Chapter 3 - In the Doldrums
It was the spring half-term, and the children had finished tidying their rooms, hanging out the laundry, hoovering the sitting-room, and doing all the other chores they had been assigned in record time, so that they could pay a visit to Captain Bailfast and his first mate Phlegm aboard the Hand of Friendship. They had decided to start the holiday by going through Ocean Door because, as Sally put it, there was nothing so bracing as your first gulp of sea air. This was always Sally’s choice; she loved the sea and was a nimble sailor.
“Meet you in the hallway,” Sally said. They hurried off to pack the few things they would need: waterproof coats and boots, in case of storms; a flask of drinking water and a day’s rations each of bread, fruit, and chocolate; a pair of binoculars; a map of the islands; Marcopolon Words and Phrases to practise in their free time; and a little gift from Mrs Atlas to the Captain, for always taking good care of them. All these items went into the indispensable backpacks that Sally and Tom always carried on their journeys, and then they were ready.
Sally took a deep breath, her eyes shining. “Do you think we’ll see pirates? And icebergs? This is so exciting!”
“The sooner we get there, the sooner we’ll know,” said Tom.
“I know,” Sally said, “but sometimes I like to pause right here, just on the threshold, until I can’t bear it any more…” Then with a loud “Heave-ho!” she pushed open the Door to the Hand of Friendship and leapt through.
“Avast, me hearties!” she called joyfully.
Tom followed a little more carefully, with one hand feeling for a rope or something to hold onto. But it was a strange sight that met them, for instead of foaming waves and flying spray, the sea was perfectly blue and level; and instead of Captain Bailfast’s voice booming out orders, there was silence; and instead of busy sailors hauling on the sheets (meaning, the ropes) and running up and down the companion-ways (meaning, the stairs), there was no sign of life at all.
“What’s going on?” Sally cried out in alarm.
“She’s like a ghost ship,” Tom exclaimed.
“Goes chip,” croaked a voice from above. “Goes chip. Crock.”
Sally spun round and called out anxiously, “Rita? Is that you?”
There was a flash of bright blue feathers and Rita, the ship’s parrot, landed in a heap at her feet, flopping onto the deck as if exhausted. “Crock,” she said wearily.
“Where is everybody?” Tom asked.
There was a pile of old, faded clothing lying in a corner of the deck. Just then it stirred, and a voice whispered: “Who goes there?”
“It’s one of the men!” Sally said. “Wait a minute – look! They are here! They’re just…ill or something…”
She was right: all round the deck, the sailors lay flat out in tired heaps, their mouths open wide and tongues lolling out. Quickly the children made their way across to the man who had tried to call out, “Who goes there?” and crouched at his side. “It’s Sally and Tom, from Four Corner House,” Sally explained. “Can you tell me what’s happened? Are you injured? Sick? Was it pirates?”
“Twenty-four days without a breath of wind,” the sailor moaned. “No water left…no food…and the sun…Have mercy!” he croaked.
“We came just in time,” Sally said, slinging her backpack to the deck and taking out her flask of water. She held her hand above the sailor’s face to block out the sun a little. “Here. Be careful, we don’t have much.” She dribbled a capful of water on the sailor’s parched lips. “If only we’d brought more!” she groaned. But both children were aware that travellers through a Door could only take enough food or water for one person with them.
“We’ll share what we’ve got,” Sally said, and not forgetting the parrot, she filled the cap again and held it up to Rita so she could drink.
“Crock,” Rita said gratefully, dipping her beak.
“Why it’s Sally and Tom!” came a gruff cry from behind them, and they turned to see a tall, gaunt man with a bushy black beard shuffling towards them. “Welcome aboard, my friends! How good to see you!”
“Captain!” Sally cried, and threw her arms around him, while Tom gravely took his hand. He was much reduced by hunger and thirst from the burly giant they knew so well, but he returned Sally’s hug as best he could and gave Tom’s hand a weak shake. “Now tell us what’s going on,” Sally demanded. “Have we run aground or something? Why is everybody lying down?”
