The captain’s recovery – although Smee was hard pressed to call it this, as whenever he did, Hook would interrupt to say in dry and haughty tones, “Ιf a recovery it might be called, Smee.” – took many months.
The town doctor, a somewhat literal-minded but gentle man by the name of Bell, had quietly advised the captain that it was unlikely his lungs would ever return to anything like what they were, that the scarring on his lungs was too great to heal away with time, that he should accustom himself to this new way of being. He would recover somewhat, said Doctor Bell, but it would not rewrite what the Spanish Flu and resulting pneumonia had wrought in him.
Hook had been somewhat more melancholy than usual ever since, and now was no exception: the captain was sitting listlessly upon an armchair beside the fire, staring into the middle distance. The flames lit up the blue colour of his eyes, making it seem almost close to purple, and the eyes themselves seemed animated, reflecting the spark and flicker of the flames.
“Would you like to add a bit to this letter, Captain?” Smee asked, but he kept his voice soft, and Hook did not break from his reverie, his gaze remaining fixed somewhere Smee could not see.
Mr Starkey had penned the most recent letter to them – he told Smee and Hook almost everything about his life in the way that some men wrote to their mothers, and something about it made Smee feel quite strange. It was not an unpleasant domesticity – it was merely that for quite a long time, there had been a sense of companionship, of shared camaraderie, between himself and the crew, although they knew Smee to firmly be of Hook’s camp before he was of anyone else’s, and now, there was a strange distance between them, caused by more than the journey between Bispham and the Black Pool alone.
Mr Starkey advised that they had had a great many interested parties, that their tour was doing well, and that it had even been suggested that they might sail their ship along the coast and make scheduled port here and there, if the area ceased to be quite so lucrative.
The men were excited about that – of course they were.
Quite a few of them had gotten other jobs around the town, and one or two of them had joined up in the navy to serve again, and Mr Starkey advised they all found these new ships to be quite queer, but that a fact of any navy vessel was that it was in desperate desire of a capable and able-bodied seaman who knew his way about the thing.
He asked after Hook, of course.
Smee never knew what to say. He told them that the captain had been recovering, but it felt like an invasion of Hook’s privacy, to write the nature of his ailment in its precise detail upon the page, to describe his coughing fits, his fatigue, and his melancholy—
Smee could never describe Hook’s melancholy to anyone.
It had always been with him, something he wore every day with the regularity most men wore their breeches, and yet never had Smee seen Hook sink to such unplundered depths within its grasps, never heard Hook quite so miserable, and quite so… Oh, Smee knew not what even to call it, only that it ailed him, and made his heart ache.
They had been on the Fylde some six months to the day, and the captain was well enough now to rise and dress himself almost every day. Now and then they took a short walk in the garden, or up and down the path, but he rarely left the confines of the house, and here busied himself with reading books, or sitting at the piano Mrs Cratchett had left in the house.
Smee had gotten some varied mathematics periodicals, which Hook routinely settled himself down with, scowling down at the finely printed words and scratching out notes for himself on another piece of paper – Hook responded to the field of mathematics with the same soft, affectionate smile and contented recognition as most men might respond to a field of daffodils, and while Smee thought it very strange, he liked anything that brought Hook a bit of joy, and more than that, brought him peace.
He did miss that certain, concentrated look Hook got in his eyes upon a scheme, and what’s more, he felt that Hook missed it too.
The closest he had gotten was when Hook gave him particular instructions to hand onto the vendor in town, and once the tools he had requested were purchased, had employed Smee’s assistance in tuning the piano.
Even having seen him do the work on the harpsichord upon the Jolly Roger, it still took Smee aback to see the captain work so concentratedly, with such intent focus, such skill and such dexterity with his hand and one of his blunted hooks.
The dust had made him very ill, and although the piano had never sounded so fine, Hook had coughed very badly for a week after.
Smee signed off his letter to Starkey, once more keenly aware that only his ugly signature graced the page and not Hook’s graceful, looping own, and stood to his feet.
“I shall to the post office with this, Captain,” he said. “Perhaps you’d like to walk with me into town?”
Hook glanced up from his misery, staring into the fire, and then, to Smee’s delight and surprise, inclined his head.
“Very well, Smee,” Hook rumbled, still visibly lost in thought, but it was more than Smee was worth to point this out – he felt he had won a point and was not willing to say a thing that might determine the captain from accompanying him.
He helped him on with his coat, and although they did not walk arm-in-arm, he made sure their gait was the same, keeping them in line with one another, that the captain should be able to easily lean on him if he lost his way a bit.
