When it comes down to it, some motives are easy to understand. When you feel bad you think of the people and places that make you feel good and go to them. If you’re scared you go where you remember feeling safe. If you’re upset you go where you’ve been comforted.
So I suppose that’s why I’m here. I mean logically this doesn’t make any sense. My parents are both gone now, the house we called home is long since sold and filled with someone else’s laughter and tears, but my memories of the place draw me back, especially now.
My parents were both professionals; too busy making a career to be a family. Then one day in her late thirties, my Mum noticed her biological clock winding down and she realised she did want to be a mother after all. My Dad could never say no to her, so despite warnings of a difficult pregnancy and possible genetic defects like Downs, they set about making me. Eventually, three months, two weeks and four days before my Mum’s fortieth Birthday, by caesarean section to spare mother and child the trauma of such a late first birth, I came into the world: Peter Sanders, eight pounds twelve ounces, ten fingers, ten toes and, following a series of tests and a collective sigh of relief, a decidedly normal baby boy.
Childhood was good. Given Mum’s impending menopause, there was never going to be the possibility of a little brother or sister, so my folks compensated by spoiling me with the wealth they had accumulated in their earlier life. They even let me indulge my whims to a much greater extent and for a much longer than they might otherwise have done. For instance when at age seven I started going through a “phase” of wanting to dress in girl’s clothes, they bought me a wardrobe full of party dresses and pretty shoes and set aside a room in the house that could be my “little girl room”. When I asked for dolls and tea sets to play with, they were added to my birthday list along with the usual toy cars and soldiers and train sets and stuff.
I think it must have worried them, but they kept hoping I’d grow out of it. When five years passed and I showed no signs of changing, they decided to take action. I remember coming home from school a few weeks after my twelfth birthday to find the little girl room locked up. When I asked my Mum about it, she said that it was time I grew out of such things. I remember throwing such a massive tantrum that I was sent to my bedroom without any tea; it was about the only time I remember my parents disciplining me.
Over the next few days I tried pretty much every trick I could think of to get them to change their minds, but the more I argued and persuaded, wheedled and connived, the more adamant they became that the little girl room was behind me. In the end I just gave in and accepted their decision. I never was any good at fighting for what I wanted; I mean for the most part I never had to.
I’m still not sure if this part of my character resulted from nurture and the rather odd approach to parenting that my parent adopted, or if it was some bit of nature passed down from some anonymous ancestor in generations passed, but it grew in me and in time I became the sort of gentle unassuming individual who is likely to get used as a doormat by the wrong sort of person. Certainly I had very little of what it took to be a hard-nosed businessman like my Dad, and in this more than anything else, I think I disappointed him.
With some financial help and a fair amount of pressure, both from my parents, I ambled my disinterested way through three years at the local university to earn an undistinguished degree in business. For the next few years I worked alongside my Dad, learning the ropes of running the family business and, when he managed to convince himself that I wouldn’t make a complete dog’s dinner out of everything he’d built, he took the immensely courageous step of retiring and leaving me in charge.
Sadly my dad was one if those people who couldn’t live with retirement, literally. Six months after he handed me the reigns he had a major heart attack and died in his sleep. Mum was inconsolable and wasted away, eventually dying herself of loneliness and a broken heart less than a year later.
I had never been particularly close to my parents. The age gap had been too great and I never did get round to forgiving them for first allowing me to explore the feminine side of my personality then suddenly shutting it away like it was something shameful. I can’t remember shedding a tear when either of them died, although I to lose them both in such a short period – to be so suddenly all alone in the world – was a great shock and they left a hole in my life which I doubt will ever be filled.
For a while I lost myself in work. Busyness is a great way of hiding from grief; if you’re lucky you can sometimes escape without facing it at all. That’s what happened to me anyway. Shortly after my mother’s funeral I was invited to a probate hearing to find that I had inherited enough to move the business to London. It was something my Dad had always wanted to do and, more out of a sense of duty to the old man than any personal desires or ambitions, I sold up the family house and headed down the M1 to a new life.
It proved to be a great move. Within six months I had two shops operating in not too downmarket parts of the great city and had found a girlfriend who seemed as mad about me as I was about her. I won’t say business was booming, but it enabled us to put down a deposit on modest flat and live a fairly comfortable life.
A year later Kate and I were married, two more and we had a daughter, Megan, another eighteen months and David was born. The flat was suddenly too small so I pushed the business a little harder and we managed to afford a larger place and in a slightly better neighbourhood.
And so life settled into a pleasant routine. I spent my days working at something I didn’t totally dislike and at which I wasn’t a complete failure, then at five o’clock I would take a short train ride home to my beautiful wife a children. I’m not the most ambitious person in the world, and right here I had all I wanted: Comfort, sufficient income to keep the wolf from the door, and enough time to enjoy my family.
It was almost enough. Ever since my twelfth birthday and the closing of the little girl room I had felt like a part of me had been locked away and was crying for release. Like Rapunzel at the top of her tower, the girl in me was still awake and calling to be rescued and, whilst I had never found the courage to free her form her prison I had called on her from time to time.
After I had failed to convince my parents that I needed to spend time in a dress I had tried to be the boy they wanted me to be. I had failed. The longer I went without dressing, the more I felt compelled to do it. To start with I used to sneak into my parent’s room when they were out and borrow my Mum’s clothes. I was always careful to put them back exactly as I found them, but I think my Mum suspected. She never said anything – too frightened of what she might found out if she did I think – but there was a way she looked at me sometimes.
As I grew older I gained more freedom. First a bike, then a moped; I started heading out into the countryside looking for small towns and villages with charity shops in them. I’d get the sort of funny looks you’d expect from ordinary folk when confronted by a teenage boy wanting to buy some summer dresses, and I’d tell them I was buying costumes for a school play. I doubt I fooled them, but I never went back to those places so who really cares.
By the time I started at university I had quite a stash of women’s clothing which I kept hidden behind my wardrobe. Attending the local university meant I could carry on living with my parents, both saving me money for more clothes and allowing me to carry on living in a single room. I was careful about how and when I dressed, doing it very infrequently and only when I was sure there was no chance of being found out, and when my parents finally died they still only had their suspicions.
When I first moved to London I had a lot more freedom to dress and enjoyed being a girl at home for most of my spare time right up until the moment I met Kate. In the first months I went back to being secretive about my little pass-time, but realised as Kate and I grew closer to each other that I wouldn’t be able to keep it from her for ever, nor did I want to. It was about the time when I realised that we were both in love with each other and I was considering asking her to marry me that I decided that I needed to share this secret with her.
I planned it meticulously. There were flowers and a meal out in one of our favourite eateries. I kept her off balance the whole evening, not wanting her to get so excited about this soiree that she would be expecting a ring at the end of it. Somehow I managed to keep the balance just right and when we made it back to our little flat, I sat her down and made it clear that the conversation was taking a serious turn.
I explained everything to her. How I didn’t want us to go any further into a relationship without complete honesty between us and that there was something in my past that I needed to share. It would be difficult because I knew that most people didn’t understand what I had to say and tended to react badly. I went on to talk about my childhood and the little girl room. She though t it was kind of cute until I mentioned that it was still going on when I was twelve. I went on to explain about how I felt drawn to dressing up, that I didn’t particularly want to, but there was a part of me that only felt right when I could pretend I was a girl. I told her that I still dressed up but didn’t want to offend anyone so did so in complete secrecy.
I don’t know how I expected her to take it. To some extent there was relief as she had begun to worry that there might be another woman involved, then she said it wasn’t the worst skeleton to have in one’s closet, that at least I wasn’t an axe murderer or – shock horror – a mime. I laughed along with her, but somewhere I knew that she wasn’t taking this in. She made some comment about how she’d take my mind off women’s clothes once I had an eyeful of what was underneath them.
