The Departure

I ordered my horse to be brought from the stables. His name is Alan. He is an elegant horse, but tubercular. His shanks are admirable, and he has as fine a mane as any horse in Christendom.

The stable-boy, a pockmarked little squirt who bore a distinct resemblance to the young Stalin, came limping out. His face was drained of all colour.

Alan is gone, gone, vanished, as if in a puff of smoke!” he cried, and began to weep.

I cannot bear the sight of a weeping stable-boy.

I cannot bear the sight of a weeping stable-boy!” I cried, “Stop snivelling!”

And I jabbed a finger sharply into one of his pocks. I found this immensely satisfying, so I jabbed my other seven fingers, one by one, into seven of his other pocks.

Now,” I said, “You will go and find Alan. The mobile library is parked outside the birdseed shop on Lower Goat Lane. In the library, you will find a horse-atlas. Borrow it, using your library ticket. The horse-atlas contains many maps showing those parts where horses of different complexions and beauty are located. It is likely Alan has galloped to one such part of our land. Work out which, using the horse-knowledge you have acquired as a stable-boy, get thee hence, and fetch him back, using a lasso if need be.”

I was pleased with this little speech, almost as pleased as I was jabbing my fingers into his pocks, so I took myself off to the tavern for well-deserved refreshment. When I arrived at the tavern, on Upper Goat Lane, I discovered that it was under new management and had been turned into a trendy milk bar, within which dozens of beatniks were playing bongos and reciting terrible poetry.

As I sipped my tumbler of milk, I jotted down the words of one of the poems I heard.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

Because their horses had gone missing from the stables

But they were in luck because they could send pockmarked stable-boys who looked like the young Stalin

Off in search of their horses armed with a horse-atlas from the mobile library.

For some reason, I found that this poem spoke to me in a way the other beatnik twaddle did not. Perhaps it was because I was one of the best minds of my generation. I had a trophy to prove it, a cup I had been given in my infant school. The full wording etched on the cup was another poem:

Best mind your cup, oh child so tiny

If you break it you will be whiney

And if you whine on Saint Spivack’s Day

The Grunty Man will take you away!

I had actually been taken away by the fearsome and awful Grunty Man at the age of six, but he grew so exasperated by my constant whining that he brought me back again later the same day. As I sat in the groovy milk bar, I could only hope that the stable-boy would bring Alan the horse back just as quickly.

He duly turned up several hours later, by which time I had drunk so much milk, and listened to so much terrible poetry accompanied by bongos, that I was burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz.

The stable-boy had brought me a horse, but it was not Alan. It was neither elegant nor tubercular, its shanks were despicable, and its mane was nothing to write home about.

That horse is not Alan!” I cried, “It is neither elegant nor tubercular, its shanks are despicable, and its mane is nothing to write home about!”

Sorry,” said the stable-boy, “I visited many many many of the places on the maps in the horse-atlas, and this is the best I could do.”

I was minded to jab my fingers in his pocks again, but I restrained myself.

Take the new horse to the stables and saddle it up,” I said, “I will be along shortly, for I have miles to go before I vomit up all this milk and go to sleep.”

The stable-boy plodded off with the horse in tow, and I drank another tumbler of milk and listened to another godawful poem accompanied by bongos.

When I made to leave, I found my way barred by a huge bouncer-beatnik.

What gives, daddy-o?” he said, “You don’t want to leave this groovy milk bar. Anyway, we won’t let you. You’re the kind of cat we’d love to have hitting those bongos morning noon and night. You really fry my wig. Yes, you’ll stay here forever, drinking milk and thumping bongos. Where would you go, anyway?”

I whined.

Out of here – that’s my goal.”

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Tania and James Stern. Everything in between was not.

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