There was once a young man called Parish, who had returned from a long journey. He had not wanted to go, indeed he had spent most of his time away wishing very hard to be home; and now he was. But home seemed to have changed while he had been away, and not for the better. Perhaps it was his gammy leg. It had not seemed so bad while he was away, when others had far worse, and still others (though Parish did not think about them very often) had not come back at all; but now that he was back he had to live with the wretched thing. Though he scarcely felt it, he was really very lucky. He had come back to a sweetheart, and she was not the sort of girl to be put off by a gammy leg. Soon they were married, and he and Mrs. Parish lived with her widowed mother in a house with a bit of garden, miles out in the country.
The garden was another piece of luck, for Parish found with his leg he could no longer do the kind of work he had once done; in fact he could not work long hours at anything, and had a tendency to be laid up altogether whenever the weather was wet. The autumn and winter after Parish’s return were often wet or windy, and sometimes both at once. Early in spring (after the factory overseer had been obliged, most regretfully, to let him go), Parish began to plant potatoes in the garden: potatoes and carrots and onions to be precise, but mainly potatoes. Of course Mrs. Parish’s mother complained of the muddy mess he made of her lawn and flowerbeds. (‘You’d have thought he’d have had enough of mud abroad,’ she once said to her daughter—though Parish never said a word about his time away, and neither of the two women ever brought it up when he was by.) But even that old grump did not complain about the fruits (or rather vegetables) of his labours when they appeared on her plate; and Mrs. Parish soon got the trick of cooking up potatoes and carrots and onions and whatnot, with a bit of parsley and mint, into such a nice tasty stew that you barely missed the meat.
So Parish became a gardener. He worked his own patch, mainly; but he did some work for their only neighbour, a pleasant elderly gentleman who took a bit of an interest in potatoes himself, and was always happy to talk over the merits of a King Edward or a Pink Fir Apple, and the best ways of dealing with the menace of the slug. For some years everything went as well as might be hoped for Parish and his family. The wife of the town’s principal factory owner (whose overseer it was who had been obliged to let Parish go) gave him a few hens, together with a great many words that slipped straight out of his head about how ‘it was a National Scandal that More was Not Done.’ (She was an energetic do-gooder and kindly in her way; but like many of her class, so used to speaking to committees, and taking minutes at committees, that she Spoke at People in Capitals, she really did.) Their neighbour was happy to let the things scratch about on his land, in exchange for the odd half-dozen eggs. Then one particularly wet and windy winter carried off Mrs. Parish’s old mother, and their neighbour too.
His house was taken by a Mr. Niggle; some sort of a relative of the old gentleman, it seemed, but a man of a very different stamp. Mr. Niggle thought hens a bother and a nuisance. He had little interest in potatoes (besides being pleased to eat them), cared not at all about slugs, and generally let the old gentleman’s garden go quite to ruin. He paid not the slightest heed to hints; and he neither saw to the weeds himself, nor suggested Parish might care to take on the work. He even had a great tall shed put up, plumb in the middle of what had once been as fine a potato plot as you could find, and actually went around calling the place ‘his studio.’ He was a painter, he said. A painter! When Parish suggested he might like to have a go at his barge-boards, Niggle said that barge-boards, whatever they might be, were not at all the sort of thing he painted. ‘I’m afraid I am the artist type of painter,’ he explained, a little diffidently, ‘not the decorator type.’ When Parish asked him what he did paint, what did he say but trees! As if there were not enough trees growing by themselves in the ground (not to mention shading other people’s vegetable plots), without going to the trouble of copying the things onto good canvas!
Now Parish knew quite as much about art as Niggle knew about potatoes, and he knew his neighbour’s work did not hang in the great gallery of the metropolis, nor even in the humbler museum-cum-gallery of the nearby town. If it had, Parish might perhaps have paid it more attention; at least so much as to be able to say that he knew the artist—a funny little chap, to be sure, but clever with a brush; and did they know the trees he painted were the very ones they sat under when it was too hot to work come summer? But as far as Parish could make out, the man had never so much as sold one picture. Calling himself a painter! Why, he was no more a painter than Mrs. Parish, who was a dab hand with a pastry brush! Parish and his wife laughed together about his nonsense sometimes; but most of the time they clean forgot about both Niggle and his daubings.
