Monday, December 25, 2006

Mystery on a cruise ship

There’s nothing quite like an ocean cruise. The long haul flight may be a necessary evil when you’ve got pressing business in Bangkok, but it’s no way to start a vacation. We gorillas are creatures of the open air – we love to inhale sea breezes and stretch our limbs and swing from the railings and banter with dolphins. That’s why I’ve been a regular on a stupendous cruise ship that traverses the Indian Ocean, striking up a friendly acquaintance with George Fairweather, the vessel’s genial skipper.

On one these voyages, a few years back, the cabin phone rang when I was sitting in my private balcony, breakfasting on watermelon. It was Captain Fairweather, who urgently requested my presence in his quarters. When I got there, he was standing beside a curious-looking chap in a three-piece suit, who regarded me owlishly through tortoise-shell spectacles.

“Thanks for coming, GB,” said George. “I’d like you to meet Inspector Pierre Cocteau, an off-duty detective from Marseille.”

Monsieur Cocteau was a man of late middle-age with a neatly-trimmed beard. When I entered the cabin I heard him murmur “Ah, le gorille parlant!”, and he now addressed me directly. “Mr Bananas,” he said, “it is my pleasure to make your acquaintance. You are spoken of much in the cafés of Vieux Port.” He extended his hand, which I grasped firmly and shook briefly.

“Inspector Cocteau has been helping us with a little problem that’s arisen, GB,” explained George. “Do you know Maria Geldenhuis?”

“The opera singer?” I inquired.

“The retired opera singer,” corrected the skipper. “Late last night she knocked on my door wearing nothing but a satin negligee. To say I was surprised would be putting it mildly.”

“Had she lost her way?” I asked. “It often happens when a passenger’s had too much to drink.”

“She may well have been drinking, GB, but she wasn’t lost. Some despicable forger put a note under her door inviting her to my quarters. She barged into my cabin and took off her gown before I could say a word. I had to throw a sheet around her! Here’s the note she got – read it yourself.”

I took the note from George and studied it impassively. Whoever had composed it knew his work well. The prose was terse but passionate, infused with the promise of wild carnal delights. After I had finished reading it, Monsieur Cocteau held out his hand to take possession of the document.

“If you will permit me to safeguard the evidence, Mr Bananas,” he said. “After making investigations this morning, I regret to have found other victims of such counterfeit invitations. Alas, my friends, we have a wicked phantom on the loose. But already I have my strong suspicions about the guilty person.”

“Who do you think it is?” asked George.

“The perpetrator of the crime is one who knows the first names of the passengers,” answered Cocteau. “He knows, also, the passengers who are travelling alone, with no companion to interfere with their freedoms. The man with this information is the purser of the ship. He keeps the list of guests and knows who inhabits each cabin.”

“Giovanni Pozzella!” exclaimed George. “But he’s been with us for years! What possible motive could he have, Inspector?”

“The satisfaction of the prank-maker is the humiliation of the victim,” declared the Frenchman. “He has joy in the lady’s blush; he has delight in the gentleman’s discomfort. A man who is respectable for many years may suddenly snap – zat! – like the elastic. I regret to have seen many such cases in Provence.”

“What shall we do?” asked George. “Even if it is Giovanni, we can’t just accuse him without evidence.”

“With your permission, Captain, I will observe his movements. Of course, I will do this with slyness, using my training as a detective, so he is unaware I am observing him. When he attempts to place a letter in the cabin of his next victim, I will catch him with the red hand.”

“Hum-di-dum,” mused George. “What do you think, GB?”

I scratched my neck and reflected. “Wouldn’t it be simpler just to warn everyone that a practical joker is distributing bogus love letters?” I ventured.

Monsieur Cocteau shook his head and clicked his tongue. “I cannot approve of such an action, Captain George. Can you admit to have no power to stop such tricks on your ship? It is a big damage to the authority of the Captain and to the Law of the Sea.”

Captain Fairweather stroked his chin. “I’d rather not make any announcements at this stage, GB. Let’s give the Inspector a chance to investigate first.”

I shrugged philosophically. “You could be right, Captain. Monsieur Cocteau, would you give me the names of the passengers who’ve received one of these notes? I’d like to do a bit of investigating myself.”

