Yachty-time

It was midday as we walked as usual down a short narrow street to the yacht basin.  Yachts of all types stopped there as part of their journeys around the world. They tied up together, often as many as four deep, along a pier set aside especially for them. The day was warm and sunny, and why shouldn’t it be? This was Durban, with its large safe harbour on the east coast of South Africa.

The fast pace of the city loomed large behind, but here was a different world that moved to its own time, ‘yachty-time’. No one was in any hurry, and if something could be put off until tomorrow, then it was.

On this day, a young woman, barefoot and simply dressed in shorts and tee-shirt emerged from a yacht on the furthest rank of boats and began clambering over the adjoining yachts towards where we stood on the pier.

“Wow, I’d fancy sailing around the world with her!” said Bob.

“Me too,” I replied.

The young woman took her final step onto the pier but instead of turning to continue on her way, she stopped in front of us. I felt confused and uncomfortable as she was staring directly at me.  She must have heard us talking about her and was about to tell us off for being so rude.

“Hello Fred,” she grinned.

I was struck dumb. Who the hell was this svelte apparition and how did she know my name? She removed her sunglasses. “Vikki!” I gasped, “What are you doing here?”

“That’s my yacht, “she said pointing back, “or the one I helped my husband build. We are preparing to sail to the Virgin Islands. We should have left already, but at the last moment the young couple who were going to crew for us backed out. We now need to find two others to replace them.”

I looked questioningly at Bob, then back at Vikki, “Let me introduce you. This is Bob, we work together and are down here on our lunch break. We come most days and dream about how great it would be to sail away on one of these yachts.”

“I just said we were looking for two more people, didn’t I?” continued Vikki, “I don’t suppose you’d like to come along with us then, would you?”

“Would I? Of course I would, but I’m married now with a wife, child and house to care for. Then of course there’s my job; I could never get that amount of time off.”

Just moments before, to sail off into the sunset was something I’d wanted to do more than anything else. How often does an opportunity like this arise? Who was I trying to convince with my lame excuses, Vikki or myself?

Damn it, put the world on hold. “I’m going with you!”

My brother Peter was a hairdresser, and at almost that same time was listening to his client tell him how disappointed she and her husband were. They’d been due to crew on a yacht to the Virgin Islands but had been forced to withdraw. “The owners of the boat are now looking for two new crew members to take our place. Do you know anyone who’d want to do that?”

It took Peter no longer than it had taken me to make up his mind. “How do I contact them?” he asked.

And so, totally separate and unbeknown to one another, two brothers had arranged to sail into the sunset!

It would take me longer than the others to prepare to leave, so they went on ahead. By the time I flew into Cape Town, Peter, Vikki, her husband Carl and the boat had already been there for a few days. I had rushed like mad, not wanting to delay them, but need not have bothered, they were on ‘yachty-time’.

Boats taking part in the Cape to Rio yacht race had left a few days earlier so they’d moved the yacht to a good mooring right outside the clubhouse, where the ablution block had hot showers. This facility turned out to be the clearing house for all the latest maritime information.

“Take a look at this bruise,” grumbled the big guy without any hint of humour. He turned to show us the blackening, red-raw skin across his buttocks and halfway up his back. “That boat’s a death-trap. They must give up their crazy idea before someone is killed!”

The big guy had been hired to teach a paraplegic man and his wife to sail their specially modified yacht around the world. In the centre of the boat was a chair lift to raise a wheelchair from the cabin below to deck level. In theory, a good idea, but only if the hatch is kept shut when not in use. Apart from the obvious problem of high seas pouring in, it was also a gaping chasm just waiting for an unsuspecting crew member to back into. The big guy had done just that and was lucky not to have sustained even worse injuries when he hit the bottom.

Over the next few days we shopped for supplies and stowed them in appropriate spaces below deck. One item did puzzle me however; two trays of 24 assorted fizzy cool-drinks. I didn’t ask but couldn’t help wondering who was going to drink all that awful stuff.

We finally set sail, but not on Friday. It was unlucky to begin a journey on a Friday so one additional day was neither here nor there. It was a glorious sunny day and the sea was calm as we exited Cape Town harbour. This was to be our last connection with a city for a long time. We passed Robben Island and watched the seals frolicking amongst the rocks; an idyllic start to an exciting adventure. The four of us sat on deck as Table Mountain receded slowly behind.

Imperceptibly, the swells grew larger and the yacht rose and fell in sympathy. Some say that seasickness is a state of mind, and I’d believed them, firmly determined that I would not be sick. I chose to ignore the steady rise and fall of the yacht, concentrating instead on my view of the landmass slipping further behind.  Eventually though, I turned and was surprised to find that only Peter and I remained on deck. “Hey, what’s happened to Carl and Vikki?” I asked.

“They’ve gone below. They’re both feeling sick,” he replied.

Instantly, my resolve to avoid seasickness crumbled. If the skipper could be sick, then so could I. Remembering just enough to face downwind, I hurled myself against the leeward rail and puked my heart out. With the Cape rollers inflicting their relentless punishment, I stumbled below deck and wedged myself into my bunk.

The yacht rose and fell. I squeezed my eyes shut but there was no escaping this hideous motion. Because we were riding the swells at an angle, the ruthless rise and fall was accompanied by a nasty twist. Rise, twist left, fall, twist right. Hour after hour this inhuman torture continued; rise, twist, fall, twist. At the bottom of each swell my innards were squeezed against my backbone, whilst at the top they attempted to escape completely. Magnified by the twisting motion anything left in my stomach spun wildly. Rise, twist, fall, twist. I finally passed out only to wake again still trapped in this infernal nightmare. On and on, this sustained torment persisted; rise, twist, fall, twist. For the next two days, the only time I moved was to put my head in the bucket on the floor beside me. I later learned that other than Peter who was a good sailor, Carl and Vikki also remained incapacitated and so the yacht was forced to sail itself, relying solely on its rudimentary self-steering mechanism.

