The Dragon-Ship: a short story by Paul Murray
The Vikings return in Paul Murray’s short story, in the continuing series from the creative-writing programme Dublin in the Coming Times, which imagines the city’s future
The missus and me were up on the roof of the Ilac shopping centre, trying to catch a few eels for dinner, when we saw the ship come drifting out of the mist. I suppose I should have waited, but it had been such a long time since anything came out of the mist except great big buggers of waves, I couldn’t help getting excited. Hallo! I cried, jumping up and down. Over here! This must be the shipment of towels they’d been promising us all this while, I thought. Since the whole folderol with the glaciers it was bloody hard to get a good towel, a dry one I mean. Or maybe it was umbrellas. Or firewood!
The missus, however, didn’t cheer. She didn’t even speak, just stared mistrustfully at the shape in the mist; and as it drew closer I noticed the dragon’s head on the prow, and also what sounded like shouting coming from whoever was on board – warlike shouting.
There was another chap fishing a few yards down the roof from us. He had a plastic bag over his head, a good high-quality blue one, another two bags tied around his feet and what looked a stock-picker, the kind you would have found in a warehouse, which he was using as a fishing-rod. This fellow knew what he was at, I thought to myself, so I left the missus where she was, and went over to ask him if he’d clocked the towel ship. By then it was hard to miss, what with the racket coming from the deck. On top of the shouting, there was now a horrible metallic clatter, the sort you might get from banging, for example, an axe, with, for instance, a shield. I made the point to the chap with the bags that axe-clattering and warlike shouting seemed like odd behaviour from a towel ship, unless of course the deliverymen did it to ward off inquisitive sea-creatures that might impede the passage of the ship – dolphins, octopuses, that sort of thing. I’d had a friend who’d tried to escape to high ground on an 8x4 sheet of plywood a while back and he’d been driven demented by the dolphins coming over and wanting to frolic with him. Or rather, they pretended that they wanted to frolic, he said; really they wanted to rub our noses in the fact that they were swimming about and lording it up in all the places where we, the terrestrial creatures, mankind and badgers and ants and so on, had up till very recently been running the show. The writing was on the wall for the terrestrial creatures, that’s what they were telling him with their pretend frolicking. Everyone thinks dolphins are sound, my friend had said, after he’d been capsized a third time and was back living on the roof of the Four Seasons. But they’re malevolent little bastards.
I’d got a bit sidetracked, telling the fisherman all this, but he wasn’t listening anyway. The ship was close enough now that you could clearly hear the sailors speaking. Their words meant nothing to me, but as soon as he heard the fisherman turned pale. Vikings, he said.
Well, that threw me. We’d seen a lot of change in Dublin over the years, but even so I don’t think any of us was expecting the Vikings to come back. As they came into view I knew he was right, though. Your UPS and your DHL and so forth had had to adapt with the times like everyone else, but I was pretty sure that their uniform didn’t run to helmets with horns or necklaces made out of fingers, dolphins or no dolphins. Certainly, it made an odd first impression, which their brand manager ought to have thought about. Still I wasn’t sure there was cause for worry. They might actually have some useful tips on marine subjects like shipbuilding and seafaring. And fishing. The truth was I was getting nowhere trying to catch eels in my biscuit tin. I hadn’t caught one in the three years I’d been coming to the Ilac.
Anyway, there wasn’t much we could do to stop them. The ship was hurtling towards us at a rate of, I suppose you’d say, knots. It had great big blood-red sails, caked with ice, and ice-crusted oars, 20 on each side, heaving into the waves. Now one of the sailors had climbed up beside the dragon-head thing and was shouting to us. Dove Linn? it sounded like.
Yes, I shouted back. Dublin! Maybe if they took a shine to us, I was thinking, they might even ask us to be Vikings too! It would be brilliant being on a proper ship, with a roof, and towels, and spare socks, tucking into a delicious eel pie every night . . .
