Monday, 9 November 2009

Chapter Twenty-Three: Cutlass

“Lost for words, girly girl? I quite understand. Who wouldn’t be to discover that they had been employed by Captain Cutlassssss?” The last ‘s’ of ‘Cutlass’ wound through the air like poisonous vipers.
The point of the sword was slowly removed from Sally’s throat and her eyes widened as the figure stood and she watched it rise up and up. And up.

Captain Clarabelle Cutlass (known to her crew as Old Squideye, for reasons which will shortly become apparent) was an imposing figure and quite the strangest looking person that Sally had ever seen. She was at least eight feet tall with arms and legs so long and thin that if you could picture a person with limbs made from broom sticks and snooker cues and you might just come close to imagining just how jutty and sticky-outy she was. Just to be in the same room as her was to risk a poke in the eye from a pointy elbow or a knobbly knee.
The pirate captain’s head sat atop a long thin neck the length of one of her forearms and seemed to have the ability to contract into or extend out of her body like a turtle’s neck from its shell. The face itself belonged to somebody who could have been sixty or a hundred, and was long, hard and sour, her pale skin stretched over prominent cheek bones and looking as if bitterness had sucked every ounce of joy from her. As the light from the fire caught her face, Sally noticed the outlines of soft, pinkish scales (most noticeably on her dried, thin lips) and realised that it wasn’t just her long neck and hissing voice which made her think of snakes.
She was dressed from head to toe in thick, white furs, a fur hat perched on her head and soft golden ringlets poking from underneath(a little too soft and a mite too golden perhaps).
But of all the strange aspects of this old woman (and remember, this was a being who looked like a cross between a scarecrow and the Loch Ness Monster) there was one which stood out froze Sally like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. This was the Captain’s right eye.
Red, it was. Not just tired or bloodshot but completely red. From the pupil to the iris to the orb of the eye itself, completely red. A bright, viscous, blood red which stood out from the rest of her pale, tight face and looked as though it might melt all that it surveyed with a burning glare.
She was truly ugly. But this was not down to her physical appearance; a kinder, more caring person may have been able to carry that tall, thin body with grace and beauty. No, this ugliness was the outward manifestation of the deep bitterness and hatred which curdled inside her (maybe it was cruel that the crew referred to her as Old Squideye; but really, once you saw the malevolence that flared from that bright red eye, you knew that she really was as cold and ugly as a creature from the dark depths of the sea).
Something black sat in Clarabelle Cutlass’s heart and over the years it had slowly poisoned her until that sucked-dry face and that terrible red orb were merely an echo of the evil which ran through her entire soul.

