As Lily walked past a closed hatch cover on the deck, she heard a metallic clank. “Ooh, that were a mistake,” she heard. She stopped, puzzled. That was a Yorkshire accent. The crew were Filipino. Besides which, going into an enclosed space and shutting the cover up behind you wasn’t really the done thing.
She stood there a moment longer, wondering if she had perhaps misheard. That had happened to her when she’d first come onboard, the crew would have conversations among themselves and she imagined she heard English. They had just sounded like random words, though, not sentences in dialect. Odd.
“What do we do now then?” continued the muffled voice from below the steel. Lily started opening the hatch. There was definitely someone there. Her heart started beating a little faster – a stowaway? They’d done a thorough search before leaving port, as per company policy, but basic human error could have meant something was missed. A stowaway from what sounded like Hull, though? In Japan?
She lifted the hatch with difficulty. She really needed to work on her physical strength, she reminded herself, before refocusing on the issue at hand. She wondered who she was going to see emerge from the darkness – and the darkness was total. Whoever it was either didn’t have a flashlight or had turned it off.
Lily stepped back and looked to either side of her but there was nobody else on deck. The ABs must have gone to have coffee. Dammit.
Slowly, a figure clambered up the ladder and out of the hatch. He was bald, small and darkish red in colour, with purple patches in various places. He looked, in all honesty, severely burnt, apart from the fact that his skin was totally smooth. He was wearing pale green, a long sleeved top and long tight trousers. He straightened up, saw Lily, and stepped back, eyes widening. “Ooh!”
Now he was in front of her, she looked at his face properly. It was flat. Completely flat. There was a nose shape and nostrils, a normal mouth and eyes and eyebrows, but no contour whatsoever. It was as if his head had been put through a mangle. Lily could feel her forehead wrinkling up in confusion and tried very hard to undo it. She had been brought up to be polite, no matter how much a person’s physical appearance may terrify her. “Um,” she said, her breath quickening, “Who are you?” She tried to remember the protocol for finding a stowaway at sea but her mind had gone blank. She was fairly certain she needed to tell someone. Why hadn’t she brought a radio? She was only meant to be checking that the life jacket boxes were unlocked, so maybe someone would come looking for her if she just kept the weird man here.
“Ward,” the man said cheerfully, holding out his hand. “If I may ask, where am I?”
“You’re on the Tidelines Leprechaun. A container ship. We’ve left Japan. Is that where you got on?”
“Japan? Er, no, love. I just got on here.”
“Here? We’re in the middle of the ocean. You were in the ballast tank, I think. Down there,” Lily said, pointing back down the hatch. She went to close the cover again.
“Oh, don’t do that. Fracas’s still down there.”
“Who’s Fracas?!” Lily was trying to pay attention to what the man said instead of his peculiar appearance.
She peered down the hatch and sure enough, there was a little blonde head on its way up. She stepped away. Fracas hopped nimbly onto the deck and turned out to be even smaller than Ward, but much the same in most other characteristics. That strange flat face, light green clothing, and an indeterminate age.
The newest addition to their conversation grinned up at Lily. “I am Fracas, dear. I work with Ward. I imagine you probably need a bit of a sit down.”
Lily had no idea what to do. “Um. Right. Fracas. Ward. What the hell are you doing on our ship? Are you trying to get to San Francisco? Where have you come from?” At that, Fracas punched Ward in the arm.
“San Fran bloody Cisco, Ward? What the fuck good is that going to do us?”
Ward looked embarrassed. “It’s me first time,” he said to Lily. “I reckon we’re not meant to be here at all.”
Lily nodded. “Yeah, you’re definitely not. First time doing what? I think I have to take you to see the captain, whoever you are.” She made as if to go towards the accommodation, but the pair stayed still.
Fracas leaned forward and grabbed Lily’s sleeve.
“Listen, dear. Um. This is a bit of a... thing. It’s all a mistake, you see. We’re certainly not meant to be here annoying you and getting in your way. But it’s happened and now we need to explain it all before you tell more people. It’s important that not many humans know. You can see we don’t look like you? We aren’t from where you’re from, after all.”
