Once Upon a Time… – A short story

Everyone knows someone who has a child that will not go to sleep.

You can set the bedtime at whatever early hour you like, but by the time they actually fall asleep, there have been two or three hours of up and down, in and out of bed, and at least one episode of a scary master lurking under the bed, or, worse, outside the window.

After exhausting every method of achieving a result and failing, I thought I’d try reading.

The first book I picked up was, yes, you guessed it, about monsters. In fact, nearly every book for kids was about monsters, witches, ogres, dragons, and vampires.

I put them back and sighed. I would have to come up with a story of my own.

It started with, “Once upon a time…”

“But that,” May said, “only applies to fairy tales.”

“Well, this is going to be a fairy tale of sorts. Minus the fire breathing dragons, and nasty trolls under drawbridges.”

“It’s not going to be much of a story, then. In fairy tales, there’s always a knight who slays the dragon and rides off with the princess.”

This was going to be a tough ask. I thought of going back to the book pile, but, then, I could do this.

“So,” I began again, “Once upon a time there was a princess, who lived in a castle with her father, the king, her mother, the queen, and her brother, the steadfast and trusty knight in shining armor.”

“Why is their armor always shining?”

I was going to tell her to save the questions until after the story, by which time I had hoped I’d bored her enough to choose sleep over criticism. I was wrong.

“Because a knight always has to have shiny armor, otherwise the king would be disappointed.”

“Does the knight spend all night shining his armor?”

“No. He has an apprentice who cleans the armor, and attends to anything else the knight needs.”

“And then he becomes a knight?”

“In good time. The apprentice is usually a boy of about 11 or 12 years old. First, he learns what it means to be a knight, then he has to do years of training until he comes of age.” I saw the question coming, and got in first, “When he is about 21 years old.”

She looked at me, and that meant I had to continue the story.

“The princess was very lucky and lived a very different life than her subjects, except she wished she had their freedom to play, and do ordinary things like cooking, or collecting food from the markets. Because she was a princess, she had to stay in the castle, and spend most of her time learning how to be a princess, and a queen, because when it was time, she would marry a prince who would become a king.”

“Doesn’t sound too lucky to me, being stuck as home. I like the idea of getting somebody to do everything for me though. She does have maids, doesn’t she?”

“Yes. And, you’re right, she has everything done for her, including getting dressed. A maid to clean, a maid to dress her, a maid to bring her snacks. And it was these maids she envied.”

Maybe I should not make the story too interesting, or she’ll never go to sleep.

“Well, one day, she decided to change places with one of her maids. They were almost identical and when they exchanged clothes, the other maids could not tell they had changed places. At the end of the day, when the maids went home, the princess headed to the house where the maid she had taken the place of.

It was very different from the castle, and the room she had in the castle. The mother was at him, cooking the food for the evening meal, and it was nothing like what she usually had. A sort of soup with scraps of meat in it. There was a loaf of bread on the table. The father came home after working all day in the fields, very tired. They ate and then went to bed. Her bed was straw and a piece of cloth that hardly covered her. At least, by the fire, it was warm. It didn’t do anything for the pangs of hunger because there had barely been enough for all of them.

The next morning she returned to the castle and changed places back again. When the maid she changed places with asked about her experience of how it was like in their life, the princess said she was surprised. She had never been told about how the people who served the king lived, and she had assumed that they were well looked after. Now she had experienced what it was like to be a subject, she was going to investigate it further.

After all, she told the maid, I have to have all the facts if I’m going to approach the king.

And she thought to herself, a lot more courage than she had.

But, instead of lessons today, she was going to demand to be taken on a tour outside the castle and to see the people.

“This sounds like it’s not going to have a happy ending.”

No, I thought. Maybe I’ll get the dragon that her brother failed to slay to eat her.

“It will. Patience. But that’s enough for tonight. If you want to know what happens, you’ll have to go to sleep and then, tomorrow night, the story continues.”

I tucked her in, turned down the night light so it was only a glow, just enough to see where I was going, and left.

If I was lucky she would go to sleep. The only problem was, I had to come up with more of the story.

Outside the door, her mother, Christine, was smiling. “Since when did you become an expert on Princesses?”

“When I married one.”

—-

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

No stone unturned… – A short story

Mondays were usually a slow day to start the week, a brief few hours after the storm the was every Friday. Some chose to come in late, others gathered on arrival to have a team debriefing.

Our department chose to have a debriefing, and it was my job to analyze all the data and turn it into a graphical representation that basically said the business was heading in the right direction – up.

But, this Monday morning, the circumstances were slightly different.

The head of the company had personally sent both an email and a memo to every employee, an event that had never happened before.

In fact, for most of us, it was an eye-opening discovery, one where had the company not become engulfed in a scandal of international proportions, his identity might have remained a secret.

Not that it mattered to the 15,000 odd people who worked for the company, because the bottom line was that it would not affect us, or our employment.  Well, that was the message the email and the memo was primarily about.

Was it too little too late?

The problem was that the morning’s paper’s headlines screamed scandal in large letters and then went on to describe how the company was basically a front for laundering money associated with various criminal activities. It stopped short of accusing the company’s upper management of being criminals, but it was clear, reading between the lines, they had to know something was wrong.

I walked into the meeting room where all of the Department’s staff were seated, talking among themselves, that dying down the moment I closed the door behind me. On the desk in front of each was one of the three morning papers, all with basically the same story.

I didn’t bring a paper in with me, nor a copy of the email, or the memo. I was hoping the meeting was not going to be about the scandal.

I was wrong.

It was one of those companies where everyone knew everyone. I knew everyone in the room, and regarded most as friends as well as workmates. The company promoted from within and on merit, and with this, I had the respect of everyone who worked under me.

I could see by the mood, and looks of expectation, that trust was going to be tested.

“I suspect that everyone has seen the news, and hopefully read both missives from management regarding the situation the company finds itself.”

That was met with a murmur of agreement.

“It was also, for some, a surprise.”

For others, it was not. Our department was basically in place to ensure that all transactions were conducted properly and that clients’ accounts were managed within the guidelines set by the company, and the various government institutions responsible for financial affairs.

Several of the senior officers had come to me with what they regarded as anomalies, and I have given them the authority to investigate. It was also within my remit to advise the relevant government authority. Most of the anomalies had simply been oversights by the account manager, except for one, which as far as I was aware, had been cleared.

Or not.

“Can we safely assume that Wally Anderson’s somewhat abrupt was not as described?”

Wally Anderson’s abrupt departure had been described to me in a one-line email, ‘taking some personal time to work through some family issues’. In the week leading up to his departure he had become increasingly agitated, and one call one of the others had taken in his absence was from a reporter.

It was one of his accounts that remained doubtful, until shortly after he left when an external investigator was brought in.

But I had a difficult line to walk, trying to placate both sides of the spectrum and management, and as a leader. Respect could be won or lost in a matter of words.

“That might or might not be the case, but the odds are, given what we’re reading, that there may be room for doubt. However, despite what we may conclude, or deduce, it is better for all of us to keep an open mind. I suspect, at some point, again based on what I read, we might be approached by the police or representatives of a number of regulatory organizations for information.”

