A Few Short Stories featuring Hogwash and Bum Note


(1) The Porcelain Pig

Did I ever tell you the tale of the two explorers who discovered a gigantic porcelain pig in the jungles of Yuckystan? They climbed to the top of it and had an adventure that turned into a riddle. I don’t think I did tell you about this, partly because I’ve never met you before; and also because I’m making it up as I go along. Making it up off the top of my head! But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. As for tops of heads: mine is perfectly smooth and sealed and doesn’t feature a slot.

Yuckystan is a remote and inhospitable land and nobody knows much about the ancient civilisation that thrived there in the dim and distant past. So dim and distant was that past, in fact, that the people were required to go everywhere with powerful lamps on the ends of long poles. If they didn’t do this, they tended to blunder into the margins of this paragraph and beget bruises on their brows and noses. How fortunate we are to live in a bright future where artificial illumination is needed only at night!

The names of the two explorers were Hogwash and Bum Note. They were an intrepid and valiant pair and already responsible for a number of astounding discoveries. Hogwash had explored Aplantis, the sunken vegetable continent, and charted the Awful Anguished Alcoves of the Alliteration Nation. Bum Note had explored his own sexuality in a Soho nightclub. Together they were a formidable team and on their very first joint expedition they even sneaked across the borders of Nullity itself and discovered the source of the Nil.

“Tell them about Wearyland too, won’t you?”

Excuse me. That was Hogwash requesting that I inform the reader out there about the time he realised the landscape he was crossing was so heavily eroded that it was literally worn out: he encountered a yawning chasm. Even geology has a right to be tired! I went to Wearyland myself once, searching for a mythical mud monster. After many weeks I found it too, and wrote a report about it. I delivered my report on the mud monster to the committee of the Eldritch Explorers’ Club but it just didn’t wash.

“And what about NoNoLand? Don’t forget that one!”

Now Bum Note is trying to get in on the act and create another digression, but I won’t be too hard on him and in fact I’ll do what he asks and mention the occasion when they visited a micronation so small it was occupied entirely by the embassies of other countries with no territory left for itself. I haven’t been there myself yet. By the way, I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced. My name is Thornton Excelsior and I’m a tack of all jades, a sharper but greener version of the familiar jack.

So. The two explorers in Yuckystan… They hacked their way through the tangled vegetation of the rainforest with hire purchase machetes and sweated in the humidity like tightly gripped overripe fruits. Then they burst into a clearing and saw the pig. Thirty feet or more it towered above them. What could it be? The statue of a snuffling god? They used a grapple and a length of rope to get to its summit. In the very centre they discovered a narrow slot that dropped into the hollow interior of the thing. Hogwash was astounded.

“Why, it’s nothing more than a grossly magnified piggybank!”

Bum Note cried, “But what’s it for?”

“Saving monumental pennies,” guessed Hogwash, “no doubt.”

“They must have been a frugal people who built it, a civilisation of skinflints. I wonder if there’s any spare change left inside? It’s too dark to see very far down but if—”

“Look out, Bum Note!” shouted Hogwash.

But his warning came too late. The other explorer had leaned over too far and was in the act of falling headfirst into the slot. Hogwash lurched forward, grabbed one of Bum Note’s ankles and managed to pull him out. But this feat of heroism so unbalanced Hogwash that he tumbled into the slot and disappeared. Bum Note heard the sickening thud of his body as it landed and all his bones broke. There was also the sound of vast clanking pennies deep in the belly of the pig. Hogwash had sacrificed his own life in order to rescue his friend!

Bum Note climbed down and erected a small memorial by the side of the loathsome but financially astute edifice. Then he left Yuckystan and never returned. He gave a lecture at the Eldritch Explorers’ Club that was attended by nearly every member. At the end of his talk he declared himself happy to answer questions about the expedition, including those primarily concerned with the dreadful fate of Hogwash. But the main question that everyone in the audience wanted to ask couldn’t be answered at all.

Which of the two explorers was saved?


