No 9 - 2009
from Sal and the Flood Pirates
Ten Years After the Great Drowning of the Twenty-First Century
Chapter One: The Diver
It’s autumn. On our island at the edge of the Middle North East Sector, the evenings are getting darker. It’s time to light the fire and tell stories. This story is about my friends and about me. And it’s true.
It began on a sharp morning. There were no clouds and the air hit the back of my throat like a knife. The waters of the Brack were calm around our little lump of land, with its cluster of old buildings and scrap metal shelters. Jack and I were playing among the gravestones when we heard a shout from the water’s edge. We stood still and listened. It was like time stopping to take a breath. We couldn’t have known it, but when time started up again, everything in our lives was going to change.
We ran to look over the wall and saw Sticky and Bob Solid. They were pulling something out of the Brack. It was the body of a man in a diving suit.
‘Gizza hand, Sal!’ Sticky shouted as we clambered over the wall and stumbled down the muddy slope.
He and Bob were pulling at their heavy bundle, slippery like a fish, sliding out of their hands.
‘Diver!’ Jack froze.
‘Don’t worry lad,’ Bob Solid spoke softly. ‘This one’s a gonner.’
No help was needed now; they had him on the bank. Bob Solid stood and stretched his shoulders back.
‘Weighed a ton.’ He was breathing heavily, even though he was easily the strongest of the Old Ones, the strongest man on our island. ‘I’ll go and get a knife and we’ll open ‘is bag, see what ‘e’s got for us.’
When Bob had gone, we crouched over the black figure to get a closer look.
‘Take off his mask, Jack!’ I nudged him. ‘Take it off and we can see what he looks like.’
‘Ugh! Do I have to?’ Jack took a step back and stood with his hands deep in his pockets.
‘I will then.’ The eye mask and the breathing tube were connected together like the face of a giant fly. I slid my fingers under the cold rubber and eased the whole piece away from the man’s face. Underneath, his skin was white. Just as I was about to touch his cheek, the diver’s eyes flashed open. I jumped back as he lurched over and threw up onto the mud.
‘Not dead then,’ said Sticky.
Our island is very small, just the church, the big house and the centre. It’s so far from the Drylands that government boats don’t often come and there aren’t many other visitors. Until the diver, the only strangers I’d ever seen were at a distance. I don’t remember anything from before the Great Drowning. Neither does Jack, but Sticky does. At the beginning of the year I’m telling you about, he was nearly sixteen. I was twelve and Jack was only ten. Now I’m nearly an Old One myself and it’s time to tell this story, while I can still remember it, and all the other, smaller stories crouching inside it.
The divers have been a problem for a long time. Sticky said they were good people to start with. They helped some of the islanders get their own stuff up from the bottom. But soon they got greedy, salvaging everything for themselves to sell on the Drylands. Then they turned to stealing. One time they came into the church, where all the children were asleep. These divers took the radio and some of the Reverend’s religious things, the big silver cup and two candlesticks. He said they were priceless, but they must have been worth something. Sticky saw him crying, quietly, in his room. He said it was odd to see an Old One cry.
Flood Pirates, we called them, the rootless ones. They were the most vicious divers, who would stop at nothing. Some of them had escaped when the prison on the Drylands flooded and it was rumoured that they would cut the ear off any Pirate who wasn’t loyal to their gang. They had knives, but Bob Solid had a gun. It had a long barrel and a place for two cartridges when he split it open in the middle. When he lived on his own farm, before the Great Drowning, Bob used to shoot crows and rabbits and when the Flood Pirates came to the island, he shot at them from the top of the church tower. All the cartridges were used up, except one, which everyone said he kept under his pillow.
Meanwhile, the diver at our feet had stopped being sick and was lying still, his eyelids flickering. He didn’t look very frightening. I knelt down and touched his cheek. His skin was cold and damp. It felt like soft paper, as if he’d stayed in the water too long. His lips were moving and he made a sound in the back of his throat.
‘Watch it, Sal,’ Sticky warned. ‘I think he’s going to chuck again.’
‘I think he’s trying to speak.’ I leaned closer. ‘Can you hear me?’
‘Child…’ he whispered.
‘Looking… for a child… are you…?’
Jack backed off straight away but Sticky stepped closer.
‘No children here mate. These two, they’re just small adults. You’d better get on your way before the big feller gets back.’
‘No… no…’ the diver was struggling to get up on one arm, but the effort was too much and he slumped down again into the mud, his eyes flickered shut and his breathing settled to a heavy rhythm.
‘He’s a government diver, I bet you,’ Jack sounded scared, but I wasn’t so sure, the government officials usually came in boats, and like I said, they don’t come out here unless they have too.
