A Story In The Afternoon

Now this is an afternoon that wasn’t supposed to be. The sort of thing that’s against the law these days. Who knows anymore. An unplanned guest, a friendly chat, remember those? That’s what passes for transgression these days.

But a sudden snow storm had swept in, erased, in that way it does, those boundaries of road and pavement, of garden and driveway, and taking both refuge and advantage, my sister, frazzled and frozen, too cold to remain outside, yet too far from home to return to her own little chamber of locked down solitude, had popped in through the door, kids in tow, everyone red cheeked with the cold, with a flush of embarrassment, that slight exhilaration of the newly forbidden.

A commotion, alright, the likes I haven’t seen since, well, since the last time they were here. Doesn’t that seem a long time ago now. Doesn’t everything? Shoes everywhere, scarves hanging from the bannisters like tinsel, mud and melting snow. And some tears, too, of course, but we’ll let those slide. They don’t stain the carpets at least.

So now my sister’s downstairs, warming her hands round a mug of tea, overseeing the baby still asleep in his pram. The turkey’s in the oven, too, a quick, elicit Christmas, in case we don’t get the chance for a real one.

And I want to be down there with her – luxuriating in that strange rarity, company, and chatting, not just in real life, but in real time, for once, instead of that half beat apart way we’ve all become accustomed to, zoom delays, connections dropped.

But instead I’ve been dragged upstairs by my niece, who’s fearless, forceful, and overcome, as always, only by curiosity. She wants to see everything, know everything, touch everything, it’s almost too much for her to take in. There’s a look in her eyes of such wonderment it’s as if she’s been brought to Aladdin’s cave, rather than this drab suburban house, long gone grey with loneliness.

Right now, this instant, she’s looking at all the things on my shelves. Not so much the books – although she likes to run her hands along the shelves and push any that are pulled out to the front back as far as they’ll go – but the assorted other ephemera that has accumulated there. Keys, coins, pens. Badges, watches, postcards, rocks. Plastic dinosaurs, origami birds, a moomin, a pikachu. A rook, a king, a queen, all clearly from different sets, and two bags of go stones, one lot bone white, the other as blue as the sea.

And, on the last shelf, best of all, those little creatures we’d made together out of plasticine and pipecleaners the last time she was here, and which were now all fuzzed with the accumulated dust of the best part of a year.

She’s forgotten she’d even made this strange cast of characters, and now on their re-discovery is giving them all new names, one by one – Berri, Captain Cat, Baby Jack, The Dragon Who Is On My Side, The Cyclops, David, Berri 2, Berri 3, Berri 4.

It wasn’t even that long ago, really. But nine months ago is a long time when you’re 4 – and here I would have said, once upon a time, “but not so much when you’re 41”, but oh my don’t those pre-lockdown weeks of February seem like some lost and distant land, our lives then locked now forever in sepia-tinged portrait, smiling stiffly, dressed archaically, innocent and naive in some half-shameful way as we look out from the past.

On the top shelf I’ve got a framed print from a book of fairy tale illustrations. It’s so high up my niece can’t see it properly, and she asks me, now, ever so politely, to take it down and show it to her. She can tell it’s, if not expensive, at least precious in some way. The irresistible allure of the easily breakable artefact.

“Who’s that, David?” she asks, pointing to the girl in the picture.

“It’s Little Red Riding Hood.”

“And what’s that?”

“It’s the wolf.”

“He looks so grumpy!”

She takes the picture from me so she can get a closer look at him.

“Well, he is a bit,” I say. “You must have heard of Red Riding Hood before?”

She shakes her head firmly.

“Is she one of your friends?”

I laugh at this, which elicits only from her a forceful stare, demanding an immediate explanation.

“It’s an old fairy tale. Like, I don’t know, Snow White or something. Have you seen Snow White?”

She nods her head.

“The prince had such a silly voice,” she tells me. “We couldn’t stop laughing when he started singing. It was so funny!”

She pauses for a moment, as her eyes are drawn back to the picture in her hands.

“I want to hear about Red Hiding Hood. Can you tell me the story, David? Can you tell me all about her?”

“Okay. But it’s a bit gruesome, you might not like it.”

“Grooosome,” she repeats, with that perfect child’s mimicry of the new and unheard. “What’s grooosome?”

“It means it’s… It means it isn’t very nice.”

“Well make it nice, then, David. I want a nice story.” That stare again. “Not a grooosome one.”

“Alright then.”

I pause, dramatically.

”So, it goes like this…”

***

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, right out in the woods somewhere, there lived a little girl, who was just the sweetest, kindest child in the world. Wherever she went, she always wore her bright red coat, because it was her favourite coat (and her only coat), and she always pulled the hood up, even when it wasn’t snowing, so her ears wouldn’t get cold.

She really hated getting cold ears. That was even worse than getting cold cheeks.

Every Sunday morning, when she woke up, she’d bake a whole tray of cupcakes and cookies, and then after lunch, when they’d cooled down enough to touch, she’d pack them into her little picnic basket and take them round to her grandmother’s house for afternoon tea.

