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t h e e s c a p e s ta r t s h e r e

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Edited by Robert McNab

THE ESCAPE STARTS HERE a vo ya g e o f t h e ss rangoon published by

The Institute of Janczyk & Karnicki Studies rangoon · danzig trieste

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Contents First published 2014 in a limited edition of one hundred signed and numbered copies. This is copy number —  — — Copyright © Robert McNab 2014 All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part, including illustrations, in any form beyond that copying permitted by Sections 107 and 108 of the us Copyright Law and except by reviewers for the public press, without written permission from the editor-publisher. Designed by Dalrymple Set in Fred Smeijers’s Custodia typeface Printed in the uk by Pureprint, Uckfield on Naturalis paper Photography by Tino Tedaldi – ci vede bene? The illustrations are by the editor, with the exception of those by: Bill Sanderson on pages 11, 36, 39, 129, 135, 147, 150, 173, 191; John Greenwood on page 99; George Trapp on pages 40, 53, 54 top, 73, 142 left, 160, 166, 175; and John Bell on page 162 right. The model of ss Rangoon on pages 50–1 was made by Andrew Johnstone ok Maybe Real Power Co. The endpapers are drawn by David Vinicombe.

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Editor’s Note —7—

Charcoal Smoke — 37 —

The Shade of the Pagoda — 70 —

Introduction —9—

Treetops — 38 —

Silence Within — 71 —

The Nick of Time — 11 —

Burmese Grail — 39 —

Land Shark — 73 —

Diving into Danzig — 12 —

Twelve Million Piastres — 41 —

Mor al-Az — 74 —

Hotel Concordia — 13 —

The Shadow Moved Fast — 42 —

Beer and Bigos — 17 —

Here Comes Rip Yergenes — 43 —

An Irrawaddi Flotilla Company Steamer — 75 —

Swollen with Memory — 19 —

Steam Age Calvary — 46 —

Proud of Her Plimsoll — 20 —

A Ladder of Light — 49 —

The Rangoon International Congress of Reconditioning — 77 —

Cockpit Eyes — 21 —

Jellyfish or Sombrero — 54 —

Monkey Point — 81 —

A Brown Swell — 22 —

Rangoon River Dawn — 55 —

An Honest Pfennig — 82 —

Within Sight of the Cranes — 23 —

Rusting at the Edges — 57 —

A Veil of Sharks — 84 —

Carambahafen — 27 —

The Captain’s Symposium — 60 —

A Shipment of Vaseline — 85 —

A Black Sail — 30 —

Brown Linoleum — 65 —

Reveal it Right — 87 —

Voyage to Rangoon — 31 —

An Icy Shiver — 66 —

The Freighter Turned About — 90 —

Q-Ship of the Mind — 33 —

Danzig Tranches — 67 —

Sharks Purr — 91 —

The River is Wide — 35 —

A Fin — 69 —

Feeding Time — 93 —

Recycled Pagodas — 76 —

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Alka-Seltzer Sea — 94 —

History or Fable? — 128 —

Recycling Ballast — 156 —

Incident at Pondicherry — 95 —

Across the Indian Ocean — 129 —

Decoy Cargo — 157 —

The Roaring Recons — 97 —

A Breath of Fresh Air — 132 —

Half-buried Heaps — 158 —

Big Freeze at Cochin — 101 —

The Flea — 137 —

That Ingenious Line — 159 —

Distortion Zone — 104 —

Shredded Flying Boats — 138 —

First Flies of Spring — 161 —

The Blue Wolf — 105 —

A Night at The Movies — 139 —

The House was Silent — 162 —

The Seagull’s Corpse — 107 —

Souvenirs — 142 —

Villa Khalil — 164 —

Intelligent Postage Stamps — 108 —

The Island of Perim — 143 —

Peniakopf’s Hand — 165 —

The Fluency of Morning — 109 —

Language Storms — 144 —

Time Travel for Beginneers — 167 —

Cannanore — 113 —

Treeless Snouts of Land — 145 —

Chopinesque Precision — 173 —

Ghost Clouds — 115 —

Like Poles Repel — 146 —

The Fly Zone — 175 —

Razz the Cabin Boy — 119 —

Meatballs of Trieste — 147 —

That Funny Dip — 183 —

The Moon and I — 121 —

What Next? — 148 —

He is a She — 186 —

Aerodynamic Spaghetti — 122 —

Next Stop Suez — 149 —

Memory of Light — 187 —

The Last Stand — 123 —

Rotating Ventilators — 150 —

Razzurrection — 190 —

Hey Presto! — 126 —

Cabanos — 151 —

Steaming Home to Danzig — 191 —

Karachi! Karachi! — 127 —

Inspectors at Suez — 152 —

Acknowledgements — 192 —

editor’s note The typescript and illustrations for this volume were recently discovered and are clearly the final draft of a report submitted for publication. Curious to discover if it had been published I searched the catalogue of the Library of Congress and also of the British Library, but without luck. The National Library of Burma, in Rangoon, does list a volume with a similar title presented by the Society for Rangoon Studies in 1950. However, it is missing. In my view the book was prepared for local distribution in a limited edition. Copies may survive in Danzig or Trieste, since the publisher, The Institute of Janczyk & Karnicki Affairs, is listed on the title page as based in both places as well as in Rangoon.  Robert McNab

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pawel janczyk

edouard karnicki

rip yergenes

razz the cabin boy

wanda karnicka

modeste servitorius

mauricio morales

gaston de noche

lobo lopez

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This report describes the activities of a Polish merchant shipping company in the year 1938 and concentrates on one of its voyages. The nuts and bolts of commercial routine are an acquired taste, but as the reader will see, in this case they frame an intriguing story. As fragments of a shattered pot help the archaeologist to reconstruct a long lost whole, this brief narrative reveals a long and curious adventure. The company in question trades under the name of janczyk & karnicki & Co. (pronounced ‘yanshick’ and ‘karnitskee’ or more frequently ‘karneeki’). The events I describe took place on the sea route between the great ports of Rangoon and Danzig, by way of the Suez Canal. My aim is to provide both the general reader and the specialist with a portrait of two remarkable Polish ship owners, founders of the International Reconditioning Exchange, whose familiar j&k Index bears their initials. Pawel Janczyk and Edouard Karnicki will also be familiar for having endowed the Rangoon International Congress of Reconditioning. Material of great variety from the firm’s Archive has been made available to me. I am most grateful to the Archivist, Fabrice de Planta, for access and for explaining obsolete company protocol. Without his courtesy and expertise this project would be a shallower affair. The reader will therefore find photographs, correspondence and memorabilia drawn from the Archive reproduced for the first time. I was also helped by members of the firm. I must single out Rip Yergenes, Modeste Servitorius, Gaston de Noche and Stanislas Kowalski for their patient guidance. In addition to examining product lines and merchandise, canned goods, movie stills, artist’s impressions, dossiers, ledgers and photographs, I have visited the company’s factories, its docks, dumps and workshops. These constitute its public face. Whatever caught my eye I was encouraged to record with sketchbook or camera. This transparency may signal a change in Company policy, away from its previous privacy. However the reader must judge if this should be taken at face value. The project began shortly before the outbreak of the recent World War and led me to visit the two nerve centres of Janczyk & Karnicki’s business. I enjoyed an extended visit to the captivating city of Danzig, where sea breezes sway avenues of plane trees, and to distant Rangoon, capital of British Burma. The journeys were made possible by the Rangoon Chamber of Commerce. Passage from Europe via Suez was undertaken on Janczyk & Karnicki’s flagship, the ss Rangoon.

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chapter i    11

The Nick of Time

Silver light on the roofs of Danzig, blue sky, clouds racing. Gusts of rain. Slates glistened and cloud shadows snaked over roof and dome, sneaking up walls and down into cobbled courtyards where puddles shone. Flowing shadow modelled the ancient port with sunlight and silhouette. Cumulus raced southwest driven by an autumn wind that made shutters rattle. The sea of crushed diamond glittered. Waves topped with foam broke against the harbour in fans of cross-lit spray. The green roar of the Baltic filled the air, a chorus of gulls riding above. On a day like that you opened your door with care and held onto your hat. The fashion was for a homburg and belted overcoat. Not exactly aerodynamic, but you looked good if you leaned forward into the wind or with a firm grip on the crown of your hat walked backwards. Autumn leaves flashed past, plane trees whooshing in the wind above. Their grey bark reminded me of spats. An old fashioned, gentlemanly grey, typical of the city itself. I was passing through Danzig from Krondstadt where I had been assigned by the Illustrated London News to cover a mutiny in the Latvian Navy. My luggage was in the hotel lobby for loading on the Hapag-Lloyd steamer to Southampton. An experienced journalist, my attraction for editors is as an Investigative Cartoonist who writes, photographs and illustrates to publication standard. That I use Morse Code has also proved useful. A correspondent who is his own illustrator is unusual, and for a busy editor it’s a good thing when chasing deadlines. However what brought me to the attention of the Danzig firm that morning was my spoken Polish. A few moments more though and you would not be reading this.

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12 chapter ii

Diving into Danzig

chapter  iii   13

Hotel Concordia The lobby of the Hotel Concordia was empty. Revolving doors of polished brass sent reflections across the parquet floor. A waiter was clearing breakfast debris with a vengeance, his white service jacket crisply outlined against the red Dining Room wall. As the concierge prepared my bill I glanced at my mail slot. Empty. ‘Taxi, Sir?’ I nodded. ‘Ah,’ he said, reaching into the slot, ‘for you,’ and handed me an envelope. ‘..?’ ‘Monsieur?’ The note hadn’t been there a split second ago: an envelope from Rangoon, its postage stamp showing a steamer. Dear Colleague-to-be, it read Please telephone our office at the above number without delay for an offer you will find irresistible. Forgive this sudden approach but I am informed you are about to set sail for England. Kindly speak to Mlle. Nina Nowicka who will make the necessary arrangements and cancel your passage to Southampton. I look forward to meeting you at the earliest opportunity. Yours sincerely, Pawel Janczyk

A sudden blast echoed across the port shaking a terrace by the waterfront. A vast shark had crash-landed on the promenade, its colossal jaw gaping over a parapet wall. The dorsal fin, about three metres high, reared up as dark liquid flowed from the creature’s gills. The impact had sounded like an explosion and disturbed the congregation in a nearby church. The priest made a sign of the cross, as did onlookers outside, grateful to have escaped the man-eater’s impact. They gazed in awe as it went into spasm. A rank smell filled the air that forced spectators away holding their noses. Some looked up in alarm in case another monster was heading their way. But why? Why should a shark dive into Danzig, and why today?

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Nina Nowicka answered and a car drew up outside before I’d replaced the receiver. Our destination was on a corner. Large white letters were painted above, janczyk

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The Escape Starts Here

& karnicki. It looked prosperous. Miss Nowicka had been quick to offer a generous fee. I’d barely stepped out of the cab before a burly young man in shirt sleeves hurried out to take charge. The Business Hall was panelled in dark wood and through tall windows at the rear I noticed a church spire and mature chestnut trees. A ticker-tape machine stood at each end of the room. The ambient buzz was punctuated by the sporadic clatter of typewriters. A phone rang. Model ships, both steam and sail, lined a wall. I also noticed glass cases enclosing models of factory buildings, complete with chimneys and storage tanks. Three clocks showed the time in Danzig, Trieste and Rangoon. The place had the clarity of a film set, and as for the actors, the staff looked as if they came from Central Casting. One big fellow had thick lips and ears like Danish pastry, another smaller fellow in shirt-sleeves sported black braces, a tooth-pick and hair like patent leather. A brunette sat upright in a swivel office chair, legs crossed: Mlle Nina Nowicka herself with a complicit smile. Dark hair casually twisted was secured at the back by a tortoiseshell clasp. I’d walked into an office that felt like home. This, of course, was part of the Company’s strategy, and was implied in their letter, by ‘an offer you will find irresistible.’ I’d entered the world of Janczyk & Karnicki and belonged at once. It’s been that way since, except of course when the business of living slows me down.

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chapter iv    17

Beer and Bigos Nina Nowicka led me to lunch in the Canteen where strangers caught my eye with a welcoming nod. Poles like to eat; brawn, bigos, knedli in duck broth, pig’s trotters, plates wiped clean with crusty bread. ‘It’s our own brand,’ she said offering a bottle of Piwo Congresso, Congress Beer. ‘What Congress is that?’ I asked. ‘Ours, of course,’ she smiled. ‘The Captain and Mr Karnicki will explain … ’ And so it began, an invitation to tell their story, over beer and bigos.

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chapter v    19

Swollen with Memory Her last words were ‘Take the Green Bridge, it’s quicker. You’re expected at seven.’ Grey sky above I crossed Stanley Artischewsky Platz, streets ringing with tram bells. The centre of Danzig is as cosmopolitan as Budapest or Berlin, but more intimate. Gilded lettering and Jugendstijl shop fronts contrasted with the grimy warehouses that lined nearby wharves. You just take a side street to find them. Danzig is a liquid city. Through it pour two great rivers flowing from the heart of Poland loaded with silt and memory. Close to the sea both Mottlau and Vistula unravel into separate streams and the city stands on their banks. To the visitor it is a confusing parade of bridges and warehouses, one river beyond the next. I felt people had been up and down them since the Ice Age. The quays wound their way both sides of the water in ribbons of battered decking, timbers resting on others driven into the mud below. Moored to these great decks were steamers, and along the quayside loomed gabled brick warehouses blocking the fading light. It began to rain. The Green Bridge was indeed green. I had crossed a number of others, Orange, Rose, Naples Yellow and one a tart shade of Somerset Blue. However their cheerful tones could not dispel the melancholy of the towering warehouses. Hundreds of shuttered windows, at times six or seven floors high, looked across dark water. My collar buttoned I hurried past a stretch of crumbling wall on which was painted Herrings ag and a partly erased advertisement for Janczyk & Karnicki.

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20 chapter vi

Proud of Her Plimsoll

The ss Rangoon was a substantial general cargo freighter with a single funnel, black hull and white superstructure. Around 2000 tons festooned with the usual array of ventilators, derricks, and a web of rigging. Her paint-work in good shape, she looked a solid unobtrusive vessel, clearly empty for she rode proud of her Plimsoll line, floating high. First impressions go deep, and here was an important one. Her companion way was steeply pitched and in the gathering darkness I relished the play of reflected lights – emerald, red, lapis, apple green. Portholes glowed gold and a gentle hum indicated a supplementary generator was running. Gripping the rope rail I swung my way up the steep gangway, past an open porthole that revealed the galley. Peeling vegetables, in singlet and chef’s hat, was an unshaven character with a spud nose and big chin. He looked up and lobbed something into a pot.

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chapter  vii   21

Cockpit Eyes As I reached the top a voice called, ‘Hola! Par ici!’ From an open door warm light fanned into the wet night. Holding it open from within stood a steward dressed in white service jacket, white shirt, black bow tie and baggy black trousers. A flash of colour at his feet revealed large orange tennis shoes. An albatross came to mind because of his beak-like nose and orange complexion. A smile verging on a leer and raised eyebrows were capped by close cropped black hair. Brows framed eyes with the fixed look of a cuttlefish about to strike. Cuttlefish, for those who’ve not seen them at work, are lethal hunters, with cockpit eyes. The door closed behind me. The steward stood in silence. For a moment we eyed each other. He turned out to love everything about women, had lovers in many ports, but at that moment, as he looked me up and down, I thought he might prefer men. He even stood like a bird, heels together, toes at ten past ten, head cocked watchfully to one side, nose in the air as if to take me in one eye at a time. ‘Your coat please’, he volunteered, then opening a door, ‘Follow me.’ I noticed a roll-top desk. Next, a broad motionless back in naval uniform leaning over a chart table. Then a tall slim figure in spectacles who approached with outstretched hand. ‘Thank you, Modeste’ he said to the steward. To me he added ‘This is our Steward, Modeste Servitorius. Modeste, this is the British journaliste who is coming with us.’ The Steward nodded, closing the door behind him.

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22 chapter viii

chapter ix    23

A Brown Swell

Within Sight of the Cranes

I once saw a derelict barge up to her gunwales in mud, as though ploughing through a brown swell. She wasn’t going anywhere. I think of that grounded hulk now and again, usually for good reason. I thought of her at that moment in the chart room of the ss Rangoon, looking at that motionless broad back. It slowly turned as the door closed. Its owner was built like a cupboard which radiated speed. ‘Hello, Hello, Please you (which he pronounced plissyou) are welcome, yes?’ He spoke with a Polish accent. ‘I am Pawel Janczyk, Captain. This is my partner, Karnicki Edouard’. He pronounced the last Edwa, surname first, and shook my hand. He smelled of spent cartridges, garlic and reminded me of the American actor Andy Devine; a double chin, apple cheeks, big uneasy grin and a shifty bonhomie. Pushing his peaked cap to the back of his head he undid the top button of his jacket. ‘Relax,’ his body language signalled. I wasn’t so sure, and thought of the barge stuck in the mud that still suggested movement. His business partner was different. Edouard Karnicki was your Consigliere, modest and economical with diplomatic advice. Dressed in an understated way, there was a world weary patrician manner to him, an air of Harold MacMillan. I now attribute this calming presence to the poor eyesight that gave him a candid appearance. Quite unlike the swift glances of his partner, which felt as if he had looked into the well of the world and knew it for the madhouse it is.­

‘When I visited Zoppot in 1922,’ Modeste Servitorius said, ‘you could see the blue Dome of the Casino from the ramparts of the Old Town. It was visible for miles, and as it was built by the sea you could also see it from across the Bay of Danzig, flanked by smart villas and the chestnut avenue that ran along the Corniche. Zoppot Pier was next to it and I’d meet friends in the bar there.’ The Steward ran a cloth over a table in the lounge. ‘I used to watch the Zoppot steamer from the terrace as it shuttled back and forth to Danzig and the Peninsula. It took visitors across the Bay to the village of Hel on the long strip that shelters Danzig from freezing winter wind off the Baltic. Ever been to Danzig in winter?’ Modeste talked fast, his English had a Dutch lilt. ‘Zoppot is favoured by Danzig’s smart set. Monsieur Edouard’s parents owned a hotel there. It’s where he spent his childhood, at the Hotel Karnicki Mondiale, except when he was away at the Gymnasium at Stettin, the best Catholic Academy north of Bydgoszcz. The beaches run south for about eight kilometres. The dunes used to be covered in low woodland which sheltered visitors from the sand that flies about when the sea breeze picks up. Most of it has been felled. In those days you could walk in the shade as far as Jelitkowo, a pretty seaside village with a stream that runs down the main street. I like the way it flows across the dunes into the Bay, within sight of the cranes of Danzig New Port.’ He paused. ‘The sea is brown at Danzig. That’s because the river is full of mud picked up flowing through Poland.

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The Escape Starts Here

chapter x    27

From the air you can see the great muddy fan it makes, but at Jelitkowo the sea always sparkles, like the open, green Baltic beyond. The changing colours of the Danzig Delta are especially impressive in the spring – that great cocktail of mud and sea water. Mr Karnicki,’ the Steward continued, ‘still enjoys a walk along the dunes at Jelitkowo. I’ve heard him talk about his childhood there; of moments idling in the shadow of his parents, aunts and uncles picnicking under the trees. Rugs would be spread on the brown grass. Ants would carry off crumbs, shreds of apricot skin and fragments of cabanos. The ferries were a source of fascination. All day they filled the Bay with movement and thin trails of smoke. Monsieur Edouard’s sisters sat on rugs, their hair brushed by their mother, leaving their brother to defend himself from Pawel Janczyk, his brawling orphaned cousin who had been adopted by Monsieur Edouard’s Aunt Fabia.’ Modeste paused. ‘I remember Monsieur Edouard telling me that his memories of those days include young Cousin Pawel fantasising about life at sea as the distant whine of harbour cranes was carried on the wind. The walk from Jelitkowo stirs up memories for Monsieur Edouard, as I said, especially the memory of his Aunt Fabia’s face at the sight of young Pawel’s burly frame crammed into his first Naval Cadet’s white uniform, peaked cap balanced on his close-cropped head; the picture of a monstrous child about to burst out of fancy-dress that’s too tight. She had always encouraged his dream of going to sea, and for his seventh birthday had given him the sailor suit he wore until it came apart in the playground. Monsieur Edouard has told me he visits his sister Wanda’s grave on those walks to see her enamelled photograph set into a polished granite tombstone the colour of salami.’ ‘Wanda Karnicki, in case you haven’t heard,’ said Modeste, ‘was the sister who smoked the Egyptian cigarettes the Captain would bring back for her when he served in the Polish Merchant Marine. She loved the elaborate packets, which made her feel like Pola Negri.’ ‘The Captain refuses to visit Zoppot cemetery,’ Modeste concluded, ‘and so Monsieur Edouard keeps an eye on it instead. The Captain, by the way, loved Wanda. Everyone took it for granted that they would marry as soon as he was promoted. It didn’t work out. She died young, at Interlaken.’



