Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Treading The Boards

Published 'Roadworks' 1999

Other than the redolent aroma of her stew wafting from the unattainable past, there was nothing else to remind Strontian of his mother. The darkness parted like curtains on a stage, the revelations too slow to come. He remained standing with his eyes tight shut ... until he met a hand lightly brushing his trouser flies.

Strontian's eyes flicked open, the brightness blinding them for an instant, before darkness brought itself together again like curtains. A man's voice was the least expected outcome of his predicament; the words even more surprising: "I've come up from the audience to shake your hand ... I've always wanted to meet someone famous like you."

"Who am I?" Strontian asked, overcoming previous difficulties to utilise his teeth in the way phonetics intended. The illogic had a strange logic of its own. He also felt that, only moments before, he had been sitting in the stalls: eyes lifted in awe towards the proscenium arch. The shilling theatre ticket was still grasped clammily in his hand; if he wanted his bladder let this would then re-admit to the auditorium.

In fact, the ticket was still there. But it seemed as if it were held within someone else's hand; Strontian couldn't feel his own hand at all; on top of all that, he was desperate for bladder relief, his worst fears having materialised. He should have let it at least three times before the beginning of the performance. He closed his eyes again, because one darkness was as good as another darkness, and why waste the battery? The man's voice was closer, as its owner homed in with the aid of echoes: "Gee whizz, who'd've thought I'd ever meet a star of stage and screen. This is a real honour. Will you give me your autograph? Mark it for my mother, will you?"

All the time that the voice was gaining its bearings Strontian was losing his. He clasped his mad privates, partly to prevent them being interfered with again and partly to staunch an even madder bladder. He was shocked gradually to discover they were not his privates—they were, without a shadow of doubt, somebody else's altogether, completely the wrong shape; the teeth in his mouth were certainly bone-carved differently, too.

The applause took an upward flight on the wings of hands. Strontian himself hooted and whistled vigorously in appreciation of an artistry and fame to which he could never possibly attain. He had earlier climbed the stairs into the old theatre. A series of oval mirrors on the walls rose with his reflection opposite each other on either side, making it seem as if he were looking into a diminishing tunnel of reflection ... except that his head was in the way to get a proper look. He dodged the head about believing he could see round the stranger whom he had only just recognised as himself. Strontian was bewildered, since mirrors had previously left him cold.

Life's a musical, he thought, noises picked out in asides, wordless undergrunts on the human hoof, unknowing looks, random rhythms, tripping sighs, melodies strummed on tangled harps, proscenium's flies ... and the auditorium was a temple of rusty golden wood. Other happy clappers who were to constitute the one-off audience were trickling into their tip-up seats, leaving wide gaps of empty ones with the best view—the latecomers obviously being more pushy than Strontian's co-arrivals. His own seat was in the middle of two strangers—complete strangers. Next door to this threesome was a row with seat-lids still raised, and then four other less complete people arrived, all of whom seemed to know each other very well.

He had bought a tub of vanilla ice in the foyer, but had lost the wooden "spoon". He stared at the runnelled cream-hard surface, wondering if he could scoop some out with his finger. Better not. The lady next to Strontian had eyes in the side of her head, despite the opera glasses with which she was practising by pointing them forwards at the safety curtain. However, he discovered a big splinter—harvested from his wooden high-sided bed at home—a splinter which had lodged itself in his trouser-zip and, eventually, he used this as a spoon for the ice cream.

Strontian often speculated about safety curtains. If one was raised too early, the audience's communal mind would be sucked into an endless horizontal pit. That was why they were called safety curtains. Meanwhile, the groundling orchestra had taken the strain and he could just discern the tip of the baton below the footlights; the curtain rose steadily and the houselights dimmed to an echo of darkness. The staged scene was brightly lit, by contrast. Actors sidled on, like real people; one of them raised a voice above the normal pitch; the face that owned the voice took a surreptitious glance into the black disguises of an endless audience. In sympathy, Strontian began to slap his hands together like lumps of steak. The others in the audience did not follow suit!

The ice cream felt cold at the core of his lap. He had once applauded on his own like this during a radio broadcast symphony concert when he thought the music had ended. Since then, nobody had spoken to him and merely glared shiftily. It was as if the whole Earth had been listening to his faux pas. People often felt that their embarrassment was so great that they wanted the earth to open up and swallow them. Strontian knew the feeling, if from the opposite direction.

