ON FIRE AT A HUNDRED MILES AN HOUR
‘The best thing about the seaside,’ said the albino pirate, ‘is putting seaweed on your head and pretending you’re a lady.’
‘That’s rubbish!’ said the pirate with gout. ‘The best thing about the seaside is building sexy but intelligent looking mermaids out of sand.’
The rest of the pirates, sprawled out on the deck of the pirate boat for their afternoon nap, soon joined in.
‘It’s the rock pools!’
‘It’s the saucy postcards!’
‘It’s the creeping sense of despair!’
Pretty soon the crew were a tangle of earrings and teeth and cutlasses. Buckles rattled, blades swished and bits of pirate went everywhere. But before they could really get going the doors to the downstairs of the pirate boat crashed open, and out strode the Pirate Captain himself. If you were to compare the Pirate Captain to a type of sedimentary rock – which after types of tree, creatures, and fonts was the next most popular thing for the pirates to compare stuff to – he would undoubtedly be a slab of polished sandstone, or maybe chert. The pirates all took one look at the Captain and stopped their argument dead in its tracks. Fists froze in mid-swing, and mouths hung agape. The Pirate Captain often had this effect on the crew, but usually it was because they held him in such high regard or because they were dazzled by his fantastically glossy and luxuriant beard. Today though, their sudden speechlessness had more to do with the fact that the Pirate Captain was wearing only a tiny bright-red swimming costume which left nothing
to the imagination.
‘What’s all the racket about, you briney swabs?’ bellowed the Pirate Captain, his skin glistening in the sunlight with a strangely oily sheen.
‘Sorry, Captain,’ said the albino pirate. ‘We were just discussing what the best thing about the seaside is.’
‘The best thing about the seaside?’
‘Yes, sir. We couldn’t quite decide.’
The pirates waited expectantly for their Captain’s response, and tried not to notice the fit of his trunks.
‘Honestly,’ said the Pirate Captain, after a pregnant pause. ‘I have no idea. What a ridiculous thing to be arguing about.’
And with that the Pirate Captain spun on a shiny heel, and strode back through the heavy wooden doors that led to the inside of the boat. There was an awkward silence as the pirate crew all stared at each other, at a bit of a loss. Pirate feet were shuffled. The pirate in green looked like he was about to say something and then stopped himself. Somewhere, a sea-lion barked.
Back downstairs in his office the Pirate Captain stood in front of his full-length mirror, scooped a handful of margarine from a little tub and lathered it thoughtfully into his torso. The office was its usual mess of sextants and astrolabes and half-smoked cigars. On one wall there hung a trophy cabinet that showcased the Captain’s awards from previous adventures. There was a faded rosette labelled ‘Junior Swashbuckler, Obstacle Race – Bronze’, and next to that there was a small cup engraved with ‘Pirate Captain, Best Nautical Oaths, Runner Up’. And the only other item was a pom-pom with a pair of
googly eyes that was attached to a short piece of ribbon revealing it to be an award for ‘Second Most Entertaining Anecdote About A Monstrous Manatee’. The Pirate Captain had just started to gaze a bit sadly at the empty space right in the middle of the cabinet when there was a knock at the door, and so he quickly looked back at his mirror and tried to adopt a businesslike air. The Captain’s loyal deputy, the pirate with a scarf, poked his head into the cabin.
‘Hello, Pirate Captain, could I have a word?’ said the pirate with a scarf.
‘Of course you can. And whilst you’re here, would you mind doing my thighs?’ The Captain gestured to the margarine. ‘Brings out the musculature,’ he added, by way of explanation. ‘I can’t quite rub it in at the back there.’
The pirate with a scarf dutifully began to rub margarine into his Captain’s hairy thighs.
‘Now, what’s on your mind, number two?’
‘Well, sir.’ The pirate with a scarf tried to pick his words carefully, because he knew that under all the fearsome tattoos, his Captain had a sensitive core, like a walrus that had swallowed a baby seal. ‘It’s just that there tends to be a certain . . . pattern to the start of our adventures. Some observers might say we were stuck in a rut, but the lads prefer to think of it as “a reassuring tradition”. You know, the crew will be having a discussion about some aspect of the piratical life, then it all gets a bit heated, and then you stride out onto the deck, all teeth and curls, with your pleasant open face, and you settle the matter once and for all by making a keen, pithy observation that cuts straight to the point.’
‘That does sound like me.’
