I was born in Duntblau, above the wool shop, at the beginning of our night that lasts for half a year. The alignment of the stars in the sky over Duntblau did not augur well. Shortly after my birth, the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman paid her visit, creaking up the fire escape to my parents’ flat above the wool shop. She cast her twigs and pebbles upon the floor, and descried signs in the steam rising from her bowl of boiling ducks’ blood. She announced that, though I was not exactly a cursèd child, still, I was a tot inwardly hobbled, morally and comprehensively. There was no force in the universe that could ever come to my aid. Mama poured the ducks’ blood down the drain while Papa paid the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman her stipend. As she creaked away down the fire escape, my infant wailing woke every sleeping soul in Duntblau.
Three decades and three more years passed, with little or nothing of remark, until one day Papa called me down to the back room of the wool shop.
“Shambeko,” he said, “You have now reached the age Christ Jesus was when he was so cruelly nailed to his cross. It is time you left Duntblau, to make your way in the world.”
I begged Papa to allow me to postpone my leaving for six months, when there would be daylight, but his mind was made up. I was to quit the wool shop immediately, and Duntblau as soon as possible thereafter. As I minced out of the door, Mama handed me a snack and a bag of whatnots.
When I was out of sight of the wool shop, I collapsed on to the pavement and ate my snack, a fish-paste whirl and a plum. Then I rummaged through the whatnots in the bag, but my fingers were sticky, so I tipped the contents on to the pavement the better to grasp their quiddities. Suddenly dozens of birds swooped from the Duntblau sky, grabbing the whatnots in their beaks, and soaring away, up, up, until they vanished into the black starless night.
After a while I rose to my feet and continued along the street, or rather, boulevard. This was one of the main thoroughfares of central Duntblau, and was named after Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick, and Tich, huge cement statues of whom stood, upon tawdry plinths, at intervals from east to west. It so happened that, a couple of schtapps past the Beaky statue, where I had snacked and had my whatnots abstracted by birds, there was an alleyway leading off the boulevard to the left, and down this alleyway was the kiosk of the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman. I was minded to go and have a word with her, but just as I was readying my legs to make the required turn, I was set upon by an assailant.
It was not the first time in my thirty-three years to heaven that I felt the bash of a bludgeon on my bonce. Violence stalks Duntblau in the long night. But I had never before been knocked unconscious for such a protracted period of time. When I came to, sprawled in the gutter, I heard the toots and bangs and bellowing of improvised oompah band music, and saw the massed papier-mâché puppets of Duntblau noteworthies being carried aloft. It was the Saint Bibblybibdib’s Day Parade! I must have been lying in the gutter for a fortnight!
I knew Papa would expect me to be a lot further away by now, possibly gone from Duntblau entirely. I knew, too, that he was likely to have employed the private detectives Perkins & Throwback to scour the streets for any sign of me. He was that kind of Papa – rigorous, righteous, mad. I had to make myself scarce.
I scuttled off down an alleyway. It was a different alleyway to the one where the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman had her kiosk, but there is that old saying in Duntblau “All alleyways [something something] / But [something] a ha’porth for a kiosk”. Above me the shroud of night lay heavy upon the souls of embittered men and their wan, pale wives. The alleyway was scattered with dustbins and corrugated cardboard and dead or dying kittens. A dribbling sot lurked in a doorway, shaking his fist at nothing. I pulled up my collar as I passed him by. How does that song go?
I pulled up my collar as I passed him by,
Little suspecting he was a private eye,
Either Perkins or Throwback, hired by my dad.
The end of this story is going to be sad.
The end of this story is going to be sad. No longer feigning sottishness and the dribbling that accompanies it, Perkins, or it might have been Throwback, grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled a sack over my head. I was overcome by the pong of bladderwrack. The private eye prodded me in the back and told me to start walking. So, sightless, I walked, or tottered, Perkins or Throwback guiding me like a dog.
Also like a dog, indeed so much like a dog that it actually was a dog, was a dog that started trotting alongside us after we had been walking for, oh, I don’t know, call it a few miles. At some point we began to go uphill, at a steeper and steeper gradient. I was panting. The dog was yapping. Perkins or Throwback seemed tireless, humming a varied selection of tunes by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Rodgers & Hart, Leiber & Stoller, Brecht & Eisler, Ashford & Simpson, Flanders & Swann, Goffin & King, and Holland, Dozier, Holland, Dozier, Dozier, Holland, Holland, Dozier, Holland, Dozier, Dozier, Holland.
Eventually, we stopped. The private eye muttered something menacing, and I heard him trudging away. When I thought it safe to do so, I pulled the sack off my head and looked around. We were high up in an important mountain range, muffled by snow, and ice, and a thick, swirling, freezing mist, a white nothingness. The dog had stopped yapping and was gazing up at me adoringly.
“Toto,” I said, ” I’ve a feeling we’re not in Duntblau anymore.”