Mark looked down at the steaming bowl of mashed potato looking back up at him. He poked his fork in and out of it a few times, considering its texture.
"Nanny, I'd say this part is done!" He called into the next room.
His Grandmother was rummaging through cupboards for her casserole dish, which seemed to have buried itself quite well.
"Oh where has that dish lost itself this time?" He heard her mutter to herself as she moved across to the next press.
The dishwasher beeped to notify him it had finished its chores. So Mark opened it up and a rise of hot steam hit him square in the face. The cast iron casserole dish dripped with moisture from its place on the bottom tray. He reached in and heaved it out. Placing it on the counter, he called his Nanny back in to resume their cooking.
They layered the ingredients to create a mouth-watering shepherds pie. Mark wished he didn't have to give it away. Nanny lowered it into the heat of the oven and shut the door after it.
Some time later, the smell had rose up and circled the whole kitchen. The egg timer by the window rang out and Mark looked over at the clock. 17:42 it said. The party was to start at 6pm. He slid the oven mitt over his hand and lifted the dish out. He felt the burning heat beneath the cloth as he held it. Lifting the lid revealed a bubbling layer of cheese over a base of smooth mash potato and mince. Mark sighed as the smell reached his nose.
"That's a good one!" Nanny remarked, she had been watching.
Mark went off and busied himself prepping his food travel bag that strapped specially onto his bike. He took out the plastic box for carrying food. When he returned, his Nan had already sunk the knife down in the pie and began separating generous slices. As she scooped one up, however, it lost its shape and began to topple over, the mince spilling out around the box.
"No, no, no!" Mark whined, as he helplessly watched his creation fall apart.
"There's no time to fix it" His Nan said from behind him. And she was right, he had to bike all the way there on time. That was the agreement. If he were late, he wouldn't get in.
He flung open the door and almost ran out when he heard his Nan's voice from behind him.
"That's what it was! Its national Thankfulness day. What a wonderful thing to celebrate..." She rambled on but he couldn't hear.
The sky above was thick with grey clouds and the street was dark earlier than usual. The late September cold nipped at his fingers and cheeks. He gripped the handlebars and sped off down the laneway. His watch read 17:55. He started to pedal faster. The wind whistled past his ear, deafening him. He dodged pedestrians, cars, old ladies walking their dogs. The sky went drip, drip, drip with the beginning of rain. The mist settled down, clouding the way. Despite this, Mark was only focused on his destination.
The darkness became heavier as he peddled along, gaining speed. The rain ran down his face and dripped off his chin.
Then he heard someone scream.
He swerved, the tires marking the road beneath him. The mist cleared just enough to reveal the figure of a young girl, about his age, standing before him. She had short blonde hair and wore a plain white dress that barely passed her knees. She clutched several parcels to her chest and looked at him fearfully. He felt sorry for her somehow.
But after a moment, she breathed a sigh of relief like she recognized him.
"Mark" she looked at him seriously. "You scared the life out of me" She paused. "Then again" she added "I was the one walking through the mist!" And she laughed heartily.
Mark only stared. She was the prettiest girl he had ever met. And she knew his name!
"Hi. What's your name?" He asked awkwardly.
"Verity. It means "Truth" in some language I don't speak"
She shrugged and smiled again. "What does yours mean?"
"Haven't a clue" he admitted.
"That's too bad. You really should see Mrs. Hackett for that kind of thing"
"Who's she?" asked Mark, who thought he knew everyone in the town, but was beginning to have doubts.
“Actually, never mind, she’d be a bit busy” she added, carelessly. The darkness swallowed the two, capturing them in a void where street and sky did not exist. Mark drew back.
“Are you a Ghost?” He asked. He knew it was silly to suggest it, but the words were out before he could stop them.
“Of course not, silly. But that would be fun” And she started to really imagine it.
“Sorry it’s just, I’ve never seen you before, and you know my name!”
“What’s that smell? It’s delicious! Did you bake something?”
