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by Chris "Childe Harold" Oakley.
After unsuccessfully trying to read the same sentence five times, Well
Hung Dong, a leading rubber importer and Captain in the Hong Kong Territorial
army, finally gave up his attempts to decipher the cryptic hand-written note
in purple ink he had recently picked up at a drop point in the gents toilets
at the Peninsula hotel.
His launch, bouncing like a ping-pong ball on the steep waves of Kowloon Bay, traced a wide arc to the busy anchorage where the pleasure yacht Byron lay at her moorings. Tales of the opulence of the Henrey motor yacht had of course reached most corners of Hong Kong society, including a multi-page feature in Ming Pao Weekly, but somehow this did not prepare him for the reality. Above the deep violet hull baroque fantasies in metalwork: vines, arbours, columns and arches shone brilliantly in the westering sun, cradling giant metal sculptures in bronze of poets from down the ages. On the foredeck, a vast swimming pool in crystal stretched out, anchored by six lake poets. Well Hung squinted at two of the figures here which were locked in embrace.
"I've always wondered about William and Dorothy Wordsworth," he thought.
A sculpture of Lord Byron under the bridge dominated the scene. Upon his head, a laurel wreath. Upon his visage, an expression proud and imperious. It was as if the poet had come back from the dead to claim the oceans as his birthright. Two rows of brass cannon lined the decks, with gangs of coolies in purple and yellow striped shirts busy buffing them to perfection. As the launch prepared to go alongside, what appeared to be a young black woman in African tribal dress, but who was in fact a man, raced towards them in a small coracle, altogether incongruous against all the gilt and splendour. Not realising that this was Lord Henrey's trusted valet and manservant Swordfish, Well Hung tried his best to ignore him, fearing that this was some waterborne trader peddling his wares. Then he noticed that he was pointing emphatically at a bollard on the stern of the huge edifice where a man was stood by with a line. Once the mooring was completed, Swordfish paddled away, soon a small figure against the huge vista of the bay, poised stock still, spear in hand, waiting for the next unsuspecting mullet to come his way.
A tall, slightly manic figure who everyone seemed to refer to as "The Doctor" ushered Well Hung into the great cabin, where he joined a group of other tradesmen and minor officials on a bench in the corner. Lord Henrey acknowledged his arrival with a token nod, being deeply engrossed in discussions with what appeared to be his tailor. He was clad in a uniform which resembled nothing so much as that of a bell hop for an expensive hotel: a striking purple outfit with gold embroidery and a round cap. Two extravagant epaulettes framed a military-style jacket with rows of brass buttons. A large embroidered letter "B", a crown and a unicorn however spoiled the military effect, making it look rather like an advertising billboard for a perfume or a designer label. He was holding up chevrons to the shoulder appropriate to the rank of captain. He regarded himself in silence in the mirror while the boat slowly rocked on its moorings, obviously not sure about where the chevrons should be placed. His tailor, a small Cantonese man, wearing the pained expression of one who has suffered in silence for days, but was ready to crack at any moment, volunteered curt suggestions and hints in broken English, but it was plain that Lord Henrey was not happy about something. Another silence. Then:
"Let’s try the other chevrons instead," murmured Lord H.
"Which other chevrons?" asked the tailor, through clenched teeth. There were at least a dozen such designs upon the table: chevrons pointing up, down, both ways, encircled in gold, in thick lines, in thin lines, with a unicorn, without a unicorn, with the letter "B", without the letter "B", with the Oxford University coat of arms, without the O.U. coat of arms. Lord Henrey had not been able to make up his mind. Silence again. Then:
"How you expec me to do this by end June? How you spec me? Five hundred uniforms to do by end June. And you not know what you fuck want. It now May. I need to make cloth. Need to get women to cut and sew. Need to order many things. How I do this if you not know what you want!" He stormed out. The sound of his motor launch slowly faded as Lord Henrey moped around, not expecting this outburst and unclear as to what to do about it.
Well Hung however was not going to allow himself to be fazed by this. "Three cheer for English lord! Three cheer for English lord who fight for Hong Kong independence from China!"
This galvanised the other Cantonese into action, who immediately stood up, cheering, and giving clenched fist salutes.
"Never give in to communism! Never give in to China!" they shouted. A lugubrious smile broke out on Lord H’s impassive face. The party gathered around the table, Well Hung then explaining in more detail about the fruits of his conspiring. Six cruise missiles armed with slime to be supplied by the U.S. Navy. A stash of Kalashnikovs supplied by the Afghan rebels. A stash of Kalashnikovs supplied by the Afghan government. Six ten-megaton ICBMs bought from the French. Two hundred Anthrax cluster bombs bought from the French. A hundred and fifty short-range missiles armed with VX nerve gas bought from the French. Five hundred pieces of artillery, armed with neutron bombs, anti-personnel clusters and high explosive, bought from the French. A pack of ultra-strong laxatives, to be slipped into the drinks of party officials supplied by M.I. 6, and finally ten barrage balloons promised by the millionaire English businessman Richard Branson. It was just as well that there was the wealth (and worried businessmen) in Hong Kong to pay for all of this.