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Leaving Danzig we steamed west making for the mouth of the Baltic at the Kattegat. A monotonous low-lying shore of shelving bays and crumbling chalk cliffs slipped by to the south. The Baltic is the only truly green sea, as green and translucent as glass. Its water is less salty than any other sea and behaves differently. Baltic waves form patterns you don’t get elsewhere, and their unexpected harmonics have been known to propel ships up and out of the water to send them flying inland. You’ll find the Tadek Chmura, a minesweeper, in the Oderhaff, a landlocked salt marsh near Rugen. Her rusty frame sits by an unpaved road in the grass a kilometre from shore. The Kattegat Channel, where the Baltic meets the Ocean, is studded with rocks and islands that catch the tidal rip of the North Sea, driven by the vast syphon of the Atlantic. The Channel hides deadlier challenges than the entrance to the Mediterranean at Gibraltar. Sharks have been ripped to shreds on submarine rocky claws that lurk in the Kattegat Trench. Such terrors explain why so few operate in the Baltic. However the ss Rangoon knows those cruel currents and we steamed in their direction at leisure, weaving our way through islets and sandbars that have sent many down the Baltic’s green throat. The dour view from deck was very different from one I enjoyed up a bell tower on the island of Rugen. The parapet wall was warmed by the sun and I felt I could reach out and rearrange the landscape below, like a toy. The hillside sloped to an inlet where a fishing boat with ochre sails barely moved. The dome of a lighthouse rose over the brow of a grassy knoll at the edge of a white cliff. Smoke from a distant

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The Escape Starts Here

Carambahafen   29

steamer drew my eye to the horizon, away from the placid world at my feet to the mystery, and menace of the void. A cornflower blue sky, glazed with amber, tilted to evening. None of that Romantic paradise was visible now as a nondescript khaki coast slid past. The foghorn whooped and the ss Rangoon passed a clanking buoy through a narrow channel into a stretch of calm water sheltered by the promontory of the railhead at Carambahafen. It had little to recommend it. A handful of warehouses were linked by a railway track. Crates under tarpaulin stood for shipment on the quay. A couple of factory chimneys smoked in a desultory way. A Spitzer truck with long bonnet and square cab bumped down an un-made road. The place looked provisional, a dump, like everything I had just seen in Soviet Russia. At first glance this third rate industrial complex lowered your spirits, yet it turned out to be the apple of the Captain’s eye. Carambahafen was spelled out in large white letters on the Port Office. I scanned the yard with my binoculars. We approached in near silence. Then Mr K began. ‘The vessel rounded in the wind, and ranging ahead, laid her cheek against a mooring pile at the windward corner of the wharf, so quietly after all, that she would not have broken an egg. That’s Joshua Slocum, Sailing alone Around the World. He wrote it in 1900 and later vanished at sea.’ Mr K, I soon found, was fond of quoting Slocum. ‘People,’ by which he meant me, ‘often have the wrong idea about our business, they think the j&k partnership is an industry. They measure our stores of bulk sediment, crates of Used-U-Name-It and warehouses of dubious merchandise and come to the wrong conclusion. Why shouldn’t they? Our enterprise is a set, a front to protect the innocent. Our business is a decoy, designed not to frighten the horses, or you.’ He peered at me, adding ‘No offence, English journaliste.’ ‘Moonshine at Carambahafen.’ I later noted in my diary. I am a simple man … ‘I’ve got the whole world in my hand, I’ve got the whole world in my hand … ’ We had no sooner left the lights of Carambahafen behind than I caught the Captain humming by a glass fronted cabinet in the Ward Room, examining a glass snow-dome within. This contained a tiny harbour scene under a night sky in which a full moon rose above low hills. I recognised it immediately, and in confirmation the

base of the globe was inscribed Auguri da Carambahafen. Mr K. looked at me and said, ‘It’s all in here.’ He pointed at the little truck, cranes, warehouses and heaps of spoil and to the steam shovels that the dome’s manufacturer, M. Chevreul, had included, his amazing micro-modelling so good it relegated Fabergé’s best work. ‘The Steam Age Apparatus, the Valves of the Golden Era. Everything the ss Rangoon represents is replicated here.’ He peered ever deeper into the dome. ‘Factories, crates, all in perfect working order. The Steam Age pickled in miniature. And every snow flake that’s flying about here,’ and he shook the dome again so the silver slivers swirled against the blackness of its night sky backdrop, ‘every flake is itself a little snow dome with more snowflakes within. How does Chevreul do it? Pity there’s no microscope here, but I’ve seen them, trust me.’ Then, as the Evening Star appeared above, snow began to fall from a cloudless sky. It settled on deck, turning the ss Rangoon into a ghost ship moving across the sweetness of a warm Baltic night. It was snowing, just as in the little world beneath its dome.


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30 chapter xi

chapter  xii   31

A Black Sail

Voyage to Rangoon

Next day the crew of a fishing smack working out of the port of Deep reported an unusual sight. They’d approached a vessel sporting a black sail, which as they neared, sank and was gone. ‘Looked more like a huge fin,’ said one.

The voyage to Rangoon passed quietly. I was consoled by excellent Polish cuisine and anaesthetised by subtle aperitifs and fine wines. I shall indicate the passage of time and lack of incident thus: –

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chapter  xiii   33

Q-Ship of the Mind The first steamer to fly the Janczyk and Karnicki & Co. ensign was the ss Rangoon in 1888. This marked the entry into the Age of Steam of The Polish Company, an ancient trading concession long established in Burma. Together with similar institutions such as The British East India Company and the French Compagnie Générale de l’Indochine, this discreet Polish outpost of European culture and economic ambition in the East entered a new phase with the arrival of steam power. The journey I made on a refitted ss Rangoon fifty years later revealed the strategies evolved over centuries by that Polish Company, and exposed the way it adapts to our own. In particular the journey revealed the vessel was not only a mixed passenger freighter but also a Q-Ship of the mind. For those unfamiliar with the term, a Q-Ship is a merchant vessel fitted with concealed armament and first used by British and German Navies during the First World War. Posing as a defenceless merchantman, when the enemy closed in and stood within range the sitting duck would suddenly draw her secret weapons and …

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chapter  xiv   35

The River is Wide It is easy to reach Rangoon by steamer except during the Monsoon when teak logs break loose from the city’s Timber Yard and hurtle downstream demolishing whatever is in their way. ‘I’ve watched them sink into the steel frame of a freighter like chisels into cheese,’ said Captain Janczyk. Our journey was peaceful, for the river is wide with shelving banks covered in palm trees and undergrowth that fringe boulder-strewn beaches with clusters of huts. Light-houses dot the Irrawaddi Delta. The one at Pirate Point refers to those who roamed the river until the British annexation of Burma in 1852. ‘It’s about two kilometres wide.’ The Captain pointed idly with his chin. The stubble on the back of his neck glistened in the heat. ‘Specially rigged pirate launches used to appear out of nowhere. Like water-snakes. The last pirate was hung over there at Pirate Point. A renegade Pole with a steam driven sloop. The story goes that before being strung up he asked the British Officer, How do you tell a pirate from a Pole?’ ‘How do you?’ the officer asked. ‘Buy his wallet.’ Enigmatically, the Captain stared at the river and left it at that. He smelled of onions and carbolic soap. ‘The monument up there’s toppled and the path from the river hasn’t been cleared for years. The cast iron railings around the obelisk came from Darlington.’ The pirates had chosen well. For then, as now, all shipping had to pass through a stretch of river like a bottleneck a few miles short of Rangoon. The vessel that had trailed us appeared again and at sundown still kept her distance.

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chapter xv    37

Charcoal Smoke The Steward said, ‘Just as long as we avoid those,’ pointing upriver at huge pipes that reared up in midstream. Each was the funnel of a wreck that marked journey’s end, like a tombstone. On the river bed below lurked rusting masts and ventilators hungry to snare careless travellers passing above. We were the only vessel cautiously weaving along. The steamer tailing us had vanished. The first sight of Rangoon itself was unforgettable. The forest that had lined the river’s edge thinned, replaced by a parade of mudcoloured hangars and warehouses of corrugated iron festooned with a tangled web of telegraph and electricity cable. Freighters, funnels striped in company livery, sprouting davits and rigging were moored nose-to-tail. Behind them, rearing above the warehouses, glittered the cones of Rangoon’s magnificent gilded pagodas; a bizarre visual cocktail. The ss Rangoon made her way through traffic travelling at speed in every direction. Despite the torrid heat charcoal coloured smoke flowed from chimneys. Particles of coal from Northumberland or Silesia flickered in the humid Asian air, while fog horns and the screaming axle of countless ox-carts sounded the end of the Age of Steam. Of this I had no idea, nor that its Nuclear heir was round the corner, about to barge in at Hiroshima.

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38 chapter xvi


chapter  xvii   39

Burmese Grail

Fear travelled through treetops, invisible but not to bird and monkey. It passed like a shadow over the forest leaving a trail of silence and the smell of fish.

After dinner the Captain turned, ‘I said in Carambahafen we are a decoy … ’ I nodded. Outside, a velvet Rangoon night was punctuated by the rivet-rivet of frogs. We were enjoying a glass of j&k Durian liqueur, distilled from the aromatic South East Asia fruit, whose rich flesh is highly flavoured with almond and stinks of rotting dog. The Durian is said to be the only fruit that tigers eat, tearing through the thorn covered husk with their claws. ‘It’s all down to reconditioning. We’ve cracked codes that others haven’t and we’re doing well. We even ship from then to now and back again – if necessary.’ I helped myself to another measure of Durian. ‘Remember how you felt when you first came to the Danzig Office?’ This drew my attention. ‘That’s because it is indeed a front, a kind of film set. We are a forceful enterprise, applying high energy to trade. Call it quantum economics if you like. ’ ‘Our Principal Branch Office is here, in Rangoon,’ the Captain said, adding ‘The time has come, Englishman.’ I took a large sip.

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chapter  xviii   41

Twelve Million Piastres Masts, rigging, funnels and derricks with a backdrop of warehouses. In one, somewhere, according to Rangoon’s rumour mill, was the merchandise held by the city’s Polish community for shipment to and from Europe – via the Suez Canal. Rangoon’s rumour mill ran 24 hours a day, like Kinshasa’s radio trottoir. It confirmed the merchandise was worth millions of kopeks with a reconditioned value of 112.000.000 Egyptian Piastres, equal to the annual Gross Export of the Rhineland. ‘Bah!’ said Modeste. ‘Carry on,’ added Mr K. Management of this was in the hands of the j&k Partnership who, radio trottoir claimed, was menaced by the Mexican Bureau of Lopez & Morales, whose Trade Mark illustrated their style of business. They were indeed at work, with something else in mind, as I gazed at Rangoon for the first time.


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42 chapter xix

chapter xx    43

The Shadow Moved Fast

Here Comes Rip Yergenes

Fast and bulbous but also tapered it sped along the river bed, through drifting weeds, towards the city.

By sunrise the docks were already humming. It would be too hot at midday. Four freighters were alongside, davits moving from hold to shore, swinging crates and nets of merchandise. Cargo was stacked on the quay in separate sections, chop-marks aligned. Dockers trudged shouldering loads. Long shadows stretched across the waterfront. Everything was sharply defined, one side crisply outlined by the lemon coloured sunlight, the other deep in violet shadow. The superstructure of ss Rangoon sparkled. Bulging rivet heads, brass fittings and polished mahogany rails stood out with startling clarity. The freshly washed deck gave off the cloudy smell of wet wood drying, and all around the intoxicating smell of fresh paint and tar cut the early air. Modeste Servitorius joined me on deck with a nod. We watched in silence. He lit a cigarette, leaned on the rail, and pointing casually at a figure loping along the dock said ‘Here comes Rip.’

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chapter xxi 46

Steam Age Calvary The telegraph poles at the junction of Montgomery Street resembled a Steam Age Calvary. Overcast, as often in Rangoon, the sky looks like old paper, a faded depressing yellow. ‘You know how some people give off a smell, like an aura?’ Rip Yergenes asked out of the blue. ‘Well, others give off music instead. You can recognise them by their sound track. Know what I mean? I ask because I can hear her.’ ‘Hear who?’ ‘Mlle Wanda. She’s around here somewhere,’ and he made a stirring motion with his hand. I looked around the room, through the window, and over the wide empty cross-road. ‘Can you hear?’ the Pest Control Officer enquired in a whisper. ‘Her music travels ahead of her … ’ Something had been disturbing me. I had heard faint music, even thinking it was an accordion. ‘That’ll be her,’ Yergenes said. ‘It takes a while to tune in. Once you do, she usually appears. You may well become friends with her, as we all are.’

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When it’s overcast things don’t have real shadows in Rangoon, just a smudge at their foot. Cars, carts and people trail a ghostly smear. Only trees are exempt and generously shadowed. The centre of the pepper tree for example is especially dark, as black as a rolled umbrella, as if the tree has sucked up the ambient shadows like a sponge. The clip-clop creak of the horse-drawn cabs and the occasional putter of a motorcar splashing through puddles was all I could hear. ‘Not to worry, Miss Wanda comes and goes as she pleases, like all ghosts. She’s unpredictable. Sometimes she’ll bring a weather report from where she’s been, which can be useful. I’ve seen her arrive in a flurry of snow, right here, in Rangoon!’ He was clearly impressed. ‘And once she filled the Mess with the fresh scent of a pine forest just as we crossed the Bay of Bengal. Putain!’ ‘What do the others say?’ ‘Modeste views the Wanda Phenomenon in empirical terms. He says she trails an afterimage of the place she’s just been to, a fraction of it stuck to her as she leaves, like the smell of a bonfire clings to your clothes. Having an invisible passenger is intriguing, but it’s not much fun for her or the Captain.’ ‘What’s the problem?’ ‘He’s the one she comes to see, but he can’t respond. No matter how hard she tries.’ ‘Why?’ Yergenes spoke quietly, so as not to be overheard, ‘It’s a tragedy. Despite all his gifts the Captain can’t do anything about the fact his fiancée is dead. And she can’t leave him alone. He knows she’ll never get her passport back; she’s gone. So, ever the realist, he’s put his feelings on hold and suffers in silence. She refuses to go along with that of course, and the background music is a come-on, an old-fashioned Siren Song. The rest of us are enchanted, as you are beginning to be, but the person it’s aimed at is deaf to it.’ ‘Where’s it going to end?’ He shrugged. ‘In the meantime Miss Wanda’s music is one of the ss Rangoon’s attractions. On a quiet night you can even hear it ashore, on the breeze.’ Like a movie, I thought, broken-hearted lovers and a great sound-track.

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chapter  xxii   49

A Ladder of Light ‘Forking out 12,000 Piastres each time we cross the Canal is too much,’ said Edouard Karnicki one rainy evening at Kemmendine, ‘it’s time we did something.’ As moths popped in the flame of a kerosene lamp Mr K sat, spectacles perched on his head, legs stretched out on a desk. The office was empty, clerks long gone, replaced by silent shadows. They played over walls and the looming bulk of the Captain, munching his way through a tray of rice and pickled herring. ‘Then you’ll be pleased that Chevreul’s bringing a model of the ss Rangoon to show us what to do. Knowing him,’ he continued between mouthfuls, ‘it’ll cost a koenig’s ransom and knock a hole in a scheduled run.’ ‘Don’t be hasty Pawel. His ideas are worth their weight in kopeks.’ Outside, a ladder of light was cast by the slatted shutters on either side of the front door of Janczyk & Karnicki’s Rangoon Office. Pawel Janczyk swallowed, ‘I could do with some cabanos.’ He reached across the desk to a rack of pens, chose one and after picking his teeth with the blackened nib held it between thumb and forefinger, like a cigar.

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A Ladder of Light  


‘Remind me who’s up for this year’s Trophy?’ he asked. As he finished the question and sank his teeth into the end of the pen it was an aromatic Polish Cabanos sausage. It parted with a gentle burst revealing the pink smoked meat within. ‘Nicely seasoned,’ he added. ‘And what’s on the agenda before we sail?’ Mr K replied ‘Apart from the Trophy and the Reconditioners Ball, there’s showing our visitor here,’ and he pointed at me, ‘the Pazandaung Works, and keeping an eye out for Lobo pulling a fast one prior to departure.’ ‘I’ve had an idea about that,’ the Captain said raising an empty glass that reached his lips brim-full of beer leaving a thin moustache of froth. ‘I’ve made a decoy shark’s fin like the one Morales wears,’ he said. ‘It straps on, like a shoulder holster. I’ll wear it the night we weigh anchor, wandering about deck prominente to make sure the fin is visible ashore. Lobo’ll think Morales is casing the joint and relax his watch – and we slip away,’ he chuckled. ‘When will you ever learn, Pawel … ’ Edouard Karnicki’s mind was elsewhere though, his hands cradling the back of his neck, head turning from side to side. ‘I wonder what Chevreul’s devised.’ ‘It sounds like a major refit, Edouard,’ said the Captain later. He looked at his partner and back at a glass-fronted mahogany display case protecting a model of the ss Rangoon. Michel Chevreul had a solution to the problem at Suez.

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54 chapter xxiii

chapter  xxiv   55

Jellyfish or Sombrero

Rangoon River Dawn

The cat hissed, watching something move across the room. Her fur was on end. Pawel Janczyk lowered his newspaper. He looked at the cat and barked into the empty room, ‘Mauricio, Rauss Mitt You!’ A semi-transparent sombrero floated towards the door exuding a fishy smell.

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The Company Guesthouse stood on the east bank of the river. At that moment of early summer the waters ran high from melted snow far off in Tibet. Down here, where a hot wind blew over baked earth, the water flowed briskly, swifter by the day. Using a telescope on the veranda I could make out ruined towers on the far bank. Following the river you pass paddy fields and crumbling ramparts. Resting in the shade, farmers watch cattle and once we all looked up at the unexpected profile of an antique monoplane purring overhead with the scalloped wings of a bat and the undercarriage of an old pram, all curling metal and a web of spokes. I remember the pleasure of rising at dawn, knowing a scorching day lay ahead as boats drifted by and wood-smoke filled the air. In the dawn light of that Rangoon summer I experienced clarity of mind I’ve seldom known. It was a peaceful world, where sunrise was perfect expectation. Yet somewhere, off-stage, there also lurked a pinch of anxiety.

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chapter  xxv   57

Rusting at the Edges Head Office was in town, beyond the Royal Lakes which I skirted to avoid the overbearing shrubbery and louring vegetation. Reflected in dark green water the sombre greenery encouraged thoughts of suicide as pale British wives in humid frocks, undistended by passion, trailed a lavender vapour. The tree-lined avenue continued past a row of magnificent golden pagodas, the road gently sloping down to the city centre. The wrought iron railings, street lights and motor traffic were uniformly British, as was the cheerful clamour of enamelled advertisements too new to be rusting at the edges.

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60 chapter xxvi


The Captain’s Symposium

monsoon, the whole mighty skyscape of your thoughts cross-lit by the afternoon sun of your wisdom. There’s a bit of turbulence and flashes of lightning, as your synapses flare with inspiration. What a splendid sight the human mind is in full flow. Now, try flying through Karnicki’s mind. Your aircraft would vapourise in the particle winds that pelt through his raging cerebellum. I can’t think why his skull didn’t go up in smoke years ago. Picasso says Salvador Dalí has a brain like an outboard motor – I say Edourd’s is more like an atomic submarine. With all due respect, of course,’ he said and gave the ss Rangoon’s binnacle a pat.