We left it at that. At least I had told her. A month later when things had settled back to something approaching normalcy, I popped the question and the rest you already know until about ten years later.
Throughout our marriage I had tried to keep the dressing up to a minimum and as low key as possible. I kept a very small collection of clothes tucked away in the attic, only getting them out when she went out with her friends and I stayed home to look after the kids. I would wait until Megan and David were asleep before sneaking up to the loft and unlocking my stash, and I would confine myself to the loft all the time that I was dressed to make it impossible for little eyes to see.
The best I can figure out is that one of the children must have passed comment to Kate about how I seemed to spend a lot of time in the loft when she was out. I remember a change in attitude after one of my nights out with the lads when she was home watching the kids. I worried that I had come home in a worse state than had been the case, but the off mood hung in the air for days. Then she had a night out and I retired to the loft as usual, only to notice that something had been disturbed. My stash was all there, but not quite as I had left it. I felt sick and headed back downstairs without dressing.
I should have confronted her then, but I didn’t dare steering what was looking like a badly waterlogged marriage towards the rocks. I waited and hoped things would blow over. It felt like they did, though in retrospect I guess I just adapted to her new coldness.
Our tenth anniversary came round and I came home early from work with flowers and champagne and a reservation at a new rather posh restaurant to celebrate. The house was eerily quiet when I came home, but my footsteps led me reluctantly up the stairs to our bedroom where I found her sleeping naked in the arms of a man I did not even recognise.
When she awoke, Kate was unrepentant and asked me what I expected. If I was going to have an affair with my silks and lace, why shouldn’t she have an affair of her own? She found herself a lawyer and filed for divorce. I was so shocked I didn’t fight, and just a few months later found myself with nothing. Kate won custody of the children and half our joint assets, which included the house and the business. She liquidated her share, and mine went to the wall. Less than two weeks later I was filing for bankruptcy with the bank hurrying to repossess the house before it was sold to pay of some other creditor.
That was just last week, and earlier today I found myself back in Nottingham staring at place that was once my home but was now someone else’s house. Insult heaped on injury, that this one time when I most need comfort and reassurance, the one place where I might find it is out of my reach.
I drove aimlessly for most of the day, stopping to visit my parents’ graves, and eventually, with the Sun low in the summer sky and no clear plans on where I was going to spend the night, I found myself pulling in to the car park opposite the one remaining place where my younger self had found refuge from an unfriendly world.
About five miles more or less to the west of Nottingham city centre lies the village of Stapleford. Now just another suburb in the modern metropolitan sprawl, it is quiet, sleepy and uninteresting. Amongst the very few attractions it offers the world is an unusual natural formation called the Hemlock Stone which stands about thirty feet tall near the summit of Stapleford hill.
There’s a lot of mystery surrounding the stone and its history. I could bore you with geological theories of how the dark barytes upper layer helped the formation to resist erosion while the sandstone around it slowly disappeared, but I find far more wonder in the colour and shape of the rock and can easily understand how it might have drawn the interest of mystics in ages past. From certain angles, it seems to have the beak of a predatory bird, and the colours – a black upper layer over a rust red base – cause it to stand out from the trees and grass around it.
I started visiting the site during my college days. I had become infatuated with a delightful fellow student and as usual, did not have the courage to approach her to ask her out. I knew she lived in Stapleford though and in a rather forlorn effort to be closer to her, I used to ride my bike out to Stapleford Hill and Bramcote Hills Park where I would explore the paths between the trees and indulge my hopeless romantic side by dreaming that one evening I would see her walking down the path towards me. It never happened of course, but I still found a peace in the place and all these years later it was the Stone and the surrounding hills that brought me solace rather than my dim memories of a pretty face.
I pulled into the empty car park opposite the park and made my way in the fading light up the path toward the edifice. I wanted to reach out and touch the rock to reassure myself that at least this part of my past wasn’t going to fade into nothing, but that had been impossible even in my younger days. The stone had survived two hundred million years of wind and storms, but needed a cast iron fence to protect it from the ravages of modern teenagers. Even so I could make out a few obscene carvings in the fading light and muttered a heartfelt prayer for judgement against whoever had succumbed to this particular moronic urge.
I heard voices from the other side of the stone and allowed curiosity to lead me. I found a small huddle of men discussing something in what can only be described as stage whispers and had to supress a smile. From what little I heard I’m not sure I would have understood what they were talking about had they started from the beginning in normal voices, but there was something comical about their intense desire for secrecy warring with their passionately opposed viewpoints.
“Excuse me,” I started tentatively only to see half the group jump. “I’m trying not to overhear you, but you are talking rather loudly.”
“Well you can kindly go away then,” the man closest to me snapped back. “Can’t you see we’re in the middle of an important discussion here?”
I was affronted. “I’m not sure what I can see sir, but we are on public land and I have as much right to be here as you. If you want not to be heard, may I suggest you either lower your voices or go and find somewhere else to have your discussion?”
They looked at me in a shocked silence for a while and I wondered if I had taken things too far.
“Or if you have questions that a local might be able to answer you might ask and I’d be only too happy to oblige. Assuming I can answer of course.”
The first man looked at me testily. “And exactly what information do you think you might be able to offer seven of the most pre-eminent professors of the dark ages Mr… Whatever-your-name-is?”
The one standing to his right gave his companion a good natured slap on the arm. “He’s only trying to be helpful Harold, and who knows maybe a little local knowledge will help us to solve our current conundrum.”
He turned to me.
“It’s very good of you to help Mr er…”
“Sanders,” I replied. “Peter though please, I’m sure we don’t need to stand on ceremony.”
He nodded to ma and turned to another colleagues; an elderly fellow with half lidded eyes.
“Clive, perhaps you could give er… Peter here a synopsis of what we have been discussing…”
The man identified as Clive reached across the small group and shook my hand.
“Professor Clive Radcliffe,” he introduced himself. “We’re all experts of one sort or another on the Dark Ages, and quite recently Mr Frank Burgess here” – he indicated a balding man in his late thirties – “made a discovery of some significance with his metal detector in a field about two hundred miles to the south of here. He found an unusual coin that others of my learned colleagues here have identified as most likely dating from the fifth or sixth century.
“The coin is particularly remarkable in that it does not depict the face of a known king or emperor from that or any other period in history as far as we can tell. Furthermore, on the reverse there seems to be a fairly reasonable representation of the hemlock Stone here.
“When Mr Burgess brought the coin to me, I naturally consulted with my learned colleagues to see if we could shed some light on the matter. What the coin is, who’s head is inscribed on it and why it shows an image of this Rock. That sort of thing.”
He seemed to have run out of things to say so the man who had first sided with me stepped into the silence.
“Yes thank-you er… Clive. We all came out here this evening to see if being on site might give us some clues. We’ve been here about two hours now and I’m afraid we seem to be drawing a blank.
“Eric here…” an explosion of a sneeze interrupted or perhaps completed the introduction of the man. He wiped his nose on a handkerchief and smiled apologetically at me.
“Hay fever,” he explained. “Always get it this time of year.”
“Yes, I was saying, Eric just put forward a suggestion that the face on the coin might belong to Merlin, as in the druid or magician, depending on your preferred account, who advised King Arthur. I’m afraid Harold here wasn’t too impressed with the notion. Something of a pragmatist our Harold. Doesn’t believe in Merlin any more than he believes in fairies.”
“Then he’s a fool!” It was little more than a whisper, but as clear as anything I’d heard that evening. What’s more it seemed to make its way into my brain without using my ears.