“You’ll feel better if you go up on deck,” said Peter, who was fed up with looking at the puke-bucket and had emptied it. I tried standing and shakily joined the others who’d also just emerged. Vikki went below again and reappeared with a packet of plain biscuits and a can of fizzy drink each. At that moment I could think of nothing worse, but the others snapped open their cans and so did I. The first sip of those cool sweet bubbles was like nectar to a mouth that for days past had tasted nothing but stomach acid. Then a second wonder as the bubbles combined with trapped gas in my belly to be returned as part of a large burp. What a relief, we could smile again! The very worst of it may have been over but we never fully got past feeling seasick.

“It’s time we began doing a night-watch,” said Carl. “We’ve been lucky so far but there are ships about and we may need to avoid them.” There would be two shifts each night, so with four of us that meant one four-hour watch every second night. No great hardship. In fact, being alone under a silent starlit sky was a magical experience I looked forward to.

I was second watch one night when Peter called me up. The swells were still very large and the yacht rose and rolled as usual. No ships to be seen and we were holding a steady course. Once or twice the swell caught the stern of the yacht first, propelling it smoothly forward, exactly like being on a surfboard. I’d never interfered with the steering before, but with everyone else asleep and no one to object I released the lock on the wheel, inching it tentatively clockwise. This would be taking us slightly off the set course, but what a difference it made to the motion of the yacht. Instead of rising and rolling, the yacht was propelled forward mile after mile on the face of the swell, with hardly any other movement.

At dawn, as Carl emerged from below, I guiltily tried to explain what I’d done. “I really don’t care,” he said, “That’s the best night’s sleep I’ve had since leaving Cape Town!”

One evening, Peter was on first watch and scheduled to call Vikki to relieve him for the second. In the morning when the rest of us came up on deck, Peter was still there. “Why didn’t you come for Vikki?” asked Carl suspiciously. No answer was needed. It was obvious Peter had fallen asleep. “Anyway,” resumed Carl, “we’re now beyond the shipping lanes so we can end the watch.”

Days passed quietly. We were once joined by a school of dolphins playing for a while in our bow-wave, then darting off ahead to show us how slow we were moving. An occasional whale blew in the distance. One morning the deck was littered with flying-fish that had the ability to glide an amazing distance through the air but on close inspection looked too small and bony to be edible. At other times we lay on our bunks reading or sat chatting in the cockpit. “I think we’re due for a sail-change,” declared Carl idly one day, staring at the wind-direction indicator at the top of the mast and then back to how the mainsail was set. Peter jumped up, always keen for some action. “But not today,” drawled Carl, slowly reverting his gaze.

He would live to rue his inaction, for that night we were woken by a loud crack followed by a hefty thump. The yacht kicked wildly as if being hit by something solid. We all raced on deck to find the mainsail torn from its cleats and the boom swinging wildly over one side of the boat. A change of wind direction had caught the sail on the wrong face, slamming the yacht into an uncontrolled gybe.

“Everyone duck!” shouted Carl in alarm, as the boom pirouetted back across the deck. Without means of propulsion, the yacht was being thrown defencelessly about, hit by invisible swells from every direction out of the darkness. Vikki dashed below to get the engine started, whilst we three remaining hung onto anything fixed for fear of being swept overboard. Under power we were now more stable but the boom remained hanging stubbornly over the side. There was no way to reach it, and trying to coax it back on board by steering the yacht in different directions didn’t help either. In desperation, Peter took up a length of rope and hurled one end of it, out and high. The rope flew up and around the boom, then miraculously curled back to where he caught it. We hauled in the boom and secured it temporarily until the damage could be assessed in daylight.  Catastrophe averted!

The yacht had a device we occasionally dropped overboard, that recorded our speed through the water. We’d compete to see who could guess the closest. That game didn’t last long though as we all became expert at judging the speed from the sound of the water washing against the hull. Vikki did a magnificent job of producing regular meals for us, even though being down in the galley increased her seasickness.

Finally one morning, “Land ho!” cried Peter who’d been keeping a sharp lookout. The island of St Helena rose from the water off our bow.  There was no harbour so we anchored about three hundred meters out, awaiting officials that could give us clearance to go ashore. We’d now been on this rocking boat for two weeks and were very keen to get our feet on dry land, but after more than an hour, no official arrived. They’d obviously not noticed us so we’d have to go and inform them. We put on our costumes then Peter and I dived in. The water was relatively calm where we’d anchored, but as we approached the shore, the sea-swells rolling in from across the vast South Atlantic, grew higher as their path was blocked by the landmass. The closer they got the higher they rose, until they broke in a thunderous roar against the cliffs.

The local authority may not have seen us arrive, but many locals had, and were now lined up along the dock rail watching two crazy ‘yachties’ rising to the crest then disappearing into the trough of these giant swells. Having spent our youth surfing in Durban, this was nothing less than a wild thrill. We then noticed ropes hanging down on one side of the dock where it turned at right angles to the swell. Every fourth or fifth wave rose higher than the rest so by grabbing onto the ropes as the swell passed, we were swept onto the dock.

“Where you from?” asked one local in a difficult to understand accent.

“Where you going?” asked another.

“We’re from South Africa and we’re heading for South America,” we replied, “but first we need to find someone to clear our yacht.”

“Day’ll come when day’s ready.”

It was then that sanity prevailed and we realised we could hardly go knocking on doors wearing only swimming costumes. We were far more likely to be arrested for being illegally ashore.

“Thanks mate.” We dived into the next big swell and swam back to our yacht.  At last, the agent arrived in his small motorboat and cleared us with grudging politeness to go ashore.

Walking up the main street of old-worldly Jamestown, was like going back in time one hundred years past. Although the locals spoke English, their dialect was barely recognisable and it was sometime before we tuned into it and could understand what they said. The last film shown at the cinema was something like ‘Gone with the Wind’ but now the posters were faded and peeling off the wall. A sign outside one shop stated there were only two weeks left to hand in cloths for dry-cleaning. These would then be taken to Cape Town and returned after one month. I thought yachty-time was slow, but time in St Helena had all but stopped.

“Hey there you lot. Wanna join us for a tour of the island?” called a voice from the opposite side of the street. It transpired that another yacht had arrived with four young Americans aboard. “If we share the cost we can hire the only minibus on the island. There’s room for eight.”

