Lia had experienced many firsts since meeting Mei and choosing to leave her tribe behind. She’d met and travelled with these strange people who had come from across the ocean. She’d visited foreigner towns. She’d made friends with these foreigners and even begun to learn their language. Now, here she was, sailing away from an island she’d never visited before, on a huge ship.
She had ridden in her tribe’s canoes when the male hunters had paddled her and other females to different islands to gather fruits and other items. Then the foreigners had brought a strange boat with a flat area on top of two canoes that had carried her to Barbados. That had been the biggest boat she’d ever been on. From afar, she’d seen the huge ships that foreigners sailed, especially when they raided her home island. But she’d never imagined being on one herself. The sloop had been a big deal to her, though it had really been a large canoe with a sail. But this ship? The Flying Dutchman? It was massive!
The two masts towered over her with white fields of sails. There seemed to be an entire jungle worth of wood under her feet. There were many foreigners, dozens of them. Some ran about, doing sailor work. Others carried fiercesome guns and watched everyone else with narrowed eyes.
She’d watched Juan, Armand, and Cheeto take up roles with the crew. She hoped she’d be allowed to work with Mei.
Mei spoke with the first officer for a while. Lia didn’t speak their language well enough yet, but she would keep learning! She wanted to be able to communicate with these foreigners as well as she could with her own people.
The super scary big man who seemed to be in charge threatened Mei, and Lia cringed even though she wasn’t his target. He made her uneasy, and she did not relish sharing the boat with him. In fact, she preferred to be as far away as possible.
She was dismayed when the first officer led her away from Mei’s side and down into the heart of the ship. She got to see the terrifying cannons that could destroy anything. It was there that she was introduced to the galley. To her surprise and delight, she recognized what this place was for: it was a kitchen!
The galley was in the back area of the deck but open to the rest of the space. A large rectangular structure was in the middle of the floor, about three paces long and one wide. It was waist-high. On one side was a place for a fire, and the other half was a flat tabletop for cutting and preparing food. The walls on three sides had shelves practically groaning with all the glassware and dishes; casks; sacks of flour, salt, sugar, and things she didn’t recognize; hardtack in paper wrapping; jars of preserved fruit; bread, and other foods. Dried fish, garlic, and cured pork hung from the ceiling next to pots and pans.
To Lia’s eyes, it was a true bounty, a feast waiting to be given form. There were so many interesting spices and ingredients unavailable to Carib tribes. Thinking of the wondrous foods she’d enjoyed at the Wandering Sinn earlier, she was excited to learn how these things were made!
A slovenly man of extreme obesity stood in the galley, already at work. He had dark brown skin and black hair, not just on his head but curling out of his clothes all over his body. He smelled of sweat and fish and some spiciness she couldn’t identify. His eyes were beady and hid under drooping lids with long lashes, giving him a sullen expression. He was also a man of few words. When the first officer introduced her and took a couple of minutes to speak to the brown man, the cook sized her up and down without blinking, then grunted.
The first officer seemed slightly unsure of the cook but left it at that. He turned to her. “This is Vanji Singh. Call him Cook. You work here now.” He motioned her towards the galley.
English was difficult! She had to study more. She vaguely understood that this was where she would help out while they were at sea. Grinning at the officer, she nodded a few times. She spoke in her language, though she knew he wouldn’t understand. “Thank you! I will do my best!”
The man was not one to show much emotion. He raised one brow, seemingly skeptical.
She gave him the thumbs-up sign that Cheeto had taught her. “I am hungry!”
He drooped and left with a sigh.
Lia moved more deeply into the galley, fingering pans, satchels, and a barrel. There were so many new challenges ahead. This was exactly why she’d left her tribe. It was an amazing thing to experience all the world had to offer.
Lia helped make both lunch and dinner for the crew. Breakfast was hardtack biscuits and beer. Lunch was salted beef and beer. Dinner was salted pork, biscuits, and rum.
By the time Lia sat down across from Cook at the cooking counter to eat her dinner, she was already disappointed with the boiled meat, thick with a briny flavour. The plain biscuits were hard on the teeth and boring. She stared at the meal and pouted. She pushed it away and shook her head.
Cook looked up with hooded eyes, then back down at his food, seemingly having no problem packing it away.
“I am hungry,” she defiantly stated.
He didn’t reply.
“I am hungry. Pizza!” She pointed around at all the wondrous ingredients they’d ignored during the day’s food preparation. “Pizza!” She could still taste the mouth-watering melted cheese and rich tomato sauce and baked dough and savoury meats… Her stomach rumbled.
Cook snapped her back to reality, his voice flat. “No pizza.”
“Pizza!” she insisted.
