On Huz And Buz

Let Huz bless with the Polypus – lively subtlety is acceptable to the Lord.

Let Buz bless with the Jackall – but the Lord is the Lion’s provider.

– Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno, Fragment A.

I wondered what ever became of Huz and Buz, the stout companions of my childhood. On the long summer afternoons we three played together in the shadow of the old viaduct out by Pang Hill. We played foopball and hockey and we polevaulted over ditches and we set fire to buttercups and we pretended to be Prussians or Russians or monsters from the far Carpathians. And always Huz had his polypus puppet of wool and wire, and Buz his cardboard jackal. And in the gloaming at the end of those endless days, Huz and Buz would trot back to Pang Hill Orphanage and sneak in through the hidden wicket, and I would trudge home, along the canal towpath rife with phlox and lupins, to the enormous mansion where Ma and Pa lay on separate ottomans in separate chambers in separate wings, both of them neurasthenic and medicated and moaning. I ate my dinner with Crouch, the impossibly tall and gangling servant, in the baronial hall, tenebrous and chill, where bats swooped in the rafters, and the rafters rotted, and sometimes shards of rafter dropped into my soup. And I thought of Huz and Buz, shivering in their attic room in the orphanage, going hungry to their iron cots.

Sometimes, in the night, I would slip out of bed and pad along the corridor to Ma’s wireless room to transmit coded messages, buzzes and clicks and bleeps, to my pals. Either Huz, or Buz, I forget which, had smuggled a portable metal tapping machine into the orphanage and kept it hidden under the sandbag that served as his pillow. It was a hazardous business, for there was always the risk he might be caught by the beadle. If that happened, Huz or Buz would be made to put a saucepan on his head and spend a week on the orphanage roof, among the crows and ravens, without shelter, slaking his thirst with rainwater from the gutters. It was hazardous for me too. The wireless room was thick with dust and cobwebs, spiders and beetles and gnats. Ma had abandoned it long ago, before I was born. Once it had been her sanctum, when she was young and lively and the recipient of mountaineering trophies. Crouch still polished the trophies, devotedly, day after day, with his special rags.

The messages we exchanged in the night were couched in a private language Huz and Buz and I had devised. I still have some of the transcripts, musty and dog-eared, the ink fading, in a filing cabinet in what was once Pa’s smoking room. I do not know why I keep them, for I long ago forgot the language, and can wring no sense from them. Perhaps it is that they are the sole remaining tangible reminders of my childhood friends. The orphanage, at the railings of which I often stood and wept, burned down last year. The beadle’s grandson was arrested, but I do not know the outcome of the case. The local police officers do not speak to me any more.

As a child, I was barely aware that the police existed. Certainly, on those long afternoons by the old viaduct, Huz and Buz and I never once saw a police officer. The only person we ever saw in uniform was the tally man with his dog, on his patrols, and we would always hide from him. We used to make up stories in which he and his dog were involved in alarming hazchem episodes. Once I think Huz or Buz devised a plan to kidnap the dog and take it back to Pang Hill Orphanage to attack the beadle, until I pointed out that it was old and lame and almost blind, and could not attack one of the gnats in the wireless room. Then one day we saw the tally man alone and dogless, and we assumed the dog had died. We decided to make an excursion to the pet cemetery, to leave a bunch of lupins on its grave. The pet cemetery was out beyond the orchard and the railway tracks and the decoy airfield, but none of us was clear precisely where it was, and we got lost. The sun was sinking in the west when we came to an army camp. I was worried about Crouch, who would be cooking our soup and herrings and would be wondering where I had got to. Huz and Buz were fearful of the beadle, who would no doubt be pulling a couple of saucepans from their hooks and clearing the staircase up to the roof. Though it was summer, there was a chill in the air at dusk, and we shivered as we sank exhausted to the ground at the perimeter fence. We were far from home, far from the mansion and the orphanage, and we had no idea what to do.

When the sky grew darker, searchlights flashed on, and we were caught in the bright beam of one. A sentry spotted us, and took us into the camp. He put us in a tent and told us to wait. We were, I think, so awestruck by his uniform, so much more resplendent than that of the tally man, that we could hardly think. We made no attempt to escape. About half an hour passed before a captain entered. His uniform was even more impressive, all crimson and gold, with epaulettes and medals, and he carried a sword. He rapped a few questions at us, which we answered truthfully, in shaky little squeaks, for we were tired and hungry and terrified. Then he left. Huz and Buz and I rummaged in our pockets for playthings, and improvised a game with a button, a rubber band, and a boiled sweet wrapper.

It kept us occupied until we heard the spluttering of an engine, followed by the parp of a hooter. It was Crouch! He had been summoned to collect us. At least, that is what we thought. When he came into the tent, accompanied by the captain, we burst into tears of relief. For Huz and Buz, alas, the relief was short-lived. The captain announced that Crouch had come to take me home.

“As for you orphans,” he said, “War was declared earlier today, and we need every recruit we can lay our hands on. You will be shipped overseas at the break of dawn, to fight the good fight.”

I clutched Crouch’s hand and he led me away towards his jalopy. As we went out through the tent flap, I looked back at Huz and Buz, my childhood friends. I never saw them again.

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