Up In The Mountains

Dobson and Marigold Chew were up in the mountains. Dobson was wearing an ill-advised cravat, while Marigold Chew sported a leopardskin pillbox hat. They were in pursuit of a murderer, reported to have taken refuge in the mountains. Their purpose was to persuade the murderer to repent his killing spree. They had no interest in bundling him back down from the mountains to face earthly justice. They simply wanted him to repent.

The murderer was Babinsky. Heavy of moustache and lumbering of gait, he had prowled the streets of Pointy Town in darkness before a botched slaying panicked him and he took to the mountains. The mountains were teeming with bears. Many, many, many of the bears were afflicted with lupus, a particular form of ursine lupus common in that mountainous region. You might think that lupine animals like wolves would be more prone to lupus than ursine animals like bears, but as I just pointed out, this was a strain of ursine lupus, not lupine lupus. There were few wolves in the mountains, but they were for the most part tremendously hale and healthy wolves.

Lupus, neither ursine nor lupine but human, is an unaccountably popular disease in the television medical drama House M.D. Intriguingly, Dobson and Marigold Chew had arranged their trip to the mountains by buying tickets from a travel agency named Foreman, Cameron & Chase. These are the names of Dr House’s young assistants. In a further twist so improbable that it could almost be fictional, the conductor on the train that brought them to the station at the mountain foothills was a man called Cuddy Wilson. Cuddy and Wilson are, as it happens, the other two main characters in House M.D. Not only that, but with his huge lugubrious moustache and lumbering gait, the train conductor’s resemblance to the killer Babinsky was startling. There had been an unfortunate incident on the train, in the dining car, when a gung ho Dobson had removed his ill-advised cravat and tried to shove it into the conductor’s mouth to incapacitate him and place him under arrest, thinking he was Babinsky. This was despite the warning words of Marigold Chew, alert to one or two subtle features of Cuddy Wilson’s physiognomy which differed from that of the fugitive maniac. Dobson was lucky not to be thrown off the train, for it so happened that the conductor was an adept of Goon Fang, and he had no trouble at all disarming Dobson of the ill-advised cravat and crumpling him into the helpless posture known as Pong Gak Hoon, in which he spent the remainder of the journey. Thus, upon arrival at the mountain foothills, the pamphleteer was unable to think straight because he had missed his breakfast, and valuable hours were lost as he insisted on stopping at a snackbar where he stuffed himself with bloaters and Special K and sausages.

Let us treat ourselves to a bird’s eye view of the terrific mountains. If we imagine we are hovering directly above them, hundreds of feet in the air, at cloud level perhaps, we can draw a triangle between three points. Call them A, B and C. At A, we have the snackbar in the foothills, wherein we find Dobson and Marigold Chew. At B, we have an encampment of mountain bears, many stricken with ursine lupus. And at C, the killer Babinsky, taking shelter in a declivity that might be a crevasse, high in the mountains, examining the contents of his knapsack, packed in a panic as he made his getaway from Pointy Town. Had Babinsky read Dobson’s uncharacteristically useful pamphlet Never Pack A Knapsack In A Panic (out of print), he would not have been in the pickle in which he now found himself. Dobson did not write the pamphlet specifically to advise homicidal fugitives from earthly justice who had fled into the mountains, and the majority of tips in its twenty pages have a more general application. Indeed, one of the few positive reviews the pamphleteer ever received in his lifetime came from a notice in Big Sturdy Boots, the journal of the Bodger’s Spinney Hiking Club, whose anonymous critic praised the pamphlet for its “judicious good sense and greaseproof paper wrapping”. The writer’s only caveat was Dobson’s exclusive use of the word knapsack, which it was felt could cause offence to those who preferred the terms haversack and rucksack. Younger readers should note that in those days the barbaric backpack had not yet sullied the language.

So there at point C, the disconsolate Babinsky rummaged among the items he had packed panic-stricken into his knapsack. Instead of useful things like a compass and pemmican and string, he found that he had a paperback Gazetteer Of Basoonclotshire, a tattered pincushion innocent of pins from which half the stuffing had fallen out, a photograph of a pig, two corks, an unpaid gas bill, a badge from Richard Milhous Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign when he ran against Hubert Humphrey, several small and purposeless cloth pods, a rusty whisk, a paper bag full of bent or otherwise damaged fountain pen nibs, the packaging from a black pudding he had eaten just before he killed the toothless vagrant of Pointy Town, hair dye, a plasticine starling, much dust, a cardboard tag or tab or label on which some unknown functionary had scribbled the word pointless, a beaker caked with mould, another beaker with a gash in its base, a sleeveless and warped 12” picture disc of Vienna, It Means Nothing To Me by Ultravox, whittled twigs, scrunched-up dishcloths, the gnawed bones of a weasel, or possibly a squirrel, feathers, a pictorial guide to cephalopods, someone else’s illegible address book, an empty carton of No Egg, more dust, more feathers, more bones, and a syringe containing a goodly amount of ursine lupus antidote. Having neatly laid out all this rubbish on a ledge in the declivity or crevasse where he squatted, Babinsky stuffed it all back into his knapsack, made the knapsack a pillow, lay splayed out on his back, and fell asleep.

Meanwhile, over at point B on our triangle, the many, many, many bears, both those with ursine lupus and those without, were also fast asleep, and had been for some hours. It was as if they had been engulfed by some sort of narcoleptic gas, but those with knowledge of the mountains, and of the mountain bears, would tell you that there was nothing to worry about. It was simply a case of an encampment of sleeping bears, high in the mountains, who would eventually wake up. Down in the foothills, village folk might tell stories about the mysterious experiments going on in the Pneumatic Institution for Inhalation Gas Therapy, but they knew not whereof they spoke, for they were peasants rather than scientists, and thus their expertise was in such matters as slurry and pigswill and barnyard maintenance rather than in exciting gas activity. In any case, by skipping along to point A, one would find Dobson and Marigold Chew in the snackbar, wide awake and intently planning their next steps in tracking down the killer Babinsky and making him repent.

Ever resourceful, Marigold Chew had brought her Ogsby Steering Panel to facilitate the search. Neither she nor Dobson could be said to be natural mountaineers, both of them more at home on flat surfaces such as ice rinks and tidal plains. Yet they had a sense of overwhelming duty to make the killer repent, preferably on his knees, or sprawled on the ground in a posture of abject grovelling, not unlike Pong Gak Hoon, from which Dobson was only just recovering with the help of the tremendous snackbar breakfast menu. So enthusiastically was he stuffing his gob that Marigold Chew began to wonder if her paramour would be too bloated to clamber in sprightly fashion up into the mountains before nightfall. She was well aware, even if Dobson was not, that at night-time these mountains were both eerie and perilous, for all those years ago she had paid attention in the prefabricated schoolroom when Miss Hudibras taught the important Key Stage 4 Sprightly Clambering In Mountains At Night learning module.

