A Penguin Comes to Tea

What if … ?

In February 2017, I read in the paper that Saudi Arabia’s King Salman was heading off on a state visit for which he was expected to bring 459 tonnes of cargo with him, including two Mercedes-Benz s600 limousines and two electric elevators. Two days later, when he arrived at his destination (Indonesia), I saw a headline stating, “1,500 people, two Mercedes Benzes, 459 tonnes of luggage and a golden escalator: how the Saudi King travels,” and I wondered what would happen if somebody mistook an escalator for an elevator.

“Look,” said Jean-Paul Petain, head of security of Hotel Le Meuriel, waving a sheaf of papers in front of his face then slamming them onto the conference room table. “It says here, on the list of luggage that the king is bringing with him, that he will have two elevators.”
“Elevators?” asked Martin Le Blanc, the chief operating officer of the hotel group. “What does he want elevators for?”
“To get to his hotel room, presumably,” said Petain.
“Does he think we don’t have elevators in France?” scoffed Alain Blanchard, the general manger, flicking a speck of dust off his cuff. “What are we supposed to do—rip out our own elevators and install his, between when his luggage arrives and when he wants to go to his room for a nap?”
“Rip out the elevator?” said Philippe Sousiel, the architect, his eyebrows shooting up his forehead, as if demonstrating the function of an elevator. “Does he even know that our elevator is a copy of the sedan chair used by Marie Antoinette?”
The other people in the room muttered and frowned.
“I don’t know,” said Petain taking off his glasses and polishing them with a handkerchief, “I called the embassy to check if they really meant it, and the person I spoke to said that everything on the list will be coming with the king.”
“Did you ask specifically about the elevators?” asked Blanchard.
“Yes, and they said he always travels with his own elevators, and staff to operate them.”
“So our lift operators will be out of a job then,” said Blanchard. “The union won’t like it.”
A low muttering from the back of the room confirmed that fact.
“Did they say how big the elevators are?” asked a manager from marketing.
“Apparently they stretch about seven metres.”
“Is that all?” said the manager of guest services, who was supposed to be taking notes, but was flirting with the manager of the front desk staff. “So why did he choose to stay at this hotel, with seven floors, if his elevators will only reach the second floor?”
“Because we’re the best hotel in Paris, probably,” said Petain, “but the point is, he’s booked our entire hotel for the visit, and he expects to use his elevators, so we’ll have to find somewhere to put them and make them work.”
“I’m not ripping out my hotel for the sake of a one week visit, king or no king,” said Le Blanc, pulling out a packet of cigarettes from his jacket pocket and tapping it on the table until a single cigarette slid out.
“I agree, but on the other hand, imagine what it will do for business,” said Blanchard. “We can rent out the rooms he used to other Arab visitors for triple the price; whereas, if we refuse, everybody will know we turned down the Saudi king, and that definitely won’t be good for business.”
“Can we put the elevators around the back, where the fire escapes are?” asked somebody from the housekeeping department.
“What, and have the king step around the delivery vans in the loading dock?” said the manager from the advertising department. “That would get us publicity all right, but of the worst kind.”
“Well, we can’t put the elevators in the front without knocking down some of the arches,” said Blanchard.
Le Blanc took a deep breath from his cigarette and exhaled a dense cloud of smoke that hovered over the table. He waved his hand at Petain. “So where do we put this elevator?”
“I was hoping that we could build a new access way through the patio bar,” said Petain, unrolling a drawing of the building. He pointed to the plan of the bar, located at the side of the hotel, next to the two-star Michelin restaurant. “The king doesn’t drink, so the bar won’t be used during his stay, and we can close off this section and install his elevators here.”
Le Blanc and Blanchard studied the drawing then looked over at the architect, who was shaking his head and wringing his hands.
“Can you do all this in time?” asked Le Blanc.
“I’ll try,” said Sousiel, “but it will mean your bar will be closed to guests once the work starts, and I’ll have to take out the wood panelling.”
“We’ll serve drinks on the roof-top patio,” said Blanchard, “and let’s hope it doesn’t rain in the coming weeks.”
And so the staff of Hotel Le Meuriel threw themselves into the alterations with a fervour not seen in Paris since the days of the revolution. The builders shortened their lunch breaks to just one hour and even volunteered to work overtime, which the unions approved—although the unions insisted that all staff connected to the hotel should get overtime pay, whether they were working on the elevator or not—and the bar staff demanded extra pay for having to carry drinks up to the roof. Blanchard took to standing outside the hotel every afternoon, wringing his hands and begging the builders to work faster.
“How are you going to test it without the king’s elevator?” asked Le Blanc, gazing at the big mound of rubble where the patio used to be, when he came to see what had been done to his hotel.
“We’re using a similar elevator,” said Petain, pointing to a glass-fronted box that was blocking the entrance to the restaurant.
“So you’re going to test it with that thing, then rip your elevator out and install the Saudi elevator once it arrives?”
“Yes, we’re timing ourselves on the installation; right now we can do it in two and a half hours,” said Petain.Le Blanc shook his head as he looked at the side of the building where a gaping hole revealed the landing of the second floor, with the lace curtains floating gently in the breeze and the plaster moulding hanging down from the ceiling.
“Could we not have asked them to send the elevator in advance?”
“I tried that,” said Petain, “but I was told the king needs the elevator for the plane.”
Le Blanc rolled his eyes and took one last puff of his cigarette before stamping it under his foot. “This had better all be worth it,” he muttered.
On the first day of the royal visit, while Sousiel and the engineers removed the trial elevator for the last time, the hotel staff stood in the foyer in their crisp new uniforms, watching the TV screen which showed the royal jet taxi to a stop on the tarmac of Charles de Gaulle airport. Several service trucks headed out to the plane and one manoeuvred itself close to a hatch at the back of the plane. After a few moments the hatch opened, and a long package emerged and was loaded onto the service truck, which drove slowly to the front of the plane. A set of steps unfolded from the back hatch, and several men clattered down to the tarmac and followed the service truck to the front of the plane.
The hotel staff watched in amazement as the long package was unwrapped, revealing a golden staircase which was positioned at the front door of the plane. When everything was in place, the service truck drove off, and one of the Saudi men spoke into his radio.
The door of the plane opened, and two men in suits stepped out and stood one to each side of the staircase. A moment later, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud stepped forward onto the top of the golden staircase. He looked around him and nodded briefly at the dignitaries and crowds of press photographers standing a little way off on the tarmac, flanked by rows of security personal. Then one of the suited men touched a box at the top of the staircase, and the golden stairs began to move, conveying the king and his attendants down to ground level in a ripple of warm, deep yellow. More people followed off the plane, some wearing the same flowing white robes as the king, which they gathered around them before stepping onto the golden escalator and riding down to the ground.
When the last person had exited the plane, the service truck drove around the plane again, and, with the help of some French baggage handlers, the same men disconnected the escalator and loaded the contraption onto the back of the truck.
At Hotel Le Meuriel, Blanchard looked over at Petain and fixed him with a cold stare. “Monsieur Petain, did that luggage list say the king was bringing an elevator or an escalator?”