Then came another wet and windy season, even wetter and windier than ever before. Parish’s house was old, and its roof had never been particularly well maintained. He could not climb a ladder, his wife was terrified of heights, and the builder was so expensive, besides being very unreliable. Really what it needed was a complete overhaul; but all it ever got was the tiles that blew off stuck back (when Niggle could be persuaded to help out), or bodged with board or felt or even waxed paper (when he could not). And then Niggle was so selfish as to set off on his journey without bothering to call at the builder’s! Or at any rate the builder never came. Niggle’s peculiar painting shed was soon demolished, and all of the wood and canvas used to patch Parish’s roof. But the plot was not turned back to potatoes.
Mr. Tompkins from town fancied a little cottage in the country, and he bought up Niggle’s house at a knockdown price. Mr. Tompkins was an important man, a councillor no less, and most modern in his views. He did not believe in potatoes; or at least he believed they should be bought from a proper greengrocer’s, ready washed, neatly graded by size, and with all the damaged or odd-shaped ones rejected. He soon put Niggle’s garden to rights; he employed a gardener from town to do the work, who had all the proper diplomas from the university to show. Tompkins was far too important a man to help Parish with his roof, and besides he was hardly ever there; and his gardener had not got the diploma for roofs, nor for going up ladders. The gardener declared the big old poplar trees were dangerous, and got in a tree surgeon to cut them all down. There was no more shade over the vegetable patch in the growing season, and no more shade in midsummer either. The sun scorched Mrs. Parish’s roses, and the east wind blew over the pea canes. And that was only the start of it. Tompkins condemned Parish’s hen hut as insanitary, and his roadside vegetable stall as unlicensed. What he wanted, of course, was to drive Parish and his wife out, so that he could demolish their rickety old eyesore of a house and put something useful in its place. He did not hate Parish as he had hated Niggle; Parish was far too small and commonplace for such an important man as Tompkins to hate. He just stood in the way of Progress.
When Parish woke up, it was dark. He was not in his warm saggy bed in that rickety old house of his. (It really could have done with demolishing and rebuilding from scratch.) Mrs. Parish was not lying beside him, and she did not come when he called. He dimly remembered having been made to go on another journey without her; but he did not remember very much else, not even how he came to be in this place, nor even what this place was. He was set to picking up litter. The litter he was assigned to pick up was glass, and glass of a peculiar reddish brown sort that seemed to have melted into slugs without losing any of its sharp edges. Nobody gave him any gloves, and his hands were soon all over painful little cuts. They did not seem to heal. Nobody offered him a plaster, either. Every shard he picked up hurt him a little more. It was not just his hands. His leg ached and ached, of course, and his back, with all the bending; and he started to feel shivery and trembly all over as if he were going down with the ’flu—or something worse. He could feel his heart going thump-thump-thump in his chest.
It always seemed to be dark, or so clagged in it might as well be dark. But despite all that he began to think, after a while, that he recognised some of the places he was sent to. Surely he had been here before? It was a barn, a very ordinary barn, outside a very ordinary village; Parish could not quite bring the name of the place to mind, or perhaps he had never known it. Here was a bit of glass—ouch! And here came a rat, just like the one that had run across his face once. When was that? He could not remember. And wasn’t that What’s-his-name, fast asleep beside him? Good old What’s-his-name, nothing ever woke him! When had he last seen him? He couldn’t remember that, either.
But then they were standing side by side in a young birch wood, taking a piss against a couple of trees. It was autumn. The sun was out for once. The narrow birch boles were white as a child’s first teeth, the crisp leaves coating the ground little flames licking at their black boots. A spider scurried up the trunk, and as if it bore a message, Parish knew what came next. He called a warning, or tried to—his tongue did not obey him. A bird startled. His friend looked up. A little spot, smaller than a leaf and brighter red, bloomed dead between his eyes. A shard of glass sliced his knee where Parish knelt beside his friend. He grubbed it out of the leaves. It was exactly the colour of dried blood.
