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Copyright © 2011

Anton Baer

Nights on Neptune

from the novel TRASHLAND: the adventures of a potato peel in the make in a world of awful rubbish.




Ever since Suave Toast had got the job at Nights on Neptune he had lived in hell.

Rumored to be the most prestigious of Percival Betruger Pig’s press inventions, Nights on Neptune would target only Tontotown’s elite. The newspeppers that were to deliver the articles were also to dance, to act up, and to cut stylish poses as they recited the fine prose of Tontotown’s best professional scriptwriters.

Percival’s pollsters had predicted that the readership would listen most avidly to the TV features focusing on Poke Party. In these features, edification would be in the following subjects: which wine corks made the best-smelling celebrity friends; which TV shows best portrayed Tontotown as they already knew it; which foreign country currently boasted the hippest name for one’s theoretical offspring—India, Kampuchea, Eritrea, Somalia—and where to place the ottoman.

Nights on Neptune would make the most of the urban professional’s desire for status, and it would do this by portraying Tontotown as a town that the elite starred in—if, that is, they made the right lifestyle choices and invested everything they owned and sank their entire credit line into a collection of CHOKE! cans, plastic lemons, and deflated footballs.

Immediately after landing the post of start-up editor, which had, to his great surprise, been thrust in his chest by Percival, Suave marched briskly-soggily out to the office.

Leaving the lights of Tontotown far behind, losing sight finally even of the few candlelit windows in Mr. Stromboli’s Castle, Suave hiked on into the dark until he spotted the hula hoop ringing the offices of Nights on Neptune.

Gaseous and pink, the hoop seemed to be floating in mid-air, but that was just the darkness playing tricks on Suave.

The offices enclosed by the luminous ring were a circle of earth, much like the Style Council itself, but protected by no rampart other than the hula hoop. No toast-rack; no tabletop in green baize; no amphitheatre; no manual typewriter parts sticking out of the ground; no vacuum cleaner bag. Neither sawdust nor high trapezes nor anything else that a piece of toast ejected from the hot seat could land on. Just a single rock bulging from the earth.

Suave was surprised, gratified, and delighted to discover that he was the sole editor of Nights on Neptune—really, the chief editor. On the other hand, he was a bit unsettled to find that he was also the solitary member of the editorial staff.

Given that Suave was such an accomplished raconteur himself, Suave’s foremost mandate, Percival had explained, was to “invigorate and bring new life” to the television department, focusing on favorable reviews of Poke Party . It would be “a great task, a lonely task, an empire-building task,” and Percival was charmingly adamant that Suave, dignified, tanned, high-popping Suave, was the toast for the job.

So Suave sat himself down at his desk—the rock—waited for the news¬peppers to appear for their first copy, and wondered how he could best shape the future stylishness of Tontotown TV.

The first question he had to ponder was: What exactly made one show more stylish and status-conferring than another? Was it the presence of Shauna Bauna, celebrity beauty queen currently reinventing herself as a roving reporter?

The answer often came to Suave. Just as unexpectedly, however, it would float away, leaving behind that cold, soggy sensation in his brain. And when it woozled back once more, tantalizingly within reach, it no longer resembled itself. That is, it was a different answer. But how could one question have two answers?

Suave was puzzled.

After much whistling, Suave decided that the best shows were those written by his best friends, and the second-best shows were written by those who had the patience to stop by for a chat. However, Suave had no friends. Therefore, the best shows were written by—what was that? Writers he knew. Yes, and who had most kindly listened to him. There was Billy Jag, there was Freddy Prince, there was Starspun Peach, and there was the icon of the Canon, Butter Tub, whose work Suave adored, just adored.

Ever a slice of toast prey to rumors, Suave soon convinced himself that dear Butter had once been a sub-editor at Nights on Neptune. Caught up in the general enthusiasm, he would abandon his post at odd moments and toddle off to hunt for the Master, whose reflection he was sure he had seen hovering somewhere in blue china just outside the ring.

