It was a warm, summer night in the small town of Framlingham, Suffolk. All was quiet, with empty streets and a gentle breeze, except for a small house on the edge of the town, with a small light from the second floor window. Inside lived a small old woman with her young granddaughter, and it was time for bed.
“Tell me a story, Nanna!” The little girl hopped on her bed, golden curls bouncing. She crawled up to her pillows, tired energy fueling her desire to stay awake.
“Hush now, child, and rest your head.” Nanna chided, pulling the blankets over the young girl, settling herself on the side of the bed. “Now, what story would you like to hear tonight?”
The girl paused, debating, before beaming excitedly. “The castle story!”
“The castle story?” Nanna laughed. “Why, you’ve heard it a thousand times!”
“Oh, but it’s my favorite, Nanna! Please?” The girl pleaded, eyes imploring.
“Alright, alright, settle down, and close your eyes.” After the young girl did as she was told, Nanna began her story.
It was a quiet night, much like any other, in the small town. The moon was full, and the ground was wet from a fresh spring rain. On the edge of town sat a small house, with a garden full of flowers, any kind one could imagine. The porch creaked, and inside the house slept a little girl, whose hair was golden as the sun.
“Like mine?” The little girl piped up. Nanna smiled, and nodded.
“Just like yours.”
That night, however, was a very special night, and that little girl was in for a treat. You see, it was the night of her seventh birthday, and it was a very special night, the most special night in her entire life. She would never be the same after that, you see, as something magical was about to happen.
“What, Nanna? What happened?” The girl asked quickly, eager. Such a lively one she was, her Nanna thought.
“Patience, child. All will be told in due time.”
In her little bed, the girl awoke, eyes blinking in the moonlit room. Confused, as she always slept through the night, like every good girl should, she looked around her room. Something was amiss, and she crawled out from her covers, bare feet cold on the wooden floor. Careful not to make a sound, she crept past her parent’s room, where they slept soundly, and into the kitchen. Fetching herself a glass of water, she glanced out the window at her backyard, and nearly shouted in fright!
“Do you know what she saw?” Nanna asked, watching as her granddaughter lit up in anticipation.
“What did she see?” The little girl asked excitedly, wonder in her eyes. “What did she see, Nanna?”
“Why, she saw a party!”
The little girl saw a party! In her very own backyard! Why, there were lanterns and candles all about! Setting her glass down, she slipped on her sandals and rushed out the door. Oh, it was cold, and her feet got wet, but she did not mind. Sneaking through the garden she felt so brave, oh so very brave, as her mother always told her to never walk in the garden, as it was not good for the flowers. She was careful in every step, never stepping on a flower, holding her gown away from the mud. She quietly made her way to her backyard, and lo and behold, there was a real party! Boys and girls, men and women, all laughing and singing and dancing, in her yard! However, something was different about these people. They were dressed funny!
“How funny, Nanna?”
“Oh, she nearly laughed her sandals off, they were so funny! Lie back, dear. Close your eyes, and see.” Nanna continued.
They were dressed in poofy dresses, and puffy pants, with funny looking socks and oh, their hair! They wore crowns and had their hair all up in funny looking crowns. They all danced and sang in ways that she had never seen, and none seemed to pay her any mind until a kind gentleman came up to her.
“Young miss, it is a bit chill tonight. Please, have my coat, I insist.” The man had a gravelly voice, with the arms of a lumberjack, dark, scruffy facial hair, and kind eyes. He cast off his long coat, gently placing it on her shoulders, where she found that it was far too large to wear herself, dragging along the ground.
“What did the coat look like?” The girl asked.
“It was a very long coat, trailing to the floor on someone her height. She was rather short, you see. It was a dark blue, and it was very fancy. There were buttons and jewels on it, and it was the prettiest thing Lucille had ever seen!”
“Wow! That’s so cool!” The girl exclaimed. Nanna laughed, and then went on.
“Thank you, sir!” She pulled the coat around her as a chill breeze swept through.
“Always willing to please, miss.” The man’s eyes twinkled, and she felt that he must have been very smart, and very brave. Just then, a young boy in shorts, which confused the girl greatly, as it was cold, came running up to the man. The man crouched, letting the young boy whisper in his ear, before he stood tall, smiling. “Milady, my boy here would like to ask you to dance, but alas, he does not know your name. Would you wish to share it?”
The girl was quiet for a moment, glancing down at her feet before she whispered, “My name is Lucille.”
The boy finally spoke. “That is a beautiful name, miss. My name is Thomas, but all of my friends call me Tom. Would you care to dance with me?” Tom held out a hand, hopeful. Lucille beamed. No one had ever asked her to dance before!
“Not ever?” The little girl whispered from her bed, frowning.
