The Last Story of All

...And if in the will of God I should become a causality, it is my hope that these few writings--a few poor lines of poetry to she who has deserved much better of me; and a handful of frivolous tales for the boy-- may come into the hands of my dear ones, so that in after years I may be remembered more with laughter than with sorrow....

from the papers of Sgt Reginald Peel-Simmons

 

King Terence was holding a party in honor of Sir Reginald.

Seldom a week went by when King Terence did not hold a party. He was a fat red faced man and he liked to eat and drink. But this week’s party was, even by his standards exceptional, because Sir Reginald was an exceptional knight and he had done exceptionally brave deed.

Last Sunday afternoon a particularly nasty goblin had dug a tunnel under the wall which surrounded the First Kingdom, and had wrought all manner of mischief, stealing cakes from Paddy the Baker, drowning out the hymns in the church and daubing rude words on the walls of the palace.

Paddy had baked more cakes and the villagers had cleaned the walls and Sir Reginald had caught the goblin, given him a good spanking, and sent him packing back to the land of the goblin queen. So the kingdom was happy again.

The kingdom was always happy again. 

The trestle tables are laid out; red-white-and-blue bunting is hanging in the trees and the guests have assembled -- knights in polished shining Armour, and wise old gnomes with flowers in their hair and fierce metal men from the iron mine.

Sir Reginald is sitting at the head table in the shiniest Armour of all, looking strange and uncomfortable in a party hat. Squeak, the Kings jester, who is only three inches tall, is telling jokes about stupid cats.

 

And somewhere else it is Sunday, over the sea and under the hill, and Tom is crouching on rug by the fire, counting his soldiers out of their biscuit tin.

 

The King and Queen step out onto the balcony. Everyone cries “hurrah! hurrah!” but the King raises his hand and silences them.

“A fine party,” he says “A fine party and a fine feast. Paddy the Baker has done us proud. But we cannot begin our party, because someone is missing.”

There is a hush. The gnomes look at the metal men and the knights look at the villagers and the villagers look at each other and say “Who is missing?”

“Where is my Squire?” says the King “What has happened to Tom?”

 

And over the magical lake, where only the White Lady’s barge can go, there is a house with a neatly trimmed hedge, a row of daffodils and a green door.

Tom is lying on his tummy on the rug by the open fire while the grown-ups drone on and on in the dining room. He plays with his soldiers; red-coats with big black furry hats that march up and down outside Buckingham Palace shiny straps across their chests and big guns and bayonets.

There were school uniforms too, once, and caps and satchel straps..

Hoping that mother will let him play for another hour, and where is father? (He’ll be home next Christmas for certain; he thinks of you every day.)

This soldier, the one with the gold braid, will be Sergeant Reginald; and this one will be Private Tom. Sergeant Reginald will take Private Tom under his wing and Tom will polish his boots.

Tom will be the hero. Sgt Reginald came to his house with a brass band and said queen and country Tom, queen and country.

“Looks like a battle” said Reginald.

“My first battle” said Tom.

“Buck up,” said Reginald, “Not as bad as it looks. Remember my first time, cried like a baby, now, I look forward to it. ”

“I shan’t cry” said Tom “I want to kill them. Lots and lots of them. I want to see them look scared and hear them squeal.”

Sometimes, playing soldiers is Reginald and Tom talking and being mates.  Sometimes it is parade grounds. It is hard, though, lying down on the threadbare rug, to make a battle. He lines up the red soldiers and the grey ones too at the other end of the room, and moves the armies towards each other and when the red soldiers see the grey soldiers, he picks them all up and throws them into the air, kapow! kapow! until they are all lying down and that is the end of the battle and the reds have won.

The reds always win.

War is not fun says Mother, war is not a game so after the battle he lines up all the reds and plays eeeny-meeny-miny-mo and when his finger lands on a soldier, then he puts it in the box, and that soildier can’t be in the game again, ever, ever, ever.

Playing eeny-meeny-miny-mo to kill a soldier is the best bit of the game.

The soldier with the bugle plays a tune, and they all sing “Thank you for the world so sweet” and have a funeral, and go back home to their castle.

“George snuffed it” said Reginald “Blew his head clean off. Still not scared?”

“Not with you to protect me” said Tom.

Once, there had been a game where Reginald and Tom caught the grey who had killed George, and whipped him, and cut him up, and then killed him, and then killed him again. That was even better than eeny-meeny-miny-mo.

 

“Squire Tom is not here”, said Sir Reginald.

“Demmit, I can see that”, said the King.

“I have not seem him since before the first snows of winter,” added Sir Reginald

“Squire Tom missed Father George’s annual parish snowballing competition?”

“I fear so, your majesty.”

“Demmit, man, this is serious.”

And so the King put on his special beginning-of-an-adventure frown, and said “We will not eat a single drop of this food until we have found out where my favorite Squire has gone.”