And it will be night, star-splattered and moonstruck, before the three corners of our triangle are each set in motion, and begin, ever so slowly but implacably, to converge upon each other, the triangle twisting, warping like Babinsky’s Ultravox record, shrinking. Dobson and Marigold Chew, the killer Babinsky, and many, many, many bears, including those stricken with ursine lupus, will meet, in the most desolate hour of the night, up in the mountains, at a spot we can call point D. And here at point D, as if awaiting them, bashed firmly into the hard compacted snow, stands an upright cylinder of reinforced plexiglass, sealed with a rubber cork. It is one of a number of cylinders placed here and there in the mountains by boffins from the Pneumatic Institution for Inhalation Gas Therapy. And as the peasants down in the foothills could tell you, as they pause in their doings with slurry and pigswill and barnyard maintenance, only the devil knows what some of those boffins are up to. And as I can tell you, even though I am no devil, there were rogue elements among the boffins, bad boffins, and one such boffin had, just yesterday, filled the cylinder at point D with a new and terrible and loathsome gas which, when uncorked, would fell all living things within a twenty yard radius, crumple them as if they had been placed in the Pong Gak Hoon posture beloved of Goon Fang adepts like the Babinsky-double train conductor, and their brains would be modified in gruesome and unseemly ways. And then, as the gas dispersed into the clear mountain air, as dawn broke, each of them would awaken, Dobson and Marigold Chew, the killer Babinsky, and many, many, many bears, including those stricken with ursine lupus, and to each of them the world would seem raw, different, alive with new tangs and hues and vapours, and the three points of the triangle would slowly move apart, relentlessly, forever, as if they had never, ever converged.

Goofy, Macabre

One of the difficulties that beset Joost Van Dongelbraacke throughout his career as a so-called “suburban shaman” was the ruinous cost of insurance. Having been dragged through the courts by a Pointy Town quantity surveyor who claimed emotional distress, disfigurement and loss of earnings after being entranced into a week-long state of whirling ecstatic frenzy, Van Dongelbraacke vowed never again to practise his mystic arts without being covered. His first approach was to a greasy insurance agent with an unfortunate cowlick of hair who dithered and faffed and seemed more intent on his executive desktop bonsai garden than on the urgency of the suburban shaman’s business. The next three people he consulted were by turns lost in wistfulness, egg-bound, and unseemly, and one of them failed to provide Van Dongelbraacke with a suitable chair in which to sit during their appointment. He was ushered into a seat that emitted pneumatic hisses and tilted and swivelled on tubular steel pistons. It was, Van Dongelbraacke thought, the most unshamanic chair in which he had ever tried to sit. He judged each of the three to be unsuitable.

And then one evening in a tavern the suburban shaman struck up a conversation with a mountebank who was passing through Pointy Town on his way to a seaside psychic smorgasbord. Ferns and berries decked the brim of this mountebank’s hat. His visage was half flesh, half mascara. At a certain angle you could have mistaken him for the god Baal. It was difficult to imagine that he had once been an actuary, but that was indeed the case, and he had maintained many friendships with past office colleagues in the insurance industry. Listening attentively to Van Dongelbraacke’s plight as the two of them sank pint after pint of diluted rosemary-and-hibiscus syrup on the tavern balcony, looking out over the filth-strewn fields which stretched unbroken to the horizon, the mountebank eventually took a card out of his pocket and handed it to the shaman.

“This is the man you need,” he said, “His premiums are ridiculously expensive, you may be alarmed by his taste in cloisonnée enamel ware, and never, ever try to make him laugh. But those things aside, he is as fine an insurance man as you will find on the terrestrial globe.”

Van Dongelbraacke was puzzled by this reference to a globe, for in his belief system the earth was cylindrical, tapered at one end and ineffably mysterious at the other. But he liked and trusted the mountebank, whose pincer-liked perspicuity appealed to him, as did the hat-brim decked with ferns and berries, a look which the suburban shaman was to ape in the coming years.

Six weeks later, after a particularly exhausting session of communal hysteria around a bonfire in one of those filthy fields, Van Dongelbraacke took the bus to O’Houlihan’s Wharf. He had the insurance man’s card in his pocket, and berries on the brim of his hat. The ferns, he decided, would have to wait. At the time of which I write, the pier at that brine-soaked hellhole had not yet collapsed, and it was in a booth at the far end, a mile or more out to sea, that the suburban shaman came face to face with Jean-Claude Unanugu.

It’s a name you might know, especially if you are an aficionado of the kind of insurance man who spends his leisure time as a creative genius. Charles Ives, Wallace Stevens and Franz Kafka spring to mind, and Unanugu can be added to their company. Acerbic, battered, chippy, Drambuie-soaked, eerie, foolish, grunting, and hot-to-trot, Jean-Claude Unanugu was the self-styled “Grand Master of the Goofy and the Macabre”. In his numerous pulp paperbacks, he explored with forensic precision the narrow territory where that which is goofy meets that which is macabre. Sometimes, in his work, goofiness wins out. At other times, he favours the macabre. At his best, the two modes, or registers, or styles, or styles, or modes, or registers, or styles are inextricable, melded and fused and joined and inextricably fused and melded, in a joinment of characteristically Unanuguesque inextricability. It can be hard to see where the goofiness falls off and the macabre begins, just as it can be hard to see where the macabre ends and the goofiness takes over, so inextricably fused are they in Unanuguesque meldment.

Now, you might be tutting irritably that I am repeating myself, or at least writing in a peculiarly annoying and inelegant manner. In fact, that was a clever pastiche of Unanugu’s early style, seen to best effect in early trash like The Macabre Thing From Goofy Town or The Goofy People From The Macabre Village. Later in his career he devised new tricks and quirks, and I am not alone in thinking that no other writer has ever made such fantastic use of italics, block capitals and exclamation marks. One of the great pleasures of a middle period Unanugu novel such as The Macabre Yet Goofy Duckpond is the manner in which each sentence is given equal weight, every single one ending in an exclamation mark. It is the only book I know which, when read aloud, demands to be shouted out at the top of one’s voice.

