Every so often I receive letters from readers asking for background information on particular features of Hooting Yard. My usual practice is to ignore such enquiries and stuff them into a cardboard box, and to shove the cardboard box into a dark cranny. But sometimes I feel impelled to shine a torch into the cranny, to rummage in the cardboard box, to take out one among the mouldering scraps of paper, and to give it due attention. There is no particular method in my choosing, though a letter written neatly and grammatically on scented notepaper headed with a heraldic device, however spurious, is likely to win out over a scribble on a torn bit of breakfast cereal carton stained with grease. You may wish to make a note of that in your pocketbook for future reference. Elsewhere I will provide some tips on drawing spurious yet strangely compelling heraldic devices for your letterhead, but there is no time for that now.
The letter I have just retrieved from the cranny is pithy, even curt. Oi Mr Key, it says, How did the Cow & Pins get its name? And that’s it. It is not even signed! But the handwriting is exquisite, and done in mauve ink on lime-green tissue paper, scented with bergamot, or what smells like bergamot to my untrained nostrils, and there is a simply fabulous hand-drawn heraldic device, now somewhat faded, for god knows how long the letter has been squirreled away, in which I can make out a cassowary rampant, a snow shovel, and six buttons gules.
Readers will recall, I hope, that the Cow & Pins is the finest tavern in existence, albeit something of a hellhole and a sink of vice. It is many long years since I sat in its snug, but if I shut my eyes and concentrate, I can imagine myself there, in the gloom, with that telltale sense of befuddlement at the way in which, yet again, a scattering of sawdust from the floor is floating atop the froth of my pint. Ah, such dejection in the fug!
One of the reasons this letter would have been consigned to the cranny is, I am embarrassed to say, that I have absolutely no idea why the Cow & Pins is called the Cow & Pins. The best I can do, now, is to repeat the story I heard from an old bloated barnyard behemoth with whom I used to sit, sometimes, of an evening, at the bench outside the tavern, tossing breadcrumbs to crows, under a thunderous sky.
He told me that the Weird Woman of Woohoodiwoodiwoo once took a dislike to a certain cow that chewed the foxgloves or lupins she grew in flowerpots outside her cave. How or why this cow wandered away from its fellows was not explained. It may even have been different cows on different days. The Weird Woman of Woohoodiwoodiwoo was celebrated, and feared, for her spooky eldritch powers, but no one ever claimed that she had great expertise in farmyard animal identification skills. Be that as it may, she satisfied herself that a single cow was causing the depredation of her foxgloves, or possibly lupins, and reacted in a tiresomely predictable way. That’s right, she cast a spell on the cow. What else would you expect of the Weird Woman of Woohoodiwoodiwoo?
She gathered much wax, and moulded it into an effigy of a cow, double the size of any cow that ever lived, and stuck it with thousands of pins from her big crate of cursed pins. Then she babbled imprecations and incantations in her usual harsh hissing way.
We do not know if any calamity befell the cow, or cows, as a result. But according to the old bloated barnyard behemoth, the tavern outside which we sat chucking breadcrumbs to crows was built over the field where once the cows had grazed.
I am not convinced by this story. It would make more sense if the tavern was on the spot where the Weird Woman of Woohoodiwoodiwoo’s flowerpots had stood, bursting with foxgloves or lupins, in serried ranks outside her cave. In the absence of any other explanation, however, it will have to do. And now I can put the letter back in the cardboard box in the dark cranny, and forget about it forever.