Monday, November 03, 2008

A Tale Of Two Todgers


Old Todger serves many masters. His entire mentality is one of knowing his place - a place which he takes with him wherever he goes. He's fundamentally a shite-raker, yet most of his masters cannot muster muck enough to keep his hands full. "Have you got more slops and turn-outs for me to clear up?" he asks, wide-eyed and expectant. In the end, there's resort to keeping extra animals (and even extra servants) on the estate simply so that Old Todger can be given the opportunity to shovel their doings away.

And one future night beyond Old Todger's days, the village became quieter than most at twilight. As soon as the sun began to dip below the trees at the edge of the Green, there was a scattering of latecomers aiming for the doors of the Black Onion pub - via a meadow juxtaposing the Patrons' car park and past an encroaching elbow (which was the outside Gentlemen's by-pass). At the centre of this meadow was an upgrowth - not a tree, more a top-knot on someone's mop of tousled hair - which seemed to wear dusk like a hat. Some of the more fanciful villagers warily watched it turn from summery shrub to a benighted helmet wrenching in a sporadic wind. The legend - and it was wrong to call it more than that - had evolved over the years, embroidered in parts and even underplayed in others - concerning that Old Todger who used to be the village's Lavatory Man in the days of future's past. The villagers had feared him and scuttled into the rooms behind the sculleries when he entered their houses with his stink-pans. He came to unclog the tanks and tote out the sediments. As he passed in and as he passed out of the through-parlours, even the cats hissed and hunched their backs in the chimney-corners. And some said it were the cats that were the end of him. The helmet in the meadow was now believed to be the top of his head - the rest of his body stretching to the Core of the Earth, where certain others down there did out his necessaries.

Beyond twilight, most villagers snuggled up in the Black Onion hostelry, but others drew their curtains together in the upper storeys and waited for dawn beneath the bedcovers. A small minority squeezed in under the mattress. Young Todger didn't know why - just took it for granted - but he was one of those who resorted below the tilting rafters of the Old Onion. Young Todger did not need nor want to question it. He did not even worry that he bore the same name as the legendary lavatory man. A frothing tankard of local ale each night could not be bad. But then, it all came home to him, like a rifle shot from out a lace-trimmed cradle.

Young Todger cursed the day itself, for it was nearer day than night when it happened. He'd had to pass along one of those dark short-cuts around the church. He'd never liked it particularly, with the oversize stone gargoyles reaching out to touch his head. Framed between the sides of the lich-gate at the end of the path, he could see the helmet glinting in the dying light. His heart beat faster, as it appeared to be swivelling in the ground. He could've sworn it cranked and rose slowly like a drill-head. Then, screaming erupted from a nearby house, like a wild catfight, but was nevertheless decidedly human in its origin. Young Todger ran from and then towards it, in hesitant horror, and, after a bit, got nowhere. The butcher's boy had got in, before Young Todger's eventual arrival, and was found comforting the body in the washing-copper. A red spluttering face poked itself from the hatch, amidst the froth and still dirty smalls. It was Young Todger's mother's second cousin by obverse remove and Young Todger knew her only slightly. Enough, though, for him to say: "You be in a pretty pickle, Mrs Bobbin..."

She responed with a blurting cry: "The stink tank be alive with coily things..."

"What!" spat the butcher's boy. "Just now, on our marble slabs, the meat grew huge carbuncles - up they sprouted on the briskets and sirloins, with bloated blisters on the chops, yellow stuff scumming our knives and hatchets. Blimey, all's getting mighty peculiar."

"Why are you in the washing-copper, Mrs Bobbin? I've never seen my own mother in one," Young Todger thought to ask, tactlessly as it turned out.

"The tank did stink worse than ever and did churn - AND it'd only one day's doings in it. So, I thought I would be safer in here, with all my smalls. It seemed cleaner here, somehow." She burst into tears at the thought of the ludicrousness of her position. Illogical, but understandable, Young Todger had to concede. Finally, he put it all down to the helmet in the meadow. Old Todger's vengeance was no longer legend, but increasingly legion. Even later, in the Old Onion, Young Todger swallowed down his tankard of ale far too quick. Its lumpish contents slid down before he had the chance to take avoiding action. And no amount of alternate finger-poking at both ends could retrieve them.

Meanwhile, in history, before Young Todger was born, Old Todger could not remember exactly when he gave up being a Lavatory Man. Flushed loos were soon to be invented and then there would be no need for the stink-cart to call every now and then to collect the night soil. But, more important perhaps, people were to become so poor he felt that there would be no big job satisfation in dealing with just the meagre produce stemming from a diet of thin soup. Old Todger tramped to the city, to seek his fortune. But little did he know, his fortune was with him all the time. Everybody carried his or her Fate around with them, impossible, some averred, to shake off, hanging from the nose like an invisible symbolic dewdrop, more precious to the wearer than a diamond, an intangible satellite of the soul. And Old Todger had the biggest one in the world.

