Foreword: Sign language…
“Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World,” said the Rat. “And that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or me. I’ve never been there, and I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all. Don’t ever refer to it again, please.”
– Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows
I am a Mole, by inclination; and prefer the company of just a few very close friends and family members – and myself – to that of the general throng. I am, I suppose, socially, quite timid by nature (and probably somewhat eccentric, in other people’s eyes…): expressing myself better with written, than spoken language; and often keeping my thoughts to myself (or at least rehearsing, before uttering them…).
Grahame’s words – and the way of life he paints – seemed all too apposite, when I originally wrote this: heavily involved in defending the village of Tysoe (in reality, three allied and conjoined hamlets) against the devastating influx of an unsuitable, unsustainable and unsympathetic estate of eighty houses, to be plonked outside the existing village boundary on a ridge-and-furrow field swamped with heritage. I don’t want the “Wide World” coming “Beyond the Wild Wood”, thank you. I chose to live here, partly (mostly?) because of the lure of its isolation. I choose to stay here because of that isolation; its utterly wonderful, large moat of countryside; its intrinsic, unique sense of community and identity. (Words I keep coming back to again and again.)
I don’t know if Tysoe really is “the most rural village in Warwickshire”, as has been claimed – it certainly feels it, sometimes (thank goodness). What I do know is that I don’t want to be walking down the Oxhill road, with a future small grandchild in hand, explaining what the field that then holds eighty houses was; what it meant. (However, I presume all grandparents have many such sad epiphanies.)
But Mole stood still a moment, held in thought. As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, but can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty in it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties.
I apologize if this sounds pessimistic (“For my life, I confess to you, feels to me today somewhat narrow and circumscribed…”): but, when I originally started writing, then-new speed limit signs on Oxhill Road – and especially their positioning – represented to me (and others I talked to) stakes in the ground; territory being claimed and marked out; nails in a coffin… – and it was hard not to jump to such conclusions. I had a feeling that, suddenly, the village (made animate) felt fatalistic and hopeless.
All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.
Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, Those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way.
But, whatever happens, this is still Tysoe. My Tysoe. And nothing can take that away. All we can ever do is fight; and, when the battle is won or lost – when the war is over – know that we did our very best to protect what is ours – even if we, and the village, lie scared and scarred, bruised and bewildered. (And never have I come across such an intelligent, invested group of weary foot-soldiers – “This happy breed of men” – as those currently trying to hold the ground for future, current, and past, generations. We find ourselves fortunate in so many ways.)
Re-reading The Wind in the Willows for the umpteenth time (on this occasion, mainly for solace…), the following paragraph jumped out at me; and, strangely, gave me the hope I looked for. It also inspired the chapters – branches and leaves – that follow.
“Well, very long ago, on the spot where the Wild Wood waves now, before ever it had planted itself and grown up to what it now is, there was a city – a city of people, you know. Here, where we are standing, they lived, and walked, and talked, and slept, and carried on their business. Here they stabled their horses and feasted, from here they rode out to fight or drove out to trade. They were a powerful people, and rich, and great builders. They built to last, for they thought their city would last for ever.”
In the scheme of things, we humans are but little tadpoles in a roaring ocean – of both space and time (and bureaucracy…). (To quote the original Bard again: “Small show’rs last long, but sudden storms are short…”.) The field, though, currently being battled over, has not changed in hundreds and hundreds of years; and our ancestors would have seen what we see now. Surely “This blessed plot” is therefore worth the fight?
As I write – the only “fight” I now have left in me… – the War of Oxhill Road progresses through its various planning stages; and is currently the subject of a public inquiry. Whatever the outcome, I will continue my story, and trust that it will bring succour to others, as Grahame’s masterpiece did for me. I apologize if my words do not live up to the high standard set by him – written to deal with his life’s travails – they are simply my way of coping, too. Any entertainment or enjoyment is purely incidental.
The Bard of Tysoe
15 October 2014 (from 11 December 2013)
Branch I: Any harm comes to us, it comes to him…
Leaf I: Blowin’ in the wind…
The Mole was old. And alone. All his pals were dead or long gone: the last being the Badger, who slept forever, now, cradled by a long, strong root of the old oak, under a deep blanket of warming leaf mould. As he had requested, nothing marked his resting place except the memories he and his friends had shared there, in better days; and the whispered “Toodle-pip” the Mole uttered conscientiously – with a hazy regret; a heart full of love; and a tear forming in each eye, like a dab of morning dew – every time he passed by.
Although he KNEW the air was changing, and dreamt of hazy green meadows and deep blue waters, it would be a while before spring penetrated this deep into the Wild Wood; and the Mole’s once-twitching whiskers now needed a far, far stronger beckoning to rouse him from his reveries. Where once had been deep, dark, glossy velvet, now the Mole was tinged from top to tail-end with silver: glistening in the sputtering candlelight like the first deep hoar-frost of autumn at sunrise. Gentle breaths could just be heard, rising and falling in time with the crocheted blanket tucked cosily around his expanding middle; and all around the familiar over-large armchair where the Mole, propped up with soft, fluffy cushions, spent most of his days – and nights, if truth be told: “Just forty winks, before bed…” – were scattered the remains of last night’s supper.
