Oops. As you may know now, Six Impossible Things aired, received sixty-six complaints and is consequently unavailable to listen to on iplayer, so pftt. (Is that an accurate use of the word "consequently"? Don't ask me.) But it's Baftas tonight. Mitchell and Webb Look is up for a gong and I am very proud to be associated with everyone aboard. They're great. If you do not believe me (of course you believe me) head over to their blogs (do it anyway). I mean, Toby Davies has posted a whole tale on his!... I wish I'd been there when he read it out. Some friends of mine from the London Dungeon held a similar evening a few months back which I could make though, and I took along a tale of my own that I hadn't looked at in years, and I like it, and so in lieu of anything elseh hello, here's mine:
May's Account of August
On the walls of the Goat’s Head Cafe are proudly displayed a large number of red paper napkins. They sport a graceful yet bewildering stream of numbers and symbols and tumbling stick figures, all that remain of August the tailor’s evening visits. Those were happier days, when the streets were free of old shoes and August could be found at a table with a pot of tea and a pen from work, scribbling away on a serviette. And scribbling what? August assured anyone who asked that he was working on an equation which, when solved, would finally calculate the Meaning Of It All. I never met him personally but his works are still famous throughout the city, and it is generally held that, had he not been taken from us so suddenly and tragically (in circumstances which I shall shortly relate) he would have probably had the thing finished within a week.
The Goat’s Head Cafe stocks no newspapers for its clientele. Instead the proprietress encourages customers to take a napkin from the counter and try to solve his equation for themselves. He left us five years ago, and it is only my meeting with May in this same cafeteria that leads me to speak of him now.
For you to understand the circumstances of August’s disappearance you must first know of the unique affliction that corrupted the city and still blights it to this day. It is a cold place and peeling, with more than its fair share of dirty birds and damp. But more puzzling and biblically inconvenient than all these is the proliferation of old shoes.
They made their first appearance here when I was still a child. Stories were heard of cracks appearing in the city from which articles of discoloured footwear would suddenly belch forth in their tens and hundreds. It wasn’t long before instances of this curious pollution became commonplace. It was impossible to predict where or when they would appear, but those who tried to make sense of such things interpreted this as a moral judgment levelled by the city itself upon certain of its inhabitants. Indeed it was not long before the common wisdom pronounced that if an epidemic of old shoes was suddenly visited upon one’s home, one must have done something to deserve it.
Then a lean, previously unremarkable tailor with a mathematical bent came forward and let it be known that, following countless evenings of hard scribbling and experiment, he had succeeded in developing a single skein of thread strong enough to bind this city’s cracks for good. On hearing this the citizens immediately divided themselves between those who, meditating upon the unprecedentedly moral nature of this plague, warned against the sinful implications in attempting any cure, and those who thought that August’s claim was simply bobbins. But the single thread worked, and it went on to make August’s name for him and a tidy pile besides. He set up a very discreet practice on the twenty-third floor of some wrought-iron Bread Street edifice and there awaited calls from anyone who may have suddenly found themselves having to contend with an old boot shooting into their guests’ soup, until the whole problem seemed to be remedied. Outbreaks became increasingly rare and, thanks to the nimble mind and fingers of August the tailor, quickly brought under control.
“Nevertheless there is always more to be done,” he would maintain, and took to spending his evenings at the Goat’s Head Cafe calculating the Meaning Of It All.
This golden age was not to last however, and five years ago to the day before my first meeting with May an eruption of old shoes far greater than any we had ever known tore the city almost to pieces, bursting from every solid surface like the pale flesh from a crushed banana. Many people lost loved ones in the deluge, but the most tragic loss to the city had to be that of the one man who might have been able to do something about the teetering, leathery heaps that litter the streets even as I speak, August himself.
That is all we know of August the tailor... and all I knew of him until, as I said, I was sitting in the Goat’s Head recently and was approached by a very neat woman with grey skin and short, shiny hair who said that her name was May, and that she used to work the stage door of the Schmaltz Theatre on the corner of Bread and Water, and that I had a kind face, and that there was something weighing on her, and that if I bought her a bacon sandwich she would tell me what had really happened to August five years ago to the day. I had quite a bit of money on me so I bought her the sandwich, and as she began to relate her story she took a clump of red paper napkins and started to doodle.
