Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Fairies and foul play

Here to mark Midsummer's Day is a little story I did for a packager who wanted it overnight before Bologna a few years back. The packager absolutely hated it, but the reasons she gave only made me like it all the more. When you write something in such a rush, you tend to be more unshakable in your confidence than when it's a piece you've agonized over for days or weeks.

Ostensibly it's nothing to do with the Year of Wonders, but I wonder... When the green comet's tail brushes Earth's atmosphere, everything that lives in the collective toybox of the imagination should be on the loose, so why not this mash-up between the worlds of Kenneth Grahame and Jack Vance?

The story is dedicated to my god-daughter, budding game designer Eliza Wallis, who is quite a fan of Noggin the Nog too, and therefore no stranger to a bit of gall and wormwood in among the peonies. Read it to your own kids if you don't mind them growing up a little strange - though no guarantees.
A Midsummer Night's Moustery

It was the kind of night in early summer when the moon gets as thin as an old penny and the stars are as bright as sparklers.

Homer the cottage mouse was just turning to the last page of his book when it came into his head that a piece of cheese would go down nicely.

Once he’d thought of it, he couldn’t read a word. Nothing would do until he got himself that bit of cheese. Homer banked up the fire, put the guard in front of the grate, and locked his front door – which was a little loose knot in the wainscoting.

As he set out across the kitchen floor, he saw that the fridge door was open. The light was on inside and he could hear somebody moving about. Inside the fridge!

Homer looked up to his favourite shelf, the one where the cheese was kept. When he saw who was there, he gave a little gasp of surprise.

“What are you doing?”

Virgil the field mouse gave a start and almost fell into the blancmange on the shelf below. He turned around holding a wedge of cheese almost as big as he was.

“Help me cut this cheese in two,” said Virgil, nimbly climbing down to where Homer was standing.

“Why?” Homer wanted to know. But he did it anyway. He always did what Virgil told him.

Virgil handed half the cheese to Homer. “Come on, we have to hurry.”

Homer followed Virgil outside and across the lawn. The grass had been cut recently, but even so it was hard to keep up with Virgil. He was so excited, he kept breaking into a run.

“Where are we going?” said Homer as they got to the field at the end of the garden. But all Virgil would say was that it was a surprise.

The corn stalks were so fat and stiff that it was like travelling through a forest of walking sticks. Homer, who rarely took much more exercise than a stroll to the larder, was soon out of breath. He was very glad when Virgil slowed down to tear a leaf off a dock plant.

Virgil gave half the leaf to Homer. “Tie it round the cheese.”

Soon they each had a little parcel of cheese, wrapped in a dock leaf and tied with a couple of blades of grass. Homer was a little disappointed. He had hoped the surprise involved having a bite of that cheese. It smelled so good!

“Perfect,” said Virgil. “Now we’ve each got a present.”

“A present?” said Homer, quite bewildered by now.

“Yes,” said Virgil. “A wedding present.” And he pushed aside the stalks of corn.

There, in a wide clearing in the middle of the field, stood the old fairy tree. It was glittering with lights of all colours. Troops of pixies, goblins, imps and sprites were coming from far and wide. There was music drifting through the warm night air, and the sounds of laughter from inside the tree told of a party in full swing.

But best of all, there were the most delicious smells of cooking. Pastries baking and parsnips roasting. Dumplings steaming. Pancakes frying. And sherbets and jellies and sugar-sprinkled cakes wafting such a sweet aroma that it was hard not to just bolt inside and scoff the lot.

The wedding banquet was all ready for the guests to tuck in. And they were invited!

* * *

Princess Thissaly was in her bed chamber near the top of the tree. She had just climbed out of a scented bath and was gazing out over the cornfield with a dreamy look in her eyes, taking no notice of the bustle all around her.

Some of her maids patted her dry with soft white towels. Other maids were laying out her bridal gown, brushing her long golden hair, sprinkling fairy dust on her skirts, and making cooing noises like a gaggle of pigeons.

Thissaly’s mother, Queen Araminta, had once been the most beautiful woman in Fairyland, so you can bet she had plenty to say about fashions, make-up and perfume.

