Parrot!

Aaargh, said Kurd Maverick.

Or its equivalent in Kurdish.

Now read on…

When the great wave hit the boat three things happened in quick succession.

With the first impact of the wave The Culture became detached from the bow and disappeared into the murk.

With the second the mast snapped and the boat assumed a quaint and unnatural position in the water. The Valkyrie struggled panicking to the deck, where they joined Kurd Maverick. At the same time the great wave seemed to have exhausted the violence of the storm. The sea flattened, and the rain became heavy.

The third was that a black shape slid out of the darkness. It was a ship. A voice came from above them – an English voice.

Ahoy there! Kurd Maverick! This is Captain Alablague of the ketch Scintilla, attached to Her Majesty’s Letter of Marque The Jolly Thought.

It was the son, though neither Kurd Maverick nor the Valkyrie were to know that.

Come aboard! I’m putting down a ladder. You’ll not be able to climb the side in these conditions. My men will secure your wreck.

Captain Alablague made good his promise and soon Kurd Maverick and the women were on the bridge of the ketch. Some of the philosophers among the crew eyed the latter appraisingly. If the women had ever been ship-shape they were no longer. The older had a look of Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC, with scraps of material ensuring her modesty in trying conditions – not fur, but then not dinosaurs.

How did you…

Kurd Maverick, out of breath, gasped the question.

We’ve been following you, of course.

But I didn’t see you…

The son looked at him pityingly.

No, of course you didn’t.

We can’t move from here. The Culture…

Of course, said Captain Alablague again. It’s for The Culture that we’re shadowing you, not for your own safety. My men are out in dinghies already. It’s unlikely to have sunk, and the sheepskin should protect it from the elements, but only for so long.

And for the salvage, he added, under his breath.

Indeed, the remains of the yacht were already lashed to the stern of the Scintilla, a sorry sight, and in the darkness around the ship could be seen lanterns, though not the small boats to which they were attached.

Kurd Maverick was briefly overcome with emotion.

Thank God, he said, for the British Navy!

Indeed, sir, said my son. The British Navy is a fine outfit, but I, sir, am a privateer.

A pirate!

No.

The son sighed.

Privateers are different. I’ll explain later. Go below. There is fresh and dry clothing. I commend the latter to you and especially to your companions. The men have been at sea now for months and have not seen a woman until today. They will of course behave with propriety but it will be well not to inflame their passions. A randy philosopher is a philosopher prone to solecism.

All of this the son and Kurd Maverick related to me some weeks later. The Scintilla had remained at sea, restlessly scouring the Channel for prey, but all concerned had transferred to The Jolly Thought, of which the son had resumed command. Actually, almost all had transferred to The Jolly Thought. The elder of the two Valkyrie, the one resembling Raquel Welch, had remained on the Scintilla. It had soon become apparent that she had a flair for navigation beyond that of the philosophical incumbent. The son had made landfall at Southampton and I had taken the train down to meet him. Amy, though vitally interested in the result of the quest, had remained at Great Secret Miss. We were in a seamen’s pub, near the docks. Daughter two, who works in Southampton as a diver, was to join us. It may be remembered that she had assisted me in an exorcism in 1934 and had lost her sea-bird Parrot in the process. She had been nagging me in a friendly way ever since to replace it.

So, I said. Did you get The Culture?

The son removed a vile plug of tobacco from his mouth. Whatever trick this was intended to do it clearly didn’t. He needed to rinse the remains out with a great draught of Badger ale. Then a paroxysm of coughing distorted his grim weather-beaten features.

We searched all night, he said, eventually. No joy. I was sure that when dawn came we would see The Culture, but with the first light the sea was flat, the rain had stopped – not a trace. I sent a young logician up to the crow’s nest. Still no sign. I never thought it would sink, but my only conclusion could be that it must have.

There was only one shot left in my locker.

A group of us who are concerned with linguistics have been teaching language to some otters.

Sea otters? I said.

Of course.

When the logician in the crow’s nest drew a blank I had them brought up from the hold. We had had a spoonful of yoghurt each for breakfast, on our porridge. I put some on my finger and gave it to each of the otters to sniff.

Fetch, I instructed, guiding them over the side.

They’ll choose freedom, said the ethicist first mate, who is one of nature’s Eeyores; we’ll not see them again. So much for the research. And we’ll have to return the grant.

Well, one did make a bid for freedom. But another did the business. Straight over the side, straight down and a minute later he was back at the ship’s rail, The Culture, still in its sheepskin, gently held in his teeth.

This little fellow, it was. Rick, we call him.

I hadn’t noticed the sea creature at his feet. In pubs of that sort, at the seamier end of Southampton, most of the customers have a sea creature of some sort at their feet.

Kurd Maverick, said the son, who was overcome with guilt, thumped The Culture without ceasing until we sighted land; and I’m glad to report that it’s fine. We made some kefir – just to test it. My God it’s good. I was thinking about Fermat’s last theorem when I went to sleep, and when I woke up I’d solved it, all over again!

Kurd Maverick smiled shyly.

Rick the otter smiled shyly.

At that moment the door opened. There was high wind outside and the draft blew some Wanted posters around – some pirate or other. Daughter two strode in. She was on her way from work and still in her diving gear. She walked to our table making little puddles with every step. Under one arm she held the enormous brass helmet.

Then she saw Rick the otter, and a familial greeting died on her lips. It was love at first sight.

Parrot, she said.

No, said the son, for whom precision of language is both his profession and his passion. Rick. Otter.

Parrot, she said.

As if in a trance Rick the otter crossed the floor, jumped onto a table and thence to her shoulder, where he took up residence.

Parrot, she said.

Pieces of eight, said Parrot.

Happy now? I said

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