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Update 7 March 2005
1,001 Mornings of
Character by EO Costello in collaboration with Simon Barber
"Around the Bend"
Around the BendNormally, the bar at Shepherd's Hotel is a quiet, peaceful oasis. Oasis is the right term, because it was here that the weary traveler could acquire stimulating refreshment and copious shade. As one who habitually and regularly enjoyed the comforts of the bar, I appreciated these finer points.
A Reggie Buckhorn Story: Reggie and Lodge © E.O.Costello
Lady Pamela Fenwick character of R.A.Bartrop
Alas, these finer points were not in evidence one fine, or not so fine, week. I had not been aware, when I put down roots here in the Spontoons, that there was some sort of dratted nonsense referred to as "Speed Week," culminating in a bunch of flyboys racing for something called the Schneider Cup. I would have preferred that Schneider had kept his blasted Cup, since the bar was now crowded by all sorts of chattering blighters, occupying both the best seats and the attention of the bartenders.
The local papers compounded this state of affairs. The Mirror suspended the publication of its most important parts, namely, the comics and the cricket scores, and began devoting enormous attention to all manner of land, sea and air gadding about. I failed to see the point of rushing about in circles at high speed, only to finish up where you had started. If I wanted to do that, I would have become a civil servant. Today's paper was the limit, as there was a major feature on Lady Pamela Fenwick, which was enough to put me off my luncheon cocktails.
I suppose I should explain a few things. The source of the Buckhorn moolah goes back about 70 years, when my great-grandfather, Fred, was a cook in a regiment fighting the Civil War, for his native Pennsylvania. He had figured out a way to tin food to preserve it, and began experimentations, mostly on the captive audience that was his regiment. There was a current of opinion that when he emigrated from the United States to England in 1866, he managed to improve the level of cooking in both countries, at the same time. Anyway, Buckhorn's Baked Beans was a resounding success, and over the years, F.R. Buckhorn & Sons has become the leading supplier of vegetarian tinned goodies to King and Empire, enabling my sire, Sir Josslyn Buckhorn, to pursue his ambition of a peerage with open wallet, a fact not lost on each of the political parties, who regularly hit him up for contributions. My current presence in the Spontoons is designed to keep me as far away as possible from the bright lights of London until this whole coronet-chasing nonsense blows over. The old buck is nervous that one or the other of my nocturnal exploits could gum the works. Well, that and the fact that my open, beaming, honest countenance kills his appetite for Buckhorn's Cream of Acorn Soup. But I digress.
La Fenwick, on the other paw, is the current brains behind Fenwick Foods, even though she's not more than two years older than me. She is an authentic whiz at advertising and public relations, and it's just as well that the direct competition between her family's firm and mine is somewhat limited. Like a lot of little types (she's got a hefty ration of North African foxie blood in her), she moves about at high speed. And, judging from the volume of quotes I see in the papers, she talks a mile a minute as well. In the current context, this mainly focused on the need for the British Empire to keep up in aeroplane design, so as to avoid becoming a "second-rate power." She apparently puts a lot of energy, doubloons and thought into aircraft research and development. I wish she'd put some into culinary R&D. I had an encounter with their Original Lumpy Creme at Eton that I regard as my formative experience in abandoning high tea for cocktail hour.
In any event, this fine afternoon, I had finally secured a padded wicker chair in a quiet corner of the bar, and I lowered my boater over my eyes, prepatory to an attempt at a quiet snooze. It was not to be. The double doors to the bar banged open with the subtlety of a sirocco, and in bustled the aforementioned Fenwick, accompanied by a claque of types taking notes, handing her things, taking things from her, and in general being agreeable. This brisk efficiency was off-putting, and I firmly lowered my hat over my eyes.
Fenwick quickly established herself as the cynosure of all eyes, roaring out jokes and comments on races past, present and future. She seemed to have an appreciative audience, judging from the assorted noises they produced. It seemed an eternity before things quieted down, and I was just about to drop off firmly for an encounter with Morpehus, when I felt a sharp pain in the area of my rib cage.
