From The Nightingale and other stories, published by Geoffrey Cumberlege, Oxford University Press, 1951. Illustration by Garry Mackenzie.
Once upon a time there was a periwinkle. He was a tiny snail, with a shell just about as big as a farthing, and he lived among the rocks and the seaweed on the sea-shore. It was very wet there of course, but he liked it.
All the same, he was a very unhappy fellow, and the reason was this. Although he had thousands of fine sharp teeth, he never ate anything but seaweed. He never dared. All periwinkles are the same. They never dare.
They eat wet, sloppy seaweed for breakfast. They have wet, sloppy seaweed for dinner. And wet, sloppy seaweed for tea. And not one of them ever thinks to himself: ‘Now what are all my teeth for? Why on earth do I go on eating sloppy seaweed when I have hundreds of sharp teeth? They never think of asking themselves that. Except, of course, this one – the periwinkle I am writing about. That’s why I chose him.
This periwinkle often thought to himself: ‘Why don’t I bite something hard? Why don’t I chew something crunchy? Why don’t I gnaw something really, utterly, tough? But he never dared. And that was why he was so sad.
He used to lie about among the wet rocks and think: ‘Oh goodness, seaweed for tea again! I wish I liked adventure, and then I would set off across the shore and never come back till I’d found something crunchy. But the trouble is, I don’t like adventures.’ Periwinkles don’t, of course. And so he would sigh, and nod his two pairs of horns and start on his seaweed tea.
Now, one day, a squid came swimming along. A squid is a very rough fellow.
If you could have met the great-great-great-grandfather of the squid’s great-grandfather, you would have been very surprised. Because he would have looked almost the same as the great-great-great-great-grandfather of the periwinkle.
But the squids had always liked adventure, while the periwinkles had always liked to sit and dream. So the squid family went swimming in the sea, and chased fishes, and learnt a lot of useful tricks like how to swim backwards, so that the fish didn’t know you were coming. But the periwinkle family stayed inside their shell and thought about things.
So they grew up quite different. And every year the squid family grew more and more different from the periwinkle family.
Now this particular squid, like most squids, was a great bully. When he saw the periwinkle, he shouted: ‘Hello stupid!’ And when the periwinkle heard this he quickly drew the curtain across his shell – he generally used it to keep out the sun, because periwinkles like to be cool and wet all the time, but it also came in very useful when he wanted to hide – and he shrank right back into his shell, because, you see, he hated rows.
The squid shouted: ‘Just caught a smashing fish! Fat and juicy! My, what a scrumptious dinner I had! What are you having for dinner, stupid? Would you like me to catch you a whale?’ And he roared with laughter, because, of course, the periwinkle was only half an inch long, and couldn’t swim anywhere at all.
The squid swam a bit nearer. ‘What, seaweed again!’ he said. ‘I wonder you don’t get sick of it. Still, I don’t suppose you’ve any teeth, stupid, so you don’t know any better. You wouldn’t catch me eating that stuff! I’m tough, I am.’ And with a flick of his fin, he swam off.
The periwinkle would like to have shouted out: ‘I have got teeth. Six hundred rows of them! And they’re all very sharp!’ But he didn’t dare.
After a little while he poked out his two horns, the pair with his eyes on the end, to see if the squid had gone. And when he saw he had, he started on his seaweed dinner. But he didn’t enjoy it.
All the time he kept thinking to himself, ‘The squid is really right. I am stupid. I’ve got teeth and I just eat seaweed. I live by the sea, but I never swim. I’m no good for anything at all, and nobody cares about me.’ So after a while he stopped trying to eat his dinner, and curled up in his shell again.
All that afternoon he lay curled up indoors. The sea came in and went out. Children hunted for shells on the shore, then went home to have crumpets for tea. But no one took any notice of the periwinkle.
Next day the squid came again. ‘Hello, stupid,’ he shouted, come and have a race.’ He knew the periwinkle was a snail and moved very slowly. As a matter of fact the periwinkle took about ten minutes to move just from one end of a fisherman’s boot to the other.
The periwinkle only had one foot, you see, but he had worked out a very good idea for putting polish down as he went, so that he could hitch along more easily. He didn’t go very fast, but he could keep it up for a long time without getting tired. And once when he had bee out for a walk, it took him two hours to get back, but he managed it without getting lost once.
The squid, of course, was quite different. And besides, he was very rude. ‘Let’s have a race,’ he kept shouting, thinking it a great joke. ‘Let’s race round a pebble shall we? Or would that be too far for you, stupid?’ And off he went, roaring with laughter.
