Sir Henry at Rawlinson End
From beneath his syrup-splashed sou'wester,,. Sir Henry, brandy baffled rhinoceros fuhrer of Rawlinson End, glowered at his faceless curry. 'This is inedible muck, and there's not enough of it'.
The same may be said of this first book from Vivian Stanshall.
"God's teeth," burphed Sir Henry, "If I had all the money I've spent on drink-Id spend it on drink"
After its success on radio, stage and record, Vivian Stanshall's. eccentric saga now belches into print.
English as tuppence, changing yet changless as canal-water,
NestIing in green nowhere, armoured and effete,
Bold flag-bearer, lotus fed Miss Havishambling,
Opsimath and eremite, feudal-still reactionary
The story so far.
Dot dot dot.
1. Headstuffing with Scrumpy
Doctor Headstuffing held the winking scalpel aloft with the delicacy and firmness of a man who knows his job. The shaking had stopped - and from the liver bared before the blade - to his noble mind - pulsed a ligament of concentration. He took a quick breath and made a deep lateral incision skidding through the resentful tissue, slicing the kidneys, scoring the bacon and puncturing the fried egg. Unabashed, he watched the yolk-pus swell and seep over the sunny side to skate on the oily blue willow plate.
Dulcie Headstuffing passed the toast.
Munching with surgeon precision, he flicked the invitation card, silver-edged, printed in haughty copperplate, grimacing lewdly at him from the neat table.
You Are Asked To Attend
An Eating At Rawlinson End
9pm Sharp. RSVP.
"RSVP?' queried Dulcie Headstuffing, "And shall you repondez if you please?"
"I do not please," sighed the doctor. "And the abbreviated letters stand for Rawlinson Shall Violently Punish." He looked mournfully at his wife. "I must attend but you don't have to go, my dear. They only want me there to man the stomach pump and I know how that sickens you." He pecked her an antiseptic kiss on the cheek. Tired as he was, his suit was still clean cut as cheese slices.
The morning's surgery had been unusually heavy. The fretful brute called Henry - 'ruler of an estate' . . . Ha! ... ruler ... like a rap across the knuckles - had the day previous 'just popped into the village to lance a few boils'. Most fellow-feeling of the man, save he did it on horseback, like nearly everything else, until his gross immensity from crapulence and guzzling meant only a dray-horse could support him. Headstuffing deftly removed the rind from his bacon and tidied it aside. And Henry had to be hoisted with pulleys to mount, like the armour-plated medievalist he was. But since the waterpolo incident in Rawlin Pond where he'd nearly drowned himself and the horse, Sir Henry's riding days were thankfully few.
Jesu! Christmas was bad enough. At least fifty villagers suffering from Sir Henry's Blemish.
It had been the custom since old Sir Hilary Rawlinson's cheerful time to reward .the serfs with a Christmas florin. There was an arrowslit in the east wall of Rawlinson End through which the happy peasants traditionally thrust their hands to receive the kindness. This benevolence was in no way eschewed by kindly Sir Henry, but with one novelty: the very 'Spirit of Christmas Pissed' - he ordered the coins made red-hot in the stove. This made the bounty less fun to receive - and it was Ruffian Dick Gruffly who hit on the idea of wearing mittens. Immediately, Henry imposed a Glove Tax of 2/3d, reasoning: on the one hand a small profit, and in the other at least some screaming to brighten the season of good cheer. But all too soon this mark became the stigmata of heroes, and at Christmas to wear a hand free of Sir Henry's Blemish showed a weak heart. Dr. Headstuffing lifted an amber bauble of Oxford marmalade onto his sideplate.
But a bowshot or three hundred strong strides from Clout House (the Headstuffing home -Surgery hours 9 - 12 weekdays. No Hawkers or Coughers.) sprawled, sprouted, grew and endured The Fool and Bladder. A free house so libertine it boasted nowt but its hours of license, and these were so rubbery as to sting the face of English Law with the indifference of a catapult. This thatched font of refreshment, facing away from the River Riddle - therefore called the 'Jimmy' - tempted the trippers who never came, with alfresco benches and a Teagarden.
Two thirty til. 'opening' - meaning: you could buy a cheesish sandwich for two bob plus a teacup of scrumpy. "One scrump or two, sir?"
A sign proclaimed 'Punts for Hire'.
Imagine soft-poled jaunts up the Jimmy, soft slurp as the pole withdraws - and the lily pads, shrimps grey and frantic. See the waterboatman, Martha? And, O Martha, the gramophone's winding down and I do love you so in that big straw hat and the freckles. My boaters all askew and did you really play tennis with John? Martha stop, stop reading Mallarme ... look at me Martha, in my splendid blazer ... yes, close your Millais eyes my Ophelia, adrift in country fleurs ... all to press into my bible of bibulous today.
Even the slow effluent of Concreton's curdled oils and dyes, to be honest, had its own weird slippery beauty. Tempting.
But in those rotted rafts? Who would cough up?
Also, Seth Onetooth, stern master of the Fool and Bladder, would have no nonsense. Two quid an hour and a bob deposit. Charon, styx your prices up.
And these Kontiki look-alikes sank.
Hire of Snorkel 3'-
Sod that, I'll breathe through a straw till the bloodhounds give up.
Well, he won't get far in them leg-irons. Heh heh.
"Coom in Noomber Foor. Yer times oop."
"Oop you. Haw haw."
Against the whitewashed walls of the pub garden geraniums seemed to flourish, fetching down for the goodness in the throw-ups. 'Be constant Chuck'. Sucking up a compost of cheese-style sandwiches. There was an attempt at a trellis - up this scrambled roses and depended tiny pots of bizzy-lizzy.
It was a very English day - not much of a postcard, no jolly coachloads, sleek horses grinning at the bit: no cracks of whips from the heavy-coated goodfellows skidding the sherry over the ice. No - above a charcoal stickscape of wishwash and rainhues, clouds growled in ancient throats, threatening big spits, gobbing, and any amount of nasty. And this day had teeth -gripping the village in dreadful jaws of frost. So the teagardens and the benches shivered alone.
It was a very English pub, with unsmiling windows facing south towards Rawlinson End. On the outside rufous-faced and stern, inside - a womb of maudlin, specious sentiment - ribbed and snug as Mum's tea-cosy.
The cosy and only room was hot and languid, bum-smoothed benches and Britannia tables with cast iron paws, and perched atop the towel-shiny bar, dripping like an incontinent hippo, the oak scrumpy cask. On the awning above this cider barrel pegged out like a precious skin, stretched an enormous pair of moleskin trousers - more than eight feet from turn-up to turn-up -with grass stains on the knees. When asked about this unusual decoration set among the expected matchbox tops and rude postcards, Seth Onetooth, the landlord, would grunt, "Huntin' trophy . . ." and no more. And no more would Rosie, his marrow-breasted wife, who behaved as though the question had never been put.
The trousers remained a mystery, and save for the odd foreigner from outside the Shire, were never referred to at all.
By five thirty the Bladder was almost to bursting, and the light from the oil lamps (Seth didn't hold with the l'ectric) and the smoke these occasioned only held the place closer, more cheerful and intimate. An open fire burned sweet-smelling cedar, on whose brazier-bosom Ruffian Dick -having lost heavily at dominoes - had once for the bet roasted a live goose, holding the frantic beast to the logs with his foot. You could still see the fat-stains splashed up the side of the piano.
Reg Smeeton, floccose red wig like a kipper nailed to his bonce, pressed thought-thin lips to a virgin half of ale. "Did you know," he said, "that mosquitos hate beer?"
"Ah wouldn't serve the boogers anyroad," grunted Seth, with a heavy hint of corned beef on his breath.
Normally nobody spoke to Smeeton, newsagent and self-made encyclopaedia, and his eyes straining with mad intensity behind glasses the shape of Ford Cortinas, focused on the dun tower of pennies growing on the corner of the bar, awaiting someone important or religious to knock 'em down for the benefit of lifeboats - or to provide the elderly with ski-boots - or something.
Money. Smeeton remembered that in Angola they use elephant's tails as currency. As though selecting a victim, he glanced round the room to find someone who might like to know this, but at that instant hot words were bouncing off and around the dartboard where Mr. Stumpy was contesting his right to wear a telescopic sight on the little finger of his throwing hand.
"There's nothin' in the rules," said one voice.
"There's nothin' in the rules that says you can't," retorted Stumpy.
Since Stumpy was that brand of player who believed he could only chuck 'em after seven pints -when he had 'loosened up' (at which time he would do trick shots looking into a mirror while the whole congregation threw themselves flat) - he rarely hit the tyre, let alone the board, or ever won. So the row was for the fun of shouting and seeing old Stumpy wounded.
"C'mon, middle for diddle! " bellowed ruffian Dick. "Let's play arrers.
This was greeted with hoots and stamping, but Smeeton hearing 'arrers', and mentally flipping through Arras, Northern France, arrows, Crecy, Water and Crecy, Agincourt ... God for Harry ... and dismissing them, recalled 'darts': a calcareous needle used as a sexual stimulant in snails. There must be someone, he thought, and moved in on the game.
"Did you know. "said Smeeton.
On the bar there was a brass screw-hook for the support of Thomas the milkman. This cheerful rustic would report at the pub prompt every morning at nine o'clock, hitch himself to the bar with his belt, leaving his horse to do his rounds. Tom would then drink himself limp, until, shortly before lunch-time closing, the clip-clop and clanking of empties announced the return of horse and cart. Then Seth would unhook the smiling sleeper and toss him gently onto the back of the cart, and Noddy would giddy-up dobbin home. Tom spent the rest of the day snoozing it off - and since he lived alone - some said the horse put him to bed.
But now on Tom's brass hook hung a greasy red fez. This fez was tenanted by the grizzled and unkempt head of Old Scrotum, the Wrinkled Retainer of Rawlinson End. Even without his stoop he was tiny, and seemed more so in an overlarge and baggy tail-suit, weskit and trowses. And tennis shoes. For all of his lack of stature though, the old man, being employed at the Great House - and Sir Henry's valet to boot around -' had especial respect.. But he wished no privilege, neither demanding nor expecting a special stool or his own tankard like some, and save accepting many free pints of scrumpy for which he enigmatically might 'pull a few strings', took no advantage of his position. When Scrotum took off his fez it meant he had time for, and intended, serious drinkin' or. dominoes. Or both.
Rosie vented a shrill harlot's laugh over the hubbub. Ruffian Dick had just taken the top off a bottle with his ear.
For a pint, or a woman, or just for the hell of it, Ruffian Dick would perform many a Strong Trick: tearing telephone books in half, bending nails, drinking pints upside down - standing on his hands and gripping the mug in his teeth. And for the games on 'All Squid's Day' (COMING SOON * BIG ATTRACTIONS) he had promised to uncork a wine bottle with his nostril. In a leotard.
Skittles clicked, quoits quicked and hoop-la'd, shove ha'pennies whispered shy-smooth moons. and at Scrotum's table dominoes clacked and the talk turned to pigeons.
"He'd would 'had won too," said Ruben, "but the bally thing stayed up there, circlin' the loft for two hour. Old Bob went. near barmy."
Toby took a peek at the ivory tiles held close to his chest. "Argh. I as remember tha'. After four 'undred miles an' all."
"Four 'undred moils?" spat Scrotum. "You'm remember Grampus Kipple, 'im as allers had the gas?"
The company grunted, they did.
"Well," said Scrotum, `E sent a bird to north o' Scotland and the bugger didn't come 'ome fer nearly seven year. An' when it did it'd come from Awstralia!'
At this there were good-hearted snorts of disbelief.
"No. 'Tis truth," said Scrotum, `ad a message sayin' where it'd come from. It were in a cardboard box - an' it were dead. Har har har. "
Old Scrotum's cackle resolved to a desert wheezing like a forgotten cupboard, and tunnelling in his pocket for the makin's, he rolled himself a fag, sucked it and borrowed a light. He blew an effortless ring, poking his finger through it.
"Folks has used pigeons for tellin' stories fer donkeys years," laughed Toby, "long afore wireless an' all that cracklin' an' widdlin'. "
Through the intestinal curls of Scrotum's smoke, the sweat-spangled face of Reg Smeeton shuddered with the ungovernable maelstrom of information (inessential, infantry and endless) that constituted the grotesque furniture of his mind. Filing cabinets unlocked, thesaurii fell agape, data danced in strict formation - quick, quick quickquick, quick - puzzles fitted; it all added up, niggling, self-edited, tumbling with clicking impatience, cross-referenced and erupting - gathered berserk-fierce, heedless and torrential - on his spring-board lips.
"I find that truly engrossing Mr Toby, broadcasting, (business of converting sounds into electrical impulses) and at a distance to faithfully translate, correct me if I'm wrong, and amplify for the listening pleasure of the approximate millions. Information, communication, more information. Marconi (1874 - 1937), Italian extract of Bognor (population two hundred and eighty one thousand one hundred and sixty-two roughly), famous for its leaning towers and pasta."
With great solemnity 'Mister' Toby opened a battered tobacco tin, and with a forefinger like a bruised bludgeon, withdrew the body of a mouse. Dangling it above his cider for an instant heavy with conspiracy - he plopped it in. (Toby believed this improved drink - gave it body or summat.) The mouse sank.
Smeeton said, "Did you know that Angelo Faticoni, 'The Human Cork', fell asleep for an hour in the middle of the Hudson River, weightily fettered and chained?"
The dominoes clacked disinterest.
With a strident discord the piano started up, and after a brief introduction, gaudy like a glazier's nightmare, the high fey voices of Nigel Nice and Teddy Tidy enjoined to render their joyous 'Nobody Loves A Fairy When She's Forty'. They were plummeting towards the crescendo of the chorus with the bass-line lolloping along like a sea-lion frantic for the sea, and were both of them poised for their much rehearsed and ever surprizing, 'Stop, stand, clap your hands - Boys and girls and inbetweens - last one home's a cissy', when, with a finality that shocked the air, Seth slammed the lid down.
Nice and Tidy lodged in the village over Theo's grocery and managed a little contract house-cleaning. They purported to be 'resting' theatrical artistes. Both were given to striped blazers, orange pancake, wigs obvious as mountainous Japanese seas*, also matching hankies and depilated legs.
*They tried to persuade Smeeton to join an organization called H.O. W.L. - which stood for Hilarious Obvious Wigs Lib. - but Smeeton said that natives of New Guinea wear toupees made of spider webs that last a lifetime. Nigel and Teddy said, yes, they would be going international eventually, and dropped the notion. Just for the nonce.
This endofthepier-pointless musical comedy they visited on the drinking fraternity of the Fool and Bladder with unflagging enthusiasm. Seth had told 'em once: "I've told you once!", and also, "I'm going daft as mahogany frying-pan." This last from the phlegmatic landlord would quell an epileptic gorilla, but clearly couldn't penetrate the pancake and ear-to-ear, fitted-carpet frolic of Those Boyish Boys, The Breezy Bothsome, The Two and Twoly - Teddy aannnd Nigel.
Seth wiped his large hands on his leather apron - ominously.
"But it was so rousing," said Nigel. (True)
Seth returned to his pumps behind the bar.
"An everyone was just about to join in," said Teddy. (False)
Teddy and Nigel were well into middle-age and they decided what they both would like would be a creme de menthe with a cherry (True), but settled for sharing a light ale as it would be so much more chummy (False).
Truth was, the only man Seth was happy to hear at the joanna was Nipper Tewkes. Nipper had lost part of his sight, all of his hair, and most of his fingers when the stables at Rawlinson End caught fire - and he had plunged in to free the horses. Sir Henry was so pleased with this - and since Dr. Headstuffing had said it was touch and go with the charred hero and a lot more go than touch - that Henry loudly awarded him a pension for life. Nipper was bad-mannered enough to recover, but he never worked again, preferring to live on the graciously grudging couple of quid a week from the Great House. As a physiotherapy he began squeezing and squeezing 'til he could squeeze the crabs out of apples, and then the bras out of brazil nuts. His 'nippers' became horrifically strong - he was not a good idea to shake hands with - but at the piano his nicotined claws blended nicely with the yellowed keys, and although his chords were decidedly eccentric, he could play country airs - and even selections from the Desert Song - with great delicacy, and lightness.
Nor was Nipper always alone. Most nights Toby would hop up to gi ve spirited percussion on the spoons - the rest of the room thumping accompaniment with foot and tankard. An Orchestra of Falling Teeth. Percy could whistle; 'In A Monastery Garden' bringing rueful tears to the corners of every leg. And there was one old geezer who blew cornet, a blacksmith who played concertina, and a dog, quite bald on one side, who sang. Sometimes Mrs. Shakshaft would leave the pomanders, lavender-stuffed cushions, and herbal pillows - embroidered pinkly 'Good Luck', 'Earwig Go.' & 'Cheers' - she made up and sold to Christknows & Somebody in Concreton, and turn up with her fiddle.
Pity she smelled.
It was thus very jolly, although painful to Teddy and Nigel - and jollier still when Old Scrotum was persuaded to jump up fer a bash. He might sing:
OUT IN THE FIELDS THEM FARMERS BOYS IS WORKIN' HARD, SIR
OLE SOL SCORCHES BUMPKIN LEATHER NECKS
OUR ROSIE'S PULLIN' PINTS DOWN AT THE'FOOL AND BLADDER'
WHERE RUSTICS WILL RELIEVE 'EMSELVES OF ACHES
LAST NIGHT DRIPPIN' CUSTARD ON OUR RHUBARB CRUMBLE
NOW WE'M DRIPPIN'SWEAT UPON THE SOIL
WAKE UP SIX AND SEVENS, STILL WE MUSTN'T GRUMBLE
WEEKENDS WE FORGET ABOUT IT ALL.
LAY DOWN YER SPADE ... DRAW UP YER WILL
TOMORROW COMES TOO QUICKLY
WHISTLIN' MADMOISELLE FROM ARMIENTIERES (INKY-PINKY
A WISE MAN KNOWS HIS ONIONS ARE STRONG AND PICKLY
SWILL 'EM DOWN WITH DEAR OLE ROSIE'S BEER.
THE VILLAGE POPULACE IS, JUMPIN' ON FACES,
CATCHIN' THE JAVELIN, HEADIN' THE SHOT.
And it was on this crack-throated note that the evening came to an end at two o'clock in the morning. Scrotum, completely conked, was allowed to doze undisturbed by the moribund fire, while Seth 'chooked out them as needed chookin', and Rosie collected the glasses for washing. The dog who was bald on one side was the last to leave, dead to the world but happy, towed by his master - just a pudding on a lead - sliding, slack-jawed homeward. Which was why he was bald on one side.
While Seth was sweeping up the sawdust P.C. Gibbon the long arm of the law, looked in for a glass of rum - just to make sure 'everyting was goodnight'.
"I'll bottle up in t'mornin', luv," said Seth to his wife, and he carried Scrotum outside and laid him on a bench. He left him. for a mo', then returned, and almost fatherly covered the Wrinkled Retainer of Rawlinson End with newspapers and a tartan rug. The door slammed, heavy keys locked, and the lamps pouffed gently to sleep.
Chapter 2 - The Correct Inclination for the Gibberish Embassy
Scrotum dreamt of a desert and in it a vast stone library burning - in the heat scrolls unfurled and gave up their knowledge to him. Recipes for cider and mice. Recipes for jokes and pools of crocodiles. Pools winners escaping the river and the snapping snappers, all clutching big cheques written in red, being presented to important people in hats like crocodiles. Cutting his way with a machete through stuffy clothes-shops stuffed with cabbages. Leaping from staircases and across huge tables, slicing candles ever so neatly - sword-hilt to sword-hilt - face clashing with enormous shadows. Digging in a turnip field with hot rainbows spouting out of the holes. Crocks of gold worth less than turnips. Turning the cart around. Wheels octagonal. Hurry, hurry. Swimming underwater for the bell, bell, the bells.
At Rawlinson End a pale sun poked impudent tiger fingers into the master bedroom, and sent the shadows scurrying like convent girls menaced by a tramp.
"Filth Hounds of Hades!"
Sir Henry Rawlinson surfaced from the blackness hot and fidgety. Fuss bother and itch. Conscious mind coming up too fast with the bends - through pack-ice thrubbing seas. Boom-sounders - blow-holes - harsh croak Blind Pews tip-tap-tocking for escape from his pressing skull. With a gaseous grunt he rolled away from the needle cruel light acupuncturing his pickle-onion eyes, and with key-bending will slit-peered at the cold trench Florrie had left on her side of the bed. Baffling? At the base of his stomach - great swaddled hillock - was pitched a perky throbbing tent. This was so unusual he at first feared rigor mortis, but Madame Memory's five lovely daughters jerked him to boggling attention. With grim-mouthed incredulity he snatched for a riding crop and thrashed his impertinent member into limp submission. Bah! To Henry's way of thinking waking up was not the best way to start the day.
Tongue like yesterday's fried cod. Mind over batter. Tongue sandwiches? Yaagh. Eat what? But it's been in somebody else's mouth. You'll eat it and like it. But why can't I have? Because I say so!
'Black Spot', the blind pews were now thrashing with their canes. "God's turban and tutu, do I need a dare of the hog." He reached for the bell-rope, and yanked savagely to summon the housekeeper.