“I think the essence of jasmine, dear,” she said, spraying her daughter from a gilded glass bottle. “Oh, how lovely you are! The prince will think a painting has come to life! He will say his most wonderful dream has come true!”

Princess Thissaly was hardly listening. As the maids pulled the dress on over her head, she thought about the note she had received only hours before. It had been brought by a bumblebee who, of course, couldn’t remember what the sender had looked like. Silly muddle-headed creature!

“If I can’t have you,” the note had read, “no man will.”

Well, that was all very flattering, but in an hour Thissaly would be wed to Prince Drawlight. So much for secret admirers!

* * *

Virgil and Homer had arrived at the foot of the tree. Everybody from far and wide was invited to the wedding, and everybody was wearing their best clothes and carrying a present.

“I hope fairies like cheese,” muttered Homer, wishing that he’d had time to trim his whiskers, comb his hair, brush his jacket and maybe tie a ribbon round his tail.

“Who doesn’t like cheese?” said Virgil. “Oops, watch out.”

He tugged Homer back out of the way just as a pumpkin coach rattled past drawn by a red squirrel. They caught a glimpse of a proud-looking young fairy fellow sitting inside. He wore an expression like the last prune in a dish.

“That’s the Duke of Hoit-de-Toit,” somebody said. “He doesn’t care whose toes he runs over.”

Inside the tree, the main hall was festooned with garlands of flowers that made the air smell sweet and heady. In the middle of the hall stood a floral arch. “The happy couple will walk through that arch at the end of the ceremony,” a pixie waiter said, handing them each a glass of rosehip punch.

“What lovely big presents you’ve brought,” said a pretty, dark-eyed fairy.

“Just a couple of things I pinched earlier,” piped up Virgil as she cast him a mischievous smile over her shoulder.

He nudged Homer in the ribs. “Don’t look so disapproving. Fairies like a dash of roguery, you know.”

“You don’t have to make us sound like a couple of gangsters, though!” grumbled Homer. He was a respectable mouse and he wanted people to know it.

* * *

Having greeted all the guests in person, Prince Drawlight was pacing up and down the fairy garden that filled the treetop. He felt quite queasy now that his wedding was less than an hour away.

“It’s odd,” he said to his best man, Spattershaw, “I feel like I had butterflies for lunch. I didn’t, did I?”

“It’s just your nerves,” said Spattershaw, looking at his pocket watch – which was the size, to you and me, of a sequin. “Once you’ve got the vows out of the way, slipped the ring on her finger, and planted a kiss on those sweet, strawberry lips – why, then you’ll be fine.”

“Oh, but then there’s my speech!” groaned the prince. “And King Usk will want to shake hands – he’s got a grip like a bad-tempered badger. And – oh no, Spattershaw! I’ll have to kiss my new mother-in-law!”

Spattershaw nodded grimly, as if to admit that was good cause to be nervous.

Prince Drawlight was patting his waistcoat pocket for the umpteenth time. Suddenly he stopped short, gave a croak of dismay, and went as white as a dandelion in the moonlight.

“Indigestion?” asked Spattershaw.

“Worse,” said Drawlight in a tiny, dismayed voice. “I’ve lost the ring!”

* * *

There were so many guests crowding in from outside that Homer had to stand on tiptoe to see to the back of the room. Thissaly’s fairy godmother waited there in front of a golden altar, ready to read a few words out of a big leather book whose covers lay so floppily in her hands that it looked as if she was holding a slumbering bat.

The guests were filing to their seats. Homer and Virgil squeezed in at the end of a pew. The babble of voices dulled to an expectant murmur as the musicians stopped tuning their instruments and began to play the first bars of the wedding march. Homer saw the bridesmaids peeping down the stairs, ready to signal the princess to come down.

Then suddenly Prince Drawlight rushed into the room. He was going so fast, and waving his arms so wildly, that several people later swore that his trousers were on fire.

“Stop the ceremony!” he cried. “Bar the doors! Nobody gets out!”

