The drawbridge had already been lowered, so Alan had no trouble getting in, but as he approached the gates he saw that the castle was empty. He had expected to be stopped at the gates by a guard, but beyond the open gates there was nothing. The castle walls were real, but only the outer walls and the moat, inside there was nothing but neatly mown grass, some well kept flowerbeds, an allotment growing some fruit and vegetables, and at the centre of it all was a quaint little cottage.
The cottage had a small wooden door that was bright red and partially hidden by thick ivy, which covered most of the house. There was a neatly thatched straw roof with a tiny red brick chimney poking out, cheerily smoking away. Alan made his way up the smartly cobbled path and knocked on the door with the knocker, which was hanging from the claws of a brass crab.
“Come on in!” came a friendly shout from inside the house. Alan opened the door slowly, half expecting the unexpected. He didn’t know what he might find behind the red door; all of his prior knowledge of normality had been made redundant.
He was therefore very surprised to find, as he edged his way slowly through the entrance, that everything was as it should be; it was just as he would have imagined it. He was standing in a narrow hallway. There was a small octagonal drum table by his side and a long mirror hanging on the wall above it. Much of the rest of the wall space was decorated with various country themed paintings.
“Close the door behind you and come through to the lounge.”
With the door closed, the house was quite dark. All of the curtains were drawn and the hallway was dimly lit by oil lamps on the walls. A few metres in front of him, at the opposite end of the hallway, there was a closed door. Immediately to his left was an opening leading into the lounge. He wouldn’t have expected such a large room in such a small cottage, but had he walked into an Olympic sized swimming pool it would have failed to surprise him.
Inside the lounge there was a pale-faced old man sitting in a tall, throne-like armchair that looked very comfortable. The old man had been reading a book, but was now peering over his thick reading glasses at Alan. He looked like a noble gent; smartly dressed and tidy looking. The curtains were drawn in the lounge too, the only light being that from a cosy looking log fire facing the armchair. The room was richly decorated with various artifacts, which gave Alan the impression this man had been a keen traveler; it must have taken him decades to acquire such a collection. Opposite the old man was a chair identical to his own. Alan was invited to sit down, which he did so without hesitation.
“What is your name?” the old man asked.
“My name is Alan,” replied Alan, who was sitting upright in his chair very formally, as though he were in a job interview.
“My name is Montgomery Sandbank the Fourth, but you can call me Monty,” he said. “What brings you here, Alan? I get very few visitors so I assume you’re not here merely for a chat.”
“I…err…” Alan shuffled uncomfortably. “There was an old woman outside.”
“Yes, she sells fruit, I know of her.”
“I’m hungry, and very thirsty.”
“Perhaps you would like something to drink, and I have plenty of food.”
The fruit and his whole reason for being there left Alan’s mind. He relaxed a little and slumped back in his seat, much like Man the crab had done all those years ago. “That would be great,” he said, “thank you.”
Monty marked the page in his book and put it to one side. “You wait here and I’ll get you a sandwich and some tea,” he said.
Alan waited while Monty went to the kitchen. Although it was a bright sunny day, the lounge didn’t feel at all hot. The fire flickered and crackled and covered Alan in a pleasant blanket of warmth. He went over to the window and peered out through the thick brown curtains to see if the weather had changed at all.
It was snowing outside, and the land was coloured in white and blue. Alan was dumbfounded; he rarely got to see snow so perfect and untouched. His first thought was to run out and mark the snow with his footprints. He released the curtains and looked round to see Monty, who was holding a substantial sandwich and a pot of tea. Alan made short work of the sandwich, and before he could remember his manners he let out a long burp, which he quickly apologised for. Monty smiled politely, making Alan feel awkward, as though he had used the wrong cutlery at a very formal dinner party. Alan was keen to change the mood, so he tried to strike up a conversation.
“How long have you lived here?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” answered Monty, “too long to count.”
In hunting for something more to say, Alan remembered the old woman beneath the tree. “And how do you know the old woman outside?” he said.
“I do not know her, I know of her,” replied Monty, who seemed to be tiring of Alan’s presence already. “She and I have been here for a long, long time. She has always been out there in the cold, and I have always been in here by this fire, reading my book.”
It appeared to Alan that the old man might never have been outside the cottage, because if he had been outside, then he would have been out in the sun. Either that or both he and the old woman were seeing different versions of the same reality.
“Where did you get all of these wonderful artifacts?” he asked, but Monty had now lost patience with Alan.
“Just what is it that you want!” he snapped. Alan’s confidence was shaken by the sharpness of the old mans tongue and the sudden shift in mood. “You haven’t even thanked me properly for the sandwich and tea, which I kindly gave to you. When I let you in, I wasn’t aware that I was being hospitable to a worthless slob with the manners of a warthog!”
This verbal beating was almost as bad as the old woman’s shin kicking. Alan stuttered nervously, “I… the… the old woman sent me,”
“And what does she want from me?” replied Monty, who had gone from fairly pleasant to rude and frightening remarkably quickly. All of this made Alan want to get out and see the old woman again, whose breath didn’t seem so bad after all.
