CRUNCHY LEARNER

HE'S MAKING IT UP AS HE GOES ALONG!

LIKE HE DID WITH THE INFLATABLE VOLUNTEER! - BUT WHERE'S THE SATIRE?

Bob became increasingly enraged at the other commentators and assured them vipers were utterly charming - he was married to one, in his mind. Basically, he said, yes basically, everything stemmed from that. There was utter silence after just a little of this. Bob thought it was hilarious, all of it. Why didn’t these other guys try harder?
He was thrown out on his arse with no help from anyone - his conscience did it. Oh my brothers, he thought, smiling to himself, that was your swansong, not mine. And down the rain-oiled streets of that mooned evening he thought, They’ll have me back in a week, when they’ve forgotten.
Snow fell in his memory, drifting him back to his imaginary childhood, and back again - which was warmer? That chill invention or these streets blistering with rain? Absolutely nothing constructive occurred to him. There I am, he said - a man of the times. His coat was wool and coal and seashell. The sky was afterburn.
What a slime was here, pellucidant with rainlight reflection and coldness beyond his coat. Find a ghost in that, the rational would say, and out they’d come, unaware it had been rhetorical. Black trains steamed, stopped and oily, dinosaur trains, hopeless exhaust, explosions of rain over its missile body. Freight of dreams from wherever, nobody tried to unload anything - unscheduled stop.
Failure is a state of mind, flummery and saline - drabness doesn’t enter into the equation - look at those flowers - what flowers you say? Get the hell out of my way.
Ghosts from ghosts were born and from people were also born ghosts. All is diluted.
Bob underground thinks of these matters while making a replica of his brain from old clay. Some drops of moon water fall from the root-hung ceiling. They explode like mines on the broken floor, reminding him of the rain in shedsuburbs of blackberry tangle and compost rind behind wood.
One man with an upholstered face squints out of windows closing up with ill-use and shouts he’s ‘Out of this world’ or something similar, a very charming man anyway.
All in a stale wet world of filigreed basement walls and runnelling alleys and lamplit mirth at the expense of failing actors and truncheon-wielding policemen who didn’t then and don’t now understand that life is a game for me to play and for them to lose.
Bob’s book The Day My Arse Exploded, which detailed every way in which he was an ‘extraordinary man’, opened with a space-projected gamma-ray burst and its effects upon Bob’s menagerie of slowly-wobbling latex badgers. Every chapter ended with the assertion that the events recounted therein explained why he was ‘so surly’.
‘I may be a failure,’ he said, ‘but I am a failure made of steel.’ And he instructed the reader to march pugnaciously on the spot while chanting:

Chub learns from me
I learn from chub
But chub does not eat me
And that’s the point.

‘The gall of the man,’ spat Curly, slamming the book and throwing it into the fire, which roared in a regrettably plastic grate. ‘Reaching my silence, his blank predators devoured the time. Why did he release the bastards? Oh god - wife, the poison fumes from the melting grate!’
Betty entered with a statue of Lenin and stood there gazing. ‘The smoke looks lovely doesn’t it? Jade in colour isn’t it?’
‘I don’t really know. Well, here we are again, uncertain!’
‘Don’t make such a scene Curly, we’re polar bears.’
‘I know that, but do they?’
‘They will if you keep rolling around on the floor like that.’
‘Look at me! Look at me!’
‘Curly get up - get up!’
‘Oho not me - I’m a polar bear.’
‘Curly.’
‘I’m a bear everybody! A polar bear!’
‘I can’t believe this - after all those years being careful.’
The townsfolk squashed their faces against the windowglass like pressed flowers. Polar bears pretending to be people here in the simple house! Somehow liberty always resulted in this sort of thing.
‘Raw deals are my vocation,’ drawled the head of the mob. ‘Gimme an axe for the door.’
But the roof exploded and three bears, one a cub who waddled his legs as though running, hissed into the sky wearing vertical take-off jets. ‘They’re attached to the bears’ backs with harnesses,’ said the mob leader.
‘That’s the usual way,’ murmured a town elder witheringly, and rueful sniggers rippled through the crowd.
