The Worst Fairy in the World: Writers’ Day-Jobs

Meg Mundell tells how a weekend job as a fairy for hire gave her some valuable lessons for her writing career … despite (or because of) working hungover, forgetting her wings and annoying parents by hyping up her small charges.

Photo credit: Pat Knight. Not a true depiction of Meg Mundell as a fairy ...

Photo credit: Pat Knight. Not a true depiction of Meg Mundell as a fairy ...

For more than a decade, when a small-talking stranger asks that rotten question ‘What do you do?’, I’ve called myself a writer. It always feels slightly cringe-worthy, like admitting you collect berets or consider yourself a beatnik, but it’s a truthful account of how I spend my time. But if they’d phrased the question more bluntly – ‘How do you pay the rent?’ – I’d have to admit to some strange goings-on. Sure, there have been times when words alone have kept me fed – a fantastic five-year run at The Big Issue, a stint for Lonely Planet, some low-level speechwriting, and several manic years of freelancing – but like most scribblers, I’ve done some peculiar things to pay the bills.

Along with the usual kitchen-hand and waitressing gigs, some of my odder job titles have included life model (remove clothes, don’t move), nightclub DJ (press buttons, deafen self), yacht crew-member (vomit over the side, repeat), anti-spam policy analyst (forge a completely useless international agreement to conquer electronic junkmail) and on-stage sidekick to an alcoholic ventriloquist Santa Claus. One short-lived early role, however, stands out as particularly memorable, because it taught me a valuable life lesson. In my first year of freelancing, sick of washing dishes while editors mislaid my invoices, I took a job as a fairy. My mission: to entertain the troops at children’s birthday parties. ‘Just keep the littlies happy,’ croaked my chain-smoking boss. She offered no further detail, which I took as a sign of confidence. Clearly she could tell I’d be a natural at this caper, enchanting tiny humans and generally spreading merriment and delight wherever I went. So sure was I of my elfin credentials, I did no preparation whatsoever. How hard could it be to entertain a bunch of kids?

My first assignment would be a trial, said the fairy boss. How right she was.

That morning I woke late with a skull-cracking hangover. With wine fumes oozing from my pores, I yanked on my costume, a frothy pink monstrosity of a dress, and headed for a sixth birthday party in an outer suburb. Doubt struck on the tarmac of the petrol station, while I trickled a frugal $8 worth of gas into my tank. What did a fairy actually do? How would I fill two hours? I’ll just wing it, I thought. Then, with horror, I realised my first mistake: I’d left my wings at home.

This error did not go unnoticed. Inside the birthday girl’s McMansion, a dozen sugared-up ankle-biters swarmed to interrogate me. Their first question: ‘Where are your wings?’ I ad-libbed some whimsical nonsense about a run-in with a dragon, but they did not look convinced. Desperate to divert attention from my missing appendages, I improvised a balloon game. When I say improvised, I mean invented on the spot, with the ill-conceived rules centred wholly on the rapid popping of said balloons. A loud volley of explosions filled the house, and the balloons were all gone. There followed an awkward silence. My headache pulsed. The children looked puzzled, and one started to cry. A small boy gaped up at me. ‘When are you going home?’ he asked plaintively.

With suspicious adults loitering on the periphery, I decided to take the show outside. In the backyard was a cubbyhouse, just large enough for me and all the kids to squeeze inside. By happy chance, it was full of toy instruments. Under my directions we embarked on an extended jam session, parping miniature trumpets and bashing tiny drum-kits at maximum volume. Those lacking instruments stomped their feet or bellowed rhythmic gibberish. We were totally rocking the joint; the noise was incredible. With the party finally cranking, and the kids and I enjoying ourselves, I peeped out the cubbyhouse window to see how this musical extravaganza was going down with the grown-ups, who sat in a cluster of deckchairs at the far end of the lawn. My gaze met a line of stony stares. I saw crossed arms, sidelong mutters, disapproving head-shakes. I began to sweat. Why were they watching so closely? Did these people have nothing better to do? Couldn’t they retreat to the kitchen and leave me to it?

After a boisterous game of hide and seek, during which the father reprimanded me loudly in front of everyone for accidentally snapping a sapling, I was packed off home. By this stage I’d bonded with the children, who shrieked endearing farewells after me, but the mother kept her arms folded across her chest and the dad kept commanding my small friends to ‘settle down’. Apparently I’d hyped them up too much, they were covered in grass-stains and teetering on the verge of mass hysteria. I was not the sprite they had expected.

My first gig as a fairy was my last. While I like to think I redeemed myself, eventually winning at least the kids over, the sense of humiliation haunts me to this day. The adults’ disapproving glares, that awful post-balloon silence exposing me as hopelessly out of my depth. And that final phone-call from the boss: ‘We’ve found another fairy,’ she said coldly. ‘She does face-painting.’ There have been nightmares, and I know their source: I’m onstage, wearing a stupid costume, mumbling something irrelevant. The audience’s faces run the spectrum from boredom, through pity, to contempt.

But I learned from the experience. That was the end of my lax attitude to professional assignments. Since then, I’ve seldom winged it. I research stories thoroughly, edit like a demon, never show early drafts, and when giving an author talk or guest lecture, over-prepare with an OCD level of zeal. For at the back of my mind lurks a powerful fear: that one day, when I’m speaking at a festival or school, a little voice will pipe up from the back of the room … When are you going home?

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