Eventually, after what sounded like an eternity, a strange sound squeaked from Sally’s dry mouth: “Employed?”
The neck extended straight out from the pirate’s body and arched down towards Sally until their faces were inches apart.
“Why, yessss of coursssse. Why elsssse would you still be alive? You have been found quite adequate for the exissssting vacansssy of perssssonal asssssisssstant to the Captain. Clarabelle Cutlasssss. Me, mysssself and I, deary.” (and from now on, you’ll just have to imagine her hissing voice or else I’ll run out of ‘s’s!)
“But…wh-wh-?” Sally stuttered, cofused.
A fake, pencilled eyebrow rose above the red eye. “Oh such modesty, girl. Come, now surely you must know how important your talent is in this part of the world!”
“Talent?” Another croak.
“Your letterin’, of course girl!” When Sally still stared blankly, the old woman tutted in exasperation. “Because you can read and write!”
“But how do you-?” The whole sum of Sally’s time in the small office had been a chewed pencil and a numb backside. She hadn’t written one word.
“The forms, deary. The forms. The very fact that you understood enough of the forms not to fill them in proves that you can read and write!”
This really was the craziest logic that Sally had ever heard but before she could say so, the captain continued:
“Most new crew members usually just put their mark down as quickly as they can, convinced that they’re signing up for a percentage of the profits. Sure proof that they haven’t read a word on the paper work.”
Sally couldn’t contain her confusion any longer: “So, the only people who sign the forms are the ones who can’t read them and anyone who can read them, doesn’t sign them! That doesn’t make any sense at all!”
“Sense!” This word sounded like the hiss of a frustrated python and Clarabelle Cutlass reared her head back and spluttered. “It doesn’t need to make sense, girl. It’s the law! Company law. Anybody who works for a Company ship must complete the correct paperwork!”
“But if you sign something that you don’t understand…?”
“Oh come now.” The old woman tutted. “A mere irrelevance. And besides, signing will always be better than the consequences for those who don’t.” Sally felt a chill on the back of her. “Except in your case, my dear. Where your not-signing has shown you worthy of a completely new set of forms. And anyway…” She flicked the ash from her cigarette onto the lion skin on the floor and rubbed it idly into the fur with her foot. “Your arrival is most fortunate. I’ve only recently lost my last assistant. He had to leave the ship due to….” Her voice quietened to a whisper and she narrowed her eyes, “…unforeseen circumstances. So your application has been received at just the right time. Well done on not completing the required forms and welcome to Company employ!”
“Company? But I thought... Aren’t you…” Sally hesitated. She wasn’t at all sure how the next word that she was about to speak would go down.
“Yes?” Something dark lurked under the words; something threatening. The red eye flashed at Sally, a warning to be careful.
But Sally being Sally, she took a deep breath and said it anyway. “Aren’t you…pirates?”
Cutlass seemed to blink in surprise and then ever so slowly a strange, hoarse, vibrating screech emerged from her throat like the death rattle of a vulture. The neck swayed from side to side like a charmed cobra and Sally froze, stunned by the unearthly sound.
It took her at least ten seconds to realise that the horrific noise which filled the cabin was laughter.
Eventually, like an old locomotive, she slowly wheezed to a stop and took another puff on her cigarette.
“Pirates, dear?” the words emerged in a cloud of smoke. “Such a quaint word. Such an old-fashioned concept. Pirates. Well I never. Of course we’re not pirates. The Huntress is a legitimate trading vessel. We are lawful, certified freelance merchants. Look, look,” She pointed with her sword to various framed papers on the wall. “We have all of the forms to prove it. Company forms.”
And it would seem for Clarabelle Cutlass, that this was the end of the argument. She sat down once more in her armchair, her long neck arching over the top so that she could still look at her new assistant. “And your numbers, deary? How good is your numbering? What’s thirty two and fifty one. Quick, quick, no holding back now.”