One Thing I’ll Never Forget

One thing I will never forget is the day we blew up the neighbours’ house. We didn’t mean to do it, and by rights it should have been our own house that took the blast, but our home just lost a few windows while theirs was shorn in two, the walls collapsing like blancmange, and the rooms left open for all to see, like a giant doll’s house.
Of course they sued us, and the insurance people took forever to work out the details. In the end they got a big cheque and a new house somewhere in the newer part of town, and we were left with a big hole next to us and hostile faces from other people on the street.
My husband says it was the fault of the man operating the digger, and the plumber says it was the city’s fault for giving us inaccurate maps, but I blame the cat.
It all started when our water pipe burst, sending a spray of water across the front of the house like one of those fancy fountains at deluxe resorts. The cat was very displeased and darted up a tree, from where it spat and hissed at the foolish people who tried to climb up and rescue it.
“It would take me too long to break through that concrete,” the plumber said, indicating the rock garden which was now a rock spring, with water gushing out by the gallon. “The best thing is to dig a trench and lay a new water line to the house, so I’ll need you to ask the city for a plan of the utilities under your property.”
My husband duly contacted the city who sent us an ancient-looking diagram showing our property to be crisscrossed by all sorts of underground symbols, and we passed this on to the plumber.
“Cool! Do you think if we did deep enough we’ll find some ancient artefacts?” asked my son, who was hoping to be allowed to operate the digger.
“I think these are ley lines, you know, lines of power,” said my daughter, who survives on a diet of fantasy books. “We’ll probably disturb some sleeping spirit and be cursed for five hundred years.”
“Can we just get the water fixed,” I begged, tired of living with a lake outside my front door and a cat which spent each day in the tree.
One week later, with all of us fed up with having to drink and wash from bottled water, the plumber turned up with a friend who owned a small digger, and the two of them proceeded to turn our front yard into a scene from the Great War.
“I think you need to dig along here,” the plumber said, consulting the city plan. “We’d better go right to the edge of the property, to be on the safe side.”
While the digger piled up the earth, making more and more trenches and a deeper and deeper hole, the cat raced up its favourite tree and sat mewling on a branch just above the jaws of the machine.
“Here, cat,” said the plumber, reaching up to grab the creature, but it just hissed at him and shuffled backwards on the branch.
“I think I can get it if I climb onto the digger bucket,” said the plumber, grabbing the digger arm and standing up on the bucket to reach into the tree.
“Just leave the cat,” said my husband, peering into the hole. “What’s that blue stuff down there?”
The plumber turned to look down at the same time as the digger operator moved the bucket up towards the cat. The plumber fell off the bucket, and his tool belt landed on the blue-clad pipe with a clang. A moment later we all clamped our hands to our noses as a smell like rotten eggs hit us.
“Gas!” yelled the digger man.
“Shit!” yelled the plumber.
“Eew!” yelled my daughter, who had been watching the plumber try to rescue the cat.
“Phone the gas company!” yelled the digger man, climbing out of the cab to examine the damage. It looked like a very small hole in a very small pipe, but the smell was awful. The plumber and the digger man were both talking into their phones and the rest of us stood as far away as we could, holding our noses. The cat scampered along the branch of the tree, upset by either the smell or the commotion, climbed higher up the tree trunk and launched itself at the side of the house, scrabbling to get a foothold on my daughter’s window ledge. It clawed its way inside, knocking over some of my daughter’s lotion bottles which fell to the ground, and then meowed loudly which sent my daughter running inside to comfort it.
We all turned back to the plumber and the digger man, who were both relating their conversations with the gas company and telling us that the repair crew would be here within ten minutes, and nobody paid any attention to my son, who was moving towards the digger.
“Can I sit in it?” he asked the driver.
“No,” I said.
“Later, maybe,” said the digger man, and he pulled the keys out of the ignition.
A few seconds later a loud bang nearly lifted us off our feet. My husband described the sound like a plane crashing on the ground, but it was more like a boom followed by a cascade of rattles. Our ears rang, dust filled the air and our throats, and everybody began yelling at once.
When we realised we weren’t dead, we looked around and saw our front window glass scattered all over the ground, sparkling like beads of rain. At first we thought that was the only damage, then we heard the screams from the neighbours’ house. We peered through the dividing hedge and saw a heap of rubble where their car normally sat; behind it, the side of their house gaped open, with a chair half hanging over the edge of what had once been their second floor.
Somebody said it was the lotion bottle that did it, acting like a magnifying glass and setting some dry grass alight. Somebody said it was the driver pulling the digger keys out of the ignition, but I still say it was the cat.

My Fifteen Minutes of Fame

“Grandma’s on the roof again.”
My heart sank when I read those words. Ever since the doctor prescribed medical pot for my grandma to ease her pain, she has taken getting high to new heights, as it were. Life was fine when she was just living in the suite downstairs, with her caregiver coming every day to do whatever caregivers do, and my brother and I would visit her once or twice a week and drink watery tea, while she nodded off in the corner or told us the same story over and over again.
But then somebody prescribed weed for her. Weed—for an eighty year old woman!
I thought it would be cool, having legal weed in the house, and that maybe Grandma would let me try some, but my Mom regulates when she can have it and keeps the supply under lock and key. My brother and I keep trying to get at it; we just haven’t been successful yet.
I don’t know what the doctor thought the weed would do for Grandma, but it seems to have truly addled her brain. She began by walking around the rest of the house, picking things up and leaving them in a completely different place—I even found her in my room once, fiddling with my games console—but then she discovered the door to the roof. It’s not really a roof, just a small balcony off my parents’ room, but it’s right at the top of the house and has a view in three directions, so we call it the roof.
The problem with the view from three directions is that if you’re on the roof, you can be seen from three directions, and every time Grandma finds her way onto the roof, she can be seen by all the neighbours. In fact, Grandma’s frolics on the roof have become the talk of the neighbourhood, which means I get the brunt of it at school the next day.
“It’s her fifteen minutes of fame,” my Dad told me once, after Grandma had thrown all the potted plants off the roof, thinking that they could fly.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“You know, it’s what Andy Warhol said, that everybody could have at least fifteen minutes of fame in their lifetime.”
“Cool,” said my brother, “I’m going to be famous one day.”
“Yeah, well I wish Grandma had had hers when she was younger,” I said, wondering how long this stage was going to go on for.
My parents tried locking their bedroom door, but somebody always forgot and left it open, and in any case, Grandma was quite capable of hiding a key somewhere or slipping into that bedroom when nobody was noticing.
So when I rounded the corner after getting the text about my grandma, I was expecting to see her waving her arms at the sun or singing at the top of her voice, with a few of the younger neighbourhood kids giggling on the street below. I was not prepared for the large crowd that had gathered outside our house, gabbling and pointing, and the TV truck that drove up just as I drew near.
“Look, she’s totally naked,” said somebody.
“I told you she was stark, raving bonkers,” said another person, howling with laughter.
I looked up on the roof and quickly looked away again. Sure enough, Grandma was out on the balcony without a stitch of clothes on her, twirling and singing like an uninflated sprite, a flimsy scarf wrapped around her neck as if to say she was not totally naked.
I tried to sneak into my yard without being seen, but a couple of kids saw me and began to yell.
“Hey, Dylan, your nan’s at it again!”
“What’s she on? Can I have some of that stuff?”
I cringed and turned to walk away, when I saw the TV newsman coming towards me. I couldn’t tell if the camera was rolling, but the man was talking into the microphone, so I assume it was.
“Is this your house?” the man asked, when he got to me.
I nodded and mumbled something and ducked away as soon as I could, diving into the Carter’s yard and round the back to our house.
“Mom!” I yelled, once I was inside. “Go and bring Grandma inside! The whole neighbourhood is watching her dance naked on the balcony!”
There was no answer, and I went upstairs to find my mother’s clothes all over the floor of her room, as if somebody had been playing dress up. Outside on the balcony, Grandma now had a blue hat on her head and was dropping socks over the railings onto the heads of the assembled gawkers.
“Grandma!” I hissed, beckoning to her.
I don’t know if she saw me, but she just kept dropping socks down below. I needed to stop her before she began on the other underwear drawers; airing our dirty linen in public would soon have a whole new meaning for our family.
Finally I did the only thing I knew that worked. I went downstairs into Grandma’s room and got the enormous plush dog that Dad had given her several Christmases ago. The dog stank of weed, as if it had been smoking along with Grandma, but she loved it and seemed to take more notice of it than she did of us, most days.
“Here, Nana, Rufus wants you,” I said, moving over towards the balcony, hoping that the dog was obscuring me from the people below. “Come on inside and talk to Rufus.”
I waved the dog around a bit more, and Grandma finally noticed him and stepped back inside the room. As soon as she was off the balcony, I closed the sliding door and the blinds and shoved some clothes at Grandma. I mean, who wants to see an old lady naked?
After a while Grandma put on a robe and went back down to her room, taking Rufus the stuffed dog with her, and I slumped down in front of the TV. What a day, I thought, as I flipped through the channels.
And then I saw it. A news article about Grandma, with our house centre stage and Grandma flitting about the balcony like a desiccated Juliet, while I mumbled something at the camera, my face beetroot red. Already my phone was pinging with texts, and I groaned. It looked like I was having my own fifteen minutes of fame, all because of Grandma. And I still haven’t even tried any of the weed.

