I DECIDED TO SKIP VISITING THE COLONEL THE NEXT EVENING – after the rehearsing and recording-session and my walk through the surrounding countryside.
I didn’t feel up to another late night of quaffing his Puttumbee’s special by the magnumful – so I crept in surreptitiously from the rear entrance of Bagfart Manor, skulking from shadow to shadow of each beech, oak, chestnut and lime.
Then I retired straight to my waiting bed, wishing fervently that there had been a voluptuous and wanton harlot; with breasts the size of watermelons and black stockings and suspenders stretched around the pneumatic curves of her creamy thighs – warming the sheets and ready for me.
No such luck, of course – out in the isolation of Buggersfield-in-the-vale.
The next day, just around sunset, as I was walking across the quadrangle from the studio to my quarters in the east-wing, I met the Colonel, who was waddling along and huffing and puffing across the lawn in plus-fours, hunting tweed and deerstalker – Marchison’s shooting-stick all aswing.
“Hey, young fellah,” he called out and breezed up to stand meaningfully before me on the mossy grass-grown flagstones.
“I’ve got something rather special t’ show y’ if you’d like t’ call over later on this evening. It’s a rather curious specimen I picked up out in central Africa back in the thirties. A rather odd story t’ go with it too – verging on the H. Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs.”
He paused, an odd look flickering in his eyes. “Now you’re not goin’ t’ tell me as you’ve never read any of their works, surely?” He screwed his face up, lips pursed, brows knitted accusingly.
“No! I mean – Yes! Of course I’ve read them – both of them, but a long time ago, when I was at school. Tarzan and King Solomon’s Mines.”
The Colonel tugged at his walrus moustaches.
“Yes,” he said, fondling one side of his moustaches with a thumb, his eyes distant and glassy.
“King Solomon’s Mines. Hmm. Tarzan and the Jewels of whatever. Both of those have faint echoes – but perhaps, slightly more relevant is a contemporary piece of illustrated fiction by Belgian writer and artist Georges Remi. It’s called Flight something or other. One of my nephew Nigel’s sons was up here reading it, and it caught my eye because of some vague similarity to an experience of my own involving – Hmm!”
The Colonel tailed off at this point and fell into deep contemplation of some navel somewhere inside the unique privacy of his baldhead.
My interest was now piqued, my imagination conjuring all sorts of thrilling exotic escapades involving tantalizingly tempting dusky maidens from the dark continent of the Colonel’s younger days. It was almost as if, failing to fulfil my starved libido of late, that maybe, tales of strange, exciting and, I hoped, steamy and erotically gripping adventures taking place in some mysterious, foreign setting long ago, could successfully sublimate my baser impulses.
Some hope, eh? Who am I trying to kid? Not me, that’s for sure. Nor you, I guess.
Only one thing would relieve my repressed libido. But novel company and enthralling entertainment should help take my mind off such matters – for a while, at least. It would be far preferable to boredom endured isolated and alone, anyway.
I realized, of course, during my evening meal in my east-wing quarters, that this latest promised revelation of the Colonel’s could likely just be a ploy to engage me yet again as drinking companion and personal audience in a further evening of creaky-leathered, inglenook reminiscing. But for me, the act of actually doing something in company, rather than sitting idly on my backside, and more importantly, the benefits arising from the proposition that the Colonel had put to me two days earlier, seemed to outweigh any disadvantages that may be incurred.
One very important thing though, I’d have to remember to go easy on the drink if I were to remain clear-headed for the occasion. But just in case, before venturing upon my evening walk I pocketed my battery-operated cassette recorder, making sure of course, that I had plenty of fresh batteries in my other pocket.
It was a warm July evening, with a full moon scudding between ghostly green shoals of mackerel cloud above the treetops, as I walked back through the main gates of Bagfart Manor. Just like an Atkinson Grimshaw painting, you might say.
My platform heels crunched noisily across the gravel path of the main driveway leading up to the west-wing, where the Colonel’s lights could be seen glowing blurrily through the foliage of a gigantic copper-beech and a flank of ancient yew.
