There is the story about the pauper who steals a pea from a princeling. Or it may be that the princeling steals a pea from a pauper. I can never quite recall which way round it goes. I ought to remember, because god knows I heard the story often enough. My ma, or sometimes my pa, read it to me every single night, for years and years, as my bedtime story. Perhaps that is why I don’t remember it with blinding clarity, because I was always falling asleep as I listened to it. I fell asleep in spite of the undoubted excitement of the story, and of the Sturm und Drang of the violent thunderstorms which were a constant feature of the weather in that place at that time. I suspect my falling asleep came so easily because my ma, or my pa, spiked my bedtime milk of magnesia with a powerful tranquiliser.
I was certainly a tranquil child. I never said “Boo!” to a goose. My parents kept several geese, but I never dared say “Boo!” to a single one of them. Frankly, they terrified me with their honking and their waddling about and the whiteness of their feathers, a whiteness that seemed unearthly. It reminded me of the final scene in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe.
Of course, I was not reminded of this when I was an unlettered tot, it was only later, when I learned to read. At first I read childish comics like The Ipsy Dipsy Doo and The Hammer of Christ, but I was a keen reader and swiftly moved on to Enid Blyton and Enid Blytoff and Enid Blytattheendofthetunnel, before tackling Burgess and Borges, and the gloomy Russians, and potboilers by Pebblehead, until, at twelve, I read Arthur Gordon Pym, after which I was so unnerved by that whiteness that I never read anything else, ever again, just reading Poe’s novel over and over again and again. It remains the only book on my bookshelf, which rather obviates the need for the space provided by a shelf. Hence I have filled it with plasticine models of a pauper and a pea and a princeling.
I made these models myself, visualising the pauper and the princeling based on what little I could remember about my childhood bedtime story, and the pea on close observation of a frozen pea I removed from a packet of frozen peas stored in the freezer compartment of my refrigerator in my kitchen in my chalet high in the Alps near the sanatorium where tubercular patients lie sprawled, exhausted, on balconies.
Among these patients, who I watch through a pair of binoculars, is a fellow with a walrus moustache who closely resembles the lumbering psychopathic serial killer Babinsky. But it cannot be him. If it were, I like to think I would clamber up to his balcony and engage him in conversation and ask him if he, too, grew up listening over and over again and again to the tale of the pauper and the princeling and the pea. If he had, and if he was indeed Babinsky, it would explain a lot about his subsequent career raining violent havoc and mayhem upon the weedy and the blameless and the innocent.
When I tire of watching the Babinsky lookalike, I train my binoculars upon the snow-capped Alpine peaks, white, so white, so unutterably, blindingly white.