a first chapter
Corny McCobber and the Mysterious Disappearance of Ms Maizy Plunkett
Corny McCobber meets Ms Jaeger
It was a Friday evening in spring. Ms Jaeger was out in the garden picking peas for her tea. She had just filled her colander with nice fat pods when she caught sight of something lying right in the middle of her pennyroyal path where there shouldn’t have been anything at all. Ms Jaeger liked to keep her paths all neat and tidy so she turned round at once to see what it was. At first glance it looked like a clod of earth that might have rolled off the cabbage bed, but when she looked more closely it looked more like a pine cone, and by the time she got right up to it, she could see that it wasn’t a clod of earth or a pine cone at all. It was a corncob.
It was not very big. It had hard, shiny kernels which were dark, dark red, almost black, like some cherries are. It appeared fairly new, but not very new, because most of its silks had withered away, but it still had a few brittle whiskers, and there were scuff-marks on one or two of its kernels. Also, there were spots of grey mildew on the bits of the papery hull that remained at the silk end.
Now Ms Jaeger had lived all alone for the past nine years, and so as not to get lonely she’d got into the habit of talking out loud to herself when she thought no one was listening. So she said to herself out loud, ‘That’s funny. How could that have got there?’
It was too early in spring for it to have come from the corn that she had growing in her garden. She’d only just planted hers and it wasn’t even up yet; and besides, it wasn’t the right kind. She grew the golden yellow kind you pick in the milk stage and cook very quickly in boiling salted water and serve on the cob with peas and potatoes and far too much butter, and very tender and delicious it is too. This was a hard, tough little corncob, and as I’ve already mentioned it was the coloured sort you’d grind into flour, with small, neat kernels of darkest red.
‘Oh well,’ she said to herself out loud. ‘I’ve got no use for it, but I’m sure the chooks’ll like it.’ Ms Jaeger had four big speckled hens and a handsome speckled rooster with a bright green feather in his tail, and she kept them in a shady run under the lemon tree against the side fence. She lived in the country, you see, with a horse next door and four big Guernsey cows across the road for her neighbours, and they never complained about the clucking and crowing the way human neighbours do if you live in town.
She picked the corncob up and turned it over in her hand. It was a well-filled cob but it wasn’t quite perfectly formed. A few kernels hadn’t filled out properly just on one side, so on that side, the papery hull was bent over at the end. The soft tip of the hull itself had been broken off short and what was left looked like a little muzzle. But that wasn’t the only thing that made Ms Jaeger look twice. On either side of that muzzle, just a little way back from the tip of it, was a pair of round yellow eyeballs on stiff silvery stalks. These eyeballs had bright, black pupils, and these pupils were flashing fiercely at her! What’s more, the little muzzle was moving – well, not exactly moving, but it seemed to be moving – and then quite suddenly she heard a voice. It was not loud, but clear enough, and it had about it a ringing note of command. It came from the corncob. It said, ‘Put me down!’
Ms Jaeger was flabbergasted. Her mouth fell open and stayed that way. The corncob was definitely moving now, or appearing to, anyway, wriggling about and rolling its fierce little eyes and snarling ferociously. Then it bit her! Savagely! On the finger! ‘OOOUUWWWWCCHHHHH!’ she yelled. She dropped it at once and stood up quickly. ‘Wowee!’ she said. She watched it warily for a moment or two, but it lay quite still where it had fallen.
‘Well, now,’ she said to herself. ‘I’d better sit down and have a bit of a think. I’m seeing things.’ Leaving the basin of peas forgotten on the path, she did what she always did when anything flabbergasted her: she went straight inside and put the kettle on for a cup of tea.
While she was waiting for the kettle to boil she sat down at the kitchen table to have a little chat with herself. ‘It’s all right, Madge,’ she said to herself as she tapped the edge of the table with a nervous hand. ‘It didn’t happen. There was no corncob, it did not talk, and it certainly didn’t bite. Nothing unusual happened at all.’
Now there’s no point in talking if there’s no one to answer you, and when you’re talking to yourself, there’s no one to answer you but yourself. So it was Ms Jaeger’s self who answered her. ‘That isn’t the truth!’ herself retorted. ‘There was a corncob, it had yellow eyes, and it bit.’
‘Nonsense!’ she snapped at herself.
