I ran away from home at the age of fourteen. I watched my father break his back toiling on barren rock to pay a fat, foreign landlord an exorbitant rent. Every night he drank himself into a stupor, not before I felt the sting of his belt or listened to the pleas of my mother as she begged him to stay his hand, while she prayed to the Lord, our almighty God to protect her.
The day I walked down that country lane, the dark hills behind me, supposedly on some errand or other of which I can no longer remember, I felt exalted. Behind me I left the life of my father which I was bound to follow, another ignorant peasant following a life of servitude. Ahead lay adventure, a road to a new life. One where I was master of my own destiny. My heart sang with the joys of freedom, even as the fear of discovery threatened to overwhelm me. If I was caught, I knew I would be thrashed, beaten black and blue by a father who himself had been mercilessly abused by a harsh life and vengeful god.
Fourteen years of age without a bean to my name and barely an arse left in my trousers, I set out into the world. I’d never been but more than a couple of miles from home before, never beyond the sight of the mountain. I glanced back once, taking in the grey clouds over the dark shape of the rocky slopes. The wind chilled my bones and I turned my back on home forever.
I arrived in
I was there no more than a couple of hours when a kindly stranger took pity on me, at least he appeared kindly to a naïve lad unused to the ways of the world, bought me a meal and fed me full of ale. When I woke, my stomach lurched and head span. Rough hands grabbed me and shook me awake. I was hauled kicking and spitting from my slumber and dragged up a wooden ladder. A hatch above opened and bright light pierced my eyes.
“Welcome to the Royal Navy, boy,” a harsh voice cackled. I looked around, taking in the sight of the ship that would become my home, all around was the deep blue of the ocean. I immediately ran to the rail and spewed by guts over the side. My first day in the navy and the first day I felt the bite of Percy Fletcher’s lash. I still bear the marks, and more besides, on my back.
A month later I fought my first battle. When I say fought, I cowered in the corner with my knees clung tightly to my chest, jumping and whimpering at the thunderous roar of the guns. I pissed and shit myself that day. Not my finest hour.
I’m still aboard that ship, only now I am the master. Some years after that first day I led a mutiny and we flung his majesty’s officers over the side. Percy Fletcher is sill with us, only now he administers justice at my say so, with an undiminished, lusty relish. We travel the high seas in search of easy prey and plunder, terror of the waves, loathed and feared by all.
I’ve killed some men in my time, both by my own hand or with a barked order. But the closest I came to dying was in a whorehouse in
I’ve dined with kings and emperors, been entertained by the royal circus in the Orient. Supposedly it’s all in the mind, the miraculous feats of balance those performers are capable of, lyin atop o’ poles no thicker than your arm. I’m a God fearin’ man, despite me evil ways, but I’d swear there’s witchcraft at play there, some eastern dark magic.--
They say it’s a long way from here to there and it is a long way from the banquet hall of the Chinese emperor to the black hills of home. Me ma and da are long since dead, buried on the side of that stony mountain. Did I mourn them? I reflected on the death of my mother, she’d had an awful cross to bear all her days and I’m sorry I never helped her more in her hard life. As for me da, he was a bitter, savage man all his life, and no, I feel no guilt, I did not mark his passing.
Maybe someday they’ll ship me own bleached bones back home and bury them in that hard earth. Holy lantern Jaysus, I hope not.