Alan Bilton

Alan Bilton is the author of three novels, his latest The End of the Yellow House (Watermark Press 2020),  The Known and Unknown Sea (Cillian Press 2014), variously compared to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the 1902 movie, A Trip to the Moon, and Dante’s Inferno, and The Sleepwalkers’ Ball (Alcemi, 2009) which one critic described as “Franz Kafka meets Mary Poppins”. 

In Bilton’s Anywhere Out of the World (Cillian Press 2016), he dares us into a fantastical and strange alternative reality through a collection of short stories,  into a labyrinth, a world of nocturnal cities, hapless slapstick and misadventures, lost souls and lost travellers.

As a writer, he is obviously a hard man to pin down. He is also the author of books on Silent Film Comedy ( Silent Film Comedy and American Culture , Macmillan, 2013)  Contemporary Fiction, ( An Introduction to Contemporary American Fiction, Edinburgh University Press, 2002)  and co-editor of America in the 1920s (Helm, 2004).His essays, reviews and fiction have appeared in the New Welsh Review PlanetThe Lonely Crowd , The Journal of American Studies, The F. Scott Fitzgerald Review and elsewhere, as well as the anthologies, Sing Sorrow Sorrow (Seren, 2010) and A Flock of Shadows (Parthian, 2013).  He is married with one small child and one hairy dog.

At Dawn, Two Nightingales

Mitrovsky hastily retraced his steps, jogging past The Lost Boy and The Little Frog in a great hurry, his shoes clip-clopping noisily on the cobbles. How hot it was, how hot! Specks of ash blew in on the air, crunching in his teeth like bugs.

            Still, the passage had to be around here somewhere – and with it the door to the Little Theatre. The Count ran his hands along the walls like a blind man buying a mule. The passage was dark, dreary, but if you squinted carefully, you could almost make out a rough outline, like the dusty space behind a purloined painting. As for the door itself – poof, gone, disappeared back into the wall. But how? Behind him, the Count could hear footsteps, yells, heavy breathing, while before him a painting of a broken pitcher hung haphazardly in the gloom, the drop of milk eerily realistic, as if fresh from the udder. The Broken Pitcher, The Broken Pitcher – now where had he heard that name before? Glancing over his shoulder, the Count sprinted across the road and up a dark, narrow stairwell, squeezing himself into the darkness like a beetle in a hole.

            At the top of the stairwell, a narrow beam of moonlight illuminated a crooked sign – Doctor Pustrpolk, Physician and Doctor of Medicine (Veterinarian, Monday & Thursday), the letters written in an untidy hand, ‘Thursday’ barely fitting on the sign.

            Hearing movement down below, the Count pushed urgently against the doorway, a little bell ringing as he stumbled into a narrow, wood-panelled lobby, the room redolent of Turkish tobacco, medicinal herbs, and hooch.

 Panting like a dog, the Count closed the door and placed his ear to the wood: nothing. Had he lost them? Straightening his wig, he carefully unballed Bilek’s score and placed it in a pocket: the nightingales would have to wait. Now where had he heard of this Pustrpolk? And then it struck him – Halas’ enflamed throat, the card, Temný Street in P. Yes, yes, Dr Pustrpolk, prince of the physician’s art!

With that a night-shirt arrived containing a skinny old man with an enormous moustache, the rest of his features resting atop it, like birds sitting on a branch. The fellow carried a lamp, a poker, and a sceptical expression.

            The Count bowed and smiled amicably.

            “Doctor Pustrpolk?”

            The fellow looked the Count up and down. “That depends. You the bailiff?”

            “Why…”

            “The police? Mrs Pustrpolk?”

            “No, no, I…”

            “In that case I’m Dr Pustrpolk. Here, you look terrible. Step inside my office and I’ll see what I can do.”

            The Count mopped his sweaty neck and smiled. “No, no, you see I am here for a friend…”

            “Yeah? That’s what they all say. And what happened to this friend of yours? Soreness, itching, pain when you piss?”

