a short story by

Luke Andreski

One day in the very distant future, when all that we imagine permanent today has long since vanished and even the rocks and the hills have changed their shape, the Outer Hebrides will be sub-tropical islands and a man named Trudas will live upon them. This is his story.

   Trudas was a thin man, with pale skin and enormous eyes. For these attributes he was, in a quiet way, famous. Equally quietly, he was monarch of the Hebridean Empire, whose estate stretched south as far as the Pyrenees, and north as far as the Pole. The economy of his empire was based primarily on fish.

   In the ominous years of his late forties, Trudas became ill-at-ease. Before that time, he had always seemed reasonable and calm. Now he became unpredictable, sometimes irrational, often strange. In the midst of solemn ceremonies he would burst into speech, muttering syllables in languages no-one understood – or he would raise his arms before him and move them in odd gestures, staring all the while vacantly into space. At night, ever-watchful journalists would see emblazoned against the castle’s curtains the outline of their king, pacing the long rooms of his home through the long nights of an encroaching and clearly rather frightening middle-age.

   Then, on the eve of his fiftieth birthday, the king’s agitation stopped. Once more genial and predictable and to all appearances sane, he laughed and smiled and slept without murmur….but his small and jealous wife lay unsleeping beside him, wondering, and biting her nails.

   At last, when she could no longer conceal her interest, she broached the matter over breakfast. ‘Trudas,’ she said, ‘tell me, darling, please – what came over you these last few months?’

   Trudas just smiled at his breakfast plate and lifted his great, night-lit eyes to floatingly encompass her in his gaze. Then, with a shrug of his shoulders, he continued to eat. But when his wife had asked him, in different ways, the same question thirty or forty times, he finally answered. He said, ‘I have ordered myself a birthday present.’

   The queen thought about this for a moment, then: ‘By yourself?’ she asked. ‘For yourself alone?’

   ‘Yes,’ said the king, ‘by myself and for myself alone.’

   His wife turned away, struggling to restrain the tears springing to her eyes. Later, she said to a friend, ‘He doesn’t love me anymore. He doesn’t trust me.’

   ‘What do you mean?’ the friend inquired.

   ‘He doesn’t trust me to buy him a suitable birthday present. He’s gone ahead and ordered one himself. And to think – to think of what I had in mind!’

   ‘What did you have in mind?’ the friend asked.

      ‘A new suit of clothes!’ said the queen.

It was not long before the news had spread. The queen’s friend – ‘In strictest confidence!’ she urged – instructed her son on etiquette in marriage. ‘It is something that Trudas, I am sorry to say, knows almost nothing about.’

   In confidence no less strict, though in tones of neighing laughter, the son disclosed to his dearest friend his mother’s instruction. ‘Let it go no further,’ he said.

   The footman, who had been standing nearby, told his daughter as she cleared away the remnants of their meagre supper; and the daughter, quick-witted, charming and beautiful, but doomed to forever serve in the castle’s kitchens, made a small sum of money selling the story to the dubious acquaintance of a girlfriend of hers. ‘An Editor,’ he phrased himself. And of course, once he knew, everyone knew, and they knew it the very next morning.

   ‘SELFISH KING, SELFLESS QUEEN,’ one headline blared.

   ‘SCRUFFY KING – NO NEW CLOTHES,’ blasted another.

   ‘KING BEATS QUEEN’ said one, and then, in smaller print, but with the first word heavily emboldened, ‘Bruised Queen loses present-buying stakes! Greedy King can’t wait….’

   And a more serious voice intoned, speculatively, ‘WHAT WILL IT BE – WHAT “I” BOUGHT FOR “ME”?

   This question was not to be quickly answered. The king’s present did not materialise for his fiftieth birthday, nor for his fifty-first, nor his fifty-second, and the whole affair had been quite forgotten by everyone except the queen when, late one night towards the end of the king’s fifty-second year, a troop of men appeared in the castle courtyard with a peculiarly shaped parcel on their shoulders. ‘Hallo!’ they shouted. ‘Anybody there?’

   Bleary-eyed, the queen shuffled down the steps to the courtyard and threw open the door. ‘Hush!’ she hissed. ‘The King’s sleeping! What do you want?’ She inspected the group a little nervously. They were the senior members of the Guild of Carpenters – some so senior, indeed, that they must have been helped from their graves to attend this occasion. ‘Why are you here so late at night?’ asked the queen.

   ‘We have the King’s present,’ said one, in a dark and ominous voice. He tapped the object on his shoulder. ‘It’s been three years in the making. But now it’s made….’

