Blood Magic Chapter 6 – the story continues!

Here’s the next instalment of my sporadic serial slightly sinister chick-lit/young adults story – no sex or violence, one sexual swear-word. All previous chapters are also on here, and as ever, your feedback is warmly invited. Enjoy!

Chapter 6: Third Wish

Next morning, I set off on Pinkie feeling warm and sunshiny inside despite the cold grey weather. My bladder had woken me at six and when I emptied and weighed myself, I found I’d lost another three pounds – which made six altogether, over three kilos! – in two days. It scared me until I remembered the same thing can happen to Mum at this time of the month, (it wasn’t any longer for me, I didn’t think, but kept a pad in my pants just in case). Then I treated myself to tea and toast in bed with Madding; and when I heard their alarm go, I thought I might as well treat the folks too. I called, ‘Breakfast in five,’ as I passed to cut off the daily argument; and while they were slurping and munching, I perched on the edge of the bed, took a deep breath, and plunged in.

‘Um- you know how Fi’s still really miz in Montreal-’

Still?’ Dad snorted into his coffee. ‘Good grief! She’s hardly been there five minutes.’

‘Mm,’ agreed Mum through her muesli. ‘Silly girl! She’ll be fine once she’s settled in.’

‘Yeah, you wait and see.’ Dad chuckled. ‘By Christmas she’ll probably have a Canadian accent, a lumberjack shirt, and want to marry Justin Trudeau.’

‘But what if she doesn’t? What if she carries on hating it? She could come home when she’s sixteen, couldn’t she?’

Mum nodded. ‘With parental permission. Which she certainly wouldn’t get if she was my daughter.’

‘Oh, I don’t know. I think I’d let her,’ Dad said slowly, ‘if it was for the sake of her future. I mean, if Fi was sure she wanted a career in Britain, not Canada, it’d probably help if she had British A-Levels to put her on the same playing field as the competition.’

‘Mm… yes, well, I suppose I could live with it for her education. Provided she went to family. I’m sure her gran would be glad of the company.’ Mum narrowed her eyes. ‘Hang on a minute! Did Fi put you up to this,’ she waved her spoon at the tray, ‘trying to soften us up? Because there’s no way she’s moving in here, if that’s what you’re angling for!’

Dad choked on his toast. ‘God, no! I couldn’t be doing with Fi’s dramas every day.’

‘No, no, it’s no big deal, I was up anyway,’ I said quickly. ‘And no, Fi didn’t put me up to anything.’ Which was true; we’d both just assumed that when I asked, the folks would cry, ‘Yes!’ and we’d all live happily ever after (or at least until she influenced her way into some posh waterfront apartment). ‘She just keeps going on and on about being homesick and wanting to come back.’

‘Well, don’t encourage her,’ said Dad. ‘Remember it’s not all about Fi, Eloise. There are three other people to consider, and it sounds like they’re having a great time.’

‘Absolutely,’ said Mum. ‘It’ll do her no favours to wallow. I mean, look at you – you’ve shed your tears, picked yourself up and moved on. Like Fiona should. You’ve both got more important things to be doing than crying over spilt milk.’

Great, I thought happily, cycling along with my trousers tucked into my socks. (Yes. Trousers. That was the next nice surprise of the day. They fitted, without me having to suck my tum in or lie on the bed to zip up or doing that horrible camel-toe thing. But they looked so short I had to rip out the stitches where Mum had turned the hems up, and damp them with a sponge, and flatten them under a pile of books because I couldn’t be bothered to iron, and when I measured myself against the secret pencil marks on the side of the doorframe I’ve made every birthday since I was five, I found I’d grown two centimetres). I’d tried them on without much hope because I thought my legs would freeze on Pinkie in my kilt and was amazed to find they fitted better than when Mum bought them – the waist button had always been tight, but now it wasn’t. I pulled my jumper down and looked at myself sideways. Ugh, what a lump. Squaring my round shoulders, I stretched tall, imagining a giant trying to lift me by my ears, then glanced back at the mirror and was shocked to see what a difference it made. Facing forward, I twisted from side to side, peered over my shoulder trying to see my rear view, paced my very short catwalk a couple of times, and stood face-on again. Yes. The picture really had changed. My jumper hung smoothly from chest to hips and my trousers did hang, no embarrassing cleft, no shiny sausage-skin thighs, as if I’d slightly deflated all over. I sagged in surprise, instantly regained a bulgy waist, and jerked up straight again. Whoa. The Mel was right, she’d been on my case often enough in gym – I really must work on my posture! I practised, stiffly at first, like a soldier, then tried to think tall but loose and relaxed, like a supermodel. Like Raven. Hmm. Better. I wasn’t sure I could keep it up all day, but it made me look so much slimmer I was determined to try.

 The morning was cold enough for my winter coat, the most expensive thing on the GSA uniform list, but ‘Never mind,’ Mum had said, ‘it’s nice and sensible and it’ll last you for years.’ It wasn’t bad, actually, apart from looking like your grandad’s car-coat – plain maroon, waterproof, breathable, zip-on hood, zip-in scab-and-pus tartan fleece lining – and she remarked on how smart they looked together, ‘but those trouser cuffs need pressing, Eloise.’ The pink-and-black tabard rather ruined the effect, and I wasn’t happy about wearing the helmet in case it ruined my hair, which had set in real waves, not just ripples, and seemed brighter, as if more strands were bleaching to blonde. Perhaps Mamalou’s PooBar was doing it. I hadn’t dared comb it, just shook and teased it loose, and while I was sticking a couple of grips in the sides, I’d noticed my spots had cleared up. Totally! Well, apart from a tiny pink pinprick on my – slightly pointier! – chin where the pimple used to be. I tilted my head at the mirror. My face looked longer too, with faint shadowy hints of cheekbone. Whoa. Remembering the tin of cherry lip-balm I save for special occasions, I slicked some on and smiled a small, pink glossy smile at my reflection. Wow. A long way from hot, but definitely warmer – way to go, Ellie!

I was still glowing as I re-traced yesterday’s route, and feeling all clean and peaceful inside, knowing that next time Fi mentioned Our Plan, I could tell her it wasn’t going to happen, blame it on the folks and (fingers crossed) she’d let it drop. Cheerfully, I pedalled down the leafy lane and raced over the Headland to tell Raven about Top Withins; and when she stopped squealing and jumping about, her first question was, ‘Can Maman come?’

Ooh. ‘Yeah, I bet the folks would like that.’ I knew I would.

‘Cool! I won’t say anything yet, then. You can check with them and surprise her at the weekend. Can we go to the Parsonage too?’

We chattered non-stop about it all the way down Townsend Road – yes, she’d read Wuthering Heights, it was her favourite Bronte book, and seen two film versions, and Ralph Fiennes made a better Heathcliff than Laurence Olivier, and she was so busy telling me how hot he was, and I was so busy being tall and trying to copy her swingy, confident walk, that we both jumped when someone stepped out of the bus shelter nearest school and said, ‘Hey, babes,’ and there was Josh Brown with his phone in his hand, grinning at us.

My stomach went BOING but Raven just rolled her eyes. ‘Babes? Seriously?’

‘Foxes, then.’ He grinned wider. My stomach went boing-boing-boing. ‘Hotties. Whatever.’

‘You might try, “Good morning, Eloise and Raven,” my dear, it’s more polite,’ she said in Batty’s voice.

‘Yeah,’ Josh laughed, ‘whatever, I thought I’d give you a thrill and walk you in.’ I expected him to make me gooseberry on the end, but instead he fell into step between us, which I thought was kind. Then he turned to me and frowned, and my stomach twinged. Oh-oh. ‘You look different again today, El. You’ve lost weight.’

‘Jeez, Josh!’ said Raven while I went bright red. ‘Didn’t anyone ever teach you it’s rude to make personal remarks?’

‘Nah. Dad says they’re the only three words women like to hear more than, ‘I love you.’ And your hair’s different,’ he went on to me. ‘Can I touch?’ Without waiting for a reply, (which was just as well, I was too gobsmacked to speak), he gently pulled a wave then let go. ‘Hey, it bounces!’ He did it again. ‘Boing! Cool.’

My stomach boinged too. Part of me was running round in circles, shrieking hysterically. Joshua Brown actually waited to walk us to school! And he’s actually talking to me! And being nice in a crass boy sort of way, and playing with my hair, and- oh my God, I’m going to get killed if Chard sees! ‘Where’s your girlfriend?’ the other part blurted, gazing frantically around.

‘Um.’ Josh stuffed his phone in his pocket. ‘I dunno. We don’t always come in together.’

‘Yo, dude!’ Jake Adams swooped by on his bike with Danny Thomas riding the crossbar, and whacked Josh on the side of the head. ‘What the actual fuck?’ He screeched to a halt a safe distance away. ‘Have you gone totally in-sane?’

‘Yeah, man.’ Danny slid off clutching his phone. ‘You’re losing the plot, big-time.’

‘See?’ I said bitterly as Josh dashed away to whack Jake back. ‘That’s what boys really think – anyone talking to ugly fat Metal-Mouth Morton must be mad.’

You’re mad if you think that. They didn’t mean you, they meant Danny’s phone. Look, they’re all over it.’ Raven nudged my ribs. ‘Besides, Josh fancies you.’

I went even redder. ‘No, he doesn’t.’

‘Yes, he does. He was totally flirting, and it wasn’t with me.’ She giggled and nudged me again. ‘Herself must like you, Ellie. She’s granted your third wish.’

It would’ve been nice to believe, but I didn’t. ‘Don’t be daft,’ I said firmly. ‘He was just mucking about and anyway, he’s going out with Chard.’

But he wasn’t. At least, he wasn’t at lunchtime when she ran crying out of the canteen where we were sharing Raven’s cottage cheese bap and wholemeal scone because it was too chilly to eat on the field, and didn’t show up for registration or afternoon lessons, and by break it was all round the school that he’d dumped her like he told Jake and Danny he was going to, and all the lads were saying he was nuts because Chard was still well fit if not quite as fit as they’d thought, but her BBs were real even if her face hadn’t been. And the mean, nasty part of me was shrieking round in circles again, not that I thought it meant I stood a chance, I was just so happy he wasn’t going out anyone now. Especially not Chardonnay Jenkins.

Before all that drama, everyone was still buzzing over the first Big News of the Day. Raven had brought in a wad of A4 sheets I helped her fold in half and put on everyone’s desk, (except hers, obviously), before registration. The front was in colour, with RAVEN’S 15TH BIRTHDAY FESTIVAL! printed in the middle over the date and place, surrounded by little drawings of guitars and drums and cakes and candles and bows and arrows and shooting stars, and musical notes, and different coloured words like FUN and GAMES and MUSIC and CRAFTS and BBQ and FIREWORKS, and inside was a map and directions on the left and a programme on the right, noon till nine, and the back was a form to fill in with your name(s) and address(es) if you wanted picking up/dropping off, and boxes to tick for things like Special dietary requirements (please specify), to tear off and RSVP to Raven ASAP. Baldy went pink when he found one on his desk too, and let her make an announcement about it being for classmates only from twelve till six, then parents and brothers and sisters were welcome to join in for the barbie and band and fireworks, only please not by car because there wasn’t enough parking, but there’d be a bus laid on for anyone needing transport so the grown-ups could get merry if they wanted- oh, and please to dress for outdoors because that’s where the best bits would happen.

After school, I was under strict instructions to come straight home, alone, because Raven and I would be spending all weekend together and Mum wanted me up to date with my homework and bag packed, ready to roll in the morning. I would roll, too, thanks to Ferne Gardiner; she’d given me Pinkie, (who belonged to her, like Raven’s Tango belonged to Rowan), on permanent loan because she probably wouldn’t need her again, and was glad Raven’s friend was getting some use out of her; which was great because it meant I could just bungee my bag to the rack, drop Pinkie at Arum Cottage, and walk in the rest of the way. She showed me where on Thursday afternoon, a little shed in the back garden knocked together from the outside loo and coal-house, next to the picnic bench and green-and-white stripy umbrella and chairs, all folded and neatly stacked away.

‘What happened to the person who lives here?’ I asked as I unfastened my helmet.

‘Bill Oliver? Oh, it’s awful,’ sighed Raven. ‘He had a stroke on his way to bed – fell downstairs and broke his pelvis and wasn’t found till next morning when Mr Granger came to see why he hadn’t turned in for work. Good job he did, too. Bill would’ve died otherwise.’

I shuddered, half sorry for asking. ‘God. That is awful. Poor guy.’

‘Yes, and it really shouldn’t have happened. Really, Bill should’ve retired last year after his wife died, and gone to live with his sister like she asked him to because she’d just lost her husband as well and they’d be company for each other. But he thought the Grangers couldn’t manage without him, so he stayed and carried on working and- well, I won’t say ha ha karma because it’s not the least bit funny, but now they’re having to manage without him anyway.’

I pedalled slowly away, trying to shake off sad thoughts by imagining myself as a dot moving slowly across an old map, following a line I now knew marked the Headland, not a wall or a ditch. Then when I reached the lane, I started thinking about the weekend again, and Raven’s party, and inviting Mamalou to Top Withins, and got so excited I was practically bursting by the time I’d stabled Pinkie in the breakfast nook, (we had nowhere else to put her), and got my cycling stuff off. I managed to save most of it for dinner though, so I didn’t have to repeat everything for Dad, and just gave Mum the goss about Chard while I snacked on leftover bits from last night, then went straight up to get washed, changed, and stuck into my homework.

Dad grinned when he saw the invitation. ‘Dress Code: Casual. Suits me! I’ll wear jeans and a woolly.’ (We were back to casual, in a line on the couch, watching Star Trek and slurping up spaghetti with leftover sauce from our favourite odd bowls; mine had Winnie-the-Pooh characters dancing round the rim, sole survivor of the mug-plate-and-bowl set I got for my seventh birthday).

I sucked in a strand and grinned back. ‘You’re coming, then?’

‘Oh, yes.’ Mum grinned too. ‘Wouldn’t miss it.’ I’d have bet my Christmas savings she’d say that. Mum’s favourite hobby is Fantasy House, ie what she’d do with Davchrys if she only had the money. Sometimes I played it with her; I actually quite like going round homeware departments looking at paint and curtains and duvet covers and things, especially when my room was next on the list for re-decorating, and she wanted to buy stuff in the January sales I could live with until I left home. I could hardly wait, even though it meant getting rid of all my posters except a couple of favourites, (Ross Topless and Haven’t Decided Yet), to be framed and hung properly, and pinning my other bits on a corkboard because Mum says no way is she having Sellotape or Blu-Tack or drawing pins stuck all over her freshly painted walls. Anyway, Fantasy House makes her just as nosey as me when it comes to poking round other people’s places looking for ideas about décor and kitchens and bathrooms and changing her mind fifty thousand times about whether to go for ultra-modern or traditional or rustic – anything but Seventies retro – so I knew she’d be mad keen to have an excuse to poke round Hidden House for three hours. ‘Shame we can only come for the evening, though,’ she added wistfully. ‘I wouldn’t mind having a go at the crafts… I wonder if Lou will be doing her candle-making?’

I shrugged. ‘Raven wouldn’t tell me. She wouldn’t tell anyone anything, just that it was going to be great, and we’d love it and she hoped everyone could come.’ Obviously, I hoped Josh would, but not Chard because there was always a bad atmos and friends taking sides and rowing or not speaking to each other after BFs and GFs split up, and I didn’t want anything like that spoiling Raven’s party for her. Then again, Hidden House was huge, it’d be a lot easier for Chard and Josh to avoid each other there than it would be in class tomorrow, (assuming she turned up).

‘Well, you can RSVP Lou that we’ll all come,’ said Dad, ‘no special dietary requirements, no transport needed. It’s only, what, a mile or so? We can easily walk.’

‘Mm.’ Mum nodded thoughtfully. ‘We could even stop off for a snifter at the Crown on the way home, make a Saturday night of it for once – because Eloise will be staying at Raven’s, won’t you, love?’

I hesitated. ‘I don’t know. We haven’t talked about it.’ I didn’t want to say she hadn’t asked me.

In the morning I was disappointed but faintly relieved that I hadn’t lost any more weight – well, maybe a few ounces, the needle stopped just below the line – but that wasn’t scary. I was more relieved when I got to Arum Cottage and Raven said she only hadn’t asked me to sleep over because she took it for granted I would, we could stay up and chill with the band when everyone else had gone home, and I could come early and help set up too, if I liked.  

We were running later than yesterday because while we were putting Pinkie away Raven noticed some plants looking dry, so we did a quick bit of watering then had to hurry down Townsend Road to catch the tail of the GSA crocodile, and didn’t see Josh or the girls as we rushed in just before the bell went to find a big pile of RSVPs on Raven’s desk and, surprise surprise, an atmos you could cut with a knife, even though Josh wasn’t there.

It got worse when Baldy came in looking not at all like his usual self in a plain dark blue tie and didn’t crack a joke or even a smile during registration, then told us to get to the hall PDQ for a special assembly. The whole school was whispering and looking sideways at each other as we filed into our usual rows, no stirring music this morning, with the whole staff including the school nurse, caretaker, and head dinner lady standing round the sides looking grim. I felt sick. What on earth was going on? Had something awful happened to Josh? Is that why he wasn’t in- oh, no. Phew. I sighed with relief as he walked through the teachers’ door, followed by Baldy, followed by an ominous CLICK-CLICK-CLICK as the Prince came down the corridor at twice her usual speed and burst in like a whirlwind.

Climbing the stage steps two at a time, she strode to the lectern and glared round at us like a black panther. Everyone was dead silent, petrified; we’d never seen Batty ballistic before.  

‘I imagine some of you know perfectly well why I’ve called this assembly,’ she snarled, looking straight at 10 BT. ‘And all of you should pay very close attention to what I’m about to say because I don’t plan on repeating it.

‘The main reason your parents want you here, the main reason that GSA is such an excellent school, is that we have sensible rules, enforced for sensible reasons. Generally, they’re meant to instil discipline and good habits which will serve you well in your future career, whatever that might be. Specifically, the uniform and make-up rules are because you’re here to learn, not take part in a fashion parade. And the anti-bullying rules- well, let’s have a show of hands, shall we? Who enjoys being ganged up on? Who likes being called horrible names on social media? How about being harassed by abusive texts, or seeing conversations between classmates about getting older friends to kick your head in? Come on,’ she glared round again, ‘let’s see those hands! Not a single one? No, of course not. Nobody – nobody – likes being bullied. Hence our zero-tolerance policy – I absolutely will not allow any student to intimidate or otherwise interfere with another’s well-being and education, on or off the premises, on any grounds or by any means whatsoever – as is clearly stated in the rulebook you all should have read, and on the agreement you and your responsible adult signed when you enrolled.

‘Yet we’re only on Day 4 – Day 4! – and I’ve already had to deal with two complaints from angry parents and two cases of blatant rule-breaking,’ my stomach boinged and I went bright red, ‘the latest and most serious being a nasty outbreak of cyber-bullying initiated yesterday by a small group against an individual.’ Phew! The hot tide receded. Nothing to do with my pants, then.

‘Luckily, this was noticed and reported to me last night, and I’ve just had a most instructive breakfast meeting with the parent and student concerned.’ She pulled an Android from the black depths of her gown and held it up accusingly. ‘The five who began this – you know who you are – will hand your phones to your class teachers after this assembly, and thereafter into my office immediately on your arrival until the end of September to guarantee no repetition of this behaviour during school hours. I shall also contact your parents to ensure that every offensive post pertaining to this incident is deleted from your personal social media, as it will be deleted from GSA sites, and warn them that any further infringement, even so much as a dirty-looks campaign, will result in your permanent exclusion – if not a report to the police, should anyone be foolish enough to make threats of death or bodily harm to a fellow student again, even in so-called jest.’

Oh, my God… this really was serious. My eyes darted round as much of our two rows as I could see without craning my neck and being obvious. In front on Raven’s left, Chard’s deskie Kirsty Jameson and her bestie Suze Harlow were sitting like marble statues with Chard in between, looking down, her maroon-and-yellow fringe hiding her face. Aha.

‘Meanwhile you’ll each receive five conduct de-merits,’ (gulp – seven got you suspended and ten got you expelled), ‘and the considerably larger number who, I’m sorry to say, weighed in with insults and ingenious suggestions for injury,’ the Prince went on as other people started shuffling and squirming and nudging, ‘will receive one apiece and, I trust, remove any and all reference to the matter.

‘The only – the only – redeeming feature of this whole sorry affair is that several of the student’s classmates had the wisdom and maturity to try and stop the unpleasantness escalating by reminding the rest of our motto.’ She pointed with the phone to the gilded GSA crest above the stage, Success Through Good Conduct & Endeavour, and gave the tiniest nod in my direction.

I knew I hadn’t, I’d been avoiding my phone in case of Fi and only switched it back on last night to get Raven’s ‘home safe’ text and send a thumbs-up back. Wondering if she’d logged on before bed and waded in, I hissed in her ear, ‘Was it you?’

‘Uh-uh,’ she hissed back. ‘I don’t do social media.’

‘These students – again, you know who you are,’ Batty’s face hinted at a smile, ‘will each receive a gold conduct merit and a note of commendation to your parents.’

I felt the warm squish of Bree on my other side quiver, and glanced round to see she and Kat had clasped hands and gone bright red, like the neck and ears of the lad in front of them. I wasn’t surprised about Bree, whose family tease her about her weight because they think it’ll help her lose some, so she knows how horrible it feels and never says a bad word about anybody, or Kat, who’s very Christian as well as naturally nice, and goes to the same church as Deefor but doesn’t bang on about religion all the time like some Goddy people; but I was surprised that the glowing neck and ears, I could practically feel the heat from here, were attached to Jake Adams. Jake Adams! I never thought- oh well, good for him.

‘I’ll end by reminding all of you – all of you! – to live by our motto,’ the Prince jabbed the phone upwards again, ‘at all times, especially those of you due to leave us next summer. Remember, what you put into the public domain isn’t just seen by your friends. It can be seen by university selection boards, prospective employers, anyone – so show yourself to the world as aggressive and rude and you can kiss goodbye to your prospects in certain careers. I shall therefore advise everyone’s responsible adult to install tighter parental controls and monitor your online activities very carefully – as the parent of the student targeted here does, fortunately.’ She waved Josh’s phone at us. ‘Remember also that the whole staff is watching closely now, and we’ll come down on you like a ton of bricks if anything of the sort happens again.

‘Now, you five ringleaders hand your phones to your teachers, then all of you, straight back to your homerooms. And remember – this is your first and final warning.’

With a brief nod, she whirled out, giving Josh’s phone to Baldy as she passed. Everyone else started filing out in age order from the Year 13s at the back, but I muttered to Raven, ‘Hang on.’ Pretending to re-tie my shoelace, I watched Chard’s mates in 10 RK, Shaz Judd and Laney Parker, give their phones to Ms Khan, looking pretty sick. Then, quelle surprise, Chard, Kirsty and Suze gave theirs to Baldy, who’d just discreetly slipped Josh’s back.

When we got outside the corridor was unusually quiet, everyone whispering and tiptoeing so as not to disturb Batty and bring her storming down on us again.

‘I’m glad I missed this,’ I hissed. ‘I’d have been too upset to sleep if I’d seen people bullying Josh.’

‘Surely a gold star’s worth a sleepless night,’ she hissed back. ‘Because you’d have said the same as Bree and Kat and Jake,’ (so she’d noticed), ‘wouldn’t you?’

‘Um.’ I thought about it. ‘Well, yeah. I suppose.’

‘I don’t suppose. I know.’ Smiling, Raven squeezed my arm. ‘Because you’re a good person, Ellie.’

I beamed back at her, full metal, a huge happy rose blooming from my tum, spreading pink petals over my cheeks, making me feel about ten centimetres taller and ten kilos lighter. Floating into our homeroom, I tossed my waves like a shampoo advert and headed for my desk – then collapsed weak-kneed on the chair as I suddenly realised what all these warm, squidgy feelings I had inside meant. They meant that I’d fallen in love.

RIP Michael David ‘Mick’ Doggett, 30th March 1944 – 3rd January 2023

For the benefit of family and friends of my late father-in-law unable to attend the service, here’s the eulogy I delivered for him today:

Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining us to celebrate the life of Michael David Doggett, or Mick as he was generally known outside the family to whom he was a beloved husband, Dad, Grandad or Great-grandad Mick-Mick. I’m his daughter-in-law Helen, and it’s my privilege to welcome you all, especially if you’ve travelled some distance to be here – like Mick’s younger son Tony, daughter-in-law Sarah and granddaughter Ellie, and Barbara and Elaine – or if you’re watching the webcast like our nephew Adam, Tony’s eldest, serving with the RAF overseas, and cousins Joe and Margaret Doggett in Canada, and Terry and Pauline Harris in Spain.

It’s a great honour to speak today on Mick’s behalf, and I hope the music we’ve just heard has got you in a suitably sorrowful mood. It was chosen by Michael, my husband, as the saddest, most beautiful piece he knows, because his sister Paula recalls their father once saying that he didn’t want there to be a dry eye in the house at his funeral. So get your hankies out and have a good blub, knowing that Mick would be duly gratified by an outpouring of grief – although given his sense of humour, I’m sure he’d like you to shed a few tears of laughter as well.

I find it painfully ironic that I’ve come to appreciate my father-in-law’s extraordinary character and qualities better in death than in life, because despite having known one another since Boxing Day 2004, it wasn’t on a close personal level. In all those 18 years we probably never spent more than an hour or so talking alone together; we were usually in a foursome with Carol and Michael, or part of a larger gathering with other family and friends – which speaks volumes about the nature of the relationship many of us enjoyed with Mick. A devoted husband and family man, he was also a gregarious spirit who loved socialising, dining out, drinking and dancing, a joker and storyteller, life and soul of the party; good fun, good company and a good conversationalist with wide-ranging interests from angling and allotmenteering to history, reading, travel and sport.

Mick’s determination to live and enjoy life to the full may stem from a boyhood fear that it wouldn’t last long. Born at home on Pyncheon Street in Wakefield on 30th March 1944, Mick spent much of his childhood being cared for by his Granny Doggett while his father Elias and mother Jenny were at work; then in 1953, the nine-year-old Mick and his parents came to live on Cubley Avenue, one of the first families to move onto the new Kettlethorpe estate, which in those days was still very rural. Raised as a Roman Catholic, Mick attended St Austin’s Catholic School, where he loathed the strict, sour-faced nuns. Schoolmates remember him as a quiet boy, which is hardly surprising – when he was 12, Mick was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a rare cancer of the lymphatic system with a poor prognosis. So while his death at the age of 78 seems almost premature by modern standards, it’s actually 60-odd years overdue according to his doctors in 1956, who told him he would probably die before his eighteenth birthday, and that if he survived until his 21st, ‘it would be a miracle.’

Mick suffered the crude radiation therapy of the day, which affected the development of his neck and made his voice quiet and husky; he was also taken on a pilgrimage to Lourdes to take the waters, which his mother firmly believed was responsible for his cure. Either way, with characteristic Doggett stubbornness, Mick refused to die; and not only that, he saved the life of another. This also happened when he was 12, and seeing a little girl fall into Kettlethorpe Lake, like the true Boy Scout he was, Mick jumped in without a thought for his own safety and pulled her to the side, then went home and never said a word to his parents because he was scared of being told off for wetting his clothes – so the first Li and Jenny knew about it was when items appeared in the local press about the modest schoolboy hero who saved three-year-old Barbara Hughes from drowning. Mick’s brave and selfless act earned him a special prize from his school, a gold-nibbed fountain pen and pencil set presented by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Leeds, and means that Barbara can be here today, with her sister Elaine, to join us in saying goodbye.

Growing up under the threat of early death, it’s no wonder that Mick wanted to make the most of life while he could. Like many working class lads of the time, he left school at 15, glad to escape the hated nuns and begin adult life. His first industrial apprenticeship was so badly paid that he soon quit to earn better wages as a labourer in the building trade, working on various sites including Kettlethorpe High School and the Barnsley Road railway bridge.

One of the alarming breed now dubbed ‘teenagers’, Mick loved the energy and excitement of rock n’ roll music, and the fashions that came with it. Predictably, given his inborn dislike of authority and being told what to do, Mick became a Teddy Boy, helped by his thick dark hair that formed naturally into a quiff ending in a Bill Haley kiss-curl, which must have made him an object of envy among his mates. Always a leader of the pack, he cut a distinctive figure in his sharp grey or dark green Italian suits with trademark coloured silk linings, or long jackets and tight black drainpipes with zips at the ankles, worn with winklepickers. As well as teaching the other lads how to dress, he taught them how to dance to his favourite sounds including the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly and Fats Domino; but unlike the more riotous Teds, Mick was no theatre-wrecking tearaway. He wanted good jobs, not jail; to be his own man, financially independent and in control of his own destiny. So after working hard, Mick played hard too, dating girls or boozing and bopping with his mates round Wakefield, until one night in 1961 changed the course of his life forever – an apt point to stop for a real tear-jerker chosen for this occasion by Mick himself, possibly because it sums up his attitude to life:

Music: When I was 17, Frank Sinatra – 4 min 26

The good thing that happened to 17-year-old Mick on that fateful night was his first meeting with the beautiful, blue-eyed blonde Carol Harris at the local youth club. Carol was only 15 and too young to date, but she must have made an impression because when they bumped into each other a year later at the Mecca ballroom, he asked her out. They enjoyed going dancing at the Embassy or Mecca, or to the pictures; and that Christmas, Mick escorted a thrilled and impressed Carol to her first grown-up house-party in Eastmoor, and presented her with a glossy black face-powder compact inlaid with a marcasite stud – the first Christmas present he’d ever bought for a girl, which made his mother jealous as she guessed it meant the relationship was serious.

Carol’s parents Eric and Ivy were none too pleased to meet their daughter’s boyfriend, because when Mick turned up on the doorstep, they recognised him as the youth they’d last seen stumbling out of the Kettlethorpe Hotel worse for wear; and were initially unhappy about the relationship because of their understandable fear that if it went on in the usual way, Carol would be left a young widow. But Mick’s obvious devotion and mature attitude soon won them over, especially when he began handing Ivy a portion of his wages to save for their wedding, and working such long hours that one evening at his future in-laws, he fell asleep eating dinner!

Being deeply in love, the couple had decided to go for it together come what may, and under the circumstances, felt they had no time to lose.

Their whirlwind courtship was followed by the first marriage to take place in the new St George’s Chapel on Hendal Lane, on Saturday 19th October 1963, between the 19-year-old groom and his bride of 17. It raised some predictable eyebrows, much to mum-in-law Ivy’s annoyance, but this was no shotgun wedding although Mick loved children and was keen to experience fatherhood. A son, named Michael after his dad, duly appeared two months after their second wedding anniversary in 1965, followed by a baby brother, Anthony, and sister Paula, born roughly eighteen months apart. Mick was still having regular tests for Hodgkins until after Paula’s birth, by which time he’d already bucked the odds by surviving into his mid-twenties; and subsequently given the all-clear, remained living proof for another five decades that miracles can happen.

Mick’s priority was always to provide well for his wife and children, with holidays, and a car, and piles of gifts at Christmas – and he succeeded through sheer physical graft in a series of labouring jobs which made him barrel-chested and enormously strong for his size. He and Carol moved several times in their first five years of marriage to accommodate their growing family, until in 1971, the Harrises moved to 37 Hendal Lane, vacating their 3-bedroom semi at 47 Woodmoor Road to become the Doggetts’ home for the next 36 years. Outwardly jovial and confident, constant pressure to follow the money chewed Mick up inside and gave him painful gastric ulcers. A household of two adults and three growing children – not to mention Sukey the cat, Floyd the dog, and sundry other pets – was expensive to maintain, and money was always tight. A lasting result was that Mick, a frustrated farmer and always a keen fisherman and sea angler, passed on his knowledge and love of harvesting nature’s bounty by taking his children – and later grandchildren – out gathering wild fruits and nuts, and teaching his sons to fish and shoot small game, not for sport but to put food on the table. Britani recalls that as a child, she loved going chestnut picking with her grandad, and wearing his big leather gloves because her hands got so cold; while Michael inherited Mick’s passion for nature to such an extent that he chose gardening as a career, and chose the following poem to express his love for the father who always encouraged and inspired him:

The Countryman by Treeautumn25

Your eyes are closed with death’s dark veil,
Our tears are shed to no avail,
Your journey ends, your race is run,
No more the rain, no more the sun.

The fields and garden miss your touch,
The old cock pheasant you loved so much,
Birds lament your passing in their song,
They’ll miss a friend they knew so long.

The spring will see the snowdrops cry,
They’ll look around and wonder why,
Why the hands that helped them grow,
Are not still here to see their show.

Those of us left here to cope,
Will see these things as signs of hope,
In each of these we’ll see your face,
A sign of love, of hope and grace,

For the time has come to say farewell,
To one I loved but could not tell,
I’ll look for you in sun and cloud,
In rain and stars and thunder loud.

The world is poorer without your smile,
Your simple truth, your country style,
The country lad who came to be,
The countryman with spirit free.

Despite their tight budget, the young parents had enough energy to enjoy their children, and Mick threw himself into fatherhood as he did into everything else, reading stories, playing games, building snowmen, and taking his family on great seaside holidays. One year, given the choice between a holiday or a car, the children opted for wheels, so Mick bought a gold Vauxhall Viva 1100, which drove them many happy miles (although they all had to get out and walk while he drove to the top of steep hills). One of Michael’s vivid boyhood memories is heading to one of their favourite East Coast destinations past Towton, where his father would always tell of the terrible battle which made the river run red with blood – sowing the seed of an interest which eventually led him to join Towton Battlefield Society, where I met him in 2004. And in due course Mick became an equally devoted grandfather to Britani, Grace, Adam and Ellie; among Britani’s earliest memories are walks with her grandad around Newmillerdam and Sandal Castle, and riding on his back as he climbed up the steep motte.

Family finances improved in the mid-70s, when the children were all at school, Carol had a job at the nearby children’s home, and Mick began working in the power stations where he would remain until retirement. The environment was brutally hot and polluted, the labour hard and dangerous, and he was often away for entire summers, but the fat pay packets – three or four times an average labourer’s wage – were incentive enough to tough it out. Not to mention the crack with his mates, all hard men doing hard jobs they enlivened with outrageous practical jokes, like the time Graham put a mackerel in Claudy’s car heater box, and Claudy’s revenge of peeing in Graham’s bottle of electric pre-shave. There was also the notorious Blue Balls Incident when Mick spilt a tin of paint down himself at work, and by the time he got home it had soaked through his overalls and underwear and baked on, turning everything – I mean everything – underneath blue. Carol couldn’t stop laughing as she took the scissors to his private bristles, and Mick got cross in case her hand shook and she did him a mischief.

Better wages meant better holidays, and for some twenty years during his winter slack season, Mick and Carol indulged their mutual love of travel with month-long trips to Goa, where they were often joined for a fortnight by other family members or friends. Then when Mick took his well-deserved retirement aged 63, they set about their bucket list with cruises, European city breaks, and trips to countries like Egypt and Tunisia, where they always enjoyed seeing the sights and sampling local cuisine. At home, missing the routine of work, at 65 Mick took on an allotment garden, winning the prize for best newcomer in his first year, and for two consecutive years, third runner-up for best garden, achievements of which he was quietly and justly proud.

Sadly, age brought infirmity, putting a stop to holidays abroad and fishing trips with Michael, although we still enjoyed many memorable day trips or weekends in places like Pickering and Whitby, or their favourite Scarborough, where Mick and Carol went regularly right up until his last summer. Over the past couple of years, Mick’s increasingly dreadful memory and episodes of confusion must have been symptoms of the Alzheimer’s Disease only formally diagnosed a few months ago, which with typical stubborn pride he had fought and denied, and struggled to go on as normal – admirable traits, albeit ones which made him difficult to help. Despite his whole family falling ill with streaming colds or covid, which Carol caught straight after having pneumonia, he still managed to laugh in December – Britani will treasure her last memory of ‘taking him to the hospital to visit nan, and he put a carrier bag on his head when we got back in the car. It was like having the old grandad back who was silly and funny all the time, not grandad with Alzheimer’s.’ Mick also enjoyed his last family Christmas at Paula and Phil’s, with Gracey and David and Brit, watching his adored great-granddaughters Lilah and Ember play with their new toys. Disappointingly, we were too full of cold to do more than pop round with gifts and say a socially-distant ‘Merry Christmas’, though it cheered me to hear that Mick liked the soft navy scarf I’d knitted him, and which will go with him on his final journey since he only had chance to wear it that one time.

None of us realised that Mick had caught covid too until he lapsed into semi-consciousness one evening after a long and agitated day. Consequently, none of us got chance to say goodbye, or to express the love for a dying father James Blunt sings of so poignantly in this tear-jerker, chosen by Paula for her dad:

Music: Monsters, by James Blunt, 4 min 26

At first it seemed that the crisis had passed, and that Mick was recovering when he was in fact fading gently, with no severe symptoms or wish for a doctor, much less an ambulance, to be called. So in that sense, he had the kind of death we might all wish for: at home with a beloved spouse, without pain or fear; and though his sudden loss is shocking and sad, there’s comfort in knowing that Mick’s pains and confusion are over, and this hard-working, salt-of-the-earth Yorkshireman can now rest in peace – 60 years later than his boyhood doctors predicted, and having seen three generations of his family come into the world, to his great pride and joy.

Heartfelt tributes poured in on Facebook when the news broke, including this from Michael which says it all:

In memory and thanks for my wonderful Dad AKA Micky Doggitt to all his friends and workmates, whose last year and especially last few months had our hearts breaking as we watched his dad and grandad superpowers dwindle and fade and finally come to a sad end. His influence on me and my life has been immeasurable. I watched him graft at work which helped me to become a working man. He taught me not to worry about difficult jobs but to just sit and work it out carefully; taught me to love books, and never discouraged me in any new thing that I wanted to do, no matter how strange. I hope his sense of fun and humour has rubbed off as well as his love of family and loyalty towards friends. My love of nature and the outdoors comes from him taking me fishing at a very early age. If I’ve turned out to be half the man that he was, I count myself lucky.

Now the time has come to let Mick go, this strong, proud, plain-speaking man who wouldn’t suffer fools, but if he liked you, would be your friend forever; a man who loved and lived life to the full, and will be sorely missed by his family and friends – many of whom are here today, and I hope will come along to Sandal Rugby Club afterwards to raise a glass or three and eat some of his favourite snacks. We’re going to see Mick off with a song picked by Carol, which held special meaning for them both because it was played over and over at that long-ago Christmas party in Eastmoor; but before we hear it, I’ll close with this moving verse chosen by his granddaughter Gracey because it expresses her – and our – feelings so well:

He Only Takes the Best by Annica Sharma

God saw you getting tired and a cure was not to be,

So He put His arms around you, and whispered, ‘Come to Me.’

With tearful eyes we watched you, and saw you pass away,

Although we loved you dearly, we could not make you stay.

A golden heart stopped beating, hardworking hands at rest,

God broke our hearts to prove to us He only takes the best.

Goodbye, Dad.

