Fairy Tale

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There is a little brick house in an isolated valley in deepest Wales. To this idyllic retreat come Eloise and Simon, a young couple escaping the city. Eloise has led the way, inspired by the teachings of her muse, Moonbird, who holds that Mother Nature looks with benign concern upon her human children and sees to their well-being. At first all is well for Eloise and Simon and their cat M'sieu. Eloise spends her days sewing old-fashioned night dresses and petticoats which she sells to an exclusive shop in town; ...
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Overview

There is a little brick house in an isolated valley in deepest Wales. To this idyllic retreat come Eloise and Simon, a young couple escaping the city. Eloise has led the way, inspired by the teachings of her muse, Moonbird, who holds that Mother Nature looks with benign concern upon her human children and sees to their well-being. At first all is well for Eloise and Simon and their cat M'sieu. Eloise spends her days sewing old-fashioned night dresses and petticoats which she sells to an exclusive shop in town; Simon does woodworking and odd jobs for the nearby farmers. The garden, the woods, the hills, the silence are all as Moonbird had promised. Or almost. For one day, four men, incongruously dressed in city suits and street shoes and carrying briefcases, walk up the country lane to the little house, and things begin to happen. Uncanny, inexplicable things. Things even Eloise's mother, Clare, and Clare's best friend, Miriam, who arrive from London, can't make heads or tails of. The two older women bicker and fuss, trying to decipher the younger woman's increasingly strange behavior. And then Eloise returns from a walk in the woods with a baby in her arms...
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This odd little tale by the author of "The Summerhouse Trilogy" is set in the Welsh countryside and is peopled by an eccentric cast of characters, including a shepherd, a gamekeeper, and four roving men with vaguely religious purpose. At the center are Eloise and Simon, a young couple who have fled city life. Eloise, an accomplished seamstress, is content to spend her days sewing nightclothes for trendy shops, tending her cat, cooking for Simon, and traipsing about her garden with bare feet and flowers in her hair. All that is missing from her life is a baby. Simon, who does odd jobs and woodwork, is less anxious to start a family. To distract Eloise, Simon enlists her mother, Clare, and her mother's friend, Miriam, to come for a visit. The women, both confirmed Londoners, depressed over being aging singles and rather fond of drink, find life in pastoral Wales very strange indeed. Things get stranger still after Eloise arrives home with a baby of unknown origin and with mysterious powers. Though well told, this tale will mainly appeal to Ellis fans and readers with a fondness for Welsh myth. Not essential.Barbara Love, Kingston P.L., Ont.
Katharine Weber
The Welsh writer Alice Thomas Ellis, author of 10 volumes of fiction, has long been established across the Atlantic as a writer whose work is a distinctive combination of fantasy and social satire. -- Katharine Weber, The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Britisher Ellis (Unexplained Laughter, 1987; etc., etc.) offers a sharply amusing present-day retake of, say, A Midsummer Night's Dream—in which people are used by fairies for fairy- reproduction and then are caused to forget all about it. Eloise has always been an independent-minded girl, but her mother Clare is even less pleased than usual when Eloise leaves London for a little red cottage isolated in Wales and sets up housekeeping as a seamstress while boyfriend Simon labors as a woodworker. Things get only worse—to Clare's way of thinking—when Eloise starts hinting about wanting a baby. And so, with longtime best friend Miriam, Clare goes on a rescue mission, tearing herself away from the cafes and shops of London and the many pleasurable woes the great city offers her as an aging divorc‚e—and goes out to the deep country, where "nothing ever happened." Life together in the red cottage proves rather crowded, especially when half-vacant Eloise's moodiness only intensifies—and when very strange things happen, such as Eloise's walking in a downpour and staying dry. A gamekeeper with unnerving tales, four strange men who return again and again, a shepherd who seems not quite normal—all these not-humans will prove to have had a part in bringing about the sudden birth of Eloise's green-eyed "baby," and they'll have even more to do—and how—with the fate of this small but potent creature. As her story works toward its appropriately unshocking end, Ellis deepens the theme by remarking on humans' defilement of nature and on an obliviou earth that "cared nothing for humanity." And her perfectly toned social satire unfailingly holds its own, as in thefairy gamekeeper's thoughts: "Humans were useful for breeding, when you could catch one, and every now and then . . . he ate one, but otherwise he avoided them on the whole . . . . " Bright, thoughtful fiction that clips along, having both its say and its fun.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670850365
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 9/5/1996
  • Pages: 212

First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

The eyes of the watchers were cold and flat and incurious and the watchers were still. Whenever they moved -- be it ever so slightly -- there was a brief darkness, a shadow behind the leaves, a hint of something that humanity might call loss, equate with pain. But the watchers knew nothing of that, being indifferent to such matters.

