Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Round-Headed Club

Published 'Stygian Articles' 1997

She was a mother and a half. Padgett Weggs saw her as the rock in the stormy seas of his life. Admittedly, a rock slippery with seaweed and decidedly craggy in places.

He remembers her most sitting in bed. It was her place, her refuge from the TV downstairs, a TV that was ever staring blankly at his father. Indeed, she held court from bed, propped up on several pillows, with books and crossword puzzles scattered around like a rogue patchwork quilt. True, she had a penchant for romance novels, which she completely denied half the time, but, even if it were true, it was nothing of which to be ashamed, she said. It was not as if she dreamt of her handsome prince depositing himself by her side in this her throne-room. And, even if he did, she would not succumb to his advances.

Padgett Weggs recalls taking his boyhood problems to her. Hours of bedside chat over maths problems and general topics still haunt him even today - including a bizarre ambition to be a professional writer despite his excruciating inability to write English in a proper manner. His mother even received visits from his father for, in those times, the TV programmes had intervals for the potter's wheel or a kitten playing with the dangling wool, and his father used these opportunities to cat nap beside her, upon the very bed that was the domain and core of her femininity. She was not fooled, though; she knew this was not her handsome prince returned from the crusades, but only the man with gappy flies and eyes like blunt squares, who would doubtless die soon from mouldering bone decay.

Four blokes formed the Round-Headed Club; perhaps, it were indeed their heads, like full moons, but no doubt it was for some other reason.

One among them was clean-shaven with short-cropped brown hair: he smiled infrequently and looked uncomfortable in his green Harris Tweed jacket. His pint-pot three-quarters empty beside him, he seemed querulous as to the source of its replenishment, but the others were too busy in their chatting to remark upon his pained expression. The flat-skinned face bore a scar snaking horizontally across the forehead, well beyond the ears. With the requisite nose and mouth somewhat abandoned on the wide expanse of flesh and the foxing of encroaching old age fanning from below the heavy-lidded eye-sockets, his visage was like a cracked chamberpot reflecting the garish pub lights. The owner of such features was indeed the very Padgett Weggs who was daydreaming earlier about his mother.

Another spoke: "When I was a small boy, unconscionable years ago, I viewed the clouds as being in a race across the sky. One day, when this image first struck me - (I'll get you another drinky-poo in a mo, Weggs) - it had been a stormy day, and the clouds skimmed fast above. I'd been playing up the bullace tree, pretending to sword-fight flying dragons and, in a moment of respite, I had my wondrous vision. Ha! Ha! Ha! I was a bit of a loner, thenabouts..."

Blasphemy Fitzworth (Feemy for short) was the one talking about clouds. He, too, possessed a large round head, but generously bearded and sown with humourous wrinkles. Slightly balding (halted, he maintained, by a premature vasectomy), the hair remaining to him had been rat-tailed by many ill-applied shampoos, depositing "salt-and-sugar" on his buffered boots. His belly was a pudding-bowl (some said from consuming too many cat's meat curries) and, as he settled deep into the ingle-side, his flies gaped a little wider to reveal a shameful hint of knobble. Oblivious to this, Feemy continued his own brand of long-winded pub-talk:-

"Well, that day, I dubbed those first particular clouds as the leaders in the race. It was the start of an everlasting dash and any subsequent clouds I saw (however slow or large) were laggards - even to say, only a few weeks afterwards, when I thought of the race again, I could not imagine how that day's clouds could bear to be so behindhand in their endeavours. But, many years later, today even, I still glance up and Tut-Tut to see yet bigger laggard clouds. The earlier clouds, all those yonks ago, were, by comparison, right in the leading pack, right up with the chase. Think of it, the clouds I see today, they're not doing so badly aginst those yet to come. Makes you think. (A pint of the very best, is it, then, Weggs?)"

"And a packet of pork scratchings."

Whilst Feemy rose for a foray at the bar counter, another participant, Tokkmaster Clerke, still wearing his kettle-hat, spoke of maggot-pies and other such names that he had for common birds. He was proud of his green-bone suit (although he had seen better days in it), so much so that his eyes of holy-fire darted from corner to corner of his widening face in alert attention for the rogue splatters from careless tankards, so rife in pubs he frequented. The hardest man in the Round-Headed Club, Tokkmaster was reputed to lose himself in jokes, not see their points and create his own punch-lines in a very physical manner.

