BORING: The Aubrey/Maturin series is one of the best things that ever fell from the sky and hit me on the head. But I gotta warn you: I have no idea what I'm doing. I've read two books and seen the movie about 50 times (slight exaggeration.) I have no grasp of the history of the Napoleonic wars.
But god damn do I love whatever it is that goes on in that series. These characters should live on forever.
There are some truly fantastic MaC pieces out there, both fan-art and fan-fiction. I am not O'Brien (regrettably) and neither am I the best at carving out a story featuring Aubrey and/or Maturin. I don't really have a choice but to try, though. This is what I got, and this is what I'm doing.
PARTICULARS: Not having read much of the series, I have to make some guesses about things based on what I've heard. Diana and Brigid are mentioned, and I have no way of knowing if my portrayal is any sort of accurate. (Besides, I've misinterpreted and mishandled a slew of things…this ain't the first, so whadda I care.)
I have referenced at least one scene in the book Far Side of the World. Having shaped it to fit the story, I feel it is appropriate, extending an arm to canon, or whatever.
Given good weather, and lack of certain tides and other oceanographic conditions which were largely mysterious to him, he could force his eyes open against the water and see so far, so clearly.
Helplessly suspended in ocean, caught between breaths, he would look out and absorb what he could see. Often there was very little to see, but so much of it; nothing but blues, or greens, depending on the nature of the water, and sometimes ethereal shafts of sunlight. It was a moment of peace, despite all else—a timeless moment. It spoke to him in a language he did not comprehend in the least.
But that touch of peace wouldn't last. He would break the surface in a violent struggle. Sucking in air at all the wrong moments, he choked and seized on the salt spray. Blinded by it, it was not often of his own power that he escaped the water.
So many times he was deposited on deck like a wet ragdoll, and well-meaning sailors would knock him on the back and he would be sent to recover. He was not usually one for great shame or embarrassment, at least not in matters of naval incompetence, but there was always a slight sense of debt, one that increased exponentially as time and again he was dragged out of the water.
He tried to count out just how many times—quickly it became too many.
Stephen considered this over coffee, overlooking the harbor. He'd put himself up at a nondescript inn and the previous night's sleep had been so hard that an argument could have been made for his death. He'd been unable to engage his mind, was engulfed by listlessness and was drawn to bed and wanted to do nothing at all, did not even want to be aware. Such a sound, dreamless sleep was unusual for him—maybe not entirely dreamless. Visions of the water, and his helpless, stunted attempts to commune with it peppered his memory, though he was unsure if they were true dreams, if they had really come to him in the night.
It was a busy day in Mahon; Jack Aubrey in particular would be out running the gauntlet of naval bureaucracy; the dockyard was packed with a typical hurried workload of repair and outfitting. He had turned his chair to get the best view, and looked upon a partial vista of Mediterranean and the infrastructure of the harbor. It wasn't of very great importance to him, but there was a chance of spotting a pair of otters or common seals, and this he always enjoyed—despite having seen so many of them. They had no trouble navigating the water, seemed to bob along effortlessly and float like corks.
But, he supposed that was their nature.
His usual rescuer was Jack, who was good enough to notice when his physician had disappeared, and knew from experience, no doubt, that he could be found beneath the water's surface.
Sometimes Stephen would see him coming, sometimes not, and the force with which he was pulled upward was as shocking as his first full breath of air. After several incidences, he learned that upon rescue he should cease struggling and allow himself to be towed without much fuss.
He knew that it was really just another task for Jack, part of his many responsibilities, an occupational thing, but he was well-suited for it. He took to the water like any other indigenous sea-life, never passed up an opportunity for a swim, did extraordinarily well in it despite having a build seemingly more suited for waddling around deck.
Jack's affinity for swimming didn't help, and he could be at least partially to blame for goading him into the water when he damn well didn't want to be. "It's good for you," he argued, often from far below or far out into the sea. "You tell me yourself, it's good for physic."
"I don't need it."
"You'll be healthier."
"I'll be cold. I'll slip below the water and you shall have to pull me out."
"The water's like champagne, Stephen. It really is like champagne."
