Can you come out to play?

“Can you come out to play?” said the boy at the door.

Liv looked him over shyly. He didn’t seem threatening. He was small and pale, oddly old-fashioned in his grey school shirt, knitted tank top and shorts. His knees were muddy and his plimsoles scuffed. Mum had told her things would be different here. “In the countryside people won’t care what you look like. No one will tell you that you’re wearing the wrong trainers. They’ll probably be in wellies. We’ll be happy there.” she’d said.  

“Wait a minute, I’ll ask my Mum.” Liv pushed the door to and ran up the narrow hallway calling, “Mum, there’s a boy asking if I can go out to play with him.”

“A boy…who?” Mum came to the top of the stairs with Mrs Bevan, the landlady, waddling behind.

It was Mrs Bevan’s house they were moving into. Well, not her house exactly, she was renting Mrs Thomas’s house to them. Mrs Thomas was Mrs Bevan’s Mam who had lived in the house all her life until recently. Mrs Thomas had gone into a residential home after she fell down the stairs and they hadn’t found her for two hours. Liv tried not to imagine the old lady laying on the dark wooden floor, legs twisted underneath her, a livid bruise growing across her face.

She shrugged, “He didn’t say his name. Can I Mum? I’m bored. Please…”

“I expect that’s young Dylan, your nearest neighbour. Good boy, he is. Nice family. Struggling a bit, they are, you know. Father just lost his job.” Mrs Bevan said. “She’ll be fine playing with Dylan.”

Mum thought for a moment, then sighed, “I suppose it’s all right but stay in the garden. And only for an hour tops because you’ve still got to unpack your things.”

“Thanks Mum.” said Liv, scrambling to put on her shoes. She hurried down the hallway and flung open the door but no one was there.

“Dylan?” she called, wandering down to the front gate to see if he was in the lane. A startled blackbird flew up from the hedgerow but, other than that, it was deserted.

“You back already?” Mum said when she saw Liv sitting on the bottom stair struggling with her laces.

“He’d gone.” Liv replied.

“There’ll be plenty of chances to make friends with him, I’m sure.” Mum smiled sympathetically. “Mrs Bevan is leaving now. She’s shown me where everything is. We’ll go and have a cuppa and a sandwich then I’ll help you sort your bedroom out.”

——

Liv sipped her hot chocolate. It was strange sitting in a different kitchen, at an unfamiliar table, drinking from someone else’s mug, eating from someone else’s plate. She missed their kitchen with the shiny breakfast bar where she sat on the shiny stool swinging her feet.

“You okay, little dreamer?” Mum asked.

“Just thinking this kitchen looks very old.”

“Everything in this house is old, Liv. That’s why we got it for a good price but it’s clean and warm and furnished with the things we need.”

“It’s a shame we couldn’t bring our own things.” said Liv, then regretted it as Mum’s beautiful dark eyes clouded over. 

“I’m sorry we couldn’t too…” Mum reached for Liv’s hand, “but you know Dad needs them for his new family. You have your special things. And we’ve never had a garden before and now we have an enormous one. It’ll take all day to explore that tomorrow.”

“It’s okay Mum, it just feels weird.”

“We’ll get used to it.” Mum squeezed her hand, “Now eat up so we can get your room done before bedtime.”

——

The next morning after breakfast, there was a knock on the door.

“Can you answer it, please Liv?” Mum called from the small back room she had chosen for a study, “I’ve got to ring the solicitor.”

Liv skipped along the hall and opened the door. There was Dylan looking the same as yesterday.

“Can you come out to play?” he said.

“I’ll just tell my Mum.” Liv ran to the study, “Dylan’s here. We’re going to play in the garden.”

She tugged on her wellies and went to join Dylan outside. It was a bright day and the air felt crisp with breaths of Autumn.

“I’m Liv. Are you called Dylan?”

Dylan nodded then stood scraping at the fallen leaves with his damp shoe.

“What do you want to play?” asked Liv.

“Cowboys and Indians. You be an Indian and I’ll be a Cowboy. I’ll chase you, like this.” He trotted around as if he was riding a horse and held two fingers in the air like a gun.

Liv looked doubtful.

“You do the Indian cry.” He opened his mouth in a large o, moving his hand over it in an ululation.

“No, I don’t want to.” said Liv, “I don’t think that’s a nice game. The Native American Indians were driven off their lands by the settlers. It was horrible and sad.”

“Cops and Robbers then. You be a robber and I’ll be a cop. I’ll chase you, like this.” This time, he pretended to drive a car and held two fingers in the air like a gun.

“Another quite nasty game.” said Liv, “I’m not sure.”

