Willie had fallen asleep imagining what his family would be like. His dad would be a music man and he’d teach Willie how to play the piano – pia, pia, pia-ano – and the big bass drum – bumdi, bumdi, bumdi-bum. He pictured his mum and him rowing a boat gently down the stream, and stopping his sister from pricking her finger on an enchanted spinning wheel. He thought about them arriving on a flying carpet to collect him.
‘Keep wishing. Dreams do come true!’ he’d shout to the boys and girls, as he flew off to his new home – over the rainbow.
But his wished-for family didn’t arrive at breakfast time, by mid-morning or lunchtime.
‘Are you all right?’ Jill touched Willie’s arm.
He spun away from her. ‘It’s just something in ma eye,’ he said, and quickly wiped his face with the sleeve of his nightgown. Daft to believe in magic, anyway, he thought.
At half past two, Dame Nettle singled out Pinocchio and Princess True Love. The princess wore a dirty ball gown. ‘You two stay here,’ said the dame. ‘You’ll make the place look homely.’ Then she shooed the rest of the boys and girls out the door. ‘I want you go to market to buy a fat pig,’ she said to them. ‘The last thing I want is for Mr Sprat to think the place is overrun with horrible children and – ’ she glanced at the bird with muddy-brown feathers ‘– ugly ducklings.’
Willie tried to catch Enid’s eye to tell her not to listen to Dame Nettle, but she bent her long neck towards the wooden slats and didn’t look up.
Jill stretched out her hand, clearly expecting some money to pay for the pig. But Dame Nettle touched the pocket with the whip in it, and Jill’s arm shot behind her back.
‘The market’s in Banbury. It’ll take at least two hours to walk there,’ Jack whispered to Willie, as they headed down the outside steps by the shoe’s heel.
‘She’s only sending us there to get us out of the way,’ replied Willie.
The North wind blew through his flimsy nightshirt, making him shiver. Pale grey clouds hung like heavy sacks in the sky.
‘I think it might snow,’ said Jill.
Willie heard the door to the boot shut. ‘Quick! Let’s hide under the staircase.’ He ran around the side and ducked underneath it.
‘She might see us.’ Jill didn’t follow him.
‘No, she won’t. This is our chance to stop the estate agent; come on!’
Jack and Jill joined him in the small space. The rest of the children waved goodbye and carried on across the field on their long walk.
Jill pulled her sleeves over her hands. ‘Do you think it would feel this cold if we lived under a bridge?’
‘Yes, and we’d have trolls to worry about too.’ Jack peered out of a gap between two steps.
Willie did his best to give her a reassuring smile. ‘We’re not going to live under a bridge or a staircase or in cardboard boxes. We’re staying where we are.’
Inside, Tick Tock donged three times and Princess True Love started to sing like an angel.
‘Dame Nettle must think music will put the estate agent in a good mood,’ said Jack.
‘Aye. She’s after the best price she can get for the boot.’ Willie looked out from their hiding position as well. He scanned his surroundings for a pumpkin carriage bumping across the field or a flying house twirling to the ground. His chest felt like he had fairies fluttering inside of him.
But he had not expected the estate agent to arrive by travelling trunk. The wooden box appeared as a dot in the sky one second and before Willie had time to say Jack in a Box it landed with an almighty bump on the raised platform above their heads.
Tick Tock donged twelve times in warning even though it wasn’t midday or midnight. He’d obviously heard the noise too. Hopefully, Dame Nettle hadn’t.
‘Quick, get him!’ Willie sprinted up the steps to the trunk, his friends at his heel.
A middle-aged man sat wedged inside the box with his arms and legs dangling over the sides, trying to pull himself out. He wore odd clothes for an estate agent – a white cotton coat and a stethoscope around his neck. His clothes were also very wet, like he’d been for a swim fully dressed. A leather briefcase and a plastic carrier bag lay on top of him.
‘Thank goodness you’re here. Please help me,’ he said, breathlessly.
‘We’re very sorry to do this to you.’ Willie grabbed one of the man’s legs and started pushing it inside the box.
At the same time, Jack worked on forcing his arms inside too. Jill half-heartedly tried to push the lid closed.
‘Oh, please lower your head,’ she said to him. ‘I don’t want to hurt you.’
‘We will let you out again,’ said Jack.
‘Help! Someone help me!’ The man kicked Willie and hit Jack with the plastic bag.
The boys stopped what they were doing and helped Jill try to force the lid shut. Eventually, it started to close… the estate agent only just managed to pull his fingers inside the trunk in time. But by the thump and the yelp he let out, he didn’t lower his head fast enough.
‘Sorry!’ whispered Jill.
Willie stopped dead still. The princess had stopped singing part way through the song.
‘Something’s wrong,’ he said. Quick – push. Down the steps.’
Once Upon a Wish is dedicated to Tom Donovan
Story by Kim Donovan. (c) All rights reserved. Image: Pixabay