Henry Whinchat was retired, he lived in Kent with his long loving wife, and one day, whilst watering the garden, Henry discovered a giant salamander living under his decking.
Henry shuffled excitedly through the sun stained French windows and into the bungalow, the “Little Gardener’s Guide to the Acacia” clasped to his chest, and his overall’s flapping like a cassock, calling:
“Maria! Maria! There’s a monster under the decking!”
Henry pottered around each room in turn, chanting of his amphibian epiphany, only to find the home wholly empty, as it happened his wife, Maria, was at a private piano tuition, discovering a hirsute, long fingered monster of her own.
“And why not, why not keep it a secret for a while” Breathed Henry to himself, leafing through a wrinkled encyclopaedia, “She’ll only tell others, and they’ll only want to take it away.”
An hour later Maria returned to find her husband’s feet protruding from under the decking. She shrugged her shoulders despairingly and slipped back inside, putting her chordophone fingers to work around the screw top of a half bottle of gin.
When he finally emerged, breathless and excitable with gravel stuccoed to the front of his favourite shirt, and collapsed into the armchair opposite his wife, she said nothing, pouting her lips and stirring her tea with languid, noiseless sweeps of her teaspoon.
“When did you get back dear?” Asked Henry cheerfully.
“What’s wrong with the decking Henry?” Sighed Maria.
“The decking? Why, nothing.”
“Secret DIY? Why are you keeping it from me? Let’s get a professional in if it needs work.”
“Caught red handed.” Laughed Henry, “We don’t need to pay somebody, it just needs some patching. A bit of tinkering.”
Maria looked searchingly at Henry for a moment, and he felt that her gaze passed through him, through the back of the chair, the walls, the yellowed windows, and between the slats of timber decking, to the short sighted monster, rolling its eyes and twitching its gills in the dust.
“It must be the climate.” She said dryly. “Well, at least you’re not building us another herb rack.”
For an hour each day, whilst his wife attended her piano class, Henry would crawl under the half rotten boards of wood and lie not breathing, watching the loose flaps of skin quiver on the giant salamander. He carried with him a claw hammer, and a leather pouch of nails, and kept his wife up to date with detailed progress reports of his pain staking and entirely fictitious restoration.
“Henry’s got the DIY fever,” Maria told her friends mockingly.
His time spent with the giant salamander, Henry reflected, had been the most enjoyable and profoundly limpid of his life, and as such passed too quickly, and soon a single hour a day simply wasn’t enough. He started visiting repeatedly, spending two three hours at a time, he purchased a head lamp, and plastered the bulb with red sweet wrappers so he could even crawl under the decking after dark.
“We should get a professional Henry.” repeated Maria, “It’s taking you an age.”
Henry assured his wife that, to the contrary, the project was to schedule and well within the ambit of his abilities.
One evening, Maria had held a dinner party, and the guests sat out on the decking, amongst the potted mint, sipping their aperitifs and asking politely where the master of the house, Henry, was this evening.
“Oh.” replied Maria calmly, “He’s visiting his brother.”
And tried her upmost to keep her smile steady, and her concentration focused on Mrs. Gannet and her rather depressing pistachio nut based parlour trick.
“Marvellous, absolutely marvellous!” said Maria through tight lips, and began clapping theatrically.
Mrs. Gannet was laughing manically, hugely impressed with herself and seized by a fit of pistachio madness. The other guests were embarrassed, looking hurriedly about themselves, the local iron monger scrutinised his waistcoat, and the Whinchat’s neighbour began toying absently with a tea light. Maria shuffled in her seat, closing her eyes, she declared:
“Anybody care for another drink?”
Henry laying still, red head lamp glaring and his dewlaps resting in the gravel, heard the commotion above. Every guest, except Mrs. Gannet, sprung to their respective feet.
“A fine idea.”
“I am feeling parched!”
Maria made herself busy with the spirits, crushed ice and syrup, she stuck a knife through a half lime and struck a metaphorical line through Mrs. Gannet’s name on her habitual guest list. As she plucked mint from the potted plant she caught sight of the red glow underneath the decking, and squinting, she could make out her husband, lying happily, completely naked, a placid look on his face. He was staring at something out of sight, one hand under his chin, and the other at slow, deliberate work driving nails and screws into the soft earth with soundless swings of a hammer. She sighed a long doleful breath, and flexed her mint scented fingers, “he has gone insane,” she thought, busying herself with the harvest.
“Maria, what are you staring at?” Cried Mrs. Gannet boisterously.
Maria almost screamed, Mrs. Gannet was at her shoulder, gazing down into her husband’s glowing cote.
“Oh. You mustn’t sneak up on me!” She giggled, some what artificially, and guiding her quite forcibly towards the door, she added: “Come on, lets get inside.”
Harold awoke, choking, to a great confusion of smoke and heat. The giant salamander had gone. Harold was overwhelmed, a clamour rose in every direction. He pawed around helplessly in the thick smoke, his head lamp drooping off of his forehead like a loose flap of skin:
“Where are you?” He screamed hoarsely.
Henry had long ago given up wearing clothes under the decking, after his fourth or fifth ruined shirt and trousers he had forgone them completely, and so now, in the chaos, he writhed around in the scolding hot dust clothed in a wet layer of sweat and grey soil. Hot embers were falling through the slats, and water too, in thick jets like shaving foam. There were sirens, and the vertiginous roar of a bonfire. Dazed, and breathless, Harold crawled slowly towards the garden.
The Whinchat’s house fire made the national papers, it was reported that Maria Whinchat (60) held a house party that had ended in disaster, after a guest, Mrs. Gannet (61), had passed out intoxicated on a prime collection of cambric, and her lit cigarette had begun a blaze. But most curious, were the events that unfolded after the timely arrival of the fire fighters, not the miraculous rescue of every inhabitant, nor the speedy and efficient extinguishment of the house fire, but more specifically, what emerged from underneath the decking amidst the bedlam.
Henry Whinchat (66), retired, sliding out on his belly, from under the ashes of an inferno, short sighted and wheezing, in nothing but his grey, mucus mottled skin, appearing at the feet of the fire fighters, like a giant salamander ambling out from the ancient ash and hearth of mythology.