“Can you hold your arms like this so it looks like a bag of swag?” Dylan mimed creeping around holding his loot over his shoulder.

Liv sighed, “I suppose I can.”

The two children chased around the garden, Liv exploring as she went, finding paths through the overgrown lawns, ducking under branches and jumping over old fallen walls. It was an amazing place to play in, left to decay and grow wild. When they grew fed up with chasing about, they kicked up piles of dead leaves gathered near the hedges and pulled moss off the crumbling stonework searching for woodlice.

“Let’s go to the stream.” Dylan said.

“I can’t. I mustn’t leave the garden.” replied Liv.

“It’s in the garden.” Dylan said, “At the bottom, then you cross the stream and you’re in the woods.”

Liv followed Dylan down a winding pathway, partially hidden with ferns turning shades of gold and brown. She could hear the stream before she could see it, a whispering, giggling sound like there were other children playing somewhere in the garden. They sat on the wet bank amongst the dying ferns and bracken, hidden from the view of anyone who might come walking, and watched the water hurry over rocks and stones.

“Sometimes I come here and hide.” Dylan said.

“Why?” asked Liv.

“When they laugh at me at school. When they point at my pumps and say we can’t afford proper shoes.”

“Mum told me it would be different here but I knew it wouldn’t. They laughed at me at my school too.” Liv said, “They didn’t like my trainers or my curly hair. And they called me dirty…because I’m mixed race.”

“Your hair is pretty.” Dylan turned his face away, “Sometimes I paddle across the stream and go into the woods and hide in the trees. When my Dad gets angry, when he shouts at me and my sister tells me to get outta the house before I get a good wallop.”

“Mrs Bevan said he lost his job.”

“My Dad don’t want me.” said Dylan.

“My Dad doesn’t want me either. That’s why we’ve moved here. He wants his skinny, blonde girlfriend and new baby. So, we’re the same, you and me.”

“We can be friends.” Dylan said.

“We are friends.” said Liv.

“Shake on it.” Dylan spat on his palm and held it out.

Liv spat on her palm and they shook.

——

At lunchtime, Liv told Mum about Dylan and what he had said down by the stream.

“That’s really sad, Liv.” Mum said, “I hope he’s all right. Perhaps we should call in and say hello to his family this afternoon when we go to post the documents for the solicitor.”

“Don’t say anything Mum, please. He’s my friend and he told me, not you.” Liv bit at her lip. She didn’t want Dylan to think she was a blabbermouth.

“I won’t Liv, but we need to check. This could be serious and we might not be able to keep this a secret. Okay?”

Liv nodded and picked at her cheese sandwich, dreading the walk to the Post Office.

——

On the way back from posting the letter, Mum stopped at the tiny cottage with the peeling front door at the corner of the lane. Their nearest neighbour. Liv stayed by the rusty iron gate.

“We’ll just say a quick hi,” Mum whispered as she rang the bell.

There were shouts and scuffles behind the door, a baby’s cry then a round, flustered face appeared at a grubby window. The face disappeared and a moment later the door opened.

“Oh hello, I thought you were the milkman come for his money. We’re a bit late paying, see.” said the round-faced woman.

“Hello, we’ve moved in next door and wanted to introduce ourselves. I’m Becca and this is Liv.” Becca smiled broadly.

“Oh, nice to meet you. I’m Sioned. I’d invite you in but you’ve caught me in a bit of a muddle, everything all over the place and the little one a bit agitated as you can hear…” she shrugged as another whining cry came from behind her.

“No, no, we wouldn’t expect that. We just wanted to say hello, and Mrs Bevan told me you’ve been having a hard time lately…with your husband losing his job. Just to let you know I work from home and I’m always around if you need anything.”

“I bet she told you, a right gossip that one!” Sioned snapped.

“No harm meant, sorry. I shouldn’t have mentioned it…only we all have troubles, I’m going through a divorce now, that’s why we moved, so…” Becca said.

“Oh, no…it’s very kind of you to offer. It is a struggle, with four kids, see.”

“It must be difficult. Are your children all okay?”

Liv squeezed her hands tight in the pockets of her coat.

“Well, normally yes. We always put them first, see. Go without ourselves as long as they got what they need. But, oh they have been poorly, little loves, with this stomach bug going through school.”

“Your children are ill? That’s miserable.” Becca said, “What about Dylan? He’s managed to escape it then, has he?”

“Dylan? No! He’s been the worst of the lot. Got it bad, he have. Been in bed for three days. The washing I’ve had…” Sioned shook her head and the baby wailed again, “Look I gotta go sorry, nice of you to come round. When things are calmer, you’ll have to come for a cuppa. Tara!”

