We wait

Time passes in fits and starts at the moment. As the lock down continues, with no easing here in Wales, hours can disappear without notice yet weeks and months seem to stretch on interminably. There is a paralysis of inspiration, focus and motivation; nothing much beyond normal routine is achieved, activities are cancelled, future prospects and plans are on hold, loved ones are missed, anxiety is buried beneath layers of mundanity.

We wait.

Nature does not wait, however, and time continues in the passing of spring into early summer. The swallows have returned and built a nest in the barn, flitting and swooping above the paddocks, finding pure joy in the hunting and catching of winged insects for their hatchlings. The hedgerows are vibrant with wildflowers, white, blue, purple, yellow and pink; bees darting among the petals, legs laden with pollen. The air is filled with amorous sounds of life; the buzz and hum of mini beasts, the chattering conversations of birds, the throaty calls of frogs, busy in their mating rituals. Less welcome, the local farmers are industrious, cutting silage and spreading muck on the fields during the dry spell. Tractors roar up and down narrow lanes all day and late into the night. The pungent perfume of manure sends us scampering inside with our lunchtime sandwiches.

Staying active in the garden, observing and enjoying small moments of this normality, keeps us grounded and content. Vegetable seedlings need planting, weeds must be cleared, brambles and bracken cut back. A poorly chicken needs care. Wood preservative is ordered ready for treating the stables, barn doors and fencing. There are jobs to do. Physical work to keep us healthy in body and mind.

There is family too. The bliss of being together with nowhere else to be. The pleasure in gathering for good food cooked with love. Sourdough bread is a success; warm, crusty and flavour-full, now yeast has become like gold dust. Pride at how well the young people are coping, with university closed, projects and dissertations to complete in difficult circumstances, unable to enjoy a night out with friends. There is zoom and social media but it is a long period of uncertainty and missing out. They are doing remarkably well.

And there is community. A group of willing and able volunteers in the nearest village. We post leaflets through doors, offer help for those alone and isolated; shopping, collecting prescriptions, posting mail. A support network, building links and hopefully lasting friendships. A chance to give something back for those of us who know how lucky we are. More people are walking; unable to go further afield in their cars, they explore the footpaths of the local countryside. We see new faces, shout welcomes over the hedge, have little chats. This gives us mixed feelings; selfishly we have enjoyed the peaceful isolation, and wonder if we will continue to have walkers once this is over.

Life is quiet and simple. We think about how it will be when lock down ends; what will we have learnt, what will remain and what will the new normal be?

We wait.

Tough times for a tortoise

Tortoises are awkward animals. Every job they undertake is hard work. Eating is effortful – with no hands to hold the food, necks stretch, mouths grasp and pull. Sometimes the delicious item slips away. Walking is effortful – dragging a heavy shell around, managing uneven ground. Sometimes the weight causes a tricky balancing act with the inevitable toppling over, then there is a scrabbling, useless flailing of legs in a hard-won attempt to get right way up again. Love making is effortful – the arduous manoeuvrings, scrape of claws on shell, crunch of carapaces and anguished cry. Sometimes the other half just wanders off. Life appears tough for a tortoise.

Living with a tortoise for forty-three years has given me some insight and surprises. My grandfather bought me one for my seventh birthday. Named after a popular road safety squirrel of the time, I chose probably the most inappropriate name ever given a tortoise – Tufty. He was beautiful – his shell a shiny, patterned olive green and mottled brown. At that age, I did not think about the terrible journey he had undertaken – snatched from the wild, crushed in a crate with hundreds of his fellows, packed onto a container ship. Shamefully, I think of it now and wish he could be returned to roam the dry, grassy slopes of his home country, sun warming his burnished back. Instead, he has had forty-three years of living in damp, rainy Britain.

thTufty the Road Safety Squirrel © ROSPA

At the end of every November, Tufty has to go to bed in a cupboard box, stuffed with paper bedding, insulated in another plastic box filled with polystyrene wotsits, for his annual hibernation. Every February, there is immense relief when he wakes up, fit and well. For Tufty is a resilient little creature. He is awkward but he is tough, reliable and lovable. He has character. He comes when called and likes human and other animal company. He particularly enjoys chasing other pets around the garden – dogs, cats and even ducks – who never seem to understand quite what he is; a moving rock, how is that possible? He never gives up if he wants something, even climbing out of his run to escape. Tufty may lumber around carrying his heavy home but he can move when he wants to, especially on a hot day. His pleasure in munching on a dandelion or buttercup flower is a joy to behold.

SONY DSC

Despite my guilt at having a pet who was torn from his homeland in traumatic circumstances, I am glad I have Tufty. He has been a constant since I was a small child and he holds an important place in the cycle of my life. Quiet, steadfast, patient and determined, Tufty has kept me company and provides a symbol for simple, sensible, contented living.

Years ago

My husband and I started dating in 1991. We’ve recently celebrated our Silver Wedding Anniversary – that’s a long time together and a long time married. Like any married couple, we’ve had our ups and downs. It takes work to have a successful relationship, and some days it’s hard to put the effort in, but we’re doing all right. We both agree that we’re happy. Here’s a poem I wrote a while back about long-term partnerships.

 

Years ago, you knocked on my door.

I put the chain across,

opened it a slit and

looked you over.

Then I

let you in.

For a drink, a chat.

 

But you

hung up your coat,

took off your shoes,

put your

feet under the table.

 

Sometimes we danced in the living room

giggling until we

fell in dizzy heaps.

Sometimes we sat reading

separate novels,

lost in

distant worlds.

Other times we fought,

brutal bloody battles,

no one could win.

 

Sometimes we shared a meal

together, diced sliced,

laughed over a glass of wine,

candles twinkling.

Sometimes we were tired, got take away,

couldn’t be

bothered with the effort.

Other times we ate apart,

solitary below the

cold kitchen light.

 

Sometimes we snuggled

beneath the duvet,

late lazy lay-ins,

close, so we were

touching.

Sometimes we gave a

peck on the cheek, rolled over,

started snoring.

Other times we slept alone,

chilly with a blanket, on the

hard floor of the

spare room.

 

But you

made yourself at home.

And I

never moved out.

We’re still here.

 

 

Home for Christmas

Charlotte woke clammy with sweat, her heart racing. The dream again. She squeezed her eyes tight to remove the pictures and screaming in her head, then lay quietly, waiting for the hammering of blood in her ears to stop. Her brothers’ whistling breaths alongside her showed they were undisturbed. In the weak yellow light of the streetlamp, illuminating the room through the thin curtains, she could just make out her shadowy surroundings. Turning her head slightly, she could see the hump of her Mum in the corner, huddled asleep under a pile of coats. She had stayed in the armchair again that night then, to give them more room in the bed. Charlotte sighed deeply. She wanted to pee but that would mean waking Mum up as she was not allowed to go to the bathroom alone. She slid soundlessly out from the covers and tiptoed across the cold floorboards to the window. Checking her brothers and Mum were still sleeping, she quickly popped her head under the curtain.

Outside, the sickly lamplight lit up an icy, deserted city street. Once grand houses lined up in shabby rows of bedsits and cheap rentals. In the boarded-up building opposite, steps led up to a wide, deep doorway guarded by two moulded pillars. Charlotte imagined posh ladies in beautiful ball gowns, returning from a night at the opera, stepping down from horse drawn carriages and trotting up the steps to enter the fancy house. Now, the doorway was dirty and dark but she could just make out the huddled figure folded against the wall, away from the wind’s chill fingers. He was still there. Charlotte had watched the man move in a week or so ago; making a bed for himself out of cardboard and setting out his meagre possessions – a carrier bag, a rucksack, a blanket. Every day when she passed him on the way to school, she gave him a smile and a little wave, her Mum hurrying her along the street.