"Ah! Just the deer I've been looking for!"
I've learned to be very wary when I hear that phrase. It's usually accompanied by a series of awkward questions, the answers to which are usually difficult to relate in polite company without having someone immediately caution you that anything you say will be used against you in court. I feigned deafness, which did not fool her keen vulpine senses. A pair of sharp pains in my ribs followed, and an eye opened in irritation revealed that La Fenwick was standing next to me, poking and prodding at me with a swagger stick. Closer examination (which was unavoidable) revealed that she had exceptionally coiffed fur, and something expertly tailored that looked a great deal like a feminine version of an RAF officer's uniform, by way of Paris. I suppose another fox would find this riveting, but at the moment I wished she'd bloody well go to ground and stay there, and I grumbled eloquently, and pulled my boater down a little more.
A bright dose of light indicated that she had the raw impertinence to take a paw and remove my boater. "Come on, slug-a-bed, your King and Country need you."
"What the devil for?"
"Do you support British industry?"
"I drink British." This was a very true statement. I am on a first-name basis with the manager of the distillery that produces my favourite gin, and my state of well-being is a matter of keenly followed interest with that firm's directors and stockholders. I once was sober for a whole month, and I received a telegram from the chairman expressing tender concern for my health.
"I'm talking about industries vital to the Empire's well being."
"If gin isn't vital to the Empire, I don't know what is. If you cut off the supply of gin to our colonies, the morale of our settlers would collapse in a few weeks."
Fenwick didn't address this argument, which I felt was a crusher. "Our future is in the air." This statement was accompanied by further use of the swagger stick in the area of my breastbone. "Every advance we make in aeronautics ensures that Britain is brought closer to the rest of the world."
Frankly, the idea of Britain, and my sire, being far away pleased me. The idea of the old buck popping by as easily as nipping around the corner for a cuppa char didn't appeal to my finer sensibilities, and I slumped down in my seat. The vixen, however, was relentless.
"That's why Speed Week here in the Spontoons is so important. All the latest designs are here, pitted against each other. It's a test bed." The notion of a bed was sounding like a good idea at the moment, and I started to eye around for an escape route.
"I want you to be a part of this. With all of your resources and all of your free time, you're a natural for this. Why don't you support the British Schneider Cup Racing Team?"
I fixed her with a gaze steely and firm. "Because the notion of speed is entirely overrated."
Fenwick seemed to think this was funny. Certainly that's what her barking laugh, about a foot from my ear, indicated. "What do you know of speed, you toper?"
"I have had my license revoked in five countries for reckless, high-speed driving." This included France. It takes work to lose your license for reckless, high-speed driving in France. "There's no point in rushing about, hither and yon, in a bunch of high-speed toys. Far more productive to sit in quiet contemplation." Besides, moving about at high speeds doesn't leave the paw free for a cocktail glass. But I didn't tell her that.
She wasn't buying this, as her sneer indicated. "I think you're yellow, that's what I think. I have a good notion to let your father know just what you're made of. What would your father say?"
"My father says quite a lot about me. Just as the Esquimaux have hundreds of words to describe snow, an important part of their life, my father has hundreds of words to describe me. They start with 'idiot,' move on to 'gumboil,' escalate to 'fermented fruit of my loins,' and are ultimately crowned with the somewhat shaky theological statement that the only reason I'm not listed in the Bible as one of the plagues that afflicted Egypt is because some translator blundered. As to what I'm made of, he'd venture six parts gin to one part dry vermouth. That is where you make your bloomer. My father cares as much about his son and heir as I care about you and your hobbies. Which is precious little. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have something more important to do. Like a stroll around the garden. A SLOW stroll."
I stood up to effect this plan of action, which was countered by Lady Fenwick standing up. Meeting me nose-to-chest, she squared her jaw.
"Yes, you're definitely yellow. You're afraid to be shown up by a vixen. It wouldn't take much for you to wave the white flag."
