First Published In Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine Issue 29, edited by Dirk Flinthart
“You’re a night early, you know,” said the innkeeper as he laid the Passover table. “I know,” said Yosef. “But tonight is the Essene Passover and the Teacher agrees
with them. He spent some time in their community a few years ago.” The innkeeper snorted. “The Essenes! That bunch of crazies? The sun by the Salt Sea dries up their brains!” Yosef merely smiled and the innkeeper sighed, continuing to set down dishes. “Ah, well, a good thing you booked for tonight. Tomorrow everyone and his dog will be in Jerusalem for the feast and I couldn’t have accommodated you. How did you manage to get the lamb sacrificed early,
by the way?” “I have a friend in the Temple who also has Essene sympathies.” “Ah. Friends in high places...Damn. I’m a cup short. I’d better get one from
downstairs.” “No need. I have one we can use.” Yosef went to his pack and pulled out
something wrapped in linen. As he unwrapped it, the innkeeper saw a simple vessel, well-polished, if a little battered.
“Is that a cup? Looks like a bowl to me.”
“It will do. The Teacher has used it before.” Yosef smiled reminiscently, remembering the loaves and fishes...and that wine at the wedding. “It’s special, even if it doesn’t look much. I brought it back from Britain on my last trip. They called it a cauldron.”
“A cauldron?” The innkeeper burst out laughing. “That little thing? I use a cauldron to cook supper for my customers!”
“Nevertheless.” Yosef put the cup tenderly by the Teacher’s place-setting.
“Well, I’d better finish up here and bring the wine. Your friends will be here soon.”
Yeshua and his disciples arrived soon afterwards. It was a memorable evening.
“Tea, Gandalf?” The teddy bear didn’t reply, but Elanor didn’t expect him to. His real name was Jean-Claude and he had been her mother’s bear. When she had needed an extra guest for her dolls’ tea-party in the cubby-house out in her grandparents’ back yard, she had grabbed him from the display in Mum’s old room.
The other dolls were her own. Nana had been horrified when Elanor had cut off her Barbie doll’s hair and glued it back as a beard. After that, she’d only bought Elanor cheap supermarket dolls. They now sat on the table where she had placed them, staring at her from under their beards. Each was named for one of Tolkien’s thirteen dwarves. Barbie was Thorin Oakenshield, of course.
She’d run short of teacups, though, and recruited the silvery bowl in which Pops kept the change for newspapers and bus fares. She knew that it had been in the family for a very long time, but didn’t think her grandfather would mind. She had tipped the coins out carefully to be put back later.
Pity the party didn’t include any real scones, seed cake, chicken, pickles, raspberry tart or any of the other things mentioned in Tolkien, she thought as she pretended to pour tea. She was hungry, but dinner at her grandparents’ place was at the same time every day and it was an hour away. Even a Mars bar would be nice right now.
She lifted the silver cup to her lips, pretending to drink, and was startled when something fell out of the cup and hit her mouth.
“Ouch!” The something fell on to the table.
It was a Mars Bar. Puzzled, she looked into the cup — empty — but when she tipped it up another chocolate bar clunked on to the table.
Elanor had recently read the story of Aladdin and wondered what would happen if she rubbed the bowl. When strenuous rubbing failed to produce a genie she shrugged and ate one of the sweet treats, keeping the other one for later.
Over dinner she asked Pops about the bowl.
“What, this old thing?” He looked surprised. “I’ve had it since just after the war. Your gran and I got it with our wedding gifts from the family back in England. We have relatives in Somerset.”
“Isn’t that where King Arthur lived?” She’d been reading some of her parents’ books.
“Could be. If he existed. There’s a place called Cadbury where Camelot might have been - there was a fortress there, anyway. And there’s Glastonbury, where he’s supposed to have been buried. Our family has been farming out that way for centuries. I don’t know where the bowl came from, but I got it from a cousin. He inherited it from another relative who died in London during the Blitz - that’s when England was being bombed by the Nazis. He said he didn’t want the responsibility, whatever that meant, and that I should take care of it. Can’t see why. It’s pretty cheap and tacky-looking, isn’t it? But I do feel sentimental about it.” He smiled affectionately at the bowl. “Funny thing, though. I always seem to have enough money for fares and papers, even if I haven’t put anything in for a while... Why do you want to know, anyway?”