“Come on Charlotte, don’t drag your feet, we’ll be late!” Mum was always hurrying them. She said they mustn’t be late but Charlotte knew it wasn’t that. She knew Mum was afraid. Afraid to be out of the bedsit, afraid to be on the street, afraid in case Dad found them. The man in the doorway never smiled or waved back at Charlotte. He just looked at her with his sad, shiny brown eyes. He was afraid too. Charlotte saw that look in her Mum’s eyes. She saw that look in her brothers’ eyes. She saw that look whenever she caught her face in the cracked mirror hanging in the grubby bathroom they shared with three other families.

A freezing draught cut through Charlotte’s fleecy onesie and she shivered. The bedsit was so cold she could see her breath like smoke rising from a dragon’s nostrils. Imagine how much colder it must be for him, sleeping outside in the filthy doorway. Charlotte wondered who the man was and where he had come from. He was not old but his face was not young. It was hollowed out and lined with tiredness and worry. He was straight and tall, though he bent his body away from the biting cold. His hair was glossy black and his skin reminded her of an olive her Grandma had once given her to try. She had spat it onto her hand as it tasted so yucky and Dad slapped her arm, telling her not to be rude and disgusting. Charlotte thought the man might be a Prince who had run away from an evil King who wanted to murder him.

“Charlotte, what are you doing?” Mum’s voice hissed in her ear, “Get back to bed, you’ll freeze!”

“He’s still there.” Charlotte whispered back.

“Who’s still there?” Mum asked.

“The man living in the doorway. Will he live there forever, Mum?”

“I don’t know. Depends why he’s homeless…he might be an old drunk or on drugs…” Mum’s head joined Charlotte’s under the curtain.

“He isn’t old or drunk. He’s just thin and tired.” Charlotte explained sadly.

“I expect someone from the local church will help him soon. They help homeless people, especially at Christmas.” Mum put her arm around Charlotte, “Get back to bed. Stop worrying yourself.”

“Will they find him a home, like us?”

“Oh Charlotte, call this a home!” Mum kissed her head.

“Are we homeless, mum?” Jack’s sleepy voice came from the bed, “Dylan at school said we’re smelly old tramps because we haven’t got a home and we go to the food bank instead of Tesco.”

“Well, Dylan sounds like a very naughty boy who Santa won’t be visiting this year!” Mum snapped, then said more gently, “Of course, we’re not homeless Jack. This is temporary. We won’t be here forever. Just until I’m back on my feet. Just until the court case is over, then we can get the old house sold…we’ll have money.”

“We have a roof over our heads, Jack.” Charlotte cuddled up to her brother, “It’s dry and we have a bed. That poor man is out in the rain and wind and cold. And he only has cardboard to sleep on. We are much luckier than him.”

“Oh Charlie, only you could say we are lucky!” Mum shook her head in disbelief.

“I feel sad about that man!” Jack began to sniffle, waking up little Lewis who joined in.

“Now look what you’ve started.” Mum sighed gathering all three of her children in a big embrace. “I think that man looks like he’s from Syria or somewhere. One of those refugees. The Government has got enough to do looking after its own, let alone people coming from abroad.”

“But that’s not fair, Mum. Mrs Thomas told us that refugees are running away from war. He couldn’t stay in his country or he would die!”

“I know Charlotte, it’s sad and unfair but there’s nothing we can do about it. Look at us. If I can’t get this sorted, we’ll be joining him!”

“Are we leaving here?” Jack’s brow furrowed with worry.

“Do we have to live on the street?” Lewis wailed.

“No, no, not at all…” Mum soothed, “Don’t you worry. I told you. Our house will be sold and Mummy will buy us a new one. No more talking about homeless people and refugees, Charlie…it upsets everyone.”

 

The next day, the family were up early to get ready for school. Sharing a bathroom with three families meant it could be quite a wait for your turn. Mum needed to spend extra time doing Charlotte’s hair in a French plait, twisted with tinsel, as she was Angel Gabrielle in the nativity play that afternoon; her first time with a speaking role. Mum had managed to make her costume from an old party dress she found in a charity shop and Charlotte was proud of it.  Her brothers were both sheep and had made masks in school from cotton wool and cereal boxes. The three children had only been at the school for a term and Mum was especially pleased they were in the play.

Before leaving the bedsit, Charlotte grabbed her cuddly pony. She never went anywhere without Dobbin. He was the only toy she had managed to fit in the small suitcase the day they had run from home. Although he was not her favourite cuddly, he had become very special to her. He was soft with a velvety muzzle she liked to rub between her fingers and he smelt of her old room. Then, they were out in the icy cold wind and Mum was rushing them along the street. Charlotte looked across at the doorway, ready to wave and smile but the man was not there.

“Come on Charlotte, no dawdling, we haven’t got time.” Mum pulled at her hand.

Charlotte dragged along after her, anxious about where the man could be. She wondered if the evil King had found him and taken him back to his castle. He might be lying in a damp dungeon. She did not think about or look where she was going. All she could see was the man in chains sitting in a dark, miserable prison.

“Charlotte, watch out!” Mum shouted, but it was too late, Charlotte collided with somebody and fell on her bottom with a bump.

“Ow, ow…” Charlotte began to cry.

“I am so sorry.” said a soft, rich voice, “I did not mean…”

Charlotte looked up into two shiny, sad brown eyes. It was the man. She smiled at him, quickly wiping away her tears, “It’s all right, I’m OK.”

“Just an accident.” Mum said, helping her up and brushing her down. “No worry. We need to be going.”

As Mum hurried them on, the man called out, “One moment please, you forgot this.”

He handed Dobbin to Charlotte.

“Thank you.” Charlotte tucked him in her rucksack as Mum pulled her away again.

The man turned and walked on to his doorway.

 

After the nativity play, Mum explained they had to visit the food bank to get their Christmas shopping.

“I was so proud of you all!” Mum said as they walked to the community centre, “You were brilliant. I could hear every word you said Charlie. I think Santa might have left some special things for you at the food bank today because you are such good children.”

“Has Santa left us a present?” Lewis skipped along in excitement.

“We might not get presents this year,” Charlotte warned.

“Is it because he doesn’t know where we live?” Jack asked.

“Of course you’ll get presents this year.” Mum said, “I just told you. He’s left you all something at the food bank. He told me himself. You have all been really good this year, he said, and deserve a present.”

“You talked to Santa?” Lewis exclaimed in surprise.

“Yes, he rang me up this afternoon.”

“How did he get your number?” Jack asked.

“Santa is magic. He knows everyone’s numbers!” Mum said.

They entered the community centre in a state of anticipation. Mum led the way to the food bank at the back of the building, fumbling in her bag for the vouchers she used to buy items they needed.

“Wow!” Charlotte said.

She could not believe the change in the food bank. It was decorated with tinsel and twinkling lights, Christmas music played from a CD player in the corner, the volunteers all wore Santa hats and Christmas jumpers and were singing along merrily. In one corner, there were big sacks full of wrapped presents. The sacks were labelled Boy or Girl and with different ages.

“Look what Santa has brought!” Jack shouted.

“Shall we do food or presents first?” Mum asked.

“Presents!” the three children agreed at once.

Charlotte chose a present from the sack which said ‘Girl aged 7-10 years’. Her brothers had presents from the sack which said ‘Boy aged 4-7 years’. She wondered if Santa really left gifts at the food bank or whether it was kind people who felt sorry for them at Christmas. Surely, if Santa was real, he would bring presents to them at the bedsit. He was magic and would always know where they lived. Her brothers seemed convinced though, and even if it wasn’t Santa, Charlotte thought those people were very kind indeed. She told them thank you in her head.

After the present choosing, Mum took them over to the food.

“I’ve saved extra vouchers so we can treat ourselves.” she explained.

They all enjoyed picking out Christmas treats. There were mince pies, a Christmas cake, a box of chocolates and a multi-pack of crisps to go with the usual essentials.

