Christmas At Mudshark Towers!

Mudshark Towers. That vast, crumbling mountain of semi-organised masonry. Century upon century had this monumental edifice cast its long and oppressive shadow on the careworn countryside. Perched atop its barren hill, the castle was a landmark few could ignore, and even as the ignoble peasants toiled in the foetid fields, their eyes were ever drawn to the cruel walls which so dominated their miserable existences

. A sinister presence, and mighty expensive one in which to install double glazing, but what few realised was that the visible aspect of The Towers were but a scant indication of its true size. Like a tree, its roots burrowed deep into the bones of the earth. Or perhaps more like a iceberg, waiting to greet the Titanic which was the outside world. These were the Cellars of Mudshark Towers. The dark, rumbling intestines of the Family home, their labrynthine enormity due, in part, to the years of forced labour exacted as tribute from the humble plebs in whose domain the Family had deigned to settle all those centuries ago, but mostly due to the over-enthusiasm of The Wizard, who, on discovering a small bone in a dusty recess one evening, had proclaimed it to be the third metatarsal of a cretaceous saurian as yet unknown to science, and armed with his trusty hammer, a firkin or five of nutritious turnip ale and two and a half thousand tons of TNT, had declared his intent to unearth the entire skeleton of the beast and have it named Wizosaurus Mudsharkii by Christmas

. It was only after several roof-rattling and dust-unsettling explosions when Peep confessed the original bone to be "a little something he had saved from a particularly delicious chicken entree" that the Wizard's hopes of immortality were dashed, but he continued with the excavations because he liked blowing things up. This left his Wizness with a slight (selective) hearing deficiency, but bequeathed to The Family a lot of storage space.

Thus it was, with commendable sense of economy, that the Family set about utilising this asset, filling the echoing caverns with fine wines and beers, rare distilled spirits, ethereal malts, port, sherry, Eldorado, Sanatogen, Clan Dew, and finally, in a grand humanitarian gesture, allocated a half acre to Florentina's turnip vodka (for it was whispered that the Family feared a return of the black death....) And so, one fine day, not long before the season of the Great Eating and Even Greater Drinking, in the Great Cellars was to be found one Sylvia Mudshark, wife of the redoubtable Dudley, a brave and resourceful woman, and, for some considerable time now, keeper of the Family Cellars, a position of great responsibility and no little swilling. But Sylvia, alas, was not happy this day.

"Forty years, man and boy," she grumbled, rattling crates with indignation, "and not a sniff of appreciation!" "But no more!" Sylvia drew herself up to her full height, or as much as space would allow, and announced her decision to the world, or at least to the dozing cockroaches.

"I quit! Bollocks to yer cellars, Musharks, I'm after something a bit more congenial to pass the time. Shorter hours and less foot- rot." For a moment she paused and considered what task was best suited to her prodigious talents, then, in a flash, it came to her and she brandished one arm in the air, dislodging a few disgruntled spiders and accidentally enlarging the cellar several inches.

"I shall apply myself to the proper supervision and running of the Library!" she whooped. "Nice warm room. Better class of cockroach. What's the hassle shoving a few books around? I'm outta here!!"

Harriet Mudshark, who had at that very moment descended to the Cellars to replenish her supply of a particularly fine liqueur, heard this last utterance with some astonishment, but, wizely, held her council.

Had he been around to hear of his spouse's momentous decision, no doubt Dudley Mudshark would have reacted similarly, but at that time the Great Man was otherwise engaged, and his considerable presence was to be found in the warm, but olfactorally challenging environs of the yak stables. Dudley surveyed the beast before him with satisfaction, as well he might. No wizened, bony-shanked nag was this (unlike the unfortunate Harry, whose continuing lack of exercise has been previously documented...), but a sleek, well-rounded specimen, curvaceous of haunch and over-upholstered in practically every other region. This was Naomi, the Family's prize yak, a creature treasured by many a Mudshark for her seemingly limitless gifts. Florentina visited her daily to collect not only the generous quantities of fertilizer Naomi's high-fibre diet regularly delivered, but also the beautiful, downy yak-hair which was shed during her extensive grooming sessions, and which Florentina was carefully spinning and weaving into a gown of unimaginable splendour

