Wednesday, 16 October 2013
Mercy or More
Don’t ever ask me what it is I’m doing, sometimes I even amaze myself. I’m constantly surprised. Why it was just yesterday when I got myself into another one of those peculiar scrapes and muddles that time and time again I get caught up in. I was sitting there, in my lovely new black velvet dress with the tiny white lace collar and cuffs, at a table by a pavement café and I’ll be very honest and say that I was well and truly caught up in an innocent if slightly erotic daydream. A passing cloud of uncontrolled thought that for just a few seconds happened to alight upon my temple and get somehow into my brow and the cavity that‘s set aside for those secret little things. Well of course it was about the marvellous young Ronnie (I’m sure you’ve heard me speak of him from time to time). So there we were and there was I, utterly captivated in the imaginary moment, a moment that did seem very real to such was the stirring inside that it created. He has a wondrous touch, Ronnie. Anyway I was violently rocked from the calm sea of this idyll by the abrupt and quite unwelcome presence of Mr Frank Delaney. A sometimes rough and stupidly unpleasant (but very rich) businessman who I regularly discourage but who none the less seems to have very much of a soft spot for me. I often see him a parties and functions and he hovers, like a single balding, greying hot air balloon on the fringes of our company. He’s bearable in small doses I suppose and I can be pleasant if I want to.
“Sophie?” He began with his stupid question, as if I could ever be anybody else other than myself. I did not bother to answer his ridiculous question, I simple mouthed a “Hello Mr Delaney“. I allowed my tongue to roll a little on the ell of Delaney. I did this as a simple tease, for fun I suppose. He replied with a winning but for me annoying smile then promptly apologising for disturbing me but also asking if he might join me. I was still tasting lipstick from the tongue roll and still warming up from the imaginary presence of young Ronnie but I managed an automatic if stiff nod of approval with the minimum of head movement, I was eager to stay serene and graceful today. Mr Delaney sat down, groaned a little and allowed his legs to spring and splay a little as his posterior moulded into and with the shape of the metal café chair. He could lose a little weight, ten Pounds at least. It looked as if he had something serious to say to me.
At that moment a waiter came out and Mr Delaney nodded politely in my direction. “Champagne!” I trilled without hesitation and wiggled a pinkie. Mr Delaney said nothing but glanced down at his pocket watch. “Indeed!” he said to the waiter and trolled of the name of some famous French brand or other, “and a black coffee for me, thank you.” He was watching me across the menu and I began to play with my hair, curling a strand around my finger, round and round, back and forth as if he bored me. I lit a cigarette purposely not offering him one, which was very much the current fashion. I liked these new selfish and assertive fashions, the kind that it seemed only women of a certain type could get away with in any company.
“Sophie, it is very fortunate (for me) that I’ve happened to meet you today. I was rather thinking about you, in may I say the best of ways and the most favourable of settings and circumstances. You see Sophie I have something of a problem that I believe you may be able to help me with.” I tried to look politely uninterested and blew some smoke as a silent response and possible piece of useful vapid punctuation. “Sophie” (I could see he liked to say my name and obviously thought that the more he said it the more I’d somehow listen to him and possibly even agree or assent to whatever his proposal was), “I am not getting any younger, I’m comfortably well off and I was thinking about the future. They say that there may be war, they say that Europe is unstable, threats here and there, hot spots, disease and Bolsheviks and the markets are very unstable, I’m sure you read the newspapers or hear this from your father .” (Of course I do on both counts, stupid lump!). I was therefore considering taking some action that might as it were, bolster us (?) up in these times, consolidate our (?) positions and protect our (?) assets and those things that we (?) hold near and dear. I’m sure, Sophie, that you understand that, being the modern and experienced woman that you are.”
“As you know I have wide and varied business interests, I’ve always believed in spreading risk and I’m unafraid of change and new and innovative ways of working.” I tried not to yawn, it was an effort. Fortunately the Champagne arrived and I was delivered of a full and bubbling glass of the sweetest, pinkest variety. “Your health”, I offered as I sipped the first delicious mouthful. I caught Delaney’s eyes on my chest, on the gold heart shaped locket that was sitting there, moving and rising on my breathing flesh as my head tilted back slightly to finish the glass. It was a very pleasant drink after all and that one glass had both reminded me of and removed the stains that were my earlier thoughts of Ronnie. Ronnie with the golden Rolls Royce. The sun was in my eyes now, Delaney was talking but I was, in the moment marvellously light headed and vacant. Like a guilty Buddhist stealing nectar from the temple or so I thought, I allowed myself an inner giggle. He was looking at my legs now. The waiter poured another delightful glass and I felt myself smiling a little too broadly. Mother had always said a girl should never show her teeth in such circumstances and with an unattached man, I did miss her influence and advice, just now and then.
