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.

Ten Tarleton Tales – VIII

Exciting news! Tarleton is back on his balcony! He is eating a plum! It is a Carlsbad plum! He gazes across the city and the wasteland into the distance, where the pinky-russet peaks of the Pinky-Russet Mountains shimmer in the haze! From one of Tarleton’s ears dangles a piratical earring, but there is no piratical parrot on his shoulder! He has, though, acquired, since last we met him, a wooden leg!

Tarleton’s brief, we might recall, was to gouge and hew. Gouge and hew he did, heroically, losing a leg in the process. But he did not complain. He showed fortitude. I was encamped at Fort Hoity, he said to himself, and then at Fort Toity, so it is only meet that, in forts, I show fortitude. No wonder Tarleton was showered with petunia petals by adoring peasants. There remain a few petals in his hair, for it is a long time since he shampooed it.

It is a long time, too, since last he stood upon this balcony, eating a plum. It is so long ago that he only dimly remembers. More vivid are the memories of Fort Hoity, with its ostriches and bandages and zinc, and Fort Toity, with champions arrayed along the crenellations, and games of spit-in-the-gutter. It was between forts that Tarleton lost his leg to a crocodile.

In the middle ages, returning crusaders brought with them the embalmed bodies of crocodiles, which were wrapped in chains and hung from the ceilings of cathedrals. Tarleton did not think of his gouging and hewing as a crusade, but it was, oh it was.

He spits out the plumstone into the palm of his hand, makes a fist, and, taking careful aim, tosses it over the edge of the balcony down into the shallow pool around the fountain. How many Carlsbad plumstones lie there, barely submerged! He has never once missed a toss. Tarleton turns and withdraws into his chamber. His head is full of squeaking imaginary bats.

Ten Tarleton Tales – VII

Tarleton, the amateur’s amateur, had been missing for a fortnight when one evening he came crashing through the door of his consulting rooms, twitching and shattered.

Good grief, Tarleton!” cried his sidekick, companion, amanuensis and consulting roommate, Not-Tarleton, “Where in blazes have you been?”

I have been muffled, wallowing in the sink of vice that is a Limehouse opium den, if you must know,” said Tarleton, “I was in pursuit of a man with a twisted lip.”

I… I… corwumph!” expostulated Not-Tarleton, who resembled, in both manner and appearance, Old Wilkie from Linbury Court, so much so, indeed, that we shall hereinafter refer to him as Old Wilkie in order to avoid confusion with his near-namesake Tarleton.

Corwumph! away to your heart’s content. You know my methods,” said Tarleton, “The man with the twisted lip was in possession of pelf. I could tell it was pelf because he carried it in a sack slung over his shoulder with the word PELF stencilled upon it in big black block capitals. I pursued him through the streets and mews and boulevards. He was hot under the collar. I dogged his every footstep. The sky was overcast. He entered the stews of Limehouse and still I followed him. He scuttled down an insalubrious alleyway. It was a nest of opium dens. Mayhew surveyed them at one time or another, I am sure.”

And?” shouted Old Wilkie.

And I spent a fortnight in an opium-addled daze, from which I have only recently emerged. The man with the twisted lip was nowhere to be seen. But while we were both sprawled upon divans in the Oriental hellhole, I affixed to his ankle, unbeknown to him, a tracking device, which works with light reflecting booster technology developed by L’Oreal. I am going to eat some kippers, and then I shall find out where he is, with his sack o’ pelf. Having located him, I will run him to ground. If he digs himself into a burrow in the ground, like the narrator of Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household, I will entrap him, as did Quive-Smith, but I shall ensure I do not meet Quive-Smith’s sticky end.”

But how, Tarleton? How?” screamed Old Wilkie.

By wearing this metal head-harness,” said Tarleton, donning a metal head-harness, “If the man with the twisted lip tries to kill me by shooting an arrow between my eyes from an improvised crossbow, it will ping harmlessly against the metal.”

