The Moustachioed Gent: Sponge Industry

The dayboat surged along the river, ripping through the water and the winter fish like a zipper making its way up a long coat.  There were a lot of fish in the river, and the water seemed to offer thick resistance to the dayboat.  A Moustachioed Gentleman stood at the back of the boat and tried to remember a statistic he had read – it concerned the percentage of which the river consisted of fish and the percentage of which it was water.  It was something along the lines of – 34% fish, 65% water, 1% miscellaneous.  The Moustachioed Gent did not know much about rivers but he assumned that 34% was a lot of fish.

“You know, you should never fall in love with a sailor,” the tall, dark, handsome woman advised him from behind a sombre-looking veil.  She had sidled up to the Moustachioed Gent as he stood at the back of the dayboat and watched the river, and now she was so close that he could taste every cent of her hundred dollar cigarette.  “I did once,” she continued, staring at the water.

The Moustachioed Gent was unsure of what to say to that and so merely noted: “I think I read somewhere that the river here is actually around 33% – no, 34% fish.”  Silence.  “Well, something like that anyway.”

The pair stood in silence again.  “Yes, never fall in love with a sailor, that’s what I say…”

The Moustachioed Gent excused himself and headed inside.  There were not many people on the dayboat, it being a gently cold winter’s day and mostly the cabin was alive with the shouts and movements of the dayboat crew as they made sure that everything was shipshape and going in the right direction.  They also made each other cups of tea and coffee from a comically small kettle.

The dayboat crew, it should be explained, were an offshoot from a biker gang which had started out some decades earlier.  They started out as a biker gang but had since diversified into van hire and dry cleaning and dayboatery.  The crew of the dayboat had probably never ridden bikes before in their lives but nonetheless they chugged up and down the river every day under the banner of the biker gang.  The Moustachioed Gent wondered whether if they ever left the boat or just lived their, going back and forth, back and forth forever.

The Moustachioed Gent himself was no part of the biker gang, though this may have been different had the biker gang ever diversified from biking, van hire, dry cleaning and dayboatery and included pest control on the list of services they could provide.  The Moustachioed Gent thought how this could have been of benefit to him, could have given him some authority because, it should be explained, he was a very young Moustachioed Gent and this lead to a number of his clients disbelieving that he could be proficient at pest control.  They always seemed to expect someone older, as if the young pest controller would fall for the first trick the pests tried.  Yes, inclusion in the biker gang would have assuaged the doubts of his clients.

Still, the Moustachioed Gent was confident in his ability and knew that he had all the necessary tools of the trade in his satchel.  He sorted through them now – torches, traps, bait, even a catalogue of equipment just in case he required anything further.  He would see.

Just then a shout went up from one of the dayboat crew and the Moustachioed Gent made his way to the front of the boat to see their destination hove into view.  The great factory surged up towards the sky, all fake-stone steel walls and plumes of pink smoke billowing up into the clouds.  A fine building.

“Sponge Industry,” noted the Moustachioed Gent to no one in particular.

It was not much longer until the boat reached the factory and the Moustachioed Gent and a few other passengers disembarked.  He noted that the widowy figure with the hundred dollar cigarettes did not leave the boat and he watched as the boat turned and then headed back down the river, through the thick and fishy water, the widow’s cigarette smoke and thousand yard stare heading back from whence it came.

He shuddered.

It was a short walk from the disembarkment point to the Sponge Industry factory and whilst the Moustachioed Gent trudged uphill, bearing the weight of his pesty satchel, he thought about cakes and about Sponge Industry’s gift to the world.  For who had not eaten a Sponge Industry sponge cake at least once in their lives?  Of course they had, everyone had.  They were available in every shop on every street in every city in everywhere.  They were the people who made the cake and the citizens of these cities would be lost without them.  It was as though the Sponge Industry had made a promise – a commitment – to supply cakes now and then and forevermore indefinitely.  And this is what troubled the Moustachioed Gent.

At the gate to the factory the Moustachioed Gent was met by a tall and worried-looking man who shook him by the hand, invited him in, eyed him warily – as if, thought the Moustachioed Gent, he was unsure of why such a young pest control man had been sent – and offered him some cake.  The cake was a classic Sponge Industry cake, one of their best sellers – the sponge cake.  The Moustachioed Gent ate it up quickly whilst he listened to the man.

