bad people to dis and I don’t do that usually …
I took a deep breath and started again “Gunnery Sergeant, my name is …” and was interrupted “Commander Rabb ! Sir ! Everyone is in the morning briefing, sir. The admiral asked that you joined them as soon as you ..eh.. arrived” Tiner – a voice and a style I knew. I would have laid a sure bet that those were not the words Admiral Chegwidden used.
“Thank you, Tiner.” Was all I said and began to walk towards the JAG’s office. Then I stopped and turned back to an eager Seaman and an unconvinced marine. “Gunny,” I offered a smile and, slightly encouraged by the Gunnery Sergeant’s minuscule softening of pose, I continued, “Could I leave my things,” indicating my briefcase and cover in my hands “somewhere until after the meeting ?”
“Absolutely, commander.” The marine had the knowing smile of any noncom with a prior knowledge of the situation and I felt the unease of a new billet rising my throat. He took the bag and cap and stood back in an exaggerated manner to show me I was free to continue. Then he added “the morning briefing is in the conference room, sir.”
I nodded an acknowledgement and changed my heading to the conference room.
‘So, a moment of peace in the busy morning schedule – Admiral in, looking pretty cool, no obvious concerns on that score this morning; no important court appearances, the calendar looks routine and preparatory. Commander Brumby is still doing everything in his power to talk Colonel Mackenzie into a date but she seems to be handling that. Lieutenant Roberts took exception to another change I made to office practices but he’s still not sure how to handle that. Lieutenant (JG) Roberts will, of course, as is her wont, take that all in her stride the next time she is in.
‘Good. Time for coffee. Ah, who is this, lieutenant commander, navy pilot, by his wings – Commander Rabb, no doubt, and late. Well, he’s avoiding looking my way and, where IS he going ? Brumby’s office.’
As I walked to the office, the Commander already decided this wasn’t a good idea and turned back… towards me, as it happened. I was just starting to ask if I could help him, realising that, just maybe, this used to be his office and he might need a face-saving way to find his new one, when Tiner, of course, chirruped up that the meeting was already was in progress. The commander winced when he heard what the admiral had said – I suspect the commander may not have top marks in punctuality – then he started towards the Admiral’s office. I offered to take his things until the meeting was over and let him know that the meeting was in the conference room. He acknowledged my offer, handed me his bag and cover and took off at pretty high speed for the conference room, looking more like an LT in his first billet than the great Commander Rabb.
Tiner, clearly, didn’t see that. “Isn’t he great ?” he said in a voice full of hero worship. I looked at him and didn’t know what to say so I took the Commander’s things back to my desk and deposited them safely to await his re-emergence. Then I went for the coffee I had promised myself.
Getting coffee was a short task. The coffee pot in the kitchen was still full. It always was these days, since I arranged for the officers to have a pot on the hotplate in the conference room. So, I was gone for maybe three minutes and I still missed part one of the whirlwind. Part two whisked by me as I walked back to my desk – Commander Trelawney, back from her week’s leave, reversing her course after depositing bag, cover, etc in her office, still late, still time for a cheery “hallo, gunny” and to drop a parcel on my desk, explaining over her shoulder: a little gift from Virginia.
I set my coffee down and picked up the parcel – wrapped, if I wasn’t mistaken, by the Commander, not by the store – and opened it carefully. Inside, was a little carving of an old lady in a rocking chair with the motto: “I gave my heart to a marine sergeant.” and a piece of paper with the Commander’s neat handwriting: ‘Pls (sic) don’t consider this anything other than a happy gesture amongst esteemed (but nothing more) colleagues – it’s just that I saw it and thought of you ! Best wishes and thanks for your many kindnesses.’ and it was signed, formally Commander Isabel Trelawney.
I couldn’t help smiling – at the thought, at the ornament, and also at the extra thought that made the Commander explain her action. I put the ornament on my desk and smiled at the anticipation of the reactions I would get from the Colonel, Commander Brumby, et al….
As I put my hand on the handle of the conference room door – a round brass handle that turned ill when manipulated by sweating hands – I took a deep breath and tried to give the impression of a much slower approach.
The admiral half-turned, recognised it was me, and barely interrupted what he was saying to tell me to take a seat at the end of the table and get myself a coffee.
I was aware of, rather than saw, Mac, at the Admiral’s right hand; Bud, who, bless him, offered me a warm smile; and Brumby, who grinned and looked superior. There were others there but I was scarcely aware other than that they wore Navy uniforms.