“I’m sorry did one of you say something?” I looked at the rest of the party; I was certain it hadn’t been anyone I’d heard speak up until that moment.
They looked at each other in bewilderment for a moment or two then collectively shook their heads.
“Ask to see the medallion.” The voice was back in my head, quiet and unmistakeable. “And don’t ask if they heard me, they didn’t.”
I looked at Frank Burgess. “I don’t suppose you have the coin with you?”
He looked at the others and after receiving a round of shrugs, reached into his jacket pocket before pulling out a plastic zip-lock bag with a corroded, irregular piece of metal in it. I took it from his hand and, having asked for and received permission, opened the bag and tipped the coin into my own palm.
On one side was a rather crudely embossed profile of an old man with long hair and a beard. On the other, as already described, was the unmistakeable image of the Hemlock Stone. I looked up at the rock then back at the coin. The silhouette and the image on the coin were nearly identical; it seemed we were standing in more or less the same spot as the person who had made shaped this side of the coin.
I turned the coin back over and almost dropped it in surprise. The face was no longer in profile, but looking directly at me, and the features we clearer, more believable.
“It’s true then. I had almost given up hope.” As before the voice was quiet and clear in my head.
“What’s true?” I said. “Given up hope of what?”
I drew a few odd looks from the people around me.
“Don’t speak out loud, just think your answers. These others cannot hear me – only you can because, I suspect, you have some small amount of faerie blood in you. It was rare enough in the days when I was made, but even more so now. The churl who dropped me so many years ago had not the least hint of magic in him otherwise I might have called him back to pick me up.
“I don’t know how long I have been lost, though I feel my strength weakened. I had wondered if it were a fault in me that meant I could not reach to the many minds I have encountered since I was rediscovered, but now in you I see the lack lies with them.
“Now to matters of importance. What year is this?”
“Two thousand and ten.” I carefully formed the words in my head, and putting on a thoughtful expression for the scholars standing around me.
“What meaning is this? Two thousand and ten by what measure?” The voice sounded alarmed. “Surely this is some other measure than the birth of the Christian God?”
“No,” I thought carefully, “it is two thousand and ten Anno Domini, two thousand and ten years since the birth of Christ.”
“Measured by the Julian Calendar?”
“No, we use the Gregorian calendar now, though the two are very similar.” My business had been buying and selling antiques. It’s amazing what trinkets of information you learn when you deal with history on a daily basis.
“In the sixteenth century it was noticed that the Julian calendar was incorrect, that each year was about eleven minutes less than the three hundred and sixty five and a quarter days allowed. Pope Gregory the thirteenth introduced a new calendar which dropped ten days and made allowance for the slightly short year by adding leap centuries to the calendar. Apart from those ten days, the calendar is the same with the same starting point.”
“But that means it’s been over fourteen hundred years. This was to have been concluded after only a thousand. She may have regained too much of her power; I may have lost too much.” The talking coin seemed to be losing it somewhat.
I marshalled my thoughts and focused on the coin in my hand. “Listen, I don’t pretend to understand much of what is going on here, but if it’s important and you want my help sorting it out, I suggest you tell me a little more before these gentlemen ask for their coin back.”
It seemed to do the trick; the voice quieted and when it started over it was calmer more focused.
“Very well,” it began, “I am Merlin…”
“Hang on a minute. So you are Merlin; magician and advisor to King Arthur and the court of Camelot? I thought that was all a myth.”
“Yes indeed, but many a myth and legend has its foundation in truth, and my story is most likely one of the same. Now please be quiet and listen, we may not have much time.
“I have mentioned already that people with faerie blood in them were rare even in my day, but there were those amongst us in whom the magic of the fair folk ran strong and undiluted. I was one such and another was a lady named Morgan le Fae. I have not felt any presence in this world today to match the power we two possessed and can only conclude that the blood of power has been diluted by the years.
“In any case Morgan and I became bitter enemies from the start. I hoped to use my strengths to build mankind up into a noble creature, and I chose Arthur as my means of doing so. Morgan’s purpose was far more self-serving. She proposed to use her power to bend as much of the world as she could to her own will. She sought first to defeat me and my plans and so twisted Mordred, Arthur’s nephew, to her will and brought them to a final battle in which Mordred was killed and Arthur fatally wounded.
“After the battle I knew I would have no peace to pursue my own ends until Morgan and all her power was destroyed and so I set about battling her with my magic. The battle lasted some years and took us to a great many sites of power around Albion, but in the end we found ourselves here at a place which had served me as a younger man, and I managed to use almost the last of my own magic along with my knowledge of this place to imprison her underground beneath the Stone.
“Morgan had used an ancient spell to protect her from death. She had removed her own heart and put it in a container which she held in a safe place, the location of which even I could not divine. Without the heart I could never completely destroy her, and should I deplete her energy it would only be a matter of time, centuries or perhaps millennia, before she recovered enough of her strength to return to the land of the living. I knew without me there to continue the fight she would bring a dark age to this world – perhaps one that would never end – so I constructed a plan.
“With Morgan imprisoned below the stone for a thousand years, she would need to call her heart to her in this place lest the other be discovered or fall to ruin taking her life with it. I thought to return here a thousand years after her imprisonment, and find and destroy the receptacle that contains her life force before she had a chance to recuperate sufficient strength to present a threat to humanity.
“My greatest obstacle was how could I still be here a thousand years into the future? I had no desire for immortality an possessed neither sufficient skill nor strength to perform the same spell that had ensured Morgan’s extended life. I was old and had no hope to live that long, so instead I poured all that remained of my magic into this medallion along with a copy of my mind. The coin would endure the thousand years and then I could guide some person with sufficient faerie blood to hear my voice to this place and have him seek out and destroy the heart of Morgan while she lay too weak even to awaken.
“But the coin was lost and more time has passed than was intended. Morgan will still be weak, but she will be that much closer to wakefulness, and even in her weakened state she will be able to perform such magic as would astonish you. Were she to reach the entrance to the cave, to bathe herself in moonlight, she would become unstoppable and your world would be doomed to an eternity of slavery to the whims of a woman turned mad by power so many years of solitary slumber.”
I waited to see if he was going to carry on but he seemed tapped out for the moment. “OKAY,” I thought at the coin, “What is it you want me to do?”
“Nearby there is a cave. It is one of many so you will need me to guide you. Within is a long passage that leads down and into a chamber under the Hemlock Stone itself. It is there you will find Morgan asleep, though only just, and somewhere in the room will be Morgan’s life container. Again I will be able to guide you to it.
“You must keep this coin with you so I can guide you to the cave and to the container. Once in the cave you must move slowly and quietly with extreme caution so as not to waken the witch, then you must seize the container I show you and dash it to the ground. If you can do that before she wakes and turns her magic onto you then you will have saved the world from a far worse fate than I can otherwise imagine.
“Your companions must stay above ground and away from the cave. They have no sensitivity to the magic, and worse they do not believe in it. If they are allowed to go bumbling into Morgan’s lair then who knows what might happen? All I can say for certain is that they will be the first to feel Morgan’s whimsical magic, and whatever that shows will give indication of the horrors that await the world when she regains all her power.”
I’d love to be able to say that communicating by thought takes place so fast nobody notices, but in reality it takes just as long as a normal conversation. I’d been staring at the coin for several minutes and the group were beginning to wonder if I was having a seizure.
“Well Mr Local Knowledge?” Harold’s mood was not improving. “If you’ve done communing with the ancient artefact, perhaps there’s something useful you’d like to share with the group?”
