3rd February

The Brownie

‘In the daytime he lurked in remote recesses of the old houses which he delighted to haunt; and, in the night, sedulously employed himself to dis- charging any laborious charge which he thought might be acceptable to the family, to whose service he had devoted himself.’ So wrote Walter Scott of the Brownie, that strange, thin, shaggy, domestic spirit, who loved to stretch himself by the fire when no one was about, but did not perform his drudgery for that or any other recompense. In fact, if anyone sought to reward him with comfort or food, he immediately took offence and dis- appeared from the place for ever.

That was in an age when such superstitions found ready believers in young housemaids, old menservants and credulous farm labourers. I am not so sure, however, that the Brownies have altogether departed. There is one, at least, in our house, who tidies away so thoroughly at night that in the morning pairs of spectacles, keys, pens and suchlike are impossible to locate. And he is active during the day too. Put something down for a min- ute when distracted by the telephone or doorbell or a song on the radio, and when you come back it will be gone. Then the hunt begins. You retrace your steps, carefully re-enacting the last five movements you made, but the thing is away. Hours or sometimes days later, it reappears, either in the most obvious place, where you looked ten times already, or in some obscure location – in a drawer you never open, inside a book you’ve not read for months – where somebody must deliberately have hidden it. It cannot be proved, but suspicion must fall on some reincarnated species of Brownie.

But why the switch from drudge to idle mischief-maker? It’s obvious. There’s nothing left for him to do. Domestic appliances have made the Brownie redundant. So he wanders the house, cunning and evasive, lifting something here, putting it down there. It’s not housework any more, it’s a game. He is beset with lack of purpose, with ennui. His ancestors, if they could only see him, would be dismayed at his delinquency. The truth is, he no longer knows why he exists.

Reader: Kate Molleson
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
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