People carved out of wood by the actor Jim Broadbent, in the Royal Festival Hall, snapped by Pansy Cradledew on this day in June MMXV.
It was a gorgeous day of overcast skies and drizzle and a keen wind, and I set out early, in stout boots, with a pippy bag over my shoulder, whistling a tune remembered from childhood, such as it was, learned, I think, from the orphanage’s brutish overseer, who liked to sing the song as he made us dip into puddles and fossick for squelchy writhing horrors, vile water-worms and other beings which we collected in our pails for him, and the orphan with the highest tally was rewarded with an extra helping of gruel. Oh happy days! We never found out what the brute did with all those aquatic creepy-crawlies, but, at night, as we tossed and turned in our iron cots in the attic, we whispered stories to each other, making up tales about the brute and his pails full of the worms we caught for him. It was only later, when I was grown and had long left the orphanage, that I learned he sold them to a scientist at the sinister secret laboratory along the lane on the other side of the viaduct, as he sold an orphan or two from time to time, when funds were low or he lost his temper.
It was on that gorgeous day that I retraced my steps, past the shuttered and abandoned orphanage and along the lane and through the wicket gate we had been forbidden to cross in the old days, and I carried on under the viaduct and past the shuttered and abandoned laboratory, past the ice cream kiosk and the duckpond, on past the gasworks and the aerodrome and the cement statue of Condoleezza Rice With A Thousand Nightingales, until at last, the sky more overcast, the drizzle heavier, the wind keener, I came to the big stone gates of the Mercy Home.
I rang the bell, it clanked, and a nun came to let me in. Her wimple was filthy. I stated my business, and she led me across the gravel and around the main building and past the vegetable patches and the gazebo to a hut almost hidden in vegetation and awe. I tipped the nun a coin from my pocket and she gambolled away, singing, I noted, the very same song I had been whistling all the long day.
I stood outside the hut and eased my pippy bag from my shoulder, then took from it a sealed jar. Inside the jar, squirming in a quantity of puddlewater, were dozens of squelchy writhing horrors, vile water-worms and other beings which I had collected for the retired brute. I ceased to whistle, and pushed open the door of the hut. I had come to make my weekly offering.
I have never given serious thought to the idea of reincarnation, and it is about time I did so. After all, we are serious people, are we not?, and we should think seriously about everything, absolutely everything, as it falls within our purview. There will be many subjects deserving of only our fleeting attention, but even those we should consider with all due seriousness. In that spirit, and in the full knowledge that the concept of reincarnation, or the transmigration of souls, is almost certainly arrant poppycock, let us see if we can winkle from it anything of significance.
In some versions of the theory, the transmigrating soul flits from species to species. This would suggest that, immediately before the glorious event that was the arrival upon earth of Mr Key, I might have been, say, a bat or a prawn or a tulip. This is a perfect example of something so foolish that our fleeting attention can fly away from it tout suite, with nary a backward glance. Like the collected written outpourings of Will Self, it can be safely tucked away and forgotten about. We gave it our serious attention, for a moment or two, and then moved on, sensibly, as sensible and serious persons do.
Of more interest is the idea that, as the spark of life is extinguished in one human corporeal being, at the very moment when life passes it makes a leap into a brand new host. Though as preposterous as the idea that I was once a tulip, this at least has a certain tidiness about it. If, for a while, we entertain the possibility of it being true, the urgent question then thumps inside our heads – who were you, Mr Key, before you were Mr Key?
I am minded to date the dawn of my existence not to the date of birth, but to the moment of conception in my mother’s womb. Unless one’s father is a precise and punctilious Walter Shandy figure, that moment is well nigh impossible to pinpoint, so the best we can do is to use informed guesswork. Counting backwards from the date of my (premature) birth, it is likely that I was conceived in the dying days of May in the Year of Our Lord MCMLVIII, or, as modern barbarians would prefer, 1958. So who shuffled off this mortal coil around that time, apart from several bats or prawns or tulips?
Three candidates present themselves – the Romanian aviator Constantin Cantacuzino, the Spanish writer Juan Ramón Jiménez, and – skipping forward slightly to the beginning of June – the American oceanographer Townsend Cromwell. The next stage of my serious research will be to immerse myself in the lives of this trio, finding out all I can, perhaps entering a fugue state. Without leaping ahead of myself, I have to say that my favourite of the three, at this stage, is the Spaniard, not so much on account of his Nobel Prize for Literature (1956), but because, judging by this photograph, his wife is wearing exactly the sort of hat I can imagine Pansy Cradledew sporting atop her lovely head.
