Go back to previous chapter
"Ransey proposes we sail right round the Horn of Wonder", said Julian, drawing an arc around the southern tip of the Land Mass with his pencil "And then carry on up the western coast. Perhaps until we get to Port West. What do you think?"
"There's a lot of hazards going that way", said Adam, sitting next to him at the desk "From what I've read of the southern seas, they're absolutely treacherous. The weather can be appalling, and there are so many hazards, such as numerous little islands dotted about, let alone the odd iceberg or two. I read an interview with an old sea-dog in the paper one time who said he'd never go back there again. And we're hardly seasoned mariners".
"After all these weeks at sea we're about as seasoned as we're likely to get", said Julian.
"It's the wrong time of year to be heading that far south", said Adam "It's right at the beginning of winter down there. That means precious little daylight for one thing".
"After our nuclear winter at Doom Castle we should be used to perpetual darkness".
"We weren't on a ship then!"
"Oh don't be such an old wet blanket, Ada. Have a little faith in our survival abilities. And wouldn't you like to see your first iceberg?"
"I have never in my life wanted to see an iceberg up close", said Adam.
"Tough titty, it looks as though you're going to", Julian poured them both another cup of coffee from the pot on his desk "Have a little faith in your skipper too".
"I don't know why any of you bother discussing anything with me", said Adam "You lot do this all the time. You make up your mind about something, and then say 'what do you think Adam?' You're all impossible!"
"Nonsense, I rely on you to keep me informed as to the general mood with the rest of them. Any signs of imminent mutiny for example".
"Not much chance of that. Not whilst the weather continues so nice and the sea's so calm".
"They've all been fairly placid these past few weeks haven't they?" said Julian "I was fully prepared for cabin fever and the rest of it, but nope".
"As you've just pointed out, we went through a far greater risk of cabin fever at the Castle that winter", said Adam "And a peaceful calm seems to have settled over everyone since we got through the storm. Or perhaps it's old age. Even Joby doesn't complain as much as he used to".
"Oh no?" said Julian "Yesterday he cornered me topside and said 'do you know our bog's blocked again?' I said 'no but you hum it and I'll play it!' He gave me such a look of disgust I'm surprised I didn't drop dead there and then!"
"Well he should've cheered up today. I got Hillyard down on his hands and knees to unblock the loo. Somebody had shoved a cigarette carton down it. I have an awful feeling it may have been Patsy".
"How are supplies generally?"
"Pretty good. Plenty of tinned stuff. Enough to see out the voyage, and we don't have to worry about them getting damaged in any way. And I'm very careful to keep the packets in a dry place".
"Enough flour and yeast to keep making bread?"
"As I said, as long as I keep it all dry, and barring a major catastrophe, such as turning over in the water, that shouldn't be too much of a problem. The hens are producing very well. They got over their shock of the turbulent weather. And the fishing's going pretty good too. All in all I don't like it. I always get nervous when things are going too well".
"Nonsense", said Julian "It's Joby-itis that's all. It's catching".
Kieran sat up in his bunk and placed his feet on the floor. He realised he must've slept through breakfast, and no one had tried waking him. Feeling suddenly rather lonely, he pulled on his vest and decided to go in search of Joby. He found these days that he hated falling asleep or waking up alone. Those two times were the most vulnerable parts of the day, when your consciousness was at its weakest. When dreams could seem like reality and vice versa ... oh stop it! he chided himself. You'll end up like the spectre at the feast at this rate.
He went out into the gangway. From the sound of things most of the others were up on deck. Through the galley doorway he could see Lonts standing at the sink, washing up the breakfast dishes. The boy was singing a wordless tune softly to himself, and Kieran suddenly felt a great wave of affection for him. He wanted to run in and hug him, but realised that this might alarm him.
Kieran went into the saloon. where he found Joby sprawled on the sofa reading another of his battered paperbacks. From the grimy state of his shirt and the greasiness of his hair, he looked as though he'd been doing some heavy duty work at some point that morning.
"You look as though you're having a much-needed breather", said Kieran.
"Adam's had me cleaning the stove", said Joby, moving his feet so that Kieran could sit down next to him.
"The stove?" Kieran exclaimed "From the look of you, I'd have thought you'd done out the entire galley!"
"It feels like it. You wouldn't have believed the state of the stove. Archaeologists would've been fascinated by some of the things I found in there!"
"You make me feel quite lazy".
"Did you sleep alright? No bad dreams?"
"Not that I remember".
"You don't look too good".
"Oh it just feels as though my brain's bleeding, that's all".
"Ugh!" said Joby "I don't like the sound of that".
