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!

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