The Michaelmas (Christmas) term at Westerly College has come to an end. Sally is about to go back to her family, but her neighbour, the mysterious Princess Talia, has no home to go to. At the last moment, Sally calls her mum and asks if she can bring her friend home for Christmas.
Talia proves to be an elusive guest, who comes and goes without warning, causing worry and annoyance in the O'Brien family. As ever, the explanation for Talia's behaviour is somewhat strange and possibly supernatural.
Sally's first term at Westerly College had come to an end. As she stuffed the last few books into her bags, she listened to the sound of harp music filtering though the wall of her room. The clear notes rang out with a lonely and melancholy quality.
“Ugh ... I can’t leave Talia here alone all Christmas like a lost puppy,” said Sally to herself.
She picked up her phone and pressed the speed dial that was labelled 'Mum'.
“I’m just setting off now, darling,” said a familiar parental voice.
“Mum, I know this is a bit last minute, but can I bring a friend home for Christmas?”
“Oh, how exciting darling. You kept that quiet. What’s his name?”
“Her name, is Talia, Princess Talia.”
As soon as Sally had uttered the word 'princess', she knew she had made a mistake. Her mother would go into paroxysms of anxiety about the house being far too humble to receive such an elevated person.
“Why, hasn’t she got a palace of her own to go to?” she wanted to know. And Sally had to explain at length that she was an orphan all alone in the world. Mum, as mums do, caved into her daughter’s wishes with an air of weary resignation.
Sally sprang round to her friend’s door with the invitation. The princess who opened the door had a look of innocent astonishment on her face, as if she had just woken up and seen the world for the first time. She quite often looked like that. That was when she was at her most charming. At other times she looked at you quite blankly, as if she saw you, but her mind was completely elsewhere.
“Our house isn’t exactly a palace,” said Sally warmly, “but Christmas at home is always kind of special, and you’d be really really welcome.”
Talia reached out and hugged her friend. This was highly unusual, as she hardly ever touched another person. Sally was almost surprised to feel that her body was warm and human. She seemed like such a ghost at times.
“Oh Sally, I’m so terribly moved by your kindness, but I couldn’t possibly impose on your family.”
“Don’t be silly, of course you must come,” assured Sally, patting her friend on the back, and then wondering if that was just a bit too familiar with a princess. Talia stepped back, and looked brighter.
“Well ... it would be nice ... I’ll have to make arrangements ... perhaps I’ll come in a few days time.”
Sally felt slightly disappointed that her friend wasn’t driving back home with her. For far too much of the journey home, her mother grumbled about not knowing whether to make a bed ready for her princess friend or not. Sally felt like it was she who was being ticked off, not the absent Talia. And all the feeling of grown up independence and confidence that she had acquired over the ten weeks away from her parents was left behind in Oxford.
When they arrived home, in a suburb of South East Liverpool, her front door looked eerily familiar, as if she had remembered it from a vivid dream. She hauled her suitcase up the stairs to her room. Her bed, which was only just long enough to fit her feet in, looked ludicrously childish. Her mother had placed a much loved, worn and chewed cuddly toy on the pillow. She quickly stuffed Aliosha the Bear into a cupboard. One wall was still adorned with a poster of a boy band that she had pinned up when she was twelve. While she had been at home, the poster had somehow become part of the wall. She had stopped noticing the dreamy faces, slick hair and designer stubble of the teenage idols. Now she thought: “What would Talia say if she saw The Backstreet Boys hanging above my bed?” and a minute later the poster lay scrunched up in her litter bin.
She heard her little brother come into the house with her dad. They had been to Saturday football. She came down to greet them. The sight of the fourteen year old Tim reminded her how recently she had been a child. But her father’s familiar “Hello love” and warm hug soon cheered her up. He whispered: “Your mother’s not stopped fussing about you catching your death of something since you’ve been gone.”
Almost two weeks later, Sally’s mum answered a ring at the door. A tall, broad shouldered man in a sharp suit asked her if this was the O’Brien residence. Instead of answering his question, she said:
“We haven’t done anything wrong have we?” The man coughed.
