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Once Upon A Time

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Her mother used to read her fairytales when she was younger, in the hope that her dear Wilhelmina would become a tad more ladylike. Mrs Robinson was proud of her only daughter, of course, proud that she was the equal of her brothers when it came to being fearless, but at times she worried that Bill would find it hard to settle into married life when the time came. The time would come, she was sure – who could help but love Bill? So kind-hearted and honest and sweet, though she doubted many young men would be willing to see past her tomboyish ways. She was perpetually to be seen in her riding clothes, and despite the number of lovely frocks that her mother had bought for her, Bill remained decidedly uninterested in fussing with her appearance.

But then she had always been like that, even as a child. The fairytales had not helped. Mrs Robinson remembered reading her the stories, about the beautiful princesses who lived in castles and had long golden hair and ended up marrying a handsome prince or a knight and lived happily ever after. Bill didn't care much for these stories. She knew, she told her mother, that she was never going to be beautiful like those princesses in the stories, and frankly, she didn't care. The only time she did care was when the knights rode in on their noble steeds, and her mother would be plagued with questions about what kind of steed it was, and whether it had a name, and did Mummy think that maybe one day Bill would have lots of horses all of her very own?

When Mrs Robinson had talked to her husband about the possibility of sending Bill to boarding school, he had agreed with her. It seemed like the right thing to do. It would make her more presentable, and she would make lots of nice respectable friends who would hopefully make her see that dressing up every once in a while and acting a bit more feminine wasn't so bad after all.

Bill didn't seem to make a special friend at school her first year there, but she seemed quite content with the girls in her form, so Mrs Robinson didn't press the matter, though she dearly wanted to ask if Bill had been trying, or if she'd merely spent all her free time with Thunder in the stables. And then, when Bill was in the fourth form, and they arrived for half-term, there she was outside the school, waiting for them, with her arm linked with that of a small girl with thick glasses and auburn hair. The girl looked too small to be a fourth-former, but from Bill's surprisingly shy introduction, they gathered that this was Clarissa, Bill's friend, and that she would be coming on their picnic. She was called away for a few minutes by a girl Bill referred to as "that wretched Gwendoline", and Mrs Robinson watched as Bill's eyes remained firmly set upon Clarissa, as though she was afraid she might lose her.

She had had her suspicions then, but dismissed them. After all, Clarissa was such a plain little thing, and while she was probably going to be a beauty some day, once the spectacles were gone and the wire on her teeth had been removed, there was nothing much to admire about her now. She was polite and charming and her shyness seemed to fade whenever they began talking about horses, but Mrs Robinson hardly imagined that she and Bill were going to remain friends for very long. They were so different.

And then Clarissa came to stay with them that summer, a caterpillar transformed into a butterfly long before Mrs Robinson had expected it to happen. She was more confident now, too. Bill's friendship had done wonders for her. But she remained more gentle than Bill, more refined, and it made up for Bill, in a sense, to have a girl like that stay with them during the holidays. Clarissa was someone Mrs Robinson could talk to about girlish things every so often and not fear that she was being regarded as dull or silly.

It began to seem natural that, whenever there was a school holiday, Clarissa would stay with them, or Bill would be with the Carters. They were like sisters, Mrs Robinson told herself, and as the end of their schooling drew closer, and they began to plan their future together, she kept on repeating it to herself.

Someday her Bill would meet her prince and he would sweep her off her feet. And Clarissa probably had countless suitors already, with a family that moved in those sort of circles. They would remain friends, of course, and their children would be friends, but they would also discover the power of loving someone in the romantic sense of the word. Friendship was all very well and good, but love, true love – that was what she wanted for Bill, and for Clarissa too.

"Mummy," Bill said to her after school had finished, and plans for the riding school were going ahead. "Mummy, I need to talk to you."

Mrs Robinson couldn't remember the last time Bill had called her "Mummy". It was "Mother" now, "Mother dearest" on occasion, but never "Mummy", not anymore.

"Do you remember when you used to read me fairytales before I went to sleep every night?"

Mrs Robinson nodded, confused – and yet worried – about where this was leading.

Bill chewed on her lower lip for a moment, looking rather fretful, and then continued, the words tumbling out in a rush. "I have one to tell you now, and if you don't mind I'd rather you just sit and listen and not say anything until I'm finished, because otherwise it'll get all muddled and it's really important that it doesn't."

She sat, and waited.

"Once upon a time, there was a rather ordinary plain little girl with seven brothers and a mother and a father who loved her very much. She knew that she was loved, and she loved in return. She was fortunate enough to be part of a family that kept lots of horses, because being around horses made her even happier than being around her family. It wasn't that she didn't love her family, but she felt more real when she was around horses, as though she could truly be herself around them. They were what made her happy, and she thought that was all she needed.

And then one day she went to boarding school and met lots of jolly girls who were kind and friendly towards her, but still her horses, especially her favourite, Thunder, were the most important thing in her life. She didn't want to get married and have children and sit and sew all day or anything of the sort. She was happy.

At least, she thought she was happy. Then a new girl came to the school, and though she seemed rather dull at first, the plain little girl soon realised that she was really a princess in disguise, a princess with magnificent auburn tresses and the most beautiful green eyes she'd ever seen, so beautiful that the girl could stare into them for hours and never be bored.

More astonishing than that was the fact that the princess shared the girl's passion for horses, and they spent their time in the stables, unconcerned about anything else, because what could be more important than horses? Only the girl was starting to realise that perhaps there was something more important, or at least as important.

The thing was, she had fallen in love with the princess, and she wanted to shout it from the rooftops and declare to everyone that this was how she felt, but she knew that wasn't the sensible thing to do, and she badly wanted to be sensible just in case the princess didn't possibly feel the same way.

Only the princess did, Mummy, she did. She loved the girl with all her heart and even though they were worried that the princess's mother would try to stop them from being together by marrying off the princess to a suitable knight, they couldn't help but be in love.

And the girl couldn't help but love the princess, because she was so wonderful and kind and sweet and darling and thoughtful and everything, everything the girl had ever wanted. And she was so scared to tell her mother in case she would make plans to marry off her daughter too, but she knew that she had to, because she knew that the only way she could properly be herself around her family and not just around the horses was to tell them."

Mrs Robinson sat in silence for a moment. Bill was blinking back tears, determined not to cry but worried that she just might.

"You didn't finish it," she pointed out quietly. "But then you tended to fall asleep before they ended."

"How does it end?" Bill spoke in little more than a whisper.

"Well, let's see, shall we? The girl was in love with the princess, and then she told her mother – but what she didn't know was that the mother had realised that all she wanted for her daughter was happiness, and love, and that if she had found that already, then she was a very lucky girl indeed."

"Do they live happily ever after, do you think?"

"I certainly hope you do, my dear. I really do."