“And there is definitely something, we can hear it, getting in under the butter ducts.  We have no footprints or anything but we can hear them.  In the sugar vats there have been problems for many years but we thought we had seen off the last of those pesty pesks – they seem to be back, unfortunately and…  Are you sure you are old enough to be pest control?”

The Moustachioed Gent sighed and assured him that he was plenty old enough.  He was sharp, he was on-the-spot, he knew every trick in the book and if he saw a new one he wrote it down in his trick book and it never caught him out again, yes sir he was old enough and clever enough.  Don’t you worry.  He was the man for the job.

The worried-looking man nodded to show that he accepted this statement, though he kept his eyes narrowed as if holding back some of his reservations for later.  It would all depend on whether the Moustachioed Gent did a good job or not.  “Come on, I’ll show you where the problem is,” and the worried-looking man led him through the factory, past the sugar vats and the flour halls.  As they passed these areas the Moustachioed Gent thought about the possibilities for problems as regards wasps and weevils and was already thinking about what kind of pest might be tempted to cause trouble in butter.

The butter ducts ran in helter skelter spirals around a circular room, starting at the top and making their way down to the bottom of the room where the butter was pumped into the mixing station.  The Moustachioed Gent scurried around the room like an inquisitive mouse, examining the duct with his eyes and his fingers, shining his torch and looking through his magnifying glass.  He did not know exactly what he was looking for, but looking for it seemed like a good way to start.  Once he saw it, he would know what it was.

But he could not see anything – no cracks or nibbles in the pipework, no footprints or messes, none of the usual tell-tale signs.  Usually there would be something to show who or what had managed to get in, something not too obvious – not so obvious that a civilian would notice – but something there all the same.  Perhaps were he an older and more experienced pest control officer he would be able to find something…  He pushed the thought from his mind.  In the butter duct – maybe he needed to look inside the butter duct?

He peered into it.

“Be careful not to dribble into it, we don’t want anything contaminating the butter,” the worried-looking man worried.  The Moustachioed Gent knitted his lips together and continued to monitor the yellow substance.  He was careful to step back before asking, “Do you put anything else in here?”  At this point the worried-looking man began to look affronted, becoming the affronted-looking man.  “What are you suggesting?”  “Nothing,” replied the Moustachioed Gent.

But then he saw it – some movement in the duct, thick yellow ripples breaking out across the surface of the butter.  He shone his torch in it’s direction and exclaimed, forgetting all about the non-dribbling rule and causing a spray of saliva to splash into the butter.  “There it is!”  And now he began to chase it around the room, following the butter-drenched pest as it made its helter-skelter way around the room, the worried/affronted man chasing him round and round in worried/affronted circles.

At the point where the butter left the room the Moustachioed Gent, realising that this was his last chance, stuck his hand deep into the butter duct – much to the disgust of the worried/affronted/disgusted man – and fished out the pest with one quick movement of his highly-trained pest control arm.

The pest turned out to be a fish.  A fish with scales and fins that flapped and squirmed and struggled in his grasp.  A fish.  Which raised all kinds of questions.

“How would a fish get in there?” asked the Moustachioed Gent.  “You’re asking me?” squealed the man, still fussing over the butter into which the Moustachioed Gent had plunged his arm.  “We’ll have to suspend production immediately – fish and arms in the butter!”  But now it was the turn of the Moustachioed Gent to be affronted and he countered with, “What else goes in the butter?  Answer me that – what else goes in the butter?”  At which point the worried/affronted/disgusted-looking man put up a defensive silence and simply walked off into the mixing station to bring production to a halt.

But the Moustachioed Gent was already formulating a hypothesis, detecting a new trick which he would have to write down in his trick book.  Fish in the butter + Fish in the river = River water in the butter?  For a moment he dared to think the unthinkable:  Sponge Industry were watering down the butter they put in their cakes.

He shuddered.

His mind tried to hold that thought for a moment and then it cracked and a tide of disbelief broke through and he could feel himself losing everything he had previously believed in.  Sponge Industry and all the values with which he associated them – integrity, responsibility, tastiness – had been a part of his life for as long as he could remember.

The Moustachioed Gent followed the man into the mixing station, the fish still flapping about in his hands.  The man that he found was now worried, affronted, disgusted, furious and accompanied by a group of hefty henchman in corporate-branded Sponge Industry suits.  “Oh,” said the Moustachioed Gent.  It did not look good for him.

