Monday, 18 June 2012

Alice in Thunderland

The Interesting Thing happened on a Sunday. This is rather rare, you understand, because Interesting Things so seldom happen on Sundays, when people are at home to see them. They usually happen when everyone is in school, or sitting in their offices, or maybe late at night when they are sleeping, and then one only reads of them in the newspaper, and that a couple of days late.

But this Interesting Thing happened on a Sunday, and it happened just after lunch, when nobody could ask Alice to do lessons or to come in for the meal, so that she saw it all for herself, and thought herself very fortunate.

Alice was lying on her back in the grass and looking up at the sky. “Now,” she thought, “that’s a strange-looking cloud up there. It almost looks like a kind of boat, flying up in the sky under a kind of balloon.” And she waved at the cloud, though she felt a little foolish doing so.

“It is a boat,” someone said near her ear, in a small piercing voice. “And it is flying up in the sky under a balloon.”

Alice turned her head to see who had spoken, and found a large brown grasshopper watching her with bulging eyes. “Now,” she said, “how would you know something like that?” For she thought it was very strange that a grasshopper should know anything of boats, not to speak of balloons. If it had spoken of carts or horse carriages she would not have been surprised.

“I know everything,” the grasshopper said solemnly, moving its feelers and staring at her out of its bulbous eyes. “There is nothing I don’t know. Go ahead, ask me a question. Any question.”

“All right,” Alice said reasonably. “What is the moon made of?” she asked after a moment’s thought. “I read it’s made of dust and rock.”

“Dust and rock!” the grasshopper repeated with contempt. “Did you ever see the moon?”

“There’s no need to be rude,” Alice replied. “Of course I’ve seen the moon.”

“I suppose,” the grasshopper said, “you know then that the moon is white. Did you ever see white dust and rock? No?”

“What’s the moon made of then?” Alice asked a little uncertainly, thinking that somewhere there must be white dust and rock but quite unable to think of where that might be.

“Why,” the grasshopper said, and rubbed its wings together. “The moon’s made of cheese, and a big rat in the sky eats it bit by bit until it’s all gone. And then the rat goes away looking for food, and the moon grows big again, and continues to grow until the rat gets the smell of the cheese and comes back to eat it. Do you understand?”

Alice was saved from answering this question by a voice from above. “Well then,” the voice said peevishly. “Are you coming or aren’t you?”

Alice looked up to see that a most curious object was hanging in the air just above her head. It was a wooden hull like a boat, only it had cables running up from its sides and over a long white balloon shaped like a big fat cigar which floated above it, which she had first thought was a cloud. A small man with a curious leather cap on his head was leaning over the side of the boat and gesturing at her impatiently.

“I beg your pardon?” Alice asked, for she had recently learned to Be Polite. “I don’t understand.”

“Are you coming aboard,” the little man with the leather cap said slowly and clearly, “or aren’t you?” His voice grew peevish again. “If you didn’t want to come,” he asked, “why did you signal to me?”

“I didn’t signal to you,” Alice said indignantly. “I didn’t do any such thing.”

“Of course you did,” the man said. “You waved. Didn’t she wave?” he asked the grasshopper.

“Yes,” the grasshopper agreed. “If you didn’t want to go aboard,” he asked Alice, “why did you wave?”

“Well,” the little man said, “I can’t wait any longer. If you aren’t going to come aboard I’ll fly off to Thunderland.”

“Thunderland?” Alice asked. “Where’s that?”

“Don’t you know anything?” the little man asked in disgust.

“No, she doesn’t,” the grasshopper said. “She told me the moon was made of rocks and dust. Rocks and dust!”

“Everyone knows where Thunderland is,” the man said, peering at Alice. He really was a very strange-looking little man, she saw, with his round leather cap and huge black moustaches on his thin face, as brown as a walnut. “Are you a foreigner or something?”