I… I… corwumph!” screeched Old Wilkie, “Was the head-harness also developed by L’Oreal?”

But answer came there none, for the amateur’s amateur was already gone.

He returned some weeks later, twitching and shattered.

As soon as I have eaten some kippers, I shall apprise you of my doings,” he announced, and as soon as he had eaten some kippers, he apprised Old Wilkie of his doings. Being, among other things, his amanuensis, Old Wilkie wrote down what he heard, and thus it is that we, too, are apprised of Tarleton’s doings, long after he ate some kippers.

It seems that, shortly before seeing the man with the twisted lip hauling his sack of pelf along the streets and mews and boulevards, Tarleton had been approached by Old Farmer Frack. The mad old farmer was distraught, because his eerie barn had been broken into and all his farm implements and equipment, stored therein, his clodding mell and two Kentish binding rakes and a disc coulter and a subsoil pulveriser plough and a potato grading shovel and five Morris’s turnip fly catchers and two hand-cranked threshers and a seed rusky and an automatic sheaf tying mechanism and a whin bruiser and Keevil’s cheese-making apparatus and a mouldbaert and fan tackle and chogger and a Nellis fork and a plough graip and half a dozen liquid manure pumps and a pair of hedger’s gloves and Gilbert’s improved iron sack holder and four American butter separators and a cauterising iron and a mouth cramp and a charlock slasher and Blurton’s tumbling cheese rack and eight barley hummellers and an adze and a curd agitator and grinding stones and Drummond’s iron harvest sickle and a dairymaid’s yoke and a clod knocker and Biddell’s scarifier and Fowler’s self-adjusting anchor and a bitting iron and fifteen creels and two caschroms and a dung hack and a Crees lactator and five horn trainers and a fagging stick and a pea hook and two Lipmann glass stoppers and a trenching fork and Gilbee’s horse hoe and a drain ladle and hackle prongs and a flax brake and Hall’s smut machine and a heckling board and three flauchter spades and a hay tedder and an Ivel three-wheeled petrol-powered machine and Finlayson’s grubber and a potato riddle and four root pulpers and paring mattocks and Morton’s revolving harrow and Samuelson’s cake-breaking machine and a foot pick and sheep netting and two oilcake crushers and Reade’s patent syringe and various instruments for destroying moles and a barrow turnip slicer and a Paul net and a Sandwich clean-sweep hay-loader and probangs and castrating shears and Hannaford’s wet wheat pickling machine and a scutching board and a swath turner and a plank-drag harrow, had been stolen.

Tarleton put two and two together. It was blindingly obvious that the man with the twisted lip was the thief. He had sold Old Farmer Frack’s barn’s-worth of booty to a fence, and put the pelf in his sack. It was, then, a simple matter of finding the fence and bludgeoning him to death using one of the instruments for destroying moles, and restoring to the mad old farmer his rightful possessions.

Just one question, Tarleton,” said Old Wilkie, “These various instruments for destroying moles. Were any of them developed by L’Oreal?”

But answer came there none, for the amateur’s amateur, his mouth stuffed with some more kippers, had fled to a Limehouse opium den, to wallow in vice, sprawled on a divan.

Ten Tarleton Tales – VI

Tarleton was visited in his consulting rooms one April evening by a padding fellow clutching a buff envelope.

Glossary :

Tarleton, “the amateur’s amateur”.

Consulting rooms, address unknown but probably in an ill-lit alleyway off the main thoroughfare in Pointy Town.

April, fourth month of the year. Abolished during the French Revolution and replaced by Germinal (to 19 April) and Floréal (from 20 April). Tarleton’s internal “clock” was regulated accordingly, though not for ideological reasons.

Evening, latter part of the day, descending into dusk and twilight and, eventually, nightfall, wherein terrors are unloosed (see Thomas Nashe, Terrors Of The Night, 1594).

Padding, moving like a cat.

