A Grave Situation. Bad news for the Prof and disappointment for the pirates
‘This is a very grave situation, my fine feathered fellow.’ said Doctor Johnson to Fastnet at the Water Mill. ‘Let me read this message from Mr Boswell brought by Biscay…’
My dear friend,
As you know young Tom is once again a hostage and this time in a most desperate situation. We have been obliged to release our prisoners and allow them to return to their ship. We have also had to agree that the bells should not be taken away or hidden, that they should not (as the pirates see it) be rung to summon reinforcements, and in fact that they should be left at the forge until Sir Jasper returns.
However when Professor Paragon and I returned to the forge after releasing the prisoners from the Town Hall, we found that our well intentioned colleagues had already managed to load the two smaller bells on to the brewer’s dray and had in fact conveyed them to the church.
The Professor and I hope that it may be likely that when he returns Sir Jasper will want to bring Tom ashore to most effectively deter any resistance. Tom will then be in a safer and more intelligent custody. We therefore propose, despite the pirate Quartermaster’s terms, and since the two bells are at the church already, to discretely hang the smallest and therefore be ready to use its power to help free the boy at the first opportunity.
We believe that this is the only way we can achieve not just Tom’s release, but any chance of wider success. If you agree please have this note passed to the Professor’s Aunt together with the assurance that she will be advised when the bell is about to be rung so that she can also act most effectively. (I believe her broomstick may be involved.)
In haste. J.B.
And so, as Jasper and his yawning crew left Lower Rumble, Malin came swooping over the roof tops to Aunt Hetty with the news.
‘Sod, damn, and buggerit!.’ said Aunt Hetty. ‘Well, there you are Elisabeth. Can’t leave him alone for a moment. All going absolutely as planned, and he cocks it up completely.’
‘Oh, Aunt Hetty,’ said Elisabeth. ‘It’s not your nephew’s fault. I’m sure he couldn’t help Tom getting caught again. (I do hope he’ll be alright…)’
‘He’d better be, or some pirates, (and maybe a relative) had sooner not be born.’
‘What was that about the broomstick?’
‘You’ll see girl. If a bell ever does get rung.’
‘I’m sure that with all his experience…’
‘All his experience? He’s only two hundred and forty. Well, older when he’s in the future, obviously.’
‘Er, yes. Of course.’
‘He spends so much time there no wonder things get a bit out of kilter in a crisis. If we ever manage to finish this business let’s hope he keeps the end game in this century…’
* * *
Luther Speke was toying intently with his worry wart and studying the local chart. Even now with the five released prisoners returned aboard his working strength was not even adequate to defend the ship. And of the five only two could be relied upon to be disloyal to the captain if it came to it. No, he must wait for Scabbard and the rest of the crew, secure his share of whatever booty had been taken from Summerdale, get the bells aboard, leave this place with the others, and bide his time.
So the Captain must be warned about the situation and urged to return as quickly as possible. But where was he likely to be by now? Whilst the navigation chart was fully informative about the coast and indicated the few principle roads in Summerdale, it did not have the other details available on the map being carried by Sir Jasper.
Speke had not been involved in the planning of the expedition beyond knowing it would strike up into the area by way of the main route and then split up to cover as many hamlets as possible. Scabbard would be most likely first of all to go north on the higher ground to get the best view of the potential, then probably work back down towards the coast. If that was the case by now at least one party should have reached the road that ran back along the shore to Goldcaster.
There was a light south west breeze, so perhaps he could send a messenger up the coast. He would have a gaff sail rigged on one of the dinghies which were on the lee side of the Leopard out of sight of the town. But who to send? He needed those most fit to fight on board, and best have Tadmartin stay with the boy to keep him calm. He would have to send the cook. He wasn’t drunk yet and could manage a dinghy perfectly well…
* * *
Having left Lower Rumble Jasper was musing on the implications of his most recent encounter. What chance would he have if that witch and possibly others could use supernatural powers at will? But it did seem that for some reason such a resource might be a danger only at that School House place. He had apparently touched a nerve when he mentioned nightfall. If only he had her wonderful communication system… On reflection it certainly looked as though the advantage she was waiting for was not some magic speciality but the arrival of outside help. But how could that be imminent within the time available to obtain it since the sacking of Goldcaster? No, such material assistance was out of the question until at least late tomorrow night. The Black Leopard should be safely out in the Irish Sea by then.
