"Men of few words are the best men." - William Shakespeare, King Henry V, Act III, Scene II

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Travelogue of Mycroft Webb (Episode IV)

The Gulf Of Siam – One Man and his Junk.
(12.0286N, 100.8054E) – December ‘11

Those few individuals who know me well, would, I believe, have little or no difficulty in putting palm to bible (even a lesser King James version!) in a court of law to attest that Mycroft Webb is a man loathe to commence any correspondence with an apology. This is due, in the main, to my belief that most correspondence fails to recover from the ingratiation of a weak opening, and secondly, that a gentleman should apologise as infrequently as possible for his actions. With that said, I still fear I must offer a sincere apology for the delay in my most recent dispatches. 

Against my better judgement, I entrusted my personal correspondences to one Captain Francesco Schettino, an Italian in command of a home-bound vessel known as the Concordia. O what a magnificent specimen she was! As fine an example of the modern shipwright’s artistry as I have beheld. However, her commander, seemed to my eyes, to be little more than a philandering, gusset-sniffing, blow-hard more interested in semen-ship than seamanship, if you'll pardon my candour. 

I trusted the vessel with my dispatches as I had heard that her orders compelled her to touch the coast of Italy on her return voyage but as I learned from the Lloyds List a few weeks after his departure, Schettino did a damned sight more than just touch the coast. The blessed fool ran straight into it! - with the loss of 25 souls and leaving a total constructive loss to be shared among some perfectly innocent maritime syndicates at Lloyd's of London. Even worse though, my dispatches were lost and I have subsequently had to send duplicate copies by alternative means at a very great expense of time.

Sinking of the Concordia - Artist's Impression
I have always avoided any significant financial exposures to Italians in my own Lloyd's portfolio because of a simple matter of a deep distrust of them as a race. I cannot say for sure where this stems from exactly but I believe my old Nana may have had a part to play in the matter.

Yes, I can distinctly recall as a toddler; I would be seated at the large mahogany table in my grandparent’s house, performing an early but instinctive comparison of Victoria Sandwich and traditional sponge-cake when I would hear her advising me in that lilting Cork dialect: “Listen Mykey boy, you’d better be on the watch-out for Guinea bashtards. They're langers to a man, nahting but cowards and shnake-oil salesmen the lot of 'em. You can't rely on a Dego for nahting, except thinking with his prick, the same way you can't rely on the Atlantic Ocean for nahting, except crashing against the Cliffs of Moher from now until the rapture”. She had a colourful way with words did my old Nan, and among her other many talents, she could spit around corners and also produce Christmas puddings so black and so dense; that light seemed to bend in their vicinity.

Now, with the reason for my late dispatches laid bare, and my theory about an apology ingratiating the opening of any correspondence proved beyond much doubt, I will now continue with the matter of my travelogue with as much gusto as I can muster.

Before deciding to depart from the busy port of Shanghai, I spent a number of long peaceful days at the dockside on the Huangpu overseeing the filling of the ever-capacious Fanny with all manner of epicurean delights from the Fuxing Road in Shanghai's French Concession. Cheeses that would have made Napoleon weep, enough cured meat and victuals to bring my gout to an agonising crescendo; and wines, whose quality, Bacchus himself would have approved of.

The Delightful Yuyuan Gardens, Shanghai.
I would be the first man to admit that the Fanny (a Junk in the Chinese style), which I had recently acquired, was no East Indiaman but I would be damned if I would have it said that Mycroft Webb was going to sea on his latest “venture” without laying on a decent spread. Not a fucking chance old Bean! I have a reputation to maintain after all. It was due to such careful provisioning and my strong preference for a chef who didn’t wash his wretched anus with his fingers before preparing my supper that I have managed to preserve myself from the aqueous bowels that this region is so rightly famous for. Naturally, I was keen for this to continue.

You may notice that I used the word venture previously because I have to admit that the weeks spent in the hustle-and-bustle of Shanghai must have awoken something of the mercantile spirit within me, a spirit that has lain dormant for many years now. You see, I have been removed from the grimy coal-face of bourgeois industry and commerce since making an absolute killing from African mineral holdings in the last decade; a stake in a veritable Golkonda in some godforsaken recess of that abysmal continent left me independently wealthy many years ago.

Since then, I have been content to be a disinterested spectator of financial markets; happily collecting periodic dividends and interest coupons while inspecting the yields on sovereign perpetuals from the comfortable remove of an armchair, in the same manner that an obese dog might glance furtively at a passing cat. No longer though would I rest on such laurels, I had formulated a plan while strolling around the Koi ponds of Shanghai's beautiful YuYuan Gardens to combine my QMBC missionary work with a little honest commerce.

