Are you sitting comfortably? Snuggle down by the fire with a mince pie and a glass of warm grog, as Frank Key brings you a festive tale…
“Hearken ye, stooped mendicant at my gate! I am Good King Wenceslas, and I am looking out, and I can see you, poor and shivering in your rags, for the snow is deep and crisp and even. There are not even any tracks in the frozen white expanse, such as would be made by wolves or bears. Wait there at my gate, O wretch, and shortly I shall descend from my castle ramparts and join you in the snow!”
So said Old Halob, on the feast of Stephen, for he had rented a room in a castle and was getting carried away by his new surroundings. Those of you who have been paying attention will know that Old Halob was the cantankerous training manager of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, and thus far more likely to be found puffing cigarettes at the side of a running track than lording it from the tower of a splendid Mitteleuropean castle. Yet here he was, a battered tin crown atop his potato-shaped head, pretending to be monarch of all he surveyed, though all he could survey was covered in snow, including the mendicant. It was not true, however, that the snow was deep and crisp and even. It was certainly the first two, but no one could in all conscience call it even, for here and there the snow had drifted into clumps, some as high as a swan, and it was beside such a swan-sized clump that the mendicant stooped. Now, unbeknown to Old Halob, this mendicant was known as the Natterjack Man, and he was well known in the vicinity of the castle. He had earned his sobriquet because he had the face and manners of a toad, though none of the hallucinatory properties of a toad’s skin, which, if licked, can provoke visions, depending, of course, on the type of toad.
Up in his rented chambers, Old Halob straightened the crown on his head and prised his feet into a pair of galoshes. Between these extremities, his garb or raiment was such that we shall pass over it in silence, for we do not wish to frighten the tinies. Clutching a lanthorn in his grimy fist, and coughing violently, the legendary athletics coach stumbled down a stone staircase, impeded every few steps by the crows, bats and badgers whose domain this was. It was that kind of castle. Reaching the grand entrance hall at long last, toes crushed by the constricting galoshes, Old Halob took a moment to gather himself. He was not a sentimental man, but he felt a pang in his breast as he pictured himself standing at the edge of the race track at O’Houlihan’s Wharf, around which fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol would sprint, round and round and round, unstoppable. Rashly, the coach had paid six months’ rent in advance for his castle chamber, and sent Bobnit Tivol off to a basketry-weaving compound high in some distant hills, where his sprained ankle would be rested and righted. The old tyrant had not foreseen how grievously he would miss his fictional charge, nor that he would spend his castle days moping and splenetic and endlessly removing the crows which perched on his tin crown, as one perched now, cawing at ear-splitting volume. Old Halob reached up and grabbed the bird by its black throat and tossed it none too gently towards the stairwell. Then he aimed and activated his pocket pod and the huge iron doors of the castle swung open, eerily silent, and he thumped out into the snow on the feast of Stephen.
The Natterjack Man still stooped by the swan-high clump of snow, awaiting the man he thought was Good King Wenceslas. For a begging bowl, he carried a plastic beaker which he had found discarded outside the pie shop and canteen at the end of the lane that led from the castle to the stinking cluster of hovels where the local mendicants spent much of their time lying around groaning and whimpering. In truth, they were rather well-appointed hovels, each with its own spigot and catflap and guttering, the latter of gleaming new stainless steel, installed by the local stainless steel guttering chaps, and paid for by the mendicants themselves with the proceeds from the sale of their hot salty tears to a sinister ex-princess who haunted the wild and horrible woods beyond the hovels.
“Hail, stooping mendicant!” yelled Old Halob, in what he thought was a kingly tone, “Stoop no more, for I bring thee succour!”
The Natterjack Man unstooped, and pushed his plastic beaker towards the ‘king’.
“By God, you look like a toad!” cried Old Halob, aghast. Then he collected himself and remembered his manners. “Still, that is no reason why you cannot become a top championship athlete, eh?”
For the succour the wily old coach had in mind was that he could take this wretched beggar and transform him, through a rigorous exercise regime, into a world-beating sporting legend, weighed down with medals and trophies. The Natterjack Man made no reply, but pointed to his withered leg, and then to his other withered leg, and then to his withered arm, and then to his other withered arm, and then sort of disported himself in such a way that his general witheredness was gruesomely apparent. The counterfeit Good King Wenceslas laughed in his face.
“I am the king!” he shouted, “Do you think for one minute, you puny wretch, that I have not the power to turn you into a pole-vaulting champion of global renown? I have no doubt in my astonishingly incisive mind that you can become a credit to Team Halob!”
And he grabbed hold of the Natterjack Man’s ragged sleeve and propelled him towards the nearest athletics stadium, twenty miles distant, and put him through his paces. It is a curious fact that only upon his deathbed, thirty years later, the winner of no fewer than sixteen pole-vaulting gold medals, famed beyond common sense throughout Tantarabim and Pointy Town and all points westward, the Natterjack Man learned for the first time that his benefactor was not, nor ever had been, Good King Wenceslas, but was none other than the irascible and chain smoking Old Halob. The surprise felled him, or would have felled him had he not already been lying on his back, close to death, muffled by bandages, in the bedroom of his converted hovel in the shadows of the castle upon which snow had fallen, in which crows and bats and badgers had swooped and scuffled, where a tin crown and a pair of galoshes could still be found, high on the highest shelf in the highest chamber, higher than even the Natterjack Man had ever vaulted in his prime.