26. Come and play, everything’s a-OK


Perhaps ill-advisedly and contrary to Peter O’Toole’s stern warnings, the gang decided to split into two teams in order to limit the time it would take to complete their primary tasks of providing warmth and impounding Axis refreshments. Tim Healy had been correct about Brian Clough, of course. To Ol’ Big Head, idleness was an illness and jobs, however menial, were its cure. After all, a busy mind was a happy mind – and that’s fair enough, thought the Geordie. Soaked from their soul-sapping hike, hungry to the point that cannibalism was being considered as a long-term alternative, and critically sleep-deprived, Clough knew that booze and the kindly warmth of a flame was the best they could hope for given their increasingly perilous circumstances.

Clough had naturally paired off with Geoff Boycott in a search for timber. Anything made out of wood, apart from a stool that might be used in the future as a makeshift cricket wicket, was considered fair game. Mark E Smith, Tony Wilson and Tim Healy were given the more stress-free project of alcohol scouts and needed no directions in locating Hangingbrow Hall’s living room with its fancy cocktail cabinet and dreamlike turn-of-the-century schmaltzy artwork favoured by a crackpot dictator.

Out into the black night Clough and Boycott rushed as if driven by the spirits of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, traipsing over tufts of spongy grass and invading saplings. They paced eagerly around the grounds scrutinising the dank surroundings for any sign of an outlying structure. “There’ll be a shed round here someplace, mister,” Clough spoke matter-of-factly. “We just need an axe or a saw and, if possible, a ladder.”

“You might find this strange but I can be quite ’andy wi’ an axe,” Boycott admitted.

“Aye, I’ll bet you can,” Clough responded with a wary glare. “You’ve a lot of power in them forearms from years of successful batting. I wouldn’t want to be in the road when you’re taking a swing at owt.”

“You’d be last person I’d ’ack to death,” Boycott stated. “I mean, I’m not sayin’ we’d kill anyone to eat them even if we were goin’ barmy with starvation, but I reckon that Tim Healy fella, if cooked well and delicately sliced, would taste a bit like bacon.”

“Well, it’s always an option I suppose,” Clough half-heartedly replied, using his hands like horse blinkers around his eyes to better inspect the grounds.

“It’s just too blasted dark, Brian.” Boycott said. “These are ’ardly ideal conditions to go tree-climbin’.”

“There, look,” Clough pointed. “See it? That hut? This way, Geoffrey.”

Skirting a barrier of bog bilberry and stepping over the thorn-entwined skeleton of a decaying bike, a black-painted rotting structure was reached and was seen to be constructed from slimy wooden planks with moss liberally clumped on its damp exterior, making it appear like a cuboid reptile.

“Christ alive, ’ow on earth did you spot this old shack, Bri?” Boycott spoke with admiration.

“The roof!” Clough boomed. “It’s sopping! Light and shadow. And I could smell the CCA wood treatment. It’ll be the only reason this place is still in one piece.”

“Light?” Boycott replied. “It’s like being down Hemsworth pit art ’ere.”

“Listen I can spot a referee getting grief from 75 yards off at Blundell Park on a foggy Tuesday night when the floodlights are malfunctioning,” Clough stated. “You need eyes in your backside in my game. Luckily, I’ve got ’em”

Despite the darkness, the shed was seen to be a good size and would have belonged to a proficient gardener on a full-time wage. It was roughly the same proportions as Clough’s at his home in Derbyshire’s Amber Valley that was so well known to the Nottingham Forest staff. Clough yanked a handle and the entire door came away from the frame and crashed sidewards like a Glaswegian drunkard alighting from a Saturday-morning British Rail service at Blackpool North station. The pair filed inside and waited for their eyes to adjust to the dingy interior.


A brilliant white camera-cube light brought vibrant illumination to the shed’s interior, bringing the walls into fascinating clarity. Then the light was gone and there followed a distant drum roll.

“Hell’s bells, that’s all we bloody well need,” Clough said. “Thunderstorm.”

“Was that lightnin’?” Boycott cried. “I thought you’d found an operable strip light. I saw some rusted-to-buggery gardenin’ implements ’angin’ from wall ovver theer. Despite dereliction, I’ll bet it were once neat as a pin in ’ere.”

