Interview with a potential burglar
Christmas is coming! New things! Toys to play with, happy parents and baking and having a little drinkie, visits from uncles and aunts and cousins and friends! Jolly Christmas music, record player all day long, a large log in the fire and stockings hanging over the mantelpiece, the wood and the coal stocked high. The dog’s tongue hanging out and the cat with a tinsel collar, looking disdainfully at the eternal pup gambolling about. Snow on the ground, crisp and deep, the old car stuck in the drive and snowshoes at the door. The vicar round for tea and cake, and carollers twice a week, like clockwork, timed by the old grandfather in the hall.
Oh yes. Christmas is coming.
In the middle of this delightful chaos, two figures stand out.
Mother, the centre of all things, swishing from place to place, cooking and baking and greeting and cleaning and making all the wonderful things happen, directing the aunts and playing the uncles. There is cake and tea and a little sherry, some for the aunts and some for the uncles and some for the trifle and just a hint for Mother, lest mind wanders from service of guests and children and clergy alike.
And here is Father, tapping his pipe out before he enters the house, Mother would be, disappointed, otherwise, and we never disappoint Mother, especially Father; and he knocks the snow off his boots and greets all the guests and pokes at the fire and kisses Mother and makes her some tea and sits her down and hears about her day and what she is cooking and what she is cleaning and oh! Wonderful Father ushers the aunts and jokes with the uncles and changes the record and now, Mother, relax.
Now there are two of you for the menagerie and Mother can direct from chaise longue, and Father will manage with proper, military, precision the regiment of relatives and guests for the enjoyment of all.
And then there is the other.
He is not of this world surely, the pale little thing.
He has allowed the other children to dress him up on the condition that he play for an hour and then be left in peace with his book. As a result, the faint boy with the long hair is not dressed in his usual cord slacks and polo-neck sweater.
He is fact, today, a Princess, with a bow at his back and in his hair, petticoats rustling under the skirts of his dress and two rough spots of rouge on his cheeks. Apart from this clownish addition, he looks a delightful little Princess, but as Father comes home, he is roaming the house with his large book, face barely visible, stockinged legs poking out from the voluminous depths as he settles into the nook, his reading nook, in the window.
Father inspects this specimen, from across the room, assured that there will be no eye contact made, for the size and heft of the book allows of none, and absent-mindedly takes his pipe out of his cardigan pocket, gripping it between his teeth, a sure sign of deep thought. Mother catches this sign, naturally, and looks over. There is a moment between the two.
“I’ll handle it, dear.” She says, kindly, but Father thrusts his chin forward and gains a look of determination upon his face.
“I think, darling, that this should be a matter between gentlemen.” He stands, “May I avail myself of your facilities?”
“Of course, dear. As you see fit.”
“I think there are certain things to be discouraged, don’t you?”
“If you’re certain, but I wouldn’t like him to feel ill at ease.” Father shifts the pipe from one side to the other, changing gears of grim determination.
“Quite, and to that end, would you mind making us some tea?” Mother rises from her chaise longue, “Of course, dear.” And, unnoticed by the Princess, they disappear for a few minutes on their respective missions.
The children fall silent for a moment as they hear what Father Has To Say, after the initial excitement of seeing him of course, all the little girls squealing in delight, and then settling to hear his words of wisdom. The little Princess reads on.
Mother returns to the living room with a tray laden to the brim with the fullest specification of the definition of arranging tea. There are dainty teacups in china, a tea cosy keeping the pot warm, silver spoons and white and brown sugar, the coldest and freshest of milk, and heavenly shortbread in case one is found wanting a sumptuous crumble of sweetness and delight. Father arrives with a case, silver and square, and sitting near a small table across from the piano, places the case carefully on the ground.
“Cedric.” He calls over to the Princess boy. “Cedric, I would like you to come here.”
“A moment, Father.” The little boy takes less than a moment, and then carefully places his bookmark on the page, and skootches forward until his feet can touch the ground, placing the book on the large cushion that occupies most of the nook.