“Certainly not,” Alice responded more indignantly than before. “I’ve lived here all my life, but I’ve never heard of Thunderland.”

“Do you want to see it then, or don’t you?” the man asked. He did something with his hand, like turning a wheel, and the boat began to rise and fall a little, just like a real boat on a river when there are waves. “If you want to come, then get in.”

It was on the tip of Alice’s tongue to refuse, but then she remembered that this was an Interesting Thing, and that she should take full advantage of it. Besides, if she stayed behind she would have to listen to the grasshopper talk about the moon and how she didn’t know anything. So she remembered to Be Polite, and made a little curtsey.

“Yes, thank you,” she said. “I’d like to come aboard.”

The little man didn’t say anything, but a short flight of steps opened from the bottom of the boat, so that she could easily climb into it. When Alice got into the boat, she saw that he was a very little man – he hardly came up to her shoulder – and that he was dressed as warmly as though it was winter and not the middle of summer, with a long scarf wrapped round his neck, heavy gloves and a leather overcoat which hung over his boots.

“Aren’t you feeling hot, dressed like that?” Alice wanted to ask, but one of the lessons of Being Polite was never to make Personal Comments. Instead, she looked curiously around her, and found the inside of the boat wonderfully furnished with all manner of queer knobs and levers and wheels, one of which the little man began to turn furiously. The boat gave a lurch and began to rise. In less time than it takes to write of, they were high in the air, and the clouds were floating by. Then the man pressed and pulled some knobs, and something like a windmill at the back of the boat began to turn round and round. It began to move forward slowly.

“Oh, look,” Alice said, as a flock of pigeons flapped by. “There are birds flying past us.”

“Of course there are birds,” the little man snapped irritably. “What do you expect to be flying – elephants?”

Alice giggled at the thought of elephants flying. “They would have to have very big wings,” she decided.

“Now,” the little man muttered, thrusting his hand in one of the pockets of his coat and fishing out a wrinkled and folded map, “which is the way to Thunderland?” He handed one end of the map to Alice and began unfolding the other end. It kept unfolding until the boat was half full of paper. The little man kept muttering constantly under his breath. “Half a left turn at the Pillar of Air, and then down the Road of Sunlight, but we can’t go too far or we’ll lose our way in the Moors of Moonlight,” he said, and took back his map. Then he pressed on a lever, which caused the boat to change direction and then again.

“Let me introduce myself,” Alice said, because it was rude not to do so. “My name is Alice.”

“And I am Professor Wunderkind,” the little man informed her. “This is my airship.”

“Airship?” Alice asked doubtfully. “It’s too small to be a ship, isn’t it? Though it is like a boat, rather. Maybe you could call it an airboat.”

“What’s that?” the Professor snorted. “Airboat, indeed. I never heard of such a thing. How many ships have you seen?”

Alice was forced to admit she had never seen a ship.

“There you are then,” the Professor said. “How do you know it’s too small to be a ship?”

This seemed unanswerable, so Alice did not try to answer it. They flew on in silence until the Professor changed the airship’s direction again.  

“We’ll be there in a jiffy,” said Professor Wunderkind. “Look, there are the first hills of Thunderland.” Alice, looking out, saw a line of purple clouds which rose up like hills.  As they came closer, she could see palaces and parks and houses of all kinds on the clouds, which rumbled and grumbled constantly with thunder.

“So that’s why they call it Thunderland,” she said. “Don’t they get a headache from the noise?”

“Not a bit of it,” the Professor said. “Why should they?” He began pressing knobs and pulling levers for all he was worth. The airship turned towards the clouds and began to sink. “We’re coming down,” he said. “You’ll be getting down, I daresay?”

“Won’t you be getting down too?” Alice asked. “Thank you very much for the ride,” she added politely.  

“I?” the Professor asked, letting down the stairs for Alice to climb down. “I’ll just be flying around here and there.” Without a further word, he pulled up the stairs as soon as Alice had climbed down them and lifted his airship off from Thunderland.