It was decreed that a monument to the so-called ‘flying bears’ would be built upon the wrecked roof, and Jake the Fern was charged with the task of construction. He made jet contrails of wavey glass, surmounted with concrete bears. The entire construction was twenty-six feet in height, but the town authorities started asking him loudly what it was about, denying that they knew anything about the ‘flying bears’ and that they weren’t paying for this piece of nonsense. Large crowds gathered to jeer at his crazy scheme.
But many crept back alone and confided to him furtively that yes, they remembered it all. Then they rushed away before they were seen with him.
What interested Jake was the fact that the bears were described by some of these witnesses as ‘furry saints’.
It was not the first time Jake had been ill-used and burdened by the townspeople - the year before, he had been assured by one and all that the sum of seventy-three pounds awaited him in a fallen log near the Forest of Death. He was told he must carve the log into the shape of his ‘fondest dream’ before he could claim the cash.
But he became so obsessed with removing the money that he wound up carving a cash bundle to the exact scale of the one awaiting him within. The result was a set of rolled notes coated in a thin film of wood-fibre membrane. To remove the money would shatter his delicate work. When he looked up, he saw the townspeople crouching behind the bushes and sniggering in full knowledge of this common fate. A ceremonial old hag walked up and removed the wood-glazed wad from his hands, and Jake followed the slow procession down to a torch-lit underground chamber, where the object was placed within a rocky shelf with a hundred others. ‘Here,’ rasped the woman, ‘bored with generosity, we consort with an institution of years. Make a bow to the many before you.’
‘What?’ asked Jake, too loud in the chamber.
The hag regarded him with distaste. ‘Wearing a woollen jumper is like admitting you’ve killed for fun.’
And then all was celebration and distorted flame-shapes on the cavern walls. He awoke in a wet field halfway through the following day, and no-one ever acknowledged these expensive events.
So here he was with a set of concrete bears and no real excuse.
And on top of everything, he’d found a mummified hen in the mattress. Phoning his mother, he asked what a thing like that was likely to be worth these days. ‘Unless it’s covered in gold,’ she said, pausing to drag on a cigarette, ‘it’s worth no more than you are.’
‘You mean if I was covered in gold I’d be worth something?’
‘I didn’t say that.’
He phoned Bob. ‘Bobby boy, I saw you on telly eleven months ago talking about vipers - the old noggin playing up again eh?’
‘I meant every word - and it was last week, not eleven months ago.’
‘Train me to understand.’
‘Never ask that,’ snapped Bob, slamming the phone.
Burning with inspiration, Jake pranced sideways, slamming against a small table. He had the idea that minnow-like things were running down a cable from the sun to his fragile head. ‘Time is barren,’ he gasped, ‘we fill it with cheese triangles and nutty slack.’
‘Baby,’ he added.
Two days later he put his plan in to action, wrecking everything he had achieved thus far. This act, anticipating the times, involved building a truck from sponge and scooting it against a load-bearing wall to the cry of ‘Stay in the yard almighty.’
Everyone made such a fuss pulling him from the cab, pushing their fists against his nose and making sounds of anger, that he could not help but eject his brain. ‘I’ll pick it up later,’ he assured them, swanning a short distance from the shocked crowd before going into a kind of fit. His arms windmilled and the torso region did nothing of interest as he voiced various concerns which were unfamiliar to the assembly. For instance, he mentioned his ability to ‘kern’ the face of a loved one so that she might more closely resemble a faded merchant. He claimed there was a construction in the air which ‘chaddered’ the birds along if they were getting too sleepy or thoughtful, and swore he would smash it with his eyes. There were hordes of trendy majors hiding out in a nearby barn, he said, itching to make their appearance.
‘Pelt me with pinecones,’ he cried, but when the onlookers obliged he seemed taken completely unawares, focusing slowly their way as though surprised at their presence.
Jake spent a year travelling to see Bob. He travelled sitting in a shallow wooden crate with no wheels, its underside thickly coated with lard. On arrival he hailed Bob, entering the earthy cavern with the crate in his hands. ‘Oho Bobby boy, I have travelled one year in this thing to see you. Give me something to eat.’
‘Didn’t you eat on the way here?’
‘In the first week I ate the layer of lard from the crate’s underside.’
‘No lard then. Nor wheels. What were the means of propulsion?’
‘My legs and my failure to understand certain principles.’
‘Why did you sit in a shallow wooden crate and leg-shunt your way along for a year to see me.’
