By Martin Pearson
Even in the sullen, grey light of a Hopeless dawn, it was clear that the dark shape in the sky was that of a sailing ship.
Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man, and Miss Calder had been the first to notice its presence. It had shaken the trees, blocked out the moon, and even stopped Miss Calder being flirtatious, for a while.
There are some folk who tend to rise early on the island of Hopeless, Maine. It was inevitable that word of this strange sight would soon get around, and, sure enough, in that early, misty light, a small knot of people had gathered along the pathway leading to The House at Poo Corner, their necks craned, hardly daring to believe what they were witnessing.
Rhys, ever conscious of his anti-social odour, slipped away downwind. Meanwhile, the ghostly Miss Calder had levitated high into the branches of the trees, in order to get a better look.
“Surely, it’s an apparition,” someone in the crowd suggested. “Or an optical illusion.”
Miss Calder said nothing. She knew all about apparitions, and the rope stretching from the ship’s bows, and the large metal anchor attached to it, was real enough. Besides, there was a figure making its way down the rope.
She allowed herself to rise above the tops of the trees until she was level with the man, whom she supposed to be a sailor.
He looked to be in difficulty. His face was an unhealthy red, his eyes bulged; he was holding his breath.
“Like a man under water, and desperate for air,” she thought.
Instinctively Miss Calder reached out to help him, forgetting for a moment that, being a ghost, she was incapable of doing anything other than frightening the poor fellow.
He looked at her in horror. If apparently lunging towards him had not been enough, Miss Calder had inadvertently done ‘The Face’. It is something that happens when she gets overly excited; it is enough to perturb even her closest friends. Her once beautiful face had suddenly become a hideous grinning skull.
While having the presence of mind to keep his mouth tightly clamped shut, the sailor threw his arms wide in alarm, letting go of the rope.
“Oh no!” wailed Miss Calder, her good looks returning. “You’ll fall to your death from here.”
It is not often that Miss Calder can be shown to be in error, but on this occasion she was. To the surprise of everyone watching, the sailor floated away through the air, like a balloon, up towards the ship.
From her vantage point Miss Calder could see a life-belt thrown out and arms pulling the intrepid sailor back on board.
“Should I go up and speak to them?” she wondered, then thought better of the idea. The sailor’s reaction to her offer of help had been quite upsetting. Besides, levitating to a little above the treetops was one thing, but the ship was at least fifty feet above that. If seemingly solid ships could float about up there, it made the sky a much more uncertain place. She had no idea what would happen to her at such a height.
Suddenly, the uppermost branches of the trees began to move. Miss Calder looked down and saw a figure scrambling around in the thin foliage.
“Septimus, is that you?”
Young Septimus Washwell, lately famous on the island for his dancing skills, stuck up a thumb in salute. Being more agile than most, he had shinned up into the tree and, even as Miss Calder watched, was hacking away at the branches in an effort to free the anchor.
After an energetic few minutes, which he coloured generously with a variety of obscenities in both English and French (obviously learned from his fiancée, the delectable Mirielle D’Illay), Septimus freed the anchor. From where she hovered, above the trees, Miss Calder waved her arms and shouted to the sailors who, by now, were lining the deck, and wondering what exactly was going on, down there in the depths.
I suppose the combination of shouting and arm-waving is a universal language, and to everyone’s amazement the thick rope tightened and the anchor was drawn up through the air, swaying majestically in the morning breeze.
Only Miss Calder was close enough to see the sailors on deck, waving back in gratitude.
Sails were hoisted, and the huge, dark shape slowly drifted away through the morning air, casting its shadow over the island, until it disappeared forever, into the thickening fog.
The talk in The Squid and Teapot that evening, and for many more to come, was all about the strange ship that had sailed through the skies. If its anchor had not caught in the trees, no one would have ever known that it had been there.
“Do you have any idea what it was, or where it had come from?” Bartholomew Middlestreet asked Philomena Bucket.
Philomena thought for a moment, and shook her head.
“Not at all,” she said. “But I am fairly sure that I remember Granny saying that such a thing was seen in Ireland years ago. After all, there are more things in heaven and Earth, Mr Middlestreet, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
“Oh, that’s profound,” said Bartholomew admiringly. “You should write that down somewhere.”
“Oh, it isn’t original,” confessed Philomena. “It was something that Doctor Dee said to me once, in a tavern, when I visited him in Tudor England.”
Author’s note: Granny Bucket was, as ever, absolutely correct. Towards the end of the eleventh century, Bishop Patrick of Dublin catalogued, in Latin Verse, the twenty-seven wonders of Ireland. One of these was of a ship glimpsed in the air, and a fisherman who swam down to retrieve his spear. Earlier, in the eighth century, The Abbey of Clonmacnoise was cited as a spot where a ship’s anchor snagged in the altar rail, and a sailor almost drowned retrieving it. It is likely that these two sightings may have arisen from the same legend, and, in the manner of such things, become somewhat embellished with the telling. Leastways, it was a good enough tale to inspire the poet Seamus Heaney, who quoted the episode in his poem ‘Lightenings.’
As Philomena so rightly said, there are certainly more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. I can only imagine that when Doctor Dee told her this, a young man with theatrical ambitions, recently down from Warwickshire, had been sitting at a nearby table, eavesdropping and quietly making notes with his quill-pen.
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