Thursday, July 25, 2013

Nanna Babba and the common girl


(A bedtime story for baby George)

Once upon a time there lived a beautiful young girl, Dafne, who had a wicked step-grandmother, Nanna Babba.

Nanna Babba lived in a world of fantasy. To pass the weary hours she wrote, or her magic pen wrote, grisly and non-grisly fairy stories about common girls falling in love with princes, and living in turreted palaces beyond the wildest hopes and dreams of most schoolgirls. The palaces all had wide carpeted staircases with ornate banisters which led to ballrooms in which crystal chandeliers sparkled brightly from the ceiling. These were ideal settings for a young common girl to make her entrance into the world. Because Nanny Babba believed in fantasy she could wield her magic pen it seemed and the dreams would all come true. This worried Dafne.

Among the 700 grisly fairy stories there were tales of young common girls who found themselves in woods pursued by wolves. Other girls were made to sweep the dusty floors, wash clothes, hang them out to dry, look after other people's children, and menial tasks which befall many families of less wealthy origins while their sisters went to the ball. Dafne did not mind these menial tasks because they kept her away from Nanna Babba. However she found one of her step-grandmother's stories rather frightening because the plot was of a young princess bedecked in jewels, dressed up to the nines and seated in a royal coach which was suddenly driven right into a rabbit warren in a foreign land - the land of frogs and toads. Deep, deep it went into the tunnel, and never came out again. This caused recurring nightmares.

Dafne was made to read all these rags to riches fairy stories, which sometimes had a happy ending, and sometimes sad, but she made little effort to conceal that she did not like Nanna Babba, nor her stories. You see when Dafne was only eight years old, following the divorce of her parents, Nanna Babba had come into her life as a result of the old dear's daughter marrying Dafne's father. In the early years when the flame of perpetual love glowed so strongly in her father's eyes it looked like it would last forever Dafne saw less and less of him and his new wife and more and more of Nanna Babba. The nightmares continued.

Dafne had an elder sister, Sissy, and brother, Brer, who seemed to settle better into the new life than Dafne had done. She had difficulty understanding why her mother and father had gone their separate ways. She moped and cried and wept and sobbed until it got on people's nerves. Nanna Babba had a solution for every problem. It was agreed Dafne was to be sent to a girls' boarding school where the mistresses could comfort her in her sadness. The school was called "The Bowels of Hell" by those who boarded there at Dante's. Dafne did not perform well in Hell. It made her even more miserable.  She moped and cried and wept and sobbed until it got on the mistresses' nerves. They did not comfort her.

She got through "The Bowels of Hell" with some of the worst grades Dante's had ever seen. From time to time she would return to the rented home where Nanna Babba would add to her misery by making her read the latest fantasies from her magic pen, fantasies which appeared to be writing themselves even when Nanna Babba was sitting with Sissy and feeding her face on Royal Jelly. Royal Jelly is the preserve of Queen Bees, and young girls who sample it, according to Nanna Babba, are destined to marry a prince, with the one condition that they remain virtuous. Dafne had seen how other stories by Nanna Babba had come true. So she believed this one too.

Dafne's family rented property in the grounds of a palace and one day the rich prince came by inspecting his great expectations. He was heir to the palace in which grounds Dafne, Sissy and Brer rented, together with many other palaces which the growing children had only seen in books. The Prince was wearing a Polo-necked sweater and jodhpurs tucked into his boots as he rode on his favourite chestnut horse, Polo. His favourite sport happened to be polo which gave rise to the horse's name.

Princes are not always all they are cracked up to be and some need licking into shape, while others need kissing by a beautiful young lady on their amphibious lips to make something more appealing about them. So Sissy, emboldened by royal jelly, popped a polo mint into the royal gob, plucked up all her courage and kissed the prince full on his lips. She stepped back and looked for a change in his countenance, while Dafne did the washing up, and Brer looked on in total bewilderment as to what was going on. Sissy perceived no change in the prince's looks. Nanna Babba had been careful to mention that those who fed on royal jelly would not necessarily marry a handsome prince, just one of royal stock. Sissy had got her fantasies a little mixed up. But her prince was rich and ladies learnt at finishing school that once they had ensnared their quarry they must be content if the meat might be a little old and the skin as tough as riding boots.

With the royal jelly easing Sissy's future prospects Dafne had been sent to a finishing school in the Alps where she moped and cried and wept and sobbed until it got on the mistresses' nerves. They did not comfort her. She could, however dance, although a little tall to become a professional, she danced herself into the full bloom of womanhood and emerged, if not a butterfly, a very pretty thing in her own right.

