I promise I will write something very soon. In the meantime, here’s a picture of the pumpkin I carved this year. I have no particular point to make. I’m just quite pleased with it.
Tucked away behind the Savoy stands a small – some would say elite – club for gentlemen. Mostly English gentlemen, though I am told there’s a Canadian or two on the books. For reasons which have never quite been determined, The Banbury Club does not have a regular patronage. True, there are over a thousand fee-paying members and a number of visitors, but on any given night you can never guarantee that any one of them will be there.
You will not find the same group of people in their usual corner, ordering the same drinks every evening. A member who comes in on a wet Wednesday night may well not be seen there again until a warm Monday afternoon two years later. You can leave a letter for a member – there are pigeon holes behind the reception desk – but the recipient may not collect it for months, if ever.
There are stamps in a scrapbook, kept by the club secretary’s daughter. Stamps from all corners of the world. Stamps from business interests in Hong Kong, stamps from planters in Kenya, stamps from remote regions of Europe, stamps from Central American mining engineers and even stamps from a retired bishop in Monserrat. All these come in from membership dues, paid annually and regularly by men who may never visit the capital above once a decade. The Banbury is a place where you can go, but no one expects you to.
Hardly any of the members will know each other and most will never meet again. They stop in for one night, perhaps two, and have their well worn luggage sent up to rooms which they seldom recognise. It’s not exactly a travellers’ club, nor a place for adventurers to meet, and there are rarely more than ten members staying at any one time.
So it was something of a surprise, on a tense night in September, for the head steward of the Banbury to wander into the smoking room and find a group of about twenty men – travel worn and thirsty – seated all together around the fire. Even as he watched, the door behind him opened again to admit another arrival.
The newcomer advanced into the room with weary but purposeful strides.
“Evening chaps.” He hailed.
“Althorpe.” Someone called. “Come on in. It’s good to see you again. How was Africa?”
“Hot.” He replied. There seemed to be nothing more to say on the matter.
He seated himself gratefully and glanced around the assembly, nodding to those he knew vaguely. There was an oil speculator, just arrived from Venezuela; an engineer, newly off the boat from somewhere cold; and someone who might have been called Brown who had something to do with the Foreign Office.
“I thought you were in Romania, Johnny.” Althorpe spoke to the man next to him.
Johnny removed his pipe and chuckled.
“Yugoslavia.” he declared. “Trying to train their air force.”
“I managed to teach them the difference between the sky and the ground.” He said. “But beyond that they’ll just have to take their chances. So what brings you back to England?”
“The same thing that brought you I should imagine.” Althorpe turned over the evening newspaper on the side table. Prime Minister Chamberlain’s grave face stared out from under the graver headline.
Johnny nodded thoughtfully and glanced up at the huddle of members. They seemed to draw slowly closer to the fire, as if for protection.
“It doesn’t look like we’re the only ones.”
This isn’t part of anything. It was an idea that came to my mind and I thought I would use it as an exercise. I hope you liked it.
A Nonsense inspired by a random thought, a specific drawing, and a weird conversation
With Illustrations by Ian Blakeman (A dude)
In the long heady days before the First World War, when Britain really ruled the waves and reality television was still many blissful years away, it suited the builders of empire to have heroes. Great men who bestrode the earth like giants and conquered the highest summits of adventure. Young boys, still at their desks, would listen agog to tales of Drake and Nelson, Wellington and Marlborough, Chas and Dave. Heroic deeds gave purpose and meaning to life, empowering young men to go off and bring tea to the uncivilised masses across the seas.
And so, in 1912, when Captain Scott set out for the South Pole – taking only a light summer jacket and his best joke about the French – the empire watched in awe. All the world knows, or thinks they know, what happened next. The tale of bravery and tragedy has become such a part of our national memory that what follows will seem far-fetched and outlandish. Or perhaps not, it all depends just how many of those mushrooms you managed to eat before the park keeper rescued you from that hedge.
Captain Scott’s diaries, one of the few sources we have about the ill-fated expedition make sensational reading –as far as they go – and end with his presumed death on 29th March 1912. The diary was taken back to the British Library, where it now resides. It has become clear, however, that some of its pages were removed by person or persons unknown. These pages remained unknown until 2010 when they surfaced behind a radiator in Bognor Regis. Using these pages, plus a liberal application of wishful guesswork, and some interesting lies told to me by a bloke down the pub, I have managed to reconstruct the true story of Captain Scott’s return from Antarctica.
Captain Robert Falcon Scott, RN put down his pen slowly and closed his diary. The biting wind whistled viciously around his tent, poking its gnarled fingers through any small tear and grasping out towards the dying paraffin stove. It wouldn’t be long now. Not long. Hopefully it wouldn’t be painful. Scott rubbed his freezing hands together one last time. He must stay awake. If he slept he would never wake.
But perhaps that would be a blessing. He was so tired. Hundreds of miles of trekking over the ice and snow in one of the worlds least hospitable environments. And when I say least hospitable I’m not just talking about perhaps not providing a towel or refusing to include breakfast in the price of the room. I’m talking hitting you in the face the moment you check in and filling your room full of fire ants.
At least he had done his best. Done his best for King and Country. Would they be proud of him? He hoped so.