I will keep you informed of my findings.
That stuff about puddles the other day, you remember, the puddles of glory, with Dot and the late lamented Radbod, that was all true, every single word of it, I didn’t make it up, I swear, I swear on my mother’s life, and you may say, well, your mother’s been dead these twenty-one years so you can swear on her life until you are blue in the face but that won’t convince me of anything, there is no point swearing on something that’s gone, in this case your mother’s life, Ghent 1925 to Goodmayes 1994, and in any case you’ve written about your mother before, that she had the voice of a corncrake and taught you to sing Essay On Pigs by Hans Werner Henze and believed she was turning into a corncrake, and there was not a jot of truth in any of that, you made it up out of thin air, for comic purposes presumably, so swearing on her life now that it is long extinguished is a worthless act and gives me no reason to believe in that stuff about puddles of glory and Dot and Radbod, both of whom I have no doubt you also made up out of thin air and for presumably comic effect, but I’m not laughing, you may say all that, to my face, in a reasonable tone of voice or, more likely, betraying a certain mild exasperation, and I will listen calmly to the charges you lay against me, staunch, staunch in my righteousness, and then I will pick up a spade and bash you over the head with it, as punishment for doubting my word, ever, even though I may contradict myself, or make outrageous claims, or tell obvious fibs, because, let’s face it, we are not going to get anywhere unless you accept every last syllable that drops from my lips as God’s own truth, immutable and incandescent, for I am your Oracle and you shall not doubt me, is that clear?, and here is another bash of the spade on your head to drive my point home, thank you very much, that will be fifty pence please, or more if you can afford it, just put your coins in the tin, and every penny I collect will be spent on flowers for my mother’s grave.
Pansy Cradledew recently spent three days in rural Denmark. Upon her return, she presented me with some small gifts of Danish stationery. Among these was a pencil, along the barrel of which the following phrases are stamped:
GRAKS AGANAK PIKIPOF
AUTOMOLOK TITA TITO
PLOKS GUGANAGA PLIP
I suspect this is probably gobbledegook rather than Danish, although there is a distinct possibility it might be Real Orghast. If any reader can tell me what it means, please do so in the Comments.
Then puddles. There was glory in them. Hopscotch manoeuvres met the moment, but cramp brought gyp, and they sank to their knees on the kerb. Dot wanted a choc-ice, but the kiosk was boarded-up. Whatever had become of Mister Mufty? Radbod scented a detective escapade. Dot’s doll fell into one of the puddles. She was inconsolable. Radbod pretended to shoot at sparrows with a stick. The sodden doll reproached the pair of them. Then they heard the tinkle of an ice cream van. Dot’s heart thumped so hard she thought she might die. But Radbod was the first to die, bitten by a gnat, like Rupert Brooke. Dot lived on into her nineties, blitz-brained and toothless, still cradling the long dry doll in her lap, remembering, as she remembered nothing else, the glory in the puddles.
Evidence has come to light that Tiny Enid, the plucky club-footed tot of this parish, may have had more in common with H. P. Lovecraft than a fondness for fascism. I am grateful to OutaSpaceman for bringing to my attention this snap, originally found on something called the “Flickr account” of one Lawrence Jones:
Dear Mr Key, writes Olivia Funnel, who may or may not be fictitious – I wouldn’t presume to know – I confess I am a little puzzled by something. Yesterday you reproduced a letter received from Tord Grip, which, you say, plopped onto the mat, suggesting that it was an old-fashioned letter written on paper and inserted into an envelope with a postage stamp affixed. Surely, in our brave new e-world of digital fantasticness your correspondents communicate with you by email? Perplexedly yours, Olivia Funnel.
Well, Ms Funnel, it is true that almost all of my correspondence these days arrives in the form of electronic communications. However, as you will learn when next you check your in-box, all emails I receive generate an automated reply, which reads as follows:
Thank you for writing to Mr Key. Please note that your inscriptio cursus electronici will be ignored unless you rewrite it by hand, with a propelling pencil upon a sheet of creamy paper, which you should then insert into an envelope to which you should affix a postage stamp. The envelope should then be rolled into a cylinder and fastened around the leg of a crow. Whisper “To Mr Key! To Mr Key!” into the crow’s ear and watch it fly away. If you are not sure where the crow’s ear is, study ornithology.