"I'm not saying the Mount is a-flock with many different sorts, but - you talk of clouds, Feemy..." (Feemy Fitzworth had by now returned with freshened drinks.) "Well, behind each and every cloud are whole families of what-shall-I-call-them. Birds is good a word as any. Wing folded behind wing. Joined tail to tail. In clumps, with rhubarby legs. It's a mercy that your cloud racing don't ever end, Feemy - because they'd have nowhere to make their nest behind. (Mine's a gin and tonic, not this muck, Feemy, give me breath, you've known that for years, your head's deeper in the clouds than you think!)"

The fourth and last member of the Round-Headed Club, who was known on most nights as Nial Hopper, was much younger and still nurtured ambitions to make somebody of himself. His face was a dinner-plate of open-hearted flesh, across which his emotions floated like Feemy's clouds. He was somewhat attentive to his dress, bearing an imputrescible rose in his lapel and a thin dark tie dripping into the top of his trousers from a sea-gull collar. He fancied himself, no doubt as a result of his dealings with the knobs and twiddles in his flat on the Mount, as a self-styled TV chat-show host. He drank a lac-lake cocktail that Feemy had almost forgotten to include in his round, mainly because he was embarrassed at requesting it across the feculent surfaces of the Jackass Penguin bar. Nial sucked gently upon a straw which emerged coyly from brolly clusters and gaudy fruit-ferns at the tumbler's rim, as if he were a barrage-balloon being inflated from a monsoony jungle. Nial Hopper spoke next, it seemed:- "Nuncle Tokkmaster, it's all well and good talking about these things you dream about up behind the clouds, but furnish me proof, yes, show me photographs. Let's get some journalistic reality into this discussion."

"Is this boy a joke-smith? I'll throttle you with your fancy-talk," blurted Tokkmaster, his arm abruptly passing round Nial's neck and squeezing him into the corner. "Before you breathe again, young snap-whip, I'll push you so hard into this very ingle-cheek wall, until you explode into sparks up its chimney-flue! They're up there, take my word for it, Great Rounded-Heads with Holy Beaks, all a-mustering, ready for the great big push. I watch them with my big telescopes on the Mount."

Padgett Weggs, quiet until now, strained to speak, to such an extent that his long scar reddened at the edges. He would stand no truck from the likes of Tokkmaster Clerke. "They're not birds, Clerke. They're older than that, stranger than that, so strange that human eyes like yours cannot even see them!"

"You think they're up there, even so, eh, Padgett?" queried Feemy.

"Yes, if there's not at least something somewhere, how can you possibly explain what is going on in this world? None of it would make any sense, would it, otherwise? Think of it - metal boxes shooting up and down the fast lanes, women masquerading as men in men's jobs, film star presidents, TV chat shows, squawking-head music, neighbours ignoring neighbours. Look around you, all is nonsense, a global punch-and-judy show, great big churning accidents, bakelite boxes full of violence and nasty body-bits - even, old Tokkmaster, here, making mashlum out of poor Nial. Yep, they're up there, OK, likely unseen, even unsuspected. We're all going mad, mad, mad because of their evil influences." Padgett took a swig and relaxed from speaking.

But Tokkmaster was not assuaged. "I'll get my great rutted file to your skull, Weggs, for the talk you shit. Those up there, ARE HERE TO CLEAR UP THIS GODAWFUL MESS - NOT TO MAKE IT!"

"I think Padgett and Tokkmaster are in basic agreement," tendered Feemy, "but from opposite ends of the argument. Or so it seems to me."

"And with that," chimed Nial, "I say good night, stay bright!"

As they staggered from the Jackass Penguin, a litle the worse for wear, all four mooned up into the starless sky. Padgett Weggs shivered, as he employed one of Nial Hopper's cocktail brollies to probe bits of chicken-claw from his teeth. Blasphemy Fitzworth (Feemy for short) felt the sharp frost infiltrating even to his vital parts. Tokkmaster Clerke stood like a holly-oak beside a goodman's-croft, as he whistled shrilly for those he knew would one day perch and brood upon his own upper-stiffening branches. Nial Hopper, always one to drag out conversations long after everyone else was bored shitless, spoke of the white feathers that had just begun to snow from the otherwise empty sky.

As a child, Padgett Weggs concocted stories about a character whom he invented called Thomas Hopper. At first, Padgett thought he was a Victorian draughtsman with an obsessive desire to redesign the whole of London without roofs before it was too late and these roofs had become roosted by space creatures. Ol' Tom Hopper, as he became, was a ticklish fellow (straight from the more earthy pages of the Bard) whom his peers called Nuncle, Spunkle or, despite his history of temperance, Drunkle. He became a boatman on an imaginary canal system which stemmed from a wider version of the Thames, fanning down into Surrey, Sussex and Kent like the very maps of the very brain vessels in Padgett's own head.

