On “The Scottish Play”

Among thespians, there is a somewhat laughable superstition that one must never mention the title of Shakespeare’s “Scottish play” in a theatre, on pain of who knows what catastrophe. Hence the euphemism. I say “laughable”, but you will note I have avoided giving the play’s title myself. And I have used the euphemism as the title of this piece for a very good reason. Judging by the events of recent days, it would seem that the theatrical curse has come visiting the decidedly untheatrical world of Hooting Yard.

Let me explain. The other day I was exercising my brainpans thinking up subjects for future essays in this series. In a particularly sparky staring-out-of-the-window-at-crows interlude, it occurred to me to write about groovy bongos, Balaam and his ass, replacement bus services, and that which I am now too fearful and full of collywobbles to name. You will, I hope, have read and digested and given much thought to three of those topics, which appeared here on Saturday and Sunday and Monday. The fourth, which I refrain from typing, is due today.

Anyway, I was quite happy to have decided upon four days’ worth of subject matter in a single crow-observance session, so I decided to go out for a walk. I put on a hat with earflaps to counter the cold, and a Tyrolean jacket not unlike the one worn by Christopher Plummer in The Sound Of Music (Robert Wise, 1965), and I headed towards Nameless Pond. On my way there, I met an acquaintance, who joined me on my circuit of the pond.

“So what have you been up to, Mr Key?” asked this person.

“As it happens, Mr Spraingue, I have had a very profitable morning staring out of the window at crows while thinking of topics for my daily essays,” I replied.

“I would be most interested to hear what those topics might be, Mr Key,” he said.

“Then let me list them for you in the order I suspect I shall be writing them, Mr Spraingue,” I replied. By this time we had reached Nameless Pond and begun our circuit. “First I shall tackle groovy bongos, then Balaam and his ass, then replacement bus services, and when those three are done I shall turn my attention to -” and I mentioned by name the subject which sheer unbridled terror prevents me from repeating here. At the time, however, neither I nor Mr Spraingue had any inkling that aught was amiss. We continued to walk the well-trodden path around the pond, and soon enough we were speaking together of other things, including windows and crows and Chris Huhne and his speaking clock mother. Later I returned home and took off my Tyrolean jacket and hat with earflaps and sat down at my escritoire and began to write about groovy bongos.

Over the next couple of days, though I took my regular walks in the vicinity of Nameless Pond, I saw neither hide nor hair of Mr Spraingue. This is not an unusual circumstance, for he is not a man of routine habits, and days or weeks can pass without our seeing each other. I was unperturbed.

I was unperturbed, that is, until this morning, when I received a message on my metal tapping machine. The message came from a mutual acquaintance of myself and Mr Spraingue. I was told that, no sooner had we parted, after our circuit of Nameless Pond the other day, than Mr Spraingue fell victim to a sequence of calamitous events. He trod in a puddle. In shaking the puddlewater from his Chelsea boot, he lost his balance and toppled over. In toppling over, he bashed his head on a pondside bench. The bench, placed there for wayfarers to rest their weary legs, was made of metal. The trajectory of Mr Spraingue’s toppling meant that the part of his head which bashed against the bench was his ear. Because the bash was not unduly violent, and because he is a manly uncomplaining type of fellow, Mr Spraingue got to his feet and dusted himself down and went on his way. Fatefully, however, in toppling he had thrust out his hands to break his fall and the palm of one hand had landed slap in the midst of a patch of reeking pondside muck. Within this muck lurked many minuscule creeping and crawling things, blind and writhing and riddled with infection. One such tiny, barely visible being attached itself there and then to Mr Spraingue’s hand. Before brushing the mud from his Italianate topcoat, he rubbed his ear, throbbing from the bash anent the metal bench. In so rubbing, he dislodged the tiny creeping thing, which scurried into the shelter of his ear. The rest of the day, I was told, passed uneventfully for Mr Spraingue. He felt none the worse for wear. In the middle of the night, however, he woke up screaming. He leaped from his bed and cut mad capers about his bedroom, repeatedly bashing his head against the walls. When he could not be becalmed, Mrs Spraingue, his inamorata, ferried him to hospital in their gleaming bright red sports car. Medicos shot him full of powerful tranquilisers, so at last he stopped screaming. Assuring Mrs Spraingue that they would keep Mr Spraingue in an induced coma while they worked out what was wrong with him, the medicos insisted she go home and get some rest. Meanwhile, inside Mr Spraingue’s head, the minuscule blind creeping thing had wriggled its way through his ear and burrowed into his cranium, where it had now set about munching his brain jelly. Mr Spraingue’s brain was gigantic in comparison to the tiny being, but its appetite was huge. It will not take many days for it to eat his brain entire. In all this horror, it is perhaps a small mercy Mr Spraingue will never learn that, driving home in the cold misty night, his inamorata stalled the gleaming bright red sports car on a level crossing, in the path of a thunderous oncoming express train, its carriages packed with hundreds of crippled orphans heading for a better life in an Edenic garden city. In the inevitable collision of train and car, all perished, the driver, the orphans, their governesses, and Mrs Spraingue.

It seems clear to me that none of this would have happened had I not been so reckless as to speak aloud the title of this present essay which, for your safety and mine, I have replaced with the euphemism used by theatrical persons when they speak, in the theatre, of The Tragedie Of Macbeth.

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