Mr Landen Has No Brain
Mr Landen Has No Brain Stephen Walker
Voyager An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF
A Paperback Original 2001
Copyright © Stephen Walker 2001
Stephen Walker asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
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Source ISBN: 9780006483816
Ebook Edition © FEBRUARY 2016 ISBN: 9780007400881 Version: 2015-12-14
For bunny rabbits.
About the Author
By Stephen Walker
About the Publisher
‘Quiver, female, for I am Lepus, master of the night, and soon you shall be my rumpy-pumpy boing-boing toy. Carrots. Carrots. Must have carrots.’ And the ‘master of the night’ crashed out of Teena Rama’s mobile home, leaving behind a huge, rabbit-shaped hole in the wall.
From where Sally Cooper stood, just inside the front doorway, she could hear him knocking wheelie bins over in his quest for carrots.
Across the room from her, Teena gazed out through the hole and watched his rampage. Still holding the shroud she’d had him hidden under before his grand unveiling, she enthused, ‘Is he the best boyfriend you’ve ever seen or what?’
Mobile home? Sally’d been in smaller mansions. ‘Teena, he’s a rabbit. He’s a seven foot, talking rabbit.’
‘A super-evolved talking rabbit,’ Teena corrected her.
‘He referred to me as “female”, called me his rumpy-pumpy boing-boing toy–’
‘Which some would find flattering.’
‘–and is more interested in carrots than in me. And you think that’s a great boyfriend?’
Teena rolled up the shroud and cast it aside. ‘His attitude leaves a little to be desired but whose boyfriend’s doesn’t?’
‘Yours, according to you.’
Teena raised a suggestive eyebrow. ‘Sadly not every woman can have a Man Who Does.’
‘Just how desperate do you think I am that I’d go out with a giant rabbit?’
‘At the risk of sounding insensitive, Sally, you must face facts.’
‘You’re not an attractive woman and can’t afford to be choosy.’
Knuckles on hips, Teena gazed at the floor and smiled bitterly to herself. She was five foot ten, nineteen years old and – according to her – sex on legs. She was wearing cut-off-at-the-knee jeans, and a red vest cut just high enough to bare her pierced navel. If she had hair, Sally’d never seen it. It was hidden beneath the mass of starched polka dot rags that now hung half-obscuring her oh-so-lovely face. Teena said, ‘Well, how’s that for gratitude.’
‘Gratitude?’ Sally’s mind boggled.
Teena looked across at her. Her perfect left hand dragged the polka dot rags away from her perfect face and tucked them behind a perfect ear. ‘I slave away during my holiday, super-evolving life forms for you–’
‘Life forms? Plural?’
‘I also have a cockroach and a rubber plant I’d like you to meet.’
‘But you throw it all back in my face. Yes, as men go, they’re not that great, and in the rubber plant’s case it’s not all that male, but you have to appreciate that my techniques are not yet perfect. I’d love to create a Brad Pitt for you but I’m no goddess, I have my limitations. I did my best for you and that’s all that matters.’
‘Teena, for the last time, I’m happy as I am. I don’t want you trying to make me boyfriends.’
Teena rolled her eyes in a way that suggested disbelief.
‘You really want to help me?’ said Sally.
‘I only do these things for your benefit.’
‘Then repair that hole and recapture that rabbit. Then un-super-evolve it and its mates back to how they should be.’
‘And if you make one more attempt to find me a boyfriend
‘I’ll kill you.’
Sally slammed the mobile home’s front door behind her and stood on its top step, counting every conceivable way of killing Teena. There were a hundred and eighty seven. She looked at her surroundings; the caravans, mobile homes and wailing seagulls that made up Wyndham-on-Sea’s largest caravan park. Just nineteen, she was its youngest ever manager. And, apart from one highly noisy resident, there wasn’t a soul in sight.
Three days earlier there’d been souls in sight, two of them, when the world’s biggest mobile home had pulled into camp, a gleaming white double decker the length of a Eurostar, the sort of thing the Rolling Stones would refuse to take on tour because it was too ostentatious. In the passenger seat, all long limbs and gleaming shark grin, had sat Teena.
The driver was her assistant, Mr Landen, a small man who made vroom vroom noises as he drove.
He’d said Teena was the world’s greatest scientific prodigy all grown up, engaged and determined to have one last week of dullness before settling down to a life of marital excitement. And this particular stretch of North Yorkshire coastline had struck her as being as dull as they come.
Teena had said she was a total babe. The last four years running, she’d won the New Scientist Playmate of the Year Award. And while she didn’t approve of such things – they demean women and trivialize their contribution to science – that didn’t stop her pulling on her shortest, lowest-cut dress and turning up to collect them.
Now she was out to find Sally a boyfriend. It was to do with pity; it wasn’t fair for other women not to share the pleasure she’d found. Teena never used the word love.
Resigned to another five days of the woman, Sally descended the mobile home’s three metal steps, turned left and headed for her managerial offices, a low flat roofed building that incorporated her living quarters. On the way, she ignored that one resident in sight, the giant rabbit whose front-half was now trapped in a wheelie bin. For a master of the night it didn’t seem too bright but few people in this place did.
She reached her offices and grabbed the door, ready to enter.
But then, reflected in the door’s wire-glass, she saw them …
… the spinning moose heads of Bab’s Steakhouse.
‘Hello?’ Sally stuck her head round the front door. ‘Anyone here?’
So she entered the dining area and took a look around. The moose heads of Bab’s Steakhouse, a low, purple building directly facing Sally’s offices, had only spun once before. She hadn’t expected to see them spin again before the restaurant’s grand opening, which wasn’t for another five days.
According to her Uncle Al (the caravan park’s owner), when those heads started spinning, the public would gasp in awe at their majesty. No one would be able to resist going in.
But at the try out, as soon as the heads had started up, the antlers had flown out with such force they’d decapitated the grinning shop window dummies meant to represent enthralled bystanders.
When she’d last talked with her uncle, he’d said that after a long and involved search he’d just hired the cook, a sterling woman with a wealth of experience – some of it involving cookery. And, though the steakhouse wasn’t technically a part of the caravan park, despite being slap bang in the middle of it, Sally felt she should introduce herself.
But this was the most disturbingly decorated restaurant she’d ever been in. She tugged at one of the chains hanging from the violet ceiling. It rattled. She imagined its manacle around her wrist and pulled an appropriate face.
And what was that by the window? An iron maiden?
Sally pushed open the black, round windowed door that linked the dining area to the kitchens. ‘Hello? Anyone here?’
Still no reply.
She saw a small, white kitchen kept in a state of psychotic tidiness but she saw no cook.
She stepped into the kitchen.
Then someone hit her over the back of the head.
‘Touch your toes, female, and you shall learn what it is to be brought to ecstasy by a supreme master of love making.’
‘Thank you for your generous offer but since I’m an engaged woman and I forgot to give you any genitals, I don’t think I’ll bother.’ Having finally got him back into her mobile home, and out of the wheelie bin, Teena stood Lepus before her. Mr Landen was hugging the rabbit’s right leg. He was four foot tall, his flat head was as wide as his shoulders, and he had no neck. His one huge eye and one tiny eye gazed adoringly up at the rabbit as he stroked its leg a little too fondly for her liking. Still, she should have been grateful that someone was taken with the thing.
And perhaps Sally did have a point about Lepus but the situation might yet be saved. She said, ‘If you’re going to impress Sally into wanting you as a boyfriend–’
‘Oh, no, I don’t want to be her boyfriend,’ said Mr Landen in a voice half Peter Lorre, half childlike, ‘I’m happy with my bunny.’ And he rubbed his cheek against its fur to prove it.
‘I was talking to the “bunny”,’ she said.
‘Oh.’ He stroked on.
She told Lepus, ‘If you’re to be her boyfriend, you’ll have to smarten up your act.’
‘No more sexual boasting. And a little more style.’
‘Young women like style. It shows a man’s more than an animal. And to help you achieve that style, I bought you something to put on your head.’
‘Is it a carrot?’
‘Generally speaking, wearing a carrot on your head isn’t stylish.’
‘In rabbit circles, only the king rabbit gets to wear a carrot on the head. The rest of us must watch in envy as, once a week, he parades before us beneath his carrot.’
‘How quaint. But I think you should settle for this.’ From behind her back, she produced the black fedora she’d been hiding.
He studied it, nonplussed. ‘And what is this?’ He sniffed at it.
‘It’s a fedora.’
He nibbled its edges.
She said, ‘If you want to be a master of the night, you could wear that and a monocle, and perhaps carry a silvertipped cane. Let’s see how it fits.’ She stepped forward, yanked it from him, made sure the nibbled side faced the back and, stretching on tiptoes, attempted to place it on his head at just the right tilt.
‘Run, bunny, run!’ Mr Landen urged. ‘She’s trying to strangle you!’ And, half barging the startled rabbit over he pushed it toward the closet in the far wall.
Teena watched them flee. ‘Mr Landen, you can’t strangle someone with a hat.’
Half pushed, half running, Lepus said, ‘Quiver, female, quiver, for I am heading for a cupboard.’
‘Mr Landen?’ she asked still holding the hat.
They ran into the closet.
They slammed the door.
And she heard them lock it from the inside.
Then there was silence.
