By Paul Mirabile
Little Billy was a timid, quiet boy of thirteen going on fourteen. He kept to himself both at home and at school. Because he was the only child, little Billy’s mother, unemployed, pampered him to such an extent that he sought refuge in outdoor activities such as tree-fort and cabin constructions in the back garden, chemical experiments with dead animals conducted in his hand-built cabins, tunnel-burrowing under trees or fences, this last activity much to the dismay of his parents. As to his father, well, his work kept him long hours away from home, so the boy hardly ever saw him besides at their late evening dinners, or on the week-ends when he wasn’t busy ‘on the road’.
Little Billy loved to read. Not those ‘childish’ stories imposed by the school programme and taught unenthusiastically by his teachers, which he never read in spite of the spot tests that his teacher would surprise the pupils with, and which he would invariably fail. No, not those boring scrawls. He indulged in true literature: the adventures and exploits of explorers in the wilds of Africa or in the depths of Asia, especially the marvellously written tales by Jules Verne, his literary hero …
Billy’s schoolmates despised his taciturn attitude in class. The more rambunctious boys indulged in creating the usual chaos during recreation when he would sit under a tree and listen to the birds or meditate on his future chemical experiments whilst his schoolmates fought, spat or cursed. Yet he was no snob; he just had nothing to share with his classmates; his adventurous dreams only bored the boys who preferred wrestling and football, and the girls who preferred wrestlers and footballers.
Little Billy filled his time and soul with adventure and constructive projects to escape his mother’s irksome babying and his father’s coerced absence. Twice his imagination materialised into daring escapes from home. The first took him about thirty kilometres or so from his neighbourhood, peddling on his little bicycle as fast as his little legs could, growing more excited as he traversed unknown territories where woods, villages and hamlets passed before his giddy eyes like a magical phantasmagoria. The police, having been phoned by Billy’s hysterical mother because he hadn’t come home for lunch or dinner, finally caught up with him late at night, seated on a grassy hillock, munching apples that he had pinched from a nearby orchard. Everyone believed that Billy simply had lost his way. Little Billy, however, felt he had been on an adventure, and to have absconded for the first time, conferred upon him a powerful and secret aura …
His second escapade was more daring: the absconder hitch-hiked and walked into regions where the folk spoke in accents very much distinct than his own. They even addressed him in strange dialects, using words he had never heard, neither at home nor at school. And how exciting it was neither to understand nor to communicate with the individuals whom he met ! Three days later, dirty, hungry and clothes be-spotted with mud and rainwater, little Billy stood before his tall frowning father, who, although never having raised a hand to the child, scolded him with uproarious words and frenzied gestures. As to his distraught mother, there is no need to go into detail : her sobs and sighs, albeit somewhat theatrical, rose higher to in crescendo than the father’s uproaring.
Henceforth, little Billy decided to limit his adolescent élan to constructing a duplex tree-fort in the large oak tree at the back of his spacious garden. As to the wood required for such a project, the ingenious boy strolled into the many construction sites that surrounded their neighbourhood, negotiated with the workers for spare wood, nails and screws. They liked this little bugger, combative and imaginative, so they plied him, without cost, with large boards of plywood for flooring and roofing and cut, oaken beams for the supporting frames. As to the tools, these the he procured from his father’s garden tool-shed.