Cursing—"God damn it, God damn it,"— because it was inevitable, he would strip, fold his glasses onto the collar of his shirt, look worriedly at the chop for half a second, pinch his nose and drop in. Impelled through the water, he would wait until his momentum stopped and then swim up as best he could. It took forever, swimming to the top; it took an effort he was never prepared for.
The tide buoyed him somewhat, but in a jostling, terrible way. Jack always had something to say about the quality of the ocean or the wind, and Stephen could only squint and try to agree with him, though listening was hard—water was loud, even in the calmest weather—and he had absolutely nothing to add to these observances, other than loudly stating "Yes, it's a fine day," and sounding completely uncomfortable.
The water was never like champagne, whatever that was supposed to mean.
Ere long he would realize that his treading was doing no good, he would flail a little, and then very quickly submerge, and he would fight it for a few seconds, and get nowhere.
And then he was utterly helpless. No matter how he struggled, he could not keep his head above water. He kicked, reached up, his arms uselessly seeking purchase. It looked simple, seemed simple, should have been within reach, but his efforts got him nowhere—worse yet, seemed to drive him further from the surface.
Jack appeared, appropriately, around this time, and Stephen didn't bother to glance aside until he had pulled up a chair and deposited himself in it. The wrought-iron chairs were small for persons of average stature; Jack snuffed it out entirely but did so in a way that was nearly graceful.
"God love you," He said, pouring his own coffee, forgoing finesse. "You had the foresight to have a cup waiting for me."
Stephen squinted at the water. "Yes. Well, I have a memory for this process."
"I'm between victualing and fleshing out the compliment, still. The math is probably better when I have one done before the other."
"Is that not how it usually happens?"
"It is," he admitted, "But, oh, it's always this back-and-forth, running around. So many people to satisfy under the banner of the admiralty. And countless others who seek favors."
"You will forget about it when it's over, I'm sure."
They sat in relative silence. Stephen looked here and there, said nothing. Jack looked into his cup as if he were expecting the coffee to reveal something, closed one eye in the fashion of looking into a telescope or magnifying glass. He smiled for a moment and then, perhaps remembering his many appointments and obligations, stopped.
"Why aren't you up on the hillside?"
Stephen shifted in his chair, crossed one leg over the other. "I do not know." Then he inhaled greatly and shifted again. "I've been preoccupied," He said finally. He hesitated for an instant, in an attempt to make his next statement seem unrelated. "I wonder why I struggle so in the water. I mean, why I cannot swim."
Jack paused in mid-sip, no doubt considering the statement. Setting the cup down, he said: "You can swim, a little. Many sailors cannot swim at all." A great pause. "You have absolutely no buoyancy, though. That's what makes it difficult."
Helplessness. He considered the word, felt its weight in his brain and in his throat. He was by no stretch immodest, but he was aware that he had gifts many men went without, and he was also aware that no man was universally talented or anywhere near perfect. Jack was a prime example of this: the man had a great ear for music, but not for language, and this despite a lifetime of exposure to different tongues. He was in fact fairly awkward in any situation that wasn't in English, and his grasp on English was questionable.
But this felt like much more than a simple inadequacy.
After some time he looked up and found that Jack had gone, and the cloud of his worry was on him again, in fuller force, heavy and dismaying. The hostess visited for a fourth time, asked in soft Catalan if he would like another coffee. He looked out, searching for an answer, and after a few rushed seconds decided that he'd better move along.
Down in the dockyards and a little beyond laid a pitiful, scrawny beach, and one could follow it to an outcropping of rock and the cliffs that eventually rose up to flank the harbor. He had discovered it some years ago, during one of Jack's many attempts at conniving for extra paint or replacement yards, and wandered off accordingly.
He plodded down and within very little time had made his way around the craggy bend. The ground gave way from sand to conglomerate rock. He stepped over it gingerly, tipped one way and the other with the effort of maintaining his balance. With great care, and only one or two slips downward, he hoisted himself up the rock face and clumsily mounted it. He flattened out on his belly, tipped his hat back, and set to watching for birds. They had warily dispersed as he ascended, but they would return: yellow-leg gulls, the odd shearwater…if he was very lucky, a heron.
