The Chief Clerk’s Story Matthew Kneale

It had been a quiet morning and I had been pondering a new chess opening that I had seen in the newspaper when something most unexpected occurred. Clarissa Brice and a party of her friends had been out walking when they stumbled upon a strange object lying on the ground, and which they now brought before me. ‘I thought it might be of interest,’ Clarissa Brice explained in her matter of fact voice, while her foolish looking companion held out the thing for me to see.

Interest was hardly the word. I had never seen anything like it, and even now it is very hard to describe, as it seemed quite to defy the power of words. It possessed a kind of unimaginable brightness: a brightness which took several forms, each quite different from one another, and which, most strangely, emitted no light. Equally disquieting was the object’s shape, which seemed to flout all the laws of nature, and reached out in a way that was impossible to comprehend. I was startled, certainly, and yet even then I had the presence of mind to realize that this was something that would need to be carefully controlled.

‘Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention,’ I told them with a smile. ‘It is certainly most unusual. So much so, in fact, that I would rather you did not mention it to anyone else, at least for the moment.’

’Is that really correct,’ Clarissa asked. ‘Surely it is the duty of the senior clerk to keep the public informed of a discovery such as this?’

I have always been an admirer of Miss Brice, both for her intellect and her striking looks, but on this occasion I could not help wishing she had been slightly less determined. ‘All in good time,’ I soothed her. ’First I think we should establish just what we are dealing with. Leave it with me and I will have it thoroughly examined by the highest authorities.’

With a look of some reluctance she had her companion place it upon the table and they departed. So I was left alone with the object. I will admit I did not find its presence easy, as its strangeness gave it a disquieting kind of power, and glancing at it I sensed this was a seed of trouble. Not that I was in any way fearful myself, but I was concerned as to what its effects might be on others. I believe my duty as chief clerk is, above all else, to preserve the simple happiness of this world. Innocence is a delicate quality, like a newly plucked flower, and could easily be corroded by a startling novelty such as this, leading simple minds to questions quite beyond their power. I had no intention of permitting my fellow men to be robbed of the blessing of ignorance, forcing them to endure to pains of doubt. No, this was a seed that must not be permitted to sprout.

First I had a guard put on the object: a couple of strong lads of little philosophy who would not be bored into by the worm of curiosity. Next, just as I had promised Clarissa Brice, I called upon three wise men to offer their advice. Though I took care to make sure they were the right kind of wise men. Sure enough they all but unanimously spoke against the object. The first pronounced it to be ungodly and also complained that its appearance had caused him to suffer a severe headache. The second supposed it was a lost belonging of the spirits, and recommended that it be returned at once to the spot whence it had been found. The third speaker was rather less certain of mind, but the other three of us soon managed to persuade him that—for the good of all—the object should be quickly and quietly removed, and buried deep underground.

Of course the problem remained of how to undertake such an excavation without attracting unwelcome attention. After some reflection I saw an answer, and though this required me to make a considerable personal sacrifice, I did not hesitate. Tiggin, my cat and chief companion of many years, had been poorly for some time and that same morning, whispering fondest farewells, I gently hastened his end with a piece of string, then laid him to rest in a hole in my garden wall, which I then took care to conceal behind a layer of concrete. With a sadness that was wholly genuine I made a public announcement of his demise, and reported that he would be buried during the afternoon. I arranged for his coffin to be carried by two children, as these are less plagued by suspicion than their elders, and I was concerned that others might wonder that the box weighed a good deal for a mere a cat.

The procession set off that same afternoon and I confess I was gratified by the great number of citizens and work colleagues who chose to honour my poor pet, forming a larger gathering than turned up for many a human being. We were nearing the burial spot and all was going admirably well when, quite without warning, our sombre parade was suddenly and violently set upon. I found it hard to believe and yet the sponsor of this terrible attack was none other than that toxically curious Clarissa Brice. I could only assume that, by some process of female intuition, she had divined the true purpose of the burial. As I mentioned I have always valued her intellect and it was shocking indeed to see her waving on her supporters to acts of violence, and behaving not like a philosopher but like a wild savage. Her admirer or lover—or whatever he was—struck out with punches of surprising force at all and sundry, while their ugly dwarf creature murderously stabbed the assistant convener. As to Clarissa Brice herself, she took advantage of the confusion to aggressively wrest the coffin from the children’s innocent grasp.

This was a moment of gravest crisis. Had I not foreseen that this object would bring catastrophe? It had to be stopped before it could cause even greater havoc. So, with saddest regret at this act forced upon me, I raised my hand and fired at the cause of all this trouble, Clarissa Brice. She fell, and as she did I was horrified to see Tiggin’s coffin fall open, unleashing the hideous, glaring object for all to see. Clarissa Brice and the object struck the ground exactly simultaneously, and in that same instant the object sundered apart into so many pieces, each just like a ghastly, tiny version of itself, as if they were its infernal offspring. The fighting stopped at once, as everyone looked in astonishment at the objects, that were just as vile to the eye as the monstrosity they sprang from, and in that moment of strange silence I knew that we would never be free of this terrible discovery, and that the peace of this simple world was lost.

Matthew Kneale's novel English Passengers concerns an expedition to Tasmania in search of the Garden of Eden told from 20 narrative perspectives. In 2000 it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and in the sam year it received the Whitbread Book Award. His first novel Mr. Foreigner (1987) takes an ironic view of mutual cultural misunderstanding. In 1988 the novel won the Somerset Maugham award. Matthew Kneale is also the author of Sweet Thames (which won the John Llewellyn Prize in 1992)

Essay copyright, Matthew Kneale, 2003