Thursday, February 8, 2007

The Borrowers: fantastic. Here's the Sunday Times blurb: 'Beautifully written, poetic and almost always alarming, the Borrowers books have something very mysterious, sad and exciting about them." And the description on the back: "The Borrowers own nothing at all; everything they have is borrowed from the 'human beans,' who don't even know they exist. That is, until Arrietty Clock makes friends with one. And from that moment danger is never far away, for, above all else, they must avoid the great disaster of "being seen."'

Here are some excerpts:

'She thinks my father comes out of the decanter,' said Arrietty, 'and one day when I'm older he's going to take me there and she'll think I come out of the decanter too. It'll please her, my father thinks, as she's used to him now. Once he took my mother, and Aunt Sophy perked up like anything and kept asking why my mother didn't come any more and saying they'd watered the Madeira because once, she says, she saw a little man and a little woman and now she only sees a little man…'
'I wish she thought I came out of the decanter,' said the boy. 'She gives me dictation and teaches me to write. I only see her in the mornings when she's cross. She sends for me and looks behind my ears and asks Mrs. D. if I've learned my words.'
'What does Mrs. D. look like?' asked Arrietty. (How delicious it was to say 'Mrs. D.' like that… how careless and daring!) (p. 54)

Arrietty was glad to see the morning room; the door luckily had been left ajar and it was fascinating to stand at last in the thick pile of the carpet gazing upwards at the shelves and pillars and towering gables of the famous overmantel. So that's where they had lived, she thought, those pleasure-loving creatures, remote and gay and self-sufficient. She imagined the Overmantel women — a little 'tweedy,' Homily had described them, with wasp waists and piled Edwardian hair — swinging carelessly outwards on the pilasters, lissom and laughing; gazing at themselves in the inset looking-glass which reflected back the tobacco jars, the cut-glass decanters, the book-shelves, and the plush-covered table. She imagined the Overmantel men — fair, they were said to be, with long moustaches and nervous, slender hands — smoking and drinking and telling their witty tales. So they had never asked Homily up there! Poor Homily with her bony nose and never tidy hair… They would have looked at her strangely, Arrietty thought, with their long, laughing eyes, and smile a little and, humminy, turn away. And they had lived only on breakfast food — on toast and egg and tiny snips of mushroom; sausage they'd have had and crispy bacon and little sips of tea and coffee. Where were they now? Arrietty wondered. Where could such creatures go? (p. 65)

Shadows danced every way and, in their shouting and scolding, they hardly noticed a sudden, silent thickening of night swerve in on the dusk; but they felt the wind of its passing, watched the candle gutter, and saw the moth was gone. (p. 180)

It was difficult to piece the story together from Spiller's terse sentences, but at last some coherence emerged. Spiller, it seemed, owned a boat — the bottom half of an aluminium soap-case, slightly dented; in this, standing up, he would propel himself about the stream. Spiller had a summer camp (or hunting lodge) in the sloping field behind — an old blackened tea kettle it was — wedged sideways in the silt of the stream (he had several of these bases it appeared, of which, at some time, the boot had been one) — and he would borrow from the caravans, transporting the loot by water; this boat gave him a speedy getaway, and one which left no scent. Coming up against the current was slower, Spiller explained, and for this he was grateful for the hatpin, which not only served as a sharp and pliable punt-pole, but as a harpoon as well. He became so lyrical about the hat-pin that Pod and Homily began to feel quite pleased with themselves, as though, out of the kindness of their hearts, they had achieved some benevolent gesture. Pod longed to ask to what use Spiller had put the half nail-scissor but could not bring himself to do so, fearing to strike a discordant note in so bland a state of innocent joy. (p. 202)

