Most of the locals in the village of Little Imagination had dressed up for the evening. King Midas had pulled his old robes out of storage and looked positively regal, even though he had lost his fortune in the stock market crash. Hansel and Gretel, smelling of stale gingerbread and incest, tottered on their walking sticks into the Fluffy Dumpling Comedy Club and rested their arthritic limbs on a sofa covered in crumbs. Red Riding Hood, no longer little, swept in wearing a faded red cape; her first night out since her ugly divorce from the woodsman.
Peter had already started his act when the latecomers straggled in. The residents of Little Imagination had no idea of time. The cuckoo clock in the town square had broken down and all the watchmakers had either died or gone digital.
Tonight, the air in the Fluffy Dumpling Comedy Club rippled with good will. Peter’s middle aged stomach relaxed as he undid the bottom button on his pink and green checked waistcoat. He leaned towards the microphone.
“I miss the old days,” he said, “when things were simple. Back then you knew all stepmothers were evil and wood nymphs didn’t give you herpes.”
All the men chuckled. Bluebeard roared his hysterical, syphilitic laugh. When Goldilocks tossed her curls, her wig fell askew. Just below the stage, the earthy smell of marijuana wafted from the guffawing seven dwarfs’ table. In their midst, Snow White rolled her sunken eyes and managed a weary smile.
Suddenly a voice from the back of the room cut through the laugher. “Hung out with any lost boys lately, Peter?”
Peter’s stomach dropped. He wanted to stay right away from the topic of children.
“I think you’ve got the wrong Peter,” he said to the voice at the back of the room. “I work in pest control. Peter Pan retired to Never Never Land twenty eight years ago. A one way ticket. Hasn’t been seen since.”
When Peter heard a scoff, he tried to ignore the chill creeping through his bones. Again, he leaned towards the microphone. “And speaking of pest control, it’s a tricky business these days with all those animal welfare groups. Now you have to get rats to sign wavers before you can drown them. And if you use a roach motel, you have to install a sprinkler system.”
The Fluffy Dumpling Comedy Club erupted into cheers and chortles. The residents of Little Imagination loved being reminded of the foolish Real World, with all its regulations and laws.
“Had any problems lately with people not paying their bills, Peter?”
Peter froze at the heckler’s remark. He realised now, he knew that voice. He stared towards the back of the room and glimpsed a grey-suited figure half-hidden behind a pot plant. His throat felt dry. As he sipped on his water, buried memories fell from the dark hole of his past.
“Kidnapped any children lately?” Continued the heckler. “Taken them off to any caves and flashed your magic pipe at them?”
The back of Peter’s neck grew hot. His hand shook as he put down the glass. Water slopped over his pants. That creep at the back of the room knew about the incident in Hamelin. The one he’d spend thirty years trying to forget. Suddenly a ragged rage tore through Peter’s limbs. He kicked away the stool and his water glass fell and shattered. Then, he jumped down from the stage and hurtled towards the heckler. On his way to the back of the club, he tripped up on Rapunzel’s hair extension and knocked over the three ugly spinsters’ table. Sleeping Beauty woke and screamed.
Peter’s breath stuck in his throat as he gazed at the heckler’s familiar face. He looked older. And fatter. His moustache had thickened from a wisp into something resembling a small animal. But it was definitely him. Policeman Plod.
Peter’s insides twisted. Everyone in Little Imagination had heard about Plod’s astonishing success in the Big City. He’d solved some juicy, high profile cases, bought himself a penthouse apartment and even hitched up with a real woman.
Now, all eyes had turned towards the back of the room. The Fluffy Dumpling Comedy Club fell quiet as the old enemies stared one another down like Puss in Boots and his evil, unneutered twin. Elves’ ears pricked. Fairies holding drink trays hovered as still as hummingbirds.
Peter folded his arms across his chest. Even as his insides caved in, he managed a smirk. “Well, well, Policeman Plod,” he said, “what brings you back to Little Imagination? Feeling a bit nostalgic are we?”
Plod raised his chin and turned red. “It’s Detective Plod,” he said. He poked Peter in the chest with a chubby finger. “I haven’t forgotten about you Peter P. Piper,” he said, his eyes turning to slits, “and I’m going to nail you and run you out of town.”
Somewhere, a pixie tittered. Peter felt as though a pile of bricks had dropped from the ceiling and landed on his shoulders.
“People like you shouldn’t be allowed in Little Imagination.” Continued Plod. “People like you should be locked up in solitary confinement.”