Much like Stevens and Ives, but possibly not Kafka, Jean-Claude Unanugu kept his working and creative lives separate. When devoting his time to insurance, he set up in his booth on the pier. It was a small, cramped booth, of wood and canvas, with a tin roof which resounded under the rain, and as you know it often rained in O’Houlihan’s Wharf, for that was how the gods had ordered things. It was teeming down on the day Joost Van Dongelbraacke disembarked from the bus and made his way through the ill-starred streets to the pier. There were numberless booths and kiosks on the pier in those days, and the suburban shaman found himself distracted by all sorts of depraved enticements as he shuffled along, stepping carefully on the rotting planks. He passed by Edna The Squid Woman, Little Severin The Mystic Badger, The Astonishing Food-Splattered Jesuit, Kim Fat Goo The Evil Tattooist, David Icke, David Blunkett, Bonkers Maisie And Her Scrunched-Up Dishcloths, and the Poopsie Clutterbuck Sextet, who performed the latest news headlines in the form of madrigals. A gust came in from the west and blew Van Dongelbraacke’s berries off the brim of his hat into the churning sea. Far out, half way to the horizon, he could see the tell-tale silhouette of a tugboat. What, he wondered, was it going to tug out there? Closer to shore, he saw dozens upon dozens of buoys, red and yellow and blue buoys, each with its own chain. Van Dongelbraacke had always loved the sound of chains clanking at sea, and he stopped a moment on his prance along the pier to listen, but the faint clanking he heard was soon drowned out by the barking of a bedraggled Twinkly Twirly Man in the doorway of a nearby booth, who was manipulating a saucepan and a bus ticket in remarkable ways. Such antics, thought the shaman, had what Roland Barthes would call jouissance. Like almost everybody who uses the word, possibly including Barthes himself, he had no idea what it meant, but he was a shaman, a babbler of incantations, so why should he care? He tossed a coin at the feet of the Twinkly Twirly Man, told him that he admired his jouissance, and headed on.

Inside his booth, as fat raindrops pinged and panged on the tin roof, the Grand Master of the Goofy and the Macabre was blotting the ink on a freshly written insurance policy that was neither goofy nor macabre. It was, if anything, a piece of actuarial magic that the suburban shaman would have admired for its hallucinatory qualities. In Jean-Claude Unanugu’s suspiciously manicured hands, insurance policies became things of beauty. If Von Dongelbraacke’s beliefs were true, there is no doubt that Unanugu’s policies would have to be filed at the end of the earth that terminated in ineffable mystery. Blotting done, the insurance agent cracked open another bottle of Drambuie. His own credo allowed for a globular earth rather than a cylindrical one, though privately he held that this globe was, like his stories, both goofy and macabre. In that sense, he felt himself to be a realist, an attitude which had caused him no end of grief with the O’Houlihan’s Wharf Pier Booth Rental Authority, which preferred to rent its booths and kiosks to the non-reality-based community.

A mere six or seven prancing paces away from the booth now, Van Dongelbraacke too saw himself as a realist, although for him the “real” existed on an ethereal plane accessible only through whirling about around a bonfire while chanting gibberish. But, as he always liked to insist, it was very choreographed whirling, and absolutely specific gibberish. That was why a hapless goon like the litigious Pointy Town quantity surveyor could not just whirl and babble without the guidance of a shaman. And that was why the shaman needed insurance cover. And that was why Joost Van Dongelbraacke poked his head in through the entrance flap of the wood and canvas and tin booth on the pier and saw…

Why did I resort to an ellipsis? I did so partly in homage to late-period Unanugu, where the texts of such novels as Beyond The Macabre Yet Goofy Duckpond actually have more ellipses than words, and partly because I wanted to go and make a cup of tea before bringing this narrative to a close. Jean-Claude Unanugu’s work – both in fiction and insurance – was fuelled by Drambuie, but mine is dependent upon copious cups of tea. I make no apologies for that. It was Thomas De Quincey who said “tea, though ridiculed by those who are naturally coarse in their nervous sensibilities… will always be the favourite beverage of the intellectuals”. Whether or not I am an “intellectual” is but futile conjecture, but I suspect I have more chance of being one through regular tea intake than by bandying about the jouissance word. Now, that is quite enough twaddle. Let us return to that ellipsis.

Joost Van Dongelbraacke poked his head into the booth and saw Jean-Claude Unanugu, the Grand Master of the Goofy and the Macabre, sitting at a little fold-out camp table, swigging Drambuie and ready to sell him some hot-to-trot insurance.


Joost Van Dongelbraacke poked his head into the booth and saw… his Döppelganger. For a split second he thought he was looking into a mirror. The resemblance between the two was uncanny. Indeed, it was macabre. Was it also goofy? Why, stap my chives, yes it was! And what happened next was goofier still, and even more macabre. For Van Dongelbraacke went into the booth and closed the flap behind him. There were witnesses to this, including the bedraggled Twinkly Twirly Man and David Icke, and though they were not realists, their accounts, painstakingly taken down by Detective Captain Cargpan’s doughty squad of gumshoes, were deemed reliable by the O’Houlihan’s Wharf Constabulary’s investigative überbrains. So we must accept that there were two men inside that booth on that sopping wet Thursday afternoon. Yet only one ever emerged. Was it Jean-Claude Unanugu or was it Joost Van Dongelbraacke? It was neither, or it was both. It was, we are forced to concede, an entirely new being, an entirely new kind of being. I know this may sound implausible to members of the reality-based community, but let me ask you this. Is there any other way to explain that, within days, the O’Houlihan’s Wharf Chamber of Commerce registered a new company which offered Shamanic Insurance Solutions, to whom fees could be paid in the blood of ducks and the bones of ospreys and in pointed sticks set afire?

Knitted Bulgarian Folk Tale Puppet

Ahoy, Mr Key!, writes Dr Ruth Pastry, Thank you so much for affording us readers a glimpse of the inner workings of Hooting Yard in your piece on that Olympics logo. Brief as it was, I was fascinated by the reference to the editorial conclave, and to the fact that the bloated janitor remains an unreconstructed Blunkettite. The real reason I am writing, however, is because I am desperate to find out what Mrs Gubbins was knitting. Can you tell me?

Well, Ruth, yes I can! A few weeks ago, the octogenarian crone was approached by a charity working with the filthy and destitute denizens of that cluster of hovels out Pointy Town way. As you may know, these ill-starred wretches are even lower than the lowest of the low, wallowing in a dank pit of turpitude and lacking even the most basic sanitation. Other charitable organisations shun them because, you know, there are limits. Anyway, Mrs Gubbins was asked to knit something for them, and she wisely decided to bring a little joy to their hearts – if they actually have beating human hearts – by making for them a life-size knitted puppet of Ugo, hero of a series of exciting Bulgarian folk tales.

We have published a number of Ugo stories here at Hooting Yard, so this would be an opportune time to pluck them from the Archive and present all six here afresh, some three years after they originally appeared:

Ugo Goofs Off

Ugo lived in Plovdiv. In the fog, Ugo goofed off. “There you go, Ugo, goofing off again,” said Ugo’s ma. It was foggy. Ugo stepped in some goo. He got it on his boots. “Ma, I’ve got goo on my boots,” said Ugo. Ugo’s ma gave him a rag to wipe the goo off his boots. She had a drawer of gewgaws. Gewgaws and rags. Ugo’s ma was blind, so when Ugo goofed off and got goo on his boots, she opened the drawer of gewgaws and rags and rummaged, feeling for a rag rather than a gewgaw, for if she gave Ugo a gewgaw he wouldn’t get the goo off his boots, but with a rag he would. Ugo sat in the porch after goofing off and wiped the goo off his boots with a rag. In the fog. In Plovdiv.