It was as far as I got.

The side door swung open, and my superior, the Chief Accountant, strode in, along with the mystery man who was, the papers said, the Owner, followed by the harried personal assistant.

“Mr. Nelson…”

The Chief Accountant stood front and center to the group. I thought it wise to stand off to one side, the opposite, in fact, the Owner, now standing just inside the door, next to his PA who was quietly talking into her cell phone.

“I’ll take over from here, Max.”

He switched his attention back to the group and took a few seconds to run his eye over all over them, almost as if he was looking for someone or something.

“I have spent the last 48 hours in rather tedious discussions with the regulators who insist that they received information about the Ridley investigation. Unfortunately, without consulting the company, he took part of the results of the investigation to them. Was anyone here aware of his actions?”

Another eye cast over the group, and, in the end, a glance at me.

I felt responsible to answer for the group.

“Investigations are conducted by individuals, and as far as I was concerned, the Ridley investigation was his. As equally that after he departed, that investigation was completed and cleared. Are you intimating that it wasn’t?”

I knew as much about it as the others.

“It was, until someone else reopened it, and reported it. We believe it was someone in this room.”

“That’s not possible,” I said. “I have oversight of all the officers in this room, and the ability to monitor everything they do and everything they look at. You know the security protocols in place in the software itself.”

“An investigation into the software has been implemented, and it shows that certain log files were altered so that the user log wouldn’t show who looked at the records. Someone with database experience.”

“We’re basically auditors not database managers.”

“Well, someone apparently is. Everyone is on notice. We will find out who it was, and believe me when I say we will leave no stone unturned in the process.”

An almost imperceptible not from the Owner, the harried PA was still on the cell phone, the Chief Accountant gave the group another steely look, then glared at me, said, “My office, one hour,” then left pulling the other two along in his wake.

I cast an eye over the group, picking out those whom I suspected were capable of performing such a search and destroy operation. Three.

“My door is open for anyone who might have any information, with the promise of anonymity.”

I left them with that and also left.

What should have been a quiet morning’s discussion just became a witch hunt where someone would be burnt at the stake. Whether they were guilty or not.

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

No stone unturned… – A short story

Mondays were usually a slow day to start the week, a brief few hours after the storm the was every Friday. Some chose to come in late, others gathered on arrival to have a team debriefing.

Our department chose to have a debriefing, and it was my job to analyze all the data and turn it into a graphical representation that basically said the business was heading in the right direction – up.

But, this Monday morning, the circumstances were slightly different.

The head of the company had personally sent both an email and a memo to every employee, an event that had never happened before.

In fact, for most of us, it was an eye-opening discovery, one where had the company not become engulfed in a scandal of international proportions, his identity might have remained a secret.

Not that it mattered to the 15,000 odd people who worked for the company, because the bottom line was that it would not affect us, or our employment.  Well, that was the message the email and the memo was primarily about.

Was it too little too late?

The problem was that the morning’s paper’s headlines screamed scandal in large letters and then went on to describe how the company was basically a front for laundering money associated with various criminal activities. It stopped short of accusing the company’s upper management of being criminals, but it was clear, reading between the lines, they had to know something was wrong.

I walked into the meeting room where all of the Department’s staff were seated, talking among themselves, that dying down the moment I closed the door behind me. On the desk in front of each was one of the three morning papers, all with basically the same story.

I didn’t bring a paper in with me, nor a copy of the email, or the memo. I was hoping the meeting was not going to be about the scandal.

I was wrong.

It was one of those companies where everyone knew everyone. I knew everyone in the room, and regarded most as friends as well as workmates. The company promoted from within and on merit, and with this, I had the respect of everyone who worked under me.

I could see by the mood, and looks of expectation, that trust was going to be tested.

“I suspect that everyone has seen the news, and hopefully read both missives from management regarding the situation the company finds itself.”

That was met with a murmur of agreement.

“It was also, for some, a surprise.”

For others, it was not. Our department was basically in place to ensure that all transactions were conducted properly and that clients’ accounts were managed within the guidelines set by the company, and the various government institutions responsible for financial affairs.

Several of the senior officers had come to me with what they regarded as anomalies, and I have given them the authority to investigate. It was also within my remit to advise the relevant government authority. Most of the anomalies had simply been oversights by the account manager, except for one, which as far as I was aware, had been cleared.

Or not.

“Can we safely assume that Wally Anderson’s somewhat abrupt was not as described?”

Wally Anderson’s abrupt departure had been described to me in a one-line email, ‘taking some personal time to work through some family issues’. In the week leading up to his departure he had become increasingly agitated, and one call one of the others had taken in his absence was from a reporter.

It was one of his accounts that remained doubtful, until shortly after he left when an external investigator was brought in.

But I had a difficult line to walk, trying to placate both sides of the spectrum and management, and as a leader. Respect could be won or lost in a matter of words.

“That might or might not be the case, but the odds are, given what we’re reading, that there may be room for doubt. However, despite what we may conclude, or deduce, it is better for all of us to keep an open mind. I suspect, at some point, again based on what I read, we might be approached by the police or representatives of a number of regulatory organizations for information.”

It was as far as I got.

The side door swung open, and my superior, the Chief Accountant, strode in, along with the mystery man who was, the papers said, the Owner, followed by the harried personal assistant.

“Mr. Nelson…”

The Chief Accountant stood front and center to the group. I thought it wise to stand off to one side, the opposite, in fact, the Owner, now standing just inside the door, next to his PA who was quietly talking into her cell phone.

“I’ll take over from here, Max.”

He switched his attention back to the group and took a few seconds to run his eye over all over them, almost as if he was looking for someone or something.

“I have spent the last 48 hours in rather tedious discussions with the regulators who insist that they received information about the Ridley investigation. Unfortunately, without consulting the company, he took part of the results of the investigation to them. Was anyone here aware of his actions?”

Another eye cast over the group, and, in the end, a glance at me.

I felt responsible to answer for the group.

“Investigations are conducted by individuals, and as far as I was concerned, the Ridley investigation was his. As equally that after he departed, that investigation was completed and cleared. Are you intimating that it wasn’t?”

I knew as much about it as the others.

“It was, until someone else reopened it, and reported it. We believe it was someone in this room.”

“That’s not possible,” I said. “I have oversight of all the officers in this room, and the ability to monitor everything they do and everything they look at. You know the security protocols in place in the software itself.”

“An investigation into the software has been implemented, and it shows that certain log files were altered so that the user log wouldn’t show who looked at the records. Someone with database experience.”

“We’re basically auditors not database managers.”

“Well, someone apparently is. Everyone is on notice. We will find out who it was, and believe me when I say we will leave no stone unturned in the process.”

An almost imperceptible not from the Owner, the harried PA was still on the cell phone, the Chief Accountant gave the group another steely look, then glared at me, said, “My office, one hour,” then left pulling the other two along in his wake.