As I drew nearer, clearing the trees and shrubs in front of the building, I noticed that the upper-storey Nelson room was in fact, in darkness. The light emanated instead from the main hall on the ground floor and up through the rails from some mezzanine or basement compartment.
With a start that made the breath catch in my throat, I realized that the Colonel was standing in silent, smoke-curling silhouette within the lantern-lit portals of the main hall’s entrance, a mere few yards from where I had stopped. Talk about camouflage, it was as if he had been invisible until I was almost on top of him.
There are moments in everyone’s life, when everyday things, with no apparent artificial inducement, seem suddenly distorted and unfamiliar – as if glimpsed momentarily through some alien perspective – and I had to blink and rub my eyelids, for I seemed to be confronted by some odd optical illusion.
Now I had not touched a drop of alcohol since my last evening with the Colonel, two whole days earlier, nor was I in the habit of indulging in any other form of brain-befuddling or hallucinogenic substances despite the fact that this was the late sixties and I was a young, longhaired musician in a West Coast style rock band.
Drugs just weren’t my bag, aside from cigarettes that is.
I’ll readily admit that I have a very active imagination, but not to the point of self-delusion. Besides, an unfamiliar lighting, especially after dusk when objects become blurred and indistinct, can sometimes play strange tricks with the eyes, transforming things into bizarre and unrecognizable forms.
I must have appeared quite incredulously stupid, for I stood with my mouth agape for several moments as I stared blankly at the Colonel. In the shadows of the portal, he resembled some bizarrely constructed and fully clothed, pipe-smoking walrus.
The effect was disturbingly realistic.
“Come in, dear boy,” he breezed, moving out of the shadows. In an instant the movement accompanied by his claret drenched baritone retransformed his image back into the familiarity of a recognizable human form.
“What I have t’ show you happens t’ be in m’ private museum in th’ mezzanine,” he informed me, stepping forward from the shadowed portals and into the naked moonlight.
He was dressed in the same attire he had worn earlier that evening – only the deerstalker and the shooting stick were absent – an arm hanging passively at his side, like an enormous flipper. His tweed hunting-jacket was done-up at the front and his other hand was wedged deep inside one of the pockets as if clasping some extremely important object within.
“This way m’ boy.” He led me up stone-steps deeply curved at the centre by generations of footsteps. Through the glass-panelled oak of the front doors we went, into the chandelier-lit main hall, which always smelled heavily to my nostrils of things extremely ancient but well preserved with some indefinable substance that seemed vaguely familiar yet whose identity eluded me.
We continued on past erect suits of armour, fitted out with a vicious-looking selection of spiked clubs and axes and some double-headed weapons that the Colonel told me were halberds and partizans. Some of the suits wielded massive broadswords and hefty great shields that looked far too heavy to carry. And all of them were frozen with a disconcerting, lifelike realism.
A chilling shudder rippled across my shoulders as a glint of light reflected briefly inside the visor of one of them, as though there was an occupant inside scrutinizing me balefully.
As if that wasn’t enough, mounted on the oak wall-panelling between a dazzling procession of heraldic crests, tapestries, rhino and stag’s heads, was another formidable array of vicious-looking weaponry ranging right across the ages; from hideous battle-axes, spears, crossbows, sabres, rapiers and cutlasses to flintlocks, bayoneted muskets, blunderbusses, Winchesters, a Gatling gun, mounted and seemingly ready for action and a couple of nasty-looking hand machine guns.
“Bloodthirsty lot in those days, eh?” the Colonel breezed cheerfully, noting my disapproving gaze with undisguised amusement.
“We still are,” I decided, thinking of Vietnam, the Middle East, Northern Ireland and all the domestic and urban violence, rape and murder in full bloom nowadays and blossoming still yet.
“In fact, if anything, we’re getting worse!”
“Hah! Optimist,” the Colonel replied with a chuckle.
Hardly out of the sixties and violence was creeping back into the forefront of society with an added sick ugliness. Where had all the luv ‘n’ peace gone so suddenly?
