Home > Smoke and Mirrors(8)

Smoke and Mirrors(8)
Author: Neil Gaiman

Snow, Glass, Apples

This is another story that began life in Neil Philip’s The Penguin Book of English Folktales. I was reading it in the bath, and I read a story I must have read a thousand times before. (I still have the illustrated version of the story I owned when I was three.) But that thousand and first reading was the charm, and I started to think about the story, all back to front and wrong way around. It sat in my head for a few weeks and then, on a plane, I began to write the story in longhand. When the plane landed, the story was three-quarters done, so I checked into my hotel and sat in a chair in a corner of my room and just kept writing until it was done.

It was published by DreamHaven Press in a limited-edition booklet that benefited the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (an organization that defends the First Amendment rights of comics creators, publishers, and retailers). Poppy Z. Brite reprinted it in her anthology Love in Vein II.

I like to think of this story as a virus. Once you’ve read it, you may never be able to read the original story in the same way again.

I’d like to thank Greg Ketter, whose DreamHaven Press published several of these stories in Angels and Visitations, a small-press miscellany of fiction, book reviews, journalism, and stuff I’d written, and who published others as two chapbooks to benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

I want to thank the multitude of editors who commissioned, accepted, and reprinted the various stories in this book, and to all the beta-testers (you know who you are) who put up with my handing them, faxing them or e-mailing them stories, and who read what I sent them and told me, often in no uncertain terms, what needed fixing. To them all, my thanks. Jennifer Hershey shepherded this book from an idea to reality with patience, charm, and editorial wisdom. I cannot thank her enough.

Each of these stories is a reflection of or on something and is no more solid than a breath of smoke. They’re messages from Looking-Glass Land and pictures in the shifting clouds: smoke, and mirrors, that’s all they are. But I enjoyed writing them, and they, in their turn, I like to imagine, appreciate being read.


—Neil Gaiman,

December 1997


Mrs. Whitaker found the Holy Grail; it was under a fur coat.

Every Thursday afternoon Mrs. Whitaker walked down to the post office to collect her pension, even though her legs were no longer what they were, and on the way back home she would stop in at the Oxfam Shop and buy herself a little something.

The Oxfam Shop sold old clothes, knickknacks, oddments, bits and bobs, and large quantities of old paperbacks, all of them donations: secondhand flotsam, often the house clearances of the dead. All the profits went to charity.

The shop was staffed by volunteers. The volunteer on duty this afternoon was Marie, seventeen, slightly overweight, and dressed in a baggy mauve jumper that looked like she had bought it from the shop.

Marie sat by the till with a copy of Modern Woman magazine, filling out a “Reveal Your Hidden Personality” questionnaire. Every now and then, she’d flip to the back of the magazine and check the relative points assigned to an A), B), or C) answer before making up her mind how she’d respond to the question.

Mrs. Whitaker puttered around the shop.

They still hadn’t sold the stuffed cobra, she noted. It had been there for six months now, gathering dust, glass eyes gazing balefully at the clothes racks and the cabinet filled with chipped porcelain and chewed toys.

Mrs. Whitaker patted its head as she went past.

She picked out a couple of Mills & Boon novels from a bookshelf—Her Thundering Soul and Her Turbulent Heart, a shilling each—and gave careful consideration to the empty bottle of Mateus Rosé with a decorative lampshade on it before deciding she really didn’t have anywhere to put it.

She moved a rather threadbare fur coat, which smelled badly of mothballs. Underneath it was a walking stick and a water-stained copy of Romance and Legend of Chivalry by A. R. Hope Moncrieff, priced at five pence. Next to the book, on its side, was the Holy Grail. It had a little round paper sticker on the base, and written on it, in felt pen, was the price: 30p.

Mrs. Whitaker picked up the dusty silver goblet and appraised it through her thick spectacles.

“This is nice,” she called to Marie.

Marie shrugged.

“It’d look nice on the mantelpiece.”

Marie shrugged again.

Mrs. Whitaker gave fifty pence to Marie, who gave her ten pence change and a brown paper bag to put the books and the Holy Grail in. Then she went next door to the butcher’s and bought herself a nice piece of liver. Then she went home.

The inside of the goblet was thickly coated with a brownish-red dust. Mrs. Whitaker washed it out with great care, then left it to soak for an hour in warm water with a dash of vinegar added.

Then she polished it with metal polish until it gleamed, and she put it on the mantelpiece in her parlor, where it sat between a small soulful china basset hound and a photograph of her late husband, Henry, on the beach at Frinton in 1953.

She had been right: It did look nice.

For dinner that evening she had the liver fried in breadcrumbs with onions. It was very nice.

The next morning was Friday; on alternate Fridays Mrs. Whitaker and Mrs. Greenberg would visit each other. Today it was Mrs. Greenberg’s turn to visit Mrs. Whitaker. They sat in the parlor and ate macaroons and drank tea. Mrs. Whitaker took one sugar in her tea, but Mrs. Greenberg took sweetener, which she always carried in her handbag in a small plastic container.

“That’s nice,” said Mrs. Greenberg, pointing to the Grail. “What is it?”

“It’s the Holy Grail,” said Mrs. Whitaker. “It’s the cup that Jesus drunk out of at the Last Supper. Later, at the Crucifixion, it caught His precious blood when the centurion’s spear pierced His side.”

Mrs. Greenberg sniffed. She was small and Jewish and didn’t hold with unsanitary things. “I wouldn’t know about that,” she said, “but it’s very nice. Our Myron got one just like that when he won the swimming tournament, only it’s got his name on the side.”

“Is he still with that nice girl? The hairdresser?”

“Bernice? Oh yes. They’re thinking of getting engaged,” said Mrs. Greenberg.

“That’s nice,” said Mrs. Whitaker. She took another macaroon.

Mrs. Greenberg baked her own macaroons and brought them over every alternate Friday: small sweet light brown biscuits with almonds on top.

They talked about Myron and Bernice, and Mrs. Whitaker’s nephew Ronald (she had had no children), and about their friend Mrs. Perkins who was in hospital with her hip, poor dear.

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