Always is a long time. Such a long time that Always is it’s always strange. Sometimes stranger, longer depending on the situation and of course the person using the word ‘always’. Always. And so eight years old Alfred wrote a story that always caused him to miss brushing his teeth before bed for three nights in a row - for which he always spent hours at his table doodling and drawing pictures of empty streets and wings and sad children and obese people and evil expressions, and making flowcharts depicting the course of events in the story in separate paper always using differently coloured ink for each event and extra notes and reminders along the margin. When the story was finally complete that Friday, Alfred took his story to his Arts and Craft teacher asking him to help him bind it into his very own first hardback. Mr. RM took a big plywood and cut it into two A4 sizes. He then drilled two holes at the margin of each of them and two more at the margin of the pages of Alfred's story and bound them into a book using a strong thread of wool. "What is the story about, Alfred?" he asked looking at the giant title written in irregular font covering the entire first page: The Magical Wilfred, boy who could fly. Alfred very briefly explained him the plot: The story was about a young boy who one day discovers that he has magic and that he can fly. The boy lives in a faraway country with his evil obese aunt who always treats him like a servant and the boy always longs for a happy turn of events. One day a fairy comes in his dream and tells him that he has magic and he can always use the powers to make his life better. She also tells him that he can fly. The next morning he locks his aunt inside a dark and damp cupboard in the shed and flies away to find others like him.
Mr. RM smiled at him as always and painted a silhouette of a boy surrounded by a bright halo, flying against a dark blue sky on the cover of Alfred's book and gave it to him. Alfred wasn't particularly impressed. He wanted to do everything on his story himself, even the cover. It was to be his gift for his father and he wanted the entire effort to be his own. Only he didn't know how to bind a book yet and that is why he asked Mr. RM's help. But he couldn’t let his teacher know that he didn’t like the cover, especially after asking his help. So, Alfred said a nice 'thank you' to Mr. RM, gave him a wide smile and walked out of the class.
Now that the story was complete, Alfred had nothing more to do about it. He contemplated the role of the evil obese aunt in the story and wondered if he has written a good deal about her character, enough to make people see how evil she was. She has huge blood-red eyes and a frown always that never leaves her face - Check. She always walks like a hungry giant - Check. She always makes the boy do the most difficult of chores like always doing the dishes, always looking after the cows, always cleaning the shed, always feeding the hens, always washing clothes and always cooking meals but never studying - Check. She is very very very fat and never smiles - Check. "Yeah, I think I have made it pretty clear," he told himself sitting on one of the steps in the staircase leading upstairs from the ground floor of their house.
He then asked himself if Wilfred gets to use his magic well. "Well, the story is only five pages long and the fairy only comes in the second last page. I may not have touched the bit about his extraordinary powers. Hmmmm." He looked at his watch. His father wasn't due until the next two hours. I think I can manage. I'll need mother's help of course to find the perfect thread to bind the book again, but I think I can do it. He ran to his room and took the book out of his cupboard. He placed it on his table and looked for a pair of scissors. He went to his mother's room and found one on her dressing table. There was always a pair scissor in his mother’s table. He then came into his room, carefully holding the scissors lest he may cut his clothes or himself, and cut the thread open. He lifted the cover out and the pages one by one until he reached the part when the fairy comes in Wilfred's dream. He picked his writing pen from the case and tore a page from his notebook.
The next morning Wilfred woke up, wrote Alfred, to find himself on his bed and not in the meadows like in his dream. "Oh, what a dream it was!" he exclaimed as he raised himself in a sitting position. It was still dark outside. He looked at his watch. 4:30 a.m. The room rooster would cry in an hour or so. It was better to get up before his evil aunt could walk into his room and find him on his bed rather than out among the animals. He looked up at the ceiling which now looked way closer than before. "That's surprising!" he said and extended his hands to touch. He couldn't yet reach it but it was alarmingly closer. He pushed the covers and tried to get out of the bed when he realized that his bed was mid-air! He turned his headlights to the other side and felt the bed shake and try to follow the direction of his head. "Oh dear!" Wilfred thought, "This is exactly what the dream was about. Oh my god, I have magic!"
