“‘Twas a dark and stormy night and the Audience gathered around the fire, with mugs of cocoa in hand, no doubt laced with suitable fortification. The Storyteller sat quietly by the fire staring deep into his mug. An expectant hush fell over the Audience and the little one said, “Tell us a story.”
“Aye,” they chorused, “tell us a tale which will have our hair on end and send shivers down our spines.” The Storyteller looked slowly up, blinked several times as if recognising for the first time that the Audience had gathered and took a long swig before clearing his throat.
‘Twas a dark and stormy night and the call had gone out for a crew to assemble at the Ford at Guild at two bells. At the appointed hour, some regulars and irregulars appeared out the shadows waiting nervously for the Captain and First Mate to tell us why we had been summoned. Captain and First Mate duly arrived, looked over the motley crew and gave us a briefing. “We are going South to the end of the known world and we will stare out into the Bognor Abyss. It will test your soul, but those who make it back will be a crew fit for anything. We will lose many souls on the way. Some will turn back and some will be lost – may their souls find peace.”
The motley crew set out for the Ford at Shal to sign on two more recruits who were ready and waiting as we arrived. And Captain fooled us all by heading back the way we had come – due North. All was soon revealed as we went hard a starboard to Chilworth until our way was barred by the route of the iron monsters. Captain called us to hear his words but there was dissension in the ranks. Threats followed ‘til silence reigned and then we heard more of our fate. “’Tis every man, woman, jack and tar for him or herself. We will split into two, Breakaway and Peleton, and there will be a gap between them such that metal monsters with glaring eyes and which belch forth foul fumes might pass between us and cause us no harm.” And with that Captain caused an opening to appear so that we could pass across the iron monster way.
We pedalled via Albury and around Shere and then hard a starboard again, down the channel that is known as the Brook of the Law. Our fates were sealed, south, south and ever south we pedalled. Until at last a victualing halt was called at the Old Mill at Wisborough. Ghosts from our pasts were there and threatened to accompany us.”
At the mention of ghosts the Audience shuddered and griped their mugs tighter as if a chill wind had entered the room.
The Storyteller did not waver and continued his tale. “Other crews were there and more came as we refuelled. By now the drizzle had well and truly started and as we climbed back on board it was as Captain had said, many of our crew disappeared into the murk. Alas one that we lost was the expedition artist with all his apparatus. One ghost did what ghosts do best and vanished whilst the other came along for the ride.
As we journeyed south we encountered many sorts of waves caused by the meeting of the currents of Ta-Mac and the wind. Some are like roller coasters where the skilled can use the momentum gained sliding down the back of one wave to help climb the next, others are long ocean rollers of gentle slope but endless length and then there are the dreaded standing waves where the wind can hold up the Ta-Mac such that it reaches a great height without crashing down. Captain lead to us to one of the most fearsome of standing waves – at Coldharbour – to test our mettle for the rest of the voyage. “‘Tis everyone for themselves, press feet to pedals, may your engine beat at 200bpm, may your lungs be fit to burst and devil take the hindmost.” The wave rises the equivalent of 65 fathoms at a gradient of 16% yet Captain sailed up with no apparent effort. And First Mate exhorted us to greater things shouting, “Beware the low flying eagles who prey on any stragglers.” Our ghost, who had chained himself to a single gear, took pity on us taking the hindmost spot and used his unearthly talents to fend off the circling birds of prey.
Silence descended as we gave thanks to our ghost but soon we arrived in the Straits of Fittleworth where a mighty beam hangs suspended from the sky. An irregular asked what is was for and there was a nervousness in the ranks. An old timer took pity and said that was where captains hung out their mutinous crew. There is however an ancient tale of the crew who turned the tables and instead hung out their captain to dry – but that is not part of this tale and you must wait another time.
South, south and south again, Captain always looking straight ahead with a steely glare that could cut a man to the quick. The abyss was calling him on. As we approached Madehurst a rifle shot rang out and the silence that followed was only broken by the final gasp of an inner tube. We stopped to pay it our last respects before continuing on towards the leaden skies.
Past the last known safe habour of Slindon and into the worsening storm. We lost our ghost and once again murmured our thanks for keeping us safe. A lone marker buoy brought despair to our hearts – Alcohol Free Zone it said. We had been tricked! We were all thinking only of our ration of grog to help harden our hearts against what we might find when we looked into the Abyss. And finally it was there before us, looming out of the lashing drizzle. Grey upon grey with streaks of white, swirling masses and eddies and no clue as to how the land could ever meet the sky. Only the rushing wind coming straight out of the Abyss prevented us from falling in. Each of us kept our thoughts to ourselves for fear of what the others might say. Our luck was in because we spied the ghost, whom we had thought lost at Wisborough, who beckoned us to safety in the Lobster Pot. Ne’er before had such a bunch of drowned water rats been so grateful to such a sprite.
Partially restored we set out once more, quickly leaving the Abyss behind but the howling gale chilled us to the core. Captain signalled hard a port and once more we headed to the Abyss as if he needed one last sight of it before embarking on a loop that almost brought us back to where we had just left. ‘Twas if the Abyss had taken part of the Captain’s mind. A hurried study of the charts set us heading off in a new direction with the wind on our backs.
At Oving we were in unchartered waters and once again Captain seemed unsure of which direction. But finally he led us to Tangmere and a graveyard of those magical machines which compete with the birds of the air. He made a mystical incantation which none of us understood. If you did not know better you would swear that in some earlier incarnation he had had something to do with them but we were not be enlightened that day.
On, on and on again ‘til before Midhurst Captain said that we must lash him to his steed and blinker our eyes as Odysseus had taught us. We had to face the challenge of the Sirens who would try and prevent us from reaching the Port Verdi by signalling to us to with flashing lights. We did as we were told and hurtled by the Sirens oblivious to their signals and made it to Port Verdi just minutes before the harbour mistress brought down the boom to seal the port from marauders.
Exhaustion was kept at bay but the ghost who had arrived ahead of us stole away First Mate and we had to tackle the standing wave of Bexley without him, followed by the Three ‘Ells. Somewhere we lost our Danish crew member as he went to go pay homage to the King of Wo and at the Ford of Shal another crew member dropped from the line, exhausted, but job well done. Above the Ford of Guild, the Captain and the remaining crew pulled over, bade me farewell and I was left to tackle the rollers of the Clan of Dons alone. After the trials that I had already endured they seemed like but a gentle swell. I hove to in my home port with just enough energy to make things shipshape once more and fill in the logs. 98 nautical miles and 975 fathoms of waves at an average speed of 12 knots. Aye, ‘twas a long and stormy journey, but I can say that on that day I was there and lived to tell the tale.”
The Storyteller fell silent and the Audience were silent too, reliving parts of the tale. The embers of the fire were dying as mugs were emptied and a dog barked as if to say that it was time to let the Storyteller rest.