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THE MAGIC FIREPLACE


Once upon a time there were three billy goats gruff. In fact they were not billy goats, neither were they gruff, but they were three sisters and they lived in a flat in a place called Edinburgh. Now this flat had a room called, ‘the sitting room’ and when the three sisters had filled the sitting room with their toys and their books and their half-finished homework they would often think to themselves, “wouldn’t it be nice if we could go somewhere new and spread all our things about somewhere else”.

But, to get down to business. In the sitting room, right in the centre of the big wall was the most magnificent fireplace with tiles that gleamed white and red against black. People who saw this fireplace would often say, or think to themselves, I bet that fireplace could tell us a lot of interesting stories if we knew how to make it speak. But the point was this; every so often it did speak, and quite clearly too, if you knew how to listen.


Do you remember the old telephone numbers,

or the colours of stamps?

Does a tree remember its rings,

or the winds on its bark?

Do you remember voices and laughter?

Does the hillside remember the echoes?

And do you remember the way that we met?

Does the fireside ever forget the blaze on the hearth?



For Josephine, Elinor and Clara.


 Little billy goat gruff.


One day the littlest billy goat gruff came clip-clopping up to the fireplace wearing a pair of brightly coloured shoes and looking as if she were, as she would have put it, ‘the king of the castle’, or, as we might say, the bee’s knees. It was something about the tapping of the shoes in the hard floor that woke up the troll.  He lived on the other side of the tiles and he often saw the billy goats gruff and wondered what they were going to do next. Now he just stood there as the littlest billy goat gruff clip-clopped up to him and looked him right in the eye with that special look she had. He felt he had to say something and this is what came out. “I’m a troll, fol-di-”, but he had hardly got this far when she started to laugh and say “nooooohhh”. This rather took the troll aback, it was not at all what he had expected, though if he had been paying more attention he should have expected it. So then he had to think of something else and he said, “would you like to come clip-clopping over my bridge to the land behind the fireplace?” and again the littlest billy goat gruff looked at him as though he had gone completely mad, but that the next move was up to him, so he just stepped aside and there was a rickety old wooden bridge leading back into another beautiful room with lots of toys and interesting playthings.

The difference was that they were all packed away, not exactly neatly, but in all sorts of boxes and looking as though they were more than ready to come tumbling out. At the sight of this, the littlest billy goat gruff said, “Please Mr Troll, I’m only the littlest billy goat gruff. If you wait here I will go and get my sister, the middle billy goat gruff; she will be able to empty these toys onto the floor much quicker than me”. So the troll said, “all right, just run along then”.

 It was then that he noticed something that had been at the back of his mind for some time and he said, “please littlest billy goat gruff, if you don’t mind, you have got your shoes on the wrong feet” Again the littlest billy goat gruff looked at him as though he had been speaking in a foreign language (of course she knew all about these), but she didn’t say anything; instead a little tear started to form in the corner or her right eye. Now the troll didn’t know what to do. The thought that he had made someone else unhappy made him feel like crying himself, but of course, as you know, trolls don’t cry even under the most difficult circumstances. So he said, “I’m sorry. You haven’t got your shoes on the wrong feet at all, what I meant to say was, you’ve got the wrong shoes on the right feet”. So the littlest billy goat gruff looked at him again and amazingly enough, the tear went back in. If you had been there, you would have seen it. She thought to herself, “he’s not such a silly troll after all”. Then she took her shoes off and gave them both quite a hard whack with a plastic hammer that just happened to be lying close by and looked at the troll with that kind of questioning expression which said. “All right then, what are we going to do next?”

 The troll thought for a minute and said, “these shoes are not being very sensible. You see all those pretty flowers. The shoes think that they should be where they can see each other, even though clever children think the flowers would want to be where we see them and even can get to pick them”. Then the littlest billy goat gruff turned this over in her mind. Of course she knew that she had been right all the time and she wasn’t going to let a pair of shoes have their own way if she could help it. So after a while, just sitting there and looking at the troll, she started to grin and together they put the shoes on to her feet and off she went, clip-clop to fetch the middle billy goat gruff, but when they ran back into the room, there was no troll to be seen.