Buff envelope, an item of stationery, not to be confused with the Buff Orpington, a type of duck.

Why are you padding into my consulting rooms clutching a duck?” asked Tarleton. Then, putting on his spectacles, he added, “I beg your pardon, I ought to say clutching an envelope.”

Within this buff envelope,” said the visitor, “Are papers which, if revealed to the press, could bring about the collapse of several crowned heads, and seething unrest throughout the continent!”

Glossary:

Then, here indicating the next action or event in a sequence. Can also refer to the past, as in the model sentence “I was happy then, in my childhood, before the revolution, before the shambles wrought by our new masters”.

Spectacles, eyeglasses, two monocles stuck together with connecting wire. Often rose-tinted, though not in Tarleton’s case.

Papers, top secret quasi-official documents of world-shuddering significance.

The press, generic term for newspapers, both tabloid and broadsheet, even, great heavens to Betsy, Berliner format!, not to be confused with Papers (see above).

Collapse, can happen to puddings and soufflés if cooking times go awry.

Crowned heads, done away with, violently, during revolutionary upheavals.

Unrest, second album by Henry Cow, released in 1974. Sock on cover.

Continent, seven known to exist, in alphabetical order Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, South America. There may be others, hidden or occult. Continental location of Tarleton’s consulting rooms not yet identified beyond every shadow of a doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943).

Good grief!” spluttered Tarleton’s sidekick Not-Tarleton, sprawled on a beanbag by the fireplace, “If what you say is true we must act immediately to stop the collapse and unrest in their tracks!”

An enigmatic smile played over Tarleton’s lips.

May I have the buff envelope?” he asked the visitor.

Glossary:

Grief, Hardship, suffering; a kind, or cause, of hardship or suffering. Hurt, harm, mischief or injury done or caused by another; damaged inflicted or suffered; molestation, trouble, offence. A wrong or injury which is the subject of formal complaint or demand for redress. Gravity, grievousness (of an offence). Feeling of offence; displeasure, anger. A bodily injury or ailment; a morbid affection of any part of the body; a sore, wound; a blemish of the skin; a disease, sickness. The seat of disease; the diseased part; the sore place. Physical pain or discomfort. Mental pain, distress, or sorrow. Deep or violent sorrow, caused by loss or trouble; a keen or bitter feeling of regret for something lost, remorse for something done, or sorrow for mishap to oneself or others. Accidents in steeplechasing or in the hunting-field. Also in Golf. (OED). Not-Tarleton’s usage encompasses all these meanings, and more, oh! so many more, for he is that kind of chap, sprawled on his beanbag, spluttering.

Sidekick, a companion, colleague, junior partner, straight man.

Not-Tarleton, specifically in this case, Tarleton’s sidekick. More generally, can be applied to any organism, animate or inanimate, other than Tarleton himself. Thus, everything in the universe. Space precludes a complete list.

Beanbag, a large sealed bag containing synthetic beans, upon which to sprawl. Similar to the “Protean armchair” in The Confidence-Man : His Masquerade by Herman Melville (1857).

Fireplace, as the name suggests, a place of fire, of licking flames, of heat and blaze. Often located within an inglenook. Beanbags (see above) ought only be placed near to inglenooks if they are fire-resistant, otherwise a single spark from a hissing spitting coal upon the fire and, pfft!, up they go in flames. For fictional treatments of the catastrophic effects of fire upon persons, see Dickens, in particular Miss Havisham and Krook.

Tracks, “So take a good look at my face / You’ll see my smile looks out of place / If you look closer, it’s easy to trace / The tracks of my tears” (The Tracks Of My Tears, Smokey Robinson And The Miracles, 1965). In The Song Of Investment Capital Overseas (1981), the Art Bears hint at tracks without quite mentioning them : “The roads and rails run like cracks / And carry me upon their backs”.

Enigmatic smile, cliché used to impart spurious depth to a fictional character.

Lips, important parts of the mouth.

