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Colin The Barbarian
by Paul Murgatroyd



At 10 AM on the first full day of the cruise entitled “In The Wake Of Odysseus” Dr Alex Stanford was about to speak. This would be the first in what the Classic Quests’ brochure described as a series of talks delivered by a World-famous Cambridge Professor to enhance the cruising experience for a modern-day Legendary voyage visiting the Actual Places where the great Greek Hero Odysseus had the Astounding Adventures recounted in Homer’s Odyssey. In fact nobody knows where Odysseus might have had the vast majority of those adventures; and the very expensive and in no sense legendary cruise would just visit spots where some have speculated that he had them; and Alex Stanford was not world-famous or a professor. But apart from those few minor considerations the statement in the brochure was entirely true.


Alex had acquired his PhD (on late Latin poetry) over a year ago, but hadn’t landed even a temporary position in the academic Armageddon of the university job-market. So he responded to the London tour company’s advert for a speaker as a last resort and a chance to utilize in a marginal way some of the knowledge acquired during his seven long and costly years of hard work as a student. He was honest at the interview and pointed out that Homer’s Greek verse was outside his particular area of expertise, but the Armani suit informed him that this was simply an alternative specification and it didn’t matter at all so long as he had a Cambridge PhD and could say something about Homer.


When he got the job Alex was elated, and he put a lot of time and effort into preparing his seven talks. He felt it would be an honour to elucidate one of the greatest of the ancient Greek poets, the revered author of the epic masterpiece called the Odyssey. And he should really earn his pay (meagre though that was), and he could help his audience get more out of their holiday than just sex, sun and a surfeit of food and drink. Who knew, he might even manage to get them interested in Homer's poetry. He’d urge them to read the rest of the Odyssey and then move on to the supremely tragic Iliad.


Alex was a bit nervous, never having addressed a non-academic group before. Could he engage them with a talk that wasn’t pop and superficial? Would the little jokes he’d put in for light relief succeed in making his presentation more palatable? He looked round the Calipso Suite glumly. Only five people had bothered turning up. There were two old ladies in the front row who had brought their knitting with them. They were like sans-culottes at a guillotining, and he could well be the one for the chop. He mustn’t lose his head, ha ha. The other three people there were playing with their phones and looked like they didn’t want to be distracted. Alex felt adrift in a flat and featureless sea of indifference. He took a deep breath to steady himself. He’d wait another minute or two before starting. Some people might turn up who were genuinely interested in learning about Odysseus and his exploits rather than giving him a tenth of their attention to get their money’s worth.


A handsome and imposing man in his mid-thirties with a broad chest and shoulders strolled in. Alex thought he looked like Kirk Douglas in his prime. The man gave him a friendly smile, sat down at the back of the room and crossed his arms, making his powerful biceps bulge. Then the Biggins family made their grand entrance, replete with food and drink from the champagne breakfast. The head of the family, Colin Biggins, remarked loudly and smugly: ‘I wonder what the poor people are doing.’


He was five feet six inches tall, with a jutting jaw and a full head of dyed black hair. He also had a boozer’s conk, pork sausages for fingers, a big arse and a bulging belly of legendary proportions. He led in behind him his spoilt twenty year old son, his despised son-in-law and his downtrodden wife and daughter. They were all wearing navy blue T-shirts with THE BIGGINS FAMILY and underneath that BIG IN BRICKS printed on the front in white letters. The father also had on a skipper’s cap with EL CAPITANO inscribed on the peak in gold.


He surveyed the room masterfully and his gaze lingered on the buxom young blonde in the corner. He strode over, stripped her and had her on the floor, in his mind. It’s got a cracking pair of knockers, he decided. Then he said, largely for her benefit: ‘Mind you, El Capitano wasn’t all that impressed by the breakfast. Vintage champagne’s all well and good, but El Capitano prefers black velvet, he likes something with a lot of body to it. And he didn’t think much of the eggs benidorm – stupid bloody name for it. And the bacon was too crispy. I expect better for the price I’m paying for Gold Class. It cost a bloody packet for you lot… Still I can afford it, a hundred times over. Right, Phil, sit next to me, lad. You sit on the other side of your son, Penny. And you and useless Eustace can sit behind us.’


Alex cleared his throat to attract attention, but Colin Biggins’ smartphone rang and he answered the call, making no effort to talk quietly: ‘Jerry, how’s it going?... You what? Fucking hell, what the fuck are you playing at? It’s - I’ve only been gone five minutes. It was all set up, I thought I could leave you to hold the fort - you are supposed to be me junior partner – and now this bollocks… No, no, no, I don’t want to hear this. I tell you what: why don’t you unzip your forehead, take out the shit that’s in there, and then zip it up again? You know how much this contract’s worth if we get the planning permission… You what? Fuck me, the pillock! No, I will not go for 3% affordable housing, he agreed 2%. Bloody, fucking mayor, who the fuck does he think he is? I didn’t give him that season ticket and all them posh meals and escorts out of the goodness of me heart. Tell the bugger that… I don’t give a toss about the scummy fucking tenants living there now, they can drop dead and disappear off the face of the fucking earth for all I care… Look, this development will revitalize the city centre, bring in businesses and shops and all that. We need some social cleansing there, and I’ll do it for him on the cheap… Oh bollocks to that! Listen, Jerry, just ‘cause you’ve got hair round your mouth doesn’t mean you have to talk like a cunt… Yes, yes, try that. Just keep the fucker sweet till I get back. Or it’ll be your head, literally. Right? Right!’


Alex cleared his throat again. Colin Biggins looked at him and barked: ‘What’s up, son? Got a cough or something?’


