On Scroonhoonpooge Marshes

One March morning, Agnetha and Anni-Frid and Benny and Bjorn became hopelessly lost in marshland. They were on their way to a picnic engagement, for which they had been booked to perform a set of cover versions of songs by the Carpenters. This was something of a departure for the Scandinavian foursome, and the circumstances were murky, occasioned it was said by a gambling debt Benny had accrued after a marathon game of blackjack with Richard Carpenter. Hired thugs were involved, and telephone calls in the middle of the night, and packs of wolves. The whole business made Agnetha shudder, and she tried to concentrate on her piccolo practice. She had recently taken up the instrument, and hoped to make her public debut with it at the picnic.

But as the morning wore on, the chances of attending the picnic grew more and more remote. Their map indicated that they would have to cross Scroonhoonpooge Marshes, with which they were unfamiliar. Had they listened to Huw Halfbacon, the handyman-gardener at their rented cottage, perhaps they would have devised a different route, and made a diversion, however lengthy, in order to avoid the marshes altogether. But now, as a mist descended, they were hopelessly lost.

There is a difference we would do well to consider between being lost and being hopelessly lost. To be lost, yet still in possession of hope, suggests that with the application of common sense, or true grit, or luck, one might yet find oneself back on the correct path, or in territory one knows, or even at one’s intended destination. Bjorn, for example, had once got lost in the cemetery where he went to visit the grave of Karen Carpenter. He roamed among the headstones for hour upon hour, becoming thirsty and peckish. Fortunately it was a bright, clear day, warm but not too hot, utterly different to the chill mist hanging over Scroonhoonpooge Marshes on this March morning. Had Bjorn used his noggin, he would have done as I and my sister did when we were once searching fruitlessly, in Saint Patrick’s cemetery in east London, for the grave of the five Franciscan nuns drowned off the Kentish Knock and commemorated by Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem The Wreck Of The Deutschland (1876). Unable to locate the grave, and with the last light of a winter’s afternoon fading, we knocked on the door of a lodge at the cemetery gates, where a helpful gravedigger named Mario led us directly to the last resting place of “them nuns what drowned”. Had Bjorn determined to find such a gravedigger in such a lodge by the gates of the cemetery wherein Karen Carpenter lies buried, he would no doubt have been able to lay the bouquet of campions and pansies he had brought with him in their proper place. Instead, he wandered haphazardly, and eventually chucked the flowers into a waste bin, in a fit of temper.

For all that, he was never hopelessly lost. One cannot, on a clear day, become hopelessly lost in a cemetery. By its very nature, it will be bounded by walls or railings, and even if one trudges around for hours as Bjorn did, always there is the reassurance that sooner or later one will stumble upon the cemetery limits, at which point one need merely follow the walls or railings until one reaches the gates.

But out here on unfamiliar marshes, in a mist, with little visibility, it is possible indeed to lose hope, and thus to become hopelessly lost. Such were the circumstances as Agnetha and Anni-Frid and Benny and Bjorn stopped by a puddle. Had any of them spoken, they would have said “Where the hell are we?”, in Swedish. But they were too exhausted, and they simply looked at each other, in silence. In spite of the chill, Benny was sweating profusely. He was overdressed. Anni-Frid was on the verge of tears. Agnetha was wondering if she might make a few toots on her piccolo to attract the attention of any wandering marsh-guide, if such a person existed. And Bjorn was about to fly into a temper, just as he had done when failing to find the grave of Karen Carpenter. The mist was so thick it hid the sun, though it was the crack of noon.

There the foursome stood, when of a sudden a figure loomed towards them. It was Huw Halfbacon, the eerie Welsh handyman-gardener. He seemed to have materialised from nowhere. A strange smile played over his lips.

“Would it be the picnic spot you are looking for?” he asked.

Agnetha and Anni-Frid and Benny and Bjorn all gabbled at once, such was their relief. Now there was hope!

“You will not be finding a picnic spot in the middle of Scroonhoonpooge Marshes,” said their saviour. Was there a trace of mocking laughter in his voice, or something more sinister? “Come, follow me,” he added.

And he turned his back on them and his wellington boots splattered through the puddle.

“Quick now!” he called, and they understood the urgency of his words, for though he had taken only a few steps he was already vanishing into the mist. They hurried in his wake, their unwellingtonbooted feet getting soaked as they followed through the puddle.

The eerie silence of the misty marshes was suddenly broken by the roar of a jet aircraft zooming, invisible, across the sky. In the passenger seat, craning to look out of the window with a pair of mist-probing superbinoculars, cackling his head off like a villain in a Victorian melodrama, was Richard Carpenter. In his pocket was a wallet stuffed with cash, the bribe he had ready for Huw Halfbacon. He would meet the handyman-gardener later in the afternoon, at the now empty cottage. In the weeks and months to come, when Swedish detectives came to find traces of the foursome, Huw Halfbacon would assume his most cretinous expression, and mumble enigmatic yet senseless Welsh twaddle, and point them in the direction of Scroonhoonpooge Marshes, upon which the mist had never lifted, and which led nowhere, save to oblivion.

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