He tried to remember what the fairy had said to him. "Concentrate to make magic work for you. Use your thoughts. Magic obeys your thoughts. You are a very special boy Alfred, you are meant for great things."
He looked at his bedside lamp down on the floor and thought hard about it zooming into his hands. Lo, It did! He then magicked himself to the ground and got off from the bed. He looked at his cupboard and thought about it being bigger and more beautiful. Immediately, the cupboard lost all its ruggedness and rusty colour and the broken hinges mended themselves and the cupboard looked brighter and happier. "Wow, this is amazing," he told himself and magically dressed himself. He got out of his shed and looked around. The sun was nearly rising now and the rooster jumped to the top of the shed. Wilfred thought about the rooster forgetting his sound and immediately as the rooster raised his head to give out a cry, it gagged and coughed and couldn't utter its cry. "Haha," Alfred laughed and went to the cow-shed to feed the cows. He raised his hands and immediately hay flew out of the barn to the cows that munched their breakfast happily. He then tried to make it rain inside the shed and it did. He went outside and thought about a dark gloomy day and clouds appeared. He then again thought about the sun and the clouds disappeared. Wilfred was so happy to use magic. He finished his morning chores e a relief than ever, that too before 6:00 a.m., even before his evil aunt was up. He then went into his room and planned to take revenge with his aunt for treating him badly.
Alfred looked at what he had written and thought that it would do. He had shown more of magic and it was what he had thought his original story lacked. He punched two holes along the margin of the additional page with the end of his pen, added it to the story and went to look for a string or thread in his mother's room. He found one in one of the drawers in her bedside table, and ran back to his room. Only half-an-hour till his father was home. He quickly tried to fasten the plies and the pages together. He had never tied a knit before but had seen his mother do it countless times. She tied her hair. She tied his shoelaces. She tied her necklace. It had always looked easy. He made a very simple knot and repeated it till he was sure that the book would not fall out. When finished, he looked at his creation and wondered if there was anything at all that he missed. He didn't want to gift his father an incomplete gift. That too his own writing. His father always liked what Alfred wrote. Poems, stories, essays about dogs and farm and family. He always told Alfred that he could one day become a really good writer. Like Dahl or Blyton or that man who wrote all the fairy tales, all of whom were Alfred's favourite authors. No, Alfred didn't want to disappoint his father. So he went back to contemplating about his story once again and made mental notes about what was there and what wasn't.
An hour later Mr. Smith returned from work. His wife was waiting for him at the door and when he reached her, she put her arms around him and kissed him. "Happy birthday, Mr. Smith."
Mr. Smith smiled and kissed her again and asked, "Doesn't it feel like I am too old to be celebrating birthdays?"
Mrs. Smith only laughed and closed the door as her husband walked in. "Where's Alfred?" Mr. Smith asked putting his briefcase down by the stairs. His wife looked up and said going to the kitchen, "You have no idea how busy he has been today."
Sarah had read The Magical Wilfred three times already with her son beside her, watching closely as she moved from one page to another. It was always her, the first reader. And she knew the amount of hard work poor Alfred had put into writing that short story about a boy who discovers in a dream that he can use magic and then uses his new found powers to exact revenge upon an evil aunt. She couldn't see how that could have ever been possible. A fairy in a dream!? She wondered for a moment what her son might have been reading and watching. Then stopped, remembering that he was only eight. Kids always love magic and the supernatural at that age, she told herself. Sarah recalled her own eighth year: dreams about always being a princess with abundant riches and beauty. Land, castles, horses and gallant princes. She had even asked her mother to make her a pink gown worn by one of the fairy tale princesses. Ah, she had loved the dress so much.
