The Tuesday Flight Club:
Chpt three: The Surmen at the temple of heaven
The planet Earth has flooded – an act of divine angst? Perhaps– however, the dauntless human spirit, ever alert to finding the bare necessities of life, ever willing to turn the most hostile of environments into a holiday camp (consider Blackpool… Eastbourne… Clacton…), endures with infuriating tenacity, regardless of the fact that its awesome creator may be fervently wishing it would ‘just sod off and die.’
Both beneath the waves and above them, life goes on in an admirable assortment of sunken cities, floating carnivals, slightly submerged villages and diverse domiciles of every description and, above them all, sails the Airship Katarina; Hotel Of The Skies, carrying passengers, and the occasional contraband cargo, in style from the port of one floating scrap of human existence to the next.
The Airship Katarina, chauffeur to some of the most celebrated, cerebrated, and inebriated personages on the planet and, once a month, host to the Tuesday Flight Club; a select gathering of witty and percipient individuals, each highly regarded in their diverse fields of expertise, each solemnly sworn to meet aboard the Katarina on the first Tuesday of every month in order to share and discuss the marvellous mysteries that their expeditions, investigations, literary endeavours and knitting circles have brought to light…
This particular Tuesday it was the turn of Major Coronary, the supposedly noted cartographer whom no living soul, bar my aged Aunt Agatha, seemed to have heard of, to share some curiosity, catastrophe or conundrum on which his fellow octogenarians could feast their exaggerated powers of intellect. Previously, we had been presented with a homicidal clockwork killing machine and a foolish message in a bottle, now we stared in stunned silence at the article which, with a disconcerting twinkle in his eye, the major had laid before us.
It was a rough cylinder, elongated and slightly tapered towards each end, and seemed to be made of leather, although the wrinkles spoke of some emaciated substance beneath, which may have once been plump and vital and filled the now shrivelled skin making it robust and smooth.
Smooth it was now not. Besides the various knots and gnarls the thing was pocked with warty blemishes along its length, from some of which protruded wiry hairs, and, whatever it may have been in life – for it undoubtedly conveyed the impression of a thing that had passed over – certainly it had suffered for it.
In fact, as I regarded it, I came to the rapid conclusion that no thing on earth had ever been as hated, or as loved, as this thing in front of us. Some person had so vehemently despised it, so fervently desired its demise, that they had hacked it into as many pieces as they could manage. And yet someone else, presumably, had so wished to salvage it that they had painstakingly (if clumsily) stitched it back together again and this process seemed to have been repeated many times until at last the poor unfortunate thing had given up the good fight.
Aunt Agatha studied it gravely from beneath the brim of her pugnaciously purple hat. She said nothing but her knitting needles seemed to semaphore her revulsion. Edward Monroe, sitting opposite me, laughed nervously and glanced at his wife who seemed to be trying her hardest to look perplexed. Elgin Marbles reached inside the mis-matched assortment of archaic astro-gear, which he quaintly referred to as his ‘space suit,’ and pulled out his monocular.
“Gods of the deep!” he exclaimed, ignoring my aunt’s derisive snort, “I’ve never seen anything like it! What is it?”
The major smiled enigmatically “I would not expect any of you to recognise it. It is what is known on the isle of Knitty-ta-ta as a swashcumber.”
My aunt gave another indignant snort “What nonsense! The isle of Knitty-ta-ta has not been seen since I was a child. The knitted islands were amongst the last land masses to survive the rising sea levels but, like everything else, they succumbed in the end.”
“Indeed, so it has generally been assumed. However, last year an old chum of mine asked if I didn’t fancy pulling out of retirement for one last shove into the unknown blue; St. Isidore’s is a cartographical alliance dedicated to mapping out the diluvian globe and their oceanographical seismic transponders had picked up the vibration of an as yet uncharted mobile landmass in the former mountainous region where Knitty-ta-ta was last seen.
“Of course I could not resist the prospect and as you can see,” he patted the strange swashcumber affectionately, sending an inexplicable shudder down my spine, “our efforts were rewarded. What we discovered was the last floating remnant of the temple of heaven. The lost tea temple of Knitty ta-ta, set afloat by a complicated crochet of kelp bladders and faithfully piloted by a handful of clerics who, I am sorry to say, have been driven utterly mad by their experiences at sea. When our subaquatic-dugon-drawn-paddle-barge, pulled up alongside the floating temple, the clerics were just beginning their monthly Surmen and not only were they overjoyed to see us – having lived for several decades with the belief that they were the only gentlemen left on the planet – they were most insistent that we should join them in the temple grotto and bear witness to the strange event which was about to take place. “
Ladies and gentlemen, in testimony of the tragedy which may occur when a small island of otherwise sane and moral gentlemen is set adrift from the rest of humanity and placed at the mercy of sea, salt and persistent seals, I present to you the account of our experiences in the temple of heaven…
The Major went on to describe at length and in detail his experiences of the Swashcumbering Surmen but I will not play sport with your time and intellect by repeating his words verbatim. Instead I will give a brief account of what, apparently, one might expect should one ever have the misfortune to be invited to such an event:
The walls of the grotto rise like the curved sides of an upturned tea cup and their stained appearance will do nothing to rob you of the impression that this is what you have stepped into.