By now Speke would have completed the construction of the raft, and possibly be already loading the bells. All he himself had to do was to catch up with Rathbone, return to the ship, and sail away.
A pity really, he rather liked Summerdale. In other circumstances this could have been the place to retire to… Heigh, ho.
‘Nice enough countryside.’ said Archibald. ‘I wonder what we’re going to find next?’
‘There is pleasure in the pathless woods,’ said Tantamount.
‘Not today there wasn’t,’ said Jasper.
‘ “There is rapture on the lonely shore.’
‘There had better be.’
‘I wonder how the First Mate’s getting on.’ said Archibald. ‘There were some tasty looking targets on his route – the Shopping Mall and the Bonded Warehouse and the Earthly Delights and that… He should have a good haul anyway.’
‘Don’t start salivating yet Archibald. Anyway, we shall soon see. Oh dear…’
They had come up to the crest of a small hill and below them the road ran down towards the sea. There was an arch across the road that was faced with faded and rotting plywood. On it in peeling paint it bore the legend WELCOME TO SUMMERDALE WORLD.
Somewhat bemused Jasper and his crew surveyed the scene before them. The road, well pitted with potholes, curved down until it ran southwards along the edge of a rocky pebble beach. On the landward side was a grim row of buildings and behind them sand dunes on which scrappy marram grass struggled to survive. There was a settlement of corrugated iron clad ramshackle huts, mostly ruinous, and either side of the road grew sparse vegetation, windswept weeds, and stunted shrubs, interspersed with broken glass, and tar encrusted rubbish. The strong stench of decaying seaweed and rotting remnants along the high tide line wafted up the hill towards them.
“Ruins in demesnes deserted, bog-surrounded, bramble skirted.” said Tantamount
‘Oh dear, oh dear…’ groaned Jasper again.
‘The sands and yeasty surges mix in caves about the dreary bay…’ said Tantamount.
“Tired waves, vainly breaking…”
‘For heaven’s sake! There’s no need to keep on about it. I think we’ve all got the message.’
The first building they came to was apparently the Reception Office. It was closed but bore the helpful notice:
Summer Huts for Sale or to Let
No pets, No ball games, No mixed parties, No music
Children under strict control, Lights out 9.0pm
Out of season apply to Goldcaster Town Hall
They slowly made their way along the promenade. There was a toilet block for Ladies, Gents, Disabled, and the Uncertain, but they were all locked. But there was a notice here as well: ‘When the toilets are closed a key may be obtained from the Information Centre’.
There was the standard peeling paint on the hut which housed this Information facility, where sun bleached unreadable notices remained in the window. Here also a CLOSED card was prominently displayed.
All the other buildings had what once had been gaudily painted frontages with various ornamental pillars, pediments, and mouldings, but at the back they were uniformly plain single story rectangular blocks with heavily barred windows, overflowing rubbish bins, and bits of greasy paper blowing about. A solitary mangy foraging fox was rooting amongst the refuse.
Jasper’s depression deepened.
Of course, there was no Arndale Centre Shopping Mall. There was however ‘Phil the Greek’s Souvenir Centre and Amusement Emporium’. Set on the apex of the fascia here was a whirring little windmill which presumably powered the clockwork mechanism for the almost life size automaton in the centre of the window of the establishment. This figure had the staring eyes of a ventriloquist’s dummy, wore a sailors hat, and prompted by the varying breeze on the windmill above its head jerked from side to side whilst its jaw snapped open and shut. The equally jerky barrel between its hands carried the revolving legend ‘Roll up! Roll up! Everyone’s a winner! You’re only young once but in your case madam we’ll make an exception! Spend now, weep later! Roll up! Roll up!’
Beyond it one could see clearly that the premises were empty of stock, activity, or even of any interest. In the window was a rack of faded postcards – views of Goldcaster harbour, the bridge over the Rowan river, King George the Third paddling at Weymouth, a First Rate ship of the line in battle with the slogan ‘Hearts of Oak’, and some very vulgar prints by Mr Gilray and Mr Rowlandson.