“Actually, my dad’s from near Hull,” Lily said to Ward. He looked at her blankly. “Aren’t you from Hull? Your accent is Yorkshire, right?”
Ward shrugged. “I don’t know where Hull is, love, but I think it’s best if Fracas tells you where we’re from. She’s better at talking. Could we go somewhere a bit quieter?” The ocean wind blew strongly in Lily’s ears. She would be far more comfortable in her calm air-conditioned cabin, but she still had no idea what to do. If she presented these two to the captain, what would he say? She was kind of interested to find out, but then again, she’d always loved secrets and these two didn’t seem to present any kind of threat.
“Well,” she said, still thinking, “I could take you to my cabin but if you don’t want anyone else to see you, it’ll be tricky. We’d have to go past the galley and there might be a few of the crew around at the moment.”
Ward held up his finger and turned sideways. He vanished. Or rather, nearly vanished, and looked like a thin black rod or pencil line drawn in the air. He turned back and returned to full visibility. Lily’s forehead wrinkles returned with him. She stared.
“I have no idea what just happened,” she informed him. He grinned and Fracas patted her on her back.
“We’ll just do that, dear, all the way, if you can lead us to somewhere with a locked door so we can explain. Nobody’ll see us unless they’re looking, and who would look for a straight line? The world’s full of them already. People don’t want more. Curves are the only interesting thing to look at.”
Lily disagreed with her point but couldn’t argue with the plan. She headed inside and straight up to her cabin, two decks up. When she got there, she waited for a minute (she still couldn’t see Ward and Fracas but assumed they’d been right behind her) and then shut and locked her door. That second, they reappeared.
Fracas skipped around the cabin, finding it very spacious thanks to her tiny frame. “Lovely! Lovely!” she chanted, before seeing Lily’s raised eyebrows. She sat on the floor, contrite. Ward joined her with crossed legs and Lily, after a few seconds, did the same. She felt as if she were in a pow-wow back in Brownies.
“So...” she said encouragingly. Her mind flitted back to the life jacket boxes. She’d been on her way to see the last one before this had happened. Must remember to go and check it later.
“Yes,” began Fracas, “so indeed. We intended to jump onto a little fishing boat. I’m not entirely sure where we are. Are we near the Date Line?”
Lily nodded. “The International Date Line, yes.” She thought back to her morning looking at charts on the bridge. “We’ll probably cross it in a couple of hours.”
“Excellent, well at least there’s that. We live there, you see.”
“You live in the middle of the ocean? Sorry, I’m confused.”
Ward butted in. “We live along the Date Line, love. In the extra five degrees.”
“The extra five degrees?” she asked. This was making no sense. If it weren’t for their appearance, Lily would have dismissed their riddles entirely and shoved them up to the captain’s office, but she had never seen people so extraordinary – there had to be an extraordinary explanation.
“Every leap year, the world gains five degrees,” said Fracas soothingly. “That’s where we stay.”
“No it doesn’t! They definitely would have told us that at college,” Lily sputtered. She wasn’t too hot at maths but she knew that the Earth always had 360 degrees, for God’s sake. Was it really February 29th, though? She had lost track of the date.
“Well, this is why we can’t let many people know, you see. The Earth gets an extra five degrees of latitude next to the International Date Line every four years, and we pop up to see what’s what and get supplies, and then go away again until the next leap year. Because it doesn’t go through land, nobody notices. Sailors get a bit confused but they always think it’s just their brains playing tricks on them.”
Lily was not entirely convinced that this whole experience wasn’t exactly that.
“Ironically,” Ward added jovially, thrusting currants into his mouth from a plastic bowl which had appeared somehow, “If the extra earth didn’t keep appearing and disappearing, the world would be a bit quicker on its feet about getting round the Sun and there wouldn’t be any need for a bloody leap year in the first place!”
Well, that’s just nonsense, she thought. “Look, say I believe you. What does that mean? What do you want? And how do you disappear for four years, anyway?”
“Like we disappeared on our way up here,” Fracas said, as if it were obvious. “Though under the water, of course. Just along the Line.”
“I was stuck on a corner last time,” added Ward, rubbing his nose. “Hurt a bit.”
