Review: Henry Wowler & the Mirror-Cat by Rae Andrew

HENRY WOWLER & THE MIRROR-CAT: A Whimsical Tail for Readers aged 9+ Years & Cat-Fans of All Ages

Author: Rae Andrew

Publisher: Herstory Writing/York Publishing Services, 2021, paperback, 62 pages, b & w illustrations, RRP £6.99

ISBN: 978-0-9928514-2-2

Available from: www.ypdbooks.com, www.amazon.co.uk, by order from any High Street or independent bookshop. UK Customers: Order signed 1st editions at £6.99 inclusive of P+P direct from the author on her.story@hotmail.co.uk

One of the perks of self-publishing is being able to review your own books, and this one will always be particularly special: my first children’s fiction, first collaboration with an artist, and, (alas), the first and only Wowler book to appear during the lifetime of its feline Muse.

Henry Wowler & the Mirror-Cat is a traditional tale set in a time and place like, and yet unlike, our own. It’s inspired by fantasies I loved as a child, including Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and the TV series Mr Benn, but the idea mainly came from watching our ginger-and-white tom, Henry Wowler, watching himself in the glass back of the electric fire while I fussed him on the fleecy hearthrug. What was he thinking, I wondered; what did he make of the Other Cat he only saw in certain places, like this one? And what would happen if he could go through and meet it? There’d have to be some inversion, something topsy-turvy about it… and it didn’t take long to come up with the first two chapters, self-contained adventures in which Henry learns to join his reflection – MC, the Mirror-Cat – on the Other Side of the glass.

Because no mirror ever shows the same reflection twice, Henry can never be sure exactly what he’s going to find there. On his first visit, he’s very keen to hunt lots of great big mice in the darkness behind the fire – but is shocked to discover quite how big the Other Side mice are, and after he and MC have a narrow escape from two school-mice planning to keep them in a cage as class pets, he’s very keen to get back to his own side!

In Chapter Two, Henry’s relieved to discover that the Other Side of the wardrobe mirror is much less dangerous. Cats there walk on two legs, and wear clothes, and have jobs just like people; MC goes to school, and runs errands to earn pocket-money to spend on his hobby of caring for the Bright family, three miniature Oomans he keeps in a big furnished hutch in his bedroom. Henry Wowler feels tempted to stay with MC and his parents for dinner, maybe even longer… but when he hears a faint echo of his Ooman calling him, he rushes back home to eat his own cat-food instead.

Chapters Three and Four introduce new characters and form a continuing story. The third mirror is the hardest to reach because it hangs high on the living room wall; but Henry manages to leap through to find a roomful of pedigree show-cats, all very famous and worth awful lots of money: Skin the Sphynx, Tammy the Scottish Fold, Dancy the Siamese, Bobby the Manx, and Stevie the Maine Coon, with their self-appointed leader Queenie, the white Persian. After enjoying their luxurious quarters, Henry gets the ladies so excited with his mouse-hunting tales that they start caterwauling – which brings their owners running, and once again Henry Wowler only just manages to avoid being trapped on the Other Side.

The fourth and final chapter begins with Stevie stuck half-way through the mirror, trying to follow Henry so they can go hunting together. The cats hatch a plan for her to return late that night, and they Go Out properly for the first time in Stevie’s life. She gets startled by a low-flying bat; briefly meets Ginger, Henry’s father, (probably); sees off a fox; argues with a grumpy owl in the woods; then to her great delight, catches a mouse on her very first try. Henry Wowler is disgusted when she refuses to kill and eat it, and the cats go back home – only to find that Henry’s Ooman has got up early, and is in the same room as the mirror Stevie needs to return through! She makes a mad dash for it while the Ooman is dozing, but it seems she was spotted… and though the Ooman thinks she must’ve dreamt seeing Stevie, Henry Wowler knows better!

All the chapters are brought to life by my dear friend Janet Flynn’s superb illustrations. Some are drawn from photographs of Henry in real settings, (above left, and the lovely watercolour on the front cover). Others, drawn from her fertile imagination, are full of such wonderful detail, down to the labels on the tins in Mrs Mewly’s corner shop, you can study them for hours – just as I used to with my favourite books as a child. We took care to include anything with a complex description, like the Bright’s hutch, or things which might be unfamiliar to young readers (an old-fashioned spring mousetrap, and all the types of animal featured), so hopefully it’s educational, too – and Janet’s portrait of the fox is a masterpiece. As to whether my text does them justice: that, dear Reader, you must judge for yourself.

The photo on which Janet based her cover painting

HW&MC has been warmly received thus far by readers young and old; although unfortunately, any success it may enjoy will be posthumous for its hero. Henry Wowler, my beloved companion and constant inspiration for ten years, was struck down by a fatal blood clot on New Year’s Eve, 2021, within a month of his fictional alter-ego emerging in print. So the book will now be his legacy and, I hope, the first of many if it proves popular enough; and a tithe of any profits will be donated to Cats Protection and Syros Cats (a charity local to Janet’s home in Greece) in Henry’s name. So I do hope you’ll buy a copy and help me to help other cats in need like he once was, as a stray kitten lost in the woods – and here’s an extract to whet your appetite!

Chapter 1: Cat in the Hearth

Henry Wowler sat on the old sheepskin hearth rug, gazing into the fire. It wasn’t lit. It wasn’t even real. It was just a black metal grate, with shiny black glass at the back, and dull black plastic coals at the front. He wasn’t interested in the fire itself. No, he was watching the Other Cat, which he only ever saw at certain times and in certain places – like right here and now. With the same stripy ginger heads, long, stripy ginger tails, and ginger-splotched white bodies, they looked like identical twins – except that where Henry was soft, furry and warm, the Other was flat, hard and cold, with an odd, dusty smell quite unlike a cat. Today it was there as usual, wide eyes staring back through the glass, copying his every move as he squished the fleece rug with his forepaws. Henry wondered if it was purring too, but as usual, he couldn’t hear a sound. So imagine his surprise when the Other Cat suddenly spoke.

“Good morning.”

“What?” gasped Henry Wowler. “Um- I mean, good morning. I, er, didn’t realise you could talk.”

The Other blinked. “What gave you that idea? I can talk as well as you can.”

“Then why didn’t you say something sooner?” Henry asked.

“I did, every time you spoke to me,” it replied. “If you didn’t hear, it’s because you weren’t listening properly.”

Henry thought about this. “Well, I seem to be listening now. So tell me, please, who are you and what are you doing in my fireplace?”

The Other seemed to smile. “I could ask you the same question.”

 Henry puffed out his white chest. “I’m the Wowler – Henry Wowler – at home in my Third Favourite Sleep-spot, getting ready for a nap.”

“Same here. And I’m the Mirror-cat. You can call me MC.”

“Alright. Pleased to meet you, MC.” Henry squinted through the glass. “Is it still night where you are? It looks pretty dark.”

The Mirror-cat nodded. “It’s always dark here.”

“Oh?” Henry’s ears pricked up. “That must make for good hunting. Do you get many mice on your side?”

“Oh yes, lots,” said MC, “great big ones! Why don’t you come through and have a look?”  

“Me- how?” Standing on the coals, Henry touched noses with the Mirror-cat, then patted the glass with a paw. “I can’t, I’ve already tried.”

“But you haven’t tried in the right way. Trust your whiskers, close your eyes, and don’t open them again until I tell you.”

Henry Wowler didn’t like being told what to do. But he was so curious about the Other Side, and so keen to hunt lots of big mice in the dark, that he obeyed without making a fuss.

His whiskers quivered. For a moment, nothing happened. Then the

fire-back seemed to dissolve. A chilly space opened in front of him, filled with the scent of well-fed tomcat. Then his nose collided with another, not glassy and hard now, but warm and alive like his own.

“There! It’s easy when you know how.” No longer muffled by the glass, MC’s voice sounded loud and clear. “Now just follow me down – but remember to keep your eyes closed.”

Eyes shut tight, Henry followed the Mirror-cat’s nose through the fireplace, over the cold hearth tiles, and down onto a deep, fleecy rug.

“Well done!” said MC. “You can look now.”

Henry did, and immediately noticed three things. Firstly, the light on the Other Side was very strange – not the luminous darkness of true night, but dull, flat and grey as if seen through tinted glass. Secondly, it all smelt very strongly of Mouse. And thirdly-

“Wow!” he gasped. “Either I’ve shrunk, or everything through here is big.” He felt suddenly nervous. “Very big.” He glanced at the Mirror-cat, the exact same size as himself. “Except you.”

“Yes. But don’t worry,” said MC, “it’s safe enough. Are you hungry?”

Henry nodded. It wasn’t long since his breakfast, but he could always squeeze in a bit more.

“Right then,” said MC, “let’s go and eat!”

Henry slunk after him, past a skirting board that towered over their heads. He sniffed. Through the strong mousy scent, he could smell something else – something tasty. Then, tucked into the corner, he saw a strange object – a wooden board, longer and wider than he was, with metal bars at one end attached to a spring in the middle. Beside the spring was a round brown thing on a metal plate. It smelt like a cat-biscuit, the sort he ate every day by the handful – but this one was the size of his head and looked as if it could feed him for a week.

“Wow! That’s the biggest biscuit I’ve ever seen!” Licking his lips, Henry rushed eagerly forward.

 “S-stop!” hissed MC, pulling him up by the tail. “It’s a trap. Stay back, I’ll show you.” Crouching low, he carefully stretched out a paw and gave the biscuit a poke.

Swish-WHACK! A bar whizzed over and smacked down hard on the board – just as it would’ve smacked down hard on Henry Wowler, if he’d been standing there.

“Ugh.” Henry shuddered. “I thought you said it was safe here!”

“It is… more or less. And this thing’s safe now. See?” MC crunched into the biscuit. “Yum! Come and tuck in.” 

Very cautiously, Henry Wowler stepped aboard. Nothing nasty happened, so he crouched beside MC and started to munch.

“Mm-num-num-num,” he purred. “Very good.”

Extract from Henry Wowler & the Mirror-Cat @Rae Andrew and Janet Flynn, 2021

Obituary: Henry Wowler, 2011-2021

Henry ‘Archie’ Wowler came into the world on a forgotten date in August 2011, possibly sired by Ginger of Woodmoor Road, (the only other cat in the world he liked enough to give free rein of his garden). White with ginger splotches and a temper to match, this kitten of determined and singular character was christened Archie by his first family, and spent his first twelve weeks or so of kittenhood living Up the Road. Then in late October 2011, he ran away from this loving home simply because it didn’t suit his very particular tastes. With great courage and tenacity, he survived in the wild through Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night, making his way Down the Road through the woods, and taking refuge under a bush in the garden of an empty house on the cold dark night of November 10th. There he started shouting, over and over, until the Ooman next door came out to find him; and after putting up a brief but spirited resistance, the young tom returned to a life of warmth, comfort and plenty.

Finder & Foundling, November 2011

For such an anti-social kitten, this new billet was perfect: one of the two quiet Oomans who lived there was home to attend him pretty much 24/7; it was silent all day while she was working, and they rarely had company round. He at once took them over completely, and insisted on being placed immediately into an intensive ‘Learn to Hunt’ programme: six hours of training with She-Ooman from c. 3 – 9 am, sleep, lunch, lap, dinner, four hours with He-Ooman from c. 6 – 10 pm, supper, solo practice in kitchen with toys from c. 10.30 pm, sleep, repeat. A stern warrior, the briefly anonymous Kitten took things very seriously; after Finding Night, he didn’t purr again for two years, (except quietly and privately while squidging his fleece), and refused to let the Oomans pet him even when he occupied their laps.

Over the next six weeks, re-christened Henry Wowler and kindly released by his previous family to stay permanently Down the Road, he systematically acquired The Knowledge: Stalk, Wiggle, Chase and Catch, Pouncing from Concealment, Pouncing on Concealed Prey, Batting, Biting and Ripping, Catching Airborne Prey, and all associated techniques. He was also conspicuously unimpressed by his first Christmas, though he loved the big sheet of bubble-wrap from a gift packaging (indeed over the next several months, he loved it to bits).

A 4-month-old Wowler hides from Christmas in his bubble-wrap tepee

In January 2012, aged around five months, Henry Wowler attained his degree of Master of the Cat-Flap within two days of installation – a remarkable success he announced to the Oomans with a lap of honour and a ‘R-r-rowl!’ of triumph. Simultaneously gaining the Key to the Door and Freedom of the Garden, Henry’s adult life as a free-range cat had just begun. At last able to explore at will, he put his new skills into practice, proudly displaying his first catches – earthworms and a big lawn caterpillar – on the kitchen floor, only to be consistently disappointed by the Oomans’ response. In Spring 2012, soon after ecstatically mistaking a puff of blackbird breast from a sparrowhawk kill for his first bird, Henry truly made his bones with the first of many mice, sundry small rodents, one juvenile rat, one well-timed juvenile Easter bunny, and a mercifully small number of birds he would bring down over a decade. As his hunting prowess grew, his interest in toys correspondingly diminished, although he was always partial to a fresh catnip mouse, and ‘Bang-Window-Run-Away’ would remain a favourite game until the end of his life.

Live prey: a mouse barricaded into ‘Mouse Motel’ behind the fire, awaiting humane capture and release; and right, the stinking small rodent cemetery batted out of reach under the fridge

Qualified and blooded, Henry Wowler then embarked with great zeal on his chosen career in Homeland Security. As self-appointed Pest Control Officer, he demanded regular access for loft, cupboard, drawer, and wardrobe inspections; and in his joint capacity as Garden Guard, spent long hours watching from vantage points high and low, front and back, and repelling all invaders from squirrels to enemy cats with verbal and physical violence. A specialist hunter of small rodents and large spiders, in later life Henry also developed a regrettable talent for catching birds, and an equally regrettable tendency to cause, rather than prevent, infestations of small rodents (and occasionally fleas).

Cupboard Inspection and going Up to the loft

By the age of two, Henry Wowler had fully grown into his bat-ears, big paws, long legs and tail. Strong, handsome and solid, (a little too solid), he looked in perfect health despite a Grade 2 heart murmur which apparently cleared up by itself; thereafter he barely ailed a day, never showed any heart disease symptoms, and rarely needed a vet except for his first essential operation and one tooth extraction.

