Far away in the north was once a grand city famous for its splendour and beauty. The inner city of this wondrous place was filled with twinkling lights, no matter how deep into the night it was, while beautiful people in their finest clothes passed each other in ornate carriages. The scent of champagne lay thick in the air. Music burst forth from musicians who graced every corner, and each night fireworks exploded across the sky, according to the king’s decree.
A city of wonder, they called it.
The home of kings.
But on the outskirts of this grand city existed an entirely different world. One in which the streets were filled with fog, no matter the time of day, and the ground was covered in a thick layer of sleet. Children dressed in rags ran about barefoot. Grey brick workhouses lined the fringes of this bleak forgotten place, watching over the dark alleys where creatures scurried in the night.
One evening, deep in the heart of winter, a little boy crept out from a workhouse.
His toes were numb with cold and he placed one foot upon the other as he walked through icy puddles that covered the street from end to end. No-one looked his way as he went along through the dark. Not a soul wondered where his family was or why he had neither coat nor shoes to keep him warm.
After all, it wasn’t such a rare sight in this part of town.
He journeyed on, trudging through the black slush, his hands buried in his pockets. Every breath he took emerged in a stream of fog. His cheeks and nose were red from the icy wind that tugged at him.
As the night crept by, the boy walked on until the houses grew finer and the roads became paved. Golden lights started to twinkle from trees and buildings. Music began to play, softly at first, nothing but a cheerful whisper on the wind. And then it burst to life as the boy entered the warm beating heart of the city.
His deep brown eyes widened in exquisite wonder as he looked around at this glittering world. The music, lights and warmth were nothing like the workhouse in which he lived. Even Christmas morning, when the nuns brought them day-old bread with a block of butter and a stunted pine tree to decorate with newspaper, didn’t compare to this.
He smiled, his heart hammering with excitement.
‘Watch it!’ yelled a disgruntled driver as his horses weaved around the boy. ‘Get off the damn road.’
The boy quickly moved to the sidewalk. The paving was so smooth beneath his bare feet from all the fine shoes which had walked upon it before him. Even the breeze was warm and smelled sweet. He hurried along, pausing only to watch the brass band playing merrily on the corner, but the surly saxophone player scowled at him until the boy fled.
Here, every head turned towards the boy as he passed.
Some whispered in disapproval, while others just turned up their noses in disgust.
‘The city guards really ought to do something,’ complained one woman as the boy ran passed. ‘Honestly, what is the world coming to?’
‘Little scoundrel will surely pick a pocket or two before the night’s out,’ agreed her companion, checking for his wallet instinctively.
When the boy reached a certain place outside a busy theatre, he finally stopped. It seemed like the perfect spot. Busy, but not crowded. Everyone looked jovial. He stood aside from the door so that people could still get through into the packed foyer, and pulled a handkerchief out from his pocket.
It had been his mother’s and still had her initials stitched into the corner. But she had died when he was very little. When he shuts his eyes and searches his earliest memories, he can only remember the smell of baked apples and big warm arms wrapping him up until he fell asleep, warm and loved.
He placed the cloth on the ground before him and put a rusted penny on top.
Just to get the ball rolling.
Then he dug around in his other pocket and pulled out a flute.
He began to play a melody he knew very well; one that he used to hear often when those big warm arms used to hug him so tightly. He played each note deftly, beautifully. The sweet melody rose through the air and into the night, as comforting as hot tea and freshly baked bread. It wasn’t garish like the brass band, or pompous like the stringed instruments which played inside the theatre.
That single flute, chipped and worn from his little fingers, sang far more beautifully.
But no-one dropped a coin upon his napkin.
Not a soul stopped to admire the lovely tune, so sweet and well-rehearsed, or his courage in standing before all those people on such a prominent street. One person, two people, three passed by without a glance. Their pace quickened when they saw him, and only slowed once they had left him behind.
Still he played on.
And no-one listened.
But even in the wealthiest neighbourhoods of the finest cities are those who remain invisible, and listen intently without ever judging a person by what they’re wearing or how much they have in their pockets.
