Back in February, I wrote a blog about the usefulness of prompts to get a story going. On that occasion it was a picture prompt for The Word Count Podcast. Then in March, I wrote another taking a different tack about pictures as sources of material. And here I go again. It’s another Word Count podcast but this time the prompt was simply three words – Glass, Bed, Bow – and it teased some very different stories from nine writers.
The words themselves aren’t particularly evocative, either individually or as a group. Nonetheless, when I started thinking how I might approach the task, the idea of a fairy story came into my head and refused to be shifted. You can hear it and the other 8 stories here but for those who prefer reading it silently for themselves, this is it. It’s called Princess.
Emma was Danny’s princess. That’s what he’d always called her, right from the time they did that first dance and he said she had the most beautiful eyes he’d ever seen. She’d always known she was beautiful and she’d learned very early to make the most of it by lowering her eyelids and looking up at the boys, then the men, through her dark lashes. From the expressions she’d seen on their faces when she did that, she knew the power she had. They caught their breaths and their eyes became hungry. Danny was right. She was a princess. The word suited her. Mind you, princesses didn’t live in the sort of place she and Danny had bought when they decided to move in together, but that was OK. They both pretended. He even wrote stories about her, changing the one small damp room into the many different halls and chambers they’d find in a palace, and the TK-Maxx skirts and tee shirts into gowns made of silver threads and studded with emeralds.
His love was like all the songs said love should be – sometimes a furnace but mostly a refuge, a gentle warmth that surrounded her, a rising mist that slid over surfaces, softening them, colouring them as in a fairy tale.
Each week, on the couple of days before payday, when there was no money for the cinema or a bottle of wine, she’d lie with her head in his lap and he’d make up a new story, using events that happened during that week. Once, when the postman had delivered a parcel which wasn’t for them but for a neighbour, his story was called Mistaken Identity and it was about a princess who was so beautiful that everyone she saw, and even the objects among which she moved, wanted to be with her all the time. The postman became a wizard – not one of those with a black cloak with stars on it and a pointed hat, but one who drove a black Aston Martin and searched the city for girls who looked good enough to appear on his television show. He knew nothing of Emma, had never seen her, and was looking for another girl, called Elizabeth, whom he’d met at a club the night before and who’d given him her address. They’d talked of movies, stars, fame, and the wizard coveted her. But she wanted more than words so, knowing that she was a dreamer, he’d brought her a gift. It was a glass slipper.
But as he’d driven slowly along the street, looking for Elizabeth’s house, the bow in the golden silk tassel which was wrapped round the slipper had begun to loosen. He was driving slowly and watched as the ends of the bow slid towards the passenger door and seemed to want to pull the slipper with them. He stopped, parked, picked up the gift and got out. Immediately, he felt the power begin to pulse from the silk and the slipper drew him along until he was standing before a glass palace. Through the walls he could see a beautiful princess lying on a bed draped with satin the colour of peaches. All thoughts of Elizabeth drained from him and the force flowing from his gift became his own impulse as he walked between the rows of guards lining the corridors leading to the princess’s chamber.
When he reached her, the gift tore itself from his hand and landed between her breasts, the folds of silk settling among those of her nightgown, drawing the slipper closer and closer to her heart. The tassel slithered over the sheet, gathering it up, wrapping around it and retying itself into a bow.
‘Go on,’ said Emma. ‘What happened then?’
‘Nothing,’ said Danny. ‘The slipper was where it wanted to be. It was part of her and that was perfect.’
But Emma wanted more and so Danny, who was quite pleased with that ending, had to describe how the princess unwrapped the slipper, slid her foot into it, draped the gold tassel and bow around her neck and danced with the wizard until she fell exhausted onto the bed and the wizard knelt beside it gazing at her.
‘Then what?’ said Emma.
‘Oh, I don’t know. He turned into a pumpkin,’ said Danny.
They both laughed. Emma switched on the TV and they watched wannabe contestants being insulted by a panel of judges.
But the images of the glass palace, the folds of satin on the bed, the silk bow at her throat and the rows of guards watching the dancing princess persisted and, in response to Emma’s childlike requests for another story, Danny embroidered on them more and more. The wizard and his Aston Martin vanished but the princess continued to lie there, her delicate fingers stroking the silk of her gift and feeling the shape of the glass slipper beneath it. More gifts piled up around her, crystals and diamonds, bracelets, rings and jade necklaces, love songs scratched by quills on vellum.
It was a stark contrast with the reality of their dismal flat and the endless hours she had to spend as receptionist for an offshore company, repeating hundreds of times a day:
‘Good morning. Anstey Oil. How can I help you?’
‘Good afternoon, Anstey Oil. How can I help you?’
Her soul was stifled by its dullness and, while Danny’s words spun her into magical dreams, they never lasted and her need for the images to endure, to condense into a reality was never satisfied. Her perpetual question ‘What happened then?’ eventually found Danny’s inventions being repeated and the beautiful, pampered princess left her silks and satins, the bow and the glass slipper on the bed as she stalked along the rows of guards looking for something new.
Through the glass walls of the palace she saw fields stretching away, dark clumps of trees on hillsides, a cloudless sky, all inaccessible.
‘So the palace is a prison,’” said Emma, as Danny became silent.
‘Will she escape?’
‘Well, she could, but where would she go?’
‘I don’t know.’
It was the end of the story telling. Danny and Emma only visited the palace once more. It was a Thursday evening after a damp, driech day of perpetual telephones. Emma lay back and rested her head in Danny’s lap.
‘Tell me about the glass slipper,’ she said, ‘and the silk bow and the bed with its satin sheets. Tell me about the princess.’
Danny was silent for a while, his fingers stroking her hair, which felt coarse under his touch.
‘The princess picked up the slipper,’ he said at last, ‘and noticed for the first time that it was cracked. A long filament wound around it, clouding its surfaces. She reached for the tassel to bind it, felt a stickiness on the material and saw that the bow was frayed, its sheen disappearing under a dullness that had spread over the silk. She wrapped it carefully around the slipper and, holding it to her breast, she stood and looked at the long rows of guards stretching away along the glass walls of the palace corridors. Wearily, she walked to the end of the row on her left and stood before the first guard.
‘Good evening. How can I help you?’ she said.
The guard said nothing. The princess moved to the next in the row.
‘Good evening. How can I help you?’ she asked again.
As Danny quietly described the princess’s progress along the line, Emma’s eyes glistened.