As they were leaving, one of the volunteer ladies called out, “Wait a minute, me dears!” she ran over with three selection boxes for the children and a box of Christmas crackers, “Merry Christmas!”

 

On Christmas Eve, Charlotte looked out of the window at the man huddled in the doorway. It was bitterly cold. The weather woman on the radio said it might snow that night.

“He’s still there,” Charlotte said, “he hasn’t gone to the church, Mum.”

“Oh Charlie, what did I say to you, please? It’s not helpful and it upsets everyone. Come on now, it’s Christmas Eve and we’ve got to decorate the room.”

Mum had been to the charity shop again and found some tinsel and a Christmas angel. All four of them helped stick the tinsel around the walls with Sellotape. Mum put the angel on top of the chest of drawers. Charlotte and her brothers arranged the crackers around the room and stuck them with tape too. Then they put out their treats and presents on the shelf next to the bed.

That night, Mum said they could eat later, listening to Christmas carols on the radio. She heated up tinned tomato soup in the microwave and served it with slices of bread and cheese. For a special pudding, they had a mince pie and a chocolate each.

“What’s Dad doing for Christmas?” Lewis asked out of the blue.

Charlotte noticed her Mum’s face go pale, “I don’t know, lovely.”

“Probably in the pub…” Charlotte said.

“He won’t ever find us, will he?” Jack asked.

“No, now stop worrying about things like that! It’s Christmas!” Mum smiled, “Let’s sing some Christmas songs, come on, what shall we start with?”

 

Later, Charlotte lay awake thinking about Dad and whether he would ever find them. He had shouted at Mum that she could never leave him. Charlotte tried not to think about the night they left the house, but the image of Dad dragging Mum by the hair out of the room was stuck in her brain. She and her brothers hammered on the door but Dad had locked it. They couldn’t help Mum. All they could do was listen to the smashing and banging and screaming. Charlotte knew she couldn’t go to sleep because she would have the dream again and she didn’t want the dream on Christmas Eve. She thought about the man in the doorway instead and how it was horrible for him to spend Christmas outside and alone. They were luckier than him. They had a home and each other. They had presents and food to eat. He had no one and nothing. They had left their old house but he had left his country. Then, Charlotte knew what to do. Carefully, she crept out of bed and put on her coat and boots, checking every so often that everyone was sound asleep. She picked her selection box from the shelf, unpeeled a cracker from the wall and removed a mince pie, slowly and gently from its wrapper. She bundled them in her scarf, picked up Dobbin and went to the door. Checking again that nobody was stirring, she opened it soundlessly, setting the catch so she could get back in.

On the landing, it was pitch black. The bulb has blown weeks ago and the landlord never replaced it. Charlotte felt her way along the wall to the stairs, then edged her way down one at a time. It was a bit brighter in the hall, a blood red pooled on the floor where the streetlight shone through the stained glass above the front door. She put down her parcel to struggle with the old, stiff door handle, then pulled back the door with all her strength. Picking up her things, she went out into the night. The weather woman was right. It had snowed. A thick carpet, golden under the artificial lights, shone untouched and pure. The grim city street had been transformed into a fairy-tale land. Charlotte looked across at the imposing house opposite. The wide doorway was in shadow but she could just see the outline of a blanketed figure tucked into a corner. Bravely, Charlotte crossed the street and began to climb the steps up to the homeless man. Her feet scuffed the snow.

“Who’s there, please?” the soft, rich voice called, afraid.

“Hello,” said Charlotte, “It’s OK. It’s me, Charlotte, I live over the street. I’ve brought you something for Christmas.”

The man stood up and walked out of his dark corner, “It’s you, the little girl who fell in the street. I have seen you in the window. Go home, it is not safe for you out here at night. Your mother will be worried.”

“I want to give you this then I’ll go home.” Charlotte held out her bundle.

“I cannot take this from you.” said the man, “It is not right. You do not have much. I see. You and your family are struggling.”

“Please.” Charlotte said and their eyes met under the yellow streetlight. The man saw the pain in Charlotte’s eyes and Charlotte saw the pain in the man’s eyes.

He took the gift, “Thank you.”

Charlotte cuddled her Dobbin and walked back home. The man watched her until she was safely inside.

 

The next morning, the boys woke early, excited about Christmas presents. Charlotte was groggy from a sleepless night. They sat on the bed as Mum gave out their parcels. Jack had a Lego tractor. Lewis had play dough. Charlotte had a sketchpad, paints and watercolour pencils. Mum said they could finish the mince pies for breakfast.

“One’s missing!” she exclaimed when she opened the box.

“Sorry Mum, I ate mine in the night. I got hungry.” Charlotte apologised.

“Oh well, you’ll have to have a satsuma.” Mum smiled. It was Christmas after all and she wouldn’t get cross with them today.

“A selection box has gone too…” Jack piped up. Charlotte gave him a stern look.

“Charlotte, you didn’t pig out on all your chocolate?” Mum raised her eyebrows.

“I wonder if it’s been snowing?” Charlotte changed the subject. The brothers ran to the window and pulled the curtain back.

“It has!”

Mum and Charlotte joined them at the window. It looked beautiful outside, crisp and clean and bright.

“He’s not there.” Charlotte said, “He’s gone. Everything’s gone. Even his cardboard bed.”

“I told you the local church would come and get him. They’ll see he’s all right for Christmas,” Mum gave her a hug.

 

After breakfast, it was time to go to the bathroom to get ready for the day. They always went together because Mum didn’t like them being alone in the bedsit.

“Oh, your scarf is lying out here, Charlotte. You must have dropped it yesterday.” Mum said when she opened the door. She picked it up, “There’s something in it.”

“What is it Mum?” Charlotte took the scarf and unwrapped it. Inside, there was a piece of cardboard. On the cardboard was a beautiful drawing. It showed Charlotte riding a glossy horse with a velvety muzzle. She was dressed in a flowing gown with tinsel in her hair.

“That’s wonderful.” Mum said.

“I look like a Princess.” Charlotte smiled.

“There’s writing on the back.” Mum said.

Charlotte turned the drawing over. She read out, “Dear Charlotte, thank you for being my only friend in this strange, grey land. Once, in my own country, I had friends and family. I had a job, a home and money. I had a life. Last night, you made me see I can have friends here too. I can be brave, like you, and go and make a new life for myself. Goodbye, little Princess. Karam.”

“Last night?” Mum raised her eyebrows.

Charlotte looked apologetic, “Well, I can explain everything Mum but, just remember, it’s Christmas…”

 

 

If you would like to support refugees or food banks this Christmas, then here are two great charities:

Refugee Action

The Trussell Trust

A very Merry Christmas to you all!

Son

There he goes, my beautiful son.

Bone china skin, hair afire.

Fragility worn in cool style.

Brief nod at my frantic goodbye.

A pang of love explodes my chest.

Lucy

Looking out of the window on a damp grey day, I noticed something black and white, curled and hidden, under the bushy overgrown shrub which adorns our front lawn. At first, I thought it was my cat tucked up in her favourite sleeping place but, looking more carefully, I realised this animal was too big for her. Fat spots of rain began to fall, turning the scene outside to blurred watercolours. The black and white bundle snuggled closer into the hedge. A shiny nose cautiously stretched out from the shelter of the untidy branches sniffing the air, and a bright pink tongue tasted the raindrops. Some farm dog, I supposed, settled down for a cheeky rest from work. Still, it wasn’t usual for a dog to use my shrub for a bed.

“There’s a dog asleep on our front garden.” I told my husband.

He came to take a look.

“Poor thing,” he said, “better check it’s all right.”

“I was just about to.” I said.

