|Para Handy by Ross Ahlfeld, from the first Tales of the Oak book|
Most folk are familiar with Neil Munro's classic tales of Para Handy and the crew of The Vital Spark, if not, get reading or watching.
A particular prized possession of mine, is a book of reprints of some of the stories signed by Walter Carr, Dougie himself. My Uncle Jim - my gran's brother - was a fan of the tales and gave me a copy of the stories when I was a little too young to totally appreciate the humour, but that's meant I've found more in them each time I have gone back. Uncle Jim was a Merchant Seaman, he was yer classic avuncular gentleman, never married but generally always smiling or dishing out cream soda floats. But I remember once, after a wee calamity of my own, him telling me a story about the one woman he loved, who tried to make him choose between her and the sea. "I asked her not to, but she made me choose. And it would always be the sea". Amazing man.
Anyway, as part of our scary December stories, I thought I'd share an attempt at a tale of the unusual featuring The Vital Spark and her crew.
It was bitter down on Greenock Quay, and the grey and the cold seemed even to have affected the temper of the master mariner himself, who was in a most unusual mood.
'Och, it's chust, this time of the year, in cold like this, I'm sometimes minded of a wee trip from a few years back that went awry.' he said, 'Och it wass a bad cargo that.'
I was well acquainted with the broad spectrum of what Macfarlane would term a bad cargo, indeed, it would be easier to draw up a much shorter list of what he considered acceptable cargo for The Vital Spark.
'Ah weel, there huv been a few strange cargoes doon the years fur sure. No' the sort o' stuff ye wud be expectin' to see on a fine vessel like the Fital Spark, but ye ken what owners iss like, they wud put yer very life and station in peril fur just a few mair coppers. Sure I’ve hud it aal from suffragettes to stuffed albatrosses and there wass that unfortunate business with the Kirk organ, which eventually hud to be scuttled followin' the mishaps that befell us. But the wurst though, weel the wurst I don’t often care to talk aboot.'
Here, I allowed the appropriate silence for the good Captain, knowing him to be a great artisan of the dramatic pause. Instead, he stared out on to the river with an uncommonly troubled expression, such as he normally reserved only for weddings.
'And what cargo was that then?' I asked eventually.
'Weel, weel now. Its chust, it’s been so long since I’ve given it but a second thought. I don’t like to trouble myself with it. And sure Dougie flat denies it ever happened, him that particular month being a Rechabite and not prone to the deliriums. It aal came aboot in the long winter of a few years back. Do ye mind, when it wass so cold we were all waiting fur the river itself to freeze. Well, we were chust back from a wee cargo trip oot to that western isle that grows aal the fruit. Funny wee place, but it’s ay warm there, even in the midwunter. So the biting chill and mists o' the Clyde wur a wee shoak to the system. And no sooner had we dropt off aal the fruit crates, than we wur told to be aal the way aff back again to Lewis oan account o' some museum pieces needin' taken up for further study in Gleska.
'We wur to meet a Mr Jamieson at Stornoway, he wud be accompanying us with the cargo up to Gleska. It being the last chob of the year, the lads was aal promised a wee trip intae toon afterwards fur refreshments and dancin’. This suited The Tar chust fine, as he wass at this point in time still on the lookout fur a wife, and felt sure that it would be easier in the run up to Christmas on account of everyone wantin' to keep waarm in the wunter months.
'The cargo wass...and I'm no mistaken here...some bones and a few wee rusty brooches and...ye will think I'm having a laugh with you, a box of stones, and the like which had been found out near Callanish. Or wass it the Broch? Most certainly wan o' the two. And we wur reassured they wur of no small educational significance. And to be fair they weren't so very heavy either as to be causing too much strife while lifting, a particular worry of The Tar.
'It wass Mr Jamieson hisself though who set the whole enterprise aff on the wrong foot. He had a sort of a furtive look about him, a munister would likely have ken better what it signified, but to me, he looked like he wass trying very hard not to be seen. He wass not the most talkative of passengers, but as ye know fine, the crew of the Fital Spark are curious and conversational sowls, so were efter askin Mr Jamieson aal sorts of details about the cargo aal morning. Eventually, mebbe in desperation, hoping they would let him at peace, he told us why his wee box of stones and bones wass off to Gleska.