‘Whereas today . . . it was somewhat less exciting than your usual answers. Not necessarily wrong, but not the usual slap-your-forehead blinding revelation stuff.’
‘Aarrr. You noticed?’ the Captain sighed. ‘Sorry about that.’
‘Is something bothering you, sir?’
The Pirate Captain paced the length of the office. Little drops of margarine splashed onto the carpet. ‘Truth is, number two, I’ve been feeling a bit preoccupied.’
‘Are you still worried about the boat being taken over by genius babies with huge swollen brains?’ asked the pirate with a scarf. ‘Because Jennifer worked out the odds of that happening and they’re vanishingly small.’
‘Hmmm. You’d think so, but they’re devilishly clever, those babies,’ said the Captain, narrowing his eyes. ‘Devilishly clever. But no, it’s not that.’
He strode back across the cabin and tapped his calendar, which this year was sea monsters.
‘Are you getting bored with the sea monster for March? Is that it?’ guessed the pirate with the scarf.
The Pirate Captain had been getting bored of looking at March’s monster, which was something that had the head of a horse and the forelimbs of an eagle. ‘You can’t blame me; it’s ridiculous,’ he snorted. ‘How could the thing even swim, for a start? Honestly, I don’t know where some of these sea-monster artists get their ideas from.’
‘Never mind, Captain. April is the kraken. You like the kraken.’
‘I do. You know where you are with the kraken. But anyway, no, it’s not that either. What’s really bothering me is this contest.’ The Pirate Captain pointed to 22 March on the calendar, which he had ringed and written ‘Pirate of the Year Awards’ next to in big letters. ‘Obviously I’ve got the swimsuit round sewn up,’ he added, twanging the elastic in his trunks and casting an appreciative gaze at his own glistening reflection in the mirror. ‘Not to mention knot tying, being all things to all men, first-aid, swaggering, and all the boring technical categories. You can’t fault me on the practical side of things. But it’s the damned question and answer session that bothers me. I don’t want to look like an idiot in front of the Pirate King and all the other captains. They can say some very cruel things, you know.’
‘I don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about, sir,’ said the pirate with a scarf encouragingly. ‘We all know how hard you’ve been working.’ He waved at the desk, which was covered in a big pile of ring binders, mind maps, and plenty of highlighter pens in all the colours: pink, yellow, blue, green and orange.
‘That’s true,’ agreed the Captain. ‘In fact I’ve never done this much preparation for anything. My brain feels like it might pop with all the piratical knowledge that I’ve crammed into it.’
The Pirate Captain had some interesting theories on brain science, mostly to do with his idea that the brain was more porous when sleeping, so for the past two weeks he’d arranged for the crew to take turns reading pirate theory to him while he was asleep. He also maintained that he had eight lobes to his brain instead of the customary four, which accounted for his remarkable ability to see all sides of any argument.
‘And look at the cover I did for my knot-tying notes.’ He waved at one of his ring binders, which had a picture on the front of a well-built woman tying a nautical knot in a snake. ‘I spent three days drawing that. And all those index cards that the fellow with the glass eye wrote out for me? Hardly any of them ended up as paper planes!’
‘And besides,’ added the pirate with a scarf as delicately as he could manage. ‘If, for any improbable reason you were to lose, you’d still be a winner in our eyes.’ ‘It’s nice of you to say so, but you’re my crew, so that doesn’t really count, does it? It’s the same as your mother telling you “you’re quite a catch”. To be honest I would like, just for once in my career, to know that I had the respect of my peers.’
‘The lads all think the award is practically in your hands, Captain. You must have noticed how they’ve been doing the conga an awful lot of late?’
‘They have been doing more congas than usual,’ said the Pirate Captain, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. ‘I just put it down to the carnival atmosphere I try to encourage.’
‘They’re practising, sir. It’s a victory conga.’
The Captain stared out of a porthole and his cheeks flushed with emotion. ‘If they can believe in me, by crikey, then I can too,’ he said, biting his lip. The pirate with a scarf handed him his handkerchief.
‘Thanks, number two. I seem to have something in my eye.’
‘It’s OK to cry, Pirate Captain.’
‘No, really, I have. I think it’s this damned margarine. Hell’s barnacles, that stings.’
Later that day, down in the boat’s kitchen, the pirates were all noisily enjoying a feast. The feast was mostly ‘mind food’ to aid the Captain’s mental preparation, so the table was piled high with Vitamin B supplements, steaks cut into different fish shapes, and several cauliflowers, because they look a bit like brains. The Pirate Captain didn’t really like cauliflower, so he helped himself to a gigantic portion, smacked his lips and then secretly shovelled it into a napkin and threw it out a porthole. For pudding they had jelly.