As there was only one length of paved road, the tour didn’t amount to much. We did however visit the residence of St Helena’s most famous inmate, Napoleon Bonaparte. He’d been a prisoner of the British and was kept captive in a bungalow on the hillside. The day we visited, it looked very nice but Napoleon apparently had many complaints. After he died he was buried nearby but his remains were later returned to France.

“Who’s for eating out tonight then?” asked one of the Americans. We all thought this a great idea, but after enquiring we discovered the restaurant only opened one day a week, and today was not that day.  Our disappointment however didn’t last long.

“For yachties I open anytime.” beamed the jocular lady who owned the eatery. “Come back at seven and your meal will be ready.”

That evening our enlarged group tucked into an excellent alfresco meal made even better by sitting on seats that weren’t constantly in motion!

We spent our last day ashore buying provisions from shops with very little choice. Bananas and cocoanuts were in plentiful supply but what we really wanted was a fresh chicken. There was a gas oven on the yacht and Vikki could be guaranteed to produce a succulent roast.

“I’d like a chicken please,” said Carl to the man in the butchery.

“When do you want it?” came the reply.

“Now,” answered Carl, somewhat perplexed.

The butcher looked at him with an expression of disbelief. “Now” was not a word they understood in St Helena. “I order chicken from farm. Three days, maybe four, but only regulars can get.”

“How do I become a regular, if I can’t buy one?”  That was a rhetorical question!

When we looked out the following morning, the American’s yacht had already left. “See you in Ascension.” they’d called out the previous evening, being sure we’d meet again in the seven or eight days it would take to get to Ascension Island.

Finding St Helena had been easy with high cliffs rising from the sea, but Ascension was entirely different. It was primarily flat; projecting very little above the water. To make matters worse, the horizon was ringed by clouds looking every bit like low-lying islands. According to Carl we were close, but was the island still ahead, on our left, on our right, or worse still had we already sailed past? Four pairs of eyes scanned the distance hoping the mass they were staring at would be the island. Then disappointment as one after another the cloud would vaporize, revealing nothing but empty sea. A nervous silence overtook the yacht as we absorbed the gravity of our situation. If we missed Ascension, it was at least three weeks sail to South America, and already our water was low.

“That’s it. That must be it!” shouted Peter who’d positioned himself on the cabin roof.  We all clambered up to see where he was pointing. Sure enough, ‘land dead ahead’. Carl’s navigation had been spot on.

Having noted that the American’s yacht had not yet arrived, we anchored a short way off shore in calm water and rowed our dingy to the bottom of some steep steps. We clambered up, hauling the dingy with difficulty behind us. The administration building was nearby, and after entering we found the man himself sitting behind his desk. He looked up sternly in a far from welcoming manner. He’d been disturbed listening to his favourite radio program, ‘The Archers’; obviously the highlight of his day in this isolated corner of the globe. After scowling at our documents he said, “There’s nothing here for yachties. You can top up your water from the tap on the dock, then I suggest you leave as soon as possible.”

Back outside in the hot sun we stood stunned and unwanted, not sure what to do next. In the otherwise deserted street a minibus with two occupants suddenly appeared and stopped in front of us. A head popped out of the driver’s window. “Hey yachties, wanna come for a ride? We can show you around the island.”

The four of us looked at each other uncertainly. Strange place, strange van, strange people, but then what’s to lose? “Let’s go!”

The island was a volcanic wasteland used by the British and Americans for military and civilian purposes. Nestling in every deep depression was a radio telescope or radar dish for satellite tracking. Giant antennas sprouted from behind every rock and the air was filled with a weird humming sound. James Bond had never encountered anything like this! Our guides wouldn’t take any money at the end of the tour but did let us buy them a beer at the one and only small bar.

Having decided to ignore the administrator’s advice about leaving, we were preparing to go ashore again next morning when loud ‘whooping and hollering’ sounds were heard from the direction of the horizon. We turned to see a familiar yacht sail into view.  “We’ve been going in circles for the past three days,” they shouted, “couldn’t find the damn place.” This confirmed how lucky we had been.

“Come and join us,” they invited, totally unfazed by the administrator’s brusk manner. We’re going to the US airforce base where we can get away from grumpy Brits”. Sure enough, the reception we received couldn’t have been more different. We were welcomed with broad smiles and invited into their brightly lit canteen sporting a varied menu. “What’ll y’all be having then?” No one needed a menu, “Burgers all round!” we chorused.

We spent a last night in the sheltered calm of the island and were preparing to leave next morning when our departure was unexpectedly halted. “Our anchor has snagged a rock,” said Carl, pulling on the rope which stubbornly refused to budge. Peter dived in, but the anchor was too deep and he couldn’t reach it. My effort was similarly futile. I could see the anchor through the clear water but the pressure on my eardrums became unbearable before I was no more than half way down. “The only thing left is to cut the rope and abandon the anchor I’m afraid,” groaned Carl reluctantly, hoping one of us might have a better idea. We hadn’t, but during the night, a trimaran had arrived at Ascension and anchored very close to us. Aboard was a husband and wife and two teenage sons. Assessing what our problem was, one of the boys swam over.

“Here, I’ll have a go,” he called out as he disappeared below the surface. Many seconds passed before he re-emerged, then, “Try now,” he said with typical teenage nonchalance and swam back to his family yacht.

“Thank you,” we shouted as Carl hauled up the anchor.

Our home town of Durban is in the province of Natal in South Africa, so where better to make for in Brazil than the city of Natal at the top corner of the country. It had safe anchorage in the mouth of a wide river. After setting a course, there was not a lot to do and the days passed uneventfully.

“OK, now!” called Carl one day, having adjusted his sextant to get a simultaneous fix on the sun and horizon. “Did you get the time?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, quickly writing down a number lest I forget. The last time I’d accurately set the time on my watch was when I left Durban and that was forty-two days ago. Knowing the watch lost approximately half a second per day, it should now be 21 seconds slow, so I added 21 seconds to the number I’d written down. “It was 11:32 and 45 seconds” I announced confidently.

