Johnny Lark and the Pixies.
‘Things are getting worse and worse,’ said the fat old pixie as she dried her hands on her pinny. ‘If it’s not the guvament it’s the flu and if its not the flu it’s the weather. It was better in the old days, they always used to say, and it’s much worse now than it was then!’ She was addressing a well-made pixie on the brink of manhood. She had a pink, wrinkled face and very large ears, and so did he.
‘Well now, mama, like I always say, it’s because we’ve left off the old customs, and that’s why nothing goes right anymore.’
‘Bah! Superstitions!’ said she, pulling open a cupboard door and dragging out a vacuum cleaner.
‘No, not superstitions, mama. These were the ancient customs of our people.’
With difficulty she untangled the cord from the hose and plugged it in. ‘Superstition and quackery, Wozzle, my lad! They used to believe in giants in those days. Can you believe it? Giants!’ She started it up with a savage kick. It roared and she shouted over it, ‘You surely can’t expect to solve the problems of modern times by us going back to believing in giants?’
‘But there are such things, mama. I’ve been reading about them in the books. They used to give us milk and bread in exchange for our goodwill. Why don’t they do that anymore?’
‘Hey? What? Can’t hear ya.’
Wozzle gnashed his teeth in frustration. Silly old woman. Ignorant and closed-minded. Well, he’d show her. He dived through a green-painted doorway and emerged a few moments later with a pile of heavy old tomes with dusty leather covers, worn gilt edges to the pages and gold writing on the spines. They had feathers and straws and pieces of paper sticking out from between the pages for bookmarks. ‘It’s in here,’ he said, ‘in these books. All about ‘em. Look.’
‘Look out the way!’ She chased him with the vacuum cleaner hose, making him skip about teetering under his heavy load.
He at last reached the table and dumped them down with a thud. He held one up and showed it to her. ‘See, these are the real thing, real ancient books, genuine olden day tomes, not just something the spiders got me off the world wide web. These are the only surviving records of the traditional wisdom of our people. They are our history.’
She kicked off the machine and with her lips compressed, touched a finger to the binding with a nostalgic, reverent air. But then she smiled sorrowfully and shook her head. Turning away, she hustled the thing back into its cupboard and reached for a cloth. ‘Best not to take these things too seriously, my son. It’s better to live in the real world, bad as it’s getting.’
‘No, but look. It says here that there used to be giants up in the north, not far from here, just the other side of the Bettleback Ranges.’
‘There,, well, and now there aren’t. And do you know why? Because there never was any! Ha! Ha! Ha!’ She flicked a damp teatowel at him. ‘Oh get away with your silly books. They’re all a pack of lies! Ha! Ha! Ha! Hee Hee. Giants! I ask you! How silly is my son?’
Wozzle reddened. He stiffened. He took a deep breath. Closing the book carefully he said,‘I shall prove it to you, mother of mine. You think I can’t but I can! It’s all here in these tomes. You won’t laugh at me then.’
‘Prove it! Go on, then. But you won’t convince me!’
He picked up his stack of books and carried them back to his room.
‘Giants indeed,’ chuckled his mother. ‘What an idea.’
Johnny Lark was a man who whistled as he worked, and he liked to begin work in the brisk clear morning hour when the dew was still clinging to the blades of grass and the birds still twittered and sang in the hegderows. He wheeled his wheelbarrow, with his pick and shovel, spade and trowels and a good heavy sledgehammer rattling together happily in it, down to the corner of the field where there was a need for a new shepherd’s hut, the old one having collapsed under its ancient timbers, rotten at last after nearly half a century of service. At the bottom of this field he turned a few turves and found, as he’d anticipated, some of the best building mud on the whole farm. Recent rains had left it in perfect condition for building. He spaded out a barrowful and carried it up the slope a little way to the lowest rocky outcrop, where he could build on solid bedrock. It was about a third of the way up the slope. He shaped his cobs skilfully in situ and went back for more mud.
Up the slope he came again with his barrow loaded high with mud until he reached the first outcrop, and there he looked about for the beginnings of his building, but there was no sign of it. He set down the barrow and searched the ground all around in ever-widenening circles until at last he saw it a little way up, at the second rocky outcrop. That was strange. He’d been sure it was not that far up. Oh well, we all make mistakes. Cheerfully enough he carried his load up the slope to the second outcrop, about halfway up the hill. He shaped his wall, whistling as he worked and then went back down the hill for more mud.
