Written by Erskin Quint
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Wednesday, 11 May 2011

image for Life Sentences: Maritime Memories "Have a daguerreotype of the solar eclipse of July 28th 1851, shipmate." - The South China Sea, yesterday.

Waking once more, he took a swig of grog from the hollowed-out skull of the ship's chaplain. He gurned like an ill-tempered bulldog in the ferocious sunlight and stared at the cork life-jacket lying at my feet.

Scratching his chin with the rusty hook that served as his left hand, he turned his one good eye to me. "Have a gorilla", he rasped.

But I had to decline. "No thanks", I was forced to reply, as I continued to bail filthy water out of the leaking vessel. "I've just put one out."

It was a lie. I had given them up years ago. It was just that I didn't want to alienate him, given that we were alone, he and I, in an unseaworthy lifeboat in the churning vastness of the South China Sea. With one cork life-jacket between the two of us.

Actually, to be perfectly honest, I made that bit up. I have never smoked them. I had always found their sheer size to be intimidating.

I was more partial to the flying phalanger. Lighter, more subtle, and far more mellow, to boot.

If you did boot them, they really took off. It was their wrist-wings that did it.

Sugar Glider
Mahogany Glider
Squirrel Glider
Northern Glider
Yellow-Bellied Glider
Biak Glider

There was so much choice, you see. And you could make your own blends. One of my great pleasures was to combine the dottels and plugs left over from the previous day into the most surprising and exhilarating combinations.

Tobacconists used to keep them all. Nowadays, the shopkeepers respond with baleful mien if you so much as hint at a hankering for Fine Phalanger.

Aye, these are hard times for an old salt with a mariner's rolling gait, a morbid fear of hooks and cork, and a hankering for gliding arboreal mammals. If I didn't have the sail-making to keep me shipshape, I'd be fairly becalmed.

But even that's a hard business these days. You can't get the canvas. But let me not sully your prospects with melancholic contemplations this fine Spring day.

Back in the lifeboat, my companion's fearsome visage, already cragged and pitted like the black cliffs of the Malay Archipelago, was suddenly contorted, striated, riven into the semblance of a grin, and his cracked lips parted to reveal amber and ochre pegs of rotten teeth. "Rough Shag then?" he croaked. His tongue was small and blue, like a blind snake lying in a black fetid cave.

Things were looking bad. "No, I'm sorry, shipmate", I offered, trying to conceal a pang of desperation. "My piles have been playing up somethin' ter'ble ever since we left Shanghai I'm afraid."

He merely shrugged. His great bulk rose and fell as the boat was pitched about by the heaving main. I breathed a furtive sigh of relief. Thank God he was as thick as Blackstrap Molasses. A mariner's life was conducive to falsehoods, I had learned, in my seafaring days, and I was getting damned good at self-serving falsehood.

This was what Conrad discovered. Melville too, I'll vouch.

As for Moby Dick, whose snowy monumental might haunts the dreams of all those who yearn to serve at the yardarms of Nantucket's finest, well, he is a tale for another time, shipmates.

But just as I was beginning to relax into the rhythm of the bailing out and the sway of the South China Sea, just as I began to think about how I might stove in the head of my gargantuan companion with the bailing bucket as he slept off his grog, that dread whisper assailed my ears once again.

"Have a photograph of Lord Tennyson, mate", the treacle-rich hoarseness hissed at me.

Would this purgatory never end?

The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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