Ogre

We all know that God spelled backwards is Dog, but it is not commonly pointed out that Ergo spelled backwards is Ogre. This insight can lead us to faff about with Descartes’ famous dictum cogito ergo sum so that, instead of stating I think therefore I am, we say instead I think I am an ogre.

It could be argued that this is actually a more profound statement than Descartes’ original. It could be, and it has. In a new book, the paperbackist Pebblehead takes cogito ogre sum as his starting point, and weaves a tale staggering in its implications.

I am known for my potboilers” said Pebblehead, speaking from his chalet o’ prose high in the Swiss Alps, smoking his pipe, “Fat paperbacks with garish covers sold in bulk at airport bookstalls and the like. With my new book, I like to think I have created an entirely new genre, which I have dubbed the ‘potboiler of profundity’. This is a fat paperback with a garish cover sold in bulk at airport bookstalls and the like which, in terms of deep mind-numbing profundity, can stand alongside the deepest and most mind-numbing and most profound works in the canon.”

Bashed out in just two weeks of frantic typing, Pebblehead’s potboiler of profundity tells the story of a man who thinks he is an ogre. It poses questions which delve into the core of the human soul. If I think I am an ogre, am I an ogre? If I think I am an ogre but I am not an ogre, what, then, am I? Why would I think I am an ogre in the first place? Am I hairy and brutish and savage? Do I grunt rather than speak articulate words? If so, how do I manage to narrate this potboiler of profundity in such punchy prose, daddy-o? Answer me that, or I’ll tear your head off with my bare hands, or rather paws, yes, great hairy paws, suitable for an ogre. And when I’ve torn your head off I’ll carry it back to my lair, a dark dank cave, full of bats, where I lurk, grunting and slobbering, ogreishly.

With your head torn off and tossed on to the pile of other torn-off human heads in the corner of my cave, you won’t be able to continue reading my fat paperback with a garish cover sold in bulk at airport bookstalls and the like, will you? You won’t be able to read, and you won’t be able to think. And if you can’t read and you can’t think, can you still call yourself civilised, or are you, too, now merely an ogre, albeit one without a head? Ultimately, are we not, all of us, wandering the world like headless ogres, searching for our torn-off heads, tossed onto piles of other torn-off heads in the corners of dark dank caves? Is one of those caves Plato’s cave? Was Plato, too, an ogre? And if Plato was an ogre, what of René Descartes? And what of you?

The latest news from Pebblehead is that his own brain has been so bedizened by the writing of his potboiler of profundity that he is currently languishing, exhausted, on the balcony of a sanatorium even higher in the Swiss Alps. His book is available at all good airport bookstalls. We wish him well.

The Cuthbert Spraingue Song

Cuthbert Spraingue! Cuthbert Spraingue!
He’s the boss of the Mayonnaise Gang!
His head’s the same colour as his shoes.
He darts between elms & bays & yews.
He came unglued on St Bibblybibdib’s Day.
A cart pulled up to take him away.
He fought them off with pins and straw,
Just pins and straw and nothing more.
They say he’s related to Nobby Stiles,
According to the police station files,
But he denies any links by blood
To Nobby. memorably smeared with mud
At the end of that match in ’66.
Cuthbert Spraingue loathes Weetabix
And Coco-pops and Special K.
He eschews breakfast every day,
But his days still go with a bang!
For he’s the boss of the Mayonnaise Gang!
Cuthbert Spraingue! Cuthbert Spraingue!

Lint

Once upon a time Dobson decided to write a pamphlet on the subject of lint.

Thus begins Ted Cack’s mammoth new book The Lint Pamphlet : An Enduring Mystery. It is the latest in a series of mammoth books, each one devoted to a single work by Dobson, including those which the twentieth century’s titanic pamphleteer abandoned, or planned but never wrote, or were mere fugitive throbs within his cranium.

By the time my work is done,” announced Ted Cack at a press conference held at the end of a dilapidated seaside pier, buffeted by squalls, earlier this week, “The number of words I will have devoted to Dobson’s works will dwarf the number of words in all those works put together, however you add them up.”

Quite what he meant by this last phrase is unclear, as there is only one way to add things up, as most of us understand the process. Granted, we are not all students of advanced mathematics, but then nor is Ted Cack. His profile on the online network MyBoast lists several qualifications from several dubious or unimportant institutions, most of which appear to be in frankly absurd fields such as Hermeneutic Ornithology or Unapplied Faffing.

As a Dobsonist, however, Ted Cack is peerless. Once the hot-headed enfant terrible of Dobson studies, as the years have passed his head has become far less hot. Indeed, last time its temperature was measured, his head proved to be so cold various medics pronounced him clinically dead. Ted Cack shocked them all by springing up from his head-temperature-measuring-bed, cutting two or three capers around the room à la James Boswell of a morning, dancing either a quadrille or a gavotte depending from what angle you viewed it, and singing, with unnerving boisterousness, the chorus from “More Than A Feeling” by Boston (Scholz, 1976).

I’m afraid I must interrupt this riveting narrative. The console is beeping with an incoming query. Let me decode it.

Q – If Ted Cack is peerless, how do you explain his press conference taking place on a pier, albeit a dilapidated one?

The question is more sensible than it seems, much, much more sensible, so sensible it takes my breath away (Moroder/Whitlock, 1986; performed by Berlin. Berlin ought not be confused with Irving Berlin. The former was an American New Wave band formed in Orange County, home of Richard M. Nixon, in 1979. The latter, born Israel Beilin, wrote the kinds of songs which would knock anything written by the band into a cocked hat.)

My breath having been taken away, I am unable to answer the question right now, but can only pant and wheeze as I struggle to remain conscious. You may be familiar with such a struggle, for example when listening to Hooting Yard On The Air, broadcasts of which have been known to lull even the most alert listeners into a deep and profound sleep, or at least a catnap.

I should point out here that enquiries, such as the one about peerless Ted Cack on a pier, are always welcome, even if I do not always – oh, wait, here is another one beeping on the console already!

Q – I could not help noticing that you have mentioned two pop music combos today, both of which take their names from cities beginning with the letter B, that is, Boston and Berlin. Are there any other groups with similar nomenclature, for example Bridlington, Basingstoke, Biggleswade, Bognor Regis, Broadstairs, Budleigh Salterton, or Bungay, to list only a few towns in England?

If anything, this is an even more sensible question, and one I would be prepared to answer here and now were my knowledge of pop music combos more exhaustive than it is, but for heaven’s sake, I’m meant to be talking about lint!

Perhaps the most startling revelation of my mammoth new book”, said Ted Cack at that press conference held at the end of a dilapidated seaside pier, buffeted by squalls, earlier this week, “is that Dobson seemed to be wholly ignorant about his proposed subject matter.”

