I can’t write ‘Infinity X lots’ in the box because the scale only goes up to 10. Beside the box is an area for comments to be made in support of the number I’ve chosen. What do I write? There’s not anything like enough room to state: This family is so dysfunctional they … I’ll use an analogy. Think of a whole pantheon of classical gods (who, let’s say, detest each other by default) waking up with Olympian hangovers in a very hot, arid, and exceptionally noisy place. Now stuff those gods into a large tumble dryer. Think of this as some sort of interactional baseline and add knuckledusters and kitchen knives.
That’s on a good day.
The only ways we can possibly stop their outrageous violence towards each other are; A: KILL them, B: KILL them and burn the remains – just in case (my professional recommendation), C: send in a community family therapist to see if he can help them (my professional duty) so while they spread my guts around the living room and eat my brain, wounds the family members have inflicted on each other will get a nanosecond to begin some sort of healing process.
Community family therapist, inner city London… Why me? I’ll tell you why: because I missed the careers advice day and used the closed-eyes-pin-stuck-into-the-list-at-random technique. The therapist who turned up to speak on that day went back to family visits the next and has been posted as missing in action ever since.
Funding for the social services has been cut as is usual so far into the week. To ensure the government is not criticised for this we’ve had to adjust our family assessment criteria. As a result the notes in front of me are typical of those relating to families not quite on the At Risk register.
These notes … on this tacky desk in this crumbling concrete tower block of a community hub. I go to pick up my coffee and realise I’ve already drunk it … and eaten some of the Styrofoam cup.
It’s dark outside. I actually finished work three hours ago but usually refuse to leave the building until I stop wanting to scream.
Something bangs on the window. Something bangs again. After I’ve prayed to the coffee machine, grovelled in front of it, kicked and threatened to kill it unless I get an espresso – to no avail – the something at the window is showing a degree of persistence which implies it seriously thinks I’m going to open the blinds and give it some attention. No way am I interested in anything that turns up, after dark, at the fifteenth-floor window of this broom-cupboard of an office.
“Oy, you: moron!” comes a voice only partly muffled by double glazing that doesn’t work. Louder this time, and with a slightly strangled quality comes, “Pay attention or I’ll rip your bloody throat out!”
What’s my line manager doing outside? Well, right words but lacking the usual zombie ‘I’m not really here/alive/reactivated yet’ tones.
Curious, and with a degree of terminal resignation probably common in Kamikaze pilots running out of fuel and without a target, I go to pull the blinds up. I try to. I try again. I accidentally rip them from the windows and cut my hand.
The first thing I see is a black waterfall silhouetted against lights in the far tower block – the tower block owned by an insurance company. The company with enough funds to have electricity coming from something other than a single exhausted watch battery for the whole building.
The waterfall says, “Hang on a bit…” and an upside-down white face with black bits and red detail descends until a teenage female, plastered in goth makeup to look like a vampire, drops eye-to-eye. The waterfall was actually long hair; I preferred it without the face.
I say makeup but this person does not look as if she has the mental agility to have planned upside-down red paint that dribbles from her red and white teeth and congeals until it glues her left eye shut.
My mind is really setting up a denial campaign: It’s only makeup…
I don’t know who my brain is trying to convince because, frankly, neither it – nor me – are that gullible.
A warm wet patch has appeared in my trousers as if a very amateur circumcision pervert has crept up my leg – with a machete.
“Open the sodding window!” the woman shrieks.
“Um … no.”
The woman’s unstuck eye widens and her lips compress. The latter is not in a pretty peevish way at all. If that’s what she intended she should have stopped the blobs of … makeup … squirting from the corners of her mouth.
She rubs her gummed eye with a hand – carefully. I can see why. Fingernails. Those nails could never do something delicate like popping a blackhead, not without some of her face coming away afterwards. “Doesn’t the window open?” she screeches.
“Doubt it. Even if I wanted it to, which I don’t…”
“Stand back!” She shouts, flexing her wrists.
Sadly, there is little ‘back’ available in this poky room any more than there is ‘left’, ‘right’ or even ‘up’. Unable to shuffle more than half a pace away, though I really would like to, I have to endure the spectacle of fingernails cutting through glass like laser-scalpels through corneas. In less than a second the woman has vaulted through the resulting hole like vitreous humour erupting from a badly hacked eyeball.