His eyelids dropped. He forced them open but they dropped again. It was just as he felt a strange calmness creeping over him that a voice broke into his thoughts.
“Excuse me.” The voice called.
Scott opened his eyes. Perhaps it was the wind playing tricks. In London it used to ring his doorbell and run away.
“Hello?” The voice called again. It sounded like it came from outside the tent.
“Hello?” Scott croaked.
“May I come in?” The voice asked.
“Um. . . Yes.” Scott fumbled towards the tent flap.
“Oh, thank you.” The voice came closer. “By the way, I should mention, I’m steam powered. Is that going to be a problem?”
Scott was somewhat surprised by this.
“Um . . . No.”
The tent flap opened and an anteater wearing a red top hat and goggles poked his head in.
“Hello there.” said the anteater. “I was hoping you could oblige me with some directions.”
“Er. . .” Scott was still reeling slightly from the sight of a talking anteater. “Yes.”
“Much obliged.” The anteater climbed into the tent and politely wiped his feet. The anteater was normal sized but carried an elaborate steam engine on his back. Since carrying a boiler around all the time would no doubt be somewhat painful, the anteater also wore a red leather waistcoat. Steampunk might occasionally be outlandish but it always makes a warped kind of sense. If my friend Ian has done an illustration it will probably appear about here:
“Sorry to butt in on you like this.” The anteater said. “There didn’t seem to be anyone else around. I did run into a chap called Oates a while back but he seemed to be concerned about the time.
Scott blinked a couple of times.
“I’m sorry. Are you real?”
The anteater pushed up his goggles and grinned.
“Does your imagination usually create things like me?” It asked.
“Admittedly not.” Scott said. “It usually tells me that I can win races to poles. Perhaps I should stop listening to my imagination.”
“In that case let’s just go with me being real.”
Scott thought about this for a minute before deciding that, as he had nothing else planned for that day, he might as well go along with this.
“You said you wanted directions.”
“Ah yes.” Said the anteater. “I’m on my way to Samarkand. I have some rubies to sell.”
“Samarkand?” Scott asked.
“Yes.” The anteater nodded, making a steam whistle shrill.
“Samarkand is in the Russian Empire isn’t it?”
“I believe so.”
“But this is Antarctica.”
The anteater considered this for a while.
“Oh bum.” He said eventually. “I thought I was a bit off track. I really should have turned left outside Paddington Station. I’m telling you, always listen to what your mother tells you. She always said: If you turn right outside Paddington you will end up near the South Pole.”
“Did you maybe not notice when you had to cross on ocean to get here?” Scott asked.
“Well yes,” The anteater agreed. “But I thought it was a river.”
“I’d have said that the South Atlantic Ocean was rather big to be a river.”
“I’m an anteater.” Said the anteater. “A lot of things look rather big to me. You try being only a foot tall. Penguins look rather big to me. Think it through man.”
“I’m sorry.” Scott agreed. “Perhaps I can help you find your way back.”
“Well I have this map.” The anteater reached into his waistcoat and brought out a crumpled looking piece of paper. “Now where is Antarctica?”
“Usually at the bottom of the map.” Scott suggested.
The anteater studied the map carefully.
“Is it anywhere near Gare de Lyon?” He asked.
Scott sat up and stared down at the map.
“Let me get this straight.” He said in surprise. “You’ve been travelling from London to Samarkand and your sole navigational aid has been a metro map of Paris?”
“Um . . .” The anteater shuffled his feet sheepishly. “Yes. Yes I have. Hence why I need directions. You don’t happen to have a compass which might point me in the right direction do you?”
“How do you mean?” Scott asked, puzzled.
“Well, you’ve been following a compass to get to the South Pole.” The anteater explained. “Perhaps I could get one which points to Samarkand.”
“I’m beginning to see why you got lost.” Scott said. “You really don’t know anything about navigation do you?”
The anteater sniffed.
“That was rather hurtful.” He said. “Let’s not forget, you’re the one who thought he knew more about snow than the Norwegians.”
“Truce?” Scott suggested.
“Truce.” The anteater agreed.
The two fell silent for a few minutes, not quite sure where to go from here. They smiled politely every now and then and did that slight nodding thing that people do when they can’t think of anything to say but don’t want to admit it.
“I love what you’ve done with the place.” The anteater said eventually. “It has a wonderful adventurer-miles-from-anywhere sort of look.”
“Oh thank you.” Scott replied. “I must say, I do like your steam engine . . . thing. Tell me, what would happen if you didn’t carry it around with you.”
“Nothing.” The anteater explained. “I just wouldn’t be steam powered.”
“Can you travel faster with a steam engine?”
“Oh no. It tends to make me slower.” anteater smiled up at his steam engine. “But I have my automobile outside.”
“You brought an automobile to Antarctica?” Scott asked, wondering why he had not thought of this. That would have wiped the smug Scandinavian smile off the Norwegians’ faces if they’d turned up at the South Pole to find the British team pulling handbrake turns and playing awful music in the McDonalds drive-thru car park. (Or whatever the 1912 equivalent was, you pedantic gits)
“Well not intentionally.” The anteater said. “As I said, I was trying to get to Samarkand. The Model T Ford was never supposed to go on snow but I made some modifications. Linked up the engine to a massive fan and whacked on some skis, that sort of thing.”
