Sunday, December 11, 2011

Spam - Southend-on-Sea


Baron Harch wanted to keep the principality of Harchwee clean and wholesome, but the docks let him down, since they represented little more than blasphemous effigies of bloated rats tucked up in a baby's frilly cradles. The parks and espalier trails were indeed litter-free, the courtyards and promenades neatly white-washed. Outside the cafes, elderly gentry played chess under the near endless summer skies, flasks of ice-green water ready to hand.

Le Pei left this inner sanctum of the Baronry, where castle turrets poked rocketship imitations at the tireless full moon of a hushed expectant night, and passed through the city gate, where late stragglers mouched and chatted in starry-eyed demeanour. The only sound was the squeaking of his shoes. He would soon hit the alleyways which revealed the beginning hair-line cracks of darker paths beyond. He cast a careless glance at the sky and shivered, for were they clouds reaching out for the yellowing moon? Was there a tinge of dampness in the air? After all, did he *really* want to proceed? At dawn, upon imagining the drone of bombers leaving alternate worlds with their bellies empty, he neared the river's edge, where the buildings became Monopoly Game houses, window- and door-less sheds, each a highly-coloured uniformity. They presented relief from the churchyards and the yew-black dripping shadows of the terraced suburbs and ruined shopping malls. He had yearned then for a friendly wave from a passing cousin, in bright holiday gear, but all he saw were the shifting patterns of dossers fidgetting in their sleep. One dosser in particular died in his arms, whilst stretching pleadingly for a toddy or a tiffin. Le Pei heard him whisper and, later, upon approaching the crazy wharf-side streets beyond the dank, dreary rat-runs of the night, he recalled what else the dosser said: "My head hurts, and I've no use for totin' it further." The soul left the dosser's gaping mouth, surrendering the faintest whine like a tooth-fairy stifling under a little girl's pillow.

The barges bobbed gently. The wharf men hoorayed to those on board, who in turn gave surly response. The Hopper crew, lately arrived, knew that their chief mate had been taken at the depth of dreaming sleep into jankers, and they feared he would never be seen again. The Captain, Tom Hopper, clasped the hand of a rough redneck as he lurched ashore by Big Bollard: "I've got lines of human heads packed like eggs, all with the needful fillings. Some already coloured up for Easter..."

The roughneck did not deign to reply, but merely pointed querulously at the Captain's companion. "'Tis my nephew, Ni-Al, he'll cause you no trouble. He'll bring the cargo of walking heads ashore." Further flat-capped locals grouped around and one of them explained that the cargo would need to be heat-stored in the red- and green-houses. How to get them there, was the query, of course. Captain Tom whistled between his teeth and, slowly, a human head, with sprouts of abortive hair, poked a face over the bows. Then, in a hypnotised gaggle, several others bounced to and fro along the deck, their socketed feet padding like toddlers "up the little wooden hills to Bedfordshire". Eventually, they ventured ashore, by puffing out their cheeks and rolling down the hawsers. Their sibilant gibble-gabble made the dock-men smile - but Tom did not see the joke as he tightened his belt on raw-hide breeches. Hundreds of human heads continued to career from shed to shed, inspecting the best billets available to bivouac for the night. They knew their brains would soon be torn out for the priceless smuggled fluid which they contained, but, as they hustled between the legs of Ni-Al Hopper, it was pain and eventual oblivion for which they actually yearned. As the Great God exacted futures for the several realities in His control, He relished in particular the roasting of such heads of Harchwee. These delicacies welded end to end would stretch from world to world and bridge the gulf between otherwise distant cousins.

Meantime, Baron Harch twitched an eyelid, twitched a second one and wondered if he happened to think less about the seamier side of his domain, it would cease to matter or even to exist at all. "Fitzworth!" he called to his factotum. A leather-aproned, flat-capped man eventually entered, rubbing his greasy hands upon his backside. "Yes, m'Lord?" "Do you believe in philosophy?" "Flossoffy? Blimey, what the heck's that? I don't hold with high-falutin' ideas. It don't pay to fill your head with things like that. I does me job, and that's that. I'm happy enough."

