The Life of Henry Fuckit
88 The captain, the carpenter and the dilettante
'These are the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.
For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.'
Tall, square-framed, big-boned, but no flesh on him. A slight stoop, a leaning forward without bending of the back or slumping of the shoulders. Keeps his hands behind his back most of the time. Forever pacing, even though not on the bridge. A habit of restlessness, up and down, up and down. Doesn't bother with eye contact. Probably saves that for transfixing individual victims of his wrath. Fifty? Very little hair, the dome of his skull like ivory. A battered face, lined and creased and furrowed, cheeks slightly sunken, a long narrow nose, square jaw with prominent chin. A straight slit of a mouth, almost without lips. A face devoid of humour and marked by bitter asceticism.
'They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depth: their soul is melted because of trouble.
They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits' end.'
His voice was pitched high as if in accusation and was employed in the only manner of delivery he was capable of: a ranting complaint. This contradicted his intention, which was to assure his audience the Lord was on their side and had everything under control.
'Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses. He maketh the storm a calm so that the waves thereof are still. Then they are glad because they be quiet; So he bringeth them unto their desired haven.'
How simple. Wouldn't life be ridiculously easy if that was all it required? When in distress just cry unto the Lord and he'll bring you unto your desired haven. From the look of him this unpleasant man was having difficulty believing it himself. A bit green about the gills? Well, who wasn't? All this violent movement, rolling and pitching and falling into ditches. He had been insistent, most adamant, that the storm was at its height, couldn't get any worse, and was about to abate. They would be in the vicinity of the Vital Isle by late morning the following day. The wind would have slackened and the sea would be going down. The expedition members would be set adrift in the Whale and the Gullets could then proceed to Gough Island. All was going according to plan. Now all that was necessary was to thank the Lord on bended knees and pray for His continued protection and guidance.
On bended knees? No man! This guy's a lunatic. Bergson had told him how difficult it had been to persuade him to go back to the forsaken waste where the devil dwelt. He was convinced it was a place of evil where disaster awaited those foolhardy enough to venture for a second time. The violence of this storm must have come as a sign to him and sent primeval eddies of terror swirling up through his entrails and into the quaking centre of his born-again soul.
Henry realised he was the only one not kneeling. All the sheep were down on the floor grovelling, waiting for the Captain to begin his mumbo-jumbo. Even Samantha T Coolrich! Even Dr Curriman Char, a bloody Hindu! Jesus, but fear can do strange things to people!
'You, we're waiting!'
The peremptory snarl cut through the air with the same high-voltage intensity as the searing glare arcing from Captain Cunt's eyeballs. A lesser man would have been withered to his marrow and would have buckled in submission. But not Henry Fuckit. No, no, no. Yo, ho, ho.
'Please don't. Go ahead, I'm just leaving. I'm not a Christian, so you won't be needing me. I'm a raving atheist and I fervently disbelieve in the existence of God, and it would be a mockery if I were to prostrate myself and start praying to the Lord and pleading with Holy Jesus to intercede and bring about miraculous acts which I'd be incapable of believing, merely assuming I was somehow deluded, whether it be as a result of narcotic inhalation or sleight of hand, or some other form of perceptual derangement. But don't let me stop the rest of you. Pray away, pray away.' And he staggered from the room. He would have preferred to stride from the room with the proud bearing of a man of conscience, of firm convictions. But the heaving floor and the side-effects of dosing himself with Captain Morgen Rum made this impossible.
Back in the passenger lounge most of the lights were out, the bar was closed, and there was only one occupant. The man who had suffered the seizure, a carpenter known as Chippy, sat in a chair holding his head.
'That worthless fellow has abandoned his post, I see. I could've done with a nightcap, the bastard. Bit of a headache? Mmm. You haven't been taking your medication, have you?' Henry was unsympathetic, having had to assist epileptics on numerous occasions, prising their jaws apart, removing their dentures, fishing out their swallowed tongues - and then being vomited on by way of thanks.
