By Rhys Hughes
We set sail south from Dublin town with forty-five sailors and one clown. But before we reached the wide Atlantic the frantic antics of the clown dismayed us. Should we therefore throw him overboard? we asked ourselves in urgent conference. It would give us a chance to proceed in peace and harmony, free from jokes. Ah, to continue our voyage without fuss! That was the issue we yearned to discuss. And eventually we came to an agreement that dunking was no cure for torment. And murder was too extreme a measure to improve the leisure of our journey. The clown was a man, his painted smile could be easily smudged with a frown. There was no need to send his soul down to the circus hell where clown ghosts go. No! Let us find some alternative method to restrain the fool and hobble his tricks! We therefore employed him as a topsail whenever the breeze turned into a gale. And as his Pierrot costume billowed out he would wail and occasionally shout. Especially if he spied a distant whale in a white dinner jacket, obviously male. But that didn’t happen on a daily basis for most of the whales had female faces. Anyway, I have gone off on a tangent, the sound of hornpipes is quite plangent. And they call me back to my nautical duty which is to lace up all the crew’s booties. Not much else happened for several days until mountains loomed through the haze. We had reached Sierra Leone on our own, just forty-five sailors and a lofty buffoon. What an excellent marker of our progress! It cheered us up and reduced our stress. There was room in the hold for tropic fruits and so we went ashore for an afternoon. We bought bananas, mangoes and guavas without anyone causing a hell of a palaver. And then we set sail again, or should I say we set clown again, and went on our way. Shortly we passed the island of São Tomé engorged on fruit with rather sore tummies. It was at this point that symmetry suffered a relatively modest but disturbing calamity. For we had reached a latitude where the second line of any couplet has an unbalanced longitude. But we soon passed to happier frothy waters full of strong mermen and their daughters. A little later it was with squids we played and afterwards with octopuses we prayed. We safely rounded the Cape of Good Hope and raised and lowered the clown on a rope. By now he was fully reconciled to his position and in fact embraced the ideals of our mission. And those ideals were to circumnavigate Earth and at the same time, to increase our girth. Thus we devoured the fruit stored below deck until juice ran out of our noses, flipping heck! In the Indian Ocean we played deck test cricket using the first mate’s wooden legs for a wicket. Because there wasn’t much else for us to do apart from stirring big barrels of strong glue. Why the captain needed adhesive, I can’t say but sticky wickets were the order of the day. And that’s why we continued to bowl and bat using avocado pears for balls that went splat. But take care, shipmates! That was my shout when beneath our hull erupted a waterspout. It was so powerful that it lifted us up high and then we were sailing through the sky. Clouds filled the shrouds with damp fleece and gulls in flight honked at us like geese. Our altitude increased and we were chilled and soon I supposed we would all be killed. But when the waterspout turned itself off we didn’t drop back into a terminal trough. No! The clown on a mast extended his arms and span on his axis to save us from harm. Like a helicopter he was, but not a good one, and for him, it can’t have been too much fun. Yet his rotary action was certainly well-meant and provided enough lift for our safe descent. We landed in waters on the far side of Borneo but jumbled up was our carefully stored cargo. The clown was quite dizzy, but what of that? So are rooms in which you might swing a cat. Or is it the cat that is giddy thereafter? I can never remember the exact categorical order. The fruit in the hold had transformed into juice and some nails in the planks had worked loose. But we were still seaworthy and shipshape and would remain so while on the seascape. So we sloshed along like a wooden breakfast with the clown, our saviour, sick on the mast. But he would recover, he needed no physician, for dizziness is merely a temporary condition. And now we concentrated instead on the terrific news that already our vessel was in the Pacific. Leagues and leagues of unislanded blue water, see! But is ‘unislanded’ a word that if used, oughta be? I don’t know about that, I’m not a lexicographer, and in fact I’m not even a competent geographer. No matter! Onwards! We are circling the globe and it doesn’t matter how quickly we are going. Slow or fast, start and stop, and if the mate bellows: “Avast!” we all know such a pause will hardly last. And now we are sailing steadily east with no fruit to feast on, but plenty of juice to swim in, undilute. Solid food is what we require, growled the captain! Though there’s no cellophane for it to be wrapped in. Thus we stopped off at an island just beyond Fiji to buy some cream fudge from a Heebie-Jeebie. In nautical lingo a Heebie-Jeebie is a shrewd adventurer marooned long ago who now has a commercial venture. The fudge was copious and also coconut-flavoured and he gave us extra portions as some sort of favour. I think it was because he was originally from Dublin and we reminded him of the things he was missing. But there was sadly no room on board to take him along so we departed while singing him a fudge-mangled song. “Don’t worry too much and don’t make too big a fuss, keep making your fudge and all will be fine, trust us!” The lyrics of that song were probably a cruel deception but when he heard them he gave them a good reception. Anyway! Enough of that. Without wishing to fudge the issue, we have other things to trouble our minds. I’m a little bit concerned about how the lines of each couplet seem to be getting longer and longer as this poem progresses. They are almost twice the length of the opening lines which, if you remember, formed the following rhyme: “We set sail south from Dublin town with forty-five sailors and one clown.” So let us endeavour to sail closer to a shorter length for the sake of the reader’s mental and poetic health! And now we are nearing stormy Cape Horn, as good a place as any for mariners to mourn. Tossed on the waves for two and a half days we were lucky to emerge wholly unscathed. Back into the Atlantic we plunged in alarm while the clown vibrated from the yardarm. But finally in calmer waters we settled down, the odds reduced that any of us might drown. As for myself, I looked forward to docking yet again in the harbour of old Dublin town. Weary of travel and the fathomless blue deep, tired of this poem and exhausted with sleep. Lacing booties to furious hornpipe melodies no longer fills me with joy but only self-pity. But only a score of leagues or so left to go and with this wind there is no need to row. The night was dark like a pint of stout beer and then I knew that home really was near. How glad was I to spy right in our midst the Emerald Isle looming out of the mist! Mission accomplished, let’s all dance a jig and finally discard our stale seaweed wigs! Explanatory Notes Why take a clown aboard a ship? Because we were so very bored. Yes, whales may go to formal dinners. If they don’t, they will be much thinner Hornpipes are musical unicorns, piercing ears like mythical thorns. Cricket on deck is such an odd sport, umpires snort when a ball is caught. Waterspouts are fountains malign, always of brine and never of wine. The South Pacific is a very nice place unless your booties need to be laced. Cape Horn is loud and rather sharp, the diametric opposite of Cape Harp. Ireland, my Ireland, how I love thee! Two shots of whisky please in my tea.
Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.
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