Monday, 31 March 2014

Wild at Heart

A repost of a story, Wild at Heart, that might be of interest; a few years back this was a non-winning entry to the Kenneth Grahame Society's Wind in the Willows short story competition, whose brief was to write a prequel, sequel or countertext to The Wind in the Willows. I'm reposting because I find I posted it to a hosted file, then cleverly changed the server configuration so that the file was inaccessible.

Right: spoof cover for The Wind in the Willows inspired by a Slate magazine piece on lurid covers for classics.

This came to mind because Clare finally bought the competition anthology, The Wind in the Willows Short Stories. Both of us went in for the competition, and didn't get anywhere, not even longlisted. Both of us were unaccountably irritated, largely because we're very familiar with the original, and our submissions seemed well within the competition brief. However, looking at the extensive Afterword (The Plausibility of Willows Sequels) by Nigel McMorris, Chairman of the Kenneth Grahame Society, it looks as if we fell foul of extremely narrow criteria that weren't explicit, or even implicit, in the brief.
    One was a very tight binding to the characters and scenario of the original story. For example, McMorris comments on the "disproportionate amount of harm" done by "the inclusion of non-British animals ... as new characters, which seemed to proclaim themselves surprisingly loudly to be outside the world of The Wind in the Willows". There, presumably, Clare's story went into the bin for its introduction of foreign bats brought on the winds of an unusually hot summer, reaction to their presence being a nice commentary on xenophobia. Though apparently it was OK for Kenneth Grahame to introduce a non-British animal, the Sea Rat:
`You are not one of US,' said the Water Rat, `nor yet a farmer; nor even, I should judge, of this country.'
`Right,' replied the stranger. `I'm a seafaring rat, I am, and the port I originally hail from is Constantinople, though I'm a sort of a foreigner there too, in a manner of speaking.
- The Wind in the Willows
So why shouldn't a sequel? Go figure. Another restriction was tone: the judges wanted the same tone as the original. This may well be fine for a sequel or prequel designed to actively imitate Grahame, but it immediately puts a damper on countertexts written from different viewpoints. Other characters, such as the weasels, are bound to have a darker view of the world, and the reversal of moral stance alone - as in Jan Needle's brilliant revisionist take, Wild Wood - will also make the tone less comfortable. A third restriction was genre, and the judges' completely subjective view that: "There are genres which do not lend themselves to The Wind in the Willows. The omitted genres include romance, horror, crime and detection, and several others".
    This is probably where I went wrong, in taking "countertext" to have its normal meaning, and going for highly intertextual SF. The usual scope of countertext is that anything is fair game: not merely writing from a different viewpoint within the world of the original, but the possibility of changing the genre and register, even to the extent of intertextuality and deconstructing the whole scenario. And the world of The Wind of the Willows is a very strange one ripe for deconstruction. If it's to be taken as consistent, then it's a cop-out not to explore such issues as the coexistence and interaction of the animal and human worlds, and the inconsistencies of the latter: an England of trains and the occasional motor-car, yet which still has castle dungeons guarded by men in mediaeval armour.
    The competition seemed an exciting opportunity to pick up Grahame's themes, and run with them creatively - but in the end it came down to being expected to produce more of the same. And the anthology is a collection of dull safe stories - lacking Grahame's spark of nostalgic angst and cross-genre weirdness - reflecting that stultifying agenda.
    Anyhow, gripe over. Read on...


