The Life of Henry Fuckit
85 The expedition sets sail
'Those are Cape pigeons. They've been with us all the way from Cape Town.' This was the third day out and Henry was feeling a lot better. He hadn't been throwing up like many of the other passengers, but for the first two days he had felt horribly queasy. Now he had found his sea legs and was enjoying the experience of ploughing through a seriously choppy sea into an October southwester, cold and blustery and laden with salt spray. The sun was shining through some high streaky cirrus and it was reasonably warm and protected on the aft flight deck in the lee of the helicopter hangar. He was standing shoulder to shoulder with Bob Avis, one of the ornithologists, feet apart to counter the rolling of the vessel, looking back at the way they had come. 'You can't mistake them with that black and white checkerboard pattern on their backs and the two white patches on each wing. Their flight is also characteristic.'
'Oh yes? I thought flying was pretty much a standard procedure. I mean, do these pigeons fly backwards, or something?' He didn't know much about birds, and this man was enthusiastic and willing to share some of his expert knowledge, so, as one who was interested in everything under the sun, shouldn't he avail himself of the opportunity? Might as well add Ornithology to the dilettante's list of disciplines under superficial inquiry.
'Good God, no!' Bob the birdman laughed excitedly, appreciating the challenge, marvelling at the pristine condition of the slate upon which he was about to write. 'Reverse flight is an aerodynamic and physical impossibility for a bird. But the Cape pigeon (it's not a pigeon at all, really, but a petrel, the Pintado petrel, Daption capense) the Cape pigeon has its own distinctive way of flying. Watch them. See how they alternate a series of short, strong rapid wing beats with a relatively brief glide? And watch that one soaring. Note the light rocking motion as it rises on stiffly extended wings - a specific trait. Aha, more galley scraps! Now you'll see why they're called pigeons.'
A stream of refuse had spewed out from the stern gallery below them and already the birds were settling on the churned up water of the ship's wake. A raucous chittering and cackling rose up, signalling the start of an unseemly dispute over who should get what.
'They have their own way of riding the water, very buoyantly, sitting high up, floating on their breasts, beaks tilted forward. See how they're pecking at the scraps? Remarkably like pigeons.'
Just then they were joined by one of Henry's expedition colleagues. Professor Jimmy Potsherd, proponent of the Motherfucker hypothesis, exuded a form of breezy English joviality and in appearance resembled Harry Secombe, the renowned tenor and comedian, at his most corpulent. And his speech mannerisms were remarkably like those of Neddy Seagoon, only slightly less manic and high-pitched. The men exchanged good morning pleasantries and Henry invited the professor to swell the ornithologist's audience.
'I'm learning some fascinating facts about seabirds. So, Bob, you say that each type has its own set of observable differences?'
'It certainly does.' He finished applying a thick layer of zinc sunblock to his nose, which was large and beak-like. 'To identify birds in the air their characteristics of flight can be most helpful, allowing one to distinguish between different families and even species. When watching a bird on the wing one needs to be asking all sorts of questions. For example, does it flap intermittently and glide, soar, wheel and bank like an albatross or petrel? Or does it flap almost continuously like a skua? Is flapping rapid and with stiff wings like that of a shearwater, or is it slow with flexible, graceful wing movements like that of a gull? Is flight light, buoyant and tern-like, or heavy and ponderous like that of a giant fulmar? One gets to know that a shearwater's flight is rapid, a skua's is deliberate, and a gull's is leisurely. If it's erratic it'll probably be a prion, and if it's direct, a cormorant. We must also note how high the bird flies: just above the waves like a storm petrel, above the horizon like a gadfly petrel, at deck height like a Cape pigeon, or high over the masthead as a gull sometimes does. And then there's swimming style. That can tell you a lot too. Does it porpoise in and cut of the water like a penguin, or does it ride on the surface? Does it dive and plunge, or remain visible at all times? Does it ride low in the water with only the head, neck and back exposed, or does it bob buoyantly like….'
'I say, old chap. Sorry to interrupt the eloquent flow, but what's that one over there? Much bigger than these other specimens. Doesn't seem to flap its wings at all.'
'Ah, well done Professor.' He didn't need his binoculars. 'Our first albatross, and a wanderer at that. Diomedea exulans. You'll make a good bird spotter.'
'Can I use your glasses? Gee, but that's fantastic.' Henry was excited. 'Massive wings, hey? And it just never flaps. Incredible! How does it do it?'
