“I say, Charles, it certainly does look the part.”
“Thank you – I will admit it has been quite demanding to get it to balance, but thankfully a bit of lead plating here and there and some ballast seems to have done the trick.”
“You mentioned that last time you had some problems with the batteries?”
“Yes, bit of a hoohah and not the ideal solution, but rather than attempt to run everything from the battery, I have decided to run the mechanics with steam and the instruments with clockwork. It reduces the operating time down to three hours but I believe that is sufficient .”
“I concur, three hours should be more than enough time. I am curious though of how such a configuration could work, would you care to explain?”
“Gladly. Underneath the Busby you’ll find the instruments for factors such as wind speed, temperature, atmospheric pressure and so on. All of these are not very demanding in terms of consumption, so are powered by a wind-up mechanism that resides snuggly in the cranial cavity, which can be wound via the left nostril. If you look underneath the tunic here, you can see the boilerplate for the steam engine. You might have noticed our friend appears to have poor posture – a necessary cursor to allow room for the two pistons that provide power to the legs. Talking of which, both the left and right trunks of the legs contain the batteries for the calculating engine which now resides in the buttocks – not the optimal position, but alas the only space I had left.”
“How did you get all those cogs in there, there doesn’t seem to be enough room?”
“I didn’t. I think you’ll find this most impressive. Here, help me remove his breeches.”
“Oh my good golly, what is that?”
“It is called a phonograph cylinder – an American invention and a marvelous one too. See that needle? It runs over the surface of the cylinder which is wax. In that wax, there is a series of troughs and peaks which the needle can interpret. Rather than all the cogs and gear wheels before, I have been able to reduce the entire works of Clausewitz, Euclid and the current British Army artillery tables onto that one cylinder.”
“Amazing, absolutely amazing.”
“If you think that is impressive, you should take a look at the right buttock.”
“Looks the same as the left?”
“Notice the cylinder – what’s different about it?”
“…. It’s smooth?”
“Exactly. From my study of the Art of War, one thing had been bothering me and that is the chance factor. While our cohort is well versed, previously there was no way for it to take into account for conditions on the day or be able adapt for events that happened that weren’t in the manual, so to speak. This cylinder here allows the calculating engine to write its own formulas in response and act on them.”
“Charles, are you saying it’s… self aware?”
“Cogito ergo sum!”
“This could really turn the tide in the Sudan. How soon can we get it to the production?”
“Well, the Ministry has provided us with a factory in Manchester. None of the parts are too out of ordinary, so theoretically we could be turning them out at the rate of twelve a week.”
“An entire platoon in a month!”
“But alas, it will not be.”
“What? Does it not work?”
“Oh, it works – better than one could imagine. It is the ultimate soldier. It never gets tired, never disobeys an order and it won’t stop until the enemy are all but dead. Here lyeth my conundrum. The first time on the battlefield, it will no doubt be a glorious victory, but as I said – none of the parts are too out of the ordinary, and I envisage that by the next call to battle the enemy would no doubt be fielding a platoon of calculating engines of their own. Now it becomes a matter of maths. Both sides have the formula for exterminating the other and would be aware of the matter. I have done the calculations myself by hand many a time and I would conclude that an army of calculating engines of equal size would come to the conclusion that the best outcome would be to do nothing: x = 0, y = 0.
“Now you could argue that to overcome this, all one has to do is to have a larger army than the enemy and no doubt that would be the rationale of those dimwits in Parliament, and soon British factories would be turning them out in their thousands – and so would the enemy.
“But as anyone who has studied the Art of War knows, war is not just about numbers. I can see by the look of your face that you are wondering why not build a better calculating engine – twice as good – and I have thought about that too, but here I believe there is a law in play. Currently my machine is capable of carrying out 64 calculations in an hour and I am sure that the enemy would easily be able to reproduce it. With the pressure on both sides to build a better machine, I am sure that in a short while we would see an engine capable of doing a 128 calculations as efficiencies are found in the manufacturing process – thats the nature of progression.
“By the end of our lifetime, we may well see a machine capable of doing 256 calculations, but to think we could ever build a machine capable of 512 calculations in an hour – ludicrous? Far-fetched? Impossible? I believe so. After all to reach the point I have today has taken two thousand years of human knowledge. Maybe one day machines will be capable of such tasks, but not in this generation, the next or the next ten after that. There is more chance of man flying.”
“You could have asked my permission.”
The tent flap opened slowly and I caught my first glance of the trespassers.