“She wants three things,” said Alan in a panic. “She wants three things from your house.”
“And which three things does she want?”
“She didn’t say.”
Monty’s face grew more and more ferocious with every passing second. Alan thought fast. “Anything,” he croaked, “anything that you want to give.” Alan gave a sigh of relief; as of someone who had just confessed all of their sins and now felt they had a clear conscience. The ferocity in Monty’s face slowly subsided.
“Anything?” He said, looking around the room thoughtfully. Monty stood up and paced about for a while. He picked up a fruit bowl, a flag, and a shovel, and then gave them all to Alan. He returned to his seat and picked up his book. Alan remained seated, waiting for permission to leave, which he did not get. “I have read this book countless times,” continued Monty, “and I have grown tired of it. Tell me a story, and I will give you those three items.” He placed his book on a small table by the fire and stared at Alan expectantly.
“A story?” replied Alan, searching his mind for something short that he knew well. “Any story?”
“Not any story,” replied Monty. “I want three fables about each of those items.”
Alan had never considered himself a very good storyteller, but his choices were limited. He thought about running out of the cottage, but if the old woman could hurt him so much, then he didn’t even want to consider what this frightening old man was capable of. The first item that he tackled was the shovel.
"There once was a rusty old shovel that lived in a tattered old garden shed.
All around it were nice new shovels lounging around in their own bright and colourful sheds. Although it thought about how nice it would be to be more like the other shovels, it never begrudged them their happiness. Day after day the shovel did what it knew best, which was digging a hole in the ground. It never complained, or got angry or frustrated; it just dug, day after day, year upon year, until one day it could dig no more.
It had dug right through the world, where an injured warrior king was on the brink of losing a very important battle at the hands of his enemy. He saw the shovel break through the earth and took it, and with a mighty swing he killed his enemy and went on to win a great victory. The shovel was given a special place above the warrior kings throne in a great and beautiful castle. It never needed to dig another hole ever again, but it never forgot its humble beginnings."
Monty didn’t seem at all impressed. “Very good,” he said, remaining poker faced. “What is the moral?”
“Hard work pays off in the end, I suppose,” said Alan, not sounding very sure of himself.
“Lets continue with the stories,” said Monty. “I am eager to find out what you can do with the flag.” It didn’t take Alan long to think up a flag story, so he continued.
"In a small village in the jungle there lived a red and yellow flag. The flag lived amongst the villagers, where it spent its days lying on the ground attached to a tall pole. Nothing much happened in the village; the people would go about their daily chores and have the odd festival now and then; but the flag never got involved in anything, and was never bothered by anyone.
Eventually the flag began to feel worthless, and decided to leave the village to find a use elsewhere in the jungle. It searched for weeks but found nothing, so it made its way back to the village to resume its old life. When the flag arrived it was shocked to find that the village had been destroyed, and all the villagers had moved on.
Over the years the flag had forgotten that its purpose was to alert other nearby villages of approaching danger. All of the villages would then group together and help fight off any invaders. Whilst the flag had been out looking for another purpose, the village had been attacked, and without the flag the villagers had no way of effectively calling for help. The villagers were soon overwhelmed, and the village was destroyed.
The flag went looking for the pole, and eventually found it amongst the ruins. It took back its place on the ground, where it remained, useless and alone."
The old man gave Alan an expectant look.
“That one was about never under-estimating your own importance,” said Alan quickly.
“And neither should you over-estimate,” added Monty. “Not bad, you may continue.”
Alan continued nervously.
"There once was a wooden fruit bowl, which held some of the brightest and most delicious fruit imaginable. It spent its days sitting on a mantelpiece in front of a large golden mounted mirror, which was the most prominent position in the dining room. The dining room was part of a large and expensive country house owned by a lord and lady, who had regular dinner parties.
The fruit bowl considered itself the most prestigious ornament in the entire house. It would scoff at the other ornaments and enjoyed letting all of them know how worthless they were. It took a seat at the centre of the dining table every night, and at dinner parties it was always greeted with a courteous smile.
One day the fruit bowl fell from its elevated position on the mantelpiece. It did not smash because it was made of wood, but instead it was left with a large chip on its side, and of course all of the fruit scattered across the floor. The lord and lady decided to replace the fruit bowl and stored it away in a cupboard. The fruit bowl discovered that without all of its fruit it was no different from any of the other ornaments in the room, and so it became a much humbler, and much more respectful fruit bowl."
Monty smiled. He seemed much happier now, appearing more like he had looked when Alan first laid eyes on him. “Thank you, Alan,” he said, as he put on his thick reading glasses and returned to his book. “You may go now.”
Alan sat quietly for a minute, expecting the old man to say something else, but he didn’t. Monty continued to read his book quietly. Alan stood up and thanked the old man for the items he had given.
As Alan made his way to the door he took one more look out of the window. He saw that the grass was still covered in a thick white blanket of the most perfect snow. He hurried outside, but instead of snow he found only the hot sun, green grass and colourful flowers that had been there before. It was all so beautiful, a perfect English summers day, but Alan would have much preferred the snow, if only for a few minutes.