A Fairy Tale Ending Part 1
Hamish gave up trying to count his coins and handed the taxi driver a ten pound note. He waved away the change, slid out of the taxi and slammed the door before walking unsteadily up the path towards the house. It was late. The party had gone on rather longer than expected. In fact, he now owed Janine three hours of overtime. The tears were starting to well up as he fumbled with the lock. The door swung open, as if operated by some magical force, and there she stood, hands on hips, a look of mild disapproval on her face.
‘I don’t need to ask if you had a good evening, Mr. McKnight,’ she said, as Hamish pulled the remaining notes from his wallet and placed them in her waiting hand. ‘Cindy’s fast asleep, though she missed you kissing her good night,’ she said, as she slid her slim arms into her coat sleeves and wrapped her scarf around her neck. ‘Oh, you didn’t hold the taxi?’ She took out her mobile. ‘No worries. Her breakfast’s ready in the fridge and I’ve put the dishwasher on and hung up your laundry.’
Hamish looked at the girl standing in his doorway and smiled what he thought was a winning smile. ‘Thank you, Janine. I don’t suppose you fancy a nightcap?’ he said. At least, that’s what he was intending to say, though what the slurred jumble of words actually sounded like was another matter.
She smiled and kissed him. On the forehead. ‘Good night, Mr McKnight,’ she said, and walked down the path as the taxi drew up. ‘Drink lots of water.’
Hamish watched the taxi speed off and remonstrated with himself. ‘For god’s sake, man. Did you just proposition the babysitter?’ He shut the front door, walked into the kitchen and poured himself a large glass of water. He left the water on the kitchen counter and took a tumbler and added a hefty dash of The Famous Grouse. He sat down heavily on the sofa and within seconds was fast asleep.
Master Orpheus Jeremiah pushed open the doors of the Ordinatarium (F Division), and walked to the desk. He walked rather more slowly than his secretary was expecting, even considering the stories he’d heard. It was when the Master did not so much reach the desk of the Ordinatorium as collided with it that Sylpheus knew something was amiss.
‘Sylpheus, my good man,’ said Master Orpheus. ‘I am aware that what I am about to say may strike you as somewhat out of the ordinary ...’ the Master began chuckling to himself, ‘for the Ordinatarium,’ the chuckle raised its game and became a giggle, ‘but I think that there is precedent.’ At this he spun the desk’s great book around. Then he flicked through the pages for a moment before slamming it shut. ‘There is. But I’ll find it later.’
‘For what, Master?’ said Sylpheus, becoming more confused by the second. ‘For what?’
‘I must, er, I must have a nap,’ said Master Orpheus, ‘and while I am napping F division must remain quiet.’
‘Quiet. There will be no Tales while I nap.’
‘But nothing,’ said Master Orpheus, before staggering off into an ante-chamber. The crump of the door shutting was followed by a snore which sounded as if it had been kept in storage for 900 years. Which was approximately the case.
‘No Tales? No Tales?’ said Sylpheus. ‘Whoever heard of such a thing?’ In the ante chamber the unseasonal snores continued unabated. The secretary frowned.
The phone rang.
Hamish’s head rocked backwards and forwards as if he were a storm-tossed ship adrift in the ocean. His dreams rattled around his brain, images of his darling Sue as she clung to the cliff’s edge with one hand, their daughter in the other. Hamish saw himself, too, one hand clamped around the sapling, the other reaching out to his wife.
‘Wha th ...’ said Hamish, as his eyes flashed open. Staring directly at him were the deepest, clearest, bluest eyes he’d ever seen. Bluer, if it were possible, than his dear, departed wife’s. Bluer than blue. ‘Cindy,’ he said, voice cracked with sleep. ‘My darling girl. Why aren’t you asleep?’
‘I want a story,’ said the girl, and kissed him on the forehead. ‘And Janine’s stories are rubbish.’
‘But Cindy,’ said Hamish, ‘it’s three o’clock in the morning.’ He leant his head backwards, knowing full well that he could not refuse his daughter a story, no matter how tired, drunk or simply sad he was. And he was very, very sad.
‘Pleeese,’ said Cindy, wrapping her arms around him and burying her head into the crook of his neck. ‘Pleeeese.’
That fateful night, Hamish had only been able to grasp his young daughter in his hand and then watch as his wife grappled for purchase that wasn’t there. She had slipped into the mountainous seas below. As he watched her disappear, his daughter, their daughter, had clasped her arms around his neck, just as she was doing now.
A single tear rolled down his cheek.
And then he began.