Take a load off China! Opium Den, Shanghai.
Like all great business plans, mine was splendidly simple. It involved leaving Shanghai and China with its baffling customs and peculiar toilet etiquette behind for good, and with a crack crew of Fannies make all possible sail through the South-China Sea for the Kingdom of Siam. Whereupon, I will use gentlemanly diplomacy to make discrete enquiries at major cities and ports in order to acquire as many chests of this wonderfully refreshing Opium tack as possible. When the Fanny is full to the brim, we will then set sail North for Hong Kong to offload our cargo into the nearby Chinese market through my agent there at a no-doubt spectacular profit. The obvious commercial benefit of this venture aside, it had become clear to me that keeping the horizons of Chinese industry permanently obnubilated with the juice  of the poppy would be of great benefit to the West. Mark my words Gentlemen: "The Chinese will own us all if they're ever allowed out from under its influence!"

It was dawn on the 27th of November, when we slipped our moorings and the Fanny glided gently out to sea. The winds and tides were favourable and the sea calm which I took as an excellent omen for our undertaking. I had been so busy of late with the provisioning that I had delegated the running of the ship to my footman Finbarr - a loyal native, my very own Gunga Din, if you will.

To my surprise, everything had been completely ship-shape on board, a bit too ship-shape; I had become somewhat suspicious that Finbarr's murky past must have included some time at the helm as his seamanship was beyond reproach. However, I was more than happy to let him handle the day-to-day sailing of the Fanny.

Mile after mile of blue-green water passed under our keel, and in truth, I had little to do but work on my logs and inspect the crew on a regular basis. These inspections showed the crew to be a motley lot but they were all right sailors and looked as if they could handle themselves in a tight spot. In no particular order, they were:
  • Crabby Jake: (Able-Seaman) Formerly of H.M. Royal Navy but now succumbed to such excesses of debauchery on land that he scratched his groin with the incessant vigour and thousand-yard stare of a  fast-bowler polishing an old cricket ball. 
  • Whitey Smith: (Able Seaman & Sergeant At Arms) Strapping Nigerian chap measuring nigh on 2 metres tall, who, save for his flashing white grin was actually as black as a Pit-pony.     
  • Blackie Coffey: (Ordinary Seaman) Exiled Irish gypsy who had decided on a life at sea rather than being set upon by his own kind due to his Albinism. His skill as a bare-knuckle brawler was a phenomenon considering his extreme myopia and near permanent sun-stroke.
  • One-Ball Saul: (Ship's Purser & Jew) An unfortunate slip of the Rabbi's knife at his briss saddled Saul with his unfortunate monicker. However, he is ideally suited for purser's duties because like many of his faith, he writes fair and is good with numbers but more importantly is "As cute as a shit-house rat and tighter than a gnat's twat.", as my old Nana would often say.  
It was early afternoon on the sixth day of the journey and I had just fallen asleep, the effects of another large lunch and the oppressive heat combining to overcome me like a delicious ether, when I heard some rushing of feet and shouting on deck. I stirred momentarily before breaking wind and returning contentedly to the business of my nap. But when I then heard the cry of "Pirates, off the starboard beam.", I sprang to my feet in a modest panic and went on to the deck where I saw a much larger junk bearing down fast on our current position, their deck was crowded with Thais, Malays & Lascars and other piratical looking fellows with machetes and axes. It would have been fair comment to say that they were not there to sun-bathe.

Upon seeing this, my bowels outpaced my brain and I started to feel a tad unwell. It might have been the foie gras, I don't know.

I noticed Finbarr was stripped to the waist and he had jumped high into the rigging. Honestly, I had never noticed the vast array of tattoos that the man possessed on his torso before and quite why he seemed to be displaying them and hollering at the pirates was a mystery to me at such an important moment. The pirate junk quickly neared to within shouting distance and appeared to be readying to board us.

Myself and the other Fannies thought our days were numbered but we stood at the rail watching in amazement as the pirates seemed to change direction at the very last minute and as they did so collectively saluted Finbarr who returned the gesture by raising his arm triumphantly. The pirate junk continued to sail in the opposite direction and Finbarr slowly returned to the deck with a large grin on his face.

It was clear that I would have to enquire a little bit more about the exact background of my valet, and I would do just that, as soon as I sorted out a new pair of underpants and trousers for myself. It would appear that running opium in the South China sea can be a messy business.

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