A Penguin Comes to Tea

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My Stepmother Remained as Evil as Ever

I bet you think that when a story ends with the words, “And they all lived happily ever after,” that the people in the story do just that, dancing in the rose garden every day, holding hands, staring dreamily into each other’s eyes while the dishes wash themselves and the harvest jumps out of the fields and into the oven. In reality, life goes on much as it did before, only now you’re married and live in a different house. At least, that’s what happened to me after Prince Charming put the glass slipper back on my foot and led me to the altar as his bride.
When Char sent the carriage round to our house to collect my things—even though I’d told him I had barely anything to my name, and most of that was rags—my stepmother sent it back empty to the palace, saying that as she had lost a servant, she was entitled to another one.
“What do you mean she’s lost a servant?” asked Char, who really was clueless. “Are you bringing a maid with you? There’s no need, for we’ve plenty in the palace household, so your mother can keep hers.”
“Stepmother,” I corrected, “as in ‘wicked’. And no, I’m not bringing a servant with me—I’m the servant she’s referring to. I used to clean out the hearth, boil the water, wash the clothes, sweep the floor, peel the potatoes-”
Char interrupted my list with a kiss. I would have gone on, as there was tons more that I used to do, but he clearly didn’t understand domestic tasks.
“Well then, we’ll just send a palace servant to your mother’s house, and then all will be fine,” he said.
“Stepmother,” I muttered, feeling sure that all would not be fine.
Nor was it. Barely a week later, my stepmother marched up to the palace gates, demanding to see the king, saying that his servant was a no-good, idle, useless lazybones who was eating them out of house and home.
I was sitting outside by the lily pond, savouring a flaky croissant and watching the gardeners prune the roses while Char cantered his horse up and down the paths, so I heard all the commotion at the gates, and couldn’t really refuse to see her, the old bat. She was led over to my table, her eyes wide with jealousy, and before I could even offer her a seat, she launched her tirade at me.
“Just because you’ve moved in here, there’s no need to forget your father and your real family. Did you ever stop to think whether he’s getting enough to eat while you sit here and gorge yourself on these pastries? No, I bet you don’t spare a thought for those less fortunate, even though we’re your family, your own flesh and blood!”
I was about to point out that she had ample flesh of her own to worry about and not a drop of her blood belonged to me, but Char rode up at that moment and caught the bit about family, so he flashed his most handsome smile and made the most stupid suggestion.
“Cinders, why don’t you invite your family to move into the palace? There are plenty of spare rooms, and then you can see them every day.”
I shook my head and frowned, frantically signalling that this was the worst idea ever, but of course my beloved husband didn’t see me, and my stepmother immediately began to babble in her most obsequious tone, so in the wink of an eye, there I was, back where I had started, only in a bigger house.
Don’t worry; I didn’t have to clean out the grates, but Lucretia and Griselda still treated me like their personal slave, asking me to find them ribbons and help them try on the dresses they found in the palace wardrobes, and then they would flounce down to breakfast looking like a pair of flannel haystacks. The palace staff, who had begun by pitying me and being friendly, now treated me as if I’d brought a plague of locusts into the house, which I suppose was a good comparison as those two ugly sisters never stopped eating.
It was only when I noticed my stepmother looking through the book of royal guests that I realised what her plan was. She wanted to marry her daughters off to visiting royalty, and to that end, she kept suggesting we hold an elaborate ball every time a foreign delegation came to visit. Char would have agreed to it all, so empty-headed was he, but at least his father, the king, had a better hold of the royal purse strings, and so my stepmother had to be content with a series of banquets.
I fell ill just before the visit of the Carthenians, so I missed all the commotion when Lucretia overturned a soup tureen in the ambassador’s lap, and I was indisposed again when the Northerners came to the palace and Griselda fell off a horse. When I became unwell the day before the Islanders were due to arrive, I began to suspect my stepmother of deliberately poisoning me to keep me out of the way—presumably so that her daughters would be the only females under fifty in the same room as the foreign delegates.