“Well there are a lot of different legends associated with the stone as I’m sure you’re already aware.” I was blustering a bit, playing for time to come up with a plan. I mean how was I supposed to hold onto this coin and stop the group that owned it from wanting to head down into the cave with me? An idea occurred to me. It wasn’t the best of plans, but beggars can’t be choosers.
“Some say the stone is a natural formation,” I continued, “others that it was carved out by man. There are quite a few bits of evidence that link this place with druidic rituals, and even some that say this was a place favoured by Merlin, which is why I was a bit intrigued by your thought that this might in fact be the Arthurian wizard.
“What may interest you though is that there are quite a few caves in the hills hear abouts, including one that leads down to a chamber underneath the Hemlock Stone itself. I have a feeling that if you are going to find any answers to your conundrum, they may well be in that cave. The entrance is just the other side of the hill if you’d like to follow me.”
I marched off up the hill following whispered directions in my mind and tried to ignore the grumbles of a certain member of the party behind me who wanted to know just who had made me boss of the expedition all of a sudden.
The path down to the cave entrance was precipitous and when we reached it, it looked none too inviting. This played into my hands a little.
“There have been a few cave ins around here in the past few months. If you don’t mind waiting here for a minute, I’ll just have a quick look to make sure it’s safe before I lead you in.”
It hadn’t seemed like too bad a plan, but I hadn’t reckoned on the people I was with.
“What and let you trample any evidence that’s down there?” It was Harold showing consistency rather than good manners. “Besides if you’re such an expert on these caves, how come you’re wearing a suit and not some clobber that’s more appropriate to cave diving?”
He shouldered his way past me into the cave entrance and was chased by his six fellows, all chorusing some variation on wait for me. I was left stunned by the side of the cave.
“I told you not to let them enter the cave!” The voice in my head cried in dismay. “They’ll wake her for sure then the world will be lost.”
I still wasn’t sure how he had expected me to keep hold of the coin and keep the group out of the cave, but the tone in his voice had me bite my tongue. This wasn’t the time for I-told-you-sos. I crept quietly into the cave on the heels of the bumbling academics, trying to keep to the shadows in the hope that I might be overlooked in the darkness.
I looked behind me at the cave entrance. The sun had finally disappeared below the horizon while we had been making our way to the cave and now as I looked back the way I had come, the way to the outside world was outlined in silvery light. There was something that the voice had said that nagged at the back of my mind, but it wouldn’t come. I turned back to the downward slope and felt my way cautiously ahead.
It didn’t take long to catch up, nor much in the way of skill to avoid them. From the noise they were making as they fumbled their way down the dark passage they could have been on a school excursion. I kept well back from them, moving cautiously along just keeping them in sight and wondering if this was what Gollum must have felt as he tracked the fellowship through the Mines of Moria.
As the coin had promised, the tunnel continued under the hill then opened out into a large cavern. To the scholars this was a magnificent find, and they began to talk animatedly amongst themselves and shine their torches all around, calling each other to come look at some new inscription in the rock, or trove of items hiding in a recess near the entrance of the cavern. In their excitement none of them noticed a slight movement in the deepest shadows at the very back of the cavern as a human shape sat and slowly swung its legs off the ledge where it had been laying. I wanted to call out in warning, but the coin hissed at me to remain quiet and hidden, so I stooped behind a rocky outcrop and looked on cautiously at whatever was to come.
“Aaahh, what it is to move once more.” The voice sounded like dried leaves stirred up in a cold autumn breeze and sent a shiver down my spine.
“What the… Who one earth are you, and how did you get down here?” Harold was being his usual charming self. He shone his torch at the figure and for a brief moment I caught a glimpse of an impossibly old face before gnarled and bony hands were raised to ward off the sudden light.
“You dare to address your queen so?” The voice took an a hard, dangerous quality. “And take that infernal light out of my eyes.” A casual gesture of the hand and the torch flew across the cavern deepening the darkness as the glass smashed against the rock.
“Madam,” it was the talkative one who had neglected to tell me his name, “we are historians and this cave is an important find. I am sorry for your misfortune, but you cannot stay here. I’m afraid I shall have to ask you to leave.”
“You take me for some common vagrant?” The voice never rose above its dry rasp, but the anger behind it did. Even from the other side of the cave I could sense her ire and wondered at the blindness of these people that seemed unaware of the growing danger. “Does the name Morgan le Fae mean nothing in this world?”
“Morgan le Fae is a myth and a fairy tale,” Harold told her impatiently. “You are dealing with educated men here madam, don’t try to scare us with your nonsense.”
“Nonsense is it? And you want fairy tales? Very well then let’s see. Ah seven of you, how very appropriate.”
She stood up and held her hands out to one side, calling on some inner power. The air became sticky and all but crackled with a build-up of power, then there was a release and somehow something leapt from to the old women to each of the man in the cavern. Even in the dim light I could see the transformation. Each of the men in the group seemed to shrink to about half his original size, his facial features became more pronounced and bulbous and his clothes changed; jackets and shirts changed into course woven tunics, trousers lost their fine weave and modern cut. Only the briefest second had passed, and suddenly I was looking at what seemed to be real world version of Disney™’s seven dwarves.
Panic set in amongst the transformed scholars and for a few seconds they ran in all directions, colliding from here and there before they managed to gather their collective wits together and they ran up the passage passed me. There was a certain ironic twist to how the characters had been given out and each possessed a mixture of their original features. Harold had become Grumpy, and his talkative second was now quite evidently Doc. The half lidded Clive Radcliffe was now Sleepy, the guy with hay fever who’s name I couldn’t recall was sneezing wildly as he ran past. Happy and Bashful hadn’t been introduced to me so I did little more than recognise their namesakes as they ran past. Finally Frank Burgess ran staggered past tripping over his oversized clothes and waggling suddenly oversized ears. I was too astonished to breath and leaned back against the wall wide eyed and wondering exactly how something like this was possible.
The dark figure moved slowly across the cavern intent on following the dwarves, and I became very aware of how poor my hiding place would be in just a few short seconds. I looked around in panic for somewhere to run, but it was too late.
“Hello my pretty.” The voice was still as desiccated as a grave, and the attempt at adding a cheery note to it was somehow grotesque. I sat rooted in place, eyes wide open in terror and barely able to speak. Somehow the most impossible thing in all this took over and I found a voice.
“How… how did you do that? I mean you’ve been asleep for over a thousand years, how have you come across the story of Snow White, let alone the Disney™ version?”
“Not very respectful are we sweety?” She shook her wizened head at me. “But at least you seem to know who I really am, and I suppose it won’t hurt to say something will it? I think you’d like to know what I have in mind for the world before I make you a part of it.”
She stood upright and gathered her thoughts.
“I think Merlin only intended for me to sleep for a thousand years or so. Certainly I have no recollection of that time at all, or even for a few centuries after, but in more recent years I have found myself becoming more and more lucid, more aware of the world.
“At first it was just snippets of thought as someone walked past the stone above us, a few hints of the world outside coming in short snatches here and there. As time went on though I became more aware of where I was and by the end of the nineteenth century I was aware of this place most of the time; smelling the damp, hearing the insects and rodents scurrying about, but unable to wake up. Hours, even days of empty nothing, punctuated with brief moments of other people’s thought’s as they came by. I thought I would go mad, and may well have done if it hadn’t been for that most marvellous of men Mr Marconi.
“It took more time than I would have liked, but the wireless age came to the world, and I learned to bend my powers to snatching the radio waves out of the air and transforming them back into sound. I had news of the world as it tried to destroy itself over and over again, I had new stories to entertain me, and in time I had television. That was more of a challenge, but yet again I learned how to decipher the signals.
