"A Passion for Ships"
Creative Writing 205 B
The captain's cabin of a 1795 English frigate is well lit by the stern windows, which allow in the dismal grey light as rain streams down the panes. Through the windows can be seen a few docks and the fronts of quay storage houses, their 2005 facades a stark contrast to the piece of history sitting at the dock. Within the cabin itself, a desk and chair sits roughly in the center, a hammock bed built into the left hand wall between two paneled closets. The desk is covered with papers, a captain's log, an inkwell and several quills. On the other side of the cabin are swords hung on the wall, and a trunk containing the captain's dunnage. A long bench runs under the window. Overhead a lamp swings with the rock of the ship, casting awkward shadows.
Aislinn Huntington is an 18-year-old college student at the small port's local college, in southern England, and she wears jeans and a semi-loose short sleeve top, and sandal heels. She sits facing the desk and windows in a spare chair, her slight but rounded figure barely filling the chair. She is not skinny by any means, but not overweight either, just rather small, of medium height. Patiently, she is waiting for Captain James Forsythe.
A tall man wearing a captain's Royal Navy uniform enters, deep brown hair pulled into a ponytail, hat tucked under his arm. He looks like a well-formed giant compared to Aislinn, who rises as he enters. Where her face is soft, his is hard with command and control. He is nearing his 40th year.
Forsythe: (sitting at desk, smiling cheerfully) Good morning. I am Captain James Forsythe. My first lieutenant said you wanted to see me about joining the crew? (Glances up at Aislinn) You can sit down. Please! (motions emphatically at the chair)
Aislinn: (sitting and folding her hands; is obviously nervous) Yes, sir, that's right. My name is Aislinn Huntington, I'm a student at the college. I heard that there were openings in your crew.
Forsythe: Are you nervous?
Aislinn: (breaks into a wary smile) Really nervous.
Forsythe: (grinning while settling down) I won't bite or yell, I promise. I'll only do that if I hire you and when we're actually enacting stuff. (Aislinn relaxes a little with a rather sickly smile) So, you think you can fill one of the openings I have advertised?
Aislinn: Naturally, or else I wouldn't be here. I have always wanted to serve on a frigate, since my concentration in college being British Naval History –
Forsythe: (interrupts) And that qualifies you to serve on this ship? How much of our ships have you studied?
Aislinn: I know the knots and equipment. I know what is required of people serving on a man-of-war, sir.
Forsythe: But you've never actually done any of these things, climbed the rigging, pumped water, hauled in sail during a storm. Have you?
Aislinn: (pauses) No, not in the context of a man-of-war.
Forsythe: Do you even know why I need people for my crew? I don't think I even mentioned it in the advertisement.
Aislinn: I would assume for the 200th Anniversary of Trafalgar, which is coming up in a few months. (grins broadly, sitting up and becoming animated) I would be incredibly honored if I could be apart of that. I know that sounds odd, but…I just want to be involved.
Forsythe: Do you also know that an American director has hired us out for a film he's doing set during the Napoleonic Wars? It will take a year, at least, what with going there, filming, then coming back. Are you up to it?
Aislinn: (shaking head) No, I didn't know, but I'm sure I'd be up to it. If only you knew how much this meant to me, how completely awesome it would be to crew….
Forsythe: (raises hand) I was just getting to that. Perhaps you would like to tell me more about why you want to be apart of the crew, since I have to admit that seeing a young woman here is really rather odd.
Aislinn: I am here because my passion lies with these ships, Captain, and so far I have been blocked from learning about them except from books because my professors insist on being inadequate to the task of teaching anything beyond what they read and what they think is important. This does not include Napoleonic English frigates and men-of-war. They honestly don't give a shit! No one seems to. If they cannot give me what I need then I will get it myself. (pauses to catch breath and give Captain a determined look; her cheeks are beginning to be flushed)
Forsythe: Tell me more. Details. I can see you're passionate, that there is some underlying cause as to why you are applying, and I want to understand that.