Mr Delaney was still talking… “So I have taken delivery of a large airship built by the highly reputable Graf Zeppelin company and I intend to use it to survey this unexplored region. I am therefore putting together a small team of specialists who will accompany me on this venture and I was wondering if you would care to join me acting as a co-host and translator. The team is multi national, to encourage sponsorship and your language skills as well as your bright and brilliant personality will be invaluable.” Having missed the first part of Delaney’s proposal I was, momentarily taken aback. My mother’s words came to me from somewhere inside, as a timely lifeline. “When in doubt, pout.” I pouted. The effect was immediate and instantaneous, like a distress flare or firework had gone off in Delaney‘s trousers. “My dear Sophie,” began Delaney, he was leaning into my personal space now. “ What I meant to say of course was that you would not simply be an employee or associate on this glorious and life changing expedition, you would also be...” He grabbed at my hand across the table and held it too tightly for comfort. I worried that he might crush the white lace cuff with all it’s fine detail but my hand was suddenly warm from being squeezed so painfully and it was all strangely pleasant. “You would, if you would agree, accompany me as my wife!” Immediately I just felt the strongest desire to rip off his white cotton shirt and whip his bare back with my best riding crop until it bled and he cried out for mercy or for more.
Well that was yesterday’s little muddle, now it’s today and I’ve just partaken of fresh marriage vows, more Champagne and signed the register as Mrs Sophie Alice Delaney newly of West Winds, New Hampton, Connecticut. I’m with my Frank right now dutifully standing beside him as the flight arrangements are finalised. It has been such a busy twenty four hours and I’ve hardly had a wink of sleep. The licence was of course rushed through but we had little choice in matters though Frank has quite a lot of influence in this town. Marriage and a long foreign trip with a bunch of delicious and strange people, it might not be such a bad thing. The airship is fully loaded and is now ready to leave at 9PM tonight. We pick up the rest of the team and crew in Zanzibar apparently. What else was a girl supposed to do? Of course it’s not quite the way that I imagined my wedding day but I have been married twice before. You could say that a little of the shine has gone from the ceremonials for me but I do still like to dress up and enjoy a glittering party or a Celtic wake. A good wedding and a good party, it’s all life or it’s all death. I float like a bright butterfly, somewhere in between and across that void. So what if I’ve also partied after funerals, I suppose you knew that? I certainly enjoyed the two that followed both of my late husbands’ funerals. Neither marriage lasted quite long enough but I hate to look back. You have to do something with the money don’t you? You can suppress the memories, bury them with the feelings, I’ve found that anyway, then the cash runs out. Life goes on and I do think it’s so unfair the way they label me and libel me in those gutter-press articles. Black Widow indeed.
Perhaps I should tell you a little more about the wedding. Well I’ll not bother to say much about the ceremony, there hardly was one and I was happy with that. We avoided religious or wormy and flowery words, we touched as little as possible and I managed to pick up a rather adorable solid gold pen that’s now at the bottom of my handbag. Frank actually looked rather smart, clearly he’d done some preparation and I did like his sharp grey suit, gold stick pins, black and white spats the red and white ribbon and the parrot feathers on his top hat. He looked distinguished and for me in that moment it was all almost appropriate. I took that as a compliment and for a few seconds felt warm. We did exchange rings and I lost that feeling, they were slightly disappointing, being forged from some priceless unworldly alloy that had been found in deposits on a Chinese meteorite. The same alloy had been incorporated into elements of the Zeppelin’s engines apparently. I think it tickled Frank, I’m a little harder to please.
The guests were all Frank’s choice, business people and those associated with the expedition. I was pleasant but ignored most of them and of course my family was conveniently out of town. The business people would go back to their atrocious bean counting and those on the expedition would no doubt end up stabbing and eating themselves. I chose my friends very carefully.
My outfit was, what can I say? Conservative and restrained. I knew I’d be in those papers and I knew they’d be some whiff of scandal or historical mish mash. So I dressed as if I was Anne Boleyn headed for the scaffold but in a modern way. I used greys and blues against all the colour chart’s advice and counsel. There were a few flashbulbs but no outbursts. I think Frank was relived when it was all over. We took a long black car to the airport and closed the doors in the airship hanger and enjoyed brightly coloured cocktails and canapés whilst a band played modern jazz (not to my taste) to our guests. It was almost pleasant. Once I’d secured my quarters and pissed all over my newly acquired space I was fine. Not long after that we were relatively silently launched into the night sky. All ballast adjusting waterworks and long issues of gas and vapour. Thankfully there were no fireworks or ostentatious celebrations.