The Mole was fretful. He had tried to dispel the feeling by cleaning his dark and lowly little house with brooms, then with dusters. When that failed, he stomped about the room, swinging his arms, hoping physical effort would help. That too failed and, quite out of character, he flung a teacup to the floor, saying "Bother!" Instantly contrite, he stooped to pick up the shards, and cut his finger on a particularly sharp one. At that point, the doorbell to Mole End rang. Sucking his finger, he went to answer it. He was relieved to see the grave round face and twinkling eyes of his friend the Water Rat.
    "Hullo, Mole," said the Rat.
    "Ah, Ratty," the Mole said. "Do come in. Pardon the state of my house."
    "Whatever happened to your hand?"
    "I cut it fishing," the Mole said. "Would you like some tea?"
    The Rat peered at the Mole. "We have been friends from the first, Moly," he said. "You look upset to me. What's all this about?"
    "I might as well tell you," the Mole said. "It's our mutual friend Toad. He has disappeared."
    The Rat hummed a tune, as he often did in such circumstances, for animal etiquette forbade any sort of comment on the sudden disappearance of one's friends.
    "Oh, it's not that sort of disappear," the Mole said. "Toad did say he would be absent. It's the why and the where that concerns me. And it has been weeks."
    "So let us talk of it over that tea. Sit there, old chap, and I'll attend to it."
    And so the Mole sat at his table while the Rat bustled in the tiny kitchen and brought back a tray with fragrant cups of tea steaming on it, along with a roll of sticking-plaster. "Now, show me that finger while you drink your tea, and tell me of Mr. Toad's absence."
    "Do you remember his plans to renovate Toad Hall?" asked the Mole. "It has never been properly tidy since the Weasels invaded it."
    "Indeed I do," said the Rat. "Although it would be more likely that others would do the work."
    "Well, whoever was doing it, the work got under way, and Toad unearthed in a cellar ... well, it's all the same whatever novelty he takes into his head. This time, it's books! He sees himself as a master of Literature."
    "Surely that is harmless enough," said the Rat. "I write a little poetry myself on occasion."
    "Oh," the Mole said. "This is different. I met him by the River Bank, and he was wearing half-moon spectacles, a tweed jacket and a bow tie, and singing the most conceited song you ever heard, though I have no idea what it means."
The clever Booker judges
Read all that there is to be knowed.
But none of them read one half as much
As literate Mr. Toad!
    "He waved a copy of a newspaper at me," Mole continued, "And said he was going to be a correspondent". He imitated Toad's hearty accent as best he could: "'Look, this fellow has written a letter about the first cuckoo of Spring. And this one about the first swallow in Summer. Amateur nonsense! I shall tell them of the Sweet Bird of Youth, the first Lion of Winter. I am The Toad, the handsome, the popular, the successful literary critic! O brave new world!'". At that point, the Mole broke down into a fit of sobbing.
    "Whatever is the matter, old fellow?" the Rat asked, bringing out a white handkerchief to wipe the Mole's tears. "We have seen Toad this way before."
    "It is all my fault," the Mole said miserably. "I should have gone sooner. But you know how tiresome Toad can be in such moods. I left it over a month, then went to Toad Hall, hoping he might have calmed himself a little. But the place was empty, and look what I found tucked under the door knocker. It has been there weeks." He took a paper from his pocket and unfolded it. Beneath the Toad Hall letterhead, in Toad's scrawled handwriting, it said.
To whom it may concern:-
It is outrageous that my work has not been accepted by The Times. I am off directly to London to have it out with the Editor. Help yourself to anything in the larder.
Mr. Toad
Man of Letters
    "I have never heard of London," said the Rat.
    "I have," said the Mole gravely. It is a city in the Wide World."
    "That will never do," said the Rat. "We should seek advice from Badger."