“Most is the most base form of nonsense of course, but as the years passed I found myself enchanted by one thing above all others – the world of cartoons. I have watched over and again every delightful example of this medium of entertainment, form Walt Disney™’s first efforts through to the most recent computer animated spectacles.
“These past years as I have felt my strength return and wakefulness come ever closer I have been planning a treat for all the many people of this world. As you have striven ever harder to make your cartoons more real more believable, it seems only right that I should bring the whole thing into balance by turning reality into a living cartoon.
“Does that answer your question dear? I thought it would. Now I’m afraid I can’t have you running around down here on your own. You seem to know altogether too much about me, so I need to remake you as well. Now what shall we do with you then? I know, it seems such a shame that our seven dwarves have no Snow White to take care of them. How would you like to bring joy into their darling little hearts?”
She grinned at the growing panic in my face. I mean to be Snow White probably wouldn’t be so bad if I was still me to enjoy it, but she meant to remake me entirely, including my personality, my memories – it would be like death.
“No on second thoughts that’s probably not such a good idea is it? I mean Snow White managed to engender such fierce loyalty from her seven little dwarves didn’t she? So much so that they chased their wicked witch to her death. Hmm, fate does have a sense of irony and I’m not going to tempt it to end my life so soon after I have regained it.
“No let us think, well I suppose you are a curious thing aren’t you. I don’t suppose it will do any harm for you to become curiouser and curiouser.”
She drew in her strength again and I felt the air change again before the release of her power hit me like a bus, only from all directions at once. My body shrank in both size and girth, my clothes changed, closing in around my torso and billowing out around my legs. I looked down at a powder blue satin dress under a frilly white apron and was aware of a lock of blond hair falling in front of my face as my mind receded into the depths of my brain, pushed there by the new personality that was growing to take its place.
Dimly, as if from a great distance I heard a young girl’s voice ask, “Excuse me ma’am, but I don’t suppose you saw a white rabbit come past here did you? He was wearing a waistcoat with a pocket watch and saying over and over, ‘I’m late, I’m late.’”
“Why yes dear,” the scratchy voice was all but impossible to make out. “He went down that way.”
I was dimly aware of a bony finger pointing into the depths of the cavern. With a swirl of skirts, I was chasing off in the indicated direction. Somehow this seemed so right and it would be sooo easy just to give into the vacant curiosity in the girl’s head.
“DO NOT GIVE UP!!”
The voice was as loud as it had ever been. It pierced through the girl’s consciousness that had overridden my own and pulled me back form the oblivion that I had been so close to embracing.
“You are Peter Sanders – thirty-one years old, recently divorced from your wife Kate with two children, Megan and David.”
The sudden return of the pain I felt at Kate’s betrayal and the loss of my two children coursed through my being and my mind sprang back into its place in my mind. The so recently created personality of Alice vanished like a bursting balloon and I was back hurting more form having lost Megan and David from my life than anything else.
I looked down at myself to confirm the blue dress with tight bodice, puff sleeves and very full skirts, the whit frilly apron, the white tights and the patent leather shoes. I felt my chest, but there was nothing there to tell one way or another so, taking a deep breath I reached under my skirts and felt between my legs. Nothing that could be called male genitalia, but I did discover that I was wearing bloomers underneath everything.
“When you’ve quite finished groping yourself, perhaps you might recall that we are trying to save the world here. She only needs to reach the cave entrance and her power will be beyond my ability to stop.”
The moonlight, of course! The silver light in the cave entrance so soon after the sun had disappeared below the horizon, the moon had to be full or very nearly so.
“What am I looking for?” I asked casting my gaze around in the gloom, I walked over to a discarded torch that was still working and started to shine it around the cave.
“It could be almost anything, but think of the sort container you might find in the seventh century; a pot or stone box, or something similar.”
There was nothing on the floor or on any of the shelves carved into the walls. The alcove where Morgan’s body had been laying was similarly empty. I did some mental calculations gauging her speed to the length of the tunnel. She must be getting close now.
On a whim I shone the torch up at the top of the cavern wall where it met ceiling and looked slowly around. About two thirds of the way round there was a glint. My young eyes were so much sharper than those of a thirty-one year old myopic, and I with a little squinting I made out a polished stone jar covered with what seemed to be Celtic runes.
“That’s it!” The voice cried excitedly in the back of my mind. “Quick smash it.”
“I hate to burst your bubble, but how exactly?” The jar was twenty feet or more off the ground and well secured in its alcove. “I’m in a seven year old girl’s body so I doubt I can climb that high, especially not in this dress, and I’m not likely to be strong enough to throw a rock hard enough to break the jar and destroy what’s inside.”
“There has to be a way!” The medallion voice in my head sounded desperate, and I couldn’t blame it. Time was running out and we were so close to an answer.
I sat down on Morgan’s recent bed and tried to think. I’d sold some early copies of Alice in Wonderland some years back and had wanted to seem at least passingly knowledgeable so had withdrawn a copy form the library and skimmed through it. Most of it had seemed nonsense and I wondered just what Lewis Carol had been smoking when he wrote it. This brought to mind the image of a caterpillar puffing away at a hookah and… MUSHROOMS!
I reached into the pockets of my apron and pulled out two crumbly pieces of mushroom. Now which was which, and would the magic extend to this? I picked a piece of mushroom at random and licked it. The cave started growing so I took a small bite from the other piece. Before I knew it I was kneeling in the cave with my back pushing against the ceiling. My fingers were too small to reach into the alcove for the jar, so holding onto the ledge I nibbled at the first piece of mushroom again. The walls of the cave began to recede again and I managed to grab the jar just as I lost my grip on the ledge.
I tumbled down the wall, shrinking all the time, and lost hold of the jar. There was a crash and a moment later I landed on something wet and squishy which burst under my small weight. From deep down the tunnel there was a scream which was cut short almost as soon as it began.
I looked at the bloody mess that had spread over my tights, dress and apron and found myself reacting with a very girly noise of disgust. I wiped my hands on my apron and looked around me. Suddenly I was very conscious of what had just happened. I looked around for familiar markings to gauge my height.
“You are about a foot shorter than when you started out,” a pleased voice said in my mind. “I don’t know how you did it, but that remarkable feat of magic succeeded in defeating the most powerful sorceress this world has known, and has saved your world into the bargain.”
A foot shorter! I would be a freak. I started searching around on the floor for the pieces of mushroom I had dropped along with everything else. I found the coin and slipped it into my apron pocket.
“Whatever was in your pockets won’t work now. The magic was Morgan’s and died with her.”
“So I’m stuck like this? I’ll be less than five feet tall when I’ve finished growing. And what about the others? No-one deserves to live in this world looking like they do right now.”
I burst into deep sobbing tears. The world may have been saved, but the victory was turning out to be a very hollow one with the unwitting and unsung combatants facing little more than a lifetime of ridicule.
When I had finished crying I continued my search and eventually found the two pieces of mushroom. After cleaning them off as best I could, I tasted first one then the other, but it was as Merlin’s coin had said, there was no magic left in them. My one working torch flickered dimly and it suddenly seemed like a good idea to get out of the cave before the battery ran down completely.
I trudged my dejected and weary way back up the sloping tunnel. Near the entrance, no more than three feet from a bright shaft of moonlight, I came across a pile of dried bones and skin, rapidly crumbling to dust. For a moment I couldn’t move, shocked by how close the world had come to the horrors Morgan had planned for it. I backed up against the cave wall and skirted the diminishing remains and stepped out into the moonlight.
Just outside the cave the seven dwarves were gathered around in a huddle squabbling over what they should do next. At the sight of them, the newly discovered little girl in me squealed with delight and skipped down into their midst, scattering them to the surrounding bushes.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I won’t hurt you.”
