Friday, 24 April 2020

uninvited guest: update

When I wrote about our uninvited guest—a wasp—last week, I did so in the expectation that it had completed it’s task. I was mistaken.

Two days later, it was back, and although I didn’t see it seal the first ‘pod’, I caught it in the act of constructing a second alongside the first:

And this was the completed ‘pod’, with neatly sculpted entrance hole:

A day later, Paula and I went out cycling, and during our absence the wasp had sealed the second ‘pod’ and completed a third:

I didn’t see it seal the third ‘pod’ either:

However, the last four days have been damp, and although the wasp’s handiwork is protected from direct rainfall by the top of the balcony rail, it does seem to have been affected by dripping water. The previous photo was taken today, four days after the wasp’s latest nefarious activity. And it hasn’t been back.

further update
I was enjoying my morning coffee on the balcony on 16th May when I noticed that a hole had appeared in the wasps first ‘pod’:

Paula and I then went for a bike ride, and when we returned, the second and third ‘pods’ had also been vacated:

I waited for a few days before posting this update to see whether the occupant of the fourth ‘pod’ would emerge, but it never did. Either it tunnelled into an adjacent ‘pod’ and made its escape that way, or it was the victim of the skullduggery that I hinted at in A Cuckoo in the Nest?

Friday, 17 April 2020

an uninvited guest

When I stepped out onto my balcony this morning, I couldn’t help but notice a wasp that was hovering around. I tried to waft it away, not because I was alarmed by it, but simply because I didn’t want it getting into the house before I’d closed the screen doors. I did notice that it appeared to be hovering around a particular spot on the balcony rail, but then I went back indoors and thought no more about it.

If I’m not either writing or out cycling, the next most common activity that you’re likely to find me doing is sitting on the balcony drinking beer. And, having been out cycling yesterday and planning to go out again tomorrow, that is what I was doing a few hours later. After a short while, I became aware that the same wasp—or another of its species—seemed to be occupied on the same part of the balcony rail that I mentioned earlier. It was about 1.5 metres away, so it was a while before it dawned on me.

“The cheeky bugger!” I thought. “It’s building a nest.”

It took me a while to decide what to do, but eventually I went back indoors to fetch my camera. The wasp was still there, so I took a couple of photographs:
I didn’t notice the small round ball to the right in the first photo until I examined the photos, but I concluded that it must be part of the wasp’s enterprise. However, it hasn’t been back. Perhaps it couldn’t find its way back, because in wasp terms, it would have had to fly a considerable distance to obtain the mud that it had used in its construction project. Anyway, I had wondered whether I would have to destroy the nest, but if that’s it—it isn’t going to get any bigger—then I shall leave it and await developments.

Tuesday, 14 April 2020


Until last Friday, I hadn’t ridden the final frontier since last December, and since my last ride, there has been a major change in the road markings on Lin Ma Hang Road at the junction with the only way by road into the village of Tsung Yuen Ha, although I should qualify that statement. The ride enters the village via the corpse road, for which you would need a four-wheel-drive vehicle—or a mountain bike—and leaves via a Drainage Services access road that is a dead end for motor vehicles. However, for someone on a bike, there is a footbridge over a storm drain that provides access to a short narrow path leading to the narrow road into the village of Heung Yuen Wai (which I wrote about in Disappearing World #3).

Turning right here leads only to the village and is otherwise a dead end. However, if you turn left, you will reach Lin Ma Hang Road within a short distance. At this point, Lin Ma Hang Road is a single-track road that carries very little traffic, but within 400 metres, it widens into a regular two-way road. That never used to be a problem, but on Friday, this is what confronted me:

I always used to simply keep left—I don’t think this was originally a ‘passing place’—but notice the arrow directing vehicles to the right (in case you’re also confused at this point, don’t forget that we drive on the left in Hong Kong—a legacy of British rule).

This photo shows a second arrow pointing right and provides a look at what lies beyond:

The give-way lines for the road coming in from the left extend into the carriageway, and together with the hashed area mean that I’m supposed to keep right. Of course, I didn’t see the one-way signs until I examined the photos, because they aren’t very obvious, but I thought: what about traffic coming in the opposite direction?

What isn’t obvious from the photos is that the road from the left is part of a parallel road about 50 metres in length that houses the terminus of a bus route that I believe operates only on Sundays and public holidays, and that includes the junction with the road into Tsung Yuen Ha. I might have continued to be confused by the road markings, but while I was taking the photos, a fire engine appeared from the left—a large hill fire had broken out somewhere behind us, which we’d noticed before reaching Lin Ma Hang Road. Apparently, it was directed to turn right into the parallel road before re-emerging onto the main road.

This doesn’t make any sense. Why not simply maintain two-way traffic on the main road and leave the parallel road, which isn’t new, only for vehicles that need to use it? Almost nothing surprises me after spending so many years in Hong Kong, but the chaos that could be created by these bizarre road markings comes very close.