She shut the door and Becca gave Liv a bemused look, “There must be another Dylan in the village.”

——

That night, Liv lay awake as a seasonal wind blustered around the house. The large tree outside her window was scratching at the panes with finger-like branches. Mum had drawn the curtains back to show her there was nothing to be scared of but she felt uneasy. She regretted telling about Dylan. After they left Sioned’s house, Mum had asked lots of questions about him, trying to work out where he came from so she could help him if he was in danger. She wanted to know everything he’d said, what he looked like, what he was wearing, whether he wore the same school uniform as the one she’d bought for Liv (he didn’t; Liv’s polo shirt was a pretty royal blue.) Next time he visited, Mum said she would have a word with him. Liv thought herself a bad friend and decided, if Dylan came again, she wouldn’t let Mum know. She sat up, switched on her bedside lamp and reached for her book.

It was difficult to concentrate with the howling of the wind and the scraping of the branches. Liv lost her place on the page many times until she bumped the book back on the table in frustration. As she did so, she heard a tap on the window. It was a different sound to the rasping tree. She sat very still, listening. The tapping sounded again, a series of sharp, urgent raps on the glass. Someone was knocking on her window. Liv went cold. She lay still, uncertain what to do. Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock.

Liv took a deep breath, then slowly, slid out of bed and padded across the chill floorboards on wobbly legs to the curtain. Once there, she froze, heartbeat pulsing. She took another breath and put out a shaky hand to lift the curtain. The branches scratched at the window. The wind roared. There was no one there. Liv turned the latch and opened the window. It pulled out of her hand with a crash and hung broken against the wall. She leaned out, peering into the darkness.

“Can you come out to play?” said a small voice.

“Dylan? Where are you?” Liv called.

“Here.”

Liv strained her eyes and saw his face, white in the rays from her lamp. He was sitting in the crook of a branch a little way from her window.

“What are you doing? In this wind? You’ll fall.”

“I’m a good climber.” Dylan started to shuffle along the branch towards her window.

“Dylan. No. Get down.”

“Can you come out to play?” his voice carried, clear and cold on the wind.

“It’s the middle of the night! My Mum would be angry if she knew you were here and so would yours. Go home to bed Dylan.” Liv tried to pull the window closed but it dangled on damaged hinges.

Dylan shuffled closer; his skin bruised in the shadowy light.

“Go home Dylan!” Liv shouted.

The wind tore at the broken window. Liv held on tight.

“What’s going on?” Mum shouted.

Liv turned and saw her Mum standing, hands on hips. She looked back at the tree. Dylan was gone.

“Whatever were you doing opening your window in this wind?” Mum struggled with the catch, “It won’t close properly. It’s broken. That will have to do for tonight.”

She took Liv’s hands, “What were you doing, love? I’m not cross, it’s all right…”

“I don’t know…I was scared…the tree.” Liv hugged her Mum.

“Well, you’d better come and sleep with me tonight. I’ll ring Mrs Bevan in the morning and explain about the window.”

——

Mum called Mrs Bevan early the next day. While she was on the phone, Dylan knocked on the door. Liv opened it angrily.

“Can you come out to play?” he said.

“Can I come out to play?” Liv spat. “What do you think you were doing coming round like that last night, Dylan? You could have got me in trouble. I broke the window. That’ll cost Mum money. You could have been killed.”

Dylan looked down at his plimsoles.

“I’m not sure I should play with you again.” Liv started to go inside.

“Can you come out to play?” said Dylan.

Liv sighed, “You’re hopeless…just let me tell my Mum I’m going outside.”

——

They sat by the stream. The water sparkled in the sunshine as it tripped over rocks. The air was at rest after the wild night. Liv had suggested they do something quiet after the adventures of the previous evening. She hadn’t told her Mum she was playing with Dylan and didn’t want her to hear them if she came out looking. They searched amongst the ferns for signs of insect life.

Liv pulled at a beautiful orange frond, “Where do you live, Dylan?”

“Here.” he said.

“I know you live in the village, but where?”

“Let’s go in the woods. I’ll show you my favourite tree. I’m a good climber.” said Dylan.

“I don’t think I should. Mum says to stay in the garden.”

“I’ll show you my favourite tree.”

Liv shook her head, “I don’t know…”

——

Becca put the kettle on to boil then searched in the cupboard for the bara brith. Mrs Bevan would want a cup of tea and she liked to have a little something with it. Becca hoped she wouldn’t stay too long. That woman knew how to talk. She’d been very understanding about the window though, offered to pop in on the way to the residential home. Becca didn’t know why Mrs Bevan had to see the damage; she could simply organise a carpenter, but it was her mother’s house after all.

