The Shovan Chronicles — Part 1
Quench pushed through the crowd, the docile pigeon cradled in his cupped hands.
“Fresh, fresh,” called the traders. “Herring, cod, live crabs. Mind your backs, mind your backs.” The barrow boys ran back and forth pushing trolleys full of the wet fish.
Quench loved the port on market day, the salty air and the smell of the sea, the tall masts of the fishing boats bobbing on the water, the shoppers haggling for the best prices.
A clipper had docked that morning. He stopped for a few moments to watch the stevedores unload the crates of tea and rolls of silk, then hurried on his way; he had an errand to run, and the thirsty sailors would soon be making their way to the inn. Woe betide the serving lad who was tardy in supplying the source of the seafarers’ intoxication, and the source of the Master’s profits. He left the quay, crossed the main road, dodging the horses and carriages, and made his way down a side street with its tall terraced-houses. He found the house he was looking for. Its bright red fence and neat flower beds made it easy to spot amongst the run-down buildings.
He stood at the gate, self-conscious, plucking up the courage to go in.
A woman in the next house leaned out of a window and waved her hand, shooing him away. “They be respectable people that live there, so don’t you go bothering them.”
Before he could answer, the front door opened. A teenage girl, tall, with long red wavy hair, stood in the doorway.
“I was wondering…” He hesitated, trying to overcome his shyness. “…if you could help me.”
“You’re the lad from the Inn, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I’m Quench.”
“What do you want?”
“Is it true that your father works at the menagerie?”
“Yes. How do you know that?”
“Someone told me. Is he really a scientist?”
“Yes, he’s a zoologist.”
“My pigeon is sick. I was wondering if he could make him well.”
The girl smiled. “Poor thing, bring it here.”
Quench pushed open the gate and held up the pigeon.
“You must be nice,” said the girl, stroking the bird. “Boys don’t usually care about sick animals.”
“He’s my friend. Lives in the attic with me.”
“Do you have other friends? I mean, human ones?”
“Not really, I work all day in the inn.”
“I don’t have many visitors either. My school is far away. My friends don’t come to this part of town. My name is Wendy, by the way.”
“You already said that, do you always repeat yourself?” She had a huge grin on her face.
Quench blushed, he wasn’t used to being mocked.
“I’m Quench,” he repeated. They both laughed.
“Nice to hear such merriment,” said a voice behind them.
“Hello, Papa.” Wendy rushed up the path and kissed her father. He had a grey beard, thick glasses and carried a battered briefcase.
“Who is your friend?”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Quench. I’m known as The Professor.” He went to shake Quench’s hand, then stopped himself when he saw the pigeon.
“And who’s this little fella?” he said, bending down to take a closer look. “Ah yes, Columba Palumbus, the humble Woodpigeon.”
“I call him Herbert.”
“It’s sick,” said Wendy
“Let’s all go inside. First I need of a cup of tea, then I’ll see what I can do about this poorly bird.”
Wendy and her father went inside. Quench followed, hesitantly. He wasn’t used to being invited into peoples’ homes. They were in a kitchen, with a big iron stove and walls of brilliant white. It was all so clean. Unlike the inn, with its black walls, splattered with grease from the big pot bubbling away over the fireplace. He looked at the bright red window frames and the red patterns on the white curtains. The Professor sat at the polished wooden table and beckoned Quench to sit opposite. A kettle was sitting on the hob. Wendy went to make the tea.
“Put it here,” said the Professor. Quench placed the pigeon on the table.
“He’s too sick to fly. Doesn’t have the strength to spread his wings.”
The Professor ran his fingers over the bird’s head and down its back. He looked under the wings and pulled out each leg and examined them. “There is no obvious injury. We must speak to the veterinary surgeon at the zoological gardens. Bring the bird there tomorrow and we’ll see what he says.”
“I’ll take you there after school,” said Wendy.
“Do you like working at the inn?”