The Badger lived in the Wild Wood (or more precisely lived under it) and such an excursion was not normally lightly undertaken. The Wild Wood needed passwords, signs, sayings, plants to carry in one's pocket, verses to repeat, and dodges and tricks to practise. But as his close friends, the Mole and the Rat knew the hidden entrance to Badger's home at the edge of the Wood among the rocks and brambles, hidden by creepers, brushwood, and dead leaves.
    A walk in the gentle autumn afternoon took them to that place, and after what seemed miles through the damp and airless tunnel that wound and dipped, part vaulted, part hewn through solid rock, they saw a light ahead.
    "Mr.Badger," the Rat called.
    There was the sound of a bolt shot back, and the slap of down-at-heel carpet slippers. "Who is it disturbing me, and without even ringing the doorbell?" a gruff voice said.
    "It 's me, Rat, and my friend Mole," cried the Rat.
    "O, that's different," said the voice, softening, and the Badger shuffled into view with a lantern. "Ratty, Moly, come in, my dear little men." He summoned them into the warmth of his kitchen where they sat at oaken settles beneath the rafters hung with smoked hams, herbs and onions, and Badger nodded gravely, never surprised nor shocked, as they told him of their worries.
    "Toad lacks restraint in the gratification of his various desires," Badger said eventually. "Under his magnificent eloquence, there is something lacking in the poor fellow."
    "So is there, if you could be so kind, anything you could do?" the Mole asked.
    "I can't do anything NOW," said the Badger somewhat severely. "The year is getting on, you know."
    His two friends assented, knowing that according to animal etiquette, no animal is expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season.
    "Very well, then," the Badger said. "I will make certain enquiries tomorrow, but I am sure that Mr. Toad has come to no harm. And it is time I was in bed. Come along, you two, and I 'll show you out." And with what appeared unseemly haste for the normally phlegmatic Badger, he led them to the door.
    "I'm not letting it lie there," said the Rat crossly, as he and the Mole walked home through the quiet fields toward the glint of the river. "Badger is a good chap, the best, but it is only Autumn. We shall find Toad ourselves."

The next day they packed sandwich-cases and prepared flasks of tea, and set out for Buggleton, a few miles' walk. At the Red Lion Hotel, where Toad had embarked on his disastrous career as a motor-car thief, they enquired cautiously over luncheon in the coffee-room. A recaptured master criminal or a further theft would have been a matter of local gossip. No-one remembered any such thing. The next step was to follow Toad's likely footsteps, and there their problems began.
    "He would have taken a train," the Rat said. "Let us do likewise."
    At the station they attempted to purchase second-class tickets to London.
    The clerk at the ticket-window stared at them. "I'm sorry," he said. "London trains only stop here on the third Wednesday of the month. You need to take the motor-bus to Buggleton Parva."
    This they did, after a long wait, travelling in the cramped back seat wedged between a fat lady and a crate of chickens, only to find at Buggleton Parva Halt that they had been wrongly advised. "No, young gentlemen," said the second clerk. "Only London-bound goods trains stop here. Go back and tell them to consult the updated timetable. Say I said so. Or you could try the motor-bus station."
    This too they did, and found there were no direct London buses from Buggleton Parva, or even connections that week. On returning to Buggleton, by which time it was nearly dark, the first clerk solemnly consulted the timetables and assured them that the other had been in error.
    The end of the day found them, footsore and weary, back at Toad Hall eating a supper of French bread and tinned sardines. "We are looking at this the wrong way," said the Rat. "If it were this difficult, Toad would not have travelled by that route. He is not an animal of the greatest resolve."
    "If you ask me," the Mole said despondently. "They were trying to obstruct us. Perhaps they think we are not up to the journey."
    "Nonsense," said the Rat severely. "And no-one did ask you. Let us spend the evening usefully, and find out more about London."
    They found Toad's study and, among an unruly heap of books on his writing-desk, the scattered editions of The Times of which he had spoken. Although the paper was strangely yellowed, this was a far grander affair than the Buggleton Chronicle that Badger was always reading. Neither of the friends was vastly literate, but together they pieced together the facts, with the help of the many pictures.
    "Look, Moly" the Rat said. "This is London. See this mighty domed church."
    "And this white-stoned fortress," said the Mole.
    "And this two-towered bridge," said the Rat. "Why!" he exclaimed, "London is on a great river." Then he executed a jig. "Hooray!" and then "Hooray-oo-ray-oo-ray-oo-ray!"
    "I know rivers are dear to your heart," the Mole said. "But this doesn't help us."
    "Come and see," said the delighted Rat.
    The puzzled Mole followed him to the boathouse.
    "What do you notice?" asked Rat.
    "Nothing," Mole said.
    "Precisely what I expected!" cried the Rat. "Where is Toad's motor-boat?"
    The Mole remembered it. Long-neglected as one of Toad's previous interests, the boat had been sitting at its mooring for over a year, its bright red paint gathering dust. "Gone," he said. "Perhaps it has been stolen? Perhaps the same villains carried off Toad too?"
    "O, dear! O, dear!" cried the Rat, in despair at his friend's obtuseness. "We know London is on a river. Toad has taken the boat himself. This was why we could find no news of him in the Town."
    The Mole fell backwards from sheer surprise and delight. "Rat!" he said. "You're a wonder!  A real wonder.  I see it all now!  You thought it out, step by step, in that wise head of yours". Then he frowned. "But in which direction?"
    The Rat, knowing the ways of rivers, sighed. "Downstream, of course. We have seen that London is on a great river. Did you not know that rivers get bigger as they flow to the sea?"
    "I had heard something of the sort," said the Mole, impressed but not entirely clear as to what his friend was speaking of. "Why, you ought to go where you'll be properly appreciated."
    "That may be," said the Rat sternly. "But we will both need our wits about us if we are to find him. Buggleton is one thing; a city of the Wide World is quite another."