I cast an eye over the group, picking out those whom I suspected were capable of performing such a search and destroy operation. Three.

“My door is open for anyone who might have any information, with the promise of anonymity.”

I left them with that and also left.

What should have been a quiet morning’s discussion just became a witch hunt where someone would be burnt at the stake. Whether they were guilty or not.

 

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

Remember that time… – A short story

I don’t remember 40th birthday parties being all that interesting.

It was going to be a momentous year as each of our friends celebrated theirs.  We were of a group that had formed strong friendships at school, and they had lasted over the next 25 years, even when some had ventured further afield, and others had stayed at home.

I was one of those who had remained in place, as had my wife, and several of the neighbors.  I never had dreams of venturing any further than the next state, and except for a couple of years on transfer for the company I worked for, I had lived all my life in the city I was born.

The same could not be said for Janine, my wife, who once had a vision for herself, a career in law in either New York or Washington, and had ventured there after graduating law school, stayed a year, and then returned in circumstances that she had never talked about.  She had accepted my proposal, we had married, and that was that.

Twenty-five years on, there had always been that gap, that part of the story I’d never asked about and one I felt she would never talk about, and it was a small chink in what I wanted to believe was an almost perfect marriage.

But there was one small caveat she had requested, and that she had no desire to have children, or to be a mother, something she said she would be terrible at.  It didn’t bother me, one way or another, though as each of the others had children, there was a small part of me that was, for a while, envious.

Michael Urston was one of my close friends, lived across town, was also a lawyer, and a man of ambition.  He’s taken his law degree to Washington and converted it into a path to public office, and had attained the lofty position of Mayor for a number of years of our fair city, and then paradoxically didn’t run for re-election for reasons I never thought stood up.  But it had been his decision, part of the plan to retire at forty, and he’d achieved it.  Ursula, his wife, was prickly at the best of times and had always considered herself above all of us.  I guess being a prom queen had that effect on some people.  She liked to be the center of attention, and for some reason, she and Janine always managed to rub up against their respective wrong sides.

Something else I knew; he had a thing for Janine, as had several others in our group, and I could see, sometimes the looks that passed between them, and I was not sure how I felt about it.  There was never any indication of either talking it further, but there was a bond between them that sometimes I envied, especially lately when it seemed, to me, that we were drifting apart.

But tonight, it was going to be Janine’s fortieth birthday party, and there was going to be a dozen friends coming.  At the last minute, Janine had changed the venue to a restaurant rather than at our home, and that I suspected was because we lived in a magnificent house that all the others envied, and I was sure it was out of deference to them.  Buying the house had been her idea, and down through the years, as we moved into larger residences, she had been trying to shed the memories of where she had come from.

Neither of us had been from wealthy families, and I had no wealthy family connections.  I was from generations of motor mechanics, which was my first occupation in the family business, and Janine’s family were farmers, something she had no intention of becoming, hence the desire to become a lawyer.  And I didn’t think either of us had airs and graces despite what we owned or how we fitted into the local society.

Fred DeVilliers and Susan, his girlfriend of many years, they didn’t believe they needed a piece of paper to sanctify their relationship, were best friends also, though I knew Janine and Susan were not quite as friendly as it appeared.  That I noticed some years ago when both were having a heated discussion, one they thought no one was around to hear.  Their bone of contention had something to do with Michael, and I didn’t get to discover what it was.

As for the others, they joined in the conversation, ate the food, drank the wine, and then went home again.  Like me, they were not interested in politics, religion, or miscreant children’s stories.  Our get together was children free, and often about reminiscences of older and more carefree times.

Oh, and just to stir the pot a little, this day, I had tendered my resignation as CEO of the company.  It was a matter of principle, the board having decided to downsize, and shift a proportion of manufacturing offshore, a decision I knew I would have to implement if I stayed there.  When I vehemently disagreed, I was given the option to leave on mutually agreeable terms.  It was not something I could spring on Janine, but, equally, it was not something I was going to be able to hide from her.  Not for very long anyway.

She was running late at her office, and I agreed to meet her at the restaurant a half-hour before the other guests were due to arrive.  It was nothing unusual for one or other of us to be running late.

As it happened, I left the office, and the building, an hour after tendering my resignation.  The company didn’t want me hanging around and granted me the two weeks I’d normally have to work off before leaving, for security reasons.  I quit, therefore I had to leave, in case I had some desire to sabotage the company in some way.  I wouldn’t but it was standard practice, and it didn’t go unnoticed that I was escorted by security to my office to clear the desk, and then to my car.  They also gave me the car as a parting gesture.

After leaving the office I went home.

I took what amounted to over twenty year’s service in a cardboard box to my home office and dropped it in the corner.  Not much to show for it, other than a decent salary, annual bonuses when we made a profit, and quite a few shares, not that they were worth much now because of the board’s hesitation to embrace new technologies.

About two hours later I heard a car pull up out the front on the driveway, and two doors close.  A look out the window that overlooked the driveway showed it was Janine and Michael, who as the approached the door were in animated conversation.

I thought about letting them know I was home, but then a voice inside my head said how many men have come home during the day to surprise his wife and found her in bed with another man, or, in these rather liberated days, in bed with another woman?

And that think between them, would it be now I would discover what it was?

It made me feel rather horrible to think I could suspect her of cheating, but it momentarily took away the sting of the resignation.

The door opened and they came inside.  I could just see them from where I was standing, a spot that they would not see me, not unless they were looking.  And my heart missed a beat, they were embraced very passionately, leave me with no other conclusion than this was a middle of the day tryst.

“Come,” she said, taking him by the hand.  “I only have a couple of hours before I have to get back for a deposition.”

With that, they went up the stairs and disappeared into the bedroom, our room.

I sat down before I fell down, then having regained some composure, went over to the bar and poured myself a drink.

Two losses in one day.  A job, and a wife.  I guess it wasn’t exactly a revelation.  I knew something was amiss, and I conveniently ignored all the signs.  I thought about going up and walking in on them, but that, to me, seemed like a childish act.  After a few more drinks, I decided to wait, see if they both left, and then decide what to do.

The front door closing, and the car departing, woke me out of a reverie.  I got up and looked out, expecting to see an empty foyer, but instead saw Janine, in a dressing gown, still holding the front door handle, as if transfixed.  A beautiful memory of what had just happened, or a tinge of regret, and another secret to be kept in a head, I knew now, held so many others.

I decided to make myself known, now rather than later.

“Do you come home often during the day,” I said, standing in the doorway where she could see me.

She jumped, perhaps in fright, or in guilt, it didn’t really matter.

She turned.  “Daniel.  What are you doing here?”

“I resigned this morning.  A difference in opinion on how the company should proceed.  I was escorted out, and decided to come home.  I should have gone to a bar.”

She knew that I knew, so it would be interesting to see what she had to say.  I could see her forming the words in her head, much the same as she did in a court of law.

“It was the first time, Daniel, an impulse.  I’m not going to make an excuse.  It’s on me.  I wanted to find out what it would be like.”

And that made me feel so much better.