She watched the closet door, baffled. If she hadn’t known Landen was Britain’s leading brain scientist – herself excluded – she’d think him a complete moron.
Lepus’ door-muffled voice said, ‘Quiver, female, quiver, for now I am in a cupboard.’
Some days weren’t worth climbing out of bed for.
Why did her head hurt like a squashed melon?
Why could she smell cooking?
… And why could she hear a knife being sharpened?
Bleary eyed, Sally pulled her hair away from her face then checked her watch. Slowly, slowly it came into focus.
She’d been out cold for two hours?
And where was she?
She raised her head to look around. She recognized those white walls and that psychotic neatness, those gleaming utensils and polished cupboards. She was in the restaurant kitchen, lying face down on its table. Above the sizzle of simmering liquid a woman’s voice trilled,
‘Some day my prince will come.’
Then Sally noticed; each of her own fingers wore the tiny chef’s hats that self-satisfied people put on chicken legs to make themselves look like real cooks. She looked down. Her shoes were gone and her toes had been decorated like petits fours.
And her face …
Her face had been basted?
She looked up again and winced, the movement making her head hurt even more.
Five feet away, in red PVC boots, a G-string and PVC corset, a woman stood over the cooker. Her back to Sally, she stirred the contents of a deep pot, her black hair hanging down to her waist. Finished stirring, she tapped the ladle three times on the pot’s rim then placed it beside the biggest meat cleaver Sally’d ever seen. She took a box of salt, broke it open and emptied it into the pot. Her velvet voice told Sally, ‘Don’t mind me, naughty girl. I’m just here to cook you.’
That was what she thought.
Before the woman could react, Sally was off the table and out the door.
‘It’s me; Sally.’ The moment she got back to her offices, before she’d even got her breath back, she was on the phone to him.
And he’d better have a good explanation.
He said, ‘Sally who?’
‘Sally Cooper. Who do you think?’
‘I may know numerous young ladies of that name.’
‘And who’s Sally Dunstable?’ she asked.
‘It doesn’t matter who she is.’
‘Whoever she is you don’t know her. You don’t know any young ladies.’
‘I know Miss Go-La-Go-Go,’ he said.
‘Cthulha’s not famous, young nor a lady. And she works for you.’
‘So she doesn’t count.’
‘Then what about my beloved Catherine?’ he asked. ‘Does she work for me?’
‘And are you saying she’s not a lady?’
‘Good. Because if you were–’
‘She’s a Japanese sniper.’
‘I find your attitude wounding. And so would she if she were here.’
‘She is there. And she’d find nothing. Speaking of wounding–’
‘Your new restaurant.’
‘I have two; one in town and–’
‘The one facing this building.’ Now sat at her desk, she prised open the Venetian blinds and peered out at it. It stood there in all its purple gory, no sign of a madwoman coming after her.
Her uncle said, ‘Young lady, only three factors matter in business; location, location and location. That restaurant fails on all three counts.’
‘Then why …?’
‘Mr Dunnett assures me its losses will lop substantial amounts off my next tax bill.’
‘Your cook’s just tried to eat me.’
‘She was about to stick me in the oven.’
‘Were you on her table?’
‘What’s that got to do with it?’
‘If it’s on her table she cooks it. She was most insistent on that at the interview. For five years she was a school dinner lady.’
‘So that’s how they do it in schools. With hundreds of mouths to feed there’s no time for fussing over ingredients. Each year numerous school boys disappear in such a manner.’
Sally pressed the bump at the back of her head and winced at the pain it produced. ‘Uncle Al, she knocked me out to get me on that table.’
‘A woman of initiative.’
‘She wears S+M gear.’
‘What kind of school was this?’
He said, ‘I’m not at liberty to say but it produced half the British Cabinet.’
‘You don’t think you should sack her before she kills someone?’
‘I’m counting on her killing someone.’
‘Oh, no one important, just one of your more socially challenged guests; old Mr Johnson perhaps, the one with the pervert dog.’
‘Transsexualism’s not a perversion. It’s–’
‘Dogs didn’t do things like that in my day.’
‘No one did anything in your day.’
‘I did,’ he said.
‘I know you did. My God, you never stop regaling us with the full sordid details. But I was talking about real people.’
‘Regardless, if Barbara kills someone, I won’t have to pay her redundancy when I close the place down the day after my tax year ends.’
‘And you’re saying Charlie Dunnett suggested this?’
‘Well no. He doesn’t know about that part. And I suggest you don’t tell him – or Barbara won’t be the only one seeking a new job.’
‘You don’t think she was involved in that scandal last year?’
‘You know perfectly well what scandal.’
‘Sally, I know how much that incident upset you. It upset us all but you mustn’t go seeking scapegoats. Barbara’s merely a woman who was attracted to the town by its subsequent reputation and should not be implicated.’
Then Sally realized; ‘That’s why you hired me.’
‘You’re hoping I’ll kill someone!!’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘You don’t think I can do the job!!! You’re hoping I’ll accidentally kill someone. Then you can sack me without paying compensation.’
‘I may be planning to close the park at a similar time to the restaurant, yes.’
‘I don’t believe this!’
‘Never mind that.’
‘Never mind that!?! You don’t want to pay your own niece compensation!?!’
‘Well perhaps I’d want to pay her compensation if she hadn’t been such a let down.’
‘And what does that mean?’
‘No, Uncle Al, I don’t.’
‘You want me to spell it out for you?’
‘Why don’t you?’
‘Uncle Al, I won’t apologize for not having grown up to be king of the Ewoks.’
‘Some girls would.’
‘No girls would.’
‘Miss Go-La-Go-Go would.’
‘She probably thinks she is king of the Ewoks.’
‘And you could be, if you’d only meet those genetic scientists I told you about.’
‘What kind of man adopts his niece in the hope she’ll grow up to be a warrior teddy bear?’
‘Chief Chirpa of the Ewoks happened to be the cutest character in all science fiction. Some girls would be proud to be him/her/it.’
‘You don’t even know what sex it was.’
‘Sex isn’t a factor in the magical world of George Lucas.’
‘Do you know how sad you are?’ she said.
‘Do you know how disappointing you are?’
‘Shut up! she said.
‘Getting back to the point,’ he said.
‘The reason I wanted to know just who you were was because you might be Sally Dunstable pretending to be you.’
‘And why would this Sally Dunstable want to be me?’
‘To get her hands on what you’ve got.’
‘What’ve I got? And if you say the love of a good uncle–’
‘The kind that’ll make you think God loves dull people.’
‘I’m not dull.’
‘Don’t be silly.’
‘I have a busy and active social life.’
‘I have friends.’
‘I have fun.’
‘And, though I may currently be sans boyfriend, I’ve been known to have sex.’
‘With a face like yours?’
‘With a face like mine.’
‘How can men sink so low?’
‘Clearly some can.’
‘This “fun” thing,’ he said.
‘What about it?’
‘Stop it at once.’
‘I’m not ruining my social life for you. I–’
‘Ruin it for a million pounds.’
‘What’re you on about?’
‘That’s what’s on offer to the safest caravan park in Wyndham.’
‘That’s us buggered,’ she said.
‘I’m not sure I like your attitude.’
‘Uncle Al, half the people who stay at this camp are suicidal. That’s why they come here, to sit alone in their caravans listening to Radiohead.’
‘I prefer to call them characters.’
‘And have you seen the latest two?’
‘They had tea with me last week.’
‘A delightful young lady and her pet chimp.’
‘The chimp was Britain’s leading brain scientist,’ she said.
‘Then why did he eat my cushions?’
‘Now do you see my point? They don’t strike me as being the safest people to have around.’
‘Nonetheless I have faith in you.’
She’d noticed. ‘And if I win I get a million pounds?’
‘The Council feels the huge death rate among tourists is damaging Wyndham’s reputation as a fun place to be – not to mention that scandal last year. So, as a publicity stunt, they’re offering the reward. I’m offering you a one percent commission.’
‘Offer me fifty.’
‘Fifty?’ he said.
‘Sixty!?!’ He sounded like he was about to have a seizure. Good!
She leaned forward in her chair. ‘Uncle Al, without my help you get nothing. With my help you get four hundred grand.’
‘I could easily hire someone else to do your job.’
‘And have me spill the beans about “Barbara” and your little scheme? Or maybe I should tell her about it and she can come and get you. Have you seen the size of her meat cleaver?’
He slipped into a deep silence and considered the issue.
She waited, impatient, fiddling with the handset’s coiled lead. She checked on the restaurant again. Still no sign of cooks. She released the blinds. ‘Uncle Al?’
‘I suggest you set about stopping your guests from killing themselves, forthwith.’
‘I’m going out now, Mr Landen, to collect materials for the Project X you were so excited about. Do you want to come along?’
‘I’ll buy you an ice cream,’ she said.
Still no reply.
Teena sighed. She stood on the front steps of her mobile home, one hand holding the door open, the other holding a camouflage jacket. Gazing in at the locked closet, she called, ‘When I get back I expect to find you out of that closet, the rabbit wearing the hat and your attitude much improved. Remember, no one’s irreplaceable, not even you.’
‘Mr Landen?’ She frowned. ‘Are you all right in there?’
Resigned to getting no sense from him, she put on the camouflage jacket, closed the front door and left.
