The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Spring 2011 Results

Little Nell's death scene from The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens, 'improved' into a happy ending by an alien's tool

Copyright © P.S. Cottier 2011

'For she was dead. There upon her little bed, she lay at rest. The solemn stillness was no marvel now.

She was dead. No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon. She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who had lived and suffered death.' (Dickens)

Suddenly, the heavy door burst open like an enormous wooden mushroom releasing unusually noisy spores. The biggest, and indeed the only, visible spore was in the shape of a dwarf. It seemed to be the hideously Gothic form of Quilp, and it threw a giant's shadow onto the wall; an irony that a Victorian is shamelessly free to enjoy, as the disabled had not yet had their rights to non-discrimination duly recognised in legislation, let alone in the slow-moving, even sluggish, creature we call Public Consciousness.

"Quilp I am not," said the unsightly, evil eruption into the sacred and possibly angel-infested scene, who seemed to have the useful ability to overhear the narrator. He spoke in a curious, back-to-front sentence structure, which might have reminded all present of a wise and wrinkled, but copyrighted and therefore possibly unnameable character from a Galaxy So Far Away that it had yet to be filmed. (But of course, because of this fact, it didn't.) "Evil I am not, though dwarf I be, to your eyes that terrestrial and prejudicial so much are. I am a visitor from the planet Zorg, and act I must."

The assembled mourners gaped, like a great number of carp who had been displaced in a callous if profit-making scheme to drain their ancestral pond, leaving them flapping and gasping on the muddy flats, victims of the unstoppable (and, more to the point, unbreathable) march of progress.

"This is no time for joking, Sir," said the schoolmaster, sternly, having closed his mouth after gaping, and opened it again, to produce this sentence. Nell's grandfather swigged a quick drink from a bottle of rum hidden inside a pouch he had sewn onto a stuffed racoon that he had tried to sell as a rare and endangered tree kangaroo back at the Old Curiosity Shop, never suspecting that the artificial marsupial attributes might some day prove so useful in aiding him in his alcoholic endeavours. He had brought this unusual specimen of natural history that might have stumped Charles Darwin, should that great scientist whose ground-breaking Origin would be published in twenty-nine years, have ever seen it, on their long march which had ended in this sad and touching chamber of death. Quickly, he laid a mental bet on which of the fleas climbing through the racoonaroo's pelt would reach the end of its tail first. The man really did have gambling problems, remarked one of the fleas, who was as psychic as a Zorgan, to the other. This companion flea nodded its insectivorous head, and sighed its itchy agreement.

Quilp's look-a-like was rummaging in his pockets and produced something that looked like a cross between a Swiss army knife, bristling with many gadgets, and the pin cushion Little Nell had used in front of the scant and meagre fire, back in the comparatively happy days at the Shop before her death; had pins, and a battery powered torch. None of the assemblage thought of this comparison, however, as the Swiss Army knife was invented a good fifty years in the future by Karl Elsener, who was Swiss. The battery too, an item the absence of which would one day mar many an otherwise jolly and mistletoe-festooned Christmas, was as yet lying dormant in the great invisible forge of History, like a lost set of car-keys. The dwarf alien interrupted these therefore non-existent comparisons when he said, "This strange contraption, bristling as it does with as many, or even more, tools as this sentence sub-clauses has, yet may to life bring this young girl, vital signs who has not, to life back. Bugger. Up I stuffed that sentence."

"Sir," said the school teacher, who was not the sharpest knife in the average scullery's cutlery drawer, let alone on the strange tool glittering in the Zorgan's hand like a distant star, "profane not." "I mean," he added, realising that his sentence structure was reflecting that of the man-like apparition he was admonishing, "do not profane this serious room with your nonsensical ravings."

"Convoluted they may be, but nonsensical they not are," said the soi-disant alien, and, in so saying, he began to wave the appliance over the angelic, but harp-less and wing-less body of Nell, recently killed by a most able, if not inimitable, pen. An unearthly light radiated from the tool. Nell's Grandfather put down the racoon: pouch, booze, and all.

And then, miraculously, she stirred. Yes, the tears of her mourners had not yet evaporated into the ether, when Nell's hand's twitched, not unlike that of the Creature in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a reference that could have occurred to these people as it had been in print for about forty years when this scene was written!!! But it didn't. I don't know why I bother, really.

"Nell! Nell!" said the schoolmaster, unconsciously imitating a tolling bell that no longer had any reason to toll. "She's alive."

Nell, exhausted by her experience ascending to heaven and being brought back to earth by this canny and also uncanny alien, simply smiled, further brightening the room, which was useful, as the Zorgan had switched off the torch gadget. Her grandfather delved into the racoon like a miner after a seam of precious metal. Had he not reason to celebrate with a little tipple?

"Yes, this a taste of the future is," said the Dwarf, "a little wind blowing from other planets, other times it is. I will shortly my tool-set use to all memory from your minds remove. Soon my breezy presence will be no more than a Gust of Futures Yet To Be." He laughed, but no-one else joined in, as that particular heart-warming tale of Tiny Tim, Scrooge, and a massively engorged turkey, had yet to be penned. Perhaps realising this, he shut up, manipulated his wand-like appliance, and departed. Such a strange visitation! And what a beautiful gift he had bequeathed!

Grandfather was so happy that he accidentally split the racoon as he rummaged inside the pouch for his refreshments. A stream of gold spilled from inside it, onto the floor of the old Church. "I thought it was bloody heavy," remarked Grandfather, shocked into momentary sobriety.

"Sir," pontificated the schoolmaster, "will you allow me to manage your new-found wealth? On the day of this God-given miracle" - for the memory of the rather unexpected alien was already fading like a tale that is told from their minds - "will you swear to allow me to house yourself and this young girl, here in my humble but learned abode, and together, found a brighter and more noble future?"

"Is there a pub in town?" the old man asked, but he also nodded his consent, or at least, the extremity of his delirium tremens gave that impression.

And therefore, after paying off the drunken old man's debts, Nell, the schoolmaster and her Grandfather lived together in harmony, their simple cottage tastefully decorated, except perhaps for the strange apron wearing racoon that adorned the mantelpiece, and whose lively fleas sang and danced like crickets in front of the hearth, many a peaceful and alien-free night.

What a long and painful journey to such a modest scene of domesticity, guarded over by the winsome and very much alive angel, the soon to be quite grown-up (and indeed rather obese) girl, formerly known as Little Nell.

P.S. Cottier's new poetry collection, The Cancellation of Clouds, has just been published by Ginninderra Press. She wrote a PhD on Dickens at the ANU, with which this story has absolutely no connection. Honestly. She bogs at