“Well, it’s a hell of a fortieth birthday gift, Jan, and one I guess I couldn’t give you.  I trust you didn’t grant that wish to any of the other men who may desire you?”  OK, that wasn’t exactly what I meant to say, but the words didn’t exactly match what I was thinking.

“You mean do I sleep with every man I have a desire to?”  A rather harsh tone, bordering on angry.  She was angry with me.

“You tell me what I’m supposed to think.”

“I had sex with one other man, no one else, since the day we were married.  It was a mistake, and I’m sorry.  If you hadn’t been here, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“Washington,” I said, almost to myself, a light bulb lighting up in my head.

The memory of a distant conversation, on a holiday, when we visited Washington, Philadelphia and New York.

“What about Washington?”  A change in her expression, slight, but I could see it.  She remembered it too.

“Remember that time, at one of those monuments, probably Jefferson’s, when you said something rather odd, and when I asked, you brushed it off as nothing important.  You were looking out over the water and said it was one of your fondest memories after, and then stopped yourself.  Michael had just married when he moved to Washington, and you were there too, for a year.  I suspect now you and he had an affair, and it ended badly as affairs do and the woman has to leave.  There’s always been that bond between you.  Not the first time Jan.  The affair never ended.”

“It did, Daniel.  Like I said, this was a mistake.  It won’t happen again.”

I stepped out of the office and walked down the passage and come out into the foyer.  Two stories high, it had been a debate whether to have a fountain in the space adjacent to the stairs or a statue.  The statue won, I lost.

Close up, I looked at the woman I’d loved from the moment I first saw her, and of the surprise when she agreed to marry me.  I had no idea then I was her second choice.

“I’d say I’m on a roll.  Lost my job, then lost my wife.  Bad luck comes in threes, so I’m going to lose something else.”  I looked around.  “This house?  I don’t think I could stay here, not now.  It would just be a reminder of everything bad that’s happened to me today.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way.  I told you it was a mistake.  I made my choice twenty odd years ago and it hasn’t changed.”

She took a step towards me, and I took one back.  The thought of being close to her now, after what she had just done, didn’t feel right.

“Look, before you do something silly, let’s sit down and talk about it.”

“No.  There’s nothing really to talk about.  I’m sure you can come up with a very convincing argument that will justify everything you’ve done, and why I’m being a fool, but the truth is, there are no words that can justify what you just did.  Yes, I could forgive you, and believe me, I want to, but there’d always be some resentment and the fact I could never trust you again, even if you promise not to.  What’s done is done.   Have a great birthday, and party, and make up some excuse for me not being there, but I’m going away for a while.  You have got everything you ever wanted Jan.  Be grateful for that.”

With that, I turned and headed for the door that led to the garage.  I wasn’t going to leave by the front door.  I expected her to say something, but she didn’t.  I expected a reaction, but there was none.  What choice did I have?

In the car, I found myself heading for the airport.  I couldn’t go to my parents, they were dead.  My sister lived on the other side of the country, and all I would get from her if I told her what happened would be an I told you so, so it was down to my brother, who had moved to the UK to get away from everyone.  I called him, and when he answered, I simply said, “I’m coming to see you for a while.”

And he replied, “It was Washington, wasn’t it?”

He’d know who she was, and who Michael was when he saw them together all those years ago.  And tried to warn me before I married her.

What was it with politicians and women?

—–

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

Knowledge can be dangerous… – A short story

It was, perhaps, the saddest week of my life.

It started with a phone call, then a visit by two police officers.  It was about my parents, but the news could not be imparted over the phone, only in person.  That statement alone told me it was very bad news, so I assumed the worst.

The two police officers, standing at the front door, grim expressions on their faces, completed the picture.  The news, my parents were dead, killed in a freak car accident.

At first, it didn’t sink in.  They were on their way back from another of their extensive holidays, one of many since my father had retired.  I’d seen them probably six months out of the last five years, and the only reason they were returning this time was that my mother needed an operation.

They hadn’t told me why, not that they ever told me very much any time since the day I’d been born, but that was who they were.  I thought them eccentric, being older when I’d come along, and others thought them, well, eccentric.

And being an only child, they packed me off to boarding school, then university, and then found me a job in London, and set me up so that I would only see them weekends if they were home.

I had once wondered if they ever cared about me, keeping me at arm’s length, but my mother some time ago had taken me aside and explained why.  It was my father’s family tradition.  The only part I’d missed was a nanny.

It most likely explained why I didn’t feel their passing as much as I should.

A week later, after a strange funeral where a great many people I’d never met before, and oddly who knew about me, I found myself sitting in the sunroom, a glass of scotch in one hand, and an envelope with my name on it, in the other.

The solicitor, a man I’d never met before, had given it to me at the funeral.   We had, as far as I knew an elderly fellow, one of my father’s old school friends, as the family solicitor, but he hadn’t shown at the funeral and wasn’t at home when I called in on my way home.

It was all very odd.

I refilled the glass and took another look at the envelope.  It was not new, in fact, it had the yellow tinge of age, with discoloration where the flap was.  The writing was almost a scrawl, but identifiable as my father’s handwriting, perhaps an early version as it was now definitely an illegible scrawl.

I’d compared it with the note he’d left me before they had embarked on their last adventure, everything I had to do while caretaking their house.  The last paragraph was the most interesting, instructing me to be present when the cleaning lady came, he’d all but accused her of stealing the candlesticks.

To be honest, I hadn’t realized there were candlesticks to steal, but there they were, on the mantlepiece over the fire in the dining room.  The whole house was almost like being in an adventure park, stairs going up to an array of rooms, mostly no longer used, and staircase to the attic, and then another going down to the cellar.  The attic was locked and had been for as long as I could remember, and the cellar was dank and draughty.

Much like the whole house, but not surprising, it was over 200 years old.

And perhaps it was now mine.  The solicitor, a man by the name of Sir Percival Algernon Bridgewater, had intimated that it might be the last will and testament and had asked me to tell him if it was.  I was surprised that Sir Percival didn’t have the document in question.

And equally. so that the man I knew as his solicitor, Lawerence Wellingham, didn’t have a copy of my father’s last will and testament either.

I finished the drink, picked up the envelope, and opened it.

It contained two sheets of paper, the will, and a letter.  A very short letter.

“If you are reading this I have died before my time.  You will need to find Albert Stritching, and ask him to help you find the murderer.”

Even the tenor of that letter didn’t faze me as it should have, because at this point nothing would surprise me.  In fact, as I  unfolded the document that proclaimed it was the will, I was ready for it to say that whole of his estate and belongings were to be left to some charity, and I would get an annual stipend of a thousand pounds.

In fact, it didn’t.  The whole of his estate was left to my mother should she outlive him, or in the event of her prior decease, to me.

I had to put all of those surprises on hold to answer a knock on the door.

Lawerence Wellingham.

I stood too e side, let him pass, closed the door, and followed him into the front room, the one my mother called the ‘drawing room’ though I never knew why.

He sat in one of the large, comfortable lounge chairs.  I sat in the other.

