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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.

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!”


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.

The Tool

The alien walked once around the tree and looked up into the branches. A small furry creature with a bushy tail sat and watched him, then scuttled along a branch when he moved towards it. He had heard about these creatures; they were called squirrels and ate the things that grew on trees. The alien did not have squirrels on his own planet, nor trees, but he had heard of them too. He wondered about taking a squirrel home as a pet, but dismissed the idea when he realised he could not fit the tree into the space craft. He supposed the creature would need food for the journey.
Food. The alien needed food too. He turned to his command pod and pulled out some of the emergency rations, which he ate quickly, fearful that earth people would arrive; he still did not know if they would be friendly. He was glad that the food had survived the landing, unlike the nose of his craft which had a large dent in the front right section. That would need to be repaired before he took off again, and he had no tools.
The squirrel had come down from the tree and was scampering across the soft, green, ground covering, then with a sudden leap it jumped onto a hanging dong, and swung round and round in the air, scrabbling at something with its front hands. As the alien watched, something fell off the bottom of the dong and a shower of small bits, a bit bigger than sand grains fell down to the ground. The squirrel leaped down on top of them and ate some.
The alien went over to inspect the dong. It did not look like a tree, yet he had learned that squirrels ate things from trees, so he supposed this must be a type of tree. It was about half as long as the alien’s first arm, and hollow, made out of something that he could see through. He put his eye to one end and squinted. He could see all three of his feet standing on the sand bits. It was not as big as the dongs he was used to, but it probably worked the same way. He put it in his spaceship; it would come in useful later, but first he had to make the repairs to the nose cone.
The alien walked farther into the new territory looking for materials. He saw many broken bits of tree on the ground; he supposed that the repair people from this planet would one day come out and fix the tree. He hoped today was not a fixing day; he had no desire to meet the earth people yet.
Moving his third leg through the green ground covering was hard work, and he grunted when his foot hit a heavy object. Bending down and feeling with his first hands he discovered a stone, just like the ones on his planet. It would make a very good tool for the repairs.
Back at the space craft the alien positioned the nose plate and hit it with the stone. A loud crash told him that he had hit it too hard. Some earth people had heard his crashing too, and before he had time to raise his second arms and launch a protective shield a hole opened up in the white box behind him, revealing a large and a small earth person.
The alien stood up tall and tried to look menacing, but his heart pumped wildly inside him.
“Kevin!” a sound boomed from the larger earth person, “what are you doing with my mixing bowl?”
The large earth person came towards him, followed closely by the small one which was making puffing, croaking noises.
“And just look what’s happened to the bird feeder, there are seeds all over the grass!”
The small earth person screeched.
“My boot! Mum, why has Kevin got my boot?”
The small earth creature stepped forward and tugged at his third leg. The alien tried to protect himself and fell over, causing his extra limbs to come off.
“Now look what you’ve done!” he shouted, “you’ve spoiled it all!”

