Boatman's dream 32
By Parson Thru
There were just the three of us in the lounge bar of The Ship. I drank the last of the rum in front of me. Ben pushed his along the bar. I poured half into Taff’s glass and we drank it down.
I waited for Taff to recharge the glasses. He took Ben’s money and rang it in, slapping the change back on the counter. Ben turned to a fresh page in his book.
He scribbled-away trying to get down the story of the warship in the Channel and its crew, who’d requested that I take Arthur ashore. That made me the first of us to come into contact with Arthur, both crew and ship having vanished into thin air.
“And did he say where he was from, or where he’d been with the Navy?”
“He didn’t say anything at first. He didn’t speak English.”
“Just an old Welsh dialect.” Taff put in. “Merlin worked it out. He’s a bit hot on all that.”
“But he spoke English at the Boating Club meeting.”
“The boys on the wharf had been helping him.”
“He probably knew more than he let on.” I added.
“So no one knows where he came from?”
“And why was he here?”
Taff and I shrugged.
“He said something through Merlin at the beginning about the Realm being in danger.”
“He’d picked up the wailing and gnashing of teeth about some malign foreign power.”
“You’ve lost me.”
Taff and I grinned as we recalled the joke in the bar.
“The referendum. The battle for control. Freedom.”
“Who asked him to get involved with the wharf and Bellingham-Smythe’s development? His speech at the clubhouse?”
“Merlin, I suppose. The wharf-rats? I don’t know. Maybe he just saw the injustice.”
Ben stopped writing for a moment.
“Who do you think he is? I mean, he could be anyone, couldn’t he? He’s not really…”
“Kev brought him ashore. He should know, if anyone.”
“No.” I countered. “I’m just the delivery boy. Merlin’s the one who’s been talking to him down on the wharf. And maybe a few of the wharf-rats.”
“And you picked him up from some kind of… ghost ship?”
Neither Taff nor I had a response. We looked back dumbly at Ben.
“This is crazy. Who else saw the ship?”
“No one. The police checked when I made my statement. They spoke to the Navy and the Coastguard.”
“So it’s just your word, Kevin.”
“Merlin’s pretty convinced.” Taff added. “Not that he’s said much, but that’s how he is. He keeps a lot to himself.”
“And this Danny? Another vanishing person. Where does he fit in?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it.” I answered. “I didn’t think there was any link.”
“Bit odd though, don’t you think? The fire? Disappearing into thin air?”
I shrugged. There was nothing to say.
“So tell me about yesterday morning on Merlin’s boat. What happened on the way back from Cardiff?”
“We were all tired and hung-over. Arthur had gone up on deck alone. I think he found it all a bit tiresome in the cabin. Ok to a point. I suppose I felt the same. After a while I went up, too. I’d heard him walking up to the bow, but decided not to follow, found a dry corner in the cockpit and settled down for a smoke.”
“Tobacco?” Ben queried.
“The fog was really thick – as bad as it gets in the Channel. White-out conditions.”
“Could you see Arthur?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t think so.”
“But you were on the same boat.”
“It’s over ten metres. I was in the stern, he was up on the bow-rail. The foresail was stowed. Maybe I saw foresail, maybe I saw him. I don’t know.”
“Then I went forward for some reason, and he wasn’t there. That’s when I raised the alarm. That’s everything I told South Wales Police yesterday.”
“And how about what you didn’t tell them?”
I sipped the rum and looked at Ben.
“Oh, come on, Kevin. It’s the whole reason we’re here. The oars. The sound of oars.”
I finished the drink. Taff got up to fetch another, but I shook my head.
“Have you ever sat by a busy stream and listened to the flows and eddies in the current?”
The question was to no one in particular.
“It’s like listening to an orchestra: uncountable individual sounds, all intermingling, becoming one. That’s what it’s like sitting at anchor with the tide running under you, surging around the anchor-line. The only other sound was Merlin, Eddie and Dennis talking in the cabin. Even they were quiet, eventually. We were all tired.”
“How long were you there?” Taff asked.
“I don’t know. That’s the problem: I might have dozed-off.”
“So what did you hear, exactly?” Ben pressed for the words.
“Splashing. Not one big splash, but steady, rhythmic splashing.”
“Like oars?” asked Taff.
“Yes. Like oars. I used to have a trot mooring on the river. I had to row up from the beach.”
I paused as I recollected the sound of oars pulling through the margins between moored boats.
“It was the same, but in amongst the turbulence of the Severn running under the hull.”
I looked from one to the other.
“It was so fleeting. Just a few moments. Barely there. I'm not really sure whether I heard it or not.”
Taff and Ben waited. Ben had been scribbling and was sitting poised for more.
“And it was after that you went up to the bow?”
“Yes. I suppose. To see if Arthur was still there.”
Taff poured two more measures.
“On me.” he said.