Uncle excerpt: The Fun Fair

The following is chapter 2 of Uncle & Claudius The Camel, by J. P. Martin. It was published in 1970, is still in copyright, but is out of print. Uncle and his entourage are on holiday at Wolf Lodge in the run-down resort of Sunset Beach. The beach is plagued with biting fish called Blue Jacks, and Uncle has called on his ingenious American friend Ira Smoothy for assistance …

Goodman spent all night chasing rats and mice, and yet in the morning seemed perfectly fit and full of good spirits.
Soon after breakfast the melodious sound of Ira Smoothy’s motor-bike horn was heard outside and Smoothy stamped in. He was a short, immensely broad man, with thick hair brushed up and large horn-rimmed glasses.
Happily General Boar always had breakfast in bed, so they could get straight to the point.
“Let me cook you a fresh breakfast,” said Miss Wolf eagerly. “No, no,” said Smoothy, polishing his big horn-rimmed glasses, “I’ll just have a few Seaweed Slashers.”
“It’s no good, madam,” said Uncle. “I’ve tried to tempt Mr Smoothy with all the delicacies of Homeward, but he always likes Seaweed Slashers best.”
“They suit me,” said Smoothy. “Now let’s get down to the pier, and I’ll show you what I propose to do about the Blue Jacks.”

Smoothy’s motor-bike was a most impressive one, covered with gadgets of all kinds. Miss Wolf seemed stunned by it. At first she did not notice the small tank which was strapped on to the carrier.
“Now, madam,” said Smoothy, tapping it sharply, “I have in this tank a few fish called Tuskers. They are the only fish that can tackle Blue Jacks.”
He opened the tank and showed them a number of black fishes with pink eyes, each of them with two enormous teeth which they bared savagely as the lid was removed.
“On the way to the pier we must buy a fresh eel,” said Smoothy.
“That will attract the Blue Jacks.”
Thomas Scoffins, the Piermaster, was a small anxious man with a huge red moustache. He was able to provide a fresh eel at once. There were few visitors about, as any bather who plunged into the sea was at once covered with bites from Blue Jacks. Even paddling was dangerous. But a few inhabitants of Sunset Beach were always to be seen fishing from the end of the pier. Quite often they caught eels, and gave one to Thomas Scoffins, who unfortunately hated them. Now he handed over his latest present eagerly.
“I’ve seen Sunset Beach go down and down owing to those dratted Blue Jacks. If you can do anything, sir, you’re our hero.”
They all tramped to the end of the pier carrying the tank of Tuskers and the eel. Quite a crowd of onlookers accompanied them.
“Now watch,” said Smoothy and flung the eel into the sea. At once the sea began to boil with Blue Jacks, all swirling round and snatching at the eel.
Then Smoothy picked up the tank full of Tuskers and emptied it into the sea among the Blue Jacks. For a moment there seemed to be no result. The sea remained as before, a mass of savage blue fish. And then, all at once, a great change took place. The Blue Jacks seemed seized with panic and began to swim in a terrified hurry towards the open sea.
“Never seen nothing like it!” said Thomas Scoffins.
“Well, now you must get the town polished up all ready for hordes of eager visitors,” said Smoothy.
“Oh look!” cried Miss Wolf “The Tuskers are back!”
She was right. Not a Blue Jack was to be seen, but the Tuskers were swimming happily about, their mouths full of something, whether Blue Jack or eel nobody could tell.
“You can take it from me,” said Smoothy, “you’ll see no more Blue Jacks while the Tuskers are around.”
“I must do something, sir, to show my gratitude!” cried Miss Wolf. “It seems useless to cook you a splendid meal, as you say you would not eat it. Is there anything I could do?”
“There’s just one thing,” said Smoothy. “I’m running rather short of seaweed for my Slashers, and I’d like to fill this tank with fresh bunches. Could you arrange a gathering?”
“With the greatest possible pleasure,” said Miss Wolf, and in no time at all she had a number of young wolves and badgers gathering seaweed from the rocks.
When, an hour later, Smoothy left for home, he had a mountain of slippery seaweed on his carrier and a cheering crowd to see him off.
That evening a note was handed in at Wolf Lodge. It was quite well written on blue notepaper headed with the words Sunset Beach Corporation.