Clough stepped forward and felt the outline of vital gardening equipment, their metallic edges cool to the touch. “Bingo,” he delightedly declared. “Look here, there’s an axe and even better, a two-man saw. It feels bloody oxidised, that’s all. I reckon they’ll hold up, though. Now, let’s go and see that big wooden brute round the other side of the house. It’s about to lose a few limbs.”

The doors of the curved walnut art deco D-shaped drinks cabinet remained ajar from the troupe’s exploration the night before and to Smith’s pleasure, he realised that its hoard of exotic intoxicants from Central Europe and the Mediterranean had barely been tithed. Another bottle of Jägermeister was removed by Smith, followed by Slivovka, a clear liquid in a no-nonsense, design-free pop bottle with a colourful painting of plums on the label.

Looking at the booty, Smith smiled warmly. “I’ll have one from the top, one from the middle and three of your choosing please, Carol,” he japed as the bottles busily clanked around his fingers. To get the ball rolling, Smith unscrewed the cap of the Slivovka. “Danger, waaaaa, danger, waaaaa,” he wailed and poured a few healthy fingers’-worth into three glasses. Wilson and Healy gratefully received their measures.

“What we got?” Healy squinted, eyeing the colourless liquid with interest. “It looks serious, this stuff, man. Mind oot the way, Tony, my socks are aboot to fly off.”

Wilson inspected the label and announced, “Looks like it was once fruit, so it must have some vitamin C content in it somewhere,” and he studiously swallowed a mouthful. He closed his eyes and allowed the inferno in his throat to work through his network of neural highways and sinews, and out to his extremities. “Fwooaaahhh!” he eventually spluttered. “Is that legal?”

“Plum brandy,” Smith announced. “Be careful with this stuff. It’ll fuckin’ remove your brain, squeeze it and place it back sideways.” Smith drained his glass. “You could power a jet fighter with this sort of shit.”

Smith filled their glasses once again, larger than the last, then set himself the task of bringing every bottle out of the cabinet and placing them carefully on the floorboards in small neat rows. Lifting his head, he marched in front of the curious congregation of alcohol like a sergeant major taking a drill on a military parade garden. “Atten-tion!” he ordered, before spinning on the spot and retracing his steps, all the while keeping a stern eye on the troops in his command, even though one of his eyebrows had swollen into a blue lip beneath the liberally applied plasters. “Keep those feet up!” he bawled and then, from the corner of his mouth, spoke, “Lovely boy.” Catching sight of a bottle of Luxardo Amaretto, Smith roared, “You ’orrible liquer! Get on the deck and give me ten! On the double!”

Wilson smiled at the spectacle. This was performance art, backing up his firm belief that all Mancunians and Salfordians were put on this earth to entertain. Walk down any street in Prestwich, Cheetham Hill or Alkrington, knock on door after door and you would meet singers, DJs, magicians, comedians and comperes.

Healy sipped his drink but made no show of its strength or the ensuing oesophagus blaze. It had an instant warming effect, helping his body temperature rise within his saturated motorcycle leathers. In fact, having seen his frightening phantom for a second time, robust alcohol was just what he needed. The Newcastle actor placed his empty glass on the art deco cabinet. What was required was a swag bag to transport bottles back to the main hall. A dustsheet covering a table in the corner of the room would have to suffice. A grey cloud emerged in the dull light as Healy shifted the sheet sideways and he rapidly gathered up the material. “What the…?” Healy jumped, realising something was amiss. On the tabletop sat a simple earthenware bowl, which at some point might have held a selection of fresh fruit, but on this bizarre evening was stocked with three Golden Wonder Pot Noodles, all cheese and tomato flavour.

Healy was dumbstruck. He rummaged through his brain to ascertain whether the Pot Noodle, with its monosodium glutamate and flavour enhancers, could possibly have had its roots in World War II Britain, Germany, Italy or even Japan. He picked one of the containers from the bowl and marvelled at its plastic packaging and tin-foil lid. He shook the pot and was rewarded with a tambourine rattle. He read out the English words beneath the cartoon-like logo. “Noodles. Processed soya pieces with dried vegetables. Add water, stir well. I’ll be honest with you,” he turned to his companions, “I’ve never eaten one of these things.”

“Tell me that’s not what I think it is,” Wilson spoke. “The lunch of choice for A Certain Ratio, Section 25 and New Order, although Gillian won’t go near them. She’s on a health kick.”

