Jan/Feb 2006  •   Fiction  •   Special Feature

The Clock Has Struck Thirteen, and Father Is Wearing his Paper Crown

by Laurie Porter


The clock has struck thirteen, and Father is wearing his paper crown, and we, his seven girls in blue, must dance, dance, dance, while Mother plays the tambourine. We watch what his hands do and follow his commands. A sweep of his wrist, and we dance in a line; a shake of two hands, and we skip side to side. Clap, clap, clap, and we know we're too slow, and Mother's eyes flinch, and she speeds up her hand. Bam, bam, bam, and we dance all we can.

These days Mother has a tired look in her eyes. We've watched her secretly putting make-up on. We've crept in just our stockinged feet and our vests, up the long passageway to the room at the end. And we've taken it in turns to peer through the crack to see her at her dressing table. She sits there in just her bra and her drawers, her shoulders still smooth and her head held up high. We smell from our watching place the sweet smell of powder as she dabs and dabs her cheeks with the brush. We've watched how she stops from time to time and listens in case Father is early. We've seen her seal the jars and the compacts, and we know she lifts up the carpet in the corner, pushes a floorboard aside, and hides everything beneath it. We've heard how she sighs into her pink satin dress, heard the pleats shimmer and the bows crease.

Then we tiptoe fast to our room and pull on our frocks, and walk in a line to the dining room so we're there when she comes—all round the table—drinking the tea Alice has brought. We put our cups on the saucers in between sips and rest our hands on our laps, and we don't lick our lips, and we all look down when she comes in and says, "Thank you Alice, that will be all."

Shoes clop, clop, clop, as Alice leaves.

We wait in time to the tick, tick, tick, of old Grandfather clock, sipping our tea and putting the cup back on the saucer and placing our hands in our laps, looking down in between. Until.

Father comes home, we hear his key in the lock, and all of us stop what we're doing and thinking and then, only then, we look up, trying hard not to strain to be the first to see. And if he's wearing his paper crown, then our hearts beat again. He tells us his day, of the subjects he rules, of the lands he possesses, of the laws he must make. Then he asks us each in turn if we've lived like princesses, if we've practiced our poise, and if we're ready to dance. We say of course, and we'd love to dance for the king. Sometimes all you can do is tell the truth and hope.