I am a huge admirer of the fifty word and sixty two word stories of Stephen Barnaby; the first few pieces here were written in tribute to the man, his talent and his haircut. Check out his published work and The Musselburgh Hotpot in Staggs. Note that the titles aren't included in the word count and hyphenated words count as one.
The Portentous Naming Of Inert Objects In Mythological Fiction And The Slightly Less Glamorous Naming Of Foodstuff And Rubberised Footwear In The Real World.
Having spent the morning swinging the Runestaff, defending myself against the arrows of Brahma; I cleaved the top off a Kneippbread with Calaboig, a sword borrowed from an Irish giant and used the Werewindle to make a cheese and ham Sandwich before filling my Wellingtons with Ent-ale. But then Indra wielded her great thunderbolt, Vajra, and the whole picnic was rained off.
Sleep Deprivation And The International Conference On Torture Techniques.
In the world of torture, when electrodes, pliers and water-boarding have all failed, sleep deprivation is the old stand-by. Thus it came as no surprise to the large gathering of hooded delegates at the ICTT in The Peebles Hydro recently to hear that the best way of eliciting information from uncooperative prisoners was to give them custody of a two year old.
The Proliferation Of Zombies, Vampires And Werewolves etc In Modern Hollywood Drama.
There was once a script conference that nearly resulted in the characters not being either vampires, werewolves, aliens, zombies, possessed-children, serial-killers, or super-heroes, where one writer suggested a story about real people in adversity might work but he was told to stick to writing his little play, and advised it would be improved if the Salesman in question were to be resurrected.
The lack of reliable plumbers these days is due to the fact that, rather than complete a five year apprenticeship, young people are only required to attend college for two years being taught by someone who attended college for three years and that, due to declining educational standards and the subsequent rise in cases of dyslexia, none of them recognise a U-bend.
THE NABOB OF MOGULISTAN
When the spiritual leader of Mogulistan, indeed, the veritable Nabob of Mogulistan, arrived uninvited in Boston swathed in amber robes on an unexpectedly warm November day; he straightaway took the credit for this singularly odd climatic event by stating that he had the power to influence the weather merely by holding his breath. His declared intention in visiting Massachusetts was to ingratiate himself with the upper echelons of Boston society. This he was able to do with surprising ease and the minimum of exposure in the society column of the Boston Chaffer. Almost immediately, he was invited by Maude Gilroy- Chalmers to her Sunday soiree where she hinted loudly that he had already helped her find the path to a higher plain thus gaining a step on her social rival Mrs Alicia Steemrheiner.
On his arrival at the gathering, the Nabob made gifts of “mystic” stones to the assembled crowd and soon found himself with more patrons than a guru has a right to expect even on a good guruing day. His style was one of aloofness mixed with a complete lack of table manners. He spoke in flowing language of the roads to righteousness, the gardens of innocence, the legs of nirvana, the funnel of rebirth and the boundless benefits of balm. There were more than a few references to man’s lustful desires in his rambling peroration but they were only ever discretely alluded to and so neatly wrapped in metaphor and allegory that only the primmest of maiden aunts could take offence. Boston’s quota of said aunts were at that time collectively held under house arrest in the small town of Mashpee Neck in order to ensure that they would be bred out of society, so none took offence. Nevertheless, as news grew of the Nabob’s exotic persona he achieved a certain allure amongst the femininely inclined members of that social elite and subsequently, winter sales of fans were the highest ever recorded. Some older Boston gentlemen took exception to these whispered tales of sensual Eastern passions and declared that very few pleasures could rival the sound thrashing of a miscreant by a lawfully deputised mob.
The Nabob assured everyone he met that he had left a position in Mogulistan that was worth more than diamonds in order to bring the knowledge of the ancients to the good citizens of Boston. All he desired in return was food and lodgings and any cash or jewellery that his patrons could spare so that his good works could continue back in Mogulistan.
When queried about the exact location of Mogulistan he said that it lay between Namiswandullah and Ulbag. This explanation satisfied all but a few doubters who were themselves pacified when informed that Ulbag was right next door to Gabulah.
The Boston constabulary only became interested in the Nabob when a local by the name of Jeb Dockett was arrested for vagrancy and claimed to be a close relative of the Nabob and asked for political asylum or at the very least to be treated with similar respect and all the leniency that the law would allow on the basis that his brother Neb was currently being flaunted and lauded by all and sundry in Boston’s highest social circles.
The newspapers of the time record that the Nabob did appear to be less exotically Eastern than was first thought after a hose down in the cells and in fact, when scrutinised with more vigour, he showed a remarkably limited knowledge of anywhere but the most salubrious watering holes on the outskirts of Boston. It was during one rigorous interrogation on the virtues of prayer wheels by Dr. Cornelius Boag, Emeritus Professor of Eastern Studies and Ancient Religions, a worthy academic whom the good officers of Boston frequently called upon to investigate cases involving the impersonation of a Holy Joe, that the Nabob became aggressive and threatened to create a storm of toads by holding his nose and breathing into a paper bag; at which point he rapidly became unconscious.
Needless to say, his Boston benefactors, who included many notable old families in their number, were quick to point out that they had harboured suspicions all along and that he hadn’t fooled them one bit. The mystic stones he gave in return for cash were used to help fill in the Old Danver’s Mine. It was delicately reported that Jeb’s brother Neb had the stones returned to him at the same time.
© The Nabob Of Mogulistan written by Tom Fairnie July 2015
THE BEARSTONE ROCK LIGHTHOUSE MYSTERY
The Bearstone Rock lighthouse was by all accounts the loneliest place on earth. This was despite being staffed by three lighthouse keepers and a parrot at all times. The light was never permitted to go out and neither could its keepers for there was nowhere to go that couldn’t be described, even by the wildest optimist, as anything other than soggy. In truth the term soggy was a misnomer; in the case of all but the narrowest strip of territory surrounding Bearstone it meant 82 fathoms. The days passed slowly on the isolated island. The routine was rigid and the freedoms that all inmates of the penal system take for granted were simply unavailable to the three stalwart keepers of this illuminating beacon. The limitations of working on the lighthouse were exacerbated by the contractual obligation that all three lighthouse keepers should, at all times, speak a different language. This unfortunate state of affairs had arisen due to the singular fact that Bearstone Rock fell exactly at the juxtaposition of three sets of territorial waters, which tended to overlap and so it had been decided, by agreement at the very highest diplomatic levels, that it should be manned by a keeper from each sovereign state.
This bureaucratic solution had resulted in a pact of silence in the lighthouse although some limited use of sign language was permitted. To be truthful, it wasn’t permitted, but crude gestures to indicate mealtimes, toilet breaks and technical necessities had developed alongside a few other hand and face signals that indicated the keeper to whom they were being directed had his back to the one making the gestures.
This blissful state of affairs carried on unblinkingly for many years until the day of the so called “Bearstone Rock Lighthouse Mystery” when the boat bringing supplies; including an emergency supply of cuttlebone for the parrot, the post and the relief crew of keepers arrived to find a scene that has puzzled investigators all the long years since. What they found was, to all intents and purposes; nothing...the light was trimmed and in full working order, the table set for a meal of pickled halibut heads, okra and bean shoots, which lay understandably uneaten, the lighthouse keepers rooms were neat and tidy and no sign of any upset other than a single book lying face down on the doorstep leading to the lighthouse. The fact that the book was a Swiss train timetable has caused much debate amongst those who have tried to provide a rational solution to the mystery of the absence from work of the entire staff group.
The sea around Bearstone Rock had been calm for many days, there were no ships reported in the area and alien abduction was yet to be acknowledged as a phenomenon that could conveniently explain the sudden disappearance of a spouse or a debtor and the appearance of a new patio. Tales of sea monsters such as the Kraken or the Babylonian Water Goat were considered but dismissed on the grounds that the only reliable sightings of such creatures had only ever occurred on Saturday nights in downtown Poughkeepsie and Bearstone Rock was far from those breeding waters.
The strongest theory is that one keeper lost his footing while out collecting seaweed and the others in turn were lost in trying to rescue the first man. Phycology is almost as popular as philately on many lighthouses and it is easy to imagine a scene where a particularly succulent member of the giant kelp family could have lured a devotee of such delicacies to take a risk. The only problem with this theory is that it goes against all the years of training that the keepers undergo. The lighthouse keeper’s maxim is “Light before plight” and it is inconceivable that any keeper worth his sea salt would leave his station simply to attempt to rescue a recklessly moist colleague.
The next best theory is that a disagreement broke out and the restrictions inherent in communicating with each other led this to being a physical rather than verbal conflict and the matter was “taken outside” as the saying goes. Once outside the scene may have involved the two protagonists and a referee to guarantee fair play thus ensuring that all three keepers were exposed on the rock when a freak wave swept them all up and effectively won the argument.