“I love a Pot Noodle,” announced Smith. “They’ve got it perfect, that Golden Wonder lot. You never need a second one, do you?”

“Then you’re in luck, bonny lad,” Healy smiled and lobbed one across to Smith. “There are three here, untouched and in pristine condition.”

“But it doesn’t make sense,” Wilson frowned. “When did Pot Noodles first appear, 1977, ’78?”

“Aye, I’d say you were about right there,” Healy replied.

“So someone’s been here in the last seven years,” Smith added, placing the Pot Noodle back on the table. “I’ll bet it was Pete Murphy. It’d explain a lot.”

Flummoxed, they packed the three instant meals into their makeshift thieves sack followed by a smorgasbord of high-alcohol liquids. It was at that moment that the light bulb let out a high-pitched whine and burned like a dying star. It brought a harsh yellow glare to the room, accentuating the web and dust decoration draped from the ceiling and making the ethereal painting “Isle Of The Dead” by symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin even spookier than it already was. With a click, the door to the hallway closed of its own volition and the handle began moving erratically up and down.

“We could be undergoing military psychotropic visions, y’know,” Smith ventured. “CIA skulduggery, in cahoots with MI6. We’re the protagonists in an experiment and one of these walls is bulletproof glass with special see-through wallpaper covering it.”

“The thought had crossed my mind,” Wilson noted sceptically, scanning the room for undercover espionage evidence. “But would we react differently if we knew none of this was real and we were under observation? We know escape is practically impossible. The visions we’ve seen are just real enough to keep us on edge.”

“They’ll be waiting for us to start turning on each other and noting down the results,” Smith spoke. “That’s normally what these shitshows boil down to. Human endurance and the limits of the mind. They tend to throw in a couple of kitchen swords when things start to get tasty and see how things pan out. To be honest though, this is actually pretty straightforward compared to being on the road playing gigs in America with a bunch of mithering musicians on chokey.”

“But the question is, pet, why us?” Healy asked. “Why would we be personally chosen out of all the people in Britain, huh? Only a real nutcase would handpick us lot and shove us in a big house to try and frighten us to death as an experiment. It doesn’t add up, man. It’s just happened, that’s all. Could’ve been anyone. It’s a coincidence, and a rough one, but a coincidence no less.”

“It could be that I’m the second messiah, and this is a test of my resolve,” Smith added. “That’s my best guess at the moment. I’ve thought this a few times before, you know. The facts rack up. There’s this electrician who goes to my local who I’ve often thought was the Angel Gabriel. Stares at me a lot, but not in a funny way. It’s almost benign.”

Wilson looked across to Healy and with a withering expression said, “Well, there’s your explanation in a nutshell. We’re bit-part players in part three of the Bible.”

While Healy processed the preposterous hypothesis, the decorative light fitting began trembling like an ostrich shaking its tail feathers. The bulbs then cut out and there came a triple flash from the window followed by a sky-tearing crackle of bass-laden thunder. The door handle suddenly ceased its excited clanking and illumination quickly returned, but erratic changes in brightness from dull to intense did little to settle the nerves of the trio.

“Get the booze in the dustsheet and let’s get the hell outta here, darling,” Wilson suggested. “And I mean let’s get out of this room, out of this building and take our chances in the woods. We’re not welcome here, we’re not wanted here, we shouldn’t be here. It’s like being in Liverpool.”

As if things couldn’t get worse, the door flung open with brute force and hit the wall with such alacrity that a section of plaster clattered to the floor. “Oh, but you are wanted here!” a baritone voice boomed from the corridor, and there came a slow slapping sound, which made the corners of Wilson’s mouth turn downwards.

Healy whipped a glance across to Smith and affirmed, “The window’s our best way out if this heads south, kidda. You got that?”

Smith nodded but his attention was sucked towards the doorframe and the horror it would inevitably reveal. Instinctively, the singer grabbed the Slivovka brandy, took a hefty swig, replaced the cap and held the vessel like a club. “Whatever it is, I’m gonna bottle it,” he declared and patted the plasters down on his eyebrow to ensure unencumbered vision.

