A letter plops on to the mat from Tim Thurn:
Oi, Mr Key! You seem to know an immense amount about birds, yet virtually nothing about fish. Is there any reason for this disparity? If so, I am agog to know, agog I tell you!
Often with Tim’s letters, I find the best thing to do is to ball them up in my fist, scrunch them a few times, and then deposit them in the waste paper basket. Occasionally, after the scrunching, I drop them directly down a waste chute, if, for example, the waste paper basket is overflowing, as it sometimes is, or, even if space remains in the waste paper basket, I feel impelled to cast the letter as far from me as possible, to obliterate it from my sight.
There is always the possibility, you see, that if I put the scrunched letter into the waste paper basket, I might, while it languishes there, hoick it out and unscrunch it, and unball it up, if that is a phrase, and reread it. Once it has plunged down a waste chute, it is gone forever, of course, or at least its retrieval is made a matter of great complexity, necessitating the involvement of various municipal waste management personnel, who may or may not demand bribes or other favours in order to send one of their number, or some kind of scuttling robot, down into the midden to rummage for Tim’s scrunched letter.
Usually when I discard Tim’s letters so promptly it is because they are annoying. He can be a very exasperating correspondent, and I think he takes a curious pride in being so. I may be wrong on that point, but I don’t think I am. Some people gain a great deal of pleasure from being annoying, and Tim is one of them. I believe he sits there, wherever it is he lives, picturing in his mind’s eye me, huffing and puffing, balling up and then scrunching his latest letter, tossing it into a waste paper basket or down a waste chute, and then going to have a lie down in a darkened room to recover from the mental disturbance he has caused me. I, in my turn, lie there in the dark picturing in my mind’s eye Tim Thurn, chuckling, or chortling, or even guffawing, fatuously, as he imagines my irritation. I impute fatuity to his laughter because this makes it more vivid, and hateful.
Having no idea what Tim looks like, I have to rely on my imagination. Sometimes he is as thin as a rake, angular, and seedy, with unseemly stains on his clothing. At other times he is a tubby kind of fellow, smug and goofy, and seedy, with unseemly stains on his clothing. Once I was so damned livid after reading one of his letters that I decided to consult a graphologist who could, from Tim’s handwriting, fashion a convincing portrait of him, the possession of which would help me visualise his despicable chuckling chortling guffawing fatuity all the more vividly. Unfortunately, Tim confounded me by typing his letters, which rather put paid to my plan.
It would be wrong, however, to think that all of Tim’s missives are equally annoying. Some of them are not annoying at all. Those ones I do not ball up and scrunch and dispose of, but instead lay out flat upon the blotting pad upon my desk, and I reread them, carefully, while composing, in my head, a reply. Such was the case with the one cited above, regarding birds and fish. It was an unexceptionable, vaguely polite, query, and I thought it deserving of a civil response. Of course, I did not want to give anything away. I do not want Tim Thurn, or anybody else for that matter, peering into the innards of my head to see what lurks within. Whether or not I know the first thing about birds or fish is my business, and nobody else’s.
So, though it called for a polite response, I could not answer Tim’s question directly. I would have to craft my reply as carefully as I read and reread the letter – that is, very carefully indeed. Eventually, fuelled by a slurp of Dr Baxter’s Invigorating Brain Syrup, I worked out precisely what to write. First, though, I called on my priest to ascertain how many years I would have to languish in purgatory were I to be less than truthful, or, to put it bluntly, to tell a barefaced lie. Apprised of this information, which seemed not too onerous, I wrote:
Dear Mr Thurn
Thank you for your delightful and not at all annoying letter. I am afraid that, somewhere on its journey between your postbox and my doormat, it was gnawed and nibbled by squirrels or some such small skittering mammals, and much of the content destroyed or rendered illegible. The only surviving text is “an immense amount about birds” and “I am agog to know”. Might I suggest that, grammatically, it would be better to place those phrases in reverse order? That being so, I would happily bombard you with whatever it is you wish to learn about, for example, swifts and swallows and geese and starlings and linnets and partridges and quail and woodpeckers and teal and pratincoles and thrushes and warblers and auks and guillemots and shearwaters and spoonbills and skuas and albatrosses and swans and pigeons and owls and penguins and rooks and crows and dunnocks and pipits and ostriches and cassowaries and grebes and divers and cranes and egrets and sandpipers and cuckoos and parrots and waders and gulls and nightjars and cockatoos and budgerigars and petrels and fulmars and bitterns and herons and moorhens and pelicans and kestrels and cormorants, especially cormorants, and hobbies and kites and rails and eagles and bustards and corncrakes and peahens and plovers and lapwings and wrynecks and curlews and terns and doves and grouse and razorbills and parakeets and hummingbirds and wrens and magpies and jackdaws and, at a push, chickens. Let me know in a bit more detail which birds are of particular interest to you.