Ol' Tom Hopper took his Narrow Boats down these canals, exploring their surprising junctions and winding-holes. Such boats toted crates of live human heads, just with feet and nought else, and perhaps the odd squawk of complaint at their cramped freighting quarters. The space creatures that now perched on the monuments and ancient churches of London town had instructed him to take his cargo as near to the coast as possible, for they were planning to install a Garden Port near Canterbury for disembarkation of these crates. The heads were to be billetted there, since their tender brains were later to be carefully extracted like crabmeat and turned by some secretive process into a porridgy food for the tenant farmers who would otherwise die of boredom in front of their ever-blinking TV sets.

These farmers would then lift themselves from their own backsides, grub about for outdoor clothes, proceed to the chicken coops and pluck as many feathers as they could muster; then daub them in multicoloured oils (manufactured from the more secretive glands of the walking human heads) and fix glorious trailing feather head-dresses to their noddles.

Jollity would be the farmers' only raison d'etre, for the creatures from the skies wanted to fit out our green and pleasant land with the rainbow alliance of Morris Dancing and Hippy Folksinging.

Keep sucking hard on your brain breakfasts, lads and lasses, and the world will be a Catherine Wheel of delights again. The TV sets were thrown to the wind as if gravity knew no tomorrows.

With Padgett Weggs dead or, at worst, dying from a brain tumour, Tokkmaster, Nial and Feemy were mooning over sparkly beers in the Jackass Penguin. They could see brown faces bubbling up at them.

Feemy, the caring, sharing one among them, grimaced as the snow billowed into the pub from the outside every time the door was opened by other tipplers. Nial, well, Nial cared and shared as much as Feemy, but he was easily led into selfish ways and was at this very moment timing his drinking to match the others, presumably to synchronise visits to the necessarium - which was all important in view of absences being positive encouragement for the others to talk behind the absent one’s back, their necks twirling like tap water. Tokkmaster had no such foibles. He was the breed you found in low dives surrounded by ugly brain-damaged non-swimmers.

"It's all very well us sitting here, enjoying the evening whilst others outside are dossing in the snow," said Feemy, touching the knot of an imaginary tie.

"There's no point in worrying," Tokkmaster replied. "Everybody started life as babies and if they haven't taken advantage of life's chances, that's their problem." Tokkmaster's nose was so big, it almost looked as if he were sucking up the drink through his syphonic nostrils.

"But Feemy's right, Tokkmaster," ventured Nial. "Some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouths. Those poor blighters out there were losers from the start. What chance did they even have half of?"

"You have to make your own chances in life," resumed Tokkmaster. "I don't know about you but I'm getting mighty boned off with clambering across that human offal outside, just to get in here."

"Tokkmaster, Tokkmaster" insisted Feemy, "that human offal, as you see fit to call them, are your fellow human beings, all nature's creatures who fuck and fart as readily as the best of us."

"Feemy, you've worked hard all your life, haven't you?" asked Tokkmaster rhetorically. "You've turned your hand to almost anything, just to earn a honest crust. Those bleeders out there think work is just another four letter word."

"Tokkmaster's got a point there, Feemy," mumbled Nial as he took a mean sip from the top of his drink.

"Let me tell you a true story, you two," said Feemy. "When I was still young, I met a down-and-out. His name sounded like Yog Sothoth but that's not important. Well, he told me why he was a dosser ... because it was far more worthy to be that than anything else."

"I can understand that," said Nial, surreptitiously spitting into his own drink, watching the phlegmy wad float down to be hidden by the lees.

"Yes, Nial. Plain as you see me, I can see him now. And his words have stuck with me through thick and thin: 'I don't give a toss for what others think of me,' he said, 'because I am my own man.'"

"Just what Nial and I were saying ... piss lazy - and with a name like Yog Sothoth, a foreigner to boot!" sneered Tokkmaster.

"No, listen you two. He also said that he'd met his God eye to eye." Feemy paused for effect. "And his God walks this world of ours, making such a walking God even more believable than the airy-fairy Christian one."

Feemy had spoken as if he were the dosser himself.

With a deep-felt sigh, Nial slipped off to the necessarium, and Tokkmaster took the opportunity to freshen up his and Feemy's glasses. Meantime, Feemy maintained a monologue, ignoring the blasts of cold air which a bloke called Blake and his flurry of cronies caused when coming into the Jackass Penguin pub.

