By Aerostat to Hooting Yard

by Frank Key


Oh, I so wanted this to be a seafaring yarn. I wanted to hear the wind in the rigging, smell the salt tang in the breeze, roll with the creak and lurch of old wooden boards on the deck. I wanted to write a maritime tale, of a fabric woven of ships' cables and hawsers, an arctic wind blowing through it and birds of prey hovering over it. I wanted to prattle on about smacks, bilgewater, fo'c'sles, and splicing the mainbrace, whatever that means. Pirates would appear, cutlasses gleaming. Perched in the crow's nest, I would yell "land ahoy!", then scurry down the rigging to help tamp down the binnacles.

At first, things had looked hopeful. I had received my instructions from Dobson. As ever, he was precise: "Track down Burble. Beat him to death with a club. Wrap him in chains and throw him down a flooded mineshaft. I shall expect a full report upon your return. Dobson."

As soon as I had read his memo, I doused it in highly inflammable chemicals and took it down to the boiler room of my building. There, in solitude and gloom, I placed it in the roaring furnace. The flames licked up towards my face, and I turned away. I knew the tears would not be long in coming.

It had been two years since one of Dobson's communiques had uprooted me from my rut and catapulted me into frantic adventure; three years before that I had been sent on a mission, ranging over four continents; the year before that embroiled in a world-shattering plot; and there had been at least half a dozen earlier escapades. No doubt these Dobson-inspired excitements were meant to be wild and life-enhancing, yet I yearned for tedium and futility. Trudging out of the boiler room, I began to sob. It would be weeks, perhaps months, before I could once again wallow in monotony and ennui.

Despite my misgivings, I am very particular about my work. Dobson has even accused me of being finicky. I began to pack at once, having dusted down the enormous haversack which I always carry on my assignments. Within an hour of receiving my instructions, the packing was done, and I was perched on a wooden stool in my kitchen, wolfing down a bowl of slops. I had no idea when next I would eat. Having twice been struck by lightning while doing Dobson's bidding, I had taken the precaution of sprinkling finely-ground purslane on to my slops, and stashing a small pouch of the stuff in my haversack. Another half hour and I was out of the door and on my way. The weather was incomprehensible: I shall not record it here. I checked my watch by the gasworks' clock and spat into a hedgerow.

It was not for me to question why Dobson wanted Burble obliterated, yet I could not help feeling a small pang of surprise. I had always understood Burble to be a trusted agent, a man who could be relied upon. I knew for a fact that he had been invaluable when Perkins and Throwback contracted the dengue, and were ensnared by a band of repressed mahouts. I could only assume that he had lately committed some heinous offence for which Dobson could not forgive him. What on earth could he have done? But I could not allow myself to dwell on such matters. It would not get the dog bathed, the roof fed, or the baby mended, whatever that saying is. I spat into a hedgerow and lurched onwards.

Over the years, I have paid a great deal of attention to gaits, and have a repertoire of ambulatory techniques which the greatest of actors would envy. My usual form of locomotion is a sort of huffish lope. It should go without saying that, when engaged on one of Dobson's missions, I take diligent pains to disguise this. Prancing, hobbling, limping, trudging and scampering can all be brought into play. I am unusually adept at hurtling, stamping and scuttling, and have on occasion found it useful to bound, stride, plod, gad, or stalk. However, in the initial stages of any mission, I am an inveterate lurcher. I find that it aids the circulation, hones the brain, and abolishes any creeping panic. One day I shall write an essay explaining why.

I lurched to the docks, of course: all Dobson's assignments begin at the docks. While heating up the pan of slops in my kitchen, I had done a spot of preliminary research. The first thing I had to do was to find Burble, and he could be anywhere. Leafing through my card index, I traced his movements over the past year. He had spent Easter with Woodenberry in the Antarctic, swiftly moving on through Bloody Foreland, Concrete, Lake Disappointment, Elk, Flin Flon and Gubbio. I already knew that he had been in Hobart for most of July. I was unable to discover his whereabouts during the latter part of that month or for the first week in August. On the eighth, however, he turned up in Innsmouth, staying only a couple of days before a frantic spree through Jubbulpore, Kintap, Largs, Middle Tongue, Novi Bug, Orb, Pickle Crow, Quorn, Reindeer Depot and Splat. He spent Christmas in Teutoburger Wald and, typically, saw in the new year at Unst. Again there was a gap, then Burble turned up once more, in February, in Ventry, then in Weed. After that he travelled through Xacxicz, Yodd, and Zug. An intriguing fellow, I thought to myself. But was he still in Zug? I could only find out by going there: after all, I had to start somewhere.