This is not half as startling as Ted Cack thinks it is. It was the out of print pamphleteer’s common practice to write endless screeds on topics of which he knew nothing whatsoever. The word for this is perpilocution, and Dobson was a master of it. Sometimes he liked to pretend he was following the dictum that the best way to learn about something is to write a book about it, but this is rather belied by the resulting out of print pamphlets, which rarely tell us much about anything except the baffling innards of the author’s brain.

Startling or not, however, Ted Cack paints a compelling picture of Dobson and Marigold Chew at breakfast on the morning when the lint spark was lit. The couple were tucking into bowls of reconstituted partridge livers in a mustard ‘n’ milk of magnesia froideur when the pamphleteer suddenly banged his spoon against his forehead and burst into unnervingly boisterous song.

I want to know what lint is. I want you to show me, Marigold my sweet. I want to feel what lint is. I know you can show me.””

He sang to the tune of “I Want To Know What Love Is” (Jones, 1984; performed by Foreigner. Interestingly, all the members of the group actually were foreigners, except for those periods when they were present in their home countries.)

I think you had better write a pamphlet on the subject, Dobson”, said Marigold Chew.

The “enduring mystery” of Ted Cack’s subtitle is that Dobson never did.

Birds And Bats And The Bible And The BBC

Dear BBC Radio Four

I am a keen and regular listener to Tweet Of The Day, your two-minute programme devoted to birds and birdsong broadcast each weekday morning at the ungodly hour of 5.58. I have grown used to beginning my day having my ears delighted by the various trills, chirps, chirrups, caws, squawks, tweets, etcetera etcetera of our avian pals. Thus I was mightily disconcerted, this morning, to hear not a bird but a bat.

I charged the unpaid interns of the Hooting Yard Ornithological Research Bureau with the task of checking these things for me, and the crippled yet sprightly orphans toiling away in the cellar reported back, toot sweet, that, as I suspected, a bat is not a bird. Unless you have renamed the series Airborne Mammalian Squeak Of The Day, this is simply unfathomable.

Please ensure that your editor studies carefully this diagram of a bird, to avoid committing the same blunder in the future.

Yours peevishly,

Frank Key

*

Dear Mr Key

Thank you for your peevish complaint. Recent developments at the BBC have clearly escaped your notice. You may know that the inaugural Director General of the Corporation was a God-fearing Scotchman of great rectitude, Lord Reith. Following a conference held in a grim granite chapel perched on a windswept promontory, the senior management vowed to jettison all that leftie politically correct Gramscian Marxist poppycock and return the BBC to stern-jawed Reithian values informed by Christian ethics.

Henceforth Christ is our guide, and the Bible is His Word, and it is abundantly clear from the Bible that the bat is a bird. I refer you to Leviticus 11:13-19.

And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, and the ossifrage, and the ospray, And the vulture, and the kite after his kind; Every raven after his kind; And the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind, And the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl, And the swan, and the pelican, and the gier eagle, And the stork, the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat.

I trust this clarifies the matter, and that you will repent of your sins. May the Lord bless you and keep you, or smite you and chastise you, as in His infinite wisdom He sees fit.

Yours in Christ,

The Rev. Ninian Tonguelash

BBC Ornithology & Theology Inquisitor General

Village Of The Cheesegraters

As I made my way through the world, along lanes and pathways lined by larch, laburnum, and pine, I came at last to the village of the cheesegraters. Here, I thought, is somewhere I can lay my hat. My hat is not a cheese-hat. It will not be grated.

And it was not. But nor was it admired, as I felt sure it would be. No villager came up to me to say “Cor blimey, what a splendid titfer you’ve got there atop your head, meinheer!” Rather, they seemed a sullen people, jowly and hoarse, and sullen, sullen.

In the village square I sat, to observe their ways. I jotted no notes in my jotting pad. It struck me, and forcibly, forcibly, that they seemed to grate more marzipan than cheese. The air was scented with almond. Theirs was a sullen grating.

There were many gratings, too, punctuating the paving slabs of the path crisscrossing the square. Metal gratings that gleamed in the sunlight in lattice patterns of stupendous complexity, like the most delicate of lacework. What lay beneath those gratings?, I wondered. Drains and sewers, drains and sewers, came the reply, whispered on the breeze.

Do not scoff when I suggest I was spoken to by the wind, by the stirrings of the almond-scented air. That is how it is in the village of the cheesegraters, that sullen place, where cheese comes cheap, and marzipan cheaper.

It was a tiny village, and when I left the square I was soon enough out in open country. Now there was no wind to speak of, or to speak to me. All was still and silent. I saw a bird in the sky, but I know nothing of ornithology. I passed on, my splendid titfer atop my head, towards another village.

An Afterword On Obsequies

Well, there you go : that was Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning. It was a curious experience retyping something I’d written almost a quarter of a century ago. Chief among my torments was the desire to tweak, rephrase, rewrite. But I knew that if I started along that path, I’d end up with a considerably different text. On a very few occasions, I could not resist. (For example, a misuse of the word fulsome. I know this is now routinely misused, to the point where its proper meaning is likely to be lost, but damn me if I’m going to help it on its way.) When, like Lars Talc, I am long dead, scholars of the future will no doubt pore over this version and the original, triumphantly spotting the minor changes.

That original was published in an edition of twenty-five copies in 1994. This new one is available free of charge to billions of readers across the globe. That is the cataclysmic change that occurred between the time I finished Obsequies, and descended into my Wilderness Years, and when I emerged from them, in the new century, to find that Het Internet had happened, and this website came mewling into existence. It is instructive that the actual number of my readers probably hasn’t increased significantly.

Another change, implicit in the text, and one I could not help but notice, is that my twentieth-century characters like to glug booze. (Even more so in the other novella written as the demons of debauch gripped me, later published as Unspeakable Desolation Pouring Down From The Stars.) There is not a drop of aerated lettucewater to be found!

Lars Talc and Minnie seem to be ur-versions of Dobson and Marigold Chew. However, the character I most warmed to, as I retyped, was the mysterious Bruno. It is never made clear precisely who he is, nor the nature of his relationship to Talc and Minnie. I suspect he may be worthy of a spin-off series of tales.

Certain passages were lifted without acknowledgement from The Little Cyclopaedia Of Common Things by Rev. Sir George W. Cox, Bart., M.A. (1894), the Journals of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and (if memory serves) Death, Ritual, and Bereavement, edited by Ralph Houlbrooke (1989).

I may republish Obsequies in a near-facsimile edition via Lulu. In the meantime, you may feel compelled to recognise my titanic retyping efforts by plopping some moolah into the Donation box.

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – XV

Children, if you have read this far, take heed. Lars Talc could not have known that he carried in his pocket, embedded in his prize horn, a lightning conductor of superb efficiency. But you will be on your guard.

You will not forget to ask papa to place an egg laid on Ascension Day, and a houseleek plant, in the rafters of your dwelling.