The land of Abrundy Tiddle, neighbouring Harchwee, lay between the two giant waterfalls of Amster-Dam and Surging-Mouth. Through their sheer curtains, the first view was of the terraced villas, where painters, composers and literati met and discussed their new artistic projects. The villas huddled in clutters upon the hills, growing like Siamese Boxes from the woods that weaved the valley's basin. Rudely crafted canals (veining the ruined palace squares of Abrundy Old Town) intermittently branched from the main artery of the Tiddle. It was in fact that mighty frothing river which churned between the banks of the Straddling Church, where ordinary worshippers populated the pews on either side, sometimes glancing up at the great episcopal bridge (on which priests and arch-vicars wended their monkish courses amongst the richer church-goers). Those were the days when Amster-Dam and Surging-Mouth were subject to conflicting geo-centric forces, the Tiddle often bursting its hesitant margins, creating large curds of salt-white to bleach the kneeling choirs of the Straddling Church. Even the altar-piece faced the rogue splatters of the ill-tempered river.

Legend said that the Straddling Church was merely an irritating reincarnation of the City of London's mythick domed cathedral of St.Paul - emerging as a vision from the mists and torrents and earthquakes. The Thames had split it asunder, the Abrundy writers had speculated. Some even believed that their collective imaginary world of Early England was more likely to exist than the real province of Harchwee which neighboured Abrundy Tiddle to the west. Religions were like that.

Abrundy pubs were full of loose talk. The kegs were tapped into the Tiddle itself. The Landlords were rich as a result of the many mouths sucking upon all the pumps. The bars were gorgeously decorated with nap-waterfalls and three-dimensional tags and pieces. The ash-trays and spittoons were cross-hatched with designer pus. But the talk was loose - words flying heedlessly hither and thither, with no sense of reponsibility nor even meaning. Four men sat carelessly around that night - lolled loudly in mock carven coracles and shot their mouths off about non-existent scandals, about unsubstantiated news reports and incoherent jokes, about false literary allusions, with ridiculous puns and unworkable plans of campaign, and about inland black seagulls with squeaky wings. To church and waterfalls, the conversation suddenly turned. "You know of the tales our writers tell?" "About the Great Head of Steam old Amster will fling off come Judgement Day?" "No, but another great quake could see us all dead, with both Amster and Mouth fighting each other like spitting wildcats - it won't be safe even in the villas - I've a good mind to join my cousin Feemy Fitzworth in Harchwee." "Harchwee will suffer floods, too, you know." One rose to go - the others too took his lead - and went to create smaller waterfalls of their own against the back wall of the pub.

Later, their conversation tailed off as they lay beside the bar, each with a drip-feed from the kegs and a brown fizzy liquid gurgling up to the lips from their stomachs. That same night, one of them had a vision of the real St Paul's. But he put it down to the drunken cavortings of his obstreperous noddle. The Head of Steam that old Amster then spat was a precursor of the mammoth cascade that would drown all of them one day, only to trickle out of existence itself down the brain drains of time. Baron Harch knew the legend of Abrundy-Tiddle as a disposable tear-off slip of history, but the Baron's favourite resort was Meadowport. Whilst neighbouring Abrundy Tiddle was unique in its situation between the two mighty waterfalls, in its many back-to-back, two-up-two-down villas huddling to the hills above the ruined palace squares of Abrundy Old Town and its famed church a-spawder the Tiddle, Meadowport was different.

The Baron, the summer before each Lady-Day in Harvest, spent the idle days of his calendar beside Meadowport's painted ocean; merely patchwork pastures in sculptured disguise - cows grazing among the so-called waves and giant model ships; wild geese packing between the mock beach-heads and garlanded dry-dock piers; and simple folk nodding in time to the rhythm of the weather jingles. The Baron's toady, Blasphemy Fitzworth, adjusted the tartan covers of his master's near-crippled wicker deckchair and said: "How's your napper? Cold? Want your hat, sirrah?" "No, thank you, Fitzworth, just start the gulls up, please." The problem was that the wings squeaked, but the Baron dozed off and had a nightmare. The field was planted with heads - stretching to every horizon, thousand upon thousand of human heads, socketed into the soil by every vein and membrane. They nodded; turned widdershins, and back again; they squawked hideous words; some had beaks and umbrella boils; others blew their cheeks into bubble gum shapes; a few even bore smaller heads, black and yellow, that mimicked their host heads; and, finally, there was one as big as a barrage balloon that called itself Moon. And Moon often dreamed about floating over a domed cathedral amidst the flak of some future blitz. The Baron was affrighted, but not without remorse. That panorama of rippling skull crop was pitiful indeed. But what was that noise? A coughing, spluttering engine broke the silence of the nightmare and, wide and lurching, it careered and harvested through the great red sea. At once, Moon, the natural leader of the planted pack, quacked a warning to his flock: "Whatever you do, don't lose your heads!"

