The Storyteller

'"—public of Heaven," said Lyra.' Lizzie's voice ceased, and died, and was eaten up by the darkness.

'Oh! Is that it? Is it over?' The boy was lying in his shared bunk on the far side of the room, next to the painted-over window.

'Yeah, that's it.'

'It took long enough.'

'It was a long story. Long stories take a long time to tell.'

'Yeah, well, all right.'

'You gotta pay me now.'

Mary - an older girl - spoke. 'Pay you. For that?' Her scorn scythed through the air, hissing as it passed. She did not like the storyteller. She did not like the way she drew attention to herself.


'You can whistle for it.'

'Give it a rest, Mary,' said the first boy. 'We liked it.'

"We? Who's we?'

'All of us. Yes?'

Sleepy voices around the room agreed with him.

'So shut it, Mary.'

'You gonna pay me, then?' asked Lizzie.

'Not now. It's too dark. Wait 'til morning.'

'You still gotta pay me. Else I won't tell you any more stories.'

'Yeah, yeah. Like I'm bothered. Now shut up, wilya? I want some kip.'

The dormitory fell silent and huddled to itself in defence against the enquiring cold.

The two boys stood next to each other at the bench. Their reddened, raw fingers moved quickly, automatically. It was boring, mindless, repetitive work, intended to dull the brain and tire the body. Their workshop was a long, brick hall, lit by high, dirty clerestory windows. No sight of the world outside for these children, nor the winter sky. Not while they were on duty.

The overseer walked slowly up and down the passageways between the benches, a birch-switch quivering in her hand. Her eyes were keen, her ears alert, her belly full. Sometimes she stood on the platform at one end of the hall and scanned the workers for signs of indolence and distraction. Sometimes she stood behind them, examining their work for flaws with restless, probing eyes, scalding their backs with fear.

The girl Lizzie, the storyteller, stood by herself at a bench at the end of the hall nearest to the platform. She was well known to the overseers for idleness and lack of proper care with her work. Often the checkers rejected it and she had to do it again. Sometimes raw materials were wasted and would have to be thrown away. She was frequently punished for these offences.

These punishments were largely ineffective in improving the standard of Lizzie's work. They nevertheless served a valuable purpose in reminding the other children of the necessity of paying close attention to their tasks.

It was recognised by the Masters that, despite the apparent loss of working time, the productivity of the factory improved if the children were allowed a break every few hours. At these times the rules required them to leave the workshop and walk around the yard outside. They were permitted to speak among themselves during these breaks; the justification being that, if the children must chatter, it was better that they should do so in their leisure time, rather than when they were doing their work. Talking in the workshop - unless it was a request to an overseer for more material, or to have finished items taken away for checking - was strictly forbidden and subject to harsh punishment.

The children walked slowly in uniformed pairs around the yard. In pairs, that is, except for Lizzie who always walked alone, her lips moving soundlessly as she spoke to herself. Telling stories, perhaps. Straggle-haired Lizzie always walked alone. 'Saying Look at me, I'm special,' whispered Mary to her friend Rita.

Two boys, bunk mates, walked together around the yard. They also kept their distance from Lizzie, not because they disliked her but because they loved her stories and they did not want to interrupt her thoughts and maybe spoil a new tale in the making.

The first boy - the one who, disappointed, had asked the night before if that was really the end of the story - turned to his friend as they trudged - plod, plod, plod - around the grey-brown piled-stone yard. 'The thing I like…' he said.

'Yes, Tony?' said his friend.

'Is the way she puts us into her stories.'

'Yeah, that's good.'

'And this place too. Bolvangar.'

'Even if she goes and kills us off.' Roger, the second boy, indicated the guard, loaded rifle slung over his shoulder, who was patrolling up and down the top of the wall above them. Clad in a heavy woollen greatcoat he was, and wearing fingerless gloves and a fur hat against the cold.

'Trust her to put herself in it,' said Mary to Rita, following the two boys.

'And make herself the daughter of a Lord. The cheek of it!' said Rita to Mary. Her breath crinkled the air between them.

'Typical! She only goes and saves the world and all.'

'Lizzie, Lizzie, Lizzie. Lyra, Lyra, Lyra. Liar. God, I hate her.'

'Me too. She thinks she's so bloody important…'

They fell silent. Perhaps they were remembering Bill who, only three months before, had been caught by the guards as he tried to escape over the wall. The entire day shift had been mustered in the yard the following day and the head overseer had hauled Bill's limp body out of the cellars by his stiff black hair and held him up against the outer wall. There, in full view of the assembled children, the Master had cut his throat from ear to ear with a mortal, sharp knife. It had flashed heraldic silver and scarlet in the morning light, and the blood had fallen from the upraised blade and dyed the Master's hand with crimson glory. They had not seen Bill's body taken away.

Back in the workshop. It was very little warmer than the yard, but felt less bitter as it was out of the wind. It would not do to make the recreation area too comfortable in comparison with the place where the day's work was done. Mary and Rita stood next to one another, sharing a bench just as Roger and Tony shared theirs. They had made a whispered pact, out there in the yard, and brushed against Lizzie's table as they returned to the workshop. They waited while the overseer passed by in a shiver of air. Mary nodded to Rita.


'Skadi?' The overseer turned whip-crack fast to face the girl. The birch-branch twitched. 'What is it?'

'Please, Ma'am, it's Brooks. She's dropped her work. It's ruined.'

The overseer was held personally responsible for the quantity and the quality of all the work that the children did. She strode up to Brooks' bench. On the stone floor by the girl's slippered feet lay two pieces of wadding, and next to them three or four scattered cartridge cases.

'Brooks! What is this?'

'I'm sorry, Ma'am,' said the girl, standing stiffly to attention as the rules - the overarching rules - demanded. 'I didn't notice…'

'Then you will have to learn to notice. Come with me.' The overseer led Lizzie to the platform at the top of the hall where she was punished swiftly and brutally. The children watched with rigid, self-controlled eyes. Such events were part of their daily routine.

Roger repeated the credo of a forgotten religion under his breath. Tony tried not to remember the last time that he had been taken up to the platform. The faces of Mary and Rita were as expressionless as those of all the children, except for Lizzie. They would save their smiles for later, in the private dark time of the dormitory. This was Lizzie's payment.

The overseer addressed the children from the platform. 'Our work is sacred. It is our national duty. Do not forget that. Failure to observe due diligence in our work will be punished in the manner that you have just witnessed. Back to your tasks!'

This injunction was all-embracing, and included Lizzie. She got to her feet, climbed stiffly down from the platform and returned with slow, cautious steps to her bench. With infinite care she bent down and picked the wadding and cartridge cases from the floor and put them back in their proper places. Her hands, which had not been punished, returned mechanically to their business of making munitions for the War. But in her mind…

'Once upon a time, there was a girl called Lisa. She lived in a beautiful golden palace on the banks of the River Dee and all her friends - and she had many friends - envied her her great good fortune. They envied her, I say, but they did not hate her, because she was so good and kind to everyone. But not everybody was her friend, and there was one girl in particular, whose name was Moira, who hated Lisa with a deadly, poison-green passion…'