Not so long ago, in a land not so far away, the people lived happily in almost permanent sunshine. Food was plentiful, everyone was friendly, and the most important person was a loveable old fool called the King.
After the King, the most important person was the Queen, and after the Queen, the Queen's children. After that, everyone else was more or less the same.
Except for Cyril.
Cyril was a working goat.
If any jobs needed doing, Cyril would do them.
He fixed roofs.
He mended shoes.
He kept the lawns neat and tidy.
He did absolutely everything.
One day, just when everyone was getting used to everything being wonderful, everything started to go wrong.
First, it began to rain.
This wasn't a bad thing. In fact, most people were quite pleased, because normally it only rained at night, when they were all in bed, and they were all excited by the thunder and lightning, and seeing tons of water falling on other people's heads.
However, when the rain carried on for over a fortnight, people started to worry.
"We're all going to drown," some of them said when the water reached their ankles.
Eventually, the rain stopped and the sun came out.
"Phew!" Everyone said with relief.
Soon they were saying, "Phew," all the time, because the sun seemed to get hotter and hotter, and all the water that had poured down for weeks disappeared in clouds of steam.
Worse than that, the river that provided all their drinking water began to dry up, and then the crops that provided most of their food began to die.
"We're all going to starve," some of them said, especially the one's who had been to the shops and bought up all the food and hidden it in their wardrobes.
September came, followed by October.
Still the sun beat down.
The food was running out and water was being rationed. People were advised to drink their bathwater.
They were advised to boil their bathwater before they drank it...
...and to get out of the bath before they boiled it.
Eventually a meeting was called and the town bigmouths were sent to see the King.
"We've got no food," they said.
"Neither have I," the King replied. "It's terrible, isn't it?"
"Well what are we going to do?" they asked him.
"How should I know?" he said. "The Queen does all our shopping."
"The shops are all empty!" the bigmouths complained.
The King nodded his head.
"That's good," he said. "There won't be any queues."
The people were growing angry.
"Listen you old twit," one of them began.
"Careful," the King warned him. "We may have to chop off your head... and eat it." Then he chuckled.
“Your highness," someone else called out to him, "we really are hungry. And you're the King. You're supposed to tell us what to do."
The King thought hard for a moment.
"Well," he said at last. "Have you thought about having a sandwich?"
Most of the people banged their heads on the nearest wall in frustration. "This is useless," someone said, and they all trooped outside.
The King followed them.
"Wait," he shouted.
They all turned round expectantly. The King smiled at them one at a time, then he smiled at them all at once.
"Before you go," he said, "does anyone fancy a game of hide and seek?"
It was too much for Fred, the town butcher.
"Look," he said. "We've had enough! We're all starving and we've got to have some food...
...It's time to eat the goat!"
"The goat?" The King looked puzzled, which wasn't exactly unusual. "What goat?"
"That goat," Fred announced, pointing at Cyril.
The King was alarmed, which was useful as it let him know if anyone was breaking into his trouser pockets.
Cyril, meanwhile, was trying to slip away, unnoticed, but a couple of the men stopped him.
"Cyril is a goat?" The King couldn't believe his ears, even though they’d never lied to him before.
"Of course he's a goat," Fred snapped at him. "But not for long: in ten minutes he's going to be a hot-pot."
“Oh no," the King said. "We can't eat Cyril."
Cyril was relieved, but the argument was far from over.
"Why can't we eat him?" the people wanted to know.
"Well," the King began, "for a start, we need his milk."
"He's a Billy goat, you old fool," Fred pointed out. "He hasn't got any milk."
The King frowned.
"Well," he said. "We need him to fix the roof!"
Fred gave a nasty laugh.
"Ha! We're starving to death," he told the King. "Nobody ever died of a broken roof, did they?"
As if to prove his point, at that moment, a tile fell off the roof and killed him.
Cyril and the King tried not to laugh.
"It's not funny," Fred's brother, Ted, told them. "And we should still eat the goat."
"No, no, no," the King contradicted him. "We can't eat Cyril. He mends all our shoes."
Ted started to say that no one ever died of a hole in their shoe, then he looked at Fred and stopped himself.
Instead, he said: "I'd rather have bare feet than an empty stomach."
The King snorted at him.
"Well why don’t you eat your boots then," he suggested.
"I can't," Ted complained. "My wife's already eaten them!"
He held up his naked feet for everyone to see...
... then realised what he’d done and fell on his back.
"This is getting us nowhere," someone spoke up. It was Myrtle Tyrtle, the town know-all. "Get him in the pot!"
Three men got hold of the King.
"Not him, you idiots. The goat!"
They let go of the King and turned on Cyril.
"Wait!" the King commanded. "We can't eat him."