(2) The Rotten Otter

All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available — Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver, Steel, Wood, Cheese, Catnip, Drizzle, Rum, Gravy, Marmalade, Sea Foam, Hogwash and Bum Note. Hogwash and Bum Note have been assigned…

“What's that you're reading?” asked Bum Note.

“A message that just came through,” said Hogwash, “on the astral aether. I wrote it down before I forgot the words. Like taking dictation from a god or the universe itself, it was. I'm flabbergasted.”

“Hogwash!” exclaimed Bum Note.

“No it's not. It's perfectly sensible despite the fact it's a little abstruse. Some cosmic force has chosen us — you and me — to act as agents on some mission of unimaginable importance. It turns out that we aren't just simple explorers but elemental representatives of—”

Bum Note jumped up and down excitedly. “I wasn't passing judgment on any of that. I was merely calling your name aloud to alert you to the fact there's an otter with a blowpipe sitting on your bookshelf over there! You'd better duck your head before the dart that has been ejected from the weapon penetrates your exposed neck!”

“Ah yes. Thank you kindly, old chum. Whoosh.”

“Why did you say 'whoosh'?” asked Bum Note. “Was it because the blowpipe dart couldn't be bothered to make that sound itself? You're too considerate, if you ask me. And why did you invite an otter assassin into your house anyway? That was rather unwise.”

“I didn't invite him,” insisted Hogwash from the floor.

Bum Note helped him up and they pondered together. The otter had vanished by this time but the dart was still quivering in the wall and smoke curled up from its point, proof that it had been coated with some corrosive poison. Hogwash licked his lips and said, “Maybe we ought to visit our wisest friend and get some advice.”

“Good idea. But who exactly is our wisest friend?”

“Thornton Excelsior, I suppose…”

And so they came to see me. As a tack of all jades I'm pretty good at solving the problems of fictional characters. Just don't come to me if you are real, which I feel confident is your own present condition. I was sitting in the bathtub reading a first edition copy of Gentlemen Prefer Aardvarks by Anteater Loos when the doorbell rang. I jumped up and dripped nudely to the front door to berate it.

“Use the knocker next time!” I shouted at the doorbell.

Then I saw Hogwash and Bum Note.

What a coincidence that they turned up just as I was forced to answer the door! It saved me two trips from the bath and I was grateful for that. I welcomed them into my house and listened to what they had to say. Then I read the message that Hogwash had received over the astral aether and I twisted my face in response to the scientific inaccuracy of it, but it was my duty to assist them in any way I could, so I said:

“I'm familiar with the exploits of this otter. He's a transdimensional being known as Tarka the Rotter. He clearly plans to take over this universe and considers you to be a threat to his scheme. You are, after all, official agents of the Cosmic Mind. This message is proof of that. Tarka tried to launch a pre-emptive strike against you and he'll surely try again.”

“What should we do?” gasped Hogwash.

“Pre-empt his next pre-emption. Find a way of beating him at his own game. And I'm not referring to chess or mah jong but assassination! You are explorers. That is your function in life: you explore. There must be a remote land somewhere, unknown to all of us, where the largest blowpipe in creation can be found. It simply stands to reason. Find that land and fetch that blowpipe and stealthily substitute it for the one Tarka presently employs and you can be assured of defeating his rotten schemes.”

Those were my words and they had the desired impact…

Off hurried Hogwash and Bum Note to brand new regions. They scaled the Mountains of Brrrr, trudged the Deserts of Sighh and Waded the Bogs of Flussh, entering previously unexplored territory in the same way that a pair of trousers might enter an incorrectly constructed analogy. I waited for them to return with a blowpipe so long that it stretched all the way around the world or else with a blowpipe that flared so widely it was just like the dome of the sky. In the first instance, after the substitution was made, Tarka would puff the poisoned dart into his own back; in the second, a hurricane would form in the mouth of the weapon and reverse the direction of the dart, lodging it fatally in that horrid Rotter's throat.

