My arms were pinned behind me and I was half-dragged, half-kicked through the streets of the squirrel village towards the temple. The great doors were swung open and they heaved me into the dark space beyond. I stumbled as they tumbled me up onto a platform, slammed me back against a steel post and lashed me to it firmly with thick cables.
It was dark but I was not alone. I heard them out there in the blackness: the chattering, the whispering and soft cackling of many, many squirrels. That it should come to this; that I should meet my end not though a noble act of sacrifice, or some desperately futile heroic struggle, but at the grasping paws of a bunch of woodland vermin with a nut fixation. Well, fair enough, I suppose a less-than-dignified demise was always on the cards for me, but I never guessed it would be as bad as this.
Light suddenly struck my face, blinding me. I shut my eyes and tried to twist away, to shield myself from the glare, but I was too firmly restrained and my frantic struggling was in vain.
“Comfy?” I heard the voice of King Flaky Nibbles IV, coming from somewhere close by.
“Not really,” I replied, as cordially as I could manage under the circumstances.
“Good, good,” said the King, with a noticeable lack of sympathy. “Jolly good.”
I tried to open my eyes. The glare was intensely painful at first, but gradually I began to perceive my surroundings, and was surprised to see rows of tables in front of me, groups of squirrels seated around each one, gossiping and joking amongst themselves. I was further dumbfounded to see a mobile disco on my right, all flashing lights and spangly banners. I had no time to ponder what this could mean, for at this point King Flaky Nibbles stepped forward to address the crowd.
“People of Squirreltopia!” he proclaimed, his voice ringing around the great temple and pressing the squirrels gathered within into silence. “People of the Russet Forests, sturdy of tail, strong of nut and long of tooth! Noble brethren of the woodland... How y’doing? Is everyone all right?”
A cheer from the crowd.
“Smashing!” said His Majesty, warming to his audience. “Well, y’know, it’s lovely to be here again. I know we’re going to have a fantastic time. We’ve got some great acts tonight, including the Fabulous Maple Twins, the Amazing Spendo and his Inflatable Badger, and the gorgeous Makita Muff, female vocalist, who went down so well at last month’s hanging.”
Another big cheer from the crowd. He was working well tonight.
“Aw, you’re wonderful,” said King Flaky Nibbles, with real sincerity. “But let us not forget the main attraction.”
Two of the King’s personal guard entered, carrying some sort of contraption covered in a sheet. They placed it directly in front of me, and I really didn’t care for the way they leered at me as they shuffled back to the wings.
“That’s right!” The King announced. “It’s Geoff Dickson and his extraordinary removable nuts!” As he spoke he pulled off the sheet with a flourish, revealing a small guillotine, alarmingly set at waist height. A weak man would have soiled himself at this point. I soiled myself at this point. I also think I may have begun to cry.
“But all that’s to come later,” promised Flaky Nibbles. “In the meantime, the buffet’s open, and Davey Spandex is here with his wheels of steel. Take it away Davey!”
And so this was the countdown to my demise: a selection of Abba tunes blasting out of gaudily illuminated twin turntables, whilst a constant line of gabbling squirrels grabbed plates and serviettes and trawled the buffet that was laid out on a series of long tables down the length of the temple. This, I remember thinking at the time, was one of the strangest sacrifices I had ever been to. Admittedly, it was the only sacrifice I had ever been to, but even had I been a regular at these occasions, I reckoned this would still rank amongst the top ten weirdest.
It was then that I spotted my salvation, hovering by the egg and cress sandwiches. It was Janet, plate in hand, prodding and fingering various eatables with the practised eye of a professional partygoer. I tried to attract her attention, but she was far too absorbed in examining a bowl of cheesy snacks. She picked up one between thumb and forefinger, perused it closely, sniffed it, licked it, then put it back and moved on. It was then that she noticed me, and came over.
“Oh hi,” she said, as though she had just bumped into an acquaintance she recognised but couldn’t quite place. “How are you?”
“I could be better,” I responded tersely.
She ignored the retort. “It’s a great spread they’ve laid on,” she said chattily as she held up the pyramid of sandwiches that she had managed to balance on her plate. “There’s ham, chicken, cheese and onion. They’ve spared no expense.” She glanced up at me, her expression momentarily tinged with curiosity. “Are you not having anything?”
“What?” I replied, that single word heavy with indignation. “Well of course I’m not having anything! It may have escaped your attention, but they’re going to cut my balls off in a little while.”