'Why have you got to go?' asked Arrietty suddenly.
Spiller, about to push his way through the screen of leaves, turned back to look at her.
Arrietty coloured. 'I've asked him a question,' she realized unhappily, 'now he'll disappear for weeks.' But this time Spiller seemed merely hesitant.
'Me winter clothes,' he said at last.
'Oh!' exclaimed Arrietty, raising her head — delighted. 'New?'
Spiller nodded.
'Fur?' asked Homily.
Spiller nodded again.
'Rabbit?" asked Arrietty.
'Mole,' said Spiller.
There was a sudden feeling of gaiety in the candlelit alcove: a pleasant sense of something to look forward to. All three of them smiled at Spiller and Pod raised his 'glass.' 'To Spiller's new clothes,' he said, and Spiller, suddenly embarrassed, dived quickly through the branches. But before the living curtain had stopped quivering they saw his face again; amused and shy, it poked back at them framed in leaves. 'A lady makes them,' he announced self-consciously, and quickly disappeared. (p. 216)

'No good being hasty, Pod,' Hendreary said at last. 'The choice of course is yours, but we're all in this together, and for as long as it lasts' — he glanced around the table as though putting the words on record — 'and such as it is, what is ours is yours.'
'That's very kind of you, Hendreary,' said Pod.
'Not at all,' said Hendreary, speaking rather too smoothly; 'it stands to reason.'
'It's only human,' put in Lupy: she was very fond of this word. (p. 287)

'These Borrowers do need warmth. They need fuel and shelter and water and they terribly need human beings. Not that they trust them. They're right, I suppose: one has only to read the papers. But it's sad, isn't it? That they can't trust us, I mean. What could be more charming for someone — like me, says — to share one's home with these little creatures? Not that I'm lonely, of course. My days' Miss Menzie's eyes became over-bright suddenly and the gay voice hurried a little — 'are far too full ever to be lonely. I've so many interests, you see. I keep up with things. And I have my old dog and the two little birds. All the same, it would be nice. I know their names now — Pod, Homily, and little Arrietty. These creatures talk, you see. And just think I'd' — she laughed suddenly — 'I'd be sewing for them from morning until night. I'd make them things. I'd buy them things. I'd — oh, but you understand…' (p. 405)

* * *

"I can't believe she's being set up to marry Spiller!" said Nina, after reading one of the middle volumes. "He's so uncommunicative — it's all wrong!"

Spiller has his good points: he's brave, loyal, and resourceful. And there's this:

'…But he will have kid — says it's hard wearing. It stiffens up, of course, directly he gets it wet, but he soon wears it soft again. And by that time,' she added, 'it's all colours of the rainbow.'
Arrietty could imagine the colours; they would not be 'all colours of the rainbow': they would be colours without real colour, the shades which made Spiller invisible — soft fawns, pale browns, dull greens, and a kind of shadowy gun-metal. Spiller took care about 'seasoning' his clothes: he brought them to a stage where he could melt into the landscape, where one could stand beside him, almost within touching distance, and yet not see him. Spiller deceived animals as well as gipsies. Spiller deceived hawks and stoats and foxes… and Spiller might not wash but he had no Spiller scent: he smelled of hedgerows, and bark and grasses and of wet sun-warmed earth; he smelled of buttercups, dried cow dung, and early morning dew…
'When will he come?' Arrietty asked. But she ran away upstairs before anyone could tell her. She wept a little in the upstairs room, crouched down beside the soap-dish.
To talk of Spiller reminded her of out of doors and of a wild, free life she might never know again. This new-found haven among the lath and plaster might all too soon become another prison… (p. 278)

* * *

But Nina's right: his silence, his disappearing acts, and his illiteracy mean he's really not good enough for dear Arrietty. "Don't worry," I said. "She meets another Borrower: a kind, articulate, well-read young Borrower." And I sang his praises to Nina, without, however, saying his name, which is almost the best thing about him. Here's the scene in which Arrietty first meets him:

Suddenly there was a sound. It was quite a small sound and seemed to come from the library next door. Arrietty stood up and, keeping her body covered by the brick support, peeked her head forward.
All was quiet. She watched and waited. From where she stood, she could see the tap and, to the left of this, the place where the tiles ended and the library floorboards began. She could see a little way into the library, part of the fireplace and the light from the long windows but not the windows themselves. As she stood there under the stove, still as the crumbled bricks which supported it, she could feel the quickening pulse of her own heartbeats.
The next sound was very slight. She had to strain her ears to hear it. It was a faint continuous squeak. As though, she thought, someone was working a machine, or turning some miniature handle. It grew — not louder exactly, but nearer. And then, with a catch of the breath, she saw the tiny figure.
It was a borrower — no doubt of that — a borrower with a limp, dragging some contraption behind him. Whatever the contraption was, it moved easily — almost magically — not like Spiller soap-box which was rather apt to bump. In this case, it was the borrower who bumped. One of his shoulders went right down with each step taken: he was very lame. And fairly young, Arrietty noticed, as he came on towards the tap. He had a soft mop of tow-coloured hair and a pale, pale face. The thing he dragged was on wheels. What a wonderful idea, Arrietty thought: why had not her own family ever owned such a thing? There had been plenty of old toys, she had been told, pushed away in the playroom cupboard at Firbank and some of them must have had wheels. It was these four wheels, she realized, which produced the fairylike squeaking.
When the young borrower reached the drain, he turned his truck so the rear end faced the eye-bath. Then, stooping down, he took a drink of water. Arrietty drew back a little when, wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he moved towards the glass door which led to the garden. He stood there for some moments, his back to Arrietty, gazing out through the panes. "He's watching the birds," she thought, "or seeing what sort of day it is…" And it was a lovely day, Arrietty could see that for herself. No wind, pale sunlight, and the birds were starting to build. After a while he turned and limped his way back to the eye-bath. Stooping, he tried to lift it. But it seemed very heavy and was slippery with water. No wonder Homily had had no patience with such an object: there was nothing you could get a grip on.
He tried again. Suddenly, she longed to help him; but how to announce herself without giving him a fright? She coughed, and he turned quickly, then remained frozen.
Their eyes met. Arrietty kept quite still. His heart, she realized, must be beating just as hard as hers was. After a moment, she smiled. She tried to think of something to say. "Hallo!" might sound too sudden. Perhaps she should say "Good morning"? Yes, that was it. "Good morning," she said. Her voice, to her ears, sounded tremulous, even a little husky, so she added quickly, on a brighter, clearer note: "It's a lovely day!"
He was still staring at her, as though unable to believe his eyes. Arrietty returned his stare and kept quite still. She tried to hold on to her smile. "Isn't it?" she added.
Suddenly, he gave a half laugh, and sat down on the edge of the drain. He ran his hand rather ruefully through the mop of his hair, and laughed again. "You gave me a fright," he said."
"I know," said Arrietty, "I'm sorry…"
"Who are you?"
"Arrietty Clock."
"I haven't seen you before."
"I — we only came last night."
"My mother and father. And me…"
"Are you going to stay here?"
"I don't know. It depends —"
"On what?"
"On whether it's safe. And nice. And — you know…"
"Oh, it's nice," he said. "Considering —"
"Considering what?"
"Considering other places. And it used to be safe…"
"Isn't it now?"
He gave her a small, half-rueful smile and shrugged his shoulders. "How can one tell?"
"That's true," said Arrietty. "You never know —" She liked his voice, she realized: he spoke each word so clearly, in a clipped kind of way, but the general tone was gentle.
"What is your name?" she asked.
He laughed, and tossed his hair back out of his eyes. "They call me Peagreen," he said, still smiling — as though she might find it ridiculous."
"Oh," said Arrietty.
"It's spelt P-E-R-E-G-R-I-N-E."
Arrietty thought for a moment. "Peregrine," she said.
"That's it." He stood up then, as though suddenly aware that all this time he had been sitting. "I'm sorry…" he said.
"What for?"
"For flopping down like that."
