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The Prof’s going to speak

by Gerald Roberts

Gerald says: I'm ex-(English public) school teacher plus current writer of critical work mainly about Victorians, some radio writing, and very occasional creative outbursts.

That was the buzz in the dining-room. We might have done the volcano, the archaeological museum, and Herculaneum, but we were still panting for culture .“The Prof!” That was him in jungle shirt and shorts (well, it was July in Naples), sporting a beard and whiskers, and looking as venerable as some of the statues we’d seen, and as shaky, but there he was at his table knocking back the white wine and the pasta like a twenty year old.

George and I had a wonderful spot to see him from our table that was raised up on a sort of platform at one end of the dining-room—where they put the Captain’s table, if he ever turned up. From the windows we could also see the Med streaming past in what the Captain had already told us over the Tannoy was the sort of weather we’d have to keep tight hold of our plates. George and I fancied ourselves as sailors  because we’d once taken a battering doing the Atlantic run and still kept our breakfasts down. We were oldies, but not landlubbers.

In any case the Prof was going to speak in the Washington Lounge upstairs with the nice armchairs and comfy sofas, where George had been caught more than once at the Lectures with his mouth open snoring gently. So now George and I were just tucking in with the rest of our table, who’d told us their names ten minutes before – no one bothered to remember them for long- and the Filipino staff serving us like acrobatic angels. Max was a real dear, even if, or because, he liked touching people, a hand on the shoulder a steadying arm. “You be all right with me, Mrs Dolly,” he used to say. “Anything you want extra…”

Of course George and I knew that would mean a big tip when we got to Athens, still, it’s nice to get a little extra attention, even if you have to pay for it. But that evening, even Max was having to take care when he brought the consommé, but he managed to ground the bowls without spilling a drop, and we all gave him a little round of applause, which turned his face a little browner. One of our ladies was beginning to look uneasy at the ship’s movement, but shooed away her husband’s suggestion she should go below. “We had worse than this in China: remember that express train. The noodles went everywhere.”

We all laughed, even though we didn’t know where the noodles went and had to concentrate too much on our consommé to get the details. I kept one eye on our guest speaker at the nearby table, because we’d flocked around him in the museum, and the young friend who was travelling with him – don’t ask me about the relationship – had to right his balance every so often by a delicate push on his arm. George saw me looking and whispered “He’s a tough one”, but I think he said that because the Prof had let drop several times that he’d been a tank commander in the “Desert War”, but hadn’t said which one. Anyway he’d promised us some astonishing facts about life in Naples before the Eruption, so we were really keyed up for the Washington Lounge at 8.30. If we all got up those stairs…

“There goes the first victim,” said George, as a lady staggered off between  tables, supported by a waiter and the maitre d’hotel on either hand. “Must have been the prawns,” said one of our Men (they were on the menu that evening), and couldn’t help grinning over his cleared dish of consommé.

“Well,” I thought, “you might regret that.” Meanwhile Max was handing out the main courses with the accuracy of an expert – though it was only a quick side-step that kept a sliding steak in place for one of us- and the conversation on our table fell off a bit as we concentrated on catching our food. When it came to the dessert, most of us surrendered to the by now formidable movements of the ground under our feet, like a Naples earthquake, I thought, and we dug out the usual excuses: “Love your food, Max, but I’m just full.” “Your chef is too good.” “Where did he get his fresh cream in Naples?”

Max just smiled and kept on serving.

George often used to point out to me that a gale at sea was no problem to a passenger provided he stayed still in the same place (George likes coming out with practical advice). Our problems in the dining room started the moment we tried to leave our table. As soon as you surrendered your hold on the chair or table edge, you might end up anywhere. The woman who spilt her noodles in China now brought down the tastefully embroidered table cloth, or would have done if Max hadn’t dived in and pulled it in the other direction.

She was more or less carried off by her husband, muttering something about the “Chinese noodles”. Around us the dining-room was breaking up as decorously as it could, usually men pretending to politely support their wives “to be in time for the Lecture”, but sometimes the other way around. Max was always willing to lend a helping hand whenever he saw a lady in trouble. George and I took off down the room like rockets (“If you’ve gotta move, move fast”, was another piece of George’s practical advice) and kept going until we could cling on to the swing doors of the dining room. From there on, it was series of little steps and grabbing door handles until we made it to Cabin 270.

A small, digestive rest on our beds was good for us, but George was determined to hear the old “Tank Commander”, as he called him, whom I’d last spotted grimly plucking at the restaurant cheese-board, his young secretary guiding his hand movements. So we set off, back down the heaving corridor and clambered up two flights of stairs where much strategic movement was going on. One old couple had got the bannister and were pulling and pushing each other on; one rotund gentleman had got the notion, which might have been better applied coming down the stairs, that lying down sideways and trying to roll up would get him to heaven; we cheated and took the elevator which was still in working order and found that crouching in each corner kept us reasonably still.

What I wanted to know about was the Prof. Would he make it? Would he have an audience consisting of more than six, and would his assistant show the pictures in the right order? The last time, when the Prof had announced “The recovery of Phoenician underwater remains in the Aegean”, we’d got a picture of an almost naked young man flaunting a barely concealed priapism of monumental size, unremarked by the Prof as he continued his learned discourse. His assistant panicked and tried to wrestle the picture-operator from the Prof’s hand, and a barrage of whispering from both saw off the nude and a resumption of normal service.

Well, we made it, and tumbled into the Washington Lounge, where a small number of mainly green-faced people were draped over the furniture. The rhythm of the ship was now a steady lurching, forward and back, and George and I had adjusted our metabolisms and our movements to cope with the temptation to vomit and fall over. But had the Prof? Would he even make it from his guest Owner-Only Suite at the top of the ship?

George said: “He’s a tough one. He’ll make it even if it kills him”, and he looked round, almost with complacency, at the barely living collection of suffering, but committed passengers in the Washington Lounge (NOT including the Lady who had lost her noodles in China). One of the Filipinos had set up the screen and the reading desk, anchored to the floor, by some mysterious nautical device, and all was as ready as it could be for the appearance of the maestro.

On the hour, or as George, if he had had his eyes open at that moment, would have said, with military precision, the Prof, still in his jungle-dress, swayed into view behind the armchairs and began the long stagger down to the front, his secretary staggering with him. “Naples before the catastrophe,” I whispered to George, who just went, “Um”, his mouth well open, and missing the chance of seeing his Hero and secretary skating across the shiny dance-floor towards their elusive goal, the reading-desk.

There was a minute or so of hectic fumbling before the Prof lined up before the desk on which his secretary had fixed his script, a preliminary clearing of the speaker’s throat, and then a massive heave of the floor as the good ship HOMER tried to deal with what was evidently a very special wave, sending the Prof, his desk, secretary, and all other loose objects crashing to the floor. Even George paid attention, the ladies shrieked a little (I just clung on), and the braver men risked crawling on to the stage to try and put everything together.

The secretary was getting to his feet, but his boss lay rocking with the ship, the shorts rucked up to his thighs and his notes scattered over the floor. Someone was trying to lift him up, and then waving his hands in despair. The secretary was shouting words I couldn’t understand and George next to me  was shaking his head and saying, “I told you he’d make it, even if it killed him”.

Somebody somewhere was audibly sick, and on the sofa next to us a woman still in her post-dinner finery was sobbing quietly. George levered himself up and said the obvious: “There’s nothing we can do.” So we tried to walk out together, past the recumbent Prof who’d lost his final battle, and the boat still pitching in that remorseless sea.

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