The squid, you know, goes pretty fast. He can creep along the bottom of the sea on his hands, snatching at fishes as he goes along. Or he can swim like ordinary fishes do. Or he can whizz along backwards, pushing himself along by squirting water in and out, which is a bit like our new aeroplanes do, only they squirt air, of course.
The squid was very proud of the different things he could do. He thought it showed he was much better than the periwinkle.
The periwinkle never said a word all this time. But when the squid had gone he felt sadder than ever. He didn’t want any dinner at all, and he shrank right into his shell and pulled the curtain across.
There he stayed. And in the afternoon, the children came again. They had brought little baskets for their shells, and for special pebbles too. They found some very smooth white pebbles, and some that were exciting colours with patterns on them. They found cockle-shells and mussel-shells, and twisting, twirling, whelk-shells.
‘What a dear little shell that is,’ cried one of the children, pointing to the periwinkle. And she picked it up and put it in her basket. But the periwinkle wondered what was happening, and feeling a bit more adventurous than usual he poked his head out to have a look. The little girl shrieked, and dropped him. ‘How horrid!’ she shouted, ‘he’s alive!’
The periwinkle had such a shock that he quite forgot she had called him a dear little shell at first. He could only remember she had said he was horrid, and had dropped him on the rock with such a bang that it was lucky he had managed to get his head inside in time. As it was, he wasn’t actually hurt, but he was dreadfully upset.
‘I knew it,’ he cried. ‘Nobody likes me. They all call me stupid, or say I’m horrid. I wish I could swim right away in the sea.’ But he didn’t dare. Ad as he lay on his rock the sun went down.
The next day the squid came again. The periwinkle wished he wouldn’t, because he still felt upset and didn’t want to be teased. But there was nothing he could do about it. So he just stayed in his shell and drew the curtain.
‘Hello, stupid,’ shouted the squid. ‘Still on the rocks? What a dull chap you are!’ The periwinkle didn’t say a word.
‘Why,’ went on the squid, ‘you must be the dullest chap in the world. Everything about you is always the same. You eat the same dull things all your life. You do the same dull things all your life. Why, you’re even the same dull colour all your life. Fancy staying brownish-grey for ever and ever. Why don’t you change your colour like me?’
And the squid, who was showing off, turned blue, then red, then yellow, and even purple. ‘My, what a fine fellow I am,’ he shouted. But the periwinkle took no notice. So the squid vanished in a cloud of ink, which was another trick he could do.
The periwinkle stayed on the rocks. Goodness he was miserable. He didn’t have his breakfast; he didn’t have his dinner. He just stayed where he was and thought about his dull life.
Now that afternoon, in the bright sunshine the children came again. They had brought with them two packets of sandwiches, two bottles of orange juice, and two apples, and they sat down on the warm rocks to eat them. After a while one of them opened a book and began to read. She had learned to read only a year ago, and she liked to read out loud so that everyone could hear.
‘Once upon a time,’ she read, ‘there was a beautiful princess. Her skin was white as snow, her hair was like spun gold, and her eyes were blue as periwinkles.’
As blue as periwinkles! The periwinkle who was listening nearby nearly fell off the rock in excitement. As it was he actually gave a little jump into the air, which is a thing that only happens once to a periwinkle.
As blue as periwinkles! He didn’t hear anything more the girl read, for he was dreaming of a sea-shore covered with bright blue periwinkles as far as the eye could see. They were bluer than the sea, and bluer than the sky! They were the special deep, bright blue of the periwinkles.
When the squid came the next day the periwinkle was still dreaming. The squid started to boast in his usual way, but for the first time the periwinkle interrupted him.
‘I’m blue,’ said the periwinkle.
‘You’re what?’ said the squid.
‘I’m blue,’ said the periwinkle.
‘You mean you’re crazy,’ said the squid. ‘You’re brownish-grey and crazy.’
‘I’m blue,’ said the periwinkle dreamily. ‘”Her eyes were as blue as periwinkles.” It says so in a book. How beautiful to be as blue as periwinkles!’
‘Well, I don’t know!’ said the squid, quite amazed. ‘One of us is crazy! What can you do with a periwinkle who thinks he’s blue!’
And he left the periwinkle quite alone after that. You see, he had begun to think there was something wrong with his eyes, and perhaps the periwinkle really was blue! He wasn’t at all sure, for the periwinkle seemed so certain of it.
And the brownish-grey periwinkle stayed on the rocks, nearly bursting with pride.
Nobody ever told him that the blue periwinkles in the little girl’s book are tiny wild flowers, that have nothing to do with sea-snails. For the rest of his life he thought he was blue, a beautiful, gorgeous blue like the eyes of a beautiful girl. He was certain of it. And because of this he became the only happy periwinkle that has ever lived.