On Tadeusz Kapisko And His Ears Of Wheat

[The following piece, one of my own favourites, first appeared in Hooting Yard in September 2005. I find myself somewhat alarmed to think that is almost seven years ago. Where, where does the time go? Seven years is the length of time the Jesuits need to claim a child’s soul for life. It is longer than the Second World War. Ay de mi! Ay de mi!, as Carlyle would say. For this reappearance, I have added some useful notes.]

In certain parts of the world, people still sit around their fires at dusk and tell each other stories. In the wretched village where Marigold Chew grew up, there was one tale in particular that was told over and over again. This was the story of Tadeusz Kapisko and his ears of wheat. It was told so often – sometimes three or four times in a single evening – that it was embedded in Marigold’s brain, and years later, she could recount it word for word, barely pausing for breath. Dobson always knew when she was about to launch into the yarn, because she sucked in her cheeks and puckered her lips in what he thought of as “that Kapisko way”.

Curiously, the tale of Tadeusz Kapisko and his ears of wheat was never written down, but if Marigold Chew’s memory is accurate, there was a record of sorts. She remembered, as an infant, seeing pictorial representations of the main points of the story, richly painted in crimson, cerulean blue and orpiment. Later in life, she tried to describe them.

I recall that the first picture was of Tadeusz Kapisko half hidden behind a cow. It was, decisively, a French cow, une vache. I remember thinking how significant this was, even as a tiny tot. The second picture was the shape of a medallion. The painter overdid the orpiment, but what I loved about this one was that it showed the exact moment of a hen’s cluck. Tadeusz Kapisko is absent. I think we were meant to infer that he had already gone off to war. Certainly that is the import of the third picture, in which the Kapisko parents are shown filling rusty farmyard pails with their tears. I could almost taste the salt of their sobbing, as they waited for the wheat.

Picture four was missing, it had been torn out, you could still see the ghost shade of its adhesive. Some brute or vandal had scribbled over the fifth picture with an indelible black marker pen, and the sixth had been chewed by squirrels. So it was always a joy to look at the seventh, in which we see Tadeusz Kapisko with his ears of wheat at last, returned from the trenches minus one eye, leaning against the shed in which all the rusty farmyard pails full of his parents’ tears are kept. He is smoking a cheroot and looks the spit and image of Josef Starling, though his hair has been painted in cerulean blue with flecks of orpiment which may be accidental.

The eighth picture is like a child’s drawing. It shows the helicopters on the helipad, the burning cities, and the pit of doom, making the next picture all the more alluring, the delightful wash of colours showing meadows dotted with teasel, spurge, gentians, camellias, columbine, bedstraw and edelweiss, honeysuckle, lupins and phlox. And hollyhocks, hollyhocks.

“Oooh, mama! Papa!” I used to pipe, as I turned to picture number ten, “Where are Tadeusz Kapisko’s ears of wheat?” And my parents would always smile conspiratorially and place their fingers over their mouths, and I adored the anticipation of seeing the eleventh and last picture, all crimson and cerulean blue and orpiment, King’s yellow, the frying pan and the hunchback, the countless pigs wallowing in their muck, the detective with his buttons and the unshelled peas still snug in their pods, the glockenspiel and the fire extinguisher, the tiny glittering ships afloat on the soaking wet sea, and there, if you looked ever so closely, on the poop deck of the tiniest ship of all, triumphant in his galoshes, with his ears of wheat, Tadeusz Kapisko, brave and strong!


In certain parts of the world, people still sit around their fires at dusk and tell each other stories. One such part of the world, I have learned, is a house on Jethro Tull Gardens, a cul-de-sac in a village in Oxfordshire. There, night after night after night, folk gather around a fire to tell each other stories based on Jethro Tull song lyrics. They transform Mr Anderson’s rhymes into prose, creating afresh tales of minstrels in galleries, heavy horses, Jeffrey going to Leicester Square, and other marvels.

Tadeusz Kapisko. This appears to be a Polish spelling. It has been given elsewhere as Thaddeus Capisco. Without knowing the precise location of the wretched village where Marigold Chew grew up, we cannot plump for one spelling or the other. One thing we can be fairly sure of, however, is that Marigold Chew did not grow up in Jethro Tull Gardens. I think we would know, if she had. Or do I mean if she did? Had? Did? Do? Be? Doobedoobedoo.

a French cow. I have long wondered if this French cow is related to the laughing cow, a red cow usually spotted on the paper element of the packaging of foil-wrapped processed cheese triangles. For certain children, brought up in blasted urban wastelands far from the bosky charms of a rustic idyll, this is the first, and possibly only, cow they have ever seen.

Mention of the cow reminds me to draw your attention to the latest media report of a cow attack, which I am pleased to note refers in passing to David Blunkett. It also includes the immortal line: “It’s hard to comprehend just how big a cow is until you’re underneath one, looking up at it.”

Josef Starling. Paranoid, pock-marked Georgian, dictator of the Soviet Union, died in 1953. Often confused with Clarice Stalin, heroine of The Silence Of The Cows Lambs, a potboiler by Thomas Harris.

the burning cities. Possibly the same burning cities alluded to in Nine Funerals Of A Citizen King by Henry Cow. I have searched in vain on maps for a cul-de-sac called Henry Cow Gardens.

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