There also remained a display of Lucky Summerdale Pixies, Lucky Summerdale Rock, Lucky Goldcaster Bells, Kiss-me Quick tricorne hats, and a cracked plaster garden gnome baring its buttocks.
The only consolation was that the lock had been freshly forced and that the door was lying on its side. Rathbone’s men must have got something here.
Between this building and ‘Harry Ramsbum’s Fish and Chip Shop – Finest Rock Salmon, fresh this year’ lay not the Bonded Warehouse, but a dilapidated lock-up, empty and open, with the door swinging on its hinges.
The sign above read: ‘D. and D. International – Import/Export. Barnabas Trim – Proprietor’ A flapping notice was pinned to one of the doors – ‘Closing Down Sale – everything must go! We would like to thank all past patrons. We have now relocated and correspondence should be addressed care of Professor Paragon, Castle Crab’.
Jasper had just passed by when he blinked and reined in his horse. He dismounted, stepped back, ripped the notice from the door, and studied it. So… there was another Paragon. An unusual name, too much of a coincidence. This must be the witch’s nephew to whom she referred. Apparently an academic or professional person, presumably with considerable resources if he owned a castle. Such a place appeared on no map of the area he had found and so must be some way off. He shivered a little, screwed up the notice and threw it in the gutter.
It began to appear increasingly probable that she had not been bluffing. Her nephew would presumably be as well informed as herself because of the seagull system, but would take some while to come to her assistance, hence her delaying tactics and her anticipation of the odds against himself increasing greatly later. He smiled wryly. How ironic – the only bit of information he wasn’t supposed to discover today only increased the likelihood of major problems.
‘Alright Cap’n?’ asked Archibald.
‘Oh yes. Bloody marvellous. By the way, did you know your hair has…? Oh, never mind. Good lad. Where the devil’s Rathbone?’
With his party peering about them with increasing dismay, he made his way past ‘So Today – Beach and Designer Wear’ (closed), past ‘Madame Arcati – Palmistry, Tarot Cards, Jobbing Forecasts – You never know what lies around the corner’ (closed), past (at last) ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights – Ring twice and ask for René – Testimonials available’ (closed), and so eventually to the final building on this run down promenade, no, not a Customs House, but the tiniest of the offices of His Majesty George the Third’s Collector of Taxes.
On a brass plaque beside the door was stated: ‘Open 12.0 to 1.0 p.m. every fourth Friday. All payments to be made in cash, not kind.’ Chalked on the door was written ‘Yah Boo pirates – we closed even earlier today.’
There was by now a general air of dejection about his party. There was no more moaning or grumbling, they just shambled along, staring about them in disbelief. At least Clarence had appeared to have some respite from his hay fever and had stopped sneezing when the ozone hit – the only bright spot in an otherwise dismal day.
At last they rounded a curve in the coast road and came upon Rathbone and his men. The First Mate was wandering about the beach, turning over stones with his cutlass and peering under rocks.
‘What are you doing Rathbone?’ called Jasper politely.
‘Oh, hello Cap’n. I’m beachcombing.’
‘Oh, how very enterprising. We’re really pushing back the frontiers of piracy today aren’t we? Possibly a touch of mission drift perhaps?’
‘Found anything?’ said Archibald.
‘Not a lot. Three dead sheep and an abandoned corset.’
‘Not a totally wasted day then?’ said Jasper.
‘Can’t be helped.’ said Rathbone, picking up a flat stone and skimming it across the gentle wave tops.
‘Oh, well done Mr Mate.’ ‘I think that was a niner. I do so enjoy these moments of rest and recreation when one is so low on the feel good factor.’
‘Oh! Gawd almighty!’ exclaimed Archibald.
‘What on earth’s the matter now?’ said Jasper.
‘Look at my boot!’ Archibald raised one dog dung encrusted foot. ‘It’s diabolical! See that notice – “No dogs allowed on this beach. Penalty for fouling two guineas.” The way some people flout the law. There’s rancid coils everywhere – it’s absolutely disgusting.’
