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I RACONTEUR (“Venus Unchained”)

Roger climbed the narrow companion-way leading to a side deck below the bridge. Roger loved ships. He felt an anticipatory excitement when steaming into a strange new port, luxuriating in the pampering he received as a passenger. Above all he loved the ambience of the ships themselves, and was never happier than when exploring a new ship. The best time to do this was during the confusion of loading and unloading as it is easier to gain access to ‘crew only’ parts of the ship.

As Roger emerged into brilliant sunshine on an upper deck, he paused with his head at deck level to refocus in the harsh sunlight. His vision was partly obscured by a bare body, obviously female, a few inches in front of him. She was covered only in sunbathing oil and the admiring glances from a circle of young men. In order to enter the small deck Roger would have to step over her glistening body.

He hesitated, and could now see that she was accompanied by a young girl of mixed race, similarly attired. The men came into focus. They seemed to be Arabs, probably deck passengers, because they sat or lay on bundles and suitcases, and one had a meal set out on a small mat. Roger’s entry broke the spell, and the tableau came to life.

He stepped carefully to the rail, and watched his car being swung aboard from the Piraeus quayside onto a deck below. The Greek stevedores bounced it sideways to fit into a small space between crates of vegetables. When the car was secured, Roger turned; it was time to rejoin Kim, his wife. She was handling the cabin assignment, and luggage.

The two girls ― who looked to be in their late teens were now sitting up and applying more oil to each other, completely indifferent to their admirers. The Arabs watched the oiling operation with rapt attention, as if memorizing the moves for later enjoyment.

Roger found Kim in the Passenger Lounge. She sat with an elderly couple and together they were reviewing the Passenger List.

“This is Mr. and Mrs. Bryanston from Little Tidmarsh, near Cambridge, darling. They are retired and going to Alexandria as the first part of a world tour; isn’t that exciting?”

“Bill and Audrey,” corrected the elderly gentleman. The two men shook hands as Roger introduced himself. “We boarded at Marseilles,” Mr. Bryanston continued, “you will find that the SS Massalia has pretensions to be a cruise ship, with all this new white paint, and crisp white’s for the officers, but it’s really a freighter. The hold is full of bales of jute, and most of the passengers live on deck.”

“Yes, I have seen them” said Roger, “including a couple of rather spectacular young ladies.”

“You must mean the party traveling with Jean Paul Klein,” Mr. Bryanston commented after studying the Passenger List. “He came aboard at Marseilles with them, and has a cabin, but they sleep on deck chairs on one of the decks I hear.”

“Yes, starboard observation deck, I think.” Roger reveled in his chance to appear omniscient, “But why the unequal accommodation,” asked Kim?

“Well, it seems that the odious little man is delivering them to Alexandria or Cairo; some nightclub or other; he does these trips several times a year.” Mr. Bryanston then lapsed into reflective silence his heavily-creased face giving him a permanently disapproving expression.

“I wonder what business he is in to travel so much,” mused Kim?

“Import-Export I believe,” replied Mr. Bryanston, and dropping his voice, and leaning closer to Roger, added, “gets the girls in Marseilles and sells them in Cairo.”

One of the Greek waiters came up to the table.

“Do any of the ladies and gentlemens wish to appear in our ship’s concert tonight” he asked? If you sing or play the instruments it is good.” All politely, but firmly, declined.

“But you must come to watch. Tonight we have the,” he groped for the English word, “how you say … ballet?”

“Oh, how marvelous,” Mrs. Bryanston gushed, “I love ballet, why don’t we all go together?” Rodger groaned inwardly. He hated the obligation to support shipboard entertainments. On such a small ship the pool of theatrical talent among passengers and crew must be minimal. He tried to visualize what kind of ballet would be held in the ship’s dining room, with a part-time orchestra composed of deck hands and waiters.

Before he could beg-off with a suddenly discovered malady, Kim jumped in, “We would love to, wouldn’t we Roger?”

“That’s settled then,” said Mrs. Bryanston serenely.

Kim and Roger entered the ship’s dining room a few minutes before the concert was planned to start. Kim grinned and said, “There’s no escape now, Mrs. Bryanston has saved us seats front row center. Look she is waving to us.” They edged their way along the front row leaving behind a trail of squashed toes and muttered oaths. We are trapped here, thought Roger, there would be no possibility of unobtrusively ‘slipping out’ from these seats.

“I had no idea a cultural evening would be so popular,” their elderly host remarked happily. Indeed every available seat was taken. The room buzzed with excited chatter until the lights dimmed for the first act.

The first part of the evening confirmed Roger’s worst fears. A juggler of modest accomplishments; a contralto warbling “Danny Boy”; and a young girl breathlessly tap dancing to “The Good Ship Lollipop.” Jean Pierre Klein was then announced as, ‘That well know entertainer and comedian of international reputation.’

He began, in English, a series of very off-color jokes. Fortunately, he laughed loudly during each punch line, so that the microphone boomed out only a confusing mixture of wet sibilants and Franglaise phrases.

Mr. Bryanston’s expression showed that Jean Pierre had confirmed his deepest suspicions of the French.

Mrs. Bryanston gamely maintained an expression of mild amusement, developed over long years of supporting amateur productions, and intended to show encouragement. “I’m afraid dear that I missed most of that, Bill, perhaps you will explain it to me later.”

The Master of Ceremonies then announced, “Those legendary performers Miss Frou Frou LaVerne, and Desiree, have agreed to dance for us their original creation, for the first time on any stage, — Venus Unchained.” Mrs. Bryanston eagerly consulted her program notes. Roger looked behind him at the entrance, where every square foot of the doorway now seemed filled with crewmen’s faces. Who, he thought, is running the ship?

The ballet troupe had made modest demands in the way of stage props – just a chair. The ‘Unchaining of Venus’ started with the darker girl, Desiree, attired in a few scraps of leather and diaphanous wraps, brandishing a whip, which she stretched provocatively above her head while undulating to the slow beat of the ship’s band. Frou Frou meanwhile, chained to the back of the chair writhed in dread. Mrs. Bryanston’s usually placid face furrowed with the effort of detecting the allegorical significance of the tableau.

Desiree then seemed to make a completely unwarranted attack upon Frou Frou with the whip. Frou Frou responded by holding on to the back of the chair and performing impressive spinal exercises, while discarding unwanted attire. She quickly got to the denouement. Feet astride in frank demonstration of her recently acquired all-over tan, shoulders jiggling to the roll of drums and clash of cymbal, she burst the bonds; and threw her G String into the audience. An impassioned struggle among the ship’s crew for possession ended inconclusively with Frou Frou’s most intimate garment being deflected, and landing in Mrs. Bryanston’s lap.

Miss LaVern’s fans invaded the stage and the front row, and Mrs. Bryanston momentarily disappeared under what looked like a rugby scrum. She emerged, spectacles askew, confused but unscathed as the crowd dispersed with one contestant holding aloft Frou Frou’s ‘favor’. She raised her arms to acknowledge the tumultuous applause, exposing another hirsute area. The ship’s orchestra enthusiastically kept up a continuous series of drum rolls to keep Frou in action, to which Miss LaVerne gave her all. Then the captain hurried on to the stage, and brought the performance to a close; he left after sharp glances at the band and the remainder of his crew still crowding the entrance.

Kim took Mrs. Bryanston’s arm as they left the concert, and mischievously asked; “What do you think of the ballet?”

“Well,” she replied breathlessly. “I don’t know, dear, it certainly seemed popular with most of the audience. I’m not very modern in my tastes I’m afraid ― I still prefer Swan Lake.”

 

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