“Char, you have to do something about her,” I pleaded when he came to my room bringing some foul-tasting broth, which I suspected my stepmother of preparing.
“She’ll make our life a misery, and those two will scare away all of your friends.”
“Don’t worry darling,” he said, patting my hand. “I have the perfect solution. We’re going to send them on a cruise around the southern ocean, only we’ll tell the captain to stay away from all shores for at least two years.”
“What about the poor crew?”
“We’ll give them ear plugs and tell them to always look busy, coiling ropes and stuff.”
So my stepmother and her two daughters went on an extended holiday while Char and I got on with living happily ever after.
Lucretia and Griselda came back three years later, with sailor husbands, and they all seemed to be very happy. As for my stepmother, they left her on an island inhabited by penguins, so she immediately declared herself their queen, and I suppose she is still as evil as ever.


Shelley pushed the cart along the aisles of the small grocers’ store, trying to pass boring things like dog food and shampoo on her way to the items she needed, so that her son Trevor would not reach out and grab interesting-looking things from the shelves and cause trouble for her. He was getting too big to ride in the seat of the cart, but it kept him from wandering along the aisles and knocking into things. Only the previous week he had punched a packet of kitchen towels and sent the whole stack tumbling down. Shelley was sure that the staff kept a watch out for her and moved their breakable items to safety ahead of her destructive son.
“Out!” cried Trevor, bouncing up and down, rocking the cart and swaying from side to side.
Honestly, he’s just like a tornado, thought Shelley as she mentally listed off the things she still needed. She opened a packet of cookies and gave one to Trevor who stuffed half of it into his mouth and then began to cough. She would rather have given him a carrot, but they had to be weighed first, and she did not want to be accused of shoplifting, not after the last time when Trevor had grabbed a tomato from the pile and bitten into it. Shelley had been so distressed by the cascade of falling fruit that she had not noticed the bits of chewed tomato all over her son’s face, but the store manager had noticed.
Well, it was their own fault, she thought, pausing to look at the bottles of salad dressings. They should have a crèche or a play area for children so that mothers could shop in peace, like they had in the larger stores in the big malls out of town, only Shelley had no way of getting out there, so she was forced to shop in this dump, which was probably going to be torn down soon, it was so old and decrepit.
“Out!” cried Trevor again, sounding triumphant, and Shelley looked down to see him standing in the cart, reaching towards a shelf, with the cart about to roll away from underneath him.
“Trevor!” she shouted, and lifted him up just as the cart banged into a bag of flour, sending out little white puffs, like smoke signals.
“Look at what you’ve done! I told you to sit still! Now you’re going to have to hold onto the cart and walk with Mummy.”
She took one of his hands and clamped it onto the cart, then began to move forward, thinking she could probably leave some of the items from her list for next week. It was getting far too busy and noisy in the store, anyway; she could hear several people shouting up at the front.
As she reached the end of the aisle she saw somebody running past, carrying a large bag and waving something in his hand. It almost looked like a gun, which would not have surprised her, given the sort of people she often saw in the store. Thinking this, she slowed her steps and peered around the edge of the shelving, just to be sure that everything was alright.
Everything was not alright.
Three men with black hoods over their faces stood surrounding a terrified cashier who was fumbling with the till. Two of the men held guns, and the third had a large sack which he was filling with the contents of the till. The ones with guns were looking around the store, shooing the other customers away, most of whom were sobbing and rushing for the doors, except that a fourth hooded man stood at the door, and would not let them pass; instead he was waving them behind the bakery counter and making them lie on the floor.
Shelley drew her head back with a gasp and reached down to grab hold of Trevor, except that he was no longer at her side.
Her heart thumping, she looked up and down the aisle, but there was no sign of her son. Where could he have gone? Not towards the cash desk, surely?
She poked her head round the edge of the shelf again and saw that the men had pushed the cashier down to the floor and were now ransacking the second cash register. Didn’t this store have an alarm or something? Why was nobody doing anything?