The bright early morning found them in the Rat's skiff, sailing with the current at a leisurely pace. "I love the smell of the river in the morning," said the Rat dreamily, dipping an oar occasionally to steer them around tree roots and clumps of reeds. Even with the importance of their journey, the Mole was inclined to agree, trailing his paw in the water and intoxicated by the sparkle and ripple. After a several hours they went ashore to dine from a fat wicker luncheon-basket packed with salami, French bread, olives, gherkins and potted bloater paste from Toad Hall's pantry. The familiar river-bank fell behind them, and by late afternoon, they found themselves passing between rough untended pastures, the silence broken only by the occasional croak of moorhens. The sparse bramble bushes on the bank gave way to continuous scrub, dotted with taller trees.
    Eventually, they heard a rushing sound ahead, and the Rat sculled more carefully, then jumped ashore with the mooring rope and made the boat fast to a tree.
    "Come on Moly", he said, walking a little downstream as Mole followed with the food hamper. "Just as I thought."
    Ahead, the river was blocked by the arc of a weir; not the gentle weir they knew fringed by willow-herb and purple loosestrife, but a steep dark incline over which the water plunged like smooth dark bottleglass. There was a weed-chocked lock beside it, topped with a sign: "Private! Strictly No Passage!" What was more, the river at its foot flowed on between dense dark woodland.
    "Ratty, old chap," the Mole said. "I think this is the Wild Wood."
    "Of course it is," said a voice behind them, and they turned to see an Otter hauling himself out of the water. "We don't get many visitors around these parts. First one for years a few weeks ago, and then two more. Are you going to invite me for tea?"
    As the three shared a light meal, the Rat and the Mole enquired after the previous visitor. "Pompous fellow in a red motor launch," the Otter mumbled around a fish-paste sandwich. "Yes, he went this way.  I helped him work the lock handles."
    "Are we near London?" asked the Mole.
    "Never heard of it," said the Otter. "Sometimes over the Wood you can see something like the smoke of towns.  But he went that way certainly. Don't mind the sign; humans place great store in them, but they never come here. Let me give you a hand."
    The Otter helped them drag the Rat's boat round the weir, and disappeared back into the water, leaving a stream of bubbles in his wake.
    "It's very dark," said the Mole. He was used to darkness, but not that of gloomy thorny woods.
    "You really needn't fret, Moly," the Rat said. "We'll be thoroughly safe on the river."
    It seemed so. After a short distance the channel, the final outlet of their own friendly stream, fed into a wider slower-moving river with forest on both sides, a yellow Moon rising on the horizon ahead. They moored there, and the Rat unfolded the green canvas cover for the skiff. Inside, by the light of a spirit lamp, the three ate supper, then drowsed, wrapped in rugs, until a damp misty dawn found them.
    For the next day, they followed the larger river downstream through its many sweeping meanders, seeing no-one but rabbits in occasional clearings, who eyed them suspiciously, saying "O my! O my! O my!". "Onion-sauce! Onion-sauce!" the Mole called, and they vanished into their burrows.
    After day, a during which they spoke little, oppressed by the interminable bosk of the Wild Wood, dusk loomed again. "We should find a spot to moor; the light won't last much longer," the Rat observed.
    "I should not say," the Mole said. "But I feel we are being followed. I have felt it since..."
    Then they heard the singing. They both knew well that it is quite against animal-etiquette to dwell on possible trouble, so they merely listened, and heard a chorus punctuated with thin little laughs. The words couldn't be made out, but they knew the tone, one that spoke of vulgar songs about prisons and magistrates, and policemen; horrid personal songs, with no humour in them.
    "Weasels," the Mole said.
    "Do be quiet," whispered the Rat.  But it was too late. In the dusk, lights flared on the banks; from somewhere in the undergrowth came a hail of missiles that turned out to be crab apples; and a horde of rowing boats came sculling from the left bank toward them.The chant of their occupants became clear.

