The Life of Henry Fuckit
82 Bergson gives Henry a briefing
'Captain Cunt of the SAS Gullets has already done a preliminary survey and thinks he's located the Vital Isle.'
'Odd name, that.'
'Gullets? Yes. It actually stems from a misunderstanding caused by a poor line between Pretoria and Simonstown. That's what happens when you try to run a navy from an inland city fifteen hundred kilometres from the sea. It was meant to be the SAS Agulhas but ended up the SAS Gullets.'
'And this Captain Cunt character; you say he's found the Vital Isle?'
'It would appear so!' He went over to the big map.
They had both been surprised at each other's appearance after the three-year interval. Henry looked lean and fit and his shoulders were square. His hair and beard were cut short and his clothes were clean. Even more striking was his inner steadiness, which manifested itself in the clarity of his eyes, the controlled pitch of his voice, and the concentrated interest he was showing in the progress which had been made in investigating Oxyastonishment. On the other hand Harry had picked up some weight about the midriff and the chops, begun to go grey at the temples, and had developed a nervous mannerism which involved brushing invisible strands of hair from his forehead and then smoothing his moustache.
'Right here.' He tapped the map at a point way out in the blue between Southern Africa and South America. 'From the tracking of force lines we know the convergence point to be approximately forty-five degrees South and fifteen degrees West. Here on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where two tectonic plates are pulling apart. Between where Captain Cunt thinks he's found it, and the co-ordinates we gave him, there's only a discrepancy of twenty-five miles.'
'Why does he only 'think' he's found it? Has he or hasn't he?'
'The power of Oxyastonishment. He spent four days in the area, circling, retreating, advancing. There was dense fog the whole time so visibility was virtually nil. But that turned out to be a relatively minor inconvenience. As the Gullets approached the target zone all instrumentation went on the blink. First the compass began to swing wildly and then floated freely, quite useless, as if demagnetized. The radar screen had been blipping erratically and then snowed over completely. The radio operator reported blanket interference and was unable to send or receive. This rendered the new satellite positioning beacon on Tristan da Cunha inaccessible. And, of course, celestial navigation was out of the question on account of the fog. All they were left with was the echo sounder.'
'Shit, you can't navigate with echo sounders. Unless you've got detailed undersea topography charts.'
'Which he didn't have as they don't exist.'
'A terrifying predicament out there. I suppose he panicked and steamed off out of the vicinity as fast as he could caper?'
Bergson looked surprised, stared hard at Henry, then snorted. 'You obviously know nothing about Cornelius Cunt. The echo sounders told him they were in shallow waters and the seabed sloped steeply upward in the direction of the densest fog. From this limited information he deduced they were in close proximity to an island. Imagine his bewilderment when, with due caution, he pressed on but was unable to make headway into still shallower water. The soundings remained almost constant. Then, after more than an hour, some debris was spotted in the water just ahead of the ship.'
'Debris? Way out there? What kind of debris?'
'Using their stern and bow thrusters they manoeuvred alongside the flotsam and Captain and First Mate went down on deck to make the inspection. They leaned over the bulwarks, peering down at the water. Mouldy oranges and naartjies with blue Outspan stickers, a broken tomato box, several head of vrot lettuce, sundry scraps and peelings, bits of plastic and paper and cardboard, and a large quantity of human excrement accompanied by strands and wisps of white toilet paper. On the tomato box, clearly written in black koki, was printed SA Gullets.'
'Arseholes!' Henry roared with derisive mirth. 'They had described a complete circle and sailed back into their own filth. Bloody fools. I bet old Cunt wasn't too charmed.'
'He was not amused. Far from it. In fact, it was from that moment his antipathy to the Vital Isle was kindled, to become a smouldering hatred which today is pathological in it's intensity.'
'And he never actually clapped eyes on the island? It might not even exist.'
'No, it exists alright. We're sure of that. Let me tell you what happened. He decided to move into deeper waters and get out of the fog and heave to for the night. The following morning, with criminal disregard for the consequences, he demanded full power from his massive turbo charged diesel engines, got the ship to its maximum speed of 15 knots, and rushed at the wall of fog like an enraged bull elephant.'
'The guy's a fucking maniac!'