Little Billy set to work immediately, choosing four sturdy branches of that leafy oak tree, one branch slightly higher than the other, which allowed him to build one level at a time. Once the lower level had been finished (it took him a mere three days), the energetic builder went on to build the second level of his duplex, connected by a three-rung ladder made from the oak beams that he sawed to measure between the thick limbs with his father’s electric saw. His fort proved to be rather high off the ground, and although he shimmied up the branches like a monkey, Billy preferred a more elaborate ascent : he found two long pieces of rope, made six knots in them at half metre intervals and used the legs of chairs as rungs, which he pushed through the loops of the knots and tightened; chairs that he found thrown out as rubbish in the streets of his neighbourhood. Little Billy took pride in his tree-fort, and spent much time there reading, writing or meditating …
With the arrival of winter, however, he had to abandon his fort, open to strong, glacial winds, and began to devise a plan to build a cabin. It would be a sturdy cabin with a floor, a roof (flat of course), three windows and a door. Again the kind workers provided him the material for his project and his father, the tools. He built it in less than a month in spite of the cold and frost, which obliged him to make a floor several centimetres off the frozen earth. The door proved a bit dodgy : he bought three hinges with his pocket money, screwed them into the oaken frame of his entrance and into a large piece of plywood which he cut to fit the rectangular entrance. The fit was far from perfect; that is, the door could not be closed correctly. But that didn’t matter, he was only a little boy! Billy dispensed with a door-knob and simply sawed a hole in the plywood big enough to put two fingers through. He did the same for the three square windows, the first sawed out next to the door and the other two on the opposing sides of the cabin. He did not fit them out with sheets of pane as they were expensive and his father refused to give him money for those. Finally, to complete his happy home, he laid out several spare rolls of rug to keep his feet warm during the winter months that his father had stored away in the tool-shed. His cabin became cozy and comfortable, out of bounds to his parents; after all, it was Billy’s own private universe, his intimate recluse from the world. His father only asked him not to dig any more tunnels !
Inside, on the rickety table he had also made by himself, he conducted all sorts of experiments : dissecting frogs and fish, concocting chemical potions made his clothes stink (much to the consternation of his mother) and into which he threw frogs’ legs or fish eyes, or any other animal parts that he happened to come across on his daily late afternoon or evening jaunts.
Alas, during that very harsh winter, a terrible snow storm flattened his cabin completely ; it lay wrecked, buried under tons of dirty grey snow until the early Spring rains exposed the tragic ruins.
But Billy was not a boy to be put out by such unforeseen discomfitures. The undaunted Billy, when the snows of winter had completely melted, set out to build a boat ! Yes, a real boat, made of wood, big enough for three or four adults, with a real bow and deck and cabin, on top of which he would lay or sit on the ‘bridge’, bathing in the sun, reading Jules Verne or writing his memoirs.
So he again pleaded with the workers to supply him with oaken beams for the hull, large planks of plywood for the siding, bottom, deck and bridge to bridge securely the sides of the boat. The workers, amused by this boy’s inventiveness, even furnished him with a special putty to caulk the seams of his boat to make her perfectly watertight. Billy was all agog … So too were the workers!
Little Billy threw his heart and soul into his boat-building under the back deck of the house; he felt at the height of his creative powers, and by early Spring he had completed it: his dream boat. He painted the hull a bright marine blue and christened the boat ‘Captain Nemo’ painted in bold green letters, after the hero of his favourite Jules Verne adventure. He relinquished the task of providing a helm, tiller and rudder which would have required engineering skills beyond his ability; after all, Billy’s boat was a simple boat. However, with a long pole or paddle it could always been poled or paddled if he so desired. On the other hand, he carpeted the cabin located under the ‘bridge’ with the rolls that remained of his father’s thick, blue carpet. Since he had managed to secure his rickety table under the collapsed wreckage of what was once his back garden cabin, he placed that in the cabin of his boat and even built a little chair for it, a bit wobbly, but none the less, sittable, for what would a table be without its chair, and a boat-cabin without both ? Finally he bought a notebook which served as a logbook.
