Alfred and the Nose-Pirates
It was while on holiday at the sea-side that Alfred first encountered the nose-pirates.
He was strolling with his parents along the promenade on his way to the beach, eating an ice-cream, when he noticed that several of the people walking in the opposite direction had no noses, but only a blank white space in the middle of their faces where the nose had clearly once been. The further he walked, the more of those coming the other way had no noses, until, by the time they had passed the pier, scarcely any had noses still in place. None of them seemed perturbed - though obviously discountenanced - and, when he pointed out the phenomenon to his parents, they too seemed to regard it as quite unexceptional.
His father, of course, took the opportunity to mention his dog, to whom a similar thing had happened, to his own great hilarity; but otherwise they passed no comment.
All day on the beach, surrounded by growing numbers of noseless people, Alfred wondered. He asked several children what had happened to them - being careful to phrase his questions delicately, so he did not offend; but none were aware that anything was untoward. They looked at him strangely and moved away.
The next day his father drove the family further down the coast, to another resort. Here, at first, all seemed normal; but when Alfred stood back to admire the sand-castle he had just completed, he noticed, paddling at the water’s edge, a small child without a nose. As he looked round, he saw another; then a grown-up; then an ice-cream vendor; then a woman sleeping in a deck-chair; then quickly more and more. Once again he tried to interest his parents in what he saw, but to no result - other than his father repeating the story about the dog and again convulsing with laughter.
Alfred looked again around the beach. When he turned his gaze back to his father he saw to his horror that he too had lost his nose. “Mummy! Mummy!” he shouted, pulling at her arm, “Now Dad’s got no nose! What’s happening?” “How does he smell?” asked his mother, giggling.
It was clear he would get no sense or information from anyone; so he picked up his spade and set off, determined to investigate for himself.
At the end of the beach was a headland, a steep, grassy hill jutting out into the sea, with sheep-trails zig-zagging up its side. As Alfred walked along the beach, he noticed a gaily-coloured figure pushing a wheel-barrow up this narrow path. For want of any other clues, he decided to follow him.
Pushing the barrow was obviously not easy, so Alfred was soon close to the man: close enough to see that he was dressed in a broadly-striped shirt, generously cut trousers with a scarf tied round the waist, black sea-boots and a red bandanna on his head. He disappeared over the crest of the hill, where Alfred stopped for a moment, hands on hips, gazing down into the bay.
There, at anchor, sat a three-masted sailing-ship such as he had seen in books. A couple of rowing-boats were moving through the surf towards it, manned by men dressed similarly to that he had followed. On the shore were other such men, loading something from other wheel-barrows into other rowing-boats. Shading his eyes with his hand, Alfred looked at the ship: there, he was sure, from the top of the main-mast fluttered a black flag with a crudely-drawn white skull and cross-bones on it.
His heart raced. Pirates! What would he do? But there was no time to wonder. A heavy hand grabbed his shoulder, another forced his arm behind his back, and he found himself frog-marched down the hill.
When he and his captors reached the beach, one of the pirates - an imposing, middle-aged man with a beard and an eye-patch, who seemed to hold some authority over the younger men around him - glanced up and gestured towards the ship. Alfred was bundled into a rowing-boat. Two pirates jumped in and began to row him out to the ship. Beside him in the boat was a pile of noses.
Alfred had at last the solution to the mystery; but his position was dire: kidnapped by pirates whilst solving a problem that no one else realised existed. He was being dragged to the pirates’ very ship, while, unlike children of previous generations, his imaginary acquaintance with pirates was so small he had learned none of the tricks that are customarily used to escape their clutches.
As the rowing-boat bumped alongside the ship, one of his captors threw Alfred over his shoulder and heaved him aboard. He was pushed before a huge, fat pirate in velvet and brocade, who sat in state on the ship’s deck.
“I am Sardanapulus, the pirate king,” the pirate roared, pointing with the long stem of his clay pipe, “And who, my boy, are you?”
“I am Alexander,” said Alfred, feeling it might prove useful to be in disguise.
“And what, exactly, are you doing here?” One of the pirates whispered in his chief’s ear. “Spying on us, eh?”
Alfred said nothing for a while. “I was just wondering where everyone’s noses were going,” he explained at last, timidly. This brought howls of laughter from all the pirates who had gathered round. The king, too, laughed with the heartiest, yet kept all the time his eyes fixed on the boy in silent interrogation.
A cry from the ship’s rail brought the conference to a halt: “All’s loaded, skipper!”
Sardanapulus waved one hand and the crew set instantly to their work, swarming up the rigging to drop the sails, pulling at the ship’s wheel, hauling up the anchor, while the ship resounded with the deep chorus of ‘Yo-heave-ho’.
Alfred seemed to have been forgotten, left free to wander the ship. To his amazement, there were noses everywhere: sacks of them, boxes of them, barrels of them, even trunks of them. Noses lay piled and scattered on the deck; they were crammed into every available space on the ship. Even the ammunition-locker was packed so tightly with noses the shot could scarcely be seen. The ship sailed on.