You will not fret and dally at the onset of a thunderstorm, neglecting to throw open all the doors and windows, to turn pictures to face the wall, and to cover your mirrors with heavy blankets.

You will not forget to wear a wreath of laurel, and a necklace of coral.

You will never put your shiny new boots upon the table.

You will not attempt to count the twinkling stars, nor point with your finger towards that part of the heavens whence lightning is expected.

You will not forget to gather bundles of hazel and willow twigs and stand them in pots of water.

If you pick a poppy, you will not let a petal fall from it on to your hand.

When mama tells you to gather up the knives and forks and spoons and scissors and scythes and tweezers and pincers and pins and needles and all other implements of steel, and put them away in the cupboard, you will not disobey her.

You will not hang back when your pals go scampering to the churches to set tolling great clamours of bells.

You will not stand near towering pines, nor up to your ankles in a basin of water, nor by any leaden spout, iron gate, railings, bandstand, palisade, or spigot in times of lightning.

Will you?

THE END

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – XIV

Minnie had chosen well in Potcap. Everything went according to plan. Aloysius Batlip supplied a tiny cadet named Vig, who scurried among the mourners with the funeral schedule, ticking off the names, logging the times, counting the animals, and ensuring that Minnie’s wishes were met to the letter.

As she had expected, the Reverend Chew’s sermon was the centrepiece of the funeral. His ovation lasted for thirteen and three quarter minutes. He stood poised in the pulpit of the Gravelflap auditorium, and as the rustle of applause finally died, he peered over his sinister spectacles at the twenty-six mourners, cleared his throat, and began to speak.

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in memory of Lars Talc. How can I, in my treacly voice, do justice to the memory of such a man? I could tell you the story of his life, but he was ninety-four, and it would take days, even weeks, to recount even the merest essentials. Were I to pick only selected, epiphanic incidents – the reinvention of bleach, the ascent of the mountain at Hoon, a fist-fight with a bus conductor, the creation of the postage stamp zoo – I would be imposing on the memory of his life a partial, fragmentary view which would be irreconcilable with the mighty genius he was. It will not do. What, then? It has been suggested to me that I could sing all one hundred and fourteen works from his magisterial songbook. But how could my puny, fluting tones equal the bliss of hearing Talc perform them himself? And, thanks to Minnie, we have the tape recordings. No, a recital by me would be quite, quite unendurable. How to get the measure of the man? Take you on a tour through his wardrobe? Read snatches from his books? Tell childhood anecdotes? Bluster? Gabble? Gibber? Hold up his example as a paragon of what it means to be a Finn? To be human? None of these will suffice.

So let me say this. He owed me a great deal of money. He was covered in dust. He couldn’t tell the difference between a heron & a moorhen. He never learned the rules of ice hockey. He was often plagued by mysterious boils. He had a scar on his left shin. He confused the different metallic elements. His hair was often unkempt. He set fire to a Bible. His pigs were neglected. Adept at ping pong, he weighted his bat. He once suffered from scrofula. His tent had many holes. He never wore a hat. His gas bills drove him crackers. He spoke umpteen languages. His mother told me he was terrified of swans. Geology was beyond him. He hankered for doilies. He counted toads. His bath was made of tin. His first marriage was disastrous. He could not ride a bicycle. He spat out mayonnaise. He avoided paying for hotel rooms by clambering down fire escapes. Once he built his own bridge. He burned himself in effigy. He loved to eat turnips. He often drooled. His thumbs were deformed. Rust and rime engaged his attention. He was much travelled. He designed his own pen-nibs. He kept a photograph of Ricardo Montalban in his bureau. His eyesight was atrocious. Candles have been lit for him. His credentials were spotless. He punched a fishmonger. He gutted huts. Linctus slithered down his throat. He owned dozens of fret-saws. He thought the moon was his lover. In Didcot he wept. He fed flamingos with cream crackers. In certain circles his name was mud. He kept his gutta-percha in a gunny sack. The sight of geese made him anxious. He smoked cheroots. He re-counted toads. He held aloft a blubber-lantern on the banks of a duckpond. His saliva was bitter. Taxes were levied upon him. He had a zest for crumpled things. In parks he pondered. He bit his fingernails. He chewed spinach. At a pinch he would talk for hours on the subject of straw. He wiped his bottom with leaves. He wrote a book about gnats. He mumbled through a tube. Things dangled from the ceiling of his boudoir. He lost on the horses. He wrapped a tortoise in blankets. As a youth he survived on crusts. His father painted difficult maps. Often he behaved like a madman. Twigs and branches fell unremarked in his garden. Rowing held no allure for him. He dabbed at his brow with ointments. He was fond of cormorants. He coaxed mice from their nooks. He was knocked down by a runaway bus. Clods of earth surrounded him. He could be petulant. He strained things in a muslin net. He pulverised a diving board with his bare hands. Morse code baffled him. He nearly became a marine. He moved his arms towards the lake. Under a cow tower he looked at planks. He overcame his stutter. His sheep had worms. He crossed himself. He played at bagatelle. He spied a crocus. He fainted. He snored. He panted. He sprayed. His stomach. His hearing aid. His cuffs. His gristle. His sponge. His batteries. His hardship. His chutney. His paths. His windows. His calcium. His rudders. His vinegar. His seeds. His nettles. His sores. His stool. His plastic. His incandescence. Autumn. Shipwreck. Curtains. Exile. Frost. Balconies. Pandaemonium. Hedgerows. Banisters. Carpets. Hinges. Remembrance. Hair. Custard. Dribble. Fanfares. Dampness. Bauxite. Trousers. Canals. Boskage. Lasciviousness. Tunics. Spigots. Iron. Lint. Cranks. Floozies. Doppelgangers. Tin. Bales. Agony. Loss. Lust. Love. Crack. Bang. Crunlop. Lars Talc is dead.”

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – XIII

Minnie had decided that all twenty-six mourners would attend the funeral bedecked in costumes made entirely of feathers. All feathers are made alike in their general form, although they differ greatly in size, strength, and colour.

Each one has a quill, or barrel, a shaft, and a vane, beard, or web. The quill is a hollow horny tube, made of hardened albumen. It has an opening at the bottom, and one where it joins the shaft, and has inside a thin dry core. The shaft is smaller and longer than the quill, and is nearly flat on each of its four sides. It is made of a white spongy substance called the pith, covered with a thin horny sheath. The vane or beard, which is in two parts, one on each side of the shaft, is formed of many small flat plates or scales, which grow out of the sides of the shaft, and lie with their flat sides close to each other. These sides have along their upper edges little hooks, or barbules, by means of which they hold fast to each other, so that the surface of the beard is close and smooth and does not open when the bird is flying.

In some birds, like the ostrich, these barbules do not hook very tightly together, and this makes their feathers more soft and plumy than those of other birds. At the bottom of the beard, next to the quill, there is usually a small feathery tuft called the plumule, or accessory plume. Besides the feathers, many birds have next to the skin a soft fleecy covering called down, which is made up of very small feathers.