The Baron woke abruptly. The wind had come up from across the canvas wastes and whined insidiously around him. The engine noise that had broken his dream had turned up in his waking and juddered from beyond the candy-floss stall. "Fitzworth! Fitzworth!" There was no answer from the toady - he had skedaddled already to his cunny-berry. Dwarfy ear-droppers gathered round the Baron's cot town and began to flawter the skin from his bone, with paring-knives, and entertissued it with erfkin spew.

He awoke again, this time from a nightmare within a nightmare, only to return to the engine noise and saw the mountainous paddle-wheels of the all-American thumper-momster. "Don't lose your heads," shouted Moon, "Keep low and it'll only curl your hair." "Sirrah, wake up!" shouted Feemy Fitzworth. "They say the Straddling Church has collapsed and killed thousands of worshippers!" Dazed, but purposeful, the Baron, in mock of some legendary film star President, stammered: "We must go to Abrundy, to aid our cousins..." Feemy continued: "The Falls have fallen. Amster-dam has lifted its lid and let a steam-critter out as big as the sky above. Surging-Mouth fought back with an endless tunnel of sucking-water ... and ..." The Baron motioned him to let up. "I must stand tall ... give them something to hang on to ... they need to look up and forget..."

Feemy was sad. His friends and cousins would have been at church that day: the list would be endless, all struggling within the dark screecher chasms of an upturned world, mouthing desperate futures they knew in their hearts as well as heads did not exist, fruitlessly undergoing the labour pains of death. The painted ocean of Meadowport twitched, humped its back and settled like a collapsed marquee. The end of the pier show sang on, and the joke got even worse: "I say, I say, I say, they say death is like sicking up all your innards in one go ... me wife made me eat her tumblefruit pie tonight, a special recipe, she said ... it feels as if I'm going to die many times over, I'd better stick me head down me throat, or deep down into the earth, to stop its terrible, terrible heaving..." The joke never reached its punchline, just tailed off. The Baron Harch? Well, he could be on the moon, looking down. Or that story's good as any.

Le Pei surveyed the wild thunderous torrents of Amster-Dam and Surging-Mouth. He knew, as if instinctively, that there was a story here: one that, even if already told, could do with some re-telling. He shrugged, as he stopped day-dreaming. It was really London, the river the Thames and the cathedral St Paul's. But, to Le Pei, it would always be Abrundy Tiddle, with its gothic-turned church straddling the river on colossal pillar-legs. Amster-Dam and Surging-Mouth fell straight as dies from the bluest sky, betokening further worlds up there from which these waterfalls stemmed. Le Pei knitted his brows - science was no longer anything in which to have faith: religion was the only real alternative. The dual torrents fed the Tiddle, but when does torrent end and full-blooded flood begin? That parahistoric day held perhaps the true and provoking answer. The World War had been over for as many days as it takes to mix a family Christmas cake, cook it and eat it. The War had lasted longer than anyone could remember, and the Blitz still echoed in Le Pei's ears. Remnant mortals were even now cowering within makeshift shelters in the shadow of the great cathedral. It seemed as if the mighty St Paul's could no longer grow into the future for fear of crushing the clumsily fashioned terraced Wendy Houses that had been set leaning beneath the north and south facing transoms. Le Pei peered into one such structure and could not make out where the mother ended and the child began. The news of the end of the War, if it had reached them at all, was not easily believed and, even if believed, not acted upon.

In those days, the river passed further from the very portals of our St Paul's than it was healthy to acknowledge. The history books stated, unarguably, that the cathedral had been built on the banks of the river; and a little birdie had also said that they were destined to become closer still. Le Pei sat next to a dosser who looked as if he had been tramping the Underground Lines for most of his life. "What's the reckoning?" asked Le Pei, desperate for even the smallest reaction to the news still filtering through from the fronts. The dosser, of course, made no reply, for he had eaten his own tongue, in preference to spam. Le Pei looked down at his own patent leather shoes. As he waggled his feet in them, they looked as if they were in an ugly face competition, speaking pitifully on behalf of those unable to speak for themselves. They spoke of days to come when everybody would stare at a thing called "Snooker" for days on end from a glowing square of colour in the corner of the parlour, in apparent enjoyment. This could be nothing but science for, if it were religion, it would at least be tangible and understandable. The shoes spoke of this and that, of beginnings and endings, of the hopes that would end in nothing except more unquenchable hopes. Le Pei turned to the dosser who had silentlly left him to his own thoughts. He had obviously disappeared off to plumb the extent of the Circle Line underground. He would report back on the rumours of life between High Street Kensington and Aldgate breaking out fitfully from the air raid Wendy Houses. Then, water started to trickle around Le Pei's shoes. In dribs and drabs, more ebb than flow but, later, in more noticeable coughs and splutters. It drove before it the ill-constructed coracles that had once been Wendies. The dewllers therein would no doubt scream if they had not already stuffed their mouths with spam, in an attempt to use it up - the War having ended too early.