"Yes," muttered Feemy, "I have indeed worked my bollocks off, all my life, ever since I could stand on my own two pins. I've been caretaker, factotum, nightwatchman, daycleaner, stud butler, ghost hunter, wine waiter, insurance salesman, firelighter, cat's meat man, time traveller ... you name it, I've done it. But I look back at that fateful meeting with the proud dosser and I realise he taught me more than all the scholars and priests and two-bit johnnies the world over. And I almost felt that I myself was his God, the way he looked at me..."

"Hiya, Feemy, how yer diddlin'?" asked a voice from his beer. "You talk about God? Well I first met the likes of God on Lemon House Lane - he looked like a lamplighter until he got closer, his head a black balloon with bits of a human-like body trailing from it at peculiar angles. You could hear the stretched skin expanding with his breath. Cooing Cthulhus with each expended breath."

Feemy recognised Padgett Weggs as the face speaking from his drink and Feemy hid his mouth with his mittens, either to staunch a yawn or disguise a laugh, or perhaps neither. Possibly a sob.

"Are you laughing at me, Feemy old boy?" continued the face in his beer. "Well laugh away. It's better than crying."

"I'm not laughing, merely not saying anything. But how did you know it was God you met and not the Devil?"

"Because he had the most beautiful heavy-duty crucifix hanging around his neck and tattoos of the Virgin Mary."

"That's no proof."

"Fire's lighter than air, you know."

"So why do flames stay tied to the logs like flags?"

The Weggsian face in the beer ceased in a spray of burst speech-bubbles, leaving only laughter in its place and the repercussions of a real life that had seemed to Feemy like a dream. Fire's laughter flickered in Feemy's brain.

Meanwhile, Tokkmaster had returned with the drinks, closely followed by Nial who had left the necessarium ahead of schedule for once.

"Hey, Feemy, going to the match tomorrow?"

"More than likely."

"That new manager got them working more like a team. Whatever their talent, he's given them the will to win."

"Can't see them winning, though."

"I could score with that loose-limbed lovely!"

It was a pity that the beautiful floosie in question was attached to the bloke called Blake.

Later, Nial Hopper ventured off to buy a round. Feemy Fitzworth had a purple patch staining his lapel, overlapping on to the neck, where his drink had probably spilled. They did not spot the slew of despond seeping under the pub door. Diced dosser stew, having been kept piping hot on the back burner of the soup kitchen nearby, had evidently boiled over and was drooling big toes and undonorable kidneys across the carpet towards the necessarium. Bits of God, thought Nial with more meaning than he would ever give himself credit for. Yet, like most pubs, the Jackass Penguin was no cleaner nor dirtier than any other, the bar of which had been held up, as it were, by Nial Hopper's father Tom whose elbow was ever bent like a piece of sculptural architecture his mother had first carved within her womb. Thus, with all the other detritus, the unholy mess burping through the pub door was barely noticeable - and the small talk and pub chitchat and booze banter continued till well past closing time - amid the holy broken wind coo-looing from the direction of the necessarium.

Padgett Weggs wonders if his mother was pleased on hearing word that the English county of Surrey had fallen. On the other hand, Sussex was still hand to hand fighting with the jolly space creatures but with no greater hope than just temporary resistance. Whilst, in Kent, the creatures could freely fly the skies above the ungridlocked Hopper waterways in search of the rare roofs to roost, trailing bright banners and delightfully tasteless gesticulations with their various body parts.

Padgett had left home to join up with the vanguard of folk-singers in Ramsgate; they opened a harbour in jointure to a glorious delta of canal systems and welcomed in the garlanded harlequinade of boats bearing the creatures' wingless cousins from France. The harbour walls, indeed, were not dissimilar from some of the more imaginative skull cavities of that wondrous architect, Thomas Hopper.

Padgett's Dad? He sat stock still in front of the TV which had ceased broadcasting when the creatures covered the sky with a canopy of light, more fulsome, more permeating than that of the sun itself. There was no roof for the TV aerial, in any event.

Finally, Padgett begs your pardon if you fail to grasp the intricacies of his life, for his English is still excruciatingly second-rate ... but his mother knew that if a creature were brought to her bed for seeding, she would have to first kick out her handsome prince. She didn't realise that it was not a prince at all, but a mound of her own excreta that she had forgetfully moulded and shaped into her better half. Or a better one than Padgett's Dad, in any event. But, by then, Padgett was good as gone and couldn't pursue the thought.

Later, from the distance, she was bound to hear the faint jingling and clacking of the Morris Dancers approaching ... and Padgett knows she would smile, even if he were not there to see it. Whatever the case, with the canal systems of his head now curded over with all manner of holy and unholy tumours, he can no longer have time for sad songs. He haunts bars now or, rather, beers.

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