July 0004

 

AVAST YE SWABS! 

Second Lieutenant Connery rested his hands on the edges of his crows nest. As he scanned the horizon, he felt a curious sensation. The nest swayed, amplifying the movement of the ship, but, as in a balloon, he could feel no breeze and hear no sound, since the ship was propelled by the wind. He frowned as an important thought came into his mind, and he decided to speak to the Captain.

“Bates! Take over from me on watch!” He called to the able seaman on the deck below him, and then clicked with annoyance as he realized the futility of his action. Instead, he caught Bates’ attention with a flash of his pocket heliograph, and signalled to him with his hands that he was to swarm up the rigging.  

A few minutes later Connery knocked on an oak door, and entered.

“Ah, Sean, what can I do for you?”

Connery’s glance took in the captain’s impressive frame. From his buckled shoes to his snuff-stained wig, via the cutlass pushed casually into his Sam Browne belt, and the khaki admiralty issue ruff around his neck, Captain Marlon Brando looked every inch the culmination of generations of English naval history that he in fact was. Indeed he was the eighth successive member of his family to bear that rank, and it would be impossible to imagine a fitter occupant of the commander’s cabin, located as it was beneath the after-poop of HMS Repulse.

“I’m not sure Sir, but I think we may be in trouble....big trouble…..bigger trouble than we’ve ever been in before..”

Brando’s nostrils flared with excitement. “Dammit man! You mean Boney’s entire battle fleet has just appeared on the horizon, and we’ve got them all to ourselves?”

“No sir, not that, it’s, it’s our author sir. We’ve only been going for fifteen minutes or so, and he’s already shown a complete inability to take account of the effects of water resistance on momentum, he’s a terrible anachronist – I mean look at that get-up he’s put you in – and he hasn’t even told me what I’m wearing yet - and I don’t think he’s very imaginative about names either.

“Mmm, I know what you mean Lieutenant. I was in a pretty rum novel once before. Cove named Moorcock wrote it. Forever living up to his own name you know. I’ve no idea how I got out of it in one piece. Prolific bastard. You ever figure in one of his?”

“Nnnno Sir”, Connery blushed and stammered and lied, the memory of being the possessor of a particularly large and pneumatic pair of breasts assailing him, “I can’t say I ever had the pleasure. But what are we going to do Sir? Frankly this op gives me the screaming hab-dabs.” “Op”? “Screaming hab-dabs”? That couldn’t be right for the early nineteenth century could it? The last time he’d said that he’d been in Bomber Command. Where was Continuity when you needed it? Oh, God rot Ropkind Scharf – this could only be Scharf - and his tuppeny halfpenny operation! Suddenly the thought of Tom Clancy’s seductive tentacles seemed inviting in comparison. Yes, even Tom Clancy would have been better than Scharf!

“Second Lieutenant Connery! We must remember our duty to King and Country! We sail on!” Evidently Brando didn’t have the faintest idea what to do, and was taking refuge in strict adherence to his character. 

Just then a shout came from Bates in the crow’s nest. “Ship off the starboard bow!” Connery and Brando rushed onto the deck. Connery got out his binoculars, Admiralty 1807 pattern, and scrutinized the newcomer. Brando tutted in disapproval and extended his historically correct captain’s brass telescope, which was fully three yards long when erect, and which gleamed in the sun. 

The oncoming vessel exuded naval efficiency. Its square sail, its triple banks of oars swinging in pure maritime harmony, the razor sharp prow, and its perfectly triangular wake all made its identity unambiguously clear. It could only be a Roman trireme! And, as always, the Imperial Roman Navy evidently meant business. Could the Repulse cope if it proved hostile? Of course not! Ballistae, catapults, greek fire, arquebuses? Oh yes, and rams and grappling irons! Connery racked his mind to recall the horrors that could shortly be unleashed on them, and decided that there were huge gaps in his knowledge of ancient naval history, but that there was no doubt that the future looked very grim indeed.  

“Ego, Claudius Secundus Maximus…….” A tall figure wearing a cloak of startling redness and a helmet with the erectest and bristliest plume Connery had ever seen was addressing them from the trireme through a megaphone. Connery had already exhausted his pitiful Latin, and could follow the Roman no longer. Brando was bellowing for the chaplain:

“Where’s that skulking padre! Have him haul his sorry skin to the quarter deck on the double so he can actually do something useful with that plaguey Latin of his for once!”

A trembling white collared reverend was flung onto the deck in front of the Captain and Connery. He listened to the imperative tones which roared at them from across the sea, flattening the waves as they came.  

“Captain, he says he’s from the Imperial Roman Navy on attachment to the Imperial Customs Service, that he’s the commander of the Nemesis, and that he suspects us of being smugglers and pirates. He orders us to throw our weapons overboard, and to prepare to be boarded and enslaved and towed to Ostia. He says we’ve got III minutes to comply, and that if we don’t, our entire crew will be crucified on the mizzen. He also says that in either case that pretty boy standing next to the captain is going to be his personal catamite, he doesn’t care whether it’s with or without holes in his hands and feet.” Connery squeaked with horror at the thought.  

“Dammit man, we’re going to make a run for it” Brando ordered. “Haul on the full tops! Luff the gallants! Unknot the cordage! Gaff the spinnaker!” The Repulseleapt through the waves.  

For a few hours it was neck and neck. Connery could not rid himself of the fear that the Nemesis was holding something in reserve, and that Claudius Secundus was playing with them. Suddenly all the sails on the Repulse flopped. “Becalmed!” A wail of woe went up from every man on board. The trireme, with its ranks of oarsmen and stiffly starched sail was unaffected, and rapidly closed the gap.