On opening the front door, the dog jumped up from its resting place, tail wagging and tongue lolling happily in greeting. It seemed pleased to see me. Normally, I’m a bit wary of farm dogs as they can be temperamental and, once or twice, I’ve had a nasty nip. This pretty tri-coloured collie seemed friendly, however. It looked at me with forlorn eyes. I put my hand out slowly. At this encouragement, the dog bounded over, nuzzling and licking my hand. On closer inspection I found she was a female, small and slender; a friendly, sweet-natured animal.

“What are you doing here?” I asked her, “Run along home.”

She eyed me expectantly and sat down on the gravel. She wasn’t going anywhere.

“Are you lost?” I stroked her glossy head. She rolled onto her side revealing her pink tummy, showing she was no threat. I noticed an old faded collar but no tag.

“Well, you must belong to somebody.”

I thought she may be glad of a drink so I went around the back of the house to collect a bowl of water. She followed me to the side gate and waited patiently there until I returned. When she saw me, she gamboled ecstatically around my legs. I put the bowl down and she lapped gratefully.

“You were a thirsty girl,” I said, “but now you’d better make your way home. You can’t stay here, I’m afraid, I’ve got three dogs of my own and that is quite enough for anybody!”

I patted on the head and went inside. I hoped she would head off once alone.

Every half hour or so, my husband or I looked out of the window to check whether the dog had moved on but, each time, there she was, snuggled under the bush trying to keep dry. The rain fell in an unrelenting downpour. After three hours, I decided she definitely wasn’t intending to leave.

“What should we do?” I asked my husband. He agreed the dog would have left for home by now if she was going to.

So, unlike the rain, I gave in and went to the side gate to let her into the back garden. My concern was rewarded as she danced around me, wagging her happy tail, thrilled to see me again.

I towelled off her wet hair and feet and let her into the conservatory, then fed her a bowl of kibble. She ate hungrily and settled in the large dog basket belonging to my labrador.

“You can stay in here while I make some phone calls.” I told her.

My three dogs knew something was up. They weren’t usually shut out of the conservatory and there was a whiff of strange dog in the air. They sniffed with curiosity at my legs, snuffling and whimpering. I lifted the receiver and rang the vet. No one had reported a dog missing but they would keep my details in case somebody came in. I should bring her in to check for a microchip. Then I rang every vet in the area. It was the same story with all of them.

“Any luck?” my husband asked.

“No one’s reported a dog missing anywhere.” I explained, “The vet told me to inform the dog warden.”

We looked at each other sadly. it seemed a shame to put such a lovely dog in a cage while she waited for her owner to find her. It was with some reluctance, therefore, that I picked up the phone. Surprisingly, they seemed unconcerned. The service was overstretched, it would be a while before the warden would be able to collect the dog, would we be happy to keep her until he got in touch? I agreed, of course.

“We have to keep her until the warden has time to come and get her.” I explained to my husband, “He’s out at the moment and will ring us back when he can.”

“If she’s going to be staying with us, she’ll have to meet our boys,” my husband said, “If they don’t get on, she’ll have to live in the barn.”

“I’m sure they’ll get on.” I didn’t like to think of her out there on her own.

We decided it would be best if the dogs got to know each other in the garden where there was plenty of space. Luckily, the rain had finally stopped. A pale sun struggled to smile through the clouds. Rather than terrifying the new dog by sending out the boys in a rowdy pack, we introduced her to one dog at a time. First, Sammy, our aged collie cross, quiet and gentle. Next Iolo, our gangly labrador, barely taking any notice. Finally Monty, our yappy terrier, noisy but playful. The dogs did us proud. Their manners were impeccable. The little female collie liked them immediately and soon all four dogs were playing on the grass. I breathed a sigh of relief. It may take us a while to find the owner but at least she could enjoy living with us while we did.

Then I remembered my cats. Would she be a chaser? My dogs and cats were best buddies; friends since puppy and kitten days. This dog may never have lived with cats before. It wasn’t long until we discovered the answer. Kipper, our ginger boy and keen hunter, came ambling around the corner of the house right into the middle of the action. He confidently walked up the new dog. She sniffed him with caution. Kipper rubbed himself against her legs then sidled off. She didn’t follow or chase him. Phew! Later in the day, the other two cats appeared, feisty Mags and grumpy Maude. The new dog didn’t bat an eyelid and the cats were unphased. All remained peaceful.

p1020088

 

Over the next few days, the female collie settled into our routines and became part of the family. She behaved perfectly in the house and was a clean, tidy creature. We hardly knew she was there. I took her to see the vet and discovered she had no microchip. I drove her around the neighbourhood, knocking on doors and calling in at farms. Nobody recognised her or knew anyone looking for a lost dog. Next, I took photographs and made posters to put up on telegraph poles, fence posts, in shops, at the vets, in the library, everywhere I could think of. No luck. I posted photographs and information on local social media sites. No luck. The dog warden didn’t ring. We began to think the new dog may be with us forever. Some of us may even have hoped it. We were growing fond of her calm, sweet nature.

“We can’t call you the new dog all the time,” I told her, “What’s your name?”

Over the next few hours, we experimented calling out different names and watching for a response. She didn’t seem too bothered with any of them until finally I called out, “Lucy!” she stopped in her tracks, pricked up her ears in apparent recognition and came running over. From then on, that’s what we called her.

 

Two weeks later, two weeks of looking after Lucy with no sign of an owner, we started to reconcile ourselves to life with four dogs. She was no trouble. When you had three, an extra one made no difference. Lucy fitted in. She was at home with us; part of the family. We all rubbed along happily together. We played in the garden. We went on walks. At night, she curled up on the floor with her doggy mates while we watched TV.

One day, two and a half weeks after Lucy had tucked herself under the bush on our front lawn, the phone rang.

“Hello,” said a lady, “I think you might have my dog.”

The lady described Lucy perfectly, down to her faded collar. She explained that she had been away, that Lucy was one of four outdoor farm dogs, that her husband had been feeding the dogs and hadn’t noticed one was missing every night. It wasn’t until she got back with her children that they realised the dog was gone. She’d spent the last week searching everywhere, finally getting my number from the vet.

“Can I come and collect her?” she asked.

My heart sank a little, “Of course.”

It was a shock when giving directions to find that Lucy had travelled six miles, crossing a busy main road, to get to our house. The lady thought she had probably been frightened by a bad storm, running in blind panic.

We said a sad farewell to Lucy while we waited for her owner to show up. Half an hour later, a land rover pulled onto the drive. A lady got out and I brought Lucy to her. The dog was very pleased to see her owner. She jumped straight into the car.

“She loves a ride.” the lady said, “Thank you so much for having her all this time.”

We waved away the offer of money for Lucy’s care. We had enjoyed her company and were just glad that she’d been happy while waiting to find her true home.

Before the lady drove off, Lucy jumped out of the car and ran back to us to say a last goodbye. We gave the little collie, who had stayed with us for a short while but touched our hearts forever, a big fuss.

“Oh, by the way,” I asked, remembering just in time, “What’s her name?”

“Lisa.”

And they drove away.

Enjoy this night

 

Lizzie Barker scrubbed the shirt hard against the washboard until her elbows ached. She looked down at her hands, scaly and sore from many hours spent in hot water. A loose lock fell from her auburn hair and she brushed it clumsily behind her ear. Once again, her thoughts turned to Nathaniel. There had been no recent news from the front. No letters full of cheerful, empty words, darkness hidden between the lines. She wondered what he was doing at that moment; prayed he was safe.

Lizzie had taken on Squire Middleton’s laundry to bring in a few shillings. It kept her and the babe going. She glanced across to the basket sitting a short distance from her in the long grass. The small, red head and tiny hands clasped together on the blanket in contented sleep. Such a beautiful, happy little girl. Almost eight months old and Nat had never yet seen her.

Lizzie rose from bending over her washtub and stretched; her muscles drawn tight over her shoulder blades. She wiped her hands on her apron and massaged her taut neck. It was a perfect spring morning. A sweet-scented breeze lifted the hair from her face. Daffodils bobbed joyous heads in her small garden. Across the lane, banks of primroses shone in the warm sunshine. Lambs skipped and hopped in the fields; their mothers’ admonishing cries filling the valley.

