When I was a kid the most treasured collection on my bedroom bookshelf was the colourful line-up of Puffin Classic Fairy Tales.
And out of all of these magical stories, all passed down over many centuries and across many cultures from generation to generation, the most beloved of them all was the Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen.
Let me take you back into the depths of that dusky kingdom called Nostalgia and together we will relive this enchanting tale of love, of passion, of nobility and fragility. (Now be aware that I've updated it slightly for a modern audience, but the sequence of events and its morals still remain respectfully untouched and intact.)
Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin...
“Once upon a time in a land far, far away there lived a handsome prince. As is always the case with handsome princes, he was utterly desperate to find love.
Over many months, a line-up of eager suitors appear at the castle from all corners of the globe. And yet, one by one, the prince sends each one packing without so much as a peck on the cheek.
One is far too tall to be a princess (and besides, he likes them petite!). One is far too skinny to be a princess (he likes a bit of junk in the trunk!). One is far too old to be a princess (cougars are all well and good, but a woman on the verge of HRT? Forget it...). One was too miserable to be a princess (G.S.O.H. being an absolute must on our prince's fantasy wishlist).
Just as he was about to give up — fearing not just a future alone but also the inevitable tabloid questions about his sexuality — a strange sequence of magical events took place.
An incredible portentious storm brewed over the entire kingdom. In the middle of the night, as the winds howled loudly and the shutters slammed abruptly, a faint sound could be heard coming from somewhere outside. It was a voice! A delicate ladies voice! With a posh accent!
“Help! Help!” it cried faintly. “Let me in, for I am cold and wet and about to collapse from exhaustion!” The King, Queen and Prince all rushed to throw open the castle gates and there they found a beautiful, delicate woman, soaking wet and dressed in nothing but rags.
Before she collapsed into the prince's arms she managed to blurt out: “I may not look it, for I have fallen upon hard times but truly I am a princess!”
Of course the prince fell instantly in love. At last! Here was his princess! He may not know a thing about her, but surely here was the woman he was destined to marry!
But the Queen, being cynical, suspicious and dubious as queens always are in fairy stories, decided to test her claim to royalty by devising a plan.
She bade the servants make up a bed, using every mattress and duvet and blanket they could find, carefully layered on top of each other, until it was 10ft high. Then, cunningly, she placed a hard dried pea under the very bottom mattress.
“Call yourself a princess? We shall see soon enough!” she cackled, tucking the exhausted maiden into the extraordinarily deep bed.
The next morning, as the King, Queen and Prince waited anxiously to interrogate the girl over breakfast, she appeared at the door, looking dishevelled, tired and upset.
“Why my dear? Whatever is the matter?” said the Queen. “Did you not sleep well?”
“No I did not! There was something hard and bumpy in the bed that poked me so much I am now black and blue all over!”
At that, the royals immediately began to rejoice. Here was truly a real princess.
“No mere mortal of common stock would be so sensitive, fragile and delicate as to bruise through all those layers!” they proclaimed. “Our search is finally over and so precious is she that from now on we shall treat her with kid gloves, like the delicate piece of fragile priceless china she is. Truly a princess through and through!”
The celebrations began ... and, of course, they all lived happily ever after.”
So the moral of this story is, er, well, hmmm, a true princess is infinitely more delicate, more sensitive and more fragile than mere mortals and must always be cossetted carefully against every physical discomfort. It's a story that came back into my head this week for some reason. Can't think why?