Having entered the city gates, he soon came across a sandwich man advertising what seemed to be a public hostelry called the Great Old One which, as he was very thirsty (and hungry) after his long hike, was an opportune encounter.

"Is the Great Old One far from here, my good old man?"

The man had a mouthful of fillings, so he couldn't answer properly but he managed to grunt out a few curt directions which, with a few hand signals, sent Old Todger on his way with an inkling of the various back-doubles he would have to negotiate in order to reach the said pub. But, soon, he was lost in a maze of alleys which were full of steaming laundries. Outside one, there was a white-aproned man leaning against the door sucking at an unlit pipe.

"Lost, eh?" The pipe stirred the mouth.

"Guess so," replied our hero.

"Where you off to, then?"

"The Great Old One."

"Never bleedin' heard of it - sounds like somethin' me ol' Grandmammy told me about in nightmares, when I was nobbut middlin' small."

"It's a pub, I'm told."

"Well, you been told wrong. No pub called that in these 'ere parts."

"Can you point the way to another one, then, my good fellow?"

"Might do - if you make it worth my while."

"I've got nothing - I'm on my way to seek my fortune and..."

"Fortune's ever just round the next corner, they say, just follow your nose ... and there it be."

"I wish I believed that. What if I gave you a bit of rustic wisdom, launderer? That'll be something I can give a townee of the likes of you."

"OK. Spill!"

"When the morning's a breezy one, your doings'll be long and coily, clogging up the works. When the day's still and calm, they'll be shorn chipolatas, hundreds, perhaps thousands of them, dotted about the bowl like lost souls. But when it's wet, your brown porridge will be darker and richer and go round a few more hungry mouths."

"Cor! That be wisdom indeed. And can you tell it t'other way round. I mean can you study your poo-stools and tell what the weather will be?"


"Well, mine was all yellow and runny this very afternoon and spotted with bog-bugs as big as walnuts doing the breast-stroke."

"No trouble, launderer. Tomorrow'll be a good day for putting the sheets out to dry."

"You're having me on!"

"Nope - the sun'll shine hot and long ... even during the first part of the night."

"Blimey, nuncle, I think I'll slap you on the back for the smart arse fellow you be."

Which he did. He didn't know his own strength, what with a whole lifetime of wringing and steam-pressing by hand. Old Todger spluttered and snorted, finding himself on the ground looking for something he didn't know he had in the first place and didn't know he'd lost in the second.

The grinning launderer shouted: "I was just joking you, sirree, about that pub. It's just round the next blind corner. There you'll find the Great Old One with wondrous big frothing pint-pots at its chest and a bellyful fit to feed a thousand poor people with more than just thin soup."

"Thank'ee, launderer," stuttered Old Todger.

And, on hands and knees, he rounded the corner only to discover himself staring at the mighty webbed claws which served as feet of a creature who forthwith gobbled him up and shat him out again almost instantaneously. Yet, at the turn of the century, some say that Time took one look at the forthcoming years and immediately decided to retrace its course, evidently flabbergasted at what would come to pass if it ever changed its mind and set its foot forward again towards the two World Wars and beyond...

Nanny Bobbin was sewing, at the quiet end of the day. From time to time, she looked down at her charge, the little girl she herself might have been, then glancing from the high window towards the orchard of bullace trees at the end of the garden. She knew this house to be beyond the tracks beaten by the peddler or the cat's meat man, and even further from the creaking Black Onion sign of the village where she once lived.

Could it be that dusk was seeping into the summer air earlier, much earlier, than yesterday? Todger, recently hired gardener and muckman for the estate, was still pottering amid the flowerbeds, yes, still wiping the grease of the sun from his bothered brows. Nanny imagined hearing his boisterous remonstrations as he entered the lower kitchens, at day's end. At day's end, which could not be far off, since the songs of twitterlight had turned in on themselves, even though the birds still perched peckishly in the blackening bullace branches.

Nanny tapped the shoulder of her young lace-trimmed charge squatting with her giggle of dolls by the empty nursery fire-grate and told her to look through the window at the dying light, for it was only then that one could fulfil the promise of the day.

Todger stood and stared up at the nursery window. He knew, if he did not put hurry into his boots, he would be trapped outside. "Come on, Todge, ol' fellah, you've not much time," he muttered to himself. Two white poppy faces hung at the nursery window, he saw, like the staring widening eyes of an old sightless one. A pack of blackness scattered into an explosion of wings from the bullace orchard as if seeking out further patches of itself, to sew the night.

