Wheels Ahoy: Yet Another Short Story.

“What’s the weather forecast, lad?” the captain said in his gruff voice.

“I’ll just check, cap’n,” the first mate, a young man in his early twenties, replied. He crossed the captains’ spacious cabin, opened the wooden door, and peered up at the mast.

“What be the weather on the horizon, laddie?” the first mate bawled up at the cabin boy who was perched in the crows’ nest, buffeted by the strong winds.

“Looks like there be another storm comin’” came the faint response.

“Another storm comin’ by the look of it, cap’n,” the first mate said as he re-entered the captains’ quarters, receiving an exasperated sigh in response. As if in confirmation of the first mates words, the captain felt the swell of the sea increase beneath him.

“We’ll have to go to port soon, then, I doubt the Rolly Roger can take much more of this.”

“Aye, cap’n,” the first mate said, bending over the map spread over the desk, “the nearest be one days’ good sailin’ away sir.”

“That’d be sailin’ in good weather, lad,” the captain replied, then paused in thought, “I’ll take the helm ‘til the storm hits.”

“Aye aye cap’n.”

The captain moved away from his desk to reveal a specially crafted wooden chair, with two small cart-wheels where the legs would normally have been. It did not look especially comfortable and was even slightly askew, but the captain was accustomed to it and didn’t even seem to mind the frequent splinters all over his hands from contact with the wheels. He turned awkwardly to move around the desk, then headed to the door of the cabin which the first mate held open for him.

“Afternoon men,” the captain roared heartily as he emerged on deck.

“Aye aye cap’n,” came the chorus response.

The captain headed towards the ladder leading up to the helm, stopping in front of two large, impassive men stationed there. Not a word was needed. One man carefully lifted the captain from his wheelchair, and started to ascend the ladder in a balancing act that was uncomfortable to watch, and the other had the equally cumbersome task of carrying the wheelchair. At the top of the ladder the captain was gently set back in his wheelchair. This procedure, unusual as it was, did not attract much attention as the crew of the ship were accustomed to the captains’ condition, just as he was to his wheelchair.

The captain took his place by the wheel, which was set lower than was conventional so that the captain could reach it comfortably. The dark clouds on the horizon were creeping forward, consuming more and more of the clear, summer sky, and the wind was growing noticeably stronger. Overhead seagulls circled in the sky, screeching and occasionally dive-bombing the poor cabin boy who was still not relieved of duty in the crows’ nest.

The captain stretched out his arms so that the back of his hands were visible, his thumbs stretched out at right angles to his fingers. On the left hand a “P” had been tattooed indicating “port”, and on his right an “S” for starboard.

“To port!” he called to his men, who then had the unenviable task of coaxing the old, heavy ship to turn.

Once the ship was set to the right course a flurry of action ensued as the sails were folded away to prevent them from becoming damaged in the storm. Finally the cabin boy was allowed to scramble down the rigging, his bare feet slipping on the ropes. About half way down in the transfer between two adjacent sets of rigging, he slipped and fell, landing with a loud, wet thump on the deck besides the captain.

“Careful laddie,” the captain looked down at the bedraggled boy, “that’s how I ended up in this thing.”

“I’m good, cap’n,” the cabin boy croaked.

The first mate came scurrying up the ladder to the captains’ side.

“I suggest you go inside before the storm hits, cap’n,” he offered, “I’ll take the helm.”

“I can make my own decisions, lad,” the captain said before turning to the men stationed by the ladder, “First mate on the helm, we all know what happened the last time I got caught up here in a storm.” He eyed the messy patchwork of wooden shingles and nails that covered the hole his old wheelchair had made when it rolled off the deck in a storm. Then began the process of getting both the captain and his wheelchair safely down the ladder, which with the swell now picking up was particularly tricky. Once he was down on the main deck again the captain returned to his cabin, accompanied by the cabin boy to serve some much-needed rum.

The captain relished in the relative warmth of his cabin, a mug full of rum in his hand, watching the stormy sea slap the sides of the ship with increasing ferocity. Slowly the day darkened into night, and the ships’ cook brought a plateful of warm food up to the captain. Sometime after finishing his meal alone in his cabin the captain fell asleep, only to be awoken by his wheelchair sliding backwards until it hit the cabin wall with a substantial impact. As he wearily looked around the room the floor tilted the other way, and the captain rolled across the cabin to the other wall, which he had barely collided with before the motion reversed. Around his wheels, empty rum bottles clinked and clattered as they travelled with him back and forth.

With a tired sigh the captain turned his wheelchair perpendicular to the waves in an attempt to stop the distressing movement, but the force of the waves overturned his wheelchair completely, leaving him in a heap on the floor pummelled by empty rum bottles. Despite the obvious discomfort the captain was tired and drunk enough to return to sleep, and when he awoke once more the worst of the storm had passed.

***

“Land ahoy!” the shout from the crows’ nest was audible from within the cabin as the captain sat himself upright, leaning against his desk. His wheelchair had ended up in the far corner of the office, still overturned. He was about to start the laborious process of crawling over to it when the cabin doors burst open and the first mate thundered into the room.

“Did your parents not teach you to knock?” the captain tried to sound disgruntled, despite being secretly pleased that help had arrived.

“I didn’t have none, cap’n, I was brought up in an orphanage,” the first mate failed to realise the rhetorical nature of the question as he scurried over to the captain, “You alright?”

