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The House of Cards

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This is the planet Earth, this elegant blue and green orb spinning slowly in the sky. For us, this is a very important planet, because it is our home, and on it us humans, millions and millions of us, live side by side. Yet imagine that somewhere in the furthest reaches of space, there is another kind of planet, where another kind of creature lives, just as complicated and just as confused as we are. Look. In front of you is a small, pink animal, with a long nose and little black eyes, her head on one side and her ears pricked up.

This is a Clanger. She's just like you and me. Her name is Tiny Clanger.

Oh, look. What can this be?

Tiny Clanger doesn't know either. Her head is on one side and one of her ears is quirked. Space is full of debris, but nothing that has landed on her planet has looked quite like this. It's a small white box, with a picture on the front of the Tower of London, and a Beefeater with a plumed hat. Tiny Clanger has never seen either of these things before. But, look. There is something inside the box. It's a sheet of white cardboard, with a picture of three hearts. The hearts are dancing.

"Whuuut?" says Tiny Clanger.

There is another card, with a picture of nine black spades, and another, with three black clubs, and then one with four diamonds, and then a Queen with a golden crown, and a single ace with a pork-pie hat and a crooked grin. Tiny Clanger looks at the cards. She prods them. Then she turns the box upside down, and forty-seven more cards spill out. She can't eat them. She can't wear them. What use can they possibly be?

Tiny Clanger begins to build a house. Firstly, she leans one card against another. Then, she makes a box. It's a room. But when Tiny Clanger tries to make another room, the cards fall down.

"Whro. Whrut?" says Tiny Clanger.

But who is coming towards her? It's Mother Clanger. Mother Clanger knows how to make a house. She picks up two of the cards, and makes a tent. Then she makes another one. She puts two cards on top of both tents to make a roof. Then she makes another tent.

"Whret whee!" squeaks Tiny Clanger.

So Tiny Clanger makes a house. It's a tall house. It has many rooms. Tiny Clanger is very proud of her house. She makes sure all the corners are straight and the roof firmly fixed. She makes small chairs and tables from broken aerials and cotton wool. She moves some cards around, so that some of the rooms are made from hearts and others from diamonds.

Tiny Clanger's house is empty.

But, look, here comes Small Clanger. His ears are flat. Small Clanger points at the house, and then he points at himself. Small Clanger wants to move into Tiny Clanger's house. But he's too big!

"Whroe!!" says Tiny Clanger.

Small Clanger's ears droop, but Tiny Clanger doesn't notice. She's too busy making a soup kitchen from pen lids.

Wait. Who is this? It's the Iron Chicken. She clanks and rattles towards Tiny Clanger's house of cards. The Iron Chicken is heavy and spiky all over, and her beak is sharp. She's much bigger than any of Tiny Clanger's rooms, but she still cocks her head on one side and curls her wingtip tentatively towards the door.

Tiny Clanger says, "Whuret whru whrig."

The Iron Chicken's wings sag. She whirrs. When she flies away, she's even more jerky than usual, so close to the ground that her feet drag in the dust.

Tiny Clanger is alone. Her house is beautiful, but no-one is living there. The spades are so bored they're playing Old Maid in the corner, and the Jacks are all asleep. And Tiny Clanger is hungry, but there is no-one to fetch soup or eat it with. Scratching her head, Tiny Clanger looks at her house.

But who is this, coming around the corner? It's the Baby Soup Dragon. He's small enough to fit inside Tiny Clanger's house!

But the Baby Soup Dragon is very bouncy. Tiny Clanger looks at her house, and at the dragon. She can't make up her mind.

Too late!

"Brruble," says the Baby Soup Dragon, and knocks the house down.

"Whelp!" says Tiny Clanger.

But as she watches, all the little pictures on the cards shake and jiggle and slide themselves free. The diamonds flatten themselves into a small carpet, wriggle their tassels, and fly away. The hearts form a chorus line, and dance their way around the curve of the planet, going, going gone. And when Tiny Clanger looks back, the clubs have lined up into ranks and are marching in the opposite direction, while the spades are making themselves into a rocket. In seconds, they've blasted into the sky.

