I suppose you think there aren’t any more fairies nowadays, or witches or wizards or goblins. Well, of course they don’t go about dressed up like the ones in picture books. You don’t see little fairies with butterfly wings perching on the chimneys at Hendon, or old ladies in pointed hats riding down Oxford Street on broomsticks and waiting for the green lights to go on. But they’re doing other things. The good magicians are still doing magic things like radio and chemistry. When you’re ill the doctor comes and writes a prescription on a bit of paper, and then the chemist gives you something in a bottle. If it does you good, that means that the bit of paper was really a spell, and the medicine a potion. And you meet fairies in all sorts of places, looking like quite ordinary people.
I expect you want to ask me ‘How do you know they are fairies?’ Well, I’ll tell you. I can sometimes spot fairies and other magic people because I am descended from a fairy called Melusine. She married the Count Raymondin of Lusignan about eight hundred years ago, and they had ten children, all boys. All the kings of England after Henry II are descended from Melusine. King Henry II and his sons Richard I and John had the most awful tempers. And people in their time said it was because they were descended from a fairy. When Henry got angry he used to tear up his bedclothes with his teeth, but he was a jolly good king when he kept his temper. King George and I are both descended from Henry II, but he got the crown and I got the temper. Of course my temper is not quite as bad as King Henry’s. You can’t expect a temper to last seven hundred years with out some of its corners getting rubbed a bit. And the king has a better crown than King Henry had, because since King Henry’s time people have dug up a lot of diamonds and put them in the crown, as you can see if you go to the Tower of London.
By the way, I forgot to tell you that Melusine became a snake from the waist downwards every Saturday. If you want to know more you can read a book about her that my wife wrote.
The last fairy I met lives in Wandsworth, and keeps a magic shop there. In the window of the magic shop you always see a lot of different kinds of things, such as pen-knives and sweets and pails, and capstan bars and scales and weights and ornaments for empty grates, as the poet says. You hardly ever find a fairy keeping shop with only one sort of thing, like a greengrocer’s or a tailor’s or a fishmonger’s. And of course fairies never keep large shops because you can’t trust other people to sell magic things. They sell them to the wrong sorts of people. I mean what earthly use would a pair of seven-league boots be to a bus driver? And yet they’re just what a postman needs. Or think what would happen if someone sold a cloak of darkness or a cap of invisibility to a traffic police – man. He’d be invisible and all the cars and lorries and buses would run over him. Besides no one would see him holding his hand up. But of course a cap of invisibility is awfully useful to a window cleaner because he can clean the windows without stopping any of the light. And it’s very useful to a man in a big tailor’s shop. He just makes himself invisible and moves the dummy ladies and gentlemen in the window about. And then everyone stops them come in and buy new hats and trousers and skirts and waistcoats and things.
I went into this shop because it looked rather magical to me, and I wanted a new stud, because I had lost the one I had before in the front of my shirt, so I had to fix my collar on to my shirt with a paper clip, and the ends of it were sharp and ran in to my neck. There was a nice – looking lady behind the counter. She had rather grey hair, but no wrinkles on her face as you’d expect to find with grey hair. I told her I wanted a stud because I had lost my old one.
‘Is that all you’ve lost?’ she asked.
‘Well, no,’ I said, ‘as a matter of fact, I lost my temper too,’
‘Oh dear,’ she replied, ‘I hope it wasn’t valuable temper. What do you do when you lose you temper? Some people put an advertisement in the paper, “Lost, of Friday, August 28th, in Old Kent Road, one pink temper with orange and purple spots. Answers to name of Bisclaveret. Finder will be rewarded with a full set of butterfly cigarette cards or a set of bound volumes of the Radio Times.” Of course Roman Catholics burn a candle to St Anthony like they do when they lose anything else. And some people go to the Lost Tempers’ Home in Battersea, but they often can’t recognize their temper among such a lot of others.’
I think I should recognize mine, because it is quite a special one, about eight hundred years old. It belonged to a lady called Melusine. Of course it’s rather dented in places, but it’s a real temper, not like those wretched squeaky little things they grow nowadays.’
‘Did you but it in an antique shop?’
‘Oh no, it’s a family heirloom.’
