A brief series of tales from the land of Oh!
The important message
“Husband!” the queen’s scream from her judging chamber could be heard clearly from the great hall, even through two closed, solid oak doors. “Come in here. There’s something important I want to tell you.”
“Velcro,” King Kannot said to his trusty retainer, “would you mind awfully going to my sweet bride and pointing out to her how castle etiquette works?”
“And how would that be Sire?” Velcro asked even though, as one of the king’s confidants, he was fully aware of all aspects of royal protocol and had even been the author of some.
“I am the king. I summon people to me. The queen does not summon the king. Tell her that if she has something to say, she should seek me out and request a moment or two of my precious royal time.”
“I’d rather not, Sire. You know how the queen scares me.”
“Delegate, then. Whom does she not scare?”
“No-one that’s met her, Sire. Not that I’m aware of, anyway.”
“Well, whom do you not mind being scared by her?”
“Let me think. Hmm. Jack, the stable boy, was caught nicking jam tarts last week—”
“Is that a euphemism?”
“I don’t hear anything, Sire.”
“You asked if I heard a euphemism, Sire. I know there is one in the palace orchestra, or is it the palace band? I can never tell the difference.”
“Velcro, your brain is wearing out. I said euphemism – a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing. I did not say euphonium.”
“Apologies, Sire. Is what a euphemism?”
“Nicking jam tarts.”
“No, Sire, that’s theft – petty larceny, really or even pilfering or defalcation.”
“Defalcation? That’s nothing like stealing. That’s a posh word for sh—”
“Ha ha ha. Oh, Sire. I do so enjoy these word-games. Sire is such a wit. But, no. Nicking jam tarts is precisely what Jack did.”
“In that case, Velcro, it is most appropriate that his punishment includes having to face the wrath of the queen.”
The lady in question chose that instant to repeat her call to the king, three-quarters of an octave higher in pitch and a good twenty decibels higher in volume.
“Should Sire respond?” Velcro asked.
“No, Sire should not. Get hold of Jack, and have him give her a piece of my mind.”
“Perhaps the prince might?”
“What about the Prince Mite?”
“Not the Prince Mite, Sire: the prince might, that is to say, his royal sonship may.”
“What may he do?”
“Confront the queen, Sire.”
“Are you joking?”
“Word is, Sire, the prince has his mother exactly where he wants her.”
“Find out who started that filthy rumour and have him flogged. I will not have that sort of thing going on in my castle. Now, off you go, Velcro; see to it and make haste.”
“What sort of thing is Sire objecting to?”
“That sort of thing you mentioned. My gosh, you’ll be saying next that I have an inappropriate physical relationship with the princess.”
“But there is no princess, Sire.”
“Don’t you think I know that? How senile do you think I am?”
“I… I wouldn’t presume to entertain such conjecture, Sire,” Velcro replied, his confusion reaching levels that would guarantee silver, perhaps even gold, at the next inter-governmental games.
“So why are you suggesting that I don’t even know how many children I have?”
“I’ll go and fetch Jack, Sire.”
“Hmmph. Do that.”
Velcro trotted off as fast as his seriously aged legs could carry him.
Minutes later, the queen entered the great hall, where her husband was waiting for his retainer to return – although by then he’d probably forgotten what he needed him for.
“You didn’t answer when I called you,” she said in a shrill, ear-splitting and accusing tone.
“No, dear. You’re right. I didn’t.”
“And why not, may I ask?”
“You may, but you’ll need to wait for Velcro to return with Jack.”
“What, Jack the stable boy?”
“The very same.”
“Jack, the stable boy who stole a whole batch of my very best jam tarts?”
“Were they yours?”
“No, they were yours. I made them for you.”
“For me? For me? I’ll have him strung up. I’ll have him flogged. I’ll—”
“You’ll do nothing with him until he, or someone, has told me what I want to know.”
“And what would that be, dearest?”
“I want to know why you didn’t answer when I called you.”
Fortuitously, Velcro chose that moment to return with Jack, the stable boy.
“Now then, young Jack,” the queen bellowed.
“I’m s-s-sorry, ma’am,” Jack stuttered in reply, “I thought the tarts were for the staff.”
“When have you ever known me to make confections for the working classes?”
“I didn’t know you’d made them, ma’am. I thought they were from the kitchen.”
“From the kitchen? From the kitchen? They were in my private chamber. Come to that, what were you doing in my private chamber in the first place?”
Kannot looked at Velcro and winked. This was going so much better than he could have hoped. Diversionary tactics were always his trump card.
“Word in the staff quarters was that you were looking for some, erm, entertainment, ma’am, and I drew the short straw.”