Incidentally, the fence alongside the road, which you can see in both photos on the far side of the road, is the frontier between Hong Kong and China, and the odd layered building is therefore in Shenzhen.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

hidden history #4

I wonder how many people in Hong Kong know that there was once a railway line from Fanling to Sha Tau Kok. I certainly didn’t until I starred exploring east of Fanling about three years ago. I was riding along the rudimentary cycle track that runs parallel to Sha Tau Kok Road, between the junctions with Ping Che Road and Lau Shui Heung Road, when I spotted a nondescript building behind a sturdy wire-netting fence:

I probably wouldn’t have taken any notice, except that I spotted a polished metal plaque with the following inscription (I’ve edited the text slightly for clarity):
Hung Leng Station
Fanling–Sha Tau Kok Branch Line
Hung Leng station was one of three wayside stations on the Fanling–Sha Tau Kok branch line and is the only remaining building structure of the line. Constructed in 1911 and in service from 1912 to 1928, the Fanling–Sha Tau Kok branch line was the first mass transit system for the northeastern New Territories. After the closure of the line, the station was closed and handed over to the government. It was once used as a store by the Highways Department.
Purposely built as a functional railway station, Hung Leng station is a simple Chinese rural vernacular building with minimal decorations. The station is rectangular in plan, with walls built of brick supporting a pitched roof. Opening off a front verandah, the five rooms inside were originally used as a ticket office, waiting rooms and toilets. This historic building is accorded Grade 3 status.
I probably would never have followed this up, except for a comment left by a reader of Hidden History #3, that I write about this railway. What follows is what I’ve been able to find out (I took the photos yesterday while out cycling).

Construction of the line began after the completion of the Hong Kong section of the Kowloon–Canton railway in 1910. It was a narrow-gauge line (610mm) that covered a distance of 11.67km. An end-to-end journey took 55 minutes, which is a reflection of the difficulty of the terrain it had to negotiate. Along the eastern part of the line, there were gradients of up to 1 in 45, which may not sound much, but in the UK, such a gradient would, in the days of steam, have required that banking engines be permanently stationed there to push trains up the hill. There were also some extremely tight curves with a radius of as little as 45 metres, which would certainly have restricted achievable speeds.

The line was single-track, with just one passing loop, near the village of Kwan Tei, about 4km east of Fanling. There is now no obvious population centre around Hung Leng station, but there was once a racecourse near Kwan Tei, although there is now absolutely no trace of its existence. Travelling punters would have had to disembark at Hung Leng station, which is almost a kilometre beyond Kwan Tei. Incidentally, I’ve conjectured in the past that the area I walk through to reach Fanling, which is still known as Ma Shi Po (literally, ‘horse shit area’), acquired the name because cavalry regiments were stationed at the nearby British Army base of Gallipoli Lines, but it may be that the area, part of the flood plain of the Ng Tung River, was used to graze racehorses between events.

At the same time as the railway was being built, a road was also constructed that ran alongside the tracks. At the time, it terminated after 6–7km, but in 1924, the Hong Kong government decided to extend the road to Sha Tau Kok. As happened to hundreds of rural branch lines in Britain, this was the death knell for the line. A motor bus could make the journey in less than half the time!

Apparently, there are places in the east where you can still trace the track bed. There’s even a tunnel somewhere, although I’d be surprised if anyone knows its location. The portals of any such tunnel are sure to have become heavily overgrown in the more than 90 years since the line ceased operations.

Here are three other photos that I took of Hung Leng station yesterday:

The first was taken by holding my camera over the fence, so I had no idea precisely what I was taking. The second is a view of the station looking away from Fanling, while the third is a view of the gable end closer to Fanling. I took the third photo by scrambling up the bank outside the fence, and it looks as though I can get inside the fence, but I didn’t want to leave my bike unattended, so I will wait until I pass this way with Paula before attempting to gain entry.

By the way, the roof structure above the main building is not part of the original. It was probably added during the period when the station was being used by the Highways Department, perhaps to mitigate the effects of a leaky roof or to shield the building from direct sunlight and thus keep it slightly cooler.

Meanwhile, here is an old photo of a train waiting to depart from Fanling station, which looks nothing like this anymore:

Although the Tsz Tak Study Hall, Fanling Wai and the Pang Ancestral Hall are just off-camera to the left, there was nothing to see here then (I’ve no idea what the colonial-style buildings in the distance are, but there is no longer any trace of their existence). All that exists nowadays in the area shown in the photograph is high-rise blocks as far as the eye can see, which isn’t far! I can’t help but wonder what prompted the KCR to locate a station here in 1911, other than for people who wanted to catch a train to Sha Tau Kok.

other posts in this series
Hidden History.
Hidden History #2.
Hidden History #3.
Hidden History #5.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

shunshelstinx receives a summons

Between 2000 and 2002, I wrote a comic fantasy novel about imaginary creatures called gelgins that are responsible for everything that unexpectedly goes wrong in the world. I’d had the idea many years earlier, but when I started to write, for some inexplicable reason, instead of chronicling the clever stunts that gelgins can pull off, I found myself describing the exploits of the three most incompetent gelgins in the history of their kind.