Tonight's musical play continued. Or he assumed it did, since he was taken from the dark auditorium by an officious foreigner in an uniform who then set Strontian walking in the direction of the soup kitchen. There, he begged for the best bowl of vittles that they had.

"Do you think I'm made of dreams?"

Strontian looked bewilderingly at the speaker who acted as if he were handing out promises and fancies rather than bowls of stringy stew with doorstops of aging bread. Strontian had been kicked from the theatre into a world of dossers who, amazingly, possessed even less teeth than the erstwhile audience with which he had rubbed shoulders. He recalled his dear old mother asking a similar question about dreams, when she used to shell out for his pocket money from her shift work. "Dreams don't grow on trees, dear," she would also say. Strontian, being a small farthing of a chap, had peered through the window at the twin towering poplars, trees that had always stood upon childhood's endless horizon. She was right, of course.

The individual standing behind the stew trolley smiled with slanting lips—about to tell the story of his life. Being one of those ne'erdowell do-gooders, this character had to obtain the full benefit from the down-and-outs he serviced. "My own mother," he said, as if reading Strontian's mind, "had a heart attack during labour and I only arrived just in time, before she died."

Strontian nodded humouringly. The man scrutinised Strontian to gauge whether he was taking the mickey, but gave him the benefit of the doubt, much as Strontian had done for the man.

"I was adopted," the soup-man continued, "into a family of orphans. Down by the Fast Canal, where they've put up those unearthly blocks of flats."

Strontian's thoughts were wild. The Earth was the one planet which astrologers seemed to ignore. It was all very well the transitting Uranus being on the cusp of Scorpio whilst in trine with a natal Jupiter. It was the Earth at your back that counted. You could never turn to see the Earth protecting you. It is about time people realised—the earth might possess a shadow, but it definitely lacked an understudy.

Thoughts were medicine for the brain, and only nasty medecine cured. Strontian took out his large sharpened crucifix, which he often used simply as a stage-prop ever since it had lost its iconic power—more useful for cutting the bread into bite sizes and for stirring the still burping stew. "I bet you live in a posh house," Strontian sneered whilst brandishing the cross at the soup-man.

"Blimey, mate, put that away—anyone watching us would think you're threatening me." After a well-staged fracas in the flies, the soup-man wheeled his trolley into the wings.

Strontian was left alone treading the motherboards, about to fulfil the insistence of the plot. But, with a few death-bed lines left, there was, sadly, still a pair of sharp fangs in his mouth to tangle his voice. Of course, in any event, Strontian, being a vampire, was bound to act out a very unlifelike death. Blood-letting was his business. Corpsing his crime. God’s creamy red Correcting-Fluid his commodity.

Death, whatever its certainty or final sting, seldom gives warning of its final slicing blow that fells the body like timber; if there is a warning it’s not one that anybody believes. Nobody really expects to die; they think it only happens to other people—until it happens to them: which it will: it definitely will. A single member of the audience clapped vigorously for a short while; then the rest in desultory fashion more akin to silence than applause.

(The corpse, in extremis, pisses itself; even a blooder has a bladder.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Stranger's Tale

published 'End of the Millennium' 1999

Edgar Filbricks Esq., 7 Arbroath Terrace, Cleminster, Warks - but who ever used Esquire when fixing a recipient's rank and gender these days? So when the letter arrived, hand-written address on the envelope, with 29p excess postage to pay, Edgar wondered who could have sent it. He swiftly slit open the seal and found the letter within was from a complete stranger which meant, of course, that Edgar was a complete stranger, too, because it takes one stranger to recognise another. It takes at least two of them to tango. And, familiarity would no doubt breed contempt.

Dear Sir,
Once upon a time, there was a land of waterfalls, one leading to another, with precious little grazing land between. The place was peopled with folk with straight locks. Their garb pleated vertically. They wandered beneath the sheltering rocks peering through curtain after curtain of spray and white water. Some were arm in arm, some holding hands; others purposefully averted the head, whilst a few deigned to talk to each other. A handful even snubbed their very own selves as they proceeded with noses aloft - almost as if the act of despising was a solitary pursuit like patience.

