Archive for the 'Prose' Category

The King And His Retinue

Here comes the King, clopping along on his horse. His retinue, today, includes an Elk, Peacock, Shark, Butterfly, Lion, Tiger, Rabbit, Book, Coat, Boot, Hare, Rake, Barrel, Caterpillar, Pigeon, Yard Stick, Snail, Match, Turtle, Owl, Rhinoceros, Antelope, Watch, Skull, Cat, Cow, Giraffe, Priest, Mummy, Humpty Dumpty, Squirrel, 5 Fishes, 2 Indians, 12 Faces, 3 Mice, 11 Dogs, 3 Eagles, 5 Letters, 5 Ducks, 2 Camels, 3 Elephants, 7 Men, 2 Monkeys, 2 Cymbals, 4 Birds, 4 Bears, 4 Goats, 8 Frogs, 2 Seals, 3 Beavers, 9 Sheep, 3 Ladies, 5 Horses, 5 Pigs, 2 Chickens, 4 Alligators, 2 Boys, 2 Babies, 2 Combs. It is a curious retinue, but then he is a curious King. His father said as much, when the King was yet a Prince.

“The Prince,” said the old King to his wife, the Queen, languishing at death’s door as usual, “Is a very curious young man. There is for one thing the business with the buttons. There is for another thing the shape of the head. I fear he will become a curious King when his time comes.”

The Queen groaned and asked the King to summon the nurse to replace her mustard plaster.

The King, then Prince, was six when these words were spoken. Now he is sixty-six. He has been the King for over half a century. It is almost as long ago that he put the business with the buttons behind him. The shape of the head, being physiological rather than whimsy, was not so easily discarded. And yet, over the long years, the shape of the head had changed, slowly gradually glacially, as it moulded itself better to fit the crown atop it. The crown had been struck for and first worn by the King’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, though we ought not try to be too precise about the number of greats. History can be treacherous the farther back we delve.

Ahead of the King now, as he clops on his horse, are the motorcycle outriders. There is a significant number of them also at the rear of the retinue, just behind the 2 Babies and 2 Combs. The motorcycle engines purr, their purr a constant below the rhythmic clopping. The King’s tape-recordist skitters now ahead, now behind, now in the midst of the retinue, never satisfied that he has found quite the perfect spot to immortalise the sound of the King’s progress through his island. Today’s recording, however imperfect, will fill the airwaves of the radio station for the next week or more. The King’s subjects will listen, rapt, as they go about their grind.

Today’s sniper is stationed, foolishly and predictably, at the sixth-floor window of one of the replicas of the Texas Schoolbook Depository building in Dallas. These clapboard but highly accurate constructions have been placed at intervals along the King’s route, specifically to lure and entrap foolish and predictable would-be assassins. Sure enough, with minutes to spare before the King and his retinue hove into the sniper’s sights, a SWAT team takes him out with extreme prejudice. The SWAT team have been awaiting the signal from their base in a replica LZ 129 Hindenburg airship hovering high in the clouds above the replica Schoolbook Depository.

There is always the possibility that the King may be threatened by a sniper who is both intelligent and unpredictable, and there is a Plan B to deal with such a situation. I hope I am not giving too much away by revealing that the 2 Monkeys, 4 Bears, and six of the 9 Sheep in the retinue are not quite what they seem.

The King himself is not even aware of Plan B. It was thought best not to tell him. He has never really regained his wits since a sniper’s bullet felled his father, the old King, over half a century ago. Hence his relentless criss-crossing of his island kingdom, astride his clopping horse, with his curious retinue, to no apparent purpose, and with no apparent end.

Monkey In Ice

Slaloming from my chalet down to the post office, I stopped short when I saw, at the edge of a crevasse, a monkey encased in a block of ice. I am no expert on monkeys, and I was not sure what kind of monkey it was. It was between a quarter and a third of the size of an average human, if such a thing exists. I made a note with a propelling pencil in my jotting pad to remind me of the precise location, then carried on down to the post office at the foot of the mountain. I transacted my business – at this distance in time I cannot remember what it was – and made my way to the funicular railway station, stopping off to buy a pastry snack and a bag of plums.

I told the conductor that I wanted to alight before my usual, chalet level, stop. He raised one eyebrow and gave me a quizzical look, but dinted my ticket with his metal ticket dinter without further comment. The windows of the carriage were steamed up, so I could not see a thing outside. I lit my pipe, and we began to creak slowly upwards.

I got off when the conductor gave me the nod, and trudged over to the crevasse. In my absence, the block of ice had not thawed one iota. If anything it had frozen to even more adamantine solidity, not surprising given the foul weather. The sun had been obscured by clouds and mist and bad air for three or four days on the trot. I tapped my bemittened knuckle on the ice, but of course the monkey inside did not stir. How could it? It too was frozen solid.