Eloise was sewing, sitting under the house wall, tacking lace to linen while the cat lay beside her, its stomach turned to the sun. She thought that they probably made a pretty picture and it was a pity, in a way, that there was no one to see, but few people passed by. Besides, she knew that those who might would not be touched by the scene. The shepherd, the gamekeeper would not be at all moved at the sight of her, sitting under the drooping roses. It would need a city dweller, a person of tutored observation to appreciate the contrast of white linen with her dark, voluminous dress and her long black hair, the furred, fluid lines of cat curved so trustingly at her bare feet. It was something of a waste. Simon would not catch his breath to see her. He was used to her. 'I suppose this,' said Eloise, 'is boredom.' She would not have admitted it in the presence of anyone save the cat. She began to consider further the man -- it would perhaps be more interesting if it was a man -- who might come walking over the hills and halt when she came into view. He would, she thought, have to be artistic, because otherwise there would be no point. Moonbird, she was sure, would agree with her. Moonbird believed in Woman's mission to share in the ongoing creative process, and after a while then, men -- so she held -- would see the purpose of it all. So far Simon had shown no real signs of falling into line with this development, but there was plenty of time.

Now it was getting too hot to sit outside: a drop of sweat was trickling down the side of her nose and she was wearying of her girlish fantasies: there seemed to be no possibility of their fulfilment. 'What I really want,' she said aloud, 'is a baby.' The breeze sighed as though with satisfaction, drifting indolently down the valley, soothing the grasses with an accomplished, deft finality, lifting her black hair.

The cat leapt up, its fur on end, its tail wide and its eyes furious with fear. Eloise started, staring round to see what the cat had seen. 'You are a stupid animal, M'sieu,' she told it. 'You are no proper company for me.' She was beginning to long for company.

The little red house was cool inside and smelled of woodsmoke and some old indefinable scent of its own, faint and elusive. She opened a tin of sardines and put one on a saucer for the cat, who had jumped on the back of the armchair and was gazing at the doorway. Its fur had settled but it still clearly had its reservations about something out there in the immensity of all the hills, the woods, something inimical to cats. A stoat, thought Eloise, or a vixen looking for something to quiet its cubs. It could not be the desired lone walker who had frightened the cat, for cats did not react so to humankind.

On an impulse Eloise closed the door. Perhaps it would not be good if a man came walking. She felt the hair bristle on the back of her neck. Women could be frightened as well as cats, though usually by other things. A woman then, she thought. A woman should walk past. A wise woman who would praise her sewing and tell her that in all her life she had never eaten pastry -- and she had eaten a lot -- as light and delicious as the pastry that Eloise laid over the apples, fragrant and sweet with cinnamon and syrup. A woman who would say, 'But of course you must have a baby. You are slender and light but your hips are wide enough, and it will be such company for you when I have gone.' For Eloise would not want her to stay too long: rather to come and go. To be wise and encouraging for a short while and then gone. She could always return if she was needed. Perhaps Moonbird might come, but Moonbird had so many calls on her time. She travelled about, dancing and lecturing, and everywhere she went women gathered round her. No one could expect Moonbird's undivided attention, for she belonged, as she often remarked, to the World.

Eloise cut half a small cucumber into slices and ate them neatly, in tiny pieces, with the smallest fork in the kitchen drawer. One of her aunts had once told her mother that she liked to take Eloise out to tea because she was so dainty in her ways. 'Eat your sardine, gross animal,' she said to M'sieu, pointing imperiously at his saucer. He was now sitting in the armchair, looking hunched and faintly glum, like a cat whom some minor calamity had befallen. He gave her a brief, contemptuous glance and stayed where he was.