Buff envelope, remember not to confuse it with a Buff Orpington duck.

Hesitantly, the visitor handed the buff envelope to Tarleton. Without opening it, he in turn passed it to Not-Tarleton, still sprawled on a beanbag by the fireplace.

Toss it on to the fire!” he commanded.

Not-Tarleton did as he was bid, and within seconds the buff envelope, and its mysterious world-shuddering contents, were consumed by the awful flames.

I think we can say that the world is a safer place,” said Tarleton, smugly. “Now, shall we toast some crumpets?”

Glossary:

It would be a shame to add a further gloss on terms at this point. We would distract from the thrilling climax of the tale, and in any case few new words have been introduced. Hesitantly, toss, bid, awful, toast and crumpets can be looked up in any decent dictionary, and sometimes it is beneficial for readers to take the initiative, rather than having everything handed to them on a plate.

Glossary:

Plate, or platter, an item of crockery on which toasted crumpets are served in the consulting room of Tarleton, the amateur’s amateur, at the conclusion of the famous story Tarleton And The Mysterious Affair Of The Buff Orpington – sorry, Envelope.

Ten Tarleton Tales – V

I would sing to you of Tarleton, of the gleets, of the balcony, if I could. If I could sing I would. But how can I sing, mouth crammed with pebbles, penned in a pound, atop the tor? And what an irony that it was Tarleton who bustled me hence, arms flapping, half blinding me with the glint of his shiny shiny epaulettes? I would have sung of him surely, and without smirking. Cars passed below as we climbed the tor. I would have waved to them, to their drivers, for help, if I thought help would come. My mind was a chaos. The higher we climbed, the tinier the cars appeared, until they seemed like motes of dust. They put the pound at the top of the tor to discourage attempts to escape. As further discouragement, the fence was electrified. Tarleton had keys to the panel upon which a lever or knobs or whatever could be pulled or depressed or whatever to cut off the circuit, temporarily, to allow the gate to be opened. He crammed my mouth with pebbles before he pushed me into the pound. I thought of the gleets, and of Krakatoa.

Oh, Tarleton, Tarleton! What became of the balcony you? Things were so different then. Fresh from your Messerschmitt, not a hint of the gleets, eating a crab apple and suffering in silence. It was noble suffering. Even the crab apple was noble. Certainly your shiny shiny epaulettes gave you a noble cast. I wanted to fashion a laurel wreath for your brow, but there were no laurels. Just the bare balcony and a vista of snow. Nor did I sing then, though I could have done, I ought to have done, I wish I had done. I would have sung of you, Tarleton, and recorded it upon magnetic tape, and had a platter made of it, and it would have shot to the top of the hit parade. It would have dislodged Russ Conway.

Regrets, regrets. Now there are pebbles in my mouth, and I am penned in a pound, and you have stomped away back down the tor. You will get into your car, parked in a gully, tiny as a mote of dust, from up here, and you will drive away, or be driven away, by your chauffeur, his own epaulettes less shiny shiny than yours, ignoble epaulettes. And when you drive away, will you think of the gleets, the balcony, Tarleton? Or will your head be filled with flummery?

The dog in the pound on the tor is small and hairy and oriental. Its yap curdles my blood. Would that the pebbles had been crammed in my ears and not my mouth! Or as well as, for all the difference it would make. The sun passes behind a cloud. The electrified fence hums. I think, not sing, of Tarleton, of the gleets, of the balcony. And Boodles yaps.

Ten Tarleton Tales – IV

I was sprawled on the sofa, dozing off as I read the latest issue of The Truncheon Of Truth, when I was startled by an urgent pounding at the door.

Come in!” I shouted, for the door was not locked. As I tossed my magazine on to the floor and prepared to rise to greet my visitor, whoever it was, the door crashed open and a man wearing a frock coat and a bippety-boppety hat came striding in. I immediately recognised him as Tarleton, the amateur’s amateur.

