Friday, 3 January 2014

New Year's Resolution, with Reference to Rhinos

My New Year’s Resolution is to take a more objective view of the intelligence, taste, and imagination of myself, on the one hand, and of my readers, on the other.

Now. On the 9th of December last I posted here the first part of my story ‘The Replacement Rhino’. I said I would post further instalments if they were asked for. Nobody asked, so I concluded the story was no good and posted no further instalments. However, in view of the resolution mentioned above, I have now decided that the story, while hardly a masterpiece, is certainly good enough to entertain you lot out there, and that the reason the first instalment provoked no comment was that you are all dull, sullen, and unresponsive. So I shall continue quixotically to cast pearls, (never let it be said I don’t mix metaphors well), and today’s pearl is the next instalment of ‘The Replacement Rhino’. You will remember (No you won’t) that in their quest to find a replacement for the rhino lost by little Matilda, Frobisher and Caruthers have got as far as Marseilles, where Frobisher disappeared, failing to turn up at the Hôtel des Anglais for dinner. Now read on…


It was with mixed feelings, then, that I saw Frobisher waving his fork cheerily at me across the dining-room when I came down to breakfast the next day. ‘I trust you had a pleasant evening,’ I said. ‘Oh, very jolly, very jolly,’ Frobisher replied, ignoring the frostiness of my tone; ‘You should try some of this,’ pointing his knife (using domestic utensils in this way is another of his vulgar habits) at an unappetising-looking plate: ‘Bloaters, with a side-order’ (I don’t know where he picks up these anachronistic expressions) ‘ of snails and frogs’ legs. Curious thing: Niko was telling me that the Greeks, too, eat snails, and I must say they’re on to something: very tasty, though I suspect the garlic has a lot to do with it.’ I turned away to conceal my rising gorge and signalled to the waiter, to whom I explained loudly and clearly the correct method of making a pot of tea. ‘Si m’sieu, si m’sieu’ he kept repeating. Ignorant fellow didn’t know his own language, and judging from the lukewarm grey liquid he brought me nor did he even understand English.

            ‘I, on the other hand, spent a most tedious evening,’ I told Frobisher. ‘Oh, really?’ he replied lightly. ‘Yes indeed. I was engaged in a tiring and unproductive search for a ship to take us across the Mediterranean,’ and unable any longer to contain my irritation I’m afraid I began to berate him for his frivolous attitude to our entire enterprise. He listened with what I would have taken for a remorseful silence were it not for his infuriating smirk.

            ‘Have you quite finished?’ he asked when I had at last done so. I nodded curtly. ‘Look here Caruthers old sport, don’t fret: it’s all sorted.’ (Another anachronism; even common people don’t yet use this expression.) It transpired that friend Niko had arranged for our passage, with the very ship on which he was an officer, to Djidjelli, of which unlikely-sounding place I had not heard, although Frobisher assured me it was a ‘very atmospheric’ little port on the Algerian coast. Free of charge, to boot: we were to be signed on as temporary crew members, ‘Though naturally, as gentlemen,’ Frobisher added hastily, ‘we shall not be expected to actually do anything. We sail at midday; better μαζεύουμε τα μπογαλάκια.’

            I lowered my gaze to the tablecloth — a mistake — and I fear a maidenly blush appeared on my cheeks. I suppose I am unjust to dear old Frobisher. For all his faults — and they are many — he can be resourceful just when one least expects it. I recovered a gentlemanly demeanour, raised my head and half stood to reach across the table and shake the old cove’s hand, now free of eating utensils. ‘Well done, Frobisher my dear chap! I expected nothing less of you!’ The mortifying fact was that I had expected a great deal less of him.

            The s.s. Cyrenia was a cargo ship, sailing empty to pick up dates or some such, consequently accommodation was limited and Frobisher and I had to share a cabin. Fortunately he spent most of the crossing out of it, (in more senses than one), with his friend Niko. Thus I was free to ponder again exactly where we should expect to find… Rhinoceri? Rhinoceroses…? True, we only needed one of them, but it would be a poor show were we to encounter two or more of the beastly things and not know what to call them. I considered. Ρίνος, nose. Κέρας, horn. Thus ‘Horn-nose’. The plural of Κέρας? I cast my mind back to the far-off days when old ‘Bod’ Bailey used to try to drum Greek noun conjugations into our dense unwilling skulls. Masculine nouns in –ας would surely take the plural –ατα. Yes, that must be it. Rhinocerata, that was what we were after. Didn’t sound quite kosher, but there was no sense in consulting friend Nikos as of course his Greek would be the vulgar demotic variety and not the proper Greek used in the better English schools.

            Matters of grammar having been temporarily settled I went for a brief stroll around the ship and came across, high up near the bridge and with its door hooked open — the temperature was increasing as we approached the dark continent and air-conditioning has still not been invented — our friend Niko’s cabin. He had one to himself as it turned out his job was to operate the recently-invented Marconi apparatus for sending messages without the use of cables, and this (which nevertheless seemed to have a remarkable number of cables) took up much of the space. The desk before it was strewn with reproductions of paintings, and there was a notebook for, I assumed, messages, but a closer look showed what appeared to be the beginnings of a poem; Niko’s was clearly a strange and disturbing character. A row of badly-washed underwear was strung across the cabin, and from this I averted my gaze until Nikos drew my attention to the copper wire from which it hung, explaining that this conducted the messages — one must hope that they were unaffected by passage through the underwear — from the apparatus to an ‘aerial’: a longer wire stretched high up between the two masts, indeed this seems to be the sole function of masts now that ships are propelled by steam rather than wind.

            ‘The messages are encoded in the Morse system,’ Nikos explained. ‘For instance, I might wish to send the message… er…’ ‘Dear Dot, must dash,’ Frobisher exclaimed from the bunk where unnoticed by me he was, as usual, taking his ease. I ignored him. Niko’s explanation of the Marconi apparatus was so absorbing — with much whistling and crackling a message came through, which he duly transcribed, while I was there — that I quite forgot to ask him in which part of Africa one might expect to find — er — rhinocerata. Being Greek he would be bound to have an opinion, however absurd, on the matter, but for myself I was beginning to have doubts as to whether we were even headed for the appropriate continent.

More soon, you lucky people.

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