Pirate King

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Starting in June 2011, we celebrated the Ten Weeks of Laurie ARrrgh! King by posting an excerpt from Pirate King on the 6th of every month, leading up to its publication on September 6. Click on the dates below to jump to the relevant section, and stay tuned for similar celebrations in the future.

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Excerpt One

Chapter One

“Honestly, Holmes? Pirates?”

“That is what I said.”

“You want me to go and work for pirates.”

“My dear Russell, someone your age should not be having trouble with her hearing.” Sherlock Holmes solicitous was Sherlock Holmes sarcastic.

“My dear Holmes, someone your age should not be overlooking incipient dementia. Why do you wish me to go and work for pirates?”

“Think of it as an adventure, Russell.”

“May I point out that this past year has been nothing but adventure? Ten back-to-back cases between us in the past fifteen months, stretched over, what, eight countries? Ten, if one acknowledges the independence of Scotland and Wales. What I need is a few weeks with nothing more demanding than my books.”

“You should, of course, feel welcome to remain here.”

The words seemed to contain a weight beyond their surface meaning. A dark and inauspicious weight. A Mariner’s albatross sort of a weight. I replied with caution. “This being my home, I generally do feel welcome.”

“Ah. Did I not mention that Mycroft is coming to stay?”

“Mycroft? Why on earth would Mycroft come here? In all the years I’ve lived in Sussex, he’s only visited once.”

“Twice, although the other occasion was before your arrival. However, he’s about to have the builders in, and he needs a quiet retreat.”

“He can afford an hotel room.”

“This is my brother, Russell,” he chided.

Yes, exactly: my husband’s brother, Mycroft Holmes. Whom I had thwarted—blatantly, with malice aforethought, and with what promised to be heavy consequences—scant weeks earlier.

“How long?” I asked.

“He thought two weeks.”

Fourteen days: 356 hours: 21,360 minutes, of first-hand opportunity to revenge himself on me verbally, psychologically, or (surely not?) physically. Mycroft was a master of the subtlest of poisons—I speak metaphorically, of course—and fourteen days would be plenty to work his vengeance and drive me to the edge of madness.

And only the previous afternoon, I had learnt that my alternate lodgings in Oxford had been flooded by a broken pipe. Information which now crept forward in my mind, bringing a note of dour suspicion.

No, Holmes was right: best to be away if I could.

Which circled the discussion around to its beginnings.

“Why should I wish to go work with pirates?” I repeated.

“You would of course be undercover.”

“Naturally. With a cutlass between my teeth.”

“I should think you would be more likely to wear a night-dress. “

“A night-dress.” Oh, this was getting better and better.

“As I remember, there are few parts for females among the pirates. Although they may decide to place you among the support staff.”

“Pirates have support staff?” I set my tea-cup back into its saucer, that I might lean forward and examine his face. I could see no overt indications of lunacy. No more than usual.

He ignored me, turning over a page of the letter he had been reading, keeping it on his knee beneath the level of the table. I could not see the writing—which was, I thought, no accident.

“I should imagine they have a considerable number of personnel behind the scenes,” he replied.

“Are we talking about pirates-on-the-high-seas, or piracy-as-violation-of-copyright law?”

“Definitely the cutlass rather than the pen. Although Gilbert might argue for the literary element.”

“Gilbert?” Two seconds later, the awful light of revelation flashed through my brain; at the same instant, Holmes tossed the letter onto the table so I could see its heading.

Headings, plural, for the missive contained two separate letters folded together. The first was from Scotland Yard. The second was emblazoned with the words, D’Oyley Carte Opera.

I reared back, far more alarmed by the stationery than by the thought of climbing storm-tossed rigging in the company of cut-throats.

“Gilbert and Sullivan?” I exclaimed. “Pirates as in Penzance? Light opera and heavy humour? No. Absolutely not. Whatever Lestrade has in mind, I refuse.”

“One gathers,” he reflected, reaching for another slice of toast, “that the title originally did hold a double entendre, Gilbert’s dig at the habit of American companies to flout the niceties of British copyright law.”

He was not about to divert me by historical tit-bits or an insult against my American heritage: This was one threat against which my homeland would have to mount its own defence.

“You’ve dragged your sleeve in the butter.” I got to my feet, picking up my half-emptied plate to underscore my refusal.
“It would not be a singing part,” he said.

I walked out of the room.

He raised his voice. “I would do it myself, but I need to be here for Mycroft, to help him tidy up after the Goodman case.”
Answer gave I none.

“It shouldn’t take you more than two weeks, three at the most. You’d probably find the solution before arriving in Lisbon.”

“Why—” I cut the question short; it did not matter in the least why the D’Oyley Carte company wished me to go to Lisbon. I poked my head back into the room. “Holmes: No. I have an entire academic year to catch up on. I have no interest whatsoever in the entertainment of hoi polloi. The entire thing sounds like a headache. I am not going to Lisbon, or even London. I’m not going anywhere. No.”

