whatever happened to sheila?
‘daughter, what would i do without you? you’re my only comfort now that your three brothers have left home. how cosy we’ll be with just us.’
‘well, mama, what if i marry?’
‘who would marry you? you are too skinny and ugly. besides there’s no one for you here that isn’t your cousin or nearer. even if there were there’re prettier girls in the towns. a man not smart enough to look there isn’t worth having. you stay here with me.’
‘well, johnnie ransome catches up with me sometimes when i’m going for the mail, and we walk to the post office together. he’s nice. i think how it would be to be married to him, and what our babies would look like.’
‘johnnie ransome? never. he’ll be like his dad, a lazy drunkard with no ambition and no manners. i would never consent. you don’t need a man. stay here with me… was that someone knocking?’
sheila got up from the table and crossed the room to the door. an icy wind came bustling into the cottage and swirled some snowflakes across the floor. sheila leaned out and looked right and left and then closed the door.
‘can’t see anyone,’ she said, ‘it must have been a branch hitting the window,’ and returning to the table she began to clear it, but her mother stopped her. ‘we’ll have our coffee first, then we’ll clear away.’
she was pouring it when something began to clatter at the door and it didn’t sound like a branch tossed by the wind. sheila was sent once again to open the door, but found no one there.
they were settled either side of the fire with their coffee mugs on their knees listening to the keening of the wind when they both heard the knocking again. ‘well it can’t be a branch,’ said sheila, ‘because there isn’t one that could hit the door.’ she opened it again and this time she looked not only left and right and straight ahead, but also up and then down, and she screamed.
there on the step was a tiny man not quite up to her knee.
recovering herself she remembered her manners and invited him in. another swirl of snowflakes followed him in and she shut the door quickly. her mother stared in amazement.
‘step up to the fire!’ sheila said. ‘i’ll get you a seat.’ she found the kitchen stool and a feather cushion and brought them to the fire. they looked far too big for the tiny man at first, yet when she had placed it for him he sat right down upon it and it was exactly the right size, though nobody saw anything change.
the tiny man smiled gratefully. he wore pin-striped trousers and tails and carried a tall top-hat and cane. his shoes were well-mended and polished. ‘terrible weather to be out in. kind hearts you have indeed!’
‘well, i hope so!’ said the mother, fully recovered. ‘have you had tea? we have but little but what we have we share. sheila, bring the man a plate of something.’
sheila put some fish and a piece of bread and butter and some salad on a small plate for him. it looked enormous as she handed it to him but as soon as he took it it appeared just the right size, though nothing changed.
the food cheered him, and they found they had some beer for him, and they passed the night in pleasant conversation, the two women hardly noticing that he told them nothing about himself but made them tell him everything about everyone in the district. he was clearly enjoying himself – even got up to sing a song. at last everyone was tired and sheila made him a bed by the fire. it seemed very big but when he got in it looked just right and he went straight to sleep. the women tidied the cottage and went to bed.
sheila awoke in a strange bed in a weird little room all angles and planes and the little man bringing her in a cup of tea. he seemed very pleased. the teacup looked hopelessly tiny, but as she reached for it it became just the right size, yet didn’t seem to have changed. the tea was delicious and gave her strength. the little man showed her a beautiful green dress and a pair of green leather shoes, and told her to put them on and come downstairs.
she did so. the staircase looked like a doll’s house staircase, but as soon as she stepped onto it, it was the right size for her. the room downstairs had the same weird proportions as the room she’d slept in. the little man was playing a harp but he stopped when she came in and smiled.
‘where’s my mother?’ she asked.
‘there!’ he pointed to a mirror, and sheila was amazed to see that it was like a window looking into the world she had left and she could see her mother in it. she was staring at sheila’s bed wringing her hands and weeping. on sheila’s bed was a wooden stick.
‘oh, my poor mother!’ was sheila’s first thought. ‘now she’s got no one!’
‘she’ll be all right,’ said the little man, taking up his harp again. ‘this’ll make her famous for miles around and all the neighbours will suck up to her for some of the reflected glory.’
‘you’re a wicked, bad fairy, and you’ve carried me off. what do you want with me.’
‘well, better manners than that! you should be grateful. you never had that nice a dress before, or such good shoes.’
sadly she said, ‘they’re wasted on an ugly girl like me.’
‘you’re not ugly. johnny ransome didn’t think so.
‘oh johnny!’ for an enchanted moment she imagined him seeing her in the new dress. vanity! ‘but now i can’t have him!’ she cried.
‘your mother was right – he’s not worthy of you.’ he played a splendid crescendo of golden notes. sheila went further under his spell and became lost in the beauty of the melody, emerging when it ended to find a sumptuous breakfast laid out on a tiny table that was just her size when she sat at it. she was getting used to the strange interplay of proportions.
as she ate she glanced at the mirror again and saw her mother’s cottage full of neighbours, police, clergy and reporters, and her mother playing up to them like a starlet. sheila drank some delicious fruit juice and returned to the mirror just as the cottage faded and the road she should have been on at that time appeared instead, at the very place where johnny was accustomed to meet her.
johnny was there and yet it was pretty maggie mason who came along, just minutes after she would have, and she heard their conversation.
‘where’s sheila this morning?’ asked johnny.
‘haven’t you heard? she’s been taken by the fairies. one came and got her last night and left nought but a stock of wood. you’d better go and see her ma.’
johnny’s eyes grew wide but then he shook himself and smiled at maggie. ‘so i will – later on, but i think right now i’d rather go with you.’ he leered at maggie and she gave him her arm and off they went billing and cooing like two lovers.
‘so he didn’t want me,’ sighed sheila. ‘and you wouldn’t want me. you’re the wrong type, to say nothing of size. i want to go back to my mother.’
‘don’t take on,’ said he, but sheila began to cry and to complain and to expostulate until it took all his most strenuous harp-strumming to calm her. she finished her breakfast and washed up, putting things in cupboards as happily as she did at home. then he gave her a book to read.
how bright and detailed were the pictures, how evocative the prose. sheila was captivated, running across scented fields with golden-eared dogs, riding a fine white horse towards a moated castle, dancing among beautiful ladies and handsomer youths than she had ever seen. page after page she turned, getting more and more deeply absorbed in what she read until she could smell the flowers, hear the birdsong and the music of the fifes and harpsichords and see the beautiful faces of the characters.
once she pulled herself up just as she was identifying as one of the fairest damsels of that magical fairy kingdom being presented at court, and to chasten herself, looked at the mirror to remind herself of her own face. but the face that stared back was that of the fairest damsel she’d ever seen, and she gasped.
the fairy smiled and stroked his harp strings. she returned to the book and was soon lost in it, and lo, from among that glorious crowd of fairy dancers stepped the handsomest young man of them all, and bowed low. though he used a language she’d never heard before she found herself understanding every word. soon however the music swelled and the dance began. sheila found that she knew the steps and was soon gazing into the young prince’s eyes and never doubting that he was falling as deeply in love with her as she was with him.
and suddenly, when there she was, in the arms of this prince as truly as she’d ever been anywhere, she heard the book slammed shut with a comfortable thud behind her, just like a closing door! turning quickly, in the final fluttering of its pages she saw the last of the leprechaun’s smile, and caught the fading echoes of his rapidly disappearing harp.
but then her young prince swept her away in his arms and they danced their dance of pure pure love…