“No Madam. Princess Talia is in the car. She asks, is it convenient for her to come in?”
“Well, er no, I mean, yes, ah, .... Sally! Come and look who’s here!”
Mrs O’Brien checked her hair in the hall mirror while the besuited attendant returned to a long black limousine that was parked across the close. He opened a rear door of the vehicle. The elegant figure of a princess swivelled herself out, in the manner that a debutante learns to leave a car at a Swiss finishing school. She wore a long satin dress and her shoulders were wrapped in an ermine tipped jacket. As Sally came downstairs and saw her friend’s arrival, she could feel at least a dozen pairs of eyes peeping out of windows up and down the close.
On the doorstep, Talia addressed Sally’s mum: “You must be Mrs O’Brien. It was so kind of you to invite me to your home for Christmas.”
Sally’s mum was so flustered that all she could say was: “Come in and have a cup of tea, dear, er, your highness.”
Princess Talia drank camomile tea at the breakfast bar in the kitchen while her attendant carried her many suitcases up the narrow staircase. Mrs O'Brien was horrified that her daughter was serving tea in the kitchen, instead of the living room, and in her embarrassment, she hovered around gesturing to Sally to use the best china.
“We thought you’d never come,” said Sally to her friend.
“I said I would come, and I am a woman of my word,” replied Talia.
“Well I hope you don’t mind the humble surroundings. The spare room is quite small I’m afraid.”
“Your parents’ house is quite charming, Sally.”
It was difficult to see what was so charming about the perfectly ordinary kitchen from the Swedish furniture shop, Ikea, but Mrs O’Brien, who was now busy wiping surfaces, was pleased by the remark, until Talia added thoughtfully:
“To speak plainly Sally, it’s a relief for me to see you so comfortably housed. Where I come from, the common people live in far humbler circumstances.”
Mrs O’Brien couldn’t suppress a gasp of astonishment, and Sally couldn’t quite hide a slight smile. She was used to Talia now, you see, and was more amused than shocked by her odd remarks.
When Talia went upstairs to her room, Mrs O’Brien said in a low voice:
“Well we do move in elevated circles now, don’t we? Soon your parents won’t be good enough for you.”
“Oh Mum! I wish you could see my other friends. They’re all perfectly normal. Don’t mind Talia. She’s a one-off.”
“Well what country is she princess of, for goodness sake?”
“She’s never quite said.” Sally knew that this sounded a bit feeble, but she really did believe that her friend was a true princess. She had learned not to mistake Talia’s mysteriousness for insincerity. Her mother said:
“It’s probably some phony continental title. They’re six a penny over there.”
It was shepherd’s pie for dinner. Talia tasted it, praised her hostess’s cooking lavishly, and didn’t eat any more. Mrs O’Brien asked Talia what her family ate for their Christmas meal at home, and the princess slipped into her astonished and just-woken up look. She spoke dreamily of oysters, and Coquilles St. Jacques, of smoked salmon pancakes and goblets of champagne, of partridge, cuts of venison, wild boar sausages, roast chestnuts and parsnips, followed by 13 sweet desserts to represent Christ and all the apostles.
Given that Talia was so thin, and rarely more than picked at her food, it was surprising to hear her describe a banquet with the relish of a confirmed glutton, but Sally realised that her thoughts were travelling back with nostalgia to Christmases past with her own family, in her own home.
Mrs O’Brien asked meekly if they ever ate turkey for Christmas in her own country. Talia was puzzled by the question. She didn’t seem to know what a turkey was, and Mrs O’Brien seemed almost offended by her ignorance of turkeys.
Fortunately, the princess got on with Sally’s father just fine. His hobby was Medieval History, and that was something the princess was well versed in. He lent her two of his books, and she showed him her necklace which she said was Anglo-Saxon gold. He was perfectly purring with admiration, and Sally noted that the princess had made a conquest.
