“Once upon a time,” said Grandad, “Back when I was a lad … “
“One early morning I took a walk down the beach, before breakfast, before anyone was even awake. A clear, brisk morning, the sea calm. A seagull's call over waves brushing small stones onto the beach.
Backlit by the low sun, a family of large rabbits hopped about a freshly tilled field, stopping here and there to chew an exposed root.
I watched for a while, till they hopped away, then carried on down the beach.
Suddenly, I was set upon by pirates, leaping out from behind the dunes! Pirates, who bundled me up, tied me down, threw me into the bottom of their little boat, and pushed out through the surf, heaving and ho-ing till we pulled up against their pirate ship, anchored in deeper water off the coast.
In just moments, life had changed irrevocably. I’d been shanghaied, kidnapped, taken away to sea, against my will, destined to be cabin boy on the pirate ship Tordmule, to sail under the great Captain Erik Pfefferminze.
And do you know what? Apart from the rough-handling and unexpectedness, I didn't mind. A bit of talking, gesticulating, yo-ho-hoing and the like, but soon enough Captain Erik and Co. were convinced. I was happy to sign on for the pirate life. I'd always had a hankering to try. Just lacked an opportunity. And here was one presenting itself.
So, away we sailed on the Tordmule, in pursuit of riches and adventure.
And find them? Arrrh, we did!
Together, me and me hearties pillaged, plundered, marauded and fought our way across seven seas, twenty seven oceans, sixteen solar systems, fifty two galaxies, more than three parallel universes, nine trillion, four hundred and one billion, nine hundred and sixty-eight million, seven hundred and thirty four thousand, three hundred and sixty five point two epic sea battles, and the entire length and breadth of space and time.
Until we reached the very end, the end of … everything…
The Captain had a good look around, even though there was nothing to see, and seriously considered going on, even though there was nowhere to go on to, just for the sake of taking our adventure that little bit further, maintaining the lovely momentum we had going.
But when we paused to look around, we looked behind too, and chanced to see in its entirety the great train of wealth and treasure we'd amassed. In convoy at rear were fleets of treasure ships, armadas of plundered wealth, kingdoms of gold and jewels, exotic riches, bathtubs, and, um, other items. For instance footwear, ornamental gardens, and all kinds of the weird and wonderful things you might just want to have, on a whim, if you ever just could.
Spaceships and cricket bats, libraries with parquetry floors and high stained windows, and whole soccer fields with teams and referees, stadiums replete with screaming fans.
Instruction manuals for knitting zippered cardigans, king’s ransoms, and signed first editions of nineteenth century literary classics.
Wheeled things, and springy things, and things you could pull apart and put back together in different ways. Paper planes, shrieking parrots, and some really good farts. Shiny things, and fast things, smooth things, and heavy things, tasty things, and really really icky things.
What a haul, what a booty. What loot! Who could ever want for more, or other, or else?
So, so overladen, weighed down in all our glory, we brought about the Tordmule and its caravan, and with heads high, with plans for great feasts and celebrations in mind’s eye, for months, years, millennia of largess, in such excess to surpass the legendary kings of yore, we struck out for home. We had, we told ourselves, achieved the impossible, the most glorious, amassing such loot in so little time.
Then, and only then, as we turned and began to voyage back along the long path we’d traveled, only then the enormity of what we'd done and its all too terrible consequences began to impress upon us. The flipside of our glory, our vainglory: the awfulness, the horror, all on our account, that which we had done, the egregious and unnecessary damage we had inflicted.
After not long, not long at all, the desolation overwhelmed any swashbuckled stoicism. Pirates we are, but heartless we are not, and reflection and compassion, we know as well.
For there, strewn along and around our route, lay waste, destruction, loss and despair, sadness and grief.
And all, down to us. Our conquest, our victories, our spoils, were all achieved at a price. Now, looking back along the path we’d taken, looking back for the very first time, we could see those who’d paid that price, and how they’d paid.
We felt guilty, we felt bad. We knew not what to do.
And so began to make reparations as best we could, to return, to restore, to replace, to repair. To upright the statues and institutions we had earlier upended. To re-unite the families we had torn asunder. To sticky-tape together the pages we earlier ripped apart. To put the toys back in their boxes, to clean and return all the clothes and shoes to their cupboards. To reconstitute, to the best of our seafarers’ ability, and with increasingly scant resources drawn from our once massive treasure trove, everything we had broken, destroyed or displaced.
We set clocks ticking again. We splinted the tiny stems of plants crushed under boot. Everywhere, we applied bandage and disinfectant. We comforted lost and baby animals, fed them milk with large plastic syringes. We unwound typhoons. We collected garbage, and cleaned the brown scum from the tops of the waves.
Until, long before home was even close again, long before the wrongs were righted, our hoard was exhausted. Our treasure chests emptied, voided, bare but for the regrets and sorrows now nesting there.
We will never be wholly forgiven for what we did. Perhaps people can understand that we were young, caught up in the excitement of unrestrained and untrained power, barely under control. We never really meant any harm, certainly not once we comprehended the consequences of our actions. And we did our best to set things right, though of course you can never quite put things back the way they were.
Nearing the end of the journey back, our trusty pirate ship was bequeathed to a family of coastal traders, whose boats we'd scuttled aeons earlier. The last seen or heard of the Tordmule disappeared into an early morning coastal fog, with all hands on deck singing a call and answer sea shanty alerting other vessels to her slow and careful course through the soup. Captain Pfefferminze standing to attention while our dinghy tipped to and fro in her wake, until she was gone.
In the end, I too parted company with me no-more so-ho-ho hearties.
Eventually, the coastline of home filled the horizon. Getting there only possible through the kindness of another – the last long stretch on a bicycle borrowed from a wrinkled old fish.
From there, the brief walk home, up the beach and past the rabbits, so quick it seemed I'd hardly been away at all.
“Back in time for breakfast,” I thought to myself like the long lost lad I’d once been.
Well, I stepped through the door and into the house, wearing nothing but sailor’s rags and the odd piece of skin art, sporting a scar or two and a beard unknown to the lad who’d stepped out so long ago ….
“… and that, me hearties,” said Grandad, “That was that.”