Here is a 'taster' of the 'unedited' 'SONS OF ORPHEUS' series. Book One
SONS OF ORPHEUS
Manukau Bar, New Zealand, 12.30, February 1863.
Jack strained to see the entrance to the Manukau Harbour. A wispy mist partly concealed the entrance, but knowing it was there, just beyond the waves breaking on
the bar, added to the sense of danger. He had taken a break from his duties, and along with his friend Adi, was fascinated by the looming vista of the Manukau Heads.
Jack and Adi were totally different in appearance; Jack, skinny, red-headed, blue eyes and pale skinned, while Adi was brown and swarthy with black hair and round brown eyes. The crew had long accepted the unusual pair, giving up on the jibes that they had directed at the two boys when they had first boarded the Orpheus.
They were about five miles from the narrow entrance to the Manukau Harbour, but first the Orpheus had to navigate the treacherous channels and sand-banks that many sailors feared and captains dreamed about. Even the storms and maelstroms of the Tasman Ocean were quickly forgotten as the unforgiving gap revealed itself.
For Jack, Ireland and its sadness lay behind and a new land beckoned, with the promise of a new beginning. He longed to make a fresh start in New Zealand with his new friends. He would not miss ship board life, particularly the harsh rules, boring food and overzealous officers, but all this paled into insignificance compared to the life he had left behind months ago in Ireland.
A few yards away, Adi was deep in thought. He missed the village and his family, especially the love of his mother. His father was a distant memory; a mixture of kind words and times spent hunting in the lush jungle surrounding the village. But so much was missing; a void that seemed near, but unconnected with his present.
Adi’s plans coincided with Jack’s. They had hatched a plan to begin a new life in Onehunga, just beyond the Heads, leaving behind the memories from the past. From two lands, thousands of miles apart, their paths had crossed, bringing them to New Zealand.
The two friends were aboard the Orpheus, a British Navy vessel, out of Sydney. Adi and Jack had boarded the Orpheus a week before; Adi as assistant to the ship’s surgeon and Jack as the cook’s helper. Jack and Adi moved closer together so no one would hear their conversation. They confirmed their plan to leave the ship, before she sailed back to Sydney after completing her New Zealand mission.
Nearby, Lieutenant Alex Coleman was also looking towards berthing at Onehunga. He was pleased to see the boys taking a keen interest in the distant shore. The past month had been a tough time for the boys and he had played an important part in their joining the ship’s crew. He smiled, thinking about how he intended to take them to one of the taverns in Onehunga. His plans for the immediate future were as yet unclear, but he too felt the stirrings of discontent with his present position; a feeling that he could not quite put his finger on.
Western Sumatra, September 1862.
Adi reeled as another aftershock wreaked havoc in his village. What was once a prosperous and happy village had been reduced to ruin in a matter of seconds, taking everything Adi had known in a cruel and savage manner. He was surrounded by death and the cries of the few near him who had survived. The smell of cooking fires mixed with the dust in a deadly pungent wave. His mother, father, grandparents and siblings were gone, disappearing in a river of mud and rocks as the hillside behind the village collapsed, engulfing the village. He had survived, but he wished that he had not.
‘What is left for me!?’ he yelled. ‘Why am I the only one? Just take me too!’
The choking dust obliterated the ghastly results of what had happened from him. As Adi stumbled towards the encircling jungle, he cried out for help, but those near him faced their own battles. A small child collided with him, before disappearing into the swirling dust and debris. When Adi reached the jungle, he continued along a pathway, and the screams gradually decreased as he ventured further. His clothes were ripped, giving him the appearance of a beggar. In his confused state, he did not stop to take stock of where he was heading.
He left his ruined village behind and wandered from village to village in a daze for several weeks, eventually stumbling into a fishing village near the Sunda Straits.
County Cork, Ireland, same time.