Music: She Was Only 16, Sam Cooke

A Catless Christmas: Loving Memories of Henry Wowler, August ? 2011 – December 31st 2021

Unlike his fictional counterpart, (featured on here in my Dickens spoof, ‘Henry Wowler and the Cat of Christmas Past’), our great and sadly late Henry Wowler didn’t like Christmas. At all. Well, apart from the turkey and more chance to go Up in the loft where we keep the decorations – that much of the story is true. Henry loved this dark, magical, usually inaccessible kingdom so much he’d prowl under the hatch, gazing up round-eyed, wowling for me to let the ladder down – which I usually did, because the sight of him solemnly ascending always amused the heck out of me, (or shocked me on the occasions he impatiently leapt past my face before I’d unfurled the last rungs).

Henry’s distaste for the festive season became apparent in our first Christmas together, which happened about six weeks after Hubcap captured him, cold, hungry and lost, in the woods behind our house. I expected a four-month-old kitten to have huge fun playing with wrapping paper and ribbons, batting baubles about, and being made a fuss of. Instead, he went into a massive, prolonged snit about the mess, disruption, and distraction of his Ooman slaves, vanished when visitors appeared, (he was extremely anti-social, and as a youngster disliked being petted, even by me), and otherwise spent many hours like Achilles, sulking in his tent, (a bubble-wrap tepee draped over his scratching-post).

That huge sheet of bubble-wrap came round a picture given to us by the great and also sadly late author, Towton Battlefield Society benefactor and all-round great guy George Peter Algar. It was the only thing young Henry liked about his first Christmas and he liked it in a big way, riding it like a toboggan while I whirled him round the living room, or chasing and pouncing on it while I trailed it about, until he’d literally loved it to shreds. Tell a lie: he also adored the bag of unshelled walnuts given by friends David and Lynne Lanchester; he’d fish them out of the fruit-bowl to play carpet- or lino-hockey in the living room and kitchen, we were finding ‘Henry’s nuts’ under pieces of furniture or painfully under stockinged feet for months to come.

One advantage of this indifference was that at least our trimmings were safe – unlike my last tomcat, Lister, (below), Henry was never much into mountaineering even when he was young and light enough, and in maturity, being huge and weighing almost a stone, he chose to remain largely grounded; whereas Lister’s first act when his original cat-parents, our friends Geoff and the late Penny, released him from his travel basket into my living room aged seven weeks, was to hurtle up an angle of wall like a black fuzzy spider and cling squeaking under the coving until my very tall then-boyfriend reached up and plucked him off – I can still hear the Velcro sound of his tiny claws ripping out of the blown-vinyl wallpaper. It was a harbinger of things to come – he’d scale anything and everything from clothes-horses to trees, including vertical surfaces like the wooden back door so he could hang by his foreclaws and yowl through the glass for admittance, or the cement washing-line post in brave but futile attempts to catch perching sparrows.

Consequently, Christmas trees were out of the question while I had Lister and his adorable half-sister Ash, (below), who was less of a climber but very much a tinsel-puller and bauble-basher; unfortunately, being terminally afflicted with chronic cat-flu, she was also prone to sneeze lurid snot over things, which could make her attendance on gift-wrap proceedings unwelcome.

Alas, like my childhood chums Lulu, Tiggy and Smokey, (all lost within c. 5 years to dog attack, accident and kidney disease respectively, whereupon Mum said, ‘No more’), neither lived with me for long. Lister morphed from a cuddly catolescent into an obnoxious 2-year-old who absconded for increasing periods – he must’ve had a second home somewhere – only returning briefly to demand food until the day he cleared off for good; and Ash, a valiant tiny runt born with all sorts of health problems, who was never likely to make old bones and had to be euthanised a year later when she stopped responding to her ‘flu medication. Consequently, in the intervening catless decades, during which I met Hubcap and moved from Doncaster to Wakefield, I enjoyed being able to have Christmas trees again, and it was nice to continue the tradition secure in the knowledge that Henry Wowler wouldn’t try to climb them, pull the ornaments off, or poo in the pot. (He would however raid boxes and steal catnip mice intended as gifts for himself or my mad-cat-lady cousin’s two ginger boys).

Otherwise, in most respects Henry never knew, or cared, that it was Christmas except for the brief abundance of meaty treats and the presents he always got from us and at least one friend; catnip toys and Uncle Steve’s giant Dreamies assortment were always well received, though he lost all interest in other toys apart from plastic bags and the odd slinky string as soon as he mastered the art of catching and killing real prey. The picture below shows him with the Aldi carrier and light-pull cord he fell in love with during his last few months which I still haven’t the heart to throw away, and probably never will; our surly grump became oddly gentle in later years, and during one of our last play sessions with them, actually sheathed his claws before hitting my hand for the first time ever – he normally played with ferocious abandon and drew blood on many occasions – making Baggie and String precious, poignant relics to me now.

Another odd consideration Henry developed and maintained to the end manifested during the accursed firework season, when he got special dispensation to stay in his safety box under the bed at night; random explosions often continued into the small hours, and knowing how they terrified the poor little chap, we hadn’t the heart to evict him. Most cats, on emergence, would jump aboard their sleeping cat-parents, treadle around, and if that didn’t wake them, sit on their chests and bat their noses. (Lister and Ash certainly did, unless I shut them downstairs). Not Henry Wowler. He’d have a wash, murmur, ‘Mrrp?’ in a very small voice, and if he received no response, go off and do cat stuff for a while, then return and repeat the process until I finally stirred and, depending on the hour, either served supper, shut him downstairs and went back to bed, or served breakfast, made coffee, and stayed up to start my day with him. (I learned this from Hubcap, who never budged because he knew Henry’s murmurs meant, ‘Mummy-cat? Mummy-cat?’). Despite this, when he finally decided to retire after second breakfast, treats, several excursions outdoors and much fondling and fuss in between, Hen never baulked at jumping on Hubcap’s feet and trampling his hamstrings en route to his own bed, (a dog-bed, on account of his size), instead of walking round to jump on my vacant side – or stomping around complaining on the odd occasion I forgot to put it below my pillow on arising, until poor Hubcap rolled over and hauled it into place.

As well as the posh gourmet cat-food I always treated him to, Hen received some large, lavish gifts over the years. By his second Christmas, he’d grown too big and heavy for his first cat-carrier-cum-bed, so his cat-parents-in-law bought him the splendid beehive basket he regularly slept and always travelled in for the rest of his life – here’s me in my new Christmas 2012 onesie, introducing him to it (he wasn’t sure at first).:

He also wasn’t sure about the stupidly-expensive but gorgeous, hand-made-by-Nepalese- community-collective cat-cave I bought him three years ago, subsequently dubbed ‘Henry’s TellyTubby’ – but when he got used to it, it became a favourite sleeping-spot, especially in winter when we put it next to the glowing stove:

Thus nine Catmases came and went, pleasantly and quietly, with most of our socialising done away from home or with Henry hiding in his safety box – even from said mad-cat-lady cousin, who adores ginger boys above all other cats and longed to pick up and cuddle the Wow, (she’d have needed a crane), but he was having none of it and to her great dismay, would ooze into hiding the moment she entered the room. The main event going on in the background from around 2018 was the 4-chapter children’s story he inspired, ‘Henry Wowler & the Mirror-Cat’, illustrated by our great friend Janet Flynn, which finally made it into print in December 2021, just in time for me to put gift copies into friends and family stockings. Henry wasn’t as excited about it as me, but I think he looks quite proud in the picture below, among the last few I took of him alive. So preparing for our tenth, and unbeknown to us at the time, our last Christmas together was hectic but thoroughly enjoyable, and I was looking forward to getting stuck into a sequel, ‘Henry Wowler & the Mirror-Cats’, in 2022 when sudden disaster struck on New Year’s Eve in the form of a fatal blood-clot.

Devastated by shock and grief, I poured my heart out on our Facebook pages (Helen Cox and Henry Wowler), my website, an obituary on here, and in an article for the summer edition of the Cats Protection magazine. The loss of my feline Muse, boon writing companion, (and frequent demanding distraction), derailed me completely; I could hardly bear to think about marketing and launching his book without his warm, furry, purry presence, much less about writing a sequel. Luckily, my previous experience as a funeral celebrant enabled me to give Henry a better send-off than many humans receive, (below you see him lying in state on New Year’s Day, shortly before we interred him beside the patio), which was a great comfort, as was the catharsis of giving my sorrow loud vent in tears and words.

Much as I’d loved all his predecessors, Hen’s loss was perhaps the most painful because we’d known each other roughly five times as long as I had any of the others, and our bond had grown correspondingly close; I was always his primary carer, often in his company practically 24/7, the bountiful source of treats, entertainment and the grooming and fuss he acquired a taste for in his hedonistic adulthood; as long as he had Mummy-cat, all was right with his world and pretty much every other Ooman, even Hubcap, could go hang. I felt very honoured that Henry chose me as his particular friend, and chose to live with us as self-appointed Pest Control Officer though he was free to come and go, like a lodger with his own key, and move out altogether if he felt so inclined. (He never did). I found it hysterically funny that away from home, our cat led an independent life of violent drama, small-creature murder and scraps with the neighbours, as safe as he could be from cars and cruel people because it mostly took place at night, with his days spent in bed, looking out of windows, guarding his cat-flap, or pottering round in the garden. When he was at home, which was most of the time, his presence whether sleeping or waking altered the dynamic of the house as much as a third human’s energy; we talked to and about him daily, and organised ourselves around meeting his needs as we would with a child. In return, he was a delightful companion to me: cuddly, amusing, chatty in his fashion, always pleased to see me, never gave a stuff what I looked like, and didn’t hold grudges when we occasionally fell out, (though he’d swear viciously at the time, I’d never heard a cat use such foul language to me before, or known one turn to hiss a rude word over his shoulder in passing).

So yes, the magnitude of Henry’s absence was stunning, exactly as if a human lodger had suddenly died in the midst of New Year’s Eve family lunch preparations. This only makes sense to anyone who knows that by living with people, other species become so much more than mere animal, in every sense a member of the household. They develop and express their individuality, master new skills, learn our languages, verbal and unspoken, and communicate back with their own; like infants or aliens abroad, they learn the basics – the names we bestow, hello, yes/no – and to communicate their simple demands for food or attention PDQ, as we’ve discovered over the past 15 months with our sheep. It all adds up to a great loss which needs and deserves to be grieved; but thank God, once the first ghastly shock had abated and the first days of howling agony passed, it dawned on me that in essence, Henry would always be with me. The characters we created together, Henry Wowler Gingerson (probably), his twin MC, and all the rest, had only just been born and were still very much alive in fiction; so my best possible tribute to this very special cat would be to make him famous, to tell and sell his stories for other Oomans to enjoy, and to raise funds for feline charities in the process. The picture below is one of Janet’s lovely drawings for Chapter 2, in which mirror-cats live very much like Oomans and Henry Wowler finds he has to wear Ooman clothes…

So please do pass this on to any cat-lovers you know: 100% of sales on site go to support Janet’s local sanctuary, Syros Cats, and I’ll be donating a tithe of profits from copies sold elsewhere to Cats Protection UK. You should still be able to get it in time for Christmas, on special offer at £4.99 from YPD Books, or from Amazon UK; and if you’re local to Wakefield, you can buy it directly from Darling Reads independent bookshop on Horbury High Street, or email me on and you can collect a signed first edition for a fiver, or I’ll pop it through your door.

Of course, Henry also lives on in a very real sense, sleeping eternal a few metres away from the couch where he spent so many hours sleeping on me, and transformed into myriad forms – notably the beautiful yellow and red Tiger Eye rose still blooming in December, its roots no doubt well-nourished by cat-juice, and a new orange wallflower – and come spring he’ll be a riot of spring bulbs again, with a newly-planted purple crocus border.

In a final loving tribute and perhaps the finest compliment I can pay him, the doors of our new kitchen and back porch have flaps installed ready for his successor. Future Cat will, I hope, come from a local rescue centre called (wait for it!) Henry’s Haven, as soon as building works are complete; and though it’ll never replace Henry, it will fill the cat-shaped hole he’s left in our lives. Yes, after a decade of happy encatment and one year of sad catlessness, I know which state I prefer… and although I’ll miss and mourn my darling Wow forever, I feel ready and able now to love another needy puss in his stead.

Yes: Happy Heavenly Christmas, Henry Wowler! Ours won’t be the same without you… but thanks for giving us ten years of joyous memories, despite being such a ginger Grinch.

Blood Magic Chapter 5 – the story continues!

Here’s the next instalment of my young adults/chick-lit/creepy/humorous school story (the preceding chapters are all on here too) – couple of implied sexual swear-words and one actual F, but all good clean fun apart from that. Enjoy – and let me know what you think!

Chapter 5: Day 2

‘Is it OK if we swing by home first?’ Raven asked as we headed out of EngLang, our last lesson. ‘I want to drop my bags off, I don’t fancy lugging them all the way to your place.’

‘Yeah, no problem.’ I’d have agreed to anything, I was still buzzing because Day 2 had been magic – well, apart from Games, but even that worked out OK in the end. For me, anyway.

It started so unbelievably I’d re-lived the moment all day, sucking it like some delicious sweet. By the time we reached the church, Raven and I had got mixed up with a big loose gang who’d bussed in from the new estate or walked from Townsend Road, where Dad said house prices had gone through the roof on account of people wanting to live near GSA for their kids; and at the turn-off for the school gates, we ran into another big loose gang coming the opposite way, from the old new estate. My stomach gave a huge BOING as we came face-to-face with Joshua Brown, draped all over Chardonnay Jenkins. She gave us her usual, ‘Ha ha, look what I’ve got,’ smirk, but it dropped off when Josh pulled up short, nearly jerking her off her feet, and a big grin spread over his face.

‘Hi, Raven! So, you come in this way as well? Cool.’ He gave her a cheeky wink. ‘I’ll look out for you.’ Then he looked at me. Oddly, like he’d never seen me before. He blinked. The grin faded for a second. Then it came back again, full beam, crinkling his eyes. My stomach went boing-boing-boing. ‘Hey, El!’ he said. ‘Wicked hair.’

I thought of icebergs, dams, floodgates, anything to cool the red tide and stop it at my cheeks. ‘Thanks, Josh.’ Glowing prettily, (I hoped), I tossed my wiggles and smiled at him nicely, no metal. Then – I still can’t believe it – I managed to say, ‘See you in class, then,’ and walk away, leaving them standing. It’s probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done, and you should’ve seen Chard’s face – I only wish I’d had my camera out.

Next we caught up with Libby and Caro, dawdling over a phone. They admired my hair as well, although Lib looked a bit sick because she’s always been third prettiest after Fi (now Raven) and Caro, and maybe I was catching up in that way too. We dawdled on to assembly together, passing round Fi’s latest pictures on Caro’s monster screen: ice-hockey players on the school practice rink, Jamie snowboarding down the school artificial ski-slope, Fi ice-skating, Fi and Jamie with the gorgeous dark-haired boy and girl, up to their necks in a hot-tub, and I could see why she hadn’t texted, and felt even better about all the good new stuff happening for me.

That carried on in assembly, when the Prince gave her usual Day 2 announcements about after-school activities, and trials for sports teams and DebateSoc, and music and drama auditions. Raven whispered that she was going to try for Baldy’s Drama Group – I was pleased, it’s the only thing I ever join – but she couldn’t decide between Orchestra and Choir, (which I’d quite like if I dared and could sing), because the orchestra usually accompanies the choir and you can’t be in two places at once.

Then in class, Baldy handed Raven a form to sign and a fresh timetable to fill in and told her to copy from mine, and swapped her blue, cherry, and pink files for a brown and two greens, with wads of course bumf she’d missed yesterday. And suddenly we were doing the same options – just like me and Fi, for want of a better idea.

‘Mum emailed Dr B as soon as we got home last night,’ Raven explained on the way to Double Geog. ‘And she rang Mum straight away, and it turns out this is the only other combination that works with the timetable apart from Art, Music, and Something Else not science or maths. You don’t mind, do you?’

My stomach boinged unhappily then sank into my shoes. ‘Um- no, no, it’s cool. But, um, I suppose you’ll want Hidden House for your project now, won’t you? I mean, it’s your home, your history.’

Raven giggled. ‘Not on Mum’s side. No, I’m going to do the Desmoulins in the French Revolution and American wars. There’s a great family archive – Aunt Genie’s even got a portrait of Captain Jean-Claude painted in 17-whenever. The movie people took a publicity shot of Joey posing next to it in his replica uniform – it’s amazing, they practically look like clones. I’ll find a copy and show you.’ She grinned. ‘Shame his acting skills didn’t match up.’

My stomach boinged happily back to its usual place and stayed there through Geog, which was on glaciers and interesting enough to make me forget about Games. But when the break bell rang, it sank again and by the time we got to the quad I felt too sick to eat my banana (100 calories saved, whoop-de-do).  

‘Whoa! You’re keen,’ said Raven as I hustled her off to the Sports Block a minute early, blazer over my arm, unbuttoning my collar and cuffs as we went, with Kat Samson and Bree Patrick puffing along behind.

I wasn’t really. Our term choices, (hockey or football one week, gym or indoor court sports the next), were no choice for me – I hated them all. But I said, ‘Um- yeah, I like to get my favourite peg in the changing room, it’s handy for the loos.’ Which was true – but it was also tucked away behind the other racks in the corner furthest from the door, where people were least likely to see, (apart from Bree and Kat, and I don’t mind sharing with them). I headed straight for it unzipping my sports bag, hung up my blazer – a poor curtain, but better than nothing – dumped my bag on the bench as a shield, turned my back, whipped both tops off together, then whipped on my white polo shirt.

Phew! Flab decently veiled, I slowed down, added my maroon hoodie tracksuit top pulled well down over my bum, and had just dropped my tights and kilt when an icy hand squeezed my stomach. Oh my God! I hadn’t changed my pink flowery period pants for regulation maroon sports pants! Flopping onto the bench, I dragged my bag across my lap before anyone noticed and rummaged through desperately. No pants anywhere. Oh my God. No optional shorts, either – I hardly ever wear them because they ride up my bum when I run and make it look wobbly-huge, and I stopped hunting as I saw them, still neatly folded in my bottom drawer next to my forgotten pants, spare polo shirt, white tennis skirt, and the swimsuit I hardly ever wear either, for obvious reasons.

Calling myself every rude name I could think of, I wriggled into my stretchy gym skirt, stood and hitched it up quick, then put my trackie bottoms underneath; it looked a bit silly, but so does everyone else who prefers skirts to shorts, and at least I’d be allowed to keep them on for the first half while we warmed up and practised bully-off and passing and dribbling and shooting goals. As for the second half… well, if I was careful, I might just get away without my first-ever uniform de-merit. Glumly, I pulled on the hideous scab-and-pus stripy socks, stuffed in my shin pads, and laced up my hockey boots. Meanwhile Raven had stripped to the buff, rubbed a deodorant bar under her arms, and re-dressed in brand-new uniform sports undies, shirt, and shorts which (of course) looked great on her, as did the tracksuit. Then she followed me to the racks and chose a battered old school hockey stick; I was surprised, I thought she’d have her own from when she played at her posh schools.

Raven must’ve noticed because she leant close and muttered, ‘Mine’s some high-tech pro thing Dad paid a mint for, I was too embarrassed to bring it given how crap I am at hockey.’ She giggled. ‘You’ll soon see. I bet I’m worse than you.’

We were about the same, actually. Raven could run a lot faster, but I could dribble and pass better, (she kept missing the ball), so Ms ‘Mellie’ Mellors put us both on the duds’ side, (I mean B Team), for Period 2 – along with Chard who hated mud, and running because her chest practically hit her in the face even in a sports bra, and messing up her hair and the make-up she shouldn’t have been wearing, and Lib who’s been phobic about balls since Year 8 when a high one chipped her front tooth, plus half a dozen other more or less hopeless cases. On regular days, Mellie tries to split the good players fairly to make it a more even match, but the first session was always so she could watch last year’s school team members in action together and make sure they were still up to it after the long break – which meant she always put them all on A Team, which meant B Team always got totally destroyed.

I wore my trackie bottoms till the last possible second, (we were allowed to keep the tops on for matches, so those of us with bouncy chests always did in case of watching boys), then thanking God it wasn’t windy, I pulled my skirt down as far as it would go without falling off, pulled my top down over it, and jogged carefully into my normal position. Right Back. Yeah, that suited me – right at the back, trying to look keen but staying well away from the action, and counting the seconds till full-time.

Raven got Fi’s old place, Right Wing, and ran about looking impressive but not achieving much while I hovered round the goal, occasionally lumbering out to try and stop a ball as it hurtled towards Bree, (our widest team-mate, and a half-decent goalie), keeping my back to the Mel, and hoping no-one could see up my skirt. Luckily, no-one did, and I felt quite giddy when second half started even though we were losing 0-8. Not long now! I gazed at the Sports Block, planning to dash for my bottoms the moment the whistle blew, try and jog all the way back to be first in-

‘Raven!’ someone yelled. I jumped, whipped my head back to the game, and saw the ball pelting down the right wing with Raven pelting after, overtaking it, making a wild swing – and missing.

‘Yours, Ellie!’ she screamed, as it rolled on fast in my direction. ‘Stop it!’

I stuck my stick out, clipped the ball, deflected it into the circle, and chased it as fast as I could while the A Team attackers raced forward. Then I caught up, and thwack! I hit the best ball of my life, a lovely clean stroke which whizzed past the horrified goalie and thumped into the corner of the net.

Goal!’ I shrieked, jumping up and down waving my stick over my head with both hands. It was my first ever in a match. The team shrieked too, cheering and applauding. The A Team, that is. The B team stood frozen, staring at me, the goalie’s mouth hanging open. Bree’s mouth. Our goalie. A boiling red wave rushed to my hairline – I’d scored an own goal – and as I abruptly stopped jumping, my overstretched skirt dropped to my ankles.

PHEEEEP! Mellie’s whistle cut through the laughter. Like half the teams, she’d seen my rosy full moon as I bent over to yank it back up, and sternly pointed me off the pitch. Now I was in trouble (as if things weren’t bad enough). But when I explained about paddy-pants she looked interested and said what a good idea, you should sew press-studs in some sport pants for this time of the month.

Even better, she patted my shoulder and told me not to dwell on the goal. ‘It can happen to any player in the heat of the moment – and otherwise, it was a perfect shot,’ she said kindly. ‘Yes, I’ve been watching you today, Eloise, and it was good to see you engaging instead of hiding at the back doing nothing. With a bit more focus and practice and a lot more self-confidence, you could play well enough to really enjoy it.’   

Best of all, Mellie said that under the circumstances she hadn’t the heart to give my pants a de-merit, pretended her pen wouldn’t work to make the black mark in her book, then sent me off with a wink to get cleaned up. Knowing I’d have the changing room to myself for ages, I had a proper shower for once, reliving my goal over and over – whacking that ball into the net had felt amazing, even though it was the stupidest mistake I’d ever made in hockey as well as my best-ever shot. Then I relived my skirt falling down, which was the absolute worst, most embarrassing moment of my entire life, (worse than getting stuck in a coin-slot loo on Cleethorpes prom when I was eight because I couldn’t work the lock and having to bang on the door and yell for Mum) – but as I soaped my hips and tum there seemed to be less of them… maybe three pounds less. Less to hold my skirt up. Oh, my God! It suddenly felt almost worth it, and I suddenly felt a lot better.

Afterwards, wrapped in a towel, I sang Passenger to myself as I rinsed my pad under the cold tap, wrung it out  and wrapped it in my sports bra to go in the wash, dried my sweat-chilled pants under the hand-drier, popped in a fresh pad from the period bag I had remembered to bring, and dabbed on some of the Clarity I’d remembered to put in it. So I was dry, dressed, hydrated, banana’d, (my appetite was back), kit packed, and finger-combing my hair in front of the mirror by the loos, (Raven had re-plaited it for me at break, like Fi used to, and it had stayed quite wiggly), when she burst in, rushed over, and gave me a warm damp hug.

‘Are you OK, Ellie? What happened? What did the Mel say – was it bad? I was so worried when you were sent off.’

‘No, she was really nice about it, I think she felt sorry for me. And I’m fine, actually, because-’ I broke off as Bree and Kat puffed in, dragging off their hoodies, closely followed by Libby and Caro. Oh, God. My face went redder than theirs, but before I could apologise Bree beat me to it, (she was always apologising for herself, as if she felt ashamed of taking too much space up).

‘Oh, Ellie, I’m so sorry I didn’t save that ball for you! I feel awful about it. But I didn’t expect you to hit it my way.’

‘Don’t you feel bad, though,’ said Kat. I liked Kat, who wanted to be a nurse but looked more like a farmer’s wife with her big mop of blonde curls, dreamy blue eyes, round pink cheeks, and lovely clear skin as if she worked out in the fresh air all day. She was mid-way between me and Bree size-wise, but not self-conscious because she was so beautiful, like Rosie Cotton in the Lord of the Rings films, and had a gorgeous, curvy, dimpled shape you just wanted to grab hold of and cuddle. (Lots of boys try, but Kat says she’s saving herself for True Love, preferably with a sexy, rich surgeon). And she’s thoughtful – always stands between us and the rest in the showers, then holds up a massive bath sheet for us to get dressed behind without being too obvious about it. ‘We never stood a chance, and they’d have trashed us a lot worse than 14-1 if Bree hadn’t saved so many.’ She giggled. ‘And if I hadn’t scored the one.’

Then a hailstorm of studs rattled down the corridor and they hurried off to shower as a loud, chattering stream began pouring in, clattering sticks onto the rack, and pulling off tops as they came.

‘Oh, look – it’s Ellie Own-Goal!’ Chard Jenkins planted herself in front of me, hands on hips, smirking nastily. ‘Why are you still here, Rosy Cheeks?’ She sniggered. ‘Yeah, that’s what we should call you from now on. Isn’t it, girls?’

I smiled sweetly back. I’d much rather show a hockey team my knickers than look as silly as she did this morning, and I was just about to tell her so when Raven stepped between us.

‘No, it isn’t.’  In her bra and pants, still pumped from running, she looked like Wonder Woman about to punch Chard through the wall. ‘And anyone who does will be sorry.’

‘Oh yeah?’ Chard turned on her. ‘Says who?’

‘Says the GSA anti-bullying policy.’ Raven smiled, not at all sweetly. ‘I can quote it for you if you like.’

Ooh. Squish. Then Libby chimed in. ‘Yeah, leave it out, Chard. Unless you want us to start calling you BB,’ (it stood for some combination of Big-Bouncy-Booby-Babe, depending on who you asked), ‘like Josh’s mates do.’

Chard went beetroot. We weren’t meant to know that. But now everyone in 10 BT or 10 RK, (the class we did Games with to make up the teams), knew if they hadn’t already, because they’d all stopped to stare in breathless silence waiting for someone to get hit, (and probably hoping it’d be Chard because she was so up herself, especially since she’d been going out with Josh).

For a horrible moment I thought Caro was going to do it, she looked so cross. Chard took a step back. No-one in their right mind would want to fight Caro. She’s the tallest in class, big with it – not fat, just muscly and fit because she’s seriously sporty – and has amazing dark red cropped hair that looks hennaed but isn’t, and never wears make-up, and always wears shorts for Games, and moans about her flat chest but secretly loves it because she doesn’t bounce even without a bra and thinks it’s hilarious being mistaken for her younger brother. So she makes a terrifying centre-forward on the GSA Team, and she’s well handy with the hockey stick she was still holding.

It was great to have my mates sticking up for me, but I didn’t want Caro or anyone else losing her temper and getting suspended. Images flashed though my head, Prince Hal inspiring his troops, sassy Bathsheba, Raven trilling like Batty, ‘Fake it till you make it, my dear,’ and next thing I knew I was climbing onto the nearest bench and going into full Public Speaking Mode and not caring how red I went.

‘No, call me Rosy Cheeks if you like, I think it’s pretty funny. And yeah, big deal, I forgot to change into my school pants because these are so comfy.’ I pulled my kilt up, stuck my bum out and flashed them. There were laughs and whistles from 10 RK, but 10 BT mainly boggled because this was so unlike me. ‘They’ve got press-studs and washable pads in, and Raven’s mum gave me them because I’m Having My Period.’ It felt great saying that because I knew half the room hadn’t started yet because we talked about who had and who hadn’t all the time, and it was like being in a young women’s club everyone wanted to join despite the pain and mess, and those who were in it felt smug and grown up, and those who weren’t felt left out and jealous. ‘And I’m really, really sorry I didn’t score my goal for B Team – but that was pretty funny too, wasn’t it?’

‘Yeah, but don’t apologise,’ said Caro. ‘It was a wicked shot, El. Great angle and power. Hit a few more like that and you’ll soon be on the team.’ She poked me gently with her stick. ‘As long as you learn to get ‘em in the right net.’

This time everybody laughed, but it was nice because they were laughing with me, not at me, and Raven whispered, ‘Well played!’ when I got down and I knew she wasn’t talking about hockey, and Chard punched my arm in a jokey way as if things were fine, no hard feelings.

‘You off home to change your fancy pants now, then?’ she asked casually.

‘Um- no. I’ve not been told to.’ I could’ve done, I had plenty of time. And I should’ve done really, I knew I was breaking the rules. And I certainly wished I had later, given how things turned out. But it was sort of with Mellie’s permission and besides, I didn’t want to miss lunch with Raven, so I just shrugged. ‘It’s not like they show.’ That was a dig, because one day in April which started out snowy and freezing turned sunny and boiling by lunchtime, so Chard took her jumper off in the canteen and everybody could see her bright purple lacy half-cup Wonderbra through her shirt, and a disgusted dinner lady reported her to the Prince, who hit Chard with a uniform de-merit and sent her home to change into a decent plain white one.

Anyway, we went off for lunch in the same place as yesterday, and Raven shared her huge wholemeal bap stuffed with egg mayonnaise and salad, and I shared my nectarines, then because I’d just had a big banana and about ten litres of water I was so full I could only watch while she ate apple rings and half a giant oatmeal-raisin cookie, (and saved the other half for me in case I got hungry by afternoon break).

Meanwhile, because I’d made Chard hate me even more than she had this morning, she went off and rang her mum, and Mrs Jenkins rang Batty to complain that it wasn’t fair letting me stay at school in the wrong pants when her daughter got sent home with a stiff note for an underwear infraction, and Batty told Mrs J that staff were allowed to exercise discretion in such matters but she’d get to the bottom of it (so to speak), and she had a word with the Mel, who explained about my paddy-pants and said they were perfectly respectable and looked almost uniform colour from a distance if anyone saw, which they wouldn’t when I had my kilt on, and Batty said good call, what a lot of silly fuss over nothing. Then she had words with Chard for trying to undermine a teacher and get a classmate in trouble at a sensitive time and coming to school in make-up (again) and stood over her in the staff loos while she cleaned every scrap off and told Chard if she ever wore it again, she’d be suspended. We found all that out at break from Lib, who’d been texting her mum under the desk since Chard missed afternoon registration, (Mrs Lyons is a teaching assistant and besties with Batty’s secretary, who’d watched the whole thing on the office security video), then came in half-way through French all pale and spotty and red piggy-eyed from crying and no mascara. It was a massive shock to everyone, (especially Josh, I was watching his face), because we never realised how much make-up she used, it was so well put on. I guess she learned from her big sister Portia, (I always thought she was called after the cars until we did Merchant of Venice in Lit), who was doing Hair & Beauty at college and used to practice on her.

‘I never thought my knickers could cause so much trouble,’ I said to Raven as we walked up Townsend Road sharing the half-cookie we hadn’t eaten at break because we were too busy huddled round Lib’s phone. ‘Poor Chard… I didn’t even get told off but look what happened to her! I feel really crap about it.’

‘That’s because you’re a nice person. You shouldn’t, though. You only made a mistake, she was deliberately nasty. First she tried to bully you and when that didn’t work, she grassed you and Ms Mellors up to the Prince – and all the time she’s breaking rules herself! So ha ha karma. Maybe she’ll learn something from it.’

(She did. At least, Portia did, she must’ve worked on her all night because Chard came in next day with her shoulder length blonde hair cut into an amazing asymmetrical bob, shaved up the back, with a long fringe that flopped over one eye and hid half her face, and strands dyed GSA maroon at the roots and bright yellow at the tips, and her thin eyebrows dyed dark blonde, and her stubby eyelashes dyed black, and peachy lip salve – allowed – and her skin squeaky clean apart from spot concealer – also allowed – full of how her mum was going to buy her a course of sunbed or a spray-tan to put some colour back in her face when she’d decided which she wanted. It was like giving Batty the finger because there were no colour rules about hair, only that it had to be tidy and tied back for practical subjects, and Chard’s face looked totally different, more like the rest of us but still made up in ways that wouldn’t wash off. I quite admired her for it, it seemed like something Bathsheba Everdene might do, but when I told Mum she tutted and said bending rules was a poor lesson to learn, and Mrs Jenkins should be ashamed of herself for encouraging it).

‘Mm. I suppose,’ I said. ‘Whatever, I can’t wait to tell Fi.’ And to show her the photo of Chard I sneaked on the way from French to German. They’d looked very alike, you see, except that Fi was smaller all round and had natural dark eyebrows and long thick lashes, and never wore make-up for school, and used to be class hottie before Chard’s chest and had been jealous about it ever since, so it’d be nice to have some news that might actually cheer her up.

That thought got me buzzing again: about French, where the Joob had been pleased with my Rs; and German, which was fun because Raven only spoke it about as well as we did, although her accent was perfect and she knew lots of rude words which she kept whispering when Frau Bulow wasn’t looking, trying to make me laugh; then EngLang with Baldy (hurrah!) after break, which was about adjectives, and we had to edit a passage where everything was ‘very’ or ‘really’, and chop them out if we thought there were too many and change the rest into something more original and apt. Danny Thomas whispered too loudly to Craig Sellars that they should change them all to ‘effing,’ except he said the full word and Baldy heard and told him that Germanic euphemisms for sexual intercourse were all very well in their place but his classroom wasn’t one of them, so please keep it clean, everyone.

Talking and giggling over that kept us busy till Idenowes Terrace and I was just about to head up the lane when Raven caught my arm.

‘No,’ she said, ‘wait here, I won’t be a sec.’ She went down the path at the side of No. 1 and disappeared into the back garden. I thought she must be checking the plants, so while I waited I had a little nosey and spotted a name-plate, Arum Cottage, and that the lovely old tiles in the porch had a pattern of white arum lilies (I only knew because Mum had one in a pot in the MHOF with a care label stuck in it, so the name was in my face whenever I went to the loo). Then Raven reappeared, minus her school bags, wearing a bright orange cycle helmet and a matching tabard over her blazer, and wheeling a pushbike with each hand. ‘I asked Mum to leave these for us to save time. You can ride one, can’t you?’

‘Um- yes,’ I said, although I hadn’t since we went to Centre Parcs for my twelfth birthday. She thrust one at me – pink, with chunky tyres like a trail bike and quite a few gears, but also a white wire basket over the front wheel with a bright pink-and-black helmet and tabard in it, and a metal rack covered in bungees over the back wheel for carrying stuff. ‘But I haven’t for ages… and I’m a bit scared of the traffic, to be honest.’ It wasn’t exactly honest. I was petrified.

‘Oh, don’t worry. I Googled the route, we don’t have to ride on main roads. Here, give us your bags.’ Raven propped her bike – exactly like mine, only orange – against the wall and bungeed my sports bag to her rack and my school bag to mine while I fumbled into the helmet and tabard. Then we waited for a gap between cars big enough for us to dash across the road and wheeled the bikes up onto the track where I’d seen the woman walking her baby and dog.

‘This is the Headland – it’s been here forever, it’s marked on the maps.’ Raven swung into her saddle and wobbled off over the ruts. I wobbled after, frightened of falling at first, but soon got my balance as the track flattened out and we speeded up and I dared to look around. We were riding between two open, brown, stubbly ploughed fields with a pooey smell and loads of birds pecking up and down, and no sound except the bikes rattling and me panting because a chilly breeze was blowing the traffic sounds away as well as making it hard going, so I was glad when we reached the top of the field and turned right into a lane sheltered by tall hedges on both sides.

‘Phew!’ I gasped. ‘I think I know where this comes out. I passed it this morning.’ Sure enough, a few minutes later the fields ended in another tall hedge and a footpath with gates opening into big back gardens with trees in, and we crunched through the tunnel of overhanging branches, (it wasn’t muddy after all, just thick with fallen leaves), and then we were out on the pavement exactly where I’d expected, with cars whizzing by on the main road.

Raven pointed across to a street I’d passed a million times. ‘If we go down there, we can sort of zigzag back through to the Trees. Do you know that way?’

I shook my head, feeling vaguely ashamed because it was only round the corner from home, but I’d never bothered exploring. At least by then I was feeling confident enough to follow her twenty metres along a cycle lane I’d never noticed before because I never cycled, then nip right through a gap in the traffic onto the side-street, then through a maze of passages and alleys and little streets I never knew existed, until we popped out near our corner. Cool! I’d try going to school that way tomorrow, it’d be better than the noisy stinky main road.

I took Raven round the back, propped the bikes on the shed with our helmets and tabards in the baskets, and opened the door to call, ‘Hi, Mum, we’re home!’ Instead, I gasped, ‘Wow!’ as a fantastic smell hit my face and I saw her, looking flushed in her yellow-and-white check cookery apron (the one I sweated and stabbed my fingers over in Year 6 Art & Craft, not the topless dancer in fishnets and tassels Dad bought her for Christmas last year). ‘Have you been baking?’

Mum’s Look said, ‘Act normal,’ as she pecked me on the cheek. ‘Mwah! Hello, darling. Yes, just a little snack to tide you over. And hello, Raven! Lovely to see you again.’

Raven was gawping; she hadn’t seen the kitchen last night. ‘Hi, Mrs Morton! Gosh, what fabulous tiles… Maman would love them.’

Then we said, ‘Ooh!’ together as we spotted the yellow drop-leaf table set with a tall glass of cheese straws, a dish with carrot, celery, and cucumber sticks arranged round a blob of creamy-brown dip, a plate of red and yellow baby tomatoes and cubes of cheese on cocktail sticks, and a jug of something that looked suspiciously like Mamalou’s flat lemonade, down to the ice and sliced lemon.

‘Thanks, Mum. This looks great,’ I said, while my eyes said, ‘What the heck?!’ and Raven took a cheese cube and said, ‘Mm! This tastes just like Grange Farm cheddar.’

Mum smiled. ‘It is. After everything Eloise told us last night about your lovely home, Raven, I couldn’t resist looking it up on Google Earth. And that jogged my memory about seeing a farm shop sign on Townsend Road, so I decided to nip round after work and check it out. My goodness, what a gem! I didn’t expect it to be so well stocked – and those free recipe cards are a marvellous idea. Mrs G’s Cheesy Straws sounded so yummy I couldn’t resist getting some of her Cheddar and having a go.’ She dipped one in the brown blob and bit off the end. ‘Mm-mm. I’m glad I couldn’t resist her sweet chili hummus, either.’

I did the same. Still warm, flaky, toasty cheese smelling… oh, my God. I crammed the rest in, grabbed another, and took bites between cherry tomatoes and cucumber sticks. Then I glugged a big glass of Mrs G’s Organic Lemon Cordial and was about to have a third Cheesy Straw when I remembered about losing three pounds, and let Mum and Raven demolish the rest while I munched celery and carrots and tried not to hog too much hummus.

‘Right then, you two,’ she said when we’d finished, ‘shoo! Go get on with your homework while I get on with dinner. It’ll be ready at six, make sure you are.’