There was one such person who, in hindsight, I am ashamed to say was worse than any of them, by dint of walking on the water's wild side. He took in the vast views, having penetrated the surging walls, leaving the others rockside to fend for themselves in the shimmering gloom. This person's vestments soon dried in the sunlight, stiffening with a starchy bloom. The hair became matted with an airy saltiness that wafted in from seas that seemed to surf themselves. Waves actually had waves. Fish delighted in being watched washing their fins. And, soon, this person forgot all about the others, learning to wave his own hair by back-combing with bristly crustaceans on the beach. Only turning now and again to check the whereabouts of the waterfalls - fearing that they may be on the move towards him.

Then, one day, after long negotiation with the land mass that began to poke up through the depleting waves, this person decided it was high time to return rockside. There was something decidedly unsavoury about the increasingly mountainous sea-bed that infiltrated the once straight horizon. The sky took on a tinge of rust. The sun no longer a powerhouse of expectation. The fish flopped ashore, unsure of whether they could fly without the oxygen of publicity.

He stumbled towards the nearest edge of misty spray. And found that there was nothing beyond it but a vertiginous valley of Angel falling upon Angel. Their locks and pleats complete. A shallow shift of cold white ribs of sand.

There the letter ended without signature or clue as to authorship. Edgar pondered the whole matter and put it down to being merely a mystery. The Filbricks clan had kept themselves to themselves for most of their history, and it was a wonder that they had been able to perpetuate themselves without resorting to inbreeding. Edgar was the last in the line. A stranger to himself. A starched shirt on horseback. He imagined Sancho Panza waving his arms like windmills though the rain-swept window ... wanting to finish the tale, but only becoming another mystery with which to contend. Edgar waved back with his pen. No more fish in the dried-up stream. Or only dead ones, enveloped in steam.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Like A Deflated Rubber Doll

by the Six of the Clacton Writer’s Group

We are Six.

But that’s another story. Below is the real story. The real magic.

At first glance they didn’t look like twins. One was round and lumpish; the other was skinny and gaunt. If one was to deflate the round twin or inflate the thin twin, then it would be come apparent they were identical. There was the same snub nose, thick lips, scrubby wire hair sticking out at odd angles, and large bulging eyes. Not a pretty sight. As nobody else found them attractive, they lived solely in each other’s world. There was safety in numbers, namely two.

It was their birthday and as usual, time for a treat. It was the roly-poly’s turn to choose. Her name was Sheila, shortened to She. Her collapsed equivalent was named Hermione, shortened to Her. Having no one to contradict them, they decided to have two birthdays a year in honour of each other. Her had already had hers in April. She had planned a mystery expedition this time and both were very excited.

They set off down the road. One bounced along, the other shuffled behind, like a stick bowling a ball in front of it. They gabbled at each other incessantly and to the untrained ear, incomprehensibly. She always referred to herself in the third person singular, as did Her. Hence, when Her complained: 'Wait for Her, She, Her is getting tired,' She replied: 'Well, She can’t wait to get there, and it is her birthday!'

They caught the bus to town and had to stand because there weren’t any double seats available. They always sat together or not at all. The town was very crowded. It was nearly Christmas. They risked getting separated, but thankfully the building She had in mind was near the bus station. It wasn’t long before She led the way to the entrance of the Town Hall.

'And now for the surprise,' She enthused.

The Town Hall – unsurprisingly in these depressed times – had seen its best days. In fact, strictly speaking, it was no longer used as a Town Hall proper. A few odd Council committees still took advantage of the aging rooms for meetings. The Fish & Fowl Federation was in fact on site at the moment when She and Her entered. Also, as the twins later discovered, the Cycle Pathways Steering Group was in a decrepit backroom arguing about the piles of used Bicycle parts that had become an eyesore along some of the town’s canal towpaths.

None of this seemed to be anything to do with a birthday surprise. Indeed the twins had perhaps forgotten who was surprising whom. Such confusion was not unusual. It didn’t seem to matter as they would both politely show surprise in case they were the one intended to be surprised. It would have been difficult, in any event, for any bystander to make out who among the two twins was gabbling what words to whom, as they wandered through the dim corridors of the near-disused Town Hall followed by one fat shadow and one thin shadow.