Peter clenched his fists and his back tightened like a cramp. It had all happened over thirty years ago. They didn’t have debt collectors back then. It was every man for himself. And contrary to all the rumors, he’d returned the children unharmed. But he knew Plod was thinking about that single little boy. The one that had caused all the trouble. Thirty years of buried resentment exploded through Peter’s limbs. He balled up his fist and smacked Plod in the chops.
Peter sat on the park bench and nursed his wounds. His cut lip stung in the cold and his rib ached where Plod had punched him back. He’d managed to give Plod a black eye before a pair of troll bouncers dragged them out of the club. Peter’s troll had hauled him into the town square and dunked his head in the stagnant waters of the Fountain of Youth. He had no idea what they’d done with Plod. Now, wet and miserable, he recalled that day when everything had changed.
He’d tried not to blame the little boy. The one who’d cried for his mother when he’d hidden the children in the cave. The one he’d tried to comfort by offering a blow on his magic pipe. Just his luck that a few days before, the little boy’s parents had visited the Big City, looked at all their newspapers and came back contaminated by the Real World. And when that little boy told his parents about Peter’s offer, well, everything fell apart.
Two days later, the Hamelin Daily News plastered Peter’s picture across the front page. The headline read: ‘Is Peter the Pied Piper a Paedophile?’ Of course he had to leave the district after that. They didn’t have defamation lawyers back then either.
That sorry day marked the Beginning of the End for Fairy Kingdoms everywhere. The Time of the Loss of Innocence began. Then the Real World intervened. They herded up all the fantasy characters and artefacts they could find and detained them behind the Great Fence. Faith faded. No one believed in them anymore. And, worst of all, fantasy characters didn’t believe in themselves anymore either. Their magical powers faded. Everyone in Little Imagination had shelves and shelves full of self help books and spent their savings on counselling and hypnotherapy.
Still, something at the back of Peter’s mind niggled at him. If Plod had done so well in the Big City, what was he doing back in Little Imagination digging up the corpses of his past?
Then a flicker of movement on the path leading through Whingeing Woods pulled Peter from his ponderings. A portly figure in a suit stopped, twirled his luscious moustache, looked around then vanished between the trees.
Peter’s stomach tightened. What was Plod doing still hanging around in Little Imagination? Why hadn’t he returned to his penthouse and his real woman in the Big City?
Peter got up and followed Plod at a safe distance. He walked through the Whingeing Woods into Mary Contrary Memorial Gardens and then past the field full of Things that Go Bump in The Night. Peter’s heart fought in his chest. What was Plod doing in this part of the Shire? Only people looking for trouble hung out around here. Plod looked around then stepped onto Bogey River Bridge. Peter followed and hid behind a rock. His legs shook as he watched Plod pause on the outskirts of the seedy Nursery Rhyme District. Here, open sewers clogged with disposable nappies, old prams and moldy plastic toys strewn through the overgrown verges warned sane people to stay away.
Finally Plod stopped at a gate that had fallen off its hinges. Brambles grew through the dilapidated building’s front garden. Half the windows were boarded up and the roof had caved in. The whole property reeked of athlete’s foot. When Peter glimpsed a carpet of black and brown shapes stir under the trembling brambles, his heart jumped. Rats. Then, he watched Plod pull a key from his pocket and open the front door of the giant shoe.
“Honey I’m home!” he heard Plod call.
Right then, everything fell into place. A shiver of pity trickled down Peter’s back. Plod must have spent his life savings on that suit. Poor Plod was just another deluded fantasy character telling stories about himself; unable to reconcile the worlds of fact and fiction. And with a family that size, he probably couldn’t afford therapy. The poor man had so many rats and children he didn’t know what to do.
Something else occurred to Peter. Perhaps Plod’s visit to the Fluffy Dumpling Comedy Club had been a cry for help. Peter’s heart trilled and he moistened his lips.
“Make the most of your talents,” his Life Coach had said. “Be of service to your community. And always remember, deeds, not words.”
He had thought long and hard about that piece of wisdom from the Real World. He enjoyed stand-up comedy, but music was his first love. He reached into his pants and pulled his pipe from his pocket. The one he hadn’t played for thirty years. He straightened his back and raised his middle-aged chin. He would rise to his calling. Save Plod from his personal demons. He was after all, more than just Peter Piper, who had a penchant for pickled peppers and cracked jokes to ease his pain. He had talent. Once upon a time, people called him the Pied Piper. He lifted his pipe to his lips and took a great breath.