Into view emerged a pair of mournful, too-close-together eyes whose diameter was so extraordinarily large and unnatural that Wilson, Smith and Healy weakened at the stomach. The irises were large and black and shifted about among a white sea of sclera. Upon seeing a dangling hairy brown hose of a trunk, the three Northerners drew in breath. And yet to Smith, there was something vaguely familiar about this hairy abomination, and it sent an electrical shiver down the length of his spine. The creature paused in the doorway, peering into the room.

“Proboscidean,” Wilson muttered.

“Huh?” Healy squinted.

“Elephantine,” Wilson confirmed. “Large, clumsy, awkward, ponderous…”

Whatever its genealogy, it shuffled forward to reveal that it was roughly the size of a racehorse, with scruffy shag-pile brown fur that was longer and more fringe-like on its large dome of a head. Had David Attenborough been standing on the barren Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, he might have whooped with joy and slapped the back of a BBC cameraman at the sight of a pigmy mammoth with a long powerful trunk that reached all the way to the ground. Its fat baggy legs were almost from the pantomime stage.

“Ponderous?” The word was ejected with an American accent from a flappy brown mouth. The spectacular notion of an English-speaking four-legged mammal was not lost on the alcohol-pilfering visitors.

Smith’s brain crackled with images of test tubes, flames, bubbling liquids, cave-like walls and huge glass tanks, and he let out a tormented groan at the fragmented images. Was he seeing the past once again, witnessing scientific crimes that had been captured by psychic videotape?

Then the singer remembered. There was the time after the Bristol show, when Smith had had his drink spiked by disgruntled members of London gothic band Alien Sex Fiend. He had admitted that he’d never heard of them and that they looked like a bizarre collection of black clowns – it was fair comment. They had sat with him discussing John Peel, Joy Division, the usual Man City pleasantries, their idea to release an 11” single – which Smith thought admirable – and drugs v booze, as if the two were somehow separate pleasures. The ride back in the van had been a multi-coloured Disney version of Cannibal Holocaust, an Amazonian hell-trip where the motorway carriage’s lights had become a huge 170-mile-long patterned anaconda stretching from the M32 at St Werburgh’s to his front door. “See you Monday,” Smith had grunted, forcing every ounce of brain power to utter these three simple words, knowing that the South American gloop he’d ingested would have killed the next man.

Colourfully disturbing scenes of jungle terror continued into his living room through to the dull grey of the Manchester morning, the BBC test card his only connection to a world that seemed to be slipping into a high-octane cartoon carnival without any hope of it ever fading. And then at 9.30am came Sesame Street and the wonderfully toned bright yellow plumage of Big Bird and the Morecambe & Wise niggling companionship of Bert & Ernie. Just as the highball concoction seemed to be easing, onto the screen shuffled Mr Snuffleupagus, “Snuffy”, a brown baggy woolly mammoth that nobody ever saw apart from Big Bird. It was at that moment that Smith’s existence upended. The beast marched past his avian chum and pressed its furry honker right up to Smith’s Radio Rentals TV screen. With an evil scowl, it pushed forwards against the glass and through force of will blooped out of its New York pretend world and entered a Manchester reality, chasing the curmudgeonly entertainer around the settee, huge eyes bulging, tickling Smith’s backside with that promiscuous probing nasal hose.

“We meet again,” greeted Mr Snuffleupagus.

Smith turned to Wilson and Healy, and asked, “Are you witnessing this?”

“The elephant, aye,” Healy responded.

“Thank God for that,” Smith nodded.

“God?” Wilson affirmed. “Your father, you mean?”

“It’s viable,” Smith said. “Now this is uncanny. I’ve never mentioned it before to anyone, not even the wife, but I have a low-grade fear of this animal, Mr Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street, because it’s eyes are too big and it visited me when I’d been poisoned by musicians who looked like bats in the West Country. I turn it off the telly now when it comes on. It’s a secret buddy of Big Bird, y’know that massive yellow emu. No other fucker ever sees it so you’re never 100 per cent if it’s a figment of Big Bird’s imagination.”

“Oh, I do exist,” grumbled the heavyweight beast, and within his gaping mouth revealed hundreds of shark-like dagger teeth. “It’s feeding time at the zoo, Mark Edward Smith. You know too much for your own good and you must be devoured. It is my task to end your life here tonight. I have to tell you that I particularly enjoy eating human liver. I’ll pierce a hole in your flabby Limey stomach and suck the organ out using my trunk like a vacuum cleaner, huh-huh-huh. It can make a helluva mess, I can tell you. Tonight, I am in luck. Three humans is a gift.”