In maturity, abandoning all hope of finding mice, Henry retired from Cupboard Inspection, though he continued to make general rounds, especially Up in the loft, until his last week, and to guard the garden until his very last night. Increasing age brought increasing contentment; he discovered the joys of being fondled, groomed, and Put To Bed With Love to such extent he would summon the She-Ooman loudly and insistently to minister to him as required, (usually several times a day). With minor variations according to weather and whim, his life settled into a pleasant routine of days asleep on the bed, (quiet please, Oomans), up around 2 pm for a snack, guard duty, inspections, garden ablutions and patrol, dinner around 4 pm, repose on/with Oomans till late, night-time cat-stuff, bedtime treats, breakfast between midnight – 4 am depending when She-Ooman rose, more outdoor cat-stuff interspersed with Meeting, Greeting, Love On The Rug and cat-naps on the couch, at last to bed c. 5 am, wash, sleep, repeat. As a senior cat, Henry was an unabashed hedonist with a fresh cat-mint habit, who enjoyed watching birds in the garden and nature documentaries on TV, especially about polar bears or animals hunting. During his last summer, he experienced a ‘second kittenhood,’ rediscovering the delights of play and diving into games with reckless abandon bordering on the dangerous. A slinky string gave him much pleasure in autumn ‘21, as did being Cat in a Bag again; and the combination of string and bag drove him wild with joy over his last festive season.

Love On the Rug, an all-over body fondle

Throughout these ten memorable years, Henry Wowler had become an extremely popular feature on his She-Ooman’s website and Facebook page, where he first appeared in January 2012: Ginger-white Henry Wowler slinks invisible through the sodium-lit snowscape thinking, ‘Wow, this is my kind of night.’ From then on, his escapades, from ostensibly meaningful conversations to screaming arguments and cat-fights with the neighbours, vet visits, tussles with Oomans over prey, Night of the New Cat-flap, disputes over the patio door, (Henry – open; Ooman – shut), his mastery of The Annoyance, and many more exploits became firm favourites with Wow-fans. His fascination with his reflection in different surfaces even inspired the She-Ooman to create a fictional alter-ego, and her book about Henry Wowler’s adventures with the Mirror-Cat was officially released on 1st December 2021, just thirty days before its hero’s untimely death.

The end for Henry Wowler began suddenly, on the morning of New Year’s Eve. Struck while asleep by a saddle thrombus, (a blood clot pressing on his spinal cord), he developed full hind-end paralysis and breathing difficulties. A painful and distressing condition, cats rarely survive unimpaired even if immediate surgery can be performed, which in this case wasn’t an option; and so, with both Oomans by his side and Mummy-cat’s hands on him, Henry Wowler Gingerson (probably) was eased by a kind vet from his suffering body, and into eternal life in the hearts and minds of those who love and read about him. After lying in state for 24 hours, Henry received an organic burial with due ceremony in his beloved garden, next to the She-Ooman’s tea-break bench and the patio windows which can no longer shut him out, interred with seasonal flowers and the following poem enclosed in a jar to identify him for posterity:

Here lies the great Henry Wowler:

Sleek white cheek pillowed on fleece,

Softly enshrouded by linen and pink woollen blanket,

Breathless nostrils bathed in the sprig of nepeta

Clasped between motionless paws,

And wreathed round in holly – prickly as he often was.

Our mice, birds and spiders are safe now

From his ever-sheathed claws

And I’ve no Breakfast Cat to trip me while making the coffee,

No Teatime Cat presenting for lap the moment he hears the TV,

No Evening Cat to snore in tandem aboard me

Or nestled beside on the couch,

No more nocturnal companion for night-shifts of writing,

No more need to leave space on the sill for a big ginger bum –

No-one wants to sit looking out of the window.

He was a treasure, a cat like no other –

I was entirely his, as he was mine,

Sugar Paws, Sniggle-puss, cat-son.

Henry Wowler would no doubt consider the great outpouring of grief and fond tributes from his bereft Oomans and fans to be his natural due as a truly unique and magnificent cat: adorable, irascible, verbally abusive, cuddlesome, wilful and playful by turns, he was an irreplaceable character and will be sorely missed… although he’s still very much alive on his Henry Wowler Facebook page and in ‘Henry Wowler & the Mirror-Cat’ (available at £6.99 plus P+P from YPD Books, Amazon UK or through any High Street/independent book seller). As always intended but now also in memory of him, a tithe of any profits from sales of the latter will be donated to Syros Cats sanctuary in Greece, the charity supported by illustrator Janet Flynn, and to Cats Protection UK. As a former lost kitten, the late, great Henry Wowler would no doubt consider that to be natural and fitting, too. Sleep in peace, Snugglepuss.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town…

…and he really does know if children have been bad or good. He knows when they shout, pout, or cry because their parents unwittingly tell him – as do the children themselves, and their families and teachers and friends. Every blissful snore from a parent whose baby sleeps dry all night, every good school report, cup of tea made for Mum, car washed for Dad, or chore done for Gran – every act of Being Good vibrates through the ether like a sweet ripple of harp-strings. Being Bad, on the other hand – every teddy thrown out of the pram, screaming family row, hair-pulling playground fight, slammed door, sulk, and pretty much everything teenagers do, clangs through it like death-metal on an out-of-tune guitar.

Harmonious or otherwise, both sets of vibrations are picked up by invisible receivers, amplified, and transmitted to the Ethereal North where, on a Pole never trodden by human foot, Santa’s Headquarters lie. There, at precisely a quarter to midnight, the Saint was out making his final rounds before C-Day. Random snowflakes settled lightly on his cap and lost themselves in his hair as he peered in at the Post Office window. The Post Elves, who received and sorted all Letters to Santa sent by any medium, had long since shut up shop, but were keeping watch by the fire with a bottle and a pack of cards just in case any last-minute wish blew down the chimney. He knocked on the glass and waved. They waved back, and gave him a thumbs-up.

It was equally quiet in Dispatch, where most everything that had to be done already was. Behavioural Analysis was still buzzing, though – especially the Naughty Department as, all round the globe, over-excited children ran wild, poking things under the tree, refusing to go to bed (or to sleep when they got there), and pestering for yet another glass of water or to hear ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ again, while their increasingly stressed parents tried to secretly wrap the last gifts. Nice was far less hectic, of course, as good children tended to be tucked up in bed listening for Santa or dutifully sleeping to make him come quicker.

The Saint left them to it. Accounts, he knew, would stay busy all night, receiving reports and tallying Black Marks and Gold Stars accrued from C-Day’s official start on the first stroke of midnight; he’d look in on them later, see how the usual suspects were performing. In the meantime he strode on past the vast reindeer paddock and stables which housed the nine-strong teams, all called the same and all led by a red-nosed Rudolph, one for every country in the world where even a single soul kept Christmas.

The teams for the First Time Zone stood ready and waiting by their traditional sleighs, while Little Helpers bustled about with armloads of jingling harness and barrows bulging with bottomless sacks. Nodding approval, Santa checked his pocket-watch against the huge C-Day Countdown Clock, aptly set on a tall pole planted directly on Ethereal North beneath a glittering Polaris. Both now read a minute to midnight.

He drew a deep breath, threw his head back, and roared, ‘IT’S CHRISTMAS TIME!’ His red coat bulged and swelled, his beard bushed to double thickness, his rosy cheeks puffed, his whole body rippled; then, with a jingle of sleighbells and a whiff of mince pie, a second, semi-transparent Santa burst forth, solidifying with his every purposeful stride towards the first sleigh. He was followed by a third, a fourth, a whole procession of identical Santas peeling off from the Saint like layers of an onion, and crunching off in various directions to prepare their respective teams for take-off.

As the last proxy departed, an intensifying red glow signalled the approach of Santa’s personal sleigh. His team, elk-sized and pure snowy white, wore their velvety antlers curled back like racing bike handlebars; and all looked in fine fettle, snorting and stamping in the red strobe-light as Rudolph tossed his head impatiently.

“Steady, lad. Easy, now,’ said Saint Nicholas, patting his neck. “We’ll be off soon enough.” He settled himself in the sleek silver bobsleigh riding lightly behind on the snow, took a ledger from his sack and checked an address.

A Little Helper handed him the reins. “Doing anything special tonight, Father?”

“Yes, as it happens,” Santa replied. “Accounts have turned up a worrying anomaly in Middle England, so I’ll make that my first call.”

Kaz Smith’s given name was Karen. She’d tried to make people pronounce it Care-ren, or shorten it to Kay, or spell it Karrin, but her resolutely sensible parents were having none of that, and plain Karen she was obliged to remain, (until she could change it by deed-poll to Diamanda, Montserrat, Serpentine – anything interesting – as she’d resolved). And at least her mates called her Kaz, which she could live with in the meantime. Not that she was with them this Christmas Eve. She’d been given a choice: go with her folks to midnight mass, or stay in grounded with Grandma. It took a nanosecond to opt for home comforts, and with her parents safely gone, Kaz left Gran knitting in the lounge with her sherry and TV, locked herself into her bedroom, and kicked a sausage-shaped draught-excluder into place by the door. Changing into purple fleece pyjamas, a fuzzy black sweater that sagged to her knees, and a black Indian scarf, washed to grey, round her neck, she clamped on her headset; and with Marilyn sweet dreaming in her ears, lit a half dozen scented candles and a patchouli joss-stick. Then she opened her desk drawer, dug a vaporiser out of her pencil case, and her stash from a tin of mint humbugs where she kept it to hide the smell.

Vape charged and loaded, she inched open the curtains and window and sat down on the floor underneath. Here we go again, she thought, and sighed a long plume through the crack. Bloody Christmas. She imagined tomorrow’s lunch with the rellies, all lovable in their ways but equally exasperating, and straight as a Roman road. There’d be the usual quip from Grandpa George, her mum’s widowed father: “Here she comes, the spectre at the feast,” followed by the usual barrage of criticism and coercion aimed at turning her into Cousin Mary. Her mum’s twin sister, Auntie Jane, would sigh, “Oh, Karen… if only you’d make the effort you could be such a pretty girl.” Uncle John, her husband, would grin. “Yes, get some turkey down your neck, lass – get some colour in those cheeks,” while their daughter blushed silently down at a polite portion of everything, even overcooked sprouts. Auntie Betty would sniff. “Good grief, you look like a refugee! It’s a shame you can’t show more respect for your country’s Christmas traditions – not to mention your family’s.” Uncle Frank, her mum’s elder brother, would add, “Yes, and your Queen. I do hope you’ll stay with us this year for Her Majesty’s speech.” (He always stood to attention, saluting, when the National Anthem played). Finally, Grandma Gladys, her dad’s widowed mother, (rarely satisfied, much less glad, and resident as usual for the duration), would scowl. “Yes, and I’m very disappointed to see you in that ugly rag instead of the nice new sweater I took the trouble to knit,” thereby launching the next round of ‘Family Kick Kaz,’ special subject Base Ingratitude. Mum and Dad always stuck up for her, though she knew in their hearts they’d be thrilled to see her bounce in like Mary, sporting a supermarket Santa hat and Gran’s latest creation, and singing, ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas.’ And none of them had the faintest idea why it never was merry for her, or why she hated it so much!

Anyway, how should she play it? Suck it all up, wear a paper hat, pass the potatoes, and only speak when spoken to? Or be her true Gothy self, spitting the odd acid drop and tossing well-timed hand-grenades into the conversation? Kaz choked on the memory of her last Christmas cracker, ‘When Charlotte comes round you must call her Charles because she identifies as male now’, and coughed out heady citrus mist. (Char was in fact totally girl, but she was always game for a laugh, and had practically wet herself when Kaz told her how it went down). A hard one to top, she reflected, although ‘I’m moving in with Steff next year, and we’re off to do Voluntary Service Overseas when I’ve got my A Levels’ might just have the edge. She reached under the bed for the double-G&T she’d pinched from the fridge while Mum wasn’t looking – still cold – to toast the idea, and chased it down with more Lemon Haze. She was chilling nicely now, despite missing Kim’s party and the precious ninety minutes she and Steff could’ve grabbed between his parents’ shop shutting and her midnight curfew. Kaz sighed. It wasn’t fair. There was only one thing she really wanted for Christmas, but couldn’t imagine ever getting…

Santa pulled his hat over his ears to muffle the vibrations of the city, where youthful revellers were gleefully being Very Bad Indeed. Further out, away from the pubs, clubs and riotous parties, the atmosphere was calmer; although even among the fairy-lit trees and packed churches of genteel suburbia, family rows flared as children crept round searching for presents and interrupting things they shouldn’t, fought over the X-Box, or rolled in drunk/chemically-altered/long after curfew, and threw up in the hall. Nice neighbourhood though, he thought as the sleigh spiralled down towards a broad avenue of solid post-war semis interspersed with the occasional modest detached or retirement bungalow. Parking on a handy low cloud bank, he pulled nine nosebags from his sack and left the reindeer contentedly munching while he surveyed the target address. It was easy to spot, distinguished by a chink of soft light in a back bedroom window and the faint discord of someone being quietly, privately Naughty.

The Saint narrowed his eyes, calculating wind speed and trajectory. Then, gripping his sack over his left shoulder, he extended his right arm, pointed at the target, and dived headlong off the cloud. Contrary to popular belief, Santas don’t descend feet first – they like to see where they’re going. His right hand, bladelike, sliced a path through the air. Speed stretched his body into a red and white eel. With surgical precision he shot into the flue, only to be punched in the nose by a smoky bouquet of jasmine, patchouli and rose. Stopped short with his boots sticking out of the chimney, he gave way to a violent sneezing fit before managing to draw his feet in and ooze cautiously down to the hearth. Pushing aside a flimsy obstruction, he hauled out into the thick air of a candlelit cave, papered in vintage Goth and martial arts posters, and carpeted in discarded grungey garments. Its occupant, a slim girl in purple pyjamas and an outsize black jumper, was sitting cross-legged on the floor beneath the window, long hair swinging in time to her music, totally engrossed in packing crumbs of green stuff into a shiny black tube.

Kaz loved ‘Tower of Strength.’ So did Steff – it was their song. Singing along under her breath, head bent over her task, she was deaf to the sneezing chimney breast, barely registered the fall of the paper fan she used to hide her twee repro grate – it always did that when the wind blew in certain directions – and was oblivious to Santa popping out moments later like a champagne cork, and with much the same sound. Eyes closed, swaying to the beat, she inhaled deeply. “Me-ee hee,” she crooned on the outbreath at increasing volume, and ended with a rousing crescendo, “You are a tower of strength TO ME-EE-EE!” Then she opened her eyes to see a stout red figure standing on her black fake fur heath-rug, looking straight back. Its lips moved. Kaz couldn’t hear for The Mission, but she guessed it said, “Ho, ho, ho.”

Her lips moved too. “What the fuck?”She regarded the vape in her hand for a long moment. Then, very carefully, she laid it down, took off her headset and closed her eyes again. “Okay, okay, chill,” she muttered. “Everything’s cool. It’s not real, it’s not there, I’ve just overdone the weed.” She pinched her arm, slapped her cheeks lightly, shook her head to try and clear it. “When I look again it’ll be gone. And I’ll go downstairs, drink some OJ, grab some munchies, then get some sleep. And I’ll feel fine in the morning, ‘cause this isn’t real. Santa Claus doesn’t exist.”

