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The Princess and The Crown

by Petro Wagner
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STORYTIME:

In line with our recent behind-the-scenes series where we showcased Pathfind employees working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, we would also like to intrigue you with this story written by one of our copywriters, Petro Wagner. With this, we honour all the families who tried (and are still trying) to juggle all the balls during the lockdown. Enjoy the read!

The Princess and The Crown

“Corona means crown?” Lisa stared at Mommy, the weight of this incredible piece of information forcing her eyes and mouth wide open.
     “Yes.” Mommy gulped a big ball of air, clearly ready to restart her story of the novel coronavirus and the reason why schools are closing – although Lisa’s playschool teacher had already explained it to her and her friends. “The word corona is from another language, Span–”
     “So, it’s a sickness for princesses?” Her teacher had not mentioned this important detail.
     “Well, no – ”
     “Absolutely!” Lisa’s father lifted his eyes from his phone to join the conversation, and a smile took over his frown. “That’s right.” He cleared his throat and made big eyes at Mommy. The eyes – Lisa had come to learn – that usually meant, Don’t try to stop me, and often went with him giving Lisa bubbly drinks or letting her eat peanut butter straight from the jar. “And that’s why princesses will now need to stay at home… er, I mean at their palace.” Daddy opened both of his palms to show that he was speaking about their living room. Magically, the pile of washing, the collection of still-to-be-packed-away toys and the stained couch that Mommy despised turned into royal possessions. “We need to ensure all princesses’ safety from this vicious, princess-devouring dragon of a disease!” Daddy stormed towards Lisa with thumping legs, clawed arms in the air, roaring. He was a bear and not a dragon (or a disease), but Lisa did not mind. She shrieked and leapt behind the couch.
     “That is not how the sickness will catch you, though,” Mommy said, rolling her eyes. “It’s transmitted when somebody who’s sick coughs on you or touches you with unwashed hands. That’s why we need to – ”
    The daddy-dragon-bear was behind Mommy now, making big chewing motions like he was going to devour her.
Lisa giggled.
     “This is serious! It’s important that we talk about this.” Mommy turned around to look at the dragon who made his Serious Daddy face, although Lisa could tell he was faking it.
     “I know,” Daddy nodded, then winked at Lisa, because they knew who the real dragon was.
     “Really, we’ll need to do everything we can to stay safe and help others,” Mommy continued as smoke bubbled from her nose.
     “Of course, Your Majesty The Queen,” Daddy said and bowed low before her.
The dragon-turned-queen snorted (like no queen would ever do), but Lisa could see she wanted to laugh because she pouted her lips like always when she tried to chase a smile away from her face for a reason that Lisa did not understand.

The next morning, Lisa did not have to get up early. She was not rushed to Eat breakfast! and Get Dressed! because We’ll be late for school! Mommy was still in her nightgown, sitting at the table and drinking from a steamy cup. She was not hurrying around the house – putting on make-up or slicing apples for Lisa’s lunch box. Lisa joined her, and Daddy appeared from the kitchen with her breakfast. He bowed as he served her oatmeal. “Extra honey for the princess,” he whispered in her ear so that Mommy could not hear and complain that he was spoiling her. And with a “May I, Your Royal Highness?” he placed a crown that he had hidden behind his back on her head. It was made of cardboard and decorated with glitter and shiny stickers. Mommy must have helped him with it because he could never have made something so pretty and he did not know where they kept the glitter glue.
     “Aren’t you going to work?” Lisa asked Daddy. He was wearing his slippers, and his breath smelled like stinky coffee – not like peppermint toothpaste as when he usually kissed her goodbye in the mornings.
     “Didn’t I tell you?” Daddy asked. “I was summoned to help take care of a certain princess.” He bowed again, showing that Lisa was the royal in question. “I will not be going to work while you stay at home and I need to protect you from this terrible Virus of the Crown.” On the word protect, he drew an invisible sword from his hip, swung it in the air and bravely chopped off the head of an unseen enemy with a hee-hah! – sounding just like a cowboy, but Lisa felt too bad to point this out. Instead, she laughed. This was going to be fun.
     “But Daddy will need to work here at home on his computer, so he can’t play the whole day,” Mommy said and lifted her eyebrows at Daddy. She whispered something about expectations and disappointments. She always thought Lisa could not hear when she whispered and that Lisa did not understand big words. The truth was something Lisa preferred to keep secret, like a treasure only she knew about.

