On this day, eight long years ago, I asked some questions about Gilead:
Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Is the chemist’s shop shut? Has the clinic been boarded up? Why does the Ambulance of Gilead sit rusted in a locked and bolted garage, its siren broken and its tyres punctured flat? What happened to all that balm anyway? Was it stolen by a ruthless gang of aromatic resin smugglers? Did the gang abduct the physician as part of the plan? Was the local television station prompted to show Celebrity Balm In Gilead Sniffer Dog Challenge? Did the massed bloodhounds and their permatanned owners fail to find even the merest trace of resin? Did the gang succeed in carting off all the balm in Gilead to their mountain lair? What are we to make of the conjecture in the press that the physician’s abduction was a piece of fakery and that he was the mastermind behind the plot? How long did it take for a hack on the Daily Shackle to dub the affair Balmingileadgate? Will there ever again be balm in Gilead? Who is the young whippersnapper who has arrived, announcing himself as the replacement physician? Is there something reproachful and oily about his manner? Why does he keep referring to the missing balm as “gumme” or “triacle”? Is he unable to spell “treacle”, or is he up to something? Why does he refuse to divulge the recipe for the bandage paste he uses? Is he in league with his predecessor, and with his predecessor’s alleged gang? Is there any connection between the fact that the new oily physician has put posters up all over the place promising to rid the populace of “evil humours” and that “malign bile ad” is an anagram of “balm in Gilead”? What on earth is that stuff the new physician smears on his hair? Must it pong so offensively? Has he no shame? If you know the answers to any of these questions, or can assist the Gilead medical authorities in any way, please write to the Balm In Gilead Appeal c/o Detective Captain Unstrebnodtalb.
As I say, eight years have passed since I posed those questions. Today I found myself wondering if Detective Captain Unstrebnodtalb had made any progress. Some of you may recall the Detective Captain from the part he played in what became known as the affair of the immense duckpond pamphlet. For those of you who do not recall, here is an account of his arrival upon the scene:
The next day all hell broke loose. Early in the morning, as Blodgett polished the outside spigots, an ogre or wild man hove into view atop the southern hills. Its progress towards the House was implacable. It stamped through the bracken, vaulted the ha-ha with a single bound, negotiated the massive basalt wall with surprising elegance, and sprang towards the terrified Blodgett, whirling its hirsute arms alarmingly and making disgusting guttural noises. It was matted with filth. Flies, gnats, and tiny things emitting poisonous goo crawled all over its flesh. It seemed to be decomposing. It drooled. It picked up Blodgett, sank its fangs into his skull, and hurled him aside.
Pausing momentarily to spit out particles of Blodgett’s head, it smashed its way through the wall of the House, oblivious to the fact that there was an ajar door three feet to its right. Once inside the House, its rage seemed to increase. It rushed wildly from room to room, obliterating the furniture, tearing up floorboards, destroying chandeliers, bashing holes into walls and ceilings, sucking the wallpaper off the walls. It chewed up banister rails and regurgitated them, disgorging them with such force that each rail acted as a lethal projectile. At least one urchin was impaled as a result. Five minutes after the ogre’s arrival much of the lower part of the House lay in ruins. Small fires were starting, but they were doused by water spurting from uprooted taps.
Euwige and Jubble were still sprawled in the Room of Distressed Wooden Bitterns when the ogre eventually came upon them. It let out an inhuman cry. It picked at its sores. It became becalmed. Fixing it with a bemused stare, Jubble rose to his feet.
“You know, there might still be some dandelion and burdock left,” he said, “Would you care for a drop?”
The ogre pounded its fists against its own head. Then it blinked, shuddered, twitched. Jubble pushed a tin mug into its paw. It gulped the sweet muck down greedily, then threw the mug back at Jubble, missing his ear by a whisker, as they say. Something in its manner seemed to change. By now, blind Euwige too was on her feet. She sniffed at the violent pongs emanating from the ogre, then stepped towards it.
“Thank heaven! You have come!” she said, “Jubble, meet my dear friend Detective Captain Unstrebnodtalb! He comes from a far country, and his brain is hot.”
I knew that these days Unstrebnodtalb was based in some sort of new-fangled police kiosk perched on a promontory overlooking the wild and broiling sea. I caught a bus and then trudged the last mile or two until I was in sight of the kiosk. The Detective Captain was sitting in a deckchair outside, staring at the sea, a bit like King Canute but high on a promontory rather than down on the beach, and thus not in any danger of being o’erswept by the briny. As I approached, I hailed him.
“Any news on that balm in Gilead business?” I asked, getting straight to the point. Then I saw that he was weeping.
“Have you ever read The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford?” he asked, in his grunty way.
“Yes, I have,” I said.
“Then you will know it begins with the line ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard’. Well, that may be true for Ford Madox Ford, but not for me, Detective Captain Ford Madox Unstrebnodtalb, for I have heard a story even sadder.”
“I didn’t know your first names were Ford and Madox,” I said.
He waved a paw at me.
“In pursuing the case of the missing balm in Gilead I have been driven to ruination and despair and sitting on a deckchair next to a new-fangled police kiosk perched on a promontory staring at the sea and weeping, because it is all so very, very sad,” he said.
“Yes, but have you answered any of the questions?” I asked, mercilessly.
“Come back in another eight years and ask me again,” he said, “And now leave me to weep.”
A gull swooped in to scavenge breadcrusts from the kiosk roof. I turned and trudged back to the bus stop. Instead of going home, I stayed on the bus as far as Gilead. There was still no balm.