The two seats at the end and at either side of the long table were vacant. I sat down, pulled a pad of paper and a pencil towards me from the pile and looked for the coffee. It was on a side table at the end of the conference table. I got up again, and everyone looked up at the scraping of my chair. This was worse than the first day at my first flight squadron. I tried to smile winningly – Meg always said that my smile was winning – and everyone just looked away. Deep breath, cup of coffee.
I was disgusted to find that the cups were small. I filled one and was about to take my seat again when the door opened.
There was a rush of air. Chegwidden looked up and acknowledged the newcomer “Good afternoon, commander, on Central time today ? Rabb, give the commander a coffee”. The figure moved down the other side of the table and I realised it was wearing Navy blues but not US Navy, Royal Navy, and a skirt – a female Royal Navy Commander who was taking a seat opposite me. I started to ask her how she liked her coffee as I focussed on green eyes and red hair and looked into the face of Sable.
I felt like I remained frozen, half out of my seat to get the newcomer coffee, for an eternity but then I breathed, pushed Sable the fresh cup of black coffee because I knew that’s how she took it and got up to replace my cup. I never said a word to her. I think, maybe, she said “thank you.”
The meeting continued and I learnt that the Admiral had in mind a different treatment for me than he had given Mac when she’d come back – no boring but simple Freedom of Information cases for me – no, let’s defend the Naval officer son of the SecNav to win back your spurs ! I was acutely conscious of every breath that Sable took and I could scarcely breathe myself. I was conscious that she seemed to be less affected. She answered easily when asked a question about her cases or about the week’s leave from which she had just returned – it was “great”, apparently. I would have hoped for better but I realised in this forum, in these circumstances, perhaps it wouldn’t be appropriate.
As the meeting wound up, the Admiral relented a little and said some words of welcome to me. That was kind. If it hadn’t been for the closeness of Sable, I would have been touched and it might have gone a long way towards dispelling the sense of dislocation that I had had all morning. I smiled, nodded to everyone, except my direct opposite, and said thank you. Then the admiral recollected my newness and turned to Mac. “Colonel,” he said confidently “you’ll introduce the Commander to the people he doesn’t know, won’t you ?” and, without waiting for Mac’s response “Good morning, people” his gaze swept the table and he left.
Everyone stepped back from the table. A female lieutenant I didn’t know caught Sable’s attention and her smile. Bud jumped up from his seat next but one to mine and pumped my hand, asking when I’d got back and when was I going to come and see little AJ and Harriet. I muttered soon then remembered little AJ as he had been when I’d come back from reorientation training, smiled and fully engaged myself in another go round – “Soon, Bud, you talk to Harriet and I’ll come round whenever you are free this week”. Bud beamed and, without meaning to, I half-turned and looked across the room to where Sable was still in conversation with the earnest lieutenant. She was looking at me, as if she had been watching and listening to us at the same time as holding her own against the lieutenant, and she smiled, approvingly, into my eyes. I felt blessed and uplifted.
Mac, seeing I was finished with Bud, interrupted her sparring – at least I assume that is what it was – with Brumby, who seemed as oaf-ish as ever. She walked down the room to me, precise and military, and surprised me by offering a hug. “Good to see you back, Flyboy,” she smiled. Then she turned and introduced me to Lieutenant Singer, the young lieutenant who, after talking to Sable, had suddenly materialised at my side in time to shake my hand fervently and speak earnestly about ‘admiration’ and ‘looking forward to learning from you’ and Commander Mattoni, an African American, with intelligent eyes and a wary smile and then…
“Harm,” Mac said, looking over my right shoulder. “I’d like you to meet Commander Isabel Trelawney, Royal Navy, here on secondment, taking over from Brumby. Commander, this is the Commander Harmon Rabb we’ve told you all about.”
I knew she was there of course. I had been aware of her location in the room as if I were wired in some way. I stepped back slightly to allow her into the group as Mac introduced her. I even made some crack about “so if you’re taking over from Brumby, why is he still here ?” to which Mac responded with a scowl and Sable, what was her real name ?, raised her eyebrows; then I automatically played the line: “all good, I hope” as the portent of Mac’s last words hit me, at the same time kicking myself for my gaucheness and wishing I had never got out of bed this morning.
I felt like a clumsy buffoon, flailing around for hours for the right words. Then Sable took my proffered hand and squeezed it gently and the world resolved and focussed on her and only on her. “Hello, Commander”, she said, smiling – somehow making me realise that I had hesitated for only a second and I looked fine to the outside world – “Commander iSABLE Trelawney”, repeating her name so I knew she was both Isabel and Sable, that I wasn’t going mad, “and I’ve heard many very good things about you, don’t you worry.”