“I said, you could have asked my permission… Stand up.”
They could have been no more than fifteen years old, and from their dress I could tell they were not from the village – no, their threads were too fine. Boys from the school of York or Ripon I imagine.
“Well, how many of you are there?“
“And how long were you planning on staying?”
“Just till Thursday, sir.”
‘You know, out of five hundred hectares you couldn’t have chosen a more wretched spot. I used to have stables here which were knocked down long ago. The hardcore is still in the ground and when the heavens open up, which looking at the sky they will do shortly, this becomes one gigantic bog. You see that tree line there? Good, if you cut through there you’ll see what is left of the Italian gardens, copied from the gardens of the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, not that that will be of interest to you, of course. However, there are some shell grottos there which I imagine boys of your age will no doubt find pleasure in exploring. Now continue through those gardens and you will come down to a large field which leads to a small beck. It’s on a slight slope, so you should have no problem with the rain. It was also the site of one of Cromwell’s battles and it has not been uncommon to find the old bullet or belt buckle around there. Did you come via the village?”
“There’s a small holding there to the left of the path you walked up, if you want breakfast. I suggest you get up at the crack of dawn and head over there. It’s owned by a Mister Smith, who has been known to give out eggs and milk for a helping hand. I’ve also brought you some soup. Leave the pail by the steps of the coach house when you have finished.”
“Thank you sir, that is most kind of you.”
“”I’ll leave you boys to it, just one final thing. The ruins of the old Abbey – these are strictly out of bounds. That is the view from my study and I don’t want it ruined by young oiks clambering all over it. Understood? then I will bid you good day – oh, and don’t upset the deer.”
This was a common occurrence here at Asheby, though not normally this late in the year, mind you. One’s own fault I suppose for letting the grounds get into the state that they are, but as I walked back to my hall, with the low rays of sun casting shadows through the trees and the gentle sound of the nearby stream, I was reminded of what a wonderfully peaceful place this is.
It was this tranquility that attracted me to it in the first place.The same tranquility that attracted the Augustinian monks all those centuries before. I think it has something to do with the lay of the land, for Asheby sits between two hills that protect it from the winds of the moors and there is a beautiful symmetry in the fact that both hills have springs that flow down into the stream that divides this valley in two. Whilst rugged and rocky at height, when one walks between the outcrops, down into the valley, one can almost feel a sea of tameness wisping through.
Asheby Hall itself does not share such beauty. I used to cringe when I think what has happened over the years. The original house stems from what would have been the outbuildings for the Abbey, with the Abbot’s house being the starting point. In the early Sixteenth Century, when the house came into my family with the dissolution of the monasteries, huge fortifications were begun, but were never completed as the need gave way and fashion took its place. A large tudor hall was constructed connecting several of the other outer buildings into one.
After the Civil War, when the aforementioned hall was ghastly commandeered for a garrison for Cromwell’s horses, two Jacobean wings were added to the east and the west tripling its size with a servant block also added to its rear.
It suffered again during the eighteenth century, from yet another bow to fashion, with a bout of Palladians, with a column and plinth added wherever it could be – it was at that time, naturally, that the Italian gardens were added. I don’t think it was more than four years before interest waned and they were left to be overgrown.
I used to cringe, but overtime I have come to understand that I and Asheby hall are much the same. For I too have spent many a year being a slave to fashion, to trends, to wants without needs and I have been cursed for such excesses, but I now find myself in a period of reflection.
I live a much simpler life, and only take up a few rooms in the east wing. My study that overlooks the remains of the Abbey, my library which runs most of the first floor of the wing and my chambers above – though I often much prefer to sleep downstairs. The housestaff have long gone and the rest of the house is now a tomb. Money is not an issue, far from it, but I have realised that one can only ever sit in one chair, and my chair is in front of my fireplace in my study overlooking the remains. It is the closest I have come to finding harmony and I have learned to treat it as my heaven. So what if this nirvana is occasionally interrupted by the odd intrusion – I do after all have five hundred hectares and besides, it is a small price to pay for what normally turns out to be a very easy meal.
“The defendant Mr Charles Ellis-Longbourne is charged on the night of May the Sixth, of the year eighteen ninety eight with the murder of Miss Mary Cox. Will the Juror officer please rise …“Has the Jury reached a verdict?”
“Yes your honour”
“Would you please address the court”
“The jury finds the defendant… not guilty”
Basement Royal Academy of Science later that day ….