Feathers grow very fast, and almost all birds change them every year. Feathers vary in size and in form in different parts of the body, and have received different names from those who write about birds. Most birds have a small gland, or kind of bag, at the base of the tail, from which they squeeze out oil with their bill, and spread it over their feathers. This is partly the reason why birds’ feathers shed water.

Of ornamental feathers, those of the ostrich are most prized, especially the large white plumes from the back and tail of the male bird. But many other birds, such as the peacock, swan, turkey, pheasant, cock, heron, egret, osprey, eagle, ibis, rhea, emu, adjutant, grebe, marabout, stork, and widgeon yield feathers which are used in ornament.

In preparing feathers for use, they are tied up in bundles and washed in warm soap and water to free them from grease. The soap is then rinsed out in clean hot water, and they are then plunged into boiling water into which a few drops of saffron distillate have been mixed. After further rinsing, they are drawn quickly through cold water with a mixture of a little ground agaric, and are then steamed over sulphur fumes and dried. The shafts are scraped to make them limber, and the filaments or feathery parts are patted gently with special light-weight hammers.

Minnie had wheelbarrow-loads of feathers delivered to her apartment by a team of feather-gatherers drawn from different bird-houses scattered throughout the town. Working like a drudge, she made all the costumes herself, scarcely pausing to sleep. As each costume was finished, Bruno packed it into a large cardboard packet and delivered it personally to the recipient. In turn, at intervals of a few hours, Aminadab, Bewg, Chodd, Darningneedle, Eck, Freakpit, Gum, Dr Hoist and the others answered their doors to find the terrifyingly pale figure of Bruno standing before them, the packet in one hand and an invitation to the funeral in the other.

Minnie had commissioned a rancorous Stalinist hobbledehoy to illuminate the invitations. Josef Megrimovitch Bong lived in a pigeon-loft above one of the finest houses in the town, and seemed to subsist on a diet of rusks, mugwort, and tap water. His creaking, spavined frame, clad in a muddy black cape, was often seen stalking aimlessly along the boulevards, spitting at children and stamping on puppies. Minnie was his only friend – even Talc had loathed him – and spying him on her way back from the screeching of the will, she dropped some rusted coins into his hand and bid him draw up the invitations. For though he was almost universally hated, every Finn who knew him had to admit that Bong’s calligraphy was of stupendous beauty.

Know ye,” read the invitation, “That Professor Lars Talc was struck by lightning on Tuesday last, as he bestrode the Avenue Ack. Aye, weep, for the great Finnish polymath is no more! The huge throbbing brain is stilled! Mourn with every particle of your yet quick being! You are commanded to be present at his Obsequies. At dawn on Sunday we will gather at the gazebo on Pilgarlic Hill. Be there, or abominations will rain down upon you. And wear these feathers, and nought else, for if you do not, you will answer to Bruno, and he is fearsome in his wrath! Attend, or be besmirched!”

None dared disobey the call.

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – XII

Minnie threw herself into the funeral arrangements with astonishing energy. At ninety-seven, she was three years older than Talc, but the years had not dimmed her eupeptic zest. As executrix of the estate, she accosted Chodd – thinking he was Batlip – within seconds of the will being screeched.

I will be in charge of the funeral, down to the tiniest detail,” she rapped, “You, Aloysius, will do my bidding. Your first task is to arrange for the Bosnian nerve gas billionaire, Turps Potcap, to be at my apartment at ten o clock tomorrow morning on the dot. Meanwhile, Talc is to be refrigerated at the lowest possible temperature you can manage. Snap to it.”

At ten o clock the next morning, Turps Potcap was ushered in to Minnie’s sitting-room. He was almost as wizened as she, but a quarter of a century younger. Born of Bosnian lumpenproles who died of the groist when he was a mere tot, Potcap was brought up in a frolicsome orphanage run by the famed reformer Hattie Brinks. At fourteen he was already displaying his formidable intellectual gifts, delivering lectures on a variety of abstruse subjects to his dumbstruck peers.

Mistress Brinks enrolled him at the University of Tuzla, where he soon humiliated his teachers by addressing them in fluent Coptic, a language none of them understood. Before his sixteenth birthday, Potcap was appointed Corncrake Professor of Physics at a crumbling but important university in Burma, a post he held until he was forty. By then, however, he had invented a nerve gas of staggering power, which he patented and sold in vast quantities to governments around the world.

The effects of Potcap’s gas, on one exposed to it, are temporary but devastating. The victim invariably runs to the nearest tobacconist, buys a huge quantity of cigarettes, slumps to the ground and sits, babbling, gesticulating, and smoking heavily, like a student. Meanwhile, the tanks, artillery, and special operations militia move in, and by the time the effects of the gas wear off, a couple of days later, the commanding heights of the socio-economic infrastructure are in the hands of the invading forces.

Potcap made an absolute fortune, of course, and retired from academia. He lived simply, spending much of his time engaged in various secretive and pointless research projects, but occasionally hiring himself out as a “special consultant”. He had, for example, designed a new whisk for a utensils conglomerate, written a lengthy report on pigeons’ blood at the behest of the Hooting Yard Foundation, conducted dangerous experiments at an international hot air ballooning conference, and solved the bogus laundry murder case, which had befuddled the minds of the Dutch police for six years. With such a pedigree, he was Minnie’s natural choice to organise Lars Talc’s funeral.

She steered Potcap to an armchair and gave him a mug of soup.

Thank you for coming at such short notice,” she said, “First of all, I must ask you if you are familiar with Talc and his work?”

I am not,” replied Potcap.

Splendid!” shouted Minnie, unnecessarily loudly, “I am so glad. The Finns think they know Talc, you see, they think they understand him. That’s why I have asked you here, because you will approach the task objectively. You will bring no mental baggage in your train.”

What is this task you speak of?”

I wish you to organise Talc’s funeral, Mr Potcap,” said Minnie.

The Bosnian billionaire was startled. “O is he dead then?”

Two days ago he was struck by lightning. Here is a newspaper clipping. You may keep it if you wish.”

Potcap read Battista Ritnob’s brief report, then tucked it carefully into his wallet.

If I may say so, madam, you have made an excellent choice in selecting me for this task,” he announced. “Although I have never organised a funeral before, I am more than equal to the challenge. Is he to be buried or burned?”

Buried,” said Minnie.

Good. Humans are the only creatures who bury their dead. The fact is of fundamental significance. Palaeolithic peoples not only buried their dead, madam, but they provided them with food and other equipment, implying a belief that the dead still needed such things in the grave. Tosh it may be, but significant tosh, highly significant, eh?”

Talc spurned all religion and other shilly-shallying.”

As I do myself, madam,” said Potcap, gulping down his soup. “Nevertheless, burial of the dead stems from an instinctive inability or refusal to accept death as the definitive end of life.”

