Old Farmer Frack

I have received a number of letters asking me to give some account of Old Farmer Frack. It is true that he was a mad old man, probably due to ergot poisoning. But he could be surprisingly lucid, too. For a time he employed a professional voice coach, more used to working with thespians, to help him develop exciting new roars and bellows. His cows were much given to bellowing, and Old Farmer Frack wanted to be able to bellow back in a way they would understand.

The voice coach was Satnav Gobgag, scion of the Bulgarian aeroplane manufacturing dynasty, whose huge hangars on the outskirts of Plovdiv were the site of tremendous aeronautical innovation during the interwar years. Satnav was a great disappointment to his parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, for despite receiving a first class education in the kinds of things that would make anyone fit to head an aeroplane-building business, he turned his back on the family firm and devoted himself to the questionable career – questionable in Bulgaria at that time, anyway – of drilling drama-struck misters and misses in the art of projecting their voices, be they dulcet or stentorian. It has been said that no one took to the stage of the Plovdiv Theatricum in the middle years of the last century who had not learned their stuff from Satnav Gobgag.

Exiled after the war to the country where Old Farmer Frack herded his tubercular cows, and by now grey and stooped and often covered in crumbs and dust, Satnav Gobgag fetched up at a ruined hotel on the seafront at Cack. He was only thirty-four, but looked to be twice that age, such had been his privations. It is well worth avoiding such privations if one can, but Satnav did not have the benefit of hindsight. Cut off without a penny by the Gobgag clan, accompanied in his exile by his pet coot, Satnav was on the point of starvation when into his hotel one day wandered Old Farmer Frack.

Q – What was the mad old man doing there, so far away from his cows?

A – He was in Cack to collect bags of sand, and stopped in at the hotel for a greasy breakfast, for he was fond of greasy breakfasts, but back at the farm usually made do with a dish of cowfeed.

Q – For what purpose did Old Farmer Frack need bags of sand from the beach at Cack?

A – To forestall, or avert, the flooding of his barns.

The pair struck up a conversation in the breakfast room of the hotel. And of what did they speak, this ill-matched duo? Why, they chattered away about the single topic that was convulsing the citizenry of Cack in those dark days, namely the invasion of an army of killer moorhens which was sweeping through the town in wave after wave of destructive mayhem. Satnav’s poor coot was cooped up in his hotel room for its own protection, and the penniless voice coach was frantic with fear what would happen to it when, as must surely soon happen, he and his coot were tossed out on their ears for non-payment. He reckoned without the lackadaisical approach of the hotel manager, Grimes, who affected a foppish disregard for such niceties as money. So long as his chef cooked up a greasy breakfast, and there were petunias in the plant pots, Grimes was happy to lean against the wall in the lobby flicking ash onto the tiles from the Norwegian cigars he had specially flown in. By coincidence, his smokes arrived once a month on an aircraft of Gobgag manufacture.

Old Farmer Frack was temperamentally blind to any animals except his cows, so his brain was perplexed by this talk of moorhens. He kept trying to change the subject, without success. After a while, he sat back in a daze, hypnotised by his companion’s mellifluous fluting, high-pitched jabbering, booming ostinato, silky whispers, and impeccable diction, for Satnav was deploying all of his vocal talents in describing the terrible sight of a thousand murderous moorhens tramping relentlessly towards the shopping arcade. It was when he made a noise like a cow that Old Farmer Frack sprang out of his seat, grabbed him roughly by the collar, and demanded that he repeat his bovine bellowing. Shortly thereafter, a deal was struck between the two men. Satnav Gobgag fetched his coot, and his paltry luggage, from his room, and accompanied Old Farmer Frack aboard his cart as they trundled off along meandering lanes to the farm.

Within days, the mad old fool was having rewarding conversations with his cows. He bellowed at them and they bellowed back. As he herded them from field to field, purposelessly, through all hours of the day and night, his voice coach reclined on a rickety sofa improving his English with a thorough reading of Dobson pamphlets while his coot plashed happily in Farmer Frack’s pond.

The idyll could not last. One autumnal day, when fallen leaves from the pugton trees so clogged the pond that the coot stayed indoors, there came a hammering at the door. Old Farmer Frack was miles away, in the furthest of his fields, though a faint bellowing could be heard when the wind died down. The coot, still nerve-wracked from its sight, through the hotel window, of lethal moorhens, trembled. Satnav Gobgag dropped his pamphlet – I think it was Dobson’s Some Remarks On The Grotesque Pallor I Encountered This Morning In My Shaving Mirror (out of print) – and strode in his brave Bulgarian way to the door. Opening it, he was astonished to find Grimes, the hotelier of Cack, florid with rage and somehow deeply threatening in a windcheater the colour of custard and a stout pair of wellington boots. All foppishness gone, Grimes had come to demand money. So much money, in fact, that Satnav pictured himself doing the washing up in the unsavoury hotel kitchen for the next forty years.

Q – Had something happened to Grimes to make him suddenly mindful of the unpaid bills of his hotel guests?

