I never told you, did I, of the day I went to buy a new broom? Well then, now seems like as good a time as any. One day we found ourselves sorely in need of broom, for our existing one was all broken and smashed and rubbish and useless. It had been a good broom to us over the years, and had served us faithfully and well, and my wife and I, and our many, many children, and our menagerie of interesting pets were all very sad to see it go. But go it must, and so I resolved to buy a replacement - not an easy task, for the nearest hardware store was many, many miles distant, in a foreign land of strange manners and customs. The journey would be long and hard, and not without its many dangers. Nevertheless, a new brush was what was needed, and so a new brush I must get.
I set out early the following day, fortified by a hearty breakfast and weighed down with provisions. The whole village turned out to see me off, and I was greatly moved by their kind words and sentiments. Tearfully I waved to my loving family, kissed my favourite goat goodbye, and made my way along the snaking road that led out of the village. Before very long I was out of sight of my home, all alone on a stony trackway, with little to keep me company but the whining wind that swept down off the hillsides. I walked all morning, I walked all afternoon, but saw nary a soul, nor detected any trace of a convenience store or small rural petrol station where I could buy my broom. The cold wind ate into my bones and the drizzle soaked my skin. As evening drew in, I came to a tiny hamlet of stone cottages, with warm yellow lights shining from their windows and smoke curling from chimney pots. The inhabitants wore strange clothes and talked in a foreign tongue, but through a system of hand signals and judicious pointing I managed to ask if I could buy a broom here. They forlornly shook their heads and made it clear to me that there were no such articles to be had. One kindly old woman offered me the use of a dustpan and brush, and I thanked her for her generosity but declined her largesse and carried on my way.
I had resolved to continue walking through the night, but come the witching hour I was footsore and greatly discouraged. I stopped to rest by a storm-blasted willow tree, and before I knew it I had drifted into a deep and troubled sleep. Strange shapes assailed my unconscious mind; fearful visions of a far away land. A gnarled old man leered at me from a shadow in the rock, his face twisted and squeezed, like a squished-up rag. Then I seemed to find myself on a shale-strewn pathway, leading up over the distant hillside. A croaking, cackling voice filled my mind. "The willow points the way," it said, then laughed, and laughed, and laughed some more as it faded away to nothing. "The willow, the willow, the willow points the way..."
I awoke feeling cramped, and confused, and slightly damp around the trouser area. But the words of my dream kept on echoing around my head, and when I looked up at the tree I saw that one blackened bough pointed like a ragged skeletal finger towards the distant hills. And there, winding up towards the mist-shrouded summit, I saw the path that I was fated to follow.
The going was tough, the rubble strewn slopes treacherous, but by mid-morning I had reached the peak and found myself looking down onto a stretch of rugged coastline. Descending rapidly, I soon reached the edge of a sea of pure acid. Was I destined to cross? Surely not, for no man could negotiate such a hazard without being reduced to a fizzing blob of guck. And yet, somehow, I felt as if I was meant to traverse this great frothing wilderness; as if this was some kind of ordeal to test my worthiness. I skirted the shoreline, searching about me for some means of crossing, and presently chanced across a cave. From the dark shadows emerged a wrinkled old hermit - the man from my dream! He told me that he had a glass boat, capable of navigating the acid sea, but his glass-boating days were over and he no longer had any need of it. I offered him a tenner for it. He wasn't sure at first, but when I pointed out that it would save him the trouble of putting it on eBay, he decided to accept.
