Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Hook

The Hook was a restaurant on the edge of the forest. Little Red Riding Hood liked going there for dinner with her grandmother, partly because the old lady always paid, and partly because of the paintings on the walls. They were done by local artists and were usually portraits, either of dinner guests or local dignitaries. Mayor Wolf had the biggest portrait, paid for by himself.
"What do you fancy then, dear?" asked Grandmother, peering myopically at the menu. "I think I might have the sushi."
Red, who was well aware that they were over three hundred miles from the sea and wouldn't have eaten the sushi if Mayor Wolf himself was demanding it, smiled politely. "I think I'll have three little pigs in blankets," she said. "With a port wine reduction. Grandmother, why is this place called the Hook?"
Grandmother's face grew solemn and she laid the menu down.
"Now there's a tale," she said, frowning. "And it starts with the death of your parents."
"My parents aren't dead," said Red, startled.
"About that, dear...."
Red sighed and let her chin rest on her hands.  Her face was striking, her hazel eyes were slightly too-wide-set but her nose turned up just a little at the end and her lips were a perfect cherubic bow, as bee-stung as the boy who tried to steal the bees’ honey.  “OK,” she said.  “I know that my parents can’t be my real parents.  That’s been obvious for a while, Grandmother.”
Grandmother waved at a waiter, her hand shaking just a little and a querulous smile on her face.  The waiter nodded stiffly and continued to take the orders of the table he was serving.
“Well, I confess I did hope that you might have noticed,” she said, her voice firm and gentle.  “What was the tip-off then?”
“Dad took me the longest,” said Red, wrinkling her forehead as she thought back.  “I suppose I just actually wanted him to be my Dad, but when I started studying biology I had to accept facts. The Gingerbread man couldn’t have had a human daughter.  In fact, he couldn’t have a daughter in any real sense of the word.”
“He did try, you know,” said Grandmother thoughtfully.  “There was this baker, a red-head as I recall… oh, you look like you’d rather not know, dear.”
Red smiled, her plump lips pressed thin.  “So he couldn’t be my real father,” she said.  “I cried myself to sleep the night I finally accepted that, but I woke up in the morning and realised that he’d been acting like my father all my life, so who was I to tell him he wasn’t, in some sense, my real father?  It’s not like mum didn’t shout that kind of thing at him all the time.”
“Oh yes,” said Grandmother.  The waiter, with a sour look on his face, appeared at her elbow.  “Oh, how kind!”  Her voice was suddenly quavery and she sounded a little uncertain of herself.  Red watched the transformation and tried not to smirk.  “Would you recommend the sushi, my dear boy?”
“Yes,” said the waiter with feeling.  “Absolutely.”
“Oh, well I’m allergic to fish,” said Grandmother.  “But you seem like a lovely young man, and with such an obvious love for the food you serve!  I shall order you the sushi and you shall sit here and eat it with us.  I’ll have Milanese Risotto, please.”
“I’ll have the three little pigs in blankets,” said Red, smoothly stopping the waiter from protesting.
“Shouldn’t you be writing this down?” asked Grandmother, laying one fragile, liver-spotted hand on the waiter’s crotch, which was conveniently at shoulder height for her.  The waiter nearly convulsed, but remained standing.
“I’m sure I’ll remember,” he said, his voice sounding trapped in his throat.  He started to walk backwards, but Grandmother’s hand tightened.
“I’d like you to write it down,” she said.  “I really would.  I’d hate to see you lose your job over a mis-taken order.”
The waiter produced his order pad and wrote down the order with ill-grace, his pencil scribbling over the pad like a spider on speed.  When Grandmother insisted on reading the pad and correcting his spelling he went puce but didn’t say anything, and Red had to quietly award him a bonus point in her head for coping with Grandmother so well.
“Thank-you, that’ll be all,” said Grandmother at last, letting go.  The waiter vanished so rapidly that there was a draught left behind him.
“So, your mother?” said Grandmother, all traces of little old lady disappearing again.
“Oh, I knew she wasn’t my mother early on,” said Red.  “I found her diary.”
“Her diary?”  Grandmother leaned forward, her pearls falling softly from the neck of her dress and clinking on the cutlery.
Longing for Kansas,” said Red.  “It was full of stories of her life in some other place, a strange place where animals were somehow retarded and humans did inhuman things to one another.  It talked about Toto, which was her dog until he died, and had her real name in it.  Dorothy.”
“Oh yes,” said Grandmother.  “Strange name, it always puts me in mind of milking stools and churns for some reason.”
“You’ve never milked a cow in your life!”
“Well, not personally, no.”  Grandmother smiled.  “And did you decide that she had been acting like your mother long enough that she was your real mother too?”
“No.  She acted like a spoiled child my whole life so far,” said Red.  “I get through most of it simply because I can remind myself that I’m not her daughter.”
Grandmother laughed and sat back.  Her chair creaked slightly, possibly because she had two shortened katana strapped to her back and concealed beneath her heavy linen blouse.
“So my real parents are dead, are they?” asked Red.  She was thinking about that, wondering why she didn’t feel very sad.
“No,” said Grandmother.  “The gingerbread man and Dorothy are dead.  They died this afternoon when Dorothy found the red slippers we hid.  She put them on, tapped the heels together three times, and summoned a hurricane.  It tore down the kitchen and pantry, killed both of them, and then drifted off to terrify the grim brothers who live on the cliff-top.
“What?”  Red felt the shock hit her like a splash of icy water.  Her father was dead?
“Well, we hid the shoes because we knew they were booby-trapped,” said Grandmother.  “We’ve been trying to break the spells for ages.  It seems that Dorothy must have found out where we hid them and got them out.  She always was stubborn and stupid, a lethal combination if you ask me.”
Red stared across the table at the woman who’d trained her to be an assassin, had taken her from a complex family dynamic and given her a purpose that helped everything make sense, and wondered if she was truly as sociopathic as she seemed.
“Dad’s dead?” she said.  “Really dead?”
“Yes,” said Grandmother.  “Crumbs.  And at least half-eaten by the crows afterwards.”
Red started to cry, tiny silver trails of tears silently flowing over her pink cheeks.
“Oh, and both your real parents are dead too,” said Grandmother.  “We may as well get all this family stuff out of the way in one fell swoop, I suppose.”

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