Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – IV

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

[Page missing.]

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.

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – III

Thursday,” he wrote in his journal, “I could not stomach breakfast. Minnie reproached me. She has been hiding my socks again, God blast her! Today I found them in the coal-shed, after an hour’s search. An hour I could have better spent mulling over Bewg’s latest clue, which seems to be utterly without meaning. I spent much of the morning polishing off my paper on musketry. The post brought an anonymous letter, accusing me of having joined the scientifico-medical club by dint of intrigue, and threatening exposure unless I paid an unwarrantable sum of money into a secret bank account. I tore the letter to shreds in fury. Exposure? Intrigue? Dint?

After lunch, as I was about to settle to some serious Bewg-related musings, I was further distracted by a visit from Chodd. Apparently, I was meant to have completed by today the design for the new Electro-Magnetic Apparatus Museum tickets. The opening is next month and before then the Committee has to approve my design and get billions of the confounded things printed. I admitted to Chodd that this task had completely slipped my mind. I do not know why on earth I was asked to do it. To show willing, I fetched from the crate in the goose-shed my Simplified Ticket Design Handbook, and also dug out a few rough sketches I had made last time I designed some tickets (for the Small Zoo Railway) about forty years ago.

Chodd was contemptuous. His small flat ears, which poke out from his head at a grotesque angle, turned purple with irritability. I badgered him for information. What size should the tickets be? How many colours were permissible? Would the tickets be perforated and torn from a large sheet, or pre-snipped? What fonts were available? I realised I should have sought all this information earlier, and Chodd realised it too, and used my ignorance against me, spitting into my mahogany spittoon with undisguised venom. When eventually I had sketched a design which I thought perfectly adequate

Chodd had the nerve to insist that a separate design was necessary for the reduced-rate entry fee for children. Bah! Children! What do they care for Electro-Magnetism? It was my turn to spit, but I did as I was bid.

That shut him up! Roughly, I thrust the designs into his limp and puny hands and shooed him from the house. If the Committee did not accept my tickets, I raved, as he retreated out of the door, then they were no better than bed-wetters, and woe betide them if they were to ask me to revise my brilliant designs, into which I had poured every last scintilla of my genius. Chodd muttered something which I did not hear, and trudged off into the downpour. If he visits me again, I shall set a pack of starving sharp-fanged beasts upon him.

Chodd dispatched, I attempted to annihilate the image of him from my brain by undertaking some long overdue chores. I smeared wax on to the little spindle under the netting. I counted toads. I pressed my hair underneath a steaming slab. Minnie’s cocoa-tin needed a lick of paint. I re-counted the toads. There were far more of them than I had realised, and they came in many different shades and sizes. I suspected that some of them were not toads at all, and as luck would have it, the reference book I duly consulted in order to settle the matter quite fortuitously led me to decipher the next clue in Bewg’s trail, by an unfathomable concatenation of fireworks in my head, one of those tremendous mental jamborees which seem to occur more and more frequently the older I get, a fact which I have discussed at length with that fraudulent old buzzard Pillchain, who lives in the apartment below, and whose pretensions as a psychoanalyst cause me greater mirth than almost anything else in these twilight years of my life, beset as I am by creaking bones, indigestion, vipers like Chodd, Minnie’s manias, agonising pains which rack my every limb, the fiend Bewg, intermittent lockjaw, the gas bills, the cold and damp, and that peculiarly Finnish synkkys, tenebrous, yes, and ever-present.

The reference book I sought – All The Toads Of Scandinavia – sat on the shelf next to a mighty tome devoted to the history of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, fully illustrated with maps and portraits (no doubt fanciful) of some of the more illustrious members of that preposterous band. I stole this book from a subscription library in Maitland, oh half a century ago, and as far as I can recall it has remained unread – until this afternoon. Casting toads from my mind for, I supposed, a few minutes, I removed this Mountie-book from the shelf and sprawled on my Davenport to bone up on the doings of a foreign poliisi.

I was at once struck by a skilful engraving showing the stern-jawed features of one Captain Crabbage. There was something arresting about his countenance, something at any rate which made me want to read about his exploits. These were detailed in a chapter entitled ‘The Prestige Of The Scarlet’, which began on the page facing the portrait.

The facts of the weird and wild adventure which befell Captain Crabbage on Tantarabim Island, I read, may be taken collectively as indicative of the many curious secrets awaiting solution in the vastnesses of the Arctic. They may be advanced as typical of the experiences to be met with by a white man when set down beyond the last vestige of civilisation to explore, to govern, and generally to represent Law and Order among a handful of consistently ignorant, intermittently violent, and unbelievably superstitious natives; or they may be looked upon as – just a story. But chiefly they serve as still another illustration of the tremendous prestige of the scarlet worn by Canada’s famous police force.

I was hooked. Yarns of derring-do, particularly those set in the polar regions, have always appealed to me. The toads forgotten, I read on with increasing glee.

The awful character of the scenery – gigantic, barren cliffs, enormous, flat-topped mountains capped with snow and cloud, huge valleys mothering eternal glaciers, long beaches, ice-girt seas, and great fjords penetrating incredible distances into the unknown interior – such scenery as one finds in mediaeval panoramas of hell.

I read of Crabbage constructing his dwelling-house, store-house, and blubber-shed, racing against time with the long polar night only three weeks away. And then of his discovery of the Place Of The Big Killing and the sorcerer who, in a frenzied trance, announced that he was the Creator, Pingortitsijok, wrapped in hides, King of the Ice.

At the point where Captain Crabbage returned to Fort Hopton with the sorcerer in handcuffs, something in my brain went ping!, and I knew I had made the leap in the dark necessary to understand the next clue in Bewg’s trail. Oh, it is too complicated to explain. The Big Killing, the sorcerer, the handcuffs … my mind underwent a curious topsy-turvydom as I linked these images to gunpowder, gruel, toy flamingoes, a wrench, a cupboard, a bee … all of a sudden that weird couplet of Bewg’s, scratched in mirror-writing next to an emblem of plague, made stark and incontrovertible sense. I threw the book to the floor, grabbed the treasure map, and looked at it as if for the first time. Now it all seemed blindingly clear.

Outside it was already dark, and the rain poured down, and Minnie had hidden my umbrella, but I no longer cared. I slammed the door behind me and walked all the way across town to the Derelict Orchard. Bewg had been there before me. His shovel was there, shining, leaning against a pile of stones. I dug, dug, dug. Abominable pains attacked my skeleton, but I kept on digging in the downpour, down into the mud, until, past midnight, I found at last, buried in the muck, a tiny crate of zinc. I pocketed it, and made my way back home in the terrible blackness of the Finnish night.