“Oh, just wondered...” She wasn’t going to mention the chocolate; her grandmother would complain if she had spoiled her appetite for dinner. “I played with it today. You don’t mind, do you?”
“No, of course not.” He helped himself and her to more salad. On the television in the corner, the Doctor and Romana fled a monster...
“Look, I’m sorry! What else do you want me to say?” her sister Lorien protested. “You weren’t there and someone had to clean up. Nana wants to sell the house and go to a retirement village as soon as she’s out of hospital. She can’t take sixty years of junk with her.”
“You don’t have to make it sound as if I was away on purpose,” Elanor said. “You know perfectly well I was reading a paper at a conference in Oxford. I did want to come back as soon as I heard, but I couldn’t get a flight straight home. Mum said I’d miss the funeral anyway and I might as well carry out my commitments, that Pops would have wanted me to - which he would, by the way. Look, I don’t care about the rest of the stuff and I’m sorry you had to do the clean-up by yourself, but he was going to leave that bowl to me.”
“Well, how was I supposed to know?” Lorien argued. “I’d never have thought that would be in his will. I mean, an el cheapo base-metal bowl he used for change? It went to an op shop, along with the cheaper crockery and those kitsch lamp-stands. There was so much stuff in that tiny cottage, I can’t even tell you which op shop — I divided it among three.”
Elanor shook her head mutely. What was the point of griping? What point, now, to tell Lorien that she’d taken the Holy Grail to an op shop? She’d never believe it anyway — Lorien was so mundane, she’d called her children Susan and John, the most prosaic names she could think of. She even called herself Lauren.
Elanor decided she might as well just get the op shop addresses from her sister and see if she could find the thing.
She’d been reading a paper on the subject of “Arthur: from Epic Hero to Master of Ceremonies In Middle English Literature” at a conference in Oxford. There, she had, of course, made pilgrimage to the Eagle and Child, where Tolkien and his Inkling friends had been in the habit of going for a pint and then, because it was too late for the funeral anyway, had contacted her relatives in Somerset. Her grandfather’s cousin, Brian, and his wife Mary now lived in Glastonbury, where she had visited them. They had made her welcome and Brian had been willing to answer her questions; he was the one who had given Pops the bowl.
“It’s pre-Christian. No, lass, we don’t know where it comes from. We aren’t even the first family to look after it. I can’t tell you why it’s survived so well, but then, it is...what it is. Remember that scene in Malory’s Morte D’Arthure where the Grail comes floating into the great hall in Camelot and suddenly, every knight has the food he likes best?”
Thinking of the Mars Bars, Elanor grinned and nodded.
“Well, there are stacks of stories about horns or cauldrons of plenty, and not only in Celtic myth.”
“No indeed,” agreed Mary. “There’s the Greek myth of the horn of plenty. There’s even a Norse story about a mill that ground out food until someone wanted salt and forgot how to turn it off; that’s how the sea got salty.”
“So there’s nothing especially holy about the cup,” Brian said. “ Anyone can use it, can’t they? Which is why it has to be hidden. What if some government got it? Or an industrialist? Or someone who wanted to do chemical warfare? So, after Arthur’s knights made fools of themselves chasing the thing, my guess is that some peasant took it. What was he going to use it for, if he didn’t know what it was? Maybe it made his beer taste better, or last longer. And it looks cheap, yes, but it’s tough. It was going to last. Let’s say he passed it on to his son and — well, you get the picture. Eventually someone worked out what it was and decided to keep it hidden. The best way to keep it safe was to make sure ordinary people had it.” He saw the look on her face. “Oh, come now, lass! You didn’t think it was somewhere in the desert, guarded by a mystical order of knights, did you?”
Elanor had imagined that, actually. Hollywood had a lot to answer for.
These days it was safe because no one believed in such things any more. Well, it had been safe until her sister had given it away. Oh, well, at least it hadn’t gone to the tip.
She sighed and put on her coat, took an umbrella from the rack in the hallway of her sister’s home and went out into the rain, feeling a sudden wry amusement at the notion of being on a quest for the Holy Grail.
The first shop was run by an organisation that bought old computers for Job Club. The woman at the counter didn’t remember, but checked on her computer the records of the last couple of weeks. That reminded her and she said that everything had been packed in cartons and had taken hours to sort.
The bowl wasn’t on her list.
