Monday, 9 July 2012
Life on the Rising Limb (extended)
The year was 1878, in that awkward in-between phase between the invention of the car and the invention of the petrol engine. Everyone owned one, but kept it in their stables and couldn’t really see the point.
I was aboard ‘The Rising Limb’, a scientific research vessel twice as high as it was wide, half as wide as it was deep, and built by someone who had got the plans the wrong way around. Said ship-maker had tried to conceal his error by floating the vessel the “right” way up. This wasn’t an ideal fix; it had the unfortunate side effect of turning all of the corridors into chutes, the chandeliers into wall hangings, and the kitchens into death-traps, with open hearths forming the floor. Besides, since the boat was constructed, and the sails installed, vertically, she now had to be tugged by an upright boat. Unfortunately, the Captain had not been informed of the ship’s rather unique architecture and so, when he came aboard to survey the vessel he fell down – or should that be through? – the corridor, coming to an abrupt stop on the wall of his office. His leg was broken, and replaced with a rather fetching wooden model.
The Captain, in pain and concussed, stumbled out of the medical bay and onto the deck. “Hoist the cannons! Polish the rigging! Prime the mainbrace!” Although he was concussed he was still our captain, so we obliged. We were just hoisting the cannons when the – freshly polished – rope snapped. The cannons crashed to the deck, raining down like large, predominantly brass raindrops. The captain, unable to run for cover on account of his new wooden leg, found his hand pinned to the deck. He passed out instantly, and was carried to the medical bay, where the ship’s doctor fitted him with a metal hook.
The Captain lost his eye the next morning; he awoke and rubbed the sleep from his eyes – unaware of the hook.
It was two days before we were due to set sail. We were still waiting upon the arrival of Doctor Cross and Doctor Monk. As I mentioned in passing, we were a scientific vessel, set to collect specimens from the island of Santa Rosalia. Doctor Cross’ reputation preceded him. He had sent a telegraph. He was known for his unusual choice of headwear, expertise on the reptiles of the equator, and vile (and violent) temper.
Smith, the ship’s geologist, and I were arguing over who should greet him. We couldn’t decide who would expose themselves to this volatile man; I argued that the ship wouldn’t get very far without an engineer, so I should be saved. Smith contested that he had a wife and kids at home. I countered that they weren’t his, and he really should return them at some point. Having hostages shouldn’t mean that you are automatically safe. In the end I flipped a coin and, while Smith was distracted, punched him on the nose. He agreed to greet Cross.
When we went up on deck there was an enormous man, almost as wide as he was tall, with a thick, bushy beard, and darting eyes. He looked like his mother had been a bear, and his father had also been a bear. He was a bear. He stepped aside and Doctor Cross introduced himself; “Good morning, fellows” he said. “Is it okay if I bring aboard my pet bear?”
It was not an ideal situation; I was inclined to say no, but then we weren’t going to say no to someone with a pet bear. But, then again, if we said no, there would be no pet bear. So we’d be safe. It was one of those terrible logical quandaries. In the end, we reasoned that the bear could stay; that Doctor Cross had managed to get it across the gangway deserved some form of recognition.
In hindsight, we probably should have told the captain about the bear.
The last of our crew to arrive was Doctor Everest Monk. Our mission was to collect specimen samples, and no-one was better at trapping animals than Doctor Monk. He was an ingenious inventor, and had made his fortune from perforated bread (the best thing since sliced) and double-sided paper. He demanded to see the captain, so we gathered some rope and lowered him down to the captain’s office.
It should, at this point, be explained that a man doesn’t lose an eye without any minor repercussions; a complete loss of depth perception, for example. And so it was that when Monk and I arrived in the Captain’s office, we found him in the process of spreading the navigational charts with marmalade, buttering his compass, and writing a letter home on some toast. “Ah, Monk,” he called to the doctor. “What a pleasant surprise to see you.” He made to get up, but Monk gestured him to sit. “Would you perhaps like a cup of tea?”
“Yes, Captain, that would be lovely” Monk replied. Monk sat down, and the Captain set a teacup before him. The Captain retrieved a teapot from his desk, and proceeded to pour the scalding hot liquid down Monk’s front. To Monk’s credit, he did not flinch. He did scream though.