The eyes soon extinguished and, no doubt, so would his chance of survival. On hands and knees again, this time because the toil of the day had taken its toll, he made his way towards the tradesmen's entrance, desperate for any form of shelter. He had never left it as late as this before. He could not recall the roof of the house looking so cluttered up. Huge roosting wings, with beaks prodding at things in their feathers, stood around the tall chimneystacks. Others hung from spiky cages which, one day in the future, would be television aerials, with long strands of a substance that the pecking and preening of the creatures had deposited there. One particularly blubbery blood-knitting of this bogey-goo puttered upon the back of Todger's neck as he reached the lowest step of the house.

He looked up, imploringly, to call his fellow servants. All they had to do was scoot smartly from the door, gain purchase below his armpits and drag him, if inelegantly, into the deepest reaches of the house, safe from whatever those creatures were hemming and threading the ridge-trees and gutters of the upper margins of the roof system.

Nanny Bobbin and her charge had, by now, of course, drawn the velvet curtains together, like dressing a wound. Since it was unseasonably chilly, they both set up a structure of blackened fire-wood in the grate, the sharper bits pointing up the chimney-flue. No need to set it alight, though, for they would soon be both curling cosily into the cot. In any event, neither were allowed matches.

The day did not give way too easily that night, and for too long they listened to the slow poignant guttering outside in the quarter-light.

The fulcrum of time had evidently been reached. Old Todger (ever to be Nanny's beau) would no doubt be conscripted when he became Young Todger again.

In future's present well beyond past's grasp, he had an unlit ciggie in his mouth. He seemed to be waiting for something to happen, but the corner of the field in which he stood was quickly filling with snow. Soon both night and snow would blanket him, but he welcomed the anonymity of invisibility. He spoke to one he thought to be himself: "I hated school. But I loved jog-raffy. I'm jog-raffy meself, you know. Me mouth has been dug in the earth of me face. A mountain the helmet of me head. Me chest be rivers of sweat. Me bum has a crack from the quakin' of me innards. Me feet grow in the soil, as corpses grow in graves. Me hairy part is fruit of a tree, growin' juicy, comin' in cream..."

Only his voice could be heard, but others had grouped around him in the night. Grey creatures, shaped out of the snow and darkness, mewed and shambled around the solitary speaking tree.

"I forgit me own name, you know, but I'm late of this village. I useta clear out the stink tanks of me neighbours, but they didn't want to know me. Only wanted me to pass through their homes like silence, to clear away their week's doings. They hid back of the wardrobes for fear of me. But they needed me. The houses would choke on themselves, if it had not been for me..." He shivered, for the cold was eating away at him, as if he were the church with the Devil's Kith clambering over it, sucking out the religion from his bones. "I wish I had never lived. What good was it all? I did big jobs for them, jobs that never ended ... months of poo-stools still to be collected. I wonder how they're gettin' on without me."

Out of his mouth curled the longest tongue that man had ever mustered, a long retching innard of despair and grief. But, at its tip, the cold took hold and spread to the rest of his bitter branches. One of the night creatures, settling like a cat beneath his body warmth, looked up and whined for love. He bent his willowy trunk to pluck this elemental from the frost-bitten ground, cherished it to his smoking chest but then felt its bones crackling like twigs within his cuddle.

"Have thee a spirit, like the teachers at school taught me? I feel thy whiskers, I feel thy life leavin' thee like a tooth fairy's wet kiss. Art thou dead now? Thou art gone down like a house of cards."

The other creatures that had gathered round him in the night left him alone with crumpled fur and bones pressed sensuously to his silent chest.

Some said that even death would not keep him from the tasks in hand. He had often considered himself to be a ghost. But most despaired of even ghostly help. The whistling through the branches of the earthbound tree to which, if half-truths were known, the ghost finally resorted, was ascribed by the deprived villagers to the wind. Even on sullen windless days, like most days now beyond the two Wars, the stench from unemptied tanks hung about in wreaths of foulness. Some people joked that Todger would come back as someone else again, one with fangs, a Dung Dracula ... but the joke soon turned sour as blood. Most remembered him, thankfully, as a Great Old One who was never young. And by dawn, the willow has become fibrous again, sappy tentacles rebudding. Spring, surely, cannot be far ahead or behind. The villagers wake and stare. One has dreamed of blowing down a balloon. Then, of mending a broken one. Another has dreamed of moulding shite-shapes. Yet another has dreamed of her own death in a makeshift mansion up the wooden hills of sleep - and, upon waking, finds it be true. The Black Onion does a roaring trade in gargle-oil, whilst those behind the house-curtains creep on, crap on and simply hope.

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