Very slowly heads peered around rocks and trees and looked warily on.
“I know you I think.” I pointed at Frank Burgess. “You’re Dopey aren’t you?”
He nodded his head and ran out into the clearing, tripping over his oversized clothes and landing in the dirt close to my feet. He raised his head and wiggled his ears to show he was alright and I let out a delighted giggle.
“Careful,” Grumpy’s voice sounded form the bushes. “She may be the witch in disguise.”
I turned towards him. “Don’t worry the witch is dead. Her body is crumbling into nothing just inside the door if you want to look.”
“So what’s all that blood all over you?” Grumpy crossed his arms and nodded his head at me as though he had proven my untrustworthiness.
“The witch hid her heart in a jar so she couldn’t be killed. I found it and smashed it, but I landed in the mess I’m afraid. It killed the witch, but it’s made me all yucky. I’m sorry about that.”
Slowly the rest of the dwarves came out of hiding and as I named each of them they became more trusting and friendly. Grumpy seemed put out that I wasn’t the wicked person he’d first taken me for, but eventually gave into the ribbing of his companions and reluctantly joined the rest of us.
I looked at these new friends with some sadness. In many ways I preferred them like this, and they could get really well paid jobs at Disney™land , but they hadn’t chosen this. What’s more I was pretty sure they weren’t actually the people I’d met earlier that evening. I had to be careful about how I approached this.
“Do you remember what you were doing earlier this evening, just before the sun went down?” I asked
“Of course we do,” unsurprisingly Grumpy’s affronted response. “We were… we were… er… we were digging weren’t we lads?”
Choruses of “yes” and “aye” came from around the clearing. They were relieved to be able to give an answer that seemed correct even if it couldn’t possibly be the truth.
I dipped my hand into my apron pocket and grasped the medallion. Focusing my attention I directed my thoughts to Merlin’s copy.
“There must be something we can do! I can’t bear to leave them like this. They don’t deserve to lose themselves in a magic that left this world so long ago that almost no-one believes in it anymore. Is there anything we can do to bring them back?”
“I have been thinking on this, and yes there is some magic remaining in the world. Now that Morgan’s bones are turned to dust my purpose is complete, and I have lived too long. I have enough power left in me to transform you back to the way you were before this started, and had thought to grant you this as thanks for your part in the battle, but you are right it would be wrong to leave these seven as they are, foolish as they have shown themselves to be.
“I don’t have enough magic left in me to transform you all back the way you were, in fact it seems to me that I can either change them or you.”
“Then the decision is easily made. I would rather be a little taller than I am right now, but I have my mind and I can live in the world as I am now. These people don’t have their own minds and neither do they have a shape that would be accepted by the people of this world. Let them have your magic.”
“As you say. Place the medallion in the centre of the circle and have everyone, yourself included, join hands in a circle around it.”
“Why do I need to be in the circle?” There was a nagging suspicion at the back of my mind as to his purpose.
“It is my magic to perform and I say I need you all in the circle. Besides they may become suspicious of you if you don’t take part.”
I place the coin on the ground as I had been asked and called to the dwarves.
“Let’s play a game,” I said. “First let’s all hold hands in a circle.”
The dwarves all came, some willingly like Dopey and Happy, others more reluctantly like Grumpy and Bashful, but before long I had them holding hands with me in a circle with the coin at its centre.
“OKAY everyone, you need to close your eyes and think the happiest thought you can.”
The dwarves did as they were asked and turned my attention to the coin.
“Thank-you Merlin. You made a great sacrifice in seeking to defeat Morgan. I at least won’t forget what you gave up and the fate you spared us all.”
“Thank-you too Peter. I would never have been able to complete my task without your help. You are a noble and courageous person and I am glad to have known you. It is my parting wish that you find some happiness in your life to compensate you for that which you have given up.”
I closed my eyes and felt the familiar stickiness in the air that I was beginning to associate with the build-up of power, then the release and a feeling of change all around the circle. I even sensed myself growing a few inches and smiled some small thanks that he had found enough strength to include that. I liked the idea of being a girl and was content to be petite, but would have hated being less than five feet tall.
I looked around the circle at the restored scholars. They were still wearing the rough dwarven jerkins and breeches, but I guess there was little sense in transforming inanimate matter. The clothes were considerably too small for them and they looked more than a little ridiculous. All except Frank Burgess who more or less fit the oversized clothes that were Dopey’s trade mark. I couldn’t help giggling and with that the shocked silence that had overwhelmed the group to that point was broken.
“Did that all just happen?” It was Harold speaking without any of his normal acerbity.
“The cave’s just over there,” I pointed in what I realised was a very girly manner. “The remains of Morgan le Fae are just inside the door, though they may have crumbled completely to dust by now. Her heart and the fragments of the stone jar she kept it in are in the main chamber at the end, though looking at my dress I suspect the heart has also crumbled to dust.”
The blood smears on my clothes had turned dark brown and powdery. I brushed at them gently and most of the marks came away.
They all looked at me.
“And you would be?”
“I am, or at least was, Peter Sanders. You remember, Mr Local Knowledge?” I stood up and walked to the centre of the circle. “I have your coin here, but I’m afraid all the magic is gone from it now.”
They were staring at me as though I had two heads or something equally impossible.
“Peter Sanders is a middle aged man.” This from the former Doc.
“Do you remember being transformed into the seven dwarves form Snow White?”
There were nods from around the circle.
“Morgan thought of turning me into Snow White to complete the set, but then she changed her mind. She’d been tapping in to radio and television for decades and had a real soft spot for cartoons, especially Disney™ by all appearances. The coin protected my mind when she transformed me into Alice, but when it was all over and there wasn’t enough magic to turn everyone back. It’s easier for a little girl to fit into our world than a dwarf, so the choice was easy.”
They were silent for a long while trying to absorb this.
“No-one’s going to believe us,” the recent Bashful said to no-one in particular.
“We will and no-one else needs to know.” I surprised myself with the firmness in my voice. It seemed odd that a seven year old girl was dictating terms to a group of learned scholars. “You still have the cave and the coin. I’m sure you’ll find enough evidence to link Merlin to this place, or at the very least show that some druidic magical practice took place in the cave. You’ll have your moment in front of the camera, Stapleford will have something new to boast. Everyone wins.”
“Except you. How exactly do you win?” Clive Radcliffe I recalled – Sleepy.
“I’m actually quite content with the way things have world out. You see I was never much of a success as a man. Now I get to see how much better I can do as a woman.”
“Isn’t there anyone who’ll miss you?”
“My parents are both dead, I’m an only child, my wife just divorced me and won custody of the children, and she doesn’t want me to have anything to do with them. I just lost my business and my house in the divorce settlement. In fact pretty much all that exists in the world to say that there ever was a Peter Sanders is filling the back of a rather beat up Ford Focus in the car park over the road. I’m quite happy to have the police puzzle over that to their heart’s content.”
“So what happens to you now?” Harold seemed genuinely concerned.
“At the worst I turn up on the doorstep of an orphanage and cute my way into the heart of a family. I think I’m tough enough to hold out in a place like that for a while and smart enough to get myself noticed by a decent family in no time.
“Better would be if one of you happened to know someone in the adoption agency in Harrow and arranged for me to be adopted by a family who live in the catchment area for Aylward First School.”
“Why there in particular?”
“I have my reasons which, if you don’t mind, I would appreciate keeping to myself.”
The room was sparse; one bed, one small wardrobe, one desk and chair. The walls were a dull blue/grey colour and there was one small window looking out on a brick wall not ten feet away. This had been my home for two weeks and even with the knowledge that I leaving today, I was struggling to keep positive outlook.
