Sunday, 10 November 2013
There are certain things, Princess Selena thought to herself, which a woman needs. Three good meals a day, a room of one's own with a good bed and the love of a decent person. Of course she was not in that position, having left her father's kingdom some months ago to seek her fortune.
"Now what do you want to do that for?" her mother had asked her,
"Before long you'll be ruler of this country - how much good fortune is that?"
Right now, Selena was thinking that her mother had had a point. She had been alright to start with. She had ridden her horse through several towns and spent her money carefully. She had not dressed in fine clothes so as not to attract thieves. She had even let herself go a little to hide much of her prettiness. Even so, she had skin as blushing as a pale pink rose, eyes as dark as sloes and hair as black as a raven's wing. Fortunately she had insisted as a teenager on learning the arts of war, just in case. She had not particularly enjoyed them, but she learned them as a duty in between reading and study, which she loved immensely. She had been teased by her two brothers Ferdinand and Floyd for it, called a 'bluestocking' which simply led to her wearing blue stockings in patterned fabrics. She ignored her brothers most of the time as a sensible sister does.
Now, she paused at the top of the hill and looked down into a lovely green valley with a small village of farmsteads and a few houses more central around a town hall and a large church. Her horse had been stolen, she had been swindled and mistreated, but still she persisted in walking in the world to seek her own fortune. There are those no doubt who would have thought her mad, she wondered at herself sometimes, but still she kept on going. She was still a virginal young woman with her own fire and wit and none of her thirst for adventure had gone yet. Although she was ready to drop where she stood and sleep.
She sat down for a little while and tightened her sash to keep her stomach from grumbling. She gazed into the peaceful valley and admired it even as her eyes scanned it curiously. After a little while, she got up groaning and taking a deep breath she trudged wearily down the hill towards the village. After a little while, she came upon a boy and his dog and greeted them both. The dog sniffed her hands and licked her hand. The boy said his name was Joe and who was she.
"I am Selena, pale as the moon, dark as night," she said.
For a moment the boy digested this before shrugging his shoulders. He was about to respond when a sharp cry came over the fields and he turned.
"Sorry, I've got to go or my mum will get cross," he said.
"May I come with you?" Selena asked him a little desperately.
Joe shrugged again and nodded, "Come on then," he said.
She ate supper with the family and before long was taken before the village council who passed her on to the town council a little way away. They in turn passed her on to the Royal Palace where it was established that she was Princess Selena and of Royal Blood. Along the way, she had reversed her fate. She was fed well, clothed in rough but clean new clothes and even managed to get a horse after helping the Ostler's wife give birth to a pretty baby girl.
Now it happened that the Queen in this land was a great reader herself. She was also unsure that Selena was who she said she was. So she determined to prove the young newcomer. If she is really Princess Selena then she can marry my son and if not, she can be my librarian. But for pretending there will have to be consequences. She told Selena this very firmly. Selena smiled and answered that she would be happy to be the Queen's librarian in any case for she loved books and for an hour or so after the two women discussed their favourite books.
The Queen had lost her husband to war and now ruled her own realm until her son was of an age where he was likely to be responsible enough to be King. He was 20 and not nearly responsible enough yet, but she did love him for he was her son. Selena had no feelings for the young prince one way or another. He was handsome enough and quite sweet in his own way, but she saw too much of her own brothers in him.
The prince was very fashionable and loved music and pictures as well as carousing and hunting. He did not mind reading in the evenings, with his mother for he loved her very much. Had she not raised him, changed his nappies when he was a baby, fed him at her breast and taught him not to misbehave with a firm but loving hand. She had and further she had insisted on educating him too. For all that he loved his mum as who should not?
So when the Queen told him to give Selena the Groovy Bedroom, he was happy to oblige. The Queen had several mattresses placed upon the bed and under them all she placed a single dried pea. You can see she knew her folktales. Selena was grateful and went to bed without a murmur. She felt the pea as soon as she climbed into bed, got out of bed and removed it before getting back into bed and sleeping very comfortably.
The following morning she took the pea into breakfast with her.
"I do hope you slept well my dear," the Queen said, placing her coffee cup on it's saucer.
"Oh your majesty," Selena answered, "you forget that I read too. So I removed the pea from the bed and slept very comfortably thank you. However, this proves that I read, not that I am a princess. Though I am, I assure you."
"Hmm," said the Queen passing Selena some buttered toast and pouring her a cup of coffee.
Selena ate her breakfast and discussed her studies of flowers with the Queen, including the Sweet Pea (Lathyrus odoratus) and the Poppy (Papaver Somniferens). The Queen was most interested and asked her what she knew of Rosaceae the Rose family. Selena answered with both wit and intelligence through breakfast.
"Hmm," said the Queen, for she had begun to look at this young woman differently.
The following evening there was to be a ball. Selena was sent by the Queen a beautiful silk brocade dress of deepest crimson, a corset of silk and whalebone and some very pretty shoes of red and clear glass. Selena sighed and shook her head but put on the corset and the dress and a pair of charming knickers that matched the corset. She wore a new pair of dark blue stockings and even tried the glass slippers on before removing them. I can't dance in those, she thought, I'll slip all over the place. She put on her serviceable red satin Jimmy Choos instead and went to the ball. All night she danced and was admired. She ate well and drank well.
How well that dress suits her, thought the Queen, but where are her glass slippers?
She asked Selena if the young woman had not liked the glass slippers. Selena kissed the Queen gently on her cheek and replied,
"Oh your majesty, they are beautiful and I am very grateful. I am at a loss to see how Cinderella could possibly dance in them though. My Jimmy Choos are a lot easier to dance in and I should hate to slip and break the glass shoes."
"Hmm," said the Queen, pleased with the answer in spite of herself.
The following morning, she sat at breakfast with Selena (the young prince was still in bed sleeping off a severe hangover).
"My dear would you like sugar with your coffee, or salt with your kipper?" the Queen asked.