It is now half past four on Friday morning. I am sitting in the kitchen, slurping from a mug of boiling turnip extract, and the crate is before me on the table. I have a little over twenty-four hours to work out how to open it.”

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – II

It is a curious fact that throughout his long life, Lars Talc’s dreams had only ever been sweet, even twee. He had never experienced a nightmare. We know this because he wrote about it at length in his book The Brink Of Cramp & Other Essays. As the Pig Battery steamed south, he dreamed again of fragrant petunia-decked meadows, gambolling bunny rabbits, miraculous angels plucking on harps, pretty balloons, sandcastles, blissful dawns.

How nauseating!” he thundered in his essay, “To be held rapt, night after night after night, by visions so sickly sentimental. And yet, in sleep, to relish them, to feel such exultation at images which, in my waking life, I, a Finn, an intellektuelli, a man of the world, would castigate as the contemptible poltrooneries of babes and cretins! I have come to have the gravest doubts about myself,” he continued, “I have teetered on the verge of spiritual despair.”

He tried everything in hopeless attempts to induce nightmares. He abandoned his comfortable bed for a pallet of straw. He drank to excess, or drank nothing at all. He burned sulphur in his bedroom. Before retiring, he ate the most noxious cheeses he could lay his hands on. He read terrifying stories of violence, horror, and chaos. Nothing worked, and eventually, in his seventies, he surrendered, accepted his namby-pamby dreamworld, and found a kind of peace. “I came to terms with myself,” he wrote, “I was forced to concede that within my very soul, in that secret world of dreams wherein lies the engine of our being, I liked nothing better than to frolic in a sun-plashed garden with kitty-cats and puppy-dogs. I was, I realised, a simple-minded hölmo, a hullu, a wert.”

Within hours, the Pig Battery reached an islet at which Lars Talc disembarked. One of the crew took him to shore in a powerful motorboat, then swam back to the packet steamer. Once he had conducted his business, Talc was to return alone to Marseilles in the motorboat and leave it in the safe keeping of the captain’s nephew, a small, curdled lad who ground bones to dust in the basement of the naval hospital. The Pig Battery steamed off south, bound for the Antarctic.

Making sure the motorboat was tied securely to a post, Lars Talc checked Bewg’s map. This must be the place. To his right, a clump of bracken; to his left, a post office; straight ahead, a well. This last was what he sought. As he approached it, however, a woman sprang out at him, brandishing a lance. She was beribboned and festooned with braids, and wore a terrifying mask of tin and gold. Talc stopped in his tracks.

I am the Captain of the Well,” she announced, “This lance is tipped with venom, so be very careful. What business have you here?”

I have come from Finland,” said Talc, “Have any other Finns been here recently?”

I ask the questions,” she rapped, and shook her lance.

I have reason to believe that a Finn – a very tall Finn – has secreted at the bottom of your well a little packet. I have come to retrieve it.”

Do you wish to go to the toilet?” she asked.

Not at the moment.”

I ask because our islet is blessed with three toilets. One of them is just behind the post office over there.” She waved her lance appropriately. “That is the Big Toilet. It is the one most popular with foreigners, perhaps because it is so close to the beach. The proper Foreigners’ Toilet is on the other side of the islet. Not far, it takes only a few minutes to walk there. We prefer foreigners to use that one, hence its name.”

And where is the third toilet?” asked Lars Talc, feigning interest.

Wait, wait. I told you, it is I who ask the questions. If you are patient, I will tell you about the third toilet. But I have yet to finish telling you about the Foreigners’ Toilet. This poisoned lance belies the fact that we are a welcoming people on this islet. So, we let visitors use the Big Toilet if they wish to, even though we would prefer them to use the Foreigners’ Toilet, outside which is a signboard on which the word TOILET is written in every language used on earth, including some of the dead ones.”

It must be a big board.”

Everyone on this island has minuscule handwriting but, yes, the board is gigantic. And now I will tell you about the third toilet. It is at a mid-point between the other two toilets, surrounded by tungsten railings. For that reason we call it the Tungsten Toilet, although there were a few recalcitrants who called it the Pewter Toilet, because the toilet itself is made of pewter.”

I see,” said Talc.

They were summarily executed.”

Who were?”

For the umpteenth time, do not question me. I was about to tell you. The recalcitrants were executed. By me. With my lance.”

The Captain of the Well held her lance to Talc’s throat, reminding him of his peril.

Well,” he mumbled, “I don’t want to go to the toilet at the moment, but thank you for the information.”

I have not finished telling you about the Tungsten Toilet. It may interest you to know why it is protected by railings.”

I think I’d rather investigate the well.”

As you wish. Here is a little map showing you how to get to the Foreigners’ Toilet should you need to visit it during your stay. There is a little box outside for donations. If you have any trinkets or gewgaws in your pockets the people of the islet would be grateful.”

And with that, the Captain of the Well stole away, towards the clump of bracken. She was soon out of sight.

Talc sat down on a little bench next to the well and studied Bewg’s instructions. The clues were stupendously complicated, written in a kind of ur-Finnish, replete with puns, acrostics, and lipograms and accompanied by diagrams, charts, illustrations, and emblems, often minuscule and all executed with Bewg’s ferocious cross-hatching, for which he used an especially scratchy nib.

During those three days and nights a-train, Lars Talc had pored over the first stage of the trail. Marseilles was obvious, once you had gained some insight into the workings of Bewg’s brain. But Talc was in northern Italy before he had worked out where to go next. At last he had realised that that little grid of chocolate-coloured letters, hemmed in by inky curlicues, directed him to this islet, so tiny it was found in only the rarest of atlases. The train was in the outskirts of Marseilles before Talc, his cranium fuming, worked out that Bewg was leading him to a well upon the islet, at the bottom of which he would find a packet, the packet itself containing further clues without which the remainder of the trail would be forever unintelligible, the prize forever out of his grasp.

The bucket was resting at the bottom of the well. He raised it, with much clanking. The chain was rusty. The bucket came to the top, brimming with water. On the underside of the bucket, Bewg, or one of his henchmen, had taped a waterproof packet, emblazoned with a picture of a churn. Talc tore it from the bucket and, without pausing to open it, hurried to the boat and motored back to Marseilles at top speed, accidentally killing a stray moorhen in the process.

When he opened the packet, as he guzzled a flagon of grog in the bar of the French seaport’s most elegant dancehall, he found Bewg’s clue to be uncharacteristically simple.

Go to the Foreigners’ Toilet,” it read, “In the cistern you will find a packet containing the next clue.”

Ach! You wretch, Bewg, you cullion! Lars Talc lost a day recovering the second packet, and felt duty bound to leave a bauble in the donation box. By the time he was back in Finland, it was Wednesday evening, and he was exhausted, and according to a sinful little footnote he had just managed to decipher, he had only two and a half days, until noon on the following Saturday, to track down his prize.

