Once Upon A Time there was a Benedict Cumberbatch name generator, and the names it generated were so good I decided to write a series of stories based on them. Last week I told the tale of The Incurious Timothy Clavichord, and today tis the saga of Syphilis Crumplehorn.
Syphilis Crumplehorn stared at the ship as it loomed out of the mist, a foreboding vision of creaking wood and shadowy portholes. For a moment she was reminded of the stories her mother used to tell of pirate crews and their various wheelings and dealings, but she pushed the memory down towards her kneecaps. She didn’t want to be reminded of her parents now, or she might bottle it.
As far as she could tell the deck was empty of sound and movement, but a line of rusty rungs were punched into the side of the boat like drunk staples. They looked decidedly rickety, but there was no other way to get on board – the gangplank was notable only by its absence. So she took a deep breath of fuggy morning air, and up she climbed.
‘We’ve been boarded!’ shrieked a hysterical voice as she hauled herself on board, and Syphilis felt something wallop the back of her head, then everything was dark.
When she came to, she found herself propped up in a chair below deck. There was a cup of tea on a table in front of her, and a small piece of blue cheese. The ripeness of it woke her up completely, and she wrinkled her nose at the crusty toenail scent.
‘Sorry for thwacking you,’ said a shrivel faced woman who was sitting on a stool watching her intently, ‘I didn’t realise you were the new recruit. I thought you were a navy spy.’
‘S’alright,’ Syphilis said politely, rubbing the back of her head. A searing pain shot from her fingertips into her brain, and her hand came away damp with blood.
‘Don’t touch the back of your head for a while,’ Shrivel Face suggested helpfully. ‘It’s in a bad way. I hit you with the handle of my blunderbuss.’
‘K,’ Syphilis said, then she added, ‘I’m Syphilis Crumplehorn.’
‘Blasphemy Moldyspore,’ shrivel face grinned. She had no front teeth, but her smile was disarming nontheless. She stuck out a weatherbeaten hand in greeting. Syphilis shook it, noting as she did so that the index and middle fingers were strangely floppery.
‘No bones in those,’ explained Blasphemy, catching her look of confusion. ‘Got em sucked out by a monster squid.’ She shoved her hand in Syphilis’ face so she could see how each of the fingertips was scarred by a puckered circle of skin.
‘Bone came right,’ she said cheerfully, ‘Pop! Bloody hurt, I can tell you. But never mind that now. C’mon, I’ll show you around.’
Showing scant regard for the complexities of concussion, she grabbed the newest member of the crew and pulled her into the dining room for a look at the chandelier. It glowed softly with the light of a hundred silver candles, and the crystals spun and cast rainbow speckles across the ceiling and floor. In hindsight it was probably a terrible liability to have such a thing on a boat, but it was beautiful.
Blasphemy led her from the dining room to the cabins, where there were bunks instead of hammocks and two blankets each. Syphilis had been on several ships in her eleven and three quarter years, but she had never seen one like this. It was warm and clean and surprisingly roomy, with running water and a library. It was the sort of boat you might expect royalty to have, but according to Blasphemy it was fancy because it used to belong to the navy, before they found it floating alone in the middle of nowhere.
‘Very strange day, that was,’ she said, her eyes misting slightly at the memory. ‘We were on our way to Moon Island to pick up some new recruits – island folks get antsy being cooped up there all the time, by the time they’re twelve they’re itching for adventure – when we saw this ship just sitting there, the ocean around her as smooth as glass.
‘Naturally our first thought was to ready the canons, on account of it was wearing navy colours and they aren’t especially partial to us, but as we drew closer and they didn’t give chase we realised there was something amiss.
‘Prepare to be boarded!’ the Captain cried out, and that’s just what we did – but there was no struggle, for there wasn’t a soul on board to stop us. Some thought it a bad omen, but the captain’s not the superstitious sort – she believes in scientific evidence and what have you. She reckoned the crew had all gone overboard due to some sort of cabin fever induced mass hallucination.’
‘Sounds spooky,’ Syphilis said, enthralled.
‘It was that,’ Blasphemy agreed, ‘but mostly it was a great stroke of luck. Our old ship wasn’t in the best shape after decades of pillaging, so we were in need of an upgrade. And this one’s a beauty.’ She stamped her foot on the floor, ‘see that? Sturdy as anything.’
At this point there was an almighty crunching sound as an enormous tentacle broke through the wall behind her. Splinters of wood flew every which way, and one the size of a claymore narrowly missed severing Syphilis through her shoulder.
‘Wargarh!’ said Syphilis, throwing herself out of the way just in time.
‘That bloody squid,’ Blasphemy cried, ‘she’s been following us for months. I thought the harbour’d be too shallow for her!’
She darted to the opposite wall and brought down a dangerous looking trident that was mounted there before launching herself at the creature with a bloodcurdling yell. There was a high pitched screeching, a bit like a frightened pig, as bronzed points pierced damp grey skin. Then the tentacle retracted, leaving a trail of green oil behind – the creature’s blood, Syphilis assumed.
‘The captain won’t be happy about that,’ Blasphemy muttered, pouring herself a tot of rum from a bottle secreted in her sleeve, ‘not happy at all.’
Syphilis turned, for she knew enough of storytelling to know that this was the most appropriate narrative moment for the captain to appear behind her – but the doorway was empty. Then:
‘I hate that bloody squid,’ said a voice, and the captain’s head appeared in the ragged hole in the wall. She was soaking wet, and her forehead was smeared with an oily film of squid blood.
‘Did you get her, cap’n?’ Blasphemy asked, proffering the rum.