Above, in the bat-draped belfry, a great crack-skirted bell clunged plague and summoning. Over a mile away an old man in a red fez jarred awake from a green submarine slumber, crossed himself. and began to run.
To take the normal route out of the village - up the Oxbrake Road, then left at Gibbet Fork, and down the drive to Rawlinson End - would take the brisk part of an hour, but as the crows fly and Scrotum runs ... the demesne is but nine furlongs from the Fool and Bladder.
So off the bench and across the green, past the Belching Post (Clout House to the right with lacy curtains shivering just a little), over the lover-leaned-on stile, haring 'cross the field with the glaucomic bull, skirting the Riddle close by old Trelawney's shouting house - quite mad from breeding guppies - hear him sing:
HO LANDLORD! FILL THE GOLDFISH BOWL,
TOMORROW IS OCTOBER -
WATER-FLEAS, IF YOU PLEASE
GOT ANY DAPHNIDS? GOT ANY DAPHNIDS?
HORSEMAN SPARE THAT DUMP!
Poor sod, and at this hour an' all. Breath coming hard in underpants, overpants, over we go and jump the Cut that fed the lake that flooded the field that caused the swamp that swallowed the grotto that Brown built.* A clutch at the chest and a grumbled 'Bugger', then into the swamp where other folk got lost for good, picking past the tiny pools and gluey spots that sucked you down, near the hermit's artificial and camouflaged cave where the strange man slept in his hair and ate turf sandwiches and fresh-water mussels raw. Not a word for forty years. Rules is rules. #
Scrotum debouched from a clump of reeds to the east of Rawlinson End and, shielded by oddly shaped boxwood topiary, scuttled across the croquet lawn, then clambered with surprising agility and familiarity up the ivy-clad wall. He swung himself easily into a large and sombre room on the first floor - and pausing to catch his breath leaned against a chair so Easter Island in enormity that his chin reached only to the armrest.
*In those long gone days before the Blight, when the Rawlinson estate was actually worth a few bob, Sir Hilary - father of Humbert, Henry and Hubert, in that order - had employed a landscape gardener named Brown to create in his grounds an 'Arcadian vista'. Brown, blustering credentials from thankful patrons in
Italy (unintelligible) and the Americans (illegible), was given carte blanche, a blank cheque, and told to get
on with it, dear boy. Within weeks mazes had been mapped, rockeries piled, lawns planned. Ox-carts laden
with turves and imported marbles for the follies, Palladian arches and minarets, were arriving daily. Also,
and at terrific expense, mature sequoias, sago trees, and unpronouncable exotic arboreal curiosities from the East, were shipped in, stacked, stuck in the ground - and promptly died or fell over. Although Rawlinson
End was fast looking like a rehearsal for the Battle of the Somme (and Sir Hilary did get the wind up seeing a tree clearly planted upside down, but was hastily reassured when shown an etching of an African Baobab)
and nearly all of the estate workers were employed in this muddy upheaval, Brown received heartfelt
congratulations on the mighty work. Also, and here was the sadness of his vocation, Brown confessed himself somewhat ill - and so was unlikely to see his careful labours grow to glorious consummation. Fact was, Brown had not the slightest idea what he was doing and couldn't tell a carrot from a candle. He had been deported from Boston for crimes too filthy to print, and was so overfond of the horizontal fluid, that, not having spent a sober day in his adult life, was called Incapability Brown.
He envisaged a Moorish grotto with dryads, fauna, fountains & fantastic statuary set in a lake. The grotto was built and Rawlin Pond dug - and to fill this giant moat he ordered a cut or canal from the Jimmy. When after some days, men navvying through the night by torch-flare, the Cut was cut - a picnic party on the island was decided on. It was then January and the Jimmy was rather swollen. However, Sir Hilary, with the greatest confidence, seated himself and his party on the island - and with his encouraging wave - the waters were released. Such was the deluge that Sir Hilary and shrieking family were swept off the island and managed to save themselves only by clinging to the elms of the Grand Drive.
Incapability Brown, helpless and hysterical with champagne, drowned in the lapis-lazuli and onyx-inlaid grotto - laughing.
#One of the few structures originated by Incapability that served any purpose was the Hermitage. But this
life-like and passably dry cavern needed a tenant. Sir Hilary was told of a beggar so gaseous and foul he could find no employment - or company. Holding a lint pad soaked in brandy, iodine, oil of eucalyptus, and laudanum to his face, Sir Hilary met the man on a hillock close by Rawlinson on a very windy day - and struck a bargain: that the fellow would live in the Hermitage for forty five years, during which time he would not shave nor cut his hair, and should live on whatever berries he might find, or creatures he might catch. He was not to speak except to himself and would suffer visitors to look at him occasionally. At the end of this period, all conditions being fulfilled (Rules is Rules), he would receive 450 guineas. Sir Hilary concluded the deal in gloves which were quickly burned. And the hermit stayed, even though his home soon centred a swamp; this meant fewer visitors. Yet despite his healthful diet his flatulence did not abate - amplified in his cave his sentorian farting continued to frighten the rooks. You could hear it from the Great House even during a storm. Now and then Hubert or Scrotum would leave a bag of apples or a bit of pheasant where he could find it. For the first seventeen years the poor devil had collected things to keep account of the time: a twig for a day, a mussel shell for a week, a shrew's skull for a month, and so on - but since he ate so many mussels and shrews, slept a lot, forgetting to tidy up - he was now utterly confused. And even if he did twig when his contract was run, it's odds on that his new and unknown master, Henry, had no bloody intention of shelling out.
Anyway, he wondered what he would do with four hundred and forty five guinea pigs. He couldn't keep 'em at home. No. Not with all his twigs and shells and shrews to look after.
Meantime, Sir Henry discovered himself, nightie round his waist, turned tortoise on the rug. Paralysis lasted scarce a blink, but with impotent rage he bellied his unwilling bulk to the wardrobe. Cold comfort as his palsied hand found the shotgun. Good stock. "Roll over." One action - commando stuff. "Cock over." Safety off. Both barrels through the ceiling. Stun-shock, silence - and then Henry's eruptive bellow.
The plaster had not yet settled before the housekeeper stood lurcher-backed, 'At-Your-Servile-Sir', in the room.
"Yiss?!" she said.
Henry, furious in a turmoil of nightshirt, turned mystic. "I don't know what I want - but I WANT IT NOW!"
"Fried or fried, dear?" asked Mrs. E., primming her soiled apron.
"Now ... ow!" bellowed Henry.
Henry held the shotgun clubbed, as he had against the Afghan hordes. "I want my meat burned like Saint Joan. Bring me Calvin's mustards and vicious horseradish to pierce the tongue like Cardigan's lancers." Hooves thundered in his head, cannon and bagpipe - Onward, onward.
"Fried or fried, dear?" persisted Mrs. E, blankly.
"Fired!" roared Sir Henry, squinting down the sight.
"Fried without, dear," said Mrs. E. "Off dear." The housekeeper withdrew like an embittered snail.
Apron flapping like a floral tongue, Mrs. E descended.
"Dunno how I got outta bed this morning ... had it all down one side ... put me foot down ... Gawd! It was like pluggin' into the mains . . . it shot right up and I came over all giddy ... I thought Oooh No I'm going ... it all started swimming before me ... I could smell the lilies. I 'ad such a good cry ... it was lovely. just wanted to lay back but of course I can't recline ... he's put me on tablets ... but it's a constant fight to relax. Sunday last I was heatin' up a drop of liniment ... just bent down to pull up me surgical stocking ... when Oooh . . . it slipped out again ... Busy? ... I didn't have time to straighten up. Course I can't sleep ... not since Mr. E passed over ... it's like havin' yer leg off ... you think it's still there ... in the bed. I mean it was thirty three years last Tuesday . . . just got used to 'is snorin' . and mornin's . 'e'd make me a herbal fusion. Used to love doin' for 'im. "
Old Scrotum, the Wrinkled Retainer, entered the bedroom as noiselessly as his joints would allow.
"You're late," belched Henry.
The old man doffed his fez. "I bin.
"You bin on the scrumpy all night. Rots concrete," snorted Henry.
It was still very, very early. Henry lay back on his bed atrabilious and grumpy. Scrotum blew on his mittened fingers with breath so foetid it was matched only by his master's.
"Old Trelawney took up bibbing the heathen's piss," said Henry. "He's had the head-staggers for the last twenty years." This from the very God of Gargle, the cup-crowned Caliph of Quaff.
The doorknob nattered brassily to announce the arrival of 'breakfast'. The housekeeper crab-hunched with ghastly mouth to the keyhole. "Hello-oh," she snealed. "Would you like your bottom done, dear. I've got the brush."
"Let fall your horrible pleasures!" roared Sir Henry, "And shove orff.
There was a clatter of tray and a scuttling receding.
"Fetch," ordered Henry.
Scrotum drew the food into the room and closed the door firm. "Mr. Trelawney do breed a lovely fishes though. Like lights an' ladies 'ankies," he said, picking up a tin of boot polish.
"Bah," breathed Henry, washing down a limp chip with rum. "Never drink on an empty stomach. Always line the walls with a soothing stout." Scrotum looked at the walls suspiciously. "Get a shufti on, will you." Henry pulled his face, Quasimodo as Old Scrotum, the Wrinkled Retainer, vigorously applied the boot polish to his master's head with a gout stocking, working it well down the neck and thorax almost to the hirsute and gargantuan belly.
"Oi still reckons would be smarter if Master'd let I buff it up a bit. Shiny allers looks dandy."
"For the umpteenth time, I'm supposed to be an impecunious junglebunny, not the bonnet of me Rolls."
Scrotum, deaf as a brick wall, hoarse as Black Beauty, grinned. "Don't you'm worry none about they roses, Master. I've been creepin' out nights when them aphids is breedin'. Throw a bucket o' cold water over 'em. Then 'em don't feel like it."
Of the make-up there remained only the tufty wig and the eyes to do. Scrotum held a cork (of which Henry had a great and enjoyably planned supply) to a candle, and the room was saraband with curlicues of sweetish smoke. Henry's moustache, pomaded stiff and upsweeping, was almost Dalinian in corkscrew. His eyelashes and lids were now kohl-candle, sooty and sweep. He clipped on a pair of huge cylindrical earrings, while Scrotum applied a little wood adhesive to Henry's forehead to fix a green sequin.
Through the sheer of Sir Henry Rawlinson's stockings his tumescent veins seemed Stygian spaghetti.
"God's Teeth! You've bought another pair with a seam up the back - leg's don't have seams." Henry took a hefty swig of Entre Deux Legs to steady himself; this morning he must remain tranquil as a yogi's navel. Then he tugged on a lilac knee-length tutu over his sandals, fastened it with a gay stomacher, slipped into his mirrored jacket, rammed on his turban and was -perfect.
"Hmmm, now creak off and check the library."
Scrotum wheezed out of the chamber and Henry postured before the glass. "Hmmm, hello, sahib, er jumbo Jambo bwana, am this the correct inclination for the Gibberish Embassy?" He grimaced horribly. "Dammit, I look like a half-wrapped after-dinner chocolate."
Scrotum made nine conspiratorial knocks on the bedroom door, and with a final glance to check his seams were straight, Henry padded heavily after the old man down dusty corridors and close shut rooms wherein Rawlinsons tossed, snoozed and dreamt of empty. Then down, down the back hall staircase where heavy framed Maynards and Rawlinsons glared in time-dulled oil, strange-headed and fierce, past the billiards room and into the library.
Scrotum shifted a maroon button-back armchair to the wall, and standing on the arm reached up and removed three books from the almost top shelf. The weighty leather-bound 'Pictorial History of Gargling' and its companion, 'Great Expectorations, Illustrated', plus 'Dead Men Don't Need Haircuts', pushed aside the two-volume 'I, Clod' and 'Clod the God' (an Appreciation of Roman Agriculture), 'Personal Dental Experiences', 'The Bewildered Man's Guide to Death', also 'Fifty Eventful Years For Boys' and 'Fifty Eventful Boys For Years'. These last were locked - curiously, since Henry dismissed them as "something to do with backgammon".
Now was revealed a lever, and with a pull a portion of the shelving swung protesting back to disclose a passage.
"I suggest you get this thing well-oiled. If I can manage it everyday - I'm damned if I can see why the doors should stay sober."
Without even a cheerio, Henry disappeared and was soon swallowed up in dark, lashing at spiders with his swagger-stick, cursing quietly and kicking at the bristly things scuttling snuffly and blind at his almost naked ankles.
The tunnel gave egress in a thick wooded part of Bramblepatch, and after brushing himself off, Henry uncovered a well kept though ancient unicycle he'd stolen from Hubert beneath a hide of gorse. It was then that he noticed the ladders. Through his black stockings great rakes revealed corpse-sunless white and mauve squid chilblains. "Blast!" Henry dropped his stick and fiddled furiously with his suspenders, tore off the stockings, and from his shoulder-bag produced a hip flask of Paraffino - a quick swig and he resentfully poured a little into his palm to make mud. This he smeared from toes to thighs, blasting at the growing light - must remember to get a pair of dark glasses.
The mud was not dry before he checked the tyre pressure, balanced against a larch for the off, cocked his leg over - and with a deep grunt and a push – pedalled wildly. Teetering uncertain gyroscope, rut, root, duck, sway, swerve round rathole heading for the new tarmacadam and evil smelling arterial road to Concreton.
No sooner had Scrotum closed the secret door, replaced the books and the armchair, than he crossed the scatter-rugged library - and with his own key - unlocked a walnut drinks cabinet. Carefully, so no tinkly clink would betray him, he withdrew optimist a half-filled bottle of sherry. With the addition of a little Pernod this made a pleasing mix and the old rascal took a lusty swig. Then, ramming the bottle down the front of his accommodating trousers, and closing the cabinet - click listen grin - he snooked out of the library, crept down the hall to enter a kitchen fragrant with yesterday's frying. The mistress had not yet come down. Good. The room was empty. Scrotum tugged open the refrigerator and with some difficulty yanked out the rigid body of Doris's pekinese from the freezing compartment.*
There was a strawberry lolly stuck to the dark fur; Scrotum tore it off and stuck it in his face -hairs and all. With the cold dog - frozen in an attitude of protest - under his arm, he lifted the latch of the back door and went out. He leapt the gravel path and marched through the Victory Garden. Outside was colder than the lolly; Scrotum thought this a comfort. Then past the glass-house wherein swelled Henry's prize marrow. This monstrous, jade zebra veg, by stern instruction, was daily drip-fed with a powerful laxative. Thus, should some rascal half-inch the greedy gourd and cat it, Henry said: "It'll give the blighter the liquorice runs for weeks." Scrotum turned left round a thatched dry-wall dovecote and down into the graveyard. The lolly-juice ran down his chin, jewelling his grizzly stubble.
Facing Mecca, and furtherest from him, the relics of Rawlinsons past rotted in vaults, crypts and even a modest pyramid. The proliferate statuary, variously weathered and stained with droppings, ranged from startling lewd to frankly ludicrous: a sweet-faced angel cradling a cricket-bat, a granite exclamation mark, an alabaster virgin with eyes downcast and arms outspread - to hold a fish. Also, a lifesize bearded gentleman of saintly mien and stone hauteur whose sculptor, with an abandoned disregard for proportion, had obviously carved from the neck down - with the upshot: the stone gentleman's legs from knee to heel measured a risible ten inches. This effect never failed to make Scrotum larf, and he swallowed his lolly - including the stick - in a fit of cackling.
In the foreground, the 'garden of sleep' was more humble. For it was here that pets, visitors and favoured servants were buried - upright.
"No sense in wasting space," said Henry, "and there's bags of calcium and goodness in the buggers."
Inevitably the servant's burial place grew nearer and nearer to the Victory Garden.
"Gar! You should have seen my sprouts come up the year after Baron Tostoff, the ruined Pole, kicked it."
When, after a good deal of hawking, Scrotum managed to choke up the lolly stick, he kicked the stiff dog into a new-dug hole. Then carefully lodging the bottle of sherry mix on the frosty mound, companion to the hole, he glared about at the reproachful markers: 'In Loving Mammary', 'To Our Fallen Dad', and one with a grandiose cartouche - with but the single letter 'E' - which (where others boasted chewed wreaths or straggling weeds) enjoyed a reverent dump of chips.
He put his foot on the obscenely new statue of an angel with the halo'd head of a pekinese, which he had soon to erect - bugger it - and jumped into the hole. Only his fez was visible as he reached for the bottle.
Scrotum remained in the hole for half an hour while a pair of field glasses - not from the Great House - watched.
*Doris and Boris Hazzard lived in Affwinkle. Since Boris had a business relationship with the Maynards (Florrie's side of the family - the rich ones) Henry was dragooned into humouring their occasional visitations. Boris and Doris very much enjoyed motoring over for a whiskey-drive when Florrie would lay on a middle-aged spread. Whereas Boris was immensely fat - Doris was extremely fat. Boris's bottom began beneath his slumpen shoulders, diminished at the back of his knees, and achieved bulbous majesty some yard behind his neck. This lot was but an adipose echo of his belly. He was therefore, in section, an inverted comma. And he worshipped cheese. He would quiver over the table with his fish-tail knife loading his plate, a-jelly with greed. "Oooh, just a gobbet of Gloucester, a morsel of mousetrap, a smidgeon of Stilton, a nibble of Cottage, un peu Petit Suisse. Oh Fromage de Chevre - perhaps just a cudful, with a quid of Caerphilly. " And to garnish this heap - a heavy whisper of Parmesan Cheese. Ben Gunn was as close as Boris came to shooting or killing or anything of interest to Henry, and since Henry was 'of a girth' himself, he hated fat men.
He really hated Boris. Doris was different -fat, feathery and floral. She spoke with a voice like a can-opener -only to and through her 'Muff. This myopic mewling shampoo'd pooch was her poochy-woochy diddle dampness, wasn't he just. The dog was the medium from which issued twittery talks of 'dos' they'd been to. Who was there. And what a good do it was, diddle-dumpling. Hubert chose the last visit of the Hazzards to do something that made Henry almost love his brother. While Doris was dooing and cooing, Hubert slid into the room nude - and all slippery with olive oil. Entwining his non-adhesive legs about Doris, in the manner favoured by the Hindoos - he pulled open her astonished coral mouth and stuffed it with doodahs. This merry diversion caused Muff to shoot for the sofa and Henry neatly smothered it with a cushion, praying barge-arsed Boris to "sit down, old bean, can't you manage a little Roquefort?" The peke asphyxiated under twenty six stone of dairy produce. Henry promised an indecent burial at least, but until the cheque to cover the sorrowful arrangements arrived from Boris and Doris - and was cleared - Muff was kept in the fridge.
Chapter 3 - Cabbage-looking in Mufti
On the west side of the Concreton Road, P.C. Gibbon leant against his bicycle munching a piece of curry-goat with akee, keeping the dormobile home of William 'Buller' Bullethead and family, parked opposite, under surveillance. There was no traffic at that hour of the morning and the grim blocks of Concreton were thankfully still arcane in mist.
But the super-smart West Indian copper knew that Bullethead was already about. He had seen him hugger-mugger in the eviscerated washing-machines, hoovers and old bangers the man had amassed. The policeman tapped softly and rhythmically on his 'sit-up-and-beg' handlebars:
Layin' de table for luncheon -
Knife, fork, napkin and truncheon.
Underneath de mango-tree me ...
He saw Bullethead's pork-pie hat moving jerky and furtive behind the yawning bonnet of an ancient Austin van. Then the noise of hammering. Then nothing. But a cobra of smoke charmed from the stovepipe atop the caravan and drifted away eastward through the most peripheral trees of Rawlinson estate. The wind changed and the smoke blew towards him, and with it a hirrient, rising woman's voice. "No, no, no no no No!" Then a smack and the yowling of a brat-child. Suddenly the sun glared red over the trees and into P.C. Gibbon's strong dark face. It was like home. He closed his eyes and thought of the islands, just limin' with Jubilee and the pans throbbin'- throbbin'.
Henry had been pedalling for almost an hour. Apart from the staked bear-pits, invisible wires at neck height and steel cropped man-traps that he himself had ordered, there were other -subtler - devices to snare a man. On a previous excursion he'd ridden into a leaf-lurking net strung to strong saplings - and was kangaroo'd thirty feet into the tree tops. He'd had to slash himself and the unicycle free with his teeth.
"By the sensitised sheath of Damocles, it's more of a nuisance getting out than in. "
Then, wretched outcasts somehow surviving since crazed Incapability's time, there were the lianas and mangroves to negotiate. So with his heart thudding - it never occurred to Henry that whatever salubrious benefit he might expect at Concreton Sewage Works, the cardio-vascular activity obtained by the ride did him good - he emerged calid and fuming from Bramblepatch. With vituperations so glottal, rapid and disgusting they would win applause at an Arab camel auction (and even embarrass priests), he dismounted. Swiping at gnats busy about his head, he plucked the bracken, animal princedom and infuriating jungle he'd collected off his tutu, jacket and person, tucked in a wayward tail of turban and straightened up. A chap should look smart. He ducked under the barbed wire that restrained Rawlinson End, dragging the unicycle with him - and was outside. But with two-thirds of a flask of brandy slopping reassurance at his hip, and one-third bottoms-up down inside firing warm courage, he was pretty bold. Using the saddle for support, he walked somewhat stiff and bow-legged - a cross country ride on that beastly unsprung prod left a man feeling like he'd been goosed by a rhino. Half-blind with sweat, he was almost upon, and quite appalled by, Buller's dormobile site. Transfixed by this raw novelty, with rage bubbling up from his belly, Henry nearly jumped out of his pachydermis when he received a smart tap on the shoulder.