"You had a bit of a shock," said Arrietty.
"A bit," he admitted, and added, "who taught you to spell?"
"I — " Arrietty hesitated: suddenly it seemed too long a story. "I just learned," she said. "My father knew a little. Enough to start me off…"
"Can you write?"
"Yes, very nicely. Can you?"
"Yes." He smiled. "Very nicely.
"Who taught you?"
"Oh, I don't know. All the Overmantels can read and write. The human children used to have lessons in that library," he jerked his head towards the double doors. "It goes back generations. You only had to listen, and the books were always left on the table…"
Arrietty moved forward suddenly from between the bricks, her face alight and interested. "Are you one of the Overmantels?"
"I was until I fell off the chimneypiece."
"How wonderful! I don't mean falling off the chimneypiece. I mean — that you're an Overmantel! I never thought I'd meet a real Overmantel. I thought they were something in the past —"
"Well, they are now, I suppose."
"Peregrine Overmantel," breathed Arrietty, "what a lovely name… Peregrine Overmantel! We're just Clocks — Pod, Homily and Arrietty Clock. It doesn't sound very grand, does it?"
"It depends on the clock," said Peagreen.
"It was a grandfather clock."
"Yes, I suppose so." She thought a moment. "Yes, it was very old."
"Well, then!" said Peagreen laughing.
"But we mostly lived under the kitchen."
Peagreen laughed again. "Ah-ha," he said, and there was mischief in his face. Arrietty looked puzzled: had she made some sort of joke? Peagreen seemed to think so.
"Where do you —" she began and then put her hand to her mouth. She remembered suddenly that it was not done to ask strange borrowers where they lived: their homes, of necessity, must be hidden and secret — unless, of course, they happened to be one's relations.
But Peagreen did not seem to mind. "I don't live anywhere just at present," he said lightly, answering her half-asked question.
"But you must sleep somewhere —"
"I'm moving house. As a matter of fact, you could say I've moved. But I haven't slept there yet."
"I see," said Arrietty. Somehow the day seemed less bright and the future more uncertain. "Are you going far?"
He looked at her speculatively. "It depends what you call 'far'…"
He turned back to the eye-bath and laid his hands on the rim. "It's a bit too full," he said.
Arrietty was silent for a moment, then she said, "Why don't you tip a bit out?"
"That's just what I was going to do."
"I'll help you," she said.
Together they tilted the eye-bath. It had a lip on either side. As the water gurgled down the drain, they set it back on its base. Then Peagreen moved to his cart to push it nearer. Arrietty came beside him. "My father would like this truck," she said, running a finger along the curved front: the rear was open like a lorry without a tailboard. "What's it made of?"
"It's the bottom half of a date box. I have the top, too. But that hasn't got wheels. It was useful, though, when they had carpets."
"When who had carpets?"
"The human beings who lived here. The ones who took down the overmantel. That's when I fell off the chimneypiece." He went back to the eye-bath. "If you could take one lip, I'll take the other…"
Arrietty could and did, but her mind was reeling with what she had just heard: the overmantel gone, a whole lifestyle destroyed! When did it happen, and why? Where were Peagreen's parents now? And their friends and, perhaps, other children… She kept silent until they had set the eye-bath down on the lorry. Then she said casually, "How old were you when you fell off the chimneypiece?"
"I was quite small, five or six. I broke my leg."
"Did somebody come down and rescue you?"
"No," he said, "I don't think they noticed."
"Didn't notice that a little child had fallen off the chimneypiece!"
"They were packing up, you see. There was a kind of panic. It was night, and they knew they had to get out before daylight. Perhaps they missed me afterwards…"
"You mean they went without you!"
"Well, I couldn't walk, you see."
"But what did you do?"
"Some other borrowers took me in. Ground-floor borrowers. They were going too, but they kept me until my leg got better. And when they went, they left me the house, though, and some food and that. They left me quite a few things. I could manage."
"But your poor leg!"
"Oh, I can climb all right. But I'm not too good at running, so I don't go out of doors much: things can happen out of doors, when you have to run. It was all right, and I had the books…"
"You mean the books in the library? But how did you get up to the shelves?"
