Last Voyage of the John Darling
Halifax, Nova Scotia. The same day that Chamberlain handed over the Sudetenland, I arrived. I was not yet nineteen years of age, a thin young man with a nervous mustache I still didn't know if I liked. My suit was ill fitting about the seat and the shoulders, and the suitcase I carried was too large for what little I had brought with me. Only my father had insisted that I might need the room, so I brought a larger case than the trip warranted.
Somewhere in the vast ocean behind me, my Uncle Michael had vanished. Somewhere in that wide sea, the divine madness had taken claim of him, and wiped him off the Earth.
It was 1938. The world was about to fall into a vast war more terrible than anything it had known. For one moment now, when Chamberlain stood in London and proclaimed his peace, all of Europe held a long breath and hoped for the best.
Across the wide sea where Atlantis had fallen, I did not. The best was that my uncle was dead, dead and gone. The worst…that they had all been deceived, and he had sunk into his madness and lost himself and no one had ever dredged him up.
The very first stories I was ever told were of Michael Darling. When the tiny flickering light at the side of my bed was all the kept away monsters and perdition, I heard stories one couldn't dream of. My father, who otherwise was a man who barely smiled and did not tell jokes, who took a glass of port on Novemeber 11th but would not otherwise dream of drinking, who kissed my mother Ophelia diligently on her cheek when he came home; this paradigm of normalcy would tell me such stories as would curl the hair. My uncle by marriage, that was the one he told stories of, and his eyes shone with tears he dared not shed. What couldn't that boy he had known long ago do? He wove a magic cloak out of leaves and wore it across all of England; he made the whole city of London weep when the clock struck noon; he flew over a chasm of poison mist to rescue trapped knights in a land of bones and death.
When I was a small boy I thought all the stories were the truth. They were so much more real to me than the stories of rabbits or strange girls in mirror lands that my mother told me. My father shared such tales as I never heard before, and never would again.
As I grew older, of course, I knew they couldn't be real. My aunt Wendy's brother, to do such things? He had been a mere child, how could he have saved knights? And knights, in the days of George the Fifth? But how I wished they were true, all those stories, while at the same time I grew rather fond of Potter and Lewis and all the rest, fond of them without thinking them even close to as magical as the lies my father whispered when the night light was all that stood between me and a monstrous end.
It was a small, cold, damp city, smaller than Bristol, as small as Dover but with no cliffs and no castle and no wonder at all. Halifax was a place with a harbor and a few old buildings, waiting to be found again. I knew it had been a city that mattered once, before the war and the Depression almost killed it, made of it a shadow of itself, like poor England that was weak and weary enough to give in to Hitler, which was in all the papers, for I had docked and spent a night in a cheap hotel and looked, always looked, for some sort of clue.
In my pocket was a cable that had been sent to my aunt, eventually, a cable from someone named Elizabeth McQuarry who claimed to be a ship's captain, though that was ridiculous.
Michael Darling is dead. He has gone to sea, and he has died. I do not have the words to make this better. I am sorry. We all on the ship hoped he would make it to his Neverland, but that was not to be. We have his ship, which is called the John Darling if you would like to come to Halifax and claim it, we will have it still. Elizabeth McQuarry, Captain, Steamship Mermaid.
But that was many years ago, and no one sent back a cable, and no one wrote, and anyway, where would one write? Only a name, and a ship, and it never came back to London, or to Bristol.
That is a lie. I don't know that it did or didn't. I only know that in the records I searched through, in the British Library, on sunny afternoons when the air was hot and still, I didn't find that the Mermaid came back to England. Nothing was complete though. Many years were missing.
So I went off to Halifax, two months short of nineteen, without my mother's permission, but with my father's consent. Even as a boy, I always knew that would be easier to obtain, and having left school, my youthful knowledge proved true. With money in my pockets, I steamed to Halifax, my father's blessings in my ears. Only I was now wandering the streets, and nothing to look for, and not a clue to be had. I didn't know what I was to find, in any case. How did one go about searching for a ghost?
It was the very beginning of the spring before, and I should have been in school, but instead I was in a reading room, with a fly buzzing gently around my head, no matter how often I swatted at it. There were ledgers bound in blue leather all over the table, shipping records from London and Bristol and Liverpool and Dover and even tiny ports like Deal and the like, but I couldn't find anything. I was hot and sweating in my first real suit, the one my father had taken me to be fitted for some months earlier when I was almost eighteen, for he felt a young man should have proper attire.