We took a cup of Woman each – mine with honey and a drop of clary sage, Raven’s as-it-comes – up to my room and changed into the comfy slobs we’d worn last night. (Mamalou had packed Raven’s in the bike-basket for her). Then we sat cross-legged on the bed, facing each other, with my homework sheets in between, (hers were still in her bag, which she’d left at the cottage), just like Fi and I used to.

‘Tell you what,’ she said, ‘you start with français and I’ll start with Deutsch, then we can check each other’s answers.’

That seemed like a good idea, so we did, and it was nice to point out Raven’s mistakes for a change because she’d only learned German by talking to Germans, which meant she knew what sounded right but didn’t know the grammar, didn’t always recognise written words, and her spelling was pants. Then we made a start on Baldy’s exercise, two A4 sides (average 10 words per line, normal margins, no giant spaces) on What I Did This Summer, with ‘creative yet appropriate adjectives – ie no slang, no hyperbole, and positively no reallys or verys, or I’ll be extremely irate.’

‘Ugh,’ I said. ‘Here’s what I did. Cried with Fi about Canada. Helped her pack. Cried some more. Went to her leaving party. Cried myself to sleep. Waved her off next day. Cried myself nearly sick. Texted her. Moped around. Ate myself stupid. Cried with Fi on Facetime. Cried on my own afterwards. Oh, and went to Temple Newsam with the folks for a day, then cried again when we got home. How am I supposed to fill two sides with that?’

‘Add an enormous number of bitterlys and woefullys and miserablys,’ giggled Raven. ‘Better still, leave out the crying parts and go on about the party… what you wore for it, what it was like, who was there blah blah.’

I groaned. ‘I don’t want to write about that. I don’t even want to think about it.’

‘Just do Temple Newsam, then. The goddies took me there once when I was little – I mostly remember walking forever up a long path past masses of red and pink flowers to this huge house that killed my feet, so they had to piggy-back me most of the way round.’

Aha! I opened the souvenir drawer in my bedside cabinet, took out the guidebook lying on top because it was the last place we’d been, and showed her a picture of the Rhododendron Walk. I wished we could’ve seen it in full bloom, but the flowers had all gone by August. ‘You mean this?’

‘Oh, wow! Yes!’ She grabbed the book and began leafing through. ‘Yes, yes, I remember now… amazing place, isn’t it? We should go there in spring, I’d love to see those flowers again.’

‘Yeah, me too – and yeah, I will do the whole thing on Temple Newsam.’ I cheered up instantly. ‘Good idea, bestie.’

Raven grinned. ‘Think yourself lucky. We didn’t go anywhere or do anything except move up here and work round the place, which was fun in its way and kept me plenty busy, but it’s going to sound very – oops, I mean deeply – dull to anyone else.’

We both thought for a minute, then began on The Plan Baldy made us hand in with our homework to prove we’d tackled it properly. First, we brainstormed, jotting down themes and thinking up appropriately creative adjectives to go with them. Then while we were numbering and arranging our themes into paragraphs in ‘a coherent narrative order with a beginning, middle, and end,’ I heard Mum come upstairs to change for dinner and knew without looking that it was twenty to six, which meant Dad would be back any time.

Sure enough, a few minutes later we both heard the front door slam and a phoney American voice shout, ‘Hi, honey, I’m home.’

Raven giggled. ‘My dad said that sometimes. Is it from an old movie or something?’

‘I dunno.’ I only knew Dad would kick his shoes off, dump his briefcase in the hall, and thunder straight upstairs because he can’t stand wearing a suit and tie a second longer than he has to. I didn’t know he’d stop dead in their doorway and say loudly to Mum,

‘Whoa! What’s going-mph.’ She must’ve shut him up with a kiss and dragged him inside, because the door clicked quietly shut and the wall began murmuring, too low to make out the words, but I guessed she was warning him we had company and to be on his best behaviour. Then I heard Dad go for his usual what-passes-for-a-shower in the MHOF, (kneeling in the bath with the pink rubber hose and the taps turned on as hard as they’ll go without popping the nozzles off, ie not very), and Mum go back downstairs.

‘We might as well pack up,’ I said to Raven. ‘Dinner’s nearly ready, and afterwards we’re allowed not to do homework. Unless you really want to,’ I added, hoping she wouldn’t.

‘Fine by me. May I borrow a page holder? I’ll give it back tomorrow.’

‘Sure.’ I passed her one off my desk and piled my stuff onto it while Raven wrote a few last lines, slid her Plan into the plastic sleeve, and tucked it into the bag with her uniform. ‘There! Ready when you are- oh, except I need to wash my hands.’

‘Yeah, me too. But we’ll have to wait until Dad’s done, unless you want to use the kitchen-’ I broke off as I heard the bathroom door open, (the spray’s so pathetic, if you don’t hurry you freeze), bare feet thud along the landing, and their bedroom door close. ‘OK, come on.’

We took turns having a pee and washing our hands and giggling over the tiles which Raven thought were interestingly horrible, and that the loo seat was so funky she actually knelt down for a closer look. Then as we were heading for the kitchen, where Fi and I usually ate so we could chatter while the folks ate off trays in the living room so they could watch the news in peace, Mum bustled out carrying two steaming plates and looking unusually pretty in her old-but-smart brown leggings and a greeny-brown tweedy tunic I didn’t recognise, instead of old saggy leggings and Dad’s sweater that shrank in the wash.

Before I could blurt anything, she widened her eyes and nodded sideways. I body-swerved into the living room and goldfished for a split-second. The dining table was out, set with Mum’s ‘special occasions’ dinner service, (the matching stuff, not our usual odd plates and bowls), and her best crystal vase full of flowers from our garden in the middle, and a bowl of baby leaf salad, and a glass dish of parmesan cheese, and a basket of bread rolls, and the posh salt and pepper grinders, and wedding-present wineglasses, and a jug of iced water, and real napkins instead of the squares of kitchen roll we normally use. The vintage orange lava lamp, (another wedding present I’d love to have in my room if they’d let me), was blooping away in the fake fireplace, and there were two tall, honey-coloured candles in crystal candlesticks glowing on the table, and a big fat one that smelt of Clarity in a saucer on the bar next to Dad, who was wearing cords and a decent jumper instead of the manky old tracksuit he usually slops round in, propped on one elbow shovelling hummus in with a Cheesy Straw.

I nearly burst out crying. I couldn’t believe Mum had gone to so much trouble – or spent so much on luxuries like candles and wine and new tops. Not that we’re exactly poor; it’s just that she always said when she had a baby she wanted to mother it full-time until it started school, then I happened unexpectedly and she had to give up a well-paid job as PA to a big local businessman much sooner than they’d planned, and by the time she was ready to go back to work IT had changed so much she couldn’t compete with people half her age and cheaper to employ, so all three of us had to live on Dad’s salary and commission, (which often wasn’t much because he’s very good at insuring but not so good at selling), until Mum did a night school computer course and signed on with an agency and started doing her crap minimum-wage temping jobs. So they’ve always had to be ultra-careful with money, which is why we were staycationing years before it was a Thing, and always save up instead of paying on plastic, and they’ve been quietly cutting back for months so they can afford to send me on the Joob’s annual Year 10 trip to Paris at Easter – so it made a nice change to see Mum splash out on herself a bit.

Swallowing a big lump, I tried to be cool. ‘Hi, Dad,’ I said, giving him a quick hug as I squeezed past to my usual place.

Raven wasn’t cool at all. ‘Hi, Mr Morton! Gosh, this looks fantastic.’ She took the chair opposite mine, spread her napkin on her lap and gawped around. ‘Just like a retro restaurant.’

‘Here you go, girls!’ Mum followed with our plates. ‘Help yourselves to salad and dig in, don’t wait for us. Can you sort the drinks, love?’ she added over her shoulder, bustling out again. ‘I’ll be back with ours in a tick.’

‘No problemo.’ Grinning, Dad picked up a bottle. ‘Wine and water for you two, isn’t it?’

I nodded dumbly, staring at my polite helping of flat greenish noodles, not spaghetti, which was fine – but they were covered in a sauce, which apart from being darker red looked exactly like Mum’s standard Bol with onions and mushrooms and minced beef. Oh God… she’d forgotten Raven might be veggie. Like I’d forgotten to check and let her know…

Raven looked down and sniffed as Mum finally flopped into her chair and picked up her glass with a sigh of relief. ‘Oh,’ she said, raising her eyebrows. Oh God, I thought. ‘Is this what I think it is?’

Mum smiled. ‘Yes, if you think it’s Mrs G’s Fresh Garlic and Herb Tagliatelle with Red Wine and Walnut Sauce. I got chatting to the lovely young assistant – Bet, is that her name? She had the most angelic little boy with her, dead to the world in his stroller.’

‘Yes, that’d be the Grangers’ daughter Betony. And Lonsdale. Good job he was asleep.’ Raven grinned. ‘He’s not so angelic awake.’

‘Mm, yes, he’s at a lively age… anyway, I happened to mention how I came to be there, and I wasn’t sure what to cook that you’d like, and Betony said this was one of your favourites and very kindly picked out all the ingredients and gave me the recipe card. She even minced me some fresh walnuts and got a jar of home-made passata out of the back. I’d never used it before… fresh tomatoes make a world of difference to the flavour, don’t they?’

Oh, thank God! I tasted it. Wow. ‘Mm-mm. Delish.’

‘Mm… and you say it’s walnut?’ Dad ladled on parmesan cheese and took another huge bite. ‘Wow. Unbelievable. It tastes really meaty.’   

‘Yes, and something else unbelievable is that it didn’t cost a penny,’ laughed Mum. ‘No, tell a lie. It cost about six quid in change, I emptied my purse into their charity box. And this tunic was in the rag basket because of a tiny rip near the hem I could mend in ten minutes.’ She stroked it lovingly. ‘You can barely tell now. Then when I tried to pay for the food and wine and candles, she said any friend of Lou’s was a friend of Grange Farm, and if we were entertaining Raven, no way was she taking my money!’

Raven giggled. ‘Well, it’s probably our home-grown veg, so it’d be mad if you had to pay me to eat it! And Mum’ll be pleased you got some of her candles after all – she told me to put a Clarity in Ellie’s bag last night, but I was in such a rush I forgot.’

‘Your mum makes these? Whew,’ Dad whistled, making the one nearest flicker, ‘Lou’s a woman of many parts.’

Mum just looked relieved and said, ‘Well, I feel much better now – less as if I’d name-dropped on purpose to try and blag a freebie! Mind you, it’d still have been cheaper than the supermarket if I had paid. I couldn’t believe their prices.’

‘Mm.’ Raven nodded with her mouth full. (I’d watched how she ate before I started and the folks must have too, because we were all copying her, using our knives to twirl a noodle or two into neat bundles round our forks and popping them in without dripping, whereas we’d normally eat Spag Bol in front of the telly with paper towels on our chests, forking up big messy knots and sucking loose ends in and flicking sauce everywhere, and whoever’s paper towel is cleanest at the end has to do the washing up. It’s a lot more fun, to be honest). Luckily, before I blew our cover by blurting that out, she swallowed and went on, ‘No food miles or plastic packaging. And Mum doesn’t charge Grange for our stuff, obviously. And candles are easy, Godma taught us – she used to make them for fun with spare beeswax, then got seriously into it and bought all the professional kit so she could supply the shop too.’

‘Well, I was veryimpressed by the range,’ said Mum. ‘And I really enjoyed browsing round somewhere nice and quiet with a friendly assistant who knows what she’s talking about. I’d much rather do my weekly shop there… especially because when I said as much to Betony, she gave me a Friends & Family loyalty card for 25% off! I can get practically everything we need – not our usual brands-’

‘Do they sell peanut butter?’ Dad butted in, looking alarmed.

‘Yes, dear. Crunchy or smooth, hundred per cent whole nuts, no added sugar or salt, you’ll soon get used to it. And they have Mrs G’s Strawberry Jam and all sorts of other gorgeous preserves and bread and deli.’ She shot me a cautious glance. ‘What they don’t sell is frozen pizzas or HobNobs or Pop-Tarts or Pringles.’

Brilliant, I thought, no temptation, no awkward explanations! I managed a casual shrug. ‘I don’t care, I’ve been reading the labels – you’re right, Mum, that stuff’s not very healthy, and I’m getting a bit old for milk and biccies after school. I’d rather have cheese and crackers or something. So yeah, go for it, it’s a great idea.’

Kerching! The till in Mum’s eyes knocked another tenner off the bill. Then she exchanged Looks with Dad that said, ‘I can’t believe she’s not whining,’ like I usually did if she forgot one of my weekly junk fixes, then they started to smile, and I could tell they were doing the sums and realising they didn’t have to worry so much now about Christmas and my birthday and the Joob’s trip next year.

‘Cool!’ said Raven. ‘And you don’t even need to go shopping yourself, Mrs Morton. If you text a list, we could pick the stuff up and bring it over after school. Couldn’t we, Ellie?’

I shrugged again. ‘Sure.’ I didn’t much want to lug shopping as well as school bags home, but it would sound too mean to say so and anyway, it was no big deal if I could carry them on Raven’s bike.

‘Well!’ Mum sounded pleased – and surprised. ‘I may take you up on that if I run out of the odd thing. But I’ll do my own big shopping for the moment, thanks, girls… to be honest, I can’t wait to go back for a good long look round! I suspect lots of people will be getting Wise Woman teas and toiletries for Christmas this year. Or scented candles. Or a beautiful Jess Weaver scarf.’ She winked at me. ‘I wouldn’t mind finding one of those in my stocking if anyone’s stuck for ideas.’

‘What colours? I’ll ask Jess to make you whatever you like. I see her most days, she only lives at Bluebell Cottage. You know,’ Raven turned to me, ‘Number Two, next to yours- your favourite, I mean. Arum. At the end of the Terrace.’ I blinked. I didn’t remember telling her that, but before I could say so she turned back to Mum. ‘I can easily pop an order through the door if I don’t bump into her.’

‘Ooh, lovely! Thanks, Raven, I’ll get back to you when I’ve had a think.’ Mum smiled. ‘How funny that someone called Weaver should actually be one.’

Raven smiled back. ‘Yes, that’s what Jess thought! She took it up for a laugh when she married Freddie – he doesn’t weave though, he’s the Grange stockman – and got so good she went professional. She teaches it as well.’  

‘Goodness, what a multi-talented bunch you all sound! It must be nice to make a living through your hobbies. I wish I could,’ sighed Mum, then kind of shook herself. ‘Alright, anyone for seconds? Just make sure you leave room for pud – it’s your favourite, Eloise, and the good news is that Grange Farm do sell ice-cream.’

‘Oh, wow!’ I bounced in my chair, I couldn’t wait to see Raven’s face when she tried it. ‘I’ll just finish the salad, then. Unless anyone else wants some?’

No-one did, so I scraped the last few leaves onto my plate and mopped up with a bread bun while Dad and Raven ate more pasta and Mum disappeared into the kitchen with the last of the wine. When she came back, she was carrying a tray with four glass dishes of her own invention, Toffee Apple Surprise. (The surprise is that it’s not Apple Crumble, because after she’d prepared the fruit she found she hadn’t enough flour for the topping or time to nip out to the shop, so she just layered the slices with brown sugar and cinnamon and knobs of butter and baked it until it went crispy-sweet on top and soft caramel-sweet underneath, and we all loved it so much she’s never bothered making crumble since). We usually had it with tinned custard or yoghurt or best of all, ice-cream if I’d left any in the freezer, and this was topped with two scoops, pink and gold, artistically drizzled with honey.

‘I nearly went for the Elderflower and Elderberry Sorbets,’ said Mum, ‘then I thought ice-cream would go better, so I got Clotted Rose and Honey Ginger instead. What do you think?’

I rolled a pink spoonful round my tongue, tasting crystallised petals and cream from cows fed on red roses. Mm. The other tasted like summer, spiked with sweet hot shreds of stem ginger. Mm-mm. Then I tried both together and in every combination with the apple, and even when I’d scraped the bowl clean, I still couldn’t decide which went best.

‘Wow-ee,’ said Dad. ‘This is more grown-up than the usual stuff. Less sickly. I like it.’

I nodded. Maybe less fattening too, without the cookie dough or fudge ripple or chocolate chunks! ‘Yeah, you should definitely shop at Grange Farm from now on, Mum. That was fantastic.’

‘Yes. Though I say so myself, it was worth the effort – such as it was, the recipes couldn’t have been easier. Can anyone manage a little more – Raven?’

‘No thanks, Mrs Morton. I’m as full as- as a pregnant cow.’ She glanced slyly at me, and I giggled, and that set her off, so then we had to explain what we were laughing about, and next thing I blurted, ‘Oh, and you’ll never guess what else embarrassing happened,’ and somehow found myself telling the story of my pants, and Raven joined in to play Mellie and the other girls, and we had Mum and Dad practically wetting themselves, and it was like being a stand-up comic, which made it nice to be laughed at and not embarrassing at all.

They stopped laughing when we told them about Chard, though. ‘Bravo!’ said Dad. ‘I think you all handled that very well. Thanks for standing up for Eloise, Raven – and well done for speaking up for yourself, love, instead of hiding behind your friends.’

‘Yes, well done. And I’m afraid Chardonnay got what she deserved.’ Mum frowned. ‘God knows what her mother’s thinking of, letting her plaster herself in make-up for school! I can see that young lady coming to a sticky end if she’s not very careful.

‘Anyway, let’s make sure this never happens again. I’ve got some tiny press-studs in my workbox, I’ll sew some in your sports pants like Miss Mellors said and put them in your bag with your kit when it’s washed.’

‘Good idea! And well done you too, for a beautiful dinner.’ Dad gathered the plates and dropped a kiss on Mum’s hair as he passed. ‘I’ll put the kettle on, shall I?’

Raven followed him out with the breadbasket and salad bowl, and while I collected glasses Mum hissed anxiously, ‘Was that OK? Did it come up to Lou’s standards?’

‘Oh, yes. It was about the best meal you’ve ever cooked. Thanks, Mum. No, sit,’ I pressed her shoulder as she started getting up, ’we’ll clear this, you’ve done enough.’

I made three Women for us girls and Dad’s regular brew, and when we were sitting down again, Mum produced the box of marrons glacées from where she’d hidden it behind the bar and let us all have two each.

Afterwards, Raven said politely, ‘Thanks very much for a wonderful meal, Mrs Morton, it was so kind of you to make my favourite things.’ She raised an eyebrow at me. ‘Faisons la vaisselle?’

Aha. Chance to show off. ‘Oui, d’accord,’ I replied, and we giggled into the kitchen with the mugs, (luckily Mum hadn’t insisted we use the best cups and saucers) and washed up in French again. Then we left the folks to it and went to hang out in my room. Raven went round looking at my walls, and admiring the poster of Ross Poldark with his shirt off (which Mum also likes) – she hadn’t seen the TV series but she’d read all the books, which I hadn’t, and asking ‘Getting to Know You’ questions about my favourite bands and actors and where this or that photo was taken, but that was fine because we were still getting to know each other even though in some ways it felt like we’d been friends forever; and we were sitting on the bed chatting and listening to Goldenvoice and totally losing track of time, just like me and Fi used to,until Dad shouted upstairs,

‘Oi, you two! Quarter to curfew!’

‘Oh, poo,’ Raven grabbed her bag, ‘sounds like I’m being kicked out! Do you want to ride the other bike round tomorrow? We could cycle to school then if you like. There are chains in the saddlebags, we can lock them in the bike-sheds.’

‘Um-’ I thought of the Townsend Road traffic. ‘No, thanks. I mean, yes, I’ll ride over, but I’d rather walk from the Terrace,’ I said as we went downstairs and met Dad, putting on his jacket in the hall.

‘You coming along for the ride, love? You’ll need your coat, it’s getting chilly.’

‘No, Dad. Raven doesn’t need a lift. She’s on her pushbike.’ In all the excitement of dinner I’d forgotten to mention it. ‘We cycled home from Idenowes Terrace today, her mum left the bikes there for us to pick up.’

Dad’s eyebrows shot into his hair. ‘You cycled? On the roads? Good God.’

I went bright red. ‘Not much. We mostly cut across the fields, then through those little ginnels,’ I waved vaguely in the direction, ‘and came out near the top of our road. It was fun, I’m going to ride back that way in the morning.’

‘Oh. Well, I sincerely hope you don’t plan on riding through back alleys or farmland, Raven,’ said Dad. ‘In fact, I’m not happy about a fourteen-year-old girl cycling alone in the dark, period. No, I’ll drive you. Your bike can go in the back.’

Raven shook her head. ‘There’s no need, Mr Morton, honestly.’ She put her blazer and school shoes on and tucked her leggings into her socks. ‘Mum’s fine with it – I’ve got good lights and high-vis, and I promised to stay on the main roads. Besides,’ she grinned cheekily, ‘I’m fifteen in ten days. And I know how to look after myself.’

‘I’m sure you do.’ Mum got in on the act. ‘And what’s fine with Lou is fine with us. Isn’t it, Dave?’ She gave Dad a warning Look. ‘As long as you text her when you leave, and text Eloise the minute you’re home safe indoors. You might be sensible, Raven, but there are lots of mad drivers out there and accidents do happen. Um,’ she started gabbling, ‘so, where are these bikes, then? In the back garden? Unlocked? Good heavens, I hope nobody’s sneaked round and pinched them! Why didn’t you say something, Eloise? We could’ve brought them inside.’ She hurried into the kitchen. We followed and all saw in the light from the door she’d flung open that nobody had. ‘Oh, thank goodness! Still here.’

Phew. No drama, then. For a horrible moment I’d thought we were going to have a Scene, us against the folks – good job Mum was too scared of offending Mamalou!

Raven took an orange tube from the saddlebag of the orange bike, unrolled it into a fluorescent orange kagoule with luminous stripes across the chest and back, down the sleeves, and round the cuffs, slipped it over her blazer, tucked her hair in the back of her collar, and put her helmet on.

‘Ta-da!’ Her outstretched arms glared in the kitchen light as she twirled. ‘See? I’m just a cyclist now, not a schoolgirl.’ Taking her phone from her bag, she texted aloud, ‘Leaving E’s now, ETA 2100.’ Then she popped it back in, wrapped the bag in the orange tabard, popped that back in her basket, and flicked on her lights and helmet-torch. The beams were so strong we could easily see to file after her to the front gate, which she propped open with her bike. ‘Thank you all very much for a wonderful evening. I had a lovely time, and I’m looking forward to seeing you again at the weekend.’ She gave us each a quick hug. ‘Goodnight, now!’

‘Goodnight,’ we chorused as she thrust off across the road, stood on the pedals to get up speed, then coasted on down to the junction. We watched, like Dad or I had always watched Fi, as her bright stripy arm signalled left then gave a thumbs-up just before she disappeared round the corner, as if she knew we were still here – our cue to disappear inside because it was more than just chilly, it was freezing.

‘Brr!’ Mum rubbed her arms as Dad and I manoeuvred the pink bike into the breakfast nook. ‘What an extraordinary girl Raven is… still, she’s hardly lived an ordinary life, has she? Honestly, I could’ve bitten my tongue off for saying that about mad drivers and accidents, I do hope she didn’t think I was having a poke at her dad. Ah well,’ she sighed, ‘no point worrying about that now… let’s go get your hair done, love, then we can all relax.’

We didn’t normally wash my hair two days running. But I didn’t normally run myself sweaty two days running either, and Mum always washed it on Games night because I couldn’t do it properly at school; and afterwards, while she was combing it out, Dad picked up the thread.

‘Yeah, it’s easy to forget Raven’s only fourteen- oops, nearly fifteen – when you think some teenagers can barely look a stranger in the eye, let alone make dinner party conversation! I certainly couldn’t at her age.’ He grinned. ‘Mind you, she doesn’t have to worry about her voice breaking. And I guess she’s had more practice than most.’

‘Yes, life’s certainly made her very mature,’ said Mum, ‘and sophisticated, albeit in a nice way. It was lovely to hear you two chattering away in French, Eloise. You and Fi never did that.’

No, because Fi didn’t much like French. Or German. Or any subjects except Art, and English because she fancied Baldy, and although she was clever enough for uni, she couldn’t wait to leave school at eighteen to become a lifestyle influencer, or a fashion buyer, or a personal shopper for busy rich people. The Prince would’ve gone batty (ha, ha) if she’d known. The thoughts flashed through my head as Mum went on, ‘And what on earth were you talking about that was so hilarious – or is it a state secret?’

‘No,’ I giggled, ‘we were just practicing what we did last night. Look, I’m washing a plate, what are you doing? I’m drying a glass and putting it away, sort of thing. And Raven holding stuff up saying, “This is a fork,” and me saying, “No, that’s not a fork, it’s a dishcloth,” or whatever. It was so silly I couldn’t stop laughing.’

‘Well, it’s good to hear you enthused about school for a change – and planning to work on your project this weekend instead of hanging round town with Fiona,’ said Dad.

‘Yes,’ said Mum. ‘Fond though we are of Fi, we didn’t always think she was a good influence… she did tend to overshadow you, and you always seemed to end up doing what she wanted.’

I was about to say, ‘That’s not true!’ Sometimes we went swimming with Caro and her brothers if I felt slim enough for my cozzie and Fi hadn’t got a new hairdo she didn’t want to get wet, or to the pictures if there was a movie we both wanted to see, or to the park with Jamie to give Mrs McD a break and mess about with him on the swings or scope for fit lads while he did stunts on his skateboard, which was fun and about the only time he wasn’t a pain, or to hang out at Libby’s on Sundays because her folks go to the pub after lunch and we have the house to ourselves for a couple of hours. But it’s true that Fi and her mum love to shop, it’s their favourite hobby even when they don’t buy anything, and I always tagged along on their monthly treat to some big mall while Mr McD took Jamie roller-blading, and their annual pre-Christmas trip to what Dad calls Meadowhell, and round the sales where Fi always found something fantastic for a fiver because it was in the kids’ department or one of the extra-small sizes left after all the medium-to-large girls have picked through, and how often we’d drift into Wakefield at weekends, (to be fair, most of GSA does the same because there isn’t much else to do unless you’re sporty or rich – we were forever meeting up with people from school sniffing testers in Lush or giggling over cheeky birthday cards or trying on shoes or whatever). Sometimes I got bored and left them to it and went to look at books in Waterstones, or poke about in the charity and vintage shops, or say hello to the Savile owl in the Cathedral; but that was fine, and if we met up later somewhere like Costa or Cooplands, Fi almost always paid because her allowance was much more than my pocket-money and she’s very generous. So I just muttered, ‘Um, well, it’s not like I really wanted to do anything else,’ although that wasn’t totally honest – sometimes I’d rather have been doing my maths homework than hanging round changing rooms watching Fi wriggle in and out of tiny clothes, or hunting through the racks for something I could bear to try on myself that wasn’t XS or XL.

‘Maybe not,’ said Dad, ‘but when you did want to do something, Fi hardly ever fell in with it.’ Hm. He had a point. She’d come along for an art exhibition, or a pretty country walk if it was fine, but she wasn’t into cathedrals or stately homes or museums unless they had a really great shop and café, and often couldn’t make it on the day because she’d been grounded for cheeking her dad, or had to Jamie-sit for her mum, or go and visit her poorly gran.

‘Yes, think of all the times you were looking forward to her coming somewhere and she cried off at the last minute,’ said Mum. ‘I thought her excuses were a bit too convenient sometimes, but I could hardly say so, or quiz the McDonalds about it – and quite frankly, after last November I’m glad we never took her out again.’

Hm. She had a point, too. Our Year 9 autumn Lit book had been Wuthering Heights which I loved because it was spooky and weird and totally not the sort of thing you expect a vicar’s daughter who’d never had a boyfriend to write, and finished it in the first week, reading big chunks every night before bed. And our term history project had to be on some place linked with some famous historical figure, eg Whitby and Captain Cook – ‘Don’t everyone pick that,’ Ms Dunne had said, ‘think for yourselves,’ so I decided to do Haworth and Emily Bronte, and because it was useful for school Mum and Dad took me and Fi to visit the parsonage at the top of the hill where she and her sisters and brother had lived, with the moors behind I was desperate to see because they inspired her to re-write herself as Cathy and give herself Heathcliff, the only hero interesting enough for someone so wild and free and strange to fall in love with, and who didn’t become a villain until he overheard something he shouldn’t, and went a bit mad.

I’d imagined hush, the odd visitor tiptoeing through, soaking up the atmos, trying to hear the rustle of ghostly skirts or sense a Presence, not a long, shuffling crowd buzzing with oohs and ahs in different languages that didn’t thin until we got upstairs and had room to spread out more. Still, I was in my element. This was the Brontes’ actual stuff! The actual table Emily and Charlotte and Anne wrote at and walked round in the evenings, reading their stories aloud to each other! I wanted to linger over everything, read every label, but Fi raced through the displays to the gift shop then kept going in and out, fidgeting beside me for a minute then disappearing again until we gave up and met her by the exit and went to have a look round the churchyard next door, and I spotted an old-fashioned signpost pointing to Top Withins, the house Emily’s supposed to have based Wuthering Heights on, and got all excited and jumped up and down and begged to go. The folks laughed, and Mum started singing in a high witchy voice about wily, windy moors, and Dad said ‘OK, we’ll at least make a start,’ and Fi didn’t say, ‘No, I don’t want to,’ but she got a Face on and dawdled and limped and moaned about her shoe rubbing and the cold and her lips getting chapped until Mum snapped and took her down to the High Street to buy lip-balm and Christmas presents and meet us in two hours at the Black Bull or nearest pub if it was full, while Dad and I marched off, following the arrow. Unfortunately, by the time we reached the next signpost our lips were chapped too, and the wind had frozen our faces and given me earache because I hadn’t brought my woolly hat, and we still had miles to go and Dad said it was madness when we weren’t dressed for the weather, and had no map, and if we got lost the car keys were in his pocket so Mum and Fi would be stuck waiting for ages with their shopping until we got found again, which was bound to end in tears; so we turned back and spent an hour taking photos round the church and looking at gravestones of all the people who’d died even younger than Emily Bronte, then managed to get a table at the Black Bull (hurrah!) and thaw out over a cuppa. I felt sad and sort of creepy thinking about Emily’s brother Branwell drinking here with a friend a few days before he died, until Fi burst in looking cute in a red knitted pixie hat with earflaps and a tassel on top, (followed by Mum, looking stressed), plonked a load of carrier bags on the table, pulled out another pixie hat like hers only blue, and plonked it on my head, which broke the mood completely.

‘Not that I mind a spot of retail therapy,’ Mum went on, ‘and Haworth did look gorgeous all trimmed up for Christmas, I just felt like slapping Fi for being so maungey. But then she made a beeline for the wool shop and next she’s presenting me with that beautiful shawl she’d seen in the window as we passed looking for the car-park, and been desperate to get back and buy before someone else did because it matched my coat so well and she wanted me to have it as a thank-you… so then of course I felt guilty and rotten for being sharp with her, and mortified that she spent so much money on us.’

Yes, she’d bought Dad a hip-flask and me a fake red leather-bound Wuthering Heights with fancy gold lettering and a picture at the start of each chapter done by one of the Brontes, and a matching Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey she hid in her bag to give me for Christmas and my birthday, and gifts for her folks she showed me on the way back all excited while mine sat uncomfortably quiet in the front, and it all felt very awkward and for once I was glad when we dropped her off home. (I couldn’t imagine anything like that happening with Raven. She’d probably have sprinted to town and back to buy us an OS map, then suggested we jog to Top Withins to keep warm).

Dad must’ve been thinking the same because he said, ‘I bet Raven would be game for that hike. Tell you what – let’s do it together, properly! Plan the route. Pack the flask and Kendal Mint Cake. Tog ourselves up for the cold. Get to Haworth early doors, bracing walk to Top Withins and back, then into town for a hearty Full English.’ He winked at me. ‘Veggie sausage for your mate. What do you say?’

‘Oh wow!’ I bounced on my cushion. ‘Thanks, Dad, I’d love to! I’ll ask Raven tomorrow, she’ll be well up for it.’

‘Yes, and I’ll gladly go with someone who’ll appreciate it,’ said Mum. ‘I think it’s marvellous that Raven’s keen on history too, and she certainly brings out the best in you, Eloise. I mean, you’ve only known her two days and you’re like a different girl! No,’ she corrected, ‘not different. More yourself. As if you’ve suddenly flicked a switch and come alive.’

‘Yeah,’ chuckled Dad, ‘Eloise Extra! I’ve noticed too, believe it or not, and I don’t know how much of this new improved version’s down to Raven or whether you’re just growing up, love. Either way, I like it.’

‘So do I,’ said Mum. ‘Last term if your skirt had dropped off like that, you’d have come crying home at lunchtime and not wanted to go back in the afternoon, but now you take it on the chin and turn it into a double act! Yes, good for you, sweetheart – you and Raven should go on the stage.’ She kissed my head and gave my plait a flip. ‘Now get yourself off to bed and leave us oldies to veg out.’

Glowing happily, I kissed them goodnight, then as I was closing the door, Mum said, ‘Aw, bless her! We’re lucky Eloise is such a good girl, not like that spiteful little Jenkins tart,’ so I left a tiny crack open and pressed my ear to it, hoping to suck in more praise. ‘And I never expected to hear myself saying this, Dave, but I’m glad now that Fi’s gone. I think she held our Ellie back.’

I froze, holding my breath.

‘Mm… looks that way,’ replied Dad. ‘Whereas Raven pushes her forward. Or steps back herself. Whatever, she doesn’t hog the limelight, which is amazing when you think what a spoilt showbiz brat she might be.’

‘Yes, if anything, Fiona’s the spoilt one. But Raven seems very down-to-earth, and she’s got lovely grown-up manners.’ Mum laughed. ‘God knows what they’ll make of each other if they meet up at Christmas… somehow I can’t imagine Fi taking to her.’

Dad snorted. ‘No, too much competition! No, second thoughts, there’s no competition. Raven’s so sure of herself she makes Fi look like a kid. Still, maybe that’s what comes of knowing your mum’s so loaded you’ll never want for anything or have a moment’s money worry in your life.’ He sighed. ‘I wish we could give our daughter the same security.’

‘Oh, come on, love. We don’t do too badly, and we’ll do better now I’ll be paying so much less for the shopping. I could save even more if I stop buying meat for a while – you can get it from Grange, but it has to be ordered specially, and it’s dear even with the discount. I fancy trying some more Mrs G’s veggie recipes, though. I’m bored to death cooking the same old things week in, week out.’

‘Suits me. That was a cracking meal tonight – I didn’t miss the mince, and it makes things simpler if Eloise brings Raven home for tea, doesn’t it? Besides, if I’m desperate to sink my teeth into flesh, I can always grab a bacon buttie in town… or just wait till I get home. Nom nom nom.’

Mum squealed and giggled. I guessed Dad was nibbling her ear or something, and crept upstairs on wobbly knees, feeling sick. I had no idea the folks felt that way, I’d never heard them say a word against Fi before. As if they didn’t particularly like her. As if they might not be exactly over the moon about her moving in with us in three hundred-and-however-many days. As if they might actually say- Oh, my God. I sneaked into my room and collapsed on the bed. Who was I trying to kid? I didn’t need to ask, I could feel their NO solid and cold in the pit of my stomach. And I didn’t know how I’d dare tell Fi. I just knew I couldn’t text her tonight after this, I hadn’t a clue what to say, and I wished I hadn’t now but ha ha karma, serve me right for eavesdropping. And I knew I wouldn’t sleep, so to distract my washing-machine head, I finished off my Lang homework, which was easy because the day had happened in a coherent narrative order, (we came, we saw, we went), I just had to stick in a paragraph on Temple Newsam history I re-worded from the guidebook in case Baldy checked and marked me down for copying, then scribbled in Dear Diary, then rubbed hair-gel into my plait – I’d asked Mum to make tighter tonight, hoping it’d be even wigglier tomorrow – then did my MHOF stuff, then snuggled into bed.

Before I switched the lamp off, I looked round my room. Mum refused even to open the door when Fi stayed over – not that she could’ve come in if she’d wanted, the not-very-big bit of floor not covered by the camp-bed used to be covered in clothes, (Fi’s, mine, new ones if we’d been shopping), ditto shoes, empty mugs, sweet wrappers, toiletries etc; we’d just dive in and scramble around on the beds because there was nowhere to walk. Plus all the cupboards and drawers and shelves were practically bursting with my stuff, there was no room for hers (and she had tons). Plus Dad always grumbled about us using up all the hot water on Saturdays, no way would he want that every night of the week…

NOPE! Suddenly the Great Plan we’d been obsessing over popped like a soap bubble. It might be a laugh for a weekend, but I couldn’t share this little space with Fi forever… and, let’s face it, I didn’t want to. Kinell. I turned the light out and buried my head. I couldn’t tell her, she’d go mental. But I couldn’t just leave it until she turned up with her bags. When, then? Telling her before Christmas might spoil it for her. Telling her while she’s here, (my tum clenched at the thought), would spoil it, for everyone. And telling her after, when she’s safely back in Montreal, would definitely spoil it for me – I’m a rubbish actress, she’s bound to ask what’s wrong, and I’m a rubbish liar, too. Then again, she’s got new friends now… if I wait, try and stay off the subject, she might change her mind and decide to stay, and I won’t need to say anything at all! That’d be favourite. But what if she doesn’t? What if she starts going on and on again on Sunday? What should I do? What would Raven do? ‘Oh, Lady,’ I whispered, ‘please help… please tell me what’s best.’

Inside my head, Raven giggled. ‘Tell Fi ASAP it’s a stupid idea and it’s not going to happen. She’s got three months to get over it and if she can’t, tough, that’s her problem. Don’t let her make it yours.’ Hmm. I calmed down after that, and my brain stopped going round in circles and started thinking about Top Withins instead, and Emily Bronte and Heathcliff and Cathy, and somehow they all rolled into one with Raven, I bet she’s read it, and a picture filled my head of us running hand-in-hand over the moors, me in a long dress and sausage ringlets, her in breeches and boots, and I knew from now on it’d be her face I saw whenever I read Wuthering Heights; Raven who was wild and free and strange too, and had her own wuthering height in her back garden, with a Lady who perhaps slumbered unquietly in its quiet earth; Raven who’d rub out the memory of our last weird trip with Fi and replace it with something shiny and new of her own. And I fell asleep, smiling into my pillow.

Blood Magic: my young adults’ story continues!

Chapter 4: Aftershocks

Moments later I fell back into my body, heart thudding. My eyes snapped open. Gasping, I stared into darkness until I got myself together, then glanced at the clock. Uh? I blinked a couple of times. The green numbers blinked back, repeating 03:45, then changed to 03:46. Whoa. I thought I’d just dozed into one of those mad, vivid, half-thought, half-dreams for a minute, not slept solidly for four hours! Apart from this summer when I’d been crying into my pillow over Fi, quarter to four wasn’t a time I usually saw except on Christmas morning. (Unless I had to stumble into the MHOF for a semi-conscious cocoa pee, I slept almost from switching my lamp off at eleven to the radio alarm waking me at seven, and still didn’t want to get up when the news came on at half-past). But on this ordinary Day 2 Wednesday, I was an over-excited little kid again, wide awake and itching to play with my presents – because last night I’d had the most amazing dream ever!