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – I

Lars Talc was passing along the Avenue Ack, on his way to a certain scientifico-medical club founded by a philanthropist, which he had succeeded in joining by dint of intrigue. He knew that at noon, at the close of the meeting, each member, after drawing lots, would be given a reconnoitering trail to follow, baited with an interesting prize. He had last taken part in this escapade the previous month – stormy June – and still kept, tucked in his blazer pocket, the prize he had managed to track down over eleven excruciating days.

The philanthropist himself was unable to distribute the prize trails, as he was plagued with whitlows and other complaints. Indeed, he rarely attended the meetings any more, and when he did, he crouched in the darkest corner of the chamber, sucking boiled sweets and tugging at his matted hair.

He had assigned the job of presiding over the meetings, and handing out the reconnoitering trails, to his assistant, Bewg. Bewg was astonishingly tall, almost a freak, and wore a cardboard hat which he covered with cellophane during rainstorms. Ignorant of science and medicine – and of virtually everything else – he was nonetheless masterly as the club’s president, for reasons which will become apparent. What else is there to say about him for the present? His eyes were different colours (violet and puce); he was fond of badgers; he had once pole-vaulted for his country, and won a medal. Bear in mind that this story is set in Finland.

The scientifico-medical club – its exact name is unknown – had been established by the philanthropist twelve years ago. It met on the second Tuesday of every month, in chambers let by a circus impresario. Usually the members would gather in the outer room, cold and pokey and crammed with a bewildering agglomeration of worm-eaten furniture. There were so many tables, chairs, chaises longues, escritoires, tallboys, bureaux, umbrella-stands, reliquaries, trestles, musnuds, pallets, brackets, hammocks, bins, easels, divans, dressers, wardrobes and bunks in the room, all of them ready to crumble to dust, that the eleven members of the club, haplessly wedged between cots and benches as they sipped their tumblers of hooch, let out yelps of glee when, at last, Bewg unlatched the door of the inner chamber and admitted them to the meeting room. This was more spacious, though colder, and virtually empty of furnishings, save for a dozen exquisitely comfortable armchairs, a small side-table, a display cabinet, and a lectern. Finnish timber burned in the grate, but Bewg insisted on throwing all the windows open. The room was cold even at the height of summer, what with certain architectural niceties, air-draughts, and the northern climate. The members sank into their armchairs, Bewg handed out the agenda, and the meeting began.

Last month, Hairgrub had delivered his paper on muskotti (nutmeg). As ever, he was puckish. When his talk was done, his colleagues fired questions at him, raised objections, made sarcastic comments, suggested texts for further reading, and were in the throes of a noisy discussion when Bewg rose from his chair, armed himself with a mallet, banged a tin gong and silenced them at a stroke. Now no one spoke except the president. In rum staccato, Bewg rapped out the club’s business: correspondence sent and received, financial matters, topics for future papers, complaints, bile – the usual concerns of any small private club. The enormous wooden clock nailed askew above the fireplace struck noon. The time had come to hand out the reconnoitering trails.

Before passing on to this most enthralling aspect of Bewg’s office, a few words should be said about the subjects upon which the club members exercised their minds. In its early days, when the founding philanthropist was still active, the club had been entirely scientifico-medical in its concerns. As old members left (through boredom, maladies, death or – in one celebrated case – to join a chain gang) and were replaced with new blood, the club’s character changed, slowly but surely. Topics drawn from a wider trough would engage the members’ attention. Satin, timidity, and dust had each been the subject of a specialist paper, as had concubinage, buttons, croup, oars, and piety. Bewg’s influence should not be underestimated. After all, he alone would suggest topics for investigation, and it is not too much to say that the various subjects to which the club turned its attentions were a map of the president’s mental life. Occasionally, his research-by-proxy had a more practical application. Bewg had long been embroiled in a dispute with his landlord and – far-sighted as ever – decided that a knowledge of firearms would be useful. He suggested the topic to the club on an unexpectedly hot Tuesday in December confident that one of the members would spend months boning up on the subject. And so it was, that at the beginning of our story, as he pranced along the Avenue Ack, Lars Talc’s brain was primed with the paper he planned to deliver upon musketry – ampumakoulutus in Finnish. Luckily, we have his notes, and the talk he never gave can be reconstructed up to a point. Ah, but lost forever the timbre of his voice, the chilling economy of his gestures, the sweep of his ad lib addenda!

I have referred to “reconnoitering trails”; a dry phrase, and one that does not do justice to the fiendishly exquisite (and exquisitely fiendish) pencilled diagrams executed on Waterbath paper and inserted in formidable maroon envelopes upon which Bewg toiled so hard. Let us call them treasure maps, for that is what they were. To each envelope was gummed a label upon which Bewg had written the name of a common farmyard implement – eleven in all, one for each member of the club. The same words were inscribed on folded triangles of custard-paper which Bewg carried in a small gunny sack. At noon, at the close of each meeting, the members would form a line before the president in strict alphabetical order by surname, and, in turn, pluck a triangle from the sack. This done, the envelopes would be distributed. Each member was now in possession of the clues which would lead them to a fascinating prize.

Last month, having picked kirnu (a churn) from the gunny sack, Lars Talc was given his envelope, and immediately scurried home to open it in the privacy of his boudoir. This room, incidentally, is worth describing in some detail, so garish were its accoutrements. But that will have to be the subject of a separate work to do it any justice.

On the afternoon of the second Tuesday in June, Lars Talc opened his envelope and unfolded a huge sheet of Waterbath paper. Its complexities dizzied him. He had to sit down and knock back the best part of a bottle of Ivory Coast penk before he could even begin to examine Bewg’s dastardly handiwork. It was at once a map and a manuscript, a web and a whirligig. Talc gazed at it for hours. Oh, so futile to try to unravel its mysteries while flopped on a Davenport!

Draining the flask, he hurriedly packed a valise, scribbled a note for Minnie, hailed a taxi, barged through the crowds at the railway station, jumped the queue at the ticket office, scrambled at the very last second on to the train leaving from platform eleven, sank panting into a seat in the dining-car, ordered a magnificent (and typically Finnish) concoction of poached egg, mustard, and cauliflower, let out a mighty sigh, and, patting the maroon envelope in his pocket, looked out of the grimy window as rusted machinery, sheds, huts, outbuildings and sad, sad tumbles of brickish ruin gave way to titanic cedars, binsey poplars, and pollarded willows, as the locomotive took him south, out of Finland, through Russia, Belorussia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, northern Italy, and on into France, to halt at last at Marseilles, where, stopping only to eat and drink in a sailors’ tavern, he boarded the Pig Battery, a packet steamer, foisted some banknotes into the purser’s filthy hand, found his way to a cabin, tossed his valise into the corner, lay down on his bunk, and, unscrewing the top off another bottle of penk, drank himself into oblivion. It was now late afternoon on Friday, just over seventy-two hours since he had opened Bewg’s churn-envelope.

