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Short story: Figurehead by Carly Holmes

02 May 2022 9 minute read
Ship’s Figurehead by Julian Mason is marked with CC BY 2.0.

Carly Holmes

I’ve seen spectacles like you wouldn’t believe. Humpback whales singing lullabies to their lovers; dead men gutted and strung by their own glossy innards from harbour walls; sunsets that spray the sky with fireworks and scorch the vision to fierce white.

I’ve groaned beneath the weight of sea eagles roosting on the curve of my shoulders and been gouged down to the heartwood by the scrape of a gannet’s beak against my chin as it worries fish bones from its gullet.

I’ve been plunged through waves so vast in storms so wild I’ve scooped coral from the very bottom of the ocean floor.

I gaze with the same unblinking come-hither pout at seascape and landscape, through every season and across every yard of this water world.

Reg! Oi, Reg! Is that a fishing rod in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?!

I’m not subtle, as figureheads go. My hair falls in carved ringlets down to my tiny waist. My breasts perch high and swollen on my chest, my nipples proud and plump.

Haven’t you got a lovely bunch of coconuts!

My hands cup a kiss blown eternally to the winds. I have no legs or lower half and need none as I’ll never fuck or walk.

My paint has faded over the years from garish red and white to a kinder overall pink that smoothes softly over my crags and wrinkles.

Gull shit adds splashes of colour and texture to my torso as it trails its acid path across my curves, and bladderwrack necklaces my throat.

A sailor’s wet dream

I’m cast in the ideal of a pirate’s squeeze or saloon bar prostitute, a sailor’s wet dream, though my sparky wisecracks and eternally arched eyebrows are appreciated only by the wind and the flying fish and the other figureheads I occasionally see on my travels.

Well, hello sailor! Just passing by?

No time to stop and chat?

It’s a sad waste of good talent.

When I was young and first formed, after I’d been hacked into fantasy shape and strapped into a hoist, heaved into position, I gazed upon the sea for the first time and it made me quake with terror.

There was just so much of it.

I was seasick for the first five years, green beneath the scarlet diamonds of my cheekbones.

Oi! My eyes are up here! Cheeky!

The salt breeze drove cracks deep into my tumble of oak curls and smeared itself in glittering crystals across my cherry lips, my rigid stare.

But once I weathered and softened enough to let it soak into me and settle below the crusted veneer, once I relaxed and learned to find my balance on the water instead of fighting to resist its shimmy and thrust, I loved every moment of each voyage.

From the start of the journey, that thrill of anticipation when we raise anchor and I point us out of harbour, to the first sight of foreign land after months of sea-glare and storms, I whoop and holler and whistle. I was made for this.

Way-hay, and up she rises!

Brutish swines

We float without purpose for weeks at a time while the men trade their goods and patch any rot in the ship’s belly.

They might even touch me up with a lick of paint if they’ve got the ladder close, flick a brush leeringly over my dinner-plate nipples, the brutish swines.

Layered beside each other in some strange port, bumping hulls, we figureheads use the free time to catch up on gossip or swap horror stories of sea monsters and shipwreck.

Whisky whisky whisky, oh!

We call out to old friends and ask about absent ones.

We crack jokes and sing songs, grumble and squabble and flirt.

There’s a natural hierarchy based on what we symbolise: the holy images and rich folks’ status symbols rank highest and are the least fun-loving.

Pity any of us who gets parked between a couple of lions or a saint for a long lay-over.

The gargoyles and good-time girls like me are natural allies, bumping along the bottom as regards commanding respect but the most popular companion through long months of nothing to do but stare at the stained stone of a harbour wall.

Hey ho, below below!


This voyage I’m on now will be my last. I’ve heard the sailors talk as they prowl the decks at night; the ship is springing leaks so it’s for the knacker’s yard.

If I’m lucky someone will remember to chop me down from my mounting and retire me to a nice country pile where I can spend my end days crumbling to dust in an attic or a shed.

If I’m unlucky I’ll be burnt to ash or split into kindling and sold in bundles on street corners.

Nobody likes a drunken sailor! Early in the morning!

Neither fate particularly bothers me, and I was ready for either before today.

But today I fell in love and it’s spun me right over, upside down and front to back.

It’s made me shiver right down to the knots and bunches of my hardwood core.

I cannot bear the thought that I’ll never see her again.

We passed as ships in the night Tra la la! as I was leaving port and she was entering.

It was a squeeze through the narrow opening, both sets of sailors muscling their way without care for their ships, and for a brief while she was almost close enough to touch.

Perfection, she was.

Newly cast and flawlessly painted, eyes a turquoise splash between splayed fingers, hair the exact colour of leaves the moment before they tumble from the tree.

She dried the jokes from my lips as she looked at me, sent all thought but poetry howling from my mind.

She walks in beauty like the night! I called, and she smiled and glided on by.

Just one kiss. Just one kiss and they can take an axe to me and drop me into the deepest part of the ocean to break apart and rot down to nothing.

I’ve lived long and well, I don’t pretend to myself that I’m anything other than a ravaged old piece these days, held together by salt-stricken splinters and clots of flotsam.

I’m not the type a jewel like this fresh young beauty would ever want to spend longer than a few seconds with.

But if she could have turned her head when she floated past me then she would have turned it, I know that.

Oh, me, my heart, my rising heart! She was interested.


I’ve become fused to the ship’s subordinated soul now, through the decades of our companionship. There’s no dividing us without force.

I can move this passive vessel if I try. Mere inches over months of effort, but move it I can.

Or I can use my siren cry to summon help from my old pals.

Get a load of these! Ripe for the picking!

I don’t have long before we reach open waters and the long weeks of spying nothing but circling sharks and dark water monsters shifting beneath the swell of our passage.

Ooh, keep your naughty thoughts to yourself, Bert, you saucy so-and-so!

The warriors and mythical creatures, the trolls and griffins and bears, all love a good romance and a pretty lady. And, unlike me, they have the strength to turn their ships right around if the desire takes them.

Those sudden lurches on a calm sea, that strange skewing off course for half a mile before the boat’s nose corrects itself back to true, that’ll be them playing with the sailors, having a few moments’ japes, giving the men something to think about other than beer and tail.

They can’t resist a bit of drama.

I’ve been sucking down the wind, breathing in and in and in, for hours now. I’m going to let it all out in one long call for help and see what happens.

Wait for it. Wait for it. Oooooooh!

Damsel in distress!

First one back to me gets a close up of my tits! Last one back gets a close up of my tits!

And here they come. It brings a tear to my eye, it does. About turn! About turn! Let’s be having you! Full speed ahead!

It’s a marvellous sight, a fleet of boats all charging straight for me, whooping and hallooing as they come.

Chaos on board, sailors yelping and clinging to the masts. My men forced to turn us around and head back to harbour or face collision from all sides.

Good to see you again, Horatio! Harold, I knew you’d come, you bloody diamond!

Flank me, my friends!

There she is! My beauty, my love!

Give us a kiss!

This is as good a way to go out as any.

It’ll be a shame to spoil my pretty darling’s looks and smash these sailors to smithereens but we all have to make sacrifices when it comes to the course of true love.

Pucker up, you young nymph! Here I come!

Left a bit! Right a bit!


Figurehead is published by Parthian and is available from all good bookshops

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