The Five Daughters

There once was a woman called Britannia who had five daughters, with whom she lived in a house in a wood on the side of a hill. Their names were Brexita, Coronavira, Borisia-Scandale, Inflatione and Trussonomica.

One day she gathered her daughters together in the kitchen. “The time has come,” she said, “for you to go into the world and find…”

“Not husbands!” they cried. “Oh, Mama, say not we shall have to find husbands! For husbands are fickle and feckless and brutish and several of them do not wash carefully.”

“Indeed not,” Britannia said when the tumult had subsided. “Not husbands, if you do not want them. But remember that men have their uses, as do we all. They are, for instance, skilled at pulling carts into tight spaces by the side of the road on market day. Indeed, they are useful at pulling the carts in the first place. But there is one thing men are particularly useful for…”

“Not babies!” they cried. “On Mama, say not we shall have to have babies! For babies are noisy and needy and fragile and none of them can wash at all.”

“Indeed not,” said Britannica when the tumult had again subsided. “Not babies, if you do not want them. I was thinking of something more useful than babies – very lovely,” she added hurriedly, glancing at her five daughters, “though babies are, particularly when they grow into young women. No: it is that men are useful for getting things from high places – cats from trees, for example, or jars of flour from the top shelf in the pantry.”

And the daughters nodded, particularly Brexita who was short, and Trussonomica, who was even shorter. “You are right, Mama,” they said, “although perhaps this is less so with short men.”

“Even short men have their uses,” Britannica said. “The most important thing about anyone, man or woman, is first, that they do not tell lies; second, that they keep their promises, and third, that they do things which make life better, not worse.” And the daughters, who had heard this maxim many times before, nodded and said that it was so.

“The time has come,” Britannia repeated, “for you to go into the world and find what is good and wholesome and cleave to it like a swallow’s nest to a barn wall. Then you must do all you can to make what you find better. And now,” she said, standing up and clapping her hands, “we shall have a feast. Tomorrow, you must leave. Return here in a year and a day and tell me what you have learned about the world and how you have managed to make it better.”

The year passed. From time to time her daughters sent messages delivered by men, some tall and some short, to say that they were well. Britannia waited patiently in her house on side of the hill, her cat curled up at her feet, for the year and the day to pass when the daughters would return.

And so the day came. The first to return was Brexita.

“Tell me, eldest of my daughters, how you have found the world?” Britannia asked.

“Oh Mama,” Brexita said, “it is a terrible place! You said people should not lie, but there was a fat man who lied and lied and the more he lied, the more the people believed him. You said we should keep our promises and all he said was that he “had got me done.” What could he have meant, Mama? When I told the people my name, half of them said I should be burned as a witch. I do not think that the world is a good place, Mama.” And she started to cry.

Britannia reflected on what she might say to comfort her daughter but, at that moment, the door opened and Coronavira appeared.

“Oh Mama and my sister,” Coronavira said, “the world is a terrible place! When I told them my name, the people chased me away and covered their faces. When I said I would return in winter, they shouted  “hands, face, space!” What could they have meant, Mama? I do not think that the world is a good place.” And she also started to cry.

The next to arrive was Borisia-Scandale. “Oh Mama and my sisters,” Borisia-Scandale said, “the world is a terrible place. There was a fat man…”

“Did he have straw-coloured hair, and many children?” Brexita asked through her tears.

“He did,” Borisia-Scandale replied through hers. “And some people swooned when he passed and tried to kiss his raiment but others threw things at him and jeered. Then he was driven away and when I told them my name they drove me away too. But he kept saying “hasta la vista.” What could he have meant, Mama? I do not think that the world is a good place.” And she, like the others, started to cry.

At that moment, Inflatione burst through the door. “Oh Mama,” she said; and, on seeing her three elder sisters weeping, immediately started to weep herself. “Oh Mama and my sisters,” Inflatione said, “the world is a terrible place! When I told them my name they said I was getting bigger and bigger and should be ashamed of myself!”

Britannia looked at Inflatione, who had a tendency to put on weight – it’s in her nature, Britannia had told herself. She did indeed seem about one-tenth larger than she had been before, but Britannia said nothing.

“And then, they said I would “have to get worse before I got better” and that some of them would be ruined by me. What could they have meant, Mama? I do not think that the world is a good place.”

Britannia waited for her daughters’ tears to subside and then clapped her hands. “My daughters,” she said, “listen to me. This is your first time in the world. It has disappointed you. To weep is a correct reaction – but only for so long. Are you going to weep forever? Is this all you can do, after all I have taught you?” The room was suddenly silent. “You have been raised with love and wisdom and now you have been tested and met hatred and disappointment. What do you do next? Tell me?”

