“Princes … and paupers, all are buried here, sir.” The old man spat into the grave he was digging in the rich brown earth.
I’d chanced upon an ancient church, deep in the Norfolk countryside. A long walk down a meandering single-track lane that looked like it would fizzle out in the middle of nowhere. Instead, there was a sizeable farm, this church, ensconced in shadow amongst mature trees, and two cottages, predictably named ‘Church Cottages nos. 1 and 2,’ as indicated by an incongruously modern sign.
“Princes? Are you sure?”
“As sure as my name’s Tobias Squire!” He climbed out of the hole, coughing with the exertion. His face was wizened and he wore a heavy black overcoat, despite the warm spring day. “Do you doubt me sir?” he asked, his head askance and thin lips compressed in silent mirth. He reached into a coat pocket and pulled out a tin, containing tobacco and cigarette papers.
“No, no, of course not, it’s just … out here, I mean, um ….”
The old man sat down on a weathered wooden bench and rolled a cigarette. “Out here, sir, well, it ain’t like the cities.” He laughed a phlegm-laden laugh. “There’s things go on out here you city folks’d have nary an idea of.”
Feeling somewhat indignant, I challenged him. “Prince who, then?”
The old man looked up at the sky and spoke softly, “Prince Korrigan.”
“Prince Korrigan?” I said, wondering if the old fellow was crazy. “What kind of name is that?”
“Well, that’s what I calls him, anyhows.” He gestured towards a distant corner of the graveyard, beyond enormous square yew trees. Take a look over yonder, sir.”
I strolled over, walking between rows of ancient, haphazardly-toppled and indecipherable gravestones, to a white stone tomb. It outshone its neighbours like a supernova outshines the brightest star in the sky. A colossal rectangular box of pure white marble with sporadic carved seals – a lion wearing a crown, and a unicorn. And one simple date – 1877. No name, no motto, nothing.
I had to admit that it could conceivably be the tomb of a prince by virtue of its opulence and returned to find the old man puffing on his roll-up and staring up at the cerulean sky.
“So, who’s buried there then? It doesn’t say.”
He jolted out of his reverie, looking at me as if I were a complete stranger. Then his antiquated mind categorized me and responded. “He never had a name, he died the day after he was born … or that’s what they thought!”
“What on Earth d’you mean?”
“He was taken, taken by the fairies! They left a piece of wood in his place. An enchanted piece of wood, mind. To all appearances, the double of the newborn!”
“You daft old bugger!” I exclaimed, deciding I’d had enough of the silly old fool.
“People believe what it is they believe, sir,” he said, and turned his face away.
“Well, I wish you a good day.” Leaving the graveyard, I began to retrace my steps along the lane, presently hearing the sound of his spade upon the earth once more. So, I wondered, if this supposed prince was substituted at birth, what happened to him after he grew up, and was he perhaps alive, even now, sustained by fairie magic, and working on their agenda, maybe even in public?
As I sauntered along, feeling the warm sun on my face and listening to the birds singing, a thought came to mind. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’
Featured in the book, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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