Note: the below is a very short story I wrote about 25 years ago, when I was experimenting with fables. Found it the other day and it made me smile.
Mrs. Toad wants to be a ballet dancer but is, by her nature, ugly. Dr. Otter has refused to work on her no less that seven times:
‘Insert feathers into that skin? A beak? You’ve got a family, Mrs. Toad. A wonderful husband. Go home and be thankful.’
‘But I want to be beautiful,’ she implores him.
‘You’re a toad,’ he always replies.
Back at home, she glumly watches the swans dance across the lake. Last week, she bought a pink tutu from Madame Beaudel the pussycat. Beaudel, all fishnets, lip gloss and leather corset, laughed quietly and lit a cigarette as she watched Mrs. Toad hop awkwardly back to her lakeside cove.
The dress is still in its wrapping. Mrs. Toad lacks the courage to squeeze her slimy green-brown body into its pink frills. She knows people will laugh at her but in private, in the safety of her own home, she wants to know what it feels like to be graceful and beautiful.
She stares angrily at her gelatinous spawn, wishing she laid more solid eggs, wishing they’d hatch into something pleasing to the eye. Her mother had been the same before her, had wasted no time in telling Mrs. Toad what she thought of her:
‘You’re ugly by a toad’s standards,’ she’d said. ‘You’ll never marry.’
She had married, though. Okay, so her husband was a bit warty but she’d given up on the idea of finding a deviant swan long ago. She could never give up her dream of becoming a dancer, though. Why should she? Even fish dance, shimmering beneath the water. Why shouldn’t a toad?
She gently prizes the lid from Beaudel’s box. Until today, just the knowledge the tutu was inside had been enough to calm her. Today is different. She’s going to try it on, she’s going to dance.
‘What’s that?’ a gruff voice snaps. Her husband is back.
‘Have you taken leave of your senses?’
‘It’s a tutu,’ she replies quietly, shame and embarrassment edging into her voice.
‘I can see what it is. Get rid of it before you make the whole family a laughing stock.’
‘I just wanted to try it on.’
‘Toads don’t wear tutus.’
‘Why not? Why shouldn’t we?’
‘Have you looked in the mirror recently?’
Angrily, he grabs her tutu and shreds it, piece by piece by piece, flinging the tatters at her as he does so.
‘Toads don’t wear tutus,’ he repeats gruffly. ‘Especially not ones as ugly as you.’
With that, he hops away leaving Mrs. Toad to weep silently.
Mr. Maggot sits on his rock directly above Mrs. Toad’s cove and watches the sun as it glistens and creates rainbows on her toad spawn. Sparkling lights play tricks as the water gently rocks back and forth. He lifts his head up and turns towards Mrs. Toad, who sits glumly on a throne of shredded pink tutu. As the light bounces from her glistening, moist skin, she looks as if she’s swaying gently, rhythmically, in time with the wind and the sunshine. Mr. Maggot feels a jealous shadow of her. Could he ever dance like this beauty before him? As if she’s reading his mind, she turns to him and puckers her lips. His heart quivers, throbs, pounds. Her tongue darts towards him and for one glorious moment she has him, she’s holding him and caressing him, sending shivers through his grub body.
‘Take me!’ he wants to scream, but he can’t. Not anymore.
Mrs. Toad chews her lunch and stares out at the swans as they glide across the lake in the fading sunlight. She wonders if there’s ever been a creature more envious than she as she watches them ruffle white feathers and pirouette.
Beauty, she tells herself; and she longs.
Goodreads Choice Awards nominee, Best Debut Author, Bestselling JHP Fiction title 2016
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Finalist, The People's Book Prize for Fiction, Longlisted The Guardian's Not The Booker Prize, 2018.
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