Aislinn: I can't really explain my passion, but I want to be able to follow my passion and share it with others, but people keep pushing me down with their disinterest and they don't take me seriously! (pause; Forsythe smiles slightly and leans back in chair, stretching out legs; Aislinn rises and begins pacing) When I was little, my family and I lived in a really small fishing town. I used to see the fishing boats out in the harbor, and the dinghies, and the rough old fishermen pulling their baskets of fish to the shops and larger boats. They had such an allure for me, with their small boats and thin masts. I wanted more than anything to just go out in one, feel what it was like to be in a boat. Yet the fishermen scared the living day-lights out of me. In any case, I finally got up the courage to go up to this one fisherman. He was one of the most frightening people I, as a 12 year old, had ever seen, but he fascinated me the most. He had one or two front teeth, a truly horrific scar, whitish blue, that cut across his right eye like this (she cuts diagonally across her right eye towards her nose). And he frowned constantly! I also remember that he stank of fish, sea water, and whiskey. In any case, I walked right up to him, as brazenly as you please, and asked him if I could fish with him. Mind you, I was scrawny, no muscle whatsoever. Oh did he laugh! I think he said yes because it tickled him so much, but also because I had the audacity to ask him. So I worked with him every day except Sunday until I came to study here. He always allowed me to hang out with his fishing buddies at the local bar, letting me drink tea. Which was, on occasion, spiked with brandy or something or other, by him. He and his buddies told me stories of men-of-war, of Nelson, instilling his values in me. There were these books he had of Napoleonic men-of-war, and I was inexplicably fascinated by how the men on them lived for years on end, in such conditions, what made the ships, run, etc. I found myself called to the sea, devoted to maintaining his memory and history. I couldn't get enough information on Nelson and his ships – you could say I became infected by his passion, his desire to do his duty. It's hard to explain. He even brought me over to his apartment, in the attic of this halfway house. The rooms were shockingly spotless, but…it was as though I had been there before. Everywhere were objects from 18th and 19th century men-of-war – a wheel, a compass, flags, a cannon, trunks, eyeglasses, a sextant, logs, letters – everything! It was like I had stepped back in time and discovered a world I had longed to be in, I just didn't know it until then. I devoured all his books, and the logs and such, and I couldn't get the stories out of my head. It was like something had turned on inside me, and I suddenly had a calling. You know what I mean? (Forsythe nods knowingly; Aislinn by this time is leaning against the stern windows, stage left) I never really felt like I belonged in the 20th century…finding Nelson and his ships was like going home. The week before I left, the fisherman gave me his will, and said that when he died, I would inherit all that he had. I'm not sure why, but we seemed to have a common bond of the love of that time period, and wanting to keep it alive any way possible. He made me promise I would serve on a ship of the line. (pause; Aislinn runs hand through her hair; Forsythe has head tilted to one side, interested in her story) It's a hard thing to explain, but I do feel a yearning for the sea, for that world of ships that no longer exists and on which people give a look of disdain, including on the people who try and reveal it. I think that if people are made aware of the history of these ships and the enormous role they played in the shaping of England's history and the world as a global community, the more respect they'll have for it. They disregard the ships' cultural significance, which is also why I want to be a part of the celebrations of Trafalgar's 200th anniversary. (sighs) Sorry, I've been rambling.
Forsythe: (quietly) That's alright. You've given me a lot of information in a few minutes, which I'm grateful for. You also seem to be speaking from personal experience.
Aislinn: Yeah. My father, professors and friends told me I should follow a more logical career path, like banking. They completely missed the point of history.
Forsythe: And what career path are you considering?
Aislinn: (smiling brightly, yet resignedly) I want to be a naval historian and naval archaeologist, much to everyone else's chagrin.
Forsythe: (twists around in chair to look at her more fully) A naval archaeologist?! Lofty goals, those, and very small fields. That requires years of study. You cannot get all the knowledge you need from serving on a ship.