I showed him the will.  I kept the other back, not knowing what to make of it.

“No surprise there,” Wellingham said.

“Did you have any idea what my father used to do, beyond being, as he put it, a freelance diplomat?”

I thought it a rather odd description but it was better than one he once proffered, ‘I do odd jobs for the government’.

“I didn’t ask.  Knowledge can be dangerous, particularly when associated with your father.  Most of us preferred not to know, but one thing I can tell you.  If anyone tries to tell you what happened to your parents was not an accident, ignore them.  Go live your life, and keep those memories you have of them in the past, and don’t look back.  They were good people, Ken, remember them as such.”

We reminisced for the next hour, making a dent in the scotch, one of my father’s favorite, and he left.

Alone again, the thoughts went back to the second note from my father.  That’s when the house phone rang.

Before I could answer it, a voice said, “My name is Stritching.  Your father might have mentioned me?  We need to talk.”

—-

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

How could that possibly happen… – A short story

I had hoped by the time I was promoted to assistant manager it might mean something other than long hours and an increase in pay.

It didn’t.

But unlike others who had taken the job, and eventually become jaded and left, I stayed. Something I realized that others seemed to either ignore or just didn’t understand, this was a company that rewarded loyalty.

It was why there were quite a few who had served 30 years or more. They might not reach the top job, but they certainly well looked after.

I had a long way to go, having been there only 8 years, and according to some, on a fast track. I was not sure how I would describe this so-called ‘fast track’ other than being in the right place at the right time and making a judicial selection.

When it was my turn to be promoted, I had a choice of a plum department, or one most of my contemporaries had passed over. At the time, the words of my previous manager sprang to mind, that being a manager for the most sought after department or the least sought after, came with exactly the same privileges.

And, he was right. I took the least sought after, much to their disdain and disapproval. One year on, that disapproval had turned almost to envy; that was when the Assistant Managers were granted a new privilege, tea, and lunch in the executive dining room.

“So, what’s it like?” John asked, when our group met on a Friday night, this the first after the privilege was granted.

He had been one of the three, including me, who had the opportunity to take the role. Both he and Alistair had both declined, prepared to wait for a more prestigious department. It hadn’t happened to them yet.

“The same as the staff dining room, only smaller. Except, I guess, the waitstaff and butler. They come and serve you when you have to go to them in the staff room. They’re the same staff, by the way, except for the butler.”

I could see the awe, or was it envy, in their eyes. “but it’s not that great. The Assistant Managers all sit at one end of the table, and we’re not part of the main group, so no sharing of information I’m afraid. And the meals are the same, just served on fancier crockery.”

“Then nothing to write home about?” Will was one of those who they also thought to be on a ‘fast track’. I was still trying to see how my ‘fast track’ was actually that fast.

“Put it this way, the extra pay doesn’t offset the long hours because you get overtime, I don’t, so on a good week, you’d all be earning more than me. Without responsibility, if anything goes wrong. I think that’s why Assistant Managers were created, to take the blame when anything goes wrong.”

That had been the hardest pill to swallow. Until I got the role, I hadn’t realized what it really involved. Nor had the others, and it was not something we could whinge about. My first-day introductory speech from Tomkins, my Manager, was all about taking responsibility, and how I was there to make his life easier. It was a speech he made a few times because he’d been Manager for the last 16 years, much the same as the others, and promotion if ever, would come when they died.

And Manager’s rarely died, because of their Assistant Managers.

“How old is Tomkins now?” Bert, a relative newcomer to our group, asked. He was still in the ‘in awe’ phase.

“About the same as Father Time,” I said. “But the reality is, no one knows, except perhaps for the personnel manager.” O looked over at Wally, the Personnel Department’s Assistant Manager. “Any chance of you telling us?”

“No. You know I can’t.”

“But you know?” I asked.

“Of course, but you know the rules. That’s confidential information. Not like what you are the custodian of, information everyone needs.”

Which, of course, was true. Communication and Secretarial Services had no secrets, except for twice a year when the company Bord of Directors met, and we were responsible for all the documents used at their meetings. Then, and only then, was I privy to all the secrets, including promotions. And be asked ‘What’s happening?’.

“Just be content to know that he’s as old as the hills, as most of them. It seems to me that one of the pre-requisites for managership is that you have been employed here for 30 years.”

Not all, though, I’d noticed, but there wasn’t one under the age of fifty.

And so it would go, the Friday night lament, those ‘in’ the executive, and those who were not quite there yet.
It seemed prophetic, in a sense, that we had been talking about Mangers and their ages. By a quirk of fate, some weeks before, that I learned of Tomkins’s currents state of health via a call on his office phone. At the time he was out, where, he had not told me, but by his the I believed it was something serious, so serious he didn’t want me, or anyone else, to know about it.

That phone call was from his wife, Eleanor, whom I’d met on a number of occasions when she came to take him home from work. I liked her, and couldn’t help but notice she was his exact opposite, Tomkins, silent and at times morose, and Eleanor, the life of the party. I could imagine her being a handful in her younger days, and it was a stark reminder of that old saying ‘opposites attract’.

She was concerned and asked me if he had returned from the specialist. I simply said he had but was elsewhere, and promised to get him to call her when he returned. Then I made a quick call around to see where he was and found that he was in Personnel. I left an innocuous message on his desk, and then let my imagination run wild.

At least for a day or so, the time it took for me to realize that it was probably nothing, the lethargy he’d been showing, gone.

I’d put it out of my mind until my cell phone rang, and it was from the Personnel Manager. On a Sunday, no less. In the few seconds before I answered it, I’d made the assumption that Tomkins’s secretive visits to the specialist meant he needed time off for a routine operation.

Greetings over, O’Reilly, the Personnel Manager, cut straight to the chase, “For your personal information, and not to be repeated, Tomkins will be out of action for about two months, and as that is longer than the standard period, you will become Acting Manager. We’ll talk more about this Tuesday morning.” Monday was a holiday.

All Assistant Managers knew the rules. Any absence of a manager for longer than a month, promotion to Acting Manager. Anything less, you sat in the office, but no change in title. There was one more rule, that in the event of the death of a manager, the assistant manager was immediately promoted to Manager. This had only happened once before. 70 years ago. If a manager retired, then the position of Manager was thrown open to anyone in the organization.

It was an intriguing moment in time.

Tuesday came, and as usual, I went into the office, with only one thought in mind, let the staff in the department know what was happening, of course, the moment I was given the approval to do so by Personnel.

Not a minute after I sat down, the phone rang. I picked it up, gave my name and greeting. It was met with a rather excitable voice of the Assistant Manager, Personnel, “I just got word from on high, you’ve been promoted to manager. How could that possibly happen…”

Then a moment later, as realization set in, “Unless…”

—-

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

Surely there’s a better way… – a short story

Surely there’s a better way…

When you have secrets, sometimes it’s very hard to hide them from others.

It was something Henry had to do since the day he could speak. The fact that his parents had been murdered because of their profession, something his grandfather told him was akin to ‘working for the government’. The fact that he was from a very wealthy and influential family. The fact he was heir to a fortune. The fact he was anything other than just another boy, who grew up to be just another man.

