To Vange! We set out, the champ, the widow, and me, at break of dawn, hoping to make Vange before nightfall. I knew little about my travelling companions. I had no idea, for example, of what the champ was a champion, nor did I know whose relict the widow was, nor for how long she had been wearing her widow’s weeds. They, in their turn, must have known almost nothing about me, save perhaps that I was a fanatical devotee of Trebizondo Culpeper, whose glorious image shot forth rays of golden light from the badge I wore upon my tunic.
Our donkeys we had abducted, with great daring, in broad daylight, from the beach where they were employed to give rides to holidaying urchins. They were sturdy beasts, with a surprising elegance in their carriage. I was well aware, as were the champ and the widow, that laws exist to regulate the number of hours a donkey may be worked, but I spat in the face of the laws, and my companions did too. We were determined to get to Vange in a single day, and if in so doing we were to exhaust our donkeys, then so be it. Trebizondo Culpeper’s recorded pronouncements on donkeys are gnomic, to say the least, and though I could not claim to have a full understanding of them, I felt sure we were following the right path.
By “path”, I mean of course the Way of Trebizondo Culpeper, not the path to Vange. Accustomed as they were to the golden strands of their seaside resort, our abducted donkeys would have been utterly discombobulated had we led them along the main arterial trunk road to Vange, with its thundering traffic of container lorries and speed-phrenzied vanborne riffraff. We chose instead to make our way across fields and greensward, taking the occasional quiet country lane or abandoned railway line where the opportunity arose. We had no map. Instead, we relied on the widow’s profound, and in many ways unnerving knowledge of the lie of the land. In less enlightened times they would have burned her for a witch.
Of the three of us, only the champ had previously been to Vange. One of the early heats in his progress to the championship had been due to take place at Vange Marshes, and the champ was billeted in the village beforehand. In the event, the contest was cancelled because of an unprecedented starling storm, teeming millions of birds swooping over the marshes, and the champ and his rivals were driven away in charabancs to a new location. When he spoke, which was rarely, the champ’s speech was punctuated with chuckles which I found mightily disconcerting.
My own knowledge of Vange was based on a rotogravure by the noted rotogravurist Rex Rotograv, which had been presented to me as a prize for pursuivance by Trebizondo Culpeper’s Inner Circle. I pored over this picture for hours and hours, drinking in every detail, until I felt as if I knew Vange itself. In truth, of course, I knew nothing, nothing whatsoever, of Vange, of Vange Marshes, of anything at all, in essence. In The Ungrateful Beggar (1898) Léon Bloy reports his mother telling him: “My dear child, it is true you’re an ox, but an ox whose bellowings will one day astonish Christendom”. Through diligent study of the Way of Trebizondo Culpeper, I had eventually had drummed into me my own ox-like stupidity. I had high hopes that my visit to Vange might inspire my bellowings, which to date had been few, and those few incoherent.
When I published an account of an earlier journey by abducted donkey, to a village that I mistook for Vange, it was suggested to me that I ought to have included, through a kind of ventriloquism, the donkey’s “thoughts and observations”. There are narratives that go in for that sort of thing, and no doubt readers who lap it up. But Trebizondo Culpeper expressly forbids such misuse of our talents, if talents we have, and he is surely right to do so. On the present occasion, we had not even learned our donkeys’ names, and that would have been a necessary precursor to any attempt to burrow into their interior beings. For logistical purposes, before we had even got clear of the beach, the widow had assigned to each donkey a nonce name, but her choices were long-winded and multisyllabic and did not serve their purpose. I have forgotten what they were.
I have forgotten more than that. But what I remember with absolute clarity, as if it were yesterday, is how, as day became dusk and dusk darkened to night, the champ, the widow, and I, upon our donkeys, guided at the last by a star burning bright against the black, reached the end of our journey. There was Vange! And there, closer still, so close we could stop and dismount and make the last few yards on foot, was Vange Well No. 5! The domed building, like a Grecian temple, was falling to ruin after years of neglect, its structure cracked in places, a cross beam detached, the render upon the exterior walls in need of replacement, and little remaining of the original lettering. There was still evidence of the other wells close by, and hidden in the undergrowth was the concrete hard standing, where once stood a large wooden hut that was used for storage. This was the last of five wells sunk following the discovery, over a century ago, of magic water by self-styled farmer Edwin Cash. It was highly sulphated, and he bottled it and sold it, labelled as Farmer Cash’s Famous Medicinal Vange Water, extolling its great medicinal value in curing such ailments as lumbago, stomach troubles, rheumatoid complaints, and nervous disorders. But then the sanatorium was built nearby, on higher ground, and its drainage system contaminated the magic water, and the business collapsed, just as the structure of Vange Well No. 5 was in a state of collapse, just as, after a day riding our abducted donkeys, the widow, the champ, and I were close to collapse. We had strength enough, though, working together, to sink our siphons into the ground and suck up the magic water. We cared not that it was contaminated. In the night, on the outskirts of Vange, we drank our fill, each for our own reasons.
The champ, plagued by lumbago, fearing that next season he would fail to retain his championship, drank the magic water. The widow, martyred by stomach troubles and rheumatoid complaints, drank the magic water. And me, with my nervous disorders and my fanatical devotion to Trebizondo Culpeper? I drank the magic Vange water too. I drank deep.
Above us, the bright burning star was extinguished, and we were engulfed in darkness. We could no longer see each other, nor our abducted donkeys. We could no longer see even the crumbling ruin of Vange Well No. 5. We waited for the dawn, for a new day, for the transfiguration wrought upon each of us by the magic water of Vange.