Far out in the inky blackness of space lies a curious constellation of stars known as the Earwig. The stars of the Earwig live a happy and contented life twinkling brightly in the night sky for the delight of stargazers and the benefit of mariners. Such mariners are the crew of the fishing vessel Cheese Grater, which trawls the hazardous waters of Nair Cruble in the forbidding seas of Zib.
The skipper was a wily old sea dog called Captain Sausage, who had an unusual admiration of other people’s shoelaces, but had always been unable to find any that suited his own hand stitched Italian brogues. Nevertheless, he was an experienced navigator of many years, and he relied upon the stars to avoid foundering upon the treacherous rocks of Scoo Nada, which had claimed the lives of many ships, whose captains were not quite so concerned about their crews’ shoelaces. Captain Sausage would always pay great credence to the Earwig as he charted his way through the fishing grounds, for not only did it indicate the safe passage through the turbulent currents around Scoo Nada but the pattern of its stars spelled out, in the local seafaring language, the word snippet which was deemed to be lucky when on a starboard tack.
One day, the crew had caught a particularly large haul of herring, and the good ship Cheese Grater was heading back to its home port of Odge. Evening had descended, and Captain Sausage was in his cabin studying his charts and plotting the ship’s course for the night watch. That completed, he sat back for a smoke of his pipe with his sextant at the ready for the first sign of the stars.
However, all was not well in the heavens. Darkness descended and the stars awoke to commence their nocturnal sojourn across the firmament. As the Earwig crawled its way over the eastern horizon, it was apparent that something was awry. One of its stars was not twinkling! The stricken star was a young star called Jamie ‘though astronomers were more inclined to call it Caprioni 354 Epsilon Major, but since they think that a star’s twinkling is caused by turbulence in the earth’s upper atmosphere who are they to judge?
Naturally, Jamie’s colleagues were a little concerned about their friend’s poor state of health.
‘Evening, Jamie,’ greeted his nearest neighbour Henry, ‘Where’s your twinkle?’
‘Dunno, I just can’t seem to manage it tonight,’ said Jamie, visibly distressed.
‘Oh dear,’ said Henry, ‘You’d better get it sorted out before Gertrude notices.’
But it was too late. Gertrude, the eldest star and the leader of the Earwig, had spotted that one of her underlings was not pulling his weight.
‘Jamie!’ she snapped, ‘If you’re not bright and twinkling pretty damned smartish, then you’re out of this constellation.’
‘But, I can’t!’ sobbed Jamie, ‘I’ve tried and I’ve tried but I just can’t twinkle anymore.’
Meanwhile, the first night watch had commenced on the Cheese Grater. Captain Sausage was discussing duty rosters and Mongolian influences in neo-Georgian architecture with his first officer, Mister Mash.
‘And put Smithers in charge of the pencil sharpener,’ said Sausage.
‘Aye aye, skipper,’ said Mash, ‘Will that be all, sir?’
‘Yes, I think so. Thank you Mister Mash.’
‘Oh, just one more thing.’
‘One of the stars in the Earwig isn’t twinkling,’ said Sausage, ‘Could you see to it?’
‘Sir?’ said Mash a little confused.
‘A star in the Earwig, Jamie I think it is. Not twinkling tonight. Have one of the men put it right.’
‘You want me to get a star to twinkle?’ said Mash incredulously.
‘That’s right,’ said Sausage, ‘Can’t have stars not twinkling. Sign of a sloppy sky.’
‘Sir, may I point out,’ Mash began, ‘that stars are huge gaseous bodies thousands of light years away which generate radiation by the thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen plasma into helium at temperatures of several million degrees. What do you expect me to do - put a match to it?’
‘Good idea,’ said Sausage, ‘See to it at once.’
‘But I can’t!’ Mash gibbered.
‘Can’t, Mash, can’t?’ said Sausage, ‘I gave you an order, man. Now carry it out or I’ll have you keel-hauled.’
‘Oh, and Mash . . .’
‘Oh, er, thank you sir.’
‘Freeman Hardy Willis, sir.’
‘Excellent,’ said Captain Sausage, ‘Lovely brown colour, but wouldn’t suit my brogues.’