His whole life, to this point, had been ‘managed’ so that no one, other than a selected few chosen by his grandfather, knew who he was, or what he represented. And more to the point, he had been told to just live his life like any other of his age.

Yes, he went to a private school, but it wasn’t an exclusive one, yes he went to university, but he had got into Oxford on his own merit, and, yes, he was smart, smart enough to create his own business, and make a handsome income from it. And no, he never drew upon the stipend he had been granted by his parents will, so it just gathered dust in the bank.

Henry was an only child, and to a certain extent, introverted. It was a shyness that his grandfather knew existed in his son, Henry’s father. It could be an asset or it could be a liability. With Henry’s father, it had been an asset, a means by which many had misunderstood him. It might even serve him well for the next phase of his life.

Today, Henry was meeting his grandfather at Speaker’s Corner at Hyde Park, and an unusual meeting place because in the past it had always been at his grandfather’s club. At his grandfather’s request, he had undertaken a three-year program, one that his father had, and his father before him, and a pre-requisite for a profession that would be explained to him.

And it was all because Henry said he was bored. The business he’d built could run without him, his attempts at relationships with various girls and women hadn’t quite achieved what he was looking for, even though he had no idea what he was looking for, and, quite frankly, he told his grandfather, he needed something more exciting.

It was, he’d been told, the way of the MacCallisters. Ever since the British tried to put down the Scots.

Henry was listening to a rather animated man preaching the word of the Lord, but he was not sure what Lord that was. Anything he quoted from the bible resembled nothing he had read and remembered. Perhaps the man was on drugs.

Two or three people stopped, listened for a minute or two, shook their heads, some even laughed, and moved on.

“It’s the last bastion of freedom of speech, though I can say this man is not about to gather an army of insurrectionists any time soon. Let’s walk.”

His grandfather was getting old, and walking was getting more and more difficult. More scotch was needed, he had told Henry, to ward of the evils of arthritis. And, he added, ‘I should have had a less devil may care attitude when he was younger.’

It was a slow amble to the serpentine, which, being a bright sunny day, if not a little chilly, was alive with people.

He waited until his grandfather spoke. One lesson he had learned, speak when you’re spoken to, and if you’ve got nothing to say, best to remain silent.

“I have found a job you might like to have a go at. Nothing difficult, mind you, but a perhaps, at times, hard work. I think you’d be good at it.”

“Is that meant to be a hint, and I have to guess?”

“I think you’re smart enough to know what it might be yourself, young Henry.”

I think I did too. Everything I’d been doing over the last three years led me to believe I’d been training to walk in my father’s footsteps. It was with the Army, and I had imagined my father had been a soldier, though I’d never seen him in a uniform. But my Grandfather had said he worked for the government, so I wondered if that might be some sort of policeman, or some sort of internal agent, like MI6. It had not been boring, and the exercises had been ‘interesting’, but no one had said what the end result of this training might be; in fact no one had said who they were.

“Something hush, hush as the saying goes.”

We had gone about fifty yards and reached a cross path. As we did, a youngish woman dressed in leather appeared and walked towards us.

“I’d like you to meet a friend of mine, Henry. Her name is Marion, though I suggest you don’t call her that.”

She smiled. “Call me Mary. There’s only one person in the whole world that would dare call me that, and he’s standing here. Your grandfather has spoken a lot about you.”

Henry’s first impression; she had been to the training school he had. He could see it in her manner, and in the way she scanned the area, even though it didn’t look like she was. He’d been doing it himself, and he had seen her earlier. What made her stand out, she didn’t have a bag like all the other women.

“I hope it was good, not bad.”

“You have no bad traits?”

“Everyone had bad traits. You’ll just have to get to know me if you want to know what they are.”

“Well,” my grandfather said, “enough chit chat. Mary has a task, and she needs a little help. I thought you might want to join her.”

“Doing what?”

“She’ll explain it on the way. When it’s done, come and see me.” With that, a hug from Mary, and a handshake from his grandson, he turned and walked back the way they had come earlier.
“So,” Henry asked, “What’s the job?”

“I have to pick up a computer.”

“That doesn’t sound like something you would need help with.” In fact, if he was right in his assessment of her, he was the last person she needed, if at all. She looked to him as if she could handle anything.

“It’s one of those just in case situations.”

They walked a circuitous route back to Park Lane and crossed both roads, up Deanery Street, left where Tilney Street veered off, and then a short distance to Deanery Mews. Henry noted this was an area with a lot of expensive real estate, and scattered Embassies. If he was not mistaken, the Dorchester Hotel wasn’t far away.

Walking down the mews seemed to Henry to be walking into a trap. When he looked back towards Deanery Street he thought he saw two men position themselves, not quick enough to prevent him from getting a glimpse of them.

“You do realize that getting back out of here could be a problem.”

“It’s why I asked for help. Just in case.”

No visible sign of fear, or of what the consequences might be if this went south. Perhaps his grandfather had considered this a test. But what sort of test?

They reached the end, and, just around the corner, a van was parked with what Henry assumed was the driver, standing by the open driver’s door, smoking a cigarette.

Mary stopped about ten feet away from him. “Have you got the package?”

He reached inside the car and lifted up a computer case. There didn’t necessarily have to be a computer in it. I looked up and around. It was a good place for a meeting. No witnesses. But there were CCTV cameras. I wondered if they were working.

The man tossed the bag back in the car. “Have you got the money?”

She held up her phone. “Just need the bank account details.”

“OK. Just step over here and let’s get this done.”

She moved closer, and in a flash, he had grabbed her, holding her by the neck with a gun to her head. The two men Henry thought he’d seen at the top of the mews were now within sight, and both had guns trained on him. A trap, indeed.

“What do you want?” Henry asked.

“Tell your boss the price just doubled. Two million. You’ve got five minutes.”

I shook my head, not to clear the cobwebs, but to calm down and think rationally.

Talk first. “Surely there’s a better way to do this. You don’t need to hold a gun to her head.”

I held my hands out just to show I wasn’t a threat.

“No, probably not.” He released his grip and lowered the gun.

A very, very bad mistake.

—-

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

Surely there’s a better way… – a short story

Surely there’s a better way…

When you have secrets, sometimes it’s very hard to hide them from others.

It was something Henry had to do since the day he could speak. The fact that his parents had been murdered because of their profession, something his grandfather told him was akin to ‘working for the government’. The fact that he was from a very wealthy and influential family. The fact he was heir to a fortune. The fact he was anything other than just another boy, who grew up to be just another man.

His whole life, to this point, had been ‘managed’ so that no one, other than a selected few chosen by his grandfather, knew who he was, or what he represented. And more to the point, he had been told to just live his life like any other of his age.

Yes, he went to a private school, but it wasn’t an exclusive one, yes he went to university, but he had got into Oxford on his own merit, and, yes, he was smart, smart enough to create his own business, and make a handsome income from it. And no, he never drew upon the stipend he had been granted by his parents will, so it just gathered dust in the bank.