."A frock and a half, it'll be, when it's finished!" was Florentina's proud boast, and indeed, she jested not, for she had conceived the idea to weave some additional panels, to be added to the garment during the course of the Great Eating, to allow for expansion. This was not the limit of Naomi's produce, however, and it was for a different bounty altogether that Dudley frequented the stables. Rubbing his hand together, then settling his majestic frame on a small, three legged stool placed just below the rear quarters of the yak, Dudley set to milking. And not just for the pleasure of the task, either. There was serious business afoot here, for, as anyone will realise, from yak milk can be made that most exclusive and celebrated of gourmet foods, yak cheese. Dudley had been about this enterprise for some time now, in order to produce a cheese of sufficient maturity and body to grace the Family table at the Great Eating. In the meantime, he reached into one particularly dank and festering recess and withdrew what appeared at first sight to be a particularly virulent pathology of some pachyderm or other, grey and pungent, with strange fluids emanating from its cracked and suppurating hide.

This, however, was Dudley's prime batch, which he sniffed tenderly, the delicate fumes of ammonia bringing tears to his cheeks, before transporting it forth to occupy pride of place at the lunch table... Now, finished with the day's milking, he left Naomi with a somewhat startled expression on her long, hairy features and headed with his harvest for the damp and fungal confines of the Cellars, an environment he considered perfect for the culture of the anticipated delicacy.

Within the secret cavern which housed his slow-ripening treasures, exotic species of moulds and fungi shared the dripping walls with other unusual denizens of the dark, not to mention a few over- indulged Family members sleeping off the morning aperitifs. Dudley sloshed the day's quota into a large wooden tub which had last seen active duty some decades back in the servicing of Peep's paws, prodded the already- coagulating curds with some antique chopsticks and left nature to take its course.

Back at the Library, Gustav Mudshark, as was his habit, was spending the morning consulting the yak lineage records, a prodigious task since the pedigrees in question ran to some twelve thousand sturdy volumes (with appendixes) (unlike Gustav), but Gustav considered it time well spent, for his great ambition in life was to breed and train the perfect racing yak, not to mention make an uncommonly large sum of money betting on the beast against the witless peasants who ran the local book at the Fin. To date, Gustav's winnings totaled some five hundred and twelve pounds and twenty three pence, a goodly sum, and well worth the quarter of a million or so outlayed, but still he dreamt of wiping the smirks from the drooling visages of the witless peasants, and thus frequented the Library ever day to increase his already encyclopaedic knowledge.

Gustav studied the tiny letters, squinting through his magnifying glass. He scratched his head in frustration. He had been so convinced of Naomi's potential in the hurdles... On the other hand, he had a hot recommendation from Jonquiletta Mudshark, youngest offspring of Florentina and Montague, a child of almost supernatural acumen when it came to the yaks. He scrabbled in his pockets and discovered seventeen pence and three paperclips.

"What the hell, live dangerously," he muttered, "put it all on the one with the fuzzy tail!!"

Just at that moment, Sylvia Mudshark appeared from behind an ornate formica bookcase, and spying Gustav about his task, descended on him in some earnest. "Right, finish up. Time, please." Swiftly, she gathered up the array of documents in front of the unfortunate Gustav, and with one sweep had them doused, rinsed and draining, whilst the ancient oak table on which he was leaning fairly gleamed with its third application of Mr Sheen that day. Gustav elevated his palms to protest his indignation, Sylvia, however appeared to misjudge his intent, and with a manoeuvre worthy of Bruce Lee chopped his legs from under him and pinned his arms behind his back as she speedily hustled him head first through the great, carven swing doors. The astounded Gustav began to protest vociferously. After a moment's consideration, however, it became apparent to him that this was the most fun he'd had in many a day, and thus, stoically, he abandoned himself to his fate. (Hovering surreptitiously in the background, Harriet Mudshark nodded her approval, and took copious notes.)