A – Yes. He received a clonk on the head from a piece of falling masonry.

Q – Had he tracked down other past guests, or did he have some sort of vendetta against Satnav Gobgag?

A – The former. Grimes now spent his days on horseback, criss-crossing the land demanding money with menaces from those who had taken advantage of his formerly lax manner.

Q – What menaces did he threaten?

A – Menaces so heinous they are unsuitable for family reading.

Q – What happened next?

A – Satnav Gobgag did the washing up in the unsavoury hotel kitchen for the next forty years. His coot remained on the farm, where he visited it every other weekend until it perished. Old Farmer Frack, having learned as much bovine bellowing as he needed, continued to be mad, and bellowing, and his cows bellowed back at him, for ever and ever, Amen.

Wrecks

There is huge excitement at Bodger’s Spinney as we look forward to this weekend’s annual Spinney Wreck Competition. Rival teams have been preparing for months, in utmost secrecy, their re-enactments of The Wreck Of The Deutschland and The Wreck Of The Hesperus. As ever when the Jesuits meet the Hiawathas, there is a sense of age-old blood feud, and volunteer ambulance-based medicos wearing special armbands will be on the alert from before daybreak.

Old Farmer Frack’s cows will be mooching in a nearby field to add an air of bucolic charm, and Mrs Gubbins will again be wearing the referee’s chapeau. In an exclusive pre-contest interview she told our reporter, “I am hoping things pass off with due decorum, but I have made sure we have enough tourniquets on site this year. No one wants to see a repeat of the time we had to send urchins scampering off across the hills to Old Ma Bagshaw’s Bandage Shop.”

Mrs Gubbins was made referee-in-perpetuity after she single-handedly sent packing a gang of rogue Opium-Eaters who tried to sabotage the contest with a wholly inappropriate, because shipless, re-enactment of The Household Wreck.

The latest odds are available from the illegal gambling den behind the illegal butcher’s shop on the plaza.

The Parish Wolf

Last week we held a funeral service for the parish wolf, although none of us is sure if it is really dead. Its howling has not been heard for twelve years, though, and under our laws a death certificate can be issued for a missing wolf after just five years. The general feeling in the parish was summed up by the sexton in a notice nailed, Luther fashion, to the door of the church. Even in the absence of a corpse, it would be for the good of the parish if obsequies were held. This was the gist of his notice, though it was couched in the mighty prose he deployed even when writing nature notes for the parish newsletter, and he did not on any account use the word closure.

One reason the sexton is so persuasive is that his appearance and bearing are strongly reminiscent of the actor James Robertson Justice (1907-1975). This is no accident. Over the years, the sexton has worked hard to imitate that booming voice, and he has undergone cosmetic surgery the better to ape the appearance of the man who, when not appearing in films, kept busy as a naturalist, racing driver, and falconry expert.

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Before dawn on the morning of the funeral there was a teeming downpour. The rain had ceased by the time we gathered in the churchyard, but the pugton trees were drenched, water droplets dripping from the tiny grey spongy buds, each bud like the brain of a homunculus. An extraordinary number of puddles had formed on the paths, and there are many paths converging on St Bibblydibdib’s, for it is the only church for miles around, all others having been smashed to ruination by the sexton’s predecessor, single-handedly. He was twice the size of the present incumbent, a titan among sextons, and a brute, and the parish has been much quieter since he wilted away and was carted off to a mercy home. No ducks plashed in the puddles, for word had not yet reached them that the parish wolf was dead, or at least thought to be dead, and no duck dared come near for fear of being torn to bits.

I had been asked to read the obsequies, and had prepared what I thought was a pretty speech. I have a weakness for alliteration, and made use of lots of W words, describing the parish wolf as winsome and windswept and waterlogged and wiry and woebegone and witless. There was little truth in any of this, for the signal fact about the wolf was that it was, for the most part, invisible. Kim Fat Goo, the village bus driver, claimed to have seen it crossing the road once or twice, and the preposterous tabloid astrologer Jonathan Cainer, who once spent a week holed up in Old Ma Brimstone’s Bed And Breakfast establishment, said that the wolf paid him nocturnal visits in his dingy room, but few of us gave these tales any credence. Yet despite remaining unseen, the wolf was – or had been – a mighty presence in our parish, and I felt it deserved a memorable send-off, with all those W words, even if what I said was inaccurate.

Our vicar had been abducted by a cadre of rogue Tundists and was tied up in a turret somewhere, so the sexton took charge of the service. When it came my turn to speak, no sooner had I propped my notepad on the lectern and cleared my throat than there came a bellowing of cows from the fields adjoining the church. My words were drowned out. The cows bellowed all day and all night and into the next day, for they were Mad Old Farmer Frack’s cows, and there were hundreds of them, massive and ungainly and bellowing. The funeral broke up in disarray, and we repaired to a hangar at the village airfield, and we ate cake and macadamia nuts under the shadow of gigantic propellers, and when we emerged, look!, ducks populated the puddles. The parish wolf was dead and gone.