Despite their story being ridiculous and slightly – make that utterly – unbelievable, Lily was starting to like these two. She could at least chat to them. It was a bit lonely sometimes, being in the middle of the ocean with no other native English speakers.
She sighed. “Right, OK. Every leap year the world gains five degrees, and that’s where you live, and when it’s not a leap year you go and hide back down under the ocean, but now it is a leap year, so you’re here.”
They both nodded enthusiastically. “You’re far better at this than we were told humans’d be,” said Ward, offering Lily his bowl of currants. She declined, and he continued to swallow them at a rate of knots.
“Humans – you mean you aren’t? Who ‘told’ you?”
Fracas placed a single currant on her tongue and swallowed. “We’re Intercalaries. Quite like humans, I suppose, except would you like to try disappearing underwater for four years at a time? And we look a bit different, as you can see. I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned it. Others tell us it’s normally the first thing you lot comment on, our bright skin. Well we get bruised a lot, you see, all this pushing and pulling on our resources. We’ve evolved into having permanently damaged-looking skin.”
Lily felt a sudden urge to write everything down. She felt like she was interviewing the pair, and was certain she wouldn’t remember their answers when she woke up, or got back to the real world, or realised she was a lunatic sitting in a room by herself eating currants.
“So there are others like you who tell you about humans. You’ve never met any before? And what exactly were you going to do if you got on a fishing vessel as planned?”
Ward suddenly stood up. “Look, you haven’t got a spoon, have you? I can’t eat these so quickly with just my hand.”
On the desk sat a set of cutlery Lily had brought with her (just in case) and never used. She pointed and decided to enquire about the dried fruit.
“We eat them, to get rid of them,” Ward said, as if that explained everything. Fracas took over, a sympathetic smile on her flat lips. “In four years, there’s a lot of current that builds up in the ocean in our five degrees. As a flat substance it can’t go anywhere, but it still exists. So when we finally emerge, it has a really short space of time to release all its energy. In order to reduce that to a normal level, so that humans don’t notice all the temperamental swells and whirlpools that would happen, we have to eat most of it in the time we have.”
Lily sighed. If this wasn’t real, it really was the most bizarre thing she’d ever heard of. “You’re saying the currents of the ocean are made of... currants?”
They stared at her. “Course they are,” said Ward slowly, momentarily stumped by the question.
“We don’t only eat currants,” Fracas tried to reassure her. “For a treat, sometimes we’re allowed to pick dates off the line.”
“The... International Date Line. Is made of dates. Is what you mean.” Lily had to speak steadily to calm herself down so that she did not throw herself out of the window in frustration.
At that, Fracas laughed, a tiny tinkling bell noise. “No! Of course not. The line is made of silk. The dates hang from it.”
There was no chance for Lily to think about whether she believed it or not. The outlandish ‘facts’ kept on coming. She went to sit by the porthole for a few minutes and stared out, willing logic to re-enter her life.
Things kept occurring to her and she couldn’t help but ask. She was no good at allowing mystery to exist when the answers could be there for the taking.
“How did you get onto a ship, though? In one of our tanks? I heard you say you’d made a mistake. Don’t you just swim to the surface of the water?”
Ward nodded. “I banged me head. Forgot about that.” He gazed around, as if he’d already forgotten about it again. “Thing is, right, I’m not that good at swimming. We can do this thing, we can get through solids if we go sideways and aim for corners. We were told to go for a little boat and hide under a bench and it’d all be fine, but truth be told it’s our first time up here and it’s a bit weird, isn’t it? Shapes and stuff. Me big brother goes to get it all usually but they decided to make me go and I dragged Fracas along. Anyway, so I measured it wrong and here we are.”
Fracas looked at the clock on the wall. “We should be getting on. Or at least work out how you can help us. What did you say your name was, dear?”
“Lily. What is it you’re supposed to be getting?” She wasn’t ready yet to rejoin them on the floor. She was exhausted by all this new information. Suddenly she really needed to sleep.
“Oh! You’re tired,” the little red woman said, reading her mind, or possibly just interpreting the three enormous yawns Lily had let out. Fracas stood and took Ward’s hand. “We’ll return in the morning. OK if we go in here?” And they opened her wardrobe door and disappeared.