In Gath

And lo! there came unto Gath an man whose head was as the head of the otter.

And his body also was as the form of the otter and likewise his dimension.

And when the man spoke his voice was as the cry of the otter.

Now the people of Gath, seeing this, were much afraid.

They gathered about the man with their pointy sticks and led him unto their Hierophant.

Now the Hierophant of Gath dwelt in a place of much mist and vapourousness unyielding.

And the people said “O Hierophant of Gath, we bring you this man in form like unto the otter, what shall we do with him?”

And with his mouth the Hierophant of Gath spoke mumbo-jumbo unto them and they laid down their pointy sticks and returned to their fathers’ fields where many tares were sown.

And he took the man like unto the otter into his house in the mists.

And the next day there came tidings of the Hindenburg disaster.

A Fratricide

The evidence shows that this is how the murder was committed.

The victim was a fanatic named Vanityvanity Orliss Vanity, known as Vov for short. He made his living as a thumper. He thumped both tubs and Bibles, and sometimes, when he was strung out on dandelion-and-burdock, he thumped police officers, puppies, and other things beginning with P, such as pin-cushions.

On the day of the murder, Vov woke at dawn and rose from his bed and shoved his head into a pail of icy water and thumped a tub and ate some cream crackers and stood on his balcony and engaged in blood-curdling invective with his downstairs neighbour and thumped a Bible and tallied up the visible toads and combed his hair with a Bedraggler and fossicked in a cupboard and took a swipe at a bat and prayed the Lord his soul to save and wrapped a cravat around his neck, his neck, his neck, and paid no heed to the weather forecast and left his gloves on the bus and eked from its shell a tiny wriggling unidentified creature and admired the view from Sawdust Bridge and boxed clever and dipped an orphan in a pond and failed to understand foreign signage and almost toppled into a ditch but righted himself at the critical moment and had a go at a game of Regurgitate The Cream Crackers and scratched an irritant and looked at the town hall clock and thumped a few things beginning with P and pursed his lips, his lips, his lips, and tossed a hard-boiled egg so high it vanished in the aether and lost all sense of cardboard and did a few other things on his way to the post office.

At the post office, Vov joined a queue. The back of the head of the person in front of him was a phrenologist’s nightmare. This reminded Vov that he had in his blazer pocket a copy of Dobson’s pamphlet A Compendium Of Phrenologists’ Nightmares (out of print). It occurred to him that this would be a suitable gift for his brother, whose birthday it was today. Unfortunately, Vov knew not where his brother was. The last he had heard of him, he was being carted off in chains to a prison hulk after committing a series of enormities. Vov had no idea of the location of the hulk, nor if his brother was still there, in chains, raving, while the sea sloshed against the sides and birds swooped overhead in glorious aerial displays of avian grace and beauty.

What we know now is that Vov’s brother had escaped and was, at that very moment, bearing down on the post office, rattling his chains and raving and strung out on dandelion-and-burdock-diluted-with-seawater and mad as a kitten on the moon and armed with a club manufactured for the slaughter of baby seals and dribbling and drooling and forgotten by God and tormented by imaginary bells.

Accompanying him, because they were chained together, was a second escaped convict, a man named Schmar. Schmar had been sent to the prison hulk due to the shape of his head. According to the judiciary’s phrenologist, the bumps and dents in Schmar’s skull were indicative of the kind of criminal who would steal toffee apples from crippled children, or forge his bus ticket, or hang out his laundry with the wrong sort of clothes-pegs. No malfeasance, great or small, was beyond him, or would be beyond him, in theory.

Meanwhile, in the post office, Vov was perplexed. Every time the queue shuffled forward, the counter seemed to recede further into the distance. Vov wondered if he could correct this anomaly by shuffling backwards instead of forwards. In so doing, he stepped on the toe of the person behind him. There was an altercation. Vov noticed that his antagonist was wearing a soutane and carrying a prayer book and a set of rosary beads, thus he was a priest, thus he was something beginning with P, thus he thumped him. The priest was an advocate of muscular Christianity, and thumped Vov in turn. The thumping might have continued interminably, were it not for the sudden arrival, in the post office doorway, of Vov’s brother and Schmar.

And so we come to the murder.

What has not been mentioned thus far is that Vov, from certain angles, in a certain light, during certain phases of the moon, in certain post office queues, bore an astonishing resemblance to a baby seal. Brute instinct, therefore, led his brother to charge screaming at him and bash him, relentlessly and mercilessly, with his baby seal-culling club. He bashed and bashed until Vov lay dead on the post office floor. Then, pausing only to snatch from his brother’s blazer pocket the copy of Dobson’s pamphlet A Compendium Of Phrenologists’ Nightmares (out of print), the escaped convict slipped his shackles, thrust the bloodied club into Schmar’s weedy hands, and scarpered, making a beeline first for the bus stop and then, boarding a number 666, riding all the way to the end of the route, an eerily deserted terminus at the edge of the cold wet unpitying marshes, where he hid among reeds and catkins, feeding on insects and marsh-water, and occasionally waylaying tiny marshland children, terrifying the poor little mites, still forgotten by God, but forgotten by the coppers too, and left free to live out his days, sploshing around in the marsh and reading the Dobson pamphlet, running his fingers delicately over his own skull, feeling the bumps and dents, and slowly, very slowly, turning into a marsh-warbler, and flying, soaring through the blue sky, migrating to other marshes, in other lands, far far away.

When Detective Captain Cargpan arrived at the post office, it was all too obvious what had happened. There was Vov, bludgeoned and dead on the floor. There was Schmar, holding the club, looking as if he was about to be sick, and in possession of a head the shape of which any phrenologist worth their salt would attest screamed “criminal!”.

Schmar, fighting down with difficulty the last of his nausea, pressed his mouth against the shoulder of the policeman who, stepping lightly, led him away.

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.

An Old Manuscript

It looks as if much had been neglected in our country’s system of defence. Yes, Fort Hoity is famously impregnable, and Fort Toity likewise. But the fence linking them, running along the frontier, had been constructed from balsa wood and lollipop sticks. And when the swarm of specially-trained border wasps was wiped out by Hulbert-Courtneidge Disease, otherwise known as Border Wasp Wipeout Syndrome, the flimsiness of the fence had become all too apparent.

Our neighbours are ferocious and barbaric. Night after night, on the other side of the fence, they light bonfires and dance in circles round them, screaming impious guttural cries and waving pitchforks. They are unfathomably stupid. To date, they have been kept at bay by the papier-mâché wasps gummed to lollipop sticks at regular intervals along the frontier. The effectiveness of this defensive measure is unlikely to last. The puppet wasps cannot withstand torrential rainfall, of which there is much, in torrents, and our factories cannot churn out sufficient replacements, because of the shortages.

