Talk to any spelunker and you will soon learn that nobody who strays into the horrible cave emerges with their wits intact. Sometimes their hair turns white, they shake and gibber, they have to be fed with slops. Others retire to farmyards and spend the rest of their lives among pot-bellied pigs. Yet still the reckless and the foolhardy risk their sanity by ignoring the big signpost I hammered into the ground at the approach to the horrible cave. This is the horrible cave, reads my notice, If you have a shred of sense you will durst not enter. I spent quite some time on that wording, and ended up in hospital because I chewed the end of my pencil so fretfully that I contracted lead poisoning. It is by no means a pretty ailment, but I would much rather suffer that than the terrible derangements of those who step but once into the horrible cave.
While I was in the hospital, I was visited by a government agent who was curious about my signpost. I suspected he was from some secret agency, for he was dressed in a trim black suit and did not remove his sunglasses. He had a very close-cropped haircut, carried an attaché case which I noticed was chained to his wrist, and he seemed to exude the scent of frangipani or dogbane, which is often a telltale sign of covert operatives in my country. Standing beside the bed on which I lay splayed out, he introduced himself as Christopher Plummer. “Not to be confused with the actor who played Atahualpa in The Royal Hunt Of The Sun,” he added hurriedly, although at that time the name was new to me. I have since followed the agent’s namesake’s career with growing interest.
I was subjected to a series of questions about the signpost I had placed near the horrible cave, and answered as best as I could, given my fevered state. The agent made notes on a little hand-held pneumatic turbonotepad of ingenious design. I often find myself wondering why they never caught on. These days you are lucky to find one at a jumble sale or in a junk shop, luckier still if all the notes made on it are still readable. When Christopher Plummer had finished interrogating me in his strangely stiff manner, he depressed a knob on the turbopad and, with a surprisingly loud hiss, it clunked into hibernation mode. I watched the jet of escaping steam.
Years later, sitting in a café in a tremendous town, flicking idly through an intelligence journal, I learned that Agent Plummer had been exposed as an alien life-form from some far planet riddled with horrible caves. I thought how fortunate we were to have only one horrible cave, terrible as it was.
Last week I hiked out that way to see if my signpost was still there. Prancing majestically along the path, I encountered dozens of terrified people being attacked by cows. Sorry, that was a typing error. I should have said being attacked by crows. One poor wretch who had been pecked at was slumped beside his makeshift tent, fruitlessly trying to wrap a bandage around his head. I knelt down beside him and gave him a hand, and could not resist asking what was happening, but he was unable to speak. I surmised, however, that the crows must have flown from the direction of the horrible cave. Perhaps they nested there unbeknown to the local bird inspectors. It seemed like a good idea to forget about my signpost for the day and go to the headquarters of the bird inspection team instead, so that’s what I did.
Although it was at least fourteen years since last I had roamed these parts, I still recalled the bus routes, so after making sure the pecked man’s head bandage was not too tight, I changed direction and cut across the moors towards the bus stop. It was a dismaying sight, for the shelter was in ruins, and the glass behind which the timetable had been pinned up was smashed and the timetable itself torn to shreds. Further evidence of violent crow activity, as if any were needed.
The bus pulled up at this dismal scene a few minutes later. I clambered on board and became somewhat uneasy to discover that I was the only passenger. Was this going to be one of those frightening journeys where the driver would turn to look at me and I would see that he was a fiend in human form, cackling hideously as the bus hurtled to perdition? I had forgotten that it was Saint Eustace’s Day, and that most people, except for me and the bus driver and the people being attacked by crows would be staying indoors, in darkness, behind fastened shutters, imploring the saint to keep them safe from poisoned air for the coming twelvemonth. I hoped that the bird inspection headquarters would at least have a skeleton staff on this special day, and settled back in my seat, thinking to take a nap while the driver steered his bus around the many dangerous corners on the route.
When will I ever learn? No sooner had I closed my eyes than the bus braked sharply, jolting me out of my seat. The driver cursed, for which I reprimanded him. He apologised for his rudery, then pointed in front of him, and I saw that the road was blocked by a fanatical preacher man, naked from the waist up, caked in filth, standing on a barrel and shouting his head off in a language I had never heard before. The driver and I exchanged looks of befuddlement, then he reached under his seat and hoisted up a rectangular tin which he opened to reveal a clotted mass of stale food. He invited me to share his lunch, but I declined, given that there appeared to be a number of weevils crawling about in it. Their presence did not bother the driver, who began shovelling the food into his mouth with his surprisingly dainty fingers. I noticed that his nails were painted with bright red lacquer, flaking off in places as if it had been applied some time ago. His eating habits were so repulsive that I turned to look out at the preacher man again. He was shouting even louder now. I decided to get off the bus to try and persuade him to move his barrel to the side of the road. As I got closer to him, I nearly jumped out of my skin. Surely I was mistaken? But no, there was no doubting it. Underneath all the caked muck, I recognised my father!
“Papa!” I cried, sudden tears streaming down my face. I may as well have been invisible. He ignored me and continued to harangue the sky in his unintelligible tongue, the sky that was now growing black as monstrous clouds swept in from the west. I am tempted to lie and say that my tears were copious, but I have to confess they were not. I snivelled a bit and then remembered why I had got off the bus in the first place. It was clear to me, however, that asking my father to shift his barrel out of the road would be futile. I wondered how it would be if I just pushed him over and cleared the way myself. The laws here on toppling preacher men are draconian, and I would have to make sure I did not get caught. I judged that the bus driver was too intent on bolting his food and would not be paying attention. If he saw me push my pa off the barrel he would almost certainly inform on me, for we all know the reputation of bus company personnel, hand in hand with the police force, at least in this neck of the woods, for obvious historical reasons. As for my father, would he lay an accusation against his only son? It was a risk I had to take.
Just as I was nerving myself for the odious deed, I was distracted by a mordant fancy which had been nestling dormant in my brain until that moment. I am utterly perplexed as to why it suddenly uncoiled itself, as it were, and sprang to the forefront of my mind, casting out all other thoughts. It was a vision – so very vivid! – of myself dressed in rags, exhaustedly swinging a leper bell from my withered arm.
Weird, that. I slapped myself on the forehead a couple of times to dispel the hallucination, came to my senses, yanked my father’s ankle so that he fell off the barrel, pushed the barrel over and rolled it to the kerb, and got back on the bus. The driver had finished his lunch, so, swerving slightly to avoid my father, who was sat in the road dusting himself down, he drove me to my stop ten minutes walk from the bird inspection unit. What I found there was brain-dizzying.
NOTA BENE : Younger readers should note that this piece first appeared as long ago as 2004. There are two further episodes, which will be posted in the next couple of days.