“Never, ever. She was a lonely child, you see, and had very few friends.” Nanna stared at her hands folded in her lap, voice quiet. “Yes, she was a lonely one indeed.”
Lucille quickly agreed, and took his hand. He led her over to the many other young children, who all danced wildly, laughter filling the air. Soon she was dancing among the other children, laughing alongside them, worries vanishing. Sleep could wait, this was a party! Soon, however, the dancing stopped, and the man who had given her his coat spoke for all to hear.
“To the castle, my good friends! A feast awaits!” He bellowed, and many cheered. Lucille, however, was confused. The castle was so old, how ever would they have a party there? Her questioning thoughts were banished, though, when Tom clasped her hand, pulling her along with the other children through the narrow streets of her small town. Laughter and singing filled the night air, candles lighting their path. They made their way past darkened windows, and across the town market. Lucille wondered how no one could hear them, and why none of the other children from school were at this party. It was so fun, why would they ever want to miss it? Soon they were on the path to the castle, and oh, what a sight that was! Lucille was used to seeing the crumbling remains of the once great castle, memories and shadows the only remains of what once was. However, now there stood a magnificent palace, with lights gleaming from the glittering windows.
“Amazing!” Lucille exclaimed. “I’ve never seen anything like it!”
Tom laughed, leading the way for the other children. “Do you like it? It is going to be mine someday. I am going to be the lord of this castle, Father says so.”
“Quite right, I assure you.” Lucille jumped at the new voice. A young woman stood beside the children, her dress making her seem puffier and larger than she truly was. How they moved about in such weird clothing, Lucille just did not know.
“Hello, dear, I see you have met my son, Thomas. I hope he has been kind to you?” She smiled, as gentle as a lady could be.
“Of course, ma’am. He is very polite.” Lucille said quietly, manners learned from a young age and strict parenting taking hold.
“I am glad. I would not want my boy here treating any woman unkindly. Is this not true, Thomas?” She turned to her son, who gulped. Lucille tried not to laugh.
“Of course, Mother. I would never treat a woman as anything less than precious. Just like you taught me.” Tom said, seeming almost to be quoting. His mother looked proud.
“Carry on then. Have fun, and be merry!” Then she was gone. Out of sight, like magic.
“Where did she go, Nanna?” The little girl’s eyes were bleary, sleep taking hold.
“I really don’t know, doll. Perhaps it was magic, a trick of the light, or something we do not know of. Maybe she was a witch.” Nanna whispered, and continued.
The doors to the castle were massive, larger than any man could ever be, and before Lucille knew it she was leading the group with Tom at her side, doors opening wide.
“Welcome to Castle Framlingham!” Kindly stewards went to take her coat, but she shook her head, opting to keep it instead. She was only in a nightgown, you know, and she wanted to stay somewhat decent. A knowing smile passed between the lot, but they stayed silent.
Looking around, Lucille was in awe. The castle was beautiful! Candles lit the walls, and food was set upon tables on each edge of the room. It smelled wonderful! Oh, and the dancers! Men and women waltzed gracefully, falling into perfect harmony. Masks covered their faces, and before Lucille knew it she was being handed a mask of her own. Quickly pulling it on, she found herself lost, not recognizing anyone. Where was Tom, she wondered. She made her way to the side of the room, trying various sweetmeats and treats that she had never had before. They all tasted so strange, but oh were they delicious! Watching everyone dance, she wondered how she would get home that night.
Best not to worry, she thought. Lost in her thoughts, she did not hear the footsteps come up beside her.
“You seem lonely, miss.” Startled, Lucille turned to find none other than the man who had lent her his coat!
“Oh, hello mister!” She quickly pulled off his coat. “Sir, would you like your coat back?”
“Please, call me Henry.” He placed a hand over her outstretched one. “Keep this, as a reminder of this night. You are a special child, miss.”
“I am?” She asked, curious. “How?”
“Not everyone gets to partake in the dance of Castle Framlingham. You have the purest of souls, so this is our gift to you. You should take part.” Henry said. It was confusing to her, being so young, but she nodded anyway. She would come to understand, you see, as this would happen many more times in her life.
“How many, Nanna?” The girl was nearly asleep, voice just a murmur.
“Many, so many, but each time was a treasure to her, dear. A precious gift only on her birthday, once a year. She was chosen.” Nanna brushed some loose hair out of her granddaughter’s face. The girl startled a bit, blinking sleepily up at her grandmother.
“Will I be chosen?” She turned into her pillow, eyes closing again.
“Perhaps, dear. You turn seven this year, too, don’t you? Maybe you will get the gift, too.” Nanna contemplated the possibility, and continued.
“A gift?” Lucille asked.
