Ever since I posted here the letter I received from a wooden child, he has been badgering me to publish more of his writing. I have been inundated with screeds, all of which I have heartlessly chucked down the clanking refuse chute at the side of my escritoire. Today, though, I have decided to indulge him, because his latest missive is quite interesting. Here it is:
Dear Mr Key : It may surprise you to know that, despite being a wooden child abandoned to a Mercy Home nestled deep in the gloomy woods, I am a voracious reader and a keen user of my local library. Well, it is not exactly local, given that it is located far away beyond the sinister purple hills that loom at the edge of the woods, but I regularly scamper over there when allowed out of the Mercy Home by the beadle. On my most recent visit, I was delighted to find a copy of a scholarly work by Dot Tint, entitled On The Vampiric Sea Shanties Of Ancient Pointy Town. You may be familiar with this book, which takes a forensic approach to the surprisingly blood-sucking subject matter of many of the sea shanties sung by the mariners who sailed from
Anyway, about the Dot Tint book. I got it date-stamped at the library desk and put it in my pippy bag and trotted out into the bewildering sunshine. The library is in a little village called Blunkett-By-The-Blears, where, on the day I am telling you about, a saturnalia was taking place. I fancied a go at the potato shy, which was like a fairground coconut shy except with potatoes instead of coconuts. I slipped some wooden coinage into the paw of the stallholder and in return he gave me three chunks of wood to throw at the potatoes. This was going to be fun!
I put down my pippy bag and threw a chunk of wood to dislodge a potato from its stick, successfully, and threw another chunk of wood to dislodge another potato from its stick, again successfully, and then I threw another chunk of wood at another potato to dislodge it from its stick, and again I did so successfully, and that was the end of my go. The potato shy stallholder congratulated me and drew aside a tatty curtain to unveil a pile of prizes from which I was invited to take my pick. After rummaging about for a bit, I chose a canister containing a brand new print of the first reel of Anthony Newleyâ€™s 1969 film Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?, a seminal influence on the young David Bowie. I resolved at once to coat the canister in wood veneer before letting the beadle clap his eyes on it, and stooped to stash it in my pippy bag. But my pippy bag was gone!
What kind of monster would steal a pippy bag from an inattentive wooden child? The worst of it was, of course, that the library copy of Dot Tintâ€™s On The Vampiric Sea Shanties Of Ancient Pointy Town was in the bag and so had vanished with it. I had always been very conscientious about returning my borrowings on time and unsullied, free of marmalade smears or dog-ears or any of the other besmirchments to which library books fall prey when in the wrong hands. I had even been promised a â€œgood borrowerâ€ badge by the librarian, a signal honour for an inmate of the Mercy Home For Abandoned Wooden Children. I had been so looking forward to coating my badge with wood veneer and buffing it to a shine with a rag. Now, unless I was able to retrieve my pippy bag, and with it the book, I would be in bad odour with the library and end up with the stigma of a â€œbad borrowerâ€ badge instead.
I shoved the film canister under my arm and looked wildly about. The saturnalia was getting up steam, and the normally quiet village square of Blunkett-By-The-Blears was a scene of mayhem and disorder, crowded with mountebanks and revellers, masked maniacs, prestidigitators, capering dizzyheads and unsupervised farmyard animals including hens and cows. I cursed that I had never thought to personalise my pippy bag by sewing on to it some brightly-coloured beads and buttons, not that needlework of any standard is among my accomplishments. But I could at least have splashed some paint on it, or beribboned it with ribbons. Alas, it was but a featureless dun pippy bag like ten thousand others, and I was at a loss as to how I might track it down in the midst of a saturnalia.
I slumped down in the boarded-up doorway of what had once been the villageâ€™s Respect Party headquarters and held my wooden head in my wooden hands. It is at times like this that I taste the bitter gall of unassuageable despair. For me it has a woody taste, which I could liken to a creosoted fencepost in the rain, just to give you an idea. I was deaf and blind to the saturnalian antics around me, smothered in self-pity and misery. Even my potato shy prize held no allure for me, and I tipped the film canister upright, gave it a shove, and let it roll away along the gutter. I watched as it clattered to a halt at the feet of a crone. She bent to pick it up, and brought it back to me in my doorway, and she spoke.
