Dr Tom Masters

Hohum the Hohum

Once upon a time there was a lake, which could (although somewhat romantically, perhaps) be described as a mirror lying on its back, framed by a range of green, rolling hills. On the banks of this lake there was a hole, and in this hole there lived a hohum. Now hohums bear a marked similarity to water rats but are, let me assure you, completely different. For one thing they walk around on their hind legs, and for another they speak a beautiful language which sounds very much like ancient Greek, but not quite. Anyway, this particular hohum was a very hole-proud hohum (some would say neurotic, but then people can be cruel) who had the great misfortune of being named after his species: Hohum the hohum. This, as you may imagine, caused him a certain amount of grief during his school days, and was the reason why he had such a troubled relationship with his mother. The oddness of his name notwithstanding, Hohum liked to think of himself as a sociable creature, who would, if other people weren't so terribly messy, have had a lot of friends.

One exceptionally fine autumn morning, at 8:35 precisely, Hohum carefully closed the door to his hole behind him and held his handkerchief to his nose. This fastidious custom, which the young squirrels always found extremely amusing, was intended to prevent any noxious vapours from offending his delicate nostrils. Unfortunately, the handkerchief was rather large, with the result that he couldn't really see where he was going. And so, as he set out on his walk, he accidentally trod on a passing mushroom.

"Ouch!" cried the mushroom.

"Watch where you're going," snapped Hohum, irritably. Then it occurred to him that he might actually be the one in the wrong and, taking the handkerchief from his face, said, "Terribly sorry, my fault." If he was hoping that this sincere apology was going to placate the mushroom, then he was very much mistaken. Mushrooms are tetchy at the best of times, and the situation wasn't help by the fact that the mushroom in question didn't speak his language and thus couldn't understand a word he was saying.

"No, no, sorry, s-o-rry!" spluttered Hohum as the mushroom began to hit him with her handbag. To make matters worse, a young red squirrel, who had been watching the whole incident from a low branch of a nearby tree, began to laugh and throw acorns. Piqued, flustered, and decidedly bruised, Hohum stuffed the handkerchief into his coat pocket and, with unthinking haste, scampered off as fast as his little rodent legs could carry him.

It was only when he was a safe distance away that Hohum allowed himself to pause for breath. That mushroom was very rude, he thought; after all he had apologised! And as for that young squirrel… Not for the first time that week he wondered what the neighbourhood was coming to. He muttered away to himself as he walked on, eyes firmly fixed on the ground lest he tread on any suspicious looking 'leaves'. The incident had really upset him, and he was pondering whether he ought to write to the council, when a sound made him look up sharply. It had been a rustling sound, the sort of sound which might have been made by a gang of hostile mushrooms plotting some fiendish act of vengeance. Hohum looked around frantically, but he couldn't see any fierce fungi leering from the shadows. Nor, for that matter, did he know where he was.

As a rule, Hohum liked his day to run to an elegantly balanced timetable. He would rise with the sun and immediately undertake a punishing regime of sit-ups. Then, before a simple breakfast of nuts and berries, he would scrub the skirting boards, dust his feather duster, and lovingly inspect his prized blue and white china collection. After his repast, and a freezing cold shower, he would dress in his immaculate tweed suit, and then go for his morning constitutional, the route of said constitutional never varying from one day to the next. However, rather than being the benign, wide pathway of custom, the familiar lake still in sight, Hohum found himself in the middle of a particularly menacing looking wood. Gnarled trees, which, to his horror, clearly hadn't been washed in ages, twisted their way up to an ominously heavy sky. An involuntary shudder passed down Hohum's spine, and he drew his coat tightly around himself for comfort.

"It's alright, Hohum old son," he said to himself, his voice sounding shriller than he would have liked. "Just keep walking…" He stepped forward gingerly, and let out a yelp when he cracked a twig. Try as he might he couldn't rid himself of the feeling that he was being watched. The bark of the unwashed trees seemed to form grubby faces, and the tips of the trees' knotted branches looked like filthy hands reaching out to touch him.
"Oh," he moaned at the notion of them soiling his beautifully kempt suit. It was at that moment that the ground gave way beneath him, and the thought of unhygienic trees became immaterial.