‘I wanted to ask if you could video something for me off the telly.’
‘Something a year ago.’
‘I suppose so.’
‘And you could have phoned me.’
‘You’re right.’
‘Well, I don’t have a video. Did you want anything else?’
‘Not really.’
‘Go then, and take your nostrils with you.’
‘Those are my eyes.’
‘I was pointing at your nostrils, now get out.’
Distant burst of screaming from the neighbours and I knew I was home, Jake wrote in his diary upon returning. I will practice face-sagging for fourteen days and fourteen nights, in preparation for people’s efforts to excite me. Then get back to work on the bears.
But upon arriving at the bear house he found that the furry saints had been knocked away and replaced with noble effigies of the town council. Perched atop the glass jet-trail effect, these three were portrayed scratching localised dogma upon official tablets. ‘What’s this nonsense?’ he asked, and entered the town hall naked for effect.
‘Mr Fern is it?’ asked the city father. ‘Sit down, if you can. Some tea?’
‘Get up, what are you waiting for, you want to hit me, go ahead like a man.’ And Jake was shouting through the floppy movement of his own arms.
‘It’s from the heart, I can tell,’ smiled the city man, ‘but is it enough for me to sway forward from my comfortable chair, adjust my eyes to the new depth and so on?’
‘You think so?’ said Jake, confused. ‘I’m accusing you of something. I knocked before entering.’
‘And I thank you. That seems to conclude our business.’
‘Bye then,’ laughed Jake, and was standing on the wide stairs outside the building, smoking a black Japanese cigar.
The following day he returned with a dog, hammering at the locked council door until the dog became frightened and abandoned him. ‘No use trying there,’ smirked a squint of an old man who was sat on the steps. He stood and led Jake around the side of the building, pointing in through the window fog - inside, an interlocked forest of skeletons darkened the office. ‘Good people,’ nodded the man in approval. ‘Certain of their position.’
But what’s the good of thinking about it, went Jake as he wandered home, and felt as if he’d learnt something.
‘What’s this?’ a copper demanded, pointing at a long swerving mark in the street.
‘I did that pushing myself along in a wooden crate. It’s been there a long time, old man.’
‘Save your explanations,’ sneered the copper, and was just winding himself up for action when a truck slammed him sideways out of view.
Jake was stopped by a man outside the bar. ‘Buy this stone. It’s carved from the biggest gem in the world.’ And he showed Jake a crushed cigarette packet.
Considering his reply, Jake entered the bar and gave his order. He could tell the stranger that he was a married man, knotted and loath, with no time for finery. He could purse his lips, acting like a bird. Or he could stand utterly immobile, pointing at his own chops with his left hand. Plumping for the last, Jake finished his pint and went outside, only to surprise the stranger in the act of strangling a carp. Panicking, the man threw the carp into the sky, but it came down again, landing at his feet. ‘I admit,’ he said sadly, hanging his head, ‘I serve Satan.’
And that’s how it began. Two stupid men standing near a car without a clue what they were doing there. ‘Abide back here, hopeless with us,’ shouted the townspeople, and they wandered back inside.
‘Like many dinosaurs,’ Jake announced to the bar at large, lusty for a fine tale, ‘the Tyrannosaurus appears incapable of discussing its feelings. Now there’s one particular monster who -’
But before he could continue they turned their faces away, and Jake made a circuit of the room squashing those self-same faces against the walls so that they flattened to a pan. If a thing’s worth doing, he thought, shouting with laughter.
Jake used a hand-cranked rendering mill to produce a fab new magazine called Brain a Goat Snappy. The first edition was in fact a shallow pizza box containing a herd of killer bees. The headline on the cover shouted INSIDE - KILLER BEES so when the creatures flew out and pelted the readers he could claim with closed eyes that they had been fully warned. The second issue bore the headline INSIDE - KILLER BEES ON THE RAMPAGE and spoke mirthfully of the stress endured by the populace last time. The account was brought to life with vivid illustrations of O-mouthed fellows springing from armchairs in surprise at the approach of a bee - in order to make it clear that the object approaching was a bee, the illustrator had enlarged the insect to twelve times the size of the victim’s head. Those scanning the account and its related diagrams were left in no doubt that an abomination had occurred, and Jake was arrested by a glass policeman full of sloshing liquid fat. All copies of the first edition were clumsily confiscated and Jake’s lawyer asked what he planned to say in his defence. ‘I will stand and glow,’ Jake said, ‘the wonder creeping abroad like a stench.’
