Skew, Whiff

Mr Skew and Mr Whiff went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. They met at the foot of the hill, at a point equidistant from Fort Hoity, where Mr Skew was aide-de-camp, and Fort Toity, where Mr Whiff had charge of the goats. It did not need two to fetch and carry a pail of water, but Mr Skew and Mr Whiff were Brothers Of The Salt, and whenever a pail of water was needed, either at Fort Hoity or at Fort Toity, they would arrange to meet and stroll up the hill together, arm in arm, fraternally.

They were able to stroll, rather than clamber and pant and strain, because a pathway had been cut into the hill at a very gentle gradient, winding round and round and round until it reached the top, where the well was. The well had its own pail, attached to a hefty rope. Mr Skew or Mr Whiff would lower this pail to fill it with well-water, raise it, and pour the water from the well-pail into an empty pail. Either Mr Skew would have brought an empty pail from Fort Hoity, or Mr Whiff the same from Fort Toity. It was within the bounds of possibility that Mr Skew and Mr Whiff would both bring empty pails at the same time, but this never, ever happened. The water replenishment schedules at Fort Hoity and Fort Toity never quite clicked into alignment.

Mr Skew and Mr Whiff arranged their meetings at the foot of the hill by bell and flag. The one was audible, the other visible, across the expanse of marshland that separated Fort Hoity from Fort Toity. The bell might not be heard if, say, fighter jets on practice runs were screaming across the sky, nor the flag be seen if there was a thick and eerie mist o’er the marshes. That is why Mr Skew and Mr Whiff, between them, had devised the system of using both bell and flag, just in case. Fighter jets can come screaming without warning, mists can descend in the blink of an eye.

On their strolls along the path slowly slowly gently up the hill, the one carrying an empty pail and the other empty-handed, Mr Skew and Mr Whiff would babble to each other of the latest doings and frolics and fights and hatreds and recriminations and savageries and vexations and plots and schemes and jollities and japeries and flaps and trysts and couplings and comings and goings at Fort Hoity and Fort Toity. To an outsider such as you or me, it was unremittingly tedious blather.

Of more interest, perhaps, were the various birds which swooped through the air, sometimes very close to the heads of Mr Skew and Mr Whiff, as they strolled. Alas, I have mislaid my binder of ornithological resources.

Mr Skew was deaf in one ear and Mr Whiff blind in one eye. The accident that caused both maimings was the source of their close bond in the Brotherhood of the Salt. It had happened many years ago, in the last century, during – but in no wise related to – the Vietnam War. It was a Thursday morning, and by chance Mr Skew and Mr Whiff, not then known to each other, were in the same field, a field of mown hay, the one crouching, the other jumping, I have no idea why, and the accident which robbed the one of half his hearing and the other of half his sight involved  a torrential downpour and thunder and lightning and howling winds and a flock of innumerable birds. Without my binder I cannot be more specific. In their confraternity Mr Skew and Mr Whiff made a pact never to speak of what happened in that field on that wet windy storm-wracked bird-haunted morn.

They went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. We shall leave them there, half way up the hill, babbling inanities the one to the other, unidentified birds swooping about their heads, the aide-de-camp and the goat-keeper, Skew and Whiff, far from their forts. The sun is obscured by clouds.

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