Let’s start with once upon a time. Once. Once upon a time, once upon an island, once upon the shining sea. Once under a silver-grey sky, once there lived a child and once that child was me. I lived on a hill crowned with an abbey so large that the rest of the town gathered and huddled under its walls. From the church tower, you could peer down at straight stone buildings and vertiginous streets; down, down, all the way to the city wall where, at low tide, a road emerged onto a thin strip of land surrounded by glittering pools and wet sand. At high tide, the hill became an island, and we were stranded there together as surely as if we had drifted off into the mist. It was such a place as legends are made of; the kind of place you visit in your dreams. So it came as no surprise when one day I met a king there.
I had ridden my skateboard to the patisserie on an errand for my mother. It was high tide and early Winter. There were no tourists, in other words. I was free. The tiny wheels rattled over the stone streets, accelerating wildly as I dared myself straight down, pivoting into a zig zag when I lost my nerve. I tacked back and forth down our road, missing obstacles by a whisper, immune to the dirty looks and outright complaints of the neighbours. Suddenly, a tall man stepped out directly into my path. I swerved, I bent, I executed a near to perfect turn, but it was too abrupt. The board zipped out from under me and I fell, crashing onto the hard stone street, bracing myself for a ‘told you so’ and trying not to cry out. Nobody values stoicism like a ten-year-old. He made no comment but bent down and, after a moment, offered me his hand.
I think he was the tallest man I had ever seen. His blond hair hung thickly down to his beard and his blonde beard bushed out from his cheeks like a creature all of its own. He was dressed in some kind of tunic. When he pulled me to my feet I came barely up to his chest.
‘Good day to you, young man’
His voice was deep and rich, like a pool of clear water in a mossy forest. I gathered up my English, which had scattered when I fell.
‘Hello, sir. I am a girl.’
‘A maid? And so brave and swift!’
He laughed with delight.
‘Well then, I have seen a wonder here. Tell me, where am I?’
‘Mont St Michael’, I told him. ‘St Michael’s hill’
He looked perplexed then. I wondered if he had amnesia; I’d seen a documentary.
‘Where are you from, sir?’
He gazed into the distance. The sea was restless that day. Fractious grey waves chopped up the surface and the swell rolled like a beast turning over and over. A mile or so offshore, white mist blurred the horizon.
‘I am England’s king. I would that I could find my way home.’
I was full of questions, then. Was he married to the queen? Had he sailed here? Why was he dressed like that? How had he become lost? Was he really a king? But I was old enough not to irritate adults with questions. Instead, I offered to take him to the Abbey. Perhaps the monks could help him. He agreed to this immediately and strode up the steep street on long legs while I scurried, two steps to his one. The sea air crept behind us, cold on the ears and on the backs of our necks, smelling of mist and brine. I noticed then that his clothes were wet from the knees down as if he had been wading. Strange clothes they were, too, like something from a school play. At his belt hung a sword, which swung slightly as he moved. He was very upright. And very tall. I could not hold in all my questions.
‘Sir, are you really a king?’
‘Yes, child. I am Arthur Pendragon, King of the Britons.’
‘How did you come here?’
He told me a tale then that I did not completely understand; a tale of magic and mists and journeys and loss. I gathered that he was alone and had come a long way from a dark place, both over and through the sea. He had lost his way and become separated from his companions, but he was alive and that, he seemed to think, was a miracle. His energy increased as he talked, so that his voice boomed out, confident and clear, like a trumpet announcing our arrival. People turned to look. When we entered the abbey grounds, he commented approvingly on the thickness of the stone walls and the grandeur of the tall buildings. He really did look like a king.
I knocked on the wooden door on the east side of the monk’s buildings, hoping for Brother Benedict, the kind one. Brother Michel, however, opened it.
‘Oh, Arthur, there you are! We have been worried about you.’
This was surprising.
‘Brother, do you know him?’
‘He is our guest.’
I lowered my voice.
‘Is he really the King of the Britons?’
The monk glanced swiftly from King Arthur back to me.
‘On some days, he feels that he is a king. Perhaps he is a king in his heart.’
What childish nonsense. King Arthur stood, regal, on the doorstep. Inside, I could see other monks going about their business. One came down the hall towards us and, with a great show of welcome, invited the king inside. He acquiesced then, graciously accepting the invitation, but before he entered, he turned back to me and went down on one knee so that we were face to face. His eyes were as blue as the summer sea.
‘Thank you, child. It was well that we met.’
‘I was pleased to meet you too, sir.’
Brother Michel hesitated before closing the door. He was not confident with children. Eventually, still holding the handle, he found the courage to speak to me.
‘He is not really a king, Mathilde. He is just a troubled soul. Sometimes we give sanctuary to those who lose their way.’
I skated cautiously home, carrying the weight of this thought, croissants cooling in my bag. Even a year before I would have dismissed Brother Michel’s comments out of hand but now I was ten, and should be casting away childish things. I turned my face towards the sensible adult world and believed him. So that was that.
I would make a different choice now.
Once upon a time the world was ordered, knowable, contained in the space of an island. But then I grew up, discovered uncertainty, and lost my own way in sea mist or magic or the mists of time. Once upon a time the tide was turning. The sun broke silver through the clouds. A king gazed out from a high window. A spine of sand emerged from the glittering sea. Once upon a time.