Selena chuckled and leaning over the table, she kissed the Queen on her strawberry mouth.
"Oh your majesty, really! I would like a little sugar with my coffee and my kipper is sweeter with a little salt. Now will you give over you darling?" she answered.
The Queen was at a loss. Not only was Selena clearly a Princess (she had been sent a confirmation from Selena's parents that morning), but she could not possibly conceive of the young woman marrying her son.
"Selena," the Queen began her voice shaking slightly, "If you will consent to marriage, I should be honoured to accept."
"Oh my darling, I've been waiting for you to ask me to marry you!" Selena replied, "But no more tricks. Just kiss me and let us talk about books."
And so, they were married and the prince was much relieved as he preferred carousing and hunting to books and while he liked Selena he was not THAT fond of a bluestocking. He liked Betsy Trotter the barmaid at The Crown and in time he married her. And believe it or not, I assure you that they actually did live very happily. Except for the occasional grumble, but what marriage is free of those?
Sunday, 20 October 2013
"I remember that house well," I told the old man standing on the corner, "But how did it come to this?"
The old man looked at me bemused for a moment. I explained that I'd been away in China on company business for 15 years. He shook his head in wonderment and shuffled away. As such, I was still baffled. Where was Lilia? Where the friendly hustle and bustle of the house and the street?
I had left the firm and returned having made some advantageous speculations of my own. I was now a fairly well-off man and had returned hoping to find Lilia and renew our friendship. I had written to her while in China, the intimacy of a handwritten letter still appealed to me, it was not the impersonal text of email that I had used for business. For a while she had returned my letters with vivid descriptions of her own. Her later letters however had the sense that something was left unsaid as if she did not wish to spoil my happiness with her own sorrow. It was subtle, just subtle enough that I could not quite come out and ask what was wrong.
Did I love Lilia? Yes, in the way I love those women who are good friends, but it never occurred to me to love her any more than that. Somehow it would have felt wrong. Nor did I wish to spoil a valuable and valued friendship with that love that calls itself romantic and is nothing of the kind.
Besides, I had my books and my poetry to protect me from such 'romantic' delusions. Indeed I had become something of an amateur author myself. I wrote for trade journals about doing business in China and of the intricacies of Chinese culture, which I had come to love as much as the country. Officialdom I disliked, but I disliked that everywhere. The beauty of a Chinese garden, the wonders of the country's museums and the beauty of its people made me long to stay. Only a sickness made me have to return home to England. I was torn, for I loved China, but I loved also my homeland. I returned in late September when Summer clung on to its raiment while cold autumn sought to impose his rule.
For a while I took rooms in Cavendish Square in London and recovered my health in relative quiet. Another dear friend looked in on me, brought me newspapers and books and welcome talk of people we both knew. She also reported what news she had of the landlady's cat, a large, rumbustious creature, very handsome and friendly to all the local children. He was a hunter in the brick jungle and among the weeds of neglected neighbourhood gardens. My friend knew how much I loved cats and their ways.
By the second week of October, I was recovered and restless. I phoned Lilia, but there was no reply. I took walks about London and met the ginger tomcat to whom I became quite attached and he to me. Soon enough I was summoned by a letter that finally took me back to Hallamwyck. There, I stepped out of the old familiar station and was shocked to realise that the town I loved so well had changed beyond measure. I had been away almost twenty years after all. I bought a map and went out into the town. I was looking for Branlington House and longing to see Lilia again. So you may imagine my shock to find the house covered in builders scaffolding and the windows temporarily replaced with plastic. Worse, I did not know where to find Lilia, or even if she still lived.
I wandered like a lost soul, stunned by what I had found until I came across the Pot & Plate, a familiar anchor in this shifting town. I stepped inside and was taken aback to find that it had not changed very much at all. Old Grumble the cafe's resident dog had presumably died some years ago, for I could not see him sprawled on the hearth of the old fireplace.
I ordered a plate of the house speciality and a pot of coffee from a young woman who seemed familiar. I asked her if she knew what had happened to Lilia Branlington and she became brusque.
"If you'll take a seat I'll bring your order, sir," she said firmly, a snap in her tone.
I obeyed more out of shock. Had I said something wrong?
I sat by the window and tried to absorb it all. The downfall of the house and the disappearance of my dear Lilia. A woman came from behind the counter with my food and the pot of coffee and placed them in front of me.
"We don't talk of the Branlingtons here sir," she said, setting my order before me.
I looked up at her tone and she gasped before sitting opposite me.
"Oh William! Oh my dear, I am sorry, I should have known you would ask. Eat your food sweetheart and come back after five. We'll talk then, when I'm not so busy," she said.
"I see Old Grumble's gone, Glenda," I said.
She smiled and her lovely face softened. Glenda McLeod had always had a lovely friendly face. It positively sparkled when she smiled.
"Oh bless you, no. He died of old age five years ago. Just went to sleep on the hearth and never woke up, poor old thing," she said.
She sighed and reaching across the table she took my hand. Her fingers were warm and moist - and comforting. I felt that at last I had met my old life and recognised it.
"Then my George went, doctor said it was his heart. Now there's just me and Sula. I think she was just a little girl when you left. I missed you William, you were always very kind. I remember you feeding Grumble when you thought I wasn't looking! That dog could be a right scrounger when he wanted," she chuckled.
"I didn't think you knew. He would look at me with those big eyes and I couldn't resist. Glenda, what happened? Where is Lilia?" I asked her.
"Come back later William, it's not something to tell you quick and sharp. Where are you staying?" she asked.
I had not given it much thought, I was so sure I'd see Lilia again. We are so fixed in time ourselves that we do not quite expect the world to change around us so quickly. I told Glenda I had to see a lawyer at 2 o'clock and then I had intended to spend a little time with Lilia catching up. I told her that I was living in London at present and hoped to invite Lilia to come up and visit me there.