Suddenly a few individuals in lycra passed noisily along the end of one corridor apparently carrying armfuls of old pumps, trill-bells and saddlebags. There was to be no closure for their emotions – it appeared – within the walls of the slowly morphing municipality of the building in which a lot went on but little happened.

The birthday surprise had eventually passed them by without notice before Her and She emerged into the bright sunlight of the town square. Neither would raise the subject of surprise, for fear of upsetting the other. But this would be a birthday neither would forget, and somehow each of them, in their own way, would make sure of that, because, without further hesitation, they boarded a bus without first looking at its destination board.

The bus conductor was an old-fashioned one who visited all parts of the bus’s two decks reeling off seemingly endless spools of ticketry from his contraption.

‘Where are you going?’ he asked the twins not sure who to direct the question at.

‘Her doesn’t know.’ One of them replied. A confused crease broke out on his face. He wished it wasn’t a Monday and he was at home reading the juicy novel beside his bed.

‘Just give me a destination,’ he sighed.

‘Make it a surprise for She’s and Her’s birthday!’

‘Great’ thought the conductor, ‘looney cases.’

There was a pause where he folded his arms and stared at the twins unsure of what to say. He wasn’t trained for this sort of behaviour. Funnily enough How to deal with different shaped twins that don’t make any sense? wasn’t in the bus conductor’s manual of knowledge.

‘She has arranged the surprise at the Town Hall and wants to go back there because She remembers it now.’

So they squeezed past the conductor who was thinking about his favourite sport – cricket – all of a sudden. This was probably because the twins reminded him of a bat and ball. He continued down the aisle of the bus as if he hadn’t met them.

She and Her were at the Town Hall again with renewed hope that its municipality would be invigorated by a renewed sense of constructive fantasy that the recent long period of world peace had otherwise deflated by its underlying sense of impending war.

From this revival of magic reality, She remembered that the surprise was something to do with the Cycle Pathways Steering Group so they went back towards the backroom. The Group seemed to have finished their discussion about bicycle parts and were starting to depart. A thin young man about their age bumped into Her.

‘Sorry, He didn’t see you there.’ He spluttered.

‘Nor did Him.’ Another man larger than the first one was following not far behind. It took the twins a few moments to realise they had met their match.

‘We saw you earlier,’ He said, ‘Didn’t we?’ and he turned to his companion.

‘He did. Him didn’t,’ said Him. ‘Him was busy adjusting the gears but Him did look up when He said “They’re here”.’

‘Do you have it?’ she queried.

‘Have it? Have it?! Of course we have it. That’s what Him was doing, adjusting your gears.’

‘Adjusting She’s gears?’ said Her. 'I didn’t know She had gears. If she has gears then Her has gears too. We’re identical, see?’

‘You don’t look identical,’ said Him. ‘She’s fat and she ain’t.’

‘Who’s “she”?’ said She and Her together, both sensing, identically, the lower case ‘s’ that Him had used.

‘Oh, don’t mind Him,’ said He, ‘he gets confused very easily. Look, I’ve got an idea. To avoid this confusion what say we – that’s us, Him and He – what say we call both of you just “Ladies”?’

‘Ooh, and we can call both of you “Gents”. How’s that? Said She, beaming at this new-found possibility of conversation between Them and other parties.

‘If you’re going to be Them,’ said He, divining She’s intention, ‘then we’ll be Us.’

‘Sounds confusing to me,’ chorused She and Him together.

‘And this, He believes – no, Us believes, is Her birthday present,’ and he pointed towards a tandem leaning against the wall.

‘This one?’ said Her.

‘No, that’s Us’s,’ said Him.

‘This one, then?’ Her walked towards a flurry of pink paintwork, deep pink saddles and adorned with pink ribbons fluttering from the pink handlebars.

‘I’ll take the front,’ said She, pushing past Her and taking hold of the handlebars. ‘It is your birthday present, after all, and the one at the back doesn’t have to work so hard.’

‘But then you get to steer.’ Her pouted. ‘And I want to steer.’

‘Oh. All right then.’ She stepped back and Her took the handlebars and threw her leg over. She threw her own leg over behind Her and they were ready to go.

Him took the handlebars of the plain black tandem and soon Him and He were ready for the off as well.

‘Where are we going?’ Her asked.