“Ho, ho, ho. A common misconception, I’m afraid.” Santa doffed his cap. “I am in fact the real deal. Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Weinachtsmann, Sinterklaas, Saint Nicholas – take your pick.”

“Yeah, right, and I’m the Virgin Mary.” Kaz rose and squared up in a combat stance. “Well, if you’re real, I don’t know who the hell you are or how you got in. I do know I’m sixteen, it’s gone midnight, and there’s some weird old fat guy dressed as Santa in my bedroom, without my permission – which doesn’t look good for you, does it? So get the hell out before I kick you out, you disgusting old perv-”

“What if I prove it?” he cut in. “Tell you what – ifI can make you believe in me, you let me stay for ten minutes.”

Kaz snorted. “You’ve got exactly ten seconds before I call the police. And my gran, which is probably worse.”

“You’re on.” Santa’s brow furrowed. His hair began to writhe and shrink, retracting to an inch of frosted stubble. His beard disappeared into a firm, manly jaw. His fat, rosy cheeks faded to tan and flattened into cheekbones to die for. His bushy eyebrows contracted, revealing a pair of glacial blue eyes with indecently long lashes and the profound gaze of a polar explorer. Finally, he inhaled his moustache, which made him sneeze again.

“Achoo! Excuse me,” he sniffed. “Allergies. Do you mind?” He pointed to the joss-stick, which went out, and the scented candles, which elongated into tall creamy pillars smelling only of beeswax, then fanned at the smoke, which turned into ice crystals and sublimed away. “Also excuse me for shedding some layers. I’m awfully hot.” You can say that again, thought Kaz as he unbuckled his belt, kicked off his boots, and shrugged off his thick velvet coat, shedding his big belly with it. Underneath he was wearing snug red leggings tucked into fluffy black thermal socks, and a white silky crew-neck sweater that clung to every bulge of his rugby player’s torso. “Phew!” He flashed perfect white teeth, looking like a cross between that James Bond actor and Sensei Curtis, her well-fit karate instructor. “That’s better. So, let’s start afresh. Hi, Kaz.” He extended a hand. “I’m Nick – pleased to meet you. Do you believe in me yet?”

Weak-kneed, Kaz sagged onto the bed. “Okay,” she announced to the stars on the walls, “I’m officially tripping my face off. Daniel Craig, playing Santa in his undies, doing magic tricks in my bedroom.” She nodded sagely. “Yup. Totally ripped to the tits. Hallucinating like fu- um, like fudge.”

“Well, if I’m not real, I can’t harm you.” Nick sank down beside her, cross-legged on the floor – no hands, like sensei again – “and if I am real, I won’t harm you because I’m a saint. But I’m curious about the harm you do to yourself.” He pointed to her stash. “What is that?”

“Skunkweed. Lemon Haze. Stupidly strong.” Taking a toot to demonstrate, Kaz held out the vape. “Try it if you like.” She giggled. “I’ll be able to tell Char I got Santa stoned.”

“Thanks, it’ll make a change from sherry.” He copied her, rather clumsily, and held… and held… and held the breath in. His eyes revolved, sparking like blue Catherine wheels. His cheeks and nose bulged crimson. Spikes of white hair exploded in every direction from his head and chin, and as quickly retracted. Then he exhaled a vaporous robin which flew tweeting round his head and dropped a small splat on his shoulder before vanishing in a puff of glitter.

Kaz bounced up and down on the bed, both hands over her mouth to clamp in her squeals, dark eyes dancing in delight. “Oh wow,” she gasped between her fingers, “that was brilliant! Do it again!”

“Mm.” A slow grin creased his eyes. “Ho, ho, no. I’ve a better idea. I feel, ah, very pleasantly festive all of a sudden.” He glanced round her room, devoid of decoration. “So let’s get some seasonal ambience going.” He reached out to touch her bedspread. Frost-flowers bloomed from his finger, silvering the black lace. Tendrils of holly and ivy crept over the ceiling and trailed down the walls to frame her posters. A frosted cobweb spread across The Damned, dangling a sparkly spider in David Vanian’s face; Siouxsie and the Banshees were bedecked in sequinned bats; strings of skulls in Santa hats grinned between Bauhaus and the Sisters of Mercy. A crackling, pine-scented fire sprang to life in the empty grate, a small Christmas tree of glittery pinecones and clove-studded oranges thrust up from the centre of the mantlepiece, and a spruce garland draped itself attractively around like a green feathery boa. Then a tangled ball of mistletoe with pendant icicles wove itself round the ceiling light; and as a final touch, everything lit up with brilliant white fireflies, randomly twinkling as they flitted among the foliage. Nick surveyed it, looking pleased. “There now! What do you think?”

Kaz’s jaw dropped. “I think I must be having the best trip, ever, in the entire history of the universe.” Awestruck, she gazed round her Gothic grotto. “It’s- it’s perfect. Utterly beautiful. Like wonderland. I love it, absolutely love it… thanks, Santa!” Impulsively, she bent and kissed his cheek – warm and surprisingly solid for a figment of her imagination. A thought occurred. “How did you get in, by the way? The door’s locked and you’d never fit down the chimney.”

Nick raised his arms, stretched lazily – and kept on stretching. “Ethereal body,” he replied, fingertips brushing the ceiling. “You know light exists as a wave and a particle? Well, I’m sort of like that – solid and not-solid at the same time. Bit like Jesus. So I did come down the chimney, as it happens.” His arms resumed their ordinary length. “God knows how it actually works – you’ll have to ask Him, I’m no physicist – but essentially, it means Santa can get into anywhere there’s Christmas. Even if the fire’s lit, or there’s no chimney at all.”

“Cool! That makes sense.  So,” Kaz looked expectant, “where are they? I mean, Christmas night, red suit, big bulgy sack – that’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”

“Ah. Another common misconception. We’re auditors rather than donors-”

We?”

“Ah, yes.” He drew a deep breath, puffed out his cheeks, and a translucent proxy Santa briefly stepped out and back in again. “We are legion. I couldn’t possibly manage otherwise, Christendom’s far too big. Even though we don’t make or buy the presents, obviously, they really do come from your parents or whoever. We merely process requests and apply influence according to your account balance – not that we can ensure children get their just desserts either way, you understand. Then at Christmas we tally the records to see who got what they asked for versus what they deserved – even checking a one per cent sample makes for a mad night – then there’s all the debriefing and performance analysis, and planning influences for the year ahead… it’s a very complex year-round business, let me tell you. Here, look.”

He fumbled in his sack, pulled out a leather-bound ledger, and opened it in the middle. The pages lit up. Turning it to face her, he tapped the screen. KAREN SMITH, 12 ACACIA AVENUE lit upalong the top in bold capitals. “This is your full annual statement.” With a tiny squelching sound, a black spot appeared on the left, beneath the heading Naughty, then another and another. Squish, squish, squish, squish-squish-squish, squishquishquishquish, they coalesced into a solid line which almost blacked out the screen. Meanwhile the right-hand column, headed Nice, brightened as an equivalent number of gold stars appeared in a constant chime of tiny tings. “Now, let’s zoom in on Christmas Eve.” He expanded the entry. “Demerit for considering Naughty Disobedience, namely sneaking out of the window to Kim’s party. Merit for thinking better of it – they cancel out. Demerits for theft and underage drinking,” he nodded at the empty can, “bumming parents out with un-festive attitude, failing to tidy room as per repeated requests, and last but not least,” he nodded at her stash, “illegal substance abuse.

‘Altogether, you ended last year slightly in the black. Good news is, you’ve redeemed yourself since.” Recent Transactions flashed up, TING-TING-TING. “Big gold stars for presence of mind, logical reasoning, and spirited self-defence in extraordinary circumstances, with bonus for performance despite chemical impairment. Demerits for extreme bad language – yes, I can lip-read – mild swearing and verbal abuse, mitigated by shock in said circumstances.” SQUISH!  A big inky blot splashed the left screen before contracting into an emphatic black point. “Serious Naughty for plotting to sabotage Christmas lunch – again. Merits regained for improved attitude, honest appreciation, good manners, and hospitality…” An icon flickered, jumping from left to right, squish-ting, spot-star, then blurred into a shapeless mass and a continuous drone, “…the nature of which creates an anomaly. See, the grey area? Merit for sharing, demerit for accompanying Deliberate Naughtiness. Mitigation for my acceptance – and if a saint does it,” he winked, “it can’t be that bad. It’s a subtle balance and a lot depends on context, of course. But the main reason I’m here is to try and sort out a major anomaly in Predicted Receipts.” He swiped to the page, where a large gift-box icon was jumping about and fuzzing into grey. “I’m afraid it shows that your parents still haven’t decided whether or not to give you your main present.”

“A new gi? But my old one’s too small to train in now- oh my God,” Kaz exploded, “I don’t believe this! They’d stop me doing the only sport I’ve ever liked or been any good at just to keep me away from Steff! Well, I will bloody tell them today I’m moving in with the Kowalskis. They treat me like a young woman, not some silly kid.”

Both sides of the ledger were flickering grey and droning unbearably. Nick snapped it shut, sat on the bed, and patted the mattress beside him. “Come, explain. Why do your parents object? What’s wrong with Steff?”

Nothing! He’s perfect. Fit. Gorgeous. Clever. He’s a bit older, that’s all, just turned nineteen – but I’m seventeen in April, so it’s only twenty-eight poxy months difference. Big deal! Dad’s six years older than Mum, and Grandad was eleven years older than Gran. They’re such a bunch of bloody hypocrites. That’s why I let them think my new friend at karate was a Stephanie, and said we were out training instead of round at his – he’s got this brilliant attic flat over the shop, and his folks were cool about me going up there because they trusted us. And we were sensible, we waited till I was sixteen,” she pulled up her sleeve to display her upper arm, “then I got an implant, and he got some condoms, and- well, that’s what got me grounded. We vaped a bit of weed, fell asleep- you know, after, and I missed my last bus. Andrejz and Dagmara were over the limit so they couldn’t drive me, and Steff was too stoned, and there weren’t any taxis, so he had to walk me home and I well missed my curfew. And of course Mum was waiting up, and she had to open the door on us snogging in the porch.” She smiled wryly. “Steff was so shocked he just legged it, and I don’t blame him, but it didn’t exactly help.

‘Then of course I had to tell. And of course, some folk got on my case, you know, ‘bloody immigrants coming over here stealing British jobs’ blah blah – even though his folks have been running the Baltic Deli on High Street for years, and they’re teaching me Polish and Russian, and helping with my German conversation, and they’ve all done a fu- a heck of a lot more with their lives than my boring bloody family with their ‘get qualified, get a good job, get married, buy a nice house, have kids’ – and it’s not me! I don’t want to go to uni straight from school. I might not want to go, period. I want to travel, teach English abroad, do something useful… not dick around for three years getting a degree I might never use, not to mention a shi- a shedload of debt. Why don’t they get it? Why do they think I’m ‘wasting my education’? I don’t plan to doss round on the dole getting pregnant, for God’s sake, and I could be a mature student any time if it turns out I need qualifications for some job. So what is the big deal? What am I missing here?”

Nick smiled. “Your family’s scared of losing you because they love you. They want to keep you close by them, doing something safe and predictable, because that’s what they know best and it’s always worked for them. But you’re different, you’re making different choices, and that scares them too. It means you’re growing up and away from them, which means they must be growing old… which means, whether they like it or not, your time of parting one way or another grows closer by the day.”

“Hmm. I suppose. I’m just so sick- they don’t listen, they don’t understand, they don’t credit me with half a brain, and they can’t let me be myself,they’re too busy trying to make me more like my cousin.” Kaz laughed darkly. “Hah, wait till she hits puberty and starts fancying boys, or girls, or whatever. Then we’ll see who’s so bloody perfect…” She went on for an hour, pouring all her hopes, plans and dreams into Nick’s bottomless well of attention. Finally, she nodded at her vape. “And they’d go completely Daily Mail if they knew about that. ‘Ooh, Karen, we thought you had more sense, it’s the slippery slope to addiction, you’ll be lying dead in a toilet with a needle in your arm next.’ They’re such hypocrites, getting pissed and pontificating on as if they know what they’re talking-”

Abruptly she burst into tears, bawling open-mouthed into his chest to stifle the sound in case Gran heard. He held her, rocked her, made soothing noises; and when she was spent, snapped his fingers. A large white cotton hankie appeared between them. “Here,” he said “blow.” Kaz emptied her face into it. “God, sorry about that,” she sniffed wetly. “I do try to be good, you know. Please the family. Do well at school. Get my karate grades. But it never seems good enough. Also, they give crap Christmas presents – I mean, totally crap.” She looked at him red-eyed, lip wobbling. “And is that all I deserve? Seriously? Am I that bad?”

In reply, Nick tapped into Recent Transactions. Ting, ting, ting, ting-ting-ting-tinginginging it chimed, as the weight of Valid Points, Persuasive Argument, Self-Defence, Provocation and Justification tipped the balance, smoothing out the grey areas. “No, Kaz,” he replied with a smile. “You’re not bad at all.” White curls cascaded from his head and chin. Suddenly he was fully dressed again, suited and booted, and seemingly somehow much bigger…

“Ho, ho, ho.” He held out his arms. “Come along, little Kazzie. Time to tell Santa what you most want for Christmas.”

Kaz crept onto his lap, slipped child-size arms round his neck, and whispered her dearest wish into his ear. He drew back and pinned her with an Arctic blue gaze. “You realise that particular gift cuts both ways? Very well, then – I’ll see what I can do.” Hefting her like an infant, Santa tucked her into bed, then bent low and kissed her brow. Kaz, no longer fooled by the beard, grabbed it and kissed him back with rather more enthusiasm than one should kiss a saint. “Thanks, Nick,” she whispered. “I do believe in you now. And I love you.”

“I love you too, dear heart. Merry Christmas.” He kissed her lips, briefly, softly, tickling with his moustache. “And a Happy New Year.” Then picking up his sack, with a cheery salute he vanished up the flue. The Gothic grotto disassembled in a cloud of glitter and rushed to follow him, trailing the scent of mulled wine and mince pies. There was a faint “Ho, ho, ho,” from behind the chimneybreast and, moments later, a faint, distant jingle of sleighbells as Santa and his team took off from the cloud – all of which was sadly lost on Kaz, who had already fallen asleep.

