The Surly Guardian

Coralie’s parents died when she was young, so she had a guardian to look after her instead. They lived together in a big old house and her guardian, whose name was Alvis, did all the things that parents normally do, like making sure that there was food to eat and the house was clean and the clothes were washed.

Coralie’s best friend, Bettina, said one day, “Your guardian is very surly.”

“What do you mean?” Coralie asked.

“He’s grumpy and he frowns all the time,” Bettina said. “Maybe he wishes he wasn’t your guardian. Maybe he wants to get rid of you so he can have all your money.”

“I don’t have any money,” Coralie said. “My parents were poor, so I’m poor too.”

“Maybe he just doesn’t like children,” Bettina said darkly.

Coralie didn’t know if that was true. Alvis was definitely very grumpy. He was hardly ever cheerful, even when there was chocolate cake or potato fritters for dinner. He never took her anywhere, either. Whenever Coralie said, “Let’s go to the zoo,” or “Can’t we go to the beach?” Alvis always said, “No!” very gruffly.

On the other hand, he did teach her all sorts of useful things, like how to whistle really loudly, and how to tie complicated knots and untie them again, and how to sing sweetly, and how to hold her breath while she counted to twenty-five. If it was raining or if Coralie was bored, they would make pickled cucumbers together, or jams or jellies, like peach jam or tomato jelly (which was definitely a Sad Mistake, so don’t try it yourselves).

One weekend when it was beautiful and sunny after a whole week of rain, Coralie really wanted to go to the beach, but Alvis said, “No!” very grumpily, as usual. Coralie decided he really was a surly guardian and she wasn’t going to do what he said any more. While he was having a nap, she went down to the very bottom of the garden where she wasn’t supposed to go, and she squeezed through a gap in the fence, which she wasn’t supposed to do, and came out in a wide, sunny clearing. There were trees with low branches that a girl Coralie’s size could easily climb. There was an old mulberry tree covered in fruit, perfect for a snack for someone as hungry as Coralie was, and there was a high brick wall with a wooden door in the middle of it with a sign that said, KEEP OUT.

The first thing that Coralie did was to eat as many mulberries as she could. She filled up her pockets as well, in case she got hungry again later. Then she climbed one of the trees. All the time there was a little voice inside her that kept saying, “I wonder what’s behind that door? I could just have a look behind the door, I wouldn’t have to go in.” After a while she couldn’t ignore the voice any more. She went over to the door and tried the handle.

There was a sign just below the handle that said, ‘Do Not Enter, or Else!’ When she read that, she couldn’t help herself. She opened the door and went in.

The door slammed shut behind her and dozens of small green hands grabbed her arms and her legs so tightly that she couldn’t move. A sneering voice said, “That always gets them in, a sign that says, ‘Do Not Enter or Else!’”

Coralie looked around. The green hands belonged to small green people who were wearing small green hats and green underwear and that was about all. They had a long golden rope that they were tying round and round her. “What are you doing?” Coralie said. “Let me go!”

“No way, we’ve got you now!” they said. “Climbing through a fence when you weren’t supposed to, stealing mulberries, climbing trees without asking an adult first – you’re in big trouble!”

“Don’t forget disobeying a sign that clearly said, KEEP OUT,” said another one. “That’s very naughty.”

“And disrespectful,” said another one.

“What are you going to do with me?” Coralie said, in a voice that trembled a bit as if she was going to cry.

“We’re going to pull all your hair out, one hair at a time,” they said, “and then we’re going to wait for it to grow back and then pull it out all over again.”

“My hair?” Coralie said. “Why would you do anything so cruel?”

“It’s the best thing for making ropes like this,” they said, “and rope ladders and nets and baskets. Much better than spiderwebs.”

Coralie could imagine her hair being pulled out one hair at a time, and she didn’t like the idea at all. She opened her mouth and screamed her loudest scream.

The green people pushed a hankie into her mouth and tied it firmly. “That’s enough of that,” they said. “It’s not as if anyone would come to help you, anyway, a badly-behaved girl like you.”

They tied the rope up with complicated knots and then they went to get their hair-pulling tweezers. As soon as they were gone, Coralie set to work untying the knots. “A double bowline, that’s easy,” she said to herself, “and an overhand square knot – easy as anything.” She nearly had all the knots undone when she heard the little green people coming back, so she put her hands behind her back and pretended that the knots were still tied up.

The tweezers were long and very pointy. Coralie decided she’d better think about something else, very quickly. She shut her eyes and hummed a little tune, very softly and sweetly. The green people stopped what they were doing and listened. They took the hanky out of Coralie’s mouth so they could hear her better. Coralie kept singing, sweetly and softly.

The green people lay down on top of each other in a big pile of green arms and legs and went to sleep, every one of them. Coralie untied the last knot and took the ropes off. She held her breath and walked very, very quietly to the door in the wall. But then she couldn’t hold her breath any longer, and it came out in a loud whoosh! The green people all woke up.

“Hey, get back here! Where do you think you’re going?” they yelled. But Coralie wasn’t going to wait to be caught again. She pulled the door open and ran through. Just at the last minute, she took the sign that said ‘Do Not Enter or Else!’ and hung it on the inside of the door. Then she slammed it shut behind her.

Two big arms scooped her up. “Where have you been?” asked her guardian. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”

Coralie told him, even though she expected she would get into trouble. Alvis said, “You’re safe now, that’s the main thing. It’s all my own fault. If we’d gone to the beach, none of this would have happened.”

“Are you grumpy because you just can’t help it, or don’t you like children?” Coralie asked him.

“No, not at all,” Alvis said. “It’s my corns, you see. On my feet.”

“Corns?” Coralie said. “You poor thing!”

“They hurt whenever I walk anywhere, so I find it easier to stay home, and knit and pickle vegetables, and practise holding my breath. I can reach nearly one hundred now,” he said proudly.

“Why don’t you try wearing no shoes?” Coralie asked him.

“You’re absolutely right,” Alvis said. “Why don’t I?” So he did, and it was so comfortable, they spent every weekend for the rest of the year at the beach or the park, or just going for a nice walk.

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