The middle of the China Sea, 1885
From his position on the wet floor in the corner of the dark and dank room, the boy rubbed his blood-shot eyes and looked around him. The room resembled a medieval battlefield littered by the slain. Men and women of all backgrounds lay slumped over chairs, tables and the floor, all ghostly pale. Seasickness, the boy thought to himself, was one of the few things in life that apparently did not distinguish between classes.
The boy shivered and clutched his stomach as the steamship continued to lurch violently from side to side in the turbulent swell. Since bidding farewell to England and boarding the vessel four weeks ago, the sea had lain relatively calm for the best part of the voyage. Now, however, as a cruel headwind beat upon their mast and the sound of heavy rain thundered in their ears, the boy had the distinct feeling that God was paying them back for their complacency with more than a generous rate of interest. Even the captain, whom the boy had come to realise was in the habit of sailing only when drunk to the gills, looked worryingly sober.
‘Out of my way, boy!’ a plump man with white, bushy mutton chops shouted as he fumbled frantically for some change to pay a steward who, in return for the fee, held out a basin for the man to vomit into. The man heaved and expelled his food, setting off a chain reaction much akin, the boy thought, to the Trafalgar fountains among the other passengers lining the walls of the cabin with their heads hanging over similar basins.
‘When will this godforsaken misery end?’ the plump man muttered to himself, as he stared browbeaten and inconsolable at the contents of the basin in front of him. ‘I swear I would rather have my limbs torn apart one by one in the next barbaric land we come across than risk this torment again. You there…’ he said, turning towards the boy. ‘You don’t seem to be quite so afflicted. What is your secret?’
‘Me, sir?’ the boy replied, somewhat startled. It was the first time, the boy thought, the man, or anyone else on board for that matter, had shared more than three words with him. But for that he had been more than thankful. Very well, he thought, he supposed he could not stay silent forever and would play his part in helping to distract this gentleman from his woes.
‘I ‘ave no secret. I suppose I was just lucky to be born with a strong belly,’ he said, tapping the ribs on his skinny stomach and reflecting that the years of watery gruel and stale biscuits must have been good for something after all.
‘Where are you from, boy?’ the man asked.
‘An East Londoner. I thought as much. Where are you bound?’
‘The Emerald Isle,’ the man replied, nodding knowingly. ‘A long journey for one so young,’ he said, breathing heavily as he attempted to keep at bay the next wave of nausea. ‘How old are you, boy?’ he said, looking him up and down. You do not look a day over twelve.’
‘I’m fourteen, sir,’ he replied somewhat too defensively.
‘I see,’ he frowned. ‘And what, may I ask, is your intention once you reach Formosa? Do you,’ he gasped, ‘have an apprenticeship or any means with which,’ he swallowed, ‘to make a living?’
The boy hesitated as he carefully considered the answer to the question. A second later, the sight of two men running quickly past the window on the port side won him some time as the passengers, together with the plump man, nervously peered over the rims of their basins towards them. In the distance, between the patches of windswept rain, the boy could see the blurred figures of the ship hands trying to repair yet more damage to the battered auxiliary sails. He felt sorry for the two men, natives, he had heard, from somewhere called Manila. During the past two days they had worked day and night to keep the ship afloat with only the most meagre snatches of food and sleep.
‘I have a plan, yes, sir,’ he said, turning back to him. ‘It is my goal to find and sell the very best Formosan tea to the world,’ he said proudly.
‘Tea?’ the man scoffed. ‘You cannot be serious, boy! Forgive me,’ he chuckled, ‘but that hardly seems your milieu. What, pray, can someone of your stock possibly know of the fine business of tea?’
The boy looked crestfallen for a moment before picking himself up.
‘I don’t know what the word milieu means, sir, but I do know a little somethin’ about tea. More sir, perhaps, than some people know about the wisdom of talking down to someone who is tryin’ to do them a favour.’
The gentleman looked at him, aghast by his cheek, opened his mouth to say something, before a look of panic spread across his face. Lurching forward, he vomited past the basin and straight onto the steward’s chest. The steward’s eyes widened to the size of two small moons but he remained resolutely still, gritting his teeth and maintaining his posture.
With one last look at the two men outside struggling to repair the sails, the boy got to his feet and began making his way over the slumped bodies in front of him. Before long he had reached Reverend Barclay, a lean man of about forty years, with thin spectacles and a stiff white clerical collar, who was steadying himself against the wall of the cabin with one hand, whilst reading aloud from a Bible in the other.
The English missionary had been present for much of their journey, and the boy had observed him to be as talkative as a fishwife with two heads. This did not seem to sit well with everyone, not least, the boy had noticed, the inebriated old captain, who never passed up the opportunity to challenge the reverend to a boxing match on deck.
‘Take courage,’ Reverend Barclay said to the desperate-looking men and women in the cabin. ‘Though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the Lord upholds his hand. Whatever the matter, we must not give up hope! It was our Lord Jesus who said,’ he continued. ‘It was Jesus…’ he started again. ‘…Christ!’ he shouted, as the colour drained from his face. Before the boy could even blink, Reverend Barclay had pushed his way past him before flinging open a porthole and vomiting into the ocean.
The boy continued on his way down a narrow corridor. After glancing behind him to check that he was alone, he approached a small storage room at the far end of the tilting passageway. In the corner was a line of clothes hooks and upon one of them was his tatty, grey jacket that he had taken with him from England, one of the few possessions that he still had. The boy locked the door and then leant forward to open the inside of the jacket. Moments later, he smiled in relief as he saw the head of a little bird, the colour of purest white snow, poking out. As he tenderly stroked her head the bird looked up at him and opened her beak expectantly.
‘Not long now, we’re almost there,’ he said as confidently as he could.