Jack O’Connell yearned for a new life. In his seventeen years of life in Ireland he had seen much. Ireland had not recovered from the devastating potato famine. When the crop failed, Jack became part of a human flood, escaping from the hunger, unemployment and tyranny of the English overlords. Many of his friends and relations had fallen foul of the authorities and had earned either a quick death at the hands of the hangman, or been transported to the colonies in Australia.
Jack was cast from his family through economic necessity. He remembered the nights when he had battled against the cold in the tiny rundown cottage. Hunger was a constant companion that his parents could do little to alleviate, driving him to risk severe punishment by poaching from the landlord’s farm. It had all become too much for his drunkard father, who finally disappeared, some said to America.
Jack had seen three of his siblings succumb to disease and starvation, accompanied by his sense of helplessness to stop their suffering. His mother relied on him more and more, further increasing his frustration with his lot in life.
Finally on a freezing morning in January he had awakened from a fitful sleep to find even his mother had left, taking the two younger children with her. That same morning the landlord had brutally thrown Jack out of the dilapidated cottage, leaving him with few choices. He had no one to turn to; no family, only a will to look for something better.
Jack left his native Ireland behind and joined a crew of an English fishing trawler that delivered him to Liverpool. He was taken on board by a sympathetic captain who allowed him to work for his passage.
Pacific Ocean, October, 1862.
Alex loved the early morning shift; a time when the ship slowly came to life. The night watch had retired to their sleeping quarters below deck to be replaced by the first shift of the day. Alex smiled as he listened to the grumbling men. They weren’t particularly serious in their complaints; it was merely a fact of life as a sailor on the Orpheus. He was also on deck for another reason.
Alex enjoyed an early morning walk around the deck, while it was relatively quiet. It may not have been on par with the long strolls he took back in England, but it was enough to set him up for the day. His athletic figure was yet to fall prey to the overindulgence of many of his fellow officers.
He shifted his attention to the school of flying fish, skipping the gentle waves; disappearing for a moment, then reappearing in another graceful swoop before repeating the pattern. The ship was sailing under wind power, saving her coal for times when the wind was less kind. She still managed a good fourteen knots.
Alex had been lucky to secure a position on the relatively new ship. Many others had applied and failed. He had joined her in Canada, while she was on convoy duty. England was another world away, with its grimy and overcrowded cities. He was determined to prolong his time on the Orpheus until another opportunity came his way. He did not have a plan as such, but the idea of serving in the Colonies was a growing possibility; it was in what capacity that was unclear.
The voyage to Sydney had been uneventful, almost to the point of boredom. One benefit for Alex was that he had gotten to know the Orpheus. He had come to appreciate her as a ship, well ahead of most of the vessels in Her Majesty’s Navy. The ship’s bell rang, intruding on his thoughts. Breakfast was being served in the officer’s mess.
Liverpool, October 1862.
In Liverpool Jack joined the thousands of fellow Irish already living in the squalor and lawlessness of dock area. He managed to find casual work on the docks for a few hours at a time, thereby just succeeding in to keeping the hunger pangs away. If he wanted more than a basic subsistence, he was going to have to make some alternate plans or enter the dangerous underworld of petty crime.
Jack was fast coming to the conclusion that he had to make some choices if he was to avoid a life of permanent poverty and hunger. The dark filthy alleyways near the port provided many opportunities if one was so inclined, but Jack intuitively shied away from that way of life.
Liverpool was a busy port; ships regularly had to wait offshore before mooring at the docks. Jack loved to watch the ships as they emptied their cargoes of exotic wares: including tea from the East Indies and cotton from the Americas. Those ships quickly re-provisioned with cargoes and passengers, destined for a myriad of destinations. He heard passengers and crews talking with a mixture of fear and awe about savages in the Pacific Ocean on palm-lined shores and vast deserts in far off colonies at the bottom of the world.