Hook was some ways taller than Smee, being a gentleman only a couple of inches below six feet. He’d been strapping, once, although he wasn’t anymore, not filling out his clothes as he did. Now, he was thinner and more delicate of frame, and Smee thought, with a distant pang in his chest, that he would likely never climb a mast again, or wrestle another man to the ground, or hold his breath to swim silent as death some distance beneath the water, or, or, or.
What mattered, in the moment, was that Hook was taller than Smee, and that Smee’s head was in line with Hook’s shoulders. Smee had brought all of his old clothes with them up here, of course, and he’d re-tailored a lot of it to match up with the new styles, although Hook had scowled when he’d first seen one of his blouses with almost all of the ruffles taken off. He looked well, though, always in his bright reds and deep blacks and purples and handsome blues of the jackets he liked best.
Smee had never gone in for that sort of thing. He liked his browns and pale blues, liked a clean white shirt – he’d look ridiculous if he dressed like Hook did, but somehow it suited him. Everything suited Hook.
They were opposites in many ways, Smee thought, Hook being tall and handsome and once strapping, now lithe, Smee being short and plain and fat.
Hook was keen as a sharp knife, where Smee was rather stupid, which had never bothered him; Hook was prone to fits of misery and was a pessimist by God’s design; Smee was ever cheerful and one of nature’s optimists; Hook was English – that is to say, he was closer to the Devil than to God – and Smee was Irish.
“What are you thinking about, Smee?” Hook asked. He was giving Smee a strange look.
“I was making some face, I suppose, Captain?”
“Some face is right, Smee,” said Hook.
“I was thinking about how you should shake Lucifer’s hand before you shook God’s, Captain,” Smee said in a conversational tone. “Being English, I mean.”
Hook’s strange look became even stranger, and he turned his head away from Smee as he sometimes did when he did not understand – or was choosing not to understand – whatever it was Smee had said, but he smiled. It was a small, wooden thing, a ghost of the devilish smirk Smee liked very much, but it was more than he had smiled in nearly two weeks, and was to be celebrated.
“You say very queer things at times, Smee,” said Hook.
“I keep queer company, Captain,” was Smee’s response, and when Hook laughed, it was quiet and prim, but it wasn’t appended with a fit of coughs, and Smee liked that very much.
With the height difference between them, it was once that Hook had a long, loping gait like some noble wolf or big cat, but his stride was shorter now, and he didn’t walk so quickly – it was easier for Smee to keep pace, and he no longer had to take four steps for every two of his captain’s, but he almost missed the bustle of working to keep up.
He thought perhaps that Hook was thinking of this, too, because once or twice, he glanced down at his own polished shoes and took a longer step, but he never kept this up for more than a few paces on the short walk into the village proper. By the time they began to walk past the first few houses, the little place that called itself a haberdasher’s but sold more nails than it did buttons and ribbon, the modest bookshop that had been ordering things in special for Smee and for Hook, and of course a few pubs, Hook was beginning to flag, and was forcing to stand up a little straighter, the rounded curve of his hook pressing against the centre of torso as though to remind his lungs to keep straight too.
“You needn’t come into the post office if you don’t like, Captain,” Smee said. “There’s the bookshop, or the grocer’s, or—”
“I’ll sit on the bench, Smee, you needn’t concern yourself with entertaining me,” Hook said dryly, and Smee frowned at him.
“We could go into the pub if you want a rest,” Smee suggested. “Before we go back, I mean.”
“Smee—” Hook said, a little out of breath, and Smee interrupted before he could go on, “They’ve alcoves and such, you know. We’d not be in full view of everyone.”
“You think I’m frightened of people laying eyes on me?” asked Hook, voice full of venom.
Smee knew a trap when it was set in front of him, and said nothing.
The captain was breathing shallowly through his mouth, and although Smee couldn’t yet hear the wheeze in his throat, he should rather head it off at the pass before he did – it would be best for Hook, he thought, if he sat down for an hour or so before he took another walk, even the short one back to the house, and he could see this understanding pass on the captain’s face, too.
Used to be that he liked an ale house or a tavern – not the noise, but the people, and the way they looked at him.
“The Egg and Swan,” Hook said mildly, with a crisp nod of his head.
He looked strange, without a hat, when they were out of doors like this. He had outright refused all of the modern hats that Smee had shown for him, and when Smee had suggested that perhaps he cut his hair to look a little more modern, he had thought Hook would actually kill him.
Smee had a hat.
He was wearing a panama, which he thought was quite handsome, and when he had marched into the living room wearing it for the first time, interrupting Hook where he was reading his book, Hook had looked up at him.
“I assume you love it, Captain,” said Smee upon this entry. “My hat, I mean.”