Obsequies, Re-Tippytapped

Since this blog began in 2003, I have posted pretty much all the stories which were originally published as Malice Aforethought Press pamphlets (out of print) in the last century. The glaring exception is Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning. A short extract has appeared, but the full text is unavailable to all but the lucky (and sensible) few who bought the pamphlet back in 1994. It was the longest tale I issued as a spineless short-run pamphlet, and also the last. Shortly after it appeared, I descended into the Wilderness Years.

In a few days’ time I shall be heading off to foreign parts again. Rather than leave you lot enmired in the unspeakable misery of No-Hooting-Yard-Updates-Land, it occurred to me to take advantage of the WordPress feature whereby I can prepare posts and set a future date and time for automated publication. Thus I have been busy tippy-tapping the text of Obsequies … and it will appear, one chapter per day, over the next fifteen days, starting tomorrow.

As ever when revisiting my stuff from long ago, I have been tempted to revise and tweak and edit, to rid the prose of infelicities and howlers and horrors. But I decided to leave this intact, almost exactly as it was when published twenty-three years ago. It might cause me – and indeed you lot – to groan from time to time, but, hey, I was younger then, and more stupid, and a hopeless drunk.

Should any typos have crept in undetected, I am sure an eagle-eyed reader (you know who you are) will alert me to them. I will correct them when I’m back in Blighty.

Finally, remember that you used to have to pay for this stuff, and a copy of the original pamphlet would fetch a hefty price on eBay. So please consider whacking the “Make A Donation” button over to your right, and shovelling some loose change in my direction. It could help pay for a wreath for the grave of poor Lars Talc, struck by lightning ….

Chapter One of which will appear tomorrow.

Two Queries From Dr Pastry

Ahoy there, Mr Key!, writes Dr Ruth Pastry, I very much enjoyed reading your piece Unspeakable. For me, the thunderclap moment was the mention of the cravatteuse’s dog. I am sure I cannot be alone among your readers in hankering for more dog-detail. Would you, for example, be in possession of a picture of this fabled canine?

On another matter, with reference to your piece Hendiadys In Mudchute, am I correct in thinking that there is a figure of speech, or it might be a disease of poultry, called chickendiadys?

I look forward to hearing from you regarding both these riveting topics.

In answer to Dr Pastry’s queries, the one about the dog being (A) and the one about the chicken being (B), my responses are:

(A) Yes 

and (B) No.


Browsing in the basement of a dust-choked and unkempt secondhand bookshop, I found on the floor a slim pamphlet entitled A Guide To The Care And Feeding Of The Internal Combustion Monkey. The author’s name was not given, but there was a picture of him below the title, a cad, a cad wearing a cravat, with a Terry-Thomas moustache and a glint in his eye. That glint, I assumed, that cad’s glint, was the glint that led him to envisage, and then to invent, the internal combustion monkey. Why did he not wish to crow his name from the rooftops, or at least to print it on his pamphlet?

I picked up the pamphlet, and purchased it (thruppence), and made it my life’s work, from that hour, to find out exactly who this cad was, to give him a name, to slot him into his deserved place in the history of this our island’s glory.

I began with the cravat. In the picture on the pamphlet it was black and white, but I felt sure the real thing, when tucked around the neck of the cad, had been bursting with colours. Which colours? I made multiple photocopies of the picture, and spent two years, armed with crayons and watercolours and state-of-the-art pigment-staining technology, working out the colour combinations most likely to have emblazoned the cravat of the cad. It was thirsty work, and I drank a well dry. This did not sit well with the well’s owner, a florid bumpkin plagued with whitlows, who evicted me from my chalet anent the well. And so I roamed the hills, reduced to just a few crayons, but with my portfolio of photocopied hand-coloured cad portraits intact, tucked in a satchel slung over my good shoulder.

There was, up in the hills, the salon of a cravatteuse, and I made no bones about badgering her. One by one I waved in front of her the photocopies, much as a conjuror might deploy a deck of playing cards for a magic trick, until, at last, she stopped me, by pointing her finger decisively at the photocopy of the cad in which I had coloured his cravat in swirling curlicues of baize-green and fire-ant-red and Lee Harvey Oswald beige, with a few subtle tints of indigo, cerise, puce, chartreuse, mauve, mauve, and more mauve.

That is his cravat!”, she cried.

And who is or was he?” I asked.

Her eyes narrowed. Her lips puckered. Her dog, sitting at her feet, snarled. I felt a sudden mortification of the bowels.

He was an unspeakable cad!” she cried, and she had her dog chase me out of the salon, and further up into the hills, where the air was thin, and the promontories dizzying. I had left my satchel and crayons and sheaf of photocopies at the salon, but clutched in my good hand the only photocopy that mattered, the one with the accurate rendition of the colour scheme of the cravat sported by the cad. And I knew, now, what I had not known before, that his name was unspeakable.

I remained in the hills for several years, living on rainwater and birds felled with well-aimed pebbles. Slowly, gradually, I came to understand that, if the name of the cad was unspeakable, then it had never been spoken, that nobody knew what it was, leading to the inescapable conclusion that, thus unknown, it could not be written down, which was why it did not appear, printed in big bold black letters on the cover of the pamphlet the cad had written about the care and feeding of the internal combustion monkey.

And so I came down from the hills, and adopted a new life as a bargee on an unimportant canal, and I sprouted a Terry-Thomas moustache, and, yes, yes!, I too wore a cravat, of baize-green and fire-ant-red and Lee Harvey Oswald beige, with a few subtle tints of indigo, cerise, puce, chartreuse, mauve, mauve, and more mauve, and whenever I was asked my name, by other bargees or by, say, canalside picnic persons. I shut my mouth, and kept it shut, and said nothing.

Choruses For Doris

I was discussing the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen with the ghost of his first wife, Doris.

Is it true” I asked, “That Stockhausen was covertly funded by the CIA in an attempt to demoralise German culture after the Second World War?”

Doris was one of those mute ghosts we’ve been hearing so much about lately but I hoped she would either nod or shake her head in reply. But her phantom head remained motionless atop her phantom neck, jutting at a disconcerting angle from between her phantom shoulders, draped in a shawl of surpassing loveliness which was all too real, as I knew because I had touched it, when gently pressing her down into her chair.

Well, not her chair, but a chair, the chair into which I press all my ghostly visitors. Unless you get them firmly nestled, they have a tendency to float and flit about the room, and even to splay themselves across the ceiling. Not all ghosts come when I summon them, but Doris did. A few seconds after my ear-splitting incantation, there was a faint tapping at my door. I opened it, and there, already, was the ghost of Doris Stockhausen. She handed over my fifty-pfennig fee, in cash that was pleasingly of this too too solid world – I checked – and allowed herself to be ushered in, and settled in the chair.