“Should I have the men pull out the main bung Sir?”

“Where’s your courage Connery? Scuttle, Connery, scuttle?” The Captain demanded. “The situation’s far from lost. Listen man. Go down to the ships larder, and bring up a big armful of the most stinking fish you can find. Oh, and two hundred fathoms of rope. “

The bewildered Connery hurried to carry out Brando’s instructions. Could there really be a way out? Was there a means of avoiding an early meeting with Davy Jones? If so, what was it? Aargh! The fish had been stowed in the locker since the ship had sailed from Birmingham Harbour two months ago! Christ it stank! He dumped the squirming mess at Captain Brando’s feet.

“Quick man” The captain ordered. Fix it on the end of the rope, and let it overboard, fast though, we don’t want those little fish near the surface get at it. That’s it, all the way, all two hundred fathoms of it, just don’t let go of the end! Now jiggle it about a little. That’s right!”

Connery felt a tentative tug on his rope – something immensely powerful was probing, lurking beneath them in the cold dark infinite depths of the Mediterranean.

“Now Connery, quick, fling it at the Roman!”

With all his might, he jerked the rope up over his shoulder, flicked it, and the rope and its revolting burden sailed through the air and landed with a moist, wormy slop on the deck of the trireme two hundred yards away.

A roar of Latin fury arose from other ship. Claudius Secundus raged at the mess on his clean-scrubbed deck. Something boiled, seethed and surged in the waters below the Repulse, and hurtled like a submarine arrow towards the Nemesis, following the stinking lure. It broke water in an explosion of foam and tentacles and embraced the roman ship. A giant squid, and the battle was epic! Greek fire and arrows deluged upon the monster, while a single sweep of one of its tentacles smashed all the oars on the port side and dismasted the vessel. Forty five minutes later, the squid floated, upside down and dead, while alongside it, a dwarf in comparison, the Nemesis, oared on only one side, sailed in futile circles. Captain Brando took the opportunity to order the Repulse to make its escape.  

“Sir, you’ll get a Victoria Cross for this, sir.”. Connery gushed. “You’re the first captain in the Royal Navy to survive an encounter with a Roman Trireme in almost two thousand years.”

“You’re brown-nosing man. But be that as it may, you were right earlier. We need a way out of this mess. Scharf’s just too unpredictable. We’ve got to find a way of changing this from the first in a series of best-selling naval epics a la Hornblower, for that is what I fear is in his cursed pot-boiling mind, to a short story, or perhaps a synopsis for a film. If we don’t make sure it’s over soon, we’ll have vampires in the rigging, or we’ll be in The Sound of Music at Sea, or something equally horrific.” 

A faint hope, like a glow-worm climbing out from beneath a cabbage leaf on a foggy night appeared in Connery’s soul. “Sir, you could try asking the Admiralty for fresh orders”. He winked furiously while he said this. Brando’s eyes narrowed.

“Mr. Connery, it may have escaped your attention, but the admiralty is several hundred nautical miles from here. Just how do you propose that I seek fresh orders from them without sailing to Whitehall to ask them in person, only to be court-martialled for disobeying our existing orders to remain on station until we have single-handedly swept the French from the seas?” 

“Well sir, you could try ………telephoning.”

“Telephoning!”

“Shhh, yes sir, telephoning………maybe if we decide to telephone them, a phone’ll appear on the desk in your cabin. Scharf might just think it necessary for plot continuity and so on. Shall we have a look sir?”

Brando’s eyes thoughtened. “Dammit man, you might be right.”

As surreptitiously as possible, they crept down to the cabin, and opened the door. Connery fumbled with his tinder box and lit the ship’s torch. Yes! There in the gloom, on the desk there had appeared a British Telecom Trimphone, ca. 1980.

“Quick Connery. The Admiralty can sod off now! We can call our agents instead, and get ourselves put into something serious. Line the crew up, and hurry. And for Christs sake,” he whispered “don’t make any sudden moves or loud noises. I’ve never seen anything like this. Scharf must be doing automatic writing or something. Whatever you do, don’t wake him.” 

Brando poked out a trembling podgy finger and started to dial before anyone else got the chance. If only one person was going to get off this ship, it was going to be him. He put the handset to his ear, and with a surge of relief he heard a dialling tone and then a series of chirps which followed the numbers he pressed, and then a cheerful, professionally insincere voice-

“Good morning, Maxwell Murdoch Associates, how can I help you”  

Sean Connery had returned to the cabin, with the crew in a crocodile behind him, and saw the Captain eagerly pleading into the phone. Evidently their problems were nearly at an end, and he could look forward to a new incarnation.. 

He smiled, his horizontally striped tee shirt contrasting oddly with his blue naval kilt, pom pom hat and deck shoes. 
 
 
 

Epilogue. 

The character who had been Connery did well. His agent got him the position of lead daffodil in the poem by William Wordsworth. He’s easy to identify as he still smells slightly of fish. The one that was Brando became the City of Amiens in the 1958 Baedekker guide. The former chaplain was less fortunate, and was only offered a role as a minor victim in 120 Days of Sodom. He agreed to do this, and has never ceased to regret it. The captain of the trireme retired, while the squid, evidently inspired by its role in this story, became a real octopus in a public aquarium in Hamburg, but was disappointed to learn that octopuses have a life expectancy of only two or three years. 

Para Liliana. 
 

Illustration: British Military Trimphones, Army (right), Navy and Air Force (left).


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