Fairer Tales #3: The Life of Pi (or the Princess and the Pea)

Once upon a time in the village of Poddington there lived a young Princess who went by the name of Pisum (or Pi, to her friends). Ever since she had been small, Pisum had showed a great interest in How Things Work. As a girl guide, she collected a number of badges for plumbing, electrics, mechanics, urban planning and the like, and grew up doubling her royal duties with DIY call-out for the locals.

One uneventful Saturday, Pisum bids goodbye to her father, King Percy (more affectionately known as Pi-Daddy).

‘Where you off to, Princess?’ the King says, peering over the top of his Poddington News.

‘To the Greengrocer’s, Dad. That spare part to fix the pea-sheller is in.’

The King, his feet tucked cozily in royal slippers on the carpeted stool in front of him, glances out of his handsome bay windows. It has been a pleasant, standard sort of July day up until now, but this being a fairy-tale, all of a sudden large menacing clouds are broiling.

‘Fine, Pi, darling, but I think it might rai-’

Alas, Pisum has already set off to the bottom of the garden (among the birds and the bees). She is whistling to herself cheerfully (you might also be, now) carrying her tool box in one hand, and the spare part for the pea-shelling machine in the other (and, note, no umbrella).

‘Pisum!’ the greengrocer greets her happily when she arrives. ‘Does this mean I’m back in business?’

‘Hello, Jack,’ says Pisum, letting herself through the gate. She nods to the rather tall leafy plant in his garden. ‘No more trouble with the Giant?’

‘Not since you put that WD40 up the top. He doesn’t dare climb down anymore.’

Pisum gets to work, and the shelling machine is up and running again in no time. She dusts off her hands.

‘There you are, Jack. Mushy peas all round at the Poddington Arms, tonight.’

‘Ah, smashing, Pisum. Thank you.’

‘All in the social contract, Jack – no need to thank me.’

Jack follows her to the gate with a smile.

‘Ah, I’d be in trouble with me old ma if I didn’t mind my Ps and Qs. And she still hasn’t forgiven me about the cow.’

The menacing clouds predictably empty just as Pisum leaves the village. She curses. It is another half hour to get back to the castle, and she has come out without any cash for a Tuber.

This having started out as a sunny summer’s day, Pisum tells herself (reasonsably enough) that the shower will soon pass. But the rain turns to hail, then sleet, strangely just over her head and nowhere else in a five-mile radius. She remembers there is an old mansion that has just been renovated by some newcomers, and makes a dash for it.

Pisum always does well at the Poddington annual sports day, but it’s difficult to sprint with the toolbox. By the time she gets to a rainbow-painted front gate, she’s soaked to the skin. She opens the latch and trudges her way up a gravel path, her dunlops squidging with water. The path leads past an impressive collection of stone gargoyles, dwarves and rabbits: she wonders whether the Queen of Narnia has moved in.

At the front door, Pisum knocks. It is opened instantly but cautiously, on a chain. A butler peers out through a three-inch gap.

‘Hallo,’ Pisum says, wringing out the bottom of her jacket. ‘I’m your local Princess. I was, er, in the neighbourhood and wanted to stop by and, er, welcome you.’

‘ID?’ the butler shoots back.

‘ID?’ Pisum repeats, surprised. ‘Like, Princess ID?’

The butler fixes her disdainfully.

‘We get a lot of fakes, in these parts.’

‘Fake… princesses?’

‘Yup.’

Pisum looks down at her toolbox. Not only did she come out without umbrella or cash, but she didn’t think to bring her Princess ID, either. Then again, it’s not every day she’s asked for it.

‘Er – look – I’m bona fide. But my wallet is back at the castle.’

‘Then you’ll have to take the test.’

‘What test?’

The butler withdraws his face entirely from the crack, so that all Pisum can hear is a Mrs-Danvers-in-drag sort of voice.

‘The Princess Test.’

Pisum laughs.

‘And what is a Princess test, may I ask?’

‘No.’

‘No?’

‘No, you may not ask. Top secret.’

Now you might think that a royal Princess would be rather, well, peed off by such coarse treatment, but Pisum is more competitive than she would like to admit, and the idea of any test instantly appeals to her.

‘Alright, I’m in,’ she says. ‘If it gets me some dry clothes and a cheeky half.’

‘Certainly, Miss Pisum,’ the butler says, unchaining the door immediately, and opening wide. ‘If indeed that is who you say you are.’

