Captain Adam Cartleblat was neither a captain nor a Cartleblat. His birth certificate said Jones and he had never joined the navy; but he owned a tugboat, and that was good enough.
On the ship, Adam was also the first mate, helmsman, cook, second mate, swabbie and the only person on board. The boiler made plenty of noise and did seem to have a life of its own, but was not counted among the crew. Adam had made a career of odd jobs and elbow grease; he salvaged flotsam, delivered packages and letters (if it was on the way, wherever the way happened to be that day), and every once in a while let out his boat as a ferry if the price was right and the passenger didn’t have too many cops in pursuit. It never amounted to a fortune, but he’d never wanted one.
Today was the day he came home for the first time in two years. He couldn’t have asked for better weather. A bright blue sky and a lovely warm breeze, not that the SS Cartleblat needed it. The only clouds came from the steampipe of his tiny tugboat, bright and white and roiling over the hot tropical sea.
He had grown up in these islands, and despite a lengthy holiday, he felt as though he’d only been away a moment when he caught sight of the jumbled mess of houses that was Port Victor. His boring, stupid hometown. The sight of it warmed his heart. Maybe it was time for a little boredom. A little stupidity. He’d seen the world, he’d been inspired and awestruck and adventuresome. A long nap and a visit with Susan would do him wonders.
Ah, Susan. One of his few remaining childhood friends. One of the few that had stayed in boring, stupid Port Victor, anyway. The only woman he both knew intimately, and knew intimately. Whenever Adam came back from a long haul, they always found time to catch up, then fuck vigorously. Not that he hadn’t met a few lovely girls out there, but they couldn’t compare. Seeing Susan was always a treat.
Two years. They’d need a while to catch up.
Captain Weatherdecker was a captain in much the same way. He had earned no stars, no stripes; in fact, he had never even earned the coat. He had plundered plenty of them, but they were good wool and sold for similarly good prices.
He had no discernible skills, eloquence, or education, but he took risks. He had an odd respect for the strategically minded captains of the Royal Navy - they had given him plenty of runs for his money - but that was not the way he operated. That was why, when he saw the tiny plume of steam rising in the distance, he called for full stop in spite of the good winds behind them.
As his crewmen got to work furling sails, Weatherdecker stepped up to the railing and extended a telescope out to sea. He caught the edge of a cloud of steam, and followed it down, down…there. A tugboat, and a beat-up one at that. It was a small, pitiful thing. Worth nothing in itself. But the name on the side, that was worth quite a bit to Captain Weatherdecker.
He heard the tip-tap of footsteps jogging up beside him. He collapsed the telescope and turned to his boatswain.
“Everything alright, cap’n?”
“Fine, Mr. Tiller. Gonna change course, that’s all.” He set a hand on Tiller’s bony shoulder and pointed his attention out to sea. “We gotta keep that steampipe in our sights. Follow her lead but keep distance.”
“Uh…sure thing, cap’n.” Mr. Tiller gave a shrug and a gold-studded smile and went off shouting at his underlings up the masts. After a short symphony of grinding ropes and snapping canvas, the ship set off on its altered course.
The Port Victor Home For Children did not often receive visitors. Fewer visitors than they’d like, in terms of adoptive parents. When the Misses supervising the playground saw Adam Cartleblat coming up to the gate, they suddenly didn’t feel so bad about the lack. He looked fresh off the boat, which was a hugely misleading usage of the word ‘fresh’. Two of the Misses left the third to keep an eye on the children, and approached to speak to him through the gate.
“Good morning,” said Miss One, before he had the chance to open his mouth. “How may we help you?”
“Morning,” said Adam, ignoring the sour tang in her voice. “Is Susan around today? Susan Carruthers? She still works here, right?”
The two women looked at eachother, silently discussing.
“She does…” said Miss One hesitantly. “May I have the name of her caller?”
Adam opened his mouth to tell her, but the third Miss beat him to it.
“Adam!” she cried. They all looked over at her; Adam smiled. Even in her bland schoolmarm uniform, her hair tied back, she glowed as brightly as he had remembered. She picked up the child that was hovering at her ankle and hurried over to the gate. The other two Misses returned to the children, as Susan fiddled with the lock of the gate.
As soon as the gap was wide enough for her to slip through, she was in his arms, hugging him awkwardly around the baby she held. They stayed there a while, enjoying eachother. It was bliss after so long.
“I can’t believe you’re back,” she whispered into his cheek. He pulled away, still smiling.
“Me neither. I definitely should’ve died a few times out there,” he laughed.
He watched her smile stiffen, and fall. Her glow faded.
“Hey, just joking! I was fine,” he assured. “Everything was totally fine. No need to worry.” He took her by the arm, the arm not holding the baby. “I made it home, right?”
“Yeah,” she said, more quietly. “Yeah, you did. I’m glad you’re okay, Adam.”
Adam felt the gears of the conversation grind to a halt. As he did when the boiler went kaput, he searched the immediate area for clues as to what had gone wrong. She was smiling, but reserved. She was looking at him, though her eyes had gone glazed and unreadable. The child in her arms squawked and reached out for her face; she took its hand and gently guided it away. Adam, on the other arm, let go.
“Hey, listen,” said the sailor, “I know you’re busy. I’m sorry to bother you at work. Just wanted to say hey, y’know? I didn’t wanna wait to see you.” He kissed her quickly on the forehead, before she even noticed him doing it. “I, uh…I’m cool to stay over, right? If not, it’s okay, I—“
“It’s fine, Adam. Of course it’s fine.” She took a step back, towards the gate, and set a hand on it. “You’re right. I am busy. I should go. I’ll…see you at home. We can catch up then.”