From Fort Hoity, as also from Fort Toity, we take snipes at our barbarian foe by launching snipe at them. For those of you who know little or nothing about flying things with wings and beaks and feathers, the snipe is a type of bird. It has a long, sharp, pointy bill or beak (see previous sentence). Our snipe are specially trained to swoop relentlessly towards barbarians, and to pierce them with their pointy beaks, ideally puncturing one of the major arteries. Note that, as with sheep and teal, the plural of snipe is snipe. I do not know why that is the case. Ask an ornitholinguist.

One drawback of our sniping is that, for all their savagery, our neighbours seem to have a way with birds. The original idea was that, having stabbed and slain a barbarian, the snipe would turn around and fly back to Fort Hoity (or Fort Toity), ready to be relaunched for another attack. But the barbarians cosset the snipe, and feed them millet and tiny terrified mammals, and make pets of them, and – maddeningly – the snipe thrive in their care. We are fortunate that thus far the savages have not yet worked out how to get the snipe to attack us.

One of our brightest engineers has devised a plan to dig a ha-ha along the length of the fence between Fort Hoity and Fort Toity. Thus, if the barbarians did manage to breach the balsa wood and lollipop sticks and papier-mâché wasps, they would immediately topple in to the ha-ha. They would be trapped like sitting ducks, and our forces could then make short work of them by dropping in a mass of violets and other flowers, smothering them as Heliogabalus did his enemies. Before we can put this plan into action, we need to convert much of our farmland into plantations for violets and other flowers, so we have enough for the smothering.

Meanwhile, our Black Ops team conducts various black ops on both sides of the border. By their nature, black ops are carried out under the radar. As we do not have a radar, we fashioned a convincing counterfeit by attaching a couple of wire coat-hangers to the top of a lamppost near Fort Hoity, and another one near Fort Toity. So pig-ignorant and backward are the barbarians, they are completely taken in. Baffled by our superior technology, they think a coat-hanger is the work of the devil – and that is when it is used for its original purpose. As a faux radar, they think it is the work of two devils.

Threatened as we are by brutes on the border, there is perhaps a greater peril lurking in our midst. I speak of the enemy within, the peaceniks. They are growing in number, in spite of our efficient secret police and the Friday night head-boilings at both Fort Hoity and Fort Toity. These “useful idiots” deny that our neighbours are barbaric savages who wish us harm, insisting rather that they are lovely people who just grunt rather more than we do. Look how they care for their snipe!, these nitwits cry, ignoring the fact that they are our snipe, primed to kill, and treacherously bought off by the barbarians with millet and tiny terrified mammals.

Of equal concern to the authorities is the fashionable theory, currently being bruited about the cement water-troughs of our fauborgs, that there is no land at all on the other side of the fence, no barbarians, just the sea, the vast wet illimitable sea that stretches forever, to the ends of the earth. Proponents of this codswallop maintain that the bonfires we see are strange inexplicable atmospheric phenomena, that the barbarians dancing in circles round them, screaming impious guttural cries and waving pitchforks are mere sea-sprites, phantoms of wind and water and the play of the light. This is a misunderstanding of some kind; and it will be the ruin of us.

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.

At Night

Deeply lost in the night. An overwhelming pong of hamster and hair oil. The air swarming with nocturnal gnats. In the distance, under the elevated section of the motorway, scores of loudspeakers pounding out non-stop reggae and rock music. A night of dread, but is it natty? Nashe wrote of the terrors of the night, and there was nothing natty about them. Or gnatty. Oh, sweep them away, the swarms, or disperse them with a blast from a bicycle pump.

Imagine if Lee Harvey Oswald had been armed with a bicycle pump rather than with a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle. He was unable to drive, so it is plausible he could have had a bicycle, and thus a pump. Imagining such a thing, such twaddle, distracts from the dread and the terror on this night of nights.

This night of no owls. Where have they gone? The yew tree’s branches are owl-empty for the first time in living memory. Remember studying them through night-vision trinoculars, the mystic third lens for the mystic third eye? Invaluable goggles.

Night came crashing down so suddenly. Up there, fat stars glistened, unimaginably distant burning rocks. Down here, hopelessly lost. Magnets ceasing to function, compasses pointing in unknown directions never previously seen on earth.

In tenebrous gloom, trying to decipher the scritti. Muck underfoot. Approaching the ducal potting shed, behind eerie shrubs. Someone must be there.

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Tania and James Stern. Everything in between was not.

A Dream

Josef K. was dreaming. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you about it. Other people’s dreams are almost always insufferably boring. My heart sinks when somebody I barely know insists on telling me one of their dreams. It is akin to the horror I feel when buttonholed by somebody who is determined to read to me their “latest poem”. These poems are invariably codswallop. And so it is with dreams.

On the other hand we are, perhaps rightly, fascinated by our own dreams – as, I suppose, we are by our poems, if we are foolish enough to write them. Dreams churn up our memories, distort them, pluck them from where they belong and drop them into new and weird contexts. Because they belong to us, they are endlessly interesting. We try to wring sense from them, to act as our own Viennese quack and work out what the dream tells us about ourselves. Such navel-gazing is very pleasing, but you really don’t want to impose it on anybody else.

Pleasing, yes, but sometimes futile. God alone knows how I have wrestled with the deep, deep meaning of a dream I had a few years ago, in which I attacked the actor Roy Kinnear, bashing him over the head with a chair. I never met the late Mr Kinnear. It is, to date, his sole appearance in my dreamworld. I still have no idea what that dream meant, if it meant anything.

We might, if we are sufficiently engaged, find the dreams of fictional characters intriguing. I can’t remember the particular dream Josef K. had in A Dream by Franz Kafka, which is another reason I’m not telling you about it. But we ought to remember that fictional characters’ dreams aren’t real dreams – they’re made up by the author. They may well be based on actual dreams the author had, though there is no guarantee of that. In any case, you can bet on your sickly and wizened grandmother’s life that the author embroiders, and shapes the dream-narrative, through art.

Consider, as an example, the story in which fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol has a dream while taking a pre-polevaulting nap. As readers, we know that the dream has been planted in his (fictional) sleeping brain, probably by his coach, the cantankerous, chain-smoking, enovercoated, Homburg-hatted, and all too real Old Halob, a non-fictional character if ever there was one.