Chapter Two

My steamer lurched into Lisbon on a horrible sleet-blown November morning…

Excerpt Two

Saturday, 15 November, 6:00 a.m.

Avenida-Palace, Lisbon

Dear Holmes,

I have spent any number of odd evenings (generally in your company, come to think of it) but I’ve just had one of the oddest.  Even after having it explained to me, I’m not at all certain I understand it.

This afternoon, our hired pirates turned up drunk from their lunch, and it was given to me to explain to the translator that it simply wouldn’t do.  Since he, too, had of drink taken, I commanded him to dinner.  When he showed up, I would initially have sworn that he and I had become characters in “The Case of the Substitute Twin.”

Now, it is true that I occasionally feel myself going translucent and fictional (again, often in your company.)  However, the stories I occupy are not generally so lowbrow as to depend on the mechanism of twins.  This being a new experience for me—what next, I could only wonder: White slavery?  Opium dens?—I pursued the anomaly with interest.  What had caused our translator’s transformation from a quiet, unhealthy-looking, marginally shabby and humorously self-deprecating melancholic into an intense, ardent, witty gentleman?  He wore the exact clothes he had earlier, but with panache rather than apology.

And although I’m not at all certain I grasp the details, it would appear that I have spent the evening within a poetical conceit.

I believe I mentioned previously that our translator Mr Pessoa is a poet—and according to him, not simply any poet, but the poet who will define his country to the world.  It matters not that he is well into his fourth decade and few have heard of him.  No: In his mind, Portugal is due to become the world’s leader in the modern era—in artistic and literary matters, if not political and economic—and Fernando Pessoa is due to take his place at its head.  A Fifth Empire, less the apocalypse, ushered in by this narrow country on the edge of Europe—just as soon as he obtains government funding for his journal.  And finds a publisher for his poetry.  And finishes his detective story, and finds acceptance for his Arts Council, and… And he did not show any indication of being under the influence of drugs.

Holmes, I am awash in a sea of megalomaniacs.

In any event, I settled to dinner with this fellow who was both familiar and unknown: hair parting different, monocle in place of spectacles, wide gestures instead of controlled, a flamboyant vocabulary, a shift in accent.  He even looked taller.

After some minutes of increasingly disorientating conversation, I had to ask.  It turned out the man across from me was both Mr Pessoa, and another.

Modern poetry, in Pessoa’s eyes, is required to be outrageous and exaggerated.  The modern poet, he believes, must do more than sit and write verse: he must become his poem, he must transform himself into a living stage.  Only through lies is the truth known; only through pretence does one achieve revelation.  The dramatis personae of Pessoa’s life are the embodiment of theatre, a solemn game, a celebration of the counterfeit.  He calls them (apparently there are quite a few) his heteronyms.

And lest one assume that Pessoa thus makes an ideal partner for a moving picture company, he has a theatrical scorn for the theatrical, holding in polite contempt the contrivance of stage trickery, regarding the theatre as “low” because it limits a playwright—even a great playwright such as Shakespeare, whom he admires—to the dull formality of a script.  At best, theatre or film itself provides the stage on which the actor can make a new thing.  “A true play is one not intended as a performance, but as its own reality.”

Which is why, although he looks down his nose at scripted stagecraft, this one picture has thrilled his imagination (someone’s imagination—Pessoa? de Campos?  Ricardo Reis, perhaps?) because it counteracts the formal script with a “boundless unreality” of free association (that, and the pirates—he is completely besotted with pirates, and went on and on about freedom and masculine imagery and the seagoing heritage of Portugal, and cannon.  I’m sure there was something about cannon.)

If you are a touch confused, I will pause while you fetch yourself strong drink: I found that alcohol helps considerably.

All of this came spilling out of this new and excitable version of Mr Pessoa (whose surname, I should point out, translates as “Person”) after I had made the mild remark that he looked…different.

With our soup, we drank in philosophical reflection, which settled our palates for the main course of revelation: that his changed appearance reflected this true theatre, this true-faking, this poet’s grasp of play.  That Fernando Pessoa does not in fact exist, that he is a vácuo-pessoa, a vacuum-person.

Before taking up his knife and fork, this non-person fished into a pocket, then extended his card across the table linen.  “Álvaro de Campos, at your service.”

Senhor Álvaro de Campos is not a translator, but a naval engineer.  He is from the south of Portugal, born Jewish (although he seems not entirely certain what this entails) though raised Roman Catholic, studied in Scotland, and travelled widely before settling in Lisbon.  He is a Sensationist and admirer of Walt Whitman, and his tendency to flamboyance and lusty flirtations with decadence are reflected in his writing.  A thick packet of which he then handed me.

Oh, indeed: Senhor de Campos is also a poet.