"Wo," says Tiny Clanger, a little sadly, and goes back to her burrow. Mother Clanger has kept her the last of the blue string pudding, and Small Clanger is waiting to play ball, but Tiny Clanger's ears droop and her shoulders are sagging, and her feet drag as she plods to her burrow. She even ignores the buzz of the radio communicator.

Tiny Clanger sleeps. But, look! What's that? It's the Iron Chicken. She's flying down to Tiny Clanger's burrow. And what's that in her beak? Is it a space worm? Is it string? No! It's a feather. A bright blue feather. There's only one bird in the galaxy with feathers like that, the Lesser Spotted Misslebird.

The Iron Chicken tiptoes to Tiny Clanger's door and lays the feather on her threshold. But the Iron Chicken cannot tiptoe. Her pinions rattle, her bolts squeak, and her comb jangles. Even her feet clank. By the time she's stretched her wings to float away, dustbin lids all around the burrow are beginning to open and Clanger noses are beginning to peep out. Major Clanger sniffs. Small Clanger prods at the feather.

What on earth is the Iron Chicken doing? It's very peculiar.

Now she's coming back. This time, she has a beakful of iron filings and wire wool. She puts them next to the feather. Next time, she brings yak fur and shreds of silver tinsel. Grandma Clanger opens up her deck chair, settles down, and starts knitting. Mother Clanger polishes the soup mugs while she watches. Even the Soup Dragons are staring from the top of the burrow wall, and the Froglets peeping over the brim of their top hat. Still the Iron Chicken flies back and forth, bringing little glass beads and anodised bolts, pine needles and bright pink fur and a tissue-paper thin sheet of music. Finally, she brings a small samovar and a teapot, two cups and saucers and a milk jug and a sugar bowl with a pair of tongs and a milk jug. And a small, pink cushion.

Look. Now she's pulling at the wire wool, pushing the bolt into place, and fluffing the feather. What can she be doing? It looks as if she's making a nest. But the Iron Chicken already has a nest. It's spiky and cold, just the way she likes it to be, because the Iron Chicken is made of iron.

This nest is for Tiny Clanger.

Just in time, the Iron Chicken settles down in the hollow between the tinsel and the fur. Tiny Clanger is waking up. She's stretching. Her nose wrinkles. Now she's opening the dustbin lid door of her burrow and looking out. Tiny Clanger still looks sad: her ears are still limp, and her nose is a little soggy at the end.

"Whirrira?" says Tiny Clanger quietly, when she sees the Iron Chicken on the new nest.

The Iron Chicken clucks, very softly. She dips her head, and spreads out her wings, every pinion angled towards Tiny Clanger. Her tail is almost upright, spread out to make an elegant metal fan. Around the comb on her head, the Iron Chicken has twisted tiny pieces of copper wire, and her gold necklace is around her neck.

Tiny Clanger doesn't know what to do. She shuffles her feet and scratches behind her ears.

Rattling her bolts, the Iron Chicken snaps her tail backwards and forwards. Her beak's a little open, bent almost to the blue barbs of the feather and tilted sideways, and her eyes are very bright.

"Why whrree whruine?" says Tiny Clanger, holding out her hands.

On top of the wall, the Soup Dragon has been watching with her hands folded under her chin, smiling. Now she climbs down into the burrow. There's a soup mug in her hand filled with flowers, and the Soup Dragon has to be careful to keep it upright when she hugs Tiny Clanger. Then, she gives Tiny Clanger the mug, and pushes her towards the Iron Chicken.

"Whrery?" says Tiny Clanger, glancing at Mother Clanger. "Whrine?"

The Iron Chicken lowers her head a little more and peers up over the feather. The metal spikes of her comb sway a little, copper wire glinting.

Tiny Clanger takes a firm grip on the soup mug and marches over to the nest. She climbs over the steel wool and tinsel, and rolls down, still holding the mug, to lie under the shelter of the Iron Chicken's wing.

"Cleck," says the Iron Chicken, lets her beak rest on Tiny Clanger's head, and closes her eyes.

Very slowly, Tiny Clanger tucks the mug on top of the cushion and reaches up to wrap both her arms around the Iron Chicken. She wriggles. Her toes curl. She sighs. And then, suddenly, Tiny Clanger is limp all over, happily asleep.