'The largest of the flying seabirds. Those long narrow wings can span in excess of eleven feet. Beautiful to watch, isn't it? But they need strong winds for that effortless gliding flight. If you watch for a while you'll see it follows a regular pattern in the air, rising into the wind, coasting across it, and then losing altitude but gaining speed while it dips to leeward and banks to turn and rise into the wind once more. In this way it's capable of planing on those flexed pinions for days at a time, never flapping, but making slight adjustments at the wrist and elbows to change effective wing area. Ah, good morning. How do you do? Bob Avis. Pleased to meet you. Bob. How do you do?'
The other members of the expedition had arrived. Dr Curriman Char, Hindu scholar from Rabindra Bharati University, Calcutta; Fred Kelly, emeritus professor in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Western Australia; and Samantha T. Coolrich, senior researcher and project co-ordinator in the Department of Creative and Imaginative Studies at the California Institute of Technology. All three of them were in high spirits. Recovered from their bouts of seasickness they had enjoyed an animated debate over a late breakfast.
'Did I overhear you say something about 'planing on flexed pinions'?'
Samantha T. Coolrich was a striking woman in her mid forties. She was above average in height and her carriage was sure and erect. Her long, dark brown hair was tinged with red and worn in a profusion of tightly curled tresses, which added a touch of wildness to her defiant mien. She bore her heavy breasts without the aid of whalebone, plastic or nylon, her full mouth was adept at conveying contempt, and her eyes, cool and grey, were unflinching and canny. As to be expected from an American, her voice was loud and abrasive, which detracted from the richness of its tone. Some people found her a little intimidating, even butch. A mother of three, she had already confided to Henry that her sexual inclinations were eclectic and that she was quite willing to indulge her fantasies with man, woman or beast. 'Don't you find Yeats's 'Leda and the Swan' just the most deliciously erotic poem ever?' She was wearing an outsize Norwegian pullover, jeans and running shoes.
'Er, yes. I was talking about a seabird's flight pattern.'
'I like your phrasing. It's certainly not the dry scientific vocabulary one would expect from a zoologist. It immediately brought to mind some lines from a fine poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins: 'I caught this morning's minion, kingdom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding of the rolling level underneath him steady air.' It must be the rhyming of 'pinion' and 'minion' that did it.'
'The light of genius does indeed shine through the poetry of Mr Hopkins.' Dr Char nodded his turbaned head and his eyes shone behind his steel-rimmed spectacles. 'I am of the belief that Mr Dylon Thomas learnt many tricks of the trade from Mr Hopkins.'
When Fred Kelly and Jimmy Potsherd also began to evince a more than passing interest in poetry Henry felt obliged to steer the conversation back to the original topic.
'Bob, you were saying its possible for an albatross to fly for days without flapping. Without rest, without sleep, without food. I find this truly amazing. Where does the energy come from? This borders on the supernatural. How does it do it?'
'It was Lord Rayleigh, back in 1883, who first offered a feasible explanation of the principles involved. As he pointed out, the energy necessary to maintain flight can be derived from the variability of the wind. The velocity of the bird relative to the air, not its velocity relative to the ground, determines the forces acting on it. The bird can at any time, by climbing upward, turn some of its kinetic energy into potential energy and vice versa. Put simply, this dynamic soaring, as it's called, is merely a process of correcting for the turbulence in the air in such a way that potential energy is gained. I hope I'm not boring you. Some people find this detailed analysis of so simple and basic a phenomenon just too remote and tiresomely technical.'
On behalf of them all Henry assured him of their keen interest and urged him to continue. He noticed Sammy Coolrich was lighting up her first joint of the day. It was that top grade Durban Poison he had acquired for her and which had elicited her delighted approval. He now mistook the faraway expression in her eyes as she exhaled to be pure narcotic pleasure, when in fact it was generated more by a contemplative process taking place than by the effects of cannabis sativa. This process had been triggered when the ornithologist alluded to relativity.