“Yes, miss, a gift. For being the purest of heart, for being the kindest and most selfless of people. We celebrate in your honor. This party is for you. Celebrate, and partake in the festivities!” With that, Henry pat her on the shoulder, and was gone.
Lucille was confused, but did as she was told. She danced with the other children, and even a few adults, who indulged her, teaching her a few simple steps. It was the most fun she had ever had in her whole life. While getting a drink of water, she felt a tap on her shoulder, and she turned around to find a young boy reaching out a hand. Who was this, she wondered. Oh, but he was wearing those shorts! It was Tom!
“Will you dance with me, Lucille?” Tom asked. He looked ready to laugh.
“How did you know it was me?” Lucille asked, taking his hand. He laughed, sounding so young and full of life, much the same as her.
“You are the only one in sleepwear, miss. Come, dance with me.” Tom grasped her hand, and led her to the dance floor. So they danced.
She danced long into the night, danced with Tom, quickly and slowly, together and apart, until the sun began to rise. She never tired, and never stopped to wonder why this was happening, or when she should get home, until the sun began to rise. Lucille stopped dancing to look out one of the large windows, watching the sky lighten with the dawn of the new day.
“Oh no, I need to get home! I am truly sorry, but I need to go.” Breaking away from Tom, she quickly made her way to the doors of the castle, but was stopped by a hand on her shoulder. Turning, she saw that it was Henry.
“Miss, please, calm yourself. There is no need for worry.” Henry smiled, and Tom came up beside him. “Thomas here will get you home safe and sound, do not worry. Go along now, and have a wonderful birthday. We will see you soon.”
Tom stepped forward, taking her hand in his, and the stewards opened the door for them, bidding them adieu as they walked out. Everyone at the party bid them farewell, cheers and shouts behind her fading into silence. Lucille did not look back, but if she had, she would have noticed that the castle, once filled with glamour and atmosphere, was now back to its dark, crumbling and foreboding state, not a person in sight, and no sign of a party ever having taken place.
Tom seemed to be in no rush, and they both listened as the birds woke with the new day, and to the sound of gravel against their shoes. The market was silent, save for the sound of cobble on leather shoes as they walked across it. Finally they made it to Lucille’s house, and made their way into the garden. In the early light the flowers gleamed with dew, and blossoms slowly began to open. If she had simply looked over, she would have seen that her backyard was spotless, as if a party had never taken place, with not a candle or lantern in sight. It was as if it had never even happened.
“Thank you for bringing me home, Tom. I had a lot of fun.” Lucille smiled, glancing down at their connected hands.
“It was my pleasure. I assume the gift was to your expectations?” Tom was all smiles, eyes never breaking contact with her.
“I was not expecting it at all, but it was a wonderful surprise. Though, I must ask. What did your father mean when he said they were celebrating in my honor? I have never done anything to deserve such a wondrous party.” Lucille glanced up, noting how the sun had not seemed to have risen any more.
“But my dear! You are the purest of heart, the kindest of them all. You have earned this. It is not an easy feat, so be proud. This celebration is ours to you, for all that you do, even so young. Know that this is something rare, once in a lifetime. Treasure it always.” Tom’s face spoke of its severity, and she took it to heart. She would never forget this night.
“I understand, I will remember this night forever. Thank you, Tom. However, I must get to bed, for it is nearly daybreak, and my father will wake for work soon.” Lucille glanced toward the back door of her house, feeling a sudden wave of drowsiness take over her body. She really just wanted to go to bed, to wake up. Was it a dream? She did not know.
“Yes miss, and I, too, must go.” Tom smiled, eyes twinkling in that boyish manner she had seen in many other boys of the town. He kissed her hand, before letting it go. His face turned serious, and he asked a question which made her heart skip a beat. “Will you come with me?”
“I cannot, I truly am sorry. I have schooling, and my parents would miss me so. I am truly sorry.” She whispered, taking a step back.
“That is the answer I was expecting.” Tom laughed. “You truly are the one. Goodbye, miss.” He took a step back.
“Will I see you again?” She asked, worried. She truly was lonely, but oh if she could have Tom as a friend here, that would be good enough. He laughed, nodding.
“Yes, we will meet again. Do not worry.” He gave her a nudge. “Now off to bed, you. My father and yours will both be very cross if we are not to bed, soon. We will dance again, I promise you.” Lucille did as she was told, reaching towards her doorknob when a thought crossed her mind.
“When?” She turned look back at him.
“Soon.” He was gone.
Slipping into the house, she stepped out of her muddy sandals, and made her way back to her room. She crept past her still sleeping parents’ room, and made it to her bed just as the sun rose above the horizon, rooster crowing in the distance. She was very tired, as parties are very tiring, and she slept. She did not wake until her mother woke her later that day.