‘But you smashed the cop and released the liquid fat,’ stated the lawyer, waving a tag of felt in Jake’s face.
‘Hello there,’ said Jake.
In an effort to turn this remark to his advantage, Jake smiled at the lawyer in a way which suggested there was beauty in his arms, legs and motions.
‘When you wrote that story about fluffy animals flying near people,’ said the lawyer, ‘did you think it was true?’
‘I’m glad you noticed,’ said Jake, and realising this made no sense, hastily added ‘I love you’ at a yell.
‘I’m sorry Mr Fern,’ sighed the lawyer, closing his briefcase and shaking his head. ‘I now know what a monkey you are.’ He walked to the door and turned back momentarily. ‘Ofcourse I’ll bill you for the three hours we just spent chatting about energy fields.’ And he left, leaving Jake in his legal office.
Jake became instantly excited, frolicking amid the files and throwing stuff at the ceiling. But while scrabbling across a desk as though swimming, he managed to push himself out of the window.
‘I plummetted eighty feet,’ he told Bob later, ‘and landed in the soft loving life of a beautiful woman, who said I was the best she’d ever had.’
‘I happen to know,’ Bob rumbled, ‘that you landed in a pile of rubble and burning trash.’
‘I’m alright though,’ muttered Jake.
‘I can sense that. Take a look at my knees.’ And Bob sat on a wooden chair to be viewed.
‘Your eyebrows, yes, so what?’
‘My knees I said, as well you know. Look at them. Everything. Everything.’
‘Steady on old boy.’
‘Everything!’ bellowed Bob, standing up, and advanced on Jake until the younger man was in the garden. The door closed and Jake was alone there. Atmospheric changes of light, bird code ignored, and leaves to shade his eyes. And beyond the hedge, acres of solid fields. Who says mischief has no reward?
His next few issues of Goat contained the classic thoughtpiece ‘Twenty reasons why I don't push carrots into my eye’ (being actually the statement ‘No time’ repeated over and over) and the chicken series: ‘Interpreting chicken’, ‘Why nothing can prepare you for chicken’, ‘You are tailormade for chicken’ and the final in the series, simply, 'Horrorchicken'. His attempt to reach these heights again with ‘Why I will never be a Majorette’, ‘Welcome to my treachery’ and ‘How to discern between me and your beautiful lover’ were met with disappointment. Desperate to boost circulation, Jake set up a problem page, and the first question he received was: 'I have eaten a ton of lead. How many times have you done that?'
'Well, Seraphim,' he replied, 'many people see themselves as a dietary underclass because of this kind of practice, but not me. I can't get enough lead. In fact you'll likely find that your craving increases as the months and years pass. Crazy isn't it? My advice is to take a long hard look at yourself while spinning madly in a playground at night, while the rest of the world get on with their lives in a normal way. Looks like a crisis to me.'
'I'm only really comfortable when screaming at cops,’ said another reader. ‘Is there something wrong with me?'
'I love you,' Jake replied.
Yet another reader stated: ‘I was cooking a lemon when it suddenly exploded and took away half my face. What do you think of that?’
‘It depends how you look at it - is your face half there or is your face half gone?’
He received a reply which re-stated that the man's face was half gone as a result of an explosion with a lemon. Abandoning the publication, Jake retreated to his diary: Most people can't handle lead. Bake me ten pounds. I know everything that's worth knowing.
And he ran out with a spraycan, writing MY ARM IS AT AN ANGLE on a high wall.
And he remained there for three days, trying to remember his name. Finally he went to a phonebox and called his mother, explaining he had to sign something. But ofcourse he couldn't tell her who he was, beyond 'Your fantastic boy.'
'What's fantastic about you?' she asked.
'I'm learning to fend for myself.'
'What else?'
'My legs are - wait, the money's running out!'
Calling back, he said 'My legs are long and tender, and I control them.'
But he'd dialled a local building firm, and the reply he received was heartbreaking in its casual brutality.