My Mother Was Constantly Confused

My mother was constantly confused over my brother’s business arrangements. Most of his schemes fell on the wrong side of the law so he was careful not to tell her much about his activities but he could not stop her from talking to people she met at her medical appointments, which often resulted in a hasty winding down of the current business.

It started when Norman was a teenager and he filled the shed at the back of the house with pot plants, while a constant stream of visitors called at night and at weekends, to ‘help with the horticulture’.

“My son has a gardening business,” my mother said to her doctor one day, “he has ever so many pots.”

Norman threw his weed into the river later that night, before the doctor could recount the story to the authorities, and he complained about his lost profits for weeks.

His next venture was an unofficial liquor outlet for the local youth which lasted for several months before the parents of the local youth found the source of their offspring’s frequent inebriation at weekends and paid a visit to my mother.

“Your son is selling alcohol to minors,” said one man.

“Miners? I didn’t know there was a mine around here,” said my mother, looking at the deputation on her doorstep. “My son has a business selling boots, I think, although I can’t say that I have ever seen any boots. I’ll ask him when he gets home.”

The liquor business closed after that and was replaced by a series of other shady ventures which he tried to keep a secret from our mother. I moved out once I graduated from school but Norman stayed, taking advantage of the large property and using our mother as the excuse.

“She’s old, she needs looking after,” he would say, while my mother would fuss and cook for him.

There followed a number of years when Norman dealt in stolen goods, buying them low and selling them on at a healthy profit but my mother’s mouth ended that trade also.

“My son does fencing,” she told one of the neighbours who called to talk about an actual broken fence on the property. Norman evaded that question by saying that he would get one of his men to fix it and then had to engage a real contractor to mend the fence, all the time grumbling at the cost and the fact that his activities may have been compromised.

The biggest problem came when my brother agreed to keep some cows for a friend who had been ordered to destroy them after an outbreak of disease on his farm.

“But is that safe?” I asked when I heard of the plan. “What if the disease gets into the food chain?”

“Nobody’s getting diseased,” said Norman, “and there’s no food chain if the cows are kept alive. Just think, we can have fresh milk every day and when the ban is over my friend will still have his cows, instead of being ruined, like the other farmers.”

“How long are you going to keep the cows,” I asked, “and “who’s going to milk them?”

“Only until this scare is over; a year at most” he said, “Isabel is going to milk them and maybe you’d like to come home and help?”

I snorted at the idea of going home to a barn full of illegal cows, although the sight of my brother’s girlfriend squeezing her ample behind onto a milking stool might be worth a day trip.

“And how will you stop Mum from telling anybody about them?” I asked.

“Oh, she knows. I’ve told her there are no cows here and that some film people are making a movie on our land, so there might be some noises and movements, but that she’s not to worry.”

I could not resist going to see the invisible herd so when Norman said he and Isabel had some business out of town the following weekend I drove over to the farm with my husband, Richard.

“No cows!” said my mother as soon as we came through the door. Her eyes opened wide and she shook her head to be sure that we understood.

“Yes, Mum, I know there are no cows here. We just wanted to come and see you,” I said, while Richard went into the kitchen to look for a drink.

“Have you come to be in the movies?” my mother asked, shuffling over to the kettle which was on a constant heating cycle in that house.

“No, Mum,” I don’t think I’d be any good in the movies, and Richard’s too ugly.”

Richard, who had found a beer and was looking out of the window, made a rude sign at me, which my mother did not see as she was reaching into a cupboard for the good tea cups, the ones she only used when visitors came.

“Oh, it’s just that I mentioned to that lady in the pharmacy that we had a movie set here and she said that movies often have parts for extras.”

Richard turned and looked at me, shaking his head in a way that said, “what has she done now?” while my mother set out the tea cups and saucers on the table, still chattering away.

“I told her the movie’s not a Western, as we don’t have any cows, but I don’t know much else about it.”

“Maybe it’s best not to talk about the movie, Mum,” I said, “we don’t want crowds of people coming to try and get autographs or anything.”

“But that’s just it,” she said, her hand wavering as she poured hot water into the teapot, getting almost as much water on the table. “The pharmacist says that her children want to meet the movie stars and can they come over here one day. So I said that no, they couldn’t come because Norman says we don’t have any cows and it’s all a secret.”

She looked down and noticed the spilt water on the table and reached for a cloth. “Now look what I’ve done; this movie business has me all worked up.”

I waited while she wiped the table, refusing any help, and then poured the tea into the cups, and set out the milk and sugar, all the time muttering about cows and movies. Richard, who hates tea, sat down with his beer while I added milk to my cup and stirred it, obliging my mother with the familiar ritual.

We talked of other things and soon my mother had relaxed and wanted to know about our health and our jobs and she appeared to forget about Norman and his deals until the door burst open and Norman himself came in, followed by Isabel, both of them looking very flustered.

“No cows!” said my mother at once, her hand raised to her breast, as if she were swearing in front of a judge.