Aislinn: I know that, but one must be familiar with the ship itself in order to properly excavate and keep the ship's dignity, and the dignity of her crew, intact.
Forsythe: The fact that you're a woman is still on the table. The men could be threatened by you if I hire you because you're a woman, and then of course the movie. But I'm more concerned about the crew. (rises and crosses to stern windows, sitting on window seat) Think about it: one woman among 200 men? Don't you think that would be an extremely awkward position? Also, you are rather small in size, and the crew may take advantage of that to taunt you. Will you be able to match the pace at which we move? Undoubtedly you know how strenuous the work on these ships is.
Aislinn: I know this will sound strange and won't be nearly enough evidence for allowing me to be one of the crew, but I grew up with five brothers and a very active father who insisted that I learn the defend myself. And I find it offensive that you would call me on how I look. Take Nelson – he fought on ships even though he was of a rather fragile constitution.
Forsythe: You must understand the position I am coming from when I pointed out your size – I have a ship full of men who cannot afford to have one weak link in the chain, because if there is one, we can all very well die. Do you understand that?
Aislinn: Yes, sir.
Forsythe: And yet you feel perfectly comfortable with the prospect of being around so many men?
Aislinn: Yes. Like I said, I hung out with old fishermen in bars, plus my brothers and their friends, some of whom were pretty sketchy. I think I can handle seamen just as well.
Forsythe: (nods, admitting she's right) What are you willing to do in order to get a position on this ship?
Aislinn: (straightens) Anything, sir, really –
Forsythe: (raises hand) Do not become too excited. What precisely do you know of serving on a ship? I know you said you served on a fishing vessel, but it's quite different from a man-of-war. When we go to film this movie, everything has to be authentic.
Aislinn: I realize that, but I have studied men-of-war extensively, have fired a cannon...(Forsythe gives her a reprimanding look) a gun before on several occasions. And I'm sure I could pick up the compass fairly quickly since I've used one on the fishing boat before, and a rudder. I know the nautical terms and all the equipment, the principles of how they work and are to be used – I just need to put what I've learned into practice. Most of what I know can only be shown through demonstrations, not through words. I can't extend my understanding or knowledge of these ships, which I really want to do, by staying on land, and considering that frigates aren't exactly in style any more….
Forsythe: (smiles warmly) What sails should be used to take advantage of a strong wind?
Aislinn: (brighten, yet starts pacing again) Top mains'ls, mains'ls, fore-top and -mains'ls, and the mizzen topmains'ls.
Forsythe: (considers) Not quite enough, but you're on the right track. The spanker would help with steering, wouldn't you agree?
Forsythe: What are the ingredients of grog?
Aislinn: (purses lips and pauses in mid-stride) Two or three parts water…and one part…rum.
Forsythe: How much sail should be used during a hurricane?
Aislinn: The least amount of sail needed – if the ship has too much sail it could tip her or the sails could be ripped, or the ropes could break under the strain and pull the mast over with them, all leading to the ship sinking and drowning everyone on her.
Forsythe: Can you steer a ship and use nautical compasses?
Aislinn: In theory, yes. Like I said, I've never actually tried what I've learned from books, although I am familiar with a rudder and fishing compass.
Forsythe: How would you punish a man guilty of drunkenness? In current context.
Aislinn: (hesitantly) Confinement.
Forsythe: And, in historical context, would he receive a dozen or three dozen lashes?
Aislinn: Depends on the seriousness of his drunkenness and anything that happened as the cause of it that was detrimental to the ship's and crew's well-being.
Forsythe: So you've read the Articles of War?
Aislinn: Of course! I try and get my hands on anything dealing with the various aspects of the ships. It helps with making things authentic, like with the film.
Forsythe: (stifles grin) Agreed. Your enthusiasm struck me a little hard – few of my crew had ever seen the Articles of War before they joined. (Forsythe picks up Captain's Log) Can you write in a Captain's Log? The proper latitude and longitude? Expenses? Are you good with numbers and reports?