Such was my expectation; but I had neglected to take the daftness of the explorers into account. When they did finally arrive at my door again, I was situated in the bathtub reading Anteater Loos' long-awaited sequel, But Gentlemen Mount Pangolins, and when I jumped out and nakedly invited them inside, they had a tale to tell that confounded me to no small degree, to approximately 270º if truth be stated.

In the incense-wreathed, sitar-saturated community of Lentilville, they had obtained the biggest blowpipe of all, just as I'd suggested, but in that tie-dyed place, with its little bells and organic wholefoods and meditation classes, the word 'blow' had a specific and unusual meaning. It was slang for hashish, man. That's cannabis resin to you and me, brother. And a vast rock of the potent black stuff was included in the bowl of that pipe, the pipe they had bought and conveyed home.

“And where is that incorrect pipe now?” I demanded.

“We already made the switch,” explained Bum Note, “and Tarka didn't even notice until it was too late. We struck a light for him and the heady smoke went deep into his otterly lungs and he mellowed out considerably, so much in fact that he no longer wants to take over our universe. So the danger has been neutralised and we've won! But the fumes are harsh on his throat and he says he wants a name change from Tarka the Rotter to Tarka the Cougher. Is that acceptable to the Cosmic Mind?”

I shrugged my shoulders and claimed not to know the answer. But after they departed, I stood in front of the mirror and tugged off my mask and laughed heartily. For I'm not really Thornton Excelsior. Just like them I'm an agent, a medium atomic weight, but neater.

Behold! I am Catnip!


(3) The Ducks of Hazard

Professor Vokisrep has done it again: for the second time in just one year he has successfully failed to destroy the world. What a marvel of twisted science that fellow is! First he invented a chemical intended to give amphibians enormous fiscal aptitude. He empted flasks of this noxious stuff into sluggish rivers that drained into marshes and he waited for the transformed newts and frogs to rise out of their weedy ponds and invade the stock exchanges of the great European capitals. But they never emerged to play the markets and precipitate a fiendish global recession. The rivers were already so polluted by the waste products of human industry that the professor's secret chemical was neutralised, adulterated or diluted before it even reached its target consumers.

So then he returned to the laboratory and decided to try a different approach. This time, after tinkering quite a lot with thermionic valves and variable resistors, he managed to create a machine that projected weird rays at boxes of eggs arranged on his workbench. The idea was to stimulate the growth of the ovoids so that they hatched into veritable monsters that would rampage around the continents: the eggs were those of crocodiles, snakes, ostriches and various lizards. But there was a mix-up with the batch delivered to him and Professor Vokisrep unwittingly subjected ordinary duck eggs to the fateful purple beams. They hatched and the ducklings grew so rapidly that they burst the laboratory apart before he could switch off the machine. Then they quacked him to death.

Those giant waterfowl wandered the landscape in the vicinity of the ruined laboratory for several days, looking for a pond large enough to accommodate them, and eventually they ended up on the platform of the nearest village railway station. A locomotive had just pulled in and the birds perched on the carriages for a rest, one per roof, and that's where they remained when the train chuffed off. The ultimate destination was Chester but the feathered hoboes never got that far: when crossing the Malvern range the gradient was too steep with all the extra weight, so the driver put the brakes on and scattered his unwanted passengers by jabbing at them with three brooms lashed together. Away they flapped and landed in the garden of Thornton Excelsior, who happens to be me. I decided to take retaliatory measures at once.

I reached for the telephone and rang Hogwash and Bum Note and invited them to stay for the weekend. They accepted with gratitude. Then I hid in my garden shed and watched proceedings through a spy hole. The two explorers arrived on a motorcycle with a sidecar and because this tale seems to be set in an anachronistic travesty of the real world they wore goggles instead of modern helmets with visors and they sported large wax moustaches. They also said, “What ho?” a lot but it was a question I was unable to answer because I didn't actually know what ho it was. And even if I had known I wouldn't have revealed my place of concealment by shouting out the answer. They didn't see the mutated mallards until the engine of the motorcycle had been turned off and it was too late to escape. And so…

“Duck!” bellowed Bum Note.

