Saturday, 4 January 2014

Rhino's End

Jane, who has read the whole Rhino story before, (she won it in a quiz), has said she would like it to have a different ending. I’m afraid I don’t just now feel up to writing a new ending, so here’s the third and final instalment of ‘The Replacement Rhino’. Readers who missed parts one and two will find them at the blog entries for the 9th of December last and yesterday.

STOP PRESS: I now notice that I have accidentally included part two as well below. Part three actually starts at the words 'The little town of Djidjelli'.


The Replacement Rhino, Part the Third
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.


    || —

The little town of Djidjelli was indeed atmospheric, almost asphyxiatingly so, and I found the heat, noise, confusion and above all smell rather distressing. Needless to say Frobisher seemed quite at home and unerringly led the way to what he insisted was the ‘best’ hotel. I hope never to see the worst.

            Once we were ensconced in a malodorous room darkened against the heat, I turned to Frobisher who seemed quite relaxed, reclining on what he called a ‘charpoy.’ ‘Look here,’ I began; ‘I have to confess I’m not entirely sure where we should begin looking for one of these — er — horned creatures; we have to consider our next move.’ Frobisher snorted with unconcern, and it was while I was endeavouring to apprise him of the gravity of our situation that the door burst open to admit a very dark brown young boy of, I have to say, though of course I have no interest in such matters, singular beauty. He looked from one to the other of us but said nothing, and I began to fear that the management, mistaking our intentions, had sent him to us for some unnatural entertainment — old Dickie Burton used to tell of such goings-on in the orient and his writings on the subject have survived as dear Isabel destroyed only what she understood. My impression seemed confirmed when he fumbled inside an exiguous loincloth that revealed more than it concealed. I was much relieved when he extracted the reassuring yellow envelope of the International Telegraphic Service. Frobisher reached out, grabbed it and incontinently tore it open — the envelope I mean. He glanced only briefly at the telegram before tossing it over to me.




There is little to add. We returned to civilization as quickly as foreign conditions would allow, reaching Aunt Bertha’s Knightsbridge apartment three days later just in time for tea and cucumber sandwiches.

            The wooden shithouse can be seen to this day in the goods depôt at Dover Priory, where it has found a new and happier use since Dover College started admitting girls.

            The Metropolitan Police routinely ignore reports of a rhinoceros seen forlornly wandering the remoter parts of Regent’s Park.


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