[The vacancy between my ears shows no sign of being filled, so here is another blast from the past (February 2007).]
There is no one left alive who witnessed the ebbing away of the age of gilded tin baths, nor do we have any written records of that time. The pitiful smidgen of information we do have has come down to us in the form of incomprehensible pictograms and a pair of 78 rpm shellac discs, and these are locked away in a concrete bunker far, far underground, beneath the Museum At-Or-Near Ack. The bunker is only accessible through a heavily padlocked orrin hatch, one of very few such hatches ever manufactured, based upon a patented hatch design which, despite what you may have read in the sorts of magazines beloved of the conspiracy-fixated, has absolutely no connection with US Senator Orrin Hatch (Rep., Utah).
Those of you with even a smattering of knowledge about hatches and bunkers will understand how hard it is to get anywhere near those pictograms, those 78s. When last one of our investigators examined the hatch, she reported back that it showed no signs of having been opened since the notorious Blötzmann Incident (1956). The reckless idiocy of Blötzmann’s intervention has been thoroughly dissected in Pebblehead’s bestselling paperback A Man And His Shovels, so I need not rehearse it here.
Our investigator – codename Hortense – reported something else. She said that the metal ladder which forms the final stage of the approach to the bunker was rife with scratches and dents and had buckled in a few places. This is new. The ladder has until now been kept in pristine condition by the maintenance team at-or-near Ack, whose rigorous training is well-attested. Hortense was unable to posit a convincing explanation for the ladder damage, and for the time being the file has been put aside. When I say ‘aside’, I mean literally that, placed on the right hand side of my desk, next to the pot with the bonsai pugton and the framed photograph of Bing Crosby embracing a howler monkey. Had I classed it as an ‘active’ file, it would be in the wire tray on the left hand side, alongside my important stationery, buzzer, message funnel, and metal tapping machine. The area of the desk immediately in front of me is kept bare, so I can think clearly. I know this sounds as if I have fallen victim to the fad for feng shui, but that is not the case. In fact I am minded to say that Mr Crosby’s howler monkey would benefit more from feng shui than I would. Incidentally, you may have been told by some earnest nitwit that the correct pronunciation of feng shui is ‘fung shway’. Not so. It is actually ‘fong shoo’, or possibly ‘fing shoy’.
What I was thinking clearly about at the moment was not Hortense’s report on the damaged metal ladder, but a more urgent matter. That very morning the postie had brought me a package containing a miniature shellac disc wrapped in greaseproof paper. There was also a letter, obviously written by a mad person, claiming that the disc was a copy of one of the two discs locked in the bunker, and that if I listened to it with care I would learn many, many interesting things about the ebbing away of the age of gilded tin baths.
Now, you must understand that in all my years of service to the Commission I have never heard even a whisper that such a copy existed. My first impulse was to smash the shellac into smithereens, for I have a short fuse and am not to be dallied with by poltroons. Wiser counsel was provided by Hortense, who offered to listen to the tiny 78 on her Mikiphone and to appraise its contents with her unorthodox yet piercing intellect. I gave her the go-ahead and, as I so often do, sat contemplating the blue eyes of Bing Crosby and the black eyes of the howler monkey, pondering on the ineffable mysteries of existence.
I was snapped out of my reverie when Hortense came dashing breathlessly into my sanctum, her face twisted into a rictus of Lovecraftian terror. Throughout my life I have been plagued by nosebleeds, and the one that began to flow the instant Hortense crashed in was the big potato, as they say. I was far too busy flapping around trying to find a cloth to staunch the gore pouring out of my nose to listen to my investigator’s gibbering. By the time I had recovered myself, Hortense had swooned, and in so doing, she banged her head, causing – as we later discovered – complete memory loss. She never did remember what she heard on that shellac disc, and nor was she able to recall at which railway station she had rented a luggage locker in which to put the disc for safe keeping. I remonstrated with her, of course, but with a faint heart, for despite my ferocious temper I am a complete softy in the presence of amnesiacs.
So now I sit at my desk looking into the eyes of the crooner and the howler, and Hortense reclines on a sofa somewhere far away, having her brain massaged by nuns. The truth is, she was the only investigator I had, all the others having been taken from me by the blithering fatheads upstairs. And now Hortense is gone, and Hortense’s memory is gone, and I wonder if the ebbing away of the age of gilded tin baths is also gone, irretrievably, vanishing into the past, its splendours never to be rekindled in the minds of men and women in this baffling age of pap.