“Sounds interesting.” Scott remarked, far too British to ask for a lift out of this awful place. There are some things which mark the true Englishman: A phenomenal addiction to tea, an in-built hatred of the French and a eager willingness to die horribly rather than risk inconveniencing someone.
The anteater, fortunately, had read a book about Englishmen and – between the chapter on avoiding Birmingham after 6pm and the one about the proper use of the word ‘spiffing’ – had discovered this often fatal weakness.
“Would you perhaps come with me as my Navigator?” He asked.
“Are you sure I wouldn’t be a bother?” Scott asked.
“It’ll be fine.” The anteater said. “My gramophone has packed up so it will be nice to have someone to sing Gilbert and Sullivan songs with.”
“Excellent.” Scott picked up his diary and prepared to follow the anteater out of the tent.
The less educated amongst you will be wondering what would have happened if Captain Scott had not enjoyed Gilbert and Sullivan. The very obvious answer to that is that, as an Englishman, Scott was naturally devoted to light opera and knew all the words to ‘A British Tar is a Soaring Soul.” You see, my foreign brethren, we may have a pathological fear of asking for a second slice of cake, but at least in a crisis we can stage an entertainment. It is a little known fact that in 1940 the British rearguard at Dunkirk were able to hold up the German advance for three days by holding auditions for The Mikado. General Rommel made a wonderful Yum Yum.
I’m not entirely sure how the anteater and Captain Scott made it to the coast. The good Captain did record the journey, and drew a nice picture of the adapted car, but at some point someone spilt coffee on the pages. I tried drying them out with a hair dryer but had to stop when some of them caught fire. Some fascinating allegations about Queen Victoria and the Belgian Ambassador are now sadly lost to history. We therefore re-join our gallant adventurers on board a whaling ship, en-route for Cape Town.
A fine wind was filling the sails as the Gregory Peck bounded across the waves. Captain Scott had managed to secure a passage on the vessel by offering to show the skipper how to make origami swans and now he and the anteater stood on the quarter deck watching the sea.
“You know.” The anteater said, eventually. “The sea is really boring isn’t it?”
“It has a number of fascinating personalities.” Captain Scott replied.
“Mostly wet ones I should think.”
The anteater pulled out a pair of binoculars and trained them across the horizon. He had been doing that a lot recently.
“Are you looking for something?” Scott asked.
“Nope.” The anteater said, a little too quickly.
“It wouldn’t be that grey dot which has been following us since we left the coast would it?”
“What? Where?” The anteater asked anxiously.
“Over to starboard.” Scott nodded in the correct direction (look it up if you don’t know)
“Oh bollocks.” The anteater produced a small revolver from an inside pocket and checked the chambers. “I’d get the skipper to put on extra sails if I were you.”
“Why?” Scott asked.
“Because that’s a French battleship. And if we don’t hurry they will blow us out of the water.”
“Have we upset them somehow?”
“Well, not you.” The anteater grimaced at the dot, which was growing larger. “More me. And my rubies. I suspect they would rather like to take them from me.”
“But they’ve no right to do that.” Scott protested. “I don’t know what the world is coming to. I shall protest to the nearest British consul. I may even write a strongly worded letter to The Times.”
“That’s a bit harsh.” The anteater remarked. “But I’d hold off on the official protests.”
“Why?” Scott asked. “A man – or anteater – should be able to travel the world without having their property stolen.”
“Mmm.” The anteater smiled thoughtfully. “I never said the rubies were originally mine.”
“You stole them?!” Scott exclaimed.
“Well . . . ‘stole’ is such an emotive word.” The anteater glanced up at the French battleship, evidently steaming at high speed towards them. “They were just sitting there, in that high security vault, with no one to love them or to take care of them.”
“Take care of them?” Scott protested. “You were going to sell them.”
“Can we not ruin the sob story with actual facts? Thank you.” The anteater said. “The question is: What do we do now?”
“By rights I should hand you over to the French authorities and let them deal with you.” Scott declared.
“You’d really hand me over? To the French!?” The anteater protested. “Do you know what they would do to me? I’ll tell you: ‘Anteater a l’orange’. I have no intention of being an hors d’oeuvre today.”
“Alright.” Scott agreed. “I’ll help you. But the rubies stay here. Agreed?”
“Agreed.” The anteater nodded.
“In that case we’d better come up with a plan.”
The French battleship was fully in view now, her mighty guns trained on the whaling ship and her signal lamps flashing out. The skipper of the whaler put down his telescope.
“They’re telling us to shorten sail and prepare to be boarded.”
“You’d best do as they say.” Scott advised.
“The hell I will.” The skipper turned to his first mate. “Assemble my harpooners, ready the blubber hooks. We’ll have this beasty landed by lunchtime.”
“It’s not a whale!” Scott protested. “It’s a Dreadnought.”
The skipper looked up from sharpening his harpoon.
“I’m not afraid of man nor beast.”
“It’ll blow you out of the water!”
“That’s what they said about the Great White Monster of Cape Matapan. But I stalked her for three months and ran her through myself.”