The surging torrents penetrated to the point where a little birdie said it would; and out of the resultant standing waters, there stepped a drenched, doom-dreary figure who mumbled of coming to Abrundy Tiddle. Fears of not knowing whether he were coming or going set in. And he stepped back into the now swirling waters to find the London City he knew must exist. Le Pei watched himself go...

Who upturned the world, only the Great God knows. But at a point between then and now, things started to go badly awry. And the torrential rain fell down upon the sky. The snooker balls bounced off each other, as some are potted, some not. But nobody can hear their ricochet: for all have died and gone away, even the players. Was it boredom or plain despair, or the unbearable stench of cancered tongues in the coloured rolling heads? And having retold it all, Le Pei freshened up his newly barbered body beneath the hosing shafts of Amster-Dam against Surging-Mouth. Later, he walked down to the straddling cathedral, for the morning service was about to begin. There, Cardinal Hopper XXIII would signal this and that, of the shrivelling ends of beginnings, of the seeping fulfilment of hopes feeding upon hopes. A little birdie settled upon the Prayer Duct, fresh from pretending to be a plastic sea-gull in Meadowport, and squeaked another message for all to hear. Le Pei's shoes squeaked, too, and squelched as they entered the mighty portals - but the swollen tide between the pews had found its place at last; and the squeaks were never heard above the waves' wild career between sacramental shores. "If the Great God is so bleeding sane and sensible, how can He ever expect us to believe in Him?" was his last drowning thought.

(Published 'Weirdmonger's Tales' 1994)


Southend on Sea

If you find this typescript, please preserve it, for it's not that bad. I dropped it down the WC accidentally and where it will turn up beats me. But if it's still intact, please return it forthwith to the address at the end....

My name? What business is it of yours? Suffice it to say that, if you knew my name, you would be none the wiser at this stage. You would be side-tracked so severely that you would not even bother to read the rest of this tract, too busy with looking up a variety of encyclopaedias and getting all entangled with the many cross-references stemming from my name.

Well, follow me. Don't dilly-dally and when I say jump, you damn well jump!

This tunnel closely follows the route of a new canal that wends its way several leagues above us. At times, it is close, to such an extent that you can hear the self-conscious chugging of the narrow boats, and, at others, so far, that you're nearer the core of the earth than to the surface channellings.


That was close. We just crossed a crevice which goes deeper than anything you've known before and ends up on the other side of the universe, some say.

That dim glow, which allows us to feel our way, filters down along special tubings fed from the daylight way above us. They've got it on top - just watch. I turn this valve, and the deep richness of a summer sunset fills your face with a healthy flush. Look closer, old pal, and see what I look like. It is about time you saw my face which, after all, should be of more interest to you than my name, surely. It's deeply marked with age, you may note, but I'm younger than you, I'll be bound. It's got character lines fanning out from brow to brow, hasn't it? You don't say much about me: what's got your tongue?

Well, keep mum, man, just follow a little way more, just round that bend.


Godforsaken gentleman. Failed to jump in time, I guess. Gave him plenty of warning, didn't I?

Halloo! Are you down there?

No. Well, he wasn't much of a conversationalist anyway, and I don't suppose he'd have learnt much. Even if he was still alive, he'd find it hard to call for help. Because shy he was. Shyer than a blushing bride on her first night.

Us ley-line constructionists don't talk much at the best of times. We're too busy following the natural courses of our brains. It's the veinings which count.

My old apprentice disappeared down a gullet and is lost for ever, no doubt.

If you find him wandering around some mocked-up London Underground, following his nose, as it were, silently seeking the by-ways for my friendly chump, send him back to me. Straight to the secret Inlet, part of the way beyond the Bill, until you reach the Cape at the head of the Flight of Locks, here to the Naze, half-way up the encroaching Creeks and Backwaters which face up to that mighty Peninsula, poised in the flushing seas of sunset, down the Essex way.

That's the address for all your sendings.


As a belated afterthought, you still want to know my name? OK, I'll come clean and I'll put it at the head of this typescript, like a sign-post to the better things below it.

Finally, all I can say is that we must find better ways....I'm sick to the teeth with it all.

(Published 'The Third Half' 1987)

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