“That’s the first decent sight we’ve had for three days,” said Carl, turning to his charts and preparing for some complicated calculations. The past days had been overcast and as Carl’s navigating skills were limited solely to sun sightings it would be reassuring to get a fix on our position. The yacht had its own maritime chronometer but that had proved to be even less accurate than my cheap digital!

“You should have learned how to do this,” admonished Carl, “You never know when you might have to navigate. What would you do if something happened to me? How would you know where you were?”

He had a good point, but a rocking boat and feeling constantly seasick did not encourage doing sums. I gave my defeatist reply, “South America is a big place, I’d keep the yacht heading west and then run us aground!”

Carl obviously didn’t like that answer but saw the logic. Fortunately the situation never arose and we sailed on through calmer tropical water and lighter winds. So light that one day the wind died completely and the yacht appeared to stop. Being the keen swimmers we were, Peter and I began badgering Carl to allow us to jump overboard for a swim. “All right,” he said, “I’ll tie the lifebuoy to the end of a long rope and trail it behind the yacht, but if you miss it, I’m not coming back for you!”

That didn’t sound like a problem, but I did think to ask what he knew about sharks in the area? “There’ve been no reported shark attacks in mid-Atlantic that I’m aware of,” replied Carl sarcastically.

Peter and I made our way to the bow and one after the other, dived in. The water was cool and refreshing as we rose effortlessly back to the surface. Then horror! Where was the yacht? From on-board, the boat may appear to have stopped, but stop it had not! In those few brief seconds, far from being stationary, the yacht had sailed on and now the only thing left to save us was the faithfully following red life-ring. A few quick sharp strokes and we grabbed it. Even then our situation remained perilous as we were now being towed through the water by what felt like a speedboat!  The weight on the rope was far more than Carl and Vikki could manage to haul in, so slowly, hand over hand, we worked our way along it towards the ever moving boat. “Are you going in again?” asked Carl as we clambered aboard breathing heavily. He need not have asked.

We’d now been at sea for more than three weeks since leaving Ascension, and this leg of our journey was almost at an end. We’d planned to arrive in Brazil in daylight but had made better time than expected and so here we were arriving in the dark. The watch had been reinstated, and Carl was ending the first watch when I came on deck to relieve him. I’d never seen him looking so confused and agitated. “Take a look out there,” he said with a hint of panic in his voice. This was the first time he’d displayed vulnerability; he’d always seemed so in control. “My chart shows a single flashing light marking the entrance to the harbour, but tonight there are dozens of lights, flashing with no particular rhythm!”

I squinted into a black moonless night. “What the hell can they be?” I asked, now as confused as him.

“If I knew I wouldn’t be in this state. They could be big lights shining from a distance, or small lights close up. There’s no way to tell. We must be near the mainland but it’s so dark and I can’t see a thing. Either way, if those lights are onshore, we have to stop this yacht quick or we could finish up on the rocks!”

Doing something positive like taking down sail helped. With the yacht now at a virtual standstill and swaying quietly from side to side we strained our ears for the sound of breaking waves. Nothing. That at least was a good sign but those lights, they were still there, tormenting us with their blinking. Carl proposed a new theory: “They could be fishing boats,” he said, “then those would be their mast-head lights. They only appear to flash because of the way boats rock.” For a long time we stared into the blackness but were unable to pick out one light flashing more rhythmically than any of the others. Slowly though, the pattern began to change and one by one the lights went out. As dawn broke the silhouettes of many small boats could be seen grouping together, then gradually withdrawing. Alone and unmoving, there remained but a single light on the end of a bluff, pulsing its welcoming signal. Carl turned our yacht to follow the flotilla and we were lead without fanfare towards the harbour.

“Are we there yet?” sang Peter and Vikki as they emerged from below deck, totally unaware of the drama of the night.

A few days after arriving, “Thought you said you were in a hurry to get home,” quipped Carl mockingly.

It was true, I had said it, but that was many weeks ago. I was now on ‘yachty-time’!

Into the woods

The trees closed in; around and above her. Angela had been walking for hours and was clearly lost. There was neither track nor evidence that anyone had ever passed this way before. She considered climbing a tree to get her bearings, but knew that long before the top, she’d loose her nerve and climb back down. Had the sun been visible, she might have used it as a guide, but it wasn’t. For all she knew, she’d been walking in circles. Dispirited and exhausted, she slumped to the ground against a tree trunk. Her water bottle was almost empty as she considered whether to drink it now or save the last few drops for later. Later where? Later when? Later was somewhere in the future, somewhere that didn’t compute with her present predicament. She’d never felt so lost and alone.

Without the sound of her own footsteps, Angela noticed for the first time how silent the forest was. No bird calls, nothing to suggest another living creature for miles around. Her natural self-confidence drained. She closed her eyes, listening to the ringing sound in her ears; that faint high-pitched noise she’d only ever been aware of in the middle of the night. It was now her sole companion. It floated through her brain with hypnotic motion, enclosing her in a cocoon of warm security. As she listened the tone changed subtly until it sounded more like the plaintive whistle of a distant train. “Lucky them,” she thought, “Some leaving on a journey and others returning home.” The sound grew louder and nearer until it was just beyond the trees. “Can there possibly be a train line near here?” she wondered.

Angela rose and raced forward. As she entered a small clearing, she was greeted by a most unlikely sight. An old railway line emerged from a tunnel on one side, to disappear again into a matching tunnel on the other. Directly in front of her and on the far side of the track stood an ancient, dilapidated station building and platform. A signal arm moved continuously up and down flashing from red to green. Angela stood transfixed by this surreal vision as the station master in a smart uniform marched stiffly onto the deserted platform. At the top of his voice he yelled, “Stand back from the track on platform eight, the train is late and will not wait.”  Then,

From the tunnel on the right, emerged a truly frightening sight;

A speeding train belching smoke, emitting flames that fear provoked.

The stationmaster bounced excitedly up and down, blowing loudly on his whistle.

Bones rattled, skulls groaned, teeth chattered on cobblestone,

Wheelless cars swayed recklessly, discarding corpses on the way.

Angela jumped instinctively backwards; she’d never witnessed such an alarming spectacle. Disconnected hands pulled frantically at levers. This one, that one, wrong one! The entire train leapt into the air and spun a full circle before crashing to a halt.