Ugo’s Pal Ulf

In Plovdiv, Ugo had a pal called Ulf. Ulf had the plague. “Look at my bubo, Ugo,” said Ulf. “Oooh!” said Ugo when he saw the bubo. Ugo had the flu. His ma made him a tincture for his flu but there was not much she could do about Ulf’s bubo. In the Plovdiv lazaretto, Ulf mooched about in a foul mood. Ugo and Ugo’s ma brought food for Ulf. “Have some pancakes, Ulf,” said Ugo. Ulf gobbled a pancake. “Far be it from me to poo-poo you, Ulf,” said Ugo’s ma, “But you should put the pancake on your bubo, like a poultice.” “Oh,” said Ulf. He did as bid, and soon his bubo was gone. But Ugo still had the flu, so his ma was thrown for a loop. She could cure the plague but not the flu, and did not know what else she could do. For the time being. In the lazaretto in Plovdiv.

Ugo’s Pod

In the old town of Plovdiv, Ugo plopped his pod onto a stool. Ugo’s ma said, “Ugo, why are you using a pod instead of a jar?” Ugo’s ma was blind, but she knew that the plop of Ugo’s pod was different to the plop of his jar. “Oh, ma,” said Ugo, “My jar is in the shed.” Ugo’s ma bashed Ugo on the head. “Never leave your jar in the shed, Ugo,” she said, “When you do I will bash you on the head, as I just did.” Ugo said, “Sorry, ma. My pal Ulf put my jar in the shed.” “Ah,” said Ugo’s ma. On Thursday last. In a hovel. In the old town of Plovdiv.

Ugo’s New Hooter

Back in Plovdiv, Ugo won a hooter as a booby prize. Ugo tooted his hooter in his blind ma’s ear. “Ooh, Ugo,” said Ugo’s ma, “That hooter makes a din!” “It’s a hooter, ma. I won it as a booby prize,” said Ugo. “And what did your pal Ulf win, Ugo?” asked Ugo’s ma, shelling peas as she spoke. “Ulf won a toy wolf, ma,” said Ugo, “It’s as noisy as my booby prize hooter, because when you press your thumb on its tum, the toy wolf that Ulf won roars.” Ugo tooted his hooter again and ran off to find Ulf. On a very wet Tuesday. Near the old fort. In Plovdiv.

Ugo Turns Blue

It was Saint Hector’s Day in the old town of Plovdiv. Ugo’s hood got snagged on a tack and he turned blue, or, as Carl Sagan used to say, blooow. “Oooo” said Ugo’s pal Ulf, “Ugo, you look all blue.” “Ack” said Ugo. “I’ll go and fetch your blind ma, Ugo, to see what she can do,” said Ulf, though he could have pulled Ugo’s hood off the tack on which it was snagged. But Ulf had been sniffing glue. Ulf found Ugo’s ma sitting on a stool. “Ugo’s ma,” said Ulf, “Ugo has turned blue. His hood is snagged on a tack.” Ugo’s ma was chewing a chew, but she jumped off her stool and ran to Ugo, who was indeed very blue. Ugo’s ma spat out her chew, and it landed in a pot of glue. It was the glue Ugo’s pal Ulf had been sniffing. Ugo’s ma unsnagged Ugo’s hood from the tack. “Ack” said Ugo. “Ooo, Ugo’s ma, I knew you would know what to do,” said Ulf. Ugo’s ma clouted Ulf on the head with a spoon, and confiscated his glue. Ugo went off to find his shoes. It was time for mass. At Saint Hector’s Cathedral. On the Left Bank. In Plovdiv.

Ugo Goes Loopy

One morning in Plovdiv, Ugo went loopy. He put on his shoes and went out to the yard and made a noise like a shrew. Thinking there was a shrew in her yard, Ugo’s blind ma tooted her hooter to alert the Plovdiv Shrew Patrol. But Ugo started to sound like a goose. “Ooo,” said Ugo’s ma, “What am I to do? A shrew and a goose!” Then Ugo began to moo, like a cow. “Wow!” said Ugo’s pal Ulf, who came tumbling into the yard dressed up like a moose, for Ulf was loopy too. “Is that you, Ugo’s pal Ulf?” asked Ugo’s ma. “Woo woo woo,” said Ulf. “Ulf, there is a shrew and a goose and a cow in my yard,” said Ugo’s ma. “No, Ugo’s ma,” said Ulf, “It’s only Ugo being loopy.” “Ah,” said Ugo’s ma. She packed Ugo and Ugo’s pal Ulf off to school. On a tram. In Plovdiv.

Pale And Fierce

It was pale and fierce, gulping down a bowl of soup. I wondered if it was Jah, come to deliver me from Babylon, but I have a very shaky grasp of Rastafarianism, so I cast that thought unto the winds. Not that there was much in the way of wind that day. In fact, the air was eerily still. I held aloft the feather of a carrion crow and it did not so much as tremble. I discarded the feather on the edge of some scrub rife with gorse, and returned my gaze to the pale fierce thing. It was licking the last dregs of soup from its bowl. For as long as I can remember I have had a deep interest in soup, and I was intrigued to know what had been in that bowl. It has always seemed a great pity to me that Dobson abandoned what would surely have been his magnum opus, a compendium of all known soup recipes from around the world, throughout history.

Before taking a step towards the pale fierce thing, I reached into the pocket of my Paraguayan Man Of Destiny trousers and took out a box of Swan Vestas. It would be useful to know if it was frightened of fire before getting any closer. Bunching three or four matches together, I struck them across the sandpapery side of the box, and as soon as they lit, I flung them across the ditch which ran between me and the pale fierce thing. With no scrub or gorse to ignite, for they fell on a patch of bare earth, the matches sputtered out quickly, but not before the tiny flames had attracted the thing’s attention, with dramatic results. It let fall the now empty soup bowl and scampered away towards a copse or spinney. This is not the place to go into detail about the difference between a copse and a spinney, which would involve giving dictionary definitions, so be content with the idea that the pale fierce thing was making off, with surprising agility, towards a clump of trees. They were a mix of pugton and simnel trees, and I worried that, once within their shelter, I would lose sight of the thing, for they were heavy with budding spring foliage, fat leaves and dripping pods all enmeshed within a riot of twisting twining tendrils.

Earlier in the week, on the Tuesday, I had won a tin cup for excellence in pole-vaulting at a magnificent sports stadium in Pointy Town. Although a few days had passed without any further jumping about, I was still fit, and I ought to have been able to vault the ditch with ease. As it was, I trod on a pebble during my run up and, discombobulated, somehow managed to topple over, landing with a squelch at the bottom of the muddy trench. As with copses and spinneys, so with ditches and trenches. Just keep reading.

