A Story by Johari

Happily-ever-afters aren't always a fairy tale.


Death takes his dues piece by piece,

by the proper plan,

but Time drinks deep and indiscriminate

of earth and air and sea and bone… 

And so another memory becomes dream-laced breath; a fairy-tale hidden in the heart blood.



On the back streets of an inconsequential English city a crowd, fuelled with champagne-fizz excitement, inexplicitly heads in the same direction. No one can quite remember who made the suggestion, or indeed if anyone did. A whisper in the blood drives them to put their faith in numbers like a shoal of mackerel in the face of danger. Weaving around each other, as close as proper etiquette will allow, there is a hope some will make it through.

Fat raindrops explode intermittently on the pavements and lightening, which threatens to crack open a ghost moon, fills the overcharged air with electricity. Still the growing crowd traipses on, passing many other perfectly suitable bars and night-time cafes where they could, if so inclined, shelter from the coming downpour.

The elusive Ilonka’s Exotic Gin and Burlesque Emporium is a place of secrets; lost, found - and sometimes stolen. It sits in the corner of one’s eye, dusted with a curious magic that demands attention to bring it to life.

There is something about the Emporium that draws us in like moths to a flame. The main room is a sight to see. Side walls lined floor to ceiling with unlabelled gin bottles of all shapes and colours, undulating with candlelight, enticing you to try. The contents are all the same yet the clear liquid twists and shifts like smoke in a glass till it hits the lips. Infusions of gingerbread, pumpkin or poisoned apple, nutmeg or Bison grass or lemon peel, extinct herbs from the orient, wild honey or forest berries or sweet violets. Some swear they have even stumbled across exquisite flavours that do not belong to the human world; flavours that become obsession. The secret, few realise, is that the bottle is irrelevant; the magical infusions are merely distilled imagination.

One bottle though, stands out amongst the rest. Like Mrs Darling’s kiss it sits in plain sight, enigmatic, out of reach. No amount of pleading or bribery will obtain it; only a personal invitation from the lady of the house.

This room leads to a cloistered courtyard. A scattering of tables and chairs in the betwixt and between of the cloister overlook a simple stage of sprung board simply dressed with candles and expectation. There, stunning performers will weave the most delicate illusions as they dance; illusions that cause the soul to blush.

A parade of faerie in flesh for revellers to feast on. The Firebird’s daughter born from an egg each night, a woman that spins silk from her fingertips, a moon-gazey girl, a snake-charmer who sheds her own skin. All laid bare for our delectation.

Stars scatter like glitter, silver on black, and no one even thinks to wonder where the rain has gone. The mackerel-crowd concentrates in the courtyard turning the enclosed air into a complex current of pleasing scents that evaporate off wrists, and other delicate places, like incense on a coal. An undercurrent of fresh heat from the rows of candles lining the stage burns the air clean in places, like citrus cutting through fat.  Modern cocktail dresses mix with flapper tassels and steampunk flamboyance. Even a Romanesque toga floats gracefully though the crowd.

Patrons use the prelude to the show to make relaxed conversation over drinks and greet friends, old and new, while over-easy jazz from an invisible orchestra punctuates the air, smoothing the edges of the evening even more than the gin. It scrubs time round as a sea-tossed pebble till its power is almost meaningless.

Snatches of good-natured banter drifts, unfettered and unowned, through the air.

‘They say when you leave this place you can end up in a different city.’

‘Different century more like.’       

‘That’s just an urban legend started on the internet.’

 ‘Doesn’t mean it’s not true.’

‘I’ll bet you believe in unicorns too.’   

Some conversations, of course, are less playful than others.

‘Are you sure this is it? It seems an unlikely place to find… them.’

He whispers the final word as if it were dangerous. The woman accompanying the questioner, ignoring his discomfort, simply nods while forming strange gestures with her gloved hands that he seems to understand.

‘I wish I could be as confident.’

            It is a false protest. Her judgement has an impeccable pedigree he knows it would be foolish to ignore. Pulling out a chair for the lady he then twitches the crease of his trousers before taking a seat himself.

‘Well then, we shall wait and see what the stories bring.

A salt-crusted martini glass of emerald liquid sits untouched in front of the woman; there for appearance’s sake. Her face is covered from her cheekbones down by a veil of spider-web lace that is as sombre as the rest of her clothing, an ensemble of plain black skirts and fitted jacket with a white and cream stripped blouse finished with a small amount of ruffle at the neckline pinned into place with an ivory cameo. The lady does not delight in the spectacle around her as she sits primly, statue-still, back straight, hands in her lap. She ought to be out of place in such an establishment yet somehow, she is not.

Blossom White sits at the table in her corridor dressing-room back stage, her skin silver from greasepaint even through the stockings she wears with her corset. The bare lightbulbs that line the wall give off an apple-crisp gold light as they gently crackle and hum.