The following morning Lord H. woke to the sound of tropical rain beating on the deck. The party had gone on all night, with Cantonese notables coming and going the whole evening. The place was a mess. Swordfish and Cormorant (the Doctor’s manservant) were nowhere to be seen, but Lord H. knew where they were. Swordfish, tarting himself around the gay clubs in Hong Kong harbour as usual, had got into a sordid love triangle with George Patten, the Governor’s nephew (not to be confused with General George Patton although possessing similar levels of tact and discretion), and a fifteen-year-old Vietnamese rent boy called something like Sel Bum Lo. They would have been taking advantage of the Governor’s absence (who was on an official visit to Beijing) to throw one of those homosexual orgies in his residence which involved opium, gay sex and the Bay City Rollers (Lord H. had never sympathised with Swordfish’ taste in music). Cormorant, far more dignified than Swordfish, but no less gay, would have tagged along, content mainly just to watch, disapproving of Swordfish’s overt promiscuity but at the same time never wanting to be left out of anything. The years had not been kind to Cormorant, who looked at least twenty years older than his forty-four years: a sallow, gaunt, gossipy old queen, obsessed with form and detail, always immaculately presented, but forever making enemies through a shockingly acid tongue. He did, at least, keep things clean, at least, when he was there, which did not seem to be very often. Lord H. certainly regretted their absence now, as he stumbled through the empty bottles and debris up on deck for his morning dip in the pool. Lord H. loved this sort of weather as it discouraged the paparazzi, whose boldness was a continual source of irritation. He had taken to showing pornographic videos on a screen that he would hoist up the mast, in order to give them something to point their cameras at. This turned out to be quite effective. However depraved the antics of his lordship’s guests, he had only to show something a little bit more depraved on the screen and he would be more or less guaranteed that no embarrassing pictures or stories would appear in the gutter press the next day. There were certainly no paparazzi in evidence now, he thought, as he frolicked in the crystal pool at the Coleridge end. As he floated on his back with the rain beating down he reflected once again that the sculptor had given Coleridge too serious an expression. Here was a man who spent most of his brief life out of his tree on opium, and the sculptor had given him this studious expression like Annabella instead of that spaced-out look that most befits a drug fiend. Like Annabella . It did not take much to trigger those painful memories. The torrid two-timing of hers at the start where he had been nearly butchered by a Samurai sword. The fatal marriage. The untidy divorce, even now not fully resolved. Professor Annabella Plantagenet. So beautiful. So insecure. A relationship destroyed by academic jealousy. It had looked as though everything was going just fine: they were in love. She was going to be the Professor of Romantic Literature at the University of North Dakota and he was going to be her millionaire gentleman of leisure. And yet it went so wrong, so quickly. It had started quite innocently. A month after their marriage, and a year after she got the job, she had managed to get him an invitation to give a paper to the faculty on the subject of Lord Byron. After a lot of deliberation, he finally came up with the title: Given that Lord Byron spent most of his life shagging, how the hell did he manage to find time to write poetry? The paper was, though he said it himself, a masterful piece of scholarship. Brilliant, original and well-researched, it had faculty and student alike glued to their seats for the whole hour. Even the famous Professor Newman, so apt to sleep through whole seminars, had managed to stay awake for a whole twenty minutes. Slides showing a pulley and stirrup arrangement that Lord Byron had devised were shown, whereby he could have sex without moving from his writing desk. Similarly, clipboards attached by brackets to the wall over his bed were discovered by Lord H in forgotten rooms at Newstead Abbey. Their purpose had been quite unknown to the curators, but Lord H. was able to proudly show them off at the seminar. Outwardly Annabella had been delighted at his success, but it soon became apparent that she was in reality far less than pleased to be upstaged by someone who, deep down, she regarded as no more than a kind of fashion accessory. Her own style, which was typical of career academics, was precious and self-conscious and rarely said anything much new or interesting. Danny, on the other hand, with no career to protect, and no-one to please other than himself, had produced a paper out of nowhere whose brilliance far outshone those of Annabella or her cronies.
The first thing that went, as it always is, was the physical side of their relationship. She was always "too tired", "not in the mood" or "too busy". This caused unpleasant, spiteful rows and when she discovered that Danny had once sought solace from a Shenandoah short-shag sheep, she turfed him out of the house. Anyway, that was ancient history. Or was it? When he had tried to patch things up a year later it was already too late, as she had taken up with someone else, and in any case he had grown attached to his nursie, Miss Davies.
Anyway, it was time to go and retrieve the manservants.