I can tell you that there was not a lot of other colour in the places he was sent to next. There were not a great many trees, either, and most of the ones there were, were dead. Mrs. Parish’s mother had been right; there was a lot of mud. Quite a few rats and some barbed wire too; but mainly mud. Parish picked up the odd glassy stuff in lots of different places (different in the sense of distinct, for they were all much of a muchness) and sometimes he picked it up in the same place more than once. His fever meanwhile grew and grew, till he felt as if somebody had sliced open his head like a boiled egg, and poured him quite full of hot tar.
The last place he was sent was different, or at least different from all those places he had been sent before. It was actually quite familiar. You know it too, for it was the exact same house Parish had lived in all these years, though it was not then his house. He was back home from his journey; his first journey that is—this one seemed never-ending. He lurched through the door (his leg was a good deal worse back then) and was still clutching the lintel when his wife (though she was not his wife then) turned and looked right at him. He had steeled himself for pity (he had seen a lot of pity), but what he saw on her face was not pity, or not pity alone. There was love there, and duty, and a kind of grim determination, and only the slightest trace of joy. Parish picked up a bit of glass—it was the very last sliver—from the flags of the kitchen floor. The nasty thing slashed his hand quite open. He felt so queer he did not bother to get up.
He must have been taken to the infirmary. He awoke in a bright cheerful room. A nurse put some salve on his hands that felt like holding them in the fire, but after he stopped squeaking it had fixed them right up. Parish still complained of pain. Everything hurt, from his hairy toes right up to the little bald patch that Mrs. Parish was too short to see except when he sat down. The light hurt his eyes, even the gentlest talk set his head ringing, and just putting a morsel of food into his mouth caused the most terrible jolting agony that coursed through his entire body like an electric shock.
But when a doctor took his temperature it turned out completely normal. ‘There’s nothing wrong with you, Parish,’ said the doctor. ‘Apart from the limp, and that should pass off with time.’
He was taken off litter collection, and set to cleaning floors in an institution. It was very easy work. The place’s shiny marble floors shrugged off dirt at the merest sweep of a damp mop. Hordes of people came every day. Some were young, some old, others somewhere in between. Some could have hailed from Parish’s home town, others had quite a different look. All were colourfully dressed. All wandered around in big groups or small ones, chattering away in one language or another, and gazing at the things that hung on the white walls as if each one was the face of their lover, or their long-lost child. Parish thought them like a flock of peacocks. They hurt his eyes to look at them and his head to listen to them, not that he did either very often. The work as I said was very easy. The hardest thing was all the breaks. There was nothing to do. His fellow cleaners wandered about the rooms just like the visitors, and just as happily. Parish tried to keep on working, but was told quite kindly but firmly that it was not permitted. Eventually the overseer took his mop and bucket and uniform away, and locked them in a cupboard. ‘Enjoy yourself!’ he said.
Enjoy himself! Parish had hardly had time to enjoy himself since he was a little lad, playing at soldiers in the meadow that ran down to the stream with his friend whose name had slipped his mind. He could not imagine that looking at pictures on walls might be enjoyable, if he would only give it a chance. (They were really very wonderful pictures, the most wonderful in all the world.) He had not grasped that without his cleaner’s uniform, nobody could have told him from one of the peacocky visitors. So he sat down on the nearest bench to the cupboard, staring at nothing but the plain white wall, waiting for his shift to start and feeling wretched that there was nothing he could do. One day while he was sitting there, he overheard two Voices talking. Parish saw nobody. They must have been in one of the other rooms. (There were a lot of different rooms in the place.)
‘His treatment has failed,’ said one Voice. ‘He still feels misery, and for no reason.’
‘His treatment has succeeded,’ said the other. ‘But this is not the right place for him, and he is missing his wife.’
‘If not here, where?’
‘Do you remember Niggle?’ asked the Second Voice. It was a rhetorical question. The First Voice remembered everything. That was His curse. ‘Niggle asked for him. I think he would enjoy Niggle’s Country—and he could be useful there. He could get things ready for his wife, when her treatment is complete.’
‘Very well,’ said the First Voice. ‘It shall be as you say.’