But Sarah couldn't see why all of a sudden Wilfred had had such a dream. Nor did she get why Alfred had an obese villain. He wasn't very good with descriptions either. He had called the aunt evil right from the beginning without giving a detailed account of why or how she was that evil. Also, what will Wilfred do now that he has locked his only relative? Where is he really going?...
"This is wonderful, Alfred. Father is going to love it."
She couldn't tell him that the story was flawed. And the story wasn't that bad. Alfred was only eight. Alfred had always been different but he was only eight. Not many eight year olds write stories about harsh life and freedom, and then bind the pages together to make a book. It was better to always encourage him. And that's what she did. She pulled him close and gave him a kiss on the cheek and said, "This is wonderful, Alfred. Father is going to love it."
Alfred smiled and hugged her. "I really hope he does." he said, "This is slightly different from my older stories. This is longer and with a better plot. I really hope this becomes the gift he really likes."
Sarah couldn't help but mentally remark his use of the word 'plot'. He did read a lot. Only last week he had completed all of Blyton's Famous Five series. And now he wanted to start The Chronicles of Narnia. Her dear little Alfred was growing up and she couldn't help but smile at what he was saying to her.
"I'm sure he will love it, Al." Sarah took the small book in her hands and looked at it again. She then handed Alfred the book and asked, "Now, how about you leave Mommy while she gets ready, huh? You should get ready too, Al. Father will be home any minute and we have the dinner, remember?"
"Yes Mommy. Don't tell father about this though, okay?"
She nodded and gave him another kiss. Alfred took his book in his hands and left, and his mother closed the door to her room behind him when he was out.
“Very busy, you say?” Robert asked helping himself a glass of water from the refrigerator.
“Yeah. I’d tell you more but he had specifically asked me not you let you know anything.” She put on her apron. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to cook for Alfred. And you better change. Don’t forget your dinner.” She gave her husband a kiss and set to chop potatoes.
“Oh yes. The dinner. Nearly forgot about that one.” He shook his head, laughing, “Birthday-man. Haha. So Al is in his room?”
“Don’t even think about it, Robbie,” she said peeling onions. She knew exactly what her husband was thinking about. “Go into his room to surprise him and you’ll never get your own surprise.”
“I know what’s it’s gonna be. Another new story or maybe a poem,” he drank more water, “God, it’s so hot.” He went behind his wife and put his arms round her waist, “How is it?”
“How is what, Robbie?”
“Al’s gift. Honey I know you’ve seen it.” He kissed her neck
“I don’t know why you are so restless about one simple story?” She wanted to give in to Robbie but it was not the time. “Look, you know what Al becomes when he is hungry. He hasn’t had anything since twelve. You don’t surely want to stop at every grocery store on the way to the restaurant.”
“You too busy thinking about when your devil of a husband was gonna be home, huh?” he kissed again.
She laughed and pushed him. “Go now. Al is in his room. And you are going to like what he has done today. That’s all I can say now.”
Alfred looked into the full-length mirror in his room with his story in his hands. “Once upon a time,” he said moving his free hand like one of the magicians he had seen on TV. Maybe I should try to change my voice; he thought and cleared his throat. “Once upon a time,” he said again, this time with a slightly husky voice that an eight year old can manage, “there was a boy named Wilfred who always lived in the country with his evil aunt.” He paused and looked into the mirror. His hair needed combing but he always hated combing. He found it to be a terrible waste of time, especially when he could run his fingers through his hair to give it a shape. He opened his mouth and counted his teeth. There were still four empty spaces and two of his top incisors were growing. They need brushing. And he wanted to grow taller. He stretched himself, standing on tiptoe, trying to balance himself. He had read somewhere that stretching oneself always makes him tall. There were taller boys in class and taller girls too and Al felt kind of like a baby even though he was already in the fifth standard. His mother wanted to home-school him. She came from a family of rich people who always had a governess. She said she knew one of them from her mother’s days who would happily tutor Al. His father however believed that going to school, being around kids of the same age was very important for growth. And plus, they now had these specific rules and syllabuses for each age and he considered that to be noteworthy. In the end, his mother’s old governess died of cancer few months before Al would start school and his father won the argument.