The list of the various establishments from which Lord H. had had to extricate Swordfish was by now quite long: often these were squalid little bachelor pads in unattractive suburbs of large oriental cities, but the list included the tent of the Bedouin tribesman Mohammed al-Hafgoodtime, a carved mahogany pole in Borneo, to which Swordfish had been lashed as part of a gay date-rape ceremony; a miner’s shack in northern Queensland and the Royal Perth Yacht Club. However, never had it been anything quite as grand as the Hong Kong governor’s residence. He was soon to wish that it never was, either. The place was in turmoil when he got there. It seemed as though George Patten had managed to empty the contents of most of the fag bars in the far east into one or two rooms. Whether he was doing this just to annoy his uncle or whether it was just a desire to overstep the bounds just for the sake of overstepping the bounds (so common in gay men), it was not clear, but there were couples french-kissing and embracing around the place, in various states of undress, and the remnants of all-night partying: bottles, cans, overflowing ash trays, tartan scarves, empty Durex packets, etc. were very much in evidence.
"I’m looking for Swordfish. Hercules Swordfish," he said.
He had to repeat this a few times before getting their attention. Knowing glances and girly giggles were exchanged.
"Swordfish. Has anyone seen my manservant Swordfish?"
"I think that you’ll find him upstairs, in one of the bedrooms."
More giggling, which turned into a raucous laugh as he started to climb the stairs. He was getting distinctly worried. The fifth bedroom he tried contained his manservant, the others containing a foursome, a threesome and two couples, none of whom seemed the least bit bothered at being disturbed. A tearful Swordfish was cursing fulsomely, his broad Creole accent so heavy that even Lord H., after so long an acquaintance, could scarcely understand him.
"Oh man, dat devil. Dat heartless, cheatin’ devil. How many hearts you goin’ to break man? Oh man, you goin’ to roast in hell. Oh man, you really bad. You a bitch. You a heartless bitch!" This went on for a while, and after a lot of effort, Lord H. was able to determine that Swordfish was burned up about the fact that the Vietnamese rent boy Sel Bum Lo, who Swordfish had regarded as his property had in fact been tarting around the place. It’s OK for Swordfish himself to be a tart, thought Lord H., but he doesn’t permit it in others. With so much work to be done clearing up on his yacht, Lord H. was anxious to drag his manservant back, but it turned out not to be possible until Swordfish was satisfied that his master had confronted and publicly admonished the Vietnamese boy. When he met Sel Bum Lo, he could begin to see what Swordfish was getting so upset about. He had never seen such beauty in an oriental, male or female. Deep brown almond eyes, finely chiselled features and glossy hair that was so black that it was almost blue, he looked more like some exquisite doll than a real person. Coming back to fetch his handbag, Sel Bum burst into tears when he saw Swordfish, begging forgiveness, but Swordfish was having none of it, and looked away, now in one of those sullen, silent moods than Lord H. knew so well. And when Sel Bum went up to Lord H. with tearful pleas and entreaties, he could not but help being entranced by this delicate flower, like some exquisite blossom that had been nurtured in a special little hothouse and was quite unable to cope with the hard, cold winds of man’s baser passions. He also found that he was getting the horn. Although not normally a bone smuggler, Lord H. was definitely prepared to make an exception in this case, and, well, it was just a question of finding somewhere where he could be alone with this tender little creature, and …
It was not long before Lord H. was regretting his sexual transgression. A steady stream of specialists were flown in from all over the world to try and help the lord as he lay dying in the state room of the Byron, but it very soon became clear that there was nothing that they could do for him. In desperation a former lover of Swordfish who was a witch-doctor in Hispaniola was brought into the fray, performing bizarre medicine involving ground-up bones, snake venom and leeches, but all to no avail. Then, when the lord was all but unable to move, a strange visitor. His resemblance to Lord H. himself was striking, but he was hugely overweight and clad in shorts and a Hawaii shirt. He introduced himself as Ben Navro, explaining that he had business with Lord H. that could not wait. "Ah gis ah could ha’ come earlier to tell you this, but ah didn’t know myself until layast week. Ma dad is a businessman in Atlanta, Georgia, an’ when he heard you wuz dyin’ he said that ah should go out an’ tell you about wuts been goin’ down. Well you know about yo’ family, the Brents bein’ in financial trouble, back in 1960?"
Lord H. nodded weakly.
"An’ you know about the anonymous millionaire philanthropist who helped them out?"
He nodded again.
"An’ you know how the Brents were childless for so many years, an’ then they had a son?"
"Well, it turns out that it wasn’t so philanthropic after all, as you ain’t the Earl of Brent’s son. No sir. Ma dad cut a deal so that in return for his son bein’ brought up as an English lord, he would bail out the English aristocrats. Which means that you an’ I are brothers."
A long silence followed as this slowly sunk in to Lord Henrey’s palsied brow. This was enough. He closed his eyes for the last time. He was an American. He no longer wanted to live.