The first publisher that I submitted the completed book to thought it ‘funny and well written’ but ended their letter with ‘…but we don’t publish comic fantasy.’ Obviously, I was encouraged—all I needed to do was find the right publisher—but after two years, I’d run out of potential publishers. The book remains unpublished, although I have posted extracts on this blog from time to time.

What follows is the opening episode in the book, and you will need to know that there are three types of gelgin—rajas, tamas and sattvas—each with distinctive habits and personalities. A honka (a gelgin word) is a food item, only ever prepared by tamas gelgins, that is nauseatingly smelly.

*  *  *

Shunshelstinx sat stiffly upright in the hard chair beside the fire. It was his favourite chair, given to him when he was a callow young gelgin, although he had long ago forgotten the donor’s name. He had never been very good with names, but now that you come to mention it, it was probably his mother. He was toasting his teatime crumpets and his short, fat toes, but as he waited for the crumpets to brown, he allowed his thoughts to drift aimlessly, and he quickly became lost in the uncharted depths of a wilderness of enticing daydreams about his important contributions, real and imaginary, but mostly imaginary, to past and future practical jokes. He was therefore not paying close attention, which really was a silly thing to be doing, and if not silly, then at least not sensible, given that during the aeons that Qumfl’quelunx has lived next door, his sense of smell has become so dull that he couldn’t find an open bottle of scent in a dungheap, let alone a steaming pile of cow dung in a perfume factory, unless, of course, he stood in it.

Anyway, despite such severe shortcomings in the basic olfactory capacity that every gelgin should possess, which means that for more years than he cares to remember he has been unable to perceive even the slightest difference in aroma between fried mushrooms and cheese on toast, he was roused abruptly from the distant depths of his peripatetic reverie by a sudden and startling smell. It was the unmistakeably acrid stench of burning hair, although ‘stench’ is not the kind of word that would spring immediately to mind if the mind referred to was in any way whatsoever associated with Shunshelstinx. Niff! Now that was his favourite word, or one of them at least, because there were so many to choose from.

“Ouch! Oow! Ooow! Oooow!” he squeaked, each squeal longer and louder than the last.

Shunshelstinx has an exceptionally low pain threshold, so low that a brisk buffeting about the temples with a felt-tipped ostrich feather has been known to provoke a bout of uncontrollable hysteria, while a head-on collision with a fly whose navigation system has been malfunctioning often results in a call to the doctor. And gelgins don’t have doctors, so you can imagine how hysterical that must be. And a nettle sting could cause a dead faint and result in a summons for the funeral director, who is unlikely to be pleased to discover that the ‘corpse’ is not dead. A dead loss, probably. Dead stupid, certainly. But not dead.

However, had any other gelgin been present to witness this farce, Shunshelstinx would have clenched his fists and silently bitten his lower lip, not so that it might hurt, you understand, but merely as a reminder that he should conduct himself in an appropriately seemly manner at all times. Sneedl’bodja would not have been in the least sympathetic. He would have thought the entire episode side-splittingly funny, despite it being regarded as the abyss of poor taste to laugh at the misfortunes of another gelgin. But it was only the hairs on his feet, after all. Shunshelstinx had overreacted, as he often did, and he was not hurt at all. Not even a gnat’s fraction of his entire person had been harmed, even in his imagination, limited as that was.

“Bother!” he exclaimed to nobody in particular. “This is rather, well, er, none too pleasing.”

Just then there came a sharp rap-tap-rat-a-tat on his front door. That would be Sneedl’bodja, the impatient urgency of whose ‘open this door immediately’ knock was quite as distinctive as his staccato laughter.

“Bother,” said Shunshelstinx again, this time referring to the unexpected interruption and not to his feet. “I must calm down. I can’t possibly allow Snee to see me when I’m not at my best. What would a great leader of gelgins do in this situation? What did I do last time? Now, think. Oh dear! That’s difficult. What should I think about? Help! Help! Don’t panic! Now, panic…!”

He tailed off, very nearly on the verge of hysteria, but then he stopped and slowly took a deep and self-important breath.

“Now concentrate!” he continued quietly to himself. “That’s it! Concentration. Self-discipline. Iron resolution. Determination. Works wonders. I’m glad I thought of that.”

At least the arrival of Sneedl’bodja had taken his mind off his feet, and the realization began to dawn on him, albeit not until shortly before midday, that he had merely been startled and not slightly incinerated, as he had first assumed. Brain not functioning properly, he concluded, as indeed was often the case. In fact, there have been occasions when his friends have suggested that his brain is not functioning at all, either properly or improperly. And it turns out that these occasions when his brain has not been performing according to its official job description are so frequent that you could be forgiven for assuming that it is the default state of affairs. No need to assume. This is the standard interface that Shunshelstinx presents to the world. He is as dim as he sounds. Really. He is so dim that, by comparison, a firefly would think itself ready to take on the Pharos of Alexandria for the title of Seventh Wonder of the World. Denser than material normally only ever found in the core of a black dwarf. Hang an ‘out of order’ sign on his brain and, well, you get the picture.

