Wells stood at the manrope chewing the wad of tobacco he’d chewed for several weeks now. A few yards across the paralysed ocean the mist hung impenetrably, muffling the shifting light, as it had for as long as he could remember.
It must be years now that the HMS Maria had drifted aimlessly in these infernal doldrums. She’d been out of rum for nearly as long. The men led a restless, meaningless existence; they could not get rum, yet they could not die. Wells spat tobacco juice and contemplated his situation.
This must be Purgatory, he thought. What did I do to deserve this?
He couldn’t remember.
Heavy footsteps announced the arrival of His Royal Majesty Buckworth, whom Wells loved as the Devil loves Holy Water. He was a bacon-faced and a beef-head. He fumbled with his breeches and pumped ship, whistling a needling tune. Wells ignored him assiduously.
"Hoy, rust-guts,” Buckworth ejaculated jauntily. “What’ re ye doin'? Countin' the waves?"
"Shift ye bob, mopus," Wells muttered around his tobacco.
Buckworth cinched his rope belt violently. “Matey, I wouldn’ talk like tha’ if I was you,” he said with venom. “Particul’y not after ye just cheated me out o’ a pound.”
Wells glanced over his shoulder. The men playing at cards still sat hunched on upturned casks, engrossed in the game. Only Snell caught his eye. The coward hastily ducked to rearrange his shaking hand. That light-timbered yellow-bellied lubber of a Judas.
“Buckworth,” Wells said “yer saddlin’ the wrong horse. Nevertheless, in my humble opinion a man stupid enough to be cheated out o’ a pound deserves to be.” He spat overboard.
Buckworth narrowed his eyes. “I’m gonna get tha’ pound back,” he breathed through greying rotten teeth. “An’ I’ll chalk ye to do it.”
But at that moment the ship’s unfurled sails quivered hopefully. The men rose from the casks, murmuring, looking out to sea. The air held its breath.
Suddenly the whole ship trembled violently and masts creaked against their taut ropes in protest. A faint cry of alarm dropped down from a rudely-woken Doyle in the crow’s nest. The men crowded to the edge. Wells inched towards the bowsprit away from the distracted Buckworth, peering overboard. There were no ripples in the water’s opaque surface.
Again the ship jolted and the whole flat ocean seemed to convulse alongside it. As if the ship was fused to the flat ocean. In Wells’ periphery Snell was pocketing coins scattered on the deck.
“It’s a sea monster!” Corbitt croaked quaveringly. Muted panic rippled through the men like wind in a forgotten cornfield.
The ship began to shudder in intensifying waves. The captain and the first mate stumbled onto the quarterdeck with napkins still tucked into their shirts. The captain barked orders furiously until he was knocked off his feet. The men clung to the ship like caterpillars in a gale, mouthing prayers to themselves. Wells struggled to hold down the bile rising in his throat. He closed his eyes from the sickness and was unprepared when Buckworth lurched savagely out of the chaos to deliver him a crunching nose-ender.
As Wells reeled Buckworth shoved him wildly in the ribs and sent him toppling over the manrope. Wells plummeted flailing towards the sea and slammed bruisingly into the surface. Dull pain shuddered through his legs and ribs and right arm and he tasted warm blood on his lip. Yet he didn’t sink. He lay shocked and splayed out on a shaking ocean that was as hard as the ship’s splintered wooden decks. Gradually the shaking subsided to a thrumming and the world was still.
It must be that souls can’t pass through unholy water, Wells thought behind the drone in his head. He must be dead with his soul cleft from his body, which was already languishing in Davy Jones’ Locker.
His half-baked theory was confirmed as a patch of mist cleared above and God’s benevolent face shone through to guide him into a rum-filled Paradise. He concluded that he had done his time and was purged of all his sins.
The family photos lay smashed in their frames on the floor and the plasterboard walls were cracked and wheezing fine powder. Grandpa’s dusty old ship-in-a-bottle was the only thing still clinging to its place on the mantelpiece.
“Oh look,” said Marcus, clearing a peephole in the coat of dust. “I never noticed these little sailors before. One of them’s fallen off.”