However, all theories have been rendered null and void on the recent discovery of a letter secreted in the train timetable book. It is a brief note in three hands and is regarded as being tantamount to a declaration of a mutually agreed suicide pact. In three languages it states...”We are going outside to play the grand final of Poke-Eye Chase”
In the long tedium of their months of duty it appears that they had devised a game; the rules of which seemed to have involved poking each other in the eye and running away. The score sheet, which appears as an appendix to the note, indicated that the final score was two each to all three participants. This was the last entry.
Modern investigative science and forensic methodology have failed to answer the question of how the final score came to be noted when all three keepers by that point must have been effectively blind, submerged or, more likely, both. This is the true mystery of the Bearstone Rock lighthouse. There was the parrot of course, but despite being tri-lingual, it offered no vital evidence and few clues other than to express a desire to “have a Shag” a phrase well known to seafarers who presumably longed for the sight of a cormorant. Keeping score was simply beyond the parrot, which was found to be innumerate by scientists who later gave it a polygraph test.
© The Bearstone Rock Lighthouse Mystery written by Tom Fairnie July 2015
THE LIFE OF PIERCE CARVER
Pierce Carver was probably the most inappropriately named individual in Christendom. Sharp he most definitely wasn’t; in fact, he was widely recognised as being the bluntest of instruments and there was little doubt that in a class full of deciduous trees he would have happily sat in the middle amongst the oaks. His parents, Obadiah and Muriel McGrundy had somehow contrived to re- christen him as a very mature baby in his early thirties with a different surname to their own. Whilst this set a legal precedent at the time it went unchallenged on the basis that there was no doubting his lineage or any denial of the same but it was simply a matter of the speed of the bloodline and its density rather than its direction and it was felt that a different surname would go some way to help indicate this more clearly.
Despite the rush hour nature of his synaptic traffic Pierce was a happy and contended child. He was quickly recognised as not being the smartest pupil in school; he wasn’t even the smartest fixture and fitting to be honest but he happily took in the view from his seat, which was set facing the window rather than the front for his entire time in the education system. The seat itself was only changed to allow for various growing spurts rather than any academic advancement. Nevertheless, due to the political influence, social status and outright wealth of the McGrundys, Pierce left school and went on to enjoy a career that spanned the army, banking and the law. It is perhaps worth noting that it was during his time in the army that Pierce met the only man he himself regarded as an idiot who came from an even more privileged background than his own; but enough about our glorious senator.
It was in one of the narrower fields of jurisprudence that he found his true vocation. He was allocated the task of deliberating on misprints in the Uncommon Law by Lewis Snipe and Lewis Palladium Snipe (no relation) and the implications for any related legal decisions that may have been based on that venerable tome. At the end of a long and illustrious career Pierce was able to state unequivocally that the few misprints he had encountered had had no impact whatsoever on any legal case known to man. For this pronouncement he was given a healthy pension and a chair (ironically of oak) in one of Boston’s finest educational establishments.
Pierce was seldom asked a question in the present tense as his reply could often take longer to arrive than a pigeon with one wing. It was easier to present him with a statement and count his blinks in response. This was sufficient to get him through most social occasions without too much difficulty although for the purposes of courtship and breeding it was less than the basic standard required. The problem for the McGrundys was related to exactly how much of their substantial fortune would be needed in order to entice an undiscerning female of the right class and vintage to become Mrs Carver.
As was the custom at the time, in cases such as these, a discreet advert was placed in The Republican Quarterly’s Family Mergers Supplement, a publication noted for the effusive nature of its language and its impressive size, which has often been taken by those jealous of their betters as an indication of the lack of confidence by the wealthy elite in the genetic roulette that other classes enjoy. Its coded messages were easily recognised by families of a similar status and with a similar problem. All that was usually required after initial contact had been established was a meeting of the representing lawyers in order to sign the contract, an exchange of envelopes containing pictures of the proposed bride and groom, an artist’s impression of any potential offspring and both sets of bank details.
Due to the slightly more desperate nature of the McGrundy’s advert, and the accompanying gossip across the New England states and the mid west, only one response was forthcoming although it can be said that Slowena Trite-Mouper was an ideal choice. It has never been established beyond reasonable doubt as to whether Pierce and Slowena (named after her Grandfather on her mother’s side; Grandpa Cookor) ever actually realised that they were in fact man and wife or whether each took the other to be some kind of help around the home. Their union was never blessed and when they died their entire estate after lawyer’s fees and suchlike had taken their significant toll went to found a home for distressed yacht club owners in and around the great lakes. It is thanks to their legacy that we can still see, through powerful binoculars, the descendants of those same yacht club owners sailing their distressed yachts around the Isle Royale or along the St Clair River.
After many years of domestic bliss Slowena passed away in her sleep whilst driving her beloved Bentley. It was reported that she had died naturally; doing what she loved best...ramming the six o’ clock special on the Boston and Providence Line. However, the nature of Pierce’s death is of more interest to this biographer. He was killed when his foot became trapped under the Athabasca glacier; it’s only known victim since the Mastodon.
© The Life Of Pierce Carver written by Tom Fairnie July 2015
NICODEMUS RAPPH; BRAINY OR JUST PLAIN COCKAMAMIE?
At the end of his life Nicodemus Rapph believed himself a scientist of the first order. He had discovered laws pertaining to the universe that would have shaken the man he called “that imposter Newton” to his very underwear. He had dismissed gravity as a misguided attempt to explain cider; he insisted that an eclipse was merely the sun revolving to reveal its dark side. Worm holes and cosmic winds received similar treatment, both, according to Nicodemus, being anatomical and quite possibly directly related to each other, rather than astronomical. He had once calculated how long a train would take to reach Hyperion, the moon of Saturn he had determined would be best suited to the building of a terminus.
His labours were extensive, exhaustive and entirely without merit but those simple facts were insufficient to make him believe anything other than that he was indeed a scientist of the first order.
As a child he had only ever had one thing in his head...space. He had avidly read every science fiction comic he could lay hands on and he grew up to be obsessed with the space uniforms typified in early science fiction films. His earliest sexual fantasies involved Bacofoil; and occasionally a telescope. He was generally seen as being an outsider at school; mainly because they often wouldn’t let him in. He was a disruptive pupil; he raged against the orthodoxy of text books, timetables, homework and being quiet at the back. His presence in class was regarded as a nightmare by his teachers, his classmates and the police, who were often called in to protect invigilators and domestic science teachers. Despite his self avowed higher intelligence he managed to leave school with only a swimming certificate and an ashtray he had fashioned in the metalwork class, which he inexplicably lost on the way home. The swimming certificate was later found to have been stolen. However, at home, in a makeshift laboratory, he carried on testing out his theories, correcting the Principia Mathematica by removing all references to the number seven, obsessively making prototypes of a revolutionary “space-water ship” and revising Darwin’s Origin Of Species to include the Ocupine, which, according to Nicodemus, was a giant, underwater porcupine with six, or possibly, eight spiky legs. He contended that, were it to be harvested from the sea, it would taste delicious and feed the entire population of the Isle of Wight for six to eight weeks.
Recognition by one’s peers is the normal way that eminent academics gain their credibility but Nicodemus drew strength from the complete lack of acceptance for any of his theories by anyone remotely associated with the fields of astronomy, physics or cosmology. He reasoned that scientific breakthroughs had, by definition, to be counter to popular belief such that, the more he was mocked the deeper his self belief became.
His theory on the origin of the universe was based on his observation using a home-made telescope that incorporated Rapph’s innovative triple-triple by-pass condenser lens array. His almost obsessive observations and calculations over many years led to a singed retina and the conclusion that the universe was in fact simply confusing. He subsequently called his model of the birth of the cosmos The Muddle Theory. Waves, strings, big bangs and black holes played no part whatsoever in his plan. He contended that, rather like a babe that had been dropped on its head at a formative age, the cosmos was befuddled. How the universe came to be dropped, from where and by whom he was unable to explain but he was quick to challenge anyone who disagreed by noting that there wasn’t a natural straight line to be found in space anywhere. He had looked. It is perhaps worth pointing out that in researching this biography the author discovered the medical records pertaining to a baby (described only as NR) born on the same day and in the same hospital as our subject. It alludes to an incident that mentions a fall and a cranial hematoma (the terms noggin and goose egg are used at one point). No blame is allocated and it is beyond the scope of this biography to determine if there were any lasting effects on the subject but it does raise an interesting point that may warrant further enquiry.
