Bristow, Cuddy and I were out on the trail. It pleased me that the shanks and withers of my horse were clearly superior to those of my companionsâ€™ horses. Were we to gallop to a gulch I felt sure that I would get there first. But we were in no hurry. I was the only one with a working knowledge of the importance of vitamins, so I was in charge of our picnic arrangements, as usual. My plan was for us to chow down at sunset, further up the trail, once weâ€™d passed Binsey Poplars. There ainâ€™t no poplars at Binsey, just scrub and tumbleweed, but the place is sainted to the memory of Gerard Manley Hopkins, so thatâ€™s why the folk there call it what they do. A lot of those folk are monks who spend their days grunting over illuminated manuscripts in the scriptorium, but thereâ€™s a fair smattering of cowpokes and wranglers and ornery cuss-mouthed old biddies too. Youâ€™d need some kind of vade mecum to keep track of all the shenanigans they get up to, and that includes the monks.
Bristow was originally from
Iâ€™d been wrong about Cuddy, true enough. Cuddy was a talented countertenor whoâ€™d sung a few arias in his time, back east. But then he got infected tonsils and suffered all sorts of disasters. He lost an eye and some of his bones and could no longer pay the rent on his flophouse room, so he hitched a ride on the Big Old Golem Railroad and fetched up on the prairie with nothing but a pair of spurs and a bottle of mouthwash. His hair was yellow and he had gruesome personal habits, but I gave him a horse and let him ride with me. Sometimes a man needs a helping hand.
Cuddy sang as we rode along the trail. â€œOh Mama,â€ he sang, â€œWhat colour will the lights be? Will they turn blue on me?â€ It was a song that Wacko Jimmy Osterburg would record on the phonograph years down the line, but even with his ravaged tonsils I always preferred Cuddyâ€™s take on it. You could tell heâ€™d once wowed the plutocrats at the opera house. But those days were gone, and Cuddy knew it. Maybe thatâ€™s why he never bothered polishing his spurs. My spurs were glistening. I had them made specially, from pewter, by a pewter spur maker back in Choctaw country. They were fastened to the heels of my Bingle boots. The Bingle company makes the sturdiest boots youâ€™re ever likely to wear, and I know Iâ€™m going to die with my Bingle boots on. Theyâ€™re advertised as â€œthe boots of destinyâ€, and even if you have no idea what your destiny will be, theyâ€™re the boots youâ€™ll want to be shod in when you meet it.
It was hot on the trail. We came to a place where to one side of us was a swarm of flies and to the other side was a swarm of bees. Cuddy stopped singing, took from his holster his self-loading repeater Chabrol Truffaut-Rivette and shot them all dead, one by one.
The Mormons have a home-made hooch called leopard sweat. You can look that up if you donâ€™t believe me. Iâ€™m no kind of saint, let alone a Latter Day one, but I had a flask of the firewater in my pochette. The hooch was a gift from a Mormon prophet weâ€™d met yesterday. He was out in what he called the wilderness and had got himself hopelessly entangled in a thorn bush. Bristow and Cuddy wanted to rob him and taunt him with rattlesnakes, but I advised mercy, and I was listened to, so we rescued him from the thicket and got a flaskful of leopard sweat as a result. I was damned if I was going to share it with my companeros. They could make do with their own spit. The pochette, by the way, was a delicately embroidered reticule made for me by a good time girl name of Maud from Old Ma Purgativeâ€™s Whorehouse back in Vinegarville. This Maud had a way of tilting her head at a particular angle that reminded Bristow of his Helsinki Theodora, so we got out of there quick before he got the jeepers. I was keeping a close eye on him, and sometimes two eyes, through binoculars, if he strayed too far ahead or dallied too far behind. Bristowâ€™s horse suffered from sleep apnoea and hysterics, and he sat askew on his saddle, so that was causing us no end of problems.