In his cab the driver quakes, desperately trying to escape.

His bulging eyes red with tears, stung from travel all these years.

With arms flailing he gestured frantically, appealing for help that never came. Back on the platform, the station master waved his flag in agitation, this time addressing Angela directly. “Hurry up, hurry up. We can’t wait for you all night,” he called out in a commanding voice.

Angela stood rooted to the spot.  What? Surely he didn’t think she was going to board that train. Thinking, however was not an option; he verily knew she was! Powerful unseen hands slipped beneath each of her arms, raising and bearing her swiftly across the open space towards the platform. One door opened, another shut, and she found herself staring through the shattered window of a wildly swaying carriage.

Apparitions loosed from hell, led this shrieking caravel,

Of vengeful spirits swooping low, in wildly rising crescendo.

How could this be happening? She clung on tight as the carriage rattled violently. Her plaintive cry adding a lost note to the ever increasing cacophony of sound.

Whistle blows, no one hears, her cries fall upon deaf ears,

This voyage to nowhere she cannot swap; once aboard it does not stop.

Giant spiders guarded tangled webs in every corner of the carriage. Dried bones hanging from matted hair adorned the windows, aping bizarre Christmas decorations. All eyes had turned to inspect the new inmate and already greedy fingers were inching their way towards her.

Speeding train accelerates, across the space where tunnel waits.

Beneath full moon it travels blind, on midnight rails to seek and find.

Like some grotesque monster, the tunnel mouth opened wide. Foul smelling slime drooled upon the carriage roof, seeping through cracks to form pools of foetid bile at her feet. Angela recoiled as hands gripped her shoulders. “Open your eyes,” ordered a voice, but she squeezed them evermore tightly shut, fearing what she might see. “Can you move?”

No, she couldn’t move, not even if she’d wanted to. Terror wracked her body. All she could do was remain curled up, clinging desperately to something solid.

This time though the hands holding her felt different; not at all like those that had spirited her onto the train. These hands were strong but gentle. “Are you alright? It’s me, Michael, your brother,” continued the voice. “You were lost, but at last we found you. You’re safe now!”

Vicky & Uncle Bill

Copper mug

John drained the last drop of beer from his mug, turned it over and set it down on the stained wooden table.

“Right then. Who’s for a game?” He turned to the other three men but their response was slow, first glancing around to ensure no unwelcome eyes were watching. John dropped a pile of coins on the table beside his inverted mug, counting them methodically, “Eight shillings and sixpence. Anyone wanna cover that?”

Pete, the big guy to his left drew two shillings from his pocket and placed them on the table in front of him. Harry followed with three. Anton hesitated, but not wanting to be left out, proffered a single shilling. “Is that it?” John looked expectantly from man to man but none increased their stake. “That’s six shillings then,” he said, removing the surplus two and six.

With John’s mug upside down, a secret recess in its base was visible. This small compartment contained three, six-sided playing dice covered by a sheet of clear glass. John raised the mug and gave it a firm shake. The dice rattled about, coming to rest showing a four, a two and a three respectively, on their upper faces. When all four men had assured themselves that this was not a winning combination, John shook the mug again. A five, a five, and a two. The concentrating gaze of the four players froze, as an eerie silence suddenly overtook the noisy chatter in the public house. No need to look up, the men instinctively knew what this meant. A Police Constable had entered the room and this could spell trouble! They instantly swept their money from the table and John, with measured haste, lifted his mug and headed for the bar. There was no need to ask; the barman began filling the mug almost before it had left John’s hand.

“Good evenin’ officer,” greeted the barman as the constable approached, “and what’ll you be drinkin’ this fine evenin’?

The constable growled darkly, “You know right well I don’t drink on duty. I’m come to check for gamblin’. I ‘ope there’s none of that goin’ on ‘ere.”

“Look for yourself officer. Like you well know I run a respectable tavern. Won’t tolerate nothin’ illegal.”

John shifted nervously, lifting his mug but not so high as sharp eyes might see beneath, “Your good health officer. Sorry you’re unable to partake.” With a nod, he moved away to rejoin his friends. “That was close,” he said, smiling slyly. “Drink up lads for tomorrow we play again!”

Prohibition against most forms of gambling in England was still in force, but far from putting an end to gambling, these restrictions simply added to the excitement and the law was mostly disregarded. Devices aimed at thwarting these laws proliferated, fostering a lucrative cottage industry. John’s mug was made from rolled copper and in addition to the secret compartment beneath, it sported an additional subtle wink to anarchy. Set into the side of the mug were eight, one penny copper coins. The head on the coins looked like that of a Roman emperor and the inscription, Gulielmus IIII Dei Gratia, appeared to confirm this. The coins however were all dated 1831, disqualifying them from any connection to ancient Rome. So who then was this Gulielmus person?

 

“Where are you Uncle Bill?”

“In the kitchen, Vicky. You’ve caught me red-handed.” An open biscuit barrel stood on the table in front of him, “Now you must also have one. I hope your mother’s not lurking behind you in the shadows?”

“No,” squealed Vicky excitedly, running towards her uncle across the stone-paved floor, “she’s having lunch with a friend.”

“Wouldn’t have thought she had any friends,” muttered Bill under his breath, “Can’t abide the woman.” With restrained sarcasm, he continued audibly, “Oh what a pity; she’s such charming company.” He needn’t have bothered, children go deaf when their hands are in a biscuit barrel.

“Auntie Adi is such a good cook,” said Vicky, who’d deftly managed to extract two biscuits with a single dip. One biscuit was already in her mouth.

“We’ll both be in trouble if she catches us,” said Uncle, “She has me on a diet. My waistline’s increased alarmingly since I left the Navy. The constant movement of a ship keeps the stomach muscles in check, but those days have passed.”

“Oh I do love hearing your sailing stories uncle, I hope I can go to sea one day.”

“It’s an excellent way to see the world, but the job of the Royal Navy is to defend the country and many good men die in battle.”