The ditch was deeper than I thought. When, eventually, I clambered to my feet, I saw that the mud walls loomed up much higher than my head, and days upon days of rainfall had worn them smooth. I am very good at sizing up situations rapidly and astutely, for I had been a Tantarabim Cadet, and had the cap and badges to prove it, not that I was wearing them now, of course. I trudged through the mud for at least a mile, in both directions, and was astonished at the uniformity of the ditch’s depth and featurelessness. Nowhere did I come upon a place where I might gain a foothold on some jagged shard or clump of roots. Returning to the spot where I had first fallen, which I had marked, cadet-fashion, by scraping T for Tantarabim! into the muck with a pointed stick, I reached into another trouser pocket, took out my whistle, and parped a shrill blast on it. This would, I hoped, summon the pale fierce thing back from its sanctuary in the spinney. Already, you see, I had worked out that if I was going to escape this ditch, I would need its help.

While I waited for it to come to me, my thoughts turned once again to Jah Rastafari. I wondered if my predicament was a sufferation imposed on me by Jah for purposes only He knew. This was so dispiriting that I was in danger of betraying my Tantarabim Cadetship and succumbing to tears. Indeed, I even sniffled once or twice. I wanted something to smite, to snap me back to my usual gusto, but all I could see was a ditch beetle in a puddle at my feet. It was beyond smiting, for it had already drowned. I parped on my whistle again.

All I knew of the pale fierce thing, other than its paleness and fierceness, was that it was keen on soup and frightened by fire. These were the facts I had to work with. As far as I knew, it might be deaf, and my whistling was in vain. What then? I could retrudge my steps along the ditch, going further than a mile in each direction, hoping to find that clump or shard or even a ladder. But night was falling, and I would be blundering about in the dark. Better to remain here, only yards away from the spinney, or copse. I did not know what kind of creature the pale fierce thing was, but it had a head, and arms and legs, and possibly a tail, though of that I was not certain, and I had to persuade myself that it also had a sense of compassion. Surely it would want to rescue a pole-vaulting tin cup winner who was also an ex-Tantarabim Cadet? It might even know something of Jah, though that was unlikely. Who truly knows Jah? There can be comfort in theological speculation, even for a sinner such as me. I gave the whistle a third, longer, parp, and turned my mind to the divinity, or otherwise, of Haile Selassie. As if on cue, the head of the pale fierce thing peeped down at me from the edge of the ditch. It had shockingly huge bright eyes, like those of a tamarind, but otherwise there was nothing monkey-like about that head. Somehow I knew speech would be useless. I merely gazed up at it, imploringly. Its head swivelled, left and right, with insect speed, and then returned to look at me again. In the mud, I stood to one side and pointed at my T For Tantarabim! scraping. Did I see a flicker of understanding in those big eyes? It was hard to tell.

A carrion crow swooped in to land and perched on the ditch’s edge a little way from the pale fierce thing. It might have been the same crow from which I had plucked a feather to test the wind. Bird and thing looked at each other, and I was aware of an intensity in the space between them, mesmerising, icy, alien, utterly beyond anything I could comprehend. I squelched my boots in the mud. What would Haile Selassie do? What would Jah do? What, apart from squelching, would I do? I dredged up all I had learned as a Tantarabim Cadet. Testing the wind with the feather of a carrion crow. Always carrying a box of Swan Vestas and knowing how to strike them three or four at a time. Daily pole-vaulting practice, with rest periods. Never bringing a pan of soup to the boil, and transferring the soup to the bowl with deft elegance. Never trying to eat soup with a fork. The carrion crow and the pale fierce thing were still gazing, one to the other, in an uncanny compact. Always buying soup bowls from Hubermann’s. Collecting the discount vouchers and tucking them neatly into the little Hubermann’s discount voucher wallet provided. Being spry and sprightly through the waking hours, and, on one’s pallet, lying splayed out. Checking the mercury six times a day. Never using the string that ties one’s tent pegs into a bundle as a leash for a dog. The naming of dogs to be restricted to Patch or Rags or Spot. Praising Jah Rastafari. Discarding the pips from fruit with care. Never mixing soup with fruit. The sky was black now, but in the faint starlight I could see silhouetted the carrion crow and the pale fierce thing, utterly still, utterly enrapt by each other. Knowing the difference between a spinney and a copse. Knowing a ditch from a trench. Not being reliant on maps. Marking one’s spot by scraping T For Tantarabim! in the mud with a pointed stick. Always carrying a pointed stick. Having the pointed stick threaded through one’s dreadlocks to keep the hands free. Using the hands to smite things to revive gusto. Not smiting that which has drowned. Tying knots. Keeping one’s cadet cap clean and dry. Daily polishing one’s badges with a rag steeped in cadet badge polish from Hubermann’s. Speculating upon the divinity or otherwise of Haile Selassie. Regular study of Ethiopian history. Eschewing frippery where’er it raises its unseemly head.

I had been taught that these Tantarabim Cadetship skills would stand me in good stead throughout my days in Babylon. But now two unseemly heads turned to look down at me in the ditch, in my ditch, the carrion crow and the pale fierce thing, and I knew I was lost.

Cargpan And Beppo

A topic of consuming interest to a number of people is the manner in which Detective Captain Cargpan cut his crime-fighting chops. So impassioned are some that there is a weekly magazine to cater to their needs, entitled O Cargpan! That Thou Were With Us Still! in which beetle-browed fans with nothing better to do publish lengthy and frankly tedious disquisitions upon the earlier cases of the renowned copper. A short extract will suffice to give you some idea of the content:

Later that summer, Cargpan was assigned to the team which had been trying, fruitlessly, to solve the mysterious case of the pod persons from Porlock. Acting on a tip off from Krumbein, the ambitious young detective took fruit with him to his first briefing. His plums were bruised, but he calculated, correctly, that the investigation would no longer be fruitless. His colleagues on the case were Kandinsky, Ferrero-Roché, Pabulum, Squit, Cranedneck, Solomon Gilliblat, Hinges, Darjeeling, Mens Sana, Pillipap, Coobin, Hoobin, Therapanticack and Choobin, Wesk, Flopper, Ruskin, Whistler, Pinkerton, Peris, Perisc, Periscope, Boo Boo, Conceptalbum, Wherwithal, Fanfares, Desk Sergeant Greasejacket, Desk Sergeant Greasejacket’s performing monkey, Flamboyant Man, Elspeth Duckwind, Lavengro, Rasselas, Pompidou and Vampire, Threadbare, Pot, Gack, Snap, Tiddlepan, Forlorn, Riskassessor, Kow Fat Loon, Hoon Bat Lim, Goon Fang, Chow Hang Lip, Kim Park Goong, Trilby Baxter, Serp, Slop, Shandy, Martinamis, Woolgatherer, Poopsie Clutterbuck, Poopsie Clutterbuck’s crippled nephew Simon, whose name was Peter, a pool of seconded temporary volunteers, and some horses, all under the command of Super Captain Fausto Coppi, no relation to the legendary cyclist of that name.