After Cocteau had given me the names on a piece of paper, I returned to my cabin and considered the facts logically. It didn’t take me long to deduce that the Frenchman’s hunch about Giovanni Pozzella was an idée fixe of the weakest calibre. A purser of ten year’s service would not risk his career to play juvenile games. Furthermore, mere possession of the passenger list would not have yielded him the required intelligence. The hoaxer must have observed that each pair of victims were on terms of sufficient cordiality to make the sentiments expressed in the note remotely plausible. And while the ship’s purser might have guessed of the amorous longings that heaved within the ample bosom of Miss Geldenhuis, he could not have possessed similar insights for the other guests on Cocteau’s list.

In all probability, the victims had socialised at some venue where their behaviour could be scrutinised by the trickster without raising suspicion. Not wishing to cause further embarrassment by questioning them, I made discrete enquiries among the catering staff. As luck would have it, one of them recognised the listed names as belonging to a bridge-playing group of twenty that met three nights a week. He had served them a finger buffet in the salon room they had booked for their tournament. The prankster was surely a member of that party and I racked my brains for a quick method of identifying the rogue. And then it dawned on me that it could only be one person.

Among the 500-or-so passengers was a 15-year-old boy by the name of Lionel Landberg. A mathematics prodigy of some note, he had recently won a scholarship to Oxford University, and his rather strict father had been persuaded to reward him for this achievement by taking him on a cruise. Lionel was unusual for a boy of his age in preferring the company of children younger than himself. Thus, he went about his business on ship followed by a platoon of diminutive flunkies, eager to absorb his precocious wisdom and chuckle at his sparkling wit. At the end of our first week at sea, Master Landberg had sought me out on the main deck, accompanied, as always, by his fresh-faced entourage.

“Good Day, Mr Bananas!” he said brightly. Could you tell me whether gorillas eat bananas when they’re having sex?”

His followers tittered in nervous excitement as they waited for my response. I smiled indulgently before making the following reply: “They might well do, laddie, but only if they were hungry. Perhaps you could answer a question that’s been puzzling me. Is it true that a human boy will lie on his arm before he masturbates so that his hand will feel like someone else’s?”

Poor Lionel blushed furiously, which did nothing to prettify his facial acne. “How should I know?” he snapped, before storming off angrily, pausing only to kick one of his disciples who had foolishly tried to follow him.

What led me to believe that Lionel was the note-writer was my recollection that he had captained his school bridge team. His participation in the on-board tournament seemed a virtual certainty, and I quickly confirmed as much with the catering staff. This left me in no doubt that he was the culprit. Reasoning that he would surely wish to share the details of his ingenious deception with his young fans, I made a series of unannounced visits to areas of the ship where the children tended to congregate. I eventually found Lionel in the video arcade, reading something aloud amid a cabal of his giggling admirers. They dispersed as quickly as motes of dust in the wind when they saw me approach, but I snatched the note from Lionel’s hand before he could trouser it.

“What ever are you reading, Lionel?” I asked.

His only response was a worried frown as I brought the letter to eye level.

“Let me see if I can make out what you’ve written……

Dear Archie: I want you as I have never wanted any man before. You must have noticed the way I was looking at you last evening. How I long to feel your strong hands around my waist. The thought of your body pressing against mine makes me moan with ecstasy. Yes, Archie, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve……

……I’d better stop there, I think. What a passionate young fellow you are, Lionel! Lucky old Archie is what I say. Who is he? Your best friend? Your scoutmaster? Your cat?”

“The letter’s not from me,” said Lionel sullenly. “Why don’t you read the signature at the end?”

“Good heavens, you’re right!” I replied. “But you’re definitely the bard who penned the words, aren’t you? – even as Shakespeare wrote the lines for Romeo and Juliet. I know genius when I see it. I wonder what Captain Fairweather will make of this.”

“Don’t tell him, Mr Bananas!” pleaded Lionel in a tone of piteous desperation. “My father would kill me if he heard about this. And the newspapers might find out as well. It’s horrible being famous. I’ll do anything if you’ll keep this quiet.”

We gorillas are merciful creatures and usually look favourably upon appeals for clemency. “All right, Lionel, I’ll hush this up for your sake, but there are two conditions. The first is that you must deposit one more spoof letter, the details of which I shall reveal presently. The second is that you must abandon all thoughts of further hoaxes. Think of this final letter as the last drag of a smoker who is quitting for good.”

