There was an old lady who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread;
And whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.
I’m sorry to say the rhyme about Dame Nettle is real. She ran Old Boot House, a home for lost and orphaned children, in a brown leather boot with mustard-yellow laces that had once belonged to a giant. It was a horrible place for boys and girls to grow up. If only The Fairy Godfather would wave his magic wand and make all their dreams come true.
Willie Winkie’s story begins on a late afternoon in the middle of winter when the boot’s laces were tied up tight against the cold. Dame Nettle was sitting at one of two long wooden tables in the middle of the boot, flicking through the property magazine Home Sweet Home. She was dipping her toast into an enormous boiled egg, the size of a dragon’s. Whether she was standing or sitting her back remained rounded, and she had deep wrinkles from years of scowling. She looked like she could be snapped in half, but Willie knew she wasn’t as weak as she seemed. He had watched her attack a troll that jumped out on her on a bridge. From that day on the troll only chased after billy goats.
The children worked around her: sweeping the inner sole of the boot, cleaning the round windows, and tidying the hammocks where they slept high in the leather ankle. Tom Thumb, a boy no bigger than Willie’s little finger, dragged spoons across a table to set it for supper. A large duckling with light brown feathers dusted a cupboard with its wing. Willie had been put in charge of making the meal this evening, among other jobs. He stood watching the watery soup cooking in the cast-iron cauldron, making sure it didn’t boil over.
Some people called him Wee Willie because he was short for ten-years-old and rather scrawny, perhaps because he lived on a diet of only broth and porridge. Even so, he had grown since he’d been at Old Boot House. The faded nightshirt he wore, all day and every day, used to cover his toes, now it barely reached his knees. His feet had got bigger too. His heels hung over the backs of his tatty slippers.
At present only a cupful of thin, clear soup bubbled inside the cauldron, but the amount soon doubled all by itself and continued growing. It rose higher and higher in the pot. Once the soup reached just below the top, Willie said in a firm voice, ‘Stop, little pot’ and it did.
A loud cracking noise made him jump. He looked over his shoulder at Dame Nettle. She had put down her spoon, taken the whip out of her apron pocket and whacked it against the table. She was glaring at Willie’s friend Jack, as usual.
Jack gazed steadily back at her, but didn’t stop scrubbing the floor by the door. Unlike the other boys and girls Jack always managed to look clean and tidy. His glasses had no smudges on them, and his check shirt, brown waistcoat and knee-length trousers, which he’d been wearing for months, could have been clean on today.
‘Why, you’re as lazy as Little Boy Blue,’ Dame Nettle said to him. ‘Take the pail to the top of the hill and fetch some water.’
Jack sighed. ‘All right. I’ll go. But I probably won’t find any water at the top of the hill. I’m more likely to find it at the bottom.’
Willie looked from Jack back to Dame Nettle. Her eyes had narrowed.
‘The pail is too heavy for Jack to carry by himself. I’ll go with him.’ Jill quickly looked down at her welly boots to avoid making eye contact with her. Blonde ringlets hung over her face like curtains.
Some children thought Jack and Jill were brother and sister because they arrived on the same day, but they had just clung together because they were both new.
‘Did I ask you to speak?’ Dame Nettle scraped back her seat and stood up. She tapped the whip against her long, black skirt and stared at Jill.
Willie coughed. He raised an arm as Dame Nettle twisted towards him.
‘Yes, what is it?’ she snapped.
‘I’ll go with them – nae bother.’ He could feel his heart beating fast to the tune of one, two, buckle my shoe. Three, four, open the door…
He knew he was asking for trouble. He also knew they had to stick together, not be singled out. That’s how they all survived in Old Boot House.
Dame Nettle sucked in her cheeks as she looked at Willie and then at the rest of the children. ‘It seems you all need to be taught a lesson. Perhaps I’ll bake you in a pie like four and twenty blackbirds.’
‘Time for tea,’ said Tick Tock, the Grandfather clock in a deep, slow voice.
He stood against the side of the shoe, near the tables and chairs. His black metal clock hands showed it wasn’t supper time for another ten minutes, and his blue eyes looked everywhere but at them.
Dame Nettle ignored Tick Tock, but not the telephone that began to ring on the window ledge. She broke into a huge smile and hurried over to it.
Her smiled worried Willie. He had only ever seen her cheerful when she was up to no good.
Dedicated to my nephew, Tom Donovan.
I’ll post the next chapter in a few days. I’d LOVE some pictures by children if anyone fancies being an illustrator! Kimx
Story by Kim Donovan. All rights reserved. Image Pixabay.