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2004 Shory Story Competition Winner

And the winner is... John Ravenscroft

John wins £200.

"Arthur King and the Sword in the Pipe" by John Ravenscroft

It was a blessing no-one was using the toilet when it blew up.

Arthur was on his knees trying to clear up the mess when he heard knocking. He sighed and headed for the front door.

Through the frosted glass a distorted figure raised its right arm and knocked again.

'Hang on,' Arthur yelled. 'I'm coming!'

He yanked open the door, scowling - and found there was a goddess standing on his welcome mat.

She didn't look like any of the goddesses Arthur had read about in books. None of them had ever worn donkey-jackets and wellingtons, or carried clipboards. This one did, but it didn't matter. Even in a sack she’d have looked spectacular.

'Arthur King?'

Arthur nodded. Nodding was all he could do. Those eyes, that oddly familiar mouth - the woman took his breath away.

'I'm from the Water Board,' she said.

She had a voice like water, he thought: clear, sweet, deliciously moist.

'I'm sorry about the water-surge you reported. We've got a slight problem with the main pipe.'

The goddess glanced behind her, towards a hole in the road some twenty feet from Arthur's garden gate. A small crane was straining to pull something out of it, but didn't seem to be making much progress. She shook her head.

'Well, quite a big problem, actually.'

She turned back to face him and smiled.

It was 11.30 a.m. - but for Arthur King a new dawn broke, right there, right then. A thousand violins began to play. It didn't matter that his water supply had been off for hours; that his toilet was in ruins; that he was the wrong side of fifty. It didn't even matter that he'd lost most of his hair and all but one of his teeth. Suddenly his world was bright with promise and possibility.

'Mr King?'

Arthur closed his mouth.

'I wonder if I might come in? I really do need to talk to you.'

He nodded once more, stepped aside, and she floated past him. The dingy roses on his hall wallpaper seemed to track her as real flowers track the sun, until she came to a halt amidst the clutter of his kitchen. She stared at the table, still covered with the remnants of his breakfast.

'It's round!' she said. 'How wonderful!'

Arthur pulled out a chair for her.

'Thank you,' she said, smiling again, and his heart sang

The goddess sat down and removed the hard hat she was wearing. The hair piled beneath it tumbled out, an endless fall of liquid gold. When it finally came to rest, it was almost touching the floor.

If he didn't speak now Arthur felt he might never speak again. He cleared his throat.

'May I… may I offer you anything, Miss…?'

'Guinevere,' she said. 'Tracy Guinevere. And yes, Mr King, a cup of tea would be lovely.'

'Guinevere?' he whispered. The name reverberated in his head. He felt his heart hoisted into his mouth, his legs turning into jelly. He flopped down into the chair opposite. 'Your name's Guinevere?'

It was her turn to nod. There was something in that nod - a message he couldn't quite read.

'Yes, Mr King,' she said. 'It is.'

Her eyes were huge, a pair of matching lakes. He felt he was tumbling towards them, turning over and over, in danger of falling, of drowning. He struggled hard to think of something else to say, something normal and ordinary. Something that would stick his feet back to the ground.

'You didn't want to use my toilet, did you?' he asked.

She blinked, and in his head Arthur groaned. But at least he wasn't tumbling any more.

'Er… no,' she said. 'Not really.'

'Good. Because the water-surge blew it up, you see.'

Guinevere - how could he possibly think of her as Tracy? - stroked her hair. Arthur swallowed.

'Sugar in your tea?' he asked.

'Yes please. Two spoons.'

There. Nice and normal. He picked up the kettle.

'I'll have to pop upstairs,' he said. 'There's water in the bath, lots of water. When your people said they were cutting us off, I filled it up.'

'That was very sensible, Mr King.'

He turned at the kitchen door. 'Oh, please - don't call me Mr King. Call me Arthur.'

***

'A sword?' he said, laughing. 'You've got to be joking!'

They were already on their second cup of tea, and half-way through a packet of chocolate biscuits. Arthur could hardly believe it. This beautiful creature, this angel nibbling at his biscuits, actually seemed to like him. No, not just like - it was more than that. She found him attractive! All the signs were there, obvious, unmistakable.

'You know, that's exactly what Mr Lancelot said when I told him,' she was saying. 'Someone's stuck a huge sword straight through the main pipe, I said, and that's what's causing the blockage. 'You've got to be joking,' he said. He didn't laugh, though. Not got much of a sense of humour, our Mr Lancelot. Just said he was coming out here to see for himself.'

'Lancelot?' Arthur almost choked on his tea. The name went through him like a knife.

'My boss,' said Guinevere. She pulled a face that on anyone else would have been ugly. 'He's out there now, moaning at the crane-driver. To tell you the truth, I don't like him. Thinks he's God's gift, and he isn't.'

'Lancelot,' Arthur said again. It left a bad taste in his mouth. 'I don't like that name. It's not a name to trust.'

She looked at him closely. 'What makes you say that, Arthur?'

He opened his mouth to reply but nothing came out. He didn't know why he'd said it. It just felt true.

Guinevere stared into his eyes and nibbled her chocolate biscuit with her perfect teeth. Her glorious tongue popped out to collect a stray crumb from her exquisite lips, and beneath the table Arthur crossed his legs.

'You know, I've got the strangest feeling,' he said.

