Here's a bonus short story of mine that you might enjoy. As with The New Deal and Tongues and Other Parts, I leave it up to you to decide how true it is! My thanks to David Melling for gracing my words with his wonderful illustrations. (Note: You can click on any of the images to see a bigger, more detailed version.)
Story © Sam Enthoven / Art © David Melling, 2010. All Rights Reserved.
It pains me to say it, but it's Jethro who takes the prize. He had a beautiful heart, the finest we've ever come across. It was just a shame he couldn't see things from our point of view: I mean, he'd seemed so promising...
Jethro was waddling his way out to his local kebab-shop again when Mr Theophilus first appeared to him. From our observations we knew Jethro's evening kebab was usually his favourite of the day, but in a matter of minutes he was completely in our power.
Partly this was due to Mr Theophilus' appearance which is, I suppose, rather striking. His hair isn't just white, it's almost dazzling. From the depth of his wrinkles one can tell that Mr Theophilus is very old, but he stands up straight and his movements are smooth, his steps sweeping and neat. And the power of his presence was especially heightened that evening by his wearing his favourite cape, the deep blue velvet one with red silk lining.
'Pardon me…' was all he had to say. Jethro turned and stopped dead.
'So sorry to trouble you,' Mr Theophilus continued, his green eyes twinkling kindly. 'But I couldn't help noticing that t-shirt you're wearing. It's not... is it?'
'An Official Jack the Ripper Fan Club t-shirt?' said Jethro, swelling with pride. He was a very fat young man – the reason we were interested in him – so this was an impressive sight. 'Yes! Yes it is, actually.'
'My,' said Mr Theophilus in a tone of respect. 'That's quite a difficult item to lay one's hands on, I understand.'
'Well, you know…' Jethro's shrug was casual but his ears were turning pink. 'Why? Do you want one yourself?'
Mr Theophilus grinned his widest grin, displaying to perfection the gleaming whiteness and splendid condition of his teeth. 'Oh, good heavens no! T-shirts aren't really my line.' His eyes locked onto Jethro's and, almost imperceptibly at first, he began to nod. 'I am interested in Jack the Ripper, though. Specifically, the man behind the myth. May I enquire: do you have a theory as to who he really was?'
'Well,' said Jethro, finding himself nodding too, 'I've, er, read all the books, of course. It's kind of a hobby of mine. You know, serial killers.'
'The mystery of the Ripper's true identity,' Mr Theophilus declared, 'has now vexed the world for a hundred and twenty years!'
'Yeah!' said Jethro. 'And sometimes the books have pictures!'
Mr Theophilus blinked and the nodding stopped for a moment. 'Quite,' he said. Then his eyes locked back on Jethro's again. 'Young man, would you like to know the answer?'
'Sorry?' asked Jethro.
Mr Theophilus leaned forward. His cape fell open as he did so, revealing his fine three-piece suit of dark brown velvet and the pale flower he was wearing in his buttonhole. The flower looked like a rose, but one still in bud, its colour not yet formed. Though his head continued to nod, Jethro's eyes fixed on the flower, which glowed pale green from Mr Theophilus' shapely lapel. He may have noticed the tiny blue and red veins in the delicate petals. He may have smelt the strange, sweet smell.
'I too have an interest in serial killers,' said Mr Theophilus, still nodding hypnotically, 'and I possess certain techniques, certain proofs, that may answer all your questions about "Saucy Jack" and his brethren once and for all.' He paused. 'I live just a short distance from here. Would you like me to show you?'
Abruptly Jethro appeared to realise he'd been nodding too.
'I guess,' he said. He gave another wobbling shrug. 'Sure. Yeah: OK.'
'Splendid! That's settled, then. Step this way! Oh, and do allow me to introduce myself: I'm Mr Theophilus.' His eyebrows lifted, 'I didn't quite catch…?'
'Jethro,' said Jethro.
'Ah yes, quite so.' Mr. Theophilus' tongue flicked around his teeth. 'Well then, Jethro,' he said, as if tasting the name, 'follow me!'