"Oh sweetheart! Go see your lawyer, take a look around and come back here at half-four. When the shop's closed up, we'll go up and talk. You'll spend the night here. I'm telling you William, not asking," she said wagging a finger at me.
"Far be it from me to argue Glenda," I answered.
"Good. Then I'll tell you all I know and we can catch up, ok?" she asked.
I nodded and she came around the table and hugged me. I put my arms around her and inhaled her scent of warmth, cooking and the delicate scent of jasmine perfume. Then she stood back and smiled a little wistfully.
"You look good William. I'm glad you came back," she said.
I thanked her and she left me to eat my food. After I had supped I thanked Sula, the young woman behind the counter and said I'd be back later.
"Righto," she said cautiously.
Then I went back out into the town and with the help of the map found the offices of the lawyer whose importunate letter had summoned me. I sat for a while in silence in a hushed waiting room that had an air of solemnity. After some minutes I had made a decision and yet it was contingent on what I did not yet know. A young man called my name and I followed him into the office of Sally-Ann Matthews the lawyer. She sat straight behind her desk and smiled briefly gesturing me to sit. Her heavy ash-blonde hair was gathered on the back of her head in elegant waves and her grey eyes were depthless. She had aged well and while a few lines crossed her face, she was still a handsome woman. She was, fortunately, also a highly intelligent woman.
"You summoned me Ms Matthews and I am come," I said with a smile.
"I asked you to come because of your part in a legacy, sir," she said, fishing for the file on her desk and opening it.
"A legacy? What part do I have Sally-Ann, my parent's are long gone and their affairs settled," I answered.
"Someone else William. You have been left a large box and it's key. I am not at liberty to tell you who left you the box, but you may or may not know who when you see it," she said.
"Is it Lilia?" I asked leaning forwards with a terrible presentiment.
"I am not at liberty to tell you William. I will say, as it will not compromise me that Lilia Branlington is not the deceased. Be easy on that score. I can if you wish have the box sent to your residence. It is not a big box, but it is heavy and a little cumbersome to carry," she said.
"I'm grateful to you Sally-Ann, please do have the box sent to my home in London. If that's all, allow me to say that it is a real pleasure to see you again and to see you so well," I remarked.
She sat back in her chair, placing her hands across her stomach and smiled.
"Thank you William. I hear you've been unwell, nothing serious I suppose or we might have lost you. You look well enough. I also understand that you've been in China, are you going back there?" she asked.
I told her of my return and how it was unlikely that I would be returning. I felt a strong inclination to embrace her, for like Glenda she was another anchor in this shifting town. I resisted the urge to do so, for I had too much respect for her. After a little more chat, I got up to leave. To my surprise she got up and came around her desk to me.
"I've never done this to you William and most likely never will again," she said and put her arms about me.
We stood there for a few moments in each other's arms and I kissed her cheek as I released her.
"A great shame," I said, "That we never got to know each other better. I'll leave my address with your clerk. Should you get the chance to come to London, let me know. I shall make up a spare room for you. I would truly like very much for us to become friends Sally-Ann. I have always had the greatest of respect for you," I told her.
She smiled and kissed me.
"Oh William, how very sweet of you," she said, "I shall certainly be grateful to visit you and yes, let us get better acquainted," she said.
I left her office and made my way to the museum. There was, I knew, a full-length portrait of Lilia by Adams in the gallery - unless it had been removed to the store-rooms. I entered the museum and paused. It was so familiar and precious to me that I almost wept to see it again. I took a deep breath and glanced at the clock, It wanted a few minutes to three-fifteen. I wandered up the grand staircase to the main gallery and entered it. It was a high and long room full of paintings. Along the centre of the gallery at intervals were elegant padded benches where visitors might sit. I strolled along the gallery meeting the paintings again as one meets old friends not seen in some years. Unlike we mortals, the paintings rarely visibly age, they remain as fine as when they were painted for the most part. There, at the centre of the gallery was the painting I had never forgotten. My hand flew to my mouth as if to stifle a cry. There as in her life was Lilia in the deep red dress trimmed with bright orange ribbon and old lace. Her skin was as pale as milk, her hair a cascade of inky blackness and her twinkling eyes as dark as a raven's. I remembered Snow White - skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood and hair as black as a raven's wing and I smiled in spite of myself. I always recalled Snow White when I looked at this painting.
I sat and gazed at her face. She was smiling as if Adams had said something he shouldn't have and it had amused her. I recalled her voice, her scent and her laugh. I recalled little things she had said, her opinions and her jokes. I recalled her pouring coffee for the two of us; teasing me that I would get fat if I had more than one teaspoon of sugar in my coffee. I sat and gazed upon the image of Lilia, upon my dear, dear friend and I wept.
After a little while, I took a deep breath and stood up. I wiped away the tears from my face and felt that I should never see Lilia again. Somehow I felt sure that she was dead and would only, could only live in the memories I had of her. I left the main gallery and wandered aimlessly through the museum until it dawned on my to ask an assistant the time. I had about a quarter of an hour to return to the Pot & Plate.
I hurried there and took a cup of tea and cake in sombre mood. The place was busy now and Sula had only time to place the cake and tea before me, hurrying away to fetch another order. It took another half hour before she showed out the last customer and locked up the door. I asked if she needed a hand clearing up and she smiled and shook her head.
"'S alright, but thanks," she said, moving in fluid motion about the cafe.
Glenda came out of the kitchen and I stood by the counter.
"I did offer to help," I said, "But Sula's got everything under control."
Glenda smiled and took my hand,
"Come on you, let's go up to the flat," she said.
Once we were seated Glenda took my hand in both of hers and sighed.
"You know there was a garden behind the house," she said.
I told her I knew about it. I'd been in it one summer with Lilia. We'd sat on the grass and had tea. She'd worn a pale green dress and a matching hairband.