Now, like I said, Little Red Riding Hood (which was what everyone called her), lived out in the woods, but her granny lived in the forest. Right out there in the deepest, darkest, furthest away place she could. It was the middle of winter, and there was snow on the ground, and it was so cold the air felt like it was ice, and the sun was so low in the sky it might as well not have risen at all. It was that bleak.

Not that this deterred Little Red Riding Hood, of course. She went out to her grandmother’s house with her cakes, just like she did every weekend, because she wasn’t merely the sweetest girl in the world, she was the bravest, too. She wasn’t about to let a little thing like a blizzard stop her from going to Granny’s house. Especially not on Christmas Day!

But with every step up the path, the air got colder, and the snow got deeper. The trees grew taller, and thicker, and they loomed so close together that it slowly became darker, and darker, and darker still, until at last it was so dark you’d have thought it was the dead of night.

But then, just when you might think it was too dark to go o, there would be a little red glow on the path ahead, and then another, as a series of little lanterns laid out especially for Little Red Riding Hood lit up the path all the way to Granny’s front door.

Little Red Riding Hood knocked on the door, but there was no answer. She knocked, and knocked again, and there was still no answer. But then the door swung open with a creak and Little Red Riding Hood stepped inside.

Now, she was such a good girl she remembered to take off her snowy, muddy, little red boots off by the door, and while she did she called out into the cold gloominess of granny’s house, “Oh Granny, oh Granny, I’m here, I’m here.”

There was no answer, so Little Red Riding Hood crept down the hall, and she pushed open the door to the living room, and said, “Oh Granny, oh Granny, where are you, are you here?” but the room was dark as dusk, and just as cold, and there was no answer from in there. No answer at all.

Then she pushed open the door to the kitchen, which was as dark as night, and twice as cold, and called out, “Oh Granny, oh Granny, where are you, are you here?” but there was no answer there, either.

Finally, she pushed open the door to Granny’s bedroom. It was blacker than space, and three times as cold, but this time, when she called out, “Oh Granny, oh Granny, oh where are you, are you here?” a voice growled back.

“I’m in here, my dear, waiting, waiting, waiting for you.”

“What are you doing in there, Granny?” Little Red Riding Hood asked, as she stepped over to the bedside and into the shadows. “It might be dark and cold, but it’s not yet time for bed.”

“I’m just having a little rest, my dear,. While I’m waiting, waiting, waiting for you.”

Little Red Riding Hood reached out in the dark, and put her hand on granny’s shoulder, and kissed her on the cheek, or where she thought her cheek would be, there in the dark, where she couldn’t see a thing.

“Oh Granny, you’re so furry!” Little Red Riding Hood laughed. “Why are you wearing your big winter coat and that nice thick furry scarf of yours when you’re all tucked up in bed?”

“I’m just keeping warm, my dear. While I’m waiting, waiting, waiting just for you.”

Granny rolled over, and looked up at Little Red Riding Hood, her eyes as big and bright and red as those lanterns she’d left on the path.

“Oh, Granny, what big eyes you have!” said Little Red Riding Hood, with a sly little smile.

“All the better for seeing you with, my dear.”

“And Granny, what a big wet nose you’ve got!”

“All the better for smelling my dinner with!”

“And oh Granny, what a big wide mouth you’ve got, with such big long sharp snapping teeth!”

“All the better,” said the wolf, as he leapt out of bed and revealed himself, “For eating all your cupcakes with!”

“Oh Mr Wolf, what a waggly tail you’ve got,” Little Red Riding Hood laughed, as he pushed his snout into the picnic basket and snaffled up all the treats with his long hungry tongue.

Well, not quite all the treats. Little Red Riding Hood made sure she kept one safe for when Granny got out of the bath. She loved her baths, did old Granny.

***

“Cupcakes!?” my niece snorts derisively. “Wolfs don’t eat cupcakes, David.”

“They might,” I say. I don’t sound especially convincing. I never do.

“Wolfs eat meat, David.” She looks at the picture again, then back at me. “Was that the real story?”

“Well, it’s a story,” I tell her.

“Did you make it up?”

“Well, yeah,” I laugh. “Bits of it anyway. You told me to, remember.”

“But I don’t want a made up story, David. I want the real story.”

“You told me to make it nice. So I made it nice.”

“Well I want you to tell me the real story now,” she says, looking not at me but at the picture in her hands. She traces her fingers across the glass, letting them slide along the lines of her body, the contours of his mouth. “The one where the wolf eats meat.”

She turns and looks up at me. Looks straight into my eyes.

“I want you to make it as gruesome as can be.”

__________

Notes:

1. This is a re-written version of Tale #101: A Story In The Afternoon
2. So per the information there, this was”Written on and off over the last two years or so, but primarily in June and December 2019″.
3. And then re-written once more in October 2020.
4. For submitting somewhere else
5. (It was not a success)

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