=+=+=+=+=

Back on the dayboat, the Moustachioed Gent watched the thick, fishy water as the factory of Sponge Industry disappeared from view.  He cursed the fish but also sympathised with them – it was not their fault.  They had only been unwitting partners in his downfall.

So there he was, standing on the back of the dayboat, smoking a cigarette and thinking about fish and mice and Sponge Industry values.  One of his own values was persistence.  Many were the times on which he had lain in wait outside a mousehole, a piece of cheese in one hand and a hammer in the other.  Perhaps what Sponge Industry had been looking for was a more discreet service, a pest control man who would fish out their problems and not ask any questions.  Maybe they were not looking for someone who would pursue the truth so persistently.  Maybe he did still have a lot to learn.

He thought about how he would write it down in his trick book when he got home, but soon realised that there would probably be no need for it any more – there was little hope that his career could survive the blow to his reputation that Sponge Industry would surely strike.

Perhaps if he had been a part of the biker gang’s van hire/ dry cleaning/ dayboatery empire, things could have been different.  Someone from the empire could have explained to Sponge Industry that he was a young and talented pest controller – and very persistent – albeit it a little indiscreet.  They could have saved his reputation and then explained to him that all he had to do was catch the vermin, that he did not have to ask such pertinent questions.

That was the way things could have gone, but this was the way things did go: the Moustachioed Gent had been escorted from the premises and marched back to the dayboat.  His life fell a different way, and there was no going back.

“You know, they put water in their cakes… and… and the fish get in and so you’re really eating fish,” he said to no one in particular, announcing to the dayboat at large a change of career.

“Yes,” said a tall, dark, handsome woman from behind a sombre-looking veil.  “And you should never fall in love with a sailor.”

The dayboat surged back down the river, ripping through the water and the winter fish like a zipper making its way up a long coat.  And all along the way the two uttered their truths to each other.  They continued as the boat set off on another length, and they continued as it journeyed back and they continued the next day, and they continued on forever.

… and here is the final moustache, up close and creepy (and a little delayed since we are now well into December).  Thanks to everyone who sponsored me for Movember – and if anyone out there is reading this who hasn’t done so, and would like to do so, please do do so.  Thanks.

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Hamlet

On the second day, the supply teacher announced to us:  “Today children we will be putting our Maths and English and History to one side and we are going to spend the whole day working on putting on a play.  What do you think of that?”  We all cheered.  One girl raised her hand to ask a question.  He nodded.  “Will our parents be allowed to come and see it?”  He clapped his hands.  “No, and I’ll tell you why-“ he lowered his voice “-this is a secret play.  We’ll learn it this morning and perform it this afternoon and then we’ll all go home and we won’t breathe a word of it to anyone.”  We – being children who liked secrets – were all excited.  This was going to be a good day.  “What play is it?” someone asked.  “It is a play that I wrote last night, especially for you to perform today.  It is called ‘Hamlet’!”  He announced the title with a proud flourish.

We were set to work making props and costumes whilst the supply teacher paced around the room, shouting out the lines so that we could learn them as we worked.  I spent the morning making a papier mache skull and then made plasticine worms and maggots which I put crawling around the inky hollows of the skull’s papery eye sockets.  Mid-morning, he appeared at my shoulder.  “Tell me, is this more fun than the work you do with Mr Thompson?”  “Yeah,” I beamed.  The supply teacher beamed back at me.  At lunchtime he sat at his desk and read over his play again and again, catching the crumbs from his sandwich in his hat.  He was an interesting figure – he didn’t look like any of the other teachers we had had before.  When the kids in the other classes asked what he was like, we said he was ok.  But none of us mentioned Hamlet.

Four Short Stories About People Falling Into – And/ Or Climbing Out Of – Things, Vol. One

SWEAT, SMOKE, BOVRIL.  The adults have spent all day chopping the wood for the bonfire, heaving great axes to crash into logs.  Sawing, snapping smaller pieces in half with their boots.  Now the bonfire is crackling, great plumes of smoke drifting up into the night sky, illuminated by the flames.  As the fireworks go off, the girl huddles closer to her daddy, presses herself into the coarse material of his coat.  He has been wearing it all day and the smells of his endeavour have worked their way into the fabric.  She inhales deep and pungent breaths that are somehow comforting, presses herself as close as she can.  Once the fireworks have finished fizzing and banging and lighting up the sky, the adults cannot find her anywhere.  They search all around the field and then, when the bonfire has been extinguished they search through that, fearing the worst.  It is only weeks later, when her daddy takes his coat to be dry-cleaned, that she reappears, bright-eyed and sparkling clean.  Years later, a nun stands in the corner of a dizzyingly continental courtyard, watches fireworks explode in the sky and thinks about the smell of sweat, smoke and bovril.