One thing that people noticed from then on was that the littlest billy goat gruff always put her shoes on the right feet, and if she ever saw another billy goat with her shoes on the wrong way round, a very strange, some would even say, haughty, look could appear on her face for just an instant.


Middle billy goat gruff


 The thing people did not seem to take in was that it was the middle billy goat gruff who found the magic of the fireplace first. One day she was sad because her father had to visit a distant country where he was to meet a group of people who were wanting to find out why we did not have much snow any more and to see what could be done about it. She sat looking at the old tiled fireplace. She often did this after she had finished polishing the coloured tiles which made such a warm pattern of white and red flowers, some with green centres and some without. Suddenly she felt the urge to press the middle of one of the white flowers and as she did so it was as though the tile melted and her finger passed right through it. In an instant it seemed that the hearth was filled with a blazing fire and then she noticed that the two lions with long feathered tails that spent all day sleeping in the iron pattern of the grate, stirred themselves and turned towards her grinning. Their soft paws pushed aside the flames and revealed a whole new country behind them.


 Suddenly she found herself in a place she had never seen before. High mountains were covered nearly to their tops with creamy snow and, in the distance, tiny figures, wearing brightly coloured clothes were skiing down the slopes shouting and laughing. Their faces were almost completely hidden by brightly edged visors, rather like the ones she had seen people using at the seaside, but deepest black so that you could not see anyone’s eyes. They came closer and closer and, when they were nearest to her, the tallest, although not perhaps the most elegant, seemed to lose control and skid headlong into a snowdrift just beside her. Muttering a few words in what appeared to be a foreign language, he pulled himself up and removed his sun visor tobrush the snow off it so that he could see again and as he did so his wind-burnt face turned towards her and there was what might have been called a rather sheepish expression which almost immediately turned to surprise mixed with astonishment. Then he brushed himself down and called out the rest of the group who had stopped to wait for him some way down below her. Some of them had removed their visors also and seemed to be laughing and joking. She could not make out what it was all about, although she guessed that whatever they had seen must be very funny indeed and she started to grin as well Then she took a step backwards and found her finger pressing against the white flower of the tile, but somehow she didn’t feel lonely more.

 That was the reason why, when littlest billy goat gruff came rushing through in a state of great excitement saying something about a troll and shoes and looking extremely pleased with herself, it was only middle billy goat gruff who had any idea as to what it might mean.  As this was  by no means the first time that an over-excited little billy goat had rushed into her room saying something that no one could understand, middle billy goat gruff was not too surprised to find that there was nothing in the fireplace at all, but she did something none of the others would have done, not even her little sister; she kept thinking about it. Every time she came into the sitting room she would look at the fireplace at least once to see if she could remember what was strange about it.


 Now think about the poor troll. He had encountered one member of this family and you would have thought that that would have been enough for anyone, but he could see middle billy goat gruff and the look she seemed to be giving him every time she turned in his direction and he kept thinking to himself, “come on, come on, press the white flower again”, as though to encourage her, but what he did not know was that middle billy goat gruff never wanted to do anything she was not completely sure about. Meanwhile the troll did what he could to help, like finding things that she had lost during the day and even trying to correct her maths homework, although it must be said that trolls are not very good at sums and often it might have been better if he had minded his own business for once.