Hogwash threw himself to the ground, bashing his nose on a stone, before realising his mistake. “Ah, you weren't asking me to take evasive action but merely describing the creature yonder.”

He clambered to his feet painfully and Bum Note cried, “Duck!”

“Yes, I can see there's more than one of—”

A massive yellow beak attached to an immense head pecked down with enormous force onto the crown of Hogwash's head, and the impact knocked him to the ground again, where he clobbered his chin, and the exposure to all those hefty superlatives probably didn't help.

“That time I was giving you a command,” said Bum Note.

“Humph!” Hogwash huffed unhappily.

The first duck closed in to renew its attack and the others also waddled gigantically into the fray. Bum Note squeaked, “How shall we defeat them?” and Hogwash considered the problem and replied:

“If we allow them to eat us we can get stuck in their throats and then they will surely choke to death; but even if they succeed in swallowing us we may still be in a position to give them a fatal bout of indigestion. That's my best plan under the present circumstances.”

And I rubbed my hands in glee as I watched from the shed.

The hazardous ducks, courtesy of Professor Vokisrep, loomed above the pair of hapless explorers, beaks unsheathed for the coming massacre. Hogwash and Bum Note trembled like scared men, which is a dreadfully bad simile because that's what they already were, and they held hands and closed their eyes, waiting for the end to begin with the next big peck.

But something unexpected happened and I groaned in frustration because it seems to be the most predictable fact of my entire life that unexpected things suddenly occur to upset my schemes. Without exchanging an intelligible word between them, the ducks lifted ponderously into the sky, summoned by a desire greater than the urge to duckimate — I mean decimate — with murderous beak work the daffy duo. Ah well!

I had no choice but to emerge from the shed and greet my visitors as if I was delighted to see them, feigning ignorance of the foul anecdote they had been in and making dramatic faces when they told me about the seriousness of the incident. And so the weekend passed…

A week or so later, I was sitting in my office in the Eldritch Explorers' Club when there was a knock on the door and Hogwash and Bum Note entered and said, “We have worked out why the ducks flew away just like that. It was the one inexplicable part of the adventure but we've cracked it now. The migratory instinct! That's what seized hold of them at the crucial moment and it was too powerful to resist. But we have no idea where they've gone.”

“South,” I answered promptly. “That's the natural law.”

“But where is south?” they asked.

I reached for an atlas and looked up that destination in an index and then I checked the grid references on one of the maps. I frowned and consulted a larger scale map of the same region, and then one still larger, and so on, zooming in on a worrying fact. At last I announced:

“It seems to be the case, gentlemen, that the precise location of 'south' is this very room in this very building in this very town in this very province in this very country.”

“How very inconvenient,” they said.

I glanced up. The first duck crashed through the window and killed all three of us. And that's how we died yet again.


(4) The Cheeky Monkey

If like repels like and opposites attract, how is it possible that Hogwash and Bum Note, two of the cheekiest and hairiest personalities on the planet, made the acquaintance of The Cheeky Monkey one evening in a grove of tamarind trees somewhere in the depths of Bananaskindia? Maybe because they aren't magnets, not yet at any rate. That's my best guess.

I'm not a magnet either, but I am almost a magnate because I recently invested heavily in a déjà vu plantation, growing some of the most poignant déjà vus this side of the past, and the returns have been enormous. The returns have been enormous. Did I just say that? People told me there was no future in the déjà vu business but they were doubly, even triply wrong.

The returns have been enormous. Now where was I?

Here, of course, where else? My name is Thornton Excelsior and I take a keen interest in the comings and goings of Hogwash and Bum Note, the daftest explorers in the annals of daftness, and in the canals too whenever those are available. On behalf of the Eldritch Explorers' Club, of which I am currently stoolman, our chairs having collapsed thanks to woodworm and obesity, I dispatched them to Bananaskindia to map that slippery land.

