Another adapted tale from My pen ... the horrific and terrifying tale of Frank In-Stains and the Creature who will always Ketchup with him
Suddenly, a Dark Shape emerged as if out of the snowy wastes themselves. It came nearer and nearer. What could it be? [A Dark Shape, you fool. You just said.]
As it approached, Walton saw that the Dark Shape was actually a man. [Oh. Okay.] A man who looked exhausted, spent, drained, shattered, worn out, and, moreover, tired. When he reached the ship, Walton hauled him onto the deck where he lay spread-eagled, for all the world like a spreaded eagle. Do I know this man? Walton thought. Something about him looked familiar. He had never seen a spreaded eagle, so it couldn't have been that.
It was as the man was lying there, exhausted, spent, drained [blah, blah, blah] at his feet that Walton realised that he had fallen into a patch of wet paint: the result of a sailor's attempts to give the deck a fresh look by painting it in Almond Blossom with a Hint of White. (Walton would never ever again take on staff who spent quite that long in the paint aisle deliberating between Almond Blossom with a Hint of White, Gently Mushroom with Mocha and Whipped Cream with a Frisson of Pearl. The sailor had held up the voyage for hours. Walton had kicked himself for not reading the man's CV properly, otherwise he would have noticed that he'd been working as Barbara Cartland's decorator until deciding on a new career at sea.)
Captain Walton pulled the man up. 'I'm awfully sorry, old chap,' he said, 'but I think our new paint has stained the front of your shirt.' (He did know all the usual lingo - 'Pass me the rum' and 'Ahoy there, shipmates, I think I see land' - but there were times and places.)
The man looked up wearily. 'Stained?' he said. 'Stained? That,' he said, in a resigned tone which spoke of tragedies unmentionable, 'is the story of my life.'
Later that evening, over rum and raisin icecream, Captain Walton sat listening to the man's tale: a tale more horrible, more terrible and more ... even more horrible and terrible ... than anything he'd ever heard ever before.
The man's name was Frank. He was, he said, a scientist and inventor, or at least, that had been the plan. One day, he had decided he would like to startle the world with a new invention, something that would answer a question everyone was asking - one of those questions that keeps people awake at night, staring wildly into the abyss. And that question was ...
What do you do when you've spilt ketchup onto your new white shirt and it won't come out?
It was as Frank was telling his story that the Captain suddenly realised where he'd seen him before. Surely this was the owner of the washing powder company for whom he'd done that advert many years ago?
It was indeed he. Frank In-Stains, the washing powder magnate, the man behind the slogan 'In-Stains can become Out-Stains', the man who had gone into that particular business to show that, just because your name was flippin' ridiculous and seemed to suggest certain things, that didn't mean one was doomed forever to fulfil its implied prophecy.
'So it didn't work out, then, the ketchup thing?' Captain Walton asked.
There was a meaningful pause. [Which is a very, very clever pause indeed, when you think about it.]
'Do I look like I've just won the 'Inventor of the Year' award?' Frank replied.
Walton decided not to let the man's brusqueness put him off. After all, he was a lot more entertaining than listening to tedious renditions of 'What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor' in the ship's bar. And this rum and raisin icecream (of which they had now eaten 20 tubs - this was a long tale) was delicious.
'So what happened with the invention?' Walton said. 'Tell me.'
Frank told him how he had travelled the globe, collecting together bits of old clothing stained with ketchup, even if it meant foraging in people's recycling bins at midnight, which he intended to sew together to make a completely new garment on which he would prove to all that it was possible to remove ketchup even when the stains had been there for years.
'Ugh!' said Captain Walton. 'That sounds disgusting. Surely it made you feel sick, sewing together bits of people's old clothes, especially those stained with ketchup? Surely your friends were worried about you, spending hour after hour on such a gruesome task?'
'Friends?!' laughed Frank, cynicism dripping from his voice like .... like .... dripping cynicism. 'I had no friends. I neglected everything, everyone. Even my own father was ill and I refused to see him, although I did write to my cousin and ask her to send me his old shirts once he'd snuffed it. I was a bit short on Swiss cotton.'
He didn't appear to see how callous this sounded, but then, Walton thought, if the man was prepared to forage in people's recycling bins and sew stained garments together to make a new one, who knows what he could be capable of?
Frank's story continued. 'One night, there was a storm. I had sewn together all of the ketchup-stained fragments with gossamer metal thread. I had connected the new garment up to my TV aerial via an arrangement of leads and all I needed was a flash of lightning which would course through the garment and solder all the seams together.'
'And then what happened? Did the storm stop? Did the sun come out?' Walton was agog. As well as being a Captain. But Frank's look of disdain silenced him.
'No,' he continued. 'The storm raged. The lightning struck. The aerial crackled. The garment fused. [It was at this point that Walton wondered whether one side-effect of the storm had been to electrocute Frank so that he could only speak in three-word sentences.] But then .... [Ah. Thank goodness.]'
'Then it leaked.'