Thinking that Trevor must have gone the other way, Shelley raced down the aisle to the back of the store and looked both ways, but all she saw was frightened shoppers clutching each other, sobbing and punching their phones.
“Did anybody see a little boy?” she whispered, not wanting to draw attention from the burglars, but nobody was interested in her; everybody was too concerned with their own safety.
Which way should she go—towards the candy and the front of the store, or back towards the freezer section? Where would Trevor have gone? Did he even have the mental capacity to make a decision? He usually just responded to whatever was in front of him. He could be anywhere.
Shelley could feel her chest heaving as her breath turned into sobs. She forgot about the guns and the danger to herself. The only thing that mattered was finding Trevor and keeping him safe. She doubled into the next aisle and raced towards the front of the store, reasoning that was where the greatest danger to her son lay, and thus where she should start her search. She ran past boxes and boxes of cereal—goodness, would this line never end—and then saw the hooded men shoving another quivering employee onto the floor, but she no longer cared if they saw her.
One of the masked men looked up and barked at her to stop and lie down, but she ignored him and looked around the front of the store, calling, “Trevor! Where are you?”
The masked man moved towards her, and one of the other men looked up, distracted from his loot collecting, while the man by the door turned his gun in her direction. Suddenly, out of the corner of her eye she glimpsed her son’s familiar green t-shirt and faded brown shorts near the specials counter, and she saw his pudgy hands reaching out to grab what was in front of him. She automatically cried out.
“Trevor! Don’t touch that!”
Trevor jumped at the sound of his mother’s voice, and his hand, so close to the coloured object in front of him, shot out and pushed against the tall stack. It gave a momentary wobble, like the start of a slow dive, then a cascade of cans toppled onto the floor, rolling in all directions and setting off secondary avalanches from the nearby displays.
Shelley gasped, watching the destruction her son had caused, wondering if she would ever be able to pay for the damage, and then she noticed that one of the masked men had tripped over the rolling cans and one of the other customers had jumped on him and was struggling to take hold of his gun.
One of the men at the register fired his gun, shattering several bottles of vinegar which sprayed glass onto the floor, and made the air thick with the acrid stench of white vinegar, and the people lying on the floor began to wail. At that moment the outside door burst open and two police officers clad in protective clothing dashed into the store, sweeping their guns ahead of them.
Shelley saw nothing of the arrest, the recording of statements, the administration of first aid and the reassuring calls to friends. She just hugged her son, giving thanks that he was safe and that for once, she would not have to account for the damage.


What Would You Bring to a Desert Island?

“For today’s writing topic, we’re going to have a group discussion for you to brainstorm ideas, and then you’ll have half an hour to write on the topic, and if you need to, you can take it home to finish it before tomorrow’s class,” said Jess Park, writing ‘Desert Island’ on the board in large letters.
The two dozen ten-year-olds shuffled in their seats and lined up their pencils with their writing pads. Some seemed to be paying attention; others were staring out of the window, already in a world far away from Lakewood Elementary School.
“I’d like you to imagine that you know you’ll be on a desert island for six months, and you need to decide what five objects to bring with you,” continued Ms Park.
“Cool,” said Matthew. “I’d bring my Xbox and all the games—can that count as one object, ’cause the games are necessary parts?”
“Desert island, Dummy,” said Maria. “They won’t have electricity, so your game machine won’t work.”
“Well, neither will your phone.”
“Who said I’m going to bring my phone?”
“Like you’d go anywhere without it—”
“Back on topic, please, students,” said Ms Park. “We should assume there will be no power on the island, so that rules out items that need electricity.”
“What about water?” asked James.
“What about food?” shouted Alex.
“I think it’s safe to say there will be water and food,” said Ms Park, “otherwise, you wouldn’t last very long and wouldn’t need your five items. I’ll get the discussion going by saying that my first object would be a sharp long-handled knife.”
Ms Park wrote ‘knife’ on the board and noticed that she now had the attention of almost all the class.
“Dope,” said Alex. “Are you going to hunt with it?”