‘It’s the truth!’ she declared stoutly. ‘It rolled its eyes, it snarled ferociously, it said, ‘Put me down,’ and it bit. There’s no denying it; there’s the proof!’ And she forced herself to look at the side of her finger where the corncob had bitten her. She could still see the circle of tiny, white dents with pink all around them – definitely tooth-marks. She looked at them closely for a moment or two, and then she shook herself crossly.
‘Oh all right then,’ she admitted. ‘It did happen.’
‘Anyway, the peas are still outside on the pathway,’ herself continued relentlessly. ‘They’ll have to be brought in.’ But Ms Jaeger didn’t want to go back out there at all, not even for the peas. ‘I’ve got potatoes and carrots. I won’t need peas for tonight. I’ll have my cup of tea first,’ she said.
‘No, this is being silly,’ replied herself sternly, ‘a grown woman too scared to go outside because of a cornco...’
‘Too scared!’ she interrupted herself indignantly. ‘No! Never! When was Madge Jaeger ever afraid in her own back yard? Never! Never! NEVER! I’ll go straight away. Those peas must be brought in.’ Up she got, proud, brave and determined, but she didn’t stay that way for long. On the back step she faltered. ‘I won’t look at the... er... I’ll look the other way.’
‘Coward!’ hissed herself.
But out she went, and she did look. The corncob was still there exactly as she’d left it. Even from a distance she could see it quite plainly, now that she knew what it was, and there was no escaping it, it did have little yellow eyes on slender silvery stalks and a papery muzzle bent over at the tip. It was staring up at the sky, but it flung her a sidelong glance as she came up. She tried to pretend she hadn’t seen it and made straight for the peas, which she’d left on the path a bit further on than it, but before she could get to them it spoke. She saw its papery lips move this time, so she could hardly deny it, and furthermore, she caught a glimpse of tiny white teeth. ‘Go away!’ it said. Then it went on staring at the clouds which were gathering ominously overhead in the slowly darkening evening sky. Then it added, ‘I’m not chook-food,’ and flung Ms Jaeger another baleful look.
Ms Jaeger stopped short. She was very close to the corncob and still a step away from the peas. She looked at the corncob. It was silent for a long while. Only its chest seemed to heave a little, if it could be said to have one, and its jaw had a set look about it as if it were gritting its teeth. It was certainly a he, thought Ms Jaeger. You could tell by its voice, and a certain masculinity about the lines of its muzzle and the set of its jaw, and the many other ways you know hes from shes even when they’re not people. It wasn’t as fierce-looking now as it had been before. In fact, he looked so cold and helpless that she felt sorry for him. Corncob or not, he was first and foremost a frightened little soul.
She drew a deep breath. ‘Look,’ she said. ‘Er... I’m sorry about... what I said about the er... chooks. I didn’t know you were a... a living corncob... I mean, a talking one. I’ve never known a corncob to mind being chook-food.’
‘I am not a common corncob,’ explained the corncob testily.
‘I can see that now,’ said Ms Jaeger, ‘and now that I know that I certainly won’t hurt you. In fact, if there’s anything I can do for you...?’ The corncob gave no answer, but he looked at her in what seemed to be astonishment. She suddenly tried a small, brave smile. ‘Erm... I’ve got the kettle on inside. I must get back before it boils.’
The corncob looked away. Ms Jaeger looked wistfully at the peas, just a step away. Either she had to pass frighteningly close to the corncob or step into the deep, loamy garden bed opposite. She didn’t want to do either, as she was still afraid of the corncob and she’d just planted beans in that bed and didn’t want to spoil their germination. The sun had set and the light was fast fading from the sky. The clouds coming in from the west were heavy with rain. Ms Jaeger thought she felt a drop on her cheek.
Suddenly she turned to the corncob and asked, ‘Will you be all right out here all night? I mean, what if it rains?’
‘I’ll rot,’ said the corncob. ‘Or sprout. Or the possums’ll get me.’
‘Hmm,’ said Ms Jaeger. ‘You wouldn’t mind sprouting, would you? Isn’t that what corn’s meant to do? I could plant you if you like. There’s room up there by the cucumbers.’
The little eyeballs flashed in alarm. The little teeth gleamed for an instant. A visible tremor shook the dark little cob. ‘I’m not a common corncob!’ he repeated fiercely.