“It’s hard work, but I love hearing the sailors’ stories of lands far away, with their strange inhabitants and exotic animals. The Master always scoffs, for him the tales of the sea-dogs are the products of long boring voyages and over-active imaginations. But I believe them. One day, I too will sail one of the fast ships to distant lands. Then I will be the one sitting in the inn, telling my tales of distant civilizations.”
The Professor was staring at his tea, silent. Wendy did not notice the troubled look on his face.
“But I must run now,” continued Quench. “I don’t want the Master to be angry.”
He picked up the pigeon and went towards the door.
“Haven’t you forgotten something?” asked Wendy.
“I don’t have time for tea, but thanks anyway.”
“Not that, silly, I haven’t told you what time to come tomorrow.”
“After school, of course.”
“And how do you know at what time I finish school?”
“You pass the inn every day at a quarter past four. I will come out and meet you…silly!”
Quench ran back to the inn. He was happy. Wendy smiled so much, he thought. She’s the only person in the world who smiles at me, apart from the woman in the market who gives me the free fish on Fridays.
Quench had been keeping a look-out through the window in his attic. He saw Wendy walking down the street and rushed out to meet her. She beamed a smile as he approached, and Quench felt his heart pound. She’s so pretty, he thought.
“Hello, how’s Herbert today?”
“I think he’s worse,” he replied, raising his arm to look into the cage. “He won’t eat.”
They set off down the busy high street, pushing their way through the crowds. They passed the gas works, with its bellowing tower, and the soap factory, the bubbling vats visible through grimy windows.
Quench sniffed the air. “The soap makes the gas smell even worse.”
“No, it doesn’t,” teased Wendy. “The gas makes the soap smell even better.”
Quench smiled back, unable to think of a clever reply.
“We should be able to get a ride from here.” Wendy raised her hand to stop a passing carriage. The first few drove by, their stony-face drivers pretending not to notice the tall girl trying to flag them down. The next, a coal wagon, stopped, the driver’s face dark from the coal dust, the whiteness of his teeth in sharp contrast to the blackness.
“Would you be wantin’ to buy some coal, then?” he asked.
“No,” answered Wendy.
“So it’s a ride you be after.”
“We’re going to the zoological gardens.”
“Well, I’ll do you the favour. After all, your friend here and I are two of a kind.” He burst into a fit of laughter.
Wendy was annoyed; she didn’t like people who laughed at their own jokes, especially when they weren’t even funny. “Can we hurry please; we’ve got to get this pigeon to the veterinary surgeon.”
“A medical emergency is it? Well, we’d better get going then. Jump on.”
The coalman stopped at the entrance to the park. Wendy dropped a few coins into his open palm.
They walked along the gravel track. The benches along the way were occupied by mothers and nannies, chatting excitedly and looking admiringly at the babies in their prams.
“Here’s the menagerie,” said Wendy, pointing to a wide gate in a tall wooden fence.
The woman in the ticket office looked up from her book and smiled. “Hello, Wendy, come to see your father?”
“Yes, this is my friend, Quench.”
They walked through the gate. There was a screech, Quench jumped. The sound had come from the monkey cage. “I didn’t know monkeys shrieked.”
“You looked so funny when you cringed. I will make sure that you are frightened more often.”
“Please don’t, it was lucky I didn’t drop Herbert.”
Quench gawked at the cages as they walked past. There were birds of all types; tigers, wolves, giant tortoises and a pool with penguins.
Wendy sniggered. “You can close your mouth now.”
“All these creatures in one place, it’s amazing.”
They came to a low building.
“In here,” said Wendy. “Papa’s office is at the end of the corridor.”
Wendy knocked on a door and walked in. “Hello Papa.”
She rushed over to her father’s desk, gave him a kiss then ran to the window, “Look here!”
Quench walked over to the glass, it overlooked a large compound. “It’s a tiger! I never realised they were so big. One swipe of its paw and you’d be done for.”
“Yes,” explained the Professor, “a white tiger, a rare variant of the Royal Bengal, the object of my current research.”
“Wow, you’ve got the best job in the word!”
“Yes, I do like it. I’m studying variations in wild animals. Why, I ask myself, is that beautiful tiger coloured white, when its parents were yellow? And if there are more variations in later generations, could a completely different animal emerge? But to the matter at hand. Let’s find the vet.”