Suave’s quest was eternally fruitless, however, and reaching the far circumference of the office, beyond which lay that frightening darkness, he would turn back, and, trailing the hoop around, eventually stumble across his stony imperial outcrop of desk.

Magnificently alone, braving the chill and the darkness, Suave felt him¬self a big star in the professional ring. Of course, he certainly felt the pres¬sure of em¬pire building that Percival had alluded to: the pressure of teetering up there on the high-wire trapeze, of having to thrust, showtime after showtime, a wooden chair into the yellowing fangs of stuffed lions, of having to paint his face with powders and tinfoil stars and stick on a silly nose.

The fact that there was no audience failed to distract Suave from his fantasy of eventually being invited to sit on Dean Beano’s knee. So when he was not wandering about searching for Butter Tub, he would stroll jerkily around searching for the back of a pony to leap upon, or an elephant. Finding neither, he would raise his hands and, clapping feebly, attempt to stir an invisible audience to a rousing round of applause.

No applause; no pony; no outstanding or even decent scripts.

Nights on Neptune were dark indeed.

When at last he noticed close-set reddish eyes peering out of the darkness, Suave thought it might be the Professor, or possibly the chatterbox Vak the Tube, or even Rusty Dusty Dingy the Locomotive. But there were two little red smolderings that bobbled and swayed side to side, and all the while they came nearer.

Rusty Dusty Dingy had only one light, wasn’t that so? Did Rusty squeak like that, and scratch the dirt with his cowcatcher? Rusty had no black pointed nose, either. Rusty had whiskers, but no stiff, bloated, partly hairless belly bulging out from between the buttons of a yellow-checkered tweed waistcoat. And Rusty had no hind legs to teeter on, and he never smelled of blood and wet fur.

“Ah,” blinked the Rat crossing the hula hoop, dirty hat tipped behind mangled ears, “one has found you at last. Instructions were quite adequate, quite adequate. Are you, may I inquire, the editor of Nights on Neptune?”

“That is I. Are you a scriptwriter and a friend?”

“I should be delighted to call myself the same,” the Rat answered in a cadaverous voice, scratching his whiskered nose. “Myself, and my large family—as friendly as they come! Why, mow us down in rows with machine gun and pistol fire, and on we still come.

“But we, you see, dear intellectual, we pious Trench Rat folk are greatly discriminated against by racists. The toy soldiers of the Pope hunt us down mercilessly as we go about earning our daily bread in hospital rubbish dumps, and it is all we can do to multiply our numbers incessantly. Some extremists speak of an “onslaught” and “invasion” of the Rats—but we are no such thing. We are home-loving Rats, much like Mr. Betruger Pig, our dear friend and your publisher. As such we have one small, small favor to ask of you, and that is to publish, if you will, a small, small short story we have written.”

Suave was about to answer graciously the gracious enquiry of this foreign-sounding gentleman when another pair of smoldering pinpricks coming over the hula hoop distracted him.

“Ah, Brother Rat,” whispered the new arrival, wincing as he dragged a clotted rump over the ground to clear soiled hinderparts, “you have found us a publisher.” This Rat giggled and wheezed through chipped yellow fangs as he talked—evidently a merry fellow!

“Ours is a story of triumph against adversity,” said the cadaverous Rat.

“A story of brotherhood,” chuckled the fat Rat, claws clasped under a double chin.

“It is a story of sacrifice of useless intellect for the bliss of the group.”

“Indeed,” said Suave, “and when can I publish it?”

“It is a trilogy—but a very short trilogy.”

“Indeed it is, if Percival says it is,” said Suave. “And when can I have the first installment? I am a very busy and important editor.”

“Immediately,” said the Rat.

“The first story,” said the other Rat, “is: ‘It is a heinous crime to smash Piggy Bankers, and shoot, hang, pistol-whip, poison, fry, crush under hobnailed boots, garrote, spear, lance, expel, hinder, or badmouth Rats.’”