But I had not reckoned on her being a mute ghost. She sat across from me, fixing me with her baleful countenance, silent as the grave from which I had summoned her. With no prospect of the conversation I had so looked forward to, I went to rummage among my cassettes until I found the tape of her ex-husband’s Stimmung. I wondered if, hearing it again after all these years, Doris might be in some measure animated.

When I returned to the room, Doris had escaped her chair and was splayed across the ceiling. The surpassingly lovely shawl was hanging from her phantom shoulders, so I gave it a tug, hoping to dislodge her. And indeed, she lost contact with the ceiling, hovering in mid-air for a moment before darting this way and that, finally settling atop a toffee cable. Oops, I mean a coffee table. Using thumb-tacks, I secured the shawl to the table, holding Doris in place. The table was one of those fashionably distressed coffee tables, so the addition of a dozen tack-pricks would only add to its faux dilapidation.

There was every possibility that the ghost of Doris could slip or waft from beneath the shawl and go skittering about. I slotted the cassette into the cassette player, pressed “Play”, and cranked up the volume.

Let us listen to Stimmung, Frau Stockhausen!” I cried, with perhaps an excess of jollity.

The tape hissed, and then the room was filled with the sound of a German man moaning melodiouslyish. Startled, I saw Doris suddenly clap her ghostly hands over her ghostly ears. Then she began to vibrate, horribly. I turned the music off, but it was too late. With a whoosh!, Doris shot up to the ceiling, taking the surpassingly lovely shawl and the coffee table with her.

Try as I might, I could not coax her down. Not only was I unable to use my coffee table to display my coffee table books, of which I owned oodles, but soon enough Doris outstayed her allotted time in the realm of the living afforded by the fifty-pfennig fee. Six weeks later she was still there, clinging to my ceiling, the shawl and table swinging gently beneath her in time with her ghostly panting. I had not realised how violently ghosts pant, particularly the mute ones.

At my wits’ end, I consulted a local spirit medium who specialised in the demoralisation of German culture in the aftermath of World War Two. He was a rather curious fellow. His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and his straight black lips. His voice was booming and monotonous, empty of human expression and lacking any variation in tone or cadence.

Hand. Me. That. Cassette. Player.” he boomed, standing directly beneath the ghost of Doris and the shawl and the coffee table.

I did his bidding, and he took from his pocket a battered cassette tape. I shall never forget what happened next. He plopped the cassette into the machine, pressed “Play”, and cranked up the volume. There was the familiar hiss, and then the sound of a capella German voices warbling melodiously, with no ish about it, the first of the Choruses For Doris, by Doris’ ex-husband Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The spirit medium stepped – or rather, lumbered grotesquely – to one side, and the ghost of Doris let go of the ceiling and wafted elegantly down, shawl and coffee table and all, the table landing with a slight bump on the floor. As the chorus continued, the medium removed the thumb-tacks one by one. The ghost of Doris rose slghtly, hovering just above the coffee table, shimmered for a few seconds, and then seemed to dissolve before my eyes. Weirdly, that indubitably real unghostly shawl, of surpassing loveliness, dissolved with her. Then, even more weirdly, the spirit medium dissolved too, taking a handful of my thumb-tacks with him into ethereal realms beyond my puny understanding.

I was alone in my room, listening to the Choruses For Doris, and thinking to myself that postwar German culture had not, after all, been demoralised, in spite of the alleged efforts of the CIA.

Forgotten Head : A Childhood Memoir

On this day, six years ago, I posted this memoir of childhood. Rereading it just now made me laugh. I hope it will make you lot laugh too.

There is a phrase I recall from my childhood, regularly used by my mother (above) when I – dippy and dreamy – was getting ready for school in the mornings.

One of dese days,” she would say, in her Flemish accent, “You will go out widout your own head.”

Pish!, I thought, That is alarmist talk!

But then one winter’s morning my mother’s prediction came true. I set off for school in the wind and snow, having left my head snoozing on the pillow. I suspect the people I passed in the street must have been astonished at the sight of a boy without a head, but I cannot say for sure, because of course I was completely unaware of them. My ears and eyes, lodged as they were in my head, were warm and snug and still abed.

So familiar was I with the route to school, along the lane and past the duckpond and the fireworks factory and through the tunnel under the motorway and then along the canal towpath and past the aerodrome and the vinegar works, that I had no need of my head to get me there. It was only when I sat down at my desk in the classroom that things went awry.

In those days, you see, we were taught such piffle as reading and writing and arithmetic and Latin and history, so my not having a head sent the teachers into a kerfuffle. I’m told there was some kind of emergency meeting in the staffroom – a fug of pipe-smoke then, of course – and I was put in isolation in the sickroom while they worked out what to do. How much more enlightened would things be today! Head or no head, I am sure there would be no attempt to exclude me from the diversity and self-esteem lessons. Indeed, my headless presence would be seen as a benefit, both to myself and to my fellow pupils, and to the teachers themselves. In fact, I would probably get a prize, just for not having a head. On the rare occasions prizes were dished out in those far off days, they were invariably book tokens, and I would certainly not have got one for not having a head. Now, I could expect something useful like a new app for my iPap, or a voucher for Pizza Kabin.

But back then I was kept locked in the sickroom, excluded and with my self-esteem crushed, all because I’d come to school without my head. I would like to say that I sat there reflecting ruefully that my mother had been right all along, but any reflection, rueful or otherwise, wasn’t possible without my head, resting happily on the pillow back home.

What happened was that the school called in a local doctor, who made a snap diagnosis after looking at me for about three seconds. He didn’t even use his stethoscope. Puffing on his pipe, he informed the headmaster in a grave doctorly voice that I showed all the symptoms of not having a head, and the best treatment was brisk exercise in the open air. So they sent me running round and round the athletics track all day, until the bell rang at home time. I got a ticking off from the gym teacher, to which I was thankfully oblivious, and then I was pointed in the direction of the canal towpath and told not to forget my head again or there would be ramifications. Yes, they used to use long words like “ramifications” even with headless tinies! What a different world it was.

I trudged home in the wind and snow, went up to my bedroom, plopped my head back on to my neck, and sat down to warm myself in front of the gas fire. How could it be, I wondered, that the school was even open in such inclement weather?

Soon it was time for tea. We had sausages and mash. It was only as I sat down at the table and tucked my serviette under my chin that I realised I’d put my head on back to front.


One day late in the last century I acted as amanuensis to my son Sam, then a tiny tot. He told me a story. I wrote it down. Then I typed it out and made it into a pamphlet entitled The Story Of The Castle, The Knight, & The Dragon (out of print). Here is that story.