In the dream, Bobnit Tivol and Old Halob have somehow swapped identities. Thus, it is the coach who is polevaulting, an image so absurd and preposterous it is the epitome of dream-bizarrerie. This is what I mean by art. Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, meanwhile, in the persona of his coach, has gone to visit Old Halob’s sickly and wizened grandmother in her hovel. He explains to her, by thumps on her head, that he is going to gamble on her life in a sordid wager. The grandmother then takes off her thrum nightcap, and is revealed to be a large, fierce wolf, with gleaming and razor-sharp fangs.

Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol screams. In real life, this is the point where a dreamer would be shocked awake. But in the story, the dream continues. Bobnit Tivol runs out of the hovel, runs and runs, and finds himself on a familiar running track. He runs round and round and round, in pursuit, now, of another runner, just ahead of him. Eventually the fictional athlete catches up with this runner, and they sprint across the finishing line at exactly the same moment. Panting, they turn to face each other, and Bobnit Tivol recognises his fellow-runner as the late actor Roy Kinnear.

Arm in arm, they repair to a sort of supersonic milk bar, where they order a couple of sort of supersonic milk-based drinks. They sit at a table. All of a sudden, the writer Frank Key comes charging in and attacks Roy Kinnear, bashing him over the head with a chair.

Frightened, Bobnit Tivol runs into a sort of supersonic milk bar pantry, locking the door behind him. He mops his fevered brow, first taking off his Homburg – remember, he is still in the guise of his coach Old Halob, who we assume is making up this dream. We might ask, then, at this point, whether the dream tells us more about (fictional) Bobnit Tivol or (non-fictional) Old Halob. We might ask the question of a Viennese quack, who would surely know the answer. But none is available, so instead, growing bored, we ask “how did the dream end?”

Having removed his Homburg, Bobnit Tivol, or Old Halob, looked down, and saw that his trouser-cuffs were dirty and his shoes were laced up wrong. Bending to retie the shoelaces, he bumped his head on a headbumper. So severe was the bump that stars appeared revolving around his fictional, dream head, as in an illustration in a children’s comic. They were such pretty stars! Oh, how they twinkled! Enchanted by the sight, he woke up.

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.

The Bucket Rider

Coal all spent; the bucket empty; the shovel useless; the stove breathing out cold; the room freezing; the trees outside the window rigid, covered with rime; the sky a silver shield against anyone who looks for help from it. As I did, foolishly. I shoved open the door of the chalet, and steeped out, and stared at the sky.

Aidez-moi! Aidez-moi!”, I shouted. There was no answer. I went back inside and slammed the door shut. Before I froze to death, I put on two coats, made from the fur of critically endangered medium-size mammals, which I had stolen from Yoko Ono. Physically, I am a good deal bigger than diminutive Yoko, hence the two coats. Ideally, I would have pilfered three, but the Beatle Lennon was mooching about the place, and I had to act fast. That was a long time ago. In those days I did not shout at the sky in French.

That skill, or art, I learned more recently, from Blötzmann. “Those seeking succour from the sky,” he writes (Book XIX, Lavender Series), “Are well advised to note that the sky speaks French, with a smattering of Finnish (verbs only).”

I know there are those who damn Blötzmann as a crank and an idiot, but to date I have found him an infallible guide, in spite of the often senseless tosh he peddles. I say “to date” because now even I am beginning to have doubts. It was, after all, because of Blötzmann (Book IX, Lilac Series) that I ended up here, in a chalet high, high in the ice mountains, with an empty coal-bucket and icicles forming on my moustache.

Should I have treated the invitation with a measure of caution? Probably. But, immersed as I was in the tenets expounded in Book IX, I did not even question it. Instead, I shoved a few essentials into a pippy bag and ran – sprinted! – to the railway station. I was in such a hurry that I did not even lock the door behind me. Within hours I was at the foot of the ice mountains, queuing for a ticket for the funicular railway which would take me to this confounded ice-girt freezing coalless chalet.

The invitation came from the Pointy Town Nisbet Spotting Society, an organisation previously unknown to me.

Dear Shambeko!, it read, Please join us for a very special week of nisbet spotting high, high in the ice mountains. Be our guest in a lovely chalet heated by a coal-stove. Brr! It’s chilly out there, so wrap up warm!

As I say, it might have been wise to make a few enquiries before rushing off and leaving behind everything I held dear. Not only had I never heard of the Pointy Town Nisbet Spotting Society, I had no idea what a nisbet was. How, then, could I spot one? And if I did spot one, or dozens, or hundreds, I would not realise I had done so, not knowing what one was. Dashing off to the chalet was the utmost foolishness on my part. The best I can say in my defence is that I assumed a representative of the Society would be there to enlighten me.

But when I arrived, the chalet was empty. There was a small amount of coal in the bucket, so I got the stove burning, heated up a pan of milk slops, and sat gazing at the rime-encrusted window. And I waited. I waited for three days, until the coal was almost spent. Then, with a sudden crash, the door burst open, and a woman festooned with the pelts of various hairy mammals came waltzing in.

I was astonished to see Pointy Town’s most notorious flapper, Flossie Von Straubenzee. She raised one bemittened fist and cried “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!” Flossie had once been a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, and still liked to shout their slogan in greeting.

Thank St Spivack you are here!” I babbled, “The bucket of coal is almost spent, there are very few milk slops left, and according to the Daily Ice Mountains News Digest & Weather Forecast, dropped by parachute to the chalet each morning, it’s going to be twice as cold tomorrow, thrice as cold the day after, and so on, exponentially.”

Flossie seemed unperturbed, and asked me how the nisbet spotting was going. Somewhat shamefacedly, I explained that I did not know what a nisbet was.

Well, nor do we, exactly,” she said, “That’s one reason for this very special week. We’re hoping that you might accomplish the very first authenticated spotting of a nisbet. That would really give the Society a boost. I came to tell you that we’ve just had word there could be a nisbet higher up the ice mountains. Apparently they don’t thrive except right near the summit, where the air is thin and the cold is bitter, or bitterer. Good luck! Cheerio!”

And Flossie waltzed out of the chalet as suddenly as she had come.

That was three days ago. Now, all the coal is spent. The bucket is empty. The shovel is useless. The stove is breathing out cold. Et cetera et cetera. The sky offered no succour. But I have devised a plan. The bucket is large enough for me to squat inside it, just about. I drag it outside, and, using knots both sturdy and ingenious, attach it to the cords of one of the morning parachutes lying in the snow. Then I climb into the bucket. Soon, as I expected, a flock of wingèd things, with beaks and feathers – probably birds – grasp the parachute in their talons, and lift it. The knots hold. I am lifted too, in my bucket.

