EPILOGUE – The Fairytale
MARGARET HELEN MANCHESTER
JUNE 8, 1863 – FEBRUARY 14, 1887
LOVING WIFE AND MOTHER
Edith Margaret Manchester squatted by the graveside, pulling up fresh weeds with a vengeance. Her hair had escaped from its low bun at the back of her neck as she worked, falling into her eyes. Sixteen now, she was not much shorter than her father; tall and gangly and slouching. The hem of her dress was getting muddy, and she didn't care.
She stood up and admired her handiwork, placing the fresh bouquet of lilies on the grave as a finishing touch.
'There you are, Mother,' she whispered with a small smile.
She could remember the first time she had visited the grave with her father. It was only half a week after she had returned from Underland.
The trip back had been disorientating. She had vague and blurry memories of being fished out of the creek by a farmer and his stable hand, and being fed some kind of soup. The next day she had woken in an unfamiliar bed, and had been more than a little surprised to see her father sitting in a chair beside her, dishevelled, with shadows beneath his eyes. He had taken her home, had not put up an argument when she refused to sleep in her old room, and hadn't left the house "on business" or anywhere else. On Thursday she had asked him to take her to see her mother, and they had travelled some miles to the cemetery. They had stood together in the pouring rain as she stared at the tombstone, hardly able to believe it existed; the world blurring before her.
'She was very sick, Edith,' she could hear her father saying in the background, using the same tone all adults would use for an excuse. 'You're too young to understand. She was very tired and very ill, and there was nothing anyone could do. When you're older you'll know what I mean …'
His words faded into background noise, mixing with the pattering of the rain. She found that she couldn't bring herself to think about exactly why Mother had died, or whose fault it was or wasn't. She could only think about what she had been alive. And then she remembered that she didn't truly know.
'What was she like?' she asked her father, turning to look at him.
Her own dark eyes were mirrored back at her, and for a moment she shuddered involuntarily. He seemed to notice, and frowned slightly.
'She was ... wonderful,' he said slowly, 'once upon a time. She used to laugh and joke ... And she was very beautiful.'
Edith nodded, feeling her throat burn. She looked back at the grave, struggling not to cry in front of Father.
'Edith.' She felt his hand squeeze her shoulder hesitantly, and his voice changed from that of an adult, desperately grappling for excuses, to that of a father, trying to comfort his crying daughter. 'She loved you very much.'
'She loved you too,' she snapped back, unable to stop the accusation in her voice.
Father was silent. His hand slipped from her shoulder.
You didn't deserve her.
Her head spun with memories of diamond necklaces and roadside flowers and elegant women in marketplaces.
I know what you did. And you know that I know. So what is there left to say about it?
'Father,' she croaked, and turned to wrap her arms around his waist.
To her surprise he returned the hug.
'I'm sorry, Edie.'
He stood patiently with her, her tears mingled with rain on his coat; holding her tightly as the rain fell down in thick, wet droplets, soaking them both to the bone.
Now Edith left the cemetery and boarded the carriage waiting for her outside, glad to be back in the warmth.
'Ready to go, Edith, dear?' said the red-haired woman sitting opposite her.
Edith nodded with a brief smile to her stepmother, watching out the window as her mother's grave disappeared from sight between the trees.
Chessur was hovering amongst the treetops when he heard the familiar noise of a pair of very sensible boots crunching through the undergrowth. He grinned to himself and spun into vapour-thin smoke, wafting down to float above Edith's head invisibly.
She raised a hand as if to brush away a fly as his wind stirred her hair, her brow furrowing.
'Scowling again, Edith,' he said, chuckling as she jumped half a foot in the air.
'Chessur! You ...' she hissed at him, and stalked off down the forest path.
'Come now, love,' he grinned, solidifying in front of her. 'We're old friends.'
She raised an amused and slightly sceptical eyebrow at him.
'Haven't you learnt your lesson on pranking old friends yet?' she said, but allowed him to pad along the ground beside her as she made her way to the Tea Party Clearing.
As usual, the tea party was in full swing when they arrived. This was evidenced by the fact that Thackery Earwicket was dancing the futterwacken on the tabletop.
'Broiled lobster's ready!' he hollered in delight when he saw Edith and Chessur emerge from the woods.
Already bored with walking, Chessur shot over to his place at the end of the table, peering into a cup and trying to decide whether it was safe to drink from.