Just an illusion that naïve hippies held dear – a brief excursion into dreamland for a scattering of starry-eyed dreamers, while forces of darkness gathered themselves for a renewed attack on the pretext of religious fervour, dwindling resources and exploding populations. Lurking below the surface of reason, it had never gone away!
On by the historic reminders of our uglier sides we walked, past a huge, stuffed, rampant brown bear, which looked as if it belonged to some extinct species.
I noticed, too, a tiger skin the Colonel had recently spoken of. It hung on the wall face down, head raised, huge fangs bared, front claws unsheathed and also raised. It looked as if it was ready to pounce and was incredibly huge, at least twelve feet long from nose to the tip of its tail. I never realized tigers could be so huge. It was a pretty scary sight to be greeted with, even stone dead.
“That can’t be real,” I said, pointing to it. The Colonel shook his head. “Oh, it’s real alright.”
“Well, it must be an extinct species then!”
‘Nope. It’s a Bengal Tiger and there’s still plenty of ‘em around today, though it is now fast becoming an endangered species.”
“Why is everything on show here so in your face and menacing?”
“Because that’s the way they have to be displayed, to show how they were in real life.”
We passed on through a door at the far end and down a flight of steep wooden steps into a smaller, lower hall.
This lower hall was stacked with tall, glass-fronted cabinets and glass-topped cases mounted on benches.
There were pedestals with objects mounted or inset upon them and machinery that resembled cryogenic tombs or vats with large, gauge-encrusted obtrusions and pipes leading from them.
And there were other strange curiosities that might have belonged to Baron von Frankenstein or a nineteenth century science museum.
“Lepidoptera and other Arthropoda,” the Colonel remarked as we passed a central aisle between cases. “Squamata and others, as well, most of ‘em quite exotic, too. Some are now extinct – mostly the more attractive species, such as certain butterflies.”
“Funny that”, he murmured – one hand still wedged firmly in a tweed pocket, the other clutching his enormous pipe, which he waved about in smoke-swirling demonstration – “how the more pestilent species seem t’ prosper and multiply, while the virtually harmless ones get squeezed out of existence so easily.” He paused, eyes glassy with thought.
“Hmm, survival of the fittest – that’s what it is.”
I wondered if there were any truth in the phrase, ‘the meek shall inherit the earth – was it merely based on the wistful aspirations of a passive religious philosophy, rather than by scientific observation or upon a realistic evaluation of the true nature of existence? I shook my head.
“Survival of the fittest,” I mumbled.
“Eh? What’re you mumbling about now, lad?” the Colonel demanded.
“Just thinking about something I read recently,” I replied, looking around as we walked and noting a curious collection of other stuffed creatures in glass cases. “The fittest, doesn’t always mean what we think it does,” I added.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean the biggest and strongest. Sometimes a situation arises where, by being small and unobtrusive, a certain creature escapes a natural disaster more easily than a larger, more ferocious and predatory species, therefore rendering itself more fit to survive.”
“Hmm,” said the Colonel, rummaging vainly in a tweed pocket for something seemingly elusive. We passed by collections of brightly plumaged stuffed birds, weird-looking bats, and small monkey-like specimens.
There was a huge sea cow in one massive case, a komodo dragon that must have been at least nine-feet long in another.
“And everything else here is long defunct,” barked the Colonel with a peremptory flourish at the pipes, vats, consoles and other less recognizable gadgetry we passed.
“M’ grandfather used t’ make use o’ th’ whole bang-shoot. He was what y’ might nowadays call a biochemist and a keen zoologist to boot.”
“Ah! In here is where m’ personal section is,” he announced, pipe in mouth, a hand outstretched towards a far wall.
He took me over to where heavy embroidered draperies covered a niche in the wall, ushering me through a deep recess behind it, and in to yet a smaller chamber, lit only in one corner by some indirect, hidden light-source.
I had not yet fully recovered from my surprise at our strange confrontation outside and was too taken aback by all that I had witnessed in so short a time to make comment. I stood speechless while the Colonel waddled over to what looked like some sort of shrine set into an alcove in the lit part of the room.