Once there was a brave knight and the brave knight heard a sort of dragon noise.

And when he heard it he went to tell his gang of knights to search for the dragon and kill it. And they couldn’t find it.

Well, in the end they found it and they killed it and they went to tell the king and queen and the prince and the princess and all the other people in the kingdom – when they found there was another dragon!

And the king ran up to the chain and he pulled the drawbridge up so the dragon couldn’t get in. And the queen looked out of the window to see if the dragon fell into the water round the castle (the moat).

And the dragon had flown over the mountains and ran back as fast as it could and butted the drawbridge open.

And suddenly the king and queen were surprised, because the brave knight put a spear into the dragon’s tummy and the dragon was dead. So the knight went to tell the people in the kingdom.

Then they saw that the dragon came alive again. And it was a magic spell when the dragon came alive again because the dragon was nice really.

And they found out that it could speak and it said to them that it would do everything for them in the kingdom. It would even find the cannonballs for them. And that’s the end.

Hendiadys In Mudchute

And further, let it be known, known and digested, known and digested and regurgitated, regurgitated in the form of words, that it be known better, that in the last century Mudchute was the home of a monomaniac. Actually, to call Caspian Sea Spanglebag a monomaniac is not strictly true, for he had not one but two abiding obsessions.

The first, which is of little interest to us, was his conviction that the tyrant of the Soviet Union was called Josef Starling, while the heroine of Thomas Harris’ The Silence Of The Lambs was named Clarice Stalin. Being bonkers, Spanglebag was unmoved by the facts that the moustachioed and heavily pockmarked dictator chose the pseudonym “Man of Steel” in preference to his real name of Djugashvili, and that the troubled FBI rookie is a fictional character.

But it was the Mudchute man’s belief that hendiadys is a disease afflicting poultry, rather than a figure of speech, which consumed most of his energies. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Spanglebag declared war on the makers of dictionaries, lexicons, grammars and encyclopaedias. Most of the major publishers of reference books have somewhere in their archives a fat file containing letters with that Mudchute postmark, all written by pencil in tiny, tiny handwriting, their tone varying from mild complaint to violent menace. One example will suffice.

I purchased the latest edition of your wordbook, writes Spanglebag on 23rd June 1989, and was surprised to see you define hendiadys as “a figure of speech in which two words connected by a conjunction are used to express a single notion that would normally be expressed by an adjective and a substantive; the use of two conjoined nouns instead of a noun and modifier”. You then go on to list instances from the Bible, such as “a mouth and wisdom” in Luke 21:15, and “the hope and resurrection of the dead” in Acts 23:6. I do not take kindly to spending money on such drivel, and have torn your worthless book to shreds, and I would have scattered those shreds to the winds from atop a hill, were there any high hills in Mudchute, which there are not, so instead I steeped the shreds in buckets of water until they were but pulp, yes! pulp. Please correct your gruesome error in future editions, or I will ensure you become the laughing stocks of the reference book world, and you will weep with shame.

Note that Spanglebag sees no reason to advance his own belief that hendiadys has something to do with sick poultry. To him, it would have been to point out the obvious, like saying that water is wet, that the Pope is Catholic, or that Hooting Yard is by far the loveliest thing on the wuh-wuh-wuh, and not just by far, but far and away, away with the fairies, tiny delicate shimmering beings with wings, which, if they exist, exist only in Cottingley, where they are made of paper, and held in place in the garden by means of pins.

How pertinent is the fact that this odd little man, Spanglebag, lived his whole life in Mudchute, only rarely roaming farther afield? I think it is crucial. It made him what he was, even before the construction of the Docklands Light Railway. It is as if he embodied the spirit of the place, Mudchute’s mud and Mudchute’s chute, the caked, black, stinking mud and the gleaming metal chute down which it slides and slithers and tumbles, into god knows what foul pit of hideousness and eeuurrgghh.

[This is a mildly tweaked version of a piece which originally appeared in August 2005. Can it really be so long ago? Yes, it can. It is.]

Peep, Bo : Lecture Transcript

Good evening, and thank you for your warm welcome. Well, warm-ish. The clapping petered out rather quickly, and I must say that other audiences, in other auditoria, have shown a sight more enthusiasm. But there we go. I am not complaining. This lecturing lark is much preferable to being out and about in all weathers in the company of sheep, dim-witted and fearful beasts that they are. It is more lucrative too.

But I should introduce myself. My name is Bo Peep. I am often known as “Little” Bo Peep by dint of my diminutive stature. I don’t mind being called “Little”. It has an affectionate ring. But I do object when some newspapers compare me to a dwarf from a Wagner opera. Clearly, the organisers of tonight’s event expected me to be smaller than I am. What a tiny lectern!

The one thing most of you will know about me is that I lost my sheep. I do not deny it. Quite why it caused such a kerfuffle in the press is a mystery to me. I became the poster girl for neglectful and inept shepherdesses, and even now I can barely leave my cottage without some mucky little country urchin calling out to me to ask where my sheep are. It is a trying existence.

Thus I welcome this opportunity to tell my side of the story. It all happened on one of those blustery misty wuthery weathery days, in some godawful rustic backwater. As usual, I was sitting in a field, supervising several sheep. My childhood ambition of intergalactic space travel, of boldly going where no Peep had gone before, seemed as far off as ever. Bored out of my considerably acute mind, I drifted into a doze. And as I dozed, I dreamed.

I dreamt of the moon and a yew tree. The light was blue. Grasses prickled my ankles, and I simply could not see where to get to through the fumy, spiritous mists. The moon dragged the sea after it like a dark crime. Bells startled the sky, eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection bonged out their names. The yew tree pointed up. It had a Gothic shape. The moon was my mother. Her blue garments unloosed small bats and owls. She was bald and wild. The message of the yew tree was blackness, blackness and silence. I started awake, rubbed my eyes, and saw that the sheep I was meant to be shepherdessing were gone.

My immediate hunch was that they had been abducted by a band of roaming Wagnerian dwarves. I had read of several such crimes in the Daily Nibelungenlied And Countryside Advertiser. So, with the gung ho approach for which we Peeps are universally admired, or if not universally then at least in and around Sibodnedabshire, I hoisted my crook and marched off to the newsagent’s kiosk, under those pollarded willows by the canal just before the level crossing at Ketchworth.

It was not the Advertiser I was looking for. It so happened that this newsagent kept in stock various seventeenth-century tracts, including Dagons-Downfall; or The great IDOL digged up Root and Branch by Roger Crabb, A Fiery Flying Roll by Abiezer Coppe, and The Neck of the Quakers Broken by Lodowicke Muggleton. The one I wanted – obviously – was The Lost Sheep Found by Laurence Clarkson. After a close reading of this pamphlet, I felt sure I would be able to locate my sheep, and they would no longer be lost.