“Hello…Becca?” Mrs Bevan called from the hall, “The front door was ajar so I came in, hope that’s all right? And I have Mam with me. She spent last night with us.”

“That’s fine.” Becca said as Mrs Bevan entered the kitchen with a small, frail old lady hanging onto her arm.

“Thought it might be nice for Mam to see her old home. There we go, Mam.” Mrs Bevan settled her mother on a chair. Then, as an aside to Becca said, “She’s getting a bit forgetful and I didn’t want to leave her in the car on her own.”

“Oh, of course.” Becca said, “Would you like some tea before we go upstairs?”

“Paned, mam? That’ll be lovely.” Mrs Bevan struggled to get her bulk out of her jacket, hung it on the back of a chair then sat next to her mother. “Where’s Liv then? I want her to know it doesn’t matter about the window, cariad.”

“She’s playing in the garden with that boy, you know, the one who came round the other day when you were here.  She thinks I didn’t see them creep off.” Becca put two cups of tea on the table, making sure to use the coasters. “I’ll let you do your own milk and sugar.”

“Thanks. Dylan, is it? From down the road. Here we go Mam, two sugars for you.”

“Well, he is a Dylan but not the one from down the road. To be honest, we don’t know who he is. Do you know any other Dylans in the village?”

“I can’t say I do. It’s not like the old days, see. I used to know everyone here but we’ve had so many incomers.” Mrs Bevan looked sheepish, “Sorry, not to mean anything by it but since they built that housing estate on the edge of the village, it’s not been the same.”

“Dylan? My Dylan is here.” the old lady said.

“No, Mam. The little girl has a friend called Dylan. Your Dylan isn’t here anymore, is he Mam? That was a long time ago.”

“Oh, you knew a Dylan too, did you Mrs Thomas?” Becca smiled at the tiny, wrinkled face peering at her with confusion.

“He was her brother, wasn’t he Mam?” Mrs Bevan patted her hand.

“Ssssh, quiet Dylan.” Mrs Thomas whispered urgently, “Dad’s coming and he’s angry with you. Run, Dylan, run away quickly. Hide. Hide. He’s got his belt.”

“Oh, mam. It’s all right. Dylan’s not here. That was when you were children. Drink your tea Mam, I need to go and see this window with Becca.” Mrs Bevan got up and beckoned Becca to follow.

Outside the kitchen door, she said in an undertone, “She’s getting worse, poor thing. Dementia.”

“I’m sorry.” said Becca.

“Sad story about her brother. Died when they were children. Only nine, he was. Mam doesn’t normally talk about him. Finds it upsetting. They were very close.”

“That’s terrible. How did he die?”

“He fell from a tree. In the woods behind here. There was lots of talk at the time, nasty gossip you know, can’t stand gossip. People in the village said their father was to blame.”

“Really? How awful.”

“Yes, he was known for his drinking and his temper, my grandfather. Some said he chased the poor boy into the woods to give him a beating.” Mrs Bevan sighed, “Terrible the things people say. It nearly destroyed Mam.”

Becca said, “Is your Mum okay, do you think? We better check on her.”

They went back into the kitchen. Mrs Thomas was fumbling with her handbag.

“What are you trying to do now, Mam?”

“My photo…Dylan.” the old lady said.

“Oh yes, in your purse. She has a photo of her and Dylan. Keeps it with her.” Mrs Bevan reached into her mother’s bag, pulled out the purse and retrieved the photo, “Here you are, Mam.”

Mrs Thomas touched the photo tenderly then held it out to Becca, “My Dylan.”

Becca saw a faded black and white picture of two children, about Liv’s age. A girl in pigtails and pinafore, arms locked with a pale boy in a grey shirt, knitted tank top and shorts. They both wore plimsoles.

“Are you all right, Becca? Your hands are shaking, bach.”

“It can’t be…” Becca dropped the photo and dashed out of the kitchen.

“Becca? Wait!” Mrs Bevan shouted.

——

Outside, Becca ran on to the lawn, calling wildly, “Liv! Liv!”

The grass was slick and she slid, twisting her ankle.

“Owww…Liv, Liv!”

She heard children’s voices, laughing and whispering, but when she limped towards them, she realised it was only the stream gurgling over the rocks.

“Liv, where are you?” she shouted. Her heart was beating hard in her chest. Her stomach gripped tight with panic.

Then, she heard the scream. The piercing cry of a terrified child. It was coming from the woods.