“Hello, Father. I am glad to see that you are home.” He says, presenting himself. He turns slightly, and nods, “Mother.” She sighs, for Cedric always calls her “Mother” even though she would like “mum,” or even, if the matter is urgent, “Cordelia,” which has the advantage of being her given name, but she is aware that Cedric is at all times formal and proper, and no remonstration will move him. He is a formal little boy, and presumably a formal little Princess too. “What can I do for you, Father? I can see that the matter at hand is disturbing you somewhat.”
“It is.” Says Father, measuring his tone carefully.
“If it is to do with my appearance, I can rid myself of these vestments and return to my more usual appearance.”
“I understand that you are a Princess.” Says Father.
“Indeed. It pleased my sisters and their friends to dress me in this fashion and make up a story about me transforming into a beautiful Princess after a lifetime of drudge. It is drawn from the stories they like to read and hear, an amalgam of these applied as a reason to play dress up.” In a rare moment of whimsy, the boy twirls on the polished wooden floor, clearly taking some unnamed joy from the swishing of the dress and petticoats. “Is this what is disturbing you, Father?”
There is sucking on the pipe, but it is empty and the result is simply a thin hollow whistle. Father removes the pipe and puts it in his cardigan pocket again.
“To some degree, my son.” And he opens the case, which spawns an intricately connected series of little trays and drawers all lined with the equipment of makeup application and removal. A glance at Mother reveals that he is reaching for the correct item and she nods slightly, but nothing gets past the Princess.
“This is not your area of expertise, Father. Would you like me to speak to Mother?”
“I would not. This matter is between gentlemen, or, if you prefer, a gentleman and his Princess.”
“As you wish, Father.” Father begins to remove the rogue, so crudely applied, from the little boy’s face with a moistened tissue type thing. It is soft and quickly becomes soiled with the red of the oily makeup.
“I wish, my son, to state that while you may play dress-up with your sisters as you see fit, if you are to be a Princess, then I would rather that you were a crown Princess than a clown Princess.”
“I see, Father.”
“You understand that I am concerned about your dignity, which I know is very important to you.”
“I have instilled in you that you must be the best that you can be, at whatever you can do.”
“Yes, Father, you have.” Having finished cleaning the rouge from his son’s face, and taken a moment to let it dry, Father picks up a little foundation, and a brush, and applies it to his son’s face.
“Do you know what you’re doing Father, really?” The hand moves swiftly and deftly to apply the makeup, giving the little boy’s face some colour and shape, heightening the cheekbones.
“I am a draughtsman and an artist, I have observed your Mother on many occasions. Close your eyes a moment. I think, son, that I can improve upon the work of your sisters, skilled though they may be.”
“Father, they are very small, they can barely put pen to paper, let alone perform the subtle artistry that is Mother’s daily appearance.”
Mother, at this point, pours the tea and places the fine china cups by Cedric and Father.
“Was that a compliment or a criticism, Cedric?”
“A compliment, Mother,” Cedric says diplomatically.
“Thank you, Cedric. That is very kind of you to say.”
“Think nothing of it Mother.”
Father has finished and turns Cedric by the shoulder to face his mother, who has retired once more to her chaise longue.
“Why you look beautiful my dear!” He starts a bow, but catches himself and performs a perfect curtsey.
“Thank you, Mother.” But she has changed her mind and is jumping up with considerable energy.
“I know, a Princess shall have a tiara, wait here!” And she rushes off to her dressing room, positively running up the stairs in excitement.
“You know Father, I am ten years of age now, in a few more I shall not easily pass for a girl.” He sips the tea delicately from the cup. “This play shall pass, and with it the age of my Princess play.”
“And how does that make you feel, my son?”
“I am resigned to it as I must be, Father, for the passage of time is not to be denied, by any means. We are trapped like insects in amber, though ever-changing. The long hand of the years will press down upon us all before our inevitable fall into the abyss.”
Father takes a moment to close the box again, all the folds collapsing and drawing in.
“You are a terribly serious little boy, my Son.”
“Oh no, Father, today I am whimsical, today I am a Princess.” And the Princess twirls again as Mother enters the room with a hairbrush, clips, and the promised tiara. There is a little pause as Mother brushes and arranges the long hair, which the boy has never permitted to be cut, into a bouffant cascade of dark loveliness, topped by the glistening crown, and then she paints his lips in a bright red to finish off the look, before bringing him before a mirror.