At least the interruption had been impeccable in its timing. To his great surprise and absolute delight, he discovered that his crumpets were not too hot, not too brown. And not too crisp either. They were just right, which is how he liked them.

“Do come in Snee,” he called firmly, but not too firmly, and certainly not too loudly.

Crash! The door flew open, and in leapt Sneedl’bodja with a florid flourish and an exaggerated bow. Always the show-off. All he needs is an audience, even if it is only Shunshelstinx. But close on his heels came a faint niff, which proceeded to intensify with the speed of a sneeze from a bull elephant that just a few seconds earlier had carelessly snuffled its trunk into a plastic bucket full of freshly milled white pepper. This malodorous stench ruthlessly clawed, barged and elbowed its way into the nostrils of the unsuspecting Shunshelstinx in the desperately frantic style of an aggressively jostling crowd of morning commuters battling to board a suburban train on which room to breathe has already been changing hands for sums of money that are impossible to comprehend without the aid of a qualified accountant. The rank odour quickly enveloped his larynx like the tendrils of a supercharged beanstalk that has overdosed on high-potash fertilizer and was now attempting to throttle him from the inside, outwards, almost as if someone had casually opened an umbrella inside his throat.



Neither question nor response required any elaboration, but Sneedl’bodja is a typical rajas and as such isn’t likely to refrain from stating the blindingly obvious just because it is obvious. In fact, stating the shriekingly ‘look, I’m over here!’ obvious is part of Sneedl’bodja’s stock-in-trade.

“That seriously dim tamas, who couldn’t outrun the digestive juices of a sloshed slug, who has less wit than the slime trail of a snacking snail! Who couldn’t make a crocodile cry! And who couldn’t think his way out of a room with only one door and fewer windows! Whose brain—and we’re assuming here that he has a brain, which is not a proposition, let me tell you, which I would accept without insisting that evidence be produced—whatever brain he might once have possessed must have been consumed by maggots, confiscated by the magistrates, or perhaps it was purloined by a passing thief when he wasn’t looking! He’s cooking! Again!” he spluttered, barked and coughed in a voice that to the practised ear may have sounded just ever so slightly more irritable than it usually did, although you will quickly discover that there is rarely enough scope for increasing his irritability much beyond its usual tectonic level.

When he had reached the end of his tirade, he made a rapid survey of the room, followed by an equally rapid change of subject.

“Ah! Crumpets I see,” he added. “Any for me?”

He did not really need to ask, because Shunshelstinx always prepared some extra crumpets for him, but he liked to make sure, just in case. Shunshelstinx did not react to his visitor’s question at first. Although he was desperate for a lungful of fresh and wholesome air, and although this urgent need had almost destroyed his concentration, he was firmly determined to maintain at least the pretence that he, Shunshelstinx, was in charge, well knowing that Sneedl’bodja would not take any notice. Unless food was on the table. He was much more easily persuaded then, and therefore more manageable. Persuaded of what? You might well ask, although you would be unlikely to receive a sensible reply unless you were prepared to hang around for a depressingly long time. And even then no guarantees could be offered.

Shunshelstinx, meanwhile, had managed to leap up and slam the door shut. He then collapsed against the inside of the door, gasping for air, having held his breath for far longer than was sensible, even in these dire circumstances. And as dire circumstances go, the stench generated by a honka is among the most dire imaginable.

“What a honka! That was even worse than the last one, although my memory is not what it was,” he spluttered. “What’s he cooking up this time?”

“I don’t know, but it smells like a mature mixture of rotting fish offal, burning blubber, rancid yak’s milk cheese and putrefying snails’ entrails,” screeched Sneedl’bodja, whose sense of smell is not merely keen, it is unbearably enthusiastic, which is why, presumably, he can discern each of these disgustingly malodorous ingredients from the general background stench.

“But it’s what he calls his ‘secret’ ingredient, whatever that is, that makes the stench so awful. This reek is much worse than even….”

Even Sneedl’bodja was unable, for once, to find the words he wanted, although such a failure is uncharacteristic, because most of the time he has harrowing harangues and tub-thumping tirades queuing up to take their turn, caustic comments trying to jump the queue, and several arguments and even a few fights breaking out all along the line. However, even without this clue, Shunshelstinx formed the impression that his rajas friend was being less restrained, if that were possible, than he had been on any of the previous, but mercifully infrequent, occasions when Qumfl’quelunx had been busy in the kitchen.

But whatever had made his friend perhaps just a little more annoyed with Qumfl’quelunx than he usually is even Shunshelstinx could guess, having just experienced at first hand the fumigatory properties of the latter’s latest honka in all its virulent nastiness. Mind you, this would be about the limit of Shunshelstinx’s ability to guess anything sensible—he has more than enough trouble guessing his name—while Sneedl’bodja needs no excuse to be annoyed about anything. He is never annoyed about nothing. In other words, he is always annoyed about something or other, or both. In fact, being annoyed about only two things at once counts as a monumental exercise in restraint. And Sneedl’bodja may have been called quite a few unkind things over the years, usually by Qumfl’quelunx under his breath, but ‘restrained’ is unlikely to have been one of them.