“I don’t know yet, as I don’t know much about the island,” said Ms Park, “but it seems like a useful thing to have for cutting fruit from a tree or cutting palm fronds to make a shelter.”
“So there won’t be a house?” asked Susie.
“If it’s a deserted island, how could there be a house?” said Maria.
“Maybe it wasn’t always deserted,” said James. “The owners could have just all gone away and left these huge mansions with saunas and swimming pools and movie theatres and games rooms and stuff.”
“Why’d you want a sauna and a pool if you’re on an island? said Matthew, “wouldn’t you just swim in the sea?”
“What about sharks?” said Susie.
“Or jellyfish?” said Alex.
“Students! Settle down!” said Ms Park. “Let’s assume there are no houses, but enough vegetation to create a shelter. Now, what objects would you want to have with you?”
A small girl at the back of the class raised her hand, and Ms Park nodded for her to speak.
“Can I bring my little brother?”
“No,” said Matthew, and the other students then began to debate the pros and cons—mostly cons—of little brothers and to declare that people did not count, so no, Mariko could not bring Taro with her, at which point the girl’s eyes welled up with tears.
“I’ve not said anything about who is on the island, with you.” said Ms Park. “You can do this exercise imagining you are alone or imagining you have a few people with you.”
This caused a lot of chatter while the students talked about bringing their best friend or their whole families, or, in some cases, a celebrity.
“OK, then my dad can come and pack all the things we’ll need,” said Alex, raising his voice above the rest. “He’s awesome at that. One time we were camping and—”
“Alex, please don’t go off topic,” said Ms Park. “We need somebody to suggest another item.”
“What about clothes?” said Maria.
“Ew! Don’t tell me we arrived on the island butt naked,” said Alex, “that’s gross!”
“Good suggestion, Maria,” said Ms Park, writing ‘clothes’ on the board in big letters. “Can anybody say why?”
“Because it’s gross being naked,” said Alex.
“Because you might get scratched or something?” said James.
“Good thought, James. What about the sun?” asked Ms Park.
“I guess it’ll be hot?” asked somebody, tentatively.
“Right,” said Ms Park. “So that means you’d need clothes to protect you against sunburn.”
“Can all your clothes count as one item?” asked Susie, “I mean it’d be unfair if your pants and shirt and underwear took up three items.”
Matthew rolled his eyes at Susie and said, “You’d have more than three items, with your socks and your double tank top, and your—”
“That’s enough,” said Ms Park. “I think we can call clothes one item, because you could wear a big long shirt that would cover you against the sun.”
“What and no underwear? That’s gross!” said Alex.
Some of the children tittered and looked around at each other.
“I’d bring my fishing rod,” said Stuart.
“Good idea, Stuart,” said Ms Park. “Then you could catch fish to eat.”
“What about sharks?” said Susie.
“Or jellyfish?” said Alex.
Ms Park wrote ‘fishing rod’ on the board and asked, “How would you cook the fish?”
“On a fire, I guess,” said Stuart, “only I’ve never done that.”
“You’d need matches or a lighter or a big magnifying glass to start the fire,” said Robby.
“Quite right, Robby,” said Ms Park. “You’ll need something to start a fire with.”
“My Dad uses firelighters,” said Alex, “I’d bring those.”
“Yeah, but you still need to light them with something, so you’re using up one of the five things with something useless,” said Stuart.
“No, I’m not!”
“Yes, you are!”
“Firelighters are not useless. I’d like to see you start a fire from nothing.”
“Okay, students, that’s enough about the fire. Let’s put ‘flint’ on the board and move on. What about water?”
“You said there’d be water,” called out a voice.
“I know; I meant how to carry it,” said Ms Park.
“You mean, like, a water bottle?”
“Yes, but maybe something bigger,” said Ms Park. “What if the water supply’s a long way away?”
“But then it’d be too heavy to carry back to the camp,” said Maria.
“Not if you had one of those big cans and put it on your head like some people do in other countries,” said James, balancing his water bottle on his head.
