I reflected that there were more noble - if not necessarily less painful - ways of being shipwrecked. One could be the victim of a mutiny, the sufferer of an attack from a great white whale, the recipient of a jolt from an iceberg.
One could find oneself the companion of rogues, ruffians, gentlemen, officers, tigers, hyenas, zebras, gorillas; one could be reduced to cannibalism, stuck on an island in rags, bereft of companionship, hallucinating for a drop of fresh water. But all of these circumstances at least contained an element of grubby dignity, some indication of what it was still to be civilised, an attribute that was not the first thing that came to mind when confronted by the prospect of the undeniable reality of one’s being cast adrift on an inflatable goat, grasping at its ingeniously curved air-filled horns just to stay afloat. Of all the predicaments that can befall one, this must surely be the closest to absolute degradation.
Let me say at once that the pneumatic beast was not mine. It had been abandoned by its owner before she leapt into the lifeboat. Yes, I did say she; this goat was a billy, not a nanny: conspicuously so, and this may well have been my initial saving, for the member - and, as I have hinted, a right honourable member it was - acted as a kind of keel, or centre-board, counter weighting me into some semblance of an upright position as the swell grew and wobbled around me. I have no idea what my expression - or indeed what its expression was, but I suspect that one if not both of our faces betrayed at least a hint of blind panic. I had a minor advantage: at least I was in the driver’s seat, so to speak, as we bobbled ever further away from the stricken vessel that had been my workplace and - presumably - its play place.
As we tossed and buckled, I became aware of a sort of manically steady propulsion from the inflated animal, as if it were anxious – presumably justifiably - to put a number of nautical miles between it and its most recent experiences. But how? In a state of apprehension, I examined – carefully - the hindquarters of the creature, to ensure that no puncture had caused a sort of inadvertent jet propulsion because surely such a means of locomotion would not last us long. There’s only so much you can pump into an inflatable goat after all, life-sized though it may have been, and hence only so much that can escape from a fully-inflated goat because once it was out it was out, so to speak, and I would then be floating temporarily on an ex-goat plastic pancake before proceeding in a downwards direction to the bed of the sea.
This momentary reassurance that the creature was still intact gave way almost immediately to several clashing species of foreboding. What was causing the goat to behave like a boat, not a raft? Was it achieving this feat itself? Were we being pushed by fish? Sea mammals? Sea snakes? Or were we being tugged away by a rogue current? We had no provisions on board. I’m sorry; I mean, of course, that I had no provisions on board, because the goat was quite clearly not on board – it was, in a manner of speaking the board itself, and to the best of my knowledge it had no need of provisions, infinite performance without sustenance being presumably one of its prime –and most desirable - qualities. Therefore, if this inexorable progress was some sort of magnetic attraction to some distant – and as yet invisible - stretch of dry land with a water supply, it could only be to my advantage. However, if the creature were buffeting ever further into the depths of the oceans, towards a sort of Sargasso Sea reserved for breeding inflatable goats, I was quite clearly doomed.
Desperation gave me impetus; I inflicted a canoe roll on my (presumably) unwilling accomplice, completing the circle with aplomb like a white water kayak splashing fool, re-emerging to a dripping vertical having discovered no other creature or extraneous device in the immediate vicinity: no shark, no dolphin, no lifeline, no hidden motor, no herd of super-powered plankton; the thing was a mystery.
The goat, undeterred by its complete rotation, had not slackened pace. Its whole demeanour was of a placid but determined creature that had no intention of being deflected from its path but no intention of hurrying either – much like a goat, in fact.
Being without chart or compass, I tried to hazard our position from the sun; we were travelling resolutely in a south-by-south west direction; we were not, as far as I could tell, vacillating from a bearing; if this were a current, it was straight as a plumb, only in a horizontal plane, of course, if you get my drift, except of course drifting was the last thing I was doing. But no matter.
I attempted to twist the goat horns towards a different direction but met a mysterious contrary force; I tried the other way, with equal lack of success; I tried to yank the horns backwards, as if they were a joystick and the goat could be persuaded to leap into the air; this was of course a stupidly pointless activity and it met with as little success as my previous manoeuvres. The goat bucked a trifle, then continued.
There was quite clearly nothing for it but to comply. I settled down for the ride. Then, as if sensing my compliance, without moving its head or parting its lips, it spoke; it spoke sort of telepathically: inaudibly, but quite clearly.
“Vletzta schnoerker krautzten splinken schmetlimg bruncken schnartpfaltz gerlausen kreuschtlemtvelski tvartski tvulski,” it commented.
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak goat,” I replied.
“Tvoi airchtolf schnilterfwa sickyuk schnausenpronker,” it continued, sounding more irritated.
“Or inflatable goat either,” I apologised, suspecting that it was expressing itself in some deviant dialect and that that was the cause of its irritation.
“Ulchtava hendernschplott,” it seemed to growl and then it was silent.
“Do you not understand English?” I enquired.
“I should dearly like to communicate with you, if we could just find a common language,” I demurred.
I held my tongue.
“Now you’re listening,” it alleged.
I released my tongue in a panic.