Lizzie lifted the shirt, twisted it to wring out the water and placed it in a basket with the others. She carried the basket over to the mangle. She enjoyed this part of wash day. Something seemed to relax in her as she fed the cloth through the runners and turned the handle to squeeze out the remaining water. She was glad for the powerful machine. Without it, she could never wring out the clothes so surely. On a day like today, they would be dry in no time.

Nat was a strong, powerful man. A good-looker, with his nut-brown skin and fair curls. Her friends had been jealous when he chose her at the annual country dance. The best labourer on the farm. Everyone joked that he never tired. Certainly, he did the work of two men. When he told her he was joining up, Lizzie had been afraid they would lose the cottage but Squire Middleton said he would let them keep it for Nat’s return.

“We need more soldiers to get this war finished,” Nat said.

“We need farmers and food too.” Lizzie replied, biting her lip in anxiety.

“I’ll be home soon, Lizzie.”  He laughed, putting his arm around her narrow waist. “Don’t worry so.”

She joined the other women watching husbands and sons march off to war. The young men of the village, laughing and waving; proud to serve their country. As she crunched home through the snow, Lizzie felt an empty sadness. She saw nothing to be proud about.

Lizzie stretched up to peg the shirts on the line. They rippled in the breeze. She breathed in the fresh, clean smell. A soft mewling came from the basket in the grass. The babe was stirring; hungry for a feed. She picked up the basket and carried it inside.

 

Lizzie sat under the candlelight with her darning. The babe had been bathed and settled in her cradle. The cottage was still. The bright, warm day had turned into a clear, chilly night and she was glad of the glowing range. She sighed; her eyes were growing tired in the dim light. Soon she would take the rickety stairs to their tiny bedroom. Although exhausted, she prolonged the moment. She hated going to bed alone. It felt cold and empty without Nat. When she closed her eyes, the dark and quiet seemed to gather inwards, pressing her down as if to suffocate her.

A knock at the door made Lizzie start and drop the stocking she held. It was late for a visitor. She picked up the candle and went to the door.

“Who’s there?” she called. In reply, there came another, more urgent rap.

Lizzie slid back the bolt and opened the door a slit. She peered into the darkness. A large, black figure stood in the shadows cast by a pale moon. She lifted her candle higher, better to see, and gasped in surprise.

“Nat?”

“I’m home Lizzie.” Nat’s voice returned across the darkness; thin and fragile like gauze.

“Oh, my love. Come in.” Lizzie opened the door wide.

Nat stumbled into the cottage. He looked smaller standing at the fireplace; shrunken, diminished. His eyes dark; full of exhaustion and pain. His face pale as milk.

“You must be tired and hungry.” Lizzie took his arm, made him sit in the armchair, “I’ll get you food, something to drink.”

She fussed at the kitchen table, slicing bread, cutting a hunk of cheese. She put the kettle on the range and stoked the coals. Nat sat in silence, staring at nothing. He was in the room but distant; somewhere a long way from the cottage.

As Nat ate his bread and cheese, Lizzie examined him; his sunken face, his dusty cropped hair, his dirty khaki uniform, his bony hands that shook. He wanted very little food or drink.

“You’re not hungry. I expect your appetite will come back with good, country air.” she said, “How long are you home for?”

“I’m here now,” Nat replied, “Let’s enjoy this night.”

From the cradle in the corner, there was a muffled moan. Nat turned noticing the baby for the first time.

“Our daughter, Nat.” Lizzie explained.

“Daughter…” Nat repeated.

“Yes, our beautiful little girl. Did you not get my letters? You left me with child.”

“With child…” Nat whispered, his eyes filled with tears.

Lizzie smiled. “Do you want to meet her?”

He nodded. Lizzie brought the babe to him and settled her into his arms. He held her tenderly, awkwardly, as if frightened he might break her. Wet lines streaked his hollow cheeks and tears dripped on to the baby’s blanket.

“You’ll make her all wet.” Lizzie wiped Nat’s face with her palms. “It’s all right, my love.”

“An angel.” he said.

“I haven’t named her, Nat. I was waiting for you to come home. What should we call her?”

“An angel…” he said again.

“Angel. Yes, that’s perfect.” Lizzie agreed, “Our very own Angel.” She put the sleeping baby back in her cradle. Nat watched her.

“Do you have to go back, Nat?” Lizzie asked, “When will this awful war be over?”

She sat at his feet and put her head on his knee.

“I’m here now, Lizzie.” Nat replied, “Let’s enjoy this night.” He stroked her thick hair.

“You’re filthy.” Lizzie said, “I’ll boil more water. Give you a wash down.”

Nat sat gazing into the unknown while Lizzie got water, filled the kettle and set it to boil. ‘Where are you, my love?’ Lizzie thought, ‘What is it you see?’ She poured hot water into a large bowl. She gathered a wash cloth, towel and Nat’s nightgown.

“Let me help you with your clothes,” she touched his arm and he flinched like a terrified child, “I’m here, my love, don’t be afraid, I’ll look after you.”

She undressed Nat. A slow, arduous process. His limbs were heavy and stiff. He made little effort on his own but followed her instructions like an automaton. She bathed his wasted body. She caressed his bruised, sore-ridden skin. Burning tears threatened in her eyes but she forced them back. This stranger was her husband. Her strong, handsome, lively Nat was gone.

“Oh, my love, what have they done to you?”

When she had dried him, she pulled his old nightgown over his head and led him up the narrow stairs to bed.

“I love you, Nat.” Lizzie held him close under the blankets, as if to prevent him from ever leaving again, “I wish you could stay forever.”

Nat only repeated the same words in his tired, thin voice, “I’m here now. Let’s enjoy this night.” She kissed him gently.

 

The next morning, Lizzie woke to early pale sunlight trickling through the flowery curtains. She turned to embrace Nat but the bed was empty. His place cold. Perhaps he is feeling better this morning, she thought. He was an early riser and liked to bring her a cup of tea. She listened but the cottage was quiet. Quickly, she got out of bed and crept downstairs. The kitchen was empty. Angel still slept peacefully in the corner.

Lizzie slipped her feet into clogs and wrapped a woollen shawl around her shoulders. She opened the back door to the garden. Nat often enjoyed early morning walks. He may have needed air to clear his head; make him feel better. She looked up and down the deserted lane. She scanned the misty fields and distant hillsides. Angel began to cry. Lizzie ran inside. It was time for her morning feed. She settled in the armchair cradling Angel to her breast. Nat could not have gone far. He would not have left without saying goodbye. Soon he would be home, hungry from his walk, and she would make them a hearty breakfast.

Angel suckled happily until she was full. Lizzie propped her in the basket.

“You are a good girl, my Angel,” she said, “Dada will be home in a minute and you will see what a handsome man he is. Last night, you were too sleepy to say hello but, this morning, your Dada will be so proud of you.”

There was a brisk knock at the door.

“Nat?” Lizzie called, “Just come in, my love. You don’t need to go knocking.”

Another tap, louder and more insistent. Lizzie went to open the door. Mr Jackson, the old postman stood on the step. His face drawn and anxious.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs Barker.” He handed her a small, brown envelope.

Lizzie took the telegram with shaking hands.

Happily ever after

“Mummy.” Emily’s voice was urgent as I bent to switch off the bedside lamp, “Please leave the light on. I’m scared of the fairies.”

“The fairies?” I sat back down on the bed, “You don’t need to be frightened of fairies. They’re sweet little creatures that grant you wishes and leave a pound coin under your pillow when you lose a tooth.”

“Not these fairies.” Emily opened her eyes wide in fear and gripped me round the shoulders, pulling me close.