He wrote in his journal that evening:

I lost a licence in a field
I picked a weed and gave it in
The notion of successful stuff
Left me

Terrapin rolled around and turned on the charm, but Jake was not in a social mood.
‘I've got stigmata, baby,’ he claimed.
‘Where?’
‘Right here.’
‘That's your belly button.’
‘I'll decide what it is. Did you hear me? I'll decide where and what it is. Now make some tea or something. This proves everything. Don't walk away.’
‘You said you wanted some tea.’
‘Isn't this stigmata more important?’
‘It's your belly button. Do you want tea or not?’
‘Alright you go and make your tea, that's right. But when I'm on the cover of National Geographic with this little beauty, don't crawl back saying you were with me all along.’
He looked at the newspaper. UNPLEASANT JELLY CLIMBS THE NATIONAL SUNLIGHT, went the headline.
And there was a sub-heading: It saps my spirit especially, shouts PM. Below the heading was a photograph of a wildly convulsing clown in an irrigation ditch.
‘You cannot “lurch” masterfully,’ Jake shouted through to the next room. ‘That’s what it says here. And acorns create dependable rooms. Small blazes jump and we feel dynamic. That’s the spirit.’ Jake gave it some thought. ‘A pity that the truth is the exact opposite. Still, my neck is neutral.’ He began sniggering.
Terrapin appeared in the doorway. ‘So what do I get out of this relationship?’
‘Shave a bee and find out,’ Jake snorted, and cupped his face behind a chrome hand he had had smelted for the very purpose seven years previously.
‘I need a thick metal hand to chortle behind when in the company of formidable women,’ he had told a farmer.
‘Why are you telling me?’ asked the farmer, closing a gate on some cows.
‘No-one else is interested,’ Jake told him, and stamped his feet in the bitter cold. ‘It’s a bit nippy isn’t it?’
The farmer pointed to a thin trough in the ground. ‘The lobster march did that.’
‘If you want me to believe you, I will.’
‘It’s true,’ said the farmer, and opened a seam down the centre of his face - inside was a tangle of meat and veins, plus a brain the size of a marble. No wonder people walked the country to forget their worries.
The farmer was taking the situation very seriously. ‘What a pity you won’t feel responsibility for your actions. We’ll have two long conversations, and one big fight during which I’ll die of a fractured skull. Blame will fall on me. So you’ll forgive me if I say goodbye now and avoid you forever. Goodbye.’ And the farmer began to stride blindly away, falling almost instantly into a trough.
Parking outside the slaughterhouse Jake erupted with laughter at thinking about the demonly-spiteful joke he would play on his friends and colleagues when he decided what that joke would be, and how everyone would scream at his wilfulness and then subside into laughter and relief when they realised all was in fun, all was not final or deadly and he only meant to break a few bones which could be re-set under favourable circumstances. But he accidentally walked past the entrance and entered an alley full of dogs, which looked up in surprise.
Bruised afternoon, blood stars the basin - next time just nod, Jake wrote in his diary that evening.
So here he was in a serious relationship and nothing better than a metal hand for protection. The wonders of his newspaper were brutally rejected. Well, he thought, they didn’t like the truth, I’ll give them truth. A small brown banjo is flourished at my head and I’m on the rug, at local expense. Let’s see what they make of The Burnished Adventures of Injury Mouse.
Feeling at the peak of his powers, Jake wrote the following:
‘Painting the heads which rolled from the guillotine, Ted chose the colour blue. Because, he told the mayor, it’s the colour of justice. The mayor believed him ofcourse, but really it was because blue was the colour of Elizabeth’s eyes. Later, queries bowled down the bar like liquor.
“I’ll have a sliced eye,” I say to the barking sarge behind the bar, “and a pair of calipers to hold it with.”
The barker looks at me as though from the belly of a wicker man. “Energy?” he ullulates mournfully. “I’ve no energy.”
Nelson would turn in his grave.’
‘Where’s the mouse?’ asked Bob, scrutinising the manuscript.
‘That’s right,’ Jake nodded, and snapped the piece from Bob’s hand. ‘Oh you consider a missing mouse condemns a tale of this quality, ofcourse.’
‘You did call it The Burnished Adventures of Injury Mouse. Don’t you care about anything?’
