One possibly-misguided act of homage

9 08 2014

I’ll start with some explanations.

There is, below these explanations, a work of fanfiction.

This work of fanfiction is intended purely as homage to the work of Tove Jansson, since it just so happens (as noted in my previous post) that August the 9th, 2014 is the centenary of Tove Jansson’s birth. In essence, I’ve written a ‘Moomin’ story. It goes without saying that this is done without any thought of personal gain, and with every intention of treating the subject matter respectfully and in a manner which, I hope, does not damage the reputation of Tove Jansson in any way. (I would also note that, since the story uses elements from at least two of the books as backstory, it probably won’t make a lot of sense to people who aren’t familiar with the Moomin books themselves. If you fall into this category, please do yourself a favour and go and buy the books – the central canon comprises Comet in Moominland, Finn Family Moomintroll, The Exploits of Moominpappa, Moominsummer Madness, Moominland Midwinter, Tales from Moominvalley, Moominpappa at Sea, and Moominvalley in November – because they are utterly brilliant, and magical in a way that no other children’s fiction manages to be. In my humble opinion, at any rate.)

I’ve called my attempt at a Moomin story ‘The Last Hattifattener’. I’ve made no pretence at trying to match Jansson’s written style (or, as I know it, the style imposed through her various English translators), though I have made some efforts to keep some similarities in sense of humour. I don’t have Jansson’s deftness with emotional tone and clarity of characterisation, but I’ve tried to muddle through as best I can. I’ve aimed for something that feels at once next-generational – Tove Jansson’s writing has provided an inspiration to many writers since (as well, of course, as entertainment to a great many readers) – and a bit elegiac, since she is, alas, no more.

I’ve written this because I’ve felt a compulsion to do so. And it’s a long-running compulsion: thirty years ago, I very much wanted to be able to write stories in the style of Tove Jansson; I’m happy enough, now, realising that I can’t … but I’ve felt it necessary to explore the conceit of the attempt. Which you will find below.

Is more explanation required? Or do I run the risk that, in over-explaining, I bleach all life from the thing I’m trying to explain? The essence is this: the story is offered in homage; it has acknowledged imperfections; if it in some manner helps to spark someone’s interest in Tove Jansson’s writing then I will consider that it has served some useful purpose despite those acknowledged imperfections.

So. Below the cut, one possibly-misguided act of homage.

The Last Hattifattener

(by Simon Petrie, written as homage to the works of Tove Jansson)

*

The last Hattifattener is acting strangely.

It’s difficult to know, of course, what the last Hattifattener is thinking. Hattifatteners have never talked, and they’ve always seemed driven by instinct rather than anything else. And nobody has yet worked out how to read Hattifattener sign language—if indeed it’s not just mindless twitching of those wobbly, cat-whiskery hands. But in any case, the last Hattifattener doesn’t do that, does hardly any of the usual Hattifattener things. There’s no sea-crossing, no congregating, no civil disobedience. Nobody’s lawn gets trampled, nobody’s little rowboat goes missing. Every thunderstorm is a wasted opportunity. Everyone’s toaster is safe.

Perhaps the last Hattifattener is waiting. But for what?

*

The littlest Moomin is—what’s the word again?—beachcombing.

She loves the word, and is delighted to have added it to her repertoire. (But what does it mean? she’d asked her grandmother, the first time she heard her use it. It means you explore the beach to see what the sea has brought you, Grandmother explained, getting that strange sad faraway look that sometimes took hold. Real exploring is so difficult nowadays, they have maps for everywhere—but the sea still holds secrets, and every so often it lets one of them go.)

Beachcombing, then. But it’s not the summer beach: the warm sands, the bath-house, the friendly little rockpools brimming with quirky life. This is the autumn beach, grey and desolate, that waits around the headland, spending the whole year biding its time until the winter ice arrives. People don’t come here, much, except the littlest Moomin. Once she saw an artist, a Hemulen, no doubt trying to capture the loneliness of the view, but he was just folding up his easel as she drew near, and he looked cross. It was very windy that day.

The autumn beach is excellent for beachcombing. Spools and floats, of course, and clumps of sea-brittled netting, tangled with weed, and driftwood—most of which the littlest Moomin ignores, unless it’s a particularly appealing shape or colour, like the branch from which the sea had sculpted for her a dragon, almost perfect but for one misshapen foot. But it’s the things that don’t belong, the little broken pieces of domesticity, that she especially prizes. A corroded and barnacled umbrella, totally beyond her ability to open, but with a gorgeously carved wooden handle. A forlorn, sea-bleached plastic mug. A comb, now missing several teeth—she thinks this one’s funny, since she found it ‘beachcombing’. And her special treasure, that she rescued from the wreck of a small rowboat: a varnished wooden object of unusual and ornate design, like a clock that’s missing one hand, its dial unreadable, its bodywork scuffed.

This day, she spends half the morning, searching, until she grows hungry and bored. But the beach, it seems, has nothing for her today.

She treks home for morning tea.

*

The last Hattifattener is still behaving oddly. It’s arrived at a beach.

Is it a beach it’s seen before? Who can tell? And certainly Hattifatteners visit a lot of beaches, one way or another. But straightaway the last Hattifattener seems … calmer. Its whiskerpaw hands stop their agitated flickering. As though this beach, somehow, is the right beach. Perhaps there’s something about the way the beach smells (though a Hattifattener has no nose). Or perhaps there’s something about the sound of the waves reaching the shore (though a Hattifattener, of course, has no ears). Or maybe it’s just the way it looks—though it’s not an attractive beach, at all. But then, of course, who’s to say what looks attractive, to a creature such as a Hattifattener?

