The Gift of Magic



 A short story by


3700 WORDS

©  Barbara Erskine


Sylvia Barnet-Jones walked out into the tiny garden at the back of her house with a smile of pure pleasure. She had moved in only  short weeks before and this was the first day she had felt truly at home. The house stood in the middle of a short terrace of artisans’ cottages on the edge of an up-and-coming area of south London. The very edge. In fact the wrong side of the edge. That was how she was able to afford it.  The buildings which for so many years had blighted the street and those in the areas all around it, three massive high-rise blocks of the worst sort of 1960s concrete stood immediately behind her house.  But they were coming down soon. Then the whole area was scheduled for redevelopment and after a nightmare interlude – one she preferred not to think about -  while the developers actually did the deed, her house and  those in the cluster of  small streets around it would not only enjoy some peace at last but rocket in value. That at least was the master plan.

The house – her house -  which gloried in the unexpected and as far as she could see, wholly inappropriate, name of Lilac Cottage was really very sweet.   In front it boasted a  metre deep garden, where once the lilac tree had presumably flourished.  She planned to put a few large pots of bright flowers there. It had  pleasing  symmetrical   windows – she liked to think late Georgian in style -  one down, two up, a white painted front door beneath a small elegant porch, delicate  cornicing and a grey slate roof.  Just like its neighbours. Inside there was one narrow living   room  on the ground floor with a small kitchen off it. Upstairs two bedrooms, one truly minute and a bathroom over the kitchen extension.  It was all she needed. That and congenial neighbours.  So far so good in that department.  On one side a retired couple – middle aged, middle class, she guessed, middle management.  Quiet so far.  On the other was a delightful Indian lady, probably also  on the elderly side of middle aged who had brought her a beautiful  stoneware casserole as a welcome present. ‘Please keep it when you’ve eaten what is in it!’ – it  contained a delicious chicken curry. 

She was nearing retirement herself.   This would -   probably – be the house of her old age.  Downsized.  Manageable.   Lonely.

She had always assumed she would marry one day.  Or at least acquire a more or less permanent partner. Somehow it had never happened. Neither had children. It hadn’t worried her particularly. Her life was full and happy. She had a fantastic job in advertising.  She had nephews and nieces and god children.  She had had  lovers  and short-term partners and one rather special  later-in-life-lust which still made her smile with secret glee.  Many, many people had less.

She turned to look at the back of the house.  It was built of rather pleasant yellowy London Stock bricks and smothered in honeysuckle and roses. As was the rest of the garden.  Measuring barely more than   six metres by twelve, it was the most beautiful garden she had ever seen.  Partly because it was hers and partly because  her predecessor in the house had treasured and cosseted it into an oasis of beauty and peace which attracted from heaven alone knew where an astonishing collection of birds and butterflies.

On this special day she ducked back into the house, poured herself a glass of white wine and then stepped out again, to sit at the wrought iron table on her terrace . The terrace was actually little more than a single row of flagstones but it was perfect. Perfect in every way. Or would be. Once the high rises came down.  She glanced up at them.  As far as she could tell they were mostly empty. One or two windows still showed curtains. Here and there a concrete balcony showed signs of life  - a blanket draped over the balustrade, a window open where the day before it had been closed.   At their foot, hidden from her view there was an expanse of thread-bare long-dead grass, decorated every now and then by desultorily  spinning dust devils.  The children played there.  She had seen them through the gaping spaces in her back fence.  Large, loud children, kicking a ball around; or tearing up and down on bicycles shouting and swearing.  She had crept away from the fence, anxious not to be spotted, feeling faintly uneasy, faintly threatened, by their presence.  At the top of her shopping list was hammer and nails.  Once the slats of the fence were firmly back in place she would feel safer.

She forgot. The pressure of work was intense at this time of year.  By the time she remembered the first invaders had been in.

She saw them from her bedroom window as she was changing to go out to the theatre.  Two small children in the middle of her garden, hand in hand.  They weren’t doing anything.  They were just standing there.  They could only have come through the fence.  There was no other way, save through her house.

With an exclamation of annoyance she banged on the window.  They looked up, stared round for a moment, not knowing where the noise had come from then they turned and fled back out of sight into the bushes.

She glanced at her watch.  No time to go down and wedge something across the gap – she was running late anyway.  She would fix it tomorrow.

She didn’t have time.

She didn’t have time the next day either.

By the next she had forgotten all about it.  If she had a few minutes at all to go out into the garden it was merely to sip wine and try to unwind after the stresses of the day, to feel slightly guilty about the new growth of never-before-seen weeds, or to point out its features to friends coming to see her new home.