She lands on the floor. I’m face-to-slightly-over-head with a teenage girl/woman who’s wearing enough perfume to cause a minor environmental scare.
She plants a hand on my chest and shoves me back over the desk. “Don’t stand so close, perv.” Pulling strips of sweaty cloth from her nails, she adds, “Sorry about ripping your shirt.”
Sorry about my shirt? Really? Regarding my immediate situation I am so sorry about so many things that my shirt doesn’t make it into the top hundred. I disentangle myself from the monitor screen, keyboard, cables and collapsed chair that have joined me on the floor behind the desk.
“Are you bold, heroic and dashing?” she asks, scanning me up and down as I stand. “Let’s face it you’re not much to look at.” Apparently unimpressed by my appearance she studies the files of clinical notes instead. “You are a … a … what? … family therapist?”
“Yes.” I gulp, taking a moment to breathe – an activity which seems to have escaped my attention. “And I can assure you we all taste horrible – me especially. However, if you wish to try us, can I recommend some of my colleagues? Starting with all of them.”
“Interesting … let me think. Aha! Can you deal with mothers?”
Language is always a problem in this area of London. I find it best to get clear definitions from the outset. “What do you mean by the word ‘mother’? It can be used in various ways.”
“I want you to treat my family.” The last scrap of material drifts to the floor. I’ve never seen cloth look so relieved.
Automatic defences cut in and, before wisdom can intervene, I say, “I’m over-subscribed with families. However if you speak … to … your … general … practitioner…” Finally I get command of my speech centre and strangle it.
The woman taps the piles of notes. “You look after all these families?”
Dammit, just sodding kill me. It’s going to happen anyway. Even normal people feel that way about me after a few minutes. “Yes,” I squeak in a bold, heroic and dashing way.
She scans the folders, looks back to me and raises an eyebrow. “Impressive. You care about all these people?”
“That’s what I’m paid to do. I’m paid to care.” I think my despairing tone fails to convince her.
She fixes me with a wide-eyed blank stare: think dead shark. Tilting her head to one side she asks, “But…?”
“OK, they don’t pay me enough.”
“You would forget all these families if someone offered to make your wildest dream come true instead?”
“Forgetting them is my wildest dream.”
“Shut up. I want you to ignore all these people and treat my mother and sisters. I will repay you by granting you your greatest desire.”
Sisters? Oh shit … this just gets worse. “You would not grant my greatest desire.”
She raises an eyebrow again. It’s like watching half of tower bridge being raised. “I can and will!”
“Then go away and never come back.”
She’s silent, mouth hanging open. “Well, fuck you. That was actually quite clever!” She turns away. I hear the splutter and hiss of a happy, and fully functional, coffee machine. “Drink?”
“Espresso, double, please.”
“Quadruple. You’ll need it. You’re going to meet my mother.”
“Quadruple is just for meeting you. What’s the problem with your mother?” Fools step in where angels would wear Wellingtons.
“She’s odd. Strange. And getting odder.” She turns and hands me a bone china cup on a saucer – neither of which would be seen dead in this building. A teenage vampire armed with a tea set … really?
I take it and look onto, there is no ‘into’ this coffee. “I’m sorry, I need a frame of reference. Strange and odd in comparison to?”
“Us.” She looks at me expectantly for a moment. “You may react.”
“Um … I’m not exactly odd or strange – just misplaced, in the wrong profession for a whole year and pathetically unable to extricate myself.”
She looks momentarily confused. “Not you, idiot. There’s nothing strange about you. There’s not even anything remotely interesting about you. No, I mean my sisters and I.” She smiles. “Allow me to introduce them.” She looks to her right. “This is Flavia, and on my left is Ioana. I’m Loredana, by the way.”
“Ah … that sort of odd…” There is no one to her left or right.
She drains her cup and uses the coffee as a mouthwash – spitting it and dislodged lumps of … ketchup? … into a splashing dribbling mess on the far wall. “We’ve taken the liberty of going to your flat and packing a few things for you. They’re in suitcases strapped to the carriage waiting downstairs. Let us begone!”
I’m not happy. This is the worst journey ever. The only fun bit was when a cabbie blasted his horn at us to get out of the way. Loredana very calmly gathered her skirts, got out of the carriage, (yes it’s black with oil-lanterns and sable horses with plumes and so on) stepped into the road and cut a hole in the cab’s windscreen with her nails. “Is there a problem, my good man?”