Mr Theophilus' horse-drawn carriage was waiting some two hundred yards past the next corner, within sight of the all-night chemists. Perhaps Jethro just didn't believe it was really there until the door was opened for him, but as he climbed into the soft red of the interior, and sank back into the velvet seats, one can assume he was quite impressed. Mr Theophilus touched the switch set into the wall below where I was sitting, and Jethro heard a hiss of compressed air.
'Home, Sam,' said Mr Theophilus into the speaking-trumpet, 'and don't spare the horses.' Then he sank into the seat opposite our guest, smiling broadly.
Jethro seemed unable to hold his host's gaze for long, so he looked out of the window. Past the heavy tassels on the curtains, which twitched lazily over each bump in the road, Jethro watched the passers-by for a reaction to the carriage.
Naturally, none came. Jethro must have noticed that no one ever seemed to be looking in the right direction: he clearly felt disappointed by this, for he raised a chubby hand and was on the point of waving to a passing group of girls, to see if this would elicit the proper appreciation for his mode of transport, when he heard a soft cough. Mr Theophilus was looking at him with eyebrows raised. Jethro let his hand drop back into his lap, and began to fidget. Presently, the carriage swung hard to the left, and the orange of the streetlamp-lit evening outside was abruptly swallowed.
'Ah!' said Mr Theophilus. 'I believe we've arrived.'
Jethro looked out of the window again, but now there was nothing to be seen except blackness.
'Before we proceed any further,' he heard, 'there is one small thing I'd like you to do for me.'
Jethro turned and saw Mr Theophilus adjusting the fit of a dainty pair of white gloves. He looked up to his face quickly.
'No cause for concern, dear fellow,' said Mr Theophilus soothingly. 'I simply wondered if you'd indulge me by passing your nose over this flower in my buttonhole.' He pulled it from his lapel and held it out for his guest. 'They're extremely rare. A scent fit for angels, I believe, but do tell me what you think.'
Jethro took the flower, bringing it slowly up to his nostrils, and straight away the colour drained from his face.
One can imagine how he felt: the powerful aroma of almonds expanding inside his skull, until the air seemed to bulge before his eyes. He would have noticed the sharp tingle of pins and needles in his hand: if his pupils had still been able to focus, he might have seen that the delicate stem of the flower had wrapped itself around him, curling affectionately about his fingers. He might have seen the plant swaying steadily and slowly, lazily, opening its pale petals. But…
'Take a good breath. A good, deep breath, that's the way,' Jethro heard. He obeyed. And immediately everything went dark.
Really, too easy.
When Jethro awoke, some seven hours later, the first thing he saw was himself – or rather, the reflection of his disembodied head looking back at him from the mirror above the slab. I believe this startled him: his eyes widened for a moment until he realised this was only an illusion cause by the hospital gown, which covered his body right up to his chin.
'Splendid!' he heard from the other side of the room. Perhaps Jethro also heard the steps coming closer, the click of steel toe-caps on concrete. 'You're right on time,' continued Mr Theophilus, closing his pocket-watch with a soft snap. 'Not too late, and not a moment too soon. You should regain the power of speech right about... now.'
'Wh. Where am I?'
'The guest room of my humble abode, dear boy. Where I always receive my visitors. And…' A flash of awkwardness crossed Mr Theophilus' face. 'Well, I'm afraid I have a confession to make. You remember I told you I knew the truth about Jack the Ripper?'
'Yes?' said Jethro.
'I lied. I'm sorry old chap, but there it is.' Mr Theophilus pulled up a chair by the slab, and sighed. 'To be honest, I've always been baffled as to why the man still attracts so much attention. No one knows who he was, that's true – but why do we still care? His crimes seem so cruel: so brutal and, well, so pointless. Whereas I, on the other hand, am a specialist.' He paused, relishing his favourite line. 'A heart specialist.'
'Hearts?' said Jethro, and turned his head to face his host at last.
'Ah, splendid! So nice to see each other again, yes? Yes: hearts,' said Mr Theophilus. 'I remove them, roast them for not less than eight hours until the meat is completely tender, then I eat them with various special sauces of my own devising.'
There was short silence.
'Eight hours?' spluttered Jethro, finally.