Elanor went to the next shop, which was run for the benefit of the local church. The shop was small, cramped and dark and didn’t have a computer. The woman there said she was only part-time and hadn’t been there when Lorien came in. But she waved a hand at a corner where more recent donations were stored till there was room for them and invited Elanor to look. It wasn’t in any of the boxes and the hand- written sales records didn’t mention it.
By now it was nearly five p.m. and the dark clouds from which rain was still drizzling turned day into evening. She doubted the third place would be open and, whether or not the bowl had already been sold, going the next morning wasn’t going to make any difference. She would have tea and a toasted sandwich and go home to mark some first-year student papers.
St. Kilda was not short of food places, from expensive restaurants for the yuppies who came for the Sunday craft market to fast-food outlets and dubious burger joints where drug deals took place. Although it was an expensive place to buy real estate, it was also a place where street folk roamed and families lived in poverty in shabby buildings that had once been part of a Victorian era seaside resort.
Elanor entered a small greasy spoon cafe and sat by the window, gazing out at the rain. As she sat there, a craggy middle-aged man walked in, shaking the rain from his umbrella, and smiled at her. The four other tables were full, and he asked if he might share hers.
“Thank you,” he said as she waved a hand in invitation. “I need a quick meal before I go to work for the evening.”
“They know you here, do they?” she asked as the waitress waved, inquiring if he wanted the usual.
“Oh, yes, I’m a regular. I do a lot of night shifts and just don’t have time to cook.”
He smiled again and she warmed to him. She liked his face, despite the broken nose that he’d never fixed, for whatever reason. It was — kind. Like her grandfather’s, really, if not as old. She missed Pops badly.
“So, what do you do?” she asked, actually wanting to know.
“My day job? I fund-raise quite a lot. I’m on about six committees. If I didn’t get paid for that, I couldn’t do what I really want to do.”
“Oh, help out people on the streets. There are a lot of them here, as you probably know. Tonight I’m helping the local mission distribute food and warm clothes.”
“ It must be good to be doing something important.” She meant it, too. Somehow, what she did seemed — irrelevant. “I’m a university academic specialising in Arthurian literature. That just doesn’t seem to matter when people are going cold and hungry.”
“But that’s going to happen anyway,” he pointed out. “Someone has to be interested in more than just surviving. We need food for the soul too. Why not King Arthur?” He chuckled. “Do tell me about it while we eat. My name is Leo, by the way.”
“Elanor.” “Like the Queen of England?” “No, like the flower in The Lord of the Rings. E-l-a-n-o-r, no second e. My parents
are Tolkien nuts.” “Really? I love that book. I read it when I was in hospital once, recovering from
boxing injuries. It told me that ordinary people can be heroes and you can’t imagine how important that is to me, even now.”
Now she thought of it, she’d heard of him. Leo somebody, a former boxer who was now doing social work. He was living proof that an ordinary person could be a hero, if anyone was. Street kids and old winos alike loved him. He didn’t judge. Mind you, his boxing background probably came in handy when someone was hurting someone else, or when they resented his “meddling”.
She told him about her studies, enjoying it all the more because he listened with real interest. Finally, though, he looked at his watch and stood up.
“Sorry, I’m due at the food van. If you’d like to come and help out, you’d be very welcome.”
“I’d love to, but not tonight. I have some essays to mark and you can see I’m not really dressed for it.”
“All right, then. I’m going again tomorrow night. Why don’t you meet me here about this time and we’ll go together?”
“Sounds good,” she agreed impulsively. “I’ll be here.”
He gave her a card in case she needed to call him and was out the door before she realised she hadn’t given him her information.
Next morning, she had some time before she had to be at work and went to the third shop, which was run for the local street mission. The place was unusually large and airy for an opportunity shop, filled with goods of all kinds, from clothes to crockery and books, many of them in decent condition. The woman at the counter, a motherly soul, looked up from her knitting and smiled.
“Yes, dear? Are you looking for anything in particular or just browsing?”
“Actually, I was looking for a specific item,” Elanor said. “My grandfather died a little while ago and some of his things were donated to your shop by my sister. One of the items was of — sentimental value to me. I’m quite happy to buy it back,” she added.
The woman frowned thoughtfully, putting down the needles and wool. “Can you tell me what it was? We had a large donation not long ago, a deceased relative. It might have been your sister who brought it.”
“A metal cup about yay big.” Elanor held her hands apart. “Have you seen it?”
