17th July 2020
Are you sitting comfortably, little children? Then I will begin. Once upon a time, a long time ago, when there were no such things as telephones or the internet, there was an emperor of an island which had a large empire around the world. Well, I say large, for it was not as its former glory, but the people of this island believed it. In any event, the nation’s influence was still wide and other nations respected it.
The emperor came from the Kerfuffel family, and had himself a number of children, though being absent minded he never knew how many. Most of these had respectable positions, although there were reports of a son working as a bar steward in a foreign country.
Not that being a bar steward is a bad thing to do; I myself was one, one long hot summer, a long time ago. It’s just there are bar stewards, and then there are bar stewards. You will understand when you are older.
Now, the nation had come to regard its physical well-being as the most important thing in life, indeed the Minister for Health was held in higher regard than the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The emperor himself agreed with the populace, although more because he wanted to find favour with them, as perhaps most emperors do.
Around this time two men took it into their heads to take advantage of this. They were called Billy Porter and ‘Cloud’ Massey. Billy made abacuses (it was a long time ago little children) which had sold around the world. ‘Cloud’ was his paid servant, although he worked at the Imperial Court. He was called this as a nickname, as he always had his head in the clouds as they say. He would use Billy’s abacuses in his work but could never get his calculations right.
Billy had made quite a bit of money from abacuses. This despite complaints from some owners that the pebbles stuck together just when they were about to complete the adding up, and having to start all over again. Nevertheless, Billy had sold his business and invested in dairy cattle. Unfortunately, this was not turning out too well and the cows were looking decidedly lean and mangy.
He came up with a cunning plan to make some money from the people and get rid of the cows. Billy had the idea that Cloud would go to the emperor and tell him he was looking a bit peaky. As the emperor was a hypochondriac this would worry him greatly.
So Cloud did as he was told. The emperor looked in a mirror whilst Cloud sucked his teeth and shook his head, whilst looking concerned. ‘I see what you mean’ said the emperor (who did not really see, but trusted Cloud for some reason). ‘What shall I do’, cried the emperor in despair. Cloud thought for a moment. ‘Ah ha’, he said, ‘I have an idea’. ‘What you need is the milk from a special cow. I know a man who sells these.’ ‘Well, bring one here at once’, commanded the emperor.
‘Forgive me your Imperial Majesty’, said Cloud, ‘but this disease is highly contagious. We must go into the populace and see if they have it too.’ So they went out together into the city, and, as they passed, the men bowed and women curtseyed to the emperor (for in those days men and women liked to be different). All the while Cloud shook his head sadly and tut-tutted as they went by.
When they returned to the Palace, Cloud turned to the emperor and exclaimed, ‘It is as I feared your Imperial Majesty, they must all have the disease too. It might be in the whole nation!’ ‘What shall we do?’ wailed the emperor. ‘We shall need more than one cow to provide this milk. I must summon my cabinet’. He then proceeded to call together his ministers.
‘The situation is dire,’ he told them, we need many cows to provide the milk to overcome this disease.’ Cloud nodded sagely. The ministers all looked at each other blankly as this was the first time they had heard anyone was ill, but said ‘here, here’, not wanting to look stupid.
‘But how much will it cost’, queried the Chancellor of the Exchequer’. Well,’ answered Cloud,’ I will use my abacus and work it out.’ He then proceeded to flick the pebbles from side to side, murmuring as he did so and writing furiously. ‘Ah ha. I make it, oooh, allowing for delivery etc, let’s say a round figure, hmm, yes, 500,000 Krona. Definitely. Without a doubt.’
‘And if we don’t?’ asked the Minister for Health. ‘Well, lots of people will be very unwell and the infirmaries will be overwhelmed, this disease is highly contagious you see,’ replied Cloud knowingly. ‘That will be an awful lot of money,’ said the Chancellor, ‘but I suppose we can always borrow it from the bankers and then tax the populace a bit more.’
One or two ministers murmured to themselves it would be more than a bit, but not wanting to be different from the others they kept quiet. So, the ministers and the emperor all agreed it would have to be done. ‘I shall issue a decree,’ said the emperor, ‘all households are to have a cow and must drink its milk to stop the disease.’
This alarmed Cloud as he knew there were some in the city who could think, and if told ahead of time, might challenge the need for a cow. (For you see little children each household had its own cow already, and the cows in this island were known for the quality of their milk).
