Only first officer Finch, the char-wallah and I were awake when it all kicked off. It had gone midnight. There was a moon. A breeze like a lick of fat crept over the starboard bow, peeling farmyard scents off the Strait of Hormuz. The wallah raised his nose as if recalling his night with that girl at Cuddalore.
Around us the sea ran as muddy as his tea.
The moan of an inbound steamer, a tramp full of silks, ghee and purulent men for Chabahar, let us know the moment had arrived.
‘Captain’s a bounder,’ said Finch. Just that; no more. The words barely hung from his lip, hovering like midges – but they lugged as much meaning as an hour of frantic semaphore. Sweat prickled under the moonlight.
Finch was right. We had sailed unpaid for twelve weeks. The last cargo of betel and hemp had won the skipper a pretty penny, but he had parlayed it into a tankful of araq and a brace of dour fillies from Muscat who had all since fled. Still it fell to us to provision the old clipper and keep her rigged and fed. We did it out of love, as pure as the love of a child for his pony. While the captain slept off a thorough soaking of araq, the Voewood rolled proud beneath our feet, carving a lusty twelve knots towards the Arabian Sea. She still drew crowds at the docksides, stowaways and strays clambering up her ropes without knowing why. We all just wanted to sail on her.
She was the last of the brick-and-stone super-structured clippers with pitched and tiled roofs, and still the best of them after a century. Not a creaking mistress, like most craft of her tonnage; she was a virgin turned whore by the master then sprawled amid the mottled furs, the pangolin shells, hides and snakeskins of his stateroom beside the starboard bridge. All the mementoes of her travels.
We knew it would be no crime to remove him.
Watching her under his command was as shocking as watching an infant drink with gypsies. Officer Finch had just the right idea. When the stateroom light cam on, and the bounder moaned for his tea, we looked to the wallah.
He understood, and stayed put. Curling one eye to the capstan nearest the bridge stairway, he drew our gaze to a grappling hook there.
Finch grabbed it. When the skipper stumbled out it took but one swift blow to the back of his neck. Using the force of his fall we spun him headlong over the rail. The splash died under the hissing bow-wave. He was gone. Cupboards flew open that night. Flags were hoisted and flares shot off. Finch took the helm in his tartans, and we rejoiced under the moon as he pulled her full-steam past Oman. Suez posed too great a risk for a captured vessel, she would have to stay far offshore and go around the cape. By dawn we glimpsed lights through the haze off Somalia. Pirates. But they knew better than to approach us. It was a firm rule of the sea: who shouldn’t pirated approach? Bigger pirates still.
Plus two of their number were still shackled to our kitchen table, peeling spuds and coiling lemon twists for gin. With the blistering sun came talk of where we could hide Finch’s prize until Lloyds had written her off. She was a sitting duck. Everyone felt it was too risky to sail her north; except for the new skipper.
‘On a flood tide, with the right surge,’ he said, ‘a channel opens near Cromer. If we drop some ballast she might scrape inland a mile or so.’
‘They’ll quickly notice a ship sitting inland,’ said the wallah. ‘Not least one like this.’ But the notion of a ship inland held its own clues.
‘Build a bloody garden over the foredeck,’ he said.
‘But the foredeck is lower,’ said the wallah. ‘The gardens will look sunken, and need stairs. And the superstructure is too clearly shaped like a bridge, with port and starboard wings. Not to mention it’s full of turtles an shells, there’s even a bally note from Ronnie Biggs in Rio. Someone is bound to notice.’
‘You’ve just given us the key.’ Finch waved an arm across the forecastle. ‘Some one might notice. But if we fill the place with people, and fill the people with grog, they’ll think it has been standing there a hundred years or more.’
‘And what people would come?’ we thought as one.
‘Artists,’ he said. ‘Artists, drinkers and stickybeaks.’