I heard the wagons rumbling past the garden fence, sometimes I even saw them through gently swaying gaps in the foliage. I would gaze, transfixed, as wagon after wagon after wagon passed. But when they were gone, and the road was empty, I saw, through gently swaying gaps in the foliage, beyond the road, the expanse of the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa, and I was terrified, and I ran back into the cottage, gibbering, until Papa gave me a bowl of soup, and, slurping it without a spoon, I was becalmed.
From infancy, wise Papa had forbidden me to stray beyond the garden fence and foliage. There were countless tales of unsuspecting children wandering on to the tarputa, and vanishing in its vast wild windswept desolate expanse, never to be seen again in this world. The glimpses of it I had, when once the wagons had rumbled past, frightened me beyond words.
Though I was confined to our cottage and its garden, I was a contented tot. I had innumerable pebbles and sticks to play with, and sometimes a bird – a wren or a godwit – would appear in the sky overhead, and swoop, and alight upon the bird table. I would watch entranced as Papa came charging out of the cottage at uncanny speed, a sock filled with wet impacted sand in his fist, and bashed out the brains of the bird before it had time to flit away. On the days when that happened, the soup was particularly slurpable.
My psychiatrist has asked me, repeatedly, if I was a lonely child. In response, I insist that I was not. Never having had any playmates, I had no sense of their absence from my life. All I knew of other children were the terrible tales of them getting lost on the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa.
Then, one day when I was seven or eight years old, something extraordinary happened. I was in the cottage rumpus room, happily playing a game of put-the-pebble-next-to-the-stick, when I heard the sound of rumbling. I dashed out to the garden, and, through gently swaying gaps in the foliage, I saw the wagons pass by, wagon after wagon after wagon. When, eventually, the last wagon rolled past, I was astonished to see, on the other side of the road, coming towards me from the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa, a parcel of children, tiny tots, seven in all. Could these be some of the vanished children, returning, curiously unaged, after years of hopeless wandering? I was agog.
I scampered indoors to tell Papa. Thinking I had come to report a wren or a godwit on the bird table, he was already filling his sock with wet impacted sand. I explained what I had seen.
“Perhaps they could be my playmates!” I added.
But Papa was cautious. We went outside to look at the children through gently swaying gaps in the foliage. They had stopped when they came to the road, and did not cross. They stood there, the seven of them, gazing at the cottage.
“I shall call the lollipop lady,” said Papa, “When she arrives, and helps these mysterious children to cross the road, I will keep them on the other side of the garden fence and interrogate them through the gently swaying gaps in the foliage. You can never be too careful. Carry on playing with your pebble and stick until the lollipop lady gets here.”
By mid-afternoon the children had been safely escorted across the road. Papa let me sit on a stump in the garden while he questioned them through the gently swaying gaps in the foliage.
“Who are you, mysterious tinies?” asked Papa.
The largest child replied for all of them.
“We are Pips,” he said, “Or rather, we will one day become Pips. I am Merald, whose name is Bubba, and this -” he pointed to each tot in turn “- is William and Brenda and Eleanor and Edward and Langston. The little squirt at the end is Chris, whose Pipness will be late, and brief.”
“Pips?” asked uncomprehending Papa.
“As in Gladys Knight And The,” said Merald whose name was Bubba.
Papa knew little of soul music, and even less about Motown, and nor did I, but we took Bubba’s story at face value.
“And what brings you from the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa to my door?” asked Papa.
“As you can see, we are but tots,” said Bubba, “And our lungs and windpipes have not yet developed fully, whereby we might accompany Gladys Knight on her chart-toppers. We would like to avail ourselves of the rumpus room in your cottage to use as a rehearsal room, so we can sing our little hearts out until we are each as proficient as can be. We are confident that Gladys Knight will come calling for us when, at different times, we are ready to be her Pips.”
Papa’s ferocious countenance hid a heart as soppy as an old sock not yet filled with wet impacted sand. He unlatched the garden gate, and the future Pips entered one by one, Bubba at their head and the little squirt Chris bringing up the rear. They went straight to the rumpus room and started to sing, though I have to say at this nascent stage in their careers as Pips the racket they made is better described as ungodly caterwauling.
“Papa! Papa!” I cried over the din, “You did not ask them what they were doing on the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa!”
“That can wait,” said Papa, “Now be on the lookout for a wren or a godwit, otherwise our soup tonight will be a thin consommé.”
And so I waited. I waited for years. Papa never asked the Pips to explain where they had been, and what they had been doing, before they came to us that day. And nor did I. Neither of us ever got the opportunity. We could never get a word in edgewise. The seven children sang continually, morning, noon, and night, without cease. We prayed for Gladys Knight to turn up and whisk at least some of them away. I spent entire days gazing through the gently swaying gaps in the foliage, barely noticing the wagons rumbling past, trying somehow to summon Gladys Knight. But the vast wild windswept desolate tarputa remained obstinately empty and vast and wild and windswept and desolate, with nary a sign of a soul singer. Gladys Knight never came for her Pips.
On my twelfth birthday, Papa and I were sat in the anteroom of the rumpus room, cotton wool stuffed into our ears to muffle the awful singing. Papa looked haunted and woebegone. I asked him what was the matter.
“A horrible truth has dawned on me, Sophonisba,” he shouted.
“What is that, Papa?” I shouted back.
“I do not think these children are Pips.”
“Not Pips? Then what are they?”
“I think they are fools,” he shouted, “Foolish tots who cannot stop singing.”
“Yes, I have wondered about that,” I shouted, “I have wondered that they sing all day, every day, and all night, every night, and never seem to sleep, or even to get tired.”
Papa raised his eyes to the heavens. He looked as desolate as the tarputa.
“How could fools get tired?”
The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.