“Ghallt sprankt blundblurdesvott frahstrenstrack,” it asseverated.
I grasped my tongue again.
“That’s better; I think you’re finally getting the picture,” it conjectured.
“Can you hear me, with my tongue held still like this?” I enquired.
“In that case, please could you answer one question?”
“Tell me how you manage to propel yourself.”
“Well, there are chemicals in my appendage, the original purpose of which need not detain us, that are reacting with sea water and there is quite clearly a powerful surge of molecules towards our unknown destination that is stringing out with sufficient viscosity to keep me connected to it and sufficient power to pull our combined weights at the same time. To put it succinctly – and crudely - these are chemical spermatozoa chasing towards some magical goat’s egg on an island somewhere in the far distance and the future so you may presumably be in luck – there may well be dry land and fresh water.”
“This sounds like unexpectedly good news. Extremely unexpectedly; I must confess that I’m quite surprised that they make you quite that sophisticated – chemically, I mean.”
“Oh, yes, everyone at Priapic Propensities is a trained scientist. You get what you pay for with our organisation.”
I removed my hand from my tongue and we were silent for a while. We drifted, inexorably,
He then spoke to me again. “Budltht glairchtrin benufdgot.”
I held my tongue again.
“I said that I appear to be on the verge of becoming empty. If I lose connection to the thickness of what is coming out of me, we shall in all likelihood be properly cast adrift.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“I suspect not. I don’t think that there’s anything that can be adjusted; I certainly have no recollection of anything. But perhaps you’d like to check, just to be on the safe side.”
“Hang on a mo; I’ll have a look.”
Again I swung my body into and out of the weed-drenched water, this time swaying around the goat’s girth as it stayed upright in its natural position. I held my tongue again.
“Nope, nothing there.”
“Well, you’d better just pray, then.”
“Thank you for that reassurance.”
“Not at all. I shall do my best to hang on. As should you. It’s getting dark. Tie yourself on.”
I lashed my wrists to its horns with two bandages I had salvaged. Night fell suddenly. I must have slept.
I awoke when I arrived headfirst inside the egg with the speed of a runaway train terminating at the buffers, the shell crumpled around my neck, the pain receptors on my skin registering the grazes scored up my knees and shins from scouring up the beach.
I could not see. This seemed strange for a goat’s egg: indeed, I pondered, any mammalian egg, encased within the mother mammal’s body, could surely not be that large. Either I had docked in the giant egg of some primitive bird, like a roc, or I had myself been mysteriously transmuted to something considerably smaller, like, for the sake of argument, a sperm. Neither prospect drove me headlong to overconfidence about my predicament.
I struggled to my feet. I could feel that the bandages were still around my wrists but attached to nothing; the goat had gone. I groped my way forwards, across the roughness of a pebble-strewn beach, away from the sound of the ocean’s waves until my progress was arrested by the coarseness of a cliff wall.
I felt my way, edging towards successive handholds and footholds, clinging by fingertips, wedging toes into tiny crevices.
Suddenly, the goat’s voice blared into my ears.
“Skraadsklovdsk. Skraredsklovdsk Skramardsklovdsk.”
I reached for my tongue. I lost my footing. I felt myself falling, falling blind through the salty air, then I hit the sand, ridges of rock punching into my skin. The casing around my head shattered; I saw daylight again, raw daylight, no longer diffused through the eggshell translucence.
I opened my eyes, blinked into the headlong wind, and was confronted by a Sagittarian nightmare: a whole flock – or indeed troop - of centaurs, wheeling around me in a horseshoe formation, all pointing the arrows in their bows at me.
“Who are you?” I enquired, as firmly and politely as I was able in the circumstances.
“We are all the King’s horses,” stated one.
“And also, all the King’s men,” added another.
“In one convenient package” politely interpolated a third. Fortunately, I did not need to stick my hand in my mouth and hold my tongue to understand them.
“Oh dear,” I responded. “I hope you’re not going to attempt to put me all together again.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch what you said,” stated the first centaur to have spoken. “Put you what again?”
“All together!” I yelled.
“No, mate, we’re not,” they responded in unison; “it’s more than our job’s worth.”
“That’s a relief,” I rejoined. My relief was tempered somewhat, however, by the unavoidable fact that their arrows were still tensed in my direction. “What is it that you want from me?” I asked. “Am I your captive?” This time I remembered to shout into the wind to make myself heard.
“We’re afraid that you are,” they responded again in unison. This speaking in unison was something that I appeared to have triggered and I suspected that it could become tiresome very quickly, should I live that long.
“What do you intend to do with me?” I enquired.
“You have transgressed both our territory and our maternity,” they continued as one voice. “Your punishment for the former - as is standard practice - is to receive our hospitality. Your punishment for the latter is likely to be rather more severe, and will be decided at your trial.”
“Trial? What trail? What is this? Where am I? What do you mean by ‘our maternity’?” I demanded. “And where is my goat?”
“Yes, trial. Your trial for crimes against maternity. This is the scene of your capture. What we mean by ‘transgression against our maternity’ is the rupturing of one of the queen’s eggs. You shall see ‘your’ goat at the trial.” The dogged – nay, mindlessly literal - efficiency of their answering technique could not be faulted.