    Lock 'em in a dungeon! Throw away the key!
    Hit 'em with a truncheon! Nobody will see!

    The Rat turned to the Mole. "I've brought you to this, Moly," he said. "Brought you out of your happy life to this. Say you forgive me, Moly."
    "I do," said the Mole. "Fully and freely."
    They sat helplessly as the boats closed around them, the crew jeering. The Rat's boat was towed ashore, and the friends were bundled to the bank and marched a short distance through dark woods by a sweating, singing horde of Weasels, coming to a huge clearing with a hill of stepped tumbledown stone whose upper levels were illuminated with burning torches.
    "Please," the Mole squeaked. "We mean no harm."
    "Quiet!" said one of Weasels. "Listen to the words of the Great Buffo."
    And above them, a great looming figure wearing bandoliers and swordbelt over a tweed jacket stepped out, silhouetted against torchlight.
    "It's Toad!" the Mole exclaimed, but a Weasel jabbed him in the ribs.
    Toad looked imperiously out over the assembled animals, the light glinting on cracked half-moon glasses. "Dearly beloved," he began. "I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble Toad; but I have the heart of a king."
    The Weasels grunted approval.
    "They blew it all up," he said. "They sold our birthright for a pottage of lentils. But we, the people, are we not Men?" His voice raise to a bellow as he puffed to twice his size. "You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air. Imitate the action of the tiger; stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood. Together we shall build Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land. I, the Great Buffo, have spoken!"
    As the Toad bowed and retreated, there was a roar of applause from the Weasels, who began a capering dance and resumed their singing.
    Serve 'em with an ASBO! Put 'em in a cell!
    Shoot 'em with a crossbow! Poison 'em as well!