I clicked on the lamp, scrabbled for my diary and pen, flicked back to the empty week after Fi left when I’d been too depressed to write anything, and started scribbling furiously before it faded and I forgot the details. Wow. Brilliant. I could really use this! Then my tum gave a great gurgly heave, and my bottom let out a nasty smell. Oops – I could also really use the loo. Glad of my new slipper-socks, I pulled them over my leggings like woolly boots, and put my dressing gown over Cecile because the heating wouldn’t kick in for ages yet and the bathroom would be freezing, then tiptoed out, (although judging by the snores, I could’ve tap-danced past Mum and Dad’s room banging a drum and they wouldn’t have woken).

I did a much bigger business than usual – all that fruit and veg yesterday – which gave me an idea. Last time I weighed myself, I’d been so horrified I’d avoided the scales ever since, but after dumping that load, I thought I could face them. So I quickly stripped, surprised to see I’d added a big red rose of my own to my new paddy-pants because it hadn’t hurt a bit, Mamalou’s tea must’ve worked. Then I took a deep breath and stepped carefully aboard, covered in goosebumps and trying not to shiver, because the scales were as old as the house, Mum and Dad found them in the bathroom cupboard and never got round to replacing them. They were marked in pounds and stones, with two black rubbery footprints to stand on, and not very accurate – if you got on too fast, or jiggled at all, the dial bounced and you could gain four pounds in a second. Weirdly, it never went the other way. So when I finally dared look, I gasped. Oh, my God! That couldn’t possibly- I got off, checked they were properly flat on the floor and tried again, even more carefully. Oh, my God. Oh. My. God. Not four pounds, just three. I’d lost three pounds. I’d lost three pounds. I’D LOST THREE POUNDS!!! That was what, about a kilo and a half? Wow! Awesome! True, my hair must’ve weighed something, and I’d just flushed at least a pound down the loo; but surely some of those ounces must be fat, lost without me noticing, melted away as if by magic-

Oh, my God. Blood-magic. It was working! I scrambled back into my clothes, (luckily still warm), feeling weak-kneed and slightly stunned but even happier and more excited now. No way was I going back to sleep! I just wanted to get on with things, so I crept downstairs and brewed a cup of Woman and changed my pad for a plain pink one from my period bag, and put the rosy one to soak in cold water like Mum did with my school shirt when I had a nosebleed down it, and took my tea and school bag upstairs and snuggled back into bed with Thomas Hardy. I liked the book, a battered old Penguin classic with a lovely painting on the front of sheep in snow, no mysterious modern art there. I read all the introductory bits we hadn’t had time for in class, and looked at the map, and read the first chapter again stopping to look up everything I didn’t understand in the notes at the end. Then I went straight on to Chapter 2, which was about the countryside and lambing and calving and not very long, so I read its notes too. Then I answered our homework questions and said Miss Everdene and Farmer Oak wouldn’t make a good couple because she was too full of herself to appreciate an ordinary, decent working man like him, but she was brave and confident as well as pretty, so she’d probably be OK if she grew up a bit. I thought I was being very fair because Bathsheba sounded just like the sort of Year 12 bitch I couldn’t stand, and I was itching to find out whether nasty things were going to happen to her but that’d take ages of reading…  maybe I could watch the film this weekend! Mamalou might have it, being a fan. If not I’d ask Mum to get it for us, she likes a costume drama.

Next, I got stuck into Shakespeare. The line ‘I saw young Harry with his beaver on’ made me laugh because I imagined a big fat brown one sitting on his head. Then I remembered Raven pronouncing it ‘bevva,’ and looked out the drawing of a knight in armour in Baldy’s glossary with all the pieces labelled and saw straight away that estriches weren’t a type of partridge, they were ostriches, because of the feathers on his helmet. Then I had to smile at ‘Bevor or beaver, from the French ‘bavoir,’ a bib,’ because it was worn under his chin to protect his jaw, where it’d catch the spit too if he dribbled. Or bled. And then I could imagine Prince Hal properly, with his face (a bit like Josh Brown’s) cupped in shiny steel, armour on his legs, and a page standing by holding his helmet with the three Prince of Wales plumes on top, and when I read the line again as ‘bevor’ I rushed all over with goosebumps and got a lump in my throat. I had to learn this speech! Then I’d be able to say it to myself whenever I wanted, like Raven. Hmm. Maybe… maybe I could even play the character who says it, (although it might give Baldy a heart attack if I asked for a speaking part). Maybe it’d feel so good saying those words to an audience I wouldn’t even blush.

Meanwhile it was easy to write up my answers because I already knew what I wanted to say. I thought RelStuds would be easy too because the minute Deefor gave us our homework I’d decided to do St Luke’s Nativity. I know it by heart, Nana and my Grandpop I hardly remember gave me a cartoon version for my third Christmas and it turned into an all-time favourite bedtime story, especially in December. I’d also read the whole thing lots of times in my godparents’ christening present, a little white leather-bound St James Bible. But then I remembered what I’d been thinking about last night, about Raven and Mamalou trying so hard to be normal, and how I wouldn’t want to be a famous rock star or a queen or a world leader for a gazillion pounds, and I knew for certain the Devil could never tempt me like that. So I did St Luke’s Temptation instead – it felt more personal and I could totally get where Jesus was coming from. Not that I was being religious or spiritual, I just wouldn’t want all the hassle and stress. (I thought Mamalou probably was though, giving stuff away and trying to make herself less rich so she’d be able to squeeze through the eye of a needle into Heaven, or however that bit goes).

It wasn’t worth doing any more for history until after the weekend when I’d gone through the rest of the Gardiners’ stuff and talked to Mr Granger. That only left French, which Mamalou had checked for me, but I quickly went through again just in case. Parfait. Then I put everything neatly in my folders to show Mum, and was about to tell myself, ‘Très bien, Eloise,’ when I clapped a hand over my mouth. My third wish! Had it been granted? I felt my heart speed up as I thought about all the ways the Joob had tried teaching me, and how hard I’d tried, and Mamalou saying I shouldn’t try too hard. Then I put my tongue softly behind my front teeth, and somehow instead of blowing a raspberry or whistling through my braces, I got it to vibrate and make a sort of droning sound. Oh, my God. I tried again. And again. No fluke. It wasn’t exactly right, but it was coming from the right place, and a lot better than I’d ever managed before. I tried a ‘trrr.’ Whoa. Then I tried the whole thing.

Très bien, Eloise. Trrrès bien. Trrrrrrrrès bien!’ I danced around, punching the air. ‘Drrrr. Trrrr. Grrreat! Brrriliiant! In-crrredible!’

Flopping down on my stool, (creamy-white antique-effect with spindly legs, decorated with leafy garlands which used to be gold but now it’s mostly worn off), I grinned a huge metal grin into the mirror on the matching dressing-table. The original owners had left them behind too in their original place in front of the window, which gives a good light for squeezing spots but looks ugly from the back garden, as Dad always moans. I rolled some more Rs at my reflection, blew myself a raspberry to celebrate, then stuck out my clever tongue and waggled it – and next thing I knew, it was curling at the edges and rolling itself into a little pink tube.

Whoa! What the-? Impossible! You either could or you couldn’t, it was genetics, like my boring hair and eyes – I wasn’t going to wake up one morning and find myself a green-eyed blonde like Mum. Then I remembered I had had fair, wavy hair as a baby, it didn’t go mouse until primary school. So I must’ve been a tongue-roller all along – like I could’ve rolled my Rs all along, obviously. I just didn’t have the knack… but now blood-magic had helped me find it.

Whoa. Wow. ‘Thank you, Lady,’ I whispered, covered in goosebumps again and feeling more than a little freaked out, to be perfectly honest. I took a deep breath. Come on, Ellie, I told myself. Chill. Think about it. I’d lost three pounds, big deal. Yesterday I’d had no breakfast, half a lunch, only veggies and fruit for dinner, and no sweets except a single candied chestnut. And I’d done all that sweating and running around instead of sitting with Fi drinking milk and eating chocolate HobNobs. And maybe I’d just been bloaty, not fat as such, because I’d had a period coming, (Mum can gain five pounds in her PMT week if she drinks caffeine and eats too much white stuff), and now it was going away. And I hadn’t weighed myself in ages. Maybe I hadn’t been as heavy as I thought. Whatever, it wasn’t that weird. Neither was finally cracking my French Rs. It was about time, God knows I’d practised enough. Maybe the Lady had helped, maybe she hadn’t. Maybe Raven had tricked me into it, like she’d got me to run down Maidenhowe… I could tell she loved mind-games, playing with words, making people do what she wanted, like she’d made Mum agree to let me visit pretty much whenever… and so what? It was OK, wasn’t it? More than OK. Maybe this is how all wishes get granted – you decide what you want, then start making it happen. Or maybe I’d done it for myself, decided without realising – new term, new friend, new start, get a grip, Ellie… grow up.

And now here I was, tra-la! Three pounds lighter, split ends gone, properly menstruating- oh, my God. My reflection goldfished at me. Oh, come on, I thought. Don’t be silly. The Lady’s not sucking it out of you, it’s just coincidence- but the same thing had happened to Raven! She told me so, last time she wished! I gulped. Blood Magic. Virgin blood magic. Oh, my God. What had she got me into? What had I done?

Taking a deep breath, I looked myself straight in the eye. ‘My homework. That’s what I’ve done,’ I said firmly. ‘All of it – and some. Really well. And it’s still only half six- oh, my God! But I’ve not charged my phone yet! Fi must be going frantic.’

I dug it out of my bag, hurried down to the kitchen, and plugged it into the charger we keep on the fridge. Then I had an idea. Mum and Dad’s daily argument starts at quarter to seven when their alarm goes off and neither wants to get up and make breakfast. (Dad usually loses, I hear him stumping downstairs around five past and rattling back up with the tray ten minutes later). But today I was already up, wide awake and starving hungry after studying for hours, so I put the kettle on and made their single-pot-a-day-indulgence fresh coffee, and Mum’s sugar-free wholegrain muesli with skimmed milk (she’s on a permanent diet, trying not to go bloaty) while Dad’s toast was toasting, (to be slathered with peanut butter and strawberry jam, he never diets if he can help it), and put it all on their bed-tray with two glasses of OJ and the milk jug.

The alarm had just started beeping when I elbowed their door open and took it in. ‘Hi, folks. Happy Wednesday! Wake up and smell the coffee.’

‘Uh? Good God.’ Dad nudged Mum. ‘Pinch me, love. I’m dreaming that Eloise has just brought us breakfast in bed.’

‘What?’ Mum untangled herself from the duvet. ‘Really? Well, what a lovely surprise! Thanks, darling. What’s the occasion?’

I unfolded the tray legs and set it carefully between them. ‘Nothing, I just woke up early. I think it was all the excitement. And I felt like finishing my homework, so I did- oh, and listen to this! Drrrrr. Trrrrr. Trrrès bien. I’ve finally sussed my French Rs, more or less.’

‘Bravo! Well done, love,’ said Dad. ‘They’d been a thorn in your side since Year 7, hadn’t they?’

‘Yeah. Maybe it was spending so much time talking French to French people last night that did it,’ I said, trying to convince myself. ‘Anyway, enjoy. I’m off to get my own now.’

Dad’s toast smelt so good I decided to have some instead of my last two chocolate Pop-Tarts; and remembering what Raven had said, I read the ingredients on the packet while two thick wholemeal slices toasted just long enough to be toast but still squishy in the middle. And the calorie content. Hmm. Then I hid them under some other rubbish in the bin so Mum wouldn’t tell me off for waste and recycled the box. I’d tell her not to bother buying any more, I guess I could live without them. Because what I really fancied was something not sweet- Marmite? Peanut butter? Can’t decide. One of each, then. Mm-mm. I sat in silence for once, happily munching, washing the toast down with honeyed Woman, and thinking about my day. Day 2. Double Geography first, which I liked, then double Games, which I hated; my least favourite subject next to Maths, and always timetabled to end with a break, lunch or home-time to give us longer to shower afterwards. Which I also hated, obviously – but today I had the period excuse, so I’d be let off with a wash in the sink. Brilliant. Must remember my sports bag, currently stuffed at the back of the wardrobe, like it had been since Mum washed and packed my kit away at the end of summer term.

Suddenly remembering Fi, (who was better at Games than me, but hated it just as much), I switched my phone on and fidgeted until it came alive and started pinging with texts and missed calls from Mum, and- one text from her? Soz El mad busy OK tho hope U R 2 C U Sun Fi xoxox. Huh. Still, I couldn’t moan, I hadn’t texted her either. I replied, Same here! C U then. El xoxox. Then I looked on her social media. Not many words (typical Fi) but loads of pictures. An ice-hockey team, big fit lads in red-and-white kit standing or kneeling on the ice with their helmets tucked under their arms. Jamie buried in one of their shirts, grinning through the bars of an outsize helmet and waving an ice-hockey stick. Fi in a red-and-white blouson, flirty red skirt and black leggings, flat on her bum on the ice, head thrown back, howling with laughter (or cold). Jamie pelting round speed-skating, (he was always a whizz on his roller skates and skateboard, so I suppose ice-skating’s not much different). Fi being towed between Jamie and one of the team, pony-tail streaming behind, eyes and mouth wide, probably screaming her head off. Fi hand in hand with the hockey player, tall, dark, and drop-dead gorgeous without his helmet, looking like a lamb taking its first wobbly steps on her big white skating boots. Fi in a selfie, sandwiched between him and a gorgeous dark girl about our age, enough alike to be bro and little sis, all three making silly trout-pouts. And a short video of Fi and the lad skating slowly towards the camera holding hands, then he lets go and she keeps coming by herself until she thwacks into the barrier because she hasn’t learnt to stop – whoever’s filming steps back just in time, and you see the girl catch Fi to stop her taking a header out of the rink, and they cling to each other laughing for a second. Then it starts over. I watched it again, Fi grinning like crazy, either watching her feet or the camera, while he watches her like most lads watch Fi, only slightly less gormless. I wondered if she fancied him. She’d be mad not to – but she always says she can’t stand boys, Jamie’s put her off for life, and she only ever falls in love with much older people, like Baldy and Vin Diesel and our newsagent who she thinks looks like Ryan Reynolds, although I can’t see it myself.

At first, I felt sick – until I thought how much sicker I’d be if it wasn’t for Raven, and all the great stuff happening here. Then I felt mainly relieved, like I’d been given permission to make new friends too and be as happy as I could without feeling guilty because Fi was miserable and homesick. And glad for us both, although I couldn’t help being a bit jealous because it all looked so cool, especially the lad, plus it was really weird to see Fi and Jamie doing anything together, let alone sport, let alone something that could get you cold and wet or break your ankle. So it was good she was having some fun – she might as well make the most of Montreal until she came home, like Mamalou and Raven in London – and we’d have loads to talk about over the Christmas hols, and I was going to be so busy with my project and everything, term would probably fly by and she’d be back before I knew it. I hoped she’d like Raven. It’d be nice if we could all chillax at Hidden House and visit the Lady together, maybe make some New Year wishes…

Meanwhile it was nice to feel so light, as if I’d just put a heavy bag of books down. I hadn’t realised till then how much sadder Fi’s texts usually made me, or how much worse I felt seeing her cry every Facetime, (which always got me crying too), even though it was sort of nice to know she missed me and thought about me and home all the time. But we’d been moaning non-stop about Canada for two months now, and it suddenly felt pretty old. Maybe we should suck it up and get on with things, try to have a laugh again like we used to. I was sick to death of crying, to be honest, and quite excited instead. I must remember to call Fi from Raven’s on Sunday, I was dying to know who these people were – and what was going on with Him especially.

I was still wondering while I got ready for school, plenty early, no rush. White regulation sports bra (yuck) on ready so I wouldn’t have to get my chest out twice in the changing room. Yesterday’s clean one (I remembered!) tucked into sports bag dug out from wardrobe. Yesterday’s clean shirt and jumper (mm, frankincense – thanks, Mamalou) over the top. Regulation black tights. Kilt- I forgot Fi in a millisecond. It was easier to fasten! No way loose, but not digging into my tum as much as yesterday. Wow! Brilliant! I twisted around in front of the mirror, smoothing it over my bulges, trying to see my rear view. Oh, poo. It didn’t look any better, but it felt a lot comfier.

Right, then. My reflection squared her shoulders and stuck her chin out at me. Suddenly, I felt determined to keep up the good work until I did look different, and my squidgy muffin-top was gone – and this time I felt I could do it. I mean, yesterday I’d been sort of dieting and exercising without even noticing, without starving or missing sweets (much), and I’d done loads and had a great time. Which meant today could be the same. I’d try harder in Games, run about more, see if I could sweat off another kilo. Yeah. Wow. Go, Ellie! Suddenly, for the first time ever, I could hardly wait for tomorrow’s weigh-in – because at this rate, my second wish might stand a chance of coming true!  

In all the excitement I’d forgotten my hair, too – but now my stomach sank as I sat down, undid my plait, shook it loose, and reached for the wide-tooth comb I had to use before I could drag a regular comb through. Then I stopped. Oh, my God. It hadn’t been this short or looked this dark in years! I picked up a strand, all smooth and blunt ended, no frizz. Hmm. Peering close in the bright morning sunlight, I realised it wasn’t totally mouse. Some hairs were gold like Mum’s, some were darker like Dad’s, and odd ones looked positively ginger. Pity when you mixed it together it made boring light brown, like all the colours in a paintbox make that weird sludgy grey. At least Mamalou’s Poo had made it shinier than usual. Maybe Mum had a point. Maybe it did look better. I swung it – it did swing now, instead of clinging like a static tent round my jumper – and shook it some more. This was the only time my hair ever looked nice, freshly dried into plait-ripples, but by the time I’d combed it properly and walked to school it’d be flat and straight again. Unless- I rooted in my dressing table drawer for an ancient tub of hair gel. The top had gone solid but the middle was still soft, so I grabbed a gloop and finger-combed it through the waves, hoping it might set them.

Wow. For once my hair looked like a shampoo advert, apart from the colour (or lack of). I decided to leave it uncombed and see how long the ripples lasted, stuck a couple of hairgrips in to keep it behind my ears, then inspected my face. Oh, my God! My skin had cleared up a bit! My huge, angry chin-pimple must’ve popped in the shower last night – it had finally lost its yellow head, and shrunk to pink, and stopped throbbing – and the pores on my nose and forehead didn’t look so black, maybe the sweat had washed them out. I wiped them with Clearasil and put my cheapo moisturiser on, wondering if I dared ask Mamalou to make me some special Moi for my awkward skin, greasy in the middle and itchy, blotchy dry round the edges. In the meantime, I looked relatively good – bright and clean with something like a hairstyle, totally different from the red-eyed, spotty fat lump I’d avoided in yesterday’s mirror. As a final touch, I dabbed Clarity on my pulse spots. I wouldn’t mind going to school today at all. And I wouldn’t feel quite so ugly next to- Raven! We could walk in together! I could meet her and come into school the back way, it shouldn’t take any longer than my normal walk with Fi. I galloped downstairs, found her number on Mum’s phone and was just about to text her when ping! A message came through. C U at cottages 8.45? I grinned – great minds thinking alike again – and replied with a thumbs-up. Nothing more from Fi, though. Oh, well.

The folks were getting up now, I could hear them through the ceiling. I nipped back upstairs for my bags, spread my homework out on the kitchen table, sat down smugly with another cup of Woman, and was well stuck into Chapter 3 of Madding when Mum rattled in with the tray.

‘Thanks for breakfast, darling- good grief!’ Her jaw literally dropped. ‘What’ve you done to yourself?’

‘Just finger-combed a bit of gel through my hair,’ I said nonchalantly, tossing my wiggly mane. ‘You were right, Mum – it does look better.’ I stood up and gave her a hug. ‘Thanks for cutting it so nicely. I’m sorry I was such a witch about it last night.’

‘No worries.’ She hugged back. ‘Mm… you smell nice.’ Then she pushed me away to arm’s length and stared hard. ‘And you look beautiful, Ellie.’ To my surprise, her eyes filled with tears. ‘You’re really growing up, aren’t you? You’re a young woman… not my little girl any more.’

A bit choked myself, I pulled her close again and whispered, ‘Don’t be daft. I’ll always be your little girl, Mummy.’

‘Am I interrupting something?’ Dad breezed in, ruining the moment. ‘Whoa!’ He went to look over my homework, turning a page here and there. ‘Good job, Eloise! You’ve certainly been busy. What a great start to the term – keep it up, darling! Right then, must dash, I’ve got an early appointment.’ He grabbed his phone off the fridge, his lunchbox out of it, and smacked us both a kiss on the cheek. ‘Have a good day, ladies! See you at teatime.’

As he breezed out again, Mum and I looked at each other and burst into giggles. Typical Dad. He’s rubbish at noticing stuff like hair and clothes and make-up, and it’s pointless getting upset, or asking what he thinks, because he just shrugs. ‘Yes, of course you look nice. You always look nice. It goes without saying.’ Which is sort of a compliment, I suppose; and to be fair, he never notices spots or split ends or muffin-tops either. Then I rinsed the breakfast pots while she put her work face on, and packed what I needed in my bag and put everything else in my bedroom.

‘What are you doing for lunch?’ Mum asked when I came back.

‘Um.’ My face went hot. ‘I’m not sure.’ It was true; Raven might have forgotten, or changed her mind, or not have enough to share today. And although I couldn’t wait to tell my blood-sis about losing weight, I didn’t want to say anything to Mum because she’d want to help, buy me slimming magazines and low-cal everything, and Dad would notice, then I’d have them both trying to be supportive, asking me how it was going blah blah the whole time, and then it’d be really embarrassing if I cracked and ate a whole stuffed-crust pizza and a full tub of Rocky Road and a packet of chocolate HobNobs and regained all the weight in one go. ‘I’ll take a banana for break, though. It made a nice change yesterday.’

Mum smiled; she’s always on about five-a-day. ‘Good idea. They’re much better for you, especially at this time of the month. Take a couple of nectarines too, they need eating up.’

Great! One each. ‘Thanks, Mum.’ I put the fruit in a plastic box to stop it squashing on my files and glanced at the kitchen clock. Twenty past eight. ‘I might as well go now. I’m meeting Raven on Townsend Road, and I’m not sure how long it’ll take to walk.’

Mum positively beamed. ‘Oh, good! You know, Dad and I had been quite worried about you, darling, seeing you pine over Fi… I was rather dreading this term, wondering how you’d get on without her. But we couldn’t have hoped for you to meet a nicer new friend than Raven. You must bring her over here as well sometimes, it’s not fair on Lou otherwise – so you can tell her she’s welcome to join us for tea tonight, if she likes Spag Bol.’

‘Um. Thanks, Mum,’ I said doubtfully. ‘But I think they might be vegetarian.’

Mum shrugged. ‘No problem, I’ll just leave the mince out. Right then – if it’s OK with Lou, I’ll expect you both at the usual time.’

‘Um. Yeah. Thanks. I’ll, um, text and let you know,’ I said, secretly hoping Raven wouldn’t be able to come. Not that Mum’s Spag Bol was bad, but it usually came out of a jar, which I guessed Mamalou’s didn’t if she ever cooked it. ‘Have a good day.’

‘I’ll try.’ Mum grimaced as I pecked her cheek; she hated her current job. ‘See you later, love. Oh, and remember to take your lunch money today.’

I stuffed it in my blazer pocket on the way out, then practically skipped down the path feeling vaguely guilty, but great. Five pounds richer – if I didn’t spend it on lunch, I’d stick it in my Christmas piggy-bank – and three pounds lighter! I headed up the road, not too fast, (I didn’t want to get sweaty), but not dragging my feet like yesterday, crossed at my usual place, took a deep breath, and stared straight at Fi’s house. The front door opened as I looked and a dark-haired woman came out, younger than Mrs McD, with two little dark-haired girls who looked about five and six, dressed in little red duffel coats and tartan skirts like I used to wear for Infants. They were so cute I couldn’t help smiling, and their mum saw and smiled back, and it was really nice, and I knew I’d never mind walking past again and decided that if I saw them tomorrow, I’d say hello, maybe introduce myself sometime, explain why I kept staring at their house… and find out her name, so I wouldn’t have to keep calling it Fi’s to myself.

Playing with the idea, I imagined getting to know the family, maybe offering to babysit so I could have a nosey inside, see what they’d done with the place. It’d be weird seeing it full of someone else’s stuff – I wondered if the girls slept together in Fi’s old room – but somehow the thought didn’t make me sad today. Then when I turned onto the old main road, I started thinking about my history project and noticing gaps and footpaths between houses that must lead to the shortcut across the fields, and eventually spotted a lane overhung by trees, just wide enough to drive down. I wimped out of trying that way in case it was muddy, or I stupidly got lost and kept Raven waiting and made us both late for school. Instead, when I turned onto Townsend Road I stayed on the right and kept looking into the fields. It was hard to tell where the paths went because of all the trees and hedgerows, but there was a big gap practically opposite Ideowes Terrace leading to a sort of raised track rutted with tractor tyre-marks, and a woman with a dog on a lead pushing a baby-buggy along it towards town. I wondered if she’d come from the cottages, and as I glanced across at them, I was surprised to see Raven come round the side of my favourite one holding a watering can. She saw me at the same moment, waved with her free hand, then began watering the front tubs and window-boxes while I crossed the road to wait for her by the gate.

 ‘Hi, Raven!’

‘Hi, Ellie!’ she said over her shoulder, explaining before I could ask, ‘The tenant’s gone into hospital, so Mum and I are looking after his garden for the duration. There! All done.’ Putting the can down in the little wooden porch, she wiped her hands on her kilt, retrieved her school bags, and turned to face me. ‘Wow! I love your hair.’

‘Thanks. So do I, but I nearly died at first when I saw how short it was. Only Mum said I looked too grungey for company and threatened to ground me for the weekend if I didn’t let her cut the split ends off,’ I blurted as we set off down the road. Then I thought maybe I shouldn’t have because it made Mum sound like a bit of an ogre, and I didn’t want Raven thinking she was mean because she didn’t know about all the rows and Mum begging and pleading and trying to bribe me into a hairdresser’s, all because I was too embarrassed to confess I had to keep my hair long to hide my podgy face and round shoulders and the ugly squashy bra line that showed through the back of my school jumpers. So I added hastily, ‘And I’m really glad, because she’s made it look loads better.’

‘Yes, and it’s not just your hair. You look totally different today. Sort of shiny.’

My cheeks – just my cheeks, for once! – glowed, and suddenly I felt quite pretty. Next thing I was gabbling, pouring out all my amazing news about how the Lady was granting my wishes, and my plan to Be Something In History and feeling I actually could, and deciding to try harder even at Games, and about Fi settling in with her new skating friends. ‘It’s such a relief – like when you’ve had ‘flu and felt rubbish for ages, then it clears up and you don’t just fell well, OK, you feel brilliant because nothing hurts and everything works properly again.’ I grinned. ‘Well, I feel totally brilliant today.’

‘I can tell,’ Raven grinned back. ‘And I know what you mean. I haven’t felt this good since Dad was with us- before he lost the plot.’ She slipped her arm through mine. ‘It’s great to have a friend I can really talk to.’

‘Yeah, I’d forgotten what it was like to have a conversation without someone bursting into tears! And it’s really weird to think I wouldn’t be this happy if Fi was still here, because yesterday wouldn’t have happened and everything would be same-old, same old. You’d have been put somewhere else, a different class maybe, and we’d be walking our usual way moaning about Double Games and feeling like we’d been back at school forever. But today I’m sort of looking forward to it, and I can’t wait to see the Joob’s face in French this afternoon! So I feel a bit awful as well, like I’m actually glad that Fi’s gone. And I’m not, but- oh, you know what I mean.’

Raven nodded. ‘Like I’m not glad Dad’s dead, but I am glad to be here. And I can’t wait for Friday night – we’ll have such a laugh.’

That reminded me. ‘Um, well, you don’t have to. Wait, I mean. Mum says you can come to ours tonight if you like. We’re having Veggie Bolognese.’

‘Cool! I love pasta!’ Raven pulled her arm out of mine and her phone out of her pocket. ‘Tell your mum thanks,’ she started texting, ‘and I’ll tell Maman not to cook for me.’

A Celebration of Sheeple – Belated Birthday Greetings to our Wonderful Woollies!

Well, we’ve done it! Despite hearing from more than one person who knows, ‘Sheep are always looking for ways to kill themselves,’ our micro-flock of Boreray wethers (castrated males) has now survived more than a year, since mid-September ’21, with us no-longer-quite-so-novice shepherds.

L – R: Soboray, Socks and Sweater

Not that we haven’t had some hairy moments. Our first attempt at catching them, a disheartening disaster which began by teaching us the full, scarily impressive meaning of the term ‘battering ram’ and ended with all three escaping into the orchard – whence they could, if not distracted, have escaped into a much wider world. ‘They’re eating your trees!’ gasped friend Nick, who’d come to lend a hand. ‘Let them,’ Hubcap retorted grimly, pounding over the pastures shutting gates, shifting hurdles, and preparing to herd them back home. Or Socks getting his head stuck in the stock-fencing; spooked by a visitor, he and Sweater retired to safe distance while social Soboray hung around, hoping for more better treats. Alpha male Socks kept galloping back to check on him. ‘What are you doing?! Come away!’ Sob shrugged it off. ‘I’m not bovvered.’ Eventually, a panicking Socks ran too close to the fence, got his horns stuck in the wire, and had to be cut free with the bolt-cutters Hubcap sprinted to fetch from the van, while I straddled the sheep to stop him thrashing about and breaking his neck. I don’t think he’s forgiven me yet.

Possibly most alarming was a recent encounter with Soboray. One minute he was happily stuffing down fresh hazel boughs with the others, the next he ambled away, turned to face me, and bared all his teeth in a most unearthly grin. Then green foam started dripping from his jaws. It was a real Exorcist moment, as if our amiable black sheep was on point of transformation into the demon Baphomet, or dread Goat of Mendes – or choking on some unexpected nasty. Either way, I watched in horror as he walked off coughing and drooling, braced to try and catch him, clear his airway, attempt a Heimlich manoeuvre, whatever. Luckily I didn’t need to do anything – he hawked up a huge wad of green slime, possibly containing some obnoxious beetle, (since he gave no sign of being stung in the mouth by a wasp or bee, but got stuck straight back into the hazel-fest).

Anyhow, gosh, what a long way we’ve come in thirteen months: from complete strangers to us and at best, passing acquaintances to each other in a flock of 80 or so mainly destined to become sausages, to a tight-knit trio of individuals with distinctly different characters and tastes, pure-bred Socks and Sweater forming a natural alliance as Team White Boy, and Soay hybrid Soboray, aka the Black Prince, odd sheep out in every way.

I’d been very dubious about getting them, to be honest. We knew nothing of sheep except what we’d read or seen on TV; plus I wasn’t sure I wanted the responsibility, or to be tied to the land in retirement by whatever might be involved in turning shepherd. Hubcap, however, had long planned and designed Beckside with livestock in mind – hence its subdivision into zones separated by hedgerow and (to date) 600 metres of stock-fencing, much of it laid with the help of stalwart friends over the year before the Woollies arrived (and finished just in time). He’d also looked deeply into what animals we and the site could cope with; we (very reluctantly on my part) rejected goats as too escape-prone/too clever by half, the ridiculously cute, wiggly-fleeced Black-Faced Charolais as non-native, and the otherwise ideal Soay as too goat-like and feisty. What we needed was a minimum-size flock of small, ‘thrifty’ British rare breeds which could eat anything and be relatively manageable for learners. Since we didn’t dare try raising lambs, it seemed wrong to take valuable pedigree breeding stock off the market; which left us with wethers to become our woolly lawnmowers/land clearance tools/ self-propelled muck-spreaders, and Marlfield Farm Borerays the best breed to answer our purpose.

Needless to say, the moment they galloped into their new Welcome Paddock, I was besotted – as were the neighbours, their children, their friends and friends’ children, and our family and friends. Everyone who saw them simply boggled as if at some rare antelope. We didn’t know sheep could be so beautiful. They may deviate from breed standard, we don’t know or care, but Dan and Heather chose them for us because they’re so easy to tell apart: darker Socks, with his tan face and legs and peachy mane; pristine Sweater, a white puffball with piebald face and legs, and a reddish mantle round his shoulders and down his spine; and jet-black/chocolate brown Soboray, with his white undercarriage and humbug-striped bum. Just like the late lamented Henry Wowler, I find them a joy and endless fascination to watch, enjoy their company, and wish I could spend more time with them.

Although they settled into their new surroundings straight away, and without trying to escape (phew!), the lads initially gave us a very wide berth – understandable, when their only previous contact with humans had been for ear-tagging and castration, or the less painful but equally stressful necessities of hoof-trimming, shearing and so on. But we always hoped to make friends – not least to spare us all distress when we had to catch and do stuff to them.

As with any creature, the way to the Woollies’ hearts was through their stomachs. Come our first winter, we thought, (wrongly, as we later learned), that they’d run out of grazing, so began to supplement with hay – which they ate, up to a point, from racks or a trug, but rejected once it had been on the ground, and seemed to get bored with very quickly. Consequently, a lot more was wasted than eaten, and by New Year, fussy Soboray in particular looked, to our untutored eyes, too thin and scraggy round the haunches (even though we knew they’d naturally shed weight over winter), and we worried about him getting cold. Enter the daily ritual of Rooty Treats to pack in a few easy calories: a bag of whatever parsnip, carrot, swede and/or beetroot I had to hand, diced small for dainty mouths, initially scattered on the ground, then offered on an outstretched palm. Greedy Socks was first to dash in and grab a mouthful, and before long was happily hand feeding. Soboray took longer to get the idea; he’d put his nose in my palm but couldn’t quite grasp what to do next – I had to practically push the first mouthful in. However, he soon became adept and now greatly prefers to be hand-fed, whereas less scrupulous Socks still scarfs it up from the ground. Shy Sweater will accept a leaf or sprig but hasn’t yet mastered taking Rooty Treats, largely because by the time he’s plucked up courage to approach, somesheep else has noticed and beaten him to it; instead he stands expectantly at the back, waiting for me to throw his share down while Sob and Sox fight over what’s in the trough (or my hand).

Still worried that they might be starving we also started giving them a wholesome ‘sheep muesli’ containing oat and pea flakes and soya pellets. They went mad for it. Great! By putting both feed troughs in the Shelter Paddock, one inside and one outside under the oak tree, we got them used to being together, with either or both of us, in a small area they associate with Big Food Pleasure. This made our second attempt at penning them (helped by Dan) relatively simple – and our solo effort when they had to be sheared a month later went off without a hitch or single nick inflicted by this first-time shearer.

Hubcap and Dad check Sweater’s teeth

Soboray, always the most sociable, is so devoted to muesli that as long as his head’s in the bucket we can do pretty much anything to him – a major advantage since the horrible discovery that he’s highly prone to fly-strike. This may be because his dark fleece retains more heat, although all three are vulnerable given the amount of time they spend foraging or cudding in hedgerows where they can be pooped on by birds. The first attack came after Sob took a big pigeon-splat on the back, which Hubcap did his best to wipe off that morning – but the residue was enough to bring blowflies swarming, and by afternoon his fleece was riddled with yellow, cottage-cheesy clots of eggs. Ugh. And if they hadn’t been found/removed, in two days he’d have had maggots eating into his flesh. Double ugh. Cue panic order of organic, eucalyptus-based blowfly repellent which destroys eggs as well as masking the ‘come lay here’ pheromones and keeping adults at bay. Thanks to the blessed muesli, Sob lets us check through his fleece twice a day and re-apply his ‘aftershave’ as required – the only one who’ll tolerate touching, and thus far the only one we’ve needed to touch daily (though obviously, I’ve been desperate to cuddle and stroke all three since Day 1). Just as well – while the weather stays mild the flies are still out in force, and this week he was struck by a different species which lays spikes of tiny white eggs rather than the yellow greenbottle clumps – interesting, if disgusting. Sob’s grown so accustomed we can even stroke him when there’s no food involved, and Hubcap once gave his rear end a good scratch which he leaned into and seemed to enjoy. And I did lay a hand on Socks once, when he was walking beside me. ‘Aw, Socks,’ I said, ‘are you letting me touch you?’ He leapt away, looking appalled. ‘No!’ Should’ve kept my mouth shut. Sweater I’ve never touched except when we caught him for shearing, although he’s grown much bolder of late, I’ve been thoroughly sniffed and inspected, and his lips have brushed my palm a couple of times. We’ll get there, eventually.

Meanwhile I swear all three are now much smarter than the average sheep, given the stimulus of a varied, natural environment and twice-daily conversation with large, friendly animals who make the effort to please and learn their language, (head shakes mean happy excitement, a stamped forehoof means impatience or ‘More!’, a double stamp with fore- or hind-hooves means, ‘More!’, a biff with a horn means, ‘Gerroff’ or ‘MORE! NOW!). They’ve also learned plenty of human. They know our voices, know their names, know the difference between a full and empty treat bag, know that if they – Soboray, at least – bleat plaintively enough at leaving time, we’re prone to pick them another handful of leaves before we go. It’s hard not to anthropomorphise: Proud Socks dislikes being told off, (especially in front of his minions), wants all the More Better for himself, and bullies both the other boys to get it. Clown Prince Soboray is bold and cheeky, apt to play practical jokes (the ‘stealth whiffle’ of an unsuspecting hand or buttock – alas for him, losing its effect on us due to frequent repetition, but still with great power to shock visitors), and prone to plant his forehooves in one’s midriff like an excited dog after the treat bag, or use one as a stepladder to reach overhead branches, so that one goes home covered in cloven hoof-prints like some horror movie extra trampled by said dread Goat of Mendes. This trick is mainly Sob’s – Socks has only used me as a ladder once, and Sweater wouldn’t dare – and according to Dan, it’s a sign of dominance, ‘Ner ner, not scared of you.’ Mostly we put up with whatever contact they initiate for the sake of building a relationship. Sometimes we don’t. Last time Sob jumped up, I grabbed both forelegs and mocked as he goggled helplessly and waved his head around in a futile attempt to hook my hands off, then pulled away looking affronted. Ha ha, serve him right. I don’t put up with butting either, which only Sob is apt to do when impatient for More Better Treats (and once buffeted Hubcap round the shelter pen when he broke off from serving muesli to answer the phone). I’ve discovered a sharp bop on the offending horn (think Basil Fawlty, Manuel, spoon) followed by immediate withdrawal of privileges does the trick, and reminds him who’s really the boss (not Socks). Pretty, timid Sweater, bottom of the pecking order, doesn’t attack anyone but will hold his own at the trough – or just leave the others to it and go hoover up their scraps, which usually means he gets the lion’s share. A true gourmand, he’ll get stuck into anything, especially if the others aren’t keen – no competition – and was first to enthusiastically embrace the salt-lick. Socks sneezed, shook his head and backed off the first time I held salt to his lips, while Soboray spat and, I kid you not, washed his mouth in a tuft of wet grass, though they’ve all acquired the taste now, judging from the tongue-marks and nibbled edges.

To close with some of the main things we’ve learned about sheeple in our first year of shepherding:

Woollies aren’t aggressive, except to each other, (Socks on Soboray, Sob and/or Sox on poor little Sweater). Just as well, because if they ganged up on us we’d long since be toast – one charge to break our knees/bring us down, another to break our skulls, and bam! Lights out, permanently. Socks did charge at me once, after I’d scolded him for eating apple trees, but I sat my ground and luckily he stopped a metre away, quivering with indignation, gave me a Look, then turned his nose up at a placatory treat (for the first time ever) and stalked off, dissing me with his bottom. See what I mean about it being hard not to anthropomorphise? The body language of this interaction was unmistakable – in terms of sheep etiquette, I’d seriously screwed up and Socks wanted me to know it.