It was the cabbie’s tyre-smoking U-turn and screaming which brought a faint smile to my face. Loredana got back into the carriage, settled a blanket (guess the colour) over her knees and said to me, “Stay silent; that’s how I like you best. You are mind-numbingly tedious and I don’t want to have to take action over it.”
Things have failed to go uphill from then on. This is the most grindingly slow, relentlessly bone-juddering and utterly miserable journey ever.
It does give me time to observe my surroundings which only make me feel more wretched. We crossed the Thames by barge, having apparently left the 21st century, and probably most of the others, behind.
Mayfair, Kensington and Westminster seem to have disappeared into marsh and bogland. Not that I will miss them.
After hours, which feel like months, I am so miserable. I can’t sleep. The seats are padded with horsehair or something. I think the something is the horse’s bones. It’s like being carried over rough ground in a coffin supported by really drunk people who don’t care much that they’re dropping you every now and again.
We pass through endless dark forest. Loredana talks to her non-existent sisters who, I’m glad to say, don’t talk back. One chattering idiot is more than enough. Just when I begin to think death would be preferable to this endless banging and lurching, Loredana confirms it. “Think, Flavia, we’ll be home in less than three months!” She leans froward and pats my knee. “Sorry, were you asleep? We’re nipping out for a quick … nipping. There is fast food available here – only it’s too fast for you. Would you like us to bring you something or would you prefer to wait until we get to a hostelry where they can feed you something already dead?” She smiles. Dear God, the girl has dimples when she wants to use them. She probably thinks they’re cute. They could be – on a velociraptor. She goes on, banging the door open and calling from the running board. “We’ll see if the coachman knows of a place that can cook food for you.” With that she disappears into the gloom.
We do stop eventually, in a place no one sane would stop. First: it smells. I’d like to describe the smells but the English language gave that vocabulary up when people stopped living in a world of rotting pig shit and, given the stench, dying in it.
On Loredana’s gentle command, accompanied by a girly voice, dimples and two long fangs of authority, I wail and lurch, which serve as a description of me trying to move using legs that have long forgotten what they evolved for other than to supply agony. I step out of the carriage and onto what I hope is ground.
Under the glow of smoky lanterns and torches, in what I’m beginning to think is perpetual night in this godforsaken place, I see rutted road. People lurk in shadows but there’s little else in which to lurk. Those figures I can see clearly all seem to have severe cases of pox, missing limbs, are dead or looking like they should have been seriously considering it over the last few months. I swear the air is almost liquid and carrying typhoid, dysentery, smallpox and probably curses and hexes. It’s only with grim suicidal determination that I breathe at all.
In front of me is an inn made of scabby wood. Wide doors open into a deep darkness which looks as welcoming as a black hole – and just as likely to let me out again. There is some light in a window above. A candle illuminates streaked bloodstains on the glass as if a severed hand was trying to escape. I say ‘severed hand’ – it could be just a very big spider. I don’t look long enough to make a positive identification.
I say, “I’m not actually hungry.” After a moment of indecision I become bold enough to ask, “Have I caught leprosy yet or does that come shortly?”
Dimples and head tilted to one side, she replies, “Of course you’re hungry! We can bring you some freshly cooked food. Sausages and meatballs for instance.” Loredana turns to her left. “Ioana, sausages and meatballs; see if there are any bulls or billy goats around.”
I think I must have passed out at that point. If I didn’t, someone has kindly cauterised any brain cells that recall anything which happened between that and me waking up in this bed; on this mattress. This is where the rest of the horse skeleton went. I do not fancy a lie-in.
Through grimy windows I can see it’s still dark out there. The room is illuminated by guttering candles which spit burning fat and curdled smoke in stinking clots. A small horned humanoid, covered in scales and wearing only a smouldering white cap, races between candles with a taper. There’s something in the way she moves that reminds me of Loredana. The candles gutter out as fast as the darting creature can light them. I wish there weren’t so many candles. This is not a five star room; indeed I don’t want to see it too clearly. The paint, whitewash, whatever, is peeling from rotting plaster worse than in a freshly decorated hospital waiting area. Skulls of various antlered and horned animals hang in a dispirited fashion as if they know what’s happened to them.
As I groan, the candle-obsessed creature glances at me, and squeaks, “Damn, it’s alive; I’ll have to wait. Good morrow, master. I am Rodica, maid-in-waiting to you.” She crackles knuckles. “For as long as you shall live.”