This is the kind of thing the O Cargpan! That Thou Were With Us Still! readers adore. No doubt it took prodigious research to compile that list of team-members, but those of us with a less specialist approach are left wondering how, or even if, the case of the pod persons from Porlock was solved. The author of the piece does not tell us, nor does she follow up the ramifications of Cargpan’s provision of a basket of fruit.

Later in his career, of course, like many fictional detectives, Detective Captain Cargpan had a trusty assistant, a Watson to his Holmes. You will find no mention of Beppo in the umpteen thousand pages of the bound volumes of O Cargpan! That Thou Were With Us Still! held in the reference library at Pointy Town, nor in any of the myriad other journals devoted to the cutting of Cargpan’s crime-fighting chops. Beppo was not yet born when the great detective joined the constabulary, and it was not until the famous case of the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant that the diminutive helpmeet appeared on the scene. Interestingly, this case is one that the aforementioned Dr Watson attributed, in passing, to Sherlock Holmes. Watson made this something of a habit, for he also tried to claim credit for a number of Cargpan & Beppo adventures, including the singular affair of the aluminium crutch, the repulsive story of the red leech and the terrible death of Crosby the banker, the arrest of Wilson the notorious canary-trainer, and the one in which Isadora Persano, the well-known journalist and duellist, was found stark staring mad with a matchbox in front of him which contained a remarkable worm said to be unknown to science.

Such true-life tales of detection and derring-do have thrilled generations. What is less well-known is that when Cargpan eventually retired from the force, and went off to some rustic backwater to keep bees and wasps, Beppo struck out on his own as a private investigator. Very few of his solo adventures have ever been made public, possibly due to their unremitting tedium. Poor Beppo was unfortunate in that he was only ever employed by clients fretting about the state of their taps, or their hedges, or a defective electric socket, or a cat in a tree, or a lost bus pass. He took to drink, and was last heard of wandering aimlessly around the gloomy suburbs of Tantarabim, emitting noxious fumes with every breath, and shouting his head off at snackbar hooligans.

My Brother’s Cistern And My Sister’s Cistern

Today I would like to tell you about cisterns. Specifically, I would like to talk about my brother’s cistern and my sister’s cistern. They are two very different cisterns. My brother’s cistern was manufactured by Pastewick & Co, an old family-run firm, whereas my sister built her own.

Pastewick cisterns are admired for the simple elegance of their design, which still relies on a chain rather than a lever or push button. The founder of the firm, Alonzo Pastewick, who cut a sort of Scaramouche figure, was what is known as a “chain cistern man” in the trade. In contrast to the simplicity of the cistern itself, Pastewick chains tend to be rococo. My brother’s cistern’s chain, for example, is a wonder of metalwork, knotty and swirling and embedded with floral motifs, at the end of which is a wooden handle carved in the form of a Naiad, the Greek fresh water nymph. Neither chain nor handle is a Pastewick original, for these – made before 1911 – are now much-prized and highly expensive. What my brother has is a modern reproduction, made by Pastewick & Co themselves, and still fairly pricey. When he bought the house in which the cistern lurked, like a porcelain treasure, it had one of the postwar ‘Suspension Bridge’ chains the company favoured at the time. It had been ill-treated by the previous occupants – God knows how! – and was buckled and rusting. My brother devised a foolish tale about the chain having been used to weigh down a corpse thrown into a lake, then subsequently recovered, and even tried to sell a short story based upon his idea to Madcap Potboilers! magazine. The editor sensibly refused it and the manuscript ended up as fuel for a bonfire.

I have never been entirely clear how my brother raised the money to buy the Naiad reproduction. Arrested an extraordinary four times in connection with the Sausage Factory Affair, no charges were ever levelled against him and so I suppose he must be innocent. He was also able to prove that the snapshots of him in a conspiratorial huddle with Soapy Binglegloom were faked, which presumably means he had nothing to do with the Pointy Town Killings. Anyway, however he raised the cash, my brother was able to replace his chain and handle within two years of moving in. He even threw a party to celebrate the occasion, which as far as I know is the only time he has ever hosted a party. Certainly it’s the only one I have ever been invited to. I was astonished at all the celebrities who were there. I had no idea my brother had even heard of DeForest Kelley, Nikolaus Pevsner, or Olivia De Havilland, let alone that he was on back-slapping terms with them. Of course we all had to troop into the bathroom at one point to admire the Pastewick reproduction, while my brother brayed. That was the night of the Squirrel Sanctuary Horror, so he had a perfect alibi.

My sister wasn’t at the party, though she had been invited. She had a good excuse, having slipped a disc while doing the final digging for her home-made cistern. Hers is a huge tank with a cement floor and dirt walls coated in plaster. There is a lid, of course, to prevent mud, creepy crawlies, small creatures such as otters or weasels, or her seven children from getting into the water. She pooh-poohs Pastewick and all his works. “The man was but a Scaramouche chain cistern man,” she wrote in her latest letter to me, from her cell in the Big Grim Prison at Vug-On-The-Ack, where she is on remand as the chief suspect in the Choctaw Guide Dog Scandal. I have no idea whether she is innocent or guilty, but I promised her I would keep an eye on her cistern, and that I shall.

Pointy Town News

Is Hooting Yard a lopsided version of the world, or is the world a lopsided version of Hooting Yard? Today, news comes in that leads us a little closer to answering that age-old question.

The comments appended here by readers are always worthy of your attention. Occasionally I think it necessary to give a comment a more prominent airing, for even the most assiduous reader might miss a buried gem. Like this one, received today regarding The Heroic Bus Driver Of Pointy Town:

Hi there. With all this discussion of our township I thought it was about time we thanked you for putting Pointy Town on the map. Well, it already is on the map of the Yukon Territory here in Canada, but we don’t get to be in the news much. Pointy Town has just elected a Mayor for the first time, after being recognised as a township, and we have appointed a promotions chief to put us on the Web. The Mayor is Johnny Osikomiwasa (proud of his Inuit roots) and his buzz word this week is ‘promotion’. So that’s what I am doing. So I intend to climb to the top of Pointy Hill (it really is very pointy) and start promoting – well actually I will probably have to do the promoting from my office computer. So keep up the good work and tell the world about our Pointy Town. Hugs, Kelly (very tired, on fire watch)

Now, Kelly Le Cornu, my correspondent, has an email address at pointytown.com.ca, and I have no reason to believe she is a fictional character. Isn’t it marvellous to think that there is a real Pointy Town, with a Pointy Hill? I am looking forward to the promised web presence of this magnificent township, and will certainly link to it. If anyone would like to start planning an outing, let me know. As some wag put it the other day, “it’s like Hooting Yard gone mad!”