Now, being a well organised ship, the Cheese Grater had its natural pecking order as determined by rank. And when it came to pecking, First Officer Mash was not going to be out-pecked by anybody, least of all someone who can’t find any decent shoe laces.
‘Bosun!’ he cried.
‘Aye, Mister Maaash,’ responded the ship’s bosun who was busily trying to extract the name of a decent tailor from an unwilling eel.
‘That constellation,’ barked Mash pointing towards the Earwig, ‘is a disgrace to the night sky! Get that star’s twinkle fixed immediately!’
‘That thaar’s young Jamie, that be,’ replied the bosun wistfully.
‘And his twinkle’s not up to the captain’s satisfaction. See to it at once!’
‘Jamie’s lorrst ’is twinkle.’
‘That’s right, bosun, and it needs fixing.’
‘Can’t fix something that’s lorrst,’ said the bosun.
‘You’ll ‘arf to foind it first ‘fore y’can fix it.’
‘Find it?’ said Mash, ‘Find Jamie’s twinkle? Where?’
‘If y’knew thaat, it wouldn’t be lorrst now, would it?’
‘Well . . . well, keep an eye out for it,’ said Mash, ‘There’s a good fellow.’
He left the bosun to his eel interrogating business and wandered to the bow of the ship. A ship’s bow is renowned in nautical circles for being a good place for solid hard think. Leaning forward over the prow, one’s mind can be set loose and become lost in the vastness of the water ahead; the ship and all its problems become cast into the unseen world behind. One can switch off from the demands of the captain, the insolence of the crew and the squawking of the gulls, which optimistically congregate around the stern hoping for a free fish. And it was into this state that Mash had come to unclutter his mind and approach his problem objectively.
Now, where in the middle of an ocean could you be expected to find a star’s lost twinkle? He gazed up from the dark choppy waters at the Earwig and in particular at poor Jamie who was unable to join his colleagues in their nocturnal ballet. If only he could question Jamie on his recent activities he might have a better idea where to look. To do that he would have to fly
‘You gull!’ he turned and called at one of the gulls, ‘Over here!’
‘Oooohh,’ squawked the gull, ‘And who do you think you are ordering me around like that? I’m not one of your crew, you know!’
‘I have a proposition for you, gull,’ said Mash.
‘Gull? Gull?’ snapped the gull, ‘What’s all this gull business? I do have a name.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Mash, ‘But I didn’t know what it was.’
‘It’s Albert,’ replied the gull, ‘Albert Ross. And I’m not just a gull, I’m . . .’
‘An albatross, yes,’ interrupted Mash, spotting that one coming.
‘Well,’ said Albert, ‘What’s the deal?’
‘You see Jamie up there?’ said Mash.
‘Oh yes, poor Jamie,’ said Albert, ‘Lost his twinkle, you know.’
‘That’s right,’ said Mash, ‘and I want you to fly up there and find out what’s happened to it. Ask him where he’s been, when he noticed it was missing, what he’s been doing lately - that sort of thing.’
‘And what’s in it for me, then?’ asked Albert hopefully.
‘Guess,’ replied Mash.
‘Er, a herring?’ hazarded Albert.
‘A bit obvious really, wasn’t it?’ said Mash.
‘Yeah, I thought so,’ said Albert, ‘but tasty. Okay, you got a deal.’
And so up Albert flew, up into the night sky, up towards the blighted constellation of Earwig. Jamie was clearly very upset.
‘Hello, Jamie,’ greeted Albert, ‘I hear you’re in a bit of a fix.’
‘Yes,’ blubbed Jamie, ‘It’s terrible. I just don’t know how I’m going to get by without my twinkle.’
‘There, there,’ comforted the albatross, ‘Things aren’t as grim as they seem. You see that ship down there?’
‘Well, they want to get your twinkle back to you,’ said Albert, ‘They’ve asked me to find out where you lost it so that they can recover it. Now isn’t that kind?’
‘Kind but impractical,’ said Jamie, ‘I lost it as I rose out of the eastern horizon. It could have drifted miles by now.’
‘Nevertheless,’ said Albert, ‘it must be somewhere in the sea. The fishermen will scour the ocean for it. They know the currents. They’ll know where to look.’
Back on the Cheese Grater, First Officer Mash watched as his messenger to the stars descended with the news he was waiting to hear.