Christmas morning! Kaz stirred awake with delicious excitement, her first thought, ‘Has Santa been?’ Blinking in the chilly dawn light, she yawned up at a ceiling denuded of garlands, her walls bare of all but posters, no trace of ash in the grate. Of course. It was only a trip-dream… she’d have to text Steff, warn him how strong this deal was. And next year she would trim her room, make it look a bit festive… at least get some bottle lights, stick a vase of holly in front of the grate instead of that silly fan, (fallen over – again), perhaps try to weave a garland, make a feature of it… meanwhile, had Santa been? She felt fully alert, as if she’d slept a full night, and outside it looked to be daylight – but when she glanced at the clock, she saw it was only four-thirty. Her face lit. Diving down the bed, she yanked back the curtain and gazed out at their tree-fringed back garden, transformed beneath the full moon into a luminous winter wonderland. She opened the window and leaned out, rapturously inhaling the scent of a foot of fresh snow, then hastily drew back and shut it, shivering despite the sweater and scarf she still wore over her ‘jamas; then, stomach flitting with butterflies she’d long thought extinct, she padded over to open the door.

The expected avalanche rolled in, the usual contents revealed by their shape. Some seasonal novelty she’d slip, unread, to a book bank; some synthetic girlie garments, ditto into the next charity bag; a selection box full of palm oil and plastic she’d pass on to Kim’s brother, who ate anything; ditto unethical cosmetics to Char’s mum, along with a voucher for some old-lady shop she’d exchange with her for weed-money; and of course, the inevitable grisly jumper from Gran, to be followed by the inevitable row. Still, Kaz reflected, it was the thought that counted, (ting) – only those thoughts didn’t always seem very kind or unselfish, (squish). But at least Mum and Dad gave her things she asked for, and scrabbling the rellies’ pile behind her like a dog, she reached round and pulled in the parental pillowcase.

Flicking on her bedside lamp, she grimaced to see all her scented candles burned away completely. Had she really dozed off without blowing them out? She couldn’t remember. Squish, she thought. Silly cow, I could’ve burned the bloody house down. Then with scant expectation, she unwrapped a rectangular box. Her eyebrows shot up. A big Moo-Free selection from Frank and Betty! They could never grasp the difference between vegetarian and vegan, but this time it didn’t matter. Hit by a belated attack of the munchies, Kaz ripped in and stuffed a handful of organic chocolate buttons in her mouth, just as she had as a child. “Mm-mm.

Cramming in another half-dozen, she picked up a small hard cylinder. Above the printed From on its tag, the word REALLY was underlined in black felt-tip, and beneath it, CUZ xxx. She carefully unwrapped the red tissue layers for recycling, and her eyebrows shot up again. Tinted lip-balms, rose, redcurrant and plum, cruelty-free in metal tins. These she could use – nice one, Mary! And a new bathrobe – pure cotton towelling, wonders will never cease, from Great-Aunt Barbara in Somerset – nice one, Auntie Babs! Grandad’s book made her gasp aloud. A biography of Marilyn Manson?! The flyleaf inscription read: It seemed apt since you try to look like this creature, love G. She grinned at a poster, glowering down with piebald eyes. “Wicked! I’ve been wanting to read this for months! Thanks, Gramps.”

A tiny parcel she almost overlooked had come from her mum’s cousin Clarence in Australia, who never normally got his gifts in the post before Christmas; to her pleased surprise, it contained a bead bracelet of native woods sold on behalf of a rainforest rescue charity. The usual card from her maternal aunt also held a pleasant surprise: £25 cash instead of a token, with the instruction Buy yourself something nice, luv A.J. & U.J. Ho, ho, ho, Kaz thought. Yeah, I’ll do that! Cheerfully, she reached for Gran’s parcel, wrapped as ever in plain brown paper, and untied the string. Hmm. Dark green, black, red, white – a definite improvement on last year’s hot pink with festive flamingos. She shook the jumper out, held it up, rushed to her wardrobe mirror, held it up against herself, and gasped anew. “Oh my God… I totally don’t believe this.”

She took a break to celebrate with a tiny toot, blowing it out through the crack of her window while snow fell softly again; then, feeling suitably festive, took out the big soft parcel bulging from the pillowcase and worked her way down through two packs of black bamboo socks, ditto cotton bras and panties, ditto fishnet tights, a desk diary, a Body Shop hamper, a rose-scented candle, a big bar of Fairtrade chocolate, and an envelope containing £50. The best, saved till last, was the black leather school bag she’d specifically requested – but not the crisp white gi she so desperately needed. Kaz felt sick, not just from a surfeit of buttons. Mum and Dad must still be so pissed off with her about Steff- well, they could get stuffed! She had £75, she’d buy her own gi, and not give them the satisfaction of showing she gave a toss about it. With a toot of defiance, she repaired to bed to indulge herself with Marilyn and Moo-Free until it was properly morning.

At seven-thirty she tapped on her parents’ door and walked in with a tray of tea and toast, decorated with a sprig of holly she’d pulled from the vase in the hall. “Good morning,” she greeted them. “Merry Christmas!”

“Good God!” Brian Smith said sleepily. “What’s this?”

“Breakfast. What does it look like?” Kaz set it down on the bedside table.

“My goodness!” Anne Smith sat up. “This is a treat. Thanks, love.”

“You’re welcome. Thanks for my presents, too, they’re brilliant. Right then,” she turned to leave, “don’t let your toast get cold. Oh yeah, and don’t eat the garnish.”

“Wait a minute,” said her father. “Where are you going?”

“Duh.” Kaz rolled her eyes. “To get a tray for Gran, where else? She’ll go spare if she finds out I made one for you and not her.”

“Good point. But she’ll be dead to the world for a good hour yet, judging from the amount of Bristol Cream she put away last night.” He smiled. “So you’ve got plenty of time for a quick look in that closet.”  

Kaz opened the door. Her eyes opened wide. Instead of Dad’s rather shabby tartan dressing gown, a snowy suit hung there with her club badges already sewn on. “My new gi!” she cried in delight. “You got me it after all!”

“Yes, and it seemed silly to wrap it and get it all creased,” said her mother. “In fact, given the state of your wardrobe, you might as well keep it in here. It should see you through to your black belt, provided you don’t grow too much taller. Oh, and there’s something else behind it. Sorry it’s not wrapped either – we didn’t have enough paper.”

Kaz pushed the gi aside. Lying on the closet floor was a set of full-contact sparring pads and, propped against the wall, a long fat canvas tube.

“It’s a punch-bag,” said her father. “I’ll hang it in the garage for you to practice… then maybe young Mr Kowalski can come round here to actually train with you,” he added dryly, “instead of you going round to his place and getting up to mischief.”

“Yes, Karen,” said her mother, “Daddy and I have been thinking, and- well, perhaps we’ve been too hard on you. You are nearly seventeen, after all – and although we don’t approve of the, um, physical side of your relationship, you’re legally entitled to have it- to do it- oh, anyway, since you’re plainly serious about Stefan, we’d like to get to know him. So we wondered if he might care to join us for lunch – if Mr and Mrs Kowalski don’t mind, of course.”

Her father grinned. “Yes, think of it as the acid test. If he can survive a family Christmas lunch with our resident ogre, I shall deem him fit to court my beloved only princess.”

Kaz scrambled onto the bed and flung her arms round them. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she cried, smacking their cheeks with loud kisses. “This is the best Christmas ever!” She scrambled off again. “I’ll fetch my phone, ask him now- oh.” The joy fell abruptly from her face. “Oh, but what about Brexit Betty and the Xenophobes? I’m not bringing him round here if they’re going to start banging on about Britain First and all that crap.”

“Leave them to me,” her mother said firmly. “I’ll make it very clear I’m having none of that at my Christmas table. They can either be nice and polite to Stefan if he comes – or they needn’t bother coming themselves.”

Shee-it, thought Kaz, am I still tripping? Either way, she rushed off to ring Steff, only to trudge glumly back five minutes later. “Dag and Andy say he can come on condition we both join them later for supper. But since I’m still grounded…” she trailed off, looking at the floor, trying not to sound hopeful.

Her parents looked at each other. “Well,” began her father, “it is Christmas,” her mother finished for him. “So I’ll take Gran a tray when I’ve had my breakfast.” She glanced at the clock. “Because you’d better start getting ready, Miss – you’ve only got five hours until lunch.”

C-Day now wore an unexpectedly rosy complexion – but what should she wear? Kaz flew to her room and flung open her half-empty wardrobe. Skinny ripped jeans? Nah, not two years on the run. Black leggings? Nah, too boring – he’d seen her in them loads of times. Black cobweb dress? That was new- nah, too Hallowe’en. Suddenly envisaging the perfect outfit, she riffled through the hangers again, searching in vain for a particular thing, that exactly-right, nothing-else-will-do thing. Then she rooted through the cubby-holes where she stuffed stuff she couldn’t be arsed to hang up, through the garments on the wardrobe floor among a mess of shoes, through the big drawer underneath, through all her dresser drawers, through the overflowing laundry basket in case she’d stupidly put it in there, and finally dug through the drifts on the floor. It didn’t help that apart from her school uniform, sportswear and faded denims, all her clothes were black or grey, and vanished like chameleons on the swirly charcoal carpet. She went through them again, cursing, yanking things out, tossing them aside, dumping things out of drawers and ferreting through the piles. And she still couldn’t find the damn thing.

“Oh, where is it? Where is it?” she wailed. It was her favourite, a vintage classic, too precious to lend anyone or leave anywhere – so it must be in here somewhere. Kaz surveyed her former bomb-site, reduced to complete Armageddon. Told you so, told you so, told you so, pealed through her head like church bells with Mum’s tongue. Bugger, she thought dismally. There’s nothing else for it it now…

First things first: a tiny toot. Presents next, all temporarily popped in the pillowcase. Kaz ran downstairs with the wrappings, stepped into a pair of wellies, heaved open the back door, waded out to the bins, brushed snow off the recycling and rubbish lids with her arm, struck and jiggled to break the icy seals, and deposited her loads. On the way back, to delay the inevitable a little longer, she dropped backwards into the chilly embrace of the lawn and made her first snow angel in a decade. Gazing up into the whirling grey sky, she caught a snowflake on her tongue, visualising the snowball fight she and Steff could have after lunch, the snowman they could build, and sighed happily. “Thanks for a wicked white Christmas, Nick.” Then she leapt up, dusted herself down, and clumped back to her gargantuan task. Dirty laundry – back in the basket. Socks, tights, undies, T-shirts, base layers, tracksuits – back in their respective drawers after sniffing to ascertain cleanliness, (minus the holey, saggy or threadbare she set aside for Mum’s rag-bag), for once balled in pairs or neatly folded. Outgrown gi tossed in corner by door for charity bag. Big stuff hung up properly, one garment per hanger. Jeans and leggings in one cubby-hole, jumpers in another. Slowly, her bedroom returned to a state of order not seen for some months; and as she addressed the last tangled heap of scarves, belts and bags by the hearth, an unexpected bright flash caught her eye…

Half an hour later, showered, wearing new undies under her new bathrobe, Kaz had no time left for make-up. Hastily, she removed her chipped black nail varnish, abandoned the idea of replacing it, drew a quick line of kohl round her eyes, slicked a dab of plum balm on her lips – not bad at all – tied up her hair, and scrambled into her Christmas outfit.

By six minutes to one, the Smith clan had gathered. Auntie Betty frowned from the mantlepiece clock to two empty chairs. “I must say, I don’t think much of this. Working in a shop on Christmas morning, of all days? What sort of parents make their son do that?”

“Canny ones who know the world’s full of folk desperately seeking stuffing, or cranberries, or whatever else they forgot on Christmas Eve,” replied Brian Smith, mildly. “And do please remember what Anne said.”

“Yes – don’t start, Bet.” Anne Smith dashed in wearing her new cookery apron from Kaz, and thumped down a covered tureen in front of her sister-in-law. “I don’t want yet another Christmas ruined with rows. So if you can’t be civil, be quiet – and if you can’t be quiet, go home. Go on,” she gestured with her matching oven-glove, “now, quick, before Stefan arrives. I don’t want him, or our Karen, embarrassed.”

Betty drew in her breath, but Uncle Frank stayed her arm. “Anne’s right, love. Let’s not, eh? Not today.” He patted her hand. “Let’s not spoil things for Karen – it’ll be nice to see her merry at Christmas for once.”

“Huh,” Betty sniffed, switching attack. “Where is Karen, anyway? Not lying hungover in bed, I sincerely hope – she’s meant to be grounded.”

“Not any longer,” her mother replied tartly. “And I’ll have you know she’s been up and about since seven. In fact,” she turned in the doorway, “here she is now! What on earth have you been doing, love?”

“Tidying my room, like you said. I even did my sock drawer.” Kaz minced downstairs in her best, chain-festooned, black stiletto winklepicker boots and new fishnets, her matching black leather miniskirt half-obscured by her new Christmas sweater. Her hair, bound with black bootlaces into two tall bunches, projected from her head like reindeer antlers with, perched between at a jaunty angle, the gift Nick had left by the hearth, his crimson velvet hat with white woollen pompom and trim.

All four male mouths dropped open. “Wow,” said Uncle Frank faintly. “You look nice, Karen.”

“Yes.” Uncle John swallowed. “I didn’t know you had legs.”

Mary goggled. “Love your hat, Cuz.” She held out her wrist, encircled by a thin silver chain. “And your present.”

“Love yours, too. And your hat.” (It was a gold cardboard crown, typically pulled from its cracker already). Kaz smiled to see her cousin’s lips and fingernails frosted pale pink, concealer on her spots, a hint of cheekbones emerging from the puppy-fat. Her smile widened into a grin, embracing the rest of the table. “Yeah, thanks very much for my presents, everyone – they’re brilliant, just what I wanted. Especially yours, Gran.” She teetered in and dropped a kiss atop the thin lilac curls. “I love it.”

“I should hope so, That pure wool cost a small fortune, and I had no end of trouble getting hold of the pattern,” Gran replied in her usual tone, but she couldn’t help turning pink. “It’s called-”

“Bats In Hats.” Kaz giggled. “Yeah, I know, I’ve seen it on online.” Twirling, she displayed the repeating black bat silhouettes with tiny white fangs, wearing red and white Santa hats, on a holly green background. “It’s so cool – Char will be totally jealous.”

“Well, it’d look a darn sight better in the right size,” Gran retorted, with the tiniest trace of a smile. “It’d fit your father, would that. God alone knows why you want things so big and baggy-”

Saved by the bell! Kaz’s heart leapt. “I’ll get it!” she cried, skittering over the parquet, and opened wide the front door. “Merry Christmas!”

“Whew!” Stefan Kowalski, six feet of green-eyed blond Slavic gorgeousness, whistled low for only Kaz to hear. “You look- nah,” he shook his head, “I can’t find the words. Not even in Polish.”

Heedless of whether anyone saw, Kaz kissed him for a long moment; then, radiant, she took his coat, took his arm, and proudly ushered him into the dining room. When the ensuing hubbub of greetings, introductions and popping corks died down, both took their places at the table where, moments later, Anne Smith joined them with a sigh of relief.