"What do you think of this?" my father had asked, holding up a bolt of white fabric with thin green stripes, and I had frowned, just a bit maybe, but it was enough. He had turned away from me, and that was that. I made my own choices, and he told the tailor where to send the bill and the suit, and that was all. My father was closed to me, as always since I was a boy.
"Can't you still be young?" he'd asked as we drove home, him at the wheel for he didn't trust me there.
"You wanted me to have a suit. How much of a child can I still be?"
And he sighed. "As much as you want," he murmured.
"Mother wouldn't like it," I said at last, after a long and empty silence. Why be a child? The world lived for men, not boys.
"She'd be charmed," he said, but there was no strength in his words. But then he pulled over at the side of the road, a horn honking Ah-Ooh-Gah as we moved to the side. "You must understand, John," he said.
"Understand what, father?"
He drew a breath, and then he shook his head. "I can't say, rightly. Only that…maybe one mustn't always be growing up." And he laughed, my father who didn't so much as chuckle. "Maybe one must be a boy, do you understand?"
He pursed his lips, and he turned just the least bit toward me. His hair was almost gone, just wisps clinging to the sides of his head, and his chin was quite weak. I worried about him at times, that he was failing and falling. He must have been past forty.
"Your uncle Michael. Do you remember the stories I told you?"
I nodded. Of course I remembered them.
He sighed and looked for a moment out the front wind shield. Then he turned to me, and I have never seen my father look at me so very intensely. "Every single word was true."
I couldn't help myself. I had a laugh.
That was the very first time my father had ever hit me.
Five weeks later, I started to visit the hot library, looking over records, chasing away flies with an idle hand.
Elizabeth McQuarry. You would think someone would know the name, and know she was a captain of a ship. How many women would there have been, in 1920, who could say the same?
Four days passed while I sought the answer to that question. Yet it was not a hard answer once I asked the right soul, a gray haired man, bushy and wild and with a thick accent of Wales.
"She's a one," he said when I asked him, in the little shop he ran that sold notions and sundries. "I sailed with her for a time, when she was a man."
"What sort of nonsense is that?" I demanded, and he shrank from me. We Stevenses were all big, bluff, hearty men, and though thin I was little different from the standard. I suppose I shocked the poor fellow.
"Only that she wasn't a woman when we sailed. She was as much a man as you or I."
"What a story. A woman who was a man. It's like a Michael story."
"Michael?" he said. He looked up at me, and there was no cringing, no shying away from me. No, he stared bold as brass into my eyes. "Do you mean little Michael who told the stories?"
"Michael Darling?" I said.
For a moment I thought he hadn't heard me, the Welshman. His eyes lifted, and he looked at nothing at all. And then he smiled, a sad smile that still let a whispery breath pass out of his lips. "That poor lad," he said, so soft that I might have better heard a cat sneeze.
"What of him?"
The Welshman looked back at me. "Oh, lad, you'd best speak to the old Captain about that. I would expect you'll want his boat, is that what it's about?"
That was close enough, so I nodded, and he told me the way. I slipped him a shilling and moved on, but he didn't seem any more grateful for it.
"I can't go," he said, my father who seemed now to me completely changed. "I've never been able. There was always a reason, first you, and then your sisters and your brother, and now I'm old, so old." He sighed. He was old indeed, past forty and with a paunch and failing hair and eyes that only worked if glass were parked just in front of them, and even then not strongly. My father. How he had won a woman like my mother, who seemed to always hold a secret, I could never tell, but he had at some time before his decline to the man that I remembered even from my youth, the sad and weary fellow who worked in Finance, and who never smiled unless he was speaking of my strange Uncle Michael.
"You must go, of course. Go and find the boat, find what happened to him. Talk to this Elizabeth McQuarry. She must have seen him, she must know. Find out." He clutched at my arms as he spoke.
I shook him off. "Get a hold of yourself, Father." I waited a moment for him to do just that. "It's nonsense, you know."
"If it is, humor your poor father, and do it all the same. It's a voyage, a bit of the world to be seen. You'll like the trip, I should think."
And I would, probably. I hadn't been further than Calais, and that was two hours from England and no more. And now to go to Halifax, to cross to the Americas when I was not even nineteen years old. That I could do, even if his reason was ridiculous.
"When should I go?" I asked, and was shocked that he seized me and drew me in and kissed me once, softly, on my forehead.