A keen interest in their comings and goings… Am I repeating myself?

Especially in the goings. They are a liability.

Bananaskindia is a fruitful region of the world and yet it is rife with hazards, including the dreaded Recycling Cyclones, a meteorological phenomenon found nowhere else, partly because nobody has bothered to look in any other location and partly because local storms don't have the necessary paperwork to cross the Bananaskindian border. Let's be grateful!

When you are exposed to a Recyclone, as they are known for short, all the molecules in your body are rearranged and you become something new and generally much more useless than before; the ghost of a spirit level, perhaps, or a pocket knife so sharp it cuts through any pocket it is dropped into. Those are just a couple of examples taken at random from my brain. I wanted Hogwash and Bum Note to be overwhelmed and transformed like that. If I can't get rid of them properly, at least I can get them altered.

Or so I reasoned. But my wishes were thwarted.

And it was The Cheeky Monkey's fault…

To reach Bananaskindia, Hogwash and Bum Note trekked through the purple passes of Neplum and descended into the plains and ready salteds of the frontier region. On the border sat a wise man, a sage, who blinked at them with his third eye and said, “If you want my advice, you should always turn the other cheek. Go in peace, my friends.”

“We'll remember your words,” answered the explorers.

They proceeded south, reaching the city of Delhicatessen a few weeks later, where they stocked up on provisions before resuming their journey. It was hot and they sweated under the sun like punctured barrels; too hot even for a better simile than that. How delighted they were to each the cool shade of the sweet tamarind forest!

In a small clearing not long after sunset, they encountered The Cheeky Monkey, who lay full length on the ground, weeping thick tears and clenching and unclenching his poor little hands in adjectival dismay.

“Look at his poor little hands!” cried Hogwash.

“They certainly don't have a bank balance or possession of properties, land and other assets, if that's what you mean,” returned Bum Note.

“Shall we enquire the cause of his grief?”

“Yes. Why do you sob like that, O prostrate primate?”

“It's because… because… because I am so very ugly. That's why! All my life I have been mocked because of my cheeks. I have too many of them on my face and in fact they grow on the other side of my head too. They go right round and join up again in a loop…”

“Encircled by cheeks! A wheel of cheeks!” marvelled Hogwash.

“And the other animals make fun?”

“Almost every day,” sniffed The Cheeky Monkey.

Hogwash and Bum Note conferred together briefly and then they comforted the supine creature with the wise words the sage had given them: “Turn the other cheek. That's all you have to do when insults are hurled at you. Simply turn the other cheek. It's easy enough.”

The Cheeky Monkey digested this advice. “Very well, I shall!”

And that's exactly what happened.

Maybe he thought he needed the practise, or perhaps he felt offended by the mere presence of the two explorers, but whatever the reason it can't be denied that the outcome was unexpected and astounding, although perfectly logical in its own way. The monkey began rolling.

The problem was that he simply had too many cheeks to make turning the other one a safe procedure. And Hogwash and Bum Note had neglected to inform him when to stop turning them. The Cheeky Monkey therefore accelerated along the ground like a horizontal tornado.

“I always knew I'd go far!” he called back dizzily.

Hogwash and Bum Note watched him rotate. To my eternal chagrin, this was the moment that a Recyclone decided to form with the intention of spinning the explorers into a transformational oblivion; it grew directly in the path of The Cheeky Monkey and there was a collision of vortices.

What happened next? No one is sure. The axis of the Recyclone was perpendicular to that of The Cheeky Monkey and my mathematical abilities aren't sophisticated enough to work out which helix dominated the other. Maybe they combined forces or cancelled each other out. I fear it was the latter option. Certainly it is the case that my schemes were foiled yet again. Unless…

There is always the possibility that Hogwash was transformed, molecule by molecule, into Bum Note, and vice versa. That's exactly the sort of thing that would happen to them. So I'm going back to my déjà vu plantation. Again.