Charles walked around the maze of workbenches keen to return to his work. The place felt unfamiliar, though it was where he had spent the previous three months from dawn till dusk, sometimes sleeping on a makeshift cot in the corner, including the night of the unfortunate murder of the match girl.
He picked up one of his notebooks, hoping to find a familiarity and an entrance to normality. It was not to be, the scribbles by his own hand looked foreign.
“Charles! Good god , I was not expecting to see you back here so soon. Nasty business that, you have one devil of a doppelganger”
In the doorway his colleague and dearest friend Horace stood
“The devil indeed, but thankfully the jury saw good in the end. Amen”
“Amen. Ah, its really good to see you back in here, and I’ve been dying to tell you about this”
Horace pointed to what looked like nothing more than a hulk of scrap metal, twisted and buckled.
“What is it ?”
“You remember that chap Henry Lamberton ?”
“The wiry fellow always berating Newton ? Whatever happened to him ?
“God knows, but I got a call from his former landlord. He has not been seen for months and the landlord wanted the property cleared. I was going to leave it, but as much I detested the man, the thought of loosing one’s lifetime work… well, its terrible. So I bought it here in the hope he returns. Far be it for me to be nosey, but I started reading his journal and here – look.”
Charles put down his own notebook and took the journal and proceeded to thumb through it.
“ Electromagnetism… waves.. lines of force… This is just Maxwell’s treatise on Electricity and Magnetism copied out ?”
“That’s what I thought at first, but look again. He wrote it out twice and look at the footnotes”
“… Wave from observation point A….. different result to observation point B…. split in … pass me my slide rule “
“Imagine it, if what he is saying there is correct that would be Trans Matter Displacement “
“The possibilities would be endless ”
“No longer would it take 99 days to get tea from China “
“Or armies to the far corner of the Empire. Though to prove what Lamberton has theorised here would require some sort of chamber and a way of suspending the…. thats what that pile of metal is , isnt it ?”
“Very good it is. It might look battered but I checked the structure and I’ve gone through his notes thoroughly, I’ve been waiting for you before firing it up”
“Well what are we waiting for”
Horace walked over to the machine and rested his hand on a cylindrical lever coming from the side
“Are you ready ?”
“Pull it “
There was the noise of gears turnings, flywheels spinning , a groan of metal that had been bent from it shapes and now finding itself trying to turn itself out and then….. nothing. Horace darted around making a check here and there and concluded:
“Be a pal I think there is a cog just below that small glass inspection window, can you give it a poke?”
Charles grabbed the nearest thing to hand a firepoker from the fireplace and took it to the machine. He felt through it the mechanical work and began to waddle it back and forth. Success the whirring sprang back in with little effort. As he retracted the poker, the end caught a flywheel no more than an inch in size, but the speed it span at was enough to cause the end to flick up violently into the glass of the inspector chamber.
He felt his arm detach from his body, though he could still feel the poker in his hand which felt it was no longer butting against metal, but swashing around breaking twigs underwater. He felt the rest of himself go limp like a rag doll and reached out his other hand to steady himself against the machine feeling himself pass through it. A blast of cold air hit his face and it was then he realised he was no longer in the lab.
The sky was dark, there were cobbles beneath his feet. He looked for a sign, anything to orientate himself and there it was, “St. Swithins Lane”. He looked down to his feet, and there was the bloody body of a girl no older than eighteen with a tray of matches splattered around her.
Just as quick as it had happened he was back in the lab, the machine still whirring, the glass on the inspection chamber intact.
“Are you alright, you looked like you drifted off for a second?”
How much do you take in your Gentlemen’s Spice?
Asquith: Rioja. Absolutely without a doubt. You can tell from the aroma.
Browne:Nonsense, it’s further south than that – La Mancha. As I said before, ignore the aromas and look at the colour, that colour screams La Mancha.
Asquith: I say you are wrong old boy, this is going to be the easiest five pounds I’ve won off you all week. Senorita ?
Senorita: Your friend is, how do you say, correct. I am from La Mancha.
Browne: Ha! What did I tell you ? Thank you very much senorita, you can put your clothes back on and leave us now.
Browne: Certainly. I say, that was nasty business Archer found himself in this week.
Asquith: Nasty? Bloody shocking If you don’t mind me using the Irish.
Browne: Still, you can understand it somewhat.
Asquith: Not sure, but I do get where you coming from.After all, a modern gentlemen is a rather busy bee.
