Once upon a time there is a little boy called Cinderello.
Cinderello, a sweet, gentle boy, is not having the best childhood in the world: his beloved father dies when he is just a wee thing, his mother goes and remarries, and his new stepfather is a nasty piece of work (wicked, some might say). His stepfather brings along two elder sons from a previous marriage.
The famille recomposée lives together until tragedy strikes again – hélas – and Cinderello’s mother dies of a mysterious and sudden cause (later, Cinderello will suspect foul play – he remembers his stepfather repeatedly offering his mother a suspiciously shiny-looking apple).
Cinderello’s wicked stepfather (henceforth referred to as WS) has no sooner kicked the last mourner from the house after the wake that he puts his stepson to work. Poor Cinderello, who used to enjoy curling up with a good Jane Austen before the winter fire, now finds himself starring in his own Brontë novel: responsible for all of the household cleaning, cooking, ironing, mending, shopping. When he dares to complain, his hands cracked from all that scrubbing (no CIF, you see, to make the bathroom cleaning easier), WS cackles and says, ‘You ungrateful brat. Be grateful you have a roof over your head.’
Cinderello is tempted to say that technically, he has a cellar over his head, rather than a roof, since he lives in the windowless basement, but he holds his tongue (as all good young men do).
Cinderello might have hoped for some fraternity with his stepbrothers, but they are mean, vain creatures. They spend most of their time bickering about which one of them is the Fairest Of Them All, despite the fact that neither of them is Fair at All. While we all know beauty is only skin-deep, it would seem that ugliness permeates throughout: instead of protecting Cinderello, his brothers take their cue from their father – such is socialisation – and treat their step-brother with derision and disrespect.
(For example: deliberately wearing their boxer shorts several days running, alternating sides, as they know that Cinderello will have to work even harder to get them back to a wearable state; or ringing every few minutes with demands for tea, wine, cheese and crackers, so that poor Cinderello never gets a moment’s peace).
Thus Cinderello’s ugly brothers (UB) never seem to tire at making his life an utter misery. And this is how poor Cinderello grows up. He often thinks of running away, but the years of being under the cosh have left him with the subconscious impression that he somehow deserves his sorry lot. And besides, when his mother died, the WS inherited the house. So Cinderello has no money, no qualifications (and of course he knows boys generally don’t receive an education, since their objective in life is to make a good husband for whichever young lady asks for their hand) and no friends.
If he leaves, he asks himself, where he would go, what would he do?
One day, not long after his nineteenth birthday, Cinderello is lugging a pail of hot soapy water and a mop upstairs from the basement. It is Friday, and on Fridays Cinderello must wash the floors. He stops in surprise as he arrives in the main hall. The front door is wide open; the UB are pouring over a letter that has just arrived.
Cinderello creeps closer, intruiged. He peers down over their shoulders (he is taller than both of his UB now): it’s not a letter, but an invitation, with fancy golden lettering embossed on thick cream card, a crest of arms…
‘An invitation from the palace!’ screeches one of the UB. ‘For a ball!’
And direct, it would seem, from the hand of Princess Charming herself: requesting the pleasure of the company of every eligible bachelor, that very night.
(Backstory, as laid out in the local laundrette the morning the invites issue: the Queen, it would seem, has decided that Charming must stop playing the field and settle down with a nice young man to assist with the duty of carrying on the royal bloodline.)
A ball! Cinderello, in his own excitement, drops the mop. It clatters to the floor, and the UB turn. Catching him listening, they wave the invitation card in his face, cackling (evil fairy tale characters are, I’m afraid, contractually obliged to cackle).
‘Did you hear that, Cinders? We are invited to a ball with Princess Charming tonight, while you stay at home and peel the potatoes for the Sunday roast!
‘Can’t I come?’ Cinderello says desperately, staring at the gilded invitation. ‘If it’s an invitation for all eligible bachelors? Can’t I? Please?’
The UB fall about laughing.
‘You?’ they say, holding their fat bellies as they guffaw (guffawing is ok), ‘you, at the ball? And what would you go in, your cleaning rags?’
Cinderello looks down at his pinafore, which despite his best efforts (and in the absence of a good industrial strength stain remover) retains marks of cooking and cleaning, and a slight mildew smell. He falls silent, and bends to retrieve the mop, tears pricking at his eyes. The UB do some more cackling for good measure, and then dance up the stairs to their bedrooms, arguing already over what they will wear, and who will look best in it.
Cinderello begins to mop the floor; a cloud comes over the sun; he begins to sing a woeful yet beautifully-rendered song (of his own composing) of sadness and longing. His baritone voice is so tender and pure that birds flutter in from the trees, landing on the windowsill, flying in to perch on the Tesco-value chandeliers: soon other cute baby animals from the forest wander in too, joining in with the chorus (think Bugsy Malone/Tomorrow Never Comes meets Judy Collins/Where Are The Clowns).