“Are you sure, Mother, that this red lip-gloss is appropriate? It announces to the world that I am fertile and ready to receive a prince.”
“Oh Cedric, you’re so clever, but you’re very serious. Everyone will know that you’re a little boy playing dress-up.”
“Oh Mother, I was attempting humour, as you and Father have said I should do on occasion. I was referring to the habit in time past of marrying off young women before menarche to ensure that the young lady did not ‘get in trouble’ or that the house line continued, or more likely some political alliance was forged.”
“I see. Exactly what sort of books have you been reading recently Cedric?”
“Oh, let me see now, Pride and Prejudice, A History of the Royal Houses of Europe, Cinderella, that sort of thing.”
“Oh, I see, and this is the lesson you have taken?”
“Oh no, Mother, only that these things happened in the past, and, as I say, I was attempting humour.” Cedric turns this way and that in the mirror. “Father did do a jolly good job of my face, and my hair is simply delightful now, Mother, thank you.”
“You look absolutely beautiful, Cedric.”
“You’re gushing, Mother.”
“Oh, Cedric I’m sure that you can allow a little gushing, it’s Christmas. You might even try smiling.”
“I shall tolerate your gushing, and I am sure you will want to bring my sisters to see me, but you know I do not smile, Mother, unless I am laughing.”
“I know.” She turns away, “Girls! Girls, come and see Ce…” but Cedric has placed a hand on her arm.
“No Mother, do not break their game, call me something else. I shall remain this delight over supper if I may.”
“I shall decree that it shall be so, O Princess.” Says Mother, bowing slightly. “What would you like to be called?”
“Elizabeth.” Replies the little boy, little Princess, without hesitation.
Supper is over, the girls are in bed, but Cedric, or rather Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth is ensconced in her nook, reading the large book, the subject matter of which is the nature of matter and space, and the relationship between them. Cedric is not, in fact, reading it, he is writing it, and so the Princess is too. Their mathematics are flawless, but Cedric and the Princess are convinced that the world is not ready for the outcome, so this book is a secret from all but his Mother and Father, who understand some but not all of the content.
Mother has retired to her room as most of the guests have left, and only a few single uncles are left in the dining room, in which Mother has graciously allowed cigars to be smoked, provided that the French doors are open, and the door to the remainder of the house is shut. Thus, while Mother and Cedric, and the Princess Elizabeth, continue their important work, the gentlemen talk over the gentle smoke and the warmed brandy in front of a roaring fire.
“I’ve never understood your boy, Giles.” Says one, warming by the fire, turning himself like a great vertical ox being roasted. He swirls the brandy in his glass and swallows the last of it, before holding his glass out for the proffered bottle. “And I can’t understand why you’d let him dress up as a girl. It’s unnatural.”
“I don’t ‘let’ Cedric do anything, Tim. He makes his own choices, you know that.”
“But all over supper, how’s Molly going to explain it to our children, I mean, I don’t want to make a fuss, but…”
“I’m sure Molly will explain it as it is, dress-up.”
“It’s just not right though.”
“I’m sure you can explain that to him if you like.” Giles, Father, looks at his watch. “It’s only half-past ten, he’ll still be up, I’m sorry, she’ll still be up, I can call her if you like.”
“Come on, Giles, you’re going to encourage this absurdity?” Another of those present shifts a bit in his seat.
“I say, Giles, that’s going a bit far isn’t it?” Father turns with a surprising, to those present, sharpness.
“I don’t think so, Harvey. He is my son and he knows his own mind, you can tangle with it if you like, but if he chooses to maintain a fiction for the purposes of play, then I am only too happy to facilitate it.”
“I don’t care, you and I know that he has surpassed all in so many ways, or you would have broached the subject with him. He’s a little boy, leave him to get on with it.”
The fourth participant coughs and leans forward.
“He’s not just a little boy though, is he? You’ve not been able to have him educated in school for some time now, and he is being put forward to Oxford. What are they going to say if he turns up in drag?”
“Do you take me for a fool, or worse, do you just think he is?”