“You did lose both arms doing that, Skip.” The first mate pointed out.
“Silence there. We’ll turn the ship about.” The skipper took the wheel himself. “If we can’t down her with the old Nantucket Sleighride we’ll ram her! Look sharp me heartys. A Spanish doubloon for the first man to land his harpoon!”
Scott muttered into the anteater’s ear.
“I don’t know about you, but I’ve no intention of being part of Captain Nut-bucket’s Moby Dick adventure. We’d better look to our own escape. Any ideas?”
“One or two.” The anteater nodded towards one of the boats. “While the skipper is busy throwing himself into the jaws of death, we’d best take a boat and get onboard the battleship somehow.”
“You want to take over the battleship?” Scott exclaimed. “That sounds a bit far-fetched even for you.”
“Tempting isn’t it?” The anteater grinned. “No. We get on board, bluff our way past the crew and steal the spotter aircraft.”
“What is it with you and stealing things from the French?”
“Just a hobby.” The anteater suggested. “Now, shall we get on with escaping?”
No one noticed as Scott and the anteater crept into the rowing boat and began lowering themselves down into the sea. The skipper of the whaler had ordered more sail unfurled and now the two vessels were closing at high speed. From the quarter deck the skipper’s voice could be heard bawling insults and whaling related orders. The rowing boat had just touched the water when the bows of the battleship smashed their way into the prow of the still turning whaler. The wood splintered and smashed like cheap flat-pack furniture. The whaler, with it’s defiant skipper, flooded as the water rushed in and sank before the French warship had even had a chance to slacken speed. All that was left, as the battleship steamed through, was a few pieces of broken wood, sails, and the top of a model T Ford.
“Pity about your car.” Scott observed.
“It wasn’t really mine in the first place.” The anteater remarked.
The battleship was slowing now and beginning to put out her own boats to search for survivors – and rubies presumably, although these tend not to float. Scott and the anteater leant on the oars and rowed their way, out of sight, under the stern and round to the opposite side of the vessel. A boarding ladder had, for some convenient reason, been left down and they ran alongside it.
“By the way.” said the anteater. “Do you speak French?”
“Crème-brule. Peut-etre.” Scott replied.
“Excellent.” The anteater nodded. “We’ll be fine.”
“You’re just showing off now.” The anteater grinned and led the way up the ladder.
There was no one in sight on the deck, though it would not be long before they were discovered.
“We’d better think about some sort of disguise.” Scott suggested.
“All taken care of.” The anteater pulled out a box and placed a false moustached on the end of his nose.
“That’s it?” Scott asked.
“Something wrong?” The anteater admired himself in a porthole window.
“It’s a bit . . . well, rubbish.”
“What are you worrying about?” The anteater declared. “It’s past noon. The Frenchmen will all be drunk.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.” Scott said.
“That’s becoming a recurring thing with you isn’t it? Not thinking things through.”
“I thought we agreed on a truce?” Scott protested.
“Sorry. But I’m under a lot of pressure right now.” The anteater replied. “Now let’s find that aeroplane.”
They tiptoed around one of the gun turrets and past some sort of deck housing. There in front of them, mounted on it’s launching catapult, sat the spotter seaplane.
“Hey you!” A voice challenged them. For ease and speed we shall automatically translate what the French characters say. We’ll leave in the bad impressions of accents though; there’s no point in having foreign characters if you’re not allowed to mock the way they speak. “What arr you dooeeng eere?”
They turned around slowly.
“Ah bonjour mon boite de autobus.” Scott smiled. “Avez-vous un ou est la piscine?”
“Eh?” The French officer replied. He had three sailors with him, with rifles levelled.
“Nous avons, vous avez, ils ont.” Scott bowed politely and the anteater raised his hat. “Err. Yes?” The French officer said. “Arr you two Corsicans orr somesing?”
“I think this is going well.” Scott said the anteater.
“Swimmingly, carry on.” The anteater agreed.
“Oui, quelle est le date de ton anniversaire?” Scott continued. “Les chats sont dans la manche et . . .What’s the French for aeroplane?”
“Um . . . hotel-de-ville I think.” suggested the anteater.
“Oh, thank you. Et le hotel-de-ville avec moi.”
“What ees it you want eere?” The Frenchman was growing suspicious.
“Madre de bahnhof.” Scott pointed to the spotter plane. “Croissant! Croissant!”
“I think these chaps don’t speak French.” The anteater said, helpfully. “Try offering them women.”
“Do you have a woman about your person?” Scott asked.
“Um. . .” The anteater patted his pockets. “Fresh out I’m afraid. Try some money.”
“Alright.” Scott pulled out a few banknotes and held them out. “Mouchoir.”
The French officer glanced at his men and shrugged.
“I deed not see anybudy.” he remarked, lighting up a gauloise and adjusting his beret. “Deed yoo?”
The sailors, into whose pockets a share of the money vanished quicker than an Italian soldier after loud noise, shook their heads and sloped off to mistreat a goose.
“Good luck.” The officer turned and marched away.
“Paté” Scott called after him.
The anteater nodded appreciatively and the two climbed into the aeroplane.