“However,” he added as he regained some measure of composure. “I say that we form a neighbourhood committee to ban this sort of behaviour! It shouldn’t be allowed! It is an utter, utter…”

And here he coughed, spluttered twice, coughed twice more and continued.

“…utter outrage! There should be a statute against it! There should be an ordinance! There should be a bye-law! There should be a regulation! There should be a rule! There should be grounds for a claim! There should be grounds for an action!”

“Well, Snee, you’re the man of action,” interjected Shunshelstinx from his uncharacteristically untidy sprawl against the front door, where he had remained during Sneedl’bodja’s outbursts.

The manner of his delivery, one assumes intentionally, had much in common with a deadpan stand-up comedian who has just cracked the worst joke in the world in the firm conviction that he has related the funniest ever told. Or perhaps Shunshelstinx’s joke really was that funny. It’s just the way he tells them. Anyway, if, on this evidence, you were to judge that Shunshelstinx has a poor sense of humour, you wouldn’t expect to discover that you were wrong. But you would be wrong. His sense of humour is so penurious that a merely poor sense of humour would think itself wealthy beyond rational belief by comparison. However, even this typically, characteristically, lame sattvas jest, which was well up to Shunshelstinx’s usual standards, was so unexpected as to stun Sneedl’bodja into sudden silence.

“I remember when I was very young, my uncle always used to say that porridge is best cooked in an iron pan, and not to add too much salt, so I use hardly any,” continued Shunshelstinx, standing up and puffing out his chest. “And cocoa is best drunk piping hot, or so I’ve been told, but it depends on how hot the piping is. Mustn’t be too hot, I would have thought. And it should be served with not more than a soup├žon of sugar. I can remember how much sugar to use because when I’m in my kitchen, the soup’s on the stove, so I obviously need a soup ladle. Although for what I can’t remember. I’m not sure if we were ever told. And it’s always best to toast crumpets on a fire that has almost gone out but can still singe the hairs on the palms of your hands. Brings out the wholesome goodness. I also understand that there’s been a severe shortage of dolly mixtures recently, and all our top gelgins are working on the problem even as we speak. So why wasn’t I asked? Don’t you know it’s what’s important that counts?”

We can all agree with that last statement, but why did it take so long to get there? The simple answer is that Shunshelstinx does not so much beat about the bush as bash and batter his way around an entire jungle of overgrown herbiage. Or should that be ‘overblown verbiage’? At least, he would do if his friends gave him half a chance, which they don’t, unless they aren’t paying attention, which is a common enough state of affairs when the object of that missing attention is Shunshelstinx himself.

“Anyway, don’t expect me to deal with the problem,” he added. “I think that the best tactic is to keep him well supplied with leftovers, but not too well supplied of course, because then he’d be sure to keep some until it has gone mouldy. And after all these years of living next door, I’m almost used to the reek, as you call it….”

And here he paused to reflect on Sneedl’bodja’s earlier choice of word to describe what both gelgins knew no word can possibly describe with any useful degree of accuracy, the stench of a honka. He would have much preferred to use ‘pong’, because it is a more genteel word, more dignified and less violent on the ear. If he had been in a sniffy mood, he might have chosen to say ‘niff’ instead. He might even have plumped for ‘offensive effluvium’, which has the distinct advantage of concealing its meaning from mere casual users, who can therefore introduce the phrase into polite cocktail party chatter with little or no risk of embarrassment.

“However, thank goodness he’s such a dandy,” he concluded. “He usually changes his socks every other day at least, so he rarely manages to mature a suitably cheesy pair in which to cook his dreadful honkas. And if he wasn’t so lazy, we’d all have more to endure than I even dare to imagine.”

And even Shunshelstinx, who has now used up his ration of imagination for the entire story, shuddered inwardly at such a depressing notion—just once a year was more than once too often. He then walked slowly over to the cupboard in the corner of his parlour, rummaged around in a battered cardboard shoebox on the middle shelf and took out a wood-and-wire clothes peg to show Sneedl’bodja.

“This is my latest method. It’s very clever,” he said smugly. “With you crashing in the way you did, I didn’t have a chance to prepare properly, but usually, when Qumfl’quelunx is cooking, I put this on my nose before I open the front door. He caught me by surprise this time. And you weren’t expected.”

He demonstrated the required technique with the clothes peg, which is sufficiently obvious not to require further description.

“Only trouble is, I can’t hear myself speaking properly, so I don’t know what I’m talking about. Or perhaps I can’t remember what I’m talking about. Or maybe I’m talking about something I can’t remember. Or possibly I’m remembering something I’m not supposed to talk about. Or else I’m talking about something I know nothing about. I’m good at that. I think. It’s definitely at least one of those. If not more. I think. I’m not sure. I can’t remember,” said Shunshelstinx confusingly.