"Why not?" Myrtle glared at him angrily. The King wasn't frightened. Well not much. He stared back at her.
"Because," he began, trying hard to think of something. "Because... Goats taste horrible!"
He folded his arms and looked smug, thinking they wouldn't have an answer to that one. As usual, he was wrong.
"They taste better than boots," Ted's wife piped up.
"And they taste better than wallpaper," someone else added, "and that's all we've eaten for a fortnight!"
The King was running out of ideas. He'd had some wallpaper for breakfast himself, and he had to admit Cyril probably would taste much better. However, he was very fond of the goat, and he wasn't ready to give in yet.
"I tell you what," he said finally, "we'll give it another week."
"Another week?" The people were outraged. "We'll be dead in another week!"
"All right then," the King conceded with a heavy sigh. "We’ll make it a fortnight."
At last the people were happy, or at least as happy as their grumbling stomachs would allow, and Myrtle led them away. The King watched them go, then went back inside.
Cyril climbed up to the highest tower and sulked.
The King told the Queen what had happened and asked for her advice.
“Well," she said, "we can't let them eat Cyril, that's for certain."
"Exactly," the King agreed with her, feeling quite relieved that someone was on his side.
“No,” the Queen added. "We'll have to eat him ourselves."
The King nodded.
"Yes," he said, then; "No!"
"Why not?" the Queen asked him. "He's our goat."
"That's not the point," the King said. "He's my best friend. People don't go around eating their best friends, do they?"
"People don't go round saying their best friend's a goat," the Queen answered him. She was not impressed. She sat for a while, deep in thought.
“Listen," she said at last, "there's got to be food somewhere. How long do you think it will take your men to find it?"
"I don't know," the King confessed. "It depends when they start looking I suppose."
The Queen stared at him in disbelief.
"You mean they haven't started yet?"
"I couldn't tell you," he said. "I haven't asked them."
The Queen looked round for something to throw at his head.
"You great, gibbering, frog-faced fool," she shouted. "You're not supposed to ask them what they're doing; you're the King! You’re supposed to tell them what to do!"
"Oh," the King said, rather inadequately, as he moved between the Queen and a rather heavy vase that she hadn't noticed yet.
"Get out of my way," she barked, and went to call in the King's men. Soon they were assembled and she ordered them to go and find food, and find it quickly.
The King stood behind her, nodding, then sent them on their way.
"Now hurry up," he urged them. "And try and get me some Jammy Dodgers."
The Queen gave him a furious scowl then stormed off to look for her book of goat recipes; she had about as much faith in the King's men as she had in the King himself.
Cyril and the King sat on the roof and counted the days until either the men returned with food, or the people returned with knives, forks, and a goat-sized casserole dish.
On day four, the Queen came up and made them wash and shave.
By day seven, they were just as bad as before.
And then the people came to the Castle gates.
The King smiled confidently at Cyril and assured him that everything would be all right.
"When they ring the bell," he said, "we'll hide behind the sofa and pretend we're not in."
So they did.
For some strange reason, the plan didn't work.
"Come out from behind that sofa," the Queen shouted at them. "You're showing me up."
The King crawled out wearing a sheepish grin. Cyril followed, wearing a goatish one.
None of the townspeople were grinning.
"Right," said Ted. "Your time's up."
He held up two of his late brother's carving knives and sharpened them theatrically, one against the other, taking several slices off his knuckles in the process.
The King looked at Cyril.
Cyril looked for an exit.
Every door and window was guarded by a hungry-looking man.
Cyril didn't know what to do. Unfortunately, neither did the King. The people in the room closed in on Cyril.
“Come quietly, son," Ted advised him. "Struggling will only make it worse."
Considering he was about to be cooked and eaten, Cyril didn't think anything could make it worse, but he allowed himself to be led outside to where a giant pot had been erected on top of a giant bonfire.
All the townsfolk were there, waiting with spoons and bowls and dribbling down the fronts of their shirts.
The King watched in despair as Cyril was salted and peppered.
"Where are those men I sent for food?" he wailed.
"We're here, your Kingship," a voice said beside him.
The King jumped and turned around. Sure enough, there were his men.
"When did you get back?" he asked his General.
"Oh, days ago," the General informed him.
The King could barely speak. "Did you find any food?" he said at last.
"Oh yes," the General told him. "Tons of it."
"So where is it, you great, steaming idiot? Why didn't you bring it to me?"
"You never told us to," the General defended himself. "You just asked for some Jammy Dodgers, and we couldn't find any, so we put the rest in the cellar."
The King looked up to the sky and took a deep breath, then he barged through the crowd and stood next to Cyril, who was in the pot.
"Right everyone," he called for their attention. "I'm the King..."