Incapable of doing this job? Useless? I’ll show you, Mr Aloysius Bracewell, with your man-eating cooks, low-life whores and stitched up awards.
And you TV types with your smug grins, cameras and free cups of tea; When Jobs Go Good, let’s see you do that one.
Sally slapped her paste-smothered brush up and down her living room wall with enough force to strip paint, all the while imagining it was her uncle’s stupid face she was slapping. She dunked her brush in the bucket between her feet, stirred it round to collect a great thick dollop and slapped more paste on the wall.
The front door creaked open behind her. She ignored it. Unseen feet scuffed, not bothering to wipe on the Welcome mat. The door creaked shut and tea-leaf cigarette smoke announced Cthulha Gochllagochgoch’s arrival before her footsteps had even entered the living room. The footsteps half crossed the room then stopped as though their owner was stood looking around. The settee went flumpf and Cthulha said, ‘So, what you up to?’
Sally pasted on, no intention of looking at her. ‘We’re redecorating.’
‘Me and Mr Bushy.’ Mr Bushy was Sally’s pet squirrel. She’d left him on her TV set with a paint brush for company.
Cthulha said, ‘Sal.’
‘He’s eating his paint brush. Interior designers don’t eat their brushes – not even the ones in Changing Rooms.’
‘So long as he’s happy.’ She grabbed a foam rubber square by her feet and stuck it to the wall, alongside the foam she’d already hung. She pressed it in place then prepared for more pasting.
Cthulha said, ‘I take it this foaming’s for the safety award?’
‘It’s called the Dullness Award. The council felt the word “Safety” might remind people of danger.’
‘Whatever it’s called you’ve no chance.’
Sally pasted on. ‘Within days this’ll be the safest caravan park on Earth.’
‘Sal? How long have you been working here?’
‘And in a whole week you’ve not noticed anything suicidal about the people who stay here?’
‘Of course I have. I’m not blind.’
‘I am,’ Chulha said.
‘What’re you on about?’ said Sally.
‘I’m of the sightless.’
‘Cthulha.’ Sally pasted on, still not looking at her. ‘You’re not blind.’
‘Shows how much you know.’
‘I know you’re not blind.’
‘Twenty minutes ago, where was I?’
‘Outside Davey Farrel’s.’
‘You’re always outside Davey Farrel’s.’
‘Do you fancy him?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
Sally asked, ‘Why’s it ridiculous?’
‘He’s my brother. Dr Steinbeck says all the other stuff’s okay but close relatives are out of bounds.’
‘Cthulha, Davey Farrel’s not your brother.’
‘Course he is. I used to shove him off his bike, as a kid, and ride off with it.’
‘Maybe you did but he’s not your brother. He’s my cousin. He’s no relation to you.’
‘Then why was I shoving him off his bike?’
‘I’ve no idea.’
‘God, this town. You can’t keep track of who’s related to who in it.’
‘I’d have thought you’d be able to keep track of who’s related to you.’
‘Sally, you must bear in mind that, due to a former hobby of mine, certain aspects of my past are a little vague to me.’
‘Not to mention the flashbacks.’
‘I don’t get flashbacks.’
‘What? Apart from you dropping everything to shout, “Aargh! Lobsters! Lobsters!”’
‘I don’t do that,’ she chuckled. Then, after a lengthy pause; ‘Do I?’
‘Only three times a day.’
‘Jesus.’ Cthulha thought about this. ‘Lobsters lobsters; I wonder what that means.’
‘You don’t know?’
‘I’ve no idea.’
Sally said, ‘Tell me about Davey Farrel’s.’
‘I was outside his shop. And what was the wind doing?’
Like Sally cared.
‘It was slapping me from all sides,’ Cthulha said, ‘like I’d done something wrong.’
‘You probably had.’
‘So then what happens?’ Cthulha asked.
‘I don’t know. I wasn’t there.’
‘My hat blows off.’
‘You think it was a punishment from God?’
‘Listen,’ Cthulha said.
‘This is where it gets good.’
‘Cthulha, your anecdotes never get good. They just stagger round till they fall into a ditch.’
Cthulha said, ‘This bloke takes one look at my dark glasses, and my hat on the pavement, thinks I’m a blind beggar and chucks fifty pence in the hat. Can you believe that? From now on, when we’re out in public together, I’m blind.’
‘Every penny helps.’
Sally dipped her brush. ‘Anyway, suicides don’t count.’
‘Uncle Al faxed me the rules. They say. Caravan park managers will not be held responsible for suicides. Suicides are committed at guests’ own peril, unless death was initiated at the manager’s request. – like if I say, “Go kill yourself.”’
‘But you’re always saying that to me.’
‘Not for the next few days. Anyway you’re not a guest, you’re an intruder. You probably count as a burglar. Burglars are fair game.’
‘Not that I’d kill myself. I wouldn’t want to upset those who love me.’
‘And who’s that?’ said Sally.
‘My boyfriend, you, my mother–’
‘Cthulha, your mother hits you with a stick.’
‘But she must love me. She’s a mother. Mothers love their daughters.’
Sally said, ‘You don’t love me.’
‘Don’t start that again.’
‘You have to accept that when an eight year old loses her real mother, she’ll look for a surrogate one. And you happened to be the one permanent female presence in my young life. When I had my first period, you told me I was dying. When I needed my first bra, you helped me buy it – not that you knew how to fasten it.’
‘Those things are death traps. You can tell a man invented them.’
‘Bras were invented by a woman.’
‘She knotted two hankies together then showed it to all her mates who were most impressed.’
‘Were they used hankies?’
‘Why would anyone want to wear used hankies?’ Sally said.
‘Why would they want to wear any sort of hankies? If you’re sat in a restaurant on a date and, halfway through the evening, he declares that he makes his trolleys from knotted hankies, you’re not going to be accepting any invitations into his home.’
‘The point is that with you around ALL THE TIME you were bound to imprint on me. It’s like ducklings that think a pair of wellies is their mother because it was the first thing they ever saw.’
‘I don’t believe this.’
‘I bought you a bra, now you want me to buy you wellies.’
‘I don’t want you to buy me wellies. I want you to love me.’
‘If you ever again sit in the pub on a Friday night, telling the men I’m trying to pull that I’m your mother …’
‘But that’s how I see you.’
‘I’m only four years older than you.’
‘Eleven and three quarters.’
‘Twelve.’ Holding the bucket steady between her feet, Sally dipped her brush in it, stirred it, then spread more paste on the wall. ‘Is your mother still sending you death threats?’
‘I’d go to the police if I were you; remember I’ve met your mother.’
‘Yeah that’s right,’ Cthulha complained.
‘If you worship a giant space octopus, people always want to think the worst of you.’
‘Well it’s hardly normal is it?’
‘Loads of people must do it. They just don’t admit it. Anyway, I’m sure she doesn’t mean it. It’s probably her idea of a joke.’
‘Yeah. Right.’ Sally hung the last foam rubber square and pressed it in place. She turned to face Cthulha.
Cthulha Gochllagochgoch, thirty one, gangled on Sally’s settee, in an undertakers hat, little round sunglasses, black tuxedo, black jeans and black trainers. Beneath the open tuxedo, she wore a purple bikini top, with a rub-on transfer, IF I’M JUICY SQUEEZE ME, on her left breast. One lace-gloved palm held Mr Bushy while the other stroked him. Sat there she reminded Sally of the reptile aliens in V, the ones who could almost pass for human, till you caught them eating your pets.
Mr Bushy squeaked. Now sat up, Cthulha held him before her and chuckled. ‘Look at this.’
‘Look at what?’
‘If you squeeze this it squeaks like one of those dogs’ toys.’ And she squeezed away, producing a string of random squeaks.
Sally snatched him from her and stroked him to calm his nerves. ‘Dynamite Pete asked me – if anything ever happened to him – to look after his squirrel. It shouldn’t take a genius to know that treating it as a rubber toy wasn’t what he had in mind.’
‘And as Dynamite Pete’s intended profession involved swallowing a pint of nitro-glycerine then running round a stage till he exploded, it shouldn’t have taken a genius to figure something was bound to happen to him.’
‘I tried to warn him,’ she insisted.
‘Don’t you always?’ Cthulha settled back into the settee and took a drag on her cigarette.
Sally placed Mr Bushy back on the TV, with his paint brush, and continued stroking him. Dynamite Pete’s demise; some experiences were best not remembered – especially when they were your fault.
Mr Bushy started nibbling his paint brush, which she took as a good sign, so she turned to face Cthulha. ‘Do you actually have a reason to be here?’
‘Uncle Al wants money.’ Uncle Al was not Cthulha’s uncle. Uncle Al was not the uncle of most people who called him Uncle.
‘He always wants money.’
‘Now he wants more money.’
‘What’s he want it for this time?’
‘Fifty-six rolls of foil. Personally I think it’s an excuse to get me out of the way. Though why anyone’d want a girl like me out of the way, I don’t know.’
‘What kind of cooking needs fifty-six rolls of foil?’
She lowered her dark glasses to the tip of her nose and peered over them at Sally, eyebrows hoisted knowingly. ‘Aloysius Bracewell doesn’t do his own cooking – any more than he does his own eating. You know he has servants for that.’
‘So what’s he want tin foil for?’
She prodded her glasses back into place. ‘To add to the roll he’s just wrapped round his head.’