Woollies don’t bite. In fact they’re scrupulously careful not to, and any finger detected by their exquisitely sensitive lips is avoided or daintily spat out. Again, just as well. I’ve only brushed a tooth once, in the early days of hand-feeding; sharp as a metal rasp, the merest touch almost drew blood. It’s weirdly fascinating to watch; the delicate jaws so narrow Sob and Sox can feed from the same palm (or same picnic plate, as I was charmed to discover at their anniversary party last month – their table manners are dreadful), the velvety mouths and tiny white teeth capable of browsing with millimetre precision, yet also of demolishing saplings and the most hostile vegetation in jig time because:

Woollies can eat anything, apparently. Hawthorn, thistles, brambles, nettles, dock – no problem. Ragwort and giant hogweed, which would probably kill commercial breeds raised on rye-grass and sheep pellets but which Hubcap will now have to cultivate in a sheep-proof zone for the sake of his precious cinnabar moths, hoverflies and honey bees. Toxic trees like elder and cherry, astringent analgesic willow, acidic, tannin-laden oak – Sweater and Socks will scrunch acorns down by the bushel, shells and all – we try to limit their intake of these and other supposedly harmful things, but the condition of their poo (inspected daily/minutely and sent off for annual worm-count) suggests all three are worm-free/in perfect digestive health. I suppose it makes evolutionary sense; native breeds in marginal environments would be genetically programmed to exploit any/every food source, particularly plants shunned by other grazers, and a regular intake of harsh chemicals must make their guts very uncomfortable for the average parasite.

Woollies’ favourite food is tree. Any species: catkins, green hazelnuts, tender twigs, whatever, they can strip leaves off an armload of boughs like a swarm of locusts, then strip the bark off what’s left. It’s awesome to behold and means that every young tree in areas they frequent has to be widely barricaded, or somesheep (mentioning no names, Soboray Woollie-Doggett) will use the fencing as a ladder to eat off every branch he can reach, then ring-bark it to death. Consequently, they got very peeved last winter when there were no leaves left and we’d failed, as we failed again this year, to gather any green boughs for drying into tree-hay. Of course, they do eat grass too and can flatten a pasture in a couple of weeks, but it often seems like a poor second if there’s anything more interesting to be had on the other side of the fence; and their individual tastes are fascinating. Sweater will try anything/everything, and usually eat it with relish. Socks loves any apple, core and all; Soboray ignores or spits any but sweet red eaters. Socks dislikes acorns whereas Sweat and Sob adore them. Everysheep likes Rooty Treats provided they’re diced small, and they’d probably scoff muesli till they burst if we let them; a certain sheep (guess who) has even started attacking the plastic dustbin where we keep the sack in his zeal to get at it.

All in all, contrary to my fears, our first year of shepherding has been massive fun, and the lads’ simple sheepy company a massive tonic and consolation after the sad loss of our beloved Henry Wowler. And to my great relief and pride, it’s been a success in that all three are still with us, bright-eyed, glossy-faced and clean-bottomed, seemingly happy, and with enough spare energy to play – Hubcap’s ‘sheeplechase’ video of them chasing each other up and down the long, curving beckside paddock (they stopped for a conflab then walked off as if embarrassed when they finally noticed him filming) still reduces us to helpless laughter no matter how often we watch it. What an acquisition and asset to the site they’re proving to be… Happy 1st Anniversary, Wonderful Woollies!

Blood Magic, Chapter 3 – my young adults’ story continues!

Chapter 3: Three Wishes

For a second, I thought Raven was walking on water. Then I spotted the diagonal row of stepping-stones just below the surface and followed carefully, clutching my stuff – Mum’d kill me if I soaked my new school shoes – across to a slab set in the opposite bank, just big enough for us to stand on side by side.

Raven dried her feet with her jumper, put it back on, stuffed her tights in her pocket and squidged bare feet back into her shoes. I quickly did the same, chilled by more than the stream and for once glad of my hideous sweater. Then she leapt up a sort of ladder of flat stones jammed into the bank and I crawled behind, using my hands, trying not to dirty my kilt.

When I got the top, I realised why we’d put our shoes on. This was no barefoot stroll, it was a jungle hike with four ways to go, well-trodden for the first few metres then fading into ferny undergrowth.

‘This is Five Acre Wood,’ said Raven, ‘but it wasn’t always called that. Or wooded.’ She dimpled at me. ‘See if you can guess what it used to be. I’ll give you a clue: it’s really old. And really exciting. To me, anyway.’ Plunging into the path dead ahead, she called over her shoulder, ‘Oh, and the goddies called this Maidenhowe Road. That’s your last clue till we get there.’

Maidenhowe? It sounded vaguely familiar, like a name I should know… maybe a village we’d passed through when we went to Temple Newsam? But I didn’t have the breath to say it aloud because Raven was swimming up a steep, greeny-gold hill, pushing tall stems back with her arms, making a way, holding low branches back for me as I panted behind, sweating and wondering. Could this Maidenhowe be a sort of toy village, like Marie Antionette’s hamlet where she played at being a shepherdess and made real shepherds hate her? (I’d love to see that, I enjoyed learning about it when we did the French Revolution). Or a cottage named after the place where the owner was born? My tummy squirmed hopefully. Whatever, it must be abandoned, maybe ruined, unless there was another way in – obviously no-one took this path every day walking the dog, or going to school, or nipping to the shop for a bottle of milk. Although it flattened out a bit in places, and we scrunched in and out of a couple of dips where fallen leaves had gathered shin-deep, it was mostly up; going out would be OK, but coming home would be a real drag, especially at night.

It felt like a long climb before I saw blue up ahead and stumbled thankfully out of the wood onto a bumpy grass hilltop with knuckles of rock poking through here and there, and a round hummock with three tall pine trees growing out of it near the edge where the ground fell away like a cliff, overlooking a wooded valley in every gorgeous shade of autumn. Beyond that was the main road, I guessed, because I could hear a faint roar of rush-hour traffic when the breeze blew in our faces.

 It took away what bit of breath I had left. ‘Wow!’ I gasped. ‘Fantastic view!’

‘Yes, welcome to Maidenhowe!’ Raven grinned. ‘So, can you tell what it is yet?’

Slightly disappointed not to find a tumbledown cottage, I racked my geography brains. A viewpoint? Well, yes, but you’d expect a bench or something for people to sit and enjoy it, and I couldn’t see one. A headland? No, they stuck out into the sea. A promontory, then. I said it aloud, trying not to sound smug, then pointed at the hummock. ‘And that’s a knoll.’

Raven waggled her hand. ‘Sort of. It’s more than a promontory, and the knoll isn’t natural.’

The sun came out from behind a cloud as she spoke, low as afternoon wore on to evening, and drew shadows round its base, a sink of darkness on top, among the pine trees, and a shallow line like a well-trodden road running down towards us where, as if by magic, the random lumps of rock ahead arranged themselves into a circle. It reminded me of pictures I’d seen of Stonehenge, but before I could say so, it suddenly clicked and my mind’s eye saw the hill treeless: shaped like a slice of pizza with a big pepperoni stuck on the pointy end, and deep ditches with banks either side cut across to protect a scatter of round wooden huts with conical thatched roofs, set on stone foundations to stop the timbers rotting. (Not that I’d have known if I hadn’t seen a scale model – and what came out of that mound – when we went on a class trip to Wakefield Museum).

I jumped up and down, squeaking with excitement. ‘It’s a Bronze Age village! Oh, my God! Which means that’s a round barrow! And that,’ my hand shook as I pointed into the circle, ‘that’s where they think she lived, the lady who was buried in it.’ There’d been a scale model of that too, sliced down the middle like a pudding so you could see what was inside, next to the real skeleton curled up in her glass case wearing her bead necklace, with her red pottery beaker and two small knives, one bronze and one flint, and a thin gold foil jewel shaped like Raven’s trug. ‘We went to see the exhibition, ‘Maidenhowe Woman: Who Was She?’ But I never realised the place was here, so close to where we live.’

‘Yes, the goddies lent the Museum some notebooks and photos for it. It was Godpa’s great-grandad Josiah who vandalised the mound, you see, and wrote it up for Antiquaries Journal in 1870-something and planted those Scots pines as a sort of memorial – probably to salve his conscience for grave-robbing.’ Raven smiled. ‘Although maybe the Lady thinks it’s cool to be re-born into our world and have people still visiting her and talking about her thousands of years later. I hope so, anyway.’

‘Do you think she was a princess?’

Raven shook her head. ‘More like a priestess… someone who knew about herbs and healing and chewed magic mushrooms and had visions and spoke with the ancestors.’ A funny little thrill shivered over me, and I felt suddenly sure she was right. ‘Whatever, she was special to her people and she’s special to me, so let’s visit her.’ Taking my hand, she led me to the nearest stones, set like four corners of a square. ‘Shut your eyes – and mind your head, we’re going through the porch.’ My knees went wobbly as I ducked under, feeling Raven do the same through my hand. ‘Now walk forward, we’re going to stand in the hearth.’ She giggled. ‘Don’t worry, we’re ghosts, we won’t burn.’

I shivered again, trying not to cheat, not to break the spell by looking down to see where I was putting my feet. After about six steps the ground dipped slightly, and we stopped. The breeze dropped and I suddenly felt very hot, as if the fire had sprung to life around us. Then inside my closed lids I saw her, just for a split-second, facing us on a sort of low couch covered in animal skins, wearing only her bead necklace and long auburn hair – and looking straight back at me with eyes rolled so far back in her head that only the whites showed.

Gasping aloud, I yanked my hand out of Raven’s and snapped mine open. Certain we’d stepped through a time-hole, I expected to find myself in flickering half-darkness, surrounded by timber walls and the smell of woodsmoke. Instead, the bright, open blue smacked my face, making me blink and stumble into Raven, nearly knocking her down.

She caught my arm, steadied me. ‘Are you OK, Ellie?’

‘Uh. Yeah. I think so. I just feel a bit weird.’ I didn’t want to say why, not right then, in case I sounded mad. Then my insides twinged painfully, making me hug my tummy and gasp again. ‘Oof – and I’ve got indigestion. Maybe I ate too many cornichons.’

Raven gave me an odd look. ‘Maybe. Whatever, let’s go and sit down for a minute.’ She ushered me out through the back wall and onto the shadow-path connecting the hut to the burial mound, then instead of scrambling straight up the side, set off along a faint pathway trodden in the grass, curling upwards in a gentle spiral. Weak-kneed, I followed her to the top, where we skirted the pine trees and sat down with our backs to them, looking out over the valley. I hugged my aching tum and felt a bit better as she said dreamily,

‘Imagine – people have lived here ever since there were people. There’s an Ice Age rock-shelter up in that hill,’ she waved a hand back towards Hidden House, ‘and the valley’s been farmed since the Neolithic, Godpa was forever ploughing up flint tools and bits of pot. Then the Romans stuck a signal beacon on the mound and it was used like that for centuries, old Josiah found the foundations, and some folk still call it Beacon Hill – but it’s listed as Maidenhowe in Domeday Book, and the Gardiners probably knocked down what was left of the medieval farm and built Hidden House over it in sixteen-whenever. All the land round here belonged to Idenowes or Grange back then, right up till they got slapped with a compulsory purchase order to put in the new road. The Grangers hung on to their land on the far side, but the goddies wanted to semi-retire, so they sold theirs to the Council to build the new housing estate and scaled down from farming to smallholding until they retired completely. It’s so funny – they were all set to move to some posh oldies complex near Harrogate, then the minute they did the deal with Mum they changed their minds and decided to see a bit of England before they die. So they bought a narrowboat instead.’ Raven giggled. ‘It’s no bigger than our old bus, which is how come we’ve still got all their furniture and stuff, which is just as well because Mum and I still don’t have any, only our clothes and little bits. So now they’re the travellers – but we keep their room for them, and if they ever get sick of the boat they can just come home and find the place pretty much as they left it, only with Mum’s name on the deeds.

‘Anyway, you were right earlier on. Despite how it happened we are lucky to live here, incredibly lucky. I’ve always thought Idenowes was magic, especially Maidenhowe… and the Lady can grant wishes, if you ask her nicely.’ Raven gave me a sly, sidelong glance. ‘Do you want to try? You get three.’

I giggled. ‘Seriously?’

‘Yep. Nothing big like world peace, though, just private, personal things.’ She stood, grabbed my hand, pulled me to my feet. ‘Are you up for it?’

‘Um.’ I had so many wishes it was hard to pick just three. Also, I wasn’t sure what Raven’s game was, and I didn’t want to look silly. But what the heck, it couldn’t do any harm to play along. I thought quickly. ‘Sure, OK. I wish I-’

‘No! Not like that! You’ve got to ask properly.’ She led me into the shadowy hollow between the triangle of trees. ‘Stand there.’ Taking my shoulders, she moved me into position on the side of the deepest part facing the sun, then stood directly opposite, turning into a dark silhouette with a blood-red halo. ‘Now, this is blood magic, so we need to be blood-sisters – with each other, and with the Lady. You are still a virgin, aren’t you?’

‘Y-yes,’ I spluttered, red as the sun. Fat chance of being anything else. ‘Yes, of course.’

‘Good. So am I. So was she.’ Raven gave a thumbs-down. ‘You can feel it through your feet, can’t you?’

‘Um.’ I was about to say no when suddenly I could; at least, a strong sense of her still being there, the maiden with her long red plaits and brain and heart and everything that made her unique dissolved into the soil Josiah Gardiner had tipped back into her tomb. ‘Yes, I can.’

‘Good.’ Raven produced a fat red penknife from her kilt pocket and popped out a short blade. ‘Give me your left hand.’

Nervously, I held it out. ‘Why? What are you going to do?’

Grabbing hold, she jabbed the point into my ring fingertip. ‘That,’ she replied as I cried, ‘Ow!’ then jabbed her own and pressed them together hard. A few drops of mixed blood dripped into the hole. ‘Now say this: Maidenhowe Lady, we ask thee, to hear us, and grant our wishes three.’ We repeated the words together. I’d have felt silly if I hadn’t felt so wobbly and weak, heavy and draggy inside as if the hollow was a vampire mouth, sucking my life out through my soles while it sucked in our blood through the grass. ‘Now, we’ve got to wish aloud or she might not hear. Like this: Maidenhowe Lady, my three wishes are to be happy here… to make lots of friends… and for Eloise to be my bestie,’ her hand gripped mine as she said it, ‘at least until Fi comes home. Thank you. OK, your turn.’

What a cheat, I thought. Raven was already happy at Hidden House, who wouldn’t be. And she was bound to make friends because you couldn’t help liking her, (although that’d probably make her some enemies too). And her third wish had already pretty much come true. I suspected the Lady was going to find mine a lot more challenging. ‘Um… OK. Maidenhowe Lady, my wishes three are, um, to be slimmer.’ My face burned hotly. ‘For Joshua Brown to fancy me. And to roll my Rs properly in French.’ My tummy gave a huge cramp as I said it and I groaned, clutching myself with my free hand. Oh, no. I recognised it now, the twinges and dull ache. It had only happened three or four times since I turned thirteen, but I remembered what it meant – and that my emergency panty-liner was tucked away discreetly in my bag, back at the house. ‘Oh, God. I need to go, Raven. Now.’

‘Oh, is your period starting? How weird,’ she went on as I nodded in surprise, ‘mine did too, last time I wished here. We’d best hurry, then – goodbye, My Lady.’ She blew a kiss down the hole, then still gripping my left hand, led me straight down the side of the mound, down the pathway, through the hut circle, out through the porch – no ducking this time – and plunged into the woods.

‘Wait!’ I dragged to a halt on the edge. I’ve never liked hurrying down steep slopes, I’m scared of falling, and I’ve always envied slim, bouncy people like fell-runners who can leap down sure-footed as goats. ‘I can’t run down that.’

Raven turned to me, eyes dancing. ‘If you think you can or think you can’t, either way you’re right. So tell yourself you can, and you will. Look,’ she pointed down the hillside to the trail of trampled, disturbed vegetation we’d left. ‘You can see exactly where to go. Just stick close and you’ll be fine. You can do it, Ellie. I know you can. Besides,’ she added as the distant church bell bonged, ‘it’s quarter to six – we’ll have to run, or we’ll be late for dinner. Come on!’

She bounded away. Oh, my God. I followed, stiff and jerky, trying to hurry but almost as slow as usual. Then my insides cramped again, and I felt a wetness in my pants. Oh, my God. I speeded up, telling myself frantically I can do it I can do it I can I can I can, risked a clumsy jump onto a flat stone, bounced off onto a gentle slope of bare earth – then the ground dropped away and I was flying, somehow landing in Raven’s footsteps, I can I can I can hammering in my head, not daring to think anything else, flailing after her dark bobbing head, crashing through drifts of leaves, slowly catching her up. And suddenly I got my Seven League Boots on again, mastered my legs, began to bounce down more confidently, actually enjoying myself – and before I knew it the slope flattened out, the trees ran out, and I ran smack into her outstretched arms, (just as well, or I’d have ended up in the stream).

Hugging me close, Raven spun me round to use up the last of my speed. ‘There! Told you so,’ she panted. Then we both burst into breathless giggles.

‘Yeah, but I still can’t believe it,’ I gasped. ‘I never dared do anything like that before! I can’t believe I didn’t break my ankle. Or my neck.’

‘Well, you’d better believe it,’ Raven slipped her shoes off, ‘because you didn’t.’ Then she hopped across the stepping stones and started jogging back up the mown path without waiting for me.

‘Hang on!’ I floundered after her. It was all right for long-legged Raven, being into athletics and about ten kilos lighter than me. ‘I can’t- I mean, I don’t want to run any more. Especially not uphill. My tummy aches and I’m sweaty enough as it is.’

‘No worries,’ she called over her shoulder. ‘Just come in through the music room. I’ll see you there.’

By the time I puffed up to the deck I had stitch to go with my cramps, my hair was stuck to my head and my shirt was stuck all the way down my back, not just sopping wet in the armpits. Ugh. So somehow I wasn’t surprised to find Raven sprawled on a sun-lounger in nothing but her white regulation bra and maroon pants.

‘Sorry, I couldn’t stand my clothes another minute, they were minging. Mum says to hang yours on the newel post and she’ll stick them in the wash with mine – oh, and we’ve time for a shower if we’re quick. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of spare stuff to change into, the goddies have just had a wardrobe clear-out.’ She jumped off the lounger and padded indoors, beckoning me to follow.

My heart sank. I hated taking my clothes off in front of people, even other girls. Especially other girls when they were as slim and pretty as Raven or Fi, even if I knew they wouldn’t poke fun at my flab or say anything cruel. But the thought of being damp and smelly through dinner with her mum was worse – not to mention my mum’s reaction when I came home with my new shirt all limp and sweat-stained. So I fumbled out of all but my pants – luckily, her mum was nowhere in sight – and slung them on top of Raven’s clothes.

She added her undies and bounced off upstairs, stark naked. ‘Come into mine when you’re ready,’ she called down. ‘Turn right at the top and it’s straight ahead, I’ll leave the door open.’  

I peeled off my soggy bra and buried it in my kilt, embarrassed at the thought of Mamalou touching it, and scurried after her, clutching my chest. By the time I got there, Raven had covered herself in a faded denim shirt that hung on her like a dress and thrust a bathrobe at me the second I appeared in the doorway.

Gratefully I put it on – it couldn’t have been hers, it fitted too well – then gasped, ‘Wow!’ as I took in her bedroom. Three white walls covered in doodles and sketches – my folks would go mad if I drew on my walls! – and one covered in cork tiles with snapshots, postcards, band publicity photos, big posters of Stonehenge and the Eiffel Tower, and all sorts of bits pinned all over it. A faded blue, red and white rug with a half-metre of bare floorboards all round. White furniture. Bunk beds with red, white and blue patchwork quilts to match the curtains. Shelves crammed with books, jigsaws, old-fashioned board games, Lego, and antique toys, a coloured metal spinning-top, wooden puppets and alphabet blocks, a doll with a china head. A big dapple-grey horse with a real mane and tail on red rockers in front of the window. And best of all, on its own table in the corner, a huge Victorian doll’s house, the sort you see in museums and I’d always longed for, but Mum and Dad couldn’t afford even if we had space to put one, which we didn’t. ‘I love your room! It’s amazing. I could play in here all day.’

Raven laughed. ‘Yes, we often did! This was always the nursery, as you can tell – Rowan and Ferne bunked in here till they were ten and got proper grown-up rooms, then it turned into mine. And this,’ she opened a door in the side wall, ‘used to be a dressing-room until the goddies had it converted. Come in and get showered while I sort you some clothes out.’ I followed her into a lovely marble-tiled bathroom with a black-and-white check floor, and an old-fashioned bath on claw feet with white curtains all round. ‘Help yourself to toiletries, and here’s a fresh towel.’ Raven unhooked it from the back of a second door, then opened it and went through. ‘This is Mum’s room – I’ll be in here, so just yell if you need anything. Right, I’ll leave you to it. See you in five.’

As the door closed behind her I dropped the bathrobe, peeled off my pants, and peered at them anxiously. Wet, yes, but only with sweat. Phew! I dropped them too, pulled back the curtain and climbed into the bath. It had a chrome shower attachment with old-fashioned taps and dials, and a chrome rack on the wall full of sponges, loofahs, bars of soap, and bottles of Mamalou’s Poo and Dish. Luckily there was a shower-cap, too; my hair would have to wait till I got home, it took too long to wash and dry, and tangled so badly I needed help combing it out.

The spray, hot and hard, felt so good I could have stayed under, soaping and scrubbing, for ages. Instead, five minutes later, I was back in the bathrobe, pink, shiny and fragrant, combing hair I’d towelled as dry as I could. ‘Shower’s free!’ I called to Raven.

‘Great!’ I heard through Mamalou’s door. Then she came in, shrugged her shirt over her head, stepped into the bath, and swished the curtain closed. A second later, the water started again. ‘Aah… bliss! I’ve put you some clothes on Mum’s bed if you want to get dressed. I’ll be out in a minute.’

I felt a quiver of excitement. I’d been told not to go in on my own… but Raven said it was OK, and she was sort of with me, if not exactly in the same room. So in I went – and immediately understood Mamalou’s rule, why she wouldn’t want anyone and everyone to see. Her bedroom was a MoonChild shrine, the black wall behind the black iron bedstead one huge logo with a massive full moon painted so beautifully in silver, white and grey you could see every crater – and the only place in Hidden House (I suddenly realised) where I’d seen photos of Gray Childe, alone or with her mum, as a family with Raven, with famous friends including Foxy, or with people I guessed were the grandies and goddies. And he was over this room like the measles, grinning from silver frames on the shelves and dressing table, or playing his guitar on the walls between Catfish Crew posters and Mamalou’s original artwork and designs.

Lying on her white tapestry bedspread was a cotton vest, yellowed with age; a pair of loose, drawstring-waist cotton leggings the blue of faded denim; and a washed-out navy sweatshirt with a faint white image of a woman’s profile over the words La Voix d’Or on the front and, I picked it up eagerly, a faint white list of French tour dates on the back. Oh my God – vintage Cecile, from before she was world-famous! Thoughtful Raven had even left me some new-looking big lady pants, dark pink with dark red roses, with a matching cotton pad fastened with tiny press-studs to the gusset.

I put everything on and amazingly, it fitted, although I had to roll the leggings and sweatshirt cuffs up a bit. Even more amazingly, it suited me, skimming over my bulges, and making me look relatively slim. So the Lady had granted my first wish already, in a way… I stuffed my damp knickers in a pocket and was still smiling at my reflection in the wardrobe door mirror when Raven came in, wet hair slicked back, looking like a pretty Goth in a baggy black sweater and black woolly tights – apart from her totally uncool feet in bright, stripy knitted slipper-socks, the sort with a leather sole stitched on so you can wear them outdoors.

She handed another pair to me. ‘Here, you’ll need these, the stone floors get chilly at night. Godma makes them by the dozen for the farm shop. And the paddy-pants. Comfy, aren’t they? Mum says you’re welcome to keep them, the clothes too if you like. If you don’t, they’ll go back in the charity bag when you’re done wearing them.’

I went bright red. ‘Gosh. Thanks,’ I said, as we started downstairs. ‘I’d love to keep this sweatshirt,’ I glanced fondly at it, ‘and everything else. Except maybe the vest.’ Then as we turned into the hall a smell hit us, the sort of smell you know hasn’t come out of a tin. My stomach gave a huge growl, and we practically ran to the kitchen, which was all warm and cheery with firelight from the stove, and a big brass oil-lamp hung on a beam, and a big fat candle burning in a glass jar at one end of the table. The other end was set with three wooden bowls on placemats, three forks, three wineglasses, a glass jug of ice-water, an open bottle of red wine, and our teatime loaf still lying in its crumbs in between.

‘Ah! There you are – perfect timing!’ Mamalou pulled out a chair. ‘Come, Eloise, sit. How are you feeling now?’

To be honest, it was such a relief to be clean, fresh, and safely padded that I’d forgotten about my gripes until that moment. ‘Fine, thanks, except my tummy’s a bit tender. And I love these clothes, it’s really kind of you to let me have them. And to wash my uniform.’

‘Well, it’ll be done and dry by home-time, and I’ll be glad if your mama never finds out that you went cross-country running in it, thanks to my daughter.’ Slyly, she tapped the side of her nose, then handed me a blue china Zodiac mug with a prancing silver goat on it – my star sign, funnily enough. ‘Now, this is frankincense and clary sage tea. Breathe the steam in and sip it when it cools, it’ll relax your womb and ease the cramps. Take a little wine too, it enriches the blood.’ She poured two pairs of fingers which Raven topped up with water, then sat down and emptied the bottle into her own glass. ‘Salut!’ She raised it to us. ‘Bon appetit. Dig in, girls.

‘So, tell me,’ she went on to Raven, ‘how was your first day of State education?’

‘Brilliant! Well, mostly.’ Raven launched into her tale while I launched into my salad. It was nothing like the dull lettuce-cucumber-tomato we dutifully ate for Saturday tea because it did us good and gave Mum a break from cooking. The things we’d picked actually tasted of something – bitter peppery rocket, oniony chives, herby herbs, the sweetest, juiciest tomatoes and most tender-skinned, cucumbery cucumber ever – mixed with other stuff like grated raw carrot and beetroot, tiny raw green beans, and toasted sunflower seeds, all tossed in a lemony dressing. Mm. I tried not to gobble, sipped my weak wine and the weird tea that smelt like Clarity to slow myself down, and was mopping the bowl out with a bit of bread when a clock somewhere went bong. I glanced at my watch. My stomach went boing. Half past six! Normally Fi and I would have done a big chunk of homework by now, it was part of the deal, why we were allowed to hang out together every night. Our folks were really strict about it – and they checked up to make sure.

‘Oh my God!’ I gasped, cutting Raven off mid-sentence. ‘We haven’t done our homework! I’ll get killed when I get home!’

‘Well, I’m not bothering with Physics, there’s no point. It’s way more advanced than Gen Sci.’ She turned to me. ‘That’s what I did at the Grammar, General Science. It covered all sorts, human biology, geology, astrophysics – they took us to hear Professor Brian Cox lecture once, he was fantastic – and it was really interesting, and I could follow it OK. But this,’ she pulled a face, ‘ugh. Way too much maths. I was bored to death this afternoon, I hardly understood a word, I’m miles behind everyone else, and I don’t want to waste time slogging to catch up and scrape passes in a subject I know I’m never going to like.’

‘Don’t be silly, give it a chance, you’ve only had one lesson,’ was what I expected to hear, what I could practically guarantee my own folks would say. But Mamalou just nodded. ‘Fair enough, I’ll speak to Dr Bates in the morning about changing your options. So, Physics we can discount. What else do you have- Eloise?’

‘History.’ It had been on my mind since the second I saw Hidden House, especially since meeting the Maiden. I’d had a much nicer time while Raven was suffering Physics, and our term project was a piece of original research into local history – ‘any period, any subject,’ Ms Dunne had said. ‘Your own family, important local people or events, historic sites or monuments, whatever interests you most,’ and our first homework assignment was a summary of our chosen topic in 500 words, with a list of the sources we planned to use for it. ‘Um, if you don’t mind, I’d really like to do a project on this place… A History of Idenowes, something like that.’

‘Oh, yes!’ Raven bounced in her seat. ‘Great idea! We’ve got a whole box of stuff Ellie can take home with her, haven’t we, Mum? I’ll dig it out after dinner. I could haul out the family Bible as well for Rel Studs,’ Deefor wanted us to choose an Apostle and give his version of a lesson by Jesus, ‘although I’d rather leave that to think about later, if it’s OK by you.

‘Eng Lit, then,’ she went on as I nodded, my mouth full of bread. ‘Pick a character from HIV Part 1 and describe in five adjectives, supported by examples from the text. I’ll go for Falstaff, he’s fun. There, done it!’ she giggled. ‘Funny, fat, drunken old fool, I can find plenty of quotes to show that. Who will you do?’

‘Prince Hal,’ I said straight away, pleased Raven hadn’t chosen him because I really wanted to but I didn’t want to look like a copy-cat. ‘Proud, fit, fierce, brave, show-off – it’s all in that bit you recited in class. I loved it, it brought me out in goosepimples too.’

‘Cool, so that’s Shakespeare sorted. And reading Chapter Two of Madding, that can wait… what else did Mr T give us? Oh yeah – ‘Compare characters of Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene, as seen in Chapter One. Do you think they’d make a good couple?’ That’s easy enough, isn’t it?’

I went bright red. ‘I suppose. He seems really nice and she’s a real bit- um, she doesn’t. I don’t think they’ll make any sort of couple unless she gets over herself and starts treating him properly.’

‘Correct, and well summarised.’ Mamalou smiled. ‘Although you may want to phrase it more elegantly when you write it up. Eh bien, that leaves only French, does it not?’

Oui, Maman.’ Raven dashed out as her mum began clearing our bowls and came back a minute later with the homework sheet, some loose paper, and a pen. ‘Here Ellie,’ she handed them to me, ‘jot your answers down. I’ll do mine in the morning.’

‘OK.’ I scanned the sheet, ten pictures of Paris with a question we had to translate into and answer in French, then translate the answer back to English. Some were very easy. ‘What is that? It is the Eiffel Tower.’ There’d be bonus marks if you could go on, ‘built by Monsieur Wotsit Eiffel for some event in 18-whenever,’ (I’d have to look that up in my notes). Some were harder. ‘How does one get from the North Railway Station to Montmartre by underground?’ which you had to work out from a picture of the Metro map. Not that I had time, because Mamalou had replaced our empty bowls with little brown crocks from the Aga, and we all shut up as we dug through golden-brown bubbly cheese into the savoury-sweet onion gloop underneath. I’d never tasted anything so delicious, as far from tinned tomato (Mum’s emergency default) as can be. If I’d been at home, I’d have licked the crock out. As it was, I used another chunk of bread as Mamalou took a sip of wine and said, ‘Now then, shall we tackle those questions – en français?’

Gulp. Trying to speak French to real French people was much worse than making conversation in class where we were all as bad as each other. But I needn’t have worried. Raven and her mum were brilliant, speaking slowly and clearly and helping me work things out for myself. Like when Raven said, ‘What does that say?’

I read it aloud. ‘Qu’est-ce que c’est?’

Non.’ Covering part of the line with her finger, she made me read it again, qu’est and que c’est.

‘Ah. Oops. I mean, zut alors.’ I drew a ^ under the line and put the missing ce above. ‘Merci beaucoup, Corbelle.’ But even with corrections, we were done in fifteen minutes because I didn’t have to keep stopping to look stuff up or hunt through my French dictionary and grammar, they knew everything, and they’d explain anything as long as I asked properly in French – and it was great to know I’d get top marks for once, nothing knocked off for spelling mistakes or forgetting to make my adjectives agree or missing the ce out of qu’est-ce que c’est. We even carried on chatting in French while Mamalou dished out dessert, poires au sirop de vin rouge, (so that was where the half-bottle of wine had gone, I didn’t think she seemed drunk enough to have drunk it), topped with Grange Farm fromage frais and runny honey. Then she offered me something blue and smelly chasing a bunch of homegrown grapes and figs across a cheeseboard.

‘No, thanks. It looks lovely but,’ I patted my tum, ‘je suis pleine.

It was Raven’s turn to go red. Clapping a hand over her mouth, her shoulders shook as she fought to keep the words in – and lost. ‘Not unless you’re in calf!’ she exploded, then collapsed into giggles.

Mamalou frowned. ‘True, a farmer might say, ‘Ma vache est pleine,’ of his pregnant cow, though it’s rather a vulgar expression. ‘J’ai assez mangée,’ is more appropriate here, Eloise. But remember,’ she added kindly, ‘we all make mistakes… for instance, I know a certain someone who informed a certain German guitarist one sunny day that she was very sexy hot, when she meant very sweaty hot. He couldn’t run away fast enough, she was only eleven.’

Her giggles stopped. ‘Mo-ther! Must you?’

Mine started. ‘Ha, ha – ach, ja.’ Frau Bulow had warned us early on about the difference between saying ‘ich bin heiβ’ and ‘mir ist heiβ’ to stop us embarrassing ourselves or giving people the wrong idea if we went to Germany.

‘I must indeed. These tiny embarrassments should stay with us to make us smile, eventually, and give us stories to make others smile, and to stop us repeating mistakes. I’m sure Eloise will always remember this conversation, and never again say pleine for assez mangée – will you? Good,’ Mamalou went on when I shook my head emphatically. ‘Your accent’s good too, though your Rs could use a little work. They come from too far back, as if you’re clearing your throat, when they should come from behind your teeth, thus.’ She trilled très in that way I found so impossible. ‘You trrrry.’

I had tried, desperately, over and over, every time the Joob got on my case, just like I’d tried to do the tongue-rolling thing in Year 7 Science (and was one of a dozen who couldn’t, including Fi). It was useless. My tongue didn’t work the right way for French Rs, I either blew raspberries or sounded as if I was hawking up grollies, (which was fine for German, luckily). But I had another go to please Mamalou, on the off-chance that the Lady had granted my second wish already. She hadn’t. ‘T-t-threh.’ I tried again. ‘Tchreh.’

‘Hm. I think you try too hard, Eloise. Relax your tongue, persevere, and it’ll come. But for the moment,’ she started gathering dishes together, ‘let’s continue our conversation on the theme of faire la vaisselle.’

I’d never washed up in French before or had so much fun doing it. Mamalou washed, I dried, and Raven put away because I didn’t know where anything went, and they kept up a running commentary on what we were doing, and holding things up and asking me what they were; some I remembered from our Year 8 module on Dans la Cuisine, but I learnt plenty of new words like coconut pan-scrub and eco-friendly detergent, which Mamalou said she made from plants, lierre et savon. I knew what ivy was, Dad was always moaning about it creeping through his borders, but I’d never heard of soapwort. I’d have to Google it later.  

Raven clattered cutlery into a drawer. ‘There! Finished. Can we go now please, Maman? I want to show Ellie the stuff for her history project.’ She dragged me off to the homework room. ‘Did you look at the pictures in here?’

I shook my head. I’d been too busy envying the technology. So I glanced round them now, all the same size and in the same shades of greeny-yellowy-brown, all framed in the same cream card mounts and dark wood, and looking pretty dull, to be honest. ‘Are they abstracts?’ I’m not keen on trying to work out what modern art’s supposed to mean, I like obvious pictures I can enjoy without having to think too much.  

‘No, as concrete as can be.’ Raven opened a wide, flat drawer and began rustling through papers. ‘Check it out – start by the door and go clockwise, they’re in order.’

As I peered close, a patchwork of squares, blobs and lines resolved into a local map, beautifully hand-inked and coloured, the scale large enough to show individual buildings. Recognising our route home from school, I gasped, ‘Oh my God!’ GSA wasn’t marked but St George’s church and the rectory on Townsend Road were, and Idenowes Terrace, and both farmhouses – even the clump of trees in Grange’s front garden – and Maiden’s Howe labelled in tiny letters, and the new main road beyond as a thick red straight line. I realised all the yellowy squares and rectangles must belong to Grange Farm, and the smaller pale green part was Idenowes, and the dark green blobby bits were woods, and the thin wiggly blue line was the stream, and the big pink polygon was the new housing estate. The picture underneath was the same but before Raven’s goddies sold the land, with no pink, only green, and no red line chopping through, so you could see the farms used to be much the same size. The titles in the bottom left corners were 21ST CENTURY and 20TH CENTURY, and in the bottom right corners were tiny initials, M-LM.

‘Wow! Did your mum do these?’ I moved on to the second pair, smaller-scale parish maps with the Lady’s mound marked as Maidenhowe on 19TH CENTURY, and as Beacon Hill on 18TH CENTURY. ‘They’re amazing! Can I take photos? They’re exactly what I need.’

‘Yes, she either drew them from old farm plans – they’re in this drawer if you want to see – or copies of old maps she got from Wakefield Archives. And no, you don’t need photos.’ Raven fed a wad of paper into the printer. ‘I’ll run some off for you, Mum made A4 copies of the originals before she had them framed.’

‘Fantastic!’ I practically danced on to the next as the printer spat into its tray. There was no Idenowes Terrace on 17TH and 16TH CENTURY, whichshowed both farms much smaller, surrounded by woods and orangey-brown areas marked Common, and Maidenhowe called Tumulus. The further round I went, the more the fieldsdwindled and buildings disappeared until the last maps just showed green and brown contours and woods, with brown dotted lines on 1ST CENTURY to show ancient pathways, and a straight black line marked Roman Road with arrows pointing towards Lagentium and Danum, and a square marked Mons Signum on the Lady’s mound. BRONZE AGE only had twelve little circles on the pizza-slice hill, a bit bigger one near the point, and a black triangle marked Rock Shelter on a bare brown hilltop.

‘Here you go.’ Raven thrust a warm pile into my hands and put the other set back in the drawer. ‘There’s all sorts you might want to look at in here – crop rotation plans, architect’s blueprints for the Terrace, land registry documents, you name it.’ She opened the double cupboard underneath. ‘Plus all the farm records way back to 17-something – what they made, what they spent, what they paid their workers… it’s enough for a whole history book, let alone a term project.’ She dimpled at me. ‘Maybe you should write it. It could be your dissertation. Or doctorate.’

A flash-gun exploded in my brain. Clutching my sheaf of precious prints, I collapsed into the nearest chair and flopped my head down towards my knees like Mum said to do if I ever felt faint at that time of the month. For a moment I’d seen myself on stage, in a black gown and mortarboard, (at Durham? It’d be nice to go there, I loved the cathedral and castle), holding my new certificate and smiling proudly for Dad’s camera: Eloise Morton, PhD, Doctor of History- Medieval? Ancient? Or Archaeology? I wasn’t sure, but the details didn’t matter. It only mattered that suddenly I wanted it, wanted it more than I’d ever wanted anything before, even Josh Brown; that suddenly I knew, more or less, what I wanted to do with my life, who I wanted to be, and I felt so excited I almost threw up.

‘Ellie? Are you OK? Shall I get Mum?’ Raven knelt beside me, stroking my hair aside, peering anxiously up at my face.