A big figure at the front lumbered to his feet. Homer guessed it was King Usk himself – the jewelled crown being a dead giveaway. Queen Araminta burst into tears. The King growled in a voice like a ton of gravel in a cement mixer: “What the deuce is going on, Drawlight?”

“There’s a thief among us,” shouted Prince Drawlight. “And he’s stolen the ring!”

Instantly there was uproar.

“Quiet!” said King Usk.

That got their attention. You could hear a pin drop.

A dark-eyed fairy in a slinky black dress stood up. “Your majesty,” she said in a loud, clear voice. “I know who stole the ring.”

“Well? Out with it,” thundered King Usk.

She turned. Homer shrank down in his seat and wished he could turn invisible as she pointed her finger straight at Virgil beside him.

“That’s him, the field mouse,” she said. “He was boasting to me about how he thieves for a living.”

Virgil opened his mouth to protest that he was innocent, that he wasn’t a thief. And even when he took the occasional crumb of cheese, which was pretty rarely, he usually made up for it by running little errands.

He was going to say that he was a law-abiding kind of mouse really. That, yes, he had taken the cheese from someone’s fridge. But the fridge practically belonged to his very good friend Homer, who was now sitting right beside him, and who would certainly vouch for him as a mouse of the most honest character.

And he was going to say that he most definitely had not taken the ring. He never saw the ring. He didn’t know what it looked like. And in any case, he had no use for rings – even though he was sure it was a very nice ring – and that wouldn’t they do better by looking for a jackdaw or magpie to pin the blame on?

But he didn’t say any of those things. His mouth just hung open and he looked at the terrifyingly fierce expression on King Usk’s face, and all the accusing faces staring at him, and all he said was:

“I’m stuffed, aren’t I?”

* * *

Virgil was carted off to a dungeon built into a big split gall on the side of the tree trunk. His gaoler looked like the kind of fairy who pushes maggots into apples and writes rude graffiti in the dew on bedroom windows.

“I used to be a tooth fairy,” said the gaoler, “but then they found me knocking children’s teeth out while they slept in order to meet my monthly quota. It all got a bit nasty. So now I keep criminals like you under lock and key.” He gave Virgil a look that mice usually only see on the faces of cats.

“What will happen to me if I’m found guilty?” asked Virgil, holding onto the bars of his cell.

The gaoler looked puzzled. “What do you mean, found guilty?”

“You know,” said Virgil. “At my trial.”

“What’s a trial?” said the gaoler.

“Oh dear,” said Virgil, “I’m getting a nasty feeling about fairy justice – mainly that there isn’t any. So what’s the penalty for theft?”

“Hanging or tickling.”

Virgil gave a sigh of relief. “Phew. I’ll go for tickling then. It doesn’t sound too bad.”

The gaoler pointed to a huge steel axe hanging on the wall. The blade looked sharp enough to open a knight’s armour like a can of sardines. “That’s ‘Tickler’.”

Virgil gave a gulp. “Oh dear, I am in a pickle. And a pickle with no cheese!”

Talking of cheese, at that moment Homer came down the dungeon steps carrying his parcel under his arm. “I just came to give this to the prisoner,” he said, holding the parcel between the bars of the cell. “I thought you might be peckish, Virgil.”

“Oh no, you don’t,” said the gaoler, pushing the parcel of cheese back into Homer’s hands. “I’m wise to those tricks. I’ll bet you put a hacksaw inside it so he can cut his way out.”

“What a good idea,” Homer whispered to Virgil when the gaoler turned away. “I wish I’d thought of it.”

“Listen, Homer,” said Virgil urgently. “You’ve got to get me out of here. At sunrise they’re going to see if I’m ticklish. Particularly around the neck.” He pointed at the axe.

“I’ll help any way I can,” said Homer. “But what can I do?”

“You’ve got to catch the real thief, Homer. It’s the only way to clear my name.”

* * *

Homer decided the best place to start would be with people who might have witnessed the crime. So he talked to Spattershaw, the prince’s best man.

“Come to think of it, I did see a suspicious sort of character in the garden,” said Spattershaw. “That was just before Drawlight noticed the ring was missing.”

“Suspicious? Male or female? What were they doing?” asked Homer.