GAS, MILK, CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS.  He has been waiting for an opportunity to start a letter in this way and he just so happens to be sitting in the right part of the cafe.  “Hello friend,” he begins, “As I write I am sitting very close to a large quantity of croissants.”  He stares at the word ‘croissants’, very pleased with himself at being able to write it.  He stares so hard that the word begins to go blurry, as if it is charging towards him… and then it is charging towards him and swallowing him whole and before he knows it he has been completely consumed by the word ‘croissant.’  The inside of the word ‘croissant’ looks a lot like a bakery.  He wanders around, examining the croissants, the baguettes, the brioche, but when he looks for the exit he cannot find one.  He realises that he is still carrying the letter to his friend and a pen and so he finds a place to sit down and leans back, resting his head on a pile of muffins.  He avoids looking at the word ‘croissant’ as he does not want to be dragged into the word ‘croissant’ for a second time.  Instead, he turns the piece of paper over and starts to write a list of things he needs to do when he finally gets back home.  ‘Phone the gas company.  Buy some milk.  Get the Christmas decorations down from the loft.’

THE JUMPER AND THE TOASTER.  When he starts to pull on his jumper he is in his bedroom and the jumper is a normal-sized jumper.  Putting the jumper on seems like a simple enough task but once he has his head inside the garment he finds that it is a vast and cavernous expanse and he has to swim through wool for many days until he glimpses the light pouring through the neck of the jumper.  When he finally emerges blinking into the daylight, he is surprised to find that the jumper fits just fine.  A little snug under the arms, but other than that, fine.  He is standing in a street he has never seen before, and there is a suitcase at his feet with a toaster balanced on top.  He puts the toaster under his arm and pulls the suitcase behind him on its wheels.  He needs to find somewhere he recognises so that he can work out what is going on.  He notices that there is a nametag on the jumper, and that the name which is written on it is his name – he thinks it is his name but he is not sure of very much following his adventure inside the jumper.  There is a man making his way down the street towards him, looking confused and accusatory.  The man describes another man that he is looking for, asks if he has seen him.  He shakes his head.  They both look at the toaster under his arm.  The man tells him to not go anywhere, don’t move a muscle, don’t even blink, and once he has issued these instructions the man runs off down the street.  He stands there in his jumper and thinks back to the time he spent in the jumper, all that time swimming forwards through endless wool, tries to remember if he just imagined it or whether he really did see someone there.  Someone keeping to the shadows, another man traversing the woollen space, heading in the opposite direction.

SLEEP, SOUND.  He watches the girl as she sleeps, her head on his chest.  Perfect, he thinks.  Perfect except for-  No, no need to think about that now.  He just watches her, peacefully asleep.  Beautiful, absolutely beautiful, and so serene.  Perfect, except for… there it is.  The strange sound that he has heard on so many nights.  A purring, a kind of cattish mewling.  At first he thought it was coming from outside and so he got out of bed and went to look, but there was no cat out there.  Nothing stray and curled up on the window ledge.  He walked all around the room in search of the source, careful to be quiet and not wake up her perfect sleeping form.  But his investigations had only lead him back to the girl in his bed.  And now that he is lying there, with her head on his chest and that occasional miaow right in his ear, it seems obvious and he feels stupid for looking anywhere else.  By the time the sun begins to rise he has barely slept, all the snatches of slumber he has managed to catch have been interrupted by that sound.  He nudges the girl awake and she opens her eyes slowly and paws at his chest before sitting up, stretching, asking him what time it is.  It’s early, he tells her and apologises.  I’m sorry but I couldn’t sleep, he says.  She shrugs, pushes her arms in the air, stretches out a big wide yawn.  The yawn grows as it goes, her mouth stretching wider and wider, as if she is pushing so many hours of sleep out of herself.  Finally, he sees one tiny paw reaching out, and then a leg and then the cat pokes its head out into the bedroom.  She barely seems to notice as the cat crawls all the way out of her mouth, leaps down onto the bed, and disappears itself away into the breaking morning.