What caused Doreen, once a cheery young girl, to become a grumpy old woman, and can she be happy again? asks Oliver Barton.
It was not always so. Aged ten, Doreen was a flaxen-haired bouncy bundle of joy, who would skip rather than walk, and thought snails were little people with caravans. She would sit in the meadow, humming tunes quietly, and make daisy-chains in the long sun-sweet afternoons.
One day, leaning against the foot of an ancient oak, she thought she heard a cry from the ground beside her. 'Help!' it seemed to say. 'Help!' All she could see was a small hole at the base of the tree, perhaps made by a mouse or a shrew.
She put her head down close, and said, 'Hallo! Who's there?'
'I'm stuck down this hole, stupid. Help me out,' the voice said.
Doreen tried to reach into the hole, but it was too small for her hand. She pushed a stick down, but all it produced was a tornado of screams and invective from below.
If only I had some string, she thought. An idea struck her. 'Listen,' she said. 'If I drop the end of my daisy-chain down, could you hold on, so I can pull you up?'
'Anything, anything!' came the voice. 'Just get on with it.'
So she fed her daisy-chain into the hole, flower by flower, until the voice cried 'Got it! Now, gently, gently.'
She pulled the daisy-chain out as smoothly as she could, to an accompaniment of obscenities that she was far too nice a girl to understand. After an age, a tiny pair of hands appeared, clinging on to the end daisy, and a tiny head, and a tiny body. With gossamer wings.
'Why,' cried Doreen, 'you're a fairy!'
'And you're a human. State the obvious, why don't you,' said the fairy. 'And while I am, of course, indebted to you, it is expressly forbidden for a human to look upon a fairy, and so I'm obliged to put a curse on you. Sorry, child. Regulations. It's this current regime. You humans don't have a monopoly on imbecile governments.' With which, the fairy flew off.
And from that moment, Doreen was cursed. She saw how the oak tree was rotting. She heard the whine of the tractor, not the song of the skylark. She saw mould and canker and discord where before there had been sweetness. She realised her mother's custard had lumps in, and how she smelled of cigarettes. From that day onwards, she saw the worst in everything and everyone.
And fifty years later, she still did, and the children called her a witch. She lived alone. In Doreen's eyes, her cottage was damp, her landlord a swindler, her roses had blight, her cat had fleas, and the drains smelled.
She worked in accounts for an international company, and terrorised the workforce with her pettiness and acidity. Even the division manager could only claim expenses between 3:00 and 3:30 on alternate Tuesdays, and was made to feel an inch high when he did.
One evening in her parlour, she looked up from the newspaper she was reading, with its reports of how individuals, the economy, the country, the world were all doomed in many dire and irreversible ways thanks to 'other people', and there was the fairy standing on the table before her. It looked exactly the same as fifty years previously, which is more than could be said for Doreen.
'There's been a regime change,' said the fairy. 'New regulations. Curses are now for a max of five years - five years, I ask you! - and anyway, nobody cares if humans catch sight of fairies any more.' The fairy tutted fiercely. 'Place is going to the dogs, in my opinion. Standards slipping. Still, there you are. You're free. Curse lifted as of now.'
Doreen thought for a moment. Then, 'No, thank you,' she said. 'I realise I enjoy being a grumpy old woman. And I don't want charity from anyone. As far as I'm concerned, the curse stays.'
The fairy pouted. 'Suit yourself,' it said. 'No skin off my nose.' And off it flew out of the open window, watched idly by the cat.
Doreen shook her head. 'Vermin,' she said, though it wasn't clear if she meant the cat, its fleas, or the whole of fairydom. 'Time for a gin and wormwood.'