My first thought had been to melt the ice in situ, releasing the monkey dangerously close to the crevasse. If, upon regaining consciousness, it bounded off in the direction of the gaping chasm and looked as if it might plunge to its death, I hoped to forestall such a calamity by tempting it with plums, or pastry. But while aboard the funicular railway, I had become peckish, extinguished my pipe, and eaten half the plums and the entire pastry. I had to rethink my plans. It would make far more sense to haul the block of ice up to my chalet, and to melt it there. This would have the advantage that I could immediately put the frozen monkey in a place of comfort – my sofa or my bed – so that when it eventually awoke it would be less likely to panic and plunge down a crevasse.

The problem now was how to transport the block of ice up the unforgiving mountainside. Monkeys, I knew, were banned from the funicular railway, and with good reason. I was barely strong enough to clamber uphill unencumbered, let alone shoving, Sisyphean fashion, a block of ice containing a monkey ahead of me. For one wild moment I envisioned a helicopter swooping down, rope dangling, to ferry my cargo to the chalet. But of course the mountain, and its hinterland for miles in every direction, were a no fly zone according to Directive No. 17. What I had always found puzzling, incidentally, was the impossibility of finding out what on earth Directives Nos. 1 to 16 were. Nobody seemed to know, or at least nobody was willing to tell.

Then I remembered that I had, in my cupboard in the chalet, a very lengthy length of sturdy chain. It should be possible to affix one end of this to the block of ice, and to devise a contraption which, with minimal effort from me, for example dainty movements of my little fingers, would drag the block of ice up to my chalet. Satisfied, I lit my pipe and waited for the funicular railway to resume my journey up and home.

While I waited I peered at the monkey inside the ice, or as much of it as I could see, which in truth was very little. Sometimes ice is crystal clear, but this block was somewhat more opaque. It gave the monkey a blurred quality, as if viewed by a catastrophically myopic person, or seen in a dream. I had often dreamed of such monkeys, blurry, ill-defined, and ominously still. It had never occurred to me to wonder what these dreams might “mean”, as if they could possibly mean anything! Stalin has always seemed to me a far better guide than Freud. That is why I have a hammer-and-sickle emblem nailed to the door of my chalet, to announce my stance to any visitors, thus averting the risk of futile conversations.

And the funicular railway carriage arrived on schedule and I clambered aboard and I smoked my pipe and ate the remainder of the plums and I alighted at my usual stop and I went home and I devised a contraption to drag the block of ice up the mountain slope and I fetched the chain from the cupboard and I fixed one end of it to the bracket on the contraption and gave it a hefty tug to ensure it was secure and I started to make my way slaloming back down the mountain paying out the chain behind me until I came to the block of ice with the monkey inside it and I wrapped the chain round and round the ice and gave it a hefty tug to ensure it was secure and I returned to the funicular railway stop to wait for the carriage to take me back uphill and then I began to feel peckish again and instead of going home I slalomed down to the village and bought another pastry and another bag of plums and I sat on a stone bench next to a statue of Stalin and scoffed the pastry and the plums and when I was replete I fell into a doze right there on the bench and I dreamed of a monkey, blurry, ill-defined, and ominously still.

I can hardly believe that fifty years have passed since that day.



Where Are The Snows Of Yesteryear?

Until yesterday, the snows of yesteryear were being kept in bins in a remote and refrigerated storage facility. Due to a security alert, however, the bins were moved during the night. A fleet of trucks ferried the snow, in the bins, to a secret location. The trucks were refrigerated as, too, we must assume, is the secret location. Because it is secret, I cannot tell you where it is. I don’t even know myself. But what this means is that we cannot answer the question, where are the snows of yesteryear?

Obviously we can answer that they are in a secret, refrigerated, location, but that is hardly satisfactory. The more persistent reporters from the winter weather phenomena press are unlikely to return to their igloo offices only to face the wrath of their white-bearded, icicle-strewn editors. No, they will think up ever more cunning ways to phrase their questions, hoping to trip up the snow authorities.

The snows of yesteryear, where are they?, they might ask, or Yesteryear, the snows of, whatever happened to them? Sooner or later a dimwit on the panel will blurt out the precise coordinates of the secret location, and frenzy will ensue.

Snow frenzy is akin to snow fury, and we are reminded of the bestselling paperback Like A Woman Scorn’d by Ella Snowfury. It was in fact by Pebblehead, writing under a pseudonym. There is a rogue edition purporting to be by Ella Thnowfury, copies of which have fetched sums as high as 15 New Pence on eBay.

Où sont les neiges d’antan?

Where are the snows of yesteryear?
They have been shovelled into a refrigerated container and ferried to a remote storage facility, also refrigerated, where they are kept in specially-designed “snow bins”.

How can I gain access to the storage facility?
With difficulty. As stated, it is remote.

Assuming for the moment that I have at my disposal a tremendous form of transport that could zoom me to the remotest parts of the earth in a matter of minutes, in which direction should I point it before depressing the big knob with “Go!” etched upon it?
You do not actually have such a form of transport, do you?

Well, no, but let’s just say that I did.
Your direction of travel would depend upon where you are starting from.