On one occasion a barrel broke open after a sailor tripped on the gang-plank, spilling the contents onto the dock below. Jack’s nostrils were immediately assailed by the sharp aroma of the red powdery substance. When he knelt to examine the mess, he transferred the powder to his mouth, and then endured the raucous laughter from nearby sailors who knew about the burning taste of chilli powder from past voyages to India. For Jack, it was lesson well learned, but at the same time, awaking his curiosity further about what lay beyond England.
Great Britain was a nation with colonies and territories around the globe. Jack became aware of some of these distant places, including India, New South Wales, Canada and New Zealand. The stories intrigued him and gradually led him to new conclusions about his future possibilities.
He often picked up enough casual work, thereby t extending his meagre coin purse so that he could eat for a few more days and pay for somewhere to sleep, albeit in rather foul lodgings. His efforts did not go unnoticed.
Captain Louis Pickering was leaning on the railings one day, thinking about the voyage ahead to Sydney Town via the perils of the Cape of Good Hope with its treacherous winds and currents. His present ship, the Emerald, was a fast clipper, renowned for its speed and ability to take many days off the long voyage to Sydney.
As well as his cargo of mixed merchandise for the growing colony, he also had a small number of passengers who paid extra for the privilege of enjoying a fast passage. The time of steam had arrived but Captain Pickering still preferred the trusty sailing ships to the noisy and smoky steam ships. Deep down he knew that the time was fast approaching when he would either have to learn new skills or become used to the idea of a life without his beloved sailing ships.
His past voyages had not been without incident; especially the last one the year before when he had lost several men overboard to a huge rogue wave that had swept over the decks. The ship had survived relatively unharmed but the loss of his men hung heavily on his thoughts.
His attention was abruptly drawn to a disturbance on the dock. One of his sailors had fallen whilst trying to manoeuvre a large water barrel.
‘Oh my God!’ the Captain bellowed. ‘This is all I need.’ He rushed down the gang plank so he could better assess the seriousness of the accident, leaving the gaudily dressed lady he was chatting to alone on the deck.
‘Don’t be too long dearest. You promised me a good time luv,’ she crowed, much to the amusement of the crew.
Jack was also on the scene and was doing what he could to alleviate the man’s suffering. He was well used to assisting in such situations; for farm animals, his family and fellow farm workers back in Ireland. Jack had managed to remove the sailor from under the barrel.
‘Mmmm—not a pretty sight,’ muttered the Captain. ‘Someone get a doctor, and hurry about it.’
Fortunately, a doctor of sorts was in the nearby tavern, enjoying an ale or two. He joined the scene, escorted from the tavern by Jack. The doctor staggered to the dock, his face flushed from the numerous ales he had enjoyed. The Captain grimaced as he observed the corpulent and inebriated doctor; however, he was the only option available.
‘Take im to the tavern so I kin get a better look at ‘im,’ the doctor slurred, ‘and give ‘im a shot of brandy to shut the bugger up. Gord he’s makin’ enough bloody noise to wake the devil hiself.’
The Captain was in two minds. Should he let this butcher attend to his injured sailor and possibly make an already bad injury worse? Maybe the better option would be to bring the sailor aboard and let the ship’s surgeon attend to him, but he quickly dismissed that option when he remembered that that gentleman was not due back until just before this evening’s planned sailing.
The Emerald was almost ready for departure on the evening tide. Her crew was all but complete, but there was a worrying situation in that several of the crew members were rumoured to have joined another ship, after been lured by the promise of a better offer. This was a common occurrence; one that the Captain was prepared to use when he needed to.
The Captain contemplated these problems as he watched the sailor being taken to the tavern. The Emerald was due to leave in a few hours or face the wrath of the port authorities and extra charges. He thought that the crew numbers were sufficient; more so if he picked up extra members at The Canary Islands where he was intending to put in as usual to replenish his wine supplies.
A thought suddenly occurred to him. Maybe the helpful young man who had proven himself so useful over the last few days could be persuaded to join his crew. The days of press gangs had long since disappeared, meaning that less persuasive methods could be employed. The young man appeared amiable enough; keen to learn and had the whiplash build of a sailor, and probably more than able to flit about the mainsails when required.