“Mum! What have you been telling people?” Norman asked looking all around the room as if he expected somebody to be hiding behind the sofa. “I’ve had a call from the agriculture department who say they have been told we have cows on the property.”

“No cows! I said no cows!” my mother repeated, looking from Norman to the rest of us, becoming agitated.

“We’ll have to hide the cows,” said Norman, looking at his watch, “we have about two hours before the inspectors get here.

“Where are you going to put them?” Richard asked, “they’re not exactly small and you only have one barn.”

“We’ll have to bring them into the house,” said Norman, “we can cram them all into the parlour; nobody ever goes in there, and we’ll get Isabel to fry up some onions to cover up the smell, and Mum can be watching TV with the volume turned up due to her bad hearing.”

“You must be joking,” I said, but Norman was not listening, he had already opened the back door and was racing towards the barn.

“Come on, everybody, there’s no time to argue!”

It took us nearly two hours to move all thirteen of the cows from the barn into the parlour. We had to lay some sheets of plywood to create a ramp up to the porch as they refused to put their feet on the steps and they stood lowing on the grass while Norman kept shushing them and Richard, who was thoroughly enjoying the escapade, whacked them with a stick.

The whole house stank from the onions and garlic that Isabel was frying in the kitchen and Norman turned on the compressor to make more noise so that we had to shout instructions at each other.

“What about the movies?” I asked, “Won’t they expect to see sets and cameras?”

“No, we’ll just say they were shooting a scene with two people talking so the director didn’t need any equipment.”

An hour later, just as we had gathered around the table with plates of fried onions there was a knock at the door and an official with a clipboard came in. He nodded to us all and asked for Norman, while I held my mother’s hand, willing her not to speak, wondering why we had not taken her upstairs to her bedroom.

“I’ve had a report that there are cattle on this property, sir,” the inspector said.

“Well that’s not true; there are no cattle here,” said Norman, sweeping his arm around to point at the fields outside, “come out and have a look.”

Norman and the inspector went out to the barn and I turned to Richard and said, “did anybody clean the barn after we moved the cows out?”

He grimaced, and I could tell what he was thinking. Evidence of the cows was all over the barn. I wondered if Norman would be fined or arrested, and what would happen to the cows when they were discovered, and how we would ever get them out of the parlour. The band on the TV belted out its songs and the compressor whined while we sat in silence waiting for the verdict. After a while Norman and the inspector came back, both laughing.

“So I said to the producer that he could bring in cow manure to set the scene, but then they left it all behind after they’d finished shooting and now I’ll have to clean it up myself,” Norman shook his head as he recounted a tale to the inspector.

“I hope they paid you well to dump all that poop on your land,” said the inspector, who appeared to believe the story.

“Oh yes, we got a good deal, and they’ll mention us in the credits, too,” said Norman, and I wondered if he was going to name some big star who was appearing in the movie and further complicate our lives.

“Well, I look forward to seeing it,” said the inspector and turned towards the door. “Thank you for your time, and sorry to bother you.”

“Cows,” said my mother, who seemed to suddenly remember what we had been doing earlier.

“No Mum,” said Norman, “the man was looking for cows but there are no cows here.”

I gripped my mother’s hand and shook my head at her, while moving a plate of congealed onions in front of her.

“No cows,” I said.

“No cows,” she repeated as the door closed behind the inspector, “so who’s in the parlour then? Shall I make them tea?”

A Bedtime Story, featuring a fairy, a wizard, a dragon and a castle

I read a news article that suggested the ideal bedtime story should be 8.6 minutes long, feature a dragon, a fairy and a wizard and be set in a castle, so …