“Entertainment? Why would I want entertainment? And what sort of entertainment could you provide? You’re just a stable hand.”
“They say I’m good with the fillies, though, ma’am,” Jack said with a wink and, truth be told, just a hint of a leer.
Kannot and Velcro looked at each other and sniggered; interestingly, in exactly the way that the queen didn’t.
“Never mind that,” the queen said, “I’ll deal with that impertinence later – in my judging chamber.”
Jack blanched. The queen continued, “Meanwhile, what have you to tell me? Why did the king not answer when I called him?”
“With respect, ma’am,” he started, “His Majesty is the king, the ruler of Oh!”
“Yes, I know that. And I am the queen.”
“You, ma’am, are queen consort. You have authority only as granted to you by His Majesty.”
“What has that to do with his not answering me?”
“With the greatest respect, ma’am,” he said with appropriately downcast eyes (although if you could see where his gaze landed, appropriately would not be your adverb of choice), “it is not for the queen consort to summon the king. It should be the other way around.”
“But he didn’t want to speak to me, I wanted to speak to him.”
“Yes, ma’am. Nonetheless—”
“So? How am I to achieve that, except by summoning him?”
“Perhaps ma’am could request—”
“Request an audience? I’m not some commoner to bow and scrape to the crown.”
Velcro decided the boy had done enough and stepped into the breach. “Perhaps the queen could ask for a moment of His Majesty’s time,” he suggested.
“Maybe. Perhaps. But while we’re at it, why does no one ever call me by my name?”
“Ma’am,” Velcro responded with great respect and solemnity, “the queen doesn’t need a name. She is the queen. Isn’t that name enough?”
“It probably would be, if I had a capital Q. I don’t even have that. I want to be Queen with a big Q, not queen with a little one.”
“The king himself only has a capital letter when the word is used as a title, ma’am; as a proper noun. He is either the king, with a little K or King Kannot with a big one.”
The king grinned. One can only surmise at what.
“Then I can be Queen… drat! Now even I don’t know what my given name is.”
The queen turned and stormed off into her judging chamber. King Kannot ran after her.
“My precious,” he called.
“What is it?”
“What was it you wanted to discuss with me?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, “I’ve clean forgotten. Too much upset for one day. I’ll see if there’s someone to judge. If not, send Jack in; I’ll judge him.”
The king walked back to Velcro and shook him by the hand. “Another crisis averted,” he said. Then, turning to Jack, he said, “Punishment served, lad. Let that be a lesson to you. Run off, now, before the queen decides to exercise her judge mental skills on you.”
Jack the stable lad bowed and walked out of the hall backwards as quickly as he could, dipping his head frequently as he did so, all in accordance with the very best of royal protocol.
Just then, the queen poked her head around the door to her judging chamber. “Oh, yes,” she said, “I’ve invited the other queens and their husbands for a curry night next weekend.”
“What’s a curry night?” the king asked.
“No idea,” she replied, “I was quite happy being a waitress in a cocktail bar until you came along. You’re supposed to be the smart one. Get Velcro to find out what one is, then he can organise it.”
A brief series of tales from the land of Oh!
The betrothal that wasn’t
(first published February 2015)
“What am I to do, Velcro?” asked Kannot, king of the land of Oh! “Old whats-her-name’s getting damnably silly ideas, again.”
“What ideas, Sire, and who precisely is getting them?”
Velcro had been Kannot’s retainer for longer than either of them could remember, which given their ages was probably not very long.
“She who likes to be called Ma’am when she’s on her throne and her workshops or something when she’s in her judger’s pulpit. Got it into her head that it would be a good idea, after all, for Prince Mite to marry the very, very ugly daughter of the king next door.”
“I thought Sire had decided on this matter, with the agreement of the Privy Council.”
“So I had, Velcro, so I had. But now her high-and-mighty queenness has decided otherwise.”
“Did she say why, Sire?” Velcro asked.
“Oh, something to do with a coffee morning with all the local queens. How many can there be, for goodness’ sake? The nearest of our four neighbouring kingdoms; or is it five, I can never remember, maybe it’s even six, who knows – or cares? Anyway, the closest is two days’ horse-ride, but she has these coffee mornings every day except Sundays when she has a lie-in,”
“That’s nice, Sire. I’m told spending extra time in bed together helps to support the relationship.”
“Did I say anything about bed, Velcro, DID I?” the old king shouted.
“No, Sire, you didn’t.”
“No, Sire, I didn’t,” he mocked, “When I say a lie-in, I mean she spends most of the day telling lies. And they are whoppers!”
“If I may be permitted, Sire, I espy a conundrum, a puzzle, if you will.”