“Ah yes,” she replied, nodding sagely. “Of course. I understand.”
“Understand?” I repeated. “Understand what?”
“Pre-show nerves,” she said, as she levered a tuna and sweet corn sandwich into her mouth. “No wonder you can’t eat anything,” she continued, spitting crumbs. “I shouldn’t worry, even the best performers get stage fright.”
“Janet!” I snapped, hardly able to believe her cavalier attitude. “You’ve got to help me!”
“Oh don’t worry,” she assured me. “I’ll grab you a plate full of stuff for afterwards,” she said, and headed off back towards the buffet.
I watched her go with a horrible, horrible sinking feeling. Would she do nothing to help me? Apparently not. It seemed that her dedication to feeding her face would not allow such distractions. By the time the gorgeous Makita Muff, female vocalist, shimmied off stage after her second encore, the buffet was little more than a desolate battleground; the scene of a conflict in which Janet had played no small part. Even the plate she had been saving for me was empty, as she demonstrated by holding up the aforesaid item of crockery and mouthing the word ‘sorry’ accompanied with an apologetic shrug.
I can’t claim that I was too miffed about that. Right now I had far more pressing worries: the acts had all finished and it was time for the finale. I was on.
“It’s chopping time!” cried King Flaky Nibbles, with far more relish than was seemly. The crowd, equally over the top, were suddenly on their feet, clapping and cheering wildly. Hairy little paws undid my belt and lowered my trousers, exposing me to the evil glint of the guillotine blade.
“Oh-oh-oh, c-come on now,” I stammered. “Be reasonable.” I gave a shrill, nervous little laugh. “A joke’s a joke, and all that.”
“Hey, who’s laughing?” said King Flaky Nibbles. “This is high drama.”
I glanced around wildly, desperate for someone to come to my aid, but there was no one. “Why are you doing this?” I screamed, as the guillotine was moved into position. “Why? Why? Why?”
King Flaky Nibbles shrugged. “Tradition, isn’t it,” he said. “You’ve got to keep up traditions, haven’t you? That’s the whole point of traditions - they’re sort of... well... traditional.”
He reached out and ran a paw over the frame of the guillotine, then bent to inspect the mechanism.
“Yes... well... good...” I mumbled, panic taking a firm hold of me now. “But is that... is that... I mean, tradition: is that really a good enough reason to cut someone’s balls off?”
“Interesting point,” said the King as he reached out and placed his hand on the release mechanism. “Perhaps we can discuss it further after I’ve cut your balls off?” He turned to address the crowd. “Okay people here we go,” he said and he began a countdown. “Five... Four...”
“Wait! Wait!” I yelled. “Oh God, no!”
“Three... Two...” The crowd were all counting down together.
“Please! For pity’s sake. Leave my balls alone!”
“One!” announced King Flaky Nibbles. “Make a wish!”
The mighty double doors of the temple were suddenly thrown violently open. As one, the audience of squirrels drew breath and twisted around to see what the commotion was. Bright light streamed in from the outside world, solid beams flitting around a silhouette framed in the doorway.
“I’m back!” came that voice again, deep, commanding, eminently trustworthy. The figure came forward, swaggered slightly to the left, countered it with a shimmy to the right, staggered forward, snatched up a champagne glass from a nearby table and downed it in one fluid movement.
King Flaky Nibbles shielded his eyes against the light. “Hello?” he said. “Who’s this?”
The figure came forward, resolving into a tall, handsome looking squirrel of obviously noble bearing, but with a hint of a rakish gleam in his eye. “Hamilton Shagpaw!” he announced, as he tripped confidently down the central aisle.
“Hamilton Shagpaw!” chorused the audience happily.
“Hamilton Shagpaw!” cried the King with delight.
“Hamilton Shagpaw!” exclaimed Janet as she pushed a substantial wedge of quiche down her neck.
“The same,” said the newcomer. He came up sharply before the King, snapped to attention and saluted smartly. “Commander Hamilton Shagpaw of the Secret Squirrel Squadron - expert in espionage, deadly in hand-to-hand combat and licensed to shit in the woods.”
“Flipping heck,” said the King.
“I should say so, Your Majesty,” said Commander Shagpaw, unabashed. “Sorry I’m late. I’ve just come back from a dangerous mission to the enemy command complex. Barely managed to get out with my life.”