“Alright! Cool. Hey. Take care,” he said, waving as she closed the gate behind her. She locked it, smiled one last stiff smile at him, and returned to the flock of screaming children. Adam watched her a few moments more. She sat on a bench, overlooking the playground. The child nestled in her lap, pointing out dreadfully unexciting things to her. She held it for a long time. Adam turned away down the lane, wondering what he’d done to make her smile fade.
The ship had no name, not that any of the men had agreed upon. They left The Ship, they boarded The Ship, they scrubbed the decks of The Ship, and made sure her rigging was in order. Everyone agreed it was a ‘she’, of course. There were certain things one did not question.
She changed her appearance frequently. Any time it was convenient, and most times it was possible, she got a new stain, or a new paint job on the figurehead. She flew whichever colours would get her the least attention wherever she happened to be. Sometimes she wore a name, or a number, but never for long.
It had been difficult, at first, to get the crewmen to make a pot of tea correctly. There wasn’t the money for a proper cabin boy, who would have been hired on knowing the art of the kettle. He had to rely on the kitchen rats, who, while decent young men, couldn’t tell their steep from their brew. Though, he never yelled, or chastised. That did not do. He had explained, carefully. He had given lessons on the proper temperatures, the correct colours and consistency. He’d been a cabin boy himself, once, and he remembered the trials and tribulations of learning, as one said, ‘the ropes’; that had been hard enough as a well-bred, literate man. Though, after weeks and months, they finally had the hang of it. He could not ask for better cuppas from the below-decks of a nameless faceless ship.
He always took tea, barring an infrequent downpour in these sunny islands, on the aft deck. Morning, midday, afternoon, evening. An exquisitely carved side table, and his favourite brocade dining chair, were always set out before he arrived, and taken away after he left. Yes, he had trained them well.
He was the tallest man on the ship. Six feet, three inches. He seemed much taller, the way he carried himself, straight and proud. His customary black bicorne helped a bit, as well.
As he waited for the teapot to arrive, he studied the waves of the ocean, the lay of the islands they’d passed through beyond. He checked the angle of the sun. He felt the breeze, watched it toss up spray from the water. He came to a conclusion.
When the crewman came bearing teapot, sugarbowl, and precious, precious fresh milk, he smiled at the lad as he set it down on the side table.
“Gregory, may I ask you to direct Captain Weatherdecker to me, on this deck, as soon as he finds it convenient?”
“Uh, yes, Mr. Airedale,” said the crewman. “I’ll see if he’s about.”
“I thank you kindly, Gregory. You’re dismissed.”
Mr. Airedale did not watch the crewman descend the ladder. He continued to gaze at the ocean, instead, giving his tea time to steep.
The last Richard Weatherdecker remembered, it was officers that were meant to report to the captain, not the other way around. He trudged towards the aft deck regardless.
He’d tried, in the past, to ignore Airedale’s summons. He’d tried to rebuff the order, sending back a message to meet in the captain’s quarters. These messages had not gotten replies. When he went to investigate, Mr. Airedale would start the discussion as if his summons had been answered without hesitation. When Weatherdecker stopped falling for that, and started ignoring Airedale’s summons entirely, the first mate had begun making decisions on the issues he’d wished to discuss - without his captain’s input. This would have been a problem, had they not always been the best possible decisions. Weatherdecker had finally come to realize that if good choices were being made, he could at least put his name to them in some way. He swallowed his pride and went to see Airedale, though he was sure to cough some of it back up once he got to the aft deck.
He climbed the ladder, and went to lean against the railing, his arms folded, facing Airedale. The first mate smiled at him politely.
“Good morning, Richard. How do you find yourself today?”
“Fine,” grunted the Captain. “What’d’you want?”
“Glad to hear it,” said the first mate. He looked out at the ocean. “Richard, I could not help noticing we have gone off our course. Did you remark upon that?”
“What’re you natterin’ about now, Tim?”
“Our course, Captain. We were keeping west-southwest, the last I recall. Unless Barrowbridge Island has moved several miles in the past hour, which I have some reason to doubt, we appear to be gusting away due south.”
“We are,” said Weatherdecker. “Had to take a quick detour.”
“Have to settle a debt,” said the captain. Airedale looked him right in the eye.
“Which debt is this, Richard?”
“None o’your fuckin’ business. It’s a personal matter.”
The first mate paused to take a sip of tea. He let the silence linger a moment before asking:
“As a passenger on the ship that is a part of this personal matter, am I entitled to ask how long this detour may take?”
“Don’t know,” said Weatherdecker.
The first mate took a long inhale, through his nose; then a long exhale, through the same.
“Richard,” he sighed, “we have an appointment to keep in Coraqua.”
“And?” demanded Weatherdecker.
“And, if we are inordinately delayed, the Benefactor will be unhappy. I do not wish for the Benefactor to be unhappy. Do you understand this?”
“Yeah, yeah, I fuckin’ get it,” growled Weatherdecker. “I don’t care what the fuckin’ Benefactor has to say. I’m owed, and that’s that.”
“If that really is that, Richard, then you are the one that is going to explain why we were late. I assure you, the next time we visit our esteemed Benefactor, I am throwing you under the hooves as the party responsible for our painfully avoidable delay. Is what I have just said clear to you?”
“Yeah, yeah,” muttered Weatherdecker, moving to leave.
“Excellent,” said Airedale. “Thank you, Richard. You may go.”
Weatherdecker ground to a halt just before the ladder, his back to Airedale. The first mate continued to study the ocean. The captain had already ceased to exist, in his private little tea-soaked world. Weatherdecker turned, and growled:
“Oh, may I? Thank you, Tim. Weren’t aware I could go where I please on my own damn ship!”
Airedale did not move.
“Do not let me detain you, Captain.”
It is a difficult thing to storm down a ladder, but Weatherdecker did an excellent job.