Summer had peaked and was diving towards autumn. A second show of roses decorated her bushes unaided. The garden was full of colour still. On her first free Saturday she planned to do some gardening at last. She had collected a small  array of tools from the Garden Centre on the High Road  - having always lived in flats she had had no need of such things before – and she slipped out into the early morning to begin at last.

She found the doll tucked in under a hebe at the back of the garden. Thoughtfully she picked it up.  A Barbie doll, complete with high heeled shoes and handbag, her tiny fingers were holding three wilting  rosebuds and there was a wreath of daisies in her explosion of blonde hair.  She clearly  hadn’t been there very long.

Sylvia stared round. The garden was silent, the only noise that of an inbound jet heading for Heathrow, a sound from which she had learned to distance herself with such efficiency that when she did notice  for some reason, she was astonished at the intrusion..   The garden, she realised suddenly,  felt strange. There was no one there now, but there had been . She could sense their presence in the air like a footprint.  Almost a scent. If she had been a dog her hackles would have been stirring. She looked round carefully.  Nothing had been damaged.  Nothing touched that she could see.  And the fence, where the intruder must have entered the garden looked, if anything, better than before.  In fact it was.  Pulling back the branches of the syringa which screened it she saw someone had carefully slotted the boards back into place.  She looked at it thoughtfully.  Then back at the doll. She wasn’t sure how she felt about this invasion of her privacy. Not sure at all.  Part of her was indignant.  Even a little threatened.  Part of her was – she thought about it hard - the word was intrigued and,yes, enchanted.

And suddenly she knew what she was going to do.

When she put the doll back under the hebe the  daisies in her hair had been replaced by late fragrant heads of lavender and hyssop from one of the pots on Sylvia’s terrace and  between her hands, instead of the wilting rosebuds she inserted a foil-wrapped biscuit.

Then she went back indoors.

To her intense disappointment nothing happened.  At dusk when she flashed a torch into the flowerbed to check the doll was  still  sitting there, her huge blue eyes staring reproachfully in front of her, the biscuit still balanced on her knees.

But next morning after Sylvia put  her cup of coffee and the Sunday papers down on the wrought iron table and tiptoed down the garden to look, both doll and biscuit had gone.

She was almost disappointed to see  nothing else had changed.  The fence boards were as before, neatly aligned. The garden was deserted.

Her visitor did not return for several days, then just when she had given up all hope off seeing the doll again she found it sitting in the middle of a clump of  night scented stock. There was no adornment in her hair this time but a bright  red boiled sweet  sat in her lap. Sylvia smiled delighted.  The sweet must surely be for her.  She removed it and replaced it with another biscuit and feeling pleasantly conspiratorial tied a small length of  lavender-coloured ribbon in the doll’s hair.  She glanced at the fence and smiled, wondering if any eyes were watching through the cracks.  She didn’t think so.  She felt as though she were alone.

The doll must have disappeared while she was on the phone that afternoon for by 6 o’clock it had gone.

The next time she went shopping she brought a pack of miniature chocolate bars and some lengths of different coloured ribbons.  Just for fun.

There was magic in her garden now

She was tucking the doll back into  its hiding place one evening about two weeks later, on about  her tenth length of ribbon and second packet of sweets when she heard a small sound behind her.

She turned.  The two children were standing side by side about three feet from her. The children she had caught sight of from her bedroom window all those weeks before  A little girl and, clutching her hand  tightly,  a much smaller boy.  Sylvia caught her breath.  She didn’t dare move.  Somehow she felt that if she blinked they might disappear, fairy children, conjured out of the falling dusk.

Both stared at her, unmoving.  To her relief neither seemed afraid.

‘Hello.’  It was a cautious whisper.  She risked a smile.  ‘Have you come for your doll?’

The little girl did not move for a moment then she gave a shy nod.

Sylvia reached back into the flower bed.  ‘See, she’s got a pretty yellow ribbon today.’ She held out the doll. The child didn’t move.  One hand anyway was so tightly clasped by the little boy she could not have extricated it without a struggle.

‘Shall I fetch another chocolate?  So there’s one for each of you?’

Cautiously Sylvia straightened up.  Although not particularly tall she felt like a giant beside these two.  Not particularly used to children she couldn’t even guess how old they were.  She frowned.  Her nephews and nieces must have been this small once, surely, but it was long ago.

The girl saw her frown and took a step backwards.

