(You join me as a teenager, working my apprenticeship on a cargo ship in Calcutta, India.)
I was miserable. My spirit ground mercilessly under the heel of authoritarian brutality. My heart callously scooped out and cast adrift by the soulless Chief Officer. He had deemed me to be in need of some punishment, and - not realising the damaging effects that removing Fun from a young chap can have - wagged the finger, gnashed the teeth and dashed from my lips the Calcutta Cup of Delights. And he didn’t stop there. Being possessed of the idea that I might sneak off the ship, he took the preventative step of leading me by the ear along to the top of the gangway, pointing me out to the seacunny on patrol and leaving orders that I was not to be allowed to set foot across the threshold. He then lifted me by the lapels, touched his nose to the end of mine and spat down my front as he warned me that if I did leave the ship he would conduct an energetic and highly personal endoscopy with the ship's mop. I was to stay in and study and think about how I could be a better person in future. I got the feeling that this time he meant it.
As the boys waved goodbye and marched purposefully up the road in their happy clothes, I trudged off to the ship’s bar and was pleased to find it livelier than expected. The Fifth Engineer's Asian wife was entertaining a couple of girl friends from the city. Mindi and Bhupinda were very lovely ladies indeed (from what I could see of them behind my supposed friend NotNorman and the licentious Wugg, who were leaning all over them trying to be clever). But it was Mindi whose every word took my breath away; whose every smile squeezed my heart and made me want to cry if I could not make her mine.
But Mindi’s attention was being dominated by NotNorman and Wugg, so I sat casually nearby and tried to muscle my way in by throwing super-clever remarks into their conversation from a distance. Mindi laughed at my jokes, but NotNorman deliberately held his laughter back. He made snide comments through clenched teeth in response. However, the real problem was that I was getting side-tracked by Bhupinda. She had locked on to me when I handed her a drink. I didn’t want her attention, and kept trying to see past her to stay involved with Mindi’s gang.
I tried to be polite. I pretended to listen to Bhupinda, smiling and nodding as if I was interested whilst actually concentrating hard on keeping up with the others. But every time I made a joke and joined us back into the interesting conversation behind her, Bhupinda just saw it as an opportunity to breathe in, then moved across in front of me again and started on and on about some bloke she knew once who had a boat and a sister and a cat and how nothing ever happened but she could still talk continuously about it without hesitation, repetition or deviation and the only interesting point was that these people and their cat were added to an enormous list of people she had known who had moved house without telling her where they’d gone and didn’t you just hate it that people did that all the time? I was struck with a similar emotion and began to think she must be sponsored by the guild of removal van companies. It was incredible. Each time she started talking, it quickly became clear that she didn’t intend to stop any time soon. NotNorman’s plan was working. I was becoming removed from the Mindi-fest, and was being worn down by this relentless, moon-faced talking machine that moved in front of me every time I tried to get around it.
For a while, I did force a smile and kept at least a tiny bit of polite nodding and eye contact going with Bhupinda but, good grief, she went on. Blah, blah, blah. Drone, drone, drone. Before long, the only words I could hear during her conversation were the ones in my own head, screaming inside, imploring her from behind my clenched smile:‘SHUT UUUPP! SHUT UUUUUP! GO AWAY! NAFF OOFFFFF! LEAVE ME ALONE! SHUT UUUUUUUUUP!’
I kept on clapping my hands together and saying, ‘anyway I really must mingle,’ or ‘well, lovely talking, but I really need the loo’, or ‘good Lord, look at the time! I really have to throw myself out of this porthole’, but there was no let up in the verbal onslaught. I started to hallucinate. Her big round face got bigger and rounder as it kept droning on and on and ooooon. Soon she had six faces, all circling in front of me and talking all at once like some hideous visitation from a 1970s pop video. She didn’t even breathe, not once. I wasn’t even pretending to listen politely anymore. There was no point. I ruffled her hair up. No change. I pressed her nose in and made a honking sound like a 1940s car horn. She kept talking. I squeezed her mouth together from the sides. Her eyes bugged out but the gabble just kept on coming. I pushed her cheeks right into each other in front of her teeth. It brought a surprised look to her eyes and distorted whatever it was she was batting on about, but she just kept on and on and on and on and on and on regardless. I beat her to death with a chair but there was no change in the output from the mutilated corpse on the deck. It was beyond reasonable limits.
I was in the throes of trying to slit my own throat with a beer mat – she had apparently witnessed many tragic suicides in her time as a conversationalist – when there was a bit of a row outside the bar. The door crashed open and an Asian gentleman in a top hat and tails, carrying a fold-up table, a magic wand and a large tray, came falling in, followed hot-foot by the seacunnie who had been trying to stop him.
‘He says he invited, Sa’ab. Not true, eh?’ cried the seacunnie. It wasn’t true, but that wasn’t going to stop me. Anything to get away from Bhupinda.
‘Yes, yes! He’s with me! Come in, come in!’ I chanted magnanimously, and waved the seacunnie away. ‘Do you want a girl to talk at? I mean, to?’