"Well, it seems that Lilia was persuaded by someone, I don't know who that she should have a well put in. Lilia was all for it, but then an old lady showed up and told her it would be a bad idea. She told Lilia that the Fair Folk wouldn't like it. Well, Lilia laughed at that and the old woman went away in a fury. The well was dug and put in. It seems that one night, Lilia woke up and went out into the garden. She was no sooner on the grass in her bare feet then she changed into an apple tree. A maid who couldn't sleep saw her. The problem was, that the next morning the garden was full of apple trees. The police were baffled. Then the old woman shows up and says that only someone who loved her might return her. They would have to kiss the right tree though. If they didn't, Lilia would forever be an apple tree. Nobody dared, in case they got it wrong.
That was ten years ago. Now the house is up for sale and the orchard is to be uprooted. Most of us think Lilia will die if that happens, but it needs - well someone like you William. If you can kiss the right tree, Lilia will live again," Glenda told me.
I sat for a moment taking this in. A faery curse on Lilia did not seem real. I could not imagine Lilia being cursed by anyone. Then I stood up.
"I'm going over there Glenda. I'm going to kiss the right tree. I never fell in love with Lilia..." I blushed, I had fallen in love with Glenda, but she married George.
"I know William, I know. But I didn't realise until after you'd gone. Now I have Sula and I'm not the beauty I once was, no man wants me. But Sula and me get on ok," she said with a smile.
"I did love Lilia, Glenda, but always as a dear and precious friend. Now I have to do what a friend must do - help the friend in trouble," I said.
Glenda chuckled gently and sat up.
"The spare room's got a double bed. Go save the girl, hero. I'll keep an eye for you," she said.
I went down the stairs, my heart thumping in me. I went out into the street, the painting of Lilia in the museum, burning in my memory. There was a fence around the site, but I climbed it. The builders had gone home and the street was mostly empty. A woman shouted out, something about the police, but I ignored her.
I went around the side of the house and a strong wind blew up. I entered the garden and rain began to fall. I stood with my back to the house gazing at the apple trees. Their branches were weighted with apples, green and red. The gnarled bark and winding branches creaked in the storm that had sprung up.
"You will never have her, she belongs to us now," a voice made of wind and rain murmured about my ears.
I stared at the trees and suddenly noticed something I had not seen before. I dashed forward my arms up about my head, branches lashing at me and clasped the slim trunk of one tree. I held on tightly and kissed the rough bark. Very suddenly there was a whimper in the garden. I thought it had been me. The rain dashed at my face and neck as if it would drown me, the wind tore at my clothes and hair. Still branches lashed me unmercifully.
Suddenly I was aware of a heart beating against mine, of warm limbs and a howl of anguish rent the air. With as much suddenness as it had begun, the storm died away. The apple trees in the garden creaked terribly. I took the living being in my arms and lifted her up. I carried her away from that cursed garden and the house. Only in the evening of the road did I look down to find Lilia unconscious in my arms. I took her across the road to the Pot & Plate and Glenda opened the door silently.
I sat all night with Lilia. She slept as if dead. I gently caressed her cold brow, stroked her ink-black hair and her pale, pale face. Sometime in the very early morning I must have fallen asleep. I awoke to my name being spoken, aware I slept on a soft stomach. I raised my head to find Lilia awake with a cup of coffee in her hand.
"Dear William, I owe you so much," she said gently.
I yawned and stretched and grinned at her.
"I leave you alone for a few years and look what happens," I told her.
"Lucky for me I have good friends," she said, adding, "Glenda has something to ask you".
I turned to Glenda and waited. She took my hand and put down her coffee cup. Then she went down on her knee. Reader, I married her. What else should I do?
Thursday, 12 September 2013
The beach at Fecamp - by C. Monet
I heard about the man when I moved to the little fishing village some years ago. It seemed that I had moved into the house he had lived in. Many of his old things were still there and I had packed them up and put them into the cellar, which at least was dry.
It seemed that I looked a little like him, tall and scrawny with dark hair and eyes. But he had been a painter and I was a writer. My last novel had done very well so that I had been able to buy the small cottage by the sea. There was a small train station from where I could get to the city and to the nearby town for shopping. The cat who lived with me had sniffed around the small cottage and settled in. I sat every morning to write looking out over the promenade to the beach and the sea. The beach was shingle, not sand but I liked it. The sharp tang of the sea and the saltiness of the brisk cold air had a wildness to it.
My predecessor had come to the village to forget a woman who had it seemed left him. Unlike me, he had been quiet and solemn-faced. Spoke only when spoken to, walked with his face to the ground as if pavement and road could only fascinate him. His paintings were of the sea and the landscape around the village. It seemed that after a little time his paintings were of animals and finally of people. They were not conscious portraits but from sketches or drawings. I took some of them to the city and had them framed. I even wrote some short stories based on his paintings.
When I had first moved in I was more concerned about finding room for my books and clothes. I had spent money refurbishing the kitchen and bathroom to my taste and setting up the rest of the house with my own things. As a result it took me two months before I finally went down to the cellar and went through the former resident's things. It seemed that he had been alone in the world like me. There was no next of kin and nobody to pass on his things to. I felt a need to respect them, conscious of my own lone-ness in the world. I had friends, certainly, but they had their own lives in which I was a small part. I kept in touch by email and the occasional letter. Once I met a friend for coffee in the city when she came down on business, but until then I had no friends come to my new home.
So I sat in the cellar with the harsh fluorescent light and went through the former resident's remaining property. His painting materials I kept aside to sell, but much of the time was spent going through his books and his paintings. He had some novels that I had and some art books that I had too. I went through them with pleasure, putting some of them aside for myself and some for sale. Then I went through his paintings. They were all signed and dated which made it easier to see how he had progressed from the dark mood he had been in to the brighter mood as his heart mended over time. But the mood changed when he had come across somebody new. I did not know if they had actually met and nobody would tell me. But he had been clearly struck by her dark hair and blue eyes. There was something almost feral about her expression, like that of a wild thing even when she smiled. He caught that at first but her face seemed to change in his portrayal of her. Her clothes and her expression. She was often painted or drawn on the shingle beach staring out to sea. As if she would rather be there than on the land. As if, the thought came suddenly to me, she belonged there and wanted to go back. Yet, the sea was always rough, green, purple and dark in those paintings. I did not know if that was how he saw her or he was painting only what he saw.