"Not to worry. It's just me being overly-graphic", said Kieran, and he squeezed Joby's knee "I feel a lot better for seeing you".
"Do you know what I'd like to do for you?" said Joby "Cook you a meal. Just you and me eating together. I'd forgotten about some of the worst drawbacks of travelling".
"The lack of privacy?"
"Yeah. Sometimes it reminds me of the wagon days. The way I can't even be alone with you at night. We've only got that stupid bit of blanket on a string to shut us off".
"You miss the cottage don't you?" Kieran sighed "I do too. I wonder if we'll ever get any peace again. Sometimes it seems so unfair. This world's got so complicated. Sometimes I wish we could cross back just so's you and me could be a normal couple with normal worries".
"You wouldn't want me if we crossed back".
"Don't you believe it!"
Kieran slid his hands inside Joby's shirt and pulled him towards him.
"But sometimes", he whispered "The present does suit me just fine".
"Me too", Joby muttered, and he kissed him long and slowly.
"Joby!" Lonts called from the doorway.
"Can't you see I'm busy?" Joby roared, tossing a cushion at the boy "Don't you know when not to interrupt?"
"But you said I was to come and get you the instant I finished doing the dishes", Lonts protested, twisting a tea-towel in his hands "You said you wanted to inspect the galley after I'd finished with it".
"Are you the hygiene inspector now, Joby?" Kieran laughed.
"No, it's just that Lonts is the only one I'm allowed to boss around, so I thought I'd make the most of it", said Joby "Strict pecking-order in the galley you see. Adam tells me what to do and I tell Lonts what to do".
"You should try being the old scrubber! I don't get to be in charge of anyone", said Kieran.
It had been a perfect evening. They had dined on deck, and even Joby, not normally one to wax lyrical about anything, had been moved to remark that the Moon made the waves look like crumpled silk.
"Finia's embroiled in a lengthy card-game with the others", said Adam, carrying the brandy decanter into Julian's cabin later "So I've brought you your nightcap".
"And a very dashing steward you make too", said Julian, leaning back in his chair.
"Where are we now?" said Adam, looking down at the map spread out on Julian's desk.
"Slap bang in the middle of nowhere", said Julian, tapping the great expanse of ocean with his pencil "If we stay on course though we should eventually end up at the Brimstone Peninsula, the bit that sticks out like a club-foot at the south-eastern part of the Land Mass".
"Brimstone Peninsula?" said Adam.
"No need to get worked up about the name. I remember in our time hearing about a mountain in Antarctica called Brimstone Peak. It's just a name".
"And so what's on this peninsula then?"
"Nothing as far as we know. But it might be useful for us to make a stop there for a while. Pick up some supplies. It's supposed to be quite lush apparently, so we should be able to get some fruit and such like. That should please you".
"I see", said Adam "So when do we start hitting the icebergs?"
"Well I'm hoping we're not going to hit them!" Julian retorted "They are some considerable way south beyond that. Brimstone Peninsula is the last significant feature before we get to the Horn of Wonder though".
"And getting round that could be disastrous", said Adam.
"Don't be such an old woman. What have we got to lose?"
"Well at least we'll go down together".
"A great comfort that is!" said Adam "We're a bunch of amateurs for heaven's sake. We only know the bare minimum about sailing, and now you're proposing we go through one of the most rigorous passages in the world! I don't think you've thought it through. You just enjoy sitting in here playing Captain Birdseye! I'm surprised you don't make us all line up each morning and take your pick of us for your own personal pleasure!"
"Now there's an idea! You seem to be losing your nerve in your old age, Adam", Julian stroked the back of his leg fondly "All these nerves coming from a man who's spent his entire life taking risks".
"It's old age", said Adam "As I told you at the beginning of this trip, I want to live the quiet spinsterly existence from now on".
"Looks rather as though you shall have to postpone it for a while", said Julian, patting his bottom affectionately "I'll buy you a nice cardigan at the end of it all".
"What's your book about, Jobe?" asked Kieran, as they sat in the galley late that night, having a midnight supper of tinned tomatoes on toast.
"Some daft yarn about a bunch of jerks who get marooned on a desert island", said Joby, placing the book face-down on the table.
"Not about us is it?"
"Hardly. This lot seem to be able to make an armoured fortress out of a few bamboo sticks and a bunch of bananas! And someone conveniently leaves a trunk-load of goodies behind after dying in a previous shipwreck".
"That's considerate of them", said Kieran.
"Where did this book come from then?" said Joby, picking up a hardback which had been left on the draining-board.