I am in Pointy Town.
There is plenty of snow in Pointy Town. Each winter it settles on the pointiest bits of town and remains there, cold and white and frozen, until the chirruping of little birdies in the springtime. Why in heaven’s name would you need access to the snow bins in the remote storage facility?


If whim is not a good enough reason, then let us say I have been appointed by the burghers of Pointy Town to compare our own snow with the snows of yesteryear, and to make my report accordingly.
These burghers, are they in their right minds?

That is a moot point. I know one of them suffered a bash on the bonce with a snow-shovel last winter and has not been quite the same since. He jabbers and drools and drools and jabbers, turn and turn about.
And was it this particular burgher who commissioned you to examine the snows of yesteryear?

Yes, it was.
Did you not stop to consider that any comparison you made between the snow currently enveloping Pointy Town and the snows of yesteryear would be futile?

They josh that my middle name is Futility.
So you are the go-to guy for fool’s errands?

I live in a Paradise of Fools.
I thought you said you lived in Pointy Town? Are you trying to pull the wool over my eye?

Do you mean eyes?
No, eye. I am Cyclopean.

A Cyclopean janitor of snow bins?

Ah, I read about you in The Cyclopean Janitor of Snow Bins, a bestselling blockbuster paperback by Pebblehead!
In which, I have to say, I was wholly misrepresented, so much so that I have taken legal action with a view to having the entire run of several million copies pulped.

If you succeed, what will you do with all that pulp?
I will shovel it into an unrefrigerated container and ferry it to a remote storage facility, also unrefrigerated, and keep it in specially-designed “pulp bins”.

Would that be the same remote storage facility where you keep the snows of yesteryear?
No, the one is refrigerated and the other not.

So you would need to be in two places at once to perform your janitorial duties?
No, I would employ a Cyclopean pulp bin janitor.

If I pluck out one of mine eyes, could I have the job?
There is a waiting list of applicants.

How could I shove myself to the front of that list?
With sharp elbows.

Consider them sharpened!
Welcome aboard.

Thoughts On A Characteristically English August Bank Holiday

The rain it raineth in my brain
And outside too, upon the mud
I wonder will it ever drain
Or drown all life in a great flood
My sons are Japheth, Ham, and Shem
They’ve not one brolly between them
Before nightfall, when it grows dark
We had better board my ark
And take the animals two by two
We’ll have ourselves a floating zoo
Oh look! There is an aerostat
Hovering o’er Mount Ararat
Time’s out of joint, I got befuddled
I’m not Noah, I’m Key, empuddled
The rain it raineth in my brain
The rain it raineth, come rain or rain

Picnic Praxis

Oi!, writes Tim Thurn again, this time without even the small courtesy of addressing me by name, Not only do you neglect to issue warnings about bat-gods, but now you are making wild and unhinged assumptions about your readers, or at least about me. The other day you had the gall to “reassure” me regarding the bat-god Slosher by pointing out that he is only ever seen in the vicinity of marshes, “where he – [i.e., me] – is unlikely to practise his picnicking”. And what do you know of my picnicking proclivities, eh?

As it happens I often go a-picnicking at a particularly dreadful and eerie marsh, out beyond the Blister Lane Bypass and the Grimpen Mire mosh pit. Incidentally, if you ever feel compelled to disport and cavort with spastic exuberance, in mud, I wholeheartedly recommend this mosh pit. I am told by the OED that spastic may cause offence, but that is not my intention. I am using the word merely to indicate the kind of uncoordinated flailing about with which persons commonly comport themselves in mosh pits – at least, the persons and mosh pits of my acquaintance, of which there are oodles.

Just because I mentioned my picnic praxis of hoisting a placard and sounding a picnic-klaxon upon entering a field upon a picnic bent, that is not to say that a field is my exclusive choice of picnic spot. Far from it. There is an old “pop” number called something like Wherever I Lay My Hat, That’s My Home. Some years ago I wrote a frankly autobiographical version, retitled Wherever I Lay My Picnic Blanket, That’s My Picnic Spot. Over several verses I described some memorable past picnics in a variety of settings, including a field, the aforementioned dreadful and eerie marsh, a buttercup-splattered meadow, bosky hillsides, mountaintops, shores of lake and sea, haunts of coot and hern, multi-storey carparks, aerodrome hangars, the Blister Lane Bypass, the mosh pit at Grimpen Mire, Loopy Copse, the occasional pier and jetty, a bus shelter in Plovdiv, and the inside of my own head. That last one was a dream-picnic, ruined by a swarm of hornets.

I was so pleased with my song that I cobbled together a band to perform it and booked time in a recording studio. Interestingly, this was the first time my glockenspielist, Midge Ure, had ever set foot in a studio. At least I think he said his name was Midge Ure, though I may have misheard him. We pressed several hundred copies of the “waxing”, in coloured vinyl, and I still have most of them in a cardboard box under a spare picnic blanket in a cupboard.

