“But Mr Pickle said he would meet me here today . . .” The man held his hat in his hand like some kind of pitiful Victorian urchin. It was, at least, a respectable hat.
“I wish I could say that was out of Pickle’s character, but he does always wreak havoc with his asynchronous attitude towards appointments.” Mature Cheddar sighed. “You are from the Conservatory, you said?”
“You may as well step in. Perhaps I can assist you.” The door opened fully and Cheddar stepped back to allow the man to enter.
* * *
“This is quite the apartment you fellows keep,” the man from the Conservatory said, glancing about as he followed Cheddar down the hall. “Good heavens!” he cried, his step faltering. “Is that . . . ?”
An enormous grey boulder took up almost all of the space in the sitting room. There was no other furniture and one would have to skirt around the massive stone carefully if one had to navigate the room. One of the curtains on the window caught on a rocky outcrop.
“Yes,” said Mature Cheddar, “it is the physical manifestation of anxiety. We won it at a charity auction.”
“Mr Pickle always said you were a great collector, and of a wide variety of things, but I had no idea . . .” the man from the Conservatory said, eyes agog and aglow.
“It hums at night,” Cheddar sighed, “and I wish it wouldn’t. Come. Tea, or whiskey?”
* * *
“So you see,” the man from the Conservatory finished, “it really is imperative that I speak with Mr Pickle before the day is through.”
Cheddar nodded, comprehending the urgency of the situation. “Unfortunately, Pickle is brining right now.”
“He is brining.”
“But Pickle is just a name, surely? He is a human person, he doesn’t actually . . .”
Cheddar shrugged. “It is not for us to question. The process takes approximately half a fortnight. It involves travel to various locations, as I understand the process. He abhors the concept of terroir and would like to take on as much of a cosmopolitan tang as possible.”
“Do you know where is he now?”
Cheddar furrowed his brow. “Difficult to say. Let us consult Monsieur Cornichon.”
“When Pickle is away brining, the Institute provides a kind of . . . loaner. He is dreadful, deplorable, and dire—but he should know where Pickle is.” Cheddar sat back, neatly folding his hands in his lap. “CORNICHON,” he bellowed. “VIENS ICI.”
“Oui, Monsieur!” The voice that cried out from upstairs sounded like a chinchilla impersonating champagne, and a shiver of doubt crossed the Conservatorian’s face. Then there was a terrible clattering. “Zut alors!” More clattering.
Cheddar pinched the bridge of his nose. “Nothing makes me appreciate my dear Pickle more than dealing with this substandard simulacrum.”
The man from the Conservatory felt a distinct tinge of unease. “ . . . What IS Pickle, Mr Cheddar?”
Cheddar waved his hands. Such an inquiry could only be answered by a tautology.
“And Monsieur Cornichon is . . . ?”
“Différance,” Cheddar said neatly, eyes trained forward.
“Haha,” the man from the Conservatory offered, in case it were a joke, but Mature Cheddar gave no indication either way.
* * *
“Waaaaoui!” the silly voice cried, followed by a rapid crescendo of thumps. Monsieur Cornichon had, evidently, tumbled down the stairs. “Always I do forget that step!” he said, brushing himself off. “Oui, Monsieur?”
“Cornichon, an emergency has arisen, and we need to know where Pickle is.”
“Oooh,” Cornichon said. “Ahhh. Um. C’est impossible. Monsieur Pickle is . . . not here.”
Cheddar sighed. “Don’t make me sharp. We know he isn’t here. That’s the nature of the dilemma. This man must speak to him today. Much rests in the balance.”
“Non, monsieur, vous ne me comprenez pas, Monsieur Pickle, he is . . . not here.” Cornichon gestured helplessly at the air. “He is, how you say, voided. Devoid? Mais, non! He is in the void.”
“Existentialist horsefeathers!” shouted Cheddar. “Monsieur Cornichon, please stop avoiding the question. If Pickle does not speak with this person today, several red pandas may be doomed to a fate worse than death. Tu me comprends, Cornichon? Red pandas!”
