I’VE BEEN AT home on the sea since before I could walk. I was born in a small port of some disrepute, then smuggled on board a clipper headed for the Indies by my mother, desperate to escape the miseries of the only life she’d ever known. And perhaps we would have made it, dear mama and I, had the ship not been overrun by a dastardly crew of black hearted pirates, every last one of them missing at least one part of their body.
For some reason, I alone was spared. Perhaps the captain saw a glint of promise in my pudgy little face; more likely his mind was filled with thoughts of how much he could ransom me for. We’ll never know, given the mutiny which soon followed. The captain was set adrift on a couple of rotten planks and the superstitious sailors adopted me as some kind of mewling mascot, reputed to bring the crew luck and fortune and — I’m ashamed to admit — more than one or two cases of projectile vomiting.
My first memories therefore are of toddling around decks and clambering happily up the rigging, gazing out at sparkling azure seas and imagining myself King of the Seven Seas, swearing vengeance on the captain who had wronged me so. By the time I was old enough to hold a dagger between my teeth without dribbling, I was already infamous — the boy pirate with a heart as black as bilge water.
At ten years of age, I was captain of my own ship. By twelve, I had defeated Captains Blackbeard, Bluebeard, Redbeard — even the elusive and rather peculiar Pinkbeard. By the time I was old enough to sprout my own whiskers, I had a fleet of my own, a crew so devoted they would walk the plank for me, and more riches than I knew what to do with.
All of that counts for nothing right now however, as the magic-powered rowboat speeds across the rolling waves, making me feel as sick as a drunken dolphin with dropsy.
‘This is bracing, isn’t it?’ Pan yells above the whine of the turbines. ‘Wonder if it can go any faster?’
I close my eyes, willing my stomach to stop churning like a maelstrom. As if something unseen has heard my wish, I feel the boat begin to slow. Gradually at first, then to a pace where I feel I can at last sit up.
‘Bother!’ says Pan. ‘Looks like the magic’s wearing off. Hey, Tink — got any more of your pixie power left?’
‘I am not a pixie.’ Tinkerbell’s hovering, arms folded crossly across her chest. ‘I am a fairy.’
Pan laughs irritatingly. ‘Pardon me, your majesty!’
Seldom have I seen a fairy so enraged. She turns a stormy shade of green, her eyes darkening like twin whirlpools. The air crackles around her; tiny little bolts of lightning fork above her head. I’ve seen her like this only once before, when she took umbrage to something the late ‘Bigmouth’ Bob Mullins said. It took us three days to scrub what was left of him from the quarterdeck.
‘Tink,’ I say, ‘leave it. The boy’s not worth your trouble.’
Pan continues to laugh, standing with one foot on the prow facing us, his hands on his hips. Tinkerbell tuts and flutters over towards me, where she alights gently on my underdeveloped shoulders.
‘Look,’ I say. ‘At least until we find the Little Mermaid, wouldn’t it be better if we all tried to get along?’
‘Why James!’ Pan looks set to burst with mirth. ‘Since when did you become the peacemaker?’
‘Since I agreed to this cursed quest.’
‘You really think SB will give you a royal pardon?’ Pan balances on the prow on tiptoe, a feat so impressive it makes me wish I had ready access to a cricket bat.
‘That’s what she promised.’
‘Yes, wasn’t it?’ He winks. Above us, his shadow circles the boat like a translucent albatross. ‘Though you couldn’t see what she was doing from where you were standing, could you?’
My voice squeaks out like a strangulated starling. ‘And what was that?’
He beams smugly. ‘Why, she had her fingers crossed, of course!’
‘You’re lying!’ My voice increases in pitch so drastically it sets even my teeth on edge. ‘She would never … ‘
I try to remember, standing there on the deck before her, if I could see both her hands. It’s the oldest trick in the book, one I would never normally fall for. The solemn binding power of a promise, undone by such a simple gesture.
‘Well, she did.’ Pan sticks out his tongue. I wish for a flock of seagulls to appear and let loose a salvo of droppings on it, but the skies above us remain clear, other than the wearisome smudge of his shadow.
‘In that case,’ I say, getting to my feet. ‘Then there is little reason for you and I to continue to work together, is there?’
Despite my ungainly prepubescent gait, I obviously still carry some element of my normal intimidating self. Pan’s smile vanishes, replaced by a whitewash of fear. I manage a growl of satisfaction, and advance towards him with my hands outstretched.
‘Behind you!’ cries Pan.
‘Oh please,’ I say. ‘That’s the second oldest trick in the book. You expect me to —’
I swallow my words, much in the same way as the Great White Whale that’s just loomed from the depths behind us swallows our vessel whole …