“And if I won’t?”
“Even so, Sire.”
“What is this conundrum, this puzzle, if I will?”
“Simply this, Sire. If the nearest neighbouring kingdom is two days on horseback, that means the others are further, doesn’t it?”
“It does, of course. Simple logic, Velcro. Are you beginning to lose your whatsits?”
“No, not reason. What’s that thing they have in those big schools for getting degrees?”
“Yes, Velcro, universities.”
“Is your Majesty referring to faculties?”
“Exactly, Velcro. You losing yours?”
“I sincerely hope not, Sire. I would be of little use to your Majesty without them. Why do you ask?”
“Because you just suggested that if the nearest kingdom is two days’ ride, the others must be further.”
“And that caused you to believe that my mind is becoming feeble? I would have thought the opposite, Sire.”
“Velcro, you are confusing the royal brain. Get on with what you wanted to say.”
“Certainly, Sire. If the nearest neighbouring kingdom is two days’ ride…”
“And the others are further…”
“And the others, Sire, are indeed further. Given that scenario, that geographic veracity, that spatial reality…”
“Get on with it!” King Kannot was renowned for many things, but patience was not one of them.
“Sire. How can they have a coffee morning in a different kingdom every day, if the closest one takes two days to reach?”
“Hah-ha! Got her,” the king shouted, jumping up and down with glee. “The old bat obviously thinks I’m a bit simple, doesn’t she?”
“I can’t imagine where she could possibly get that idea from, Sire,” Velcro replied, as yet another chunk fell off the end of his tongue and landed with a soggy ‘splat’ on the stone floor of the throne room.
“What’s to be done about it, Velcro?”
“When is her Majesty next due to host the coffee morning here, Sire?”
“Tomorrow. Thursday is her day. Not that I’ve ever seen any of them. Women’s stuff, she calls them. Men not allowed even in the same building.”
“Tell her you’d like to address the ladies, Sire.”
“Didn’t you hear what I said? Men not allowed.”
“Sire. Are you not the ruler of this land?”
“You know I am. Why do you ask?”
“How can the ruler be banished from a single room, not only in his kingdom but in his own castle? Are you not King of the Castle?”
“Of course I am, Velcro. I am supreme ruler of this land, and as such I order you to speak to the queen about this matter.”
“That would be most improper, Sire. It is not within my power to give instructions to the queen.”
“Very well, I’ll tell Mite to do it.”
“The might of Mite might do it, Sire,” Velcro opined, “but the greater force of your Majesty must prevail.”
So the king took his leave of Velcro and entered the judging chamber, where his bride was busily harassing some poor soul from her pulpit.
“When you’ve finished, my dear,” the king said, entering the sacred space of the judging chamber without so much as a ‘by your leave’ or ‘if you please’.
“Can’t you see I’m busy judging?” she bellowed.
“I can,” the king calmly replied. “As I say, when you’ve finished.” And with that, he moved to leave the chamber.
“Don’t walk away when I’m talking to you,” she ranted, “I haven’t finished yet.”
“Then kindly do so, and when you have, we’ll talk.”
The queen turned to the supplicant in the dock, saying, “Look, whatever it is you want, you can’t have. Whatever it is you’re accused of, you’re guilty; Bailiffs, take him away and hang him, or something.”
“But, Judger, I am only here to apply for…”
“Well, you can’t have it, so GO AWAY! Now, husband, what do you want?”
“Where was today’s coffee morning, my sweet?”
“You know very well, that Wednesdays we have it in Spoland.”
“Spoland is two days’ ride.”
“So how are you back in time to cause misery here?”
“Have you never heard of teleconferencing?”
“No, I haven’t,” the king replied.
“Well, one day it will be invented, then you won’t be able to ask so many impertinent questions.”
“These coffee mornings don’t happen, do they?”
“Of course they do.”
“I mean outside of your poor, overworked, befuddled, queenly brain.”
“But they don’t”
“Not exactly,” the queen admitted, “not as such.”
“So where did this idea of Mite marrying the ugly daughter of that ex-frog come from?”
“I’m just fed up with the little shit, and I want him married off and out of my hair,” she yelled.
“You don’t have the power to do that. You are my queen consort. I am the hereditary king; I rule.”
“You can’t talk to me like that!” she said.
“Velcro says I can, and he should know,” the king replied. “Let’s go to him, and see if he can resolve this mess.”
Entering the throne room, the royal pair faced Velcro.
“Velcro. Can you explain to my beautiful queen, how it is that I am empowered to make major decisions of state, and she isn’t?”