He stared at her. “No pizza.” Then he reached over and grabbed her plate, dragging it towards him.
Lia paused at the sight of her food disappearing with no indication she’d get the food she wanted. She hurriedly reached out and snatched it back. Grumbling, she resentfully chewed on a biscuit but dreamed of the Wandering Sinn and their delicious creation. She would return to that special place one day. Oh yes. She would return.
And she would have pizza. Ham and guava pizza. With extra sauce and cheese…
That evening, Mei came by. After not seeing her all day, Lia leapt up from scrubbing a pot clean, smiling wide and waved. “Mei!”
The other woman looked tired and stressed out. But she smiled back. “Finished today, Lia. Stop.” She held her hands up. “Stop.” Then she motioned to put the pot down. She looked over at Cook, who was putting a layer of mineral oil on the countertop after cleaning it. With a slight bow of her head, she greeted him. “Evening. I’m Mei.”
“Cook,” he grunted back, openly staring at her chest and not caring about what her reaction might be.
Mei turned back to Lia. “Come. We go up.”
“Sleep?” Lia asked. She pointed to some of the crew who were already stringing hammocks up in spots between cannons along the deck.
“Not here. Up.” She led Lia back up to the top deck and to the room in the forecastle.
A muscular, bald man her height looked up from one of the bunks, a book in his hand. A lantern bolted to a shelf at the head of the bed gave him light.
“Quartermaster, this is Lia.” Mei smiled and gently propelled Lia forward. “Lia? This is Quar-ter-ma-ster.”
Lia beamed. “Quarter-master. Hell!”
Mei coughed. “No. It’s hell-o. Hello.”
The man blinked at them. His eyes took in Lia’s scantily clad, young body and then looked away in embarrassment. Then he grunted and went back to his book. “Pleasure.”
Mei brought her over to the opposite side of the small room and pointed to the empty bed. “My bed. Mei’s bed. And this?” She fingered a hammock hanging above the narrow bunk and pointed to Lia. “Your bed. Lia’s bed.”
Lia’s eyes widened. They would be sleeping in here? She looked over her shoulder at the door.
Mei nodded. “Yes. Sleep here. It’s safe. See? We can lock the door.” She closed the door and drew a bolt over. Rattling the door with the bolt closed, it didn’t open. “Safe. We are safe here.”
It took some back and forth and sign language, but Lia eventually understood. She was relieved not to have to sleep with all those strange, stinky men in the lower deck and happy that she got to be close to Mei.
Mei led her to understand that their sleeping arrangements were due to the Quartermaster and taught her to thank him.
“Thank you!” Lia copied Mei’s bow.
The older man hunched lower down and tried to hide his face with the book. “Yes, yes. Leaf me alone. Can’d you see I’m reading?”
Lia saw his cheeks turn pink and giggled. Then she threw her arms around Mei and hugged her.
The girls lit a lantern on their side and sat next to each other on Mei’s bunk. The next hour was spent in rigorous English lessons.
Lia struggled. She’d never had to study anything so difficult before. Nor had she ever learned another language. It was challenging and sometimes discouraging, but she did her best.
After a long while, the sound of the Quartermaster’s pages stopped. “You going to be teaching her English every nighd?”
Mei looked up. “Yes. If that’s not a problem?”
He just grunted in reply.
The women continued to practice.
A short while later, there came a sigh from the other side of the room, and a creak as the quartermaster got off his bunk. Then he eased down on the floor next to their bunk. He looked up at Mei, his expression surly but resigned. “All righd den. You can teach me too.”
Mei’s brows rose. She seemed hesitant. “You…want to learn English? But you already speak it.”
“Aye. Bud I don’d pronounce very vell. I learned lade. Sound like a country boy.” He crossed his arms. “Vat? You don’d vant to teach me too?”
“No! It’s fine.” She laughed. “I’m more than happy to.”
The three of them sat together and practiced until the quartermaster finally said enough was enough, and it was time to sleep.
Lia delicately climbed into her hammock and swayed over top of Mei. It had been a strange and fascinating day. And fun too! “Goodnight,” she said to the others.
Mei smiled up at her before closing her eyes. “Goodnight, Lia.”
The quartermaster grunted in reply.
Lia closed her eyes. She couldn’t wait for tomorrow.
Cheeto’s first day was not going well. He quickly became aware that he was the smallest male on the ship. And, once more, just he’d experienced so often in the past, the runt was bullied.
Second Mate Vos was in charge of training the new recruits. He was thin, had wavy, golden blond hair and blue eyes, and wore a perpetual, arrogant smirk whenever he was not under the direct scrutiny of his superior officers. He had one job and one alone for Cheeto. “Swabbie!” he decried.
The other sailors on deck and in the rigging laughed.