'Why, yes,' replied Mr Theophilus. This commendable show of curiosity clearly pleased him. 'The timing's rather crucial, actually. While the heart is undoubtedly an organ best consumed rare, anything less than a full eight hours is, frankly, impractical.' His green eyes twinkled, laughter lines deepening around them. 'I see that what I say surprises you.'
Jethro did not reply.
'Well,' said Mr Theophilus, taking a deep breath and fixing his eye on the middle distance, 'it's simply because the human heart's so astonishingly tough. You follow? It's the job, all that pumping all the time. The heart is solid, gristly muscle by its very nature, because expanding and contracting is really all it ever does.'
He turned to Jethro, smiling broadly.
'Take Joan of Arc. I'm sure you recall the story about her. No? French lady? Led a rebellion, claiming she was under orders from the saints? Well, anyway: in 1431 she was burnt at the stake, and when they put out the fire the only thing that was left of her was her heart. No matter how hard her executioners tried, the bally thing just wouldn't catch light. Now: why do you think that was, hmm?'
Jethro looked blank. Mr Theophilus' smile did not waver.
'Those were primitive days, so you can imagine the way they saw it at the time,' he said, still grinning. 'Her "steadfast heart" eventually caused her to end up being made a saint herself! And all the while the real reason it didn't burn was actually very simple. They didn't cook it for long enough.'
Jethro's face was very pale by now, but Mr Theophilus was hitting his stride.
'You see, Joan of Arc had a very strong heart. She was a fit and healthy young woman who, if it hadn't been for the saints, would probably have lived to a ripe old age. So: if her executioners had wanted the cooking process to last anything less than about fourteen hours, they would've needed considerably better equipment than what was available in 1431!' He shook his head with amusement. 'Now,' he went on, 'young, strong, tough hearts like hers aren't usually any good to me.'
'No?' said Jethro weakly.
'Oh dear me no. The problem is, if a heart's too healthy the roasting process just dries out all the juices. It's a crying shame. All you're left with is this ghastly lump the consistency of a squash ball. Ugh! No: my speciality's strictly a twenty-first century thing – a true marvel of the technological age. I like a modern heart. Succulent. Juicy. And, of course, marbled with fat.'
'Fat?' echoed Jethro, in a voice from far away.
'Yes indeed,' said Mr Theophilus.
Silently, Jethro began to cry.
'I mean, consider,' continued Mr Theophilus, oblivious in his mission to explain. 'You're a three-kebabs-a-day man. Chips. Cheeseburgers. Chocolate…'
'Deep fried pizza,' said Jethro miserably.
'Precisely. And I don't see that as excessive. Quite the contrary. Think of what happens to your heart's texture and flavour in the slow-roasting process, as the layers of muscle soften and the juices filter through. Think of the rich goodness spreading as the membranes loosen and tenderize. Really, you can't imagine how good it will be.'
'Deep fried pizza,' said Jethro again.
'Yes yes, we've had that already.'
'Deep fried pizza-'
'My dear boy, snap out of it.'
'Deep fried pizza-'
'Oh. Of course, silly me,' said Mr Theophilus, and reached under the bed. There came a hiss of compressed air escaping.
'Deep...' said Jethro, then fell silent.
'There now. Any better?' asked Mr Theophilus.
'Yes, thank you,' murmured Jethro. 'What happened to me?'
'Common enough, I assure you,' said Mr Theophilus, with a dismissive wave of one white-gloved hand. 'Where was I?'
'You were saying,' said Jethro, taking a deep breath, 'that you're going to cook my heart.'
'Ah! No, dear boy, you've misunderstood.'
'You're going to cut out my heart, cook it, and eat it,' said Jethro, even more miserably. 'Which bit don't I understand?'
'I'm not going to take out your heart and put it in my oven,' replied Mr Theophilus patiently.
'Well: it's been in for six hours already.'
Mr Theophilus turned, and caught sight of Jethro's tears for the first time. Immediately his kindly face filled with concern.
'My poor boy! I have been rather wittering on, haven't I? Forgive me. You must have questions you want to ask.'
Jethro took a breath. 'You've... taken... my heart?'
'Yes. Yes I have.' A flash of impatience crossed Theophilus' brow.