‘I think you quite mad.’ says a voice from the shadows, tipping its top-hat in her direction.

‘Is that a compliment or an insult? I never quite know with you.’

She doesn’t turn round. She knows who he is and can always keep an eye on him through the looking-glass. All she can see at the moment though is her own reflection, an impossibly white face set with ice-blue jewels for eyes all framed with a cascade of platinum curls. The only warmth is her full, pink lips.

‘Your ancestors would almost certainly find this; disturbing. It’s not very becoming for a princess after all.’ The man in the top-hat smiles knives. ‘Such a fall.’ He sighs.

‘Where do you get this stuff Mr M!’

Her laugh is full-bodied but lacks warmth, another mask. She is annoyed with herself for allowing him to touch a nerve. The man is crazy, or at best eccentric.

He doesn’t answer.

‘You know, only you and Madame Ilonka believe in all that nonsense.’ She swishes a brush loaded with white powder along her thighs, making sure there were no kinks in her greasepaint armour. Then a wistful afterthought, ‘Whatever I may have been I’m certainly no princess now, just another freak trying to cling on to the edge.’

She plays absentmindedly with a wooden locket hanging from a chocolate brown choker as first night jitters begin to take hold somewhere between her shoulder blades making it hard to breathe.

'How much has she actually told you?’

Before she can counter with a question of her own, the door handle at the end of the corridor rattles and the man in the top-hat disappears, smile last, into the shadows.

‘Up n’ at them my little csillagom, the crowd is eager for something sweet and we cannot afford to disappoint.’

It is a statement punctuated by the tap of walking stick on wooden floorboards as the  enthusiastically energetic Madame Ilonka beams from a perfect painted face, a single curl teased from her slick bob plastered to her forehead like some sort of pressed flower. ‘The Lovely Ilonka’, as she is known by friends, is faded and worn, her heart cracked by the ravages of time. Once a great ballerina, a tragic accident forced her to turn to singing, now she does little more than pour gin and… collect people. She notices the locket.

‘The only wildwood now, lélek, it this world here. And it holds far more terrible dangers.’

A cryptic comment Blossom has no idea what it means.

Ilonka chivvies her with an affectionate pinch to her check and a smile then turns towards the door before pausing to call over her shoulder, ‘You know, Mr M, my heart’s love, I’d thank you not to be troubling my girls just as they are about to perform. Now, do get me a glass of gin.’ She says those last words with diamonds in her eyes and a sardonic grin.

‘You are mine as I am yours.’ The top hat bows with a sarcastic flourish.

Ilonka strides purposefully out to the front of house as she prepares to faun over her public.

Once upon a time, before clocks existed, there lived a girl who was trapped in a world obsessed with finding husbands.

‘One needs to find one’s soulmate in order to live a happily-ever-after.’ The beanpole Governess would tell her and in a world without time where ‘Happily’ really was ‘Ever After’ such decisions were critical to avoid tumbling into an eternal abyss of misery.

The governess was plain, hair scrapped back from a severe face into a no-nonsense bun. She was sturdily built from facts rather than a sugar-and-spice complexion and she had an almost devout fervour for finding her students a purpose, a dream to cling to " whether it was the one they wanted or not. Perhaps it was a fear that she wouldn’t live happily-ever-after herself that motivated her to meddle with other people’s lives so.

The girl was not interested in such silliness however, and planned to have her own adventures " unencumbered by a husband. She grew weary of the lectures and invested her energy into finding ways to avoid the Governess. Currently she was balanced on a ceiling beam of the corn store. The girl glared angrily at a sack of cornmeal that slouched in front of her.

‘You’d make a better husband than any prince.’ She muttered to herself, kicking the sack spitefully. A spurt of cornmeal bleed from its side, pooling below a small rip in the sackcloth.

As an idea formulated in her clever little head a grin blossomed on her face.

The house lights fall and the silence is adamantine. Even the night breeze, as it skilfully extinguishes the stage candles, is leeched of sound, the crowd as still as sleepers in an enchanted castle.

The walls of the courtyard prickle with light which, though pretty, does nothing to dispel the darkness.

Then, as if from nowhere, a soft glow caresses the shrouded silhouette of a girl sat centre-stage. The crowd makes a collective intake of breath that mimics the drawn out caress of seawater on shingle. The aficionados know it is her; the one they have come to see.

© 2016 Johari

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Added on November 6, 2016
Last Updated on November 8, 2016
Tags: Gothic, burlesque, magical realism, fantasy, fairy tales, folklore



Norfolk, United Kingdom

East Anglian author Tasha O’Neill has been tinkering around with words since childhood and writes short stories, novels, non-fiction and poetry. She has an enduring love of folklore and fairy.. more..

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A Story by Johari