A story I wrote for younger…and hopefully older readers too…
Shipwrecked in a Bottle
It was the very last day of Henry’s holiday and he was sad to be going home. Not a crying-into-the-car-seat sad, rather a grumpy-arms-folded-and-not-wanting-to-talk-about-it sad.
‘Henry’s got the hump, haven’t you Henry?’ Mum said.
Henry gave a loud humph and stared out of the car window. The trouble was Henry lived a long, long way from the sea and there was no chance of building sandcastles or skipping through the waves in his back garden. He kept seeing houses falling into the sea on the news and experts saying that more and more land was being lost to the waves every year. So Henry got out his calculator and worked out that by the time the sea reached their house he would be twelve thousand and forty one years old. That wasn’t good at all.
‘Won’t it be nice to get the kettle on and have a cuppa in our own house?’ Mum said.
‘No, it won’t,’ Henry moaned, knowing his Mum’s answer to every crisis was switching on a kettle. Henry had collected shells and driftwood and even those lovely bits of glass polished by the waves. He had mounds of sand in his trainers too – enough to make his own beach, Dad said – but Henry wanted something really special to take home. He wanted something that Tyler and Dylan and Jack and Harry didn’t have.
‘Soon be home,’ Mum said in her sing-song voice.
Hedges and fence posts raced by in a blur and they were about to leave the island by the little humpbacked bridge when Henry cupped his hands in front of his mouth.
‘SSTTTOOOOOOOOOOPPPPPPP!’ he shouted.
Dad said a very bad word – a word that was banned in at least 37 countries – as he hit the brakes and their car screeched to a halt.
‘YYYEEEESSSS, we’ve found it,’ Henry said. ‘I knew it was round here. You see I had a dream.’
Dad shook his head. ‘I don’t believe it. You only dream about ice creams and sweets.’
‘I did too,’ Henry said and pointed at a shop called Pieces of Eight.
Dad sighed because Dad was tired and sunburnt after a long last day on the beach and the car was full of damp swimming costumes, gritty buckets and spades and their wet, smelly dog Clive.
‘Anything for a quiet life,’ Dad moaned and put the car in reverse. A long line of hot and bothered drivers were honking and waving their fists as Dad tried to edge their car into the last parking space in Wales with Clive jumping all over the seats and slobbering and dribbling on him.
‘We better get a wiggle on,’ Mum said, watching Dad struggling to wipe Clive’s nose and tongue smudges from the windscreen. Mum and Henry skipped across the road and Henry saw Clive was now on the shelf in the back window licking his bum. As always Clive was having difficulty reaching his bum and he kept spinning round and round trying to catch up with it. Dad was trying to put a stop to this disgusting early bath by crawling over the luggage and stinky clothes and waving a stick of clotted cream fudge under Clive’s nose.
‘Just hurry up!’ Dad snapped at Henry and Mum.
Henry entered Pieces of Eight by ducking under a tangle of fishermen’s nets and pushing through an old creaking door. He knew he’d got the right shop when he saw the ancient maps framed on the walls showing spiky sea monsters and giant whales spouting plumes of seawater. There were baskets of shells and crystals and pebbles and coins. There were nets and lifebelts and cutlasses and pointy hats and dinosaur bones and fossils and starfish and shark’s teeth and Henry hardly knew where to begin.
‘Mum, I want this and I want this and….’
Henry’s mum put her finger to her lips and went, ‘SSSSSHHHHHHH!’
Mum made more of a noise telling Henry to shush than Henry had been making talking. She pointed at an old man sat dozing with a pirate’s hat pulled down over his face and his feet propped up on the counter.
‘Mum! Look!’ Henry said. ‘Quick!’
But Mum was staring at Dad who was sitting on the bonnet across the road tapping his watch and pretending to turn an imaginary steering wheel. She told Henry to get a move on and went outside, but she needn’t have worried. Henry had found what he wanted. He picked up a tiny glass bottle with a ship inside and stared at it wide-eyed. He’d seen ships in bottles before but he’d never held one with water inside. It was an old looking ship with rigging and a chest on the deck and a wheel and tiny members of crew with faces that were little more than pinpricks of pink paint. There were clusters of needle-sharp rocks and a bed of golden sand. It was just like the real thing.
‘Wow!’ Henry said.
As Mum wasn’t looking Henry tilted the bottle and the ship began to slide along the bottom.
‘Cool!’ Henry said and he turned the bottle upside down as the man in the pirate hat screamed and leapt from his chair.
‘NNNNOOOOOOOO!’ he roared, but it was too late. Henry had already given the bottle a really good shake the way he did when he wanted Jack or Tyler’s pop bottle to explode and spray all over them. The ship flipped and the sand shook up and the water got all foamy and fizzy like lemonade. The man in the pirate hat snatched the bottle from Henry.
‘I’m sorry but I didn’t mean to cause trouble and….’ Henry said blushing and staring at his shoes.
‘Oh my poor boy,’ the man said and he clutched the bottle to his chest. Henry saw the man had a huge fire-breathing dragon tattooed along his arm.
‘Oh, please help my poor boy,’ the man said.
He peered into the bottle and he saw the boy gasping and spluttering and fighting to keep his head above the foaming water. He was drifting onto the rocks and he kicked hard as another wave broke over his head and tugged at his feet and his ankles.
‘What are you looking at? What’s in there?’ Henry said, but the man in the pirate hat either didn’t hear him or chose to ignore him. He was too busy watching what was happening in the bottle. A pole broke the surface of the water and the boy in the bottle lunged at it, grabbing and missing and swallowing a mouthful of seawater for his trouble. He spluttered and coughed and stingy saltwater came out of his eyes and his nose and his mouth. He was drifting out when he saw there was a man holding the pole.
‘I’m here. I’m here. Come on, just a little further.’ The man in the pirate hat said, stretching out a hand.
‘What’s going on?’ Henry said. ‘What’s happening?’
‘Look into the bottle,’ the man in the pirate hat told Henry. He huffed on it and wiped it with his sleeve and then, for the first time, Henry could see what the man could see. The boy in the bottle kicked and tried a few strokes, but his arms were heavy and he was so tired. The man on the rocks put his fingers to his lips and whistled – a harsh, shrill sound that carried across the water and somehow out of the bottle. Another wave crashed over the boy taking him down where the crabs scuttled across the seabed. A huge wave broke swelling over the surf and sending him surging forward under a rolling mass of water and the boy closed his eyes, dreading that he would be smashed upon the rocks, but instead everything became still and the man from the rocks was holding the boy in his arms. When it was safe he let the boy go and Henry saw the man on the rocks had a tattoo running from his elbow to his wrist. It was a tattoo of a fire-breathing dragon. The lurching and rolling had passed, the wind had dropped and the sea was calm again. The man in the pirate hat set the bottle down carefully high up on a shelf out of Henry’s reach.
‘You’re safely in port now, my boy,’ he whispered.
The man said the bottle wasn’t for sale at any price and so Henry bought a fossil instead, glad that the sea wouldn’t reach his back garden for twelve thousand and forty one years at least.