The Fairy Godmother
Have you heard of Georgiana Budgett? You'll certainly know what she's famous for. This first attempt at a short story was written for South Gloucestershire Council's Creative Writing for Wellbeing course to mark International Women's Day, and later broadcast on BBC Upload.
Mrs Budgett, the grocer’s wife, took a great deal of satisfaction from wrapping parcels. She relished the smoothness of the heavy brown paper as it unfurled across the shop counter, the way it folded crisply beneath her fingers as she tucked it around tins and boxes gathered from her husband’s shelves, and the neat shapes of the finished packages. She loved the scratch and curl of the twine as she tamed it into place, knotting loops for handles. Her favourite task was adding the decorative tags that announced “Budgett’s can’t be Bettered”. Georgiana Budgett appreciated the value of good presentation. “It’s the fairy dust we sprinkle on the lives of our customers.” she would declare, planting an affectionate peck on her husband’s cheek. “It makes unwrapping the week’s groceries something to look forward to, like Christmas, or a birthday.” William Budgett would shake his head in mock despair, especially when his wife’s idea of good presentation involved ordering yet another new hat. In reality he was grateful for her support in running his grocery business. He was skilled at ordering stock and balancing accounts, but found customers frankly bothersome. Georgiana viewed the shop as her theatre, and embraced the role of leading lady. She had all the time in the world for those who stepped onto her stage, and a memory for detail. It was she who remembered which cheese Mrs Jacob from Ivywell Road preferred, and that the Bennetts on Downleaze would need extra milk this week for their visitors. As her patrons shared news and gossip, their baskets filled with produce. It was one of these conversations, which began with a debate about the ideal thickness of a ham slice, that led Georgiana Budgett to become one of the First World War’s most unlikely heroines. She had been relatively untouched by the war so far. Through her charitable work at the Bristol branch of the British Red Cross she knew of nurses being sent out to the front and wounded soldiers transported home. Through her husband’s shop she was also aware of problems with food supplies. But it had all been numbers and politics – nothing to affect her directly, until now. “Oh dear Mrs Budgett”, said loyal customer Lily Sandwell one morning, tears welling. “Here we are trifling over the thickness of ham. What our boys wouldn’t give to to sit down to a meal such as we will tonight. My nephew has written from the front.” She pulled a folded paper from her pocket and thrust it at Georgiana. “Read it for yourself. I can’t bear to look at it again.” The letter was indeed distressing, outlining the sordid conditions and shortages of food and clothing faced by the soldiers. Mrs Budgett read it all through twice, and by the time she re-folded and returned the paper, she was determined to find a way to help. It was wrapping parcels, and the thought of the pleasure they could bring, that inspired her. The soldiers needed supplies, and with the help of her customers and the British Red Cross, she could provide them. William Budgett saw the gleam in his wife’s eye, and sighed inwardly. He resigned himself to being swept along in the wake of this new project, and went back to fretting over the shortage of potatoes and the rising cost of butter. Georgiana Budgett began her campaign the very next morning. She pinned a notice by the shop’s front door, asking customers for donations. She nestled a cash box by the till to collect spare pennies as they paid their bills, and a basket on the counter for them to fill with extra groceries before they left. She encouraged them to share creative skills too, from knitting socks to composing morale-boosting letters. At the end of that month, the Red Cross sent their first batch of parcels. Georgiana tucked a postcard inside each one, and wrapped them in brown paper and string with her usual care. She hoped they would arrive safely to bring a moment of delight to the men who were doing so much for the friends and family they had left behind. Fundraising continued. When the weather was kind, Georgiana and William threw open their garden for parties fuelled by the best tea and cake their shop could provide. When it rained, they supported whist drives and jumble sales at the Stoke Bishop Village Hall. Eventually, the number of parcels generated by their efforts meant that Georgiana could no longer wrap them all herself, and she enlisted the help of new volunteers. Months later, one of the postcards landed on the doormat at Budgett’s grocery. Very few had made their way back to England, and those that did contained little more than brief scribbles of thanks. This one was different. Its message, mud-stained and rain-streaked, brought colour to Georgiana’s cheeks, and tears to her eyes. “Dear Mrs Budgett, Something truly wonderful happened this morning. A shipment of parcels arrived at our prison camp, and I was lucky enough to be given one, for which I am grateful. My aunt Mrs Sandwell has told me of your efforts on our behalf, and I thought you would like to know that the men here call you our “Fairy Godmother”. Daily existence here is hideous – we are always dirty, often hungry and sometimes afraid. Your parcels bring us comfort and joy: Christmas and Birthdays all at once. God bless you. Victor Sandwell.” Georgiana Budgett’s job was done. She had sprinkled fairy dust where it was most needed. She tucked the postcard into her pocket, smiled as her husband handed her a new list of deliveries to wrap, and reached for another sheet of brown paper.