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.