It is a curious fact that throughout his long life, Lars Talc’s dreams had only ever been sweet, even twee. He had never experienced a nightmare. We know this because he wrote about it at length in his book The Brink Of Cramp & Other Essays. As the Pig Battery steamed south, he dreamed again of fragrant petunia-decked meadows, gambolling bunny rabbits, miraculous angels plucking on harps, pretty balloons, sandcastles, blissful dawns.
“How nauseating!” he thundered in his essay, “To be held rapt, night after night after night, by visions so sickly sentimental. And yet, in sleep, to relish them, to feel such exultation at images which, in my waking life, I, a Finn, an intellektuelli, a man of the world, would castigate as the contemptible poltrooneries of babes and cretins! I have come to have the gravest doubts about myself,” he continued, “I have teetered on the verge of spiritual despair.”
He tried everything in hopeless attempts to induce nightmares. He abandoned his comfortable bed for a pallet of straw. He drank to excess, or drank nothing at all. He burned sulphur in his bedroom. Before retiring, he ate the most noxious cheeses he could lay his hands on. He read terrifying stories of violence, horror, and chaos. Nothing worked, and eventually, in his seventies, he surrendered, accepted his namby-pamby dreamworld, and found a kind of peace. “I came to terms with myself,” he wrote, “I was forced to concede that within my very soul, in that secret world of dreams wherein lies the engine of our being, I liked nothing better than to frolic in a sun-plashed garden with kitty-cats and puppy-dogs. I was, I realised, a simple-minded hölmo, a hullu, a wert.”
Within hours, the Pig Battery reached an islet at which Lars Talc disembarked. One of the crew took him to shore in a powerful motorboat, then swam back to the packet steamer. Once he had conducted his business, Talc was to return alone to Marseilles in the motorboat and leave it in the safe keeping of the captain’s nephew, a small, curdled lad who ground bones to dust in the basement of the naval hospital. The Pig Battery steamed off south, bound for the Antarctic.
Making sure the motorboat was tied securely to a post, Lars Talc checked Bewg’s map. This must be the place. To his right, a clump of bracken; to his left, a post office; straight ahead, a well. This last was what he sought. As he approached it, however, a woman sprang out at him, brandishing a lance. She was beribboned and festooned with braids, and wore a terrifying mask of tin and gold. Talc stopped in his tracks.
“I am the Captain of the Well,” she announced, “This lance is tipped with venom, so be very careful. What business have you here?”
“I have come from Finland,” said Talc, “Have any other Finns been here recently?”
“I ask the questions,” she rapped, and shook her lance.
“I have reason to believe that a Finn – a very tall Finn – has secreted at the bottom of your well a little packet. I have come to retrieve it.”
“Do you wish to go to the toilet?” she asked.
“Not at the moment.”
“I ask because our islet is blessed with three toilets. One of them is just behind the post office over there.” She waved her lance appropriately. “That is the Big Toilet. It is the one most popular with foreigners, perhaps because it is so close to the beach. The proper Foreigners’ Toilet is on the other side of the islet. Not far, it takes only a few minutes to walk there. We prefer foreigners to use that one, hence its name.”
“And where is the third toilet?” asked Lars Talc, feigning interest.
“Wait, wait. I told you, it is I who ask the questions. If you are patient, I will tell you about the third toilet. But I have yet to finish telling you about the Foreigners’ Toilet. This poisoned lance belies the fact that we are a welcoming people on this islet. So, we let visitors use the Big Toilet if they wish to, even though we would prefer them to use the Foreigners’ Toilet, outside which is a signboard on which the word TOILET is written in every language used on earth, including some of the dead ones.”
“It must be a big board.”
“Everyone on this island has minuscule handwriting but, yes, the board is gigantic. And now I will tell you about the third toilet. It is at a mid-point between the other two toilets, surrounded by tungsten railings. For that reason we call it the Tungsten Toilet, although there were a few recalcitrants who called it the Pewter Toilet, because the toilet itself is made of pewter.”
“I see,” said Talc.
“They were summarily executed.”
“For the umpteenth time, do not question me. I was about to tell you. The recalcitrants were executed. By me. With my lance.”
The Captain of the Well held her lance to Talc’s throat, reminding him of his peril.
“Well,” he mumbled, “I don’t want to go to the toilet at the moment, but thank you for the information.”
“I have not finished telling you about the Tungsten Toilet. It may interest you to know why it is protected by railings.”
“I think I’d rather investigate the well.”
“As you wish. Here is a little map showing you how to get to the Foreigners’ Toilet should you need to visit it during your stay. There is a little box outside for donations. If you have any trinkets or gewgaws in your pockets the people of the islet would be grateful.”
And with that, the Captain of the Well stole away, towards the clump of bracken. She was soon out of sight.
Talc sat down on a little bench next to the well and studied Bewg’s instructions. The clues were stupendously complicated, written in a kind of ur-Finnish, replete with puns, acrostics, and lipograms and accompanied by diagrams, charts, illustrations, and emblems, often minuscule and all executed with Bewg’s ferocious cross-hatching, for which he used an especially scratchy nib.
During those three days and nights a-train, Lars Talc had pored over the first stage of the trail. Marseilles was obvious, once you had gained some insight into the workings of Bewg’s brain. But Talc was in northern Italy before he had worked out where to go next. At last he had realised that that little grid of chocolate-coloured letters, hemmed in by inky curlicues, directed him to this islet, so tiny it was found in only the rarest of atlases. The train was in the outskirts of Marseilles before Talc, his cranium fuming, worked out that Bewg was leading him to a well upon the islet, at the bottom of which he would find a packet, the packet itself containing further clues without which the remainder of the trail would be forever unintelligible, the prize forever out of his grasp.
The bucket was resting at the bottom of the well. He raised it, with much clanking. The chain was rusty. The bucket came to the top, brimming with water. On the underside of the bucket, Bewg, or one of his henchmen, had taped a waterproof packet, emblazoned with a picture of a churn. Talc tore it from the bucket and, without pausing to open it, hurried to the boat and motored back to Marseilles at top speed, accidentally killing a stray moorhen in the process.
When he opened the packet, as he guzzled a flagon of grog in the bar of the French seaport’s most elegant dancehall, he found Bewg’s clue to be uncharacteristically simple.
“Go to the Foreigners’ Toilet,” it read, “In the cistern you will find a packet containing the next clue.”
Ach! You wretch, Bewg, you cullion! Lars Talc lost a day recovering the second packet, and felt duty bound to leave a bauble in the donation box. By the time he was back in Finland, it was Wednesday evening, and he was exhausted, and according to a sinful little footnote he had just managed to decipher, he had only two and a half days, until noon on the following Saturday, to track down his prize.