The floor it is as well to step on as little and as gingerly as possible for it is a vast debris of broken china crusted with rancid cream, mucilage and lumps of decaying flesh from previous swashcumbering Surmens.
The crowd, eager, straining at its leash for the impending carnage, surges up the curvature of the walls on rows of chronically unstable wooden terraces so that they bear down upon the ring, their faces red and rabid beneath their oil skin cowls. Oil skin cowls are the official garb of the Surmen priests and their purpose, you will soon discover, is not as one would first suppose, purely aesthetic.
At last a cheer swells up from the lower levels as the combating swashcumberers are manhandled into position in the centre of the ring. At first you will doubt their humanity – the absurd layers of padding beneath their long oil skin overcoats, coupled with enormous gauntlets and mesh-lens goggles, enforce a stiff, laboured movement comparable to ungainly automata.
Perhaps it is this ridiculous mixture of the comic and the grotesque, this detachment from the reality of the human flesh beneath, which allows the crowd to excuse this vial swashcumbering as entertainment.
The arms master now enters the ring, bearing before him the weapons of each swashcumberer on a knitted cushion. This cushion bears, in intricate intarsia, the crest of the tea temple – a monkey, cross-legged, staring meditatively into a large cup of gunpowder tea. The idea is for each gentleman to now inspect his weapon and confirm that it is in fact his own but, considering the get up, such a feat is obviously impractical and the pomp at this stage in the proceedings is merely part of the show.
The weapons themselves will be one of two varieties of aquatic cumber; Aqua Cucumis melo var. flexuosus, or Aqua Cucumis sativus, carefully cultivated from seed by its owner from a unique heirloom line of fruits, and their state of rancidity and disrepair are testimony to the great and noble swashcumberings their owners have previously survived.
I say survived; it is not the purpose of the Surmen to hold a swashcumbering where either swashcumberer is ‘the victor.’ Instead, each man is bestowed a certain amount of esteem and rank amongst his peers according the number of wounds his own cumber has sustained without wilting. A wilted cucumber results in disqualification from the round and the owner of such an inadequate fruit will be scorned by the entirety of the temple until such a time as he is able to cultivate a new weapon and re-stake his claim to manhood.
Once the satisfactory grunt has issued forth from each combatant (please do not think I am speaking derogatorily at this point, a grunt, literally is all that any man could muster under such oppressive garb) , the weapons are crudely thrust into each gauntleted hand and on the clanging of a bell the whole grotto erupts into chaos as the fun begins.
It is slow work. Unable to do more than shuffle obtusely like a pair of aged clockwork penguins, the swashcumberers attempt to swipe at eachother with their long, green weapons. Often a chunk of hoary cumber-skin is catapulted up into the stalls amid whoops of ecstasy from the crowd and, of course, from every smite upon a cumber, there oozes a plentiful stream of sappy mucus. It squirts over the combatants, clerics and crowd, it dribbles over the china shards and slathers down the sloping walls.
Now and then you see half a man’s cumber go flying and then, of course, he calls for time (grunting and flailing like a pig in a sock until his request is comprehended by some person with authority) and his steward comes hopping high-legged across the slippery floor with his needle and thread to repair the severed organ, whilst the impatient crowd pelts him with cream cakes and fine bone china.
Considering that these stewards are not afforded any armorial protection for themselves, it begs the question ‘who is in fact the braver man?’ The clerics of the temple of heaven do not, however, concern themselves with philosophy and, considering that the tradition of swashcumbering both originated and thrives within their midst, the world may be thankful for the fact. Their only concern is to emerge from the ring with a cumber so savagely mauled and mutilated, so pummeled and pulped and haphazardly stitched back together by some Barbary butcher that they will be able to hold their heads up high as they go about the temple with these grotesque appendages swinging at their belts.
Once the odious show has reached its climax in showers of cream from the stalls, the clerics retire to the feasting hall where each man’s cumber is proudly passed around for inspection and praised with speeches, poetry and songs.
So the Major’s narrative came to an end and he offered the specimen swashcumber for us to examine. My aunt peered at it curiously over her pince nez, “I suppose we should be thankful that our own little islands of humanity have not yet fallen into such demise.”
At that moment our meeting was interrupted by the appearance of my bothersome brother, sporting his captain’s hat askew and a rising actress on each arm. “Ah, there you are Jem! Glad someone has time for a sit down…hello! What on earth is that thing? Reminds me of the time I drank twelve bottles of Pernod with the Earl of New Tunbridge Wells…”
I left my aunt Agatha choking on her crumpets and went to make the Katarina ready to land as the peaceful port of Southerby loomed into view below us…