It was during one of his routine deck inspections that I first laid eyes upon the Captain. I was the sailor in charge of making sure everything was shipshape. He came down from his cabin, situated on a raised level above the deck, and he looked up and down at us all with a toothless grin.
A feeling of unease washed over us and we each shuddered in turn as the Captain marched towards us. The clunk of his iron right leg echoed on the damp wood and every time he out a deep breath, we could see the condensation on the air. He wore a dark grey eyepatch over his left eye and I had heard numerous stories over what lay beneath it. Not that I believed any of them of course…
Old Bobby Marlowe would whisper about it after he’d had a few too many drinks. We all knew his claim – that he was the only living man to have seen beneath the eyepatch. But none of us knew whether it was just the idle fantasy of an old man or if there was some truth to his stories. Old Bobby had famously lost his mind decades ago; I guess that’s the fate that awaits us all if we serve as long as he has. Fifty years without a single day ashore but Old Bobby was one of the lucky ones.
Each time the Captain came down to inspect our slavery, one or two of our number would vanish – never to be heard from again. Nothing gets in the way of a good story and we could always rely on Old Bobby to weave us a good yarn.
‘An’ der yer knows where thay git tekken?’ He would say, his wrinkled lips curling upwards into a sort of wry smile. ‘Thay git tekken below dekks an’ this is ner werd of a lie,’ Old Bobby paused and looked at each one of us in turn. ‘Thay git fed.’ Little Henry, unable to contain himself any longer, let out a roar of contemptuous laughter.
‘Fed? What the bleeding heck are you gabbling about now Bobby?’ Old Bobby wasn’t put off by this and he merely stared at Little Henry, wide-eyed, waggling the mangled stump where his left index finger had been.
‘Yer’d der well ter listen,’ Old Bobby warned. ‘Thay git fed an’ fed ’til thar bellies can’ tek ner more an’ tha’s when he gits them. Mark ma werds. Yer don’ wan’ ter hear what he does ter them.’ Try as hard as we might, none of us could get Old Bobby to say any more.
Weeks passed by and life carried on as it always had. For every sailor we lost, another would take their place. We kept to ourselves – it was safer that way. The memories of the Captain’s last inspection was still fresh in our minds and I knew it would be a long time before I forgot the memory of Scarface Allie screaming as she was plucked from her duties.
For five days and nights, I was tormented by that nightmare until at last I could take no more and there was but one thing I could do. I sought out Old Bobby and confronted him.
‘I need to know what the Captain does to those he takes,’ I told him. Old Bobby squirmed and ran his yellowed fingernails along his scraggly grey beard.
‘Yer shud net be arskin’ thet,’ he warned.
‘Come on Bobby,’ I pleaded. ‘You’re the only one who knows anything around here.’ I watched as Old Bobby looked all around and then lowered his voice to a whisper.
‘Listen ter me yer landlubbing fool. Old Bobby he tried, yer see? He tried ter dig an’ he go’ this fer his trubbles.’ Old Bobby paused to point his stump at me and cackling maniacally as I winced. ‘The Captain, he did tha’ ter me. He teared off Old Bobby’s finger with his own rottin’ teth. A werning. Tha’s wha’ he terld me.’
I couldn’t believe what Old Bobby was telling me but we knew there had been a story to his missing finger. I was the first person Old Bobby had ever confided in.
‘Ser yer best be runnin’ aleng, aye? Yer wernt find enythang in the brig.’ Old Bobby fixed me with a steely gaze and I felt sure he was trying to give me a clue.
‘If there’s a chance we can save them…any of them, we have to take it.’ Old Bobby continued to stare. ‘Don’t you want to get off this ship?’
“Thars ner way of leevin’ this ship me lad.”
The sea breeze was bitter and it seemed that if the Captain didn’t kill me, I would surely die of a chill. I had wrapped up warm but you can never have enough layers when out on the open sea. There were no officers onboard the ship and so I felt sure that I could sneak down to the brig without being seen by anybody. It was a risk – but one I had to take.
I opened the wooden door delicately and hoped that no one would hear the creak it made. I stood, waiting with the door open for a few tense minutes until I was sure that no one was coming. When at last I had gathered my courage, I closed the door behind me and began the slow descent to the brig.