Six Lectures On Fruit

Dobson’s Six Lectures On Fruit were among the most highly-regarded of his works, held in an esteem that the contemporary reader finds unfathomable. Revisiting these pamphlets, it swiftly becomes apparent that Dobson has no idea what he’s talking about. The revised view of the Lectures is put best by one upstart young Dobson scholar, who dismisses them as “bloviating and orotund”.

Consider the first lecture, On The Putting Of Fruit Into Pies, in which Dobson challenges the accepted definitions of both ‘fruit’ and ‘pies’, not to mention the usual meanings of the verb ‘to put’. Some critics like to pretend that the essay is a precursor of what would become known as postmodernism or deconstruction, and inasmuch as it is clueless gibberish, they are correct. In his defence, the pamphleteer does not dress up his babble in needlessly complicated pseudoacademic jargon. Indeed, his language is direct, even earthy, and littered with harsh Anglo Saxon expletives, but he betrays depths of almost unimaginable ignorance. The climax of the lecture is supposed to be a recipe for what Dobson calls a ‘prune and lemon pastry explosion’, but the instructions are so befogged by witlessness that, to my knowledge, no one has ever succeeded in making it.

The genesis of the Lectures was an invitation to Dobson from the Orchard Persons Of The Port Of Tongs. Those of you familiar with the geography of this wretched seaside town will know that it is bounded on its eastern landward side by a terrific number of orchards. The Orchard Persons’ Social Club & Community Centre was situated in a clearing between a pear orchard and a persimmon orchard, and the usual entertainments it hosted were nights of oompah oompah music and freakish dancing. Perhaps that is why Dobson chose to deliver his second lecture, On The Cutting Of Grapefruit Into Segments Of Equal Size, in the form of rhyming couplets, to the accompaniment of a glockenspiel. He was not a skilled glockenspielist, nor did he have much understanding of geometry, as those Orchard Persons discovered who went home and tried to cut their grapefruit the Dobson way .

For the third and fourth lectures, Dobson resorted to anecdote and personal reminiscence, recounting a series of yarns under the headings All The Plums I Have Ever Eaten, Where I Was, And What They Tasted Like and How I Built A Coathanger Out Of Fig Stones.

Audiences were dwindling by this time, and only three people turned up to listen to what was to become the most notorious of the Lectures, the Dialogue Between A Raspberry And A Tangerine. Even those who are most severely critical of the series are forced to admit that Dobson did a tremendous amount of research for this one. He was barely out of the reading room of the Pointy Town Municipal Library for weeks on end, poring over books on topics as diverse as fruit, philately, biochemistry, aerodynamics, the Peninsular Wars, tugboats, flamenco dancing, and the Diet of Worms. But his claims to have penetrated the very essence of a raspberry and a tangerine are, quite frankly, ludicrous. Marigold Chew told him so as they ate breakfast on a hopeless veranda on the morning before the lecture. Dobson’s response was to weep great racking sobs into his bowl of Special K. He spent all day making revisions to the text, some of which have a certain Jesuitical rigour, and by the time he arrived at the clearing between pear and persimmon orchards he was brimming with confidence. Preposterous it may be, but the Dialogue Between A Raspberry And A Tangerine retains to this day a kind of magnificent declamatory brio. Lengthy extracts from the lecture formed the libretto of a concept album by prog rock titans Gratuitoüs Umlaut.

The published edition of Six Lectures On Fruit contained only the texts of the first five lectures. Some Dobsonists have argued that the sixth in the series never actually existed, that Dobson had some kind of brain spasm and that all knowledge of fruit was wiped from his mind. E V Van Voo did much to spread this story, in a foolish ‘conspiracy theory’ novel, but he overlooks the fact that the pamphleteer was never a man to let ignorance stop him expounding at length on any subject he turned his mind to.

What in fact happened was that when Dobson arrived in the clearing on the final Thursday he found the doors of the Social Club barred and bolted, and no one in sight. Even the birds had fled from their perches on the trees that fringed the clearing. Dobson took one look at the mighty iron padlock on the door, reached into his satchel, took out the notes of his sixth and final lecture – some drivel about bananas, or marmalade – and tore them into confetti, and cast them unto the winds, and then he trudged off into one of the orchards, and shook a branch until pears and persimmons came tumbling to earth, and he sat on a tuffet and gorged himself on fruit until he was bloated, and, bloated, he waddled homewards, along the lane out of the orchard, body and brain with fruit bloated.

The Heroic Bus Driver Of Pointy Town

There was a heroic bus driver, and his name was Kim Fat Goo. He drove his bus through puddles. He drove it straight and true, though he swerved if he saw a duck or a pig or an infant human tiny or a succubus or an incubus as he steered towards the briny. He drove his bus across Pointy Town, heading for the sea. At the beach he stopped to let passengers off and he drank a flask of tea. Oh, Kim Fat Goo he drained his flask and he tipped the dregs in the sand, and he idled awhile on the promenade and he watched a spaceship land. Out poured a gaggle of alien beings with flippers and antennae and claws and flagrant disregard for the rubric of Pointy Town laws.

“We are an invasion force from the Planet of Contaminated Wheat. We are starveling spacemen and we need something to eat.”

“I will drive you to the pie shop,” said fearless Kim Fat Goo, “Get on the bus and sit quietly till we reach the pie shop queue.”

But he drove his bus up into the hills to a hermit’s abandoned hut, and he lured the invading spacemen in and sealed the doorway shut. So Kim Fat Goo the bus driver was the saviour of Pointy Town, and that is why his name rings out with imperishable renown.

Dobson’s Chartreuse Weskit

In her book Neglected Classics Of Hysterical And Overwrought Prose, the scholar Constance Mufton mentions in passing “an out of print pamphlet by Dobson in which he gives a highly amusing account of his purchase of a chartreuse weskit”. This reference, buried in a footnote to a footnote to a footnote, long perplexed Dobsonists of various stripes, none of whom could identify with any confidence the pamphlet Mufton had in mind.

An alarming young Dobsonist named Ned Pondlife tracked down the aged scholar to a chalet perched on a flinty outcrop, and hammered at her door, intending to question her directly about the source of her assertion. Nowhere else is there any record of Dobson wearing, or even owning, a weskit, chartreuse or otherwise, and Pondlife thought that if he could solve this admittedly small mystery his reputation as a Dobsonist would be boosted. Alas, upon opening her chalet door, Constance Mufton took one look at the young upstart and fell into a swoon, a swoon that presaged a decline, a decline which had her carted off to a bewilderment home, a bewilderment home where she muttered and dribbled and chewed brazil nuts and sucked butterscotch and finally passed into the Realm Beyond Petty Earthly Cares. Indeed, Ned Pondlife’s countenance was truly terrifying. On a blistering September day during his childhood, Pondlife had had the misfortune to be attacked by both a flock of starlings and a swarm of hornets, and although he was left with no physical scars, thereafter the horror of what he had undergone, on the lawn and at the mouth of the cave, in the September sunshine, in his little sailor’s suit, aged six, could be seen on his face, all twitching and bonkers.

