A Fratricide

The evidence shows that this is how the murder was committed.

The victim was a fanatic named Vanityvanity Orliss Vanity, known as Vov for short. He made his living as a thumper. He thumped both tubs and Bibles, and sometimes, when he was strung out on dandelion-and-burdock, he thumped police officers, puppies, and other things beginning with P, such as pin-cushions.

On the day of the murder, Vov woke at dawn and rose from his bed and shoved his head into a pail of icy water and thumped a tub and ate some cream crackers and stood on his balcony and engaged in blood-curdling invective with his downstairs neighbour and thumped a Bible and tallied up the visible toads and combed his hair with a Bedraggler and fossicked in a cupboard and took a swipe at a bat and prayed the Lord his soul to save and wrapped a cravat around his neck, his neck, his neck, and paid no heed to the weather forecast and left his gloves on the bus and eked from its shell a tiny wriggling unidentified creature and admired the view from Sawdust Bridge and boxed clever and dipped an orphan in a pond and failed to understand foreign signage and almost toppled into a ditch but righted himself at the critical moment and had a go at a game of Regurgitate The Cream Crackers and scratched an irritant and looked at the town hall clock and thumped a few things beginning with P and pursed his lips, his lips, his lips, and tossed a hard-boiled egg so high it vanished in the aether and lost all sense of cardboard and did a few other things on his way to the post office.

At the post office, Vov joined a queue. The back of the head of the person in front of him was a phrenologist’s nightmare. This reminded Vov that he had in his blazer pocket a copy of Dobson’s pamphlet A Compendium Of Phrenologists’ Nightmares (out of print). It occurred to him that this would be a suitable gift for his brother, whose birthday it was today. Unfortunately, Vov knew not where his brother was. The last he had heard of him, he was being carted off in chains to a prison hulk after committing a series of enormities. Vov had no idea of the location of the hulk, nor if his brother was still there, in chains, raving, while the sea sloshed against the sides and birds swooped overhead in glorious aerial displays of avian grace and beauty.

What we know now is that Vov’s brother had escaped and was, at that very moment, bearing down on the post office, rattling his chains and raving and strung out on dandelion-and-burdock-diluted-with-seawater and mad as a kitten on the moon and armed with a club manufactured for the slaughter of baby seals and dribbling and drooling and forgotten by God and tormented by imaginary bells.

Accompanying him, because they were chained together, was a second escaped convict, a man named Schmar. Schmar had been sent to the prison hulk due to the shape of his head. According to the judiciary’s phrenologist, the bumps and dents in Schmar’s skull were indicative of the kind of criminal who would steal toffee apples from crippled children, or forge his bus ticket, or hang out his laundry with the wrong sort of clothes-pegs. No malfeasance, great or small, was beyond him, or would be beyond him, in theory.

Meanwhile, in the post office, Vov was perplexed. Every time the queue shuffled forward, the counter seemed to recede further into the distance. Vov wondered if he could correct this anomaly by shuffling backwards instead of forwards. In so doing, he stepped on the toe of the person behind him. There was an altercation. Vov noticed that his antagonist was wearing a soutane and carrying a prayer book and a set of rosary beads, thus he was a priest, thus he was something beginning with P, thus he thumped him. The priest was an advocate of muscular Christianity, and thumped Vov in turn. The thumping might have continued interminably, were it not for the sudden arrival, in the post office doorway, of Vov’s brother and Schmar.

And so we come to the murder.

What has not been mentioned thus far is that Vov, from certain angles, in a certain light, during certain phases of the moon, in certain post office queues, bore an astonishing resemblance to a baby seal. Brute instinct, therefore, led his brother to charge screaming at him and bash him, relentlessly and mercilessly, with his baby seal-culling club. He bashed and bashed until Vov lay dead on the post office floor. Then, pausing only to snatch from his brother’s blazer pocket the copy of Dobson’s pamphlet A Compendium Of Phrenologists’ Nightmares (out of print), the escaped convict slipped his shackles, thrust the bloodied club into Schmar’s weedy hands, and scarpered, making a beeline first for the bus stop and then, boarding a number 666, riding all the way to the end of the route, an eerily deserted terminus at the edge of the cold wet unpitying marshes, where he hid among reeds and catkins, feeding on insects and marsh-water, and occasionally waylaying tiny marshland children, terrifying the poor little mites, still forgotten by God, but forgotten by the coppers too, and left free to live out his days, sploshing around in the marsh and reading the Dobson pamphlet, running his fingers delicately over his own skull, feeling the bumps and dents, and slowly, very slowly, turning into a marsh-warbler, and flying, soaring through the blue sky, migrating to other marshes, in other lands, far far away.

When Detective Captain Cargpan arrived at the post office, it was all too obvious what had happened. There was Vov, bludgeoned and dead on the floor. There was Schmar, holding the club, looking as if he was about to be sick, and in possession of a head the shape of which any phrenologist worth their salt would attest screamed “criminal!”.

Schmar, fighting down with difficulty the last of his nausea, pressed his mouth against the shoulder of the policeman who, stepping lightly, led him away.

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.

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