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A Bedtime Storyby Sarah Cuypers
Aunt Wilhelmina cast a disturbed look towards the ceiling where the light fixture swung ever so slightly. She then looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. He had been up there for at least forty minutes! Soon the tea would be cold. How long could a bedtime story take, and why did it involve so much noise? She could almost swear she heard an unfamiliar woman's voice upstairs too. What on earth was going on up there? She rose to investigate. Gathering her skirts, she purposefully strode towards the stairs.
When she knocked on little Melissa's bedroom door, a sudden hush fell in the room. Convinced now that there were strange things afoot, she didn't await a reply and entered straight away.
"Ah, sorry, my dear," said Uncle Alastair as soon as he caught sight of her. Was it her imagination or did he look somewhat ill at ease and nervous? He quickly wiped some small sweat drops off his forehead, which only strengthened her suspicion.
"Are we making too much noise?" He went on. "Dreadfully sorry, dear. I do apologise."
Wilhelmina did not answer straight away, but looked around the room suspiciously, expecting disaster. Yet everything looked quite in order, just as she had left it an hour ago. The room was tidy and not a stray toy was to be seen. Their little niece Melissa was sitting quietly on her bed in her nightgown, her little legs swinging over the edge. The leather-bound fairy tale book lay closed on her lap. And Alastair was standing up, just before his reading chair. But what… Her eyes narrowed.
"Alastair, is that the stuffed flamingo from my father's study?" She asked icily.
"What? Oh, this?" Alastair who had seemingly forgotten he had been holding the pink bird, now looked at it with some surprise. "Why, yes, dear. So it is. Ah, well… you see, there was a flamingo mentioned in the book, and I wanted to show it to Melissa because she had never seen one before…"
Wilhelmina looked at Melissa. The little girl nodded vigorously. "It's a very good book, Auntie Mina. Thank you for letting Uncle Ally read it to me. It's been very… ," here her small face crunched up with effort for a moment before she pronounced proudly, "… ed-shu-ca-shuh-nal."
Wilhelmina hesitated. As an old school teacher herself, she could not really argue against anything educational. It was definitely a good thing that Melissa learned new and more complicated words so eagerly. But surely there were more appropriate times for dispensing an education than bedtime.
"Tea is getting cold, Alastair. And Melissa should really go to sleep now," was all she said.
"Absolutely right, my dear," Alastair agreed instantaneously, his head bobbing up and down. "We'll just finish this chapter and I'll be right down."
Wilhelmina closed the bedroom door behind her. She walked down the stairs again, shaking her head. Alastair always got carried away when reading their niece a bedtime story. She never understood why. When she was reading Melissa a story before bed, the wee thing always went to sleep within minutes. Alastair clearly wasn't up to this task.
Wilhelmina had often considered to take Melissa's bedtime stories entirely into her own hands, but the little girl always insisted on having both her aunt and uncle read her stories alternatively. And Wilhelmina found it always very difficult to say no to her sweet niece. She just hoped Alastair was sticking to the book, and not filling the little girl's head with other nonsense.
Upstairs, Melissa and her uncle both waited in silence until the footsteps of Aunt Wilhelmina on the stairs died down and they could hear her move about in the drawing room below.
"Right, Lissy," said Uncle Alastair as he raised the stuffed flamingo, holding it up by the long legs. "Open the book again, if you please. We were on page 115, if I recall correctly. We'll play for ten more minutes and then call it a night, or your auntie will suspect something for sure."
His niece nodded happily and opened the book on her lap. A bright white light spilled out from between the pages, so bright that it camouflaged the exact moment when the walls faded and Melissa's bedroom was transformed into an open, sun-lit grass field, trimmed with hedges. A figure also appeared on the grass: a tall, crowned woman, dressed in a magnificent dress of black and red. She tapped her sceptre impatiently.
"You should just let me cut off her head, sir Alastair," the woman said with some annoyance.
Uncle Alastair bowed deeply, while still holding the stuffed bird aloft. "Apologies, your Majesty," he addressed the woman. "Please forgive my dear wife, she means no disrespect. Now, if you please, allow me to demonstrate this new swinging technique. I think you will find it ah, inspiring…"
"Squawk!" Said the flamingo.
In the drawing room below, Auntie Wilhelmina looked up disturbed to the swinging light fixture. How a man and a little girl could make so much fuss without making a mess of the room, was quite beyond her. The book had come with good recommendations from Ms. Liddell, so it couldn't be that. Ms. Liddell was a very respectable woman, and her three girls, especially little Alice, always behaved impeccably during tea parties.
'But still,' Wilhelmina mused, 'there is something going on that escapes me…'
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