‘Er, no. I’d just like to start the talk.’


Biggins waved his right hand and said expansively: ‘Go ahead, start, feel free. But this better be interesting.’


Alex gulped and said: ‘Right, thank you. If people could switch off their phones and put them into the silent mode, that would be most appreciated.’


The rest of the audience complied, grudgingly, but Phil Biggins was exercising his considerable intellect in a game of Pacific Pyrates and was sinking enemy privateers with loud broadsides in between discovering buried treasure on desert islands and buying bigger and better galleons with virtual doubloons.


His mother hissed: ‘Phil, won’t you switch that off?’


‘No,’ snapped Phil.


‘Leave him be,’ said his father.


‘This is me vac assignment for Computer Studies IIIA,’ protested Phil. ‘It’s important for me overall grade.’ The most he was prepared to do was put in ear-buds while he continued his game.


His father smiled at him affectionately. Then he turned to his wife and said with a sneer: ‘A bloody cultural holiday you wanted. So you could go one better and show off to your friends. Whining on and on about wanting it as an anniversary present. Well I don’t blame our Phil. And if this talk is a load of crap, I’m not staying, and nor are you. I’ve got better things to do with me time than listen to airy-fairy, arty-farty shite.’


Alex sighed and murmured: ‘Thank you, Attila the Hun.’ Then he said out loud: ‘I’m sure you all know that in the Trojan War it took the Greeks ten years to capture Troy and get Helen back – you’ll have seen the garbled TV and film versions of that. What you may not know is that it took Odysseus another ten years to get back home to his wife and son on the island of Ithaca. It was a long and arduous journey by sea, on which he and his men encountered storms, shipwreck, monsters and giants. It took all of Odysseus’ famous intelligence and resourcefulness to overcome the various hindrances and obstacles. It was all very difficult and dangerous on that voyage. But then, as Odysseus said to his men, ship happens.’


Alex didn’t hear any laughter at that, but he did hear Colin Biggins yawn ostentatiously. Alex was a polite young man, so he ignored that and went on: ‘Odysseus sailed from Troy with a squadron of twelve ships. His first encounter was a battle with some people called the Cicones, which went well initially, but it all ended in tears. Things turned bad when his men disobeyed his order to leave and started celebrating their victory, by gorging on the food and drink they’d seized as booty, until more Cicones turned up and attacked them, killing lots of the Greeks and finally driving them off. We know all this from Odysseus’ own lips: in Homer’s Odyssey he recounts his story later on to some people who give him hospitality after he’s shipwrecked and ask him to tell them his adventures so far.’


Alex paused to clear his throat. He’d worked particularly hard on this presentation because it was his first talk to the group, and he’d rehearsed it several times, but he was still  worried about making a mistake or missing something out, so he consulted his notes every now and then as he went on: ‘Odysseus says that after their departure from the land of the Cicones they were blown off course as they rounded the southern tip of Greece. Winds carried them far away into a remote and remarkable region, an area of marvel and mystery, an astounding never-never land – yes, it was Blackpool… No, seriously, their first encounter in this bizarre and uncanny zone was with the Lotus-eaters, who offered some of Odysseus’ men their flowery food (the lotus), which made them forget all about going home, made them want to stay there, peacefully browsing on the lotus. Something which our hero did not allow to happen. The Lotus-eaters present an insidious threat and provide an unsettling introduction to this whole dangerous and treacherous tract.’


Alex looked up and saw that the friendly man at the back of the room was nodding in agreement. Heartened by this, he continued with greater enthusiasm, his voice rising in pitch: ‘This brief episode, in which so much is left unclear, is tantalizing and rather haunting… Erm, nobody knows who the Lotus-eaters were, where they lived, what their land looked like or what kind of a plant the lotus was exactly. By suppressing details like this Homer creates a dreamlike vagueness and an imposing air of mystery, and invites us to be creative and fill in the picture for ourselves… We can also see an extra dimension here and view the Lotus-eaters and Odysseus as symbolizing two different life-styles. The Lotus-eaters represent the allure of dropping out, rejecting the hassles and hard work of the mundane world and indulging oneself in a relaxed environment. The hero stands for the man of action who forges on with drive and determination, facing difficulties and dealing with them… Never-never land is deceptive, and in his account of this episode Odysseus deceives his audience just as he was deceived himself. So there’s an effective mirroring. See if you can spot the deception in the opening lines as I give you my version of them.’


Alex picked up his translation and read it out with a quiet intensity:

‘From there I was carried along for nine days by those accursed winds

over the fish-filled sea. But on the tenth day we set foot on

the land of the Lotus-eaters, who eat a flowery food.

We went ashore and drew water there, and my comrades

quickly had a meal beside the swift ships.

When we’d had something to eat and drink,

I chose two of my comrades and sent them inland,

along with a herald, to go and find out

who lived there – which men who eat bread.

Off they went. They soon encountered the Lotus-eaters.

The Lotus-eaters had no intention of killing my

comrades, but gave them some of the lotus to taste instead.

Those who ate the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus

no longer had any desire to report back or return,

but wanted to remain there with the Lotus-eaters,

feeding on the lotus, without a thought of their journey home.

I forced them back in tears to the hollow ships,

dragged them under the rowing-benches and tied them up.

Then I ordered the rest of my trusty comrades

to embark on our swift ships in a hurry,

so no-one could eat the lotus and forget his journey home.

They quickly went on board, sat down in their places

on the benches and churned the sea to foam with their oars.’


Alex paused, and then asked hopefully: ‘Did you spot the deception there?’ The only response was a loud fart by Biggins, who remarked with a smirk: ‘Another angel gets his wings.’