“Contact!” The anteater shouted.
“What?” Scott asked.
“That’s how you start these things.” The anteater explained. “You shout contact, and then the engine starts.”
“Perhaps you have to shout it in French.”
“Yes.” The anteater agreed. “But we’ve done the bad-French joke now and we really should move on.”
Fortunately however, the sound of voices outside brought a sleepy looking mechanic out of a nearby door. He did not seem surprised to see a British Antarctic explorer and an anteater with a ridiculous disguise sitting in the aeroplane but calmly shambled up to the cockpit, leant in and flicked a couple of switches. He then walked around to the front of the aircraft and swung the propeller. The engine sputtered into life and the mechanic strolled around to the catapult mechanism.
The anteater turned around to Scott, in the rear seat.
“Is this a bad time to admit that I don’t know how to fly this thing?”
Before Scott could reply the aeroplane slammed forward as the catapult fired them into the air. There was a moment of panic as the spotter lurched towards the ocean, but the anteater hauled back on the joystick and the aircraft’s nose rose slowly. The mechanic, his work done, shrugged and sauntered off back to his absinthe. As far as he was concerned he had just helped Napoleon and the King of the Sea people to depart for their holiday on Mars. The little green fairy is a terrible, terrible thing. I still can’t remember most of 2007.
Somehow the anteater managed to get the aircraft to climb up and away from the ship. He had managed to find a flying cap from somehow and had neatly attached it to his top hat. Captain Scott, on the other hand, was crouched low in his seat offering up fervent prayers to some form of deity named ‘oh shit’.
The anteater turned around and grinned.
“Well this is all going rather well!” He shouted.
This would usually be the point where the engine conked out and the aeroplane spiralled out of control. However, I’m sure we don’t wish to pander to melodramatic convention so we’ll give it a moment. Why don’t you look at the sea or something while we wait? It really is quite lovely this time of year.
There now: The engine has failed.
The anteater tapped the fuel gage urgently but it obstinately continued to read empty. The aeroplane held it’s glide for a few seconds, then began to streak towards the sea. It bounced wildly off the surface once then smashed down into the water.
For a moment all was darkness and panic until Scott forced his way to the surface. The anteater was standing on a piece of wreckage, smoking a pipe and surveying the sinking aircraft with amused detachment.
“Well that could have been worse.”
“How?” Scott asked. “We almost died and now we’re stranded in the middle of the sea. Why did I ever think you know what you’re doing?”
“Now, now.” The anteater said. “I know no one likes having wet feet but there’s no need for that. I’m coming up with a new plan as we speak.”
“Well I’m seriously hoping it’s a better one than stealing an aeroplane with no fuel.” Scott hauled himself onto what had previously been one of the machine’s wings and wondered how far he was from the nearest decent cup of tea. Even a fairly indifferent cup would do right now.
They drifted along in silence for some time, several days in fact. Captain Scott must have slept at some point, at least, he hoped he had been sleeping for he seemed to enjoy a visit from tap-dancing lobsters. They were very talented but you do get a bit bored after a while when it all starts to look the same. After about the sixth day of cruising about Scott nudged the anteater.
“Well?” He asked. “What’s you great master plan?”
“Eh?” The anteater replied, puzzled. “Oh, sorry. I’ve been thinking about something else.”
“For six days?!” Scott demanded.
“It’s quite a tricky one.” The anteater showed him a crossword with only one clue left. “Perhaps you can help: Returned beer fit for a king (5)”
“Let’s get this straight.” Scott growled. “We’re stuck on this piece of wreckage, miles from anywhere, with no food or water, and the whole of the French navy looking for us. And you’ve been doing the crossword!”
“Um . . .” The anteater would have shuffled his feet but he would have fallen off the raft. “Maybe.”
“You are such an idiot.” Scott shook his head angrily. “It’s regal anyway. Lager backwards.”
“Excellent.” The anteater filled in the clue and nodded happily to himself. “Anyway, we’re not miles from anywhere. I can see coast coming into view over there.”
Sure enough, a dark smudge was appearing on the horizon, growing gradually closer as the current washed them towards it. In accordance with the ‘International Convention on Putting Up Useful Signs to Help British Heroes and Steam Powered Mammals Find Their Way Around’ a useful sign had been set up on the beach. Scott borrowed the anteater’s binoculars and studied the sign.
“Ah.” He warned. “We can’t land there.”
“Why not?” The anteater asked. “It looks lovely.”
“It does.” Scott explained. “But that’s Bongo-Bongoland. And since it’s 1912 the moment we land I would have to make some sort of racist comment about the locals. Can you imagine what would happen if period racist views got onto someone’s blog in 2011? Oh, there would be so many letters to The Times.”
“So what do we do?”
“Well let’s stay on the raft and drift up to Angola. That’s Portuguese territory.” Scott suggested.
“Will it be alright to insult the Portuguese in 2011?” The anteater asked.
“Oh yes.” Scott nodded.
It took about three sentences time for them to drift up to Angola. They passed the time by giving a performance of Iolanthe to a passing shoal of confused looking fish. You probably mocked this sort of thing a while back but these sort of skills really do come in handy.