Once upon a time there was a king who lived in a small house by a muddy pond, while high on the hill in the middle of his kingdom a magnificent castle with three ballrooms and seventeen bedrooms was inhabited by a single dragon.
“I do wish you would do something about that dragon, so that we could go home,” the queen would say every morning while eating breakfast.
“I’m doing the best I can,” the king would answer, and then they would finish their breakfast in silence, neither looking at the other.
The two princes did not mind the dragon being in their castle because they rather enjoyed playing in the muddy pond with the village children, and, in any case, it was their destiny to grow up and slay the dragon one day.
The princess did mind that the dragon was in her castle because it meant no balls and no opportunity to dress up and meet young men, other than the village boys who were always in the pond with her brothers. She blamed the princes for the family’s predicament and she was right.
When the twin princes were born the king was so delighted to have two sons that he decreed a public holiday and arranged a big feast for all the nobles in the kingdom and also all the people in the nearby villages. He invited sorcerers and mages, fairies and wizards, making sure that nobody who could take offence was left off the guest list, but with so many magical people around something was bound to go wrong. One of the sorcerers drank too much spiced wine and conjured a dragon for the young princes, saying, “every kingdom should have a dragon: that’s how legends are made.”
The other guests were scared of the creature, even though it was no bigger than a lizard, because the sparks from its sneezes burned holes in their fine dresses and waistcoats. The king ordered a page to put the dragon in a box and then went back to enjoying himself while the page took the dragon to the kitchen to show his friends, who began to poke at the poor creature to get it to spit out flames.
“What are you doing?” called a fairy, fluttering through an open window, while the pages quickly stuffed the smouldering animal back into the box.
“We’re looking after this dragon,” said one page, “it’s a gift for the princes but the king wants it out of sight during the party.”
“Quite right,” said the fairy, flying away from the ball of flame that was heading for her wings, “but you must be careful not to let it get away. Here, I’ll put a spell on it to contain it to the castle,” and she waved her wand, sprinkled some dust in the air, and then, with a flick of her wings, she went upstairs and joined the guests in the main ballroom.
The fairy’s spell worked very well. The little dragon was prevented from leaving the castle by an invisible barrier and for the first couple of days it remained on the ground floor, exploring the kitchens and all the rooms in the servants’ quarters, terrifying the maids and the cook and delighting the pages. On the third day the dragon began to grow. First his tail grew longer, then his legs, one at a time, causing him to walk lopsidedly, and finally his head caught up with the rest of him. As he grew he became stuck in small spaces, knocked over things with his tail and burned most of the furnishings. Everybody wanted the dragon banished to a cave but because of the spell he could not be removed from the castle.
The poor page could not remember which fairy had cast the containment spell and none of the fairies the king contacted could do anything about it, so the only solution was for the royal family to move out of the castle and let the dragon take it over. Soon, the dragon had grown so big that each of his legs stuck out a different window, his tail poked up the chimney and his nose lay outside the front door on the drawbridge, where his tongue was able to reach down to the moat and scoop up any unfortunate duck which came too close.
At last the beast stopped growing, but it was impossible for the king and his family to move back to the castle, a fact that the queen and the princess bemoaned every day.
“Won’t the dragon die of hunger?” one of the king’s advisors had suggested, but after seven years the dragon showed no sign of starving.
“We need somebody to undo the spell,” said another advisor, “or at least, to disable it.”
“You must announce a contest to get rid of the dragon,” said the queen, who understood how men functioned. “Promise the winner a large sack of gold, and a title and we’ll soon have our castle back.”
“Good idea,” said the king, “I can offer the winner half the kingdom and the hand of the princess in marriage.”
“Oh no, you won’t,” said the princess, who had just come in to breakfast, “I’m not a prize to be given away to some lout who happens to kill a smelly dragon.”
“And the kingdom is too small to divide in half,” said the queen, “especially as you already have two sons who each expect to inherit.”
The king grumbled but agreed to the contest and told his advisors to announce the news. Soon the people could talk of nothing else but the coming contest and strangers began coming from far away, eager to try their skills against the dragon.
It soon became apparent that the spell binding the dragon was a powerful one, as it could not be undone or changed; it could only be improved upon, and each new spell made the dragon even stronger.
After one week of spell casting, during which time the dragon had been changed into a giant mouse, a snake, a jellyfish and a pink canary, and everybody was getting tired of the constant bangs and flashes and the smell of enchantments, a wizard and his son came to the kingdom to try their luck against the dragon. The wizard’s son stopped at the muddy pond and joined in a game of chicken fighting with the other boys while the wizard strode up to the king and said that he could rid the castle of the dragon, but only if he were allowed to inherit the kingdom.
“That’s preposterous!” said the king, “I have two sons who will be king after me.”
“Well, send them on a quest or something, or marry them off to princesses in far lands.”
“I can’t do that, but maybe you could marry my daughter instead?” said the king, who was willing to try anything to get rid of the dragon.
“Daddy!” shrieked the princess, “I am not marrying some old wizard, even if he does get our castle back for us.”
While the king and the sorcerer were arguing the two princes and the village boys huddled outside in the bushes, listening.
“Why does it have to be a spell that removes the dragon?” asked one boy. “Can’t we just knock down a wall and lead it out?”
“Because the dragon’s confined to the castle, silly,” said another boy.
“Well why don’t you just make the castle bigger?” asked the wizard’s son.
This was something nobody had thought of and when the king heard the idea he immediately called for his royal architects and commanded them to design an extension to the castle. However, the architects were more concerned with becoming famous, so they spent a lot of time sketching plans for battlements and turrets, and nothing actually got built. The wizard was so proud of his son’s suggestion that he began to draw up his own designs, which relied on magical walls, so nobody paid them any attention.
The princes and the village boys had taken to walking up the hill each day to visit the dragon while the architects adjusted their drawings. The princes were eager to show off their muscles and boast of how one day they would kill the dragon, but the village boys were more interested in looking at the dragon’s teeth and playing a game to see who could run up and touch a scale without being singed by the dragon’s breath.
“I don’t think you need to actually extend the castle,” said the wizard’s son, “you could just build a big wall from the moat and enclose a field large enough for the dragon to live in. Technically, it would still be part of the castle grounds.”
“But how will we get him out of the building?” asked one of the boys.
“What if he grows again?” asked one of the princes, who was secretly not looking forward to killing the dragon.
“Let’s worry about that later,” said the wizards son, who was pacing out the ground, “help me drag some rocks over here.”
So the boys carried rocks from the fields and piled them up against the castle wall, while the dragon watched them with his big green eyes, and snorted smoke at them when they got too close. After several hours they had built a small pen next to the castle wall and the dragon stretched out his front foot and planted it into the earth, leaving a large footprint, then he lay his head down on his front paws and let out a loud belch.
The boys ran down to the village to fetch the architects and the wizard and soon everybody who could haul stones was engaged in extending the wall to make a larger pen. The wizard tried conjuring some stones into place but they rolled away and he concluded that the spell on the dragon was preventing any magical interference.
By the time it grew dark they had enclosed what looked like a large paddock and the dragon was sniffing around the edge of the wall, and scrabbling with its front legs.
“How’s he going to get his tail out of the chimney?” asked a small boy.
“I think he’s getting smaller,” said another.
Everybody looked at the dragon and they saw that he was no longer trapped in the doorway, and his legs were not poking out of the windows, but tucked underneath him. A moment later his tail slithered down the chimney and curled around his body and soon his eyelids closed and the people could just make out little puffy snorts of sparks.
“He’s gone to sleep!” said one of the princes.
“Well at least he’s not trying to eat us,” said the other prince.
The people stood around for a while, looking at the sleeping dragon but they began to feel tired themselves, after their hours of lifting stones, and so they went back to their houses.
In the morning one of the village boys was the first to go up to the castle and he discovered that the dragon had gone.
“Are you sure?” asked the king when he heard the news, calling for his carriage to take him up the hill to reclaim his castle.
The dragon had indeed gone from the castle, leaving a pile of broken scales on the floor, claw marks on the dining room table and burned shreds of fabric hanging from the windows. The king, queen, princess, both princes and the household staff went from room to room, holding their noses against the smell of dragon, examining the damage and wondering how soon they could move back in.
“I’ve found him!” said the wizard’s son, walking up from the far end of the new paddock, holding something small in his arms.
The boys all crowded round and saw that he was carrying a small dragon, which spat out flames and flapped its wings, becoming more and more agitated as it was brought closer to the castle.
“I think it knows that it will grow bigger and get trapped again if we put it inside the castle,” said the wizard, who was trying to take credit for the building of the paddock wall. “But if you let it live in this field, which, thanks to this wonderful wall, is now technically part of the castle, then it will probably stay small.”
The king began thinking over the benefits of owning a dragon which could be made bigger just by hauling it indoors. He could scare his enemies, or charge admission to watch the transformation. Perhaps the dragon was going to be of use after all.
The queen began making lists of the furniture she would have to replace, and wondering how she could get the princes out of the pond and into their royal attire, now that court visitors would be calling again.
The princess walked around the three ballrooms imagining the parties that they would soon be giving, and the dances that she would be able to enjoy. As she pirouetted with her hand in the air, holding an imaginary partner, she bumped into the wizard’s son, who was standing watching her.
“What are you doing here?” the princess asked.
“I’ve come to claim my prize for solving the problem of the dragon,” he said.
“What prize?”
“Well, there was talk of a sack of gold, or half a kingdom, or was it half a princess?”
“What cheek!” said the princess, “I’m not a prize, and anyway, the dragon’s still here.”
“You’re right,” said the wizard’s son. “I’ll have to fix that, and then I’ll come back for my prize. Save the first dance for me.”
And he winked at the princess and skipped out of the room.

