Puzzle time


Facebook is a strange place for all sorts of reasons – some good, some less so. You can, for example, find out which 18th century politician, Renaissance painter, or Jane Austen character you most resemble just by answering a few questions. Really useful, eh? Other questions help you decide whether you’re a porcupine, a swallow-tailed butterfly, or a haddock. Some ask you to combine the name of a relative with the make of car you drive to reveal what you’d be called if you were in a Quentin Tarantino movie. And they’re all part of the daily reality of millions of people.


One of those transmigrations happened to me recently when, by giving the wrong answer to a puzzle, instead of remaining the small wooden grotesque which my mugshot identified me as, I had to become a llama for a day. I asked my nephew, Joe, to draw the animal for me and he did a great job so that, for those 24 hours, I was, in fact, quite attractive.

Another part of the punishment was that I had to explain why I’d come over all South American camelid, and that meant repeating the challenge as part of my own feed. The upside of that was that it triggered far more comments than usual so it seems that Bill Kirton, pillar of the community and writer of high quality literature, is far less interesting than Bill Kirton, llama.

Anyway, in the course of mentioning that fact, I suggested I might concoct some puzzles of my own. I don’t mean those in which men have to row wolves, foxes, chickens, goats, sacks of grain and the latest iphone across a river one at a time without any of those still on the banks eating one another or stealing the man’s bank account details. They’re too easy. I prefer the type which only have an answer when the responder provides one that fits.

As writers and readers, we use words to create our worlds, our truths. Faced with extremes of any sort, including absurdity, our impulse is to explain them, bring them under control, impose some order, try to make them make sense. And that’s exactly what the sort of puzzles I’m talking about demand of us. The writer provides the text, the reader analyses it and gives it coherence. So here’s an example of the sort of thing I mean. All you have to do is tell me what’s going on in this scenario.

A man is carrying a yellow box very carefully. He walks up to a cottage door and knocks. The door is answered by a teenage girl with dreadlocks. Over her scruffy clothes she’s wearing a spotless white apron. She keeps her hands behind her back as they talk.
‘Is Marie-Louise in?’ says the man, ‘I brought this for her’.
‘Let’s see,’ says the girl.
The man opens the box and holds it towards her. She looks inside. It’s empty.
‘They’re all asleep,’ she says. ‘You can’t come in.’
She closes the door. The man takes off his shoes, puts them inside the box, leaves it on the doorstep, and walks away.

A hat

I’m offering two of my ebooks as prizes: one for what I judge to be the most inventive, entertaining (or some other adjective) explanation; the other to the person whose name will be picked out of a hat (see picture). So if there’s only one response, that person will get two books, two responders will get one each, and if there are no responses at all, I’ll cry, sulk a lot, drop-kick puppies and kittens over fences and join UKIP because I hate everybody.



  1. After the man leaves she places the blood-stained knife on the hall table and opens the door again. She peers into the box. “hmm,” she says, “he must think I’m Cinderella.” She thinks for a moment then reaches into the box and replaces her bloodstained slippers with the shoes. Closing the door she waits until she hears the latch click shut and then runs after him. With a bit of luck her family won’t be found until the smell becomes too bad, and by that time she will be far away.

  2. Donnissimo_17 Reloaded
    Sibelius’ second symphony: sonorous, inspiring and puzzling by turns. A sequence comprising blaring brass, beautiful elegant dance music, long sections which seem to make no sense unless one holds fast to the mental image of the glittering enigmatic surface of a lake in the far north Finnish wilderness, and those heart-rendingly elegaic passages on bassoon.

    My review for Wireless World Reloaded was going pretty well. I’d managed to shoehorn in a few references to thermionic valve technology, RCA’s new /old K66 and the fabled Svetlana K88, along with many complex and arcane equations culled from the classic Radionics Design Handbook 4th Edition by Langford-Smith, which would be guaranteed to please the most eclectic readership.

    But what was this? I hastily scanned and re-scanned the dog-eared score. No, there was definitely no ostinato de’ timpani battering in at this point! Had I been missing something in this familiar masterpiece all those many years of solitary study, hiding away in my ancient dwelling below the Shelterstone cave in the Scottish mountains? Still less could this dreadful cacophanous carillon of facile and ridiculous tunelets be part of the oeuvre of the master! Heavens, it wasn’t even in the right key! I tried relating the extraneata to inaudible roots inferrable from random selections of lower harmonics, then i imagined a series of tritone substitutions as a counter-threnody of the fifteenth order, but nothing made either sense or meaningful post-Coltrane chaos …

    Realisation dawned. Some idiot was knocking at the door, ringing the doorbell, shouting rudely. Peering through an adjacent arrowslit or Archimedian balistraria, I caught sight of a familiar figure with screen idol looks, his duelling scars glinting strangely in the distant glare from the latest nuked windfarm.

    “Why, DI Kirton”. I exclaimed, “Welcome to my humble Adobe. I sincerely hope you’re not back to enquire about the Sardinian Engine matter.”