The woman’s face changed. Elanor wasn’t quite sure how to describe the expression. Startlement. Panic. Worry. Guilt. She wasn’t sure which. Maybe it was all of them. Of two things Elanor was sure: the woman had seen the cup and she knew what it did.
The lady smiled and resumed her knitting. “Yes, I did see it. I’m afraid I sold it yesterday. I’m so sorry. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
Elanor wasn’t giving up just yet. If she had to, she would follow the woman home, but in case she had misread the other woman’s expression, she tried again.
“It really was important to me. My grandfather let me play with it when I was a child. He said I could have it one day. Is there any chance you’d know who bought it?”
“I don’t keep records of my customers’ addresses and in any case, it would be confidential.” Seeing Elanor’s face, she said honestly, “The gentleman is one of my regular customers. I’ll speak to him when he comes in next, if you’ll leave your phone number. But I can’t promise he’ll give it back. He liked it and said he could do with something to keep his keys in. He’s always mislaying the things.”
There was a ring of truth about that and in any case, there wasn’t much she could do for the moment. Elanor left her phone number and went to her classes, fully intending to do some investigation.
That night, she returned to the cafe in Fitzroy Street, thinking at least she could spend the evening doing something worthwhile. But when she arrived, the waitress, seeing her, said, “Oh, you’re the lady who was here with Leo last night. He left you a message because he didn’t have your number. He had to leave early, but he’d still be pleased to see you at the food van tonight. I’ll give you the directions, okay?”
It was a lane behind the shopping centre. Elanor knew her way there and didn’t need the details. Thanking the waitress, she wrapped herself in her heavy coat and set off.
Turning the corner, she worried at first about her safety. These small streets were unsafe, usually dark and inhabited only by people doing drug deals and other dubious transactions.
Except that this particular area wasn’t unpopulated, and it wasn’t dark. Young mothers, punks, elderly winos, thin teenagers, all came and went, and they were carrying more than a cup of soup and a sandwich. There were entire bags of groceries in the arms of those coming towards her. One woman with a pram had supplies of nappies and tinned baby food as well.
And the light coming from ahead was a strange shade that didn’t look to her like street lighting. There was an odd glow about it.
Over the heads of the crowd, she saw the van, a large one about the size of a caravan, with open flaps. Leo and two others were handing out groceries. One of the volunteers was the woman from the op shop.
The glow came from the van, but it wasn’t caused by the electric light. It came from an old, cheap-looking bowl made of a metal no one could identify. It was a lot bigger than the cup she had lost. Perhaps it stretched when necessary, which explained the bags of groceries. A cauldron indeed.
Somehow, she had known, deep down, where she would find it.
Elanor remembered what Brian had said of the Grail and agreed with him. It wasn’t especially holy. It just did what it did. It was safest with ordinary people who didn’t know what it was for. She had worried: what if someone in power got hold of it? Used it for the wrong thing? Even now, she panicked, as she made her way through the crowd. The word would spread. Police would hear about unusually large amounts of goods being handed out and want to know where they came from, in case they were stolen. And from there...
Leo looked up from his work and, seeing her, smiled and waved her over to the van.
Oh, the hell with this. It wasn’t Tolkien’s Ring, after all, which must never be used. It was a cauldron of plenty that had been around for a very long time, being wasted on improving the taste of beer, making change for an old man’s newspapers, producing chocolate for a small child. Perhaps it was time someone took a chance and let it be used the way a Holy Grail ought to be used. Well, maybe not Malory’s version. That Grail, if recovered by Arthur’s knights, would have ended up in some monastery church, being worshipped by monks.
But she was quite sure that a certain left-wing radical from Galilee would have approved of this. He would probably have had something pithy to say about the waste of his cup over the last few centuries; he certainly wouldn’t have wanted it lying around a museum — or a church, for that matter.
Elanor climbed the steps of the van. “Sorry I’m late,” she said. “What can I do to help?”
My original idea for this was "What if the Holy Grail turned up in an op shop?" That didn't work and I couldn't finish the story. So I scrapped the original draft and started again with, "What if it had been hanging around in the one family for ages and nobody knew what it was?" That did work. I couldn't believe how quickly I finished it once I changed the angle and created my characters(Leo is inspired by a real person, whose name I won't mention here, who went out with my sister briefly). In the end, I was very glad I had changed it, because when the story was already about to be published I came across a Neil Gaiman story that started with the Holy Grail in an op shop. It was very different from this one, but still, people would have made comparisons and my story would have been considered a ripoff.