For some reason the harbour master at Luanda did not seem surprised to see them sail into the bay and moor up alongside the wharf. He looked at them over his tequila and adjusted his official sombrero.
“Ola.” He greeted them. “Welcome to Angola. My name is Don Francisco Pedro Jose Not-quite-Spanish-but-near-enough-for-lazy-stereotype Sanchez.”
“Good morning.” Scott replied. “Sorry to drop in on you like this. My friend and I have suffered a series of accidents.”
“We’re on our way to Samarkand.” The anteater explained. “I have some rubies to sell.”
“I thought you promised to leave those on the whaling ship.” Scott said.
“Hmmm.” The anteater avoided meeting his eye. “I may have lied.”
“You must be the anteater those Frenchmen were looking for.” Sanchez thought aloud.
“Frenchmen?” The anteater glanced nervously around the harbour.
“Oh they’re not here at the moment.” Sanchez said. “They came in with a massive battleship and asked if I had seen an steam powered anteater with rubies to sell. As you can imagine, I’d not seen one of those before. They went off to look for you in Bongo-Bongoland but they said they’d be back soon.”
“I think we’d best be leaving very soon then. Frenchmen and natives, that’s just far too much opportunity for inappropriate remarks” Scott said. “Is there a station anywhere near here?”
“There is.” Sanchez told him. “But it will only get you as far as Cairo.”
“Better than nothing.” The anteater said.
They made their way down Bull-fighter Street, turned left at Siesta Road and found the station in Mañana Square. I have never been to Portugal and did almost no research about the place. I think perhaps it shows at this point in the story so we’ll move on quite quickly to Cairo, where I do at least know some country specific clichés.
Scott and the anteater stood on top of one of the pyramids and admired the sphinx. Scott wondered if perhaps he could take it back with him to the British Museum. It would look lovely with all the other nice things from ancient history. Perhaps they could sit it next to the Elgin Marbles. Taking those did not seem to have caused any problems so he was sure the Egyptians would be perfectly happy with him doing the same with the sphinx.
“I was thinking.” Scott said eventually. “I was talking to a Royal Navy chum of mine I met down in the city. He says he’d be quite happy to give me a lift back to London.”
“Oh you should go.” The anteater said. “I’m told Samarkand is lovely but I doubt whether you can get a decent cup of Earl Grey there.”
“You don’t mind?” Scott asked.
“Of course not.” The anteater replied. “You’ve broken enough laws on my behalf to last you a lifetime.”
“Well I wasn’t going to bring that up.” Scott grinned. “At least I personally have not been smuggling rubies across international borders.”
“Ah well.” The anteater said. “I’m afraid I couldn’t fit them in my luggage so I hid them in yours for a while.”
Scott rolled his eyes.
“Let’s not talk about that sort of thing any more.” He suggested. “Is there anything you need before we part ways?”
“Do you happen to know of a reliable map shop around here?” The anteater asked. “I picked up a map of Sub-Saharan railways but they seem to have missed Samarkand off that one.”
“Come on then.” Scott said. “We really have to show you just where Samarkand is.”
At the moment, however, a slightly creepy looking figure loomed up in front of them.
“Excuse me.” The figure said. “Did I hear that you were looking for a map shop?”
“Er . . . yes.” Scott acknowledged.
“What a strange coincidence.” The figure presented his business card. “I am Mr Completely Trustworthy, the finest maker of maps in all Bournemouth.”
Scott looked down at the card.
“This is the Jack of Diamonds.”
“Well that just proves it doesn’t it.” Mr Trustworthy smiled.
“Proves what?” The anteater asked.
Mr Trustworthy, however, was not listening and was already leading them down the pyramid. He guided them through the streets of Cairo, the alleyways and close packed houses growing darker and dingier as they went on. Eventually they reached a doorway with a hand-written sign above the door. Abandon hop all ye who enter here.
“I don’t like the look of this.” The anteater said.
“You don’t have any hop do you?” Mr Trustworthy asked.
“Fresh out.” The anteater replied.
“Then you have nothing to worry about.” Mr Trustworthy gave a laugh. It was the sort of laugh that made you wonder whether there might be someone creeping up on you with a massive knife.
Not wanting to be impolite, however, they followed Mr Trustworthy into the house. The moment they were through the door it was slammed shut and the lights flicked on. In front of them stood a line of French sailors and an officer with a large amount of gold braid.
“Oh bollocks.” The anteater swore.
The officer, who for the sake of genre convention had only one eye, grinned.
“So, Monsieurs.” He announced. “We meet again!”
“How do you mean, again?” The anteater asked. “I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
“Yes.” The officer sighed. “But since I am the baddie of the piece I have to say that.”
“Fair enough.” The anteater conceded. “Carry on.”
“Oh, thank you. My name is Admiral Frog D’Garlic. You stole my family rubies and I have tracked you all the way to the South Atlantic and back. And now I have you in my grasp.”
Scott looked around for someone to play ‘dun dun der’ type music but there was only a small coffee table and a plate of fruit.
“What are you going to do to us?” The anteater asked.
“The English officer I shall have shipped back to London in disgrace.” D’Garlic explained, Gallic glee spreading over his face. “But, as for you, a fate worse than death.”