Luncheon had been served, and, as Dudley reflected, picking the odd bone from between his teeth, the pig had not died in vain (nor any of its many brothers and sisters). Florentina was not of such an affable mein, for gracing the Refectory that day was the not inconsiderable presence of Lord Roberto, landlord and host of The Fin, and Florentina was mightily suspicious of the way in which Roberto had been flourishing his tape measure around the rear quarters of her beloved Naomi, not to mention the chalk lines he had furtively sketched on the aforementioned rump. Neither was she convinced that the flat, rounded metal implement with its wooden handle, which he carried with him, had any part to play in cricket, but then Florentina was suspicious by nature, having survived some years of hand to hand combat nurturing Montague's offspring

. As the meal drew to its close, Dudley became suffused with a glow of excitement. When he was sure the moment was upon them, he proudly rose to his feet and whipped the elegant Tupperware cheese dome from its plate, and there lay for all the Family to observe.... The Cheese. There was a reverential silence, broken only by the sound of Pavlov filling in an order form. Majestically, Dudley brandished a ceremonial knife, normally reserved for despatching peasants, and plunged it into the steaming pile.

The smallest of portions, he carved, and laid it before Lady Ecaterina, undisputed expert in such matters, The Family held its collective breath in awed silence as she raised it to her lips, chewed delicately and swallowed. The deathly hush was broken by an unexpected crash as Lady Ecaterina's chair tipped over backwards, accompanied by her startled exclamation, unsuitable in nature for general publication.

Alarmed, Dudley and Roberto leapt to her assistance. Seizing an ear apiece, they lifted her tablewards again. Dudley waited, in an frenzy of anticipation. Slowly, Lady Ecaterina's eyes opened, then uncrossed. Power of speech returned but slowly.

"That's.... that's...." she gasped.

The suspense was unbearable.

"That's really quite good, actually," she affirmed cheerfully.

Dudley groaned and struck his brow with clenched fist. Back to the drawing board.

(Wavy lines, indicative of the passage of time. Eerie music. Slow resolution to the same room, subtly altered...) Christmas dawned at last within the ancient walls of Mudshark Towers. The time of Great Eating and Even Greater Drinking. The salvation of the local apothecaries, who hawked their patent remedies for the unknown virus which, uncannily, always struck down the vast majority of Family members the day after

.It was always a source of some confusion to strangers that the Family Mudshark celebrated the winter solstice some days later than was common amongst the rest of the population, and most put this down to the observance of some ancient, long forgotten ritual, or perhaps assumed that this most venerable of clans still held to the calendar of an older civilisation, long since vanished into the mists of obscurity.

The truth was that it generally took Florentina this amount of time to get ready, and, given the choice of being out of step with the rest of the world or with Florentina, the Family sensibly chose the former.

Now the entire Family in all its gothic glory sat around the great table in the refectory, admiring the festive decorations which transformed the narrow gloomy room into a veritable forest of gaiety. Gleaming turnips hung from the chandeliers, cheerful ribbons of computer paper festooned the walls, and digitally enhanced photographs of Family members in compromising positions served as novelty place settings. The centerpiece of the room was the tree - this year a magnificent work of modern art; a pyramid of balancing peasants each with a symbolic kitchen implement grasped between his teeth, save for very topmost, in whose mouth lay a small but beautifully decorated grenade, courtesy of Gregori. The quiescent state of the grenade was maintained by tooth-pressure alone, and this last touch was much applauded by Family members, many of whom avowed that the ever-changing expression of the fellow's face added greatly to the festive atmosphere.

The decorations had been installed, as usual, by Igor, and thus would not be completed until next July, but such was the air of goodwill, all complaints were in writing. As for the great table itself, how it groaned under the weight of victuals - roast turnips, turnip fricassee, deep-fried turnip peelings, turnip en croute, turnip meringues with a delicate swede coulis, not to mention a selection of exotic fresh vegetable which Montague had had canned especially. And of course - the roast fowl! A bird of truly gigantic proportion, it had taken six peasants over an hour to transport it from the Cavernous Kitchens (although, such were the length of corridors, this was not an unusual time for this journey), and Mudsharks one and all were forced to agree that the time and effort expended down by the duck pond armed with sacks of breadcrumbs and sink plunger were well spent indeed!

