When Eduard Raban, coming along the passage, walked into the open doorway, he saw that it was raining. The morning drizzle had become a lunchtime downpour. So teeming was the rain that Raban could barely see the milk bar across the street. Crushed by weather, he turned abruptly, returned along the passage and up the stairs and into his rented room and flung himself on to the bed and promptly fell asleep.
Shortly afterwards, without waking, he rose from the bed, put on a pair of galoshes, and went back out of the room and down the stairs and along the passage and into the open doorway. But this time, being fast asleep, he did not stop to consider the rain, but continued out, sploshing across the puddle-splattered street and into the milk bar.
He sat at the communal table and, still wholly unconscious, waved his arm in a languid, foppish manner to attract the attention of the milk bar serving urchin, a tiny lad no more than four foot tall, with a withered leg and a pointy hat. Unlike Raban, this urchin boy was wide awake, almost uncannily so, vividly aware of everything going on around him, from the languid and foppish gestures of unconscious customers to the scuttling of tiny beetles across the sawdust floor of the milk bar.
Now, in the ringing words of Blötzmann – admittedly wrenched out of context – “Forget the somnambulist!” and concentrate instead upon the urchin. For it is this weedy milk bar factotum who played a decisive part in the history of the century of which I write. This tiny lad was none other than Gus Von Vig, inventor – or perhaps one should say discoverer – of the milk moustache. It was a fashion craze that swept across the continent as relentlessly as the plague-riddled rats of an earlier century. And it was more than a fad, oh!, much more. One need only study photographs taken during the decades when the milk moustache was de rigueur. Scarcely an upper lip is unadorned by a stripe of dried or drying milk.
Because he was employed as a milk bar serving urchin, it was long believed that Gus Von Vig lit upon the milk moustache in the course of his duties. Recent and fantastically rigorous research by upper lip fashion historian Popsi Uplip has demonstrated, beyond argument, that, on the contrary and unexpectedly, Von Vig first gave the milk moustache a public outing dozens of miles away from the milk bar, out in the country, when he attended a wedding.
He had been invited, the Lord only knows why, to the nuptials of Babinsky 2, the idiot half-brother of the lumbering walrus-(not milk-)moustached serial killer Babinsky, and his bride, the equally dimwitted Babs Glint, daughter of countryside folk. The wedding took place in some godforsaken rustic hellhole a half-day’s train journey away from the bustling modern city, replete with street lighting and majestic boulevards and sodium flares and milk bars where Gus Von Vig had lived all his life.
While he sat enlocomotived waiting for the train to chug out of the station, far away in the countryside Mama and Papa Glint were making preparations for their daughter’s wedding. There was a tent. There were trestle tables. There were cackhandedly embroidered cloths covering the tables. Upon each cloth was placed a potato, one per table. There was every chance that pitting the wedding guests against each other in games of the often brutal peasant sport of Grab The Potato would lead to unbridled violence, but both Mama and Papa Glint were brutish and given to unbridled violence, as were almost all the wedding guests, as indeed was the blushing bride, dimwitted Babs.
Also preparing for the wedding was the local man of the cloth, the Reverend Pluvius Mancloth. Urbane, hirsute, vengeful, cantankerous, potty, gassy, ferocious, dismal, hare-brained, hare-lipped, lascivious, erudite, appalling, nuts, rubicund, sordid, wintry, butter-fingered, holy, brittle, bitter, blessed of the fruit of Our Lady’s womb, Jesus, half-full of grace, rotting-from-the-inside, creaky, blind, the Rev. Mancloth was also brutish and given to unbridled violence, but only towards puppies and kittens. To his flock of peasant churchgoers, he appeared addled and incompetent, if somewhat greasy. And yet he was loved by them, with a deep spiritual peasant love, akin to the love a farmer feels for his favourite pig. It was appropriate, then, that the vicar prepared for the wedding by wallowing, among pigs, in the muck, in their sty.
What nobody could have foreseen was that this squalid countryside wedding, of Babinsky 2 to Babs Glint, would witness the public debut of the greatest upper lip fashion craze of the century. For as his train chugged slowly towards the rustic hellhole’s dilapidated railway station, Gus Von Vig grew thirsty. He determined that the first thing he would do, upon disembarking from the train, was to beg a farmer for a tumbler of milk.
As luck would have it, there was just such a farmer loitering on the station platform. He was on the lookout for the railway cat, for which, each day, he would pour a tumblerful of milk into a bowl, and watch it lap. When Gus Von Vig came mincing along the platform, the milk had not yet been poured into the bowl. It was still in the tumbler, held in the farmer’s muscular and grubby peasant hand. Gus begged. The farmer explained about the cat. Gus begged further, but the farmer would not yield.
Then Gus realised he had in his jacket pocket a persuasive theological tract which, if he were to recite the more vivid passages to the farmer, might change his mind. Coincidentally, this tract – entitled Why Cats Must Suffer – had been written by the Rev. Pluvius Mancloth. It certainly proved persuasive, for no sooner had he heard four or five words of it than the farmer handed the tumbler of milk to Gus Von Vig, who gulped it down greedily, inadvertently leaving the telltale stripe of a milk moustache on his upper lip.
And it was thus adorned that he attended the wedding. Not a single peasant expressed admiration of his milk moustache, but at the reception, when the games of Grab The Potato descended into unbridled violence, weedy Von Vig sought refuge from the brutality by fleeing to a nearby newsagent’s kiosk. Also at the kiosk, buying a bundle of the latest fashion magazines, was the internationally celebrated Italian fashionista Giuseppe Boppo. Boppo’s glance fell on the milk moustache upon Von Vig’s upper lip, and so great was his ecstasy that he swooned. The rest is history.
A question that has always plagued those plagued by questions is precisely why Boppo was so taken with the milk moustache. Such was his influence that, within a week of the wedding, it was on the upper lips of the most fashionable people in every important city across the continent. In her research paper, Popsi Uplip provides a simple explanation, when she writes:
He’s instantly ecstatic about everything beautiful …
The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins. Everything in between was not.