Alex waited a few more seconds, and then pointed out the deception for them. He said: ‘After nine days of violent winds there’s a real sense of relief when the Greeks finally escape from the sea and their landing is unopposed. Our first introduction to the Lotus-eaters here shows them in an unthreatening light; and the allusion to flowers is actually appealing. The feeling of calm is developed further in the following lines by means of the slow narrative pace (not much happens in those lines, and the activities are peaceful and mundane – drawing water, eating, drinking and so on). Also Odysseus sends only three men to reconnoitre, which implies that he feels there’s little or nothing to fear. There’s still no sense of menace when they first encounter the Lotus-eaters, who look like kind, hospitable people; and the lotus seems to be something delightful. It’s only after that, when the Greeks don’t want to go home, that the lurking danger is revealed. Then the narrative speeds up abruptly, when Odysseus briskly drags the men back to his ship.’


Alex stroked his chin as he gathered his thoughts. Then he leaned forward, peering eagerly over his spectacles at his audience, and went on: ‘After the incident with the Cicones, when the refusal to obey orders resulted in disaster, Odysseus is determined to be firmly in control here. He views their departure as vital, and is peremptory in ensuring it. He does have his comrades’ best interests at heart, as he sees them, but there is also an element of personal interest, as he needs men to get his ship back to Ithaca. Obviously to his way of thinking there is efficient leadership here, but some modern readers with a democratic outlook might wonder if he did the right thing in ignoring their wishes and not allowing some of his men to stay on, lazing around and eating the lotus – no doubt in the lotus position… But shouldn’t a commander command, after deciding what’s best? Some people might query whether trying to get back to Ithaca was really better for his companions than staying there, where they’d have lived on, happy and relaxed. Then again wouldn’t those who remained there have lost their identity and become mindless addicts?


These are tricky issues for us to ponder…So, what does anybody think about those issues? Before I move on to Odysseus’ next adventure, an encounter with a one-eyed cannibal giant which he handles with his usual resourcefulness and cleverness, what does anybody think?’


It appeared that nobody thought anything at all, as Alex’s question sank in a great gulf of silence. He felt dispirited at being unable to arouse a response, which left him standing there looking foolish. After several seconds Biggins snorted and said: ’I’ll tell you what I think. I think it’s a load of bloody bollocks.’


I’d have to defer to your superior knowledge there, as you’re obviously an expert in that particular field, thought Alex. He said nothing, just raised an eyebrow to encourage the man to justify his penetrating critical assessment of one of the most revered poets of antiquity.


Biggins continued: ‘That’s not an adventure – nobody gets killed or even wounded, he doesn’t get any treasure or even knob a woman. Not a patch on Game of Thrones. And there was nothing clever or resourceful there.’


‘No, not there,’ said Alex. ‘He was brisk and commanding there. It’s with Polyphemus that he’s –‘


‘And none of it happened anyway. It’s not true. There weren’t any heroes, Odysseus never existed, he’s just a made-up character, and he had no adventures.’


Ah, thought Alex, there speaks the voice of culture, sappy as the grass is green. He said: ‘Does it really matter if it actually happened or not? In any case scholars -‘


‘Shut up, you!’ shouted Biggins, jabbing a stiff index finger at Alex. ‘I’m talking. You’ve talked long enough, more than, and a right load of boring bloody shite too. Homer was obviously a shit poet ‘cause this is a shit bit of poetry. I mean, boring fruit wouldn’t enchant people, make them stay there – a double cheeseburger with chips might, but not fucking fruit. Unless it was a nice pair of juicy melons maybe, know what I mean?’


‘Well, it’s not just any fruit, it’s a singular and mysterious -‘


‘Mysterious my arse. It’s all crap, ridiculous made-up crap. Fucking poetry! No bloody use to man or beast. I could write better stuff than that meself… What’s the time?’


He raised his wrist and consulted his yellow-gold Rolex Cosmograph Daytona and said: ‘Right. Valuable drinking time is being wasted here. We’re going.’


As Biggins angled his wrist towards the other people in the room so they could see his flashy watch, Alex reflected that personally he wouldn’t care to impress anybody who could be impressed by the kind of watch he had. Penny Biggins started to protest feebly, so her husband snarled: ‘No, we’re going. Be told. Get off your fat arse and follow me. Now, Penny!’


He marched out of the room, and the rest of the family trooped out after him. Now that the cabaret was over, the other members of the audience returned to their knitting and furtively switched on their phones, unimpressed by Alex’s presentation, apart from the man who looked like Kirk Douglas. He’d been listening with great pleasure to Alex’s translation of the lines from Homer and his interpretation of them. He’d been angered by Biggins’ outburst and glared at him as he left. Then he looked at Alex and gave him an encouraging smile and nod. The young man had been crushed by Biggins’ attack, but now that he had at least one attentive hearer, he proceeded with his talk and moved on to Odysseus’ next adventure.


Biggins spent the rest of the day drinking, eating, catching up on Naked Attraction, Coronation Street and Love Island, sunbathing by the huge pool and ordering his women around (getting them to fetch his sunglasses from the cabin, rub suntan cream on his back and so on). By the time the sun was slowly setting, lingering low in the west, he was very drunk and all on his own. His family had retired to their cabins, because he’d been insufferable at dinner - claiming that their conversation was boring and telling them to talk about something else, barking at waitresses, telling crude jokes and devouring a whole chicken, tearing it limb from limb and spraying out gobbets of food as he laughed at his own coruscating quips.


