I found this story, collected in the appealingly named A Sense of Reality, in a second hand bookshop in Leamington Spa when I was in my teens. I remember reading it and shivering at the strangeness of the tale in which a young boy, William Wilditch, chances on a door in the bottom of a tree in the garden of his uncle’s large house. He crawls down a path and finds himself in a strange abode of two very strange people, Maria, an aged woman in a tattered sequinned dress, whose only utterance is “Kwahk”, and the much more voluble Javitt, a one-legged old man. Javitt has a lot to tell William, in homilies that strike the child (and frankly, the teenage me reading the tale) as bulletins from life. I still remember the assertion “Beauty doesn’t come from beauty […] only when you come back to zero, to the real ugly base of things, there’s a chance to start again.”
This is apropos Javitt and Maria’s daughter, Miss Ramsgate, whose pictures in a magazine Javitt shows the narrator. On and on it goes, including a moment of seeing “the treasure”, until finally, several days after he went under the garden, William is able to escape. Was it all a dream? Or something far more psychoanalytical? The story is layered in other frames – the Treasure Island-esque narrative a slightly older William writes about it for the school magazine, and the present-day impetus he has to revisit the house, and the island in the pond where the whole episode took place. Rereading it now, maybe thirty years after the first time, it was no less eerie. I seem to have dreamed it myself, and when you read ‘Under the Garden’, perhaps you will have dreamed it too.
First published in 1957; collected in A Sense of Reality, Viking, 1963; also available as a Penguin 60, 1995