H.E.Bates Short Story Competition

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First Prize Winner - Christine Tennent - Cap'n Diablo's Bouncy Boat

Bear hunt, Balloon modelling, Body painting, Body piercing - what? Chuckles the conjuring clown, Cupcake creations. Bloody hell, the possibilities were endless and absurdly expensive.

Conjuror and balloon modelling? That would keep them entertained. No - didn’t Pattie do that for her daughter last year? Can’t repeat. Libby would be mortified.

Fairy grotto, Glitter girls, Moshi monsters, Pony camp, Sweet princess - ha, Libby would never forgive her.

Seven, soon to be eight Libby, with her angelic blond curls and creamy skin who’d opted for football over ballet and karate over singing. Shorts and t-shirts were her normal attire - the scruffier the better.

Right, concentrate. After another ten minutes of frantic clicking through various websites, Sadie buried her face in her hands. ‘Josh, help!’

The rustling newspaper moved half an inch, but otherwise she might have been talking to old Mr Winterton from down the road. Refused to wear his hearing aids, claimed his hearing was the one faculty that was still working. Parallel conversations were the norm with Mr. Winterton. A simple question about his wife Constance sent him into a hysterical rant about the local Conservative Council.

At this rate she was doomed in her early thirties to become a long suffering Mrs. Winterton.

 ‘Do you know what they’re charging an hour, Josh? Josh!’

This time he lowered the paper sufficiently for her to catch the disinterest skittering across his face.

He yawned. ’You shouldn’t get so stressed about it, Sadie. Why don’t we take Libby and a couple of her friends for a picnic and a walk in the woods?’

The newspaper went back up.

‘A couple of friends?’ Sadie couldn’t control the shrewish shriek. ‘They all invite virtually everyone in the class. Do you want our daughter to become a social pariah at the age of eight? Left out of all the cool parties?  No way.’ She marched over and grabbed the paper out of Josh’s hands, her ponytail swishing with irritation.

  ‘Ok, ok, let me have a look.’

 ‘You won’t find anything that I haven’t,’ Sadie declared. Of course he wouldn’t. Men never did.

 After a few minutes peering at the screen Josh sat back, a satisfied smirk crinkling the corners of his mouth ‘Here we go, perfect. I bet Libby and her friends would love it. He’s cheaper than some of the others as well, although he does mention he prefers payment in doubloons.’

Sadie leaned over his shoulder. The spidery advertisement looked as though it had been scrawled in blood across the screen. 

Ahoy there me hearties!

 Looking for a spot of pillage and plunder? Join me on the high seas, climb the rigging, walk the plank, fight off Black Hawk’s cutthroat gang of pirates. Danger and stolen treasure – come on a trip you’ll never forget!

Cap’n Diablo

‘Sounds a bit of a nutter to me,’ sniffed Sadie. How come she hadn’t spotted the advert? ‘I’ll talk to him on the phone, suss him out.’

Time was against her. Sadie left a couple of voicemail messages, but in the end had to rely on texting the elusive Cap’n Diablo to sort out the details.

When they told their daughter she did handstands across the room. The bruises and scabs in patterns on her whirling legs were the outcome of climbing trees and being hacked on the shins at football. ‘Brill - clever daddy. None of my friends have had a pirate party,’ exclaimed a panting, pink cheeked Libby when she finally stood upright.

No, they wouldn’t have. Not the first idea that comes to mind for an eight-year-old girl’s birthday. Sadie could already visualise the judgemental expressions.  Parents who’d sent their daughters dressed in their princess finery, only to discover they’d been cavorting around with swords and eye patches.

Cap’n Diablo presented himself at the front door on the afternoon of the party.  A wiry, bandy-legged man with leathery skin, a scar from eye to mouth puckering one side of his face, he exuded a briny, sweaty smell that rolled across the hall.  He came fully formed as a pirate with his stained, red bandana, tri-cornered black hat and lank grey hair down to his shoulders. His crimson waistcoat, baggy shirt and breeches were torn and patched. Gold hoop earrings glittered in the sunlight and a lethal looking dagger and cutlass hung from his belt.

 Sadie could feel the skin round her mouth tightening and her cheeks going hot. She must not laugh - or cry. He was going to scare the living daylights out of the parents, let alone the kids. The bright green, yellow-faced parrot perched on his shoulder and staring through beady, red-rimmed eyes was clearly stuffed. 

‘Watchya doin’,’ it squawked, as it pooped white, sticky gloop down Cap’n Diablo’s back. He didn’t seem to notice.

 ‘Do you have any one to help?’ Sadie couldn’t control the quiver in her voice.

Cap’n Diablo turned his head, his earrings swinging backwards and forwards as he coughed and spat brown, slimy froth across the lawn. ’Don’t need no help, missus. I’ve bin doin’ this longer than you could imagine. Danger on the high seas, stolen treasure. Kids love it. ’ He grinned, revealing cracked teeth.

 Well his makeup was bloody good. Cap’n Diablo indeed - probably an Estate Agent during the week. ‘I’ll open the side gate for you.’ Sadie peered down the road but couldn’t spot his vehicle.

‘Parked round the back. I’ll get on then, Missus.’

‘Shut your face, Cap’n,’ shrieked the parrot.

Sadie deliberately avoided looking outside as Cap’n Diablo set up. If it was going to be a disaster there was nothing she could do about it now. She heard the occasional shriek from the parrot amidst the hammering and swooshing sounds.

