There was once an island Kingdom in the Alifbay Archipeligo. A sad Kingdom.The saddest of Kingdoms. A Kingdom so sad that it had forgotten its name.
The trouble had started some forty years earlier when the King, who like to be known as Top Cat, or “T.C.”, claimed to have made new discoveries based on the ancient legends of Old Major and particularly Snowball. He had announced to the annual festival that the legends of old had been brought to life by the discovery of the Magic Lens, a tool for focusing the beaming light of Old Major and Snowball onto the people of Alifbay. King T.C. Had written four long instruction manuals for his successors to understand how to use the Magic Lens.
For many long years, King TC’s Magic Lens seem to keep the good folk of Alifbay happy. Their annual festival attracted increasing numbers of people from the surrounding islands. Some stayed permanently. A few even came from the mainland, Le Bore, which the King had led his people away from nearly half a century earlier.
After King TC’s death, his first successor, Junior, or Jr to his friends appeared to be very popular. There were many exchanges organised with the mainland and many of Alifbay’s subjects were very excited. But it turned out that the kingdom was losing people on every trip to Le Bore. The people were becoming restless. There were even rumours that the Kings Kourt itself was divided. But with the newspapers strictly censored by the Control Cops, this would only ever be gossip.
Then one year, just before the annual festival, it was announced that Jr had gone bad. He’d taken a few from the kingdom to live on Frappacino, a small rock near Le Bore which attracted many visitors until it collapsed into the sea. Meanwhile, a new successor to King TCwas declared. The Professor, who according to gossip had always been a prime mover behind the scenes, was cast into the spotlight.
The Professor’s first act was to renounce all those who’d moved to close to Le Bore, and spoke of getting back to the true spirit of King TC. He spoke too of a new openness. In reality, the King and his Kourt were desperately trying to clamp down on to the new semaphore craze. This had involved the subjects of the island kingdom learning the new semaphore system and subjects of Alifbay could often bee seen all along the coast frantically waving flags to similar crazed flag wavers on the surrounding islands and boats. Royal Proclamations were issued against the sharing of gossip or the unfairness of semaphore, and subjects were urged to submit their news and thoughts to the official newspapers.
However, the semaphore language had been leant by most in the Kingdom. As with nearly all monarchies, a lack of information didn’t prevent speculation – quite the opposite. Aided by the semaphore signals from neighbouring kingdoms, often sent by refugees from Alifbay, rumours began to spread about corruption and wrongdoing at the heart of the Kourt.
The King Professor decided to hit back. He took counsel from a group within the Kourt, known as the Leatherettes – named as such for their tendency to wear leather. The Leatherettes advised him to make better usse of the Magic Lens, in order to unite the subjects behind the Professor. Afterall, they declared, he was their Professor. Then, the Leatherettes urged the Professor to try a new technique with the Magic Lens. It was, they said, guaranteed to bring harmony throughout the Kingdom, and would make Alifbay a much more attractive destination to some of the travellers from neighbouring islands . They desperately needed travellers to visit, and hopefully stay, volunteering to become subjects and do some of the vital repairs much needed across the Kingdom, even though nobody was supposed to discuss the shambolic state of much of the islands buildings.
The new technique, explained the Leatherettes, involved using the Magic Lens to its maximum ability. This could only be done by the Professor, and only if he wore special garments made of “warm leatherette”. The special warm leatherette was the finest leather known to the world, so fine that the wearer could hardly feel it. They also explained that to the eyes of traitors, the untrustworthy and “Fifth Columnists”, it could appear invisible. Combined with the Magic Lens, it would be perfect for dealing with those subjects who spent too much time flag waving along the cliff tops and shorelines instead of working on the much needed repairs.
As the festival approached, the Leatherettes were said to be hard at work creating the new outfit. The Professor would have the garments fitted for size after the weekly Kourt. Gradually more and more members of the Kourt were invited to see the Professor in all his glory. And everybody did praise the Leatherettes’ beautiful stitching, the designs of the Magic Lens, TC’s profile and the works of Old Major and Snowball that were said to make up the multi-layered garment.
The Emperor tried on the finished garments for the last time before the festival.He gave a rare smile as he acknowledged that indeed, the leatherette was so light, it felt as he wore nothing. The Kourtiers each expressed amazement at the stitch work, the images, the fit, and declared how much they were looking forward to witnessing the enhanced powers of the Magic Lens.
In the run up to the festival, the word was spread across the Kingdom that the festival was to be a time for uniting the Kingdom behind the Professor. “Building a Better Future”, “Moving Forwards Together”, “People’s Repairing, not Waving People” and “New Clothes, New Alifbay” were painted on every wall or hung in splendid tapestries in every shop, office and home. More statues and portraits of Snowball and Old Major appeared in every village square. “Hope” was the watchword of the day. Woe betide anyone who might try to destroy hope
The big day arrived. With a smaller population, every subject could have a seat in the Great Lecture Theatre. Dry ice billowed from the curtains before they opened to reveal the Magic Lens. The subjects were on the edge of their seats, each with their own private fears and each outwardly enthusiastic about the promises of challenging but rewarding times ahead. The rumours had spread once more, though this time deliberately by the Leatherettes themselves.