‘I care,’ Jake rumbled. ‘And that’s just the start. I’ll change everything you’ve grown accustomed to. Fins on houses. Twitching elders. Slimline monkeys for narrow abutments. And that's just the beginning. Because inside every packet o’ bird vertebrae there’s a ... chhhhrrrrist!'
The rage in this whoop scared Bob to the cells - could it be Jake was truly mental at last? No - he had found something in the packet. ‘Free gift?’
‘It’s rather more complicated than that,’ Jake whispered, and held up a tiny x-ray of his own legs. It was the size of a trading card. 'And there's writing.'
'What does it say,'
Jake held the scan up to the light, squinting. 'It says, "With Nat Adderley on cornet."'
Bob remained expressionless. 'Are we about through here?'
The seed in Jake’s basement began squealing - it was pushing out arms and feelers as though there were no tomorrow. Jake was amazed at its sense of direction in the half-light, and ran back upstairs, slamming the door.
Bob meanwhile built a bridge out of old bones nobody else could use. He himself knew that after a year everyone around here would use it to go up to the fernwoods. Bob’s barn would be used as a bellowsmith’s by people who never knew him. Now he waded across the stream and dumped a rock on the bank, grinning at the treetops and sitting down to sort some snails. They began whistling faintly like distant fireworks.
That evening Squire Tobias and Snub sat in a massive theatre. On the glass-fronted stage, players in period costume struggled and drowned in dough. The audience was completely silent.
Squire Tobias fidgeted and finally gasped with impatience. ‘What time do we have to stay for?’
Snub looked up at him like a mole and said nothing.
‘Oh Micky,’ gloomed the Bursar balefully, leaning forward out of the darkness and laying a hand on Tobias’s shoulder. ‘You’ll learn.’
Alley stood in the village square, thinking about his skeleton. ‘Well,’ he remarked, raising his eyebrows, ‘whose idea was that?’ As he left the square, a laughing minstrel bounded up and began clubbing him. Alley covered his head and strained against the trappings of circumstance.
An arm like than of a giant green spider ran from the cellar door to the bottom of the stairs. Jake had to step over it to get to the living room. He measured its growth by counting the thick hard elbows - in a few days the arm was halfway up the stairs and another, still thin and yellow, had started its way through the cellar door. Jake heaped salt on the new shoot and sat fretting in the other room as a strange, constantly high-pitched squeal sounded from the cellar. Something began to thud and lash at the floorboards, knocking waves into the carpet. Jake stood and walked across the thundering floor to the kitchen, removing his diary from the fridge. Then putting on his hat and coat, he stepped out of the front door as the living room carpet bulged and split like an overripe melon.
‘Why am I jousting?’ Alley remarked, frowning down at his horse and armour. ‘What am I doing here?’
‘Hey!’ he shouted to a passing squire. ‘There’s fruit on my lance!’
‘Make it yourself,’ sneered the squire indignantly, ducking into a tent.
‘Woahh!’ roared a knight in red, smashing Alley from his horse and dismounting to hold a sword to his artery.
‘You’re energetic,’ Alley remarked, flustered, and the red knight hollered with laughter.
‘But not sensible,’ added the knight, and Alley was totally lost for an answer.
‘There’s more where that came from Micky,’ said the Bursar, smiling wildly and tipping a barrow, then staggered back and wiped his nose on his cloak with a gasp.
‘I’m sure there is,’ said Jake, frowning at the useless mound of ash.
‘The problem’s getting it out of the ocean,’ added the Bursar, lusty and exhausted. ‘Bloody belly gets in the way every time. Still, Micky’ll appreciate it eh.’
Jake regarded the Bursar dolefully.
‘Well what’s the matter Micky,’ stated the Bursar with a frown. ‘Don’t tell me I’ve come all this way to find you’ve sainted a salmon.’
Jake grimly put a hand into his coat pocket and took out a tiny camel, live and moving, the size of a grasshopper. The Bursar leaned close to Jake’s palm and, instantly aware and disappointed, straightened up again with a sigh. ‘When will the jesters learn,’ he uttered, eying Jake, and alarmed everyone later on by entering a restaurant dressed as a wren. ‘Am I?’ he shouted challengingly at every table in turn. ‘Am I?’
