Toad News

This week is meant to be Dobson Week at Hooting Yard (atoll, pickle, mosh pit), but we must interrupt with important news o’ toads. Devoted readers will recall The Book Of Gnats (collected in the slim anthology We Were Puny, They Were Vapid – buy it now if you have not already done so). In part one, we read:

And then my eyes saw, standing fiery on a wooden plinth ringed by scum-pools, the obscene figure of Winckelmann. In his left hand he brandished aloft a scrap of burning linoleum. His right hand was made into a fist. As, dribbling, I watched, the fist was slowly opened to reveal a….. I cannot say. I do not know. For just at the moment my peering, watery eyes would have seen that… that thing, I was startled by a toad, which leapt up at my face, and thwacked me on the forehead, leaving an imprint which remains there to this day, like a brand.

The narrator of part one then turns up in part two as The Man With The Mark Of The Toad! (He invariably attracts an exclamation mark.)

Now, years later, far far away and banished to a pompous land, Mr Mike Jennings has unearthed this piece of comic book art by the creator of Spiderman, one Steve Ditko. An eerie premonition …

An Afterword On Obsequies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – XV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you?

THE END

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – XIV

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

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

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

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

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – XIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None dared disobey the call.

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – XII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am not,” replied Potcap.

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

What is this task you speak of?”

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

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

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

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

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

Buried,” said Minnie.

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

Talc spurned all religion and other shilly-shallying.”

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

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

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

Minnie spat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madam?”

What?”

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

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

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

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

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

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – XI

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

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

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

Chodd dabbed at Batlip’s trousers with a cloth.

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

Chodd gawped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – X

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – IX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – VIII

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

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

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

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

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – VII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – VI

The seven members of the Electro-Magnetic Apparatus Museum Committee had written a stinking letter to Lars Talc. Over fourteen pages of officially-stamped notepaper, the signatories poured scorn on Talc’s ticket designs, called into question his ability to do the job as well as a half-trained ape, suggested that he had cajoled Chodd into commissioning him for the work through bribery, questioned his worth as a human being, and demanded that he repay, välittömästi and with interest, the monies he had been forwarded as an advance. The words inept, vain, dismal, loose, immoral, incompetent, corrupt, and abominable recurred with less regard for the felicities of style than with a determination to hammer home a point.

Minnie kept the letter hidden from Talc for some days. He was so pleased with his prize, which he fawned over while cradling it in his wrinkled hands, that she was reluctant to disturb his idyll. On the Thursday following the lightning-bolt, however, Talc answered a tapping at the door to find Chodd standing before him. Since last the Committee’s creature had visited, Talc’s temper had improved. Indeed, Chodd was taken aback by his reception, as Talc ushered him into the sitting-room and shoved a brimming tumbler of katajanmarjaviina into his hand.

Welcome, Chodd!” yelled Lars Talc, with ridiculous bonhomie, “Welcome indeed! I have something very intriguing to show you, a prize I won from the scientifico-medical club. Wait there while I fetch it, and help yourself to the booze. I won’t be a minute.”

Talc was about to sweep dramatically from the room, but Chodd halted him.

Wait!” he shouted, “We have more important matters to discuss than your footling prize. This is not a social visit. The Committee has sent me to collect its monies, with the application of rigour if necessary.”

Rigour?”

I have adjutants. They are waiting outside.”

Adjutants?”

Brutes. Armed with thumping implements.”

Monies?”

Crisp Finnish banknotes which I handed to you in a buff-coloured envelope not two months ago. Your advance.”

Minnie, who was lurking in the corner of the sitting-room, took the letter from her reticule and handed it to Talc, who read through all fourteen pages while Chodd drained and refilled his tumbler.

Please wait a moment,” said Talc, when at last he had finished reading.

He stalked off and returned a few minutes later, clutching his songbook, and bid Minnie accompany him at the piano. It had long been his habit, when his nerves were frayed and his feelings convulsive, to sing one of his many self-composed pieces. Years before, he had had published, at his own expense, a compendium of one hundred and fourteen of his songs, madrigals, chants, sea shanties, lieder, serenades, cantatas, hymns, ballads, recitatives, and lullabies. The book also included the libretto of his operetta based on the once-popular novel A Woman Spurned by Ella Snowfury. One of the lasting regrets of Talc’s life was that this astonishing work had never been performed in public, although of course it has become a staple of the Finnish repertoire since his death.

