We follow the fortunes of Princess Talia who fell asleep sometime in the Middle Ages, and now wakes up in the middle of a tutorial at Oxford University.
The plot arose from asking the question: If you had slept for hundreds of years, where is the one place that might not have changed very much? Bertie thought that it would probably be an Oxford College where very little ever changes. The trick has been to write a story about college students that will appeal to a slightly younger audience. Let us know what you think?
Story by Bertie.
Read by Elizabeth.
Proofread by Jana Elizabeth.
Illustrated by Chiara Civati.
Sally was just longing for her parents to leave. It had been very kind of them to drive her up to her new college, but now she had been smothered and mothered quite enough. After 18 years, she had received all the advice she needed about her hot water bottle, her vitamin pills, and her beauty sleep.
“And just one word before we go,” said Mum as she held both her daughter’s hands tightly. “Don’t ever turn down an invitation to a party. You never know who you might meet, especially in a place like this.”
When her parents stepped out through the door of the Porter’s Lodge and back into the real world of light, noise, and pollution, Sally turned around and looked at the honey coloured stone of Westerly College. For almost 800 years, students had walked around the quadrangle, past the dining hall, the chapel, and the doors that opened onto creaky staircases. Very little had changed down the centuries. The only discernible evidence of the modern world was the faintest rumbling of traffic from the street beyond the college walls.
“It’s just like a fairy tale,” thought Sally to herself. “Like a castle in an enchanted wood that has been asleep for centuries.”
She went back to her room and lay on her narrow, lumpy bed. Suddenly she felt restless. Was her new life to consist of these four oak panelled walls? The spirits of all the students who had lived in this room down the centuries were not much company. For a moment or two, she even missed her parents. She resolved not to be lonely. She got up, went out of her room, and tapped on her neighbour’s door.
“This is the knock of destiny,” she said to herself. “Perhaps the door will be opened by an Arabian prince, or perhaps by the daughter of a postman. Either way, I have this feeling that we will be lifelong friends.”
But no reply came from within. Whoever he or she might be was out, no doubt hobnobbing with brilliant and fascinating friends. Sally went back to listen to The Killers on her mp3 player.
The next day, she knocked on the door of her tutor and, as it was half open already, she entered his room. She saw two boys sitting on chairs, and a girl stretched out on the sofa with her nose buried in a cushion. The boys were in jeans and t-shirts that hardly matched the black academic gowns draped on their backs. The sleeping girl wore a purple velvet dress, embroidered with a rich pattern of leaves and exotic birds. Her auburn hair rolled down her face in ringlets. Her arm dropped limply down to the floor. A bracelet clustered with jewels dangled on her wrist. Her expression was of serene innocence.
One of the boys smiled at Sally and put his finger over his lips to say, “Shhhh..."
Two more students arrived before their dome-headed, woolly jumpered tutor appeared out of what looked like a cupboard, but was probably a door to a side room. His name was P. J. Partridge and he knew more about an Alexandrian writer called Achilles Tatius than anyone who had ever lived, unless you count Achilles Tatius’s own mother. Mr Partridge twitched his nose at a first year Classics student and asked: “Are we all here?”
Sally judged that this would be an ideal moment for somebody to give the sleeping girl a prod, but nobody was up to the venture. If this had been school, the teacher would have woken her up pretty sharpish. In fact a mere yawn would have been worthy of a rebuke, but Mr Partridge just ignored her. It wasn’t clear if he hadn’t noticed the girl on the couch, or he was too shy to make a fuss about anyone who cared to sleep while he was giving out his wisdom.
When the tutor had finished handing out the term’s reading list, there was a general shuffling and stirring as students slid notebooks into rucksacks and briefcases. The girl slumbered on as if she meant to snooze for another 100 years.
Sally asked nobody in particular: “Is she okay?”
“Well she can’t stay here,” said Mr Partridge. “I’m out to lunch.”
A tall youth, who would have been extremely good looking if it wasn’t for his acne scars, went over to the couch and gently put his hand on her shoulder. He tried to stir her to no effect.
Sally suggested: “Perhaps the way to wake a sleeping beauty is with a kiss?”
And the boy said: “Right, I’ll plant one on her.” He knelt on one knee and pressed his lips to her pale cheek. The girl’s mouth smiled gently, lovingly.
