Gigantic Bolivian Architectural Diagrams – III

The third and final part of an old, old story.

III. October 1928

We docked at 0800 hours. Bingle, Carg, Linnet, Frack and Pinmouth were detailed to search the northern half of the island, while Bewg, Shimm, Jabber, Thurp and myself took the south. I left Wicket and Birdhole aboard the ship, with strict instructions. I cannot remember what the instructions were, but they were strict, make no mistake about that.

The five of us who comprised the southern party set out. It rapidly became apparent that the boulders and rocks on the island were giving off violent magnetic discharges. The tension was oppressive. We saw what looked like ball lightning far in the distance. I instructed Bewg to make sketches in his little pad, but he complained that his pencil was blunt. Between us we could not muster a pencil sharpener. I was loth to have Bewg return to the ship alone to fetch the required implement, so I instructed Jabber to accompany him. I pressed on with Shimm and Thurp, the latter carefully scraping rock and mud samples into our canister. The path ahead was burned and scorched – by what agency was not clear to us.

At 0950 hours Birdhole joined our party. She brought with her the ship’s pencil sharpener. Apparently Bewg had suffered an attack of the seeds, and was having a lie down in his cabin. I made a mental note to tick him off later. I remember that clearly, because at the very moment I thought it a mighty crevasse opened in the ground directly in front of us. Thurp was swallowed up, as the earth cracked apart. The rest of us staggered backwards. I am glad that I had the presence of mind to tell Birdhole to execute a quick sketch in Bewg’s pad. She complained that she had not yet had a chance to sharpen the pencil, but I cut her short with a screech of blood-curdling ferocity. One is taught to do that sort of thing at officer school.

Shimm put down her accordion and made an impromptu bridge across the crevasse using all our footwear tied together. We clambered across, and pressed on, although not before Birdhole had insisted upon holding a commemorative service for the sadly departed Thurp. Why I allowed it I do not know. I can be a sentimental old buzzard. While Birdhole was ululating, we were joined by the northern party, who had completed their investigations. Other than some extremely fascinating magnetic readings, ornithological discoveries, amateur geological observations, a net full of moths and a worm count, they had nothing to report. I commanded Frack or Pinmouth – I never could tell them apart – to return to the ship, but I cannot remember why. Whichever one it was sent Jabber back to us. I had suspected her of idling around like Bewg, but she made haste to tell me that she had cast a Mackenzie Beam from the ship. I patted her on the head, not without some misgivings, as I do not think she had ever washed her hair. At last Birdhole stopped howling, and we pressed on. We passed an enormous heap of skeletons – bat and human, according to Bingle’s eagle-eyed diagnosis – and various other manifestations of what Lamouche calls la flaque de la mort. I have Jabber to thank for that quotation. Birdhole wanted to delay further to give the two human skeletons a decent Christian burial, but I cuffed her on the temples and snarled at her.

The ground over which we passed became rough and spiky, and we had to tread carefully in our socks. We would retrieve our tough adventurer’s boots on our return trip, when we would be able to dismantle Shimm’s bridge. Frack or Pinmouth handed around some custard-balls for sustenance. Then, as we hacked our way through some overhanging foliage, we suddenly came face to face with the building. It was smaller than we expected, like a scale model of a typical nineteenth century Bolivian civic hall, and it had all the hallmarks of having been constructed out of bat droppings. I removed my hat in awe. The others did likewise, except for Shimm, who was not wearing a hat, Linnet, whose hat had snagged on the branch of a dunstable tree a few hundred yards back, and Birdhole, whose hat had been glued to her head for the duration of the expedition for some obscure religious purpose. I had interrogated her on this point back at Tantarabim, and will publish the documents separately.

Of course, we could not stand around like a bunch of clots all day. I jammed my hat back on my head and commanded my team to get to work. I was heartened to see that they set to it with such gusto. Within minutes, the instruments had been unpacked, the music stands set up, sheet music distributed, and everyone was at their post ready to tune up. The band was as follows: Bingle on bugle, Carg on bassoon, Shimm on accordion, Jabber on sackbut, Linnet on harmonium, Frack or Pinmouth on castanets, and Birdhole on handbells. I myself conducted and played the cornet. We ran through a few bars of Bring Me Your Winding-Sheet, Oh Mother Of Mine before settling down to the concert proper. Macaws shrieked but we drowned them out. We played my arrangements of Die sieben letzten Worte des Erlösers am Kreuze (Haydn), Sonatine Bureaucratique (Satie) and The Anti-Abolitionist Riots (Ives). For an encore, we performed a rousing version of The Consumptive’s Vest (Jabber, arr. Birdhole). Then we packed up. I ordered Birdhole to make some detailed sketches of the building in Bewg’s little pad, and we also took measurements and poked about the place a bit. But night would soon be falling, and there was no let up in the magnetic activity of this accursed island. The sooner we returned to the ship the better. The journey back passed without incident. We collected our boots after re-crossing Shimm’s bridge over the chasm. Thurp’s body had fallen so far it was not visible. We did not tarry. Wicket and Pinmouth or Frack were on duty on the bridge. They had received warnings of volcanic activity over the radio. Before we set sail, I went into Bewg’s cabin and told him I would brook no further nonsense from him. I presented him with a rag and told him to go and polish everything on the ship. Back on deck, I found Linnet mucking about with the Mackenzie Beam. I let it pass; I was a tired woman. We weighed anchor, and headed home at last. Only later did I discover I had left my cornet on the island. I cannot bear to go back there to retrieve it.

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