By Rhys Hughes
The Tickle Imp I once explored a cave with a homemade flaming flambeau that sputtered and guttered while big bats fluttered and the waves of the sea lapped steadily on the shingle of the beach. I tingled as the shadows danced upon the walls and stalactites out of reach dangled like tusks in the interior dusk of that subterranean world. What was I seeking in that place? Why did I delve so deep? Was it simply a pleasure to look for treasure at the back of a gloomy maze, an iron chest full of gems hidden by a pirate bold one night in the olden days? The answer of course is yes! And there at last among scattered bones and the fossilised echoes of ancient groans I found what I was wishing for, a fantastic casket festooned with padlocks cunningly concealed behind sharp rocks. And whatever it held within its depths was mine to take and keep but first of course I had to break each rusty antique lock and disturb the sleep of any unkind ghost who might resent playing the part of my unwitting host in that bleak and slimy darkness. A hammer was my key! I knocked the locks off one by one with blows of savage glee and when that was done I had some fun throwing open the lid excitedly and feeling deep within. What did I feel, what did I see? Rubies, doubloons gleaming like moons, polished silver cutlery? Emeralds, sapphires, diamonds divine, opals smouldering with internal fires in colours that never fade? Or at the very least strings of pearls as long as the girls they were meant to adorn that would trail on the ground with a clicking sound louder than lawnmower blades? To my acute dismay on that momentous day there was nothing of that kind but just a strange little creature with disordered features and bulging eyes, a chin in the shape of a sickle and breath like ripe lime pickle who jumped out in surprise. He leapt onto my outstretched arm and clung there while I winced and though his claws spurted no gore the harm that was done left me rather sore and I roared in pain as I tried in vain to shake off the devilish thing but he refused to budge and when I paused he opened his jaws, undulated his tongue, and though he didn’t say much he spoke to me thus and it was quite enough: “Oh, tickle me under the chin, the chin, please tickle me under the chin. It might seem quite fickle or even a sin to make this request, to ask such a thing, but I must confess that to ease my distress there’s nothing so fine as a tickle. So please tickle me under the chin, the chin. Tickle me under the chin.” The flaming flambeau was propped in a corner and I snatched it up to scorch his nose. Then he relaxed his grip and I was mighty quick to run away without delay and never deviating left or right I lurched into a stalagmite. Ouch! Yes, I stumbled and tumbled and rolled on the ground all the way to the mouth of the cave. I guessed the demon was pursuing me but I never expected him to reach the sea before I did, and how it happened I never learned but there he was to my great concern prancing in the waves that washed the mingled shingle and sand in front of the cave and while he surfed to shore he clasped his hands imploringly and made this request in the style of a demand: “Oh, tickle me under the chin, the chin, please tickle me under the chin. No doctor, nurse or apothecary could ever do half as much for me as a tickle under the chin. Why this should be I really can’t say but it’s all that I need to feel perfectly free and filled with strange glee to a tremendous degree like an emphatically happy ecstatic chappie! So please tickle me under the chin, the chin. Tickle me under the chin.” Shrieking I fled over jagged rocks and scuffed my shins almost down to the bone on pitted stones and the pincers of crabs snapped and snipped as they sidled up to the rude intruder who waded through their tidal pools. What a fool I had been to nurture that dream of wealth so easily acquired. All in vain! Rich and admired I never would be but dearly my life I hoped to retain and so I kept on running, bawling in pain, my leg still lame, as I tried to escape my fate. But my life would never be the same again. The dawn was breaking and my limbs were aching when I finally reached my home. I kept glancing nervously behind just in case I was being followed by that impish face but the coast was clear, the imp was nowhere near. I felt a surge of relief as I opened my door and passed in before I was fully aware of the possibility that he had again preceded me, which in fact was really the case. And on the mantelpiece in the living room, dangling his legs, there he was, waiting for me, and what did he say? “Oh, tickle me under the chin, the chin, please tickle me under the chin. Alone for so long it can’t be wrong for my chin to crave a tickle. But if you refuse you stand to lose everything you hold so dear, your life and mind, I’m not unkind but that’s the truth, the facts are ruthless and uncouth. So tickle me under the chin, the chin. Tickle me under the chin.” I grabbed my wallet from the table and stuffed it in my pocket then out I dashed as fast as I was able, threw open the shed door to pull out my bicycle and it seemed that an icicle of fear was stabbing me in the rear as I mounted the machine and pedalled harder than ever before like a madman in a dream. Uphill all the way my journey took me to the mountains north of town and when at last I lay the bicycle down on the ground I was at the base of a peak so lofty and steep no one would ever think to seek a fugitive up there. Such an obscure sanctuary would surely suit me very nicely. I scaled the face of that glowering crag by my fingertips with painful slowness, compressed lips and no grace at all, but I finally managed after many long hours to conquer the forbidding tower of gloom. There was room at the top to accommodate one person only and the view would surely enable me to see far in all directions. If the imp was coming this way I would know and if he was really doing so I could deal him a crushing blow by rolling boulders on his head as he tried to follow me to the top. With bursting lungs and thudding heart I hauled myself to the summit of that granite block but to my shock the imp was already there with his charmless grin and his wispy hair and once again he had his say: “Oh, tickle me under the chin, the chin, please tickle me under the chin. Ages ago I came to your world from a distant planet and asked to be tickled but nobody could be bothered with the simple request of an alien guest and now on this ledge I have solemnly pledged that if you decline I’ll give you no rest until the end of time. So tickle me under the chin, the chin. Tickle me under the chin.” My nightmare continued and when I look back to review the subsequent hunt of man by imp around the land I shudder and shiver, tremble and quiver, gasp and grunt, and my mind goes limp. Oh horrid times! I even caught a plane to distant Spain in the other hemisphere but after safely landing in Andalusia and disembarking with the flight engineer this course of action ultimately helped me not at all for at the point of luggage retrieval instead of my suitcase on the conveyor belt there trundled that being of evil who leapt into my arms insisting on a tickle. I grew old prematurely then finally sickened and died but this blessed escape was just an excuse for one more jape in the mischievous career of the incorrigible imp who managed to appear even now, yes! I was buried in a coffin and as I reclined to enjoy my time of rest for all eternity I heard a knocking on the lid and it opened with a creak and into my poor sarcophagus without making undue fuss creeped the dreadful thing with his tickle hungry chin and he shut the lid behind him, snuggled up close and hissed in my ear in the style of a ghoul from a cruel and ancient year: “Oh, tickle me under the chin, the chin, please tickle me under the chin. There’s little room for a man entombed to comply with my request especially in a time of such distress, but as my grandma always said when I was an egg: what individuals won’t do alive they might do dead. Even your residual awareness ought to understand it’s best to help me with my quest for I can be the kind of pest no one can withstand. So please tickle me under the chin, the chin. Tickle me under the chin.”
Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.
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