Once upon a time there was a little boy and his name was Jack.
She paused, and looked appraisingly at the small child in the pyjamas. Was she ready to hear how her father had died? Her daughter looked back at her. She was so small, still chubby, with fluffy white-blonde hair like a newly hatched chick. Her little fingers were like sausages, her cheeks rosy from the bath. She should tell her a different story.
Once upon a time, when I was pregnant with you, your father’s reign of terror was so smothering that I used to fantasise about killing him myself. Not out of rage, just to escape. You wouldn’t understand, little chick, and I hope you never do.
Perhaps not that story, not quite in those words.
What about these? He was out and I was home. I was always home. It was a rule of his. I was barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen, a good wife. He was out somewhere doing whatever he bloody well wanted, a real man. It was a sunny day, laden with good things. The kitchen door was open and as I cooked, a fresh breeze wandered in from the herb garden. I felt you stir, my love. It was just you and me, only us in the whole wide world until a thin foreign boy came knocking at the door, and the peace vanished. Your father did not allow visitors. He despised foreigners. He kept a close eye on resources. An unknown footprint in the kitchen; one apple less; an increase in expenditure; my apron out of place; anything could set him off and I had you to protect. But the boy was so hungry, with skinny cheeks and big eyes, and I was a mother now. I made some quick calculations. My husband was out. The boy was small. I pulled him in.
I sat him at the kitchen table and fetched him some food, explaining about my husband all the while. If my husband came back, the boy should hide. Quick, quick, into that cupboard there (I pointed) or, if he had time, he should run back out of the door and scurry home. If he had a home. Either way, he couldn’t stay here. The boy nodded, his eyes on the food. I don’t think he had eaten that day and maybe not the day before, either. When I put the plate in front of him, it was all he saw. He tried not to gobble, but he ate steadily and with a desperate intensity. I saw him tuck some bread into his pocket for later. I thought about you, my love. I hoped you would never be hungry like that. Even if it meant staying with your father. I could handle him. Once you were born, I would have more time and energy to please him, and I would distract him and protect you. That was my plan, anyway. Maybe it would have worked. Meanwhile, the boy ate and ate. After the first plateful he became talkative and looked around the room. After the second, he began to look unwell. I wrapped a chicken leg for him in paper. He could take it when he left.
I started to get anxious, then. I had a sixth sense that told me when he was coming, or maybe it was just a sense of time. I was eager to get the waif out of the house and clean up all traces of his visit but the boy was sluggish now, and curious to see everything about him. He started to tell me a story about how he’d got here – some nonsense about magic beans. I started to worry that he was planning to rob us. I’m not racist, but there’s a reason we don’t trust foreigners. Maybe I’d been gullible to take him in. I told the boy to leave, just as I heard my husband come through the front door. It would not have been too late if he’d hurried, but the stupid child just stood there listening with a strange look on his face. My husband was a big man, tall and broad. When he walked, he stomped and when he stomped the house shook. I was used to it but I suppose the child was not. My husband called out to me as he stomped through the house, checking that I was in my place. When I was late to reply, he stormed into the kitchen. The boy hid, then, but it was not enough. My husband could smell him. He had that foreign, English, smell of woodsmoke and cheese. Your father stormed and raged and I thought he would hit me and you, my darling, so I took a desperate measure and put a drop of Golden Harp in his drink. That knocked him out for a minute and the boy, finally, ran.
If I’d known then what I knew later, I’d never have invited him in. But then we’d be living with your father still and maybe, honestly, maybe we wouldn’t have survived. So maybe I was right to have taken him in and let fate fall the way it did. I don’t know. I still don’t know.
When your father came to, he was apoplectic with rage. He turned his furious face towards me, and a chill drenched me from my scalp down to the pricking soles of my feet. I knew what he was capable of. Quickly husband, I said, chase him. The foreign child. He stole some chicken. He went that way down the road. The tide of his anger turned away from us then and onto that poor, skinny, innocent boy. But what choice did I have? I had you to protect. I closed all the doors behind him and I closed the windows too, and went and hid upstairs in a dark cupboard with my eyes closed, rocking with you as I sang a lullaby and tried not to think of that poor hungry child being beaten to death by your father on the road. He would not get far. His legs were so small.
But that is not what happened. I heard distant shouts, it is true, but they were only his shouts and not the boy’s. I heard a big thump that rocked the ground. Then all was still.
It was a long time before I crept out of the cupboard, my chick, and even longer before I mustered up the courage to peek out of the front door. The neighbours came by with terrible news that I couldn’t believe. They took me to the edge of the cliff, with sidelong glances and whispers, and I saw his big broken body lying small on the ground below, so far away there were clouds between us. A huge vine had fallen around him, its trunk as wide as he was. I cried loud and long, then, to spite them. He was a monster but once I loved him, and not one of them had ever helped me. So I let them see my grief, and I made sure they understood that he was the father of my child.
What they never saw, sweet girl, were the scissors I used to cut up his clothes, or the feast I ate with my hands, or the levity with which I danced around the house that night with all the lights on, or the orphans I fed from our garden every day until you were born. But none of that is strange to you.
And I can tell you none of it.
The child with the big eyes was still looking at her patiently, sleepily, waiting for a story. What could she tell her? Be safe. Be careful. There are monsters that look like princes, and traps that look like golden rings. But not today. She picked up her daughter’s favourite book.
Once upon a time …