â€œWhat ails thee, youthful person of wood?â€ she asked. If I had had my eyes shut I would have thought I was being spoken to by the young Joan Greenwood as Sibella Holland in Kind Hearts And Coronets (1949). Or, more accurately, Joan Greenwood with a mouthful of brazil nuts. No doubt such distortion was on account of the great age of the crone, who looked to be at least
â€œYou shall come with me!â€ she announced, â€œAnd donâ€™t forget your film canister!â€
Some people would describe what happened next as being â€œtaken out of their comfort zoneâ€. That is not the sort of zone I have. Back at the Mercy Home, I have a cornflake zone, where I eat hearty breakfasts, and a compost zone, where I wallow in rotting celery stalks and potato peelings to pass the time, and I have quite a few other zones which I will tell you about in a separate letter. The zone I was taken to by the crone was, I suppose, best described as a cavernous secret underground headquarters zone, which was quite a novelty for a sheltered wooden child like me. It was alive with the buzz and clank and hiss of activity, but so dark that I couldnâ€™t see a thing. I was pleased that the crone was still holding my hand. I asked her where we were, and what was going on.
â€œThis,â€œ she said, â€œIs the nerve centre, or hub, of my crimebusting organisation. I bust more than crime, but the popular press calls me the Crimebusting Crone, and it is a title I have learned to live with, even though I also bust wickedness and shirking and pelf, and want of decorum, and lack of gravitas, punctilio and rectitude, among many other despicable blots on civic loveliness. Here in the subterranean gloom my factotae are busy busting such blots, and I shall find one who is idle and set them to work to recover your pippy bag and your library book and bring the malefactor to justice. Wait here.â€
She let go of my hand and disappeared into the gloom, though she creaked loudly as she moved so I was able to tell more or less where she was headed. I did not know quite how to conduct myself so I went all floppy and clattered to the ground, which was covered in linoleum. It seemed to be a very well-appointed cavernous secret underground headquarters zone, despite the lack of light. I wondered about the Crimebusting Croneâ€™s factotae, if they were some sort of blind, stunted troglodyte horde. It was certainly within the bounds of reason. After all, that earlier crimebuster Sherlock Holmes had his Baker Street Irregulars, and they were not exactly polished in their manners. I am polished, by the way, very much so.
Eventually the crone returned, accompanied by a factotum. I got to my feet and studied, as best as I could, the person charged with retrieving my pippy bag, but he, or she, or it, was but a blur in the darkness.
â€œThis is Factotum Milliband,â€ said the crone, â€œI have every confidence in him, and I have no doubt that he will solve the case. Just now, for example, excitabat fluctus in simpulo, as
I did as I was bid, being a biddable sort, and once I was secure, Milliband lumbered off, taking huge strides, further and further into the cavernous secret underground headquarters zone, until all around me was pitch black, and strangely, compellingly muffled. I had complete trust in this mysterious blurry factotum, so I sort of snuggled up against him, wedging the film canister between my head and his back as a pillow, and fell asleep. The beadle would have been livid if he knew I was using a tin pillow, fearing ineradicable contamination, so before dozing off I begged for forgiveness from my weird wooden gods and clutched the little gauze bag on a lanyard around my neck for luck. I am not particularly superstitious, but I must admit it gave me some comfort. Inside the bag were the teeth of an otter, a sprig of parsley, and a passport photograph of Bjorn from Abba, or it might have been Benny, I could never remember which was which. Whichever one it was, the snap had been taken in the late 1970s, at the height of the groupâ€™s success, and Bjorn or Benny was wearing a polo neck sweater. I had not chosen the contents of my lucky gauze bag on a lanyard myself. For years, I didnâ€™t even know what was in it. But one day, while I was mooching about over by the collapsed birdseed silo near Sawdust Bridge Football Stadium, I peeked inside, out of curiosity. It was a turning point in my life. Some of the other abandoned wooden children at the Mercy Home also wear such bags on lanyards around their necks, and the only thing that ever keeps me awake at night is wondering if their bags, too, contain ottersâ€™ teeth and parsley and passport photographs of Scandinavian pop legends in polo neck sweaters. I have never dared to ask, or to look, and always, after such sleepless nights, I remind myself that I can do without any more melodramatic turning points.