'Well, as I was saying, a bird can gain energy from the small-scale turbulence of the air merely by making minute adjustments to its flight. And the best example of dynamic soaring is provided by the albatross, which uses the gradient of wind velocities near the surface of the sea. We really are privileged to have this demonstrated to us right now as I speak.' Indeed, the huge white bird had moved in closer to the ship and seemed to be tracking their progress in order to perform its graceful artistry just for them. 'It is known that the velocity of the wind diminishes down to the surface of the water because of the influence of friction at the surface and of eddy motion in the air; by a variety of turning manoeuvres the albatross can take good advantage of such a gradient. At the end of a downward glide, with the wind behind it, it nears the surface of the water. In order to gain altitude it turns and faces upwind (into the wind); the initial speed gained during the preceding glide generates lift and the bird climbs. During the climb the bird's air speed (but not the speed relative to the water below) remains constant because of the progressively increasing velocity of the wind at higher levels. Upon reaching a certain altitude, at a level where the bird cannot climb higher without losing air speed, the albatross turns and faces downwind (goes in the direction of the wind) to begin its downward glide. At this point the bird begins to gain air speed for two reasons: one, the force of gravity (the potential energy of height) becomes the kinetic energy of motion and two, it is entering air which is moving more slowly over the water. Therefore, as the albatross enters the lower altitudes it continues to gain speed relative to the progressively diminishing tail winds. When the bird again nears sea level, it turns upwind and repeats the manoeuvre. The natural way to combine these effects is to describe circles in an inclined plane, always descending when moving to leeward and ascending when moving to windward.
In strong winds a very swift bird like the albatross (whose average speed is 72ft. per second) can extract sufficient energy from the air to enable it to glide for considerable distances in the troughs of waves.'
'You explain it beautifully Bob, beautifully.' Sammy Coolrich silently offered Henry her stompie, and when he shook his head she flicked it out into the sea. Or tried to. The wind caught it and flung it to the deck before them, where it lay rolling this way and that. For a few moments they all watched it smouldering, and then Henry went and put a foot on it. He was pleased to resume his position in the lee of the hangar, for the temperature had dropped and the wind had swung to the West and was strengthening. From behind him Coolrich reached between his legs and gave his balls a playful squeeze.
'Hey! Please. Jesus Christ!'
'You're so chivalrous, Mr Henry Fuckers.' She roared with laughter and the others showed varying degrees of amusement, embarrassment and alarm. Then she sobered up and addressed Bob Avis once more.
'No, but honestly, Rob, I can't say I was entirely with you all the way, though I loved the thought of an albatross being able to use the energy of the wind, and I'm sure old Potty here will take you up on that. I must confess that what interested me most was your description of the bird flying along relative to the wind and not the sea below it. When you mentioned that a whole posse of images came galloping across the screen. I looked out beyond the ship's wake to the horizon see-sawing in the distance. No, I thought, it's not the horizon, its us, rolling from side to side. And pitching, so that the expanse of sea between that railing there and the skyline increases as we mount a swell and dwindles as we descend the other side. We roll and we pitch as we doggedly follow the invisible straight line that is our course. An unseen current is moving somewhere beneath us, relative to the ship as well as the seabed. All the while the earth is simultaneously rotating on its axis and revolving about the sun, and the solar system is in motion within the universe. In motion…. The contemplation of so much motion should make me horribly seasick and yet instead I find it somehow wonderfully soothing and reassuring. And what's even more delightful is seeing our friend out there gliding along in the troughs, keeping pace with us as if drawn on by our determination to make progress. Then I realised I was seeing the ship as moving through a macrocosm, and that the ship itself was a microcosm, self-contained like some organism. Engines pounding away, day and night like a heart, propeller churning and churning, generator whirring a coil through a magnetic field to enliven the complex neural network of electrical wiring lighting and powering the vessel; the crew toiling ceaselessly at their many and varied tasks, scurrying along passageways, clambering up and down ladders; stripped to the waist in the engine room tending the thundering engines; clattering about in the galley preparing the victuals in a gastronomic cycle of breakfasts, lunches and dinners; operators in the radio shack, listening to crackling headphones, twiddling knobs, goggling at screens, printing out reams and reams of cryptic information; lowly crewmen sweeping and mopping and polishing and painting, and serving and wiping and cleaning; officers on the bridge, manning the wheel, eyeing the gyrocompass, plotting the chart, scanning the radar screen, binoculars sweeping the sea ahead. Sixty degrees to port, sixty to starboard, all under the tyrannical gaze of the 'Old Man' pacing back and forth. This is what I could see - a macrocosm containing a microcosm. An expanding world and a diminishing one, limitless in both directions. And I thought, wouldn't it be just perfect it one could merge these two paradigms into a single coherence and experience a flash of orgasmic illumination?'
There was a wistful note in her voice and they were all silent, allowing the moment to pass. Then, as Henry cleared his throat prior to moving the conversation in the direction of the Vital Isle, the Tannoy made some hollow clicking noises and began to relay an interpretation of 'Come to the cookhouse door, boys', as performed upon the xylophone by the chief steward. It was lunchtime, first setting.
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