A thrill of excitement passed through the crowd at the words ‘dangerous mission’. This Hamilton Shagpaw was clearly something of a local hero. He certainly had a sort of easy charm about him - the elegantly coiffured fur, the confident stance and honest manner. And I for one have to admit, with some degree of admiration, that this was the first time I had ever seen a squirrel with a moustache.
“Sorry to spoil your little shindig, your plumptiousness,” the Commander apologised. “Hope I haven’t interrupted anything important.”
“No, no, no - you’re just in time,” said King Flaky Nibbles, and he jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “We’re just about to cut this feller’s balls off.”
Hamilton Shagpaw glanced briefly at me. “Hello,” he said politely, then turned his full attention back to his esteemed superior. Well, sir, I’ll give you a full account of my mission when it’s more convenient.”
He started to go, but the King stopped him and, much to the delight of the crowd, asked him to deliver his account immediately. And so Commander Shagpaw launched into his story with great relish. He told of how he had been out on patrol when he had spotted four ‘hairless monkeys’. These monkeys, it emerged, turned out to be the Professor, Cathy, Janet and myself. He had watched as we were attacked by the giant slugs - Mucons, he called them - and was amazed to witness Janet laying about them for all she was worth with a pointy stick. She had driven them off, of course, but they had taken the Professor and Cathy with them, and so he had followed them, trailing them back to their city. However, he had been spotted by a Mucon patrol that had pelted him with hot gravel and old biscuits, but the Commander managed to escape by the skin of his teeth, using nothing more than an umbrella and a rolled up newspaper.
“And that’s exactly how it happened,” he concluded, accompanied by a tumultuous round of applause from the audience.
“Super,” said the King.
“Wait a minute!” Commander Shagpaw suddenly struck a pose, stabbing out a furry finger. “That’s her!” he cried, pointing at Janet. “That’s the woman!”
Janet froze, a vol-au-vent halfway to her mouth. “Eh?” she murmured, turning scarlet. “What?”
“That woman beat off a whole platoon of Mucons armed only with a stick!” Shagpaw claimed.
“It’s the prophecy!” ejaculated King Flaky Nibbles. “Long ago it was foretold that a woman would come from the stars with the ability to beat off Mucons with a stick, and that she would be proclaimed divine and lead us to triumph. So it is written.”
For the first time Commander Shagpaw expressed a modicum of doubt. “Oh yes?” he said.
“Yeah, sure,” replied the King. “It’s written in the ancient scrolls. You get to know all this when you’re king. There’s some good stuff about sea lions in there too, but we won’t go into all that now.” He raised his voice to address the audience. “This woman has come to save our people!” he announced. “We must treat her as a God and obey her every command. Nothing should be denied to her.” King Flaky Nibbles IV turned to an increasingly confused looking Janet. “Speak, anointed one, so that we may carry out your every command. What do you wish of us?”
Janet looked nonplussed for a moment. Then, seeing the half eaten vol-au-vent in her hand, she said, “Well some more of these wouldn’t go amiss.”
“Janet!” I hissed, feeling it prudent to remind her of my predicament.
“It shall be done!” King Flaky Nibbles clapped his paws together smartly. Some of his personal guard exchanged curious glances, but none of them actually rushed off to get anything. “Anything else?” he asked.
“Janet! What about me?” I persisted.
“Erm, well the pork pie’s all gone,” Janet continued, ignoring me. “And, erm... oh, I could do with a new battery for my watch.”
“As you command, so it shall be.” King Flaky Nibbles clapped again. Once again his personal guard looked uneasily at each other, shrugged and did nothing. “Anything more?” he asked.
“Well, I don’t think, I really...”
“Janet! Janet! For God’s sake!” I cried.
“There’s nothing I can think of that...”
“Janet, you evil bastard!” I growled, “tell them to let me go.”
“Oh yes,” Janet suddenly said with a start. Then in a deep, authoritative voice she said, “And I command that you release my faithful servant this instant - you know, the irritating chap tied to the pole.”
“Certainly,” said the King. “He’s all yours... Do you want him with or without nuts?”
And so, later that evening, Janet and I joined King Flaky Nibbles and some of the other important squirrels of the village around a traditional squirrel campfire. It was a surreal occasion, and an unsettling one. The demonic way the crimson firelight played across the earnest furry faces of our hosts was disturbing enough, but when several attendants came in carrying four bowls of squirming green animals and set them down in front of us, I had a sudden strong urge to be somewhere else. However, I was a prisoner of the squirrels’ hospitality and getting away wasn’t going to be that easy.