‘Down to the canal and then along the towpath, I thought’, said He.

‘Sounds good to me,’ She said. ‘Come on Her, get a move on.’

Him and He took the lead down the hill which gave Her and She an opportunity to discuss these strange men they had just met.

‘They’re a little odd,’ Her said.

‘And that’s a problem because ….’

‘No, no problem at all. In fact I rather like odd people. You and I are so normal that it’s nice to meet people who are a little different.’

‘I thought so as well,’ She said. ‘That’s why I arranged this meeting.’

Her nearly fell off the bike. They careered across the road, narrowly missing a mother duck and her offspring and catching the kerb on the off side of the road before Her managed to get the tandem back in control. ‘What do you mean, you arranged it?’ she asked finally, a little breathless and just a little bit trembling.

‘Part of your birthday present,’ She said, smugly. ‘Blind date.’

‘What, Him and He are our dates?’ Her asked.

‘Not ours. Yours. This is my present for you. The ability to wake up!’

She glanced at Hermione. Hermione glanced back and they screamed.

‘I’m Hermione’ She screeched. ‘Now what’s happened?’ She asked turning to face her brother. ‘You’re now me. No, you’re changing again. Stop it. Stop it. Who are you? What’s happening?’

‘Are we still dreaming?’

‘No!’ A voice from the ether called softly to them. ‘Settle down under the bedcovers and I’ll tell you a long story but one that will be finished by Six.’

The story was one of a magic mythic reality that transcended the fantasy by paradoxically using fantastically strobing twists of narrative thread that tangled and untangled with multitudinous municipalities and stand-in names and mistuned twins and proxy denouements and other pro-nouns amid many replacements for reality that were more real than reality itself.

Two tired bodies snuggled under their “his and hers” matching eiderdowns preparing for sleep. By Six, the voice, soft and low spoke of ideas, worlds and people that the cousins had yet to meet in a long dangerous life. All those Cycle and Psycho Paths ever steering back on themselves.

Sleep did occasionally claim them as they innocently wandered between hearing the voice, being warmed by deep slumbers, tossed on light sleep, pumped by deep breaths disguised as snores and very occasionally – short periods of wakefulness.

The voice, for so long just that, had started to take the shape of the most beautiful person ever seen – the Narrator called Six. This apparition smiled down on the boys while floating over their heads. The soft voice of Six filled their ears and filled all available orifices in the room with gentle padding.

He held her breath as once again he (in the shape of the Six) glided over the sleeping forms as they metamorphosed between being children, assorted sexes, pigs, sheep and several real and mythical or magical or municipal creatures that had no reason at all to be where they were. In fact, if their Nanny had found them in bed she would have scolded them most roundly for cheating when throwing sixes on every turn.

‘The …’

The apparition called Six said in a voice loud enough to disturb the slumbers but not strong enough to break the spell.

‘…rest …’

Six spat, placing a prawn between lips who’s colour matched perfectly the flesh of the fish.

‘… is …’

Six added another word, holding the cooked morsel daintily between finger and thumb with nails that reflected the colour of the unfortunate creature.

He bit and she swallowed.

‘… silence …’.

A Sixth Sense that only twins could manage.


Friday, August 01, 2008

Clockhouse Mount

Published 'Dark Eyes' 1998

I MUST TELL you of how I came to Clockhouse Mount, the first being a year last Spring, I think. Do you know the area? Yes, it's in the outer South London suburbs, in Surrey really, but you have to climb a very long hill out of Cullesdon - and when you get there, you see the Green, fronting a run-down parade of shops and, further out the 'Pail Of Water'. Mrs Dobb, landlady of the Pail, she knows all the gossip of the Mount. About the Sawdusts of Number 4 Rich Land: Jackie Sawdust once blew his nose, you know, in public view - he blew it so damn hard he just stared into his hankie not knowing it was his brain wriggling there. He stared a mere few moments, yep, before he dropped down dead. About the Clerkes of Long Land; their younger son was levanted by the Surrey press-gangs for labour in far off spice fields. About the losers and the winners of the terrible family feuds. About this and that...

