'Felicitations, Captain,' said the steward, which seemed not quite to cover the disastrousness of the situation. Then he poured a full glass of something brown, and presented it to Pepper on a little round tray. When Pepper did not reach for it, Duchesse folded the boy's small ice-cold hands around the glass and held them there until the brown liquor stopped slopping over the sides. 'Santé, Captain. Happy birthday.'
The drink scorched his throat. Perhaps it was poison. Pepper rested his head on the pillow and counted to one hundred. Maybe the Angel of Death went about in rope-soled shoes and a sweaty neckerchief.
Outside, there was a commotion, and the ancient engine slowed again. A boat thudded lightly against the hull, and there was shouting on deck. Duchesse cocked his head to listen. Pepper covered his ears and shut his eyes, all too sure who was being hauled aboard by the crew. His father must have rowed out to the ship and caught it after all.
'Roche,' said Duchesse, loosing the word like spittle. Then he gave a short laugh. 'He'll soon wish he'd missed this sailing, eh, sir?'
Squinting out of the porthole, Pepper could see an empty rowing boat being hauled aboard by its mooring rope, banging up the ship's side. The latecomer was offering violence to anyone who came near him. The crash of his boots came closer and closer... but mercifully passed by the captain's cabin. 'Never fear, dearheart,' said the steward, soothingly.'Leave it to the Duchess. I will endeavour to keep the pig from troubling you.'
As the cabin door closed softly behind Duchesse, the sunlight through the slatted wood sliced the room into strips of light and dark. Pepper shut his eyes.
When he opened them again, the room was grey with evening. He looked out of the porthole and saw a navy sky swagged with vast, grey wings of cloud. From horizon to horizon, the sea seemed to be netted over - like a strawberry bed - with angels. How had he ever hoped to escape? Aunt Mireille's voice rang in his ears:
If I take the wings of morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand hold me...
What would become of l'Ombrage, then, and its crew? Would the saints consult their pocket watches, tut-tut, and put things back on schedule? Would they plunge the entire ship to the ocean bed to ensure that Pepper met his end on time? That wasn't fair. That wasn't fair on the crew at all!
Stumbling to the door, Pepper tugged it open and ran. Best to get it over and done with. Best to leap the ship's rail like Jonah and spare his men! He would leap outwards - far and far - from the ship and the oily black of the sea would hide all noise, all panic, all second thoughts and third and fourth...
In the dark he tripped over a pair of legs sticking out from under the lifeboat. A figure pulled itself out into the open and rolled across him, hunchbacked with muscle and rolls of fat, to press its forehead against Pepper's, supported by hands on either side of his head. 'Look where you're going, you ****,' said a mouth reeking of rum and garlic, before it bit him in the ear. 'Come dark, this here's my ship. Got that? Shall I teach yuh?' Captain Pepper rolled sideways and scuttled - on hands and knees, then hands and feet, then at full tilt - 'Sorry! Sorry!
Sorry!' - back to his cabin where he crawled under his bunk and lay wide-eyed with terror. His little heart was ready to burst with it - especially when the chronometer began to chime - on and on and on. Eight bells. Midnight. The last chime died away. What? Still alive?
Was the clock in Heaven's parlour running slow? Had his mother mistaken the date fourteen years earlier? Had Saint Constance-of-the-perfect-diction put in an elegant word for him with the Angel of Death?
Or had Pepper truly stepped sideways into his father's life and out of his own?
A Man Called Intrepid author dies aged 89(Dec 03 2013) William Stevenson, a journalist and author who drew on his close ties with intelligence sources to write two best-selling books in the 1970s, A Man Called...