THE MUSEUM OF MONSTROSITIES by Oliver Barton

Do you remember Charles Flood? I expect you do, that bucolic, bon viveur and bibliomaniac who bought up an old pumping station near Skegness and turned it into the Museum of Monstrosities back in the nineties. You must remember that. The outrage, the righteous indignation that made the head lines for weeks. Eminent historians, archaeologists and heaven knows who all crying out to preserve a decaying building “as it was” as though it were an Etruscan temple or a Stone Age hill fort. I suspect most of them had no idea what a pumping station pumped or why, and had never seen one.

Well, whether you remember him or not, I ran into Charles last week, and he, after I reminded him who I was, suggested we had a drink together at the Bosom of Abraham and caught up. By which he meant he’d talk and I’d buy. I asked him about the Museum.

‘My boy,’ he snorted, in that way of his, ‘they paid me to blow it up.’

I visited the Museum of Monstrosities shortly after it opened, and only a few exhibits stick in my mind. I wish they didn’t. There was a mummified monkey with two heads, I remember, a strange beast that seemed to be part bird, part fish and part dog, which I suspect was a taxidermist’s joke, a bottle of formaldehyde containing a tapeworm quarter of a mile long that had been extracted from the gut of some poor unfortunate, that sort of thing. It made me feel sick, and I remember coming away with the feeling that I’d be happy never to visit it again. I suggested to Charles Flood that surely such repulsive gruesomeness would make the Museum a magnet for tourists and a great success.

‘You’d think so, my boy,’ he bellowed, ‘and for a while it was. But there was Agamemnon and Tinkerbell, and then the flood. Could have been publicity, but what eye-catching headlines did it get in the press?’

‘“Flood at Flood’s?”’ I proposed.

He snorted again. ‘Too subtle by miles for the local press,’ he said. ‘More like “Monstrosities threaten Skegness – will this kill tourism?” We fought, we argued, we got the best lawyers, but in the end we lost and bang! The Museum blown to smithereens.’

I said I failed to see why such an extreme measure was called for, and he shook his head at my dimwittedness.

‘Agamemnon and Tinkerbell, my boy, as I just said if you bothered to listen. That’ll cost you another double scotch.’

After I’d placed it in front of him, he carried on. ‘Agas and Tinkers and their benighted offspring started menacing bathers.’

I said I might be an imbecile, but it still didn’t make sense.

Sighing, he spoke to me as to a retarded five-year-old.

‘Pumping station,’ he said. ‘Pumps water from River Thingy up to reservoir at Whatsit. Or it used to until the 1960s when they found a cheaper way to do it. Then, when the Museum was only a year or so old, for some reason unexplained, the old pumps suddenly leap into action again. Pipes up to reservoir long ago disconnected, so the River Thingy gets pumped into my Museum of Marvellous Monstrosities. I suspect it was sabotage. I suspect that poncy, pince-nez-wearing architectural historian chappie, you know the one I mean.’

‘And?’ I interrupted.

‘And what?’ he said.

‘What happened as a result of the flood?’

‘I told you,’ he barked. ‘Agamemnon and Tinkerbell escaped.’

‘Charles,’ I screamed, ‘for the love of Mike who or what are Agamemnon and Tinkerbell?’

‘Were,’ corrected Charles. ‘They’ve certainly rotted away by now. They were the stars, my favourite exhibit. Not monstrous, I admit, but very clever for the time. This was the 90s remember. Invented by the inventor chappie, you know, the bonkers one you see on the box. Electronic goldfish. Never need feeding. Brilliant. But come the flood, they escaped. Made their way to the sea. Salt water triggered something, and next thing you know they’re reproducing, spawning all over the place, and they seem to have taken against mankind and start chomping swimmers’ toes and fingers. Panic widespread. Anger. Tourists keep away in droves. Bad news.’

‘But why did you have to blow up the Museum?’ I asked.

‘Oh, that was nothing to do with the goldfish. The water got to the mummified monkey with two heads, and the cacodemons, and goblins and sooterkins and so on. Moment they became rehydrated, they came back to life in a manner of speaking and started haunting the place. You ventured in after the flood had subsided, you came out gibbering and frothing at the mouth, totally mad. Nasty bit of work. Drain on the health services. Paid me to go in with the gelignite and blow the place sky high.’ He held his empty glass out for a refill.

‘Gosh,’ I said. ‘And what did you do after that?’

‘I got a franchise selling candyfloss on the sea-front if you must know. Got to do my bit to bring tourists back. Very dull in the winter months. Retired now.’

‘Well I never,’ I said. ‘My life since we last met has been very different, but equally exciting, I would say…’

He rose to his feet, drained his Scotch, and extended a hand.

‘Got to go, my boy. Another time maybe.’

And off he strode, the bar door swinging behind him.