He’d gone on deck following the blonde he’d seen at the talk that morning, but she had disappeared. He was lurching around in search of her when he suddenly became aware that he wasn’t alone. The man who resembled a young Kirk Douglas was at the prow. He was standing still and looking down, holding some sort of staff in his hands. Then he looked up, fixed his gaze on Biggins and opened his mouth. What happened next was phenomenal, fantastical: snowflakes poured out of his mouth. Biggins rubbed his eyes and looked again, but he still saw a swirling mass of snowflakes pouring out of the man’s mouth. Biggins muttered: ‘Fuckenell, must be more pissed than I thought - hallucinating, like. Either that or that bloke’s got fucken bad dandruff, dandruff of the mouth, should have a gargle with some Selsun, hur hur.’


He was still chortling at that when the man was abruptly at his side, standing over him. Now it was words that poured from his mouth as he said in a deep voice: ‘I’ve been watching you, waiting to catch you on your own, so I could have a word with you, you nasty little man.’


‘Who the fuck’re you?’ slurred Biggins, who was sensitive about his height.


‘Me? I’m Nobody.’


‘Oh aye? So how’d you do the trick with the snowflakes then? What the fuck was that all about?’


‘That was a rather neat allusion to the Iliad, to get your attention, and divert you momentarily from your eternal quest for naked ladies in wet mackintoshes. To quote another poet.’


‘You what? Mackintoshes? I’m not into computers, I leave them to Jerry.’


The stranger sighed, shook his head and continued: ‘How very improbable. Priceless… Right, here’s another epic reference for you. I’m really rather good at them, not surprisingly. Do you see that land over there on your right, which this ship cruising “in the wake of Odysseus” is blithely sailing by and ignoring?’


The man indicated the land with a sweep of his right hand. Biggins peered, and then nodded. The stranger went on: ‘Now you have to be able to see those three mountains in the distance with snow on their peaks, and the river flowing from them towards us. And the valley in front, with the cliff above and the slender stream running down from it? And those figures down in the meadow by the beach? No? Oh well - perceptive as ever. I tell you what: why don’t you utilize the telescope thoughtfully affixed to the rail there for the paying customers. Feel free.’


Biggins squinted through the telescope, swivelled it about and eventually made out a group of figures by some strange trees. They had mild eyes and melancholy faces. He grunted: ‘All right, I can see them. So fucken what?’


‘Any idea who they might be?’ asked the stranger, raising his right eyebrow.


‘No. Not the fucken foggiest.’


‘Oh do come on,’ said the stranger, with an amused twitch of his lips. ‘See, they’re picking fruit from the trees, and the fruit has flowers attached to it, and they’re eating the flowery fruit… Any vague stirrings in the grey matter up there? Is there any grey matter up there?’


When the baffled Biggins shook his head, he went on: ‘Think back to those absolutely splendid verses you heard at this morning’s talk, where you demonstrated so memorably your acuity as a literary critic. I’m sure a lancet mind like yours will now grasp the point immediately… No? Astounding. All right, I’ll give you a teeny-weeny clue: the fruit is called the lotus. And look - some of the men are eating it, and others are holding out the fruit to us, offering it to us… So, what do you think they might be called? Any inkling, any faint glimmering? Go on, have a wild guess, you preposterous purblind person, you.’


‘Don’t know,’ muttered Biggins, scratching his head in perplexity. ‘Fruits? They look like a bunch of fucken fairies to me.’


‘Oh profundity! Do you think that by any remote chance they might just possibly be the Lotus-eaters?’


‘No! Bollocks!’


The stranger tutted and said: ‘A rival poet, a later and lesser versifier called Tennyson, also wrote about the Lotus-eaters, in a poem imaginatively entitled The Lotos-eaters, and he described them and their land in some detail. He says of them appearing at sunset: “With faces pale, dark faces pale against that rosy flame, the mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.” And he says this of their land: “Full-faced above the valley stood the moon; and like a downward smoke, the slender stream along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.” And also: “They saw the gleaming river seaward flow from the inner land: far off, three mountain-tops, three silent pinnacles of aged snow, stood sunset-flush’d.”

They’re rather melodious lines, I must admit, and I don’t know who his sources were, but they were quite accurate. You can see all those geographical features, I take it?’


‘Aye,’ said Biggins.


‘So what do you make of that, my good man?’


‘Er… coincidence. Sheer bloody coincidence. You can’t fucken fool me.’


‘They are the Lotus-eaters. They do exist, still, they are real.’


‘Lotus-eaters my arse,’ scoffed Biggins. ‘You’re pulling me leg. Pull the other one - it’s got bells on. I come from up north, and we’re hard-headed realists up there. You can’t pull the wool over our eyes, we know when someone’s talking bollocks, making shit up, like that silly cunt Homer. Whose poetry is shite, no matter what that arty-farty, southern, Cambridge ponce says. Big girl’s blouse!’


‘I suppose you do realize you’re speaking from a position of complete ignorance?’


‘No. What? What’re you on about now? I have no idea -‘


‘Quite. My point exactly.’


‘Oh up your arse with a wire brush!’


‘Thank you, Oscar Wilde, lord of language, and master of wit and repartee. Right, enough of all this. You need to stop denigrating the immortal Odyssey - I have to take your criticism of it personally. Stop it, or I’ll bring home to you the veracity of the verse rather more forcefully. So do cease and desist, there’s a good philistine.’


‘Why should I? Fuck off!’ shouted Biggins, and nutted the stranger in the face. Or tried to. His head passed straight through the face with no impact, and the impetus carried him on and sent him sprawling.