They walk down a long, glitzy, corridor. The walls are, well, wall-to-wall in black and white prints of a band, the lead singer clad in a few-sizes-too-small leopard-skin catsuit.

‘Oh, wow, who’s that?’ Pisum asks, stopping at the foot of the biggest portrait.

‘That, Miss Pisum, if that is who you say you are,’ the butler answers, with a side glance of suspicion, ‘is the lady of the house, with her band.’

‘Cool,’ says Pisum admiringly. ‘What was the name of the band?’

‘The Black Eyed-’

‘Meet me halfway?’ trills a woman’s voice, a little off-key, coming toward them unsteadily along the corridor.

‘Ma’am, this young woman claims to be Princess Pisum,’ the butler says, turning.

‘Ring-a-ling!’

Pisum does a double take. It is the same woman in the portraits, although those, Pisum suspects, date somewhat. The leopard-skin catsuit has gone, replaced by skin-tight black leather dungarees, and flamingo-pink hair in rollers.

‘Hey, Mama,’ the woman says. She totters forward another couple of steps on some ten-inch gold sparkly platforms, and raises her palm. ‘High five.’

‘Great to meet you,’ Pisum slaps the woman’s hand. She is enjoying herself. ‘So you used to be the lead singer of the Black Eyed-’

But they are cut off by the clicking of some Cuban heels and a reproachful countertenor singsong, coming from an adjacent room.

Mum-sy, have you been using my Clarins Extra-Firming Day Cream again?’

A young man tumbles into the corridor, resplendent in a velvet amethyst suit, a crop of black curls and matching wavy black goatee.

When he sees Pisum, he claps.

‘A vi-si-tor!’ he gushes. ‘oh, how charming!’

He offers a delicate hand. Bracelets dangle from his wrist, one with several tiny gold guitar charms.

Pisum reaches forward.

‘Nice to meet you, er, …?’

‘Tafkap, Mademoiselle: and you are?’

‘Pisum. Princess Pisum, from the castle.’

‘Princess Pisum! Oh, how delightful!’ Tafkap leans into his mother. ‘I’m sure she’s the real one, Mumsy, this time, I’m sure of it. Just look at that skin!’

If,’ the butler mutters from behind Pisum, ‘she is who…’

‘Would you folks have anywhere I could get dry?’ Pisum asks. She is dripping all over the florescent orange and green mosaic flooring, not that any of them seem to mind.

‘But of course!’ Tafkap cries. ‘Stay, do, stay for dinner, and my maid will dry your clothes for you, in a jiff-jiff-jiffy. Stay overnight, eh Mumsy, shouldn’t Princess Pisum stay overnight?’

Mumsy is peering at Pisum, slightly cross-eyed. She nods.

‘I gotta feeling,’ she says.

‘That’s very kind,’ Pisum says.

She is taken by the butler up the winding stairs, along another long corridor and more prints of the band, some of them with a small dark-haired boy on stage, clutching a tiny violin. The butler unlocks the last door, and stands aside.

Pisum goes in, and stops dead.

Ahead of her is a four-poster bed. No surprise there: common to all good fairy tales. But this one has one, two, three …. At least twenty mattresses, she counts, and a long ladder leaning against them, to climb all the way to the top. Maybe there was a special offer down at SleePeasy, or something.

‘There are some dry clothes for you in the wardrobe,’ the butler says, pointing to the corner of the room. ‘You might like to have a hot bath before changing. You look a little, well, pea…ky.’

He inclines his head, and leaves.

Pisum does as he suggests. It is nice to get warm again, but above all she is always interested in other people’s plumbing. After her bath, she leaves her wet things in the tub and pads out to investigate the wardrobe. It houses what was visibly Mumsy’s old rocker’s outfits: the leopard skin catsuit is there, along with some other items mainly mimicking exotic animals.

Pisum selects some excellent some lime-green lycra flares and matching satin shirt, and heads back downstairs. Dinner is just being served when she enters the room.

‘Oh, well, you are just splendid, Princess Pisum, just splendid!’ cries Tafkap, clapping. ‘Isn’t she just a darling like that, Mumsy?’

‘Rock that body,’ Mumsy replies, already eating.

Pisum takes her seat, opposite Tafkap. She shakes out her napkin. It is vegetable stew, her favourite.

‘Delicious,’ she says, after the first mouthful.