"Hello moosh, where you off to? William's the monica. Call me Buller."
Aghast, Henry turned slowly round.
Henry's mask of fright broadened to a rictus of terrible atavistic ferocity.
Buller was not impressed. From behind him erupted a shrill, No no no no No slap yowl! "Only the Duchess bashin' the Dustbin Lids," chirped Buller, spiv-spruce and sparrer. "Got any of yer own?" The Cockney's eyes rolled welkin-wards.
Henry relaxed his grip on the saddle, but not on his face. "You impertinent lout!" he roared, "D'you know who I am!"
Buller looked briefly at his fingernails - he had a bluebird tatto'd between the thumb and first finger of his left hand. "Nope," he said, "But I know what yer look like. 'Oo are yer?"
"I am Sir Henry ... er. hum." For a moment Henry was nonplussed. "I ... you ... I ah! I'm Hugh ... er ... Bliette. Hugh Bliette." "Very nice. I'll remember that. Quite Hugh-nique, ay? What are yer? Some kind of artist?"
"Yes, yes," said Henry, with a podgy curtsy. "Artist. I'm especially fond of Michael and Jello, the two chaps responsible for the Cistern Chapel. Mike did the figures - Jello did the setting. Lovely job." Henry began to stride away, but Buller kept step. "Aubrey Moustachely, notorious for his illustrations for Shalom~, the Jewish play written by Oscar ... er . . . BeWildebeest. Caravannio, the gypsy dauber. Like the moderns too, Jackson Polack, the Polish extractionist ... er . . . Avocado da Vinci and so forth. Albrecht Durex, the lubricated German woodcutter - strange man - always made a pinhole in every hundredth of his wonderful editions." Henry was almost trotting now, and his make-up was running into his mouth. "Anonymous Bosche, the secret Nazi. Vincent Van Rouge, painted at room temperature. I enjoy Surrealism, always listen to Mrs. Dali's Diary, et cetera. Ah well, must be for the orff. Ha ha."
They were nearing Sensible Common, with its dilapidated cricket pavilion set amidst mole hills like heat bumps. Henry put a heavy farewell hand on Buller's padded shoulder, then swung his blackamoor'd leg over the saddle.
"Yes, I'm orff to the sewage-farm by Concreton," he said with a loud finality. "There to seek ... er . . . inspiration."
"Wot! In shit?" quizzed Buller with a vulgar smirk. "Blimey, you wanna take a gander in my gaff - family's full of it."
"No no - this is to do with lumbago, arthritis," said Henry loftily, as he gave a mighty push -which staggered Buller only physically. Arms windmilling for balance, Henry attempted escape.
"Arthur Itis?" said Buller, recovering with alarming celerity. "Is 'e an artist n'all? 'Old on, squire I'll just roll an oily rag an' I'll join yer."
"Ah no. I've got golli-golll." Henry shook his jowls in illustration. "Or beri-beri or tribly-trilby. Horrible. Approach at your peril. I'm going to cough."
"You're gonna cough up, moosh," said Bullethead, jogging alongside. "I don't reckon you'se a proper sambo at'tall. Fer starters, yer bacons are streaky."
"What?" For the first time in this unnerving intercourse Henry minded his role.
"I decidedly is a sambo, er sahib. Regard these earrings. "
"Look like cottonreels, chief," said Buller easily - with no hint of breathlessness. Even dancing before and around the unicycle.
"Cottonreels, you lickspittle toad! These are my ancestral eardrums! Listen ... er ... Tuan." Henry tapped the 'cottonreels' meaningfully. They answered with a disappointing inaudibility. "Boom boom boo-boomba," said Sir Henry Rawlinson. He could feel his turban sliding forward - Blast! - and Buller's rat eyes on his flapping suspenders. "Boomba boom. There - I've just sent orders to my cousin, Prince N'didi."
"Yeah? Wot for?"
"Chateau Gratin what for. That's cat with cheese to you, effendi. With pillows rice."
Buller clicked his tongue, tock-tapping Henry's hip flask. "You elephant's trunk or sonnink?"
When Henry fathomed the significance of this jibe, he juddered with a red rage. These monthly excursions cost him an act of martyrdom more terrible than anything the Inquisition could whip - or stoke - up. He had to remain at most only semi-sloshed for up to three hours. With the impassioned zeal of the newly, if briefly reformed, he rounded on Buller - quite forgetting who he am, Baas.
"Elephants!" he tromboned. "I am as sober as a judge and since I am a magistrate, J.P., retired or not - enjoying fairplay and punishment in equal and unflinching severity - I'd advise you to watch your lingo ere I publicly reflect on your parentage. You. . . bwana."
Such was the asperity of this onslaught that Buller stayed oddly unmoved. "Oh ho no. I've got you twigged," he said quietly. "You ain't no sambo. You're Sir 'Enery-me-blinkin'-Rawlsinson-sunshine. "
Henry struggled for equipoise. "Balderdash," was all he could manage.
"Tell you what, chief, I'm a man of the world. Know what I mean?" said Buller cheerily. "I don't s'pose your type carry any ready bees in yer trolleybags so knock me off a gooses for a monkey an' I'll say no more. Ay?''
"A monkey? You rogue," spluttered Henry on the uncertain unicycle - yo-yo'ing to and fro like a very champion 'walking the dog'.
"All right, my ole Lord Bubble an' Squeak. Make it a tenner an' leave it blank. Then I can slope down the Chapel of Rest for a coupla pig's cars and a drop of Mothers."
Suddenly the unicycle dipped - stuck fast in a mole hole. Henry slid forward to find himself majestic, righteous and indignant on his feet.
"Resort to knavery would you! Hear me, I have the strength to wrestle mastadons."
"Play the white man, squire," whined Buller, "I turned clickety-click last toosdee, done all me dough on the gollies. I'm boracic, honest, and wot wiv the family
Henry bunched his fist. "B'God, if I were wearing my support I'd .
Buller produced Jack-in-the box-Brownie, a pocket Camera. "Cheese?"
"Boris?" burst Henry. Then automatic 'for the album, what' fixed, Frank Buck chest out, one foot on the wheel - great hunter - bring 'em back dead. It was only when the wind blew his tutu up over his face he remembered his costume.
"God's Teeth!" he croaked. "No No you stinking squid." Waving desperately at the seeing lens. He turned his back and, ripping a piece of winceful sticky plastic from his navel, extracted a 'for emergencies' five pound note.
Buller took the fiver with a knowing grin. "See ya, cock," he promised.
"Marble-hearted fiend," growled Henry in a tone he normally reserved for food, and stumped off with his machine.
Buller pheeped a sharp whistle and a stout-haired harlequin mongrel leapt down from concealment in the ferny bank. They took a nifty right onto Concreton Road trotting together, heading for the nearest boozer. With Henry's rough Saxon detonations a diminishing accompaniment, and to the rhythm of the excited dog, Buller zsoo-de-ooh-doo'd to himself. Zsa zsa zsa:
GEEZER, WOT A GINGER GEEZER, I NEARLY HAD A SEIZURE,
WHEN I CLOCKED HIM IN THE FROG.
SPRUCED UP IN ME PICCOLO, ME TIFTER AND ME DAISYS,
BOWLING DOWN THE RUBBA WITH ME CHERRY CHINA FIDO.
ROLLED AN OILY RAG,
ME CHERRY BREAD AND CHEESED
YOU WON'T ADAM WOT I SEES:
SOME GEEZER, AN OOLY GINGER GEEZER,
A GEEZER WIV A HOOTER I SUPPOSE -
I REALLY HAD TO RABBIT AN'PORK TO THIS GEEZER,
GINGER GEEZER, SEES-YA AROUND.
Back at Rawlinson End, Henry's younger brother Hubert, was bathing. He wore an unnecessary rubber cap with a seascape design, very yellow and blue.
Hubert was long and bony - his beard floated a full foot and a half from his face, sargasso in the scum. A live duck pecked at the bilious algae on the sides of the tub. Puk puk pek pek. This noise might irritate most people, but Hubert reposed unperturbed. Occasionally he would throw the soap or his flannel - to watch the duck dive for it. It was very restful: the duck would deposit the soap or whatever in the shell-shaped scoop neatly next to the pumice stone, and Hubert would reward it with a biscuit or a sardine from the cork-topped loofah cabinet. It was steamy and vague in the bathroom; Hubert stared at the wallpaper. It looked:
It was very restful.
His feet, sticking out over the tap-end, formed a thoughtful cathedral.
Hubert was composing a song. It began:
WHAT IF WHALES WERE REALLY GREAT BIG TADPOLES,
GROWING UP IN SECRET IN THE BOGS?
IT'S NO WONDER ALL THE COUNTRIES CHASE TO KILL THEM,
THEY MUST VETO INCOGNITO'NORMOUS FROGS.
JUMPING VISAS, JUMPING BAIL,
ALL THE GREEN AND GROWN-UP WHALES,
JUMPING THE QUEUES IN JANUARY SALES:
AUK AUK AUK
OH, WHAT JOLLY JOKING,
JUMPING THE GUN AND CROAKING,
OH, WHAT JOLLY JUMPING,
Hubert's soft melancholy voice insinuated the rusty veins of Rawlinson End, distorting at every twist, assuming graver - hollow, haunting, scare-monger - interpretation.
Mrs. E did not hear it. In a room on the first floor she knelt beside a stuffed bulldog with an enamel jug and a tin funnel. This room was that into which Scrotum had earlier made his monkey-sly entry. The lattice window was still ajar, and in the dust surreptitious footprints polnuD-polnuD-poinuD'd to the door.
Where Scrotum had been dwarfed by the furniture, Mrs. E was likewise midget.
The vast armchair and the bed, strengthened with iron elbows, were of deeply carved ebony, inlaid with serpents of mother of pearl. All else was shrouded in dust-sheets. Mice nittered in the wainscotting: the room had been unused for a long time. It was a room fitted for a giant.
It was Humbert's room. just as he'd left it.
A portrait of a densely whiskered man, uniformed, clasping an ankh to his purple bosom, peered through a clearing in his beard. The painted face was damp and perspiring - patina'd with fungus.
"Green sickness," diagnosed Mrs. E, "Tut-tut-told-'im ... old E 'ad it too. I said iron, dear. Get some Brewer's Yeast down yer. 'Course I didn't see 'im sober for a fortnight. "
She lifted a small flap in the bulldog's rump, removed a cork, inserted the funnel and filled the popeyed brute's canvas bladder with tepid water from the blue-lipped jug.
The bull dog was mounted on a wheeled platform, at the rear of which were three pedals. One to activate the jaws, one to cock the leg and one to make the tail wag.
Around the animal's thick-folded neck was a leather collar, dreadfully spiked, but with the name GUMS starred in diamonds. From this collar obtruded, like a knobbly antenna, a rigid plaited tether.
Mrs. E plugged and covered the hole - smoothing the hair over the flap. Then she straightened up, reached into the pocket of her apron, found a pill and a bit of fluff, and without looking -swallowed 'em. Something was worrying her. She sniffed her finger.
Downstairs the quick brown sun jumped over the lazy foxgloves, licked at the frosty panes, stretched its morning claws and scratched at the kitchen mat.
In the kitchen, Great Aunt Florrie, Mistress of Rawlinson End, Wife of Sir Henry, toast crumbs specking the fine hairs gracing her upper lip - teacup half empty, luke warm in her lap - dozed in a cosy Chippendale settle. Through dancing dark, neon-bright saraband eels, gauzes of filmy Fellini, glimpses further than the rocket fathoms, rhythmic, fading, in unending procession -she dreamed. Safe-cocoon in elfin tissue.
Outside, icicles crystalline and lovely pendant from his nose, Old Scrotum scrunched up the gravel whistling a dirty song. And Florrie, gentle corset-prisoner of the flesh, started and was alert as a skinless eye, when the old man, his russet burned country face smiling in wreathes, pushed open the back door. The sun streaked radiant whiskers between his legs.
"Mornin' Ma'm," he wheezed. "I filled in the grave nice." Scrotum stacked a spade against the wall, mumming 'fit to drop'.
Florrie nodded and indicated the sink. "Perhaps you'd care to wash your hands?"
"Ah, no thankee mum, I already did that up against a tree afore I came in yere."
Florrie took a careful purse-lip of now cold tea. "Very well," she murmured, dabbing the corners of her mouth with a lavender scented napkin. "Now I'd like you to set up the card table and put down some sawdust in the smoking room. Lord Tarquin Portly and the Lady Philippa of Staines are popping over for the weekend."
The Wrinkled Retainer hung his greasy fez on a peg and with joints crackling like the screwing up of plastic egg cartons, hacked and ooh-arr-thritt-icketied his way out into the hall.
Alone again, Florrie focused on the copper gleaming coal scuttle, fogged, wool-gathered, and in seconds surrendered to Erewhon. Peacefully on tiptoe, through the grey spheres where shade has substance, whispers walk and Maya reigns.
WISTFUL AND LOVELY ARE WALLS WITH WISTERIA,
CLEMATIS CLAMBERS ON TIME-POCKED WALLS, WHITE,
STRANGER THAN LARKSPUR OR LUPIN: HYDRANGEA
HYDRA-HEAD MOTHER-IN-LAW'S TONGUE,
TIED FANCY FLIGHT.
Florrie sighed deeply, and her mind strode back some thirty years on sensible brogue feet. Henry in uniform - the blink of brass buttons - the gaiety - the whirl of those eruptive balls. An embrace. Then after .... O! To dance the night away in his strong arms.
The music ...
What a kind man he'd always been. She relived the time Mr. Cumberpatch the gardener (sweet old fellow - hated wasps - always wore bicycle-clips to mow the lawn) had fallen badly in the orchard. Why, Henry fairly raced back to the house for his pistol. He couldn't bear to see even the lowliest of creatures in pain.
And ... on the side ... always ... Humbert. Huge Humbert. O! O! What foolishness it seemed now to a woman already in the twilight of her autumn.
Mrs. E . bayonetted her unpleasant curlered head into the kitchen. Puncturing the rev erie, "E 'ad a tapeworm, dear," she said flatly.
Florrie watched as the housekeeper scooped a lump of lard into a vast skillet.
"Well, it got so long and greedy," said Mrs. E., heaving the pan up onto the range, "that E 'ad to go into hospital, mmmmm. Well, they put 'im to sleep with 'is mouth clamped open." The pan began to frizzle as the lard melted. "Yiss, dear, and they put a pat of butter on his pillow . . . 'cos they can't resist it, tapeworms. Ooh no!"
Florrie's fancy frizzled out with hot whiffs of lard.
"Anyway, there was this nurse standin' by with a club - all night, dear - so that when the tapeworm slid out for the butter, she'd bash it one."
Florrie drew her shawl close about her sparrow shoulders and stood up.
"I told 'im, Fernroot for tapeworms, dear. But 'e wouldn't listen," Mrs. E crowed, chipping potatoes with an axe.
Florrie nodded and reached for the long Beige Thing she was knitting.
"Well the nurse had been up 'alf the night - it's understandable - and when the filthy thing slivvered out of his mouth - Wallop! Course, she missed."
Florrie opened the back door.
"And whoosh! The tapeworm was back in 'im, dear." Mrs. E shushed chips into the fat.
Florrie stepped out into the garden.
Mrs. E stuck her head out of the window. "E spent the next six months recovering from a fractured skull," she called. "I told him Fernroot."
It was a lovely morning. Still - but for the plangent doves. Trailing the Beige Thing, Florrie glided close to the cold limestone walls of Rawlinson - where honeysuckle tendrils laocooned with the ivy for purchase. Past the sandy potato clamp (beloved of Mrs. E), wire-meshed to keep out rats, with its tiny-cowled chimneys. About the spiral-spined bell tower. Beneath the butterfly-flattered dark buddleia arch. Carefully down the perilous, mossy flags to the rock garden banking the conservatory looking-glass - south from the Great House. Behind her a shrew chittered - trapped in a dogfood tin. Ahead, Florrie heard a distant tabor drum spasmodically in the forest - and with it - the ring of axes on wood. Men were preparing for the Blazing.
Rough voices - with tongues of oak:
CHOP, CHOP THE AXE DO DROP, THE SCRAPIN' SONG OF THE SAW,
THE DEAD GOO DRINK, THE HORNS GOO BLOW ...
AT THE BLAZIN'- BOYS: THE BLAZIN'.
THE SQUIRE ON HIS HORSE GOO SING HISSELF HOARSE,
HUMPIN' IN THE HAY. OLE MAIDS GOO JIG,
RATHER I GOO KISS THE PIGS,
AT THE BLAZIN' OHHHHH THE BLAZIN'.
Before this song died on the wind, other drums (with the same ancient wooden time) began ... and other voices. Other axes. Verse upon verse.
Rawlinson End throbbed with ritual purpose.
Florrie thought of Humbert - the rightful heir.
With the Beige Thing in tow she moved straight-backed down the gentle, womanly curving lawn. Gorgeous beyond imagining were the brassy whores of winter defiant begonia, blaring yellow-white reveille; Autumn Crocii gingering the green in tesselate performing rite society. No need for wellies. Earth, having sipped its cold manna, merely pssht, pssht and crisped beneath her fastidious pom-toed, leopardetteslippered feet. Worms and wrigglies slumbered deep and stirred not a bit.
Florrie saw the foxgloves dead in flower - and knew she should be making a list of bulbs - but it was already late for planting. Primula, pansies, forget-me-nots and wandas ... Forget-me-not!
The persistent tabors muttered to the chords of recall. Humbert!
Already the huge-limbed Big Raft was built, moored on the lake, awaiting the torch: the fire to signal the end of the Celtic year.
"AT THE BLAZIN', OHH. . ."
At the Blazing ... dead Humbert would walk.
Florrie shivered, pausing by the periwinkle and St. John's Wort in the gamboge shade of the Chestnut trees. These were not proper thoughts - and yet - flash-backed standing in the shadow of Humbert, looking up at his face flushed and ruddy, hearing his deep, calm enunciation of the old worlds.
Let this our fire of Rawlin burn, so fierce to light the sun, It's whichway through dark Winter's murk and soon to us return.
Humbert was such a fine man and such a wonderful ventriloquist. How Sir Hilary looked to him! Humbert - 7' 2" in his hat. She remembered his gallantry. He would always ... always . bring a spade to their trysts - that he might dig a hole to stand in. Then the kiss ...
She raised the Beige Thing to the skies.
"They think it is a stair-carpet, my once love," she called wistfully. Thrilling.
She turned - to descend with the tumbling nasturtiums and creeping zinnia into the gnome garden with its gelid fountain - like the orgasm of Norse Gods. Humbert! Here again she stood with him watching the sad heavy carp circling the pool. She noticed that the gnomes were a length more masculine - more priapic - than since she'd last seen them, and knew why horrid Gerald had squandered so much pocket-money on plasticine.
The gnomes ... the gnomes.
She remembered singing to Humbert's demure bassoon. when it would seem even the gnomes inspirit'd to jig to the chorus.
SITTING IN A SUNKEN GARDEN ... PINKING IN A SINKING SUN
THINKING OF A SUMMER LONG AGO - WHEN ONE WAS TWENTY-ONE
NAMING ALL THE FLOWERS SO FRIENDLY ...
SHOUTING AT THE SHRUBS SO THICK
LO, BEHOLD LOBELIA - ONE BITE AND THE BISHOP WAS SICK.
HOW NICE TO BE IN ENGLAND ... NOW THAT ENGLAND'S HERE.
I STAND UPRIGHT IN MY WHEELBARROW,
AND PRETEND I'M BOADICEA.
SHY GOLDFISH SHADY IN THE GREEN WEED,
BY GADFLIES GIDDY IN THE HAZE ...
HERE I SIT
I KNIT, KNIT, KNIT.
WITH THE GARDEN GNOMES, I SAY.
She remembered ... she remembered ...
A small fish dropped startled onto the sun'dial.
Aloft, an osprey piped sacrifice. The fish fluttered weakly, silver at eleven o'clock.
Florrie remembered ...
The coming of the Staines. O dear! And the Blazing!
Had she still time to hike into Concreton Laundrama to thaw out chickens in the spin-drier?
Chapter 4 - Roads to Unreason
Ye Olde Blocke was as old and as ugly as Ye Concreton Road, by which it squatted. It was starkly - offensively - new. Before you thought of asking it, it said: Positively NO.
NO COACH PARTIES
EXCEPT FOR PATRONS
NO WHISTLING AFTER HOURS
And a wag had added:
Although the Manager, with stagey cosmetic joviality, liked to call the place Ye Chippy
"Get it? Off Ye Olde Blocke?"
- it was as cheery as a boiled cod's eye.