Sally squinted at her, baffled.
Cthulha said, ‘Half an hour ago, some Texan turned up on satellite news. Seems he’s broken the world record for wrapping his head in foil – except they called it “aloominum”. The previous record holder was British. The moment Uncle Al hears that, he grabs a roll and starts wrapping it round his head, declaring his determination to reclaim the record for some place called “Blighty”. He says someone has to restore the dignity it lost when it gave away some empire or other.’
‘By wrapping his head in foil?’
‘And Uncle Al won’t be using “aloominum”.’
‘Then what’ll he be using?’
‘He says you can get lead foil from nuclear power plants, if you bribe the right women and sleep with the right men. That’ll be my job. He will of course make sure the national media knows all about his sterling act of patriotism and that he owns a chain of caravan parks – prices reasonable. I told him, “Uncle Al, you’re a pillock. Lead foil must weigh a ton. You’ll squash your head.” He said that’d make his achievement all the greater – though guess who’ll get to do all the wrapping? Still you’ve got to hand it to him; fifty-six rolls – no man’s ever wrapped his head in so much lead.’
‘Where did you get that cow?’
‘I didn’t steal it.’
‘I never said you had.’
‘I found it down there.’ His sucker tipped thumb pointed back guiltily over his shoulder. He said, ‘It jumped out of a tree and landed on me.’
‘And where are you taking it?’
‘To wallpaper it.’
In a country lane, fifteen minutes into her walk, Teena’d stopped to talk to a small grey man with a cow. His huge, black, almond shaped eyes blinked up at her from his too-large head. His spindly body wore a black turtleneck sweater and drainpipe jeans. He looked bruised, battered and bewildered, as though something had jumped out of a tree and landed on him. Mouth no more than a slit, he said, ‘It’s my destiny.’
‘To win the Turner Prize.’ And a sucker tipped finger pointed to somewhere behind her.
A half turn brought her face to face with a field of cows wrapped in beige flock. It didn’t suit them.
Behind her he said, ‘It’s an installation I call Cattle Mootilation.’ She could feel his gaze on her buttocks.
‘But why wallpaper cows?’ she asked.
‘Because gorillas always tried to tear my arms off.’
She returned her attention to him. ‘Well, Mr …?’
‘McDoddy; Roddy McDoddy.’
‘Is that your real name?’
‘Well, Roddy.’ She grabbed his hand in hers and shook it vigorously. ‘I’m Teena Rama. And if you’re an artist, you may have heard of me.’
‘Too right I have!’ Now he was shaking her hand even more vigorously than she was shaking his. ‘You’ve won the Turner Prize three years running.’
‘And I’ll be winning it again this year.’ She yanked her hand free of his and gave it a sharp waggle to restore the blood supply.
‘Wow,’ he told her chest. ‘The Teena Rama. I can only dream of achieving your levels of artistic futility.’
‘Why thank you.’
‘And your bosoms are so pointy.’
‘Thank you for that highly relevant observation.’
He gazed at them some more like he wanted to tell them something. Then he spotted her engagement ring. ‘And you’re a spoken-for woman?’
‘I’m newly engaged, yes.’ She couldn’t resist gloating a little.
‘Wow!’ He told her chest. ‘But I didn’t know they’d even announced the Turner nominations.’
‘They haven’t but my victory’s assured. And I have to tell you that these days it takes something more daring than wallpapering cows to impress the most demanding judges in British art.’
‘It does?’ He stroked his goatee, perplexed, still watching her chest.
‘However.’ She watched the cow beside him. It gazed back at her, chewing an Action Man. Is this beast for sale?’
‘Make me an offer, babe.’
She had no intention of paying money for goods that might have been stolen. ‘Would a kiss do?’
‘Dr R,’ he enthused, ‘You’re a crazy looking chick but get kissing that cow.’
‘I did mean would you like me to kiss you?’
‘Oh wow, man! The Dr Rama would rather snog me than my livestock.’
Late that night, the doorbell dragged Sally away from foam rubbering yet more rooms. Entering the entrance hall, from the kitchen, she could see out through the wire-glass door. A figure stood in darkness, its back to the door, umbrella in hand.
The week’s takings were in the safe in Sally’s bedroom. Thanks to Cthulha, everyone in town knew it.
Or maybe …
… Maybe it was Cthulha’s mother come looking for her daughter.
Sally stopped, and looked around for an escape route. She looked at the living room door and considered running into the room and hiding behind the settee like she and Cthulha had the first time her mother had shown up. They’d had to stay hidden as she prowled the living room, sniffing the air, sniffing objects, pushing over the lamp stand, trying to pick up their scent, before she got bored, decided they weren’t there and left. The moment she’d heard the door slam, Sally’d tried to come out of hiding but Cthulha’d grabbed her wrist and stopped her. She stuck her hand over Sally’s mouth and frantically whispered that her mother had a trick where she slammed the door to make it sound like she’d left but then stayed just inside the door hoping to lure you out into the open. But she always gave up after five minutes and left anyway because she had the brain of a donkey. Sally told her that whatever her problem was with her mother, maybe she should try talking to her about it instead of hiding. Hiding from your own mother seemed a pretty childish way to deal with a problem. Cthulha said you didn’t deal with her mother when she was in a prowling mood.
And five minutes later they heard the door shut again.
Mrs Gochllagochgoch was a woman you could empty an ammo clip into and she’d still keep coming. You’d have to stop her by toppling heavy things onto her. Then, when you thought she was dead, you’d lean over her, seeking a pulse, and she’d come back to life and start strangling you.
Sally checked the Colt 45 she was carrying. Magic Keith had given her it and it weighed a ton because it was loaded. He’d insisted on a Colt 45 because the Shadow used them, and Magic Keith was as elusive as the Shadow – he’d claimed. She removed the safety catch, and stuck the gun down the back of her jeans’ belt for easy access. She pulled the back of her sweater down to hide it, prayed that this wasn’t Cthulha’s mother, and readied herself.
She unfastened the door’s top bolt.
She unfastened the door’s bottom bolt.
She twisted the yale lock and opened the door.
The hissing sound of rain filled the entrance hall. Its back to her, the figure whistled a non-specific tune as the rain pummelled its umbrella.
‘Hello?’ Sally prepared to grab the gun but the figure turned and grinned at her, large droplets dripping from the tips of its umbrella spokes.
And frowning Sally said, ‘Teena?’
Behind her ‘winning’ smile the scientist seemed embarrassed. ‘Ah. Yes. We seem to have got ourselves locked out and were wondering if we could spend the night here?’
‘We?’ She glanced at the darkness surrounding Teena, relieved to see no giant rabbits or that creepy Mr Landen.
A sideways nod of Teena’s head drew her attention to the string in Teena’s right hand. The string’s free end was high in the air, hidden by the top of the door. Sally leaned forward to see what was up there.
And her jaw dropped.
Floating at the end of that string was a cow.
‘What sort of genius locks herself out of her mobile home?’
‘When I said we’d got ourselves locked out, I should have said Mr Landen’s locked us out. I didn’t want to blame him outright because he doesn’t seem to be himself lately.’
‘And you don’t have a key?’
‘It’s bolted from the inside. And, sadly, before I left, I repaired the hole Lepus left – an action taken at your insistence, I should point out.’
‘What exactly is that?’ Sally stood in the rain, holding the umbrella over herself as Teena tethered her flying cow to the offices’ front door. Her mobile home was no more than eight feet away to her left. What was it with her? She couldn’t tie cows to her own front door?
As though to counterbalance the mobile home, a caravan stood at the offices’ other flank. The sign hanging from its doorknob read, THE WYNDHAM FINISHING SCHOOL FOR DAINTY YOUNG LADIES but Sally wasn’t interested in that. She’d seen its occupants.
Teena ignored the rain, tied off with a knot that only seamen should know, took three steps back and stood beside Sally. She smelled of strawberries. Not real strawberries but the strawberry-centre chocolate you always eat first from the box because it’s your favourite. Anyone else wet smells like the Coffee Cream that sits ignored for weeks because you don’t know anyone who likes them then has to be thrown away before it goes mouldy.
Polka dot rags plastered to her cheeks, Teena admired her own handiwork. ‘Sally, meet my latest project.’
‘The moment I came across her I knew she’d be perfect for Experiment X.’
‘Experiment X?’ If this involved boyfriends.
‘My venture into anti-gravity. You see, I’ve done what no one else has. I’ve proven not only that anti-gravity exists but that it’s a force to equal gravity. I will of course be winning a Nobel Prize.’
‘But you’ll be leaving her out here all night?’
‘You’d rather I brought her inside?’
‘Cows are hardy creatures well used to life outdoors.’
‘But the rain?’
‘Won’t bother her in the slightest.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘How are you sure?’
‘Because she’s indestructible.’
Teena still stood beside Sally in the rain, her strawberry smell starting to make Sally hungry. Sally watched her. She looked so soft and smooth and creamy that Sally wanted to bite a chunk out of her. She’d taste like cake and have no bones just icing, no muscle just sponge cake, no blood just strawberry jam. In all her body there’d be not one human biological substance, just items fresh from the dessert tray. The walking gateau said, ‘On my walk, I encountered a small shop on the edge of town.’
‘A cake shop?’ Sally’s stomach rumbled.
Teena slapped her.