Browne: A busy bee, in a busy world! Take today for example; Breakfast at the club…
Asquith: Meeting friends for Lunch at Boodles…
Browne: Then In the office for an hour…
Asquith: After work drinks at the club …
Browne: Then there was the Show…
Asquith: Then back to the club, for a nightcap…
Browne: And now back here… And today is not untypical is it ?
Asquith: Not untypical at all. I mean, no show tomorrow, but we’ve got the boxing to go to.
Browne: Then Thursday Freddy’s having his weekly bash at the Cafe Royale, can’t miss out on old Freddy.
Asquith: Friday, it’s off to the country shooting for the weekend.
Browne:Weekend after that it’s the Boat race.
Asquith: End of the month, that new casino is opening in Cannes – that’s a week away.
Browne: Never ending isn’t it? Just when you think you’ve got an evening free or, dare I say, a weekend. Something always pops up. Do you know, I once went five months without seeing my wife, god knows how long it’s been since I last saw my children.
Asquith: Switzerland you sent them to wasn’t it ?
Browne: I think so, I let my wife’s staff deal with that sort of thing. Yours are in Belgium are they not?
Asquith: France actually.
Browne: Do beg your pardon old boy. Ha – you know what just struck me, you could have been five pounds up tonight; I very nearly picked a French one. Funny. So, back to Archer. Do you agree, that the foul hoot Archer found himself in was understandable – even if somewhat…
Asquith: Understandable perhaps, but still pretty shocking. I can’t imagine how I would have reacted.
Browne: Oh good God no, I can’t either. To be there with your pants down…
Asquith: Canon raised…
Browne: Sights set for the breach…
Asquith: And then, for the young women to suddenly realise and scream, ‘Daddy?’
Browne: I guess, if anything, it has taught us all the importance of carrying a picture of one’s oinks on their person.
A pint of ale, my good man!
I say, isn’t this nice, the bastion of England; the English boozer. It’s nice to get away from the stuffiness of one’s clubs once in a while and just sit and enjoy an ale with my fellow country men… none of this “your membership fees are due for renewal” nonsense.
And you there young man, what’s that you are reading?
Karl Marx, eh?
Yes, I will watch out young man, thank you for warning me .
Gosh, all this talk about seeing and watching reminds me of a little hoo-hah I had back in the spring. Let me tell you about The Peeping Parisian …
I was in Paris with my good friend Lady Watson, Do you know her at all? Of course you don’t , silly me. Well, I shall continue. It was all terribly, terribly exciting. Lady Watson had been asked to play in the Open Lawn Tennis tournament and I was to be her chaperon – a duty I did not take lightly, I might add.
Paris, as usual, was absolutely charming and the tournament got off to a most stupendous start. Lady Watson was up against the Italian entrant Fiorella Ricci and it was even-stevens right up to the last set, until Lady Watson really gave her one. The second day was a day of nail biting as she was trailing to the Bulgarian, but fought back magnificently in the final three sets to qualify through to the third day – but I digress!
My story begins on that first night, for you see, I was awaiting for Lady Watson outside the changing room chalet enjoying a quick shag, when all of a sudden there was a scream from inside. I immediately dropped my pipe and went to investigate.
No sooner had I stepped one foot inside, when the Countess Tanja and Lady Watson appeared. They told me that some cheeky sod had been peeking through the window as they were getting changed – I do have to say, they were in remarkably good spirits about the whole affair, but to put them and the rest of the young ladies at ease. I volunteered that the next night, I would patrol the chalet.
And patrol I did, with my cane under my arm and my top hat on – obviously the peeper must be a ragamuffin, so I was counting on the fact that a gentlemen being present would be enough of a deterrent.
Imagine my horror when, ten minutes later, I heard a scream come from the changing rooms. The low life blighter had cunningly taken up refuge inside, unseen, hours earlier, hiding himself behind a firescreen and a pile of dirty towels.
That certainly had put the willies up the girls, so I took them all back to the Hotel Bristol where Lady Watson and I were staying and insisted they all had a stiff one. A peeping tom is one thing, but one that hides behind a firescreen, jumps out and then runs off with one’s pantaloons is something else.
It was over these brandies that my artful plan was hatched. Now, as an old Oratorian and as I’m sure every ex public school boy would attest, wearing women’s clothing is de rigueur and that is exactly what I planned to do. The Romanians had been unable to muster up a player this year, so with the aid of one of the Countess wigs, I would take their place. My name was to be Lvantie.
To aide to my disguise, as I no longer have the legs of a pubescent boy, Lady Watson was most kind in helping me prepare. I also came up with a most ingenious way to attach a cricket box to hide ones modesty without the use of straps.