I found my voice, resisted the urge to draw her closer, but smiled and reflected the thought: “Lieutenant Commander Harmon DAVID Rabb, at your service, ma’am.”
She smiled, acknowledging what I had said. “Very good to meet you. Now, I have Freedom of Information requests to deal with. Colonel. Commander.” She nodded to us and left the room.
“She’s doing the grunt work ?” I asked Mac. “Well, of course,” she answered, distractedly as a seaman brought her a message. “I’ll catch you later, Harm.” She said as she walked out.
I felt a slap in the face then I realised the truth. With Mac’s promotion she was my senior officer, probably not wanting to get into gossip with me; and, it was clear, she was the admiral’s chief of staff so she was extremely busy.
I fell into step with Bud and he was happy to elaborate even without an additional question from me. “Oh, yes, the Commander is having to study US UCMJ and brush up her technical skills before she can do any assignments. Actually, sir, I think she is doing very well. She studies hard; she helps anyone in the office, even with quite menial tasks and she asks intelligent questions all about them. People like her. Now, sir, I’m sorry, I haven’t cleaned out my office yet but I’ll get right on it.”
Distracted as I was by this praise of Sable, I muttered, “Oh, yes, lieutenant, get right on that.” Then I realised that Bud looked hurt, that the Gunnery Sergeant from earlier who had reappeared looked shocked and I reran the conversation. “Oh, what, you mean, I’m getting YOUR office, Bud, I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” I burbled a bit more and realised that Bud, after his first shock, didn’t mind. But, I felt more awful than ever about the way I was coming back into this fold and disrupting everything. I caught the Gunnery Sergeant’s eye with a rueful expression and I realised he wasn’t that bad. He saw immediately the problem and dismissed me to sit at his desk until the office was clear, thus clearing me to scuttle away with my tail between my legs, conscious that in this almost familiar, almost completely alien, territory, I needed to be careful what I said lest I hurt people I did actually care for.
I closed my eyes and leant back in the gunny’s chair, noticing how comfortable it was and smiling at the thought that the JAG gunny was as competent as a good supply officer at getting good equipment, and thought about another cup of coffee, preferably a mug of Harm brew. Then I heard the sound of a cup being set down on a table next to me and I became aware of scent I knew. I opened my eyes and sat up.
Sable smiled. “I thought you could use another coffee, Commander. I know those cups are not to MY taste.”
“Thank you…. Commander,” I picked up the mug and smelled the strong hot brew with appreciation. I may have said more but the gunnery sergeant came to join in the party at his desk. “Commander,” he said, nodding at Sable. “Gunny,” she acknowledged with a slight and very regal inclination of her head. “I see you opened your gift,” she continued, turning the inclination into a nod of her head at the edge of the table and making the statement almost a question. The gunnery sergeant smiled broadly, and I had a sense that these were old allies, “I think it is a fine acknowledgement between colleagues and I understand and accept the sentiments behind it.” Sable and the gunnery sergeant exchanged broad smiles and Sable looked as pleased as a small child.
I looked over at the ornament on the desk – a Southern lady on a rocking chair on a porch, dreaming of her marine – and I remembered when Sable bought it.
It was a stall in a small village in Virginia. The tat on display appalled me and I had other ideas of how to spend this intoxicating, happy day. Sable, however, descended on the stall with shrieks of delight – very out of character for her restrained British accent. The stall – indeed the whole market - was not busy and the lady behind the stall spun a yarn about her true love and living on memories of love for 50 years. I was sceptical but Sable bobbed down in front of the old woman, looking into her eyes and sharing her tears, and came away with the ornament that now sat on the gunny’s desk. “I have a colleague I can share that with,” she had said. Then the old woman had looked at us and I had felt a cold shiver down my spine. She went away and came back only after Sable had paid and we were about to leave. She took Sable’s hand and gave her something, another ornament, I think. Sable had started to show me but the old woman had stopped her and looked into her eyes. Then Sable had asked the price but the old woman had snorted and turned away. I remember Sable seeking out the younger woman behind the till to check that it was OK. She had nodded, looking slightly perplexed herself, and we had left.
I came back to the future to realise that Sable had asked me a question. She and the Gunnery Sergeant were looking at me expectantly. “I’m sorry, what ?” I asked, feeling foolish – again. Sable’s smile was like a balm that made me feel whole again. “Commander,” she said, softly chiding my lack of attention, “I was telling the Gunnery Sergeant that you pretty much qualify to be part of our new-kids-on-the-block gang, given that you have been away so long. So, if you need anything, particularly any updates on what's going on in JAG – gossip and all that,” she winked conspiratorially, “feel free to ask us.”