“They live in the walls…” she whispered close to my ear. Hot tears trickled down my neck.

“Oh, darling.” I kissed her damp cheek, “Have you been having bad dreams?”

“It’s not dreams, Mummy. I hear them scratching and laughing behind the headboard. They hate me. They say I’m ugly. They want to…kill…me.” The last words disintegrated into violent blubbing.

I scooped her into my arms, breathed in her clean just-bathed skin, “It’s all right, my love. Mummy’s got you. I think you can hear the mice. It’s an old house and there are loads about.”

“Mice don’t talk, Mummy.” she spluttered.

“The light can stay on, darling, and I’ll lie with you until you’re asleep.”

We snuggled under the covers and I put my arm around Emily, held her tight, felt the shock-waves of her sobs through my jumper. With my free hand, I stroked her soft hair, golden in the lamplight.

“Sing me the lamb one, Mummy.” she said, when her crying finally subsided.

By the time I finished my rendition of The Skye Boat song, Emily was asleep, her little body exhausted. I stayed where I was, not wanting to disturb her. It worried me to see her so afraid. I wondered if she was being bullied at school. It had been a tough move for her, dragging her away from her Grandparents and friends, from the bright modern nursery class, to this remote old place in the middle of nowhere, with its austere grey primary school. The house was full of groans and creaks in the night. Many times, I had heard scuttling behind the skirting while I lay in bed. I told Phil we needed to get some traps. “And you a vegetarian,” he had laughed.

With great care, I extricated myself from the warm, sleeping bundle and crept out into the hall and downstairs.

“That took a long while. Everything OK?” Phil looked up from his book, concerned lines across his dark eyebrows.

“Emily was terrified tonight. She said there are fairies living in the walls. They hate her and want to kill her.” I sat down on the sofa, next to him.

He put his book down and cuddled me close. It was reassuring to feel his warmth seep into my skin and the weight of his arm across my shoulders.

“Just dreams, I expect,” he said. “Fairies are pretty bloody scary though, if you ask me. It’s all the fairy tales you read her. Those Brothers Grimm were a right pair of miserable bastards.”

“Thanks for that. I told her it’s probably the mice.”

“I know, I know. I haven’t got on with getting the traps yet. I’ll sort it tomorrow, I promise.” Phil kissed me on the forehead, “Don’t worry. Kids do get scared, you know. It’s part of growing up.”

“But what if it’s school?” I said, “She might be being bullied and this is her way of telling us. It’s been a big change.”

“For all of us.” Phil smiled, “Don’t go jumping to conclusions, Jess. Give it some time. See how things go.”

“I suppose…” I sighed, “I just want Emily to be happy here.”

“That’s what we both want. Look, I’ll pour us a glass of wine and we’ll settle down in front of that sloppy film you’ve been trying to persuade me to watch.”

 

The next morning, we went for a lovely family walk along the river in the crisp autumn sunshine. Emily kicked up mounds of brilliant jewelled leaves, filling her wellies until they overflowed and she collapsed in a giggling heap. I pulled them off her and snuck up behind Phil, emptying them over his head. Emily burst into raucous laughter as he chased me down the path.

Walking back towards her, Phil took my hand and whispered, “She seems fine today.”

On the way home, we stopped at the farm store to buy mouse traps.

“Will they hurt the mice, Daddy?” Emily asked as we returned to the car.

“Well, my lovely, I’m afraid they will kill the mice but it will be quick, so it won’t hurt them at all.” Phil reassured her, “We can’t have mice running around the house scaring my little girl, can we?”

“It’s not…” Emily began but Phil lifted her up over his shoulders and the rest was lost in hysterical screeches.

Back home, we set traps all over the house. Emily helped cut cubes of cheese.

“The mice will go after the cheese, won’t they Mummy, and the trap will come down…snap.” She clapped her hands. “Daddy says it won’t hurt the mice.”

“No, it will be fast.” I agreed, surprised at her apparent change of heart.

“Do fairies like cheese, Mummy?” she asked, a hopeful expression on her pretty, round face.

“I’m not sure. I expect they might.”

She clenched her fists, “I hope so.”

“Let’s take Daddy the cheese, then.” I said, passing Emily the bowl.

 

Over the next few days, every piece of cheese disappeared but not one mouse was found dead. We refilled the traps, all the cheese went, still no mouse got caught. Every night, I lay listening to scrabbling behind the walls. The mice seemed to be taunting us. Phil joked we must have the most well-fed rodents in the country. Emily became more restless in bed, waking up three or four times a night; wet with sweat and shaking in fear. Her light had to stay on; the bedroom door open. She grew pale and ill-looking; her eyes ringed with dark circles. Even Phil failed to bring a smile to her thin, sad lips.

“The fairies don’t like cheese, Mummy…” she whispered at bedtime on the third night, “They are angry about the traps.”

I slept with her that night, holding her until her breath relaxed and slowed. Then the scampering and scuttling began; movement right behind my head. I tensed, trying to work out where the mice were coming from and going to. They seemed to be running up and down the walls, crossing the ceiling, then returning back behind the headboard. I banged the wall with my fist and the noise stopped.  Emily stirred beside me.

“Sssh, it’s all right.” I soothed.

 

I started awake. My heart beat against my rib cage, so loud I worried it might wake Emily. Something had woken me. I listened hard. In the black stillness, I thought I heard sniggering.

“Don’t be stupid, Jess.” I said, rubbing my eyes, “Wake up, you’re dreaming.”

“It’s the fairies.” Emily grasped my hand.

We lay together as the scurrying began again.

“Try to sleep, Emily.” I said, “It’s only the mice. Tomorrow, I’m getting a cat. That will fix them.”

 

After dropping Emily at school, I set off on the thirty-mile trek, down a series of narrow winding lanes, to the nearest animal sanctuary. During breakfast, I had completed a frantic google search and found the perfect place. Emily cheered up as I showed her photos of the fluffy felines in need of forever homes.

“I like that one, Mummy,” she said, pointing to a large ginger tom. “He looks brave.”

“He does look a big, strong cat, doesn’t he?” I agreed. “Well, I can’t promise he’ll be the one we get but I’ll do my best.”

It was good to leave Emily at school looking bright and happy.

I spent an hour chatting to the sanctuary owner about our needs and examining the different cats on show. It was a difficult decision choosing which puss to take away. I felt guilty thinking about the ones left behind, who would still be without a loving family. Finally, I settled on a pretty black and white female with a silky coat, pale green eyes and thick, lush tail. She had an intelligent face and attacked her toy mouse with agility and gusto. I thought Emily would enjoy stroking and brushing her. She would be a lovely pet as well as a rodent murderer.

Emily was thrilled with the cat when she got home.

“What’s her name?” she asked as the cat rubbed against her legs.

“I thought that could be your job.” I said.

“Princess.” Emily bent down and ran her hand along the cat’s back. “You like that, don’t you? You are a beautiful Princess.”

“Oh,” said Phil, “I thought we’d call her Killer.”

Emily laughed for the first time in days.

 

Within a week, Princess got down to work, leaving several bloody parcels on the kitchen floor for us to find at breakfast time.

“Good cat.” Emily cuddled Princess before going to school.

She had slept peacefully the last few nights with Princess at her feet. The walls had gone quiet. The mice were retreating; escaping from the sharp claws of our clever new pet.

 

On Sunday, we decided to celebrate our success with a long, late lunch at the local pub, an hour’s stroll through the woods. Emily kissed Princess and settled her in the cat basket near the kitchen Rayburn.

“I love you.” she whispered.

Phil and I smiled at each other, relieved to get our happy, little girl back.

“Come on, monkey.” Phil said picking Emily up, “You can ride on my back some of the way, if you like.”

“Yes.” Emily squealed. “And can I have chips and ice-cream at the pub?”

“What, both together? You’ll be sick.” Phil joked.