The stranger looked down at him and remarked loftily: ‘The renaissance artist Cellini wrote that he was once sitting by the fire with his father and saw a salamander in the flames, and was watching it with fascination when his father whacked him on the ear, very hard. When he asked him why on earth he did that, his father said: “So you will always remember the salamander.” This is your last warning from me about attacking the poetry, and I’d like you to remember it. Even though you’re very drunk. So here’s something from one of my favourite passages in the Iliad which just might get through that thick skull and the fog of alcohol.’


With that he rolled Biggins over with his foot, lifted the staff that he was carrying and struck him on the back and shoulders with it, chanting ‘Don’t attack Homer’s Odyssey!’ and timing the blows to coincide with the stress on the words. After a minute or so he hit him on his fat head and knocked him out.


Biggins came to at dawn the next day thanks to some young women playing with a beach-ball nearby. One of them threw it to her friend, who missed it, and it fell into the pool. They all shrieked at that, waking him up. He remembered very little after dinner the night before. He had a vague sense of disquiet, and a headache and a sore back, which he attributed to his hangover and sleeping on the deck. Shit, he joked to himself, someone must have put alcohol in me drinks. Then he looked up and automatically ogled the young women, before deciding they were too flat-chested to be worth bothering with. He went back to his cabin, where he had a shit, a shave and a shower, and felt a bit better for that. As he dressed, yanking drawers open and knocking a coat-hanger off the rail in the wardrobe, he woke his wife up.


‘Colin, she said, ‘where were you last night? Have you just got back in?’


‘Yeah,’ he grunted.


‘Where were you all night? Off with some woman again?’


‘Shut it, you, or I’ll break your bloody legs.’


‘But I was worried sick about -‘


‘I’m warning you, Penny: I’ll fucking kill you if you keep this up. Bloody women - always on about some shite or other, yap yap yap. What I do is my business.’


When his wife started to cry, he shouted: ‘And you can stop that. You’re making me headache worse. I’m feeling a bit rough, and I don’t need you exasperating me condition.’


She sniffed, and he glared at her and snarled: ‘I wasn’t with anyone else, as it happens. But who could blame me if I was? You had a decent body when I first knew you, but look at you now - tits down to your knees and pubic hair down to your  fucking ankles. You’re not exactly a big turn-on any more, are you, not Kim Kardashian, like? I’ve been thinking of trading you in for a new model for a while now, so watch it. If you don’t like the set-up, you can piss off and leave me. I’ll get an expensive divorce lawyer and leave you with absolutely fucking nothing, you stupid bitch. I’d have done it already if I wasn’t so fucking busy at work. There won’t be any designer dresses then, or posh restaurants or fucking cultural cruises with champagne breakfasts and artisanal cocktails. Whatever the fuck they are when they’re at home. So just bloody think on, and have a bit of sense for a change. Be warned. Or face the consequences.’

As he said this, he pointed a finger at her menacingly. Then he added: ‘Right, I’m off for a hair of the dog and some breakfast. Then I’m going to phone that fucking fool Jerry and see if he’s still faffing and farting around with his thumb up his bum or has actually got the bloody mayor back on track. Get up now, get the others up and tell them you’re all going to join me at the near end of the pool in one hour. Exactly. Without fail. Then I’ll decide what we’re all doing today…Come on, Penny, do as you’re fucking well told. Shift that enormous lard arse, girl, chop chop!’


An hour later, after yet another unanswered phone call to his mistress (who he’d actually fallen in love with) and another disturbing chat with Jerry (about rival bids for the contract this time), Biggins was joined by his family at the pool. By now in an even worse mood, he said: ‘Right. Did you hear over the PA about the ship stopping off at Naples after lunch? No? Well, it is. They’ve cancelled the cultural tour to Pompey that you fancied, Penny, ‘cause there were no takers, so we’ll go off on our own. We’ll go and have a mooch round town. Fancy a change of scenery, something different to take me mind off things, try some of the local vino maybe, which is supposed to be good. And I hear Naples has a good red-light district – Sid Norris went for a mini-break there last year and shagged his bloody brains out in positions he’d never even heard of before. They say travel broadens the mind.’


‘See Naples and die, ‘ intoned his son-in-law in a doom-laden voice.


‘You what?’ rasped Biggins.


‘See Naples and die. They also say that. It’s a well-known phrase or saying.’


‘Oh is it? And what’s it mean, Mister Clever Clogs?’


‘Er… Don’t know really. It’s just something people say.’


‘Well it’s not something I say. We’re going into town no matter what, and if you’ve got any more cheerful little quotes like that, you can keep them to your bloody self. I don’t need some fucking smart aleck coming out with a load of bollocks. Lord god, turn him into a tampax! Ooh, I forgot - he already is one. Fucking Useless Eustace and his -‘


To divert Biggins from his attack on her husband, his daughter broke in: ‘Dad, dad. I did hear the PA say there’s a talk this morning by that Professor Stanford bloke. It’s about some monsters called the Sirens or something, that lived near Naples. That Odyssey bloke’s supposed to have had an adventure with them. Should we give it a try? I know it’s just poetry, but monsters sounds more interesting than yesterday’s stuff - you know, like Alien - and it’d kill a bit of time until lunch.’


As his wife started to show interest, Biggins quickly said: ‘You must be fucking joking, my girl, if you think Professor Moriarty is ever going to come out with something interesting. He wouldn’t recognize something interesting if it pissed in his ear. Cambridge cunt! No, it’ll be more shite, ‘cause there’s no such thing as monsters, or heroes, come to that.’


He experienced a vague sense of unease, felt he should hold his tongue, but over-rode it and added: ‘I keep on telling you, none of that Odyssey shit is true, it’s just fantasy, arty-farty poetry shite. So you’re not going to that talk, none of you… No, we’ll stay here and work on us tans and have a few jars till lunch, then off to Naples. And instead of making stupid suggestions you can go and order me a beer. And get me Amber Solaire while you’re at it. Go on, hurry up, don’t be so fucking idle, girl.’


