This is an extract from my latest short story The Girl Who Would Be King, written as part of the Twelve project I am working on which sees me publish a new and original short story every month during the year 2015.
UPDATE March 2016: In an unexpected turn of events the story actually ended up as being one of nine stories in the collection of fiction, Nine Women: Short Stories, published in March 2016. You can buy it on Amazon now.
The Girl Who Would Be King is a short story written from a young girl's perspective and it was a real treat to write another story from a child's perspective (something I did twice in Shy Feet but not once in London Eyes, though I did try on a teenager, a cat and a ghost for size!). It was a lot of fun to write this particular story and I hope you enjoy this touching tale of sisterhood, wild imaginations and playing in the sunshine.
The Girl Who Would Be King
I have a sister and her name is Hannah. She is tall, has long, thin legs, a pair of green eyes and wavy brown hair that reaches the bottom of her back. When she sits still long enough, I like to perch next to her and wrap strands of that hair around my fingers. It is soft and smooth and the loops I make often fall off the tips of my fingers. The lack of tangles in Hannah’s hair is a small miracle, our mother says, because Hannah never lets anybody brush her hair and she certainly doesn’t do it herself.
Summer is our favourite time of year. It’s when we get to explore the gardens that surround our small house.
“One day we will be offered a fortune for all this land,” our father often says to us.
“One day,” my mother echoes as if confirming it for Hannah and me.
“And we will then be able to live wherever we want, in a big house. You two can have your own rooms,” Dad will add, sniffing and clearing his throat.
He works as a tree surgeon and from March to November hay fever plagues him. It’s not as if the winter months are any relief. Last year, he got chilblains on all but three of his toes and ended up with a cold for much of December and January, meaning he got through just as many tissues that winter as in the summer months. I sometimes wonder why he doesn’t think about getting a new job, but I’m old enough now to know that I’d just be told it wasn’t that simple if I ever did suggest this to him. Apparently things get very complicated when you’re an adult.
That offer of a fortune hasn’t come yet but I can hear the jump in my mother’s voice every time she answers the phone when she’s not expecting a call.
Secretly, Hannah and I don’t want to move. Secretly, we don’t want to have separate rooms. Secretly, we don’t want to leave our Kingdom of Gardens over which we rule.
Hannah is the king and I am the queen. We are not married, we are still sisters, but Hannah decided that every kingdom should have both a king and a queen in order to be best protected and provided for and since she wants to be king, then I must be queen.
“I could be a prince or a princess,” I offered last summer when we were both crowned in our appointed roles. We took it in turns to sit on the only sun lounger we have, the one that lives in the shed and smells of damp and soil. Mum used to wash the cushion but when some plant feed spilled on it she said there was no point anymore. “Just don’t eat off it,” she warned us.
“Why would you be a prince? You’re a girl.”
“You’re a girl and you’re king.”
“Yes, but there are no boys here to be king, so I must,” she said. “Don’t you realise that that’s what happens when all the men go away, it’s up to women to do their jobs. And to do them better too.”
“But we have Dad here,” I said. “He’s a boy.”
“He’s a man and he’s not here when we need him. He’s always at work. A king should always be there for its subjects,”
I opened my mouth to stand up for Dad who the day before had come home with seven splinters in his left hand, leaving my mother sighing at the effort of pulling out each one as our dinner burned in the oven. It was thanks to Dad that we had food to eat and the Kingdom of Gardens to rule over.
As king and queen we spend most of our time inspecting the grounds, something we itch to do during those long, dark, winter months. Though it’s never been said out loud, we know we’re not really allowed to go outside before the weather breaks and small yellow, blue and purple flowers start pushing up in the grass. It’s because our mother worries about us catching cold. Or rather, she worries about me. I’m not built like Hannah. I don’t have legs that can jump a metre in the air. I don’t have arms that can hold onto the top bar of our swing set and keep me there for seventeen minutes, a record Hannah’s hoping to break this summer. Instead, I have a pair of lungs that are never empty; even if I force all the air out of them, I’m still left with a sticky, syrupy cough. I also have a nose that always likes to run when it’s either too cold or too hot, and I have a pair of ears that burn red in the wind, and depending on their exact shade Mum can predict if I’m going to get a sore throat or not. Hannah’s never said anything to me about any of this, but I know that she would be allowed outside earlier in the year on her own or if one of her friends from school came over, but she always waits for me. She doesn’t ask Mum if she can go out on her own and she doesn’t invite anyone else over. I am always part of the equation.
