by Patrick O’Connor

HE was determined to win this year. Years of failure had made him – he looked around sheepishly as if he was checking if anyone could read his thoughts - really, really mad. And, of course, that wasn’t allowed. You weren’t supposed to even frown.

This year the Tall Man had come up with a cunning plan.

Percy had been well-prepared for the annual festival in the quaint, very traditional village of Muck-raking-in-the-Marsh, nestling in the very heart of middle England. It was the sort of village where everyone knew everyone, indeed many of them were related, especially those that lived close to the enormous duck pond. Mind you, there hadn’t been ducks in it for many, many years.

The origins of the Yah Boo festival dated back several generations when the local parson decided that cursing fellow villagers was just not Christian so it was banned. Anyone found cursing would be taken to the stocks to be stoned to death or made to eat porridge (WITHOUT honey or sugar) non-stop for 19 and three quarter hours, depending on their preference.

However the clergyman realised that nobody was perfect so for one day in the year, Yah Boo Day, locals were allowed to gather in the village square and hurl insults at each other.

It was hoped that this would get the insults out of their system and of course, everybody in the village had a fearful phobia about porridge (apparently it was some sort of genetic malfunction, at least that’s what Doris Doodle at the bakery reckoned) so there was plenty of incentive.

The person coming up with the best curse would collect a striking trophy made from donated toe nails and glued together using a secret recipe by youngsters from the  ‘special’ school on the very outskirts of the village, the one behind the high wall with the barbed wire.

The rules were pretty simple, any resident could stand up on a small wooden platform, which some likened to a gallows, and spout out as much abuse as they wished, in a five minute time slot. Tradition had it that they also had to do this standing on one leg as the very first winner of trophy, Eric the Woodcutter, only had one leg.

Every year the local vicar, the landlord of the village inn, The Odious Toad, and whoever was the current oldest resident, comprised the judging panel. They were much envied for it was forbidden to curse them during the festival.

Last year the Tall Man was convinced that his comment that Nat Splat, who lived down Plonkers Lane, had a nose like a rodent’s arse was a sure-fire winner, but he lost out to Fred Mangle’s blistering attack on his next-door neighbour Ivy Sprout, saying her breasts bounced around like the back end of his prize cow, Olive.  He was gutted, consumed with bitterness which he had to put away for the next 12 months. How he hated the stupid rules that the village lived under. How he wanted to be a rebel but just didn’t have the nerve, or, if truth be told, the vocabulary.

So for this year’s event he had kept a small notebook with him all the time and it was packed full of vitriolic observations about his fellow villagers. It had taken hours and hours to whittle these down to the best five minute’s worth.  It was so frustrating to have to do all this on his own, he desperately wanted the opportunity to share his thoughts with someone, a like-minded bedfellow, but the Tall Man was never one for company and being as tall as he was made it extremely difficult to see eye-to-eye with anyone.

This year though, he was convinced that his notebook would provide the perfect ammunition for Percy whose delivery style was a sure-fire winner.

When the Tall Man woke up on the day of the festival, it was gloriously sunny. The birds were chirping away and he felt as if the gods were on his side. Because he was so tall and also had the misfortune to have a really silly walk he always felt as if the villagers thought he was a bit of an idiot, a sort of village idiot. But he was determined to prove them wrong.

He put on his best yellow check suit, a purple cravat and a green hat and strode purposefully down to the square, his giant strides taking him there in smart time. His allotted slot was 11.40am which was a good one as it was only a few minutes before the pub opened so he was guaranteed a good audience.

When the vicar called out his name, his chest pumped out with pride, so much so that a button on his red and white striped shirt burst and he strode forward accompanied by Percy the parrot, a glorious specimen respondent in a dazzling array of blue, green and yellow plumes.

There were gasps and muffled protests from the crowd when they saw the bird but he snarled: “Percy is a resident of this village so shut it! He’s entitled to have his say, ain’t that right Vicar?”

The vicar looked to his fellow judges and after a huddled consultation (it took some time because the oldest resident, Mary Moppet, was 104 and very, very deaf)  nodded in the affirmative.