Let us go and spot a nisbet!” I cry.

And with that I ascend into the regions of the ice mountains and am lost forever.

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.

Children On A Country Road

I heard the wagons rumbling past the garden fence, sometimes I even saw them through gently swaying gaps in the foliage. I would gaze, transfixed, as wagon after wagon after wagon passed. But when they were gone, and the road was empty, I saw, through gently swaying gaps in the foliage, beyond the road, the expanse of the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa, and I was terrified, and I ran back into the cottage, gibbering, until Papa gave me a bowl of soup, and, slurping it without a spoon, I was becalmed.

From infancy, wise Papa had forbidden me to stray beyond the garden fence and foliage. There were countless tales of unsuspecting children wandering on to the tarputa, and vanishing in its vast wild windswept desolate expanse, never to be seen again in this world. The glimpses of it I had, when once the wagons had rumbled past, frightened me beyond words.

Though I was confined to our cottage and its garden, I was a contented tot. I had innumerable pebbles and sticks to play with, and sometimes a bird – a wren or a godwit – would appear in the sky overhead, and swoop, and alight upon the bird table. I would watch entranced as Papa came charging out of the cottage at uncanny speed, a sock filled with wet impacted sand in his fist, and bashed out the brains of the bird before it had time to flit away. On the days when that happened, the soup was particularly slurpable.

My psychiatrist has asked me, repeatedly, if I was a lonely child. In response, I insist that I was not. Never having had any playmates, I had no sense of their absence from my life. All I knew of other children were the terrible tales of them getting lost on the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa.

Then, one day when I was seven or eight years old, something extraordinary happened. I was in the cottage rumpus room, happily playing a game of put-the-pebble-next-to-the-stick, when I heard the sound of rumbling. I dashed out to the garden, and, through gently swaying gaps in the foliage, I saw the wagons pass by, wagon after wagon after wagon. When, eventually, the last wagon rolled past, I was astonished to see, on the other side of the road, coming towards me from the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa, a parcel of children, tiny tots, seven in all. Could these be some of the vanished children, returning, curiously unaged, after years of hopeless wandering? I was agog.

I scampered indoors to tell Papa. Thinking I had come to report a wren or a godwit on the bird table, he was already filling his sock with wet impacted sand. I explained what I had seen.

Perhaps they could be my playmates!” I added.

But Papa was cautious. We went outside to look at the children through gently swaying gaps in the foliage. They had stopped when they came to the road, and did not cross. They stood there, the seven of them, gazing at the cottage.

I shall call the lollipop lady,” said Papa, “When she arrives, and helps these mysterious children to cross the road, I will keep them on the other side of the garden fence and interrogate them through the gently swaying gaps in the foliage. You can never be too careful. Carry on playing with your pebble and stick until the lollipop lady gets here.”

By mid-afternoon the children had been safely escorted across the road. Papa let me sit on a stump in the garden while he questioned them through the gently swaying gaps in the foliage.

Who are you, mysterious tinies?” asked Papa.

The largest child replied for all of them.

We are Pips,” he said, “Or rather, we will one day become Pips. I am Merald, whose name is Bubba, and this -” he pointed to each tot in turn “- is William and Brenda and Eleanor and Edward and Langston. The little squirt at the end is Chris, whose Pipness will be late, and brief.”

Pips?” asked uncomprehending Papa.

As in Gladys Knight And The,” said Merald whose name was Bubba.

Papa knew little of soul music, and even less about Motown, and nor did I, but we took Bubba’s story at face value.

And what brings you from the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa to my door?” asked Papa.

As you can see, we are but tots,” said Bubba, “And our lungs and windpipes have not yet developed fully, whereby we might accompany Gladys Knight on her chart-toppers. We would like to avail ourselves of the rumpus room in your cottage to use as a rehearsal room, so we can sing our little hearts out until we are each as proficient as can be. We are confident that Gladys Knight will come calling for us when, at different times, we are ready to be her Pips.”

Papa’s ferocious countenance hid a heart as soppy as an old sock not yet filled with wet impacted sand. He unlatched the garden gate, and the future Pips entered one by one, Bubba at their head and the little squirt Chris bringing up the rear. They went straight to the rumpus room and started to sing, though I have to say at this nascent stage in their careers as Pips the racket they made is better described as ungodly caterwauling.

Papa! Papa!” I cried over the din, “You did not ask them what they were doing on the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa!”

That can wait,” said Papa, “Now be on the lookout for a wren or a godwit, otherwise our soup tonight will be a thin consommé.”

And so I waited. I waited for years. Papa never asked the Pips to explain where they had been, and what they had been doing, before they came to us that day. And nor did I. Neither of us ever got the opportunity. We could never get a word in edgewise. The seven children sang continually, morning, noon, and night, without cease. We prayed for Gladys Knight to turn up and whisk at least some of them away. I spent entire days gazing through the gently swaying gaps in the foliage, barely noticing the wagons rumbling past, trying somehow to summon Gladys Knight. But the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa remained obstinately empty and vast and wild and windswept and desolate, with nary a sign of a soul singer. Gladys Knight never came for her Pips.

On my twelfth birthday, Papa and I were sat in the anteroom of the rumpus room, cotton wool stuffed into our ears to muffle the awful singing. Papa looked haunted and woebegone. I asked him what was the matter.

A horrible truth has dawned on me, Sophonisba,” he shouted.

What is that, Papa?” I shouted back.

I do not think these children are Pips.”

Not Pips? Then what are they?”

I think they are fools,” he shouted, “Foolish tots who cannot stop singing.”

Yes, I have wondered about that,” I shouted, “I have wondered that they sing all day, every day, and all night, every night, and never seem to sleep, or even to get tired.”

Papa raised his eyes to the heavens. He looked as desolate as the tarputa.

How could fools get tired?”

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.

The Hunter Gracchus

Two boys were sitting on the harbour wall playing with dice. One of the boys was clever, and the other boy was dim. Now, when I tell you that one of the boys tossed the dice into the sea that sloshed against the harbour wall, you are likely to conclude that the boy who so tossed was the dim one. Dice serve no purpose in the sea. They will bob upon the surface of the waters, uselessly, carried by the tides, growing ever more distant the one from the other, sopping wet, and no longer to be played with.

