Princess Rosemary and the Witch of Hampton Wick by Ann Hayton

A Modern Fairy Tale

Rosemary was not actually a princess, not in the strictest sense of being born of the blood royal, but everyone who knew her agreed that she was as much of a princess as any of them, and more so than most. A perfect princess was what she appeared to be and the world treated her as one.

It was as if the stars had kissed her as she lay in her cradle, giving her the magical gift of inspiring love and admiration in everyone she met. From the old ladies and occasional gentlemen who would bend, entranced, over her pram to make foolish noises of devotion, to the teachers at her primary school who worshipped her sunniness, her shiny hair and unscuffed shoes, her stellar reading ability, and her kindness to less fortunate pupils, everyone adored her. Of course they did.

Anyone else would have had their head turned by all this and become thoroughly spoilt and unpleasant. But Rosemary was a princess inside and out and, like all the best princesses, she was as good as she was beautiful. She seemed hardly to notice all the attention, or that the mirror gleamed back at her with an image of perfection. She was as good and pure and unspoiled as water.

The magic continued as she grew older: Her skin never bubbled with spots and grease the way the other girls’ did. She grew naturally into her woman’s body, swelling gently and warmly as fruit in the sun, without any of the lumpiness and gawkiness of her friends. A fluttering of likes and compliments accompanied every picture she posted  – although she remained a little bit mysterious and didn’t post much. Boys, and then men, competed for her attention and fought each other for her smile. Sometimes these fights became physically violent, and when that happened Rosemary would cry with sympathy, each of the tears falling like a pearl to solace the pain of the winner as well as the wounds of the loser.

Despite all this male clamour, at twenty years old Rosemary had not yet found her prince. She was working by now in an estate agency because, these days, even princesses have to earn a living. And it was at the estate agency that she first laid eyes on George.

George, in fact, owned the estate agency, which meant he was very rich and drove about in a low, shiny car that drew admiring glances wherever he went. And of course, he was captivated by Rosemary from the moment she stepped into the office on her first day. That smooth skin, flawless as the outside of a pearl, that soft voice like the song of a bird! Her frail, vulnerable wrists hurt him unbearably. He told himself there was something very moving about youth. He began to advise her about all sorts of things, because he was older and wiser and far more experienced in dealing with the world. Rosemary thanked him and took extra care when she made his morning coffee and afternoon tea so that they were exactly as he preferred them. She balanced biscuits in the saucer and laughed at all his jokes. There was a little problem with her tax code when she first started the job, and George was seized with joy to be able to sort it out for her. Whereupon Rosemary was even more grateful and left a card for him on his desk in which she’d written “love from Rosemary”, together with a small, chaste, neat row of ‘X’s.

George experienced a curious feeling in his chest whenever he thought about her, as if his heart was literally growing bigger. He longed for more problems to sort out for her. Not just a faulty tax code, but difficult, dangerous things. At the same time, he was uneasily conscious that her youth and her perfect princess beauty made him look like a grizzled old bear whenever he stood beside her (which was as often as possible). So as the weeks passed, and then the months, he did sit-ups in the mornings to make his belly corrugated taut and firm again, and he cut his hair short so no one would think he was ashamed of growing bald (and, hopefully, not even notice). He started using moisturiser and flossing his teeth. He bought new clothes from a shop Rosemary told him about and of whose existence he had previously been wholly unaware.

Love for Rosemary surrounded him like perfume, intoxicated him like wine. The world exploded into colour after a lifetime in black and white. George was in love with Princess Rosemary and, miraculously, after a discreet interval, it appeared that Rosemary had fallen in love with him. George’s blood sang as he went about his mundane daily tasks in the estate agency. It was as though he had been asleep for years and Rosemary had come along just in time with her youth and her beauty and woken him up with a single row of kisses.

There was only one problem: Patricia, his wife of twenty years.

Of course, it was easy to see why George had fallen so hard and so fast for Rosemary. His life at home in Hampton Wick with Pat had not been a bed of marital roses, or even of comfort, for some time. Pat had altered almost beyond recognition since the boys had left home. Aimed like arrows since infancy at Good Universities and Solid Professional Careers, both Toby and Will were dutifully working their way through college courses (Toby, medicine; Will, law) and, as soon as Will had left, Pat had abruptly given up the domesticity that had consumed her since their birth. She barely cooked anymore and the fridge was usually close to empty. From a friend she had acquired a kitten which had grown rapidly into a large orange cat with a penetrating voice and a lashing tail. She had got a job in a plant nursery that specialised in medicinal herbs and was training to become a magistrate. She had let her grey grow out. She drank red wine on week nights and she read books instead of hoovering up the cat hair.

You couldn’t accuse George of not attempting to resurrect things. He’d gone to La Senza and bought her camisoles and nighties in a variety of colours – pistachio, eau de nil, petrol blue – but Patricia never wore them. She suffered with the cold; at night she slept in socks and cotton T shirts and pyjama trousers so old and soft with washing the stripes had faded to white. It was as if, now freed by age from the waxing and waning of the moon’s cycles and the need to constantly have an answer to the question “what’s for dinner?”, she no longer even felt like trying to be a proper woman. No wonder that George, neglected and lonely, found so much to love in the slender wholesome sweetness of Rosemary.

He navigated life with the certainty of an experienced captain at the helm of a ship. His mastery of waiters and his skilful reverse parking left her breathless.