 

After a relaxing meal, we headed home, taking the long walk slowly, our tummies full and legs sleepy with all the food we had enjoyed. The sun was sinking behind fluffy, grey clouds as we reached the house. In the gloomy light, it looked forlorn and unfriendly.

“I think we’ll need a fire tonight.” Phil shivered, “It’s getting chilly.”

Inside, the rooms felt icy and musty. Our high spirits dampened.

“Princess!” Emily called, “Where is she, Mummy? She’s not in her bed.”

“Give her a chance, I expect she’s hunting mice upstairs.” I said.

Emily took the stairs two at a time calling for her cat as she went. Phil began to make the fire and I went into the kitchen to put the kettle on. A piercing scream sent us both racing to find Emily. She was kneeling on her bedroom floor, violent sobs wracking her small body. In her arms she held something limp, like a furry rag doll. It took me a moment to realize it was Princess.

“Emily, let me see, darling,” I knelt beside her.

She clung to the cat, her face buried in the dark hair.

“Emily…” I put my arms around her, “Let me see Princess.”

“They killed her…” the words burst from her trembling lips.

I took the cat and placed her gently on the floor in front of my knees. She was frigid; her unseeing eyes glazed wide open. She must have been dead for a few hours.

“I’m so sorry, my love.” I cuddled Emily, pulled her onto my lap.

Phil bent down and picked up Princess.

“Daddy will take her and wrap her in a blanket. Tomorrow, we can bury her in the garden. OK Emily?”

Emily nodded and began to sob again.

I held her for a long time, rocking her back and forth on her bedroom floor, until she cried herself to sleep. Then I placed her carefully in her bed and covered her with the duvet.

Downstairs, Phil was in the kitchen. He had covered Princess in a blanket and put her in the cat bed.

“This is a nightmare…” I said, “I can’t believe it. She loved that cat. What are we going to do, Phil?”

“We could get another cat…I don’t know.” Phil shrugged his shoulders.

“Why did she have to go and die? She seemed so fit and healthy.”

Phil sighed, “I don’t know how to tell you this…it’s the oddest thing.”

“What is?” I did not like the look on his face.

“I checked her over, just now, to see if I could find out what killed her. I noticed her mouth, it was gaping…so I looked closer and…” he hesitated.

“And what? Tell me, Phil.”

“I could see something stuck in there, in her mouth. I put my finger in a bit to see what it was. Her whole mouth was gummed up…I could tell her throat was stuffed full too. It was horrible.”

“Stuffed full of what?” I asked, an uneasy feeling rose in my stomach.

“Cheese, Jess. Cubes of moulding cheese.” He shook his head.

“Cheese? The cheese we cut up and put in the traps?” A finger of fear ran along my spine, “But how can that be possible?”

“I suppose Princess found the place where the mice store their food. Perhaps they collected it up for the winter. She must have been too greedy, she ate it all and choked on it.”

“Do mice do that…store food?” The pulse in my temples throbbed.

“Well, they must do, Jess, because that’s how Princess died.”

“But it seems so implausible. Emily said the fairies were angry. They hated the traps and the cheese. She said they killed Princess. The fairies…”

“And that’s a far more plausible explanation, of course. For Christ’s sake Jess, talk sense. Emily was upset, that’s all.”

“I don’t know how she’ll get over this.” I said.

“Kids do get over things but we don’t mention the cheese.” Phil gave me a warning stare.

“What do you think I am?” I said, “We’ll explain Princess had an illness the sanctuary didn’t know about.”

 

Phil booked the morning off work and we buried Princess under Emily’s favourite rosebush. The one with the sweet-scented, blush-pink flowers she had enjoyed picking in the summer when we first moved in. That seemed an age ago, when Emily was a different child. Now she was pale and silent. Not a word had passed her lips since the previous evening. She communicated with barely perceptible nods and shakes of the head. She refused to eat breakfast. After the burial, she sat on the sofa, staring at the wall with blank eyes.

“Emily needs some time away from here.” I told Phil that evening when he returned from work.

“What about school?”

“She’s in no state for school, Phil. She’s miserable. She won’t speak or eat. If we don’t do something she’ll be a very ill little girl. I’m frightened, Phil. I think she should go and stay with my mum. Have a holiday.”

“Maybe.” Phil said.

“She misses her Grandma. It will do her good.” I insisted, “I’m driving her there tomorrow.”

“Well, thanks a lot for arranging it all without me.” Phil stormed out of the room.

That night, I lay beside Emily while she slept, listening to the scratching in the walls, louder and more insistent now Princess was gone. I prayed Emily would be all right.

 

When I got back from my mum’s, Phil was making dinner.

“You OK?” he asked sheepishly.

“Yeah, bit tired. The motorway was jam-packed. Five hours in slow traffic’s not much fun…”

“Poor love.” He pulled me close, “I’m sorry I lost my temper. It’s just…well, Emily’s my daughter too. I do care about her.”

“I know.”

“How was she when you left?”

“Still quiet but I think she was relieved to be away.” I shrugged, “Phil, do you think we made a mistake coming here?”

“No, I don’t. This is our dream. A lovely old house in the country. Peace and quiet. Home-grown veg and a few chickens. It’s bliss.”

“I’m not so sure. If Emily’s going to be unhappy…”

“It’ll be fine. Everything will settle. We’ve gone through a rough patch, that’s all.”

I chewed my lip, “I’m thinking perhaps we should sell up, move away.”

“Sell up? Jesus Jess, because we have a mouse problem and our cat died? Bit extreme, don’t you think?” Phil kissed me on the top of my head, “Anyway, I’ve thought of a solution. While you were away today, I booked a pest control man. He’s busy until next week but he reckons he’ll soon finish the buggers. Now, sit down and I’ll make you a cup of tea. Dinner’s nearly ready. Try to relax, love. We’ll sort this, I promise.”

 

The blankets grew heavy on my restless legs. Blood gushed in my ears. A pinprick of pain pulsed behind my eyes. I looked at the bedside clock; quarter past one. Phil snuffled deep in sleep beside me. The room seemed unusually quiet, no scuffling came from inside the walls. I got out of bed and edged my way through the darkness to the door. On the landing, the moon shone a guiding beam of light. I made my way to the bathroom for a paracetamol and glass of water.

On the return journey, I stopped at Emily’s room. A faint scrambling came from behind the door. I opened it and switched on the light, scanning the floor for evidence of mice. In the sudden glare, the room looked unreal and exposed. I went and sat on Emily’s bed, smoothed her pillows, bent down and breathed in her smell. Around me, the scratching started up again.

I stood up and put my ear to the cool wall. It sounded like an army of mice on patrol in there. I tapped my fingers and the noise stopped for a moment, then carried on as before. Above my hand, I noticed a dark, bulging patch. I prodded it and my finger nail sank into soft, damp plaster. I pushed deeper, causing a large piece to flake off. I picked away at the indentation until a small hole formed. It was too high for me to examine easily, so I searched for something to stand on. My eye found the toy box standing at the bottom of Emily’s bed. It was heavy but, little by little, I pushed and pulled it into position. Standing on the box, I put my eye to the hole. It was too dark and tiny to see anything. I set to work picking at the plaster. I needed to see what was making all the noise; to know what was upsetting Emily.

It took some time to make a decent-sized opening. When it was about the size of my fist, I stopped and put my ear to the gap. The walls had fallen silent. Emily kept a torch in her bedside drawer. I went to collect it. Shining the beam into the hole, I peered in. I could see a space between two layers of stonework. It was dusty and full of cobwebs. A stale, clinging smell filled my nostrils. I waited noiselessly for the mice to appear. I waited for a long time, fingers and toes turning numb. Eventually, I heard a faint scuffling and murmuring, to my sleep-deprived brain like distant voices speaking a strange, foreign language. The scratching and shuffling grew nearer, the whispering sound got louder. Furious, guttural voices, cursing and mocking, gathering at some point in the wall then moving on towards the gap where I waited. A shadow began to form at the edge of the torchlight, stretching and growing on the stony surface. A clawed shape, elongated out, gnarled and bony, like fingers reaching from the darkness. I sensed hatred, a malevolent force, directed at me. My heart tightened and blood throbbed under my ribs.