They walked into the next room. The veterinary surgeon was sitting at his desk. A small man, with jet-black hair and a thin mustache. The shelves behind were laden with bottles and jars, filled to the brim with liquids and pills.
“So, this is the patient you were telling me about. Let me have a look.”
Quench gave him the pigeon. He held it in his hand and looked into its eyes. “It’s always in the eyes, always in the eyes.” He stared at the bird.
“Is he going to get better?”
“Every creature has a sparkle in its eyes, a sign of its vitality, of its desire to live. This is a very old bird. Its muscles are weak. It will never fly again. The glow has left, it knows its time has come.”
Quench was choking back the tears; he was embarrassed to cry, him, almost a grown man, grieving over a pigeon.
“I’ll give him some medicine,” said the vet, “to deaden the pain.”
Wendy and Quench went to watch the tiger, till it was time to go home.
The Professor walked ahead, Wendy and Quench followed, carrying the pigeon in its cage.
Quench was sniffling. “I know it’s silly to cry,” he said “It’s just a bird.”
“It’s not silly at all,” said Wendy.
“Is your mother dead?” asked Quench.
“Yes, we visit her grave every year on my birthday.”
“That’s a strange way to celebrate a birthday.”
“Not really, she died giving birth. I don’t like going to the cemetery. Papa always gets upset.”
“Do you cry?”
“No, I’m sad that I don’t have a Mum like other children, but I never knew her.”
“I don’t have a Mum either, nor a Father for that matter. I was born on a ship.”
“So who looked after you?”
“I grew up in some place with lots of children, but the grown-ups weren’t kind. I ran away and lived with the street kids. The Master offered me shelter and food, in return for helping out in the inn, so I live there now. But I’ll have to leave soon. Now I’ve grown up, he’ll bring another lad from the street to replace me.”
“He’s throwing you out? That’s awful.”
“Well, I can’t stay there forever. I want to be a sailor.”
“Is Quench your real name?”
“No, it started in the inn, the drinkers would call out ‘Quench my thirst’ whenever they wanted another ale. Then they would call just ‘Quench’, a joke I suppose. Soon everyone knew me as Quench.”
“What is your real name?”
“John. I don’t have a surname.”
“But everyone has a surname.”
“Well, if I do, I don’t know it.”
“We could make one up. Let’s think of a funny one.”
“What do you suggest?”
“How about Squishy? We’ll call you Quench Squishy, because you have a squishy nose.”
“I have no such thing,” said Quench.
“Yes you do, you have a cute nose, making it extremely squishable, like this…” She squeezed his nose between her knuckles.
“Ouch, that hurts,” laughed Quench, “Two can play at that game. You have a pretty nose, that is even more squishable than mine.”
Wendy ran off down the street. Quench ran after her, arm outstretched, knuckles to the fore.
Wendy stopped at the entrance to the port, doubled over, gasping for breath. Quench caught her up, and grabbed her nose between his fingers. “There, you have been well and truly squished.”
They sat on the curb, laughing.
“Can we be friends?’ asked Quench, “I could visit you after you come back from school and we could, you know, talk about things.”
“Well, I think we are already friends,” replied Wendy, becoming all matter-of-fact, “so we can consider the matter settled.”
“I’ll meet you after school tomorrow.”
“That would be nice.”
Wendy rushed to catch up with her father.
Quench turned into the alley that led up to the port and the Inn. He looked into the cage, Herbert was dead. He stood in the shadows, letting the darkness hide his tears. He cried and cried, and when there were no tears left to shed, he found a small patch of earth where a tree grew by the side of the road, and buried his pet.
“Thank you for waiting till I had a new friend, you can rest in peace now.”
Quench met Wendy as she returned from school the next day, and every day after that. He would carry her books back to her house, and they would sit in her kitchen, drinking tea and talking.
“The tea comes from far away,” said Wendy. “Papa knows the captain of a clipper. He always brings him tea when he docks. He says it’s the best tea in the world.”