The interior was carpeted - floor, walls and ceiling - in dull crimson. This sullen stuffy lining, redolent of a thousand and one nights of cigarette, cigar and pipe fumes, 'large ones', 'same agains' and 'similars', plus a breath of scampi-in-the-basket, was relieved with framed prints of executions.
It was like walking into a sock.
Buller strolled in, followed by his mongrel.
The quilted plastic bar ran the length of the house, which was divided into SALOON and LOUNGE by lavatories designated: Chaps and Chapesses.
"Bloody hilarious, what? Brewery's idea."
There was no PUBLIC BAR, thus the good yeomanry of England felt uncomfortable in their working boots and stayed away. This was unfortunate - and entirely calculated.
Buller was looking for someone - and he clocked the room very carefully. He recognized nobody, and sidled into a corner stool nestling between Chaps and the bar.
There was a dais with a microphone, a modest drum-kit and an organ draped in mourning. Behind it a day-glo poster glared:
Lunchtimes, the juke-box and the electric fruit-machine competed with the customers. The fruit-machine always won.
"So that's a Babycham with a cherry and large Adultcham with ice. Ha, ha," said the Manager -and he turned to Buller.
Bullethead ordered a light ale and a packet of crisps.
The Manager called him the last of the big spenders, and slapped the change from Henry's fiver onto the counter.
Buller said he'd be meeting a 'friend' in the LOUNGE BAR shortly so he'd be needing a mortgage for the round, cocker.
The Manager moved off to tell some important men 'in advertising' expensive jokes.
Buller dropped the crisps for the dog to worry, and tucked three pound notes into the lining of his hat. The rest of the money he slipped into his side pocket. Snooping round the partition and under the iron-work mantilla above the bar, Buller spied seated in the LOUNGE BAR the Irish back of Mr. Slodden's head. He slid from his perch, brushed a foetal knot of bubbly-gum he'd picked up from under the counter off his knee and, leaving his beer, sauntered into the Chaps. In passing he patted the scratched johnny dispenser (which was a real money-spinner - always empty - patrons always too embarrassed to report it. 'The what-machine's broken? You wanted to buy what? Speak up!) then through into the Lounge.
The most remarkable thing about the LOUNGE was the prices: although there were more reproduction posthorns and horse brasses to admire - and at the touch of a till the ice-buckets had changed into pineapples. Also, the prints were coloured.
Mr. Slodden sat slumped, leaning against but facing away from the bar. He slipped a small whiskey and glared at Anne Boleyn. "Bitch," he snarled.
Mr. Slodden, clergyman defrocked, eyes deepset in squinty caves of suspicion, plumbed in cheeks of polished liver above a greasy dogcollar which snatched and savaged the skin of his throat, himself enclosed and squeezed to eruption by a frayed and faded navy crew cut pullover, coughed horribly.
Buller approached him cheeky-chappy as though he'd just blown in.
"Bit o' luck, chief. Just bumped into Sir 'Enery Me-blinkin' Rawlinson - dressed as a sambo. Touched 'im for a couple o' quid."
"Verily the heathen." Slodden knew that Bullethead was lying. Must be at least five quid. He cleared his throat. "Would you have the convenience of a smoke?"
"An oily rag? Anytime mucker." Buller proffered a tin of dog-ends "Saloon Bar Shag, lipstick on the tips. Pure Virginee an' no gobbin'. What's 'c do it for? Ole Rawlinson? Barmy, definitely ginger."
"T'would seem . . .", Slodden signalled magisterially for a refill. (Buller had another ale. "Pale, sir? Or would you prefer it in a glass? Ha ha.") "The good Sir Henry, some many distant years previous, in pursuit of a servant ... a servant . . ." Slodden glanced over his shoulder. a servant with a fox's brush pinned to his rump and ordered to yelp and run.
Slodden grasped Buller's hand and - elbow to elbow - began to push, forcibly insistent, "Would you question the tongue of a man of the cloth?" Then continued low-voiced, "Sir Henry, horrible dictu, obliged to ride side-saddle like her Majesty.
"The Permanent Wave Club?"
". . . because of a painful boil on the .
"A Conan on the Khyber!"
"As you say ...fell from his horse close-by the Sewage Works...his riding
topper blew into the muck."
The arm-wrestling was becoming serious.
"Leave it out, chief! I believe yer!"
"Rawlinson, in a drunken rage, ploughed in to retrieve his hat, high-stepping over the revolving sprinklers. Although offended by the odour of the ordure . . ."
"Like the fishmonger's table-tennis - the ping was good but the pong was awful, ay?"
Slodden slammed Buller's arm onto the bar.
"Fool! The stench."
"Oh, pen an' ink," said Buller, flexing his fingers.
"Rawlinson found, fortuna favet fortuis, subsequent relief from his chronic arthritis."
"In shit? I should coco."
"It is," said Slodden, menacing, "A monthly doing. A ritual of secret relish."
"'Oo told yer?"
Slodden tapped his nose. "Ears have walls when the price is right."
"At Rawlinson End." Slodden drained his glass.
"Well, 'e did seem a bit uppity-like. Maybe we can lean on 'im?"
There was an uproar of yowling and shrieking from the SALOON BAR: cries of "Whose is it!" and "Get 'im off!".
Bullet's dog had found and mounted a lady poodle - and was tongue-out jig-a-jog rogering furiously, quite oblivious of the soda syphon and kicks bucketing his mangy behind.
In this whoopee, Mr. Slodden reached across the bar and filched a quadruple whiskey from the optic.
"The opacity of a ruse," he said, settling back, "would seem, Deo Volente, the clever corkscrew to liberate the golden juices. A visit . . ." Here he fixed Buller with an eye bloodshot with implication "to the stately seat might prove a most profitable magnum bonum. "
"Well," said Bullethead, cheerily confident of the unlikelihood of such a vast villainy, "I mean there's bound to be a few bob in it. I'll keep me minces peeled. Maybe I can even worm in an' case the gaff."
A door opened and slammed. A harlequin mongrel bounced onto the car-park concrete.
Slodden glowered into his drink. "To those sleek bastards who make me writhe tin-cup mendicant at my own market!" He drank savagely. "Clattering my pain and in need of your queer wigs."
As with the latinisms, Buller misunderstood all of this. "Get yerself an Irish," he said, "or part yer Barnet just over the ear and plaster it over the top wiv Brylcreern."
"Ignorance is blessed," said Slodden exasperated, turning on his stool to notice a bald man he thought he knew.
"Hare Rama, Hare Rama," he called ingratiatingly, hoping to solicit a drink.
The bald man was puzzled. "Shalom," he said.
Slodden retired in disgust.
"Bacon-hater. Red Sea Pedestrian," he spat. "Ah, Athanasius contra mundurn. Begob. . ."
... Arry? 'Oo was that?" asked Buller.
Slodden grasped him by the jacket.
"Leave it out, Guv'nor," said Buller, fearful for his threads. "We're both 'ere on business."
"Ah yes, almost slipped the mind," said Slodden, and he carefully produced a weathered purse. "The takings, in toto, arrive at some seven pounds, fourteen and threepence. "
Buller knew he was lying. Must be twenty quid at least . . . even a pony?
The 'takings' referred to a recent wedding, at which Buller appeared in the official capacity of photographer - and Mr. Slodden appeared unofficially in a cassock. Both after the ceremony. While Buller posed the happy tearful guests, relieving them of cumbersome watches, wallets and other nuisances, Mr. Slodden, with wooden collection box and leg, passed beseeching amongst them - accepting donations on behalf of orphans, the church roof and the ruptured. All in sad need of support. With his quiet courtesy, Latin, wooden leg, and nose reddened - in selfless missionary work in hot savage lands, dear lady - Slodden had made a bomb.
"Well now," he said, unclipping the purse, "With the kind Sir Henry's contribution - was it just the three pounds, did you say?"
"That then would total - minus my meagre expenses - a grand nine pounds. Or tidy four pounds for the each of us."
"I'm not too tidy," said Buller, "Make it a scruffy ole four poun' ten."
Slodden passed the money with a childishly hurt look.
"I have a higher call," he said.
Buller smoothed his lapels, which were wide-pricked, alert and grey as the cars of an African elephant.
"Amen, my ole cousin, and verily, " he said, "Me too."
He began counting on his fingers. "The shekels, the mazoola, the readies and the bees, the wherewivall, the gelt and a life on the rolling rhino."
Slodden shook in a fit of greedy lubricious coughing.
Buller put his hand over his beer to protect it from the spray. "Chieftain," he said, "You are one sweet smelling geranium."
In the car-park Buller's mongrel threw up a mash of polythene and crisps (the act of sex always put him off his food), then ate it.
In Southampton, the S.S. Scrofa Castle, twenty one days out of San Francisco via Panama, was docking. And aboard her, with a fresh breeze stirring his blond bangs, the heir expectant of Rawlinson End, Sir Henry's seed, the one and future king - likeable, gangling, daredevil-may-care Ralph (pronounced Rafe) Rawlinson.
Ralph was coming home.
Golly, but it was exciting! The thought of seeing Roxanne fair thrilled him. Roxanne . . . Roxanne . . . her young breasts like hunting dogs straining at the leash. Blighty! The White Cliffs! Ralph filled his lungs with England - and the choppy Channel was takeaway with Chinese.
A po-faced steward offered him a towel and reminded him that second-sitting for luncheon was already well entrenched in the entree.
Ralph clung to the slippy rail, assuring him he really 'couldn't go it again'.
The man had the simian stoop and cerebral stature of a pygmy; his scraggy neck reminded Ralph strongly of Scrotum - and he wondered if the old rascal was still alive . . . as he wheeled to confetti the gulls.
Most of the voyage had been like that. And when a Greek crewman told Ralph that the Captain would be 'heaving-to' within the hour, he expressed himself not at all surprised.
Still, he turned up his collar - if the wind changed, a whurp from the Bridge twenty-five feet above his head might be heavy. He didn't want to return home with concussion.
His thoughts reeled back to mid-Atlantic. Looking down on the green-scaled flying fish skipping and fluttering over the waves as though being spawned under the straining ship. As though trying to avoid him.
"Well, I am a well-fleshed six-footer," he mused. "I sport three pairs of legs." He chuckled. "Must tell that to Perry." His roomy macintoshed shorts flapped over his tanned manly knees. "And I pack a rod ... and a bit of a punch. Heck! I wouldn't fancy going a couple of rounds with me."
Ralph was puzzling over this frightening prospect when a middle-aged drunk in a Bavarian hat lurched onto the deck, skidded towards him and offered a swig from a greasy bottle of laughing juice. Ralph politely refused. The man said he was 'a good egg' - and that he was going to kiss him. Ralph said no, he jolly well wasn't. Then the man knelt down and started biting Ralph's leg. It was very painful; so after a minute or two with Ralph telling the man that he packed a rod and a squizamaroo and a blowpipe (wait 'til Perry sees that !), and the only weapons he had left were his bare fists and crikey! – he wouldn't fancy going a few rounds because his rod was already packed with his luggage, Ralph said, "Oh lor, all right then. But just a peck. No french stuff or anything you read about, or I'll let go with eyes clenched and fists blazing - and I won't be responsible."
But the man lost interest, jumped up and started yodelling over the rail: a silly song about tortoises being tortured.
NOW DON'T YOU DARE TORTURE THAT TORTIE,
IT ISN'T HIS FAULT AT ALL,
HE'S A VALUABLE MUSICAL EXPORT -
HE APPEARS AT THE ALBERT HALL.
HE CAN'T WHISTLE OR SING, HE'S HOPELESS AT THAT,
MANDOLINGS, VIOLINGS: HE JUST CAN'T FRET THE STRINGS,
STOMACHS NO GUT OF CAT
BUT STAY-AT-HOME SHORTY
PIANO'S HIS FORTE.
AND ON THAT HE CAN PLAY SWEET ADELINE-AH.
This reminded Ralph of Rawlinson End; and as he rubbed his leg, he recalled the day horrid Gerald brought in a tortoise he'd been playing tennis with, saying: "This one has shell-shock and could I please have another?"
And golly! How cross Uncle Hubert was! But Uncle Hubert was a bit of a softy.
A half-heard song from the crew's quarters jolted Ralph's mental nostril.
"Oh no, whelks!" he wemembered, and whelk whelked wight-of-aisle into the water.
Deep parping, hooting and halloo-ing. The ship bumped the quay.
Walph was home - and dry.
At least on the inside.
Chapter 5 - Shibboleths and Pickle
The early frost had vanished from the sullen face of Rawlinson End and the sunshine gilded each wart and wrinkle on the back of its neck. The beard of the house - The Pickle - however, was in forbidding shadow.
The Pickle, or Great Maze, fronted Rawlinson End - yawning westwards from the Grand Drive almost to Rawlin Pond. The design by Incapability Brown, Esq. would baffle a rat. This dark prickly trapezoid covered nearly an acre.
The original plan was made on a parchment that had already enjoyed a game of three-dimensional noughts and crosses, a cartoon of Disraeli and a pattern for a ladies snood. These boozy doodlings were for the most part scraped out and erased, but sufficient remained to confuse the 'master-plan'. Brown thought it all very artistic and he quartered the design, giving a piece each to the overseers of four gangs of workers to work out. Even this might have succeeded had not Incapability - reeling from Grotto to the Fool and Bladder to The Cut to the Fool and Bladder to the Maze - insisted on making further aesthetic impositions on the muddle. He had, of course, not bothered to make a copy of the original plan, preferring to drift over the site in a hot-air balloon screaming, or let things flow au naturel.
In order to hasten completion, he further subdivided the plans so that there was an octet of workmen toiling severally - with no reference to each other - on the project. At one stage it took on the aspect of a swastika. (Gerald would have liked that.)
The Pickle was made of mature hawthorn, boxwood, choke-berry, blackthorn, wild rose and dogwood, which, being almost all natives (and it being excellent weather), quickly rooted and enmeshed. These hedges were of a minimum nine feet in height, with the result that workmen found themselves effectively boxing each other in. Noisy brawls ensued between these guesswork gardeners, and Sir Hilary - watching from a gazebo atop the Great House - was hugely amused.
Six year old Henry looking on with his father took note.
After five months the whole network became so utterly amazing that confused workmen were tunnelling, or riding on each other's shoulders, in an attempt to get out. Relatives and friends of the bewildered arrived with food and drink to toss into the labyrinth for the sustenance of their loved ones.
Young Henry loved to bark helpful directions to the shouting wretches through megaphone.
"Keep right on, now left . . . almost there. Tea-time. Oh dear, I'll be back. Promise. "
This seemed harmless enough, but things took a more serious turn as hedges collapsed or overgrew to form lightless tunnels - and folk began to say folks had died in there.
Sir Hilary arranged for a priest to travel from Idlewater to consecrate the ground. This gentleman entered the Pickle with holy water, hosannahs, a terrier, a suppIy of aniseed and a ball of string. He was never seen again - and a letter was despatched to Rome pleading that this good man should be considered for canonisation.
After Brown's death the Pickle grew quietly scruffy, as none could be persuaded to enter the thing for the trimming of it.
Years after, when Sir Henry was master of Rawlinson End, one of the few signs kept fresh-painted on the estate was: 'THIS WAY IN' at the entrance to the Pickle. Sir Henry was at his ingratiatingly persuasive best when exhorting creditors and foreigners to take the 'pretty route' to the house.
It was from the Archimedean spirals and cul-de-sacs of the paralogic Pickle that Hubert got the good idea of being, at least part-time, a mole.
His bedroom, on the first floor at the back of the house, peeped over the feminine green lawns to the chestnuts. And if he craned to the right - in the distance floated the fabulous grey-flat threat of Concreton estate.
"Veni, vidi, Vimpi - I came, I saw, I concreted it all over."
Hubert didn't crane often.
He was pinning sheets of blotting-paper over his windows because he believed it trapped and absorbed the energy of the sun. His sister-in-law, Florrie, said: "He should thank Ra for his goodness", but Hubert hated writing letters - or any commitment - so he never got around to it. Each night he would take down the blotting-paper and squeeze a 'little bit of cosy' into his room. Then he would snuggle into his hammock and dream of being invisible - and asleep.
Herbert was unusual.
I'M CONFUSING 'COS I'M UNUSUAL
I IMITATE THE WALRUS IN THE TUB.
SOMETIMES I SWALLOW LIVE GOLDFISH, I FOLLOW
MY OWN BENT, AND THERE'S THE RUB,
IN UNIQUELY CIRCUS-STANCES I EXECUTE EXOTIC DANCES,
WITH THREE BALLOONS I SWOON AND SNAKE IT,
IT'S NO BO-PEEP SHOW: I PRANCE NAKED.
BLESS ME, I CONFESS, I'VE GROWN WATER-CRESS IN MY EARS,
I SLIM WITH SANDPAPER, SHAVE MY LEGS WITH PAINT-SCRAPERS
SMOOTH BUT RASPBERRY-RED AND THERE'S THE RUB.
SPORTING DIFFERENT COLOURED SOCKS IS DEEMED UNORTHODOX,
ALTHOUGH I KNOW WHICH LEG IS WHERE OR WHICH,
THIS COCK-A-DOODLE PARADOX
COCKS A SNOOK AT ALL THE SCHMOCKS,
I WINK BUT THEY INTERPRET: NERVOUS TWITCH.
MY RIDICULED BIZARRERIE IS ONLY AWKWARD ARMOURY,
A SQUAWKING BANSHEE YELLS 'BEELZEBUB',
MID THE KALAHARI FACELESS, I'M A FREAK OASIS,
AN OUTLANDISH ODDITY, A CACK-HAND COMMODITY,
A CRACK-POT, LACK-TOP:
RUB-ME-UP-THE WRONG WAY HUBERT - THERE'S THE RUB.
In his adolescence, during the long summers of yesterday, he would throw himself naked onto the lawns in a northerly direction parallel to the earthly axis. And with a bluey roman clockface tattoo'd about his private parts, think about Jean Harlow very hard and - from the shadow cast -tell the time with remarkable accuracy. "Look! No hands!" In winter he tried with birthday candles stuck in the end but he was hours slow and the drips hurt. Later, Henry told him to 'put a sock' on the sundial bit. So now he contented himself with waiting sentry in the Hall inviting guests to stand on his feet. He would then give their height and weight in a disembodied monotone and present them with cigarette cards depicting early flying-machines and steam engines.
P. C. Gibbons, over the years, had cautioned him a few times, but conceded that Hubert was harmless.
"De poor fellow got he head screwed on wrung," said that constable.
Hubert insisted that he was quite normal.
Although himself Karloff-soft-spoken, Hubert liked to hear other people shouting. This he considered not only healthful, but might, if taken to conclusion, do away with the hated telephone. Thus, it was not only for speed and far-seeing that habitually he travelled on stilts.
Hubert didn't bother with boots. With stilts three pairs of socks were quite comfy. He had bells tied to the wooden feet. To this jingle-time he hummed as he strode.
"I'm tracing models in the puddles
That the poodles doodle-doodled
On the jig-saw floor.
Thank whelks, they all have heads of wood.
I dread the day I'm understood."
These wooden feet were carved as mole's paws - but back to front - so's to give the impression that he had arrived rather than was going away. Hubert was almost proud of this and thought himself quite the Woozle.
Also, he affected an car-trumpet - with the effect that confidantes and chum, stood on boxes or tip-toe or jumped up and up to converse with him. Hubert all the time straining, feigning non comprendi, and muttering, "Pardon . . . come again . . . do speak upwards", et cetera. At the same time shaking uncontrollably, giggling as hi, hapless companion empurpled and shrieked.
He put it about that swans were really giant snorkels, and they betrayed dinosaur leviathans gliding cold-eyed beneath Rawlin Pond. Even poachers and suspicious folk stayed clear, and on sunny days Hubert went angling, using tufts of his own hair or beard as bait.
He'd been told that the lake embosomed enormous barbels, and this, translated through giggles and car-trumpet, became anonymous barbers. He wondered how and why these hairdressers stayed submerged for so long, and was determined to catch one. He spent painstaking afternoons painting maggots with red and white candy stripes fixing the wriggly horrors stiff with hair lacquer.
But it was all a waste of time - or, white coated and deep beneath the mirror surface, the barbers sang for him:
STRIPE ME A PINKIE. WE WILL NEVER BITE.
THERE'S BEEN MANY A CLOSE ... CLOSE ... SHAVE
BUT WE SLIPPERY UN-CUSTOMERS STAY SAFELY HERE-CUT
DRIED AND HAPPY.
DOWN HERE UNDER WHERE ... WE BLOW ... WAVE ... PERM
SHAMPOO ... GAME AND SET.
FLY-CAST AWAY REFRACTED FELLOW ... FORGET ... FORGET ... FOR
WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE THE BACK OF YOUR HEAD RENE
MAGRITTE-INGS TO YOU.
