One of the stories I grew up with, that I heard a hundred times at my mother’s knee, was the tale of the glib hatter. When I say “at my mother’s knee” I am using a cliché, of course. For one thing, I did not literally squat at my mother’s knee, and in any case she had two knees. If I wanted you to picture me, so many years ago, hearing the tale of the glib hatter, and if I had squatted as indicated, I would have been precise, and written “at my mother’s left knee” or “at my mother’s right knee”, not just “at my mother’s knee”, unless of course she had only one knee, due to amputation of one of her legs above the knee, which was, happily, not the case. Although even if it were, it would still be proper to indicate which knee, the left or the right, she retained, after Old Mister Sawbones had chopped the leg with the other one off and put it on a pyre to be burned.
I heard my mother tell me the tale of the glib hatter many times, but usually when I was tucked up in bed, under my blankets, ready for sleep. In fact, almost always, I drifted into sleepyland while my mother was in the middle of the story. Sometimes she would only get as far as the bit where the glib hatter steals a basket of potatoes from the ice maiden. If I was a little more alert, for example if I snuck into the pantry before bed and helped myself to a few glucose tablets, which I sometimes did, for I craved glucose as a child, and still do, I might be able to remain awake for as long as it took my mother to reach the point in the story where the glib hatter is attacked by a bison out on the savannah. But usually I was so exhausted from my Canadian Air Force exercises that my eyelids were drooping almost as soon as that dulcet voice said “Once upon a time there was a hatter, and the hatter was glib”.
I do want you to be able to picture me, all tucked up, listening to my bedtime story. It is important that you can see in your mind’s eye the blankets, the bed, the carpet and the curtains, the floor and the ceiling and the walls, the chair and chest of drawers and all the other things in the room, and me with my tousled mop of hair snug on the pillow, and my mother sat by my bedside, her hair in a bun and her smock filthy from cooking, one plump hand holding the book and the other plump hand holding a torch, its faint beam aimed at the page from which she is reading, for we had no electricity in the house, we relied on that one torch and many, many candles.
I forgot to say that there would always be a dog on the floor at the foot of the bed. It was a mastiff called Bob. My mother insisted in later years that it was named after President Nixon’s disgraced, indeed imprisoned, Chief of Staff H R “Bob” Haldeman, but she was wrong, she was oh so wrong. The mastiff was called Bob for quite a different reason. It saddened me, in those later years, to argue over this so violently with my dear mother, after all those hours she had spent reading the tale of the glib hatter to me by torchlight, while I fell asleep, in my bedroom on the attic floor of the house on the edge of the marshes, that crumbling house that stood all alone surrounded by will-o-the-wisps and eerie flickering lights.
I remember that once I managed to stay awake for the whole story. Mama began to read after giving me my tumbler of hot milk at around nine o’ clock. It was winter, so already pitch dark outside. Mercifully, the shutters were closed tight and all the doors had been locked and double-locked. The only sounds were the tick tock of the clock on my bedroom wall, the wheezing breath of Bob the mastiff at the foot of my bed, and, faintly and from across the marshes, far far away, the bellowing of Old Farmer Frack’s barnyard animals as he herded them from one field to another, back and forth, over and over again, for no apparent purpose. One of the first things I ever learned was that Old Farmer Frack was a mad old man and that if I ever came face to face with him I should turn and run like the wind. I don’t know why I was so wakeful that night, why I listened so intently as my mother reached the bit about the ice maiden’s potatoes, and then the bison-attack, and still I lay wide-eyed, lapping up every detail, new things I had never heard before, because usually I dropped off, things like the glib hatter falling down a pothole, and eating lettuce, and the blind man getting his hair cut, and thousands of frogs, and the part where the glib hatter cheats at cards when playing whist with the widow, and the village where all the children wear pointy caps, and the adventure of the pit pony, and the part where a vaporous apparition of Ringo Starr floats over the rooftops, and the glib hatter gets mixed up with a lax potter, and the shrubs and firestorms and cotoneaster and clay and architecture and a new serum and Klondike gold and cows and crows and bauxite and birdseed and huge ponds filled with teardrops, millions and billions of teardrops in millions and billions of sad and salty ponds.
I think it must have been about four o’ clock in the morning when my mother read “And that is the end of the story of the glib hatter”, and she extinguished the torch and kissed my forehead and I shut my eyes at last and fell asleep.