Dear Sir,
I wish to thank you on my own behalf, and on behalf of all citizens of Sunset Beach, for ridding our beautiful bay of a great pest. Now we will be able to go ahead, and as a start I am going to repaint the pier. We feel it is an honour to have you in our midst and hope you may visit us regularly from now on.
All good wishes,
THOMAS SCOFFINS
(Piermaster)

“He’s stuck the stamp on crooked,” said Goodman.
“No criticism, please, Goodman,” said Uncle. “This is the letter of a modest and sincere man. I must arrange for some donkeys to come here. I notice they haven’t got any, and I like donkeys on a beach.”
“Oh yes, sir, so do I,” said the Old Monkey.
“And now, as we’ve had a somewhat busy morning,” said Uncle, “I propose we visit the Fun Fair this afternoon. I know Miss Wolf says it is too rowdy, and a blot on the landscape, but I’d like to go. What do you say?”
Everybody wanted to go, of course.
To get to the Fun Fair, which was about two miles from Sunset Beach, they had to use a little coast railway, and to Uncle’s astonishment, when he squeezed himself with some difficulty into the first compartment behind the engine, he found that the engine driver was Noddy Ninety.
Ninety is an old man who has a perfect mania for trying to look young. He insists on going to Dr Lyre’s school in Lion Tower, which is part of Homeward, starting in the bottom form and working his way up from form to form with amazing rapidity. He knows all the work and all schoolboy tricks, as he’s had ninety years’ experience. In the school holidays he usually drives engines, and Uncle never knows on which of the aerial railways among the skyscraper towers he is going to find him. But to see him here, miles from Homeward, was a surprise.
“Oh, it’s my usual holiday job,” said Ninety, tucking his grey beard inside his jersey. “I just go to and from the Fun Fair and visit the fair with the passengers. As I’m so young and gay fun fairs are just what I like. All aboard?”
Ninety pressed a button, and a gramophone in the engine cab began playing a squawking song called ‘Off to the Fair’.
“Take that horrible thing off!” said Uncle.
“Most people pay me to put it on!” said Ninety, surprised. “Here’s sixpence to take it off and keep it off,” said Uncle. They rattled away on some very narrow roads, the whole train swaying dangerously. Ninety always drives the trains among the towers of Homeward very fast, and the sea air seemed to excite him so that he drove even faster than usual. As he drove he sang:

“As I was driving along
Beside the rolling sea,
I caught a whopping crab
Quite big enough for tea.”