Match day, I was to play in the last game of the afternoon. To even things up, my opponent was an overly balanced Austrian named Greta. It was fair to say we were evenly matched in stature and I don’t mind admitting I lost the game. I consoled myself with the fact that I was not there to win, but to catch a peeper. Having an inclination that the peeper in question might be in the crowd, I did something that would have been unspeakable had I been a real lady. As I went to shake hands with Greta, I scratched my debonair, in the process raising my skirt a good whole three inches and flashing my ankle which was met by a huge gasp from the crowd.
Back at the changing chalet, I entered alone and facing the wall, stripped down to how God made me – except for the wig and the cricket box. Sure enough my ankle flash had done the trick as the moment I had finished removing my brassiere, I heard the window latch go. I kept as still as a statue as the vagabond entered and listened as he approached. Choosing my moment carefully I spun around and shouted:
His face was a right royal picture and on the spot he froze. After a quick adjustment to my cricket box which had nearly come off, I shouted:
“I don’t know if you speak Anglais, you pesky peeping tom, but I know one language you will understand.” And with that, I proceeded with a single left-right hook combination. When he got up off the floor, I picked him up, marched him outside and gave him a good kick in his derriere to send him packing.
For the rest of the competition, the girls were safely able to get changed in private. Sadly Lady Watson was knocked off by the German on the fifth day, but it was a jolly good effort and she held her head high.
I say, just noticed the piano over there. Who’s up for a good old sing song of “I’ve got two lovely black eyes”?
The Desert knows my name.
Allah knows my name…
It’s been three years since I came to the Sudan. When I left home, I was no more than a boy. I was not raised by a father, but by a map awash with pink that hung in our dining room. A map which the man (who claimed to be my father) spent more time and love on than any of us. A map that would not only come to possess him, but my brothers, one by one, as they got older. Until it was finally my turn.
It was no surprise when I came home that day to find our house packed with men in uniforms. Three times before I had watched my brothers go through the same spectacle. As I walked up the drive, I wanted to run there and then, but only my mind could conjure escape. My legs led me blindly to my fate.
‘In the name of the Empire!’ they cheered as they clinked and raised their glasses to toast her. But if the empire is a woman, then she is a cold one. All my time here, I have never heard her sigh, let alone her heart beat.
Whilst the desert sings to me…
All I have seen here in her name is a bloody set of footprints left behind by the men of the 21st Lancers and those who march with us. From Ferkeh in the south to Khartoum in the north, our trail is marked across the sands like a rotten vein that takes the life from the flesh around it.
Now in Khartoum we sit and wait as Kitchener builds his city. Like most rotten things, we fester in the sun and the stench hangs low and wide above our heads. It is not the smell of boots that have walked a thousand miles, nor of cordite or sweat. It is a stench of the darkness that is yet to come.
You have shown me there is light…
The stench in this place gets stronger every day as more evil pours in by the shipload. They arrive like clockwork, from all corners of this earth. Slave traders, tricksters, opportunists are all here. Some hide behind their European verandas, their cocktails parties and their ideas of respectability. Most hide behind the cold of steel where life is valued at no more than an inch of brass and a ball of lead – those are the ones I prefer, for the aforementioned are blind to their curse.
A month ago, two old European gentlemen came down from Egypt and started to go door-to-door in search of the young and vulnerable. ‘In the name of art!’ they said. I did not see art, but just two twisted old men of ruin.
They would be my third and fourth victims…
This is the stench the place has been plunged into, but there is fresh air to be found away from this pit. The Desert.
The first time I went, I was in an intoxicated rage. My heart yearned for escape and for a quick end to my hell. I cannot remember if I ran or I walked. All I can remember are the faces of those who I passed, who I cursed and bedeviled. Then I remember just lying there, waiting for the sun and the heat to lift me from this land.
As the sun set, having burned my skin, I cried in disappointment that my chest should still rise and sink, and the blood should still pump through my corpse. There I stayed through the night, and sung a wordless song of melancholy, till I found myself lifted as the desert made its comfort known to me. I watched as tiny grains of sands were carried by the wind into a dance beautiful and complex. I could not surrender myself there and then, but it would entice me into coming back.
And back I did come. Soon it became a daily pilgrimage, and those who I had first scorned began to open to me, and I to them.
They call me Sarsarun …
It was as if I had been let in on a great secret which only they and I could understand, and they took great joy in my swift metamorphosis. It was they who taught me, not through words but through love, to understand the dance in the sand. They taught me to see and hear with my heart again.
