Down the Line

     

For the 2016 Collins Writing Contest I submitted this short story based on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with a few odd characters sprinkled about. The theme for the contest was "Fractured Fairy Tales", offering authors the opportunity to explore many different facets of the fary tales we already know. 

     For me, short stories a fun to play with. Unlike novels, there's a certain satisfaction in completing a story quickly and concisely. For this one I was inspired by the idea of the Hatter and what a tea with him would be like, given the characters he surrounds himself with.

     This story won 3rd place in the contest and is collected in the Grande Prairie Public Library's "Fractured Fairy Tales" anthology.

 

 

Down The Line

by Dustin Archibald

 

The field is green and lush, tall grass and soft earth. There is no sun, only bright blue sky and pure yellow light. At its centre grows a grove of trees, their branches reaching toward the heavens in a display so grand they seem to reach beyond the ending of all time. Nestled snuggly in amongst the trees on soft, lush grass sits a long table.It has been grown from the earth itself, coaxed and guided, to a long, oval shape, large enough to sit hundreds in a state of pure, eternal bliss. It is adorned with bone white china, sparkling in the ever present light. At the table’s head, in the centre of the grove of trees, in the lush green field, sits a small man. His eyes are large, his smile, kind. On his head is a magnificent black top hat, resting lightly on his ears.

“More tea, Master Rabbit?” he asks the creature sitting to his right, most cordially.

“Oh, yes!” exclaims his companion. “You are too kind, my dear Master Hatter.”

“Think nothing of it! I am here to serve and serve you I shall!”

He pours tea - earl grey, hot - from a kettle, much to the delight of Master Rabbit.

“One lump or two?” he asks

“May I have three?” Master Rabbit enquires. “I do so have a sweet tooth when it comes to tea!”

“Of course!” exclaims Master Hatter; he is always most happy to oblige.

He uses the tiny sugar tongs to pluck one, two, three lumps of sugar from the tiny sugar bowl and dumps each into his companion’s cup. Master Rabbit tips it by the small handle, sipping delicately.

“Ah, perfect!” he says.

“Naturally,” replies Master Hatter with pride.

“Oy! Hattie! Where’s our cuppa?” calls another guest.

“Now, now,” Master Hatter chides. “Patience.”

Masters Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum, joined at the hip and twice as numb fold their hands across their barrelled chests.

“We ain’t come here to watch ya and yer friend drink tea!” Tweedle-dee, he of the bright red hair, calls.

“Yeah, give us the tea!” Tweedle-dum, he of the no hair at all, calls too, even though the pair is merely feet from their host.

“Why do you shout?” Master Hatter enquires. “I am here, not over there, and have been for quite a while.”

“We get cranky when we ain’t got no tea!” the pair cry.

“Oh! I see!”

“What kind of a man invites his friends to a tea party and doesn’t give them tea?” Tweedle-dum, grumbles.

“Surely, he is mad,” whispers Tweedle-dee.

“I am not mad,” Master Hatter replies, not unkindly, and pours them both a single cup. “Here, now drink your tea.”

“I say, Master Hatter, may I trouble you for some more?” Master Rabbit asks.

“Already? My you do have quite the thirst!”

“I do so love this tea.”

The man pours tea from a kettle twice as large as the the last into a cup triple the size of that.

“Three lumps, good sir?”

“Four, if you would be so kind.”

“Of course!”

“My dear, Master Hatter,” calls another guest; it is, of course, the Queen adorned in her finest golden dress; seated next to her are one hundred and fifty seven guards. “I should like another cup, if it pleases you.”

“Most certainly!” obliges Master Hatter.

“Oy! Why does she get another one when we ain’t got one yet?” Tweedlee-dee demands.

“Surely he is mad,” replies Tweedle-dum.

“I am not mad,” Master Hatter replies. “See here, you have not even finished your fist!”

He reaches a long arm and pours a spot of tea into the queen’s golden chalice.

“Sugar, Your Highness?”

“No,” she replies. “Only commoners drink tea with sugar.”

“Oh, Master Hatter,” a little blonde girl says. “My tea has gone cold.”

“Alice! My word! I shall get you another!” he exclaims as he realizes he has been neglecting his favourite guest. He does so love her blue dress with the white frills.

He reaches an even longer arm than before and dumps a drop of tea into her thimble of a cup.

“Better?”

“Much,” she replies as she takes a sip.

“Forgetting about the most important guest?” Tweedle-dee comments.

“It is madness for sure!” Tweedle-dum responds.

“I am not mad,” Master Hatter says, bristling at the comment. “I am simply overwhelmed. I have not had so many guests in quite a while!”

“Understandable,” the scarecrow says. His straw hands and straw head rustle every time he talks. “Tea is quite the chore!”

“Thank you Master Crow. Would you like some tea or perhaps a scone?”

“No, no!” says the scarecrow waving his hands. “I’m stuffed!”

“Offering tea to a scarecrow?” Tweedle-dee asks.

“Are you mad?” Tweedle-dum adds.

“I am not mad,” Master Hatter insists. “Please desist from calling me so.”

“Or what?” Tweedle-dee asks. “Yeah, you gonna pluck our eyes out with our spoons?”

“What?” asks Master Hatter, shocked. “I would never!. There aren’t even any spoons here!”

“No spoons at a tea party?” demands the queen. “Why ever not?”

“They were stolen,” admits the Hatter. “A rather unscrupulous fellow made off with them in the night.”

“Oh my!” cries Alice. “I hope you get them back!”

“As do I, my dear.” he replies with a smile. “You are always so supportive. I shall loathe to see you leave.”

