The Life of Henry Fuckit
93 The end of Oxyaston
The dyke had disappeared, the sea was a mere twenty feet below the mouth of the tunnel, the Whale had broken her line and was floating untethered. He hit the water feet first, went down, and came up gasping with shock. Christ but it was cold! If he hadn't been thoroughly overheated and pouring with sweat, having run all the way, driven on by terror at the prospect of being trapped in the duct, he might well have suffered a heart attack. Cardiac arrest out here in the watery gamadoelas, not a single resuscitation trolley available for three thousand kilometres in any direction, it would have spelt his demise, without a doubt. His clothes and his shoes were trying to drown him but the Whale had strayed only a short distance and he was soon hauling himself onto her back.
He lay panting, feeling waves of joyous relief wash over him. He had made it. But a long roll of thunder brought him to his knees. The cliffs about him were shuddering and sinking, shuddering and sinking, slipping down into the sea with the spasmodic throes of a doomed ship. He must get clear, or risk being sucked under, or struck by falling rock. Down below the engine responded to his urgent fumbling and clattered into life, thank God. Imagine if the fucking thing had chosen to play up just at this moment. In the sky above the island hundreds of thousands of birds were on the wing, abandoning their nests, milling about in moving patterns like Van Gogh's vibrant whorls.
The gap between the Whale and the island widened steadily until, at a distance of some two miles, Henry deemed it safe to cut the engine and drift. Only the upper reaches of the volcano protruded above the sea now, and he watched with a mixture of anger and despair as the final stage of submersion took place. His teeth were chattering and he became aware of his wet clothes. He must change.
When he emerged again, dry and fortified with an old brown brandy, the Vital Isle was no more. An entirely empty expanse of sea stretched in every direction, the seabirds had dispersed save for the last stragglers and, miraculously, the fog had been broken up by the sun and chased into the ocean depths. It was a scene of desolation in the uncompromising afternoon light. To add to the bleakness, a mean little breeze was springing up, provoking an irritable choppiness and nipping at the flesh of the lone mariner.
He sank back into the belly of the Whale, poured more booze, lit his pipe. Man oh man! Now what? Get the radio working? Maybe even try fiddling with Mother Superior. Have himself rescued. Return to South Africa bearing a black banner to warn of the appalling information he carried with him. All manner of occult symbolism and esoteric allusion would be needed to veil the horrible visage of the truth. If he were to speak too plainly he might trigger mass suicide. Ag, but he was being ridiculous, for who would believe his ravings? Only Harry Bergson.
With fresh intensity he was experiencing an old feeling long ago dismissed as futile and unhelpful: the feeling of hopelessness. All he had gained from this trip was the conviction that there was nothing to be done. The human race had been abandoned and left to pursue its own self-destructive inclinations. There was going to be no help from above, or below, or from anywhere else. To now feel hopeless, though, was as illogical as to be hopeful. Hadn't he worked that one out more than two decades back? Hope was premised on concepts like 'life triumphs over death', 'a Kingdom of God', and 'everlasting spiritual life.' The stuff concocted and clung to by the feeble-minded and the weak-kneed. Stupidly, he had allowed himself to get carried away by the possibility of renewal and improvement. His expectations and desires had become disproportionate. So instead of disappointment he was feeling despair. What was he saying? That to live enthusiastically required something akin to a leap of faith?
A movement of shadow or a rustle of sound caught his attention and he stood up to investigate. A giant petrel had alighted on the Whale and was peering down through the open hatch. When it caught sight of Henry it gave a rasping croak of alarm and, in its undignified haste to abandon ship, it released its payload of processed seal placenta, penguin carcass and cephalopod. The semi-liquid mess splattered down upon his head and shoulders. With an enraged bellow he tore off his shirt and began frantically wiping away the nauseating filth. Bloody, fucking cunt of a bird! Poes! He scrambled up the ladder. There it was. It had settled on the sea some twenty metres away. Not enough wind for an easy take-off. The manic expression that had come into his eye was being generated by a growing awareness of the farcical nature of what was unfolding, the ludicrous improbability of it, as well as an intemperate lust for revenge.
When he re-emerged he was armed with the Whale's flare gun and several flares. He would blast the bloody thing right out of the water. His first shot missed by several feet to the left, exploding next to the bird in a hissing puff of steam. By the time he had reloaded, the big scavenger had made it into the air, having paddled and flapped a considerable distance across the surface. The desperate resolve of the hunted was capable of drawing upon amazing reserves of energy. Now that it was in its true element the petrel's demeanour underwent a palpable transformation. Its heavy wings lifted it, it rose, it angled into the breeze, dipped, rose again. As it began to soar in a wide, unhurried gyration above him he fired again. Pathetic! Nowhere near it. One more try. Damn! He watched the third flare reach its zenith and slowly loop seaward, burning Mars red against the late afternoon sky.
He went below again. That wind was definitely picking up and the temperature was falling as the sun sank. After washing the shit out of his hair and dressing warmly he made a mug of black coffee strengthened with a shot of rum. Actually, he was glad he had been unable to hit the GP. Surely anyone who had read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner would be forever superstitious about killing a bird at sea? Oh well. Another ridiculous episode in his ridiculous life. At least it had been a distraction, serving to jolt him out of his melancholy. Who needed hope when you never knew from one moment to the next what was about to befall you?
About twenty minutes had elapsed since the incident with the bird. The shriek from the ship's siren and the almost simultaneous boom from its foghorn caused him to spill his coffee and choke on a mouthful. He rushed to the ladder. To his utter astonishment a great hulk of a vessel was not half a mile distant and bearing down on him. Some kind of tanker, it was battered and dripping with rust. But its lights were burning brightly and he could hear the throb of its mighty engines.
Henry began to laugh, a little hysterically. Oh my fuck! What a joke! What a fucking joke! The unexpected joke was always waiting to remind him not to take anything too seriously. Anything, least of all himself. Who knows what the fuck's in store for a man? Totally unpredictable, so there's no need to throw in the towel, ever.
That's what he'd tell that poor idiot Bergson. That's how he'd console him. Relate the details of the farcical tale, couch the calamitous news in terms of a bad joke; and quote Camus. 'Harry,' he'd say, 'it's essential to die unreconciled.'
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