‘Jolly good, jolly good, mange tout!’ Tafkap beams at her, and holds up his phone, a latest model GreenBerry. ‘Did you want to let your father know you are staying?’

‘Thank you,’ Pisum swallows, ‘I will.’

got caught in rain. New neighbours offering B+B. back tomorrow. Don’t forget your cod liver oil tablet. XOXOXO, Pi

When she has finished, Tafkap is already chatting away happily. Mumsy slurps her stew in between long draws of brightly-coloured drinks with little umbrellas, brought to her every few minutes by the butler. Tafkap reveals he is of royal descendance – in fact the last in a long line of Princes. They moved to Poddington in search of a quiet life, tired of the daily queues of Mumsy’s now sexagenarian fans and the metrosexual twenty-somethings wanting Tafkap’s hand in marriage.

‘It was just all so weary-bleary,’ Tafkap sighs, then immediately cheers up. ‘But that’s all done now, isn’t it, Mumsy? A new chapter for us.’

‘Lez get it started,’ slurs Mumsy.

‘But aren’t you afraid you’ll miss the crowds and the attention?’ Pisum sits back, pleasantly full. ‘Apart from the Giant, Poddington doesn’t get much action.’

‘Oh no,’ Tafkap says. ‘I’m all ready to settle down, when I find the Beautiful One.’

He cups his chin in his hand and gazes at her. But Pisum doesn’t notice. She is sleepy, now, after her hard day of manual labour, vibrant colours, and freak weather.

‘Well, thank you, dear neighbours, that was lovely. But I might call it a night, if that’s ok.’

‘Of course, of course!’ Tafkap stands. He waves away the butler. ‘Thank you, Peeves, I’ll accompany Princess Pisum. ’

‘Boom Boom Pow?’ Mumsy giggles from the head of the table, now on her third tequila sunrise.

‘Mumsy!’

Tafkap hurries Pisum out of the room and up the winding staircase.

‘It’s pretty cool, your mum being in the Black Eyed-’

‘I know!’ Tafkap smiles. ‘I used to be a musician too – an artist, I suppose I might once have been known as, but I was never as good as Mumsy.’

‘Ah, there’s always time!’ Pisum says. They are at her door. ‘Well, good night. Thanks for having me.’

‘I haven’t yet – oh, good night.’ Tafkap lingers. ‘Sure you don’t need any help getting in to bed?’

Pisum laughs.

‘Quite possibly. I might fall asleep before I get to the top!’

But with a yawn, she shuts the door, and Tafkap is left alone.

‘I wanna be your lover…’ he sighs, then goes sadly back downstairs to join Mumsy, who is now on the slammers.

Inside the room, Pisum finds the guest bathroom surprisingly well-equipped, with new toothbrushes, crocodile-skin slippers, and a selection of nightwear for all tastes: there are at least fifty onesies, all in different shades of the same colour.

‘Someone likes grey,’ she murmurs to herself.

She chooses a pair of flannel pyjamas with Dalmatian puppy motif and starts the climb into bed. Thankful that she doesn’t suffer from vertigo, she pulls the quilt over her, ready for a good night’s sleep.

But try as she might, Pisum finds she can’t get comfortable. She isn’t a fussy sleeper, having led the Poddington Girl Guides on many a nocturnal expedition. But there is something about the bed which just isn’t quite right.

Pisum turns on her pocket flashlight (which she always takes to bed – you never know) and descends once more. She rummages for her extendable spirit level in the toolbox and climbs back up.

The little bubble, her trusted friend since her first shelf aged seven, confirms what she suspected: the mattresses are uneven. Not by much. Someone without her DIY experience would probably not have noticed it. But if there’s one thing Pisum can’t abide, it’s an unbalanced spirit level.

She knows there is no way she will be able to sleep until she’s found what’s causing the problem. There is only one thing for it. Balancing adeptly on the ladder, she slides her hand between each mattress until finally, right at the bottom, she finds the culprit: a tiny, wizened pea.

Pisum examines the pea between her thumb and finger. Clearly it has been there a while. She puts it on a bedside table, and climbs back up, properly weary now. Within minutes, she is fast asleep.

The next morning, Pisum finds her clothes from the previous day, laundered and folded outside her door. She dresses, with a fond farewell to the satin and lycra, and goes downstairs.

Mumsy and Tafkap are already at the table.

‘Morning, everyone.’

