Authors: Chris Mould
A Spindlewood Tale
Perhaps you have heard of Hangman’s Hollow. The great walled city, first built as a place of refuge for the valley people, with its crooked buildings crammed into winding streets and alleyways. Where twisted spires point like broken branches into the air beside the crumbling chimney pots, and smoke pipes up from the hovels, fusing into the clouds. A great river cuts the city in two and a dark forest creeps up around the edges, spilling its dreamy nightmare influence over the people. The winters are long there and cold too.
It is no place for you or me, and it was nothing more than fate that delivered a small helpless boy inside its creaking gates one dreadful winter’s night.
Oakes Orphanage, some considerable time ago. Such a desperately long time ago, in fact, that even the crumbling bones of your oldest relatives would have had no recollection of such an era.
Darkness fell. Daylight was replaced by a handful of meager candle stubs burning at the table. A scuffed, leather-bound book was opened and a dirty hand ran down a long list. A forefinger stopped on the name Eddie Pipkin and an inky line was scratched through the middle.
“Ah well, that’s one mouth we don’t have to feed,” came a voice, pausing to swig from a grog bottle. “And the money should keep us goin’ for a while, Mrs. Tulip. Have you got the little urchin’s things ready?”
“Yes, Mister Oakes.” A short round woman with a toothless grin came scurrying, limping slightly on one leg. She plonked a bundle bound with twine onto the tabletop.
“Where is he?”
“Right here.” She stepped out into the hallway and pulled someone by his collar into the candlelit room. The teary-eyed youngster was almost thrown off his feet. He straightened himself up and yanked his shirt back into place, trying desperately not to blubber.
Eddie Pipkin was ten years old and small for his age. He had large brown eyes and a pale complexion that was topped with a ruffle of short, dark, wild hair.
“You ready to go to sea, young Pip?” “No, sir. Not at all!”
“No! What do you mean, no?”
“I don’t want to go to sea, Mister Oakes. Not with Captain Snarks. I don’t want to be a pirate’s cabin boy. Anyway, I’ll get seasick and I won’t be no good to anyone.”
“Master Pipkin, calm yourself. Now let me tell you this for the last time,” said Oakes, leaning his face into young Pip’s until his foul breath almost made the boy retch. “Firstly, Captain Snarks ain’t no pirate. I don’t deal wi’ crooks or villains.”
Pip knew this to be a lie. Oakes would sell his own mother to a highwayman if the money was right. “Secondly, me and Mrs. Tulip ’ave looked after you since you was a tiny baby. And now we ’as to look after other tiny babies. ’Ow d’you expect us to look after other tiny babies if we ain’t got no money? This orphanage won’t run itself,” he spluttered.
Pip took a good long look at Oakes, who could barely take care of himself, never mind being responsible for the welfare of young children. And Pip was sure that selling children off was no way to raise money.
“I don’t know, Mister Oakes, but can’t I go to somebody else? I could carry on with my work at the stable yard?”
“You can do as you’re told, Pipkin, that’s what you can do. Stable yard won’t pay me good enough money. Now get yer things and I’ll take you down to the ’arbor. You set sail in the morning at high tide.”
Deep down Pip knew that come hell or high water, he would not be going to sea with Captain Snarks. He just needed to find the right moment to escape, and he knew that Oakes always drank more when he knew that money was coming.
Pip was tied like a dog with a fine rope around his middle. Old Oakes wobbled along drunkenly, hanging on to the other end, mumbling away, and slurring his words as they meandered down to the harbor in the dark.
“You’ve always been a good lad, Pip. I’ll miss you,” he said, and each sentence finished with a hiccup. “I remember when you came to us. Such a tiny baby, wrapped in rags, left in the snow. So beautiful.” He began to cry pathetically.
Pip took no notice. Always the same—a few drinks and the tales came out and the emotions started. Oakes was doddering around in the dark, wobbling this way and that.
Pip slowed up to cut some slack on his leash and stop it from pulling at his middle. He looked ahead and saw the dark shape of Snark’s sinister schooner looming down at them. It was huge and just to look at its awesome size sent a shiver running through him.
Voices came from the deck. Barrels and boxes were hoisted on ropes and silhouettes climbed up and down the ladders.
“Please, Mister Oakes. I don’t want to go to sea.”
That alone was enough to sever the short length of Oakes’ temper. “You don’t know how lucky you are, Pipkin. Saved from near death and given a life o’ luxury. Some folks would give anything to climb aboard a great ship and sail the seven seas. Feel the salt water splashing against their face—” … And as he spoke the words he lost his footing at the harbor’s edge and dropped feet-first into the freezing water.
He was barely visible in the darkness, but the splash and ripple helped Pip pick him out. Pip stood motionless for a moment, trying to take in what had just happened. He could see Oakes’ head and shoulders and his large coat spread out on the water’s surface.
“’Elp, lad. Get me out. Fetch Captain Snarks!” Oakes screamed. He was gasping and floundering in the depths of the water. “Don’t leave old Papa Oakes in the water, Pip!”
But a huge grin broke across Pip’s face. He looked down to see the other end of his leash trailing loose. He untied it and watched it drop into the foam. Then without hesitation he turned and walked slowly away, not believing his luck. And as it dawned on him that he was free, he began to move faster. And faster and faster until he was bolting like a sewer rat through the streets of Ludge Port. In the distance, Oakes’ cry echoed through the twists and turns of the alleyways, eventually fading into a wonderful silence.