Velcro looked around the room, trying to find the person the king mentioned, but could only see his Highness and her who is known among the peasantry as ‘Lady Plain Grey’.
“Certainly, Sire,” then turning to the queen, “Is your Majesty familiar with the concept of the divine right of kings?”
“Of course I am, but Kannot is left-handed,” the queen replied.
“I don’t think that makes any difference, Ma’am,” Velcro replied, mentally rolling his eyes. Had he rolled his eyes in a way that was visible to the queen, he might just have lost them. The queen does not take criticism well, even of the implied kind.
“So you are saying that because Kannot was born royal, he has rights that are denied to me simply because he plucked me from obscurity so he could enjoy my charms and my unbelievable beauty?”
“And have been doing so ever since, my precious,” the king interrupted in his most Gollum-like manner.
“That is the case, I’m afraid, Ma’am. ‘Tis the law of the land.”
“Then the law needs to change,” she said.
“The law can only be changed by the word of the king,” Velcro said, adding after a pause, “Ma’am.”
“Well, all I can say is that is exceedingly unfair. I’m going to go and judge someone, and they’ll be jolly sorry we had this conversation,” the queen said, storming out of the throne room back into her judging chamber; the chamber where she reigned supreme and her word was still law.
“I take it that means the Prince is not to be shackled to the Princess Tadpole, Sire.”
“You are not wrong, Velcro, not wrong at all.”
“And the king’s final word on this episode?” Velcro asked.
King Kannot replied, “Phew, that was a close one!”
A brief series of tales from the land of Oh!
Your tears aren’t good enough
(first published August 2014)
“Sorry. No can do. Your tears aren’t good enough.”
The words echoed around the large, oak-panelled room in the middle of which fifteen-year-old Jake Tiler was standing. With a height to the ceiling of about five metres, it had tall, arched windows all around at about three metres from the floor, and was devoid of contents, save for what looked like a pulpit at the same level as the bottom of the windows. Jake was alone in the room, apart from a fearsome-looking woman in the pulpit. She was dressed entirely in black, and her expression reeked of malevolence. A label on the pulpit displayed a single word in large, ornate letters:
That his tears weren’t good enough wasn’t what Jake expected to hear from the Judger, and it wasn’t what he wanted to hear, so he questioned it, “What do you mean, my tears aren’t good enough?”
“Simply that,” she replied, “one of your people—”
“My sister, Jane,” Jake interrupted.
“Alright, alright, your sister,” she made the sign of rabbit’s ears to emphasise the word, “has been found guilty of stealing. The penalty for that, according to the law, is death by misadventure. There is no right of appeal, although real tears from a person directly related to the miscreant, who is innocent of any and all wrongdoing; and who is, in the judgement of this court, that is to say me, a thoroughly nice, kind, generous and practically-perfect example of citizenship; real tears from such a person may, and I stress may result in the sentence being commuted to a life of misery.”
“And that’s supposed to be fair?” he asked, “That’s supposed to be justice? What happened to mercy, to—”
“JUSTICE? MERCY? This has nothing to do with justice or mercy.” She retorted, testily, “That may be what they do in other realms, but here … here … the purpose of this court is to keep order, to maintain the law. And we choose to do that by simple, impartial vengeance.”
“May I approach Your Worships more closely?” he asked, respectfully.
“No, you may not. If you have something you want to say to me, you must say it in the full hearing of everyone here. Now speak up, or go away and leave me alone!”
“But there’s no-one else here, Your Worships; just we two.”
“There might have been others, and I’m sure that if there were, they would have wanted to hear what you had to say. As well as … we don’t know if someone may be hiding in the corners, or under the stairs, or even inside the bottom of my judging box.”
This was not going well. The Judger’s brain had clearly gone out to play, leaving the rest of her to run the court.
Jake tried polite deference. “If it please Your Worships—”
“But it doesn’t.”
“But if it did …” he said, in a teasing, drawn-out way.
“Go on,” she replied in similar vein.
“What are Your Worships’ reasons for saying my tears aren’t good enough?” he asked; very respectfully, of course.
“You don’t understand the rules at all, do you?” she snapped, “I am the Judger. I don’t have to explain myself to you. You have to explain yourself to me! You have to tell me why you think your tears are good enough. In short, you have to prove to me that you fit the definition of ‘a person directly related to the miscreant, who is innocent of any and all wrongdoing; and who is, in the judgement of this court, that is to say me, a thoroughly nice, kind, generous and practically-perfect example of citizenship’. Can you do that?”
“I can try,” he said, resigned to having to do what he had to do to obtain something approaching justice for Jane.