There is a snooty golf-course on one side, some other cul-dc-sacs leading to small holdings and desolated fields, staring-eyed horses, tangled woods Ruffet and Big, deadfalls, overgrown bomb-holes, rusty discards of squabbles, and other rich residues of life's harvest, if I can be so bookish in my attempts at describing everything for you. You know, they say that the clouds swag and belly heavier over the council house roofs of Clockhouse Mount - and, as I plodded up, that day, in the hope of my first homely tankard at the Pail, large drops spattered from a previously clear sky. Even at noon, dusk gathered itself and some laggard golfers stood alongside the road holding their clubs like spears, making funny faces beneath tartan berets and wriggling their chequered trousers as if in some crazy fashion show. They would soon be off, no doubt, before the light finally seeped away.

I looked across at the downbeat parade and spotted that the shops were shut, not for lunch as I had thought, but because I, a complete stranger, had loomed up from Cullesdon and they feared what they considered to be my unwholesome custom. I shivered, for had the Pail, too, locked its lounge and saloon doors? The locals were inside, apparently persuading Mrs Dobb to let them have further illicit flagons of home-made brew, as I forced my entry through an unoiled latch-door. The bobbled heads lifted, scowls muttering across their faces, and one signalled me to sheer off.

"Dear Sackalive!" cried Mrs Dobb, from behind the bar, a friendlier aspect indeed appearing to fleet across her countenance. "I didn't think you'd make it."

"By cock!" I replied, banging my feet on the floor, "That was a long walk up from town."

Meantime the locals gathered closer to me and one even fingered my turn-ups in some strange rite of inspection. I surveyed the posters and the customary wall-scrawl, to see if this was indeed the day of the darts match that I had been promised before I had promptly forgotten about it. But, no - imagine my despondency, when I saw incomprehensible messages pertaining to a Wicca meeting, destined for that very night - and further bills bearing such things I cannot now spell; Cuthloo, Shib-Shubbing in the snug, Yogger-Noggin’ in the saloon. Azza-Toth in the lounge and. what was it, an outing at the weekend to a pub called the Goat of a Thousand Young for a turdle-eating contest.

I skipped pretty niftily from the Pail, for, as they say, you shouldn't outwear a welcome you've never had nor turn a heavy stone if something's moving it from underneath.

I ran - but it was difficult, for what I had thought originally to be rain was in fact now great bulbs of bursting liquid cascading from, not clouds, but shifting, floating monsters in the sky, They extended and retract«d, in turn, long arms of blackness, from several interlocked central bodies and, if I were religious, the nearest I could get to describing them would be a Hell's brood, an overnourished confluxion of sky and fox flesh betokening the fall of the old disgraced gods - and several smaller versions were creeping over the brim of council-house roofs ...

I ran - but golfers and pub locals surrounded me. One, of the name Tokkmaster Clerke, as he later told me, wielded a massive rutted file, its frightful crenellations glinting in the flash of sky¬shutter wings. I was held fast by one whose nose dripped as Tokkmaster moved the file across my skull. At first, my hair fell away in clumps and dropped to the pavement, followed by the skin. He grated it up and down, scratched, sawed and ground. I could feel the hideous vibrations, reverberations stunning and splitting my head. The skull scrunched. Teeth were on edge, as the grating wore on, as he honed my bone. The file stropped and serrated my pure white skull. It ground and rasped. Against the grain. Gnashed and scored. Etched and furrowed. Rutted and chafed. Scrubbed and gnawed. Eroded and kneaded. Chiselled and chewed.

I ill recall most of that but live now with the Sawdusts and they call me Jackie. They make me worship the great old gods. The top of my head is like the skin of cold stew, so now I have to wear a hat; Mrs Dobb made it, kindly, out of vinegar and brown paper - and the filing Clerke, he says he's my pal now.

Yet before I tell of any further eventual outcomes, my second visit needs expounding. And, in case you have forgotten things beyond the bookmark, I need to lug up that long, long hill out of Cullesdon. The rundown parade of shops, the golf-course on one side, the tracks leading to woodfalls and derelict smallholdings, and the strange mixture of council-house and semi-detached owner-occupiers - all these made it an indefinable, outlandish place, at one overfed and prevalent, but at two disturbingly barren and bare-gnawn. Through the Southern Mysteries beyond Balham, it was soon that one met the Surrey Badlands at the edge of South London, and that area was to me by cap and root the core of such Badlands. Yet none of this, nor the ever-rising memories, oould stop me returning, specially with a real job waiting for me there. The run on the pound had not dared reach Clockhouse Mount...