Despite his confidence in The Muddle Theory the years of rejection and scoffing began to take their toll and he suffered a mid-life crisis, which was unusual in the fact that he was seventy five years old at the time. This provided the worrying prospect for his relatives that he might live to be a hundred and fifty. However it was simply a glitch on his journey to the recognition that finally came his way when his observations provided evidence of a then unknown galaxy, which he named Ploxo for a character in Return to The Fire Planet. The cheap novel had been an early influence on young Nicodemus and quite possibly the reason he spent so much time and effort on perfecting the space-water ship. The discovery of Ploxo was his crowning glory.
It was fitting that by the end of his life he was finally vindicated and given credit for his work. He died happy in the knowledge that somewhere out there in the universe his Muddle Theory would be applied to his own ashes, which he had specifically asked to be flushed down the toilet in order to join with what he called “the cosmic space-water whirlpool wind”; a request that his family felt obliged to go along with although it is doubtful that Nicodemus, whilst he would have approved the ecologically sound idea of saving water, would have been happy that they left the ceremony until such time as they could double up the effectiveness of the flush as it were.
It was only after many years of cross checking his calculations and plotting a myriad of co-ordinates on stellar charts that scientists were able to absolutely confirm that Ploxo didn’t actually exist. Several theories have been put forward for Nicodemus’s error, the most credible being that it was a floater. Seen by himself alone. It was somehow fitting that his life’s work and his final glorious flushing away should have been connected by this singular fact.
© Nicodemus Rapph; Brainy Or Just Plain Cockamamie? written by Tom Fairnie July 2015
A HANGMAN AT A NOOSE END
Wags used to say that a good hangman was worth his weight in sand and Tuck Pierrey was a very good hangman indeed; although even that value was diminished by his making a living in Texas where it was commonly noted that sand never drew much of a price due to the liberal sprinkling the state had endured since the dawn of time. During the peak decade of his illustrious career he had hung more of the population of the state than had died legitimately from the pox and that was a substantial number. He had favoured the “Kansas Drop” as it was known although he had modified the particular knot used to incorporate his own trademark “nutcracker”, which produced a sound akin to a lariat cracking at the critical moment that was guaranteed to bring applause and cheers from an otherwise dour and morbidly curious mob.
Such was Tuck’s fame he had been immortalised in ballads and poems, some being written by clients awaiting their fate although most of those particular efforts couldn’t stand repeating in polite company due to their unfortunate tendency to rhyme. Even in the early days of vaudeville it was still possible to hear the familiar chorus “There never was a man so down on his luck / He couldn’t be lowered by Hangman Tuck / There never was a killer couldn’t be caught / By his neck in a noose and a nutcracker knot / let ‘em hang, let ‘em hang, let ‘em hang ‘til they drop/ let ‘em dance, let ‘em dance, let ‘em dance ‘til they stop”.
The decision to take up the profession of hangman was something that Tuck failed to struggle over. His destiny had been decided at birth, he was one of twins; the other one came out with the cord round its neck... but little Caleb survived and grew up to be both a lawman and a preacher in Alabama. He achieved fame in both roles and was regarded as a liberal; due to his liberal use of the handgun as a means of spreading the good word and the intestines of unbelievers who happened to break the commandments; particularly in relation to livestock in Tuscaloosa County. His judgements did not vex the legal system in general and rarely troubled lawyers seeking clemency, or indeed a living, being seen as a law unto himself; a role that tended to go unchallenged. It was noted that he never sought to call upon the services of a hangman, much to the disappointment of the many admirers of that profession and to the everlasting annoyance of his illustrious sibling. The lack of legal hangings during this period is often seen as one of the main reasons for the proliferation of recreational lynching in the state.
The boys were the sons of the most famous hangman in the mid-west; a man who went by the name of Jacob “Jerk” Pierrey. A man so cold and calculating that many a murderer under sentence of death felt a chill in his presence, which was all the more remarkable a feat when one considered the thermal quality of their own career choice.
Whilst a babe in his cot, Tuck’s mother had suspended a toy over his bed as a comforting distraction. Troubled relatives recalled that it featured a variety of dancing skeletons. It was little wonder that the child grew up preferring the company of dead critters to his peers. He begun to practice hanging them in the dark woods near his home and took to holding mock trials of various woodland wildlife accused of a wide variety of trumped up charges. In these mock trials evidence was rarely allowed to interfere with the course of justice and pardons invariably arrived too late. Throughout his life, the law never troubled Tuck, he simply saw it as his duty to carry out the sentence of the court regardless of pleas for mitigation, attempts at bribery and the many cases of mistaken identity that were attested to by those awaiting their fate. He was far too proud for any of that.
They say that pride comes before a fall and that is a particularly worrying combination in one whose very livelihood depends upon an efficient drop; and pride it was that caused the downfall of Tuck Pierrey.
He had grown to regard himself as a master in the art of suspense as much as suspension in that the timing of the fatal drop became the subject of much concentration and debate among the onlookers and Tuck had become expert at judging the mood of the crowd as they swayed between their desire to see the sentence carried out and their lustful savouring of the moments in anticipation of the event. He had no scruples about being a crowd pleaser; a status that seemed to satisfy a deep rooted desire to be a showman. It thus came as an irritating surprise to hear tell of a man known as Heck Gibbert who professed to use only the finest non-slip hemp rope from Missouri and who openly boasted that his method could dispatch a felon and leave a benign smile on the same, thus giving the erroneous impression that he had met a happy end. This curiosity began to draw huge crowds and local sheriffs and politicians seeking re-election began requesting the services of “The Merry Hangman” as he came to be known. The news of his exploits began to trouble Tuck and eventually he was drawn to see for himself his rival’s work.
The combination of fair weather, a local carnival and the prospect of several hangings had brought a huge crowd to Bethel County in order to witness the event. To Tuck’s disappointment it lived up to all expectations and the atmosphere of all those present, including the happily dispatched, was one of high spirits. As was the custom on such occasions, alcohol was freely taken and often led to incidents that gave rise to a further round of justice having to be seen to be done. Tuck’s great weakness was alcohol and such was its influence over that long day and evening that he sought out his rival in order to prove which of them was the better servant of the law. Unfortunately, Gibbert had himself imbibed freely once his duty had been discharged and he had received his fee and his judgement was similarly clouded. They argued bitterly on their relative merits and, unable to resolve the matter, they determined to wager their reputations, their professional skills, two thirds of a bottle of rye whiskey and the two dollars and eight cents cash that they had left between them on a contest.
They were found in the old livery stable by a deputy who was investigating reports of the sound of two firecrackers being discharged. He had expected to find the local Sheriff’s children getting up to more mischief but instead, he found the two professional hangmen in an embrace that he described as being “Uncomfortably close”. They were hanging from a timber beam at either end of a fine hemp rope with a nutcracker variant of the traditional Kansas Drop knot on the nooses around their necks and a smile on both their faces as if to indicate that they had both proved their point and won the wager.
The coroner’s verdict on both men was death by misadventure. He also declared that it appeared that honour was satisfied on both sides and declared the contest a draw. Wags have noted that the two dollars and eight cents they left behind would have bought exactly 285lbs of best quality Texas sand; effectively their combined weight. When told the news of his brother’s demise, Caleb Pierrey remarked that it came as no surprise as Tuck wouldn’t have been seen dead without a necktie.
© A Hangman At A Noose End written by Tom Fairnie July 2015
SCENT AND SENSIBILITY
Sleeping in the woods wasn’t for everyone; but then, Brier Harding wasn’t everyone. He had effectively grown up feral. He had avoided school altogether simply by never attending and avoided the authorities by hiding in the woods around his home. He had avoided censure from his parents by the clever expedient of regularly bringing home rabbits and the occasional wild turkey. The term home was questionable as the Harding homestead was, by common consent, the most run-down property in the small town of North Catamount where the competition for that title was intense.
Brier was fond of hunting deer in the forest on the lower slopes of Pocumtuc Mountain and had taken to extreme measures to ensure that the odds were in his favour. As it was, they set an unarmed ruminant against a marksman equipped with nothing but a high velocity rifle and his wits, which at least gave the deer half a chance, but Briar still felt that the odds were balanced unfairly in favour of the combatant more appropriately dressed in buckskin.
He reasoned that the deer’s biggest advantage over him was its highly developed sense of smell. This glaring mismatch being most obvious when a deer downwind of even the most carefully constructed hide could be spooked by the faintest scent of a well oiled carbine; not to mention a well oiled hunter. In order to avoid unsettling his prey he determined to smell of nothing but the forest and so it was that for several months he lived almost entirely in the wild. He forsook his ablutions, which wasn’t much of a sacrifice as his bathing routine was somewhat irregular and was unusual in that it didn’t actually involve water. His simple technique was a vigorous rub down with dry dirt and the addition of spit when a particularly tough stain was encountered. The stain was thus blended into the background as it were. It was an abrasive routine more akin to a snake shedding its skin than actually washing and explained the loss over the years of his only distinguishing feature; a birthmark in the shape of Kansas.