But in fact it was the clever boy who ruined their play by tossing the dice into the sea. For not only was he astoundingly clever, with an intellect far outwith the usual range of boyish brains, but he was also a psychopath. No sooner had he tossed the dice into the sea than he shoved his dim playmate off the harbour wall into the same sloshing sea and, for good measure, he grabbed hold of a passing harbour kitten and, deaf to its mewling, chucked it into the water alongside the dice and the dim boy. The name of this clever boy? Young Babinsky!

Amused by his seaside enormities, the youthful psychopath toddled off to a milk bar with not a care in the world. Meanwhile, in the vast wet merciless sea, the dice bobbed, but the dim boy and the harbour kitten sank like stones, and the waters washed over them, and they were forgotten.

*

Let us leap forward thirty, no, forty years. Forty is a better number than thirty, according to Blötzmann, who famously assigned abstruse yet compelling non-numerical values to certain numbers that took his fancy, for example eight and eleven and fifteen and sixteen and nineteen and twenty-six and twenty-nine and thirty-seven and forty and oh for god’s sake shut up with the list of numbers, it could go on ad infinitum. Suffice to say forty is one of Blötzmann’s so-called “basilisk” numbers, whatever that might mean.

In the forty years since the clever boy and the dim boy sat on the harbour wall playing with dice, the wall has crumbled. The big wet sea is reclaiming the land. Half of the town is now under water, including the milk bar where, all those years ago, Babinsky drank a tumbler of warm sour goaty milk and chuckled at his youthful crimes. And now he has returned. Look, there he is, silhouetted against the ghastly sky, swinging his axe, standing on the town’s highest hill and gazing, perplexed, at the sea below. He has come on a pilgrimage of sorts, eager to revisit the scenes – idyllic, as he remembers them – of his youth. But they are gone, sunk beneath the waves as surely as his first victims, his dim playmate and the harbour kitten, vanished forever.

*

Babinsky was not a man to let a little thing like the sea confound him. Pausing only to waylay a passing Punch & Judy man, butchering him with his axe and slicers, the lumbering walrus-moustached psychopath lumbered off towards a chandlery, where he rented a deep-sea diving outfit, complete with gleaming brass helmet. Then he walked into the sea, following the old familiar roads and paths and mews and alleys submerged under the churning waters, until he came to the milk bar.

Its door had long ago fallen from its rusted hinges. Babinsky entered, and sat at the communal table, whereon tiny crabs scuttled and lobsters clacked. Memories tumbled through his insane head. He could almost taste the goaty milk of forty years ago.

And then, from behind the milk bar counter, there appeared a sea-wraith, festooned in seaweed. It was accompanied by a sea-ghoul kitten. The kitten wore a necklace of eelgrass, on which were strung a pair of dice. The wraith sat down opposite Babinsky. The ghoulish kitten jumped up on to the table and chased away the crabs and lobsters.

Hello, Babinsky” gurgled the wraith.

For once, the walrus-moustached psychopath was nonplussed.

Yes, it is me, your childhood playmate, poor dim Gracchus. You shoved me off the old harbour wall, into the pitiless sea, and chucked Tiddles the kitten in after me. I thank you for that. He has been a boon, if kittenish, companion these past forty years.

We both drowned, of course. But our bodies were never recovered. When we sank to the bottom of the sea, we were dragged into a cave by an old man with a long beard who carried a trident. He nursed us back to what passes for health among sea-wraiths and sea-ghouls, until we were well enough to attend his series of Microsoft PowerPoint presentations about undersea life. They were a real eye-opener, I can tell you. Even someone as dim as me, or as stupid as the kitten – we learned so much!

For example, do you have any idea how easy it is to hunt down and kill tiny fish such as dabs and sprats and blennies? That is how I make my living – or rather, wraithing – these days. I roam the seas in my little ship,  with Tiddles as First Mate, casting my net and catching tiny fish which I sell to the other denizens of the deep. There are all sorts down here – drowned sailors, suicides, nitwits who never learned to swim.

You should think about coming to join us, Babinsky. There must have been times, lying awake in your blood-drenched bed, when it crossed your mind that you should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas. Not that it’s silent down here, oh no. Apart from the shrill piping screams of slaughtered dabs and sprats and blennies, there is the continuing reverberation of “Autumn”, played by the house band on the Titanic, as documented by Gavin Bryars in his 1975 recording The Sinking Of The Titanic, released on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label. Plus there are all sorts of weird bubbly gurgling noises.

Anyway, Babinsky my old mucker, give it some thought. I think you’ll like it here. My ship has no rudder, and it is driven by the wind that blows in the undermost regions of death.”

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.

Wedding Preparations In The Country

When Eduard Raban, coming along the passage, walked into the open doorway, he saw that it was raining. The morning drizzle had become a lunchtime downpour. So teeming was the rain that Raban could barely see the milk bar across the street. Crushed by weather, he turned abruptly, returned along the passage and up the stairs and into his rented room and flung himself on to the bed and promptly fell asleep.

Shortly afterwards, without waking, he rose from the bed, put on a pair of galoshes, and went back out of the room and down the stairs and along the passage and into the open doorway. But this time, being fast asleep, he did not stop to consider the rain, but continued out, sploshing across the puddle-splattered street and into the milk bar.

He sat at the communal table and, still wholly unconscious, waved his arm in a languid, foppish manner to attract the attention of the milk bar serving urchin, a tiny lad no more than four foot tall, with a withered leg and a pointy hat. Unlike Raban, this urchin boy was wide awake, almost uncannily so, vividly aware of everything going on around him, from the languid and foppish gestures of unconscious customers to the scuttling of tiny beetles across the sawdust floor of the milk bar.

Now, in the ringing words of Blötzmann – admittedly wrenched out of context – “Forget the somnambulist!” and concentrate instead upon the urchin. For it is this weedy milk bar factotum who played a decisive part in the history of the century of which I write. This tiny lad was none other than Gus Von Vig, inventor – or perhaps one should say discoverer – of the milk moustache. It was a fashion craze that swept across the continent as relentlessly as the plague-riddled rats of an earlier century. And it was more than a fad, oh!, much more. One need only study photographs taken during the decades when the milk moustache was de rigueur. Scarcely an upper lip is unadorned by a stripe of dried or drying milk.

Because he was employed as a milk bar serving urchin, it was long believed that Gus Von Vig lit upon the milk moustache in the course of his duties. Recent and fantastically rigorous research by upper lip fashion historian Popsi Uplip has demonstrated, beyond argument, that, on the contrary and unexpectedly, Von Vig first gave the milk moustache a public outing dozens of miles away from the milk bar, out in the country, when he attended a wedding.