After regaining his composure, Monk spoke up. “I was wondering, Captain, whether we might speak in private.”
“We are in Private.”
“No, sir, I meant without” – he gestured towards me.
“Oh!” the Captain exclaimed. “I didn’t see you there. Would you like some tea?”
“No!” I shouted, rather too loudly and quickly. Monk shot me a furtive glance. I like furtive glances; they’re my favourite type of biscuit. I left without complaint. As I ascended the rope back to the deck, I heard some snatches of conversation.
“unique opportunity... you will agree... enormous amounts of gold... collateral damage... the men ... for the best.” And then, somewhat ominously, the Captain’s voice “It is agreed”.
We sailed for weeks without Incident - before realising he had been left at port. It didn’t really matter, though. Incident’s role was as a deck-cleaner, and now that they were all vertical, there was no real call for him. Also, we could store the bear in his cabin.
What was worrying, however, was Smith’s disappearance. He hadn’t been seen since the six hour charades game of the night before. Our games don’t usually last so long, but the captain guessed correctly and then it was his turn to act. It turns out it’s quite hard to play charades when you have hooks instead of hands.
I was searching the deck for Smith, when I ran into Monk, dragging a large sack across the wooden planking. “Have you seen Smith?” I asked.
“No,” he replied, “and he certainly hasn’t been murdered, and his body’s definitely not in this sack.” There was something suspicious about this, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. “How about you try his cabin?” Monk suggested, pointing in the direction of Smith’s lodgings. As he pointed, he let go, momentarily, of the sack. Due to the tilt of the deck, it fell, barrelling into the captain’s back, and coming to rest in a heap on his shoulders.
The ship’s doctor did a great job on the bandaging.
Over the next few days, other members of the crew started to disappear.
First there was Cross, who went up into the crow’s nest and never came down, then there was Timpson, who was tragically cut loose from his support rope on the main deck, and Sargent, caught in a terrible accident accident. Something didn’t feel right. I kept thinking back to that meeting with Monk on the deck. Something about what he had said was unusual. The phrasing of it had seemed so strange, so stilted. Then it struck me, hard, like a funny metaphor.
I abseiled to Monk’s cabin, and burst in “You, sir.” I pointed my finger accusingly. “I know your dirty secret. You thought you could hide it from me, with your burlap sack, and your offer of help, but to no avail.” I paused here, dramatically, “You, sir, are a Frenchman”. But instead of gasping and crying ‘sacré bleu’, as I had expected, he began to laugh. It was a rasping, panting laugh, like the sound of a thousand pugs trying to catch their breath, or a very old steam engine, or a hundred pugs catching their breath on a relatively new steam engine.
“You don’t understand, do you?” he said, wiping the tears of laughter from your eyes. “I was worried there, for a second. But I might as well tell you the truth, my true secret. If all goes to plan, it’s not as if you’ll be able to tell anyone. I am the reason that the crew are dead”.
“I killed them”.
“Because I intend to turn The Rising Limb into a ghost ship. Scientific voyages just aren’t profitable. People aren’t interested in science unless it can help them to lose weight.”
“What about Darwin, The Origin of Species?”
“It says it’s okay to be fat, because you stand a better chance of survival”.
“Gravity, and mass, are out of your control.”
“Einstein’s theory of relativity?”
“You’re relatively slim.”
“Yes. Now if you’ll just go quietly,” he said, reaching for his sword, “the captain is taking care of Incident, then we may return to London.”
“But Incident never- ” I started, before we heard the Captain’s scream.
There wasn’t much the ship’s doctor could do this time.
Monk did end up setting up his own ghost boat. Unfortunately, he forgot to remove the bear from Incident’s cabin, so over time the number of ghosts built up, until he was done by the RSPCG for owning over 100 with no breeding licence.
The surprisingly effeminate cabin boy, who escaped the ordeal by hiding beneath the Captain’s desk, grew into a surprisingly effeminate man.
Smith’s son back in England grew up to write biographies for epilogues. They are brilliant, and he’s a very talented young man.