He slept under leaves and ate only what he could gather from nature. He took to rolling on the forest floor at regular intervals. He distilled an elixir made from selected plant roots, berries, animal droppings, rotten leaves and decayed nuts all bound with deer fat. He rubbed this concoction over his entire body and, on one notable occasion he determined to eat it. This experiment was unsuccessful but it did resolve certain other issues relating to trapped wind. It was perhaps fortunate that he was, to all intents and purposes, happy living alone in the forest because it was around this time that he was banned from North Catamount as his clothing on its own contravened several of the town’s health statutes.
It is worth noting that the mythical status of the woodsman has been aided by colourful stories of mountain men braving the wilderness and still finding time to whittle a piccolo in order to charm the young schoolmistress from the township nearby. This myth avoids the obvious fact that there were insurmountable barriers of class, education and, most of all, odour that made this homely picture unlikely in the extreme. Woodsmen were wild, uncouth and at odds with cultured society. They were unlikely to be able to partake of small talk unless it concerned the best way to skin a raccoon. However, in Briar’s case, he was convinced that laying a dead deer at her feet would be sufficient to win the hand of any maiden. It never occurred to him that his ambitious plan to overcome the barrier of distance between his prey and himself was also taking him further away from any discerning female member of society.
He regularly tested the validity of his theory by stalking the deer as they foraged and was pleased to note that he was able to get ever closer to his prey before they could detect a faint undertone; a note that signalled the hunter gatherer. He was encouraged to pursue his plan to the point where he could almost touch them. After several weeks of edging nearer to the deer he so eagerly coveted, and smelling ever more like one of the herd he was finally ready to close in for the kill. He crawled on his belly, inching forward over a period of hours until he could be certain to take the largest specimen. With almost indiscernible movements he slowly raised his rifle, smeared as it was with the intoxicating potion that he himself was drenched in. He took careful aim and began to slowly, inexorably, tighten his finger on the trigger.
It was in the moment between the anticipation and the elation of the kill that he became aware of the bear. It had caught his scent blowing downwind somewhere in Utah and pursued the rancid odour until it was finally able to pounce. The gun discharged as it flew through the air, aimlessly hitting a unique tree fungus, thus eliminated an entire sub-species, and scattering the deer along with every other living creature for miles.
The bear took home a trophy from the hunt and presented it to his mate who was warmed by the gesture sufficiently to allow some canoodling to take place. The canoe had belonged to an earlier hunter who luckily managed to escape the clutches of the bear by drowning.
The few remains that were found were never absolutely confirmed as belonging to Brier as the lack of any distinguishing feature such as his head or the birthmark in the shape of Kansas proved to be problematic in identifying the “leftovers” although the clear indication that the numerous, recently installed, signs warning of bears in the area had been ignored and the fact that everyone in town recognised the aroma made it unlikely they belonged to a scholar. Thus the remains of Brier Harding were interred in the churchyard under a tombstone he himself would have been unable to read. It simply noted that he had no schooling and that he met a grizzly end.
© Scent And Sensibility written by Tom Fairnie September 2015
THE LOST SCHLOSS OF SCHNEFFERDINGEN
The Schnefferdingen schloss was a landmark; it could be seen for miles around. Migrating birds used it as a marker and dropped their starboard wing toward Africa on passing above the high tower. In many ways it was the luckiest spot in the kingdom for the birds also made a point of dropping a substantial heap of guano on the occupants below. It was certainly lucky for the only umbrella maker in the village; less so for pavement artists and those people who had ordered a black coffee rather than a cappuccino. The schloss stood on the border with the Netherlands as a reminder of German imperial might and the prestige of its many owners over the centuries.
Hundreds of medieval craftsmen had fashioned its stone walls and the impressive girth of its ramparts were insisted upon in the original plans drawn up by the first Baron; Wilhelm of Schnefferdingen. It was a commonly held jibe that “Vee Villie” as he was known was simply trying to compensate. Nevertheless, the schloss was famously prominent and generally envied by the peasants of the village who served in its shadow; but then, anything more than mud was envied by the peasants and in some cases, a simple bucket of slurry provoked uncontrollable outbursts of envy that often led to violence; death by bucket being the third most common cause of all fatalities in Schnefferdingen.
As in every castle, the wind, when it blew, blew freely in every nook, through every cranny, between every ill-fitting window frame and whistled up every possible orifice. It was only the fact that it enjoyed the mild, temperate climate of that particular region of Germany that made it habitable. A quirk of geography meant that neither the Baltic, the Steppes, the far, frozen tundra nor indeed, the mistral, or indeed the Gulf Stream had any effect whatsoever on Schnefferdingen. The summers were long and warm, the autumns crisp, clear and glowing. Springs and winters were mild and idyllic. Apart from the aforementioned wind that chased around the nether regions of Schneverdingen and its citizens it was a haven of tranquillity.
But life, as we know all too well, is never idyllic for long and so it was for the Schnefferdingen schloss. It may have been a simple bureaucratic error, a slip of the pen, a misplaced reading on a theodolite but basic human error led the cartographer charged with drawing the map of the region to mistakenly put the Schnefferdingen schloss in the Netherlands and remove it from Germany’s imperious yoke. This small, almost insignificant error went unnoticed and the map was approved at every further stage until the Kaiser himself happily signed off the finished work; the great, new Map of Germany. The error had been ratified. It was only a simple mistake and yet it is exactly why there was no rational explanation for what then happened to the Schnefferdingen schloss.
The air in the Netherlands changes in mid to late October; it thickens and takes on the nature of the national dish of pea and ham soup or snert as the Dutch call it. A permanent mist rolls unhindered over the flatlands from the North Sea and stays, afraid to go back into the water, which is often erroneously, and yet somehow accurately, described as “Baltic”. The mist takes up residence for the duration and navigating the lowlands becomes a serious occupation for the inhabitants. Even a short journey to the outhouse is considered risky and mistakes are common; such that, local telephone boxes are welded shut until the first winds of spring. Many locals leaving home to visit nearby friends and family would believe their prayers answered when they finally found themselves back at their own front door hours later without actually having left their garden. The flat, featureless landscape conspired in this fog–bound labyrinth and the multitude of canals that criss-cross the countryside were unerringly found by those who strayed from the path. It was particularly treacherous at dusk when the light began to fade and grey turned to something that even darkness couldn’t adequately describe. The still air would carry the sound of people and animals taking an unexpected evening dip and the occasional dwang of a heron beak-butting a windmill. Rescue was unlikely and entire families had been lost as each in turn ventured out to search for the one who had just gone out searching for the previous one. It was easier to simply go with the flow and re-settle wherever they could clamber back on to dry land...which was sometimes Scotland.
But how did all of this affect the Schnefferdingen schloss? Well, believe it or not, the very first October after the cartographer’s error it became enveloped in typical Netherland’s weather and was lost in a mist that its great grey walls perfectly matched. The mist gave no clue to where the horizon might be, such that the sky, the land, the sea and the schloss were all one featureless lump of fog. The inhabitants of the castle had opened their eyes that mid October morning to rooms filled with a veritable cataract of mist. They mistakenly opened windows to let the brumous rooms clear only to allow even more murkiness in. Underwear, socks and dark clothing became almost impossible to locate. The castle often rang with screams as bare flesh met cold marble in the search to find missing garments. The wind that had happily blown through the halls and corridors was gone; mysteriously diverted to a small German village where the inhabitants were suddenly faced with double strength winds that blew clothes and sheets from washing lines until they, like the citizens of Schnefferdingen, were also bereft of underwear.
Confused migrating birds found themselves in Bishop Auckland completely inappropriately dressed in their African plumage. Travellers who had previously used the schloss as a guiding landmark were forced to walk in seemingly endless loops until they developed a way of walking that avoided the body’s natural tendency to go in circles. This was essentially how the hop, skip and jump technique was created although it often became a hop, skip and plop in the vicinity of a canal. Slowly the schloss and its inhabitants began to become almost invisible; their mood, their clothes, their demeanour all began to fade as sunlight and summer breezes became an ever more distant memory. Conversations were lost in the mist until communication and even language itself decayed into incoherent mumbles...and we were barely into December. No child could be safely sent to school and arithmetic became limited to the counting on the fingers of one’s hands. The duodecimal or the hexadecimal systems were completely forgotten although an attempt was made by one young man to introduce a system using the number eleven as its base. In the days before the mist he was well known as a deep thinker who always walked about with his hands in his pockets. He was summarily flogged once the elders considered the basis for his theory.
The years rolled by but the mist around the Schnefferdingen schloss refused to recede. It was as reluctant to give way as a Dutchman on a bike and the castle seemed to be cursed. The schloss fell into decay, the population drifted away, lost in the mist like casualties in a great battle between light and grey.