'Fortunately for them all, the geo-magnetic force emanating from the Isle was so powerful it deflected the Gullets, turning it aside and causing it to heel over dangerously. For the rest of the day he tried this suicidal tactic again and again until, by nightfall, the crew was close to mutiny. For the third day he had a different strategy. Using the echo sounders he edged slowly into shallower water until the bow began to veer to one side. Then, by altering the pitch of his propeller and using the stem thruster, he was able to hold the ship steady, head-on to the opposing force. Four and a half thousand kilowatts of propulsion enabled them to inch forward at a snail's pace. He described it to me as being like an arm wrestling contest. They would make maybe a hundred metres, the ship would begin to vibrate from bow to stern, and then suddenly swing to port or starboard and they were pushed aside as if by a giant hand. They circled the island and this futile manoeuvre was repeated from every quarter. At nightfall they retreated once more, frustrated and beginning to question their perception of what they were up against. Was this a challenge to their nautical expertise and resourcefulness, like heavy seas in a force ten gale, or coalescing pack ice at the end of summer? Or was it something a modern seaman had no business to be thinking about? Something beyond his ken, it never having been touched upon in the naval academy? Something from the mythological realm, like sea dragons, Fata Morgana and Sirens. Or from the fictional fantasies of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Edgar Allen Poe.'
'Isn't that typical?' Henry was scornful. 'Civilization is but skin deep. Scratch the surface of enlightened certitude and what do you find? Darkness and terror. I suppose they called a prayer meeting that night. To ask for help from above.'
'Well, yes, they did, in fact.' Harry Bergson felt a little piqued at the astuteness of Henry's guess. 'Captain Cunt prayed for the safety of the ship and her crew, apologized for his rash behaviour, and pleaded for guidance. He says the Lord replied, for in the morning, he knew what he had to do. It was time to leave, after one last attempt. Slowly they made their way back into the mist until the resistance brought the Gullets to a standstill. They dropped anchor and he gave orders for the engines to be shut back. Then they gathered at the bow to listen.'
'Aha. Trying to tune in to the Oxyastonishing telepathic messages, were they?'
'Something like that. Cunt would maintain they had been doing that through prayer, you know. Ever thought of it like that, Henry?'
'Not really.' Henry regarded Bergson pensively. Definitely a change had come over the man. The easy self-assurance of old had been replaced by some other quality. Or qualities. Henry thought he could detect a hint of at least three: self-doubt, fearfulness and disillusionment. 'I suppose what you mean is that both prayer and telepathy are attempts to commune at an ethereal or transcendental level.'
'Yes.' He nodded his head emphatically, gratified that Henry could see the connection. 'Anyway, there they were, Captain Cunt and his senior officers, listening attentively. The water slapped against the steel hull. They became aware of a sound which eluded with its strangeness until memory surprised them with its identity. Birds. It was the muffled hubub of thousands of seabirds, confirming the presence of an oceanic breeding site. And a muted chorus of barking. Fur seals. These sounds served to alert them to a presence in the fog and they all reported a sense of foreboding settling upon them. They became aware of a sweet, cloying, gangrenous odour coming off the sea, or borne on the mist. Just then a horrible wailing shriek rent the air and a dark shape swooped down upon them. They all ducked in alarm. One huge wing passed so close as to clip the captain's cap and send it tumbling into the sea, where it landed crown down. Somewhere out in the fog the albatross gave one more tormented cry and was gone.'
'Jeez, they must have shat themselves.'
'To a man they all sensed a palpable hostility and threat of imminent danger.'
'Captain Cunt must have been annoyed at losing his cap. Must have made him feel a bit paranoid.'
' 'Annoyed' is inadequate. To describe his psychological state at that moment as 'annoyed' would amount to a malicious debasement of the fine intensity of his feelings. For a moment white-hot rage caused his vision to blur and the light of day to fade. Then with a clatter and splashing of wings three giant petrels emerged from the mist and began to fight over the cap. One of them managed to take a firm hold of it in its massive yellow-green beak and clumsily flapped away from the other scavengers. Its victory proved hollow though, for it soon settled and let the inedible prize drop and sink from sight into the murk. The three birds floated on the still surface of the sea, facing the ship, waiting, their pale grey eyes intent and unwavering above the pink-tipped predatory bills.'
'I thought you said the bills were yellow-green?'