“We’re hard livers with hard livers,” Smith spoke. “Our internal organs are already spoken for, cocker. We need them. They have to be fully functioning to deal with the amounts of sauce we have to put away as part of our professions. All of us are drinkers. It goes with the territory. I’m giving you a warning now to bugger off back to your Children’s Television Workshop Walter The Softee world with your pals Alien Sex Friends or you’ll end up with a knuckle sandwich, you ’ear me? Last thing you need is two black eyes.”

Mr Snuffleupagus merely opened his sack of a mouth revealing those white blades and swivelled his eyes from left to right judging the mood in the room.

Wilson pointed a finger at the carnivorous herbivore. “I’ve got a question for you, Mr…?”

“Snuffleupagus,” Mr Snuffleupagus replied. “But you can call me Snuffy.”

“Right, yeah, Snuffy darling, how come you don’t have any tusks?”

“As you’ll discover, I need no additional self-defence mechanisms,” Mr Snuffleupagus divulged. “And it might scare all the nice American children. Now, let’s get this over with. Enough of the niceties, already. I’m afraid you are all in the final pages of your own tedious autobiographies. Your stories end tonight, and no one will ever know how it ended.”

“Are you familiar with aluminium?” Wilson ventured.

Mr Snuffleupagus’s large black-dot eyes danced in Wilson’s direction. “What’s the purpose of this enquiry?” he asked. “And it’s aluminum. There’s no need for the additional ‘i’.”

Smith smiled. “Your associate on Sesame Street should be called Biscuit Monster,” he said. “We don’t ’ave cookies in this country.”

“Never met him,” Mr Snuffleupagus responded.

“And to hide your bollocks from grannies and kids, you should be wearing trousers, bonny lad,” Healy added.

“Trousers?” Mr Snuffleupagus queried. “You mean pants.”

“If you’re wearing trousers, you need pants as well,” Smith stated. “Always wear kecks in case you have to go to hospital. Did your mam never tell you that?”

“I think he said ‘paints’,” Wilson said.

“Like Berger or Dulux?” Healy frowned. “Well, this place could do with a lick of emulsion, that’s for sure. Maybe a countryside tone, like mushroom.”

“No more playing for time,” Mr Snuffleupagus complained. “Any decorating from this point on will be in gaudy shades of red. It’s dinnertime.”

“That would make it midday in these parts, you woolly woofter,” Smith shook his head. “Have you not got a watch? It’s dark outside.”

An enraged Mr Snuffleupagus focused squarely on Smith and manoeuvred smartly in his direction as if powered by two internal motors within its body – one for the front legs, one for the back. The door to the entrance closed with another firm slam and steam sizzled from the handle as if it was hot as an iron. At first the scene was almost playground-esque, with Wilson, Healy and Smith darting to the furthest reaches of the living room to maintain a safe distance between themselves and the brown trunk that writhed and stretched.

“We don’t leave without the booze,” Smith commanded, thinking ahead, but as he bolted towards the dustsheet swagbag, he slid on the edge of a rug and careered across the hard parquet, bashing his knee on the floor. He was momentarily paralysed with the sort of pain that doesn’t arrive instantaneously but you know it’s in the post. When the agony came, it shot up and down his leg from thigh to ankle. Mr Snuffleupagus trotted to the spreadeagled figure and, using his powerful trunk, seized Smith by the waist, lifting him skywards like a stop-motion animation. Wilson and Healy could only watch with helpless horror. Stricken with a leg spasm, Smith was unable to gather enough strength to resist the python crush of the muscly trunk. The meat-eating, possessed mammoth could now smell the aroma of blood from the recent gash on the singer’s eyebrow and pulled the author of “How I Wrote Elastic Man”, “Kicker Conspiracy” and “Hip Priest” towards its open holdall of a mouth with impatient greed.

“It’s Mancunian on the menu for appetizer,” Mr Snuffleupagus bellowed. “I’m going to crush your ribcage and suck your insides clean.”

“We… call… it… starter… in this country,” Smith gasped as the air departed his lungs.

