Great, Great Aunt Genevieve

Moles, generally speaking, don’t hibernate but we do tend to hunker down deeper into our burrows in winter, only emerging for chocolate or whisky or ink if something has gone awry with our planning. Winter has settled in so far here it is nearly over. It has taken me a while this year to stop moving about and go down deep; to enter the stillness of it. It might have been that I would never have found that spot of timelessness at had a timely lurgi not overtaken me.

It was a dull, grey week when the lurgi came but just within eyesight from where I lay under my smother of doonas, I could see a luminous patch on my wall, an exuberance of golds, greens and blues. Apart from jollying me up it took me back to another mid-winter – a much colder one – when I was staying with Great Uncle Mole. I wouldn’t normally have been there at that time of year because Uncle Ratty was often away and Great Uncle Mole liked to lose himself in complicated tunnel designs. But it was one of those occasions when Mama and Papa were suddenly whisked away on some hush hush mission, and a hasty mole drop arrangement had to be made for me.

As it was usually Uncle Ratty who kept me entertained I was pretty much on my own this time. I knew that as long as I was quiet I could pretty much do as I pleased. And what most pleased me was wallowing among the treasures in the cellars.

After an hour or two of glorious abandonment, I came across an old paraffin heater and realised suddenly that although I was wearing two jumpers and a bobble hat the chill had now even penetrated my vest. A paraffin heater, but no matches and no paraffin.

I thought, perhaps, I might have some luck in the coal cellar and so headed off to the nether-nether regions of the burrow. I was about two-thirds of the way there when my torch battery failed. If you ever been at the bottom of a burrow you will know just how dark it is, but whatever ghoulies and ghosties might be lurking, I was determined to continue on. And you can imagine how relieved I was when I reached my destination and saw a faint light seeping through the cracks round the door.

But it wasn’t the coal cellar I had happened across, it was a small room, lit by candles, in which a mole (to my young eyes) of unbelievable antiquity sat bent over something at a table. She turned very slowly and stared at me so hard I thought my head might crumble.

‘Close the door’, she said.

Thinking back, I suspect she meant with me on the outside, but that didn’t occur to me at the time.

‘Who are you?’

‘Moley’, I squeaked, and to avoid the confusion of a positively Welsh over-use of names in our family, I told her how I was related to Great Uncle Mole.

‘I, in that case, am your Great Great Aunt Genevieve, and you have interrupted me.’

I told her I was sorry and I was looking for the coal cellar and matches and paraffin and I didn’t mean to disturb her.

She pointed to a corner of stores and told me to take what I needed.

As the day wore on, I began to think the whole episode must have been a product of my rather fertile imagination. But then there were the paraffin and the matches to be accounted for. I eventually broached the subject with Great Uncle Mole over bread-and-butter pudding in his kitchen that evening.

‘I met Great, Great Aunt Genevieve’, I said.

‘Did you, by jove. I’m surprised she didn’t skin you alive.’

It turned out skinned moles were rather nearer the heart of the matter than was entirely comfortable.

He told me that Great, Great Aunt Genevieve when she was the tiniest of nippers had wandered off from home and found herself in a molecatchers’ hut. Fortunately the catcher wasn’t there, but the hundreds of moleskins hanging from washing lines quite turned her mind. From that moment she eschewed company and announced that she wanted to become a monk. She was not in any way religious, but wanted solitude and, it turned out, to illuminate manuscripts to the exclusion of all else. The impracticalities were explained to her from all angles, but she was insistent. A compromise was reached. When she was old enough she would spend spring, summer and autumn teaching callisthenics and chemistry at a school for the daughters of impecunious gentlemoles, and in the winter a monkish cell and victuals would be provided for her.

On long summer evenings after the daughters of impecunious gentlemoles had gone to bed, Great, Great Aunt Genevieve busied herself with preparations. She collected insects and plants and minerals and experimented with them in the school laboratory. In the dead of night she raided molecatchers’ huts and stole the skins. And when she should have been marking homework she delved deep into mole family trees, worked out which ones had been taken before their prime, and wrote up their biographies. Each skin was a dedication to one of these moles.

And that was strictly between he and me. I was not to disturb Great, Great Aunt Gertrude again, nor was I to tell a soul about her, especially not that she was here.

And I haven’t until now, but she has been dead these past thirty years, and I want her remembered. On the eve of my departure from Great Uncle Mole’s that winter I found an illuminated moleskin on my pillow. There were no words, just a series of squares, a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress, a tiny lampblack mole growing up, rolling about, gambolling, summersaulting, cartwheeling and picnicking in verdigris grass under a turmeric sun in a lapis lazuli sky. It hangs on the wall within eyesight of my bed.

The lurgi was peculiarly well-timed. On the preceding day or two, as my antibodies fought heroically against invaders, I enjoyed moments of unusual lucidity. I could see an overview of my oeuvre, felt clear about how to proceed, sketched out a plan. And then I was smitten. I was forced to cancel all engagements. But then as I slowly emerged from the fog, all I could do was follow the steps I had laid out, and by the time my mind had begun to clear, and the sheets were washed, and the debris thrown away, I was deep in, undistracted, more immersed than I have been for – dare I say – years.

Is there, I wonder, just an inkling of Great, Great Aunt Genevieve in me?

Mole has decided to take a leaf out of Great, Great Aunt Genevieve’s book and concentrate on the oevre for the rest of the winter. The next murmurs will appear in spring.

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