‘No,’ the captain growled, taking a swig and producing a hammer from her pocket. At first Syphilis thought she might be about to use it to take out her rage on the two of them – pirate captains, after all, are famously ill tempered – but then she proceeded to block up the hole, whistling tunelessly as she worked.
‘Why is the squid following you?’ Syphilis asked.
Moldyspore and the captain exchanged a look laden with meaning and cocked eyebrows. For a long time they didn’t say anything at all, and Syphilis’ ears began to turn red with embarrassment at asking what was evidently a taboo question, when, ‘she thinks we killed her baby,’ Blasphemy said eventually.
Syphilis blinked. ‘Why does she think that?’
‘Cause we did,’ Blasphemy admitted, ‘but it was an accident! For a start we didn’t know it was a baby, it was flipping massive. We thought it wanted to eat us all…’
‘But actually it just wanted to play,’ the captain added, standing back to admire her handiwork. She’d patched up the wall really well, Syphilis thought, wondering whether all pirates were this good at carpentry.
‘But you try playing tag with a giant prehistoric baby squid,’ the captain complained, ‘it’s extremely dangerous. And you get terribly wet.’
‘We apologised as soon as we found out,’ Blasphemy said, ‘offered a tribute to appease the sea in the traditional way… But the mother wasn’t having any of it. Probably knew we’d made her little one into calamari. Seamonsters have a sixth sense for that sort of thing.’
‘Really?’ Syphilis said, ‘how do you know that?’
Blasphemy shrugged. ’Just do.’
‘That sounds a bit like superstition,’ Syphilis said, thinking of what Blasphemy had said before about the captain not being into myths and legends and old wive’s tales.
‘Poseidon’s pickaxe, I think she’s onto something,’ the captain cried. ’What if the squid isn’t out for revenge? She might just be looking for her baby!’
Blasphemy looked sceptical. ’Even if that is the case, how does it help us?’ she asked. ’We can’t bring her baby back from the dead.’
‘That’s exactly what we can do,’ Syphilis said. ’I know all about bringing people back, my mother used to do it all the time. That’s actually why I left home, because the last time it went terribly wrong…’
‘She brought back my father,’ Syphilis told them reluctantly, ‘even though he was horrible to her when he was alive. He wanted her to get rid of me, and he married someone else because she was an heiress with blonde ringlets. But mum loved him regardless, and she thought the seas needed him to police them. I’ve actually made a vow to put an end to his reign of terror once and for all, but I think that is a story for another time.’
Realisation dawned on their faces.
‘Your father is Commodore Crumplehorn,’ the captain said quietly, ‘the ghost sailor who’s been sweeping through pirate ships across all the seven seas and leaving none to tell the tale.’
Syphilis nodded. ’But it’s not just pirate ships anymore,’ she said. ’It’s anyone he sees at sea. He wants the entire ocean for himself.’
‘The crew of this ship didn’t go overboard due to cabin fever,’ Blasphemy said. ’They were cleared out by the Commodore! D’you think he’s still here?’
Syphilis shook her head. She’d heard several fearful whisperings about his whereabouts in the inn the night before, and the last sighting seemed to have been off the Pattering Peninsula, at the far Western side of the Larwi Sea.
‘We’ll help you take him out,’ the captain said suddenly. She didn’t ordinarily go in for quests, as they tended to result in tests of her moral fortitude that meant giving up treasure for the greater good. But ridding the ocean of the ghostly admiral was different – in fact it was the only logical course of action if she wanted to keep working.
‘But first we have to deal with this squid, else she’ll destroy the ship before we can find him.’
As if on cue, there was a thump at the bottom of the boat as though something was pushing it from below, and everyone fell over as the floor tipped underneath them.
‘If it blasts a hole from there we’re sunk,’ Blasphemy complained, ‘and this is such a lovely boat!’
But before she’d even finished, Syphilis and the captain had righted themselves and raced up on deck. Blasphemy followed, and found them hanging over the side of the ship cajoling the beast from above. Syphilis was stroking one of the tentacles in what she hoped was a soothing way, and after a while the boat stopped shaking from side to side, and the squid stuck its nose above the water to regard them with mournful purple eyes.
‘We don’t have your baby,’ Syphilis told her. ‘Do you understand me?’
‘I’M NOT LOOKING FOR A BABY,’ the squid roared, ‘MY CHILDREN ARE ALWAYS GETTING THEMSELVES EATEN! BLOODY IDIOTS, THE LOT OF THEM.’
The crew exchanged confused looks.
‘I’M LOOKING FOR THE GHOST OF A HUMAN WHO KILLED ALL THREE OF MY HUSBANDS. LAST TIME I SAW HIM, HE WAS PUSHING PEOPLE OFF THIS BOAT AND CACKLING MANIACALLY.’
‘Ah,’ Syphilis said, ‘and what does he look like?’
‘TALL CHAP,’ the squid bellowed. ’PUFFED OUT CHEST COVERED IN MEDALS, BIG HAT, FOND OF HIS HARPOON.’
‘Commodore Lance Crumplehorn,’ the captain murmured. ‘He isn’t here!’ she shouted down to the squid, ‘we’re looking for him too.’
‘WELL THEN,’ the squid said, ‘I’LL JUST TAG ALONG.’
‘Alright,’ the captain agreed, ‘but if you’re going to do that, could you lower your voice a tad? Blasphemy’s ears are bleeding.’
‘Sorry,’ the squid acquiesced. ‘Don’t know my own strength, sometimes.’
Still, Blasphemy had suffered worse and come out of the other end with only a minor rum addiction, so she cleaned out her aching ears with a cup of grog and a gummy smile and then they were ready to set sail for the Larwi sea.
But what happened when they got there is another story altogether.