 Then one day middle billy goat gruff had what is often called spring-fever. She wanted to dust and clean everything in sight and it was not long before she turned her attention to the fireplace and while she was carefully polishing the white flowers she stopped to admire her work, and there he was. Then there was a sharp intake of breath, hand over the mouth and eyes wide with surprise and delight. “Are you the--” “troll yes I am said the troll and you must be middle billy goat gruff. I am delighted to meet you. Thank you very much for polishing my waistcoat. I had been standing there for so long that my arm was rather sore and the polishing has made it so much better. Would you like to come into my house?” “Yes I would like that very much”, said middle-sized billy goat gruff, and in they went. First the troll said, “what would you like for tea? I could make some pancakes”. “Oh yes yummy they are my favourites”. “Then we could play some games”. I don’t know how many pancakes were eaten, no one has ever said, but after tea they began to play cards.  First they played pairs and I am afraid to say that the troll was beaten hands down, but then trolls do not have very good memories, by and large. Then they played happy families and again the troll made a rather silly mistake. He had never understood that when two people are playing they both know where all the cards are. So, of course he lost at that too.

Then he said, “would you like something more to drink,” and middle billy goat gruff said, “oh yes please,” and then she said, “but only if your arm is not sore any more”. This made the troll smile because he had sometimes heard grown-ups say things like that, but it was not often  that a young person did and he was quite touched by it. Then he returned with two mugs of something that looked like a fruity drink and although it had bits in it, middle billy goat gruff had to admit that it tasted delicious. While she was drinking it she took another long look at the troll and she said, “I do like your waistcoat”. At this the troll was as pleased as punch and even puffed himself up a little. Then he realised something. He had been going to suggest another card game. This time one called, find-the-lady, but it gradually dawned on him that he was in for another disastrous defeat if he was not careful, so he said. “We really need someone else if we are going to play this game, but I don’t think little billy goat gruff is up to it. Is there anybody else who would do?” Middle billy goat gruff thought for a while, biting her lip and pulling strange faces, as folk often do when there are difficult decisions to be made, and she said, “well there is big billy goat gruff, but I am not sure if she would come”. So the troll said,” I expect she will, you just go and ask her”. But trolls have quite short memories and by the time middle-sized billy goat gruff returned, dragging after her a reluctant big billy goat gruff, there was no troll to be seen anywhere.



Big billy goat gruff


As we all know, there are brave trolls and less brave trolls. Our troll was certainly not one of the bravest and the thought of meeting big billy goat gruff was something he kept putting to the back of his mind. And, course, there was one person who had heard both of these stories, but did not believe a word of them, or at least that is what she said, although sometimes she would say things like that just to wind people up, as she put it. In any case big billy goat gruff had lots and lots of things to do, and she liked to do them the hard way. To take one example, getting out of her bed. Sometimes when she did this she would stretch herself and groan several times then slowly climb down from her bunk bed and walk past people without noticing them. What they perhaps did not realise was that although big billy goat gruff had got out of bed, her mind was still safely beneath the sheets and she had to wait, often for up to an hour, before it decided to join her. It was at times like this that she would wander into any room and sit down in front of something and just press a few buttons.

 So it was quite inevitable that one fine morning she would place herself in front of what ought to have been the television set, but instead was the fireplace. The troll had braced himself for this experience several times before, but today it happened and as it turned out, it was not so bad after all. Trolls are notoriously thick-skulled and it takes a lot to get through to them, so under the circumstances they were quite evenly matched. The conversation, if that is what it can be called, went something like this. “Who are you?” “I’m the troll.”  “You what?” “I’m the troll and I live in this fireplace. I always have done”. “You what?” Big billy goat gruff often said things twice, even when she had heard them the first time, it had something to do with her mind catching up with her. By this time it was indeed awake, climbing out of bed and coming to join them. It was even quite eager, as it often was when it finally twigged what was going on. In fact it was now going at full speed. Firing on all four cylinders as they called it.

 She had read quite a lot about trolls and knew about their ways, so naturally she was wondering what was in it for her. Apart from that she thought that he must be very lonely with no-one to talk to. So this is what she said. “Middle billy goat gruff said that you showed her your house. You don’t live behind the tiles do you?” And the troll, who was quite proud of his apartment, as he called it, said, “yes I do, would you like to come in?” The next minute they were both inside. You could see his point of view, it was very comfortable in many ways, and untidy enough to be cosy, but the walls were really quite bare. There were no pictures anywhere.