“Supper, Giles, in front of the whole family, you and called him Elizabeth.” A long puffing on the cigar, and then Tim resumes, “The gels enjoyed it, but they don’t understand what it is to be a man.”
Giles is silent for a moment, considering his response to Pavel, Harvey and Tim. Pavel goes to speak, but Tim shakes his head minutely and lets a held breath out slowly and, he hopes, silently.
When he speaks again, Giles is deliberate and careful.
“Since Cedric has been very small he has shown remarkable qualities of cognizance and self-reliance. His academic abilities are beyond question. His sense of whimsy and humour is limited by his intelligence and engagement with what he sees as the serious business of the world. If he chooses to dress up with his sisters, and the other children, and employ his sense of whimsy, I am not going to do anything that elides it. I am required to do everything I can to support this family and I suggest you leave if you do not believe in my support for my son, particularly over something as trivial as this. Do I make myself clear?”
At this moment, the door opens, and a small tiaraed head with fabulous hair appears around it.
“Mr Watterson?” All heads turn to look at them, as represented, little girl. “I heard your voice raised. May I come in? I have no wish to hold this door open against Mother’s wishes.” Father beckons the Princess in, noting without glancing down that his child is wearing the oversize heels that Mother has loaned to her to complete the outfit.
“Of course you may, sweetie. Please come, avail yourself of a chair and grace us with your presence and wisdom.” And then, thinking better of himself, Father rises as he would for any lady entering a room. He pulls out a chair for the Princess and awaits her arrival before it, but Cedric, Elizabeth, doesn’t move except to shut the door, slowly. It is clear that she waiting for something, and she looks away absently, fiffling with her hair, while Giles looks sternly at the other seated gentlemen. After an increasingly awkward moment, they rise, and she makes her way to the chair, but as her Father helps her up, she tucks her legs under herself and rises up so that she can look him in the eye. Giles locks his face in what he hopes is his most neutral expression.
“Are you going to introduce me, Mr Watterson?”
“Princess Elizabeth, may I introduce, Mr Pavel Gunderson,” and he pauses for Pavel to say something suitable, but Pavel walks around the table as the Princess holds out her hand in front of her, looking away again to give him time to negotiate the somewhat haphazard chairs. She looks slightly down upon him as he brings his hand up under hers for the barest hint of support, and bows over it, murmuring,
“Delighted to make your acquaintance, Princess Elizabeth. I do hope you have had an enjoyable evening so far.”
“How charming you are, Mr Gunderson. My evening has been quite delightful I assure you.”
Giles, for all his self-control, has to turn his face away slightly from the company for the briefest moment, before he resumes his introductions.
“And Mr Harvey Smith.” And because he cannot resist a moment of his own whimsey, he adds. “Mr Smith is something in the newspaper industry.” And Harvey, having seen the form, proceeds as Pavel, graciously allowing the beneficence of the Princess to shine down upon him.
“I am overcome by gratitude for your receiving me, Your Highness.” He says, mustering some attempt to play up to the child. He is aware at the same time that he is greeting in play his intellectual superior, and Elizabeth, for all the riches of the fellow greeting her, can see the fear in his eyes.
“Oh, Mr Smith, it is a divine pleasure to receive you. I do hope your little empire of print is doing well.”
“Oh yes, fine, fine.” But a bead of sweat is running down his head, brandy and cigar beginning to disorient him in the onslaught of charm.
Giles takes his son’s hand for a second. “Gently.” He says, very quietly, before continuing,
“And lastly, Princess, Mr Timothy Matheson.” Tim, however, is having none of it.
“Oh for pete’s sake, he, is, a, boy! This is absurd! Why are you even allowing it, let alone encouraging it!” he shouts. He strides to the child and looks him in the face, his own turning red with anger and recrimination.
“You boy are a boy! Not a damned… hngggg….”
Man and Princess are on the floor, the Princess standing calmly but firmly holding the man’s little finger, painfully and absurdly, in complete control of the uncle.
“Son…” Giles begins.
“No Father.” And she twists a little more to make the point. “This man has upset you and disturbed my work. You gave him a chance to make amends and he chose not to take that opportunity. This is in my hands now.”
