Father announced he intended to brick up the entrance to the basement, after which, we would be forbidden from speaking of it again.

He produced a telephone directory from the cork-lined cupboard beside the front door and began ringing round builders’ merchants for quotes. I watched as he stood with his back to me at the kitchen table, jotting numbers in a spiral-bound notepad.

He told them he required some bricks. Oh, he should say about two dozen. Also some cement, a bucket, and a good trowel. His back was perfectly straight.

When he returned from his drive he took a carving knife from the drawer, knelt, and slit the cement bag across its throat.

‘Hugo.’ He handed me a blue plastic bucket gravely. I was to mix the cement.

Father proved a very indifferent bricklayer. He slathered cement thickly and without pride, wedging bricks sideways and on end in order to fill the doorway. I stood holding the bucket by its thin metal handle. A light socket hung like a noose in the gloom of the basement, the bulb removed. I asked father if I might not retrieve my bassoon before we sealed the entrance completely.

Father turned and looked at me through his large, square, tinted spectacles. His pupils languished at the bottom of either lens like pennies dropped into glasses of cola. He sheathed his trowel in the soft, wet bucketful of cement, then began unbuttoning his green cotton shirt. His thumb worked down the column, popping each button through its eyelet like someone loading cartridges into a revolver.

At last he pulled his shirt open and uncradled a black telephone receiver from his stomach cavity. He held it towards me like a shower head.

‘Hugo. Wake up.’

The mouthpiece spewed water.


I woke to discover the ship was sinking. Pentonville stood over my bunk with a soda spritzer. Klaxons blared.

‘Sir Hugo, I suggest we disembark.’ Pentonville was a short, piggy fellow with a bootlace moustache, the sort of chap who could stand drenched in entrails in an empty meadow and still look like a maitre’d. As it was, he wore desert khakis and the cabin walls were streaming with water.

I rose, felt about the floor for my boots. The ship lurched to port; Pentonville faceplanted into the wall and my boots tumbled out from beside my footlocker.

When we stepped out into the corridor it was all screams and ankle-deep spume. A shaving brush span in an eddy; the lights grunted and fritzed.

‘I suggest we hurry this way,’ said Pentonville presumuptuously, pointing away from an iron bulkhead buckling under repeated impacts from its obverse side.

‘I grow weary of your impertinence,’ I said, then the bulkhead folded like a trick cabinet and a pillar-thick tentacle surged through in a goosh of brine.

Pentonville turned to me, his chubby face flushed with need. ‘Sir Hugo, please can we-’ And the rest of his petition will remain forever lost to history as the tentacle slapped him into the wall. The clang was like a dinner gong. I stepped over the coral-coloured tendril as it coiled round his fat, insensible body and began to drag him, face down, back towards the bulkhead.

Up on deck I was surprised to see it was dawn already, the sky coloured like a parrot while bronze smoke haemorrhaged from gouges in our stricken liner, The Palsied Seamstress. The squid sat in the red-gold ocean like a colossal chef’s hat stuffed with spaghetti. Tendrils punched holes in the hull, retrieved limp, sodden passengers. The giant cephalopod held victims to its head like a busy receptionist, its nutcracker beak champing through suits, muscle – callipers, in one instance. White fragments of lifeboat bobbed round the creature like eggshell.

More welcoming were the crowds gathered on the quayside to spectate. They waved homemade banners and cheered each time the squid gobbled another passenger. I filled my pipe and spent a pleasant twenty minutes leant against the guardrail, watching the whole gory carnival, until at last the beast was sated, and withdrew. The harbour crowd let out a collective sigh of disappointment.

As they dispersed, I strolled to the shuffleboard court, where two competing factions had paddled each other to death over the last remaining liferaft. I retrieved it from beneath the purpled bodies, tugged the inflation cord, then rode it down the side of the heeling ship into the calm waters of Crinoline Bay.

The morning smelt of burnt caramel. I unhasped my carpetbag, took out a grapefruit, and began to run a knife round its circumference. A fish poked its flat, quicksilver head out of the water, looked at me, and sneezed.

1 thought on “Telephone”

  1. Tim. I’m writing a piece for the Independent about humour and whether it can play a part in business education. Yes, really. I have until April 2 to do it. I’d like to interview you but I don’t know how to contact you. Any chance of an email?

    Peter Brown

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