Eloise washed her hands at the kitchen sink and picked up the nightdress she was working on. She made nightdresses and petticoats in the old-fashioned mode and sold them to a shop in the market town -- one of those exclusive little shops with a single garment and something imaginatively incongruous -- a monkey's skull or an old boot -- arranged in the window. Simon took the clothes in when Eloise had made a dozen. They were all finished by hand, which made them precious and gave them a hint of pathos, as though child labour had been employed: the women who wore them might feel, at once, delicate and ruthless, like some hard-hearted princess. Eloise suspected that the women who wore them would not, in all likelihood, feel any such thing but she still sewed in fantasy with each stitch, for she was, in her way, an artist and Moonbird held that you must have faith in what you did for the good of your Karma. She had always sewed -- ever since her mother's best friend had given her a beginner's embroidery kit when she was very small.

The soft smell of broken grass came through the window. It reminded Eloise that she had chosen to live in the country and should therefore avail herself of its amenities at every opportunity. Fine, sunny days were not to be lost hiding indoors from non-existent terrors. It was not sensible, nor was it attractive. Eloise was ready to despise women who clutched their hands to their hearts at an unexpected sound and avoided fields with cows in them. Liberation meant freedom from fear as well as from the disadvantages of town life. She had made up her mind to live in the country and unless she lived in it in every possible sense she would appear foolish. Not only in her own eyes, for Simon could be perceptive: not often and not very, she reassured herself, but he sometimes surprised her with a glance or a remark that suggested he understood more than he spoke of. Eloise's mother had contrived, perhaps inadvertently, to raise her to a condition where she thought of men as, in previous times, men, it was said, had thought of women: largely brainless and good for only one thing. Eloise would not have admitted this in so many words and indeed was scarcely aware that she believed it. The ebbing tide of feminism had left detritus in many shallow waters; so evident it was beyond notice. Moonbird believed in sexual activity and the energies it unleashed but was not greatly concerned with personalities.

A flock of sheep was being driven down the lane below the house. Eloise went out to watch and listen. They made two sounds, with the high cry of the lambs and the deep call of their mothers. She sat on a low wall and looked down on the heaving, cobbled mass of shorn backs. So might a woman of ancient times have sat in the sun and watched sheep go by. The shepherd waved to her and she waved back, trying not to seem to be striving after graciousness. She wondered if he lived alone or whether he had a wife and baby. He was very large and not handsome but he looked up at her before he called to his dog. Eloise did not much care for the dog. It had an air both craven and threatening, sneaking and writhing; low to the ground around the innocent sheep, a subservient eye on its master. The attitude of the overseer. To and fro it went. Eloise was surprised at her reaction: she usually approved of dogs, being generally respectful of animals and their rights. It occurred to her that the sheep might be going to the slaughter and she stopped waving. It was wrong that animals should be trained to betray each other. It was the fault of man. Eloise yawned. Perhaps she was getting depressed, alone so much with no one to talk to. Depression was more respectable than boredom. Boredom led you into trouble while depression caused people to worry about you. When Simon came home she'd telephone her mother.

In the late afternoon Simon came up the path from the lane with his shirt knotted round his waist. His shoulders were pinkly scorched, for his skin was fair. Now people warned each other about the sun as previous generations had warned each other as to the perils inherent in getting their feet wet or their chests chilled. Sun blockers and shady hats had taken the place of galoshes and vests as the human race strove to survive, if not for ever, then for as long as it possibly could. He called, 'I'm home,' when he drew near the door. Eloise said, 'You mustn't sit `in the sun like that.' Man had spoiled their relationship to the benevolent sun, making holes in the ozone layer, and it was understandably vengeful. Moonbird had contrived a placatory rite to remedy the situation but it would be some time before it took effect.

Simon said, 'I wasn't sitting in it. I was putting in fence posts.' He was a literally minded boy.