‘Yes. No. I mean yes, I’m OK and no, don’t bother Mamalou.’ I sat up straight and swallowed hard, I didn’t want to lose that lovely dinner. ‘I’m fine, honestly. Better than fine. My brain’s just running so fast it’s got nothing left for my legs.’ (The flash-vision was too much to explain, I’d have to tell her later when I’d got my head round it). ‘Over the moon because I know exactly how I’m going to do my project, and that it’s going to look mega-brilliant with these pictures.’ Mum and Dad would be over the moon too, not to mention relieved, when I told them I finally had a Career Plan, as well as getting a lot further on with a term project than ever before on first day back. ‘So thanks, Raven, thanks very much. You’re a star.’

She shrugged. ‘Any time. I mean it. I’ll tour you round anything you want to look at, you can take photos, copy stuff from the goddies’ albums – they took pictures of everywhere before the renovations, so you can see what the buildings used to look like inside. Oh, and if you want to write about the Lady,’ she slid out a big flat cardboard box and put it on the desk, ‘old Josiah’s notebooks and sketches are in here, and a few photos and glass slides of the dig, and some bits and pieces from the spoil-heap he didn’t give to the Museum. Mum’s commissioned the Archaeology Unit to come and do a survey this winter when the plants die back, see if they can find any more hut circles, maybe excavate it properly – then we’ll get a better idea of how big Maidenhowe really was, and how many of the Lady’s people might’ve lived there. How’s that for original research? You must come along, I bet they’ll let you have a go with their equipment if you say it’s for school- mustn’t she, Maman?’ she interrupted herself as Mamalou appeared at the door with a tray.

‘Mustn’t who what?’

‘Ellie. Meet the archaeologists in December. And write a history book about Maidenhowe.’

Mamalou stopped dead. Slowly, her head swivelled round to fix me with a Look. I looked back, suddenly petrified, as if we’d stepped into that Daniel Radcliffe movie Mum warned me not to watch and any second she was going to turn into the Woman in Black and rush at me, screeching. Instead, she gave a tiny nod and a small, knowing smile. I relaxed.

‘Yes. Yes, you must and will do those things,’ she said firmly, ‘and we’ll help, however we can. Speaking of which, here’s a little something to sweeten our labours, de-café au lait et marrons glacées, made with our own candied chestnuts.’ She set her tray on the desk and winked slyly. ‘Perhaps you can squeak one in now, Eloise – if you’re not too full.’

‘Ooh, yum! Thanks, Mum.’ Raven grabbed a frothy blue Virgo mug and popped a sticky-looking brown thing in her mouth.

I took Capricorn and did the same; I could always find room for a sweet, and marrons glacées were a famous French delicacy I’d never tried because Mum said they were too expensive, even at Christmas. Ooh, yum. I would’ve had more but there were only three and Mamalou ate the third; and I would’ve had two heaped sugars in my coffee if there’d been any on the tray, but there wasn’t, and I wasn’t brave enough to ask. I tasted it. Not bad, actually – mild and milky, and the chocolate sprinkles helped me pretend it was sweet.

‘Right, then – to work!’ Mamalou sat down with her little cup of noir and opened the laptop. ‘Let’s make notes while we talk, Eloise,’ she began tapping away as the screen came alive, ‘it’ll save so much time. Here we go… new document, working title A History of Maidenhowe.’ She typed it in, hit a key, and turned to me expectantly. ‘So, how do you plan to approach it?’

‘Like this.’ I pointed round the room anti-clockwise. ‘A timeline. Mainly prehistoric, so I’d love to come when the archaeologists are here… and I’ll introduce it by talking about locations and place-names and general stuff… then do a big Bronze Age section… then one from Roman to modern, maybe just a page for each century with a map and some pictures. Then my list of sources. Um- I think that’s about it. Shall I write it up?’

Mamalou turned the screen towards me. I saw a paragraph under the title ending with the words No need, I set it on dictate as she spoke, (immediately followed by my Wow! Cool! I never thought of doing that!).

So, yeah, I thought quickly about the assignment, my term project is to tell the story of farming at Maidenhowe, also known as Beacon Hill… from, um, cave-men times to present day. Part One, um, Prehistory, will concentrate on the Bronze Age- An image popped into my mind, an aerial photo of Maiden Castle I’d noticed on Raven’s cork wall. Maidenhowe was older, and nowhere near as huge and impressive, but I couldn’t think what else to call it. Um, does it count as a hill-fort?

Mamalou shrugged. I’m not sure. Maybe better to call it a defended hilltop settlement until you can ask the archaeologists.

That sounded more like it. Defended hilltop settlement then, and the house of the famous Lady of Maidenhowe, and the round barrow where she was buried with her most treasured possessions, until Josiah Gardiner dug her up in 18-something, I’d got into full Public Speaking mode now, so enthusiastic I even forgot to blush, and gave her to be put on permanent display at Wakefield Museum-

Oh! Yes! Raven butted in. Let’s go and see her at the weekend! Please will you take us, Maman? On Saturday morning?

Yes, gladly. I’d like to visit her again myself. I punched the air, mouthing, ‘Yay!’ I hardly needed to ask Mum and Dad, they’d be well chuffed for me to do something educational at the weekend.  You’ll have to delete that bit, Eloise. Do go on, now.

Um- oh yeah, and Part Two, History, will summarise the centuries from Roman to modern, and the development of two farms called Idenowes and Grange, dating from Domesday Book, which are still working farms- um, I mean a farm and a smallholding – today. I needed four hundred more words but for the moment I’d run out. Turning away, I whispered so the microphone wouldn’t hear. ‘I’m not sure what else to put in. I’ll have to finish this part when I’ve read up and thought about it a bit more.’

‘Well, you can add oral history to your primary sources,’ Mamalou replied aloud, ‘which comes best straight from the horse’s mouth – and if you’d like to meet the Grangers, you can join us here for Sunday lunch, it’s my turn to cook.’ She smiled wryly. ‘Joe will be delighted, he loves talking family history. As do the Gardiners, who you’ll meet at Raven’s party. I’m sure you’ll find time for a chat, they’ll be staying on till the Monday.’

I’d heard so much about Raven’s goddies by now I blurted, unthinking. ‘How did you come tomeet them?’

‘Ah.’ Mamalou shut the laptop. ‘That’s not a story for your project, Eloise. It’s rather personal, and also rather long-’

‘And some of us have heard it,’ Raven dropped a kiss on her mum’s hair, ‘so if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to dig out some more primary sources.’

‘Very well.’ Mamalou swivelled her chair to face me as Raven skipped out. ‘I met Faith and Jack here, the night my late husband’s parents died – or early next morning, I should say, by the time the police and paramedics finished with us.  

‘It was a fittingly terrible end to a terrible day. Our trip from Cornwall was hell, not just the distance and the traffic – and we were running hours late – but the dread, this awful dark forebodingthat got worse by the mile. Gray was trying to stay positive, jolly us out of it – ‘Woo them, chère. Turn on the old Gallic charm and they’ll melt like I did, Dad especially’ – but I knew he was nearly as anxious as me. I could barely hear him anyway, I had the most dreadful ear-worm for this old song.’ She sang a few lines in a haunting tune that made my neck prickle: ‘My young love said to me, my mother won’t mind, and my father won’t slight you for your lack of kind. And she laid her hand on me, and this she did say, oh it will not be long, love, till our wedding day.’

But she was wrong. They did mind – enough to murder her, so she could only wed her young love as a ghost. Not that I thought Gray’s parents would kill him, I hasten to add. Or me. Not literally. I simply couldn’t believe they’d accept their son getting engaged to a foreign artiste he’d only just met, much less be happy for us – and deep down, neither could Gray. So we girded our loins for the final scene where they disown him, cut him off without a penny, and tell him to take his French floozie and never darken their doorstep again. Which we were prepared to live with – we were in love and determined to marry at whatever cost, even if it meant that this first meeting with my in-laws turned out to be our last.

‘As indeed it proved – we rolled up at the house just as they were coming out in body-bags.’ She pulled a face. ‘I won’t elaborate… suffice to say, it was a blessing to learn that the fire had smouldered a long while before the flames caught. Had the smoke alarm been working, they’d have escaped with very little harm done. But they’d taken a spent battery out and forgotten to replace it before they went to bed – ha ha karma, as Raven would say.

‘We came here as soon as the police let us go. We had nowhere else to go, and Gray was in no fit state to drive, although not for the reasons you might think. There’d been little love lost between him and his parents for years, they’d been fighting since the day he started doing what he wanted, instead of what they wanted for him. So when we got out of the van and he collapsed, It wasn’t from shock like the paramedics tried to tell us, but sheer relief. I was much the same, I felt so unburdened I was practically floating on air. In fact, dreadful as it may sound, the worst thing we had to cope with was the guilt – Gray’s because he wasn’t grief-stricken, and mine because I was glad, glad that he was free, and selfishly glad that I didn’t have to go through the horrible scenes I’d been imagining.

 ‘Anyway, I drove us here, highly illegally, no UK licence, no insurance, never driven on the left before. Thank God it was three-thirty AM and almost nothing on the roads. The Gardiners were devastated when we broke the news, of course… Gray’s father had been Jack’s best friend since they were at school, his mother had grown very close to Faith, and they were godparents to each other’s children, which meant Ferne and Rowan were gutted too. Fortunately no-one expected me to be sad, I hadn’t known the Childes, so I just got on with dispensing tea and sympathy, and running errands, and doing business the family were too upset to deal with, and cooking, and coaxing them to eat. They were far more grateful than I deserved, given the truth of my feelings – that I couldn’t like Ernest and Connie because of the way they’d treated Gray, their lack of respect for his talent and integrity or the slightest support for his vocation- feh,’ Mamalou shook her head, ‘I mustn’t speak ill of the dead – though believe me, we did at the time. Gray was carrying a mountain of hurt and I was the only one he could offload to. It made receiving condolences an ordeal, he loathed the hypocrisy – then people assumed he found talking about his parents too painful, so they stopped mentioning them. We never disabused the idea, it was too convenient, although the self-conscious tact and steering clear of certain subjects was equally hard to bear, in its way. Luckily no-one guessed how Gray and I really felt, and the bereavement bonded us together, and me to the Gardiners, very tightly, very quickly… and that’s how I acquired the best god-parents-in-law a stranger in a strange land could ever hope for.’

‘Gosh.’ I was amazed by Mamalou talking to me like this, like a grown woman, a friend. It made me brave enough to ask, ‘What about your own parents? Did they give you a hard time?’  

She threw back her head, roaring. ‘Ho, no! They were all, ‘Ooh, la la! Coup de foudre! Félicitations, when’s the big day, are you pregnant, when will we meet your Gris Anglais, where shall we go for your dress, you are getting married here, aren’t you – not necessarily in that order! And then- well, Raven’s probably told you we lived happily ever after.’ Her smile faded. ‘Until we didn’t.’  

‘Hey, Ellie!’ A big pile of books wobbled in and thumped heavily down on the desk. A beaming Raven stepped out from behind. ‘Why don’t you put family trees in your project?’ She slid a stack of scrapbooks and photo albums off a massive brick-thick Bible like the ones you see in church. ‘Look, this goes all the way back to King James, and I bet the Grangers have got one just like it.’

‘Oh, wow.’ I pored over the names spilling from the inside cover to the flyleaf: different hands, different inks, but all Gardiners, male and female, husbands, wives, children, ending with Raven’s god-bro and sis. ‘Oh, yes!Then I can link the history part to real people and who was doing what on the land at the time. I like that idea.’

Mamalou smiled. ‘I think your teacher will, too,’ she said, gathering the coffee cups. ‘And on that note, mes enfants, I shall go about my business and leave you to yours. A bientôt.

Raven seemed almost as excited as me as we spread things out on the workstation. There was way too much to think about making proper notes, or choosing what to put in and leave out, so she opened the laptop in case we said anything useful while I wallowed in silvery brown images. Girls with long hair, checked dresses and white aprons picking baskets of fruit in the orchard, the field alongside full of some sort of crop instead of bushes and trees. A big, round-faced woman in an ankle-length skirt and clumpy boots, with a big, round bun of hair, drawing a dripping bucket from the well in front of Hidden House. The farmyard as I’d imagined it in olden times, with a horse harnessed to a cartload of hay standing in the middle, and chickens pecking around it, and a man with a bowler hat, bushy moustache and white grandad shirt nearby, leaning on a pitchfork looking straight at the camera, a long white clay pipe drooping from the corner of his smile.

Lost in the details, I didn’t hear Mamalou come back until she whistled, low in my ear. ‘Vraiment, un embarras de richesses! I didn’t realise the goddies had such an archive, I’ve never seen it all in one place before- oh,’ she peered over my shoulder, ‘but I remember this album. Those are Jack’s grandparents, Ali and Ned, and his mother Vi and her sisters. I forget their names.’

‘They’ll be in the Bible, won’t they?’ I scooted my chair across to look. ‘Yes! Edward Lonsdale Gardiner, wife Alice Rosemary Granger- Granger? What- as in he married his next-door neighbour?’ When Mamalou nodded, I scanned back a few centuries and saw the families had been marrying each other on and off forever – well, since 1652. ‘Gosh. That’s interesting.’ I came back to Ned and Ali. ‘Oh, yes – daughters, Violet, Lily and Iris. They had a Rose, too, but she died at, um,’ I calculated, ‘three months. Gosh, how sad… I wonder if it was a cot death. And four sons… phew. I’m not sure I want to have any babies, never mind eight!’

‘No, I found that one was sufficient for me! And be thankful we’ve the choice, girls.’ Mamalou looked seriously at us. ‘Alice didn’t, like most women until quite recently. At least, not if they wanted a sex life. Losing children at a young age was tragically commonplace too, back in those days.’

That got us on to talking about life expectancy, and family sizes, and things that folk used to die of but not so much now, and looking at the Bible dates, and counting the children various Gardiners had had, and how many survived to have kids of their own; and it was so interesting we totally lost track of time until Raven’s satchel started singing, ‘You’re Raven Moon-Childe and, pretty soon child I’ve, got a feeling that, I’m gonna make you pick your phone up, in your hand.’

She dragged it out, frowned at the number. ‘Hello, Raven’s phone, who is this? Oh. Yes, yes, she is. Oh, no. I’m so sorry. Yes, of course, I’ll pass you over.’ Grimacing, she mouthed to me, ‘It’s your mum.’

I clapped a hand over my mouth to shut in the shriek. Oh, my God! I’d forgotten. Everything. To borrow a charger. To recharge my phone. To text Fi. To text Mum that I’d reached Raven’s OK. Even to go home. And now it was, I checked my watch- oh, my God. Twenty past nine. Scrub any plans for the weekend, then – I’d be grounded for sure.

Dismally, I reached for the phone, but Mamalou beat me to it. ‘Mrs Morton? Good evening! Do forgive me for keeping Eloise out so late, I can imagine how worried you’ve been. And it’s my fault, I’m afraid. We got engrossed in her history project and it never occurred to me to ask what time you expected her home.’ So much Gallic charm was oozing she was practically standing in a puddle. ‘Oh, yes, they’ve been hard at it all evening… she has indeed, a model guest, most polite and helpful… good grief, no! I wouldn’t dream of putting you to the inconvenience, I’ll bring her myself straight away. Yes. Yes, we’ll be with you very soon. ‘Bye now.

‘Right, girls,’ Mamalou gave the phone back, ‘we must bustle! Eloise, you’ve no time to change. Your uniform’s airing by the stove -fold it nicely into a bag, you’ll find some on the kitchen table. Oh, and leave that,’ she added as I looked helplessly at the strewn desk, ‘then it’ll be ready for you next time you come. I’ll go and get the car out. And Raven,’ she streamed French so fast I only caught her last words, ‘Allez, vite!

We hurried into the kitchen, where the table was now covered in sheets of die-cut brown paper, lengths of string, and a stack of bags made up with plaited string handles. Grabbing one, Raven rushed off through a door into the part of Hidden House I hadn’t seen yet. I grabbed another. Forcing myself to do it properly instead of stuffing things in all creased, I took my warm kilt off the clothes horse. Ooh. I buried my nose. Mm. It smelt faintly of Clarity, Mamalou must use it in her washing machine. I rolled it up carefully and packed it into the bag, then my jumper, then my shirt and tights; put my blazer on over my Foxy sweatshirt and went to fetch my shoes from the foot of the stairs. They just about fitted over the slipper-socks if I left the laces undone. Then I went back for my school bag and clothes and met Raven in the kitchen. Her carrier looked full and heavy now.

‘Ready, Ellie? Good! Let’s go.’  

‘Oh! Are you coming too?’

‘You bet,’ Raven giggled. ‘You’ve seen my house, I want to see yours. And to meet your mum and dad.’ She waggled her left ring finger at me. ‘They’re my blood-in-laws now, remember.’

‘Cool.’ I was hugely relieved, to be honest; if Raven was with me, the folks couldn’t give me so much grief. Not till after she’d gone, anyway. Following her out through the front door into chilly darkness, I was surprised when she didn’t lock up but headed straight for a disappointingly ordinary-looking silver estate parked outside the garage. ‘Do you always leave the door unlocked? Aren’t you worried about being burgled?’

Raven giggled again. ‘No, Hidden House is well protected.’ (I assumed she meant silent alarms, or some fancy automatic locking system). ‘Here,’ she opened the rear passenger door, ‘I’ll put your bags in the back.’ She slid in after them and buckled up behind me as I buckled up beside Mamalou, feeling considerably more impressed when she switched on the engine and we purred off up the drive.

‘Ooh. I’ve never been in an electric car before. Isn’t it quiet?’

‘Yes, although this is a hybrid,’ said Mamalou. ‘I like to hedge my bets. And it’s much easier to drive than the SUV.’

‘God, yes, that embarrassing great lump. I’m so glad you made the company swap it, Maman,’ said Raven as we bumped up the cobbled hill. When we stopped at the gate, she hopped out to open it looking even more uncool with nasty clashing pink Crocs on over her stripy socks – and at the same time, cooler in a funny sort of way because she obviously didn’t care a hoot what she looked like or what anyone else might think. (I shuddered to think what Fi, Caro and Libby would say if they saw – they’d rather die than go out of the house dressed like that – and the whole school would be laughing behind Raven’s back ten minutes later).

‘So, Eloise,’ Mamalou slowed to a crawl as we reached Idenowes Terrace, ‘which way? Whereabouts do you live?’

‘In the Trees.’ That’s what locals like to call our streets, though I think of them more as the cheesy centre in a posh club sandwich. ‘Poplar Road. Do you know it?’

‘Ah, yes. A nice area.’ She turned right onto Townsend Road, towards the giant orange glow of the new housing estate. ‘And it’d be a nice walk in daylight.’ She nodded to my left. ‘Technically that’s our land, although Grange have been farming it for decades, since the goddies downsized. So you’re welcome to use the field paths any time you like, no-one will mind.’

‘Ooh! Thanks, Mamalou.’ Maybe Raven and I could explore at the weekend – if I wasn’t grounded. I just wished we could explore the old Idenowes, when all we’d see ahead would be more darkness and trees instead of a glaring great petrol station and Starbucks, and the supermarket where Mum does her weekly big shop and buys my school uniform.

‘I wish I could’ve seen the place before the goddies sold it.’ Raven’s sigh echoed mine as we turned left at the roundabout onto the main road. ‘It must’ve been beautiful. Do you remember it, Maman?’

‘No, this was all built long before my time, unfortunately. So thank goodness we still have our maps, and the Gardiner collection.’ Mamalou shot me a quick smile. ‘Maybe you could catalogue it as part of your project, Eloise. I’d love to know exactly what’s inside all those albums and boxes. I dare say Wakefield Archives would, too.’

‘Gosh. Yes, I need to list my sources and picture captions anyway. Gosh, yes,’ I repeated myself excitedly, ‘this is brilliant! It’s making me feel like a real historian.’

‘You are a real historian, my dear. You’ve the right instincts, the right curiosity, the right vision… yes, I’m sure you’re taking the first steps towards a long and rewarding career.’ Mamalou peeled off the bright dual carriageway onto the dimmer, narrower main road of the old housing estate – brick terraces with front rooms that open straight onto the street, and corner shops, and odd blocks all made up of newsagents, hairdressers, takeaways, and small general stores with flats up above for the owners.

‘Mm. I hope so.’ Lost in rare dreams of academic glory, I hardly noticed us pass the Methodist chapel where the road widens and the pavement sprouts trees and the houses turn semi- with nice front gardens, then grow and detach themselves after the crossroads with the Post Office and Health Centre – but I did jump when we reached Fi’s, all lit up with new people watching TV in the front room, (I saw its glow through the curtains, same place the McDs had had theirs), and their strange cars parked on the driveway. ‘Oh!’ I jerked upright. ‘We’re nearly there! It’s just coming up, second right.’

First right was one of the original Trees, Acorn Avenue, easy to spot on account of the gigantic oak on one corner. (So’s the other. Chestnut Walk, fourth on the right, which has, guess what? Yup, a horse-chestnut). The old houses are lovely, much bigger than Fi’s, built for people who had cooks, and nannies, and housemaids in white aprons and white frilly caps to look after them indoors, and little wiry weather-beaten gardeners in flat caps to look after the outdoors, just like Just William’s familyin the bedtime stories Nana used to read me. Then when the Acorns and Chestnuts decided they didn’t want acres of croquet lawn and tennis courts and mazes and rose gardens any longer, just somewhere to put a pool and a big posh garage for their big posh cars, they all sold huge chunks of back garden to some developer who squeezed in the new Trees, two narrow streets of supposedly three-bedroom semis. (Hah. My room’s pokey enough now, but my baby bedroom wasn’t much bigger than a closet, I had to move when I outgrew my cot because when Dad put my new single bed in there, Mum couldn’t open the airing cupboard to get at the sheets. My pink bunny paper’s still on the walls, but we only use it now for storing suitcases and boxes of stuff like Christmas trimmings, and Mum gets depressed due to the lack of spare room and guests having to sleep on the living room couch, (or my floor, if they’re Fi), and the Original Features, which she hates even when Dad tries to tell her they’re funky, and Seventies retro’s really in.

‘Down to the bottom, last on the left,’ I said as we turned onto Poplar Road. ‘Don’t worry about parking across the drive, Dad won’t be wanting the car out.’

As we pulled up, I looked at my watch and felt sick. Twenty to ten. Later than I’d ever stayed out on a school night before. At least I had somewhere respectable to come home to. Nothing compared to Hidden House, admittedly, but the folks had done ‘Davchrys,’ (marginally better than ‘Chravid,’ I suppose), up quite nicely over the years, and the front garden had a neat privet hedge Dad hand-cut like Gramps always had because the sound of snipping shears made him feel nostalgic, and his company Audi parked next to the little square lawn he always moaned about mowing because the rose-bed in the middle made it a fiddly job, and he was always getting attacked by Mum’s prize Rosa Mundi.

Crossing my fingers that Mamalou had charmed them into not going too ballistic, I unlocked the front door. ‘Hi, Mum! Hi, Dad! I’m home.’ Three people and three bulky bags make quite a crowd in our small hall, so I went straight on into the living room before someone knocked the bowl of pot-pourri off the little spindly table where we put the keys. ‘Um- hi, look, I know it’s really late and I’m really sorry,’ I babbled before they could start, ‘but I’ve got loads of homework done and-’

‘What on earth are you wearing?’ Mum killed the sound and jumped up from the couch where she and Dad were watching TV. ‘What’s happened? Where’s your uniform? Don’t say you’ve ruined it on your first day, that shirt was brand new.’

‘Nothing, it’s fine, honestly.’ I held up the bag. ‘I’ve got it in here. Raven’s mum just gave me these clothes because- um,’ I hesitated, not wanting to drop either of us in the poo.

‘Because I like changing into my slobs after school, and I wanted Ellie to feel comfy too.’ Raven eased past while I dropped my eyes and sucked in a grin. Nice spin, bestie-till-Fi’s-home. ‘Hello, Mrs Morton, Mr Morton. Pleased to meet you. I’m Raven.’

‘And I’m Raven’s mum.’ Mamalou beamed in, made straight for Mum, pumped her hand vigorously, then did the same to Dad. ‘Louise Moulin, call me Lou, a pleasure to meet you indeed! I can’t tell you how glad I am that our girls have hit it off so well – or how sorry Raven and I both are for detaining Eloise all this time. I must admit, that is partly her fault – her project is truly engrossing.’

‘Oh. Well.’ Mum smiled. So did I. This was looking good. ‘I suppose it’s alright if you were working, Eloise.’ She wagged her finger. ‘Just this once, though. We want you back by nine on school nights in future, young lady.’

Phew-ee. ‘Yes, Mum,’ I said gratefully. ‘I promise. I’ve done my French and most of my English as well, and my history project’s going to be A-mazing, I can’t wait to show you, only all my notes are on the goddies’ laptop and-’

‘Have we met somewhere before, Lou?’ interrupted Dad, staring hard. ‘On holiday, maybe? You look very familiar. Hang on, I’ll place you in a minute, I’m good with faces- oh, my God.’ His eyes bugged wide. ‘Oh, my God! I don’t believe, it can’t be- bloody hell, it is!’ He jumped up too and grabbed Mum’s arm. ‘Don’t you recognise her, love? It’s-’

OH MY GOD!’ Mum took off, literally. ‘Mary-Lou Moonchild!’

Oh, my God. ‘Moon-Childe,’ I muttered under my breath. She and Raven were going to need this like a hole in the head.

‘Yes! MoonChilde! Bradford Alhambra! Fifteen years ago!’ the folks yipped on in turn. ‘Waited at the stage door, we chatted, you signed our programme, still got it somewhere, great fans of your early music, ‘Jolene,’ Catfish Crew,’ blah blah. Then my father looked tenderly at my golden-haired mother.

‘I preferred ‘Jolie Blonde.’ Mum went very pink while he went on to Mamalou, ‘It was our song at the time… and we remember that concert very well, not just because of meeting you. We happened to be celebrating – we’d just found out that this one,’ he jerked his head at me, ‘was on her way.’

‘Oh, how wonderful! I also remember it very well because that one,’ Mamalou jerked her head at Raven, ‘had been on her way for three months, and the Alhambra was our last gig before my maternity break. And I recall our meeting too, let me think- aha! Chrystal and David! Well, well. What an odd coincidence, Chrissy, that our first meeting should be as expectant newly-weds, and our second as mothers of a single teenage daughter.’

‘Why, yes, how did you- as a matter of fact we’d just come back from a fortnight in the Dales.’ Mum laughed, a little nervously. ‘It was the last gasp of our honeymoon. We hadn’t planned on getting pregnant quite so soon.’ She subtly shifted position to block the view of her Most Hated Original Feature, the York Stone cocktail bar built in as part of the York Stone fake-fireplace surround and angled TV unit Dad said were a unique selling point in the day, everybody wanted one. They’d ditched the optics and neon signs and repro pub signs and mirrors and put the stereo and speakers where the glasses used to be, and racks of CDs behind the wall and a vase of flowers and various knick-knacks along the top, but it still looked like a big ugly bar and took up loads of space, and all three of us hated it. ‘That’s why we were in a bit of a hurry to buy.’ Mum frowned briefly at Dad, she always blamed him for rushing her into it when she was in a bad mood about the Original Features. ‘We needed somewhere ready for Bump when she came.’

‘Well, now that we’ve found each other again after so many years, we must keep up the acquaintance! We’d love to have Eloise over again for the weekend – she and Raven have all manner of exciting plans – so why not join us for Sunday lunch? There’ll be plenty, I’m cooking for company, and you can all go home together afterwards.’

‘Oh. Um. Well. That’s very kind of you, um, Lou. But really, it’s too much, we wouldn’t want to impose.’ After her shaky start, Mum firmed up. ‘You’ve already fed Eloise once-’

‘And I hope she didn’t eat you out of house and home,’ Dad butted in. Cheers, Dad.

‘-and given her those, ah, nice clothes. So thank you very much, but maybe another time.’

‘Oh, it’s no imposition-’ Mamalou began.

Raven and I looked at each other. Then we wailed in unison. ‘Oh, Mum/Mrs Morton!

 ‘Oh, please say yes,’ Raven begged. ‘I’ve been on my own- well, not exactly on my own, I had Mum. And my godparents sometimes. And the neighbours. But I’ve had no-one my own age – no friends at all – for months. Not since,’ she gulped, ‘not since dad died and I had to leave my old school, and I’ve been ever s-so lonely.’ Awesome. She even managed to make her eyes fill. ‘But now I’ve met Ellie,’ she pulled me to her in a clumsy hug, ‘I’m not lonely. I’m happy. It’s so nice having a girlfriend again, I’ve really missed it, and I’d love her to spend the weekend because we had such fun today, and Mum’s taking us to the Museum on Saturday, and I want to show her round Idenowes properly and do some more work on her history project.’

‘Oh. Yes, of course. Good heavens, what was I thinking? You poor girl.’ Mum choked.

Dad cleared his throat. ‘Ahem. Yes, Raven, we were very sad to hear the news about your father… Gray Childe was one of my all-time favourite blues guitarists, one of the greatest ever. Heck of a voice, too. His music was very important to us, wasn’t it, love?’

‘Yes,’ Mum sighed. ‘Yes, it was. And yes, of course you can have Ellie over for the weekend, Raven – whenever you like, within reason. Provided your mum’s absolutely sure it’s OK.’

‘Absolutely!’ said Mamalou. ‘We adore having guests. I’ll look forward to seeing Eloise after school on Friday then, shall I?  And I’ll look forward to seeing you on Sunday too, twelve-thirty for one. Make sure you come hungry!

‘Right then, Madam, let’s get you home and leave Eloise and her parents in peace- oops, better not take this back with us.’ She held out the bag Raven had filled. ‘Just a few bits I hope might make up for the worry… and a little something for Eloise, too.’

‘Oh. Good heavens,’ Mum said again. ‘We didn’t expect- there’s no need- really, you shouldn’t have- oh, good grief! Where are my manners?’ She took the bag. ‘Thanks, Lou. You needn’t have troubled, but it’s very thoughtful of you. What do you say, Eloise?’

‘Thank you very much, um-’ I wasn’t sure how Mum would feel about ‘Mamalou,’ so I plumped for ‘Mrs Moulin. And for a lovely dinner, and my clothes, and everything.’

‘You’re most welcome.’ Mamalou smacked me a kiss on both cheeks. ‘Bonne nuit, cherie. No, no, don’t bother,’ she went on to Dad as he started to move, ‘we’ll see ourselves out. Good night.’

They about-faced and filed out, tactfully avoiding an undignified scrum in the hall. I followed and noticed my school bag hanging on its usual peg; Raven must’ve put it there.

‘Wait!’ I caught her at the doorstep and started to babble. ‘Look, I’m really sorry about-’ but she made a stop sign with her left hand.

‘No need. Your folks are my folks’ favourite sort of fans – Mum’s over the moon,’ she dimpled at the pun, ‘about meeting them again, I can tell by her vibe. And your dad was just being kind, and I liked what he said about Dad, it meant a lot. So chillax.’

‘Phew. Thanks,’ I flashed my braces in relief. ‘And thanks for, you know, everything. I can’t believe how today turned out… it’s been totally magic. Even school.’

‘For me too, blood-of-my-blood.’ Raven stuck her left ring finger up by itself. I did the same, (which wasn’t easy), and we pressed the tips together hard enough for me to feel the tiny pain where she’d stabbed me. ‘We’re sisters now, remember, bestie-till-Fi’s-home!’ Then with a wave and a cheery, ‘See you in the morning,’ she clumped away in her hideous Crocs.

As soon as I shut the front door, Mum screamed. ‘Eeeeeeeeee!‘ I took my blazer off, hung it on top of my bag, and went back into the living room to find her and Dad bouncing about grinning like idiots.

‘Oh, Ellie!’ Mum gasped, ‘Can you believe- that was Mary-Lou Moonchild! Here, in our house! We loved her with Catfish Crew! Their music was brilliant to dance to. Do you remember, Dave?’ She grabbed Dad’s hands and started humming, and he joined in, and next minute they’re waltzing round singing, ‘Allons danser, allons danser.

I rolled my eyes. ‘Oh, puh-lease.’

‘Oh, shut up,’ panted Mum. ‘Imagine how you’d feel if it was Foxy! This the most exciting thing that’s ever happened in my life-’

‘Huh,’ snorted Dad. ‘Thanks a bunch, love.’

Mum brushed him aside. ‘Feh – you know what I mean. And I’m excited that Eloise has found such a lovely new friend, and perhaps we have too, I mean, she’s invited us to- oh, my God.’ She collapsed on the couch. ‘Oh. My. God. We’re going to lunch. With a millionairess. A famous, talented-’

‘Gorgeous,’ murmured Dad. Good job Mum didn’t hear.

‘-French millionairess.’

‘Multi, more like.’ He flopped down alongside. ‘Maybe billionairess. All Financial Times said was that MoonChilde went to NamCom for ‘an undisclosed sum,’ which normally means a hefty chunk of change.’

‘Oh, my God,’ Mum repeated faintly. ‘What the hell am I going to wear? Where do they live, Eloise?’ she asked in a panicky voice. ‘Is it a huge mansion? Oh, my God – has she got a butler? Is it very formal? I don’t think I can run to a proper afternoon dress… will a work suit be alright, I could get a nice new blouse-’

‘Jeez, Mum! No, they live on a smallholding, and yeah, it’s a lovely big old farmhouse but it’s not Downton Abbey. They don’t even own the furniture, it still belongs to Raven’s goddies. And they’re totally chilled, and Mrs M’s a brilliant cook,’ (oops, maybe shouldn’t have said that), ‘and they’ve got the most amazing garden. So don’t worry, you’ll have a great time. Just wear trousers and a jumper and flats if you want a walk round. And aren’t you going to look in your bag?’ I eyed it, forgotten on the coffee-table in all the excitement. I was itching to know what Mamalou had given me.

‘Oh, goody, yes!’ Mum brightened. ‘Presents!’ She reached in and pulled out a green bottle. ‘Ooh, elderflower champagne! I’ve never had that.’ She pulled out another, cloudy white, and frowned as she showed me the label, which had pictures of lemons round Mamalou’s handwriting. ‘WupQuid? What on earth?’

I burst out laughing. ‘Liquide vaisselle au citron biodégradable, Maman! Lemon-scented eco-washing up liquid. I learnt that tonight – we washed up in French.’

‘You washed up? Bloody hell!’ said Dad. ‘I’d have thought she’d have a dishwasher. How much did she pay you?’

‘A French conversation lesson,’ I said sniffily, watching a bar of yellow soap plop into Mum’s lap from a yellow-and-white stripy dishcloth. I could smell it from where I was standing. ‘Torchon en coton, Raven’s godma Faith knits them, and Mrs M makes the savon au citron from home-grown lemons, they’ve got a big tree in the greenhouse.’ I smiled inside, as if Mamalou was sharing a private joke with me by giving Mum this stuff, and chance to prove I actually had done some French homework, and show off a bit at the same time, which was nice. ‘Lotion pour les mains au citron,’ I added smugly as a flat round tin emerged, labelled with a yellow hand holding the letters LemLo.

Mum unscrewed it and rubbed a dab in. Ooh.’ She smelt her hands.Mm. I’ll keep it by the sink with these other things. Well, what a lucky gift, I’m down to my last drip of Fairy. And it matches the, um, décor.’ For once, she actually smiled at a kitchen-related thought. ‘I’m glad she didn’t give me lavender.’ Then she gasped over a round white cardboard box, like the ones she buys Camembert cheese in. ‘Ooh! Marrons glacées!I don’t need that translating, Eloise! Goodness, what a treat – I’ll save these for Christmas.’ Cue howls of protest from me and Dad. ‘Oh, alright then, Bonfire Night. Hallowe’en. Some occasion. But definitely not tonight! I’m sure you’ve been well fed, Eloise,’ she prodded Dad’s tum, ‘and you’ve already had second supper.’

I plumped down between them and peeped in the carrier, empty now but for one thing, a dark red cloth bag. ‘Ooh! This must be mine, then.’ I lifted it out, full of lumps and bumps but not very heavy, loosened the drawstring, and took out a white cardboard box with ♀ T drawn on in red felt pen. Female Tea? Opening the lid, I unfolded the wax paper lining and sniffed. Mm. ‘Here, Dad.’ I passed it over. ‘Can you tell what’s in this herb tea?’

He sniffed too, turned it towards the lamp, stirred with his finger. ‘Let’s see. Camomile flowers… lavender… sage, I think… something else, hops maybe.’ He pulled a face. ‘Probably tastes bitter.’

‘Probably why she gave me this, then.’ I showed him a small jar of Grange honey, then the tiny brown bottle of clary sage oil it had been clinking against. Light began to dawn, and my fingertips recognised the next thing, a soft wad of pads to go in my new pants, before I saw it. I put them on the coffee table. ‘Oh, wow! It’s a period bag!’ I could announce it like that, without even blushing, because my folks are totally cool – much cooler than me – about body stuff. They don’t freak out if you walk in on them half-undressed, or on the loo, or in the bath; I could talk about sex with them, if I had any to talk about; and Dad says he’s lived long enough with Mum’s tears and tampons and demands for wine, chocolate and ibuprofen at unreasonable hours for the menstrual cycle to hold no mysteries for him, so not to bother getting all embarrassed and secretive about it when the time came. Then he’d know when to buy me chocolate as well, (or keep well out of my way). So I didn’t, and we even had a little ‘Welcome to Womanhood’ party with fizzy Ribena and a strawberry cheesecake to celebrate my first feeble dribble at thirteen, just the three of us. Apart from the tummy-ache and mess I enjoyed being made a fuss of and allowed to lie around reading magazines without getting nagged about homework. And it was nice now, being able to tell them some truth:

‘Yeah, I thought my period was starting so I told Raven, and she told her mum, and she made me a drink with this oil to stop my cramps. And that’s sort of why they gave me these clothes and some special pants her godma makes,’ I pulled my top up and my waistband down to show Mum, ‘with press-studs and pads you can put in the wash.’

‘Whoa! Right bunch of eco-freaks, aren’t they?’ laughed Dad, like he’s not obsessive about recycling and composting and switching lights off.

Mum gave him a Look. ‘Very woke and kind and thoughtful to your daughter is what they are, David Morton,’ she said sternly, and gave me a hug and a different Look, sisterly, women together against the world sort of thing. I love it when she does that.

I hugged back, then took out my last present, a cube wrapped in paper labelled PooBar with a picture of asmiley yellow sun and a sunbathing mouse. ‘Oh, Mum, look! It’s solid shampoo.’ That reminded my head it was sweaty, and it immediately started to itch. ‘Um- please will you wash my hair with it?’

‘What, now?’ She looked aghast. ‘It’s nearly bedtime.’

‘Yeah, and I can’t sleep like this, my hair mings. Look,’ I held up a limp strand, ‘it’s gone all greasy and flat.’

‘Oh, God,’ Mum groaned. Then her eyes narrowed. Oh-oh. ‘Alright. On one condition.’

‘What?’ I asked warily.

‘That you let me cut-’


‘-those awful split ends off so there’s less to wash. OK? Come on, Eloise.’ Triumphantly, (we’d been rowing about this forever), Mum played her trump card. ‘You can’t spend a weekend in civilised company looking like a grunge hippie. Either let me trim it or take you to a proper hairdresser tomorrow – or you can go to bed with a minging head, come straight home from school on Friday, and be grounded till Monday. Your choice.’

Huh. It was a ‘proper hairdresser’ who gave me such a disastrous Peaky Blinders pudding-basin when I was five that I was embarrassed to go to Infants, then threw such screaming hysterical tantrums if anyone came near me with a pair of scissors that Mum eventually gave up and no-one’s cut it since, (apart from me, carefully snipping split ends off one by one). But now she had me by the short n’ curlies, (soft and new, I was very proud of them), and she knew it.

