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.”


I have adjutants. They are waiting outside.”


Brutes. Armed with thumping implements.”


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.


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.”

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not at the moment.”

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

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

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

It must be a big board.”

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

I see,” said Talc.

They were summarily executed.”

Who were?”

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

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

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

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

I think I’d rather investigate the well.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obsequies For Lars Talc, Struck By Lightning – I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obsequies, Re-Tippytapped

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter One of which will appear tomorrow.

Forgotten Head : A Childhood Memoir

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

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

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

Pish!, I thought, That is alarmist talk!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thirty Years Ago

Another thing I found in my recent rummage was a small batch of cuttings from the legendary Factsheet Five magazine. Indefatigable editor Mike Gunderloy was a generous reviewer of my (now) out of print Malice Aforethought Press pamphlets and books. Here are some of his observations:

House Of Turps. A curious and delightful little booklet. Key writes in a sort of manic academic style, tracing the life of the obscure chemist-chieftain Slobodan Curpin as he staggers through the early days of the scientific revolution. Experimental windsocks, poultice-making, and a civilisation beneath the Arctic ice all make perfect sense here. Much better than the usual dreary textbook treatment of this sort of thing. Maddeningly sensible and discordant at the same time.

The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet. More bizarre prose from the fevered mind of Frank Key. This is a sort of murder mystery, replete with an ogre who proves to be a detective, soup recipes, signs from bizarre pubs, potato science, and even duckponds. Frank has a style all his own, which most of us could not approach even with the use of large quantities of illicit drugs.

Twitching And Shattered. This is a collection of many of Frank’s shorter works, including the infamous “Tales of Hoon” and his series of dustjackets for forthcoming books. It also contains the wildly funny “Some Lesser-Known Editions Of The Bible”, an exercise in parodied scholarship that had me rolling on the floor. I like Frank’s writing quite a bit. He has a perfectly deadpan style that can string together the most utter nonsense and make it fascinating. Personally, I find this style delicious, whether Frank is writing of mysterious foreign agents, trips to Iceland, or bicycles and earwigs. If you’re fond of relatively sophisticated and curious humour, you too should own a copy.

Ah, those were the small press days, in the pre-www world. Now you get the outpourings of my allegedly “fevered mind” absolutely free, on an almost daily basis. That being so, remember you can always send a donation by hitting that Paypal link over to your right …

Another House Of Turps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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