Mr K rubbed the side of his nose. ‘The answer?’ He paused and the Captain beat him to it. ‘Devise an additive to recondition everything.’ ‘You may appreciate, it’s difficult, so we broke the problem into parts and floated a number of projects to do the research.’ ‘The test for bulk reconditioners, and you’ve had a glimpse of the size of our operation, is to deal with merchandise of every magnitude, macro to micro. That’s why we approached Lopez y Morales, of Vera Cruz, Mexico. They were supposed to solve the problem of Varied Scale Reconditioning. But they got greedy and don’t work with us anymore.’ ‘During the search for a unified reconditioning formula’ Mr Karnicki continued, ‘a fellow from Lloyds of London came to measure the hold of the ss Rangoon for insurance purposes. He spent hours down there, but couldn’t determine its capacity. He said it could not be done … ’ Mr Karnicki looked around and gestured vaguely with his cheroot, ‘because of our bilge.’ ‘I’ve tried to calculate the Capacity of Hold Three,’ the fellow said, ‘but the size changes as I measure! Must be due to the bilge.’ Captain Janczyk added ‘No, he’d missed Chevruel’s Swivel Hold mechanism staring him in the face, that’s all.’ Or is it, I wondered. ‘Never mind the bilge, it’s what’s behind the swivel that counts,’ Mr Karnicki added. ‘You have to admit that even if the capacity of her hold is variable, the ss Rangoon is solid, as solid as the firm’s ability to recondition anything at all.’ ‘Up to and including ourselves,’ added Mr Karnicki. The Captain vanished for a second, only to reappear at the binnacle, ‘Karnicki’s brain’s in a class of its own. General Pilsudski’s is preserved at Warsaw Academy and is a magnificent specimen. It may be a fine Polish brain, but it’s a peanut in comparison to my partner’s. I’ll spare your non-existent blushes Edouard. I like to explain the difference between your brain and the rest in terms of air travel. Imagine yourself, if you will,’ he said to me with old world courtesy, ‘flying around in the airspace of your mind, as if in and out of the stacked storm clouds of a late Rangoon

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chapter  xxvii   65

Brown Linoleum The quickest way to get a measure of the city was a train through the docks. ‘You can get round Rangoon in fifteen minutes; if the driver keeps the whistle blasting all the way and shoots through Rangoon Central, Conference Junction, the Dock Zone, down Strand Road past our Workshop at Pazandaung and back to Kemmendine. You’ll have seen it all then. But that’s unlikely. You only get a clear run if the dockers, mostly Indians, are not at work. Experience proves they down tools at the drop of a hat and chase speeding engines for compensation.’ ‘Compensation for what?’ ‘For damages that might have been caused. They want the compensation they would be entitled to had they been injured. They claim that by failing to experience injury they have been deprived of the compensation that would be rightfully theirs if they had been knocked over. They’ve got the hang of Roman Law, and although they spend their days hauling merchandise, they are smooth advocates. So be warned. It’s quite something to be chased by a pack of barefoot lawyers ready to turn common sense on its head. They’re born lawyers, no two ways about it. Except that as dockers they do an honest day’s work, as you can see.’ We stood in the subdued light of the brown office; the paintwork brown, with brown linoleum and polished brown furniture, watching a brown scene. Brown overcast sky, brown buildings, brown men in brown fatigues heaving brown packing cases and brown sacks. The river was brownish and much of the rigging too. The only variations were appetising red streaks of rust on the hull of some steamers; paprika-red rust running from cracked and flaking paint. To set it all off here and there was the delightful flash of freshly painted white on bridge or funnel. White is the most flattering colour Tony Curtis once told me. It certainly looked good in Rangoon, sparkling in a sea of Burmese browns. ‘I’ve listened to them in court,’ Mr Karnicki recalled, ‘turn things outside-in and downside-up. Dockers here are best avoided, is what I’m saying, like that Gandhi fellow. He worked here you know, in these docks. The Rangoon dockers’ style is written all over him. He picked their brains and moved on, but not before borrowing my spectacles. Never gave them back,’ Mr Karnicki added. ‘A smooth operator. A Docker of Law indeed.’ ‘Tour Rangoon in the evening, or on Sunday, when the Docks are quiet. You can travel around at will.’ I regret I never did.

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chapter  xxix   67

An Icy Shiver

Danzig Tranches

I felt the icy shiver that indicates approaching danger, also a fishy smell.

Little is known about the contribution of the Polish Company to the story of Rangoon. You can, however, get an idea if you consider that now, when only a handful of Poles remain, the best known firm in the city is Janczyk & Karnicki & Co. You don’t have to look far to find other traces. Rangoon Ramps, the most desirable district, was raised above river level by Polish enterprise to secure dry land. Extensive drainage ditches were dug and the excavated soil heaped to form the higher ground or Ramps. It was a mammoth undertaking. The construction of the Ramps with its culverts, storm drains and roads was essential because the Irrawaddi floods. The district was laid out on a block system. Each block is 812 x 816 metres. These measurements are based on the Polish Company’s division of land into Danzig Tranches, units the size of the cemetery of the Church of St Kasimir of Danzig. It is fundamental proof of the Polish roots of the Burmese capital. Another Rangoon custom also derived from Poles is the No Soaky, the anglicised version of the French for the biblical Wedding Feast at Cairo, Noces au Caire. A No Soaky Party is the Rangoon equivalent of an Engagement Party thrown by the groom in honour of his fiancée. Such parties originated in Cairo, home in the 19th century of the largest expatriate Polish community in the world. To begin with betrothed Rangoon Poles and their families made the long sea journey to celebrate in Egypt. In time, however, enterprising Polish restaurateurs from Cairo set up in Rangoon, the Mountain for once going to Mahommet, which saved crossing the Indian Ocean for a party.

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The Escape Starts Here

chapter  xxx   69

I spent many hours in Rangoon’s Public Library looking into these matters. I was able to confirm some of what the Captain said. The history of the city was one of Mr Karnicki’s favourite topics. He believed Rangoon was built by Polish brains and Polish brawn. The fact that no Polish names are inscribed on the Roll of City Fathers on the Monument in Dalhousie Gardens, and that no street is named after a Pole he ascribed to English chauvinism. John Tollond’s History of the Corporation of Rangoon refers to the Polish contribution. Tollond, who was half-Polish, noted 857 Polish merchants in Rangoon in 1850. By 1930 they had dwindled to four. He also discovered the first Polish Factory in Rangoon had been established in 1591, in a shed guarded by a dozen men from Wroclaw and their dogs. Other Europeans present were English traders from Biggleswade. Together Poles and English sabotaged subsequent European incursions and bribed the King of Ava. Poles already had a fearsome reputation for spoiling the merchandise of rivals by remote-control. Having rendered the material putrid they would offer to clear the mess, recondition it into something new and sell it back at a profit. Legend has it the famous Rangoon brew marketed by j&k, Fantastisch ol’Feinster, was originally devised in this way. A clear and delicious spirit, it is still enjoyed during Rangoon’s Cocktail Hour and is another instance of Burma’s Polish roots. ‘See this stuff,’ the Captain said, tapping a bottle, ‘the traditional recipe proves we’ve mastered techniques that accelerate sell-by dates. It costs next to nothing to make, sells very well and blows your head off. Tempted? Skol!’

A Fin


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A fin sliding across the floor without a sound sank as if into water and was gone.

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70 chapter xxxi

chapter  xxxii   71

The Shade of the Pagoda

Silence Within

Turning east down Dalhousie Road, Edouard Karnicki walked five blocks to Dufferin Gardens where he had once met his sister Wanda in the shade of the pagoda. ‘If I’m late you can always enjoy the foghorns, and if it comes on to rain, shelter under the awnings across the square.’

‘She thought I was a freak,’ Yergenes said. The Customs House was on Strand Road, near the Strand Hotel, at the junction of Phayre Street and the Waterfront where a creosoted fence obscures the river for blocks at a time. You know it is there because it invades your imagination, much as the palisades resist it. What the eye cannot see, the nose can sniff, for the air carries the river promiscuously into the city, filling it with a rich aroma of freshly sliced cucumber. At times the water seems green, green as the ham and pea soup at the Strand Hotel. Modeste Servitorius compared it to the colour of his Nile Green lounge suit reserved for casual wear. Captain Janczyk however compared the colour to the complexion of his Pest Control Officer, Rip Yergenes, whose green complexion and cucumberesque nose alarmed many. Much of the interior of the ss Rangoon was painted green, predictably called Yergenes Green, a special shade mixed at j&k’s workshop at Pazandaung Creek. It became popular with other shipping companies on account of its durability. During the 1939–1945 war the need for camouflage ensured river traffic was given a coat as well, thus ensuring for the Pest Control Officer a dubious celebrity that even led to a Sunday Comic Strip about him in the old Rangoon Gazette. ‘My mother loved me, don’t get me wrong,’ he said, ‘but she thought I was a freak. She wasn’t green. She was from Dijon, she was more … ’ ‘Mustard coloured?’ I asked. Ignoring me he asked ‘Do you think green suits me?’ Then changing tack added, ‘Here, let’s visit the Bank.’ A large brick-built pile, it overlooked the river, the cranes, the railway line and warehouses beyond. Street noise was deafening, as every motor in the area was going full-blast. Trains, cranes and trucks drowned our conversation as we ducked through the traffic towards the gleaming neo-classical portico of the Bank of Bengal. Through the revolving doors Rip led me to silence within.

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chapter xxxiii    73

Land Shark A clerk stepped over the mangled corpse. ‘You’d be as well to steer clear. That,’ he said glancing at the carnage, ‘is what happens if you get in its way.’ The door continued to revolve behind us. He scratched the back of a hand. ‘He tangled with a shark. He met a shark.’ ‘Up here, on dry land?’ ‘That’s what it looks like. He ran into a land shark.’ ‘A land shark?’ ‘There are a few left verging on extinction.’

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chapter  xxxv   75

Mor al-Az

An Irrawaddi Flotilla Company Steamer

Burmese call them ‘Saviour Kings.’ Benevolent seeming, these Burmese Robin Hood figures are chancers. Soon after our arrival we heard of one, known as Mor al-Az, who was active nearby. The District Commissioner was after him. Word had it he could change shape but no witness would confirm rumours he favoured shark-like looks. This was noted by Mr Karnicki, suggesting his former colleague and bitter enemy, Mauricio Morales, was up to no good. Cold panic seized everyone on the bus as it rolled out of Kemmendine. A child screamed, the driver braked and looked about. For what? Passengers eyed each other in silence for an instant. Then, as suddenly, the feeling went. The bus lurched off. Below a catalpa tree a frog burst unseen.

The wide sluggish river. At first only a ripple was visible, then the head and shoulders of a loping figure slowly walking out of the water up the shelving shore toward a group of startled Irrawaddi fishermen. Dripping he stood eyeing them. ‘I am Mor al-Az. I come to save you. Your ancestors send me. Here is their sign.’ He turned and gestured at the river. To their horror a shark fin the size of an Irrawaddi paddle steamer surfaced in midstream. The monster moved in a leisurely circle, awesome, and was gone. The boatmen stood aghast, obedient.

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76 chapter xxxvi

Recycled Pagodas Walking away from the river up Sule Pagoda Road, past the overbearing colonnade of the Bank of Bengal on the left, we skirted well-tended public gardens. Beyond them, through the Mohur trees, stood Rangoon Town Hall. ‘The main staircase is sinking, dragging the rest of the building with it,’ Yergenes said. ‘The British manufactured the cast-iron railings of locally sourced metal from looted pagodas. Never a good idea, melting down shrines. They have a way of getting their own back.’ We strode along the butter-coloured pavement. ‘If you look carefully you can see the building move.’ I stopped and gazed at the solid bulk of the Town Hall. Later, when the Captain asked what I thought the best material would be from which to manufacture anchors I was able to surprise him – for the first time. Cool as a cucumber I replied ‘Re-cycled pagodas.’ He gave me a strange look. ‘Correct. When dropped,’ he added, ‘they head for the ocean floor like an express train, pulling chain after them into the abyss like a harpoon. Such anchors are reckless.’ No wonder the Town Hall was subsiding. ‘One drawback with such anchors, though. They’re disobedient. You’ve got to remember they’re made of a blessed alloy that shouldn’t be treated as scrap. Pagoda metal is highly volatile; it’s not surprising that an anchor of that kind sometimes refuses to be weighed.’ Mr Karnicki was wearing a Schwartzkogler cap to shade his eyes.

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chapter xxxvii    77

The Rangoon International Congress of Reconditioning

‘There’s no Congress this year,’ Yergenes told me. ‘I’d still like to see where it happens.’ ‘Up the stairs and first left.’ The room was bare but for a large table and five chairs. ‘Five judges sit there. The Usher, Modeste, calls for silence. A bell is rung, stop watch set. For every contender this is a career high.’ ‘The key to success is surprise,’ added Gaston who had joined us. ‘There’s always been a shortage of female contenders.’ ‘Not a shortage. Women don’t need this nonsense.’ ‘Except for Kowalski of course,’ the Chef laughed. ‘He got his Diploma turning into a woman and back within the statutory ninety seconds time limit as laid down by Charter.’ ‘Girls aren’t interested. Just as well.’ ‘Why?’ ‘With women around men lose focus.’

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The Rangoon International Congress of Reconditioning   79

‘Silence falls. The contender steps forward and states his aim. Kowalski for example said – I declare that within the statutory limit of ninety seconds as laid down by Charter I will turn into a woman and back again – which he did there and then – and got his Diploma. It happened over there. Many scientific principles have been turned on their heads here.’ ‘What principles?’ ‘I’m going to swim, announced Morales. Holding his hands like a child in prayer, he sprung into the air and plunged head first into the floor. He resurfaced over by the window, swam across the room and stood up, emerging from the solid floor as if from a pool.’ ‘He can swim through matter, through decks, pavements, and stairs. He emits a frequency that makes solids permeable, just as heat turns ice into water.’ ‘What else?’ ‘Lobo’s performance involved lowering room temperature in a flash and setting our teeth chattering.’ ‘That wolf has given a new meaning to the idea of icy charm, said someone.’ ‘He got his Diploma by putting an icicle on the end of the Usher’s nose the second he started. The chill made Modeste’s hair stand on end – Hair Conditioning! ’ ‘Lobo and Morales were a big hit for a time after that, but got greedy and engaged in outlandish effects, like bouncing sections of the Polar Ice Cap onto the Orinoco Basin to cool the tropics. They were fired. And took against us.’ ‘Nothing beats having your name inscribed on the Reconditioner’s Trophy. It’s the outward sign of inward style.’ ‘You never know,’ said Yer­ genes, turning to me, ‘one day … ’

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chapter xxxviii    81

Monkey Point Rangoon Waterfront runs from the Timber Yards to Monkey Point. Substantial docks handle freighters of 10.000 tons. Number 1 Dock is reserved for j&k & Co. and is also known as Polish Quay. The Waterfront is busy all year round, though there are peak seasons during which ships anchor off Monkey Point itself and unload by lighter. At dawn in a week of intense activity the ss Rangoon slipped past a dozen freighters riding their rippled reflection. The surprise departure was timed to meet high tide and escape surveillance. ‘We’ve got to avoid shifting sand banks laid by the Mexicans,’ the Captain said. ‘They’ve trained special sharks to do the work,’ Mr Karnicki added, as if sharks regularly moved sand banks to order. To paraphrase Captain Janczyk’s favourite author, Joshua Slocum, again, ‘A short board was made up river on the port tack, then coming about the ss Rangoon stood seaward. A fog, which till then had held off, now lowered over the sea like a pall. By the lead, which we cast for cosmetic purpose, we saw we were passing the south point of the Delta and should soon be clear of the shoals.’

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82 chapter xxxix

An Honest Pfennig The deck was wet with rain as Captain Janczyk looked up. ‘The hold generates the chaos. Even we cannot guarantee what is stowed or what’s been off-loaded. It’s as if it has a life of its own and neither Edouard nor I know what goes on down there. We’ve marked incoming crates, a distinctive colour for each port of entry and discharge. We’ve laid tarpaulin over each shipment, stencilled chop marks on every bale, and yet cargo surfaces we’ve never seen before.’ ‘As far as I’m concerned,’ said Mr Karnicki ‘the only way to turn an honest pfennig is to accept what’s on offer.’ I said the crew seemed as unpredictable as the hold. ‘We employ skilled personnel, top notch reconditioners. You’ll get the hang of them, and with luck you’ll start reconditioning too. Modeste does Remote Control, Yergenes does Flies, and so on. The skill creeps up on you. The reconditioner is part of his reconditioning.’ The river disappeared from view as warm rain emptied on the Delta. ‘Look,’ Mr Janczyk shouted as we stood under the awning astern, ‘I pick things up as I go along, I’m not the scientific type, just a Practical Dreamer. The more technical the talk, the further I stray from the point.’ I stuck to him and dashed forward. ‘One last thing,’ he added. ‘Think Doppelgängers.’ I must have given him a blank look. ‘Your Doppelgänger; your Anti-self, the Unknown Double. He’s usually just round the corner, well out of sight of himself, you. He does the reconditioning for his other half, you again.’ ‘How do I know he’s around if I’ve never seen him?’ ‘You’ll know. Especially when you catch sight of each other. The shock of recognition knocks you for a loop.’ ‘Sounds a bit Science Fictioney.’ ‘Is the Nobel Prize Science Fiction? Paul Dirac received the Nobel for Physics in

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1933. The best Doppelgängers, he discovered, are Ukrainian because the polarised minerals in the air of Ukraine turn into anti-particles; just like that.’ Mr Karnicki twirled his cigar, spinning it in his fingers. It turned from cheroot to carrot to pencil and back again so fast I couldn’t see the point of change. The rain poured down. The noise was deafening. Mr Janczyk put his smokey mouth to my ear. ‘Ukrainians make the best Doppelgängers, like Monty’s Double or Kim Philby.’ This was 1939. ‘I don’t know Philby.’ ‘That’s why he’s an outstanding Double Agent. That’s why he’ll escape to Russia to join other Ukrainians like Burgess and MacLean.’ ‘Who?’ ‘So is Jerry Lewis a Doppelgänger. And Dean Martin. I’m Ukrainian, and so are you.’ ‘No I’m not!’ ‘Don’t look so alarmed, you can’t afford to think you know who you are yet. But you’d better take care. If Doppelgängers go rancid and the anti-matter leaks away they turn schizoid,’ said the Captain. I wondered about Ukrainians for a while until Modeste told me Captain Janzcyk confused the Ukraine with Uruguay.

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84 chapter xl

chapter  xli   85

A Veil of Sharks

A Shipment of Vaseline

‘You’ll have to wait until sunrise,’ the Captain said, ‘when the sky turns ivory and the banks of the river are black silhouettes. The turbulence of our wake falters as a veil of fins blankets the surface. Thousands across the wide river. Fins of all sizes, in formation at Morales’ bidding. They break the surface with a Woosh! Silence follows, as though they’ve devoured all sound and life itself has fled. Every shark in the Delta joins the squadron, though against our iron hull they can do nothing – as yet.’ The wind hauling forward, the ss Rangoon dropped into a smooth lane, heading south east, making about fifteen knots her very best work. Fitful rain-squalls from the west followed. We had only a moment to douse sail and lash all solid when it struck like a shot. Bridge and rigging were assaulted by the hurtling bulk of mature sharks vaulting out of the water kami-kaze fashion, shearing whatever was in their path and flailing destructively on deck until they expired. ‘Makes a change from flying-fish,’ said Mr K. At sunset the shark attack abated and island after island came into view as spent man-eaters were levered overboard and we continued on our way.

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‘How old is your reconditioning business?’ ‘Aristotle believed everything in the world is made of four basic ingredients, earth, air, fire and water. We’re more economical. We recondition piled junk, used sump oil, reject bicycle parts and so on with a splash of Fantastisch Ol’Feinster, with same day worldwide delivery. We concoct an infinite variety of bespoke product lines, turning philosophy into commerce. All that Glitters is Not Gold But We Get Away With Merda!’ he chuckled. Rip tapped the half empty bottle of the Company’s yellow label Feinster. ‘However it’s not always possible to guarantee the result. There’s a rogue element in the process. We have been known to deliver a roadblock of Smoked Mackerel in downtown Nairobi instead of a shipment of Vaseline for Adnan Kashogghi.’