That evening the pub door slammed open and Alley bounced in like a weather balloon. ‘Betty’s out!’ he shouted, and after a pause everyone climbed into the grate. Betty was a frightening, whirling personality with a cartoon arm - as they huddled cowering she shoved her arm through the door like a ghost, feeling for the handle and screaming incoherently. For two days they sat watching Betty’s arm static back and forth across the door, grasping at air.
It only ended when Bob walked in, startling Betty with his boldness, and closed the door on her again.
‘What does it all mean?’ Jake demanded, having called a town meeting and claimed the podium. ‘I was reading the paper this morning and five wet garden test pilots froze and tapped at the window. I ignored them - they had their job, I had mine. I let out a small yodel erratum as I left the house. Wandering past was a silent visitor to the local colour, and he piped up. “It’s wrong to be so breezy in a sawmill, Micky.” Dammit a cappucino attacked me - lions too. And what about those bears that flew into the sky?’
A frail citizen raised his hand and quailed. ‘The first chasm might look ominous, obviously. How interested in anything are you?’ The man's glandular appearance was striking not only as a timely reminder of god knows how many endangered tropical puffers but for the fact that he clearly possessed gills, which vented red every few seconds like the flaunt scars of a strawfloor freak. Despite this unpromising beginning, he seemed in all other respects a gentleman.
Jake was merely surprised to have got a response and became more agitated. ‘Ugly betrayal do you understand?’
‘There's something so untrammeled about your malevolence it amazes me,’ said the mild old man.
‘In what way. What do you mean.’
‘Exactly what I said.’
‘What you said was nonsense and you know it - precisely the problem I’m talking about.’
‘Oh, come now Micky.’
'Don't attempt that with me.’
‘What.’
‘That “old furry Micky” stuff.’
‘I never said you were furry. Why would I ever say that?’
‘Never mind,’
‘Is there something I don't fully know?’
‘You don't fully know,’ and Jake started to leave, ‘anything.’ And he slammed out.
‘Furry,’ pondered the old man after Jake had left. ‘Furry.’
One of the other townspeople tried the door. ‘That fellow has been successful at locking the door - let us go to pieces while we have the chance.’
‘And afterwards let’s drain the lake,’ someone else suggested. ‘Hippos aren’t that fierce are they? Not on land?’
Arriving home, Jake found a scribbled note leaned against the kettle: Prawns are watching baseball on the TV. Jake felt strangely rueful, recalling the time he had slipped a note to a sentry over at the ant farm. Dear guard, here’s trinkets, ignore me you mother. He had not in fact included any trinkets with the note, and this was the main failing of the ploy. He had sat for weeks there. A dark-green mouth was scouring the pipe wall, a snail. Outside the barred window was a fine view of the water supply plant surrounded with huge carved animals. Local agitators claimed that the statues came to life at night, giraffes singing hauntingly and so on while dipping their slow heads to drink from the communal supply. In fact it was claimed almost everything happened at night and a few things did. For instance, a dog made of virginia ham. Hens made of tubing. Acrylic winter.
Another prisoner had the right idea. Could incriminate from afar, yelling through the porthole. ‘Which children have heard the ant story? Go to hell you guys. I’ve had a colourful life. Wrecked the apartment business by leaving pointed teeth on the mantel. Escaped onto the road and left islands of accident in the highway. If you call that living. You there. You’re guilty of a crime you didn’t do, in fact. That guilt is in there. Draw it out of the facts with this - an affidavit of your crimes. Just sign at the bottom. There we are. I’ll give the police a call.’
Anyway, when Jake entered the living room, there was no baseball on the TV, and no prawns watching. Never one without the other, thought Jake.
That night, smoke started pouring out of graves, but only because Bob was cooking toast under the cemetary. Jake sat watching in a corner as dew dripped from the roof-roots. Bob shuffled over and perched on a ledge, leaning on his knees and pucking his lips. Jake gazed at the ground, kicking an escarpment. ‘Well,’ he said, looking up. ‘I suppose we’ve decided.’
Terrapin arrived with a badger, and told them she was worried.
Bob watched the toast billowing as a scorch appeared on both slices resembling the features of his own face. Terrapin stood still with the struggling badger. Jake collapsed from exhaustion and an apple fell from his palm, rolling down the slope and into a shaft.

TO BE CONTINUED

copyright © Steve Aylett 2000

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