‘Your public conscience does you credit.’ said Jasper. ‘But please stop waving your odorous limb about.’ He turned to Rathbone. ‘How fared your day – or shouldn’t I ask?’
‘Letting out giant snakes and mad elephants, then hallucinations, disappointments, and the screaming squitters. That’s about it.’
‘Just a normal buccaneering day then – another dream shattered. Snakes and Elephants?’ Do forgive me, but it must have slipped my memory – I don’t recall liberating a zoo being on the agenda? Or have we joined the Animal Liberationists?’
‘They just happened Sir J. How about you?’
‘You tell him Archibald. I’m losing the will to live…’
‘Well,’ said Archibald despondently, ‘In a word – sod all.’
‘I see you have now only one trolley.’ said Jasper. ‘And, like our own, your horse drawn cart is empty. Why is that Rathbone?’
‘Well, what with the elephant and then the Mill place, no, tell a lie, that was first, and then the… No, no, it was… I dunno. And then the watsit with the thingy… Where was I?’
‘Never mind. Mr Dictionary seems to have deserted us again. But I understand. I see that your two surviving conveyances are now adorned with souvenirs. The only plunder obtained I presume?’
Rathbone nodded sadly. Well, it wasn’t much to brag about, just a few stickers; ‘My other cart’s a Mercedes’, ‘Pirates do it with a Swashbuckle’, ‘Casanova’s 1775 “Lock up Your Daughters” Farewell Tour ’, ‘Tony Vivaldi Lives’, and ‘I’ve been to Summerdale World – and Survived.’ Just about, thought Jasper.
‘And what spittle flecked clotted misery have we here, crawling out of the dunes? Is it the Green Hand Gang?’
‘ “Oh horrible, horrible, horrible – most horrible!” ‘ said Tantamount.
‘Well that old woman at the School House made us all wash our hands before she gave us anything to eat. After a while all our fingers went green, and then our wrists and then our arms – all tingly and twitching. And by the time we got here and we found the toilets locked and we were desperate for a …’
‘Yes, yes, I get the picture. Ah – Leading Seaman Dancer. I take it that your day hasn’t been solely given over to pleasure either then? You look like a bereaved tapeworm.’
‘Yeah, what a sight.’ said Rathbone. ‘Where’s lean, mean fighting machine, the crack shot dapper Dancer we know and dread? You’re sloping about like an unmade bed.’
‘Don’t get batey with me matey – I’ll come round to your cabin and criticise your curtains.’
‘Ah, bless…’ said Jasper. ‘Hello Eustace. That Goldcaster Globetrotters baseball cap is quite fetching. But you look pretty rough.’
‘I got the dire rear and the heaving guts Cap’n.’
‘How very jolly.’
‘Oooh…’ moaned Eustace. ‘I’m going to be sick.’
‘Let go of my leg. You can’t be sick on me.’
‘Can’t I? Sorry… Uuurgh!’
Jasper looked down at his spattered boots. ‘Thank you for sharing that. It’s people like you that give piracy a bad name.’ He looked at his pocket watch and then turned to R.athbone. ‘Whilst you gather the men together, if you’ll excuse me for a moment, this being such a lovely day I think there’s enough time for a little paddle. For the good of the now noisome boots you understand. I have long since abandoned the pursuit of any simple personal pleasures.’
‘The men are already gathered – well collapsed – in an orderly manner. My feet are bloody hot. Mind if I join you?’
‘Be my guest. Oh, look – more flat stones. Slate outcrop of the Jurassic period I believe. Much weathered of course and structured by the work of the waves…’
‘Whatever. Don’t half bloody skim though, don’t they? Well done Sir J, that was a good twelver…’
‘Thank you, old chap. You know, today, for the first time, I am beginning to feel that I may be approaching my bury by date.
‘Tell me about it, tell me about it. But you’ve got to look on the bright side…’
‘Please don’t try to cheer me up.’
‘ “I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.” ‘ said Tantamount.
‘True. Oh, so very true…’
Author of Dangerous Chimes, read more about Michael Macauley over here.