Next day, shortly before lunchtime, I received a message from the Captain to meet him on the bridge. When I got there, I found him in earnest conversation with Giovanni Pozzella.

“GB, you’ll never guess what’s happened!” exclaimed George. “Our anonymous fiend has now sent Giovanni an indecent note signed ‘Pierre Cocteau’. I’ve been trying to convince him that it’s a forgery and not from the Inspector.”

“But eez been followin’ me all over da place, Captain!” protested the purser. “Ee thinks I don’ see him, but I can tell.”

“That’s because he’s a detective, Giovanni,” explained George. “He can’t help following people. It’s part of his nature, like a…um…”

“Like a bloodhound?” I suggested

“Yes, exactly!” exclaimed the skipper. “Like a bloodhound.”

Right on cue, the human bloodhound arrived at the bridge.

“Ah, Inspector, I’m glad you’re here,” said George. “Mr Pozzella has received an obscene note signed in your name. It puts a whole new complexion on the case, don’t you think?”

Giovanni ground his teeth and scowled at Cocteau, but the detective remained unruffled. He took the note from George and read it without raising an eyebrow. He then folded it and handed it back to the skipper. “This piece of paper proves nothing,” announced Cocteau calmly. “Mr Pozzella tries to make an alibi by writing a letter to himself. It is a simple trick.”

“You French faggot!” exclaimed Giovanni in shocked outrage. “You want me to break your teeth?”

Cocteau regarded the ship’s purser with cool contempt. “You Italian men think you are so macho!” he sneered. “You cannot fool me. I have been to Milano. You are just as perverted as the rest of humanity!”

It was evidently time for the Captain to exert his authority. “Calm down at once, Giovanni!” he barked. “You can’t strike a paying guest on a cruise ship. Think of your career, man!” He then spoke to Cocteau. “I am absolutely certain, Inspector, that the Mr Pozzella did not write this note or any of the others. Please strike him off your list of suspects.”

“What list of suspects?” retorted Cocteau. “I have no other suspects. Who else could be the perpetrator?”

I couldn’t help sniggering at Cocteau’s dogged inflexibility, which caused the humans to look at me in surprise. “This is no matter for amusement, Mr Bananas,” said Cocteau sternly. “If you have information on this case it is your duty to expose it to me.”

“I’ve got information all right!” I said chuckling. “The author of the notes confessed to me a short while ago. And it wasn’t Giovanni!”

“Don’t leave us in suspense, GB!” exclaimed George. “Who is the blighter?”

“I gave the culprit my word that I would not reveal his identity. He, in return, promised not to misbehave in future. Naming him might lead to unwelcome publicity, Captain. You might become a laughing stock.”

George rubbed his cheeks and sighed deeply. “Well, GB, I respect your judgment and wouldn’t ask you to break your word. I suppose we can let the matter rest if there are no more fake notes.”

Cocteau, however, was far from satisfied by this denouement. “But this cannot close the case, Captain George!” he spluttered indignantly. “Where is the evidence for the statement of Mr Bananas? Even if we believe him, he had no authority to give a pardon. And how do we know that Mr Bananas himself is not the guilty one?”

George stared at Cocteau in exasperation. “First you accuse the ship’s purser and now you accuse my friend Mr Bananas!” he grumbled. “You’ll be accusing me next, Monsieur!”

“Now you say this, Captain, I have questions about your story with the opera-singing lady. You say you rejected her advances, but I have observed this lady and she does not behave like the scorned woman. If you and she are lovers, perhaps the other notes are a clever distraction to hide your affair.”

Captain Fairweather smiled benignly and walked over to the Frenchman, grasping his arm. “Inspector Cocteau,” he said warmly, “I’m enormously grateful for your work on this case. It’s been a true education to see a real detective in action. Our own Scotland Yard could learn a lot from your methods. Perhaps you should pay them a visit after the cruise. In the meantime, you’re here to relax and enjoy the facilities. Have you tried the coq au vin in the upper level restaurant?”