Hohum fell for what felt like ages. At first, his fear had been overtaken by his annoyance at feeling his trousers being torn by what he hoped was nothing more sinister than a particularly spiky root. Just back from the cleaners too, he thought as he tumbled through the darkness, bumping and thumping against the sides of the tunnel, down and down and down… Once his annoyance had subsided, and he had resigned himself to looking a complete peasant, the delayed pang of fear stabbed him in the stomach, the said organ temporarily relocated somewhere near his throat. He was clearly falling into someone's home, a set, or a den, or something like that, and whilst the tunnel was too narrow to be the entrance to a dragon's lair, whoever lived at the bottom might still have very sharp teeth.

Finally he landed with a heavy bump on what, to his surprise, felt like plush carpet. Hohum sat up and rubbed his head. He hadn't felt this groggy since his brother Dennis had tricked him into getting drunk on their Aunt Bernice's elderberry sherry when he was twelve.

"Where am I?" he said out loud. Then he noticed a crack of light some few feet from where he was sitting. It must be a door, he thought. Carefully he got to his feet and made his way cautiously over to it. As he got nearer he could hear voices talking in a strange language which might have been fox, but was in fact rabbit.

"I tell ya, I didn't hear nothin', woman," said a low, gravelly voice, and although Hohum couldn't understand the words, he took an instinctive dislike to the speaker.

"I could hear it and I was in the kitchen! Mon dieu, Geoffrey! Stop chewing that tobacco and clean the wax out of your ears!" This voice was lighter, probably female, and, although Hohum couldn't be sure, appeared to have a different accent. He crept nearer to the light, and peered into the room. An obese rabbit in a grubby string vest was sitting in a faded, chintz armchair, chewing nonchalantly and periodically belching. Standing in a doorway on the far side of the room, and in complete contrast to the slovenly gargantuan, was a tall, bony rabbit, wearing an apron and holding a large carving knife in her right hand paw. Strangely the pair looked familiar. Hohum was sure that he hadn't seen them before, and yet he felt certain that he recognised them from somewhere. But where? Before Hohum could figure it out he felt an untimely tickle in his nose.

"Ah-ah-ah-CHOO!" The sneeze exploded into the living room.

"You heard that, I trust?" said the female rabbit.

"Course I heard that, woman," said the male rabbit, "I'm not deaf!" He pushed himself to his feet and lumbered towards the door. Hohum began to panic. The only way out was the way he'd come, but he'd never be able to scamper up the tunnel in time…

"Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…" Light flooded the antechamber, and Hohum turned sharply to see the mound of man rabbit looming over him.

"What have we here?" he said, and although Hohum couldn't understand the words, the brown globule of spittle running down his chin looked particularly unpleasant.

"You got something, Geoff?" called the female rabbit from the living room. Hohum thought that her tone sounded decidedly hungry, which was odd because he was sure that rabbits were supposed to be vegetarians. Weren't they?

"P-please," he stammered, "P-please, I'm s-sorry to intrude…" It was apparent that the bulging man rabbit didn't understand him either. He simply grunted, grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, and pulled him rather roughly through the doorway.

Bizarrely, despite the evident danger that he was in, Hohum found himself thinking just how tastefully decorated the living room was. A cheerful fire was blazing in the grate, and above it, on the mantelpiece, there was a selection of homely family photographs. On the walls hung a variety of inoffensive landscapes (nothing vulgar or modern, Hohum noted approvingly), and the wallpaper too was respectably understated, with just the hint of a floral motif. Likewise, the light fittings, with their pale pink satin shades, and the nest of mahogany side tables, gave the room a pleasant air of the antique. Even the slightly tatty upholstery of the three-piece suite possessed a certain faded charm. Yes, all in all a fine room, thought Hohum. Mind you, it could do with a little dusting…

It was the sight of the carving knife pointing at his throat which brought him back to reality. That, and the bloodthirsty look in the female rabbit's eyes.
"Now steady on," gulped Hohum, a bead of sweat forming on his brow.
"Talks funny, don't he," said the male rabbit with a dry, rasping laugh.
"Look, there's clearly been a terrible mistake. You see there was this mushroom, and - " Hohum was babbling now, the words tumbling off his tongue in an incoherent stream of plaintive self-pity.
"Oh shut him up will you, Geoffrey?" said the female rabbit, "I would use the knife, but I don't want to make a mess on the carpet." The male rabbit snorted disinterestedly,
"He's a scrawny runt, but he might do for a sandwich, I suppose." Before Hohum could register the large, hairy fist hurtling towards him, everything went black.

