By Mick Haining, UK
“Don’t wake the baby! Don’t wake the baby!” squeaked the ‘Judy’. The children laughed at Grandad’s silly high-pitched voice. Digger laughed with them but could not contain himself sitting on the ground – he was on his feet, clapping, too.
“He needs his nap. I’m going out and I won’t be long.” Grandad squeaked and wobbled the Judy figure across the little stage and behind the bright painted curtain. He lowered his Judy hand and gripped the stick to which the ‘baby’ was attached. “Walky, walky!” he roared in Punch’s voice. “Walky, walky!”
“Don’t wake the baby!” shouted Stroppy, from where she sat in the front row.
“Walky, walky!” called Punch.
One of the children stood and point out to sea. “A star!” he shouted. Others stood, too, to watch the light rise up from the horizon into the sky. It was bigger than a star, soaring high above the horizon. The adults shifted their focus, and began to speculate about what it might be. Behind his home-made stage, Grandad detected the change in in his audience and turned to look out to sea.
The show was abandoned and the audience walked past the stage towards the boats to become spectators at a different event. The bright white ball dropped way out to sea.
“What do you think?” said Big Fisher.
“It was a distress flare,” insisted Grandad.
“A what?” said Little Fisher.
“They’re a long way out,” said Cobbler, handing the binoculars to Big Fisher.
“The sea’s pretty calm,” said Roper. “Though the breeze would be against us.”
“It’ll be bringing them closer then,” said Big Fisher. “Who’d still have flares?”
Grandad stamped his foot and shook his head. Painter came running to the slipway.
“What is it? Vikings?” he said anxiously.
“Since when have they been using boats?” said Reader sarcastically.
“I just thought…” said Painter.
“Whoever they are, they’re in trouble,” said Grandad vehemently, “and we’re not animals. Yet.”
“And while we stand here debating, their chances lessen,” added Reader.
A show of hands gave a majority in favour of sending a rescue party. Big Fisher and Little Fisher got into their boat, followed by Doctor. Those on the shore watched the boat pull away as the oars dipped into the water with a smooth rhythm. Nothing was visible on the horizon.
“Can we watch the rest of Punch and Judy?” asked Chipper.
“That’s the way to do it,” said Grandad in his Punch voice, “That’s the way to do it!” and he led them back to his little stage.
Doctor could see the speck on the water without the binoculars now. She adjusted the tiller accordingly. They were a long way out from the Nab. As Big and Little Fisher continued to row with the same steady strokes, it wasn’t too long before Doctor could identify a boat similar in size to their own. A ragged sail flapped loosely. There seemed to be a figure slumped at the stern, motionless. They were soon within hailing distance.
“Ahoy, there!” called Big Fisher.
The man at the stern jerked his head up. He struggled to raise himself and voiced something incomprehensible before falling back onto his seat. They could hear him making more sounds, looking from them to the floor of his own boat. As the Nab vessel drew alongside, they could see lying on the bottom of the boat a man, a woman holding a baby and a young girl. The woman with the baby struggled to sit up and the young girl opened her eyes but the man did not stir. The woman began to croak words that none of the Nab could understand and held out the baby. Doctor saw the tiny hands and feet move. While the two Nab men held the boats together, Doctor stepped over with water bottles. She gave one each to the woman and the man at the helm. She tried briefly to raise the young girl to help her drink and then laid her gently down again.
“No,” she said to Little Fisher as he made to join her in the foreign boat. “Go back!” Puzzled, he did so and she followed him.
“They have a disease,” she said, washing her hands thoroughly in the sea. “They have spots, so it could be measles or something else. That one’s dead, I’m sure. The girl’s done for, too. The other man probably, as well.”
Big Fisher released his grip and the two boats bobbed side by side. For a while no-one spoke but stared at the foreign boat. They saw the woman struggle to her knees and stare back at them. She now held the baby out over the small gap between the boats, calling the same sounds over and over. Doctor realised that she knew some of the words – her own mother had been German. Though the others could not understand the words, there was no mistaking the desperation.
“Don’t take it,” said Doctor. There was such a weight in her chest. Her parents had been doctors and they had taught her everything they knew about the human body as society had begun to disintegrate around them. They had talked to her about hospitals, nurses, operating theatres, X-rays, vaccination, the preciousness of life. “All the machinery will come back one day,” her mother had said, “but in the meantime, the world will still need doctors.” How she wished they were here now to take this decision away from her!
“We could tow them in,” said Big Fisher.
“For what?” said Doctor. “I don’t know if we can cure them or not, but I do know we’d be towing that disease back, too.”
“So we’re just going to leave them?” said Little Fisher. “We’ve rowed all this way to do nothing? Grandad said we’re not animals.”