The Advent Wreath

One Christmas I resolved to start a new and memorable tradition for our children. I picked the Advent Wreath as being a simple project that everybody could participate in.
“Can we come with you to buy the wreath?” the children all asked enthusiastically.
“A wreath has to be made,” I explained, “we’ll build it together.”
We cannibalized a large wire frame from a hanging basket that I never remembered to water, and I sent the children out to cut some green branches from our trees. The offerings brought back inside would have thatched our roof several times over, so the next task was to cut them down to a handful of fronds.
“Why are you using more of her branch than mine?” somebody wailed.
“Because your branch is full of prickles,” somebody else replied.
The branches were all stripped down equally and the resultant boughs wound tightly around the frame and fastened in place with those little ties that you get from the bulk foods section. This added a homely touch: little flags advertising ‘peanuts’, ‘barley’, ‘rice’ and such like. The whole thing was far too wobbly to hold a candle so I found some candleholders that could be clamped on the side and arranged the four candles, three purple and one pink.
The girls were so excited about the new wreath that they could hardly wait until supper. Everybody wanted to light the pink candle.
“No, the pink candle is the third to be lit,” I explained, “we light a purple one first.”
“Because that’s the way the Advent Wreath works.”
“Can I light the pink one when it is time?” asked one child.
“No, I want to. Please, Mum, can I?” asked another.
I explained to them that the candles on the wreath should only be lit once a week. Five faces drooped with disappointment. So we started a new tradition: we would light the candles every night during Advent.
For the first week, with only one candle, it was easy to take turns at lighting it and blowing it out, but as Advent progressed we accumulated more and more candles at dinner. It started when the middle two children each made a table decoration at school containing three candles.
“Can we have these at the table please Mum?” they pleaded, “that’s what our teacher said we should do with them.”
Never undermine the teacher’s authority, I thought, brimming with goodwill, so I agreed.
The next night eldest daughter, not wanting to be outdone, rooted around in her bedroom and produced a couple of candles, which she put by her own place. A few days later, eldest son found some candles to put in front of his plate, and even youngest child discovered a lump of misshapen wax at the bottom of a long forgotten goodie bag. Soon we had sixteen candles to light at each meal.
“Where are we going to put the food?” husband asked, lifting up the Advent Wreath, “do we really need this old thing?”
There were howls from the assembled family; how could he suggest such a thing? This was a tradition in the making!
The two eldest children, who were the only ones allowed to use matches, lit all the candles. Eldest daughter used one match per candle, littering the table with spent matches, like the debris from a fireworks display. Eldest son tried to light all the candles with the same match, burning his fingers, which he then plunged into his neighbour’s drink.
“Hey, you lit more than me, it’s not fair,” one of them would cry, blowing out the other’s lit candles to ensure equality, then quickly lighting more candles to gain the upper hand. The table resembled a small bonfire, and the sulphurous smell of matches mingled with the crackling of the dry leaves erupting in flames from the wreath, and the sizzling singeing of eldest daughter’s long hair.
“Why is there only one pink candle?” they asked, when the day finally came to light their favourite one.
“Because it is supposed to represent relief in the middle of Advent,” I explained.
Relief? For whom? Not me surely. By now I was reduced to cooking in the dark, because the children had turned out the lights to maximize the effect of their pre-Christmas conflagration.
After each candle-lit meal was finished the ritual of the blowing out began. It was like a daily birthday party attended by five big bad wolves, who huffed and puffed, sending smoke signals heavenwards, and spraying molten wax over the micro-sized plates and the macro-sized portions of left-over food. Eldest son repeated the burning trick: dipping his fingers into someone’s drink, he extinguished the glowing wicks before middle child could blow them into life again. Eldest daughter scooped the warm wax out of the candles and fashioned it into shapes. Youngest child rearranged the candles closer to her place and husband scavenged for dinner among the debris.
When Christmas Day came it was a day for celebration. The Wreath, with all its symbolism, was put away for another year. The table was now free of clutter, and we could eat drink and be merry, happy in the knowledge that we had created our own, unique, family tradition.

The Shepherd

I wrote this story for a local competition, which was seeking submissions with the opening line: “Hidden under the rock” and after a few false starts finally found an interesting location for my rock.