“Have you ever been to Africa?” The Colonel’s baritone had suddenly acquired a clipped, echoing quality, rather like the grotto effect on some echo-chamber units I had used in demo-recording sessions almost a decade earlier. I shook my head.
“The nearest I’ve ever been to Africa is the Balearic Islands,” I answered, noting the peculiar echo my own voice now held.
“Travel’s the best thing for a young man like you,” he said, “the further, the better.
Spontaneous laughter was wrenched from me, echoing around the chamber like a relay of cackling lunatics.
The Colonel frowned in perplexity at my outburst, his monocle glinting in the soft golden light streaming from the shrine as he faced me, hands on hips, legs apart, looking somehow so comical that I had difficulty halting my flow of mirth.
“Now what th’ devil are you cackling about, you daft nincompoop?” he demanded.
One hand against the wall, the other clutching my midriff, I shook my head slowly from side to side till the laughter subsided. I had to clear my throat several times before answering.
“Sorry,” I gasped at last, “ but I just couldn’t help laughing at what you said and the way that you said it – about me travelling, the further, the better.”
“Oh, is that all? My goodness me!”
The Colonel scratched the top of his baldhead, gazing at the floor and tut-tutting to himself.
“For a minute there, y’ had me thinking it might have been something amusing!”
Then he lifted his head to face me again, a strange glint was in his eyes, an odd smile blossoming and creasing his jowls.
“And so y’ should,” he added. “Extensive travel broadens the outlook – gives y’ new perspectives on life and –“
He motioned for me to join him where he stood at the foot of the shrine. There was a tall, upright casket just beyond the foot of the shrine with strange embossed carvings upon its surface.
“Y’ can learn and discover many things y’d otherwise probably never come across in a lifetime. Some of ‘em perhaps, never in eternity itself, even though y’ may search th’ world inside out. Just cast y’ gaze upon this.”
He shoved his bloated hand deep into a roomy tweed pocket, bringing out some glittering knobbly object resembling an ancient and intricately carved door handle
Reaching into the shadows at one side of the casket, he inserted the handle into some unseen aperture. There was a dull metallic clicking sound and the front of the casket slid smoothly aside.
The interior of the casket might have been that of a very large refrigerator, just like those you see in American movies, though it wasn’t cold and was dimly lit.
I could see nothing extraordinary, just a chunk of varicoloured rock.
It was about the size of a man’s head and as irregularly shaped as any raw geological specimen. It lay upon a shelf just below eye level.
There were other African looking artefacts all around it, much like many I’d seen in museums and art galleries. But it was obvious that the Colonel’s gaze was fixed only upon the chunk of rock as though mesmerized.
I realized, too, as I gazed upon it, that beneath the translucency of some close-fitting wrapping I’d only just began to notice, the stone seemed alive with some strange incandescence of its own.
“What is it – Kryptonite from Superman’s parent world?” I asked facetiously.
“Y’ may not be far wrong,” the Colonel replied and lifted it with ease as though it weighed no more than a pound, though it looked solid and hefty enough to have weighed at least a stone.
Holding it securely within the crook of one arm, the Colonel recovered the weird door handle from its aperture and stood clear while the casket lid slid shut again. He replaced the door handle in his tweed pocket.
“Come on,” he said. “Up to the Nelson room and a glass of Puttumbee and Browne’s, and I’ll explain it all to you.”
The rock specimen lay upon the gold-leafed leatherette stop the Nelson bureau upstairs. As per usual, despite the fact that it was an evening in July, a fire was licking away lustily at the coals in the Victoriana fronted, Tudor inglenook. But it was not over-warm in the large, high-ceilinged room, for in this section of the Manor, heat seemed somehow difficult to trap.
The Colonel hunched over his bureau, studying the stone in a most peculiar manner, one eye screwed tightly while he scrutinized it through his monocle.
As I gazed upon the stone in the stronger lighting of the Nelson room, I was more aware of its odd, variegated colouring – and then I realized exactly why it appeared so odd.
The rock possessed a strange chameleonic quality of colour shift, arbitrarily changing from hue to hue without apparent reason or perceptible transition while I watched – as if it were imbued with a life of its own.