    "Oh, my," said the Rat. "He makes no sense, but I've never seen Toad so determined."
    "He is certainly altered," the Mole agreed.
    "Quiet," said the Weasel who had jabbed the Mole. "He has enlarged our minds."
    "They have little nails," said another. "It is well."
    "No," said a third. "None escape."
    "It's not our job to decide their fate," said the first. "The Great Buffo can deal with them."
    The Rat and the Mole were led up the steps to an entrance leading to a dank cavernous chamber, where their guards left them.
    The earthy smell struck the Mole to his heart, bringing a wave of sorrow as it reminded him of his own home. "Oh, I wish I were outside Mole End," he sobbed. "With its skittle alley and cockleshell fishpond. I fear I shall never see it again."
    The Rat patted him gently on the shoulder. "Toad?" he whispered.
    In the gloom of an alcove, Toad raised his head. "What do you think of my methods?" he said.
    "I'm sorry, old chap," the Rat said. "I can't say I see any methods."
    "I read book after book, newspaper after newspaper" the Toad said. "Until the truth came to me, like a kingfisher spearing my forehead. A story has been pulled over our eyes to blind us from the truth. The Weasels understand."
    "Please, Mr. Toad," the Mole pleaded. "You are not yourself. Forget all this and come back to Toad Hall with us." .
    "Toad Hall? I can't remember," said the Toad. "I seem to recall a river, and gardenias. But ..." He winced in seeming anguish and bent to wash his head, patting water on it with trembling fingers.
    "You do remember," the Rat continued. "The creek and the boathouse and the stables and the banqueting hall. And how we were all friends and drove the Weasels and Stoats from your home. And the time we had a picnic by the weir with its scented herbage and orchard trees. You went to visit the editor of The Times."
    As the Rat spoke, the Toad become more and more dejected, his skin hanging baggily as the tears flowed plentifully down his cheeks. "Don't you see? There is no Times," he said. "It was folly."
    The Mole and Rat took him by the hands and helped him to his feet. "Come on, old chap, let's go home."
    The Toad took a few steps and then resisted. "And yet," he said, a strange glint growing in his eye. "I can't say I'm not sorry. And it wasn't folly at all! I found a greater truth and it was simply glorious! The Great Buffo shall not perish from ..."
    There was a flash of black-and-white and a resounding thump, and the Toad sagged to the floor. The Badger stood before them, hefting a cudgel. "The Great Buffo can take a rest," he said.
    Moly and Ratty rushed at the Badger and hugged him. "We are saved!" they cried.
    Embarrassed, the Badger scratched his head. "I thought I would look out for you. This is not the sort of place for small animals to be. But we are not out of the woods yet."
    Quickly, he directed them to support the senselesss Toad between them. "Weasels are easily swayed by confidence and by appearances. With the light behind us, we may fool them."  He followed them down the passage, where Mole was puzzled to see the Weasel sentries asleep and snoring.
    "Dearly beloved!" the Badger yelled in a passable imitation of Toad. "My young friends have agreed to join us. The king is leaving the building. Are we not Men?"
    "Are we not Men?" chorused the Weasels, as the three carefully negotiated the steps, Badger holding Toad's arms draped over the shoulders of the Mole and Rat as if in casual bonhomie.
    "I have a steam launch at the river," the Badger whispered. "We have to brass it out. Just follow the path."
    They progressed between the ranked Weasels and had nearly reached the shadows at the edge of the clearing when a Weasel child came up to them and peered closely. "Great Buffo?" he said suspiciously. They proceeded past him, but he must have seen the Toad's dragging feet, for he let out a piercing squeal of alarm, and all the Weasels pointed their fingers and echoed the squeal.
    "The jig's up," said the Badger. "Run!"
    The Rat and the Mole made for the river as fast as they could manage with the unconscious Toad. They paused once, to see the mighty Badger, his whiskers bristling, his great cudgel whistling through the air as he fought off the press of Weasels.
    "No time for goodbyes," said the Rat. "Come on."
    They reached the shore, and dumped Toad into the steam-launch.
    "Ratty, do you know how to work one of these things?" asked the Mole.
    The Rat pulled levers at random. "Toad would, but he is in no state to be useful. O blow! Where is Badger?" He was puzzled, as the uproar behind had ceased, and there was the hint of a sound, reedy notes that tugged at the edge of his memory like a song-dream. But before he could complete the thought, the Badger trotted down to the shore, and clambered into the launch.
    "Have I missed anything?" he asked. With an expert touch, he spun brass wheels, kicked the boiler, and with a hiss of escaping steam, the "put-put-put" of the engine started up. "You, Ratty, grab the tiller and get us into mid-stream!" he said, taking command. "Moly, open that grate and stoke, there's a good chap! I'll see to Toad."