The other children in the building were withdrawn and sullen and had resisted every attempt at friendship I had made. The one response that had included a conversation had informed me that no-one ever stayed here long enough for it to be worth making friends. After that I kept to myself and, like the rest, awaited my rescue.
This morning I had woken early, too excited to sleep, showered and dressed in a bright pink summer dress before spending ages in front of a mirror trying to decide what to do with my hair. In the end I’d used the plane black headband that had been part of my Alice costume. I’d chosen it more for luck than anything, but I did like the way it looked. I’d packed my few meagre belongings into the small suitcase I’d come with and sat on the end of my bed to wait.
I’d been too nervous to read or in fact do just about anything, and had sat there worrying about all the ways this could go wrong. By the time one of the home’s attendants popped her head in through the door to tell me they’d arrived, I was in such a state that she had to come in all the way and let me cry on her shoulder for ten minutes, then help me clean up my appearance for five minutes before she pronounced me presentable.
I was taken to the governess’s office and felt very self-conscious as I was ushered in. The two people sitting opposite the governess were just a little older than I had been just a few short weeks previously. They jumped to their feet as I came in and I was comforted to see how nervous they were too. I’d met them on previous occasions, even stayed with them for a weekend or two to see if we might be a good fit together, and we knew we were. I suddenly realised that the nerves on both our parts were because we were both unsure about how the other felt, that we really wanted this to work. All of a sudden I couldn’t help smiling.
The governess wasn’t amused. “Perhaps you’d care to share the joke Alice?” Yes I’d adopted the first name of the character Morgan and changed me into. I liked the name, and it seemed appropriate somehow, especially since I intended to be a very different Alice to Lewis Carroll’s Alice Liddell.
“It was just that I’ve been so nervous all morning because I was worried that you might change your minds about me,” I directed my comments to my prospective new adoptive parents, “and now it seems that you’re just as nervous and worried about how I feel about you. It seemed, well silly really.”
Mr and Mrs Farrow looked at each other then down at me, then as if on some sort of cue, we fell into each other’s arms and started laughing out loud. Mrs Prentice seemed unsure of what to do, so sat and watched us till we’d laughed ourselves out. The rest of the meeting, in fact the rest of the day, went wonderfully. The ice was broken and we left the orphanage with my small suitcase and climbed into their large car.
As Mr Farrow drove off, Mrs Farrow started rambling on about everything as it came to her. She’d prepared my room for me and as soon as I felt up to it we could go shopping for clothes. I had a place at the local first school and I would need my uniform before I started there. They thought that the Monday in two weeks’ time would be soon enough for that, unless I didn’t feel ready in which case we could delay another week or two. They didn’t want me to feel under any pressure at all, so I could call them David and Carol if I liked. I would be signed on at the school as Alice Farrow since I was now legally adopted by them, and I had my adoption certificate would count as my birth certificate since I had no documents form my other life. She had plans for the day that first we would go home and have a light lunch, then we could all go out for a walk in the park and feed the ducks. There was a playground with swings and roundabouts and maybe I could make some friends with some of the children who lived in the neighbourhood.
She didn’t seem to run out of breath and I just sat there and grinned, lapping up every moment of it. Somehow this was more than the love my parents had shown me, or Kate and it felt wonderful to be young and loved.
We had our promised walk in the park complete with duck feeding, after which I discovered how much more fun it was to play on a swing in a dress before rediscovering the sheer exhilaration of swinging so high that the chains go slack. We had ice cream on the way home and I held walked between them holding both their hands. Back at the house, Mr Farrow headed for his study to do some work and Mrs Farrow went into the kitchen to start tea. I asked if I could help and was treated to a very odd look from my new mother.
“Not this time sweetheart. Perhaps you’d like to watch some TV?”
I wasn’t likely to be interested in the same stuff as a normal seven year old and decided that this time I was going to do things right. “Actually I’d really like to read a book. I promise I’ll be careful.”
“Well I’m not sure what we have that might be suitable…” She trailed off into thought.
“I was thinking if you had a copy of Black Beauty or Treasure Island or maybe Oliver Twist, something like that.”
“I’m not sure you’ll enjoy it as much as you think, but we do have a collection of Dickens. Just let me check dear.”
She popped her head into the study and asked if it would be alright for me to borrow a book. Mr Farrow looked a little dubious, but agreed on the agreement that I was very careful with the book.
I gave them both a hug and a kiss and promised I would look after the books then ran off to wash my hands before starting on my self-education in English classics.
When they called me to the table for tea I was curled up in one of those impossible positions I used to see young girls adopting – surprisingly comfortable if you have the right anatomy – and several chapters into the book. I finished my paragraph and memorised the page number before closing the book and putting it back on the bookshelf.
Mr and Mrs Farrow exchanged a few looks as I tucked into a bowl of spaghetti. I tried to eat slowly and daintily and was surprised both at how much more I enjoyed the flavour and texture of the food and how I found my appetite being satisfied earlier than usual.
David broke the silence first. “So Alice, how are you finding the book?”
“Oh it’s brilliant,” I found myself gushing. “I’ve just reached the part where he’s finished his gruel and has asked for more.”
“And you know what gruel is?” David pressed.
“Yes I looked it up; it’s a sort of watery soup. I didn’t much like the food they gave us at the orphanage, but I’m glad they didn’t give us the same stuff Oliver had to eat, it sounds really yucky, not at all like this though,” I took another forkful of pasta, “this is really nice.”
They did the look-at-each-other-over-the-top-of-my-head thing again and I wondered if I was pushing my luck. No I wasn’t going to pretend to be an ordinary seven year old. If my past life was going to be any help to me at all, I wasn’t going to waste it by relearning stuff.
Carol smiled at me. “It’s very sweet of you to say Alice, perhaps you can help me make it next time and I can teach you how.” I smiled excitedly at here enjoying the way she flushed slightly. “What I’m interested in is your reading though. You seem to be very advanced for your age.”
I looked down as though I’d done something wrong. I couldn’t believe how shamelessly I was manipulating these people, but it seemed best to let them pick their way through the minefield that was the new me and give them the odd prod to make sure we steered safely to the other side.
“I didn’t mean it as though you were doing anything wrong love, I just wondered if it would be worth having you tested when you start at the school. I get the feeling you may be a bit of a surprise.”
After tea I helped to clear the table then washed my hands and went back to my book for another half hour. I heard bath taps turning on and suspected this was for my benefit, so it didn’t come as a surprise when Carol called down that my bath was ready. I checked my page number and put the book back in its place before running up the stairs.
Bath time was oddly fun. After two weeks of using a communal shower room it seemed odd to have the place to myself. The water was piping hot and I discovered a new pleasure in the tingle it caused on my skin. Before I’d hated having the water too hot, but now it didn’t seem to hurt like it had. Then there were the new delights of sweet smelling bath oils and bubble bath. I seemed to be noticing smells a lot more these days, and to have such lovely smells around me, to be able to make them a part of me without eliciting odd looks from people, was another new pleasure.
In the privacy of the bathroom I was able to explore my new body in a way that would have been too embarrassing in the orphanage showers. I loved the way I looked, and although it had taken a little getting used to, I decided I was happier with the way I looked and felt between my legs. Only time would tell and I did have the dreaded puberty to look forward to.
Carol came in after a while. I’d already washed myself thoroughly so she reached for the shower attachment and gave me hair a thorough soaking. Three thorough applications of shampoo with judicial scrubbing of the scalp were followed by a final splash of conditioner. I stood up and was wrapped in an immense towel. I was dried, powdered and helped into my nightie. I gave Carol some odd looks during all of this and eventually she asked what was the matter.
“They told us to do our own washing and getting ready for bed in the orphanage. It was never as much fun as this.”