'They were. But the tip of the culmen was a dirty reddish pink and the inside margin of the hook a dark brown. The rest of the beak was yellow-olive in colour - both menacing and revolting in appearance. Of their own volition the Captain's hands groped the air for a weapon - a shotgun, an automatic rifle, a flame-thrower, but nothing was available. He snarled his orders, the anchors were weighed, the ship was put about, and they steamed away from that malevolent fog-bound place as fast as their engines could propel them.'
'Can't say I blame them.' Henry got up and went over to the map and stood looking thoughtfully at the red circle where the green lines intersected. 'So your assumption that the Vital Isle actually exists is based on two pieces of evidence which would seem, I'm sorry to say, to be somewhat flimsy and intangible: the magnetic force they encountered, and the sound of breeding birds and seals. That's it?'
'Yes.' Bergson looked uneasy. Troubled. 'And one other piece of evidence. When they raised them the anchors were covered in brown mud. And caught in one of the flukes was a clump of partly decomposed tussock grass - the stuff that grows on Tristan and Gough.'
'Hmm. And that's rather strange. How the hell would one explain that?'
Bergson had gone to the window and was looking out over the dockyard and seemed lost in thought. Henry cleared his throat and, when there was no response, began to repeat his question.
'Yes, I heard you.' He went and sat behind his desk, leaned forward, looked into Henry's face and spoke with such dramatic vehemence that it caused Henry's eyes to widen in surprise. 'Henry, I'm in trouble. 'Extremely deep shit' is probably how you would describe it.'
'Jesus, no man. Really? Has the Minister of Defence finally discovered how many resources you've been expending in your monomaniacal pursuit of the Holy Grail?'
'No, no, no.' Bergson was impatient. That was a trifling matter, the least of his worries. 'It's Oxyaston. It's losing its vitality. I'm afraid it could be dying.'
'Good God!' So this was what was wrong with the man. 'Dying!! Oxyaston dying!?'
'Yes, dying. Its power is waning fast.' There was a feverish look in his eyes as he proceeded with the shocking news. 'For nearly twelve years I've been attuning myself to this force. You and I are members of a tiny coterie who still have the ability to recognize this force and have the potential to make use of it. And now its vitality is going.'
'Surely not. Maybe it's your own vitality which is in question. Maybe you're just at a biorhythmic low point. Or could it be part of the ageing process? It's quite normal for men of your age to begin to feel less vigorous. Many middle-aged men begin to show less interest in sex, for example. They fantasize less and the frequency and rigidity of their erections diminish. There's a dwindling of the creative urge. Maybe what you need is a little extra-marital fling. Not that I'd recommend it, no. It would leave you feeling more clapped out than ever. Mm. How about a course of hormones?'
'Damn ridiculous! I don't need you to go trivializing this, Henry. When I aver I'm in trouble, I should really be saying, WE're in trouble. This affects all of us. Now listen to me and don't interrupt. With the help of a handful of colleagues from around the world I've been tracking the main lines of force and plotting the system of conduits that we know exists.' He waved to the big map. 'As you can see, the centre of energy is right there, down at the Vital Isle. You know it was my intention, my dream, to recommission this neglected network and resuscitate the moribund remnants of Oxyaston. I wanted to get that life force flowing again, as I believe it used to flow only a few hundred years ago. It could have been accomplished from the Vital Isle. But now I fear its too late.'
Henry looked at his former boss's drawn, ageing features and wondered if he wasn't more than just a little deranged. But we're all deranged, what the hell.
'Harry, please, take heart. Take heart and jettison these unhelpful feelings of impotence and imminent disaster. Surely all is not lost. You've found the Vital Isle, so what's to stop you pushing on with your hare-brained scheme?'
'I fear it's too late. Look, nearly a year has elapsed since the Gullets made its voyage of discovery. In that time the force lines have been weakening and disappearing, one after the other. Our own Oxyaston duct in West Yard is well nigh defunct. From around the planet we are receiving reports which confirm the trend.'
'But the force is not completely spent just yet. Why not get on with it and do something before it really is too late?'
'Henry, I am going to do something. WE are going to do something. But I'm being honest with you - I think its too late.' He fell silent for a few moments, watching Henry, then hurried on, as if eager to confide the next piece of information. 'That mud and grass Captain Cunt dredged up with his anchor, it points to an unavoidable probability. Henry, I have come to the conclusion that the Vital Isle is sinking.'