Al wasn’t particularly fond of school. He wasn’t that into sports and always preferred to spend time with poetry, literature and philosophy. He had a strong affinity with them, as he said. He didn’t have many friends either. And to quote his teacher’s report about him: Alfred is a very talented and intelligent boy. I only wish he’d participate more in the class.
That pretty much always summed up Alfred Smith for everyone.
As the day was drawing to a close and his father’s birthday dinner only three hours away, Alfred started having mixed feeling about his gift. Somewhere deep inside he knew that The Magical Wilfred wasn’t going to be his best work yet. His poem for Father’s Day was still much loved and best received. That poem was always going to be everybody’s favourite. He didn’t think this new story would surpass that. And his story didn’t have anything that as significant for his father. Why? His father never wanted magic although he had said a number of times that he loved flying more than anything. He went for paragliding once in every six months. And his father’s family wasn’t really happy because as Robbie told, his father’s aunts took away all the family money living his grandfather with only one home and a small publishing business. That was when bigger publishing houses were starting to overtake the market and Smith and Co. was slowly falling to bankruptcy. Maybe that was where it was significant. The evil aunt in his story was a synecdoche for his father’s aunts. He only hoped that his father saw it. Robbie wasn’t much of a reader but Alfred really hoped he saw it.
Just then someone knocked at the door.
He quickly put the book in one of the open cupboards by the mirror and asked, “Who is it?”
“It’s me, Al.” His father knocked again.
“Wait a second.”
Alfred opened the door and smiled, “Happy birthday, Father.”
“Thanks Al. May I come in?”
“Oh yes.” Alfred opened the door completely and his father entered.
Robbie always wondered how Al managed to keep his room so clean. He was only eight and Sarah seldom had to do his laundry. The bed was perfectly made. And there were no clothes on the floor. There were however some old books and notebook but Robbie was sure they’d back in their own place- yes, Al had a place for everything in his room- once Al was done with them. A giant poster of Harry Potter was put on the wall over the bed. Al had made an elaborate collage with the pictures of the universe and the nature and old photographs on the ceiling. A shelf on the wall beside the bed held all the paperbacks and the one next to it held all the hardbacks. There was another shelf over the big old cassette player which contained all of Robbie’s old records from the seventies and eighties.
Robbie sat on his Al’s chair by the window and Al on the floor among to his books and notebook.
“How was your day buddy?” Robbie asked.
“Okay, I guess,” Al said looking at the drawing of the Trojan horse on one of the books and trying to copy it down in his notebook, “How was yours?”
“Fine.” Robbie toyed with the pencil sharpener on the table. He saw his first and the only letter to Sarah among the pages on the table next to the small shelf. He pulled it closer for a look. “Hey Al, do you remember Annie from my office?”
“Un-huh,” Al said still engrossed in his work.
Robbie looked at his old writing. A typical handwriting without the cursive and few grammatical mistakes. Dearest Sal, it began for that was what he called Sarah. Sarah Hall. Sal. That was what everyone called her at university. Trust me when I say that I had to muster a heavy amount of courage to write this… “Who writes like this?” Robbie wondered if anyone still wrote letters at all.
“Yeah Annie, she had gone to Paris. Did you know?”
“Umm, no. Why?” Al drew the long hind legs of the Horse. He had made a courtyard in the background with tall columns and buildings like those old Greek temples from the encyclopaedia.
“Didn’t I tell you?” -Have you any engagement this Friday Sal?- “She brought you this.” Robbie took out a box from his pocket and handed it to Al. Al examined it for a while and opened it. Inside was a replica of the Eifel Tower. He put the tower in front of his books and looked at it. It rested on a marble platform.