'You're cooking it now, and you're going to eat it.'
'Then,' said Jethro, with obvious effort, 'how come I can still talk to you?'
There was a pause.
'It's, ah, a little difficult to explain…'
'Try me,' said Jethro, firmly.
'Hmm,' said Mr Theophilus. 'It's rather hush-hush, actually. If I were to say that it's an invention of my own, involving clockwork and compressed air, could we leave it at that? Microhydraulics. Very advanced. Very complicated. There now, I think I've said enough.'
'And... how long will it last?' asked Jethro, a grating note of desperation entering his voice.
'Well, the main thing is to keep your air pressure steady. You've a valve under your right armpit: if you top yourself up whenever you feel a bit flat, then as long as you don't tamper with the replacement heart there's no reason why it shouldn't last just as long as the rest of you does.'
'But why didn't you just kill me?' Jethro wailed.
'My dear chap!' said Mr Theophilus, astonished. 'What a suggestion! In fact, that's the very point where myself and your "serial killers" part company. While it's true, to my eternal regret, that the operation has killed a number of guests of mine in the past, I assure you that was all before I perfected my system. No, dear boy, I don't want to kill you. In fact...'
Mr Theophilus smiled his most dazzling smile.
'I was rather hoping you might join my colleague and I for a spot of dinner.'
Jethro began to tremble.
'What d'you say? Eh? The main course is going to be much too rich for just the two of us, and really, we'd be delighted - ?'
'No,' said Jethro, very quietly.
'What was that?'
Mr Theophilus' face fell.
'I want you to let me up,' said Jethro, his voice quivering but deadly in its sincerity, 'and let me go home.'
They looked at each other for a moment.
Obediently Mr Theophilus pressed the switch under the operating table. With a soft whine Jethro was tilted to an upright position. The hospital gown dropped to the floor, revealing that even the patient's beloved T-shirt had, also, been replaced after the operation. In a last gesture of helpfulness Mr Theophilus reached for Jethro's armpit to help him disconnect himself from the pump. Jethro shrugged off the proffered hand, shuddering.
'I'm really very sorry you refuse my hospitality in this way,' said Mr Theophilus, hurt. 'My offer was kindly meant.'
'Whatever,' said Jethro, holding his armpit as he stood up. 'Just tell me the way out, please.'
'Nothing simpler. Go straight out that door, and keep going as far as the stairs. At the bottom of them you'll find the rest of your life. And go easy on the kebabs from now on! They're bad for the mechanism!'
But the door had swung shut. Jethro was gone.
That was when I came in. I'd been watching on the monitor in the dining-room, to find out how many places to lay for dinner. Divining that Mr Theophilus might need cheering up, I pushed the swinging door and popped out into the operating theatre.
'Don't be sad, Mr Theophilus,' I said brightly, doing my best. 'Worse things happen at sea!'
All he did was look at me. I think he looked the saddest I've ever seen him.
'I just can't understand it,' he murmured. 'The most beautiful heart we've ever come across. The quintessence, the very peak of gastronomic experience to follow. And I tried my hardest.' He lifted a heavy hand to his waxy white brow before continuing. 'I really thought, that time, that we had a good chance. You know? That we would actually... persuade someone.'
I felt for him then, I truly did. By this point we'd been dining by ourselves for more than two hundred years, and heaven knows how long Mr Theophilus had been alone before he and I met. At that moment, disappointment threatened to overwhelm us both.
There was nothing to say. Except, of course,
'All the more for us then, eh?'
He brightened immediately.
'By Jove you're right, Sam. That's the spirit!' He stood up smoothly, slipped his velvet jacket back on and straightened his cravat. Then, arm in arm, we strolled out into the dining-room.
And Jethro's heart? Perfection, though I say this not without a measure of personal regret. My fondest memory should (my own pride dictates it) relate to an organ of a "home grown" nature. Writing this, my hand slows suddenly to a halt, and I must reach for the compressed air once more before its progress across the page can continue. But truly: culinary perfection was what we achieved, with Jethro's Ace of Hearts.
Story © Sam Enthoven / Art © David Melling, 2010. All Rights Reserved.