I had hoped she was going to keep the fun clean, but this was a poor choice of words when dealing with a whitetail buck. "And what, pray, do you propose to do about it?"
"I challenge you, in front of everyone in the bar here, to a little race. You can pick the mode, and you can pick the course, and I'll beat you. And just to make things a little spicy, how about a side bet? Say, 10,000 pounds?"
This was accompanied by rhythmic pokes in my stomach with the swagger stick, and followed up by a wicked grin. She knew she had me. A chap can't turn down a challenge like that in his favourite bar; he'd never be able hold his head high there again. Which sort of impedes the ability to drink. Which is the point of having a favourite bar. A quick sidelong glance indicated that she had the whole of the bar on her side. The honour of F.R. Buckhorn & Sons was at stake.
"Right. We'll have a boat race. Once around a course off Casino Island marked out by me. Say, oh, three days from now, at six p.m.?"
Loud cheers, of course, and an immediate fresh topic of argument and gossip was launched, there at the bar of Shepherd's Hotel, which quickly spread to the other hotel bars and assorted watering holes. This promised to be an exciting diversion.
And a bloody embarrassing one, at least for me. I knew from nothing with regard to powerboats. The only reason I chose one was because I knew less than nothing about planes, and I haven't been behind the wheel of a motor-car since an unfortunate encounter with a plate-glass show window on the Rue de la Paix a few years ago, in which my Packard Eight won, somewhat messily. 10,000 pounds was a whacking great stash of lucre, my allowance for a good number of months to come, and while my mother adores her only fawn, even this would give her pause, honour of the family or no.
I had recently hired a ricksha driver, a very handsome, tall and well-built native fox named Po'na. I had been lost in gloomy thoughts into the evening, and Po'na began to be concerned, as I passed up chance after chance to stop at various attractive watering holes. Po'na turned into a small park, and stopped the ricksha.
"Gentledeer ill feeling is?" he said, with authentic concern, especially since I was the source of generous tips that obviated the need for working for hire. I decided to lay the facts before Po'na in a full and frank manner. Po'na looked worried at the discussion of the side bet. He evidently had visions of his gravy train being diverted to a side track for some time. He crouched down, and drummed his fingers on the handles of the ricksha, lost in thought. Eventually, he turned up to look at me.
"Gentledeer location race-course state unto vixen small?" By which I think he meant had the home ground been selected? I shook my head. "I wouldn't even know where to start. I mean, what's a good location for a six p.m. race?"
Po'na tilted his head at me. "Time race six hours of afternoon is?" I nodded. The fox once again crouched down, but this time, I could tell from the faster drumming of his fingers that something was cooking between the ears. Eventually, he gave the ricksha handles a thump, and looked up at me with a sly look.
"Po'na idea has gentledeer for. Gentledeer accommodate Po'na, listen Po'na?" Po'na's confidence was infectious, so I lent him an ear. Po'na used a claw to sketch out Casino Island in a patch of dirt, and then a course that happened to be just off one of the main beaches, a triangular course. The gist of it was, that if I left it to Po'na, the gentledeer (me) would have no worries about a win.
This led to a discussion of our competing craft. Po'na had a cousin who ran a used boatyard, but I waved him off, then waved him closer. I had a notion for something much grander that would put Lady Pamela Fenwick firmly in her place. It was one, however, that required Po'na and eight friends of his that could be relied on to keep quiet until just the right moment. I poured my concept into Po'na's pink and shell-like, and it met with his enthusiastic approval. He promised to supply the necessary personnel and equipment from his close relatives, to keep the circle of those in the know close.
Before we broke up for the evening, I relayed to Po'na an essential part of the plan. I explained to him the concept of leaking information. Sort of ironic when one considered this was relating to boats, but Po'na grasped the concept after only two explanations, and said that I could rely on him. It was with a light heart indeed that I bent my elbow that night, and on the following nights.