The Viking who’d asked the question was now conferring with his men. Dove linn, he was saying. They were shaking their heads and pointing back the way they’d come.
Finally, he picked up his axe and whacked one of them with it – not so hard as to behead him, just to knock him unconscious. The other Vikings got quiet then, and a few minutes later a rowboat was lowered over the side of the ship, with the violent Viking in it, and four others. It struck me that the lead Viking’s beard was a bit like one of the lads from ZZ Top, and I mentioned this to my friend the fisherman. But he wasn’t listening. Christ, he said. He’d gone white as a sheet, and as the oars splashed towards us, he glanced down at the water as if he was thinking of swimming for it.
Too late for that: the rowboat had already run up on to the shore (formerly the roof) and the Vikings climbed out. They were huge fellows; if Sweden had a rugby team, these guys would be on the first 15, no question. Of course, there was very little of Sweden left – certainly nothing big enough to play a game of rugby on. Equally, in our straitened times there was little call for beard models – otherwise the Vikings would have been in great demand. One had a long brown beard, like a young, better-looking Gandalf; another had a bushy grey beard that made him look like a violent Santa Claus. One had a wild beard of an unusual mixture of ginger, black and brown, so he looked like he was halfway through eating a tortoiseshell cat. I always noticed beards; back in the old days, my friends and I had been very proud of ours, which we would stroke thoughtfully as we queued for our flat whites, although we weren’t actually thinking anything and in retrospect we might have been better off doing something about the glaciers.
The main Viking addressed us in a bellow, something something something Dublin.
There’s no point bellowing, mate, I was on the point of saying. We don’t speak Viking here.
But my friend the fisherman replied to him in what appeared to be fluent Viking. They spoke back and forth for a few minutes. Then ZZ Top went to confer with the others.
You speak Viking? I asked the fisherman.
I used to work in Ikea, he said. Picked up a bit of Swedish, mostly relating to flatpack furniture, but I can follow what he’s saying.
Which is what? I said.
The fisherman frowned. As far as I can work out, he said, these Vikings set sail from Sweden, but ran into a blizzard. They got stuck in the ice. It got colder and colder. Then the ice thawed and they found themselves back here.
How long were they stuck in the ice? I said.
They think a month, the fisherman said. But I wonder if it might have been more like . . .
A thousand years? I said.
That’s what the other Vikings were wondering too, he told me in a whisper. The lads from the rowboat were muttering to each other about back pay, and counting the months on their fingers. The main Viking, who the fisherman said was called Snorri, had to clock one of them on the head with his axe to get them to focus.
So this is Dublin? Snorri said.
That’s right, the fisherman said.
You’re sure? he said.
Positive, the fisherman said.
Snorri looked sceptical. I don’t remember there being all this water, he said.
There was a bit of business with the glaciers, the fisherman said.
Business? Snorri said.
They melted, the fisherman said.
Snorri said something then that the fisherman told me was a Swedish swear-word. It was what his line manager in Ikea used to say whenever a fight broke out in the lighting department. It was always the lighting department, he noted. Seemed to have an effect on people’s brains.
What about all the books? Snorri said. And learning, for which Dublin is famed. The glaciers washed them away too? And he laughed, to show that this would be impossible.
Mmm, the fisherman said ambiguously. Well, we hadn’t so much use for the books, you see. Or the learning. Because we had computers.
Computers? the Viking said.
Magical machines, the fisherman said, that knew everything and could solve any problem.
Like the missus here, I said, when the fisherman had translated. If you switched her on, she could natter away to you in Viking till the cows came home. She’d know more about you than you do yourself!
The Viking took a long look at herself, who admittedly didn’t look like she was capable of solving much. She had seen better days, it was true, but who hadn’t? Anyway, I still had the guarantee for her and if civilisation ever got up and running again I was planning to bring her in and see if they could get the water out of her diodes, though in the previous civilisation they’d always been shirty about liquid damage.