In the Hall, a paroxysmal grandfather clock dunged wung o'clock, and then wung o'clock wonce again to make sure. Dung! In the Library, a tiny wooden man with an umbrella swopped places with a shepherdess. In the drawing room, a papier mache parrot sprung from a Swiss balcony and managed 'Pieces o' Eight. Pieces . . .' before expiring. And in the kitchen, Mrs. E, spattered with fat, gave a Javanese gong a mighty swipe with her axe, remarking that: "E drenched 'imself in paraffin and creosote to get rid of the lice, dear. But 'c wouldn't give up 'is pipe. 'Schornstein's Herbal Smouldering Shag' 'e smoked. Lovely smell. When 'e went up - well, cost 'im 'is whiskers."
Clong! Wung! Dung! Clack! Awk! and Dang!
Scrotum, adventuring in his nose for 'whatever it was', thought a pipe cleaner would probably shift it, and went to look for one.
Lost in his head, Hubert stuck a yellow label on an apple. It read 'apple'.
In Southampton, Ralph was going through Customs. Customs? Ha! What did these fresh-faced boys of H.M. Customs & Excise know of customs? Some of the sticky stuff he'd seen in the jungles along the Orinoco would turn any man's stomach against him. And looking at some of those bulging uniforms, they didn't do much about Excise either. (Must tell that to Perry!) Customs ... ugh! That one involving goitres, hoods and false noses, well ... even with his iron consitution, breeding and his hand on his rod - he'd just about given up everything but the ghost. The ghost! Lummy, he'd almost forgotten. Did Uncle Humbert still walk?
He saw the man in the Bavarian hat, now in the nude, being led away by the police. Quite right. But to the fury of the Press photographers, the police had prudently thrown a blanket over his head.
It was two years since Ralph's last Blazing. Gosh, do tempers fugit! Two whole years and yet it seemed only the day before yesterday when clear-eyed, pink and glossy, he'd left for South America. It was a bold step for a lad of twenty seven, with but the first blond furze on his chin. Raw and unblooded, but he'd received every encouragement from his father: "Piss orff," Sir Henry had said.
And he had - to return a man.
And his mother! What a perfect brick she was! In case he had an accident, not only had Florrie sewn a pair of fresh sub-trousers into each of his tropical jackets, but also a Union Jack - and a mouthorgan. By cracky! but those sub-trousers had turned up trumps when the hostiles turned nasty.
Ralph had nothing to declare save: "Get out of my way, I'm bigger," and "I'm awfully important." This ensured his speedy passage, and soon he was barging and gouging his way towards the taxi-rank. A white porter helped him with his luggage. Ralph thought this shocking and disgraceful, giving the fellow more than a few shillings so he could afford to be unemployed.
Ralph had unpinned his chignon before disembarking - it really wouldn't do for people to suppose the heir of Rawlinson end had 'gone native'.
All the same, he couldn't resist stabbing the taxi driver a couple of times on the way to the station ... just reflexes ... Lor! but he was in trim ... and it reduced his fare a lot.
There were still a few minutes before his train, and Ralph ducked into the gents. When he emerged he had about his head a convincingly gory bandage; this wizard wheeze got him to the head of the queue and through the barrier in a whizz. People even helped him along with his luggage, asking if he was 'all right?'. Ralph rolled his eyes and stuck his tongue out. This seemed a confirmation of all-rightness, because none of his concerned fellow travellers cared to share his compartment. To further secure privacy, Ralph alternately howled and dribbled. If anyone so much as put their face to the window he smiled at them coquettishly - and they moved on. It was clear to even the casual observer that Ralph was either a pervert or a friendly, possibly talkative, soul - or worse - a human being who might be ill and in need of help.
Ralph managed the compartment blissfully to himself.
Change at Shrewsbury for Idlewater, then on to ... it was probably ship-lag: he loosened his invalid turban, yawned and nodded off.
The tropics ... murderous yet curiously magnetic, he dreamed. And to come through and return a fully-blown man's man ... why! he could yarn like the pater now! Collecting and studying the myriad Corydorus catfish in the steaming waters of the Orinoco was scarcely work for a milk-sop l He smiled grimly in his sleep. Those whiskery rascals, and their legion barbled brethren - but getting hold of those blighters! Why, he'd swum rapids, wrestled anacondas (And she's a big girl - must tell that to Perry), and through sheer brute understanding forced the affections of savage headhunters and their wonderful families. Swamp fever! Ten days and a hundred madness-filled nights sweating out the filth in a mud hut so small even the rats were hunchbacks (that'll crease Perry!). Cravat-high in rivers shimmering with piranha - swift vicious fishes that can reduce a man to a skeleton apology in seconds.
But here he was - he'd won through!
Ralph's fresh-face pressed ham against the carriage window. Yet even in the Scrofa Castle's tiny blue-tiled swimming pool he still sported a great curved knife in his excellent teeth for the daily plunge. What a wag they thought him! Bobbing provocatively by the waterwings and floating couches.
The train shuddered into Shrewsbury and Ralph woke. Unheard, a plump matronly lady had joined him in his compartment. She sat opposite - with a mixture of horror, lust and violet mascara on her face - staring at his groin.
This was a bit bally much, I say!
Ralph experienced a tickling sensation on his inner thighs. The brown kingsnake he secured in California had escaped from his jacket pocket, sneaked into his short, and was now questing the air of Shropshire - producing a good twelve inches from the leg of Ralph's shorts. The snake hiccup'd harmonically - and from its distended throat disgorged one of mama's Union Jacks.
Ralph - cleft-sticked - should he shoot or scram?
The woman smiled.
"You're . . . you're English, aren't you?"
Chapter 6 - An Entrance of Trousers
Unknown to Florrie, bedridden in a remote chamber in the toplofty West Wing of the Great House, lay Sir Henry's mother. This splendid lady, once a great beauty, was now emaciated and grey. Her tiny age-spotted hand lifted as if to stroke the inquisitive brown rat nibbling at her fingers. Her eyes were close-shut, on her mouth a smile of regal sweetness and antiquity and her mind dormouse'd several spinning world's away.
She was quite dead.
On the night table, beside her curtained four-poster, was a glass cake stand, and in it, undisturbed, a piece of yellow haddock and two tomatoes. The brown rat's nephew nudged at the lid hopefully, urgently, then - froze - hairs prickling on its long back.
The room chilled and the dust motes idling in the afternoon light changed charged and crackled.
The heavy Ghost of Humbert sat on the bed and sighed, then slowly said, "Another year dead, Mother."
"You are without breath, my son, and trousers."
"True ... the corridors are spiked and endless .
"Will you never rest ... rest ... rest?"
"Improperly attired, Mama? No l No son of Rawlin should be seen dead without ... without.
The Ghost of Humbert heard echoing from a long past - smudgy but distinct the biteful yapping of a young bulldog.
"Gums!" said hollow Humbert, "but I never moved my lips! I.
"No Humbert, your Gums is with me. On this side the animals speak to us."
"They always did ... before human ears grew blinkers."
"He tells me what fun you had chasing policemen and postmen."
"So very difficult to tell the difference when their hats blow off."
"The more I understand people's heads, the more convinced I am - hair will grow on anything," said the mother of Humbert, Henry and Hubert.
Outside, pipes, horns, halloos and tabors harangued and chattered in the woods.
"The Blazing soon and I must walk," said the Ghost of Humbert mournfully.
"Your brother Henry will be cross."
"Normal people like being frightened."
"But Henry isn't. . ."
"Eat up your haddock, Mama."
"Too tired ... too cold ... and too very tired."
The brown rat's nephew was never too tired. He'd eat it. If only ... if only things weren't so unbudgeable.
Sir Henry was back. He'd cached the unicycle in the usual place and wiped off most of the healing muck with hanks of grass. He was now in the passage under the Rockery which led to the Library's secret priest-hole door, This was the tricky bit.
He buffeted his way through the black: that blackguard Bulletbrain had set him back the best part of an hour - and a fiver. Fleece the Fuhrer would he? And he'd knocked his knee on a sprinkler.
Well Bulletproof , thought Henry, I've got some shattering news for you! I've dealt with rascals before. And never once have I been worsted!
Fulminating the vile vengeance to wreak - already the Buller fella writhed before him for mercy -Henry was so wrapped up (What uniform? What instruments of persuasion?) that it was only when he brushed a rusting iron manacle (Damn good idea!) and a cobweb yashmak'd his chin, that he remembered where he was - and the time. Blast! They'll all be up.
Still, Humbert's ghost came in handy if he was spotted: Henry's disguise augmented with groans would be guarantee'd to send 'em all scurrying.
He was musing on this happy insurance, when to some alarm, he discerned a growing phosphorescence in the gloom, and, flattening himself against the dank wall, was horrified - as a pair of phantom trousers rushed towards him.
Scrotum was plucking the naval fluff, egg and porcupine quills from the turn-ups of Sir Henry's 'special' 15 button fly trousers when Henry staggered into his dressing room clutching his heart.
"Nearly had a bloody corollary - the bugger," he gasped. "I'll put a cork in this lot. Bah! Running around trying on trousers every bloody year!"
Scrotum was startled - and moved towards a flask of brandy.
"Other men's trousers an' all. It's enough to make a slug vomit!" roared Henry, ripping off his turban and wig. "Gimme a drink."
Scrotum had already poured it.
The Wrinkled Retainer stared out of the window, north past the croquet pitch. Something moved out there.
"They Germ'ns, master," he croaked.*
"Geragh!" geraghed Henry. "All trousers are riddled with germs. Mud-pack-rat cleanse me - now get on with it."
Henry stood chilly in his undies, puffy and impatient, while Scrotum blind-folded him.
"But they Germ'ns, S'Enery, they'm ...."
"The capillary hairs in the hooter kill most of 'em, you clod. Now then, let's be having you." Scrotum spat loudly onto a washcloth. "And mind what comes out of your mouth - I may let you cat with it later. "
The tap gurgled, and two cocktail cherries revolved in the sink. Scrotum squirted a little washing-up liquid onto his sponge, and with a sput more spit, began to remove the boot polish from Sir Henry's chest.
"It could be I'm being unreasonable, not that that's reasonable," reasoned Henry, "but a prolonged bout of sobriety can affect even the best of us."
He waved his glass.
And addressed it.
WITH A FIZZY GIN & TONIC,
I BECOME SOMEWHAT SCHIZOPHRONIC,
THEN I'VE HALF-A-MIND TO STOP
AND HALF-A-MIND TO HAVE ANOTHER,
BUT THE BRUTE-FORCE BEASHT INSHIDE UNLEASHES MR. HYDE,
SO I SEEK & FIND MORE LIQUID SUBSTITUTE
FOR THE TEATS OF SAINTED MOTHER.
GOD'S TEETH! I'VE STRUGGLED GAMELY TO RESIST:
GARGLED PINTS OF TEA & CALLED MESELF SIR VIVOR,
BUT PEOPLE RE-PEWT ME AS A NISSED.
NAMELY I'M SIR RHOSIS OF THE LIVER.
WITH A MAELSTROM STOMACH I RISE -
BUT THE DOPPELGANGER BEASHT INSHIDE SHAKES ME AND WON'T BE
SO I GREEDY, NEEDY GRASP THE OLD ARISTOTLE, GOT TO!
THERE'S NOTHING QUITE LIKE
A MORNING-CAP TO START & END YOUR DAY,
LIGHTS MY WAY TO FRIGHT.
THE RAWLINSON MOTTO: 'OMNES BLOTTO'.
Humbert didn't mean to give Henry the willies in the tunnel. It was simply that after he'd left Mama he'd scented a pair of white flannels - and the tunnel seemed a good, dark, quiet and velvety place to try 'em on, give 'em a run.
But they split, of course. And they were much too short - like all the others he'd tried over the years.
Trousers, wowsers, dungarees and jodphurs -
Tryin' to find a pair to fit
Knickerbockers, plus-twos, easy-breezes
Legless in a bottomless pit.
Where were his comfy moleskin trousers?
The days before and after his death were fuzzy and confused - or just a blank. He knew he only had the one pair; he wouldn't put up with any others. But he couldn't go out looking for them obviously - not without them. It would be indecent. Perhaps it was a bit eccentric or short-sighted of him not to own a second pair ... no . . . not short-sighted. After all, when he was alive, how could he possibly know he might end up dead without them, and need a spare pair to rest peacefully in? Of course not!
He'd spent too much time on these imponderables already - there were important, immediate concerns. He wanted to test Gums.
Humbert carried the stuffed animal up the back stairs and into the uncarpeted nursery above Henry's room. He placed Gums on the boards, gripping the rigid leash. He could hear Henry singing below.
Gum's wheels creaked.
"Good boy. Ready for walkies?"
Humbert depressed the first pedal with his foot. Gum's jaws snapped open.
Grrr grruff Ruff ruff owff.
"Ooh, I'm going to have a real job holding you today."
Humbert pointed to a much brutalized and balding Teddy slumped against a doll's house.
"Stand still, officer. He won't hurt you."
Growfff rowf ruff ruff ruff.
Humbert pushed, and Gums trundled forward.
"Whoa! Can't hold him!"
Pedal down, jaws snap. Humbert wrestled with the beast.
"Better run for it, officer!"
Ruff ruff yow yow yow! Grrr!
Gums creaked to a halt by the doll's house.
"What is it? What is it? Oh all right then."
Pedal Two down: Gum's leg cocked. Pedal Three: the tail wagged happily and the bladder emptied onto the floorboards. Officer Teddy got splashed.
'Thew! Needed that, eh? Good boy, good boy."
"I know. I know." Pat pat pat.
"Y'know, if I had all the money I've Spent on drink," said Henry, "I'd spend it on
drink." He was still blind-folded - and he waved his goblet.
"Repeat my dosage, you ruptured toad."
Scrotum bumpered the glass with brandy and placed it in Henry's hand.
Sir Henry tossed off a good half of it, belped, and then, with luciferian breath said, "Well, get on, you old fool. Burn me I You haven't done behind me ears yet."
With a horrid internal rattling, Scrotum summoned up a hoick for the sponge.
"Oh ho l Would you? Try a pavement oyster on me when I'm not looking and I'll have your cars for castenets and yer lungs for sporrans."
Henry tugged off his blindfold, and placing his glass on the dressing table, glared at himself in the mirror.
"Hound me with spittle - black looks ill on an English face. Like a jezebel panda!"
Above the dressing table a damp patch appeared darkly on the ceiling, glistened blobby, and began to drip - then dribble: a doll's house-Officer Teddy-floorboard~ filtered canvas-bladdersworth into Henry's brandy. Henry was too busy, noisily slupping cold cream onto his face, to notice - but Scrotum saw it. Yet before the
Wrinkled Retainer could restrain him, Sir Henry snatched and savagely drank.
For an instant incredulity, astonishment, loathing and hatred fought for supremacy in Henry's face. Apoplexy gripped his vitals in a cage of unknowing.
Dismayed, Scrotum scuttled out of the room.
Henry's first coughed word was, "GARRGH!"
Then, appealing to heaven for divine explanation, he saw the expressive blobby patch - and heard the creak of wheels and a ventriloquial growff.
"Humbert!' he gasped. "You insubstantial shit. Dilute me remedial, would you? With water, eh? Wazz? Wazz?"
Now Henry roared.
"Did I look up to me elder brother for ... for ... this! - Wazz! Rope's end! Tether's snapped, Humbert!"
Henry stood up, raging. "Rope's snapped! I was on the edge, Humbert. Over the top now ... this is an outrage! A bloody adjectival outrage!"
Scrotum returned to press a cup of warm milk to his master's quivering lips, but the heady fumes of the maddening liquid were too much for him. Henry pushed it away weakly, sinking into his gilded Louis Peu'aps chair before the mirror.
To his haggard visage Henry said: "He'll have to go."
Scrotum dabbed at Henry's brow with the sponge. "They'm say Mr. Slodden got rid o' Mrs. Headstuffin's bogey-bogies wi' one blow Send fer 'im."
"Deliver me," growled Henry.
Florrie, inspecting the bathrooms and family necks for tidemarks, paused by the door - and hearing this - burst in. "O Henry!" she pealed. "May we employ an exorcist? Bells, books and. . ."
"As I live and snort," said Sir Henry Rawlinson.
*Henry's pride and joy, a small but daunting P. O. W. camp in the grounds of Rawlinson, did actually contain prisoners of war: two German parachutists who had been unfortunate enough to land on the estate.
They lived well enough -first rate food and drink, and all the Health & Efficiency they could read.
But in return, they were expected to attempt escape periodically, be re-captured, and receive the occasional
thrashing. However, the attempts were becoming increasingly earnest, as the life of ease began to grate on the Germans' nerves. Furthermore, they suspected that the War was over.
Having reached a decision regarding Humbert, Henry's brain began to niggle the subject of Scrotum's
'Germ'ns'. Could it be? He decided to check.
The Germans were indeed escaping, disguised as angels; white-robed and cardboard-winged, they had made their way to the graveyard, where, mingling with the monuments, they intended (under cover of night) to head for the Concreton road, and freedom.
But Henry, ever watchdog, found their trail. Within minutes (Germans running, Henry riding), all three were back at the P. O. W. camp (Henry outside, Germans inside). Jolly good bash lads, better luck next time"
Sir Henry Rawlinson rode home to change, dispatching Scrotum with a champagne breakfast for the troops.
Chapter 7 - A Spilth of Bumbledon
From a coppice of redbrown crab apple (to which Florrie occasionally traipsed for the basics of jelly), high on a rise boasting the overgrown ruins of a Roman Forum, Buller kept watch with a pair of oft-pawned binoculars. He'd clocked the 'angel's' attempt at escape, but more importantly, noted Henry's attitude to them and the lavish breakfast laid on afterwards.
If that's wot they noshed for starters, Gawd knows wot they put away for kidney let alone Lilley and Skinner. Must be worth a fortune on the black-market. If they wanted to get out, then all he had to do was jolly 'em along. Not that he'd any intention of really 'springin' 'em'. That might be dodgy. I mean. Wot's all this 'jolly good try' stuff from Rawlinson? If he was that pally with 'em -well? Also Rawlinson-shine was more than a bit on the ginger side - plus being a Barnaby Rudge - and he carried a shooter. Definitely a dodgement.
Mr. Slodden's rubber overshoes made little noise, but his presence was sufficient to startle a weasel - and Buller, responding to his furry analogy's panic, likewise rolled into a prickly bush and pulled grass over his head.
"Bullethead, I know you're there. I can see you," hissed Slodden.
Buller crawled out of his hidey-hole and Mr. Slodden jumped - gripping him in a half-nelson that was unnecessarily cruel.
"I am the Anti-Christ. Will you deny me?" Slodden rasped.
Buller's face was rammed deep in squishy grass but he managed a muffled: "Mr. Slodden, by all that's Holy Joe . . . "
"The Very Reverend!" stressed Slodden.
"The Very Rev fer Gawd's sake. . . leave it out!"
"I will cling to the Old Rugged Cross," sang Slodden, giving a painful jerk to Buller's arm. Then he let go. "Tis a Te Deum and a serindipitous day of rejoice, Bullethead. I have been summoned."
As though on cue, bells rang - carried from distant Idlewater, echoed in Concreton, rattled in the rookeries and shattered sourly dull from Rawlinson End.
On the green before the Fool and Bladder, 'Bruiser' Popplewell walloped his big bass drum.
Dr. Headstuffing scrubbed his operating table.
It was All Squid's Day.
"Well," said Buller, ogling Slodden's cassock, "You wanna wear a nice dark suit and plead migratin' circumstances. And if there's an old boiler on the bench, give 'er all eye job." He winked. "She'll see you all right. You're too old for Borstal and they wouldn't send down a sky-pilot anyway. . . "
"Your wit," said Slodden, "would not threaten a snail's brain for accommodation. Eejot! I am summoned to Rawlinson End, no less. There to explicate, exorcise and lay their ghost."
"Lummy!" said Buller. "An inside job."
"As you say, Bullethead," said Slodden. A piece of toilet paper blew from his savagely shaven face and beflagged a crab apple pome before fluttering away. "And a job which needs, Domine dirige nos, a deft eye for the Delft Blue, the Tang and the Ming
"I don't think there's much minge about, chief."
Slodden wrenched Buller close to his face. The beastly stink of parma violet caused the Cockney to wince.
"I refer," breathed Slodden, "my pigmy particeps criminis, to the precious crocks. The Wedgewood and the oh so lovely Waterford. Those precious and most portable of objects without which a great house would be naked and graceless."
Bruiser Popplewell's mighty drum thudded insistence, and the elven tabors (greased with lamb-fat - sacred for the Blazing) jittered repeat, expectancy and exultation.
"It begins," said Slodden.
Just then, with a careless rustling of the undergrowth, a young rabbit sat up on its haunches.
Slodden alarmed, started. "Who! Who is it?" he whispered.
Buller withdrew a catapult from his pocket, and noiselessly loaded the pouch with a ball-bearing. "A Br'er juicy wabbit," he said slowly, drawing the elastic and squinting. "One for the pot - one shot, my old cousin!"
Slodden clamped on Buller's shoulder. "Is it one of God's creatures you would slaughter?" he purred.
Buller swivelled his sighting-eye. "It's worth a couple sheets, chief."
"Kill it," said Slodden, overloudly.
The rabbit scarpered.
Slodden bit into another violet cachou, glaring at still sleeping Rawlinson End. "When witches play dead. . ." he snarled, "they're ready for ducking."
"And Rawlinson End?" asked Buller.