“Well!” Alice said. “Without even waiting to say goodbye too. Fancy that!”

Then she turned and began walking through Thunderland. It was curious going, because the ground wasn’t really much like proper ground, but more like thick wet cotton into which her feet sank at every step. And the thunder rumbled constantly, so that she felt it vibrate up through her ankles.

“It’s cloud, you know,” said a voice, and Alice saw that it came from an egg. The egg was sitting in a chair, and had a top-hat on, very black and shiny; and a rather natty collar and tie too. “It’s not really ground – it’s cloud, and that’s why your feet sink in.”

“This is really Interesting,” Alice said. “I did not know eggs can talk – or see.”

“Not in your country, maybe,” the egg said pleasantly. “But why should eggs in Thunderland suffer from the same limitations as those elsewhere? You see,” it said, leaning forward earnestly in its chair, so that Alice was afraid it would roll right off, “Thunderland is the kind of place where nothing is limited. Everyone can do anything, provided that he or she wants to and the Most High Grand Panjandrum allows it.”

“The Most High Grand Panjandrum?” Alice asked, thinking that she didn’t much like the sound of that.

“Why, of course,” the egg said. “Without him, none of us would have been able to do whatever we wanted. I, for instance, would have to wait until I hatched to see and talk.” It shuddered so much that it did roll off the chair, but Alice was near enough to grab it before it fell and put it back on the chair.

“Thanks,” the egg said with immense dignity, “but that’s not necessary. I’m always falling off the chair – I fall off every day. I’m, in fact, the Champion Chair-Faller of Thunderland.”

“Oh?”  Alice asked uncertainly. “Well, I never heard of a chair-falling championship; but then I’m a stranger here, you see.”

“A stranger, are you?” the egg repeated. “In that case, you’d better go and meet the Most High Grand Panjandrum right away. He doesn’t like it when people come to Thunderland and don’t make themselves known to him. Why haven’t you gone already?”

“I don’t know where he lives,” Alice said defensively. “If I did, I’d have gone.”

“Just go up that way,” the egg said, but because it had no hands or fingers to point with, Alice could not understand which way it meant. The egg noticed that she was still there, and got angry. “I told you,” it said. “Go up that way. Really, you’re a most aggravating girl. You don’t let me fall off my chair in peace, you don’t go to the Most High Grand Panjandrum, and now you stand there with your mouth open like a fish.”

Alice was about to ask where the egg had ever seen a fish, but then she saw a school of flying fish gliding by. The fishes stared at her derisively, and seemed to be laughing at her lack of wings. Besides, the egg was beginning to get so angry its shell was emitting crackling noises, and she was afraid it might hatch out of anger. So she said “Thank you” quickly and walked away.

At first she walked up a path which took her over a ridge of cloud, but it shivered and quaked so much with thunder that she was afraid she would fall down. Just as she thought this, though, she saw something falling down the ridge towards her, rolling over and over like a ball. It came to rest at her feet and a cautious head and pair of feelers poked out.

“Am I still falling?” a voice asked.

“No,” Alice informed it. “You’re not.”

“Thank goodness.” The ball unrolled and revealed itself to be a wood louse, which brushed and tidied itself. “Much obliged for the information,” it said. “It’s difficult to know whether one’s coming or going, let alone whether one’s rising or falling.”

“Is it?” Alice asked doubtfully. “I see.”

“No, you don’t see,” the wood louse proclaimed. “If you saw, you’d be like my great aunt Millicent, who saw so much that she saw round to the back of her own head.”

“Did she? What happened?”

“Why,” the wood louse said, “she began walking round and round in a circle, trying to see to the front again. It does get awfully tiresome if you can see only the back of your own head.”

“What happened to her?” Alice asked.

“Ah,” the wood louse replied, “that’s a sad tale. A very sad tale. She became a spokesperson for the Most High Grand Panjandrum It’s the only job where you have to keep watching your back. Well, then, I have to be going.”

