- Published: 5 July 2022
- ISBN: 9781761045837
- Imprint: Viking
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 384
- RRP: $32.99
The Night Ship
The child sails in a crowded boat to the end of the Zyder Zee. Past the foreshores of shipyards and warehouses, past new stone houses and the occasional steeple, on this day of dull weather, persistent drizzle and sneaking cold. There are many layers to this child: undergarments, middle garments and top garments. Mayken is made of pale skin and small white teeth and fine fair hair and linen and lace and wool and leather. There are treasures sewn into the seams of her clothing, small and valuable, like her.
Mayken has a father she’s never met. Her father is a merchant who lives in a distant land where the midday sun is fierce enough to melt a Dutch child.
Her father has a marble mansion, so she’s told. He has a legion of servants and stacks of gold dishes. He has chestnut stallions and dapple mares. Red and white roses grow around his doorway, they twine together, blood and snow mixed. By day the roses raise their faces to the sun. By night they empty their scent into the air. Cut them and they’ll live only an hour. Their thorns are vicious and will take out an eye.
Mayken’s father left just before she was born. Mayken’s mother would boast about the absent man. So wholesomely dedicated to the making of wealth. So staunch in the face of native unrest and strange pestilences. But she had no intention of joining her husband, being too delicate for such a perilous journey. Mayken doubted this. Her mother had sturdy calves and a good appetite. She had a big laugh and glossy curls. Her mother was as durable as a well-built cabinet. Until a baby got stuck inside her.
Mayken must not say a word about the baby because it shouldn’t have been up there in the first place. She has practised with her nursemaid.
‘Your mother, she’s dead?’
‘Yes, from the bloody flux.’
‘How did your mother die, Mayken?’
‘My mother died from the bloody flux, Imke.’
‘Tell me, child, how is your mother?’
‘She’s dead, unfortunately, from the bloody flux.’
Bloody flux, says Mayken to the rhythm of the oars and the slap of the water on the bow of the boat that rocks her towards the East Indiaman. Bloody flux, she answers to the cows swung on high. They bellow as they are lowered into the ship. Bloody flux, she says to the people that swarm over her decks. The sailors and fine merchants, the plume-hatted soldiers and the bewildered passengers. Bloody flux, she replies to the pip, pip, pip, toot of trumpeters relaying commands. The ship waits in the water. Around her a chaos of people and goods are loaded from a flotilla of vessels. Like flies circling a patient mare.
Bloody flux, that is a big ship.
She is beautiful. Her upper works are painted green and yellow and at her prow – oh, best of all – crouches a carved red lion! His golden mane curls; his claws sink into the beam. He snarls down at the water.
Mayken’s boat rocks round the ship’s bowed belly. High up, the ship is lovely with her bright gunwale and curved balustrades and stern decks reaching up, up, into the sky. Lower down, she’s a fortress, an armoured hull studded with close-set, square-headed nails, already rusting.
Mayken cries out. ‘The ship is bleeding!’
A passenger sitting on the plank seat opposite laughs.
‘The iron nails keep the shipworms out. They love to eat fresh juicy wood.’ The passenger leans forward and demonstrates with his finger on Mayken’s cheek. ‘They burrow and twist and gnaw tiny holes.’
Fortunately, Mayken, too, has teeth.
The man recoils. ‘She bit me!’
‘You poked her.’ The nursemaid turns to the child. ‘What are you? A stoat? A rat? A puppy? Put your teeth away.’
The man, good-naturedly, raises one gloved hand. ‘No harm done.’
He wears the black costume of a preacher, a predikant. There is a Mrs Predikant in a gown cut from the same cloth. Between them a line of children, big to small, dressed in the same dark wool as their parents. All with clean white collars. A minister and his family dressed for a portrait, pressed together like barrelled mackerel, bumping knees with the other passengers. The eldest daughter cradles a carefully wrapped package, Bible-shaped. The youngest son, a ringleted cherub, picks his nose and wipes his finger on his sister’s leg.