Sylvia smiled  as reassuringly as she could. They were like small wild animals, these two.  Intuitive. Nervous.  Shy.  But ready to trust if she could win them over.

Slowly she stepped away from them.  She crouched, set the doll on the ground , then turned and walked towards the house.

She was terrified they would have disappeared by the time she returned but beyond shuffling slightly round to follow her progress neither had stirred, save the little boy whose free thumb was now wedged firmly in his mouth.  She did not move fast or go too close, holding out the chocolates on the palm of her hand  Three of them.  Two for the boy and one extra for the girl to add to the one sitting on the doll’s lap. 

 The little girl’s eyes ceased scrutinising Sylvia’s face and for one longing moment stared at the chocolates.  ‘My  Nan says we can’t take sweets from strangers,’ she whispered.

Sylvia bit her lip.  ‘Of course.  She’s quite right.’ She paused ‘But I’m not really a stranger, am I? You’ve known me for a long time.  My name is Sylvia.’  Oh God, what was she saying? Was this child molestation? Was she enticing them? Would all this be misinterpreted in some nightmare way that would spoil their innocent game? She was struck dumb for a moment at this new view of her activities.

‘Are you a fairy godmother?’   The girl asked suddenly.  She  pronounced it gawd muvver, surveying Sylvia  solemnly without blinking.

Sylvia laughed.  ‘I think I must be because I thought you two were little fairies!’

The boy had unplugged his thumb.  Cautiously he reached forward and snatched one of the chocolates off her palm.  He glanced up at her sister for permission and when she nodded at him he extracted his hand from hers and began unwrapping the chocolate.  By this time it was  somewhat melted and  he managed to transfer as much to his face as into his mouth.

‘What are your names?’ Sylvia asked gently. She held out the last chocolate to the girl.

‘I’m Kylie.’ The girl hesitated a moment longer then finally took the sweet.

‘And your brother? Is he your brother?’

‘He’s Tom.’

‘Well Kylie and Tom, I think you should eat your sweeties and then I think you should go home.  Your mummy, your mother,’ she corrected herself hurriedly, unsure how to refer to the children’s parent, ‘must be  worrying about where you are.’

‘She’s not me Mum, she’s my Nan,’ Kylie corrected her severely.

‘Well, your Nan then.’

‘She’s gone up the bingo.’

‘I see.’ Sylvia frowned.  ‘Well, who is supposed to be looking after you?’


‘You.  You are all alone till your Nan comes home?’

Kylie nodded importantly. ‘I put Tom to bed.’

Sylvia was a bit shocked.  Kylie seemed  too young to have  been given such responsibility.   ‘Do you live in that big block?’ She pointed at the high rise towering behind them.

‘My Nan does.’ Kylie nodded

‘And does your Nan know about you coming here?’

The child shook her head.

‘Do you go anywhere else?’

Kylie nodded.

‘And does anyone else see you?’

She shook her head.

Beside her Tom stretched out his hand for the second chocolate.  He peeled this one more  deftly. Ate it and waited.  So far he had not uttered a word.

‘I still think you’d better go home, Kylie.  You shouldn’t be out this late.’ Sylvia crouched down and picking up the doll and the last chocolate handed them to her.

Beside his sister, seemingly in a world of his own, Tom closed his eyes.  In seconds his chocolate smeared face had relaxed in perfect repose and he was fast asleep on his feet.  He had begun to rock  as Sylvia , realising just in time  what was happening,  reached forward and caught him in her arms as he fell forward. He was heavy, distinctly damp about the nether regions and smelt strongly and perhaps blessedly of chocolate.  To her utter astonishment she felt herself overwhelmed by the most extraordinary feeling of warmth and comfort and reassurance for this solid bundle of humanity as, plugging his thumb back into his mouth, he snuggled into her shoulder.

‘He’s asleep.’ She said to Kylie, astonished at her own competence. She had never  actually  seen anyone fall asleep on their feet like that before.

‘Yeah, he does that.’ Kylie was inspecting the ribbon in her doll’s hair in the near darkness.  The garden was lit now only by the light streaming out of the kitchen door onto Sylvia’s small terrace. 

‘What shall we do?’

‘I’ll carry him home.’

‘You’ll carry him?’ Sylvia was astonished.  ‘You can’t . He’s much too big for you.’

‘I done it before.’ The child was nonchalant. ‘He’s always  falling asleep.  Nan says he should go to bed earlier but I’m busy then.’

Dear God! What had she got herself into.  Sylvia, still clutching the little body, stared round for inspiration.  ‘Look, I think you’d better come inside.  Why don’t we put Tom to bed on the sofa.  I’ll give you some supper and we can ring your Nan and leave a message that I’ll bring you back as soon as she’s home.’