The gnomes all said “Hurrah” and the metal men clapped (which made a dreadful racket) and the knights shouted “A quest! A quest!” and Sir Reginald rode forth on the quest of Squire Tom.

At the eastern edge of the of the kingdom there was a great ash tree with three roots, and in the tree lived a one-eyed tawny owl. It was to this magical tree that Sir Reginald now rode. Very quietly Sir Reginald knocked on the wood of the tree and said “Wise owl, wake up, for I would ask you question”.

“What is your question?” cooed the wise owl.

“What has become of Squire Tom?.”

“I will answer your question,” said the Owl, “If you will answer a question for me.”

This was how the owl acquired her wisdom, never give an answer away for free.

“Tell me,” said the Owl “Have you not often gone to Father George’s chapel?”

“I have,” said Sir Reginald.

“And why do you go there?”

“To sing hymns to the Creator,” said Sir Reginald

“Then,”  said the Owl “You must surely know, what is the Creator’s name.”

“His name?”

“His name.”

“May I consult with one who might know better than I?” said Sir Reginald

“Take as long as you like” said the Owl.

So Sir Reginald rode back to the village and knocked on the door of the little cottage where Father George lived.

“Father George,” said Sir Reginald “What is the true name of the Creator?”

“God,” said Father George

“I do not think,” said Sir Reginald “That the answer can be quite that simple.”

So Father George went to his great bookcases and opened huge books books that contained answers to questions such as “why is the sky blue?” but to the question “What is God’s true name” no answer could be found.

“I know how you could find out,” said Father George, “But you would have to do a terrible thing.”

“For the King and the party, I would dare anything” said Sir Reginald.

“If you open the gate at the edge of the kingdom, and take great care to lock it behind you, and ride through the forests of the Goblin Queen, then you will come to a great city, at the centre of which is a great cathedral with three spires, where a bishop dwells. If he cannot answer the question, then no-one can, and I do not think that the Owl would ask the impossible.”

So Sir Reginald lowered his visor and rode on the quest. 

Four years he rode. Many are the stories which are told of his adventures: how he deceived the sentinel at the goblin queen’s palace, and bargained with the pirates who steal happy dreams from sleeping children, but in this story we pass over them and say only that he came at last to the great cathedral where on a throne of bronze sat an old and wise bishop.

Sir Reginald knelt before the bishop, and brought him greetings from King Terence and the wise owl and asked him, very politely, what was the true name of God, and the Bishop said “The true name of God is a secret which is too terrible for you to know.”

“You’ve forgotten, haven’t you,?” said Reginald.

“I am very old.”

Reginald did not at once leave the cathedral, but lingered for a second, and hid behind a beautiful tapestry and as he waited, he saw the bishop go to the altar, and pray a secret prayer which began with these words:

“Almighty Reginald, our heavenly father....”

So the secret was revealed, and Sir Reginald rode back to the First Kingdom, with a strange secret and four years of growth on his beard.

The owl cooed gently, and munched on a small mouse. “You have fulfilled your side of the pact” said the Owl “And I will keep my promise, since when have you ever known an owl to be a liar? Tom lives across the magical lake in the middle of the kingdom; on the island where falls not snow, nor hail nor any rain, where, there is neither age, nor the passing of time, which may only be reached by paying a ferry fee to the White Lady.”

“I humbly thank you” said the knight.

“Squeak” said the mouse, who was no longer laughing.

So Sir Reginald rode through the gardens of the gnomes to the centre of the kingdom, and waited at the pier until the White Lady came in her beautiful barge, and he paid her the fee, a milk tooth from a mortal child, and she smiled wistfully and placed the tooth in the silk purse which she wore about her neck, and rowed Sir Reginald across the lake to the timeless island.

On the timeless isle, Sir Reginald saw many wonders; carriages which moved without horses, and lamps in the street which needed no lamp lighter; and boxes which spoke and sung songs. Those who walked through the December dusk turned their heads, and stared, as if a knight in Armour upon a dappled steed was to them a strange and wondrous sight. Then they looked way, and returned to their homes, and did not speak of the knight-in-Armour, except as a strange and slightly droll dream.

Sir Reginald, as he rode through the streets of the enchanted island, felt a strange sadness in his throat. Once, he had visited the castle of Sir Constantine, where he had been squired as a boy, and saw how the stables where he had practiced and the kitchens where he had worked had grown smaller and full of o boys who knew neither him nor Sir Constantine; and it was the same kind of sadness which he had felt. But knights do not cry. It rusts their Armour.

Hear me, Tom: knights do not cry.

So he turned aside from his sadness and came to a magical house, with a neatly trimmed fence, and a metal gate and yellow curtains in the window, and he knocked gently upon the door, and walked in. 