Mayken addresses his father politely. ‘Speak more about the shipworms, if you please.’
‘The holes they bore are tiny,’ says the predikant. ‘But enough tiny holes—’
He makes a glugging sound and a motion with his hand: a ship sinking. The cherub pouts and his sister rolls her eyes.
Rounding the ship’s flank, they see gun ports painted red. The predikant points them out to the cherub.
‘For the big cannons, Roelant. Against marauders,’ he adds darkly.
Decorating the stern of the ship is a row of great wooden men. Great in that they are almost life-height and full-bearded. Great, too, in that they wear long robes.
‘They’re to keep pirates away.’
Mayken frowns at the predikant. Of this she is doubtful. One of the carved men looks like a pork butcher from Haarlem market, only he holds a sword, not a pig’s leg. The other three just look peevish.
She glances at her nursemaid. Imke is rapt. Imke believes all sorts of pap. Eels are made from wet horsehair. Blowing your nose vigorously can kill you. Statues and carvings can occasionally come alive. Because an object crafted with love can’t help but live.
They tried it with a pie. Mayken made pastry snakes to go on top. She rolled them carefully, pricked eyes and kissed them. When the pie was baked, the snakes were still pastry, only golden. There was no wriggling or seething. Mayken ate them in disgust. They didn’t even taste like snakes. Imke said the snakes were merely sleepy, that they had been basking in the heat of the oven.
Another time, Imke took Mayken to the Church of Saint Bavo, the jewel of Haarlem. The old nursemaid told her to open her eyes and take notice. Mayken opened her eyes and took notice. Even so she missed the grin of a stone gargoyle and the wink of a wooden toad on the choir stall.
And now her heart hurts to think of Haarlem and all the things they are leaving behind, the tall clean house, the market boys, the kitchen cat, Mama and the secret stuck-inside baby. He was a brother, of that Mayken is sure. She only ever wanted a brother.
The great-bellied ship looms above. One, two, three masts – rising up through a web of rope. The pennant flags snap and stream against a sky of louring clouds.
Imke pipes up. ‘When they loosen the sails, it will be like all the washdays have come at once.’
Gulls are nervously testing the yardarm, clumsy-footed compared to the sailors who are all over the rigging: climbing, dangling, rolling, lashing, hollering and cursing.
Mayken loves the sailors instantly. The daring of them, their speed along the ropes, the heights they climb to! The predikant is pointing out the Dutch East India Company cadets and officials gathering at the top of the stern castle. Look, there is the upper-merchant in his red coat and plumed hat. Flanked by the under-merchant, also well hatted, and the stout old skipper, hatless. Three men entrusted by the Company with a cargo richer than the treasuries of many kingdoms, the lives of hundreds of innocent souls and this wonderful ship, newly built – her maiden voyage! Imke nods as though she’s interested. Mrs Predikant stares ahead with her mouth turned down, trout-like, abiding.
Mayken’s vessel holds back. There’s another boat unloading alongside the ship. The passengers look sick and pinched-faced as they wait their turn to board. A fine lady is hauled up the ship’s flank on a wooden seat, her expression one of horror as she grips the ropes. Above her, a chaos of shouting sailors. Below, dirty October waves.
Mayken’s nursemaid looks on with satisfaction. Imke revels in the trials of others with a pure and shameless joy.
‘What is the ship’s name, Imke?’
Mayken knows it, of course; she just likes hearing the way Imke says it.
‘Is that a charmed word?’
Imke doesn’t answer.
Imke says Batavia like a charmed word, carefully, with a peasant’s respect for the hidden nature of things. A charmed word carelessly uttered curdles luck.
The ship is named for their destination. There must be a store of luck in that: a ship that looks ahead to a new life somewhere hot and strange.
‘Batavia,’ Mayken the unruly sings. ‘Batavia. Ba-tahhhh–veeee-ah.’ She waits for a catastrophe.
A rope falls, a cask drops, a sailor stumbles on the rigging. Imke looks alarmed; she is superstitious even for a peasant. ‘Close your mouth.’