“Piss off. Where are my clothes?”
“The ones you vomited over or the ones in the coffin?”
“Can I have a new maid? Uh, what coffin?”
She kicks something hollow. “This one.”
I swing myself out of bed. A rib cracks somewhere in the mattress. “That’s a suitcase. One of mine. They are what you put clothes in.” I look at the contents. “As well as books, an extension cable, a toilet brush and a kitchen waste bin…” I think Loredana’s packing was a random and largely uninformed exercise.
She looks at it as her eyebrows rise, creasing a bony forehead. Scales crackle and flake off. “Ah! I wondered how we were supposed to get you in there, master.”
I kneel on creaking floorboards and dig through another case. “Any chance of some breakfast that won’t give me anthrax?”
It’s cold. As I slip into my warmest clothes Rodica rubs her chin, deep in thought like she’s seriously considering my breakfast options and potential mortality. Pulling up my fleece-lined running slacks, I don an almost-matching top and the jacket with all the cool zips that don’t serve any practical purpose. Lacing up my heaviest trainers, I say, “Ready?”
She looks me up and down. “Is that you dressed … like that?”
“Really like that?”
“You look like a pillock. Follow me, master.” Rodica opens the only door and, to my astonishment, feeble sunlight enters the room – though probably only for a cursory glance before it flees in disgust. I glance at the windows, still dark. They need to pay more attention.
Outside … well, look, I wasn’t expecting much but this is all a surprise. There is some sunlight, the sort of sulking November sun that hides behind layers upon layers of grey cloud like it knows it has to be there but is damned if it’s going to put any effort in.
The opened door reveals a scene of tall waving grass with flat stones laid in the ground to tread on – where you can see them. It’s all a bit ankle-breakingly risky as there are deep holes, rocks and … oh that’s just a venomous snake placed there to make it all more fun. Rodica shouts at it, “Go away! You don’t want to bite through what master is wearing; you’ll get bobbles!” That hurts. I paid sixty quid for these slacks in the Walworth Road market.
Oddly, my room seems to be the only one here. Everything else is ancient ruins sticking up through spiky bushes, though there’s a suspicious lack of fallen masonry as if the builder skipped actually constructing a castle but went straight to ruins to save rock.
From somewhere in a valley or chasm – given the echoes – comes a fearful din as if someone is wringing out herds of assorted animals.
Rodica leads me round a corner and towards a large, luminous green, dripping toadstool upon which sits an equally revolting ancient hag. The hag claps her hands and smiles while a single tooth leaps from gum to gum as it decides where best to present itself in all its yellow glory. “Rodica, you let him out! Good on you.” She grins at me. “Wonderful! I can’t wait to make it clear I will slaughter anyone who offers me help or therapy.”
At last: I’m beginning to feel at home. That’s interesting … who, in this place of weirdness, would have heard the word therapy? Fortunately I have come across no concrete information indicating this woman is anything to do with Loredana. I’d rather things stayed like that.
Her face crumples into a smile like wrinkling skin on cold porridge. “Good morrow, I’m Loredana’s sister Ionela.”
She cackles. “I do not need therapy. I am completely normal, wouldn’t you say?”
“How would I know? I’m a therapist. We don’t see normal people.”
“Here, I’ll show you.”
“Please don’t.” Despite my plea, or maybe just out of spite, she sinks through the toadstool and flops like a wildebeest being born onto the grass underneath. Standing up, she has assumed the form of a young woman, still dripping, with horns.
Now with a full set of new teeth, albeit green to match the rest of her, the single tooth is redundant and decides, for no obvious reason, to move to the side of her nose and pretend to be a wart. The woman says, “See?”
“Not really … no.”
She walks through the grass and beckons me to follow. “I usually do the wicked old witch or the cruel stepmother characters but I have ambitions, you know.” She turns, hands on hips, and glowers through scorching eyes that give off steam. “Walk with me!”
Really all I want is breakfast. I’ll try to wait for the right moment to mention it but I’m not convinced there will be a right moment. The grass swishes around me as I wade forward.
She goes on, “I’d like to be fairy godmother sometime. There is an opportunity for the role of fool on the hill; what do you think?”
“You’ll need a hill but otherwise you’ve got it sussed.”
“I only do the big bad wolf if my sisters are tied up.” Laughing, she throws her head back. “Quick, catch my head!”