Number forty-nine, Minnie,” he announced. Minnie, who knew all the pieces by heart and had no need of sheet music, splayed her fingers over the keyboard.

A few words of explanation before we begin,” said Talc, glaring at Chodd, who had retreated to the sideboard and was again refilling his tumbler. “Song number forty-nine is entitled A Viper On The Rug The instruction to the accompanist is to play fractiously. There are some difficult passages, and the interplay between voice and piano is at times dissonant. The rules of harmony are not only broken, Chodd, in this song they are swept away in a revolutionary manner which to my knowledge has never been accomplished by any other composer. Now sit down and pin back your nasty little flat purple ears!”

With a mighty crash on the keys, Minnie began. She played for three minutes before Talc joined her, rasping out the lyrics in guttural croaks. Although some of his song-texts were simple and straightforward, Talc often favoured lyrics constructed in a highly-wrought language, rich and allusive, peppered with wordplay shamelessly allowing him to display his superlative mastery of intricate verse-forms. This has caused his translators much grief.

Pond, who first attempted an English translation of the songbook, struggled for years before cutting his throat in a fit of despair. Shincramp and Wedge, working in partnership, got halfway through the book before the former discovered that the latter knew no Finnish. They had already published some of their translations in the Journal of Wintermuck Studies. When Wedge’s deceit was revealed, and their work was examined by scholars of merciless acuity, the pair became laughing stocks. Wedge, who had expected to be rumbled sooner or later, reacted with aplomb, and turned his hand to petty theft, lurking in ill-lit alleyways down by the docks. For Shincramp, however, the humiliation was too much to bear, and, like Pond, he perished by his own hand, hanging himself from the rafters of a log-cabin in the wild Canadian wastes.

From time to time, other scribblers have taken up the challenge of rendering Lars Talc’s songbook into English, but it is fair to say that the immense textual problems have, to date, defied truly inspired – or even competent – solutions. The best we can do is to use Birdhole’s edition, which gives literal prose translations. Her version of The Viper On The Rug reads as follows:

In my rooms of state, in which I prance, garbed in hideous robes, there lies a rug. It is tasselled. On Monday, after I had been fed slops, I stole into my rooms of state. Pins, tacks, nails. Where is my warming-pan? There is a viper on the rug, and my arms dangle limply. The planets spin. Bring me the tacks.

The text is repeated twice. As performed by Talc and Minnie, the song lasted for twenty minutes, during which time Chodd finished off the bottle of katajanmarjaviina, and opened another one which he found in the cabinet. He was a quarter of the way through this second bottle when the song clattered to an end, Talc wheezing and Minnie bashing the keys with terrible fractiousness. Chodd slurped from his tumbler.

Now get out of my sight!” thundered Talc, hurling his songbook across the room.

You wish me to call my adjutants?” asked Chodd.

Pah!”

So be it.”

Chodd, who could drink anyone under the table, walked steadily to the door, opened it, and called to his brutes. There were fourteen of them, but they entered in a whirling tangle as one mass of teeming violence. Chodd pointed to Talc.

Set upon this man. Do not stint in your thumping.”

Before the adjutants got an inch closer to their prey, Minnie unleashed upon them a powerful spray of ig from a canister which she had concealed inside the piano stool. As the jet of foam hit them, each thug in turn was completely immobilised, as if turned to stone. Within seconds, wisps of turquoise vapour curled about their heads, and their skins took on an incandescent sheen. Chodd’s troop of hired muscle was transformed into a ghastly tableau, motionless and gleaming.

Thank you, Minnie,” said Talc, taking the canister from her. “Rest assured, Chodd, that your little gang will suffer no lasting damage. Ig is potent, certainly, but not fatal. Oh, and the vapour gives off a disgusting pong after a while. You will only have to tolerate it for a week or two. Now, while Minnie summons a removal truck, perhaps you would be kind enough to assist me in parcelling up your thugs. There is a huge roll of greaseproof paper in the pantry.”