He had been invited, the Lord only knows why, to the nuptials of Babinsky 2, the idiot half-brother of the lumbering walrus-(not milk-)moustached serial killer Babinsky, and his bride, the equally dimwitted Babs Glint, daughter of countryside folk. The wedding took place in some godforsaken rustic hellhole a half-day’s train journey away from the bustling modern city, replete with street lighting and majestic boulevards and sodium flares and milk bars where Gus Von Vig had lived all his life.

While he sat enlocomotived waiting for the train to chug out of the station, far away in the countryside Mama and Papa Glint were making preparations for their daughter’s wedding. There was a tent. There were trestle tables. There were cackhandedly embroidered cloths covering the tables. Upon each cloth was placed a potato, one per table. There was every chance that pitting the wedding guests against each other in games of the often brutal peasant sport of Grab The Potato would lead to unbridled violence, but both Mama and Papa Glint were brutish and given to unbridled violence, as were almost all the wedding guests, as indeed was the blushing bride, dimwitted Babs.

Also preparing for the wedding was the local man of the cloth, the Reverend Pluvius Mancloth. Urbane, hirsute, vengeful, cantankerous, potty, gassy, ferocious, dismal, hare-brained, hare-lipped, lascivious, erudite, appalling, nuts, rubicund, sordid, wintry, butter-fingered, holy, brittle, bitter, blessed of the fruit of Our Lady’s womb, Jesus, half-full of grace, rotting-from-the-inside, creaky, blind, the Rev. Mancloth was also brutish and given to unbridled violence, but only towards puppies and kittens. To his flock of peasant churchgoers, he appeared addled and incompetent, if somewhat greasy. And yet he was loved by them, with a deep spiritual peasant love, akin to the love a farmer feels for his favourite pig. It was appropriate, then, that the vicar prepared for the wedding by wallowing, among pigs, in the muck, in their sty.

What nobody could have foreseen was that this squalid countryside wedding, of Babinsky 2 to Babs Glint, would witness the public debut of the greatest upper lip fashion craze of the century. For as his train chugged slowly towards the rustic hellhole’s dilapidated railway station, Gus Von Vig grew thirsty. He determined that the first thing he would do, upon disembarking from the train, was to beg a farmer for a tumbler of milk.

As luck would have it, there was just such a farmer loitering on the station platform. He was on the lookout for the railway cat, for which, each day, he would pour a tumblerful of milk into a bowl, and watch it lap. When Gus Von Vig came mincing along the platform, the milk had not yet been poured into the bowl. It was still in the tumbler, held in the farmer’s muscular and grubby peasant hand. Gus begged. The farmer explained about the cat. Gus begged further, but the farmer would not yield.

Then Gus realised he had in his jacket pocket a persuasive theological tract which, if he were to recite the more vivid passages to the farmer, might change his mind. Coincidentally, this tract – entitled Why Cats Must Suffer – had been written by the Rev. Pluvius Mancloth. It certainly proved persuasive, for no sooner had he heard four or five words of it than the farmer handed the tumbler of milk to Gus Von Vig, who gulped it down greedily, inadvertently leaving the telltale stripe of a milk moustache on his upper lip.

And it was thus adorned that he attended the wedding. Not a single peasant expressed admiration of his milk moustache, but at the reception, when the games of Grab The Potato descended into unbridled violence, weedy Von Vig sought refuge from the brutality by fleeing to a nearby newsagent’s kiosk. Also at the kiosk, buying a bundle of the latest fashion magazines, was the internationally celebrated Italian fashionista Giuseppe Boppo. Boppo’s glance fell on the milk moustache upon Von Vig’s upper lip, and so great was his ecstasy that he swooned. The rest is history.

A question that has always plagued those plagued by questions is precisely why Boppo was so taken with the milk moustache. Such was his influence that, within a week of the wedding, it was on the upper lips of the most fashionable people in every important city across the continent. In her research paper, Popsi Uplip provides a simple explanation, when she writes:

He’s instantly ecstatic about everything beautiful …

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins. Everything in between was not.

Ruined Picnics

The compendium Ruined Picnics gives accounts of one thousand ruined picnics between 1959 and 2017. An unsurprising number of ruinations are caused by rainfall and wasps, but there is only one recorded picnic ruined by a panic-stricken goose.

This picnic took place on 14 January 1987, in a field hemmed by larch and sycamore, not far from a farm, or, better, farmstead, yes, a farmstead, where many geese were kept. It was a sort of goose-farmstead, if you can imagine such a thing. The bulk, or majority, of the geese were content and placid, but one of their number was thrown into a state of panic by something strange and grubby and inchoate. At this distance in time, we cannot know for certain what it was, precisely, or even vaguely, this thing. All that can be said for certain is that it induced panic in a single goose, which, maddened, broke out of the farmstead by hurling itself repeatedly against a portion of fencing weakened by rust and metal fatigue, until it had created a gap large enough for it to go goose-stepping away from the farmstead, in a direct line to the field, hemmed by larch and sycamore, where a picnic was, on that afternoon, in January!, taking place.

This was one of the so-called Picnics of Piety, organised by the pious and puritanical Reverend Ringo Starr – not to be confused, though he often was, with the drumming Beatle of the same name, though we would do well to remember that the latter adopted it as a pseudonym or stage-name, whereas for the Reverend it was his real name. At least, he claimed as much, though was curiously reluctant ever to produce his birth certificate when asked, for example by petty bureaucrats working for petty bureaucracies, and similar curses upon humanity.

Picture, them, on a freezing January afternoon, in a field, a Picnic of Piety, with sausage rolls and cream crackers and marmalade and buns and digestive biscuits and reconstituted meat-style gaeitiés, accompanied by flasks of spigot-water. Fast, or fastish, approaching the picnic blanket is the panic-stricken goose. Nobody at the picnic sees it coming, for the Reverend Ringo Starr has commanded the picnickers to shut their eyes and think pious thoughts while chewing their sausage rolls and cream crackers and marmalade and buns and digestive biscuits and reconstituted meat-style gaeitiés and slurping their spigot-water. The scene is set for the ruination of a picnic, by a maddened and panic-stricken goose, and that is precisely what happened. Tupperware was strewn everywhere.