I don’t believe I’m holding a green soggy head. It looks up at me, and says, “Can you imagine my sisters all tied up?”
“And gagged?” I ask, hopefully.
“Put my head back on, there’s a darling. Quite a good catch, actually. You’d be a good fielder when we dance the Highland Fling.”
I place her head on the squishy oesophagus. To my everlasting relief it stays there. Even doing that reminds me of breakfast, just not in the usual way. I say, “I’m seriously hungry.” There’s something about this weird woman… “Loredana, stop pissing around and pretending you’re someone else.”
She snarls and spits, grabbing my shoulders and spinning me so I can’t see her. “Don’t do that and close your eyes! When I’m being another person don’t call me Loredana.”
“That’s easy. I’ll never say it again. Take me back home and I promise never to even think about you … ever.”
She spins me back. Now she looks like Loredana the teenage horror again. “You’ve met Ionela. What do you think?”
“Loredana, you claim to have two invisible sisters and seem to believe you are at least one of them. That’s a job for the psychiatric department, not mine. I can make a referral – I hate them anyway. Given what I’ve experienced of them socially, they’re probably familiar with the concept of imaginary friends.”
Loredana grins. “I’ve had breakfast already. You probably thought this was lipstick. I’m a bit of a messy eater.” She takes my hand. “Come to the valley. There are lots of animals about to be processed. Maybe you can eat some bits.”
“That’s the cause of all the noise down there? You’re slaughtering whole herds?”
“No, silly, just peeling them.”
“Remind me never to ask you another question.” Loredana leads me between rocks, gullies and badger (I hope) setts and through grass that seems to want to slash holes in my clothes.
“You’ll need to keep notes of your work here like you do with other families. We don’t have paper so I’m peeling cows and sheep for vellum. They’re not happy about it though.”
“Stop it now! This is worse than you being a vampire.”
“Oh really? When I drink blood I don’t take it all; nobody dies. These animals won’t die either, they’ll just be … patchy.” She squeezes my hand. “Unlike you and your cruel kind. When you eat a burger, how does the cow feel?”
“Please refrain from tormenting animals. I’ve probably got some notepaper in my cases. Let’s talk about real breakfast, something that doesn’t howl at least.”
She stops walking, stamps her foot and lets out a hiss of frustration. “Whatever. I’ll take you to the village and see if Mihaela has made fresh pies from dead animals which have had their heads and legs chopped off, their entrails hacked out and their pizzles turned into goal-warders’ truncheons.”
I have to let that pass or I’ll die of hunger. “A village with actual people … humans?”
“Yes … ish. Be warned, the village is where your problems really start.”
“Wrong. They started when I was born … or may date back to the big bang.” As we breast a rise I see the village is mostly a single muddy street of wattle and daub buildings with thatched roofs through which smoke rises like grey hair. As a village it doesn’t look as real or convincing as they make them in period TV dramas or console games. The smoke is being blown away. I just know the smells are going in the same direction and wonder if pushing on is likely to be less than fun.
Loredana drops my hand and says, “We’ll part company here. Meet me at the inn. You can’t miss the sign saying ‘Ye Newe Tavern’. I’m going to walk on the other side of the street. I don’t want the embarrassment of being seen with you.”
“Loredana … there are no people. The village looks deserted. Did they know you were coming?”
I slither and trip my way up the other side of the high street. High was used liberally in the last sentence and doesn’t include any reference to the odours that strike me as if I have a heavy machine gun firing up each nostril.
The Royal Marines should use these furrows, ankle-breaking holes, slimy puddles, broken cart wheels and who knows what else as some sort of recruit selection course. Though many would lose limbs or die in the attempt, at least they’d feel the relief of not having to be a marine after all.
Things shouldn’t move under mud, should they?
The inn door, heavy and oaken, is studded with iron like some Hollywood medieval hero’s forehead. It opens inwards, presumably to make it more fun to throw people out through it. The room, oak-beamed and lit only by a hissing fire belching sparks and fumes, is as inviting as the mouth of a shark with smoker’s breath.
My stomach is turning me into a monster. I don’t care about animals’ legs and heads being cut off – the very idea is making my mouth water.
I sit on a stool at the bar. The door behind opens and a woman enters. She’s carrying a tray of pies and showing more cleavage than the Great Glen. “Good morrow, sir,” she says in a husky growl and looks down at the tray and-or her bulging breasts. “Wot would ye like to partake of first?”