"Oh it's Uddle's I think", said Kieran "He left it there whilst he went to the heads earlier. You'd better put it back in case he comes in looking for it".
"'The History Of Corporal Punishment'", said Joby, reading from the cover "I might have known really!"
"Sounds a bit academic for Uddle".
"I expect he just looks at the pictures", Joby flicked it open "Hey, there's some of women in here!"
"Does that mean Uddle's not likely to get it back in a hurry?" said Kieran, mischievously.
Joby showed him various crude line-drawings depicting half-naked women with huge melon-like breasts being whipped.
"Flagellation at old spring purification festivals", said Kieran, reading from one of the captions "For cleansing of the body and soul".
"Looks a bit more fun than the self-flagellation you get up to!" Joby exclaimed "Do you think he'd notice if I borrowed it for the night?"
"I didn't think any of that was your scene? Or do you just want to look at the tits?"
"What a bloody waste", said Joby, looking at one of the pictures "How could they? Murder all the women I mean?"
"Don't dwell on it, Joby", said Kieran "I've always tried not to. If I thought about it too much I'd go raving mad".
"I know what you mean", Joby sighed, and closed the book "Life's a funny game isn't it? You trundle along most of the time, not thinking about everything that's happened, but how could that kind of mass hysteria take a hold?"
"We weren't there. We don't know. But remember how easily governments and the media were manipulated in our time", said Kieran "One week they'd be telling us all to love someone, so we did, the next we had to hate them, so we did".
"Yeah, but not everyone fell for it all the time".
"Neither of us lived under dictatorships in our time Joby, or regimes of terror. We don't know what it was like. And from all the things I've read of the Massacre it was a pretty grim time in the lead-up to it. Nobody was thinking straight".
"Christ, I bet they had a rude awakening the morning after, when they realised what they'd done!"
"I expect it was a terrible time", said Kieran, sombrely "Please don't let's discuss it anymore, Joby. It's just too horrible for words. It all struck at the very heart of Nature ... our mothers and..."
He trailed off and they sat in silence for a minute or two.
"Finish your supper", Joby sighed "I've heard tomatoes held ward off prostate cancer".
The book had disturbed Joby and he lay awake long into the night. Kieran was sprawled over his chest, breathing deeply, and his presence gave Joby the only crumb of peace he could find.
The ship as usual seemed ten times noisier at night than it did during the day. Wood was creaking all around him, and one of the topside doors had come unfastened and was tapping against the other in a very irritating way. Joby hoped someone else would hear it, and go and sort it out. But sod's law dictated that everyone else was sleeping as soundly as newborn babies.
Joby knew he'd never get to sleep with it constantly jarring in the background, so he gently eased himself out from under Kieran and pulled on his robe. He twitched back the blanket on the line without disturbing the others, and went out into the gangway.
He climbed up the few steps to the topside door and reached out to pull the flapping one shut. Suddenly a face leered through the narrow gap. In the dim light it looked hideous and disembodied, like a white balloon with a leering red mouth drawn on it. Joby screamed and fell backwards down the steps. By the time he reached the bottom he had passed out.
"Nothing out of place up there", said Ransey, walking back into the saloon "And no one else even on the horizon, let alone on our boat".
"Can't say I'm surprised", said Joby morosely, cradling a glass of brandy.
"Did it seem solid to you?" said Kieran "Flesh and blood solid I mean?"
"Think so. Didn't have time to think about it that much. I couldn't say really. I'd be quite happy for someone to tell me I imagined it".
"Do you think you did?" asked Julian, bluntly.
"No I didn't", said Joby, sighing heavily "I think it was an animal of some kind. It didn't seem human. Perhaps there's some form of weird sea-creature out here that no one's discovered yet".
"Sounds more like the creature from the black lagoon", said Julian.
"Jules!" said Adam, sharply.
"No, let him", said Joby "If it'd happened to anyone else I'd probably be jeering too. I'm going back to bed now. No point sitting up all night to discuss it".
He drained his glass and abruptly left the room. Kieran followed him.
"It really did shake him didn't it?" said Ransey.
"He could be right though", said Hillyard "Perhaps it was some weird undiscovered sea-creature. That makes more sense than anything else".
"Yes", said Adam "And it ties in with what Joby said about it being white and hairless in that case".
"And it thought it'd clamber aboard to take a look at us?" said Julian.
"Not unbelievable", said Hillyard "It must be harmless though. Or it would've attacked Joby when he was lying at the foot of the steps".
"Maybe", said Adam "But we make sure both the topside doors are fastened in future".
Go forward to next chapter
Return to Sarah Hapgood's Strange Tales and Strange Places web site