'You really must do something about table hygiene, Tarrant,' he said to the opposite end of the table, where Tarrant Hightopp was sitting, Alice on his left. Chessur smirked as he noticed that their hands were joined underneath the table.
'Take that smirk off your face, you scuttish Cat,' Tarrant called down to him, the smirk on his own lips taking away most of the usual effect of the brogue.
'Tarrant, such language in front of the ladies?' he tutted, sipping his tea delicately.
He saw Edith shoot him a threatening look, as if she would punch him if he called her a lady again. Ah, let her try. It might prove amusing.
'Don't push your luck, Cheshire,' she said, as if she'd read his thoughts.
'You'll cut yourself with those sharp little eyes of yours someday, Edith.'
Mallymkun jumped out of a teapot just before Thackery picked it up and hurled it at the Hatter and Alice. The pair ducked in perfect unison and returned to their conversation without batting an eyelid.
'Edith?' Her tiny face split into a grin when she saw her friend sitting before her.
The two fell into animated discussion, Edith full of news about her stepmother's pregnancy.
'Deborah wants "Pleasance" for a girl and "Ernest" for a boy,' said Edith, wrinkling her nose in disgust. 'Hopefully I can talk her into giving it a half decent middle name to nickname it. Speaking of ridiculous names, where's Pig? I've overtaken him, everyone,' she announced smugly to the table at large.
There was a thud and a squeaking noise that sounded rather like, 'Ow,' from beneath the table. After a moment Pig emerged from underneath the table top, white hair looking even more ruffled and electric than usual.
'Impossible,' he said, leaning one skinny arm on the table and massaging his forehead, where an angry red welt was throbbing.
'Thackery hit you with a teapot, didn't he? And it's not impossible.'
'No, no, he tried to make me dance with him and I fell off,' said Pig, wincing, 'and of course it's impossible.' He climbed to his feet, swaying slightly but puffing out his chest. 'Edie, you will never, ever – ever, ever, ever, ever, ever – be taller than me.'
'We'll see about that,' she said with a challenging grin that showed every tooth in her mouth.
Pig shrugged. Thackery stopped dancing and sat down on the tabletop abruptly, watching eagerly as Edith stood and went to walk around the table. She seemed to change her mind halfway and climbed right over it instead, jumping down next to Pig on the other side. Both straightened themselves out as if hoping their very bones would elongate. Then Edith grinned. She was the tiniest, tiniest smudge of an inch taller than him.
'Hah!' she laughed in his face, stabbing his chest with a finger. 'And you said –'
Pig crossed his arms, unimpressed.
'Take off your boots.'
'Take off your boots,' he repeated slowly, as if to a very small and stupid child.
Edith frowned, 'No.'
'Take them off, you cheat!'
'I don't need them to be taller than you!'
Recognising the signs of an argument, Chessur decided to hit the road before food started flying. He nodded to Tarrant, who inclined his head in return. Alice waved happily at him with a smile. Thackery was rocking back and forth, giggling as he watched Edith and Pig fight.
'You off then, Chess?' said Mally with a smile as he set his cup down.
'I think so,' he said, glancing at the arguing pair. 'I don't want cold ham in my fur again.'
'Fair enough – oi! Edith, what did I tell you about biting people!' Mally leapt into the fray, trying in vain to tear her friends apart.
Chessur grinned at the scene and evaporated, floating above the clearing and looking down at them as he drifted lazily away.
Edith wearing her trademark scowl, waist deep in an argument whilst Mally fiercely attempted to make her behave; Pig making a fool of himself and inevitably, at some point, having his head either grabbed in a headlock by Edith or used as target practice by Thackery; and Tarrant and Alice stealing kisses when they thought no one was looking. Afternoon sunlight glinting off the teacups and everything bathed in the liquid-gold warmth of summer, falling through the trees of the forest and pooling around the tea table and its motley crew of misfits. Old, crackly music playing in the background – the sound of nostalgia.
When he thinks of them in days to come, this is the way he always sees them all; together, beneath the dreaming sunshine, and utterly alive.
'And though the shadow of a sigh,
May tremble through the story,
For "happy summer days" gone by,
And vanished summer glory –
It shall not touch with breath of bale,
The pleasance of our fairytale.'
And by the way, my readers, dear,
Who stuck with this so far,
Who put up with my rhymes so queer,
Who took my words to heart,
Thank you, all who trod this trail,
I hope you liked my fairytale.
Story started sometime between March the 5th and March the 31st – finished on the 2nd of October, 2010.