Hidden under the rock in the middle of the small stage, the two cookies went unnoticed on the morning of the performance.
Billy was going to be a shepherd in the nativity play. He had wanted to be a king and wear a golden crown until he found out that the kings had to ride camels, and the camels were going to be played by pairs of children sewn into a brown suit with a hump. Billy did not want to be riding a brown suit with two children inside, hump or no hump, so he settled for being a shepherd. Not that he had much choice – Mrs Wilson chose the parts but Billy liked to think that he had made his own decision.
The girls all wanted to be the angel and some cried when they were told they had to be sheep instead.
“I don’t want to be a stupid sheep,” Millie wailed, “I want to wear wings and fly above the stable like Charlotte.”
The other ten little girls sniffled and nodded their heads in agreement. Billy thought they were all sissies and deserved to be sheep but when he discovered that they would not listen to him he became quite angry.
“I’m the shepherd,” he said, stamping his foot and thumping his crook on the wooden floor, “and I say where you’re to go.”
He tried to herd them around the gym but Mrs Wilson told them all to be quiet as she was rehearsing with Joseph and Mary so Billy left the sheep sitting in a corner playing ‘house’ and went outside. The other boys, on a break from being palm trees, had started a soccer game in the playground and were not interested in scene setting.
What he needed was something authentic, to make the field realistic, he decided; one rock was not enough. It was not as if anybody would believe it anyway, with Charlotte dangling from a rope above the stable roof, waving her arms around as if she were swimming, the angel wings flapping over her face. Billy needed something to bring the scene alive. He needed a real sheep.
His Uncle Joe had a farm with sheep on it but it was too far to send a sheep from Montana. He could enlist the help of his dog, but people would laugh at a barking sheep. He needed to get out in the country and find a real sheep so the following afternoon, as his father was leaving to deliver some wood, Billy climbed into the back of the truck, clutching a packet of cookies.
“I’m coming along for a ride, Dad,” Billy said, “I like fresh air.”
His father looked puzzled, but accepted a cookie and set off.
They stopped at a gas station, with several cars but no sheep, and then at a small house with no sheep but a very large dog. At the third house, an old rancher at the edge of a field, Billy spotted a pair of llamas which looked like sheep only with longer necks. Billy decided to borrow one.
While his father and the man talked about the deliveries Billy stuffed two cookies into his mouth, several into his pockets and with another two in his hands he went round the back to look at the llamas.
They were very big. There was no way one of those llamas was going to get into the back of his dad’s truck. Billy crept slowly towards the nearest llama holding his hand out but the llama turned its nose up at the proffered cookies and flattened its ears against its head.
“Oh, oh,” thought Billy, “flat ears are bad news.”
He jumped backwards just as a shower of spit shot out in his direction and landed in a pile of wood shavings. A moment later he felt a nose nuzzling into the cookies in his hand. Sitting up he found himself staring into the eyes of a goat who was now trying to eat his shoe laces.
“Hey, sheep and goats go together, don’t they?” Billy thought to himself and he stood up slowly, brushing the wood shavings off his clothes. He held out another cookie and the goat was quite happy to follow him round the shed to the truck while the llamas looked on, wrinkling their noses. Billy wondered how the goat would get up into the back but as soon as he climbed in with the cookie the goat hopped up and followed him so he made a bed with some old tarpaulins and covered the goat up with his sweater.
The goat had been happy enough to stay overnight in the garage, surrounded by old shoes and boots and Billy had crept downstairs before breakfast, liberated the goat along with another packet of cookies and sneaked both into the school via the broken door near the library, then hidden the goat.
All morning at school the children complained about the smell in the coat cupboard. All morning Billy explained that he had been out with his father and had trodden in some nasty stuff which was still on his boots and that he was sorry but at least he had taken off the boots and not walked around the classroom in them. In the afternoon the children went to change into their nativity play outfits.
“Look at my wings, aren’t they cool and glittery?” asked Charlotte, which set the sheep off sniffling again. The camels became tangled up because they could not see out of the costume, the trees were still kicking the soccer ball around outside and one of the kings had lost his crown but Billy was very excited. He had a surprise planned. He was going to be a real shepherd.
The audience gathered in the gym, whispering and pointing at the large bushes made from newspaper positioned by the curtains while the actors took turns creeping onto the small stage in an attempt to spot their parents among the crowd. Then the lights dimmed and a loud drum roll reverberated around the gym.
“Shh, now, we’re about to begin,” said Mrs Wilson in a loud whisper which carried to the end of the hall as a row of spotlights shone onto the stage.