This was just what big billy goat gruff had hoped for, so she started on phase two of her plan. She said, “yes it is very nice here, but you could do with some pictures about the place”. The troll, who had never thought about this before, suddenly looked quite downcast and big billy goat gruff even thought he might be going to cry, so she said, “never mind, but I’ll tell you what, if you want I could draw your picture for you, I could even do it right now”. But the thing was, she knew that trolls were very proud and also very generous and they would never ever take something for nothing, so although he started to smile at the thought of having his very own picture, he felt sad almost immediately when he realised he had nothing suitable to give in return. Big billy goat gruff had thought about this already and was waiting for the next step. She said, “I know what, there is another fireplace in my room, if you wanted to, you could come there, perhaps once a week, and help me tidy up my room”.

 And that was it, they shook hands on the deal and within almost less time than it takes to tell, big billy goat gruff had drawn a very nice picture of the troll and presented it to him. As for the troll, he was very happy with the deal, and although he kept hoping that big billy goat gruff would give him some more pictures, he was too polite to ask. So that is the end of the story. If you don’t believe it you have only to go to a certain flat in Edinburgh and if you look around the rooms, there is just one that, once every week, looks as though a troll has been tidying it up.

No, that is not quite all. Because big billy goat gruff did feel that she might have taken advantage of the troll’s good nature, she promised herself that she would draw some more pictures for him and indeed in that very same room, any time you go there you may find half-finished pictures of trolls lying around.



Three billy goats gruff


 One day the three billy goats gruff were playing together in the sitting room. This time they were having a concert. Big billy goat gruff had tuned up her violin, middle billy goat gruff was singing a very sweet and tuneful song, whilst little billy goat gruff, who had by far the loudest voice, was making some rather raucous sounds.

 They had forgotten about the troll for the moment, but he was there, watching it all. Like all trolls he had what are called, ‘cloth ears’. That is he did not hear music in the way most of us do. Sometimes the billy goats’ mum would come in and play and he would think, what’s the point, she’s doing it all perfectly, probably just like it says to in that book she has there. I really don’t see the point of that, anyone could do it. He much preferred it when one of his three young friends sat next to her and she began to say, “that was dreadful, or you’re not counting at all”. He felt that in some way known only to musicians these must be great compliments, because who would want to count when they could be just bashing away. Besides, when the three billy goats were playing alone and all doing different pieces as loud as possible it reminded him of something. What it was he could not quite say, but something like this; steep green  hillsides, rocks and cliffs, animals grazing and playing and calling to each other. Then there was the heavy rushing sound and now the rhythmic drumming, light and fast at first and accompanied by a small shrill sound, now becoming louder and more measured with a more mellow accompaniment and now heavier, slower again, then becoming faster and faster. Now the sound of clashing cymbals and then the words, quiet and thin, “another time, another place”. Still he liked it here; there was always something new to see and now the three billy goats were playing with a kind of desperation as though the end of the world were coming and that by ignoring it they could put it off.

     

 Their mum was in the shower room. Tonight she would be going out to a long-delayed combined birthday, valentines day and wedding anniversary dinner. At this moment she was washing her hair and soon there was something she was going to be needing and any minute now she would be coming to get it.