Please let me know if you would like me to write a series of lengthy guest postages for you. I could cover all aspects of the infinitely intriguing world o’ picnics, in exhaustive detail. And I can promise you now there would be no mention of Slosher! (fingers crossed).

Yours picnicly, Tim Thurn

Fatso And Slosher

Hail to thee, O mighty Mr Key!, writes Tim Thurn, sarcastically, before lapsing into his usual embittered petulance, I’ve got a bone to pick with you. It is a good few years now since you revealed, without warning, the existence of the hideous bat-god Fatso, a god so hideous and batty and fat that I suffered from awful nightmares for weeks, nay, months. Eventually, with the help of several psychiatrists and a larder’s-worth of bottles of Dr Baxter’s Brain-Calming Syrup, I managed to get a grip on my life. Nowadays my sleep is relatively untroubled, except for those nights when I wake with a start and seem to see the hideous bat-god Fatso looming malevolently at the foot of my bed.

Imagine my horror, then, to read your postage the other day entitled The Smashed God and to learn that there is another bat-god, called Slosher. I don’t know what the opposite of blessing my little cotton socks is – I leave that for your readers to ponder – but that is what you have done, Mr Key. Maddeningly, you provided no description of the bat-god Slosher, save for telling us that he is a bat-god and his name is Slosher. In the absence of any other detail, my mind has been running riot, picturing a god even more hideous, more batty, and fatter than Fatso. Now they visit me nightly, Fatso and Slosher, or their ghostly apparitions, one on either side of the bed. I swear I can hear them squeaking. I have emptied the chemist’s shop of bottles of Dr Baxter’s Brain-Calming Syrup, and glugged the lot, but my brain is by no means calm.

What rankles is that you make passing mention of Slosher, in among all sorts of other, non-terrifying, gods, for all the world as if you were innocently listing the contents of your picnic hamper. I presume you have a picnic hamper. If not, I have a couple of spares, for I am – or was – a very keen picnickist. In a fit of wild generosity, I would almost be prepared to send you one of my extra hampers, empty of course, in spite of the chaos you have wrought in my brain. That is the kind of decent picnickist I am. Unlike you, I issue warnings. When I plan to enter a field to lay out my picnic blanket, I first alert any cows, sheep, grasshoppers, etcetera of my intentions by hoisting a placard and sounding a picnic-klaxon. That is what you ought to do, or the prose equivalent thereof, when you are about to tell us about yet another hideous bat-god, be it Fatso or Slosher or, Christ have mercy upon us, any others you have up your sleeve that you have not yet divulged to your fanatically devoted readers who treat every syllable scribbled by your pen as holy writ.

There. I have said my piece for the time being. Now I am going to go and stand, windswept, embittered, and petulant, upon a suspension bridge, gazing into the distance, into a sky I hope will be innocent of bats and bat-gods.

Yours ever, Tim Thurn

I would like to reassure Tim that the bat-god Slosher is only ever to be spotted in the vicinity of the drearier and more squelchy marshes, places where he is unlikely to practise his picnicking.

The Smashed God

[This piece was originally posted on 23 August 2005.]

Poopsy Clutterbuck is not a suitable name for a god. For that reason, it became a terrible blasphemy ever to speak the name of the God of Gaar aloud. Those who disobeyed the law were banished from Gaar forever. They were put into airtight pods and the pods were stuffed into the sidecars of gleaming motorcycles, and thence ferried far far away, though few knew where they were taken, only that weeks or months later the motorcycle would return to Gaar, at dead of night, and the now empty pod removed from the sidecar and taken to a secret place where the pods were steamed clean and fumigated. I am one of the few who know where the blasphemers were banished to, for I was one of the motorcyclists.

Oh my, I can hardly believe how long ago it was! I am decrepit now, decrepit and wizened, and I don’t think I have kick-started a motorcycle for forty or fifty years. I loved that job.

In those days we had many gods in Gaar, but only one was authentic, the one whose name could not be uttered. In addition, we had fifteen green-eyed weasel gods, a pair of plastic marchmont gods, the hideous centipede god of Tuesday evenings, Bosh the crumpled god, eighty squirrel gods, numberless gods with two or more heads, even one god with no head at all, and a god whose breath ignited stars. We had the bucket god and the athletics track god, the god of railway platforms and the gods of puddles. Some gods were ephemeral, tiny things, like your mayflies. Others were massive and solid and permanent. But only one god was real, the God with the upper case G, the one whose name could not be spoken.

Nowadays, those of us who rode the motorcycles in the sidecars of which blasphemers languished, muffled, in pods, are thought of as fanatics. I still get sidelong looks of contempt or loathing when I go to the post office or the greengrocery. I was spat at in the street as recently as six months ago. When I buy my fireworks, they are invariably tampered with, so that they sputter rather than sparkle. I can’t remember the last time one of my fireworks went whoooosh!