Eloise said, 'You should keep your shirt on all the same.' She thought, for just one moment, of the stranger who would be too artistic to let his skin peel or go pink in the sun and then put him out of her mind. She had made macaroni cheese for Simon's supper, and a tomato salad with mint fresh from the garden. It was quite a big garden in Eloise's opinion, and pretty. It lay behind the house, for in front there was only a narrow, paved terrace and the low wall before the ground sloped down to the lane. Simon had cleared all the weeds, the nettles and thistles and dock, and together they had planted cottage flowers. Blue geraniums and silken-petalled hollyhocks and smiling pansies and snow-in-summer. They had been too recently planted to be flourishing but poppies grew there and a gooseberry bush, and foxgloves had come uninvited but welcome. A wild rose linked branches with the brambles along the back fence and an old elder proffered saucers of creamy blossom in the far corner. There were two apple trees -- one bearing a bundle of mistletoe and a pied wagtail's nest where a cuckoo had laid her egg in the springtime: it had a bowed, complaisant look -- and a dying damson tree. Then there was a wide swathe of grass with buttercups and daisies and clover to sweeten it. Around the edges were bristling thistles and nettles that threatened to encroach on the flower beds but Simon kept them at bay -- Moonbird held that no plant was a weed and the butterflies loved even the plainest of plants.

'You can have your supper in the garden,' said Eloise. 'In the shade,' she added, for under the trees were a table and a bench and an old wooden chair. She was truly blessed, Eloise told herself, lighting the three squat candles that were supposed to delight the goddess and repel insects. The sun was going down behind the hill that sheltered the house from the winds and the midges were coming out for the evening. Simon ate contentedly, hardly bothering to slap at the insects that sometimes bit him.

He often felt, like Eloise, that they had done the right thing in fleeing the city. They sat in silence as the shadows lengthened and grew deeper, too young to think about such boring things as compatibility.

Eloise woke in the night. There was a bird calling from some where. It didn't sound like an owl, but owls made unexpected noises when they forgot their words. Simon was sprawled over most of the bed. He was lying on his back, but he wasn't snoring so she couldn't hold him responsible for her wakefulness. She went to the window and knelt down to look out over the valley. It was strange how things looked different in the night. People said, 'Things will look different in the morning.' They said it when they were tired of listening and wanted to go to sleep. They said it to people who were boring them. But they were wrong. Everything looked the same every morning: all in order and just the same. It was in the nights that the difference held sway and there was no comfort for lost and lonely things. There was no one to be seen in the moonlight and nothing moved, yet Eloise knew that somewhere in the far shadow something was crying for its mother. A tear dried on her face before she crept back into bed.

'Eloise rang this morning,' said Eloise's mother. She had a three-bedroomed flat in a mansion block, and very nice too.

'What did she want?' asked Miriam, leaning back in the white-tweeded arms of a prim yet elegant chair.

'She didn't say,' said Clare. 'Or if she did I didn't get it.' She squinted into an ice-cold glass of vodka and tonic. Miriam was her oldest friend and familiar with Eloise's oddities of speech and demeanour. As a daughter Eloise was not altogether all that Clare could have wished and in the end she had admitted as much, though only of course to Miriam. It was no one else's business. At first they had attributed Eloise's ways to originality of approach: her convoluted thought processes might have been an early indication of genius, her unstudied remarks a sign of rare intelligence. As time passed, however, they had only begun to hope, albeit tacitly, that Eloise was not actually deranged. Even her passion for sewing, which had seemed so charming in a child, had begun to cause them unease, for few of her contemporaries were ever found so engaged, head down, stitching away into the night. It had been odd when it became clear that she had no interest whatsoever in exams and not the remotest intention of working for them. And it had been passing odd when, a year later, at the age of seventeen, she had persuaded a perfectly ordinary, nice boy with a promising career in advertising ahead of him to throw it all up and follow her down to a dreary little house under a hill in the depths of Wales and do woodwork.

'Woodwork,' said Clare aloud as she considered the matter. 'Wales.'

'It was very wrong of Max,' said Miriam, 'to give her all that money.'

'Exactly,' said Clare, relieved as always to shift the blame on to her ex-husband.

'On the other hand,' said Miriam, 'if he hadn't she might still be here driving you crazy.'