Meanwhile, elsewhere, the seasons passed pretty much as normal. Until one day the Kaiser, tired of aggressive campaigns, decided to visit the furthest reaches of his kingdom and so set about planning a route that would take him and his entourage to all of the border towns and villages. The Empress declined to join him on the trip as she had been told by her cousin Victoria that any contact with commoners could lead to the German equivalent of “turning cockney”. Her presence or lack of it was unlikely to be an issue as their marriage was a matter of convenience, only made in order to ensure that a substantial part of Europe remained in the grasp of some bloke with a pointy helmet. Thus the Kaiser planned to travel with his usual companion and acknowledged bidey-in, an opera singer from the spa town of Baden-Baden, famous for her ability to gargle the Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin. Whilst her knowledge of Wagner’s body of work was impressive, as was her own substantial body, her inability to distinguish one map from another led her to pack an old map rather than the one the Kaiser had sanctioned several years before. And so it was that they eventually found themselves walking in single file, each member of the entourage holding the shoulders of the one in front as they wandered into the thick mist surrounding the lost schloss of Schnefferdingen.
It has been suggested that the entire royal party ended up in a canal and were drowned; weighed down with medals and finery, or that they perhaps strayed into the path of a similarly lost party of Republicans who brutally put them to citizenship. However, the most likely explanation is that they managed to find their way to the schloss and remained in its labyrinthine corridors and stairways until they perished through lack of any idea how to manage for themselves. The simple ability to boil an egg could have saved them but the servants responsible for water, fire and chickens had foolishly been sent ahead to determine if the schloss had a suitably grandiose kitchen for them to prepare the evening meal and were never seen again. It was well known that the Kaiser himself was uncertain what a chicken actually looked like and had no concept of how to prepare his own food beyond swallowing a bogey.
These are the facts and suppositions surrounding the lost schloss of Schnefferdingen, which remains in a mist shrouded limbo to this day and the subsequent disappearance of the Kaiser. You may dismiss this account but try asking the next German you meet exactly what happened to the Kaiser and just see what they say.
© The Lost Schloss Of Schnefferdingen written by Tom Fairnie October 2015
THE UGLY, THE REALLY UGLY AND THE BACK END OF A HORSE
It all started with a roll of the dice...outside there was a simultaneous roll of thunder. It would have been an ominous sign anywhere else, but in Pyrite nobody knew what ominous meant. In which case it was just kinda’ spooky. The old timers liked to sit around and play dice and watch the world go by. Today would be different. Today both the dice came up sixes, which was really unusual for a pair of loaded dice. The saloon doors swung open and in the doorway stood a shadowy figure, his face hidden as he stood against the grey light of the rain-swept sky. His entrance was accompanied by another roll of thunder and as it rumbled on and decayed he reached into his pocket and threw something across the room. It clattered onto the table and came to rest as the thunder died away. It was another dice. It was another six. “Three sixes, well I ain't never seen nothing like that before.” said old Jebediah, which surprised the others seeing as he was the local minister. “Ain't it the number of the Beast, the sign of the Devil, Reverend?” said Luke. “It's just a coincidence boys, you don't want to take no heed of it.” Good advice eh?
There was another roll of thunder. As it faded the saloon was filled with the sound of simultaneous farting it was at that moment that the citizens of Pyrite realised why thunder always seemed to smell that way. It was to be the start of a long road to rehabilitation out of shame and into a coming to terms with their bodily functions. “Hey old timer” the stranger spoke in a low growl of a voice, “I'm a stranger in town. Is that the Wells Fargo depot?” “Nope, that's a horse. Boy you sure are a stranger mister.” The old man looked him up and down; he wasn't a pretty sight, but then he had no room to talk…after years of chewing Old Dog tobacco he had the look of a gurning champion for whom the wind had comprehensively changed. “Who are you son? Where you from?” he asked. “I don't have a name. I've come from a part of the West that has no name, I've been through the desert on a horse with no name.” In the corner of the saloon someone started to whistle and took out a notebook and began to draw pictures of birds on telegraph wires…it was a crude form of music...they were buzzards.
“What do call this town anyway?” “Oh it ain't got a name neither, but we call it Pyrite.” “How did it get to be called that?” “Well this is where we had the Fools Gold Rush of '48, the real Gold Rush passed it by, along with the coming of the railroad, the Indian Wars and the opening up of the new territories. Yes sir, the people of Pyrite have seen it all...well, that's to say we ain't seen any of it. The Rush didn't last too long neither; we called it the Rush Hour. So now the only ones that are left are the weak, the old, the poor and those too stupid to get out. Come to think of it, nobody's actually left yet...but the Gold Rush sure left a mark on this town.” “I wondered about that big yellow streak.” “Yup, there's that and the remains of the Gold Fever Hospital.” “This is a pretty depressing little town ain't it?” “Yup, we nearly called it Valium Gulch.”
“Anyway, can you tell me where the depot is, and the livery station, my horse needs to rest up for a few days?” “He's a mean looking horse stranger, looks like he's got the devil in him.” “He's mean alright.” said the stranger, “Have you heard tell of a horse called Mister Ed?” “We sure have, a talking horse gets to be pretty famous round Pyrite. He's near as popular as the singing skunk we got, course Sammy ain't so well liked by them fancy folks.” “Well my horse got in a fight with the famous Mister Ed over a filly.” “An' what happened?” asked the old timer “Well it came to a kind of a showdown and Ed said “Go on, make my hay” “An’ what did your horse say to that stranger?” “Nothing…he can’t talk, he’s a horse.” “So what did he do?” “He kicked the shit out of him.”
“You got the time mister?” It was the sheriff, “I make it ten past eight” “ Okay boys, its high noon. Now get back to your homes, time this saloon was closed.” The sheriff was a strange man, the locals didn't take too much notice of him, but then how much respect does a Blue Peter badge command? “Why are you in town stranger, what do you want here?” “I'm a bounty hunter sheriff, I'm looking for a man.” “Well at least your not looking for coconuts like them other fellers, boy were they lost. So who is it your after?” “I'm looking for the man who shot Liberty Bodice.” “Wasn't that one of the James boys, the one that's a real Jessie?” “I heard he was hiding out under another name.” “What name?” “I don't know sheriff, but I'm here to find him.” “You mean it could be anyone?” “It could even be you sheriff.” “Well how are you gonna know him?” “I'll be able to recognise him quite easily, he has a scar on his arm.” “Ain't you noticed everybody in this town's got a scar on their arm.” “He also has the top of one finger missing.” “Just like mine mister?” said the old timer “Eh, yup.” “Everybody in town's got that bit missing too.” “Oh, well the man I'm looking for walks with a limp.” “Right leg or left leg?” “Right leg.” “Well that's a pity, but at least we ruled out Lefty Morgan.” “You mean everyone in town has a limp?” “Yup.”
“It's going to be harder than I thought to find him, but I know one or two things more about him. For instance he has a rattlesnake tattoo on his left arm, he wears black boots with silver spurs and he has a bald patch in the shape of Texas on the crown of his head.” “Well it sure can't be me then stranger. Mine is in the shape of Kansas, but it could be almost anyone else.” “Is everybody in this town identical?” “It's because we're a twin town.” “Who with?” “Nobody, we're just full of twins.” “Well it looks like I'm gonna have to flush him out.” “We only got a chemical toilet here, the nearest flush is in Dodge City. In fact I heard tell they got two there now.” “Two! But there must be six thousand people in Dodge.” “Yup, I can't see why they need another one neither.”
“So is this all you do; sit around shooting dice?” “Well we used to play Fill the Spittoon but Environmental Health put a stop to it.” “I heard someone whistling earlier on, the man I'm looking for whistles the same little song all day long.” “You mean this one stranger?” A man dressed all in black began whistling a tune; it sounded strangely familiar, which was odd because nobody would see The Bridge on the River Kwai for well over a century. The man in black stood out from the rest...it was a black dress. “Who are you?” said the stranger. “Well my girlfriend calls me the Magnificent Seven, but that's another story.” It was Rico, the Side-saddle Kid, which at least explained his limp. “Who wants to know?” “I ain’t got a name. I just do a dirty job. They sometimes call me...” “Dirty!” “No; Jobby!”
“If your looking to take me back your gonna have to shoot me.” “I've shot men before, I shot Billy the Goat.” “You mean Billy the Kid.” “No, it was his pa.” “Did you ever shoot a woman?” It was Clementine, Rico's girlfriend, he liked her a lot, she reminded him of the old country, back in Ireland he'd been an Orangeman. “I shot a Russian shot putter once, does that count?” “Who are you anyway?” “She's my girl. Now get out of here Clementine, this is man's work.” Suddenly three shots rang out in the saloon and Clementine slumped to the floor. “She's hit.” cried the Old Timer “Oh my darlin', oh my darlin'...I'm dreadful sorry Clementine.” said Rico. The room fell silent as they waited for the familiar intro but the banjo player hadn’t been written into this scene yet so the joke went begging.