On the ship
Yesterday had passed by too quickly and now I’m lying in bed in the owner’s suite on board the Zeppelin. A rather lavish little nest I’d decided to make my own, well for the duration of the trip anyhow. So of course I’m alone, there was no way that the boorish, pawing Frank was ever going to spend the whole night with me even after all the wining, dining and trip planning and exploration. No, no, just because we’re married I didn’t want him to think he owned me, neither in body or soul plus I was tired and deception, even in it’s simplest forms takes quite a bit of energy. I don’t know where he slept last night but it wasn’t going to be here. Of course he’d tried to get in but I slipped away, a speciality. I’d already had his baggage moved and as if he already fully understood my rules of engagement, he didn’t complain.
Reclining on a feather bed and flying at ten thousand feet is a new experience even for me. There’s a weird sensation of moving, the engines throb and hum of course and outside only dark clouds roll by. On the wall there are three German clocks, I’m unsure which one to believe, New York, Berlin or Tokyo? I decide to ignore them and to live and move in my own time and have a bath, just then the phone chirps. Frank’s at the other end, “Darling, I’m on the bridge, care to join me for morning coffee with the Captain?” I feel a sudden and intense rush of aloofness. “Darling, I look a fright, I’m just not used to this kind of travel. I need a little time to adjust. You do your business and I’ll join you and your good Captain for lunch, maybe.”
I’m sure there’s a maid somewhere I could call upon but I decide to run a bath myself. I deserve some peace and luxury. I’m pleasantly surprised by the bath, the water is piping hot, almost aromatic and even when filled up the bath water remains steady. Perhaps there are elaborate brass springs and mechanisms underneath that keep it stable, all tethered up to the steering gear. Maybe the Captain just happens to know what he’s doing and has a mature and steady hand. Maybe the weather up here is suddenly agreeable. I’ll wait and see. I’m already enjoying what I imagine to be an ocean crossing, I pour a brandy and lie back and think of…jewels. From the odd angle of the bath I regard the room. It’s opulent and overblown, all that’s missing is a monkey in a golden cage whose special talent is catch thrown grapes in his little fists. I’m glad that the designer omitted that piece of detail, perhaps the bath brought it all firmly up to the weight limit.
I imagine that lunch will be a tiresome affair, all introductions and manners. I decide that I’ll float today, I’ll dress to float and float politely through lunch and whatever happens next. I recall the chapter and footnote in my black book that refers to such social encounters. “New People in Confined Spaces”. Floating along and never quite landing is the best strategy and I do like to have a strategy and plan, even if my strategy and plan is to be spontaneous and impulsive (which may have been yesterdays’ taken to the limit).
The airship though large because of gas capacity is quite compact at a human level, all the accommodation gondolas neatly connected by shiny corrugated corridors and walkways. It doesn’t really take much time to get from A to B or from my state room to the dining room or the bridge. I’ve already decided I don’t like the bridge. The crewmen there are all German and though officers they have an aviation fuel smell, thin eyes, straight backs and armoured trousers. Their short hair seems coated in a hydrogen grime, a feature of too much time spent up in the air.
Frank welcomes me as I enter the dining room, “Darling!” The waiter adjusts my seat and I sit between Frank and the Captain. The Captain introduces himself properly (I saw him briefly last night before he disappeared back to the bridge), his name is Johan. Around the table there are a number of nodding and grinning heads, a rough mix of the crew and the exploration team. I make eye contact with each one, deliberately, holding their stare as long as I can, nodding if I approve, staying stock still if I don’t. Apart from two other ladies the party is male. The female combatants being xxxx the Irish governess type, she is in charge of education and development (as the project matures). Thin and severe looking but attractive. There’s not a scrap of slap on her, she’s in a huge brown dress that makes her look like a chestnut mare and she’s sporting a tightly buttoned up collar. Her hair is fancy, too fancy, it must have taken her half an hour this morning, I‘d like to pick each Kirby grip out with my teeth and spit them onto the floor in disdain and then make her pick them all up. Then there’s Ruth the duty Chemist or Pharmacist or something. She’s younger, clever looking and bubbly. Her complexion is fresh, natural but tired a little. Somebody’s been working her too hard. I can imagine myself taking great pleasure in strangling her at some point, she irritates. Luckily she dodges my eye contact quickly so I decide to spare her life for the time being. She may be useful if I need drugs I suppose. She’s close to the Doctor, I see that, he’s an older man with sprouting silver hair and a bad moustache. That ugly hair pours from every other part of his head and shoulders as if his hormones are out of control or his medication has been tampered with. She’s the prime suspect.
