The world of cornflakes is a world of cartons. It is hard to imagine one without the other. Pepinstow tried and failed. That was his tragedy. It was less tragic than some other tragedies that could have befallen him, but even so, even so. It did for him. They found him slumped on the cold hard floor of a pantry, weeping. He had made a cackhanded stab at cutting his own hair with a pair of garden shears. With a big black bold indelible marker pen he had scrawled a word on his forearm, an amateur tattoo that would, eventually, oh eventually, with enough soap and water, be washed away. The word was CORNFLAKES.
Pepinstow could not recall when first he became wholly, hopelessly immersed in the world of that particular breakfast cereal. He did know that there had been a time when he had other interests. He had been a keen stamp collector. On Saturdays he often took a pair of binoculars and went out to peer at birds. He was on his way to becoming a leading authority on Ford Madox Ford, or Ford Madox Brown, one of the Ford Madoxes in any case. He was a dab hand with a badminton racquet.
Then one day he was staying in an insalubrious hotel at a seaside resort. Early in the morning, shortly after sunrise, he crept down to the breakfast parlour. All his thoughts were concentrated on kippers. He was a kippers-for-breakfast man, was Pepinstow, through thick and thin. And thin times he had had, with a vengeance, yet always managed to procure at least a kipper, or in extremis half a kipper, for his breakfast. But at that seaside resort in that insalubrious hotel in that breakfast parlour on that day, around the time of the Tet Offensive, Pepinstow’s world changed.
- Good morning, sir, I trust you had a restful night?, said the hotelier.
He was a lanky man with a walrus moustache and crumpled clothing,
- I did indeed, thank you, said Pepinstow, the bed was suitably hard, the walls did not shake, and I was lulled to sleep by the sound of the sea sucking on the pebble-strewn beach. Now I am ready for my kippers!
The hotelier’s moustache drooped, and he adopted an expression of hopeless grief.
- I am sorry to say, sir, that toxin specialists from a nearby facility called before dawn, and pronounced our kippers poisonous. It seems a madcap serial killer is on the loose hereabouts. He must have broken in to the hotel at dead of night, when you and I and all God’s children were in the land of Nod. He appears to have injected every single kipper in the hotel with a lethal toxin.
Pepinstow’s legs turned to jelly and he tottered towards the mantelpiece to hold himself upright.
- I’m afraid all I can offer you for breakfast this morning is a bowl of cornflakes, said the hotelier.
Things were never the same for Pepinstow. Reluctantly, but then with increasing relish, he tucked in to the cornflakes. What a breakfast!, he thought, What have I been missing all these years, stuffing my gob with kippers? He was a man transformed. Later, sitting on the pier, staring at the sea, he found his thoughts turning again and again to cornflakes,
Soon enough it was time to leave the seaside resort and to head for an inland bailiwick, a rustic place of cows and wheat, and a shabby guest-house in a shabbier village. Here he was delighted to find cornflakes on the breakfast menu. By the time he moved on again, to a mountainous region of thin crisp air and yodelling goatherds, he was a lost cause. He was a man in thrall to cornflakes, mad with them. He neglected his stamp collection, gave up peering at birds, forgot all he knew of Ford Madox Ford or Ford Madox Brown, and no longer whacked a shuttlecock with his badminton racquet. His brain was utterly consumed by cornflakes.
For years, Pepinstow only ever saw cornflakes in a bowl, served and ready for the addition of milk from a jug. Where they sprung from he knew not, though he spent much time and mental effort in wild conjecture. Were they caught in nets in the sea, like kippers? Were they laid in coops by hens, like eggs? Did they come fully-formed into the world, in their bowls, by an Act of God?
Then one day during John Major’s first term of office, Pepinstow found himself in a huge urban sprawl, in a massive hotel. When he crept down to breakfast, he was alarmed – it would be better to say he was unhinged – to discover that he had to serve himself, from a buffet. He gazed along the tables at the panoply of breakfast items, but could see no cornflakes. He jabbered frantically at another guest, who pointed out the carton. And so poor Pepinstow lost his wits.
From that day on, cornflakes and cartons became horribly entangled in his brain. That is why they found him, slumped on the cold hard floor of a pantry, weeping. He had made a cackhanded stab at cutting his own hair with a pair of garden shears. With a big black bold indelible marker pen he had scrawled a word on his forearm, an amateur tattoo that would, eventually, oh eventually, with enough soap and water, be washed away. The word was CORNFLAKES.