    Toad lay still at the boat's bows.
    "Mr. Toad ... he ... dead?" the Mole said querulously.
    Badger bent over him. "No, I just knocked the poor fellow out for his own good," he said. "Lend me your handkerchief."
    As the Rat's excitement from the fight waned, a growing realisation dawned in him. Looking back as the launch reached mid-river, he saw a great vista of foliage-covered ruins. He touched the Mole's arm. "Moly, look," he said urgently. They gazed at the structures, now white in the moonlight, protruding above the tree line: the tumbledown heap of white stone that had once been a blocky fortress, the pair of broken stumps that had once been the twin towers of a bridge spanning the river, and a vast domed roof broken like an egg-shell.
    "Oh, my," the Mole said, shocked. "It is the city whose pictures we saw in The Times."
    "Badger," the Rat said. "You are the wisest animal I know. This is London, isn't it?"
    The Badger, bathing the Toad's head, said nothing for a time. "Let me tell you a story," he said at length. "Many hundreds of years ago, the Wide World - a world of people, you know - was separate from the animals. Animals, if you can imagine it, were even more vacuous than rabbits, and could not even speak. As to the people, there was little they could not do. Everyone had a motor-car."
    "Poop-poop," muttered the Toad, stirring weakly.
    "They could send pictures through the air," said the Badger. "They had flying machines. They set foot on the Moon. They even found the means to alter the germ of life itself, to cure disease, or to make bigger and tastier crops. They could give some of the character of plants to animals, animals to plants, and even animals to animals."
    "That sounds mightily unpleasant," said the Mole, with a slight shiver.
    The Badger squeezed out the handkerchief; Toad was conscious now, groaning a little. "That," the Badger said, "was their undoing. It went beyond their control, and all over the Wide World, animals acquired intellect and speech. They were our ancestors. But humans were suspicious of them, and there was a war, far bigger than any of our trifling skirmishes with Weasels and Stoats, and all the great cities of the Wide World became deserted. For London, it was all down, down, down, gradually - ruin and levelling and disappearance.  Then it was all up, up, up, gradually, as seeds grew to saplings, and saplings to forest trees, and bramble and fern came creeping in to help.  London, little by little, became the Wild Wood."
    "Why did we not know this?" the Mole asked, helping Toad into a sitting position.
    "Can you imagine the turmoil it could cause?" the Badger said. "In the quieter backwaters of the world, life went on. In the small towns and countryside, humans and thinking animals came to live together peacefully. Knowing the past would only lead to a desire to overthrow that peace and recreate the world that was lost, perhaps on your pleasant river bank."
    He looked down. "Toad here, unfortunately, found ancient books and newspapers that led him to the truth, and the thought of restoring the glories of the Wide World overwhelmed him as the ultimate novelty. No, it is better that London be believed in by both humans and animals. Badgers, being dutiful fellows by nature, lead a guardianship that maintains that fiction. The people who run the motor-buses and trains, the migrating swallows and the Sea-Rats who tell tales of a Wide World that no longer exists, all are part of that guardianship."
    Toad, Rat and Mole looked back. The Moon was hidden now; sight of the tree-cloaked London was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway flowed somber under an overcast sky, seeming to lead into the heart of an immense darkness. They stared blankly in dumb misery that deepened as they slowly realised all they had seen.
    "I had never imagined..." the Rat said, aghast.
    "The horror ... the horror..." Toad said.
    "How can we ever see our world in the familiar way?" the Mole asked, shuddering as he held back tears..
    The Badger looked at them sympathetically. "You will," he said. "I sent the Weasels into sleep and forgetfulness, and you will join them". He fiddled with a device on his watch chain, and something like a capricious little breeze, dancing up from the surface of the river, blew lightly and caressingly on his friends' faces; and with its soft touch came instant oblivion. "Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow," murmured the Badger, "and overshadow mirth and pleasure."
    He took the tiller from the Water Rat's limp hand and set the boat's course upstream, sailing through the night to carry the sleeping friends back to their familiar River Bank. They would wake in the morning in Toad Hall with smiles of much happiness on their faces and vague memories of one of many sunny days sculling the river.
    "Remembering," the Badger mused, "is my burden." But it was a burden he did not grudge to carry, for he was a kindly soul despite all his gruffness.

copyright Ray Girvan

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