“Wait!” Alice exclaimed. “I’m looking for the Most High Grand Panjandrum, and...”

It was too late. The wood louse rolled itself into a ball and flung itself down the slope, rolling swiftly away. “Am I falling?” Alice heard it calling out as it went. “Am I still falling?”

“Well now,” Alice said to herself, “I’ve seen everything except flying elephants.”

“I’m not invisible,” something said at her shoulder, in a deep voice. “So if you haven’t seen me, you’ve been wandering around with your eyes closed.”

The elephant was quite small, only about as large as a horse, and had a pair of long grey wings sprouting from its back. It flapped them up and down and glared at Alice.

“I do think,” it declared, “that it’s rude to walk around with your eyes closed.”

“I haven’t been walking around with my eyes closed,” Alice responded indignantly. “Not at all.”

“You must have,” the elephant replied logically. “Or else why didn’t you see me? Anyway,” it added, “it doesn’t matter, as long as you don’t go bumping into people. If you do, they might not sing for you.”

“Sing for me?”

“Must you repeat everything I say?” The elephant raised itself up and glared down at Alice. “I suppose you don’t even want to hear my singing.”

“I’m sorry,” Alice said humbly. “I’d love to hear your singing.”

“All right then,” the elephant said, and curling up its trunk, it closed its eyes, took a deep breath and began to sing.

“It was Midnight on the Seventh Sea
All dry and greenish was the shore
And the Grand Octopus of the Deeper Depths
Cried that it wasn’t even more.

“ ‘For I want to marry the Jellyfish,’
Shedding bitter tears said he
‘And she wants to wed on the shore
Not in the depths of the sea.

“ ‘She wants a wedding to remember
A wedding on the sand
And says she won’t marry me
Until I bring her to land.’

“Meanwhile the fishes came
Came each and every beast
And crab and starfish, crawling too
Came to the wedding feast.

“And the sun and moon danced together
Until the sky turned white
And the assembled wedding guests
Said they couldn’t eat another bite.

“So the moon shone all day
The sun glowed as much as can be
And it was hot as hot, it was
There at the bottom of the sea.

“And the Grand Octopus said, weeping...”

The elephant sang extremely badly, and showed no signs of even pausing for breath, so – seeing its eyes were still closed and it was trembling with ecstasy at its own voice – Alice quietly slipped away.

After walking aimlessly for a while, she heard a lot of shouting in the distance, as though a big crowd was arguing over something. The noise was coming from a large building in the shape of a bolt of lightning, and as she came closer she saw that its edges were snapping and crackling as if it were made of lightning as well, so that she thought it might be better to stay away from it. But just as she was about to turn away, a tiny man darted out of the door and grabbed her by the arm.

“You there, little girl,” he said, though he was only as high as her waist and had to reach over his head to get hold of her arm. (He also had a white beard made into a pigtail, and wore a hat shaped like a cylinder with a tassel on top, but she only noticed these details afterwards.) “Come with me and judge a dispute.”

Alice was alarmed. “Judge a dispute?” she exclaimed. “But I can’t. I’m looking for the Most High Grand Panjandrum to let him know that I’ve just arrived in Thunderland.”

I’m the Most High Grand Panjandrum,” the tiny man snapped. “And it’s a very important case you have to judge, because it’s so complicated that none of us can arrive at a solution.”

Alice began to have the uneasy feeling that the Interesting Thing had started to go a bit too far, but she couldn’t think of anything to do about it except follow the tiny man through the door in the bolt of lightning. Inside there was a room filled with people who were all shouting at once, so that nobody could hear themselves speak and shouted all the louder in consequence.

“These are the Politicians of Thunderland,” the Most High Grand Panjandrum shouted into Alice’s ear. “They are discussing whether the Blue Party or the Yellow Party won the election yesterday.” And when Alice looked at the shouting people again, she noticed that about half of them wore yellow hats and the rest, blue. (They all had teacups and saucers in their laps, but Alice didn’t take much notice of it at the time.)