Meanwhile Sissy had taken a flat not too far from one of the prince's palaces in the main city, and Dafne kept house for her sister. She washed up, did the laundry, swept the carpets, cleaned the toilets, emptied the waste bins, threw away the empty cartons of royal jelly and generally kept the place spick and span. The prince was a frequent visitor but hardly seemed to notice Dafne, who left almost as soon as he arrived. He did occasionally comment on how tidy the flat was to Sissy. What happened in that flat is not for the ears or eyes of children. Dafne had noticed a thing or two. Those who have done laundry and emptied waste bins will need no further explanation.

Months went by and all expectations from the Nanna Babba household were for Sissy's royal engagement announcement: any time now. But it never came. It could only mean one thing. The condition of feeding on royal jelly was that the lady remained virtuous and Nanna Babba suspected there had been a premature submission to pre-marital gallantry. Nobody knows for certain. Dafne however was about to throw away some more empty cartons of royal jelly when she noticed that one of the cartons was not empty. Honey she had tasted, but royal jelly was the preserve of queen bees. Dafne, on a whim, decided to try this exotic food and thought it was nothing special.

Princes, kings, princesses, queens, dukes and duchesses and in fact almost all people, find themselves dissatisfied with what is already theirs, and once the novelty has worn off, they look for new sources of stimulation. So it was with the prince who explained this rather clumsily to Sissy. She immediately felt an impulse to smack him across his amphibious mouth, but refrained. It soon dawned on her that she had fallen too easily, and only when she weighed up the pros and cons of life with an unattractive prince, did she realise that perhaps she had got away lightly. Dafne however was saddened for Sissy's loss and she moped and cried and wept and sobbed in her sister's arms, until the unattractive but extremely rich prince, moved by the young maid's passion, suddenly started to take notice of her for the first time. This, he swore to himself, would be his latest conquest.

His courtship of Dafne was not quite what he had expected. Princes are used to having whatever they want, whenever they want it. Arriving on Polo in a polo-necked sweater and jodhpurs had worked a treat for Sissy. So he tried this approach on Dafne and even brought a polo stick along with him to endorse the image. He moved towards her with his mouth wide open. She popped a polo mint into the toad-hole and stepped deftly out of harm's way. Her education might not have been up to much but she was not stupid. She had seen what had happened to Sissy. Was it not she who had cleaned Sissy's flat? The more the shy and unsullied Dafne resisted his approaches the more the prince desired her. He was getting no younger and there was pressure on him to marry before his ardour died. He tried pin-stripes though he was not a typical English gentleman, a kilt though he was not a typical Scottish laird, and lederhosen. Nothing seemed to work and the magic he had come to expect was absent.

For her engagement he bought her the biggest cluster of diamonds and sapphires imaginable and it is reputed that 20,000 black Namibians had died in the mining of these lumps of carbon rock. She thought it was almost immoral to wear it, because Dafne did have some morals, and there was a lot of superstition that the ring could never bring her good luck. The royal jelly had done its work and Dafne had kept her virtue. Her reward was a state wedding to which all the country was invited. Let this be a lesson to all boys and girls that virtue, if that's what children want, can bring its rewards, because Dafne did get to marry her prince. Although it is fair to note she did not invite her wicked step-grandmother to the wedding.

Traditionally fairy-stories and love stories like those written by Nanna Babba have a happy ending and are neatly rounded off with a phrase like "and they lived happily ever after". But there are stories in the genre where the big bad wolf pretends to be a nice old granny and gobbles up a little girl in red. And the one that Nanna Babba wrote about the princess who went in a royal carriage into the rabbit warren of a foreign country. In real life to be a princess might not be everybody's dream. Dafne's marriage was a sad affair. Her prince did not love her but they had children: heirs to the throne. Soon she was so unhappy and for the prince the novelty had worn off, so she moped and cried and wept and sobbed sometimes for hours on end. But nobody listened. She threw herself into charity work trying to help less fortunate children in lands far away.

After a while Dafne met another man with whom she was truly in love, a rich man who loved her too. At last she was happy. However there was a lot of dissatisfaction in the royal household at this match, and even though the prince himself had taken a new lover, there were plots to have Dafne and her rich lover, who was of foreign extraction and a different religion, put to death. A few hundred years earlier and it would just have needed a royal decree to execute this act. But in the time of Princess Dafne all eyes were upon the royal household which had impoverished its subjects to increase its own wealth. Princess Dafne was aware of the plot. She had read the story by Nanna Babba. She wrote a letter to show there was a plot and how it would happen to a young princess bedecked in jewels, dressed up to the nines and seated in a royal coach which was suddenly driven right into a rabbit warren in a foreign land - the land of frogs and toads. Deep, deep it went into the tunnel, and never came out again. Fairy stories can come true.

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Disclaimer: any likeness to any person in this story is coincidental as in all fiction, good or bad.

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