At 9 o’clock, the family sat on the flowery three piece suite in the immaculately tidy living room and watched a television programme in which a modern English poet retraced the haunts of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It ended amid the mist-entwined ruins of Glastonbury Abbey where the semi-mythical King is said to be buried with Queen Guinevere.
After it was over, Talia sighed and said: “Uncle Arthur was such a dear,” and Sally could see that her father wasn’t quite sure if he had misheard the remark, or if she was referring to some other Arthur who happened to share the King’s name.
The next morning was Christmas Eve. It was almost lunchtime, and Mrs O'Brien noted: “Evidently, princesses aren’t early-risers.” (For nobody had seen Talia yet). Sally went up to knock lightly on the guestroom door. There was no reply. She knocked a second time and gently pushed it open. She saw an empty bed, and as the door opened wider, an empty room. Even the suitcases had gone.
For the rest of the day, Sally felt quite disjointed. This wasn’t at all what she had been expecting. If somebody just ups and goes without saying goodbye, it leaves you with a feeling of incompleteness. That parting well-wish, which literally means 'may God go with you', is a sacred ritual, and it’s a sacrilege not go through it, far worse than not saying 'thank you'.
Besides, she had to put up with the inevitable barrage of remarks from her mother. That the royal guest did not consider that the food, the house, or the company was good enough for her, and that she might be a princess, but she had no manners. The commentary became so intense that Sally had to get away. She took a bus into the centre of Liverpool and walked through the crowds of last minute Christmas shoppers, but she couldn’t help wondering all the time if her friend would suddenly turn up again while she was out.
The absent Talia even cast a shadow over lunch the next day. Sally’s mother twittered on rather too much about how there was nothing like turkey and Brussels sprouts for Christmas, and when they all put paper crowns from the crackers on their heads, Sally thought how embarrassing it would have been to have done this in front of Talia.
At 3 o’clock, the family settled down in front of the television to watch the Queen’s Christmas speech. Sally felt crushingly bored, but unable to go and do anything else without offending her mother. Just as the National Anthem was playing, the door bell rang. Her brother sprung up and went to answer it. A minute later, Talia stepped into the living room holding a basket of beautifully wrapped presents.
“Happy Christmas!” she intoned, and started distributing the gifts almost like Santa Claus. Dad reached for the remote control and turned the Queen's volume down. Mum moved her chair closer to the screen, straining to hear the monarch’s commentary on the year gone by.
“May we open them now?” asked Sally.
“Oh pray do, I insist,” said Talia.
The gifts were as exquisite as they were lavish. Pearls for Sally, an emerald brooch for Mrs O’Brien, a golden goblet for Mr O’Brien, and a jewel encrusted dagger for Tim. All Sally had bought for Talia was a book with Latin inscriptions from around Oxford.
But Sally had never seen Talia smile so broadly, or so beaming with obvious delight. “Oh do let’s put some music on,” she said. “Tim show me how to operate this thing. I’m no good with modern technology." She meant the CD player, and she chose a disk at random. It was the The Searchers:
“Sweets for my sweet, sugar for my honey
Your first sweet kiss, thrilled me so.”
They were a 1960s band from Liverpool, and Sally’s dad rather liked them. Talia took him by the hands and pulled him up to dance. This was not at all the princess that Sally thought she knew.
“May I ask my driver in, he’s a bit lonely out in the car?” Talia asked when the track came to an end. Soon the driver was playing a video game with Tim, and Mr O'Brien brought him a beer. Mrs O’Brien spoke to the princess:
“We’ve been so worried about you, love. You shouldn’t have gone off so abruptly without warning us.”
“I was called away rather suddenly,” she replied abruptly.
And then she took her friend on one side and held her by both hands. “Sally, I’m so excited. I was in Glastonbury for midnight mass. Afterwards, as I was walking among the ruins of the abbey, I met my Uncle and Aunt ... I haven’t seen them for simply an age, I mean to say,” and she whispered the last words “Arthur and Guinevere.”
And that was the story of The Christmas Beauty.
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I’ll be back with some more stories soon. For now, from me Elizabeth, goodbye!