'I daresay I could have coped,' said Clare, torn between thwarted martyrdom and the knowledge that Miriam was right. 'I don't think I was cut out for motherhood really.' She spoke partly in deference to Miriam's childless state, although Miriam had never, by word or deed, shown any hint of maternal yearnings. Miriam sipped from her glass to conceal the involuntary expression of doubt which she could feel was about to alter her face.

'She's OK, though?' she said. `There's nothing wrong?'

'Not as far as I could tell,' said Clare. 'Nothing out of the usual. You know what she's like.' She sighed heavily in the expectation of reassurance, no matter how insincere.

'Well, at least she's out of the clutches of Bat-ears or whatever she calls herself,' said Miriam.

'Moonbird,' said Clare.

'Moonbird,' said Miriam. 'She was born a Weinberg or my name's Schleswig-Holstein.'

'How do you know?' asked Clare.

`I know the family,' said Miriam. 'Maybe I should wish them long life. Moosehead.' She wrinkled her nose.

'Moonbird,' said Clare automatically.

Eloise sang to herself -- a lullaby with reference to the winds of the western sea -- stopped and looked over her shoulder at the sudden stirring in the leaves. There was a breeze again today, a skittish, childlike breeze that lifted her hair. She'd been washing old lace, bought from the market, and she was putting it to dry on the wall, scoured clean by ages of rain and wind; carefully choosing immaculate pebbles to weight it down. Meadowsweet and Queen Anne's lace grew among the nettles in the lane -- lovelier than hers no doubt, but not so resilient. She looked behind her again but no one was there. No more than she'd expected. When she turned and looked below there were four men walking up the lane, trying to avoid the ruts and hollows by treading the grass in the middle. They looked extraordinary in the morning sunlight, for they wore city suits and shirts and ties, they carried briefcases and their shoes gleamed blindingly. For a moment Eloise thought she'd never seen anything so incongruous and she wondered whether it might be wise to go into the house and slam the door. Shut out the intruders. But she stood still, her hands at her sides, and she remembered how, yesterday, she had longed for company.

'Good morning,' they said as they came closer. All of them. They spoke together, though on different notes. 'Good morning, good morning...'

'Good morning,' said Eloise. They sounded like the sheep, she thought. Making noises in their various ways. The leader opened the gate and they came up the path to where she stood and they stood around her, smiling.

'So of course,' said Eloise, 'I thought they were Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons or something.'

'They go round in pairs,' said Simon.

'Yes, I know that,' said Eloise. 'But there might have been two pairs of them.'

'Well, get on with it,' said Simon. 'What did they want?'

'I'm not sure,' said Eloise, 'but I think they wanted to buy the place.'

'Jehovah's Witnesses?' said Simon. 'They don't want to buy places. They want to sell you the, Watchtower.'

'How do you know that?' asked Eloise.

'Everyone knows that,' said Simon, scratching his hairline. 'They get everywhere, like the midges.'

'Well, they weren't Jehovah's Witnesses,' Eloise assured him. 'I asked.'

'So what were they? Insurance salesmen, civil servants, social workers?'

'No,' said Eloise. 'They said they were the Order of something and I asked if they were Christians and they just looked at each other and then they looked at me. They were very friendly.' She wished now that she had listened more carefully to what they had said. Her mind had wandered as they stood there talking, but she didn't want Simon to know that. Young as he was, he had already developed masculine views on the reliability of the female mind.

'I don't like the sound of them,' he said, suddenly the man of the house, the householder. 'I don't like you being here on your own,' added this person who had not before expressed anxiety for her in her solitariness. 'If they come back I'll have a word with the police.' The police, as far as Eloise was aware, consisted of a man and a boy and a white vehicle in the third village away. The larger force was mostly kept busy by the disaffected youth in the market town who had nothing to do. Interested parties had formed a Farm Watch organization since a certain amount of sheep rustling went on and a number of outlying barns had been denuded of the slates on their roofs, but as far as she knew there was little violence among the rural population except on a purely domestic level. 'Since they built the motorways,' said Simon, 'criminals can come from the cities down to the country, steal what they like, and be back in the city in no time.'

'We haven't got anything to steal,' said Eloise.