“Phew – cheers, everyone!” Gratefully she drained a foaming glass and poured herself another. “Brian, love, will you do the honours?”

Brandishing his carving tools, Brian Smith rose and stood over the turkey. “Right, then – who’s having what?”

Uncharacteristically, Mary piped up. “No turkey, thanks, Uncle Brian. Or pigs in blankets, or giblet gravy, or stuffing if it’s forcemeat. But I’d like some nut roast, please, if Kaz doesn’t mind sharing.” She tipped her cousin the faintest of winks. “I’ve decided I want to go vegan. Starting now.”

Cheers, Cuz, thought Kaz as the table erupted. Turning to Steff, she chinked her half glass of underage Buck’s Fizz against his full one of adult champagne. “Cheers, kochanie! Here’s to Saint Nick and the Smith Family Christmas.”

Eulogy: Pete ‘Jona’ Jones

Hello, everyone. For those of you who don’t know me, my name’s Helen. Sadly, many of you have already met me at least once in this capacity because we’ve lost so many mutual friends in recent years, all of them well-known and well-loved Doncaster characters: Penny Flintoff and her daughter Kate, Kate’s fiancé Pete MacDonald, and Shell Stubb’s partner Stevo Pearson. And now we’ve lost perhaps the greatest local character of all, the truly legendary Pete Jones – or Jona, as most of us knew him.

Jona and friends enjoying the sun (far right) at our last encounter in 2018

It was in Wetherspoons, on a sunny afternoon a few months after Kate’s death, and while he was still recuperating from major surgery, that Jona asked me if I’d do this for him when the time came. I was honoured to say yes, albeit naturally hoping that time lay much further ahead than today. We didn’t discuss details or even what music he might like; but I’m sure he’d approve of the songs chosen by Marc, Emma and Nicky, the first being This Woman’s Work by Kate Bush which we’ve just heard – and I can only hope he’s here now listening in spirit, and will be pleased with what I’m about to say.

My original draft started with a warning: ‘This service contains strong language, sexual swearwords, tasteless humour, and explicit drug references throughout.’ Then I thought it might get me arrested – might get some of you arrested, too – so I binned it in favour of this carefully sanitised version. No doubt you can fill in the blanks for yourselves.  

The Jona we all knew and loved was the quintessential good-time guy, a true party animal, sociable, hospitable and endlessly entertaining; a bit of a rogue and a ladies’ man, yet with the qualities and interests to be a man’s – and a children’s – man too; a gentle man who wouldn’t hurt a fly, and about whom no-one has a bad word to say, as shown by the many similar tributes that poured in on Facebook: ‘one of the best blokes around,’ ‘diamond,’ ‘could’ve got away with murder if he’d fancied.’ What a way to bow out – it makes a fitting epitaph for a life which gave so much pleasure to so many people. Everyone in certain circles knew Jona, and everyone loved him because he was such good company and fun to be with. That was his surface persona; but even on a deeper level, what you saw was what you got. Jona was extremely Zen; a natural Buddhist, he lived in and for the moment – and mostly his moments were pretty damn good. He seemed to glide through life with calm acceptance, fully aware and involved in the issues he cared about, yet with no sign of the pointless angst, overthinking and emotional baggage so many of us carry. I can sum up my experience of him with a line from Leonard Cohen’s famous tribute to Janis Joplin: ‘You got away, I never once heard you say I need you, I don’t need you, and all of that jiving around.’  Perhaps it was this peaceful, chilled vibe which made Pete so magnetic, and drew people to him as much if not more than his social assets. If he had a dark side, I never saw a hint of it in the thirty years I knew him. The worst adjective I can think of to describe him is ‘messy’ – in every sense – and the worst criticism I can make is that it was easier to get Strongbow round at his place than milk for your tea (which I learnt to drink weak and black since I was invariably driving).

Despite our long acquaintance, I knew very little about Jona personally, or about his life before he settled in Doncaster. I gather from Nicky that this isn’t unusual among his friends and associates, so parts of this story may be as much of a revelation to you as they were to me.

Peter Howard Jones was born in Birkenhead in 1950, the only son of Beryl and Reginald Jones, and brother to Debbie and Rosemary. An extremely talented draughtsman, as a young man Jona ran his own company, Jolly Design Ltd. While married to Trudy, he became a loving father to Marc; then to Emma, the daughter of his second marriage to the late Heather, and to Heather’s daughter Penny; and later an equally loving and beloved stepfather to Nicky, entering her life as her mum’s new partner when she was only six weeks old. He also had the joy of seeing another generation of his family born, and would be a proud, doting grandfather to Emma’s three children Jack, Hattie, and Dara, and to Nicky’s daughter Kendall.

Though Jona had many talents and virtues, self-discipline wasn’t among them. In Emma’s words, ‘My dad was a keen fisherman and a generally laid-back guy. He had a lust for life and enjoyed himself to the full; my earliest memories are of stepping over sleeping bodies after one of his drinking marathons. Dad and one of his oldest, closest friends, Johnny Carter, went off to Ireland for a time to run a family pub Johnny had inherited. Unfortunately they couldn’t get a licence, but apparently a good time was had by all as they fished all day and partied all night – until the booze ran out.’

That seems like an apt point to break for this song: Fisherman’s Blues by the Water Boys

I first met Jona around 1990 in The Leopard – where else? – while I was getting to know my friend Penny’s daughter Kate. Of course, I liked him immediately – who didn’t? – and we had a lot in common. A fellow nature-lover, he belonged to the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust; was soppy about cats and gave them cool names (Reggie and Ronnie, Ping and Pong); and a keen gardener, he shared my fondness for houseplants, which he was highly skilled at cultivating. Back in those days he looked very much as Marc does now, so it was quite freaky – in the nicest possible way – to Facetime with Marc while preparing for this service, and reminded me so vividly of a scene from our early acquaintance that I even recall how we were dressed: Jona in a white shirt and jeans, and me in Gothy black. We bumped into each other at Donny station one summer Saturday night and travelled to Sheffield together; he and a petite blonde lady were on their way to a party, and I was with a group heading for an all-nighter at the Leadmill – but I enjoyed their company on the journey so much I wished I’d given raving a miss and accepted the invitation to party along with them instead.

Not long afterwards, Jona left his town centre flat, where his good nature and hospitality were sometimes abused by folk rolling in from the pub and creating hassle, and moved to 74 Furnival Road in Balby, well out of their way. I loved going round there. I can still picture – and smell – it quite clearly: the red front door, the massive mess, the clothing-strewn bathroom, Reggie Catt snoozing somewhere or pottering about; sitting in the living room with the gas fire blasting and Jeremy Clarkson burbling in the background if it was cold, or outside in the sun if it wasn’t, sometimes alone and sometimes in company. Either way, the memories are golden – I can’t recall a single time which wasn’t fun. As you know, Pete was a great raconteur and frequently had me in stitches. One story that sticks in the mind, so to speak, concerned a bucket of slugs he and some friends had collected in the process of blitzing a garden. Much debate ensued on how best to humanely dispose of said critters. Then someone had a bright idea: tip them into a bin-bag and squash them en masse. The knotted bag was duly jumped on with full force – whereupon it burst, splattering the onlookers with a mixture of slime and pulverised slugs. I almost laughed myself sick, then countered with the tale of how my husband Mick once accidentally stank the neighbourhood out with baked cat-shit. (Ask me later if you really want to know).

Kate and I often met up at Furnival Road before, during and after her romance with Jona, and I always felt sorry that the vegan cookbook they’d been working on together never came to fruition. After one typically hilarious afternoon, we sat in my car meanly laughing at some poor novice driver struggling to make a thirty-three-point turn between the tightly parked rows before it occurred to either of us that any half-decent person would get out and help – by which point it was embarrassingly too late, so we stayed put and enjoyed the show until the poor lass finally managed to drive off. On odd occasions, the three of us also met up at Kate’s, usually when we were trying to tame her wildly overgrown garden. On many more occasions we passed at the gate, or missed each other by minutes, since we lived our lives from opposite ends: I’m more likely to rise at midnight than midday then crash out straight after tea, so I’d usually finished my stint and was heading home by the time Jona arrived. I confess I was very alarmed when a chainsaw was acquired, (minus the requisite PPE, of course), to speed up the work. I tried not to imagine Kate with her weak ankles and the pair of them stoked up on Strongbow, stumbling through that jungle wielding a potentially lethal power tool, and daily expected to see ‘Armthorpe Accidental Chainsaw Massacre’ cropping up on Look North.

As well as playing hard, Jona could and did work hard when the occasion demanded. In the late Nineties and Noughties he set up as a freelance IT consultant – I hired him a couple of times to sort out computer problems for me – and often spent much of the summer doing catering or bar work on the festival circuit. It seemed like an idyllic existence in many respects, if not without its downside – like the frightening incident when some bad guys kicked in the front door and robbed him. As time passed we saw less of each other, particularly after I moved from Doncaster to Wakefield, but I well recall his 60th birthday and the lovely evening Mick and I spent with Kate and James, celebrating it at The Leopard; and that it was from Kate I first learned of Jona’s cancer, and his operation in late 2017 to remove a kidney tumour.

Again, this is typical. Jona never publicised his problems, sought sympathy or bemoaned his fate; he just stoically dealt with what he had to. There was no secrecy or embarrassment involved; when I saw him in Spoons, he freely described his unusual kidney, the apparent success of his operation, and his slow road to recovery, with characteristic good humour and understatement of the pain and discomfort he must have endured. As Emma says, ‘Jona battled his illness like a trooper – a lot of people never even knew he was sick.’

This natural discretion was compounded by Covid and the 2020 lockdowns, with Jona’s age and health placing him in the most vulnerable category, and restricting him to a small social bubble at precisely the time he would most want to be with his family and friends. One great blessing is that he was able to go on living at home with the support of his good friend Dave ‘Spike’ Mahoney, who Emma particularly wishes to thank for caring for her dad when she couldn’t, due to work and family commitments. Sadly though, Pete was unable to say many things he might otherwise have said to many of you face to face – so on his behalf I’ll try and say them through this verse: Farewell, My Friends.

It was beautiful as long as it lasted, the journey of my life. I have no regrets whatsoever, save the pain I’ll leave behind – those dear hearts who love and care, and the heavy-with-sleep, ever-moist eyes, the smile in spite of a lump in the throat and the strings pulling at the heart and soul,
The strong arms that held me up when my own strength let me down. Each morsel that I was fed was full of love.
At every turning of my life I came across good friends, friends who stood by me, even when the time raced me by.
Farewell, farewell my friends, I smile and bid you goodbye.
No, shed no tears, for I need them not, All I need is your smile. If you feel sad, do think of me, for that’s what I’ll like – when you live in the hearts of those you love, remember then… you never die.

I’ll be eternally grateful that I got to see Jona for what proved to be the last time, though mercifully neither of us knew it, on a blisteringly hot day in June 2018. Even though the occasion was sad – a small planting party in our orchard for some of Kate’s ashes – it’s another golden memory I treasure. Roy made music while we made merry in the usual way – although Jona was quieter than usual, which is hardly surprising, and spent much of the time crashed out in the sun. We planted Kate at the foot of two cider apple trees called Katy and Sops in Wine, watered in with copious libations of Strongbow while Mick quietly freaked out in case the alcohol killed these precious saplings we’d painstakingly nurtured though the drought. He needn’t have worried. They’ve turned into two of our best croppers, and we make their fruit into organic cider and this sublime apple brandy – a nice bit of indirect cannibalism I suspect would amuse vegan Kate enormously. Here’s to you both. Another blessing is the family’s golden memory of their last holiday together in Turkey, where Jona enjoyed the beauty of the place, being peacefully at one with nature and spending time with his grandchildren.

When the end came, Jona’s decline was so sudden and steep it took everyone by surprise. Even though I was aware of his condition, like many of you, I didn’t know how critical it had become, or that any chance of visiting had passed. This does mean I can remember him as he’d like to be remembered, full of life and fun. Sadly, it also means I never got to tell him how dearly fond I’d always been of him, and how much his friendship meant to me. Like most of you here today, I never got chance to say goodbye.

So let’s tell him now. Let’s reach out to Jona with our hearts and minds and say to him all those last words; and let’s reach out to each other, united in the sorrow of loss but also in the joy of having known and shared our lives with this uniquely special man. Let’s take a few quiet moments to fill this whole space with our love and memories of laughter, to lift the roof off and send his spirit soaring on a champagne supernova…

*****

Pete Jones, if the power of love in this room could restore you to life, you’d live forever. But the time’s come to bid farewell to your physical presence, and as they might say on Top Gear: The vehicle has become unroadworthy – which, considering the joyride it’s had for seventy-one years, is perhaps no surprise. The bodywork’s decaying, the filters have packed in, and now the engine’s totally failed. The driver has duly abandoned it in long-stay parking where he says you’re welcome to torch it – he’s elected to fly home instead.

CLOSE CURTAINS

It is a great comfort to know that Jona died as he lived: peacefully, surrounded by his nearest and dearest, still able to enjoy a can of lager and a smoke, and give a thumbs-up, practically till his last hour. You know how he’d like you to celebrate his life, so when we leave here, get yourselves down to The Leopard; and since he didn’t want you to be any sadder than you can help, I’ll close with this thought:

When I die, my atoms will come undone;

I’ll be space dust once again.

The wind will carry me; scatter me everywhere, like dandelions in Springtime

I’ll visit worlds and alien moons; it will be so damn poetic.

Until I land on your sandwich.

Oasis: Champagne Supernova

Book Review: Around the Ice in Eighty Years

Front cover: a three-year-old Courtney takes his first steps on ice at Bournemouth’s Westover Ice Rink

AROUND THE ICE IN EIGHTY YEARS: AN IRREVERENT MEMOIR BY AN ACCIDENTAL CHAMPION

by Courtney Jones OBE, with contributions from Christopher Dean and Jayne Torvill, Robin Cousins and Bobby Thompson

Compiled and edited by Helen Cox

Published in 2021 by Herstory Writing/York Publishing Services

ISBN: 978-0-9928514-3-9

Paperback, 208 pages, 37 b & w photos

RRP £9.99

Available 9/12/21 from YPD Books

This review – like Around the Ice itself – has come about by one of the lucky flukes that so mark the career of ice-dance legend Courtney Jones. You can read the full tale in the ‘Acknowledgements and Gracias’ section of his book; meanwhile, suffice to say that over the past twelve months I’ve gone from giving him odd tips on style and presentation to compiling, editing, and publishing his extraordinary memoir – a unique privilege, and a completely unexpected coup for Herstory Writing, my modest self-publishing venture.