I purchased a copy and repaired to a bosky arbour to read it. I had barely digested the opening paragraph when I was set upon by a vulgar mechanic. He was a repellent and vile and filthy fellow, not unlike a Wagnerian dwarf, though considerably taller. I cried “Unhand me, sir!”, and smashed him in the face with my shepherdess’s crook, neatly breaking his jaw. “Woe betide those who mess with a Peep!” I added, kicking him in the head as he lay sprawled and whimpering beneath a plum tree’s slender shade. Above us, in the shining summer heaven, there was a cloud my eyes dwelled long upon. It was quite white and very high above us, then I looked up and found that it had gone, just like my sheep.

In the course of bashing up the vulgar mechanic, I had inadvertently dropped my seventeenth century tract into a puddle, and not just any puddle, no siree, but a muddy puddle, the muddiest of muddy puddles it had ever been my misfortune in which to inadvertently drop a seventeenth century tract. Laurence Clarkson’s timeless sheep-finding words were rendered wholly illegible. What was a poor Peep to do?

It was at this point, just as I was venting my vehemence upon the sprawled mechanic by biffing him several more times with my crook, that I heard distant baas. Now, in my experience as a shepherdess in and around Sibodnedwabshire, this sound could mean only one thing. It meant there were sheep in the distance!

Like a mad thing, I galumphed towards the sound of baas, and as I approached, I spotted, fleeing, a band of Wagnerian dwarves. It may have been the sight of me bearing down on them with my crook that caused them to scamper so swiftly away. More likely, I think, is that they had belatedly realised the unutterable tedium occasioned by the company of sheep.

It is a tedium I know well. Or, should I say, knew well. For the unexpected outcome of my notoriety as an inept shepherdess who loses her sheep is that not a single farmer will any longer entrust me with his flock. At first, this was a harrowing turn of events. I fell into penury and need. But as my story spread, and songs were sung about me, so infamy uncurdled into fame. I began to be invited on to television chat shows, notably an appearance on Russell Harty Plus. Colour supplements published fawning profiles of me, all warts removed. Now, with these lecture tours, I am raking it in. And I don’t mean the sort of peasant raking that the likes of Huw Halfbacon are doomed to for eternity, in an eerie ever-repeating cycle of fate. No, I am raking in the moolah-boolah, and soon I hope to have saved enough to realise my childhood ambition, and be the first Peep in outer space, lost, like my sheep, but unlike them lost in the stars, lost out here in the stars. little stars, big stars, blowing through the night, and I’m lost out here in the stars …

Another House Of Turps

Older readers will recall House Of Turps as an out of print pamphlet published by the Malice Aforethought Press in 1989. That’s how I recall it myself. But yesterday, rummaging in a midden, I came upon several sheets of buff paper, the typed manuscript of a piece also called House Of Turps. It bears no resemblance to the published text. It is the “Prologue” to what I clearly intended as a lengthy narrative poem which, equally clearly, I thereafter abandoned. For the benefit of scholars who, I know, devote their waking lives to poring over every syllable I have ever written, here is that fragment of the lost (until yesterday) House Of Turps

 Welcome to the House of Turps,
Riddled with visionaries, idiots, twerps,
Bores, poltroons, maniacs, cranks,
Of the highest and the lowest ranks;
Raised and ruined, rich and poor –
What brings them all to the same door?
A vision of a visionary world.

Each year a pennant is unfurled
From the very top of the House’s walls,
In howling wind, as the mercury falls,
As winter bites. Ice grips the land.
Each member of our demented band
Bids fare thee well to home, kith, kin,
And with a doomed and gritty grin
Sets forth upon a long slow trudge
Towards a circular bank of sludge.
This sludge-bank bars the trudgers’ way.
To cross it takes near half a day,
Weighed down by netting, pig-iron shoes,
Tourniquets, gum, a supply of booze,
Branches, forks, baize and bait –
All gifts for the Keeper at the gate,
The unfurler of the Winter Flag.
He’s eighty-nine. His name is Cragg.
The House of Turps depends on him.
His countenance is pale and grim.
His history’s shadowy and obscure.
He’s lived here since the age of four.

As each guest lurches from the slime
Cragg makes a note of name and time
Scraped on the page with a blood-stained hook
In his huge registration book.
He slams it shut then barks: “Go flee
To room nineteen!” or “twenty-three!”.
The guests head off on a path of gravel
For they have not yet ceased to travel.
The House looms a further six miles’ trudge
Over gravel and pebbles, not slime or sludge.
Cragg remains, hard by the gate,
Until he’s counted in all eight.
We’ll leave him there, improbably dressed,
As we consider each mad guest.

POTATO SMITH is sick at heart,
Festooned with rotten sacking.
He made a fortune in fine art.
His sense of humour’s lacking.
Curt and shrivelled, eighty-five,
He likes to suck wood-splinters.
He is only just alive,
But comes here every winter.

PRIMROSE LEEK, a friend to ants,
Is only thirty-two.
She wears black hat, black coat, black pants,
She’s also known as Sue.
Though dumb in summer, at the House
She speaks the lingua franca.
She murdered Hector Lockjaw Frowse,
The international banker.

Then there’s DR RUFUS GLUBB,
The noted bandage-stainer.
His head looks like a bakelite tub
Topped by a bent tea-strainer.
His belly has grown to a pot
From eating too much custard.
The other guests loathe him a lot
But think he cuts the mustard.

Our fourth pal has a widow’s peak,
Looks not unlike a panda.
C. T. PUCK’s part-Dutch, part-Greek,
Half-blind and part-Greenlander.
She lives on a diet of gruel and slops
And vats of sour beer.
You can’t buy those things in the shops,
But Cragg supplies them here.

Has no sense of direction.
He is a proper Charlie
And has a cork collection.
He says “by Jove!” and “golly gosh!”
And other dumbkopf phrases.
He talks a huge amount of tosh
And he is prone to crazes.

OLD DOGMOUTH’s fits are legion.
He broke his wooden legs.
Like others from his region
He sets fire to hard-boiled eggs.
Cragg and he are so alike
They could share the same mother,
But Cragg was once an orphan tyke
And Dogmouth has no brother.

SISTER GERTIE of the Cross
Is a religious nutter.
She roams the land astride her “Hoss”,
A goat, a fractious butter.
Moths have fluttered round her head,
Its incandescent light
Proof that she is not quite dead
But shining, dazzling bright.

The last of the guests at the turpentine House
Has crutches painted yellow.
His head is cracked, he’s such a louse,
He’s such a grotesque fellow.
Watch him grow warts upon his ears,
Watch him act agitator.
He’s quite as vile as he appears –
NED HELLHOUND, your narrator.