There, in front of the coal fire, bigger now, was Squire Tom

 

The game is bigger now. Seven Christmases bring a lot of boxes of soldiers and he had made trenches in the carpet and concentration camps under the bed

“Streuth!” said Tom “How long have been here?”

“Four years” said Reginald “A very long time.”

The greys poured down the stairs in their hundreds, step after step, and across the hall and into the dining room, with guns and gas bombs and pill boxes and bomber planes and Tom and Reginald and the gallant reds shouldered their backpacks and went over the top into the smoke and gunfire as Tom picked up all the soldiers of seven Christmases and threw them in the air, and mixed them, and for the longest time just held one red and one grey and made rat-a-tat-tat noises and dropped them and it was as if this Armageddon was not sufficient and he ran into his room and picked up arm-loads of older toys, girly toys teddies and owls and knights in Armour and threw them into the mix and shuffled them.

That was the best war of all. The best war ever.

Then he sorted out the reds and lined them up, and counted along the line, eeny, meeny, miny....

“I don’t think I’m going to make it,” said Reginald, clutching the wound in his chest.

“You fool” said Tom “You saved my damned life. That bullet was meant for me.”

“Don’t cry,” said Reginald “Whatever you do, Tom, don’t cry.”

Tom heard his mother coming, and began to make a rather half-hearted show of tidying up after the war to end all wars.

While dumping some greys into their box, he noticed Sir Reginald in the doorway. He looked at him for a moment, as if, like the others, he could not quite decide whether or not to treat him as a dream.

“I think you had better go,” he said,

“Don’t you want to come with me?” said Sir Reginald. “The King is waiting, and there is a party all prepared.”

“I don’t think I can,” said Tom “Not anymore.” He dropped Reginald into his box.

Sir Reginald turned to go.  

“I had to do it,” said Tom “You can’t break the rules of your own game. It’s like looking at the answers in a puzzle book. Just no point.”

“It seemed to me rather as if when you cast lots with the magical words “eeny, meeny, miny, mo” the lot fell upon the younger warrior.”

“So I cheated a bit,” said Tom.

So Sir Reginald rode away, across the lake, back to the First Kingdom, where there are parties and snowballs and hymns and simple answers, and he closed the gate in big the wall that kept all the horrid things out and he stayed there forever and ever and lived happily ever after.

The end.

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“What a very beautiful gift,” said Mother. There was no emotion in her voice--once open the gates to sorrow and her world, the children’s world too, would fall apart. No emotion but pride.

“I was fifteen when he wrote that” said Thomas “Fifteen!”

 “Even in all that horror, he was thinking of you, writing about you.” said Mother.

“He wasn’t writing about me” said Thomas “He was writing about himself.”

Some faded bunting is still blowing in the wind. The sad thin king is sitting in his rocking chair watching as a goblin is jerked off the gallows. The king almost smiles, for the first time since Squeak the Jester ran away.

The King looked at Sir Reginald as someone he half remembered, and said “What do you want in my palace, strange knight. We do not welcome visitors here.”

“I was one of your knights” said Sir Reginald “And four years ago, you sent me on a Quest.”

“And is the Quest completed.”

“The Quest has failed, your majesty. Tom will not come to your party.”

 

“He’ll be famous,” said Mother, “When we’re dead, people will read his books and his poems.”

“He’ll make me a child forever,” said Thomas “He thought of me as a child, and so will everyone else.”

 

Father George came out of his church. He had grown old in four years; older and wise, so that he looked much like the Bishop.

“But what of the Owl, my boy” said Father George “What of the Owl? Did you learn the true name of God?”

“I learned the true name of God,” said the Knight. “His name is Reginald. I myself am the Creator.”

And when the villagers heard this, they were happier then they had been in many years, for the only thing they enjoyed more than a hanging was a burning at the stake. Father George looked up at the king for judgment, and the king gave a “thumbs down” sign, and the knights seized Sir Reginald, and the villagers made a big bonfire, and then Father George, very solemnly took a torch and lit it, and the king saw Sir Reginald as he melted in agony and he laughed and said that he was so happy that he would allow them to have party that had been so long delayed -- and everyone sat around dusty, cobwebbed trestle tables and munched moldy food and laughed until there was nothing left of Reginald but a pool of molten lead.

 

Thomas sat on the rug, by the fire, and tried to focus his mind on his Latin. Suddenly, he stood up, walked over to the bookshelf, and picked up the battered dispatch box. Carefully, quickly, he sorted through them, putting the letters and poems into one pile, and the fairy tales into another. Then he picked up the smaller pile, his pile, and threw them into the fireplace.

“I’m not a child father. And what is more, I never was .You saw to that.

 

The party was still going on when the Queen of the Goblins opened the gate  and led her great army through it. She marched up to the palace, owl feathers in her mouth, goblins all around her, and the knights, tired and fat from the feast picked up their swords and shouted “War! War!” and the thin king laughed to see such sport, and only the queen was crying.

 

 

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