 The conversation opened innocently enough with, “have any of you girls seen my curling tongs?” Strange to say, little billy goat gruff was quickest to see a possible means of escape. She was cheeky enough at the best of times and now came dancing up to her mum in a way especially designed to irritate grown-ups and said, “The troll has got them, he lives in the fireplace, they’re over theeer” she said pointing nonchalantly towards it. Their mum wasn’t quite sure how to take this, so she said, say that again slowly. Little billy goat gruff put on an even cheekier expression and was about to follow a course of action that she should by now have learned to regret, when middle billy goat gruff, who was feeling slightly queasy in her tummy by this time, came to the rescue. She said, “he said, the troll’s got it, he lives in the fireplace”. And then she realised what she had done and almost tried to bite her tongue. The troll was her friend. She had met him once and she was pretty sure that he had helped her on another occasion before that, although she had forgotten to ask him about it. Besides, she knew something that made her feel quite uncomfortable and she also knew that this line of approach was not going to buy very much time, in fact probably none at all.

What had happened was this. Middle billy goat gruff had a magnificent dolls-house, but after a few years of rough treatment, the paint-work was beginning to fade, and in any case much of it needed a good clean. Unfortunately middle billy goat gruff happened to mention this to big billy goat gruff on one of those not infrequent occasions when big billy goat gruff felt like responding to a new challenge. In less time that you could imagine, the dolls house was taken to big billy goat gruff’s bedroom and put down near the grate of the small fireplace there. A paint pot had been found, the newspapers spread out beside the dolls house and the job was ready to start. Small problem though. When, after a great deal of difficulty, the lid and been removed from the paint tin, it was quite clear that the paint itself had gone all lumpy and was not going to be much use. Now big billy goat gruff had one of her brain-waves. “I know what, fetch the curling tongs, we can use them to stir it and if that doesn’t work we can plug them in and warm it up. That ought to help even more”. It should be said here that big billy goat gruff had a very practical mind and often came up with some good ideas, although of few of these were not completely thought through and on occasions got her into a spot of trouble.

So, the paint was stirred and the lumps started to get smaller and smaller. Little billy goat gruff kept jumping up and down and saying, plug it in, plug it in, but big billy goat gruff, who was really a very serious and responsible person suddenly thought about this and said, “no, we will not do that because electricity is dangerous”. Little billy goat gruff wanted to cry, but she put on a brave, if rather silly, face and middle billy goat gruff gave her a comforting squeeze. Then the job was completed with a few deft brush strokes. Each billy goat had a go, indeed big billy goat gruff was very careful to let the others each have a proper turn and not to tidy up too much after them. Their mum was used to the smell of paint in the house so she was happy to see that they were very busy together.

 Then the mistake was made, and it was made like this. The curling tongs were put down on a piece of cardboard and just left in the little grate behind the wastepaper basket. Next day there were the tongs now coated with a thick skin of bright red paint, and nothing that either big billy goat gruff or middle billy goat gruff could think of seemed to be able to remove it. Needless to say, little billy goat gruff’s opinions were not asked for, even though she knew well enough what had happened. At this point both big billy goat gruff and middle billy goat gruff felt the red flush of embarrassment begin to spread upwards from the back of their necks. What was to be done now. Well nothing. Just push the tongs back into their hiding place and hope that the whole thing would go away, as experience had told them it never did.

 So here they all were in the sitting room and the denouement was clearly not very far off. Little billy goat gruff had tried her best, but middle billy goat gruff was pretty sure that the game was up. Big billy goat gruff’s mind had gone completely blank, some would say in preparation for the interrogation that she knew was about to happen, but that would be unfair. Some minds just go blank as a matter of course and big billy goat gruff’s mind was among their number. Middle billy goat gruff fidgeted uneasily, shifting from one foot to the other and biting her lip as the questioning of big billy goat gruff got under way.

 It was then that she had her bright idea and, edging towards the fireplace she rubbed her hand against the tiles and, when she thought that no one was looking, she pressed the very centre of one of the white flowers and there he was. Of course he had been standing watching and keeping his fingers crossed because although he had had dealings with the billy goats before, he loved them dearly and was hoping against hope that things would turn out all right, though, was far as he could see, they did look pretty black just now. But what could he do about it, well, up till this point, nothing. Trolls usually mind their own business unless asked, because they  are only too well aware that even with the best intentions it is possible to make things worse. There was his experience with middle billy goat gruff’s sums, for example. But here he was, face to face with his young friend and she was trying to say to him (without of course being seen to) “please Mr Troll you’ve got to help us”. So he said, “right ho”, and quick as a flash he grabbed his tool bag and was ready for action.


