There is a land, remote and lovely, where the first three things likely to strike the visitor are butter and clatter and taxis. You will ask, why those three things, rather than, say, soap and watercress and canals, or toffee and rainfall and pig iron? All I can say in return is that travellers to that land, upon their return, eyes bright, buttonhole the stay-at-home and babble excitedly about butter and clatter and taxis.
Being unreasonably obsessed with the Kennedy assassination, I have just begun reading Stephen King’s new Pebblehead-like big fat bestseller 11.22.63. (I do wish it had been renamed 22.11.63 on our shores.) The conceit of the book is that the narrator travels back in time to before that date, and attempts to prevent the killing of the Potus. I mention this because one must travel through time in order to visit the land of butter and clatter and taxis. What is not clear to me is the direction of travel. Is this land plunged in the past, or is it a future state? And how will I ever know, short of going there myself?
In 11.22.63. as in many another time-travel narrative, the past is reached via a portal, in this case the pantry of a diner. When I have questioned travellers returning from the remote and lovely land of butter and clatter and taxis, they invariably refuse to divulge the location of the portal, or indeed whether one needs to pass through a portal to get there. There are, after all, other means, like the eponymous contraption in H G Wells’s The Time Machine. But nobody is willing to tell me how I might get from here to there, wherever “there” is. For the time being, I remain stuck in the here and now. That is not such a bad thing, of course. It’s what I am used to.
Yet I cannot help hankering. “Oh, the butter!”, the returned visitors cry, “It is golden! Oh, the clatter! It is curiously mellifluous! Oh, the taxis! How they careen along the wide important boulevards of that remote and lovely land!” It is all a far cry from the margarine and din and traffic congestion of my own time.
It is decidedly odd that the visitors are so keen to extol the virtues of that past or future land, yet remain so reticent about how they came and went. Odd, too, now I come to think of it, that the only virtues they extol are the butter and clatter and taxis. I have asked them about other features, about soap and watercress and canals and toffee and rainfall and pig iron, among other things, but they purse their lips and look at me quizzically as if they have no idea what I am talking about. “Oh, forget about those things,” they say, “Let me tell you about the butter and clatter and taxis!” And they are off again, breathless with enthusiasm.
I have poked and prodded about the city in search of a likely portal, without quite knowing what I am looking for. Qua King, I haunt pantries, particularly but not exclusively those in diners and cafes and restaurants. Cooks and chefs and maitre d’s are none too pleased with me, and I am often escorted off the premises in a ruffianly manner. Pantry does not equal portal, of course, and I try other points of access, such as mysterious doorways and archways and gates and wickets. More of these have a mysterious character than you might imagine. It has also occurred to me that perhaps I need to catch some sort of magic bus, or coach, or a strangely unscheduled train, and I have spent more hours than I care to count lolling about at bus stops and railway stations, trying to spot telltale signs, ever in vain.
One day, my frustration at boiling point, I went out and bought a packet of butter, and I hailed a taxi, and directed the driver to take me to somewhere I might hear a lot of clatter. He took me – grindingly slowly through the congested streets! – to a lane alongside a railway shunting yard. The sound was more akin to din than to mellifluous clatter, but he had done his best, and I gave him a generous tip. There was a low wall on the lane, bordering a flowerbed violent with lupins, and I sat upon it, clutching the butter, content to pass the time. I suppose there was a nagging hope that a portal would open up before me, or an emissary from that remote and lovely land suddenly materialise before me, or spring out from behind the lupins, and take my hand and guide me. But nothing whatsoever happened, save that along the lane came passing an off-duty maitre d’, one who had expelled me from his pantry a few days before, and he recognised me, and cursed me as he passed, and threatened to call the police, though I was doing nothing wrong. I made a gift to him of the packet of butter, as a peace offering, and he relented, and sat down on the wall next to me, and we fell into amicable conversation.
“Have you heard tell,” I asked, “Of a remote and lovely land, in another time, whether past or future I do not know, where the butter is golden and the clatter is mellifluous and the taxis careen along the wide important boulevards?”
“Why yes!” he cried, “Only the other evening in the restaurant there was a group at one of the tables who spoke of such things.”
“Did you ask them how they got there, via a portal perhaps, or by magic bus etcetera?”
“I did not. As maitre d’, I spoke to them only of food and drink and service standards. In any case, I did not need to ask, for I already know the answer. It is a land I have visited many times myself. In fact I am on my way there now.”
My eyes popped out of my head.
“Gosh!” I said, “I knew I would be on to something by buying a packet of butter and taking a taxi to a place of clatter! Can I come with you?”
“Of course you cannot,” he replied, and he stood up and turned about, twice, thrice, and vanished behind the lupins. I sprang after him, and tripped over, and lay sprawled in the flowerbed with my mouth full of mud. And then a wind came in from the west, a roaring wind so loud that it drowned out the clatter from the shunting yard. I had given my butter away, and the taxi was gone. I got up and dusted myself down and trudged home. The evening newspaper was on the doormat. A huge headline shrieked the news that, far away in Dallas, Texas, President Oswald had been shot.