After all, why should that matter?
Beneath the sidewalk, down in the sewers, the mice listened to the beautiful melody played by the little boy, and sighed. How they loved the song he played on his flute. How fine and sweet and as lovely as springtime. They listened keenly, nodding to one another in approval. Surely this was the finest musician to ever grace the streets of this bustling city. And they had heard orchestras play in theatres and celebrated pianists perform at sold-out halls.
But no, this was by far the finest music they had ever heard.
The boy, unaware of his attentive listeners, played on, his heart singing alongside every note. He played even as his fingertips blistered. He played even though his throat was raw and parched. He played until two cruel-looking guards came around the corner. They spotted him instantly and pulled out their batons, grinning nastily as they cut across towards him. The little boy saw them just in time. He quickly pocketed his flute and bolted away before they reached him.
He didn’t realise until later that he had left his mother’s handkerchief behind.
But when he walked back to the workhouse in the darkest hour of that black night, he searched his pockets and found only the flute. His little heart broke, but he knew there was no turning back. He could imagine those nasty guards waiting for him, holding his cloth and single penny hostage.
No. He couldn’t return for it.
Cold and downcast, he walked back down the same old streets with their potholes and grime-covered bricks until he reached the workhouse. As he stretched his numb fingers towards the door, he froze. He could hear a strange squeaking, and then a sudden rustle behind him. He turned around, but there was no-one there. Only the dark grey wall of the alley.
And then he looked down.
Before him sat a row of mice. Some were grey, others were brown, and there was even a ginger one. They sat up straight, like toy soldiers, looking up at him. Their little whiskers twitched and then, as one, they turned and filed out of the alley.
Curious he followed at the end of the line.
They led him back down the street, through another alley, and then down towards the river. The waterfront buildings were rundown and long abandoned by decent folk, but he continued on behind the troupe until they found a particular door with a small hole at the bottom. Each mouse squeezed through one by one. When they were all inside, the boy pushed on the door and was surprised that it gave way so easily before him.
But he was even more surprised by what he found inside.
The room was aglow with a crackling fire in the hearth. A scrubbed wooden table was laden with sweet rolls and pastries, still fresh and warm, and a bottle of wine spiced with cinnamon. There were juicy green olives, salted meats, caviar spread on soft slices of bread, and thick wedges of expensive cheese.
‘Why, what’s this!’ the boy exclaimed in wonder.
The little ginger mouse gestured at the boy with his nose, and then towards the table. The boy sat down, and together with the mice, they ate and drank and were as merry as the busiest tavern in the city.
You see, no matter the city or the street or the building, mice will always find a way in. They live in both workhouses and in the palaces of kings. They find their way into royal kitchens as easily as derelict bakeries.
And no-one will ever know how, because that secret belongs to them.
The boy was so warm and happy. He thanked his little friends. And then, when his belly was full and his fingers had feeling again from the warmth of the fire, he pulled out his flute and played. He played through the night, as more and more mice gathered to listen.
In fact, all the mice of the city had come.
They loved the little boy, and his flute, and his song.
And truly it was the finest, most glorious performance they had ever seen. As the sun rose and he finished playing, the ginger mouse ran forward and dropped a handkerchief on the floor. He nearly choked when he saw his mother’s initials stitched in the corner. One by one the mice ran forward to drop a coin onto the cloth. Some left silver pennies, and others golden Crowns.
The boy laughed in between tears.
It really had been the best performance of his life.
And that, my friends, is how the true story of that famous piper began. I’m sure you’ve heard one version or another, from books you read as a child with titles like The Pied Piper or The Rat-Catcher of Hamelin (although, as you now know, it wasn’t rats but mice).
This little boy really did live, and he grew up to do wonderful things.
As a young man, when he lured the mice away with his flute from the palaces and fine restaurants, grateful aristocrats paid him his due.
He would then divide the princely sum.
The largest part went to the children of the workhouses in the outer precincts of the city. Another portion went to buy a feast for the mice who helped him. And the last and smallest part went to buy flowers to leave on his mother’s grave.