Before he awoke, though, a sylvan magic of sorts would happen: and the kitchen where he lay would be cleaned, ready for the new day, the new season. The extended family of mice who brought him his food, who made sure his socks were darned, his rarely-slept-in bed turned, would silently tidy it all away, replace the dying candles, stoke up the glowing embers, and prepare a small but sufficient breakfast, before vanishing back to their holes, at the end of distant, paved passageways. They knew the Mole’s hearing was not what it had been – once keener than theirs – and the eyeglasses that usually perched precariously on his inquisitive nose were pointer enough to the clouding of eyes that had never been the sharpest – and yet, still, the mice were careful never to make a sound louder than their master’s soothing suspirations.
If the Wild Wood was now tame for these little fellows – no longer holding dark, frightening, threatening secrets – then it still held powers over those who had been enemies of the Badger; or at least refused to shake him by the paw on acquaintance: which is why he knew he was only being a sensible Mole, keeping the small brass door-plate well-polished, and thus preventing any unwanted disturbance. MR. BADGER was as good a name as any to live under, after all – “the best indeed”, he had reasoned – and only those that he trusted would know otherwise and be welcome. And, anyway, grey as he was, he quite resembled a small, wise old badger – or so he had told himself, pulling his shoulders back with pride in front of the bedroom mirror!
When he was wakened, pulled harshly from his deep, misty slumbers, it was due to a faculty that was still as sharp as it ever was: due to an innate sense being alerted, switched on, by something more distant, yet, than the warm days of summer; but as dark, to the Mole’s mind, as a moonless winter’s night. He could FEEL it. It was not NATURAL. It was not, therefore, RIGHT. And, as he blinked open his tired eyes, and reached for the spectacles hanging from his neck, he muttered angrily under his breath. “Damn and blast it. They’re back.”
Leaf II: Never gonna be the same again…
The Badger had died content with the small world he had made for himself – his close band of chums; his guardianship of the Wild Wood, and all the various animals who lived in and close by it – but intensely angry at the Wide World, and its gradual, mechanical incursion into the countryside he so loved: where he was familiar with the name and place of every creature, every tree, every flower; and where, he was sure, they knew, and looked up to him, with equal reverence.
“I’ve become such an everyday part of the landscape, since you two young ruffians dragged me from my solitude,” he once said sternly to the Rat and the Mole; wagging his finger at them, but with a wry grin spreading across his aging, grizzled face: “that I don’t believe even the youngsters are convinced anymore by the warnings their parents tell them about my FEROCIOUS FANGS, and my TERRIBLE TEMPER. In fact, I seem to be ‘Uncle Badger’ to every tiny pipsqueak from here to the river!”
As he had gotten older, though, the less time he had spent outside, the more reclusive he had become – not just because of his declining health or his grand age, though; or his innate dislike of Society; but because the world he loved was narrowing, tightening around him; constricting and diminishing his circles of friends, acquaintances and familiar faces.
Then, when the Water Rat had decided to leave – having hung on for far longer than was comfortable: “The River will never be the same again: what’s left of it, that is. And soon, there’ll be none of that, neither…” – it was the final straw for the Badger: and he retreated forever to his snugly-fitting armchair, in front of the kitchen fire, with only the Mole for companionship. “You might as well stay here, now that your hole has gone, my little man. Pick any room you want, and make it yours; and we can while our time away nattering about our Daring Exploits, and moaning about What’s to Come.”
And talk they did. All day, and everyday. Of Toad. Of stoats and weasels. Of how much they missed their co-conspirator, Ratty. And what they would do to those who would disrupt their peaceful existence – if only they had the energy (and knees) of their younger selves! And then they would both drift off to sleep, sated by their stories and a surfeit of chilled beer in summer, and mulled ale in winter; with occasional snores, and mutterings of “Onion-sauce” or “The hour is come!” or, sometimes, sadly, “It’s all over…”.
And, then, one morning, woken by a faintly smoking log, falling from the fireplace, with a gentle fizz and a whispered hiss, onto the hearth, the Mole awoke to find himself alone. The body of his best friend, his mentor, his only real family, was cold – even though a thick woollen blanket lay on his lap, and his finest dressing-gown and his down-at-heel carpet slippers enveloped him. “Goodbye, my good fellow,” said the Mole, to himself – hoping that the Badger could still hear him, wherever he was gone to – “and thank you. My life would not have been the same without you, you know. Toodle-pip.”
Leaf III: Where teardrops fall…
Knowing he would not, COULD not get back to sleep – that now-distant land of physical and mental comfort: where, usually, for him, happiness ruled over the sadder elements of his rememberings, his imaginings – the Mole clambered down from his habitual resting place; stretched his sleepery and resisting limbs; moved the simmering porridge pan from the heat; donned his hat, dark glasses, mackintosh and galoshes (the scent of promising, fresh rain was beginning to creep in subtly even here: where warmth always ruled); selected a suitably stout stick from the large collection waiting patiently at hand, gathered like stocky stalks of corn in an old kibble by the armchair; and set off, climbing imperceptibly along one of the many curving corridors, towards the doorway he knew was nearest to the source of his annoyance.
The damp wrestled languorously with the promise of the coming season, as he quietly left his home behind: dew intermixing with rain; and, soon, too, to commingle with the Mole’s salty tears. Although he had pored over those damnable plans so many times in what he still thought of as Badger’s Study (where the large expanses of blue-printed sheets still lay about, piled high on desk, chair and floor, gathering well-deserved dust – he did not want the mice frightened by what they might not quite understand); and the trail he followed of regular, ever-increasing vibrations, then shakes and thuds, and finally booms – as if some humungous automaton’s heart beat harder and harder, deep within the earth: threatening, momentarily, repeatedly, to lift him from the ground… – SHOULD have been adequate warning; what he saw before him was unfailingly more stupendous in scale than his waking mind could grasp.