“You have to decide which side won,” the Most High Grand Panjandrum continued. “It’s a matter vital to the future of Thunderland, you see.”

“But,” Alice asked, “how should I decide? Surely,” she said with some vague memories of what she had overheard her parents say, “all you have to do is count the votes?”

At this everyone fell completely silent, and stared at Alice so that she began blushing for embarrassment. “Count the votes,” the Most High Grand Panjandrum said in an awed whisper. “Now, why didn’t we think of that?”   

“Genius, pure genius,” one of the yellow hats murmured.

“What brilliance!” a blue hat responded. “What sagacity!”

“How did you decide on who won the elections all these days?” Alice asked, trying to change the subject.

“Why, on the basis of which side shouted louder and longer, of course,” the Most High Grand Panjandrum replied, ushering Alice to a seat. “Only this time they both kept on and on and I couldn’t decide. But your solution – none of us could ever have thought of something so brilliant. Who are you, little girl?”

Alice introduced herself. “I’ve just arrived in Thunderland,” she said.

“Yes, yes, you’ve told me that already.” The Most High Grand Panjandrum took off his cylindrical hat and polished it on his beard. “And a very fortunate arrival it was too. Now we can have a nice cup of tea, just as soon as we can decide who’s won.”

“Why should we have to wait for that?” Alice wondered. “They haven’t even started counting the votes yet.”

“Because,” the Most High Grand Panjandrum said, “only after we know who won can we decide whether to put the milk and sugar into the cup before adding the water, or after.”

“Milk and Sugar First!” a yellow hat shouted, pumping his fist in the air.

“Traitor!” a blue hat screamed back, eyes gleaming fanatically. “Water first, water always!” Shouting broke out again, and the two groups seemed about to come to blows.

“There they go again,” the Most High Grand Panjandrum said sadly. “Such an important question of state requires cool-headed discussion, don’t you think?”

“That’s all?” Alice asked incredulously. “That’s all they’re fighting over – whether to add the water first, or afterwards?”

“Yes, and it’s such an important question too,” the Most High Grand Panjandrum replied sadly. “The future of Thunderland is at stake.”

“I’ve never,” Alice snorted, “heard of anything so ridiculous in my life!”

As before, silence fell, and everyone stared at Alice, but it wasn’t an awed and pleased silence. At length it was the Most High Grand Panjandrum who broke it.

“How dare you!” he whispered, trembling with fury. “How dare you disrespect our democratic values!”

“Tyrant!” everyone shouted at once. “Anti-democrat! Fascist! Communist!”

“You’re all mad,” Alice declared. “I’ve never come across people as mad as you are.” She began to stand up. “Next you’ll be telling me that you fight over whether one should sleep on one’s right side instead of the left.”

A concerted howl of hatred and anger greeted her. “Red Party propagandist!” someone screamed, and they all began flinging their cups and saucers at Alice. They smacked into her face and arms, stinging, and the water in them began wetting her dress.

“I’m going to teach you manners!” Alice shouted back, and began to throw back the cups and saucers at them, but the more she threw, the more they threw at her, and she started getting really wet, as though it was raining, hard, and...


...and she was lying on her back in the garden, wet through, and it was raining hard, after all.

The Interesting Thing was over.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012


  1. A most interesting thing indeed.

  2. Bill,
    I admire your skill as a writer and enjoy your stories very much. You creativity is awesome.

    A dentist in real life? OK, why are dentists so unhappy?
    Because they are always down in the mouth.
    Is a joke sir. Don't ban me from your blog.......LOL

    1. If I ever write an autobiography, a la James Herriot, I'd call it Down In The Mouth.

  3. Bill,
    If you write it, I'll save up and buy and read it.
    Glad you have a good sense of humor also.


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