(5) The Melody Tree

Everybody knows that Hogwash earned his name when he went into the wrong sauna during an expedition to Gruntland and fell into the plunge pool while it was full of the pigs that governed the country; but the reason for Bum Note’s cognomen has been a mystery until now. The truth is that he got stuck in the branches of a melody tree and by the time his ordeal was over his buttock cheeks were very sore. A melody tree’s bark is worse than its height, that’s why, and the roughness chafed his essentials while he awaited rescue.

Now permit me to outline the reasons for his foolish decision to climb the melody tree in the first place: he wanted to pluck a notefruit. It seems that Bum Note was tone deaf and thought that ingesting the fruit would give him the appreciation of music that his own genetic heritage hadn’t bothered to. Somehow he persuaded Hogwash to accompany him, despite the immense dangers involved in making the journey, for the nearest melody tree grows on the distant island of Opus, and a wall of mountains surrounds that stronghold.

They appealed to me for funding but I didn’t give it to them, mainly because I’m not Thornton Excelsior and I don’t have access to the coffers of the Eldritch Explorers’ Club; Thornton is taking a short break to do some exploring of his own and he has left me in charge of this tale. My name is Jorge I. Barra and I’m a Texican, half Texan, half Mexican, half vulgar fraction, half polite fraction, a double man in total, twice as grand as any normal fellow. Being a Texican is something I would recommend if I could.

But I can’t, because I’m the only true one destined to exist.

Anyway, to resume my narrative, the voyage to Opus was a risky one and the canoe that Hogwash and Bum Note chartered was carved from a gigantic banana; they borrowed it from the museum of the Eldritch Explorers’ Club and because Thornton was away they sneaked it out unopposed. Even though I was left in charge I lacked the authority to molest them because I’m not a full member. I might be a Texican but I Texican’t do everything, that goes without saying; too bad I just said it.

The banana canoe formerly belonged to Zumboo, the monkey god, and so it was watertight and unlikely to capsize.

And yet the journey between, over and through the mighty waves of the stormy ocean was dreadful enough to make me feel seasick as I write these words, or possibly my nausea stems from the fact that I’m bouncing on a trampoline; for some reason Thornton’s office here in the clubhouse contains no other item of furniture, and because the trampoline in question is exactly the same size as the room that contains it, I have no choice but to stand on it. Every rumble of a truck in the street outside, every earthquake in a distant land, causes the thing to vibrate and these vibrations gradually build up into a powerful oscillation and there’s nothing I can do but go along with it.

Yes, my name is Jorge I. Barra and I have my ups and downs…

People sometimes ask me what the ‘I’ stands for. It stands for me, of course! What does your ‘I’ stand for? But to return to my tale, Hogwash and Bum Note finally reached the imposing shores of Opus Isle and they circumnavigated it with deft paddlestrokes; yet the cliffs were sheer, smooth and slippery with green slime. There was no way to climb them.

“Look!” cried Hogwash. “A door. I wonder if it’s unlocked?”

It wasn’t, but Bum Note had a key.

“Do you really? Will it fit?” asked Hogwash doubtfully.

“Yes. It’s the only key suitable for any lock on this island. It’s the key of G# Minor, a key rarely employed in orchestral works, though I believe Scriabin was one significant composer who proved an exception to that rule. The problem is that I’m tone deaf and so—”

“Don’t worry. I’ll do the whistling!” cried Hogwash.

And he did; and the door unlocked itself and swung open, and so they were able to paddle their canoe into the gap thus revealed, passing through the mountains with ease. Along a narrow channel they went, right into the calm and verdant heart of Opus, and directly before them stood a melody tree laden with notefruit. Bum Note jumped for joy.

“Sit down, you’ll capsize us!” warned Hogwash.

“No I won’t, for this is the banana canoe of Zumboo; and we have to stand to get out of it anyway. Up you get!”

They moored the vessel to the bank and skipped lightly o’er the pasturage, a gentle breeze ruffling their fictional hair.