“Of course,” she continued before I could take action on my immediate reaction that I, as a Commander in the US Navy, didn’t want to know gossip. “Our price is that we expect you to let us in on any events and cases that happened before our time and that help to shed light on current events. Deal ?” she held out her hand on that note and smiled that smile again.
I don’t know if I held out my hand, shook hers and then the Gunny’s, sealing the deal, only because her smile was intoxicating and I desperately wanted to feel her skin again even if it was for seconds, or because she was just so convincing and inviting. Either way, I did it, I shook hands and I found myself smiling and feeling part of something again.
Certainly, the Commander’s welcoming of me seemed to change the Gunnery Sergeant’s attitude to me for the better. I did, however, want to talk to Sable separately and alone but just then Bud called me over to start working on the case of the SecNav’s son and someone else called Sable away.
When the Admiral sped out of the meeting room, all of us in the bullpen knew we needed to get ready for another day of work. Unusually, he stopped in front of my desk. “Gunny,” he stated, “you’ll have met Commander Rabb.” I’d made it to full attention by this time and started to reply, “Affirmative…” when he cut me off: “Can you help him make sure that everything is set and organised for his return ?”
“Of course, Admiral, I said,” swallowing a sudden rising resentment – I didn’t take this job to nursemaid Lieutenant Commanders who, hot-shot or not- had made their own bed by deserting their post to go off and pursue some madcap dream !
The admiral went back to his own office and made life hell for Tiner, who still looked suspiciously at me, wondering what the Admiral had spoken to me about. God, save me from jealous sailors and glory-hunting flyboys ! I got another cup of coffee.
When I came back, I realised that the meeting was breaking up. Singer had left the room, which presumably meant that no butt was left available to suck. One day, girl, one day. I promised her departing back.
Then the Colonel came out at a run and asked me to help her organise some travel arrangements. When I got through understanding what she needed, I was about to pick up the phone to put things underway when I saw Commander Rabb and Lieutenant Roberts emerge from the meeting room, talking.
The Commander still needed an office and I knew the Lieutenant hadn’t emptied his yet so I went up to them in time to hear the Commander tell the Lieutenant to snap to it to clear out his office. I was pretty horrified and the lieutenant was clearly pretty hurt. There was an awkward pause then I looked at the commander’s face – clearly, whatever he had thought he was saying he didn’t mean what he had actually said. He stumbled out some words and I suggested that he could use my desk and phone while I helped the lieutenant. It is rare to see such a look of unrestrained gratitude on an officer’s face as I saw on Commander Rabb’s as he walked to my desk.
I helped the Lieutenant carry the last of his possessions from the surfaces of the office, including a lovely picture of the other Lieutenant Roberts on their wedding, looking very happy, which he had somehow managed to forget behind his terminal. It took me a while to extract myself from his gratitude and, by the time I headed back to my desk to let the Commander know that he could move to his office, the Commander had been joined by Commander Trelawney. She had brought him coffee and she clearly liked him. So, I began to revise my opinion of the new boy. Commander Trelawney was a good judge of character. If she thought he was worth the bother, he probably was.
As I joined them, Commander Trelawney acknowledged my presence and we talked about her gift. I was glad to assure her that it had given no offence and she did look pleased. She suggested that the two of us, and the Commander, should form a club for newbies, especially if the Commander could fill us in on things that happened on his earlier watch. In the middle of this conversation, I realised that once again the Commander was not with us. I hoped that he wasn’t this distracted when he was flying – it could be dangerous ! But, then after a quick repetition, he shook hands and agreed that the club seemed like a good idea. I was conscious still of my doubts but I had to accept that, if Commander Trelawney liked the Commander, I would too.
After that the day went into its usual pattern of mini-crises and routine administration. Commander Trelawney asked me to do some research on one of the requestors of a Freedom of Information request and then on a legal point in her studies. Although these take a great deal of time, I am happy to do them because they are more interesting and fulfilling that the administrative tasks. And Commander Trelawney always gives me credit where it is due.
The Commander’s final exam session was coming up soon and she was late in her office studying. I took her a cup of coffee about 7 p.m. and she smiled her thanks. As I turned to leave, the tall figure of Commander Rabb appeared in the doorway. “Lost your bearings again, Commander ?” I joked, then bit my lip. Some officers would not like that sort of frivolity. Of course, I needn’t have worried. He smiled and took up the challenge: “No, Gunny, just thought I’d try and persuade the Commander to take pity on a fellow officer and swap offices since this has such a great view.” At that we both turned to Commander Trelawney and both started laughing as she turned back from her window, which let onto an alleyway and showed only wall, with her lip curled up in disgust. She watched us for a while, sipped her coffee and, in an exaggerated manner, turned back to her books. “If that is all ?” she asked. The Commander and I exchanged a glance and a smile. He started to explain that it wasn’t and I excused myself and wished them both good night.
