Two boys were sitting on the harbour wall playing with dice. One of the boys was clever, and the other boy was dim. Now, when I tell you that one of the boys tossed the dice into the sea that sloshed against the harbour wall, you are likely to conclude that the boy who so tossed was the dim one. Dice serve no purpose in the sea. They will bob upon the surface of the waters, uselessly, carried by the tides, growing ever more distant the one from the other, sopping wet, and no longer to be played with.
But in fact it was the clever boy who ruined their play by tossing the dice into the sea. For not only was he astoundingly clever, with an intellect far outwith the usual range of boyish brains, but he was also a psychopath. No sooner had he tossed the dice into the sea than he shoved his dim playmate off the harbour wall into the same sloshing sea and, for good measure, he grabbed hold of a passing harbour kitten and, deaf to its mewling, chucked it into the water alongside the dice and the dim boy. The name of this clever boy? Young Babinsky!
Amused by his seaside enormities, the youthful psychopath toddled off to a milk bar with not a care in the world. Meanwhile, in the vast wet merciless sea, the dice bobbed, but the dim boy and the harbour kitten sank like stones, and the waters washed over them, and they were forgotten.
Let us leap forward thirty, no, forty years. Forty is a better number than thirty, according to Blötzmann, who famously assigned abstruse yet compelling non-numerical values to certain numbers that took his fancy, for example eight and eleven and fifteen and sixteen and nineteen and twenty-six and twenty-nine and thirty-seven and forty and oh for god’s sake shut up with the list of numbers, it could go on ad infinitum. Suffice to say forty is one of Blötzmann’s so-called “basilisk” numbers, whatever that might mean.
In the forty years since the clever boy and the dim boy sat on the harbour wall playing with dice, the wall has crumbled. The big wet sea is reclaiming the land. Half of the town is now under water, including the milk bar where, all those years ago, Babinsky drank a tumbler of warm sour goaty milk and chuckled at his youthful crimes. And now he has returned. Look, there he is, silhouetted against the ghastly sky, swinging his axe, standing on the town’s highest hill and gazing, perplexed, at the sea below. He has come on a pilgrimage of sorts, eager to revisit the scenes – idyllic, as he remembers them – of his youth. But they are gone, sunk beneath the waves as surely as his first victims, his dim playmate and the harbour kitten, vanished forever.
Babinsky was not a man to let a little thing like the sea confound him. Pausing only to waylay a passing Punch & Judy man, butchering him with his axe and slicers, the lumbering walrus-moustached psychopath lumbered off towards a chandlery, where he rented a deep-sea diving outfit, complete with gleaming brass helmet. Then he walked into the sea, following the old familiar roads and paths and mews and alleys submerged under the churning waters, until he came to the milk bar.
Its door had long ago fallen from its rusted hinges. Babinsky entered, and sat at the communal table, whereon tiny crabs scuttled and lobsters clacked. Memories tumbled through his insane head. He could almost taste the goaty milk of forty years ago.
And then, from behind the milk bar counter, there appeared a sea-wraith, festooned in seaweed. It was accompanied by a sea-ghoul kitten. The kitten wore a necklace of eelgrass, on which were strung a pair of dice. The wraith sat down opposite Babinsky. The ghoulish kitten jumped up on to the table and chased away the crabs and lobsters.
“Hello, Babinsky” gurgled the wraith.
For once, the walrus-moustached psychopath was nonplussed.
“Yes, it is me, your childhood playmate, poor dim Gracchus. You shoved me off the old harbour wall, into the pitiless sea, and chucked Tiddles the kitten in after me. I thank you for that. He has been a boon, if kittenish, companion these past forty years.
“We both drowned, of course. But our bodies were never recovered. When we sank to the bottom of the sea, we were dragged into a cave by an old man with a long beard who carried a trident. He nursed us back to what passes for health among sea-wraiths and sea-ghouls, until we were well enough to attend his series of Microsoft PowerPoint presentations about undersea life. They were a real eye-opener, I can tell you. Even someone as dim as me, or as stupid as the kitten – we learned so much!
“For example, do you have any idea how easy it is to hunt down and kill tiny fish such as dabs and sprats and blennies? That is how I make my living – or rather, wraithing – these days. I roam the seas in my little ship, with Tiddles as First Mate, casting my net and catching tiny fish which I sell to the other denizens of the deep. There are all sorts down here – drowned sailors, suicides, nitwits who never learned to swim.
“You should think about coming to join us, Babinsky. There must have been times, lying awake in your blood-drenched bed, when it crossed your mind that you should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas. Not that it’s silent down here, oh no. Apart from the shrill piping screams of slaughtered dabs and sprats and blennies, there is the continuing reverberation of “Autumn”, played by the house band on the Titanic, as documented by Gavin Bryars in his 1975 recording The Sinking Of The Titanic, released on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label. Plus there are all sorts of weird bubbly gurgling noises.
“Anyway, Babinsky my old mucker, give it some thought. I think you’ll like it here. My ship has no rudder, and it is driven by the wind that blows in the undermost regions of death.”
The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.