“Help me climb onto the twisted trunk and then I’ll pull you up after me,” said Bum Note as he reached the base of the magnificent melody tree. A rich copper colour it was, with dark green leaves clumped together like a conductor’s spare fist; the notefruits resembled crotchets, minims and semi-quavers. As the two explorers began climbing the trunk, a heavy cloud passed overhead and enormous raindrops started to fall.

“That cloud looks ready to burst on us,” observed Hogwash.

“There’s a notefruit almost within reach. I’ll pluck it and eat it and then we can descend and look for proper shelter; the canopy of this tree won’t be sufficient to prevent us getting drenched.”

“Maybe we can invert the canoe and use it as a roof?”

“But it’s a giant banana. People would gossip!”

“They never need to find out…”

Poor Hogwash had forgotten that their adventures always get written up by some member of the Eldritch Explorers’ Club. Too bad. But he’s not wholly stupid, a fact demonstrated by his next comment, which he made while blinking furiously through the increasing rain at Bum Note above him. “How can you be certain that the eating of a notefruit will give you increased musical ability? It might turn you into a note instead…”

“Only if I swallow the seeds inside,” said Bum Note, as he plucked the nearest fruit, which happened to be a quaver, from its stalk, and crammed it into his mouth. “Gobble, munch, yum. Urgh!”

“What’s wrong? Did you swallow the seeds?”

Bum Note nodded; then the downpour began and it slicked the trunk of the melody tree and made it too slippery for safe descent. The two explorers were forced to sit on a branch and endure the diabolical deluge until it seemed likely that the drops of rain would actually kill them. What creature has too many paws, each one of which is too big for its body? A man riddled with rain! But the riddle only works if the word ‘paws’ is spelled ‘pores’.

“I can feel the seeds growing inside me. I’m about to turn into a note. This is good news: after the transformation you can take shelter inside me and protect yourself from pluvial perforation.”

“Take shelter inside you? What note are you likely to become?”

“One with a roof and rooms. Ab.”

There was a long pause…

“I don’t get it,” said a voice. It belonged to Thornton Excelsior and it issued from his massive mouth; he was still far away on his own expedition but he had leaned across the margins to poke his head into this tale. Entering the prose sideways, the perspective was all wrong and the head nearly filled the office where I was bouncing on the trampoline, forcing me to throw myself down to avoid being crushed by his expressions.

“You don’t get it? Ab is a synonym for an apartment.”

“So it is,” he said slowly.


(6) The Notorious Unclemuncher

I summoned Hogwash and Bum Note to my office by pulling a rope and ringing a bell. It isn’t the sound of the bell that reaches them but the fact that the clapper is a living man, bound tightly and suspended upside down. One of his arms is free and whenever the bell starts swinging he quickly lifts a megaphone to his mouth and yells, “Hogwash! Bum Note! Come immediately to the clubhouse before I am dashed!”

That generally attracts the attention of the explorers.

The reason why the man is imprisoned inside the bell is because he’s a thief; many years ago he stole the bell curve itself, inconveniencing all sociologists on the planet, and we never got it back. Acting as a clapper is his penance and also a ringing endorsement of our justice system. Chime and punishment: please take note!

My office door banged open and the two most incompetent members of the Eldritch Explorers’ Club stood there. “Come in!” I said. “For my name is Jorge I. Barra and by the authority vested in me, even though I don’t wear a vest, I intend to send you on a mission—”

Suddenly Hogwash and Bum Note split apart. They had been standing very close together, touching along their vertical axes, and now I realised they were really a single individual dressed in a papier-mâché suit. Shards fluttered and settled and the man who loomed before me was triumphant and furious and perfectly familiar. Thornton Excelsior!

He said, “What do you mean by ‘vertical axes’? I don’t carry ancient weapons around with me, not even a sword, and if I did want to arm myself I’d choose a blunderbuss loaded with elbows and hands. Your peculiar slanders are un-axe-cceptable.”

“I didn’t say axes,” I said. “I said axes.”