Not many days had passed since he was last here – as part of the regular challenging of his aging muscles to retain at least SOME of their past vigour – but the transformation, this time, was beyond even HIS experience. This wasn’t just a SMALL change in the landscape he HAD known and loved – and he was struggling to convince himself that its spirit was still, here, SOMEWHERE – this was DEVASTATION, an ERADICATION: programmed DETERIORATION, rather than PROGRESS, or the supposed DEVELOPMENT that had been forced on them. (Positive words, these last two, he deemed, for extremely negative actions.)
He had known that this would happen. He had not known when: how soon, how quickly. The many battles they had mounted – and gained; then lost; and then squandered: not just because of the chicanery and rapacious greed of the Wide World; the arrogance of the stouts and weasels; the uliginose, empty undertakings of the foxes – the war they had so nearly won – these had achieved nothing but the pausing of the inevitable; and it now appeared that, helter-skelter, the harrying had gathered pace: rushing fast-forward to catch up.
The Mole stood, moved terribly, but unmoving: shaken both physically and mentally by what he witnessed. He could not leave. He could not think. All he could do was sob, silently, until both he and the clouds ran dry; and the pounding finally ceased – pausing for breath, he thought: as if anthropomorphism would somehow help him comprehend… – but, as he would learn, soon to resume its inexorable battering.
Leaf IV: Gotta travel on…
Removing his eyeglasses momentarily, and taking out the Badger’s old, almost transparent, red cotton handkerchief to wipe away both his tears and the resulting mist on his dark lenses, the Mole, heavy-hearted with an absence of everything that was important – to him, to his now small life (“Selfish? Me?” he exclaimed, abruptly); but, he also knew, to the wider, past world of river-bankers – grasped, like a bolt out of the brightening sky, why the Rat had so needed to leave.
“Why! What is a water rat without water! Not just the SIGHT of it – the sun twinkling, cheekily, as it ripples and splashes – nor the SOUND of it – the ‘plop’, as Ratty tumbles from his hole for a swim – not just the FEEL of it – for me, a drenching; for Ratty, floating and bobbing like the confident cork that he is – or the TASTE – so fresh, so cool, on a fine summer’s afternoon….” His voice, at first crescendoing with vigour and remembered contentment, suddenly faded to a muted susurration: as if the Mole had run out of words, as well as of steam, as well as of happiness itself. “No,” he intimated – if only to the gentle, ebbing breeze – “a water rat must always be able to SMELL the water; sense it with every breath, whether awake or asleep. It must scent the atmosphere; tug at your very whiskers; pull at your heartstrings. Wherever he went, Ratty was always drawn back to the river; always knew how far away it was with just one simple sniff. No river; no Ratty. What IS a water rat without water…?”
As his trembling voice whispered to the emptiness he felt so deeply, the thumping resumed without warning: shaking the ground the Mole stood on; and harshly pulling him back from his nostalgia.
“Nothing!” he yelled, remonstrating with the continuing disturbance: shaking his kerchief wildly – not in capitulation, but in challenge. “A water rat is NOTHING without water. And NOTHING is what you shall become, too: you, you, you….” Again, his words paled; his exasperation – both at this desecration and its rude habit of interrupting his thoughts – overcoming his ability to deliberate. And, just as the right words came to him; just as he bellowed them for anyone, for anything, to hear – as he summoned all his strength and rage – at that very moment, another pounding of the earth drowned out his voice; beating in time to the roar of blood in the Mole’s sensitive ears, more insistent even than before: “You MONSTER, you WRECKER, you TRAITOR, you DEVIL, you DESPOILER, you TRESPASSER… you FIEND…!”
For a second, his oath hung in the still air: a warning not to mess with THIS mole. Not the goodnatured, simple Mole who tickled the toes, and gently rocked the cradles of baby mice; who told fond stories that eased them off to sleep – but (and he grew visibly taller and stronger, as he remembered the belt of cutlass, sword, pair of pistols, and his favourite truncheon, strapped to the place where his waist had been…) the Mole Who Humbled Stoats and Weasels at the Great Battle of Toad Hall. MIGHTY MOLE was back; and, again, he would not be vanquished. Onion-sauce to their plans! Clever Mole had plans of his own, thank you very much. All he needed, now, was some help.
Leaf V: Not dark yet…
When the Badger called all the inhabitants of the river bank together, for the first time, under the ancient small-leaved lime tree, no-one could remember such a gathering happening within living memory; nor could anyone imagine what it would lead to.
The Mole and the Water Rat had enlisted the mice and rabbits to ensure that everyone was aware that the meeting was taking place: spreading the news keenly from burrow to hole to nest, hall and field, and beyond; and even nailing handmade notices to the willows. Some of the animals were still scared of the Badger, back then: but his sagacity, seniority and authority drew them in, nonetheless, to listen to what he had to say.
Raising himself up on a convenient mossy log, under the tree’s thinning canopy, as the sun started to bed behind the mustered, eager throng, the Badger repeated the grave news; and warned the river-bankers of the impending threat: an expansion of the Wide World – an invasion, in reality – encroaching on what they all thought of as theirs: their land, their territory, their homes. “But why is he doing this?” whispered the Otter: “HIS home is safe. No-one would dare attack the Wild Wood.”