Carol smiled at me and led me through to my bedroom where I was plonked in front of a mirror and for the next fifteen minute my hair was brushed, combed, teased and dried until it hung down my back like a cascade of gold.
“You have such lovely hair,” Carol mused looking at my reflection. “I think you’re going to be fighting the guys off with a stick before you’re much older.”
“Oh I don’t think I’m ready for boys just yet,” I said it with such a serious expression that Carol couldn’t help smiling.
“You just keep thinking like that young lady.” She straightened up and pushed me toward my bed, lifting the covers out of the way and tucking me in as I snuggled down.
“I wondered if you would do something for me.” I looked back at her waiting. “Where’s that book you were reading today?”
“Oh, I put it back in the bookcase. You have to look after books.”
She gave me one of her astonished looks. “Wait right there.” She said and ducked out of the room for a couple of minutes before coming back with book in hand. “You know when you’re in the middle of reading a book, it’s quite alright to keep it on your bedside table till you’re done. Now where’s your bookmark?”
“I don’t have one, but I’m on page one hundred and fifty six.”
Another odd look then she handed me the book. “Would you mind reading out loud for me? Just start where you are in the book.”
So for half an hour I read out loud to her. I’d already decided I wasn’t going to pretend to struggle with long and complicated words. It was all too easy to be caught in a lie and I wanted to be as honest with these folk as I could afford to be.
Carol stared at me with an inscrutable expression on her face as I read and when I reached the end of the chapter she told me to memorise the page and put the book down.
She kissed me on the forehead and turned out the lights. “Tomorrow we’re going to the library,” she told me, “then maybe to one or two book shops.”
The next fortnight was as wonderful as my two weeks in the orphanage had been horrible. I’d sit on the sofa with David after my bath some evenings, and soon got used to snuggling up to him. I kept reading to Carol, and she agreed to my starting a new book that we would reserve for those times so that we could both enjoy the story, and sometimes she would read to me for a change. I helped around the house, though I was still too small to do much more than some light dusting and a bit of assisted cookery standing on a stool if Carol wasn’t too busy. Sometime in the middle of it we made a few shopping expeditions and before long my closet was bulging with delightfully girly clothes. Naturally I preferred skirts and dresses, but I did buy a few pairs of shorts and trousers fill out my options. David brought home a few toys for me and my bed filled up with dolls and cuddly plush animals, all of which had to be moved to their night time positions before I could be tucked up. It wasn’t long before he twigged to the fact that I didn’t particularly want to play with a dolls house or a tea set, but preferred to draw and read.
By the end of the second week I had decided something and after we’d had our usual evening meal, with me being unusually quiet for a change, I asked if I could say something. David and Carol sat put down the plates that they had started to clear and sat back down giving me their full attention.
It took me a while to pluck up the courage, but they were patient and gave me time. When it came, it kind of spurted out in a hurry. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I was wondering if you’d mind if I called you mummy and daddy.”
It wasn’t exactly as I’d wanted to say it but at least it was said now. The silence hung for a while and eventually I lifted my eyes from the table to look at two tear streaked faces. I jumped off my chair and ran to them both. My arms weren’t big enough to hug them both, but I didn’t need to as they scooped me up between them.
“If you change your mind on this, it’s okay,” David was saying. “What’s important is that you feel comfortable saying it. You may think you’re ready now, and nothing would delight us more than if it were true, but if you decide that this was too soon after all we’ll take a step back and wait till you are ready.”
I buried my head in his chest and cried I was with relief and happiness.
The weekend went quicker than I expected, and all of a sudden it was Monday morning and I was standing in front of my mirror wearing white blouse over a drab grey skirt with white ankle socks and Mary Jane shoes. My hair was brushed and shining, held back by a plane blue hairband and I was looking worried and nervous again.
Mum came and collected me then shooed me out the door, handing me a small satchel with my lunchbox in it as we went.
The school was just around the corner so we walked down together. At this rate we were going to be early and I wasn’t sure I was ready.
As it was, this wasn’t going to be a normal school day anyway. Mum came into the school with me and marched me up to the front desk. The receptionist was on a phone call so raised a hand for a moment until she had finished speaking then turned to us with a smile.
“Carol Farrow, and this is my daughter Alice.” You have no idea how good it felt to be called someone’s daughter. I didn’t realise how much I missed my parent’s influence till then. “I arranged for Alice to sit some aptitude tests before she settles into the school.”
“Yes of course. If you’d like to sit over there I’ll find someone to come and take care of you.”
A few short toe tapping minutes later and a large and rather jolly lady walked up to us with her hand held out.
“Janice Fitzgerald,” she introduced herself to Mum before crouching down to look at me. “And you must be Alice. You know I think you’re going to like it here.”
I gave her a nervous smile. This was all too different.
“OKAY, you’re mummy thinks it would be worthwhile doing some basic tests with you to see how good you are at literacy and numeracy. That’s reading, writing and sums. Do you think you’d like to do that?”
I shrugged and nodded. I didn’t plan on giving this person too easy a time of it.
She led me into an empty classroom and had me sit at a desk with some papers on it. These were standard literacy and numeracy tests for seven year old and I think would have insulted me had I not had the advantage of an early life. Mrs Fitzgerald deep in conversation with Mum – something about how she shouldn’t be too disappointed if I didn’t show up as special. I didn’t wait for permission but picked up a pen and started writing.
Five minutes later I walked up to Mrs Fitzgerald who was still prattling on to Mum and tugged at her jacket.
“Oh sorry Alice, I got carried away there for a moment. You can start if you like.”
“Actually I’ve finished miss, they were kind of easy.” I handed over the papers to Mr Fitzgerald and waited for her to close her mouth.
I’ll give her credit for what she did next though. She sat down at her desk and skimmed through my work enough to realise that I meant what I had said, then she stood and walked over to a filing cabinet marked year 3 and passed them to me before turning to Mum and saying, “I think I may owe you both an apology. Let’s see how she gets on with these.”
Another five minutes and another easy set of papers were handed in fore marking. The year six papers that followed took me ten minutes to complete, but that’s because a few of the questions demanded more wordy answers.
“Well it seems that we’re going to have to come up with a special timetable for you Alice. You are considerably brighter than most children your age.” She turned to Mum. “I would still say it’s important that she socialise with children her own age, and there are a number of activities that she will be able to join in with the rest of the class in equal terms. For the areas where she shows high aptitude it would be good to mix some more challenging work with having her help her classmates,” again she turned to me, “if that’s something you think you might like to do?”
I was beginning to like Mrs Fitzgerald so I smiled and nodded.
Mrs F talked to Mum for another half hour while I browsed the classroom, eventually picking up a copy of the Hobbit and sitting back down to read. They were discussing how I should be integrated into the school and what I should do for the rest of the day. I was interested in the outcome but knew better than to expect them to ask my opinion. Bilbo was tricking the trolls by the time they finished their chat just as the bell went for break time.
Mrs F led us out to where boys and girls were running around after footballs, climbing monkey bars and doing any one of a hundred other things. One little girl was sitting in the shade on her own looking sad. Mrs F had an idea and led us over to her.
“Alice I’d like you to meet Megan Sanders. She’s going to be in your class here and I think you could be very good for each other. Megan, this is Alice Farrow. She’s just joining us at Aylward and will need a friend to help her settle in and I’d like you to help her. Is that alright with you?”
Megan nodded and stood up offering her hand. I took it and shook it with as dazzling a smile as I could manage. The ghost of a return smile formed in the corner of her mouth and she said, “Come on. Let me show you around.”
I waved goodbye to my Mum and headed off into the playground with my new best friend.