The local haunt of the Maldon seafaring community was an alehouse called the Rotting Hulk Tavern. It had a faded sign swinging wildly in the wind and was a high, eccentric, weatherboarded building, clinging tenuously to the edge of the salt flats. Inside, the bar was cramped, dark and warm. Every nook and corner was cluttered with nautical paraphernalia donated by travellers on all the seven seas, fixed to walls and ceiling by drawing pin and Blue Tack were tobacco browned paintings of ships, sharks’ jaws, blocks, fishing floats, dried puffer-fish, half hulls and postcards, many creased and dog eared, from every location with a seaboard. In an obscure alcove there lurked the scrimshaw carved tooth of the very whale that had devoured Westward Ho Smy. Wax encrusted Mateus Rose bottles with worn down candles graced every table. The customers jostled noisily, fierce looking people, some ragged, others flamboyant in feathers and ribbons, some boiler suited or Guernsey smocked, and occasionally an embarrassed yachty in yellow wellies trying to keep a low profile. Many of the rapscallions carried cutlasses or harpoons and exuded an aroma of Stockholm tar and bilge water, scurvy mariners all.
Rick ordered pints of deep headed bitter beer for himself and the crew and a saucer of milk for Potkin. Eben smiled at the cat and poured a tot of Pusser’s Rum into the milk. He felt kindly towards Potkin who was shy and nervous in the press of strangers. As Potkin was lapping his milk a slim torti-shell coloured cat came up to him.
“Hello sailor,” she said, “Would you like to buy me a drink?”
Potkin thought it would be impolite to refuse so he ordered her something mauve and very expensive in a champagne coupe. It came with a cherry on a stick. When they had finished their drinks she said,
“We could pop upstairs for a cuddle if you would like to.”
Potkin replied that he could not as he had to keep an eye on Rick. She smiled gently at him and sighed.
“You’re a sweet cat. Come and see me again sometime.”
When Potkin rejoined Rich he was sitting at a table chatting with the skipper of a local smack, Heartsease Finbow, whose cordate, jade velvet eye patch trimmed with lace complemented perfectly her shock of flame red hair
“I thought you’d scored there.” she said to Potkin with a smile and girlish laugh.
The drinking and talking, some singing and roistering, went on late into the night.
Finally, “That’s enough, now.” shouted Absalom Rowbottom above the din; “We rise at sparrows’ fart.”
Arm in arm they reeled back to the ship and turned, gratefully, into their hammocks.