The golfers and pub locals stared imbecilically at any newcomers; the girls begawed and bedecked themselves with flirting ribbons and enticing cockadilloes; the contraband lorries unloaded the cock-ale - delighted in by the local taste-buds; and the churn-owls swooped and whooped with the early dying of the afternoon light, betoken the preparation of other entities and elementals to squeeze themselves from between the sticky thighs of night.

That second occasion I arrived, after further initiation from the shapes in the sky, they doctored me to their ways. The clan leader, Tokkmaster Clerke, who also acted as doctor, served me the medicine and the mending and kept vigil by my several nights of bed-evil that ensued. He continued to move the bed on its ill-suited legs, muttering that the devil did rock my cradle, did cully my fever and did keep the bloody-flux at bay; but his hush-a-byes sure did beflum and bamboozle my thoughts for a while.

After, I stayed with the Sawdust family; they knew my history and why I had been called there. I was to be chief taster for those Societies that met at the Community Hall, standing across the road from the shops, a bit like an army barracks, with the letters of its name above the entrance mostly fallen completely or dislodged into a word I could not fathom. The cabals and brotherships that there stretched their limbs from bodies politic within the big and small halls and lesser meeting-rooms feared sabotage from outsiders.

I gained reputation in the Square Hills further north as sniffer-out of poisons at the credence tables of nobility and middle-class alike. I had cocked a tongue to many a dire tidbit and toxic tiffin, and winked across to those sitting above the salt; telling a tale of treachery with my mere glance.

The Sawdusts tried me out with every particle of local fare; the sometime bad toddies served at nearby Woodman-Sterne, the even more ill-reputed carrier worms dug from beneath nearly deadfall trees in Big Wood (considered a delicacy in parts of the Badlands) and, finally, the scuds and curds that intermittently plummeted from the sky in crazy fibrous shapes which monstrous Irreducibles said to be above the clouds sculptured from their own droppings.

And I passed muster with every test.

Tokkmaster explained how the word above the Hall's entrance, C-t-h-u-l-h-u, was pronounced and what it implied; inside he showed me several huge black-skinned volumes with gold clasps and arcane titles, hidden with the drama props under the stage; whispered in my ear about the coming of even narrower fellowships and masonries to the area; and I was to be Chief Taster and Factotum to any such.

One day a huge banquet was held. Of course, Tokkmaster Clerke was at the head of the huge oak trestle, being host and breaker of bread. The wine, deeply red, flowed down swift gullets. The food ¬great gristles of flesh, yellow fat and hairy skin lining the rare sides of boeuf and lion; even greater cow udders, baked and prepared with the greasy tubes intact, the undersides green-fleshed and pocked with broken bubbles of melded fat; windfall fruit, knotted and almost branched with unwholesome sprouts of stale seasons; plates of flopping fish, still alive but unbelievably putrid, their fins pickled in vats of udder-grease as scaly extras; further dishes of octopus with inflamed, ridgy pores, squid with mutant tentacles, horny lapfish, swordfish bent and skewed, splattered blowfish, gasfish, rancid roe - the food was enjoyed at every hand.

All had passed across my credence-table for pre-tasting and, suddenly, a great boar's head, over baked and brainless, spoke the last word from the trestle: "Burp!" And spew poured from its sickly mouth.

They all looked up at me - and stared icily, realisation dawning. Doctor Tokkmaster pressed his stethoscope to his own chest - to hear the devil in there. He grimaced and raised his file angrily at me ...

I left that night, my job done, down the long, long hill. I knew in my heart that I had only visited the Clockhouse Mount once only, unless my heart mistook me. That did not account for that poor fellow who I'd thought was me who made the first trip and suffered under the surgeon’s saw-blade. If that had been me, I was a Dutch Uncle, or, at least, his miscegenate nephew called Klarkashton.

Clean flakes of snow settled over me as I approached Cullesdon. I sought some far-off pub to quaff a pint of their very best bitter and to partake of a packet of pork-scratchings. I pulled down the flaps of Mrs Dobb's hat. Unlike most people, the brains in my old clockhouse would never escape. I tapped my bonce and noddled a smile.