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – V

Dr Franklin first showed that lightning is the same as the electricity made by the electrical machine. As the electricity of the electrical machine is got by rubbing glass, so much of the electricity of the air is caused by the rubbing of moist air against dry air. A great deal is made by the turning into vapour or mist of the salt water of the ocean by the sun’s heat or the blowing of the wind. More water is turned into vapour during the heat of summer and autumn than in winter, and this is why there is more lightning in warm than in cold weather.

There is always a good deal of electricity n the air, and in clear weather it is generally positive electricity, but during fogs, rains, or snows it is usually negative electricity, though it changes often. It sometimes happens that two clouds, one charged with positive electricity and the other with negative electricity, come near each other, and then the two kinds of electricity rub together, when a flash of lightning is seen, and thunder is heard.

The lightning is the same thing as the spark from an electrical machine, the only difference being that a flash of lightning is sometimes several miles long, and the spark only a few inches. The little spark gives out only a snapping sound, but if we were able to make a spark as large as a flash of lightning, it would cause as much noise as thunder.

When a cloud filled with one kind of electricity comes near the earth while the earth is filled with electricity of the opposite kind, the cloud may discharge its electricity to the earth. If any tall object, such as a tree, a steeple, or a house, happens to be near where the cloud discharges, the electricity will often pass down it to the earth. In this way houses are sometimes injured and set on fire, and great trees are split up into small pieces. Sometimes, too, human beings and animals are struck and killed. It is not safe, therefore, to stand under a tree or close to a high house during a thunder-storm.

We see lightning in several different forms; sometimes its flash is straight, sometimes it is forked or zig-zag, sometimes it is round like a ball, and sometimes it spreads over the clouds like a sheet of fire. When a thunder-cloud is near the earth the flash comes straight down to the earth, because there is but little air for it to pass through, but when the cloud is a considerable distance from the earth, the air in the path of the lightning is made denser or thicker by being pushed together, and as lightning can pass quicker through thin than through thick air, it flies from side to side so as to pass where it is thinnest. Thus its path is zig-zag or forked. When there is a very great charge of electricity in a cloud it sometimes forces its way through the air in the shape of a ball. What is called sheet lightning is either the reflection or shine on clouds of a stroke of zig-zag lightning which is too far off to be seen, or light discharges of electricity from clouds which have not enough to cause zig-zag lightning.

When lightning passes through air it leaves behind it a vacuum – that is, an empty place – and the air rushing in to fill it makes the noise which is called thunder (ukkonen in Finnish). We do not usually hear this until some time after the flash of lightning, because light travels more than a million times faster than sound. When the thunder-cloud is at a distance, the sound comes to us little by little, and it is then called rolling thunder; but when the cloud is near the earth the sound comes in one great crash. We can generally tell how far off a thunder-cloud is by noting how much time elapses between the flash of lightning and the sound of the thunder. If we can count five as slowly as the tick of a clock between the two, it is certain that the cloud is more than a mile away.

Lightning, in its way to the earth, will always follow the best conductor, and when it strikes a building or a tree it will leap from side to side to find it. It likes pointed things better than round or blunt things, and this is why lightning rods have sharp points. Buildings properly fitted with lightning rods are safe from being struck by lightning, because the rods lead off the electricity into the earth. When a cloud filled with electricity comes over the rods, the electricity will flow silently down them until the cloud is discharged, and we see no flash and hear no thunder; but we feel sure that the building will not be struck. The tops of lightning rods are usually made of silver or are gilded, so that they may not rust and thus become worthless. The lower end of the rod must be carried down into damp earth; if the earth is dry it is better to carry the end into a well, because dry earth is not so good a conductor as moist earth, and the lightning might leap from the rod at the lower end and go into the cellar of the building. High chimneys should have rods on them, because the soot in them is a good conductor, as is also the vapour which rises from them when fires are burning.

The word lightning in Finnish is salama; a flash of lightning is salaman leimahdus.

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.”