'How would they know?' demanded Simon. 'You might have the family jewels hidden under the floorboards. They'll take anything these days -- to buy drugs,' he added. Simon came of a generation of middle-class youth which eschewed the use of the harder drugs since they had become widely available to the lower classes, while most of the upper classes who had been gripped by addiction had been able to afford to die of it. The romance had gone. He would, if challenged, have denied that this social phenomenon was a symptom of snobbery, and claimed, rather, that he had too much sense. He didn't even drink very much.

'When I've got the shed up,' he said, 'I'll be able to work at home and you won't be alone.' He planned to build this shed and put a lathe in it, whereupon he would be able to construct small articles of carpentry and sell them. Many people now considered this a perfectly respectable occupation for a boy of the middle class. In the meantime he hired himself out to anyone who wanted a hand doing almost anything on the farms and estates around, although he drew the line at dealing with livestock. He also enjoyed travelling about in his van and meeting people, but this was never mentioned. It would have been disconcerting for Eloise who, as Simon imagined, was too rare to crave for company.

`If I had a baby,' said Eloise, who was beginning to say this rather often, `I wouldn't be lonely.'

'A baby would be no protection,' said Simon, taken aback at this unexpected admission of weakness.

'I don't want protection,' said Eloise. 'I want company.' Simon was startled afresh.

'Then ask your mother to stay,' he said. There was a short, uneasy silence. They had, so far, never quarrelled because, since they had chosen to live together against the fervent advice of families and friends, dissent between them would have been evidence of failure. Anyone could have come along and said, 'I told you so.' There had been no need to discuss this: it lay between them forming their strongest bond -- or shackle, depending on how you looked at it.

'You're too young to have a baby,' said Simon. 'You've got all your life ahead of you.'

Eloise, who was peeling potatoes at the sink, remained silent although she let the knife slip from her hand into the cold water, leaving the last potato intact. 'You . . .' he had said, and 'You . . .', as though he thought only of her and cared nothing for her. Any adviser to any supplicant, whose best interests were his main concern. Showing her the way to freedom when all she wanted was to stay where she was -- only not alone.

'Don't you love me?' she asked. She expected Simon to love her. It was only right and proper that he should love her more than she loved him. He had her as reward for his devotion and she saw no need for exaggerated reciprocity. What more could he want?

'Of course I love you,' said Simon crossly. How could she doubt it? 'Only we don't want a baby yet.'

'I do,' said Eloise, resenting the plural. 'I want a baby more than anything else in the world.'

Simon wanted to shout. He wanted to scream -- you can't have one. The prospect of a baby filled him with misery. He knew about babies and Eloise did not. It was debatable whether she'd ever seen one close up, for her family did not go in much for babies -- not as his did. When he was thirteen his mother had given birth to his sister, thereby, he considered, greatly hindering his development into manhood. Just as he was easing his way into the adult world that world had changed, had regressed from being a place fragrant with cigar and brandy fumes, a place where doors opened on to sophisticated sights and cool jokes were exchanged, into a terrible pastel paleness full of the smell of anxiety and milk and nappies, and sticky with smears of half-chewed biscuit and banana. Things had ceased to be amusing. Simon had determined, as he entered adolescence, never to be a family man. He had somehow failed to take into account the fact that if you ran away with a girl and set up house with her, you had trodden the first step on the path to that awful destiny. Fleeing his own family in the quest for love and gaiety and freedom, he now appeared to have walked, smack, into the trap. One day, naturally, he had intended to have children, but not yet. Only when he was much older and had a club to retire to. He had not defined this image with any great precision but it had been his goal nonetheless. Rather like the hope of peaceful death: accepting the inevitable but not being so unwary as to rush upon it.

'It won't be any trouble,' said Eloise. 'It can lie in its cradle while I sew and I'll feed it when it's hungry. Millions of people have babies.' She was growing more determined in the face of his opposition.

'Oh, Eloise,' said Simon, remembering the trouble his sister had caused him. The emotion and the time his mother had expended on the baby. The way her concentration had been deflected from all else. 'If only you knew.'

'Knew what?' demanded Eloise. 'Knew what?' She carried the cat up to bed that night and when she went to sleep it lay on Simon's feet until he got cramp. He didn't try to dislodge it because he loved it, but lay awake listening to the owls as they hunted and wondering why he felt lonely.

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