The Land of Counterpane

From ‘Journeys Through Bookland’ by Charles Herbert Sylvester (1922) From

Dear Readers, after my post yesterday several readers got in touch to wish me a speedy recovery, and one, sllgatsby, reminded me of this poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, which I think sums up the imaginative world of childhood, and the mixed blessings of being sick.

The Land of Counterpane

Robert Louis Stevenson – 1850-1894

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.

This brought back so many memories of being a small child in bed, sick with something mildly unpleasant. At first it was all fever dreams, waking in the night to see Mum in the chair next to the bed, dozing herself and then jolting awake when some inner instinct told her that I had roused. Sometimes she would sing quietly – ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’ was a favourite. But as I got better, my counterpane (actually a rose-coloured eiderdown’ would be covered in my toy animals, including the rubber snakes that I was very fond of. Then, it would be the books, or sometimes those paper dolls with different costumes that you could cut out. It was a kind of magical world, where all the usual rules about school and behaviour were forgotten. And I remember the cream of tomato soup with bread and butter, crusts cut off, and the skate with parsley sauce and mashed potatoes. Skate is now an endangered species, and no one can make mashed potatoes like my mother, I often actively avoid them on a menu because I know they won’t come up to scratch.

Being sick was a bubble, where I felt protected and loved. Everyday life felt much more exposing and raw. Strangely enough, being unwell felt safer than being out in the world, where much was uncertain and the adults in the house were in a constant state of unspoken conflict. No wonder I was more than happy to put up with the high temperature and the aches and pains, the nausea and the rashes, if it gave me a break from all that.

This poem/piece, by American poet Jennifer L. Knox, also hit a nerve. In my case, I wasn’t betrayed by my parents, but by the dentist. I was going in to have some teeth out (which in the 1960s seems to have been the answer to everything, especially for poor families) and the dentist told me that the vast chunk of rubber that he popped into my mouth as the anaesthetic took hold was ‘a big bit of chocolate’. I still haven’t forgiven him. For the child in the poem below, though, the betrayal was much worse.

A Fairy Tale

Jennifer L. Knox

When my father was nine years old, his mother said, “Tommy, I’m taking you to the circus for your birthday. Just you and me, and I’ll buy you anything you want.” The middle child of six, my father thought this was the most incredible, wonderful thing that had ever happened to him—like something out of a fairy tale.

They got in the car, but instead of driving him to the circus, his mother pulled up in front of the hospital and told him to go inside and ask for Dr. So-and-so. After that they’d go to the circus.

He went inside and asked for Dr. So-and-so. A nurse told him to follow her into a room where she closed the door and gave him a shot. My father fell asleep, and some hours later, woke up crying in agony with his tonsils gone. A different nurse got him dressed, and sent him outside where his mother was waiting in the car with the engine running. He couldn’t speak on the way home to ask her, “What about the circus?” Days later, when he could, he didn’t. They never mentioned it again.

Fifty-eight years later, he tells this story to his wife, his only explanation, when she asks him, “What are you doing home from church so early?”

He’d walked out in the middle of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” never to return.

And although this is not quite to the theme, as we approach the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death, this poem reminds me of those times when I was older and we would work together on a meal, peeling potatoes, preparing the dreaded brussels sprouts, top and tailing some beans, usually in silence. We’d be lost in our own thoughts until something splashed, or was particularly gnarled, or reminded someone (usually Mum) of something slightly rude. Seamus Heaney, as usual, captures all this and more.

From ‘Clearances’ (In Memoriam M.K.H 1911- 1984) by Seamus Heaney

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.


4 thoughts on “The Land of Counterpane

  1. sllgatsby

    Very moving, all. Thank you for providing so many poems in your posts.

    Today, I came across this one, which reminded me of you and other people in my life, who notice, appreciate, and share the small joys and wonders of everyday life.

    The Orange

    At lunchtime I bought a huge orange–
    The size of it made us all laugh.
    I peeled it and shared it with Robert and
    They got quarters and I had a half.

    And that orange, it made me so happy,
    As ordinary things often do
    Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park.
    This is peace and contentment. It’s new.

    The rest of the day was quite easy.
    I did all the jobs on my list
    And enjoyed them and had some time over.
    I love you. I’m glad I exist.

    ~Wendy Cope

  2. Bobbie Jean

    Scootch over, you poor thing. If there’s room in that memory for another soul I’ll join you. Memories of being ill and confined to bed are viewed with fondness these days. I never felt so well cared for as when I was laid low with a personal illness that did not include “shared” sufferings such as measles (before we were vaccinated). Everyone was nice and I didn’t have to share the bed with my sister. The best thing was having our mother all to myself during the day.

    Sending healing thoughts! Be well.

  3. Liz Norbury

    I hope you’re starting to feel slightly better and will soon be at the stage of enjoying cream of tomato soup (or the adult equivalent!) and a selection of books on your counterpane. I’ve loved the word “counterpane” ever since we learned the Robert Louis Stevenson poem by heart in the second year of junior school – I’d never heard it before then.

    I too remember the restorative powers of the cream of tomato soup; and your mention of your toy animals reminds me that whenever I was ill, I used to be treated to a new animal for my toy farm.

    Like you, I had quite a few teeth removed in those years, and I can remember that when someone was away from school, the explanation was often “he’s having his tonsils out”. I hope nobody who went through this suffered the heart-breaking betrayal described in this story.


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