This earned him a round of applause, as it was the first time anyone had been sure that the King knew who he was.
"...and I'm happy to say, we don't have to eat Cyril."
This time he was greeted with jeers and boos. He carried on regardless.
"The reason we don't have to eat him," he said, smiling at his friend, "is that my men have returned, and they've brought back food!"
There was a moment's silence, then a great cheer rose up from the crowd. Ted and Myrtle jumped up and stood next to the King.
"Wait a minute," Myrtle hushed the crowd. "It might be a trick to save the goat's life."
"Yes," Ted agreed. When everyone had calmed down he turned to the King. "So where is all this food then?"
The King nodded to his men and waited for them to go and get the food. His men nodded back, then looked at one another with stupid expressions.
"Well go and get the food you morons," the King had to tell them. Immediately they disappeared into the cellars, returning a few minutes later carrying great sacks of food and flagons of water. They piled the food up in front of the bonfire then went back down for more.
When they had completed the job, and all the food was set before the people, the King helped Cyril out of the pot.
"Not so fast." Ted stepped forward and pushed Cyril back in. "Just how long do you think this food is going to last? And who’s going to be in charge of sharing it out?"
The King looked at all the people and then he looked at Ted. He realised that if Ted still had any boots, he would be much too big for them. Everyone was waiting to see what the King would do, but before he could do anything, Myrtle had joined in.
"Ted's right," she told the crowd. "There's not enough food here for everyone. We'll have to cook the goat as well, or someone's going to starve."
Arguments raged back and forth as the people first took one side and then the other. They still liked the King, but they had to admit that he hadn't been much help in the crisis, at least not until the last minute. Maybe it was time to have a new King and Queen. Ted and Myrtle certainly seemed to know what they were talking about; maybe they could do the job.
The King raised his hands for silence.
"Listen," he said. "We'll share the food out, fair and square. Everyone will get some, and before it's gone, my men will go out and get some more."
The people murmured their approval, but Ted was far from satisfied.
"How do we know you'll share the food out, fair and square?" he demanded. "How do we know you won't keep half of it for yourself?"
This was an outrageous accusation and the people were outraged.
"If he done that," someone shouted, "he'll be in the pot with Cyril!"
A great, angry shout rose up from the crowd and people surged forward, frightening Cyril and the King.
Myrtle stirred them up further.
"And how do we know his men will find more food?" she asked them. "Half of 'em couldn't find their own way home from the house next door, unless they had a map!"
While everybody laughed, the King called his General up beside him.
"Throw him in the pot as well," a voice called out. "We'll have a feast!"
Ted and Myrtle led the cheering, but once again the King called for silence.
"Please," he begged them, "let's ask the General for his opinion."
The people, out of respect for the King, quietened down. The King turned to his General and prayed he would come up with the answers he wanted, otherwise they were all in the stew.
"Jim," he began, then corrected himself. "I mean General; do you think you and your men can find more food and bring it back?"
Without hesitation, the General replied: "Er, I don’t know...”
Then, when he saw the ferocious look the King was aiming at him, he quickly added, “Yes, your majesteyness. Absolutely."
"Ha!" Ted and Myrtle said together.
“And what makes you think we're going to believe you?" Myrtle wanted to know.
The General looked at her and smiled.
"You don't have to believe me," he said. "I'll take you to it and show you."
A great gasp went up from the crowd. The King looked at General Jim.
"Is this true?" he said, and when the General nodded, he asked him; "Where is it?"
"Well, most of it's hidden in Myrtle's wardrobe," he told them, "and the rest’s in Ted's back yard. We couldn't get it all at once because he's got it locked in his shed, but once we get the key..."
He never finished what he was saying because the people had heard enough. While Ted and Myrtle stared at each other, turning first blood-red, and then pale as a pair of hospital sheets, the crowd rushed forward and flung them in the pot, lifting Cyril out first and carrying him on their shoulders round the bonfire.
The singing and dancing went on all night, only interrupted by eating and drinking, and when the sun came up, someone pointed at the sky and everybody cheered; great banks of rain clouds were coming over the horizon towards them and thunder crackled in the distant air.
Nobody ever knew what happened to Ted and Myrtle, or whether they escaped from the pot or not, but nobody saw them again, and everyone agreed that the stew was delicious.
The King, meanwhile, made Cyril the Prime Minister, so he could make it the law that no one was allowed to eat Goats, even in an emergency.
Fairly soon, things returned to normal, but nobody forgot what had happened, and everyone joined in the digging of wells, under Cyril's supervision, and in the building of a large warehouse for storing food, so that next time Mother Nature raised her fist at them, they would all be much better prepared.
© Copyright 2016 Chris Gerard. All rights reserved.