A Panel-Beating Concert in Murmansk

Beautiful. Ethereal. Delicate. Just three of the words you would not use to describe the gateposts of Mudshark Towers. Hewn from solid columns of strangely shaped basalt, topped with two menacingly obese eagles, these twin monoliths had stood for centuries at the front of the long, rutted track which led to that awesome residence of The Family, upholding their sacred duty to guard and protect the lands and minefields beyond, to support the weighty and ancient wrought iron gates, and generally, to look Mean and Imposing. It was a task which they carried out admirably well, especially the last bit. The black stone pillars had an air of timelessness, as if they were waiting for something, or someone.....

They were. Florentina Mudshark, to be exact.

The trouble with sacred duties is that they can be a bit of a pain after a century or two, and the Gateposts considered themselves long overdue for a bit of fun. Thus it was that as the sound of the imminent approach of Florentina in the Family cart floated through the vapour- infested air, the Gateposts winked at each other (metaphorically speaking, you understand. Or then again, this is Mudshark Towers, after all....) and slowly, creakingly, with the weight of centuries upon them, the posts began to move...

Florentina Mudshark trundled along the familiar potholes leading from The Fin to her ancient home. She was in a happy mood, as well she might be, being full of they joys of nature, and several pints of Old Bogsquash, a brew she had acquired a taste for on a recent visit to the nearby Wet Countries. Normally she did not drink and drive, because the roads around Mudshark Towers were so rutted that some invariably got spilled, but since the route from The Fin was one which she had travelled almost every day since childhood, she relaxed her strict standards sometimes and allowed herself the luxury of returning home with a lubrication to hand. This evening, in fact, Florentina was in such a cheerful frame of mind that she had balanced the frothing tankard on her nose, and was singing a lusty ditty concerning the mating habits of several species of Aquilegia Vulgaris, totally unconcerned about the approach of the solid gateposts. Florentina knew the space between them intimately, and knew that, as the cart's width was fully an inch less, there would be no problem with her egress.

She gave the Yak a poke with her dainty rubber boots to encourage it to pick up the pace a little. With all that Bogsquash she had consumed, a considerable amount of its byproduct was demanding fairly immediate release. As the cart passed through the gateway, the posts made one last mighty effort and lunged at Florentina. There was a hideous sound, like the sundering of the very bowels of the earth, and various accompanying snapping and splintering-type noises. The cart lurched alarmingly, but Florentina never faltered, never missed a note, never spilled a drop. The Gateposts settled back into the sodden earth, and once again, began their long wait.

Peep was, as usual, in the doghouse. It was where he lived, after all. To the rest of the Family, its cramped and dingy quarters seemed unwelcoming, but to Peep it was home, and he treasured every old bone and chewed boot (disc), of which there were a considerable number. However, Peep was worried. For some time now he had had the sneaking suspicion that his castle had been invaded. Strange things had been happening. Objects moved without his permission (although how he could tell...) and, worst of all, rare victuals had gone missing! Peep crouched within his lair and sulked. It couldn't be true, but it was.

"Oh shit," he growled, "looks like....Gophers!"

Hardly daring to look, he moved aside a particularly treasured lump of detritus, and his worst fears were confirmed. There, staring back at him were - not one, but two cute little hairy faces with whiskers a- tremble. Peep yelped in horror and started to chase his tail. The commotion brought forth Eleanor Mudshark. "What's all the bloody noise about?" she enquired sweetly. "Gophers, gophers!!" panted Peep. "It's your own bloody fault!" "No it isn't" "Yes it is!" "Isn't!" "Is!" To emphasise his point, Peep sank his teeth into Elanor's ankles, and the discussion proceeded from there.

Meanwhile, back at the Wizard's lair, Freud the coelocanth checked the thermometer worriedly. "Getting a bit chilly in here Boss," he opined, but the Wizard took no notice. Freud sulkily paddled to the bottom of his tank. Not that he was one to complain, but he was sure he had seen Alexi lurking round the corner, with a bottle of tartare sauce to hand. The Wizard was otherwise engaged, notably with the education of young Robert Mudshark, offspring of Montague and Florentina. The Wizard had some doubts about the boy's parentage, but he was proving an able student.

"Thirty billion years old," lectured his Wizzness, "and if you hit it with a hammer, just right..."

Robert nodded. "Right. Yeah." Carefully he sidled over to the strange, whirring machinery which dominated the room. These weird machines could have been the remnants of some ancient, technological civilisation, their purpose known to no-one. No-one, except Robert. He tweaked this and toggled that and instantly 'NUCLEAR DEATH MUTILATION' sprang to life on the wall. Within seconds Robert had obliterated several major cities and called into existence the Mutant Muncher to help him in his quest for the Squidgebit of Pyark.

The Wizard continued his lecture; "The Explosive Interface Theory is, of course, the most widely accepted," He paused for a moment, just long enough for Robert to insert a carefully timed "Right," and inflict a horrible demise on the Grand Carbunclulator, then a tiny gleam of something almost beginning to resemble fanaticism took hold in his until now dispassionate tone, and the word "Fools" - barely audible - sneaked through his entangled beard, to an encouraging "Uh-huh" and splattering of vile peasants from Robert. The Wizard sensed a fellow spirit. Joyfully, he lunged into his long- cherished counter-explanation which involved a revision of all nuclear particle physics to date, a lot of very improbable biological anomalies, and a quite unwarranted slur on the reputation of at least one Nobel Prizewinner's sister.