“I’d like to see you do that!” said Maria, just as the water bottle fell off James’ head.
“I could carry ten pounds on my head,” said James, retrieving his fallen bottle, then he flexed his arm muscles like a weightlifter. “Feel those!”
“Students, you’re going off topic again,” said Ms Park. “What else would you bring with you?”
“A boat, to get off the island,” Elspeth said.
“That’s stupid—how would you power it? Or are you going to row across the ocean?” said Alex, making rowing motions with his arms, while others laughed.
“Signal flares, for when planes go overhead,” said Lucy. “Does that count as one item? How many flares can you have?”
“My uncle has those on his boat,” said Elspeth. “They’re for emergencies.”
“But what happens when they’re all used up?” asked Stuart. “I’d write SOS on the beach in big rocks.”
“What if there are no rocks?” said Lucy.
“What if the tide comes in and covers the message when the plane goes overhead?” said Maria.
“What if no planes come?” said Robby.
“Quiet, now. Let’s get back to the items we’d like to have,” said Ms Park.
“What else would you bring, Ms Park?” asked Maria.
All faces turned to look at the teacher, and she thought for a minute.
“Shoes, I think. I’d hate to be barefoot on hot sand or sharp rocks or prickly vegetation.”
“That won’t work for my brother,” said Lucy. “His feet have grown so much in the last two months, he’s on his third pair of shoes. My mom’s really mad at him.”
Everybody laughed, and Ms Park wrote ‘shoes’ on the board.
“Can you bring some pairs of shoes to grow into and still count it as one item?” Susie asked.
“Why not just bring a ginormous pair that will fit you even if your feet grow into size fourteen or something?” said Matthew.
“How would you walk in them while your feet are still growing?” asked Lucy.
“OK. We have shoes. I think I’d also like a book to read, and a notebook and pencil to record things about the island,” said Ms Park.
“This sounds like school,” a voice groaned.
“Are notebook and pencil two separate things?” asked Lucy.
“Let’s call them luxuries and put them on a different list, said Ms Park, moving to the other side of the board and starting a new column of words.
“I’d bring a solar-powered radio, so’s I could call for help,” said Alex.
“I’d bring my dog, and I’d train him to hunt for food,” said Michael.
“Your dog wouldn’t catch anything,” said Robby.
“Yes he would; he’s a good hunter!” said Michael.
“OK class, I think we’ve had enough time now to consider the topic,” said Ms Park, clapping her hands. “Let’s see what we’ve come up with.”
She pointed at the lists on the board and said, “For survival we’ve thought of a knife, a water container, a big shirt, a flint and a pair of shoes.”
“That’s six things!” came a shout from the back of the class.
“For this task, a pair of shoes counts as one item,” said Ms Park. “Now on this other list of non-essentials we have an Xbox, a phone, more clothes, a fishing rod—”
“Hey! That’s essential,” said Stuart.
Ms Park ignored Stuart and continued writing and naming the objects. “A fishing rod, a book, a notebook and pencil, some flares and a radio. There, that should give you enough to write your essay on. You can start now, and finish it at home if you need to. I want the essays handed in tomorrow at first period. ”
Sounds of grumbling and scraping of chairs indicated that the children were staring at the blank pieces of paper in front of them, wondering what to write. Gradually the whispers turned to a hush with only the sound of many pencils scraping across many worn exercise books, and Ms Park was able to sit at her desk and look through her lesson plan for the following morning.
Ten minutes later the bell rang, signifying the end of the day, and the children leaped up, grabbed their backpacks and raced to stand in line at the door, calling a hasty goodbye as they headed off into their real lives.
One boy hovered at the edge of the teacher’s desk, his big round glasses making his eyes seem wider and more startled than normal.
“What is it, Tommy?” Ms Park asked.
“We won’t really have to go to a desert island, will we? I mean it’s not a field trip or anything, is it?”
Ms Park smiled. She was constantly amazed at how young minds leaped to conclusions.
