J Henry Proudfoot looks up from his muddy trench, his flapping jowls having momentarily tightened into a triumphal leer. This unanticipated burst of smugness has been occasioned by the discovery of a slender muddy object now clutched in his correspondingly muddy fist. "Ah ha!" he announces and clumsily holds it aloft, pinched between sausage fingers.
We don't know what to say.
"Pah!" he chuffs in response to our bemused expressions.
Mumbling to himself, he stuffs the mystery article into the pocket of an anorak drawn so tightly around his midriff as to make him the dead spit of a well-lagged immersion heater. The gurgles and groans that he produces as he attempts to pull himself out of the ditch complete the impression and we fear he's in danger of blowing a gasket as he finally manages to get his arms over the edge.
He slowly slides back into his hole
Wriggling and kicking, he succeeds in levering himself partway out, but gravity has a firm hold, the wet mud offers little purchase, and after a brief but promising surge he slowly slides back into his hole.
We lean over to see him at the bottom, squatting in a muddy puddle like a grumpy turd. "Well don't just stand there you cretinous rogues," he snaps angrily. "Can you not see that I am in need of help? Kindly assist me to exit this filthy crater."
He stands up and immediately slips back onto his backside again with a splash and a grunt. On his second attempt he remains upright long enough for us to grab his arms and, with his legs pumping frantically, we haul him out and roll him onto the grass.
An upturned, shit-covered tortoise
"That's better," he says from his prostrate position, puffing and wheezing furiously. He twitches and shuffles and squirms in an attempt to get to his feet, but remains on his back like an upturned, shit-covered tortoise. We ask him if he needs any help and immediately regret it.
"No I do not need any help from cretins. I'm perfectly capable of standing on my own two feet." He rocks from side to side and then, with a herculean final push, he flips onto his front. There is a further sequence of grunts and then, through a mouthful of grass, he screams, "Help me! Help me now!"
It's tempting to leave him there but then we'd be no closer to investigating his extraordinary claim. J Henry Proudfoot is an amateur archaeologist, which is one of many plausible explanations as to why he spends much of his time up to his neck in dirt. What is less credible is his claim that he is an 'alien archaeologist'.
We help him to stand. This is no mean feat. J Henry Proudfoot is a gentleman of prodigious girth and just getting him up to ground level has already sapped much of our strength.
Nonetheless, we persevere and soon our archaeologist is steadfastly perpendicular - if anyone who wobbles with the degree of amplitude and duration that Mr Proudfoot exhibits can ever be said to be 'steadfastly' anything.
"That is much better," he says gracelessly. "I was beginning to feel quite queasy down there. One moment longer and I should very probably have been sick on your shoes."
"I despair of you. Any fool can see that this is the main ion drive linkage from a Polymerian Beamship."
Snorting laboriously, he removes his 'find' from his pocket and attempts to clean it by wiping it on his coat sleeve, succeeding only in producing a slightly cleaner sleeve.
"You see what this is?" he asks. It appears to be a small piece of copper pipe of a type used in domestic plumbing, but J Henry Proudfoot is not interested in our assessment.
"Of course it is not, you dismal dullards. Hah! It is no surprise that your contemptable intellects should fail to deduce the true significance of this remarkable object. This is nothing less than the main drive feed of a Telemurian Hover Cruiser from the Praxis Nebula."
We ask him how he can be so sure, since he does indeed appear to be supremely confident.
He pouts, stiffens and quivers slightly. "I should think I could recognise a component from a Telemurian Hover Cruiser when I see one. I have, after all, unearthed enough of them. But I can see that you're embarrassed by your foolish display of ignorance. Please do not be. You are fortunate that I am here to instruct you."
Something not of this Earth
We should explain. When we say that J Henry Proudfoot is an 'alien archaeologist' we don't mean that Mr Proudfoot himself is of extra-terrestrial origin, although it is tempting to think of him as something not of this Earth.
We mean that he uncovers what he purports to be alien artefacts. With that in mind, you might wonder how Mr Proudfoot can be so confident of his claims. You might even, if you're bold enough, cast a cynical gaze over the collection of rusted scrap and discarded knickknackery which our portly friend has amassed and request some proof.
Much good would it do you.
A substantial quantity of flesh
Although this is our first meeting with J Henry Proudfoot in the flesh - and a substantial quantity of flesh it is - we have already corresponded with him at some length.
