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.

LASCELLES DISTEMPER JARLEY
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.

Death Of A Cartographer

Can it be that a quarter of a century has passed since the publication of the Hooting Yard Calendar 1992? Tempus bloody well fugit, and no mistake. The calendar that year was entitled “Accidental Deaths Of Twelve Cartographers”, and here is one such accidental death, that of Underbath, who, we are told, was impaled by a javelin in Bodger’s Spinney on February the fifth 1907.

The Latin Mass

I am old enough to remember – albeit dimly – the Latin Mass. For younger readers, and non-Catholics, I should explain that until the mid-1960s, throughout the Catholic church, Mass was conducted exclusively in Latin. The priest would deliver the liturgy in Latin, and the congregation, when required to voice responses, would do likewise. The change to the use of the vernacular came about when Pope John XXIII instituted various liberalising reforms. There remain a few recalcitrant diehards – notable among them being the father of Mad Max star Melvin Gibson – who cling to the Latin Mass, although I understand this is much disapproved of by the Vatican, and may even be illegal.

On the council estate where I grew up, there were many Catholics but no Catholic church. To save us from having to trudge a fair distance to St Bede’s, the parish church, an arrangement had been made that a pub on the estate would host our Sunday Mass. Thus every week we would troop into the Moby Dick on Whalebone Lane. We used the main bar area of the pub, with chairs temporarily aligned in rows, though I cannot recall what served as an altar. I do remember that towels were draped over all the beer pumps at the bar. After Mass, a goodly proportion of the congregation, and probably the priest too, would remain in the pub waiting for opening time. My parents were not drinkers, though, so we were herded home.

150

Around the same time as the introduction of the Mass in English, the service itself was moved to a new community centre on the estate. Thus passed a particular, and in retrospect profound, part of my childhood.

I stopped attending Mass when, as a nincompoop teenager, I turned my back on the faith. Then, and for many years afterwards, if I thought about the Latin Mass at all, it was as a prime example of the stupidity of religion. How preposterous, for people to gather together to listen and respond to what for most of them (and certainly for the infant me) was a babble of incomprehensible gibberish!

It is only recently that I have realised the significance of this early experience. One must bear in mind that for the vast majority of people, there was nothing remotely swinging about the 1960s. Particularly on my council estate, it was a dull, pinched, grey (or beige) time yet to emerge from the austerity of the immediate post-war years. We had no television, telephone, refrigerator, central heating, or other home comforts. Life was uneventful and devoid of any but the most paltry excitements. (I now look back with nostalgia for the peace and tranquility.)

There was thus something quite magical and passing strange about those Sunday mornings. We gathered in the gloom of the pub, while a man dressed – improbably – in often colourfully embroidered raiment stood, with his back to us (as the priests did in those days), intoning a litany of words, and always exactly the same words, which we did not understand, and bore no relation to anything we heard elsewhere, in any circumstances. Indeed there was nothing about it that had anything whatsoever to do with the world we inhabited the rest of the time. It was baffling and bizarre, but, by dint of weekly repetition, comfortingly familiar. And it was deeply, deeply serious.

It has now dawned on me, at long last, that, in my own faltering yet determined way, I have been trying to recreate this numinous childhood experience by babbling, once a week, in Hooting Yard On The Air on ResonanceFM.

Dim Tyrant (Revisited)

From his banishment in a pompous land, Mike Jennings writes to suggest that I exhume the piece Dim Tyrant, posted here in 2010. “The dim tyrant, Crepuscus VIII, would seem very relevant all of a sudden,” says Mr Jennings, “Given his, quote, fateful combination of childish whimsy and an inability to string together a coherent sentence, unquote.” What POTUS could he possibly be thinking of? Anyway, here is the piece, which does seem, at least in its earlier passages, spookily prophetic.

Assessing the career of the tyrant king Crepuscus VIII, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he was excessively dull-witted and dim. There is a plethora of anecdotage, from courtiers and palace leeches, revealing that the king was rarely able to answer simple questions such as “What part of the body sits atop the neck?”, “How many angels can dance upon the head of a pin?” or “Who won the 1953 FA Cup Final?”

And yet this atrociously stupid man ruled over a mighty kingdom for many years, his hands steady at the helm though his mind was doolally. So, dim as he was, he has much to teach us about the craft of kingship, and indeed of tyranny, if we consider tyranny a craft. For let there be no doubt that his reign was tyrannical.

In the case of Crepuscus VIII,” wrote the historian Sagely, sagely, “we find a fateful combination of childish whimsy and an inability to string together a coherent sentence. Thus it was that his henchpersons invariably misunderstood his ukases, but hurried to fulfil them come what may.” Sagely gives as an example the occasion when the tyrant king’s whim was to burn down every barn in the land. But so muddled and mangled was the manner in which he gave the command that his Royal Barn Burner mistakenly put a pot-belled pig in charge of the palace treasury instead. As might have been expected, the pig spent every last golden coin on swill, and not a barn was burned to the ground. Fortunately, Crepuscus VIII was so dim that he did not realise what had happened, nor why, and he retired to his boudoir to gaze at the ceiling, thinking it was the vault of heaven.

One could multiply such flimflam until the cows come home, and indeed there are many amusing – and sometimes alarming – books which cobble together hundreds of instances of Crepuscus VIII’s imbecility. I want to take a slightly different tack, however. The thing that has always fascinated me about the tyrant king is not his breathtaking dimness but his dinner jackets.

Dinner was of supreme importance at the court of Crepuscus VIII. Whatever else was going on, at four o’ clock sharp every day, the king would sweep into his banqueting hall and sit down at his banqueting table, at which would be gathered all sorts of banqueting companions. In spite of his dimness, the king liked to be entertained during dinner by philosophers, scientists, novelists, artists, actors, clowns, jugglers, pamphleteers, scruffily-bearded film directors, engineers, podcast maestros, deep sea divers, chefs, snipers, ornithologists, sundry persons with metal plates in their skulls, magicians, mountaineers, ex-Beatles, priests, anthropologists, cartographers, architects, mesmerists, and, if he was available, Rolf Harris. It is doubtful if any of the high-flown table talk penetrated the king’s dull-witted brain, but he sat there, a fork in each hand (he never used a knife), beaming, and resplendent in his dinner jacket of the day.

There were seven of these jackets, one for each day of the week, and the king cut quite a dash in all of them. Monday’s was made of crimplene and cardboard, with golden stars and ribbons and a coathanger embedded in it. Tuesday’s was of plain burlap sacking, adorned with coal dust and grease. Wednesday’s was a gorgeous embroidered flapping wonder. Thursday’s was satin, boxy and black. Friday’s was knit from strands of a rare and stinking wool, shorn from rabid sheep, tie-dyed like some hippy shawl, surrounded by an aura invisible. Saturday’s was of classic cut but frayed at the cuffs, with dangling bells. Sunday’s was somehow a blur, as if the king was vibrating, or on another plane just beyond human apprehension. Whatever day of the week it was, whichever dinner jacket he was wearing, the tyrant king ate sparingly, birdseed and millet mostly, accompanied by sips of lukewarm water from the palace spigot.

Today the dinner jackets can be found hanging in display cases in a jolly little museum hidden away in one of the less salubrious faubourgs of Pointy Town. I exhort you to pay a visit, nay, repeated visits. Study the jackets, now caked with dust, hear the echoes of all that banqueting table babbling, take away with you a souvenir packet of Tyrant King’s Birdseed®, relive the days when Crepuscus VIII reigned over us, dim and tyrannical and cutting quite a dash.

The part of the body atop the king’s neck, by the way, was his head.