Valuable – some might say invaluable – as the compendium is, we might lament the fact that it neglects to give any details of what occurred in the aftermaths of the one thousand ruined picnics it covers. Thus we are left in the dark about, for example, whether the January 1987 Picnic of Piety was able to resume after its goose-visitation, or whether it was abandoned, or whether the picnickers, with their eyes shut and their minds wholly concentrated on pious thoughts, even noticed that their picnic had been ruined. We might lament these omissions, and we do, by weeping, and singing dirges, or humming them, if we cannot sing in tune.

There is weeping and wailing all over the nation
At untold picnic ruination
Untold until now – now the tally is tolled
And it makes our blood run cold

Docking Hack

Here is an old favourite, written over thirty years ago. Two words have been changed from the original version. I have no idea what it means, but it might be diverting to subject it to piercing critical analysis. Does anybody want to have a go?

Hats are off in Docking; caps are being doffed. The council’s got a town plan. The maths are on a chart. Pips have been spat out and drudgery is bye-byed. Chocolate puddings seem to be in everybody’s pantry. And here comes Pebblehead père. He caught a shark in waters. His sou’wester’s been askew since 1954-ish. Bubbles surge from froth. The chemist’s shop is shut. There’s pills & pills & pills that no Docking man could swallow. Suffering aborted. The council in a caucus. The shaven heads of heads of state are battering the doors down. The city gates, the turrets, the alleys, roads & mews: Docking has its ears all go for red alert decisions. Language has been no-no’d, the bamboo men are wailing, the breakage rate is scheduled: the system has been broken. Crayons pink & stacked, the burnt sienna packaged. Vandals clash at nightfall, but Docking has its crackers. Plastic wrapped in plastic. The Docking coffers emptied. Idiot brawl saloon bar, a gorgeous snag-tooth babble. Prepared to dance a hoo-cha, not a tear or boo-hoo. Thousands of museums stacked with golden maps. Misshapen trunk road closures. Big stone reconstructions. Docking’s cottoned on: it’s a town about a tower. The frame is out of kilter, the coughing’s filling coffins. Oh, but I want to go back to that Docking, Docking hack.

Bedtime Stories

One of the most valuable lessons life has taught me is to know the difference between salvation and salivation. It is so easy to confuse the two, especially in one’s youth. When I was a young whippersnappernipper, long ago, I would regularly insert an i when one was not needed, or omit an i where the high heavens cried out for one. I know I was not the only pimply young shaver to commit these errors. Over the decades, I have had conversations with, ooh, hundreds if not thousands of people who were – and in some cases still are! – fuddled by the difference. It should go without saying that confusing the two can have serious ramifications.

That is another word, incidentally, with which I had problems. I would commonly omit not just an i but also an a, giving it as ramfictions. This was because I thought it had something to do with stories about sheep. My dear departed Ma would regularly read to me a bedtime story about a sheep named Dolores, whose fleece became snagged on a wire fence at the edge of a field on a farm in a fictional place called Dippydopeyland. As her name indicates, Dolores was a ewe rather than a ram, so even if such a thing as a ramfiction existed, which it did not, except within my little head, her story would not have been one. But that was just something else that confused me as a child.

When I heard the word ewe I thought the speaker was referring to a yew. I suspect this was because, when it was my dear departed Pa’s turn to read me a bedtime story, he invariably chose to recite, in an eerie voice, “The Moon And The Yew Tree” by Sylvia Plath. The result was that I found Ma’s story of Dolores frankly incomprehensible. The Plath poem, on the other hand, with its fumy spiritous mists and sea like a dark crime and bonging bells and bats and owls and the moon bald and wild and the blackness and silence, I found almost unbearably thrilling, so much so that I began to salivate. I would often slobber on to my pillow before Pa got to the end of the poem.

Of course, I confused my salivation with salvation, and imagined Jesus was about to come and pluck me from my bed, and take me to his bosom, and up to heaven, where he wanted me for a sunbeam. Now, as it happened, if Ma and Pa were called away to a night rally, my dear departed Uncle Ned read my bedtime story, which for him was always Chapter V of Part III of Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships. That is why, throughout my childhood, I was convinced I was a cucumber.

Embittered Dentist Riven By Crackers

Concentrate, look carefully, and you will see an embittered dentist riven by crackers. The crackers are of a circular, unsalted variety, sealed in a cellophane package, itself further packaged inside a cardboard carton. The carton is primarily red, but has upon it a hyperrealist illustration of several circular unsalted crackers executed, for a hefty fee, by the noted hyperrealist Rex Hyper.

The embittered dentist bought the carton of cellophane-wrapped crackers when, one morning, he popped in to his local corner shop. The shop was not actually located upon a corner. Nonetheless, in its ownership, size, opening hours, and range of items stocked, it fell so close to the common understanding of a corner shop that we may as well call it a corner shop, as most of its customers did, including, neatly, our embittered dentist.

Along with the carton of crackers, the embittered dentist made purchase of a (plastic) bottle of milk, a newspaper (The Daily Embitterment), and a keyring to which was affixed a small rubber toad with a jewel embedded in its forehead. It was not a real jewel, but it sparkled brilliantly in the sunlight, or would, when the sun shone. But this was Hooting Yard, forever overcast, with drizzle threatening to become a downpour.

Upon leaving the corner shop, clutching a paper bag in which the shopkeeper had placed with care his crackers and milk and paper and toad, the embittered dentist turned to his left, and pranced for perhaps five or six paces, before wheeling about and prancing in the completely opposite direction, to his right, towards ruins.

These ruins were ancient, the ruins of what once had been a grand palace, much of which had crumbled as centuries passed. At the time it was built, so solid, so new, there were no dentists, as we would understand the term. Nor were there any hyperrealist illustrators, for the techniques of hyperrealist illustration were yet to be devised. It was a very long time ago.

In the lee of a ruined nook, affording some shelter from the drizzle, the embittered dentist sat down upon a fragment of ruined wall. He took from the paper bag the newspaper, The Daily Embitterment, and read that day’s main headline.

EMBITTERED DENTIST RIVEN BY CRACKERS, it said.

Inside the bag, the small rubber toad with a false jewel embedded in its forehead suddenly twitched and squirmed. It had come to life!

NB : This is not part of the planned scheme of interconnected prose pieces to which I referred the other day.

Ten Tarleton Tales – X

Note : As with the first of our Ten Tarleton Tales, Tarleton plays only a bit part in this final one, yet in many ways his bit is key to the whole damn thing.