If there was something between them it ended badly. It seems that she disappeared after a while. Nobody has been able to tell me where she came from, but when she went, the painter walked down to the sea one day when the sea was rough and a storm was threatening. Only a man walking his dog saw the painter. He said the painter was weeping or that his eyes were watering from the winds coming off the sea. He said that he saw the painter walk down the shingle to the sea's edge and keep walking into the sea. The painter did not respond to the cries for him to turn back, but kept on going.
It is said that his body was never found, perhaps he had weighed himself down with stones in his pockets. In any case he too was never seen again any more than the dark-haired, blue-eyed beauty. Only seals were seen afterwards, a pair with ink-black eyes and friendly faces and they did not stay long.
Friday, 6 September 2013
I saw him painting the sign when I was an old man. I sighed to see it, but I was not surprised, that's change for you, comes along when you least expect it. But I still remember Miss Celia Montplaisir the woman who had lived where Parlour Lane used to be.
It was a large 19th century house, all red brick and big sash windows. Around it was a large garden with four trees, some bushes just inside the high walls and lots of flowers. The masterpiece - or as I should say, the mistresspiece of the house was the large living room. Celia always referred to it as the parlour until everyone in the neighbourhood did too. It had a fabulous chandelier with over a thousand lustres that was held up by what looked like a small dragon that snarled and stuck out it's forked tongue just below the high ceiling. There was also a grand fireplace of a rich red and black marble. The fireplace itself had a tiled floor and was large enough for Colonel Martyr-house's wolfhound, a large animal with the manners of a lamb.
Every August the 5th, Celia had held a party for the children of the neighbourhood. Every Christmas she had a party for the families of the neighbourhood. Most people thought her very rich, but as I knew only too well, she was not nearly as well off as she appeared. I had my suspicions about where her wealth came from, but Celia was such a lively, lovely woman that even having suspicions gave me guilt. Still I had always listened to my grandmother when I was a boy and she had told me much of what she knew. She had grown up the daughter of a woodcutter and knew about the forest beings and spirits. So when I saw Celia's green eyes, her rich auburn hair and the slight quality of something wild I could not help but think of faeries. She was drawn to reds and greens, nut-browns and tree-bark greys in the colours she wore. Everyone fell under her spell, everyone was amazed that she was unmarried.
Even as I grew up and aged I remember noticing that Celia remained as youthful and fresh as she had always been. Colonel Martyr-house had flirted with her but without words she had kept him friendly and not too close. She had a soft spot for children, their amorality, their wonder and imagination, which she encouraged and fed. Strangely, even at her parties I never saw her eat or drink. Yet she must have burned up energy constantly.
She was always moving as if to be still even once was to freeze forever. She went to the market and bought food and wine like everyone else did. I believe she loved me as a boy, she encouraged my stories and my drawing. At one August party, she fetched a small harp that the teenagers would have sneered at but for her. She played and sang with such a fine clear voice that everyone fell silent the better to hear her. Even the birds in the garden were silent. The song was a gentle ballad of a lover and her lad. She had loved him truly and he had betrayed her love. All of us were moved to tears at her sorrows.
She was utterly central to our lives; in our neighbourhood as well as in our town. She seemed to be everywhere, charming the most awkward, persuading easily the most recalcitrant. Nobody wished to upset her and now I wonder if there was a measure of fear in that. It was always unwise to displease the faeries as my grandmother used to remind me. Celia in town would gather children to her, she would feed them cakes of honey and buy them tea while she drank her strong black coffee. She would tell them ancient tales that in her words seemed fresh and exciting as the best tales are.
I went to the city university at eighteen to study and never forgot Miss Celia Montplaisir. So you may imagine my surprise when I returned after three years of work and study to find the large house and garden had gone and in its place a wide area of grass. I asked after Celia but it seemed as if I had dreamt her, for nobody seemed to remember her. She had gone as if she had never been there at all. I was sure then, though I never dared to utter it, that Miss Celia Montplaisir was and had always been one of the Fair Folk. For we are in the modern age and with all our human cleverness and technology, nobody actually believes in faeries any more. Was that why she left? Did she finally find love perhaps? I do not know. I will never know. How can I when it appears that I am the only one in our town who remembers her?
Thursday, 22 August 2013
There was a time in our town when because the crops failed, everyone was starving. We called it an age of austerity. Being rich meant nothing because there was no food anywhere to buy. Before very long, someone suggested the river. After all, one might catch fish and therefore we may eat and silence our insistent stomachs.
The old people bowed their heads and one old grandmother struggled to her feet at our council meeting.
"We cannot fish in the river because the Nixies won't allow it," she said.
"The Nixies? What nonsense! Fairytales for children," said councillor Tilbury-Dox.
He was a large man whose flesh hung on him now, but his character was bombastic and of course everyone understood him. Nobody believed in the faeries and very few believed in the Nixies. Still, the old grandmother was not known for foolishness, so Councillor Salix, a tall, gaunt woman stood and asked,
"Why won't the Nixies let us fish?" she asked.
The old grandmother sighed heavily and her friends began to grumble and mutter.
"O hush!" Granny Rowan said standing, "It was a long time ago and it was our foolishness that angered the Nixies."
The old people hushed, but they hung their heads and stared at the floor. Granny Rowan raised her chin and looked around the room with her piercing dark eyes. Everyone watched her in utter silence. We were curious, mostly. Most of us were wondering if we would get a description of a Nixie.