“You wouldn’t?” The anteater shuddered. “You wouldn’t make me write a favourable review of snail soup.”
“No.” D’Garlic laughed. “Even worse.”
“You’ll force me to play boules?”
“Y-you’ll make me wear . . . a beret?”
“Oh yes.” D’Garlic clapped his hands with barely controlled malicious mirth. “A hat which no one really looks good in.”
“You fiend!” Scott shouted. He tried to rush forward but Mr Trustworthy struck him on the head with the bag of money which the Frenchmen had given him.
“I shall enjoy this.” D’Garlic brought out a box and opened it.
Inside lay a bright red beret with one of those fuzzy bits on the top which has no actual use. D’Garlic held up the beret and advanced across the room, smiling an evil smile. The French sailors drew closer, giving them absolutely no room to escape.
The anteater closed his eyes and waited for the end. He heard two things in the next` two seconds. The first was the harsh cackle of D’Garlic. The other was a resounding crash. He opened his eyes to see only a cloud of dust and flying masonry.
“You Froggy bastards!” An English voice shouted.
The French sailors fell back in panic as a crowd of men carrying filleting knives and harpoons came storming through the fog of dust. As the rubble cleared they saw, sticking half into the room through a newly made hole in the wall, a Model T Ford with a massive fan bolted onto the back. On the bonnet of the vehicle, terrifying the French sailors into flight, stood the skipper of the whaling ship. He caught sight of Captain Scott.
“Oh hello there.” He said. “This’ll teach these cheese-eaters to sink my ship.”
Scott considered reminding the skipper that he had tried to ram the French battleship but thought that this was perhaps not the right time.
The anteater meanwhile was examining the prone body of D’Garlic.
“Is he dead?” Scott asked.
“I should think so.” The anteater observed. “His head is over by the fireplace.”
“Eugh, Icky.” Scott decided not to ask how it had happened.
For the gruesome amongst you; The car hit the coffee table and sent the fruit plate frisbeeing across the room. Just remember, having fruit is not always as good for you as they like to claim.
“Perhaps we should leave before the police turn up.” The anteater suggested.
“Are you in a hurry to get somewhere?” The skipper asked.
“Samarkand.” The anteater told him. “I have some rubies to sell.”
“Samarkand eh?” The skipper said, thoughtfully. “Are there any whales to hunt in Samarkand? You could have your car back if you like.”
“How much do you know about geography?” The anteater enquired.
“Not much.” said the skipper.
“Then yes.” The anteater nodded. “Hundreds.”
And so it was that Captain Scott and the steam powered anteater came to part ways, Scott to England and the anteater, with his new found friend/dupe, in the direction of Samarkand. Whether they actually reached it is as yet unknown. the bloke down the pub says he knows but I’ll have to go back and buy him more drinks.
Before leaving the anteater and Scott shook hands and wished each other well.
“It’s been a laugh.” Said the anteater.
“It’s been hell.” Scott grinned. “But at least I’ll have something to write in my diary
Scott sailed for Southampton that very night and it was not long before he felt good old British soil beneath his feet again. At the customs shed an official took him quietly aside and showed him into an office. There, beside the fireplace, stood none other than the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Churchill listened to his story carefully and looked over his diary with interest.
“A remarkable journey.” He assessed.
“Thank you sir.” Scott replied.
“Hmm.” said Churchill. “Is this the only copy of your diary? No one else knows about all this?”
“No sir.” Scott acknowledged.
“Well. You’d better leave it with me.” Churchill picked up an envelope. “I have a special mission for you and we wouldn’t want this excellent diary to become lost would we?”
“A mission sir?” Scott felt his heart swell with pride.
“Yes. Indeed.” Churchill handed him the envelope. “That is a ticket for the maiden voyage of the White Star Line liner Titanic. She sails today and I need a good man to make sure no Irish saboteurs get on board.”
“Gosh.” Scott exclaimed. It was an age when people could use expressions like that and not sound like something out of an Enid Blyton book.
“As you can imagine.” Churchill went on. “This is a mission of the utmost secrecy. No one must know your real name. No one, you understand?”
“Yes sir.” Scott stood up very straight. What an honour this was.
“Then off you go.” Churchill declared. “You’ll receive new instructions in America.”
“Thank you sir.”
Scott saluted and marched proudly out. When the door had closed Churchill sat down thoughtfully at the desk and looked again at the diary. A thought struck him and for some minutes he turned the pages backwards until he found the last entry before the anteater arrived. With a knife he carefully removed the last section. This done he reached for the telephone.
“The Admiralty please, signals room.” He told the operator.
A few moments later a voice answered.
“Officer of the day?” Churchill asked. “Excellent. Signal to HMS Iceberg . . . What’s that? . . . Yes, most urgent.”
WORK IN PROGRESS: All characters are fictional, blah, blah, blah
Three Reason Why You Should Never Change Trains at York
The soon-to-be-dead spy paused in the alleyway, listening carefully for footsteps. There were none. At least, none that he could hear. Don’t get too attached to him, as you have probably gathered, he’ll be lying on the floor by the end of the next paragraph. And not for a little nap. It really is quite filthy underfoot.