The others bore me already, they are just hungry mercenaries eating up our supplies and money. I decide to sit still and keep my thoughts to myself. I sip a little more fine Brandy and act delicate. I eat a little boiled white fish as if I was a mouse and listen to the Captain drone about his faithful engines and the vagaries of the weather at this height. Frank is all ears too, I’m not sure he knows much about anything here other than the basics. This just a Mississippi paddle steamer in the sky, a stereotypical gathering of odd souls and gamblers headed for adventure or disaster or in my case probably both and a little more.
Through the silk on my shoulder I feel a heavy hand, I hear a familiar voice. “Now then, I’m sure a little of that brave lasagna portion won’t hurt you will it?” I quiver a hidden quiver and stare straight ahead, right through the bright young pharmacist, she starts to look uneasy and drops her head noticeably into the doctor‘s lap. I recover my composure, “Ronnie, darling, I had no idea you’d joined our little expedition. Frank hardly said a word to me!” My elbow meets Frank’s ribs in a forceful manner that produces a cough and a spasm. I mouth, “Bastard!” He smiles and winks, his thumb rubbing the intricate silver carved top of his cane as he waves a napkin at nobody. Ronnie circles the room like a buzzard and chooses an empty seat beside the brown mass of the governess. He almost disappears behind the great Houses of Parliament dress. He then grins across at me and clicks his fingers to the waiter who approaches. Meanwhile I turn to my new husband, “Frank?” I lean in and give Frank my best and most manipulative smile. “Ronnie suggests the lasagna, will you try some?” Franks nods and asks the waiter to bring him a portion. “Of course,” I continue as Frank tucks in, “I’ve always considered eating lasagna to be a bit like sucking the spunk from the carpet tiles in an Italian whorehouse.” There will be times when I’ll ask myself where is it that I’m at and why is it that I am this way or that way. I ask honestly and diligently but I never ever give myself a straight answer.
I’ve had a comfortable if peculiar sexual relationship with Ronnie for some time. He knows everything about me. That’s rather awkward, particularly in these rather close and intimate circumstances where much could be gained or lost. Ronnie’s favour and money have of course been very welcome and extremely useful and I do like his strength and sense of criminal mischief. I did decide a while ago however that I could live completely well without him. I could make myself do that if I had to and that I would not require to use a great deal of language to describe that. I find that holding onto that feeling to be very important to me in a motive focusing way. I like to know what I need and what I can use and what, if necessary I could let go of. It was therefore no surprise to me later in the afternoon when after the Captain had called for a siesta time there was a knock upon my bedroom door. “Sophie!” Whispered an agitated Ronnie through the keyhole. “It’s me. Are you decent?”
Of course I’ve no intention whatsoever of being decent now or at anytime but despite that we sat on the bed like two children, our hands in our laps and he confided in me (so he said). His tale was a long one of impending financial ruin, the pressure to get away from heavy friends and the effect of some of my apparent if imagined magnetism. “Delaney has agreed to cut me in on the profits and I know that it may take time but I can wait, so I’m here. I’ve been pulled into your orbit, married lady that you are.” He seemed to find this hysterically funny, so much so I had to slap his face. He slapped me back and this time we both laughed. “Go on and have your siesta Mr Ronnie, I’ve got to fix my face, look at the red mark you’ve left me with! Old habits die hard.”
Pearls without swine
So now that Ronnie has scuttled away I'm free to explore this compact but Bijou stateroom that I find myself married and trapped in, though I admit that his departure and the slap has left me a little flushed and breathless. Sometimes I can be weak. I compose myself and see that nothing was unpacked last night, it's all there, my precious possessions, all erect and hanging like some stupid and faithful dog bound up by the leather and brass fastenings. I can't really be bothered to open in. Looking around I spot an innocuous closet door, a strange mix of aluminium aircraft work, rivets and wood finishes. It opens as if on rails to reveal a deep wardrobe occupied only by a single dark fur coat topped with a fur hat. Nice surprise, a present maybe? I recognise the pelts, Siberian Mink. The labels are faded and unreadable but the coat is fresh and pristine, brown, black and beautiful. Naturally I have to try it on but in this place and at this time it can only be in the St Petersburg style, naked from head to foot.