Aislinn: I have studied multiple maps and can take dictation, add sums, write clear, concise reports and letters. I would be happy to provide you with copies of papers.
Forsythe: (shuffles through papers; pushes forward sheet of paper, inkwell, and quill) Show me your penmanship. (Aislinn wets quill nub and scrolls a few lines down and hands it back to him) Impressive. Quite well written. Where did you learn to write and speak so fluently on the subject of Naval politics, and how do you know that the Navy Board and Admiralty are two different offices with different responsibilities, despite from history books? It's quite a tricky subject, especially today in the political world. I take it from what you've written here that you can also speak in the 18th century manner. How'd you learn that?
Aislinn: Thank you, sir. I learned by studying, and I was an aide to an officer in the Admiralty for a year. Speaking in the 18th century fashion came naturally to me, which I picked up from the journals, logs, letters, and other such documents I inherited. (pause) Any other questions?
Forsythe: (raises single eyebrow and twists mouth thoughtfully, studying her) Are you able to gut and skin animals? And cook, of course?
Aislinn: (shocked; doesn't speak for a minute)Excuse me?
Forsythe: Don't look so stunned, it's a perfectly natural question. The crew has to be fed, and we don't have a quartermaster's mate, coxswain, and cook, since our last cook left us just the other day in pursuit of other causes. We do everything authentically on this ship, whether or not we are filming a movie.
Aislinn: (speaking slowly and warily, giving Forsythe odd look) Well, yes, I suppose I can gut and skin animals if I were shown how, and I can certainly cook.
Forsythe: (smothered amusement) You don't exactly look thrilled at the prospect of gutting animals. As one who proclaims to be so desirous of being employed on this ship I would have thought that you would jump at any opportunity that presented itself to serve.
Aislinn: Well, I do want to obtain a position, but your question came as a bit of a surprise. I was thinking more along the lines of…a gun crew, sir. Actual, physical labor.
Forsythe: Everyone on this ship must begin somewhere, as I'm sure you know. And I have not made a definitive statement on whether I even want to have you here, much less as my cook. Besides, I still don't know very much about what you are capable of doing.
Aislinn: (finally shows some irritation) I have answered every question you have posed to me and I think fairly well shown how knowledgeable I am in terms of words. How can you possibly know what I know unless you allow me to show you? And you've been repeating yourself! (sits down firmly in chair)
Forsythe: (Leans forward, becomes authoritative) I don't know. I'm just seeing how far you'll go before your temper gets the better of you.
Aislinn: (purses lips and flushes) I'll have you know that I do know how to diplomatically opinionated, if that's what you're getting at, and to try and solve problems instead of inciting tempers.
Forsythe: Well spoken. And --
(There is a thud, several cries, and running feet heard from the main deck that echoes around the theatre. Forsythe adopts a look of irritated alarm and rises, opening the cabin door)
Forsythe: (roaring) What the devil is going on? (noises momentarily stop, then continue. A man in a lieutenant's uniform appears in the doorway) Well?
Lieutenant: My apologies, sir. One of the men slipped while carrying a barrel on board, and upset several other men in the process.
Aislinn: Aren't your decks properly scrubbed? I would have thought that to avoid such accidents the deck would be scrubbed regularly.
Forsythe: (reprimanding) Miss Huntington, kindly do not tell me what my job is. Well, Jack? Why haven't the decks been properly scrubbed? I thought I ordered the men to do that this morning before we arrived in port. Miss Huntington, kindly look that up in the log. (Lieutenant looks fearful at prospect of the men, or himself, being derelict in their duties)
Aislinn: (rises, picks up log and finds most recent entry) Yes, here it is. "6 am. Crew holystoned decks."
Lieutenant: (somewhat indignantly) The decks were scrubbed. I shall find the guilty parties and give them a stern reminder of the proper methods of scrubbing. And I shall notify the men generally to be more careful when bringing on supplies.
Forsythe: Alright then. Oh, and Jack, I don't recall if we have need of a new coxswain or not.