“It’s beautiful. Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me, thank Annie.” Robbie looked at his son and tried to remember how he had been as an eight years old. Always running with a football, jumping, scoring, shouting, checking out girls in school and going for cycle rounds around the town with friends till late and sometimes taking up dares to cycle into the jungle behind the neighbourhood. Al didn’t like football but loved to ride bicycles. And he didn’t have many friends either. And there was no cycling into the jungle. Not that Sarah would object to it but there was no jungle nearby. At least Al loved tree houses.
“Could you tell Annie that I loved her gift?”
“Yeah sure, son.” He read the last line of his letter: I know this may sound absurd and hasty but I’d really like to know you. Can we meet at the pub at seven tomorrow? Sarah didn’t come. She was down with flu. She did send him a letter listing her favourite things and asking him to meet her at the local pub the following week. And thus began yet another exciting love story.
Robbie placed the letter back in where he had seen it first. Al was quick to notice if anyone meddled with his things. “Hey Al,” he said sitting beside his son. Al was really drawing well. The Horse now stood out, looking ferocious with all the shading he was doing. And the background seemed to be fading like in smoke. “This is really good. Where did you learn to make something like this?”
Al only laughed. “No, it’s not.”
“No, I really mean it.”
Al made a fire lamp by one of the forelegs of the horse. Something about the eyes of the horse hinted at something diabolical, that was what Robbie could tell, and then there was the fire nearby. He had read somewhere that in most artworks depicting dark events, hints to the darkness and the evil are always hidden in the picture. You can’t show the entire burning of Troy in one picture. So the artist hides one or two objects denoting the sinister in the picture, the Horse for example because that was what brought about the fall of Troy.
Robbie watched Al at work for a while. It was remarkable how Al paid meticulous attention to the detail, for example Robbie wouldn’t have seen a young girl in the background in the source picture in the book if he wasn’t watching Al working on it on his picture. He soon started counting the stars in the sky in Al’s drawing and then in the picture in the book. Fifteen sparsely placed tiny dots high above what looked like a city hall of some sort.
“You should probably get ready Al. Don’t forget the dinner.” Robbie stood up and crossed to the door.
“Haha. I won’t, Father.”
Robbie closed the door when he was out. On the stairs he asked Sarah as she was going to Al’s room with a tray if she knew why Al had the letter. Sarah said she didn’t know what he was talking about and he let it be.
For dinner they went to one of the new fancy restaurants in the town. There Sarah gifted her husband a brand new Rolex. Al excused himself for a moment and came back holding what looked like a big red bag.
“What’s that Al?” Robbie asked.
“Wait a second.”
Al pulled out a tall rectangular box wrapped in blue with a little yellow flower on top and gave it to his father. “Happy birthday,” he smiled.
Robbie opened up the wrapping paper to find a book inside. Al had pasted Robbie’s old photographs; some black and whites and some fading, some with the striking style of the past with people huddled up together, smiling wide, those big glasses and sunglasses, some with silhouettes against a setting sun in a beach, on the plywood cover. Robbie opened the book. Pictures of him and Sarah and Al in each of the ten pages with various captions around the photo, some running along the margin of the page, all written with differently coloured inks. What caught him the most was the first picture taken of him and Sarah, around which was the cutting of various sentences of his letter to her. My sunshine, would it be too clichéd to say that you have started to mean a lot to me?; Sal, you don’t know this, or perhaps you haven’t yet realized this but you have been incredibly good to me everywhere.; Although I don’t understand why you love Annie Hall so much, I must say I did enjoy Manhattan.; I am having real trouble writing this but I do anyway.; Trust me when I say that I had to muster a heavy amount of courage to write this.; Did you know coffee isn’t as healthy as people think it to be?; I know this may sound absurd and hasty but I’d really like to know you. Can we meet at the pub at seven tomorrow?...
The waiter came filled their wine glasses. Al sipped his juice. His father’s eyes twinkled as he turned the pages. “This is awesome Al,” Robbie said finally putting the book down, “Where did you learn all this?”
“You aren’t supposed to ask, Father,” Al answered, smiling. Sarah held Robbie’s hands and looked at Al before brushing his hair. “I told you he’d be pleased.”