I allowed half an hour for the slops to digest, using the time to trawl through the shipping timetables. I could make head nor tail of them. My head spun, shimmers and jangles frolicked in my brain, and I nearly threw up my slops. I ingested a handful of crushed mugwort and immediately felt better. A damned good lurch, weighed down by my massive haversack, helped to dispel further the throbbing in my skull.

It took just four hours to arrive at the docks. They were splendid, but indescribable. I think Dobson attempted to write about them in one of his absurd pamphlets, but as usual I cannot remember a word of it. It hardly matters. I lurched past a group of stevedores, who were mucking about with torque wrenches, baskets, lengths of flax, that sort of equipment. One of them, resplendent in a toxic vest, hailed me.

"You there!" he cried, "Can you lend us a hand with these torque wrenches, baskets, and lengths of flax?"

"I'll do what I can," I replied, easing my haversack to the ground and rolling up my shirt sleeves. This was a break I could ill afford to ignore. My plan was to stow away on board a steamer bound for Zug's nearest port, wherever it was. This subterfuge was essential. It was quite impossible for me to buy a ticket, have my name appear on a passenger list, dine at the captain's table, take part in deck-board pingpong tournaments, and suchlike hooha. I could not risk incurring Dobson's wrath: look what lay in store for Burble. This was the perfect opportunity. If I could win the confidence of these stevedores, by dint of garrulity and bonhomie, they would hopefully assist me to board a ship in secret. I spat on my hands.

"How can I help?" I asked.

"Could you help us put these torque wrenches into these baskets and wrap these lengths of flax around them?" said the stevedore. I nodded my assent.

Everything went according to plan. Some weeks later, exhausted, my spirit virtually broken, I was holed up below the decks of the Milquetoast Jesuit, due to sail any day to a port near Zug. My stevedore pals had been magnificent. Having identified the ship, they bribed one of the crew to arrange a space for me, hidden among the stowage in the hold, where I could lie safely concealed for the duration of the voyage. This matelot, who was grimy and incoherent, was also to ensure that I did not starve or perish from thirst, although I had no worries on that count, as I had packed several bags of mush in my haversack.

At dead of night, I shared a last flagon of grog with the stevedores. We sat around a rusted oildrum in a particularly smelly corner of the dockyard, our only light a storm-lantern hanging from a nail rammed into the crumbling wall. At the appointed hour, the matelot arrived. We heard his snivelling before he came into view. This could not be tolerated: absolute silence would be necessary if we were to avoid discovery. The matelot apologised, with much slobbering, explaining that only seconds before his arrival he had developed a massive nosebleed. One of the stevedores was all for wrapping a tourniquet round his neck to staunch the flow, but I managed to intervene, unleashing from my pocket a medical dictionary and brandishing it above my head. I always carried this little booklet with me on my assignments. Dobson had written it many years ago, and forbade his agents to move so much as an inch without it. Although it is woefully lacking in diagrams, it is a boon to the amateur, shedding a Dobsonian light on all sorts of maladies and distempers, including agues, biting by mad dogs, choleric fluxes, dislocations, epidemics, frenzy, gall, hoarseness, inflammations, jaundice, knots in the flesh, loss of teeth, megrims, noise in the ears, obstructions of the spleen, pestilence, quinsy, ringworm, strangury, tetters, unmentionable horrors, vexation, whitlows, xenoglossic fury, yowling, and zombiedom. Where and when Dobson picked up all this information I cannot say. He certainly underwent no medical training to speak of, unless his autobiography is a pack of lies. That would not surprise me. Leaving the stevedores to bone up on nosebleeds, I rummaged in my haversack and took out some hound's-tongue and knapweed. Both had been crushed to a powder and stored in leathern pouches. I had only the grog to work with, but I made an infusion and commanded the matelot to drink it in one hurried slurp. Moments later, the bleeding stopped. He wiped his mouth and chin with a filthy rag and let out a belch. It was time to go.