As for Rosemary, she was happier when she was with George than she was anywhere else on earth. He was so assured and confident. He navigated life with the certainty of an experienced captain at the helm of a ship. His mastery of waiters and his skilful reverse parking left her breathless. There was a slight, scintillating spice of danger too: Rosemary enjoyed feeling fragile and delicate in his bear-like embrace, as though she were made of china and might smash. George, she decided, was the man she wanted, for always and forever.

Naturally, as an estate agent, the question of a flat for Rosemary to live in while George got on with the unpleasant business of divorcing his wife was easily solved. A top floor flat in a purpose-built block in a good part of Twickenham was obtained on a rolling monthly lease, and Rosemary gratefully accepted the keys and set about the task of making it beautiful with plants and pictures and candles that burnt with flowery scents. She had the instinct that all princesses have, the gift of being able to turn a space into somewhere everyone wants to be: glowing, comfortable, warm. George loved visiting. When he slipped his key into the lock, picturing the dainty scented room behind the door, he experienced a thrill of satisfaction and anticipation like nothing he’d known before. The thought that Rosemary was there waiting for him, relaxing against the bright cushions of the sofa, or delicately occupied in the kitchen, or even rising, like Aphrodite from a cloud of bubbles in the bathtub, made him almost delirious with happiness.

One evening, when they were lying on the sofa after a particularly delicious dinner that Rosemary had cooked, George began to talk about their incredible luck in finding each other and the rosy future they would have together. Patricia, George told Rosemary, had been informed about everything. She’d been upset, naturally. Naturally, he repeated, feeling again the glow that comes with possession of something rare and beautiful. But she was a sensible woman and would soon get over it and accept the inevitable. A sensible woman, he said again, a little doubtfully, remembering that over the last year some of Patricia’s actions had been very far from sensible. That bloody cat, for example. The ridiculous job in the nursery. But, whatever else she was, Patricia was not a fool.  She would accept it in the end as a fait accompli: George and Rosemary. A match made in heaven. A fairy tale ending.

Rosemary was doing yoga when the doorbell rang. Delicately uncurling herself from the pigeon pose, she pulled on a sweatshirt (Rosemary was a modest princess) and went to open the door.

A woman stood there, a woman of thin build and colourless hair, her face a careful bland mask. She was surrounded by luggage: three large suitcases, two blue Ikea bags and several holdalls and smaller bags. She must have made several journeys up and down the stairs before ringing the doorbell, Rosemary realised, and something about the purposefulness of this made her heart start to thump about in the cage of her ribs like a trapped bird.

‘I’m Pat, George’s wife,’ the woman said.

Rosemary tried to smile or to say something, but both were impossible. She was frozen, right there in the doorway of the beautiful flat that George had chosen for her.

‘I don’t want to talk,’ the woman continued, ‘but here are some of his things. He can collect the rest. I’ve written you a letter. Good luck.’

She turned and went down the stairs, leaving the air disturbed and jangling behind her.

Rosemary saw the corner of a white envelope sticking out from one of the Ikea bags. She picked it up and opened it with hands that trembled. Nobody had ever said a harsh word to Rosemary in the whole of her twenty years of life and she was afraid of what the letter might contain, afraid of finding pages of accusing bitterness and vitriol. She was gripped by fear as she began to read.

Dear Rosemary,

George has informed me that he no longer wants to be married to me and instead plans to live with you and marry you. As a result, I am delivering to you some of his clothes, toiletries and medication.

I have no hard feelings towards you, so I thought I’d let you know a few things in case George hasn’t mentioned them. They might prove useful.

Firstly, there’s a month’s supply here of George’s Allopurinol (for gout) and Omeprazole (for acid indigestion and heartburn). He’s had gout so many times now that the GP suggested he take the Allopurinol daily to prevent another attack, and we’ve found that the same is true of the Omeprazole. If he doesn’t take this every day he gets terrible heartburn and thinks he’s having a heart attack. The ambulance people got quite fed up with him in the end.

I’ve also popped a couple of tubes of special roll-on deodorant into his toilet bag – it’s very expensive and stains clothes I’m afraid, but he has to have it. He suffers from acute hyperhidrosis and he was always wet through by 10 am and, frankly, didn’t smell very nice, till we discovered this deodorant. So it’s worth every penny, I think. It does make clothes stiff under the arms but, if you soak everything for 24 hours before washing, they should be ok.

I’ve also included his nasal dilators. He wears them at night to reduce snoring – they make a sort of vent to keep his nostrils open. They’re not 100%, but he’s a lot louder without them.  We’ve got a spare room, which helps, but I expect you’ve only got the one bedroom at the moment, so they should come in handy.

Finally, I don’t know if George has mentioned it to you, but he suffers quite badly with IBS.  It’s ok if he completely avoids bread or anything with wheat, but if he does inadvertently eat gluten, you’re likely to find quite a bit of staining on underpants, sheets etc. Sometimes it’s easier just to throw them out, if it’s really bad, but otherwise soaking overnight in a bleach solution will sometimes do the trick. And definitely avoid eggs. He likes them and will eat them if he gets the chance, but the consequences are embarrassing for him and unpleasant for everyone else.

Yours sincerely,

Patricia Weatherley.

The letter fluttered from Rosemary’s hands like a falling leaf. She leaned against the frame of the door because her legs, she found, were shaking. Sorrow filled her throat and spilled like pearls from her eyes. Nothing in her whole life as a princess had made her feel so much sadness.

The wicked witch had turned her prince into a frog.

Ann Hayton is a retired health visitor, occupying her new and delightful freedom with dog walks, running, and writing. Her first novel ‘The Other Side of the Whale Road’, a YA historical fantasy, was published in 2021 by Eye books. The novel was shortlisted for the 2022 East Anglian book awards.