Around the Ice in Eighty Years is a great nostalgia trip for anyone who remembers the Fifties and Sixties, and an enjoyable lesson in social and sporting history for those who don’t. Courtney aimed to tell his story in the style of his hero Alan Bennett, and succeeds remarkably well considering that he’d barely touched a keyboard let alone attempted a writing project of such magnitude before. Easy to read and instantly engrossing – I can still enjoy reading it at any point, despite being so familiar with the text – Around the Ice is interesting and informative, sometimes hilarious, sometimes moving, frequently stranger than fiction, and always entertaining, (my favourite anecdote is Courtney going into Harrods for a pair of socks and coming out with a gay Siamese kitten, closely followed by ‘Lunch With The Queen’).

A slim volume compared with, say, Bill Clinton’s brick-thick My Life, Around the Ice nonetheless covers everything essential to understand Courtney’s story and the unique nature of his achievements. The first six chapters follow a conventional narrative path from his birth in 1933 to creatively gifted parents who always recognised and nurtured their only child’s talents, through his idyllic early childhood of playing the piano and ice-skating with his teddy-bear, the terrifying interruption of World War Two when he was aged six, his later schooling, and the teenage passion for ballroom dancing which, translated to ice, would turn him into an ‘accidental champion’ of global renown. Further flukes led to his training under ‘the doyenne of coaches’ Miss Gladys Hogg, and introduction to not just one but two perfect ice partners. The experienced and confident June Markham guided a novice Courtney to second place at the 1957 British and 1958 European Ice-Dance Championships within a few months of their meeting, topped the podium with him at the subsequent World Championships, and stayed there until her retirement from competitive skating after holding their World title in 1959. Against all the odds, Courtney then retained all three crowns for another two years with a new partner, the accomplished figure skater Doreen Denny – an astonishing feat given that she had never previously skated with a partner, knew none of the Compulsory Dances, and only had six months to learn everything from scratch before helping Courtney to defend his British title in late 1959!

Courtney and Doreen had planned to retire after the 1961 World Championships – hopefully still unbeaten – to pursue their respective careers in fashion design and coaching. However, their skating career came to a tragically premature end when this event was cancelled due to the devastating loss of the entire United States figure skating team in an air crash disaster. Chapter 5 describes Courtney’s farewell to ice later that year in a special final performance he and Doreen filmed for the BBC, and Chapter 6 relates his slog up the rungs of the fashion industry from lowly pattern-cutter to London College of Fashion lecturer, designer of the British team uniforms for the 1984 Winter Olympics, and creator of iconic costumes for his good friends Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. (He still has the wooden spoon they used to stir the purple dye for ‘Bolero,’ pictured on Page 188!).

Chapters 7 – 11 take a more thematic approach, covering aspects of Courtney’s parallel career as a skating judge, referee, and long-serving member on the boards of national and international ice-skating governing bodies. His friendships with the great, good, and not-so-good feature prominently, along with the many fundraisers and major events he helped to organize, his passionate advocacy of the traditional pathway to skating success, his globetrotting with and without his partner of sixty years, Robert ‘Bobby’ Thompson, and the beautiful homes, ‘thirty rooms short of a mansion’ they created together in London and Spain. Chapter 12, ‘Creating a Winning Performance’ is primarily aimed at aspiring champion skaters and their teachers, but is nonetheless interesting even to a non-skater like me; and the final two chapters on Britain’s last Olympic ice champions John Curry, Robin Cousins, Christopher Dean and Jayne Torvill, (featuring personal contributions from the latter three, who have also provided the Afterword and Foreword respectively), round the story off in suitably inspiring fashion.

Courtney and I then share a final word in thanking the many people who helped bring to fruition what he generously describes as ‘our book,’ primarily our small editorial team of Elaine Hooper, Heather Jones, and Peter Morrissey. Whether or not it sells well, I feel we can be justly proud of Around the Ice in Eighty Years – a book I’d be glad to find in my own Christmas stocking, and a must-read for all skating fans and skaters, especially anyone who remembers being judged or coached by Courtney or Bobby. If you buy a copy – it’s available to pre-order now on www.ypdbooks.com – I hope you’ll agree, and enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed editing it!

Dying to Lose Weight? Try Eating for Life!

Stop dieting. If you’re reading this, you probably know to your cost that they don’t work. A whole mega-bucks global industry relies on it: you keep failing, you keep forking out for more over-priced, over-packaged pseudo-foods and latest wonder weight-loss fads – products at best unnecessary, and at worst actively harmful, to human and planetary health. The good news? You don’t need them. You can achieve and maintain the right weight naturally, cheaply, and above all enjoyably by Eating for Life, the holistic solution to weight control problems. I’ve lost 20 lb this way and am nearing my target weight while eating whatever I want, in moderation (1). The bad news? It’s no quick fix. It requires permanent changes in your mindset and eating habits, from minor tweaks if your lifestyle is already wholesome and active but over-indulgent, to a full overhaul for sedentary junk junkies. But trust me, it’s worth it – you’ll live, feel and function better in every way. So answer the following questions honestly. Do you ever:

  1. Eat just because something’s there, even if you’re full/don’t particularly like it?
  2. Obsess about the last chocolate/biscuit/slice of cake/pizza until you finally give in and eat it?
  3. Keep a secret stash of goodies for your personal consumption?
  4. Conceal/lie about what/how much you’ve eaten (eg stuffing wrappers to the bottom of the bin)?
  5. Pile your plate high and finish everything, no matter how full you feel?
  6. Beat yourself up about what/how much you’ve eaten?
  7. Overindulge to the max on all social and festive occasions?
  8. Tend to binge on certain foods?
  9. Think about food constantly because you feel constantly hungry?
  10. Experience mood swings, depression, lethargy, bloating, constipation, indigestion/ heartburn, or poor concentration?

A ‘Yes’ to any question from 1 – 8 means you have a dysfunctional, addictive relationship with food. It’s not your fault, it’s how you’ve learned to comfort or reward yourself – but like any dependence, you do need to conquer it so that you only eat when you’re hungry, know when to stop, then forget about food till you feel hungry again. That’s the goal: to enjoy normal, healthy eating habits and being able to live at your optimal weight without dieting (2). A ‘Yes’ to 9 and/or 10 means you eat/drink too much of the wrong stuff, and not enough of the right. It’s possible to be simultaneously overweight and malnourished/dehydrated due to over-consumption of nutrient-deficient, ultra-processed, high-fat, artificially flavoured junk food/confectionery, intensively farmed animal products, and additive-laden soft drinks. These horrible products mess up your blood chemistry but don’t nourish or sustain, so you crave more, get fatter, feel worse, crave more to cheer yourself up and so on (3). Furthermore, they increase your risk of developing life-threatening conditions including bowel cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Ideally, no-one should eat sugary, salty, fatty junk because it’s so damaging in so many ways, and reducing your intake is essential if you seriously want to lose weight and improve your health at the same time.

Eating for Life replaces junk with wholesome alternatives, making you feel so good you won’t miss the calorie-laden bad stuff. It gives you control; you can take baby steps so you don’t feel deprived, (if you can’t give it up, cut it back), or big leaps to get quick results. It teaches you to identify your true needs and feed them appropriately, and helps your appetite self-regulate so that by simply monitoring and adjusting your intake/output, you can maintain either weight loss or stability. Best of all, the more you stick to it, the easier it gets. So give it a try – you’ve nothing to lose but your fat!

1. Work Out What. Break the barriers of ignorance/denial.You need to know exactly what you consume, so start an Eating for Life diary and keep it up for as long as/whenever you need it. Record your initial weight and measurements so that you can keep track of progress, then everything you eat/drink during the day. Calculate how many calories it contains. You may be horrified. The average adult needs 2000 – 2500 per day. A pound of fat contains c. 3500. Therefore if input exceeds output by 350 calories per day – equivalent to a single Mars Bar or family bag of Doritos, or a half-dozen milk-and-two-sugars – in ten days you’ll put on a pound. Scary, eh? That’s why you gain, or can’t lose, weight even when you think you eat frugally – it takes very little to tip the balance. But you’ll see straight away what/where you can cut back painlessly: skimmed or semi-skimmed instead of whole, one instead of two, a spoonful less, a smaller slice, no seconds. Your stomach will shrink, you’ll need less food to satisfy it, and weight loss will follow naturally.

2. Work Out Why. Knowing why you eat is equally crucial, so note how you feel at the time: bored, lonely, restless, unhappy, ravenous, peckish, stuffed but can’t stop? It may be easy to spot when you’re hungry for something – company, interests, fulfilling occupation – other than food. It may be painfully hard. Disordered eating often stems from trauma (4) as you’ll know if you ever watch programmes like My 600-lb Life; and unless underlying emotional issues are resolved, not even radical gastrectomy can prevent people from regaining lost weight. The only cure is to face the pain, heal from it, release food as a coping mechanism, and move on to a happier, healthier future. So identify and tackle the cause of your eating behaviour, no matter how hard it seems. Believe me, it’s worth it. You’re worth it.

I revisited this process in January 2021, after gaining 12 lb to hit my lifetime maximum weight (again), which I hate because it’s uncomfortable and exhausting. Knowing it was down to ignoring the scales for six weeks of unrestrained festive gorging on a reduced winter workload, I was determined to lose what I’d gained plus another 14 lb to take me back to the weight I like best (last seen in 2005).I duly slashed my daily intake and upped my exercise levels. By reducing portions so I never felt too full, spritzing an inch of wine into a half pint, cutting caffeine and snacks, and drinking more water, in the first few days I lost three pounds of bloat and thereafter, up to a half-pound of fat a week. Six months later I’d shed half a stone – where I stuck, despite being back into full summer work mode of two – five hours moderately strenuous gardening a day. I regained muscle without regaining pounds, which improved my BMI, but the scales remained stubbornly pegged. Reviewing my daily intake showed I was maintaining this stable weight on a diet including desserts, chocolate, wine, and a weekly pork pie – so to lose more I clearly had to cut back again, helped by a metabolic kick-start.

Cleanse and Re-boot. Food-Combining, pioneered by Louise Hay, is one diet I do recommend for pleasure and rapid results – I typically lose several pounds just by switching to it for a couple of weeks. Food Combining is based on fresh fruit and veg eaten with either protein or carbohydrate but not the latter together – for instance, lubricating cereal with fruit juice instead of milk, and leaving either the bread or the bacon out of a BLT (5).

To fully de-tox, give up all caffeine, alcohol, salt, sugar, and refined carbohydrate for at least 48 hours. Breakfast on fresh fruit salad and plain fat-free yoghurt (c. 250 calories), then a mid-morning banana, (c. 100 calories), mixed superfood salad with fat-free cottage cheese. citrus fruit and an apple for lunch, (c. 350 calories), fresh veg soup and fruit salad for dinner (c. 350 calories), and unsalted nuts/seeds/dried fruit (c. 100 calories a handful) or carrot/celery sticks (negligible calories) if you need a bite in between (6). Calories take care of themselves; raw, baked, steamed, stir-fried or stewed fresh produce naturally contains so few you can fill your boots and still stay within a 1200 – 1500 calorie/day weight-loss range. It’s also highly nutritious, bulky and full of fibre so you feel satisfied, takes a long time to break down so your blood sugar, energy levels and attendant moods don’t peak and trough, then scours your digestive tract clean as it passes through – a great all-round health boost. A de-tox also reduces water retention and bloat, eases pre-menstrual symptoms, and helps to identify food allergies; for instance, if you’re prone to indigestion and notice significant improvements on giving up wheat-based carbs, (bread, cereals, pasta, biscuits, cakes, pastry etc), you may be gluten-sensitive and should switch permanently to gluten-free alternatives to prevent symptoms recurring.

I de-toxed until the scales shifted by three pounds, then returned to pared-down normality. Changing to an open sandwich for breakfast and lunch saved two slices of German rye bread/200 – 300 calories per day, sustained me equally well, and cured the indigestion I often suffered at work due to repeated bending on an over-filled stomach. I cut dinner portions by roughly a third, ate slowly, and always left room for dessert. Fate then stepped in with The Bathroom Conversion From Hell, which for kept me so busy, distracted and stressed I either forgot to eat (imagine!) or was so pumped with adrenalin and rage I simply couldn’t (7). Four more pounds melted away, and lo! I’d lost as much in six weeks as I had in the previous six months, 14 lb altogether. The moral of that is:

Up Your Activity Levels. I don’t advocate employing a rogue business to jack up your pulse-rate, but being stuck at a stubborn weight is the time to take up a new hobby or sport to stop you slumping in front of daytime TV (burns one calorie/minute, same as sleeping) with a packet of HobNobs (c. 1400 calories/pack for plain, c. 2000 for chocolate). Make and sustain the effort. Hoovering and mowing the lawn burn five – ten calories/minute. Walk briskly or cycle instead of driving. Use the stairs not the lift. Wash the dishes by hand and dance while you dry them. Do chairobics or floor exercises while watching TV. Do anything you enjoy to up your heartbeat, tone your muscles and help you get and stay in shape.

Kick Your Addictions. Sugar is as addictive as heroin and, in its way, equally harmful. We joke about having a sweet tooth, or being ‘chocoholic’, but sugar addiction really isn’t funny, and its consequences loom large all around in the shape of our global obesity pandemic and related health problems.

Sweet or savoury, whatever your poison the cure is to starve addiction out, not encourage it. So let your palate recover from ‘tongue-blindness’. Shun diet products and meal replacements. Adverts calling them ‘delicious,’ ‘satisfying,’ and ‘nutritious’ are LIES – they’re at best tolerable and at worst downright nasty. (They do work if you stick to them, as any medically ill-advised, ultra-low-cal crash diet will work in the short-term – but you’ll be miserably hungry, learn nothing about healthy eating, and regain losses PDQ when you return to your regular habits). Typical ingredients include fructose, lactose, glucose, corn syrup, (all sugars), artificial sweeteners, wheat flour, palm fat/oil, emulsifiers, anti-caking agents, flavourings, preservatives, colourings etc, plastic-packed and unhealthy as it comes. Powdery milk shakes and cardboard cookies only fill you for five minutes, keep you stuck firmly in sugar dependence, and in no way replace a proper meal. For the same 150 calories as a glass of vile Cambridge Diet you could have a lovely filling jacket potato with low-fat sour cream and a big green salad tossed in lemon juice; instead of a processed 100 calorie cereal/cake bar, (or even a tasty virtuous cold-pressed Nakd bar), you could eat two apples, a banana, or a handful of dried fruit and nuts – real foods to nourish and satisfy, rather than unpalatable facsimiles of compulsive trigger foods which reinforce your addictive behaviour instead of teaching you to eat normally… and no plastic packaging!