The coat is a warm dream and I'm enraptured by it's weight, it's feel and it's fit. Here's an outfit worthy of any parade on the deck of any fine ocean liner or coasting airship. I feel my promenade moment coming on. Of course it's a high risk strategy venturing out anywhere without the benefit of underclothes or foundation garments but I feel like living a little more dangerously today that err...even yesterday. Not to would be irritating and cowardly. Inspired I open up my belted belongings and rummage in the jewellery casket of my trunk and choose a pearl necklace and pearl drop earrings, that's the underwear sorted. Then it's the faithful black lace up boots and the fur hat to top off the ensemble. Now I'm ready to meet the world at however many thousand feet or inches we are currently sitting at. In seconds I'm out tottering on the metal walkway, the heels are proving awkward, the waves far below signal back through the weld-mesh. It turns out to be about five thousand feet below, I discover this as I enter the bridge and quiz the Captain. He seems grumpy but manages a smile and gives me the information. Then I swish away and it's out into the sharply cold evening across the walkway to the Saloon Gondola. All the main airship areas are connected by open or covered walkways. In this outfit I choose to navigate by the open areas and so prepare to enjoy the rare air and the reduction in temperature.
The fur coat acts as a marvellous insulation device leaving me only feeling a slight and sensuously delicious chill in a very few nether regions and extremities, I enjoy the warmth of the fur and the bitter and twisted touch of the evening cold as my sharp and illicit contrasts. Like the warmth of alcohol and the chill of opium, like a the touch of a hot hand and the rubbing of a cold foot, like a warm Siamese massage or a dip into an icy lake in Finland. Contrasting sensations and the conflicted feelings they generate are like a charge of white bright electricity to my soul. Out here, leaning on the frozen rail, allowing the coat to open and close slightly, sharing only with myself the sudden exposure to the cold and then the shelter from it is a dream of rare pleasure. At times like this I only need me, myself and no one or nothing else. I look across the grey horizon, I try to mask the drone of the engines, I see seabirds circle below, I watch my breath cloud up and disappear behind me, I pull my hat down a little tighter to cover my ears, I feel the stored up cold of the pearls against my skin and I sense my own eyes to be on fire with something deep and critical fuelling them from within. I feel beautiful.
I'm lost in these moments, looking down at myself and out across the Ocean Atlantico, the deepest and most treacherous of oceans, storms and islands, sandbanks and seaweed choked seas, all clamour below for attention in the greying day as the sun disappears far away across some vague western location. Perhaps this is the peace that passes all understanding. The foul and incendiary mix of the sensuous and the spiritual that would inflame and enrage any priest or man of god and principle were I to share it and he'd provide that unspoken accusation that would have him call me a witch or a whore and want to cast me and my kind out. He would, he could, then I'd unbutton this fine dark coat so slowly, finger by button by finger, flicking it open like the slow curtain of a theatre stage show and then his ideas would change and solidify. So like a serpent I shed my skin, layer by layer and then consume my shallow prey.
So I'm in promenade mode but standing quite still, like a Parisian statue, a figurehead of a great fighting ship from the past, crossing and ocean with my heart of ice and my great soul of burning, stolen gold. I can't help but giggle sometimes, crazy ideas. Here comes a crewman, I meet his eyes. “Ma'am, good evening!” He tips his cap and I watch his eyes drop as for a split second I allow my coat to open and close, as if by some remote control or mind trick. My face stays expressionless like a china doll's in a shop window. He marches past and I sense his discomfort, unease, humiliation and of course his rough arousal. Well that's enough of that. I breathe out and head for the Saloon.
A waiter opens the door before I have the chance to touch the finely crafted knob. My hand brushes his, he's a gay flirt I think. One for later. Frank is there at the teak and ebony bar like some seagoing and overage cowboy. He lights up as he sees me enter and takes a sip of his whisky, raising his glass in my direction. “My darling new wife, what is your pleasure?” Naturally I give him my best smile. “Ma'am, may I take your coat ?” Says the sycophantic waiter. “My good man, I would like nothing better but I'm afraid that in the short time I've worn it I have become very attached to this garment and I am choosing to keep it on as I'm finding it a little chilly in here tonight but thank you for your kind offer.” I sit down at a table, very slowly and carefully. I feel a roomful of eyes on me (not unusual) and Frank crosses and joins me, curiously he doesn't mention the fur coat but as ever his eyes descend to the pearls and beyond. The waiter brings me a whisky in a crystal glass, golden and as warm as the urine of a prize mare. Frank is smiling and I can see by the glint behind his monocle is bursting to tell me something. With a flourish I pull out my right index finger as if it was a fine Italian Stiletto Dagger ready to murder, the sharp red nail tip glinting in the chandelier light and I push it to his lips just as they are about to form a word. “Frank, don't say a thing, don't dare, don't spoil this wonderful moment.” I down the whisky with an inelegant and masculine gulp and place the glass in front of him, a smear of lipstick across the edge. Then I rise, allow a grin to flash across my face and without a further word return to the stillness of the walkway and my own far more important thoughts.