“When I used to sit at the stage door,” she said, “I could see him looking at me from his office on the twenty-third floor. It was just across the street. I didn’t know who he was at first, but he was clearly taken with me - I mean I was quite a way away - and I loved the silly little silhouette of him staring down at me. Eventually I decided to put on a ruff that was lying around or some old werewolf costume, and I’d do a little dance back at him. So finally one day he comes down from his office to the stage door and makes himself known to me and I think, ‘Well! So this is August the tailor!’...
“He asked me if I was free after work and I was so we arranged to go out. That first night we just sat on our coats by the canal feeding the dirty birds, but the next week I had a night off and took him to see a show at the Schmaltz. August was absolutely captivated by it, and came every night after that. He told me that what he had loved most about it was not the story or the acting or even the costumes, but the set. He said he’d never before seen anything in the city that promised so much space. It was the forest where the werewolf play takes place - just a series of flats with trees painted on them - but August was convinced that there was more to it than that, and that if he were allowed onto the stage and were to walk to the back the forest would continue and broaden out on both sides to reveal a whole other world composed of flats painted only on one side, and that if he walked far enough into this forest he would eventually come out the other side onto a wooden beach with a rolling, wooden sea of twisted cylinders and such like. ‘That’s how I would escape,’ he said, without any hint of a smile. Anyway we continued to see each other, but only as friends because I knew how important his calculations were to him, and because I didn’t think he fully understood my line of work. So when he asked me out of the blue to be his wife one afternoon by the canal I said sorry but no, even though he was very rich and famous, because I wasn’t sure I’d be marrying him for the right reasons, and also because, well to be honest, there was something about his work with shoes that sickened me, although I shame myself now to say it. Anyway, we finished feeding the dirty birds, and that was that...
“I saw nothing more of him until a couple of months later. He came round to the stage door and asked me if I was sure I didn’t want to go with him. I said well I might but what was he talking about. He asked me if there was ‘anyone else’ and I said that that wasn’t the point, and then I asked him how his equation was getting on, and he said that he’d been having a bit of bother with it. I said I was sorry to hear that. Then he reached both hands into his pockets and with one hand he pulled out a lovely speckled ring, and with the other he pulled out one end of a piece of thread, and he put them both on my little shelf and said, ‘If it’s alright with you, I’m going to take a look backstage.’
“I said, ‘Fine.’
“‘I’m going to leave these here with you, May,’ he said, ‘and while I’m gone I want you to pick one of them - the ring or the thread. I’d rather you picked the ring,’ and then he walked off into the theatre, and I was a bit annoyed...
“So of course I picked the thread. Well I wouldn’t have picked the ring anyway. But... well... it turned out to be the thread holding the whole city together, didn’t it? It just went on and on and I picked it and I picked it and the next thing I knew the whole city had come undone, and there were old shoes all over the place. And there were people dead. And it was all my fault. It was just one thread.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“No, I know. But I really miss him. And I mean I hate him as well. No one should suddenly have that sort of responsibility dumped upon them.”
Maybe August had felt the same way. It didn’t sound like him though. As she brushed the last crumbs from her cheek, I stared out of the cafeteria window at this peeling city and the shoes in the street...
“What do you suppose happened to him?”
She didn’t have to give this any thought at all: “I like to think that he isn’t dead. He’s just gone backstage.”
I liked that. As she got up to leave May pushed her napkin my way.
“Here,” she said, “Have this. Thanks again for the bacon sandwich. I feel significantly better now.”
I looked down at what she had written on it.
There was a number.
I called it that evening but nobody answered.
(A typical night at the Schmaltz)
Well Myspace seems to be a bit jittery aboout linking to any of these addresses but Toby's tale can be found here: http://acertainirregularity.blogspot.com/ and it really is a beaut'!
See also the excellent blogs of John Finnemore http://johnfinnemore.blogspot.com/
and Jon Taylor http://notsowunderbar.blogspot.com/ ... Good luck to us all.
The fortuitously relevant and uncontroversial illustration I found here.