Sally stepped back, shocked, clutching her stinging cheek. “What the hell was that for?’
‘You were thinking of eating me.’
‘No I wasn’t. I don’t eat people. You city types, you’re all the same, always looking down on us, always saying we’re cannibals.’
Teena said, ‘Frankly you’ve lost me. I merely recognized the look on your face. Being beautiful, I’ve seen it so often.’
‘Oh.’ Sally watched the ground, wishing she’d kept her mouth shut.
‘I’m sorry about hitting you but it was the best way to snap you out of it.’ She grabbed Sally’s arm and yanked her back to a position beside her, presumably Teena’s idea of reconciliation. ‘Now; the general store; while there I bought the ingredients needed for the anti-gravity cream.’
Sally still held her throbbing cheek. ‘From a general store?’
‘Anti-gravity cream can easily be made with household materials. After I’d finished, I had some materials left over, so I concocted a quantity of Indestructible Cream and applied it liberally. Clytemnestra’s fully atom bomb proof – the first of many such cows.’
‘Why would you want to make cows atom bomb proof?’
‘So they don’t hurt themselves when they fall from the sky.’
‘Cows don’t fall from the sky.’
‘They will when the anti-gravity cream wears off.’
‘But you’ve only coated one in anti-gravity cream.’
‘Well…’ Her voice tailed away. She gazed skyward.
Sally watched her. ‘Teena?’
‘How many cows have you coated?’
She shrugged. ‘A few hundred.’
‘A few hundred!?!’
‘Maybe a few thousand. Frankly, after the first eight hundred, cows all start to resemble each other. I may have coated some twice.’
‘And that’s what you’ve been doing all day?’
‘What else would one do on one’s holiday?’
‘Most people go down the beach.’
Teena looked at her like she was talking to a simpleton. ‘Sally, there are no cows on the beach.’ Striding forward, she gave the cow a firm slap on the flanks. The impact sent water flying from it.
It mooed, startled.
Teena opened the front door of the office and prepared to go inside. ‘Coming?’
Sally watched the sodden cow, its ears at half mast. ‘I don’t care how indestructible she is, I’ll still worry about her.’
‘That’s because you’re a non-scientist. You view cows as people. They’re not. A cow’s a cow, and she won’t appreciate being treated otherwise. Now come on indoors and you can show me your fridge.’
Sally stepped forward, feet splashing in puddles. Water leaked into her trainers, soaking her toes. She ignored it. When she reached the cow, she stopped. With some difficulty she pulled the cow’s mouth open and placed the umbrella handle in it. Robbed of the umbrella’s cover, she was instantly soaked, her clothes clinging to her like cold octopus tentacles, rain pummelling her like the skies were out to dump the world’s oceans on her. With yet more difficulty she clamped the cow’s jaws shut around the handle.
Teena said, ‘Sally, what’re you doing?’
‘The umbrella’ll keep her head dry.’
‘Are you trying to make me look silly?’
‘What? As opposed to smearing cows with anti-gravity cream and tying them to doorknobs?’
‘Now then, Daisy–’
‘Daisy?’ Teena protested. ‘Her name’s Clytemnestra.’
Sally still held the jaws shut. ‘Just keep hold of this umbrella all night, and you’ll be fine.’
‘She’s my cow, you know.’ Teena still held the door open.
‘We don’t listen to the nasty woman, do we, Daisy? She slaps people and accuses them of wanting to eat her.’ And she released Daisy’s jaw.
The umbrella hit the mud at Sally’s feet.
‘Sally, it won’t work. Cows don’t understand umbrellas.’
Sally picked it up, wiped its handle clean on her soaked sweater, forced Daisy’s jaws apart then placed the umbrella handle between them. She pressed the jaws shut. She released the jaws. Daisy dropped the umbrella.
Sally picked it up, wiped its handle clean and put it in Daisy’s mouth.
She released Daisy’s jaw.
And this time …
… The cow held onto it.
‘Yeah?’ With great difficulty she bit a generous length of masking tape from a roll. It tasted foul.
‘I’d like to thank you for putting me up for the night.’ Teena lay on the top deck of Sally’s bunk bed, having refused the bottom one.
‘Don’t mention it.’ Sally stood beside her, on the bunk’s ladder. She took Teena’s right wrist, the one nearest her, and wrapped tape around it. She yanked the wrist against the nearest bed post, held it there, and bound wrist to post.
Teena said, ‘Only, some women seem to find my presence intimidating.’
‘You know, that’s how they feel about me.’ She bit off another strip then leaned across and wrapped the tape round Teena’s other wrist.
‘What’re you doing?’
‘Strapping you down.’ Having to stretch to reach, she pressed the wrist against its nearest bedpost and bound them together.
‘Sally, it’s not that I’m actively opposed to bondage. As a social scientist I appreciate its therapeutic value. Lesbianism has its place also. However, as we’ve established that you’re not attractive and I’m engaged–’
‘Engaged. Engaged. You’re always saying you’re engaged. For someone who claims she’s a man magnet, you seem remarkably impressed with yourself for having pulled. My God, even I’ve been engaged once. It’s not that big an achievement.’ She’d been engaged to Barry Sping, the paper boy, when they were both eleven. Cthulha’d put them up to it. She’d thought it cute.
Teena said, ‘Look in my coat pocket.’
Annoyed at the disruption to her work, she finished binding wrist to post then stood up as best the ceiling allowed. Teena’s camouflage jacket hung drying on the bed post. Sally felt in the pocket and retrieved a wallet.
‘Open it,’ Teena said.
She opened it.
‘What do you see?’
‘Credit cards, old tickets, taxi firm numbers, a photo–’
‘Take the photo and look at it.’
She did so.
And … ‘Jesus Christ!’ She almost fell off her ladder with shock. ‘What the hell’s that!?!’
‘But … but he’s huge!’ The photographer (who Sally assumed to be Teena) had only managed to fit half of him into the photo. You could have fitted Barry Sping into a photo and have had room left over for the Brighouse and Rasterick brass band.
Teena said, ‘Huge? He’s positively Olympian.’ It wasn’t clear whether she meant an athlete, a Greek god or the mountain. Sally suspected she meant all three.
‘But he’s got no clothes on!’ said Sally.
Teena said, ‘When one owns a work of art, one doesn’t leave it covered up.’
‘But that … that thing he’s got–’
‘Perhaps now you know why I’m pleased with myself?’
Sally tried to prise her gaze from it. He could have wrapped it round his neck if it had looked in any way shape or form flexible. ‘But … but … there are more important qualities in a husband than a …’ she imagined being on its receiving end, ‘… knob.’
‘I can’t think of one.’
‘What about personality?’ She tried to prise her gaze from it.
‘All men have a personality. It’s their personalities that’re the problem.’
‘But your husband should be your best friend.’ She tried to prise her gaze from it.
‘No. Your best friend should be your best friend. A husband’s job is to satisfy his woman whenever and however she demands it.’
‘And he does?’
‘What do you think?’
‘Jesus.’ Almost feeling sorry for him, and almost afraid to touch it, she slipped the photo back into the wallet. She closed the wallet and put it back in the jacket pocket. Fingers still trembling from the sight of him she took the roll of tape from the mattress where she’d left it. ‘Anyway, I’m not binding you to the bed for kinky purposes.’
‘Then why are you doing it?’
‘For your safety.’
‘Look at me.’
Teena looked at her.
‘What do I look like?’
Teena looked non-plussed.
‘I’m an entertainer’s assistant. That’s what I’ve always been.’
Teena studied her bindings. She clenched a fist and flexed an arm to test the tape’s strength but no way was she was getting free. ‘So this is some sort of magic trick?’
‘My last job in entertainment was six months ago. Know what I was?’
‘Assistant to Magic Keith, He Can Outrun Bullets.’
Teena frowned. ‘Magic Keith?’
‘I had to wear the assistant’s costume; you know, with the ostrich feathers and sequins. I looked a total prat.’
‘Your boss could outrun bullets?’
‘No. But I didn’t discover that till I pulled the trigger.’
‘You shot him?’
‘In the back, point blank. The bullet went clean through and lodged in a stage hand.’
‘You killed them both?’ People always used that mortified tone when they said that.
Sally said, ‘The police were very understanding. They accepted it was an accident.’
‘And it didn’t occur to you that this Keith couldn’t outrun bullets?’
‘Of course it did. All the time were were rehearsing – without bullets – I kept saying, “Magic,” he liked to be called Magic. “Are you sure you can outrun bullets?” He’d give a knowing wink, tap the side of his nose and say, “There’s a knack.”
‘What possible knack can there be to “outrunning” bullets?’
‘Acceleration. Jesse Owens could outrun horses over a hundred feet because humans accelerate faster than horses. Keith reckoned it was the same with bullets. That doesn’t make sense does it? Bullets are launched by an explosion, and horses aren’t. But I figured he was the boss, he must know what he’s doing.’
‘Three days later we buried him.’ Roll of tape in hand she descended the ladder then unhooked it from the top bunk’s safety rail. She carried it round to the foot of the bed and hooked it onto the rail there. ‘It was the same with Madam Tallulah.’ After rattling it to check it was safe, she climbed the ladder until level with Teena’s bare feet. She resisted the urge to tickle them while she was helpless.
‘Madam Tallulah?’ Teena asked.