The bowels of the ship were dark, dingy and a musty rotting smell hung about the air. It filled my nostrils and on more than one occasion, I retched. My eyes were unaccustomed to the dark; I had to feel my way forward with my hands. This did little to calm my nerves but there was no turning back now.
Something echoed behind me but I brushed it aside. It was only natural for me to imagine things in this state and when I heard no further noises, I allowed myself to believe the excuse. I turned the corner and the light of the brig enveloped me. I was nearly there and as I started to run, I took no heed of the echoing footsteps behind me.
I wrenched the brig door open and immediately covered my mouth with my hand so that I would not scream. Allie and Bucktooth Freddie were chained to the back of the musty cell and I could see from the dim light of their eyes that neither had seen daylight in a very long time. They weren’t starved and for a time I was puzzled until it became clear that something was feeding them and as I looked closer, I saw that they were both hooked up to tubes that protruded out of the wall behind them.
I took a careful step towards them. But they made no indication that they had even seen me. I peered intently at the tubes and as I watched, I saw a beige-coloured liquid flow through it and into their mouths where they promptly swallowed. I felt sick to the stomach but I could see no way of removing the tubes. There was no way of breaking their chains either and I slumped against the wall, my head in my hands.
I blinked; a shadow had passed across the open doorway and, all of a sudden, I realised just how exposed I was. It would not do for the Captain to catch me here of all places. I waited for a few minutes and when I was sure that it was safe, I darted towards the door.
To my horror, I collided into something large and as I heard the familiar clunk of that iron leg, my heart dropped.
The Captain grabbed me by the scruff of my collar and I could feel his clammy fist closing around my brittle neck. At first I thought he was going to choke me but then he marched into the brig and I was hurled against the cold hard wall. I saw stars in front of my eyes and then everything went black.
When I came to, my stomach overturned and I vomited all down my front. It took a while for my eyes to adjust and there seemed to be a dozen shapes swimming in and out of focus. I lifted my hand and gingerly felt the place where my head had struck the wall. I wasn’t surprised to discover a lump had swollen out of my scalp. Clunk.
I looked up; the Captain was kneeling beside Bucktooth Freddie and Allie and out of the darkness, I could see that he was cradling Freddie in his gnarled arms. The Captain stroked the man’s matted blond hair with his yellowed fingertips and his lips appeared to move but I heard no sound come out of them. I heard a soft clink as the chains holding Freddie broke away. I wanted to cry out, to stop him but my legs had turned to jelly and it was all that I could do to keep watching.
The Captain ripped the tube out of Freddie’s mouth, blood splattered from a gaping wound and I was powerless as the sailor was carried away. I caught a last fleeting shot of Freddie’s bloated stomach before he and the Captain disappeared into the opaque darkness.
My heart thumped in my chest and I leaned haphazardly as I struggled to keep standing. There was only one thing on my mind – I had to get to Allie, to somehow free her and get away from this accursed place.
Allie still hadn’t noticed me however, and her eyelids seemed to droop as though she was just dozing. I clicked my fingers in front of her face for a response but none came and even with my whole strength, I could not break the chains that bound her.
‘Come on!’ I shouted to her. ‘You have to help me!’ But Allie’s head slumped and the beige liquid just kept flowing through the tube. I wanted to tear the tube away but I remembered how Freddie’s mouth had been torn to shreds. There had to be an easier way. But what it was, I did not know. ‘Please, Allie.’ I was frantically shaking her now and still she did not recognise me.
I let go of her and slammed my fist into the wall, recoiling as a twinge of pain ran through my body. I stared at my hand through the dim light of the brig and saw that a splinter had burrowed deep into my skin. My eyes were damp as I gritted my teeth and pulled it away.
‘Davy?’ Though soft as the voice was, it cut through me like a knife to butter and I nearly keeled over in front of her. Allie was standing in front of me; chain and tube lay broken on the floor.
‘How did you?’ I gaped.
‘We have to get to his cabin,’ Allie told me and she strode out of the brig. It took me a few moments to come to my senses but I quickly followed.