My father did not like to touch anyone.
The house was a small thing, far beyond what should have been the city. The town, if I were to be more honest; Halifax was a tiny place. There was a nice fence about, painted white, and in the yard would have been flowers, I could tell from the beds, only that it was now October, and the air was cool and chill. But there were still a few leaves on the trees, and the grass was still green and trimmed, and I thought it rather a smart place. The gate creaked just the faintest bit as I let myself in, and then I stepped onto the little covered porch, and I knocked.
She looked almost a man; I had to give the Welshman that much at least. She was not young, not any longer; perhaps she was fifty, and perhaps sixty, but there was not much to say which it could be. Her hair was dark but streaked with silver, and pulled back into the sort of tail which rough sailors the world over wear. She wore, as a man might, loose trousers and a shirt that was untucked and a waistcoat of brown corduroy with a golden finch pinned on the breast, and only that suggested to me, except that I had been told, that she was a woman.
"Can I help you?" she said, in a voice that was light but could have been commanding, if it needed to.
"Are you Captain McQuarry?" I asked. I wished to have asked if she was Miss or Misses McQuarry, but one didn't know which to ask, so there was no way to go about it.
"I was a captain," she said, and her eyes seemed to grow very distant.
From the pocket of my coat I pulled out the cable and handed it wordlessly to her. She unfolded it, for so my father had kept it, folded in a book, until he gave it me; and then she read it and looked up at me.
She had a strong face, a lovely face for all the years it had seen.
"I suppose you want the boat, then," she said, and it was as sad as the end of the world.
He took me to Bristol and loaded me on the ship himself, all the way across England on a train.
"You'll want some things," he said. From a satchel he handed me spare clothes, and books, and notepapers, and pens, and a tin of candied nuts, and two bottles of sweet red wine. And all of them I passed back to him, but for the nuts, which I thought I might want sometime, and if not, they were tinned.
"Won't you take the wine, at least?" he asked.
"Father…." And that was all I said. He frowned, but he put everything away, and he walked me to the dock, and he shook my hand. "Wire me when you've arrived. And wire me if you find…something."
I wondered for a moment what he was about to say, but I knew. He wanted me to find my Uncle Michael. He did, and maybe my Aunt Wendy did, and perhaps no one else in all the world.
"Can I ask you a question, Father?"
He smiled. "Of course you can, John."
"Did he really fly?" I think I might have laughed when I asked it. I shouldn't have, but I did.
It was the second time my father slapped me. "He did," the old man said, and walked away with his satchel slung over his shoulder, and without looking back.
The whistle blew to board the ship, and that's just what I did.
She was a smart little boat, a thing that one man alone could have just worked, with skill or luck. I liked her lines right off, and liked better how well she'd been kept, for it had been near two decades, if the story was right, since she had seen the sea. And on the bow was painted the name John Darling, who was my Aunt Wendy's brother what had died in the war.
"Do you want her?" Elizabeth said.
"I don't know I could take her out. I've messed about in boats, but I'm not so good with them."
"I could take you out, just once. It'd be good to be back in the water. I've not been in years and years, not since the traffic dried up." She stepped up to stand right next to me, a little shorter but not as much as I had thought. "That's when I took to being a woman again," she added out of the side of her mouth.
"So you weren't ever a woman captain?"
She shook her head. "Not to the world, no. I think they knew, my crew, or thought a thought or two. Good men, though. Michael told me they were, but I didn't believe any man in those days."
"You did know him, then?"
"I did. Who's he to you, lad?"
"My father's brother's wife's brother. An uncle, of sorts."
She looked at me. Her eyes were soft and blue, the blue that the ocean took on when the sun was just setting, rich and endless blue. "You came all this way for that?"
"My father made me," I said, and blushed a little.
"He must be a good one," Elizabeth said softly, and rubbed a hand on my cheek as if to smooth out the blush. She smiled. "We'll go out tomorrow, then. A last trip for the old girl," she said, and I didn't know if she meant the boat or herself.
My mother was quiet all the time, but she smiled and she held hands with her children, and there was a sort of wisdom to be had from her. Before I left she took me to walk around the streets of London where we lived. She was lovely, more than the girls I knew, because she was loved and she knew it.
"Your father was very good friends with Michael once," she said as we walked.
"I've only heard the stories he tells, the wild stories," I said.