And that's how Mark met a Princess, and he didn't even know it.
He quickly found that she ignored most questions he asked her. But she was quick to ask her own. They both made their way through the shaded streets to the house where the party was being held. Punctuality was no longer a priority. Mark just wanted to give all his attention to this sweet, strange girl who was now accompanying him.
The rain fell from the ash black sky above them, but it was a comforting, warm rain. Verity did most of the talking. Mark just listened; he was good at that.
“We met once, that’s how I know your name. Technically, there are many Marks in the world and I’ve met them all. But that’s my job and there’s no helping that. Anyway, when you were only a tiny, button-nosed baby, I came to visit you. And was there ever a cuter thing? Nope! I did my job and by the end, your parents faces were alight with thankfulness for this little bundle of joy”
Mark could make no sense of this. I mean, could you? Verity noted his confusion.
“Mark, you may not understand, but, they call me the Princess of Thankfulness” And she smiled like this fixed everything.
“How old are you?” Mark scoffed. Feeling that she might be lying made his heart beat faster. Yet it was so amusing, he decided to entertain himself with more questions.
“As old as mankind” She replied casually. “Santa Claus, The Easter bunny, The Tooth Fairy, they’re all my dear friends. And every time a child is born, I rush to the mother’s bedside and give the gift of thankfulness”
“But not every mother is thankful for their child are they?” Mark smiled slyly, thinking he had caught her out. “There’s a lot of cruelty in the world that I wouldn’t call thankfulness”
“Unfortunately Mark, you are right” she confessed sadly. “Though I rush, often the Princess of Disappointment may beat me to it. Or even the Princess of Short-term-Thankfulness”. Verity scowled.
“She’s just a rip-off version of me”
Mark began to think of his own parents. They always forgave him when he ruined his new shoes or stole a cookie from the cookie jar. And that was all because of Verity!
Mark found himself gripping her hand. Part of him just wanted to sympathize with her, another said that he should check if she really was there. He was beginning to believe her story. Sure enough, he felt her soft skin meet his.
“Why have you come to see me?”
“Every thousand years I get a one-year break. It just means that anyone born this year won’t have a thankful parent” she shrugged. “Often I spend my breaks by visiting children, and seeing how my gift has effected their lives”
By now they had arrived. The tall windows filtered multi-colored lights like a disco ensued inside. Balloons hung on the door and music echoed down the street. Verity turned to him.
“I came to see you specifically because I want to bestow upon you another gift. One even more useful than Thankfulness”.
From one parcel she had been holding, she took out a milk white envelope. She handed it to him.
“Put it in your pocket” she instructed. He obeyed. Immediately, he felt the weight disintegrate.
He peeped in and it was gone. Vanished.
“That was the gift of Humility” she smiled. “You will need it”.
He looked into her eyes. Thank you he said, without any words. He meant it.
The door behind him opened, and the light streamed out. He spun round, surprised. Mariah Davidson stood in the hall, wearing a pompous rose red dress. She looked smug.
“Late again Mark? Really, you cycle like your grandma” and she laughed nasally.
“I’m just here to give you your present. It was my Nanny’s idea”
He took the pie from the bag and handed it to her, still warm in its box. But she only looked down on it sullenly. Then she whined.
“Agh, grandma made her stupid pie again?” and she made a face like she was going to be sick.
“Sorry Mark, maybe next year” she smiled condescendingly. Then the door was shut.
But he only felt Humble- because Verity was still there.
“She couldn’t see me because she is one of many who don’t have my gift of thankfulness. So there is little she truly appreciates” she explained, looking serious.
The clouds above them had cleared gradually, revealing a dark, blue sky, lit up by the moon.
“Well, I am thankful for one thing” he smiled slowly. She looked at him, surprised.
“Thankful I know that next time, I should just give you the Pie instead!”
Verity threw back her short blonde hair and laughed.
“I’m thankful for that too!”