            “Oh no, nothing like that…”

            “O, come on, we’re both men of the world! Now climb up on this couch and pop your beard on the table. Though I should warn you though that I charge extra for night-work, as the actress said to the bishop…”

            Pustrpolk loped obliquely, as if into a strong wind, but what was Mitrovsky supposed to do? Obediently the Count followed Pustrpolk into his office – in reality, an old kitchen table, covered in a filthy oil cloth.

            “There you go, you hop up. Sorry about the stains, but my last patient was an Alsatian.”

            The Count paused on the threshold and sniffed the air suspiciously. “Um, I think I might be looking for a different Dr Pustrpolk…”

            “That quack? I wouldn’t give him the time of day. Trust me – his patients only check out in a winding sheet. Why would you want to go to him? Pustrpolk – I wouldn’t trust him to cut my nails. Now, that’s it, up you go, take the weight off your cloak. Okay, tell me all about it – what’s the problem? Boils, sores, spots? If it’s the horseman’s complaint, I’ve got two tubs of ointment at five groschen a pop.”

            The Count climbed up onto the table and lay there like an enormous slice of ham, his eyes dark and sad, lined with big black rings.

            “No, no, my good fellow, I’m…”

            “Tired? Fatigued? Unable to provide masculine satisfaction? Listen, you can be straight with me, it’s the Enlightenment. You just lie there, I’ll go and get my medicinal mallet.”

            Mitrovsky fluttered a handkerchief. “O my angel, I fear you are mistaken – my name is Count Mitrovsky and…”

            “Count? What makes you think you’re a Count?” Pustrpolk tapped on Mitrovsky’s head and peered suspiciously in his ears.  “A count? That sounds like crazy talk. Next thing you know, you’re the King of France or the Pope’s mother. Listen, if you were a Count, what would you be doing in a dump like this? I mean, just look at this table – would you find a Count on a table like this? I wouldn’t put my poodle on such a thing. Well, I rest my case.” Pustrpolk winked, patting down his night-shirt as if looking for a cigar. “Okay, I think we’re done here. My assistant will issue the bill on the way out.”

            “No, no, I…”

            Pustrpolk sighed and tapped the Count on the head.

            “What, more? Okay, Mitrovsky, you’re a tough nut to crack. Now take off your tights and I’ll examine them – I’ve got I’ve a needle and thread out back.”

            Stretching out his arms and legs, the Count settled down and made himself at home.

            “You see doctor, this friend of mine…”

            “Friend?”

            “Master Halas. You see, the lad, he, ah … he lost his voice.” Mitrovsky pointed toward his own throat, as if at a visual aid. “Tch, who knows what happened? Perhaps he went out with wet hair, or put on damp scarf, or mayhap was frightened by a goose.”

            Nodding, Pustrpolk pulled out a large book. “Go on, go on…”

            “Well, whatever it was, now the lad can’t speak at all…”

            Pustrpolk nodded and scribbled in his pad. “Yes, yes. Goose, you say?”

            “And has a card – Dr Pustrpolk, 5 Temný Street, the celebrated throat specialist. Eh, my lad, is that you?”

            Pustrpolk jumped like a scalded cat and marched up and down the room.

“Listen, before I answer that question, let me ask you something – do you know anything about medicine?”

            “Not a thing.”

             “In that case, I most certainly am. Okay, you can put your tights back on now, your knees are making me sick.”

 Pustrpolk wandered over to an empty bottle, weighing it in his hands with a melancholy air.

 “Okay, okay. You sit there and I’ll mix up a cocktail. I’m sure I’ve got some liverwort round here somewhere.”

            “O, you wise medical fellows,” said the Count, smiling broadly, “’tis as if you have a cure for everything! Why, I met this peasant and…”

            “Peasant?” Pustrpolk looked outraged. “Listen, I’m a scientist, a qualified physician. What, you think I won my certificate in a game of pinochle? Okay, forget I said that. If the police turn up, we don’t know nothing, and the horse isn’t mine.”