'Yes?'

Those remarkable eyes locked onto his and he felt his world beginning to spin again.

'Yes,' he said dreamily. 'I keep thinking we've met before, you and I. I don't know, in a previous life or something. Does that sound stupid?'

He'd thought she might laugh at him but she didn't. Instead she smiled. A soft, secret smile. He tumbled faster.

'Oh no,' she said. 'No, it doesn't sound stupid at all. Stranger things have happened, Arthur. This universe is a very strange place indeed, my love.'

My love! Had she really called him that?

'Here, let me help you.' She slid out of her chair. Her liquid voice was low and husky.

'Help me?'

'Yes. There are things you need to remember, Arthur. And I'm here to help you remember them.'

He sat frozen in his chair, unable to move as she rose and came towards him. She wrapped him in her golden hair, kissed him full on the lips, and one-by-one popped the buttons on her donkey-jacket. To his delight, he saw that beneath it she was wearing nothing, except...

He glanced down at her feet.

'Wellies on, or off?' she said, her lips parting, her eyebrows arched.

'On,' he croaked.

She climbed onto his lap, draped her arms around his neck, and at that point, finally, King Arthur remembered.

***

'Mr Lancelot?' he said.

The scowling man standing beside the crane turned to face him. Arthur looked him up and down. Oh yes, he thought. It's you, all right.

'Might be,' said Lancelot. 'What do you want?'

Arthur glanced down into the hole the Water Board had dug in Avalon Drive. He saw a huge sword sticking out of the thickest water pipe. The crane-driver who had been trying to pull it out had apparently given up, and his crane's steel rope was now sagging uselessly around the sword's pommel.

Arthur's soul leapt. Making love to Guinevere had been wonderful - it had taken ten years off him - but seeing Excalibur again was even better. Just looking at it was enough to make him feel rejuvenated. He was desperate to get his hands on it.

'You've got a problem,' he said. 'I can help you with it.'

Lancelot looked at him with narrowed eyes. 'Do I know you?' he said.

'You used to,' said Guinevere, coming up behind Arthur and slipping her hand into his.

Lancelot stared at her. His eyes flicked down to their joined hands, then back up to her face.

'What's going on here, Tracy?' he said. 'Who the hell is this joker?'

'My name's not Tracy,' she said. 'Not any more. It's Guinevere. Queen Guinevere, actually. And this is Mr Arthur King - the once and future. The only man on earth who can remove that sword for you and reclaim what is rightfully his.'

Lancelot looked at her as though she'd gone mad. He was about to say something else when Arthur turned away from both of them and leapt into the hole.

'Excalibur!' he cried.

'Get out of there!' yelled Lancelot. 'You're not insured!'

Arthur ignored him. He landed in six inches of mud, but that didn't matter. All that mattered was the fact that, after all these years, Excalibur was here, now, waiting for him to draw it from the pipe as he'd once drawn it from the stone.

He put out his hands, and the sword began to glow. Ancient power surged through his blood as he removed the steel rope and steadied his feet on the pipe. He took Excalibur's pommel in both hands, tensed his muscles, and pulled.

It was like drawing a knife from a block of butter. The sword slipped free of the pipe, leaving no sign that it had ever been there. No cut, no leaking water, nothing. Arthur climbed out of the hole, Excalibur in hand, and stood in Avalon Drive, triumphant.

'Bloody hell!' said Lancelot, dropping down on one knee.

'Well done, Arthur,' said Guinevere, kissing him on the cheek.

Lancelot looked awe-struck. 'You're… you're glowing, pal,' he said, gaping up at them.

Arthur lifted an eyebrow. 'Pal?'

'I mean Sire,' said Lancelot. 'You're glowing, Sire.'

'That's better,' said Arthur. He slipped Excalibur into his belt for safe keeping, but it was a cheap plastic belt and the sword cut straight through it. His trousers began to fall down.

'A kiss from the Lady Guinevere is enough to make any man glow,' he said, hitching them up again. 'You should know that, Lancelot. You learned it far too well, if memory serves.'

Lancelot lowered his eyes in shame.

Guinevere coughed. 'Yes, well, let's not rake up the past, dear,' she said. 'And anyway, he didn't mean that kind of glow. Excalibur hasn't lost any of its power over the years, has it? Just look at your hands.'

Arthur looked and saw what she meant. His hands, arms, his entire body glowed with Kingly Light.

'It suits you,' said Guinevere.

‘It does?’ said Arthur.

'Oh yes. On the other hand, those clothes of yours don’t.'

'What do you mean?'

She looked him up and down, noting the beltless trousers, the cheap shirt, the thick mud on his shoes. 'What I mean is, it's time we got you spruced up and went to reclaim our palace!'

'Palace?' said Arthur. 'What are you talking about? What palace?'

Guinevere grinned at him.

'Buckingham Palace, of course. You're the rightful King of England, my love. I'm your queen. Where else do you imagine we're supposed to live?'

Arthur opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again.

'There's just one problem,' said Guinevere, tapping a finger against her flawless chin.

Arthur raised his eyebrows. 'What's that?' he said.

'Why, the sitting tenants, of course,' she said. 'Lizzie and Phil.'

'You mean..?'

'Yes, the Windsors. What on earth are we going to do with them?'

 
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