"Is ripe for the plucking."
Bells pealed jubilant - a wedding well done.
Locked in holy deadlock 'til death, thought Slodden.
And to the time of the Wedding March, he sang:
SURE, HERE COMES THE BRIDIE, SHOP-SOILED AND DIRTY,
HERE COMES UGLY BRIDIE WITH THE FELLER ON HER ARM,
HIS SUIT SO PRESSED AND SHINY-O ... AS BLUE AS THE BRINY-O
AS OLD AS THE BLARNEY THAT SHE PLIED TO WIN HIS CHARMS.
NOW WHAT A HANDSOME DUO, THE FELLER'S HAD A FEW-O,
SURE, HIS COLLAR-STUD IS THROTTLIN' HIM,
HE'S SUNK AT LEAST A BOTTLE O' GIN
SURE, BERNARD ISN'T LEARNED MUCH,
FOR LATER IN CONNUBIAL CLUTCH,
SURE, OLD BRIDIE'S WIG WILL SLIDY OFF,
SURE THEN: THE ...
SHIVAREE STARTS WHEN THE SHIFTY-EYED SHREW
STARTS SHELLACKING THE STUFFIN' SURE OUT OF THE FELLER,
WHO BELLOWS BEJABBERS, SHE SWINGS HER SHILLELAGH
THE SHE-DIVIL DAILY BE-LABOURS ME, SURE ...
TO BE SURE,
TO BE SURE,
TO BE SURE!
"To be sure. chief," said Buller, then referring to a gold watch he'd liberated from the last wedding at which he officiated - "You oughta get your finger out."
"To be sure," said Slodden.
He crossed himself, and on the final pass before Spiritus Sancti, slapped Buller across the face with the back of his hand.
"Amen," he said.
And hobbled towards the Great House.
The Fool and Bladder was decked and dressed with flags, tinsels and leftover bits of Christmas. Seth broached two dozen barrels of scrumpy, two dozen of best ale and of mild -eight barrels. These were tiered on three stout tables before the pub. The polished ranks of mugs, glasses and pewter pots betokened an alcoholiday of Atlantic proportion. Rosie powdered her cleavage. All fluttered, blinked and shone.
Bruiser lumbered about the green in an anguish of excitement, thumping his drum and muttering: "Pre-tty. Pre-tty''
Fairminded Mr. Squint paced out and pegged the green for the various events. The adjustable H-bar for the Swine-Tossing was already erected. The Belching Post was, of course, a permanent feature - it only needed a dousing of disinfectant to make it ready and pleasant to use. The old referee carried a bucket of whitewash and a long handled brush: with these he dribbly-stippled the Honking Spot and the square for Heaving-thePatty. Now for Heading-theShot. After positioning and securing the ballista, he noted the trajectory and the distance travelled - and only after more than a score of dummy runs was he satisfied - before marking the nine foot circle wherein the 'shots' might expect to land.
This, with the Belching and Face-jumping, was one of the big events.
The 'shots' were of a sand and dung mortar, blackly encased in tarred hide. Lumpy, though roughly round, each weighed a standard 18 pounds. After only the trial shots Mr. Squint's chalky circle was brutally dimpled. Before evening it would be a' crater.
The rules were simplicity himself. The competitor, arms tied behind his back, a clay pipe stuck in his mouth and a protective band of padded leather on his forehead, would attempt to deflect or 'head' the shot - as far as possible. If the pipe broke the score was halved; but if (as rarely happened) the shot burst on impact, it was declared a 'nutter', was worth twelve points and a bonus go.
The ballista sprung the shots an arching thirty-five feet into the air, and their descent was so rapid that it was rotten luck to have your number called when the sun might shine in your eyes.
Most entrants tended to be men.
Simplicity himself was Bruiser Popplewell, who never had trouble with the sun because his brows were so low. He was undefeated champion.
It promised to be a splendid day. Mild and sunny, though perhaps a wee bit blowy. Mr. Squint, frowning, wetted and held up his finger - if the wind increased it might interfere with the Belching and Honking. Not only did he have the enjoyment of the spectators to consider, but it might affect his scoring. He hadn't earned the name Fairplay Bob for nothing. The last thing needed on All Squid's Day was any dissention or unpleasantness.
Mr. Squint considered the unhappy necessity of screens.
"Did you know there is no proper name for the back of the knees?" said Reg Smeeton.
"T'would be a terrible thing to put screens round 'em," said Fairplay Bob, toddling off to check that the spiked hurdles were of the required razorness.
I know things don't exist until they have names, Smeeton thought, but screens? I've never thought of that. Very odd! I think of everything. He scuttled after the referee. Screen. Scree? Scrimp? And shave? If the population of the world were skinned the area covered would be two thousand two hundred and sixty square miles.
Smeeton had closed and boarded up his shop, but he carried a satchel containing 'programmes' and a few copies of his own short story: 'A Nightmare Newsagent in the Bathroom of Baby-Dump' (From Rags to Bones - a novel). Both items labouriously John Bull printed by the foot method.
Rather a biggish crowd was expected - for too long had the Cuspidor Cup been in the lungs of Rawlinson.
The team from the Fool and Bladder, calling themselves the British Bloaters, was prepared to take on all corners - but particularly the Idlewater Windjammers - and, even more of a threat, the dread Concreton Pneumatics.
The Spike-Hurdling was certain to go to Idlewater's Joey 'Goebbels' Archdale (who had nothing to lose), but the Swine-Tossing, Heaving-the-Patty, Honking, Face-jumping and Catching the javelin were anybody's game. Bruiser, however, could be relied on for the Head Shot, provided he stayed on the lemonade.
But at the Belching Post the Bloaters were uneasy.
Their man, Grant Yewdean (so long as he didn't get the wind up and blow it during the knockout) could inflate a zeppelin. For Sir Henry's pleasure, one Yuletide, he'd succeeded in airing the Twelve Days of Christmas in one breath. His gale-force 'five go-old rungs' swept away the table cloth and extinguished the candles every time. Still, Concreton had hinted at a dark horse - trained on sparkling wine and powdered egg.
This upset Mr. Stumpy, who demanded to know, "Since when it was in the rules, you could enter animals fer the Belching''?'
Mr. Squint told him, "A dark horse is just a manner o' speakin'.
Mr. Stumpy said, "S'long as c's a man o'somewhere, an' not a bloomin' animal," it was all right by him.
Then old Toby asked, "If on the face of it ... considering Mrs. Stumpy - did Mr. Stumpy know the difference anyroad?"
But before Stumpy could react to this, Seth put a restraining word between them. "Now then, lads, No trouble in front of visitors if you please."
The Concreton Pneumatics arrived in a charabanc gay with the colours of their town - grey and light grey - and, with them, to general disgust and catcalls, two smart fellows of the St. John's Ambulance Brigade. This lily-livered precaution heartened the Bloaters no end.
"They'm got the colly-wobbles already," smirked Toby.
"Like as not they'd ask fer anastasia fer a couple of stitches," grinned Stumpy.
"Did you know, it was only when Sir James Simpson administered chloroform to Queen Victoria during a confinement that. . ." began Smeeton.
The ambulance men quickly erected a tent and stood to attention. The 'horse' remained darkly seated in the charabanc in a yellow silky prize fighter's robe. Into his face, obscured by a hood, he introduced german sausages, large spoonfuls of sauerkraut followed by sparkling Asti Sputum force-squirted from a bicycle pump. He looked pretty serious.
Well, whatever ... reasoned the home team ... there's always Jumpin' the Jimmy to fall back in, and there the Bloaters would be playing on home waters.
On the far edge of the green, Rosie took hold of Bruiser's hand. She was the only living being who could control him
"Come along, Mr. Popplewell," she murmured wickedly. "It's time for your treat. You know how much you like that."
Bruiser flushed, and followed her generous rump to the back room of the Fool and Bladder. He tapped his big bass drum quietly.
"Pre-tty, pre-tty," he said.
"You will be very pretty," said Rosie, "and I just know you're going to make a wonderful entrance."
Bruiser lumbered after her - red, twitchy and excited - like a very big naughty boy.
In Hubert's room - his collection of fruit.
Fusty cairns of collapsing paw-paws and pears, avocado-sloped and conference summit -oozing sticky lava into the passage. Hasty breastworks of dusty pistachios stemmed the topple of filbert and walnut; tumbling topples glimpsed banana ha has shifting in a gooseberry glade. Shifting dribbling down the walls warty with mildew over the florid crockled paper. High-rearing lofty coconut follies, defiant in a rhubarb moat, stinking and putrescent. These composts giving off terrific heat and intoxication, creaking and changing to the chomping of insect jaws - and buzzing. Acid-biting the bodies of gorged wasps, and withall the viscosity of mango-chutney. All sugar-dribbly sweet-seeping through the floor boards, french-kissing the beams and syrup-spilth splashing into the dining room below. Below, beneath, the cherub-bum flaky plaster sagged like philosopher's jowls, pimply with a ponderous nausea that threat-Etna-ed deluge.
For meals, Sir Henry sensibly sported a sou'wester.
There was a jangling of bells and a shock of frenzied hounds from the downstairs. Old Scrotum, fez askew, teeter-toting a shovelful of fresh sawdust, bug, bug, buggered his way to the Hall. There to admit the Very Reverend Mr. Slodden, Exorcist, extortionist, and, judging by the many scraps of toilet paper redly stuck to his face, All-Irish Shaving Champion and beard hater.
"I have been summoned," said Slodden, And 'Deo Volente' crossing himself . . . "I will bring peace to this house!"
Scrotum stared at Slodden with bold rustic penetration, smelling sausages and fraud. "Aargh, Oi were summonsed once fer larfin' at sermons ... and rabbitses."
He ushered the cachou-stinking cassocked cleric into the Great Hall, indicating with the spilling shovel a rope stretched between two tennis-posts. ''P'raps you'm like to lean on yere, Sir, while I fetch Master."
Sir Henry was definitely not to be found, or had, and since Florrie was up to her elbows in lard -making Rawlinscones for the Blazing - Hubert was persuaded to leave his collection and himself, and attend.
Slodden was merely examining the marque de fabrique on a particularly splendid vase when Hubert, naked save for a fish-bowl over his head, came down into the room.
"Ah hawls drards," he said. "Oooh Doo?"
Slodden started -'Me Sir?' - then sharply composed, "What?"
Hubert moved alarmingly close, his face nightmare through the distorting glass and the eyes. "Ah hawl. drards," he intoned.
Slodden cupped his ear. "Indeed, I am somewhat hard of hearing." He began to shout. "From the confessional, I hear the poor deaf folk on a Thursday. They shout, y'know - they believe everybody's deaf."
Hubert removed the fish-bowl slowly. "I said, I hate draughts," and he rotated his long fingers about his head.
"Ah sure," said Slodden, with some composure. "Tis' what the prisoners play. I try to give them comfort on their way to the gibbet."
Hubert's eyes of indefinite colour were a curdle of vacuity and mystic intelligence.
Could it be he sees! panicked Slodden, knowing his pedigree was graven on his face - causelets of despair and the stuff of drunken nights, cheek-slaps against a bar top, stumbling, tear streaks in the dust, scabs fresh-picked like new brickwork on a National Trust House. The prodding and the push, down the tunnel at Oxford Circus and the push push of the Circle Line. And the closing closeness ... and the lies and dressing up . . . and the push. Tired sauceprints on a plate, and cups that echo mouths turned down for the night. Fried fodder munched to a sodden mulch. Mr. Slodden. The yester-thoughts of a slow today. Mr. Slodden. Blue pencil on a black slate. Mr. Slodden knew fear as he did not know God.
Hubert took an apple from a dish studded with painted cockleshells, and bit deeply.
"You Sir," mumbled Slodden, "with such natural, not to say, naked, hearing and dignity, must be, I can only assume the beloved and notor . . . noted Master of Rawlinson End."
Hubert opened his mouth very wide - to display the contents - and held this attitude for a long time. Then he closed it. "No," he said. "I am Hubert." Adding dreamily, "I do not know my last name . . . 'no ring on my finger, a pale face clutching at the pane . . . lost in a snowdrift clutching a tiny bundle.`
Slodden, with a smile comforting as a zip, put his ingratiating arm about the shoulders of a fellow human being, nude, rich, insane and understandably overcome and maybe an easy touch.
"Do you like riddles?" asked Hubert suddenly, quite composed.
"I!" Slodden pulled away quickly, angry. "Yes, yes, conundrums, anagrams, acronyms and teasers, all puzzles are to me food for the . . . "
Hubert fixed him with a quieting stare, and mouthed, "I'm easy to bend, I begin where I end, I'm soft and I'm pink and I'm shy. I'm hairless and harmless and legless and armless. I give you three guesses - Who am I?"
Slodden took a clumsy step back - but Hubert moved close.
"Ah! The search for the Self, the psyche, the soul and . . . and ... and would you have the convenience of a smoke? No? The doppelganger, the Id and the alter ego. Ha ha, God loves a sheep. Nudis verbis say to speak. Obscurum per obscurius. "
Alarmed, Slodden took a rumpled filter-tip from some shadowed recess of his person and lit it.
Hubert, with a sweetness somehow out of place and with breath redolent of peppermint, said, "I do not fume, nor do I frown on those who do. Here is a clue. Simple Simon going to the fair Ground."
Smoking with passionate intensity and dramatic exuberance, the wretched Slodden assumed a face of tortured pondering.
"The answer is a worm," said Hubert, "you have three guesses left." With which he turned and drifted like a wooden Christ towards the stairs.
Thoroughly appalled and gape-mouthed, Slodden was further dismayed to note lipsticked on the lean and retreating left buttock of Hubert, the words, 'This Way Up'. Visions of the sins of the Cities of the Plain, packing cases, escalators, exits. Yes, should get out. No! His mission -and the riches of Rawlinson. "There are some things," he called.
Hubert wheeled. "I like THINGS." With this he pointed to a dusty glass dome enclosing what appeared to be a large pickled walnut in a wig. "Uncle Horace. He donated his head to the family."
"Horace, yes, yes," said Slodden warily. "The Satires and the Poetic Arse ... dear Lord . . . I mean the Ars Poetica. In nomine patris deus et machina. Perhaps I will have that drink you mentioned."
"Did I mention a drink?" asked the naked Hubert.
"More like ye didn't and it slipped the mind," replied the priest with growing menace.
From the walls growling with weapons and trophies of the hunt, Hubert plucked a grey walking stick. "This is one of his legs. We use the other one for ... I had a lot of spots once but they went away." Then, using the leg as a crutch, "Anything else?"
"Well, perhaps I'd best be boning up on some family history, if there is any to be had."
Hubert stared up at the ceiling upon which a flight of pigs had been described. "Oh yes," he said thoughtfully. "There are some lies upon which I think you'll find we all agree."
This last did not dispirit Slodden in the meanest, and he stamped his fag dead on a Persian rug. "Well, tell me, is there any trace of insanity, alcoholism or generosity in the family?"
Hubert paused, grasping the leg as he would his ukelele, then sang: "Chonk chonk chonka, Standing up - sitting down, What is in between) Standing down - sitting up, a question of hygiene. Hygiene, lowgiene, middle-muddle gene - Chromosomes, What does riddle-ruddle fiddle-faddle mean? Lie down Fido."
He seemed rather pleased with this, but Slodden persisted.
"About the family?"
Hubert continued up the stairs. "Oh yes," he airily murmured, "I'd say we're pretty normal as a bunch. Do you like jumping?"
"Not a great deal," said Slodden, coughing from the ascent. "Y'see, I lost my leg." To illustrate this he rapped his cassock below the knee. There was a convincing thonk.
',I'm always losing things," Hubert said without interest, "Though sometimes Florrie tidies them away or ... Henry steals them. I'll ask Henry about your leg."
From the grounds came the report of a shotgun - then another. Slodden started, but Hubert continued. "Did you put your name on it? It's a sagacious precaution."
"No no ... it's a long story," snarled Slodden.
Hubert was oddly galvanised. "Will I understand it?"
"The literati would piss it," spat Slodden, grasping the banister.
They were now at the top with dim corridors yawning left and right.
"This is where Humbert walks," said Hubert sepulchrally, cupping his mouth. "Oooooh, ooohl"
The priest jumped and his cassock rose to reveal that the grey sock of his right leg was attached with drawing pins.
"I don't like stories without pictures I can understand," said Hubert, "I get sleepy. I like surprises. He's behind you!"
Horrified, Slodden spun on his good leg. There was the sharp click of a door opening or closing - and echoes clattering - to where? Slodden was alone.
Then a voice, ratty, sibilant and quick - from behind.
... E got anthrax orf 'is shaving brush, dear. The bristles were made of horse-hair.
Goose-flesh steps on Slodden's spine, and groping for stability, he turned to see the housekeeper.
Somewhere, muffled, a ukelele began to plink, plink, plink.
THE CRACKS ARE SHOWING
THE CRACKS ARE SHOWING
LISTEN TO THE LOONIES CROON,
WHILE THE MAN IN THE MOON
THAT THEY LEFT BEHIND
IS RISING IN THE EAST
HEIGH-HA-HO THE WAY THINGS ARE
THE CLOCKS ARE BARING THEIR TEETH,
TICK .... GRANDFATHER'S STOPPED
TIME FOR TIME TO FLASH HER DAZZLING DENTURES.
HEIGH-HA-HO THE WAY THINGS ARE
THE CRACKS ARE SHOWING
THE CRACKS ARE SHOWING
THE CRACKS ARE
Chapter 8 - Gooseflesh Steps
Mrs. E proffered a steelmesh basket of chips and Slodden - distracted snatched, to gnaw as greedily as he would at a tidbit of advantageous information.
The housekeeper clambered inelegantly into a dumb-waiter and, with a rattle, lowered herself into the kitchen via the food-shaft.
Slodden (he had left his galoshes in the hall) ruminated on his position, then proceeded cat-burglar on felt-soled shoes.
I need secrets, more secrets. Secrets = Power. He had scrawled that on a slate in a wooden schoolroom in County Mayo when he was eight. Perhaps it was for that . . . it was not for the 'mysteries' or the adventure of them or even for the Mother ... that he had trained for the church.
The starchy cud was of a reassuring texture, and he was about to swallow the fatty horror when - his blunted tastebuds blossomed - to urge dismissal. Ugh! He yurked into his hand.
A normal man would have spat on the carpet; but Memory recalled a sore bum and an Irish mother wielding a hair brush. Pontificating on manners 'that maketh the fellow'. Thwap! Especially if he be 'of a mind to hobnob with the nobs'. Thwap! 'And not the bliddy spalpeen of the father who - Thwap! - begot him. Or - thwap! so he said.' No. Slodden was his own man. and the Very Reverend - if only the while. He clenched the glutinous pulp, knowing there would be a potted plant, window or whatever, the where to dispose of it - with grace.
He passed two doors.
Alone in the corridor feeling himself alone - yet the noises. Rawlinson soughed like a zoo on Guy Fawkes Night. Slodden was not entirely unnerved, though the paintings had a weird presence. It seemed many eyes followed him. And the whispers:
'Slodden in the haunted house,
Slodden stuck in Hubert's ooze -
Headlong for a fall.'
And the disjointed giggling.
Mr. Slodden passed a further two doors. Over one: 'Them as ain't bain't worthy of nowt', and over the other: 'If you see something you don't understand - smash it,'
Both admirable sentiments, thought Slodden. He sucked his teeth, absorbing and absorbed in his selfhess. Each placing of the foot, the cooled sweat on his brow, the sacristy swish of his cassock, the thudding pump, the pores of the skin sucking, breathing - knowing of the external self. The now, soft-tread, juices of marrow, alert Slodden-ness. His feet stopped. Hubert's fruity ooze, a chameleon rug, rose to entrap him. The ukelele and soft voice stopped. It was waiting,
Slodden wrestled for equilibrium. The cloying syrup clung like triffids to his felt feet.
With an immense tug he freed both good and duff leg from the quaggy cling. Off balance, he fell against a door. The door burst open, and Mr. Slodden was silhouette dazzled, and humbled in cathedral light.
Defiant on a table top, seeming to shimmer in an iridescent nimbus, stood - a goddess. No! A succubus so powerful of loin she could drain mortal man of his vital juices and reduce him to a whimpering husk.
No pyjamas could contain her.
"Tis my Road to Damascus," whimpered the husk of Slodden.
He was transfixed, unable to rise.
The vision did not move.
Essential core of woman, oiled legs astraddle, oiled arms akimbo, eyes concentrated on the blank wall above the shell hood of the door in which - on all fours cowered the worshipper.
Florrie, caught entwining bryony about the 'goddess's' sandal leggings as though in genuflection before the tableau, pricked the bubble.
"Mr. Slodden," she said, overjoyed.
"Himself Madam, himself," stammered Slodden, awkwardly attempting to rise.
"O, Mr. Slodden, do let me help," said Florrie, taking his arm. His odd leg clunked. "Stolen and eaten by savages, I've no doubt," she said brightly. "In one of their beastly ceremonies. Horace left us his - one of them just might fit. What do you think, Mr. Slodden? It is Slodden, is it not?"
Slodden was earthed to the still motionless vision.