“Grounded! Ha! Never!” Captain Bailfast wheezed, and they realised he was laughing. “No, my dear girl. We’re in the doldrums, that’s all…No wind for days…no wind,” he repeated sadly, “no wind, and we might as well be grounded,” and he turned his head from side to side, gazing fore and aft at each of the masts, where the sails hung limp in the blazing sun. “In the doldrums,” he said, “where there’s not a breath of wind…’Tis four days since the men had a drop to drink…”
Sally looked hard at his face. He was crying! – though the tears were too small to be visible. “Oh Captain,” she said mournfully, wiping his face with her hand.
“ ’Tis the great depth of his despair wot gives rise to this display,” said another sailor who had shuffled up to join them. It was the First Mate, Phlegm.
“Ah, Phlegm,” said the Captain, recovering himself. “Look who’s here. What a surprise! It’s our dear friends Tom and Sally, come to be with us in our hour of need.”
“Hello, Phlegm,” the children said, and shook hands with the First Mate, who like the Captain was no more than skin and bones.
“Aye aye,” Phlegm greeted them gravely in turn. “Miss Sally. Master Tom. Arr. ’Tis the very unexpectedness of your appearance wot renders it such a surprise.”
“Well put, Phlegm,” said the Captain, patting the First Mate on the shoulder, and to the children he murmured: “He’s not what you’d call a man of vision, Phlegm, but he has an uncommon power of stating the obvious. Uncommon.”
This was more like the Captain they knew, who always saw the good in people and was always optimistic, so Sally and Tom said loudly together: “Hear hear! Three cheers for Friendship!” and a ragged sort of dry cracked whispering ran round the ship as the men struggled to revive themselves. “Now let’s finish distributing the rations,” Sally said. They laid out everything carefully on the deck, the water, the bread, the fruit, the chocolate, which was beginning to melt in the fierce sun, and all the other items as well, in case there was anything they had missed: the waterproof coats and boots, the Marcopolon phrasebook, the map and the binoculars and, of course, the gift they had brought from home.
“Give him his present,” Tom said, nudging his sister.
“My mother sends her best wishes,” Sally said politely, handing Captain Bailfast the little package wrapped in coloured paper and tied with a gold ribbon. Slowly he undid the bow and drew forth a large blue-and-white polka-dotted handkerchief, of the type known as a belcher, after the famous boxing champion of former days.
“Well I declare!” the Captain said wonderingly. “That’s a beautiful handkerchief, is it not, Phlegm? Beautiful!” He held it up by the corners to admire the pattern of dots. “My thanks to your mother, my dears! My thanks!”
“Arrr, ’tis the very contrast between blue and white,” began Phlegm, when there was a shout (or what passed for a shout, considering how dried-out was the throat it came from):
“Cap’n! She’s fluttering!”
It was true: the belcher had trembled slightly as the Captain held it up, as if stirred by a tiny breath of wind! Within seconds the deck was transformed into a scene of frantic activity as the Captain bellowed orders and the men leapt about, hoping to find the exact arrangement of sails that would allow Friendship to catch the breeze before it died away. Just then a single wave that must have come from a long way away lifted them gently, and the deck tilted, and the children watched in horror as one by one, their possessions slipped neatly over the side and into the sea with hardly a splash: the coats, the boots, the map, the binoculars…
“No!” Sally shouted, as she and Tom lunged forward. They were just in time to catch a flask of water and a banana each, but Marcopolon Words and Phrases was gone. They stared in disbelief as it sank out of sight and the blue surface of the sea closed over it. The ship settled, the breeze died, and gradually the sailors stopped dashing about and collapsed onto the deck once again.
“We were deceived,” the Captain said sadly. “ ’Twas enough wind to snuff out a candle, but no more,” and he too sank to the deck.
“Now we’re really in trouble,” said Tom hoarsely…
Next week: A surprisingly talkative source offers to help the sailors, in exchange for a promise from the children…