Never Again

“You’re looking very smug tonight, Harold,” said Edith, as she set the table for dinner.      
Harold took a long swig of his beer, leaned back in his favourite chair and smiled at her.      
“I’ve fixed that yapper for good,” he said.      
“What do you mean?” Edith turned and frowned at him.      
“Never again will we have to hear that constant yapping from next door,” said Harold. “Never again will we have to watch where we step in our own front yard because that mutt has done his business on our property.”      
Edith’s eyes widened as she stared at her husband.      
“What have you gone and done, Harold?”      
Harold shrugged and looked away.      
“A dog needs a good home. It needs space; not concrete paths like in this street full of houses.”      
“Harold! What have you done with their dog?”      
Edith put down the plates and marched over to Harold’s chair, standing in front of him with her arms on her hips.      
“You’d better not have done anything with their dog, or I’ll—well, I don’t know what I’ll do but I’ll be very angry.”      
“Relax, Edith, I haven’t touched the dog.”      
Harold waved her away and went back to his beer, refusing to say any more about the dog, or the neighbours, talking instead of his day at work, and by the time they had finished dinner, Edith had worked herself into a state over the dog. She kept getting up to look out of the window but she could not see all the way into the neighbours’ yard, and she did not want to look as if she were spying on them.      
“They’ll think you’ve got something to hide, if you keep poking your head around the curtains like that,” Harold said, thrusting his arm into his coat and grabbing his car keys. “I’m just going out for a bit.”
Harold disappeared into the garage and a moment later she heard the noise of the garage opening and the car reversing out. Edith busied herself with the dishes and keep looking out of the window, hoping to catch sight of the dog, but instead she saw Joanna Marley from next door coming up their driveway. Edith hurriedly wiped her hands and rushed to open the door before Joanna had even rung the bell.      
“Oh, hello, Joanna, I was, er, just, er—”      
“Edith, have you seen Charlie?” Joanna asked, peering around Edith as if she expected the dog to be hiding inside the house. “He’s been missing for several hours and I know he sometimes likes to run around in your yard.”      
“No, sorry, I haven’t seen him,” said Edith, glad that she did not have to lie about that, and wondering where Harold had gone and what he had done with the dog.      
“Will you keep an eye out for him?” asked Joanna, who had turned and was now looking around the shrubs, clenching and unclenching her fists.      
“Of course I will, and I’ll ask Harold if he’s seen him as soon as he comes home.” Edith kept the smile fixed on her face until she closed the door and then let out a big sigh. She was certain Harold had somehow got rid of the dog next door and that he would be found out and there would be a horrible fight with the Marleys. And all because the dog yapped. And left stuff in their yard. And there was the time it bit her nephew. And–      
Edith stopped thinking of the dog and began to think about Harold. What could he have done, and where had he gone?      
It was late before Harold came back and from the smell of him he had been drinking, but he was still very pleased with himself and he planted a loud,wet kiss on Edith’s cheek.      
“Nice and quiet here, isn’t it?”       
Edith pushed him away and frowned at him.      
“Harold! What have you done with that dog? Joanna was here asking if we’ve seen it and I didn’t know what to say.”      
“The dog’s gone out west,” said Harold. “There was a removal van two streets over; the people are heading out to the country and they had a big sofa in the back of the van. All I did was throw some dog treats into the van and that mutt was in there like greased lightning. I’ll bet those two young kids will be delighted to have a dog when they get to their new home.”      
Edith stood staring at Harold, her eyes wide, not sure what to say.      
“Come on Edith, you hated that dog as much as I did, with its constant barking. Think about it—the dog gets a new home, some kids are happy, the Marleys find something else to fill their time and we can walk on our grass in bare feet again.”      
Edith shook her head. She was sure there would be trouble once the dog was discovered, but at least she could truthfully say that she had no idea where the dog was. She opened the window to let in some air and for the first time noticed the quiet, and even heard the frogs croaking. Perhaps Harold had done the right thing after all.

Wolves in the Wilderness

Caroline hopped out of the small dinghy and pulled it up over the barnacle encrusted rocks on to the small patch of beach. She held the boat steady while Robert and Linda got out then wrapped the rope around a thick log.
“Wolves have been sighted on the island,” said Linda, pointing to a tattered piece of paper pinned to the post at the start of the trail, “do you think it’s OK to walk here?”
“Wolves?” Caroline looked up and peered into the trees but all she could see were branches dangling down in the few patches of sunlight. “What’s the date on the notice? Is it from this year?”
“I can’t tell,” said Robert, “that bit’s torn but the paper looks quite worn, so it’s probably from a few years back.”
As the three of them set off on the trail, Caroline tried to remember what she had learned about wolves. Be quiet and move away backwards. Or maybe climb a tree. Or is that what you do for a bear? No, that’s wrong; make yourself tall and be noisy, she thought. And do you look them in the eye or not?
She wished she had paid more attention to the dangerous wildlife section in the guide book, but she had been too busy reading about plants. The others had moved on up the trail and she hurried to catch up with them, looking over her shoulder so much that she bumped into an overhanging tree and grunted.
“Are you OK?” Linda called back without turning round or slowing her pace.
So much for keeping a look out for wolves, thought Caroline. If she’d been eaten they wouldn’t have even noticed. Linda and Robert were discussing hikes they wanted to do, trading tales, and laughing loudly, paying no attention to the woods.
Caroline felt her heart rate increasing, even though they were still walking on the level so she took several deep breaths and looked around her. The trees were mostly bare of branches until about ten feet above her, where the fronds formed a giant dome. Strips of bark lay on the ground beneath naked tree limbs and several species of fungi sprouted among the rotting wood. The path felt springy underfoot, from a mix of moss and fallen pine needles and Caroline enjoyed bouncing as she walked. It must be like this on the moon, she thought.
The air felt cool, even thought it had not rained for weeks, and the patches of sunlight offered a warm glow. Caroline counted eleven different shades of green, and had started cataloguing the browns when she felt a pricking on the back of her neck.
She turned and looked behind her but could see nothing except trees. Not wanting to stand still she hurried after the others, now a long way ahead, her breath wheezing as she pumped her arms and willed her legs to move faster. She kept looking back but the forest appeared just the same, although it felt more menacing, and now the various shades of green resembled lurking creatures rather than rooted vegetation.
Caroline stepped onto an old boardwalk over a stream and as she turned her head around her foot sank through one of the rotten planks and she lost her footing; she pulled her foot loose and when she looked up she saw a pair of golden eyes staring at her from under a fern.
She gasped, then screamed, fighting the urge to run, as that would mark her as prey.
“A wolf! A wolf!” she called out to the others, “do something, scare it off! Don’t leave me here!”
She waved one arm above her head while with her other she unslung her backpack then swung that around in a big arc, trying to make it look like it was part of her. She could not remember if wolves were clever creatures – did they know the difference between a chewy backpack and a tasty human? And for that matter, was this a lone wolf or did it have friends?
She could hear herself moaning with each exhaled breath, and her legs began to quaver, wanting to run yet awaiting instructions from her dazed brain. The golden eyes looked at her and blinked, directing her gaze to a long pointed nose; she knew there would be teeth below that nose but her brain refused to process any more information and was rapidly switching to panic mode.
“Caroline? What’s wrong?”
Linda and Robert came running down the trail, crashing through the bushes and in an instant the eyes were gone. Caroline sank down onto the damp ground and began to sob.
“It was right there,” she said, pointing. “Two huge yellow eyes, just staring at me.”
“All the better to see you with,” said Robert and Caroline kicked him.
“Are you sure it wasn’t this fungus; it’s a sort of orangey colour,” said Linda, pulling aside a branch to reveal two fungus spheres growing on a trunk right in the place where Caroline had seen the wolf.
Caroline sniffed and shrugged. It had been a wolf; she was sure of that, but she did not want to make a scene. She struggled to her feet and brushed the pine needles off her clothes, then shouldered her backpack once more. They continued on the trail, with Caroline walking between Linda and Robert, her heart still beating wildly while they teased her about yellow eyes and big white teeth. She did not say anything; she knew what she had seen and the sooner they got out of the trees the happier she would be.
The trail led gently uphill and eventually came out in a clearing with an abandoned fish farm and an information board describing the history of the area. There was another notice pinned to the board warning of wolves in the area, and this one did have a date on it, of the week before.
“I told you so,” said Caroline, feeling a hollow comfort, knowing that they still had to retrace their path through the woods to return to their boat.
Linda and Robert continued to be dismissive of the wolf story but agreed to wait by the trail head until other hikers showed up so that they would be a larger group for the return trip. Even so, Caroline stared at every bush and log as they tramped back through the trees, wondering where the wolf was hiding. She did not relax until they were safely in the dinghy, motoring back to their boat.
Later that evening, once the sun had gone down and the half moon was high in the sky, Caroline lay on her bunk, looking out of the window at the stars speckled across the sky. They looked to her like a million pairs of wolf eyes boring into her. She shivered and snuggled down in her sleeping bag, listening to the gentle slap of the water against the side of the boat. She was almost asleep when she heard a long, drawn out mournful howl. The wolf was calling to her.