Lieutenant: We talked about it, but it seems to have gotten shoved to the bottom of the list of things to do, especially with that film and Trafalgar coming up. Is this the candidate you are considering?
Forsythe: Yes, also to be general cook for the crew. What do you think? (Aislinn watches warily)
Lieutenant: I think a woman's touch might just be what we need with our food. Are you capable of cooking decent food with the supplies at hand for about 200 men?
Aislinn: I believe I am, yes. Just give me the supplies and I'll do what I can.
Lieutenant: And I take it you are good at taking criticism?
Aislinn: (glancing at Forsythe) Working on it. But I have a feeling that once I familiarize myself with and grow accustomed to ship life – if Captain Forsythe is so inclined to put my name in the books – I shall be much more receptive to criticism.
Lieutenant: An honest answer. I like honest people. Are you a hard worker? What do you think of living with 200 men for upwards of twelve months?
Aislinn: I'd like to think I am, and when the job is something I am passionate about, then I put myself to it. As to the living arrangements, I like a challenge, and I'm used to not having any privacy. Living on this ship would be quite an opportunity, a dream that I have been attempting to gain for some time now.
Forsythe: She also says she can fire a gun, at least knows how to. (with boyish, playful grin) Do you think we should test her and see how the crew reacts to her?
Lieutenant: (grins broadly, pleased) Most definitely. I think the men would enjoy it.
Forsythe: Right. This way, Miss Huntington. (Aislinn, slightly pale, follows)
(Aislinn, silent and wary, follows Forsythe and Lieutenant. Set moves around them on circular, rotating platform, the stage transforming into the gun deck. Two guns appear at the front of the stage, about five feet apart, with a section of mast situated just behind and between them. The other side of the ship and ends of guns can be seen in the back of the stage, where the light is dimmer. The trio is slightly stooping under the low ceiling, and sailors are milling about.)
Lieutenant: (yelling offstage) Mr. Grisham, pipe gun crew number one to their station, if you please! (shrill piping heard offstage, drowned out by feet stomping and about a half dozen men crowd around one gun, hunched forward. Lieutenant, Aislinn, and Forsythe stand on the other side of the empty gun. Several men look at each other in bewilderment, discreetly nodding questioningly at Aislinn.)
Forsythe: Brady, give Huntington your place as swabber.
Forsythe: This is Huntington, prospective seaman. (shoves Aislinn forward) We're seeing how she fairs with the guns. (Aislinn gives awkward, yet energetic, smile)
Brady: (raises eyebrows as the rest of the crew looks over their shoulders and murmur) Yes, sir. (hands Aislinn pole and switches places with her)
Forsythe: Right, then, go to it. This is not a drill, so I'm not going to make it professional. (nonetheless, men jump into action, shoving Aislinn into action along with them. She's jostled at first, forced to act on her feet, but picks up their dynamic, albeit moving a bit slower as she shoves the cloth into the gun, the jams the shot in with the cork. The men slow down slightly to match her pace. She expertly, if slowly and carefully, swabs and rams and helps haul the gun forward, through the imaginary porthole.)
Lieutenant: Gun ready for firing, Captain.
(Seamen stare at Aislinn for a moment before breaking into sheepish smiles, obviously liking her from their more relaxed body language)
Forsythe: Well, Miss Huntington, for someone who says that she's only ever read about firing guns, you certainly seem to know what you're doing.
Man #1: (incredulously) You learned that from books?
Aislinn: Yeah, sure. Built a scale model and practiced with it. (men shake their heads in amazement)
Man #2: A scale model? How the bloody hell'd you pull that off?
Aislinn: Ever seen those toy cannons? Just copied one of those, but made it the cast a little larger, and used wrought iron for the actual cannon and used my own gunpowder and marbles for shot. (a second passes before the men chuckle)
Man #1: She's good, James. We'd have her in shape for Trafalgar. You thinkin' of hiring her?