The Captain’s cabin was the most luxurious part of the ship. A four-poster bed took up much of the room and the golden walls were adorned with framed pictures of his foul deeds. Allie squeezed my hand and I saw that her face was pale. I still wondered how she had got free but I supposed there would be a time for explanations when this was all over.
A door at the other side of the cabin swung open and I smelt the putrid breath before I saw its owner. The Captain towered over us and as he smirked, I could see chunks of red flesh hanging from his teeth.
‘You’ve caught me at rather an awkward moment.’ The Captain said in a low husky tone and I was surprised at how well he spoke. It was all I could manage to mumble a reply. The Captain just laughed. ‘I see you’ve found yourself a friend.’
‘You will not hurt him.’ Allie’s command was firm and for a moment, I thought that the Captain could be defeated with words alone.
‘Won’t I?’ The Captain raised a finger to my cheek and slowly carved out a small gash with his nail. The pain stung but I was determined to not let it show. The Captain moved to Allie and I could see him examining her. His tongue licked his teeth as his eye fell upon her bloated and fleshy stomach.
‘This ends tonight.’ The Captain repeated Allie’s words back to her, his voice goading and mocking her.
‘Let’s have dinner.’ The Captain turned away and I shivered with each clunk of his iron leg. We followed him although I knew that no good would come of it.
The Captain’s dining room was lit by a hundred scented candles and contained a single oak table. There were three silver platters on the table of which I had a grim feeling about.
Allie was still holding on to my hand but her grip had tightened and every time I tried to pull away, she held on tighter. We watched in silence as the Captain bent over the first platter and lifted up the lid.
I felt bile form in the back of my throat as Freddie’s severed head stared back at me. But that wasn’t all. The Captain tugged at his hair and the entire top half of his skull broke away, exposing the brain inside.
‘You don’t mind if I?’ The Captain didn’t wait for a reply as he dug his fingers into Freddie’s brain and tore a segment away. I looked away but I could still hear him chewing noisily and my stomach churned.
‘You’re disgusting.’ I had found my voice at last but I stepped back as the Captain turned on me and bared his bloodstained teeth. Yet somehow I was not afraid and I dared to ask: ‘Why do you wear that?’ I pointed at the eyepatch.
In an flash, the Captain’s manner seemed to change. He was smiling and seemed, for the minute, almost normal. He didn’t answer my question but merely reached up and lifted the eyepatch away from his eye.
I blinked. There was nothing but a normal eye. No terrible secret, no horrific mutation. Just an ordinary human eye.
‘But Old Bobby-’ I started to say but the Captain cut across me.
‘Yer’d der well ter listen,’ he said in an uncanny impression of Old Bobby. ‘The old sot saw only what he wanted to see.’ The Captain paused to spit at the floor. ‘And now, you’ve really seen quite enough yourself. Kill him.’
I was breathing raggedly but nothing prepared me for the force in which Allie’s fist struck my chest. I felt several ribs crack and the pain was excruciating. She knocked me to the floor and I could hear the Captain laughing as Allie’s hands closed around my throat.
‘Stop!’ I wheezed. ‘We can fight him together!’ Her hands squeezed harder and already my life had begun to slip away. And then she released me and it was as if she had been freed from a deep enchantment. The Captain’s laughter had died away and when I opened my eyes, I saw Old Bobby standing in front of him. In his hands he held the hilt of a sword that had pierced the Captain’s wicked heart.
The Captain was dying but in the light of the candles, his lips curled into a final smirk and I realised too late what he was about to do. He grabbed Old Bobby and my screams were meaningless as the sword tore through his stomach.
As Captain and sailor fell mortally wounded, I rushed to Old Bobby’s side.
‘What were you thinking of?’ My voice shook as I spoke.
‘I terld yer ter listen, di’n’ I?’ Blood bubbled at the corners of Old Bobby’s mouth. ‘I did good. Old Bobby, he did good.’
‘You did wonderfully.’ Old Bobby reached into his ragged pocket.
‘I want yer ter have this.’ He handed me a folded piece of torn parchment.
‘But what-’ I looked down at Old Bobby and his eyes were wide. A tear streamed down my cheek as I closed them and unfolded the parchment.
Davy Jones, Captain of the Flying Dutchman. And in that moment, I knew.