“How’s your ulcer today,” he continued, changing the subject. “Painful? Oh dear! I am so sorry to hear….”

“No! No! My ulcer is perfectly fine! In fact, I do not have an ulcer,” interrupted Sneedl’bodja rudely and not quite truthfully. “It’s this! It’s for you!”

He brandished a large, gold-coloured envelope, across the front of which was written the single word ‘Shunshelstinx’, a word that Shunshelstinx read twice. He was sure he recognized it from somewhere, but where he couldn’t be sure. Well, it wasn’t a birthday card; he could work that out straight away. And the bold, ornate script that the envelope bore is only ever used by a small and very important group of gelgins. As if the distinctively official colour of the envelope with the oddly familiar word was not enough of a clue.

Ding! Shunshelstinx was transfixed by a sudden thought.

“Oh dear!” he muttered.

Surprisingly quickly, he had realized that the letter, notice, invitation, summons, advertising circular or whatever it was could have come from only one source. A source that could not be ignored, although he would have done almost anything—within reason, in moderation—to be offered any chance to take the do-not-disturb option.

“Oh dear,” he thought anxiously, “what could the Grand Council for the Determination of Correct Conduct possibly want with such a loyal, dedicated, lifelong servant of the most noble cause of gelginity?”

This is actually how he sees himself, even if no one else does.

“Well open it THEN,” rasped Sneedl’bodja impatiently.

The last word was shouted with some passion. Sneedl’bodja was clearly in more pain than he was prepared to admit, even to Shunshelstinx. Shunshelstinx held the envelope carefully up to the firelight to try to see through it, but without success. In fact, his only success was in giving Sneedl’bodja the distinct impression that he was dithering for what seemed like an unnecessarily long time doing nothing useful.

“Open it and stop faffing about!” he screamed, the exasperation in his voice amplified by the paroxysms of white-hot lightning that suddenly exploded through his digestive system as the acidity in his stomach rose, switching on a hitherto unsuspected level of intense agony.

This was a degree of pain equivalent to the noise level that would be generated by a Chinese gong struck three inches from your ear by a gorilla with an explosive temper and a sledgehammer.

Shunshelstinx carefully, nervously, levered off the imposing wax seal holding down the crisp flap of the envelope. Unlike Sneedl’bodja, he was careful. He was clever. If he could open the envelope without tearing it, he could use it again, although for what he wasn’t quite sure. He had not thought that far ahead. He never does.

“Why would you want to use anything again anyway?”

Sneedl’bodja had cleverly anticipated Shunshelstinx’s next comment, a most exceptional feat given that Shunshelstinx himself had not yet thought of that comment. But Sneedl’bodja runs his life at such a speed that he is in a constant state of irritation, which at times reaches truly volcanic proportions, either at the seemingly aimless approach, the infuriating lack of urgency, of Shunshelstinx or the vulgar stupidity, the chronic idleness, of Qumfl’quelunx.

Shunshelstinx slowly slid his short, chubby fingers under the flap of the envelope, pulling out a large piece of paper. It was indeed a summons from the Grand Council. Slowly, deliberately, he unfolded the paper and began to read:

“I shall have to sit down,” said Shunshelstinx weakly. “Oh dear! Oh misery! This is rather, well, er, none too pleasing. What are we to do?”

Why worry?” interrupted Sneedl’bodja,

He continued more reassuringly: “That Garkl’klunx couldn’t run a red light on a pinball machine, let alone win a free game, so you’ve nothing to worry about.”

“You’re only being critical out of jealousy, because no rajas, thank goodness, has ever been elected to the esteemed office of High Gelgin,” replied Shunshelstinx. “In any case….”

He stopped, distracted by the sound of a gentle tapping, almost more like a scraping, on his front door. No, he was sure it was a scraping sound. Just a minute, he thought, as the muffled but violent sound of a ton of bricks crashing to the ground from a considerable height just outside could be heard through the closed door. This was followed by an insistent, enthusiastic honking, interrupted at alarmingly frequent intervals by the quasi-musical tinkle of another breaking plate, the kind of scenario that would be the inevitable consequence of an ill-advised decision to entrust the washing up to a friendly troupe of willing but totally untrained sea lions.

It could only have been Qumfl’quelunx, you might have expected Shunshelstinx to realize had he paused for even half a moment’s thought, but then you would be making the assumption, unjustified in the case of Shunshelstinx, that half a moment is sufficient to produce a worthwhile quantity of thought. And you would, therefore, be making a mistake. He would have realized who it was in time, but, regrettably, we don’t have that amount of time at our disposal, so it is better simply to get on with the story.

Before investigating the odd events that may or may not have been taking place outside his front door, he retrieved his clothes peg and placed it firmly on the end of his long, thin nose. He glanced in the tall mirror above the fireplace, and once he had satisfied himself that he looked suitably masterly—apparently unaware that, in fact, his appearance was closer to silly than to masterly, and closer to ridiculous than to either of these—he marched across to the door, hesitated, then opened it carefully. There, as he would have known had he bothered to invest that necessary minimum quantity of thought, stood Qumfl’quelunx.