As the smoke settled, the Magic Lens seemed more beautiful and powerful than ever. Then the moment arrived that seemingly everybody had been eagerly anticipating.
The Professor stepped out from behind the curtain and a deathly hush fell across the room. Nobody dared look at anyone else. Had they done so, they would have seen a mixture of fear and mirth in each other’s eyes.
Each and every subject of the Professor stared as, wearing not a stitch of clothing, he strolled across the stage towards the Magic Lens. As he placed his hands on the engraving of Old Major, he felt a brief chill from the breeze and silently cursed himself for not being able to see his own gowns. He looked around the Great Lecture Theatre. But, he’d never much of a social animal and was unable to detect anything from the faces of his subjects. Then his gaze fell upon a group of four children, sitting at the front. They were young, but surely old enough to know not to be giggling with each other at such an austere occasion.
Then he noticed one of them pointing a little finger at him.
“Why’s he not wearing any clothes mum?” came the voice of one of the four, to the giggles of her friends. The mum in question looked round horrified. Not her girl! No! The other parents too took their giggling children and pulled them away from the front. “But why daddy?”, pleaded one. “he looks funny”. “I can see his..” started another before a parental hand covered the boys mouth. Other adults stared in shock, disbelief and anger. The four children, Paz,Tim,Charlotte and Adam, fled with their parents to the harbour and quietly set sail to safety.
But it was too late.
The genie was out of the bottle.
As the Professor finished his ceremony with the Magic Lens and took his traditional festival stroll through the crowds, more suppressed laughter could be heard in the crowd. Young children at first, quickly suppressed by adult authority. Yet as one titter died down, two more could be heard, then three. And not just the voices of the children. Gradually, a few adult whispers could be heard; everybody seemed to be sneaking sideways glances at the sight of their leader, naked as the day he’d been born.
Gradually they drifted back to their homes where tense discussions were carried on in whispers into the early hours. Meanwhile, the Kourt carried on as usual, the walkabout ending with a great feast in the Palace.
The first that members of the Kourt heard about anything being amiss was from the reports of the Control Cops. By midday the day after the festival they’d received dozens of reports of frantic semaphoring all along the coast. The shipping channels seemed busier than usual, and the glint of dozens of telescopes trained on Alifbay was unusual.
But nobody in the Kourt said a word. They discussed the success of the Festival, and how the people seemed to love their Professor more than ever. The Leatherettes promised that the fruits of the new technique with the Magic Lens would soon be obvious. They carried on in this way for three full weeks, even as the truth about terrible wrongdoings at the heart of the court began to spread. It was only when an envoy returning from Le Bore reported that their papers were full of a child’s drawing of the naked Professor that they acted.
Criers on every street corner read out the Palace’s Royal Statement, denouncing the drawing and its misuse by those in the mainland and other islands. Each member of the Kourt reaffirmed their love of the Professor and the power of the Magic Lens. Control Cops worked night and day to stop the semaphores, to monitor the talk of the streets and markets. Announcements were read out daily about the traditions of Alifbay and how they were being attacked by hostile forces, or how dangerous or uninhabitable the other islands and the mainland were. Rumours were be spread about “dark forces” at work out to destroy Alifbay and all its traditions.
Within a month, the population was evenly divided. One half couldn’t believe that their neighbours seemed prepared to ditch a way of life. The others couldn’t believe that their neighbours really seemed to believe that they had not seen a naked Professor at all, but a wonderful worker of magic. Even when some members of the Kings Kourt itself began to hint that maybe the leathertte garments were pretty much non-existent, and that they had actually known this all along, many many people felt unable to admit it. Perhaps the prospect of admitting what they had seen was too frightening.
In the end, there was an exodus. The threats from the Control Cops, the ostracism by former friends and neighbours, the sheer stupidity of the whole episode, led to many boats being boarded in the dark of night, and a few in broad daylight to noisy fanfares. There were many tears as folk left their homes and former friends. Some promised to keep in touch by semaphore and even those hostile to flag waving realised it would be secretly watching the signals from across the seas.
As the Diaspora sailed away they passed many tiny islands whose inhabitants urged them to settle. A few did, fearful of a long uncertain journey. While not quite as uninhabitable as they had been led to believe, some really were such low lying islands that they were essentially huge swamps, while others were little more than hard rocks. Others tried to build their own islands in the sea, but this proved to be extremely tricky. Discussions raged in each refugee boat about where to go, about the Magic Lens, the Leatherettes and about whether they would ever return. Some felt guilty about leaving friends behind. Others simply celebrated a new feeling of being able to breathe freely.
As time went on, the population of Alifbay continued to decline. Of course there were always new travellers passing through, and a few still chose to stay, receiving great fanfares from the Kourt. Of those who’d left Alifbay, the diaspora spread wider. Some met up with refugees from other Kingdoms, some settling on the mainland or small islands and rocks, and many continued to chart the uncertain but friendly waters. Their feelings about their former home and especially their friends and neighbours who chose to stay on Alifbay gradually changed as the tales of continuing bitterness and fighting was spead by the flags from coast to boat to coast.
Feelings of disappointment and even anger with former friends gradually disappeared, and replaced by simple pity.
Their future was in uncertain.
But they were free.