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John my Hedgehog

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Not so long ago, in the wilds outside of London, there lived a couple. They had a nice house, and they had decent jobs, but the one thing they truly wanted - a child - was nowhere to be found. All of their friends would ask when they were going to settle down and start a family. One day the husband got so angry that he shouted out to the sky. "We need a child, even if it should be only a hedgehog!"

Time passed, and the wife grew round with child. With excitement, they decorated the nursery and prepared to welcome their son or daughter to the world. Nine months later, the wife gave birth, but the child was not a healthy baby boy. He was, to the immense pain of the father, half a boy and half a hedgehog. The wife was afraid, and spat at the husband, "You cursed him! You cursed our boy!" The father sighed, resigned, and said "He is our son, and we will christen him. What should we call him?"

The wife looked down at her son. "There is nothing we can call him but John my Hedgehog."

At the christening, Father McCrory looked at the strange little boy. "He'll stick to his bedclothes, he will." And he did, so they made him a little bed of straw and hay, and that's where slept.

His father grew to resent him, and he turned to the drink and yelled at John and his mum. After John came a young girl, Harriet, who was loud and demanding but blessedly normal. They favoured her, but John was never jealous. Sometimes the father wished John would die, but John was strong and stubborn, and he grew into a brave young man.

One day the father had to go away on business. He asked the mother what she wanted him to bring home, and she asked for jewellery. He asked Harriet what she wanted, and she asked for a pair of Doc Martens. He turned to John and sighed. "I suppose, John my Hedgehog, I should bring something for you. What would you like?" And John asked for a clarinet.

When his father came home and gave John the clarinet, John said "Please take the Morris to the garage for new tyres; I'll take her away and stop bothering you." His father, pleased at the prospect of getting rid of his embarrassing son and of the terrible little car, had the car re-tyred and tuned up, and when it was ready John my Hedgehog shoved his few worldly possessions in the boot and drove into the woods.

When he reached the middle of the woods, he found a place to settle down and built himself a small house. He lived peacefully for a while, with only the animals to keep him company, but he was never lonely.

One day he was sitting outside his cottage, playing his clarinet, when a man with eyes glittering and dark like a magpie, and wearing a pale suit came striding through the forest, full of eerie malice and self-importance. Following in the shadows behind him was a taller man with a military bearing and sharp eyes, scarred like a tiger.

The smaller man sent the tiger-man to John my Hedgehog. "My boss would like to know the fastest way back to the palace."

"Tell your boss I would be happy to guide you both home, in exchange for the promise of whatever should greet him first when he gets back. You will write your promise on a paper so I know I can trust you."

The man with the magpie eyes cocked his head and grinned, and thought to himself: He is half a man, he will never know what I have written.

And so, he took a pen and ink, and cackling to himself, wrote something on a piece of paper and folded it into his pocket. John my Hedgehog took them into his Morris - it was a tight fit, but they managed it - and drove them to the road that led to the palace.

In the palace there lived a lovely courtesan, but she was devoid of morals. She would often work with the man with the magpie eyes, but always as a mean to her own ends. She had been waiting for the man to come home, as she had mischief to plot. When she saw the man and his tiger-faced servant come home, she ran to the front gates of the palace to greet them.

The man with the magpie eyes told the lovely courtesan all about his adventure, and about the strange little man who had helped him. When he first told the courtesan how he'd promised her to John my Hedgehog, she looked distraught, but he soon calmed her nerves.

"What kind of ridiculous hedgehog can read, my pet? I was very clever and wrote that I would not give him whatever first greeted me."

Her laughter was like a glass bell - chiming, beautiful, but brittle and cruel.

In the meantime, John returned to his cottage and kept to himself, minding the animals and playing his clarinet when the mood took him. He was content. And then one day another group of men, lost in the forest, came across him. There was a tall man, cold and remote but he did not seem mean. He wore an elegant suit and carried an umbrella. With him was a beautiful young woman carrying a basket of blackberries and a man with silver hair like an arctic fox.