Mayken does. Imke is not to be messed with.
She is broad of beam and shoulder, short of leg and large of foot. She is almost as wide as she’s tall so will stand in any storm. She has eight teeth, of which she is proud. If she smiles pursed (which she does among strangers) you’d think she had a full set. Imke is not young. The hair under her cap is white and as fine as chicken down. This is on account of the worry Mayken causes her. Imke has pale blue eyes, as watery as pickled eggs. When Imke is angry her eyes bulge; when she’s loving, her eyes look soft enough to eat.
The best thing about Imke is her missing finger tops. Mayken gets a thrill just looking at them. Second and third fingers, right hand, nubbed joints smoothed over where nails ought to be. Imke will not tell how she lost her finger tops. Mayken never tires of guessing.
Mayken is a fine lady so she gets the winched seat, which is a plank with ropes attached at the corners. An old sailor wearing an India shawl around his head helps her up.
Mayken’s legs shake. Imke is watching so she makes her expression grave and enduring.
The sailor smiles at her. ‘Are you ready, little grandmother?’
‘Be brave.’ He puts his big hands over her small hands. His old scarred knuckles gnarled like knotted wood.
‘Hold fast,’ says the sailor.
Mayken doesn’t bite at his touch because her teeth are chattering. The seat lurches skyward. The boat below gets smaller and Imke too. Mayken is hauled up over the wide flank of the ship, hands gripping, feet dangling. At the top the winch stutters and her heart leaps but then she is hoisted briskly on board and tipped onto her feet. A boy sailor takes her to where she must stand and wait for the other passengers to be loaded. Like the other sailors he wears loose trousers and no shoes with a neckerchief tied about his head.
‘Don’t move,’ he tells her. ‘Danger everywhere, see?’
He points: hands run up the rigging; men cart heavy goods across the deck; open hatches lie in wait, dark apertures down into the belly of the ship.
Mayken doesn’t doubt it.
Lesser passengers must climb a rope ladder to board. Imke is landed over the side, breathless. She shows her palms to Mayken, rubbed raw from the rope. The predikant and his family struggle after. Mrs Predikant floundering, skirts flapping, face red, counting her children, taking Roelant from the back of a sailor. The child clings on, his small fingers must be prised open. Soldiers are boarding now, one after another, tight-lipped and grim-eyed. Mayken looks at them with interest, their different hat shapes, various breeches, not all of them seem Dutch. They carry their few possessions in canvas sacks and move with hesitation. This is not their world. Some of them are very young but all look battle-worn. Mayken would pick a fight with none of them.
A formidable figure elbows down the deck. A giant of terrifying proportions with a full blond beard and shorn head dressed in a leather tunic with no undershirt. Bands of leather go about his bare thick arms.
Mayken turns to the boy sailor. ‘Who is he?’
Mayken watches in fascination as Stonecutter swipes one of his soldiers around the head with the easy savagery of a bear. As he paces along the line several of the men flinch. No one meets his eyes.
‘He was a mason,’ adds the boy sailor. ‘He can break rocks and crush skulls with just one hand.’
Mayken would like to watch to see if Stonecutter crushes any of the soldiers’ skulls but now the passengers must follow the boy sailor.
‘You are aft-the-mast,’ he tells them, pointing to the vast mainmast. ‘You can never go forward of that.’
Mayken frowns. ‘What happens if I do?’
‘Stonecutter crushes your skull.’
Yia-Yia knew many stories of gods and heroes, giants and nymphs, and the Three Fates who spun and measured and cut the thread of life.
Max looked at his watch, and a sinking realisation that he was late plunged through him.
Standing on the edge of the cliff, Grace Elliott turned her face to the sky.
From his height only a hundred feet above the trees, the pilot could see two people running over the ground below – one coming out of a wood, another through a gate in the lane, clinging on to his hat as he ran.
Ethan Salt tip-toed to the very edge of the tenement rooftop, rolling his special poster into a perfect telescope.