So it was that Parish found himself leaning on a spade in the pleasant little dell where Niggle found him. It was such a grand place! The turf under his feet felt so springy, Parish longed to take his boots off and walk barefoot over it. Not once in all those years had he taken off his boots out of doors—not since he had got his gammy leg. Flowers studded the meadow grass, not daisies or buttercups or bluebells, but strange ones like stars or little suns. The trees that shaded the place were not oak or beech or poplar; they were queer trees he had never seen before in his life, yet they put him in mind of those tall graceful poplars he used to rest beneath with his wife. They cast such a refreshing shade when the sun was high! Beyond the meadows and the woodland, a quicksilver lake shimmered, and beyond that rose mountains. Mountains! It was the hope of seeing mountains that had made Parish so eager to set out on his first journey. He had been cheated then, but he was not cheated now. The queerest thing of all was the way everything felt so familiar. Parish thought he might have visited the place once when he was a little lad. Or perhaps he had dreamed of it? But this was no memory, no dream. You or I might think it like hearing an orchestra play a symphony when all you have ever heard is somebody humming the theme, but Parish had never heard an orchestra. To him it was more like biting into a fruit still dewy from the garden when all you have ever tasted is syrupy chunks from a tin.
No doubt you have heard what Niggle’s friends have said about their time together in that land. It is true enough, as far as it goes, and I shall not repeat it. The evening when their joint labour was done was one of those soft, sweet summer evenings that seem to go on for days and days without ever becoming dull. After the sun went down, they sat in the garden in the little hollow—it was far too balmy a night to sit inside—and watched the stars come out, and all the night life follow them. There never seemed to be any biting insects (there were no slugs on the potatoes either), but they often saw glow-worms and clouds of fireflies like shooting stars. The rambling roses Parish had trained over the bank perfumed the air, and attracted great blundering moths that seemed almost the size of wrens.
He and Niggle often sat together long into the night. (The longer they dwelled in that country, the less sleep they seemed to need.) Sometimes they talked over the things they would do the next day; sometimes they just sat. That night, when it had got so dark they could have been any two men sitting side by side, Parish said, ‘I always resented you, you know—you and every other man who got out of going on a journey when you were young. It never seemed fair.’
‘It wasn’t fair,’ said Niggle. ‘I always thought you deserved some sort of public pension. I never grasped it was up to me to make sure you were all right. Would you believe it, back then I thought I deserved one to do my silly painting!’ Both men laughed, and they were merry laughs without any meanness to them. ‘I never understood quite how much your leg must have been bothering you.’
The following day, Parish said farewell to his friend at the very edge of the country, where the woods ended and the foothills began. He watched Niggle and the shepherd zigzag their way up the slope, till they were dots no bigger than fireflies. Then he turned away, and began the long walk back to the house they had built and shared. Now he was alone he thought he might as well grumble to himself a little about how much his leg hurt, just to pass the time—when he realised all at once that it did not pain him one bit! He no longer had so much as a trace of a limp! He gave a little skip, and then he was running, running over the springy turf like a rabbit, running as he had not run since he was a lad in the water meadows racing his friend Jack.
The little house was empty and silent when he reached it. Among all the foam of fallen blossom on the path, the great tree that shaded the hollow had given up a wand. Parish picked it up; the twig was about the width of his thumb. It reminded him of something—had he not used to play a little whistle just like that? He got out his pocket knife, and his fingers remembered just how to whittle a whistle. His lips remembered how to play it, too. He played it at his potatoes as they were simmering, and later he asked the tree for another branch, and made a little pipe. There was hardly any work to be done. Everything grew exuberantly but nothing grew out of place. Parish often wandered far and wide about the land, playing his pipe to rocks and trees and streams, as if he were looking for something—he did not know what until he found her. Among the tall hemlock flowers in a little clearing, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen was dancing, crowned with golden blossoms like a queen.
‘Evie!’ he called. ‘I’ve been waiting for you.’ She turned to him and a look of the purest, sweetest joy spread over her face. He threw off his boots and she swept him into the dance. Blossom rained down on the two dancers like confetti, and though the pipe had dropped from his lips, the music did not stop. It was as if the trees were singing!
19 December 2015