It took us until coffee to reach this dramatic revelation, having spent the interim in a monologue: the great history of Portugal; the greater future of Portugal; piracy as an allegory for the Portuguese identity; his experiments with automatic writing; Pessoa’s schooling (to which he referred in the third person) in Durban (where—he gave a disbelieving laugh—the students were woefully ignorant that Vasco da Gama, a gentleman of Portugal, had not only discovered their land, but named it); the publication of two volumes of English verse; his belief that the greatest artist is the one who writes with the most contradictions, the clearest writer is he who writes the most baffling prose…

Or I may have got some of that wrong, because by this time I was near cross-eyed with tiredness and my only lusty flirtation was for my own quiet rooms.  He had been telling me about a nine hundred verse ode he had written to pirates, or perhaps about pirates, some years before, when I broke in to inform Pessoa—or de Campos—that I was tired, that we both were needed at the theatre by nine o’clock, and that if he did not have a word with his friend the pirate king about keeping his retainers under control, Fflytte would fire the lot of them and take his company off to Morocco, hunting down piratical actors there.

And I left the poet with his multiple personas at the table, and staggered off to bed.

I write this seven hours later, in what will no doubt be my only quiet moment of the day, before setting off for my theatre of the mad.

You might, by the way, enjoy the antics of our pirates, and especially our designated Pirate King, a man who would have the air of a brigand even were it not for his gold earring and the considerable scar down the side of his face (which must have come near to taking out an eye, if not the throat itself.)  La Rocha lacks only a peg-leg and parrot to complete the storybook image.  He impresses Randolph Fflytte mightily, as well as the men hired as his pirate band.  Which is good: If he can keep that rabble in line, this film may actually get made.



Excerpt Three

I had thought my companions giddy as we were closely escorted through the narrow labyrinth of the town, zigging and zagging past weavers of mats and sellers of leather slippers, sidling around lengths of embroidery thread strung between a tailor and his child, admiring the heaps of red onions and trays of flat bread and buckets of glistening olives and heaps of fly-specked sweets, breathing in the odours of cardamom and chilli and leather and wet plaster and kif, ducking under the hairy goat-skins of a water-carrier and exchanging curious glances with women covered head to toe in ash-coloured drapes, passing under the reed-thatching that turned the streets into mysteriously dim tunnels and by a hundred heavy nailed doors and house-fronts, their few windows high above street-level.  The town struck me as relatively quiet, as bazaars go, but it thrilled the girls.  However, their excitement as they walked, and the difficulty of keeping them from straying, was nothing compared to their reaction once they were ushered into the place that was to be our prison.

Their cries of astonishment would have drowned out Rosie.

Even I had to admit that as prisons went, it would be difficult to imagine one more comfortable.  The word “sumptuous” came to mind.

Arabic architecture turns its back on the world, to create a cool and cloistered universe inside each set of walls.  I was standing in a tiled garden.  The house rose on three sides, layers of galleried passages that gave both a sense of intimacy and a plenitude of fresh air.  Three levels up, a honeycomb of silvery wood turned the sky into blue tile-work, mirroring the fine blue and white designs beneath my feet.

The gallery railings were bleached by time, the complex amethyst and vermilion designs on the ceilings had sheltered generations of inhabitants, the gilding was a faded glory, all the more pleasing for its age.  Over the intricately carved double doors leading into the house itself, mother-of-pearl inlays teased the eye inside.

The tessellated paving-stones of the courtyard climbed up along the sides to form tiled benches scattered with rich cushions, and at the back into a splashing fountain surrounded by garden—the style of house, riyad, means “garden.”  A pair of lemon trees were espaliered against the courtyard’s fourth wall, growing tall towards the sky-light; one could smell, if not see, the blossoms.  Tiny birds that had been startled by the influx of noise now began to venture from the branches.

A head popped over the carved railing on the first floor, looking down at us: June, who cried, “The beds are so pretty!”

Above her, another head appeared—Kate, adding, “There’s a marble bath in here!”

And at the very top, her face visible through the holes of the wooden roof-grate, was (who else?) Edith: “There’s chairs!  On the roof!”

At the thought of children on the roof-tiles, all the mothers gave exclamations of dismay and scurried for the stairs, followed less urgently by the others.

I remained in the courtyard.  A bird’s chirp punctuated the voices of the innocent that were now ringing out from all the nooks and crannies of this open-sided house.  Holmes and I were mad.  The insane logic of W. S. Gilbert had infiltrated our brains and turned them to blancmange, making us see pretend pirates as real, fictional threats as actual.

It would appear that this entire affair was indeed aimed at wringing every last possible franc, pound, and rial out of Fflytte Films: The cost of hiring the most luxurious available house in Salé; the cost of hiring large and probably unnecessary guards; the price of the luscious odours trickling from a kitchen somewhere in the hidden depths; the cost of the logs stacked high beside the burning fire and the price of the army of cleaning women who had recently got the house ready (carpets still slightly furled at one edge; the faint trace of cleaning fluid beneath the saffron and lemon blossom) and no doubt the repairs to plumbing, wiring, and roof that had been tacked onto the rent for our benefit, along with tuning the decorative French spinet piano and replacing the bed-coverings and sprucing up the wall-hangings and….

How long before the door-bell rang and the first in an endless stream of carpet-sellers and slipper-makers and kaftan-fitters and knick-knack vendors came to ply their wares to the unwary?

Only one way to find out….