“My prince,” she said.
“Wakie, wakie,” said the boy.
The girl hooked her arm around his head and pulled him towards her face.
“Woooooh!” chorused three or four voices.
She sat up and stared intensely at the youthful faces, and then at the tutor’s. Her eyes were blue and glacial and Sally thought that if she gazed at you long enough, she might freeze you into an ice sculpture.
“And who are these peasants?” she demanded to know.
There was nervous laughter among the students, and most people started to leave. Only Sally, the Sleeping Beauty, and the boy who had kissed her lingered on. Mr Partridge started to usher them too out of the door. The face of the recently awoken girl wore a dark, but nonetheless beautiful, frown.
“I'm Basil,” said the kisser, as they stood on the dimly lit landing.
“Prince Basil?” asked the girl. He shook his head. “Sir Basil?”
“Nope. Just Basil.”
They went downstairs and out into the daylight of the quadrangle. The girl’s blue eyes searched up and down the walls and ran along the battlements as if she was looking for some detail or hidden clue.
“Is it a monastery?” she asked.
“No it’s a college,” said Basil bemused.
“Aren’t you an undergraduate here?” enquired Sally.
The girl looked like she was trying to understand the question.
“I’m not sure,” she replied.
“Well let’s find out,” said Basil. And he led the way to the Porter’s Lodge. “What’s your name?” he asked on the way.
“Talia, that is, Princess Talia,” said the girl, and Sally thought:
“She’s bonkers. I bet she’s just making that up.”
She noticed that several people were staring at Talia. She was certainly striking, and somewhat overdressed for a student on the first day of term.
Basil examined the pigeon holes. Sure enough, there was one marked Princess Talia. He reached in and pulled out a scrolled parchment with a waxen seal.
“You’ve got mail,” he said as he handed it to her. He asked the porter for Princess Talia’s address, and was directed to room 7 on staircase 14.
Sally offered to walk the princess to her room because, as it happened, she was her neighbour. Basil took his leave of the girls, and Talia gave him a nod that was so slight that perhaps only a true princess could have managed it.
Sally tried to make conversation on the way to staircase 14. She asked Talia where she went to school.
“I didn’t,” said Talia.
“And who are your parents?”
“Why the King and Queen.”
“Of which country?”
“This one ... or at least I think so. I’m not really sure about anything anymore. Sally do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”
Sally blushed. “Go ahead,” she said with some trepidation.
“Don’t you feel a little bit odd here? I mean, it’s pretty unusual for a girl to be a student. At least, I always understood it was something boys did.”
Sally laughed: “No I think it’s perfectly normal. I mean, maybe in our grandparents' time it was a little more unusual, but now - why girls are smarter than boys, aren’t they?”
“Well yes,” said Talia. “I agree with you about that of course.”
She opened the door to her room with the key that the porter had given her. If Sally had hung onto any doubts about Talia being a real princess, she lost them now. Her room was five or six times the size of her own. It was filled with the rich scent of roses. A four-poster bed was strewn with rich coverlets and silken cushions. One wall almost looked as if it was a window onto a garden, but in fact it was draped with a tapestry depicting trees and birds. The actual window was a large bow one, with a seat looking onto the quad. The floor was covered with a flowery carpet. Sally wandered in after Talia.
“Can you play that?” she asked, as Talia ran her fingertip over the ornate frame of a harp.
“Of course,” said Talia. “I have the gift of music.” She sat on the stool, and her fingers began to playfully pluck a tune. The music seemed to chase the frown off her face and she looked like she might be capable of being quite pleasant.
Sally picked up a jewelled ornament from the table. “May I?” she asked, and Princess Talia answered, still playing, that she had no idea what it was.
“Why it’s your mobile phone!” exclaimed Sally. It was the most ornate one she had ever seen. Talia did not seem to register the comment.
She was lost in the music. Sally quietly left the room and lay on her bed next door listening to the delightful notes as they rang from the fingers of her most peculiar neighbour.
“Well,” she thought. “I’ve met a princess. Not bad for the first day of term. I wonder if we shall be friends?” And although they came from completely different worlds, and the princess, no doubt, belonged to a glamorous set, Sally felt certain that it was no mere chance, but fate, that had brought them together.