Why, as I live and breathe, it is you, Tarleton!” I yelled. Strictly speaking, none of these words was actually necessary.

Spare me your unnecessary words,” rapped Tarleton, “Put on your coat and hat and boots and follow me. There is not a moment to lose!”

Thus began one of the more thrilling adventures of my long and, for the most part, undistinguished life. I had no idea, at the time, that I was to play a significant part in what became known as the affair of the Mitteleuropean Crown Prince, the missing jewellery box, the dachshund, the drainage ditch, and the freckle-faced lighthouse keeper. On that sopping wet Sunday morning I was preoccupied with the fact that Tarleton had interrupted my reading of an article in The Truncheon Of Truth on the subject of Blunkett.

I was in the middle of reading a very interesting piece about David Blunkett,” I protested to Tarleton as I hastened after him along the rain-swept streets of my bailiwick.

Save your breath, man!” rapped Tarleton, “And keep up! There is not a moment to lose!”

We turned down an alleyway next to the ice-cream kiosk, and then down another alleyway, and another, and yet another, until I realised that I was no longer in my familiar surroundings and had no idea where I was. In spite of the fact that each alleyway was narrower and darker and more foetid than the last, Tarleton kept up a cracking pace.

At the point when you knocked,” I panted, “Blunkett had just entered a field wherein a cow awaited him – a cow that, I think, was about to attack him, on his birthday to boot.”

You looked as if you were dozing off when I arrived,” said Tarleton, “So you cannot have found the article that interesting. Now hush!” he added, and he made a melodramatic gesture, placing one silk-begloved finger vertically in front of his lips. We stood, soaked, in front of a doorway on which the paint was peeling, the wood was rotting, and the number 49 had been scratched as if by the claws of a maddened bear.

I was dozing off because the prose was leaden,” I said, “But the content in itself was absolutely fascinating.”

For God’s sake hush!” hissed Tarleton, and as he did so he pushed the door open gingerly. It creaked on its hinges nevertheless. “Follow me down this secret corridor,” he whispered.

The secret corridor was unlit, and when the door swung shut behind me, I was as blind as Blunkett in the pitch blackness. Recalling the article in The Truncheon Of Truth, I apprehended just how terrifying it would be to be attacked by a cow. I groped forward and clutched at the tail of Tarleton’s frock coat, and we stumbled forward in the Stygian gloom.

We are not likely to meet with a cow, I take it?” I whispered.

Tarleton hushed me for the third time.

In blackness and silence, like the message of Sylvia Plath’s yew tree, we made our way along the secret corridor for what seemed to me untold hours but was, when I looked later at my wristwatch, only a few minutes. We emerged eventually into the large and imposing pantry of a large and imposing hotel, and now I was Blunkett-blinded not by darkness but by the glare of several Klieg lights. Tarleton, ever prepared, snapped on a pair of sunglasses.

We are only just in time!” he cried.

There, chained to the pantry wall, gagged and dishevelled, was a Mitteleuropean Crown Prince, and on the floor at his feet a missing jewellery box. With one swift and decisive move, Tarleton smashed the chains with an axe. Then he helped the Crown Prince to his feet, pocketed the jewellery box, dusted down his frock coat, straightened the bippety-boppety hat on his head, and prepared to leave the pantry through a connecting door to a second, equally large and equally imposing pantry, from where we could make our way to the hotel lobby, and then out into daylight and safety and a majestic boulevard. As I made to follow, Tarleton turned, wagged a silk-begloved finger in my face, and said. “Wait here!”