I knew the first part of my transformation was complete when, while walking back from the desert, I went to accost two men from my own platoon who were violating one of the young girls of the village. They did not recognise me when I called to them to stop, nor did they recognise my face when I was inches away and had brought my sabre to their throats.
They were my first and second victims…
One of these days, I will come to the desert and not return to the barracks. I am no longer that fair-skinned boy from Sussex who was afraid of his father’s scorn. But the desert has yet to make me a man, for I have yet to learn its lesson of peace.
It is to be my greatest work – “The Temptation of St. Anthony”. In this space here the great Saint will be on his knees with his arms up to heaven as he is surrounded in the desert by the most foul trickery the devil can conjure. I shall be using both subtlety and the explicit to depict the temptations; this line here will be the long path that St. Anthony has walked. Over here will be a creature representing sloth and I will draw the viewer’s eyes to the blisters on the Saint’s feet – that is just one of many examples that I will create in this piece.
The work has been commissioned by none other than Prince Albert of Monaco himself, I might add, and a thousand hours alone have been spent on the primary sketches. The canvas I had specially made, due to it size, by sailmakers in La Rochelle, and I have not been able to enter my humble bedroom for three weeks now, as that has been given over to stockpiling the paint needed for my masterpiece.
My greatest preparation has been, however, facing the devil and the demons in my own soul. For forty days and forty nights, I did not leave this building and created my own hell by taking residence on the roof, and existing with nothing but the clothes I wear now and drinking nothing but Absinthe – I know my demons’ names.
Today, I start on working on the Virgin Temptress who will be standing inches away from St.Anthony, offering herself unconditionally to him. In this void here, I will create beauty, temptation and strength. And … ah, here comes the model herself, recommended by my good … well, friend Toulouse-Lautrec
“Bonjour, Madame, are you ready for pure beauty in encapsulation?”
“I’ve heard it called a lot of things in my time, but not that. How do you want me, on top or below?”
“What are you doing?” I cried, as she started to unbutton my flies.
“Oh right, it’s that and not the other – silly me. You would not believe this morning I’ve had. I don’t know If I am coming or going and…”
Mon Dieu! I thought, as I noticed she had teeth befitting the English, but still she did have a certain femme fatale look about her. “Madame, if you wouldn’t mind, we have a lot to do and I want to capture you before I lose the magnificent light coming through the skylight.”
“Right then, who am I am going to be then? Last week I was Arse-Miss”
” Arrrssseee-Miss-I was standing there bow in one hand with a doggie at me feet”
“You mean Artemis, the Greek Goddess of hunting?”
“Yeah, thats the one, Arse-Miss.”
I sighed before continuing, “I am painting the Temptation of St Anthony.”
“Who was he then?”
“He was the father of all monks who had a divine connection with the heavenly and fought a supernatural battle of the mind against temptation from the devil.”
“You’ll have to go a bit slower, I didn’t quite get that all, now his father was a monk and…?”
“Madame, please if you don’t mind …the light. Now if you could just disrobe and I need you to show Temptation…. No, no need to put your hand out… or your leg…. or your hand on your hip… Do you mind if I…?”
“Brrr, your hands are cold.”
“Now Madame, if you can just hold this pose.”
“No problem, you know I was with Bernard last week, and he said Elita if there is one thing you do good, and that is to hold…”
“Madame, please – the light. I really do need to get started.” Finally, I said silently as I began to mix the Tempera with my brush. As any artist will tell you, you can not beat that first stroke to canvas and… Christ, why had this creature begun laughing? “Madame?”
“Up there, that picture behind you?”
“Pandora opening the box? What about it ?” God knows why I asked.
“Yeah, that’s Eloise from the Ruse Des Moulins isn’t it? I’d recognize that bum anywhere! Amount of laughs me and her have had. One time it was the both of us and this Greek gentlemen who wanted us to …”
“MADAME! The light! Please! ”
“Sorry, here I am chatting away and you’re trying to ..”
“MADAME!” Ah, silence at last, but then: “Madame, did you just pass wind?
“Sorry, as I said, been running around all morning. Been on my back, up against a wall, only had had time to gulp my lunch before I came….”
I scowled at her, which seemed to do the trick. Finally my brush was on canvas and I could begin my magic, oh Christ!
“Do you think my left boob is slightly smaller than the right?”