“You two should be ashamed of yourselves,” chided aunt Adi as she strode into the kitchen. “I thought I’d catch you here William, but fancy encouraging Vicky.” She turned to the girl whose eyes were wide with feigned innocence but betrayed by cheeks stuffed full like a hamster. “Come here you,” she said suddenly laughing, “and give your aunt a big hug.”

Vicky raced towards her. “Oh auntie, they’re so delicious, we just couldn’t resist.”

“Now you’re trying to blame me, are you?” She attempted to look stern, but it was no good, her face broke out in another big smile. She had lost her own children in childbirth and loved having Vicky to visit. “And what are we going to do today?”

“The park please. Pleeeez! I must see the baby deer.”

“Well you’re in luck then. I’ve bunches of flowers from the garden to take to the church and the shortest route is through the park. Will you be coming with us William?”

Bill shuffled uncomfortably. He was officially the Park Ranger and knew the moment he stepped into the park, he’d be accosted by anyone with a problem. In reality, he rather enjoyed such interactions, but this excuse could now prove useful to avoid walking with two chatterbox ladies. “I’d love to go with you,” he said, “but…”

Auntie cut him short, “But me no buts William. We understand we’ll be going alone!”

William’s house was no mere gamekeeper’s cottage; it was a many roomed mansion. William had ten children by his former partner so had need of a large house. He’d never married the good lady who finally tired of domestic life and had left him to resume her former career as an actress. Being in need of someone to restore stability to his life, and not least some additional money, he had married Adelaide. She did indeed fill both of those requirements and their marriage was a happy one.

“Here you are Vicky, you can carry this bunch,” said auntie Adi as they made their way across the vast lawn and into the adjoining park.

It was a beautiful summer day and almost immediately they encountered a small group of young deer prancing about, chasing one another. They were quite unconcerned by the proximity of humans, as many people walked back and forth through this park.

“Aren’t they gorgeous,” cooed Vicky, making a move towards them.

“Now be careful Vicky, best not get too close.”

Vicky stopped, but the deer had noticed something she carried and began edging slowly towards her. She stood transfixed, “Ooh look auntie, they love me!”

“Vicky, come back. It’s not you they love, it’s the flowers. One of them is already beginning to munch on them!”

“No, no! Stop that!” cried Vicky, backing away as fast as she could, “Oh how disappointing. They’re so beautiful, I desperately want to stroke them.”

They continued along the path that provided a link between hamlets at either end of the park. They were not alone on the path, and Vicky couldn’t help but notice how women they passed often did a slight curtsy, and men would doff their caps.

On reaching the church, they were greeted by a jolly, rotund woman with bright pink cheeks, “Good mornin’ milady, so good of you to come, and brought with you flowers from your garden I see. An’ who then is this young lass also bearing nature’s sunshine?”

“She’s my husband’s niece Victoria, but we call her Vicky.”

“I’ll do likewise then Vicky, and a warm welcome to you in this humble house of the lord.”

Vicky blushed as she handed over what remained of the deer’s feast, “Sorry some of the heads are missing, we encountered a small problem en route.”

“They are lovely, and yours too milady will make a fine display beside the alter. Tomorrow we host a wedding, and the following day the church will once again be packed for Sunday service.”

On leaving the church, Vikki turned to her aunt and asked, “Auntie Adi, why did that woman keep calling you ‘milady’?”

“It’s likely on account of your uncle,” she replied, “your mother must surely have told you that uncle Bill’s brother is the king of England, and so that also makes Bill an important person.”

“But he’s not like that,” continued Vicky thoughtfully, “When I visit we have fun, he’s not all stiff and formal like those people my mother mixes with.”

“Yes you’re right, he’s far more down to earth. He’d much rather share a pint with his Navy pals than go parading around in fine clothes. Unfortunately though, his brother is not at all well and Uncle Bill may one day be required to take over from him as King.”

Vicky took a while to digest this, “Oh,” she said.

A horse drawn carriage stood outside the house as Vicky and her aunt approached. Vicky groaned with disappointment, “It must be mother come to collect me.”

But Uncle Bill’s beaming countenance as he strode towards them belied this assumption, “Good news,” he said, “Vicky, your mother has sent word asking if you might like to remain here overnight. She is detained in town. I have not yet replied to her request, but feel sure I know what your answer will be.”

“Of course you know! Of course I want to! I’d love to stay! I can think of nothing nicer than spending the night here. We can have such fun!”

Bill and Adelaide smiled broadly. It was lovely to witness such youthful enthusiasm.

Early next morning, Vicky banged heavily on the bedroom door, “Uncle Bill, you must wake up, there are men here that say your brother has died, and you are now the king.”

The door opened a crack and in a bleary voice her uncle mumbled, “My dear girl, you may be my favourite niece but fancy waking me up at this ungodly hour. Tell them to go away. I’ve never slept with a queen before and I’m going back to bed!”

 

William, now King, could no longer remain living in his secluded suburban house but was compelled to take up residence in the city. Adelaide was less reluctant to move, for as Queen consort she had the opportunity to entertain many interesting visitors.

“Where have you been for so long Vicky?” enquired auntie Adi, as a rather glamourous teenager entered the room. “Its ages since we last saw you.”

“Mother insists on dragging me along with her whenever she visits fusty old friends in the country. It’s all so horribly boring.”

Uncle Bill burst into the room smiling broadly, “Ah Vicky, you received my message. Are you ready for that carriage-ride I promised?”

“I certainly am, uncle. Will you be joining us Auntie?”

“No thank you Vicky. All that smiling and waving exhausts me.”

“Come on then Vicky,” said Uncle, “Our carriage awaits!”

The carriage was an open horse-drawn landau with driver and a footman to help them aboard. Vicky and Uncle Bill sat facing one another grinning like a couple of naughty children. William might now be the King, but he loved going out amongst the people. He was equally proud to be seen showing off this sparkling young Princess.

London was alive with the sounds and smells of a busy capital. People thronged the streets going about their daily business. Many looked up and waved as the king passed, but were not surprised to see him. His regular appearances did much to endear him to the people.

“Driver, stop the carriage!” the king commanded suddenly. “Look over there at that man Vicky. Someone walking with a gait like that could only have been a sailor.” William turned towards the man calling, “I say good fellow, were you not at some time a member of the Royal Navy?”