‘The World’s Greatest Escapologist. Except she wasn’t. She was just some idiot. She told me to weld her into an iron casket then tip it in the river. Again the police were understanding but this is a small town, word gets round. Now no decent employer will touch me.’
‘Have you considered leaving town?’
‘You don’t watch ITV?’
‘Then you didn’t see When Gun Stunts Turn Bad.’
‘Or When Escapology Turns Bad.’
‘Or The World’s Worst Welding Incidents.’
‘Or When Hang Gliders Collide.’
‘Or When Big Things Fall On Small Entertainers.’
‘All right, Sally. I get the idea.’
She wrapped tape around Teena’s ankle and pressed it against the safety rail. She bound one to the other. ‘Every job I do, someone ends up dead. And those shows make sure everyone knows it. But I’ll prove them all wrong. I can go two weeks without killing anyone. I know I can. That’s why I’m strapping you to the bed; you might roll over in your sleep and fall to your death.’
‘From a bunk bed?’
‘You might land on your head.’
‘With safety rails in the way?’
‘You might roll over them.’
‘Isn’t that unlikely?’
‘You can’t be too safe.’ She bit off more tape and bound Teena’s other ankle. ‘Rest assured that while you’re staying here I’ll be doing all I can to keep you alive.’
‘Have you ever seen the movie Misery?’
‘Oh my God, that terrible woman. Can you imagine what it must be like to be trapped in a place with someone like her?
‘And what’s this?’ Last thing that night, Archie Drizzle the Dullness Inspector paid Safe Joe Safe’s Caravan Park a surprise visit. He stood in the offices’ bedroom, a middle-aged man with a brown suit, a Bobby Charlton comb-over and a Gladstone bag and watched a man who was bound, gagged and chained to a bunk bed.
Stood beside Drizzle, the manager said, ‘He was passing the camp, whistling. Before he could react, we grabbed him, coshed him and chained him to the bed so he can’t fall over and hurt himself. We at Safe Joe Safe’s are holding numerous people hostage who might otherwise hurt themselves. I think you’ll agree we’ve taken every possible precaution to make this the safest camp not just in Wyndham but in the whole world.’
‘I’ll be the judge of that.’ Drizzle thrust his bag into the chest of the manager, who took hold of it while Drizzle stepped forward and inspected the captive’s bonds. They seemed firm enough, and the gag was tight enough to muffle whatever it was the prisoner was frantically trying to say.
But then …
… Drizzle realized what the man was wearing.
‘You fool. Don’t you realize what this is?’
The manager looked blank.
Drizzle said. This is a scientist.’
He still looked blank.
‘Denied, by you, the chance to express itself through mad experimentation, his subconscious may create monsters from the id which will run loose and destroy us all.’
‘Isn’t that a little unlikely?’
Before the manager could react, Drizzle slapped a sticker on his forehead.
That sticker said FAILED.
Morning woke Sally with the warmth of a rising sun and the twittering of birds. Her eyes opened with a string of tired blinks, adjusting to the light, and she stretched out in a yawn that extended her to her limits.
Then she relaxed, letting herself sink into a mattress that felt like love. She felt great. She felt more than great. She felt harmless. And beside her on the pillow Mr Bushy stretched out in a great long yawn that exactly mirrored her own. He held the pose then relaxed into a ball, snuggling his warm fur against her cheek. And she smiled. Could paradise be any better?
But then a thought struck her. She rolled onto her side, Mr Bushy scampering out of her way. She looked over the side of the bed. And she sighed with relief at not finding Teena on the floor dead.
Another thought struck her. She rolled over and looked over the other side of the bed, relieved at not finding Teena dead.
She rolled onto her back, and again sank into the mattress that felt like love. Smiling she watched the wooden slats of the bunk above and gently, so as not to wake her, asked, ‘Teena? Are you awake?’
No reply. Some people had the luxury of sleeping all day. Sally had no such luxury. She had a job to do; lives to save. She sat up, cast her legs over the side of the bunk, and planted both feet on the carpet. After leaning forward for one last yawn, she stood then turned a half circle. On her toes, hands on the safety rail, she checked the top bunk, ready to see Teena asleep.
Instead, she saw a nightmare.
The bunk was empty.
‘All right, Mr Landen, you’ve had your fun, now let me in. I’ve no intention of spending another night in that madwoman’s home.’ Early morning, Teena stood on her mobile home’s front steps, her knuckles machine-gun rapping its door.
The only reply she got was the rumble of objects being moved around.
She knocked again. ‘I know you’re awake, I can hear you pushing furniture up against the door.’
‘No, Dr Llama.’
‘No?’ She gazed at the door. ‘What do you mean no?’
‘I mean no. You should understand what that means. You are, after all, the expert linguist. You know how to say no in more languages than anyone else alive.’
‘I’m fully aware of the word’s general meaning. What does it mean in the context of you not letting me into my own mobile home?’
‘It means you can’t come in till you let me marry my bunny.’
‘Marry it?’ She frowned at the door. ‘That bunny’s a boy bunny. Since when have you liked boys?’
‘I don’t care. I love my bunny and won’t let you take him off me.’
Lepus called out, ‘Help me, female! Help me! He makes me eat celery.’
She watched the door, non-plussed.
Just to make her morning complete, Landen called, ‘Help me, Dr Llama! Help me! My bunny’s just sat on me.’
‘Lepus, stop sitting on Mr Landen,’ she sighed.
‘Not unless he lets me out.’
‘He can’t let you out unless you get off him.’
‘I don’t care. I’m not getting off him till he lets me out.’
But how’d she done it? How’d she got away? Madam Tallulah hadn’t been able to escape masking tape, and Sally hadn’t bound her with half the vigour she’d used on Teena. And yet, when Sally’d found the tape, its sticky side had collected so much fluff it must have been unpeeled from her flesh for hours. She must have got free as soon as Sally’d climbed into the bottom bunk.
And why’d she escaped? Didn’t she realize Sally was trying to help her? And if there’d been a certain pleasure in seeing Teena in discomfort, a sense of revenge for her rabbit antics, that was just a bonus and shouldn’t in any way be viewed as a major part of her reason for doing it.
She tried to put Teena to the back of her mind and concentrate on her work, sticking another square of foam rubber in place.
‘What’s the hell’s this?’ asked Cthulha, to her left, watching Daisy.
Sally took the final square from the box to her right, unrolled it then pressed it in place. She ran her palms along its edges to make it stick, pressed its centre then stepped back to admire her handiwork.
It stood before her, magnificent, Wyndham’s first ever caravan to be completely covered in foam rubber. You could throw yourself at it all day and never get hurt. Not that the two hippy geeks staring out of its window looked like they wanted to throw themselves at it. They looked like they wanted to throw her at something. But to do that they’d have to leave the caravan and, when she’d called round the other day, they’d refused to do so, pushing the rent out through a slot in the door. The sign on the doorknob might have said WYNDHAM FINISHING SCHOOL FOR DAINTY YOUNG LADIES but, to Sally, they were just two geeks.
She said, ‘Cthulha meet Daisy. She’s helping me make the camp safe.’
Hands in tuxedo pockets, cigarette in mouth, Cthulha eyed Daisy from a distance of nine inches. ‘It’s flying.’
‘Floating,’ Sally beamed.
Daisy floated tethered to the caravan door, chewing a foam rubber square Sally’d given her to keep her entertained. The cow gazed at a pink sports car parked ten feet away. Open-topped it stood so low you’d have to lie down to sit in it.
Hands in pockets, Cthulha leaned forward. Her face now one inch from Daisy’s she too watched the car. ‘Know what that is?’
‘That’s my Spooder Yo-Yo.’
‘A Spooder Yo-Yo?’ Sally laughed. ‘What the hell’s a Spooder Yo-Yo? It sounds like someone who got shoved out of an airlock in Star Wars.’
Cthulha attempted a withering stare. ‘For your information, no one got shoved out of an airlock in Star Wars. And the Spooder Yo-Yo was the grooviest car of 1968.’
‘Sure it was.’
‘It was Greek,’ Cthulha protested. ‘The title lost a little in translation. But secret agent Carnaby Soho drove one in all her films.’
Sally frowned. ‘Carnaby Soho?’
‘You remember Carnaby Soho.’
‘I’ve never heard of her.’
‘Everyone’s heard of Carnaby Soho; pink-clad super-spy, righter of wrongs and, in later years, serial thwarter of the evil Mullineks.’
‘Queen of the mad moon lesbians.’
‘Cthulha, where exactly do you get your videos?’
‘You must have heard of Mullineks. Everyone has.’
‘Like they’ve all heard of Carnaby Soho?’
‘But Mullineks was even hornier than Hudson Leick.’
Then Cthulha started singing.
making all the guys go whoa whoa.
Cruising in your Yo-Yo.
Letting through your hair the wind blow.
Carnaby Soho, do you know what you’ve done?
Having make the room go spun and spun and spun and spun and spun and spun and spun and spun … ’
‘Cthulha, I’ve no idea what you’re on about.’
‘It was Italian.’ She shrugged. ‘It lost something in translation.’
‘Yeah – the audience.’
Her face again inches from Daisy’s, Cthulha told the cow, ‘That car came with my big flash job. Want to know why you’ve not got one?’
