I heard distant booming. Was it the sound of bombs or bitterns, warfare or ornithology? I decided I had to find out, for there was a great deal of difference between the two, as I am sure you realise. If it was the boom of exploding bombs, and war had been declared, then it was no comfort to me that the booms were distant. Today they might be, but I was in no doubt that the marauding and rapacious foe, having bombed land far away, would advance, and bomb ever closer to the agreeable faubourg where I lived, until they bombed my own neighbourhood, and me in it, unless I fled. Paradoxically, perhaps, before making the decision to flee I would have to do the opposite, to approach the distant booms, to discover if they were indeed the booms of bombs.
If, on the other hand, the booms were the booms of bitterns, I would have no need to flee. I could return happily to my faubourg without a care in the world. If anything, I would be happier than before, having learned of the presence of bitterns, albeit distant bitterns. If there were bitterns, I reasoned, there would be a lake, or a similar body of water. There are few things I like better than to go plashing about up to my knees in a lake, plunging my hands into the water now and again with scarcely credible rapidity, to pluck out a fish for my dinner. It is a skill I learned at my mother’s knee. She had studied the sudden darting movements of certain insects, and learned through long hard practice to imitate them. All I had to do, with equally long hard practice, was to imitate her.
Surely, you might ask, given my predilections I would know of the existence of a lake, albeit a distant one? It is a reasonable question. All I can say by way of explanation is that I had never before heard booms, booms that might be those of bitterns, from that direction, north-west, by the way. To which I would add that there has been a flurry of artificial lake and pond construction all across the land of late. The king is keen on bodies of water, and dreams of a land riddled with them. Some have joshed that if he gets his way there will be more water than land, just little ribbons and eyots dotted higgledy-piggledy in a great network of ponds and lakes connected by canals.
But the king is also a bellicose fellow with a seething hatred of . . . oh, you name it! His list of hatreds is long, and it includes the neighbouring lands, their kings and queens and armies and civilian populations. So it would be no surprise if the booms I heard were the booms of bombs. The king might well have declared war, almost as an afterthought or aside, or one of his shouty declamations from his balcony could have led a neighbour to declare war on him, which, by extension, means us, and me.
Given the king’s twin obsessions, I judged that the probability of the booms being bombs or bitterns was about fifty-fifty. That was in the absence of any other information. My faubourg is quite an isolated one, and we are often the last to hear any news of national import. Last time there was a war, for example, we only found out about it when there were pitched battles in the streets between our side and the marauding and rapacious foe. That foe had not made use of bombs. They were somewhat primitive barbarians armed with cutlasses and catapults. Nor do we tend to get news of the king’s latest lake-creation schemes. Generally what happens is that the plans are made in his chamber, by him alone, and then the bulldozers move in and villages are destroyed and a huge pit dug into which unimaginable gallons of water are poured. Fish and birds follow, drawn by nature.
Over the next week or so, I made preparations for my journey. I put my faubourg affairs in order as best I could, and prepared an enormous number of sandwiches. These I wrapped in greaseproof paper. I bought, at a discount, several multipacks of Squelcho!. I patched the odd hole in my knitwear, and had my hiking boots renovated by the best hiking boot renovator in the faubourg. I mention these things to demonstrate that I was serious in my endeavour, not a mere flibbertigibbet disconcerted by distant booms.
All the while, I could not help noticing that these distant booms were growing louder and thus, I reasoned, closer. This would tend to tip the balance in favour of the booming of bombs, but there was no knowing the level of fanaticism to which the king might take his body of water building activities, so there was still a fair chance that the booming was the booming of bitterns.
There came a day when I had nearly finished putting my affairs in order and had packed most of my supplies. By now the booms were so loud, and so close, that I began to doubt I would need to go investigating at all. So unlikely, now, was the prospect of my journey that I tucked in to several of the sandwiches and drank two cans of Squelcho!. No sooner had I shoved the crumpled greaseproof paper and the crushed cans down my waste chute, than a bomb crashed through the ceiling. It landed on my rug, and made a ticking noise. I reasoned that I had mere seconds to dash as far away as possible before it exploded with a boom. At least, I thought, I now know the provenance of the booms.
But as I made for the front door, ready to scarper, my ears were assailed by a deafening boom. Dizzy with panic, I pirouetted round and round like a man who has lost his senses. I was utterly befuddled that my chalet still stood, solid and safe and agreeable apart from the gaping hole in the ceiling. And then, as I peered out into the front garden, I saw a flock of bitterns had come to land next to my garden puddle, and they were booming, booming, booming.