Slowly, cautiously, just for piece of mind, the spy nudged the butt of his revolver. A slight smile creased his face. He waited. One, two, three and . . . there now. Down and dead with a dirty great Bowie knife rammed to the hilt between his shoulder blades. An inelegant way to die perhaps; violent certainly, but effective nonetheless.
The assassin – not actually a very good one but cheap and willing to keep his mouth shut for a small amount of money – retrieved his knife and wiped the blade clean. He’ll boast later of a desperate life-and-death struggle but no-one will really believe him. Oh, they’ll laugh and pretend, and help him drink his reward money, but they know him far too well. He’ll be dead himself in three months time, cut down in a turf war between rival pimps.
Oh, don’t bother shedding too many tears for the dead spy either. He was a complete bastard while he was alive but his corpse will teach a medical student how to detect the early symptoms of tuberculosis. No one will miss him terribly. He had been a second rate spy at best and an even worse double agent. It had been a seriously bad idea to double-cross the Crown-Prince Bishop of Exeter. I’ve annoyed a fair few important people in my time but it’s generally best to avoid pissing off a Bishop. Bishops and pimps, in my experience, are dangerous buggers; and His Christian Grace, Bartholomew St James, Crown-Prince Bishop of Exeter, Grand Duke of Powys and Citadel-Keeper of Plymouth was the most dangerous of the lot.
We’ll return, unwillingly, to this subject later. It will turn out to be very important but, for the moment, let us turn our attention elsewhere. To a train several hundred miles north and a disheveled looking traveler lounging in the dining car, your humble servant, myself: Mr Septimus Obsidian Crabtree, esquire – Part-time Hangman and Arranger of Orgies.
We sat up late into the early hours of the morning, drinking and smoking as the train steamed slowly down through the night. There were six of us in all, sprawling across the none-too-comfortable seats. Two travelling arms salesmen, a lock picker, a bounty hunter, a forger and me. A word of advice in passing: Never play cards with a lock picker, chances are he’s also a card sharp. This one definitely was. I’ve no idea how he was cheating, and I’m no slouch at palming cards, but he took thirty guineas off me. Usually I would have given up after ten guineas down but he kept pouring me drinks and I had already downed a quart at the station.
After a while I got bored of being fleeced mercilessly and let the bounty hunter try and win my money. He failed, but he was on a highly lucrative contract so you needn’t feel too sorry for him. Oh, and don’t get too attached to the lock picker either. He’ll do me a favour in chapter three but I have to kill him by the end of the book.
The forger and I shared a bottle of something heady as we rolled towards York. The city had recently changed hands once again – for the fourth time since The 12th Great Northern War – but fortunately it was now owned by the Grand Duke of Humberside and not the Prince of Lancaster. If his supreme highness had managed to get his hands on me then you would not be reading this. It’s not my fault. How was I to know that dancing girl with the red hair was his favourite concubine? Racy little strumpet.
Anyway, I had other problems to deal with right then, most importantly the small matter of where my next meal might be coming from. As of earlier that afternoon I was a displaced person. His Sovereign Grace, the Prince-Bishop of Durham had launched yet another of his drives for purity and righteousness and for some reason had decided that having an Arranger of Orgies on his books was perhaps not within the spirit of truth and salvation. The upshot of all this posturing and energetic inertia was that I was invited politely, at knife-point, to leave the Parish-State and not return for some considerable time. Knowing the Bishop of Durham for the randy old sod he was, the chances were that I would be quietly invited back in six months or so.
In the meantime, however – not wishing to test the sharpness of those knives on my internal organs – I thought it best to beat a hasty retreat to the station. Thus I was working my way south in search of another rich nymphomaniac with a ready supply of cash, good food and decent port. There are more of those than you might think. I had heard that the King of Lincolnshire’s daughter was due to celebrate her birthday soon, either that or the University of Cambridge might be able to offer something. I had heard that the Fellows had just re-introduced the death penalty for plagiarism and might need my services. They take cheating very seriously at Cambridge.
It may seem a strange combination to you, Executioner and Entertainer, and it is a trifle odd at times, but I can’t be bothered to tell you how it all came about. Suffice it to say that, in uncertain times such as these, having two diverse occupations means you are seldom out of work. You do make some rather odd friends though. Come to think of it, I probably know thieves, professional killers and assorted ne’er-do-wells
than I do decent moral citizens. A curious existence, but far from boring.
I had met the forger once before when I needed a birth certificate adjusted and he had needed a quick passage out of the Republic of Cornwall. I had not known that he was in Durham until I met him at the station, ruffled looking and with a knife shaped bruise at his throat. He had no idea where he was going either so had decided to get drunk and fall off the train somewhere more congenial.
In one of his more lucid moments the forger – he’s called Lemuel Franks by the way – opened his eyes and looked at me thoughtfully.
“Do you ever wonder what it’s all about Septimus?” He asked.
I took a slug from the bottle and considered this for a moment.
“No.” I replied.
“You really should.” The forger nodded to himself and snuggled sleepily into his coat.
I sat for a moment, wondering if I was still part of that conversation. It seemed to be over, however, and the forger had left half the bottle within easy snaffling reach. Life does have it’s comforts sometimes.
MORE TO FOLLOW