And so I rowed out across the terrible waters, using a pair of asbestos oars, which the hermit had let me have for an extra £2.75 plus p&p. It was not an easy journey. At times, mighty waves buffeted my tiny craft, and threatened to capsize me. At others, my boat was besieged by spiny metal fish, their diamond-tipped teeth scraping and scratching on my crystal hull. But eventually I sighted land and pulled towards it with renewed vigour. I landed on a rainbow-coloured beach of tiny glass beads, and dragged my boat ashore, camouflaging it as best I could with branches and leaves to prevent it being stolen by wolves. Then I made my way inland and soon chanced upon the outskirts of a vast city, the inhabitants of which all wore gloriously amusing facial hair and a seemingly infinite variety of fascinating headgear. Evidently, I had entered into a land of hats, where precariously balanced top hats stretched skywards like mighty skyscrapers, and the trilby was king. This was all very wonderful to me, as hats were pretty much unknown in my small village. Many years ago, my great great uncle had owned a deerstalker, or so I've been told, but he was run over by donkey just after his sixty-eighth birthday, and - according to parish records - they had buried his bonnet with him.
I strode through the busy streets of this wonderful new metropolis, marvelling at the glorious parade of boaters, Balaclavas and bowlers that passed me by. At first I was overcome by the spectacle of it all, but then I suddenly realised something that made me quite uncomfortable: it wasn't that most people were wearing hats, it was that everybody was wearing hats. Everybody, that was, except me. These people were all looking at me strangely, as if I was some kind of freak. Children laughed and jeered as I passed. Even cats and dogs took a break from their perennial battle of wits to nudge each other, point and giggle beneath their breaths.
Feeling horribly exposed, I darted into the nearest shop and found myself in a dark, dusty, cluttered space, surrounded by rows and rows and rows and rows of brooms. Brooms of all sizes, brooms of all colours, brooms of pine, and willow, and cedar and oak. Bright yellow signs were pinned hither and thither, proclaiming
Brooms - 50% off
Brooms - Massive Stock Clearance
Buy 2 Brooms, Get 1 Broom Free.
And turning around I saw, written backwards in solid black letters on the window, the words
Now this, I couldn't fail to admit to myself, was a piece of luck.
After taking in all this broomery, I noticed the shopkeeper standing behind the counter, peering at me from beneath a heavily bejewelled neon fez. He flinched slightly as his eyes met mine - probably a shocked reaction to my bare head, but he was polite enough not to pursue the matter. After I outlined my needs, he presented me with a bewildering selection of brooms. There were brooms which were capable of flight; brooms which gave their owners command over all the creatures of nature; brooms which conferred on their owners the gift of invisibility. There were time-travelling brooms, transmutation brooms, and brooms to render thine enemies immobile. These were all of no use to me. I explained, politely, that I did not want a broom to produce an endless supply of wealth. I did not want a broom which would open my eyes to all the secrets of the universe. I merely wanted a broom to sweep up with, since my previous broom had broken and my house was a bit of a tip.
Ah... this was going to be a problem. It transpired that this was a magic broom shop and he didn't have any ordinary brooms at all. He apologised profusely then, curiosity evidently having got the better of him, he asked me why I wasn't wearing a hat? Thinking quickly, I said I had head-crabs, and my apothecary had advised against it. It was then that he took pity on me and offered me a magic teleportation broom that was faulty and was only really any good for sweeping up. I accepted his offer, and he bid me farewell, and gave me a crash helmet for the journey back, just to be on the safe side.
And so it was I returned to my village full of joy and crisps, with my new broom, my crash helmet and my many stories of exotic and far away places. But somehow, something was wrong. Something had changed. The place seemed smaller, the people foreign. Neighbours looked at me oddly; friends whom I had known since childhood behaved as if I were a stranger. Even my own family seemed distant and remote. As the weeks wore on, so the feeling of alienation became stronger and I realised that it was me that was different, not them. My experiences of the outside world had changed me and opened up a gulf between myself and those people who had rarely ever strayed further than the end of the village.
That was many, many years ago now. I still live in the village, but I have never felt settled here. My wife has gone off with a shepherd, my children have moved away to open a discotheque in Dulwich and I now live alone. I'm not bitter, but occasionally, when I'm in a maudlin mood, I go to the cupboard beneath the stairs and get out my crash helmet. I never wear it, of course. Such a thing would frighten the locals. But sometimes I will sit and stroke it, and fantasise that I will one day return to that land of magic brooms and wonderful hats. Oh yes, one day I shall return. One day.