Hohum woke to find himself in what can only have been the larder. The walls were covered with none too clean looking tiles and from the ceiling hung a carnage of animals. Voles, squirrels, and even an otter dangled from meat hooks, their dead eyes still betraying their last moments of terror. Hohum felt an involuntary scream rising from his belly, but to his surprise no sound came out. It was then that he realised that he was both bound and gagged and lying on a very dirty chopping board. He felt nauseous. The room started to spin. Don't pass out, Hohum, he thought to himself, whatever you do, don't pass out… Who were these ghastly people, and why (although he was grateful) was he still alive? Even more importantly, how was he going to escape? For the first time in his life Hohum wished that he'd spent more time with his Uncle Henry.

Despite having a glamorous career as a stunt double for a famous movie star, Uncle Henry had the great misfortune of being unimaginably boring. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that the misfortune was his family's, for Uncle Henry was rather too fond of the sound of his own voice. It was for this reason that Hohum's Aunt Bernice had turned to drink, and it was for this reason that Hohum hadn't been to a family gathering for nearly ten years. However, in addition to his stunt work, Uncle Henry was also an accomplished escapologist, and had, during the course of many long Sunday lunches, explained a few of the trade secrets to his somewhat less than interested nephew. If only he'd paid more attention… Hohum vaguely remembered something about tensing your muscles before the ropes were tied, but it was a little late for that now. Maybe if he tried wriggling?

As he struggled to find some slack, Hohum's mind once again returned to the identity of his captors. Images of the fiendish couple flashed before his eyes: the tobacco-chewing oaf in his soiled string vest; the streaky female with the hungry expression and the extremely sharp knife… The extremely sharp knife. Oh dear. Suddenly Hohum knew precisely who they were, and his heart almost stopped beating.

Whilst Hohum wasn't one to listen to gossip, he had of course heard the stories. For years there had been whispers about a pair of carnivorous rabbits living deep in the woods. Every time a young field mouse or hedgehog disappeared, people would turn to one another with knowing looks and mouth the names 'Geoff' and 'Madame Rabbit'. Hohum had never paid much heed to what he'd thought was nothing more than idle chatter, but now… Some said that Madame Rabbit was French; others that she simply thought she was. What they all agreed upon was that at some point in her life she'd developed an unnatural taste for meat. As for her overweight husband Geoffrey, rumour had it that he was a former bodybuilder whose figure had run to fat after he'd developed a fancy for his wife's avant-garde cooking. And now Hohum was tied up in their larder, undoubtedly destined for the pot.

Yet why am I still alive? he thought. Why not just kill me, like these other poor creatures, and have done with it? His musings were interrupted by the sound of heavy footfalls and the rumble of disgruntled muttering.

"Wretched woman…dishes…yesterday…not her sous chief…" Geoff lumbered into the larder, and Hohum thought it safest to pretend that he was still unconscious. The smell of sweat and tobacco made him want to retch, but he managed to keep himself still, to all intents and purposes as dead as the creatures hanging above him. Hohum held his breath as the unreasonably large rabbit lifted him off the chopping board and, to his amazement, began to untie him. Could this be my chance to escape? he wondered. But Geoff's grip was too firm, and besides, he didn't fancy his chances.

Irrational thoughts played through Hohum's mind as the vile oaf began to strip off the remnants of his once handsome set of tweeds. He'd always been more than a little uncomfortable with the concept of nakedness. As a child he had insisted, much to his parents' annoyance, that he bathe separately from his brother, and since then he had always made a point of dressing with the curtains closed and the light off, just in case anybody should be passing. Now here he was in all his glory, being watched by numerous pairs of dead eyes. Yet all he could think about was the kind of dish he would become. He really hoped that it wouldn't be over-seasoned. A mild curry, perhaps (korma preferably), or maybe a hearty goulash with some nice homegrown vegetables? Including carrots. Yes, lots of carrots. Hohum had always been partial to carrots. There was something comforting about them. He was in the process of pondering whether it was the colour or the shape when the strong smell of paprika, chilli and garlic met his nostrils and he knew that he was going to become a meal that he would never, ever want to eat.