Minnie snorted. “What else can you do with a corpse?” she asked.

Burn it,” said Potcap, “Or leave it where it is. But let that pass. Talc shall be buried. As he was not a Christian, I suppose you do not wish the funerary ceremonies to be invested with a sombre character, the visible expression of which would be the use of black vestments, and candles of unbleached wax and the solemn tolling of a church bell, the corpse being carried in a doleful cortege of clergy and mourners, with the intoning of psalms and the purificatory use of incense, and, the coffin being deposited in the church, it being covered with a black pall, and the Office of the Dead recited or sung, with the constant rendition of Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him, followed by the recitation of the Requiem Mass, with the sacrifice especially offered for the repose of the soul of the dead, then the absolution of the deceased, the coffin solemnly perfumed with incense and sprinkled with holy water, before being carried to consecrated ground and buried while the officiating priest whines a litany of appropriate prayers?”

Minnie spat.

I would rather lie on my back at the bottom of a pond than take part in such trumpery! No, Mr Potcap, I have very clear ideas about Talc’s funeral. You will need to take notes. While I fetch more soup, you had better sharpen your pencil. Here is a wastepaper basket for the shavings.”

Turps Potcap sharpened his pencil. Minnie brought two mugs of boiling soup.

The funeral will take place in three days’ time,” she said, “You will have lots of work to do. Now listen carefully. Including you and me, there will be twenty-six mourners, selected on an alphabetic basis. I will give you the names later. If anyone else tries to attend, Bruno will frighten them away. He has a talent for scarifying.

We will gather at dawn in the gazebo on Pilgarlic Hill, to which Batlip will have delivered Talc in his coffin the night before. There will be a funeral breakfast, consisting of porridge, ships’ biscuits, and whey. We will then form a cortege, each mourner travelling separately in a different form of transport. Batlip’s hearse will be at the front, of course, and immediately behind it me, borne on a palanquin. The other carriages will be a landau, a motorbike, a rickshaw, a charabanc, a covered wagon, a brancard, a tumbrel, an ekka, a scooter, a tilbury, a van, an ambulance, a coach-and-four, a mail-phaeton, a jalopy, a huskie-drawn sled, a bicycle, a hard-top, a wheelchair, a truck, a go-kart, a diligence, a brake, a clunker, and a gig. I have you down for the tumbrel, Mr Potcap, I trust that will be satisfactory?”

Of course, madam,” said the billionaire, writing frantically.

Good. We will proceed at a stately pace, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Our route will take us past the Cow & Pins, Talc’s favourite drinking-hole. We will all disembark, enter the tavern, and drink heavily. You will have to ensure that the landlord is apprised of our visit, and has in stock many barrels of a special funereal brew. We will not leave until every last drop of it is drunk. Communal ablutions will then take place in the lavatories, after which the cortege will make its way to the Gravelflap Building in the town square.

The coffin will be carried in on a bier. We mourners will remain outside, where we will eat hockey cake, count noses, drape a toad in ermine, and break into bits a mustard canister. That done, we will enter the building and take our seats. Dr Hoist will then sing song number one hundred and four from Talc’s songbook. It is a dirge of inordinate length, entitled The Grist, The Sack, The Perfume Of Lack. We shall all join in for the chorus. While Hoist moans, Finnish Airline Belles will distribute sprigs of watercress soaked in vinegar, which the mourners will entangle in their hair. Have you got all this written down? Good. We will then applaud immoderately as the Reverend Chew appears in the pulpit.”

Madam?”

What?”

A reverend? I thought you said Talc abhorred religion?”

He did. But the Reverend Chew is an old friend. His mother and Talc’s mother killed horses together when they were children. He and Talc spent many happy hours side by side, laying plans for a fundamental reform of Finnish cartography. Their innovative map-reading techniques were revolutionary, and even today have not won popular acceptance. It is quite impossible to imagine Talc’s funeral without the Reverend Chew taking part in the obsequies.

When, after about ten minutes, the mourners have stopped cheering, Chew will deliver his sermon. If I know Chew, it will be a thing of magnificence. There will then be a little concert. I have arranged for a small ensemble of bassoon, sackbut, and twin accordions to play some dreadfully lugubrious pieces. I will then take centre stage and pound my madge upon an anvil, the very picture of hysterical bereavement. Ensure, Mr Potcap, that quick sketches of me are executed at this point. You will find plenty of able scribblers in the directory.

You will then unleash into the building a sleuth of bears, a chattering of choughs, a sedge of herons, a drift of swine, a congregation of plovers, a cete of badgers, and a husk of hares. Talc was fond of animals. Do not forget to contact the zoo, which must provide not only the beasts but their keepers. Their frolicking done, the animals will be mesmerised by the quack Pillchain, and carted off to the place of interment, whither we too will follow, after lunching on fudge and toffee in the Gravelflap cafeteria.

When we arrive at the cemetery, I want each mourner to be given an urn to blub into. Batlip and his henchman will varnish the coffin with a stinking substance, and it will be lowered into an enormous pit. We shall stand in a circle around it, sobbing, bereft, but dignified. The animals will be loosed among the tombstones. A troupe of minstrels will prance and caterwaul. Milk, feathers, sand, and fragments from the skull of an osprey will be tossed into the pit. The Reverend Chew will jabber. The sky will darken. We will shuffle away, each lost in our thoughts, going our separate ways, and never gather together again. There. That will be the funeral of Lars Talc.”

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – XI

On the day after my death, the exercise book in which I have written my Last Will And Testament will be taken to a desolate spinney. There, its contents will be shrieked by my embalmer, whomsoever that may be. Those gathered to hear it will accompany the embalmer’s shrieks by plucking on primitive wooden stringed instruments. All those present will wear cotton hoods, and go barefoot. This I command.”

Lars Talc had written these words some twenty years before, and published them in a small compendium of his scribblings entitled Shuddering & Brilliantine. Minnie underlined the paragraph and handed a dog-eared copy of the book to Batlip, who read the words with dismay. He was a fiercely shy man, and the prospect unnerved him. With Talc in his coffin, and as he and Chodd rinsed off the embalming equipment and rubbed their hands with Finnish swarfega, he confessed his terrors to his helpmeet.

I cannot do it, Chodd. I am a deeply religious man, and I have no wish to ride roughshod over the sincere wishes of the deceased, especially so eminent a Finn as Professor Talc. But look, already I am incontinent with fear.”

Chodd dabbed at Batlip’s trousers with a cloth.

Thank you, Chodd. Oh, how I shiver with apprehension at the thought of public speaking. Two years ago, when I was awarded the All Finland Embalming Medal, I was forced to mount the dais to make an acceptance speech. Sepulchral noteworthies from throughout the land were gathered before me, sitting on benches, agog to hear my every word. The president of the Institute looped the medal around my neck, and they all cheered, applauded, and threw their funeral hats into the air. I was led to a microphone like a villain to the firing squad. Do not chuckle, I am serious. My mouth opened and closed repeatedly, without a word issuing forth. Sweat glistened from every pore. I shat in my pantaloons, and then I swooned.”