“Child, are you ill? Why are you not out of bed? It is nearly noon!” Her mother chided. Lucille could only smile knowingly, and quickly jumped out of bed, freezing when her mother gave a shout.
“What on earth is all over your gown? Is that mud?” As her mother doted over her filthy gown, Lucille could only smile.
“I am sorry, Mother. I could not sleep, so I went for a walk. I did not mean to get my gown dirty. I will clean it, I swear.”
Her mother gave her a funny look, confused and concerned, like many mothers. “You should not go outside when it is so cold, doll. You will catch cold.” Lips pursed, her mother sighed. “No harm done, I suppose. Off to the tub, then, you are absolutely filthy!”
“Yes, mother.” Lucille smiled.
She could not wait until she got to dance with Tom again. To dance with her new friends.
“And that is that. Sleep now, dear.” Nanna turned out the light, standing to leave the room.
“Happy birthday Nanna.” Her granddaughter mumbled from her bed.
“Thank you, doll. That’s enough story for one night. Now sleep, your mother will be here to pick you up in the morning.” Nanna chided.
With that, the young girl fell asleep.
Sighing, Nanna glanced over at her now sleeping granddaughter. Such an adventurous one she was, Nanna thought. So pure, and so kind. Nanna walked back over to the bed, tucking her granddaughter in, and gave her a quick peck on the forehead before leaving the room. Making her way to own room, tucking herself into her bed, Nanna dreamt.
Nanna awoke from her slumber, eyes blinking in the dark room. Curtains covered the window, where moonlight was blocked from entering. Something was not quite right, and she came out from under her covers, socked feet warm on the creaky floorboards. Quiet as a mouse she made her way to the kitchen to fetch herself a glass of water. Glancing out of the window into her backyard, she could only smile, knowingly.
Nanna made her way to the kitchen to get herself a glass of water, but as she did so she noticed something. Setting down the glass, she slipped on her sandals, and made her way outside. Creeping through the garden, well-kept and full of flowers, yet never stepping on a one, she made her way to her backyard. Cheers and shouts filled the air, lanterns and candles scattered about.
“It is your birthday, is it not?”
“That it is, my dear Thomas. You would not be here otherwise.” A child’s hand was held out, which Nanna took in hers, hands old and bony, yet strong.
“Please, Lucille, call me Tom. You know only my parents call me Thomas. Such formalities are not for friends.” Tom grimaced, causing Nanna to laugh, as he led her into the middle of the yard. Many smiled at her as they passed, others waving, some cheering her name.
“I am not as good a dancer as I used to be, you know.” Nanna laughed. Tom scoffed, beginning to dance beside her.
“You learned from the best. Besides, look at you. Barely a day over seven if I would guess.” Tom laughed as she glanced down at herself.
“This gets me every year.” She laughed with him, now in her seven year old body. “How it happens, I will never know.”
“That is part of the gift, I suppose.” Tom pondered. “Dance with me?”
As the night went on, they all slowly made their way to the castle, which was always more elaborate and decorative than the years past.
Hours flew by in a rush of dancing, feasting, and laughter, and Nanna finally found herself dancing with Tom yet again. She could feel herself slowly aging again, as she did every year as the night ended.
“You know, my father has shown an interest in your granddaughter. Such a kind and adventurous one, she is.” Tom whispered to her, dancing slowly.
“That she is. She takes after her mother.” Nanna said, eyes sparkling under the chandeliers.
“She takes after you.” Tom asserts, forcefulness in his voice. He ducks his head down, mumbling. “You chose well.”
“My girl chose me, you know that. I may have adopted her, but it is she who adopted me as her mother. I love her one and the same, though.”
“You never could find a man to love, though.” Tom’s chest puffed, as if he was proud and jealous of the concept at the same time.
“I could never love any man as much as you, Tom. You know that. Even if you are not technically alive.” Nanna laughed, as Tom huffed.
“I am alive in spirit. That is what counts, no?”
“Of course, Tom. I will love you one and the same, know that. I will love you forever.”
It was quiet between the two of them for some time, until Tom finally spoke again.
“Will you come with me now, Lucille?”
Lucille did not answer, head resting on his chest as they danced together. Finally, she let out a quiet sigh, and pulled back to look at him. Her eyes were full of amusement, love, and courage.
“You know, I think I will.”
They danced until the sun rose, until the party vanished, along with the other party guests, and until it was just Lucille and Thomas. They danced until they both grew old, until they both began to fade in the sunlight, and they danced their way to a heaven where they could be together for eternity.
In Nanna’s wardrobe, behind all the clothes, hanging for many years, yet well kept, sat a coat, built for a man with the arms of a lumberjack, dark blue, with many buttons and jewels, the prettiest thing she had ever seen.