“And I said, my sweet daughter, that excessive violence will bring you the attention of the authorities, did I not?”
“You did.” She twists some more. “And I think that you’ll find that Uncle Tim here doesn’t find any of this excessive, do you, Uncle Tim?”
The man is unable to speak, but he shakes his head. “No, Father, I think you’ll find that Uncle Tim agrees with free expression in children from now on, isn’t that right Uncle Tim?” The man, still frightened that he is about to lose his finger by having it ripped off by a ten-year-old Princess, nods in agreement and with this, the little girl releases the man suddenly and painfully, the finger returning to an almost normal position.
“Holy crap.” Says Harvey.
“I’ll thank you not to use that sort of language in front of me, Mr Smith, or take the Lord in vain.”
At this moment, the door opens again. The Princess’s mother, Cordelia, is there.
“I see.” She says. “Go home, Tim, after you’ve had some ice on it.” She looks about and sees Elizabeth with a look of smug triumph on her face. “Shame on you all for putting a little girl through this.” She holds her hand out to Elizabeth. “Come with me, I think that on this night you could use a little extra rest, and I’ll be wanting my tiara where it belongs, young Elizabeth.”
“I think I’d like to be my old self again before I go to bed, Mother.”
“Not yet, Mother. I’m still a Princess.”
“Alright Elizabeth, you come with me and we’ll get that makeup off and wash your pretty face, how about that?”
“Why yes Mother, that would be lovely. Goodnight Uncle Pavel, Goodnight Uncle Harvey, Goodnight, Father.” The uncles wave uncertainly, but Father picks up his erstwhile daughter and hugs her tightly, “I love you.”
“I know, Father.” And with this, she is gone.
Cedric seems asleep when the Big Man comes. The dress is over the back of the dressing table chair, and the tiara is on the dresser, as a treat for the little boy who doesn’t smile.
There is a moment of confusion, and then the Big Man is on the floor, immobile, as a concession Cedric is not actively hurting him, but it’s not looking good for the Big Man.
“You’ve got the suit.” Cedric intones.
“Yes, I have young feller.”
“And do you have a list?” He asks.
“Do, you, have, a, list?” Cedric repeats patiently. “of the naughty and the nice.”
“Er, yes, yes. And could I say until tonight you’ve been very far into the nice side of the list.”
“Let me see it, slowly.” The Big Man pulls out a long, very long, list from his inner pocket. It is on parchment and is rolled up.
“I’m letting you go now on condition that you don’t disappear or try to rob us.”
“You have my word young man, as the man with the Sleigh.” Cedric lets him go, and he massages his finger back to life.
“You’re pretty quick you know. Most people, children can’t catch me you know.”
“I’m not most children.”
“That is self-evidently true.”
“So what are you?”
“Most people, again, children ask if I’m him.”
“Again, not most children.”
“So you’re smart, and don’t believe.”
“And yet you’re here. Logically my conclusion is that you are a burglar.”
“Logic has little to do with my existence.”
“Logic has something to do with all existence. Unless those things are very small.”
“Do I look very small?”
“And yet I am here.”
“So you are, and therefore, you must be a burglar.”
“I’m really not a burglar.”
“Then you must provide proof.”
“What do you truly want.”
“A sense of whimsey, as I have now experienced it, every day.”
“And that is what you want.”
“It is my dearest wish.”
“You may lose your genius.”
“I will not, but if I do, then no matter, I will be able to smile at Mother and Father.”
“Well then,” says the fat man dressed all in red and green, sitting on the floor. “if you’re sure.”
“Then it is done. I should look in the mirror if I were you.”
“I don’t see anything.”
“See what lies beneath, I’ll turn my back.”
Cedric sees and, after a few moments, nods approval.
“If this is how it must be.”
“This is just what you asked for.”
“Is it the same for everyone?”
“No, this is just your solution. Glory in it.”
“You’re most welcome. Oh and er, Ho Ho Ho…” says the Big Man fading away.
Tomorrow is a new day, and the little girl comes down from her room.
“Good day, Mother and Father and sisters all. I have an announcement to make.
Santa came last night and I have been given a gift…”
Published November 2017