He despises telephones, detests email but has, over the space of several months, sent us many lengthy discourses written in tiny script on oversized sheets of flipchart paper. In answer to our numerous questions he has submitted formulas, diagrams, maps and charts and, without question, this ever-growing wealth of material is entirely incomprehensible.
What's more, when we cast doubt on his assertions, his carefully annotated stream of nonsense rapidly morphs into a tirade of abuse in which we are called simpletons, philistines, cretins, nincompoops and, most frequently, rogues.
And, as we have discovered, he is no less charming at close quarters.
Simultaneously comic and oddly chilling
"But first, I think we are forgetting something, are we not?" he says, half-glaring at us. By 'half-glaring' we mean to say that he was glaring at us with one eye while the other was narrowed, an effect which was simultaneously comic and oddly chilling.
"I'm hungry!" he snapped. "When you spoke to my secretary there was mention of food, was there not? Or do you contemptible rogues intend to keep me here, exposed to the elements, and watch me as I waste away before your very eyes? I shall say nothing more until I am fed."
We know nothing of a 'secretary' but we did speak to Mr Proudfoot's mother, who did indeed make us promise lunch. And so we obligingly drive J Henry Proudfoot to a nearby eatery and, true to his word, he says nothing until his main course and dessert are brought to him - he had insisted on these being served simultaneously in order to 'maintain the balance of his delicate digestive system'.
A mouthful of chips and trifle
"Well then," he says through a mouthful of chips and trifle. "I am not entirely satisfied that you have brought me to the most salubrious venue in the district. Neither am I particularly impressed with the fare."
He pauses to shovel down a couple more forkfuls.
"You may be scoundrels and rogues, but I recognise that you have made an effort, so I am willing to answer your questions, as long as you can avoid being overly asinine."
"Ha! Only an utter rogue would deny that this is a handheld laser device as used by the clone warriors of Epsilon 4."
We attempt to appear grateful, but we can't help wincing and feel that our position is precarious. Physically precarious since J Henry Proudfoot, his grubby and stained anorak still zipped right up to his chin, has forced himself into a clearly inadequate gap between bench and table. Both are bolted to the floor but are creaking alarmingly, and we feel sure that something is bound to give at any moment.
Precarious also because we still want to know how he can be so sure of his assertion but we fear the inevitable backlash.
We try to approach the question from another angle. Other people, we say - not us, of course - other less informed, less educated people might question his interpretation of his evidence, they might challenge the basis of his findings, they might even ridicule -
At this, Mr Proudfoot drops his fork which plummets straight down into his steak and kidney pie and stands there quivering and dripping with custard.
Gravy escapes from his nose
"Ridicule?" he says, slowly and in a deep growl. "Ha!" He adds. Then "Ha Ha Ha!" before finally bursting forth with "Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!" and we watch in some consternation as gravy escapes from his nose.
And just as suddenly he stops. "I have no time for the feeble minded, the lame brains and the criminally cretinous," he sneers. "Trying to get such rabble to understand the truth that lies before their eyes is a dismal and ultimately fruitless chore. Making my critics look imbecilic is too easy a task, I take no pleasure in it and I am content to allow them to wallow in their own ignorance."
"My keen analytical brain instantly identified that these screws have reverse threads, proving that they hail from a universe of antimatter."
"So it doesn't concern you that your theories are mocked, your analysis derided and you yourself are pilloried as a charlatan, a fantasist, a lunatic, a hare brain and a cretin?"
"Calumny!" he spurts, spitting peas and diced carrot like an overstuffed vegetable volcano. "Slander! The impudent bleatings of lesser men who delude themselves with the baseless conviction that they are my rivals!"
He gesticulates wildly with a knife caked in mashed potato and rhubarb crumble, fragments of which pepper nearby diners in his excitement.
"I shall not hear of it again!" he insists, bouncing frustratedly. We grip the table in consternation. "But," he says, and he pauses, knife pointing towards us as once more he fixes us with that one, terrible narrowed eye. "I shall show you proof. Oh yes, such proof as you have never seen before. Waiter! Scoop my dinner into a bag - we shall be leaving immediately!"
We must be blindfolded
Outside in the car park, J Henry Proudfoot makes an announcement. We must drive him to a secret location. We must leave immediately. And we must be blindfolded. We are about to receive a great honour, he assures us.
"What manner of incompetent Neanderthal wit can this be?" he erupts when we explain that we are unable to drive blindfolded. "I am in the presence intellectual amoebas, unable to carry out the very simplest of tasks! Must I do everything for you? Very well, I shall drive."