The newspapers, of course, couldn't resist the topic, since there was a good deal of money at stake. The betting commissioners were doing a brisk business, with a great deal of action being seen on both fronts, though obviously Lady Fenwick, with her reputation, went off at low odds. My reputation, such as it was, assured me that I was firmly the under-deer. I used my valet, Lodge, to place substantial bets on myself.
The odds were kept somewhat within reason by little acts of carelessness on my part. Scribbled notations and designs on cocktail napkins were strategically "forgotten" in various bars, and loud phone conversations and "arguments" were had between myself and Po'na, who was seen sneaking about, without a great deal of stealth, getting various parts from his relative's yard. Both the Mirror and the Elele employed artists who prepared concept sketches of my purported craft, and these designs aroused much heated debate as to the relative merits of the innovations. All were amazed at the energy that was going into my preparations. While this wasn't front-page stuff, with all else that was going on in Speed Week, the high stakes and brisk betting ensured that it wasn't back-page stuff, either.
The day before the match, Po'na laid out the triangular course, which was roughly three miles, one mile on each side, with one side of the triangle being parallel to the beach, this being the first leg. The second leg ran away from the beach, and the third leg ran back to the beach, and the finish line. Lady Fenwick and her cohorts watched the laying out with amusement, and began whispered consultations on tactics. I watched the laying out, assisted by a cocktail shaker. Questions from the press were met with the prediction that Team Buckhorn would win in a walk-over. This level of insane cockiness was met with disbelief and derision on the part of all concerned, and the odds on me promptly went up. Lady Fenwick confined her press statements to the relative merits of a vegetarian and a meat-eating diet, with pointed references to Cream of Acorn soup.
My race-night preparations largely consisted of getting totally, and publicly, tanked on Moet White Star champagne. This was a small sacrifice on my part to ensure that no one paid attention to Po'na's race-night preparations.
At last, the great day arrived. A trailer carried Team Fenwick's craft down to the water. It was a very impressive craft, sleek metal driven by two menacing propellers. There were many whispers as to the size and power of the racing engine hidden below. Once placed in the water, it looked like it was about to burst with supressed power and speed. I also noticed that Lady Fenwick had taken care to stake out the inside track. This, of course, was predictable. Lady Fenwick, at the wheel, buckled herself in, and her assistant did likewise.
Po'na and I had discussed our entrance. We were in agreement that we could not spoil the ship for a ha'pennysorth of tar. First came the native blowing a conch-horn. This was followed by Po'na, who had very carefully oiled his fur so that every sinew stood out in bas-relief. This certainly got Lady Fenwick's attention, which was also predictable, and, indeed, relied on.
I made my entrance after this. I chose a pair of white-duck trousers, a white shirt with a University of Pennsylvania tie, and a navy blazer. I couldn't remember what happened to my yachting cap, but I did find an admiral's fore-and-aft dress cap I "borrowed" from the Army-Navy Club, and this gave me the air of authority I wanted. Of course, this was slightly diminished by the fact that I was carrying a banjo. Po'na had arranged for a very attractive native maiden to walk up to me and place a garland of colourful native flowers about my neck, which coordinated nicely with the red and blue in my tie.
The bartender from Shepherd's was deputized to hold each of our crossed cheques for 10,000 pounds, as Lady Fenwick and I agreed that the honour of bartenders was universally respected.
Po'na and I waited by the water's edge, while our craft was brought to the water's edge. This turned out to be a pair of long, slender canoes, linked together, with some outrigger stabilizers. The space between the canoes was partly decked over, and a chair had been placed upon it. The chair was shaded by a beach umbrella "borrowed" from Shepherd's. Po'na had a place a little behind this, near the tiller. The whole thing looked like something a Roman emperor would have created, had he been put in charge of a college crew team. This craft was accompanied by eight rather striking native foxes, who all looked like slightly smaller versions of Po'na, each with their fur well-oiled. They bore canoe paddles, and garlands of flowers like mine.