In the weeks that followed, Alfred acquired from here and there sufficient items of pirate garb to enable him to blend with the crew. He learned to roar and carouse and hornpipe; he grew a bushy, black beard and tarred his hair into a pig-tail. He rarely thought of home, but did think frequently on the ship’s destination and the purpose of its strange cargo - questions he feared to ask lest he draw attention to himself. He was content to be ignored, and could not imagine that any such attention would do other than prejudice his position on the ship. Every day various pirates were keelhauled, lashed or forced to walk the plank, and he had no wish to be among them.
It was while the ship lay becalmed beneath a clear tropical night-sky, that he felt an arm around his shoulder as he leaned on the ship’s rail, staring into the darkness. It was the captain, obviously in his cups.
“Alexander, Alexander - you are still wondering about the noses? What are they for? Ah - how to explain? How to explain to one so young?” The captain fell silent and stared out into the darkness, sprinkled with stars like jewels in a crown. “We have our fascinations, Alexander, all of us,” he began again, at length, “And mine is smell. Oh! how I love to smell: the smell of the sea-spray crashing across the deck in a storm; the smell of the breeze wafting from some sun-kissed isle; the smell of sweat and tobacco of my crew; food from the galley; perfume; the smell of fear and blood and death on some poor merchantman; the timber in the harbour-yards; the tar; the rum and whiskey. Oh, the smells! I could have nothing to touch or see or taste - just let me draw its essence to me as a scent. Alexander - smell: it is the door to me of life, the way I enter it, how I perceive it; and life - I want all life: all life, always, now!” He was by now enraptured, his arms thrown wide. “Yet, Alexander: there is so much to smell, so many scents, and each scent falls to everyone in different way. I would smell them all: but life is short - and I can be but one sole person in one place. Can I smell the new-born baby nestling at my breast? the smell of dry books in a scholar’s dusty tower? the smell of courtiers clustered round my throne? of leprosy, eating at my limbs? Can I smell those things so alien to me - smell what it is to stoop, to vacillate, to dread; smell the ascetic’s joy in his crust, the celibate’s in his chastity? No, Alexander: my life is large - larger, I am sure, than most; but it will not encompass all of these. I want to smell it all: with but one nose I can’t - so: this.”
Once more he turned his gaze of silent interrogation on the boy. “No - it may not make sense to you, but you are not in my place, Alexander, with my desires. How can you judge what makes sense, what not? You are but a boy, not formed: you don’t know the passions that may fill the grown heart....For that matter, nor do most of them,” - he pointed contemptuously at a nearby pile of noses. “I think these noses have a better home with me,” he said, a slight smile just visible beneath his beard. Alfred sensed that he was beginning to tease him.“
When we reach Pirate Island, I will attach all these noses to my giant machine. I sit in it and steer it, and at any time I have the choice of - well, so far it’s something over twenty-two thousand noses, with which to smell whatever I may want.”
“Yes,” put in Alfred, thoughtfully, “But you can still only be in one place at a time: this must limit you, however many noses you have.”“This is true,” said the pirate, leaning on the rail and staring out to sea,
“This is true.”They spoke no more that night.
By the time they reached Pirate Island, Alfred was a fully-fledged pirate. Not that he had tried to become one; it had just somehow grown on him during the voyage, rather like the beard.
While not engaged in piratical activities, however, he reflected at length on the nature of Sardanapulus - a man deeply in conflict with his destiny. As he watched him, he seemed a man walking determinedly into a blind alley in the desperate hope that there would somehow appear a way through the solid wall at its end. Alfred could not believe that the noses, however many he might collect, would relieve the yearning that gnawed at his heart. The machine on which Sardanapulus placed his hopes only reinforced this feeling when Alfred saw it: built with great enthusiasm and little concrete planning it was an attempt to realise a dream by faith alone. The briefest inspection showed that it could not possibly work.
Sardanapulus busied himself with it. His crew stacked noses in piles, then moved them to other piles, then moved them back again. The moment of the machine’s first operation was postponed from day to day on a series of excuses. There was simply no way that reality could be introduced into the machine: it was merely the materialisation of a wish - a hugely impractical wish.
The captain grew more sullen by the day, and his crew more restive. They murmured about returning to sea, if only to steal more noses, but best of all to pillage and plunder as had been their wont. Alfred too longed for action; but a sympathy for the tormented figure of the captain kept him from following the ring-leaders of the increasingly mutinous crew.
The inevitable happened. One day there were no more pirates to stack and re-stack the noses. Sardanapulus had locked himself away in the room with the machine and had not been seen for over a week, so no confrontation had been necessary. Red Jack - the pirate whom Alfred had seen directing operations on the beach - simply took the ship and sailed off, leaving Alfred and the captain behind.
Alfred had been invited to join them, but had decided his loyalty lay with the captain. Seeing no point in constantly moving the noses from place to place, he sat beneath a palm-tree outside the building which housed the machine and waited.
Eventually, the captain emerged, walking feebly, his eyes blinking in the forgotten brilliance of the tropical sunshine. Alfred stood to meet him. Without saying a word, the captain put his arm round Alfred’s shoulder and the two pirates walked down to the harbour, to a cantina where they bought a flagon of rum and drank in silence.
Dream gone; crew gone; ship gone: the captain’s expression told it all - the distant gaze of one whose shoulders have long borne burdens beyond their power, a gaze deep into emptiness.
“The smell of truth, my boy,” he said at last. “The smell of truth.”