The visitor, who had been expecting a physical expulsion, found he had a foothold. He straightened his jacket and stood upright and dignified.
‘I,’ he announced, bowing low, ‘am Ahmed the Magnificent.’ And he certainly was. He was around four-feet tall, with a silver beard that almost reached the floor at the front and coat tails which nearly reached the floor at the back. He wore a scraggy white shirt with a bow tie and matching bow-legs, and he had a large jug and an intriguing looking plastic tray with a lid. ‘I am here to perform – my performance!’
‘Errr… what kind of performance is that?’ asked Wugg with suspicion. Given some of the things he had seen around the world, he perhaps thought it best to ask, particularly with ladies present.
‘It is a Magnificent show,’ said Ahmed, patting the lid of his tray with a reassuring smile. ‘You won’t have seen anything like it.’
Exactly the problem, I thought, but now we at least had a focus of attention that was not Bhupinda’s life story or our battle over Mindi. Wugg asked again what the show was about, and Ahmed replied that if we paid up, we could see what it was all about, couldn’t we? An argument ensued concerning whether we should allow him to proceed. I wanted the focus to remain away from Bhupinda and NotNorman, so I cut through the crap. I ran to my cabin, got some money and paid the man his price. I mean, the guy was obviously some sort of magician. He might be a crap magician, but even a crap magician couldn’t do any harm, could he?
In my defence, as the sponsor of this event, the first minute and a half couldn’t have gone better. Ahmed the Magnificent indulged a theatrical preamble, talking with wide-eyes about the mystical East and the intriguing and inexplicable things that happen when in the presence of Magnificence. As he spoke, he removed his jacket, erected the fold-up table and placed the tray carefully on the top. I’m not sure what could be mystical and inexplicable – or even Eastern – about a Tupperware tray, but we made ourselves comfortable with our beers, and began heckling from the stalls. I felt pleased with the rise in excitement. I looked around at our lady guests. They were enjoying themselves so far, and I was happy to take the credit. Ahmed the Magnificent then flexed his fingers. The tension rose as he paused dramatically, hovering over the tray… he lifted the lid… and the chaos commenced.
The next few minutes were a bit of a blur, but as far as I remember it went something like this. Inside the tray were half a dozen snakes writhing about in two inches of water. They weren’t huge, but they were certainly agitated, bright yellow and looked well worth avoiding. The lid-lifting seemed to be the starting gun for them to begin a race, and they quickly set about legging it over the sides of the tray, their black, beady eyes and flicking tongues betraying their desire to find someone to blame for their imprisonment. I had heard stories of snakes swallowing whole cows, and for an instant I wondered if we would still be able to hear Bhupinda talking from inside a snake. Such happy thoughts were soon overwhelmed by my own desire to avoid a personal encounter with one of these most fearsome of reptiles, over which Ahmed the Magnificent was demonstrating a remarkable lack of control. He had a little crooked stick with which he continuously returned these murderous beasts to the tray each time they made a break for it, but there were lots of them, they were sliding out of the container from all sides and he was concentrating more on the spoken part of his act than he was on snake herding. In short, he was losing the battle. I wanted him to forget the spoken part of his act and get the lid back on, and I soon became anxious enough to interrupt his performance.
‘Erm, Ahmed, old friend. You couldn’t just, erm, pop those chaps back in the old pot there, could you? Maybe do a few card tricks or something? You see, snakes are all well and good at the right…’
I was interrupted by a corporate scream as one of the snakes made it out of Ahmed’s range and headed sou’-west at full ahead. As Ahmed chased it, the others were quick to identify opportunities for a new life of freedom that now lay in the nor’-east. They landed noisily on the floor and set off. Things were now officially out of control, and these were not shy or nervous snakes. They did not suffer from stage fright, but seemed keen to play a positive part in the performance. So, whilst the rest of us tried to cling to the ceiling, the snakes lapped the bar and The Magnificent Ahmed busied himself with his act, returning the snakes to the tray with his little crooked stick each time one completed a circuit and came in range.
The distraction of the snakes had led to a certain lack of focus on what Ahmed the Magnificent was saying, so it was something of a surprise to me when he suddenly grabbed a snake, held it up in the air, its head in one hand and body in the other.
‘And now… Ahmed the Magnificent… will eat… this… snake alive!’ he announced proudly.
The ladies all screamed in unison (OK, OK, I might have let out a small one myself) and a good deal of verbal effort was made to discourage him. But we were not in strong positions to do much about it. Reading from left to right: Wugg was sitting on top of the television with his feet drawn up; the girls were clinging to each other in a line on the back of the sofa; I was standing in the sink behind the bar and had armed myself with a washing-up brush; and NotNorman – where was NotNorman? – Ah! There he was! Clinging octopus-like to Bhupinda’s head as she stood on the back of the sofa. I couldn’t help but notice that Bhupinda was telling NotNorman about how she met some bloke with a snake once, still managing to squeeze the words out despite NotNorman’s arms and legs circling her face. From these vantage points, we tried our hardest to discourage Ahmed the Magnificent as he concertinaed the snake up so its tail was squashed up behind its head, then, to roars of disapproval from all present, he pushed it into his mouth.
