The story-teller arrived by magic. At least that’s what she told everyone who came to listen. At first that was very few people. Her show wasn’t attractive. She had no scenery, no props, no magic except her words.
Her stories were short and she told three each day; one in the morning at ten minutes to ten, one to catch the crowd leaving work at five minutes to five and one that happened at the magic hour when nobody expected it.
The magic hour stories were the best. Everyone knew that, even though no one in the crowd had ever heard one.
Ella took Simon’s hand and pulled him along as quickly as she could without making him fall over.
“I don’t want to.”
“You’ll like it. Promise.”
Simon wanted to stop and look at the window displays. He liked the lights and colours even in the shops that sold things he wasn’t interested in. Ella had to be careful to choose a route that avoided any of his favourite shops. If they passed one of those it was very unlikely she would be able to keep him moving. She checked her phone. They had just enough time to get there before the story started.
Suddenly she felt a strong tug on her arm. Simon had stopped walking. She turned and saw him staring into a shop. It had just opened and it was a disaster. In the window was a slowly turning Ferris wheel made of construction blocks. A train emerged from a tunnel and circled the wheel before slipping away through another tunnel.
Ella counted to forty-three before it re-emerged. It was too long. Even if she got Simon to agree to only three circuits of the train they would still miss the start of the story. She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear a story without hearing the start.
Another forty-three seconds passed. Ella gave up.
“Why don’t we go inside and look at all the toys?”
Ella shrugged. “We may as well.”
“But what about the story? You wanted to hear the story.”
“It’s too late now.”
“We can run,” said Simon.
“Really fast,” said Simon.
Ella smiled and the two of them started running through the shopping centre dodging people with bags, a man pushing a cleaning trolley and a couple of teenagers watching their phones rather than their feet.
“We are going to hear a story,” shouted Simon.
The story-teller sat on her stool and waited. A crowd of several hundred had gathered on the steps that provided an amphitheatre used by both official and unofficial performers.
“Once upon a time…”
She paused while the crowd settled and a silence dropped heavy with anticipation that stilled all movement.
She told it all wrong. She didn’t look out and engage the audience. She didn’t use different voices or dramatic pauses. She simply opened her book and read in a measured tone.
But no one left. No one interrupted. Such was her authority and such was the power of her tales that even babies were hushed and mobile phones refused to ring.
Ella saw the crowd and slowed. They were moving. They were leaving. She couldn’t believe it was over. She checked the time and saw that they were only slightly late. It wasn’t even ten o’clock.
The tale must have been tiny but the faces that passed her looked content with what they had heard.
“We’ve missed it. We’ve missed it.”
She managed to restrain herself and didn’t blurt out the blame that was on her lips.
“Come on. We can go back to the shop.”
Simon collapsed onto one of the now vacant steps. Ella sat beside him. They both needed to recover from running before going anywhere.
The story-teller was still on her stool. The sun was shining straight at her and highlighted her silver hair against the dark marble front of the hotel across the square.
“Once upon a time,” she whispered.
Only Ella and Simon heard. Everyone else had left. The two of them sat up and stretched forward. The story-teller stood, left her stool and signalled to them to follow her.
She led them across to the hotel. She stood in front of the solid wall almost touching it with her nose. Her finger traced a rectangle up from the ground. Fire seemed to follow and a red outline remained where she had touched.
“Come,” she said and held out her hands.
Ella and Simon each took hold. The story-teller’s hands were hot. Almost burning hot and her grip was tight. She took a step forward, through the darkness. Ella and Simon had no choice but to follow.
“There once was a girl, an ordinary girl, with an ordinary brother. They had an ordinary house…”
Ella saw the house. It was their house.
“on an ordinary street and lived very, very ordinary lives. There was nothing wrong. They had all that they needed, even if they didn’t have all that they wanted.”
The sun speeded up in its journey across the sky and night came. It felt like a dream. Ella and Simon knew what was happening even though the story-teller was silent. They knew that time was passing. This night was not one night but a thousand, two thousand and more.
“The distant day dawned when time knocked on their door to tell them that their story was at its end. The sister held the brother’s frail hand and smiled. The story had been kind to them. They were content.”
The sun rose again and Ella looked at Simon. She didn’t feel content. Where was the adventure? Where was the excitement? There was no mystery, no discovery, no danger.
“I don’t like this story.”
The story-teller smiled.
The story-teller laughed.
“It’s not funny.”
“Can we have a different story?” said Ella.
“Oh yes,” said the story-teller.
The children looked at her with expectation waiting for her to say more. She silently led them back through the dark door, and across to the square where she released their hands.
A crowd had gathered. Ella saw that the sun had moved and was now on the other side of the sky. It was evening.
“The story has moved on,” announced the story-teller and she took two steps and disappeared into the crowd.
Everyone waited. The sun shone on the empty stool. It was five minutes to five.
Ella walked forward climbed onto the stool and spoke.
“Once upon a time…”
A quiet sigh of satisfaction rippled around. Ella thought she caught a flash of silver disappearing into the solid black of the hotel wall.
She looked out at the sea of faces. In each one she saw the faintest touch of a story that needed to be told, but she couldn’t catch them. She didn’t know them. Not yet. But maybe one day.
Suddenly she felt the stab of expectation from those hundred hungry eyes, each one hoping for a story to take them out of their ordinary lives.
In panic she glanced from person to person until at last she saw a familiar face and knew what to say.
“Once upon a time there was a boy called Simon, who loved to build things.”
Ella wove a new story for Simon. A story sprinkled with enough disappointment to add flavour to hope, enough failure to heighten success and with just the right amount of danger to transform his ordinary life.