Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Wastage of the Willows – Branch I; 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!”

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