Cheeto gave Vos a skeptical look. “Swabbie? What’s that?”
The junior officer threw a mock-friendly arm around the Mexican’s shoulders. “Why, it’s an essential job, my new Swabbie. A vital role. And I think only a…man…of your…stature…can do it.”
Vos raised a hand. “Bring Swabbie his new sword and shield and let him be our first line of defence against the unending barrage of the sea against our fair ship!”
A swarthy sailor swanned over and bowed, presenting Cheeto with the new tools of his trade: a dirty mop and dented bucket.
He took them and felt the amusement in the eyes of all those watching. He was no stranger to being treated this way. It had been the same in school before he’d left that nonsense behind. Was the same in the gang, too. Though it had gotten better after he’d been around a while and had earned some respect, with the help of others.
He looked sideways and up at the mocking face next to him. He could probably get to his knife before anyone could stop him. But shivving a boss on the first day would probably wouldn’t go over so well here. In the gang, the big boss had laughed and praised him, a kid back then, for having the balls to do such a thing and then protected him from retribution. Here, he’d probably get tossed off the ship to drown.
Cheeto shrugged the arm off. “Fine. Where do I start?”
“Anywhere you like, Swabbie. Just make sure you get it all, bow to stern, top deck to the bottom. Let no crack escape your beady eyes. Let no sea salt resist your scrawny arms. Rid us all of algae and slime so that we do not slip on our perilous duties.”
Others were quick to chime in with their wit.
“Better not catch you snoozing behind one of the cannons, neither.”
“Or hiding in the head.”
“He’d best be careful. Boy’s so skinny, if he goes to the head, he might slip clean through the hole!”
“Oh, I doubt he’d be clean going through that.”
“‘Specially after Beenhouwer been eatin’ greens!”
That got a good laugh from several folk. Mostly crew, though. The marines, those here to guard the prisoners, as this wasn’t a free ship, glowered and scowled or just watched for trouble.
A heavy hand landed on Cheeto’s shoulder, making him look up. Juan stood next to him, with those crazy good looks and the muscles stretching his shirt out. The guy was bigger than just about anyone else except the captain. Though the cap didn’t look nearly as fit.
Juan aimed a level gaze at Vos. “I’ll take a mop too.”
The blond man’s arrogance knew no limits. He grinned. “Another Swa—“
Juan stepped forward until his chest nearly touched the second mate’s chin. “Name’s Fernandez.”
The grin wavered. “Like I was going to say. Swa—“
This time, the chest did bump him, just slightly. “I said Fernandez. If you’re having trouble hearing, I can use that mop to clean out your ears.”
The smile slipped off Vos’s face. “Are you threatening a superior officer?”
“Sorry, which one of us is superior?” His pecs flexed noticeably.
There was no longer any jeering or commentary from the crew. A half dozen had slowed or stopped to watch the drama play out.
Vos’s face went calm. “Braam! Get him a toothbrush. Fernandez here is going to make sure he really gets in the cracks.” He backed away from Juan and walked off, barking orders to others, many of whom quickly scampered back to their tasks. Vos paused and turned back, raising his voice. “Actually, you can both work a double watch. First and middle.” He turned away.
Cheeto hung his head. He imagined his big friend down on his hands and knees all day long, working a toothbrush in between the deck planks. That would be hell on the back and knees soon enough. “Estúpido. ¿Por qué hiciste eso? Debería haber dejado en paz al imbécil.” Idiot. Why did you do that? Should have just let the imbecile be.
A sailor jogged up and handed Juan a wooden toothbrush, the horsehair well used and going in all directions. “You owe me a new one.”
Juan took it. “Don’t worry. I’ll give this one back after I’m done with it.”
The man snorted. “Right.” Then he saw the serious look on Juan’s face and swallowed. “Forget about it. I’ll buy myself another.”
“When are the first and middle watches?” Juan asked.
The sailor reluctantly answered, looking like he’d rather not be seen talking to them. “Watches are four-hour shifts, with two-hour shifts at dinner. We work one shift on, one shift off; work then sleep. The short ones mean we change to alternate shifts on different days. Except you two got unlucky and have to work a double. First watch is eight to midnight. Middle is midnight to four AM. You’ll get a four-hour break after that, then work the forenoon from eight till noon.” He shrugged in mild sympathy, then jogged off.
So they’d pull a double shift working all night long, get fours hours of sleep, then have to get up… Ugh. “Juan—“
The big man waved him off. “It’s fine.” He leaned in and spoke softly. “Mejor que escalar todas esas cuerdas. No me gustan las alturas.” Better than climbing up all those ropes. I don’t like heights. “Come on. Let’s get some sleep.” He nodded to Armand, who had silently stood with them all this time, then made his way to the stairs going below.