“Must you always make such a dreadful racket outside my front door. A simple knock, knock will suffice,” complained Shunshelstinx. “I suppose it would be too much to ask for you to use the knocker in future. That’s what it’s for, believe it or not.”

He pointed to the heavy brass door knocker, wrought into the shape of an elephant’s head by someone who clearly did not number many elephants among their close friends—it was not a very good likeness. In fact, it looked more like a rhinoceros with a trunk and big ears. But that was not the point. It had magical properties, or so he had been firmly assured by the previous occupant of the house. Unfortunately, he had seen no evidence of these properties, but he had been assured that this evidence did exist, which he was happy to accept. And if Shunshelstinx wants to believe something, he is unlikely to be deterred by something as simple as a lack of proof. For example, he is convinced that sows’ ears are the raw materials for silk purses, even though a pig’s ear is what he frequently makes of the planning of an elaborate practical joke.

“You’d better come in though,” he continued. “I’m afraid there’s been some rather bad news. I’ve just received a summons from the Grand Council.”

“Hello Stinky,” said Qumfl’quelunx to his host, ignoring the latter’s ominous piece of news and strolling cheerily into the room.

Shunshelstinx glared at him.

“I’ve told you and told you and told you,” he said crossly. “My name is, my name is, my name is, er….”

“The record’s stuck, the record’s stuck, the record’s stuck,” said Sneedl’bodja in a cruel parody of his friend’s forgetfulness.

“My name is, er, what is my name?” continued Shunshelstinx, ignoring the rude interruption.

“Stinky!” shouted Qumfl’quelunx, responding gleefully to Shunshelstinx’s question.

Where Sneedl’bodja had failed to disturb his friend’s equilibrium, Qumfl’quelunx was right on the mark.

“I will not be insulted in this manner, and in the parlour of my own house,” said Shunshelstinx pompously. “Kindly address me by my proper name, whatever my name is. Look here! Let’s face it, we, all three of us, we know that we have not pulled off many successful tricks recently. Something always seems to go wrong. We all need to improve our teamwork, and to improve it rather dramatically, or the Grand Council might decide to revoke our pranking licence. And then where would we be?”

“Outer Mongolia?” said Qumfl’quelunx, who has always firmly believed that the wrong answer is preferable to no answer at all, and who would not have recognized a rhetorical question if it had jumped up and buried its fangs in the seat of his iridescent satin breeches.

“It was him!” said Sneedl’bodja accusingly, pointing a long, bony finger at the unsuspecting Qumfl’quelunx, whose skin is far too thick for any accusation, allegation or simple insult to penetrate. “He completely messed up the timing of our last practical joke. Why is he so slow?”

“And you weren’t in too much of a hurry, I assume?” asked Shunshelstinx. “We are supposed to be a team, and we’re not working as a team. For example, you never follow my instructions. And you never pay attention. Surely it’s obvious that nothing is ever going to work if you keep ignoring my instructions. How many times do you need to be told? I’m in charge. And now we’re all in trouble. Deep trouble. How ever am I to explain all this to the Grand Council?”

He sat down glumly at this point, having suddenly realized that with all the distractions of the past few minutes, his crumpets had gone cold. Stone cold. He really did find it difficult to think about more than one thing at a time, even if one of those things was food.

“Now I really am very cross,” he said. “Can’t a gelgin eat his crumpets in peace without being interrupted?”

“I can help,” said Qumfl’quelunx hopefully, trying very hard to conceal his more than usually bulging waistline, the result of having eaten a whole honka without sharing even a single slice with his two friends, who would not, in any case, have accepted an invitation to luncheon. Only a fool would accept an invitation to such a lunch, you might think, but then you would be obliged to devise some other explanation for the non-attendance of his friends or concede that perhaps they are not quite as foolish as they appear to be. And you’d be unlikely to unearth much evidence in support of the second hypothesis.

“I can help,” repeated Qumfl’quelunx, in case his first offer of assistance had gone unheard.

There are several things that you should know about Qumfl’quelunx and food, which is about as natural a pairing as bubble and squeak. Where food is concerned, any type of food, he does not know the meaning of the word ‘full’. And his friends are unable to recall the last time he uttered the phrase ‘I’ve had enough’. If indeed he has ever uttered such a self-denying phrase. It is unlikely that he even understands the concept of ‘enough’. Whoever coined the proverb ‘enough is as good as a feast’, it certainly wasn’t Qumfl’quelunx.

“Go ahead!” said Shunshelstinx gloomily. “I’ve lost my appetite anyway.”

“Brrr!” said Sneedl’bodja, suddenly shivering. “Is it my imagination? Or is it cold in here? No, it is cold. Can I put another dried cow pat on the fire?”

“If you must,” said Shunshelstinx, looking anxiously at the dwindling heap of fuel in the bucket beside the fire.