He then chivvied the bemused sleuth to the exit and sent him on his way.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Once in a lullaby

I don’t see anything clever in the cynic who detects a sordid undercurrent in every innocent fable. One of these characters turned up at the safari camp a few days ago. He had a doctorate in something-or-the-other and gave me some old tosh about Little Red Riding Hood being a psychosexual drama depicting the unconscious desire of the human female to be ravished by the leader of the pack. I suppressed a yawn and wondered why the fellow had travelled thousands of miles to hobnob with wild animals at this time of year, when respectable men were at home with their families, roasting chestnuts and impaling fairies on Christmas trees. But before I could formulate a conjecture on this conundrum, he said something that jolted me like an electric shock. The Wizard of Oz, he claimed, was an allegory for the pubescent girl who dreams of sexual initiation and libertine adventures with older men. Too stunned to respond to this bombshell, I returned to the jungle in a daze.

You can pluck out my arse-hairs with tweezers before I’ll accept that Miss Dorothy Gale was any kind of Lolita. She did have a wistful way of singing, I admit, but the only yearning in those big brown eyes was for the comforts of the hearthstone. There are times when a good girl really is a good girl rather than a saucy strumpet putting on an act to fool the Good Witch of the North. And which of her travelling companions were intent on despoiling her maidenly virtue? The lion was clearly impotent and the scarecrow was too busy stuffing himself to have any thoughts of perforating young Dorothy. As for the tin man… well it must be said that there was something sinister about him. Still waters run deep, and it wouldn’t have surprised me if those bland, metallic features had concealed a raging lust for dainty female flesh. It’s just as well that the other two were there as chaperones – no creature that rigid could ever be trusted with a homesick virgin.

Yet if anything, The Wizard of Oz errs of the side of naivety. The Wicked Witch of the West was dispatched far too easily for my liking. I’m no expert on these matters, but I’m fairly certain that a witch cannot be reduced to guacamole by emptying a bucket of water over her. Anyone knows that the witching business involves making evil potions in cauldrons of boiling water, so a hydrophobic witch would quite incapable of performing her trade. And being unable to wash, the old hag would have smelt worse than Satan’s armpits, allowing her victims to scent her downwind at two hundred metres. The evildoer must always have an Achilles heel, of course, but a vulnerability to being dissolved with a bottle of Evian is taking things to an absurdity. In reality, throwing water on witches simply annoys them and provokes them to do more mischief. Pretending otherwise is deluding children about the hard facts of life.

For all its flaws, The Wizard of Oz will always be a movie that stirs my sentimental soul. Those delightful Munchkins remind me of my circus days, when I juggled midgets and tossed dwarves for the entertainment of our cheerful patrons. The little people loved every minute of it, and I remember one dwarf who kept on pestering me to throw him higher. I eventually persuaded the trapeze team to chuck him off their rig, and you should have seen the look of terror on his gnomish face when I caught him just before he hit the ground! Never believe it when you hear that gorillas don’t feel nostalgia.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Bird and the Bard

News arrives of a pelican who has fallen in love with a woman. Well they’re not the smartest creatures, are they? Apparently, this one likes to suck the woman’s hair and play with her shoelaces. “Right idea, wrong areas of the body” would be the kindest comment on those attempts at foreplay. You have to feel sorry for the pelican, really, because the love disease is devastating enough for the most level-headed beings, let alone a bird-brained squawker with a bag under its beak.

Do gorillas fall in love? Not really. Pre-pubescent gorillas sometimes get crushes, although it’s usually the object of their affection that gets crushed. I remember an orphaned female gorilla who attached herself to a visiting American footballer in the safari camp. She had a wonderful time with this man, crumpling him with shoulder charges, wrestling him to the ground, and twisting his arms behind his back. The sturdy athlete bore everything in good spirit, never flinching from her caresses or asking her to go easy on him. I heard that he later spent most of the pre-season period on crutches.

It is said that the foremost expert on the human heart was Sir William Shakespeare. (He wasn’t really a knight, but it doesn’t feel right to speak his name without a title.) Sir William’s insight about love was the fickleness of the whole thing. The moral of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that when Cupid’s arrow strikes you can fall for anyone – your best friend’s fiancé, a fairy, or even a jackass. It’s a fair point, but there’s one thing about the Bard’s lovelorn characters that doesn’t quite ring true: they are constantly talking. I’ve seen enough of humans in love to know that their condition makes them dopey and inarticulate. Yet Shakespearian lovers can’t stop whining about their heartache to anyone who’ll listen. In fact, they keep on chattering about it even when they’re alone.