Chodd gawped.

You see,” continued Batlip, “I simply cannot do it. I would disgrace the memory of a towering Finn. I would sully his name. There is only one answer. You will have to play my part. You will be the embalmer. After all, you have given me sterling assistance on this sad day. I ask this favour of you out of proper respect for the departed.”

So it was that at noon on the following day, Chodd, sporting a false moustache and smelling of fish, arrived in the desolate spinney with Talc’s exercise book stuffed into his pocket.

There were twenty-six souls gathered to hear Talc’s last words: Minnie, of course; the ten surviving members of the scientifico-medical club, with Bewg in tow; a bone-setter named Carg; Linnet and his wife; Aloysius Batlip, heavily disguised; a trio of mountebanks with whom Talc had had larks; his neighbour Pillchain; a curmudgeonly widow, name unknown, who was passing the spinney and stopped to ponder the scene; poor, fearful Bruno; Slops Curbin, detailed to attend by the Electro-Magnetic Apparatus Museum Committee; Horst Venk, an old, begrimed friend of Talc’s from their student days; the journalist Ritnob; and Ingborg Todge, a blind and foul-mouthed army captain who, he kept telling everybody, had known Talc for years, though he was unknown to all those present, including Minnie, who deliberately crushed his toes under her black boot to stop his incessant babbling.

Chodd distributed the little cotton hoods which he had found next to the exercise book in Talc’s cast iron cabinet and, at full screech, ordered the assembled company to remove their footwear. Minnie handed out the musical instruments. Then, standing atop a makeshift plinth, Chodd thumbed open the exercise book and proceeded to shriek.

This is the Last Will And Testament of Lars Talc. I, Professor Lars Talc, a Finn, a polymath, author of numberless books on topics as diverse as anorthopia, bell-ringing, cramp, death, ectoplasm, fireworks, galley-slaves, haplography, Iceland, jam, knuckle-dusters, lemon meringue pie, mortmain, nystagmus, owls, pap, quicklime, ranunculus, sanitation, time-bombs, ullage, vanquishment, whimbrels, xerasia, yeast, and zapateado, I, an accomplished musician, balladeer, and madrigalist, who have in my time excelled as a wrestler, an entomologist, a pirate manqué, a splinterbrain, and a taxonomer, I who have enjoined my fellow Finns to acts of mercy and philanthropy, who have robbed none but given succour to many, who have clambered over mental obstacles with the torch of truth clutched in my fist, I, Lars Talc, Professor of Pandaemonium, moral exemplar, I who would reek of saintliness were there such things as saints, which there are not, I hereby give, devise, and bestow, absolutely and forever, in perpetuity, until the last pale flicker of animate life is stilled and the universe blotted out, I bequeath all my estate and effects, whatever they may comprise, for I neither know nor care, but all of it, every last scrap, to my dear, dear Minnie, who I thus proclaim as my executrix, and if, oh!, misery, she should perish before I do, then the whole lot will instead be bequeathed to a man, a crab-gaited man, a lanky man with a stoop, a man who will make himself known to you by the popping noises he elicits from the thin slit of his mouth, a man who may remain in hiding for years, even decades, during which time my estate will be tied up in formidable legal knots, and chaos descend upon all those who have the gall to claim any part of it, and their lives will be filled to the very brim with woe.

In witness to the above, I have hereunto set my hand, this teeming day, [date]. The florid, some would say too florid, signatures of my witnesses appear below. Both are in my presence as I write. Pillchain is slumped in an armchair, leafing through a copy of my momentous tome The Glue Of Rascality, a better book than he will ever write. The other witness is a topiarist of renown, who I bumped into at the docks this morning, and is at present fooling about in a striped purple and green cape in my vestibule.

In turn, I will hand each of them my pen and la!, they will sign their names, and this document will be complete, and I will apply a wad of blotting paper, and shut the book, and place it in my cast iron cabinet, where it will remain for who knows how long, until these final words are screeched by my embalmer in a desolate spinney on the day after my death. You may now remove your cotton hoods and, putting boots, shoes, or sandals back on, go shod, my proxy-screeched farewell ringing in your ears. Farewell!”

Chodd ceased. The mad strumming on the banjos, shamizens, guitars, and ukuleles ceased. The sun burst from behind a cloud. Lars Talc’s will was done.

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – X

In 1742 Jacques Benigne Winslow published a book entitled The Uncertainty Of The Signs Of Death. Aloysius Batlip owned a pirated Finnish edition of this important work, to which he referred each time a corpse lay sprawled on his mortuary slab. It was his practice not to allow weeping relatives into the Chapel of Rest until he was quite sure that the body was beyond all hope of resuscitation.

Hence he followed Winslow’s advice to pour vinegar, pepper, and fresh, warm urine into the supposedly deceased’s mouth. But this was merely the first of a battery of tests he carried out. Talc’s cadaver was subjected to a panoply of often ferocious indignities.

Batlip tweaked the Professor’s nipples with Dr Josat’s formidably sharp metal pincers, shocked his ears with hideous shrieks and excessive noises, applied a thermometer to his rectum, rammed burning tapers up his nostrils, melted sealing wax upon his chest, dipped a hammer into boiling water and pressed it into the hollow of Talc’s abdomen, plunged Monsieur Middledorf’s flag-capped needle into his heart, stuck one of Talc’s fingers into his ear to listen for rolling noises, carried out Snart’s anal sphincter test, dusted the groin with kwantod powder, and injected a solution of duggery into the spinal cord. Finally he was satisfied, and with Chodd still acting as his helper, he prepared the corpse for display.

Cleanse the body, Chodd,” he said, handing his assistant a bar of soap and a mop, “I will gather the substances and equipment.”

Batlip was justly proud of his embalming skills, and had won many cups and trophies from the Institute of Finnish Sepulture. As Chodd, having completed his task, wrung out the mop in a bucket, Batlip plunged a trocar into Lars Talc’s abdomen just above the navel, and thrust it in all directions until he had pierced the stomach, intestines, rectum, bladder, and liver, sucking out bits of tissue, blood clots, food, faeces, intestinal gases, and urine. He then pushed the trocar through the diaphragm and into the chest, lacerating and sucking as it went. Pausing only to snack on a conger-eel sandwich, he pumped preserving fluid into the cadaver, and turned his attention to the face.

When you die, your lower jaw falls downwards and backwards, and the mouth hangs open, giving you the look of a dolt or a dunderpate. With Chodd at his side, Batlip passed a needle and thread from the inner surface of Talc’s lower lip, up in front of his gums, through into one nostril, across to the other nostril, and back again into his mouth behind the upper lip. When the thread was drawn tight, by a fascinated Chodd, the lower jaw was pulled upwards and forwards. Lars Talc looked pensive and wise, and would remain so for a week or two, until his flesh began to rot.