My favourite god was the gas god. It made a tremendous growling noise and it was usually sixty feet high, but sometimes smaller. Every now and then, because I was a motorcyclist, it would carry out its godlike doings in my back garden, and I would watch from the window, entranced. Our windows then were made of cellophane, and I would prick holes in my window with the point of a sharpened pencil, the better to appreciate the misty wafts of the gas god.

I was a believer, yes, but never a zealot. I got my job as a motorcyclist because my mother had been one, because I was unafraid of the weather, and because I prayed that it would be so. Some of my prayers involved animal sacrifice, the evisceration of poultry on a stone altar, for example, but more often than not I would be found squatting in an alleyway singing snatches of Nimrod with not a hen in sight, dead or alive. I have always wondered which of my prayers were answered, for answered they were, on that joyous day when I was bundled out of bed and taken to motorcycle training school. I do recall sprawling in the muck in front of a statue of the beetle-browed god of the railway sidings and the pewter chicken, as a way of saying thank you. But I was young then.

I am all bent out of shape now. A breakfast bowl of tomato soup is scant solace when all the gods have gone away. And to think that every god-jack of them disappeared over the course of a single weekend. As dawn broke on Saturday, the very air of Gaar was teeming with them. Slosher the bat god, the god of toffee apples, twenty little postage stamp-sized pneumatic gods, the clingfilm sausage god, a whole slew of gods decked out in kagouls, windcheaters and funny little pointed hats, all those magnificent deities, all devoted to Gaar and in turn worshipped by all the good people of Gaar. By Sunday night they were all gone. The upper case G God of Gaar whose name can never be spoken was the last to go. It was smashed to pieces at midnight in the town square, by some kind of elemental destructive cataclysm. No human agency could have wrought such ruin. I sip my cold tomato soup and mourn my gods still.

And now only I know to what crumbling seaside town we took the blasphemers, and I will never tell a soul.

Gay Limp Thief

[Thanks once again to R. Previous episodes in this exciting series are gathered here.]

So this tangle of thieves broke into the Phosphorescent Family Compound one night. They stole, from one larder, a bag of phosphorus, and, from another larder another, bigger, bag of phosphorus. Then they softly and suddenly vanished away, like Snarks.

In the morning, upon discovering the robbery, Old Pappy Phosph called the coppers. With inhuman speed, Detective Captain Cargpan was on the scene, sniffing about and writing things with a pencil in his notepad.

“Don’t you worry, Old Pappy,” he said, “I’ll have these ne’er-do-wells bang to rights and being roughed up in the police station basement by my boys by midnight, or my name isn’t Detective Captain Cargpan and I’m not sniffing about and writing things with a pencil in my notepad.”

Old Pappy Phosph put the kettle on for a cup of phosphorescent tea.

The telephone rang at one minute past midnight.

“Detective Captain Cargpan here. That noise you can hear in the background is my boys roughing up the thieves who stole your bags of phosphorus last night. I’m pleased to report we’ve caught them. Well, all but one of them, and he happens to be the one who knows where they stashed their loot. So the case is not yet closed. But don’t you worry, Old Pappy, with a bit more roughing up and some bone-breaking and skull-bashing and pincers and hammers and electric drills I think we’ll find our man, and, more importantly, your bags of phosphorus, possibly before I’ve finished speaking.

“The interesting thing about this tangle of thieves is that they might have been cobbled together by the casting director of a BBC drama production. They are achingly diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, even social class. It’s quite an eye-opener, and has certainly raised my consciousness and  my inclusivity awareness.

“More unusually, perhaps, the thieves run a gamut of body types, not from fat to thin or tall to short, as you might expect, but in terms of skeletal rigidity. At one end there is a bloke whose bones – the ones not yet broken by my boys – are almost fused together, so he is completely stiff from head to toe, while at the other end is a fellow with bones like jelly, he is absolutely floppy.

“In case you were wondering, the one who got away when we raided their den under the viaduct near the wasp sanctuary is gay and limp, so keep your eyes peeled in case you see somebody of that description.”

As he spoke, Old Pappy Phosph saw, climbing up the perimeter fence of the compound, the gay limp thief, come to return the stolen bags of phosphorus.

Ten minutes later, pinned to the wall of the kitchen, pierced like St Sebastian, so held in place awaiting the arrival of Detective Captain Cargpan, the gay limp thief confessed all to Old Pappy Phosph. He explained that his conscience was stricken and he regretted what he had done, and so he intended to return the stolen bags of phosphorus to their larders in hope of forgiveness.

“I don’t believe in forgiveness,” said Old Pappy Phosph, driving home another phosphorescent pin to more securely affix the thief to the wall.

“Ouch!” said the thief, not for the first time that night.

There is a moral to this story, and it is plain and simple. Don’t mess with Detective Captain Cargpan or with Old Pappy Phosph. Both of them will have your guts for garters.

Mavis, Miles, & Cab

Miles Davis dials Mavis
To blow his trumpet in her ear
Mavis slams the phone down
And sheds a bitter tear
She’s a little old woman who lives in a shoe
And she’s feeling kind of blue.