There was a long silence. She scanned the now dry eyes of her four elder daughters with her searching gaze: and, to her satisfaction, saw shining back pools of strength and intelligence, now forged with experience. She nodded at them, one by one. “Exactly.”

“We go again,” Brexita said at last,.

Britannia winced. “That is perhaps not, my dearest first-born, the way I would have expressed it, However, you have been in the world and so must speak in the way the world understands. But where is Trussonomica, my last-born child?”

At that moment, the sound of singing could be heard. A few moments later, Britannia’s youngest daughter lurched into in the kitchen. “Oh Mama and my sisters,” Trussonomica said, “the world is a very strange place. For the first ten months when I told people my name no one bothered with me at all. Then, for a bit, they shouted at me. After that, whenever I said “my name is Trussonomica” they laughed and slapped me on the back and told me that they felt sorry for me and they gave me a drink and said “what a nightmare that was but it’s over now.” And some of them told me that it was all going to be fine because they’d get the fat man back…”

“With straw-coloured hair?” Brexita asked.

“Yes.”

“And many children?” Borisia-Scandale asked.

“Yes.”

Brexita and Borisia-Scandale looked at each other and nodded sadly.

“So,” Trussonomica concluded, “they think I’m a joke. And looking at the rest of you,” she added, “I think I’d prefer that to what happened to you. Your eyes are now dry but they were recently not. All in all, I would rather be a joke than a Jonah.” And with that she reached into her bag and produced a bottle of mead which she offered round to her sisters and her mother.

“Four of you,” Britannia said, putting down her glass a minute or so later, “have found the world one way, and one of you another. But, my dearest Trussonomica, you are the youngest. You have seen things as they are now. You have seen the relief that comes from an immediate evil having been removed. This may, sadly, lead to a worse one. My daughters,” she said, raising her hands, “nothing that happens in the world can ever completely be undone. Often, in the press of the immediate, we forget what is the result of things that have gone before.”

“Oh Mama,” they all cried. “At some point, we must go back into the world. For it is mainly ruled by men who park their carts and get things from high places but otherwise are of little use.”

“As much use as chocolate teapots,” Brexita suggested.

Britannia stood up. She went from frowning Brexita to giggling Trussonomica and kissed each on their forehead. “My daughters,” she said. “You have been raised to be wise and now you have, through your experience, acquired wisdom. There is much to be done,. However, I think that for a time you can rest here and reflect upon what you have learned this year and a day.” At this they all smiled: for even wise daughters of a wise mother desire peace and solace.

At that moment there was a tremendous banging on the door. Britannia jumped up to open it. Standing on the threshold was a young woman whom her daughters recognised and felt an affinity to but could not place. The young woman was wailing with a distress that exceeded anything the elder four daughters had displayed. Their distress had been personal: hers was universal.

Britannia led her away into the parlour. Only a few shredded words permeated the wattle walls: “…the men have done nothing…everything was lies…the world is not the better place it should be…at every crisis I am forgotten. And you – you have forgotten me, once again…”

“My child,” the five daughters heard their mother say, “you are right. Come…”

The door opened. Britannia appeared with the wild-haired, fiery-eyed stranger. “My daughters,” she said. “This is your cousin. I’m afraid I have been less…less assiduous that I ought in allowing you to get to know her. We have been, as even your names suggest, too engrossed in the immediate.”

The newcomer looked around the room, her gaze transfixing each of them in turn. “What does what you have done, what you have seen, matter? I have been cursed with long sight. I speak; people agree; but then the immediate things chase me into the shadows.”

“Is your name Cassandra?” Brexita asked slowly.

“It might as well be,” the young woman replied. “My name is Climatica.”

“My daughters,” Britannia said. “I was wrong when I said you would have repose. You must, as your eldest sister has put it, “go again” and help your cousin Climatica. But she is sickening fast. The men have had their chance…”

“And bollocksed it up,” Brexita suggested.

“Indeed,” Britannia said. She was growing more fond of her eldest daughter’s newly acquired vivid phrases and secretly wished that she could emulate them. “Remember, my daughters – there are more important things than moving carts into tight spaces and getting jars of flour from the top shelf in the pantry.”

“Such as ‘Football’s coming home’,” Brexita said, slightly disconcertingly, even by her new standards. Britannia raised her eyebrow. “The men talked about it for over fifty years. The women actually did it.” She looked round the room. “We need to raise hell. Let’s go, sisters.”

Brian Quinn

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