So lost, so hopelessly lost is he in the peasouper of history, that very few people today realise King Jasper, of the Pickles play King Jasper’s Castle, Its Electrical Wiring System, Its Janitor, And Its Chatelaine, and of its later adaptation as a ballet by Crepingeour, was a real person of the past. Whether he was a real king is moot, as we shall see. But there is no doubt at all that King Jasper existed. His bones rest in a box in my allotment shed.
I came by the bones through a secret network of kings’ bones collectors. It is not so secret now I have told you about it. We do our collecting underground, in the shadows, under cover of night, far from places where common folk tramp. It is highly unlikely you have ever seen us at work, collecting bones of kings and trading them among ourselves. A couple of ribs from King X might be swapped for a femur from King Y.
More often than you might imagine, the bones of a king will be scattered hither and yon. If his throne was usurped by a wicked nephew, for example, a toppled king when killed might be chopped to bits, and those bits buried in pits at spots dispersed across the kingdom. The wicked nephew will arrange this, and pay off the gravediggers accordingly, in fear of vengeance from beyond the realm of death. He will have been brought up on tales of grisly and ghostly avengers, heard at his governess’s knee. He will believe that only by scattering far and wide the king’s bones can he avert an awful fate.
Even when a king dies, at peace, in his bed, or accidentally, after a surfeit of lampreys, his bones may still be scattered. Buried with all due pomp, of a piece, in one place, the dead king’s corpse will feed the worms and rot, and when all that remains is a heap of bones it can happen that the grave will be opened, at dead of night, by ignorant peasants. Immured in rustic poverty, the peasants will not have been brought up by governesses, but they will have heard the weird tales of the village Woohoohoodiwoo Woman, and believe in the talismanic properties of kingly bones. So, fighting and squabbling over the opened royal grave, each peasant will snatch a bone or two and carry them away, to be hung on a nail on the wall of their hovel as a lucky charm. And later, when their villages are laid waste by marauding barons or barbarians or both, the bones, along with all the other pitiful belongings of the peasants, will be scattered and strewn across the burning ruination of the land.
I would not claim that we kings’ bones collectors act from some mystical belief that by uniting the scattered bones of a particular king we are somehow calling him back from the dead. Perhaps one or two of my fellow collectors entertain such delusions. The rest of us are simply collectors, as we might be of stamps or coins or foopball programmes. Nor do we all necessarily seek to gather all the bones to complete a king. Some go just for shins, or skulls, or phalanges. But from the moment I joined the secret network, I was intent on collecting each and every bone of King Jasper I could lay my hands on. Why?
Why?, indeed. As I said, it is not even clear that King Jasper was a genuine king. Doubts were first raised shortly after his death, before even worms and rot had reduced him to naught but bones. His head, it was said, was not a kingly head. It was large and lopsided and had the pallor of curd. His gait was not a kingly gait, for he moved in an ungainly lollop. His crown was unbejewelled, and, on close examination, made from pewter and tin. He sat uneasy on the throne, a furtive look in his milky half-blind eyes, as if he had no right there to sit. Questions were raised and bruited abroad. If King Jasper were truly a king, why was the lady of the castle a mere chatelaine, and not a queen? And was it true, as some said, that the castle janitor had a large and lopsided head with the pallor of curd, that his gait was an ungainly lollop, and that instead of wearing a janitorial tatty cap, atop his bonce he sported an odd pointy hat made of pewter and tin?
I knew of all these doubts and questions. I was, after all, the author of a fat and breathtaking biography of King Jasper, albeit unpublished and, according to certain sour-faced kingly chroniclers, unpublishable. I keep the manuscript in the same box in which I keep the bones, in my allotment shed. The pages I scribbled upon over untold years are suffused with the charnel pong of the king. Lately it has occurred to me that I might use them to make a papier maché model of King Jasper, moulded around his reassembled bones. But first I have to complete my collection. There is a knuckle to be tracked down and exhumed, buried in some faraway field, dropped a century ago by a baron or a barbarian from a bag of looted peasant gewgaws. I must listen to the gossip on the grapevine of the secret network, alert for hints and clues. Then one night I shall set out with my spade.
King or janitor, it makes no difference to me. I have already made his throne, from the cobblings of a dozen discarded chairs. It is covered with a shroud in the corner of my shed. And when the missing knuckle is at last dug up, and all the bones put together and encased in my mashed up manuscript moulded into kingly shape, I will have a mannequin to plop on to the throne. I will haul it out of the shed and on to my cart, and trundle it along the country lanes for mile after mile, reconstructing the legendary journey made by King Jasper as he traversed his kingdom. It is said that he stopped off at many villages along the way to do a spot of repair work or mopping, just like a janitor. But he never lost sight, half-blind as he was, of his eventual destination, the electrified castle perched on a bleak promontory overlooking a bleaker sea, wherein awaited the chatelaine who had stolen his heart.
Heart, spleen, liver and lights… all are long rotted away. But I have his bones. All but one.