We were still hours away from Binsey Poplars when the trail was blocked by an incomprehensible and gigantic and hard and rectangular and monolithic slab of pure black iron. It was so huge that we were engulfed in its shadow long before we reached it. Bristowâ€™s horse shook with terror and Cuddyâ€™s horse went all wobbly. My own horse, with its superior withers and shanks, trotted bravely towards the slab, but it was obvious there was no way to pass it. I tapped at the metal with a tuning fork and out rang a tone at once sweet and sinister. I thought the sound might prompt Cuddy to sing again, but he was busy chewing a prune.
Fatefully, but of necessity, we left the trail, detouring off into unknown country and hoping to rejoin it beyond Stovepipe Hat Gulch. Before we got that far, though, we came to a cluster of ruined and rotting shacks. The horses were thirsty, so we dismounted and took them to a burbling rivulet. As we did so, a group of people emerged from the shacks. There were men, women, and children, all of them slobbering inbred halfwits and all of them armed with Mannlicher Carcano rifles. This, you will recall, was the cheap mail order firearm later to be used by Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot President Kennedy in November â€™63. I could see Cuddy reaching for his gun so I socked him on the jaw, knocking him to the ground. I wanted, if I could, to avoid a shootout.
The leader of the slobbering inbred halfwits came towards me. His stride was uncertain and spavined, and as he got closer I saw that his eyes were milky and sightless. Then he tilted his head at a particular angle and, behind me, Bristow let out a horrible scream. I turned and saw that he was aiming his Balzac at the halfwit, but he was shaking too much to be able to make a steady shot. I ran back and knocked the revolver from his paw.
If you read the literature, you will find that cowboys often found themselves in predicaments. Such predicaments may differ in circumstance and detail from those you face in your everyday, contemporary lives, but you are still able to place yourselves, through an imaginative leap, in predicaments distant in time and place. So let us briefly exchange places, you and I. I will leave you with Bristow and Cuddy, the one gibbering at the memory of his Theodora and the other unconscious, while you are set upon by armed and slobbering inbred halfwits in a hot and hostile desert landscape away from the trail, and I shall sit on a bendy bus slewing through rainy windswept streets, bearing me god knows where, and god knows why.
Good evening and welcome. Tonight, as the dust settles on a nation in shock, the mood is one of careful optimism. The Great Obstacle, or The Mighty Shadow as it was known to some, has disappeared.
In a moment, we’ll be talking to Sir Christopher Meacham, Astrologer Royal and government minister in charge of Obstacle Affairs, and we’ll be asking him what measures, if any, the government has in place to help us cope with the sun’s return.
First, let’s go over to Martin Kettle at the Houses of Parliament – Martin?
Imran, as you can see, Parliament Square is packed with spectators, many of them MPs who were on their way to work when the Obstacle suddenly disappeared. I’ve spoken to several people, all of whom are having difficulty believing what they are seeing, or rather not seeing, due to the sun’s unexpected reappearance. One thing on everyone’s minds is, where did I last leave my sunglasses?
Thank you very much Martin. Martin Kettle reporting from Parliament Square…
Now, here in the studio with us to discuss the disappearance of The Great Obstacle is Sir Christopher Meacham, Astrologer Royal and government minister in charge of Obstacle Affairs. Sir Christopher, can you shed some light on the events of the past few hours?
Well, I’m afraid at the moment we know very little. At 2:42 today The Great Obstacle exploded in a shower of extremely fine dust, which, as far as we can tell, poses no danger whatsoever to the public. The risk at the moment is purely light-related. After generations in shadow, our eyes are no longer used to direct sunlight. We therefore recommend that people stay indoors and either keep their eyes shut for much of the day or shield them using whatever comes to hand.
I’m afraid that’s all we have time for… Sir Christopher Meacham there, commenting on the news that, 259 years after its arrival on our skylines, The Great Obstacle is no longer with us…
Here to discuss the wider implications of life post-Obstacle is our Social Affairs correspondent, Peter Hampton – Peter…