Cab Calloway calls a cab for her
And drives her to the future
Now she’s no longer Mavis
Instead she’s Minnie the Moocher

She mooches and she smooches
Does fandangos in the aisles
Goodbye to that confounded shoe
{And thank the Lord!)
‘She didn’t take that call from Miles

A Brisk Splosh

It was time, I decided, for a brisk splosh, so I went to find a puddle. The deeper the puddle, the sploshier the splosh, as Curbingham reminds us. What you do not want to do, however, is to mistake, for a deep puddle, an unusually small yet unexpectedly deep pond, or mere, or cwm, or, great heavens to Betsy!, a waterlogged bottomless viper pit. For that reason it is wise to arm yourself, before setting out, or somewhere along the way, with a stick. The stick ought to be stout and of a certain length, such that, when one end of the stick is placed on the ground, and the stick held vertically, the other end is no higher than the top of your head. Then, when you probe the puddle with the stick, you will be able to judge its depth in relation to your own height. The basic idea is that you do not find yourself making a brisk splosh in a body of water so deep that the top of your head will vanish below the surface, till human voices wake you, and you drown. That is not a splosh – it is tomfoolery, and perilously so.

On the day I am telling you about, I neglected to heed my own advice, and I did not have a stick about my person when I arrived at what I took to be an apt puddle. It was in the middle of a bosky lane stretching from Loopy Copse to the godforsaken piggery at Mustard Parva. I judged it to be a recent puddle, taking into account the meteorological conditions and the time of day, which, looking at my wristwatch, I had as 7.45 a.m.. This was erroneous. Unbeknown to me, my watch was running fast, and the true time was more likely somewhere between twenty to thirty minutes earlier.

Taken all in all, my having the wrong time was of no relevance vis-à-vis the depth of the puddle, but it was, I think, symptomatic of my jumbleheadedness that morning. There was also my failure to obtain a stick, as noted, and the fact that I had had only one sausage rather than the usual two for my breakfast, which played havoc with my innards, including the brain. I am a creature of habit.

This is not the place to indulge in a rant about the café, which had so mismanaged its affairs that it was exhausted of sausages at 7.00 a.m. by my watch, or roughly 6.35 a.m. in brute reality. Or, contrarily, perhaps this is the very place to cast anathemas upon Mr Boggis and his helpmeets at the café Where else am I to give vent to my exasperation? When I was told there was only a single sausage left on the premises, so early in the day, I suggested to Mr Boggis that he might send one of the helpmeets to replenish the supplies. Where, he asked me, did I think it possible to get hold of dozens of sausages at such an early hour? This had me stumped, for I know nothing of the wholesale sausage business, as why should I? Unable to frame a coherent response, I babbled invective and tore my paper napkin to shreds. Mr Boggis disappeared into the kitchen. When, shortly afterwards, he returned with the last sausage on a plate, I announced that “going forward”, as is the phrase nowadays, I would be taking my breakfast elsewhere. He reminded me that Tuck In With Mr Boggis was the only café for miles upon miles in any direction, and certainly the only one within walking distance of my hovel. I think, he said provocatively, you will find a rather gruesome cafeteria at Sawdust Bridge station, far far away at the other end of the branch line, should you wish to make a lengthy and expensive railway journey before breakfast every morning. For the second time in as many minutes I was stumped. I decided to eat my sausage in silence, and it was while doing so that it occurred to me the best way to shake off my feelings of distress, dejection, and incandescent rage was to go for a brisk splosh.

Which brings us neatly back to the scene on the bosky lane. There I was, stickless, anent a puddle. I was confident it was a suitable sploshing puddle, and not something in which I might drown. Burned into my brain is a map of the several bottomless viper pits dotted hither and thither between Loopy Copse and the godforsaken piggery at Mustard Parva, and by getting my bearings from a study of the time and the sun and the trees and the compass stored in the heel of my boot I was able to ascertain that the puddle could not possibly be one of the bottomless viper pits, filled to the brim with rainwater. It was safe to splosh.

Curbingham has given us the most comprehensive list of the benefits of a brisk splosh in a puddle. I long ago committed his list to memory, and I rehearsed it now, as a chaffinch or something similar started chirruping in a nearby tree. When, eventually, I was completely “in the zone”, I leapt into the puddle. But it was not a puddle! I landed on something solid, with a clang, and sprained my ankle. Sprawled in the lane, weeping with the sudden spasm of pain, I noticed, for the first time, a small metal plaque embedded in the earth a few inches away. Engraved upon it were the words Transgressive Rustic Fixture : Trompe L’oeil Puddle VII by Cosmo Hoxtonwanker. I had been undone by art!

What I had thought to be a puddle was in fact a construction of glass and metal and light-reflecting booster technology, commissioned by the municipality, for which they had paid a preposterous amount of money. I learned as much from Mr Boggis, to whose café I limped back after binding my ankle with a filthy rag I found discarded in a real puddle a few yards down the lane. Mr Boggis, it turned out, was not only the proprietor of a newly sausageless café, but an alderman on the parish council and an aficionado of transgressive rustic fixture artworks. It was he who had hoo ha hee hop hig hub haw hee hoo ha . . . dammit. This is what art does to me. It sprains my ankle and turns my brain to jelly. What I need is a brisk splosh in a puddle. And a second sausage.