"Many years back, when we too were young we forgot that we were only human. We started to believe that we were in charge of the natural world and worse, that we could do as we liked with it. We started to take over the fields down to the river, which was bad enough. Factories were built and and the fields built over. If that were not enough, we began to use the river as we wished. In all that, we did not ask the faeries if we might use their fields or their river. We thought we could do what we wished because we wanted to.
A little after that, a faerie came to a council meeting and asked if the town should not ask the faeries permission for use of the fields and the river. We arrogantly replied that we did not need their permission and anyway faeries were made up for children's tales. The faerie laughed and told us that we must all of us give something precious of our own - from the heart. That alone would allow us to use the fields and the river. That said, she vanished leaving us afraid and defensive. Yet we did not do as she asked.
First the factories disappeared. Nothing could be rebuilt there and has not been built there since then. The riverboats were sunk overnight and since then we have left the river well alone. If we wish to use the fields and the river we have - all of us, to give up something precious of our own. That alone and nothing else will do."
Having spoken she sat and all of us were silent. We remembered the black waters of the river, dark and threatening. Even the fields seemed somehow threatening, though we had not quite known why. Now it all seemed clear, yet unclear as well, I mean we had always been taught that the faeries were not real.
Everyone went home and thought of what they had that was precious to them. Mothers tried not to think of giving up their children. Fathers tried not to think of their families and more, of their cars. Children tried not to think of their parents leaving them. Everyone was afraid, but at the same time, everyone was starving. Of course, hunger won out.
Councillor Salix sent around a lot of small porcelain bowls to put precious things in. To some of us, those bowls became precious. We gathered together many of our precious things and took them down to the fields and left them. They disappeared overnight and a wide path appeared that led down to the river.
We gathered up our small precious things and took them down to the dark, ink-black waters. One by one we placed the bowls upon the water and let them float free. As we watched the bowls floated downriver and we returned to our homes.
The following morning we went down to the river to see it. Everyone was quiet and hopeful. The water of the river was now bluer and seemed fresher. Little Judy Fisher held her mama's hand and leaned over to look at the river.
"Look mama, that lady in the water's got a fishy tail," she said.
A host of Nixies then swam up to the bank and sang. A song made of sunlight on water, of trickling water against riverbanks and over stones. A powerful, yet delicate song that had something of the essence of the river in it. And, as they sang, many big salmon leapt out of the river onto the bank before us, sacrificing themselves so that we might eat and live. Beside us, the meadows filled with wheat and shed their grain. Trees at the edge of the meadows shed hazelnuts and walnuts. When the Nixies had finished their song, they sank back beneath the waters and as they did so, the wheat stalks also sank beneath the earth into the meadow leaving heaps of grain. Everyone gathered up the fish and gave thanks to the Nixies, the salmon and the meadow for the food. We took it all quickly to the town and cooked the fish with the nuts. Bread was made with the wheat and brought to our town hall so that everyone might be fed.
That is why, every month, we take small porcelain bowls to the river and float them downriver on the clear, blue waters. It is our way of thanking the Nixies for keeping us fed when the nation was starving.
Monday, 29 July 2013
My grandfather has always loved a cup of tea. Well more a glass of tea than a cup. He rarely if ever drank beer. Even though it seems that my ancestors were once Vikings. My grandmother told me once that Granda drank a glass of tea in honour of a great Viking ancestor of his.
"But the Vikings didn't drink tea, Gramma!" I told her.
She straightened in her chair and looked at me sternly. There was something very strong and formidable about Gramma Lise. These days I say she was like a valkyrie ready to ride out to the battlefield, but she was more like an ancient goddess, maybe Elli the goddess of old age.
"The Vikings travelled beyond their own lands my boy," she said firmly, "Even to the distant south lands. There they discovered spices and tea and all kinds of beautiful things that they traded. So they brought tea back to warm themselves and keep their heads."
"I didn't know that," I had to admit, "So what was special about Granda's ancestor drinking tea?"
I had settled on the floor by the fire, seated at Gramma's feet. I knew she could tell a story, but when she told me about family however old, the story was bound to be a good one. I had been left with Gramma while my parents had gone out and I was happy to stay with her. It was cold and wet from all the snow outside, but indoors it was warm and comfy. I had made tea for Gramma and we sat in her lounge with the cat asleep on the sofa and her old dog Fenrir, a wolfhound sprawled on the floor by the fire next to me. His body was warm and his chest rose and fell with his breathing as he slept.
Gramma sat up in her armchair, she was still a tall stately woman, her hair iron grey and her eyes blue as a summer sky.
"Well, if you promise not to interrupt, I'll tell you. You won't believe it like as not, but I'm your grandmother and I do not lie," she said firmly.
I promised and she finished her tea and put the cup down on the table beside her.
"You see in those days, there were all kinds of things in the snows and the mountains where grandfather's - Per's ancestor lived. Per was your grandfather's name and he was the dearest, kindest man and I miss him very much. Anyway, in the evenings back in those days, the men of the village would gather around the fire in the moot hall. A moot hall is where the village elders held meetings to decided important matters. At other times, the men would meet to tell sagas or long stories.
This one time, they sat and drank and just talked. Arne Lindstrom said that he was sure he'd seen a troll going over the mountain near Sarnholm and Per's ancestor who was called Agni laughed and sipped his drink. That annoyed Arne who teased Agni about his drink. Agni was drinking tea from a glass he had bought in Persia the previous spring. Arne said that tea was a drink for children and old ladies. Ale was a drink of men, he said and the other men laughed and looked to Agni.
"Oh I wasn't laughing at you Arne," Agni answered and smiled.
"This 'tea' is a drink for old women, my mother and grandmother like it as much as I do. But not for children Arne, not after all we went through to get it!" he said.
"Well, I'm sure I saw a troll and it's not because I drank too much ale," Arne grumbled.