‘Because only special people get a Spooder Yo-Yo. That’s what humans get to do. We get to sprawl naked across our car at sunrise and kiss it till it hurts. Cows just get to stand around chewing grass. It must look pretty flash to you.’
Sally assumed she meant the chrome-tube tangle that jutted from it at seemingly random angles.
Cthulha told Daisy, ‘My boyfriend’s souped it up with some weird technology of his. Now it does six hundred miles an hour and a thousand miles to the pint. How fast can you go?’
‘Cthulha,’ Sally said. ‘Not many people bother asserting their superiority over cattle.’
‘Says a woman who works for squirrels.’
‘I don’t work for squirrels.’ Suddenly she was looking everywhere but at Cthulha.
Cthulha looked upwards.
Sally looked upwards.
Mr Bushy was on the edge of the caravan roof. He looked down at them, wearing a little red crash helmet, with knicker elastic tied to his tail.
He bungee jumped off the caravan, boinged just above the ground, recoiled several feet into the air, plummeted again then hung there by the tail.
Sally turned red.
Cthulha said, ‘Even I can figure out what you’re doing.’
‘And what’s that?’
‘Training it to do death defying stunts because you’re so desperate to be an entertainer’s assistant you’d even accept being assistant to a squirrel.’
‘And why shouldn’t I?’ she protested. ‘No one else’ll work with me, and I happen to be the best damn assistant this town’s got.’
‘Apart from that bit where you kill the turn.’
‘This is a showbiz town. I have to be in showbiz.’
Cthulha lowered her little round shades to the tip of her nose. She looked over their rims at her. ‘Sally, the fact that Charlie Williams once played a venue within ten miles of the place doesn’t make it a showbiz town.’ She prodded her sunglasses back into place. Hands in pockets, she watched the squirrel dangle. ‘Are you leaving this here?’
Sally said, ‘He likes hanging there.’
‘I can tell he does.’
‘Does it pay rent? I can’t see Uncle Al letting it stay for free.’
‘Mr Bushy pays three pence a week with dropped coins he finds under caravans.’
‘Does it pay rent?’
Before Sally could answer, Teena appeared from round the far side of her mobile home. Gaze fixed on the offices, jaw clenched, she strode towards them. If she’d been a bull (and not just engaged to one) she’d have been snorting.
Sally took it that things hadn’t gone well at the mobile home.
Hands in pockets, Cthulha watched Teena all the way; ‘Jesus. Imagine that spread naked across your car.’
‘I take it you mean Dr Rama.’
‘That’s a doctor?’
‘And she’s not a “that”. She’s a woman.’
‘Oh yeah. You’re still into that hardline feminist “women aren’t objects” crap aren’t you? No wonder you never have any fun.’
Sally rolled her eyes.
Teena reached the offices, pulled open the door and entered. Its lax spring pulled the door to behind her.
Cthulha watched the door, imagining getting up to God knew what. ‘So, what’s the story?’
‘That big mobile home.’
Cthulha glanced across at it.
Sally said, ‘Her assistant’s locked her out of it. So she spent the night with me.’
Suddenly impressed, Cthulha twisted her head round to stare at her, ‘You gave her one?’
‘Jesus.’ Cthulha shook her head in disbelief and again watched the offices.
Sally said ‘I thought you were into men now. Only two days ago you were boasting about this great new boyfriend you’d found in a ditch.’
‘I have, and he’s okay. But you know there are times when you need a woman. No matter how hard they try men don’t understand our needs. No man’ll ever know what it’s like to have your head swell up eight times a month.’
‘What’re you on about?’
‘What’re you on about?’
‘Your head. You know?’
‘Women’s heads don’t swell up eight times a month.’
‘Course they do. It’s a woman thing.’
‘No it isn’t.’
‘Then why does mine?’
‘I’ve no idea.’
‘What about the Beloved Catherine?’
‘What about her?’
‘Her head must swell up fifty times a day at least.’
‘The Beloved Catherine’s hardly a typical example of womanhood, is she.’
‘And in her case it’s down to air pressure, like a barometer.’
‘Do you think that’s what it is with me? Air pressure?’
‘Cthulha, I long ago stopped trying to explain anything about you. And who says your head swells up? I’ve never seen it swell up.’
‘Ninety-six times a year, you know what happens?’
‘My hat gets too tight.’
Sally glanced at the undertaker’s hat. Its black ribbon flapped in the breeze.
Cthulha said, ‘I can’t get the thing off some nights. I have to sleep in it. First thing next morning, it’s so loose it falls down over my eyes.’
‘Then don’t wear it.’
‘That’s not the point.’
‘What is the point?’
‘My head must be swelling.’
‘Who says it’s not your hat that’s shrinking?’
‘I measured it. It’s always the same, twenty inches round.’
‘Then you must have a problem that’s unknown to medical science.’
Cthulha still watched Sally’s offices. ‘Do you think Dr Rama’d give me a medical?’
Sally reached into her jeans’ pocket, found an object among the handful of coins and retrieved it. It had been screwed up into a ball. Taking care not to rip it, she smoothed it out against her upper leg, then held it for Cthulha. ‘You see this?’
Cthulha cast a glance back at it and shrugged. ‘It’s a sweet wrapper.’ She returned her attention to the offices.
Sally said, ‘Daisy collected it first thing this morning and gave me it – along with two others.’
‘So what’s it made of?’ Sally angled it to glint in the sunlight.
Cthulha turned, and frowned at it. ‘It’s foil.’
‘Exactly. She’s collecting foil for Uncle Al’s campaign.’
‘Is it lead foil?’
‘They don’t wrap sweets in lead.’
‘But how could it know about Uncle Al’s campaign?’
‘Animals sense things. They’re not too bright but they sense things.’ Unlike Cthulha who was not too bright and sensed nothing.
‘And she thinks a sweet wrapper’ll impress him into letting her stay?’ Cthulha shoved her face into Daisy’s. ‘Bye bye, Dobbin. You and your sweet wrappers are on a one-way trip to the abattoir.’
Long after Cthulha’s departure, Sally fixed the last foam rubber square to the last caravan. She ran her palms around its edges and pressed its centre. She held the pose then checked her watch; nine-thirty and daylight fading.
She dismounted her step ladder and stepped back to admire her handiwork. Perfect. She looked left. She saw caravans. She looked right. She saw caravans. She turned half circle. She saw caravans.
And she’d done it. Every caravan in that park, all fifty-eight of them, was now covered from top to bottom in green foam rubber.
She looked down. The ground was too hard. Tomorrow she’d have workmen dig it up and replace it with foam rubber; likewise the trees that dotted the camp, and the perimeter fencing. Soon this would be the softest, bendiest, bounciest caravan park on Earth.
And the hanging baskets some guests had hung up to make their drab lives more bearable, she’d confiscate them in case someone got tangled in their chains and strangled to death.
And the caravan whose tyres were a dangerous shade of black; first thing tomorrow she’d paint them grey.
And that nervous-looking cat needed tying to something.
Barely able to wait for tomorrow, she untethered the cow from the ladder. ‘Come on, Daisy.’
‘Let’s see if your mistress has had as great a day as we have.’
‘And what’s this?’ Archie Drizzle stood outside the offices of Flaccid and Placid’s Caravan Park.
The manager stood beside him, a young man far too pleased with himself for Drizzle’s liking. Drizzle decided he must be Flaccid, though there was no sign of Placid. Flaccid said, ‘As you can see, we’ve covered the entire site with foam rubber. I’m sure you’ll agree this is the safest park, not only in Wyndham but the whole world.’
‘I’ll be the judge of that.’ He thrust his Gladstone bag into the chest of Flaccid, who took hold of it while Drizzle stepped forward to inspect the nearest caravan. It was indeed completely covered in foam rubber; green foam rubber. A nice safe colour.
As Drizzle tugged the foam to check it was properly glued, Flaccid said, ‘Take as long as you like. We’ve nothing to fear from close inspection.’
And it seemed he was right.
But then …
… a thought struck Drizzle.
He stepped back and took in the entire view; a whole caravan park covered in foam – not just caravans but offices, trees, the ground.
‘You fool,’ Drizzle demanded. ‘Don’t you realize what you’ve done?’
Flaccid shrugged blankly.
Drizzle said, ‘You’ve turned this entire camp into one big sponge. If an asteroid were to hit this site, immediately after heavy rainfall, the impact could squeeze out a tidal wave so huge it would deluge the entire North Yorkshire coast, drowning us all.’
Flaccid frowned. ‘Isn’t that highly unlikely?’
Drizzle slapped a sticker on Flaccid’s forehead.
It said FAILED.
‘No, Gary. No one could be having a worse time than I am. I’ve been locked out of my mobile home, my assistant’s out of control, I’ve a giant rabbit sitting on him, my host’s a psycho. How could you be having a worse time than me?’ Teena paced Sally’s kitchen, arguing with her cell phone.
The phone said bzz.
‘Baboons?’ Teena said. ‘How can you have been kidnapped by baboons? There are no baboons in Blackpool.’
The phone said bzz.
‘Tanzania? How the hell did you get from the Pleasure Beach to Tanzania?’
‘What giant squid?’ she said.
‘Captain Nemo?’ she said.
‘Jules Verne?’ she said.
She stood still and frowned. ‘Gary, are you making this up?’
