The Cork-Lined Box

Fremantle Harbour. © Tim South
If I were killed, thrown overboard for the waiting sharks, who would find out?

In August of 1933 I decided to cross the Mediterranean to Alexandria, in search of specimens for my butterfly collection. My finances were a little thin, so I was forced to have my luggage sent ahead and take passage from Marseilles on the Epidaurus, a small tramp freighter. My only experience of sea travel had been the ferry across the channel when I first began to explore Europe - this was the first time I had taken a sea journey of considerable length. I suppose I should have gained some forewarning of the frightful ordeal I was about to endure from the state of the shipping office - my first thought was that I had been sent to an abandoned building by mistake. But on looking through the door I was beckoned by a large, sweaty man into an office containing a chair, a table, a broken desk fan, a pile of yellow newspapers in the corner and numerous dead flies everywhere. The fellow began mumbling at me, while pushing dirty pieces of paper around his desk, looking for a pen. My French is adequate, but I couldn't understand a word.

"Pardone, m'sieur, you'll have to slow down, I can't understand you. Perhaps you can speak English?"

He looked at me with disgust, then belched.

"Aaaaaah oui. PLEASE. Very good morning."

This was as much English as he was willing to attempt. He found a pen, and I put on my spectacles and filled out the papers as best I could. The whole time I could sense this oaf scowling at me. I paid my fare and followed his grubby finger toward the dock.

The captain was a doddering old man who seemed to be wandering around the ship as if he didn't belong there. He accompanied me to my cabin, an iron cell with a hammock and a bucket. The walls were humming with the sound of the engines. I looked around to ask if there was some alternative, but he had staggered off.

Soon the ship was moving. The smell of the ocean, mixed with the stink of grease and diesel fuel and oil and Heaven knows what else it took to run a ship, almost made me want to keep my nose permanently covered in my handkerchief. There was also a faint smell similar to an abattoir, and I wondered what our cargo was. The hull was riddled with rust from stem to stern, and the gangways were so narrow that I was forced to wrestle past anyone moving in the opposite direction. The ship heaved back and forth in the slightest swell, and was constantly followed by a cloud of screeching gulls, drawn by the stench, and on the lookout for garbage being thrown over the side. The crew were a mixed group of lascars and Africans, few of whom showed any sign that they were aware of my existence. It seemed unlikely that they could speak English anyway. Needless to say, this was a particularly low point in my travels. And unlike a town or hotel that I might have disliked, I couldn't leave.

My first night at sea brought me little sleep. Every so often the engines made a belligerent knocking sound, and my hammock tended to hit the wall with the larger swells. The next morning my mood was frayed, to say the least. I went in search of the galley for some kind of breakfast. This, and in fact every meal, turned out to be black bread and corned beef. The crew devoured it with equanimity.

Other than my cabin, it seemed the best place to spend the time was the forecastle. At the railway station in Cologne I had bought a cheaply bound copy of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Even after forty-five years as a librarian there were still a number of the great works of literature which I had not read - a fact for which I was often grateful on long rail journeys. I also wore a pair of dark blue-tinted spectacles which I had bought in Paris, and a battered pith helmet. I found a suitable spot and began reading. As I read the first few chapters, describing at great length the mysterious threat to shipping of some enormous entity, I began to grow a little uneasy, as if I was tempting fate... But I had once read that lifeboat number thirteen on the Titanic carried all its passengers comfortably to safety. I decided to leave superstitions to the sailors, and kept reading.

Toward late morning it seemed that the duties of some of the crewmen were on hiatus - two of them came and sat down cross-legged on the deck. One of them, wearing a turban and spectacles, produced a gameboard and pieces, put them down and arranged them carefully. The other looked to be a Malay. He was thin and sun-burnt, shirtless, with tattoos on one arm, and he wore a filthy fisherman's cap. It looked to me like he had painted his eyebrows on. I couldn't make out what they were playing, but it seemed something similar to draughts. After a while they began smoking pipes containing something that gave off a thick, foul odour, and every so often one of them would spit violently onto the deck boards. They didn't exchange a word until each game was over, when one of them would make a contemptuous remark, and they would set up the board and start again. I continued reading.

After a while, I heard one of them yelling. I looked over and realised the Malay was glaring at me. I smiled and replied,

"I'm sorry, I can't understand. Parlez-vous francais?"

But he continued to harangue me. I held up my hands to try to show him there was nothing more I could say. Yet he was clearly unhappy about something - perhaps he believed I had been staring at them. But there seemed to be no way to explain myself. I decided to leave them be, and return to my cabin.

On my way I was stopped by the captain, who gave me a knotty look and croaked,

"D'ye know some sailors play games so they don't have to talk?"

"That so?"

"Aye. Lascars. Most of 'em don't trust each other. They don't want to talk, 'specially on long trips. So they play games. It's how they get by. But they don't like to be interrupted. They say it brings bad luck. Leave 'em alone."

"Thank you. I will do," I said.

