The children of Little Woodham are told old English faery tales - often quite different to the ones you will have grown up listening to. Below, with kind permission from author Rosalind Kerven, is one of the favourites often told in the village for you to enjoy.
Tom Tit Tot
There was once a foolish woman who had a foolish daughter, and which of them was worse I couldn’t tell you. Anyway, one day the woman set to and baked five fine apple pies, and when they were done she put them on the shelf to cool, then popped out to do her shopping. Her daughter was slavering at the mouth because of the delicious smell wafting through the air, and as soon as her mother had left, the girl sneaked into the pantry to steal a taste. It was so good that she couldn’t help finishing off the whole pie, and then another and yet another, until soon she’d eaten every single one of them. Just as she was licking the last crumbs off her fingers, her mother came home. When she saw what had happened, she fell into a rage – and who can blame her?
She slapped the daughter hard on both cheeks and when the girl began to bawl, she whacked her backside with a broom handle, just for good measure. Then the woman went stomping out into the street, yelling at the top of her voice: ‘Oh lawd, loverducks! What a glutton I’ve got for a daughter! That’s five whole pies the girl’s eaten, all in a single day!’
Eventually she calmed down a bit, but when she turned around to go back indoors, guess what she found behind her – a big, black horse with bells and golden ornaments on its bridle, and on it’s back sat the king!
Of course, the woman was terribly flustered. She smoothed her hair and dropped a curtsey and muttered a humble apology for not seeing his majesty. But the king waved away her apologies and said, ‘Good woman, I heard you saying something about your daughter just now, which sounded very interesting, but I couldn’t quite catch the words. Would you kindly repeat it?’
Well, there was no way that the woman was going to tell the king the disgusting truth about her daughter’s greed. So she thought quickly and answered: ‘Yes, I was just saying, your majesty, what a great spinner I have for a daughter. She’s spun five whole skeins of flax in a single day.’
‘Good heavens above! Five skeins in one day,’ marvelled the king. ‘I’ve never heard of such skill and diligence in all my life. She sounds like a girl in a million. Bring her out woman: let me have a look at her.’
So the woman went to fetch her daughter, who came out giggling and blushing quite prettily. The king looked her up and down for a few moments and scratched his bristly beard. ‘I’ve been searching for a suitable wife for some time,’ he said, ‘and it seems to me that this girl of yours would be just perfect for me. She seems innocent, she’s a good looker and, best of all, she’s clever with her hands.’
The woman’s mouth dropped open in astonishment.
‘I think I’ll marry her,’ said the king shortly. ‘In fact, there’s nothing to be gained by wasting time, so I’ll take her with me now and hold the wedding tomorrow, and after that she can live in the royal palace with me and be my queen.’
The woman and daughter both gasped.
‘But there’s one condition attached to the deal,’ the king went on. ‘For eleven months of the year she can laze about and live a life of unadulterated luxury, and I won’t ask anything of her. However, she has to spend the twelfth month spinning five skeins of flax every single day, just like you said. And if she can’t or won’t, I’ll have her executed!’
Now, maybe it was the woman’s foolishness, or just her optimistic nature, but she didn’t worry at all about how her daughter was going to fulfil this condition. All she could think of was how fine it would be to see her child prancing about in fine dresses and priceless jewels, and for herself to be queen mother. The girl got no say in the matter, but as she couldn’t see any further than her own nose, she was more than happy with the arrangement anyway.
So the girl packed her bags and went to the palace with the king without delay, and the next day he threw a really grand feast for the wedding. The guests were nobles and warriors and emperors from who knows where and the tables spilled over with rich food and wine. Then the girl settled down into her new life, and before long she’d almost forgotten she’d been born a peasant, because she took to the royal lifestyle so easily. And so the months rolled by, and she grew plumper and prettier by the day. Then, all of a sudden, the first eleven months were up.
‘Come with me, my dear,’ the king said to her the next morning, and he led her up the winding staircase of a tall tower, to a cold, round room that she’d never seen before. In it there was nothing but a single high window, a wooden spinning wheel, a wooden stool and a big rush basket overflowing with raw flax.
‘Sit yourself down here,’ the king said – and it wasn’t said at all unkindly, for he had absolute faith in his wife after he’d heard her mother’s boasts. ‘Now get on with your spinning, and make sure you’ve got five skeins finished by the time it get darks; then you can come down into the hall for a big meal and a bit of dancing.’
The girl sat down and looked dolefully up at the king. ‘Supposing I cant get it finished in time?’ she asked him.
‘Not get it finished in time?’ he answered, and his face clouded. ‘Ha! I’ll have to send the executioner along to you with his axe and tell him to chop off your head!’ and with that he went out of the room and locked the door tightly behind him.
Now to tell the truth, not only was the girl incapable of working as fast as the king had been led to believe, but she hardly knew how to spin at all. She was all fingers and thumbs, messes and tangles, and she’d never completed so much as one single skein of yarn in all her life. Knowing the game was up, she burst into tears. Then, all of a sudden, she heard a soft, scuttling noise like some kind of vermin running around the room. She looked up, expecting to see a mouse or, even worse, a rat. Instead she found herself staring straight at a dark imp! He was no higher than her knee, with a twisted, ancient face and a stringy tail dragging on the floor behind him.
‘What’s the matter’? asked the imp in a husky voice. ‘Why are you crying?’ He was an uncanny-looking thing, but he didn’t seem set on hurting her. Besides, she was so distressed and lonesome that she thought any kind of company would be better than none. So, she wiped her eyes and told him all her troubles, starting with her mother’s rage on the day when she’d gobbled up all the pies, up until that very morning when the king, who had treated her so kindly until then, had set her the task and made his grim threat about what would happen if she couldn’t fulfil it.