“Jess, what the fuck are you doing?”

The torch fell with a clatter and banged my knee as I stumbled in shock. Phil grabbed my arm to steady me.

“You scared me. I didn’t realize you were there.”

“Your hands…they’re bleeding. It’s all over the wall…” Phil lifted me down from the toy box.

I looked at my fingers, the skin red and raw, the nails ragged and bloody, “I didn’t feel it.”

“What the hell were doing? You’ve made a big hole…”

“I was looking for the mice, Phil. I heard them…but it sounded like talking.”

“Christ Almighty Jess, let me get you cleaned up. I think you must have had a nightmare, or something. Maybe you were sleep walking.”

A sudden swimming in my brain caused me to totter against Phil, “I don’t know…perhaps it was a dream.”

“Let’s get you back to bed.” Phil took my arm and led me out of Emily’s room.

 

The next morning, I slept late. When I woke, my head was heavy, like it was squashed into an enormous helmet. My fingertips were sore and bruised. I looked at them in disbelief; what had I been thinking last night? Phil had gone to work but a note was posted on the fridge: ‘Take it easy today. I’ll ring at lunchtime. Love you.’ I didn’t feel hungry so I made a pot of tea and rang to check on Emily. It was good to hear she was eating breakfast and chatting to mum’s dogs.

After the phone call, I went up to Emily’s room to survey the mess. The hole was bigger than I remembered; the size of my head, smeared with dry, rust-coloured blood. I picked up the torch from where I had dropped it, stood on the toy box and examined the opening. The fetid smell reached my nostrils again. Somewhere in the depths, I heard a scraping and chattering. The mice never seemed to rest, roll on next week and the exterminator’s visit.

 

When Phil came home, I was sitting at my sewing machine, busy at work in Emily’s bedroom.

“What are you up to in here?” he asked, “Did you not hear the phone when I rang earlier? I thought I told you to take it easy today.”

“I’m fine.” I said, “I’m feeling much better.”

“Thank goodness. I won’t pretend that I haven’t been worried.”

“There’s nothing to worry about.” I smiled, “The fairies say everything will be all right now.”

“The fairies? What are you going on about, Jess? Don’t mess about, I’m not in the mood.” Phil came to take a closer look at my sewing.

“I’ve seen them today, Phil. Emily was right. They were very angry with us for moving here, disturbing them, setting traps and bringing in a cat.  They thought we wanted to harm them. But I can make everything better. They are naked Phil, and cold. They need clothes and I am making them. Then they will be warm for the winter. Then they will be happy and they will let us live here in peace.”

“Jess, please, stop this. You’re scaring me. I think you are ill, love. You’ve been under a lot of stress, worried about Emily and stuff…”

“No, Phil. I’m not ill. I understand now, don’t you see? The fairies have explained everything. I have to do this so we can live happily ever after.”

“Jess, come with me. Let’s go downstairs. Sort this out. I can call the doctor, get you help.”

“Please don’t say things like that, Phil. You are making the fairies angry again. I think you better leave.” I stood up and pointed to the door.

Phil stayed where he was, “Jess…”

“Go now, Phil.”

“Christ Jess.” He ran his hands through his hair.

“Go.”

He left. I shut and locked the door behind him. There was a lot of sewing to do. I worked through the night, cutting and stitching, adding buttons and ribbons. Suit after suit, until I had enough for an army of fairies. By midnight, I was finished. I laid the outfits in neat rows on the floor, then collapsed on Emily’s bed exhausted.

 

After Jess slammed and locked the door on me, I paced the house, wringing my hands, uncertain what to do. I picked up the phone to ring the doctor but put it back in its cradle. I didn’t want her to be sectioned or carried off to some loony bin. As soon as I put the phone down, I lifted it again thinking I would ring her mum but decided she had enough on her plate looking after Emily for us. All the while I could hear the snip of scissors and the whir of the sewing machine. It went on hour, after hour, after hour. Eventually, I sat at the top of the stairs in anxious vigil, watching the door, gnawing at my finger nails, listening and waiting. Waiting for the morning. Hoping Jess would somehow be better by then. Hoping things wouldn’t seem so awful in the light of day.

Pale autumn sunshine woke me, slumped over the top step, aching and stiff. My watch showed seven o’clock. The house was quiet. Jess must have gone to sleep, thank God. I tried the bedroom door but it was still locked. I didn’t want to wake her, she needed rest. In films, whenever a character needs access to a locked room, they do a trick where they push the key out of the lock onto a piece of paper and slide it under the door so they can retrieve the key. I went to find some paper.

In the end, I broke the door down in fear and frustration. It was too quiet in that room. The sewing machine and materials were packed tidily away. There was no sign of the miniature clothes. Jess lay on the bed. Her eyes wide, staring at the ceiling. Her mouth drawn up in an uncanny grin.

“Jess love, are you OK?” I touched her hand and recoiled in terror. I fell to my knees; my stomach clenched convulsively and I retched. She was frozen, rigid, lifeless. My Jess, dead. I couldn’t believe it.

I took a deep breath and looked at her beautiful face, “What have they done to you?”

Across her eyelids and over her lips, pinning her features into gruesome shape, were rows of tiny, neat stitches. I put my head in my hands and screamed.

In the walls, a scratching, scrabbling sound began.

Goodbye old friend

Goodbye old friend and thank you for the loyalty and love. Even at the end, your wagging tail brought relief as your eyes closed for the last time. Happy to please; you never complained, never made a fuss. Settled for a stick thrown, a quick cuddle, an opportunistic walk. Accepted your lot, put up with our human chaos. There is an empty space where you used to sleep. There is an empty space in our hearts. We are grateful for the sixteen years you gave us. For the fun, the energy, the purpose you brought us.

Rest in peace, Samwise.

Like strangers do

This quirky piece of flash fiction is loosely based on a true story.

 

“Well, you know what men are like.” Mum turned to me, broad smile on her wrinkled face.

After half an hour of silence, the remark made me slurp my tea. Somewhat bemused, I scratched at my greying beard, “Do I?”

She nodded knowingly, “Yes, of course you do. They have needs…”

“Mum.” I put my cup down, picked up a newspaper from the shiny coffee table, flicked through it trying to think of a response.

“Take my Tom…” she giggled, eyes twinkling with mischief.

“What…Dad?” I squeaked in surprise.

“My Tom, I said.” Mum’s eyebrows knitted in exasperation, “He has needs…”

“I really don’t think…” I breathed deeply, taking the smell of wax polish into my lungs.

She leaned towards me conspiratorially, “He always likes me to tie his hands together. You know, when we’re in bed.”

The walls of the communal lounge crowded inwards. The chatter of other residents and their visitors hushed. My neck flushed with heat.

“What are you saying, Mum? You’re not talking about Dad, are you?” I saw my father sitting at the kitchen table, balding and plump, working on The Times crossword puzzle, “He’s not here anymore, is he? You must be confused.”

“I’m fed up of people telling me I’m confused. I know what I’m talking about.” Mum shouted, “Who are you to say I don’t?”

She pushed her cup of tea away, milky brown liquid slopping onto the saucer and perfectly vacuumed floral carpet. Embarrassed, I looked down, noticed the pale band of skin on my newly naked ring finger.

“It’s all right, Mum. Don’t get upset.” I reached across to pat her veined hand but she withdrew it in disgust.

“Don’t touch me…” she spat, “If there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s strangers touching me.”

“I know, Mum.”

I sipped at my cold tea. Perhaps I should shave this beard off, I thought, it might make me look younger.