This is a story recorded by a storm in the lines of wind-dried salt left on an oilskin coat…
The day came round for the Pilgrim Woman to tell her tale and thus pay her rent. A fierce and blustery wind threw sand and rain at the walls of the old chapel. Beyond the dunes, the sea rocked restless and noisy in its bed. A grey donkey and a cow left grazing on the salt marshes and lay down in the lee of the knapped flint walls.
A servant came from the Lord-beside-the-sea’s great mansion to the empty chancel. A thin lad with hungry, darting eyes; his clothes dripped on the flagstones.
‘I’m supposed to listen to your story and report back,’ he said. ‘If you like, I can just hang round a while and then tell him it was fine. He won’t care.’
‘I’m sure he won’t – but I tell my tales to anyone who turns up. Come dry yourself by the log-burner, eat soup and listen.’
One spring, the Queen of the Smallest Realm decided she would share the story of how the realm came to be with her people. But how to do this well? Not many could read, and a dull proclamation would give little pleasure.
She decided an entertainer of some sort would be best. Someone the people would listen to. So she asked the courtiers for their recommendations.
The first name that came to most lips was Mr Charles Vestal -Thompkinson. His rich and fruity voice, with its clear consonants and luscious vowels, made everyone listen. He was a capital choice, everyone agreed. One only had to see all the splendid reviews of his acting in the city newspapers to know that.
Now the Queen of the Smallest Realm was determined to find someone reliable for this important task. They would need to visit outlying islands where perhaps only one or two souls would turn up after a long ferry ride. They would need to hold the attention of people who spoke many other languages in their homes – and most importantly, they had to inspire the young.
So she went in disguise, to see for herself.
Not knowing the city as well as her courtiers, she left plenty of time to reach the theatre where the celebrated Mr Vestal -Thompkinson was performing. It happened that she turned up early, and slipped into the gods unnoticed. The queen had very good hearing – and listened with interest to the actors waiting in the wings below.
‘Are the critics in? ‘ an opulent plummy voice asked.
‘No, Mr Charles. Not a one.’
‘Fie on them – I have a headache. You shall go on, Mr Gould. Enjoy you moment of fame.’
The queen decided there and then that Mr Vestal – Thompkinson would definitely not do. Mr Gould did well enough – but an understudy for this enterprise? She thought not.
Perhaps there was someone more suited within the court circle ? The queen made enquiries and up popped the name of Miss Vanessa. No-one used the girl’s surname – her lively speech and pretty ways had endeared so much to everyone in the capital that it was not needed.
This required a deeper disguise. The queen borrowed clothes from one of her ladies-in-waiting – or rather, from her servant. Once dressed in unglamorous brown with no jewels on her neck or in her ears, the queen found herself quite invisible.
She took a job serving canapés at a soirée Miss Clarissa was to attend. Such a simple way of observing without being spotted, she hoped.
The disguised queen passed through the room with her tray. Miss Vanessa was not yet there. The tray emptied as her head filled with rumours.
Miss Vanessa was perhaps unwell.
Miss Vanessa needed to rest. She was such a busy person, poor dear
Miss Vanessa would be fashionably late.
Miss Vanessa had had a better offer. Somewhere even more glittering.
When the disguised queen went to refill her tray, she learned that last sharp remark was true. Kitchen staff always knew.
So that was another name off her list. The queen wanted the story of the realm to be shared in the lowliest of places as well as the grandest.
She tried many, many entertainers, raconteurs, artistes, – anyone in fact who was famous. By autumn, she had all but given up, and begun to start wondering if she should go herself, when she overheard two children discussing a puppet show.
‘I so wish I could go again but my ma won’t see it twice.’
‘Go on your own? It’s half-price for kids.’
‘Ma won’t let me down by the docks now it’s dark of an evening.’
‘Fair dos – Langrish’s Yard is a bit rough.’
The queen went looking for the puppeteer – without her finery. She found some rough posters in the narrow streets by the old river. As she read them and worked out which way to go, the weather changed for the worse. Rain bounced out of the gutters and tumbled onto the cobbles. Her clothes were soon dripping.
Still, she found the little grubby square where the puppeteer had set up. A boy stood in front of the curtains. Other handcarts trundled away from the dark and the wet. One man shouted over his shoulder.
‘It’s not going to get any better. Why bother for only one kid – and half-price at that?’
The puppeteer called out: ‘I do it for love, not money!’ then she whispered just loud enough for the queen’s excellent hearing – ‘which is just as well.’
The show began. Under a small striped awning, the boy laughed and clapped and watched fascinated. And despite the downpour, and despite the dripping of her clothes, the queen fell under the spell too. The boy’s face was enough – she had found the one she would send.
This story is dedicated to Harrison.