    The ace detective (for it was he) stumbled through the doorway, barely fracturing the doorframe with his forehead and elbows, shook off a portion of roadmud approximating to the mass, morphology and glaucous viscosity of a post-4×4 armadillo on my prized Isfahan Seirafian silk carpet from B&Q, and dumped his £1000 Boss Manbag unceremoniously on my Louise XIV sofa made in China with an audible expression of French-accented distaste.

    “Pfffschutte, Donnissimo17_Reloaded Numero Dix-Sept! I was just passing by on one of my occasional forays into the sticks in search of browseable WiFi passwords, and viola, see what I found in your front pathway! Two cardboard cutouts of persons respectively male and female and bearing a mild resemblance to yourself, I deduce perhaps your parents? J’espère que you haven’t chucked them out encore, bien sûr cette fois in facsimile?”

    “Most peculiar, my old chum,” I responded, pouring out an energetic slug of Le Kirton’s favourite tipple, Chasse Spleen 2003, before turning to examine the evidence.

    …”Hmm, you will no doubt be familiar with the ancient practice of Origami-Pro, Detective-Inspecteur? And perhaps the topographical conundrum of the octagonal Baptistry of Florence will not be entirely foreign to your mental callisthenic workpractices postprandial or otherwise diurnally heterocyclical? The reason of course is that according to Rovelli and others, Dante himself used the Baptistry not only as a model for the circles of the blessed and the damned but for the very fabric of the universe, and it turns out, according to the latest equations, that indeed the poet’s description of spheres enclosing each other coterminously may be translated into a mathematical concept of the universe which is finite yet unbounded. Known to the cognacoscenti as a 3-Sphere. Thus it seems that in certain circles a pair of topological leather trousers can seamlessly metamorphose into the equivalent of a non-Euclidean handbag.”

    “But turning our attention to these cardboard cutouts in hand, mon vieux,” I said, “do you notice these sharp creases across the material, some evidently designed to be bent inwards, others in the contrary direction? Perhaps with a little thought and manipulation… yes, that’s it, we have an octagonal box, and… indeed, a lid to boot. This, you see, is a representation of the Cosmos. Although apparently empty, in fact is contains neither time nor space. Such, mon ami, is Quantum Gravity.”

    “I must say,” said D I Kirton, enunciating the words carefully (for the Chasse Spleen was already working its magic), “you are a most exceptionally brilliant person, Donnissimo#17, and if I ever write a book I shall probably try to remember to give you an autographed copy, peut-etre.”

    Great, “I mentioned”, and maybe you wouldn’t mind giving me some lessons in punctuation one of these days? “But meantime, I’d be greatful if you’d pass the parcel to my cousin Findo Gask, who lives not far away. See, when the celestial music stops, the one with the box has to stand the rest of the family a drink. And we are many, to say nothing of various. Watch out for my niece Marie-Louise, though. She’s a dab hand with the Kinellar spiky truncheonio, a favourite instrument of witty banter hereabouts. Just don’t argue with her if she’s wearing her butchery apron, she’ll probably have stunned her parents again.”

    It had been a pleasant interlude, but I had a review to finish, and that bloody radioactive mud was interfering with my pentodes to the considerable subversion of The Swan of Tuonela. Mind you, as my faithful hound Coco suggested later, Sibelius spiked with vintage Cream, what’s not to like?

    DI Kirton staggered off into the glowing night. As I closed the door I noticed that the box was already beginning to turn yellow from the effects of the background radiation, and I could see his size 16 crepe-soled police-issue shoes steaming crisply.


    A man is carrying a yellow box very carefully. He walks up to a cottage door and knocks. The door is answered by a teenage girl with dreadlocks. Over her scruffy clothes she’s wearing a spotless white apron. She keeps her hands behind her back as they talk.
    ‘Is Marie-Louise in?’ says the man, ‘I brought this for her’.
    ‘Let’s see,’ says the girl.
    The man opens the box and holds it towards her. She looks inside. It’s empty.
    ‘They’re all asleep,’ she says. ‘You can’t come in.’
    She closes the door. The man takes off his shoes, puts them inside the box, leaves it on the doorstep, and walks away.

    1. Bravo, Maestro. It’s an honour to receive such an erudite response. Your firmly-anchored shamanic instincts and insights illuminate yet again my own inadequate linguistic gropings. Indeed, given the Hegelian preference for meso-morphic declinations of syntactical variables, dysfunctional paradigms of primordial recession are endemic in any coherent lexis of digressive para-semantic modalities. I therefore concur with and accept the judgement of a reviewer who once said of my work, ‘semiological interpretation of intertextual anomalies necessarily engenders a phenomenological disassociation which is, in its constituent elements, crap’.