"No, it is not just ordinary string, you damnable cretins! It is clearly 'space string'. Do not speak to me of this again."
We are not at all happy with this proposal but ultimately concede, allowing Mr Proudfoot to drive while we sit blindfolded in the back.
It might have been better had we fallen in with his first suggestion. The journey, though brief, is characterised by churning gears, jerks and jolts and the periodic rending of metal.
We terminate the trip with a thump and a sudden halt and remove our blindfolds to find that Mr Proudfoot has impaled a grassy bank with the front two feet of our car. It is at this point that Mr Proudfoot surprises us with the intelligence that he has never driven a vehicle before, which is a concern, but nowhere near as alarming as the discovery that he also has been blindfolded for the duration of the journey.
All the vigour of a cork from a bottle
Awash with relief that we have arrived in one piece, even if our transport has not been so fortunate, we help Mr Proudfoot to lever himself out of the car. It seems to be rather a snug fit for him, and after too much cursing and too little friendly encouragement he emerges with all the vigour of a cork from a bottle, bowling us to the ground in much the same manner as would an elephant being fired from a cannon.
"What are you doing, you abominable reprobates?" he demands as he pins us to the earth. "Release me this instant or I shall have a heart attack!"
We are unable to release him since it is the unshakable force of gravity which is holding him, not us, but since it is also threatening to flatten us in the process we struggle desperately to push the sweaty archaeologist aside.
Rolling down the embankment
"I am not accustomed to being manhandled in this way," he screams as we eventually manage to heave him clear and he goes rolling down the embankment and splashes into a small stream. After getting our breath back, we go to retrieve him and find him damp and bedraggled and extremely annoyed.
"I shall most probably sue for this," he says. "I have suffered a tremendous shock and I fear that I may have become infested with frogspawn. But we can let our respective legal representatives thrash that out in court - for now there are higher things to consider. Gentlemen, come this way."
He stomps off in the direction of a scrappy collection of bushes and trees that border the road. A muddy track leads into a makeshift layby littered with building debris, takeaway refuse and rusted domestic appliances.
"I have yet to understand the purpose of this strange otherworldly object. In the meantime, I must have cake."
"Gentlemen," he calls grandly over his shoulder as we hasten to catch up with him.
He can move pretty quickly for a fat bloke.
"Have you ever wondered how you might react if you came face to face with the impossible? How might you comprehend something so wondrous, so beyond your experience that you simply have no words with which to express your awe? My fellows, you are about to witness something truly extraordinary."
He stops suddenly and we slam into him. We note with interest that he wobbles for a full thirty seconds before he settles.
"Have a care, you damnable rogues!" he snaps. Then, once he has stopped oscillating, he says in a low, ominous voice: "You must tell no one of what you see here today. No one! Do you hear?"
We hear and we concur.
"Very well," he says. "What you are about to gaze upon has come from beyond the stars. The like of it has never been seen by human eyes before."
He turns. Ahead of us there is a large blue plastic sheet caught up in some bushes. At first glance it blends in with all the other rubbish, but looking closer we see that it has been draped there deliberately in order to hide something. With great ceremony, Mr Proudfood draws it aside.
"This alien tape measure has markings in Galactic Inches and Space Centimetres, which are almost, but not quite, equivalent to our Earth measurements. Now, be gone. I am tired and I find you irksome."
"A Centurion Class Starfighter from the planet Epsilon Theta!" he proclaims.
We find ourselves looking at the burnt-out carcass of a Mark II Seat Ibiza.
"Can you comprehend the vastness of the cold interstellar void that this mighty battlecruiser had to cross in order to reach our tiny blue planet?
"What must they be like, those inscrutable alien intelligences that built this extraordinary vehicle? Striking out into the cosmos, daring to challenge the darkness, probing the infinite mysteries of creation, seeking mastery of the very universe itself! How can we, mere puny Earthlings, possibly comprehend..."
And so on, and so on. J Henry Proudfoot probably carries on in this vein for some time but we don't stick around the hear it. We leave the corpulent crackpot to it and return to our car to see if it can be salvaged.
And that is that. We hadn't really expected to find anything different - well of course not, it had been nonsense from the outset. But all the same, we couldn't help feeling just a tiny bit disappointed that we were unable to share in the fantasy. What's more, we sincerely hope that one day J Henry Proudfoot will make his mark upon the world.