He watched. It was his intent to watch deeply. There was a mental freedom attainable in the careful observation of the way they rested on the current of the wind, the minute quivering of the feathers, the very serious-looking gaze that most birds wore perpetually. Properly lost in it, it became a thread of stories to follow: they wheeled in the sky, pursued, withdrew. They cried out suddenly, shrilly, perhaps upon noticing him, but more than likely not, and continued. It was breeding season for the shearwaters, and though they were less active during the day, their nests could be seen dotting the far cliffs.
In a corner of his mind he thought of Brigid, and immediately afterward, Diana. A deep pulse of anxiety spread through him. It wasn't the fresh sting of panic, but the old, dull burden of concern that folded into doubt and loathing. The letters he had received did not comfort him. Things were better—but Diana was not having an easy time in coming to terms with the child's disability, and there was volatility in her that could be drawn to the surface by such stresses.
He pulled back as best he could, recalling the notable phrases and tones in her correspondence that suggested she was coming around.
But only suggested.
In an attempt to save the moment he pushed Diana aside and thought fondly on his little girl—did not mire in the problems of her care and development—and imagined his homecoming, which wouldn't be far off, if Jack's orders weren't radically changed. He tried to avoid thoughts of the disharmony that might greet him. Though the birds gamboled and called out, he was quickly and decidedly lost in the blackness of all that weighed heavy on his mind; his wife, his child—his responsibilities, his research, his passions, his inability to name a sail, his perpetual confusion of maritime terms, every instance of ignorance, every sailor he had ever pained through lack of superstition, every opportunity lost, every situation misread, every disappointed friend, every misstep, every haphazard fall, every headfirst tumble into the water.
Memories bubbled up.
Gasping and wet, in the warm waters of the Pacific, somewhere below the equator, he latched onto Jack's massive shoulders and gathered his breath. "I've killed us. God, I've killed us both."
"You haven't killed us."
Those moments that made up his life thus far were countless, myriad, impossible to recall without the heavy fog of analysis and reflection. Many times he had been within reach of death itself—and escaped, due to his own actions, or another's, or chance circumstance. How fortunate he had been that his adventures had taken him into such dangerous territory, but never without a means to escape. How fortunate he had been to travel such distances, see such wonders. In the mid-Atlantic he had seen a few great sharks, even had the pleasure of dissecting one. In southern waters, delightful paradise birds, dolphins. And across all seas, at one time or another, the strangest weather, walls of rain, mists, fogs and clouds.
Warm, bleach-wood sunny days, spent suffocating proudly in his civilian attire—he taught the coxswain to read during the afternoon watch; he treated the odd incidental injuries that came of typical ship-work (powder burns, broken fingers, crushed toes, and venereal disease, primarily) and spent most nights sawing out a duet or poring over paperwork in the captain's cabin.
Icy, arguably miserable days, far, far to the south; boat-cloaks and tarpaulins for all on deck. He was quite good at keeping close, and he liked to think that if he was ever very cold, it didn't show. The sickbay had its usual steady stream of patients and pseudo-patients and he migrated between there and the cabin and his quarters, revisited his books, and often attained a measure of happiness.
True joy was hard to come by, and fleeting at that. It existed for him in the appearance of a much sought-after bird, an uncommon reptile, an unusual insect. This joy was short-lived, but it was enough.
Jack tolerated it all very well. He always seemed genuinely fascinated. Of course, he understood very little, as the natural sciences were far distant from his sphere of knowledge, and within the hour he would misremember the point and butcher the concepts spoken to him, but it mattered not. Likewise, Stephen considered, there must've been a thousand conversations, well-constructed, riveting, that he set out to understand from the start but quickly failed to. Jack had tried his best to school him, and the sailors had done a bit better, but he would never have a solid grasp on nautical concepts or nomenclature. So Jack would go on, and talk and talk, and occasionally interject with "Y'see?" and Stephen very rarely did see.
Jack was very good at keeping afloat, in more ways than one.