As he stretched out for a snooze, he didn’t notice the stranger from the night before, who was sitting in a nearby deck-chair and had listened to his words with a scowl. The man settled back in his chair to think, and presently the scowl changed into a sardonic smile.


The ship reached Naples an hour after lunch. By that time the rest of the family apart from Biggins had come down with a stomach ailment and retired to their cabins in misery. He’d told them they should have the orange duck like him, but they’d all insisted on having the fucking fish, which must have been off, and he felt they’d got their come-uppance. It served the stupid bloody buggers right if something dire was happening in their rears and the world was falling out of their bottoms. He despised weakness of any kind and was not at all sympathetic. In fact he was annoyed that they were spoiling his plan for them all to go into Naples. He’d go by himself anyway. As his wife bent over their lavatory vomiting, and farting as she heaved, he said to her back: ‘That’s disgusting, that is, dead fucking common. Ah, I’m fed up to the back teeth with the lot of you. You’re a bunch of fucking wimps, weak. Right, you miserable bastards can stay here, puking your guts up. I’m going to Naples to have some drinks and some fun. And I’ll really enjoy meself without you lot in tow, cramping me style, Useless Eustace never putting his hand in his pocket to pay for a round – tighter than a nun’s nasty, he is. Ah fuck it, I’ve had it with you lot, I’m off.’


In Naples he went to a couple of bars, but didn’t think much of the pissy bloody wine. He went to a strip joint too, but gave up after the first stripper on stage. Her breasts weren’t very big, and they were grubby; they looked like they’d been groped by a gardener with soil on his hands. Biggins was pissed off that he’d paid out good money just to see mucky tits. It put him off going to see a prostitute, well for the time being. He wandered back down to the bay, looking for another bar, and then something put it into his head to hire a boat and go for a little trip along the coast. He’d been thinking vaguely about taking a step up and buying a yacht after the big development went through, and this could be a trial run. He’d see how you handled one and if he got sea-sick on a smaller ship.


There were lots of boats for hire, but he was particularly taken by a yacht called Thelxinoe, which had an eye-catching figurehead - a naked woman with enormous breasts. The For Hire sign also stated that it came with a very experienced skipper and unlimited free wine. That was perfect, he thought, just what he wanted, the dog’s bollocks.


He shouted out cheerily: ‘Ahoy there, me hearty!’ and a man emerged from the cabin at once, smiling. Biggins thought the face looked familiar, but couldn’t work out where he’d seen it before. Then it hit him: the man looked like a young Kirk Douglas. And he seemed a nice friendly bloke, what with that smile and all.


The skipper beckoned him on board and ushered him into the cabin. While Biggins was goggling at all the pin-ups on the wall, he was handed a wooden bowl containing a rich red wine with a honeyed sweetness and a heavenly fragrance. The man said: ‘Drink. See if you like the wine. I’d value your opinion of it.’


Biggins downed the bowl in one, smacked his lips judiciously and said: ‘Hmm, a precocious, zippy little wine with an intensity of red berry fruits and mineral, flinty notes… No, I’m just pissing about. I read that on a bottle on the cruise ship. Your wine’s not bad, but a bit sweet. Rather have a Guinness, or even a Newcastle Brown. Don’t suppose you’ve got one of them though, have you? Thought not. You Ities aren’t really into beer, are you, not real connoisseurs like us Brits? Still, never mind, I’ll make do with the wine, as it’s free - well, included in the price. Actually I quite like a Mateus Rose now and then. Though I prefer a Blue Nun, ha ha… So how’s about a little boat ride then, eh? I’d like that. I like riding, on a boat or on dry land, know what I mean?’


‘Yes, I’ll take you for a ride,’ said the skipper with a wry grin.


The wine had got Biggins in a good mood. He felt relaxed and mellow. He clapped the skipper on the back and said cheerily: ‘Good. I’ll hire the boat for the afternoon and be back here by tea-time. Right, how much? A hundred doubloons? Or do you prefer pieces of eight? Er, I tell you what - I’ll give you a hundred euros. Can’t say fairer than that. Cheap at half the price, right? You can take me to see the sights, and when we’re out at sea you can teach me to steer and all that, let me get me hand in. I like getting me hand in, know what I mean? Agreed?’


‘Agreed. You’ll learn a lot - pathei mathos,’ said the skipper with quiet assurance, and handed Biggins another bowl of wine, which he downed in two swallows. Coming on top of all that he’d drunk before, the wine immediately went to his head. He had to close one eye to focus, and muttered: ‘Fuckenell, that shit’s quite strong. Sort of creeps up on you, dead sneaky like. OK, let’s go. Splice the main braces and all that. But first give us some more wine, please.’ 

When Biggins began to sing What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor, the skipper drawled: ‘Oh, we’ll think of something.’ Then he gave Biggins another bowl of wine and a knife-like smile.


‘What’s your name by the way?’ asked Biggins.


‘You can call me Polymetis.’


‘Poly-what? I’ll just call you Polly. Funny name that, for a bloke. Sounds like a girl’s name, or a parrot’s. Ha ha!’


The skipper also laughed, for an entirely different reason, and then cast off. As they sailed out of the bay, Biggins lurched out of the cabin, plonked himself down in and drank some more wine. He felt totally at ease and completely indifferent to where he was being taken, and he lay back to enjoy the trip. The sun was hot, the wine was strong and he soon passed out in a pot-bellied sprawl, an overgrown bubo in a deckchair. After a few minutes he belched in his sleep, bringing up a few strands of meat mixed in with the wine, which dribbled down his chin.