“Ah fantastic,” said the squirrel sitting next to me, nudging my arm. “Go on, try one. They’re great.”
I leaned over and peered in the bowl nearest to me. The little creatures looked like frogs, but they were slightly greener, slightly stringier and about fifteen percent slimier. “What are they?” I asked, uneasily.
“We call them ‘slimy green things’,” said my new friend, and with that he picked up a stick and speared one of the creatures, which responded with a tiny sigh. Then he thrust it into the fire. The little green creature hissed, sizzled, then I heard a soft, plaintive murmur of ‘cor blimey’. Moments later there was a sharp ‘pop’ and my neighbour pulled the toasted remains from the fire and began chewing on it hungrily.
“You have to wait until you hear the pop,” he explained, chewing on the glistening green lumps. “That’s the sound of its arse cheeks exploding. When you hear that, you know that it’s cooked. Go on, tuck in. You won’t regret it.”
I declined, deciding that I was not going to give myself the opportunity of regretting it. Just the sight of all the other squirrels munching away was enough to turn my stomach. All around me I could hear the sounds of the little creatures cooking. The soft sigh as the animals were speared, the hiss, then the sizzle, the ‘cor blimey’ and the eventual arse pop. Even Janet was eating. She was sitting opposite me, between Commander Shagpaw and King Flaky Nibbles. The King in particular was all over her like a rash. He was even letting her stroke his guinea pig.
“Go on, touch him, he likes you,” the King said.
The animal in question was an ungainly, corpulent beast, about the size of a small dog. He was curled up next to the King in an attitude that suggested he wasn’t planning on going anywhere in the next six months. Clearly he was a treasured pet, and the King doted on him in an embarrassing fashion.
“Magnificent creature, isn’t he?” said the King.
“Oh yes, yes,” said Janet.
“His name’s Simon,” said King Flaky Nibbles. “I sometimes think that he’s my best friend in the whole world.”
“Really?” said Janet.
“Yeah, well, I’m not very sociable really,” said the King. “But Simon here has got such a wonderful temperament for a rodent. You can touch his balls if you like.”
“No, really, that’s fine,” Janet said. “Why don’t you tell me about your people? How did you come to be here, and where do I fit into it all?”
“Ah well,” said His Kinginess, “it’s like this.” He paused to spear another of the slimy green things (sigh). “Many many years ago (hiss) our people and the Mucons (sizzle, cor blimey) lived together in peace (pop, munch, munch, munch).”
I leaned over to the squirrel next to me. “These Mucons,” I said. “They’re the big snail things, right?”
My neighbour just looked at me and shrugged. “I know nothing of these ‘big snail things’ of which you speak,” he replied.
“Fair enough,” I said. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
“Well then,” continued King Flaky Nibbles as he playfully tickled his guinea pig behind the ear, “one of our greatest scientists, Professor Cyril Nutkins, invented a wonderful new machine which he built out of clothes pegs, papier mâché and bicycle inner tubes. It was capable of blending two entirely separate substances or entities to create something completely new.”
“Wow,” said Janet, sounding almost genuinely impressed. “And what was this wonderful machine called?”
“We called it a ‘blender’,” explained the King, with evident pride. “And it proved invaluable to us. With it we were able to fuse nuts with cows and create giant nut-cows that roamed the fields in great herds. A single nut-cow could feed an entire family for many weeks. It was a wonderful achievement.”
“Until the Mucons found out about it,” added Commander Shagpaw, with a hint of bitterness.
“What happened then?” asked Janet.
“I thought you might ask that,” said King Flaky Nibbles, nodding wisely as he stabbed at the last slimy green thing as it slid around the bowl, desperate to escape. “Which is why I have asked General Bushtail to prepare a short presentation.”
“Okay people listen up!” General Bushtail announced as he strode to the front of the group. “This is the situation regarding the Mucon menace.”
By this time Squad Leader Knothole had already erected a screen and was standing to attention beside a slide projector.
“First slide please, Squad Leader,” barked the General. The picture showed a map of the squirrel village. “Now ten years ago we were subjected to a lightening raid by the Mucons.” He whipped out a pointing stick and began to indicate various places on the map. “They first infiltrated the village here, here and here, but the alarm was not raised until they reached the inner perimeter here.”