Lost in his culinary reverie, Hohum had been oblivious to the fact that Geoff had carried him into the kitchen, but now the discordant aroma of a questionable sauce brought him back into the moment. He ventured to open one of his eyes. The kitchen was, as far as he could tell, reasonably hygienic. The cream-coloured tiles on the walls were markedly cleaner than those in the larder, and the work surfaces were made of polished stone. A range of utensils hung from the farthest wall, and below him, on the stove, bubbled the saucepan of offending sauce. He could also see the monstrous Madame Rabbit, crushing yet another clove of garlic.

"Très bon, Geoffrey," she said, her voice thick was salivation. "With this recipe it is essential that the hohum is alive when it enters the sauce. The infusion, you understand? The je ne sais quoi of the meat!" Incomprehensible as these words were, Hohum was certain that they pertained to his imminent stewing. This is it, old chap, he thought, saddened by the fact that he would never see his prized blue and white china collection again.

Geoff was about to drop Hohum into the saucepan when his wife cried out sharply, "Mon dieu, Geoffrey! What is it that you think you are doing?"

"Puttin' it in the pot, woman, what do ya think?" her husband replied indignantly. Madame Rabbit gave him a poisonous stare, drawing air through her sharp, protruding teeth.

"You forget yourself, mon cher. First I must add one more vital ingredient." She reached into a large ceramic jar on the work surface and produced a bulbous, green frog. Hohum's stomach knotted as he guessed what the murderous chef was about to do. Madame Rabbit had begun to sing softly under her breath, and although Hohum couldn't understand the lyrics he felt sure that they belied the seeming innocence of the tune.

It was then that something remarkable happened. As Madame Rabbit was about to remove the poor creature's legs, the frog (still very much alive and clearly alarmed by its predicament) managed to slip from the butcher's grasp and hop onto Geoff's shoulder. The mound of man rabbit let out a surprisingly high pitched shriek, and began dancing wildly about the room.

"Get it off me! Get it off me!" he cried.

"Pull yourself together, Geoffrey!" Madame Rabbit snapped. But it was too late. Before she could get out of the way her boulder-like husband crashed into her, and the two of them tumbled onto the kitchen floor.

To his delight Hohum found himself catapulted into the air, the thrill of release making him temporarily forget his morbid fear of heights. Indeed, the breeze through his fur was rather refreshing, but there was hardly time to savour the moment as with a marked lack of grace he landed precariously on the rim of the saucepan, his rat-like arms spinning frantically in an attempt to retain his balance. The fumes from the noxious blend of herbs and spices made him feel queasy, and a number of times he thought he was going to plummet to his certain doom.

"Oh dear!" he said out loud, as he edged his way unsteadily round towards the saucepan's handle. On the floor Geoff was still whimpering about the frog, whilst his wife, trapped beneath his not inconsiderable bulk, let fly an assortment of highly seasoned words.

Hohum realised that he must act swiftly if he was going to have any chance of escaping with his life. He was dangling from the saucepan's handle now, eyes squeezed tightly shut, desperately trying to summon up the courage to let go. Come on, come on, you can do it, he thought. But his fingers seemed locked rigid, and try as he might he couldn't release his grip. Time thickened as a childhood memory stirred behind his eyelids. It had been the school holidays, and his brother Dennis had somehow managed to con him into climbing the large oak tree by the side of the lake. Going up had been alright, and the view from the top had been beautiful, but coming down… Hohum's courage had failed him, and he'd clung to the trunk refusing to move. In the end, Dennis had had to summon their father, and the best part of the evening had been spent trying to talk Hohum back to earth. He could remember, eventually, dangling from one of the lower branches just a few feet from the ground, his father offering words of encouragement, telling him that he'd come this far, that he would catch him, that everything would be alright if he would just let go.

Hohum let go.

The drop was shorter than expected. Indeed, it hardly felt as if he'd fallen at all. The reason became clear when he unbolted his eyes and saw that he had landed on the frog. It was in mid-leap towards the open kitchen door, and in alarm Hohum dug his fingers and toes into the amphibian's warty, green back.

"Do you mind?" croaked the frog. However, its words were lost on its terrified passenger, who clung on for dear life as they flew into the living room.