It is, it may be, that this is the right beach. But the last Hattifattener is still waiting for something, it would seem.

*

The littlest Moomin spends the rest of the morning playing in the garden, until her big brother gets too annoying as all big brothers have a tendency to do. So she takes her lunch with her, to eat on the way as she walks back out to the autumn beach, to give the sea another chance.

She’s disappointed to note that the beach is not deserted. There’s someone standing on the shore, some distance off. Not someone she recognises. Not someone particularly tall.

And whoever it is, he or she is just standing, beside the squat wooden ribs, half-buried in the gravelly sand, that are all that’s left of what used to be a boat. Not walking, not waving a greeting, not looking for anything. just standing. The littlest Moomin waits a few minutes, hoping the distant figure will move off, but they don’t. She risks a closer look.

It’s a Hattifattener. And now she doesn’t know what to do, at all.

There’s only one of it, but she can’t help feeling just a bit nervous. A Hattifattener.

It turns to face her. It stares at her, with those blank-expression too-big eyes, and it flaps its little hands a bit. She feels as though she’s supposed to say something … but what? Hattifatteners don’t do small talk, after all. They don’t do any talk. And she’s still far enough away that she’d have to raise her voice to be heard—if it had ears. Which it doesn’t.

She tries to think back through the things her parents and grandparents have told her, about times and places that they’ve met the Hattifatteners. There was Grandfather, of course … but she can hardly remember Grandfather any more, just the hat, and the walking-stick, and that broad, slightly mischievous smile … She notices the way that this Hattifattener is just standing beside the remains of the beached boat. And she recalls something from one of the stories.

No, she argues with herself. It’s not fair, I shouldn’t have to. I found it, the sea gave it to me, I should be allowed to keep it. But then she thinks about something she’s heard other people say, that the Hattifatteners are maybe all gone, or maybe there’s only one single one left now. And she tries to imagine how awfully lonely that must be. Even for a Hattifattener.

She makes her decision.

“Wait,” she says, wondering as she does so just how much point there is in speaking to a creature with no ears. But maybe it can lip-read. “I’ll be back in an hour or so.” And she turns and heads home along the path.

*

Does the last Hattifattener understand that it has been asked to wait?

Who can tell? Who knows what passes for thought, in the mind of a Hattifattener?

(And is this necessarily, in any case, the very last Hattifattener? I will be perfectly honest: I do not know. Hattifatteners sprout from seeds, and it may well be that an as-yet-undiscovered packet of Hattifattener seed lies hidden in some disorganised Fillyjonk’s attic or in some Whomper’s garden shed, waiting to be found, and then sown at the appropriate time. You are welcome to believe this, if you wish, and it may be completely true. But at the time of which I write, this is the only Hattifattener.)

The Hattifattener stands by the remains of the boat. Where you or I might fidget, or pace, or whistle, or feel a compulsion to do a thousand or one other things to pass the time until the littlest Moomin’s return, it simply stares towards the path, waiting, or not waiting.

*

She approaches, carrying something heavy, over her shoulder, in a pillow-slip. It’s taken more than an hour, but that doesn’t really matter because she’s realised that the object she carries in the pillow-slip, and which she now unwraps and lays very carefully at the Hattifattener’s small white feet, is not in fact a clock, as she once thought.

It is a barometer.

There is no good reason for her to have believed it to be the Hattifatteners’ sacred barometer, but it appears from the last Hattifattener’s reaction—such animation of hand movements, such brightness of eye-gleam, the crackle of such excited electricity—that it is indeed this object. With difficulty, the last Hattifattener picks the barometer up, then puts it down, and bows very deeply and formally to the littlest Moomin, three times.

“You’re welcome,” she says, quietly, feeling as she says it that the ritual is somehow anticlimactic.

Only then—and she does not see quite how this is done, for it’s certain that the creatures don’t have pockets—the last Hattifattener passes her something small and white and cylindrical.

She takes the offering, whatever it is, and bows in return, three times, in case the number’s important.

The last Hattifattener picks up its precious barometer and walks off along the beach, carrying its prize awkwardly, heading who knows where.

The littlest Moomin is left there, unravelling a birch-bark scroll that the Hattifattener has carried for who knows how long.

Carried for quite some time, it would seem.

There’s writing on the scroll. Not much, but enough that the littlest Moomin can recognise the jagged and uneven handwriting. She reads the scroll, and unbidden, a tear rolls down the side of her snout.

I must remember: verandahs are important too.

The littlest Moomin thinks that Grandmother will want to see the scroll too, though whether it will make her happy, or sad, or a mixture of both, she doesn’t know.

Carefully, she allows the birch-bark scroll to snap shut, and then the littlest Moomin takes her new treasure back to the house, her head in a whirl. She’s feeling an odd mixture of happy and sad herself. She’s trying to fill in the gaps in her memory between the top hat and that broad, slightly mischievous smile. Perhaps she can look through the photograph album with Grandmother, this evening, while the others play cards.

Behind her, on the beach, the pillow-slip lies quite forgotten on the gravelly sand. After awhile, when the sea decides fair warning has elapsed, the tide creeps in and claims its find.

END

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