The fact that I am replying to Olivia Funnel is evidence that she did indeed follow these instructions. I ought to point out that I do not eschew modern electronic communication methods due to some ill-tempered Luddite animus against the modern world – though I do – but rather because it pleases me to have crows flying in through my window on a regular basis. Once I have detached the rolled-up envelope from the crow’s leg, I inject it with a serum which renders it unconscious, and add it to my collection of unconscious crows. I have not yet worked out what to do with them all, and for the moment I am content enough to see their number growing by the day.
One of my correspondents has suggested attaching a brain scanner to each crow, and deducing from the resulting print-outs the nature of crows’ dreams (and nightmares). This would seem to me a very worthy enterprise, and I will consider giving it a go.
Dear Mr Key, writes Olivia Funnel, again, Thank you for your reply to my query. Unfortunately it raises further questions which leave me even more perplexed than heretofore. If you receive your letters through the agency of a crow flying in through your window with an envelope furled around its leg, how then did Tord Grip’s letter plop onto the mat? The only explanation that makes sense is that you dropped the envelope onto the mat yourself, once you had detached it from the crow, and before or after injecting the crow with a serum. But what possible rationale could you have for so dropping the envelope? That seems to me to be the utmost foolery. Yours more in sorrow than in anger, Olivia Funnel.
I said, after receiving Ms Funnel’s earlier missive, that I was unsure whether she was real or fictional. Evidence has now come to light that she is, decisively, the latter. This leads me to conclude that, contrary to her assertion, the utmost foolery would be to indulge a letter from a wholly fictitious person with a reply. I have, instead, torn both her letters to shreds with my bare hands. I intend to stuff the shreds into an envelope of cloth, thus forming a little cushion, which will serve as a splendid resting-place for one of my unconscious crows.
A letter plops onto the mat from Tord Grip. I wondered if this was the same Tord Grip who is something of a luminary in the world of foopball coaching, but apparently it is a different Tord Grip altogether. Anyway, here is what he has to say for himself:
Dear Mr Key, I have been a devoted reader of yours for many years. Something that has particularly struck me is your fondness for the motif of a character “at a swish sophisticated cocktail party, leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece”. You return to this again and again. Sometimes the person so leaning is a fictional character and sometimes, in first person narratives, it is you. I am not so naïve as to think that the “I” figure in such tales is actually you, and that the pieces are wholly autobiographical. I realise that the first person narrator may be a fictional or semi-fictional version of yourself. This interpretation is not simply common sense, but is borne out by Roland Clare in his introduction to the anthology By Aerostat To Hooting Yard, where he makes the point that “When Key … conducts occasional epistolary dialogues with correspondents … – almost certainly not real people – his engagement with them shades his own status with a fictional quality. His uncertain standing is compounded by the … pieces written in the first person”, and he posits a distinction between “Frank Key, author of the blog vs Mr Key, the quasi-fictional entity”. So, when you report that you were “at a swish sophisticated cocktail party, leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece”, are we to infer that this statement is factual or fictional? Or are we deliberately left on shaky ground, uncertain, bewitched, bothered, and bewildered?
Incidentally, the quotation above from Mr Clare also calls into question my own existence, as one of your correspondents. While I know in the very core of my being that I am a real person of flesh and blood – I need only bash my head against my writing-desk to confirm as much – ouch! – your readers may, like Mr Clare, think I am “almost certainly not real”. Whether or not their suspicions will be heightened or dampened by the coincidence that I share my name with one of the tiptop figures in the world of foopball coaching, I cannot say. In my part of the world, Tord Grip is not so outlandish a name that one can jump to any conclusion in the matter. I think it best to pass over my further ruminations on the question of reality, otherwise we would be here all day and in all likelihood end up with what my clinician has dubbed “crumbling of the brainpans”.
Instead, I should like to turn to the reason I am writing to you in the first place. It so happens that one of my hobbies – alongside knitting, sandpapering rough surfaces, and bird observation – is enacting short extracts from my favourite writers. To this end I have, in recent weeks, gone about wearing a little Ether Hood (Emily Dickinson), taken pictures of Jap girls in synthesis (David Bowie), sucked innumerable pebbles (Samuel Beckett), and run screaming from a Paris hotel room after casting a spell to summon the great god Pan (Aleister Crowley). Having ticked these off in my ledger, next on my list was to go to a swish sophisticated cocktail party and lean insouciantly against a mantelpiece (Frank Key).
