Four handsome oarsmen pull for the shore, in long, sweeping, arcs.
Bo’sun Bananas has the tiller, softly calling the strokes.
McShae the shipwright sits beside him as the whaler surfs in on the grey tide.
While hunched at the prow with a small mahogany box on his knees, is Ayres, the ship’s botanist and confirmed landsman, counting the yards to the shingle.
These three are on an errand of their own concern.
It’s 1796 and in Dublin Bay, HMS Shannon, at this time still His Majesty’s Ship, in name anyway, has taken up her usual anchorage after an uncommon good four-day voyage. Uncommon good that is, for her captain and crew. Two nights previous, a rendezvous had been made with a fat ketch definitely not flying the colours of revolutionary France. The two vessels had lashed themselves together and in the first unrecorded instance of replenishment at sea, had transferred their cargoes.
In a transaction worthy of his reputation, Captain Barney had negotiated the exchange of all the Admiralty powder he held in his magazine for every ounce of brandy and claret that the Shannon would hold.
And now, back in home waters, and below in his cabin, and feeling magnificent after his shave, he turns his eye to the finest of ankles dangling from his bunk and is moved to song;
‘There once was a band, of Irish dragoons,
Come marchin’ down through Fyvie-O…..’
“Who’s that wailing?” asks a sleepy voice from under the bedclothes.
Undeterred, he sings on;
‘…And the captain fell in love, wi' a bonnie bonnie lass
And he called her by name, pretty Catty-O…’
McShae the shipwright it was, who first reported the intelligence to his shipmates that the owner of the most disreputable shebeen this side of Wicklow conducted heathen communication with the spirits. And not the spirits that sailors were commonly in heathen communication with either: these didn’t come in a bottle, - Madam Sam spoke with the dead!
“Mother of God! You don’t say“. said Bananas lighting his pipe.
“As true as eight bells on a Hamburg cutter!” affirmed McShae.
“Smoke and oakum.” muttered Ayres.
“There’s maybe something in it,” remarked the bo’sun, “for I once heard a knockin’ in a kitchen dresser I couldn’t explain.”
“Of course there is.” continued McShae, drawing his stool closer to his two confederates.
“Ah’m telling’ ye. That last time we were berthed waitin’ orders, I was ashore and ah went into Sam’s Chandlery for a bit o rope. Anyway, they didna ha’e the right kind, but seein’ ah was there, I stepped into the back shop for just the one wee refreshment no‘ worth talkin‘ about.”
Both bo’sun and botanist examined the deck planks.
“Ye needna worry,” said McShae, sensing some doubt in his companions, “it all took place before I had ma ration. Onyway, the mistress, that Sam hersel’, flung a trance and spoke tae Mery Queen O’ Scoats, passin‘ messages from the dear deperted to the locals for a shillin‘.”
At the mention of money, the bo’sun and botanist crossed themselves although neither was catholic.
“Messages from the departed?” asked Bananas.
“She had Bloody Mery to the life!” attested McShae.
“A shilling?” asked Ayres.
It was therefore decided among the three, that at the next chance, they would avail themselves of Mistress Sam’s uncanny gift, to see what had become of their friend Eater, the ship’s cook, now missing this past week, feared drowned upon the rolling billow.