I once hand-wrote a version of this in an old exercise book for my daughter, with drawings. No drawings here.
Once upon a time, but not so very long ago, a young mother was undressing her toddler daughter at bath-time. When she pulled her daughter's vest up the mother was shocked to discover a golden screw where her daughter's belly button should have been. The mother's first instinct was to try to pull it out. But her daughter cried, “Stop! Stop! You're hurting me! Hurting me!”
This was in the older old days. The bath was a tin bath in front of a coal fire. And it was before the NHS, before X-rays even, when you had to pay just to be seen by a doctor. Fortunately, aside from when the mother occasionally tried to pull/squeeze/tug/grease the golden screw out of her daughter's belly button, her having it there didn't bother the little girl at all. Indeed she liked to wear it sometimes exposed like a jewel.
The father worked extra shifts in the factory, the mother took in more sewing, and after several months they had saved enough money to pay for a visit to the doctor. Who said that he had never seen anything like it. “But definitely gold,” he said. “Fortunately an inert metal.”
The doctor seemed more interested in the gold than in their daughter. Unable himself to remove the golden screw the doctor recommended the parents take their daughter to a belly-button specialist. The doctor wrote a letter for them to take. He charged extra for writing the letter.
Mother, father and daughter talked over what to do next. The 'specialist' fees were four times what the doctor's had been. The daughter didn't want to go: the doctor's prodding and pulling at the golden screw had hurt her. And the letter to the 'specialist' said that the doctor's own medical library contained 'not the least reference to...' '...such a peculiar affliction.' “So what's the point?” the father tiredly said.
Years passed. The girl's seventh year had in its middle a long hot summer. The girl and her two younger brothers had the tin bath outside and were taking turns to jump in and out of the cold water. They were wearing only their underpants.
A tinker's handcart came rattling along the road, the tinker shouting out that he'd mend pots and pans. Wondering at the shouting the girl's mother came to her door. When the clinking and clattering tinker came abreast her door he gestured to her daughter splashing in and out of the tin bath.
“Seen that before,” he said loudly. “Want to know how to get rid?”
“You know how?”
“Not easy,” he said. “Timing's everything. On the full moon you have to be in Wicklow's eight turret castle. And you have to lay your daughter to sleep in the top room of the seventh turret. That's the turret right on the cliff's edge. Only on the full moon mind. In the morning the screw'll be gone.”
The mother didn't know where Wicklow was. The tinker explained.
“Can't afford the fare there,” the mother started to turn back indoors.
“Go the tinker ways,” he told her. “We travel cheap.”
“How so?” she eyed him doubtfully.
“A fair bit of walking, and a wee bit of sneakage.” And he proceeded to tell her how and where to go.
A week or so before the full moon mother and daughter set off following the tinker's instructions. Father was left at home looking after the two boys.
Tramping back lanes and by-ways, and cadging more than a few lifts from lonely carters, mother and daughter reached Holyhead after four days and slipped unseen aboard a ferry. Next day they sneaked ashore in Dublin. Two days of walking later they reached Wicklow and found the castle with eight turrets.
The castle though was in a sorry state of repair. What was left of it however was vast when compared to their tiny terrace house.
Exploring it room by empty room there didn't seem to be anyone living there, until on the evening of the sixth day they chanced upon an old man in a dark room in the basement of the seventh turret.
“What you a'doing here?” He squinted through wrinkles and whiskers at them. The mother explained to him about the tinker and her daughter's 'condition.'
“Oh,” the old man said to the daughter, “you'm one of them. Best hurry then. Moon rises early tonight.”
“Where do we go?” the mother asked.
“Only her. Won't work if you're both there. Shy, you see. She has to sleep alone.”
It was almost dusk by the time mother and daughter had climbed all the stone stairs to the very top of the turret. The single room there, as they'd been told, had a stone bench for a bed.
“They said you're to sleep here,” the mother told her daughter. “You can have my coat to lie on. I'll be on the landing below. If you need me, just cry out.”
The daughter, a kind girl, was concerned that her mother would be cold without her coat. They had shivered together nights on their journey there. She gave her mother her small coat. “Will at least keep your legs warm,” she said.
“You're a good girl,” the mother tearfully said; and whispering endearments to one another they reluctantly parted.
On the below-landing the mother couldn't find anywhere even semi-comfortable where she could go to sleep. All was cold grey stone. Worried for her daughter she spent the night sitting on the cold stone steps, or she walked in small circles on the small circular landing, rubbing her arms to keep warm.
The daughter meanwhile – it had been a tiring week for an eight year old who had never left home before – carefully did as she had been instructed. With her mother's coat under her she laid herself down on the stone bench and she pulled up her top so that her bare belly was exposed. Almost straight away she fell into the deepest of deep sleeps.
As the whiskery old man had said the moon rose almost as dusk fell. A moon beam, coming through the turret's narrow window, began to travel around the daughter's bedchamber. When the silver moonbeam reached the girl's knees a miniature man with curly golden hair squeezed himself sideways through the narrow window and came walking down the moonbeam. He was carrying, for him, a huge golden screwdriver. (For us, a moderately large screwdriver.)
The little man with the curly golden hair smiled to see the young girl's dreaming smile, and he whistled a quiet tune while waiting for the silver moonbeam to reach her belly. As soon as it did he set to work, struggling to turn the huge, for him, screwdriver.
His solid gold screwdriver had no ratchet like modern screwdrivers, and was almost the same size as himself. And he had to hurry. According to the tinker the screw could only be got out when lit by the moonbeam.
Struggle furiously though the little man did, and the golden screw came out. He tucked it inside his bodice and, pausing just the once to smile down on the still dream-smiling girl, the little man walked up the narrow moonbeam and squeezed out the narrow turret window.
When the grey dawn came it woke three raucous seagulls. The three raucous seagulls woke the girl. Sleepily she felt down her tummy.
“Mum!” she shouted. “It's gone!”
Her mother, also part-woken by the three raucous seagulls, came up the stairs as quickly as her cold-stiffened legs would allow. Staggering into the room she saw her daughter's completely bare belly. Giving a cry of joy she gathered her girl-child up into her arms. And her bum fell off.
© Sam Smith 3rd May 2021