…It was just shortly after that, that I grabbed my pallet knife and well, I imagine it was the women below me who ran out to the street when the screaming started. I do have to say Gendarme, I am surprised how little time it took you to turn up. Normally there is never a policeman when you need one in this part of town. I have to say, for such a horrid creature, she looks wonderfully peaceful lying there – despite all the blood. Would it be terribly rude of me, if i grabbed my sketchbook? … oh.
That is meant to be his head, right…?
…and the fellow is standing up…?
Hang on… Hang on, if thats his head, those must be his arms and that there must be his Ding Dong!
Not sure I quite get this modern art Hans, but you know me, always one to support the arts. Oh look – free white wine.
What’s this one meant to be ?
Looks more like a bunch of twisted metal to me. You know, it reminds me actually of when old Curtis Seaford got taken down a peg or two and came off his bike. Did I ever tell you about the Right Rollicking Race ?
Well, it was when I was in my first year at Oxford, where I was reading Latin. Curtis Seaford was the sort of fellow who took great delight in telling others, that for his birthday, his parents got him a real live Zulu. He would also at every opportunity, point out that his family had a pure Anglo-Saxon bloodline which he could trace back to Cnut the Great. When I say pure ,the whole family had a somewhat funny look to them. All looked like they could get a bit more sun and though Curtis was only 20, he looked about forty – oh, and he had that webbing between his toes,too, I remember.
There were quite a few students at Oxford from the British Raj and other colonies and Curtis would take great pleasure in putting them down at every opportunity. Now you know me ,Hans, and as long as the cut of one’s jib is ok, then I really don’t give a hoot about one’s background.
Well it was one of those fine English spring afternoons, where the sun is shining, the bandstand is alive and you feel like flying a kite and singing ‘God Save the Queen’.
I and my chum Rajendra had found a couple of old Penny-farthing bicycles and were sitting out in old Tom Quad – the quadrangle outside Christ Church, oiling them up and getting ready to give them a go.
It was a joyful scene and quite a crowd had gathered around with some playful bets being made. A course had been drawn up that would involve us going around the entire town, ending back in Tom Quad.
We were about to get underway for a first test spin when Curtis appeared. He had one of those new at the time Safety bicycles. I won’t repeat exactly what he said, for it was rather rude. Lets just say the Irishman and the Indian accepted his challenge.
Word of the race spread like wildfire, and it seemed that the entire university was now coming to the start line. The playful bets had now become serious money, and I believe Cuthbert Delfont, who was running the book, made enough money that day to take a week-long trip to the South of France and spend the entire time in a brothel.
We lined up by the Mercury fountain and Cuthbert, being one for the dramatics, declared the start would be on the third stroke of the clock striking three. This meant we had to wait twenty minutes at the start, which was spent with Curtis shouting out his racial ideology, which thankfully was met with a lot of boos from the crowd.
When that third stroke came, we all bolted off and a huge cheer went up as we exited the gates of Tom Quad. Do you know what Curtis did the moment were out of sight of the crowd? He bloody well gave me a kick and sent me flying into a nearby bush. Te Iuppiter dique omnes perdant! I cried before getting back onto my bike.
I was some distance behind when we went around the Radcliffe Camera and I could see that Curtis was trying the same trick on Rajendra, though thankfully Rajendra was holding on and I shouted encouragement as loudly as I could.
As we were coming down Cornmarket Street, disaster struck; the small wheel on Rajendra’s bike buckled and he was bought to a depressing halt. What Curtis did next would be his downfall. He stopped to shout a barrage of insults and laughs, which gave me plenty of time to catch up, and catch up I did.
We were neck and neck as we came on to the final straight on St.Aldates, and Curtis had another go at trying to knock one off. But I held tight and pedalled harder than I had ever pedalled before. We were at some speed when we came back through the gates and what happened next was just as if Jupiter had heard my curse. You see Hans, those early safety cycles didn’t have brakes as you and me know or that chain and freewheel business. Instead there were treadles connecting the pedals to the wheel. So if you wanted to slow down, you just simply pedalled slowly. As we came through the gates, I saw both treadles of Curtis’s bike literally “drop off” – the look of terror on his face was ruddy marvellous.
As Curtis flew past the crowd, he wet himself in terror, which resulted in several professors who had come to watch the proceedings, getting a most unwelcome shower. In what I guess was an attempt to slow down, he moved onto the grass which gave me the opportunity to reach the finishing line. There were no cheers as everyone, myself included, watched in silence as Curtis continued on his one way ride of terror and went crashing straight into the ornamental pond. Which was then the cue for the whole crowd to erupt in cheers.