“Eighty three!” The answer shot out of Sally’s mouth before she could stop herself.
“Mmmmm,” Cutlass fingered a ringlet of blond hair. “Well, that certainly sounds right.” She pulled open a drawer in the small table next to her and pulled out an abacus. Her long, black fingernails darted along the device, clicking beads back and forth until she declared triumphantly. “Yes, eighty-three! Quite right! That settles it: you definitely get the job. Now, if you’ll just wait here, I’ll get the forms.” And with that she jumped up again and strode to a second door next to the one through which Sally had entered. Walking out, Sally heard her disappear down the corridor outside with a screech of: “Ratboy! Ratboy! Where are you?”
And as the door swung to behind the pirate captain, there was another noise in the air. A short, sharp whistle. Sally looked up and around her, wondering what strange sight she was going to see now. A second impatient whistle drew her attention to the ticking grandfather clock standing in the corner of the cabin and she suddenly saw her. There poking out from behind the clock were the two bright eyes and face full of spry whiskers that was Brigadier Cynthia Landrey.
Sally ran over to the cuckoo clock. “Brigadier Landrey!” She exclaimed, overjoyed to see the friendly face.
“Cynthia will do just fine, Sally,” the otter replied and climbing up the base of the clock until she was standing on the small ledge beneath its face, she hopped off and onto Sally’s shoulder. The long, thin body curled around the girl’s neck and Cynthia rubbed her face against Sally’s cheek in greeting.
“Now, I’ll have to be quick so listen carefully,” she said, urgently. “Jack has sent me to tell you to keep strong and remember that mum’s the word.”
“I haven’t said a thing,” Sally said. “I promise.”
“I know, Sally. I’ve been keeping an eye on things from the clock. You’ve been doing an admirable job. And from what I’ve heard, Old Squideye won’t be keeping you down on Deck Thirteen with the rest of us. Sounds like they have bigger plans for you.”
Sally didn’t like the sound of that. “What should I do? I…”
“You must play along. Jack says that he’s working on a plan to get us off of this ship and the more you can tell us about Squideye’s setup, the better chance we have of running circles around the peglegs when the time comes. Do you understand, Sally?”
“Yes, I think so. You want me to pretend to work for them but to really be a spy for you.”
“Exactly. Tell them what they want to hear. Especially that creep of a First Mate, Ratboy. He’s a sucker for flattery. Just be careful with Squideye – she’s not as stupid as she looks! Ooops I can hear her coming.” With a quick rub on the cheek, Cynthia Landrey jumped down onto the floor and back behind the clock. “Stay strong, Sally. Don’t forget, if you need me, I won’t be far away!”
Then she was gone and Sally was alone again. She heard voices coming back outside the door and Clarabelle Cutlass, with Ratboy (who Sally now knew to be the pink creature who she had met twice already) grovelling next to her, strode back in:
“…woodworm down on Deck Nine, ma’am.”
“Get it seen to or else, Ratboy.”
Her reptilian lips split into a hideous grin when she laid her eyes on Sally again and she shoved a sheet of parchment at the girl.
“Now, deary.” The pirate captain hissed. “If you’ll just put your mark on this contract, then it will all be official.”

And that’s how Sally Hargreaves, eleven years old, and of 22 Dunstable Lane, became personal assistant to Captain Clarabelle ‘Squideye’ Cutlass of the Huntress.
Or, in short, how Sally became a pirate.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Chapter Twenty-Two: Grimwald Stalkin Treads in Poopin (I)

As Grimwald Stalkin walked out of the log cabin that he shared with his brother, his foot squelched ankle deep into a cold brown pile!
“Aahhhhh!” He roared with anger, shook his fist at the muck that now covered his boot, and kicked at it so hard that his foot slipped sharply on the slushy mixture of brown-streaked snow. Flipping up into the air, he came crashing down on the dung which now covered not only his right boot but the backs of his rough deer-skin trousers as well.
Such a terrible stream of words came out of his mouth that I cannot possibly write them down here. In fact I find myself blushing even at the thought of them.