“Of course I’m fine, lad, I’ve ‘ad worse,” he paused dramatically, “Have I not told you of the time I-“

“Single-handedly fought off the kraken and saved a hundred pirates’ lives, including that of Blackbeard himself, all from a wheelchair? Yes, cap’n, you have, many times,” the first mate replied as he set the wheelchair upright, and pushed it to the captains’ side before gently helping him into it.

“We’ll be dockin’ this afternoon, cap’n,” the first mate said as he left the cabin again.

***

As the Rolly Roger drew into port, the captain was uncomfortably aware of the many staring men and women as he sat at the helm of the ship. The crews of other ships stopped their work briefly to gawp as he drifted past, trying to ignore a thousand eyes staring into what felt like his soul. Once the ship was still and the gangway down the captain was lifted onto the deck once more, and then had to make the precarious journey over, the narrow gangway from ship to shore. Once on the jetty the captain was approached by a man who looked as if the last time he had had any fun had been in a previous life, in which he had also been a slug.

“No wheeled contraptions on the jetty, it damages the wood,” the man pointed at the wheelchair, failing to address the captain appropriately.

“And what would one ‘ave me do?” the captain replied in a mockingly eloquent tone, “levitate?”

A few people tending to a ship on the other side of the jetty sniggered, which only served to annoy the man even more.

“We’re just here to pick up some stuff from the market and we’ll be gone again tomorrow,” the captain said icily, “I have no intention of staying for long.”

“Well someone else will have to do it. Now if you won’t be reasonable I’m sure your captain will. Where is he?” the man snarled back.

“You’re talking to ‘im, you mollycoddled, do-gooding landlubber,” the captain said fiercely.

“I’m not sure your captain would appreciate such humour,” the man replied.

From the deck of the ship the first mate had watched the exchange and finally decided to put the pompous fool in his place.

“Captain!” he called, “what should I do with this ‘ere plague-ridden, fleabag rat?”

“Just throw ‘im ashore,” the captain called back, trying not to look too smug.

“Oh goodness, captain I do apologise. You must understand, your case is so unusual-“

“Oh I know, lose a leg and everyone thinks you’re a legendary warrior, lose movement in your legs and everyone wonders where your brain got to. Now, are you going to let me pass or not?” the captain interrupted and his adversary stood meekly to one side.

In the village the captain wandered around the cobbled market place, occasionally getting stuck on the uneven ground, sending his men to collect the necessary supplies. At the very edge of the market was a stall that caught the captain’s attention. It was laden down with precious stones of every imaginable shape, size, and colour, some set into jewellery, and some on their own. The vendor behind the stall saw his potential customer and immediately set to work.

“Healing stones, get your healing stones here! Make blind men walk and lame men see – no, hang on, blind men see and lame men walk,” on the last point he looked directly at the captain.

“What do I do?” the captain asked, “Swallow one?”

“No, no, sir. They are charmed with the blessings of healing spirits-“

“Ah it’s a long time since I was on the receiving end of any blessings, I think I’ll pass,” the captain turned away and set off towards the harbour again, his crew following him with all that they had bought.

***

The captain was the last to traverse the gangway. As he started to make his way over the path barely wider than his wheelchair he noticed a beautiful woman dressed in the latest fashions walking along one of the walls overlooking the port, her luscious curls falling almost to her waist. Distracted, it did not take much for his wheelchair to go off course, and before he knew it the captain was plunged into the cold, scummy waters below. Seconds later he was joined by the first mate, who having seen the captains’ fall had dived into the murky waters without a second thought, and he heaved the captain to the surface. As air once again touched the captains’ face he took a great, gasping breath, and then proceeded to cough what little water had entered his lungs back into the ocean. Still coughing and gasping, two crewmen who had returned to the jetty to help the captain heaved him up, where he lay flat on his back soaking the wood beneath him. The first mate dived back into the waters, staying below the surface for almost a minute before resurfacing.

“The wheelchair’s gone,” he said as he pulled himself onto the jetty, “I’ll ‘ave to build a new’un. Take the cap’n aboard while I go in search of materials.”

The two crewmen carried the bedraggled captain onto the ship, leaving a trail of wet wood in his wake. They dragged him to his cabin and placed him on the bed and the cabin boy was instructed to give the captain clean, dry clothes.

By the time the first mate returned from town, having spent all the gold from their past three lootings altogether, the captain was warm and dry if a little shaken. The crew spent the entire afternoon crafting a new wheelchair for the captain, taking until sunset to complete the task. As darkness fell the first mate pushed the new wheelchair into the captains’ cabin.

“There you go, cap’n,” the first mate presented the chair proudly, “We’ve got t’wheels even this time so it won’t be slightly askew.”

“Ah now that’s a welcome relief, thank you,” the captain smiled to the first mate as he was lifted into his new chair, “By the way, as reward for ya work today our next task will be t’seize another ship.”

There was a pause.

“A new ship, cap’n?” the first mate queried.

“Aye I’m promoting you to captain of your own ship, lad,” the captain grinned, showing off a full set of rotten teeth, “The crews’ big enough to divide between two ships.”

It took a minute for the news to sink in, but when it did, a warm grin spread across the first mates’ face. The captain took on a serious tone again.

“We leave at dawn.”