“Liv.”

Becca slipped and splashed across the slimy rocks, chill water seeping into her trainers. She hobbled through the undergrowth, frantically searching the trees, trying to locate the screaming. Up ahead, stood a grand old oak, its lower branches almost swept the ground. Liv sat slumped over one of the branches, howling pitifully.

“Liv, Liv, it’s all right, I’m here.” Becca scrambled up the tree, grazing her elbow on the rough bark.

“He fell, Mum. He fell. He’s dead.”

Becca pulled Liv her into her arms in an embrace, “I know.”

They both looked down at the leafy floor but no one lay there.

Dancing alone

Enjoy the days when sleep evades you, when you pace the chilly floor, a restless shadow, soothing the warm bundle in your arms. Make the most of the times when door handles are sticky, feet bruised with plastic brick imprints, a favourite jumper smeared with snot, or goodness knows what. Breathe in that special, belonging to your baby, smell. Take it deep, deep into your lungs. So, you’ll never forget.

Every trip an adventure, every moment a question, the wide-eyed why? why? why? Back breaking bag full of books, crayons, plasters, snacks and sand, always sand. Bucketfuls of shells and stones. Crinkly seaweed, stinky dead crab, bleached bones. Shiny conkers, spiky beech nuts. Bark rubbings and coin rubbings and grave rubbings. Bumps, scrapes, tears, laughter, lots of laughter. Singing in the car, in the bath, in the park. Kitchen band, walloping the pots and pans.

Later, gossip and giggles, worries shared, successes and failures. Falling outs and making ups. Lifts given, endless waiting. Meals spent around the fire, guitar playing, silly prancing. Cello screech, drum machine beat, tap, tapping of a foot keeping time on the ceiling.

The house is quiet now, stillness fills spaces where junk models stood. Silence wiped fingerprints away. Everything tidy, where it should be, in its place. The songs I sing to myself, dancing alone.

Rescued

We have a new puppy; an eight-month-old crossbreed from a local animal sanctuary. He was rescued from a designer puppy farm. The runt of his litter, malnourished and afraid. Thankfully, the farm was shut down. He was lucky to be fostered by a wonderful lady who brought him back to health during lockdown. She did an amazing job teaching him to do his business outside, to travel in a car, to walk on a lead and to sit on command. It means our job is much easier. He is a beautiful boy and settling well. We have named him Pasha which suits his good looks.

I had forgotten what hard work puppies can be; their bursts of boundless energy. He must be kept amused with games and walks. He needs to learn the rules of the household (it is okay to chew the rubber tuggy but not my flip flops). He must be taken out to the garden for regular toilet trips. He needs help to build his trust and confidence in us. His hardships in early life have left their mark and he is nervous around men and new people (though improving everyday). He and I have become very attached. He is my shadow. I am trying to get him used to being without me for short periods so he will not develop separation anxiety. It all takes time and patience. It is much harder at the moment to train your dog to be alone, and to socialize them, as we are home all the time and no one visits much. He sleeps in our bedroom. A thing unheard of in our house but this is what he is used to and change takes time. Slowly, we are moving his bed further away from us. I hope this will work. He wakes me at 5.45am every morning exactly. I am tired but I love him. He has given me plenty to do.

I had forgotten how much fun puppies can be; the silly scrapes they get into. He tears around the garden and paddock so fast that sometimes he cannot stop and goes somersaulting over. He adores puddles and will jump crazily in every one he finds. When he grabs a shoe, he runs with it to the living room and launches himself onto the sofa in such a rush that he flies off the other side. (The jumping on the sofa is another thing he is used to and something I am not sure we will ever be able to stop.) He chases through the long grass alongside Monty, our little terrier, with complete abandon giving me a real sense of joy. He has given Monty, who is twelve and was missing company after our old dog Iolo passed away, something to think about.

I had forgotten how revolting puppies can be; the yucky things they enjoy. He loves going on chicken poo hunts. He found a dead bird in the garden and gobbled it down with pride before I could snatch it from him. He caught and ate the mouse that lives under our potato containers (even the cat had not managed that!) We have suffered the consequences of his undesirable snacking. I am trying to teach him what he may and may not munch on. I need another pair of eyes and hands to keep him out of mischief. He has given my son, feeling rather low from weeks of being isolated, a sense of purpose.

Re-homing Pasha from the animal sanctuary has been an absolute pleasure. He makes us laugh every day and keeps us busy. We have little time for worrying about the future and how our world will be changed now. Like dogs, we live in the moment, making the most of each minute. In fact, you could say Pasha has rescued us.

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 in 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 her 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.