No time like the present. He called to the young man.
‘Boy, come here, quickly will you. I have a proposal’
Curious, Jack approached the captain, who was once again leaning over the railings.
‘I see you have made yourself useful again,’ the Captain pronounced. ‘We are about to ship out of here on the next tide. ‘Get yourself aboard.’
Everything came back to Jack in a rush. As far as he was concerned he couldn’t get far enough away from Ireland and now having experienced a life truly on the edge in Liverpool, he came to a decision quickly.
‘But I don’t know nothing about the sea Sir,’ he replied. ‘What use would I be?’
‘From what I’ve seen young man, I am sure you will catch on pretty fast.’
‘What’s in it for me then?’ Jack replied cheekily.
‘True, it isn’t much in the way of wages for a young lad like you, but I am sure the adventures will more than make up for that. There are always opportunities if you keep your eyes open.’
Jack knew that there was little in Liverpool and from what he had heard on the docks, many thousands of his compatriots felt the same. He came to a decision in a flash.
‘Sir, get me out of here,’ Jack implored. ‘There ain’t nothin’ here for me as you say.’
‘Then come aboard sailor and stow your gear,’ the Captain replied.
‘What you see is what you get,’ Jack laughed.
Next Day the Emerald slipped anchor and a day later she was plying the Northern Atlantic with a very sea sick young Jack having finally said goodbye to his past life.
Jack adapted quickly to life aboard the Emerald and it wasn’t long before he left the sea sickness behind him. He also had the good fortune to have embarked with a reasonably mild mannered Captain.
Captain Louis Pickering was quite unlike some of his notorious fellow captains. He was not a Captain Bligh, but he insisted on a high standard and did not suffer laziness or dishonesty. Clapping in Irons was a very rare event and flogging was not part of his disciplinary ideology.
Jack loved to scamper up the riggings to the highest part of the ship, where he could observe the goings on from a bird’s-eye view. His hands had become used to the rough feel of the ropes, to the point where he was able to boast about the newly formed callouses on his hands and fingers.
The air was fresh, totally different to the cloyingly thick odours of below deck. It was a relief to steal a few minutes in his special world. He was happy for the first time in many years. He could not remember a time when he felt happier. Now from the crow’s nest he observed a purple hazed mountain on the horizon. ‘Land ahoy!’ he shouted excitedly.
‘Ah, The Canary Islands,’ the Captain murmured contentedly as he imagined the stores this short break in routine would deliver. His crew would also benefit from the short stay in port, but knew from past experiences that ‘short’ was non-negotiable, considering the nature of the visit and the discretion required.
The passengers would also enjoy a few hours ashore, knowing that the next port was Cape Town. The brief stop in Tenerife was enough for the captain to procure his needs and it gave Jack a welcome break from ship life. His ship-mates barely had time to take advantage of the delights of the town’s offerings before they grudgingly returned aboard. A few of the passengers copied the Captain and came back with a supply of wine to carry them through for the much longer and more stressful portion of the journey to Cape Town.
The Captain took the opportunity to top up his fresh water supply and to fill the ship’s store room with fresh meat, vegetables and fruit. Only small amounts of this would come the way of the crew, who would have to settle into a far less varied diet. For Jack this hardly mattered, given the deprivation from his recent past.
Two rather seedy looking sailors who claimed they had missed the sailing of their previous ship were reluctantly taken aboard. Time did not allow for a more judicious search.
A week of advantageous winds soon had the Emerald approaching the equator. For Jack this was a new experience as he became the unwilling victim of the crew’s attentions for those who were making their first equator crossing. Jack quickly realised that the best way to get through this was to just go along with it and after a good dunking and a bit of exaggerated spluttering, accompanied by raucous ribbing from his crew mates, he emerged unharmed and having satisfied King Neptune, he felt he was now truly part of the Emerald’s crew.