At first, I thought the surface to be merely iridescent, its colour changes depending on which angle it was viewed from, the effect enhanced perhaps, by the flickering reflection of the firelight.
But this was not the case, for I stood quite still in one position, and the fire, to my rear, was screened by the considerable bulk of one of the half-Nelson armchairs, while the electric light overhead was bright but unwavering.
“Never fails t’ fascinate me,” said the Colonel straightening up. He opened a drawer of the Nelson bureau and took out a large magnifying glass.
Next, he unhooked the translucent wrapping that hugged the object like clingfilm, peeled it off and laid it to one side of the desktop.
I murmured with astonishment as the colours immediately deepened and brightened, and though they were smoky in nature, they did not opaque entirely.
It was like a huge uncut gem of ambiguous and transitory nature: azure and amethyst, amber and ruby, emerald and topaz. It was an amalgam of ever-shifting translucent character.
Sometimes the colouring was singular, sometimes a complex rainbow, as one hue superimposed itself wholly or partially across another – each colour appearing and disappearing instantaneously and with no predictable duration.
Once more, the Colonel set to, studying the rock closely, this time through monocle and magnifier in tandem.
“Won’t you damage your eyes?” I asked.
“Magnifier’s polarized,” he informed me. “Besides, is it hurting your eyes from where you stand?”
“No,” I replied. “In fact – it’s sort of soothing – yet stimulating – compelling – hypnotic.”
“Almost defies description, doesn’t it? Hypnotic’s th’ best word!”
He chuckled and straightened up again, replacing the skin-tight wrapping over the rock by hooking it together somehow. He left the magnifier beside it.
The rock’s colouring was instantly muted again.
“Had it analyzed once.” He said, “by some specialist wallah, one o’ m’ nephew’s acquaintances ackchewally, from his old Oxford days. This chappie, a Professor Megrim Carbuncle, or something sim’lar, had honour’s degrees in several subjects – so I was told – hrrumph – combining physics, chemistry and mineralogy with goodness-knows what else. And d’you know what?” The Colonel paused staring searchingly at me, as if I had the answer to his question.
I raised both brows and said: “He had absolutely no idea what it was!”
“Precisely,” the Colonel replied. “Damn charlatan!”
“We even took th’ rock along to his private laboratories, and with all his analyzing equipment, he just could not pinpoint what substances the stone was composed of. He tried t’ cut a bit off it, using special power-drilling and cutting tools, with interchangeable diamond heads. He also trained whole banks of concentrated laser-beams for long periods at very close range upon it.
No dice! Couldn’t so much as make the tiniest scratch on its surface. Though it completely buggered a couple of his diamond cutting heads, shredding ‘em t’ flakes as though they were no more than peppercorns in a grinder. He wanted to know where I got th’ stone – so, of course, I lied to him – told ‘im as I’d brought it from some heathen islander somewhere in the far east – and was as vague and elusive as I could manage t’ be about it.”
I thrust my hands deep into the pockets of my Levi jacket, riffling through various items for my cigarettes and lighter while I gazed at the Colonel questioningly.
“Oh, why was that?” I asked, lighting a king-sized filter tip with a lighter fashioned in the shape of a buxom voluptuary whose eyes popped and jaws gaped, breathing a two-inch flame at my touch.
“Well.” The Colonel puffed his chest out and held it barrel-like and motionless for a moment, then let out an immense sigh that filled the air with liquor-drenched breath.
“There’s a somewhat – complicated and peculiar affair surrounding it – the details of which, I wasn’t particularly keen t’ have broadcast at th’ time. Military secrets. Political matters. But it wasn’t just that.” He shook his head. “There was, allegedly, some potential danger of a quite different and far less tangible nature – that is, if one is t’ believe th’ superstitious ramblings of certain foreigners – not t’ mention a rather odd personal experience that I still can’t find an explanation for. Hmmm.”
Frowning, the Colonel rummaged furiously through the pockets of his hunting tweeds, pulled out the knobbly handle with which he’d opened the casket downstairs, glanced at it, replaced it and continued to fish around.