“Yes. Dunno. Loitering,” said Spattershaw.

“You don’t know if they were male or female?” cried Homer. “Can you remember anything about them?”

Spattershaw nodded. “A tall head cosy.”

Homer blinked in astonishment. “A what?”

“Like a tea cosy upon the brow. A crown of woven locks. A nest for the pate. You know…”

“A wig!” realized Homer, remembering that fairies love riddles. “What colour?”

“Dawn herald, dusk glimmer, hue of blown cinders…” said Spattershaw. But Homer was already off to interview his next witness.

“Did you see a fairy in a tall red wig?” Homer asked a footman on the stairs.

“I can’t leave my post,” said the footman, staring straight ahead as if he was carved of wax. “But I did see somebody bustle past towards the kitchens.”

In the kitchens, Homer could get no sense out of the cook, who was shouting furiously about a missing cake. But a small serving girl told him that she saw a figure in a red wig wrap something before dashing out.

“Wrap it in what?” said Homer.

“In petal chains. In a rope of flowers.”

“That’s easy,” said Homer. “You mean the garlands decorating the table.”

He noticed one of the garlands was missing. A trail of petals led down the stairs…

In the cellars at the roots of the tree, Homer came across an apple-cheeked little sprite who was looking at a garland of daisies.

“Did you see who dropped that?”

“I did, sir,” said the sprite.

Homer was quite taken aback, as people didn’t usually call him ‘sir’. He supposed it had something to do with being a detective. It made him feel important.

“What’s in the parcel, sir?” asked the sprite, nodding towards the cheese Homer had under his arm.

“Er… never you mind, lad,” said Homer. “Did you see what the culprit did then?”

The sprite nodded. “Hid something, it looked like.”

Homer followed his gaze to the back of the cellar. “Where?”

“In the cooper’s egg.”

“You fairy folk do love your riddles, eh?”

“I can’t say it more plainly, sir. The wooden cradle of merriment. The sloshing box. The inn-keeper’s piggy bank.”

Homer’s eyes alighted on a big shape in the shadows. “A keg of ale!”

“If you must say so, sir,” grumbled the sprite, as if Homer had just spat on the floor or eaten ice cream with a soup spoon.

Homer tipped up the keg, but all it contained was beer. The ring was not there.

* * *

Homer found the butler, a tall fairy with spindly legs and an outraged face as if someone had stuck a pin in his bottom. He asked him if anyone had taken anything from the beer keg.

“Oh yes,” said the butler, smoothing his green silk waistcoat. “A figure lurking there in the darkness, waiting till the coast was clear, I dare say.”

“A thief, perhaps?”

“Very likely,” said the butler, nodding vigorously. “They took something small and glittery from the tap of the keg. It may have been a stolen item. Now I come to think of it, possibly a ring.”

“But you didn’t think to call for the guards?”

“I was about to,” protested the butler, looking doubly indignant, “but just then the prince started shouting, so I rushed upstairs and forgot all about it.”

Homer shook his head. “And what about the thief?”

“He – or perhaps it was a she; I didn’t have my spectacles on – looked for a new place to hide whatever it was. I noticed them go to the soot door, the fire cave, the throat of sparks and ashes.”

Homer was already at the chimney. He reached up inside. Perhaps a loose brick - ?

“Use the coal tweezers,” suggested the butler.

“Hmm?” said Homer, frowning.

“The long iron fingernails!” said the butler, pointing.

“You fairies and your kenning talk,” sighed Homer. But he took the tongs, reached up the chimney, and drew down – the missing ring!

* * *

Homer gathered everybody together. When Virgil had been brought up from the dungeon, and with guards standing at all the doors, he turned to the King and Queen.

“Your majesties – here is the ring!”

Everybody gasped.

“Virgil is innocent!” added Homer.

Another gasp.

“And the real thief is in this very room!” announced Homer.

There was no gasp this time. Everybody was out of puff. But an excitable goblin cried, “Ooh!”

King Usk glared at everybody – as he always did. But when he glared at Homer it was a glare of approval. “Go on, sir mouse,” he boomed. “Catch me a thief.”

