As part of my Masters degree we have to study fairy tales. These tales have been passed down from generation to generation, and in each retelling there are differing versions that pertain to the historical context, culture and the values and nuances of the time.
So we have to pick a fairy tale, then retell it. I’ve chosen the classic story of Red Riding Hood. It has been retold for hundreds of years, from Charles Perrault’s original tale in 1697 for French aristocracy, through to the Grimm Brothers in 1812, and modern versions such as Roald Dahl’s ‘Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf.’
The stories are essentially for children, but the original message in them is much darker, the reality not so sweet and childlike. For the message is the peril of a young woman who is stalked by a predator; a ‘wolf.’ The themes of the tale include sexuality, rape and the dangers of talking to strangers.
With that in mind, here’s my version of the story. I’ve set it in contemporary times, in a bleak unidentifiable landscape that could be anywhere; does the setting resonate with you?
The bus came to a rumbling stop and the doors opened with a soft screech. Eleanor looked up from the paperback she was reading – a dystopian tale of love and war – and glanced outside. The window was smeared with mud, steamed up so that the figures outside were blurry. A large lady struggled to climb onboard, sat down in front of her. Eleanor gagged at the smell of cheap perfume and hairspray, the underlying stench of stale sweat. She turned to the window, pressed red painted fingers against its coolness. Her breath curled and she drew a love heart into the glass, smiling.
A man looked up at her from his spot on the pavement, then jumped on board. His eyes barely brushed hers as he sat down. She saw the side of his face, his hooked nose and greasy locks. She knew him, of course she did; he was the teacher she’d once had, many moons ago. He’d aged since then, had become skinnier, but the coat remained the same. He slouched into it now, a thick dark fur that smelt of lifeless animals. This one was faux and cheap, torn at the elbows. Eleanor shuddered, studying his pants, his low-priced shoes. He looked around nervously, played with the catch on his briefcase, papers bulging from its interior. She pulled her coat around her, tried to get back into her book.
The bus carried on, its engines filling the air with smoke and oil so that everyone looked pale and nauseous. They drove past factories, turned corners where smoke rose from huge stacks, until the housing estate came into sight. They were on the edge of town, driving past houses built purely for industry. Every house looked the same; tones of grey, fences around them. It looked plain and unbroken, a mass construction of walls and rooftops; even the cars were a mix of greys and blues. The bus slowed down, jerked to a stop over a huge pothole in the road. The bus driver cursed, his voice sharp in the icy chill.
Eleanor glanced across at a road sign, saw it was her stop. The sign was partly hidden by a huge oak tree, overgrown and neglected. Someone had thrown a car tyre around a lamppost and there was graffiti daubed in red. Weeds filled up the cracked tar and the air held a sense of despair and decay. Eleanor stood up, held onto the seat in front. Her paperback fell into the aisle, lay there with its pages marked and torn. The teacher reached down to pick it up.
‘Ah, I like her new one,’ he said, studying the cover. ‘Is this what youngers are reading nowadays?’ His voice was deep and throaty. Gruff like, just as she remembered.
She nodded, took the book off him. He grinned up at her, large teeth under grey whiskers, green eyes that shone in the dull light. Eyes that glanced at her legs, at the top of her stockings where her skirt had risen. They seemed to devour her. She pulled at her skirt, pushed the book into a pocket of her leather bag. It poked out from there, hanging out over the torn thread. Then she made her way to the front of the bus.
It was a ten-minute walk to her grandmother’s house. She glanced at her watch, saw the sun disappear behind the trees. The forest loomed on her right, the houses on her left. She passed a broken car engine, its parts thrown onto the scrub of grass in front of a house. In the next garden, the toys lay muddy and discolored; a broken dolls head, a bicycle upturned so that the wheel moved silently in the wind. Her grandmother lived in the end house, set off from the road by a long driveway. It had once been a woodcutter’s cottage, back in the days when wood was the main trade before the factories took over. Her dad had built a high wall a long time ago; to keep out the bad men he’d said. Grandmother had laughed at that.
Eleanor heard his footsteps before she’d even reached the cottage, had smelt him from a distance. His was a confident walk, reassured by the headphones she wore; little did he know that they were switched to off. Grandmother’s gate swung open with barely a squeak, the latch well-oiled. She walked up the driveway, her boots crunching on leaves, cracking dry old kindling. The trees reached for the skies, their bare branches adding to the gloom. She sensed him at the gate, fiddling with the latch, clumsy fingers of excitement. Grandmother’s cottage loomed in front of her, a higgledy mass of chimney stacks and ivy that choked its thick walls. The windows were cloaked in darkness, just one dim light above the porch way. She looked at the sky, the deep red reflecting her hooded coat. A storm was brewing, thunder clouds racing, a streak of lightening in the sky.
He’d hidden himself now, just behind the huge oak in front of grandmother’s gate. His smell was overpowering; earthy and feral. She smiled to herself; when had it gotten so easy?
Grandmother was at the doorway. Eleanor could see her silhouette, the bulk of her body encased in an apron. She quickened her pace, her hood falling over her shoulders, dark red hair, wild and curly. She could see down the hallway, straight through to the kitchen and the warm glow coming off the huge oven. The leather bag felt smooth against her stockings as she pulled back the zip. Inside, the tools gleamed in the muted light.
‘You’ll like this one, grandmother,’ she said, looking up. Grandmother’s eyes flashed red, her mouth dripping saliva and blood.
Eleanor grabbed the axe, held it up.
He was on top of the porch now, huge and wolf-like. Further down the driveway, she heard the latch give a resounding click shut.
Suzanne Bowditch 2018