Finally, when the last turnip had been savoured, the last piece of roast pheasant* picked from between weary gnashers, the last firkin of foaming ale washed down appreciative throats, never to be seen again (one could only hope), and Gregori had performed his time-honoured entertainment with the Christmas pudding and half a gallon of petrol, there came a time when Musharks sat replete and bloated, satisfaction evident on their pained countenances, and gave thanks, not to mention marks out of five. Around the table, chairs fairly groaned under the weight of the over-indulged. Florentina idly stitched a few more panels into her yak-hair gown, Gregori drank the last vestiges of petrol, Le.. Cholmondoley, finding himself without any visible evidence of a central nervous system began to eat his feet. Harriet sat consulting a notebook full of spidery writing, a vaguely menacing expression on her otherwise beatific features.

The Wizard flew overhead, hammer in hand, gesticulating energetically.

"Quantum improbability," he informed the gargoyles which decorated the corners of the room. The gargoyles nodded gravely.

"Y'see, you know where it is when it's here," he continued, waving his hammer and accidentally knocking the nose off one of the enthralled gargoyles, "and," he intoned solemnly as he dropped the hammer from his lofty vantage point, which responded in the usual manner to the law of gravity and described an elegant curve floorwards, but was intercepted by Peep's head in its course, spoiling the symmetry of its motion, " you know where it is when it's there," he continued, indicating the hammer, now being waved threateningly in his general direction by the unhappy Peep. But where it is in between..."

The wizard drew a numinous, smoking rune in the air, further enraging Peep who lobbed the hammer upwards to be caught neatly by the hovering necromancer. He stared at it in surprise for some seconds. "Now, bozons..." he began.

Three of the gargoyles fell off the wall. Sylvia dispensed wisdom and restaurant recommendations to all who would listen. Alexi continued a vivid and interesting monologue begun some decades previously as Montague calculated the bill and attempted to blackmail cousin April into entertaining his beloved children for a few hours, since she owned her own whip. Amidst all this festive reflection, one figure was notable by his absence. Just as certain Family members were coming to the conclusion that the man in question had emigrated to the Isle of Wight with the proceeds of last summer's karaoke night, the great Refectory doors swung open and through them strode the proud figure of Dudley Mudshark with his gastronomic masterpiece held high on an ornate perspex platter.

To compare this cheese with the last one which had graced a Family mealtime would be to draw comparisons between Beethoven and Max Bygraves; Michaelanglo and Mickey Mouse; Richard and Judy and Anne and Nick. This was a masterpiece amongst cheeses, and the Family could only gaze in awe and trepidation on its seething countenance as Dudley gently set his creation down on the table and handed round the gas masks.

The Cheese of Doom gurgled gently, and small spurts of greenish vapours occasionally evacuated themselves from its bowels. A trail of glistening ichor told of its passage from doorway to table, and was already eating into the sixteenth century vinyl floor. Dudley removed his protective gloves and reverentially peeled the layer of Biohazard stickers from its surface. As he plunged the gralloching knife into its vitals, it seemed to groan, and a small colony of mutated weevils made a desperate bid for freedom through the suppurating wound.

Wordlessly, Dudley offered up the first morsel to Lady Ecaterina, who was trembling in her chair, and considering whether cabbage thinning would be considered a socially acceptable exit line in these circumstances. Apparently not. There was no help for it but to eat the Cheese.

At first, there seemed to be no change in her expression, but gradually her colour changed from palest pink to violet, from violet to puce, to green, to orange, to peacock blue, to cerise, to coral, to mustard, through vermilion, jade, cyan, tangerine, purple, finally to black. Small wisps of smoke curled from her ears, and her toes protruded from her polyester-brocade slipperettes.

Dudley could stand it not longer. "Well?" he demanded, "WELL????"

Ecaterina fixed him with a steely gaze, eyes blazing.

"That was.......... BOGGIN!!"

Dudley smiled. He was content.

* erratum. Please read PEASANT FM 1.12.94

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