“Leave? Wherever shall I go?” she asks.

“Oh! My mistake!” cries Master Hatter.

“I say, Master Hatter, might I have some more?” Master Rabbit enquires.

“Done already? Very well!”

He pours a cup the size of the rabbit from a pot half the size of that. How Master Rabbit will ever drink it all he does not know.

“Hey, where’s ours? That mangy fellow gets one and we don’t?” Tweedle-dee demands.

“Madness, I tell you!” exclaims the twin.

Master Hatter insists, “How many times must I repeat myself? I am not mad.”

“I do so hate to agree with those bulbous buffoons,” says the Tin Man. His spectacles teeter on the tip of his nose. “But you really must serve all your guests. I have not received my tea at all.”

“Master Man,” Master Hatter replies. “I didn’t know you could drink tea!”

“Of course, I can! Why else would I come to a tea party?”

“I see!” exclaims the host. He reaches out an impossibly long arm and tips a kettle into his guest’s open, metal hands. The Tin Man rubs the tea all over his shiny face.

“Perfect!” he exclaims.

“How vulgar!” exclaims the Queen, her lip curling at the display. “My dear sir, where did you learn your manners?”

“I beg your pardon?” the Tin Man demands.

“If one is to observe proper behaviour, rubbing tea on one’s face with both hands is simply inexcusable! Observe.”

She nods to a guard and he tips her chalice over her hands. She does not flinch as the steaming mess covers her hands. Then she raises her right hand, circles it five times in the air and slaps herself in the face.

“What’s going on?” demands Tweedle-dee. “You tryna pull somepin’?”

“Yeah!” echoes Tweedle-dum.

“Watch an’ learn,” Tweedle-dee replies.

He takes his cup in hand, then downs it in one go. He swishes and swashes, gargles and gushes, and finally spits it high in the air into the waiting mouth of his companion. Tweedle-dum does the same and back and forth they go.

The Tin Man takes what is left of his tea and pours it in his metal mouth. He swishes and swashes, gargles and gushes, and then spits it high in the air into the mouth of the queen. She does the same to her guards, all the way down the line.

“I say, that is not how one drinks tea,” says Master Hatter.

“Course it is,” Tweedle-dee replies. “Why would we do it if it wasn’t the way it was done?”

Master Hatter takes a deep breath, composes himself, and says, “Very well. You make an excellent point.”

“Might I trouble you for some more tea,” Master Rabbit enquires.

“Again?”

“I do so love this tea.”

“Very well,” sighs Master Hatter. This is not going as well as he had hoped, not as well at all.

He pours the tea from a pot bigger than the sky into a cup twice as big as that.

“Master Hatter?” enquires Alice.

“Alice!” he says with a cry. “I was certain you had left!”

“Are you mad?”

“What?” he asks, taken aback.

“It’s just that one keeps saying it,” she says point to Tweedle-dum.

“My dear, that hardly makes it true.”

“Why would he say it if it wasn’t the truth?”

“Surely, he’s mistaken,” Master Hatter replies.

The Scarecrow clears his throat and proclaims, “No, he definitely is not.”

“How have you come to this conclusion?” Master Hatter demands. He is fidgeting in his seat.

“I am very intelligent,” Master Crow proclaims.

“And?”

“And what?”

“That is your proof?”

“What more is needed?”

“A lot!”

“Or none!”

“Bravo!” cheers the queen.

She sips her tea, swishes and swashes, gargles and gushes, and spits it high in the air into the mouth of her guard.

“Your Highness, please desist!”

“I shall not! Your madness precludes such demands.”

“I am not mad,” he says, begging her indulgence.

“But it has been established that you are. It is fact.”

“Because you say it is so?”

“Of course! It would be madness to defy your Queen! Do you defy your Queen?”

“No!” Master Hatter exclaims. “I would never!”

“Then it is so.”

“What?” Tweedle-dum demands. “All this time you’ve been mad? How come no one told me?”

“But you said it first!” Master Hatter cries.

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did!”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“Well, maybe.”

“What?”

“You say that so much, are you sure you might not be?” Alice asks, her blue dress fading in the dimming light.

“I am not mad!” insists Master Hatter.

“More tea?” Master Rabbit asks.

“Oh, get it your own bloody self!”

The assembled crowd gasps in shock.

“Inviting someone to tea and then telling them to get it themselves?” Tweedle-dee says.

“I knew it must be so,” the Tin Man comments to the Queen.

“I never would have thought it could be so,” she replies.

“It’s so clear now,” Master Crow says in awe.

“Madness,” whispers the guard and the next and the next, all the way down the line.

“So it’s true?” Alice demands.

“No!”

“Yes, it is!” exclaims the queen.

“No!”

“Do you deny your Queen?”

“No!”

“What is it: no or no?”

The guests are off it now, lost to the calling of the Queen.

“Is it so?”

“Can it be?”

“It must be so!”

“More tea?”

“Madness.”

“All around.”

“Madness.”

“One sugar, no less than three.”

“ENOUGH!” thunders Master Hatter.

The sky is dark, the trees are black, the grass is dead. The table is rotted and barren, barely big enough to sit four.

Master Hatter sits on a decrepit wooden chair, composing himself. His guest, Alice, or rather her skeleton, leers at him with absent glee; her once blue dress is faded grey, a silver spoon protrudes from her eye socket.

The Hatter clears his throat, staring down at the table. Silent moments pass in the shadow glade until he calmly lifts his head and looks around.

“I am not mad,” he proclaims to his non-assembled guests. “I am, in fact, quite happy.”