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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

Alice Gets the Badnews

It rained on their parade, said Uncle again, his beamish smile tightening to a wince.

He wasn’t her uncle, but he and her parents thought it was best to call him that. It wasn’t strange that he agreed because he always went on about how words could mean one thing and something very different. Just that morning he told her why he said that it rained on their parade although it was a sunny day in May. He explained while she held the pose for his camera.

Was there a rainbow? she asked and broke the pose.

His head came out of the cloth folds of the big box. To pose took time while the camera watched, digesting. Now they would have to begin all over again. But Uncle wasn’t angry. He bit his teeth together and smiled.

It wasn’t good news, he said and put his head back in the folds.

Little Liddell knew about good news, everybody did, but she was surprised when he told her that bad news was someone that causes trouble.

That would be, Little El thought, like the shower on the procession and the man who threw an egg at the King.

Uncle visited again at tea time. He brought the plates that the camera had made. Mother Liddell squinted at them and father Liddell nodded, Both were dozy and went off for a nap. That’s what they did when afternoon rain followed morning sunshine. Uncle, like Little, was never sleepy. His eyes would shine and he would tell her long stories as the rain pattered.

Although Uncle was clean-shaven, his stories were often furry, about Little’s cat and its kittens. He began with them this day but soon was onto Queens and Kings. That always puffed him up. Little was not surprised since Uncle had a King in his family a long way back. He was also a teacher at the university where King Charles the First had held court. And Uncle deserved OM after his name—which meant other merits too, a lot of them. He was quite right to speak, as he told Little, in a tone from the throne.

Uncle always did the voices in his stories, but Little still jumped when she heard the first Queen speak. It was threatening and came from a face—Uncle’s—that was squished up ugly like knotty wood. It couldn’t be the person inside the statue marked Victoria Regina et Imperatrix that Uncle, who knew everyone, called VRI.

The Queen in Uncle’s story kept her servants face down in the dirt out of respect for her, and she fired questions at anyone who dared bare open eyes to her. In Uncle’s story, the girl Alice was quite put out and said it wasn’t up to her to answer questions in matters not her concern. The Queen had one thing to say to that or to anything else, Off with her head.

Alice heard it again from Uncle’s Duchess. That royal, he said, was as ugly as sin and not pretty as a statue. She had a baby that she didn’t care at all about and fed soup full of pepper. She had also been just as nasty to Alice as the Queen had been. But Uncle said that when the nasty Duchess showed her face to the nasty Queen, it had shrunk in awe to two slits of eyes. The Duchess ordered no more beheadings and feared for her own.

The Queen was top dog in the family kennel, said Uncle, who Little knew, like her, preferred cats and kittens. He told how the Queen after leading her very royal procession that began eons ago, no one remembered where or why, forced everyone to play a game that was also so very old nobody remembered the rules. The Duchess showed eagerness to join in, primping her hair and patting her head to be sure it was still there. But she didn’t know which way to run or if she should simply stay put and shout hurrah for the Queen.

The Queen had a King. He seemed a balmy breeze in the royal storm because he said his subjects had only to kiss his hand if they cared to, and because he put his arm on the Queen’s to calm her rage and, er, be-because he stuttered. His job was to settle accounts with the executioners. Behind the Queen’s back in a low voice, he issued pardons to reduce the axeman’s fee.

The game continued and, if no one knew who was winning, neither did anyone know who was losing. For her part, the Duchess to quiet her nerves chose the nostrum, It’s love that makes the world go ‘round. Alice objected that it was rather minding one’s own business that kept it spinning. And Alice, like Little, couldn’t forget the heads that were falling. The Queen met objections to her sentences with her signature verb and direct object, to cut off one more.

When her Royal Self marched away in another forever procession of solemn noise, she left a courtier to clear up the pile of question marks and exclamation points. Uncle told Little that it had all been a great show, and she shivered and said not for those who lost their heads. Uncle said they should only not get so het up in the future and go off and lose their heads.