He was cold too, but as the stingiest gelgin in Three Foxes Wood, a character trait for which he is well known even beyond the boundaries of the wood, he would have waited patiently until the fire had almost gone out before adding more fuel. Especially if he was alone. He reasoned, rather cleverly he thought, that it is better to have some fuel in the bucket, because then you can have a fire whenever you want. But once there is no fuel in the bucket, you can no longer have a fire. Once burned, the fuel cannot then be recovered without contravening both the first and second laws of thermodynamics, a feat that he is not capable of achieving, although any gelgin of average competence ought to be able to do this backwards with his eyes closed. However, as you will already have guessed, Shunshelstinx is not a gelgin of average competence. He is so far below average that average is a minuscule speck on the distant horizon from where he stands on the ladder of competence. It would not be unfair to those of average incompetence to reveal that Shunshelstinx does not meet even their most abysmally dismal standards.

Anyway, while Sneedl’bodja and Shunshelstinx were thus distracted, Qumfl’quelunx quickly scoffed the remaining crumpets, cramming them into his mouth as if he was competing in the final of a crumpet-eating contest, which he often is. The crumpets disappeared into his mouth even faster than he could swallow the chewed fragments.

“You gluttonous globule!” screamed Sneedl’bodja as he caught a brief glimpse of the last piece of crumpet disappearing rapidly into the bottomless pit of Qumfl’quelunx’s open mouth. “Your manners would disgrace a herd of hippopotamuses doing the samba in a mud-wrestling arena! You have less shame than a turtle in a tutu performing a pas de deux with a toucan in tights! Your behaviour would embarrass an avuncular aardvark dancing a rumbustious rumba with a clumsy camel! What’s more, you have all the elephantine elegance of a pair of waltzing wart hogs showing off their flashy footwork during the quickstep segment of a ballroom dancing competition for beginners! And, allow me to point out, you have less subtlety than a ravenous cannibal selling tickets for a dinner dance!”

Sneedl’bodja paused for breath as Qumfl’quelunx looked up, startled. The fat one was baffled by all this talk of dancing, which was much too energetic a pastime for him to contemplate at all seriously. Even thinking about it was exhausting enough.

“I have an idea,” said Shunshelstinx, hurriedly changing the subject. “It will be dark soon. Why don’t we go down to the human village and see if we can find somebody to prank?”

Unfortunately, this suggestion evoked absolutely no response in his disputatious companions, whose focus was solely on crumpets, or more accurately, the complete absence of crumpets now that Qumfl’quelunx had polished off the last one.

“I have an idea,” said Sneedl’bodja suddenly, growing tired of haranguing his fat friend. “It’ll be dark soon. Why don’t we have some crumpets and then go down to the village and see if we can find somebody to prank?”

“Yes, let’s,” said Qumfl’quelunx gleefully. “I wouldn’t mind a few more crumpets.”

“And who, may I enquire, is to provide the crumpets?” asked Shunshelstinx stiffly. “You’ve already eaten all of mine.”

This, of course, was an exaggeration, but he was no longer in a sharing mood. Qumfl’quelunx had eaten all the crumpets that he had toasted earlier. He’d had not a single mouthful. And on top of all that, there was still the summons. He’d worked out that he had less than a week to think of some suitably convincing excuses for the failures of the team, which was a start, but now came the hard part: he hadn’t worked out the actual excuses. Consequently, he was not able to convince himself that he could convince anyone else.

Sneedl’bodja, for example, was not convinced, believing that Shunshelstinx had not been entirely truthful when claiming that he had no crumpets. No gelgin ever allows himself to run out of crumpets, or so by a process of what he would claim was flawless reasoning he had been led to conclude. And Sneedl’bodja is not easily led, except, perhaps, when crumpets are on the menu.

“I reckon you must have hundreds in your larder,” he said.

“I do not keep my excuses in my larder,” replied Shunshelstinx, whose wandering attention had been detained elsewhere and who’d therefore not been following at all closely the finer points of the discussion.

However, he was quickly reminded of the said finer points by Sneedl’bodja.

“Crumpets! Crumpets, you prevaricating penguin!” he screeched, working himself up from a gentle simmer to a vigorous boil in response to his host’s inattention. “Why am I surrounded by idiots and imbeciles, dullards and dunces, moribund morons and fogbound fools?”

“Crumpets? Yes please!” said Qumfl’quelunx, who had not been following the conversation either but who could not fail to react to Sneedl’bodja’s frenzied cry of “Crumpets! Crumpets!”

Shunshelstinx capitulated, reluctantly but well aware of the dangers of asking Sneedl’bodja to explain what he meant a third time.

“Very well,” he said unenthusiastically. “Crumpets first, pranking second. Cocoa anyone?”

*  *  *

Wow! You actually read this far. Here are three other extracts from the story that you might want to read:

A Problem with Hats
The Great Dolly Mixture Robbery
Open the Box

Open the Box is actually a serious analysis of Bertrand’s box paradox to which I appended an extract from the book that incorporates a version of the paradox.