Three weeks later, under cover of a pitch black night sky, I boarded the packet steamer Milquetoast Jesuit. The matelot and I had had innumerable adventures in the interim, none of which I shall record here. Dobson would only complain. We made our way down into the stowage without being seen. The matelot had prepared for me a rough wooden box, stacked among a heterogeneous jumble of crates, hampers, barrels and bales. Dribbling, he assured me that no member of the crew would ever come anywhere near this part of the hold. The air, what there was of it, was disgusting and fetid. In the stinking gloom, we shook hands. I understood that the ship was to set sail at any time in the next four days, and that I would not see my accomplice again until we were out at sea.

Left to myself, I lit my Curpin lantern and examined the wooden box which would be my home for the next few weeks - or so I thought. The matelot had done me proud. The box had been lined with plush crimplene. Cushions stuffed with natural sea-sponge were strewn about, as were little pot pourris of pimpernel and lavender. A rickety wooden shelf had been whacked up along one side of the box, containing a splendid library of books with which I could pass the time. Most of the titles were pulp science fiction or detective stories, including The Zinc Lozenge by Cupper, The Windy Quaker by Dawlish, The Case of the Tonsured Drunks by Kurt Pith, and The X-Ray-Eyed Galley-Slave by Sinbad Hoonjaw. I was pleased, however, to note that I had been provided with a couple of stern devotional tracts, Prayer and Imbecility by Monsignor Todge, and A Flask of Potage by Moop and Trellis. Underneath the shelf was a metal canister. I removed the lid, and found that it was a portable refrigerator, packed with highly expensive bottles of wine. Next to the canister was a dinky tray laden with a corkscrew, wineglass, and binary muffets. There was no sign of any food, but I had my bags of mush. Placing my haversack in the cleverly-designed cubby-hole of the box, I reclined on the straw pallet, arranged some of the cushions around me, and tried to shrug off the foul stench assaulting my nostrils. Within minutes, I was fast asleep. Meanwhile, up on deck and unbeknown to me, the purser was smearing all the lifeboats with a decoction of oakum and wormwood. According to Dobson, this sort of thing is quite common, although ships' crews are loth to admit it.

When I woke up in my dark and smelly box, my watch had stopped. Here was a predicament: I had no idea how long I had been asleep. As I took cognizance of my surroundings, it soon became apparent that the Milquetoast Jesuit was still in port. I cracked open one of the wine-bottles and swigged it through clenched teeth. Unfortunately, after a period of sleep my co-ordination was not at its best, and I managed to bash and dislodge one of my incisors. The wine swilled around in my gob, mingling with blood which was now pouring from my gums. Had the matelot thought of packing a first aid kit? I doubted it. I spat into one of the pot pourris and cursed heaven. As I did so, I was astonished to hear the sound of footsteps and snivelling coming from somewhere among the ramshackle stacks of stowage. Moments later, the matelot appeared, a torch clutched in his grimy fist. "What on earth are you doing here?" I hissed. The fool was meant to stay away from me until we were safely out to sea. If my presence were discovered now, I would without doubt be ejected from the ship and have my haversack impounded by the maritime authorities: the same fate that had befallen Perkins at the outset of the expropriated vinegar case. Dobson had been livid. The matelot did not reply. He merely handed me a scrunched up piece of paper and, turning on his heel, scurried off. I was bewildered, but only for a moment. Spitting out another gobbet, I unscrunched the piece of paper: it was blank. What inanity was this? The matelot must have taken leave of his senses. In a sudden fury, I tore the paper to shreds, then settled back on the pallet to eat a bag of mush. Only as the last mouthful slithered down my throat did it occur to me that I must have looked at the wrong side of the paper. I was about to gather the shreds from the floor when the Curpin lantern went out. I was plunged into complete darkness, unable to see my hand in front of my face. Hm.