They dressed him in a winding-sheet embroidered with Batlip’s monogram, leaving only his face uncovered. Then they transferred him to the coffin and lifted it on to the slab, having first covered it with a cloth of baize. And there, for the next few days, the great Professor Talc lay in state.

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – IX

The undertaker was a retired football referee named Aloysius Batlip, who doubled as a fishmonger. Unable to afford the rent for separate premises, he ran both his businesses from a single property in the town’s commercial district. He collected the body of Lars Talc before rigor mortis had set in, and deposited it on a counter at the back of his shop, where it jostled for space with a recent catch of herring, a dozen bream, a punnet of blubber, knives, boning-implements, wicker baskets filled with fishbones, and a platter of sturgeon’s innards.

During the following hour, there were eight visitors to Batlip’s emporium.

1. Dr Hoist, Lars Talc’s general practitioner. Precise details of Finnish health care provision at the time of these events are beyond the compass of the present work, which in some ways is a pity, as it would make for fascinating reading. Dr Hoist’s surgery was two minutes’ walk from the funeral parlour, which itself stood just a few yards from the spot where Talc had fallen. Batlip, who had witnessed the tragedy, had himself trundled the corpse into his shop, in a fish-barrow. A passing ingrate was sent speeding to Dr Hoist, who came at once.

Medical implementa deployed, Dr Hoist pronounced his patient dead. Batlip covered the body with sailcloth, and suggested a prayer.

He was not a religious man,” said the doctor, gagging on the overpowering stink of fish.

But I am,” replied the undertaker, and he mumbled a few words of spiritual consolation.

I have an urgent case of the dropsy to attend to,” said Dr Hoist, hurrying away, “I will send you the necessary papers tomorrow.”

2. Thing Linnet, an employee of the post office and passing acquaintance of Talc, who had also witnessed his death. He entered the shop as Dr Hoist left. A Papist, he unleashed from a roomy pocket in his tunic a set of antique wooden rosary beads, and proceeded to bray hectically over the body. Batlip, whose faith was more gritty, muscular, and northern, and who feared that such a racket could deter his piscine customers, pleaded with Linnet to desist. Eyes lambent with tears, Linnet apologised, but explained that he was grief-stricken and inconsolable.

You are acting like an Italian widow, sir,” said the fishmonger, “Did you know the man well?”

Heaven forfend!” screeched Linnet, “Do you not know who you have here?” He lifted the sailcloth. “This is Professor Lars Talc!”

Batlip had defective vision and an unsympathetic optician. He handled so many cadavers, he had not thought to examine this one closely. Now that he learned the identity of his charge, he was distraught.

One of the finest minds in all Finland!” he exclaimed.

Now perhaps you are sensible of my woe,” said Linnet.

Before Batlip could reply, his fishmongery assistant called him to the front of the shop, where the third visitor had appeared.

3. Guesbaldo O’Shaughnessy, restaurateur and one of Batlip’s most valued customers. He called daily, and enjoyed discussing his gastronomic schemes with the shopkeeper.

Dear friend!” he said, planting a trio of kisses on the fishmonger’s moonlike cheeks, “Tonight I intend to lay on a fine meal. The Papal Nuncio has reserved four tables. Imagine! I will make a fine trout pie. First I will remove the skin and bone from a half dozen medium size trout, and cut them into small pieces. Then I will put the pieces, together with a teacupful of bland sauce, four hard-boiled eggs, a teaspoonful of chopped pignut, pepper, salt, and trimmings into a mighty iron basin, mix the lot up and place it into a thawed pastry-case. I will wet the edges with goats’ milk, fold the pastry up like an envelope, brush the top with goo, put it on to a greased tin, and bake it in my piping hot oven until the pie is virtually black. Over the top I will pour syrup of herring. Oh my pal, is your mouth watering as mine is?”

It was not.

4. Slops Curbin, a member of the Electro-Magnetic Apparatus Museum Committee, who lived but a street away. He arrived some minutes after Batlip had managed to bundle O’Shaughnessy out of the shop, thrusting a parcel of trout under his arm. Curbin came merely to gloat and did not stay long.

5. Poor Minnie. She had been alerted by Linnet. She swept through into the funeral parlour. Batlip made room for her, sweeping buckets of jelly, mackerel-heads, steamed mullet, and tench-buns out of the way.

I would stay with you, but I must prepare the Chapel of Rest,” he said.

Minnie was silent. She sat by Talc’s body, scribbling notes into her commonplace book, chewing the end of her pencil each time she paused, briefly, for thought. Did she write a valediction to Talc, a torrent of memories, fire, and longing? Ah, that would not be Minnie. No, she sat by the corpse of the man with whom she had shared her life, and, in her crabbed hand, wrote about chemical barometer remedies, adulterations of cocoa, eye washes, the time for hanging chickens, the uses of sulphuric ether, stamped documents, the distance of the visible horizon, furniture for invalids, how to render linen bags incombustible, mange in dogs, irritating vegetable poisons, the return of liveries by dismissed servants, and the gutting of widgeons.

6. Battista Ritnob, a journalist. Ritnob had bumped into Dr Hoist near the tram-stop, and had been apprised of Talc’s death. She arrived, panting, pumped Batlip and his assistant for details, was granted a cursory sight of the corpse, and scooted back to her office to file a stop press report.

Professor Lars Talc, the great Finnish polymath, was struck by lightning and killed this morning. He was ninety-four. Witnesses stated that Talc was walking along the Avenue Ack on his way to an important meeting when a bolt of lightning struck him down. A full obituary will appear in later editions.”

7. Flail Plon, an aeronautical engineer. He called into the shop to buy a brace of lampreys.

8. Chodd. His behaviour was extraordinary, given that he held Talc in contempt. Chodd had fallen on hard times, his position as ill-paid henchman of the Museum Committee belying the fact that he had once, oh, long ago, had a glittering career as a bassoonist in Java. That island’s finest composers had written works especially for him. One thinks of Gribgab’s Wheelchair Variations, Dweb’s Three Winter Turnips, and, inevitably, The Filthiest Of The Churns, that clamorous masterpiece by Lug.

It had all gone horribly wrong following a mysterious incident at the Annual Javan Bassoonists’ Picnic in the summer of the Lug première. The truth of what happened at the duckpond has never come to light, the facts hidden in mouldering police files. But Chodd’s career was effectively over, and, as the decades passed, he became ever more embittered.

