Les Sklaroff

There's: Truths, Half-Truths, Lies and... Slippage

For much of the last century the property, a basement in the Bloomsbury area, had belonged to Cyril Garring-Pugh, a reclusive minor aristocrat with sufficient funds to indulge his relatively few interests, principally fine wines, good books and compliant women. In his later years he became obsessed by elf-lore, and spent much of his time studying runes, and, it was rumoured, conducting curious experiments. Now deceased, the owner had no close family. The odd manner of his death had been the cause of some speculation, and according to reports, the police were keeping their files open - which meant closed to investigative journalists. The cellar was long depleted, the women vanished into the night. All that remained were the books, which Milner (as he currently prefers to be known), with his impeccable credentials (and his own unique private library), had been asked to examine on behalf of the executors. They made no objection when he asked if I, as his most recent amanuensis, might accompany him.

Wasn't a printer's devil some sort of apprentice?
A thin layer of dust had settled on every surface, but fortunately the ventilation system had kept the books dry and free from mould. Milner glanced again at the book I'd handed him with a wry smile - the first one that had caught my eye: a copy, according to the title on the spine, of Leak House by Dickens. "I'd say, young Arnold, that this may well be a typical example of a printer's devil at work. You do realise that the lost 'B' is not a sign of wear," he said earnestly, angling the book so that I could see the title-page. LEAK HOUSE it stated again, unmistakably, in large clear capitals. There was no trace of erasure.

My smile faded. "That's very peculiar" I said. "But wasn't a printer's devil some sort of apprentice?"

"A common misconception, dating back to the seventeenth century," Milner replied. "At the very least, this is symptomatic of mischievous slippage. No, my friend, it looks as though Garring-Pugh must have given serious offence, however inadvertently, to the elvish community, and the consequences, as I have reason to know, can be rather unfortunate. I fear this entire collection may have suffered. I suggest we try selecting a few more at random."

He crossed the room, and with remarkable suppleness for a man of his considerable age reached up to a shelf above his head, and took down a book. It was an English translation of Flaubert's Madame Ovary. "Dear me," said Milner, "A trifle indelicate, wouldn't you say? Try choosing one at random." I looked around. In a small bookcase there were some elderly-looking children's books.

I picked out one with a dark red binding. "Lice in Wonderland," I called out, disbelievingly.

"Most unpleasant," said Milner, reaching for another. "Here's The Tim Machine."

"Now there's a coincidence," I said, spotting a petulant-sounding title by Aldous Huxley: Tim Must Have a Top.

"Typical elf-meddling," mused Milner. "And also an example of double slippage. Definitely mischievous, bordering on the disrespectful."

We took turns, calling out the titles as we found them. Wherever we looked, irreverent slippage had occurred: The Heat of Midlothian - Three Men in a Boa - Put Out More Fags - Our Ma in Havana. Clear indication, as I was now persuaded, of the work of seriously offended elves.

"Can anything be done about this?" I asked Milner, replacing a copy of Wok Suspended between A Midsummer Night's Dram and Poe's Ales of Mystery and Imagination.

He stroked his stylishly shortened beard. "As it happens," he said, delving into a pocket, "Knowing Garring-Pugh's reputation, I took the precaution of bringing with me a specific remedy. You won't find it in the shops; it's a formula I prepared many years ago for Tom James, a young librarian in Oxford." He withdrew a small blue glass phial, and gently levered off its cork stopper with his thumb. Immediately I could smell beeswax and linseed oil, and something else cloyingly sweet, which I was unable to identify. Milner then moved in front of each set of shelves, waving the phial in a sinuous motion from top to bottom, murmuring something quietly to himself as he did so. "There, that should do the trick," he said, replacing the stopper, and carefully restoring the phial to his pocket. "It will probably take full effect in a day or so. I'll arrange for us to come back later in the week." He wandered into the adjoining room.

Moments later I heard a suppressed groan, and rushed through to join him. He was peering at an elegant rosewood cabinet. "Oh dear, Arnold, I wonder what Cyril did to piss them off?" Milner rather enjoyed keeping up with modern idioms. "They didn't stop at the books. Do you remember that rather good American TV series? There's a complete boxed set of DVDs here."

"Which one?" I enquired.

He sighed, and reached again for his little phial. "See for yourself."

I looked. Aaron Sorkin would not have been pleased. There was a neat row of seven successively numbered transparent plastic boxes, each one afflicted with double slippage, rudely labelled: The Wet Wig.

© L. J. Sklaroff 2014 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 13:48 Thu 27 Nov 2014
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