So now we’ve met this motley crew,
On with our tale of derring-do.

O, Cuxhaven!

Dear Hooting Yard, writes “A Traveller”, We understand that your admirable website likes to feature readers’ holiday snaps, and have pleasure in attaching this specimen for your editorial team’s consideration.

Oh, such an evocative snap! It took me back, back to this, which originally appeared nine long years ago, in 2008 …

I went from Wivenhoe to Cuxhaven by way of Ponders End. For the journey, I wore upon my head a hat woven from the hair of gorgeous hairy beasts, and a pair of goggles. Otherwise, I was dressed in the sort of suit you might see Edward G Robinson wearing in a film noir, with accompanying spats. It was suggested to me that I might take in Nunhead and Snodland along the way, but I had no time, I had no time.

Other than the sea crossing, for which I commandeered a skiff and its skiffer, I walked the entire route. Whenever I became exhausted, I slept upon the ground, under the bowl of night. I would like to say that I grew familiar with the stars, but I did not. Unless it was cloudy, as it often was, I could see countless stars twinkling above me, but they appeared randomly scattered, and I was never able to discern any patterns. I always woke up with strands of hay in my hair, wherever I had slept. I used my gorgeous woven hat of hair as a pillow.

Though I was walking, rather than cycling, I carried with me a bicycle pump. Often I pumped it, pointing it ahead of me, as an exercise drill, and also as a means of dispersing gangs of gnats or midges hovering in the air. Sometimes I fancied I could hear their faint insect shrieks as they were whooshed out of my path. I refreshed myself with water from duckponds.

I tried to keep a steady pace. There were times when I felt the bile rising in my throat. Whenever this happened, I stopped walking, sat on the ground, took my journal from the pocket of my film noir suit, and wrote a memorandum. Here is an example,

I am no longer in Wivenhoe. Ten minutes ago, walking along a bosky lane lined by what I think are plane trees, I pumped the pump at a cloud of midges, scattering them. Shortly afterwards, I felt the bile rising in my throat. Above me the sky is wonderfully blue and dotted with linnets, swooping. Tonight it will be dotted with stars. The stars do not swoop, they stay where they are, far away in the cold universe, so far away that the linnets can never reach them, and nor can I. But I can reach Cuxhaven, by way of Ponders End, and must do so quickly, while there is still time.

The act of writing in my journal always made the bile subside, and I was able to press on. When it was humid, my goggles steamed up. I carried on walking, as if in a mist. When I came to a stream or a rill I would take off the goggles and dip them briefly in the water, and wipe them dry on one of my film noir sleeves. Sometimes a true, engulfing mist would descend. Then I would get down on my knees, even if where I was was muddy, and take from my pocket my little wooden god, and prop it against a stone, and beseech it. Here is an example of such beseeching:

O little wooden god propped up against a stone, I beseech you to sweep away this engulfing mist and to make visible my path, so that I may walk on fearlessly towards Cuxhaven by way of Ponders End. Ooba gooba himmelfarb farbagooba!

The last four word were my incantation, designed to assuage my little wooden god and have it do my bidding. My bidding was always done, for the air would clear, sooner or later, and if the land was flat I could see for miles. One day I was able to see Ponders End far in the distance, and on another day I saw the sea, and once I was on the sea, being skiffed across it by an energetic skiffer in his skiff, I saw Cuxhaven, just in time.

I paid the skiffer to skiff me across the sea. He refused to skiff me otherwise. I had no cash, no chequebook, no debit nor credit card, not even shells or beads or trinkets, but I had honey. Along my journey from Wivenhoe to the coast by way of Ponders End, I had paused whenever I passed an apiary and snaffled honey from beehives. I collected it in pouches strung around my waist attached to a cord, hidden under my film noir suit. Some of the honey I ate to keep myself from fainting, but I was careful to keep some aside, for I did not expect to be skiffed across the sea for nothing. My offer to pay the skiffer in honey was met with great civility, even glee.

I knew that, if ever I made the return journey from Cuxhaven to Wivenhoe by way of Ponders End, perhaps able to take in Nunhead and Snodland given that I would no longer be pressed for time, I would be accosted by several irate beekeepers demanding recompense for their stolen honey. I had time enough, in Cuxhaven, to work out a way to repay them. If time passed and my head remained empty of ideas, I could prop my little wooden god against a Cuxhaven stone and beseech it for a brainwave. If all else failed, I could stay in Cuxhaven, and never go back to Wivenhoe through all the days of my life.

Yet conscience told me this was wrong. It was one thing to be holed up in Cuxhaven, quite another to be holed up in Cuxhaven tormented by guilt that good honest beekeepers had been robbed by my own honey-snaffling hands. Yes, it was true that I bore the bee-stings, but I had sucked the venom and spat it out and rubbed my hands with dock leaves. I still had dock in my pocket, should the bees of Cuxhaven have at me with their stings. I hoped they would not, for I resolved not to take their honey. In Cuxhaven, I had sausages.

Picture Yourself

Picture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. You are wearing a pair of round gold-rimmed “granny” glasses. Beside you in the boat is your wife, an avant-garde artist from faraway Japan. You turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream. Then you turn your mind back on, just a tad, just enough to imagine no possessions. You wonder if now would be an opportune moment to raise with your wife that malarkey about her acquiring a second apartment solely for the storage of her collection of fur coats. You open your mouth to speak, but what comes out is gibberish. “Goo-goo-g’joob”, you blurt. Your wife looks at you as if you have taken leave of your senses, which, to be frank, you probably have. Perhaps Bernard Levin was right when he wrote that there was nothing wrong with you that could not be cured by standing you upside down and shaking you gently until whatever is inside your head falls out.

It strikes you that such a manoeuvre would be perilous if performed in a boat on a river. Your wife, who would have to turn you upside down, is diminutive, and it is likely that if she made the attempt both of you would topple over, capsizing the boat, and forcing you to swim to the riverbank.

There are, apparently, tales of the riverbank, but you did not write them. Nor did you write tales of topographic oceans. But you did write about that famed ocean-going sailor Sir Walter Raleigh, who you described as a stupid git. You pronounced Raleigh as Rally. Nowadays, people usually pronounce it as Rahley. But in his own time his name was universally pronounced Rawley.

The pronunciation of surnames is important. I have heard tell that an alarming number of young persons confuse you with the Bolshevik psychopath Lenin. These are presumably the same young persons who confuse Clarice Starling, the FBI agent played by Jodie Foster in The Silence Of The Lambs, with your successor Stalin.

Oops! I meant Lenin’s successor, not yours. Now I’m getting things all mixed up in my head. Just like you. Well, you wrote a lot of nonsense too.