There was a pause. There often is.

“You have abused your position as my temporary replacement,” he finally growled, “and so I have come back to oust you and I came in disguise to fool your loyal readers out there. Get out of my sight at once!” Then he blinked. “But that’s not an excuse to poke me in the eyes. You are banned from the clubhouse!”

And Jorge I. Barra left the office with his tale between his legs. And I sat down at his desk, for the first-person narrator has changed to Thornton, and he is me, as you can see.

I summoned Hogwash and Bum Note by pulling a rope and ringing a bell. The thief who was the clapper cried, “Not again! Was the bell curve really so valuable? I somehow doubt it.”

My office door banged open and the two most incompetent members of the Eldritch Explorers’ Club stood there. “Come in!” I said. “How did you get here so amazingly quickly?”

“This is our response to the first summons, not the second,” they explained breathlessly. I was embarrassed.

“Ah yes, of course… But I don’t care to discuss trivia with you. I am going to send you on a mission!”

“Is it dangerous?” they asked.

“Wait a moment, I’ll check.” And I skipped to the end of the story and read what was written there; then I came back. “No,” I lied. I unfurled a map on my desk. “It’s your task to find the Infamous Anteater and procure a signed photograph of it.”

Hogwash and Bum Note leaned forward. “Where?”

“Take the left turn at this junction,” I said, tapping on a portion of the map with a knuckle. “That’s where the lair of the beast can be located. Take this camera and also this pen.”

“What about funds for the journey?”

“Certainly. How much are you willing to pay me? Empty your pockets at once! Thanks and I’ll keep the change, don’t mind if I do. Don’t dare return to the clubhouse without the photograph; and the autograph must be genuine. The Cosmic Mind, who is our ultimate employer, insists on this point. I suppose he wants it for his collection.”

And I sent them away with an imperious wave. It lapped against the walls of the office and stained the wallpaper green; then it returned and floated my desk out of the open window. That’s the last time I bid anyone farewell with an oceanic gesture!

Hogwash and Bum Note set off valiantly enough.

They trudged through the pre-dawn dark. Then dawn was born and it was light. How light exactly? Three pounds sterling and four fluid ounces, according to the midwife. The midwife? If she existed, there must be endwives too. The explorers peered in both directions but couldn’t see them. A good thing, I suppose. Endives? Those are vegetables used in salads, aren’t they? Let us continue properly…

At the junction they turned and soon entered a narrow valley and at the end of the valley stood a monster.

“Will you sign your photograph?” asked Hogwash.

“No,” said the monster.

“After we have taken it,” elaborated Bum Note.

“No,” said the monster.

“Why not?” chorused the explorers.

“Because only the Infamous Anteater would agree to a request like that and I’m the Notorious Unclemuncher.”

“I think we took a wrong turning at the junction,” opined Hogwash, to which Bum Note added, “Eeeek!”

“Do either of you gentleman have a niece or nephew?” enquired the Notorious Unclemuncher quite politely.

“Not on us,” responded the hapless pair. And that was true: they didn’t. “Shall we,” they wondered, “go in search of those aforementioned items on your behalf? We could set off on the quest promptly and we promise to return if we are successful.”

But the Notorious Unclemuncher held up a claw in a sign of negation and opened his jaws in a sign of mastication and said through his nose, “You both seem avuncular fellows and that’s sufficient proof for me. I think I ought to eat you without delay—”

A faint voice drifted up the valley, a summons that couldn’t be ignored. “Hogwash! Bum Note! Quick!”

“Saved by the bell,” muttered the Notorious Unclemuncher.

The explorers made their escape…

“I wonder who rang it?” gasped Hogwash as he ran up this incline towards the end of the story. “Perhaps it was the reader out there, the one who is grimacing at this sentence right now?”

“No, I just think it was a dreadfully contrived tactic by the author to avoid a proper ending to our mission,” puffingly answered Bum Note. “He has done this sort of thing before.”

“Dreadful contrivance? Yes, that rings a bell.”