"Weel" he says, "These bones were recently dug up in a secluded spot on the island, and they had a wee circle of stones - these very stones, also buried around them in a circle. There wass only the one body, only the one set of bones, and they were buried in a way that shows that the gentleman concerned wass all huddled up when he wass interred. There's nothing much too peculiar about that," he says, but I'd huv to say, it maybe sounded just a wee bit peculiar to the more under educated crewmen of the Fital Spark, such as Macphail, "but what's very strange indeed, is the condition of these bones. It looks very much as if they have been gnawed upon, and the teeth marks match no creature kent by science."
'Weel ye can imagine how this played, especially with Macphail, who is particular feared of monsters huvin' sailed to Australia that time and had the bother with the sharks. But, oor Mr Jamieson, looking most uncomfortable, yet seemin' unable to help hisself, presses on regardless.
"The jewellery wass scattered all around him, and one piece still clutched in his hand. And on each of the stones, strange carvings and pictograms, and on some others scratchmarks, again, from a larger beast than ever lived on the isles. It's a mystery to be sure. A mystery."
Here, The Tar produced wan o' the stones, huvin' been searchin' through the crate while Jamieson spoke. "Put it away!" Jamieson screams "Fur yer own sake put it back!"
I have nivver seen Colin move so quick in aal my life, and right away, he wass below decks with the carbolic soap, trying to wash aff any misfortune that might have rubbed aff oan him. As ye might imagine, the mate wass quite put oot by the whole discussion, and made it plain, "The only mystery is why ye dug it up and why we let ye bring it on board. Its bad luck for us aal."
Mr Jamieson declined to join us for evening meal, which, given The Tar's recent efforts, I wass not minded to disagree with. Instead he sat beside the cargo, hands in his pockets against the cold. It wass after dark that the calamity befell us.
'Now, it was Dougie and I both in the wheelhouse, and on my mithers own grave, up by the mast, there was a man standing on dake by Mr Jamieson. A stowaway, ay. But wan that ye could see right through as though he wur sugar glaze or a nice silk net curtain as ye might see in Pollokshaws. A big heavy fellow it wass, barely dressed for the cauld. Dougie and I both chust stood, and since then, neither of us huv been able to agree upon why we didn't go to Mr Jamieson's aid. It wass as though our legs were sacks of coal.
The stowaway chust stood, quietly, pointing at Mr Jamieson, who wass in some commotion shakin his heid and he's shoutin "Please leave me alone. Why won't you leave me alone". The Stowaway keeps pointing, only now, he slowly opens his mooth and there's a howlin' too, o' the sort that I'm sure even chilled the old bones in the box. Weel this seemed to be the last straw fur oor Mr Jamieson, and he chumped straight aff the boat. At which point the stowaway promptly vanished.
We wur goin' at a fair clip, and it wass the dark of midwunter. But sure we stopped to see if we could catch sight of the poor sowl, and by this time the howling had roused even Macphail, so we wur aal there to look and call oot. But even that many pairs of eyes and lanterns won't make the wunter dark light. He wass gone. And so wass our stowaway. Dougie wass for throwing the cargo overboard, but the morning wass comin' on, and we had aal been lookin forward to a trip to Gleska.
A terrible business. And wur we not now late as weel from aal the looking for Mr Jamieson? There wass aal sorts of accident reportin' to be done at Gleska, and while I wass dealin' with the owners and officials, Dougie wass out speakin' to fowk, tellin only hauf the story and intimating that oor Mr Jamieson wass not so demure a curator as to not enjoy a good few too many refreshments. And sure it can get fearsome slippery on dake in midwunter sails at night. Smert, makin' sure we widna get a name for oorselves as a ghost ship. A cursed puffer is a terruble thing, it can hauf yer workin' week in two. It's a short skip from there to only running a passenger ferry to Helensburgh in the summer months.
There wass some commotion at the museum also, as not all the intended artefacts were intact and present. I'm pleased to say though that my honesty wass never in question, more it wass felt that Mr Jamieson hud been efter takin' a few wee pieces which he must huv had in his poaket afore he slupped and fell ower the side.
It wass a terrible business right enough. A terrible business. It almost put us right aff the dancin’.
Here, Para Handy shook his head sadly. He would be drawn no further on the matter.
That's a wee excerpt from a publication currently in development, The Strange Cargoes of Para Handy, featuring the crew of the Vital Spark in various eldritch misadventures with pirate ghosts, seamonsters, mermaids and the like.
Today's bonus video, is a wee bit of festive self-indulgence, a scary Christmas poem I recorded with my wee family last year, also featuring some monster folklore.