From darkness to light. My hand was still wrapped around my lucky gauze bag on a lanyard when I woke up beneath the breathtaking sky, an expanse of billowing clouds. The Crimebusting Crone had promised me billows, so this was a good sign. But when I lifted my wooden head from its tin pillow, I was disconcerted to find myself back in the boarded-up doorway of the Respect Party headquarters. There was no sign of Milliband. Gone, too, were the rogues and madcaps of the saturnalia. The village square was deserted, and I was alone and chill under the billows, without my pippy bag and my Dot Tint library book. Then, just as the creosoted fencepost taste of the bitter gall of unassuageable despair rose in my throat, a post office starling flew past and dropped an envelope into my lap. I am unreasonably fascinated by stamps, so I paused to examine the one affixed to the letter that was clearly addressed to me. How thrilled I was to see that it was the maroon sixpaney stamp from the series of Rex Tint mezzotint reproductions, depicting in gorgeous detail the mezzotintist himself, at work in his studio, and visible through the Prussian windows a bosky hillside dappled with laughing cows, similar to the cheese triangle laughing cows but done in a Soviet realist style. It was certainly one to collect, so if I was careful when soaking it off the envelope later I would have almost half a dozen stamps in my album!
Shuffling backwards to make myself more comfortable in the doorway, I took out the letter with my trademark fastidiousness, unfolded it, and read:
Dear Wooden Child : Be not faint of heart, and do not weep when I tell you that Factotum Milliband has been unable to recover your pippy bag and library book. In spite of being a mute, blind, stunted troglodyte, he is surprisingly resourceful in the open air, above ground, and I am sure he would have succeeded had not circumstances been against him. Neither he nor I could have predicted that those circumstances would have been loopy, indeed dotty. I shall not go into detail, except to say that we live in a loopy, dotty world, and the sooner you reconcile yourself to the fact the better. Daily contemplation of pigs in a pig sty can be extremely beneficial in this regard. But all is not lost. As I write, Factotum Milliband is smashing his way into the library via a concealed side entrance, and once inside he will create a scene of havoc and destroy any record that you have ever borrowed a copy of On The Vampiric Sea Shanties Of Ancient Pointy Town by Dot Tint, so you need never fret that you will have to pay a fine or be in bad odour with the librarian. Meanwhile, Factotum Millibandâ€™s brother, also known as Factotum Milliband, is hard at work in the needlework section of my crimebusting hub, stitching together a brand new pippy bag for you, which will be sent by post office starling to the Mercy Home. Please allow twenty-eight days for delivery. Factotum Milliband is a painstaking needleworker, still learning his craft, but I have seen one of his earlier pippy bag efforts and I can assure you it is a thing of beauty, if a bit loopy and dotty. I have given him instructions to sew the Mercy Home For Abandoned Wooden Children monogram in the correct place on the bag, so unless the beadle looks at it with a microscope it should easily pass for the genuine article. Do let me know if I can be of any further assistance. Yours â€˜til the cows come home, the Crimebusting Crone.
So there you have it, Mr Key. I had been hoping to write a review of Dot Tintâ€™s book for you, but it will have to wait for another time. Incidentally, I have taken the croneâ€™s advice and now spend at least four hours a day contemplating pigs in a pig sty, with the beadleâ€™s blessing. I will happily write an account of my ruminations for you, should you wish, as I am sure that all Hooting Yard readers would enjoy a regular dose of my witterings.
Blissfully yours, An Anonymous Wooden Child