Homer lined everybody up. Every single wedding guest, with no exception. And he walked along examining their fingernails. Whoever had hidden the ring up the chimney, he reasoned, couldn’t have avoided getting soot under their nails. And it would take hours of scrubbing to get rid of it.

The only trouble was, two of the guests had sooty fingernails. The Duke of Hoit-de-Toit and a pretty little bridesmaid called Ammernaddy.

“Please, sir, that’s not soot, it’s mascara,” explained Ammernaddy.

“I admit to having a dirty nose,” said the Duke of Hoit-de-Toit vainly. “That is the only place my fingers have been.”

Homer looked from one to the other.

“Which one did it?” Virgil hissed in his ear.

Homer felt everybody staring at him. He didn’t want to get it wrong. He liked being called ‘sir mouse’. And most of all, of course, he wanted to prove his friend was innocent.

Suddenly the answer came to him. “My lord Duke of Hoit-de-Toit,” he said, “I hereby arrest you for the theft of one wedding ring, which we’ll call exhibit A. Your grace doesn’t have to say anything – and really, if it’s a riddle I’d rather you didn’t – but anything you do say will probably lead to you being severely tickled.”

The Duke started to laugh.

“You haven’t seen ‘Tickler’,” said Virgil, and the way he said it took the smile off the Duke’s face as sure as cleaning a windowpane with vinegar.

“I admit it!” shouted the Duke. “I wanted to marry Thissaly, and with the ring gone I knew her wedding to Drawlight would be called off.” He ran to a window, threw it open, and struck a dramatic pose on the sill. “But you will never catch the artful Duke of Hoit-de-Toit.”

He leapt. A moment later, there was a muddy splat and a muffled cry of disgust.

“Oops. I told the servants to clear away that cowpat before the wedding started…” said Queen Araminta.

“How did you know it was him?” Virgil asked his friend. “Was it just a guess?”

“A guess!” sputtered Homer. “Of course not! I remembered that I needed tongs to get the ring. So whoever put it up the chimney needed a long reach, and Ammernaddy is no taller than I am.”

Virgil gave a low whistle. “Well, I call that plain brilliant.”

* * *

After that, the wedding went off without a hitch – except, of course, for the two young people who got hitched. They did everything the way it’s supposed to be done. They gazed longingly into each other’s eyes, they held hands throughout the banquet, they sighed sweet nothings, and afterwards they rode off on honeymoon in a little flying boat carried by doves.

The sun was just coming up by the time the party was over. Homer looked up into the paling sky and he could have sworn he saw the dawn light glinting off the princess’s ring, far, far off up among the clouds.

Half the wedding guests had just fallen over and gone to sleep where they lay. The Queen, well oiled with rosehip punch, was the last on the dance floor, boogying for all she was worth. The poor musicians had had to prop their eyes open with toothpicks, they were so tired. The King lay flat on his back snoring, and his snores were so loud that they shook the whole tree. It sounded like somebody had taken a buzz saw to the trunk.

“Well, I’ll bid you good morning,” said Virgil as they reached his front door. He lived in an old rusty oil can half-buried in the bank at the edge of the field.

Homer was so tired that all he could do was nod. He yawned as he trudged home across the field. Just as he reached the end of the garden, he heard Virgil yelling. He turned around.

“I just wanted to say,” called Virgil, “that you’re the best pal anyone could have!” And, with a wave, he disappeared into his oil can.

Even though he’d been up all night, Homer was too excited to go straight to bed. He flopped down in his armchair and looked at the cold ashes of the fire. What an extraordinary adventure it had been. Better than a dream!

Then he saw his book beside the chair. He’d been about to finish that when Virgil showed up. He picked up the book and gave a great big yawn.

“This will put me in the mood for bed,” he told himself.

But, you know, he was so exhausted that he fell asleep without reading the last page of his book. And it was a whodunit!


  1. Very enjoyable story. The person who turned this down doesn't know a thing about entertaining people through the use of words.
    Thanks for sharing, I really enjoyed your story.


  2. I think you're right, John, as their company went out of business a month or two later! Glad you enjoyed it.