‘All your holidays are like this?’ she said.
‘Then why do you keep taking them?’
‘Gary, there is such a thing as taking optimism too far.’
‘Right! That’s it! If this is what holidays are like, you can keep them! I won’t be taking another!’ She prodded the phone’s Off button like it was the eye of her worst enemy then held the phone like she was about to throw it at the wall. She thought better of it and placed it on the table. She stood fuming until she noticed Sally leaning against the doorpost, watching her. ‘You heard that?’ Teena asked.
‘Every word.’ As far as Sally’d been able to work out, Gary was Teena’s lodger. He was also her bridesmaid. She’d wanted him as her best man but the vicar wouldn’t stand for it. He’d said it might cause confusion if both bride and groom had a best man. She’d said that was easily solved. She’d have a best man and her fiance wouldn’t. But the vicar had insisted – even after a prolonged bout of finger proddings and Do-You-Know-Who-I-Ams. He’d said it would be the same at any cathedral. It was a standard part of the wedding ceremony.
So now Gary Yates was her bridesmaid. She’d said it would do him good since he was totally besotted with her. Seeing her marry another man would give him a sense of closure and finally convince him there was never going to be anything between her and him. He might blub now but he’d thank her for it later.
‘I take it you’ll be staying in a hotel for the rest of your holiday, what with your host being a psycho!’ Sally said.
‘And not be able to keep an eye on those two? No chance. I’m staying right here.’
Daisy doggie-paddled upside down between the two girls.
Teena glared at it as though ready to punch it. ‘And what’s that doing in here?’
‘Because she’s been such a good girl, helping me foam rubber the camp, I’m letting her live indoors from now on.’
‘And do I get a say in this?’
‘None. You don’t live here, remember?’
Teena fumed some more. She opened her mouth to say something then thought better of it. She opened her mouth again then thought better of it. She glanced around as though seeking inspiration. Then at last she said, ‘His reputation’s built entirely on me, you know.’
Sally frowned. ‘Your bridesmaid has a reputation?’
‘Not Gary – Landen.’
She frowned deeper. ‘Mr Landen has a reputation?’
‘Because he was my first college lecturer, the scientific press said he’d discovered me – like I was some lost tribe. I wasn’t lost. I knew precisely where I was – Oxford. And I’d discovered myself long before he came along. He thinks he’s so clever. Well … well …’ Her clenched knuckles turned white by her sides.
She just stood there, anger stopping her conceiving the revenge she thought he deserved. Then she spotted something, something on the worktop by the sink. She headed for it, ravenous strides devouring the ground between her and it.
At the worktop she unplugged the TV aerial, opened the window, shoved the TV out then shut and fastened the window. She clattered aside unwanted items, the electric tin opener, the whisk, the coffee blender. Each hit the floor with a clank until at last she lifted the one object she wanted. A yank at its cable tugged its plug free of the wall socket.
‘Could you treat my property with a little more respect please?’
‘Never mind that.’ She eagerly studied the object’s black plastic. ‘Let’s see how clever he is when this gets through with him.’
‘What?’ Her gaze was fixed to the thing like Cthulha’s had been fixed to her.’
‘That thing you’re holding?’
‘Your deadly revenge?’
‘What about it?’
‘You do know what it is?’
‘And it’s …’
‘A sandwich toaster.’
Just so long as she knew.
‘What’re you doing to my sandwich toaster?’
‘Making a mind control machine.’
Sally sat facing Teena across the kitchen table as Teena reassembled the sandwich toaster. She’d already reassembled it five times, none of which had produced whatever result was desired. Each time, she’d point the thing at Sally, press its ON switch then look at her like she was a major let down. Then she’d start scrabbling away at the thing again. Frankly, Sally didn’t think she knew what she was doing.
In order to scavenge parts for her mind control machine, she’d dismantled every piece of electrical equipment Sally had and left it in pieces around them on the floor; her fridge, her microwave, her coffee blender, her radio, kettle, electric blanket, video recorder, her plastic flower that danced when you shouted at it – and the rest. If she wasn’t determined to be the best caravan park manager on Earth, Sally would have swung for her.
At a table covered with cogs, wires and assorted circuitry, Teena held a screwdriver to the sandwich toaster. Daisy watching intently over her right shoulder, she said, ‘It’s a simple yet complex device incorporating one connection for each connection of the human brain. Much as I’m loathe to take such action, finding it a plain nuisance, drastic steps are required if I’m to re-enter my mobile home.’
‘But mind control?’
‘Is it really that urgent you get back inside?’
She stopped screwdriving and watched Sally across the table. ‘Have you seen my face?’
‘It looks okay to me.’ Sally shrugged.
‘It looks okay? Do you know how beautiful I am?’
‘I’m sure you’re gorgeous.’
‘Yesterday morning I was one hundred and forty-seven per cent too beautiful. A burden but bearable. Now, according to Browning’s Attractivity Index, I’m two hundred and ninety-three percent too beautiful. Three hundred percent is the figure at which female beauty would kill.’
‘How can you be getting more beautiful? We’re all stuck with what we’ve got.’
‘Adversity makes a woman more attractive. Once I’m back in the mobile home and my adversity level retreats, so my beauty levels should normalize.’
‘You’re not a nuclear reactor, you know.’
‘Some forces are stronger than any nuclear explosion, Sally.’ She resumed screwdriving. ‘This sandwich toaster will turn Landen into a walking robot. Then I’ll make him open the door.’
‘I’ll hit him.’
Teena tightened a screw deep within the machine. ‘Concussion therapy’s a valid part of any psychiatrist’s toolkit.’
Sally watched the weedy device which looked like it couldn’t even toast sandwiches anymore. ‘And this thing could do all that?’
‘No brain can resist its waves – apart from mine.’
‘What’s so special about yours?’
‘I’m too strong-willed. Its rays would simply bounce off my cerebellum and hit bystanders.’
‘Isn’t there an obvious flaw in this plan?’
‘None. I’ve thought of everything. I even have the right sized fuse.’ She held up the plug as proof. ‘A luxury in mind control circles.’
‘But how could it work on a man with no brain?’
‘But Mr Landen has no brain.’
‘Nonsense.’ She tightened a screw deep within the device.
‘No, listen to me.’ She reached across and held Teena’s arm to stop her working. ‘He’s got no brain. You know that wing nut on top of his head?’
‘What about it?’
‘When you first arrived, and you told him to pay the week’s rent while you went veil buying, he unscrewed the wing nut and removed the top of his head. I almost passed out. Then he reached inside and pulled out a wad of notes. Teena, I’ve seen inside his head. There’s nothing in there but a tub of margarine.’
Teena shook her arm free but kept working at the machine. ‘Mr Landen has one of the finest brains in England. I’ve seen it myself.’
‘Whenever he’s removed it.’ She tightened another screw.
‘Removed it?’ Sally’s gaze scampered all over her.
Then Teena stopped work. Then she did nothing. Then she put the screwdriver down. Then she stared at the far wall. Then she said, ‘Ah.’
‘To enliven his lectures, Mr Landen often removes his brain. For demonstration purposes he passes it round his students. As a joke, one of them must have substituted a tub of margarine for his brain and he placed it back in his head; an easy mistake for a brainless man to make.’
‘What sort of idiot would play a trick like that?’
‘We shouldn’t be too hard on the students. I’m sure they were just being high-spirited.’
‘But they’d have to be complete morons.’
Teena said, ‘I remember hearing once about a young student who played the same trick using a goldfish she’d won at a funfair. Of course, in her case, she was very young and very sorry for any harm she’d caused and wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing now.’ She turned red and shifted uncomfortably in her seat. ‘That goldfish was swimming round in there for two months before anyone got suspicious.
‘That may explain his odd behaviour since coming away with me. I’d been putting it down to lust but total brainlessness would provoke identical behaviour in a man.’
‘How can a man live without a brain?’
‘Many people live without a brain.’
‘No one I know does.’
‘Are you sure?’
Uncle Al leapt to mind. She pushed him aside.
Teena said, ‘When autopsied, one in thirty people are found to have had little or no brain function in life. It’s a mystery of modern science. Statistically speaking, you know someone with no brain.’
Cthulha leapt to mind. Sally pushed her aside.
Teena said, ‘The media exaggerates the brain’s importance. For a woman such as myself, a brain’s indispensable. But for an average person, like you, its main use is as ballast whilst swimming.’
‘So your invention won’t work.’
‘And you’ve ruined my sandwich toaster.’
‘And you’ve ruined my washing machine.’
‘And you’ve ruined my TV.’
‘And I can’t have coffee.’
‘And I can’t watch TV.’
‘And I can’t do the washing.’
‘So what can I do?’
Teena shrugged. ‘Is there anyone you know whose brain needs controlling?’
Last thing that night, Teena lay on the top bunk, reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and scrubbing out the wrong bits. One of these days she was going to have to have a word with Mr Hawking.
‘Teena?’ Sally appeared in the doorway. Clearly hiding something behind her back she beamed, ‘I’ve been thinking.’
‘As you don’t like being sellotaped to your bunk at nights, I’ve thought of a better way to keep you safe.’
Teena squinted at her distrustingly. ‘And that’d be …?’
From behind her back, looking far too proud of herself, Sally Cooper produced a full set of, ‘Chains!’
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