The most convincing portrayal of human lovesickness is in a film called The Name of the Rose. Christian Slater is an apprentice monk who falls for a stunningly sensual beggar girl played by Valentina Vargas. He has no idea what to do about it, but it doesn’t matter because she takes charge of the situation, pulling off the lad’s habit and literally engulfing him in her yearning flesh. Little Christian’s boyish bottom is exposed to the world, while Valentina mews like a cat being simultaneously stroked by eleven pairs of hands. And throughout their brief encounter, they never exchange a single word. Inevitably, it all comes to grief when a bearded troll from the Inquisition arrives at the monastery, charging around the place making reckless accusations and flashing his deadly instruments. The tragic ending is a familiar denouement in human love stories, although in this one the parted lovers do at least escape with their lives.

The most important lesson of Sir William’s play is that being in love with someone is actually quite different from loving that person. Although Titania was temporarily besotted with Bottom, no one would suppose that she actually loved that buffoon – it’s just that the area of her brain associated with adoration had been stimulated at the wrong moment. The fairy queen was cured of her infatuation by magic, but real humans are rarely so lucky. I would guess the most effective remedy for the love affliction is to engage the idol of one’s heart in commonplace conversation about the weather, the neighbours and the price of fish. Few humans can speak for twenty minutes without saying something daft or banal, and it never fails to break to spell.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Reality TV lacks bite

I saw a dreadful TV show the last time I was in England. A group of lazy humans were filmed moping about in an open-plan house. Not one of them had an ounce of performing talent. They couldn’t sing or dance; they couldn’t juggle or do magic; they couldn’t banter or tell jokes – they weren’t even capable of a decent game of ping pong. Any hints of sexual activity never came to fruition and the drama they attempted was very poorly acted. I had a good chuckle when someone told me this was “Reality TV”. If human reality is really that boring it would be better to live in a fantasy world like Don Quixote.

All this lethargy and tedium comes from pampering the human herd. As any wild animal knows, life is full of meaning when you’re struggling to stay alive. When a band of gorillas is short of victuals, we all pull together for the common good. Ration cards are issued and the females make a savoury soup from tree-bark and powdered worms. We forage away busily, whistling merry tunes to keep our spirits up, and when food is discovered the females ululate in triumph. After we’ve stuffed ourselves, it’s time for a wild party. Even the baboons are invited and we really whoop it up, shaking our hairy arses into the small hours. Overcoming challenges is what makes you feel alive.

Filming humans being chased by predators would certainly make good television. I suppose it’s not done more often because of the expense of hiring dangerous beasts. But even the indoor events could be livened up by a better selection of guests. The Marquis de Sade strikes me as the kind of party animal who would have sparkled in such a setting. The man was an accomplished socialite who thoroughly enjoyed interacting with other humans, particularly in confined spaces. Just imagine the conversations he might have had with the attention-seeking dolly-birds who appear on these shows.

Marquis de Sade: Who will be your lover in this house?

Tracey Hotpants: Don’t say that, Marky, my boyfriend is watching this!

Marquis de Sade: Your boyfriend is a fool. I call him a pimp to his face. Let him watch me bite your soft white boobies.

Tracey Hotpants: Is that whatcha do to girls in your chateau?

Marquis de Sade: To begin with, yes. Sometimes I like to bite the derrière first. I can do this if you prefer.

Tracey Hotpants: Thanks, Marky, but I don’t like being bitten.

Marquis de Sade: Why not? Have you ever tried this?

Tracey Hotpants: I won’t try anything that hurts coz I don’t like pain.

Marquis de Sade: Mademoiselle Hotpants! Sex without pain is like food without taste!

The absence of dialogue like this shows what’s wrong with Reality TV. The houseguests are mired in the mundane, quite incapable of tackling issues as profound as whether biting or squeezing is sexually pleasing. It takes the incisive mind of a man like the Marquis to bring these meaty matters to the fore. Lacking a conversationalist of his calibre, countless hours are squandered on vacuous, inconsequential chatter. It’s the waste that saddens me.

Now the Marquis de Sade was no hero and I do not advance him as a role model for the modern human. In many ways the fellow was a bounder and it’s not for me to defend him. Yet no one could say that he was dull. Even as we condemn him for being a perverted fiend, we must respect him as a man who spoke his mind and remained true to his convictions. His ideas and conjectures may yet breathe new life into tired and lacklustre TV formats.

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