Opting for the least worst, I said sulkily, ‘Alright. I’ll let you trim it. As long as you promise not to cut too much off.’

‘Promise.’ Mum crossed her heart. ‘Now go get the scissors. And put some newspaper down. Oh, and you might as well take that lot with you.’

‘Yes, Mum,’ I sighed, packed the food and drink and cleaning stuff back in the carrier, and went through to her Next Most Hated Original Feature, which she says belongs in a social history museum, (apart from the shiny white replacement door and windows, with yellow-and-white easy-wash check curtains she caved in and bought to match it because they’re practical, and the new-ish white gas cooker, fridge-freezer and washing machine, the only things she doesn’t moan about). But I quite like our kitchen. The squares of lemon-and-white floor tiles have aged to mustard-and-cream, but the units Dad calls ‘Formica’ and the matching glass-fronted wall cabinets are still cheerful canary yellow with shiny white handles, and the worktops are still white-ish, except for lots of fine scratches and dull patches where the shine’s worn off, especially round the kettle. There’s no space for a dishwasher or clothes drier either, although as Dad always reminds Mum, she has wind and a proper clothesline outside, strung between two pebbly concrete posts with a pole to prop up the middle. But the things she hates most are the walls. The top half’s covered in something called ‘Artex’ put on to look rustic, ie slapped on in big daubs by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, (‘Why?’ Mum often wails. ‘Why make good plastering look like bad? It’s insane!’), and which Dad says is ‘such a sod to get off we might as well knock the walls down and start again.’ And the bottom half has tiles, ‘hand-made, must’ve cost a bomb in their day.’ I think they’re gorgeous, shiny dimply white with splatty, yellowy-orange glassy sunburst centres, and when you peer close, (I used to when I was a kid, I even had special favourites), you see each one’s a tiny bit different, like snowflakes. Unfortunately, when you stand back it’s more like someone’s gone round and very carefully stuck five hundred fried eggs on the walls, sunny side up – and ‘once you’ve seen it like that,’ as Mum says, ‘you can’t see it as anything else.’ At least fried eggs are OK for a kitchen. Green splats might look like squashed frogs, which might put me off my Pop-Tarts in the breakfast nook with the white stools and yellow fold-down Formica table scattered with white dots and dashes like scrambled Morse code.

Anyway, I left the bag on the worktop, got an old newspaper out of the recycling box near the door, and the big, orange-handled scissors out of the bits-and-bobs drawer. Then Mum came in with a comb and a Cheshire-cat grin, she’s waited ten years for this moment, and told me to spread the paper out and stand on it.

‘Remember, you promised,’ I said nervously as she went behind me with the scissors.

‘Yes, yes, I know. Just the split ends.’ Quickly combing me through, she arranged my hair to hang straight down my back. ‘Ugh! I see what you mean, it is greasy.’ She started snipping slowly, right to left. ‘It’ll be your hormones. Mine was the same when my periods started. Don’t worry, it calms down in a year or two, just like your spots will.’ I got the feeling she was trying to distract me as she nattered on. ‘I went from Clearasil and a hair-wash every day with Greasy Head n’ Shoulders when I was your age to clear skin and three times a week with normal shampoo by the time I was nineteen.

‘There, now! All done.’ Mum stepped back. ‘See – that wasn’t too painful, was it? And it looks much better already.’

Turning round, I took a deep breath and looked down. I could hardly see the newspaper for hanks of frizzy, blondish hair nearly as long as my thirty-centimetre ruler. ‘Oh, Mum! You promised!’ I shrieked, sprinting for the hall mirror. ‘Oh my God oh my God oh my God, what’ve you done?’

‘Trimmed your split ends,’ she replied, totally unsympathetic.

‘Trimmed?’ I cried. ‘Half my hair’s gone!’ The half I could pretend was blonde highlights, the half I liked better than the dull mousy rest.

‘Don’t be a drama queen,’ Mum said briskly. ‘Go and get ready while I clear it up. I’ll be with you in a sec.’

I stomped into the living room, grabbed my cube, and stomped up to the absolutely MHOF. Mum and Dad had ripped up the lime green fluffy nylon carpet, (when I was little enough to play on floors, I used to hunt for tiny tufts stuck under the skirting boards and pluck them like miniature clumps of grass to feed my toy farm animals), which used to match the lime green tile border, which doesn’t match the peppermint tiles underneath, (though they went with the old peppermint paintwork), and the avocado loo, sink and corner bath which don’t go with any of it but Dad says were terribly ‘with it’ at the time. They tried to tone things down by sanding and lime-washing the floorboards and painting everything else white but lying in the bath still feels like drowning in some putrid pond. (The MHOFs explain why the rest of the house is basically beige, apart from my bedroom, which is still sugary pink-for-a-girl where it’s not hidden with posters. Before the folks could bear to move in, they went round and neutralised all the mad wallpaper with a job-lot of magnolia – I’ve seen the photos in our Baby Book, Mum with a scarf over her hair and white freckles all over her arms, painting out giant tangerine daisies in the living room, with Bump-me like a football stuffed down her overalls). Also, there’s no proper shower, only a pink plastic head on a pink rubbery hose to fit over the taps that’s no use for anything but rinsing your hair. Mortons three agree the only decent thing in there is the loo seat, clear peppermint-green plastic with thousands of paler green and white squares floating in it like thin slices of mint humbug. Dad swears it’s coming with us if we ever move.

Stripped to my pants, wrapped in a towel, I was twisting and turning in front of the mirror trying to assess the damage when my mother appeared. Silently, sulkily, I knelt on the white waffle bathmat and bent over the plastic avocado. Silently but far from sulkily, Mum turned the taps on, tested the temperature, and got on with our usual routine, only using Mamalou’s lovely herby lemony poo-bar instead of our usual supermarket bog-standard family shampoo. When it was done and squeezed half-dry, I was all set to stomp off to bed without speaking to Mum and catch my death of cold, as Nana always said happened to people who slept with damp hair. Then she’d be sorry. But before I could, she squeezed my shoulder.

‘Right, go get your PJs on, love. Then let’s have a nice cup of cocoa, and you can tell me and Dad properly about your day while your hair dries.’

What’s left of it, I thought bitterly. But Hidden House and my history project and my new Career Plan (ta-da!) were practically bursting to get out, and if I didn’t let them, they’d only bubble around inside my head all night and stop me sleeping. But instead of my favourite fleecy ‘jamas I decided to put my new things back on, they were just as soft, with the same faint, delicious scent all Mamalou’s laundry seemed to have; besides, I loved the idea of sleeping with Cecile on my chest. And on my way downstairs, I decided not to have my favourite cocoa either, so I went into the kitchen.

‘I want to try this new tea, Mum,’ I said, handing her the packet. ‘It might stop me getting tummy-ache.’

She opened it and sniffed. ‘Mm. Smells nice. Relaxing. Do you mind if I join you?’

I shook my head. ‘Would you like a cup as well, Dad? I could make us a pot.’

‘Woman Tea?’ He grinned. ‘OK, I’ll give it a go. As long as it doesn’t make me grow moobs.’

Mum’s Look said, ‘I’ve got news for you, darling.’ But her mouth only smiled as she put the kettle on, and I dug out the teapot we only use when Nana visits because she’s snobby about brewing up in your cup, and Dad and I put some Grange honey in ours because it was a bit bitter, but Mum preferred hers as it came. Then we took our mugs through to the living room, and they sat on the couch, and I sat in a beanbag in front of Mum, and she started finger-combing my hair while we sipped.

(This is the only thing about my hair I don’t hate. Everything else is rubbish and it’s so unfair because my folks both have great hair, Dad’s thick, shiny conker brown to match his eyes, (although lately it’s been going grey round the edges), and Mum’s more than wavy but not quite curly, and looks fantastic however she wears it, and there’s a fair bit of ash in with the gold now but that looks good with her greeny-grey eyes. Then there’s me, piggy-in-the-middle, with boring sort of hazel eyes and fine, sort of brownish hair that just hangs and won’t hold a style for longer than ten minutes, Fi and I gave up trying with her curling tongs, and I daren’t have a perm in case it goes horribly wrong and has to be cut out really short and boom! it’s back to Peaky Blinders making my spotty moon-face look even fatter and rounder. It’s like having some whiny alien mouse with a million arms squatting on my head, always demanding attention then selfishly refusing to look anything better than OK-at-least-it’s-tidy. I hate it so much I sometimes wish I was bald, although that probably wouldn’t help my looks. But being combed, (which Mum has to do before bed otherwise it mats into hard, painful lumps round my hairline and she has to hack them out with scissors), is such bliss it almost makes the rest worth putting up with.

Apart from Raven buying me a banana then letting me blag half her lunch- oh, and the blood-sisters bit, because they’d go on about diseases and infections. And what’d happened with the Lady, and making wishes, because they’d think I was mad. And running round getting my school clothes all sweaty and stinky so that my new friend’s famous mum had to secretly wash them, because they’d be mad with me. Apart from that, I poured out our whole day and the folks drank it all in, looking really interested and asking loads of questions, especially about Mamalou and Hidden House; and when I told them about my Plan to Be Something in History, Mum actually applauded.

‘Oh, what a relief!’ She kissed the top of my head. ‘That’s wonderful news, isn’t it, Dave?’

Dad nodded. ‘Yeah, sounds like history’s your calling, love. And your project sounds fascinating, I’m looking forward to seeing this place myself on Sunday.’

‘Me too. Goodness,’ said Mum, ‘I can hardly wait now! And thank God it’s a smallholding, not a stately home… I’ll wear my Aran jumper and tweed slacks, they look new. Net or plait?’

Oh poo. That meant she’d finished, and I had to decide how to control the Alien Mouse so it wouldn’t tie all her good work in knots overnight: either the hideous stretchy brown hairnet, which made me feel like a Rastafarian with a big hat full of dreadlocks but nothing like as cool, or the fat plait which sometimes wound round and got trapped as I turned over and jerked me painfully awake. To keep Mum fiddling with my hair a bit longer I chose plait, shivering as she drew a line either side of my spine, divided my hair into three, wove it loosely together, and fastened it with a white lace scrunchie.

‘There you go.’ Mum gave it her usual cheeky flip to say, ‘You’re done now, clear off to bed.’ I winced as the scrunchie landed just below my shoulder blades instead of the small of my back. Oh. My. God. It was so short. I hoped it wouldn’t look too awful in the morning.

I didn’t feel sleepy at all, but it was gone eleven and I knew arguing was pointless, so I kissed the folks goodnight and left them buzzing on the couch while I went up to brush my teeth, (yup, even after mouthwash I still had garlic breath), and have a last pee. Then I dug my diary out of my knicker drawer because I felt pretty buzzy myself and started scribbling my day down in the shorthand Mum taught me one rainy summer holiday when I was bored. Fi used to get weird about it because it meant she couldn’t read my diary and she didn’t like the idea of me keeping secrets from her, and I couldn’t use it at school in case anyone else got weird, including the teachers who wouldn’t be able to check my rough work or notes. (I had a feeling Raven wouldn’t get weird, she’d get excited and demand I teach her, unless she’d already learned it at her posh schools). But it was really handy for Dear Diary, and I’d made up my own special squiggles for names and words like ‘fit’ and ‘fancy’ so it was a bit of a secret code even from Mum.

I wrote until my hand ached, and my head quietened down, and I started yawning. Then I switched off the light and snuggled under the duvet, hugging Cecile, thinking about everything Raven had told me, and how boring we seemed in comparison, living in our ordinary semi with my parents’ ordinary jobs and our ordinary little holidays, day trips or long weekends or odd weeks visiting rellies or going somewhere like Centre Parcs. The naughty secret game we started playing when I was about seven, Mum and Dad sticking me with a guidebook in some huge stately home and leaving me to pore over doll’s houses and cabinets of curiosities while they sloped off for a coffee and a stroll round the grounds. We had our story straight: if anyone asked, I was to say they’d just nipped to the loo and told me to wait for them there, then send our SOS text and they’d come back ASAP so they wouldn’t get reported to Social Services for abandoning me and I wouldn’t get taken into care. It never happened, though. I was too good at tagging onto tour groups if an attendant came round or lurking on the edge of some family or near some unsuspecting grown-up as if I belonged to them, or just plain hiding and trying not to giggle. Anyway, it was usually quiet enough for me to sneak under the velvet ropes across the doorways and have a proper nosey round the period rooms. Once I finished off a jigsaw lying on a nursery floor, with a shape like a map of England someone drew with their eyes closed cut into a flat wooden box, and the easy counties like Cornwall and Norfolk fitted in round the edges. I couldn’t resist filling in the middle. I wonder if anyone ever noticed. Another time I sat on a chair where the last bottom to sit was Queen Victoria’s, but that set off an alarm and I had to run up quick to the attic and hide in an exhibition about servants until it was safe to escape. (That’s one good thing about being an ordinary, plain, plump, sensible-looking sort of kid – as long as you look like you know where you’re going and don’t mess about, adults either don’t notice or don’t suspect you of getting up to mischief). I never told Mum and Dad, obviously, they’d have ended me – and the Game. And that hadn’t been boring, I loved our trips out, and staying in Cleethorpes with my auntie and uncle and cousins, or in Lincoln with Mum’s Great-Aunt Clarice, or going for weekend breaks in the Peaks or County Durham, and not having to change my name or wear a disguise round the house or be pestered by paparazzi or see pictures of Dad splashed across the Daily Mail… just being an ordinary family having ordinary fun. Cosy. Safe. And I suddenly thought that if I really could go and play at Hidden House whenever I wanted, I didn’t envy Raven’s life at all, which was nice… and that got me thinking again about Maidenhowe, and my project, and going to see the Lady on Saturday. I didn’t think about Fi at all. And then I fell asleep.


Beat the heat – check out my virtual walks from the comfort of your chair!

Sandal Castle, Wakefield: once ‘tidy’ and sterile, now left largely wild and transformed into an idyllic wildlife oasis abounding with new plants and all kinds of creatures

Blood Magic: Chapter 2!

By popular demand: the next chapter of my young adults story, Blood Magic! As before, contains a few mild swears, an implied sexual swearword, and drug references. Enjoy!

Chapter 2: After School

We met up again in homeroom for our last period, another easy one I liked. Rel Studs was taken by Deefor, aka Doctor of Divinity David Davies, who looked like a cartoon monk with his smooth pink face and halo of silvery hair round his big pink bald patch. This term we’d be studying Lives and Teachings of the Great Prophets, which sounded interesting, and I felt quite cheerful as the front row handed round New Testaments and information sheets about Jesus and His Apostles, but Raven seemed quiet and thoughtful right up until the home-time bell went at twenty to four.

‘What’s the matter?’ I asked her through the babble of voices and scraping of chairs as everyone leapt up to go.

‘Oof.’ She made a face. ‘Physics. It was so totally grim I don’t want to talk about it, I just want to go home! So, are you ready to come chez nous?’

Oh yes. ‘Whereabouts do you live?’ I asked as we retraced our lunchtime route past the fields to the back gate. ‘I don’t come out this way much.’ When I did, I always turned right to go to the mini High Street with the chippy and pizza-kebab takeaway, and the baker’s with the little pavement café which sold yummy sausage rolls and Russian slices as well as the best-ever pasties and baby Swiss, and the newsagent and hairdresser and greengrocer and nail bar and dog-groomer, and the tattoo parlour where Chard Jenkins went with her sister’s college ID and got her belly-button pierced illegally; or further on, to the new-build estate where Libby lives, and Chard and one or two other classmates I don’t hang around with.

Raven turned left instead, towards the old church and rectory on the edge of town where the houses turn into allotments and dry-stone walled fields. ‘Over there.’ She waved vaguely at a clump of trees up ahead. ‘Don’t worry, it’s not far.’

‘Did you move in over the summer hols?’

‘Yeah. Three weeks ago, officially. But I’ve had a room here forever, it was my godparents’ place – only they wanted to downsize, and my god-bro and sis didn’t fancy taking it on, so the goddies thought they’d have to sell it to a stranger until Mum stepped in.’ She smiled. ‘And now everyone’s happy. They can still visit whenever they like, and we absolutely love Hidden House. It’s the only real home we’ve ever had.’

I looked at her in surprise. ‘What do you mean? How come?’

Raven giggled. ‘Well, the Prince was right, I do have fascinating stories to tell about my travels. I just don’t like to because some people don’t like travellers, and that’s what we were. Real travellers, I mean. As in Mum and Dad had no steady jobs, no money to speak of, no belongings except what fitted in the bus, and no fixed abode – unless you count the old warehouse where Dad had his studio, it was big enough to park inside and we sometimes stopped there for a bit. The rest of the time we were either on the road, or at some festival, or camping out with family and friends. I didn’t live in a house properly until I was ten or go to school till I was eleven, and I hated every single minute of both.’ She dimpled. ‘But I know I’m going to be really happy here.’

My mouth did the goldfish thing again. ‘Oh yeah, and before you say, ‘Wow, no school, lucky you, what a doss,’ blah blah,’ Raven went on just in time, ‘believe me – it wasn’t. I mean, you got, what, three months holiday a year, right? I didn’t! None of the traveller kids did- oh, it’s no good, I can’t tell it like this, all mixed up. I’ll have to start at the beginning. If you’re sure you want to hear.’

‘Yes please! Honestly, I’m really interested, I’ve never met a proper traveller before. I can’t imagine- I’ve never not lived in a house, or ever gone away anywhere for longer than a fortnight.’

Raven gave a tiny nod, as if I’d passed some kind of test. ‘OK. Well, it all starts way, way back with Mum’s family… they lived in Paris before the Revolution, and some went off to fight in the American War of Independence and settled there afterwards. They still live in New Orleans, and they’re still called Desmoulins-’

‘What? Like that journalist?’ (We’d done the French Revolution in History last year, and I felt pleased with myself even though I couldn’t remember his first name).

‘Camille Desmoulins? Yes, but they weren’t related – and when he got his head cut off, they didn’t want anyone thinking they might be! So they cleared out to lay low with country cousins, then came back as good little Republicans with their name changed to Moulin to sound more ordinary.

‘Fast forward to twentieth century. Marie-Louise Moulin born, grows up arty and musical like her mum and dad, visits the Louisiana Desmoulins every summer, and gets seriously into the local sounds – you know, trad jazz, Cajun, bluegrass.’ (I didn’t, so I just nodded wisely). ‘And some of the cousins put a band together, and she starts jamming with them, then stays over to do a season on the circuit as Mary-Lou and the Catfish Crew. And they do pretty well, so they release a song called ‘Jolie Blonde’ with Mum’s version of ‘Jolene’ on the B-side, and it turns into a big hit in the Southern States. So then the grandies arrange for them to come and do a little tour in France, and someone hears them and invites them to play at some festival in Cornwall – and that’s where she meets this totally hot blues guitarist called Graeme Childe, and boom! Love at first sight for them both.’

I sighed, picturing it. ‘How romantic.’

‘Yes, especially because he’d dropped out of an engineering degree to do music and stuck at it even though his folks were always on at him to stop messing about, go back to uni, get a real job, settle down blah blah.’ Raven made a face. ‘Not that I ever met them. There was a fire, faulty wiring or something, on the actual night after the festival when Dad was driving Mum up to introduce her as his fiancée… they got back to Yorkshire to find a gutted house crawling with firemen and police, both his parents dead of smoke inhalation, and him with nothing left but a rucksack of dirty laundry, his camping gear, and a vanload of instruments.’

‘Oh my God! How awful.’

‘Yeah… although it did mean he got a big wedge of insurance money and no-one to nag him about how he spent it. So he rented this old warehouse on the river in Wakefield, blew most of it on the business, and the Crew came to help him set up a rehearsal space with its own little recording studio so they could release their own stuff and help out other musos. Mum had already started calling herself Moon because she was sick of people mispronouncing Moulin, and Dad was a massive Rory Gallagher fan, so they decided to call themselves MoonChild Music, and bought a bus and had it painted black with silver stars and a huge silver logo, you know,’ she waggled her ring at me, ‘and all fitted out inside for touring. They got married not long afterwards – changed their names by deed-poll to Moon-Childe, even released a cover version of ‘Moonchild’ to celebrate.

‘And when I came along nine months later, I just slotted in. Obviously, it seemed totally normal to live on a bus – one of my first memories is sitting in my car-seat completely covered by this huge AA map, trying to follow the roads with my finger. I got so good at it Dad used to use me instead of the sat-nav.’ Raven’s eyes went misty. ‘We were like medieval troubadours… we only did small local festivals, so it was very cosy, all the regulars knew each other and us kids were in and out of everybody’s tents and caravans the whole time, so it never mattered that I had no brothers or sisters because we felt like one big family. Not going to school didn’t matter either, because the ones who did used to tell us what went on, and it didn’t sound as if we were missing much. Mum and Dad were bright enough to teach me all I needed plus a lot more, so I was properly home-schooled – and of course we were learning all the time just by going different places and doing stuff.

‘Anyway, they were brilliant parents, and I had a brilliant childhood – although a lot of people would think it was crap, which is another reason I don’t like talking about it. No monster TV, no X-Box, no Guitar Hero – we had real guitars! – no big flash car, nothing new because everything got re-used and recycled until it fell to bits… having to do chores every day, forage for kindling, mind the camp-fire, empty the chemical toilet… no MacD or KFC because practically everyone was veggie or vegan… but I totally loved it,  so I totally don’t need anyone’s snark or pity – especially when they haven’t the first clue what they’re talking about.’

By now we’d reached the clump of trees, which I saw were in the front garden of a big old house with the nameplate ‘Grange Farm’ and a hand-painted sign, FARM SHOP – FRESH FREE-RANGE DAIRY, FRUIT & VEG, LOCAL HONEY, with an arrow pointing down the little lane next to the gate.

‘Grange Farm do lovely butter and cheese,’ Raven said as we passed. ‘We get our eggs there too, until I can persuade Mum to let us keep hens. And that’s where the farm labourers lived,’ she added, waving at a row of pretty red-brick cottages with Idenowes Terrace 1825 engraved on a sandstone block under the middle roof.

‘Iden-owes?’ I read aloud. ‘What a funny name! I’ve never heard that one before.’

Raven laughed. ‘No, or you’d know the locals say it ‘Idden ‘ouse,’ which if you stick the aitches back on makes ‘Hidden House,’ and you’ll see why it’s called that in a minute.’

Catching my arm, she pulled me round onto a rough little lane, not much wider than a car, between the end of Idenowes Terrace and the stone wall of the next field. Looking back the way we’d come, I realised we’d been climbing a long, gradual hill – no wonder I felt a bit puffed – and the church clock practically opposite the cul-de-sac leading to the GSA back gate struck four just as I looked at it. About the same time as I’d normally get home, or to Fi’s. My cheeks burned a bit pinker with guilt that I’d not even thought about her since lunchtime – and now I didn’t have time to think any more, because Raven was striding off up the lane.

I hurried after her, gawping into the long, narrow cottage gardens on my right. They all started outside the back door with the same little paved yard and outhouse and washing lines; then some had lawns sloping gently up the hillside, ending with a brick wall and thick woods beyond, while others went up in terraces with stone walls and steps and rockeries; but my favourite was the one on the end, nearest to us. The yard had a picnic bench with a green and white striped umbrella and loads of potted plants and hanging baskets, and white roses climbing round the door, then two strips of bright green lawn with yellow and bronze and orange daisy-type flowers round the edges, and a crazy-paved path in between leading to an arch cut in a high privet hedge, with steps up to a neat vegetable garden on the right, and a gnarly old apple tree surrounded by bushes – currants, gooseberries, I couldn’t tell, I was rubbish at plants – on the side by the lane.

When the gardens ended, the brick wall carried on enclosing nothing but scruffy grass and trees. It was the same on my left, only the wall was grey stone with a high thorny hedge towering behind it, and a prickly undergrowth of brambles, then a band of trees too thick for me to see through to the other side, or even if it had one. Then I caught up with Raven, standing on the brow of the hill with her elbows propped on a wide wooden gate with a carved nameplate, IDENOWES FARM.

‘This is one of my favourite views, anywhere, ever,’ she said dreamily, ‘and now it’s all ours! Well, as much as humans ever can own bits of the planet. We’re just caretakers, really… passengers on Spaceship Earth.’

I propped my elbows alongside and looked down a proper lane, paved with flat cobbles, running steeply down between the field walls. On our right was a meadow of nodding long grass, with trees and a high rocky hillside behind. On our left was a sort of wild valley with bushes and more trees, and little glades full of tall white daisies and rattling dry seed-heads, and winding mown paths, and a small stream with willows weeping into it at the bottom. And straight ahead I finally saw the Hidden House, grey stone like Grange Farm but looking much older, with small windows and big blotches of yellowy-orange-brown moss and lichen on the roof, and a big stone barn sticking out at right angles from each end. The open square in between must’ve been a farmyard once, all muddy and hoof-churned and stinky with poo; but now it was a shady garden with grass and flowerbeds and a life-size stone wishing well with a proper tiled roof and wooden bucket, not like the plastic tat you usually see on people’s lawns; and the hay-racks on the walls were full of bright trailing flowers, like the hanging baskets by the doors and the window-boxes under the windows.

For a few seconds I felt too jealous to speak. Then I wished I hadn’t. ‘Wow! What a gorgeous place! Oh my God, Raven – you’re so lucky to live here.’ And by the time it sank in that she’d only come to live here because her dad had just died in a horrible way and her mum had sold their business to CanCom, it was too late, I’d said it, and I wanted to sink through the floor. ‘Oh, God – look,’ I started babbling, ‘I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean-’

‘No.’ Raven shook her head. ‘Don’t be. I’m not. Gray Childe – the one you know from the news – he wasn’t my dad, he wasn’t a very nice person, and I don’t miss him at all. My real father died when I was ten and I still miss him every day, but I’ve had plenty of time to get used to it.’ I must’ve looked totally confused because she went on, ‘It’s another long story – I’ll explain later, after you’ve met Mum. Come on, I’ll race you!’

Tucking her bag under her arm, she climbed over a stile next to the gate and set off running down the cobbled lane, whooping as she went. I hurried after, my bag thumping my hip – good job it was well-padded – as I jogged, faster and faster, then the slope caught me and I was running, bounding, feeling like the Seven League Boots guy in the fairy-tale, and shrieking as madly as Raven. Luckily the hill flattened out before we both crashed into the house and we slowed down, giggling breathlessly, as the lane ended in a cobbled crossroads with arms going left and right to the barns, and a flagstone path in the middle leading to the ancient wooden front door, (no roses round it, just a small green conical bush in a bright red pot on either side).  

Raven headed left. ‘We’d better go in through the garden room,’ she panted, ‘tidy ourselves up a bit first.’

My stomach went boing, then filled with a squirmy excitement. I’m the world’s nosiest person (though I do my best to hide it). Ever since I could walk, I’ve loved poking round other people’s houses. I don’t care if it’s a council flat like Nana’s, or a semi like ours, or a detached like the McD’s, or a huge stately home like Temple Newsam, where my folks took me to try and cheer me up after Fi went – I just love looking at other people’s stuff, their books and pictures and ornaments, the way they decorate their rooms, trying to get a feel for who they are. Rellies and family friends learned years ago that if they didn’t have a suitable book and a bag of sweets handy, letting me pick through their fusty old wardrobes trying on funny old clothes and shoes, or through junk in the attic looking for forgotten treasures, or through jewellery boxes, scrap books, or faded peeling photo albums, could keep me safely quiet for hours. It was the only thing that had made helping Fi pack her house up remotely bearable. So I felt a bit disappointed when Raven walked straight past an obvious set of garage doors, because I was dying to see what sort of car her mum drove, then past a sort of rough stable door in two halves. But I couldn’t help asking, ‘What’s in there?’

‘Just car stuff, tools – nothing interesting,’ she replied, heading for the next door along. This she did open, and we went into something like our garden shed only fifty times bigger, with whitewashed walls and a channel carved in the stone floor, I guessed to drain away animal wee. Glancing hungrily left as Raven turned right, I saw a little red tractor, two lawnmowers and some agricultural-type machines – I had no idea what they were for – with brooms and rakes and hoes and shears and hedge-cutters and other smaller tools standing neatly in wooden racks or hanging on the walls. Then I followed her through an earthy-smelling room fitted out with wooden shelves and benches, covered in plant pots and seed trays and watering cans and coloured planters of all shapes and sizes, with reels of hose and sacks of compost and garden umbrellas and fold-up furniture stacked round the sides. (My parents would’ve been green with envy – our garden shed was so full, every time Dad wanted to cut the grass, he had to take the deckchairs and picnic table out before he could get at the mower).

‘This is the garden room,’ Raven said, although I’d worked that one out for myself, ‘and there’s a sort of loft apartment up there for guests,’ she went on before I could ask, pointing to a rustic half-staircase, half-ladder, leading up to a square hole in the ceiling. ‘I’ll show you later if you want the Grand Tour.’

 ‘Yeah, that’d be nice,’ I said, trying to sound casual. ‘I’m really interested in old buildings.’

‘Cool! Well, this bit’s more modern… we call it the mud room.’ Raven opened a door in the end wall. ‘It’s great if you get wet and mucky outside, you don’t have to drag dirt into the house.’

I followed her in. The mud room was much smaller than the garden room, with orangey-brown tiles on the floor, and half done out as a cloakroom – whitewashed walls with hangers for waterproofs and waders and tatty old fleece jackets and caps and big floppy hats, pegs sticking out underneath for wellies and work-boots, and wooden cubby-holes under the pegs full of Crocs and walking sandals. The other half was a bathroom, all white tiles with a shower cubicle in the corner, a heated towel-rail next to it, and a toilet and washbasin.

‘Help yourself to whatever if you’d like to freshen up,’ said Raven, hitching up her kilt, ‘and please excuse me, I’m bursting.’

I turned away while she peed, bent over the sink, and washed my sweaty face with a piece of rose-scented soap with pink petals in, then stood aside combing my hair while Raven washed her hands and rubbed in some cream from a little glass jar.

‘Here, try this,’ she said, passing it to me. ‘Another Mum special, made with our own orange blossoms.’

‘Oh,’ I translated the label aloud, ‘is that why she calls it Me?’

Raven laughed. ‘It’s Moy, not Moi. Short for moisturiser. Her little joke.’ She opened the shower cubicle and pointed to two bottles on a glass shelf inside, marked Poo and Dish. ‘She can’t be bothered to write out full labels for our house stuff.’

I rubbed some in, sniffed my hands, then rubbed some on my face too because it smelt so fresh and sweet, unlike me at the end of a school day. ‘Mm, thanks. It’s lovely.’ I glanced at myself in the mirror over the sink. At least I looked clean and tidy-ish, which was as good as it got. ‘Right, then – where to now?’

‘To see Mum and get a snack. I’m starving, aren’t you?’ I realised I was as Raven opened a door I hadn’t noticed because it was covered with tiles like the wall. We went through a little vestibule into a dining room like you’d see on Emmerdale Farm or something: a flagged floor with a huge coloured rag rug in the centre and a huge polished table in the centre of that, surrounded by twelve chairs; dark beams in the ceiling; a high shelf of serving dishes and jugs and teapots and sauce-boats running round three walls; a great big pine dresser filled with dinner plates, bowls, mugs, cups, saucers and jars of pickles and preserves; and a great big pine sideboard under the window set with all sorts of glasses and bottles of drinks.

Only the bottom half of the wall facing us was solid. The top half was like a fence made of thick vertical beams, with wide gaps in between and an open door in the middle so that you could see through to a passageway and a kitchen on the other side. It was the same size, with the same half-wall, and laid out like the dining room except that the sideboard was a big old-fashioned white sink, like a tank, with a wooden draining board and plate-rack, and the dresser was an Aga cooker, and there was a brick fireplace big enough to stand inside, with a black iron stove and wire racks above for drying things on, and bunches of flowers and herbs and onions and garlic bulbs dangling from the ceiling beams, and the pine table was smaller and rougher, with only six chairs round it, set with a loaded tray I hoped was for us.

‘Maman! We’re home,’ called Raven, taking off her blazer and hanging it on the back of a chair.

Faint music I hadn’t registered until it stopped, stopped. ‘Hallo!’ a voice called back. Then I heard a slap of feet on flagstones and a few moments later a taller, older Raven burst in, smacked kisses on her daughter’s cheeks, then turned to me and did the same.

‘Hallo, my dear,’ she said, sounding totally English apart from the ‘a’ in ‘hello.’ ‘Welcome to Hidden House! It’s a pleasure to meet- Eloise, isn’t it? How delightful. Were you named after our famous French romantic heroine?’

‘Um.’ I swallowed. Raven’s mum was definitely what the rude boys would call a MILF: deeply tanned, eyes a shade lighter and greyer than Raven’s, a petite Baldy-beak, a big white smile, and a big bush of dark hair threaded with silver, tied into a loose ponytail with a piece of garden string. She was wearing an unbleached, shapeless cotton hand-knit over calf-length cargo pants that might have been dark chocolate once, now washed to a pale milky cocoa. Her feet were bare, her toenails unpainted, her hands and forearms and the shoulder her jumper kept slipping off all brown and strong and veiny like a man’s, but feminine at the same time; and the few lines in her face made her look kind and wise, not old, and Raven a bit like an unfinished drawing beside her.

At least when I untied my tongue, I knew the answer to her question because the Joob had asked me the same thing in our first-ever French class, then told us all about the great historical lovers Abelard and Heloise. ‘Um, no,’ I said. ‘After a song by some Eighties band called The Damned. Mum had a crush on the singer.’

Raven’s mum raised her eyebrows. ‘Indeed? Then your mother has excellent taste. Dave Vanian was seriously hot.’ Then she winked at me so naughtily I burst into giggles, and suddenly I loved Mrs M-C like I loved Mrs McD.

Raven just rolled her eyes. ‘Mo-ther! Don’t embarrass her. Come on, Ellie,’ she pulled out a chair, ‘sit down, dig in.’

‘Yes – do make yourself at home.’ Her mum poured out two tall glasses from a white cloudy jug floating with ice-cubes and lemon slices and mint leaves, while Raven picked up a crusty loaf, tore off two chunks, spraying crumbs all over the table, and put one in front of me, no plate. Then she slid the tray across, dunked her chunk in a bowl of greeny-yellow oil with a peeled garlic clove in it, bit it off, and chased it down with a black olive. I pulled off a small piece, dipped in a corner and tried it. Wow. My breath was really going to smell- ah well, it wasn’t like I’d be snogging anybody tonight. Any night, come to that. I tried to wash the garlic taste away with the drink, which turned out to be either flat lemonade, or the lemoniest lemon squash I’d ever tasted. It was so good, and I was so thirsty, I gulped most of it down in one go, then tried Mrs M-C’s home-made sun-dried tomatoes, and a couple of olives, and a slice of Grange Farm cheese, and some baby pickled gherkins she called cornichons to go with the rest of my bread, (which I kept dipping in the oil to try and get used to the garlic, because I knew it was supposed to be a very French taste).

Raven downed a second glass of squash and let out a resounding burp. ‘Oops – pardon me! Thanks, Mum, that was great. Is it OK if I show Ellie round now? She likes old houses.’

‘Yes, of course. Eloise, I say to you as I say to all guests: our home is your home. Go where you like, when you like; all I ask is that you don’t enter my bedroom alone. Oh, and if you wouldn’t mind picking me a few things for dinner before you go exploring.’ She said something in French to Raven, too fast for me to catch, then, ‘We’re just having soup and salad, nothing fancy – I hope that’s OK. We dine at six.’

My heart sank. Those were probably my least favourite things. But I was only missing Remnant Risotto at home, the last gasp of Sunday’s roast minced up with fried onions and frozen peas and sweetcorn, after we’d had the best cold cuts with bubble-and-squeak on Mondays. Sometimes Mum got adventurous, threw in a handful of sultanas and a teaspoon of bright yellow curry powder, and called it biryani. It wasn’t exactly bad. But it wasn’t exactly good either, so I stuck on my best smile and said, ‘Lovely. Thanks very much, Mrs Moonch- um, Moon-Childe.’

‘Boh.’ She waved a hand. ‘Don’t bother with that mouthful. Call me Lou.’ I must’ve looked doubtful because she added, ‘Or Lou-lou, or Auntie Louise, or Mamalou. Whatever you’re comfortable with.’

‘Yes, whatever,’ Raven butted in before I could say, ‘Thanks, Mamalou.’ She jumped up, grabbed her blazer and satchel, and headed off down the passage. ‘Come on, we can dump our stuff in the homework room-’

‘You have a special room for doing homework?’ I gasped, following her through a door behind the kitchen.

Raven giggled. ‘Only by default. It was the goddies’ home office.’ She put her bag on a big L-shaped desk and hung her blazer on the swivel chair at one of its two workstations. I put mine on the other, looking enviously at the smart laptop and printer, the filing cabinets, bookshelves, and green velvet chaise-longue under the window (I’d always fancied one of those), wishing my own room was this tidy and well-organised. I read a few titles in passing: Organic Farming, Smallholding from Scratch, The Complete Aromatherapist – nothing I fancied reading, although an antique-looking copy of Culpeper’s Herbal might be interesting.

‘Right, I’m off to get a trug. I won’t be a minute – have a look round while you’re waiting, if you like.’ Raven went back into the passage and pointed to the room opposite. ‘The goddies used that as a breakfast room because it gets the morning sun, and down there’s the music room.’ She jerked her thumb past a big wooden staircase towards the back of the house. ‘Head for that, it’s the way out to the garden.’

Oh, joy. ‘OK,’ I said, and nipped straight across into the breakfast room the second she’d gone. It still looked like morning even though it was late afternoon because of the golden carpet and primrose walls and gold-and-white stripy curtains to match four upholstered chairs set round a drop-leaf table by the window, and two big flumpy mustard armchairs with a full magazine rack next to each. The coffee table between was piled with glossy books, and an old-fashioned glass-fronted bookcase nearby was stacked to the ceiling with green books with curly gold patterns on the spines. I just had time to read a few golden titles including my childhood favourite Black Beauty before Raven came back from the garden room with a flat wicker basket over her arm.

‘I could spend hours in there,’ I said as we headed for the music room. ‘I love books.’

Raven smiled. ‘Well, knock yourself out. Mum wasn’t just being polite, you know. If you’re my friend, this is your house too now. Come back on Friday night and hole up for the weekend, if you want… although this is a great room to read in as well, if you don’t mind me or Mum fiddling about in the background.’

My mouth goldfished again as we went through a pair of double doors into a room wide as the house, with a back wall made completely of glass, and a sliding door in the middle leading out onto a wooden deck with wooden benches and tables, and potted plants dotted around; only it wasn’t too bright and glary because the deck had a shady roof made out of beams and a tangled green grapevine with actual bunches of purple grapes dangling from it. I’d never seen grapes growing before, only in plastic bags from the supermarket. The wooden floor was mostly covered with coloured rugs, and one end was like a lounge with a big squashy crimson corner couch, scattered with tapestry cushions, and the side wall covered in wooden shelves covered in knick-knacks, framed photos, and a mad jumble of hardback and paperback books. The matching shelves on the opposite side held a sound system with big speakers and hundreds of CDs, vinyl records, and tall, thin books I guessed were sheet music because the only other furniture on that side was an old piano, two chairs, two music stands, and a bunch of guitars, all different shapes and sizes, standing round like backing singers, with a violin, and a rack of tin whistles and recorders, and a load of tambourines, bongos, and flat drums, hanging on the walls.