For the rest of the day, Mommy and Daddy took turns to be with Lisa while the other one sat with their computer in the study. When it was Mommy’s turn, she got scared that Lisa would forget to write her name and count to fifty while the school was closed, so they had to practice it. Then, they painted rainbows to put in their front window so that people who drove by could look at them and feel better. Lisa wondered why people who felt bad would be driving up and down their street and how rainbows would help fix them.
     Daddy’s time with Lisa was the best. They built a fort with sheets and blankets and chairs and played princesses and knights. But they first had to promise Mommy that they would tidy up after themselves.
     At dinner, they played the how-was-your-day game where everyone had to say the best and worst thing about their day. There was nothing bad about Lisa’s day. Daddy’s worst part was not being allowed to go for a run. Lisa thought this was very funny because Mommy always had to be strict with him to go jogging so that he would not get any fatter.

The next few days went by in much the same way – schoolwork and crafts or baking with Mommy and playing princess with Daddy. Lisa was allowed to eat more treats and watch more television than usual, and she could even play games on Daddy’s phone (which was never permitted except when they were driving really far). But Daddy always wanted it back after a short while. There were too many things on his phone that he wanted to look at and tell Mommy about. Sometimes he laughed and showed Mommy a picture or a video that did not seem funny to Lisa. Or he would read numbers aloud. As the days went on, the numbers got bigger than Lisa could understand – except for the number nineteen that somehow stayed important. Her parents talked a lot about people being hungry because of the virus. Lisa did not realise that an illness could take people’s food. Also, people were dying.
     “Is Grandma going to die?” Lisa asked one evening. She was colouring at the table as Daddy spoke to Mommy, who was kneading. She spent a lot of time baking bread these days.
     Mommy stopped fighting with the dough, and Daddy took his glasses off, showing that he was trying to see Lisa better – his glasses helped his eyes to look at things nearby, but made faraway things blurry, he had once explained to her. Her parents looked scared. She wondered if she had frightened them – maybe they had forgotten that she was also there.
     “No!” Daddy said.
     “Why would you think that?” Mommy asked, using her kind voice. She smeared some flour into her hair like she always warned Lisa not to do.
     “Because the virus kills old people and Grandma is very, very old,” Lisa said.
     Mommy sighed. “Firstly, Grandma is old but not very, very old. And she is going to die one day, but we don’t believe it will be because of the virus. Okay? You shouldn’t worry about that.” Then she whispered to Daddy that he should not be talking about the things from his phone in front of Lisa.

Sometimes, when Daddy and Mommy worked, they had to talk to people on their computer screens. Daddy spoke very loudly when he did this – maybe because the screen people were far away, Lisa thought. One day, Mommy asked her if she also wanted a computer screen meeting with a school friend. She felt important, just like Mommy and Daddy.
     Mommy set up a meeting between her and Thandi, but it was not the same to see her friend while they could not dress up their dolls together or run away from the boys who tried to catch them. Instead, they made funny faces at each other and said the things their mothers behind them wanted them to say: Ask Thandi how her baby brother is doing. Tell Lisa what you made today. The grown-ups ended up talking about how terrible it was that children could not go to school and people could not go to work and they could not even buy a bottle of wine.
Seeing Thandi just made Lisa sad.

After some time, Lisa could not help but notice that Daddy was saying more and more bad words – the words he usually told her not to say. And sometimes, she could see that he was thinking about sad things when they were playing. As a knight, he was not so dapper anymore; as a dragon, less fierce; and as a servant, disappointingly non-submissive. It also felt like he was not paying attention very well.
“You should eat some nuts!” Lisa told him one day when they were playing, and he was still making horse noises long after the horse had died in battle.
“Nuts?”
“Yes. My teacher says that we should eat nuts and not sweets because it helps to make our brains strong so that we can remember things better.”
Daddy laughed and ruffled Lisa’s hair. She did not mean to make a joke, but was glad that she made him happy – she realised she had not heard that laugh (like something was exploding inside him) in a while.

As more days went by, Daddy showed fewer silly things to Mommy, but he talked a lot about his work and happenings at The Company.
     “What is retrenched?” Lisa asked Mommy one day as they were making flapjacks.
     “Where did you hear that word?” Mommy looked confused – as if she too did not know the meaning.
     “Daddy said that many people were getting retrenched at work. Is it also a sickness?”
     A smile and a frown met each other on Mommy’s face. She thought for a bit while the spoon she was holding dripped batter onto the counter. “It means that people… that there isn’t enough work for everyone, so some people must leave their jobs.”
     “Is Daddy going to leave his job?”
     Mommy saw the mess she was making, clicked her tongue and wiped the thick, white puddle away with a kitchen towel. She did not look Lisa in the eyes, but finally said, “We don’t know yet.”
     “That would be nice. Then he wouldn’t need to sit at his computer anymore, and we could play all day.”
     Mommy’s smile turned downwards, and only the frown stuck. “It’s not a good thing, Lisa. We need work to get money to pay for everything. But you shouldn’t worry – Daddy will take care of it.”
     That evening, as Daddy tucked her into bed, Lisa reassured him, “I have lots of money in my piggy bank. You can have it if you cannot work anymore.”
Daddy gave her three extra kisses and told her she was a hero. Of course she was – all princesses were heroes.