“Because he cares, is the simple answer,” stated the Rat. “Because he cares not only for himself, his cosy seclusion; but because he cares for ALL of us; doesn’t want us – or our little piece of the countryside – to be hurt; to be damaged; even to disappear. Badger’s a noble beast; and would put himself out for any one of us. As he sees it: any harm comes to us, it comes to him.”
As the Badger delivered his speech, thoughtfully, and with measure, the animals’ fear of him faded away, and they started to gather closer: encouraging him to invite them to ask questions, to tell their peers THEIR thoughts: what could be done; and when; and by whom. Which of them would help him fight the battles that lay ahead?
For a moment, silence fell – not a harsh silence like the threatening stillness that arrives just before a summer thunderstorm; but a gentle, thinking silence, like the one that emerges just before a duckling leaves dry land for the first time, to discover the joys of the river; or a fledgling sparrow first takes to the air. This was a new situation for everyone: the making concrete of an idea of community that had, until now, just been a loose fellowship – creatures of passing acquaintance united by location, rather than in common purpose.
“What do you need us to do?” squeaked a small voice, hesitantly, instinctively, from the back of the crowd. The expectant calm was broken; and a huge feeling of relief and even comfort spread through the throng. If this small creature – “Oh, it’s one of the young rabbits,” murmured the Mole – was brave enough to stand up and make itself heard, then they could, too. Not that permission was needed; nor bravery; just that someone had to be the first to stand in the Badger’s rather large paw-prints – and not for fame, neither; nor reward – but because they realized the importance requisite in such steps; and knew that others would then follow suit.
“To be honest, at the moment, I’m not sure, young fellow,” smiled the Badger, thoughtfully – stretching his arm out generously towards the smaller animal: beckoning him to his side. “But if enough of us can get together to talk things through; discover how others have dealt with such menaces; how the rules of the Wide World can help us; then, presently, I’m sure we’ll be able to start working out a plan of sorts. We can then reconvene, and move those ‘things’ on: making sure we’re all in agreement.”
As he spoke, several others – including the Mole and Water Rat, of course; and even a pair of weasels – joined the Badger and the small rabbit by the sturdy trunk. Realizing that he was towering over them, the Badger gingerly climbed down; and sat on the thick fallen branch instead – by which time, he was surrounded by eight or nine volunteers: some of them not really knowing why they had walked forward; but understanding that this was IMPORTANT; that their lives were about to be altered, irrevocably; and it was up to them to make sure this was for the better, rather than for the worse.
“Thank you, all,” intoned the Badger, as stillness returned. “Thank you for coming” – as he looked around the wider group – “and thank you for making yourselves known” – bringing his gaze to those close by him. “It is, sadly, only in times of trouble, that we need to come together, like this; and it has been many lifetimes since last it happened; but I KNOW we will all do our very best – each in our own way – to protect what we have; what we river-bankers all stand for. I also know that this is far too big simply for the Council of Animals to address. Although they are known for being cautious” – a momentary glance towards the Otter inviting his tacit agreement – “I am certain they will help us in their own way: especially with their knowledge of the law…. But this is something different, something new; and it will take the strength at the heart of us all to fight and to win. I can make no promises, though. I just know it is better that we try, than stand idly by, and watch our beloved world fade away.”
As the gravity of these words sank in, the sun finally disappeared, the assembly dispersed; and, with the orange glow of the clouds reflecting in the Badger’s now glistening eyes, there rose a cooling autumnal wind: presaging what was to come, perhaps; and ensuring that supper, that evening, would be a more solemn affair than usual, all along the river, and in the meadows between it and the Wild Wood. Tones would be hushed; thoughts would rehearse themselves more thoroughly than of usual – anything flippant being held back for another day – and a new tangible mixture of solemnity and hope would suffuse itself through the air and through the ground, and through the very water. Change was coming; and coming far too soon.
Leaf VI: Cold irons bound…
That change had arrived; and looked set to stay. Where the Mole stood, shaking, was once the meadow where he had lived for most of his previous life. What he should have seen, in the distance, therefore, through hedges, past copses, was the silver, twinkling, snaking River where he had first chanced upon the Water Rat; where they had shared so much fun – happy days filled with hampers of lemonade, ginger beer, gherkins and cold meats; where the Mole had learned, eventually, to row the Rat’s boat. But the River had first faded to a trickle, when, somewhere upstream, faraway, it had been damned; then its dwindling remains had been confined in harsh concrete pipes; and, finally, these were themselves buried beneath an expanding, featureless, flat wasteland. The soil underneath the Mole’s aching feet, as a result, was dry and powdery as sand, even after the morning’s showers (no dull roots stirred with the spring rain); the view – apart from the Wild Wood a long way behind him: almost invisible through the dust griming the air – bland, fuscous, parched, lifeless, flat: apart from one monstrous, overwhelming Thing.
Seeing it, looming above him, appearing so all-conquering, so savage, the Mole, as he moved forwards, instantly lost all hope. In its presence, he felt so very insignificant; his previous bravura escaping from him with each ragged breath.
Seeing it, looming above him, appearing so all-conquering, so savage, the Mole, as he moved forwards, instantly lost all hope. In its presence, he felt so very insignificant; his previous bravura escaping from him with each ragged breath.
A colossus of a machine – taller than an old oak tree, wide as the Mole’s tunnels had been long, planted on the dirt, harsh and yellow, sharp edges gleaming against the filth – glowered down at him, stomping hard, pushing thick metal columns deep into the ground; deeper than the Mole could imagine, or had known; to where he was conscious moisture still had reign – even if only in the clays where he could, would never have dug, would never have made his home. The water table was much, much lower now, he knew; but it still made building laborious: these piles the toll necessary in subduing treacherous nature; in stamping greedy desires on the unwilling land; in making marks that would take centuries to erase – if ever.