‘The eastern horizon, eh?’ he said in response to the albatross’s report, ‘We’d better turn the ship about and go look for it then.’
‘Don’t forget my fish,’ said Albert.
‘I shall allow you to choose the fattest juiciest fish from the hold for your endeavours, Mister Ross,’ smiled Mash.
‘Thank you, Mister Mash,’ said Albert.
Mash led Albert down to the hold, which was packed with the bountiful catch they had accumulated that day. Albert licked his lips and cast his eyes about the haul in search of the meatiest looking fish. Suddenly, something strange caught his attention.
‘What’s that in the far corner over there?’ he asked Mash.
‘What? Where?’ said Mash.
‘There,’ said Albert, ‘That strange flickering thing under those fish.’
‘Probably just a trick of the light,’ said Mash, ‘You know how fish tend to glisten.’
‘Hey, I know a glisten on a fish when I see one,’ said Albert, ‘and that just ain’t normal.’
He hopped over to the strange, coruscating light and rummaged about amongst the fish that were covering it. With a mighty tug he pulled out of the haul a brilliant, glowing, twinkling herring.
‘Jamie’s twinkle!’ exclaimed Mash, ‘What’s it doing on that fish?’
‘My twinkle if you don’t mind!’ snapped the herring.
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ said Mash, ‘Fish don’t twinkle. Hand it over immediately, or you’re kipper!’
‘Shan’t!’ said the fish, ‘It’s mine and I’m keeping it.’
‘Albert, get Jamie’s twinkle off that fish!’ Mash ordered.
‘How?’ said Albert, ‘I’m more used to swallowing them whole.’
‘Well, try bashing it about a bit,’ said Mash, ‘Fish tend to be more co-operative after a good slapping.’
‘All right, all right,’ conceded the fish, ‘But please hear me out. You see I really need this twinkle.’
‘Why?’ said Mash.
‘My name is Pembroke,’ began the herring, ‘and I’ve been swimming around these waters for many years now and I know them like the back of my fin. Well, last Tuesday I ventured over to Goose Bay and there I met
‘Her?’ queried Mash.
‘Muriel,’ said Pembroke dreamily.
‘A lady herring I presume,’ said Albert.
‘A lady herring of the finest quality,’ Pembroke continued, ‘Oh, how I adored her, those glistening scales, those silken fins, that seductive wiggle as her sleek body scythed through the water. I just knew she had to be mine.’
‘This is all I need,’ said Mash, ‘A lovestruck herring.’
However, Albert was not so cynical. As he listened to Pembroke’s tale of passion he couldn’t help feeling a tear well up in his eye.
‘Anyway,’ said Pembroke, ‘what was I to do? I am but a poor impoverished herring. How was I to win the affections of one so beautiful as she? Suddenly, I had an idea. If I could give her as a token of my love, the twinkle from a star, then she would fall in love with me, and we would live happily ever after.’
‘Go on,’ urged Albert, clearly moved by the fish’s story.
‘Well, I swam over to the eastern horizon where the stars rise, and waited. Then, as one of them was about to rise, I snatched its twinkle and dashed off with it before anyone noticed it was gone.’
‘You stole Jamie’s twinkle!’ roared Mash.
‘I . . . I didn’t mean to,’ said Pembroke, ‘I just needed it for Muriel.’
‘You’ll have to give it back,’ said Mash, ‘Twinkles belong to the stars, not fish.’
‘I’m afraid he’s right,’ said Albert, ‘but you’ll find some other way of wooing Muriel. So long as she sees you’re sincere, it doesn’t really matter what you give her.’
‘I don’t suppose I have much choice, do I?’ said Pembroke sadly.
‘You have the choice,’ said Mash, ‘of either handing over that twinkle, or being eaten by this gull.’
‘Oh well,’ sighed the fish, and he gave the twinkle to Mash.
‘Albert,’ said Mash, ‘Take this back to Jamie and get him twinkling again.’
‘What’s it worth?’ said Albert.
‘You’ll never guess,’ said Mash.
‘Another fish?’ said Albert.
‘It’s uncanny, but you’re right again.’
‘I’ll be back in a jiffy.’