The sheep all clustered around the rock, pushing and shoving as they each tried to stand in the front, blinking and shielding their eyes from the bright lights, while behind them the human palm trees waved gently in the breeze, until their arms grew tired and one of them sat down. A voice from behind the stable called, “Moo!”
The school did not have a cow costume, nor was there enough space in the stable for a cow so Mrs Wilson had said the sound of a cow mooing would be enough to give an atmosphere. The smell coming from the coat cupboard was also giving an atmosphere.
“There is no room at the inn,” said a little boy stepping forward.
“Not yet!” came a voice from the side.
Mary and Joseph appeared from behind a curtain. Joseph was trying to hold Mary’s hand but she needed both hands to hold the large pillow under her coat.
“Is there room at the inn?” asked Joseph. The inn keeper said nothing so Joseph nudged him and whispered loudly, “I said, ‘is there room at the inn?’”
“I already said my line.”
“Oh. OK then. Where can we go? My wife has a baby,” said Joseph, poking Mary’s stomach, causing the pillow to fall out of Mary’s coat; both Mary and Joseph bent down, picked up the pillow and stuffed it back into the coat.
“You can go to the stable,” said the inn keeper and pointed to the stable, which was really a large box to the side of the stage. Mary and Joseph crawled into the stable and sat down on the pillow. The innkeeper waved to the audience and the Moo-ing became louder.
Mrs Wilson tuned the stage lights down and switched on the large plastic star that hung on the wall above the stable. This was the signal for the shepherd to round up the sheep and Billy decided that it was time the goat was brought on, while Mrs Wilson was busy making her long introductory speech.
Poking some of the sheep with his crook, which elicited a few whispered “ows” Billy hurried off stage and opened the coat cupboard. He found the goat lying on a pile of jackets, chewing happily on a leather boot, surrounded by a pile of currant-like blobs.
“Come on,” said Billy, “time to get on stage.”
But the goat was not moving.
“And the SHEPHERDS,” came Mrs Wilson’s voice, getting louder, “were in the field. The SHEPHERDS were watching their sheep.” Her voice dropped to a stage whisper, “where’s Billy?”
“Baa!” said some of the sheep, “baa!”
“And then the SHEPHERDS saw the angel,” said Mrs Wilson.
The goat still would not move so Billy pulled out a cookie and threw it onto the stage. The goat struggled to its feet and followed.
On stage the angel hovered in the air, supposedly flying but really standing on top of the gym equipment.
“I bring good news,” she said and flapped her wings over her face.
The goat had discovered the news too and took a big bite out of one of the paper bushes. The little boy in the palm tree costume next to it gave a loud yelp and moved hurriedly away, while Mrs Wilson gesticulated for him to stand still.
“Don’t move!” she hissed, “you’re a tree!”
From the other side of the stage the two double camels staggered onto the field scattering the sheep. The kings followed, on foot.
“I am of royal,” said the first king, walking to the edge of the stage and facing the audience, “bearing and bearing.” He turned to face the stable and said, “gifts,” then he thrust out a bright green box and Mary and Joseph both stood up to take it, bumping their heads on the roof of the stable.
The goat, which had finished eating the bush, began nuzzling the rock and head butting Billy.
“The Shepherd,” said Mrs Wilson, who was fumbling with her script and had not yet seen the goat, “was watching over the sheep.”
“Baa! Baa!” sniffled the sheep, shuffling backwards, away from the goat.
“Moo!” said the voice from behind the stable.
“Hurrah!” said the angel.
“Here’s the gold,” said the second king, holding out a bag of yellow marbles and looking around for somebody to give it to. He took a step backwards and fell over one of the camels who was sitting on the rock. The bag burst open spilling marbles all across the stage. The goat, which had been sniffing at the rock under the camel, bounded upwards and landed on the stable which collapsed on top of Mary and Joseph.
The two halves of the other camel, trying to avoid the rolling marbles, pulled in opposite directions and became two half camels while the third king dropped his gift which rolled around on the floor. Billy tugged at the goat again but it had begun chewing on the pillow and was not inclined to move.
“Moo!” said the voice from behind the stable.
“Ouch!” said the sheep, as they tripped over themselves and the marbles.
“Ally-Mooh-ya” mumbled the angel whose wings totally covered her face, “and everybody began to sing.”
This was the signal for the audience to join in singing a carol but Mrs Wilson did not cue the music teacher at the piano because she was standing face to face with the goat.
“Sing!” hissed the angel.
“Moo!” cried the voice, “Meeh!” bleated the goat and with faltering squeaks the sheep started singing.
“The First Nowell…”
The audience, who did know the words, sang lustily and the inn keeper came back on stage to bow alongside the three kings. The half camels held hands and the sheep all jostled forwards while the trees waved their arms and Mary and Joseph struggled out of the collapsed stable.
“I’m a real shepherd!” said Billy, as the goat chewed on the pillow and deposited a pile of currants at his feet.