Raven beckoned me through onto the deck and it was goldfish time again. We were looking down on a gently sloping orchard, some trees still heavy with fruit, enclosed by ancient crumbling brick walls that glowed as if red-hot in the sun. The side walls had arches in the middle with black wrought-iron gates; the left led to the wild valley we’d passed on the way in, and the right into a walled garden with vegetable plots and fruit bushes and a big glittering greenhouse either side of the gate, like I’d seen at stately homes.

‘This way,’ she said, skipping down the steps on the right-hand end of the deck. I followed her across a strip of lawn into the kitchen-garden, hot and sheltered and humming with bees, and into the nearest hot, humid greenhouse. ‘Pick any salad you like.’ She stuffed a cherry tomato into her mouth and a handful into her trug from a plant that smelt like cat-pee. ‘Or herbs. Anything that looks ready. Just make sure you get plenty of rocket,’ she nodded at a pot of green fronds, ‘it’s my favourite.’ I wandered behind, pulling leaves and a couple of cute plump baby cucumbers, until Raven said we had enough. Then we went into the orchard, and she showed me how to tell when a pear was ripe, and I picked three beauties that just fell into my hand as I cupped their bottoms.

‘There!’ Raven loaded them into her trug. ‘Job done. I’ll run this back to Mum – then you can hear the rest of my story if you like. OK,’ she went on when I nodded eagerly, ‘but I need to be in a Special Place to tell it… go through the gate, follow the path, and keep heading downhill, you’ll know it when you see it. I’ll catch you up.’

As she jogged away, I stood looking at the gate, feeling like Alice about to enter Wonderland – especially when I spotted the man’s face, made of carved stone leaves, peering back at me from the top of the arch. Then I took a deep breath and went through, and saw three paths, the width of a lawnmower, cut in the long grass; but only the one to the right went downhill, so that was the way I went. For about five steps. The grass felt like a soft, springy carpet under my soles, and there were no broken bottles or jagged cans or junkie’s needles or dog-poo to tread on like in the park, and it was so sunny and warm- oh, what the hell. I stopped, took my jumper off, tied the arms round my waist, kicked off my shoes, stuffed my tights inside, and tied the laces together so I could carry them. Then I walked slowly on, loving the cool dampness squidging between my hot toes, hearing nothing but birdsong and buzzing insects, smelling the musky scent of fallen leaves, winding down among the bushes and trees in a kind of green trance. So I practically fainted when a hand slapped my shoulder and a voice said, ‘Great minds think alike!’

Clutching my heart to stop it jumping out of my chest, I turned to see Raven barefoot, dangling her shoes by the laces. ‘Sorry to startle you,’ she laughed, not looking very sorry at all. ‘I thought you’d hear me coming, I made enough noise.’

‘I didn’t,’ I said weakly, ‘I was miles away. And I haven’t found your special place yet, I don’t think.’

‘No, but it’s not much further.’ Raven led the way – there wasn’t room to walk side-by-side – and we were too busy trying not to get nettled, brambled or thistled when suddenly the path widened and turned into a flight of shallow stone steps, and there between the weeping golden willows I saw the stream, only a couple of metres wide, babbling and glinting in the sun. Raven dropped her shoes, wadded her jumper into a cushion, put it on a step and sat down, her feet three steps lower, ankle-deep in water. I did the same and we sat in blissed-out silence for a minute; I felt the stream washing away all the sick pain of this morning, of this whole miserable summer, and let out a long, happy sigh.

Raven sighed too. ‘Right, then – story time, as promised.’ Drawing her feet up a step, she propped her elbows on her knees and her chin on her hands and stared into the stream. ‘So, back to happy childhood… I forgot to say Mum decided to have me in Paris so she could stay with her folks, and get a GP and midwife, and be able to go to hospital if anything went wrong. And we stayed there until I could walk – I don’t remember anything about it, or that Dad was hardly ever around, but I do remember going on the road as soon as Mum thought I could cope with the travel, and absolutely loving it. Easter and Michaelmas fairs, summers at festivals all over England and Wales, winters mainly at the warehouse… it was quite cosy, actually. It used to be a car-repair place, so it already had a sealed spray-shop Dad converted into the sound studio, and a breeze-block office bit with loos and a shower and a staffroom and kitchen, and stores upstairs with a big empty space in the middle for rehearsing. So there was loads of room for bands to crash while they were recording, and it was always fun having them around, but if things got too crowded or crazy Mum and I used to decamp to Hidden House and leave Dad to it. We had Christmas with the goddies as well if we weren’t in Paris, and sometimes we’d all go up in the bus to my god-bro’s – he’s got a trout-fishery near Oban, it’s really cool – for Hogmanay.

‘So, yeah, lovely life and it all worked just right, and when I was old enough to understand how MoonChild worked, I was totally proud of my parents. I mean, Dad was a real muso who sank his whole life into a business to help other real musos make real music for real fans, rather than having to churn out commercialised crap just to survive. And Mum did all the artwork for posters and CD covers and stuff to keep things as cheap as possible, and they rented the space out for cost, and got their artists off-season jobs, pub gigs and parties and session-musician work, and everyone’s making a living, and sometimes someone’s song gets played on local radio and they get a bit famous for a while, and we’re all really happy until I hit nine and the wheels fall off, big-time.’

‘Why?’ I was all ears. ‘What happened?’

She sighed again. ‘Passengers on Spaceship Earth. That’s what Dad used to call us. That’s why I always loved that bloody song so much. Do you remember it, Le Passager? It got used for some stupid car advert.’

Oh, yes – I remembered. It had won awards. Moody monochrome, Paris on a wet night, monster black SUV, gorgeous black-haired male driver, blurry glimpses of gorgeous black-haired female passenger – a cheek, a chin, a long-lashed eye gazing out at the famous sights all lit up, reflected in rain-drippy windows. Very arty. Ends with passenger getting out at the Casino de Paris, and her name’s up in lights, and you realise she’s the singer, and next thing she’s on stage singing the song until the car fades back in and they’re driving away.

‘Well, that’s what happened. Cecile Renarde. La Voix d’Or. One of MoonChild’s folkies, Dad saw her at a club in Paris and signed her on the spot – so I’ve known her since I was a kid, she was part of the family, we all loved Sess. Anyway, Passager turns into quite a hit in France, and at first it’s exciting, we’re all pleased for her, and that MoonChild’s finally making enough money for Dad to pay the Crew – and everyone else who helped him get started – for their time, and to let bands use the warehouse for nothing now the business can afford it. So for a little while nothing much changes except to get better… but then Passager’s picked up by that car company and boom! It goes viral. So Sess releases it in English with an extended video, and that goes viral too.’

I nodded. I’d been one of the millions who downloaded both versions and watched the video endlessly. Cecile Renarde – ‘Foxy’ to the tabloids – was boy-slim and beautiful with short, spiky black hair and huge eyes so blue they looked fake, like contact lenses, and she was a great guitarist, and she sang with a husky catch in her voice as if she was about to burst into tears, and for once my folks agreed that some music I liked was brilliant; Mum said she sounded like Amy Winehouse and looked like Iggy Pop (it was true, I watched his original Passenger on YouTube and that was brilliant too, in a punkier way. And he was just as gorgeous).

‘So, suddenly MoonChild’s got a major star on its books, and everyone wants a piece of her, and she starts recording Goldenvoice,’ (her first album, I had that too), ‘and Dad’s on the phone the whole time arranging stadium gigs and world tours and interviews blah blah blah. You can’t imagine… I mean, MoonChild musos thought they were doing well to sell a thousand CDs a year, and suddenly Passager’s selling that by the hour! It was insane.

‘So, suddenly MoonChild’s big news as well-’ I nodded again, I remembered the rags-to-riches stories plastered everywhere, ‘-and people are getting interested in our other bands, especially Catfish Crew, and wanting new songs and re-releases of old ones, and pestering Mum and Dad to record a new cover of ‘Moonchild’ – and that’s when the arguments start. Dad was all for it but Mum totally didn’t want that sort of fame, to start playing Wembley Stadium at her age, or do international tours, or have paparazzi chasing us, you know, like they did with Sess and Dad. It was the first time I’d ever heard them rowing, it was awful.

‘Anyway, they compromise, just re-mix the original and jazz it up a bit and release it with a re-mix of Mum’s ‘Jolene’ – and that does really well, too. Then it’s more arguments till she caves in and agrees to make a farewell appearance as MoonChild, with the Crew supporting, to tag on for the Southern end of Sess’s American tour so we can visit the Desmoulins at the same time. It was a brilliant holiday for me… my last memory of us being happy as a family. I watched most of the gigs – they only did ten – from the wings, and in between Uncle Georges and Aunt Genie took me round New Orleans and Atlanta and Memphis, and we went to see Elvis’s house, and an old slave-owner’s mansion, and ate jambalaya and poled a pirogue down the bayou, all that good tourist stuff-’

I was desperate to ask what a pirogue was and how you poled one, but I knew the juicy part was coming and I didn’t want Raven to lose her thread, so I kept quiet.

‘-and the tour was a sell-out as well. So, now it’s add three noughts to all the numbers, and MoonChild’s mushroomed into something way too big for Mum and Dad to handle by themselves… but it’s still sort of OK because now they’re making serious jobs for other people. The goddies take over the Wakefield end, which is great for my god-sis Ferne – she goes straight from finishing her business studies degree to managing the warehouse, with her folks and their accountant down the road to help if she’s stuck. And Dad makes Stan the Sound Man full-time, and gives him an assistant, and finds a graphic artist to do what Mum used to… but now of course we need a proper base, a fixed address, and of course it has to be in London because God knows,’ her voice turned into Gray Childe, ‘you can’t expect top music industry executives and major promoters to fly into Leeds-Bradford for meetings in Yorkshire, can you?’ Although even I realised we couldn’t entertain people like that on the bus, or in a shabby old warehouse.

‘So Dad rents some ghastly glass office in Docklands, and staffs it from an agency, and finds this house… they row about that as well, but he wins because it’s a furnished let and they don’t have any furniture that isn’t built into the bus, or any time to go shopping, and Mum says no way is she  hiring a personal shopper and having some stranger choose their marital bed. So we move into this huge place – thirty-five rooms not counting cellars and attics, Mum and I went round and counted one day. It belonged to some diplomat who’d gone overseas- have you ever seen the video for John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’? Well, it was like that – it even had the white room with the white concert grand! I mean, totally white. Mum would’ve liked to play the piano, but she didn’t dare go in there in case she soiled something. It’s ridiculous, we rattle round like three peas in a bucket, except usually it’s only two because Dad’s at the office or wherever. So Mum and I pretty much live in the summerhouse or the housekeeper’s sitting room – she’d gone abroad with her boss – and if Dad’s away overnight we sleep together in my room because it’s only a double bed and theirs is super king-size and makes her feel like she’s lost in space.

‘But Dad thinks it’s brilliant, he keeps wandering round saying isn’t it amazing, look how far we’ve come, who’d have thought blah blah. And he’s really getting into the image – that stupid great SUV the car company give us, and designer suits and sharp haircuts-’

I remembered this Gray Childe, he was always in the news escorting Cecile Renarde to some showbiz event, or hanging out at posh nightclubs with the stars, and Mum was always going on about how he looked like some actor she fancies called David Essex. I Googled him and she was right about the blue eyes, which were the same colour as the stripes on my favourite PJs. Apart from that I thought he was more like Aidan Turner, with the same square tanned face, creased as if he laughed a lot, designer stubble, and a curly mop of black hair going grey at the short back and sides. Definitely a DILS. (Dad I’d Like to Snog. My imagination didn’t stretch to DILF).

‘-because suddenly, after all the years of being totally free, going our own way, we’ve got to look like everyone else in this game. And act like it. I remember Dad going totally ape when he gets back from some trip to find Mum washing up in this horrible science lab kitchen because she refuses to use a dishwasher, and Post-It labels stuck all over the units so we can find the handles and know what’s inside, and me drinking coffee and talking baby German to Magda, the Polish cleaning lady. So of course, now it’s time Raven goes to school because Mum shouldn’t be doing stuff like this, he needs her at MoonChild, so it’s either school or private tutors and by then I’m like yeah, bring it on, anything to get me out of this place all day. I thought they’d just send me to the nearest wherever they could get me in, but oh no, Dad’s found a boarding school where all the top people send their children… so then we’re all rowing, not that I’d mind going away, but Mum and I think it’s an obscene waste of money. So then I get the guilt-trip – ‘I’m only thinking of you, darling, you deserve the best, I never dreamt we could ever afford to give you an opportunity like this, most girls would give their right arm, it’ll help you get into Cambridge and you know what an advantage that would be in your career’ blah blah bleurgh.

‘And I knew how whiny I sounded – oh dear, poor little Raven doesn’t want to live in a mansion or go to a posh private school, what a first world problem – and the worst thing is, he’s right, it shouldn’t but it would open doors, help me get the sort of job I want, do as much good as I can… so OK, I’ll give it a go. And I honestly try, but the others- I mean, we were pretty rich by then, but not super-rich like Saudi princes and Texan oil princesses and Russian gangsters’ kids. This one lad, Oleg, hangs round me all term then sends me a hamper from the Harrods perfume department and a hundred red roses – a hundred – for Christmas! At eleven years old, like it was nothing! Madness. And the teachers were snobs, and word soon got round who I was, and then all the kids are sucking up but they don’t just want me to get them signed photos, they want Sess to sing at their birthday party, or Catfish Crew to be the band at their big sister’s wedding, then they get all snotty when I won’t even ask. It was awful, I begged Dad to take me out but he wouldn’t, so I- well, you know.

‘The Grammar was OK though. Very upper middle-class but it’s only a day school, the staff are a lot more discreet, the girls are a lot more normal, and I can go by myself on the Tube. And the Head’s really decent, lets me wear Mum’s hat and coat instead of the uniform stuff plastered with badges, and come in the staff way like a teaching assistant, because by now we’ve got press camped out at the front hoping to see celebs, so Jeff the gardener – he was nice – lets me come and go through his little gate at the back. Plus it’s a high-achievement place so we get loads of homework which is fine by me, I’ve got an excuse to hole up in my room away from the rows because they’re always at it now. Mum wants to rein things in, try and hang onto their old values but Dad’s turned into a massive bread-head, wants to keep expanding, broaden our horizons, bring in new mainstream acts because MoonChild’s always had a rep for quality so now everyone wants in, and think what we can do with the money, cherie… She only agrees on condition that she stays behind the scenes and I’m kept totally out of it, no publicity stunts or family photos in the media… and they do give shedloads to charity, and found music scholarships, and start a trust-fund for me, and Dad buys the Wakefield warehouse and the one next door, and starts converting that into a new state-of-the-art studio – but the stupid thing about being really rich is it’s all tax-deductible, and more just keeps pouring in all the time.

‘The awful part is Dad’s so good at it. He was studying to be an engineer, remember, so he’s really good at maths, even gets into playing the stock markets… and the worst part is he turns into Champagne Charlie. Before that I’d never seen him seriously trashed. Neither of my folks were drinkers because they were practically always driving or performing – they might share a bottle of cider or somebody’s home-brew round the campfire, or have the odd toot on a spliff, nothing heavy – and all they ever got was a bit high and giggly. But cocaine,’ Raven grimaced into the water, ‘it turned him into someone we didn’t recognise. Or like. Have you ever seen The Mask? You know, mild-mannered hero puts on mask and turns into supercool superhero, bad guy puts it on and turns into super-villain? Well, coke was Dad’s mask. It lit him up. Lots of people loved it, especially women – he could really turn on the charm – but Mum and I hated it. He got so manic, with this horrible electric aura, like a flickering fluorescent, or nails down a blackboard, screeeeeeee.’ She turned a demon face to me – mad Joker grin and bulging eyes – making the sound, then relaxed it into the expression I’d seen a thousand times, the cheeky half-smile, half-cocked eyebrow, and sexy, slitted eyes Gray Childe used to give the cameras as he ushered Foxy into some awards ceremony, or some pop diva out of Annabelle’s. It made her look much older, and as if she knew what I had under my clothes.

‘Ugh.’ I squirmed. ‘Don’t, Raven. It’s creepy.’

‘Tell me about it.’ She turned back into a sad, dad-less fourteen. ‘And we used to see it a lot, because now party season’s started, that’s why we need the huge house… first it’s business dinners Mum can handle, then it’s twenty guests, fifty, plus caterers and serving staff, and I have to be in disguise, in my own home, in case there’s some pap with a telephoto lens lurking round the grounds. So the folks don’t introduce me to people, and if I want to hang out with Sess or the Crew, I scrape my hair back and wear fake specs and a white apron and carry a tray of empties because no-one pays attention to a waitress, or wear one of Mum’s old blonde Mary-Lou stage wigs and pretend to be a French au pair who can’t speak much English.

‘It might be fun, sort of, if some people weren’t so obnoxious-’ she named several names you’d recognise, but I won’t in case they sue me, they sound like the type, ‘-demanding extra security and special imported Nordic glacier water and rainforest honey to protect their precious vocal cords – Mum used to give them Hidden House spring water and Grange Farm honey, they never knew the difference – and so totally boring when they’re off their face. So I shut myself in my room when I can’t stand it any longer, and in the morning Magda tells me what pigs they are, leaving used condoms in the bathroom and fag-ends ground out on the floors and skid-marks on the glass coffee tables.

‘So I’m, what, twelve, and things settle into this new normal, and it’s not too bad when Dad’s on his own with us except we can’t go anywhere en famille now because he gets recognised everywhere and it’ll blow my cover, so we just hang out at home jamming, and cooking, and playing silly games like we used to – but as soon as the coke-heads turn up, bang! He’s off again, so Mum and I leave him to it. She says we might as well make the most of London while we’re here, so we sneak out the back way and play tourist, see the sights, go to exhibitions, take in shows… and it’s OK, we do lots of cool stuff, but it feels a bit hollow when we’re always worried what Dad might be up to while we’re out. School’s OK too, I didn’t really hate every minute, just the sneaking around and remembering I’m registered as Blue Mullen – Blue’s my middle name, can you believe it? – and not being able to invite friends back or say much about home, so I’m not very popular because the girls think I’m stand-offish when the truth is I daren’t get close to anyone in case they suss me out and the gossip and hassle starts, because MoonChild’s big news again when Catfish Crew splits.’

I nodded. ‘Oh yeah. I remember that. It was sad.’

 Raven sighed. ‘Yes… so now it’s monster rows Stateside because Cousin Joey wants to go off for two years to star in some movie about the American Revolution, ‘oh, wouldn’t it be cool to have Captain Jean-Claude Desmoulins played by one of his descendants’ blah blah. He’s really up for it even though it’s not a musical and he’s never acted in his life, and everyone except his baby brother thinks he’s crazy. Upshot is, Joey says yes, if Pierre gets a part too, and they both quit on the spot – leaving the Crew stuck without a lead singer and guitarist, right in the middle of a tour! They had to struggle on with session musicians, and afterwards they just gave up for a while until the family persuaded them to re-form, go back to their roots, stick to small gigs on home ground and enjoy themselves like they used to. And they’re doing fine now. Pierre, too – he got picked up for a bit-part in a soap opera and now he writes jingles and performs musical adverts, you know, for TV.’ She grimaced. ‘But he seems happy enough. Joey not so much, ha ha karma. The movie didn’t totally bomb, but it was never released outside the States – the critics called him ‘a decorative plank’ or ‘Dire Desmoulins’ – and half the family still don’t speak to him because they’re too embarrassed or disgusted. We lost a few other oldies round that time as well. Do you remember Razz, Rob and Zoe Zetland? They had a Christmas hit a couple of years ago.’

‘Yeah, Mum and I loved it.’ They’d done a ‘Fairytale of New York’ with him on guitar and her on piano, a sort of argument sung in harmonies that made the hairs on my neck stand on end.

‘Well, Zoe gets pregnant while they’re making the video for it, so they decide to retire and settle down in Hebden Bridge. They’re freelance music teachers now and they’ve got two adorable little girls, Chloe and Zara. And of course, other companies are always trying to poach MoonChild talent, and some people do want a change, to go solo, try different directions, and Mum and Dad let them, no argument. That was one thing they always agreed on. They saw themselves as enablers, they never seriously expected MoonChild to get so big, and they never wanted to stand in the way of anyone’s success, so they wrote a clause into the contracts that artists could leave whenever, no being tied to X number of albums for Y number of years or any expensive legal aggro.

‘Then Sess gets this monster, I mean megabucks offer from some big American company, and it’s headlines again. She turns them down. They up the offer – more money, modelling contracts, endorsements, you name it. She turns them down again. It gets twisted by the tabloids, ‘Money-Mad Moonchild,’ ‘More for Moi,’ crap like that, and the trolls get into her and Dad in the worst way, calling her a greedy whore, unbelievably horrible stuff. So to try and shut them up they make a press announcement-’

Yes, I’d watched it on TV with Mum and Dad, filmed on the steps in front of the MoonChild offices. Cecile Renarde looked fantastic in a little black dress with a silver MoonChild brooch, and totally took them down in husky, perfect English. ‘I owe all my success to MoonChild Music, a family to whom I am bound by love, trust, and loyalty – values I will not betray, now or in the future. Therefore I will not be signing with any other company, at any time, for any price.’ With a wave and a kiss of her hand, she disappeared back inside the building, and Raven’s dad took her place amid an explosion of flashes and questions. ‘You heard the lady. Cecile Renarde is not for sale. That’s our final word. And it’s the plain, simple truth,’ he looked straight at the cameras, ‘so please less it with the lies and abuse, all you trolls. Now, if you’ll excuse me, we’d like to get back to making music. Thank you and goodnight.’

‘-and at first we think it’s worked, her fans are saying, ‘see, told you so’ all over social media. But then the morning papers come out and it really hits the fan. Most are OK, calling her No Deal Cecile, stuff like that, except for one vile tabloid.’ I tensed. I knew what was coming. ‘There’s Sess on the front page, making her statement, and they’ve caught Dad in the background, and inset an enlargement of his face, watching her with this stupid, sappy expression, and the headline ‘Look of Love?’

I was glad Raven was staring into the stream and didn’t see me go bright red. We got that paper, and on the centrefold they’d enlarged Gray Childe’s face some more, and put it next to an old photo of him, and on that his eyes looked blue and on the new one they looked black, his pupils were so huge, and above the pictures it said in big black capitals ‘GRAY’S EYES CAN’T LIE! IS IT LOVE OR DRUGS?’ and the article was all about whether he was in love with Foxy, or a druggie, or both. I lapped it up, I wasn’t especially interested in Gray Childe but I couldn’t get enough of Cecile, and of course I didn’t know about Raven then, or ever stop to think about their families, and friends, and how they mightfeel having millions of people gossiping about their private lives over the cornflakes.

‘Then the rest have to pick it up, and we’ve got Sess on the phone to Mum in tears saying it’s all rubbish, they’re not having an affair, and Dad gets hyper-paranoid, makes Magda deep-clean the house and flush anything she finds stronger than aspirin down the loo, and goes on this mad fitness drive, pumping iron in the home-gym and jogging round the grounds at all hours, then shutting himself in the white room plonking away on the piano when he’s not at the office. In some ways it’s better, at least he’s straight and the champagne-and-coke parties stop, and Sess stays away, and the press get bored hanging round the front gates and clear off, but in other ways it’s worse because even when he’s with us he’s not, like some weird twin in Dad’s clothes who can’t even be bothered to argue any more… and it should feel good that the rows have calmed down but it doesn’t, it feels all prickly and dark, then the storm breaks big-time when he signs SICKES without consulting Mum and bang! They’re at it again.’

I wasn’t keen on boy-bands and I couldn’t stand Brit-rap so I’d never been a SICKES fan, though I had to admit Steve, Ivan, Caleb, Kyle, Eddie and Si were cute-looking and very good dancers. Still, this was hot stuff, and I was hanging on Raven’s every word.

‘Dad manages to smooth things over – ‘these boys are serious artists, cherie, they want to break new ground, we’re enablers, we’ve got to give them a chance’ blah blah. So she’s OK, fine, let’s hear them, and next thing Dad’s organising this ‘Welcome to MoonChild’ party for two hundred and fifty, and fifty of those are the band and their dates and bodyguards and PAs and dressers and drivers and God knows what else, and Sess is coming as guest of honour. And SICKES are going to play a set, so we’ve got this stage on the back lawn under a ginormous marquee in case it rains, and Dad hires a company to twine all the pathways and porches and trees with about fifty thousand fairy lights, and brings in some top club DJ to do the rest of the music, and the band are so thrilled when they get the invitation they present him with this ridiculous sports car, bright red, talk about a penis extension. Mum and I loathe everything about it, won’t even sit in the thing, but Dad loves it of course, it suits his Mr Big image and now he can play racing driver as well.

‘Anyway, for once I feel like going as a guest, so Mum buys me a Chanel cocktail dress and a load of costume bling from a second-hand designer shop, and hair extensions, false nails, the works, and makes me up to look about twenty, and calls me Sophie and only talks to me in French so most people pretty much ignore me. Well, the men look. And it’s fine at first, everyone’s sticking to champagne and whatever they’re loaded with when they arrive, and SICKES put one of their gorillas in the hall to point people to the loos and stop them going upstairs, only Dad’s in a foul mood because Sess can’t make it after all, she’s had to fly home because her mum’s been taken ill, and we think he’s just pissed off and embarrassed that he can’t deliver – whatever, he’s getting seriously tanked up.

‘Then the band come on stage, and everybody flocks into the marquee except me and Mum, we just watch from the terrace, and they start off with one of their hits, one of those mixes where they steal someone’s riff and you think they’re going to cover something good but it’s only a sample. The guests go mad for it, though. Then they go all quiet and humble, and Si – he was alright, actually, the best of the lot – says they’d like us to be the first to hear their new direction, and they do a sort of reggae version of that Detectorists theme song, then some- I don’t know what to call it. Tribal, I suppose, lots of drumming and leaping about and pseudo-pagan lyrics, and a few people start drifting back into the house but Mum and I stick it out to the end. And they’re OK but not great, nowhere near MoonChild’s normal standard. So now she’s in a foul mood as well, and nothing she can do because the contract’s already signed and we’re stuck with them, and I can tell she wants to have a go at Dad so I get out of their way, go wash the muck off, turn back into myself. And it’s- oh, I don’t know, eleven-ish, and I’m sitting on the bed in my ‘jamas, with my buds in, playing on my tablet, and suddenly I look up and this man’s standing over me, the SICKES guy who’s supposed to be minding the stairs-’

I gasped. ‘Oh my God, Raven!’ That was my worst nightmare – unless the guy happened to be Joshua Brown. Or Aidan Turner. ‘What did you do?’

‘I pull my buds out and ask him what the hell he’s doing in my room. I can see he’s coked out of his brains, it’s all round his nose, and he just leers at me and says, ‘You’re too pretty to be on your own, darling, want some company in there?’ and starts undoing his belt. So I shoot my foot out and kick him in the trousers as hard as I can, and he crumples and pukes on the carpet, and I video-call Mum and show her, then lock myself in the en-suite. A minute later I hear grunting and thudding about in my room, then suddenly the music stops outside, and another minute later it’s all shouting and running around and car doors slamming and driving away. Then Mum’s knocking on the door and she tells me she went straight to SICKES, told them to clear their trash out of my room and get the hell out of her house, then pulled the plug on the sounds, waved her mobile at the guests, said it was footage of someone trying to sexually assault a fourteen-year-old girl upstairs, and if they and their drugs weren’t out in ten minutes she was calling the cops. Cue mass exodus and another screaming match until Dad roars off in his stupid car even though he’s well over the limit and Mum tries to stop him, says he’ll kill someone, himself probably, wrap it round a lamppost or something.

‘He doesn’t, though. Doesn’t even get a speeding ticket, God knows how he managed that, the way he used to drive it – but he might as well have done, because that was the end of things, really. Next day he tells Mum that although he’ll always admire and respect her as a musician and business partner and mother of his child, he doesn’t love her any longer, he loves Sess, he fell in love with her when she chose MoonChild over the Americans, and he’ll always take care of us financially but now he wants a divorce, and as soon as Sess gets back from France he’s driving up to Yorkshire – she was bunking with the goddies while she recorded a new album – to ask her to marry him.’

‘Oh my God,’ I breathed. That hadn’t made it into the papers.

‘At least he has the decency not to lay this on Sess while her mum’s in hospital, but when she rings to say she’s just landed at Leeds-Bradford and she’ll be back in the studio tomorrow, he rips the phone out of Mum’s hand and blurts it all out in front of us, says he can’t wait any longer to see her and not to go to bed, he’ll be with her by midnight. Then he disappears for ten minutes, comes back screeee, obviously wired, stuffs a bottle of vodka into his overnight bag, slams out and roars off without even saying goodbye.

‘Two hours later Sess is on the doorstep in hysterics, she’d hit the M1 straight from the airport to avoid him, they must’ve passed on the road. And she’s completely grossed out, thinks of Dad like a father, would never disrespect Mum and me by shagging him even if she fancied him, which she doesn’t, never has, never will. And we’ve only just calmed her down when the gate buzzer goes, and this time it’s the police, and Dad hasn’t wrapped the car round a lamppost, he’s wrapped it round a tree – lost control on a B-road between here and the motorway and boom! Crash and burn, bye-bye Gray Childe. He’d been driving with the vodka clamped between his thighs, slopped some down himself, it caught fire when he’s trying to light a fag, or a spliff, or dropped a lit one, whatever, and he veers off the road trying to put the flames out, doing about eighty. We find that out at the inquest. Only consolation is he didn’t burn to death when the car exploded, the whiplash broke his neck. Ha ha karma, eh?’

‘Kinell.’ It was the closest I got to the F-word but I couldn’t think what else to say, imagining Gray Childe’s last moments, drawing hard on his smoke, his blue eyes wild and bloodshot then bulging in panic as the glowing tip drops, igniting his shirt, free hand slapping frantically, foot stamping hard, involuntary, hitting the gas, the roaring red car leaping tree-wards, maybe a split-second of realisation, a rending crash, a bright fireball- then black nothing. Literally. The papers said he was burnt to a cinder.

‘Yeah.’ Raven shrugged. ‘But the funny thing about worst things is that you’re free afterwards, you needn’t worry about them happening any longer because they already have. We’ve already cried most of our tears so it’s almost a relief to be rid of Champagne Charlie, the maniac coke-head who stole my Dad… anyway, this is April Fool’s Day, ha ha karma again, the papers get loads of complaints from people thinking it’s a bad-taste prank, and Mum pulls me straight out of school, and I don’t go back after Easter. The inquest is pretty grim, but everyone rallies round – and then Mum’s adamant, she’s done, finished, no more MoonChild, no more fame, and definitely no maungey funeral.’ I bit back a nervous giggle, it sounded so funny to hear such a Yorkshire word in Raven’s accent.

‘So we have Dad – what’s left of him – privately cremated, no service, no fuss, no press. We don’t even go to the crem, just stay quietly home with Sess and the Crew and listen to his old songs, Moonchild gets lots of plays, obviously, and we talk about the old Dad, try to reclaim him, and then everyone’s crying again but it’s OK, things start getting better after that. Not so much for SICKES – they split up, can’t handle being called murderers for giving him the car even though it’s hardly their fault he crashed it – so that’s one problem solved. CanCom solves the rest. They’re French Canadian, the folks met them years ago through the Desmoulins, they handled all Sess and the Crew’s North American tours, and they’re on the phone the moment the news breaks over there – you know, terrible shock, huge loss, deepest sympathies, anything we can do to help blah blah. And Mum says yes, actually, and does a deal on the spot – signs over all the MoonChild artists who want to transfer as per their original contracts, and the whole operation, London office, works in progress, everything apart from the studios, and leaves them to sort it out. And the minute we get Dad’s ashes back we’re out of Hell Hall and on the bus up to Wakey, and both warehouses are fully refurbed by now so we stay in one of the band apartments, and Ferne and Stan are doing such a brilliant job managing the place Mum signs it over to them. I’m not sure exactly how much CanCom paid her but it was silly money, so she can afford it and she knows the old Dad would approve, and now they’re Fernley-Moon Studios and they’re doing what MoonChild always used to, helping musicians make good music dirt-cheap… and we’re living just down the road in a place we all love, taking care of it and trying to be as normal as we can.

‘Phew. So that’s it, my life story. You’re the first person I’ve told the whole thing to, and I don’t much want to tell it again.’ Raven looked at me, her eyes shiny with tears. ‘You won’t tell anyone either, will you, Ellie?’

Dumbly, I shook my head, a little at first then harder and harder, hoping she’d understand the words I couldn’t find, NO, no way, not a chance, never never never would I add to what she and her mum had been through – any more than I already had by reading all those prying articles and lapping up every cruel scrap. And I think she did, because she just nodded back, then lowered her feet into the water, leant down and washed them, and washed her hands too, murmuring something like, ‘carry my troubles away.’ Then she jumped up, grabbed her jumper and shoes, and danced off across the stream.

‘Come on, Ellie! We need to go to another Special Place now.’

Wakefield Platinum Jubilee Time Capsule: A Sneak Preview of My Contribution!

In June, thanks to our chum Dr Keith Souter of the Friends of Sandal Castle, I was given a fantastic opportunity: to deposit some of my work in Wakefield’s Time Capsule, placed into the well at Sandal Castle to celebrate a unique national occasion, the Platinum Jubilee of HM Queen Elizabeth II. This was particularly exciting for me since the castle is our local monument, allegedly a favourite home of Richard, Duke of York, (father of my favourite king, Richard III), who died at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460 (subject of two of my non-fiction publications). I was duly proud to donate six books including the Wakefield histories, a ‘biographette’ (due to appear on my website home page), and the piece below in case you’re not around in fifty years and would like to read it now!

The Bishop of Wakefield, Tony Robinson, unveils the blue plaque to remind people there’s a Time Capsule down the nearby well!

Helen Cox, aka Helen Doggett, aka Rae Andrew/Rae Paxton

Hello! Do you read me? I hope so, because it’ll mean that despite the mess the world’s in as I write on 8th June 2022, humanity’s still hanging in there… and that even if the ice-caps have melted and you’re among Wakefield’s survivors living in a rebuilt Sandal Castle, standing proud above acres of water, you’ve managed to haul this time-capsule out of the well and take a peek back fifty years.

Unless I’ve been bitten by a vampire or stumbled on the key to longevity, (in which case I’ll be eleventy-one, like Bilbo Baggins minus the One Ring), I doubt very much I’ll be among you – which makes this an odd, uniquely poignant piece to write. Obviously, all writers would like to think that their words will live on after them, being read and enjoyed by generations to come; I now have the privilege of knowing that even if all my other works are long lost in obscurity, some people in 2072 will read (the covers at least!) of the little gift here enclosed with my love and best wishes. And while writers may keep a hopeful eye on posterity, we normally work in the here-and-now, for living contemporaries, rather than for a posthumous audience of people currently either young or as yet unborn… though my soul will be thrilled if that audience includes anyone – perhaps our great-nieces – who read and enjoyed Henry Wowler & the Mirror-Cat as a child, or came to any of my talks, guided walks, or Wars of the Roses events here with Towton Battlefield Society’s  Frei Compagnie, the re-enactment group Hubcap and I founded in 2007.

Above: Battle of Wakefield Commemorations back when today’s Castle Café used to be a Visitor Centre: me and Hubcap (far right and left) with friends, and me holding forth on a guided tour of Sandal Castle. If the present building still exists, the perspective of the castle on its window was painted by current Frei Co secretary and renowned fantasy/gaming artist Wayne Reynolds – just thought I’d bask in a little of his reflected glory!

If you are still with us, I hope you’re living in a cleaner, safer, wiser, kinder, saner world than I am today. One of the great frustrations for any historian is the truth of George Santayana’s statement, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ 561 years after Richard, Duke of York led his troops from this castle to slaughter at the Battle of Wakefield, nations and individuals are still ruled by the same power-hunger, greed, self-interest, and ruthless ambition that characterised politics in the 15th century (as they had for centuries before, probably ever since humankind gave up hunting and gathering in favour of accumulating land and possessions). Sadly, it seems that very few people remember, or learn anything from, even the most recent past. We’re still living through the biggest pandemic since World War I Spanish ‘flu, the one that locked the world down for months only two years ago, when everyone started saying, ‘Oh, isn’t it lovely and quiet, listen to the birds, see how beautiful the sky looks without con-trails, we must keep things this way etc etc’ – but of course now we’re back to the ‘new normal’ with people jetting off abroad willy-nilly, congregating in large numbers, driving ten miles to buy fast food or franchise coffee, (then chucking the rubbish out of the window as they speed home, backfires exploding), hardly anyone bothering with masks any more, even on public transport, just as if it had never happened – and still dying by the hundreds per day, vaccinations notwithstanding.

Is it still part of your lives, I wonder? Has it turned into one of those annoying things people take for granted, like the common cold, (‘I’m having a couple of days off work, got a touch of COVID’), or is it still fatal like ‘flu and pneumonia can be? And is the climate still in such crisis? I can’t report on today’s situation because I can’t bear to know; if I paid any attention to the horrifying statistics, the news about wild fires, floods, rainforests burned for palm oil etc, I probably wouldn’t still be around to write this, I’d have overdosed myself out long ago. Some things are improving though, especially since lockdown when people had more time to notice and get upset about plastic pollution and littering, for example. Helped by the Council’s brilliant StreetScene initiative, we now have a lovely social network of hundreds of volunteers all round Wakefield, who go out solo or in groups to litter-pick and clean up fly-tipping day in, day out, year-round. But I hope it no longer exists by 2072 because it’s no longer needed, because EVERYONE has finally grasped the basic social responsibilities of minimising waste and disposing of it properly. However, I do hope that junior members have picked up the torch and that Kettlethorpe Nature Action Group is still alive and knagging on nature’s behalf. Thanks to semi-retirement, we could make KNAG our contribution to lockdown life, a Facebook group founded by Hubcap in January 2021 to help local flora and fauna in any/every way – improving our woodland walks, cleaning up harmful litter, donating and fitting swift-boxes to provide homes for an endangered species luckily still flourishing here, helping neighbours create wildlife gardens, and generally trying to make this a cleaner, safer place for all residents, human and animal. I hope we succeeded in leaving you the legacy of a Kettlethorpe Community Nature Reserve to enjoy, as I hope the thousand or so trees we’ve planted to date around the estate (that’s Hubcap below, helping plant our bit of the White Rose Forest), have grown up into nice little woodlands, and that the two wildlife ponds the Council dug this year near Kettlethorpe Lake are still there, looking as if they have been forever, full of frogs, toads and newts. Maybe we even achieved our bigger dream of integrating our neck of the woods into a wider ecological landscape, a protected Calder Nature Corridor embracing Newmillerdam, Kettlethorpe, Pugneys, Seckar Wood and all our other wonderful local wild areas. That’d be nice.

To close with a few words of such wisdom as I’ve gleaned in my 61 years: life is the only thing that matters; the only thing any of us truly possess yet can only rely on keeping from one heartbeat to the next. So take good care of yourself and of your loved ones, of your pets, and the birds and bees in your garden, and of all living things, and above all, take good care of Mother Earth herself… then maybe there’ll still be people around to open YOUR time-capsule in 2122.

Love and light to you all from this little blast from the past,