            While the Count went off to check his larder, Mitrovsky lay back on the couch and scratched his behind. Ach, these tiny bit-players – would they ever let up? But at least one of his quests was at a close. How thrilled Master Halas would be to speak again! Mitrovsky imagined his voice to be that of a young blackbird or the murmuring of a brook in spate, gentle and lively at the same time.

            Pustrpolk returned carrying a tray like a waiter.

            “Okay Mitrovsky, listen up. In the morning, I recommend a tea made of cinnabar, musk and a syrup of cloves, with a booze chaser. It won’t do any good, but it’s one hell of a pick-me-up. Then this pal of yours, give him a dose of this – it’s one-part red wine vinegar, two parts prunella, and there parts nightshade water. Or is it one-part nightshade, two parts prunella, and just a dash of lemon juice? Either way, you can also use it on pancakes, or to remove mould. If that doesn’t work, brush his tongue with lead plaster – that’ll teach him.”

            Mitrovsky bowed. “O my good fellow – Science marches on! Why, just yesterday we were taking the powdered leg of a deer and a hair from a strong young man…”

            Pustrpolk clapped Mitrovsky on the back. “Hey, don’t knock powdered deer till you’ve tried it. And if you ever need hair, my brother farms it on his back.”

            It was warm, late, the sky the colour of Viennese ink, like Pustrpolk’s bottle. Lost in thought, the Count stared at the elxir and then scratched aggressively at his leg. “Tell me Doctor, do you know anything of music?”

            “Music? What, this friend of yours wants to sing now? Listen, one step at a time. You want my advice, start with whispering then build up.”

            Mitrovsky reached inside his pocket and brandished the sheet with a flourish.

            “You see, by pure chance, this musical score has fallen into my hands…”

            “Pure chance, eh?”

            “And, knowing but little of such matters…”

            Pustrpolk scowled, then looked the scroll up and down. “Musical appreciation? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Bettelheim the peddler sold me a harpsichord just last week.”

            The doctor strode over to a low table and pulled back a sheet. Beneath was what appeared to be a tiny organ, complete with wooden pinblock, soundboard, hitchpins, and jack. Like a peasant, the keyboard seemed to be missing a few teeth, the lid held up by a stick.

            “It’s a beauty, eh? Comes with a lute stop, just like my cousin, Minnie.”

            “And do you play?”

            “Music runs in our family, like diabetes. Now pass me that score and I’ll see what I can rustle up.” Pustrpolk planted his behind on a small stool, cracking his knuckles theatrically. “Two nightingales, you say? That seems like at least one nightingale too many, but I’ll do my best.”

            Pustrpolk ran his fingers up and down the keyboard, squinting at the score myopically. But, O what a sound! The tune was sweet, sad, and full of poignant longing. When the performance was over, both men were in tears, Mitrovsky dreaming of Mařenka, Pustrpolk because of a splinter.

            “Why, that’s beautiful,” said the Count. “But isn’t that the tune to ‘Waltz me Round the World, Willy?”

            Pustrpolk slammed down the lid.

 “Well, hail and farewell Count. It’s been lovely chatting, but us doctors have to get our sleep – it’s you patients who get to lollygag around in bed all day. Now, tell your friend to take the potion once before meals and twice during the hundred year’s war.”

            “O, my lad, however, can I thank you?”

            “For us doctors, this purse of coins is thanks enough.”

            Mitrovsky handed over Moosdorf’s purse, bowing low. Pustrpolk nodded and slapped him on the chops.

            “Well, So long Count. If you ever need anything to get rid of those fleas, just let me know. In the meantime, if you spill the elixir on a tablecloth, try vinegar and white wine. And if that doesn’t work, I’d buy another tablecloth.”

            And with that the good doctor unlocked the door and shoved the Count outside.

            “And the way back to the Little Theatre?”

            “Horseshoe, comb, saddle – you can’t miss it. Hail and farewell Mitrovsky. Remember, if anyone asks, you’re a Count and I’m a doctor and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise…”

            And with that the door slammed shut, the sign hanging crooked on its nail.