If the truth be told then, from a very early age, Grimwald Stalkin had had anger issues. The slightest piece of bad luck would result in shouting and swearing usually followed by a punch or a kick thrown at some inanimate object. The result of this was that the object would either break or cause pain or injury to his hand or foot. This, in turn, would cause another fit of anger and then more punching or kicking and so it would go on until the offending object was smashed to pieces or Grimwald had bruised his hands or feet so badly that he had to go back to bed.
Needless to say, bills for furniture repair were particularly high in the Stalkin household.
Yes indeed, it has to be said that Stalkins as a whole are not the best humoured of folk, but even among his grumpy kin, Grimwald was renowned for his bad temper.

“Greymalkin Stalkin!” He screamed in a rage so fierce that another two blood vessels burst into a network of fine, red lines on his lumpy nose. He struggled to stand up and almost slipped three or four times again in the process. When he was finally on his feet, he straightened the beaver skin hat on his bald head and shouted once more: “Greymalkin Stalkin!”
The door of the log cabin slammed open and an almost identical figure carrying a large shotgun burst out into the cold morning air. He came out of the cabin at such a speed that he completely missed the step outside the front door, slipped and fell straight onto his back.
His furious older brother was silenced as the shotgun went off with an almighty explosion and the shot smashed up through the porch roof of the cabin. The resulting avalanche of snow plopped down on top of Greymalkin leaving only his ruddy-cheeked, bald, bearded face exposed.
“Burn and blast it, Greymalkin Stalkin! What be you running round with a shotgun for! You could of killed us pair!” Grimwald Stalkin roared at his younger brother and yet another fine red line appeared on his huge nose.
“Blast and burn it, Grimwald Stalkin! You done shouted fit to pop an eye out. I thoughts you was a-being murdered out ‘ere! What in boiling blood done ‘appened?” Greymalkin Stalkin roared back at his elder sibling as he struggled up.
“I done trod me in poopin!” Grimwald Stalkin pointed an accusing finger at the offending brown pile. “What in burning brimstone be poopin doing round ‘ereabouts?”
Greymalkin stood up, picked up his skunk skin hat and brushed the snow from his clothes. He walked over to stand opposite his brother and both slowly bent over until their large, red noses were centimetres away from the matter at hand. Simultaneously, they took a large, deep sniff, considered and looked up into the eyes of the other, then slowly stood up straight again.
“That be ‘orse poopin!” Greymalkin exclaimed.
“Aye and stripy ‘orse poopin to boot!” Agreed Grimwald. “What in blazing stinkweed be stripy ‘orse doin’ round these parts?!”
Both brothers studied the snow covered ground.
“Bain’t no tracks. It done snowed too deep last night. But that poopin be almost steaming fresh. Go grab me my Maisey Barrel, Greymalkin and be full of care with yorn that you don’t blast no more ‘oles in us roof!”
As his brother ran back into the cabin, Grimwald Stalkin grabbed a bag of chewing weed from his pocket. He shoved the last remaining handful of brown weed into his mouth and stood chewing thoughtfully whilst brushing his right boot back and forth in the snow to clean it. The empty bag slipped carelessly from his hand and drifted down to lay on the snow.

For those who have ever had any dealings with Stalkins, it is a well known fact that they are an incredibly messy people. It is easy to recognise a Stalkin cabin because the gardens, yards and land thereabouts are always strewn with rubbish of every kind.
In fact, the only reason that Rodriguez had not recognised this as Stalkin territory the night before was because of the snow which had covered the rotting heaps of garbage piled up outside the Stalkin brothers’ log cabin.
As well as being naturally untidy, they are a short, stocky and muscular folk. Very few Stalkins stand higher than four feet and most of the men (and not a few of the woman) go bald at a very early age and compensate by growing big, bushy beards. They have large, misshapen noses, ruddy red complexions and wild out-of-control eyebrows.
They also suffer terribly from a complaint that I will not go into here because even Stalkins deserve to maintain a little dignity. All I will say is that they often find it very painful to sit down and this is probably the main reason why most of them are just so angry all of the time.
They were a highly emotional people all round and this was reflected in their tastes. They were driven by their enormous appetites to taste everything that it was possible to taste. In fact, the only living creature that did not immediately appeal to a Stalkin’s taste buds was another Stalkin (and I dare say, given the right circumstances even this was a taboo that some would be willing to break).
This was probably the main reason why they were such expert hunters and although the Stalkins did not originally come from this part of the winter lands, in their own country they were a mountain people. They had grown up hunting, trapping and fishing.
Rodriguez, who knew all of these things, was beginning to understand just how much trouble he and David were in.

Before long Greymalkin Stalkin traipsed back out of the cabin; this time carrying a shotgun over each shoulder.
“There be yorn.” He announced handing over the larger of the two shotguns to his brother.
“Ah Maisey Barrel, my love!” Grimwald Stalkin stroked the weapon with a tenderness which he showed to no other thing in the world. “Us be going a-hunting for stripy ‘orse!” A moment of calm crept over the Stalkin. It was at times like this, with gun in hand and the knowledge that he would kill and eat something pretty soon, when he came as close as he ever really got to happiness.
“Greymalkin Stalkin, ‘unting time!”
“Aye! ‘Unting time, Grimwald Stalkin!”