Suddenly a beautiful woman burst through the crowd. “I’m a nurse.” she cried “Let me through, we need hot water and lots of it.” She never went anywhere without a teabag. “It’s lucky I’m here, I’m the town nurse and saloon owner, the name's Kitty, First Aid Kitty. Doc’s gone for the day.” “Holiday?” “Yup that’s him. He's gone over to the Walton's place to tell ‘em about them new fangled contraceptives. Doc never takes a day off, except the occasional Monday. You’re lucky I’m here.” Some of the townsfolk found it difficult to agree with this statement, they still remember the night she operated on old Jake. His wife had shot him in the back and Kitty stitched him up good and proper. Of course six days later she had to take the stitches out before he died from constipation but since then she always remembered to count the bullets and count the holes. It was a tricky operation removing the bullets…they had lodged in Clementine’s girdle. “I think I can save the ribs.” said Kitty, but it was useless, the girdle had had its last squeeze. Clementine was gonna be okay but Rico suddenly realised how much more he was getting for his money. He moved to the door but the stranger saw him “Your coming back with me to stand trial in Dodge City.” “But that's through Indian country!” Rico exclaimed. “We'll be okay, I've got my trusty Indian guide Dib Dib.” “That's a funny name for a guide.” “Me no in guides, me scout.” Dib Dib was a rare breed, a female Indian scout. In the days before female liberation it was quite unusual for a woman to get a job let alone a vertical one.
The thought of crossing Indian country would make anyone nervous. Even the double buffalo skin salesmen gave the country around Pyrite a wide berth. To the Indians in these parts the only good white man was a white woman. They could do terrible things with their tomahawks; even their smoke signals had been banned by most tribes...they could only send them after nine o’ clock.
It was tough going riding through Indian country…one of the horses got a puncture. It was hard to believe that something with four horseshoes could be so unlucky? Clementine’s horse keeled over from exhaustion. In desperation Rico knelt down beside the poor dumb animal...then he tried to revive the horse as well “I'm a horse whisperer” he declared. “Well you're gonna have to shout.” Suggested Clementine, who recognised a lifeless article when she saw it after many a frustrating romantic encounter with Rico. He wasn’t the best lover and calling her a cowpoke didn’t help. Rico tried everything...he even tried mouth to mouth, which gives you some idea why Clementine wasn’t so keen on kissing on the first date. “It's useless; he's deaf.” said Rico, recognising the futility of his efforts and proving that he was a master of the understatement. By nightfall the horse's hearing hadn't improved so much that triggermortis had set in and they had to bury it despite Rico's reservations and the fact that he’d shouted himself hoarse.
That night the stranger sat by the campfire and wondered how he had got there; where had it all gone? He remembered his young bride, his smallholding, but that didn't bother her then, they were so much in love. Then came the war…brother shot brother as the country was torn apart. He had it harder than most, he was one of ten. He still remembered coming home, the old place was run down and in ruins, she had gone, left him for a carpetbagger, he could understand the attraction, she was a great underlay. She left a note “I don't need you any more, I'm gonna do it myself.” He knew she'd gone to Texas.
As the long night in Monument Valley dragged on the strange eerie shapes of the rock formations began to take on a life of their own. Rico started to tell a campfire ghost story but the stranger made him stop “Your spooking the horses” he said, but they could all see that he had a strange look on his face. He looked like a man with something to hide. Slowly he manoeuvred his last Rolo out of the lining of his chaps and discreetly slipped it into his mouth. His horse sniffed the desert air and eyed him suspiciously. “He looks like he’s got something to hide. I hope that’s a tube of Rolos in his chaps.” thought the horse. Then suddenly the night air was filled with the sounds of drums and war dances. “Damn those drums, damn them to hell. Damn these savages and their incessant lust for clichés” said the stranger. On and on they went, it reminded Rico of a rave he'd been at in Carson City when he got up to dance the first dance and didn’t sit down for eighteen hours. He really hated tepee music.
Then, just as suddenly as it started, it stopped and the echo of the last drumbeat hung in the air amongst the great stones. “We’ll take turns,” said the stranger, “You’re not on, what kind of woman do you think I am?” “Turns at keeping watch you jackass.” “Don’t call her names, that’s my intended you’re insulting” said Rico “Well I didn’t realise you were intending anything.” said the stranger. “And you can forget that right away.” interrupted Clementine with an ominous tone in her voice. The stranger and Rico looked at each other and their eyes spoke a thousand words…words like “It’s in the oven”...“We need a bigger house for Mother”…“You don’t love me anymore.” and the dreaded...“How do I look?” They decided to let Clementine take the first watch and cuddled up together for protection.
Something stirred the stranger and he woke from a deep troubled sleep…Clementine was gone! He roused Rico and Dib Dib and they began to search for signs. Dib Dib put her ear to the ground…she detected a low rumble...it was either Clementine or a distant stampede. She sniffed the air for a faint sign of Clementine's perfume but they were still too close to Pyrite and the smell of thunder from the saloon. She pondered for a long moment, and then using all the ancient hunting wisdom of her tribe, set off in completely the wrong direction. The stranger was familiar with her technique and decided to go the other way. He never saw Dib Dib again, she never did find her way back to the camp, although later she did enjoy a brief moment of fame as the Indian woman who started the Battle of the Little Big Horn when, due to failing eyesight, she accidentally shot at General Custer thinking he was a Buffalo...although she could be forgiven, even today, few people realise that he was a hunchback.
Meanwhile in the Indian camp, they had spirited Clementine away in the night, which was no mean feat as she was one big orange. The chief began by introducing the tribe. For an Indian, he was a true gentleman. He’d heard about the noble savage and fancied that it was not a bad chat up line. Anyway, before they got down to the business of violating this wonderful specimen of womanhood he began by splitting the tribe into two groups...those who were salivating freely and those who could still talk without howling…it had been a long time since these Indians had been with a woman. The squaws in the tribe were an ugly lot; the braves had traded their land for them many years ago but it had proved to be a bad deal, they turned out to have names like Looks Like Mutton, Bag Over Head Woman, Thunder Brow and Dog. The tribe was desperately short of obliging women so the young braves had had to learn the old ways from the aged blind brave “Arm Like Fiddler Crab” The chief began the introductions in order of desperation…“Him called Running Dog because him win Powderhall Sprint. Him called Running Sore because him never heard of Preparation H and him over there big fan of post modernist movie genres... him Reservoir Dog.”
Clementine wasn’t going to give anything away without a fight and she certainly knew how to handle herself…and men. Pretty soon the braves were running around in a circle, howling and clutching their thongs like a demented defensive wall…and Clementine appeared to be a free kick expert. Thus began the tradition of the Indian war dance.
It wasn't long before they decided to have a pow-wow. "She bloody hard squaw" said Chief Ironside, "Me reckon she should go back to white men, we steal whisky instead." "Bloody good idea chief." said Token Indian Number One "We're never gonna get another like Cher, are we?" Even after a makeover she'd still look more like Sonny. We might as well dump her back where we found her."
As that second desert night passed, the stranger drifted in and out of a troubled sleep. He kept waking up, his face covered in perspiration. He had a dreaded fear of night sweats…he remembered his mother being a martyr to them and he was concerned that he seemed to get them too…he never did discover that his horse was licking him to get much needed salt. He dried his face and closed his eyes…when he woke next, it was still dark but in the faint glow from the campfire he saw something. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Clementine was lying fast asleep next to Rico. The savages had shown mercy and returned her to her own people. It brought a whole new meaning to mercy. He watched them cuddled up together and remembered those old feelings; he was overwhelmed by the memory of his lost love.
In the morning when they woke up the stranger had gone. Clementine had a note pinned to her dress “Please keep this woman out of National Parks and Reservations. By order Chief Ironside. P.S: Last night’s drums and war dance available on world music CD.” Clementine had returned but the stranger had gone. He left only a single silver spur. They kept it as a reminder of the day someone did them a kindness, they intended to repay that kindness a thousand times over before they died but instead they formed a duo and created country and western music. Their attempts at harmony drove many settlers to head deeper into the most inhospitable corners of the West. One such man finally took refuge in the middle of the desert, where he found solace in shooting dice just as he'd done back in Pyrite. Little did he know that one day he would be recognised as the founding father of Las Vegas. Even today if ever three sixes are thrown on the tables of some casino the sound of distant thunder can be heard and the air fills with a distinctive odour...although strangely no one will own up to it. The spirit of Pyrite will live on as long as gamblers throw dice and cowboys eat beans.
