‘Hey, Auntie Kate?’
‘Yes, Master James?’
Kate was the only person Jimmy would allow to call him James. That was because she was funny. A little bit odd. Not like most adults, who would try to be funny but just be confusing. He’d learned from Kate how to fake-laugh so they didn’t know he was confused.
‘Are there pirates?’
Kate looked at him like he was a fool.
‘Of course there are pirates. But they are not like you get told. Not like the cartoons and silly advertisers show.’
Kate patted the big cushion next to her. Jimmy loved her front room. She lived in Carlton, in a terrace house that overlooked a small garden. On days like this, when the afternoon sun stretched through the branches and edged into her bedroom upstairs, Kate liked to pull out large cushions -some as big as Jimmy’s bed! – and read. When Jimmy was here, sometimes she’d read to him and sometimes she’d make up stories. Jimmy didn’t care. He loved it. He settled into the cushions and closed his eyes, ready to listen to some great story. Kate started to stroke his hair.
‘In the olden days, pirates were a bit similar to the cartoons and stuff. Dirty, rough, and sailing boats which fell apart. They were a miserable lot; always fighting, never eating properly. Until along came Dread Pirate Penelope.’
‘Dread Pirate Penelope?’ Jimmy started to laugh, but his Aunt stopped him by leaning in, and saying in a deep and serious voice: ‘Dread Pirate Penelope was the deadliest pirate that ever existed, and her spirit wouldn’t like being laughed at.’
Jimmy stopped laughing and felt a chill drop down his spine. He loved it when the stories got scary, although his mum complained about it, as he had sometimes had nightmares. He never told his mum that they weren’t real nightmares because he was awake. They were more like daynightmares – kind of like daydreams, only bad. He thought that might be worse.
Satisfied that Jimmy would be quiet, Kate continued.
‘Dread Pirate Penelope had stowed away on a pirate ship when she was just a child. She pretended to be a boy and learnt all about sailing and about pirating. She was a smart one, and quickly figured out the problems that the pirates were having. Back at port, when still a teenager, she rallied a group of women and started an all female crew. They snuck aboard an unmanned boat one night and sailed off.’
‘They stole the boat?’
‘Aye. That’s what pirates do, Master Jimmy. They are not good people. They’re criminals. They pillage and…’ Kate paused, looking at her young nephew. ‘Well, they just pillage.’
‘Steal and wreck stuff. Burn buildings down. Cause destruction.’
Jimmy sat up, putting a hand under his chin.
‘Why are pirates bad like that?’
‘Why are pirates bad like that? Because they Arrrrrr!’ Kate tickled Jimmy, who laughed and hoped he would remember that joke for his dad. Dad’d like that one.
‘But really, Kate, why?’
Kate looked very serious for a moment.
‘Because they didn’t really have schools back then, and there weren’t a lot of jobs, and if you were poor, you either starved or you stole. And I guess if that’s all you can do, well, maybe you go a bit bad.’
Jimmy nodded as though he understood, but he didn’t’. Kate continued.
‘The pirates first problem was that their ships were falling to pieces. Dread Pirate Penelope discovered that if you treated the wood with the sap from a rare tree found on an island in the Caribbean, the wood didn’t rot. So she could keep one ship for a long time. Their second problem-’
‘What about the pirates that owned the ship?’
‘Are you interrupting me?’
‘No, but, well, yes, but what about the pirates whose ship she stole?’
‘I’ll het to that in a moment, wait. First, she had to solve the two other problems for pirates. First, scurvy. That’s when the body doesn’t get the right vitamins and becomes sick. Penelope was the first to keep fresh fruit on board at all times.’
Jimmy shrugged. Fresh fruit wasn’t very exciting.
‘The second was peg legs. Do you know why so many pirates have peg legs?’
‘I don’t know. Sharks?’
‘How did you know that?’ She looked at him with wide, surprised eyes. He was shocked that she thought he knew it.
‘I didn’t. I just made it up!’
Giving him a suspicious look, Kate continued.
‘Pirates didn’t keep themselves clean, but the loved to drink their rum sitting with their legs dangling over the side. Sharks would just jump up and eat them. This didn’t happen to Dread Pirate Penelope’s crew. Do you know why?’
‘Um. They didn’t drink rum?’
‘Oh, no. They drunk rum. They loved rum.’
‘Um, they didn’t dangle their legs.’
‘A pirate? Not dangle their legs? Don’t be ridiculous! No, my little man, it was the boots.’
‘The boots? How?’
‘The pirate would still dangle their legs, but the ladies started wearing boots that went over their knees. It would save them from the sharks’ teeth.’
Jimmy nodded, amazed. Kate continued.
‘Once the women had solved these problems, they were set to take over the waves. The pirates who owned the ship that Dread Pirate Penelope stole managed to borrow another boat and gave chase. They caught up, but Penelope’s crew fought well, and before they knew it, they were all prisoners of Dread Pirate Penelope.’
‘Did she make them walk the plank?’
“Oh, you are just so sweet!’ Kate laughed heartily, and Jimmy felt himself blush a little. That laugh was the laugh that made him feel like a bit of an idiot. He wondered what he had said wrong.
‘Pirates don’t make people walk the plank! That is silly! No, pirates are much more horrible than that. They…’ again, Kate paused, looking at him carefully. ‘Have you been having daynightmares again?’
Jimmy shook his head.
‘Not for ages. Come on, please tell me.’
‘No,’ Kate slowly shook her head, ‘no, I won’t tell you all of the details. Let’s just say that they literally used their prisoners as fish food. But I won’t tell you how.’
Jimmy didn’t understand. His goldfish ate flakes out of a jar. People weren’t like that. He shrugged.
‘Soon enough, every male pirate either quit piracy or was turned into fish food. Dread Pirate Penelope’s success was heard across the world, and many women still follow their code.’
‘How do you know all this?’
Before she could answer, a beeping came from her mobile. She checked the message.
‘Right, quick, your mum’s almost here. Let’s get down for a last race through the park.’
Kate jumped up and the two of them raced down the stairs. Jimmy sat on the bottom step to put on his sneakers and Kate sat two steps behind him. Jimmy stared at her legs as she pulled on boots that went all the way up her calf and over her knee.
She stood and grabbed a couple of mandarins from a fruit bowl and threw one at Jimmy, who almost caught it.
‘Against the scurvy. Now, come on!’
Jimmy watched his aunt go out the front door and wondered how knowing his aunt was a pirate would change his life.