Composting

“What have you got there?” I asked my sister as she dragged a heavy bag out of her car.
“Wood shavings, or sawdust or something. It’s for George,” she puffed, pulling the bag up the two steps to the house. I ran to help her, worried that the bag would split and leave a trail of sawdust on her carpet, while the dog bounded around us, wagging his tail in my face.
“Whatever does George want that for?” I asked, wondering what new project her husband had taken up.
“It’s for the new toilet, actually,” my sister said, pointing towards the extension on the side of the house. “He’s gone all ecological and installed a composting toilet. It’s going to save the environment and save us lots of money at the same time.”
“So you’re the one who has to haul the bags of sawdust around?”
My sister just shrugged, and looked a bit embarrassed, so I moved the furniture out of the way as she pulled the bag along the floor with the dog following closely, sniffing hard at the bag.
“The sawdust is only temporary,” my sister said, wiping her hands as she came back to get the rest of her purchases from the car. “George says he is going to make his own wood shavings once everything is finished.”
“Oh, yes?”
I looked outside to the shed, which contained partially completed furniture and enough car parts to build at least three vehicles, except that none of the parts matched. Behind the shed stood a boat covered in a tarpaulin, and, beyond that, several pieces of rusting machinery. George was never short of a project.
“So how does it work then?” I asked.
“Well, you just pour the wood shavings into the toilet in place of water and it all composts itself.”
“Good luck with that,” I said, and went home to my old fashioned plumbing, grateful that my husband was not in the least bit practical.
The next time I visited my sister I made a point of checking out the new bathroom, which smelled of fresh wood from the large bin of wood shavings next to the composting toilet. The dog followed me around, looking unusually subdued. When I asked what was wrong with him my sister pointed outside to where George was standing in front of a workbench next to a large pile of logs. George picked up a log and clamped it into the workbench, then, taking his power saw, he whittled away at the end of the log, showering wood bits onto a mound under the table.
“Wow, that’s quite a process, just for a toilet,” I said.
“It’s awful. The logs were delivered in a big truck that hit the neighbour’s gate when it reversed and now George is out there for hours making that terrible noise, and the bits of wood blow all over the place and have already blocked one drain, and the poor dog is stuck indoors, to keep him safe.”
“Why don’t you just buy more of those bags of sawdust?” I asked, “isn’t that what the manufacturers recommend?”
“George says they’re a rip off and the company is profiting at the expense of the environment,” my sister said.
As we watched the power saw slice through another log, a sliver of wood flew from the saw and broke the window of the shed, sending shards of glass all over the grass. George stopped the saw and looked at the glass, shaking his head. The dog, no doubt taking the silence as a sign that he could now go out, began to bark and scratch at the door.
“Oh dear; George will have to clean up that glass before we let the dog out.”
“Perhaps you could train the dog to use your new toilet,” I said. “Now that really would save the environment.”

Keeping a Secret

“Sit here, Mrs. Weston,” said the nurse who met Barbara at the nurses’ station. “Your husband is doing fine after his operation. He’ll be up on the ward soon and then you will be able to see him.”
Barbara sat on the hard plastic chair and clutched her coat around her neck, subconsciously fending off the germs she knew ran rampant around hospitals. The smell of disinfectant mingled with the smell of disease and unwashed bodies curled around her nostrils, taunting her. Arthur wouldn’t like it here. He would want to come home as soon as possible. Everybody knew that you only went into hospital to die.
Barbara wondered how they expected patients to rest with constant humming of machinery and the bright lights, not to mention the nurses bustling in and out of their rooms clanging metal dishes and making the poor patients swallow dozens of pills.
After about twenty minutes the doors opened at the end of the hall and two orderlies came pushing a large bed down the passageway, tubes trailing and monitors bleeping. A pale, droopy version of Arthur lay on the pillow, a large bandage across his chest, his face small and lined. Barbara choked back a tear as she stood up and followed the bed into one of the rooms where a nurse uncoiled tubes and cables, plugging them into the control panel at the head of the bed and then switched on the monitors on the table nearby. She pumped the bed up higher then reached under the bed and pulled out the bag containing Arthur’s clothes, and looked around the room for a place to put them.
“I’ll hold his clothes,” said Barbara, reaching over and taking the bag. She felt comforted clutching the familiar, worn sweater and blue shirt. She had told him to wear something decent for going into hospital but he would not hear of it.
“Why do I have to dress up if I’m going to be asleep?” he had said. “Besides, I’ll have to wear one of those awful gowns.”
The nurse left the room and Barbara opened the bag, taking out the sweater, shirt and pants which she folded properly and placed on the arm of her chair. Arthur’s shoes were also in the bag and she pulled them out and set them on the floor by the bed. She thought the bag must be empty so she was surprised to feel one more thing and she drew out a small clear bag with something pink inside it. Barbara opened it up and found a set of false teeth grinning at her.
“How disgusting,” she thought, “they’ve gone and given me somebody’s teeth and the owner is probably wondering where they are.”
She went outside to the nurse’s station and handed them the bag, saying, “I think we’ve been given somebody else’s teeth.”
Back in the room Arthur was stirring and mumbling as the effects of the anaesthetic wore off. Barbara took his hand, so thin that she could feel every bone through the mottled skin.
“Arthur? It’s me. How are you feeling?”
But Arthur only mumbled and drooled, so she began to tell him news from home: how the neighbour’s dog had scratched the fence again, and what her sister had said on the phone that morning. Soon Arthur drifted off to sleep and Barbara fussed around him, straightening the bedclothes and moving the curtain. He looked smaller, somehow, as if his face had shrunk.
Barbara sat down in the chair by the bed and she must have dozed off, for the next thing she knew the evening sunlight was reflecting off the mirror on the wall next to her and Arthur was sitting up in his bed, mumbling, and feeling around himself, as if searching for something.
“What is it, Arthur?” she asked, “how are you feeling?”
“Mrrlf,” said Arthur, his cheeks pumping like bellows. He put his hand up to his face, then turned away from her.
“What is it, love? Do you need a nurse?” Barbara looked around for the call bell, then ran out in to the passage and summoned one of the nurses who came in and checked all the tubes and monitors while Arthur waved his hands around as if conducting an orchestra. He motioned Barbara away then beckoned the nurse closer and whispered something. Barbara wondered if he needed to use a bedpan or something; she could have helped him with that, after all they had been married thirty years and had no secrets.
A moment later the nurse came back in with a tray and bent over Arthur; she must be giving him some medicine, Barbara thought. Poor man, he was probably in a lot of pain.
Whatever the nurse gave him must have done him good, for as soon as she left Arthur looked more like his old self, and he turned to Barbara with a big smile.
“Hello Barb,” he said, “come to take me home?”
Barbara stayed until the end of visiting hours, then, promising to come back first thing in the morning she headed out, stopping first at the nurses’ station to thank them for looking after Arthur.
“Bye, Mrs. Weston,” said a young nurse, “I’m glad we were able to find Mr. Weston’s dentures.”
Dentures?
The nurse smiled at Barbara who stood gaping at her.
Dentures. All these years of marriage and she had not known. What other secrets was Arthur keeping from her? Well, she would find out in the morning.