"Oh I believe you," Agni answered, "I was remembering that time when I was up in the peaks with my cousins in the summer. I had a large packet of this tea with me and my cousins teased me about it. They had brought three kegs of ale with the supplies. During the day we took the goats out to the high pastures and watched over them. In the evenings we brought them into the great barn up there. The goats slept in one half of the barn and we in the other. There we ate our food and drank and told tales.
One evening we were settling to our supper when the barn door flew open and a troll came in. He was barely able to get into the barn so big was he and he had to duck his head to get under the lintel. Of course, we all drew our swords and reached for our spears. Firstly to protect the goats and then to protect ourselves.
The troll sat in the doorway and grinned,
"I'll make you a bet," he says, "If any of you can make me so drunk I fall over, I won't eat you. If I make you drunk so you fall over, I get to eat you."
At first there was angry grumbling among my cousins but I quietly took my packet of tea and told my cousin Aelfrid to use the small cauldron and make the tea. I had to tell him how, but he looked at me in astonishment so that I had to laugh.
"Trust me, make the tea and serve it in my Persian glass," I told him.
Then I spoke up and said to the troll,
"I will take your bet, but I will drink my ale hot and from my glass cup so you can see that I am drinking it."
The men looked at me in confusion and told me not to be a fool, but I hushed them and told them that I would have my special tea ale and the troll might have their ale. Now they did not know the effects of tea, so they hoped I was sure I knew what I was doing. But they agreed and fetched the biggest of the three kegs of ale. The troll was given a tankard and I took my tea. A tally stick was brought up and the number of drinks would be marked on the stick. All this the troll agreed to. So we sat opposite each other, my cousins behind me and Aelfrid poured my first glass cup of tea. The troll took a tankard of ale and drank. I drank my tea and began to sing the longest song I knew, which was about the wisdom of Odin and his ravens, Huginn and Munnin. The troll found this rather jolly and hummed along as he did not know the words.
After the fifth cup I began to sing louder and to laugh a lot so that the troll would think me a little drunk. After the tenth cup the troll was singing a very grave song about a she-troll who overwhelmed the army of Sigmund Flame-hair and ate the soldiers. My cousins were much afraid by this, but I sang a bright song then about the blacksmith who made the armour of the great Beowulf who it was slew Grendel of the dark waters.
After the twentieth cup, the troll was leaning on the table with one huge hand. I however was forced to pee in a pot. I ate a loaf of fruit bread and had another cup of tea. After the thirtieth cup, the troll went outside briefly and made a torrent that flowed like a river in full flood down the mountain. It hissed as it went and trees burst into flame as the flood touched them. Then he too sat down, and took another cup of ale. Now my cousins were quietly preparing their bows and setting their arrows down in front of them, but beneath their cloaks.
The fortieth cup had the troll groaning and breathing heavily, but still upright. Now I felt full and I believe both the troll and I could have done with a snooze, but still we drank on. At the fiftieth cup, the troll was swaying like a half-chopped tree. I got up to pee in another pot. I ate another fruit loaf and Aelfrid poured me another cup.
We had been drinking through the night, the troll and I. At the fifty-fifth cup, the troll put his tankard down and swayed dangerously. My cousins moved further behind me but I smiled to myself. I was still very sober, but the troll looked as if he could weep tears of ale. As he straightened up, the morning sun came up and it's rays warming the troll suddenly turned him to stone. For a moment we sat in shock. There was a rumbling sound and the stone troll crumbled and fell back down to the mountainside followed by a clear spring of water that gushed upwards and down to the valley below.
I put my cup down, rushed past the remains of the troll and was violently sick. My youngest cousin Brani thought it amusing to bring me a cup of water from the new spring to wash my face and to my surprise the water was good and fresh and pure. I was brought back to the barn and put to bed.
When I awoke the goats were out at pasture and only Brani was with me. I ate a good breakfast, drank some water and went out with Brani to the pastures. I was teased in good nature by my cousins, but they none of them have teased me about drinking tea ever since. After all, it protected them from being eaten by a troll. Still, it took me a while before I could drink a good cup of tea again!" he said with a smile.
The company laughed and they broke up and went home after. Arne and Agni walked home together and when they split up to go their separate ways, Arne asked with a smile,
"At least with us you only had to drink five cups not fifty-five," he said.
Agni laughed and nodded.
"Yes, much better not to drink so much," he said.
"So you see," Gramma said to me, "that is why Per used to drink tea from a glass."
The door opened and Fenrir raised his sleepy head.
"Hallo!" Mama called out.
"Put the kettle on, would you," Gramma answered with a wink at me.
Tuesday, 9 July 2013
Coriander Delaunay glanced down at her magazine again and sighed. She was waiting for George. There was, she admitted to herself the distinct chance that she might leave his ticket at the office and take the train herself. She had collected both their tickets and having drunk three cups of decidedly indifferent coffee she had left the cafe and gone directly to Platform one to wait for him.
I swear, she told herself, if he's gone on another wild chase after some wrong-doer, I will commit murder with a handbag - or maybe a hairbrush. After all, she was rather proud of the handbag. It was a red Cecile bag she had managed to buy at a considerable discount after someone had neglected a zero on the price tag. Very fashionable and very red. It did not quite suit her clothes, she wore a dark knee-length chocolate skirt a pale pistachio jacket and a white cotton blouse. Her cloche hat was the same colour as the skirt and the bag, she told herself was a splash of colour. It was fiery against her clothes.
After the three cups of coffee she was soon in dire need of relief. Coriander was a great believer in will power, but the coffee in her system was testing that will power considerably. George's lateness was also not helping. Then suddenly she felt a hand on her elbow and as she turned, George kissed her gently on her cheek.
"You're late," she said bluntly, "I very nearly went without you, but I would have missed the look on your face so I stayed."
He grinned and stooping he picked up her overnight bag and took her elbow guiding her forward towards the platform.
"Let's get on board the train darling and I'll tell you all. I may even show you what I would have looked like had you gone without me," he said.