‘There, there,’ she said quickly. ‘Don’t be angry. I won’t if you don’t want me to. But I thought...’
‘Thought, did you? Well perhaps you shouldn’t. See where it gets you? Plant, she says! Me! Plant me!’
‘I’m sorry. No really. I truly am. Er, perhaps you’d like to come inside with me. It’s lovely and warm in the kitchen, and you’d stay dry there and be safe from possums.’
The corncob shot a distrustful glance at her and then looked away. Ms Jaeger sighed and, overcoming the last of her fear, she took the one remaining step towards the corncob and picked up her colander full of peas. Then she stood up. ‘Do let me take you inside,’ she said. ‘It’s almost dark and I haven’t listened to the forecast, but I’m sure it’s about to rain heavily. Don’t be frightened.’
Still he gave no answer.
Trust me,’ she coaxed. ‘I assure you, I’m a nice person.’
‘A nice person?’ The corncob regarded her with suspicion.
‘Yes, yes I am. Thoroughly nice. Kind-hearted and, er, caring.’
‘ Kind-hearted and caring?’
‘Yes, oh my word yes,’ Ms Jaeger said. ‘Very.’
‘Humans aren’t that,’ said the corncob squinting suspiciously.
‘Oh but we are,’ she replied, a little shocked. ‘Not all of us, and not always, but most of us, most of the time, we are.’
The corncob thought about this while it grew darker and colder and damper and started to spit. It was certainly going to rain. At last he said slowly, ‘We-e-ell, I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ll have to just take the risk and believe you. If it was for maself alone… All right, then. Perhaps you are a nice, kind-hearted and caring person, and here I am in need of your help.’ He managed a wan smile. ‘I’m Cornwallader McCobber. My friends call me Corny, so you might as well.’
‘I’m pleased to meet you,’ returned Ms Jaeger. ‘I’m Madge Jaeger.’ (But you could tell by the soft way she said ‘Madge’ and the clear, bold way she said ‘Jaeger’ that she didn’t want to be called Madge, and really wanted to be called Ms Jaeger.) ‘Please let me take you inside. It’s warm and dr...’
‘All right,’ said Corny. ‘I’ll trust you.’ And he added with a short cough, ‘I’m sorry I bit you.’
‘Oh, it’s nothing, said Ms Jaeger.
Nevertheless, she remained wary of his sharp little teeth as she lifted him into her colander and carried him in with the peas.
The kettle was just coming to the boil. Ms Jaeger made Corny as comfortable as she could, standing him up on his stem-end in a handsome pottery mug she kept on the kitchen bench because it was too smart to be put away in a cupboard. She made her pot of tea, turned it around three times and set it to stand for three minutes, then sat herself down at the table and began to pod the peas. Outside, it began to rain.
At first she said soothing things to the corncob, who still seemed to be ill at ease and suspicious of her, but soon she became so absorbed in what she was doing that she stopped chatting and hummed a tune instead. She chopped her herbs and herbed her chops and put them on to cook. She took a big slice of lemon meringue pie out of the freezer to thaw for desert, and at last sat down to drink her cup of tea.
Then she remembered the corncob and she turned her chair around so that she could talk to him, and ask some of the questions about him that kept running through her mind. But Corny was staring at nothing. His eyes had a queer, unfocused look about them. He was breathing with a gentle but definite rhythm, and Ms Jaeger realised that he was fast asleep, in the deep, deep sleep of exhaustion. Her questions would have to wait. So she drank her cup of tea and served herself her chops and veg and lemon meringue pie as quietly as she could and carried it out of the kitchen on a tray, tiptoe so as not to disturb him, and she ate it in the lounge in front of the TV.
Corny was still sleeping when she carried her empty plates back into the kitchen. She left them on the sink to be washed in the morning because she didn’t want to wake him up with the clattering of dishes, and she went quietly back into the lounge.
So she didn’t get to ask him a single question that night. He was still sleeping peacefully - in fact, she distinctly heard him snore – at half past ten which was her regular bed-time, even on a Friday night, which as I said this was, because she liked to read for an hour or so before she fell asleep. And she even glanced in on him at half past eleven when she got up to switch off her light, and he was still fast asleep.