‘My twinkle!’ squealed Jamie in sheer delight at seeing what the albatross had brought him, ‘Why, thank you, thank you, thank you!’
‘My pleasure,’ smiled Albert, ‘You just keep on twinkling there.’
‘Oh, I will, I will, I will!’
‘See you later my stellar friend,’ bid the gull, ‘Got a couple of tasty herring waiting for me below.’ And with a gull-to-star wink, Albert hurled himself into a beak dive and headed straight back to the Cheese Grater.
‘Now then, which one shall I have first,’ said Albert hopping over the day’s catch, ‘They all look so nice. Let’s see, eeny meeny miney mo . . . oh, it’s got to be that one!’
Albert’s beak plunged into the pile of fish with the eagerness of a terrier in a rat hole. Grasping his chosen prize, he heaved out a magnificent succulent herring with the most glistening of scales, the silkiest of fins, and the sleekest of bodies which you just knew would wiggle seductively were it not trapped in the beak of a hungry gull. This fish, however, was not wiggling seductively. This fish was thrashing its tortured body about in a most undignified fashion, as its captor endeavoured to manipulate it into more swallowable position.
‘Muriel!’ shrieked Pembroke watching in horror as Albert raised his head in order to gain a little assistance from the force of gravity.
Aghast, Albert opened his beak in shocked realisation of the fish he had chosen. With the release of the gull’s grip, Muriel slid inexorably down into Albert’s throat and descended into the dark, gloomy gullet. Suddenly, what had seemed to be a most appetising meal had left a rather sickening taste on the pallet.
‘Oh no,’ cried Pembroke, ‘My poor, poor, dear Muriel!’
Albert’s head hung remorsefully from his shamefully swollen crop.
‘Pembroke, I’m so, so sorry,’ he said, ‘I would have chosen any other fish, if only I’d thought.’
‘She was my only love,’ wept the heartbroken herring.
‘I know,’ said Albert, ‘and in my foolish eagerness I have denied you any future happiness you may have had together.’ The gull choked back a tear. ‘For that, I must pay. I realise nothing can truly compensate you for such a loss, but I would do anything in recompense for my stupidity. I throw myself at your mercy. Name my punishment.’
Pembroke sniffed mournfully.
‘There’s only one thing you can do for me now,’ he said.
‘Name it,’ said Albert.
‘For your second fish,’ said Pembroke.
‘Yes, yes, I’ll be more careful,’ said Albert, ‘You choose which fish I must eat.’
‘The fish you must eat,’ began Pembroke.
‘Yes?’ urged Albert.
‘Is me!’ said Pembroke.
Once again, Albert’s beak dropped in horror.
‘No, no!’ he squawked, ‘I can’t eat you! Not after what I’ve just done to you! I couldn’t possibly!’
‘But you must,’ demanded Pembroke, ‘because of what you’ve just done. Muriel was all I ever cared about. I can’t live without her. I must join her in the great ocean in the sky.’
‘But I like you,’ said Albert, ‘I know we haven’t known each other very long and this is an unusual relationship between an albatross and a herring, but I’ve come to regard you as a friend. Please don’t make me eat you.’
‘If you truly feel that you’re my friend,’ said Pembroke, ‘then you must eat me. It’s the only way we can be together. Our bodies shall become one in your stomach, and our souls will unite in the love that never manifested itself in the physical world, but which latently awaited the spark that was to ignite it, a spark from the heavens, a twinkle from the stars.’
The fish looked beseechingly at the guilt-ridden gull.
The gull could do no more to ease his burden than to reflect upon the sheer ridiculousness of the situation. Here he was, confronted by a fine looking herring, which was begging to be eaten, and he didn’t want to do it! Whatever was to come out of this, he could not allow a word of it to reach the other seabirds. Unpalatable as it felt, eating Pembroke seemed to be the best way out of this predicament.
‘Eat me,’ implored Pembroke, ‘That I may consummate my love for Muriel before our flesh becomes dissolved in your enzymes and we merge in the juices of our own coition.’
‘Just a minute,’ said Albert, ‘Are you trying to say that you want to have sex in my stomach?’
‘Well, yes,’ said Pembroke, ‘Is that a problem?’
‘Of course it’s a problem! I’m not having two fish writhing around in a sexual frenzy in my stomach!’