‘Well, I’m delighted to meet my descendant of Melusine. I knew her quite well, and I should hate to think of a temper that had belonged to her getting lost. Though of course it isn’t so odd really. She had a son called Geoffrey Grossdent (which means Bigtooth ), and he lost his so often that in the end they had to put a collar round its nack and take it round on a leash. I might be able to do that for you if you need it, but meanwhile let’s see about the stud. I’ve got all sorts. Here’s a tray of invisible ones.’
She held out what looked like an empty tray.
‘Thank you so much, but I don’t know if I could find it in the morning, and besides, an invisible collar stud isn’t really much use unless you and your and your clothes are invisible too. Of course you want one then. It would never do to see a collar stud all alone going along the street in the air.’
‘Well, I suppose you’d better have an Unlosable then. That’ll be fourpence three farthings.’
It was lucky that I had four pennies and three farthings. Because of course fairies are very particular about that sort of thing. I mean if I’d offered her a halfpenny any a farthing instead of the three farthings I should think the shop would have vanished and I would have found myself talking to a statue of Mr. Gladstone. And anyone who asks a fairy for change is lucky if he isn’t turned into anything worse than an automatic machine for selling cigarettes. After being one of them for a year or two you’d understand why fairies don’t like giving change either.
But if you’re not the sort of person who carries farthings about you’d better not go into a fairy shop at all. Most boys and girls do carry farthings. But when they grow up they think farthings are silly. That’s all wrong, of course, because farthings are the very magicest sort of money there is in England, except silver pennies, which nobody’s made for hundreds of years.
Well, I got my stud, and I’ve got it still. And I suppose it will be buried with me when I die, because if they don’t put it in my coffin it will come hopping after the hearse all down the road, and all the people who ought to be crying will laugh. I’ve tried to lose that stud three or four times. Once I threw it down a grating in the gutter during a thunderstorm when there was a lot of water to wash it away. About half an hour later I was washing my hands when it popped up out of the sink, all wet, and started fighting with another stud I had put in its place. Between them they nearly made a hole in my neck.
Once when I was in South Africa an ostrich ate it, and I thought it was gone. But next morning I found it in my egg at breakfast, which I was sharing with two other men and a dog. That’s one of the advantages of ostriches over hens. One egg makes a meal for the whole family. Another time it fell out of a porthole in the middle of the Atlantic ocean when the steward was folding up my clothes. I suppose you think I’ am going to tell you I found the stud in a fish I was eating at dinner, like King Polycrates’ ring. But you’re wrong. I got it back a lot quikcer than that. You know the thing like a tin fish on a line that they two behind ships to tell them how far they’ve gone in a day. Its called the log, and twiddles round and round in the water. That twists the cord, and the cord turns a thing like a clock on the ship, so that the captain and sailors can see how far she has gone in an hour or a day. Well, suddenly the cord stopped twisting, so they knew something was wrong with the log, because the ship hadn’t stopped. They pulled it in, and found it all tangled up with a cuttlefish which was holding on to it with nine of its arms, and my stud was stuck on to a sucker on its tenth.
But there were about a thousand passengers on the ship and nothing written on the stud to say it was mine. So I’d never have got it, if it hadn’t been that five minutes later a steward came into my cabin and asked me to come and see a cuttlefish that had just been caught. I’m not a professor of Zoology, but there was one on the ship, and the captain had mixed him up with me, and thought I could tell him the Latin name of the cuttlefish, which I couldn’t. But I found my stud.
It was after that that I started trying to lose it for fun. Once I was motoring along a narrow road and saw a notice ‘Steam-roller at work’, so I slowed down. Of course if I saw a notice ‘Steam-roller at play’ I should away quickly, because a playful steam-roller might tread on my foot just for fun, and then I should be flatfooted. If a steam-roller goes over anything it leaves it flat. And yesterday I read an advertisement in the news paper about a man who said he could cure flat feel. So I suppose you go to him if a steam-roller treads on your toe. But this steam-roller was working quite hard, and I had to stop the car. I thought just for fun I would see what happened if I threw my stud under the steam roller. But I wish I hadn’t. Because when the big front wheel went over it, instead of the stud being squashed, the wheel just cracked in two with the most fearful bang. The driver was awfully angry, for he was very fond of his steam-roller. I said I’d pay for a new wheel, because it was really my fault. But the man who made the steam-roller wouldn’t let me, because he said if I did everyone would laugh at him, and say, ‘Don’t buy Smith’s steam-rollers. They can’t even squash a collar stud.’