The Vikings from the rowboat were looking increasingly anxious, shaking their heads and making bleak gestures; I noticed, from the ship, the rest of them were gazing over at us bleakly.
They just want to go home, the fisherman said.
They are home! I said. I gave them a broad smile to reassure them. I didn’t want them to get depressed and leave again. I wanted them to stay and fix things. Yes, their technology was over a thousand years out of date, but they had a can-do attitude that I liked. They were hands-on type of people. We were not hands-on people. When the glaciers started to melt, we’d left it to the scientists to take care of while we got on with flying back and forth to New York and Australia to take pictures of ourselves drinking flat whites. Then when the floods came, we realised the scientists had all buggered off. They’d Skyped us from their space station. They said they wished us well with rebuilding civilisation, but as with the dolphins, there was an edge to it. As for the government, they were worse than useless. They’d actually had a whole department in charge of ignoring the glaciers, and when there were no more glaciers left to ignore, the only idea they’d had was to try and market Dublin as the “Irish Venice”, which was pointless given that every city in the Northern Hemisphere was trying to pull some sort of a Venice-of type shtick, apart from Venice, of course, which was completely underwater; anyway there were no tourists because everyone was either dead or living on a roof eating seaweed.
We need those Vikings, I said pointedly to the fisherman. We don’t have learning or streets or indoors any more. But tell him about the wonders of 21st-century life. Phones, tell him about phones.
Mostly using his hands, the fisherman made a game attempt to describe phones to Snorri. Tell him about selfies, I encouraged. How you could take pictures of yourself standing beside things.
The more the fisherman said, though, the more ashen-faced the Viking became. Kvah? he said.
The fisherman looked worried. He wants to know about the cows, he said. He says Ireland is famed as a place of fat, fertile cattle.
Oh, I said. That was a problem all right. The cows hadn’t fared so well with the flooding. It turned out it was very hard to get a snorkel on a cow. For a few months there were dead cows floating everywhere. You couldn’t go anywhere without having to barge through a whole load of cow corpses.
Well, what does the fisherman do except start gabbing all this to Snorri!
Don’t tell him that! I exclaimed. But it was too late, because the big Viking was yelling at the others to get back in the rowboat, and now they were scrambling back over the waves. Quick! I said to the fisherman. Tell him about Facebook! Tell him about the time everyone was doing the Plank!
The fisherman started shouting this over the waves, while I racked my brains for other enticements.
But the red-sailed dragon ship had cast off and turned about and was caroming back into the white-capped, unforgiving sea.
Ever catch anything with that thing? I asked the fisherman, nodding at his Ikea stock-picker.
Only seaweed, he said.
Swap you a robot for some seaweed? I said hopefully. Apple iMrs 6. Still under guarantee.
No, you’re all right, he said.
DUBLIN IN THE COMING TIMES: WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT
In his 1893 collection, The Rose, WB Yeats included the poem To Ireland in the Coming Times. Borrowing its title, Dublin in the Coming Times is a free, citywide programme of creative writing in which Dubliners, young and old, can create their own stories and poems as they look to the future of their city as it goes through another phase of evolution and renewal.
Roddy Doyle has invited writers and artists to contribute short stories reimagining the city. Some of their work will be published in The Irish Times over the coming months.
Free creative-writing workshops are running over the course of the year for adults in six Dublin public libraries, in Donaghmede, Fighting Words, Science Gallery, Little Museum of Dublin, Axis Ballymun and the Ark.
The project, which is in partnership with Dublin Unesco City of Literature, is intended to enable Dublin’s citizens to participate in illustrating a vision of the city as a place that, although it might change and adapt to new circumstance, will continue as a living, creative environment and a place for the storyteller and poet. We hope to publish selections from the stories that are created. Seán Love, Executive director, Fighting Words
- Dublin in the Coming Times is one of six projects being promoted by Dublin’s Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development, a Dublin City University programme with the UN University; email email@example.com