“Well, it’s certainly the best tea in my world,” said Quench. “But then again, my world is a very small place.”
Wendy beamed, leaned over the table and gave him a kiss on the forehead. He blushed.
“Now that we are friends,” said Wendy, using her matter-of-fact voice again, “I will give you a kiss whenever you say something clever, like just now.”
Quench, still flustered, replied. “Well, it can’t be all one sided, so there must be a reason for me to kiss you too.”
“Sounds reasonable, so when will you kiss me?”
“Whenever I feel like it,” laughed Quench. He leant over and kissed Wendy on the cheek.
“Well…alright, but you must ask permission first…and in case you were thinking of asking again…right now…I could conceivably be agreeable to the idea.”
Quench bent forward. A key turned in the lock, the Professor had returned. Quench sat back in his place. They continued as if in polite conversation.
“Good evening.” The Professor walked straight to the stove and lifted the lid off the pot. “Smells wonderful, I’m famished. Quench, will you stay for supper?”
Quench rose. “No, thank you, I have work to do.”
“See you tomorrow,” said Wendy.
Quench ran back to the inn, bounding joyfully along the cobbled streets. Then, his spirits dropped. You need to be happy at least once, he thought, to know that up to then you hadn’t been happy at all. All my life I’ve been smelling the gas works, and now I’ve smelt the soap factory.
Quench was waiting for Wendy the next day. He rushed up to her, a big smile on his face. She smiled back, but he could tell it was forced.
She looked glum, eyes cast to the ground. “Papa will be going on a scientific expedition far, far away.” She held his hands in hers. “I’m going too.”
“How long will you be gone?”
“It will be a long, long time.”
“I’ll wait for you.”
“Don’t!” she said, louder than intended, “I’m probably never coming back. We are going to a place that is warm the whole year, where the food is plentiful, the scenery spectacular and the houses huge, even for people without a lot of money, and there are lots of wild animals for Papa’s research. If he likes it, as he surely will, we will make it our home.”
The days rushed past. Every evening, Quench and Wendy would sit at the kitchen table, talking and talking, the day of departure drawing closer and closer, their friendship growing deeper and deeper.
It was their last evening together. Two big chests were waiting by the door.
“I will come to the wharf in the morning to say goodbye,” promised Quench. He opened the door, gave Wendy a kiss on the cheek and looked around the kitchen. He realised that he would never see it again, this, the happiest place in the world. He squeezed Wendy’s hand and set off back to the inn.
Wendy waited on the deck, her dress damp from the drizzle. The sailors began to raise the gangplank. Others were scurrying up the masts, releasing the massive sails. She heard the shouts of the crew and the clanking of the anchor. The blustery wind caught the sails and turned the stern towards the sea.
Tears rolled down her face. Where was he? She was angry that he had not come, then she was worried. Something must have happened to him. He must have overslept, and would regret forever that he did not say his farewells. The land grew distant. She kept looking, hoping to see him running up the quay to wave goodbye. The figures on the waterfront grew smaller and smaller, then disappeared into the haze.
It was done, she thought. I must put this behind me and think of my new life. She took a deep breath and wiped the tears from her eyes.
The ship picked up speed and headed out to the open sea. Wendy walked to her cabin, being careful not to lose her balance on the slippery deck.
Her father, sitting at his desk, announced, “I will begin my journal immediately. Each day of our adventure will be documented.”
“I will do the same,” said Wendy.
One day she would show her journal to Quench, for in her heart she knew that they would meet again. It would make her feel as though she was speaking to him, even though it could be a lifetime before he actually read her words.
Somebody was outside the cabin. There was a face peering through the tiny window.
Continue to Part 2
About this episode:
- A sea port in England, early 19th Century
- Quench (Human), serving lad at a seafarers’ inn
- Wendy (Human), pupil
- The Professor(Human), Zoologist, Wendy’s father
- Herbert (Pigeon), Quench’s pet
- The White tiger
This is the first episode of The Shovan Chronicles, an epic coming-of-age, lost-world fantasy. It will be published twice a week.