'Are you a doctor?'
'Fuck, no. Do I look like a doctor?'
'Not really. Where's everybody gone?'
'They're on their knees with Captain Cunt praying to God not to drown us all. Ridiculous, hey? Jesus, what a character! Those burning eyes, filled with torment and fanaticism. That maniac must have one helluva story to tell, that's for sure.'
The carpenter eyed Henry sceptically. Was it possible for anyone to be so ignorant?
'Of course he's got a story to tell. Don't we all? And he's no maniac. I've been with him to all the bases, Gough, Marion, the Antarctic, and I can tell you he's a bloody good captain. But before he was saved he went through hell.'
'Oh yes?' Henry was curious, despite having heard hundreds of such accounts of descent into the moral abyss, the blinding revelation, conversion, reform, and the new life. Surely this protagonist would be the subject of a less predictable tale. 'I suppose he was a whoring drunkard before he saw the light?'
'We all have to go through hell before we can gain spiritual renewal. That's why we shouldn't resent our suffering. I've found that with my own illness, this 'little malness' which I have inherited through no….'
'Yes, yes. Through no fault of your own. A debilitating illness IF YOU DON'T TAKE YOUR MEDICATION! For God's sake! And I suppose you're grateful to God for having inflicted epilepsy on you?'
'I am, yes. If I hadn't suffered all through my childhood, gone through all that trouble and pain, I wouldn't have finally come to accept the Lord Jesus Christ as my saviour. Now I can face life without fear. Now I can handle it with His help.'
'You Christians never cease to amaze me with your ability to play predestination off against free will. On the one hand you maintain God is omniscient and omnipotent and everything is predetermined. On the other you say Man has the choice to live in virtue or sin. In your case, you believe God visited sickness on you in order to force you to choose to become a born-again Holy-Roller. Okay? Now, if the outcome had already been determined, where was your freedom to make that choice? You were powerless to do anything else and, in fact, even the presence of God was irrelevant. If the whole story's already been written and can't be altered, does it matter whether the author is present at the reading? See what I mean?'
'No, man, you've got it all wrong. To be free means to know and follow divine will. God has already chosen those to be saved and that can't be changed. Every person is offered a way in which to be saved. I was offered epilepsy and all sorts of other shit that went with it. God knew exactly how I would respond, but, and this is very important, I didn't know how I'd respond. That's where free will comes in. Have I been given the grace to make the right choices? I can only hope that I have. I must trust in the Lord.'
'Ai, yai, yai! The things people are prepared to believe! I suppose its what you call faith. Its like jumping off a cliff. I'm afraid I'm not ready to do that, just yet.' They looked at each other with a kind of disdainful wonder, as if through the bars at a zoo, only they both took the other to be the specimen. 'But anyway, to get back to the tragical history of Captain Cornelius Cunt, you were going to tell me about the hell he's been through in order to become what he is. What was it that God heaped upon him?'
'Peyronie's disease, to start with. You know what that is?'
'Umm, rings a bell. Peyronie, Peyronie. Something to do with … oh yes, now I remember. Bent cock syndrome. Never come across it myself, but I've read about it somewhere.'
'Yah, the disease causes the penis to bend to one side when it gets stiff.'
'There's a localised fibrous thickening of erectile tissue which results in a contracture on that side. Does he pull over to the left or the right? No, I suppose you wouldn't be in possession of that kind of detail. Why should you? Neither here nor there, anyway. An erection can be a painful experience, if I remember correctly. And intromission is well-nigh impossible. Can't put it in, you know.'
'Yes, he had to give up the woman he loved because of this Peyronie's disease. They were engaged to be married but he couldn't go through with it.'
'Just as well. And then I suppose he resigned himself to a life of celibacy and devoted himself entirely to his naval career?'
'Yes, but who the fuck's telling this story? You or me?' Chippy the carpenter felt it necessary to show his irritation. 'The years went by and he found it harder and harder to bear the loneliness and the frustration. He drank more and more, and sometimes in foreign ports he would go with prostitutes. But that was just humiliating. It just made things worse.'