Now the reader at this point may ask him or herself in what waters would this boat be floated, and how would it be hauled into those, up till now, undisclosed waters? It goes without saying that the ingenious Billy had answers to both those questions, for if he didn’t, why would he have built a boat in the first place ? The answer to the first question is quite simple. Many years ago next to Billy’s house had been dug a huge sump, surrounded by a high, wire fence, and whose waters rose very high during the winter and spring. As to the second question, the
And it floated! Yes, Billy’s marvellously made boat really floated! He tugged, hauled and pulled it down the slope of his garden, through the rent in the high wire fence, then down again to the dirty brown sump waters. There he tied it to a stake in the soft soil and stepped back to admire his work. He especially appraised the little ladder he had made that led from the fore-deck to the ‘bridge’ (Billy did not have the engineering know-how to make a stairway), and gloated over the two curves of the bow, joined so perfectly to a nice pointy fit, a bow whose nice fit was thoroughly achieved thanks to his father’s timely and skilful assistance …
Tiny ripples spun round the beautifully painted hull caused by a soft wind. They lapped against the bold green letters of ‘Captain Nemo‘. Billy frowned: he had painted the name a bit too low on the hull! Ah well, he could afford himself a bit of self-indulgence, he hadn’t taken into consideration the weight of the boat and her submersion level. His face, however, lightened up as the rays of the sun grew stronger and stronger. The weeping willows that lined the high wire fence swooned to the gentle breezes and to little Billy’s face beaming with joy. How he revelled in several instants of self-vanity! Who could blame him ?
He took a cursory glance up at his house ; his parents who had gone out to shop had not as yet returned. So much the better! Smiling a mischievous smile, he untied the rope, jumped aboard and let the warm zephyrs of early springtide guide his lovely boat further and further from the sloping shore of the sump. It was her maiden voyage… He went below into the cabin and peeked out of the two portholes (without glass), picked up his logbook and chair, then climbed the make-shift ladder to the ‘bridge’. There he sat in the sun, listening to the silence of the sump, sizing up its largeness.
The branches of the weeping willows brushed lazily against the high wire fence, the birds chirped merrily here and there, some pecking at the dirt around the tree-roots. Billy’s boat, and this goes without saying, had neither outboard motor nor masts for sails: she just drifted on her own, erring aimlessly, like his thoughts, like his lively imagination had always drifted and erred from adventure to adventure … book to book … page to page … word to word … Adventures upon the high seas, atop the highest of mountains, across the hottest of deserts. Fabulous tales of a thousand and one days and nights that no one, neither parents nor teachers, could ever deprive him of, divest him of, dispossess him of …
The sun warmed his cheery, glowing cheeks as he read and wrote to the rhythm of his wanderings. His mind slipped from the scummy waters of the sump to the high swells of some very distant sea … The swells rose to titanic heights, then crashed into a myriad ripples upon some remote sandy island strand. Just then Billy’s drifting mind was brusquely interrupted by cries and shouts. They were coming from inside the sump, near the rent in the fence.
There stood Mr. and Mrs. Wimbly, his next-door neighbours, waving their chubby arms frantically, crying out to him. Mr. Wimbly had even begun to descend precariously the steep slope of the sump to the waters. He stood at the edge, hands now cupped around his mouth, hollering words that he could not understand. Mrs. Wimbly raced recklessly back and forth on the grassy walk-way between the high wire fence and the slopes of the sump. Little Billy shook his head: Was all this real or just an hallucination?
At first he ignored their cries and wild gestures, concentrating on his reading and writing ; after all the Wimblys weren’t his parents! But soon other neighbours began to pour into the sump, or materialise on the other side of the high wire fence, under the weeping willows, their twisted, purple faces swelled in torment, their piercing shrills drowning the musical chirping of the birds. There was fat Mrs. Holly shaking her pudgy fist, chiding him with names that he was taught never to pronounce either in public or at home. How dare the old cow address him with such ugly words. And there, Mr. Rogers, red-faced, his jowls bouncing up and down from so much hooting and hallooing!
