Time didn’t exactly fly when you were singing shanties. But it tripped and skipped along with the rhythm of your choice. Ben’s own composition was upbeat and a resounding improvement on the dutiful tick and tock of a standard timepiece.
Not that he’d seen nor heard a clock in ages. Ordinary clocks had disappeared overboard back with the rest of the ‘c’s and a few special clocks, deserving of their own titles, such as grandfather and mantel, had followed in line with their alphabetical placement.
He wondered if he might find some watches further astern among the ‘w’s. But Professor Quatrechamps had amassed few enough items of small size. There had been a set of weights, but they had been filed alongside their accompanying kitchen scales under ‘s’.
Forty verses into his labours, since clambering into the suit, he was into the ‘t’s.
Many of his verses were repeats, Ben having found the limits of his spur-of-the-moment musical creativity, but they echoed around the inside of his helmet like a choir of seafarers in a tin cavern. And every time a familiar set of words came around again he tried to sing it better than before. Helped a great deal to take his mind off the fact that the suit was far more cumbersome than any of the items he carried to the rail. He clunked to and fro across the deck, feeling like Equinox or George pulling the wagon. Or perhaps more like he was wearing a carriage with the wheels removed. Or maybe like one of those steamship engineers who’d foregone the boiler suit in favour of donning the boiler instead. Head in a metal bubble, he carried on in his own little world of tune and toil, toil and tune.
The shanty’s buoyant tempo seemed to progressively lighten his load on each trip and he lifted or shouldered many a bulkier, weightier item with surprising ease. Perhaps just getting more and more into the swing of things. And his singing was accompanied by the soft hiss of air from the hose at his collar, like a snake blowing on his cheeks. The circulating coolness was welcome, but even so the suit made it feel like a long afternoon of hot, hard graft.
Even so, it seemed to involve a lot more heave than ho.
Tabards, tables, table-cloths, tambourines, a tandem, tapestries, targets (archery), target shields, tarpaulins, teddy bears, telescope, tennis racquets, tents and tentpoles, thresher, tipi, a toboggan, a toilet, totems, tower shields, trestle tables, a tricycle, tridents, a triptych, trombones, trolleys, trumpets, trunks, tuba, tureens and a typewriter.
Surely it was coming up on time for a ‘t’ break.
Phew. He paused to wipe an arm across his forehead. The suit’s padded sleeve brushed the front of his helmet without troubling the beads of perspiration collecting like warm dewdrops in his eyebrows. He blinked. Saw stars.
He blinked and blinked again.
The stars didn’t dance and swirl in his vision. They seemed content to just hang there like diamonds sewn into a curtain of night.
Where was all the blue? When did night fall? How had he missed that?
Ben looked to the bow. Where the Walrus figurehead leaned forward, almost eye-to-eye with the Moon. The Moon, brighter, rounder, clearer, with no intervening blue. An enormous silver lantern, its light less ghostly somehow. Shadows marred its surface like expired moths and flies trapped within a spherical paper lampshade. But the light wasn’t shining through anything flimsy as paper. It was reflecting off something solid. Something real and something closer than it had any business being under normal circumstances.
Ben lumbered to the side and peered overboard. Dizziness seized him and he planted both hands on the rail, in case his helmet actually rendered him as top-heavy as he felt. He swayed uneasily, tea and biscuits stirring in his stomach.
There was all the blue. Below them. Trapped in a giant glass marble. Along with expansive swirls of green that were ragged at the edges as though they’d been nibbled by creatures with a taste for huge shapeless green biscuits. Except they weren’t precisely shapeless. They described shapes Ben had seen before. On the wall map in Mr Mulbarrow’s office, for instance. Supplementary to the local maps for delivery purposes, Mr Mulbarrow liked to keep a chart of the known world. “Because,” he always said, often speaking past the fat cigar obstructing his lips, “you never know…”
Night hadn’t fallen. They had risen to meet it.
You never know…
Ben had certainly never known he’d be looking down on the world one day. This day. Today. If indeed it was day. The surrounding sky resembled night in all the essential details. Ben wondered if this was a permanent state up here in – where was here? – the heavens? Yes, he supposed this must be the heavens to which the priests and clerics alluded. Were the heavens subject to eternal night? Or would the blue of day wash over everything at some divine-appointed hour? Would he, in short, ever see another dawn?
His head reeled. There were more questions than stars.
And a sudden shortage of air.
Gasping, he staggered back from the side. His breathing recovered as he stepped off the hose and the pump hissed into his ears, blowing cooling breezes around the insides of his helmet once more. His brass boot-heel clunked against something even more metallic. He whirled and looked. At the deck-hatch.
It opened. A cauldron-helm, similar to his own, rose slowly like a solid copper sun.
The faceplate angled up and Professor Chloette Quatrechamps smiled from within. Her eyes had an added sparkle, possibly courtesy of the combined refractive powers of the glass faceplate and her spectacles.
Consternation temporarily forgotten, Ben proffered a hand to help her up. She clambered out to stand beside him.
Turning slowly, she appeared to survey the clear deck all the way to the stern and the remaining clutter between here and the bow. She studied the Moon, framing it with her hands and gauging perspective with a thumb like an artist sizing up a landscape prior to applying brush to canvas. Keeping her thumb up, she signalled to Ben, approving.
Then spread her hand, signing wait.
She unclipped two lengths of hose from her suit’s belt and presented him one as an odd sort of gift. He flexed it and turned it over in both hands, thoroughly unsure what to do with it. The tubing had a tiny tin trumpet affixed to one end.
Chloette attached her hose to a spare spigot at her collar and approached him, trumpet raised.
It really was only a tiny tinny device but Ben instinctively retreated. Suddenly fearful of whatever else she had in store for him.
[To Be Continued…]