‘The phone is cut off.’ Kylie hugged her doll close.  ‘And I ain’t got a mobile.’

Sylvia shrugged.  ‘Then we’ll put a note through your Nan’s door so she knows where you are and comes to fetch you when she gets home.’

She obviously spoke with some authority because Kylie seemed quite happy with that suggestion.   Leaving her brother in Sylvia’s care she disappeared through the fence with the note, returning ten minutes later with the news that Nan was still not home .   The only problem was that, after a bowl full of scrambled eggs and two hours of television (‘Nan always lets me’) Kylie was also fast asleep on the sofa – top to tail with her brother and the missing grandmother had still not  appeared.

Sylvia tidied up the room washed the dishes and , uncertain what to do, stood at her back window gazing up at the huge building towering over her garden.  No lights shone from the windows.  To all intents and purposes it seemed already derelict.  Her two guest slept on unconcerned, the doll balanced on the arm of the sofa near Kylie’s head.


When Sylvia woke next morning, fully dressed, lying on her own bed where she had flopped in the end, exhausted, her  house was full of sunshine and the children were gone.  She stared round, half relieved, half disappointed.  The front door was still locked so Kylie must have let them out into the garden and quietly closed the door behind her. Almost ashamed at the half formed thought which sprang to her mind  she glanced round the house.  But nothing was missing. Nothing disturbed.  The rugs on the sofa had been neatly folded.

There was no sign of them in the garden.  The slats were back in place in the fence.  The high rise seemed deserted.  When later she plucked up courage and walked round to the estate she found  the doors to the building padlocked, the ground floor windows boarded up.

Time passed.  She didn’t nail down the slats in the fence but  there was no sign  that they were ever disturbed and one morning she found that they had been bound tightly in place by the webs of autumnal spiders. In the local paper she saw that the date for the demolition of the high rises had been fixed; the last families, so the report said, had left the buildings months before.

She stared up at the blocks sadly. Perhaps she would never know what had happened to Kylie and Tom. In her cupboard the ribbons lay untouched.  She ate the chocolates herself.

Once or twice she found herself wondering if the children had even existed.  Had they been in some way figments of her imagination?  Where they little ghosts of some family that had lived here long ago?  But then she reminded herself of the  chocolate-smeared mouths, the  dampness of the little boy’s posterior, the solidity of the two small people who had made such a huge impact on her life in such a short time and she knew they were no ghosts.

The buildings finally came down.  Her own street and the streets for miles around disappeared under a pall  of dust.   The developers moved in. The noise was the feature of  day and night. In the busyness of her life and the chaos of her home she almost forgot Kylie and Tom.  

Then one ice-cold day, as she slid back the glass door onto her terrace and stepped out to refill the peanut feeder hanging  from the  laburnum bush near her fence she saw the doll sitting on the chair at her wrought iron table. Her hair was tied with tinsel ribbon, her lap full of brightly coloured  boiled sweets and tucked under her arm Sylvia could see a folded piece of paper, damp and floppy from a night in the  winter garden.

She ran down towards the fence.  Sure  enough the spiders webs had been broken apart.  There was a small footprint in the mud, but apart from that the fence was back in place.

Picking up the doll Sylvia went inside.  She  unfolded the paper gently, conscious that it was on the point of disintegrating.

The writing was neat. 


Dear fairy god muvver.

 Sorry we have not been to see you. My Nan moved  and Tom and me have gon with her.  She came to see aunty Sue and  we came with her.  We live in a nice place now and I go to a new skool. The doll who is called  Kelly is a  present to stop you being lonly 

 with luv from Kylie .   xxx


Sylvia  swallowed hard.  Stupid to cry .  So stupid.  There was no address of course. No clue where they had gone.

With a sad smile she began  gently to retie the ribbon which had slipped from the doll’s  wild hair.  Was she lonely?  Not really.  How could she be. She had friends.  She had a full life.  There was never time for anything these days. And yet, Kylie had sensed something lacking in this near perfect existence.  She reached out to the doll’s face and touched it with her finger tip.

 But of course there was something lacking now.  She sighed wistfully.  Those children had brought magic into her life.

And suddenly she knew what she was going to do: she was going on a quest. A quest to find her two little fairy god children. Someone would know  who they were.   Aunty Sue, whoever she was,  must live close by.  Someone, somewhere would know where they had gone.  And when she found them she was going to return a little of the magic they had given her.   Magic and  fun.

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