“Please explain the reference to the queen’s eggs.”
“We are the King’s men. We are the King’s sons. Only the King is allowed to rupture the eggs of the queen. Only the Queen is allowed to produce eggs. We are therefore all descended from the King and the Queen. You have ruptured the egg. You have therefore transgressed. You will, accordingly, be tried.”
“But it’s not my fault…” I began.
“Please save your plea for the trial,” they interrupted.
“May I ask further questions, merely as a seeker after enlightenment?” I asked.
“You may ask one further question,” they chorused.
“What is the Queen? Is she like you? Or is she like a bee, placed in the centre of a palace, with workers around her, spending all her time producing eggs?” I was aware that this was three questions really but suspected that there would be only one answer.
“You are to be tried by the Queen. You will find out for yourself,” they responded. “Now, please come with us.”
I limped in the direction they indicated by their still-drawn bows.
I had no time to prepare. We went directly to the courtroom. The Queen, lounging on a throne of broken eggshells, blew smoke into the air through her nostrils. She waved all six legs in the air simultaneously.
Egg thief, advance, she commanded.
I was pushed forward by the centaurs.
I had to step with each foot either side of the channel of water pulsing up the centre of the courtroom.
I entered the dock. I was manacled from behind. The eggshell had been stuck together again. It was put upon my head. Eyeholes had - very thoughtfully - been cut in it.
Call the first witness, she commanded again.
Along the channel, bobbing gracefully, came the goat.
What do you have to say on this matter? she demanded. I could not put my hand in my mouth. However, every word was comprehensible.
Speak what you know, she demanded.
I was shipwrecked. In order to save myself, I needed ballast, to avoid being blown away. I chose this person as that ballast. We drifted for several days. On several occasions, he appeared to be attempting to communicate but it was always in a language that I couldn’t understand. Unless he was delirious, of course. I had no idea where we were going, but eventually, we came to this land. He ran screaming to the nearest egg, and plunged inside headfirst, blubbering with relief. He sucked all the nutrition out of it then collapsed. I was still in the water, and was starting to drift away when your men, or horses, or whatever it is they are, came to my rescue.
What happened then? she insisted.
I was led away. I have no need of nutrition. I am merely a plastic object designed for someone else’s amoral pleasure. I have no sentient experiences when I am other than inflated. Your – servants – deflated me. They then – quite evidently - re-inflated me. How much later that was, I am not in a position to tell. For me, time had had no passage. And now I am here.
The Queen paused. Tell me what you mean by the expression “a plastic object designed for someone else’s amoral pleasure.”
“Well, it’s like this…” he began.
“No matter. Have the witness taken to my quarters. I shall question him personally on this matter later,” she expounded.
“But…” I attempted to intervene. “I have had no opportunity yet to cross-examine the witness.”
“Silence” she shrieked. “Who gave you permission to speak?”
“But I am the one on trial here,” I tried to state. “Surely I have the right to present my defence.”
“How dare you? I have never heard of such insolence,” she screamed. “What makes you think you can invade the inner sanctum territory of the Queen and then presume to run your defence yourself? Is there no end to your impertinence?”
“But I am not guilty of this invasion; I have been accused, but not convicted,” I spluttered, in vain as it turned out.
She turned to me. Her eyes twinkled with an insistent, avaricious stare. “You are a stranger here,” she began. “You are perhaps from a land where strange and bizarre customs hold sway. Therefore, I shall be lenient with you. Initially. Let me explain. Nobody tells any untruth here. Therefore, if it is stated, it occurred.”
“But it did not happen that way. I state this. Therefore, it is the truth. So where does this lead us?”
“You are a visitor here. Perhaps visitors lie.”
“But the goat is also a visitor here. And his is the only testimony you have so far.”
“I shall examine the goat’s testimony minutely later.”
“Of that I have no doubt.”
“I – I mean,” I stuttered, “that I have every confidence that you will bring to bear the most rigorous – and indeed regal – standards of investigation as would befit someone of such status and esteem.”
“The fact that you feel a need to express such sentiments rather than regarding them as glaringly obvious could well be construed as insubordinate and treacherous. However, as I am in an unusually accommodating and generous mood, I shall let the remark pass.”
“Thank you, you Majesty,” I replied.
“Not at all. Guilty as charged. Take him away. Administer due punishment,” she responded. She flapped her wings twice, then flew from the courtroom. A sonorous buzzing seemed to lurk in the air for many seconds.
The egg was rotated on my head so that the eyeholes were at the back and hence I could not see. I was released from the dock, but I was still manacled. I could feel arrowheads at my back. I was pushed forward. I staggered to the floor. Two electrodes were attached to my forehead, curving away from my head. A thick pipe was attached to my genitals. My mouth, nose and anus were stopped up. I was suddenly aware both of a gas being pumped into my body through the sole remaining open orifice and electricity being pumped into my head so that my very muscles seemed to melt. The pain was excruciating. I blacked out.
I awoke. I was afloat on the ocean. Somebody was on my back. Something was leaking out of me, below the waterline. But I headed ever onwards, in a straight line, through the buffeting waves.