The ambitious young Dobsonist’s next step was to consult an inventory of the out of print pamphleteer’s wardrobe, if such a thing existed. He visited any number of libraries and academic institutions, clutching a bus pass, but wherever he went found he had to avert his gaze from frightened puppies which yapped at his approach, and his progress was thus accompanied by such a din that serious research became impossible.

Q – Why were there so many puppies in the vicinity of these libraries and seats of learning?

A – Because the puppies were the offspring of the guard dogs, left free to roam with impunity until they were old enough to join the elite corps of library hounds and do sentry duty in their turn.

Ned Pondlife was in danger of growing old and creaking before he discovered the truth about Dobson’s chartreuse weskit. From time to time, he thought about diverting his attention elsewhere, by making a special study of Dobson’s breakfasts, or of his failed thought-control experiments, his pin cushions and pencil sharpeners, the big flap when he became wedged in a crevasse, his correspondence with Ringo Starr, his lapsang souchong, his tin, his talc, even his encounter with the rancorous squeegee goblin. But not one of these projects could ever inspire him as thoroughly as the mystery of whether or not Dobson had bought a chartreuse weskit, and if he had, when and where he had worn it, and why. What was so maddening was that it just didn’t seem like a piece of Dobsonian attire. And yet, until her late befuddlement, Constance Mufton had been one of the most assiduous of Dobson scholars, and her work was respected from Pointy Town to Mustard Parva and beyond. Surely she could not be mistaken?

But she was.

Good King Wenceslas Impersonation Incident

“Hearken ye, stooped mendicant at my gate! I am Good King Wenceslas, and I am looking out, and I can see you, poor and shivering in your rags, for the snow is deep and crisp and even. There are not even any tracks in the frozen white expanse, such as would be made by wolves or bears. Wait there at my gate, O wretch, and shortly I shall descend from my castle ramparts and join you in the snow!”

So said Old Halob, on the feast of Stephen, for he had rented a room in a castle and was getting carried away by his new surroundings. Those of you who have been paying attention will know that Old Halob was the cantankerous training manager of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, and thus far more likely to be found puffing cigarettes at the side of a running track than lording it from the tower of a splendid Mitteleuropean castle. Yet here he was, a battered tin crown atop his potato-shaped head, pretending to be monarch of all he surveyed, though all he could survey was covered in snow, including the mendicant. It was not true, however, that the snow was deep and crisp and even. It was certainly the first two, but no one could in all conscience call it even, for here and there the snow had drifted into clumps, some as high as a swan, and it was beside such a swan-sized clump that the mendicant stooped. Now, unbeknown to Old Halob, this mendicant was known as the Natterjack Man, and he was well known in the vicinity of the castle. He had earned his sobriquet because he had the face and manners of a toad, though none of the hallucinatory properties of a toad’s skin, which, if licked, can provoke visions, depending, of course, on the type of toad.

Up in his rented chambers, Old Halob straightened the crown on his head and prised his feet into a pair of galoshes. Between these extremities, his garb or raiment was such that we shall pass over it in silence, for we do not wish to frighten the tinies. Clutching a lanthorn in his grimy fist, and coughing violently, the legendary athletics coach stumbled down a stone staircase, impeded every few steps by the crows, bats and badgers whose domain this was. It was that kind of castle. Reaching the grand entrance hall at long last, toes crushed by the constricting galoshes, Old Halob took a moment to gather himself. He was not a sentimental man, but he felt a dull pang in his breast as he pictured himself standing at the edge of the race track at O’Houlihan’s Wharf, around which fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol would sprint, round and round and round, unstoppable. Rashly, the coach had paid six months’ rent in advance for his castle chamber, and sent Bobnit Tivol off to a basketry-weaving compound high in some distant hills, where his sprained ankle would be rested and righted. The old tyrant had not foreseen how grievously he would miss his fictional charge, nor that he would spend his castle days moping and splenetic and endlessly removing the crows which perched on his tin crown, as one perched now, cawing at ear-splitting volume. Old Halob reached up and grabbed the bird by its black throat and tossed it none too gently towards the stairwell. Then he aimed and activated his pocket pod and the huge iron doors of the castle swung open, eerily silent, and he thumped out into the snow on the feast of Stephen.

The Natterjack Man still stooped by the swan-high clump of snow, awaiting the man he thought was Good King Wenceslas. For a begging bowl, he carried a plastic beaker which he had found discarded outside the pie shop and canteen at the end of the lane that led from the castle to the stinking cluster of hovels where the local mendicants spent much of their time lying around groaning and whimpering. In truth, they were rather well-appointed hovels, each with its own spigot and catflap and guttering, the latter of gleaming new stainless steel, installed by the local stainless steel guttering chaps, and paid for by the mendicants themselves with the proceeds from the sale of their hot salty tears to a sinister ex-princess who haunted the wild and horrible woods beyond the hovels.

“Hail, stooping mendicant!” yelled Old Halob, in what he thought was a kingly tone, “Stoop no more, for I bring thee succour!”

The Natterjack Man unstooped, and pushed his plastic beaker towards the ‘king’.

“By God, you look like a toad!” cried Old Halob, aghast. Then he collected himself and remembered his manners. “Still, that is no reason why you cannot become a top championship athlete, eh?”

For the succour the wily old coach had in mind was that he could take this wretched beggar and transform him, through a rigorous exercise regime, into a world-beating sporting legend, weighed down with medals and trophies. The Natterjack Man made no reply, but pointed to his withered leg, and then to his other withered leg, and then to his withered arm, and then to his other withered arm, and then sort of disported himself in such a way that his general witheredness was gruesomely apparent. The counterfeit Good King Wenceslas laughed in his face.

“I am the king!” he shouted, “Do you think for one minute, you puny wretch, that I have not the power to turn you into a pole-vaulting champion of global renown? I have no doubt in my astonishingly incisive mind that you can become a credit to Team Halob!”

And he grabbed hold of the Natterjack Man’s ragged sleeve and propelled him towards the nearest athletics stadium, twenty miles distant, and put him through his paces. It is a curious fact that only upon his deathbed, thirty years later, the winner of no fewer than sixteen pole-vaulting gold medals, famed beyond common sense throughout Tantarabim and Pointy Town and all points westward, learned for the first time that his benefactor was not, nor ever had been, Good King Wenceslas, but was none other than the irascible and chain smoking Old Halob. The surprise felled him, or would have felled him had he not already been lying on his back, close to death, muffled by bandages, in the bedroom of his converted hovel in the shadows of the castle upon which snow had fallen, in which crows and bats and badgers had swooped and scuffled, where a tin crown and a pair of galoshes could still be found, high on the highest shelf in the highest chamber, higher than even the Natterjack Man had ever vaulted in his prime.