'Didn't he seek medical help?'
'I was getting to that. Of course he did. The medical people told him it was one of those conditions where nothing could be done. Then it was he came into contact with a ship's surgeon who said ….'
'Jesus, a ship's surgeon! Everybody knows the worst doctors on earth are ship's doctors.'
'He was desperate, wasn't he? Anyway, he had the operation and when he was sufficiently recovered he tried it out. Told his cabin boy to bring him a pornographic magazine. He said he had the most perfect cockstand he's ever had in his life - rigid like a poker and one hundred percent straight and true.'
'Shit. What magazine was it?'
'What magazine was it?! Christ, I don't know what filthy magazine it was. Man, you're making me the moer in with you.'
'Alright, alright, I'm sorry. Calm down. Carry on. So he had a beautiful cockstand, tall and proud, ready to strut off in the direction of the nearest seaside brothel. What happened?'
'It wouldn't go down.'
'It wouldn't go down? What do you mean it wouldn't …. You mean it stayed up? You mean ….' Henry began to laugh hysterically. He slapped his thigh, he bent forward and straightened. Then he stood up and attempted to take a few steps to help dissipate his inordinate mirth, but the ship gave such a lurch that he was thrown back into his seat. Then he composed himself.
'Jesus, man, I'm sorry. It's the irony you see. Life's full of cruel ironies. If we didn't have the ability to laugh at them, the pain would kill us. It's a God-given capacity, this. Man oh man!' He shook his head in sympathy with the unfortunate captain in particular, and in sorrow for humanity in general. 'So he exchanged Peyronie's disease for priapism?'
'Yes, that's right. That's what it's called. You know about it?'
'Only vicariously. I took a prurient interest in the details when I encountered them. It was in the staff cafeteria at Groote Schuur more than a year ago. I was having a cup of tea and two lemon cream biscuits and eavesdropping on a conversation between a houseman and a third-year nurse. Anyway, this abnormally strong erection is both painful and embarrassingly inconvenient, persisting for weeks, months, even years. In Captain Cunt's case I would think it was probably due to a vascular thrombosis brought about through the incompetence of the quack surgeon as he hacked and sliced at the troublesome organ. According to this houseman treatment is difficult and largely ineffective. Some relief is obtained by inserting a large-bore needle into the corpus cavernosum, the erectile tissue, and drawing off enough fluid to allow the cavernous sheaths to decompress. But this is a temporary measure and tumescence soon recurs.'
'This is how he describes it, exactly. He says the blood he gets out of his penis with the syringe is thick and dark like old engine oil. It makes a man feel naar just to think about it.'
'Mm. But what intrigues me is how this double blow, priapism hard on the heels of Peyronie's disease, brought about spiritual rebirth. Any idea?'
'Look, he's given testimony many times and he goes into all the details and explains it beautifully. He says when he had that fantastic cockstand he was filled with so much pride and joy he could hardly breathe. But then when it wouldn't go down and he finally realised what had happened he wanted to kill himself. And he turned against God. Screaming and swearing and blaspheming he began to tear up his Bible, scattering the pages about his cabin. Then he drank himself half a bottle of brandy and fell down drunk.'
'Can't say I blame him. I can think of several occasions on which I've thrown a conniption fit for reasons quite trifling by comparison with the provocation he was subjected to.'
'When he awoke he found he was holding a scrunched up page in his left hand.'
'Aha! A message. Sorry, please go on.'
'It was from the Book of Jonah. The end of Jonah and the beginning of Micah. He didn't bother with Micah, because it's one of the most boring books in the Bible, but he read the last part of Jonah. Then he fell asleep again. When he awoke he felt totally fresh, no trace of a babelas, and he understood completely what the story was about and how it affected his own life.'