He had expected Hook to laugh – it had been late in the morning, and Hook had seemed wide awake and in unusual good humour, but he hadn’t. Looking up at Smee from his chair beside the fire, he had simply rested his hook against the base of his goateed chin, and said, “It suits you very well, Smee. One would think it made for you.”
Smee had come over all warm at that. He was warm thinking on it as he stood in line at the post office.
When he came back out, Hook was not sitting on the bench outside of the post office, and Smee felt his heart give an anxious twist in his rib cage, until he saw Hook’s red jacket across the way.
He was standing up straight, his hand and hook loosely folded in front of his belly, as he looked into the tobacconist’s window, and Smee hurried over to him, crossing the street to stand beside him.
The cigars in the window were displayed in rows in their piled up boxes, hay scattered loosely beneath them in the window as though they had only just been imported, and there were posters for different cigarettes and chewing tobaccos, too, all sorts.
Smee had brought a few cigars home a few months back, but Hook had gotten through half of one and then had slipped into one of the worst coughing fits Smee had heard from him, had been sick after.
“Could just get some light ones,” said Smee. “Nothing heavy. You miss it?”
“Of course,” said Hook in a low, distant voice. “But what I miss is the feeling it imparted – the satisfaction. There’s none of that, if I cough my heart into my hands halfway through.” His breathing had evened out, Smee was glad to hear, even though Hook was on his feet. He tired more quickly, standing, than once he did, but he was improving – and this, this was much improved. “Shall we to the pub?”
“Aye, yeah,” said Smee, and they went across the way.
It wasn’t busy in the pub, but it wasn’t quiet, neither – it was a few hours past noon, and there were a few people dotted around at the tables, men and women drinking or eating. People said hello to Smee, of course – Mrs Cratchett was sitting with her two sons at a table, and greeted him cheerfully, and there was Bob Head from one of the farms out east, and the Reverend Gansey, who was a tall man who was almost bald on top, and spoke with a lisp.
He and Smee, naturally, treated one another with a mutual distrust.
A few people looked their way, glanced particularly at the captain, which he ignored in that handsome, haughty way he had of ignoring people who were looking at him, admiring him. For all that Smee had been in the Egg and Swan a good few times, Hook walked up to the bar with his typical grace and confidence, and said cleanly, all clipped and polish, “Mrs Aspen, I presume?”
“Oh,” said Daisy Aspen, rushing up and giving him a bright grin – she was tall, almost as tall as Hook was himself, and she had an old burn on the side of her jaw from an accident with an iron when she was a little girl. She was a cheerful woman, bustling with big arms and wide thighs. “Captain Hook! It’s good to see you up and out.”
“Kind of you to say,” said Hook, and when Daisy put out her hand to shake over the bar, he didn’t even flinch, but his lips did twist into a small, amused smile, and he placed his hook against her palm.
“Oh,” she said, flushing pink. “Oh, of course, Captain, I, erm, I do—”
He laughed: it was a smooth, rich sound, and Smee could see the way that her flush deepened slightly, the way she glanced down at her shoes as she gave his hook a quick shape and stepped away.
“I’ll pull you two gents a pint,” she said. “We’ve a beef joint on, if you’d like to partake.”
“Please, Mrs Aspen, we would love to.”
“Oh, call me Daisy!” she said, and giggled like a woman much younger than her years. She seemed surprised by this herself, and put her hand over her mouth as she bustled quickly away.
“Times are, Captain Hook, I hate you,” said Smee.
“A married woman, Mr Smee,” was the softly-toned reply. “It’s not as if you would do anything I won’t.”
“I fuckin’ would,” muttered Smee, watching her arse as she walked away, and Hook elbowed him subtly in the shoulder.
For all his easy charm, he was looking slightly paler – it was very warm in the pub compared to outside, the air thick with pipe smoke, and Hook cleared his throat twice.
“Sit by the window, shall we?” asked Smee.
Hook inclined his head.
It was nice, Smee thought, that people came over and paid their dues, so to speak – Smee had told everyone they’d run a merchant ship, and of course everyone knew that Hook had been very ill, that he was recovering here, that Smee was—
Smee never called it looking after him, but other people did.
The Reverend introduced himself, and the Cratchetts, and Bob, and a few other people besides, and it was good that they were eating, Smee thought. Hook could talk without getting out of breath, but not for two hours in a smoky room, and this way he could focus on his meal and his drink and pretend he wasn’t out of breath to talk.
And Smee did most of the talking, anyway, for now.
It didn’t feel like normality. Not at all, it didn’t. But it did feel, in some way or other, as though they were closer to something—
It was nice, to see the captain with other people again.