“Food … food would be nice. Do you accept credit cards?”
“We got goose, swan and venison.” She frowns, puts the tray on the bar and points to a couple of pies. “And those. I’m not rightly sure wot I put in they.” She calls back though the door. “Anyone seen Pussykins today?”
I groan. “Are you real?”
She looks at me askance. “What do ye mean, milord?”
“I’m not sure. Uh … you are Loredana, aren’t you?”
She shrieks and darts from the room. After a moment Loredana emerges and snaps, “I told you about not calling me that when I’m in character! It means I have to revert and I hate changing in front of men.”
“Sit down and tell me which pie will not cause me to die or want to die after eating it.”
She hisses and heads back out of the room. “I’ll ask Mihaela. Wait.”
Mihaela glides in again, bringing what looks like most of the Khyber Pass with her. “Now, good sir, do not interrupt I prithee.” She slides a pie onto a wooden platter and whizzes it across the bar, like an ice puck. “Eat that and sate your yearning stomach. I’ll draw ye a hearty pint of finest ale. Then we can get to know each other more cosy like.”
“Or not. Tell me why there are no people … wait…” I take the first mouthful of pie. Nothing bites back. I learn why people say fast food, supermarket food and possibly all modern food tastes bland. This pie has flavour like invading Mongol hordes had pointy sticks. Now I know why people lived in the middle ages. There had to be a reason.
Mihaela doesn’t seem surprised when I hamster the rest of the pie into my cheeks. “There be lots of people here. Lots of women right enough, all be they lonely and lovelorn. The men … it’s best ye hear not about their fate.” She places a waxed leather tankard in front of me. “But I’ll tell ye anyways just to watch ye choke.”
I wash the pie down with a huge swig of ale, which goes on for some time. I think I’m going to need some sort of sedation in the absence of modern intravenous tranquillisers. Taking the empty tankard and refilling it, in a leaning-unnecessarily-forward manner, Mihaela goes on, “It all started with Princess Loredana…”
“Loredana, the vitriolic vampire, is a princess?” I splutter.
“O’course. Such tragedy, such woe! The poor thing were only married to the marquis for about three seconds. Then her wicked stepmother attacked the church and the bell fell. Of course, Princess Loredana was able to spring aside, lissom and sprightly maid wot she are. But only just; she had an awful struggle holding her fat old husband in the right place until she could be sure he’d be splattered.”
“Is there something in the pies which stops people sounding as if they make any sense at all?”
She passes me another and sets down the refilled tankard. “No, good sir, that’s just ye being too simple to understand plain English.”
“What flavour…” It occurs to me that I was about to ask the wrong question. “What is in this pie?”
She shrugs. “I was telling ye about the men.”
“Though they have nothing to do with what’s in these pies…?”
Mihaela rolls her eyes. “These seven months past on the day of the wedding, Princess Loredana’s wicked stepmother, the old dragon wot she are, killed all the men in these lands.”
The pie tastes even better than the first. I think it best not to inquire about the contents. “She hates men?”
“No, most handsome and beguiling sir, she loves them so she do.” Pursing her lips and frowning for a second, she adds, “She likes the crunchy bits but always singes their beards off first.”
“Please, Mihaela, can you try to make sense when you talk? It may present a bit of a challenge but it’s worth a try. No one can kill and eat a whole countryside of men in one day.”
“Ain’t ye listened to a single thing wot I said?”
“Yes but it’s all been singularly unrewarding in terms of comprehension.”
“I said she were a dragon … ooh…” She pauses, leaning back as if in shock and bewilderment. Frowning, Mihaela tips forward again. “Ye do know this be a fairytale, don’t ye?”
So many scales fall from my eyes, and things drop into place, I’m surprised there’s no accompanying thuds and bongs of impact. Putting the pie down I say, “Shit.”
She leans even further forward; it’s like being flanked by hostile glaciers. Lifting and peering into the pie, she says, “I don’t think so, sweet lord. I mostly takes the guts out.” Smiling, she adds, “Time I showed ye the bedrooms, see which one ye enjoys most.”
“That would be lovely but may I talk to Loredana for a moment first?”
She rises and winks at me. “I will fetch her but don’t be too long, my passion.”