   ‘Well, put it down,’ said the queen. ‘Put it down and go away!’

   At this command the men lowered the object to the ground and departed, leaving the queen alone in the courtyard, staring at the present, wondering, and biting her nails.

   It was a parcel, a very strange parcel, wrapped in brown paper and bound with string. It was two feet wide, two feet high, and at least one hundred feet long.

   ‘What is it?’ the queen mused to herself. And then she said, ‘Where does the footman keep his axe?’ And she stood there, staring at the present for an hour more, for two hours, for three, before finally she managed to kill the temptation within her, and turned from the present and went to bed.

At breakfast next morning, for no apparent reason, the king at last made his apology. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I know I seemed selfish and cruel on my fiftieth birthday – but I didn’t intend to hurt your feelings, or be ungrateful.’

   The queen looked at Trudas, and her thin, cold lips, which hadn’t smiled for three years, began to tremble with the hint of a smile, and the bitterness in the lines at the corners of her eyes began to fade like dust blown from the pages of a book.

   ‘Well, my love,’ she said. ‘You took your time.’

   ‘I know,’ the king said simply, ‘I’m sorry.’

   ‘One more day,’ said the queen, ‘and it would have been too late.’

   The king ladled a spoonful of cornflakes into his mouth, munched on them, swallowed, and then, anxiously, asked, ‘What do you mean?’

   ‘I was going to leave you today,’ said the queen. ‘My bags are packed. I had a ticket on the trout tanker. I was going home.’

   The king put down his spoon, pushed aside his bowl, reached out and took both her hands. His lantern eyes misted over, mysterious and unclear. ‘Oh my love,’ he said, ‘I’m so sorry.’

   And then, in a broad smile, the queen’s face tested lines and shapes it had almost forgotten. She took both of Trudas’ hands in one of hers, and, patting them gently with her other hand, she said, ‘Well, it’s all over now. And I think there’s something you’ll be pleased to see.’

   She left the table and, going to the window, pulled the half-drawn curtains wide. ‘Come and see,’ she said. Together in the morning sunlight they gazed at the strangely-shaped parcel lying in the courtyard far below.

Happiness was not easy for the queen. While, as she told her best friend and as the newspapers soon told the world, she no longer intended leaving Trudas, she could not say she was pleased – ‘Not pleased,’ said the friend to her son – with the nature of the present the king had bought himself. And how could it please her that he now spent only part of the night sleeping beside her in their regal bed, and the remainder high above the treetops in the forest behind the castle?

   ‘I couldn’t believe my eyes,’ she said, ‘when I saw what the present was!’

   ‘I also was rather surprised,’ said her friend.

   ‘And how could such an impractical present compare,’ said the queen, ‘with the golden egg I bought him last year, or the suit of clothes I bought him the year before?’

   ‘I hear,’ said the friend, diplomatically, ‘that he sometimes wears his suit when he goes up.’

   ‘So I dare say,’ said the queen. ‘So I dare say.’ And then she lifted her hands in the air and cried, ‘But a chair! A chair!’

   For the king had given himself a chair. It was a chair rather like those used for babies – a high chair, with a bar across the front to stop you from falling out – but unlike the chairs that babies inhabit, it was extraordinarily tall. After the wrapping had been pulled from it and it was pushed upright, it towered above the castle turrets. Its legs were made – for strength and flexibility – from the woven stems of ironwood trees; the back was made from mahogany; the seat from the heart of an oak. Up one side of the chair a delicately sculpted ladder ascended; to the other side, from a strong iron bolt, was attached a finely woven rope, for emergency descent.

   The king instructed his orderlies to set the chair in concrete in the forest behind the castle – and from that moment on, each night from twelve o’clock ‘til three, the king occupied his seat above the treetops. Afterwards, he would return to his castle and to his bed. He would tuck himself down beside his sleeping wife and lie there dreaming, but with his eyes wide open: luminous with the light of the moon.

   Photographs show us how the king spent his time above the trees. Taken using infrared light, they were displayed with numbing regularity by the daily newspapers and the Sunday magazines. Over the years, however, they showed a gradual evolution in the king’s behaviour. At first, after climbing its great height, he simply sat in his chair, and as the wind rocked him gently to and fro above the trees, he gripped the bar before him with whitening knuckles, smiling ecstatically. Then, one night, he took a chisel with him to his lofty seat and chiselled loose the restraining bar, throwing bar and chisel down into the darkness below him. Unfortunately – at least from the viewpoint of those more loyal to the king – these objects missed the photographer spying upon him from the trees a little way below.