"You'll see: flatten out on the water." And at Stephen's hesitation, he pulled him back by the hair. "You must relax. Stephen, you didn't kick off your shoes? You're supposed to get rid of your shoes when you fall overboard. Did no one tell you?"
"I'm sinking: It won't work."
"You're not attending." Jack was remarkably cool-headed, really. As was he. But all men have an element they belong in, he realized, and all have those which they do not, and in such a situation a friend is quite invaluable.
His vision focused on a heavy brown beetle not a foot distant from his nose. It was laboriously climbing up a blade of grass, but it was a futile effort; the blade couldn't support the weight, and began to bend.
Jack's voice called up from below. It took a moment to register, and when it did he idly removed his glasses, wiped them on a loose corner of his neckcloth, and replaced them. Leaning over the drop-off, he called back: "Pray tell how it is you found me."
"Bonden saw you down to the dockyards."
He nodded to himself and pushed his hat down. Standing carefully, he brushed the worst of the dirt from his trousers. The sun was just beginning its slow descent, and they would have a few hours of daylight yet, but the world had shifted into an extremely subtle orange hue. He looked up and saw distant black forms of gulls on the horizon. He looked down again. Jack had found a point of stability on the rocks and looked as natural as he could for having tromped his formidable weight all the way down the beach.
"All good news, I take it?"
"Come down from there, Stephen. This hurts my neck."
He lowered himself, awkwardly, nearly slipping twice, and turned to face Jack. "Now."
"There's little to complain about: A short leisurely cruise to Malta with the convoy. Uninteresting, but suitable. May I assume you have no prior commitments tonight? Digby asked me to dinner, and he asked for you as well. His wife is something of a botanist, I take it."
"Dinner?" He realized that he had eaten very little, and had pissed away the coffee several hours ago. "I would be delighted."
"Do you have any cleaner clothes?" At this Stephen drew in a breath, deciding whether to brush it off as a semi-friendly comment or actually admit that, no, he did not. Before he could frame a response, Jack interrupted. "Oh, posh. Here." He struck him on the shoulder, sending up a small cloud of dust, and struck and brushed several times until he was satisfied. "There."
Stephen flexed his eyebrows emphatically and closed a loose button on his vest. In no great hurry they headed back.
How quickly things change, and how quickly they stay the same, he mused. Lord, I'm beginning to think like Jack. That won't do.
He suffocated from all the little accumulations of living—but everyone did, and he suspected that this had always been, and would always be. Did it matter if he unraveled this particular melancholy? Did he need a reason? When he closed his eyes, the weight of an entire ocean, the terrible inability to draw a breath…that surface was too far to break; the cold, black night above would be no help to him.
It was a phantom idea, and though persistent it was remedied by friendship, true friendship, the rare sort that bridged the gap and proved to him that the isolation of the spirit was not a permanent, unchangeable quality of the human condition.
"—beef, cured pork, peas. Standard rations. Cheese, coffee and all that Killick requires. I managed to stay out of trouble with Hobbs this time. Suddenly I'm very hungry. I wonder what will be served."
He goes on, as usual. I'm sharp-set myself. What does it mean that I've been so mawkish? I cannot make a whole sense of it.
At the boardwalk they kicked the sand from their shoes and carried on. It was measurably quieter at that hour; even so, Mahon was perpetually active. People moved into the streets with the easy air of having completed the day, destined for a meal and whatever entertainment awaited them. Jack nodded occasionally to passing contemporaries, and was visibly relieved when they did not stop to talk to him.
Driven by no purpose that he could discern, Stephen asked during a silence: "How many times have you pulled me out of the ocean?"
Jack took on the very serious look he reserved for calculations. "It's a figure nearing fifteen or twenty," He said finally. "Why?"
Stephen's first instinct would be to blame it on the warped boardwalk; he would never have admitted it to himself that his joints were cantankerous, moody things and that more often than not, they were the source of his instability. It was a moot point, though. He tripped forward, and in a misguided attempt to save himself, went sideways.
He stared at the murky wash of high tide with Jack's left hand gripping the collar of his jacket, protested the choke as he was yanked back on his feet.
"Don't look at me so, Stephen. That was very nearly another tally."