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chapter  xlii   87

Reveal it Right ‘Why do you need Branch Offices and Depots,’ I asked Mr Karnicki, ‘if you produce what you need with a click of the fingers’? ‘You’ve got to make sure what we really do,’ the Captain interrupted, ‘and decide if you’re writing history or a fable.’ To begin with I thought I was to deliver a conventional, if colourful, business profile. It would describe hydraulics, berthing rights, the use of chop marks and alternative ways of shipping merchandise from one Tropic to another, avoiding the usual obstacles. So I noted pestilence, corrupt officials, and taxes levied at the point of a gun were the stuff of company life. It took me a while to realise all was managed with the insouciance of a veteran poker player. Things happened which made no more sense than the Marie Celeste, and we sailed around outsmarting everyone, in the most considerate fashion. ‘Don’t be alarmed by Captain Janczyk,’ the Steward advised. ‘He’s both a pussycat, and a jopa (Russian slang for a slob), but he’s on the side of the angels. He should wash more though.’ With that Modeste unsheathed his leer. The company’s conventional exterior was impeccable. It employed a scientist like Michel Chevreul, maintained factories and operated a coal-burning freighter, albeit one with steam-driven false bulkheads. It did these labour intensive things even though its Directors possessed advanced technical know-how that rendered all such hardware obsolete. History or fable? So I decided to celebrate style instead of business practice. In the peculiar cocktail of fact and fable revealed in these pages lies the real meaning of my employers’ work, their style. ‘It’s why you were hired,’ Mr Karnicki said. ‘So reveal it right.’

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90 chapter xliii

chapter  xliv   91

The Freighter Turned About

Sharks Purr

I had dozed off to the rhythm of the rain and was woken by a voice: ‘Come watch the little sharks as upon us they do creep.’ The Steward’s alarming nose was an inch from mine and a reptilian eye stared at me. An unforgiving smile had crept up one side of his face, firm, unsettling. The ss Rangoon’s first departure from Rangoon under steam had taken place in 1888, when the regular Baltic-Burma service was inaugurated by way of Suez. j&k had refitted the ss Rangoon, a serviceable teak clipper, as an iron-hulled mixed cargo and passenger vessel. She still retains fragments of her older teak self. ‘She’s got a phenomenal memory because of them,’ the Steward said, ‘like geese that fly around the world and never get lost, her route maps are programmed into her fabric. She’s self-governing really, like a swallow on the oceans of the sky. You know the kind of thing; once you’ve done it a few times, you can walk home without thinking. We’re walking on her memory, right here.’ His orange tennis shoe tapped the deck. ‘Now she has an iron hull shark infested waters are nothing to her. Some of the old timbers bear the scars inflicted by the Great Green Sharks of the Timor Sea, the ones that attacked wooden hulled vessels, but are now believed to be extinct. We know they’re not, because in the Torres Straits decking sometimes flinches for no obvious reason. That’s when a Great Green passes far below and timbers recognise its call.’ The wind was holding free. After steering all day over a lumpy sea the ss Rangoon took it into her head to go without the helmsman’s aid, unflinching.

‘Let the Chef tell you about the Mexicans. He shipped aboard their vessel,’ Mr Karnicki advised. The afternoon we approached the Indian coast Gaston and I were loafing astern. He had just emptied a bucket of slops into the sea. We gazed idly at the propeller wash below. ‘I’ll tell you about the Lopez y Morales engine,’ he said, ‘I think of it here.’ He looked down at our wake. ‘Theirs isn’t really an engine. Not strictly speaking. As you might expect,’ he nodded, ‘it’s a seething mass of several hundred sharks jammed together and pushing the stern. Racing in line, their accumulated thrust is focused on the ship and drives her forward, like a horde of serfs with a battering ram. Morales and his sharks are quite something. If you stand like this on board their vessel, the ss Vera Cruz, and look down, at first it doesn’t look different. The churning of her sharkpropulsion looks like normal prop wash. The sea boils in a white tangle. But if you keep looking, sharks come into focus. Morales told me Great Whites are best because they are white.’ ‘Why?’ ‘All athletes must keep cool,’ he replied ‘speeding sharks are liable to overheat as much as you or I. Being white they absorb less sun. But that’s not their only quality. The Great White has a lovely smile when it flips over and looks up. Wouldn’t you want a change now and again after zooming across the ocean, day in, day out, nose to tail, with your pack-mates jammed all around? It can get very boring. So they’ll suddenly turn belly up and flash a great smile. I remember Morales pointing, ‘There! There!’ And sure enough, in the swirling white wake I first spotted a monstrous grin with fangs that dazzle for a moment and are gone. Nature is full of wonders, but none compares with a churning wake seething with the occasional devilish leer.

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chapter  xlv   93

Feeding Time The fear on most ships,’ Gaston concluded, ‘is that if you go overboard you might get sucked into the props – and become Steak Tartare! But God help you if you go overboard on the Vera Cruz. However, you should see how Morales is treated when he goes swimming. Ever heard sharks purr? If you have, it’s a sure sign he’s around.’ The wind being light through the day the ss Rangoon stood close to shore on the western side. We then saw a boat putting out towards us.

‘Why did you stop working for Lopez y Morales?’ ‘Because of unacceptable behaviour on board.’ ‘Such as?’ ‘You don’t want to know. Lobo and Morales aren’t like Mr Karnicki and the Captain. They know no limits.’ ‘Meaning what?’ ‘Feeding Time was the last straw.’ He described how Morales, dressed in Naval Whites, would offer passengers to his minions. The cook’s account was chilling. ‘How can you work for people like that?’

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chapter  xlvii   95

Alka-Seltzer Sea

Incident at Pondicherry

On calm days as I walked the deck towards the stern the roar of the bow wave would fade behind me and midway, before catching the growl of the prop wash, I’d pass a quiet stretch. All you can hear there is the gentle shoosh of hull gliding in water. Idling there once to gaze at the horizon a dolphin broke surface with the elusive motion of a new idea, its glossy back coming and going as it raced along. ‘Now you see it, now you don’t,’ said a voice, referring not only to my thoughts about the aim of our voyage but also to the dolphin dancing in an Alka-Seltzer sea.

A low coast to north and south frames the isolated eighteenth century architecture of Pondicherry, a French Colony and Département on the Bay of Bengal. Shouting started on the quay below, ‘Pousse-pousse, Pousse-pousse!’ by the city’s wheelchair operators. The French in Pondi favour the wheelchair over the ricksha they use in Saigon, and scoot about like invalids propelled (pushed: poussés) by a cyclist-nurse. This gives the place the air of a tropical sanatorium. ‘Professor Chevreul was born here,’ said Mr K. ‘His cousin runs the restaurant En Face, opposite the cathedral. Chevreul himself left a permanent mark about twenty years ago when he tested his Colour-syphon. It was a plein air experiment, not confined to the laboratory. You will see the results. Cross the Canal to get the full effect. Ask for La Ville Noire.’ Houses do not face the street as the entrance runs at a right angle to it as in New Orleans. The pace of life is easy. A statue of Joan of Arc in the Place de la Cathédrale is almost smothered under canopy of vegetation. Every building is white. The Corniche or seafront extends south as far as the Hotel de Ville, a substantial eighteenth century chateau with mansard roof and oeil de boeuf windows. The façade is decorated with a cactus pattern. The street lamps sport the same design, Pondi’s emblem based on Opuntia Ficus Indica, of Central American origin and associated with the Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, who was born in Pondi. Also known as Prickly Pear, its fruit is covered in clusters of tiny barbs, the glochidiae of which I have a horror. As a child I sank my teeth into one thinking a pear is a pear. There were other families of Central American origin in Pondi. Their presence predated the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. Emiliano Zapata’s family was among them. The last Zapatas of Pondi returned to Mexico some years ago. This ancient intercontinental traffic may account for Columbus’ verdict that when he landed in the New World he found Indios. The Prickly Pear holds no charm for Pondi’s enemies and explains why cactus is the city’s emblem. If you enter or leave by road you must pass through a massive cactus rampart. At the City Gate trucks, bullock carts and pedestrians wait obediently beneath a forty foot wall of impenetrable paddle-shaped cactus slabs studded with thousands of hairy warts; the dreadful barbed pears themselves. No wonder this eighth wonder of the world baffled invaders and keeps traffic moving smoothly. The wall is extremely irritable and has been carefully planted to ensure its violent effect aims away from town.

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chapter xlviii    97

The Roaring Recons If threatened it goes into spasm and unleashes clouds of barbed prickles which not only enter lung and ears but also reduce eyes to a pulp. This has led anthropologists to suggest it is that rarest of cultural survivals, the last Aztec God alive. God help those who annoy it. Between the Cactus Wall and the Chateau runs the Canal, dividing Ville Noire from Ville Blanche. Chevreul’s Colour-syphon Experiment is responsible for their name. The Black Town and the White Town are the only places on earth where the world resembles black and white movies. The Professor had intended to produce intensified pigments by drawing colour emissions from the natural world and had devised a Colour-syphon to do so. It was to use the speed of light to isolate the frequency of each tone, grade and store it. However the device was also built to receive at a frequency faster than the speed of light and when Chevreul switched it on he used the higher setting. This drew out future light waves of colour as well as present ones. He’d positioned the Colour-syphon on a footbridge and fitted it with a wide-angle lens aimed down the Canal. As a result everything on both sides was affected. The Right Bank looks like a normal black and white photo, a positive image. The street and people on the Left Bank however look like a negative instead, which is more disconcerting. People get used to anything though, and the Pondichois don’t notice any more. It will be a terrific tourist attraction one day. Funny thing is if you photograph the Left Bank your prints then come out as negatives, and your negatives are positive.

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Dum-dum-dum-dum, the ss Rangoon’s pistons drove us steadily south along the Coromandel Coast, toward the Palk Strait and the shallow channel between the Eastern Ghats and Ceylon. Like the turret of a tank, the Captain slowly turned his head in my direction and looked up at the pearly sky. ‘You are in for the ride of your life,’ he said ‘we’re set for the Roaring Recons. All the signs are good, but one never knows. A word of warning. Even someone of your experience could … ’ ‘Could what?’ ‘When the Recons hit do not go on deck. But plisse don’t worry too much, the ss Rangoon has ridden them before. Recons is short for Reconditioners, OK?’ We’d left Pondicherry and steamed through a placid night, waking to a sea as slick as glass and a horizon drawn with a ruler. It came as a shock to learn serious danger lay ahead. Where from? I scanned the Euclidian dawn for a clue. ‘The Recons,’ he said ‘are seasonal, and put on a good show. They begin quietly,’

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The Roaring Recons  


he signalled respectfully at the stillness, ‘like this. You always get such stillness when they are warming up.’ I fidgeted in silence, watching the Captain run a hand over his chin and glance occasionally at the horizon. Time passed. His uniform was freshly laundered. There was something Papal about that brilliant white. Within his lethal bulk subtlety smouldered. If you missed a raised eyebrow, or a smile, you might think him coarse. His presence set me thinking, ‘Is it better to be a pig satisfied or Socrates dissatisfied?’ He was both, the Andy Devine of Classical Antiquity. Sunlight and stillness followed for some time. Then, ‘Aha! Pizza!’ he sniffed. ‘Pizza!’ So did I. But pizza out in the Bay of Bengal? The breeze steadily stiffened into a hot wind. He spoke to the engine room, and we swung into the wind, gathering speed. The swell grew into a running sea while the sky turned red. Waves followed, reflecting the colour above. The smell of pizza was overpowering. We pounded through an undulating sea of pizza topping, miles across. Tomato sauce hurtled at us in twenty foot waves that broke on deck in a glutinous mass of onion and capers the size of basket balls. ‘It’s a Marinara!’ called the Captain. Staring at the unfolding nightmare it crossed my mind if we could harness this there’d be an end to famine. Gripping the rail I tried not to think about going overboard into that boiling sea of olive oil, molten mozzarella, seasoning and freshly grated black pepper. We battled our way across the gourmet sea as rigging was festooned with shreds of anchovy and hatches decorated with basil leaves as big as doormats. After an age air began to cool and we watched the pizza ocean ominously change colour to pale green. ‘Ham and Pea soup coming up,’ the intercom announced from Gaston’s galley. ‘Lunch,’ I was told. ‘Eat even if you don’t feel like it. We’re nowhere near the eye of the storm, and it’s fatal not to be firing on all cylinders when we get there. You’re going to need every ounce of energy.’ It was like trying to eat on a roller coaster, but we managed, slurping soup from lidded mugs. As waves of pea soup washed pizza debris off the deck, the ocean began to calm. Then, after a pause, the Roaring Recons sent a different calamity sweeping down. Scudding clouds raced over the horizon, heading for us. This was a terrifying hazard, for as it neared we saw a tornado of objects seething on the wind, the world in

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chapter  xlix   101

meltdown. We were deep in flying furniture, machine parts, trees, masonry, animals and vegetation. From the bridge I saw scudding clouds hurtle by in an encyclopaedic festival of transformation. Hurtling objects were not only flying past, which was amazing enough, they were also turning from one thing into another as they went in a frenzy of mutual recombination. Objects you recognised, and ones you didn’t, flew along morphing. Nothing stayed itself for long. To cap it all, brilliant shafts of sunlight pierced the maelstrom and bathed the spectacle in biblical light. Meanwhile our faithful steamer ploughed. Modeste arrived with a tray of coffee, a moment which revealed how close we were to being swept into the reconditioning that raged around us. He had to keep shaking the pot to prevent coffee from turning into carnelian beads and newts. This was a disturbing reminder the ss Rangoon was permeable to the Recons and that despite her superstructure each of us could, perhaps, be turned into something else. That night, once the Recons had blown themselves out the ship was hosed down and we slowly recovered. I returned to my cabin. To my delight, under my bunk I found a stray particle of that great tornado. It was a little creature composed of various aspects of the ss Rangoon herself, trapped in mid transformation. I made a careful drawing of the organism, the last fading remnant of the storm, to which colour was added later. It’s probably the only part of the Great Wind ever to have sat for its portrait, and it is the only proof I have of that meteorological show-stopper. By dawn the little thing had faded away and my picture is the only evidence of what we’d witnessed. How did I forget my camera? It was the missed opportunity of a lifetime. The vessel, steaming in the full swing of the Trades, allowed us the next day for rest and recuperation.

Big Freeze at Cochin


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We entered the Bay of Cochin in gathering darkness as harbour lights glittered, diamonds on indigo velvet.   I gasped as if slammed in the back, as did the crew. Modeste’s eyes were shut, teeth bared in a grimace. Yergenes breathed out puffs of steam which told me the shock was due to a catastrophic drop in temperature. ‘To the Commissary. Allez Modeste, que ça chauffe,’ coughed Gaston emerging from below, ‘it’s that tas de merde Lopez – he’s here,’ Gaston thumbed the air, ‘it’s one of his Big Freezes, again.’ We ran. ‘Don’t touch the metal rails, you’ll stick. Get Arctic gear or we’re finished.’ I joined the crew reaching for fur-lined boots handed out by the Captain. Yergenes’ green nose had developed a pale tip which he held like a banana, muttering, ‘Putain!’ Lobo, exasperated once again by the inability of his partner’s sharks to stop us, had aimed one of his cold fronts at us instead. Lopez’s control of cold and Morales’s command of sharks precluded each other, a tactical error in their alliance that undermined their work. For this Lobo blamed Mo, who grinned sheepishly. One could only act if the other held back; otherwise, Deep-Frozen Sharks. There were many ways for Lobo to apply his icy touch and he developed into a Master Freezer. Yet in all the years he deployed below zero blizzards by remote control across half the globe, he had not succeeded in denting the ss Rangoon. Nevertheless he lived in hope and the crew knew it. The next freeze might cripple her and reveal her secret. My teeth chattered as I put on winter gear. ‘No use wondering,’ said Mr Karnicki, ‘all we can rely on is that each freeze will be different. In the meantime let’s make sure it’s business as usual; that annoys him. We’ll make for Cochin as if nothing’s happened. But keep warm, he’s merciless.’ Surrounded by a freezing micro-climate we steamed through the tropical night, slowing as we entered port, trailing both smoke from funnel and vapour from Lobo’s cold embrace. The stunned harbour-master and his team greeted us in silence. Dockers in singlets and shorts gaped at our fur hats and gloves, our breath visible as clouds of steam. Hawsers were fastened with difficulty, cables being icy to the touch, and every so often someone on shore would wince and back away from our invisible icy aura. They soon realised the arctic micro-climate had a limited range. To begin

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The Escape Starts Here

with Lopez had cast a cold zone that stretched some 20 metres beyond the ship to conserve his powers of refrigeration. Onlookers discovered the fixed perimeter and began toying with it. Children appeared and danced in and out. An enterprising local arrived with basins of water he slid with a pole into the cold zone. Within minutes they were pulled away for sale as ice. By mid-morning as temperature soared in Cochin the quay was swarming. Police, journalists, peddlers, ever more children crowded the wharf to enjoy the novelty. By midday, when heat was at its worst they began a strange surging ritual, advancing and retreating in waves. They surged forward to enjoy a blast of cold and then backed away as its bite became too much. Cochin thrilled at the news of the magical visit of the ss Rangoon, a ship both popular with and familiar to the city. This further irritated Lopez. At the end of the first day irritation got the better of him and he turned down the temperature and increased its range. From 20 metres the crowds were forced back to 30 then 40. Warehouses and cranes were soon sheathed in sparkling ice that glittered in the moonlight. Icicles formed. The most memorable moment came after ice had formed on palm trees along the quay. They could not take the weight. Slender fronds crashed to the ground like falling chandeliers. Gleaming ice-covered palm fronds glistened as they shattered in torchlight from mesmerised onlookers with chattering teeth. Bystanders were injured when a brief downpour passed and metre long javelins of ice dropped out of the sky. The javelins formed as rain entered Lobo’s sub-zero enclave and froze in mid-air. Ice spears the size of scaffolding pipes landed to the sound of breaking glass and yells of alarm. We sat on board and watched ice-javelins perforate canvas and split layers of caked ice on deck. In the distance, beyond our ice enclave and barely visible through the lethal curtain of icy javelins, a desultory fin patrolled the harbour. A rickshaw splashed past, the driver’s eyes fixed on us. As Lopez’s cold front advanced, radiating further from the ss Rangoon, it emptied the harbour, leaving it deserted. Panic broke out in Cochin Town. The waters of the bay gradually froze over and the hull of the ss Rangoon creaked as ice tightened its grip. Stokers plied the boilers and it was comforting our vessel had a real furnace, however unreal the rest of our predicament. Cochin’s freak Ice Age continued the following day. ‘He’s pulled out the big one this time. Sine Dubito,’ I heard the Steward say on his way to the bridge with a bottle of Ol’Feinster and two glasses. Next morning rain came briefly at sunrise, when clouds that had formed at night

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Big Freeze at Cochin  


emptied in a second ice-javelin offensive. Solitary clouds then formed near our cold zone. I watched a small heavy one approach with an opaque curtain of rain hanging from it. As it nearered and entered Lopez’s chilly theatre the sound of breaking glass followed, and then, heralded by a squall that set the icicles tinkling on the rigging, it enveloped everything in the vicinity, drowning conversation. Around us frozen sea and harbour and the sheen of an ice encrusted Cochin, by then a ghost town but for the corpses of those who froze where they fell, a calorific inversion of Pompeii. The sun burnt off the coastal mist replaced by cumulus clouds that turned to rain and brought the renewed threat of a javelin storm. That second day clouds vanished at sundown and we gazed at an extraordinary sunset over an icy sea and a mid-winter Antarctic coast; ‘Like Narvik,’ said Mr Karnicki, with a sigh. We then saw a stocky figure with an orange handlebar moustache, a pirate’s three cornered hat, knee length boots and a cutlass walking confidently across the ice. He sang in a sweet tenor voice. A full orchestral accompaniment grew louder as he neared, music welling out of nowhere to set the icicles on the halyards tinkling melodiously, like wind-chimes in spring. Ice began to melt. It was Vasco da Gama to the rescue, or to be precise, his ghost, summoned by Wanda, who as ever had been keeping a loving eye on her Captain Pawel. ‘Pays merveilleux … O Paradis!’ he sang. ‘Wonderful land! Divine Spectacle! O Paradise, risen from the wave, you are mine! I want to offer you my homeland. This fertile land, which can enrich the whole of Europe, is ours! O New World, you belong to me!’ ‘That’s Vasco for you, singing his role in Act Four of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine. Good isn’t he? Sounds like Miguel Fleta. Have you heard Fleta’s recording made in November 1924?’ the Pest Control Officer asked.