Next morning: I'm woken up at 07:30 sharp by the ship's messaging intercom. There is a speaker set up in each cabin's ceiling. The Captain is barking, “Ladies and Gentlemen, today we will make temporary landfall in order to collect some fresh provisions. We shall alight upon a Sargasso sandbank for approximately two hours and you are very welcome to join us in the experience. We anticipate our arrival there at 10:00.” I'd heard of the sandbanks, how they came and went, appeared and disappeared and hosted peculiar wildlife, fish and birds found nowhere else. Some also said that wild and uncivilised itinerant tribes wandered the sandbanks, hunting and living there, trapped but sustained halfway between land and sea, always moving, hiding and scavenging on the very edge of the world.
I can't be bothered with breakfast and I can't get back to sleep so I laze around and try to collect my thoughts. This expedition isn't something I've taken very seriously so far, I thought it was all a show, a publicity stunt, a way for Frank to increase his profile and way for the airships to promote themselves as safer thanks to the various improvements they've made to them so encouraging tourists and travellers to explore. Perhaps all the experts and scientists aboard are actually here for a real reason, perhaps their mission is to discover new land and riches...maybe even starting here on these sandbanks.
My head is swimming a little with the possibilities and I'm conflicted but I eventually get up and dress. I'm styling myself very practically considering the descent to the sandbanks and whatever unknowns that may follow. An over attentive steward or waiter or whatever you call them on a Zeppelin brings me coffee and I add a tot of whisky as an early morning warmer. He also places a dish of croissants filled with mile-feuille cream on the table. This has the makings of a good start to the day. I also consider the possibility that some mind reading is being carried out from the galley. Then at 09:59 I'm up and out on the gondola walkway looking down at our location, a few hundred feet and descending onto a large patch of brown and yellow stripped sand in the middle of a dark blue body of water. I expect the Captain to provide some kind of running commentary over the speaker system but he remains silent, I guess the manoeuvre over the sandbank may well be quite tricky and his full concentration is required.
Airship design has come on a long way, mainly thanks to wartime development. Now made buoyant by a combination of synthetic hydrogen and extra light helium the gas is a little more safe and less flammable. We are also able to generate gas on board whilst in the air due some secret process that only Zeppelin have. I suspect Frank may have made some investment in this innovation. (Our first safety brief did of course remind all passengers to respect the possibility of these still volatile gases causing unplanned events, we were also assured that the gas compartments were sealed from one another and that fire and safety systems were the best in the business. The airship also carried a six seater aeroplane that could be used as a lifeboat or refuge should a mid-air disaster occur). Of course I prefer not to dwell on these things, I simply want enjoy the view and any pleasant pieces of over indulgence or opportunity that may come my way. Oh, I just remembered I'm married to Frank.
Below on one of the working gondolas the crew are busy with ropes and rope ladders and anchors. I'm surprised by the speed of the descent but it all seems to be controlled even though there is a lot of shouting going on and I hear animated conversations in German taking place across their own radio systems. I estimate we are at about one hundred feet when along comes Frank to join me in leaning out over the rail. “Still keeping yourself to yourself or are you allowing the occasional little piece of penetration to occur?” I laugh at Frank's opener and tease him a little about his drinking and his socialising with his German friends and team members. He laughs also. “Are you going to explore the sandbank?” I'm putting on a glazed and vacant look and dropping my lower lip. “Strange and unique little places, I'll be taking a stroll. You should join me. Make sure you wear sensible footwear.” I'm already well ahead and despite my playful demeanour quite keen to take a walk on these shifting, floating sands. I find them intriguing and even romantic, coming and going amongst the waves, uncharted and lost to the outside world.
The ship settles about twenty feet above the sand. Four anchors are pinned diagonally out from the hull tethering us against the west winds. Now that we are stationary the winds are much more apparent. I see the crew men fighting with their motorised winches to keep the anchor ropes taught. Sometimes just staying still requires and enormous effort. Then the speakers crackle. “We have arrived ladies and gentlemen. The crew will now disembark and collect fresh provisions. Any passengers who wish to alight and walk across the sands should now go to the administration gondola.” Frank and I are walking down the steps and across the aluminium decks. He takes a hold of my hand and I don't resist. We can play whatever game needs to be played.
About ten passengers take up the offer and one by one, quite gingerly, we climb down the rope ladders and stand below the bulk of the airship on the damp sands. Looking up and around is a strange experience. In the blue sky only the great grey hulk complete with it's black Iron Cross on the hull and the tailplane above us. All around a wispy horizon surrounds our sandy island. I can't quite figure the size, it moves and disappears in all directions until it meets the sea at some indistinct point. Soon small pockets of curious people and workers are scattered across the alien surface.