King Flaky Nibbles leaned over to Janet. “He’s very good, isn’t he?” he opined proudly. Janet nodded in agreement.
“Now, I was just a young lieutenant at the time,” the General continued, “but I well remember the panic caused by the sudden appearance of the enemy. We were completely unprepared. In short, gentlemen, they kicked our collective butt. We were totally unable to stop them as they made their way here... Next slide please Squad Leader.”
The picture changed to an enlarged view of one corner of the village. “Here, gentlemen, to the laboratory of Professor Nutkins. They took possession of the Professor’s blender, and made their way to the edge of the village here, where they were able to make their getaway using three Minis and a specially converted bus.”
“They took our machine,” said King Flaky Nibbles ruefully.
“Well can’t your Professor Nutkins just build another one?” said Janet.
“Sadly not,” said the King. “He was killed in a bizarre beetroot accident shortly afterwards. No, now we must survive on twigs and bits of string, and the fields where the nut-cows once roamed are now all golf courses.”
“Well then, we must get this machine back,” said Janet with grim determination.
“Not that simple, lady,” said General Bushtail. “Next slide please, Squad Leader.” The new picture was a photo of some vast city complex, as seen from the air. “The Mucons built a massive command complex in which to carry out their secret machinations,” he explained. “This aerial reconnaissance photo was bravely obtained for us by Lieutenant Hairy Muffchoke of the the First Division Special Catapult Squadron - commiserations to his family, by the way.”
There was an embarrassed mumble from the other squirrels.
“You can see that the complex has very heavy defences,” General Bushtail continued. “To the east it is protected by large spiky things - very nasty. To the south and west giant mangley things threaten to reduce all trespassers to a pulp. To the north there are crunchy, whirry, grindy things that can do serious damage to your future prospects.”
“And hot gravel,” piped up Commander Shagpaw. “They pelt you with hot gravel, as well. It really stings.”
“Exactly,” said General Bushtail. “And so, thus far, all attempts at penetrating the city have proved fruitless. Now, any questions?”
The squirrels all glanced around and nudged each other, but none of them seemed to have the nerve to raise a paw. Eventually I felt the need to break the silence myself, and caught General Bushtail’s attention.
“Yeah, you there,” he said, levelling his pointing stick at me. “The ugly guy at the back.”
“Yeah thanks,” I said. “I was just wondering what these Mucon things want this blending machine for? Are they making nut-cows too?”
“Good question,” said the General. He motioned to the Squad Leader Knothole to change the slide once more. It seemed to show a collection of empty crisp packets. “Potato chips!” said the General. “Or, at least, that’s what our best intelligence reports indicate, at any rate. They’re experimenting with combining different flavours.”
“Cheese and mushroom!” I said.
“Prawn and Lemon!” said Janet.
“We’ve seen some of those empty crisp packets lying around,” I explained.
“Well, I hope you didn’t touch any of ‘em,” General Bushtail said ominously. “Our backroom boys reckon the Mucons are working to combine unnatural flavours in order to make evil snacks.”
“Evil snacks?” I queried. “How does that work, then?”
“I guess they must be cursed, or something,” the General said vaguely. “Some kind of Voodoo. Or maybe they’ve got some new kind of toxin? Hell, I don’t know. Whatever the Mucons are doing, it stands to reason that they’re up to no good. If only we could get inside, we could put paid to their plans for good.”
“Well that’s exactly what we’re going to do!” Janet suddenly said. She sprang to her feet, scattering the glowing embers of the fire everywhere and igniting one unfortunate animal, who ran out into the night, screaming. “Tomorrow, we’re going to the Mucon city!”
“Hurrah,” said the King, rather prosaically.
“Oh yes,” Janet continued, a mad gleam in her eye. “We’re going to retrieve your machine and rescue our friends. Isn’t that right, Geoff?”
She looked down at me and, with horror, I realised that she intended to include me in her madcap scheme. “Oh no,” I said. “No, no, no - I can’t. I mean... I’ve got to be at home tomorrow morning: I’ve got a man coming to measure up for double glazing. And, I’ve just remembered, I’ve got a dentist’s appointment, and not only that but I think I’m coming down with a cold, so I reckon I should be excused heroic rescue missions.”
Deep down I knew my protestations were futile. Janet wasn’t listening to me; she was lost in a world of her own. “Oh yes, my furry brethren,” she said. “Tomorrow - tomorrow we shall strike a decisive blow for squirrel-kind...”