“Well, lad,” said the navigator to Buttercase as the two sat in the stifling squalor of the Indescribable’s chart room, “As you can see, I’m plotting our course on these portolans. It’s exacting work. I am a very ancient, craggy man, the sort you sometimes hear referred to as a sea dog, or old salt. I have been at sea since I was much younger than you are now, first as a deckhand, then as a bilge-boy. Only in my fifties did I aspire to the position of navigator. It took twenty years of arduous study for me to reach my present state of knowledge, where I can be entrusted, single-handed, to take this mighty steamship across the world, issuing instructions to the louts on the bridge to steer this way or that, to correct the course by so many degrees, to hold fast to port or starboard, etc etc.” He spat into his mahogany spittoon. “My training began when I became a second deputy assistant to the navigator’s mate on a fine old wooden ship the name of which escapes me. Aye, your memory plays some rum old tricks, lad, when you get to my age. Day and night I watched the chief navigator, bewildered at the subtlety of his art. I perched in a little hammock just above his left shoulder, making careful notes of all he did in my notebook. I rarely slept. Eventually – oh, it was a long time – I felt I had gained some semblance of understanding.
“Then disaster struck. At midnight on the fourth of June 18–, a storm blew up, and that delicate ship was smashed asunder on some rocks. Only three of us survived. We managed to clamber into a dinghy, as the tempest howled around our ears. For fourteen weeks we drifted in the pitiless ocean, subsisting on rotten biscuits, pemmican, and the occasional seahorse we were able to spear with our bayonets. I passed the thirst-crazed days having frantic arguments with Mufton and Hairball, my companions, who became steadily more and more enraged with me, because I kept whingeing about my notebook. I had lost it in the very teeth of the storm, you see, and thus all my years of navigational study were as nought. You can understand why I whimpered so, can you not? Eventually they grew so sick of my moaning that they hurled me over the side. In the middle of the night, they grabbed me, Mufton taking my legs and Hairball my arms, and they swung me overboard, cackling like maniacs, and I splashed into the freezing sea, helpless and alone. Luckily I had secreted the remainder of the biscuit supply in my blazer pocket. There was no moon; I could see nothing. I trod water for hours, terrified that at any moment I would be attacked by all sorts of fiendish aquatic monsters. But none came. I munched the biscuits and moistened my parched lips with the last few dregs of my spittle. The silence was unendurable. I croaked old hymns, dredged up from memory. Sleep, I knew, would be fatal, even for a few seconds. Just as I was about to pass out, my luck came in. An enormous crab clawed its way up on to my scalp, where it perched, tweaking my hair agonisingly in its pincers. The pain kept me awake, and I began to hallucinate, but the visions were so mundane that I will not bore you with them. Suddenly, as dawn broke, I felt solid ground beneath my feet. Peering around, I saw that I had drifted on to an island. Crawling on to the strand, I shovelled a few handfuls of nearby crustacea into my mouth, swallowed them having hardly bothered to crunch them, and fell into an exhausted sleep.
“When I awoke it was pouring with rain. For as long as I remained on the island the rain never ceased. Bear that in mind, as I tell you the rest of my adventures.” The old sea dog took a plug of tobacco from behind his ear and lodged it between his teeth. “The island on which I had fetched up was small, but well-provided for in terms of foliage and nourishment. It was the shape of a dromedary. The air stank. After eleven weeks – during which I was absolutely drenched by the rain – I was rescued by a passing ship, the captain of which was the most devilish cur alive. His name was Lapwing, his flesh was orange, he wore a violet hat, and his pipe-smoke curled around his head so that he was forever in a fog. His crew were so terrified of him that they all assumed a permanent crouch, and suffered agonising back pain as a consequence. The ship’s doctor – a saintly man named Bagshaw, or Shawbag, I forget which – hardly had a moment’s rest. He was forever having to rub linaments and ointments on to the men’s backs to sooth the rictus, and had constructed a fascinating piece of equipment, an oak frame almost like a rack, on which four men could lie at a time, having their bodies stretched to counter the effects of their crouching, the doctor making incremental adjustments to a large red wheel with a special lever inserted in a hole in the rim. The dastardly captain knew nothing of this. The treatment was always administered at night, while he slept, and the machine was hidden from him during the day behind huge crates of cargo – tin, bitumen, custard – in the darkest recesses of the hold.
“When they hauled my soaking body aboard, Captain Lapwing immediately set me to work as the doctor’s assistant, replenishing the linament jars and holding Bagshaw’s massive fringe of hair out of his eyes as he went about his duties. I was also put in charge of the small colony of badgers which lived below decks. Procuring food for them was no easy matter, but I too was terrified of Lapwing, and I soon learned to entice a bowl of badger food from the least promising ingredients. It is a skill that has not deserted me. You may have noticed, lad, that I still keep a little team of badgers in my cabin. Dobbin is my favourite, rather frisky for his species, but a treasure nonetheless.”
“I hate to interrupt you,” said Buttercase, “But shouldn’t you be paying more attention to the charts?”
Those of you who recall the newspaper reports of the Glub expedition will be aware that Buttercase never reached the Antarctic. The navigator was so inept that he took the ship not to the Southern seas, but to the lemur-riddled western coast of Sumatra, in the Dutch East Indies.
To be continued …