Henry was an only child, and to a certain extent, introverted. It was a shyness that his grandfather knew existed in his son, Henry’s father. It could be an asset or it could be a liability. With Henry’s father, it had been an asset, a means by which many had misunderstood him. It might even serve him well for the next phase of his life.

Today, Henry was meeting his grandfather at Speaker’s Corner at Hyde Park, and an unusual meeting place because in the past it had always been at his grandfather’s club. At his grandfather’s request, he had undertaken a three-year program, one that his father had, and his father before him, and a pre-requisite for a profession that would be explained to him.

And it was all because Henry said he was bored. The business he’d built could run without him, his attempts at relationships with various girls and women hadn’t quite achieved what he was looking for, even though he had no idea what he was looking for, and, quite frankly, he told his grandfather, he needed something more exciting.

It was, he’d been told, the way of the MacCallisters. Ever since the British tried to put down the Scots.

Henry was listening to a rather animated man preaching the word of the Lord, but he was not sure what Lord that was. Anything he quoted from the bible resembled nothing he had read and remembered. Perhaps the man was on drugs.

Two or three people stopped, listened for a minute or two, shook their heads, some even laughed, and moved on.

“It’s the last bastion of freedom of speech, though I can say this man is not about to gather an army of insurrectionists any time soon. Let’s walk.”

His grandfather was getting old, and walking was getting more and more difficult. More scotch was needed, he had told Henry, to ward of the evils of arthritis. And, he added, ‘I should have had a less devil may care attitude when he was younger.’

It was a slow amble to the serpentine, which, being a bright sunny day, if not a little chilly, was alive with people.

He waited until his grandfather spoke. One lesson he had learned, speak when you’re spoken to, and if you’ve got nothing to say, best to remain silent.

“I have found a job you might like to have a go at. Nothing difficult, mind you, but a perhaps, at times, hard work. I think you’d be good at it.”

“Is that meant to be a hint, and I have to guess?”

“I think you’re smart enough to know what it might be yourself, young Henry.”

I think I did too. Everything I’d been doing over the last three years led me to believe I’d been training to walk in my father’s footsteps. It was with the Army, and I had imagined my father had been a soldier, though I’d never seen him in a uniform. But my Grandfather had said he worked for the government, so I wondered if that might be some sort of policeman, or some sort of internal agent, like MI6. It had not been boring, and the exercises had been ‘interesting’, but no one had said what the end result of this training might be; in fact no one had said who they were.

“Something hush, hush as the saying goes.”

We had gone about fifty yards and reached a cross path. As we did, a youngish woman dressed in leather appeared and walked towards us.

“I’d like you to meet a friend of mine, Henry. Her name is Marion, though I suggest you don’t call her that.”

She smiled. “Call me Mary. There’s only one person in the whole world that would dare call me that, and he’s standing here. Your grandfather has spoken a lot about you.”

Henry’s first impression; she had been to the training school he had. He could see it in her manner, and in the way she scanned the area, even though it didn’t look like she was. He’d been doing it himself, and he had seen her earlier. What made her stand out, she didn’t have a bag like all the other women.

“I hope it was good, not bad.”

“You have no bad traits?”

“Everyone had bad traits. You’ll just have to get to know me if you want to know what they are.”

“Well,” my grandfather said, “enough chit chat. Mary has a task, and she needs a little help. I thought you might want to join her.”

“Doing what?”

“She’ll explain it on the way. When it’s done, come and see me.” With that, a hug from Mary, and a handshake from his grandson, he turned and walked back the way they had come earlier.
“So,” Henry asked, “What’s the job?”

“I have to pick up a computer.”

“That doesn’t sound like something you would need help with.” In fact, if he was right in his assessment of her, he was the last person she needed, if at all. She looked to him as if she could handle anything.

“It’s one of those just in case situations.”

They walked a circuitous route back to Park Lane and crossed both roads, up Deanery Street, left where Tilney Street veered off, and then a short distance to Deanery Mews. Henry noted this was an area with a lot of expensive real estate, and scattered Embassies. If he was not mistaken, the Dorchester Hotel wasn’t far away.

Walking down the mews seemed to Henry to be walking into a trap. When he looked back towards Deanery Street he thought he saw two men position themselves, not quick enough to prevent him from getting a glimpse of them.

“You do realize that getting back out of here could be a problem.”

“It’s why I asked for help. Just in case.”

No visible sign of fear, or of what the consequences might be if this went south. Perhaps his grandfather had considered this a test. But what sort of test?

They reached the end, and, just around the corner, a van was parked with what Henry assumed was the driver, standing by the open driver’s door, smoking a cigarette.

Mary stopped about ten feet away from him. “Have you got the package?”

He reached inside the car and lifted up a computer case. There didn’t necessarily have to be a computer in it. I looked up and around. It was a good place for a meeting. No witnesses. But there were CCTV cameras. I wondered if they were working.

The man tossed the bag back in the car. “Have you got the money?”

She held up her phone. “Just need the bank account details.”

“OK. Just step over here and let’s get this done.”

She moved closer, and in a flash, he had grabbed her, holding her by the neck with a gun to her head. The two men Henry thought he’d seen at the top of the mews were now within sight, and both had guns trained on him. A trap, indeed.

“What do you want?” Henry asked.

“Tell your boss the price just doubled. Two million. You’ve got five minutes.”

I shook my head, not to clear the cobwebs, but to calm down and think rationally.

Talk first. “Surely there’s a better way to do this. You don’t need to hold a gun to her head.”

I held my hands out just to show I wasn’t a threat.

“No, probably not.” He released his grip and lowered the gun.

A very, very bad mistake.

—-

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

Once Upon a Time… – A short story

Everyone knows someone who has a child that will not go to sleep.

You can set the bedtime at whatever early hour you like, but by the time they actually fall asleep, there have been two or three hours of up and down, in and out of bed, and at least one episode of a scary master lurking under the bed, or, worse, outside the window.

After exhausting every method of achieving a result and failing, I thought I’d try reading.

The first book I picked up was, yes, you guessed it, about monsters. In fact, nearly every book for kids was about monsters, witches, ogres, dragons, and vampires.

I put them back and sighed. I would have to come up with a story of my own.

It started with, “Once upon a time…”

“But that,” May said, “only applies to fairy tales.”

“Well, this is going to be a fairy tale of sorts. Minus the fire breathing dragons, and nasty trolls under drawbridges.”

“It’s not going to be much of a story, then. In fairy tales, there’s always a knight who slays the dragon and rides off with the princess.”

This was going to be a tough ask. I thought of going back to the book pile, but, then, I could do this.

“So,” I began again, “Once upon a time there was a princess, who lived in a castle with her father, the king, her mother, the queen, and her brother, the steadfast and trusty knight in shining armor.”

“Why is their armor always shining?”

I was going to tell her to save the questions until after the story, by which time I had hoped I’d bored her enough to choose sleep over criticism. I was wrong.