‘Well, because it’s not proper.’
‘Yes, it is. You’ve never minded before.’
‘That’s because I’ve never had fish copulating in my stomach before.’
‘Of course you have. Surely you must have felt it?’
‘What? All that wriggling and writhing?’
‘You mean that’s . . . ?’
‘What did you think it was?’
‘Well, I just assumed that the fish were trying to escape.’
‘Trying to escape?’ Pembroke exclaimed, ‘How the bloody hell do you expect a herring to escape from a gull’s stomach? Good heavens, no. What happens is, when you swallow a fish, the previous fish you had is usually still alive, yes?’
Albert nodded in agreement.
‘Well,’ Pembroke continued, ‘The new fish thinks - Hmmm, here I am trapped in a gull’s stomach with not much longer to live and here’s a tasty bit of fish supper - may as well go out with a bang. The first fish eventually dies and another fish is caught, which then gets off with the last fish.’
Albert blinked his eyes in disbelief.
‘But what if they’re of the same, um, genital group?’ he inquired.
‘Oh, we don’t care,’ said Pembroke brightly, ‘When you’re in a gull’s stomach it’s all the same anyway. Some fish draw the line at molluscs ‘though, but that’s usually hake and they’re a bit square anyway. Not like mackerel. Boy, could I tell you some things about mackerel.’
‘I had no idea,’ said Albert, totally agog.
‘Well, you wouldn’t,’ said Pembroke, ‘being a boring seabird with your monogamous homo-species oriented sex life. Pairing for life? Not for the fish, matey!’
‘Hang on a minute,’ said Albert, ‘What was all that stuff about Muriel? Or were you just talking a load of guano?’
‘Oh, that’s love,’ said Pembroke, ‘That’s totally different. Fish can’t live without love. That’s why we often die for no apparent reason - bit of a bind really. But that’s why I desperately need Muriel, because I’m madly in love with her. However, we wouldn’t mind each other seeing other fish ‘though.’
‘Or molluscs,’ said Albert.
‘Whatever,’ said Pembroke, ‘So you see, when we get caught by a gull, it’s not all bad news. We’re guaranteed two last shags before we finally yield the fillet.’
‘Well,’ said Albert, ‘This is indeed quite a revelation.’
It was clear that he would never be able to see his prey in quite the same light again. This was something that really had to be kept from any other fish eating bird.
‘Is she still alive?’ asked Pembroke.
‘Yes,’ said Albert. The wriggling in his stomach to which he had been accustomed all his life now sickened him, especially when he recalled what his previous meal was: a Peperami sausage he had found on the beach.
‘Then it’s time for me to join her,’ said Pembroke.
‘Yes, I suppose it is,’ sighed Albert.
He picked up Pembroke as if he were contaminated with nuclear waste. Reluctantly, he tossed his newly found friend to the back of his beak, and with a mighty grimace gulped him straight down. It was the bitterest fish he’d ever had to swallow. Wearily, he strolled up onto the deck as the fishy foreplay commenced inside his body. There he gazed up, stretched his neck and cawed at the stars, whose flickering lights caught the opening of his gullet and gently caressed the feathery tails of the fated lovers within. Pembroke had finally delivered his twinkle to Muriel.
In due course, the fatigued bodies began their dissolution into unity, a joining which no man could ever put asunder. Leaving the nuptial chamber they oozed through labyrinthal passages of warm, soft, moistened walls entwined in a glutinous embrace on their honeymoon adventure. Presently, they emerged into a brilliant shining light. The cozy passage walls were gone, replaced with a light, airy breeze, a breeze through which they descended faster, faster. Below them lay a vast expanse of blueness, a strangely familiar body, but one which, perhaps due to its size and distance, took on a foreboding air. To one side, another great body, one of a cold, grey, rugged texture, lurked menacingly.
As Pembroke and Muriel descended towards the inviting mass of blue, the craggy protrusions of the grey body lurched dangerously at them. Closer they came, threatening to pluck them from the exhilaration of their lovers’ leap. With a feeble splat the piscine partnership struck its antagonist, scarring its rocky face with a single pure white streak, a blemish that would serve as a monument to their legacy and which would landmark their love forever.
Or at least until the rain washed it away.