© THE UGLY, THE REALLY UGLY AND THE BACK END OF A HORSE is copyright of the author,
Tom Fairnie. December 2001. All characters are fictitious and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is a complete and utter typo.
THE MICHELANGELO MATRIX...an intriguing fragment of post-modern gothic mystery
It was a cold wet Tuesday. The wind was blowing endlessly through the trees; then it stopped…they were made of wood and it was easier to go round them. An unsettling calm descended, the moonlight seemed to grow brighter as the trees slowly became still. I realised that I was in a clearing; but then almost in an instant I was back in the woods; then the clearing; then the woods; clearing; woods; clearing…eventually I decided to stop it and walk properly. I found a path to follow. It led to an old, heavy, iron gate, which was clearly immovable, stuck fast by years of rust. The sign on the gate read “Leave Closed”; as the alternative was a hernia, I decided to climb over the spiked railings of the fence, taking care to lift my gonads…I’d never forgotten the incident in my youth when, out of bravado, I had attempted to straddle a double barbed wire fence. It took me several weeks to learn to play the flute well enough so that I could go to the toilet safely. Beyond the gate stood a dark, imposing mansion with a sign that read “Cue Thunder”.
I made my way to the mansion house and knocked on the door. It opened slowly, creaking like my old Grandad’s arthritic knee. There in the doorway was Grandad. I was flabbergasted. “What the blazes are you doing here?” I asked. “I’m a sound effect” he said. He left the door invitingly open and I was tempted inside by the warm glow of a fire. Luckily I managed to put out the small conflagration on the doormat simply by playing the flute open as it were and took a cautious step inside. Through the pungent steam I could see that the walls of the large entrance hall were covered in strange gothic carvings. They were ornate and grotesque in equal measure. Masonic symbols mixed with medieval images and pagan characters like the green man, the burry man, the wicker man and there was even a gasman. Then the gasman stood up and announced that the meter would need to be read again in six months. He left; although a faint noxious whiff lingered. It isn’t general knowledge that, as household gas has no odour, gasmen are required to fart on leaving in order to reassure customers that they haven’t lost their sense of smell.
I began to feel uncomfortable; my beach shorts, doc martins and sombrero were somewhat inappropriate for a winter evening walk in the woods. I was a stranger in a strange house; I was either Lloyd Grossman or a burglar. I had no reason to be there. It was as if I was being impelled to act by an unseen hand. I had the uncanny feeling that I was being written and had no real say in the matter. Just as I began to feel more at ease I suddenly became depressed. It seemed that I was a martyr to absurd mood swings. I felt sure I was actually a very stable character but it appeared I had no control over my own behaviour. I began to giggle.
My giggle grew to a guffaw, which drew the attention of someone in the library. The door opened and there stood a parody of an ancient butler. He looked exactly like Methuselah’s identical twin; the one known in the family as the young ‘un, who was born a clear ten minutes later but nevertheless was continually and annoyingly mistaken for his older sibling. The butler’s visage raised the disturbing question ...could there have been a third child? He certainly had the family nose…it had belonged to old Uncle Methuselah until millennia of picking finally took its toll and it dropped off. He put it back in his pocket. I couldn’t help but notice that his skin was the colour of putty flavoured yoghurt, he was either a vegan or he didn’t get out much. “Who the hell shall I say is calling sir?” he asked with a disturbingly familiar tone. “Butler”. “Yes Sir?” “No, that’s my name, Butler.” “What is Sir?” “Oh, damn it, it’s Maxwell…Mr Maxwell, that’s my name.” I felt it was simpler to start again with a false identity; Maxwell was the first name that came into my head. “I’ll let Lord Maxwell know” wheezed the butler. I had inadvertently chanced upon the same name as the master of the house. It was almost as if it was being written…badly.
I was ushered into the drawing room to wait by the fire. The only light in the room came from the hearth and numerous candles. Their flickering light was reflected in the eyes of what looked like a hundred sporting trophies on the walls. It was obviously a tactic to save energy; why else would anyone stuff and mount a hundred bush babies. Suddenly, nothing happened.
Some twenty minutes passed before the butler re-appeared and asked me to follow him; after another twenty minutes of wandering down long dark corridors and viewing a variety of empty rooms he asked me to take the lead. Eventually, twenty minutes later, we found our way to a large bedroom. Young Methuselah bowed and backed into the shadows. Hank took this as a cue and played the intro to Apache but a voice from the bed croaked out “Stop that infernal racket I’ve danced my last. Let me go in peace.” The voice sounded ancient; like Tom Waits impersonating Annabel Goldie “By Yoda’s foreskin, who the hell are you?” I was somewhat shocked to hear this coming from the figure I found lying on the bed in front of me…it was a large ginger cat. “I can throw my voice” said the cat. “You’re very good” was all I could think to say. “It’s an uncomfortable living.” replied the cat “Don’t you mean comfortable?” I suggested “You try purring with a hand up your keister.” explained the cat. “Oh I thought you were doing it on your own.” I said “Me, how?” replied the cat.
The old man beckoned me over to his bedside. I was apprehensive. He might have been old but I’ve known pensioners be quite aggressive. I was once beaten up in a dispute over the last Berwick Cockle on a Whist Drive by a retired window dresser, which will give you some idea of exactly how good a fighter I am. It was a serious mis-match, he had a black belt and I had a tartan pyjama cord. It was like a scene from DH Lawrence…two grown men fighting naked in the firelight. I gave in when he tried a half nelson. I wasn’t going to let him get a grip on my column. “Come closer” said the cat. I moved near enough to the old man’s bedside to hear him whisper his dying words “My...drip…as…” Months later, at the inquest, questions would be raised about how close I came to the life-support connections by the bed but I’m still convinced that doc martins or no doc martins I was far enough away not to have stood on any vital feeds. I simply believe he waited for me to arrive before finally succumbing. However, since that day I’ve spent every waking hour trying to make sense of those last words. I had been witness to the dying utterance of the reclusive multi-millionaire, Maximillion Maxwell…Sid to his friends, I knew he was trying to tell me something; I had been summoned for a purpose. I was certain it had nothing to do with my doc martins and his drip and dismissed that idea as being far too trite for a man of his genius. It had to be a clue. Then suddenly I realised…it was an anagram. I juggled the letters around and twenty minutes later “My drip as” became pyramids and I began a long search that would take me to Egypt and eventually lead me to one of the greatest discovery in history; no, not Marmite…something almost as great.
I arrived in Cairo on a cold, wet Tuesday. It only took me to ask directions from a local to realise I was actually in Carlisle. My sense of direction was going to be a problem but nevertheless by pure chance the man I asked happened to be a Professor of Egyptology at the local University; famous as the only corner university in Britain. It was a small department, he only qualified for the post because he had once walked Omar Sharif’s dog. His thesis was based on the idea that all the pharaohs were women because they never dug up a daddy. Meeting him was the stroke of luck I had been looking for; I told him the whole story over a meal and eight pints, which was dragging it out a bit to be honest but he was almost insanely curious and wanted to know every last detail. I went over the story again, by which time we were living together as a common law couple and had been on holiday twice. I knew I had fired his imagination with the discovery of the hidden coded message in Maximillion’s last words. “We need to head for Cairo” he said. “Then it’s time I knew your name.” I said “Carter-Barr” he replied giving me a wry smile…I put some cheese and a gherkin on it and gave it back. His great grandfather’s uncle had been there with Lord Carnarvon when they opened up the tomb of Tutankamun; he had sand in his bones, which explained the difficulty he had standing up.
Weeks later we arrived in Cairo on a cold, wet Tuesday. I let Carter-Barr do the talking this time and once we got on the right bus we were at last heading out of Carlisle. We arrived at the Borders Aerodrome in Kelso and settled down to wait for the Cairo flight. It was to prove to be a long wait; they still hadn’t got planning permission for a runway and the information screen showed the same monotonous message “Wait in Departure Lounge. Flight delayed due to non existence of airport, planes, flight crew and substantial bit of flat ground.” I couldn’t stand it, finally I cracked. “Let’s go to Glasgow” I said. “Where?” said Carter-Barr. I began to realise that although his was a brilliant mind, steeped in Egyptology and hieroglyphic translations, he didn’t have a fucking clue.