Little began to understand and to be annoyed. Uncle’s stories were always like that. A gun-full. as he would say, with a run of pun after pun, a tun of fun like licking a dun sugar bun in the sun for a nun. Now he said that the Queen, when she said something should be off, only meant that it should get itself off, out of her royal way. She never meant cut off as in beheading.

And Little, listening hard, saw that all stories of Queens and Kings were good for a giggle. They were make-believe that only worried bumble-wits.

Uncle asked if Little wished to know more of how Kings and Queens were before being made into statues. And she didn’t say no. But Uncle insisted that she answer a question first. What did the creatures of the deep study as they swam in a school? Little knew Uncle would juggle some words next. It was his way of amusing himself. So she pleated her brow and pretended to think of an answer while she wished he would get on and over with his joke.

You don’t know, he asked? What do you study?. Well—with Uncle you had best play along or he would sulk—Reading and writing, she said, and, of course, arithmetic. You mean addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, coaxed Uncle? Little nodded and got ready to laugh. Well, why wouldn’t fishes study the same thing, he asked? Because, she paused, because…They’re all wet?, asked Uncle. Little just wanted to get past the laughing part. Uncle said, Water doesn’t change much that much. When you wipe your face it’s not wiped out only wiped off. Fishes and fish, just like you, study: “Reeling and Writhing …and then the different branches of Arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.”

Little tried to laugh louder than Uncle, but she couldn’t manage it. She watched his bowtie bob and dance and wished he would start the new story. She looked away, fearing he might ask her for the words in French which he loved to say, noeud papillon, and then explain about butterfly neck-bows. She hoped he wouldn’t repeat the bit about nude Papa Yun.

This Queen and King were very different, he said. In fact they were two sets of different colours just like in a deck of playing cards.

Little asked that if being double they could still be Queen and King of their country. Oh, Uncle said, VRI is twice as wide as she was at her coronation and she manages us very well.

Little thought Uncle would tell her again how Old King Cole on the other hand and foot was as thin as his fiddle string. But he only said with a sigh that Queens and Kings were always at the very top of us all with the hand of God on their shoulder. Even the helpless and frightened White Queen, he pointed out, ought to be properly addressed when dressing.

Uncle told how lowly things like hairbrushes and straight pins ruffled the White Queen’s royalty, how she understood with sadness the rule that jam was always for yesterday or tomorrow, never for today, and how her queenly memory remembered not only the past but the future.

Little asked herself if Uncle was stretching things again. She wished he would leave off word puzzles and trying to be funny and not tell stories about what can’t happen. But while she was wishing Uncle turned the White Queen into an old sheep busy knitting while rowed in a boat by Alice. Little closed an ear and only pretended to listen with the other.

Uncle chittered on. It was only when he mentioned the White King that Little paid attention again. She was interested in what kind of husband would have a wife like the wan White Queen. The King disappointed Little because he wrung more than one meaning out of a word exactly like Uncle. When Alice said she had seen nobody on the road, the White King said that her eyes were very good indeed if they could see Nobody.

Little felt for poor simple words as Uncle went on squeezing them for more meanings. She gave off listening again as Uncle chitter-chattered on. It was only when he spoke of the Red King that she lent both ears. Uncle had assured Alice earlier of the ridiculous fact that her life was only as a person among the snores of the Red King’s dream. Now apparently that King had woken up. But Little soon saw that Uncle was fantasticating again. He made Alice a Queen but then, his eyes in a fever, said, as if it was funny, that chess was a royal game and Alice had only been queened on a chess board.

Little Liddell didn’t laugh. If God’s hand was only on the shoulder of a chess piece and it was no more than her father’s and Uncle’s sleepy game as they moved their pawns with Uncle tittering about pawnshops and how some chess players were worse than pawnbrokers, the way they broke up a perfectly good tactical move like his opening gambit without the least bit of respect for the position of the King.

With apologies to Uncle Lewis Carroll

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