“In a way I was beginning t’ wish I’d never let this Megrim feller know about th’ damned stone. After I took it home from his laboratories, he kept on calling at the Manor, plaguing me with endless questions about it. In the end –“
Still juggling around in the pockets of his hunting tweeds, like a man afflicted with some awful skin complaint, the Colonel finally produced his knobbly briar and a fat baccy pouch. He proceeded to fill the pipe while he spoke on
“I told ‘im I’d sold th’ damn stone and was taking it abroad t’ th’ buyer, clamping up and refusing t’ say anymore. Then I hid it away from the world’s sight – and nipped off for a holiday in exotic climes f’ sev’ral months, as if in support of m’ story.”
“Why show it to me, in that case?”
The Colonel raised both bushy brows and stared at me as though I were a complete half-wit.
“Well, in view of the proposition I put t’ you just th’ other day, I should think that was damned obvious, wouldn’t you?
His brows lowered abruptly and then knitted together.
“Unless of course, you’ve changed your mind!”
“About being the chronicler of you memoirs?”
He eyed me searchingly – and I shook my head.
“You can definitely count me in,” I replied. “I’m absolutely intrigued by all you’ve so far revealed to me and I shan’t rest until I’ve learned more. So you can consider me officially enlisted.”
The Colonel clapped his hands together with a crack that nearly broke the sound barrier and made me jump in the process.
“Right! Let’s consider the matter formally inaugurated and now officially about t’ get under way. he breezed, with an air of finality. And with that, he waved me to be seated, while he sank into his half-Nelson with a great farting and squelching of much-padded leather.
Once securely cocooned on his high-backed pneumatic throne, he fished out his battered Ronson pipemaster, relit his knobbly briar and puffed away like a Victorian traction engine, his brow furrowed deeply in thought.
After a minute or so, he reached for his decanter of Puttumbee’s on the quarter-Nelson beside him, filling both our tumblers to capacity.
“Well, now that y’ know of th’ stone’s existence, and have seen its unique properties f’ y’self,” he said, imbibing deeply of the redness in his tumbler, “there remains th’ matter of how I came by it in th’ first place.”
I fingered the little battery recorder in the breast pocket of my denim jacket, already switched on and loaded with a long-play cassette. Several other blank cassettes I’d purchased the previous afternoon, waited as backups in another pocket.
I had pre-adjusted the volume control to maximum and tested it out in my room earlier, placing myself on the bed in one corner while on a shelf in the opposite corner, the recorder was switched on. The playback had clearly produced my every word to the quietest whisper.
I wanted to be absolutely sure that my recording device would pick up every single word that the Colonel uttered. I also wanted his narrative to be as natural as possible, knowing that some people behave quite differently once they know they’re being recorded.
I didn’t honestly think that anything could inhibit the Colonel – but I was taking no chances. Beside, it would make my task so much easier, and also allow me to consume as much of the Colonel’s generously offered brew as I wished. Though I felt it might be unwise to indulge uninhibitedly and possibly allow myself to default on my task.
The Colonel leaned forward conspiratorially.
“What I’m about t’ tell you,” he baritoned softly, looking round the room while the fire crackled merrily within the dark shadows of the inglenook, “is one of the oddest experiences I’ve had in my long and active career, and I’ve had rather a full quota odd experiences in m’ time, too!”
Then he drank by heavy instalments till his tumbler was emptied, refilling it and falling into a glassy-eyed, briar-puffing silence.
In tense silence I waited, finger held to the pause button.
In my lap rested a token notepad, upon which I’d occasionally doodle while the Colonel was speaking. I was now about to become actively engaged as paid chronicler of the Colonel’s memoirs.
You can see a full-sized image of the Colonel Bagfart Illustration in the Caricature and Fantasy sections of the Art Pulldown Menu, beneath which is a full account of how, why and when the image was created: In 1979 he was a newly invented Cartoon named Colonel Nesbit Snodgrass but really took off when he was utilized as the central character in an adventure trilogy written in 1989.
Dave Draper 2014