First of all, of course, I had to obtain an invitation to such a soirée. The difficulty with this was that, like you, I have been described as a Diogenesian recluse, and I don’t get out much – oh, wait a minute. That reminds me. If you are as reclusive as Mr Cutler asserts, how is it that you are forever attending swish sophisticated cocktail parties? I have spent an inordinate amount of time pondering this conundrum. Even if we take into account that many of the insouciant leaners are explicitly fictional characters, and concede that, pace Roland Clare, you yourself are quasi-fictional, there remains the fact that there is something compelling in these scenes that convinces the reader they must, at the very least, be the result of particularly acute authorial observation. Consider the swish and sophisticated nature of the cocktail parties, the insouciance of the person leaning, the brute solidity of the mantelpiece itself. It seems unlikely that such details could be fomented entirely within your head, absent of direct and emotionally shattering experience.
I am pleased to say that the result of my agonised mulling over the matter was ultimately beneficial. If Mr Key, as a recluse, can yet summon the nerve to accept invitations to swish sophisticated cocktail parties, I said to myself, then I too can screw my courage to the sticking place and do likewise. I said this to myself repeatedly, gazing into a mirror at my strange unnatural beauty. Eventually I was ready. But still I had not received any invitations.
I dabbled with the idea of skipping to the next item on my list, to ring upon the rein of a wimpling wing in my ecstasy (Gerard Manley Hopkins), but I am a methodical sort of person and I knew I would lie awake at night remonstrating with myself until I had completed the Frank Key element of my project. I had been very careful, when drawing up my roster, to place my proposed enactments in a very specific order, based upon the Blötzmann system (Yellow Notebook, Fifth Series). Though I was keenly aware of the possibility that Blötzmann, and his system, and his notebooks, in their series, were all fictional, having been made up by you, Mr Key, I have found his guidance invaluable in several different areas of my life, not least the careful compiling of lists in very specific orders.
I thus found myself at an impasse. I could not move on until I had leaned insouciantly against a mantelpiece at a swish sophisticated cocktail party, and I could not attend a swish sophisticated cocktail party without an invitation. Or could I? Was it not possible for me simply to gatecrash such a do? Hell, yes!, as Ed Miliband would say. But first I had to find a party to gatecrash.
Much as it went against my reclusive nature, I took to stalking the streets of an evening, stopping when I came upon a building with a window alive with lights, and peering in to see if a swish sophisticated cocktail party was in progress. I had already planned how I would gain entry. Knocking at the door, I would pretend to be an emergency postman with an urgent delivery for – at which point I would counterfeit a violent coughing fit and bite on a capsule of blood tucked in my cheek. Spraying what was in reality a small amount of duck’s blood all over the hallway carpet, I would stagger into the house and collapse. While the host ran for help, I would stand up, dab at my mouth with a napkin to erase any traces of gore, comb my hair, take off my emergency postman’s jacket and stuff it behind the umbrella stand, then sashay into the main room where the party was in full swing, grab a cocktail from a tray, and make for the mantelpiece, against which I would lean insouciantly. Job done.
I don’t know if you have ever stalked the evening streets in search of a swish sophisticated cocktail party to inveigle your way into by dint of a foolproof scheme, but believe you me it is not as easy as it sounds. Perhaps I was stalking through the wrong part of town, down by the docks where the sailors all meet, eating fish heads and tails, splitting the night with the roar of their jokes, laughing and lusting till the rancid sound of the accordion bursts. The lit windows I peered into framed scenes of unimaginable depravity and debauch. Nor did I spot a mantelpiece clean enough to lean upon in my specially-hired Ferdinando Boffo dinner-suit, worn beneath the emergency postman’s jacket.
I turned down an alley towards what I hoped would be a more salubrious part of town when I became aware of footsteps following me. There was something inexplicably menacing about them (M. R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu, E. F. Benson – names absent, alas, from my list). I quickened my pace, and so did the footsteps. Determined to confront whoever – whatever – was following me, I turned around. To my horror I saw, silhouetted against the sickly moon, the lumbering walrus-moustached psychopathic serial killer Babinsky! My mind was a chaos. I had always believed him to be a purely fictional maniac dreamed up by you, Mr Key, to trouble my dreams. Yet here he was, all too real, lumbering relentlessly towards me. As he raised his blood-drenched axe above his head, preparing to strike, intermingled with my terror I felt a small measure of solace that, though it was not the enactment of a Hooting Yard scene I had planned, when I drew my last breath having been felled by Babinsky, I would, inadvertently, be recreating a common motif from the works of Mr Key. There can be no more piquant farewell to this life, be it a real life or, perhaps, perhaps, an entirely fictional one.