With each descending elephantine beat arose another cloud of arid grit, along with belching smoke, thickening in the Mole’s throat and chest: only stopping, briefly, to position another beam, before resuming its demonic, insatiable lust to overpower all in its path: hammering spikes through the Mole’s heart, as well as deep into the earth.
Wrapping the Badger’s old handkin over his mouth and snout, the Mole turned his back on the monster, and began to head wearily back, trying to rebuild his crumbling thoughts: mulling over, and rehearsing, what he had previously been sure needed to be done to try and put things right; who he needed to talk to; who he needed to convince; what he needed to say, and how. But it all felt so tenuous. “I wish Badger and Ratty were here. They would know INSTANTLY.” And thus the tears returned: his anger fading with his earlier confidence. “Hang being alone. I was ALWAYS on my own, before, and managed quite happily in my own small world; but I know now that a mole is NOTHING in the Wide World without such good pals; without their sensible thoughts to share; their cunning stratagems to put in place. Hang being alone. Hang… being… lonely…. Hang. It. ALL.”
As the Mole stomped slowly back to the wood – his stick thudding into the diminishing dryness with each step, with each word, and with deep heartfelt pain – leaving the wilderness and his crumbling footprints behind, he remembered his prior ideas; how much sense they made; and how much hard work had gone into formulating them; and – although he knew their success would depend on the actions of others, as well as what little cunning he now possessed – his pace began to increase, little by little, as he started to see familiar landmarks, make out companion trees, and therefore regain his self-belief. “I need to do what Badger would have done. It’s no good just shouting and boasting. I need to stand my ground and take control. We did it once before; and we can do it again. But this time, it’s on my head; and my head alone.”
Leaf VII: Shelter from the storm…
The trek back to the Wild Wood, and home, seemed much longer than usual: a growing metaphysical burden adding to the heavy beads of water on the Mole’s mackintosh – and it was a dejected, forsaken-feeling animal that eventually propped his stick against the hall table; shrugged off this sodden coat; dragged his muddy boots from his tired feet in the worn jack; and let topple his wide-brimmed hide hat, dripping, to the floor. He did, however, take care in closing and bolting the dark-green door firmly behind him; and then hanging and reshaping his favourite woollen socks on the kitchen maiden; before shuffling into the second skin of his slippers and dressing-gown; then, abruptly, coming to a halt, in puzzlement.
In front of him, obscured in the corner of the room furthest from any passageway, partially overshadowed by the gaggle of other furniture, was a narrow three-sided cupboard: about the same height as his sloping shoulders, and covered with a dark felt cloth, on which sat a framed pencil drawing of what he knew to be Roman ruins. “Perhaps these very ones,” murmured the Mole, not for the first time, whilst trying to call to mind what was behind the tenebrous, varnished façade.
And then he remembered the Badger telling him, with a wink and his familiar wry grin, that this was the cabinet for “emergencies – not of the body, mind, but of the spirit!” Slightly baffled at this recollection, he shambled forwards, towards it; crouched a little; grasped the worn, warm, round handle; and – with slightly more effort required than he had anticipated – pulled.
For a door that had not been opened in living memory, there was only slight resistance, however; accompanied by an almost whispered, momentary groan. A warning; or a welcome?
The Mole, now even more curious, stooped down a little more to inspect his trove. On a short shelf, near the top, stood a serendipitous selection of chunky, cut-crystal tumblers: all in the same proportion; but all slightly different in size and identity. He picked up the nearest one: which fitted perfectly in his palm. And as it moved, it scintillated with the flames of the welcoming fire: transmuting them into a multifaceted, hint-of-green-tinged, hypnotic extravaganza.
Through this, and beyond, he could see, contorted, as if by a hall of fairground mirrors, two lower shelves of apparently teetering narrow cardboard and metal decorated tall boxes and canisters – again, no two the same. It reminded him of a city skyline the Badger had once shown him in one of his many books. Without his spectacles – defogging nicely on the console table in the hall, where he had placed them absentmindedly and habitually – he could not read their labels, though – if that’s what they were. However, each container held a significant, stirring weight: counterparts of the glass he had just placed on the velvety cover.
Choosing one of the shorter boxes – for the apparent simplicity of its design: plain and mostly dark; featuring a much paler wide band, near the top, that didn’t quite meet at what he assumed was the back (like some of his trousers: but at the front…) – he collected the tumbler, and retreated to the comfort of his snug, Mole-hugging armchair.
The neat, square carton he held, inquisitively, was of smooth card; but he could feel raised areas of type on the front of the broad cream stripe, and some sort of sheeny ‘splodge’ below: which was repeated, smaller, maybe, on the lid. (No better word would come to mind: but it was almost like a relief map, or possible portrait – “like you find on those chalky, blue vases”.) Opening it slowly, he confirmed what he had intuited; and, lifting the supporting inner flaps, grasped the short, widening neck of the somewhat dumpy translucent emerald bottle within. Behind its white print (still not clear or large enough for his old, worn-out eyes; and not helped by the dim light), it was full, he realized; and, although a much darker, thicker shade of green than his drinking glass, he could see the liquid gold rocking gently inside.
