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Sport 14: Autumn 1995

Owen Marshall — Is Dr Moriarty Rung?

page 124

Owen Marshall

Is Dr Moriarty Rung?

‘On no account,’ said the Head of Department, ‘is there to be any alteration or addition to the 306 bibliography without plenary consultation.’ Zurvan is the great riddle God. Where the campus dreamed had once been lowland podocarp; had since been fescue oversown with red clover. On terra firma three stories below the Head of Department—exactly, I mean—a jersey bull had served its purpose, human like on two rear legs 7,218 days before. In what rapture the clear honey of its drool caught the setting sun; what ring of fire was in its nose.

The Human Cannonball thought that much of the trouble was a software thing—too many colleagues not using the network to check their disks. What is the use after all of establishing a means of communication within the department if there was no disk interface? ‘Before you know it,’ said the Human Cannonball, ‘we’ll be back to sticking notes on each other’s doors.’

‘Has Dr Moriarty rung?’ The Head of Department was talking to his secretary on the intercom. ‘Excuse me,’ he told the others. ‘I just wished to ascertain if Dr Moriarty had rung.’ Elephant Bill was maybe checking his entry on Bandoola—

  • 1887—November: Born

  • 1903—Trained. Branded ‘C’ both rumps.

  • 1904–17—Travelling with Forest Assistants as pack animal.

Even his name was exceptional, being that of a Burmese general who was a hero fighting against the British before the annexation of 1886. ‘Though Dr Moriarty isn’t with us as yet, I want to move on to the Vice-Chancellor’s comments regarding the revitalisation of post-graduate research programmes,’ said the Head of Department. The Diva reminded him that she had to leave by quarter to, and particularly wanted to talk to the agenda point of overhead projectors in the lecture theatres. She had her hair done in one great glistening and intimidating plait with, at its free end, an authentic Mayan blue brooch given to her by a lover who had been an academic tour guide in the Yucatan. Only the cries and the blood were not there to be displayed. ‘Ah, yes. Certainly. Women’s professional representation: the standing committee on sitting members,’ said the Head of page 125 Department.

‘No. I’m through to the final of the Consolation Plate.’ (Would that more of us could say the same.) Imagine the arc of the heavy, brown plait as the Diva played a reverse angle boast. Generally her personal vanity was expressed more directly. Imagine the Yucatan by satellite picture; a great spur in the brooch-blue Caribbean. Imagine any scene before you as more or less consequential. What a gullet has the cormorant.

1918–21—Oungoing Moo River (i.e. salving logs from sandbanks in it).

  • 1922—Transferred to Gangaw Forest.

  • 1923–31—Injured in fight with wild tusker. Rested throughout the year. Fully recovered.

In an aside to his friend, Patsy, the Human Cannonball admitted that the Diva had one of the best arses in the business. Epigone recalled privately that in that very room after the mid-winter party he had discovered a noted medievalist weeping for the loss of a daughter. For an hour he had held and comforted the man, given him the most mellow philosophy he possessed and so ensured that both were henceforth too shamed to do more than nod in passing. Patsy, while admitting that it may well be that through a man’s eye the Diva had one of the best arses in the business, was also drawn by association of place to memories of the mid-winter ridotto. ‘I just can’t fathom who it is who shifts the OHPs. It makes no sense at all,’ said the Head of Department. She had taken a cannelloni, and sung a madrigal with the Diva, as her contribution. Both had gone down well. She had worn tooled boots which seemed to charm a medievalist for the first part of the evening. ‘No one I suppose heard from Dr Moriarty before the meeting?’ said the Head of the Department. ‘He made no comment about anything cropping up?’ Patsy had heard the medievalist had had some tragedy in his life; something far back which still had the power to overwhelm him.

Merlot’s suede shoe approximated the point at which a falcon veering in the sun caught the admiring attention of Wattie Proctor in fifty-four. Where Elephant Bill’s shoulder touched the seminar room’s wall would be one day a rack of Civil Defence masks. Beneath the Diva’s chair at another time, with the carpet gone, would pool the custodian’s blood at his own behest. Another glance but Patsy’s through the same window would see the perimeter wire and the caches of black market goods. The dispossessed hold torches and automatic weapons. Always the cormorant is devouring time.

page 126
  • 1933—Transferred to South Kindat Forest, Upper Chindwin River. Allocated to camp of Maung Po Toke.

  • 1934–41—Fit throughout. Prime Elephant of the forest.

  • 1942–January-April: Employed on Kalewa-Kalemyo road, before the retreat of the Burma Army.