'Holy shit! Sinking?! Below the sea? Down into the earth's crust? This is preposterous.' Although indignant he was assimilating the information and trying to work on it. 'If the Vital Isle were to disappear there would then be no way of re-energizing Oxyaston.'
'No way at all. That's why I say we're in trouble. And that's why it's now a matter of the utmost urgency to get down there and try to do something. Even though I suspect its already too late.'
'Alright. What's the plan of action? I'm ready to help in any way I can.' Henry tried to sound enthusiastic, as if he was eager to throw himself into the fray; as if this was a cause which roused him to fervour. But he was having to do some playacting, for he hardly believed in the cause at all. Yes, he believed in Oxyaston as some kind of force. It may well be an as-yet-unexplained form of energy which could facilitate telepathic communication. Alright, a bit far-fetched, and yet not so preposterous when you considered recent developments in science and technology. Silicon chips and computers and all matters digital. And lasers and optic fibre cables and microwaves. Wouldn't they have been preposterous twenty years ago? Oxyaston and telepathic communication weren't that hard to embrace. The problem lay in the admission that he wasn't much impressed by any of it. So what if there was something called Oxyaston and it was possible to communicate telepathically? Just another idea. History was strewn with ideas which had come and gone, trying to interpret and make sense of the world. People used to think the earth was flat and you could fall off the edge. Then along came the idea we lived on a huge globe which was at the centre of the universe. Copernicus replaced that one with his heliocentric theory and scientists and astronomers were again obliged to discard many of their old views. And so it goes. Take Creation and the origin of life. Every religion has its own version while scientists argue about catastrophism and uniformitarianism, spontaneous generation and biogenesis.
As old Uncle Septimus used to say, nothing's ever cut and dried, the perspective is forever shifting. Ideas, ideas. Oxyaston was just another idea. People are capable of believing in any fucking thing. A proper dilettante doesn't get over-exited at any one idea. He takes it all with a pinch of salt and moves on, to dabble somewhere else. That's what sets….
'Henry!' Bergson was looking annoyed. 'Are you listening to me? I said I want you to lead an expedition to the Vital Isle. Leaving in two weeks time.'
'Jesus! So soon? Is that wise? Have you thought this through? Fuck it, I'm no leader, and I certainly wouldn't make a suitable follower. Two weeks!'
'Yes, two weeks. There's no time to be lost. The Whale is ready and the other members will be arriving in Pretoria shortly.'
'The Whale?' Henry was becoming alarmed. Events were moving too fast and he was beginning to realise important decisions had been made for him without any attempt at prior consultation.
'You've got to get onto the island, haven't you? The geomagnetic force will repel a steel-hulled boat and even something with a steel framework. So we've constructed a landing craft made entirely from heavy duty rubber. It's fully enclosed with a twin shell which is inflatable and contains self-sealing latex. It's roughly the size and shape of a small submarine and because of its appearance we've nicknamed it the Whale. It can accommodate a crew of five comfortably. I'll take you down to see it after lunch.'
'And what are WE supposed to… you say there's another four… what are WE supposed to do when, or if, we manage to land on the Vital Isle? What's the purpose of this mission exactly?'
'I've told you already. To re-energize Oxyaston.'
'Yes, I know. But how do you propose doing that?'
'Do you remember Lady Provider, the electronic suitcase you took on your first mission to South West?' How could Henry have forgotten? 'Well, we've upgraded it. It's a whole different animal now; immensely more powerful.'
'I hope you've increased the reservoir capacity. I'm still partial to my Vrotters, you know. And I might need to take some Brompton cocktail along as well. Now that's really good standby stuff I've developed….'
'Yes yes, Henry. We don't know what you'll find down there, but I'm hoping you and I can immediately get the telepathic flow going between the Isle and the Dockyard. Then it's a matter of you and your colleagues calling up other agents who will be at the ready in different locations around the world where there are known ducts. If we can get the communication flowing I believe the energy will rapidly gain in quality and momentum until it streams out from the subterranean conduits and begins to follow surface lines of old. In this way the expiring life force will be revitalized.'
'And how long is this going to take us, if it works?'
'About a week. Two at the outside. That's all you have, anyway. The Gullets will have completed its annual maintenance and staff replacement trip to Gough Island and be back to pick you up. Two weeks is all you have, and then its over to Mother Superior (Lady Provider's successor) to act as a kind of temporary pacemaker, regulating the flows until they're properly established and the world is humming with Oxyastonishment.'
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