Carefully, he peeled back the foil, and wrapped his fingers around the bottle’s domed stopper, whilst cradling the chunky base in his lap. Twisting and pulling, cautiously, repeatedly, his efforts were soon rewarded with a reluctant squeak; followed by a slight, polite plop (how he so missed Ratty…); almost drowned by a surprising silence. He held the rich mementous opening up to his prone twitch of a nose; and inhaled, deeply….
In his eagerness to light the first fire of autumn, to flaunt his skill and independence in creating warmth-on-demand in his very first, very own burrow, the youthful Mole, fur as black as coal – having mastered the kindling twigs and tightly-screwed sheets of old newspapers – had inadvertently piled the densely-woven willow basket with THIS year’s oak logs: which he then inadvertently transferred to the longing, burgeoning flames… – which then, advertently, caused them to smoke, damply, but with an exaggerated and impressive keenness: clouding and permeating his new home with a lingering, subtle smell that would come to be as familiar, and as integral, as that of his favourite soap!
Much to the amusement of his giggling companion (who was, it has to be said, still bowled over – but not finding it TOO difficult to hide such a feeling…), the not-at-all-unpleasant aroma mingled cannily with the overabundance of crisp cut flowers he had arranged, tastefully (he believed) around his sitting room; as well as a fresh pot of wild honey – its gleaming dipper spooning on a stoneware plate with the still-steaming spurtle – sitting between two warm wooden coggies of just-right stewed apple, cinnamon and ginger porridge, topped with browned, flaked almonds.
Snuggling outside, on a too-small picnic blanket, hurriedly thrown down on the still-dew-damped meadowgrass and crinkling, rusting leaves, hugging their bowls close in the coolness of the morning, the pair downed their breakfast quickly; and then – not actually waiting for the internal smog still issuing palely from the entrance hole to clear – scurried back inside for extremely welcome mugs of dark hot chocolate and marshmallows, roasted in front of the settling flames….
When the Mole awoke, glass empty, but still held tightly, like his fond remembrance, he eased his creaking frame from the chair, and went to collect his eyeglasses. Rubbing the lenses clean on the corner of one of the many blankets, he then propped them on his snout, where they belonged, and, returning to the kitchen, diligently scrutinized every word printed on the bottle and its box (as was his wont – he would read ANYTHING; and always with a great sense of satisfaction). Much to his delight, above the brandname of the now-much-older-than-ten-years single malt Scotch whisky, was a handwritten inscription: “For an impetuous Mole! – Badger.”
Remembering the morning’s events, and the determination which had leached from him in the homeward rainstorm, these words gave him back the energy and motivation to do what he had set out to do, when turning his back on the pile-driving machine: to return to the plans in the study, and find a way of ensuring they never came to fruition. “But first,” he said, to no-one in particular, “I think, another little blash of that Tobermory might just help lubricate my brain-cells. I need all the help I can get at my age!”
Leaf VIII: He was a friend of mine…
The Mole was getting nowhere. Literally and figuratively. He was completely and truly stuck. More stuck than raspberry jam. More stuck than a stick. More stuck, indeed, than glue. But, the more he kept on digging, the more he realized he had hit a wall: a very solid wall, at that. And hard. Rock hard. “It’s not exactly prevarication,” he remarked to his confidant candle, shuffling and staring at the blueprints for the umpteenth time that morning, then placing the Badger’s old magnifying glass back on top of them, again; “more shilly-shallying; beating about the bush; sitting on the fence… in PREPARATION for prevarication. If I WERE excavating a hole…” – and the First Law of Holes (But Not According to Moles) suddenly came into his furry head: ‘If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging’ – so he scratched it, hard: as if that would make things better. But it just made it hurt. “If I WERE digging an ACTUAL HOLE, I would KNOW what to do: retrace my steps, and set off in a different direction – to divert, not tergiversate: as Grandad used to say. And certainly NOT GIVE UP.” But he KNEW he was getting nowhere; because he didn’t know where the somewhere he needed, wanted to go to, actually WAS. And he kept taking wrong turns.
“What is needed is a change of tack. But isn’t tacky the same as sticky…? Oh bother. Oh blow. Oh… botherblow! Oh BLOTHER.”
He got up from the unyielding study chair – the soft cushions having long tumbled with his fidgeting down onto the threadbare once-patterned rug beneath: bearing witness to much movement of furniture and feet – and stared, absentmindedly, at one of the Badger’s sprawling bookcases. Books in piles; books double-stacked; books seemingly always on the brink of toppling. But, somehow, they stayed safe, and secure, as well as dust-free. (“Umm.” He scratched his head, again.) What he knew he required, in answer to his question, was a dictionary; but, pulling himself up onto the chair, tiptoeing, he reached for a thin leather volume on the highest shelf he could reach, instead: its gleaming red leather binding having caught his eye, as if beckoning him to select it. KUBLA KHAN, it said, on the spine, in-between well-worn, raised bands: A VISION IN A DREAM.
Fluffing the fallen cushions, and replacing them on the wooden seat, one under, one behind, the Mole pulled open the front cover, carefully, leant back, pushed his spectacles further up his nose, and began to read, mouthing the words as he went. It wasn’t long, of course, before he found himself snoring gently in “gardens bright with sinuous rills”.