“What is a king without her queen?” she said once last summer, and the way her voice dripped in warmth made it sound like she was quoting a famous line from a romantic novel. I will always remember her saying that. It made me very happy.
Now April has arrived. It’s Saturday and the sun is shining, so together we rush to ask Mum if we can go outside. She takes a few long seconds to agree and we squeal with delight that we can finally run and play and check that everything in the Kingdom of Gardens is how it should be. While Hannah rushes to the coat rack to dress herself, I’m told to sit on the bottom step of the stairs. Mum then layers me up with a scarf, a pair of gloves and my jacket, which she buttons up to the top.
“Goodness, you’re growing,” Mum says as she tucks the ends of my scarf into the coat. She sounds surprised as if I would always stay so small.
“Hurry up!” Hannah calls from the front door.
“Are you warm enough?” Mum whispers in my ear, as if it’s one of our little secrets that I might not be.
“Yes, I’m actually really hot,” I say, poking a finger under the brim of the woollen hat that is itching my forehead.
“Just take it easy,” she says as I walk towards Hannah. “Hannah, keep an eye on her will you?”
“God, Mum. What kind of king would I be if I didn’t? It’s my job to take care of the queen.”
I don’t have time to imagine what sort of an expression Mum has in response to this because Hannah has grabbed my hand and is pulling me outside with her.
“We should be organised about this,” Hannah says. “It’s our first full day of inspecting the Kingdom so we should be thorough and logical.”
We are standing on opposite sides of The Central Stump, a broad, flat circle that was once an oak tree taller than our house. Just a few footsteps from the walls of the house, the stump sits roughly in the centre of the land that surrounds our home. Before we even moved in, we knew it had to come down. Dad took one look at it, sneezed, and then said it had to go.
“It would bring the whole house down if it ever fell,” he said, blowing his nose.
After we moved in, there was a long wait for the council’s approval. Each morning our mother would study the day’s weather report in the paper and then compare it with the radio’s forecast. Any wind that threatened to be stronger than 20 miles per hour would have her silently watching the tree from the window all day, ordering us to keep out of the kitchen and to use the toilet in the bathroom upstairs so as to avoid the two rooms closest to the tree.
“Dad said that if it falls, the whole house will crumble,” Hannah said one day we were ordered upstairs. It must have been a weekend as we weren’t at school. “It doesn’t matter where we are.”
“Then let’s hide under the bed, just in case,” I said. I liked lying under the bed with Hannah. That small space forced our bodies together and our heads just inches apart. I would feel her breath on my nose and sometimes her hair would fall over my hands.
We were six and seven back then, when we first moved in. Now we’re nine and ten.
“So, where should we start?” Hannah asks me now. “I suggest we head to The Sorrowful Stream first as that’s the furthest point of the Kingdom. Then we can work our way back methoc’… method… methodically.”
Hannah likes to use big words, though they often became tangled somewhere between her brain and her mouth.
“You sound like Mrs Burrows,” I say.
“No, bossy.” I laugh at my own joke.
Hannah sighs. “You see, this is why I am king and you are queen. I am the only one capable of making decisions.”
“Queens do the same job as a king. We have a queen ruling our country. She doesn’t have a king to make decisions. It’s all up to her.” I say not meaning for it to be a dig at Hannah’s unconventional approach to leadership, but as soon as I finish talking I suspect she may take it that way.
“But if she was a man, she would be a king and she wouldn’t be queen. The king is always more important. Her husband is purpof’… purpose… he’s called a prince on purpose so he knows this and doesn’t get any grand ideas about making important decisions. When there’s a king, you can still have a queen, but the king is the only one who makes the decisions. What does that tell you?” Hannah is scratching the tip of a wooden stick against the Central Stump.
“That men trump women.” I say.
“Like in the card games we play with Mum and Dad.”
“Oh yeah, trumps.”
“It’s not fair, is it?” I say, feeling my temperature starting to drop as a chill kisses the back of my neck. I don’t have long hair like Hannah. I have a more practical haircut so that I can wash and comb it myself, which I like to do.
“What isn’t fair?”
“That kings and queens can’t be equal.”
“Well, we are.” She pokes my stomach with the stick, just hard enough for me to giggle like it tickles though it doesn’t really.
“Come on, let’s go and see if The Sorrowful Stream has got bigger or smaller over the winter.”
We run across the grass together, hand in hand.
The Girl Who Would Be King is now available as part of the short story collection Nine Women: Short Stories, available now on Amazon for Kindle.
Photo by Dan Zen, licensed under creative commons.