‘Good morning, Princess Pisum,’ says Tafkap, excitedly. His plate is empty: breakfast can wait.

‘If that is…’ begins Peeves, by the buffet.

‘How did you sleep?’

‘Fine, thank you,’ Pisum says, reaching for a slice of toast.

Tafkap leans in, his lovely oval face distressed.

‘You did? No… wakings, in the night, no bad dreams…. No… discomfort, of any kind?’

‘None at all,’ Pisum replies. She butters her toast. ‘Great idea, you had there, with all the mattresses. Very comfy.’

Tafkap is staring, his eyes welling up. At the buffet, Peeves makes a multiple coughing sound, which sounds curiously like not-who-she-said-she-was.

‘Oh,’ Pisum adds, swallowing, ‘I forgot to say. You had a pea stuck in one of the mattresses, right at the bottom. I couldn’t sleep until I got it out. Fine after that, though.’

She takes another bite of toast, oblivious to the sudden silence.

‘You-’ Tafkap looks back, he cannot believe his ears, ‘you, you found it? The pea?’

‘My humps?’ Mumsy whispers.

‘A pea, yes.’ Pisum suddenly realizes the mood around her. ‘Why? Should I have left it there?’

Tafkap pushes back his chair, his hands clasped as if in prayer.

‘I knew it! I knew she was real!’

Mumsy, her hair still in rollers, smiles. She holds out her arms.

‘Where is the love?’

Pisum puts down her toast, warily. Tafkap is now hugging Peeves, who is still eyeing her with dislike over his shoulder.

‘Ok, ok, time out,’ Pisum says, alarmed by Tafkap’s PDA, Peeves’ continued refusal of her identity, and Mumsy’s outstretched arms. ‘What is going on here?’

‘Don’t you know the story?’ Tafkap says, releasing Peeves. ‘Only a real Princess could feel a pea in twenty mattresses.’

‘What? Why?’

‘Because real princesses are.. are.. sensitive. And fragile.’

‘Are they?’ Pisum laughs. ‘That’s the first I’ve heard of it.’

Tafkap’s smile fades a little.

‘Well, that’s what it says, in the story, isn’t it? So I’ve waited, until now, to do the experiment. The ceilings were never high enough in our house in Herne Hill to fit all the mattresses, and the council refused our request for a vertical extension. But none of that matters anymore!’

‘Why not?’ Pisum asks.

‘Because you’re The One!’ He goes down on one knee, reaching for her hand.

‘Whoa!’ Pisum says, pulling away. ‘Back up, there, neighbour. I’m not looking for a fella.’

‘What?’ cries Tafkap.

‘Shut up, just shut up, shut up,’ whispers Mumsy, distraught, her hands now over her ears.

‘Look, it’s alright,’ Pisum says, shaking her head. ‘What’s the deal with this fragility and sensitivity rubbish? Wouldn’t you rather marry your soulmate? And why limit yourself to a Princess, anyway? There are plenty of nice girls in the village. How about you come with me tonight down to the Poddington Arms?’

‘But…’ says Tafkap, miserably, still on his knee. ‘But…’

‘Come on. You’ll enjoy it. It’s open mike this evening.’ She looks at Mumsy: there is an aroma of brandy to her breakfast coffee. ‘And it’s buy one get one free on the cocktails before seven.’

Mumsy brightens. Consoled, Tafkap agrees to meet Pisum at six at the Poddington Arms. He brings Mumsy, who settles at the bar while he tunes his neglected guitar: he is first up.

Of course, Tafkap’s performance wins a standing ovation: the Poddington locals have never seen anything quite like it. Soon, back by popular demand, Tafkap is regularly regaling the village with uncannily good funk rock covers of the 1980s.

One such Thursday evening, some months later, Pisum pops in. She finds the Poddington Arms in full party-mode, like it’s 1999: the landlord (a darling girl called Nikki) has proposed to Tafkap, and he has accepted.

True love, at last, and a good business match: Tafkap and Nikki make the perfect pub landlords, Mumsy becomes the resident cocktail-mixer, and Peeves finally ditches butlering for his dream career as bouncer on the door.

As for Pisum, well, she continues to juggle her royal duties, the Giant, and Poddington’s DIY emergencies. But she remains a regular at the Thursday evening open-mike session, raising the habitual glass to Takfap’s musical genius, Mumsy’s cocktails, and to living hap-pea-ily, ever after.

Advertisements