I didn’t get another chance to talk to Sable until in the early evening. I took my paperwork back to JAG for a meeting the next day and I saw that her light was still on. As I walked into the office, I saw the gunnery sergeant again – damn! Were these two having an affair ? is that why she had avoided me all day ? The sergeant made some kind of crack about my being lost on my way to my office. I countered, stupidly, about some “officers-only” crack. Luckily, it came out all wrong and suddenly we were all laughing.
As the sergeant left, I looked at Sable sitting behind her desk with her law books and I had a strange sense of unreality. This woman was a naval officer and a lawyer. I swallowed as she watched me.
“You’d better sit down, David”, she said, and I did and, suddenly, reached across the desk and took her hands in mine. That felt so good. I started to lean across the desk to kiss her. She stopped me, without a word, by stiffening her arms and holding her hands out, palms out, to signify ‘stop’. Her eyes were gentle but her face was firm. “We are officers in the same unit and in the same chain of command. Neither of us wishes to jeopardise our career for a fling, however good.” Her voice was soft but grew even softer at the last. I looked at her, feeling warring emotions – she was right, she was brave and beautiful, but I didn’t want to think of what we had as a fling. I stayed a long time, looking at her. I couldn’t help smiling at her. I was so happy, just being with her. She smiled back, taking it as a sign that I had agreed and her tone lightened a little. “After all,” she said, “we – Isabel and Harm - hardly know each other. Maybe we won’t like each other.” I knew she was right in so many ways so I smiled back, squeezed her hands and let them go.
“So,” she said, “friends ?”
“Friends,” I agreed. “And, as a friend, I think it is my duty to make sure you eat right and don’t spend all your life working. So, pack your things and be ready in 10 minutes and I’ll buy you dinner.”
“Very well, commander,” she said smiling again, and started to put away her books. I nodded and went to my office to do the same.
Private Journal of Captain Isabel Trelawney RN - Monday
Well, there’s a turn-up for the books. Back to work after my leave and who should I run into than David. Yes, dear diary, David, who I really haven’t told you all about because I haven’t had a chance, what with his being around all week and not having much free time.
Turns out he isn’t David. Well, he IS David but that isn’t the name he is normally known by. He’s actually Harmon Rabb Jr, star lawyer, naval pilot and all round JAG American hero, a man whose exploits I’ve heard all about since arriving in the States and whom I was beginning to think was really a bit too good to be true and probably a royal (well, I suppose, presidential) pain in the you-know-what. And, then he turns out to be my David.
I don’t know who was more surprised – David or I. I was late, the admiral made a fairly humourless crack about my being on the wrong timezone and ordered Rabb to give me a coffee. Of course, I was expecting Rabb to be there but when I got to the end of the table and looked at this male officer in dress blues who was going to get me the coffee, it turned out not just to be a gorgeous hunk of a man with gold wings but it turned out to be DAVID. He wasn’t probably expecting me at all, not knowing how many lawyers would be there. Certainly, I think we were both as gob-smacked as each other. I couldn’t string a sensible sentence together all meeting. I don’t know what the Admiral thought. David (or should I start to say Harm) seemed fine. The admiral has assigned him a minefield of a case – defending the Secretary of the Navy’s son. Woah, that sounds like a lose-lose situation.
After the meeting, the Colonel introduced Harm to everyone. It was very odd being introduced although I suppose it did at least give us a chance to hear each other’s proper names. Apparently David is his middle name so he didn’t make it up completely – somehow, that is reassuring. I think he realised that Sable is a corruption and mispronunciation of my name so he knows the same thing about me.
The Gunny and I have signed Harm up as a member of our newby club. He will be pretty useful, given that he has been here before. He’ll understand all those nuances that still go over our heads.
We had dinner tonight but as friends. It is completely inappropriate as officers in the same chain of command for us “to fraternize”, I think the term is, and anyway we both need time to get to know the real us. After all, I can’t reconcile the Harmon Rabb I had heard about and the David I got to know. Still, I am glad that I have another friend over here. I am really quite happy about it.
Oh, yes, and the Gunny liked my gift and wasn’t at all offended or take it as one of those non-PC things- huge sigh of relief, there I can tell you.
I don’t suppose David actually knew who I was and used pretend names so we could get around the fraternisation thing. No, I’m sure not.
well, off to bed – to sleep to dream……