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104 chapter l

Distortion Zone Leaving Cochin to thaw we steamed along the coast of the Western Ghats in a northerly direction. A storm was brewing. Wind was up when I woke and a heavy sea running, scud drifting across the dawn. I felt the menace of Lobo Lopez again when Yergenes described an earlier wolfish stunt. ‘We were off the Canaries. The ss Rangoon was again in a ring of ice and drifting helplessly towards the North African coast. Cunning move, because Lobo knew the North Atlantic Drift would carry us into the Distortion Zone. It’s like the Bermuda Triangle. Except real. Woe betide a vessel trapped there. We knew we were close to it when crates in the hold started popping. Emergency! They were quickly unloaded onto the ice, à la Shackleton. We worked hard, dragging them as far from the ship as we could. Even the Stoker Types helped, and they hate cold. Crates heaped all over the ice, Saharan coast on the horizon! Impayable! The crates grew, some as tall as houses. Their weight became more than the ice could stand and the big ones, grown two or three times the size of the ss Rangoon, menaced us like Leaning Towers of Pisa. That swine Lobo, we then felt him sending tremors through the ice to encourage the biggest crates to topple on us and take the vessel down. It’s no fun when he gets going. I blame his mother.’

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chapter li    105

The Blue Wolf ‘What are the chances of meeting Lobo?’ I asked. ‘He seldom shows up,’ replied Mr K. ‘You haven’t missed much anyway,’ added the Captain vaguely. ‘He’s a pest. Always plays hard to get.’ ‘He’s a wolf, what do you expect. Now, if you were a woman … ’ ‘Yes, they call him The Blue Wolf. Guess why?’ ‘Here,’ Mr K passed me an old magazine and pointed at an advert. ‘This’ll give you an idea. The cartoon’s pretty good.’ ‘We ran that before our partnership ended.’ ‘It was a big success.’ ‘For which he claimed the credit.’

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chapter  lii   107

The Seagull’s Corpse We’d been discussing postage. ‘Now here’s somebody in a different league’ Mr K said as the Captain swung into the cabin with a dead seagull and the question ‘Told him about the catch yet?’ and without waiting, ‘You’ll notice the Number Five comes in two versions.’ I had. ‘The steamer is printed upside down on one, and right way up on the other. That’s no accident. It shows we operate in both hemispheres, north and south, and we designed the stamp with that in mind. All correspondence for Danzig, up north, should use the steamer printed the right way up. For all mail going down under, in the southern hemisphere, the Tete-bêche or upside down variant serves.’ ‘Stamp collectors,’ Mr Karnicki interrupted, ‘kill to get their hands on one of those.’ He leaned over and pointed. Collectors value misprints for their rarity and ‘Tete-bêche examples are taken by philatelists to be misprints, which makes them more valuable.’ I’m not so sure the Northern Hemisphere-Southern Hemisphere explanation was the reason for the design, which in my view is more likely to be part of j&k’s urge to turn things downside-up. ‘They only work one way, like a Single ticket,’ added the Captain, who left the seagull’s corpse on the chart table. ‘But I will return.’

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108 chapter liii

chapter  liv   109

Intelligent Postage Stamps

The Fluency of Morning

‘They are expensive to produce,’ Mr K continued, ‘we use the finest reconditioned paper. The ink is special too, mixed to carry directional instructions, like a compass. Feel the power in it.’ he said ‘Check the adhesive. It’s bio-mechanical.’ I peered at the slick surface. ‘The best thing about these little beauties is they read the address and go straight there. The stamp acts like a homing pigeon taking the envelope with it. Stick one on and, Hey Presto!’ He passed me an envelope, ‘Write to someone.’ I used my home address. ‘Now the stamp.’ The glue tasted acrid and stuck the stamp at once. Envelope in hand, I glanced at Mr Karnicki for a second and it was gone.

I’d pace the deck and gaze absent-mindedly at the play of shadows. Despite the pervasive engine noise and the breaking bow wave it could be peaceful. On the sunny side of the vessel sea would be blue-black and the sparkling slivers of bouncing light made my eyes water. On one occasion they reminded me of filming day-for-night. Day-for-night is technical jargon for filming a night scene in daylight and getting a nocturnal effect by controlling exposure. In France they call it la Nuit Américaine after the technique’s Hollywood origin. You save a lot of money otherwise spent on generator and lighting crew. La Nuit Américaine, I realised, also meant the reconciliation of opposites, of day as night. Life on board was a time of ceaseless transformation. The most routine business unravelled into something else and your ideas turned upside down even before you’d had them. These are ideal conditions for a reconditioner, whose natural habitat opens in and out of the status quo. That day I fell easily into an oceangoing reverie, adrift between departure and arrival as we steamed on in a state of infinite possibility, a mysterious submarine void below. Modeste Servitorius is unpredictable. At dinner that evening he approached. I’d spoken to no-one of my thoughts. Would I care for some wine, he asked? With one of those sideways looks he flourished a bottle so I might see the label. Nuits Américaines it read, Appellation Chateau Bateau Controlée. ss Rangoon Marque Deposée. Mis en bouteille par Modeste Servitiorius, Sommelier.

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chapter  lv   113

Cannanore As we approached Cannanore Mr Karnicki said, ‘Looks like Mollendo.’ Mollendo is a port on the Pacific coast of Peru. It is also served by lighter, as the sea is too deep to anchor. We idled in the swell, the city rising and falling as we rolled. A white cloudbank in a deep blue sky towered above, lighting up both sea and the ss Rangoon herself. A squall had passed and her wet superstructure gleamed, white and chaste as a hospital ship. A net of cargo was being lowered to a lighter. Around us the sea was alive with vessels. A great fin broke the surface nearby and stood motionless. ‘Don’t worry about him,’ the Captain said, ‘he’s on guard duty.’ I kept that in mind as I clambered down the gangway and jumped into a rolling lighter packed with cargo. The glossy fin was feet away. Ashore I ran into the German painter Max Ernst on his way back to Paris from Indochina aboard a battered 2000 ton Odessa registered tramp, the ss Affon. He fixed me with the beady eye of a bird. Cannanore afternoons are special. The city faces west to a sun that sets across the Indian Ocean, and Ernst’s blue eyes caught it. The port glowed, wood smoke curling up steep streets. I’d first heard of Ernst from Tristram Hillier, the English artist who had grown up in China and whom I met in Paris. Hillier owned a haunted castle in Provence. On the veranda of Parson’s Nautical Hotel Ernst and I spoke of Hillier, of Paris, and compared notes about the East. Ernst was broke. He led me up to an overgrown European graveyard. We gazed down at the town and the sea beyond where the Affon and the Rangoon lay like toys. ‘Ancient Greeks were here,’ he said, ‘and our ships are floating over the remains of hms Ulysses. The guide book says she was built in England’s The New Forest, at Buckler’s Hard, on the Beaulieu River and went down in 1794. I love that forest and she is in my pictures too’ I scanned the coastline of the Western Ghats as he raised a hand and addressed an imaginary audience quoting his favourite German painter Caspar David Friedrich. ‘Close your physical eye that you may first see your picture in your mind’s eye. Then bring to light what you have seen there, that it may affect others, from the inside out.’ Back at Parson’s Nautical we found Vasco da Gama and a coarse man who was also sporting a large moustache. His trousers were striking, being of a bold black

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chapter  lvi   115

Ghost Clouds and white check. This was Captain Kidd who was to re-surface in the work of the American illustrator, S Clay Wilson as The Checkered Demon. The two weatherbeaten men were friends; Vasco had arrived in May 1490 and Captain Kidd had terrorised the coast in 1695. ‘It took me ten months and two days out of Lisbon to get here,’ said Vasco. ‘I should be so lucky, that old rust bucket the Affon nearly killed me,’ countered Ernst. ‘Killed you! I’ve been dead centuries and I’m still not satisfied with the service! Oi! Rag Head!’ yelled Kidd at a turbaned waiter. ‘Please!’ said Ernst. ‘Rag Head!’ yelled Kidd again with a fierce look at Ernst. Ernst closed one eye, and fixed the open one on Kidd, who insolently winked back. Ernst’s open eye fixed on Kidd. Kidd looked at his hands in alarm. They were turning green, covered in fungus. Tendrils sprouted from his face, arms and body. Desperately he tried to brush off the erupting growth. Within a moment such was the weight of undergrowth that engulfed him that Kidd’s chair collapsed. A mound of seething fungus and mould, of leaves and shoots glistened and multiplied over him. The air filled with the thick smell of decomposing vegetation in the heart of ancient woods. The bar emptied, guests backing away in alarm. Under that heap of pulsating plant life we could hear Kidd yelling abuse, until with a crash the wooden boards of the veranda caved in, taking him and the ghastly vegetable monstrosity to the paved colonnade beneath. Ernst blinked. The moment both eyes were open a gasp rose from below. The seething plant heap had vanished as suddenly as it had arisen, leaving Kidd spawled on the floor. Back on board Modeste said ‘Max Ernst’s a born reconditioner. A Soloist, a One Man Band! We are an ocean-going Orchestra!’ Some months after the recent war I met Ernst in Arizona. We decided to cool off in the rock pools of the river at Oak Creek Canyon. The mossy creek reminded us of Kidd at Cannanore. Ernst laughed. Not only had he given a good performance, a tour de force invasion of the real world by his imaginary one, the exploit had also been performed at the expense of an infamous pirate dead 300 years!

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Jazz drifted through the garden as thunderclouds seethed above. They hovered grumbling over the coast but seldom broke; a menacing fixture. Tinted by warm evening light, they differed from the grey lid we are used to in Europe, that ciel qui pèse comme un couvercle. The spectacular cloudscapes of the Western Ghats are the heavenly equivalent of Australia’s submarine Great Barrier Reef. For hundreds of miles cloud hugs the Indian shore, following its contour, licked into shape by wind off the ocean. Striking land the wind rises steeply forcing the cloudline to mirror the coastline below. The cloudbank turns from Naples Yellow to Lavender to Deep Violet. It absorbs and enhances colour and that evening cast a Pomegranate hue as waiters in crisp white sailed through the green hotel garden with silver trays. The clouds at Cannanore are special for another reason: Ghosts. We do not know when they chose the coast as a holiday resort. All we can say is they have been coming every September like migrant birds to congregate in vast formations. The visit resembles the August holiday in France – a seasonal migration to pleasure. The living dead travel from all over the world to relax with friends and family in the sun. As none ever die, being dead already, and as more and more of the recently deceased join them, the phantom holiday crush above the Western Ghats is an increasingly crowded affair, the morgue the merrier. Most of the dead are cheerful and like to jostle playfully in the clouds generating a unique phenomenon. At intervals their Phantom Games reach a critical mass that triggers a rolling motion in the stratocumulus. Again, there is no record of when this became a public entertainment for the living below. The phenomenon is dependent on the number of ghosts per square metre in relation to the density of water droplets held in suspension as cloud. Once droplets have been sufficiently jostled they cling to the swaying ghosts. This makes the ghosts not only visible but, more importantly, also enables them to make vapour patterns. Today, after centuries of practice, they have become skilful cloud sculptors and steer the stuff effortlessly across the sky. Such ghostly dexterity produces the unique meteorological phenomenon the Aurora Cannanorealis, tropical relatives of the Northern Lights of colder latitudes. The origins of the Northern Lights are as unexpected as those of the Phantom Clouds but are another story. ‘Yew thrives in sandy soil, and ghosts do well here,’ said Captain Kidd. ‘It’s the

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The Escape Starts Here

temperature and the geology. Town and sky are crammed. We keep bumping into each other, the living and the dead. Haunting is so routine it’s meaningless and you’ve never seen such an active social life between the Quick and the Dead. The place has attracted the Dead since before the Ice Age, since Gondwana. There are more Dead than Living on every street and treetop. Even the beaches are heaving with us, which you may find odd because you think of ghosts as loving the dark and cold. We don’t.’ ‘We don’t,’ agreed Vasco. ‘What’s also a bonus is the Dead all speak the same language, whether you’re Roman, Palaeolithic or Portuguese. No wonder we all get on. We know all about each other’s history, food and music.’ ‘This place,’ added Captain Kidd, ‘makes friends of the worst enemies, even whole armies that died at each other’s throats, and it also soothes slaughtered animals. It stands to reason ghost bison, even ghost flies are also here. There’s every kind of creature within a few feet of us, where sabre toothed tiger lies down with lamb. It’s a Phantom Paradise, and it’s getting ever more crowded. Like Beverly Hills! The Dead have an easy time of it, and it’s why Vasco and I are here, and why Wanda had no trouble finding us to put the kibosh on Lobo when he put the chill on you back there.’ The cloudscapes are at their best in September, when there are enough ghost families, friends and ancestors gathered to establish an intense energy field. They sculpt gigantic faces, cumulus versions of Mount Rushmore. I’ve seen slow-motion cloud sculptures above the port you would never believe. Cloud turns into Attack Ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, or becomes Baked Beans that glitter in the dark by Notting Hill Gate. No Centennial fire-work display can match the stunts Ghost Clouds perform when phantoms are on song. They turn a cloud into a galloping stagecoach 2000 metres high, tinted orange by the setting sun, and before your eyes transform it into a cascade of Mickey Mouse replicants that float down as slowly as autumn leaves. Each Mouse is so perfect in every detail the Disney Corporation launched a case against the weather for breach of Copyright. ‘There are times when a local Big Shot like Vasco steps in and licks the crowd into shape, a la Cecil B. De Mille. You met De Mille?’ Kidd asked Ernst. ‘He’s not dead and does good crowds.’ ‘It’s hard to keep everyone focused,’ added Vasco, ‘you can’t make yourself heard

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Ghost Clouds  


above the din, thousands of feet up there, especially when everyone’s having fun. It’s the same old problem; Cloud Control.’ ‘You can’t imagine the racket ghosts make,’ he said, ‘sounds like thunder from down here, but its just laughter, which you might think odd coming from the dead. I’m allowed to boss them around because I’m buried here; I’m local. Tomorrow we’re going to do a caravel under full sail.’ He paused, wistfully. ‘I love the sight of a caravel. Reminds me of the old days.’ ‘Me too’ said Kidd. ‘Ghost Ships!’ said Max Ernst.

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chapter  lvii   119

Razz the Cabin Boy I’d got used to the extravagant absurdity of life on board. The crew, a level-headed lot, took it as read – c’est la vie! Until I heard about Razz, that is. We’d always scraped through challenges, generally triggered by Lopez y Morales. My employers may yet appoint a biographer able to describe their inner life. My account, however, records the external events of our trip and is short on the voyages of the heart which depend on the gifts of a novelist, not mine by temperament. Razz’s tale surely offers an opening. The love for Razz felt by the crew was equalled by their sympathy for Wanda and the Captain. Razz’s memory was treasured by all because he’d made them laugh, and revealed to each something important about himself. Razz had been killed by Morales and fed to the sharks. ‘He’d joined us from a Gold Coast Penitentiary,’ said Modeste. ‘Not as a convict on the run, but on the run nevertheless, from a blind Prison Governor whose pet entertainer Razz had become. The man had a taste for prisoners and threatened to eat Razz for breakfast if he tried to escape. Razz was from a family of West African Quick Change Artists. Nothing to do with funny hats. You’ve never seen anything like him. We don’t make the West Africa Run any more, but on the first day, as we rounded Cape Abandon Hope, out of nowhere a Cabin Boy appears on deck in tropical whites and all smiles. There’s a picture of him on the company crest. He and Gaston are balanced on an anchor chain, supporting the shield like a brace of rampant heraldic figures. Razz sports a bushy tail for obvious reasons: he could turn into whatever he felt like. He was useful: a dab hand at Instant Therapy, especially for the criminally insane. Know Thyself goes the saying. Razz showed you who you really are. The bigger the devil, the bigger the shock from what you saw. He was the Quick Change Artist, Mr Mirror Image. The Mayor of Beira, a Portuguese psychopath with a splendid history of torture and the allure of a Matinée Idol (think Gilbert Roland) had it in for us. Razz finished him off in a trice by casually approaching and turning into the Mayor himself – a

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chapter  lviii   121

The Moon and I The ss Rangoon trained regularly. She kept in shape by changing hers. I caught her in the act off Cannanore. The Captain had said ‘She’s a Q-Ship of the mind. If we are on the run from coastguards we help out by painting her a different colour or adjust her funnel. But in an emergency there’s no-one like her. In a flash she changes and steams through the blockade set for us, sweet as pie.’ I was thinking about Max Ernst and Captain Kidd when davits, bulwark etc changed. For a moment I was on a Minesweeper. The moon and I had seen her practice.

perfect replica, down to the eau de cologne, a literal transformation achieved silently, on the move and complete by the time he faced the man. Meeting himself finished the man off. Razz had let him become the victim of his own poisoned being. Do unto others as you would be done by. Razz could’ve been The Dictator’s Nemesis, a major force for the common good: Ghengis meets Khan, Adolf meets Hitler, Trotsky Trotsky, Benito greets Mussolini, each to himself a victim. On a lighter note, when he was around life on board was fun: you never knew if you were talking to someone or to Razz’s Mirror Image. We got used to seeing people talking to themselves. He was brilliant at working a crowd. He was very careful not to be a pest with couples though – never took advantage by turning into a husband, which some of his less scrupulous relatives with the same gift have. Then one day Morales grabbed him by the throat, from behind, and pulled him overboard. You can guess who was waiting down there. Gaston saw it all. And Razz never broke the surface. Gaston took it very hard. You should have heard the laughter in the Galley until then. He and Razz were a great double act. Morales succeeded by stealth. He covered Razz’s eyes so he didn’t know what to change into. He sank into the deep, never to be seen again.’

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chapter  lx   123

Aerodynamic Spaghetti

The Last Stand

Engines pounded in the swell off the Western Ghats, gulls in thermals above our funnel. The looming mass of Diu Fort gradually receded, the Gulf of Cambay absorbed by the horizon. Time passed as slowly as the distant shore and the canvas awning astern steadily flapped, flap, flap. The Captain stood in silence on the bridge. On the foredeck a couple of Stokers were hosing hatch and bulwarks, their long dark ears, like Disney’s Goofy, swinging in time to the roll of the steamer. One looked up and waved, pointing starboard. A shoal of flying squid broke the surface like a formation of ice cream cones point first. They sped gracefully from the swell, tentacles trailing like aerodynamic spaghetti. Red, yellow or bottle green, their colour heightened against the dark sea, Technicolor flying squid plunged into the waves and shot out again moments later. Angry eyes seemed fixed on me as they flew. When Rip asked ‘Who do you think they are working for?’ they vanished at once.

Smells from the galley merged with the tang of fresh paint. Great storms that ravage the Southern Ocean are the deadliest weather systems on earth. Given our bearing off Gujurat, however, we assumed we were safe. Funnel clouds and screaming winds are the stuff of legend, and combined with the swift darkening of the sky produce the grandest and most elemental show. The cyclone we ran into was generated by warm air off the baking plains of Gujurat meeting a cold front sent by Lobo Lopez. It began when I sat down to lunch, and glancing up caught sight of the sea outside. The horizon had a strangely serrated look. Countless shark fins were surging in tight formation, bulldozing their way, in a steering line, into what turned out to be Lobo’s freshly commissioned cold front. The belt of man-eaters, moving in a giant wave, was designed to split the local weather system in two, forcing the Lopez front up and the Gujurat heat down and so syphon sharks up and out of the water in a spiral. They rose above the rigging and formed the eye of the storm, corkscrewing on a single axis. ‘It’s them again’ said the Captain, putting down his knife and fork. I’d seen alarming things recently, but this? As the shark squadron climbed higher, the air cooled and it occurred to me the man-eaters could now dive onto us like Stukas. Long ribbons of cirrus cloud swept above, indicating the route of Lobo’s icy jetstream, a narrow current of freezing air moving straight at us. Its deepening low pressure core hoovered up ever more sharks hauling them higher. The circling airborne man-eaters gathered into a vast snaking formation. A great carnivorous cobra. At its top the jet-stream frayed, spilling the rim of sharks. They hurtled back down, dive-bombing the ss Rangoon, kami-kaze style, just as I feared. The vessel began to rattle and boom as man-eaters crashed into her and burst in a blaze of gore. Meanwhile others toppled from the tornado’s apex into the sea, landing in great gouts of water like depth charges. This felt like the end. ‘Puta Madre!’ I heard Modeste say as the Captain’s Weinerschnitzel flew off the plate. Sure footed the Steward kept his balance, tray in position, the schnitzel safe. Water spouts occur in shallow water, and while they can be deadly for small craft, they rarely gave the ss Rangoon trouble. Indeed in hot latitudes her crew enjoyed the cooling wind and spray. Not this time.