"The very same," he babbled. "Poor Slodden - servant of the supernatural, savant of the theosophy, religions of all persuasions, including the curiosities - and deep massage given."
"O!" gasped Florrie, "And who dare say in what form the Savior might come." She clasped his hands. "So very happy!"
Slodden responded to this adulation. "Exorcism, baptism, galvanism," he intoned. "And," drilling her with a meaningful ruby eye, "the stuff of Mesmer. Sufism, Islam and the phallicities of Crowley." Here he glared at Candice, rising in pitch dramatically. "All the rites of Thelema, Adept, nay Ipsissimus - the very Zorro of Zoroastrianism."
At this juncture the inspired Mr. Slodden stopped.
Florrie was gazing wide-eyed in wonderment at their locked hands. The chippy gob was oozing between their enjoined knuckles, pobbling porridgely down their wrists.
"Aargh, the very . . ." croaked Slodden, pulling away. "Help me, St. Jude, pigeons ... gastro ... dear God. . . "
Florrie looked solemn. "Mr. Slodden," she said slowly, stroking the grey horror in her palm. "I believe it is the ectoplasm."
Candice gave throat to a low moan and shook as if possessed. Then, like the controlled collapse of serpents, insinuated herself yogically to the floor. Her light toga shifted with the rhythm to bare a heart-stopping cream of thigh.
Slodden wrestled with snaky thoughts of a most unprofitable colour.
"My daughter, Candice," explained Florrie. "Perhaps you have met in another carnation?"
Mr. Slodden bowed knowingly, and put his sticky hands behind his back.
"I do hope you will know each other. She never cats."
This last sped another unprofitable thrill through Slodden's roue flesh, but was quieted -concealed in his cassock.
There was a startling clash of thunder.
Over a mile away white-coated Mr. Squint cursed.
"O! How Agatha!" exclaimed Florrie. "What a perfect mousetrap, Mr. Slodden. You know Hubert delights in lightning. He says . . ." Florrie bit her lip. he says the cracks are showing. Isn't that clever, Mr. Slodden?"
"A metaphysical observation of Tartarean profundity, Ma'am'' said Slodden, crocodile kindly,
Florrie took Slodden's arm and steered him into the corridor. There was yet another thunderous rumble. The house shivered.
"It promises to be rather a big mouse, Ma'am'' comforted Slodden.
"O no," whispered Florrie. "That was the hermit, poor man."
They paused by a rosewood framed photograph.
"Sir Hilary and his sons," Florrie said with pride.
The picture showed jolly, hugely-bearded Sir Hilary, in riding boots and habit, roaring with mirth - one arm about a glowering resentful Henry.
Hubert stood a little apart in a straw hat, holding a trident and a shield.
But the foreground left was the object of Sir Hilary's pleasure - Humbert. This giant restrained a bulldog seemingly intent on savaging the camera. The photograph terminated at the giant's whiskered neck.
"That is our Humbert," said Florrie. "The rightful heir to Rawlinson. With his beloved Gums, of course. We always had that problem with photographers - either they lost you round the knees or they chopped Humbert's head off."
Slodden squeered over the top of the picture where Humbert's head should have been, where instead was a silver lamp.
E. P. N. S. or solid? he wondered.
"I could, of course, describe him to you," said Florrie, closely. "I knew every . . . well ... intimately. And I've quite a memory for . . . "
Slodden shook his head. "It is the shade we seek and not the substance." He idled his hand around the back of the lamp - simple screw-fitting. Hallmark? Hmmm. "And you say you've never seen him. Only the dog and the trousers?"
"We hear him," said Florrie solemnly.
Candice, in floating white, isadora'd before them.
"The shadowless breath. the breathing without shadow," she exhaled huskily.
"Verily, and how unnerving to the neophyte. Et hoc omne," gasped Slodden. "A caveat here, dear young lady. To probe without instruction is perilous indeed."
Then - with a pas seul. so abandoned, erotic and gymnastic it would shock a transvestite coroner, knacker a macaque, and leave Terpsichore gasping for the salts she led them to the North Wing.
"To initiate you in the mysteries, t'would be a privilege," inhaled Slodden, hobbling in her scented wake.
"This is Humbert's room," announced Florrie. "If we lock the door he spends the nights kicking it in. We must even oil the hinges. What a dreadful to-do, Mr. Slodden!"
"Ah now, this world is surely . said Slodden.
There was Henry's rough-barked command from somewhere in the grounds: "Pull!" Then the boof, boof of a shotgun, and - more distinct - polite applause.
Slodden saw Candice pirouetting on the croquet lawn some twenty feet below. Had she leapt? Was she flesh? Oh yes, fleshly she was. is surely ... the purgatory of another planet far beyond the . . ."
Then he noticed the stuffed bulldog. He knelt to inspect its collar. And noted the blue fire of the gems. Sparklers! And the three balls of Uncle - a fortune! - fortes Fortuna adjuvat!
Warm chips arranged on a grubby doily were thrust into his face. Slodden yelped.
"Give you a shock, dear?" said a concerned Mrs. E. "Old E got the shocks. Like when 'e caught me over the saucepan with a towel over me head. Said it was the bogeyman. Mmm, but it was only Friar's balsam for the respiritories, dear." She made a pitiful curtsey, smiled and left the room - sucking her teeth girlishly.
"Mr. Slodden," tittered Florrie, "I do believe you've made a hit."
Outside, Sir Henry achieved a double hit, and two tiny parachutists shot through with shot plummetted to earth.
"Love is the Law," proclaimed Candice, clasping a Herm at the edge of the Pickle far below.
"Love under Will!" called Slodden, banishing thoughts of hot encounters from his mind.
"Every year at this time," said Florrie, stroking the bulldog, "He walks. And Humbert's growling is so convincing! Even in life you couldn't see his lips move. I was putting the final touches to Candice's dress - well, you know it's expected for the Blazing - when I remembered. How Humbert loved a steep hill! He simply charged down them, roaring and barking, people were truly frightened! Silly, isn't it? Everyone knew poor Gums was dead - but Humbert was so accomplished he might have gone on the wireless if he'd have chosen".
"And at the Blazing?" asked Slodden with difficulty. The chips were nibbling at the walls of his stomach like grey worms.
"O, at the Blazing ... well, Henry does get very cross with him."
"Pagans need whips," declared Slodden. "I will commune with the spirits, but now, as we say before Communion: Nunc est Bibendum. In short, a drink - to cleanse the third eye."
"O! Bread, wine and rabbit's feet," she said, uplifted. "Of course, and perhaps you'll take a macaroon?"
But the chipworms writhed in Slodden's maw. "Truly, I am at the frontiers of a trance," he sputtered. "Would you have the convenience of a toilet?"
"O several," said Florrie, gaily waving to the corridor. "Choose almost any door."
"I will ... I.
"How and O how! I know you mystics need your peace," called Florrie. "Wasn't it Bennett, or one of the Huxleys, who could by his conviction cause leeches to drop from his wrists?"
"Hux ... hux!" hawked the rushing Slodden, cupping his mouth with a chippy hand - and only just stemming a mighty bennett.
Bruiser Popplewell stepped out into the sunlight just as the qualifying heats for the Belching were reaching their gaseous conclusion.
".. . C . . . D . . . E . . . F . . . G . . . AITCH . . . i . . . jer . . . ker . . . ller . . ."
"Out!" called Mr. Squint. He blew his whistle and looked anxiously at the sky.
"Aitch is always the biggie, " said Seth. "Separates the men from the blowflies."
This was true. The 'knockout', or qualifying round, entailed airing the alphabet in a single eructation without pause for breath - or prompting. (To prevent the latter entrants were blindfolded.) Thus it required immense breath-control and some education. Would-be champs were also ear-plugged so's to blot out any verbal assistance. This dated from the year a strong contender, having attained L . . . M . . . N . . . O . . . O . . . hesitated - and heard a shout of P! Q! from his excited manager. His rivals, being English, naturally formed a queue and soaked the judges.
One of the Concreton side had made a public address system from a hi-fi set and was wondering about in search of Mrs. Shakeshaft - as 'he wanted to use her socket'. She'd be paid - it was 'all in a good cause'. When this got around he was badgered by leering bumpkins demanding to see how big his plug was. Nor did it help when he explained that 'as soon as he had the juice up everybody could hear it properly'. Some said they'd like to see it an' all. So the man was debagged - and since he wasn't a 'two-pin like what he'd boasted'- was chucked in the Jimmy, flex an' all.
Toby said he should be locked up. "Filthy beggar!"
Bruiser looked very pretty. Rosie had done a wonderful job. He was glossy glossy and marvellous. His lank hair was clean and plaited, and he had been polished to a fine shine. At his cars and breasts were rosettes: he wore orange shorts and Cambridge-blue ribbons about his knees. Even leotarded Ruffian Dick came over to slap him on the back and declare him: 'the prettiest blamed Bruiser he's ever clapped peepers on'.
Bruiser beamed. Today everybody was pre-tty too.
Poor Bruiser had a somewhat sad history.
His family had been fairground folk and they ran a 'roll-up, roll-up' coconut shy. It was the young Bruiser's job to nip round the back and collect the wooden balls. One day, instead of replacing a coconut in the cup, he stuck his head in the sawdust, encouraging the punters to 'roll-a-bowl-a-ball'.
Surprisingly, the maniacal barrage of balls 'roll-a-bowled' from the drunken punters didn't bother Bruiser a bit. He even went to sleep with them bouncing off his head.
,,Must be sumfink funny about humankind" - but Bruiser's dad soon cottoned on that people liked hitting people - so he dispensed with the nuts and prizes. And billed:
'The Shy Human - The Human Shy! Hit Him If You Can! 3 balls a tanner! Make him cry - and your money back!'
Bruiser never blubbed. He kipped through it.
Before twelve year old Bruiser stole his first car and pushed it away from home (in gear with the handbrake on), he was the most popular money-spinner after the Big Wheel. Probably it was this early experience that made him Head-Shot Champ.
Being more than a little stupid, he spent most of his life in nick , being bailed out or released only for All Squid's Day. As a rule he was easy-going and friendly, loving only his drum (from which he was deaf), and everything. However, even a half of scrump could turn him into a barging brute. Tread on a ladybird, swat a gnat - Bruiser would butt down stone walls in a rage.
Rosie made sure Bruiser stayed on the ginger beer. In his cups, the combined brawn of Seth and Ruffian Dick couldn't hold him.
A large red-faced farmworker from Idlewater, with arms like tractors, stripped to the waist, paced out an enormous run-up.
The Face-jumping involved leaping onto a volunteer partner's head, lightly touching, then springing off. To draw blood, scratch or squash a nose meant loss of points or, if the partner squealed, disqualification. Speed was of the essential.
The farmworker began his run
... E's got no chance," said Seth to Ruben above the thunder of the feet. "Yon silly boogers wearin' spiked runnin' shoes."
The grinning partner grinned supine on the green. The Idlewater man scored only his partner's face: the partner would grin a twelve~month or more.
"Still - it brings a bit o' cheerful inter folk's lives, like it or not . . . grinnin' can't be bad," said Percy, and he whistled the chorus of 'Let a Great Big Grin Be Your Insurance'.
"You'm as daft as a discount," said Theo. "I've sold more Milk o' MacNeasy this mornin' as 'ould cough up the Milky Way."
"Did you know, if the Horsehead Nebula were visible to the naked eye said Reg Smeeton.
"They drown AI Beaners in Africa in case 'ey turn into horses," said Theo.
"An' a good thing too," said Nipper Tewkes, "else where I ould honest tailors be? Tryin' t'fit trowses on animals?"
Thump thumpa thump thumpa prah prah prah.
The village band slurred into voice as Old Scrotum, the Wrinkled Retainer, arrived for the finals. Having spent the morning burnishing the barbed wire about Sir Henry's small but daunting P.O.W. camp, and then helping the Master wi' shootin' the parachuters, and then that awful slog 'cross field and bog - he was outside two pints of scrump before he could manage a word.
... Ow goes it, then? 'Ow we'm a-doin' of?'' he wheezed.
There was more riding on the outcome of All Squid's Day than the Cuspidor Cup - the losing team (or Foozlers) had to cough up Seth's bill for the scrump and ale consumed during the games.
"Thou't bluddy late," said Seth.
"Aaargh, " puffed Scrotum. "Waste o' good drinkin' time. I 'ad to go up an' see if the ole girl 'ad finished 'er bloomin' breakfast."
"What old girl?" asked Toby. "You bain't be marriaged now. Your old cow gone flung a dummy 'bout ... ooh must be. . . "
"Not my old cow - Sir 'Enry's ma, you'm daft bugger," said Scrotum crossly.
"Well, 'ad she then, finished it like?" asked Seth, as Mr. Stumpy passed by on a stretcher.
"Course not," spat Scrotum, "nice bit o' smoked 'addock, bin there by the side o' the bed gettin' cold fer the last three years".
"By 'eck - three years! Does she do owt?"
Scrotum took a loud slurp of cider. "Course not. She'm just lyin' there wi' 'er gob wide open, catchin' flies an' playin' wi' rats. Sir 'Enry says, Mother or no, she'm not gettin' no more grub 'til she'm finished wi' the last lot.
"Well, 'c's fair."
"Ah, 'c's fair enough, " affirmed Scrotum, "but 'ow we doin'?'
"Well, I'd say Idlewater's out of it b'now. They made a right exhibition in the Honking. Their top man reckoned 'e'd over-trained and 'e was sufferin' wi' post-nasal depression or summat. "
"So it's neck an' neck wi' Concreton lads?"
"Aye, we'll see what they're made of at Belchin' Post. An' there's always Bruiser to bump oop score. By the by, where is Bruiser?"
Reg Smeeton, smelling strongly of newsprint, patted down the back of his wig. "Did you know there is no proper name for the back of the knees?"
An Idlewater man dashes past them and launched himself over the Jimmy.
"No style," said Seth. "Before operation I could clear a snooker table - full length mind - from a standin' joomp. Ah could'ha made a mint had ah bin a bit more shrewd."
Unnoticed, a passing woodpigeon vacated onto Smeeton's ploughman's coypuburger. Smeeton spoke with his mouth full.
"Did you know that the elephant shrew never closes its eyes?"
The Idlewater man had encountered a submerged punt in his attempt, and was dragged babbling, dazed and slimy to Dr. Headstuffing's house.
"No class," said Seth.
Smeeton nodded with ill-feigned interest in the present reality, but the mad flexions of his face muscles and butterfly tie of his left eyelid argued the mental tumult within.
jiggling, niggling, quacking - urging datum and fervid facts chattering in Stockhausen tongues -warring for outlet.
"Drawing from my vast, though admittedly unresolved, catalogue of general know-it-all, evidence and figures of interest, all corroborated (Corroborree: a sacred or warlike assembly of aboriginals) and cross-referenced. May I remind you of the exploits of one William Barker of Manchester. In the 1890's, Billy cleared a canal 35 feet wide, making a running jump, jack-knifing into a second, to land perfectly dry on the other wide. This was called Spring jumping. Nothing at all to do with the period vernal equinox to the summer solstice, of course."
Heedless of this jabber, Seth turned to Scrotum. "Ah ain't so nimble now ... but I used to jump in an' out of a barrel o' eggs wi'out crackin' a shell.
Scrotum drained his glass.
With a sharp crack, the ballista heaved the first shot of the afternoon high into the air, and a great hurrah went up as the missile thwumped - and burst - on Bruiser's head.
... E didn't even feel it," chuckled Toby.
"Ea-sy ... Ea-sy," taunted Bruiser.
The Concreton Pneumatics shifted uneasily in their blazers.
Rubber aproned Dr. Headstuffing looked up from the javelin wound in Mr. Stumpy's sternum -into which he was forcing iodine with a grease gun - at least Bruiser wouldn't need medical assistance. If anything so tricky as brain surgery were required, you'd need a chain saw to get through his skull.
Thwump! B-Burst! Thwump! B-Burst!
Three nutters on the trot. How the Bloaters cheered!
So long as Rosie stood where Bruiser could see her, and he didn't try any fancy footwork like some - well, he could just stand there 'till the cows.
Fairplay Bob Squint was beside himself with pride. Reg Smeeton was beside himself, arguing. Besides, the Bloaters had it in the bag.
Mrs. Shakshaft ran out of shillings and the public addresser tapered to a shout.
There was a brilliant flash. The thunder rolled to disgorge its early hints.
Mr. Squint ran for cover. "Screens! Screens! Screens!"
The Belching would have to wait.
"Pre-tty," said Bruiser, and he picked up his drum.
Mr. Slodden coughed convulsively down the Main Staircase, and paused at the foot of it to light a creased cigarette. As he swallowed the first deep chokeful, one of Henry's foxhounds pounced - and playfully snapped at his wrist. Slodden winded the animal with a nasty kick and - swearing horribly in Gaelic - backed into the Library.
"Such a command of the tongue!" greeted Florrie, clasping her hands. "O! Hearken Candice, this good man has indeed the gift of the gab at his fingertips."
Atop an Adam cabinet stuffed with priceless oddments of Horace, Candice unfolded like erotic honey - from the Plough posture to the Lion position.
Slodden bowed with insoucient impishness. "And the Goob of the Gabber, Ma'am'' he said seriously - smugly assured he could get away with any nonsense. "Aramaic he may speak, within the Gooba of the Ka'aba - Asbestos gelos bedad. "
"Mr. Slodden! You are shameless in your intellect," twittered Florrie.
"Ah ladies, excuse the noisy machinery of the mind. Mute ferrets are best equipped for the tunnels of Arcana." Slodden cleared his throat - the content of which was quickly apparent to the lady of the house.
Florrie indicated the slack-jawed walnut cabinet. "If you are quite recovered from your trance, perhaps some refreshment of . . ."
"Of a different spiritual gender, dear lady?" Slodden was beginning to enjoy himself.
"Say when," said Florrie, gaily pouring port.
"Ah, but what a slippery fugitive fellow of a word that is," said the priest, stroking the fine tooled binding of 'Dead Men Don't Need Haircuts'. If this was a first edition! It could be worth?
The book and its companions were, unlike the rest of the Library, comparatively dust-free. The favourite reading fodder of the Rawlinsons? No. Behind these much-thumbed tomes lay -what? A safe? A box? A vault? A treasury? The stash of Mammon? A lever? A button? Just a pass - the right touch and? Ballbearings would roll, sand shift weights, cogs and balances to - open? Open and disgorge. The right word perhaps?
"Open Sesame," murmured Slodden, accepting a port so large it would drown Southampton.
"And sunflower seeds as well," said Florrie. "So very good for the complexion."
Slodden gulped garnet, rubies and riches.
"I can see you have a hunch, Mr. Slodden. And so soon!"
"Ah bless you, Ma'am. I do have certain conjectures, hypotheses and hunches." Slodden expanded with a limp hand. "The weird sisters, and the shades of the dead, the dear departed and the wronged wraith of your beloved . . . make clear their wonts and wants as the essence of slow-slow-worms, sluggish, imbued and imbrued with the wet journey from anarchy to alchemical. . . "
Mrs. E sidled up behind him, tugging gently at his sleeve. Without looking, he gave up his empty glass - presuming to get a refill.
"The deep speak to the deep," he said deeply.
Something warm tipped into his palm. It was not a drink.
"See, 'c wouldn't let me examine 'is stools," snealed Mrs. E. "I can tell a lot by lookin'. But 'e'd pull the chain before 'e'd finished wipin' - he was that shy, mmm. Undressed in a mask, dear. Y'see, they should float."
Drizzle bickered at the perspiring windows. Mrs. E drew the heavy curtains and turned up the lamps. "But 'c wouldn't be without 'is electric belt. Swore by it." She blew her nose on her apron. "At 'ome, 'e just plugged it in, but if 'e 'ad to go out 'e took batteries. even 'ad it rigged up to the dynamo of 'is bicycle.
Mrs. E winked, grinned self-consciously. and curtsied out of the room.
"She is unspoken for," whispered Florrie. "She is a widow, but these days well . . . and although we'd hate to see her go . . ."
Slodden, clenching the potato slugs in his fist, thought he'd very much enjoy 'seeing her go'.
"There is no question of that," he said firmly - but with a feigned hint of sadness.
"But the answer, Mr. Slodden - you have it?"
"Ah, the answer must be only for the cars and pocket, forgive me, of the Master of Rawlinson End, Mesdaines." Quickly. he lobbed the ghastly chips into the fire noting that, like heretics, they squirmed and defied the flames. "I have the answer . . . the only possible conclusion to this vale of . . . of chips."
"Henry will be with us presently." said Florrie brightly. "He hates killing in the rain. In many ways he's very thoughtful."
Henry burst in.
He was wet. Wetter outside than in. what? And one must have balance in all things. He flung his shotgun into an armchair - where it detonated immediately shattering a lamp and blasting the bookcase.
Mrs. E stuck her head round the door. "Yiss?"
Henry blew off - and she vanished. "Off, dear."
"Rain stopped play, what?" he roared, then marched straight to the booze cabinet. On his way -he noticed the cassock and dog-collar. "Hello? A holy roller? Come to see about the rats, padre?" Henry turned to Florrie. "Why?" he barked.