The sun was getting warm as he reached the second outcrop with his new load. He looked for his wall, but it wasn’t there. Impossible. He searched about anxiously and there it was, up on the next rocky outcrop just below the crest of the rise. He stared in disbelief. He had not begun building at this height. It was too far up the slope, too unprotected, not at all the right place for a sheperd’s hut.
Now Johnny was a plain man of sense, but nothing had equipped him to deal with this. Either his memory was playing tricks on him, which was highly unlikely, since he’d always prided himself on having a good one, or the wall had moved. Now that was impossible, so it must be his memory. But that was unthinkable, so the wall must have moved. But that wasn't possible. . .
Now it didn’t take John long to work out that thinking along those lines wasn’t going to solve this mystery. Being a practical man, he resigned himself to it with a shrug, hefted up the barrow handles and steered his load up the slope to the rest of the wall. It was the same wall, there was no doubt – there were his own thumb prints in the cobs. So it must have been his memory playing tricks. He slapped on more mud till his barrow was empty and taking a final careful reconnoitre of the latest position of the wall, he clanked the empty barrow back down the slope to the mud pit.
He whistled a little less cheerily as he pushed the next load up the slope, past the first outcrop, past the second, and…
The third outcrop, where he was absolutely certain the wall had been, was bare. There was not a crumb of new earth upon it. Not a trace of a half-built shepherd hut wall. He looked further up the slope, to the top of it where there should have been a little gnarled thorn bush. He had seen it silhouetted against the morning sky and taken particular notice of it, because he’d known it since he was a boy. But there was no thorn bush. Instead, there was his wall, right at the top of the slope. Feeling unreal, he hoisted up his barrow and pushed it to the top of the rise. There was his wall and there was the thorn bush just behind it and coming from the thorn bush he heard a shrill, ear-splitting scream. Still clutching his barrow handles he stared in amazement, eyes popping, mouth wide open, hair standing straight up on end all over his head, right into the eyes of the little pixie woman, who was staring right back in amazement, eyes popping, mouth wide open, hair standing straight up on end all over her head. But she was just the length of his finger high, and he was taller than the thorn bush among whose roots she had her dwelling, at the open door of which she now sat in a tiny chair that had been placed there for the purpose, both hands on her knees, feet planted firmly on the floor. Jumping up and down excitedly between them was Wozzle, jabbing a finger at a page in one of his tomes and then waving at John’s enormous face, saying, ‘See Ma, I told you, I could. The spell worked! I’ve fetched you one! See, a giant! A real giant! You can’t deny it anymore.’
Understanding dawned on his mother’s little face. She snapped shut her mouth, a light gleamed in her eye and she cried out all in a rush, ‘Two pints of milk, a pint of clotted cream and a jar of clover honey, just a small one – just leave ’em by the gate, on that white stone there.’ Then she sat trembling with her hand over her mouth, looking terrified but pleased, grinning and nodding.
Dazed, John could only say, ‘Milk? Two pints? Clotted cream? Clover honey - what if we haven’t got clover?’
‘Any sort,’ yelled Wozzle. ‘I can’t keep this spell going any more. Leave cake if you’ve got some – tea cake - with icing sugar on top . . . !’ As he spoke there was a confused sound of rumbling and thudding and tumbling and tearing and the world whirled round and round with Johnny Lark in the middle of it and when everything was still again, there was Johnny flat on his back under a barrow-load of mud down at the first rocky outcrop, with big heaps of mud all around him.
From that day on everything went right for Johnny Lark and his farm. Top prices for his beef, coveted awards for his cheeses, bumper harvests, top lambing percentages, grand champion pig in the Bettleback show. And all it cost him was a monthly quart of milk, pint of clotted cream, small jar of honey and a generous slice of fruitcake, iced, with coconut on top. And why not, sometimes a small piece of rocky road, just for the little woman, and a capful of good whisky for Wozzle.
And believe me, the pixies were happier ever after too, at least all those who got a share of Johnny’s offering – and that was all the pixies between the Bettleback ridge and the Lufflelough, from the Daisy Ditch to the Hoggenses, about six hundred of them, and they each got a cup of the milk and a crumb of the cake to dip in the clotted cream, and they blessed Johnny Lark all the days of his life.