He woke up again when the skipper prodded him with a gaff and said: ‘We are now approaching the Sirens. You should be on your guard against them, I’m warning you.’


‘The what?’


‘The Sirens. Have you never heard of them? Really?’


‘Erm, I’ve heard of factory sirens, Polly.’


‘These are rather different, and rather dangerous.’


‘The name does vaguely ring a bell, said Biggins. Then he laughed and said: ‘Or a hooter.’


‘Here’s what an ancient poet said of them. This is a warning given by the sorceress Circe about the dangers ahead for Odysseus on his voyage home: First you will come to the Sirens, who enchant every single man who comes to them. If anyone draws near to them in ignorance and hears the Sirens’ voices, there’s no homecoming for him, no wife and little children beaming by his side. Instead he’s enchanted by the clear, sweet song of the Sirens, who sit in a meadow, surrounded by -‘


‘Here, did you say Odysseus?’ asked Biggins, slow on the uptake after all the alcohol. ‘That’s fucken Homer, isn’t it? Don’t you start and all, Polly. More bloody bollocks!’


‘Actually Homer was a great poet, a soaring intellect, very important to us Greeks, to me in particular. And that was a very useful warning about those monstrous females, vital in fact.’


‘He was a shit poet, who made up shit. There’s no such fucken thing as monsters. Or heroes. I’m sick to death of fucken Odysseus.’


‘Don’t even try it. Or you’ll be sorry.’


‘Try what?’ asked Biggins, squinting at the skipper.


‘Don’t try fucking Odysseus. I say this because I am Odysseus. And I want no kind of carnal connection with you, in any shape or form, on any level, in any dimension.’


‘What the fuckenell are you on about now?’


Odysseus put his hands on his hips and breathed in, inflating his great chest. Then he said in a ringing voice: ‘An indomitable spirit like mine refused to die. Especially when I’d seen the Afterworld, and how dull and dreary the place is. So I (my spirit) live on, still restless and roaming far and wide, seeing the cities of many peoples and learning their ways. And I must say I’m not overly impressed by your ways, your uncivilized, barbaric ways.’


‘You what? Are you calling me uncivilized? Me?’ asked Biggins, with an incredulous half-laugh.


‘You really are an absurd little man, aren’t you? You question my exploits and my very existence, but all that Homer said about me and my adventures is true (though he didn’t do justice to my sense of humour). All those events took place, in a much more interesting world than today’s. He came at the end of a long line of bards, beginning in my own day, who passed down the story of my deeds, and in fact he surpassed all his predecessors with his sublime epics.’


‘Oh bollocks! Go and put the kettle on, Polly,’ said Biggins, and chuckled at his own wit.


‘Homer’s lines about me are largely responsible for my immortal renown, which has always been rather important to me, and which is dwindling these days, in this largely illiterate, uncultured age. So I’m not having an intellectual jelly tot like you denigrating him and undermining that. You have been warned about that; but you tend to ignore warnings in your arrogant way, don’t you?’


‘Who the fuck are you to give me a warning? You’re mad, you are, thinking you’re Odysseus. You’ll be telling me next you’re Napoleon. You’re pulling me leg, aren’t you?’


‘I’m not. You doubted my cleverness and resourcefulness. Well, I’ve devised a neat way of simultaneously proving the veracity of Homer’s verse and ending your attacks on him, unless you recant publicly.’


‘What? What bloody way?’ snorted Biggins.


‘The Sirens.’


‘Oh here we go again. Monsters is it? Brown trousers time? Supposed to shit me shorts over non-existent monsters named after factory hooters? Pah! That’ll scare the chocolate out of me for sure.’


‘Very well,’ said Odysseus with a gleam of amusement in his eyes. ‘If you insist on ignoring Homer’s warning about them, and mine, it’s your funeral… Why don’t you take over the tiller, El Capitano? Do you see land up ahead, over there? Yes? I must say, that’s remarkably perceptive for you. That is the lovely island of Anthemoessa. The breeze is taking us in that direction, so just keep the ship on a steady course. If you really want to land there and put Homer’s words to the test.’


Biggins clambered up out of his chair, lurched across the deck and said loudly: ‘Oh I’m dying to land there, and prove Homer’s a liar, and a silly twat and all. Right, I’ve got the tiller, El Capitano’s taken over, I’m in charge now. So just you do as I say and stop talking shit, or I’ll keelhaul you for being a mutinous dog, avast and belay there, Jim lad.’


Biggins laughed loudly at his own joke. The yacht sped towards the island, borne on by the breeze. The closer they came to it the clearer it became that this was an exceptional, exquisite islet. A sapphire sea was breaking on rocks of bronze; the air swooned from the perfume of rare blooms; and shimmering, glimmering lances of light came glancing from crystal rivulets.


‘It reminds me of Ibiza,’ said Biggins.


Suddenly and uncannily, as they neared the island, the wind fell and the sea was stilled. The ship drifted on to within shouting-distance of the shore, and then the Sirens began their clear, sweet song. In the midst of the silence their unearthly voices were enticing, enchanting, entrancing. They sang: ‘Come here, Colin, irresistible Colin, the Pride of the North. Beach your ship, so you can listen to our voices. Nobody has ever sailed by on his ship without listening to the honeyed words on our lips, and then going on his way a happier and wiser man. We know every one of your rivals’ bids and your partner’s scams; we know every thing that your mistress has done, is doing and will do; we know every way of making money and making love.’


‘Who’s that?’ asked Biggins, baffled.