Luck, as Dobson says, begins with L. Another thing that begins with L is lout's-skull, a rare and spiky herb found only on a few mountain slopes in Van Glubb's Land. If boiled in a little oil, it is good for shrunken sinews, and it helps to relieve the dropsy and diseases of the spleen. Among its more unlikely properties, lout's-skull will, under certain conditions, become incandescent and burst into an all-consuming conflagration like unto the fires of hell itself. As luck would have it, a crate of desiccated lout's-skull was among the cargo of the Milquetoast Jesuit, and the conditions in the hold were just right for the inferno to be provoked. My Curpin lantern did not, as I thought, go out: rather, I was temporarily blinded by the intense brilliance of explosive lout's-skull. The noise came afterwards, a horrible sucking and seething sound, redolent of leeches, tiny pigs, and things that suck and seethe. The water in the harbour evaporated. The ship itself simply vanished, blown to smithereens. I have no idea how I walked out of the devastation alive, clutching my haversack. But I did.

My first thought was to find the matelot, or at least to ascertain whether he was alive or dead. After all, he may have disembarked just before the explosion, or he may have survived it, as I had. I was about to prance into the nearest tavern when I was waylaid by a spangled monster. It was hilariously unkempt, and its provenance was dubious. Luring me into a shadowy nook, it drooled and growled, growled and drooled. My pulse raced. I tried to work out how I could reach the turpentine gun in my haversack before the monster did something unspeakable. I need not have worried. It was Perkins, of course.

"I bring news from Dobson," he said, unravelling himself from his stupendous disguise and lighting a cheroot.

"Gosh," I said. Then, pulling myself together, I asked Perkins as calmly as I could what Dobson had to say. It was almost unprecedented to receive a further message following initial instructions: Dobson trusted his agents to get on with the job. In truth, I felt indignant, and told Perkins as much.

"Ach!" he snarled, "Dobson, Dobson, Dobson. He is in his dotage, you know that. He hardly knows what he's doing anymore." He paused, seeming to agonise for a moment.

"Forgive me, I should not speak so. Dobson is Dobson, and that is enough. Let me tell you his message." Perkins spent about ten minutes rummaging through a variety of pockets, pouches, fobs, sockets, recesses and vanity bags before triumphantly brandishing a crumpled shoe-box in my face.

"Here it is!" he cried, tears of joy streaming down his face. Removing the lid from the box, he took out a little booklet, leafed through the pages, stopped at one and, wagging his finger in the air, read:

"Re: Burble. His travels over the last year are a series of lavish untruths. I was nearly taken in. He has been holed up in Hooting Yard all the time. I am not trying to interfere but I thought you ought to know. Dobson."

Bang went my chances of writing a seafaring yarn. Hooting Yard was only two hours away, by bus. Perkins and I vanished into the nearest tavern to get drunk. As we toped, we talked. And as we talked, we discovered a mutual interest in the more outré aspects of Dobson's history: his love of abnormal biscuits; his residence for eight years in a cod doss-house; the time he suffered from exposure in a foundry; his guilt about horses; the day he was injured by a jack-hammer; his insistence that a kraken had appeared in his latrine; his macabre napkin; his ounce of pebbles; his questionable rubric; his slabs of titanium; his illegal adoption of an unhinged vintner; his waterlogged xylographs; and his predilection for yellow zips. After innumerable pints of sour beer, we reeled out of the tavern, Perkins turning off towards the abandoned fireworks depot while I hurtled to the bus stop, where I discovered that all buses between the docks and Hooting Yard had been taken permanently out of service due to imponderable resin and pomposity. I lay prostrate on a paving slab and devoured another bag of mush. Then I returned to the tavern.