The imp flicked his stringy tail around this way and that, and blinked at her. Then he said, ‘There’s no need to worry any more, lassie. You just sit back on the stool and have a nap, and don’t open your eyes until I say so. By that time all the spinning will be done.’
The girl was overjoyed with the imp’s offer. But she remembered her mother constantly scolding her greed and saying how nothing in life was ever free, so she said to the imp: ‘That’s very kind of you, mister, thank you very much; but please could you tell me what you’ll charge for the job.’
‘I might not charge you anything at all,’ he answered, ‘if you can guess my what name is.’
‘Is that really so?’ she said, surprised.
‘It is,’ said the imp, ‘and each day that I come in to do your spinning, I’ll give you three guesses. That’s three each day for the thirty days of this month, making ninety guesses altogether; but if you haven’t found the right answer by the month’s end, you’ll be mine!’
Ninety whole chances was a lot, she thought to herself – surely there couldn’t be more names than that in the whole world! So she agreed to the imp’s bargain, settled herself comfortably on the stool and closed her eyes as the imp set to work. She was so tired from weeping, and the noise of the spinning wheel was so soothing, that she soon fell fast asleep. She didn’t wake until the sun was setting behind the high turret window; and sure enough, the imp had finished all the spinning and there were five neat skeins of fine linen yarn piled up in the basket.
‘You’ve done it all, like you said you would!’ she cried.
‘Of course I have,’ said the imp, ‘I’m a gentleman and always true to my word. Now make a guess at my name, and then I’ll be off. What do you think it is?’
‘Um …’ she said, ‘is it John?’
‘It’s not,’ he replied.
‘Then is it William?’
‘No,’ he said
‘Is it Ned?’
‘Wrong again!’ cried the imp, and he twirled his tail and spun around so fast that he was like a dazzling whirlwind of dark dust; and then he completely vanished.
Never mind, thought the girl to herself, I’ve still got another eighty-seven chances. To tell the truth, she wasn’t at all worried that the imp would snatch her away – she was just so pleased that he’d got the spinning done for her. And then the king came in and swept her into his arms because he was pleased with all the hard work he thought she’d done. The rest of the evening passed in such a haze of joy that she almost forgot her worries.
The next day dawned and exactly the same things happened. The king took her up to the lonely tower and locked her inside with the spinning wheel, the stool and the basket of raw flax. Then the imp appeared out of thin air, told her to go to sleep and did all the spinning for her. When she awoke she had three more tries at guessing his name, but still couldn’t get it right. No matter: there were still another twenty-eight days left, and she was sure to find the answer. But the next day ended in the same way, and the one after that too, and so on, until at last there was only one day to go before the end of the month, when the triumphant imp could claim her as his own.
On the evening before that ominous day, on account of all the work he thought she’d done, the king was in an especially good mood with her. He say her on his knee and fed her choice titbits, and told her all sorts of palace secrets that he’d never shared with her before. Then, all of a sudden he began to laugh, until he was shaking so much that she almost tumbled off.
‘Whatever’s the matter?’ she asked him.
‘I was just remembering a funny thing I saw today,’ the king replied. ‘I was out with all my knights, hunting in the forest, when my horse strayed off the path and I heard a strange cackling noise. I found I’d come to the edge of an old chalk pit, and when I looked into it, there was the weirdest little creature I’ve ever seen. It was neither man nor beast, but dark and scuttling like a spider, only with two legs instead of eight and a horrible scraggy tail like a piece of dirty string. And it was dancing around and singing at the top of its voice.’
When she heard this, the girl sat up very straight. ‘What was it singing about?’ she gasped.
The king burst out laughing again, but when he’d recovered himself he said, ‘It was all just silly nonsense, my dear. The words went something like this, I think:
Nimmy nimmy not,
My name’s Tom Tit Tot’
The girl bit her tongue and didn’t say another word to the king, but you can be sure she was pleased about what she’d heard. The next morning – her last day of spinning for the year – the king took her into the turret as usual, and soon the imp appeared, sent her to sleep and got on with his work. When she opened her eyes, the usual pile of five linen skeins were in the basket, and the imp was leering at her with a very evil glint in his eyes.
‘There,’ he said, ‘that’s done for the year. Now I’ll have to let you have your three final guesses because I promised to do so, but as soon as you get the last one wrong,’ – he gave a lascivious laugh – ‘oh yes, you’ll be mine! So go on then, what’s my name?’
‘Er,’ she flustered as usual, ‘is it Gideon?’
‘Wrong’! the creature mocked her
‘Then could it be Emmanuel?’
‘No!’ he cried. ‘Now, lassie, have your very last go.’ And he stretched out his mean little hands, al covered in scars and dirt and warts, and snatched at her skirts.
The girl took her time. She swallowed and said the words silently to herself , because she didn’t dare risk not getting them right the first time. Then she took a deep breath, pointed at the imp and whispered very slowly:
‘Nimmy nimmy not,
Your name’s Tom Tit Tot’!’
As the last word left her lips, the imp gave a shriek so piercing that it must have woken every dead person in the graveyard behind the royal palace. Then he vanished into thin air.
And the girl never saw him again.
Tom Tit Tot
© Rosalind Kerven
From: Faeries, Elves & Goblins: The old stories (National Trust 2013
Reproduced by kind permission of the author