Dear Mr. Key,, writes Poppy Nisbet from her fastness in North America, There was an offer on Freecycle this morning for a “disabled rooster”. I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. It read: “Offer: disabled rooster”.
Likewise, on the bird front, I found a wonderful 17th century engraving of two standing desert ostriches blowing on their eggs. After dogged persistence Google finally produced a translation of the accompanying Latin text and I learned that ostriches were believed to leave their eggs to hatch in the care of the sun and the sand. The parent birds blew “nourishing breathe” onto their offspring before, er, deserting them.
The translation given for ostrich was “Sparrow-camel”.
I was reading the other day about closed-down shipyards and came upon a reference to Swan Hunter. This served to remind me of a fellow I met recently whose business card – which he handed to me – announced his business as a swan hunter. We were guests at a swish sophisticated cocktail party and he was leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece. He apologised that the card was smeared with blood, explaining that it was the blood of a swan and that such smearage was an occupational hazard.
“Surely,” I said, “There is not much hunting to do to find swans? Do you not just head for the nearest body of water, such as a pond or a canal, which swans are known to frequent?”
“There is a measure of truth in what you say,” he replied, bringing up an unseemly gobbet of catarrh and spitting it into a napkin, “But first one must find the pond or canal. Though swans are almost invariably found on ponds and canals, it does not follow that all ponds and canals have their resident swans, as a moment’s thought will confirm.”
“Fair enough,” I said, “But identifying those ponds and canals where you might find a swan hardly counts as hunting. You just need to obtain a map and mark with a pencilled X those ponds and canals shown on it which are known to be populated by swans. You can do that while sitting in an armchair.”
He spat into his napkin again.
“I could indeed,” he said, “But that would take all the thrill out of the hunt. I prefer to go a-roaming through the countryside, or through a large municipal park, sniffing the air and studying the terrain until I track down a pond or a canal. And even then,” he continued before I had a chance to interrupt, “There can be no guarantee that the pond or canal I come upon will be swanful. The uncertainty adds to the excitement.”
“It might be more accurate to say, then, that you are a pond and canal hunter, rather than a swan hunter,” I said.
“Bosh!” he shouted, slopping some of his cocktail onto the hearth-rug, “Where no swans are in evidence upon the pond or canal I have stalked, I press on, indefatigably, come rain or shine.”
“So let us assume,” I said, “That you have arrived at a pond or canal teeming with swans, whether in the countryside or in parkland. Do you then take potshots at them with a Mannlicher-Carcano sniper’s rifle?”
“Heaven forfend!” he cried, slopping more cocktail onto the rug, “Where would be the sport in that? No, I go unarmed. Swan hunting, when executed properly, is the pitting of man against swan in a primal struggle. Having selected an individual swan, I engage it in combat. That is why I have had my arms broken several times in several places.”
“Ah,” I said, “I was wondering why you held your cocktail glass at a rather curious angle.”
Actually, I ws not wondering this at all. I was just making conversation. It has never been my habit to examine in any detail the angles at which swish sophisticated cocktail party guests hold their cocktail glasses, nor, for that matter, am I much exercised when in their excitement they slop some of the contents of said glasses on to the hearth rug, unless of course it is my own hearth rug. But it never is, for I do not host my own cocktail parties. I am temperamentally incapable of organising sufficient sausages on sticks due to my cackhandedness, which invariably means I prick my fingers and thumbs repeatedly with the sharp wooden cocktail sticks, drawing blood. No one in their right minds wants to attend a party, however sumptuous the cocktails, if the plates are littered with sausages lying unpunctured beside piles of bloodied wooden sticks. A business card smeared with the blood of a swan seemed to me a far less gruesome sight. In fact, the more I thought about it, my own reservations about hosting a cocktail party seemed immeasurably more interesting than listening to a man wittering on about his experiences of unarmed combat with swans, fighting to the death. Only my impeccable manners prevented me from saying so, in a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone else in the room.
It was only then, looking around, that I noticed the swan hunter and I were the only guests still present. Everyone else had tiptoed out, through the open French windows. Peering out into the dusk, I saw approaching, marching relentlessly across the lawn, a gaggle of savage and vengeful swans.