Not only had Minnie taken the alarm-clock and thrown it into a canal, she had also laced Lars Talc’s bedtime drink with a powerful sedative. He woke assuming it was late on Friday morning and dawdled about the apartment sharpening pencils, putting hay under the chairs, stamping on beetles, smearing foul-smelling decoctions on to his luxuriant hairstyle, gnashing his teeth, tinkering with a plastic fruitbat decoy, painting hurdles, winnowing chaff, hooting, chomping a surfeit of lampreys, and docking a hare.
The telegram, delivered by the efficient Finnish postal service, arrived as he was in the middle of straightening his doilies. It was from Bewg.
“Two hours left to claim prize,” it read, “If crate not opened, massive explosion will result. You and everything else within five-hundred-yards radius will be obliterated.”
Two hours? Talc switched on his radio and, after enduring three and a half minutes of windy Sumatran jazz, was informed that it was three and a half minutes past ten on Saturday morning. Imagine his bafflement. Picture him stalking through his rooms, locating Minnie, prising the truth from her, and falling into a swoon. He comes to, wails, and attempts to focus his throbbing brain on these unsuspected developments. It is twenty-four hours later than he thought, and the tiny zinc crate is booby-trapped.
Minnie is detailed to stand by with a stop-watch. She records the sequence of events in her commonplace book.
10.14 : Tiny crate removed from pocket of blazer. Talc emitting persistent stream of curses. He attempts to smash the crate open. Agents : hammer, awl, adze, side of table, fists, jemmy, iron mallet, edge of cabinet, crowbar, knife, sword, fork, divers implements, slab.
10.28 : Talc sobbing.
10.29 : The englantilainen Snodgrass brings vestments. He has darned them. He says he has an appointment. Talc is all snarls and hisses. Snodgrass demands refreshments. I proffer jam and ale, which Snodgrass wolfs down, explaining that he has not eaten for days. Talc is hunched in the corner of the room, armed with a dirk, the tiny zinc crate wedged between torn-up floorboards. Snodgrass demands more jam. Talc takes exception to him, and manhandles him roughly. Snodgrass threatens to call the police. Talc bashes him on the head with a large wooden kitchen utensil and shoves him into a cupboard, which he locks, throwing the key out of the window.
10.46 : Talc moans much.
10.49 : The crate is severely dented. Talc has been hitting it with the handle of a torch for three minutes.
10.50 : There is a pounding upon the door. Screeching horribly, Talc commands me to ignore it. In a steady voice, as if I were reading a railway timetable, I inform him that he has one hour and ten minutes left. He makes use of colourful language, at which I am sufficiently offended to stamp my feet and slouch off to the table-tennis room to sulk. The pounding at the door continues.
10.54 : Bruno joins me for a game of ping pong. As we play, we chuckle together at the increasingly ludicrous noises emanating from the pantry.
11.02 : I am 15-11 ahead on points. Bathed in sweat, crackling with fury, Talc bursts in and interrupts our game. I tell him he is pungent. Bruno, who fears him, slinks out despite my protests. Talc places the tiny crate on the ping pong table. At some point in the last ten minutes he has donned a suit of protective clothing. He looks not unlike a bee-keeping enthusiast. In ringing tones, he raps out a list of apparatus he wishes me to fetch. Aluminium netting! Spatula! Titanium batteries! Gutta-percha chocks! Flamethrower! Spindle! Hooter! I point out that there has been no let-up in the pounding at the door, which is now increasing in vigour. Plastic nozzles! Coddington lens! Piping! Magnetic ring! Taut wiring! Pot of milk! Bungee! Flint snappers! Ratchets! Timber! Wing-nuts! Suction tubes! Rubber knobs! [Ad nauseam.] The pounding becomes ever more violent, until at last the door gives way.
11.06 : A man enters the room. He is of indeterminate age, bedraggled, seething, and accompanied by a Finnish police officer. The latter takes a keen interest in the apparatus collected upon the ping pong table. Talc, who is making careful adjustments to the equipment, ignores their presence. The man complains that, as he walked along the street past our building, the key which Talc hurled from the window landed with a thud upon his head, quite discombobulating him. The police officer, who witnessed the incident, has accompanied him to our dwelling in order to arrest the malefactor. Talc spits.
11.07 : The police officer, herself an amateur scientist, has become enormously fascinated by Talc’s activities, and is now assisting him in his work. I pat the key-struck man on the head, place a Finnish banknote into his hand, and usher him from the apartment with soothing words. As he leaves, he gives the key back to me, but I decide to leave Snodgrass confined to the cupboard for the time being.
11.10 : Fifty minutes to go, I announce. I apprise the police officer of our dilemma. She is doughty. She does not flee.
11.14 : The conglomeration of equipment is now ready. Talc tests it by subjecting a biscuit tin to a barrage of noisy experiments. Jagged bolts of electricity shoot forth. Gases hiss. Liquids bubble. The biscuit tin cracks open. Talc and the police officer mop their brows, shake hands, and smile through gritted teeth.
11.20 : Bruno, quizzical, pokes his head in, but retreats.
11.21 : Talc attaches a pin to his siphon. The police
more jam. The minutes are ticking away.
11.49 : The crate is sturdier than the biscuit tin. Indeed, it is formidable. It has now withstood three separate attempts to crack it open. The police officer has set all the dials to maximum. The mechanisms, which hummed gently, are now growling. I suggest that we call it a day, gather our most precious belongings, and seek refuge in a distant spinney. This is met with quiet ferocity. Talc and the police officer bare their fangs and continue mucking about with the equipment.
11.54 : The postman delivers a rebuff from the Electro-Magnetic Apparatus Museum Committee regarding Talc’s ticket designs.
11.55 : I gather my most precious belongings in a tote bag, bid farewell to Talc and the police officer, and, with Bruno in tow, step out into the street. It is pouring with rain, as ever. There is a clap of thunder. Bruno and I make for the bus stop.
11.57 : The bus arrives. The driver is in a foul mood, and refuses to allow us aboard, on account of Bruno’s apparel. Yes, I say, there is no doubt that his clothing offends the senses, he’s a proper caution, but you really must –
11.58 : I am in the middle of my sentence when a lightning bolt crashes through a skylight into a building behind us. I notice that it is our building. Instinctively, I run back. I meet Talc on the stairs. He is grinning like a maniac. The lightning bolt has smashed open the tiny zinc crate, divulging the prize, which Talc now holds aloft in his scorched right hand. His hair is afire. I lead him to a fountain and douse the flames.
12.00 : We return to the apartment. The police officer is gibbering, but unhurt. Blasted by lightning, the table-tennis room is in a state of devastation. We release Snodgrass from the cupboard, crack open a bottle of penk, and carouse, carouse.