Once I gave the stud away to a clergyman who had been very kind to me. Of course you know that a clergyman wears his collar the wrong way round, so he has a back stud at the front and a front stud at the back. Well, about two hours after I gave it to him he was reading a verse in the Bible that says,’ The first shall be last, and the last first,’ when suddenly he felt his collar turn right round so as to have the opening in front like an ordinary man’s. So he just said, ‘This stud’s much too clever for me. I want a stud that stays where it’s put.’ And he sent me the stud back. So now I expect I shall keep it till I die, and perhaps after.
Oh dear! I’ve been telling you about all sorts of things that happened long after I left that shop. I wish I were like those clever people who write long stories with all the things in the same order that they happened. I just tell you them as they come into my head.
After I had bought the stud I asked the lady behind the counter what her name was, because I thought if she had known Melusine who was my very, very great grandmother she must be quite an old lady, and have seen some interesting things. ‘You can call me Miss Wandle,’ she said, ‘though I had to wait a good many thousand years before I had a name at all, and I’ve had two or three others in my time. I used to live in the river, but it’s got too dirty in the last century. I expect I shall go back there again fairly soon. I don’t suppose there’ll be much of London left in another two or three thousand years.’
‘It’s very kind of you to keep a shop where one can get such really useful things.’
‘Oh I’ve always given things to the right sort of people. They used to come to me when I lived in the river. Eight hundred years ago they called me a fairy, and before that the Romans called me a naiad, and the bronze-age people, who were really much the nicest lot there’ve ever been in England, called me a wasi. But I can’t be as helpful now as I used to be. I remember there was a most fearful dragon who lived up on Wimbledon Common. All sorts of knights tried to kill him, but it was no good. He breathed fire at them and it went through their armour like a burglar’s blowpipe goes through a tin can. One day he chased one right into the Wandle with his armour red-hot.
‘It fizzled like anything. Luckily I was there and pulled the knight out after he had cooled down a bit. Then I ticked him off properly. I asked him how he was going to kill a magic beast like a dragon with an ordinary spear and armour. So next week he took on the dragon wearing an asbestos suit and carrying two fire extinguishers instead of a spear. And that was the end of the dragon. The first fire extinguisher put out the flame in his mouth, and the second killed him. Of course in those days there weren’t any ordinary fire extinguishers, but only magic ones. The knight was awfully grateful and planted a lot of flowering rushes along my bank in some places where it was rather bare, besides some lovely weeping willows.
‘But they’re all gone now. That’s what’s made my hair grey. But I expect the colour will come back again one day. Still I suppose I ought to be thankful my river hasn’t been put in a pipe like the West Bourne. You cane see the pipe going over the railway at Sloane Square Station. You men do make an awful mess. But I’ve no right to talk when I think of the mess I made in my young days. About forty thousand years ago it was so cold that a glacier came as near as Muswell Hill, and even round here there was ice for most of the year. When things got a bit warmer and the ice melted, the rivers were rivers. Why, the Wandle was sometimes nearly as big as the Thames is now. And the mud we carried down was something fearful. Yes, I’ve made a mess in my time.
‘Is there anything else I can show you this afternoon? I’ve got a very nice line in magic mangles. And you might care to try some magic bootlaces. But of course they may be a trouble.’
I certainly didn’t want any magic bootlaces, because I once knew a man called MacFarlance who bought a pair. They were awfully useful of course, and never came untied. But one day he forgot he spell to loosen them, so he had to go to bed in his boots for three months until he met a wizard who knew the right word. Then he wrote it down in his pocket-book and had no more trouble that way. But the boot got rather worn, and one day his wife sent them to the bootmaker to be resoled. The laces didn’t like being sent to an ordinary shop, so they wriggled out of the boots and started to find their way home. All sorts of people saw them crawling along the street and tried to catch them. Of course they couldn’t, but they chased them into Mr. MacFarlane’ts front garden and trampled down all his flowers in the hunt. And when the laces got into the house the cook thought they were snakes, and gave notice. No wonder I thought I’d sooner have ordinary laces, even if they do sometimes break.
So I thanked Miss Wandle very much, and went away with my magic collar stud.
First published by Vigyan Prasar, India