As the concertina’d body opened up, the snake visibly slid down his throat until finally, and to passionate condemnation from all present, the tail disappeared. He opened his arms wide to accept his applause, and opened his mouth wide to show us there were no snakes hiding under his tongue or curled up in the rotting cavities of his teeth. But we knew that already. One look at his rolling, pulsating stomach told us where it had gone.
He then picked up another snake.
We renewed our shouts for him to stop as he concertinaed up the new candidate and adopted the position. Then, recognising the levels of disapproval, told us that, for a small additional fee, he would not eat snakes. Indeed, for the right money, he would pack up and leave. We agreed frantically to paying him to go away, but we were in the ship’s bar. We didn’t have any money on us, only ever signing for items taken from the bar. I had been to my cabin to fetch his price the first time round, and we would have to go again to fetch some more.
We tried to explain to the chap that we could get him some more money if he could just give us a clear path to the door and a couple of minutes. But we were too late. Gulp. Slither. Schloop! Another snake snack took its place in Ahmed’s intestines. His stomach writhed around and he looked to be in some discomfort as he urged us to produce more cash… and set up a third snake for consumption. When we didn’t produce the required money in time… Gulp! Another snake joined his mates inside The Magnificent Belly. At this moment, the chief engineer entered the bar. He was a huge, Northern man who wasn’t scared of anything. He was eight feet square, without a single hair on his entire body, but despite his size he had a high voice like Sybil Fawlty.
‘Awww, bloody he-eelll,’ he sang, irritated that there was no peace to be found in the bar and that he now had another job to do. He looked at me standing in the washing up bowl, then at the damsels in distress, added two and two, then collared Ahmed and dragged him bodily from the room. He then put his head back into the bar and pointed first at me, then at NotNorman.
‘You, and you. Pack up them snakes and follow me. Now!’
Fortunately, three of the snakes were already eaten. One was in Ahmed’s hands and the other two were in the tray, so we were able to slam the lid on before we actually had to handle any snakes. Even so, Mindi was shouting abuse at NotNorman, the like of which you would not expect from a lady of good breeding. It seemed, from what I gathered before we left the bar, that he had omitted to prepare her for the presence of snake digestion artistes in the bar. Man, she was mad! I had the strangest feeling that things might have swung away from NotNorman in the battle for her affections, and try as I might, I didn’t seem able to feel sorry for the man.
Outside, Chiefy organised us into a team: I carried the jug of water; Wugg carried the tray of snakes, NotNorman carried the fold-up table, and Chiefy carried Ahmed by the scruff of his neck and booted him Magnificently up the bottom every other step of the way to the port gates. He was deposited remarkably gently at the road – I think deep down it’s hard not to find some respect for a man who earns his living getting his arse kicked the length of the harbour with live snakes in his belly.
‘And make sure he doesn’t come back!’ yelled Chiefy, as he stomped off back towards the ship.
NotNorman and I stood and watched Ahmed the Magnificent get himself together. He drank the entire jug of water – must have been a couple of litres – and then, with a noise like a passing 650 Honda, threw up the snakes back into the tray. I can’t say if they were happy or not – snakes don’t tend to betray their emotions with facial expression – but they were alive and well, and definitely had something unusual to discuss with the family back in the tray. Ahmed picked up his equipment and headed off. He was my precious $20 richer, and had another $20 in his line of sight in the shape of the Scandinavian container ship next along in the dock. I wondered how many ships would see his performance in a day. What a life. Maybe one day I would see him on ‘The X Factor’.
"Shall we leg it up the road?" said Wugg, gazing happily through the open gate. “Chiefy just got us off the ship!”
And it hit me - we were passed the seacunnie! Fee to roam! But I remembered the look in the Mate's eye and the singularly unsuitable nature of a mop for use as an endoscope.
"I don't think so," I said, shaking the peanut. "The Mate will go berserk if I nip off again. Early night for me."
Us Baboulene's are known for our solid resolve, so Wugg didn't push it. He knew nothing could make me break my word once a decision had been made. I would respect the curfew this evening. We turned to go back to our cells. As we did so, we were met by a car leaving the dock. Inside were the two girls from the bar. They stopped and rolled down the window.
"Hey, guys! We're going into town - you wanna come along?"
There was a degree of conflict. My head said 'No!', my heart said 'Yes!' I looked at the girls in the car - beautiful, fun-loving girls who didn’t like NotNorman anymore, and a completely different part of my body seemed to drown out the others. It told me to stop being an idiot, to get in the car, to go and have a good time... and to remember to hide the mop first thing when I got back...
(The complete and unexpurgated version of this story is featured in my second travel book, Jumping Ships.)