I eventually travelled to Hooting Yard by hot-air balloon, or aerostat. I met the pilot - if that is the word - in the tavern. Her name was Mopsa Blomqvist, and she agreed to carry me and my haversack purely as ballast. In other words, we would be hurled over the side should occasion arise. This was of no concern to me, as I had a parachute in my haversack: ha! Mopsa was bound for the outskirts of Hoon, carrying a strangely assorted cargo including a barometer and compass, flags, anchors, cork jackets, a packet of pamphlets, a bottle of brandy, some biscuits, apples, two useless silk-covered aerial oars, an equally useless rudder, and a moulinet - a sort of hand-operated revolving fan. We got up safely, and I settled back to read some of the pamphlets. I was startled to discover that Dobson had written one of them. It was a tetchy little tract entitled Ninety-Two Uses and Abuses of Mustard. I barely got beyond the first few sentences: the prose was terse but doltish. Peering over the rim of the basket, I saw the sort of scene one sees from the basket of a balloon. We had been in the air for perhaps quarter of an hour when we were buffeted by an unearthly flock of spiny winged things. I am afraid that I screeched with fright. Mopsa Blomqvist showed rather more presence of mind, lashing at the malevolent beasts with a gleaming cutlass. But it was too late: the air-bag had already been punctured, and we began immediately to lose altitude. Mopsa carried out a number of exciting technical adjustments involving the gores, valves and flaps of the aerostat. Meanwhile, I searched desperately in my haversack for the parachute. Our descent quickened.

"We are plummeting towards the ground very fast," shouted Mopsa, "Hold on to your hat!"

"I am not wearing a hat," I replied, quaking with terror.

"Here!" she cried, tossing me a worm-eaten biretta. I thwacked it on to my skull in the nick of time. We crashed to earth, with much bumping, thumping, and a series of splats.

Miraculously, I was unharmed. Mopsa herself suffered only a lesion on her brow, although the spokes on her wheelchair were terribly mangled. We dragged ourselves clear of the silk and wicker wreckage and fetched up in a ditch. Mopsa had managed to salvage the biscuits and the useless rudder. I expelled a mouthful of mud and reached into my haversack for various bits and pieces of navigational equipment, including an extensively detailed map.

"Look!" gasped Mopsa, as she dallied with a biscuit, "There are the gates of Hooting Yard!"

What an old slowcoach I was! - so busy rooting around in my haversack that I did not use my eyes. Mopsa was right. I followed her pointing finger and saw a tremendous brickish portal, ornamented with lozenged carvings of quicklime, bilberry and glunt. I had reached my destination. Somewhere behind those gates lurked Burble, and I was coming for him. Mopsa's wheelchair was soon knocked back into shape, and she rattled off towards the outskirts of Hoon. Before she left, and despite my protestations, she insisted that I take half of her biscuits. As soon as her back was turned, I ground them into the muck beneath my boot. I could not bear the distractions of shortbread: my mush-bags would suffice.

I traced Burble easily, and carried out Dobson's instructions without a hitch. The flooded mineshaft was on a patch of waste ground four or five miles from Hooting Yard. Somewhat gratuitously, I wiped the blood off my hands with Burble's own cravat. It had been embroidered by hand - his sweetheart's? - depicting in intricate detail a selection of uproarious scenes from the Old Testament. For a moment, I considered keeping it as a souvenir. Pah! What a thought. I tossed it down the mineshaft, at the bottom of which lay the fresh corpse of Burble. Taking a blowtorch out of my haversack, I incinerated the wheelbarrow in which I had trundled his body to this detestable spot. When all that remained was a pile of ashes, I turned away and began the long plod back to Hooting Yard. The night air reeked of Stalinism. I pulled my cardigan tighter around my body and lit up one of Perkins' cheroots. As I plodded, I rehearsed in my head the opening lines of the report I would write for Dobson.

"Your instructions arrived at midnight. I was dog tired, having spent the evening slaughtering a colony of flies. Nevertheless, I took immediate steps. My first thought was to select the weapon. You specified a club, and I hoped I would not be straying too far from your intentions by using a leaden madge. I went up to the attic to fetch it. There was no battery in my torch, and I clambered - "

Such drivel! Would Dobson be interested in all the detail? But he had asked for a full report, and he was going to get one. " - and I clambered over the huge iron crates which were stacked in my loft. I could hardly see a thing. Eventually, I identified the correct crate, and blasted it open. Inside, underneath a pile of anti-matter, I found the madge. It had last been used to pound some ragwort into oblivion, and minute traces of the plant were embedded on the head. The madge would need a thorough cleaning. Descending from the attic, I filled the bath, donned a rather fetching kit of protective clothing, and hurled a glorious array of chemical preparations into the piping hot water. I then plunged the madge into the bath."