I never saw Tarleton or the Mitteleuropean Crown Prince again. I kept myself occupied in the pantry, rearranging the pots and pans and packet soups on the shelves, and doing a little light dusting, until one day, weakened by hunger, I saw a hallucinatory cow intent on attacking me, and I realised it was time to leave. I made my way back through the secret corridor and out into the alleyway and the other alleyway and the other alleyway and the other alleyway until I got my bearings and made my way home. Several weeks’ copies of The Truncheon Of Truth were piled up on the doormat. I made myself an infusion of boiled lettucewater and sprawled on the sofa to catch up on my reading. There was an article recounting in great detail the affair of the Mitteleuropean Crown Prince, the missing jewellery box, the dachshund, the drainage ditch, and the freckle-faced lighthouse keeper. Tarleton was not mentioned, and nor was I – at least, not in the first few paragraphs. The piece was written in prose so leaden that before I read any further I dozed off.

I was startled by an urgent pounding at the door. But I had taken the precaution of locking it, and I ignored the pounding, and went back to sleep.

Ten Tarleton Tales – III

I remember as if it were yesterday my very first encounter with Tarleton. He was propping up the bar in a beige and dismal drinking den, beetle-browed and lantern-jawed and babbling to no one in particular. I sat on a stool beside him, ordered a sprangeloenkenkischt, and listened to what he had to say.

He was only recently back from a hush-hush mission in the East, and was worrying, like a dog with a sheep, at the impossibility of grasping the difference between the Near East, the Middle East, and the Far East. What seemed to bother him was that, whereas the location of the Middle East was as clear as dammit, between the Near and the Far, placing the Near and the Far was by no means as simple a matter. If you were slap bang in the middle of the Middle East, for example, the Near East and the Far East would be equidistant from where you stood, or sat, or lay sprawled in a hammock in the blistering noonday sun, going mad.

When he briefly paused to glug his kolokkengehemmelbe, I asked him which East, Near or Middle or Far, he had been in, on his hush-hush mission. Swallowing the dregs of the fiery liqueur, he spluttered and told me the point of a hush-hush mission was that it was hush-hush. I could not disagree with that. I bought him another drink. His tongue did not need loosening, but I was at a loose end, and he seemed to be a man of parts, well worth listening to.

I was wrong. For the next two hours, he gabbled on and on and on, without cease, trying but failing to settle the matter of the three Easts, Near and Middle and Far, now and then pulling from his pocket a crumpled map, hand-drawn with a leaky biro on a filthy napkin, on which he had tried, tried and failed, tried again and failed again, like the best or worst of Beckettians, to hammer home the geography of the East, to pin it down, definitively, so that he would no longer need to think about it. That, he said, in among his witterings, was what he could not stand – that no matter how hard he tried, the East would remain forever beyond his grasp.

Eventually he staggered off to the lavatory to vomit. He had left the napkin map on the counter. Idly, I picked it up. I turned it this way and that, and then, feeling the breath of God on the back of my neck, I crumpled it up and uncrumpled it and turned it upside down and back to front. I laid it back on the counter and smoothed it out, downed the last of my goospelkschnittzern, wrapped my muffler tight about my neck, and tottered out into the icy blizzard. As I followed the tractor-tracks back towards my chalet, I heard from inside the bar a scream, at once hysterical and tragic and unhinged and ecstatic. I lit my pipe, as snowflakes fell.

Ten Tarleton Tales – II

Tarleton, the amateur’s amateur, was sat one evening in an armchair in his consulting rooms, constructing a working scale model of a hydroelectric power station out of matchsticks and cardboard and glue and fusewire and hydroelectric power, when there came a sudden urgent knocking, the door crashed open, and into the room came a man holding, at arm’s length, an asp.

Are you Tarleton?” gasped the man. It was his last gasp, for as soon as the words were out of his mouth he collapsed upon the carpet. In death, his grip on the asp was necessarily relaxed, but the manner in which he fell meant that the asp was trapped under the weight of his corpse. Its head, however, poked free, and it hissed in an aspy way at Tarleton.

This, then, was the famous mystery of the asp, some say Tarleton’s finest hour. The mystery may be thought to have inhered in the identity of the man who had come carrying an asp into the consulting-rooms, his purpose in bringing the asp, and indeed in the provenance of the asp. There were certain other matters, too, to which Tarleton needed to turn the cranks of his powerful mind, but those mentioned are considered the main three. We might mention here that the dead man had a pudding-basin haircut.