Snitby blubbing on the causeway. A death in the family. The priest is on his way, astride his elegant horse, along the clifftop path. Candles lit in the cottage, and blood on the pillow. The dog is being sick in the gutter. Snitby’s dog, with its corkscrew tail like a pig’s. Call My Bluff on the wireless. Nobody wants to turn it off. Robert Robinson says: cagmag. Nobody is listening. Birds are shrieking in the sky, an impossible blue, not a hint of cloud. Snitby’s tears extinguish his gasper. It is too wet to be relit so he tosses it into the sea. A gull swoops to examine it. The sound of hooves, but it is not the priest, not yet. It will not be the priest at all, today, for the telegram was mistranscribed and he has set off in entirely the wrong direction. He will arrive at Taddy at nightfall and have to be put up at an inn. Here comes the crone with the winding sheet. She has a goitre and clogs. The winding sheet is filthy. Snitby stares at the sea. The gull has flown away into the far distance. It is now a speck. In the cottage, Robert Robinson says: pannicles. There is nobody to hear him, for they have all come out to greet the crone, to kick the dog, to rub its snout in its vomit. It whimpers and scampers to the causeway. Snitby pats its head. A tiny white cloud appears in the sky. A police car screeches to a halt outside the cottage. Snitby scarpers.

Snitby listening to Plastic Ono Band on his iPod.

Snitby sobbing on the jetty. Undone by art. A seaside exhibition of oils by Tarleton. Oil paintings of oily subjects, rigs and slicks and sumps. A terrible beauty. His dog tied to a post outside the galeria. Really an underused seaside civic hall. Snitby overcome with emotion. Here in Taddy where the priest is still holed up in the inn, one or more limbs paralysed. He fell from his elegant horse as it cantered to a halt. A hopeful crone came clutching a winding sheet but he let out a groan and she was sent away. Salt stains on the jetty. Salt in Snitby’s tears. He holds his gasper at arm’s length. Sea sloshes against the wooden posts. Onions on Snitby’s breath. Tarleton dead these many years but still remembered and beloved in Taddy. He was a local boy. Blond and breathless. One leg shorter than the other. Collector of cakestands. Auctioned off. Snitby wanted one but had no cash to speak of. In exile here now and for the future, where the police have no remit. Ancient laws, woolly and medieval, like Snitby himself, after a fashion. In his attic room, the priest’s shutters are shut.

Snitby reading Ruskin’s numbered paragraphs on his Kobo.

Snitby bawling on the pier. The handcuffs chafe. The sergeant has a florid face and a massive moustache. His socks are unwashed and give off a whiff. Klaxons blaring. A pier ventriloquist stuffing his gob with steak and kidney pie while his dummy prates. It is reciting a list of over six hundred birds. Snitby’s face in the sawdust. A couple of teeth loose. Police brutality, but then the sergeant does not suffer fools gladly. Kicks Snitby as an afterthought. Fills out a form with the stub of a pencil. Ten miles along the coast from Taddy, twenty from the causeway. Geographical precision. Pins on a map. The priest an invaluable source of intelligence. One arm now working perfectly, or as near as dammit. Grace abounding. Gruel for his breakfast during Lent. Fish abounding in this resort, but he pushes his plate away with his good hand. The diocese is paying his bill at the inn. Totted up in the innkeeper’s head and nowhere else. Snitby turning to prayer. Mouth full of blood and sawdust. O Lord O Lord why hast Thou forsaken me?

Snitby playing Demented Virtual Needlework on his iPad.

Snitby weeping on the quayside. Tears blurring his vision. He cannot make out the horizon, simply a blank grey blue expanse. Fussing with rosary beads in his pocket. Given up the gaspers for now. Cries of gulls and clanks of tugboats. Foghorns on a clear day. A marching Salvation Army band. Catholicism versus muscular Christianity. It’s an endless battle with no winners. Snitby asked for a nun. He was sure this seaside resort had a convent, right on the harbour. He had his resorts all mixed up. Fifty miles from the causeway on the other side from Taddy. At high speed in a Japanese car with blinking lights and a siren. And motorbike outriders. And two helicopters. Promised a nun on arrival. Not in writing. Snitby’s dog still tied to its post in Taddy. Fawned over by passing widow-women. One will untie it and take it home to a cottage in the woods. It will run away and perish on a railway line beneath a thundering locomotive. The nun will hear about the accident on a nun’s grapevine but decide not to tell Snitby, Snitby in extremis.

Snitby scraping his serial number on his iSlate.

Transportation to shores afar
But the gates of heaven are left ajar
Repent while you can
Repent while you can
O you base and wretched man

O’er the sea to a distant shore
To see your homeland nevermore
Repent while you can
Repent while you can
O you base and wretched man

Snitby jumping overboard.

Ten Tarleton Tales – IX

The Paradox of Tarleton’s Pebble is a famous, or infamous, conundrum. It was first posed, not by Tarleton himself, but by his valet, the dwarf Crepusco. Legend has it that Crepusco crept into the room where Tarleton was hosting a swish and sophisticated cocktail party attended by various mountaineers, polar explorers, flappers, Jesuits, toad-headed robbers, Quakers, conjurers, reprobates, gas meter readers, spud-faced nippers, fanatics, greaseproof paper salesmen, composers, dentists, tuppenny-ha’penny tosspots, Grand Guignol performers, Chappaquiddick experts, foopball refs, tugboat captains, hedgers and ditchers, gondoliers, minstrels, troubadours, astronauts, emboldened milquetoasts, rhubarbarians, eel-men, dabblers, plotters, coppers, tanners, coopers, fletchers, tailors, tinkers, Oppidans, floozies, weathermen, mavens, bus conductors, out-of-town Pointy Towners, painters, pimps, and potters. Yes, potters. Several potters, indeed more potters than you could shake a stick at, were you minded so to do. Not for the first time, Tarleton had got the precise balance of his swish sophisticated cocktail party guest-list a little askew.

Things were nevertheless going with a swing, in spite of the potter imbalance, when in crept Crepusco. He silenced the hubbub in his usual manner, by holding aloft the gold-painted head of an antique Italianate monkey doll, through which he ventriloquised. Then, in his horrible voice, raucous as a crow, he posed the conundrum which became known as the Paradox of Tarleton’s Pebble.

The effect was instantaneous. The puzzle dizzied the brains of all those present, including Tarleton himself. It dizzied their brains and it also dizzied their bodies, so that the room became a scene of chaos, the guests reeling about, staggering, flailing, vomiting, and groaning.

Well satisfied, Crepusco crept out and returned to his pantry. He replaced the head of the monkey doll on its shrine, fixed himself a snack, and sat in his rocking chair, rocking, creaking, back and forth, through the long winter evening, on the night before the Munich Air Disaster.