Inside the barn, David and Rodriguez stood peering out through gaps in the wooden slats at the two strange figures outside. David could not hear what they were saying but the look of concern on Rodriguez’s face when the zebra had nudged the boy awake was enough to tell the boy that he should be worried. The sight of these two short men carrying very large shotguns only served to confirm this.
Suddenly the two figures turned and seemed to look straight at the barn. Straight at them!
David and Rodriguez jumped back from their spy holes and turned to each other, wide-eyed in panic. Rodriguez could hear the sound of feet clumping in the snow toward the barn door, the mumbling of angry words and the rattling of the sliding doors. There was no other way out of the barn. They were trapped!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

A note about copyright

I’ll be seeing you was written by Irving Kahal and Sammy Fain in 1938. I have tried to find out if there is a copyright on the lyrics but with no success. No copyright infringement is intended.

Chapter Twenty-One: The Song

The morning was no longer new but still the black ship was shrouded in dark shadow as it sped along the frozen river. The watery sun finally peeped over the edges of the steep valley sides and shone weakly in the grey winter sky, but it would be hours yet before the deep snow in the valley felt its touch.
The Huntress, as dark as the shadow she sped through, followed the winding course of the river as snow-capped peaks rose far in the distance. The faint notes of a sad music fading in her wake.

It was this music which woke Sally up. She didn’t know how long she’d been asleep but when she sat up one of the forms was stuck to the side of her cheek. She peeled it off and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. The adrenaline of the night’s events had carried her through until the morning, but five minutes in the office with a horrendous selection of maths problems had been enough to send Sally into a deep, exhausted sleep.
She looked around, trying to trace the source of the music just as it faded and died.
It was coming from behind the second door, now slightly ajar. Standing up from the desk, Sally took a step towards it and her hand reached out for the brass knob. Almost as if it were waiting for her fingertips to touch the cold metal, the music began again. The simple, beautiful notes of a piano.
As she pulled the door slowly open, a voice began to sing. A voice that Sally was surprised to find that she recognised.
A sad, old-fashioned voice. Old-fashioned in the way that voices in black and white films were. It was the voice of a singer that her father listened to a lot. He would take out his old vinyl albums, dust them off and look sadly out of the window as the beautiful tones weaved through the room. Her name, Sally knew, was Billy Holiday. She knew the song too. The words were beautiful and sad as well, and they reminded her that she was a long way from home:

I’ll be seeing you
In all the old familiar places
That this heart of mine embraces
All day through
In that small café
That park across the way
The children’s carousel
The chestnut trees
The wishing well

Then another voice spoke, cutting through the warm familiar music. A commanding voice which made Sally stiffen. “Don’t just stand there, dearie. Come in.” A voice as cold and icy as the winter landscape outside.
Sally hesitated briefly, but the combination of the words and the music seemed to pull her in against her own will. She pushed open the door and entered the large cabin within.
The first thing she noticed was the fur. Animal furs and skins covered every surface in the room.
Just in front of the door, for example, lay what looked like the thick, white coat of a massive polar bear; its large arms and legs stretched out to the sides. Beyond that lay a lion skin and further still what looked like the spotted pelt of a leopard.
There were furs hanging from every wall: tiger, wolf and fox; zebra, squirrel and rabbit; panda, yak, antelope, coyote, moose and beaver. Furs lined the wall seat on the right under the curtained portholes. Furs lay thick on the gigantic iron-framed bed at the back of the room. Fur coats poked out of the wooden wardrobe in the far, right-hand corner. Fur slippers stood next to the bed. Fur hats hung from hooks on the wall. Furs of all kind: black, white, brown, striped, spotted. Beautiful furs.
Although not beautiful in the common sense of the word. To Sally they were sad, tragic. The type of beauty
found in a tear drop or a dying rose or a butterfly pinned to an album.
The haunting music continued to float softly around the room:

I'll be seeing you
In every lovely summer's day;
In every thing that's light and gay.
I'll always think of you that way.

The room was dark but warm flames flickered in the stomach of a black, pot-bellied stove on the left-hand side of the cabin. In front, with its back to the door, stood an old, swivel armchair covered in the thick fur of a snow leopard.
”That’s it. Come closer, deary.” The voice sliced through the air like a razor. Its owner sat deep in the armchair and Sally saw one long, bony hand protruding from the arm of a mink fur coat. Smoke curled from a thin, brown cigarette held in the end of an ebony cigarette holder. Two bony, slippered feet perched on a fur-covered stool, were warming in front of the stove. “Come now, don’t be shy.”
Just as there had been with Jack Douglas, there was a tone of command in the voice; a confidence that knew it would be obeyed. However, whereas Jack’s voice had been warm and charming and had inspired the belief that everything would be alright, this voice was slippery, sickly sweet and cold. It was ice laced with black treacle. It enchanted in the way that a snake’s eyes could hypnotise its prey, and it had to be obeyed. Sally knew instinctively and without a doubt that this was the captain of the Huntress.
The young girl approached the armchair. Next to it stood a small table with an old-fashioned gramophone. The music came from an old record which spun on its turntable. She stopped a few steps away from the chair. The profile of the smoker was dark still in the shadows.
“Tell me your name, girly.” The voice was calm and quiet but dripped with unspoken menace.
“Sally Hargreaves, ma’am.” Sally’s mouth opened and spoke without her volition.
“Mmmm. A pretty name to go with such pretty hair. Now, tell me, dear, did you complete the paperwork?”
Sally knew that any lie would be seen through immediately, “No ma’am.”
“Can’t do your lettering, eh?”
“No…I mean, yes….I can…it’s just…”
“Yes, go on. Tell me the truth girl.”
“Sorry it’s just that I didn’t think that I should be signing anything which meant that I could be drowned, burnt or shot.”
The figure in the chair spun around with such speed that Sally’s heart skipped a beat. The long pointed sword in the other, bony hand sliced through the air and came to a sudden, jolting halt, vibrating while its point lay against the soft flesh under Sally’s chin.
The sad, beautiful song came to an end:

I'll find you
In the morning sun
And when the night is new.
I'll be looking at the moon,
But I'll be seeing you.

Then only the scratch and hiss of the needle at the end of the record could be heard. The captain of the Huntress leant close to Sally, a cobra’s smile on her face.
“Well done, my dear.” She hissed. “You’ve got the job.”

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Chapter Twenty: The Barn

As rays from the morning light streamed in through the porthole of the office where Sally stared in horror at the maths test, the same morning sunlight pierced the darkness which surrounded her younger brother and stirred him to wakefulness. David woke up from what he was convinced was the strangest dream ever.
A whiff of morning breath from the mouth of the zebra snoring centimetres away from him, however, quickly convinced him of his mistake.
He raised his head and looked around him. He lay on a pile of straw facing his sleeping companion in what appeared to be a damp, gloomy barn. The air smelt like a mixture of old newspapers and the type of mouldy vegetables that you find wrinkled at the back of a cupboard. But however bad the combination of this and zebra breath was, it was still a far better place to be than the middle of a raging snow blizzard.
The beams of warm light which lanced in through gaps and knots in the wooden slats of the walls told David that it must be morning.
He had no memory of arriving here; the zebra must have found this place sometime during the night and taken refuge from the wind and snow. He thought back to the night before; such a long, mad, impossible night. He wasn’t sure how long they had travelled along the river, but flashes of memory told him that it must have been a very long way indeed. He knew that his travelling companion must be exhausted and he sat up gently so as not to wake him.
David, still dressed warmly in his anorak and gloves, brushed straw from him and looked around him. He saw that the barn was as wide as his whole house in Dunstable Lane and the roof above probably just as high. The pile of hay filled this section of the barn, which was walled off from the rest by a wooden partition on one side. The partition also acted as a support for another level high above, against which an old, shaky ladder leant.
He stood up carefully, waded out of the deep straw and walked around the wooden partition and into the larger part of the barn. There were two very tall and very wide doors in the wall and he walked over to them. They were not locked but when he pushed against one, it opened barely an inch.
He pressed his face to the small gap which he had managed to make and saw a large drift of snow piled up outside. It must have continued to snow heavily after they had taken shelter here.
David turned around. On the other side of the partition, the barn looked as though it had been used for storage. Sack cloth covered objects on the floor; crates were piled up in the far corner and strange metal instruments hung from the wall.
He lifted up some of the cloths and peeked into the crates, some of which were filled with straw, some with nets and sheets, and in one something soft and furry which he couldn’t identify in the gloom.
He struck lucky with the last box that he uncovered. It contained crisp-looking, green apples packed in straw. The sight of them caused a large rumble from his belly and David realised just how empty his stomach was. He was sure that whoever owned this barn would forgive him for eating just one apple considering how hungry he was. He picked one from the top of the crate, polished it on the side of his anorak and bit into the fresh, juicy fruit.
As the sweet juice crashed over his tongue like a fresh wave, David felt his stomach growl in expectation and he settled down to eating in earnest.
Within minutes, all that remained was a skinny core and David realised that he was still hungry. And this hunger being greater than any guilt he might feel at helping himself to what didn’t belong to him, the young boy took another apple and wandered back over to the inviting, soft pile of straw and lay back down.
While he chewed on mouthfuls of the second apple, David considered the strange, brave creature sleeping next to him and wondered what his name was. They had travelled such a long way together (and it was hard to believe that it had only been one night) but still they did not know one another’s names.
The beams of light which shot across the room above him seemed to vibrate with dancing motes of dust and tiny scraps of straw. He yawned and placed his free hand on the soft mane of the dozing zebra. He gently stroked the black hair while biting into the last chunk of apple and watching the hypnotic movement of the light.

A dream coloured with memories: he is signing to his parents, eager to tell them of his day’s adventures. He turns to see Sally, her eyes blank. She shakes her head at him, mouths angry words and as usual it turns into an argument with Mum and Dad. Furious words shoot about the room, flying unheard over his head and leaving him alone in his island of silence. He turns to his parents in sad desperation but they have gone. He turns back to his sister and finds himself alone and shivering at the side of the pond. She stands angry on the deck of the black ship as it sails away. Ever further from him, he is powerless to stop it.