“No, Tommy, you won’t be going on a field trip to a desert island, but it’s always good to think about what you’d do in certain situations.”
“OK. Well, I hope you have a good time on the island, then.” Tommy skipped to the door, then turned round and waved to her. “See ya!”


I May Have Taken Leave of My Senses

“I may have taken leave of my senses,” Pauline said, opening the door to her friend Abigail, “but it’s made me feel a lot better.”
Abigail hugged Pauline and asked, “What have you done?”
“I’ll show you.”
Pauline led Abigail to the kitchen of her new apartment and over to the topmost box of a stack. Abigail peered inside, pushing the packing paper aside and took out a porcelain tea cup. She frowned at Pauline who nodded and said, “Keep looking. Open another box if you like.”
Abigail pulled out all the contents of the box, lining the cups up on the kitchen counter, then she opened a second box and a third. As realisation dawned, she turned to Pauline, her eyes wide open.
“Did you seriously—”
“Yes,” Pauline nodded with such force it seemed her head would fall off. “Absolutely everything. It felt wonderful!”
Abigail pulled her friend into an embrace, and the two women hugged and laughed until they ran out of breath.
“Now I know I can stop worrying about you,” Abigail said, “I can see that you’re going to be alright.”
On the other side of town Brian surveyed the boxes in the garage blocking the way to the laundry room. He supposed he had better open them and start to put the stuff away, although he really was not that interested in much of the things from his old life. Who needed two dozen teacups, anyway? Still, he would need a change of clothes soon, so, after dropping his briefcase in the office and grabbing a beer from the fridge, he went back into the garage to start unpacking.
The first box was full of saucers. Pretty porcelain pieces with flowers or squiggles and a gold trim. He wondered where they had come from, as he could not remember seeing them in their house. Perhaps they had been a wedding present and had then sat in one of the display cabinets that he had rarely looked at. After emptying the box, he had two stacks of saucers on the workbench, wads of packing paper on the floor, but no cups. They must have been packed separately for efficiency, he thought, and opened another box.
The second box contained knives: big knives, small knives, sharp knives and blunt knives, but no forks or spoons. He had never realised his kitchen had contained so many knives. He gave up on that box and opened a third, finding saucepan lids and, buried underneath, the lids to a dozen or more spice jars. He turned these over in his hand, wondering why they were in the box—he had no plans to start cooking, so he would have no use for them—but he did wonder where the actual spices were.
Brian stood back and examined the boxes to see if they were labeled. He did not need saucers, knives or pot lids right now, but he could do with some clean clothes. The boxes all looked identical, with just the moving company’s logo on them and a string of numbers which meant nothing to him. Perhaps he should have been present for the packing, instead of leaving it all to Pauline, but he’d had no interest in choosing which of the ornaments or furniture to have, so he had left her to divide up the stuff.
Brian moved to the other end of the pile of boxes and opened one more to reveal a single bedroom slipper. Ah, good, he thought, finally he’d found the clothes. He pulled out odd socks, a couple of gloves, his pyjama bottoms and an old t-shirt that was definitely not his, but could not find the other slipper. He still had not found his favourite shorts and his Arran sweater, so he turned to the next box and opened it. Inside he found six of his suit pants, but no jackets, plus a couple of ugly sweaters of Pauline’s that he had always hated. Had she deliberately put those in the box, or had the removal people got the piles mixed up? And where were his suit jackets?
The next box contained one of his knitted sweaters, but it must have caught on something because it was half unravelled and one whole sleeve was missing. Brian frowned, staring at the sweater, trying to remember when he had last worn it. Then he took another look at the things he had unpacked so far. Odd socks, three left-handed gloves, suit pants but no suit jackets, saucers, but no cups, knives, but no forks, lids, but no pots.
Brian ripped the tape off the remaining boxes, pulled out the packing paper and tipped the contents onto the garage floor. He found the nozzles from the vacuum, but no vacuum cleaner; a box of bulbs and lampshades, but no lamps; a set of drill bits, but no drill; one green, one blue and one patterned drape; a single pillowcase and some flat sheets, but no fitted sheets; some DVD boxed sets each containing a single disc. When he unwound the packaging from the furniture he found six chairs but no table and a bed base but no mattress.