She’d gathered a box of pirate gear for the kids - an assortment of multi-coloured bandanas, sashes, hats, eye patches, plastic swords, baggy trousers and leather belts. Libby had been in her outfit since lunchtime, racing around the house, flourishing her sword and practising walking a plank made out of wobbly boxes.

‘This is going to be awesome, Mum. My friends will be well jealous.’

 Ten of them – all girls.

The hammering finally stopped and Sadie heard the parrot screech, ‘Where‘s me bloody grog, Cap’n?’

Moment of truth time. Sadie stepped outside and caught her breath. Sails fluttered in the breeze and a black flag decorated with a white skull and crossbones flew from the mast.  The only way to board appeared to be across a raised wooden plank and up a rope ladder dangling over the side.

 It must be a blow-up thing, a kind of huge bouncy boat – it was quite remarkable.

The doorbell rang and Sadie spent the next ten minutes greeting guests and handing out eye patches, swords and pirate hats. Some of the princess types giggled nervously when they saw the boat.

They’d struggle to get up that ladder with their shiny shoes and cream tights. Sorry, Jill but your Maisie’s fallen off a pirate ship and broken her arm. Sadie could feel perspiration trickling down the back of her neck.

Cap’n Diablo stood beside the wooden plank, doffing his hat to each of the girls and handing out yellowing, crumpled pieces of paper. ’Climb aboard, maties,’ he growled.

The parrot kept up a tirade of squawking. ‘Hello’, ‘Bye bye’, ‘Shut up’ and the occasional ‘Jim’s a boy.’

Sadie sneaked a look over her daughter’s shoulder. She seemed to have the crucial bit of a map - the bit where X marks the spot. Quite right too, the party girl should be the one with the best chance of discovering the treasure.

With a lot of squealing the girls teetered across the plank and up the swaying rope ladder, before disappearing from sight.

Cap’n Diablo waved his cutlass above his head as he scrambled up the side of the boat.

 For an older guy he was pretty spry. He’d need to be if he was going to keep up with ten hyper-active seven and eight year olds. Sadie could heard him yelling, ‘Avast there, me hearties, let’s weigh anchor. There’s a bucket by the gunnels if you‘re feeling queasy.’

The kids wouldn’t have a clue what he was going on about. She hovered outside for a bit. It had all gone very quiet, apart from the sound of water, like the slapping of waves against the side of a boat. They must have put some music on.

Right, on with the tea. Not that kids usually ate much at parties but she duly heated up sausages, sausage rolls, pizzas and quiches, and made an assortment of sandwiches.

The pièce de résistance of the party food was her treasure chest cake, which she’d filled with chocolate coins covered in gold foil, candy necklaces, edible silver balls and little wrapped gifts with an X on them.

They must have finished by now. Sadie stood on the wooden plank, her cheek pressed against the side of the boat, listening. Strange how solid it felt. She couldn’t hear anything, not even that wretched parrot.

The shrieks and excited chattering made her jump as the girls appeared at the top of the ladder. They came clambering down, clutching the rope with filthy hands, shoes sodden and tights grimy and torn. Their damp clothes were coated in a fine layer of sand and their faces had a rosy, sun-burnt glow.

 It hadn’t been that hot - had it?

Libby’s nose was peeling and a red-stained, scruffy bandage was wrapped round her left hand.  It must be part of some game.  Even the princesses looked as though they’d been in a fight.

Sadie made them clean up before letting them loose on the party food. They devoured everything, like a plague of giggling locusts.

She left the whispering girls tucking into the treasure chest cake and went outside. Cash on the day was what they’d agreed. But the bouncy boat had already gone. Her shoes sank into the grass which was oozing water and mud. Josh would be none too pleased about his precious lawn. But then he was the one who’d found Cap'n Diablo and chosen to make himself scarce on the day. Clever how he’d suddenly realised he had an urgent business trip on the weekend of the party.

Gritty sand blew in her face - where had that come from?  And was that paint on the grass? She bent down and touched one of the glistening red blobs with the tip of a finger. It had a sickly, syrupy smell. She caught a whiff of something acrid and smoky in the air. Perhaps they’d had a barbecue on the bouncy boat.

Where was the wretched man? Surely he wanted his money.

After braving the frowns of wincing parents and delivering grovelling apologies about the state of their daughters’ clothes, Sadie tried to get out of Libby exactly what had happened.

Libby screwed up her face, eyes wide. ‘It’s a secret, Mum. Cap’n Diablo made us promise never to tell - we signed in blood. My friends said it was the coolest party ever.’

Get her to spill the beans when she was tired, that was Sadie’s plan. Later, as she ran her daughter’s bath and helped her pull off her pirate gear she asked, ‘So, did you find any buried treasure, sweetheart?’

‘We dug and dug, you know where X marks the thingy, but we didn’t find anything.’ Libby’s voice was squeaky with indignation, her face flushed. ’Some-one stole Cap’n Diablo’s treasure. But he was awesome, Mum, you should have seen him fighting off the Black Hawk pirates and they had a gun, a musket the Cap’n called it. Slash, slash, he went with his sword. That’s when I hurt my hand. The Cap’n says he’s going to try again, but he has to track down a new treasure map first and find another gang of kids to help.’

Underneath the bandage a ragged slash, still seeping blood, ran across Libby’s soft, pink palm.

Other Prize Winners

Evan Guilford-Blake won Second Prize with Ashes

Gary Dooley won Third Prize with A Lot Of Explaining

Deanna Allan won the Northamptonshire Prize with Summer Ending