“Wonderful!” babbled Suave.

“The second installment is: ‘It is a monstrous crime to hate Piggy Bankers—and Rats.’”

“Oh!” squalled Suave. “Such terrors have you faced!”

“And the third—”

“Is there a third?” dribbled Suave. “Then it is an epic, and I shall give it front-page coverage!”

“The third is: ‘It is an abhorrent crime not to love Rats—and Piggy Bankers.’”

And with a cheerful tra-la-la, the friendly, loveable Rats departed.

. . .

Still manning his desk on the same endless shift he had worked since taking the job, Suave was interviewing a penny for the desk of music critic.

The penny—brassy chap who had somehow “forgot to wear” his free gift of a steel vest—was claiming to have spent much of his existence guiding the head of a tone arm round long-playing albums. This he had accomplished, he asserted, by lying on the tone arm, thereby pressing the steel needle deeper into the groove. It had been a rough ride, what with all the skips and scratches, but ever since he had stage-managed the Ride of the Valkyries he had been an “addict, man—hooked on the classics.”

Lest Suave take him for a snob, the penny was quick to bring up his job in the Torture Chamber of the Eggship Enterprise. There he had managed much swifter rides to much louder music, accompanied by the screams of pomegranates, blood oranges, and lemons, all pierced equally by knives, stabbed by hot needles, decapitated by rusty razors, and crushed in drill presses: “Pretty scientific stuff, well over my head, but I’m always open to experiences, dude.”

Suave was not quite sure the penny was telling the truth. For one thing, whereas he claimed to have carried out his duties lying on his stomach, eyes peeled for bad curves and arms flung out in “balance-adjudication,” the penny’s hands were stretched comfortably behind his head as he reminisced about his tune-surfer past.

What’s more, like all the other pennies Suave had interviewed, this one seemed a bit cocky and hyper. As he chattered, in disarticulated, slangy sentences, his little head bobbed and wove to distinctly non-classical rhythms.

The interview ended like all the others. Once Suave in¬formed the applicant that the final decision lay with Percival, whom it was necessary to meet in private, the penny jumped up, cursed, and spit in Suave’s face, hurdled the hoop, and dashed off back into the night.

As the copper disappeared, there approached from the opposite direction a feeble, greenish will-o-the-wisp bobbing over the rough ground.

It was Professor Ring the vanishing onion, out on a meditative stroll. Suave, happily recalling his dearth of outstanding, or merely decent friends, twa-twaed the Professor over.

After hearing out Suave’s lament regarding the lack of ponies to deliver outstanding scripts on the fruity relationships of lemons with oranges and oranges with pomegranates, the kindly professor thought deeply. Then he solved the matter with idiotic simplicity: “Permutations.”

However, it was the only word the Professor uttered, and leaving Suave to mull it over, the Professor departed.

Permutations? Around the ring limped Suave, uttering the word aloud, and growing more and more convinced he needed a new hairstyle—one that would last.

Luckily for him, the next wanderer happened to be Vak the Tube, trailing the Professor’s luminescence out of unconquerable nostalgia and tweetering a reedy “Oh, Professor!” at every bobbling step.

The Professor, Vak explained in a flash, meant this: the premises of Nights on Neptune scripts having been laid out to consist of fruitiness, a formula for such fiction could be easily elaborated.

Once upon a time, fruitful relationships had been constrained by society to involve strictly complementary genitalia. What the concept of permutations brought to the business end was that this stodgy arrangement could be toyed with commercially. No longer just the basic old A plugs into B. Now A could plug into A, and B into B. That was the first order of per¬mutation. Introduce new elements into the fruitcake formula and fruitful possibilities of pluggery arose. Plug in youngsters and oldsters, happy and unhappy, and what was to stop an avalanche of foamy fruity scripts?