"Oh, it's easy: all those shelves are adjustable. There are notches out in the uprights, it's like climbing a rather steep staircase. You just prise out the book you want, and let it drop. But you can't put it back. My house got full of books."
Arrietty was silent, thinking all this over. After a while she said, "What were they like, those human beings — those ones who pulled down the overmantel?"
"Dreadful. Always pulling things down and putting things up. You never knew where you were from one day to another. It was a nightmare. They blocked up the old open fireplace and put a small grate there instead…"
"Yes, I saw it," said Arrietty. Even she had thought it spoiled the look of the room, with its glazed tile surround painted with writhing tulips — very snake-like, those tulips.
"Art-nouveau," Peagreen told her, but she did not know what that meant. "They said the old one was draughty, and it was rather: if you stood inside you could look up and see the sky. And sometimes the rain came down. But not often. In the old days, they burned great logs in it — logs as big as trees, the grown-ups used to tell us…"
"What sort of other things did they do? I mean, those human beings —"
"Before they went, they put in the telephone. And the central heating. And the electric light. Very newfangled they were: everything had to be 'modern'." He laughed, "They even put a generator into the church."
"What's a generator?"
"A thing that makes electric light. All the lights in the church can go on at one go. Not like lighting the gas jets one by one. But all the same…"
"All the same what?"
"They went, too. Said the place was creepy. In this house, you never know what you'r going to get in the way of human beings. But there's just one thing you can be sure of —"
"What's that?" asked Arrietty.
"They may come, — but they always go!"
"Why's that, I wonder?"
"It's because of the ghosts. For some silly reason, human beings can't abide them."
Arrietty swallowed. She put out a hand as though to steady herself on the rim of the date box. "Are there — are there many ghosts?" she faltered.
"Only three that I know of," said Peagreen carelessly. "And one of those you can't see: it's only footsteps. Footsteps never hurt anybody."
"And the others?"
"Oh, you'll see for yourself in time." He smiled at her and picked up the cord attached to his truck. "Well, I'd better be getting along: those Whitlaces will be up by seven."
Arrietty increased her grip on the edge of the truck, as though to detain him. "Can you speak to ghosts?" she asked him hurriedly.
"Well, you could. But I doubt if they'd answer you."
"I wish you weren't going," said Arrietty, as she removed her hand from the truck. "I'd like you to meet my father and mother: there's so much you could tell them!"
"Where are they now?"
"They're asleep in that stove. We were all very tired."
"In the stove?" He sounded surprised.
"They've got bedclothes and everything."
"Better let them sleep," he said. "I'll come back later."
"When the Whitlaces have gone out." He thought for a moment. "About two o'clock, say? She goes down to the church and He'll be up in the kitchen garden, by then…"
"That would be wonderful," and she stood there watching as he pulled his truck towards the double doors and into the library beyond. The fairylike squeaking became fainter and fainter until she could hear it no longer. (pp. 565-571)

From the next chapter:

"What's he like?"
"Quite young. Well, at first, I thought he was not much older than me. His name is Peagreen."
Pod was silent. Thoughtfully, he pushed the combed back into his pocket as Homily appeared. She, too, Arrietty noticed, had tidied her hair. She came beside her husband and both stood quietly, looking at Arrietty.
"Your mother tells me he's an Overmantel," Pod said, at last.
"Well, he was," said Arrietty.
"Once an Overmantel, always an Overmantel. Well," he went on, "there's nothing wrong in that: they come in all kinds!"
"Not really —" began Homily excitedly. "You remember those ones in the morning-room at Firbank? They —"
Pod raised a quiet hand to silence her. "Does he live alone?" he asked Arrietty.
"Yes, I think so. Yes, I'm sure he does. You see, it's like this…" And she told him, perhaps a little too eagerly, of Peagreen's accident, his early life, all the troubles and dangers and hungers and lonelinesses she had imagined for him (not that he had ever mentioned these himself) "… it must have been too awful!" she finished breathlessly.
Homily had listened silently: she had not known quite what to think. To feel pity for an Overmantel: that would be a development for which she would need time. (p. 573)


Nina said...

i have "the borrowers avenged" on hold at the library now... so excited... xox

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