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The Last Stand  


The battle was on. All Hands On Deck! Later we heard from observers ashore the storm erupted into a great rearing snake of cloud, poised over our solitary freighter. Then, as unexpectedly, the vessel was sucked up into the coils of the twister. On board this felt like a train crash. We roared and whirled about, furniture and crockery everywhere. Observers also reported that the giant snakelike cyclone had wrapped itself around the vessel like a hand on a ball and hurled her across the bay. Spent by the force of the throw, the cyclone of intertwined sharks scattered like leaves in the wind. Some fell into the sea, others landed miles to the south on the old Portuguese fortress at Diu, thudding on the ramparts, cascading through trees and into the keep, where they writhed for hours caked in blood and dust. The harbour of Diu, below the fort, was similarly covered in battered writhing corpses. As for us, we hurtled through the air for a moment in uncanny silence and then, with a tearing crash, sank into the sea. We slid from daylight into the dark. My ears popped. Silence followed, and with it stillness. I was on my side, face pressed against the floor and pinned down by furniture. Groans and grinding, some close, some echoing through the fabric of the vessel as if sheets of iron were sliding apart. We swayed in the blackness. Fear circled. The air grew hot and stale and pain from the weight of the furniture grew. Mr Karnicki’s voice, coming from above me somewhere, called ‘Pawel?’ Pinioned, my left arm explored what was in reach. I touched something warm. ‘Mr Karnicki, I think the Captain is here,’ I called into the dark, ‘He’s not moving.’ Then light began to seeped in, like dawn. The ss Rangoon was rocking, very gradually righting herself. This came with the grinding of the contents of the vessel as they shifted. The weight slid off me and once the milky glow of light had increased enough to see the chaos in the Dining Room, I heard muttering. I panicked again at another great roar. However, it was the ship breaking surface like a whale and shedding the weight of water that had engulfed her. ‘Steward!’ called Mr Karnicki, ‘Champagne!’

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126 chapter lxi

chapter  lxii   127

Hey Presto!

Karachi! Karachi!

Mr K stroked his chin, surveying the wreckage. He reached across for the little snow dome I’d seen at Carambahafen and handed it to the Captain, a gleam bouncing off its polished top. ‘It took Chevreul ages to get everything in here – even our Revenants.’ ‘Revenants? ‘Ourselves, in miniature. There are spores of everything in this little beauty. When in danger, as we are now, we give it a shake and … Hey Presto!’

I braced against the bridge in disbelief. We were in Karachi Harbour!. We had jumped hundreds of miles aboard a 2.000 ton steamer to reappear unobserved in broad daylight, in a major port. ‘Did you miss the flash!’ Modeste asked entering with Champagne. The Captain put the little dome in his pocket. ‘Lopez would die for this.’ Gaston’s voice burst through the intercom from the Galley: ‘How many for lunch?’ He always took pride in his work no matter how extreme the situation. ‘I look for fresh ingredients and I’m a great student of old recipes,’ he once said to me. ‘In other words all my sauces are locally sourced and all my sources are locally sauced.’

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128 chapter lxiii

History or Fable? Looking back at that fearsome storm I was puzzled by my employers’ use of contemporary technology. They had gone to the brink of disaster without the snow dome. I recalled Mr K’s instructions to explain the reason for the firm’s behaviour, ‘That’s why you are hired. So reveal it right.’ Perhaps, after all, life is more a matter of style. If so operating according to the Steam Age is creative and purpose enough. I was reminded of Aldous Huxley, in whose unconvincing dystopia – Brave New World – manual work was provided for the lower orders even though it was no longer necessary. Could not such an anachronistic approach also be benign and hands-off, rather than controlling? And could it not be the essence of the essential decency of j&k, ‘on the side of the angels’ as Modeste said, as against the mindless brutality of Morales and his crew? That at least is what I tried, rather inarticulately to explain to Mr K that evening in Karachi. When he smiled at my stabs at a sort of theology, I remembered Huxley’s eyesight was even poorer than Mr K’s. Had I become an unknowing apologist for j&k, or was I a free thinking man? History or fable?

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chapter  lxiv   129

Across the Indian Ocean

The following day, a heavy sea having gone down, we sailed from Karachi into an empty horizon, strangely free of shipping. To cross the Indian Ocean, even under the most favourable circumstances, brings you for many days close to nature, and you realise the vastness of the deep. The Southern Cross glittered abeam every night. Every morning the sun came up astern, every evening it went down ahead.

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132 chapter lxv

A Breath of Fresh Air  


A Breath of Fresh Air Modeste pointed, ‘Arabia.’ We were steaming west, past Masirah Island which obscured the dark ribbon of mainland beyond. Masirah is off Oman and a substantial place, forty miles long. ‘You wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy. Maybe you should. There’s no water. A handful of half-starved goats roam hills covered in thorns that rip you to shreds. I hate it,’ he added with feeling. The south coast of Oman is a forbidding place, a vast and desolate corner of the world, with a rich if forgotten history. ‘It’s one of the few places where lost cities await re-discovery. God only knows what palaces and dreams are buried there. You wouldn’t guess it though, from the scorched coast, where the sea boils on pebbly beaches and scorpions search your trousers. I hate it,’ he repeated. I gazed at the craggy coast, a view of Tolkien’s Mordor. Jagged mountains sawed their way along the horizon, rust red and dry as dust. Great slides of sand, miles long, had been blown into fan-shapes. Hard to imagine it was the legendary source of sweet smelling, luxurious frankincense. The scale of it is stupefying. A calm sea spread around us, splintered peaks disappearing into the distance. ‘Wait until we get to Ras Sharbatat,’ Mr K said. ‘Pawel’s got a surprise for you.’ ‘What?’ ‘Englishman, the sea here is so salty even Morales and his minions can’t survive and the sun so hot Lobo can’t take it. You might think we are safe. However, that doesn’t take into account the currents. Down there.’ He looked at the deck, and gestured, conjuring up dark waters beneath. ‘They sweep along the coast of Africa,’ and with a slow wave of his arm evoked the thousands of miles they cover, ‘and peter out here.’ His hand opened outward, palm up and fingers aimed at the coast. Turning the other way he added, ‘then there are currents from the Malabar, where we’ve just been. The Indian currents fizzle out here too. Those invisible submarine highways have produced what Pawel really likes about this place. Kuria Muria Bay’s ahead. In about an hour we shall enter a bay that’s a … ’ He paused. ‘A what?’ ‘You’ll see. Enjoy the view, we’ll not be coming this way again. I’m going in.’ Cape Ras Sharbatat is at the north east end of the Bay of Kuria Muria. Eighty miles to the west, Cape Ras Nus marks its end. Between them are a cluster of

The Escape for Pureprint.indd 132-133

islands – the Kuria Muria. ‘It’s obvious where the name comes from,’ said Modeste. ‘In the Middle Ages the overland route along the coast was deadly, cut throat Arabs bandits, death of thirst, etc. You could go by sea of course, but the monsoon is unpredictable and violent, so if a message was really urgent in the season of storm you had to go overland. And people accepted lost messengers. I think the islands got their name from the Spanish who then said ‘El Courier Murió,’ ‘The Courier Died.’ ‘Hey! Mr Englishman,’ the Captain called suddenly from the bridge. ‘Come, come.’ ‘Here we go again,’ said the Steward as he closed a port hole, which was odd, given the heat. ‘Can you see, Englishman, can you see the little islands that are near?’ I could. They were the five Kuria Muria, summits of a submarine ridge. On their seaward side the Admiralty chart shows deep water suddenly, as the ridge plunges steeply at the very edge of the Arabian peninsula and disappears into the Kuria Muria Deep. The Captain’s thick thumb was placed firmly on the map next to Hallanyia, the largest island. ‘Here we dive,’ he said. ‘But I don’t know how to dive, I’ve never dived in my life,’ I said with a sinking feeling. ‘No, no, not like that. We all dive, the ss Rangoon dives.’ What fresh extravagance now? A diving steamer? ‘Ssshh! Listen,’ the Captain spoke quietly, a finger to his lips. ‘Sshh!’ I heard hissing. ‘All doors, portholes, hatch-covers, ventilators, funnel too, everything is hydraulic. Why do you think?’. ‘To make us watertight?’ ‘Very good. Because the ss Rangoon has … ’ and he paused to let it sink in, ‘a submarine capability. How else could we have survived at Diu?’ There was clicking and hissing as fixings sealed and cool air circulated. ‘The view from here is best,’ he said. ‘A ring side seat at a beauty parade of such tragedy, not even the Roaring Recons can touch its pathos.’ He pronounced the last word Polish fashion, ‘par-toss.’

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The Escape Starts Here

We stood on the bridge, and with perfect composure went under. The engines didn’t skip a beat. It felt cooler than the humid sea air we’d just been breathing. Light faded as we sank into the blue green world of the Kuria Muria Deep. The Captain flicked a switch and a search-light sliced the gathering darkness. There were few fish. ‘The water’s too salty,’ he confirmed. ‘Too salty for Morales and his friends. Salt leaches out of the belly of Arabia and subterranean rivers carry it here. A shark or two tries its luck, but not for long. It’s nearly shark free, like the Baltic!’ He grinned. A stream of bubbles raced from twin ventilators on the fore-deck. ‘Oh! Look at that!’ I gasped, in the gloom, suspended like feathers in oil, hung a couple of upended freighters. Motionless, 1000 ton iron-hulled vessels floated vertically in the beam of our search-light, peacefully balanced hundreds of feet above the ocean floor. Despite their colossal weight, they hung as if in mid air, defying gravity, with the submarine cliffs of the continent their backdrop. ‘Look carefully, my friend,’ the Captain purred. ‘Look carefully, it’s a rare glimpse; a window on the past. We are now in the graveyard of many ocean going dreams. There are ships from the Pharaoh, about three thousand years. Extra salt in the water preserves them like pickled herring and cold prevents decay. Great currents bring them, this great family, the Kuria Muria Wrecks, from coasts and storms of the Indian Ocean, past and present.’ ‘How many?’ ‘Hundreds. We’ve not counted. Look closely and you’ll see specks in the distance, like the sky at night.’ He swivelled the beam back and forth, and wrecks sparkled like flakes of mica. I must have counted at least fifty. All had made the journey on submarine currents to settle here like autumn leaves. ‘She’s the ss Baron Inverdale,’ the Captain said as we drifted uncomfortably close to a vertical hull. You don’t often see ships like that, standing up like skyscrapers. She was wrecked off Masirah in 1904 by the treachery of Bedouin. They’d migrate from the mainland to work as wreckers. They got her, and massacred survivors. But she’s outlived them all. She hasn’t changed since I last saw her. Built in Govan.’ We sailed gently through those Hanging Gardens of Shipping, a monument to Man’s love of the Sea. Gutted hulls were festooned with broken spars and bent funnels. Lengths of canvas dangled vertically into the void tangled with cable and chains that hung like stalactites to end in an anchor going nowhere.

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chapter  lxvi   137

The Flea Here and there we saw corpses lying on deck as if asleep, pickled forever in that inert brine. They lay as they had settled, after the sea had claimed their vessel, and turned it into a tomb. ‘This place,’ said the Captain ‘is good for the soul. But the ss Rangoon doesn’t like it. It gives her the creeps to meet so many old friends in this way. You can feel her flinch at times. It makes you realise what a great lady she is to face the trauma without protest. Not that we come here often, though I’m sure her friends, out there, enjoy her visits. We must be a breath of fresh air for those ghost ships, wouldn’t you say?’

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During the First War, before the invention of radar or satellite surveillance, naval strategists developed lightweight floatplanes stowed onboard. Reassembled on deck the little craft would be lowered into the water from where they would take off as spotter planes to warn of hazards lurking over the horizon. The ss Rangoon did not need folding aircraft to maintain her security thanks to the Flea. This was stowed on the foredeck under green tarpaulin and consisted of pipes, secured at one end with bolts to form three legs like enormous brass telescopes. The whole device was light, easy to erect and propelled by hydraulics. The Flea does not rely on the internal combustion engine for thrust, which it derives exclusively from the laws of Perspective. This is a source of energy not only universally available at no cost, it is also silent, of infinite supply, is renewable and generates no pollution. The same cannot be said of coal or petroleum. Part of the Flea’s propulsion is generated by distance itself. The further you travel from a fixed point, for example from a light house, or on a greater scale of magnitude, from Planet Earth, the smaller your fixed point of departure becomes until it is a tiny dot; the lighthouse on its promontory becomes a white flake and the coast around it a blur while Planet Earth turns into a blue marble. From the viewing platform at the top of the Eiffel Tower the distance between the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the hill of Montmarte to its left fits between your index finger and thumb, or about ten centimetres. How many kilometres per hour does it take to travel ten centimetres? The key is distance, and that’s what the Flea unlocks. It operates on the same principle as a Pogostick. A downward thrust of its hydraulic legs launches the device until it reaches required altitude. So if you need to get from Dakar to Lagos the Flea takes the coordinates of those two locations and using its massive hydraulic kick flies up as the distance between cities below narrows. This enables the Flea’s parent ship to pass from one to the other instantly. ‘Distance brings things together,’ said Mr K. ‘And it’s the laws of perspective that do the rest – they unite two places at the vanishing Point. We just ride the convergence from one to the other. Fast. And the Flea then drops back.’

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Shredded Flying Boats It began when Gaston, our philosopher chef, told me our wake was cosmic. ‘Every time I ditch a bucket of slops here I think of all the rocket debris that will soon be floating around the Milky Way. You don’t think the submarine junkyard at Kuria Muria is the last word in derelict waste do you? We’ve ditched conked out trains and boats and planes strewn all over the planet. Steam engines and rolling stock rot in the Orinoco Basin, shredded flying boats bake in the Atacama, heaps of rusting convertibles in the foothills of the Rockies. It’s everywhere. Bust satellites next, up there,’ he stuck his thumb up and levered it sky-wards, ‘our ditched garbage will be swilling around inter-galactic highways. I look down at the whirling bubbles of our wake, and what do I see? A microcosmic version of the swirling vortex above. And Outer Space? The churning wake of a mighty celestial steamer, full of our slops!’ After that he whistled quietly, craning up at the sky and drifted into silence. I looked down at the prop wash, and there it was, a watery nebula of Gaston’s refuse, mashed into a dangerous cocktail by propellers. The deck vibrated with the pounding engine. I followed the long arc of our wake, foam and pale water tapering off to fade on the horizon. I liked what he said about Outer Space: all on a much greater scale than the moves we were making on the Gameboard of Life between Rangoon and Suez, as we steamed on, heads down playing by j&k’s Rules.

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chapter lxviii    139

A Night at The Movies

Morning clouds on the horizon suggested land ahead. A change in weather soon followed with every point of the compass threatening storm. However this was burnt off by the rising sun. A steamer came out of the south, steering west. Could she have been following? The ss Rangoon put her hull down astern and lost her in an hour. As we neared the mouth of the Red Sea and the smudged line of Socotra Island was floating on the horizon, Modeste Servitorius approached. ‘We’ll be showing a film in the Lounge this evening, Signore.’ Signore, Monsieur, Sir, Mein Herr, you never knew which language he’d be in. It was the custom on board to screen a film in the Main Lounge during longer stretches at sea. The glass-fronted notice-board where Modeste posted the daily menu had been cleared and pinned instead were a number of promotional lobbycards used to advertise forthcoming films.

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The Escape Starts Here

The crew was entitled to join passengers at such events, a practice forbidden on other vessels. This is typical of j&k Company life, in which Oily Rag and Commander are equals. Rip Yergenes and a handful of Stokers soon arrived. The lounge doors were open to the evening breeze and through them moonlight sparkled on an inky sea. Off went the lights and on came the projector. ‘The Escape Starts Here’ was clearly a favourite with the crew. They relished the movie, laughing at familiar gags. What sticks in the mind is the film’s Central European feeling, its pantomime air the result of mask-like make-up, long noses and pop-eyes. It featured grotesque versions of Modeste Servitorius, Rip Yergenes, Captain Janczyk, and a female impersonator vamping as Wanda. Shot in RangoonColour and ReconScope, the action took place on board, in rooms and companionways like ours, so you half expected to see yourself. Though amusing, it was funny-macabre, like ‘Three Stooges’ movies, and steeped in the same lyrical menace. There were lights along the coast. Peraiha, the Rock of Despair, carries a noble light which vessels have nevertheless failed to see. I watched the light of Despair sink astern as we sailed out of the Indian Ocean with ‘The Escape Starts Here’ on my mind.

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chapter lxix

chapter  lxx   143


The Island of Perim

Brightly packaged in primary colours souvenirs of your journey were for sale in the Purser’s Office. I bought a puppet of Modeste, beautifully made in Slovenia. A string dangled between his legs which when pulled forced his arms and legs up and down, making him look undignified. I could not resist a toy pinball game that featured him as well. There was a choice of the Company’s proprietary brands, bottles of Fantastisch Ol’Feisnter and the tinned fly-based relish As Canned as the Crow Flies.

A deserted harbour was all that remained of a famous coaling station with heaps of sand against the boarded doors of a warehouse. Something banged on hollow metal. In the glare a decaying tennis court where lizards fled and rubbish had gathered. Steps led to the terrace of a shuttered bungalow roofed in red corrugated iron. This was Perim. An abandoned installation, stripped of cranes but large enough for the ss Rangoon and half a dozen more. Not a tree, just a row of sheds and a tennis court. A tennis court, in that heat? It must have belonged to the Coal Master and been used at dawn. The last liner had called in 1926 leaving memories of a different kind. ‘Someone who lived here then,’ the Captain said, ‘told me you could hear dance music from passing liners at night.’ Fragments of memory cling to it because of its unusual geographical position. Older ghosts than the Coal Master’s trudge about when not flattened by the silence, the glare and above all by the spongy heat. Roman legionnaires, Portuguese explorers, Arab slavers among them and even de Lesseps himself who called when building the Suez Canal. Perim rises like the fragment of a tooth poking out at the mouth of the Red Sea, the last chip off the old block of the Arabian Peninsula. ‘No-one stays long,’ said the Captain, ‘there’s not a drop of water which is just as well as far as we are concerned.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because we can exploit its unique properties without competition.’ ‘What properties? All this junk?’ I wondered, scanning the desolation. ‘Appearances can be deceptive. It started some time ago. We were out there’, he looked seaward, his back to the Arabian coast. ‘Modeste suddenly noticed he’s singing Charles Trenet’s La Mer in a language he can’t speak. And he knows many. Before you could say Danzig the crew are talking languages they don’t know – and making complete sense.’ I felt as though I’d just got out of a bath and into a smelter. ‘It was like that moment in the Bible.’

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chapter lxxi 144

chapter  lxxii   145

Language Storms

Treeless Snouts of Land

‘The mother of all language storms had broken out,’ he said ‘and lasted about an hour leaving us mystified.’ ‘The first to realise was Modeste who came up to the bridge as Perim disappeared over the horizon, and persuaded me to turn about. As we drew near we all started talking foreign languages again. With the help of a tape recorder we’ve now worked it out, and as a result enjoy an international monopoly in the supply of Telegraphic Codes. The secret was to record the language sources in the island air. We then transcribed them and matched sounds with standard commercial vocabulary. Telegraphic communication is widespread, but is not very secure, is it? After all, if our wireless can pick up signals transmitted by rivals, so can they. Consequently we’ve made a fortune.’ At that moment the thing that really interested me wasn’t the Captain’s rhetoric about commercial security, but whether I might speak a language I couldn’t. ‘A language storm hasn’t hit us again,’ he said. ‘We have a theory about that, though. We think the event was brought on by a combination of gravitational and weather conditions. It began by separating the language centre of the island from its geographical moorings. All the island’s languages then drifted out to sea and we had steamed right into them. That kind of drift isn’t unheard of. Magnetic North slips away from True North. Similar force field fluctuations affect Perim. You get True Perim when languages are centred on the island. Magnetic Perim, however, fluctuates, as we found when we sailed into it.’