One afternoon, as Lisa went looking for her parents and lunch, she stepped into a pool – right there in the kitchen! The dishwasher broke and flooded the floor, Daddy explained. Mommy threw down the mop and kicked the machine twice (although they were not allowed to kick or throw things when they got angry). Mommy started crying. “I already have to do everything around here, and now I’ll need to wash the dishes too!”
“Why don’t we get Henry to fix it?” Lisa asked. She wanted Mommy to stop crying. Henry was a friend of Daddy who always came and fixed things when they broke.
     “You know people cannot come to our house during the lockdown!” Daddy said as if Lisa did something wrong. Then he picked up the mop and told Mommy, “We’ll repair it as soon as we can, okay? And I’ll help with the dishes.”
     “No, you won’t!” Mommy screamed. “You don’t help with anything except for making a mess!”
Lisa knew that was not true. Daddy made breakfast every day, and whenever he heard the garbage truck, he would run outside with the big black bag – very fast and sometimes even without shoes.
     “I can’t deal with you when you’re hysterical,” Daddy said. “Take a time-out.” It sounded as if he was sending Mommy to her room like he sometimes did with Lisa when she could not stop crying. Mommy obeyed and went to her room – but she slammed the door, which was another naughty thing to do.
     Nobody played with Lisa for the rest of the day. She coloured all the pictures in her unicorn colouring book without even bothering to stay within the lines. That evening, they did not play how-was-your-day, because everybody knew it was bad.

The next day, Mommy asked Lisa if she wanted to play snakes and ladders. Lisa knew Mommy hated the game, but she was happy to have Mommy back as a friend. When a very long snake swallowed Lisa’s token – knocking her many spaces backwards – Mommy said, “It’s really frustrating when you think you’re winning and then suddenly – bam! – you’re sucked in and spat out at the bottom. Right?”
     Lisa, who was trying her best not to cry because of the setback, nodded.
     “That’s sometimes how Daddy and I feel during this lockdown. We thought our year was going one way, then suddenly it turned out quite differently, and now it feels like we’re losing.”
     Lisa was uncertain if she understood what Mommy meant, but one thing she knew for sure: she also hated snakes and ladders.

Lisa’s days slid into a shapeless form. She now spent most of her time paging through picture books or lying on her bed, talking to her stuffed animals while waiting for screen time to start. Sometimes, Mommy would stick on a smile and suggest they do something together.

Early one evening, Daddy joined Lisa in the living room where she was watching television. He sat down next to her and drew her closer to him. He was interrupting her show, and she did not like that, but then he did something that was not typical for grown-ups to do: he apologised. He said he was sorry for not spending much time with her the past while; he had been very busy with work. “It’s good news, though – I may not need your piggy bank’s money after all,” he added with a smile. “But did you know that it’s Friday today?”
     Lisa did not know. She did not even realise that their days still had names.
     “And Friday means it’s weekend! I have two days free to make it up to you, okay?” Daddy let go of Lisa and picked up her crown from the side table where it had been sitting for days – maybe even weeks. It had lost some of its glitter and was bent on one side because Daddy (who had been a beast at the time) had accidentally stepped on it. And also, if Lisa had to be honest, it did not really fit comfortably. Daddy tried to put it on her head.
“I don’t want that anymore!” she said, pushing him away. She realised that she had used her angry voice on him. Would he scold her? Rather, he looked at her as if he did not understand what she was saying.
     “I don’t want to be a princess anymore!” Lisa tore the crown from Daddy’s hands and tossed it away from her. She folded her arms and continued to look at the television where children were playing and singing together. They were from a different world – one where children had friends and teachers and milkshake dates with grandparents. One that had beaches and duck ponds and dogs on leashes, walking in the street. It was a world Lisa used to know. It made her happy and sad to see it on the screen.
After some time, Daddy asked, “So who would you rather be then?”
“Can’t I just be Lisa again?”
     Mommy sighed behind them. Lisa had not even noticed that she was there.
     “Sure thing, you can be Lisa,” Daddy said, patting her leg. “I’ve always liked that kid a lot.”
     Mommy joined them on the couch – sandwiching Lisa between her parents – and said, “You know what? We may go for walks again. So, tomorrow morning you can cycle around the block as many times as you want!” The idea of going outside excited Lisa.
     Daddy turned up the sound on the television to a volume that was not allowed. Lisa expected Mommy to cover her ears and complain. Instead, both of her parents started singing to the music at the top of their voices. Daddy pulled Mommy from the couch, and they started dancing. She could see they were trying to make her laugh, and eventually, she could not help but give in. She also got up and danced.
     The crown was still on the floor. As she moved to the music, Lisa kicked it under the couch, and it left a trail of glitter behind on the carpet. She really did not want it anymore.
     Sometimes, one just got fed up with things.