Secretary Sylpheus stood at the long mahogany desk of the Ordinatarium, chewing the index finger of his right hand, unsure of what to do. The Master had been very clear, but the very thought was, to Sylpheus at least, utterly unimaginable. Ever since he was a child, Sylpheus had heard the stories about Master Orpheus Jeremiah and the Ordinatarium. Where other children had been lulled to sleep with fairy tales, Sylpheus was fed a richer diet, for the stories his father told him in front of the fire on a snowbound winter’s evening concerned the very creation of those tales his schoolfriends recalled so imperfectly during breaktime. And while the other children dismissed the flute-playing ratcatchers turned kidnappers, the old crones having visitors for supper in an all-too-literal sense, and the Princesses frozen in various states of disarray by their step-mothers as nonsense invented by adults intent on scaring them, Sylpheus knew better. It wasn’t that he thought the tales true, it was simply that he knew they were real. Sylpheus knew that a story, once told, existed in a way that his peers could never fathom; and he knew where their reality lay.
Sylpheus, it is fair to say, had been groomed for his current position in the Ordinatarium since before conception. Sylpheus’ father served in M division (where the mojos were kept), his father in G division (where ghosts were trained) and his father before him in D division (where they spent countless years matching dreams with dreamers), but Sylpheus was, it was widely agreed, a perfect fit for F division, the division that dealt in fairy tales.
Sylpheus stood at the long mahogany desk of the Ordinatarium, chewing the index finger of his right hand, unsure of what to do as the red phone rang. The telephone was a particularly visible feature of the Ordinatarium, partially due to its being a vibrant red in a dark mahogany world: Sylpheus put the rest of its visibility down to its being the only thing on the Ordinatarium desk other than the book.
Sylpheus was torn between his duty as F division secretary and the Master’s orders. The Tales were at stake. The Tales that must always be told, yet the Master’s orders ...
Sylpheus raised the receiver. The ringing stopped.
‘Good Evening,’ said Sylpheus. ‘F division. How may I be of assistance?’
‘Once upon a time in a land far far away, it was a dark and stormy night deep in midwinter and as the gentle knight came pricking on the plain the breath of the cattle rose up like smoke from the ground floor into the living quarters above,’ said Hamish, and then he paused.
‘Who is the princess?’ said Cindy as she looked up at her father, the confusion in her eyes betraying the expectation on her face.
‘Like I said, the breath of the cattle rose up like smoke from the ground floor into the living quarters above,’ said Hamish. ‘Otherwise, the only heat in the house came from a small stove in the middle of the room, its spindly iron chimney taking a circuitous route to the roof, at which point it plunged into the thatch like a cormorant hunting for its supper. Clinging to the pipe were pieces of material in various states of cleanliness and dampness, each piece bearing a passing, in some cases extremely passing, resemblance to an article of clothing. From these pieces of cloth rose a second wave of smoky steam which mingled with the breath of the cattle and the stench of their manure, creating an atmosphere so thick that the cottagers could have sliced it and sold it, assuming there was a demand for condensed cow breath and laundry steam, delicately flavoured with the finest parfum de dung.’
‘Ewww,’ said Cindy. ‘Gross. Where’s the princess? I wanna princess ... and a handsome prince, and a fairy godmother, and a wolf, and wicked witches, and castles, dragons and enchanted woods and dwarves and elves and magic spells and fancy dress balls and, and ... and I don’t want smelly cows and pants and I don’t want dirty hovels and poor people ...’
‘You can’t have everything, Cindy,’ said Hamish.
‘Why not?’ said Cindy.
Hamish said nothing. The truth was, he wasn’t quite sure whose tale he was telling tonight.
Sylpheus drummed the fingers of his left hand on the rich, highly burnished mahogany desk, the rhythm that of the galloping horse, the sound an irritating combination of the thud of skin and the click of nail. Over the years, this nervous habit would wear a set of grooves into the desk’s surface. As his fingers clickety-clackety-thumped away he cocked his head, cradling the receiver between chin and shoulder, nodding and letting out small noises of agreement, comprehension, assent and even, once or twice, mild doubt.
‘I see,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid we,’ he hesitated for a split second. The left half of the second fell out of the F division timer in the shape of a single grain of sand. Sylpheus watched as another grain fell, then another. He was now in story time. His father had talked about story time. There was, so far as he knew, no way to stop it once it had been started: it had to take its course. The Master’s orders were, to all intents and purposes, null and void. The simple fact of the matter was that a Fairytale waited for no man. Once started, once teller and listener enter storytime, the tale must be completed. Sylpheus left the receiver hanging in the air and opened the great book. He scuffled through a few pages, then willed the receiver over to him. The music stopped. ‘Terribly sorry to keep you waiting, you were saying?’ said Sylpheus, before returning to nods and noises. As he nodded he wrote on the great board with a piece of chalk.
‘Under normal circumstances, sir, that would not be a problem, but at present we have ...’ the drumming of fingers stopped. ‘I am aware of ... oh, I see ...’ said Sylpheus, and rubbed out the first three words on the blackboard with the palm of his hand. ‘I suppose, if that is the case, an exception does seem warranted.’