Other neighbours, too, came running, all upset, jumping about like puppets on strings, waving at him, scolding him. He stood up and frowned …
Then a sudden strange sensation chilled him to the bone and which made him forget all the ongoing bedlam: He felt that his boat had stopped moving, in spite of the wind that had suddenly picked up, and that the sloping sides of the sump appeared to rise higher and higher, slowly, very slowly, whilst the clouds, too, were rising higher and higher in the deep blue of the sky … rising slowly away from him. Something was terribly wrong. He climbed down from the ‘bridge’ and was about to step down into the cabin when he fell back in horror: black waters were streaming over his lovely carpet, tossing his little table from side to side. The starboard side of his boat had burst from the seams of its framework. Billy froze in utter incomprehension: How could this be ? The boat had been properly caulked ! His beautiful boat … Months of love and labour …
Coming to himself quickly, little Billy climbed back up to the ‘bridge’. There he stood, half baffled, half defiant! From his sinking position he glimpsed through tear-stained eyes the stamping of feet and the pointing of fingers of so many neighbours, known or unknown. Their cries and shouts rose to incredible crescendos. He had no idea how to overcome this predicament, and it suddenly struck him that he had never learned to swim … The sump waters were very deep after the winter months. He prayed that they wouldn’t be so deep where his boat was irretrievably disappearing, for there was nothing else to be done, no one came to his succour, everyone just jumped and ran about like a pack of wild animals.
Then little Billy heard a familiar cry: It was his mother’s ! She had come home, noted all the fuss round the sump and had found the rent in the fence. Now there, at the edge of the slanting slope, she was tearing at her hair, writhing in agony, her hysterical screams drowned out all the others that were drumming through his tiny head without respite. His father suddenly came into view, there, at the foot of the slope, he was descending towards the waters and appeared to jump in and swim towards the now stricken boat … swimming and swimming towards his only child with long and powerful breast-strokes … But no … this was an hallucination: Billy’s father did not know how to swim, and in any case it was too late; little Billy’s beautiful dream boat sank rapidly below the scummy dark waters, dragged down by its weighty load. The last vision that his father and mother had of this hallucinating scene was their son’s outstretched hands clutching his logbook … A few seconds later, out from the suction of the whirlpool, Billy’s little red captain’s cap popped up and floated there, aimlessly, a flotsam of engulfed dreams and sunken aspirations …
His mother collapsed. His father howled with outstretched hands, then fell lamely to his knees …
Sometime afterwards the police arrived on the scene equipped with rubber rafts. They spent hours scouring the waters, mainly because the benumbed neighbours could not decide exactly where the boat had gone under; Billy’s cap having since waded to the other side of the sump. Finally, however, a frogman brought up little Billy’s limp, lifeless body to the surface. As to his boat, it remained at the bottom of those dirty brown waters, a memorial to the boy’s ardent dreams, like the Titanic, never to be disturbed in its final resting place. And although the waters do subside during the hot summer months, there it remains to this day, laying upon its cracked and scorched, lunar-like bed, rotting yet recognisable, a ghostly vision that no hand should ever touch besides that of its hapless creator and captain.
Soon, the ill-fated ghost-boat drew many mourners from the region and beyond. They gathered round the sump to pray or look on in sorrow. Some threw flowers over the fence. (The rent had been repaired.) The sump appeared to have become some sort of pilgrimage site, attracting hundreds and hundreds of people, even foreigners came to vent their curiosity ! The mayor of the town, a rather unscrupulous blighter, brought up in one of the town meetings that perhaps the municipality should charge a small fee for entry into the ‘pilgrimage site’ ! This proposal was over-ruled as bad taste and cynical.
As to little Billy, he was buried at the town cemetery on the bright, warm day of his fourteenth birthday, a funeral without clamour or commotion. Only his parents and close relatives attended the church service and the walk to his final burial plot.
Little Billy’s parents, due to all the fanfare that their son’s cadaverous hulk had aroused, have since moved to another region without leaving their new address to any one …
Paul Mirabile is a retired professor of philology now living in France. He has published mostly academic works centred on philology, history, pedagogy and religion. He has also published stories of his travels throughout Asia, where he spent thirty years.
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