Cheeto followed on his heels. So this was the life of freedom, huh?
Armand presented himself to Second Officer Vos.
The man turned and arched an annoyed brow. “Oh. Right. Damn, man. You’re old!”
“Probably enough to be your father, if not your grandfather, oui.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “You’re French?”
Armand tilted his head as if the man was an idiot. “A French prisoner. Now I am a free man. And I have no particular affinity to any nation.”
“Ha. You keep telling yourself that, convict.” The younger, arrogant man seemed to cast about in thought. “Well, you’re too old to be a rigger. Go…I don’t know, help the carpenter or something.” He dismissed Armand with a wave.
He asked around and found the carpenter below decks, sitting in a section of the hold with lumber and barrels of tools. The thin man had his feet up on some planks, his eyes closed.
The man’s eyes cracked open when Armand introduced himself and explained his presence. “Assistant? Bah. Don’t need one. We were just in port. Everything’s been fixed.”
“Shall I just sit around then?”
“If ya like. Don’t bother me none. Or go amuse yourself elsewhere. I’ll find ya if I need ya.” He closed his eyes again.
Armand decided to get the lay of the ship and look around. As he wandered from section to section, up and down the decks, he began to get a measure of the ship and its crew.
Cracks in the hull had been sloppily patched, indicating something of the carpenter’s skills and effort, or lack thereof. Water still trickled into the ship, and a bilge pump sat nearby. It was probably periodically manned when the water level rose too high.
The interior of the ship was as worn as the exterior. The stairs creaked and sagged, likely needing repair, despite the carpenter’s claims. Rails were smooth from years of hands. Whoever was supposed to sweep or mop tended to stick to main paths and ignore corners, where detritus had built up. He saw multiple rats, apparently having grown bold enough to be out and about in daylight, even with sailors around.
He passed a trio stitching up canvas sails. One was slowly working; the other two were just lazily chatting. Wanting to be friendly, he greeted them. “Good morning.” He was a newcomer. Often, it was difficult to break into an established group and make friends or get along with new coworkers. But he wanted to try.
Only one bothered to look up and gave a slight nod before returning to the conversation. None spoke to him. Instead, they ignored him.
Armand studied the others are saw the vast gulf in their age difference. Was that part of why they weren’t interested in talking and getting to know him? He suddenly felt like an old man, something that had been happening too often recently. And he was even more of an outsider. He reluctantly moved on.
He found a sailor with a book of naughty illustrations jerking off in semi-private behind a stack of crates under a net, next to a cannon. The man was aiming out the porthole as he focused on a woman wearing only coconut shells. He paid no attention to Armand passing by, uncaring. Perhaps, living on a ship and in such close quarters, you had to develop a thick skin about personal needs.
A pair of sailors in side-by-side hammocks were conversing and didn’t notice him come nearby.
“Bitches aboard a ship. How long will that last, d’you think?”
“Not long. Maybe the cap will declare them ship’s whores, and we’ll each get a daily ration along with our grog.” He laughed. “They’re both pretty cute. If I’d known there were Caribs like that, I’d have spent more time on the islands.”
The sailor stretched and groaned and tried to sink further into the hammock. “Ah, verdomme.” Ah, damn. “I’m too tired to get up for the next watch.”
The other snorted. “So slip Vos a doubloon and stay in your hammock. He’ll make someone else do your shift. You know how slack he is, this being the captain’s personal toy boat and all.” He reached under himself and scratched his backside.
The first was mournful. “But I like my doubloons. And I spent my last one last night.”
More laughter. “The same thing you do every time we’re in port.”
Feeling only a little shy, Armand raised his voice. “Good morning, gentlemen.”
The tired, poverty-stricken one raised his head in curiosity. When he didn’t recognize Armand, he frowned. “Hey. It’s a private conversation, old man. Rot op.” Get lost.
Armand sighed to himself. It looked like making inroads with the other crew would be difficult. He trudged on.
Having been up late and then up early, he, too, was still tired. A couple of decades ago, it wouldn’t have bothered him. But his years were slowly catching up to him. Well, if there was no work to be done and no one felt like being friendly, then he might as well get some rest in case there was something to do later.
He asked someone about hammocks and was disappointed to learn that most sailors were expected to bring their own. Luckily, there were spares in the supply hold. He dug one from a crate and strung it up amongst others between the cannons of the second deck.
Swaying a meter over the deck, he closed his eyes. Perhaps becoming a sailor had been a mistake. Was this really the path he wanted to take right now?
Maybe he should have stayed on shore and sought a quieter lifestyle. Something where he wouldn’t have to work with others or worry about developing new relationships.