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The Fawlty Code, Chapter Twenty Four

August 2, 2013

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“You know what I think was the trickiest part” mused Roger, out of nowhere.

“This conversation?”

“The Roman interlude.  Being interrogated by the authorities in Rome regarding that unfortunate episode in the cemetery?”

Indi stopped dead, genuinely befuddled.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Roger kept walking, for nearly half a block, before realising that Indi had been immobilised with incredulity and that he was therefore, irritatingly, compelled to walk back to address her.  He did so, actually wagging his finger at her from time to time…

“My dear young lady.  You will recall that I had been considering the implications of the name “Basil” and the concept of deep dark buried truths.  If ‘basil’ is not only a King but a herb, and a herb that speaks of death and trauma, then one is led naturally to John Keats’ poem Isabella, or A Pot of Basil.  The poem describes how a young Florentine woman called Isabella falls in love with a young man deemed inappropriate by her jealous brothers.  The brothers lure him into the forest, murder and bury him, but his spirit visits Isabella in a dream and reveals where his body is concealed.  Isabella and her nurse travel to the forest, excavate his corpse and bury his severed head in a pot of basil.  The most elementary of indirect threads therefore rendered it imperative that to understand the secret of Fawlty Towers, I should travel to Rome to dig up the body of John Keats.  John Keats wrote a poem called Pot of Basil – John Cleese wrote a character called Basil.  Excavating the one uncovers the other.  Despite explaining this chain of reasoning in great detail and in flawless Italian, the Roman authorities insisted on detaining us for a full half hour and I was forced to submit to the indignity of something they had the affrontery to call a ‘warning’.

You will all recall us arriving at the cemetery at approximately 1 am.  It was surprisingly cold that night, a cold unMediterranean night with an eerie dampness in the air that seemed superstitiously localised to the necropolitan vicinity.  Through the railings, the grounds seemed poorly tended and seemingly full of underfed and feral cats.  I cushioned the railing spikes with my coat and heaved myself over.  For the first time in I don’t know how long I started to actually feel my age.  How had I come to this point, I thought?  How does anybody get to the point where digging up a famous corpse becomes a logical or a necessary course of action?  In the meantime, it had begun to rain – a light, lukewarm Roman sort of a rain.  More of a semi-refreshing distraction than an actual inconvenience.  I threw back my head and felt for a moment the full weight of days upon my face and neck, the sleepless nights and foodless days, the unfathomable indirections that had dragged my accomplices and I across too many European frontiers and through too many airport arrivals halls that now splurged into one confused memory.  At the moment I allowed myself the feel the full weight of this craziness I felt perversely liberated from it, tired and refreshed from my exhaustion at one and the same time.  I laughed out loud, catching the hot rain in my mouth and shaking it from my messy greying locks.  Sometimes you have to feel ludicrous to feel alive.

Looking at my three companions properly for the first time, even in the very subdued lighting, they seemed both adorable and pitiable.  I was shocked by their frailty and loyalty – underdressed, underfed and sleep deprived, they stood like miraculous wraiths awaiting my absurd commands.  I stood there and raised my arms above my head, a childish grin uncharacteristically usurping my face and I felt poised between the insanity of continuing this quest, and the equal and opposite insanity of acknowledging my folly and turning back.

“Throw me that shovel Plantard!” I shouted.

Even in the cold night air, the lamplight illuminated beads of sweat on Plantard’s forehead as he hesitated, afeared of becoming an accessory to something unmendably beyond his control.

My three friends stood around me as I began to dig – unwilling to help but prepared to offer mute companionship.  Even as they were scared of me, disapproved of me, they shared a fear for me, which was, I think, love, or else something very close to something like love.

As I thought of love I thought of loam.  As I became one with loam I thought of love.  I thought of the word loam, and love of the word loam. I became loamed.  I love loam.

As I dug, I began to think about the crafty cockney, John Keats.  His stupidly short life – his ludicrous genius.  I had time to think about him because he was certainly buried a respectable way down.  Whether or not he was buried so far down as a kind of tribute to the depth of his poetry, or whether because the spread tuberculosis triggered a great many alarm bells in the early nineteenth century, I don’t know.  Then I thought again about a “short life”, his comically reduced stature, and the satisfying confluence of brevity in both time and space.  A little man with a little life, obsessed with poetry and eternity – a long way down.  He needed excavation.  Such eloquent and complex bones.

Once I’d dug down to about four feet (creating a two foot oblong, disconcerting like a child’s grave impressed into an adults), I leapt down and started to dig more carefully.  Then I abandoned the spade altogether, afraid of any moment cracking an elderly coffin, rolling up my sleeves and starting to scoop up black dirt with my bare hands.  I felt the loam loosen, divide between my fingers, drop and reform beneath me.  On an impulse I bent forward and started to sniff the soil.  And through the cold and the dampness I smelt it.  The basil.  My single favourite smell.  Whenever I see it displayed in its fresh and still living condition I will stop whatever I’m doing at the time to go an enjoy it.  And I shouted at the very top of my voice

“Smell!  Smell damn you people!  Everybody just shut up and smell”!

And at that point, the sirens wailed and the flashlights flashed, and the carabinieri swarmed around us and brought a perversely delightful evening to a premature close.  And whether or not I was on the verge of excavating something or someone, and whether or not I smelt basil, or thought I smelt basil, or just wanted to smell basil to the point that I conjured the entire olfactory climax for myself, didn’t matter.  I had felt something truthful and I felt alive.”

Plantard coughed.

“Zees – did not ’appen…  Wi were not zere – and zere was no taam for eet to ’appen.”

Roger stopped dead, puzzled but unconcerned.

“Really?  It seemed so real?”

Indi put a hand on his arm and nodded like a nurse.

“Plantard it right.  Your Roman interlude never took place.”

“Odd” said Roger.”  “It feels a lot more real than a lot of the other stuff.  More real than meeting the bishop, anyway.  Did we really meet the Bishop of Ely?”

“Yes.”

“Did we absail down Sagrada Família in Barcelona?”

“We did.”

“Did we have sex?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Roger merely shrugged and strode on.  The other three seemed troubled by the texture, the “thickness” of Roger’s false memory – so much “thicker” than his memory of things that had actually happened, but as Roger was untroubled by their trouble, his indefatigable momentum carried them along with him until Roger’s homecoming was suddenly complete.

“Ah, we’re here.”

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