It rankled him to see a man like Talc, whom he considered a mere dilettante, held in such high esteem. Chodd’s loathing of Talc stemmed from a radio broadcast given by the latter, in which he disparaged bassoonists – particularly those from Java, Sumatra, and Borneo – as “mewling guttersnipes”. The words were intemperate, the opinion indefensible, but music had long been considered as Talc’s glaring weakness: his views were universally ridiculed, and his own works – primarily the one hundred and fourteen pieces in the songbook – passed over in embarrassed silence by the musical community, except in tone-deaf England, which held Talc’s songs in curious regard. But Chodd never forgave him, and when, by chance, the two were brought together by the Electro-Magnetic Apparatus Museum Committee, the ex-bassoonist relished every opportunity to scorn Talc to his face.

All the more remarkable, then, the vision of Chodd stamping into the funeral parlour in his tin boots, laying a bouquet of delphiniums on the sailcloth shroud, muttering consolatory nothings at the heedless, scribbling Minnie, and, joining Batlip in the Chapel of Rest, offering what help he could.

Working silently, the two men emptied out barrels of whelks, mussels, and crayfish into an iron bath, which they shoved into a corner and covered with an old curtain. Chodd removed oozing tubs of sprat-oil from the shelves and stacked them away in a cupboard. Batlip bundled his knives, axes, slicers, choppers, hooks, spikes, whittles, scissors, razors, cutters, and cleavers into a canvas sack which he lowered into the cellar. Between them, they managed to hose down the slab. Chodd gathered handfuls of vegetation from the small plot at the back of the shop, and decked the room with them, while Batlip nailed a few fish-crates together into a coffin shape and placed it next to the slab, ready to receive Talc’s carcase.

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – VIII

On the morning of the second Tuesday in July, as Lars Talc was passing along the Avenue Ack on his way to the scientifico-medical club, a mighty thunderstorm was blasting the heavens, booming in gong-sounds. The lightning was very slender and nimble, and as if playing very near. Flashes lacing two clouds above or a cloud and the earth started upon the eyes in live veins of rincing or riddling liquid white, inched and jagged as if it were the shivering of a bright riband string which had once been kept bound round a blade and danced back into its pleating. Several strong thrills of light followed each flash but a grey smother of Finnish darkness blotted the eyes if they had seen the fork, and dull furry thickened scapes of it were left in them.

At fourteen minutes past nine, high above Talc, a cloud charged with positive electricity unleashed a bolt of lightning towards the negatively-charged earth upon which he trod. The lightning flew from side to side, forking through the thinnest air, and sought, near the ground, a splendid conductor, which it found in a wee sliver of tungsten, or wolfram, embedded by Bewg in the bony core of the talismanic horn which Talc carried in the breast pocket of his dashing blazer. From there, the lightning bolt zipped across Talc’s chest, through one of his metal buttons, down to the buckle of his belt, shot through his right leg, ankle, and foot, and crashed into the waiting earth.

Moments later, Talc, too, toppled to the ground. His eyes were bulging, his brain was a fuzzing jelly, his limbs were at once numbed yet quivering, twitching, spastic. Burned striae on his flesh sizzled hotly. His gaze fixed upon the Finnish heavens, he thought of musketry, tickets, bunny rabbits, a well, fjords, ig, Minnie, ping pong, Bewg, the horn, Marseilles, his songbook, Chodd, angels, adjutants, penk, a motorboat, dappled things, dim things, destruction, defiance, dolour, dust, and death.

He expired at fourteen and a half minutes past nine in the morning, on the second Tuesday in July, struck by lightning on the Avenue Ack, on his way to a scientifico-medical club he had joined by dint of intrigue.

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – VII

You will be wanting to know what prize Lars Talc found at the end of Bewg’s treasure trail. It was a minuscule horn, or tusk, which – according to the hand-written leaflet in which it was enwrapped – held certain talismanic properties. It was little bigger than the nail of Talc’s little finger, and was burnt sienna in colour.

Horn is different from bone. It is composed of coagulated, or thickened, albumen, gelatine, and phosphate of lime. It contains just enough of the lime to make it hard without being too brittle, and just enough of gelatine to render it easily cut and moulded when heated.

Most horns have a bony core, which is got out by soaking them in water for five or six weeks. This core can be ground up and made into little crucibles called cupels, used for melting gold and silver in. The tips of the horns, which are solid, are then sawn off, to be used for knife handles, buttons, &c. The remainder, or hollow part, is easily softened by soaking it in boiling duckpond water for half an hour, when it is slit open with a knife, spread out flat, and pressed between monstrous iron plates. If the “flats”, as they are called, are pressed very hard, they can easily be separated into several thin plates, which are scraped and smoothed and sometimes put into lanterns instead of glass. In olden times horn plates were used for window-glass. In the manufacture of combs and other things, horn is pressed but little, as too much pressure causes the teeth to split. It is easily coloured so as to look like tortoiseshell, from which sometimes it can be scarcely distinguished.

Horn when heated can be moulded into almost any shape, which it will keep when cold. In making knife and fork handles, buttons, and other small things, the pieces are cut of the right size, softened in hot water, and then screwed up in moulds, which shape the horn and press upon it any letters or figures that may be on the inside of the moulds. In about twenty minutes the horn is taken out and is then ready to be polished, which is done with rotten stone and oil.

Lars Talc’s prize horn, however, had been subjected to no such manufactory impulses, and Bewg’s leaflet warned that it must remain whole, and pristine, or it would no longer serve as a talisman.

The various lights under which a horn may be looked at have given rise to a vast number of words in language, not just Finnish. Horn may be regarded as a projection, a climax, a badge of strength, power, or vigour, a tapering body, a spiral, a waxy object, a bow, a vessel to hold withal or to drink from, a smooth hard material not brittle, stony, metallic, or wooden, something sprouting up, something to thrust or push with, a sign of honour or pride, &c.

From the shape, we find words such as kernel and granum, grain and corn. From the curve of a horn, corona and crown. From the spiral, crinis, meaning ringlets or locks. From its being the highest point comes our crown, perhaps, in the sense of the top of the head. For its sprouting up and growing, we have keren, cornu, cresco, grandis, grass, great, groot. For its curving, curvus is probably from the root horn in one of its forms. Corvus, cornix, and crow (perhaps also raven, which may have been craven) bear a striking resemblance to cornu and curvus. So also crane, heron, and herne. Why these birds should derive their names from horn we cannot presume to say. The tree cornel is said to derive its name from the hard horn-like nature of its wood, and the corns of the foot perhaps for the same reason. Corner is so called from its shape. Possibly, although unlikely, grin may mean to curve up the ends of the mouth like horns. In Switzerland, they call a mountain horn. Herna is a horn-like crag. And what are we to make of hoon?

Sarvi, torvi, and tuntosarvi are Finnish words for horn.

Bewg’s leaflet did not describe in any detail how the tiny burnt sienna horn acted as a talisman. In any case, all forms of superstition were anathema to Lars Talc, who had devoted one of his more uproarious essays to the subject. And yet he was extremely pleased with his prize, and carried it with him where’er he roamed during the final two weeks of his life.