Coriander giggled and they walked swiftly for the train. George opened the door for her and Coriander stepped on to the train. She found an empty compartment and told George,
"Your turn to wait, I need to powder my nose."
"And a lovely nose it is too. Hurry back Love of my Life. I have sandwiches and tales to tell," he told her, swinging her bags up onto the rack.
When Coriander had been to the Little Girl's Room and was once more in the compartment with George, she sat carefully and took off her hat, running her hand through her short bobbed dark russet hair. She leaned back in her seat and looked at George who was laying out a small picnic supper on the seat beside him. Yes, she thought, I rather like him. He's utterly mad and undisciplined, no sense of time, impetuous as aunt Maud and he makes me laugh even when I feel like the world's falling on top of me. Of course, his hair is too dull, his eyes are green and not blue and he is not going to be a film star any time soon, but I rather like him.
She smiled as he turned to her.
"Do you remember Hecate Primtucket?" he said.
"Wasn't she one of your ex-girlfriends who cottoned on to you?" Coriander said sweetly.
"Not at all, there's only ever been you Queen of my Heart. Well apart from the blonde in my room last night, she was quite hot. Left me all unnecessary. And the glorious brunette who swooned over me at breakfast and called me - well apart from them there's only been you."
She leaned forward and punched his leg.
"You beastly boy. Tell me who this Primtucket is or I'll do something dreadful to you. Of Biblical proportions," she said imperiously.
He nursed his leg and wondered aloud if he just might eat ALL the sandwiches just to teach her a lesson when she raised her fist again.
"Alright, alright, don't hit me, I'll talk!" he said quickly.
The conductor entered the compartment and checked their tickets. His face was slightly grim and when he left, Coriander burst with laughter.
"Lean back O best beloved and I will tell you about Miss Hecate Primtucket," George told her when she had calmed down.
"Give me a sandwich first," she said.
When she was settled with her beef and salad sandwich, George took his sandwich and leaned back to look at her. She was bright, sparky and sweet, he decided. If he could find the nerve to ask her to marry him, he would.
"Miss Hecate Primtucket was a witch twenty or so years ago," he began.
"Not one of those lovely pagan witches who know their herbalism and suchlike, Miss Primtucket was a very dangerous witch full of sound and fury and very significant. She could influence elements and change weather. She was practically seething with actual magic. She didn't career about the place on a broomstick or in a mortar and pestle, she had a rather fast Ferrari Tenebroso.
She was not to be taken lightly. By anybody. It was rumoured that she had once been in love, but the object of her affections betrayed her and ended his life as a toilet brush. Not for her the bitterness of a Miss Havisham, she lived her own life with two black cats called Temper and Tantrum. Both were the scourge of the neighbourhood.
Now it seemed that La Primtucket decided to take a train to see a friend of hers who was on her deathbed. The friend was on the deathbed not Primtucket. So she duly booked a ticket and arrived at the station. It was said that everyone was exceptionally nice to her, just in case. But for one foolish station man everything would have been fine. He directed her to Platform one, which was where her train was coming in. Miss Primtucket waited and waited but the train was late. She kept her cool nonetheless and waited until a large crow flew into the station and landed on her shoulder. People said it appeared to be talking quietly to her before it flew away.
Now Miss Primtucket spoke to the station man who snapped that the train was delayed and it would arrive when it arrived. Then he really put his foot in it and added 'despite dragons or engineering works'. Now there were no engineering works that weekend so that left dragons and Miss Primtucket was quite sure he meant her. This, you will understand made her very angry. It was said that her eyes narrowed to small obsidian pits of darkness and she drew herself up to her full height, which was not very much, but nobody with sense would tell her that.
She whispered something behind the station man's back and glared at a train that was waiting at Platform Two. Then she took her bags and walked away. The train began to creak and groan. It seemed to pause only to sigh before it tore itself to pieces and reformed itself into a large iron dragon. It is reported in the archives of the local newspaper that people screamed and that a small boy was instantly eaten in one mouthful," George stopped and as if to illustrate he took a large mouthful of sandwich.
"Greedy dragon. What did the mother say or is that not reported? Or did she swoon in sheer terror?" said Coriander lightly.
"She would have attacked the dragon, but it took her next in two sharp bites. Mother and son, gone in an instant. Then people fled in utter panic screaming and crying. Only Miss Primtucket continued in a calm and relaxed stroll towards the exit. People begged her to stop the dragon, but she glared at them and they backed away in horror at her expression.
The station man turned to see what all the fuss was and the dragon breathed out a roar of flame that killed him where he stood. Suddenly, Miss Primtucket stopped and so did the dragon. It was as if both of them were holding their breath. The station manager rushed onto the platform and headed towards Miss Primtucket.
"Madam, whatever offence was given, I sincerely apologise for. I believe you were going to Mount Pleasant City but the train was delayed. A large boulder fell from the sky some miles in front of the train and it is taking some time to remove it. If I can be of service to get you to the City, I will surely do all I can," he said.
Miss Primtucket recognised him and smiled. A slightly wintry smile, but a smile to be sure. She whispered a word and the dragon fell into lots of bits of iron on the platform.
"Your apology is acceptable young Harold. I was going to Mount Pleasant City, but it is now too late. Mistress Crowstail has passed away. I will see her in the afterlife. Good day," she answered.
That said, she continued out of the station and was not seen again in our town. It is said that she went to Provence, but naturally I cannot confirm that. The dragon on Platform one was taken to Ferris Hardiman's scrap-metal yard, but of the three victims there was no sign. I tell you this as a moral fable dear one," George said.
"Moral fable? What moral?" Coriander asked.
"Don't mess with witches or dragons," George said solemnly.
Coriander wagged a finger at him.
"Don't you forget it Georgie boy. Or I'll turn you into a frog," she told him.
He appeased her with sandwiches, for a good sandwich turneth away wrath.