   The first photo to show Trudas standing on his teetering chair, the safety bar gone, his arms outstretched to balance himself against the sway, caused quite a stir.

   ‘KING LOSES MARBLES’ shouted one paper, and in pubs and at street corners people appeared to agree. But they were, nevertheless, proud of their king, in a way they had never been before. In the old days they had liked him well enough. He had always been famous for his peculiarly large and beautiful eyes. He had always been kind to the bereaved and generous to the poor; but he had remained, despite these things, rather dull; not really much different from other kings of other empires, in other places at other times.

   Now he was truly unique. Who else had had a chair like his?

   Some of the more senior among the senior citizens did begin to worry, however, when the photograph was published of Trudas balancing upon his chair on one hand. But the kingdom was prosperous; fish flocked thick in the finny seas, and tourists flocked to the Royal seat. Royal Family watching brought thousands to the capital, bringing with them their foreign currency and travellers’ cheques. ‘Why worry?’ the doubters were told, ‘Trudas is making us rich!’

   At ground level, too, Trudas’ activities remained normal. He finalised agreements on fishing rights with foreign dignitaries; rubber-stamped the decisions of the fishing magnates; opened new fish-oil refineries. He performed the duties of a king with calm magnanimity, and with a composure born of inner peace.

   His aerial activities did not stop, however, with standing upon one hand. Though there is no photograph to prove it, it was reported that he balanced for a whole hour upon one finger alone. Then came reports and even photographs of pirouettes, cartwheels, somersaults, forward and backward; moments, perhaps illusory, perhaps a trick of the moonlight and darkness, when he seemed even to achieve flight.

   By this time he was seventy-five. His hair was pure white; he had grown a short white beard; in the darkness, as he whirled and spun upon his chair wearing the suit his wife had given him, he seemed almost like a star drawn close and large, lighting up the night-time sky. Unable to sleep, the more philosophical of his kingdom would go to their windows and say, ‘Look! There he is! It’s Trudas! What a joy it is to see him! What a symbol!’ And then they would pull the curtains shut and go back to their beds, and, with a murmured, ‘Goodnight, King,’ pull the bed clothes about their shoulders, and return to darkness and sleep.

Trudas’ story ends, as stories which are true inevitably do, in a way which is rather less happy than sad. There had been considerable speculation as to where the king’s activities might lead. Some people said he would end up in the stomach of a giant moth. He was easy pickings for the night-flying predator, up there on his chair, unguarded and alone. Others said he would one day ascend into the sky, to become a new star, a symbol of freedom to those trapped in ordinary lives. What in fact happened was this. As the years passed, a host of tiny creatures crawled from holes in the forest floor, and in orderly lines made their way to the concrete circle in which the king had set his chair. They crossed the circle and climbed the legs of the chair. They had large numbers of legs, more than creatures their size should really possess, and hard black bodies, and heads shaped like knives. When they reached a certain point on the chair – for each of them, a different point – they used every ounce of life within them to smash their little heads into the wood of the chair’s perfectly crafted legs. And there the heads remained. The bodies dropped off, scuttling back into the forest to become creatures totally different from the creatures they had been before; and after a while the heads turned into dust, and were washed away by the rain, leaving countless tiny holes in the legs of the chair that supported the king.

   Beneath this unending attack, the chair’s legs, once so resilient and strong, became weak and thin. One night, as the king tumbled in lovely carelessness through the spirals and circles and somersaults and spins of his nightly display, a chair leg snapped beneath his weight. He began a final, terrible journey, down to the ground below.

   Like twigs, his bones snapped on the unyielding arms of the wooden-hearted trees. At the end of his journey he was no longer the sliver of moonlight he once had seemed. Smashed and broken, lying on the leaves of the forest floor, he looked very old and very thin, and, like a lamp without light, thoroughly dead. A solitary journalist emerged from the trees to take some photographs, then leant down to close the king’s eyes. He was never really able to explain the expression he had seen in them. It certainly didn’t show in the photos, he said. He said it was a beautiful expression — of kindness and contentment and happiness and love. Those words were only words, he said. But there was nothing else.

And so, like life, our story ends with death. The Hebridean Empire was thrown into turmoil by the passing away of its unusual king, but after major discussions between the fishing moguls, and no more, certainly, than one or two assassinations, the king’s slow-witted and uncontroversial nephew was appointed his successor. Trudas’ wife remained, until her death thirty years later, the lonely and heartbroken force behind the throne; and the daughter of the footman who had broken the news of the king’s one selfish act, was to know, in her long and good and hard-working life, no other moment of comparable power.

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