The crowd didn't know what to make of this. The bookies did, and refused to take any more bets, at any price, on me, and the odds on Lady Fenwick diminished to unattractive returns. Lady Fenwick, when she could tear her eyes away from the foxes limbering up on the beach, fixed me with a nasty look. "You're going to find this to be a very expensive bit of japery, Buckhorn." I shrugged indifferently, and tuned my banjo. The assistant had been squinting out at the course, and after a few minutes, tried to get Lady Fenwick's attention. He earned a smack on the muzzle for his pains, as Lady Fenwick was far more intent on watching my crew warm up.
I assumed my rightful place of authority on the boat, adjusting the umbrella, and it was launched into the water, the crew and Po'na taking their positions. Our boat was placed along side Team Fenwick's, and we were placed under starter's orders. A long interval of silence followed, interrupted only by the loud thrum-thrum of the other boat's powerful engine. My eight foxpower engine, by contrast, maintained a sense of dignified serenity. At last, the gun was fired, and the race was on.
Team Fenwick took off with a roar, leaving a rooster tail in its wake. Team Buckhorn, by contrast, moved off at a stately pace, producing only a series of rhythmic slaps of paddle against water.
Team Fenwick went screaming around the first mark as tight as it could, without hitting it, producing a massive wake that made the crowd ooooh and aaaaah. This wake had mostly calmed down by the time our boat made its leisurely way around that section of the course. The crew, by this time, were using rhythmic barks to set the pace. This was very pleasing, as it was like listening to a well-trained cox-chorus.
I myself was keeping an eye on Team Fenwick's boat as it approached the apex of the triangle, at the second mark. I was hoping that Lady Fenwick would take this mark the way she took the first mark, and I was not disappointed, as she was determined to take it at high speed.
A series of loud, shuddering noises indicated to Team Fenwick, Team Buckhorn, and the crowd on the beach that while Lady Fenwick started to take the second mark at high speed, she didn't finish it at high speed. In fact, she had no speed at all. The nice part about having natives advise you on setting the course is that they know where the shallow water is at low tide. Po'na, of course, had subtly moved the marks the night before. I never said that the course laid out yesterday was final, naturally.
It was perhaps just as well that Lady Fenwick was more than a mile from the beach, as the orders she was giving to her hapless assistant were quite hot. A lot more hot that Fenwick's Madras Curry, if you ask me. The interval between her grounding, and the point at which Team Buckhorn caught up, was occupied with a great deal of backing, rocking, and yelling, and some more backing, rocking and yelling. Eventually, we passed Lady Fenwick, who glared out at me, as I briefly serenaded her with the banjo. "Good Night, Ladies" might not have been a tactful choice, but it was a heartfelt one. This musical selection was met by a hurled helmet, which fell well short of its mark.
The final leg of the course was accompanied by the crew setting the rhythm with their barking. There was only one thing to do, which was to supply banjo syncopation. It was with this Anglo-American-Spontoonie jazz combo that we crossed the finish line.
I collected the pair of 10,000 pound cheques, plus my winnings from the betting commissioners, who were out to the tune of 8,311 pounds, nine shillings and fourpence. The crew received 750 pounds each for their hard work, and Po'na got 1,000 pounds to his credit, which I felt was a bargain. The remaining lucre was handed over to the Shepherd's bartender, with instructions to use it as the basis for setting up multiple rounds on the house, which engendered a feeling of goodwill. A motion was made to adjourn the proceedings thence, and was carried by acclamation.
I am told it was about two hours after sunset before they finally managed to work Team Fenwick's boat free. It was thus a very hot, tired, not terribly tidy, and thoroughly disenchanted Lady Pamela Fenwick that trudged into the party.
I gave her a flute of Moet, in a show of sportsdeership. "Remember, Lady Pamela, England's future may be in the air, but its traditions are in the sea."
The verbal response this provoked indicated that Lady Pamela Fenwick was intimately familiar with more than one tradition associated with sailors.