'Yes, leaked. All over my laboratory floor. It leaked ketchup. And not only the ketchup from the stains in the original garment, but more and more ketchup. It was a disaster. My experiment had failed. [Walton thought this was an unnecessary addition to the story, but kept mum.] The electricity had not rid the garment of the stains at all, but it had supernaturally enabled it to produce even greater amounts of ketchup, a substance which was now collecting round my ankles like a sea of ... like a sea of ....'
'Ketchup?' Walton contributed, trying to be helpful.
'Do you need me to explain the concept of similes to you?' said Frank, his eyes narrowing.
'Er ... no, thanks,' said Walton. The word had always struck terror into his heart because his English teacher had been the kind who gave out 100 lines if you forgot what a simile was. 'But what did you do then? Couldn't you just cut the garment up again so that it was lots of bits rather than one whole one?'
'I had just had that thought myself,' said Frank, regretfully. 'And I was just reaching for my scissors when, suddenly, the garment sat up and called me 'Daddy'. It got off the laboratory bench and started walking towards me, like an uninhabited Elvis costume without the glitter, all the while leaking ketchup from every seam. It was like being in the middle of some terrifying Gothic tale.'
The men sat pondering this last frightening possibility together in silence, without speaking, voiceless, speechless and, moreover, quietly. The sun was coming up. Frank's tale had taken him all night to tell. They were surrounded by icecream tubs (as well as ice). And the lighter it became outside, the more Walton realised something he hadn't been able to see in the dark. Frank's clothes were covered in blotches, red blotches (apart from the odd patch of Almond Blossom With a Hint of White), blotches which came and went as though they were alive. It was a ghoulish sight.
'Oh no,' thought Walton. 'This is scary. I feel like I'M in the Gothic tale mySELF now.'
'I knew I couldn't care for this Creature,' Frank went on. 'I knew that the only thing to do was to escape to the ends of the earth. But when I said to the Creature - right, that's it, I'm escaping to the ends of the earth - it said it was going to follow me.'
Walton thought it rather stupid of Frank to have told the Creature where he was going. But he thought he ought to try and be reassuring. After all, this man had once employed him and paid him a wage, even if it had meant standing around for hours in a studio filled with thirty-six washing machines and a lot of dirty clothing. He owed him something.
'Things will be OK now, though,' he said to Frank, patting him on the shoulder (gingerly). 'The Creature obviously hasn't followed you. How can a random white suit make its way to the ends of the earth all by itself?'
But he was horrified to see Frank looking past him, his eyes widening with fear, as though he hadn't taken any notice of his reassuring words.
And then he heard what Frank had obviously heard. Not far from the ship. A wailing sound. A groaning sound. A crying sound. A terrible sound. An unearthly sound. [Oh no, he too was catching the three-word sentence thing.]
He turned to see what Frank was looking at. There, clambering over the edge of the ship, was what Walton realised must be the Creature, leaking ketchup from every pore (and making a right mess of the Almond Blossom with a Hint of White).
'YOU!' it yelled, lumbering towards Frank, all cloth and ketchup. 'YOU, who thought you could escape your name and your In-Stains destiny. YOU, who thought you could astound the world with a creature you made purely for your own profit. YOU, who rejected your Creation just because it didn't do what you expected. I have come for my revenge.'
The creature advanced on Frank, then ....
'Hi there!' a cheerful voice said from behind them all.
It was just at that moment that the sailor who had painted the deck earlier turned up with some cloths and a mop to clear up the mess he had made with the spilled paint.
'Oh my, oh my, oh MY!' he exclaimed, dropping the mop and cloths and throwing his arms out in delight, obviously not in the least put off by the startling vision before him. In fact, he came closer to the Creature who stopped advancing on Frank, puzzled. 'Oh MY!' said the sailor. 'If that's not the most wonderful Cherry with a Hint of Ketchup colour I have EVER seen! How do you DO that, darling?'
It hadn't been Frank In-Stains' plan to start a business with an ex-sailor and a white suit which leaked tomato sauce. But it wasn't long before their new venture - 'Spread the Red and Keep 'em Fed' - was hitting the headlines as the most exciting phenomenon in interior decorating to have been seen in years - paint which could double as a condiment. The three of them lived happily together in a specially designed fully-ceramic- tiled house, served faithfully by three Ketchup Collectors who worked round the clock to harvest the Creature's outpourings. The sailor's expertise in mixing colours meant that the paint range was expanding all the time and the worldwide passion for junk food meant that the ketchup side of the business would just run and run. Occasional visits from Captain Walton (now back from the frozen wastes after catching a chill and being advised to retire and stick to warmer climates) enlivened their evenings and it was on one of these occasions that Frank was able to offer Walton a job on a TV advert for the latest 'Spread the Red' paint range.
'I love it when stories end just the way they started,' Walton observed that day to the others as they sat together dipping chips and tacos happily into the redness pouring forth from the Creature's orifices while the KCs scooped up the rest into buckets emblazoned with the 'Spread the Red' logo. 'It's such a pleasing framing device. If I ever wrote a horror story in which a scientist invented something he regretted, I think I would use a similar method.'
Frank shuddered and glanced apologetically at the Creature. Walton wasn't always the most tactful dinner guest. The sailor, sensing tension (such an intuitive chap in more than just colour), leaned over to the Captain. 'Have more chips, Walton, please do'.
So he did.