Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Wastage of the Willows – Branch I; 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…”

“But what?”

“There’s no water. Still.”

“I know.”

“So WHY…?”

“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.

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