The woman with the baby was now sobbing and calling to them, still holding the baby over the water.
“No, we’re not animals,” said Doctor. “But think about Toddler. Think about Chipper.” She was thinking about her own little girl, Stroppy.
“Couldn’t we tow them back, but keep them in their boat, feed them there, see what happens?” said Big Fisher.
“We could,” said Doctor. “Or we could leave them and guarantee the Nab. Vote on it?”
They fell silent again. The two boats bobbed gently, an oar’s length apart.
“I say we tow them back, leave them in their boat and take our chances,” said Little Fisher.
“I say we leave them,” said Doctor. “We’d not just be taking our chances, we’d be taking the chances of everybody else on the Nab.”
They both looked at Big Fisher and he looked away to the woman in the foreign boat. She had drawn the baby to her chest now and was looking from it to the heavens, mumbling something. She began a weak, plaintive song.
Big Fisher looked away. He gazed back along the way they had rowed. His head dropped to his chest. “Toddler is my future,” he said. “We leave them.”
“For fuck’s sake!” shouted Little Fisher. “They’re going to die slowly. We give them this little bit of hope and then we rip it away from them!”
“Them or the Nab,” said Doctor. “Yes, we brought them hope but we might bring despair to the Nab.”
“We don’t know that!” said Little Fisher.
“Them or the Nab?” said Doctor, her heart sore.
Little Fisher looked at the sky and roared. The woman stopped singing and looked alarmed. At the helm, the man held the water bottle and stared at the bottom of the boat.
“But we can’t leave them to die slowly either,” said Big Fisher.
Doctor stared at him. It took several seconds for her to grasp what he meant.
“I can’t do that,” she said. “I can’t do what I think you’re saying.”
Big Fisher gripped his oars and pulled their boat to join the other. Little Fisher stared aghast as Big Fisher shipped his oars when the two boats knocked together. The woman knelt up again, holding the baby up to him as Big Fisher stepped across with a mallet and a rowlock pin. He could not look at her. “Toddler, Toddler,” he repeated over and over as he looked for the drain plug. He did not see the look of bewilderment on the woman’s face when he bent over the plug and positioned the pin. He did not see the dull stare of the man at the helm nor the face of the young girl who had now shut her eyes. He continued to repeat “Toddler, Toddler,” as he struck the blows that dislodged the plug and let the water come gushing in. He repeated it as he loosened the woman’s hand from the grip she had taken on his trouser leg. He did not look back as he stepped across to his own boat and did not see the young girl trying to raise her head from the rising water.
Though he could avert his eyes he could not stop his ears from hearing the mother begin to sing to her baby again, as he left them to drown. Doctor saw the tears streaming down Big Fisher’s face as he pulled on the oars to put distance between themselves and the last, short struggles in the water.
Their progress away from the sinking was jerky. It took some time for Little Fisher’s fury to ease enough for him to move into Big Fisher’s rhythm. Through the binoculars, Doctor could see the smoke rising from the Nab and adjusted the tiller accordingly. They did not speak until the Nab was in plain sight.
“So what do we tell them?” said Little Fisher.
“We have to lie,” said Doctor. “We’ll just say we were too late.”
“Yeah, that’ll keep us well civilised,” said Little Fisher. “We’re not animals – they don’t lie.”
“That’s exactly—,” began Doctor. She shut her eyes and shook her head.
At the Nab, there were plenty of questions but Little Fisher didn’t stay to answer any. Big Fisher sat with his legs dangling in the water, remembering the grip of the woman on his trouser leg. Archer brought their girl, Toddler, and sensed some distress. She suggested she’d go home and warm something for him to eat. He nodded.
“Shall I leave Toddler with you?” she said. He shook his head.
Grandad was the last to leave them alone.
“So there was just the one then?” he said to Doctor. “In the boat.”
“That’s all I saw,” said Doctor as Stroppy tugged at her hand. “It was sinking. It had gone down by the time we got to it.”
“And you were on the tiller, facing them,” said Grandad.
“That’s right,” said Doctor. “Stroppy, I’m coming.” Stroppy pulled harder.
“That’s strange,” said Grandad. “Little Fisher said you couldn’t save any of the four. And he’d have had his back to the boat as he was rowing.”
“We were too late, that’s all,” said Doctor. “I have to go.”
Grandad nodded. “Well,” he said, “you’ll have done the right thing. You’re a good doctor.”
Doctor picked Stroppy up and hugged her as she listened to her account of how horrible Mr Punch had been to the baby. Every so often, on the way home, she whispered into Stroppy’s curls the words she had heard across the water. “Meine kleine, meine kleine” (“My little one, my little one”).