“Because a knight always has to have shiny armor, otherwise the king would be disappointed.”

“Does the knight spend all night shining his armor?”

“No. He has an apprentice who cleans the armor, and attends to anything else the knight needs.”

“And then he becomes a knight?”

“In good time. The apprentice is usually a boy of about 11 or 12 years old. First, he learns what it means to be a knight, then he has to do years of training until he comes of age.” I saw the question coming, and got in first, “When he is about 21 years old.”

She looked at me, and that meant I had to continue the story.

“The princess was very lucky and lived a very different life than her subjects, except she wished she had their freedom to play, and do ordinary things like cooking, or collecting food from the markets. Because she was a princess, she had to stay in the castle, and spend most of her time learning how to be a princess, and a queen, because when it was time, she would marry a prince who would become a king.”

“Doesn’t sound too lucky to me, being stuck as home. I like the idea of getting somebody to do everything for me though. She does have maids, doesn’t she?”

“Yes. And, you’re right, she has everything done for her, including getting dressed. A maid to clean, a maid to dress her, a maid to bring her snacks. And it was these maids she envied.”

Maybe I should not make the story too interesting, or she’ll never go to sleep.

“Well, one day, she decided to change places with one of her maids. They were almost identical and when they exchanged clothes, the other maids could not tell they had changed places. At the end of the day, when the maids went home, the princess headed to the house where the maid she had taken the place of.

It was very different from the castle, and the room she had in the castle. The mother was at him, cooking the food for the evening meal, and it was nothing like what she usually had. A sort of soup with scraps of meat in it. There was a loaf of bread on the table. The father came home after working all day in the fields, very tired. They ate and then went to bed. Her bed was straw and a piece of cloth that hardly covered her. At least, by the fire, it was warm. It didn’t do anything for the pangs of hunger because there had barely been enough for all of them.

The next morning she returned to the castle and changed places back again. When the maid she changed places with asked about her experience of how it was like in their life, the princess said she was surprised. She had never been told about how the people who served the king lived, and she had assumed that they were well looked after. Now she had experienced what it was like to be a subject, she was going to investigate it further.

After all, she told the maid, I have to have all the facts if I’m going to approach the king.

And she thought to herself, a lot more courage than she had.

But, instead of lessons today, she was going to demand to be taken on a tour outside the castle and to see the people.

“This sounds like it’s not going to have a happy ending.”

No, I thought. Maybe I’ll get the dragon that her brother failed to slay to eat her.

“It will. Patience. But that’s enough for tonight. If you want to know what happens, you’ll have to go to sleep and then, tomorrow night, the story continues.”

I tucked her in, turned down the night light so it was only a glow, just enough to see where I was going, and left.

If I was lucky she would go to sleep. The only problem was, I had to come up with more of the story.

Outside the door, her mother, Christine, was smiling. “Since when did you become an expert on Princesses?”

“When I married one.”

—-

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

Once Upon a Time… – A short story

Everyone knows someone who has a child that will not go to sleep.

You can set the bedtime at whatever early hour you like, but by the time they actually fall asleep, there have been two or three hours of up and down, in and out of bed, and at least one episode of a scary master lurking under the bed, or, worse, outside the window.

After exhausting every method of achieving a result and failing, I thought I’d try reading.

The first book I picked up was, yes, you guessed it, about monsters. In fact, nearly every book for kids was about monsters, witches, ogres, dragons, and vampires.

I put them back and sighed. I would have to come up with a story of my own.

It started with, “Once upon a time…”

“But that,” May said, “only applies to fairy tales.”

“Well, this is going to be a fairy tale of sorts. Minus the fire breathing dragons, and nasty trolls under drawbridges.”

“It’s not going to be much of a story, then. In fairy tales, there’s always a knight who slays the dragon and rides off with the princess.”

This was going to be a tough ask. I thought of going back to the book pile, but, then, I could do this.

“So,” I began again, “Once upon a time there was a princess, who lived in a castle with her father, the king, her mother, the queen, and her brother, the steadfast and trusty knight in shining armor.”

“Why is their armor always shining?”

I was going to tell her to save the questions until after the story, by which time I had hoped I’d bored her enough to choose sleep over criticism. I was wrong.

“Because a knight always has to have shiny armor, otherwise the king would be disappointed.”

“Does the knight spend all night shining his armor?”

“No. He has an apprentice who cleans the armor, and attends to anything else the knight needs.”

“And then he becomes a knight?”

“In good time. The apprentice is usually a boy of about 11 or 12 years old. First, he learns what it means to be a knight, then he has to do years of training until he comes of age.” I saw the question coming, and got in first, “When he is about 21 years old.”

She looked at me, and that meant I had to continue the story.

“The princess was very lucky and lived a very different life than her subjects, except she wished she had their freedom to play, and do ordinary things like cooking, or collecting food from the markets. Because she was a princess, she had to stay in the castle, and spend most of her time learning how to be a princess, and a queen, because when it was time, she would marry a prince who would become a king.”

“Doesn’t sound too lucky to me, being stuck as home. I like the idea of getting somebody to do everything for me though. She does have maids, doesn’t she?”

“Yes. And, you’re right, she has everything done for her, including getting dressed. A maid to clean, a maid to dress her, a maid to bring her snacks. And it was these maids she envied.”

Maybe I should not make the story too interesting, or she’ll never go to sleep.

“Well, one day, she decided to change places with one of her maids. They were almost identical and when they exchanged clothes, the other maids could not tell they had changed places. At the end of the day, when the maids went home, the princess headed to the house where the maid she had taken the place of.

It was very different from the castle, and the room she had in the castle. The mother was at him, cooking the food for the evening meal, and it was nothing like what she usually had. A sort of soup with scraps of meat in it. There was a loaf of bread on the table. The father came home after working all day in the fields, very tired. They ate and then went to bed. Her bed was straw and a piece of cloth that hardly covered her. At least, by the fire, it was warm. It didn’t do anything for the pangs of hunger because there had barely been enough for all of them.

The next morning she returned to the castle and changed places back again. When the maid she changed places with asked about her experience of how it was like in their life, the princess said she was surprised. She had never been told about how the people who served the king lived, and she had assumed that they were well looked after. Now she had experienced what it was like to be a subject, she was going to investigate it further.

After all, she told the maid, I have to have all the facts if I’m going to approach the king.

And she thought to herself, a lot more courage than she had.

But, instead of lessons today, she was going to demand to be taken on a tour outside the castle and to see the people.

“This sounds like it’s not going to have a happy ending.”

No, I thought. Maybe I’ll get the dragon that her brother failed to slay to eat her.

“It will. Patience. But that’s enough for tonight. If you want to know what happens, you’ll have to go to sleep and then, tomorrow night, the story continues.”

I tucked her in, turned down the night light so it was only a glow, just enough to see where I was going, and left.

If I was lucky she would go to sleep. The only problem was, I had to come up with more of the story.

Outside the door, her mother, Christine, was smiling. “Since when did you become an expert on Princesses?”

“When I married one.”

—-

© Charles Heath 2020-2021