Forsythe: I don't know. Depends on what you all think. (men glance at each other, silently communicating)
Man #1: It'd be different, to be sure, but…I don't think there'd be anything wrong with it. If she does her part, I'm sure the rest of the crew'd be fine with it. Even better if she cooks.
Aislinn: I do, yes.
Man #2: I take it you put as much ingenuity into your cooking as your creation of model guns.
Aislinn: (raises eyebrow and grins) Special orders only. (Man laughs) No, with cooking I only stray from the path if I know it will taste good. I do know sea recipes, as well as more common dishes that remind you of home. (men murmur approvingly)
Forsythe: As much as I'd like to have this conversation continue, I still have some things to discuss with Miss Huntington. So the rest of you go about your duties. There's still a shit load of stuff to do. (Men haul back cannon to previous position, Aislinn helping, and they unload it, then the men and Lieutenant exit; Forsythe and Aislinn eye each other for a few seconds as they leave, and Forysthe sitting against the one cannon they just loaded, arms and extended feet crossed, Aislinn standing behind the other one, hands resting on it) I think they liked you.
Aislinn: I hope so.
Forsythe: Did you really make a scale model of a gun and use marbles as shot?
Aislinn: (grinning) Yes. (pause, both smiling before quietly laughing)
Forsythe: You certainly are an interesting case.
Aislinn: Before you decide if you hire, may I ask what brought you to the ship? How you decided to act as a Captain?
Forsythe: (shrugs) Don't see why not. I'm not here for the exact same reasons as you are, although the history of the Navy does fascinate me. I used to be in the Navy, but can no longer work in it. I contracted a brain tumor caused by the electronic emissions of the specialized equipment used in the radar and other tracking devices and such, something about high frequency noise affecting the nerves in my brain. In any case, the medical review board told me that it would be detrimental to my health if I continued working, and that having the surgery prevented me from being able to work any more. Apparently if you have drastic brain surgery, you are no longer physically fit to serve. Essentially, I became a paper pusher with a high rank. So I came here, putting my patriotism and love of the Navy into these ships.
Aislinn: Oh. Sorry.
Forsythe: (waving dismissively) Not your fault. (sighs, resting hands against gun, looking at floor) Well, I have to make a decision.
Aislinn: Yes. Don't you hate those?
Forsythe: Yes, on occasion I really do. (makes direct eye contact – Aislinn looks very much like a puppy on the verge of begging but not quite ready to stoop to that level – there is a certain resolve and hopefulness in the way she is holding herself) Miss Huntington, I admire for forthright answers and honesty you have had with me, the obvious passion you have for the history and integrity of these ships and Britain, and the strong character you have exhibited. You have shown an excellent, open, welcoming personality and even a bit of sarcasm. (Aislinn listens with growing excitement) I am willing to offer you the position of my personal coxswain and the cook for the rest of the ship, and I shall depend on you to help me keep the books up to date on all supplies, expenses, men, fights, etc. etc. (stops in anticipation of Aislinn's reply) Well, do you accept?
Aislinn: (freezes, staring at him as though she hasn't heard him correctly; then, eyes widne with excitement, cheeks flushed, practically trembling) Oh, wow, you said yes. Shit! Sorry! Oh, thank you, sir! Wow…you have no idea…(stumbles around gun and pumps his hand, shaking slightly)
Forsythe: Alright, Miss Huntington, you're welcome. Go speak to the first lieutenant, he will give you a list of what you need and where to find them.
Aislinn: Right, Jack. (hesitates, still bubbling with excitement) This is so…thank you!!
Forsythe: Aloft with you, then! Trafalgar isn't coming any slower, and you have too much to learn to be dallying here! We leave tomorrow morning at the second dogwatch for practice with the other ships! I expect you to be here with your things properly stowed at least two watches beforehand!
Aislinn: Yes, sir! (salutes energetically and exits in a dash stage left. Once she leaves, Forsythe opens into a boisterous laugh, shaking his head, patting the gun before waltzing offstage. BLACKOUT).