So kick the diet, mass confectionery, processed and fast-food industries where it hurts – in the pocket. The less of their products you eat, the less you crave; the more you eat natural wholefoods, the better they taste, and the more former favourites revolt. Luxury biscuits, ice-cream bars, Nutella, and fondant fancies no longer remotely tempt me because they’re either too sweet, too greasy with palm-oil, too plastic-packaged, or all three. Substitute well-diluted fresh fruit juice for soft drinks, and wean yourself off sugar or artificial sweeteners in coffee and tea. Beverages taste better without. (If you disagree, you’re probably addicted to the sugar/hazelnut syrup/chocolate sprinkles or whatever as much as caffeine or the drink itself). You can taste them, for one thing. For another, ditching the strong flavours and empty calories lets you appreciate the subtlety of caffeine-free herbal infusions, which often carry health benefits in addition to helping you reduce your caffeine intake: turmeric and ginger treat inflammations and infections, lemon & ginger soothes colds and sore throats, peppermint aids digestion, sage relieves menstrual and menopause symptoms, chamomile helps you relax, and dandelion or nettle purify the blood and make you pee, reducing fluid retention and bloat. Acquiring a taste for unsweetened drinks doesn’t take long, and you never miss sugar; I gave up my teaspoon per cup forty years ago, saving a good 150 calories every day since, and now can’t abide the stuff in any drink but cocoa.

With chocolate, go for quality not quantity. The fewer the ingredients, the better. Pure plain contains only 50 – 95% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar, and usually soya lecithin emulsifier and vanilla extract. True chocoholics find its aromatic bitterness heavenly; if you don’t, you’re more a sugar junkie than a real chocolate lover. Pure milk chocolate additionally contains milk fat/solids, and at least 30% cocoa solids. Good chocolate costs more than the adulterated, sickly sweet, low cocoa crap used in mass confectionery, but drop the daily KitKat break and you can afford a weekly organic Fair Trade treat in recyclable packaging from your local Co-op. ‘Chocolate flavour’ coating, as used on diet bars, is basically solid, sweetened vegetable/palm fat with a little cheap cocoa, and should be avoided at all costs.

Also be aware of less obvious sugars in products like cook-in sauces, ketchup, pickles and relishes, salad dressings, sandwich spreads etc, and limit your intake especially while you’re in an active weight-loss phase. The reward? Once you’ve firmly established Eating for Life you can indulge, in moderation, in whatever you fancy.

Rehydrate. Wash toxins out of your system with at least two pints of water a day, (fresh tap water, not the stale micro-plastic soup you buy in bottles). Like it or not, water’s essential for health and effective weight control. Lack of it can lead to anything from blood clots to urine infections, and it’s easy to become chronically dehydrated if you only drink pop and caffeinated beverages which make you excrete more than you consume. It’s also easy to mistake thirst for hunger, so reach for a glass of water before you reach for a snack, sip water before/during meals to aid digestion, and switch to herbal or de-caf tea and coffee where you can. Can’t stand the taste of tap water? Leave a jug in the fridge to off-gas overnight (even our cat will drink it when the fluoride wears off). Add a wedge of lemon or sprig of mint (both natural appetite suppressants). Or toss in blueberries, strawberries, orange slices, whatever fresh fruit you like to add flavour and vitamin C. Stir in a pinch of salt, and hey presto! Smart water. Bottom line is, your body needs water to function properly, so drink more of it. You’ll feel better, I promise.

Go Greener. Eating for Life benefits your health, your own and the country’s economy, and Mother Earth all at once. The giant corporations which churn out products cynically designed and marketed to foster cravings and addiction don’t care about human health, animal welfare, or climate change; they only care about profits. Consider palm-oil. Once used mainly for cosmetics and toiletries, it’s now forced on unwitting consumers in everything from mass-produced bread, baked goods and cereals to gravy granules, margarine, chocolate, and boiled sweets (read the labels) because it’s cheap. Stuff the rainforests razed for palm plantations, or the long-term effects this fat might have on bodies which never evolved to metabolise it, let alone in large daily amounts. Consider the unbelievably cruel intensive farming methods required by the processed/fast-food industries to pump out their mechanically recovered burgers, sausages, and chicken nuggets for such temptingly low prices. With meat as with chocolate, cheap means bad, and bad for you, derived from animals kept in atrocious conditions, artificially fed and pumped full of hormones – so choose humanely-reared free range and/or organic meat products instead, they’re tastier, more nutritious and contain no nasty chemicals. Consider the gigantic global litter/waste disposal problem these companies create with their foam and plastic shells, plastic cutlery, straws, cup lids, condiment sachets etc, thanks to the obnoxious behaviour of too many ‘tosser’ customers. Consider the exploitation/forced eviction of indigenous peoples, the child slave labourers used by Nestle and Lindt to feed our greed for chocolate, the appropriation of community pure water sources (Nestle again) to feed our pointless appetite for bottled water. Learning more about what food contains, how it’s produced, and how the companies responsible conduct themselves in the world, is the best aversion therapy I can think of. I now refuse to buy a whole list of products/to put a single penny into the coffers of fat-cat fast-food and pretentious coffee franchises, and I’d rather starve than eat deep-fried battery chicken portions, or sausages made from cage-reared pig.

These days it’s more vital than ever to reduce, re-use and recycle; to support local farmers, growers and small/independent businesses, grow and cook more of our own, plan weekly menus and shop carefully to avoid food waste and unnecessary plastic. You’ll be amazed at how it slashes your shopping bills and household waste output so you can easily afford high-end organic products. (8). Pound for pound, fresh loose produce is the cheapest, healthiest food available. Cooking, preserving, and sharing it with loved ones are rewarding activites for any age, and if children learn to prefer wholesome, home-made food and tap water to junk and blue pop, they’re more likely to grow up at their optimal weight/state of health, and less likely to be ‘picky’ or develop an eating disorder (9). You don’t have to sacrifice favourites: pop your own corn, dry-roast your own nuts, bake your own low-fat, low-salt potato/root veg crisps – you can find instructions to make anything from apple cake to zabaglione cheaper, fresher, and tastier than the bought versions. My own cakes, biscuits and desserts are an essential part of our manual labourers’ diet as well as a joy to eat, packed with vitamins, minerals and fibre from fruit, nuts, seeds and oat-bran, and slow-release calories from wholegrain flours, butter, eggs, and milk to sustain us through our working day. They’re so filling you’re hard pushed to eat more than one – plus the effort involved in making them is another great disincentive to pogging the whole batch at once.

Eating for Life: the Holistic Way Forward All these elements combine into an effective, self-reinforcing strategy for weight loss and long-term control which helps you save money and save the Earth at the same time. Find the key to your eating behaviour and the rest naturally falls into place; and the more you practice, the easier it becomes until it’s second nature. Ongoing moderation is essential, as are twice-weekly weight checks and prompt response to small gains – it’s easy enough to trim back the odd pound or two, but ignore the scales until you’ve put on half a stone, and you have a much weightier problem.

Since committing to Eating for Life, I’ve gently descended to a weight I haven’t seen for 15 years. I feel very fit and happy with my body now, though still plan to lose a few more ‘insurance’ pounds before stabilising at my chosen weight. I don’t plan to spend six months every year for the rest of my life trying to shed what I gain over Christmas – the game’s not worth the advent candle. Instead I’m looking forward to going meat-and-sweet-free until Solstice, making rather than buying most of our festive fare and gifts, and limiting the feast season to 21st December – New Year’s Day.  It’s a marvellously empowering prospect; for the first time ever, I feel like a responsible adult taking proper care of myself – paying mindful attention to my diet/activity levels, adjusting as required, and confident that in future I can stay within plus or minus two pounds of my desired weight.

As with any diet or health plan, Eating for Life does require some self-discipline and perseverance, especially in the early stages – but If a self-indulgent old hedonist like me can do it, so can you! Good luck, and good health.

NOTES

  1. Distilled from decades of battling and beating my eating disorders through psychotherapy, self-help, and dozens of failed diets until I read Louise Hay’s How To Heal Your Life (a holistic, dietary approach to treating ailments including disordered eating).
  2. When Food is Love by Geneen Roth traces the root of her compulsive eating disorder and long journey to recovery.
  3. Potatoes Not Prozac by Kathleen Desmaisons gives a clear explanation of the relationship between blood chemistry and mood, and how to alleviate depression by making simple changes to your diet.
  4. In my case, compulsive comfort-eating after the death of my adored grandfather turned me from an average weight-for-height three-year-old into an obese sugar-addict by junior school, periodically bulimic from my teens to late thirties, and an overweight yo-yo dieter until recently.
  5. A protein dinner might be Greek salad and feta cheese, tofu or lean meat with stir-fry veg (no rice or potatoes), and stewed apples with yoghurt; a carbohydrate version might be guacamole tortilla, vegetable chili with rice, and summer pudding without cream or custard – delicious, sustaining food that sits lightly in the stomach and fills you with wellbeing.
  6. My favourite fruit salad: fresh pineapple and melon chunks, seedless grapes, a large banana, a chopped apple, a tin each of grapefruit salad and mandarin segments in juice, and a handful each of dried cranberries and dried apricots. And veg soup: a large onion, garlic, two large leeks, two large carrots, a head of celery, half a white cabbage, fresh herbs and seasonings to taste. Chop and fry in a little olive oil, simmer in vegetable stock until tender, then whizz through a blender – delicious hot or cold.
  7. Look up Steve Brooks on https://www.aspokesmansaid.com/steve-brooks-kitchens-complaints-and-reviews.html to find out why – and I got off lightly compared to those people!
  8. See my blog Plastic Pollution: how one household can make a difference
  9. I once saw a junior school class tuck into a medieval banquet including salads, whole roast pigeon and baked trout, (one lad even ate the eyes and pronounced them good – more than I could’ve done!), because they’d researched the menu, prepared/helped cook the dishes, and couldn’t wait to find out how it all tasted.

Helmick 14th Anniversary Adventure!

For near enough the past decade, we’ve celebrated our wedding anniversary by going off for a couple of days walking/exploring interesting places, with dinner, bed and breakfast at a posh hotel in between, and 2021 was no exception. Blessed by the weather, we got off to a fine start with a visit to Kirkham Priory, (off the A64 between York and Malton) – we’d often passed the sign for it but never visited.

Hubcap orientates himself, with eastern chapel wall to left, and west range/cloister to right in background

The hillside location overlooking the River Derwent is spectacular, as are the standing fragments of the gatehouse and priory church; the rest, thanks to Henry VIII and centuries of stone-robbing, is reduced to foundations.

Gatehouse adorned with Roos family heraldry, St George & the Dragon to left of arch, and David & Goliath on right

However, the English Heritage interpretation boards and the useful guidebook on sale in the shop give a good idea of how magnificent this wealthy Augustinian house must have been in its heyday, equalling the better-known Cistercian foundations like nearby Rievaulx Abbey. We spent a good hour and a half hoofing round the terraces looking at everything – I was particularly struck by the remains of the superb 13th century arched laver in the cloister, where the monks washed their hands before entering the refectory – and wondering how many of these ruined religious houses would’ve survived until today had it not been for the Reformation.

After that we were gasping for a drink; and since only basic refreshments are available on site, we set off to the pub signposted as 300 yards up the road – ‘up’ being the operative word! But it was worth the stiff pull to enjoy a cold glass in the beer garden of The Old Stone Trough, which was doing a brisk Sunday lunchtime trade; we’d have eaten there ourselves if we hadn’t come prepared with a picnic in case there were no suitable eateries open.

We were well ready for that by the time we’d walked back down to the Priory carpark, and ate while watching hikers pass by on the riverbanks and a couple of intrepid ladies swimming up and down a short stretch. Being in the vicinity with time to kill before we could check in to our hotel, we then went on to another English Heritage site Hubcap had never seen, and I’d not revisited since a student archaeology field trip I went on in 1981: Wharram Percy near Wetwang, one of the largest, best preserved deserted medieval villages (DMVs) in Europe and, thanks to decades of intensive archaeological investigation, probably the best-known. Once a thriving Saxon settlement, Wharram was awarded to the Percy family by William the Conqueror, and at its height in the 14th century boasted a manor house, a water mill, a green with a stone church, houses and outbuildings for some 40 peasant families, and a population of c. 200. Wharram Percy’s later fortunes fluctuated dramatically as a result of raids by the Scots, the Black Death, voluntary departure, and ultimately forced evictions and the destruction of homes in around 1500, as part of the change from arable to sheep farming driven by the rising profits to be made from the English wool trade.

Free to visit and open year-round, Wharram Percy is no site for the unfit or those expecting tea-rooms, toilets and trinkets – there are no facilities, and no structures except for the ruined church and an experimental 19th century farm building used as a headquarters for the excavation teams, neither of which are currently accessible to the public. The DMV lies some three-quarters of a mile from the carpark down a rough track and hollow-way, and is itself very rugged with some steep gradients which we puffed up and down, looking for vantage points where we could make sense of the grassed-over building platforms, ditches and trackways. If we’d done some research beforehand and thought to bring a site plan, we could easily have spent a full day there; aside from the archaeology, Wharram Percy is a perfectly preserved fragment of ancient landscape, and Hubcap was captivated by its associated rare ecology – another addition to our growing list of places to re-visit.

The downside was coming back, uphill all the way – in the rain. At least the wind was behind us, albeit driving the water dripping off my coat into the backs of my legs; luckily I had some dry trousers to change into when we got back to the car!

By then it was time for the short drive to Malton, where we’d been looking forward to staying at the wonderfully picturesque Old Lodge Hotel, former gatehouse to the Norman castle built on the site of the Roman auxiliary fort Derventio Brigantum.

After a drink on the terrace and a turn round the grounds, we put away an excellent two-course Sunday dinner; Hubcap chose ham hock terrine followed by baked salmon, while I went for the vegetarian option of baked Brie wedges and a walnut and red wine nut roast; the portions didn’t look massive but proved to be so filling we couldn’t finish all the veg, and neither of us had room for dessert.

We rounded things off with a drink in the cosy oak-panelled bar, then went up to our room – where, as usual, all our problems began. For a treat, Hubcap had upgraded us from the Sunday special offer room to a much larger one with an almost equally huge bathroom, whereas we’d probably have been better off stuck away in a little garret at the back. Instead, our luxurious billet was at the front, facing the road, near the main entrance and directly above the kitchen.

On the middle floor – bedroom on right, bathroom on left, drain and extractor fan in between!

For most people, this wouldn’t matter. For us, it was a disaster. We’re so used to our Memoryfoam mattress in a chilly, pitch-dark, silent room that we struggle to sleep in other surroundings, however palatial. Hotels are almost always far too hot for us, so our first actions were, as usual, to turn off the radiators, fling the windows wide where we could, and swap the inevitable Arctic-rated duvet for our own wafer-thin summer weight, (yes, we really are sad enough to take our own bedding to 4-star hotels). Of course, open windows mean noise – in this case, the hum of a kitchen extractor fan until late, accompanied by the all-night drip-drip of water from some condenser unit trickling into a drain directly below, and torturing Hubcap, who couldn’t wear his ear-plugs for long due to an inner-ear infection. I could wear mine, not that it made much difference – I was still too hot and uncomfortable, and at 3.30 am I gave it up as a bad job, made a cuppa and went to read in the bathroom.