A long silence. “Les pandas rouges?”
“Is that really how you say that in French?” asked the Conservatorian, who was thoroughly ignored.
Cornichon sighed. “I cannot. But—I can do something just as good. I will be punished but . . . the red pandas . . .” He sat, hands in his laps, eyes downcast. He then drooped, entirely enervated.
“What in heaven’s name is he doing?” The man from the Conservatory asked.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Cheddar said, evenly. “He did not come with a manual.” The man from the Conservatory started and stared at Cheddar. Cheddar shrugged. “As far as I can tell, he is not strictly . . . alive. He is kept in the cupboard in the off season. And he seems to enjoy it. He tells me it is très bijou. Perhaps it is. After all, what is life without—oh.”
The man from the Conservatory had stopped listening, distracted—
Cornichon had disappeared!
* * *
“Ahh, very refreshing,” Pickle said, extracting himself from the lone rhododendron outside the home he shared with Mature Cheddar. “Pfft! Pfft! Pfft! Gah!” He had passed through a spider-web.
“Huh,” he said, looking around. It was daylight—usually he returned around three or four in the morning. “Am I early?” He shrugged. “No matter, I suppose.” He strode up the steps and was reaching his hand out to the front door when it burst open in his face. An alarmed Gaston, his Conservatory man, and a typically unflappable Mature Cheddar almost barrelled over him. “Steady!” Pickle cried, nimbly dancing to the side.
“Mr Pickle! You’re here! But where is Cornichon?”
“. . . It is good to see you, too, Gaston. Of course I’m here. Who is Cornichon?”
Gaston looked at Mature Cheddar for assistance, but he simply shrugged, as if to say—it is always like this. He gently moved Gaston to the side and stepped toward Pickle. Delighted, Pickle stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Cheddar, leaning his weight into his partner. Pickle sighed happily. “There’s nothing like a little time away to remind me how wonderful things are with you,” he said, voice muffled by Cheddar’s shirt. “Did you enjoy yourself when I was away?”
“No,” Cheddar said simply.
“Oh Cheddar,” Pickle said. “There is nothing wrong with a cheese sandwich every now and again.”
“Not now, Pickle,” Cheddar said. “There are several red pandas in peril because of your poor organizational skills.”
“Garlic and dill!” Pickle cried. “Maybe this will teach me to use my calendar!”
“Probably not,” Cheddar said.
“But maybe it will.”
* * *
“You had promised,” the man from the Conservatory explained, “to dance one of your exotic folk dances for the director of the zoo and, more importantly, for the plutocrats whose wallets she is trying to pry. One, Madame Zephyr, adores folk dancing, and has spoken of nothing else than your performance for days. Without her donation, the zoo will not be able to afford the medicine that red pandas need to not die.”
Pickle gasped. “What are the red pandas sick with?”
“Have you ever seen red pandas, Mr Pickle?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Then you know that they are too cute to live.”
Pickle nodded. “All right. How long until the performance is scheduled to begin?”
“Just two hours. We should make it in comfortable time if we leave now. Do you have your dancing costume?”
“All clothing is costume, Gaston, and all costumes are dancing costumes. Much more important—do I have my accompanist? Cheddar . . . without you, my dance is just sporadic movement. Do you have your instruments? Your accordion, your banjo? Your castanets, your didgeridoo? Your euphonium, your flageolet, your guitar? Your holophonor, your iPad, your jug? Your kazoo, your lute, your mbira? Your nose-flute, your ocarina, your piccolo? Your quinticlave, your rebec, your saxamophone? Your thermemin, your ukulele, your viola, your whistle, your xylophone, your yaylı tambur, your zither? Will you play with me again? Think of the red pandas!”
Cheddar smiled, gently laying a hand on Pickle’s arm. “I will play for you, Pickle. Just do not leave me with Monsieur Cornichon again.”
Pickle screwed up his face in confusion. “I do wish someone would tell me who this Cornichon fellow is. No matter—to the Conservatory!”
. . . TO BE CONTINUED!