WITH cats much in the news at the moment (what on earth possessed the brother to put Kurt Zouma’s drop-kicking activities on the internet?), I cannot help but recall an unsavoury incident more than half a century ago.
And with some time having elapsed since I regaled you with my account of the Greek loo-with-no-paper horror, I hope you will forgive a return to matters lavatorial.
When I was a child in Nelson, Lancashire, some older houses still had long-drop toilets. For those of you unfamiliar with this crude arrangement (and I envy you), calls of nature were answered by means of an outhouse in the back yard which incorporated a wooden plank with a hole in it, 6ft or so above an open sewer.
By the time I came along in 1955, most of the homes in our street (including our own, thankfully) had graduated to indoor thrones, but the odd long-drop remained.
A few doors away, a terrace house had been converted into an electricity sub-station known to all as High Voltage because of the warning signs at front and rear. Its immediate neighbours, Fred and Nora, had a black cat named Fluffy which, like most pets in those days, was allowed to roam the streets.
One day, Fluffy failed to return home for tea. Fred and Nora knocked on everyone’s door but sign of cat was there none. That night, a pitiful mewing was heard from the back yard of High Voltage.
Fred climbed the wall and discovered that his pet had found its way into the outside bog and fallen through the hole in the plank. Torchlight revealed it on a ledge inches above the foul sewer.
At this point everyone on the street had gathered on the cobbles, including my father, Jim Ashworth. Unlike his portly son, he was extremely thin, having suffered chronic bronchitis since childhood (it would claim his life at the early age of 48).
He began to edge away from Fred’s appraising eye but it was too late. Dad was volunteered to be dangled down the drain to Save Our Fluffy.
Poor chap. As I said, he was in failing health, not helped by being lowered toward a stinking sewer with big Fred holding him by the ankles. When he reached for the cat, it responded by hissing and slashing his arms with its claws. Eventually, coughing and gagging at the terrible smell, he managed to grab it and was lifted out, though not before it had raked his cheeks.
Bemerded and covered in blood, he handed over his charge. ‘Oh, poor Fluffy!’ said Nora. ‘Did the nasty man frighten you?’
The miserable buggers didn’t even say thanks, let alone buy him a bottle of his favourite whisky. No wonder he never wanted a cat of his own.
Father Ted in Wonderland
I HAVE just finished reading, for the fourth or fifth time, Flann O’Brien’s wonderful novel The Third Policeman, which combines the macabre and fantastical with some of the funniest dialogue ever written.
Its nameless narrator, an orphan with a wooden left leg, is a student of the fictional philosopher-scientist De Selby, whose bizarre theories provide countless hilarious footnotes to the plot.
Needing money to finance his own critical work on De Selby, our man resolves with his lodger John Divney to murder a rich, reclusive, elderly neighbour named Mathers and steal his cash box.
Divney hits Mathers with a bicycle pump and his confederate finishes off the old man with a spade, which he uses to bury the body while Divney disappears with the box of money. When he returns he refuses to divulge where he has hidden it, saying only that it is in ‘a safe place’. For the next three years the narrator watches Divney like a hawk, to the extent that the two men even share a bed despite their mutual detestation – ‘the situation was a queer one and neither of us liked it’.
Eventually Divney admits that he has buried the box under the floorboards in Mathers’s house and gives the other man its precise location. As he reaches for it, ‘something happens’ and he is bewildered.
He then finds that the box has gone, and Mathers is in the room with him. He asks Mathers where he can find the box and is advised to visit a nearby police barracks and ask for help.
At this point the book becomes surreal, almost an Alice in Wonderland with touches of Father Ted. Arriving at the barracks, the murderer meets Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen, who both speak in riddles and are obsessed with bicycles. One of their first tasks is to find a bike stolen from one Michael Gilhaney, after which the sergeant expounds the Atomic Theory, which is that items in close proximity get their atoms mixed up. Now read on:
‘Michael Gilhaney,’ said the Sergeant, ‘is an example of a man that is nearly banjaxed from the principle of the Atomic Theory. Would it astonish you to hear that he is nearly half a bicycle?’
‘It would surprise me unconditionally,’ I said.
‘Michael Gilhaney,’ said the Sergeant, ‘is nearly sixty years of age by plain computation and he has spent no less than thirty-five years riding his bicycle over the rocky roadsteads and up and down the hills and into the deep ditches when the road goes astray in the strain of the winter. If it wasn’t that his bicycle was stolen every Monday he would be sure to be more than halfway now.’
‘Halfway to where?’
‘Halfway to being a bicycle himself,’ said the Sergeant.
‘How would you know a man has a lot of bicycle in his veins?’
‘If his number is over Fifty you can tell it unmistakable from his walk. He will walk smartly always and never sit down and he will lean against the wall with his elbow and stay like that all night in his kitchen without going to bed. If he walks too slowly or stops in the middle of the road he will fall down in a heap and will have to be lifted and set in motion again by some extraneous party. This is the unfortunate state that the postman has cycled himself into, and I do not think he will ever cycle himself out of it.’
The Sergeant’s face clouded and he spat thoughtfully three yards ahead of him on the road.
‘I will tell you a secret,’ he said very confidentially in a low voice. ‘My great-grandfather was eighty-three when he died. For a year before his death he was a horse!’
There are many wonderful scenes like this before we reach the end, with its astonishing twist which makes you want to go back to the start and read it all again knowing what you know now.
The Third Policeman was completed in 1940 but failed to find a publisher. O’Brien, real name Brian O’Nolan, told friends that while he was driving through Donegal the boot of his car opened, causing the manuscript to flutter out page by page until it was gone. In fact he kept it on his sideboard. After his death in 1966, his widow sent it to publishers and it was acknowledged as a masterpiece.
A PS from PG
It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.
PG Wodehouse: Blandings Castle