Robert continued to nod thoughtfully, and produce various affirmatives at properly timed intervals. He received a massive overdose of unknown radiation at level 7, but was unconcerned. By his reckoning, he had another six to eight hours to defeat the Loathsome Stenchoids.

Having consulted his diary, Montague had decided that the time was long overdue for one of the Family's Gatherings, to which end he had tracked down Igor and Pavlov to arrange a mutually convenient date. He flicked through the yellowing and much scribbled-upon pages, chewing thoughtfully on a half inch stub of old biro, and eventually stabbed a curry-stained finger into the flaking volume.

"How about the tenth?" he enquired, and taking the biro-stub from his mouth, he was about to enter the notification, but an intake of breath, shaking of heads, and deep frowns of concentration from Igor and Pavlov stayed his hand temporarily.

"Mmmm. Don't know about that," intoned Igor doubtfully

"It's the annual Folk-wailing and scum-frothing festival!" reprimanded Pavlov, his tone implying that Montague was remiss in the extreme to have forgotten such an important cultural event. Guiltily, Monty flicked a few pages

"How about the fourteenth?"

Pavlov raised his eyebrows in query at Igor, but Igor's grim face confirmed Monty's worst suspicions.

"Panel-beating concert in Murmansk." "Molotov-cocktail party afterwards."

Pavlov's tone was neutral, but Monty sensed the rebuke. He turned the page again.

"Fifteenth?"

"The Legendary Horatio Cheesehorn." countered Igor immediately.

"Playing," - Pavlov's gaze was steely, every word carefully placed, - "the note G!"

Monty sighed. It was going to be a long evening.

Somewhere in his dark tower, Dudley Mudshark sighed too. The Great Man was Sensitive and Creative Individual. An Aesthete and an Artiste (or at least, that was what he endeavoured daily to inform the rest of The Family) and sometimes he felt that life did not quite live up to his expectations. Of late, Dudley had taken it upon himself to broaden his horizons and increase his experiences as befitted his status as a Sensitive and Creative Individual (etc), however, yak-carting had proved too easy a skill to master, and as for certain of the other horizon-broadening activities he had attempted with the co-operation of Sylvia, his much- revered spouse, well, as the good woman herself had herself sternly intimated, adjusting the cushions she was now enforced to carry with her at all times, the less said about that, the better!

Disconsolately, Dudley toyed with the Mongolian Nose Flute he was well on his way to mastering and pondered on the type of activity would best suit a man of his calibre.

Florentina had reached the Crumbling Pile and was releasing the yak from its traces when she noticed that the cart did not seem to be as it had been when she had left The Fin. "Well bugger me with a non-regulation cucumber!" she exclaimed, "I could have sworn it had one of those round things on each corner...."

Harriet Mudshark was in a bad mood. Hardly surprising, since for some considerable time a loud banging had been assaulting her frontal lobes. The thought had briefly occurred to Harriet that perhaps her customary relaxing nightcap which she partook of of an evening had in some way been off, so she had decided to allow herself another in order to run a check. Since the banging had neither increased in intensity nor been relaxed away, Harriet concluded that the brew was in no way to blame, and now found herself with two empty bottles to dispose of. Harriet was a very conscientious woman, she hated to see anything go to waste. Bottles especially. Such well-designed, useful articles they were, it was a pity, once they were empty, to consider that they had no further role to play. Harriet picked up her two decanted containers and prepared to recycle.

She opened her chamber door. The banging grew louder. At the end of the musty corridor Peep and Eleanor were snapping and snarling at each other, while two small creatures of dubious species and expression looked on. Harriet considered - albeit momentarily - attempting to reason with the disputants, but dismissed the thought almost instantaneously. No point getting involved. She raised the bottles, one in either hand, and brought them simultaneously down on Peep and Eleanor's well-reinforced skulls. Silence reigned immediately. Harriet nodded, satisfied, and went in search of The Wizard. Another, more distant sound made her pause for an instant, but she recognised it for what it was and went on her way unperturbed. Only Gervaise skydiving whilst playing the grand piano again.

Out in the courtyard, Gervaise' landing had caused some consternation, but Florentina, surveying the splintered pile of kindling underneath the piano legs, felt only relief. At least now she would not have to account to Monty for the missing wheel. It was, indeed, as Gervaise had made his final descent past the Tower that Dudley had had his Idea. Quickly he leapt into action. No time like the present! Below, as various members of the Family appeared to start a barbecue with the remains of Florentina's cart, it seemed as if a cloud had passed over the sun, but the shadow grew larger and larger, and in curiosity, heads turned upwards. Florentina blinked in disbelief. She almost seemed to recognise the dark shape hurtling ever nearer. If she didn't know better, she could have sworn it was.... Suddenly, doubt was swept away. A great bellow rang around the broad courtyard, and all present recognised it as the voice of Dudley Mudshark. "BUNGEEEEEEE!!!!!" FM 17.6.93