I walked from the sweltering port up a low hill where centuries ago a Portuguese explorer had set up a wooden cross to claim the island for his King. He’d called the island Vera Cruz, the name of Lopez y Morales’s port of origin. There’s nothing unusual to the naked ear on Perim, which explains why its phenomenal acoustic peculiarities were overlooked. From above the island was silent and bare. The lighthouse on the hill cast a welcome shadow. Across one and a half miles of the Bab el-Mandeb Channel I could see a cluster of houses on the Arabian coast. Past the treeless snouts of land to the south of Perim wave patterns mark a current flowing out of the Red Sea. Intense heat made standing an effort. Sweat ran down my back. Dry grass rustled. Study of the j&k recordings of Perim revealed dead languages survive by adopting life forms or minerals as a host. A preliminary study shows Tala survives in the barely audible sounds made by Yellow Lichen, Mirtilla Paphlagoniensis Perim. The rasping modulations of Perim’s native stick insect preserves the language of the Guanari of the western Parana. ‘Quil-yek-tebi, quil-yek-tebi’ the male stick insect rasps. ‘Want-lik-im, want-lik-im’ replies the female, an insect generating the Guanari for West Wind, a cooling breeze treasured by an extinct culture. ‘We know the rustle of the vinegar plant is in proto-Hausa,’ said Rip. By the light house I remember thinking the creak of a pepper bush, the croak of a rock lizard and the sound of beetles might one day be the acoustic Last Will and Testament of our species.

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chapter  lxxiv   147

Like Poles Repel

Meatballs of Trieste

‘Think of magnets, that’s how Poles work too: similar Poles repel, opposed Poles attract. Wanda was born in southern Poland, which explains why she and a northerner like my partner Pawel made a fine couple. It’s always a good move for Danzig boys to marry girls from the Tatra. Language works on the same lines. The magnetised molecules of a compass always face North. In your brain each language faces one way, French this way, Arabic that. It all follows an electromagnetic structure generated up here.’ Mr K tapped his forehead. ‘For reasons we don’t understand, electromagnetic language-lines, ells, radiate from Perim, making it a kind of language Mecca. A bit much to grasp in this heat.’ He fanned himself in the shade of a ruined water tower. We stood in silence. Slowly he swept the horizon with outstretched hand as if tracing a giant headline across the sky, ‘war!’ he said. ‘When Corporations wake up to this place there’s going to be hell to pay!’

‘There’s a material basis for believing some people are better at languages than others. You for instance, are one – it’s partly why you are here, though you’re not a patch on Modeste.’ ‘You called, Captain?’ Mr Janczyk gave the Instant Steward a smile. ‘Some metals,’ he continued, ‘hold a magnetic charge better than others. Almico for one. It’s an alloy,’ he said for my benefit, ‘like Modeste here, who’s an alloy of Polish, Triestine and Bolivian extraction. Maybe that’s why languages stick to him like flies.’ The Steward looked indifferent. ‘Whatever the reason, it was Modeste who spotted Perim. Since then we’ve mined a natural phenomenon of incomparable beauty. The island’s magic, like most of the curiosities you’ve seen so far, is basically built like a sandwich: the Base – the Filling – the Top. Like that. The secrets of the ss Rangoon, and the mysteries of reconditioning are as basic as a sandwich too. From the home-made meatballs of Trieste to the stellar gases of Alpha Centauri, everything worth its salt follows a recipe. Nach Perim.’

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What Next?

chapter  lxxvi   149

Next Stop Suez

‘In your game it’s worth thinking about.’ ‘Why more carefully than, say, about aerodynamic spaghetti?’ ‘Because you’re a writer, language is your métier’ the Pest Control Officer added. He was fiddling with a pencil, and his orange hair was in a ponytail, pirate-fashion, to combat the heat. Sandwiches, meatballs, alloys, what next?

The Ship’s Cook strolled by in the heat. ‘Next stop Suez, Bonne Nuit.’ I defy anyone to sleep crossing the Red Sea. You barely survive if you sit still on deck, where I lay in a deckchair bathed in sweat dreading the blast furnace of dawn. Dozing fitfully I dreamed we’d hit a harbour wall at ramming speed. However, off the Port of Massawa a tepid breeze freshened. Gliding along smoothly the ss Rangoon passed the Dhalak Islands light. Thence shaping her course by instinct, she steadied north.

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chapter lxxviii    151

Rotating Ventilators


‘We never sail cul about face.’ The Pest Control Officer pointed at a steamer sailing backwards up the Red Sea. ‘Our ventilators adjust to catch any breeze and funnel it below. Those boobies over there are a fixed vent cavalry transport ship. You can spot them because of that and if there isn’t enough air getting into the baking hold, the vessel turns about and travels stern first to force air in and relieve the poor creatures below.’ I took it for granted that deck-mounted ventilators always face one way. Not on the ss Rangoon. Each ventilator knows its own mind and swivels independently. You never knew which way things were going on board. Imagination and reality traded places. Perim confirmed this, which led me to conclude that when Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, ‘This isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not,’ he was talking about Perim. We know he was widely read and could therefore have studied Sir John Pitcairn’s The Nabob, in which the author described his shipwreck on the Yemeni coast where he heard of a mysterious island echoing with strange sounds and voices. People soon assumed The Nabob was fantasy, like Atlantis and King Solomon’s mines, and so Perim remained in the shadows. Some way down the coast a freighter was beached, her funnel and ventilators squashed as cigarette butts.

The opening of the Suez Canal caused great change, the least familiar being the expansion of the Polish community in Cairo. Until then, Poles in Rangoon had been linked to their home port of Danzig by way of Cape of Good Hope. The Baltic-Burmese Steamer Service through Suez in 1889 triggered subsidiary Polish Agencies along the Asian coast from Cox’s Bazar to Singapore. Opportunities along the sea route drew adventurous Polish families to the flesh-pots of Cairo. ‘The Cabanos sausage was invented there. It’s deliberately dry and is heavily smoked to resist the flies of Siniai and … ’ ‘Enough of your nonsense, Modeste Servitorius.’ ‘Servitorius by name, but not by nature, Mon Capitaine.’

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Inspectors at Suez The Suez Canal Inspectorate collects dues owed to the Canal Company by every vessel using the waterway. The tariff depends on the tonnage of a ship and her cargo. The more valuable the cargo, the higher the tariff. False declarations led to transit prohibition which obliges a vessel to take the long route round Africa to bankruptcy. Needless to say j&k were not the only firm to consider evading dues, saying ‘We trim the margins to make pips squeak’. The firm specialised in rating cargo as ballast. Ever alert to such ploys spot checks were implemented by the Canal Inspectorate – and lawyers moved to maximise litigation. Litigation followed suspension which followed violation; the courts in Cairo swarmed with Barristers in the wake of outraged ship owners. But never j&k. Known within the Partnership as ‘Swivel Holding’ their method tested the Inspectorate’s skill. The ss Rangoon passes through the Canal declared as In Ballast. She is searched regularly, to no effect, and trails a cloud of suspicion. ‘From the start,’ Modeste Servitorius said, ‘Mr Karnicki was insistent that our toll-beating technology shouldn’t break Maritime Law. We had to stretch the point without violating Manifest Protocol.’ This states that cargo noted on the Manifest at the port of origin must be unloaded at its destination. There was no word about what happens in between. I noticed that certain sharks worked their passage through the Canal, free of charge, lurking in the wake of vessels, like ours, to alarm passengers. ‘We catch one sometimes, just to annoy its Master,’ added the Steward.

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Recycling Ballast

chapter  lxxxi   157

Decoy Cargo

‘The Captain came up with the idea. On the Canal Transit Declaration Form he entered Recycling Ballast as our cargo.’ We looked over the rail and down at the green tarpaulin over the hold. ‘It’s a broad enough category to cover all types of cargo, from Used Bicycle Parts to Permitted Iron Filings to Irrawaddi Fishmeal Derivate. With an amorphous sounding cargo like that the ss Rangoon can Swivel Hold in two ways.’ One hold forrard, I figured, the other astern. ‘The basic Swivel Hold relies on a gyroscopic double-hulled hold, operated by steam driven pistons. Generous concealed compartments were created alongside and below the two conventional holds, like a giant smuggler’s suitcase.’ Modeste paused. ‘The second Swivel Holding is less easy to explain. If the piston driven compartments are a marvel of science, the second technique is more of an art, magic on an industrial scale.’

Once the ship was under weigh her cargo of Burmese petroleum, copra, etc., would be stowed undeclared in the swivel-hold. The main holds fore and aft, both visible and accessible, carried the declared cargo of low grade materials classed as In Ballast and chargeable at the lowest transit rate. This was known as Decoy Cargo. Once past the Inspectorate it was possible to unload cargo at various points along the Canal. The firm’s cargo of ballast could therefore go ashore at Al-Kantara, for example, for the firm’s Reconditioning Plant at Hawamdiah, near Cairo. Mr Karnicki hinted at another purpose of the swivel-hold. It challenged the Inspectorate. ‘We’ve got a taste for sailing close to the wind. Like Running Bulls at Pamplona.’

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chapter lxxxiii    159

Half-buried Heaps

That Ingenious Line

‘Suez. What a place! Really busy and an obvious locale for a Branch Office. All that to and fro to distract the Inspectors. There was also the Polish Community.’ My first impressions came from a Thé Dansant at the Hotel Europa. Guests gossiped to the sound of a gramophone recording. The dance floor empty, a soporific mazurka drifted on, when I caught the softly spoken word ‘oppa’ (to rhyme with ‘copper’). The Chief of Police who monitored the Polish Thé Dansant was informed by agents, ‘Nothing to report, Effendi,’ but not ‘... because I dozed off.’ The Poles prospered unobserved, spies bored into the arms of Morpheus. Thus o.p.p.a. prospered, invisibly. ‘Walk north out of town,’ Mr K said, ‘and you’ll see the old o.p.p.a. plant.’ Down the Cairo road I went, past shops and Consulates into open country to the brick-built sheds and forecourt of a disused railway station. These run-down buildings on the edge of the desert, marooned at the margins of life, sheltered goats. Bedouin camped in the ticket office and along deserted platforms where debris from makeshift camps gathered in half-buried heaps.

These were the ruins of a railway built by the Organisation of Polish Port Authorities (o.p.p.a) from Cairo south through the desert to Suez and west to the Nile at Hawamdiah. Its gauge was 6 cms wider than standard British-built rolling stock, a discrepancy which explains why Polish track was not incorporated into the later network. The story goes that the o.p.p.a. railway went bust. ‘People don’t agree,’ Yergenes warned. ‘You mean because of the Polish Ghost Train?’ ‘Travellers say some abandoned rolling stock moves about, that’s all. It’s found miles from where last seen. Some claim it’s down to mirages or that wind blows wagons about, while others claim Bedouin tow carriages with camels as mobile homes, as genuine caravanserai. It’s the Bedouin we should listen to; they give the tracks a wide berth at night for fear of being run down by loaded freight cars.’ Those who have explored the line by day report the track is in good repair, which is odd as no maintenance goes on.

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chapter lxxxiv    161

First Flies of Spring ‘However, the line does ship tons of merchandise without trace.’ Rip Yergenes looked slowly to left and right. ‘How?’ ‘If you want to know more about Vladimir Popski’s o.p.p.a., call on the man himself. He’ll be pleased to tell you.’ ‘But if it’s flies you want to know about,’ added Modeste, ‘then Rip’s your man. He fixes the flies for Popski and for us. One thing you can be sure of is that Vlad’s Run is a fly free zone. I’ll get the car.’ Mystified, I walked down the gangway as Modeste looked up at the bridge, where a bell tinkled. ‘J’arrive,’ he called and dashed off. ‘Modeste, don’t run, du calme’ said Yergenes wearily. ‘Then what? That I should fly?’ countered Modeste without turning, adding the Latin tag, ‘Modeste currit.’ ‘Tempus fugit, more like,’ Yergenes shouted back. ‘Time Flies?’ I asked. ‘Sure, but how fast?’ replied the Pest Control Officer. ‘I’d choose the first flies of Spring in Crete if I were you. They’re sprinters.’

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The House was Silent The old Jeep owned by j&k had a hand-painted sign on the bonnet reading ‘j&k Govt’, bought from the Jammu & Kashmir Cairo Delegation. It was a bargain as all the action it had seen was on the Cocktail Run to Gezira. ‘Why not just buy the sign and screw it to our old Duvalier 4-litre?’ Mr Karnicki asked. ‘Because we also need a car that looks credible,’ the Captain replied defensively. Wrought-iron gates were open and the Jeep idled to a stop in front of the Villa Khalil. Pink soil and rosy gravel was dappled with blue shadow. Out of the Villa came not a sound. Front door and windows were arched, frames painted light blue, as were shutters. House and setting were colourful, yet restrained. A veranda ran along the front supporting a balcony above. Among the palms stood an elaborate cast-iron water-tower, its four legs a fretwork of Gothic detail ending in a display of crockets and finials obscured by palm fronds. The door opened briskly, framing the robust figure of Vladimir Peniakopf. ‘Good Afternoon, sir,’ he said, squeezing my hand so hard I had to squeeze back with a grimace. ‘Come in, entrez.’ We crossed a cool tiled hall. French windows opened onto a shady courtyard where a fountain played. At the foot of the staircase hung a small portrait drawing of a young man in a wing collar. ‘Bilibin, 1922,’ said Peniakopf, talking in bursts. ‘Wellknown painter. Heard of him? Visited Alexandria. After the Revolution. Looking for a fresh start. I asked him to paint my portrait. That’s the sketch. Finished canvas last seen in Odessa Academy. He begged me to lend it. God knows what the Soviets did with it. Typical. Soviets! Ha! Heistmeisters!’

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Villa Khalil

Peniakopf’s Hand

‘To relieve the boredom in Suez’ the pamphlet read, ‘we’d drive to hills nearby and enjoy the gardens of the Villa Khalil, home of the Polish businessman Vladimir Peniakopf, known as Popski to British friends. Cool drinks, tobacco and a pack of cards passed the time. My colleagues in the Suez administration and I would arrive in time to catch the evening breeze. Though not cool, it was fresher there than in town, where air’s thick with smoke from coal burning steamers. The gardens had a fountain.’ Gardens and villa have gone, destroyed in the recent war when they were the headquarters of a small force of Desert Rangers celebrated as Popski’s Private Army. The building had a fine view and was inspired by the Duke of Aosta’s Villa Miramare, near Trieste. From the white-washed terrace one saw the Canal snaking towards the quays at the end of the Suez promontory. Mount Sinai dominated the rest. At sunset it glows rose, lilac and madder, the vulgar tones of a Sketch Club enthusiast. The metallic waters of the Gulf of Suez stretch to the horizon beyond. Peniakopf was a leading member of the pre-war Polish community in Egypt. A graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, he combined the role of merchant with that of explorer. He ran a ‘sugar mill’ at Hawamdiah, but when business was slack, which he arranged to suit himself, he disappeared into the desert where the firm found him.’

Among the papers in the Company Archive are some of Peniakopf’s. On ruled paper, in a sloping European hand dated July 1936, he wrote ‘I rode up the embankment of the Suez Canal just as the superstructure of a steamer appeared. Polish colours fluttered astern and in a flash I knew I had to be Poland’s Wassmuss. Wilhelm Wassmuss, German adventurer, now forgotten, had rivalled Lawrence of Arabia. At that moment I recognised I was destined to bring together my homeland and the Deserts of Arabia. I rode towards the vessel as she loomed closer, smoke from her yellow and white funnel sending shadows over the gravel bank of the Canal. She slid past with pounding engine. The Captain walked the deck, heading astern. His stride in one direction was neutralised by the motion of the ship in the other, so for a moment he appeared to stand motionless opposite me. I waved, spontaneously shouting through cupped hands ‘Pilsudski For Ever!’ He laughed and waved as the boat revealed her identity, ss Rangoon, in white letters on her stern. A ride along the Suez Canal followed until her funnel re-appeared. She was moored at a small jetty north of Al-Kantara. The crew was unloading crates and mounds of junk. In the raking light of early evening crates were being stacked into pyramids while the junk was piled in conical heaps. It was my first sight of the Pyramids of Janczyk and Karnicki. Not true pyramids of course, but mountainous piles of refuse, ballast and crates deposited by a firm I was to join, and by whom I was christened the ‘Egyptian Runner’. On deck gnawing a chicken leg stood her Master. He waved me aboard, shouting in Polish as if he was expecting me, which of course he was. I went aboard and began the best years of my life.’

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Time Travel for Beginneers EPILOGUE

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‘The railhead,’ Modeste Servitorius said as we caught sight of Al-Kantara. Pepper trees and saltbush followed the Canal shore until j&k’s wharf appeared with its piled crates. The Captain asked Modeste to take me ashore and as we descended the swinging gangway ‘Terra firma?’ he asked as if trying to tell me something. ‘The view from the top is good, how about it?’ We walked past the Depot buildings where in faded blue were painted the letters o.p.p.a. ‘This was the terminal … ’ Mountains of crates towered above us. ‘Our dockers build pyramids,’ said Modeste. ‘We asked them to stack in two tiers, but the fellaheen went on making pyramids. Must be in their blood.’ He led me through the Depot, his great nose slicing the air. ‘We can deliver by remote control, long-distance, but we have to use crates because everyone else does, and the Canal Inspectorate expects it. Here we are staggering around with this,’ he paused, ‘this obsolete technology so as not to frighten the horses.’ ‘Otherwise you’d transmit merchandise around the globe that would materialise on touch-down?’ I hesitated. ‘That would kiss good-bye to the ss Rangoon, wouldn’t it?’ ‘Pretty much,’ he nodded. ‘Without these crates, there’d be no voyages, and we’d be out of a job. Seen our Memorial to the Crate, at Stettin?’ ‘So you’re like.. Astronauts in the Stone Age?’ ‘Monsieur,’ he replied obliquely, ‘there have been one or two Canal Inspectors who realised. But they never last long.’ He looked casually down the shady avenue between pyramids, ‘when you get the picture it is time to set up on your own. People have the wrong idea, they think we’re Traders in Bulk Sediment, our warehouses full of Used U-Name-It, blabla, but they don’t know we can work in any period yet prefer this one. We love the Steam Age; it’s got smoke and mirrors, brass, teak and the livery of innocence. The Nuclear one round the corner is less fun and we’ve tried

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The Escape for Pureprint.indd 168-169

The Escape Starts Here

Time Travel for Beginneers  


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the Middle Ages – too much like hard work over there. So here we are in the Canal, our hold full of crates, ship-shape and Bristol fashion. They get checked by the Inspectorate at Suez and we wind up unloading some up here for the Hawamdiah plant. It doesn’t matter what’s in the crates, the crates are what we’re expected to carry. Trojan Crates.’ He kicked the side of one; it gave off an empty boom. ‘They’re made for us in Malacca and we keep shipping them back and forth. Once in a while you get a bright young Inspector who senses something. It’s livelier when an eagle-eyed Inspector is on your tail. Like Avram Pulgamento; I won’t forget him holding his head in his hands. Where is he now?’ He sucked his teeth thoughtfully. ‘At first he came aboard like clock-work to check the Manifest. But because he was a cut above the others, he picked up on it right away, like a puzzled blood-hound. He became obsessed. He was rowing around at night waving his torch at the waterline. The Chief Inspector called: ‘Inspector Pulgamento has assembled a file, 7 kilos! He won’t sleep, his wife has left and he looks to the Rangoon as a pilgrim to Compostela. His office is covered in photographs and measured drawings of your vessel. I shall have to ensure his rota won’t coincide with your next passage. It’s not you I have to worry about, but the traffic who would get it in the neck from whatever mischief he lets loose on you.’ The Captain looked amused. He offered to show the Chief Inspector what Gaston was preparing for dinner; the Inspector was a gourmet. Picking his teeth later on the quayside he told the Captain, ‘You know I know.’ ‘Yes,’ replied the Captain. ‘All my best men eventually run up against her,’ said the Chief nodding at the ship. ‘Avram will blow up or leave with light shining out of his eyes – and a promotion. It never ends. I feel I’m running a finishing school, not a Canal. Between us we train the best Inspectors.’ ‘It’s a close run thing,’ smiled Mr K. ‘The last stage is seldom as explosive as Avram’s may be, so,’ and the Chief reached up to pull down a lower eye lid, revealing a large whale-like eyeball that swivelled left and right. ‘Keep your eyes peeled,’ he laughed, with one of his lop-sided smiles. ‘The Chief Inspector’s fine. He’s not on our payroll. But enough of that,’ said Modeste. ‘Let’s move. The light is going sooner than you think.’