Behind them, Hohum could hear the sound of Geoff and Madame Rabbit scuffling to their feet and attempting to quarrel their way through the kitchen door in ravenous pursuit.

"After them, Geoffrey!" the psychotic chef screamed, the words curdling in her throat, "Don't let dinner get away!"

With a roar, the mound of man rabbit bouldered into the room, rolling into the nest of mahogany side tables, sending family photographs flying from the mantelpiece, and even unhinging the front door as he tried to apprehend the petrified Hohum and his amphibious steed. To its credit, the frog bore the weight of its passenger with effortless ease, leaping from table to lampshade to chair with the lithe precision of a trained gymnast (which, of course, it was).

In a very short space of time the once well-appointed living room began to resemble a badly organised boot-sale. Broken furniture littered the now less than plush looking carpet, the light fittings, with their pale pink satin shades, hung from the walls at alarming angles, and more than one inoffensive landscape had considerably decreased in value. As for Geoff, he was clearly showing signs of fatigue, his fat hairy body a stink with perspiration. With one last uncoordinated lunge he crashed towards his deft-footed dinner, demolishing what was left of the three-piece suite, before lying motionless amid the debris.

"I'm really not feeling very well," moaned Hohum, as the frog performed an aerial somersault, clearly showing off. Mid-roll, he caught sight of Madame Rabbit. She was standing in the kitchen doorway and even upside down she didn't look happy. Her mouth kept on opening and closing, but no words were coming out, and Hohum was sure that her dark, beady eyes had turned a disconcerting shade of red.

What happened next seemed to be in slow motion. To his horror Hohum realised that Madame Rabbit was holding her fiendishly large knife. No, worse, preparing to throw it! The blade sung through the air as it made its way murderously towards them. Hohum was vaguely aware that the frog was trying to say something, but its incomprehensible words seemed even more stretched and strange than before. I'm going to die, thought Hohum. It really wasn't fair. It was a Tuesday. Nothing untoward should happen on a Tuesday. And yet here he was, clinging naked to a frog he'd only just met, about to be cut in twain by an unreasonably large knife thrown by a carnivorous, Francophile bunny rabbit!

Not for the first time that day, Hohum wished he'd stayed at home. He should be there now, sipping juniper berry tea and reading an improving book. Maybe even doing a little knitting… It saddened him to think that he'd never finish the jumper he'd been working on. True, the diamond pattern had been proving tricky to get right, but it would have looked splendid when finished. It would have made him the envy of the neighbourhood, but now it was destined to be merely a one-sleeved monument to what might have been. He imagined his mother having it mounted and framed and displaying it over her fireplace. She would see it everyday and think of him. Yes, there was comfort in that.

Hohum's maudlin self-pity was interrupted by a miracle. The knife missed. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that the frog moved, dropping deftly out of the way to land momentarily on the unconscious Geoff's head, before springing, with undiminished vigour, towards the space left by the recently unhinged front door. Within moments they were in the antechamber, and Hohum ventured to glance over his shoulder before they disappeared up the tunnel and out into the liberating night air. He could see Madame Rabbit collapsing to her knees by the side of her fallen husband, an expression of silent rage, infused with disbelief, distorting her already disturbing features. It was a scene that Hohum would never, ever forget.

Hohum was glad of the cover of darkness as he and the frog hopped in the direction that he sincerely hoped was home. If the neighbours saw him in his current state… Well, he simply wouldn't hear the end of it. Finally they reached the banks of the lake, and to his delight Hohum could just make out the entrance to his hole. It was gently illuminated by the stars, and he'd never been so happy to see it in all his life. The frog, who seemed to have an intuitive understanding of the situation, stopped a few feet from the entrance, allowing its passenger to rather stiffly disembark. It croaked something which sounded like 'ribbet', but actually meant 'your welcome', before leaping into the waters of the lake with a resounding plop and disappearing from view.

"Thank you!" called Hohum, as the velvet ripples dilated into the shadows. He took a deep lungful of cool night air and suddenly realised how chilly it was. Best get inside, he thought, put some clothes on, maybe even do a few rows of knitting… He doubted that he'd get much sleep after all that excitement. Indeed, there seemed little point in resuming his precious schedule just now. Perhaps, for once, he'd stay up and watch the sun rise.

©Tom Masters 2010

Illustrations © Ryan Medlock