“Ay, sire,” he replied nervously, “I trust I’ve done nothing to offend?”

“Of course not. Come here and ride with us for I’m sure two old seadogs have much in common to discuss.”

With assistance from the footman, the anxious seaman was helped into the landau and took his seat beside the king. Any foreboding he had was quickly dispelled as the two men became lost in eager conversation; reminiscences of past adventures at sea. Vicky sat enraptured, thrilled to be party to such enthralling tales.

“Oh auntie,” she said on their return, “We’ve had the most wonderful day.”

 

Because William, now king of England, had not previously married the mother of his ten children, they were considered illegitimate and thus not eligible to succeed him as monarch. Attention then turned to the next in line, this being Princess Victoria, daughter of William’s deceased younger brother Edward. Because Vicky was still a minor, her mother had been appointed Regent, which meant that should William die before Vicky turned eighteen, her mother would effectively become the ruler of England. This was the last thing William wanted to happen, for if anything his dislike for her had increased. Now, seven years after becoming King, William’s health had deteriorated rapidly and he was forced to walk with a stick. At what turned out to be his last birthday gathering, he declared to all those present, “I trust to God that my life may be spared for nine months longer. I should then have the satisfaction of leaving the exercise of the Royal authority to my niece Victoria and not in the hands of her mother, who is surrounded by evil advisers and is herself incompetent to act with propriety in the situation in which she would be placed.”

His final wish was granted. King William died just a few days after Vicky turned eighteen!

 

John, Pete, Harry and Anton still gathered regularly at a table in their favourite pub for a pint and game of dice. The head of Gulielmus, better known as William, had been shaken many times, and now the man himself had passed on.

“Before today’s game gentlemen,” began John, “should we not first drink a toast to the memory of King William IV. A good king and man of the people.”

The other three nodded in agreement and raised their mugs. “To William,” they chanted in unison.

“And now a toast to the new queen. Long may she reign!”

“VICTORIA”

 

Julie’s New Shoes

“Would you like me to wrap them for you?” the sales assistant asked.

“I’ll keep them on thanks,” replied Julie, dropping her old pair into the bag with the rest of her shopping. She should have noticed a look of concern on the face of the assistant, but was so excited with her latest purchase, she chose to ignore it.

The assistant however felt duty-bound to pursue the matter, and made one final attempt, “Are you quite certain they’re the correct size? You did say you were an eight, and these are seven.”

What did size matter when shoes looked this good? “No, they fit like a glove, and I love them!”

“Will that be cash or credit?”

Julie offered her card. To discuss money matters at a time like this would have appeared vulgar.

She floated from the shop in an enhanced state of elation. The train station was less than five minutes’ walk away, and for the first of these minutes, she was buoyed on a fluffy white cloud, convinced all eyes were upon her gleaming new shoes.  Rapidly though the cloud transformed, changing to an angry storm-surge, firing bolts of jagged lightening into her tender feet. Her happy smile melted, to be replaced by a furrowed brow and increasingly alarmed eyes.

She reached the station, but the platform was one level above the street, and facing her was a flight of stairs resembling a wide-open mouth bearing a set of sharp white teeth.  She began the perilous ascent. “One, two, three . . . Why am I counting,” she thought. “It won’t get me up any easier. If I hear the train there’s no way I can run for it!”

Luck however was on her side and conquest of this barrier coincided with the arrival of the train. Thoroughly drained, she flopped onto a vacant seat beside the window. Her feet were killing her. This new pair of shoes that had looked so appealing in the shop, now conspired to squeeze the last drop of blood from her throbbing toes. The doors closed automatically and the train pulled slowly out of the station. “This is your guard speaking,” came a hollow voice from the speaker above her head. “Will passengers please report any unaccompanied packages or anything else suspicious to me. I can be found . . . “

“Yea-yea, heard it all before.”

Julie dropped her bag onto the floor, pushing it partway under the seat in front. “Now to get these shoes off!” She leaned back, digging the toe of one shoe into the heel of the other. The pain was excruciating, but it yielded. One down, one to go. With similar painful action, the second was also removed. During this operation, both her shoes and shopping bag were pushed even further out of sight under the seat in front.

Clickety-clack, clickety-clack. “Trains don’t make that noise anymore,” thought Julie, “Such a pity; it’s a comforting sound.” Clickety-clack, clickety-clack. The rhythm played in her brain as she screwed up, then unfurled her toes in an attempt to encourage life back into them. As the feeling returned, the toes of her left foot began to explore a soft object on the floor beside them. Idly, she caressed it, then prodded it, but either way received no positive feedback as to what it was. She peeped through the gap between the two seats in front of her. Both were empty. Whatever it was couldn’t belong to someone who wasn’t even there. She shut her eyes. Clickety-clack, mind the gap.  Her toes continued their unconscious examination of the mysterious object.

It wasn’t an alarm bell, but alarming enough to cause her eyes to snap back open. “What was that he said, ‘unaccompanied’, ‘suspicious’? Surely not this ‘thing’!”  She glanced desperately around for reassurance from fellow passengers.  No help here. Her pleading eyes were met by the expressionless stares of people hypnotized by little glowing screens held in their hands.

As thoughts of ‘suspicious’ swirled through her head, the train rounded a corner and the carriage lurched sideways. The object shifted, coming to rest against her foot. She froze. “I’m trapped!” she thought, sitting dead still and hardly daring to breathe. Seconds passed, then minutes, but nothing happened. Even the vibration of the train had not provoked the object any further. “If there was anything dangerous in that packet it would surely have exploded by now.” Cautiously, she withdrew her foot and took a deep breath.

The immediate crisis having passed, her paralyzed brain kicked back into action. “I’ll go find the guard. Where’d he say he was? Middle of the train. Which way is that?” She made as if to stand up, then stopped, “This is stupid. What will I say? My foot’s been attacked by a rogue package! He’ll think I’m demented!”  She remained seated, trying unsuccessfully to relax.