Then the billy goat’s mum had the most strange sensation. While she was standing there berating big billy goat gruff, and feeling fairly certain that she was dealing with the right culprit, it was as though she were in a slow motion film. When she stopped speaking, nothing happened, but each time she said a word she had the distinct impression that a little man, who had emerged from the fireplace, took one more step into the room. This rather put her off her stride, especially as by the time she had reached the end of the sentence he appeared to be going through the door and turning in the direction of the children’s room. This alone took some of the heat out of the situation and although she continued the interrogation and big billy goat gruff began to choke back a few tears, she did begin to feel quite sorry for her young brood. Then it all happened in reverse. In came the little man, a step at a time, each movement followed attentively by little billy goat gruff, who had the strange habit of putting her head on one side whenever she wanted to take a serious look at something. Middle billy goat gruff, meanwhile, was staring at the fireplace and trying to keep out of the firing line. Then, when the little man had vanished at last, the billy goat’s mum found herself saying, just go along to your room and look until you find them. If you  don’t come back in five minutes I shall be there to turn the whole place upside down.

 Even the thought of a short respite had the usual effect on big billy goat gruff. It was as though the condemned man had been reprieved, though she knew that nothing had really changed and that the moment of judgment was still coming. So when she reached her room, clutching her violin, instead of looking for what she knew she must find, she did something calculated to raise the temperature still further, she played a few high, angry, pleading notes, but just as she was doing this, she saw a silvery glint from the fireplace. Not for the first time, she couldn’t believe her eyes. There were the tongs shining as bright as a new pin and on the grate beside them, a little heap of red flakes.

 Her mum said, “just don’t take my things again without asking”, although she knew it was too much to hope for and deep down she felt the warm sensation that comes to every parent when they see their children doing their best, but knowing that the more they try to do for themselves  the more mistakes they will make.  Still she could not help wondering. Did little billy goat gruff know something that most of us do not. She often looked as though she did. What had middle billy goat gruff being doing in the fireplace and had she really seen her greeting a strange little man, almost like one of those trolls you see in children’s books. But now she had to get on; enough time had been wasted. Their father was due home and her hair must be curled before he arrived. This was to be a very special evening. The grand-parents would soon be turning up for child-minding duties and putting their things down in the hall in that especially annoying way they had. It was not so much that what they did was annoying, although it was, but the predictability of the way they did it. Still they meant well. Didn’t we all? Now there was the whole evening to look forward to. But, and this was the odd thing, it was as though someone else in the house was keeping an eye on the place and getting as much fun as anyone from all that was going on.

 The girls huddled together. They still couldn’t believe their good luck. Each of them thought that they knew what had happened, but there is nothing like telling the story over and over again to make it even more exciting. Little billy goat gruff jumped up and down and said, “it was the troll, it was the troll, I saw him first”. Middle billy goat gruff did not say much. It was difficult to when little billy goat gruff was so excited, but she had a very comfortable feeling inside and did not mind at all hearing big billy goat gruff expounding her latest theory. “It was the high notes from the violin that made the paint fall off. I know, I read about it in this book. A really high note can break glass, you know,” but the others didn’t believe her. She was not even sure she believed it herself. “I know, we can ask the grandparents about it. Grandpa is supposed to have been a scientist. He might know, but you know what he’s like. I don’t think he would explain it very well unless granny helps him. Whatever you do, no mention of any troll. They would think we were making it up!”  

 Little billy goat gruff ran to the window and climbed onto the table to see if anyone was coming, but middle billy goat gruff planned to have a quiet think before going to bed and next morning she would go to the troll and give him a little present she had made for him and ask him all about it.