I Know How it Feels to be an Outsider

“My father is a registered sex offender.”
The students in the auditorium gasped and began murmuring while some of the teachers looked at each other in surprise but the young girl standing at the podium just looked straight out at her audience and continued speaking in a slow, calm voice.
“You’re probably all thinking that he’s a pervert who preys on little kids and that he deserves to be locked up for life.”
Many heads nodded in agreement, some swivelling to see the reaction of the teachers standing at the back of the room. Mrs. Hughes, the English teacher, was used to the shock aspect of Speech Day; it was the one opportunity to say controversial things in front of an audience, and students sometimes crossed the line, forcing the teachers to shut down a speech, but she had not expected this from Jessica Wilson, the new girl who always sat at the back of the class, and rarely spoke.
There had been the usual sighs and sniggers from her class of teenagers when she reminded them that Speech Day was coming up.
“And before you all ask,” she had said, “yes, you do have to participate, and your speech must be your own, not one copied off the internet or from one of last year’s students, so you can use the rest of this period to think about your topics.”
The students groaned as they pulled out fresh sheets of paper and began doodling and writing about the usual subjects of pets and family holidays. Now that she thought about it, there had been some commotion in the class.
“Ugh, gross!” cried Nick Dobbs, peering over at Jessica’s paper. “Jess wants to talk about sex offenders.”
“Pervs, you mean,” said Elizabeth Culter, “like you.”
“Lock them all up,” called somebody from across the room, and several other voices began to chime in, until Mrs. Hughes quieted the class. She noticed that Jessica’s head was down, her long hair obscuring her face while she wrote.
When the bell rang the students all jumped up and gathered their belongings, moving out of the room in a herd, already talking about other things. Jessica gathered her books and left on her own before Mrs. Hughes could say anything and now here she was, giving her speech.
“He’s not like that, but I don’t suppose you’ll believe me, now that you’ve heard the term ‘sex offender’. That’s all you’ll focus on and you’ll all avoid me and whisper about me behind my back.”
The girl looked directly at the student on the end of the first row, then moved her gaze along, pausing at each student in turn. The room was silent now, and some students began to squirm in embarrassment. Mrs. Hughes glanced over at the school counsellor and raised her eyebrows, indicating the obvious: this girl needed some form of help. The counsellor nodded and Mrs. Hughes wondered if the school had a file on Jessica, whom she had always found to be so quiet and withdrawn you could almost forget she was in the class.
“That’s OK. I’ve been there before; I know how it feels to be an outsider, to be excluded.”
Jessica talked about her lack of friends and Mrs. Hughes wondered if this was a result of bullying, and if so, how long it had been going on for. She sighed; in spite of the rallies and pink shirt days, bullying was as much a part of teenage life as it had always been, and teachers were always the last to know.
“Well, let’s forget about the offender part and talk about sex,” continued Jessica, breaking into a grin.
The students sniggered; they were back onto a favourite topic, one they could relate to. The teachers rolled their eyes and some looked at their watches.
“I know you’re all interested in sex, and some of you have even tried it.”
The students laughed and all looked around, wide-eyed, as if they could spot the cavorting couples. Some pointed fingers at particular students while others whispered in the ear of the person next to them, no doubt passing along salacious pieces of gossip. Mrs. Hughes took a step forward, intending to stop the speech, but the deputy head signalled to her to wait.
“Well, my Dad had sex with my Mom,” said Jessica, “and they had me. Just like each of you is here because of an action by your parents. It’s simple biology.”
The students were now making gagging noises; sex was all fine when it was on TV or between themselves, but totally gross when connected with their parents, or any adult that they knew.
“My Dad was eighteen, the same age as some of you,” Jessica pointed at the tall, lanky boys sprawled on the chairs the in back row who cheered and waved their fists in response.
“This is getting out of hand,” whispered Mrs. Hughes to the deputy head, “should I stop the speech and move on?”
“No, I think this could be interesting,” he replied, “wait and see what point she is trying to make.”
“But my Mom was only fifteen, the same age as some of you,” and here Jessica pointed at the first row of students, and the younger ones blushed and glanced at each other.
Jessica waited until all the snickering and elbow nudging had died down and addressed her audience again.
“And because of that one time, when a teacher found them in their school’s store room, my father was declared a sex offender and placed on a national registry.”
The students were silent now, staring intently at the girl standing up on the stage.
“And do you know what that means? I doubt it, because you probably don’t know any sex offenders. Let me tell you.”
Jessica moved away from the microphone and began to pace back and forth along the edge of the stage, her voice rising in volume as she spoke.
“My Dad is not allowed to come within 300 metres of this or any school. I take a twenty minute bus ride to come here every day just so there’s no chance that anybody who becomes my friend might try to walk home with me. I can never invite kids to my house. My Dad can’t watch me play sports, and he can’t come swimming or bowling with me. My Dad never pushed me on a swing in a playground because he is not allowed in the parks. We’ve moved house six times because the neighbours threatened him after discovering he’s a registered sex offender; one time we nearly had our house burned down.”
The students were all staring at Jessica, mesmerised by her speech. Mrs. Hughes looked over at the counsellor, wondering how many students would seek advice after this revelation.
“You probably think this speech is all about avoiding underage sex,” Jessica continued, “but it’s not. It’s about accepting other people. People like me and my Dad. I’ve been bullied, ignored and threatened, all because of something that’s not my fault. I’ve learned to ignore it, mostly, but it can be hard. My Mom and Dad just want to lead a normal life. Is that too much to ask?”
There was a moment of charged silence as Jessica walked back to the podium, gathered her notes and turned to step off the stage. Then the students at the back began to clap, and the applause spread across the room, with many students standing, and all craning their necks to follow Jessica as she took her seat in the centre of the auditorium.
“Well, how do you follow that speech?” the deputy head muttered as the next speaker stepped up to the microphone.
Mrs. Hughes looked over at the counsellor who was already surrounded by a group of students.
“It’s not Speech Day we have to worry about,” she said. “Just wait until this news gets out to the parents.”

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