Sylpheus put down the receiver, took a deep breath and walked towards an imposing wooden cabinet inlaid with intricate designs in a light silvery metal. From the opposite side of the desk, the marquetry appeared to show a solitary figure, sat in front of a roaring fire, but with every step taken towards it, the design changed. It was only when Sylpheus was within arm’s reach of the cabinet that he noticed the true nature of the decoration.
‘Once upon a time,’ began Hamish, who was beginning to feel that maybe, just maybe there was a story in him tonight after all, in spite of his inebriate state, ‘there lived an old woman.’
‘And?’ said Cindy.
‘And the old woman lived in a hovel with her son. And they slept in the loft because their animals took up the ground floor. And one day, the son came home all shiny-eyed and smiling, and the old woman knew what he was going to say. And she was right. “Mother,” he said. “Mother, I’ve fallen in love with the most beautiful girl in the world.” And still the old woman knew what he was going to say. “Mother, I need to buy new clothes. She won’t look at me dressed in these rags.” And the old woman looked in her purse, and she looked in the housekeeping tin, and she looked under the mattress, and she looked under the third floorboard from the left, and she even looked in the special, “saving for that day when it rains cats, dogs, frogs and bats” jar that was so special it almost didn’t exist. And then she counted out their total wealth. And then she counted it out once more, just to make sure. All that they had was two pennies (all the better for rubbing together), a peach pit and a button. She looked at her son, the picture of ragged-trousered goodness, and decided he was right. “Son,” she said. “There’s nothing else for it. You’re going to have to take Nelly to market.” The son was flabberghasted. “But mother,’ he said. “We can’t sell old Nell. What will we do for milk?” And the woman took his head in her arms and said “My loyal and dutiful son. It’s time you made your own way in the world. It’s time for you to seek your fortune. Then you can look after me in my old age. But you’re right, you can’t do it dressed as a beggar. So sell the cow.” The son, in tears, looked up at his mother. “The cow?” he said. “Yes,” repeated the old woman. “And the goat, and the cat, and the rabbit.” The son nodded dolefully. “What about the hamster?” he asked. And the old woman shook her head, climbed up the ladder into the loft and shut the trap door behind her.
‘As the son placed the smaller animals into baskets on the cow’s back, he heard his mother sobbing, and he swore an oath that he’d make his fortune, hopefully through the original stratagem of marrying the princess. And off he went to market.’
Sylpheus paused in front of the cabinet, captivated by what he now saw, as plain as plain can be. He’d heard tell of the secret cabinet of F division, and now here he was, on his very first day as secretary to Master Orpheus, about to open it all by himself. The marquetry was more than beautiful, it was more than exquisite: it was magical. No, no. Not magical. Not merely invoking wonder and awe in the observer. The marquetry was quite literally magic. The fine inlays of silvery metal did more than show differently from different distances, they did more than detail a scene Bruegalesque in its encompassing of all humanity in the stories it told: the marquetry was, quite literally, alive. It was also literally quite, but Sylpheus was beginning to confuse himself. As he scanned the various scenes being lived out on the cabinet’s doors, he found a young man leading a cow, on which were attached two baskets full of squabbling beasties. The rabbit was not looking happy. The young man was talking to a highly suspicious-looking character who had stopped him as he walked along the road. The suspicious character was shooting quizzical looks in Sylpheus’ direction, and, with both hands behind his back, pointed with one into the empty palm of the other. Sylpheus knew it was time to act.
Sylpheus crossed his fingers, screwed his eyes shut, and reached out to open the cabinet. Which, of course, had no handle. Sylpheus opened his eyes, uncrossed his fingers, and stared at the cabinet. It stared back at him. He had an idea.
‘Once upon a fairytale ...’ he said, and the front panel split into two and the two halves slid to the sides, revealing the cabinet’s innards. ‘Well, goodness me,’ said Sylpheus. ‘So this is where it all happens.’
The cabinet was made up of a series of small compartments, each of which housed an object, some of which were in small, silken bags. And each object or bag had a small ticket attached to it, covered in writing that Sylpheus couldn’t decipher. In the middle of the cabinet was a brass funnel with a dial above it, and beside this a small leather holster cradling a pair of pincers which were attached to the cabinet’s frame with a long chain. The dial itself was surrounded by pictograms. Sylpheus scratched his chin. Well, he thought to himself. How hard can it be? He looked back to the panels and saw the shady character gesticulating at him. ‘Now, let me see,’ said Sylpheus, inspecting the dial and looking at the panels again. ‘Ah yes, that looks like it.’ And he took one of the bags from the cabinet with the pincers, twisted the dial and dropped the bag into the funnel. Then he watched as it appeared in the shady character’s hands.
‘There you go,’ said Sylpheus. ‘A fairy tale needs a little magic to make it real.’ And he made himself a cup of tea.