I remember as if it were yesterday my very first encounter with Tarleton. He was propping up the bar in a beige and dismal drinking den, beetle-browed and lantern-jawed and babbling to no one in particular. I sat on a stool beside him, ordered a sprangeloenkenkischt, and listened to what he had to say.
He was only recently back from a hush-hush mission in the East, and was worrying, like a dog with a sheep, at the impossibility of grasping the difference between the Near East, the Middle East, and the Far East. What seemed to bother him was that, whereas the location of the Middle East was as clear as dammit, between the Near and the Far, placing the Near and the Far was by no means as simple a matter. If you were slap bang in the middle of the Middle East, for example, the Near East and the Far East would be equidistant from where you stood, or sat, or lay sprawled in a hammock in the blistering noonday sun, going mad.
When he briefly paused to glug his kolokkengehemmelbe, I asked him which East, Near or Middle or Far, he had been in, on his hush-hush mission. Swallowing the dregs of the fiery liqueur, he spluttered and told me the point of a hush-hush mission was that it was hush-hush. I could not disagree with that. I bought him another drink. His tongue did not need loosening, but I was at a loose end, and he seemed to be a man of parts, well worth listening to.
I was wrong. For the next two hours, he gabbled on and on and on, without cease, trying but failing to settle the matter of the three Easts, Near and Middle and Far, now and then pulling from his pocket a crumpled map, hand-drawn with a leaky biro on a filthy napkin, on which he had tried, tried and failed, tried again and failed again, like the best or worst of Beckettians, to hammer home the geography of the East, to pin it down, definitively, so that he would no longer need to think about it. That, he said, in among his witterings, was what he could not stand – that no matter how hard he tried, the East would remain forever beyond his grasp.
Eventually he staggered off to the lavatory to vomit. He had left the napkin map on the counter. Idly, I picked it up. I turned it this way and that, and then, feeling the breath of God on the back of my neck, I crumpled it up and uncrumpled it and turned it upside down and back to front. I laid it back on the counter and smoothed it out, downed the last of my goospelkschnittzern, wrapped my muffler tight about my neck, and tottered out into the icy blizzard. As I followed the tractor-tracks back towards my chalet, I heard from inside the bar a scream, at once hysterical and tragic and unhinged and ecstatic. I lit my pipe, as snowflakes fell.