Lefty Hip Magi

[Thanks again to R.]

There is a song on Hex Enduction Hour, the 1982 album by The Fall, entitled “Hip Priest”. It was a great favourite of the Phosphorescent Family, particularly of Old Pappy Phosph, who, in a certain light, from a certain angle, on certain days of the week, at certain times of day, bore a passing resemblance to Mark E. Smith, through a glass darkly.

One evening at a family singsong around the phosphorescent fireplace, Old Pappy struck up an a capella version of “Hip Priest”. Now it had not escaped the notice of tiny Mopsa Phosph that, when listening to a tape loop of distant pig gruntings, one of her sisters had keened and wailed that she wanted a pig of her own, and the very next day Old Pappy abducted one for her. (See The Family Pig for further details.) So Mopsa in turn keened and wailed that she wanted a hip priest, then burst into tears.

But as Old Pappy began to make reassuring cooing noises, and seemed on the verge of promising that he would abduct a hip priest for her, Old Ma Phosph put her foot down.

“We will have no Papists in this family compound!” she cried. In common with about two thirds of the Phosphorescent Family, Old Ma was a devout Zoroastrian. But Mopsa had a cunning beyond her years, and immediately revised her keening.

“I want a hip magus! I want a hip magus!” she screeched, until Old Pappy becalmed her by promising to stride out across the fields first thing in the morning and abduct one for her.

Then two of tiny Mopsa’s tiny sisters piped up, demanding that they be given hip magi too. Old Pappy, who remembered his Bible stories, thought it reasonable that magi should come in threes.

“Don’t you worry, girlies,” he said soothingly, “Tomorrow morning I will abduct three hip magi and bring them back to the compound. We can keep them in one of the outbuildings next to the phosphorescent fence.”

And Old Pappy was as good as his word.

Unfortunately, within a few days the Phosphorescent Family were much disconcerted by the activities of their hip magi, who did a lot of shouting and waving of banners and placards outwith the outbuilding. It soon became apparent that they were lefty hip magi, forever banging on about the iniquities of the Americans and the Zionists and prescribing infantile and witless solutions to social and economic issues. Old Ma Phosph, in particular, was none too pleased. She was, after all, a Fascist as well as a Zoroastrian.

“The hip magi will have to go,” she announced, “If they are not shouting and protesting they sit around in their armchairs reading Chomsky and John Pilge. Old Grampy Phosph must be turning in his grave to see such things happening within the family compound he built with his bare phosphorescent hands!”

So Old Pappy and Old Ma took Mopsa and her sisters aside, and explained to them, very patiently and tenderly, that the hip magi would have to go. There were tears, of course, and keening and wailing, but then Old Pappy had a brainwave.

“I tell you what, girlies! We can have a great deal of fun running the hip magi off our property, pursuing them across the fields with pitchforks and blazing torches and trapping them in Loopy Copse, where I have already dug a pit to chuck them into. And then, as a special treat, I will go and abduct Mark E. Smith of The Fall, and we will keep him in the outbuilding! You can feed him on the scraps left over by Baptiste the Family Pig. What do you think of that?”

And the tiny Phosphorescent girls whooped cries of delight and skipped and gambolled off across the lawn. Peace settled once more upon the Phosphorescent family compound, and the filthy magpie swooped down to perch on Old Ma Phosph’s pippybonnet.

Filthy Magpie

[My thanks to R.]

In addition to the family pig, the Phosphorescent Family Compound was home to a filthy magpie. But while Baptiste the pig could rightly be described as a pet, the relationship between the family and the bird was less clear. Its nest was indubitably within the phosphorescent fence surrounding the property, and various Phosphs – particularly the tinier ones – liked to feed the magpie by scattering breadcrumbs and similar discarded food scraps near said nest, but there was no sense of ownership, as there is with a family pet. The ownership of Baptiste was of course a matter of dispute, as he had been abducted from a nearby farmer, but this was of little concern to the Phosphs, and the farmer happened to be a weedy, palsied farmer suffering from the ague and jellybrain, so he was in no fit state to try to regain his pig.

With the filthy magpie, there was always the chance that it might fly away one day and never return. Mordant Phosph, Old Pappy’s nephew by bigamous marriage to at least three of the septuplets, had at one time hatched a scheme to keep the magpie in a cage, but he was a butterfingers, and his attempts to construct a birdcage out of matchsticks, pipe-cleaners, and fusewire became the subject of a favourite family anecdote, often retailed around the fireplace of an evening when the wind outside howled and the phosphorescent fence glowed in the gloom.