The silver fox turned to John my Hedgehog and smiled. John felt no malice from the group at all, and smiled back.

"We seem to be lost, could you help us find our way back to the House of the Government?"

John nodded and put away his clarinet. "I will gladly show you all the way, if the tall man promises to me that he will give me the first thing to meet him in front of the House."

The tall man was cool and distant, but he was honourable, and he swore to John the Hedgehog, and he meant it. And so they crammed together inside the Morris and John drove them right up to the gate.

The tall man had a brother named Sherlock, a man of great intellect and startling moonstone eyes under a shock of dark curls. He was waiting at the gate, to tell his elder brother of the great mysteries of the world he had solved while his brother was gone.

The elder brother sighed, looking down at Sherlock, and told him the strange tale of the half-man, half-hedgehog who had been kind enough to help them, and of the promise he had made. Sherlock, however, was not dismayed. He was excited at the prospect of something new, something interesting.

John my Hedgehog was back in his cottage, and as much as he had been content living alone, with only the forest animals to keep him company, he was starting to get bored. He itched for excitement, for adventure. And so, he set off to the first kingdom, to claim his reward.

The man with the magpie eyes was lying in wait. He had told all of his foot soldiers to be on the lookout for a strange little hedgehog man with a clarinet, driving a terrible little British automobile. They were told to chase him away and to shoot if necessary. But John my Hedgehog was brave, and noble, so when the foot soldiers put their targets on him, he revved his engine and crashed through the gates, right into the man's head office.

He stood his ground, and said that if he was not given what was promised to him, then he would kill both the man with the magpie eyes and the lovely courtesan. The man coaxed and pleaded with the woman, and eventually she relented, for even she feared his unstable moods.

She dressed herself all in Alexander McQueen, and the man with the magpie eyes gave her a sleek black car they headed and a lovely apartment in Belgravia. She settled into the car, with John my Hedgehog at her side.

The man with the magpie eyes was a bit put out to have lost such a loyal and capable courtesan, but he counted his losses and expected never to see her again. But it was not to be, for John was an excellent judge of character. With his spines, he tore the McQueen and pricked the courtesan's fine skin.

"Begone, woman. That's what you get for being a traitor. Go back to where you came from, I want nothing to do with you."

And she felt ashamed, for the first time in her life, and she ran off.

So John my Hedgehog got back into his Morris and headed for the House of the Government. The tall man had informed his staff that John my Hedgehog was to be welcomed with open arms, and to be escorted directly to his office on the top floor.

The tall man's brother, Sherlock, was loitering in the office when John my Hedgehog was ushered in by the lovely woman, her fingers still stained with blackberry juice. For a moment, shock was clear in his mercurial eyes, but it gave way to fascinated glee as he spun around John, studying his quills and his posture.

They sat next to each other at dinner, and John my Hedgehog had his fill of berries and toast with jam and tea, and Sherlock even deigned to pick at his food and try a bite or two. His brother smiled.

They retired to a house nearby, where a kindly old housekeeper welcomed them with open arms. She escorted them up to the top floor, where the bed awaited. Sherlock was curious and wanted to explore John's quills and paws and soft little body, but John pulled away, lest he prick Sherlock. He turned to the kindly housekeeper, and told her that when he peeled off his hedgehog skin she should toss it into the fire and keep it there, no matter how much it pained her.

As the clock struck midnight, the skin burned and charred, and the enchantment was broken. John lay in bed, his skin all black and blistered, but fully a man. The housekeeper made to call for a doctor, but Sherlock stilled her hand. Gently, he coated John's skin with oils and emollients, and tended to the burns, and before long John was glowing and pink again, although all along his back were puckered scars where the quills once were.

"I am saddened to not have a Hedgehog to study, but these scars fascinate me in their place." He ran his fingers gently over the broadest scar, across John's shoulder, and John let out a soft sigh.

And so they lived, the two of them with the housekeeper, in the little house together.