With a grimace that would be mirrored countless times in the years ahead until it leapt the gap of a generation to reappear on the anxious countenance of his son facing the tall side of his first ship, Stephen Maturin gauged the undulating chasm separating him from the Surprise. He visibly tensed to spring, then relaxed as he judged the moment lost, at the exact instant that the boat crested the swell and a pair of powerful arms propelled him out and upwards.
He heard the anguished cry of 'Clap on there, your Honour!' as he rose in a dreamlike arc, arms flying out, one hand for himself and one for his wig.
'Heaven must be not unlike this state,' he thought, weightlessly pausing between sea and sky before commencing an inevitable plunge towards the pleasant blue waters of the Mediterranean; Gibraltar and Europe on one hand, sunny Africa distant on the other.
A sudden jerk as he was snatched from the air and hauled aboard, his wig flapping away like a small shocked white bird.
'Oh, good catch, Bonden!' cried Jack, hurrying up. 'Stephen, I trust you are ready for sea, all stores aboard and so on? We must sail on the instant, and devil take the sternpost.'
'Is there not to be had a moment's peace, brother? Always it is hasten here, hasten there, yet when we arrive we must wait upon an admiral, a fleet, a wind for weeks together before flying off anew like a swift in springtime. And me without my wig.'
Stephen's hand rasped over his grey-bristled scalp and Jack's port eyebrow arched for a second.
'Yes, yes, Jack, the sick berth is amply provisioned. And manned too, if we may lend Poll Skeeping a fraudulent sex. Whither are we bound, do you know at all?'
Jack smiled as he savoured his moment. 'It is the nature of the service to be always in a rush. And, Stephen, you must consider the name of our vessel.'
There was a shout from the boat alongside. Jack leaned over, chuckling, his broad face creasing further as he saw a canvas bag handed up.
'Why, here's our mail! We shall have tidings from home as we make our passage.' Jack paused. 'That is to say, news from England.'
He plucked the sodden wig from the tip of an upthrust boathook and handed it to his friend, sighing afresh as Stephen crammed it on, the salt water trickling down his cheeks.
© 2004 Peter Mackay