Cinderello waltzes wistfully about the hall, pretending he is looking into the eyes of the magnificent Princess Charming instead of the ragged woolen tendrils of a smelly mop. Miraculously he doesn’t slip on the wet floor (because he is such a graceful dancer: and all self-taught from watching Dancing with the Stars outside the living room window). Then he notices all the animals and shoos them away – they might crap on the clean floor, and he’ll have to start again – and goes back down to the cellar to get on with his other chores (including, as the UB nastily pointed out, the peeling of a small mountain of russets).
While peeling, Cinderello pricks his finger (or is that another story?) and drops of blood stain the water in the sink. He begins to cry, wiping his eyes on the back of his dirty apron. Of course the UB are right; who was he kidding; he is a no-one. No Princess would ever look twice at him, or even once. He sobs his way through the potatoes, then starts on the washing up of the lunchthings (WS has always refused to buy a dishwasher, saying washing-up would be “character building” for Cinderello). He doesn’t dare sing anymore for fear of attracting half of the fauna of the surrounding area back to the house again, so stares instead morosely out the window.
But all of a sudden it is too much, and he cries out:
‘Oh, how I wish I had another life! Oh, how I wish I might go to the ball, too!’
No sooner have the words been spoken that behind him there is a flash of light and a loud bang: Cinderello drops the bowl he had been drying, and it crashes to the floor at his feet.
(Cinderello has been conditioned to live in fear and servitude for so long that his first thought is for the broken bowl, and the consequences of it with WS, who likes to get out his cat o’nine tails for such transgressions.)
It is only at the sound of an impatiently cleared throat that Cinderello looks up and finds a wrinkled and kindly-looking old man standing in the middle of the kitchen floor.
‘Who are you?’ he says (with another glance at the broken bowl. He does have a bit of OCD going on too, it must be said, and the mess is already bothering him).
‘I, Cinderello, am your Fairy Godfather,’ the old man announces proudly; whirling something sparkly and fluffy between his hands.
‘My what?’ Cinderello asks in confusion.
‘Your Fairy Godfather.’
‘I have a Godfather?’
‘But I’ve never seen you before.’
‘Well, no,’ the Fairy Godfather admits.
‘Aren’t godparents supposed to visit regularly and step in as custodial guardians in the event of the death of their ward’s biological parents?’
The Fairy Godfather shifts awkwardly on his feet: he has some pointy high-heeled red shoes that match his lipstick.
‘Er, well, not the fairy ones.’
‘Really? Why?’ Cinderello asks curiously, warming now to his theme. ‘What’s the difference, then, between a fairy godparent and a normal one?’
The Fairy Godfather (FG) is looking a little put out: he is not used to having his spectular entrances go unnoticed, nor being quizzed on appearing tardily in his chosen beneficiary’s life.
‘Listen, Cinderello, you called me. So shall we get on with it?’
Cinderello is utterly perplexed: he manages even to forget the broken bowl.
‘Get on with what?’
FG shakes his head.
‘Really, young man, it’s lucky that what you lack in brains you make up in braun. Were you not, only moments before, in floods of tears about the misery of your life, wanting to go to the ball, full of injustice, etc etc, ad nauseam?’
‘Oh!’ says Cinderello, going red. ‘You heard all that?’
‘I am omnipresent, and omnipotent,’ FG nods self-importantly. ‘And now I am here, to help, in your hour of need.’
Cinderello looks back at the rest of the kitchen: the broken bowl was the last one to clean. The potatoes are peeled, the washing is done, the house is tidy, and he has more or less finished his chores, as much as chores are ever finished (a man’s work is never done, as we all know).
‘Well, actually,’ he says, ‘if you’d have come a bit earlier, that would have been more helpful.’
‘Cinderello, you want to go to the ball, right?’
‘Of course!’ Cinderello cries. But then he gestures to his ragged clothes. ‘But how can I, looking like this?’
‘My point exactly, dear. So what’ll it be – Armani, Caracini, Yves Saint Laurent, Savile Row?’
‘You can do that?’ gasps Cinderello.
‘Omnipresent, and omnipotent,’ FG says again proudly. ‘Stand back!’
The FG waves the sparkly fluffy thing around his head like a lasso, and there is another flash of light. For a split second Cinderello is standing completely stark naked in the middle of the kitchen, and it is all rather embarrassing, and then he feels his skin somehow being cleaned, and buffed; clothes fly from nowhere and layer themselves upon his tall, sturdy frame, and hey presto: he is dressed for the ball.
‘Well, well, well,’ the FG says admiringly, ‘you do clean up nicely.’
Cinderello looks down at his designer smoking and his jaw drops.
‘Wow!’ he says. And then he looks up, biting his lip. ‘But…’
FG raises an eyebrow. ‘But…?’
‘How do I get to the palace?’
‘What, Cinderello, did you think I was going to let you take the bus?’
‘Ouf,’ says Cinderello, visibly relieved: he suspects these shiny shoes would give him blisters, if he had to walk far in them. ‘A coach and horses?’
‘My dear boy, that is so last century. No-one goes by horse and carriage anymore. What you need are some wheels. And a chauffeur.’
‘A chauffeur?’ Cinderello repeats in wonder.
‘Well, darling, we could hardly expect Charming to want to marry a man who has to drive himself about. Now, re the car. Any preference?’
Cinderello thinks hard. His mother had a Saab, but he guesses that might be a give away of his humble origins.
