Keats and Chapman had been touring Europe, specifically Central Europe. Chapman, having an enquiring mind, had long been an admirer of the man of science Viktor Frankenstein, and learning that their journey would take them near to the town where Dr Frankenstein had his home and laboratory, Chapman pressed Keats into agreeing on a visit.
The pair sent a telegram ahead to ask whether a visit would be acceptable and received a polite and charming reply to the effect that the man of science would be delighted to see them.
Dr Frankenstein could not have been a more convivial host, meeting the pair at the door of his house, and personally serving them with Schwarzwaldtorte mit Schlagzahne and hot coffee. His English was near-perfect, with just a hint of a Silesian accent, and he was able to switch between small-talk and scientific language without any trouble.
Eventually Chapman asked him a question that had been on his mind for a while.
“Herr Doktor, you are by now world famous for your pioneering work in what has come to be known as ‘spare part surgery’,” said Chapman, as Dr Frankenstein blushed and made a gesture of dismissive modesty. “In fact no one else has taken it as far as you have. Your success in having assembled fully functioning human beings from discarded anatomical parts is almost legendary. I know that you have made men, and indeed women, of all body types – endomorphs, ectomorphs, mesomorphs – and of every general ethnicity; what type of human being does it give you the most satisfaction to manufacture, I wonder?”
Dr Frankenstein leaned back in his chair, steepled his fingers, and looked at the ceiling for perhaps half a minute. Then he said:
“Of all the specimens of humankind that it has been my pleasure to make, the most satisfying has been the most challenging – the Afrikaner, the South African of Dutch descent and of Voortrekker stock. Only yesterday I sent my most recent one off to Cape Town. I tell you, Mr Chapman, Mr Keats, no sooner did he spring upright on my laboratory table than he reached for a rugby ball and began to sing Sarie Marais!”
Later after Keats and Chapman had bid their host auf Wiedersehen and were waiting for their connection to Prague, a chuckling Chapman thought that he would, for once, be the one to offer a Keatsian play-on-words himself.
“Just thinking about Dr F assembling South African rugby players,” said the smiling Chapman. “That means he’s… a Bok-maker!”
“A Boer-constructor,” said Keats.
Outdone, Chapman gnashed his teeth.
After the Frankenstein affair Chapman vowed he would never make a Keatsian quip again, and that he would leave all “that sort of carry-on” to his comrade. Keats bet him twenty quid he wouldn’t be able to stop himself. Chapman, being hard up, could not afford to lose this bet.
One evening Chapman (ever the “chess nut”, as you’ll remember from earlier) had been sitting with the newspaper and his pocket chess set, solving the daily problem set by the paper’s chess correspondent. Keats had offered to prepare dinner, and eventually came in to the main room of their shared apartment carrying two plates of breaded scampi with mixed salad.
Chapman, realizing he was very hungry, sat down to eat with great relish. However, he had forgotten about Keats’ bird.
I wouldn’t call that creature a pet; in fact Keats had rescued it a few weeks before from the ground, when he perceived that it had a broken wing. He had gently mended the wing, setting it with splint and getting not a few pecks for his trouble. As the bird, a member of the genus corvidae, came ever closer to full health and strength it grudgingly accept its place in the household and a relationship developed between it and Keats. It’s perch of habit came to be the top of the welsh dresser, where it would hop to and fro, occasionally giving a raucous caw.
Although it was fine with Keats it loathed and detested Chapman, and would regard him with a malevolent eye. Chapman felt the same, but as long as neither approached the other peace remained. But not on this particular evening. A dumbstruck Chapman watched in horror as the bird launched itself from the dresser, glided down, seized a piece of breaded scampi from his plate, and flapped back to the dresser with the prize in its beak.
“Your rook just took my prawn!” exclaimed Chapman.
A smiling Keats extended his hand, palm upwards.
“Cheque, mate!” he said.
Chapman banged his head repeatedly on the table in despair.