“Damn that woman!” he shouted, hurling one of the saucers across the garage where it shattered into tiny pieces. Then he stomped inside the house and picked up his phone to call his ex-wife.
Abigail was making her third cocktail when the phone rang. She put down the Martini bottle, picked up the phone and squinted at the screen.
“I think it’s Brian.”
She passed the phone to Pauline who was lying on some bedding on the sofa frame, her hands clasping her glass.
“What do you want?” Pauline said, struggling to sit upright, “miss me already?”
Abigail could not make out any words, only loud squawking coming from the phone, but she could guess what Brian was saying.
“I did exactly as we agreed,” Pauline said. “You didn’t want to choose anything, so we said we’d divide everything equally, and that’s what I did.”
More squawking came from the phone.
“What’s that? You would rather have had the cups than the saucers? But I thought you hated those tea sets. This way the saucers will take up less room in that new house of yours.”
Squawk, squawk. Abigail moved nearer to that she could listen in, and Pauline tilted the phone towards her, grinning like a four year-old.
“—and another thing; where are my suit jackets?”
Abigail opened her eyes wide and gaped at Pauline.
“You didn’t!” she mouthed.
“You got the pants part—you always wanted to wear the pants. I’m keeping the jackets as a memory item, and they’ll be useful for gardening; I can put all the garden tools in the pockets. I gave you some of my sweaters in return so that you can remember me. That’s fair.”
Abigail doubled over in laughter, imagining her friend’s ex-husband surveying his half of the family possessions. She had to admit, it was a good trick Pauline had played, and it served the miserable man right, after how he’d treated Pauline.
“Those are my suits! Mine! Not something to divide up!” Brian’s squawky voice yelled.
“Goodbye, Brian,” Pauline said into the phone and hung up the call. Then she lay back in the cushions and grinned. “Let’s have another drink.”

Back to Nature

The only time I ever thought my parents would get divorced was after the time we lived as cave people in the Cascade Mountains.
It was part of a reality TV show, and we agreed to do it because my sister was hoping to become a film star and my father was blown away by the amount of money we were offered. My mother was not so keen on living in a cave, and I was too young to be consulted, but if I had been, I probably would have agreed. I mean, it sounded cool—running around with a bearskin and shooting deer with bows and arrows.
Reality was different, however. The bearskin itched and was too hot and cumbersome most of the time. Plus, it smelled. Not just of bear, but of the person wearing it, and then we were supposed to smear ourselves with some plant paste, so that the animals wouldn’t know we were coming-as if they couldn’t hear us crashing through the trees, cursing every time we stubbed our toes.
“Just how long do we have to do this for?” my mother asked after the second day.
“One month,” puffed my father, who was finding he was not as fit as he had thought.
“I can’t lie on that bare rock for a month,” said my mother. “Surely cave people had some form of bedding?”
“They used moss and animal hides,” said Lisa, my sister, who had read up everything she could about cavemen and who even managed to look stylish in her bearskin.
“Well, we need to go and get some moss, then,” said my mother, “we can look for moss while we gather berries.”
Berry-gathering is not nearly as fun as it sounds. You’re probably thinking of those u-pick farms where the bushes are all in rows and the berries are dripping off the branches. Finding berries in the wild is a different matter, with the bushes jammed into clefts in the rock or hidden behind larger trees, and no bush has more than a handful of ripe berries at any one time.
“I’m hungry,” I said, after a couple of days in the mountains. I knew the others were hungry too, but they wouldn’t admit it.
“I’ll catch us a deer soon,” said my father, who had only managed to trap a rabbit so far, and that was only because he drove it into a hole it could not escape from. Dad didn’t want to admit that he was no good as a caveman, so every morning he set out with his bow and arrows, looking for deer, and every evening he came back empty handed, cursing under his breath.