Wilson’s eyes searched the room for a suitable weapon with which to assist the stricken artist and found a dust-whitened fireplace companion set on the hearth replete with poker, shovel, tongues and brush. He made a dash to the hearth and rifled through the coal-management tools, inexplicably opting for the brush, and he ran towards the rear of the beast. Approaching the crease of Mr Snuffleupagus’s backside, Wilson swished the brush up and down, tickling the matted brown fur. “Rrrrrrr,” Snuffy growled and shifted forwards. Wilson followed and tickled some more.

Distracted, the Jim Henson creation attempted to manoeuvre its under-soft-attack sphincter closer to the wall to countenance any interference from Wilson and his maddening brush. Smith, recognising a mounting confusion, dinked the end of the Slivovka bottle that he was holding on the edge of a solid oak table, sending the plum-based liquid splashing to the floor. Amid the crisis, Healy rapidly gathered up the clonking bottles of booze along with the Pot Noodles and dragged them towards the window. Smith was within striking distance of Mr Snuffleupagus’s features and jabbed his jagged weapon directly into the centre of an oversized eye. Its black disc dropped to the foot of the lens and a mass of retinal tissue oozed onto the parquet. “Whurrrr,” Mr Snuffleupagus complained.

Healy seized the heavy fireplace companion frame with its claw-shaped feet and smashed the large pane of the exterior window with a single blow, dragging fresh wafts of Cumbrian breeze deep into the room. Carefully, he lifted the swagbag across the window ledge and dropped it in a clunking heap onto flagstones below. Meanwhile, Smith waved his broken bottle in order to attack the elephant’s soulless other eye, which regarded the weapon as a giant squid might a passing porpoise. “Desist!” Mr Snuffleupagus ordered Smith. Wilson continued his interference with the creature’s wrong end. “Desist!” the Muppet repeated to Wilson.

Smith changed tack and aimed the end of the bottle into the powerful furry trunk, stabbing with a frenzy that quickly brought fizzing squirts of bright blood. A shrill elephant trumpet filled the room, which made Healy wince as he busily cleared the window edges of glass shards using the fireplace poker.

With another wild stab and tear with the jagged bottle, the trunk’s tight embrace gave way and Smith hit the floor. The originator of the country ’n’ northern sound wasted no time in scrambling to his feet. “Wilson,” he bawled. “Get out of ’ere!” The erstwhile Granada newsreader merely flipped the brush and thrust it into the flaps of the creature’s backside handle first, before dashing in the direction of the obliterated window. Healy could be seen standing outside Hangingbrow Hall beckoning with welcoming hands, offering assistance through the gap. Wilson and Smith were across the ledge as if being played on VHS cassette fast-forward. Peering into the living room with morbid fascination, they watched with awe as the children’s TV mammoth sprayed blood from its wrecked trunk like a Catherine wheel firework, covering the walls, ceiling, parquet, hearth and Arnold Böcklin artwork with an increasingly wild frenzy, all the while trumpeting and thrashing, the black disc pupil of its one operable optical organ darting from left to right, up and down.

“I quite enjoyed that fracas,” Smith commented. “Given me a second wind.”

In a final flourish, and with its last stores of energy, Mr Snuffleupagus charged at the window like a demented bull. Smith, Wilson and Healy turned and bolted, the bag of bottles and hot-water meal options chinking and clonking on Healy’s back. The mammoth rammed the wall and window frame with such blind force that the foundations of the building shuddered, sending snapped timber and flecks of masonry into the cold night. Turning to witness the damage, all that could be seen as the three jogged to safety was bulging brickwork and a critically damaged hairy trunk idly flopping through the broken window, hanging limp, dripping blood onto the floor below.

There was a resplendent flash that brought the grounds into perfect daylight followed by a sky-breaking rip and a bang-boom of overhead thunder. In the illumination the evil-looking tree stood erect and capable, its crocodile head stretching towards the cauldron of purple bubbling clouds. With its twisted trunk and bare, outstretched branches it appeared to be captured by a photograph mid-struggle as it fought for leverage from the soil. Upon its shoulder, two busy black figures could be seen and then came the distinct sound of a saw scraping wood.

“Eh, shithouse!” came the distance-defying call. “Get yourselves over ’ere and give us an ’and!”

Go to Chapter 27: Lily Law.