Grandmother looked around the Hook, but their waiter had disappeared, probably in the kitchen. There were two other waiters flitting around like monochrome butterflies, but they were all staying in their respective thirds of the restaurant. There were only two tables near enough to them to eavesdrop, and they were both empty, but she still checked out the people at the tables further away. None of them looked like they’d have extraordinary hearing.
“So child,” she said to Red Riding Hood, noting the silvery snail-trails of silent tears, “all your parents are dead in fact. You’ve had a total of eight so far. The originals, your real parents, were my daughter Belle and an older gentleman called Tom. I confess, I could see exactly what Belle saw in Tom, but I never did figure out what he saw in her. At least, what he saw in her that he couldn’t see in me. But anyway, despite all that, they got married and seemed happy and had a daughter of their own, which would be you. Then one day they turned up at my house with you, spent an hour drinking coffee and eating biscuits, and then ran off leaving you and a letter behind.”
“Do you still have the letter?” said Red, her eyes wide. She felt as though her centre had somehow slipped slightly and she was balanced precariously at the edge of a whirlpool.
“Oh no! That letter told me exactly who Tom was and why they were running away, and it was a death warrant for them if the King ever found it. I ate the wretched thing, just to make sure there was no chance of the words escaping up the chimney if I tried to burn it. And I realised that if people knew they’d left then suspicion would fall on them.”
“But… wouldn’t people notice that they weren’t around?” Red forced herself to scan the room for threats, recalling her grandmother’s lessons that when things got out of control you reasserted control by doing what you knew worked.
“I started off by telling everyone they’d gone on holiday,” said her grandmother. “Then I found a young girl with the brains of a cow and told her she was being adopted. The poor thing nearly moo-ed with excitement, and I brought her home, dyed her hair and told everyone that there’d been a horrible accident that had killed Tom and left poor Belle a half-wit. You could see from how eagerly they all gossiped about it that they were secretly delighted.”
“I don’t remember this,” said Red. Their waiter had reappeared with their food – but no sushi – and was walking over to their table as reluctantly as he could manage.
“No, you wouldn’t. She managed to drown herself in the well when you were two. I think she was trying to fish the moon out of the water. It really wasn’t a great loss, and it made it easier for everyone to think that you were now a poor little orphan girl. Then Anne-Marie and her ‘best friend’ Madeleine turned up in the village looking for somewhere to stay and work, so I hired them on as your nannies. It was easiest to tell you that they were your parents though, since you were still so young.”
The waiter laid down the plates, and grandmother smiled as him as though only half-remembering him. “Where’s yours? I know you’re having the sushi with us.”
“My manager won’t allow me time to sit and eat,” said the waiter, a note of relief evident in his voice.
“You just send him over to talk to me,” said grandmother. “Please.” Her last word was like the closing of a tomb, and the waiter turned pale.
“Yes ma’am,” he said with ill-grace.
“I don’t think I remember Anne-Marie or Madeleine either,” said Red. “What happened to them?”
“They went to a cornfield one afternoon,” said grandmother, “for some alone time I think. They were sitting in the corn apparently when the harvester ran them over. I’m told it was messy.”
“Yes. And then the Gingerbread man turned up and he needed somewhere to stay, and he seemed a lot more sensible than the last two, so I hired him. So your seventh parent was his first wife, but she ran off with a soldier after two weeks, which made room for Dorothy when she needed hiding as part of a witness protection program.”
“You’ve tried to help a lot of people out, haven’t you grandmother?” The tears were trickling down Red’s face again, and she hid them by starting to eat her little pigs in blankets.
“I try,” she said. She turned, just as the manager approached. “Ah, the very man!”