Vak bobbled on.

Suave was on his way.

Nights on Neptune was on its way—to bullhorn the arrival, in Tontotown, of home-grown world class status.

Unfortunately, few were listening; for, following the first visit of the Rats, Percival had neglected to send the newspeppers out to pick up their copy.

And so, for the little time he had left, for his reminiscences and vanities, his oddball laughter, his gulping and his pauses to collect his soggy thoughts, Suave beat the band all by himself, addressing the outer tiers of darkness with his tales of underage conquests, fat white guts slopping against taut black buttocks, kiddy fruitiness, and other issues.

Noting close-set reddish eyes peering out of the dark¬ness, Suave thought it was the Professor again; or possibly the chat¬terbox Vak the Tube; or even Rusty Dusty Dingy. But there were two little red smolderings that flickered, and bobbled, and swayed, and all the while came nearer.

Rusty Dusty Dingy had only one headlight—wasn’t that so? And did Rusty squeak and scratch the dirt with his cowcatcher? Did Rusty have a black pointed nose? Yes, he had whiskers, but no bloated belly scraped free of hair in patches that shone, scabby and hairless, between the dangling buttons of a yellow-checkered waistcoat. And Rusty had no hind legs to teeter on, and never stank of dirty fur and blood.

“Ah,” sighed the Rat blinking his way over the hula hoop, a battered hat tipped back behind well-chewed ears, “one has found you again. Are you, Mr. Suave, I neglected to inquire last visit, by any chance acquainted with the notorious Richard Dirt?”

Good old Dusty’s breath stank only of rust. The breath of this new potential critic, on the other hand, puffing through his whiskers, reeked of the garbage bag under the kitchen sink in that long-ago kitchen where young Suave had popped up, crunchy and hot and toasty warm and delighted to be in the company of fresh cold milk in a tall glass. Suave was about to answer graciously the gracious enquiry of this foreign-sounding gentleman when another pair of smoldering reddish pinpricks coming closer to the hula hoop distracted him.

“Ah, Brother Rat,” whispered the new arrival, wincing as he dragged his rump over the ground, “you mean the famous Richard Dirt. Famous, Brother Rat, and a dear friend of ours, too.” This Rat giggled and wheezed as he talked—what a merry fellow!

If there was one thing that Suave unexpectedly remembered about Rats, it was that they never traveled alone. Rats never went out for a drink by themselves or for a walk by themselves. They always scurried off to the nearest Rathole to find a gang to go with. This was the reason Rats never wrote books, or sonatas, or painted. Rat culture placed great emphasis on being in a mob, waiting to be told whom to bite, whom to beat up, whom to rob.

Suave stood delighted at the sudden and evidently literate company that seemed to know something about sonatas and books. He was about to answer, although he had forgotten the question, when another of the Brothers emerged—it was enough to make Suave dizzy.

This third Rat had a pair of cracked spectacles saddling the tip of his pointed nose and a ragged copy of the Lost Earth Gazetteer under his arm. As he came closer, peering over his spectacle rims, he scratched at fresh bite marks on the back of his neck and at some itchy spot under his black satin snooker vest.

“Ah,” sniffed the new Rat, “someone mentioned the inedible Mr. Dirt.”

“Sister Rat!” giggled the second Rat. “You mean the ineffable Mr. Dirt.”

“I stand corrected, indeed I do. The ineffable Mr. Dirt, manager of the Happy Saloon Ranch. Is that the subject of this Congress? Would you, Mr. Toast, call yourself a close habitué of the Saloon Ranch?”

Suave was sure he did know Mr. Dirt—“‘Dickie’ to me,” he was about to say; but he wasn’t so sure he knew the Happy Saloon Ranch.

“You must excuse Sister Rat,” laughed the second Rat. “For she is dyslexic and therefore cannot eat a recipe book.”