Months were to pass as we zig-zagged across Europe. God knows how we survived the journey; at times we went without drink merely to eat. Luckily, I had packed plenty of Marmite so we never went without a product placement. Eventually, to my utter disbelief, we actually arrived in Cairo on a cold, wet Tuesday. The forecast had said 35 degrees but it was almost as if some ancient curse had descended on the city as soon as we docked in the old harbour. The sky darkened and the locals fled indoors with a melodramatic look of terror on their faces not called for since they filmed Cleopatra. Some of them were wailing for an additional 5%; teeth-gnashers got a full 7% extra. Suddenly, it went quiet…I had run out of money. Carter-Barr and I walked through the Souk, ironically I was eating a sour ploom at the time; we were looking for the third member of our party…either the romantic interest or the cheeky local, whichever came first. Romantic interests were harder to come by these days, especially as he couldn’t write women for toffee but eventually we arrived at our hotel and were confronted by a gorgeous creature whose name he couldn’t think of at the moment but who was looking for a group to take her to the pyramids at Cheops so that she could look for her long lost father…it’s an irrelevant back story, which was revealed in the movie at the point when you went to make a pot of tea. We needed to buy camels...and quick. I avoided the obvious cigarette joke and went out and bought a second-hand camel. My bartering skills were a bit rusty...I ended up with a hunchback on a dromedary. Well, now there were four of us but we still needed a cheeky local for comic effect and to be the victim of the…oh hold on, I’m jumping ahead.
As we made our way out of Cairo taking it in turns to ride the dromedary; we had traded the hunchback for a dozen jars of Marmite. We were suddenly surrounded by the usual hoard of local traders trying to sell us ancient relics. Personally, I had no idea what I would want with a tory grandee. One of them was particularly persistent; he just wouldn’t accept no for an answer. However he did accept the invitation to join our party as a guide. He didn’t much like the uniform but beggars can’t be choosers although he did suit blue. He told us his ancestors had worked on the great pyramid. Abdullah Ben Macalpine was his name; he said they did the pointing.
We arrived at the entrance to the great pyramid, it was a strange feeling to be here at last. We were laden with all the normal expedition equipment…a shovel and a box of matches. I didn’t want to start digging immediately; I wanted to take some time to slowly and methodically assess things, which was fortunate as we had to queue for a ticket to get in. By the time we were deep inside the humid heart of the pyramid I knew exactly what we had to do.
After eating all of the delicious Marmite sandwiches we slipped away from the main group of tourists. A fact made easier by the guide telling us to “Bugger off and stop following me around.” We headed down into a deep chamber that slowly grew narrower and narrower as well as closing down from the ceiling. It was an odd feeling; like being in a London bed-sit. Eventually, I was forced to crouch on my knees, the others followed suit, all except Abdullah who still had plenty of headroom. Then at last we came to what looked like a solid wall. I dug at the loose sand at the bottom and saw an inscription in hieroglyphics. I called out exactly what I saw to Carter-Barr “A hawk, a man with a dog’s head, two feet, a pair of crocodiles, an eye, another crocodile, and finally, a thing that looks like a shepherd’s crook.” I asked Carter-Barr to translate the symbols. “It means that a bird, possibly a hawk, saw a man in a dog costume…he was a biped…probably a shepherd; then something about two crocodiles but I’m not sure about the other crocodile it could mean there were three or that one went away. It’s not making a lot of sense.” I realised he was well out of his depth. “Doesn’t it mean that we should dig deeper, I would think about two feet down.” said an un-named female voice. “I’ll give it a try.” I said. I worked as hard as I could to clear the sand but it wasn’t easy especially as the others were piling it up behind me. Pretty soon I had cleared what was now obviously a doorway, unfortunately I was entombed by the sand at my back and it took all of my remaining strength to dig my way out. At last I broke through and desperately gasped for a breath of fresh air. I was bemused to find the air smelling of sausages. The others had set up camp and were having their tea. “Didn’t you realise I was suffocating in there?” I asked. “It was tea-time.” said Carter-Barr “Priorities, what!” I grabbed a cold sausage. Carter-Barr screamed. I let it go and grabbed a real one and some left-over Marmite…a jar goes such a long way doesn’t it?
After tea we all returned to the tunnel and the doorway. There was a further instruction at the bottom. I called it out to Carter-Barr for translation, “There’s a boat, a crocodile, some reeds, something that looks like a carrot and a cat.” There was a pause while we all waited to hear the translation. “I think it means there was a boat, going through the reeds and a crocodile that has eaten their carrots and then the cat is obviously involved but I don’t think it’s terribly significant.” “Are you sure that’s a translation?” I asked. “What’s a translation?” said Carter-Barr. “I think it means there’s a lock.” said an un-named female voice. “What makes you say that?” I asked. “It’s a door.” She replied.
I inspected the door and at last spotted an almost invisible indentation. I pressed it with the palm of my hand. The door swung upwards with a great grinding motion. It was like a stone-age DeLorean. The foul air reached my nostrils and I began to wretch. It took me back to Glasgow. “This smell reminds me of my childhood, going to watch Scotland play at Hampden Park.” I said between coughing and wretching “The toilets?” said Carter-Barr. “No, the pies.” “We need some light in here.” Said whatshername. I crouched under the door and into the chamber beyond. A nameless female hand supplied me with a fiery torch and our fingers touched briefly in the firelight. I could smell the hair on the back of her hand as it singed. It was somehow erotic. The light played on the walls of the tomb. It was amazing. Something I’ll never forget. The walls were covered in anaglypta. “This is recent.” I declared. “By recent, do you mean Ramases or Tutankamun period?” asked Carter-Barr. “I mean Tuesday.” There was a date on the wall under a scrawled message that read…”Twixt Dunedin and Anna Livia there you’ll find Caer Luel and the 39 steps.” “I recognise these names.” said Abdullah, who amazed us by being something of an expert in British place names. “And I recognise the handwriting…it’s my father’s.” said a female voice. “Abdullah. What does it mean?” I asked “It means servant of Allah but so what? We must look between Edinburgh and Dublin. We must go to Carlisle.” “Oh For fuck’s sake.” Said Carter-Barr.
It was a cold wet Tuesday when we finally arrived at Carlisle Citadel Railway Station. It was a difficult trip but the worst bit was definitely the landing. I felt it would have been better to have arrived at an airport but Carter-Barr insisted that he had to go to the toilet so it was either a chemical bombing attack on the cathedral or let him land in the station. Immediately we were set upon by a group of hooded men; to all intents and purposes they could have been a group of 12th century monks. They began to circle us menacingly chanting what sounded like a Latin version of the curse of Carlisle. I held on to the un-named female on the pretext of protecting her and in order to get a fly feel but she slapped my face with a wet haddock. To this day I don’t remember where that fish came from. After twenty minutes the monks fell silent and they stopped circling us although a few of them wobbled a bit, which made me titter. She slapped me again with that damn fish. I decided to behave myself. I spoke the few words of Latin that I could remember from my schooldays in Niddrie. “Non Gradus Anus Rodentum!” which roughly translated as “That wasn’t worth a rat’s arse.” I had wanted to say something more appropriate but I couldn’t think of the word for horse. “That’s as may be” said the eldest of the monks, “You have come in search of the 39 steps have you not?” This was an amazing coincidence; from the message in the tomb at Chiops there had been a mention of some steps but none of our party had noted the number; we regarded it as unimportant. “You may be right” I said. “We have 38 of the steps but the last one went missing years ago around about the time they built the Lord Mayor’s toilet.” “How tall was the Mayor?” I asked “Why Lofty Maxwell was a midget, small even amongst ftoomsh. We had to get rid of the shag pile when he took up office and his office door was fitted with a cat flap, which is preserved to this day.” “I need to see that toilet” I demanded and the monks, sensing my urgency, immediately led me to the Mayor’s town house and the en-suite toilet. In twenty minutes we were inside and there it was, in front of the toilet seat, the 39th step, slightly mossy and hairy but recognisably a step.
I struggled to lift the step. It was incredibly heavy and the moss made it difficult to handle. Then I realised there was an inscription around the edge of the stone. It read “Now wash your hands”. It was then that a silky female voice said “I think that’s the stone you want”. I looked round to see an ancient chiselled rock that was obviously a step. It was being used as a doorstop. It could have stopped a train to be fair. It was covered in ancient text. “It looks like the Rosetta Stone” cried Carter-Barr; “That would be some coincidence” said the woman. “Why?” I asked. “Because that’s my name...Rosetta Stone” It seemed almost too convenient but then none of them was prepared to challenge her assertion lest they be become the token sacrifice that all good melodramas require right about now.
There was a flash of lightning. The small en-suite was illuminated and for a brief moment I could see right through Rosetta’s dress. I began counting the seconds until the thunder roared but I lost count after two so I couldn’t say for certain when the rumble actually started...I reckoned about twenty minutes, which put the storm in Cairo. The flash also revealed the faint text. It read “Set me upright atop Caer Mote facing directly west at sunset on the winter solstice and look to the east.” I instinctively felt it had something to do with the haddock but time was to prove me spectacularly wrong...
© Tom Fairnie 2016