It’s about a boy, a ship, a crew of misfits, and a desperate quest.
Chapter 1: The Surprising use of Blackcurrant Juice
‘A Marsh Walump!’ two slightly tipsy men exclaimed and slapped their broad thighs, above the sound of the rain outside.
‘You can’t bring him in ‘ere!’ They were laughing together at the captain and his crewman, the swamp coloured creature that stood beside him, not much taller than the captain’s own knee-boots, but much taller inside despite his hesitant looks.
‘Hahaha,’ they laughed on in their merry mockery and stirring, and more joined in with them from the bar and the tables surrounding.
The young captain’s lip was curling up, like it always did when he was faced with something particularly unpleasant, and his eyes glowered in a way the swamp monster knew did not bode well for this other crew. He was a very proud captain and very loyal friend, and he would stand against all these men for his friend at such an insult. But just as the swamp monster was about to intervene he saw the captain’s glower turn into a gleam. He did not say a thing but went to a stool and sat at the counter, completely ignoring that other crew. The swamp monster followed him and sat by his side, over the bar you could just see his eyes.
‘Bartender,’ called the Captain, and the man came grudgingly over. He did not seem to like the presence of this boy and his swamp monster, though he did try to treat them just like any other street urchin that was unknown to him and his counter.
‘What do you want, Cap’n?’ he enquired, wiped his hands on his apron then itched his moustache which pointed up funnily, like it was held up with wires. You could see he did not like to address a mere boy with a title such as this, but the boy wore his stripes so there was nothing for it.
‘I would like a drink, my good man, and you Morris?’ the captain turned to his side, the swamp monster nodded and so he replied, ‘and one for my crewman here, if you don’t mind,’ and he gave the bartender his most natural smile.
‘You got the blunt to pay for it Cap’n?’
‘Aye, I do sir, if you’ve got what I want.’
‘What’ll it be then Cap’n, for you an’ your ‘mate? We serve everything here, beers, wines and sweet ales, from the cheap drop to the vintage first rate.’
‘I should like …’ thought the Captain, with a broadening grin.
‘Cider?’ helped the bartender.
‘Lemonade? Tonic and gin?’
‘No. I should like, if your establishment has it, the juice of the fruit of the mid-season blackcurrant.’
‘Blackcurrant?’ said the bartender with a look of surprise.
‘Aye,’ said the Captain with a spark in his eyes.
The bartender looked round him and scratched what was left of the hair on his head. ‘Mid-season?’ he said.
‘Aye,’ replied the Captain and nodded again.
‘Ah, give me a minute,’ and with that the bartender left.
‘Sent him to fetch some cordial boy have ya!’ the laughter went up again; it rose in chorus like the deluge of rain. They were thinking, no doubt, that this captain looked far too young to be out fending for himself, away from his mother.
The captain said nothing but watched all these men and noted to himself their character and aspect, he listened for their names as they called to each other and pretty soon he knew them, the names of their dogs, wives and mothers, the strength of their arm and their intellectual powers, without ever moving away from the counter.
The bartender returned after a while with a bottle in his hands and a half-hearted smile. ‘Here,’ he said, putting it carefully up on the counter, ‘I know it’s not quite what you’re after, but it’s the closest I got, see if it’ll do ye.’
The Captain’s got good eyes, as he has to have to guide his ship through the drafts and the clouds, and he used them to scrutinize the make of the bottle, the colour of liquid and the words writ on the label.
Then with that, ‘I’ll take it,’ he said.
‘Two glasses coming up, soon as I see your blunt,’ the bartender said and folded his arms on the spot, for he had had trouble with urchins before, you see, that would order a drink and then couldn’t pay.
‘I would like quite a few bottles,’ the Captain pronounced, ‘that is, if you have more of the stuff. I’ll take all you have in your cellar, if you’ll tell me a fair figure.’
The bartender was struck, no vocabulary could he find, for that moment was so unexpected he seemed suspended in time, but his wife, that handsome woman, came to his aid and from behind him she whispered, ‘Why, it’ll cost you four times your age, in pounds lad, not shillings, and if you don’t like it you can be on your way.’
‘I’m inclined to accept your offer,’ the young Captain said, ‘after I’ve seen how much you have.’
‘Very well then Cap’n, if you will, follow me,’ said the woman and showed him the way. But the captain just sat there, where he was on his seat, and told the bartender’s wife to get her regular crew to help her up with the crates. And such was his address that although she hesitated she never once thought to do any other than what he commanded, and so she scolded the loungers until she needled and coerced them into doing her will. ‘Up you get, you lazy scoundrels, get this done for your Bette and there’ll be a free round for you all when you’re back.’
One by one the crates were brought up, there were bottles and bottles and more of the stuff. It had sat in the cellar for many a year, for it seems very few people drank blackcurrant here. The Bartender’s face lit up as he heard the young captain’s voice, as he heard the words, ‘I’ll take the lot,’ and saw the boy pull out of his pocket the sum of coins his wife had bespoke. ‘Just get these men to take it on board,’ the Captain said, ‘and I’ll meet them there soon to tell them where it’s to be stored.’
So the swamp monster Morris and his fair-haired young captain watched as the crates went by in the arms of the men. The very same ones that had harassed and mocked them were now, round about, working for them. They wanted to finish and quickly have it over so they could return to their free mug of liquor, but after they’d gone out the captain looked at Morris and the little swamp monster wondered just what he was up to, for in his eyes was a sparkle and in the corner of his mouth was a wriggling giggle he was trying desperately not to let out.
‘Come on Morris,’ he said getting up off the chair, ‘I think we’re done here, time to make ourselves rare.’
Morris hopped down and headed for the door as the Captain retrieved his cap, put on his jacket and buttoned it all. It had been raining outside, but the sky seemed to wait just for them before it let go the heaviest downpour.
This odd pair made their way down the street, step by step coating their feet with the mud and the spatter from walking in it. The captain just wanted to be gone from this place, he had only stopped for one purpose and it was well on its way to being fulfilled if he held his nerve and didn’t stop now. No matter how his heart faltered, he had to keep the brave face, he had to, he must, and must keep going quickly, so much depended on it. So he picked up the pace and told Morris they must hurry. He lengthened his stride so much that just to keep up poor Morris was running.
They reached the little ship, which had been made secure by long ropes and wooden blocks in a dry dock at the pier, the men from the bar were all under her hull taking shelter, waiting for the directions to come from the boy captain.
Morris ran up and lowered the stairs and proceeded to go about getting ready to leave, and the captain motioned with his hand for the crew to follow after the swamp monster too. Then after the last had disappeared on board the captain ran around, loosened every block and cut every cord, then jumped on the stairs and mounted his spot at the helm, laughing to himself as he thought: that for the price of a few crates of new-season blackcurrant he had acquired a new crew for himself and Swamp Morris.