She sighed. "They aren't so wild," she said after pause. "I didn't know him so well as your father, of course. We only met a couple of times, actually. He was gone before you were born, you know. But…oh, John, you shouldn't think poorly of him, or of your father for having loved him."
"Loved him? Were they such good friends?"
But she wouldn't say anything more about that, only say that she wished I would reconsider going, at least for a time. War, she thought, was coming, and there would be little time for us all to be together.
I didn't believe her then, of course. The young do not believe the wise.
The John Darling was a little thing, once there were two of us and a picnic basket and a tarp and warm clothes and so on all piled within her. And I was not of much use as we sailed out of the harbor, into the grey waters of the Atlantic.
"Just a few hours out and back," Elizabeth said. She was smiling all the time, and she barked out commands to me, her only crew, with efficiency and skill.
"You must have been a good captain," I said.
"I never was. The captain was someone quite different from me." And she grew melancholy, even I could tell that. "Elizabeth has never been a captain, not with a crew," she said.
"You bloody well are now, or you can quit ordering me about," I said, still holding on to a line which she had called me to a moment before.
She laughed, and seemed young and lovely for a moment. I think I was seeing her as true as anyone ever had in that moment, a woman full of joy and spirit. "No, I am ready to be a captain and a woman at the same time."
"So why are we at sea, if I might ask?" A few moments had passed, enough that Halifax was small behind us, but the shore still covered all the horizon and much besides.
"You came for the boat, and I wanted you to sail her, for a bit."
"I came to find out what happened to Michael Darling."
The waves carried us for a moment. There was the sound of them crashing into the wood of the hull, and the cry of a gull above us, and far off the steaming chug of a ship that ached and pressed toward the shelter of the port.
"He died," she said at last, and then breathed in sharp and fast, and wiped at her eyes.
"Died how?" For I was young, and I didn’t notice her weeping.
"Died at sea, for that I let him go to it. Let him go to find a phantasm, and a mirage, and end himself far away from everyone who loved him."
"Did you love him?" I asked, for maybe I had started to notice something at last.
She looked at me, really looked at me, and I could see there were two tears that had fallen from her eyes, only two. "Of course I loved the silly little blighter," she said softly. The waves almost drowned out her voice.
"Why did you let him go?"
She took a deep breath and let it out. We neither of us were doing anything with the boat now, and the wind carried us slowly to the north and the east along the coast. "Why? Oh, haven't I asked myself that a hundred, a thousand times. And always the same answer."
"What is it?" I asked, because I knew my father would want to know. And a little, though I would not admit it, because I wanted to know.
"Oh, John, because I believed him, of course. I believed he was going to a place he'd been as a boy, even if it was a made up madman land. I believed him because he was strange and wonderful and dreamed up dreams for all of us lost and broken folk, and because he believed himself so very much.
"And he died, John, because I believed him. I didn’t have to let him go. I didn’t have to. I was the captain."
What could I say to that, to any of that? I searched for the words. She looked at me as to a ministering angel, waiting for help, but I had little to give. Only this: "My father believed him, too."
And I don't know why, but those were the right words. Captain McQuarry set her mouth in a grim little smile, and she nodded, and there were no more tears.
We went further out to sea, for that had been her plan, a couple of hours out, a couple hours back, and it had not been long at all. And when the land was growing dim behind us, when Nova Scotia seemed almost a dream, she looked at me across the length of the little ship.
"What do you know of Neverland, John?" she asked me.
"Neverland? Only that my father said the name, and my uncle thought it a real place."
"I think it's real, too," she said. She looked out over the water, to the east, toward England and London and the poor Sudetenland, and she was silent for a time. At last she spoke again, and her words were barely audible over the waves.
"Twenty years ago I saw him, your uncle, sail off into the sea and vanish forever. And we found his boat, this boat, out in the water, but he wasn't there. Some say he died, but I have a different thing to say." She turned back to me. "I think he went to a place where you never grow old, and you never die."
"There's no place like that, except Heaven," I said.
"Not Heaven, no. A place where children don't have to grow up, ever. That's where he went." She smiled as she said it, and for a moment she was terribly pretty, as she must have been when she was very young. Only a moment, and then she was just a smiling old woman.
"All children grow up," I said, and thought it true.
But she only shook her head. "Except one," the captain said, and stared again out to the sea.
From the gray heavens, a soft rain began to fall. I reached for the oars and clumsily began to take us in toward the distant shore, wondering why the wretched woman wouldn't help me.