The Escape for Pureprint.indd 170-171

Time Travel for Beginneers  


Crates creaked in the heat and scented the air with a resinous tang. A ladder leaned against one. I followed the Steward up and along a ledge. The pockets of his white mess jacket were empty. The seat of his black trousers was shiny. His great orange shoes padded over the planks until he found a series of footholds in the side of another, and climbed onto the next level. I followed, gradually climbing the shady side of the pyramid to its summit. Blinded by the setting sun, we stood looking down on the jetty and our steamer. The last of the day’s work was ending in late afternoon light. A train waited at a siding half a mile away, loaded with ballast and crates. Smoke billowed from the engine. The twin ribbons of silver track gleamed westward. The Bitter Lakes shone orange and black as around us stood the creaking pyramids of soi-disant merchandise like an ancient ritual site. ‘What’s going on down there?’ I asked, pointing at a group of dockers moving a crate onto a flat-bed truck, only to move it off again. ‘They’re on Decoy Detail, confusing observers,’ he replied, rolling a cigarette. He then stood smoking, one hand tucked into his mess jacket, like Napoleon at Aboukir. ‘Is all this stuff going anywhere in particular?’ I asked. ‘It looks like the crates are going round in circles. From Rangoon to here, from here to Cairo, Cairo to Port Said, to Trieste, to Danzig and then back again.’ ‘That’s the idea, it’s been going on as long as I can remember. The stuff used to go round the Cape until Monsieur de Lesseps built the Canal. Strange man. We’re waiting for the Norwegians to invent Container Shipping in about thirty years.’ ‘How long have you been doing the Rangoon run?’ ‘Servitorius has been on the scene since Opening Night.’ He shrugged. A whistle from the jetty below drew our attention to the distant figure of Rip Yergenes. ‘Now, having shown you all

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The Escape Starts Here

chapter lxxxix    173

this,’ and Modeste waved at the world spread out below with one arm and put the other round my shoulders adding, ‘All this could be yours if … ’ You just never knew with him. One minute he was so friendly, and so unsettling the next. ‘How about a drink?’ ‘Up here?’ ‘Sure. I’ll get some beers. deux!’ he yelled, holding up two fingers. A moment later a tray came flying up with a loud buzz. It hovered at Modeste’s elbow. As he took hold a cloud of flies scattered from beneath and headed down in an arrow shaped pack. ‘How about that!’ he laughed. ‘Trained flies?’ What a fortune one could make! ‘I hope you’ve noticed we’re in a neffeffzed?’ he replied severely. ‘Neffeffzed?’ ‘A Fly Free Zone, F.F.Z. Which Rip fixes – for us.’ In the time we had been at Al-Kantara I’d not seen a single fly. At sea you took it for granted, but here in the middle of Egypt no-one could expect any mercy. Instead there was an agreeable silence as we sipped our beer. ‘Here, let’s get them to collect the empties,’ and whistled. The swarm approached, slipped delicately beneath the outstretched tray and carried it back down without a clink. At nightfall, instead of dining on board, we ate roast goat at a trestle table on the wharf, close to the ss Rangoon whose darkened silhouette was illuminated at intervals. The quay had a string of lights that drew bats to feast on moths. Moths blundered about, bats picked them off. Everyone enjoyed dinner.

Chopinesque Precision


The Escape for Pureprint.indd 172-173

The O.P.P.A train crews hauling ballast from Al-Kantara to Hawamdiah Processing Plant wore pale blue uniforms that turned lilac in the shade and, astonishingly, like chameleons mimicked their surroundings. At thirty paces they became invisible. You could only be detected by your face and hands that floated about with Chopinesque precision, disconnected from each other. ‘You could also make a fortune marketing that,’ I pointed out. ‘If we sold the stuff to everyone we’d lose our competitive edge, wouldn’t we?’ came the answer. ‘The formula is well camouflaged, like the wearer.’ When the journalist Raymond O’Shea visited T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) at Cloud’s Hill, his Dorset home, he was told ‘I am convinced an ancient Polish Railway is to be found there, Arabs say all is not as it seems at Al-Kantara.’

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chapter  xc   175

The Fly Zone

‘These days Flies talk like Lionel Stander,’ Rip Yergenes said in the j&k Commissary at Port Said. ‘In the eighteenth century they spoke French, and slaves of fashion that they are until recently they sounded like Etonians. They’re copycats, and once they’ve decided to switch accent every fly, from Patagonia to Penang, changes at the same moment. I can’t decide if a change in their Lingua Mosca is a sign of deference to the Superpower of the day, or one of contempt. Why chose Lionel Stander otherwise? You know Stander?’ ‘No.’ ‘A B-Grade Hollywood Star who sounds like a Brooklyn cement mixer. The bigger the fly, the deeper the voice, obviously. We’ll meet one soon, but let’s have a drink first. Flies swerve all over the place, yet their gyroscope is so good you won’t feel much; no more than riding pillion on a bike.’ I wasn’t so sure. ‘Modeste!’ he called. ‘J’arrive.’ The Steward delivered a couple of glasses of Ol’Feinster. A clerk in stiff collar and starched cuffs stood by the Commissary’s richly decorated till. Along its top a row of small circular windows protected the numerical indicators that recorded each sale. Around us were shelves stacked in orderly rows with Company merchandise. Business at Port Said was going well. Customers came and went, their progress marked by the ding-ding of the till bell. There were wooden shelves, glass-fronted mahogany cabinets and sodium carbide lamps to set the stage. I was fixated by the translucent shape of the bulbs that tapered to a sensuous glass nipple. Yergenes ran a finger along his green nose. ‘Do you know what my beret Basque hides?’ I shook my head. ‘An octopus. My orange hair is often mistaken for an octopus.’ He grinned. ‘What do you think? Are people crazy? Why would I wear an octopus?’ Before I could reply

The Escape for Pureprint.indd 174-175

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The Escape Starts Here

The Fly Zone  


he said ‘When do you want to hear about flies? It’s been months and we haven’t spoken. You have seen the refit at Pazandaung, the Morales Veil of Sharks, the Roaring Recons but nothing about flies for your Report.’ His long lashes blinked slowly. Yergenes is slightly cross-eyed, which gives him a deceptive dopey look. ‘I never talk about them. But this is Official … so … ’ Out came my notebook and pencil. ‘You won’t need that,’ he said, ‘they’ll take notes.’ ‘Voilà,’ he put a Gladstone bag on the table. ‘Here they are. Bonjour les mecs!’ At one end a small grill sprang open. ‘It keeps lizards out. Pad and pencil please.’ A swarm of flies buzzed out in a snaking line and gathered over the pad, forming a life-size hand which glistened like tar. Wings raced and interlaced legs kept each fly anchored to its neighbour, their mass supporting the pencil. ‘Every fly has a serial number, so we know how many there are,’ Rip explained. ‘The number of flies is constant, always has been, and ever more shall be so. You’ll see the number on its back when we go for a ride.’ I said nothing … but riding flies? ‘When a fly dies its serial number transfers to the egg of another. Every fly wears the number worn by an ancestor who inherited it in turn in a chain that disappears back into the fossilised mud-banks of prehistory. As they die the numbers pass at speed across continents. If you tap into the transmission of digits from dying flies to emerging eggs, the energy-surge is phenomenal; the power they generate can atomise a B-52. It’s an ancient, unending highway along which the memory of flies is passed and preserved. Now you know. Why did the fly fly? Because the spider spied her,’ smiled Rip. Spiders? Rip continued ‘The secret’s safe with you; just try sharing it.’ By then the pencil needed sharpening. ‘It’s why they buzz. Vibrations are a power source, like a global turbine. Spider have the Web, but flies have the Buzz. A fly here can hear another in the stratosphere. It’s incredible. Their buzz is so fast because it’s been building for aeons, and even though it flows counter-clockwise to the rotation of the earth flies communicate at speeds greater than that. It’s why they can’t be caught. A fly in good condition can fly so fast he’s off the visible spectrum. It’s only the weak that cop it.’ Rip leaned back in his chair to stretch. ‘I don’t know about you, but I can only take so much theory. So let’s go. But remember, j&k have access to the Buzz because the flies have reciprocal access. We use their gifts and in exchange they help

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The Escape Starts Here

themselves to our merchandise gratis.’ With a flourish, the hand dropped the pencil and dispersed. A solitary fly skittered about on the table exploring a bead of liquid. ‘Here we go!’ said Rip suddenly. ‘This is Fitcher.’ Rip stood facing me and reached up to stroke the gleaming flank of a fly the size of a truck! ‘Down here, things look different but aren’t.’ We were beside a pool reflecting glass towers, those from which we had been drinking. They rose like skyscrapers and we were now standing, I realised, next to the bead of liquid and the fly I’d seen a second ago, and fly was called Fitcher. Beyond the glasses I saw a gigantic seated Rip Yergenes, as large as a mountain, and just as still. Next to him sat I, my huge human self looking down at me, immobile. ‘It’s what happens when you visit the Flyway, you leave the bits that can’t keep up behind, like our giant meat selves up there. They’re too sluggish for this. Now we’re smaller, we travel faster, in a parallel zone.’ ‘Hi!’ Fitcher’s Brooklyn accent came through a grey flared trunk in the centre of his great head. Later I watched him eat with it, skilfully siphoning what he wanted and leaving the bits he didn’t. His snout was retractable. Two great domed eyes, like fishing nets bulging with mackerel were balanced on his head. You couldn’t tell if he was looking at you, because there was no retina. Although I had watched flies puttering about, nothing prepared me for the weird beauty of the truck-sized monster idling beside me. Fitcher was beautiful, and alarming. He looked like a machine, smelled like a drain and was designed with microscopic attention to detail. ‘Most folks don’t talk when they arrive,’ Fitcher growled. ‘Hello,’ I said. ‘Treat the flanges on his legs like a ladder.’ Fitcher expertly brought two of his legs together and following Rip I climbed. ‘Sit in front, you’ll get a better view. Don’t forget the goggles.’ Fitcher’s bristles were sharp and Rip handed me motorcycling gloves. We sat astride him like a pair of mahouts on an elephant. ‘You guys ready?’ ‘Du calme, Fitcher, du calme. Fitcher is an experienced flier who knows the

The Escape for Pureprint.indd 178-179

The Fly Zone  


Commissary well. We’ve got to show you round and give you a flavour of the Flyway without hitting flypaper or being eaten by spiders of which there are a number. We’ve got about an hour, en route.’ I took a deep breath. ‘Grab the bristles!’ Rip called in my ear, squeezing my fists tightly round a couple of bunches. ‘Hey! Take it easy,’ Fitcher flinched, ‘Not so hard!’ His body vibrated, revving for take-off until with a jolt we were off. The surge of power was followed by a crack. ‘Nothing to worry about,’ shouted Rip, ‘just buzz pitch.’ In front of me, on a generous stretch of Fitcher’s neck, a row of numbers glowed red. ‘You only see his serial when in flight. They fade on touchdown.’ By now we were high in the vast cavern of the Commissary. Around us were slung

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The Escape Starts Here

massive cables supporting lampshades each the size of a circus tent, and beyond them massive mats that swung gently from the rafters to stir the heavy air. They looked larger than the great curtains of the Northern Lights, and flying by them was like skirting a cliff. Below us stretched canyons of shelving and unending miles of scrubbed floor-board, grey and featureless as the Atacama Desert. We were flying, to scale, at about 3.000 feet above a landmass which reared up as towering escarpments of wall cabinets, as Grand Canyons of bottled fruit. I was terrified, and then remembered spiders. Fitcher landed on a lampshade. ‘Remind me not to land on the underside,’ Fitcher laughed as his wings cut out and we peeled off goggles. We climbed down and waded through a scrubland of dense dust and fluff, making for the lampshade rim. Fitcher wandered off testing the ground with his snout, buzzing to himself. We lay peering into the cavernous space below. In the air above circled balls of fluff and pollen. Some were the size of melons. Caught in the slanting light of a ventilation shaft, the dance of these immaterial moons entranced me. ‘When you’re this size be careful of draughts,’ Rip warned.

The Escape for Pureprint.indd 180-181

The Fly Zone  


‘Anything else?’ ‘Spider sharks are a problem.’ ‘spider sharks!’ ‘They are a confection cooked up by the sick mind of Morales. The spider shark is designed to kill flies. Morales puts fins on everything he does, it’s his trademark – so he’s done it to spiders. Fortunately they don’t live long, and the fin slows them down, apart from which it gets snagged in their webbing: none too brilliant. Look, there’s one,’ Rip pointed. Out of the shadows above a creature slowly lowered itself into view, making for the top of a cabinet. As it landed it gave a jerk and the rope grew taut. A black and white spider hurried off, leaving its landline secure. On its back was the tell tale gleam of a tiny fin. ‘asshole!’ Fitcher had spotted it and, ‘ptoo!’ he spat and buzzed. ‘He’s sending a spider shark alert,’ said Rip. Fitcher paused to listen. ‘Two more assholes by the biscuits,’ he reported. As we gazed at the distant biscuit counter, Fitcher barked suddenly, ‘We’re airborne, now!’

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chapter  xci   183

Rip and I scrambled on, wings buzzed followed by the lift-off crack. As Fitcher hovered over the lampshade, Rip pointed to a fin slicing its way through the dusty undergrowth towards our landing spot. An angry spider broke into the empty clearing. ‘A prowler,’ Rip said, ‘must have been hiding under the fluff. Who knows how long it’s been there. Looks hungry.’ We circled and waved. A spider in close-up is even more menacing and mechanical than a fly. I saw the Morales straps that held the fin in place. It had grey hair, and looked wicked, if tired, with bags under the eyes. A spider’s eyes are as black and glossy as a pair of Ray Ban Aviators. We flew off, leaving it to crunch fangs in fury like a Caribbean dictator. ‘The word is we’re going to the till,’ Fitcher shouted, ‘there’s no prowlers. That was close.’ ‘Perhaps, Fitcher, we can stop on the way to hear about self-stacking shelves?’ ‘No sweat.’ Fitcher swerved and we headed for a cliff of neatly stacked tins. ‘Hold tight!’ he barked as we cruised past a towering parade of bottles of Sauce of the Sublime. Labels sailed by like billboards from a train. Closer and closer we flew and Fitcher delicately settled on the rim of a can. Rip climbed down and stretched his legs. Fitcher rubbed his front legs together, listening. ‘I’ve just had a call,’ looking at me. Flies can’t look at you by turning their heads or swivelling their eyes. They’ve no neck and the eye fitting is fixed. I could tell he was serious because he’d manoeuvred himself into a position where his eyes and head faced me like the headlamps of a car. ‘They say we gotta head for the Till.’ ‘There it lies,’ Rip pointed at a silhouette like a Monument Valley butte. ‘Something big must be cooking for Control to keep calling. Let’s do the shelves later.’ Crossing the Commissary, we circled to avoid a Clerk. Nearing the till we made for its side and zoomed into a round black hole. Head first we tumbled at speed into a darkened shaft between till and bell. We emerged in the Firm’s cavernous but well-lit basement Cannery. Hearing Fitcher’s drone a Chinese Supervisor followed our flight-path across the room until we slipped through a grating up into a kiosk in the Square outside.

That Funny Dip


The Escape for Pureprint.indd 182-183

‘The store is self-supplying,’ Fitcher smirked. ‘Not in daylight, but by night. We started snooping years ago. You’ve seen for yourself how busy it is. Goods go out that door, but no new stock comes in. So, we staked it out and found every morning shelves were piled high. At first we couldn’t figure it, because we can’t see in the dark. But eventually we did.’ He paused, ‘Now, it’s your turn.’ ‘To what?’ ‘Ask: What did you figure out, Fitcher?’ I hesitated. ‘I’ll tell you anyway.’ Fitcher suddenly stopped to listen and buzz back long-distance. You can tell a fly is on line by its tail. Its receiver is clear of the fuselage and wings are cupped to trap incoming signals. It takes thousands of dollars to build a Dakota, and yet here was something more advanced that could think for itself that we swat without a thought. Fitcher turned back, ‘Sitting on the cans in the dark we confirmed the joint is self-supplying.’ I looked up at the neatly stacked shelves. Fitcher waved a leg at his head. ‘Mr Janczyk and Mr Karnicki spotted we’ve got the finest all-round vision in the surveillance business, but haven’t any here,’ rubbing his undercarriage with another leg. ‘So the only place merchandise could get in undetected was under us. We realised because whenever we felt an upsy-daisy in the dark, by morning the shelf below was stocked. We’ve never seen it happen, but now we know restocking’s happened by that funny dip, know what I mean?’

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The Escape for Pureprint.indd 184-185


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186 chapter xcii

chapter  xciii   187

He is a She

Memory of Light

‘The best stake-outs,’ he said ‘were fly-balls that gave all-round vision. The long nights spent balled-up were great.’ Fitcher buzzed with an echo in his voicepipe, ‘We two boys together clinging, me below, him on top, covering each others backs.’ The bristles on his neck stiffened. He sighed, letting out a blast of foul air. ‘But no matter how many nights we spent like that we had no hard evidence to show for it. Just that funny dip in the dark and more product shelved by dawn.’ He laughed a loud piercing laugh. I was flying around, I realised, on a gay fly, and having the time of my life. ‘Are you married?’ I asked. ‘Am I not a male? So I married. Wife, eggs, maggots, the full catastrophe.’ Fitcher spoke fast, his thousand eyes glistening. ‘Most flies are not like me,’ he added wryly. For the rest of my journey in the world of flies Fitcher growled, sneered and teased, his curiosity and intelligence getting the better of his affection, which he reserved for others. I was with him when he died and by then his verve and humour had changed my view of flies for good. ‘Never mind,’ said Rip when it was over and he saw how sad I was, ‘his number’s gone to New Zealand. There’s a new Fitcher there now, causing havoc. I’ve checked the serial number. Only this time he is a she, and she is a beaut.’

The label on the little bottle read Original Specimen of Karnickeine, the first ­irridescent dye ever reconditioned. Made by E. Karnicki and M. Chevreul in 1904. ‘That’s the stuff,’ shouted Fitcher as we flew by. ‘It’s Monsieur Edouard’s Disappearing Dye. We use it to stay cool in the sun and to camouflage ourselves. Fitcher, please hover,’ called Yergenes. ‘That juice restores my coat,’ said the fly, ‘Film Interference they call it, like you get on oil slicks, only better. It gets under your skin reflecting everything around and makes you invisible. If,’ he buzzed, ‘you want to be 100% invisible you cover everything, but with you humans that means eyeballs, which you can’t and it’s why some of the o.p.p.a. crew around here get spotted. A pair of eyes walking around on their own is bad news for Arabs – they believe in the Evil Eye.’ ‘Remind me,’ added Rip, ‘to show you the game we’ve produced, we play it with Karnickeined tokens.’

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The Escape for Pureprint.indd 188-189


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190 chapter xciv

Razzurrection I woke in the dark. The sound of lapping water filled the cabin. ‘Don’t panic,’ whispered a voice, ‘It’s Razz …’

chapter  xcv   191

Steaming Home to Danzig Once past the lights of Port Said breakwater the first half of our journey was over. Ahead lay the days steaming home to Danzig … At this point the author’s narrative breaks off. Whether he was interrupted, or was aiming at a hanging ending inspired by detective stories it is difficult to judge. robert m c nab

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Acknowledgements Far away and long ago on a night ferry across the Guadiana River, George Trapp and Robert McNab first caught sight of the world of Janczyk & Karnicki. It has taken determined and friendly hands to map the territory since: Rory Fellowes, Michael Chisholm, Tino Tedaldi, John Bell, David Perry, Andrew Floyd, Joanne Bernstein, Lutz Becker, Derrek Hines, David Vinicombe, Bill Sanderson, Mark Meredith, Roger Kohn-Artiste, Raoul Kramer, Jacek Basista, Alice Moro, Alan Murphy, Xavier Villers, John Greenwood, Adrian Fry, Charles Chabot, James Smith, Annie Hammond, Andrew Johnstone, Hannah Rothschild, Jake Auerbach, Robert Dalrymple, Wayne Balmer, Polly Braden, Alasdair Forbes and David Campany among them. The Escape Starts Here owes them many debts of gratitude. It is dedicated to George Trapp nmb, co-founder, J & K & Co. rm c n

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The Escape Starts HEre  
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