‘Could that just possibly be the Sirens?’ asked Odysseus, cocking his head on one side. ‘Do you know, I believe it really might be them. They sang something rather similar to me when I encountered them a little while back.’


‘Well, if that really is the Sirens, they sound kind of interesting to me. Not dangerous at all. And they’ve got quite nice voices too.’


The yacht drifted along parallel to the shore, and the two singers suddenly came into view. They were sitting in the deep, lush grass of a meadow, quite a way off, but Biggins could make out that they were naked and had very large breasts. They seemed to him to be seated among some white rocks, but it was their chests that seized his attention. He whistled and said: ‘OK, Polly, so maybe you’re right, maybe there are Sirens after all. But if they’re Sirens, any fool can see that there’s nothing monstrous about them. Well, apart from the knockers. Christ, those are fucking epic tits.’


The Sirens waved to him and beckoned him over vigorously, making their breasts judder and jounce.


‘Right,’ said Biggins, licking his lips, ‘El Capitano’s putting in here. Biggins likes big ‘uns, and they’re begging for it - talking about all the ways of making love.’


‘They want you,’ said Odysseus with a malicious grin.


‘And they’re going to get me, all of me, all six inches.’


‘More than that.’


‘OK, OK, seven inches. Didn’t want to brag. Dead modest, me. I’m landing.’


‘Do you know, Biggins, if you had two brain cells to rub together and could control yourself and your animal lust for one second, you might reflect that this is perhaps not the best of all possible plans. The Sirens are reliably reported to be pretty dangerous after all.’


‘What - I’ll live to regret it?’ scoffed Biggins.


‘Actually no, you won’t live to regret it.’


‘Well, there you are then. No problem. I’m putting in. And then I’m putting it in, know what I mean?’


‘I suppose it would be a total waste of time if I pointed out to a towering intellect such as yours that they will kill you.’


‘What - shag me brains out?’ said Biggins, laughing.


‘That hardly seems feasible.’


‘No, I don’t think so either. I can cope with them, easy. But what a lovely way to go.’


‘If you say so,’ said Odysseus with a shrug of his shoulders. ‘Now, further to the veracity of the verse, you didn’t let me finish quoting Homer before. He went on to say that they sit in a meadow surrounded by a great heap of rotting men - skeletons with shreds of shrivelling skin on them.’


‘Oh don’t talk shite! What is this - Silence of the Lambs, Texas Chain-saw Massacre or something? They’re just a couple of girls, and girls looking for a good time, wanting to have a bit of fun. Well, they’ll have a lot of fun with me, I’ll see to that. Christ, tits like that - I’ve got a hard-on like a bloody beer bottle.’


‘There’s a bit more to them than just breasts,’ said Odysseus in a languid voice.


Biggins looked lustfully at the Sirens again and asked: ‘Oh aye? Got nice hairy bushes too, have they? I can’t wait to get my hands on them.’


‘And they can’t wait to get their hands on you, believe me.’


‘Oh I do, I do. Who could resist me? You can tag along if you like. And watch. I might even pass one of them on to you when I’m finished with her… No? OK, all the more for me. Good stuff! So, let’s have a nice Siren sandwich, now!’


As he said this, rubbing his hands together, the yacht veered close to the shore of its own accord. Biggins whooped and shouted: ‘Right. I’m getting off here. Sure you won’t come? OK, you stay here if you don’t want a piece of the action, if you’re afraid of a couple of feeble females. I’ll show the little ladies what a real man’s made of, how a real man performs in the sack. There’s enough of me for both of them.’


‘Yes, just about, and they’re watering at the mouth, positively drooling.’


Biggins jumped overboard and started to wade ashore. ‘You’re right, they’re obviously up for it, and so am I,’ he said, pointing to his bulging crotch. ‘They can start by gobbling this down, make their luncheon of my truncheon.’


Odysseus replied with a smirk: ‘They’re picky eaters, you’ll find, and they like to play with their food.’


‘They can play with my dick to their heart’s content.’


‘Oh they will, they will. And other bits too,’ said Odysseus to the man’s departing back as he splashed through the shallows. Then Odysseus switched the engine on and roared off, leaving Biggins behind in his wake.


Biggins emerged on to the shore and waddled across the meadow as fast as he could, calling out in a cheery voice: ‘Cooee. Hello, girls. It’s the Pride of the North. OK, who wants first go with me, who’s got the wettest pussy?’


His gaze had been focused on their breasts, but as he reached them he suddenly realized that they were beautiful females to the waist, but had a bird’s body below that. Then he took in that they were surrounded not by white rocks but by skeletons of their former victims, exactly as Homer said. He gulped and abruptly halted.


The Sirens examined him with avid glittering eyes and began to talk to each other. Thelxinoe said: ‘I bag the testicles. And that teeny-weeny willy, which has suddenly shrivelled up, for some reason best known to itself.’


‘OK,’ said Ligeia. ‘You can have them if I can have the eyes.’


‘All right. But I want the liver.’


‘No, you have the jelly-belly and those monumental buttocks instead! I want the liver. You know it’s my favourite delicacy of all time.’


‘And mine!’ said Thelxinoe with a menacing edge to her voice. ‘I love the taste of liver in the evening. It tastes of victory.’


‘I tell you what,’ said Ligeia. ‘Should we do that wish-bone thing with his legs, to decide who gets the liver?’ Then she added with a giggle: ‘And give him a split personality.’


‘Yes, let’s do that…Come here, big boy. Time to keep your word and let the little ladies see what you’re made of.’


Biggins had been listening to all this in shocked silence. Now he emitted a terrified squeak and turned to run. The Sirens fluttered up, swooped down and pounced.





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