These not unpleasant - though wholly fictional - recollections were interrupted before I was even half-way back to Hooting Yard. A figure loomed before me in the darkness. As I closed upon it, I saw that it was Crunlop.

"Why, Crunlop!" I cried, "You have the appearance of a maniac. You are dishevelled and frowsty and pale. Your teeth are clenched and, although the light is not good, I can see that your features are distorted by an awful rictus. You are brandishing a dirk."

Crunlop made no reply, but lunged towards me, aiming the dirk at my throat. If I were to avoid a grisly death, I would have to act fast. I stepped to one side, swivelled, ducked, and shimmied in an alarming fashion designed to bewilder my assailant. At the same time, I eased the haversack from my shoulders, lifted it above my head, and brought it crashing down on Crunlop's skull. He crumpled to the ground. Removing Dobson's medical dictionary from the haversack, I satisfied myself that Crunlop was dead. I then made a thorough search of his countless pockets. It was almost dawn before I finished emptying them, spreading their contents out on the ground around his body. Among the aniseed balls, bleach, corks, diuretics, ergot, floorcloths, gobstoppers, hurricane-lamps, ink, jam, kale, landing-nets, morris tubes, nard, orts, polio vaccines, quicksilver, rep, shears, tholes, ukulele strings, valves, wading, xanthene, yoghurt and zootomy diagrams, I found what I was looking for. I knew that Crunlop was too stupid to destroy his instructions from Dobson, as I always did, and there in the midst of the rubbish was a small piece of paper, torn none too carefully from a notebook, on which Dobson had scrawled his orders. I spat into the bracken, and read them.

"Track down Scrimgeour. Waylay him, and slit his throat with a dirk. Then bury him under a geologically improbable pile of rocks. I shall expect your report as soon as possible. Dobson." Perkins had hinted that Dobson's brain was now a puny and curdled thing, but, still, I was crushed by this revelation. I slumped to the ground, scrunching a piece of Crunlop's rep in my fists. Tiny things with dozens of legs scurried around me, climbing on to my socks and into my boots. I left them to get on with it.

The dawn blasted me out of my stupor. I could not remain sitting around in the open country next to a dead man, the contents of his pockets strewn around me: I would look for all the world like a common robber. My first thought was to throw Crunlop down the flooded mineshaft, but I was a couple of miles away from it now, and I could hardly drag his body that far. His girth was vast. I think that was why Dobson had hired him. In his essay Triton Among The Minnows, Dobson expounded at length upon his loathing of all that was microscopic, elfin, or wee. He only employed me because I am almost seven feet tall, although I have been shrinking recently. It is most perplexing, the more so because my usual font of medical information, Dobson's dictionary, has absolutely no light to shed on the condition. I had been planning to tax him with this, perhaps in a little postscript to my report. Well, now there would be no report.

Aha! It was obvious, obvious. Dobson would assume I was dead, and who was I to gainsay him? Snorting with glee, I hurriedly buried Crunlop under a pile of rocks. The wasteland outside Hooting Yard could hardly have been bettered for providing a geologically improbable mound, as demanded in the instructions. I heaped great lumps and clodges of stuff on top of Crunlop. Bauxite rubbed shoulders with thop, chert with marl, wunt with calcium. By the time I had finished, I was matted with filth. I gathered together Crunlop's pitiful agglomeration of odds and ends, including the dirk, and shoved the lot into my haversack.

When I got back to Hooting Yard it was lunchtime. I sat by the canal and devoured an enormous pot of boiling custard. One day I would be able to go home, but first I had to send Dobson a report: Crunlop's report. I stole a barge and spent a couple of years moored in an unspeakable fen. I assumed the air of a bargee, sprouting decisive mustachios and wearing a brocade mantle of some antiquity. I sold off the barge's cargo of rotting vegetable matter and made myself at home. I had wanted to write a seafaring yarn, but this would have to do. As I sat at my little escritoire, water rats gnawing at my boots, the stench of bilgewater wafting around me, I listened to the clanking of dredgers and the screeching flocks of beasts with wings. I had never been so happy. I took up my pencil and wrote:

"Dear Dobson. Scrimgeour has been obliterated. He did not put up a struggle. I am sending the dirk to you under separate cover. Farewell. Crunlop."