Rodriguez woke up and smacked his lips in satisfaction, stretching his neck sleepily. Even the straw in this smelly old barn was a luxury compared to the weeks that he had spent on that godforsaken prison ship.
The strange, silent young boy who he had chosen to help the night before lay sleeping close by; a browning apple core clasped in his hand. The zebra moved his large head down close to the boy until he could hear the soft breathing and he smiled softly to himself.
Standing up, he stepped out of the pile of straw onto the wooden floor of the barn, his hooves softly clipping and clopping on the hard boards. He had no idea where they were or even how far away the frozen river was. It had become impossible in the midst of the raging wind and snow the night before to tell which direction they were heading in. Tree after tree had loomed out of the howling storm, difficult to tell apart in the dark. For all he knew they could have been going round in circles. Zebras weren’t meant for snowy landscapes.
Eventually the dark, solid walls of this building had appeared out of nowhere. He hadn’t stopped to consider who this barn belonged to out here in the middle of nowhere or what he might find inside. He just knew that if they didn’t get inside and away from the blizzard quickly then there was a good chance that they wouldn’t survive the night.
Luckily for them both, the door had slid open easily and when his eyes had fallen upon the large pile of straw that lay inside, he had thought it the most welcoming bed he had ever seen.
Now after a good sleep, he found himself hungry and his nose took him straight to the apple crate. His tail flicked into the box and scooped an apple up into the air and straight between his teeth. He crunched down and the sweet juice flooded into his mouth.
Fresh fruit and vegetables hadn’t exactly been a strong part of the menu on board the Huntress and he had missed them terribly. The apple disappeared in seconds.
As he crunched on his second apple, he glanced idly around him and what he saw made him freeze with horror in mid-chew. The walls were hung with an assortment of metal instruments, some with latches and springs, hinged bars and vicious sharp teeth; others with wire nooses and sharp, deadly spikes. The zebra knew instantly what they were and whispered a single word to himself in Spanish: “Cazadores!”
The word was spoken with hatred and venom (and to be honest, a fair amount of apple juice). Rodriguez knew that the instruments on the wall had all been designed with one purpose in mind. They were evil, vicious, death-bringing contraptions and they were used for catching and seriously injuring animals.
The word which he had spoken was this:


And from the mighty roar of anger and the loud gunshot crack which suddenly came from outside the barn, he knew that at least one of them was very nearby.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Chapter Nineteen: Health and Safety

Sally chewed the end of a pencil and stared down at the forms on the table in front of her.
Daylight had begun to stream in from the small porthole but she had long since given up looking at the landscape. At first, its white winter coat had been fascinating and beautiful but soon it had become monotonous with the only break in the tableau of white, the occasional brown of an exposed tree trunk or a swatch of green from uncovered pine needles.
Despite the iron-grey sky, it had almost stopped snowing and only the odd, lonely flake of snow drifted past the porthole. The morning light revealed an alien landscape. It had snowed an awful lot during the night but no amount of snow could account for this change in the countryside. The gentle rolling Downs of her Sussex home had given way to the steep, rugged foothills of distant mountains.
Sally sat on a rickety chair at a large desk in a small office.
She had been brought here just over an hour ago after being led up countless stairs in the semi-darkness of the sleeping ship, climbing until her calf muscles had begun to burn.
The guttering flames of the lanterns strung up in the stairwell had revealed various doors leading off to unknown parts of the ship but she had seen nobody enter or leave. It was just Sally and her two familiar companions.
They were, in fact, the same two pirates who had so unceremoniously kidnapped her from her bedroom hours before and although she was being roughly pushed up the stairs ahead of them, she managed to steal the occasional glance at these strange creatures.
Neither of them was much taller than Sally herself and they were both dressed in thick leather jerkins and trousers, and wore heavy boots on their feet (claws? paws?).
The monkey, she saw now that she was close up, was most definitely a baboon (Come to think of it, she wasn’t even sure that baboons were monkeys. Hadn’t she learnt at school that they were called something else?). Its most outstanding feature, of course, was the long, bone shaped nose which protruded from the pink face surrounded by a mane of matted red hair. Deep-set and perched atop this massive protuberance glared one tiny, evil red eye. The other was covered by a dark eye patch.
The other creature was even stranger. Like a giant, dirty-looking, pink rat but furless, its snout ended in a dry, brownish nose and two sharp little teeth jutted out over its bottom lips. White bristles stuck out in irregular patches across its cheek and chin, and its large moth-eaten ears poked out from under the red bandana tied around its head. From the deeply unpleasant smell which surrounded it, it didn’t seem to be overly concerned with its own personal hygiene. It also seemed to scratch itself a lot.
In fact, it scratched so much its arms, its back, its neck (and other places that Sally really didn’t want to consider), that it was starting to make her feel itchy herself. She had the strongest desire to dig her fingers into the hair behind her right ear and give it a good, hard scratch. But with her hands tied behind her back, this was impossible and she tried desperately to ignore the growing desire.
Sally didn’t dare ask anything. She had asked once where they were going but the violent push which she received in answer was enough to discourage her from asking again. Her two kidnappers remained silent.
The silence just made her focus even more on the growing urge to scratch. The more that she tried to ignore it, the stronger the itching sensation became.
It was just like when you watch wildlife programmes about ants or small insects like fleas. Very soon your body starts to imagine that they are crawling all over you and it is very hard to resist scratching. I bet even the thought of this now is making you want to itch. Well, it was a hundred times stronger for Sally.
She tried to concentrate on something else. Anything else.
“Ape!” The word popped out of her mouth before she could stop it and was greeted with a grunt of disapproval from the baboon behind her and a hove that almost knocked her over. But it was true, she thought to herself, baboons were apes, not monkeys! Although she wasn’t entirely sure what the difference was.
Eventually, she had been led off down a corridor on one of the upper decks of the ship. A door was pulled open, her hands were untied (to her great relief as the need to scratch had become almost unbearable) and she was shoved into the room where she currently found herself.
“Now, if you would just sit at the work station provided.” The unpleasant nasal voice came from the rat-like creature.
Sally had had enough and while she scratched vigorously all over, she felt her temper beginning to rise again and couldn’t stop herself from spurting out: “What is it you want from me?”
The smelly creature looked a little taken aback by this. It took a deep breath, sighed and began to intone:
“It is Company Policy that forms are completed in triplicate for insurance reasons.” Even its own eyes clouded with boredom as it recited the monotonous information. “All questions with an asterisk must be answered. A company approved pencil has been provided for you and which must be returned at the end of the session. You will be given two hours to complete the forms to a satisfactory standard…um…” He scratched his forearm and chewed his lip while he tried to remember the next part. “Oh yes…And any failure to comply with company form filling procedure will result in special measures and…” Sally couldn’t help but show the disgust on her face as its hand sunk down the back of its trousers to scratch some more. “…oh yes…immediate termination of employment.”
“What-?” She was cut off as her two captives strode from the small office and the door was slammed in her face and locked from the outside.
There was nothing for Sally to do but to investigate her new surroundings. The room itself was small; really no bigger than three or four wardrobes stuck together. There were two doors: the one which she had been brought through and another on the right-hand wall which was also locked.
A brief investigation of the rest of the room revealed that the porthole was too small to squeeze out of and that the only furniture was a desk and a chair.
On the desk was a thin pencil, a pile of what looked like at least thirty sheets of paper and a pair of old-fashioned spectacles. She picked them up and examined them. They were battered and the half-moon shaped lenses were scratched and smeared. She put them down again and turned her attention to the papers.
She read the heading at the top of the first sheet of paper:

Insurance Form One: Termination of Employment in the Event of Accidental Drowning

That didn’t sound good. She glanced at the printed paragraph under the heading and had to squint to read the tinniest script imaginable:

I, the below signed (please sign on dotted line below), do hereby accept that any incident resulting in my accidental drowning is not the responsibility of the Company and completely my own fault. The Company will be exempt from any financial loss incurred by such drowning.

A chill ran down the back of her neck and she lifted the second sheet up:

Insurance Form Two: Termination of Employment in the Event of Accidental Burning.

And the next one:

Insurance Form Three: Termination of Employment in the Event of Accidental Shooting.

Sally flicked through more of them and the hair on the back of her neck stood up as the descriptions of different ‘terminations of employment’ got steadily worse. And then about ten sheets in, she came to the worst one of all:

Literacy and Numeracy Test – section 1A

Sally groaned. Not only had she been kidnapped by pirates, not only were there risks of various horrific ways of termination, but worst of all they were forcing her to do a maths test as well!

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Chapter Eighteen: Snow Storm

It came, charging though the dark forest: black fur, eyes glinting, teeth large and sharp enough to rip their flesh from their bones. But Rodriguez did not wait for a formal introduction. Snorting in alarm, he spun around, his hooves skidding in the snow in his panic to escape while David clung on for dear life. The young boy gasped as from the corner of his eye he saw a sharp metal blade slicing through night air towards them.
Then just when it seemed they would never get away in time, suddenly they were moving again, racing through the dark, the air rushing past Rodriguez’s ears.
An angry roar erupted in frustration behind them and so intent was the zebra on escape that he almost crashed into a massive tree trunk. Swerving to miss it, Rodriguez whirled around, his sides crashing through the undergrowth, his back legs slipping and sinking up to the haunch in a snow drift.
He struggled to free himself, aware that the creature must be making ground on them. And finally, just as the sound of the crashing behind seemed almost upon them, with a frantic buck, his legs kicked free and they shot forward once more.
The momentum of release sent them hurtling forward with such a speed, however, that the zebra and the boy shot right over the edge of the steep hillside and they found themselves plunging down the incline towards the silver thread of the river far below.
“Aiiiiiiiiiiiii!!” (which is Spanish for: Ahhhhh!) cried Rodriguez as he desperately tried to brake their descent with his forelegs. But it was futile; they were out of control and gaining speed.
“Dios mio!” the zebra shouted (which, just in case you wanted to know translates as something like: Oh my God!) and as the scattering of small bushes and saplings on the hillside whizzed past faster and faster, he closed his eyes and began to mutter a rapid prayer in Spanish.
David, meanwhile, held on for all he was worth. He clasped hard with his legs and buried his face into the frozen mane as the wind rushed against them, its icy breath stinging his ears.
Faster and faster they went, until Rodriguez, eyes still squeezed shut, was sure that he was about to lose his footing and that they would both tumble over at a breakneck pace. Then just as it seemed that disaster was inevitable, the steep hillside began to level out.
Feeling this, David lifted his face and squinted through the pelting snow. Although they were gradually slowing down, it wasn’t enough and still they were hurtling towards the bottom of the valley, the river now a vast, grey and very hard surface, getting larger by the second, coming straight at them fast until...
Suddenly they broke free of the snow clad hillside and were shooting across the ice. So fast, in fact, that their speed had begun to turn them around until they were spinning. Shooting across the ice and spinning!
Rodriguez finally plucked up the courage to open one eye. They were shooting across the river like a spinning top, but they were alive.
He strained his head around to look at the small boy on his back. The relief at their escape from the massive beast above and the gradual slowing down of their spin on the ice brought a wide grin to the zebra’s face. David, whose cheeks had flushed a bright pink, smiled back in relief.
“Yipeeeeeeeee!” cheered the Spaniard as they turned like waltzing dancers and the boy’s eyes and mouth became wide ‘O’s echoing the horse’s joy.
Round and round they went, and slower and slower, until finally, after what seemed like a life time, they came to a halt on frozen river. Their hearts thumping in their chests, they beamed at each other still and David reached up to rub the side of the zebra’s face roughly in affection. They both gave massive sighs of relief.
Rodriguez looked around. The storm was worsening and the air was so thick with snowflakes that it was increasingly difficult to see. They were on the dark ice not too far from the far bank. David pointed back towards the side of the river from which they had come. The zebra nodded and gingerly began to move in that direction across the ice. Slowly but surely and with only one or two slips, they made it to the firmer footing of the riverside.
They looked up at the forested hillside down which they had sped quite so spectacularly and realised just how steep and just how dangerous the journey down had been. Its top, now hidden in the storm, would have been difficult to climb to on a normal day but in the current weather conditions, it would be impossible. They would just have to continue their journey down here.
Rodriguez began to follow the river once more but in the dark night, neither of them had realised just how deep the snow was starting to become. It came up past the hoof now and the zebra found that the most he could manage was a light canter.
He looked around at the boy. David was staring ahead a fixed, determined look on his face, and in his mind the Spaniard saw once more the small picture which the boy had drawn of his sister. The small picture, which for reasons known only to himself, had persuaded the ex-prisoner from the Huntress to pursue the very ship which until only hours before had held him captive.
The memory of that picture spurred him on again now. And despite the difficult conditions, he bent his head down against the wind and pushed on through the growing storm.

For hours more, they travelled. How long and how far, David did not know for the numbing cold had started to work its way beneath the thick anorak. The valley whipped past: dark river, dark river bank, darker trees and bushes. The wind howling into a blizzard. It became difficult for the young boy to keep his eyes open against the whip of snowflakes. He closed them.

A small clump of snow hit David in the face. His eyes opened and he lifted his head weakly. He didn’t know how long he had been asleep. The end of his nose hurt and he rubbed it with one ice encrusted glove, but only succeeded in making it sting more. He tried to look at the landscape around them but the ferocity of the storm made it difficult to see more than about twenty metres in any direction. He clasped his legs together tightly against the sides of the creature below but wasn’t sure if he was successful. He could no longer feel his legs. His face fell forward into the zebra’s mane again.

Rodriguez had slowed to a walk. The snow now came half way up to his knee joints and each step was an effort to release his hoof from the thick drifts below and move it forward. He became more and more aware of the wind which howled like a pack of wild dogs. It had, in his mind, become a living thing; a terrible, malevolent, hateful thing. A thing that stood in their way and pushed them back trying to stop them from achieving their purpose. Their journey, this night, had become a battle. And although both the boy and the horse fought on bravely against the blizzard, it was a battle that they were slowly losing.

The next time David awoke, the air was so thick and dark with snow that he did not know if it was night or day. He could feel the effort that Rodriguez was making, pushing against the wind and the thick drifts. He lay with his face against the creature’s back unable now to even lift it. He was so numb by now that he wasn’t entirely sure if he was holding on tightly or not. Somehow it didn’t seem to matter quite so much as it had earlier.
He felt stuck in this moment of his life; as if he had always been here in this storm on a zebra’s back; as if he would always be here. Yes, that’s it. A thought appeared in the back of his mind. This is everything. This is where it begins and ends and goes back to the beginning round and round in a circle. There is nothing else. Only here. Only now. Always.
No, no, no!
Another thought appeared like a slap in the face. Don’t sleep. It’s dangerous. You must stay awake.
But David didn’t want to think about other voice. He was too tired and besides, he was sure that it was becoming warmer. The wind no longer seemed to whip at him quite so cruelly. It was more soothing now. Like the caress of his mother. Like her cool hands on his brow when he was sick with fever. He smiled.

The last time he awoke, nothing made sense. The air around was a vicious scribble of snow. It was so much easier not to think about it. So tempting just to close one’s eyes and ignore anything outside his head.
David remembered nothing else.

The End of Part Two