The Mole hated committees (and their meetings) even more than he hated tomatoes (and their eatings). The bitter taste of both would linger in his mouth for a long, long time afterwards; and, being naturally timid, he would spend hours compiling minutes, rather than contributing anything to them. In fact, for all the Badger’s sagacity, and supposed primacy as democratically-elected chair, it rapidly became clear that the group was to be used as a soapbox for the warped opinions of the taller of the two weasels – rapidly christened by the Water Rat as the “Twisted Pair” – but only as a stepping stone on the way to grabbing power and authority for their own perverted predilections and sinister schemes (most of which seemed to be about flaunting what they obviously believed was their superiority over all all other animals). It did not help that the smaller, rounder one now lived in – and reigned over – what had been Toad Hall; and obviously equated saving the river-bank with sparing his own home – and very little else.
“And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,” muttered the Mole, between short, distressed grunts.
The Mole had known that the tiny rabbit would say little or nothing; but had expected – rather than the schism which befell the nascent congress – compromise (“such a weaselly, weedy word”) from the other members: where the stronger influenced the weaker; and some sort of sensible way forward would reveal itself – even if it did not lead immediately to the destination that he, Ratty and Badger desired. He had then hoped that the Badger’s pronounced and natural authority would pull the others along; and had been completely blindsided (“so typical for a shade-loving mole”) by the redirection, the deviation, of the two furtive, treacherous weasels. It seemed that the cottontail wasn’t the only one intimidated, then quelled, by their takeover; and the Badger – with all the goodness he held in his heart; with not one jot of space left for badness of any kind – could not, in an eternity, have foreseen it.
“And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far Ancestral voices prophesying war!” The Mole twitched – yet still not awake.
It therefore took a long time for the Badger to admit to the Mole and Water Rat that such dirty, rotten behaviour had gone on without the official meetings, too; and that the Twisted Pair had gone behind his back on a thoroughly nasty campaign of intimidation and innuendo: somehow managing to insinuate themselves between the Badger and his good friend the Otter, and the Council of Animals which he led: the two groups that should have formed natural allies now riven irrevocably.
“And all should cry, Beware! Beware!” A squeak.
But they had been clever enough – given their history; and knowing of the powerful kinship that linked the Badger, the Water Rat and the Mole – to keep their physical distance from these three, even as they snared the other committee members in their nets. But, in doing so, they had left the Badger just enough wiggle room, just enough power, enough freedom, to put his initial plans into action – and openly, too. And, for a short time, as a result, they felt as if the threat of the Wide World had receded. But for a short time only. Soon, it would be back….
“His flashing eyes, his floating hair!”
As he woke – his remembered nightmare vivid, still, flashing in front of his tired eyes – he could hear its echoes still – “As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing…” – distant, but repeated, like the thump someone’s cudgel would make upon a stout wooden door. “Tish and tiddle”, said the Mole. “It was only a DREAM!” He rubbed his gritty eyes.
But the noise would not stop…. “Who is it THIS time, disturbing people on such a night?”
“Oh my dear, dear chum, where have you been? ALL this time. All this TIME…” bawled the Mole, so thrillingly delighted, yet still – but only slightly, now – perplexed, astonished and annoyed at the Water Rat both for his disappearance THEN, and his sudden reappearance NOW. “Where HAVE you been, my good friend? I have so very missed you. It seems so very long…” and he tailed off (which moles are wont to do, of course), until his snout reappeared, instead, sniffling and whiffling, from behind his habitual faded red spotted hankerchief. “You have been gone too long,” he said, simply and quietly. “TOO long. But then,” he snuffled, “a day would have been too long, too. Too….” He looked up over his eyeglasses: and the Rat could see his own stupid, grinning visage reflected back, moistly, distorted in duplicate.
“I was having the most vivid dream. All sorts of images rose up before me, as things. I’d worked out what to do. And, taking my pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote it all down. At this moment…. Oh, Ratty, Ratty, Ratty, RATTY…!” The small book of poetry and accompanying notebook hit the stone floor with a gentle pair of flumps, followed by a small clatter of fountain pen. “Ratty…”
It was more than a hug. For many moments, they stood in the hall, silently, statue-still, reaffirming a bond long-established and unbreakable. Trust was deeply ingrained in that embrace; as was love; as, of course, was friendship; as, of course, was a mutual understanding that required no words to explain.
“I’m sorry, Mole”, said the Rat, simply and quietly: trying.
“No,” said the Mole. “NO. APOLOGIES. I know why you needed to go, what drove you. A water rat is nothing without water. I told them. I TOLD them…. But…”
“There’s no water. Still.”
“Because I took the coward’s way out. Was selfish. I just wanted to feel like a water rat should.”
Now it was the Mole’s turn to say “I know” – again. And to add: “I would have done the same. But what MOLES need is holes. And here, I have plenty! You DIDN’T have what you needed. You HAD to go.”
“Thank you. But now I’m back, for GOOD. To help. To help Badger. And to help YOU.” Something in the Mole’s expression hit him deep, deep down. It hurt so much, it took his breath far, far from him. “But what… WHAT about Badger? What…”
The Mole placed a gentle paw on the Rat’s shoulder. “Long gone. Long gone.” And then it was the Rat’s turn to weep. Now, there was water aplenty.
“I had business in Porlock,” said the Rat.
“What’s ‘paw-lock’ – a door-lock for paws?” asked the Mole, wrinkling his face, curiously, over his amber tumbler.
“A joke,” grinned the Rat. “A stupid, poor joke! From a stupid, poor Ratty!”
“Oh, I’m SO glad you’re back!” chortled the Mole.