“Stop that singing and drive slower!” shouted Uncle, but it was no good. Ninety is a bit deaf anyway, and he was making such a noise that he couldn’t hear anything else.
However, the painful experience was soon over, and the train pulled up in front of a gigantic yellow building with FUN FAIR painted on the front in letters fifty feet high. Uncle could see why Miss Wolf called the Fun Fair an eyesore. It was very ugly indeed.
Noddy Ninety climbed down from the engine and rushed off in front of them, his beard streaming in the wind. He was through the turnstile before Uncle’s party had got their entrance money out.
When they were inside a portly red-faced man came forward to greet Uncle.
“My name is Snapbarrow, and I am the manager of the Fun Fair,” he said. “I am honoured to have you here, sir. I hope you will allow me to show you round.”
The Fun Fair was curiously constructed, being just one vast hall, with a broad gallery running round it near the roof. There were all sorts of shows on the ground floor, and the first thing Snapbarrow led them to was a gigantic puppy made out of yellow rubber. It was about as big as a large ox, and above it was a notice: STEP ON THE PUP – AND JUMP UP
“Now, sir,” said Snapbarrow, “this is a little comic beginning. That puppy will land you in the gallery, and from there you can look around and decide what shows you want to visit. It’s quite safe, and made of a secret elastic material. Perhaps one of your party would like to try it?”
“I’ll go, sir,” said the Old Monkey. “I’m used to making jumps into space.”
He jumped lightly on to the yellow puppy, and almost disappeared as the skin seemed to give beneath him. But all at once the yellow body inflated, with such force that it shot the Old Monkey straight up to the circular gallery.
“Come on, sir, it’s splendid!” he shouted, leaning over the balcony rail, his voice faint and far away.
The rest of Uncle’s party all stepped on the pup in turn, but Uncle was afraid his weight would be too great.
“Not at all,” said Snapbarrow.
A crowd had now gathered and many eager eyes watched Uncle as he stepped on to the soft yellow body of the pup. His feet sank deeply. It seemed impossible that he would be lifted, and he began to wish he had kept away. But suddenly there was a loud hissing sound, the yellow material beneath his feet rounded, expanded and seemed to grow. Uncle found himself rising from a steep slope of yellow rubber. He traced a graceful half-circle in the air, and then, with perfect decorum, landed on the gallery next to the Old Monkey.
The crowd below cheered.
Snapbarrow flew through the air next, and his feet had hardly touched the gallery floor before he was pointing out interesting shows below.
“What’s that big pipe lying along the ground?” asked Uncle.
“It seems to disappear in a mass of palm trees.”
“It’s called ‘Blow Yourself to Greenland’,” said Snapbarrow.
“It’s very popular. You get into the tube and a wind blows you along till you land among the trees.”
“I might try that,” said Uncle.
“I’m afraid, sir, you are rather too big. You might get stuck in the tube-which would be most unpleasant.”
“How do we descend from this gallery?” asked Uncle. “I don’t see any steps.”
“There aren’t any,” said Snapbarrow, “but there is a novel way down which I’d like you to try later. Meanwhile, how about a little refreshment? Try our Snatch Bar.”
At the back of the gallery was a conveyor belt which slid along behind a number of little openings like ticket windows. Every now and again a sandwich moved slowly past one of the windows.
“One penny per snatch, sir,” said Snapbarrow. “Sometimes you get a sandwich straight away; sometimes it takes two or three goes.”
They all decided to try. It was more difficult than it looked and they had to pay out a lot of pennies, but Uncle, because he had a trunk, could get a sandwich every time.
“I would not make much profit on you, sir,” said Snapbarrow uneasily, as Uncle swallowed his sixth sandwich.
Uncle caught several more sandwiches and handed them to his party, and then, rested and refreshed, he said he would like to return to the main floor of the Fun Fair.
“I want you to go by paraballoon,” said Snapbarrow.
Tied to the gallery rail were a number of large balloons with a trapeze suspended by ropes beneath each.
“These will carry any ordinary person, but in your case, with your majestic weight, sir, I suggest you seize two of the trapezes, and these will take you down!”
Uncle didn’t hesitate. The inflated puppy had worked well, and this was a much less complicated affair. He soon found himself floating over the crowd and then descending, very gently, till he stood at last on the ground.
“Capital idea of yours, Snapbarrow,” he said.
Noddy Ninety came rushing up as Uncle was watching his party crowding into the ‘Blow Yourself to Greenland’ tube.
“Please, sir, could I borrow a shilling from you?” he said eagerly.
“There’s a stall over there which calls itself the Instant Youth Restorer. They make you look young for a shilling! I do want to try it on.”
“Ninety,” said Uncle sternly, “I don’t think I should encourage you in this mania for looking young.”
“I’ll borrow it from somebody else, sir,” said Ninety desperately.
“Very well,” said Uncle, “and I hope you’ll find that the money was wasted.”
“It says never known to fail!” said Ninety, and he seized the shilling and was off.
“What about trying the Power Lift, sir?” said Snapbarrow.
“You stand on that platform and strike that big wooden plug. If you hit it hard enough the plug will move the platform up and you with it. Then, if you should reach the top, an iron rail instantly runs out and supports the platform. I’ve never got higher than sixteen feet myself.”
“Can I use this stone club, which I carry as a walking stick?” “Certainly,” said Snapbarrow.
As usual Uncle was watched by a crowd. He stepped on to the platform, raised his club and measured the distance. There was a breathless silence.
The blow he struck the plug was tremendous, and for one awful moment it looked as if Uncle would overbalance.
“Oh sir, sir” screamed the Old Monkey, hiding his eyes as the platform whizzed up to sixty feet.
The crowd had hastily moved back as Uncle swayed on the edge of the platform, and there was an excited sigh of pleasure and relief when he steadied himself. For a few seconds there had been real danger of being crushed by a falling elephant.
Uncle stood, an impressive figure, sixty feet above the crowd, calmly leaning on his stone club. The applause was deafening. It seemed as if it would never stop, but Uncle gestured for silence.
“Friends,” he said in clear, confident tones, “I am glad to be here, and to have performed a feat you seem to regard as somewhat unusual. I always carry a small bag of gold about with me, and I am now going to toss this bag to Mr Snapbarrow and ask him to change it for coins of lower value and then to distribute them to you for spending on the various shows. Thank you all!”
Under cover of the screaming and stamping, Uncle was able to descend from the platform and rejoin his party.
“Oh, sir, I’m so glad to see you safely down,” said the Old Monkey.
“To tell you the truth, my friend, so am I,” said Uncle. “I always fall on my feet,” said Goodman, “always!”
“You should never boast about good fortune, Goodman,” said Uncle gravely. “After my narrow escape from a dangerous fall I feel inclined to be modestly thankful. Where’s Noddy Ninety? I think a quiet return to Sunset Beach and a plunge in the sea from our bedroom would be welcome. What do you say?”
They all agreed that this was just what they would like too. Goodman rushed off to find Noddy Ninety.
Everybody was shocked when they saw him. He was wearing a navy-blue paper schoolboy’s suit, his hair was a hideous yellow, and his face was smooth and red. It had been padded out with some kind of rubbery concoction. His grey beard had clearly been difficult to deal with, but it had been flattened down, and red rubbery glue had been plastered over it.
He looked awful. Uncle carefully turned his eyes in another direction.
As he drove the train Noddy Ninety sang more odiously than he had done before. The wind soon split his paper suit open, and great streamers of navy-blue paper flapped about him. His beard, still dyed a disagreeable pink colour, began to work loose from the curious rubbery glue.
They were all glad to arrive back at Sunset Beach, and not to have to look at him any more.
“Goodbye, Ninety,” said Uncle, as they stepped out of the little train. “When I see you next I hope you’ll be yourself again, a fairly good-looking old man.”

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