At that, the Tall Man mounted the small stage and muttered to the parrot, who was perched on a leather patch on his shoulder: “So what’s got your gander then Percy?”

Immediately a  torrent of foul-mouthed abuse rained from the bird’s mouth in rapid fashion.

The crowd stood gobsmacked as Percy let loose. They had never witnessed so much bile compacted into such a short time and nobody in the village had been spared, but they all had to admit it was pretty impressive stuff.

When the parrot had finished there was a hush of silence before one spectator shouted “bravo” and then everyone joined in a spontaneous, prolonged bout of applause. Some even shouted out ‘more’ although that drew an admonishing frown from the Vicar.

There was a triumphant look on the Tall Man’s face. He knew he was home and dry, no-one could match Percy’s tirade, the trophy was definitely his.

But then from the back of the crowd a hand slowly appeared and Godfrey the Grocer, a tiny, tidy man with short, cropped fair hair, very tight black leather trousers and a gold earring, stepped hesitantly forward.

“Yes?” said the vicar.

“That doesn’t count,” whispered Godfrey in a soft, gentle voice which had everyone straining forward to hear.

“What!!” gasped the Tall Man, “why not?”

“Yes, why not?” asked a puzzled Vicar.

“Because that parrot’s dead,” said Godfrey, pointing a long, delicate finger ahead of him.

“Dead! He’s not dead, he’s resting,” replied the Tall Man angrily.

“No he’s dead. That parrot’s dead, I know a dead parrot when I see one.”

With horror the Tall Man suddenly realised that the parrot was falling from his shoulder and he watched helplessly as it landed prone on its back, claws akimbo on the floor in front of him with its beak gaping open.

The Tall Man felt himself overcome with shock and stooped down to touch the parrot but sure enough it was dead. It definitely was dead.

“I don’t believe it,” he sobbed.

Godfrey strode forward and said tenderly to the Tall Man: “I know you’re upset, do you want to go back to my place.”

Later, after a cigarette, the two men went out and lay down on the lawn, staring upwards at the sparkling blue sky. It was a magical moment.

“You know, this reminds me of a legend of years gone bye, one that many folk round here have long forgotten,” said Godfrey.

“Oh yes?” said the Tall Man, who was by now starting to feel much, much better about his dramatic failure to win the trophy (which incidentally had gone to Sarah Sponge and her rant about the man in the post office and his rather strange, unhygienic method for licking stamps).

“Yes,” said Godfrey, “a long, long time ago, even before our festival started, there was a peculiar fellow around these parts called John of Cleeze.”

“Never heard of him,” interjected the Tall Man.

“Oh, he was very famous in his time, part of a troupe of travelling snake charmers. They were really popular and people used to come from all around to see them. He was very tall like you. Legend has it that John of Cleeze had a parrot which turned out to be dead.”

“Oh. Did he curse?”

“What the parrot?”

“No, this John of Cleeze fellow?”

“Oh yes, he cursed all right. They say that John of Cleeze was a champion curser. But it wasn’t the dead parrot which produced his best curses.”

“No?”

“No, my granddad Neville told me that John of Cleeze later left the troupe and went off on his own. Granddad Neville said folklore had it that John of Cleeze saved his best curses for some dark-haired chappie from the lands over the water. My granddad said that when he got really mad this John of Cleeze used to hit the foreign chappie round the head. Some folk said he hit him with his hand but there are other theories that reckoned he used a tree branch. It was a long time ago so you have to expect these tales to get a bit mixed up sometimes.”

Suddenly the Tall Man sat up and exclaimed: “That’s it!”

“What?” asked Godfrey.

“Of course, why didn’t I think of it earlier. I’m an Englishman, a stout, resourceful fellow, I’ll go to the foreign lands and find a man, any foreign man and curse him till I’m blue in the face. That’s what made this country great in the past and it’ll make me a winner next year.”

“Yes, that should definitely do the trick.” said a smiling Godfrey. He glanced over to the Tall Man who had lay down again and touched him gently on the shoulder. “Fancy another cigarette?”

“Sure, why not,” he replied.

© Patrick O’Connor 2010