‘I’d like an Alfa Romeo Giulietta please. A limited TCR series, in metallic grey.’
FG raises both eyebrows.
‘Excellent choice, I have to say, although not sure they’re available in five-door. I’ll see what I can do…’
Some more wand-waving and light-flashing ensues, and outside the kitchen window appears Cinderello’s transport for the evening, and beside it, a young woman in smart uniform, who tilts her cap to him.
Cinderello turns back to FG, flabberghasted.
‘However can I thank you?’
‘You don’t need to thank me,’ FG says. ‘It’s true you’ve waited long enough for it. Now get going, and remember: dance well, don’t speak unless spoken to, smile coyly at her highness’ jokes, even if they are appalling.’
‘I will,’ Cinderello says, opening the kitchen door.
Outside, the chauffeur holds open a backseat door, waiting.
‘And one more thing!’ FG cries, remembering, running to catch Cinderello as he slips onto the leather seats. The chauffeur closes the door, and Cinderello presses a button, his window sliding down, poking his (now immaculately Bryl-creamed) head out.
‘Forgot to say. You’ve only got all of this until midnight. Temporary loan only, ok? When the clock chimes twelve, it will all disappear. So make sure you’ve made her fall in love with you well before then.’
‘Got it!’ Cinderello shouts over the revving of the engine: and then they are off.
On the way to the palace, Cinderello is beside himself with excitement. To calm his nerves, he gets chatting with his driver: turns out she’s from his mother’s birthplace, a couple of towns over. She is a nice girl by the name of Felicity: friendly and cheerful.
She drops him off at the foot of the wide staircase leading to the front door of the palace, and touches her cap.
‘Good luck, Cinderello. I’ll wait here for you.’
Cinderello is staring at the lights, people, gowns and suits moving around him, and suddenly feels a little daunted. He turns back to Felicity; she has already taken off her cap, and is pulling a book and pad of paper from under the passenger seat.
‘Will you be alright waiting until midnight, Flic?’ Cinderello says suddenly.
‘Sure,’ Felicity says, with a warm smile. She holds up her book. ‘I’m doing a distance-learning course in law. I’ll work on my next assignment while you’re in there doing your thing.’
‘Oh,’ Cinderello says uncertainly. ‘Oh, ok, then.’
Then he turns, and makes his way up the wide, floodlit stairs. At the top are the Queen and King, and Princess Charming, welcoming the young men as they arrive. Charming is shorter than Cinderello expects, and hasn’t made much effort for her suitors.
In fact she looks positively sulky, Cinderello notes; and as he draws closer, he catches what she is saying in an undertone to the Queen as each of the young men goes past (‘too fat’. ‘too skinny.’ ‘will have a paunch within five years.’ ‘thinks he’s something special.’ ‘big nose.’). Cinderello is astounded at the Princess’ pickiness, and thinks to himself that it is little wonder they have to summon every bachelor in the whole town in order to try to find someone up to her impossibly high standards.
All too quickly, it is Cinderello’s turn. When he gets to the front of the queue, he sees that Charming is pleasantly surprised. He feels her looking him up and down; and Cinderello, who was secretly rather proud of his handsome reflection in the moat as he mounted the stairs, now feels distinctly uncomfortable.
Cinderello bows. When he comes back up, she is still eyeing him appreciatively. It reminds him of the way his WS and UB look at their steaks before tucking in.
‘Why hello,’ Charming leers, and she smells of cheap red wine. ‘And who might you be?’
In that very instant, Cinderello wonders why he is here. Contrary to her name, the Princess is not at all charming. She is snide, clearly has a drinking problem, and a letch. If this is what all the fuss was about – well, his UB are welcome to her.
Cinderello makes a snap decision.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says, ‘wrong party.’
And he turns, and goes back down the stairs to the Alfa Romeo, and Felicity. She looks up in surprise when he taps on the window. Seconds later, it is sliding down.
‘Did you forget something?’ Felicity asks, her pencil tucked behind her ear.
‘Yes,’ Cinderello says. ‘I forgot who I am.’
‘It’s a bit late for an existential crisis, Cinderello. Shouldn’t you be inside, wooing Charming?’
‘Nah,’ Cinderello shakes his head. ‘Not my kind after all.’
Felicity grins, and leans across to open the passenger door.
‘Well, turns out tort is uber boring. How about we take the Alfa for a spin? You’re paid up til midnight, after all.’
‘Sounds like a plan,’ says Cinderello, and he slides in.
They drive off into the night, and become life-long friends. Felicity finishes her law degree and once she has passed the Bar, takes on the landmark case of Cinderello v. WS and UB. They win: the WS and UB spend the rest of their days behind bars, and Cinderello is given back his house and a lump sum as compensation for a lifetime of slavery. He invests in a dishwasher, a Saab, and uses the rest of the money to start his own business as a singing coach.
(Oh, and: the night of the ball, in case you were wondering: Charming drinks too much absinthe, and falls into the moat. She is fished out the next morning. Her younger sister, the much more sensible Average, becomes heir to the throne, and marries her long-standing boyfriend).
And they all live happily ever after.