O! To Be In Pepinstow!

O! To be in Pepinstow, among the Tundist Adepts! We shall stand in a ring around the bonfire, breathing in the fumes and snorting like bears!

On the other hand, might it not be safer to be barricaded indoors, behind shutters, with a pile of rags ready to set afire and fling from the rooftop?

Whenever I find myself in such a quandary, I seek counsel from my pal Aesop, who lives in a tin hut at the end of a long and bosky lane. I set off to see him, taking with me two loaves of bread, and on the way I sold one of the loaves and bought a hyacinth, an aesthetic touch I learned from Sweetie Appleyard. Aesop would, I knew, happily wolf down the bread while I contemplated the flower which he would plop into a vase on his windowsill or mantelpiece.

Perhaps I should point out that Aesop was not named after the Ancient Greek fabulist, though people invariably assumed that to be the case. After all, one meets with very very few Aesops these days, and I cannot think of anyone else of my acquaintance who goes by that moniker. As far as my pal was concerned, it was simply that his pa and ma liked the name. His sister was called Atossa for the same reason, and not because the parents had a “thing” about the daughter of Cyrus the Great and mother of Xerxes I. In fact they were an ignorant pair who knew nothing of the Ancient Greeks, nor of Ancient Rome nor Sparta nor Carthage nor Ur of the Chaldees. And it must be said that Aesop himself was pretty thick, quite the dimwit. One of the reasons I bought the hyacinth was to give me something to concentrate on while he gobbled down the loaf. His table manners were absolutely awful, like Kafka’s.

The miraculous thing about Aesop was that in spite of his stupidity he always dispensed judicious advice, at least on matters related to Tundism. He had, you see, once been an Adept himself, unlikely as that may seem. Though beetle-browed and inarticulate and insanitary, he had been privy to the mysteries. It was never clear to me whether they drummed him out or if he had to escape their Tundist clutches, but either way he now had to remain in hiding in his tin hut at the end of the lane sheltered in clumps of larch, laburnum, hornbeam and pine, those being the four kinds of tree which grow in and around Pepinstow by dint of the soil conditions.

I am tempted to sally off on a digression regarding the many Tundist proclamations about soil, those dealing with dry crumbly soil, the winnowing of it through sieves, the transformation of soil into mud through the agency of rain or ditchwater, the commingling of soil with blood on battlefields scarred by war, the distribution of pebbles within expanses of soil, soil the home of worms as of untold creeping things, the cloddy nature of impacted soil and the engine of impaction whether organic or machine, circumstances of soil pulverisation, thoughts agricultural, horticultural and botanical, and the related yet separate issues, important to Tundists, of day soil and night soil and the employment of night soil men, their wages and duties and equipage, but all this can be studied more profitably at source, for example in one of the many Tundist soil journals publicly available.

The unholy snorting and bellowing of the Pepinstow chapter of Tundists could still be heard, though faintly, as I approached ever closer to Aesop’s tin hut smothered under the clumps at the end of the lane. It was seven forty-five in the evening, Tundist time, when I bashed my fist on his door. The loaf of bread was still fresh and the hyacinth unwilted. At seven forty-six the door creaked open. To my surprise, there in the vestibule stood not Aesop but his sister Atossa, whom I had not seen for many years. She did not recognise me, and she is as much a dunderpate as her brother, so I had to explain at length who I was, and why I had come a-calling, and why I held in one hand a loaf of bread in a paper bag and in the other hand, not in a bag, a hyacinth. By the time I was done with all this rigmarole, enunciated in ringing tones the better to penetrate Atossa’s wax-blockaded ears, it was seven fifty-two. It need hardly be said that time is of the essence to Tundists, and thus to those whose quandaries skitter within a Tundist purview. Soon enough it would be eight o’ clock, and the bonfires in Pepinstow would be at their height, ready for burnings, and not any old burnings but Tundist burnings!

Atossa scowled, but she let me in to the hut, pointing with her shrivelled white hand to the carpet, where Aesop lay sprawled in the gloom. I thought he was dead, but of a sudden he leapt to his feet and shook my hand with his usual muscular vim, making me wince. He snatched the loaf of bread and began gobbling, paper bag and all. An empty vase stood on the mantelpiece, so I dropped the hyacinth into it, set for contemplation.

“When you have finished eating, Aesop, perhaps you could advise me on my quandary,” I said, “I am in two minds whether to join the Tundist Adepts, standing in a ring around the bonfire, breathing in the fumes and snorting like bears, or, conversely, with my Hat of Caution on my head, to be barricaded indoors, behind shutters, with a pile of rags ready to set afire and fling from the rooftop. What say you, pal Aesop?”

He still had his mouth full of bread, so I waited for the quandary to lodge in his brain during his chewing. What I did not expect was for his sister Atossa to jump straight in with her own, unsolicited advice.

“You are not in Pepinstow any more. You have entered in to the Tin Hut of Atossa, as it shall henceforth be known. Here all is dim, both light and wits. Stay with us, mister, for at eight o’ clock sharp we shall be whirled up in the air on storm-tossed currents blowing ooh ferocious! We shall want you for ballast.”

It was one minute to eight. I had sixty seconds to decide my fate. At that very moment, Aesop swallowed his last mouthful of bread, belched, as he does, fixed me with his black vacant eyes, and said…

I forget exactly what he said, for he was inarticulate, though I recall there was something about soil, possibly night soil. I threw myself out of the tin hut just as it was lifted clear of the ground by storm-tossed currents.

Later, back in Pepinstow, I saw the Tundist fires burning. The Adepts were silent now, and ominous. I crept in shadows past my chalet, all the way past it until I reached the kiosk of the night soil man. It was empty, save for a coathanger on which hung a bright new uniform. I tried it on. It was a perfect fit. Night would fall, soon, soon, and I would be ready.

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