  • May–October: Disbanded but kept in secret hiding from the Japanese in side creek of Kabaw Valley by Maung Po Toke living in Witok.

  • November: Handed over again to Elephant Bill and Harold Browne at Tamu.

  • December: Enrolled as No 1 animal, the nucleus, of No 1 Elephant Company, XIVth Army. Employed dragging timber for bridges.

‘Can we take it then,’ said the Head of Department, ‘that we’re substantially in agreement on each of those issues?’ Epigone looked from the window and was seized with misgivings concerning what he saw in the night there. Already the gas mortars were striking the baffles of the old university C Block and falling into the loading bays where they lolled on the camber, releasing fumes of the most exquisite purple, yellow, Presley pink and Prussian blue. At the perimeter, the sky had filled with the great holographs of the ethnic clan totems, like Daimyo sitting impassively in battle to inspire their warriors. ‘How few black market stocks we have left,’ he exclaimed. Elephant Bill held the Head of Department’s arms behind his back while Patsy forced into his mouth a paperweight of wondrously polished petrified wood. The Human Cannonball swung the Diva into a more advantageous position over the upholstered arm of the seminar room’s leather chair. There was a series of tight pleats in the facing, each held by a tack with a convex, brass head. Dr Moriarty would have taken the opportunity for a snap vote on the reintroduction of Icelandic Sagas; Ms Hassim in the outer office took the drumming of the Head of Department’s feet on his desk as the commencement of extra-curricular activities and left for her class on Word Perfect 6.1.

  • 1943—March-November: Employed near Tamu collecting timber ready for the return of the Army.

  • November-March, 1944: Bridge building with the Army in Kabaw Valley.

Merlot had a sense of anti-climax. It wasn’t like Moriarty to promise support on an important issue and then not show. It was almost unheard of for a senior lecturer of long standing to have an office on the south side of page 127 the block, and for Merlot a grievance almost to the point of death. He allowed himself a grimace of boredom and cynicism despite the Head of Department’s quick glance, despite the discomfort of the civil defence masks in the small of his back, despite the jersey bull’s horns nodding hypnotically in his field of vision.

  • 1944—April-May: Leading elephant in the march out of Burma from Kanchaung to Baladan in Assam.

  • June-October: Resting in Surma Valley, Assam. Loose for one day in pineapple grove, estimated to have eaten nine hundred pineapples. Severe colic. Recovered.

  • November-December: Marched back to Burma.

The Head of Department deftly removed the paper weight from his mouth. It was most unbecoming on such occasions if a thread of spittle adhered. As a student he had been accidently struck in the face by a strand of number eight wire when fencing on his Uncle’s farm at Hororata. Patsy was attracted to the scar; small and very white on his left cheek. It was the one hint of vulnerability, of ill-fortune, she thought. Because of it he flinched markedly when the gas bomb struck the parapet of the window and fell in a spiral of cockatoo sulphur to the loading bays, while neither the Human Cannonball, nor the bull with a nose of brazen circumference, was a whit distracted from his ecstatic rhythms. ‘Perhaps we had better press on,’ said the Head of Department. ‘I must say it is inconvenient that we haven’t Dr Moriarty’s views on such things, particularly as he is Head of Department designate.’

‘I must leave almost directly,’ said the Diva. Her voice was somewhat muffled by the leather upholstery.

‘Quite,’ said the Head of Department. There seemed to have been a breakthrough at the north end of the compound. The shooting had increased and Elephant Bill heard heavy armour grinding past on the tarmac in that direction. He raised his voice to suggest that one or two agenda matters be passed over until another time. ‘The tutorial load of PhD students for example.’

  • 1945—January-March: Attached to Forest Saw Mill Units, R.E., teak-dragging for Army boat-building.

  • March 8: Found dead, shot by an unknown person near Witok.

‘Is Dr Moriarty rung?’ the Head of Department had asked Ms Hassim on the Thursday, just to be sure that he would be in no doubt concerning the timing of the meeting.

page 128

Patsy was so close to the silken neck of the heifer that she felt the warm exhalations on her forearm and saw the individual tines of its vast, demure eyelashes. Epigone’s complaint of course reprographic restrictions was unheard because of the sound of the custodian’s body striking the floor. The night sky outside was hung with flares as the counter assault went in. Merlot wondered if Moriarty was among the vanguard perhaps, crying for Odin’s blessing and holding aloft his Icelandic battle axe.

The cormorant of the riddle God had covered the world.