I notice that some crew men are carrying rifles, others carry spades and sacks. “Frank, what are these fresh provisions we're taking on?” Frank laughs and enjoys having the upper hand. “They'll be digging for Landyfish, a rare delicacy. The rifles are there just incase the natives get restless. Don't you wander too far away.” I feel a bit uneasy but stoop to pick up a handful of sand. Below the compacted top crust it's saturated and muddy. “Ugh!” “Perfect for the fish, the Landyfish,” snorts Frank.
Two crewman are digging in the sand, there's a sudden flurry of activity, they shout in excited German, they've caught something. Quite a lot of something. They are shovelling the silver creatures into the sack, all wriggles and flashes. I move closer but I already feel uncomfortable at this spectacle. Then I see one of the Ukrainian crewman grab a fish, put it to his mouth and bite into it's fleshy middle, his face a mess of blood and fish scales. The fish is still alive and pulsating, silver and bright. He laughs a primitive laugh and spits something out , his colleague does the same thing. “For God's sake!” I scream. Frank grabs me. “Don't be surprised, these are Landyfish they are catching and err...consuming. A fish that survives both in the water and on the land, well buried in the wet sand anyway. It's a peculiar and useful animal in many ways. They say it has special properties, particularly if eaten alive. It's rich in unique oils and other mysterious substances. Many believe it can prolong life and prevent or cure illness, cancer even. It is just that fresh provision the Captain mentioned. We'll be dining in a highly healthy if unconventional manner tonight.” I make a face and he just smirks.
I'm not liking the proposition that eating these fish alive and still squirming can somehow be a such good thing and the secret of a healthy life. Then I think of all the no pain no gain propaganda I've suffered. It may take a substantial amount of alcohol to get me to participate in this feast. Over my shoulder I become aware of more of the crew digging up and catching the fish, they are also consuming them on the spot. The boson snaps a few more orders across their bows and they get back to digging. I'm forgetting the tidal nature of our location and that soon this area will again be covered in salt water.
Next thing I hear is the crack of a rifle, the cry goes up, “Pirat! Pirat!” from the crew. I see a small sail boat about five hundred yards away beaching, puffs of gun smoke and flashes are visible. We all rush back to the ship, we quickly pass the crew men carrying the precious fish as they form a circle and fire back at our unwelcome hosts. I climb the ladder clumsily, in panic, it's some time since I had to react under fire and I feel a weakness in my knees. I also have a sense of the airship moving upwards as the Captain takes action to climb. Below the men are starting climb now, the fish bags are hooked onto a winch rope and in a few blurry second we are all back on board.
Then I hear the crisp hammering of a machine gun. I'm surprised to see that the ship has a forward gun turret and it's now spraying the sands and the skiff with hot bullets. Little fountains and explosions of sand spring up across the surface arcing towards the wooden sail boat. The fire is returned for a few seconds and then it all goes quiet. By now we are climbing out of range, the sandbar people seem unhurt and are waving rifles at us. They may well be primitive sea gypsies but somehow they have been armed and obviously hostile towards visitors.
On deck the Captain is grinning broadly, he's happy with the catch and he's happy he's had the opportunity to operate his gun turret even if only in some kind of angry colonial gesture. A tray of brandies arrive for the passengers, I sit still on a wooden bench, knees tight together and in an uncharacteristic manner sip on the calming drink and try to steady my own nerves. Nobody is saying very much except the Captain who is explaining his rate of fire to one of the scientists. Perhaps I'm not as tough as I thought. The shock of those fishing images and the experience of being fired upon have shaken me and I don't like acknowledging that. I begin to wonder what else may be ahead for us.
Below the sandbank now slowly shrinks under passing wisps of cotton cloud as we ascend once more, the pirates appear to be unscathed by our random gunfire and are back on the water. I hear the Captain say we're headed for five thousand feet, at that height it's either the full fur coat experience or the warmth of inside a gondola.
As it's lunchtime the team have gathered in the main saloon for a brief and for a buffet. I've decided to join them for once, if only to check them all out again and to reassure myself that there are a few steady types there that I might befriend and perhaps even have to rely upon should things take an unexpected twist. They are clearly all professional types, scientists, doctors and engineers. The two ladies form the tip of the arrowhead of excellence, they both ignore me as they remain in their apparently animated and over processed conversations. This morning's fishing trip has caught a few imaginations and the fish themselves are the main topic of conversation. I can overhear a lot of evolutionary theory and an obvious desire for some kind of rapid bloody dissection and investigation. It's as if the poor fish had committed some awful crime and now must pay for it with mutilation, dead preservation and minute photographic humiliation pinned to a board or displayed under glass. I think about it a little more, the process could be made to sound attractive, I just can't quite make my mind up as to whether I'd prefer to be the victim or the faceless but worthy professor wielding the surgical instruments. It's odd when science and sexuality come together in this kind of setting, strange bedfellows they are indeed. Perhaps I'd settle for being the professor's wide eyed and adoring muse, that is until I'd murdered him and stolen his patents. Anyway, as I'm not one of the elite on board nobody seems too anxious to make my acquaintance or discuss anything other than the buffet. Bah!