"I tell you, the lascars hate to be interrupted."

"Yes, I understand."

"When they settle things, they do it with a knife."

"Oh, dear. Well, I'll watch my step."

I spent a while reading in my horrid little cabin, until I was utterly fed up with the heat and the smell. I felt I couldn't hide there for the rest of the voyage, and as I had paid my fare and had every right to sit wherever I pleased on deck, I decided to find somewhere else to read, and any problem the sailors had would just have to be resolved somehow. The stern of the ship, even though it couldn't be seen from the bridge, seemed a less likely place to find the two lascars. I went there, keeping a look out for the men, and found a wooden box of a convenient size fastened to a ventilator. I made myself comfortable and continued to read.

After a while I became aware of a vague sense of something occasionally moving inside the box. At first I thought it was just the shuddering of the ship, but as I knelt down to take a closer inspection I heard sudden thumping sounds. The box was about two feet high, and perhaps three feet along each side - there was a keyhole, but the hinges and fastening latches were inside. There were two small holes on each side, of about half an inch wide, and if the box contained something living, the holes seemed too small for it to breathe. Yet there was a faint musky smell coming from inside. I listened for a while, though I couldn't hear anything more. I soon grew bored with the examination, and sat back on the box to read.

As the day went on, the engines seemed to find their rhythm, and the ship moved through the water with a mindless harmony. Far off our port side, through a dirty haze, I could see land. I wasn't going to ask anybody what it was, though I took it to be Sardinia, which meant we were still only in the early stages of our voyage, and still a few days from Alexandria. From time to time other small ships would come in sight, followed by seagulls, and they all looked as worn out and angry as the Epidaurus. For a while I watched the wake of the ship and the swell, hypnotised by its relentless boom and smash.

Late in the afternoon, my friends from the morning came stomping along the side of the ship toward me. If they had been playing their game nearby I hadn't noticed them, and I began to wonder if they were just looking for a fight. I tipped my hat low over my face and hoped for the best. But again the Malay began to yell at me. I saw an exotic looking knife in his belt, and I began to feel a sense of panic. If I were killed, thrown overboard for the waiting sharks, who would find out? Would they care? Away from territorial waters, did they consider themselves beyond the law? The man with the turban glared at me and growled,

"He says you are following us. He says he has lost every game today. He says if you don't stop watching us, he will make you stop. And I tell you he is not bluffing."

If it weren't for the knife, I would no doubt have let them know exactly what I thought of them. But I realised that I was in real danger, with nowhere to go until we reached port in a few days.

"Well I assure you I'm not looking at you," I said. "I'm just reading my book. Please don't jump to conclusions."

I edged around the lascars and walked quickly away, wishing I could summon a giant octopus to drag them into the sea. I wasn't followed, but it seemed I was going to have to spend most of my voyage holed up in my cabin after all.

That evening I took a stroll toward the stern to watch the sunset. In hindsight it was a foolish thing to do - I had every intention of hiding in my cabin as much as possible, but I thoughtlessly stayed at the stern until the sun had disappeared. As I was returning I saw a man standing in the shadows, watching me. There was no mistaking the fisherman's cap. He started to move towards me. He seemed to have his knife out - I looked about to see where I could escape to, or if I could use something to defend myself with. I wanted to call for help, but I could see none of the crew, and I doubted they would care to intervene even if they heard me. He kept coming nearer, and I kept backing away. I realised that soon we would reach the stern, and then it would all be over. Suddenly a strange shape leapt from the darkness and was over the Malay before he knew it. I heard the knife fall to the deck - the man struggled, but his opponent clearly had the advantage. The two wrestling figures moved closer and closer to the side of the ship, and I heard the Malay yelling in terror. In the darkness I was unable to make out much more than moving shadows, until they moved under a navigation light, and for a moment or two I could see them. The man was desperately trying to defend himself against the attack of a huge cobra. He couldn't maintain a grip on the snake, and he had been bitten numerous times. Then he lost his footing, and his head struck a bollard with a horrible cracking sound - he struggled drunkenly back to his feet, but then fell senseless over the railing of the ship and into the water, taking the snake with him. I ran to the side and looked down, but all I could see was his cap reeling back and forth in the ship's wake.

Perhaps I should have alerted the captain that there was a man overboard... But I was too terrified to think properly, and convinced myself that an attempted rescue in the dark would have been impossible. I certainly couldn't bring myself to be concerned for the welfare of my assailant. The next morning I inspected the scene of the struggle. The cobra had no doubt escaped from the box I had been sitting on - someone had lined it with cork to stifle the sounds of the snake's presence. That it managed to free itself, and just in time to save me, was the miraculous good fortune of which superstitions are made, although the lascars would no doubt insist it was the Malay's bad luck, brought about by my interference with their board games. For the rest of the journey the crew seemed to show no sign that they were interested in the Malay's absence. In the end I decided to follow the advice of my father, who used to say, when in doubt, keep your mouth shut.

July, 2013

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