Later, when we saw the video footage, we discovered that he cursed all day as well, only those words were replaced by bleeps so as not to offend the viewers.
We never knew where the cameras were, as the producers had decided that it would not be realistic if we sat around in our bearskins staring at camera men in jeans, so the cameras were hidden in the cave and around the mountain, and they managed to capture most of what we did, except for the time when Lisa fell into the swamp.
Lisa was a very enthusiastic cave woman, in spite of the lack of comforts. She was convinced an agent would spot her talent and sign her up for a Hollywood movie, so she always spoke loudly and clearly, and made a point of moving around a lot so that she looked as if she was always doing something.
One morning she and I had gone out to search for frogs or anything small that we could eat, seeing as how Dad had still not caught a deer. We hiked down the hill from our cave and walked along the banks of the river, stepping over the slimy rotting logs, searching out anything edible.
“This sucks,” I said. “I can’t believe we’re still here doing this when we could be back in our apartment eating pizza and hot dogs.”
“Oh, quit whining,” Lisa said. “Think of it as an adventure; you’ll have lots to talk about when we do go back home.”
“Not if I die of starvation first,” I muttered. It was alright for her—she was always dieting, so she didn’t care if we had no food, but my stomach was digesting itself.
We got to the point where the river forked, and I turned along the smaller stream, heading for where I knew there was a pool with some frogs in it. If the French can eat frogs, they can’t taste all that bad.
I stepped across the rocks, gripping the warm stones with my toes—one good thing about being a cave boy was that I could run around in bare feet—and squatted down to reach under the reeds when I heard a shriek from behind me. I looked up to see that Lisa had fallen into a dark pool and was waving her arms frantically at me.
“Help! Get me out of here!”
Her bearskin had slipped off her shoulder, and her hair was plastered across her face, making her look like a rag doll. I couldn’t help laughing, until she pulled off one of her slimy bearskin slippers and threw it at me, hitting my left eye. Then I grabbed a handful of mud and threw it back at her, and soon it was an outright war with mud, water, sticks and even stones flying both ways.
Who knows how it would have ended if a bear had not come into the clearing just as we were hurling logs at each other. I didn’t see the bear at first because I was busy dragging a large branch over to the river, but when I looked up to aim my projectile at Lisa I saw the bear rear up behind her, and I screamed so loudly that I nearly deafened myself. Lisa thought I was screaming at her, and she just kept thrashing in her swamp and throwing stones at me, but when she saw where I was looking she leapt out of that swamp faster than I could blink and hobbled over to me.
I think the noise and the sight of Lisa wearing a bearskin covered in mud must have scared the bear because after a moment it loped off back the way it had come. Lisa and I stood in the stream, panting, then we ran back up the hill to our cave as fast as we could, slipping and sliding on the path, me in my bare feet and Lisa in her one remaining bear moccasin.
“What happened?” asked Mum, who was shelling nuts into a piece of bark.
“I fell in the river, and then a bear came,” said Lisa, looking around the cave, no doubt worrying about how she looked in front of the hidden cameras.
“Right; I’ve had enough of this,” said Mum, pushing the bark aside and struggling to her feet. “I’ve put up with this nonsense long enough. You’ve had your chance to preen for the cameras, and your father has had ample opportunity to hit a deer. We’re going home.”
“What! No way are we going home before the thirty days are up,” said Dad, emerging from the back of the cave. So much for hunting—no wonder he doesn’t catch anything if he just sits in the cave all day.
“I’m not giving up!” said Lisa, squeezing out her hair and glaring at Mum.
I just went back outside and left them at it. It wasn’t like my opinion counted anyway. They yelled at each other all afternoon, and the end result was that we got to go home early. The TV company said they had enough footage for eight episodes, and that it was good to show people giving up, which set my parents to fighting again. Lisa locked herself in her room and refused to speak to anybody, so I just went down to the basement and logged on to my video games.
Being a caveman was cool for a while, but I’ll take civilisation any day.

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.