“Checkmate!” Alice crowed triumphantly. “You win yet again!” Henry smiled. “Shall we have another game then?” Alice shook her head and rummaged in her satchel, producing her love-worn copy of “Short Stories for Children”. “Will you read to me Henry, just this once? Please?” Henry fought to keep his face impassive. “Not today, little one” he said, as always. “I’ve had a long week, why don’t you read to me instead?” As always, Alice’s face brightened. She opened the book eagerly and began to read. “There once was a little princess who lived…”
Henry closed his eyes as he listened to her trilling 8-year-old voice reading the tale of The Giant and the Little Princess. The Little Princess loved the Giant, loved spending time with him more than anything else in the world, but that was nothing compared to the Giant’s love for the Little Princess. While the Little Princess was always surrounded by people who loved and cared for her, the Giant lived alone in a cave in a remote part of their village.
For him, the Princess’ weekly visits were the lone star in a dark week. After only a few short hours together each week the Little Princess would have to return to her palace, leaving the Giant alone once more. Henry emerged from his reverie as Alice stopped reading abruptly. She looked at her pink plastic watch. “I’ve got to go… ” she said sadly. “Can’t you finish this story first?” he asked, already knowing the answer. “No, I’m sorry but my mum is waiting for me.”
Their eyes met for a moment. Tell her now, Henry’s mind urged. But as he opened his mouth to speak, fear, the fear that she would never return if she knew, coursed through his veins. “Off you go then” he said, almost gruffly. Alice slipped her book and chessboard into her bag and waved shyly. “See you next week?” “I promise you will, little one.” He watched her scamper off as another lonely week unrolled before his eyes.
Time seemed to crawl by in Henry’s house that week, with the passage of hour after lonely hour painstakingly empathized by the ticking of his old wall clock. He passed the week sustained only by the promise of another hour in Alice’s company and strengthened by the lit picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus he always kept above his pillow. When the day came finally to meet Alice in the park again, Henry heaved himself out of bed and carefully down the stairs of his small terraced house.
He ate his morning porridge amidst the trappings of his world, a world that had grown smaller and smaller with each passing year – well-worn cushions, a whistling kettle and a framed photograph of a young woman with her arms around Henry as a young man, light still shining from their eyes as they surveyed the cramped kitchen from the top of the bare fridge.
Today, Alice was waiting for him when he reached the park bench. “Hi!” she said excitedly. “So do you want me to beat you at chess again?” “Not today, Alice” he said gently, wearily. “Let’s finish the story of the Giant and the Little Princess.” The book was open in her lap before he’d finished the sentence. In the end of the story, the Giant came down from his cave to live with the Little Princess and they spent many happy years in each other’s company. Alice closed the book. “Well, what do you think of the ending, Henry?” “I think the Giant was very lucky to have a friend like the Little Princess.” he said. “`Well, the Little Princess was lucky too, because she got a friend who was older and wiser to teach her about the world” Alice said thoughtfully.
Silence fell between them, the silence of two people who understand each other perfectly. Then Alice looked at her watch. “I’ve got to go now.” she said softly. He nodded, resigned to his own reality once more. His secret rose up in his throat, flickered in his eyes. Alice smiled at him with the blissful oblivion of an 8-year-old. “Tomorrow’s your birthday, isn’t it?” she asked. “Well… would you like to come to my house tomorrow for lunch? My mum says it’s okay.”
Something stirred in the depths of his eyes. “I’ll do my best to be there, little one” he replied. “Cool!” Alice grinned. She stood up and, for the first time, impetuously kissed his cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow then!” Henry watched her skipping off towards her mother’s car. Passersby wondered at the sight of the old man alone on a park bench, smiling wistfully as tears rolled down his cheeks.
The doorbell rang in Alice’s house the next day as Alice’s mother was laying the table for lunch. Alice raced down the stairs as Alice’s mother opened the door. “It’s for me, Mummy, it’s for me!” She stopped short as the door opened to reveal a middle-aged woman framed in the doorway. “Is Alice Scott here?” she asked, in a businesslike tone. “That’s me!” Alice cried, bursting through the door in front of her mother. “Where’s Henry?” She faltered at the sight of this stranger, alone with her briefcase on the doorstep.
The woman’s face changed, kindness breaking through the brusque exterior. “I’m so sorry, but Henry died this morning. He’s been ill for a long time, didn’t he tell you? I’m his care worker, I called in this morning but he had already passed away… he phoned last night and asked me to call and give you this.” She handed Alice a black velvet box. “If I had only known he was going to… He couldn’t read or write, and so he never made a will- it seems you’re his only living relatives.”
Alice’s mother gazed at the woman, bewildered. “But we’re not even related to him, Alice just met him in the park one day and they struck up a friendship…” Oblivious to the two adults, Alice was opening the velvet box. Inside laid a gold necklace. The inscription read “For the Little Princess.”