'It certainly is one of the most puzzling books in the Bible. A short story told very simply, and yet I find the logic of it quite unfathomable. God instructs Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell the inhabitants to mend their vile ways, or else. But Jonah doesn't want anything to do with this dispute and hurries off in the opposite direction, taking the boat to Tarshish, or someplace. God catches up with him, smites the ship with a mighty storm, and he's thrown overboard and then swallowed by a whale. He begs for mercy, God has him vomited onto dry land, and off he goes to Nineveh. When he gets there he tells these evil bastards God's going to destroy them in forty days. Quite what they were up to the Bible never says; probably fucking camels or something. Anyway, they repent, put on sackcloth, fast, and grovel about in the ash. This does the trick and God forgives them. And now we come to the really interesting bit. Jonah gets incredibly pissed off. He says this is what he expected would happen all along, and now it has, and it depresses him so much he'd rather be dead. Weird, hey? Pure existentialism. Then God plays a little prank just to snap him out of it and make some kind of point which escapes me entirely. While Jonah is sitting out in the broiling sun sulking and feeling sorry for himself, the Lord causes a nice leafy plant to shoot up and shade him. Of course Jonah is hugely grateful for this relief. But then what does crafty old God do? He sends a worm to infest the plant and it withers away to nothing. Jonah is devastated. God then…'
'God explained to Jonah. And the Captain says it was like God explaining to him directly through Jonah. Jonah did not want to accept what God had in mind for him. And, likewise, Cornelius Cunt refused to accept the path to salvation God had set out for him.'
'Peyronie's disease was God's idea of the path to salvation?'
'Yes. Then God thought of a way to teach Jonah that it is necessary to accept whatever it is that befalls one, good or bad, easy or difficult. Man has no choice in this matter, only the Almighty. When Jonah was at his lowest ebb, sitting in the sun outside Nineveh, wishing he was dead, God caused the leafy shade plant to spring up and protect him'
'And, in the case of Cornelius Cunt, when he was so desperate that he felt driven to place his organ in the hands of a ship's doctor, God granted him a raging erection of magnificent proportions without the least hint of deflection, neither to the left nor the right.'
'And then God sent a worm to attack the plant and it withered and died in the night. And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.'
'And Cornelius Cunt rejoiced in the straightness of his erection. But it came to pass, when detumescence failed to occur, that this thing was not a blessing but a curse, for not only was it painful and inconvenient, it was unaccompanied by sexual desire or excitation. Then did he gnash his teeth and curse his fate, vilifying his Maker and wishing he were dead. And in his hour of anguish he rent the Holy Book asunder, page by page, and partook of strong drink unto half a bottle KWV 10 Year Old. Then did he fall down dead drunk.'
'And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry on account of the plant? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death. Then said the Lord. … Hey, what's going on? Hold on! Aieee!'
'The abyss, the abyss!'
Henry was mistaken; it wasn't an abyss. It was a freak wave. Because it was late at night and there was heavy cloud cover and the air was filled with driven rain and spray, no-one on watch was able to say whether it had been an exceptionally high crest or an inordinately deep trough. Either way, the effect was the same: the ship pitched forward, having ascended at an angle of about twenty degrees to the horizontal, and then, instead of dipping into the next 200 foot wide trough, at a corresponding angle, it charged down a forty degree slope into a valley of evil twice as broad and thrice as deep. An entire swell had been removed from the ocean and the Gullets fell into the resultant chasm. And the ship went shovelling into the approaching wall of water so that it came crashing on board to a height of twenty feet. The ship was so jarred by the impact that Henry and the carpenter, as well as everyone else on the vessel, were thrown violently to the floor.
The Gullets seemed to stagger, as if she were about to founder, then descended the next crest and resumed her passage as before. Fortunately the forward steel doors and all port holes had been securely shut in accordance with the captain's orders and very little water was taken.
As Henry got to his feet he noticed the carpenter was already on his knees, hands clasped before him. Well, he thought as he shakily made his way towards his cabin, if there's any efficacy in prayer there's no way this ship is going down. Suddenly he felt exhausted and desperate for some oblivion.
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