‘Now, lads,’ said the Captain, once he had licked his bowl clean. ‘As you all know, tomorrow is the Pirate King’s Pirate of the Year awards.’
An excited buzz ran around the table.
‘The Pirate King!’ gasped the pirate with a hook for a hand.
‘You mean we’ll finally get to see him in the flesh?’ asked the pirate with long legs. ‘Will he eat you if you get a question wrong?’
‘Not these days,’ said the Pirate Captain reassuringly. ‘Apparently the Pirate King feels that eating three-quarters of his pirate captains every year is counterproductive. He’s very wise like that. Anyhow, obviously I’ve pretty much got it in the bag. But I don’t want to take all the credit, because behind every dashing Pirate Captain with sparkling eyes there is a crew of capable rogues. Over the past year, thanks to your hard work, we’ve consistently hit our targets, as you can see from the various graphs I’ve hung around the room.’ The walls were covered in bar charts, pie charts and line graphs. Pirates tended to skive off maths at school, so they didn’t really understand the graphs, but they did like the choice of colours, so they cheered anyway.
‘Pirate Captain?’ asked Jennifer, the former Victorian lady who was now a pirate, indicating one particular graph. ‘What’s this one about?’
The Pirate Captain looked over to where she was pointing. ‘Ah yes. Climbing up rope ladders. That graph shows quite clearly that there has been more climbing up rope ladders on this pirate boat than ever before. I’ve also plotted it against the number of chin ups I can do. Now, the only thing standing between me and that sash is the Pirate Theory test. So I thought it best to prepare by having you lot test me with a few questions. Don’t go easy on me!
Give me your best shots. To help you not go easy on me, you’ll find I’ve written down the questions I want you to ask on the index cards next to your plates.
You in the green, why don’t you go first.’
The pirate in green stood up and cleared his throat.
‘Pirate Captain,’ he began, ‘it has often been said that one of the most important features of a pirate is to have a stentorian nose, such as yours. What do you think of that?’
The Pirate Captain pushed his hat off his forehead and made a show of mopping his brow. ‘Ooh. Bit of a curve ball there. The answer is yes, it is very important. It symbolises resolve in the face of adversity and a belief in one’s own destiny. But it’s not just a decorative feature. Because over the past twelve months I have put my stentorian nose to good use, with no less than four daring escapes and a series of dramatic encounters with
The pirates gave the Captain a polite round of applause.
‘I think that’s the right answer, Captain,’ said the pirate in green.
‘OK,’ said the Pirate Captain, ‘you next, over there, with the hook for a hand. Have you got a question for me?’
The pirate with a hook for a hand stood up clutching his index card. He was slightly nervous because his experience of public speaking was limited to shouting at seagulls. ‘The title of Pirate of the Year is not just an accolade that recognises your superior pirating and extreme good looks, Pirate Captain. It also comes with great responsibility. As a role model to young pirates the world over, what would you do?’
‘That’s an excellent point and one that I feel has often been overlooked by previous Pirates of the Year, not that I want to name any names, though Jericho Blake, he’s one. Gunpowder Gillespie, that’s another. Needless to say, I would mainly concentrate on my community work, and certainly not just use the title to take advantage of adoring teenage female pirate fans.’ The pirates roared apart from the pirate with asthma who wheezed enthusiastically until the Pirate Captain motioned for calm. ‘Thanks, lads. Now you, the pirate in red.’
The pirate in red stayed sitting in his chair. And he didn’t even look at the card the Captain had given him. ‘If you were to splice the mainsail,’ he said, ‘what would it actually involve? And how would it be accomplished?’ He sat back and folded his arms in a surly way.
The Captain looked annoyed, and tapped his gold teeth for a moment. Then he feigned a large ostentatious yawn and pretended to suddenly notice his pocket watch. ‘Goodness me, is that the time? Well, bit tired now, no point over-taxing the lobes. Who’s for more jelly?’
‘The Pirate Captain’s a living legend!’ said the pirate who liked kittens and sunsets.
Jennifer leaped to her feet and kissed the Pirate Captain on the cheek. ‘Oh, Pirate Captain, you’re going to knock them dead!’
‘Arrr,’ roared the Pirate Captain, rather than blush.
‘That’s right, my lovelies. I want you to set sail for victory. Victory and pudding!’
From the Hardcover edition.