The last time they’d come, it was the summer, half a year before. I’d been on watch, up in the bell tower, from where you can see for miles. Sometimes there are boats from the other islands, whose flags we know; they’re the safe ones that come to trade. But when I saw the low grey shape of the government boat, I knew I had to raise the alarm. A full tug on the bell rope would set off a chime that could be heard right across the water, so I took the long pole with the metal hook on the end, from its place in the corner of the tower, and tapped it against the great bell. All the children knew that signal. They began to move quickly and silently towards the church. From where I was standing, up on the bell floor, I saw the tops of heads moving between gravestones and around the wall by the gate: Jack’s red hair flashing between the lower branches of the yew tree and a little cloud of dust where the twins had rushed across the path from the centre. They’re the smallest of the parentless ones, no younger than Jack but small for their age. Mrs Baxter, who looked after us all when we were babies, says it’s because they were born too soon. Behind the twins I spotted Trudi and Lindsey, bossing the other children along. Typical. Mahlon and Anil were still playing a game, chasing each other around the gravestones; two more girls, Emma and Sasha, swift and sensible, overtook them; and then last of all there was Gordon, puffing and out of breath.
By the time the nervous young man in the boat pulled up to the shore, I’d counted ten heads filing into the church below my feet, and the island was quiet. The Reverend Mosi Kifimbo’s voice floated up to me from where he stood at the water’s edge.
‘Good day to you, officer, how can we help you?’
‘Where are the children? My paperwork states children were sighted here.’
He hadn’t got out of the boat. Perhaps he was afraid of the wild people he’d heard about. I don’t suppose he’d ever been this far from the Drylands before.
‘Evacuated ages ago, my friend. Your paperwork’s quite out of date. I’m just staying on with a few oldies to keep the church in one piece. I’m sorry you’ve had a wasted journey.’
I prayed that the official would believe him. We’d heard about the orphan homes and work camps, which the Government ran on the Drylands. Anyone without a family or a place to live was forced to live together in a huge camp and made to work on the Reconstruction.
‘We cannot guarantee your safety, sir… you’d be better off on the Drylands, in one of the retirement centres…’
‘God will provide and kind friends help out. Besides, we can be of use to the Government, you see, keep a look out, save you so many journeys out here. Fine boat you’ve got there, by the way, good size tanks. Does it give you enough fuel to get out here and back?’
‘Absolutely, one of the best maintained in the fleet, super efficient.’
‘You carry any spare?’
‘Of course, government policy – be prepared for all eventualities.’
The Reverend spread his hands as if addressing an imaginary flock of churchgoers.
‘As you say, my friend, we must all be prepared. Sadly my fuel supplies ran out some months ago. I don’t suppose you could spare a can of bio, so I could run my generator if I had to?’
His voice carried over the water to the young man’s boat. I had to chew my bottom lip to stop from laughing out loud. The Rev was such a good speaker. He used to tell us how, as a little boy in Africa, he’d entertained his friends with his own versions of Bible stories, in which serpents ate apples and the lion ate Daniel. The teachers in his mission school tried their best to beat it out of him, but he knew he had a gift. That was more than sixty years before the day the government official arrived, but he could still put his voice to good use. Something in those honeyed tones won the young man over and the Rev came away with a can of fuel, a government waterproof and an oatcake. Neither the young man, nor any other officials, had been seen since.
But that was last summer, and now it was nearly spring again and Jack, Sticky and I had an unconscious man at our feet.
‘He’s not a government diver, I’m sure.’ Sticky was undoing the straps on the man’s oxygen tanks. ‘Their equipment is much better than this, look how frayed these straps are! And the tank is really small and battered. I reckon he got short of air before he came up. Maybe he was swimming on the surface even.’
‘Bob will be back in a minute with a knife,’ said Jack. ‘He’ll know what to do.’
‘He won’t take any chances,’ Sticky said grimly.
I didn’t want to see that. ‘We don’t know he’s a bad one, maybe he’s looking for his own children. Maybe he’s looking for one of us.’
‘What are you saying, Sal?’ Sticky was frowning.
‘Don’t know, but we should find out more about him
before… before the adults get their hands on him, especially Bob Solid.’ Jack nudged the diver’s leg with his toe. ‘He don’t look exactly dangerous, I suppose. What d’you think, Sticky?’ Sticky pushed a hand through his hair. He looked back up to towards the church as if he’d get some sort of answer from the silent tower.
‘Well, he might… he might be here for a reason.’ It was as if he didn’t dare say out loud that the man might be someone’s father. But I knew I’d got him thinking. He shrugged. ‘We shouldn’t let him suffer, whatever he’s come for.’
‘Can we help him, Sticky? Please. Find out who he is and then, when we know, we can tell Bob in a way that he won’t be angry, then he won’t hurt anyone.’
Sticky nodded. ‘We’ll need to be quick. Let’s get him up the slope, hide him in Florence Kettlethorpe, until he comes round.’
Florence Kettlethorpe, 1873 – 1911, was inscribed on one of the grand tombs in the corner of the churchyard, a rectangular stone box with a gap at one of the corners, just big enough for a person to climb into and hide.
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