There was no one sitting next to her, so she leaned sideways for a better view beneath the seat in front. “Ah-ha,” she thought, “Just as I suspected; what a cunning plan. The package has been disguised to look exactly like my shopping bag. This might fool someone else, but not me.” She sat up feeling very pleased with herself, but now what? This time she definitely must tell the guard. The moment he learns of a suspicious package masquerading as her shopping bag, he’ll be spurred to action. She’ll be declared a heroin for saving the train and her photo will feature on the front page of all the newspapers! She jumped up, but with such enthusiasm that she hit her head on the overhead luggage rack. Stars burst before her eyes as day changed to night. Dazed, she fell back onto her seat.

A sore head and an interval of calm, before the sound of a distant police siren reminded Julie of her hazardous predicament. “Suppose this thing has a timing device, set to go off when . . . . . . ?  In the movies, you see numbers counting back towards zero, at least you then know how long you have. This package is not only hidden under the seat, but worse still, it’s playing footsie with my tootsies!” The only thing now preventing the package from exploding, was Julie’s formidable willpower.

She was panic-stricken. A race against time. A nightmare. She cried silently for help, certain she could hear it ticking. “Where does a girl find a big strong fireman when she needs one?”  Rivulets of fear trickled down her face, whilst beneath her armpits, clammy fingers of perspiration played a wild concerto. Which one should she have used this morning, deodorant or anti-perspirant? How could that matter when she was involved in this life-or-death situation?  Time to consider the children!  What would happen to them if their mother didn’t make it home tonight? Who’d be there to feed them, tuck them up in bed, read them a story?

“OK, so maybe I don’t have any children, but what if I did?”

She stood up, marched purposefully to the end of the corridor and passed through the interleading door into the adjoining carriage. It was empty, totally empty; not a soul to be seen! Where is everyone; my saviour, a knight in shining armour? They must have heard about the bomb and abandoned the train. An anguished cry stuck in her throat, changing moments later to a self-conscious giggle as she noticed the sign on the window, ‘First Class Only’. “Silly me, first class passengers don’t travel at this time of day,” she thought. She skulked back to her seat, desperate for an encouraging sign.

The sign arrived sooner than expected. A piercing scream!  Not human, but metallic. She froze. A voice inside her head wailed pathetically, “You’ve got to get me out of here. I’ll be good, never swear again, give up smoking, anything!” The screaming noise faded as pressure on the brakes was reduced and the train slowed to a stop. The carriage doors slid open and Julie ducked under the seat. She made a frantic grab for her shoes and shopping bag, and sprang barefoot from the train!

“Damn this PMT !”

 

 

Bluebells

 

Awakened by the warming sun,
Shy crowns of blue have just begun
To frolic and to entertain;
Roused by drops of quenching rain.
 
All season long they slumbered low,
Hiding from the frost and snow.
Waiting for their chance to bloom,
When light dispelled the Winter gloom.
 
An azure blaze of colour spreads,
As Bluebells raise their lovely heads
Amongst the trees, along the street,
Rhythm-of-life pulsates to their beat.
 
They cast a spell upon my shoes
To wash away those winter blues
And dance in breezes soft and warm,
Uplifting soul. . .  A new Spring born!

 

Dormouse

In dead of night, a little mouse
Strayed a long way from its house.
This creature small, a tiny ball,
Had dared to climb a stem so tall.
 
But ghostly shadow in the gloom,
Alerts it to approaching doom,
As hunting owl from darkened sky
Swoops low, emits a frightening cry.
 
The mouse to peril is no stranger,
Acutely it perceives the danger.
Terrified, it turns to run,
The owl draws near, the race is on.
 
Claws spread wide, with open beak,
It dives upon its prey to keep.
The mouse speeds down towards its nest;
Safe at home is always best.
 
From many such encounters past
It has escaped, but luck can’t last.
This time too slow; the night has come
For mouse to end, in owl’s fat tum!

 

Coffee culture

Cappuccino, large or small,
Chocolate muffin, Latte tall.
Hot Panini oozing cheese,
Orange juice, freshly squeezed.
 
Small round table, leather chair,
Americano, poured with care.
Barista turning up the steam,
Patrons staring at small screens.
 
Pain au raisin looks so good,
Can’t resist but know I should.
Espresso in a tiny cup,
Not enough to get revs up.
 
Girl alone, empty plate,
Invite her for a twilight date.
Body language said she might,
But all she wanted, was Flat White!

 

Spirit of the vault

Phantom spirit, ‘neath shroud of green
tangled ivy, wrapped in strangle-hold
around your form unseen.
 
What lurks hidden until the light
of fading day is by the earth consumed
to welcome spectres of the night?
 
Can your dark visage be so vile
that you should cower like some clandestine soul
condemned to haunt this vault with artful guile?
 
Furtive form, reveal yourself so
eyes might see the nature of your being,
or skulk forever with them that passed below.

 

Close encounter

A gentle breeze brushed through her hair,
Lifting it with jaunty flair.
She raised a hand to pat it down,
Causing me a puzzled frown,
For I mistook it for a wave,
And cheerfully waved back.

 

She seemed surprised;
Enchanting me with glowing eyes.
Upon her face a radiant smile
That did me so beguile,
I cast aside my shy reserve
And eagerly smiled back.

 

Then panic struck. I turned away
Like someone fleeing from its prey.
Perplexed by my reluctant stance,
She fixed me with an anxious glance
That caused me to reverse my turn,
And nervously glance back.

 

Perceiving that I harboured fear,
She bid me softly to draw near,
But I, unsettled by her grace,
Blushed and took a backward pace.
Then in a daze did I submit,
And timidly pace back.

 

Overpowered by her scent;
Unrecognised portent,
Her body moved in close to mine;
Souls together tight entwined.
She placed her hand upon my shoulder,
. . .  and stabbed me in the back!

 

Sweet dream

dreaming-02

Damn the dawn that stole from me, sweet visions of the night.
Oh heartless sun, could you not wait until my dream was done?
Like a knife you cut the cord that bound me to her breast.
Reverse at once your climb, cruel thief, so I might slumber on.
 
Spiteful light, do not allow this precious picture fade.
I grasp her hand, it will not stay; pleading eyes, forlorn, dismay.
Allow I beg, one final chance to plunge back into sleep,
Before this dying dream of love is torn from me away.