I tried to find out how the filthy magpie came to nest with the Phosphorescent Family by leafing through bound volumes of The Hammer Of Christ. It was in this excellent journal that I had discovered the story of the family pig, so I thought it likely there would be a similar article about the magpie. But my searching was in vain, and the volumes criminally failed to include a cumulative index, which would be a boon to any scholar – binders please note! I then passed along the library shelves to consult the Bumper Encyclopaedia Of Distinctly Grubby Birds, but was disappointed to find no reference at all to a filthy magpie, nor indeed to any magpie at all.

My next port of call was the Pointy Town High Street offices of the Pristine Magpie Bureau. Obviously, the Phosph’s filthy magpie was the very antithesis of a pristine magpie, but I reasoned that the bird must – must! – once have been pristine before it became matted with filth, and that there may be a record of it in the Bureau’s extensive card index. There was not. This puzzled me, and I became ill-tempered, and was thrown out of the Bureau onto the street, whereupon I was splattered from above with the excreta of a bird. Whether or not it was a magpie I haven’t a clue, for I know nothing about ornithology whatsoever.

Above the mantelpiece in the Phosphorescent Family parlour was a large framed photograph, taken with a box camera, of the filthy magpie sitting on the head of Baptiste the family pig. The snap was taken by Mordant Phosph’s second or third wife, that is Flo or Pru, at a family picnic in the final days of the Tet Offensive. It must have been a fugitive moment, for magpies are not known to perch on the heads of pigs for any extended length of time. I may not know much about ornithology, but that I do know. The original photograph was blown up, over and over again, in the dark room of the Phosphorescent Family cellar, and though a certain amount of detail was necessarily lost in the repeated enlargements, one can still spot, in the lower left-hand corner, a speck of what might be regurgitated breadcrumb.

The question remains, of course : why was the magpie so filthy? We may never know the answer to that, though if anybody can track down a copy of Dobson’s pamphlet Half A Dozen Reasons Why Birds Sometimes Become Encrusted With Filth (out of print), we might be able to shed some light on the matter. Heaven help us, it might even be phosphorescent light!

The Family Pig

The Phosphorescent Family had a pet pig. Its name was Baptiste, and it lived in a sty in the family compound. This compound was similar to the Kennedy Compound at Hyannisport, home of the Irish-American political dynasty, but in the case of the Phosphorescent compound it should be noted that the tall wire fence surrounding the property was, like the family, phosphorescent. The pig, by the way, was not.

Leafing through some old back numbers of The Hammer Of Christ the other day, I came upon an article recounting the tale of how the Phosphorescent Family obtained their pig. It was not a very interesting story, and I suspect it found its way into the magazine because the author was in possession of potentially explosive information about the editor. Never underestimate the amount of squalor, unseemliness, blackmail, and extortion in which even the most well-regarded periodicals wallow.

Anyway, the article has it that one day the patriarch of the Phosphorescent Family, Old Pappy Phosph, was leaning on a clump of gack in the compound, staring at the sky, lost in wonder, when he heard distant grunting. He rushed indoors to fetch his reel-to-reel tape recorder, for like everyone else in the family he was a keen tape-recordist of distant sounds, whether they were grunts or howls or gunfire or squelching. The Phosphorescent Family liked nothing better of an evening than to sit around splicing together tape-loops of various distant sounds and then playing them in unison. Over the years representatives from record companies and avant garde music festivals in Ulm had come bashing at the gates of the compound offering huge sums of money for these recordings, but they were always sent away empty-handed and with phosphorus burns in the very centre of their foreheads. The family had no interest in the stardom that would inevitably have swept them up had their tape-loops gone to the top of the hit parade.

On the evening that they listened to Old Pappy Phosph’s recording of distant pig grunting, it so happened that one of the tinier members of the family piped up with a query about the source of the sounds. Told it was a pig, she begged for a pig of her own. It was gently explained to her that a pig needs a sty to live in and there was no such sty in the compound.

“Then I thall build one mythelf, and thpread it with phothphorethent muck!” she keened, before bursting into tears.

And the very next day, she did, and so impressed was the family by her initiative and energy that Old Pappy Phosph strode out across the fields and abducted the very same pig whose gruntings now played on a continuous loop on the tape-recorder next to the tiny girl’s bed.

It was her cousin, Armand Phosph, a Francophile, who named the pig Baptiste.

As I said, it is not a particularly interesting tale, but I thought it worth sharing with you, if only because it gives us a first dim insight into the lives of the Phosphorescent Family. From a selfish point of view, it allowed me to make use – tangentially, but to my satisfaction – of the words “Readings have been taken from the soil. The pig has been chosen” which came to me in my dreams just before waking this morning. We have phosphorescent muck rather than soil, and the pig was abducted rather than chosen, but I have kept faith with my not yet quite awake brain, and that’s good enough for me, so it ought to be good enough for you.

From The Land Of Nod

In the moments before waking up this morning, the following words were rattling around inside my head:

Readings have been taken from the soil. The pig has been chosen.

Perhaps I can incorporate these sentences into my forthcoming study of the Phosphorescent Family.