The Judger almost screamed at him, “I didn’t ask if you can try. I asked if you can do it. You must learn to answer the question you have been asked, not one you made up yourself to suit your case. You’re not a politician, you know.”
“I apologise, Your Worships,” he said with all the humility he could muster, “I shall do that. I shall present my case through a story if Your Worships will allow.”
“Very well,” she said, her voice sounding as bored as any he had ever heard, “I suppose I’d better let you. But it mustn’t take too long; I’m almost ready for my lunch.”
Jake began his tale. “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…”
“Oh get on with it!” she instructed, by way of interruption.
“Sorry, I’ll continue.” he paused to gather his thoughts. “Once upon a time, a man took his son to the bridge over a nearby river, for a game of Pooh sticks.”
“What’s Pooh sticks? I’ve never heard of it,” she said, “and I know about every game there is.”
“Pooh sticks is a game in which two or more people stand on one side of a bridge—”
“Sounds boring. Carry on with your story,” she said.
“When they leaned over the downstream side of the bridge, the boy disappeared.”
“Disappeared? Where did he go? People don’t just disappear,” she yelled, adding more quietly, “except on the orders of the court.”
“Well, this boy did, Your Worships. He simply disappeared without a trace. His father searched high and low, but could find no sign of him.”
“What was the boy’s name?”
“Does it matter what his name was, Your Worships?”
“Yes, it does.”
That question seemed to enrage her a little more than somewhat. “Because I am the Judger, and if I say it matters, then IT MATTERS.”
“Sorry, Your Worships. His name was Jack. Jack Russell.”
“He can’t have been a very well-behaved boy, with a name like that. Go on.”
Jake took a deep breath and continued, “Two days later, Jack’s father—”
“Mr Russell”, she offered, helpfully.
“Mr Russell,” he agreed, “was still looking, when he saw a young man sitting on the bridge. ‘Have you seen my son, Jack?’ he asked. The young man said, ‘It’s me, Dad. I’m Jack.’ His father—”
“Mr Russell”, she offered, helpfully, again.
“Mr Russell was confused but delighted. Or was he delighted but confused? No matter, he was both. ‘You’ve only been gone two days, Jack,’ he said, ‘yet you have come back much older. How can this be?’
“‘I was taken to another place, Dad,’ he explained, ‘a place where things are very different to the way they are here.’”
“What place?” the Judger asked.
“Does it … yes, I suppose it does. It was a place called, erm, Sumware.”
“That’s silly. Everywhere is somewhere. You’re making this up!”
“Sot somewhere, Sumware – S, U, M, W, A, R, E.”
“Oh shutup! Nobody likes a pedant.”
“Sorry, your Worships.”
“I should think so. Now. Sumware… Sumware. No, never heard of it. Tell me about it.”
“That, Your Worships, is what I am trying to do, if you will stop interrupting me.”
“Then make it quick. I want my lunch,” she said in what seemed to be her trademark short-tempered manner.
“If you’ll stop jumping in, and let me tell my story, Your Worships, I promise I will do it quickly.”
“Good. Carry on,” she said, her voice and face betraying that she considered she had won a minor victory.
“‘In Sumware, the way they enforce their rules is very different to the way it is done here,’ Jack said to his father – Mr Russell,” Jake gave her his most steely expression at that point, daring her to interrupt again. She didn’t.
“‘In Sumware, anyone caught stealing can avoid harsh punishment if they return the stolen goods in good condition, apologise to the owners and to the court, and do some work for the people from whom they stole the goods. The length of time that they must work for them varies according to the value and nature of the goods stolen. If they can’t return the goods, they have to work for the people a good bit longer’”
“No one dies?”
“No one dies.”
“That’s not much fun, is it?”
“It’s not meant to be fun, Your Worships, it’s meant to be justice. Anyway; Jack had lived under these rules for about fifteen years. When he explained our ways to the people there – they call their judgers magistrates – they said that we were clearly primitive and barbaric.”
“What does barbaric mean?” the Judger asked, “I don’t know that word.”
Jake saw an opening here, so gave her a suitable definition; one that might give her pause for thought. “Barbaric, Your Worships, means cruel, unsophisticated, uncivilised, uncultured; that sort of thing.”
Steam was almost visibly coming out of her ears, as she bellowed, “Uncivilised? Uncultured? Unsophisticated? We are the very epitome of culture and sophistication. I’ll show those Sumware people what civilisation and culture mean.” She cupped her hands and yelled towards the door at the far end of the room, “Bailiffs! Release the miscreant.”
Looking up at her, Jake said, “I don’t see the miscreant. Where is she? What have you done with her?”
“Oh, she’s probably escaped,” she replied, “they usually do.”