"Henry, dear," soothed Florrie, "Mr. Slodden is a divine. He has come to speed poor Humbert to rest."
Henry glowered at the buff whiting face above the dog-collar. "Stop the racket, eh? Well, what stripe are yer?"
"The . . . er ... rainbow, Sir Henry, is but a measure of my spiritual diameter," quested the fishy Slodden. "Allow me to unfold my pedigree, Sir Henry. I am once Anglican, Papist, Buddhist and Ipsissimus of the severalth degree. And. . . "
"And you won't be staying the night - the priest-holes are stuffed with empties."
"No, no, the preparation is too painful for the mundane to share .
"Incidentally, before I get drunk - have you killed?"
Again Slodden knew goose-flesh steps up his spine. "Only those prejudices which, errare est humanum, Sir Henry, are the very stunting, the death of . . , "
"The Hun?" bellowed Henry, swallowing his third enormous brandy.
"Ah, the Lutheran was a great reformer, and I believe he meant well. However
"And I have employed you?" gruffed Henry, settling into a chair with the bottle.
"Henry, be kind," hushed Florrie.
Henry leaned forward. "And what kind of kind, Mr. Sliding?"
"The shade of the dear departed," said Slodden, deeply statesmanlike, "will find no rest until he has trousers to suit."
"Well, I'm buggered," said Henry. "You astound me."
"A brainwave," trilled Florrie.
Slodden hid a smile with a cough.
"A brain? You stinking druid!" Henry reached for his shotgun - but Florrie stayed his hand.
"Hush, Henry," she said.
"Henry pulled an orange cartridge from his pocket and pointed. 'I knew a man of the cloth once, Sodden. Hargreaves. Y'see, the natives had it in their noddles that if a chap's soul was pure -the snakebite wouldn't harm him. To prove it: Old Hargreaves died in horrible agony."
Henry roared with laughter.
"My blueprint for the solution . quavered Slodden.
"You have a map?"
"A blueprint for the peace, the quietude .
"No violence or shooting?"
"O, let him finish. Be silent, Henry."
Henry snorted. "When I kept my silence my bones waxed old, through my shouting the whole night long."
Florrie was impressed.
"Ah, the Psalm 32," said Slodden. "You astonish this sacerdotal coeur, Sir Henry. But to the meat of it: your brother Humbert will never rest until the appropriate trousers have been furnished. I have an oriental acquaintance who has the facility to manufacture such a pair in the twinkling. His employment. . . "
"Employment," burped Henry. "is the brandy of the damned."
"To continue," continued Slodden. "Let us arrest the ghost in his wanderings for but the fleetest of fittings. We will reveal him, and then with incantations and certain prayers Slodden held his hands In a benedictory expression of blissful windless repose. "There is, however, the question of . . . well, perhaps a trifle towards the necessary expense of the e venture.
"CODS!' roared Henry. "C.O.D. Cash on delivery. Slodden. Deliver me and Cods, Mister Slods - goddit? Good. Now Slod orff'
Florrie showed Mr. Slodden into the hall.
"A man of infinite compassion, Ma'am'' he said, looking back to the Library.
"And the way, Mr. Slodden?"
"The way is hard - and expensive - I fear. Poor Humbert must, for all your mind's sake, be put to rest. And the way involves CADS."
"C.A.D.S." spelled Slodden sharply. "The Concreton Amateur Dramatic Society. their recent production of Macbeth leaves Birnam Wood to come to Rawlinson at my beckon."
"O! " said Florrie. "Help us. I beg you."
"Ma'am, 'tis now my consuming purpose to furnish even the unready with the means." He scratched at a piece of toilet paper on his chin.
"And the ready?" braved Florrie.
"Must be fuelled by the quick. We will pose as trees, Ma'am. His dog-beast Gums will pause and. . . "
"A ruse! How thrilling! Garlic flowers in every room. O, Mr. Slodden, I think I knew when first I caught the incense on your breath today."
Slodden plucked his felt hat from the hallstand and set it at a roguish slant. "Should you need me, betimes . He graciously bent over to kiss her hand - and slid on his galoshes.
'I have only .
"To cough up," said Slodden softly, then he turned and bowed. "Dear lady, they steal the lead from the roof of compassion."
He patted an unconsidered trifle in his trouser pocket - a silver apostle spoon to be precise -worth possibly?
"Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa," he murmured - and stepped rubberly out into the night.
Chapter 9 - Spades Balls and Sausage Trees
The gutters leaked like secrets and the rain rain rained like rain at Rawlinson End. Florrie felt she simply must bone up on exorcism and the like, 'so's not to seem silly', so up to her bed she lugged: 'Werewolves & Hasbeans', 'The Un-Happy Harpy','Deadly Shades I've Bade Adieu' and 'To'mmorah Go Sod 'Em'.
She shivered asleep, covers over her head, clutching a garlic-crusher to her mouth; to fall into a scary metropolis inhabited with hairy painted men who howled and ate throats, tarts with talons and swarthy Mediterranean Medusas with smelly poisonous spaghetti eyebrows.
In the Library, the log fire spat tracer over doomed Dresden and Sir Henry, pooped, exhausted and of a more tranquil kidney - having spent the last expiring part of the day chuckling over the obituaries in The Times - was in expansive mood. Monocle at ease, glass in hand, lolling in a cockpit leather armchair: "Course there were troops in the city - thousands of 'em - massing for last ditch counter-attack. Dan dan dan. Ncooooowwwwhhh. Brummmm-p! Ker-ker-ker-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk."
He glanced over his shoulder. The huge wolfhound snored. He was quite alone.
"Dan dan. Death's Head fanatics, the lot of 'em. Heads like peanuts. Bad news, lock?"
Silent as a smelly one, Hubert entered the room.
The ragged grey wolfhound stretched and yawned in a snow-cold dream of forests. Hubert soft-shoe'd a gammy gout bandage across to the snoozy beast - just in case he woke up peckish.
"Aye Sir," replied Hubert, passably Jockish. "It's the puppy, Sir. On the windswept tarmac . . . during the Blackout. Jerry came over and.
Henry stared into the fire. The voices were his alone.
Hubert made shadow-shapes of warlike things on the Library walls: aeroplanes, alsatians, spies peek-a-boo in the trees, hand-grenades. Fearsome, advancing, close, exploding - shadow craft and shadow play - with spitting logs for gunfire.
Hubert loved his mad brother.
"The way he was whimpering, Sir."
"Was it over quickly ... was it?"
"Would have been a mercy had the end been sooner, I .
, 'Dammit, a man feels naked without a dog." Henry scrunched a charcoal dead.
"My sister's husband has just had a right royal litter of corgis, Sir, if . . . "
"Corgis? Dammit - they cat cakes, don't they? Mongrels with spunk. Give me Hereward's spawn - the seed of Caractacus biting his chains - Mongrels with spunk. In short - the British."
"The way he was lying there, Sir, all broken and expiring."
"Now now, have a piece of officer's special chocolate."
"The screaming - as though he was calling out your name."
A splay-legged shadow grew immense on the wall.
"The night is your friend. The V is your sign. Dumb dum da-doom."
"Rot. I'm a typical Aries."
"I've got the transformer, Sir," said Hubert welshly, "it's been in the sanitation pit for three years. Bound to be a bit corroded." He made a dark eagle above the mantel. "Watch yer tail. 'Beware the Hun in the sun'. Bupbupbupbup. Dan dan."
"We're hit lads! Abandon ship!"
"But Murphy's still in the boiler room."
"I'll take her in."
"Ow kow chop chop. Heads roll, huh?"
"Taffy, button your shirt. 'Shun l Where's Professor Molebottorn?"
"Bouncing his balls across the tank, Major!"
"God's teeth, he must be all in by now ... Lieutenant, would you dance with a man with funny legs? Brum ... dan dan ker-chow ... dan dan.
Hubert made a big mistake.
"Can I play too, Henry?" he said, leaning over the sofa. "I like dancing - and I like taking orders."
Chink, Hun, Nip and Kraut sour - sudden at his car. Foreign - essence of snout, knout, whip and Jerryessence of a freezeful nowness, stunned Henry to shrinking bull-at-bay. He turned stiffly to see
"Bale out?" said Hubert hopefully.
Henry went 'over the top'.
Captains with pistols, skeletons would-be on the brink of the sofa, lumberjacks hewing, replanting the blanched criss-cross dead - straight nicety of the unknown carpet-field dead ...
"But I'm in pyjamas, and I'm your brother," said Hubert.
"Don't Kamerad me, you Quisling! You're not in uniform - and it's dark. This is going to be an understandable mistake!"
Hubert L-shaped up in his room. After the crippling kick in the fork from Henry, jean Harlow would require a few days convalescence.
The stark lightning headlights of a car strobed the Great House tartan as Hubert swung painfully into his hammock. A taxi-driver screamed to a halt, and likeable Ralph Rawlinson tumbled onto the gravel of the Grand Drive. The heir of Rawlinson stood on End-ground again. His ten stout leather luggage cases lay about him.
Ralph was home.
The taxi scrunched, screaled and backed up for the getaway. By way of farewell, Ralph whipped out his blow-pipe and playfully spat a tiny dart at the driver's ear - after all, he hadn't offered to help him in with his luggage, had he?
Corky! I hope that's not one of the ones with curare on the tip - not my bally fault though -you can't see in the dark. Still, even if it was, the driver might just make it to the straight part of Concreton Road before the paralysis took effect. And anyway, at least Ralph hadn't stabbed him. I mean, lummy! - he'd only been back in 'civilization' a measly few hours. It takes time to be nice.
Ralph heaved a couple of trunks onto his strapping head and strode springily into the Pickle.
"Awkward beasts, winkles." Henry squinted, stabbing at his plate.
Breakfast at Rawlinson End was always a loose affair.
"Your Uncle Hubert uses 'em for ear-plugs!" he shouted to his son. "Turns my belly of a morning - watching him fiddle about in his lug-holes with a pin."
"Spot ball to red, centre pocket!" yelled Ralph from the adjoining billiard room.
Blessed if I can see why he bothers," grunts Henry. "Never hears anything important I have to say."
This was true. Henry's rhinoceros tyranny had only the most peripheral and incidental effect on Hubert's life. He spent his days softly and dreamily - without direction.
Rawlinsons ate like fighting cocks; Hubert was the exception. He sat composedly at table.
"Gah," gah'd Henry, spitting lead pellets from his mouthful of winkles. "Who shot these things, eh? Too damn close."
"I remember shrimp teas on a gingham cloth. Shiny brown bowls and crusty bread," said Hubert mournfully. "And a little boy who wouldn't eat the Mummy shrimps with all their precious grey-pink eggs."
Henry reached for the hot sauce.
"Cannon to the corner pocket!" brayed Ralph from the billiards room, trotting his spotty mare about the green baize table; holding his cue like a lance.
"Bumptious whippersnapper," growled Henry.
Florrie, blow-torching Muff s hairs off a glacial boiler (the Staines were very fussy about food) -heard this.
"O, Henry," she called, "our Ralph could play billiards on horseback before he was twelve."
"Bah," snorted Henry. "I could cheat at blow-football with me bottom before I could shoot. "
Hubert excused himself and left table holding his groin.
"Hubert says he's invented a magnet that picks up wood. Silly sod." Henry glowered at his retreating brother. "Dunno why it doesn't stick to his head. You should wear a crash helmet!" he barked. "The woodpeckers are pretty vicious this time of year!"
"Hey, hey, heehaw! Whack-?!" yelped Ralph. He rowelled the mare to a sweaty canter. "The tropics, Father," he called, "Murderous, yet curiously magnetic."
"Pick up a lot of wood there, do they?" humphed Henry, in high feather.
"Met some astounding fellows!"
'I never met the man I didn't mutilate."
"Got to know the headhunters - just brute understanding, really."
Henry introduced a tumblerful of Paraffino to his system.
"Shrunken heads? Shrinks?" he belped. "Hah! the gang of jigaboos I bumped into inflated 'em. Like balloons. The hot breath of the witchdoctor kept 'em aloft. On certain feast days they'd release a few."
Ralph reined in his horse.
"Absolutely," said Henry grimly. "Burn me, seeing those grinning fatheads floating over the jungle even put the shits up the Waziris, oh yebo."
"I've been cravat-high in rivers shimmering with piranha, Pater."
Henry caught a whiff of scorching Muff hair. "That's the trouble with Italian aeroplanes - too much hair on the wings."
Ralph's steed grazed at the winkles.
"I've wrestled anacondas, and she's a big Perry ... er. . snake," said Ralph.
"I like animals," said Henry, jutting his jaw. "Give you an example: I was about half a day's march from the Great Kraal of N'didi - this is before your time, of course.
Anyway, for some reason - could be he discovered the bath-salts I'd given him weren't real jewels - the chief got up a grudge against me. Despatched one of his warriors to ambush and see me orlf the earthly premises, so to speak."
Ralph's mare made it disgustingly clear she didn't like seafood.
"Anyway," continued Henry, "I was camped in a wadi, following the spoor of something I knew not what, save this: I knew if men there were at the end of it - they were very large indeed! With appalling habits and diet!"
There was a terrific crash and a brick smashed through the window, bumping onto the table. About the brick was wrapped a note. It read: "Hello! I'm your new
Henry was plainly delighted. "Hmmm, seems a decent enough egg - at least he didn't have the impertinence to present himself at the front door." Henry threw the brick out. "Now, where was l? Ah yes, camped in wadi - warrior - what did I do about it? Well . . ." Henry took another swig. ". . . I was on me toes, naturally, but I didn't look up. The assassin was crouching in a sausage-tree not thirty yards ahead - waiting to spear me. Well, me luck held good that day. Ubura, my trusty bearer, had with him, along with my 200 pounds of luggage - I was travelling light as a matter of course - had with him a Siamese ape he'd bought from a Madagascan dentist in Mornbasa."
The spotted mare sampled a piece of toast with anchovy paste - and liked it.
"Anyway, this ape had been trained to pick coconuts. Could have been the sun glinting on the blade of the assegai, I dunno - but the ape saw him first! When the rascal stuck his woolly head out of the tree, all the better to take aim, I suppose - well you can guess the rest. Blow me, if that monkey didn't shin up, twist his blinking head orff - and throw it down to me! Course, I let him keep it - and even gave him a bit of almond toffee. Y'know, sometimes I think I'm even better with animals than I am with people."
"Gosh," said Ralph.
The mare began to snort buck and champ at the bit.
"Phew! She's a bit frisky this morning," Ralph said. "Perhaps I'd best give her another couple of frames. Or better still, pop down to the village, eh Pater?"
"Don't forget yer lance, you never know!" roared Henry paternally.
Ralph followed the brick - jumping the mare clean out of the window.
In the Drawing Room Old Scrotum, the Wrinkled Retainer, was polishing up the decanters -and polishing off quite a lot of brandy - when he heard Henry coming. He wiped his chin, swizzled his gums with soda water and commenced a hymn so pregnant with soft soap, salaam, bootlick and scraping toad it would embarrass a mirror.
I WOULD PICK THE LOCKS OF HEAVEN FOR YOU, MASTER,
IF THEY TRIED TO SHUT THEM PEARLY GATES ON THEE
FOR MY TIME IN PURGATORY WOULD GO FASTER,
KNOWIN' YOU WAS IN THAT CLUB WHERE DRINKS IS FREE.
OH, I'D SERVE, I'D SERVE UNSWERVIN',
IN YOUR SERVICE I WOULD SERVE,
KNOWIN' YOU WAS ON FIRST NAMES WI' NAZARENE.
YOU'D SAY: JESUS, SAY WHAT'S YOURS?
'E'D SAY: SIR 'ENRY, LET ME POUR,
AND YOU'D BOTH GET ON LIKE BILLY-O ... OLD BEAN.
OH OH OH
"Oh, wrap up!" said Henry, barging in. "Your breath could strip the paint orff doors." He swatted and stamped on a rather beautiful blue butterfly. "Ruddy wasp! There, that's put it out of its misery. And by no means the first poor beast I've spared from the endangered species list - shot most of 'em!"
The room darkened as a hang-glider passed across the sun. "Seems a novel enough way to commit suicide," observed Henry. "Pass me me pistol - I'll see if I can't bring the blighter down into the lake."
With a weapon in his charge, the Master of Rawlinson End was apt to be very sporting and unpredictable. The Wrinkled Retainer took cover behind a leather armchair, peeping through his fingers and clutching a rosary.
"What are you doing cowering down there!" roared Henry.
Scrotum tugged furiously at a long vanished forelock, "It be out o' respect, Sir."
"Well, you're supposed to love me, you vile jelly. Take that!"
Mercifully, Henry hit him with the soft end of the pistol.
Scrotum sprawled on the parquet flooring, and Henry strode back to the window to take aim at the hang glider, now several hundred yards past the lime trees - and fast diminishing. In sunshine, with the air full of wasps, and himself full of pink gin and half a bottle of Entre Deux Legs, it was an impossible shot. In a fit of blear-eyed pique, Henry emptied the gun into the tyres of a custard yellow van parked in the drive. Like the shock of fondling a raw sausage blindfold at a gay party - the significance of the van was clear.
In florid amateur scriptiform on the side was painted: 'Nice and Tidy', and 'Just Relax and Let Us Do It'. And in the right hand corner a crude drawing of the masks of tragedy and comedy, labelled: 'Before' and 'After'.
Teddy and Nigel had delivered a rubber crocodile - this to lend a touch of the exotic - to the already dreadful staked ditch before Henry's prisoner-of-war camp. They'd squeezed a little fun out of it, too. Dancing: Menage A trois la la la la.
And then there was Florrie's invitation!
Her credenda that, for the most part, 'All musicians are nice people', prompted her to place at their disposal - 'whenever they felt the need to create' - the vast dusty Ballroom and its splendid Bechstein grand.
Henry knew of this preposterous offer; but after all - you don't expect decent people to take you up on an invitation. It's downright rudery!
But Nice and Tidy did. They even dressed and made-up for it. Even brought along the sheet-music of a 'number they were working on', and a banjolele. Now, in that huge sprung-floored Palais de Dance, where great brown spiders traced quiet geometric Star Chambers on the chandeliers and crouched, Teddy and Nigel launched into:
NICE 'N TIDY, TIDY 'N NICE,
THAT'S THE WAY THAT WE LEAVE YOUR HISE,
UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS: WHERE EVER WE DO.
WE GUARANTEE IT WILL BE TICKETY-BOO,
YOU PUT YOUR FEET UP OR GO OFF TO THE SHOPS,
JUST POINT US AT THE BUCKETS AND MOPS,
WASHING UP OR WIPING DOWN, WE ARE THE TOPS
WE'RE NICE AND TIDY. WE'RE NICE ...
Henry had little or no love for the minstrelsy. The whole of his musical grasp consisted of picking out 'Rule Britannia' and 'Tremble O Ye Hun' at the piano - with a repeating rifle.
The cacherate theatrical chortles from across the Hall left Henry in no doubt. "Great Thing! Those simpering nancy-boys are in the house. Get up, you stinking blancmange. Pese, pese . . . "
Then the wafts of cologne borne on wings of pornographic discord ...
NICE AND TIDY, MAY WE VOCALISE?
I'M TEDDY TIDY AND HE'S -
OKEY-DOKEY WE -
CLEANLINESS IS CLEARLY AN OBSESSION WE SHARE...
This unasked for jollity in the middle of an English morning shook Sir Henry with a red passion. His eyebrows were like limp bats, and his face a crumpled tissue upon which a lobster might well have wiped its bottom.
"All crime," he declared, "is due to incorrect breathing."
YOU TOO WILL THINK WE'RE BOTH
A RIGHT COUPLE OF PAIRS, HEE HEE ...
WE'LL HOOVER YOUR MATS,
OR NEUTER YOUR CATS ...
Grim-faced, cold as fishwives' fingers, Henry snatched from the wall the sickle-sharp boar's tusk he used for defacing Reader's Digest, and a cow-hide shield. "I'll see 'em orff the premises meself," declared Henry. "The hounds are all fagged out from yesterday's Jehovah's Witnesses - and we don't want blood all over the lawns again."
In seconds he had crossed the Hall and flung open the doors of the Ballroom.
TO YOU DEAR HOUSEWIFE - WE WAISE OUR HATS,
WE LEAVE YOUR HOME SO CLINICAL
YOUR FRIEND'S WILL SAY THAT'S.
"Heshe! Heshe!" roared Henry, thrashing on his shield.
NICE 'N' TIDY, THAT'S NICE 'N' HESHY, HESHY AND ...
Startled, Nigel Nice, straw boater askew, banjolele fol-de-rol, mince minced across the spring boards.
"Sir Henry! Nice to see you, to see you ...
Henry's glare throttled his hypocrisy at birth.
"Greasy talk, gentlemen. I am a bulldog and you will know my bite is worse."
Teddy Tidy held the piano stool before him. Nigel Nice, in an attempt to look invalid, put on his glasses and blinked.
"D'you know what a palmist once said to me?" menaced Henry. "She said, WILL YOU LET GO."
Stamping in frenzy, Sir Henry Rawlinson bellowed the warcry of the Zulu. "U-suthu!"
Suddenly, a half-thawed chicken caught him in the back of the neck.