Let me tell you what I'm thinking. I'm the official translator on the team but clearly there's no work for me. My time will come once we're East of Zanzibar and surrounded by the fuzzy wuzzies or Dutch explorers, Christian missionaries or pygmy hippo people. The brief covers this phase in a little more detail. I have time to share the odd tipple, explore the ship a little more plunder some cargo perhaps and lay man traps here and there. We have at least five more days and nights in the air and weather and atmospheric conditions permitting some interesting stops. Certainly one in the Portuguese Azores, then Marrakesh, then across the great plains of Africa and then onwards to Zanzibar. There we'll enhance the team, some new members will join or be refreshed, the it's out across the Indian Ocean and onto our ultimate destination, a place that so far remains a secret known only to Frank, the Doctor and the Captain. I feel this kind of secrecy is a bit like some kind of small boys, boys club trick. They are revelling in their little big plan and their plots and pipe dreams. None of us can be fully trusted with locations or details but we will willingly chase along in support of this dream. Frank still uses the “jewel” word on me from time to time, I let it light my eyes up for him when he mentions it, it's important he knows I'm carrying on with the motivation.
The brief talks a lot about scientific opportunities, unique research, anthropology and ground breaking bits of err...ground breaking. There is a surprising amount of contribution from the floor. Slowly I built up a picture of the players and the protagonists. Let me pick them off for you.
The Doctor is German, Hans Schimmer, he's a medical doctor, maybe in his late fifties with a lot of tropical disease experience, he has a broad remit, he's looking for cures, he's looking for drugs, he's intrigued with all those Landyfish that are currently sloshing in wooden barrels of salt water in the galley. His past is as grey as his mouser and nobody tries to question him. He sports an awful grey and white moustache that I find repulsive, his eyebrows are equally wild, I try not to check his accompanying nasal hair, ugh! He has big stupid hands and a silver pocket watch and chain to match his silver hip flask. He takes occasional sips. I imagine steel syringes in his pockets, phials and specimens in his waste-coat, bitten pencils and dog eared notebooks in his jacket insides. I wonder about his war record and rusty Iron Crosses.
Ruth is British, the chemist, younger and on the cusp of being attractive with a possible glamour puss option – she needs a little help there. She watches Doctor Hans, taking cues, supporting, listening and nodding in the right places, clearing her throat as if about to add to the debate but not quite making it. I like that, I like her eager, slightly witless compliance, I see it more, she's a willing mare and natural assistant, presumably for the right amount of money. I'll milk her pure and sweet urine one of these days, when she least expects. I try to imagine the pitch of her scream, a high soprano or something lower, mixed with sighs and moans. I'll put her to one side for the moment.
Then there's the American engineer, a middle aged tweedy coloured man called John Fordson from Minnesota . He has an engineer's black and oily beard, heavy spectacles and traces of grime in his fingernails and skin. He finds it hard to concentrate on the brief, he's taking the airship in, all of the time, constantly twitching, to the point of exhaustion. His brain has opened up as if a part of the ship's systems, he's tuned in and monitoring sounds, temperatures and vibrations. He's tethered to the whole thing by some invisible umbilical cord; that makes thinking awkward for him. The flying experience is now akin to some huge sensory overload. I see the beads of perspiration form on his forehead, it's as if his willpower is keeping us in the air as by assumed proxy he carries this load of hydrogen, helium and mixed alloys across the sea, his brain is fighting the elements. I think his problem his that he doesn't trust the Germans and he's read a little too much of airship mythology's bad news, he's crunching numbers at far too fast a pace. He needs a proper breakdown to free his talents up and for somebody in an position of authority to tell him that masturbation is actually all right. Maybe that’s my job, just to illustrate some basic things with the use of valves and hot wet engines and the constructive release of steam and pent up energy. He's in a bad way and he will founder sooner or later. I'll put him on my list, for his own good.
John Fordson also has an assistant, Jack Rodgers, a tall red haired hick of a straw haired student who looks to have come from some badly inbred Mid-Western origin, at least by his dental and chin constructions. He stays quiet, he is serious, he is learning, he may come good in a crisis. Anyway he's far too young, clumsy and academic to bother me. I will however befriend him at some point and will lend him some of my life experience. If we're ever stuck in a corner his physical strength will be useful. In the right pair of deep blue and starched dungarees he'd be...interesting.
(to be continued...as are most things in life).