Rajendra made it back just in time to witness the site of a humiliated Curtis, entangled in the frame of his bike, being dragged from the pond by some of the University ground-staff. The next three years at the university must have been very long for him, and it certainly shut him up.
I do have to say, you are a… little older than my usual audience. So, I will skip the tales of sea monsters and chasing pirates that I normally reserve for such requests.
Take a look out of the window; do you see those rocks, just to the north of Herm island? Six nautical miles. Even in bad weather, it is a trip of no more than forty minutes. With the current, you could probably swim it in a reasonable time. You would certainly be able to reach the island of Herm in less than thirty.
It was out there on those rocks where my boat, the Elicia, ran aground, and what I am about to tell you happened.
No doubt you have heard rumours about me. I will leave it to you to work out which ones are true and which are not – I hate to disappoint. On this occasion, however, you have the luxury of hearing it from the horse’s mouth.
I have friends in Spain who needed my help. Naturally not everyone is happy with the fact that I run guns – oh come on, do not act shocked that I admit this openly. Apart from a couple of old ladies in St.Malo, it must be one of the worst kept secrets around these parts. It is with the British Royal Navy that I have the most bother. They are always keen to stop me at every opportunity. They have the notion that I emptied out an armoury of theirs in Southampton. Ah – I see from the look on your face that you have heard that story.
Those Royal Navy chaps can put a shiner on a good day so I do my best to avoid them, which normally means moving at night; as indeed it was, when I was returning from my little mercy trip.
The Elicia was a Scottish wooden fishing trawler. The guise of being such a craft, I’m certain has helped many a time.
I was coming up from the south of Herm island, when I got a signal that there was a navy boat in dock. While it was the small hours and I had an empty cargo hold, as I said, the British can put a shiner on a good day. I decided instead to take my boat out of view of the harbour for the following reason: those Brits can be quite observant. While it would not be uncommon for them to see a fishing boat out at that time, it would be odd to see one without its nets out, ready to go, or without a hull full of fish.
A swell was beginning to build up as I went to put the crane arms out for the nets. It then all happened in a flash. There was a guide cable which ran through the pulley on the arm to a gear on the engine which, when engaged, should have pulled the nets along and out onto the arms. What happened however was that, less than a second from engaging the gear, I found myself hanging upside down with the bottom of my left leg oilskin trousers caught in the pulley.
I did not realise immediately, but my foot had been crushed in the pulley. I felt no pain at first, which I put down to adrenaline. I did try to reach up to the crane arm, but the swaying action from the swell made this nigh on impossible. I watched helplessly as the boat came stern-to onto those rocks.
Where the sun should have been rising in the sky, tall black clouds were forming. I knew no one would be venturing out today, and that any hope of being spotted was gone. Before the rain came, a wave, accompanied by a roar, dislodged the Elicia and began to thrash her about between the rocks. I could see through the centre hatch, she was beginning to take on water. It was then that I realised I was either going to be dragged down or be lambasted against the rocks.
On my belt I carry a knife – you will find most fisherman do. Perfect for geting the hook out of a fish, but not much else. I had a notion of trying to save as much as my leg as possible, and tried to haul myself up, to cut my leg above the ankle, but the sea had other ideas.
The first cut was the most painful. I had to muster considerable strength to get the knife to break the skin, and when it was no more than an inch in, a violent wave caused me to rip the knife upwards – that is pain.
I was going to light a cigarette as a distraction. Instead, I ended up biting down on the entire packet as blood, rain and seawater flowed down me.
It felt like great pockets of heat were escaping me, as I forced the knife crudely through the flesh. The tendons, while tough to cut, I do not remember causing me much pain. I was part fascinated and part distracted, as when cutting through one of them I felt the muscles in the back of my leg tighten then let go.
The Elicia was sitting below her water line by the time I got to the bone. The temperature had dropped and the heavens had joined in on my punishment. The packet of cigarettes had now become pulp, but it was a welcome distraction when the acrid nicotine filled my mouth as I began to saw.
I didn’t have to saw far, as a combination of my weight and the swaying did the rest. In the water, and the right way up, I felt my body began to drain. I don’t know how much blood I lost, but I have a vague memory of using my belt as a torniquet while I was in the water.
The next thing I remember was awakening on the beach of Herm, where I was rescued later that day. For those hours I was on the island, I watched the crane arm bob before finally vanishing – a moment I marked by mustering what strength I had left and burying the knife in the sand.