At this, all three Rats opened their jaws and laughed, sending up in ever higher spurts the cinnamon sprinkle over Suave’s sloping shoulders with hot puffs of fetid breath. One—Suave wasn’t sure which—reached over in a show of comradely mirth and prodded him in the toasty belly with a stiff-haired elbow. Suave was just about to titter back in comradeship when the jostling Rats became a snarling heap of Rats, biting and thrashing in a furiously squeaking ball of greasy fur, hairy rumps, and whipping rattails.

“Greedy Rat!” they all shrieked at each other.

And: “Mind your manners!”

And: “Yow!”

As quickly as it had started it ended, for Suave had wandered off, happily congratulating himself on remembering that indeed a question had been asked. Swiftly the Rats freed themselves from their mutual embraces and waddled back quick-step to press in on Suave from every side.

“What a nice glitter you have!” winced one of them slicking down a bloody patch of fur.

“It reminds us of the ineffable Mr. Dirt and his Happy Saloon Ranch, indeed it does,” moaned another, scratching at a freshly injured groin. “You wouldn’t be well acquainted with the Happy Snack Jar of ill repute?”

“For a muted frivolity of reasons,” said Suave, now that he had an audience for clearly a most enlightening discussion, “I should like to know which of you wishes to be my music critic for Nights on Neptune. The last fellow was a little penny who turned out to specialize in rap. And you?”

“Us?” said one of the Rats. “No, we specialize in rape. Gang rape.”

“We’re no critics though, mind you, Sister Rat.”

“Oh, but we do toil at it.”

“How I should like again to feel warm mortal coils,” said Suave, “and chat with a wig in a wooden cup, and perhaps go out for the hay on a picnic blanket, like my brothers and sisters, whom I haven’t steamed of for such a long time. And, at the end, toasty warm again, perhaps get a fresh wrinkling of cinnamon.”

At the word “cinnamon” the Rats stood a little straighter and shot each other quick glances.

“Do you mean, Mr. Toast, that you are not acquainted with the Happy Snack Jar of ill repute?”

“Oh, no! I am all melted butter, a few teaspoons of cane sugar and cinnamon. What a pity to spoil all that with some paranoiac free snacks. I am kind to all, and all are kind to me.”

“Now, remember your manners!” the Rats squeaked to each other indignantly.

What friendly fellows these Rats were! Suave could hardly breathe, so thick was their fetid hot breath. And those tickling whiskers!

The first Rat, ever so quick, sank his fangs in Suave’s shoulder.

The second Rat, ever so nimble, sank his fangs into Suave’s leg.

The third Rat, with a bite like the flame of a candle, tore into the small of Suave’s soggy back.

“Phew!” said the Rat. “Yuck!”

Suave, despite the pain of being torn apart by the septic fangs of three filthy Rats, was pleased that he, born white bread, with a long and satisfying career as cinnamon toast, was able at least to be of service to rubbishkind.

When the Rats finally departed, stroking the cinnamon glitter off their whiskers and burping and belching as they ambled back towards the hollow where they had left their white canes, such a fine mood were they in that they took amicable turns reading the pages of the Lost Earth Gazetteer and suggesting the next drop-in visit. So comfortably sated were they that a distant half-moon glitter of what could have been another helping of cinnamon-sprinkled kitchen waste failed to rouse them. In any case, they had all soon collapsed to the ground and begun to writhe.

Suave, cinnamon-sprinkled though he had been, had also been thoroughly moldy.

Not that the Rats minded. They had known they would get food-poisoning and suffer excruciatingly. But, Rats being Rats, tough and filthy, they also knew they would soon forget the pain that came with being a greedy, philistine, stinking Rat.

As they lay there, swishing their tails and scrabbling their claws, the distant scrap of kitchen waste who had passed on to them their instructions (not before a trip to the Happy Ranch Saloon for an extra-crusty dusting from the Free Snacks Jar) stumbled off towards the Castle as fast as his stiffening legs would carry him.