Leaf IX: When the night comes falling from the sky…
It was a cold, spring day, and the Mole, the Water Rat and the Badger were sat around a blazing log fire in the Badger’s kitchen: the Mole and Rat perched on one of the high-backed settles; the Badger sunk into his customary armchair. Half-drunk refills of coffee, and the remains of a plain but ample breakfast – bread crusts, and the odd, crispy bacon rind – lay around: evidence of a long and deep discussion, requiring much sustenance.
“If only life were ALWAYS so simple and satisfactory,” muttered the Mole, wiggling his outstretched feet; but with regret etched into his sad eyes and drooping whiskers.
“But it never is,” stated the Rat, wearily, “when the Wide World moves through the Wide Wood, and an evil wind blows through the willows.”
The previous evening, the monthly Council of Animals had met, and – contrary to the promises made to the Badger: their saviour, the first time an invasion had appeared at their borders… – they had entrusted their defence against the Wide World, this time, to the Chief Weasel.
“I’m so sorry,” said the Mole, directing his sad gaze at the Badger: “you must feel awfully let down – especially after everything you did for all us weaker, less clever animals, before. I know you don’t care one fig about glory; but to be betrayed like that – again – when you gave so much of your life, your solitude – and even your hibernation – for us all; and in favour of the dastardly bullies who nearly ruined things the first time around. Damn them, I say: damn the lot of them.”
“Don’t fret, my little chap,” replied the Badger, soft and smoothing in his tones – not, for one moment, displaying any of the deep, tortuous feeling that both his friends knew was searing through every bone, sinew and nerve in his body. “If all they care about is themselves; and the kudos they think will come from associating themselves with the stoats and weasels of this world; they will get what they deserve – and not the peaceful time they think will come.
“It does seem, sadly, though, that coercion and tyranny now rule not only in the Wide World; but that it has crept through the Wild Wood – where my word was once cherished, was even law; my actions praised… – to the local animals, to the river bank itself. Even Otter acts like the most feeble mouse, when picked on…”
“…as he knows you are too noble to act the tormentor; too dignified to remonstrate or complain,” interjected the Mole, anxiously.
“You are SO right, my furry chum,” added the Rat, patting the Mole generously on the arm; and glancing for approval at wise, old Badger – who, it seemed, did not mind the interruption one jot. “But I wonder how many of the other animals, down by the River, know what is REALLY going on?” He stroked his chin, thoughtfully. “Just because Chief Weasel has taken over Toad Hall surely doesn’t mean that all the others think he is now Lord of the Manor…?”
“Not that there ever was such a thing, really,” stated the Badger, almost to himself. “Although they tug their forelocks as if he was KING! If ANYONE is due allegiance as Lord, then it’s the fine gentleman that lives in the big house over the hill. Mind you – sensible chap that he is – he keeps himself very much to himself; and that’s what I shall go back to doing, too. Living here, in the Wild Wood, I am still an outsider, and always was: ’though I fear for what will become of the River, the willows – to you two, my companion friends and campaigners – when the true spirit of the water, the grass, the air, the hearts that beat in all true country animals, is represented in the Wide World by something so selfish and ignorant – so utterly unrepresentative – so arrogant. It is not in our nature to fight even the cruellest enemy but with wisdom… – and, yes, I do see you, Ratty, looking meaningfully at the cupboard where our stash of cutlasses and pistols lies from the last battle!
“But we MUST NOT fight our fellow creatures. They have made their decision – however badly and stupidly it was reached. It is THEY who have divided US; and we should not fall into the trap – especially as we do not have it in us to act the bully; to crave fame and glory; to desire to crash and bang about like the Toad in one of his infernal motors (oh, how I miss silly old Toad…!) – of following in their footsteps, and applying the tactics of the frightened, OR the frightener.
“We must keep our wisdom and wits about us for when the realization dawns that intelligence, graft, research and application of knowledge are what is REALLY needed – even if my now very full stomach tells me that I should close the door FOREVER on them: stoats and weasels that they have all become.”
There was a keen silence: a quiet which seemed to stretch out from the crumbling ashes of the fire, beyond the breeze creaking at the door at the end of the passageway, to the very river itself – listening not only to the murmur of the water, the whispering of the willows, but for the very thoughts of the local animals themselves (many of whom were still asleep; most of whom were yet to learn of the far-reaching decision the council believed – wrongfully – they had been forced into; and had not had the courage nor integrity to fight: not having learned from the exemplary comrades now on the verge of sleep themselves…. It might be division they had wanted to AVOID; but it now seemed inevitable that, instead, they had CREATED such division…). Empty-handed, the draught returned, to spark the glowing embers for a moment, and then die.
“Fie!” exclaimed the Mole, from nowhere. “O blow; and bother! What a load of idiots they are. Otters reduced to mice; stoats made toad. So this is what the Wide World is like. You were right, Ratty. I want NONE of it. Hang the council; and hang all weasels.” He ran out of breath as quickly as he had started; and all the energy slumped from him, from his shoulders to his now-still toes. “Onion-sauce,” he finally whispered, fitfully.
“Aye to that,” said both the Rat and Badger, quietly together in thought and deed. “Onion-sauce.”
“And that’s my last memory of Badger,” said the Water Rat, raising his drink.
“To BADGER!” The Mole and the Rat, comfortable in their shared memories, clinked their glasses together: with a mixture of love, sadness and Happy Times all swirled together in the remnants of one of the Badger’s many single malts.
“I could get used to this,” said the Rat.
“Well, there’s plenty more where that came from,” replied the Mole, wearing the Rat’s stupid grin: “thanks to Badger.”
“But I can’t get used to not having him around… – especially HERE.”