Before solving the mystery, Tarleton determined to put the finishing touches to his model. He was unruffled by the hissing of the asp, for he had, years before, gained mastery of a mystic oriental technique for remaining unruffled in the presence of hissing asps, and indeed of other things that hiss. One inadvertent consequence of his mastery was that, on the one occasion Tarleton met Alger Hiss, the communist spy, he remained utterly unruffled, when a certain rufflement might have spurred him to action, and he could have taken steps to gather evidence of Hiss’s perfidy, and thus saved Whittaker Chambers a great deal of pother. Chambers, with his rotten infected teeth and shabby stained suit, never forgave Tarleton for his languid lack of concern, and sent the amateur’s amateur several poison pen letters in succeeding years. These have now been collected in The Correspondence Of Whittaker Chambers And Tarleton, The Amateur’s Amateur, a somewhat misleading title in that the word ‘correspondence’ suggests that Tarleton replied, which he did not. He could not bestir himself to do so, preferring to muck about with matchsticks and cardboard and glue and fusewire and hydroelectric power. Having made one working scale model of a hydroelectric power station, putting the finishing touches to it under the watchful eyes of a hissing asp, Tarleton was so delighted with it that he immediately set about making another. It was a hobby that kept him profitably occupied for a number of years.

Obviously, he had to take a break from his model-making from time to time, for example to sleep, to eat, to go for long hikes, to solve cases that perplexed the best minds of the police force, and not least, to do something about the asp. But before he could address the matter of the asp, Tarleton had to arrange for the disposal of the corpse of the man who had burst into his consulting rooms carrying the asp at arm’s length. He placed a call to the local rascally illegal disposer of corpses. One might ask why he did not seek to have the corpse disposed of in a manner commensurate with the law. One might ask, but to no avail, for Tarleton was notoriously tight-lipped about such things. Let us say it was not the first time he had had a corpse disposed of illegally, nor the first time said corpse had a pudding-basin haircut. It was, however, the first time the removal of the corpse from his consulting rooms would release, from under its dead weight, a hissing asp.

To this end, after making arrangements with the rascal, Tarleton placed a second call, this one to an asp expert at a zoo.

Tell me about asps,” he said.

The asp expert took the call at a busy time, when he was engaged in tackling some kind of zoo asp mayhem. It is the kind of thing that happens all the time even at the best regulated zoos, and it is best you know nothing more. The upshot, however, was that the expert could not afford the time to spout all he knew of asps to Tarleton, as that would have taken several hours, hours he did not have as he strained every sinew to avert zoo asp mayhem. All he managed to splutter was some nonsense about the first asps having been created from the spilled blood of the head of Medusa, borne aloft by Perseus on his flight to Mount Olympus. He then slammed the phone down, leaving Tarleton little wiser than he was before.

All this while, the mystery of the asp remained unsolved. Yet we know there are those who say it was Tarleton’s finest hour. Why would they say such a thing? He sat there, faffing with matchsticks and cardboard and glue and fusewire and hydroelectric power, and placing a couple of calls, occasionally glancing over at the trapped hissing asp, and hissing back at it. Perhaps that in itself is the mystery.

When, later in the evening, the rascal appeared, to make illegal disposal of the corpse, he spotted the asp and licked his lips and asked Tarleton if he might remove, not just the corpse, but the asp into the bargain. Tarleton nodded.

Thankee kindly, sir,” said the rascal, doffing his cap, “There’s nothing I like better for a nightcap than a tot of asp’s blood.” and he whacked the asp on its head with a lead-weighted sap, and dragged it from under the corpse, and popped it in his pocket. We might mention here that the rascal had a pudding-basin haircut atop a countenance that was the spit and image of Alger Hiss.