Mihaela leaves and, after a moment, Loredana appears, her scathing tones grating against my soul, “Of course you’re in a fairytale, moron! I knew if I introduced you to someone more on your vegetable level of intelligence I’d understand why you were acting like such a clueless idiot.”
“Nice to see you too, Loredana,” I say, “Do tell me what’s going on, why I’m here and my approximate life expectancy.”
She sits on a stool and glares at me. “What happens between words going into your ears and not going anywhere useful after that? I want you to sort my evil stepmother out, remember?”
“Who happens to be a dragon that fries men and crunches them. Wait,” I feel my pockets, “did you pack my nuclear weapons and suicidal insanity?”
“You don’t need to be too frightened of her.”
“The evidence is not strong in that direction but we’ll come back to that. First, tell me why everyone in this village is invisible unless you do something weird with them.”
“Invisible to you, yes. I can see them.” She points to a table, and waves. “There’re the ladies from the… Oh I see. They’re hidden from my stepmother in case she decides women are her next craze. I used a spell.”
I let out a sigh of relief. “So, they’re not all imaginary friends but real and hidden behind some sort of magic and can only come to life if you act them out?”
“You are making headway disappointingly slowly, but look at the quality of head at your disposal.”
“So this is not about a badly imagined castle in the middle of Transylvania or somewhere, imaginary friends who speak almost understandable English for no obvious reason, an imaginary village and imaginary dragon, but all these things are totally real in a ridiculously unbelievable way? How about telling me something that’s true?”
Loredana sags on the stool and looks down, wringing her hands. “You bastard. I’m doing my best.”
She looks at me, mystified. “What?”
I go on, “Sassy, argumentative, arrogant and sarcastic suit you well. Don’t go spoiling it.”
She straightens up, looks directly at me and narrows her eyes. “Right, the truth – since you asked so nicely. I kissed a magic frog and was given three wishes…” Her eyes flash in fury. “Yes of course the wishes went wrong. That’s how it works.”
“Was happily ever after one of them?”
“Idiot! I am a denizen of fairyland. We don’t get to read the bloody tales. We have to make the sodding mistakes so that parents and little children can ignore vital moral lessons. My first wish was for a realm. All I got was this fantasy one that gives me a headache. I have to sustain the whole population in my imagination. Can you even begin to comprehend the effort involved in acting out nearly a hundred different women?” She sighs. “I can’t act like men unless I’m drunk, asleep or concussed so I pretended there were none. Then I wished for a hero, a soulmate who would think adoring me for ever was the fulfilment of his wildest dream. What I got was you: a sad git as lonely and pathetic as I am.” She grins. “It was only a little frog.” Rising and walking to the bar, she asks, “Another ale for my dashing hero? I’m having at least two in the hope they’ll make you seem better company.”
“What was your third wish?”
“Why did you have to work out I was lying and spoil everything? I wasn’t going to make the dragon too scary for you. Having met you I was thinking a little pink kitten would have been enough. Then you could have killed … no, not you … then you could have cuddled it. Either way you’d have been a hero as far as the village was concerned even if I couldn’t stop giggling. Then we would have got married and lived …. ever after. Give me a hand with these tankards, bold sir knight.”
“So I would have been living in a huge fabricated lie instead of reality. How kind of you.”
“No worse than the myriad lies smothering your nightmare world. At least with only one you won’t get too confused.”
“And your third wish?”
“I’m not that idiotic. There always has to be a moral to these things and mine was not to be stupid a third time. I suppose I was saving it just in case you wanted to return to the fantasy land you call reality.”
We carry the beers to a table set in a big bay window. Sunlight, distorted by the crown glass window panes, shines on a thousand ring stains in the wood. “What’s troubling you?” she asks.
“I’m beginning to like you and it’s doing my head in.” Taking a sip, I try to assess my options. “What’s actually real here and not imagined?”
“Me and you … um … the castle, these buildings and a suit of armour I thought up for you. That was as far as the magic could stretch.” She blushes and looks out of the window. “I’m not sure the armour’s any good. I’ve never actually seen any and all I had in my mind were pots, pans, a colander and a rolling pin.” She frowns. “The wilderness is real and it’s full of adventure and trolls and magic things.” Winking, she adds, “Maybe we could go into it together, my tin-pot knight, and you could be heroic enough to find me a handsome prince, or at least try to talk posh and be a bit dashing yourself. You never know…”
©Gary Bonn, 2017