‘Your imperial majesty,’ said Cloud, ‘May I advise that you proclaim that all households across the land should stay at home, and if they have to go out to work, they must stay two ells away from each other until the disease is over.’ (for he knew this would make it more difficult for the Thinkers to communicate with others).
‘An excellent idea! How much is an ell?’ questioned the emperor. ‘About three feet, your imperial majesty,’ said the Minister of Roads. (The emperor did not understand an ell, which he thought a letter of the alphabet, whereas he knew about feet, as he had two the last time he looked.) “Well then, we shall have signs put up saying ‘Stay apart 2 ells or 6 feet’”. The cabinet nodded their agreement (yes, I know little children that 2 ells are more than six feet, but accuracy was not the emperor’s or the governments’ strongpoint.)
And so the decree went out and, as the populace were dutiful, they obeyed the rules. The Thinkers went around scratching their heads trying to understand the point of it. They were saying to those that would listen ‘What the ells going on?’. They would try and discuss it with their neighbours, but as thinking was not a strong point of the people (they found it rather painful or were just too busy), they were not very successful.
The cows were duly bought by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which made Billy Porter very happy (and even richer), and were kept in a specially constructed pen outside the town. The cows that is, not the Chancellor and Billy.
The emperor and the cabinet went to see them to see what they had bought. The cows stood mournfully in their stockade, a scrawny, miserable herd if ever there was. The cabinet looked aghast at each other (except for the Minister for Health for some reason. There was a rumour going round that he had shares in Billy Porters cows, so that might explain it).
The Chancellor looked quite pale at the thought of all that money spent on these poor creatures. However, the emperor seemed pleased as Cloud had warned him not to be deceived by appearances, and as I have told you little children, he still trusted Cloud for some reason.
In the meantime, some of the thinkers had been thinking. They had heard about the plan for them to be given a cow and to have to drink its milk. They managed to get together, (whilst keeping two ells apart of course) and one of their number had written to the emperor requesting that he show them the cows first. Although Cloud tried his best to persuade the emperor not to accede to the request, the emperor thought this was fair (he was always a fair man), and agreed.
The following day the heralds went out and proclaimed that the emperor would enter the city with one of the cows to reassure the populace. The emperor came out of his palace in his finest clothes, a picture of elegance (although his hair looked rather disheveled as he always had trouble with it and detested hats). One of the cows ambled along behind, not looking very enthusiastic or, indeed, healthy. The cabinet ministers followed.
The city folk bowed and curtseyed as usual as the emperor passed, but when they saw the cow and its condition, they looked at each other in surprise. However, they said nothing as they were used to the government telling them what to do. (And don’t forget, little children, the crowds were not as dense as usual due to the two-ell rule, although sadly this did not apply to most of the individuals present).
Nevertheless, as the procession went on, it passed a family with several young children. The youngest, perhaps no more than five years old, exclaimed ‘What a skinny cow, mummy, it doesn’t look very well!’ ‘Hush dear’ whispered the mother. ‘But it is mummy, it is!’ he persisted.
The thinkers in the crowd then started saying to their neighbours, ‘You see, I told you so.’ Murmurs went round the crowds as the people started to realise that the cow was scrawny and thin and not nearly as good as their own cows. Cloud, who had been accompanying the emperor (at a safe distance of course), took fright at this, realised the game was up and tried to disappear into the people, although the two-ell rule made it rather difficult to be inconspicuous.
Somebody started laughing, and then somebody else joined in and slowly but surely everyone started to laugh (indeed, you could say the laughter became infectious!). At least, most people laughed. The emperor looked bemused, the Minister for Health looked decidedly sick, whilst the Chancellor fainted at the thought of all the wasted money.
And that, dear children, is the nearly the end of my tale. Well, the populace stopped laughing when they heard how much had been paid for the decrepit cows and that they would be taxed for years to come to make up the short fall in revenue.
As to the cows, well they were of no more value than dog meat, and were sold to a gentleman from the east for much less than the government paid for them. I heard it said perhaps only 20,000 Krona, but it may have been a little more. It was rumoured that the people of the country to which they went ate dogs, and it was thought that this might have been the cause of some of the diseases around the world the following year.
And as to what happened to the emperor, his cabinet and Cloud? Well, I will leave you to finish the story. You have good imaginations and will come up with something suitable. Oh, and don’t forget to include Billy, will you?