  3. The trouble with Marie-Louise, he thought as he walked away was she was never allegedly ‘in’.And when she was she was as empty-headed as the box. Yellow for cowardice, empty for her brain and his departure as abrupt as hers had been.
    Now he had to hope the dreadlocked, clean aproned Marie-Louise would remember his visit when the magic mushroomed soup she had undoubtedly been supping wore off.
    And understand the significance.

  4. Far too clever for me. I’ll need to read it several times and even then I’ll be bottom of the class. Slinks off in disgust, muttering, “Damn that Donnie Ross, he’s done it again. Proved he’s cleverer than me, but then, everyone’s cleverer than me, even that Bill Kirton!”

      1. Not libellous when it’s complimentary ie you’re cleverer than I am. I think I want damages because I evidently have a smaller brain! Anyway, people with small brains never have any money. Don’t forget to pop a pond in my begging bowl on your way out!

  5. Hmm, sez Coco, down & outright anthropopomorphocentricism for people to assume, Uncle Donnissimo, that you do all the work and I merely have to contend with endless left-over turkey sandwiches. Whereas there I am up to all hours reading up on 1940’s tubology, learning my lines for roles as your murderous cousin Marie-louise, struggling into the dreadlocks wig and fishnet tights to double as Bill’s “research student”, putting up with earnest discussions about loop quantum gravity over the liquid sodium plasma-cooler in Bill’s Quantum Shed, managing to smuggle death-defying neologogogochjimmyisms into de effing convasashun at every pissable importunity and all you do is get the blame and the plaudits and the phone nummers from young wimmin. It ain’t right, bruv. Fortunate, you do make a killer Pedigree Chum Biriani.

  6. When Marie-Louise wakes up the girl with the dreadlocks and the white apron tells her a man came to see her. “He left a box for you.”
    “What’s in it?” asks Marie-Louise. “Where is it?”
    “Nothing’s in it. It’s on the doorstep.”
    Marie-Lousie opens the door and grabs the box. She brings it inside and lifts the lid. Stares in surprise at the few tatty strips of leather. The girl with the dreadlocks peers over Marie-Lousie’s shoulder then lets out a scream.
    “Shut the lid. Get that box out of here, now.”
    But it was too late.

    1. Now that’s a tease, Mary. I’m intrigued. Why the extreme reaction to the strips of leather? What’s their secret? Why was it too late? What were the relationships which led to this crisis? You’ve set up even more ‘what happened next?’ questions than I did.

  7. Ah, I know what’s going on here. Need to do a few other things first but… Coming up soon.
    Wonderful drawing, Joe. I love it.

      1. Making Her Happy

        After 25 years of marriage Marie-Louise told Patrick she wanted a divorce. Not only did she not love him anymore, she’d also stopped liking him. He was devastated, didn’t see it coming. Sure, she nagged him all the time, about being late, about ruining her freshly mopped floor with his muddy shoes, but that’s part of any marriage, he thought. It comes with the territory.

        At her request he left their cottage and moved into a small apartment. There he lay awake every night, thinking about what had gone wrong. All he’d ever wanted was to make her happy but apparently he’d failed. He should have supported her more with their unmanageable 16 year old daughter Skeeter who usually dressed in scruffy clothes and had an awful hairdo called dreadlocks. He shouldn’t have worked so many late hours. He should have taken his shoes off at home and left them on the doormat as Marie-Louise requested so often. Ringing the doorbell with flowers in his hand wouldn’t help much. He had to think of something better.

        ‘Marie-Louise, all I want is to make you happy,’ he practised in front of the mirror. ‘I bought this box for you, in your favourite colour. It’s empty, just tell me what you want from me and I’ll put it inside.’ He hesitated for a moment, not sure if his approach would turn out well. ‘It’s symbolic, of course,’ he went on. ‘It’s…’
        Not knowing what to say any more he put on his shoes, put the box on the passenger’s seat in his car and drove to the cottage.

        The door was answered by Skeeter. He noticed she was wearing Marie-Louise’s white apron.
        ‘Is mom in?’ Patrick said. ‘I brought this for her.’
        ‘Let’s see,’ Skeeter said.
        Patrick opened the box and held it towards her. She looked inside. ‘Yeah right, dad, whatever. Anyway, they’re all asleep, you can’t come in.’ She closed the door.

        Patrick stared at the door for a while. Something strange was going on. Marie-Louise would never allow Skeeter to wear her precious apron. And that smell, the cigarette she was holding behind her back, was it marijuana? Marie-Louise hadn’t noticed? She was asleep, in the middle of the day?
        He raised his hand to knock again, but then it dawned on him. The doormat, shoes. He’d seen a pair of shoes on the doormat. Unknown shoes, black leather, male.
        He looked at the box. ‘All I wanted was to make you happy,’ he mumbled. He put the box on the ground, took off his shoes and put them inside, left it on the doorstep and walked away.

        1. My faith was rewarded. Yet another example of how, with so few words, you conjure up characters and situations that are totally believable. With great economy, your stories always suggest that, under the surface, all sorts of passions and complexities and other stories are lurking. Brilliant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.