This latest in a long string of disappointing, virtually sleepless hotel nights left us both feeling rubbish, completely unrested, and aching from the previous day’s exertions, (I’d also spent the night wrestling leg-cramps, which I often suffer when I’ve been on my feet for long periods). Fit for nothing more, we could only hobble round the adjacent Roman fort earthworks and briefly around Old Malton before calling it quits – a real anti-climax when we’d planned to spend more time exploring, then return to the Old Stone Trough at Kirkham for lunch, and perhaps take in another site on the way home.

So we’ve decided that this 14th Anniversary Adventure will be a watershed: the last of its kind. No more wasting money on nights in hotels where we never sleep well, if at all. Short term, we’ll do day-trips only, lunching and/or dining in lovely places and coming home to our own bed, (which will please Henry Wowler, who dislikes being left unattended). Then in a couple of years, as we ease down further into retirement, we’ll buy a nice camper van so we can go away for longer and take our own bed with us!

Carole Buckley Edwards, 29th March 1961 – 7th May 2021

For all old girls of Cleethorpes Girls Grammar School, fans of the Grimsby Guitars, music pupils, staff and students at Grimsby College, and all family and friends unable to attend Carole’s memorial service at Grimsby Central Hall on Tuesday 25th May, here’s a transcript of my eulogy:

We all have our own stories to tell of the unique and indomitable Carole Buckley Edwards; and as we remember and celebrate her life, I’d like to share mine with you. I hope you’ll enjoy hearing it as much as I enjoyed living it with her.

I first met Carole in 1972 at Clee Girls’ Grammar School, sitting on my right across an aisle on the front row of Form 1A (purely due to our surname initials, not academic qualities or naughtiness!). As I got to know her, I was a little awed by her accomplishments: already a competent guitarist, she also played violin in the school orchestra as well as the recorder we all learned. She may have told you the ghastly tale of our school concert, eagerly anticipated by 1A because we thought we had an unbeatable programme to win the first year prize: a silly play I’d written, an hilarious Keystone Cops sketch performed as a film clip in slow-mo, fast-forward and normal speed, and a mandatory song as grand finale. We chose ‘Lemon Tree’ (very pretty), accompanied by Carole on guitar – but when she struck the first chords, it had gone out of tune! Cue faltering voices and sidelong looks of horror. Time and shame have blotted out whether she stopped to re-tune or we just soldiered on. Either way, I’m sure it cost 1A the prize – and what no-one knew until I finally confessed at our school reunion in 2017 was that it was All My Fault for idly toying with one of the tuning knobs while her guitar was propped next to me. (When I realised, I desperately tried to put it back as before – sadly to no avail).

A happier recollection is Carole entertaining 1A on guitar. Like everyone else in class, she had the obligatory pop-star poster, torn out of Jackie magazine, stuck inside her desk lid – but having more sophisticated musical tastes than the average twelve year old, Carole’s was of Marc Bolan (the rest of us being pretty evenly split between Donny and David). I’m sure all our classmates will remember her in her white polo neck, navy gym-slip and purse-belt, performing her rendition of ‘Metal Guru’ – which seems like an apt place to pause for a musical interlude, and one of the songs CB herself chose for today: another T-Rex favourite, ‘Ride a White Swan.’

*Marc Bolan Interlude*

As well as a musician, Carole was always a promising seamstress, keen enough to take dressmaking classes at night-school, and helped by mum Betty, knocked up our uniform wrap-around gym skirt in no time (it took me more than a term).  She was also the first person apart from my parents ever to give me a home-made Christmas present. You may recall early Seventies bath salts came in plastic bags and a choice of pink or green (rose or pine) scent. Carole had carefully layered the two colours into a jam-jar, and decorated the lid with a silver star– simple but effective, an early facet of the immense creativity that would go on to adorn her home with everything from Christmas garlands to Roman blinds and re-upholstered furniture, and enrich her family and friends with lovely hand-made gifts from patchwork quilts and felted baby slippers to jars of bramble jelly and bottles of pontack. And naturally, she also made lots of clothes, including Hallowe’en costumes and prom dresses for the twins, a pair of saggy-bottomed MC Hammer pants for me in the Eighties, and her own spectacular green wedding dress.

Seventies Cleethorpes was a great place to grow up, and as kids we had wide social circles, plenty to do and plenty of freedom to do it. Carole and I loved poking round the old town and spent countless hours shopping on St Peter’s Avenue, or browsing for fabrics in Boyes on Freeman Street, or spending whole Saturdays in the new precinct, trying on clothes and shoes, testing perfumes, and spending our pocket money on records and make-up; I think she even worked up town at some point as a Boots Saturday girl. We went swimming at Scartho Baths or Clee Bathing Pool, together or with groups of mates, and on cycling adventures to Louth or Hubbard’s Hills. The last time we did that was 1976. As we set off from Braemar Road, Grandma Buckley said, ‘Have you got coats in case it rains?’ We rolled our eyes at yet another blazing, cloudless sky. Yeah, yeah, we’d got our kagoules (hers blue, mine orange) – like we were going to need them. Needless to say, that was the day the drought broke. Said kagoules were plastered to us by the time we ate our picnic in the pathetic shelter of a Louth alley. Rain continued to pour as we admitted defeat and rode home. We stopped outside a big pub on the main road and debated begging shelter, but at only fifteen, felt too young and embarrassed because we looked like drowned rats, and too frightened of making a mess inside because we were literally streaming with water. Instead we pushed on through the rest of the miserable, cold, endless 16 miles, and I was glad I wasn’t going home with her to face the inevitable smug grandma ‘told you so’s’.

Meanwhile Carole was becoming a regular fixture at Oliver Street – my parents loved her – as I was at Braemar Road. I recall watching Abba for the first time on Top of the Pops with her and brother Steve, and thinking that skin-tight satin trousers aren’t a good look even for slim Swedish blondes, (though I suspect Agnetha’s shiny sausage thighs made a different impression on Steve). We did our homework, revised for exams, listened to music, drank gallons of coffee – Carole so addicted she used to buy her own private Nescafe stash and eat granules straight from the jar – did each other’s hair and make-up, had sleepovers, and gabbed endlessly in one or other of our purple and white teenage bedrooms, or nattered with our respective mums while stuffing ourselves with their fresh baking… all good clean fun until September ‘74, when we started in Form 3RK at Lindsey Upper School.

The first big change was our morning routine. I started calling for her and we’d walk round the corner to Lindsey together, wheeling my bike – that is, when she’d finally dragged herself out of her pit. I remember fidgeting in the kitchen, making small-talk with Betty while glancing repeatedly at my watch and fretting about being late. No doubt many of you will recall Carole could sleep like the dead, if you’ll pardon the expression, and didn’t take kindly to being disturbed; on one notorious occasion when crashing with friends in Germany, she was offered a bed on condition that if its owner returned during the night, she’d have to vacate it. Needless to say, when that happened, attempts to wake and extract her initially found her unresponsive, then as consciousness returned, abusive and adamantly refusing to budge – whereupon said bed’s rightful occupant ended up kipping on the floor.

The other big change at Lindsey was boys. The five who’d joined us in second year when Clee Girls went comp didn’t count – they were only our age, massively outnumbered by girls, and generally docile and easy to manage. Fifth and sixth-formers were a different matter, and mixing with them opened doors to different things, including a whole new musical world of progressive and hard rock. ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ was a monster hit, played till we knew every note  – which probably represents the start of our divergence from the mainstream. We still wore girly fashions though, and Carole developed her first major crush on a handsome lad from Matthew Humberston, Paul St Pierre. Determined to bag him as a boyfriend, she made another ultra-sexy waistcoat and pencil-skirt suit in black velvet for an upcoming school disco (her first attempt was grey with pin-tucks), to wear with a scarf and an artificial flower on the bodice. On the night, she looked fabulous, all Farrah Fawcett flicked hair, smoky eyes, full glossy lips, seamed tights and stilettos, and figure-hugging black… so she was utterly crushed to discover that velvet set Paul St Pierre’s teeth on edge and he recoiled from its mere touch, rendering any close physical contact out of the question. I don’t think they ever dated properly.

Our friendship was never jealous or exclusive, and as mid-teens we always had our separate interests. For instance, Carole joined the school yachting club and learned to sail at Covenham Reservoir, which never appealed to me despite the opportunity to hang out with older boys. I preferred horse-riding, which never appealed to Carole after a single Saturday morning mucking out with me at Old Clee stables, and sitting on the dung-heap afterwards to eat our sandwich lunch. Then slowly we became ‘besties’, disaffected with politics and pop culture, anti-nuke, anti-Nazi, anti-hunting – Carole went vegetarian around this time, if not entirely for ethical reasons (she didn’t like meat). Increasingly scornful of pop, disco and Northern Soul, by seventeen we’d come out as fully-fledged hippy rock-chicks in cheesecloth tops, Oxfam Jesus sandals, and Mary Quant lipstick, festooned with silver chains and love-beads, and reeking of patchouli. Having seen it all before with my older brother, my folks were relatively sanguine; whereas Carole once had to stash her precious denim collection in my wardrobe because her dad was so sick of seeing his formerly feminine daughter in jeans that he’d threatened to bin the lot.

At the time adults often assumed, to my intense annoyance on Carole’s behalf, that because I was physically bigger, I must be the dominant party leading her astray. On the contrary, we were always equal partners in crime, and if there was any straying to be done or a wild side to walk on, we did it side by side, eyes wide open, and quite deliberately. CB, as she was increasingly known, turned me onto reggae by playing ‘Exodus’ relentlessly at me until I succumbed. We also got heavily into heavy metal – ‘The Wizard’ from Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow Rising album was a particular favourite, which despite its grandiosity still brings me out in goose-bumps. We admired bikes, and bikers in black leather, hung out with Tech students at the Blue Note in Grimsby, and sneaked into licensed gigs at the Winter Gardens to see bands like Thin Lizzy and Manfred Mann’s Earthband – unbeknown to us all at the time, Tim was there too on that night. I can still picture her in a home-made white lacy camisole top, and faded jeans with a red and white stripy belt, singing along to their recent chart-topper ‘Blinded By The Light’ – a classic we’re going to hear now.

*Blinded By The Light*

Inevitably, pubs – the Boat, the Sheaf, the Eccy, the Barge, and others too numerous to mention – played a growing part in our social lives, as did older men. A romantic disappointment for Carole at the traditional Wheatsheaf end-of-term bash in December 1978 led to some serious drowning of sorrows. Highly emotional, she threw up in the taxi on the way back to ours. Only slightly less emotional, I told the driver (with commendable presence of mind, I thought, but I doubt he was fooled), ‘I’m sorry, my friend has gastric ‘flu.’ Settled weepily in my bedroom and plied with strong black coffee, she threw up again in my bit-bin (luckily metal, leak-proof and indestructible – I still use it) – and somehow, all this drama took place with my mum downstairs knitting and watching TV, blissfully unaware. Our biggest stunt in that respect was our summer ‘youth hostelling holiday’ in 1978. We did spend a couple of nights in the hostels at Lincoln and Streatley – vivid memories of preparing and eating our carefully-selected Vesta meals in the communal kitchens – but only en route to the Reading Rock Festival. We blew our ticket money on booze – a distinct advantage of hanging out with over-eighteens – and never made it into the arena, just sunbathed and partied on the campsite and sploshed in the Thames. As far as I’m aware, our parents never knew a thing about that either, or sundry other escapades for which we gave each other alibis.

In 1979, by happy accident rather than design, we both chose to do our degrees at Leicester Uni. Studying German and archaeology, our lectures were on the same campus so we often met up; I remember near the end of our first term we were having coffee in the Charles Wilson when news of John Lennon’s murder came on the radio, stunning us both. We made new sets of friends, and embarked on major relationships, CB’s with John Dyas and me with Garry Phillips; and all socialised together at her place or ours, or went for blow-outs at The Curry Pot on Melton Road. An unforgettable moment from our end of second year party came when CB, JD, Annie Riddock and Alistair Graham made their way past a row of big British bikes and up into our first-floor living room to find it half-full of big British bikers in Leicester Rat-Eye colours. Eyes like green saucers, she pulled me aside and whispered in great consternation, ‘Helen, do you know these people?’ She thought we’d been gate-crashed by Hell’s Angels we didn’t dare evict, bless her, rather than entertaining friends from the uni bike club. Luckily, common ground was soon established, the two groups coalesced, and a rip-roaring time was had by all (Gaz and I knew they’d like each other, given the chance).

CB spent the third year of her four-year degree course in Germany, where she became fluent to the point of calling her camera a ‘foto-apparat’ the first time we saw each other when she came home because she’d forgotten the English. In the meantime we’d kept in touch with letters, and a weekend jolly in Amsterdam; luckily our friendship could withstand separations and pick up immediately where we’d left off, with barely a break in conversation (and barely a cross word, ever, much less a real argument). We confided all our relationship traumas, her break-up with JD and getting together with Riff – facilitated by an illicit night in my parents’ bed while they were away on holiday and I was working a night-shift at Wold Farm. CB and I both worked several summer vacations there, she in the canteen and me on Quality Control. She always hated chicken day, having to ask a succession of Grimsby ex-trawlermen whether they wanted breast or leg. Naturally, all the blokes chatted her up, leading to this memorable exchange: Bloke: I’m lookin’ forward to this weekend. CB: Why, what are you doing? Bloke: I’m off to Brid wi’ me mates, drinkin’ and oarin’.  CB, (a sailor, remember): Oh, do you row? Cue mutual blank looks until it registered that he meant ‘whoring’…

After uni, CB and Tim moved into the ground floor flat at 21 Oxford Street, and she worked in the bar on Cleethorpes railway station while she thought about what to do next. Meanwhile I’d started a 3-year post-grad sandwich course, which allowed us to keep up our student pattern of seeing each other at home during holiday times. A common feature of ‘mornings after the night before’ in Cleethorpes was taking her and Tim coffee in bed, then feeding the cats and making a start on the last night’s debris while they slowly came to – whereupon we’d start all over again. I well recall one day round at Gary and Jo’s, trying to watch Blade Runner while their evil black dog, with its unsettling ability to freak out people in a vulnerable state, walked about on its hind legs, grinning at us. I thought I was hallucinating – but no.

Taking on voluntary work led to CB’s career in local authority social services in Grimsby and Hull, and a private sector stint for a horrible useless boss who literally drove her mad – it was the first and only time I ever saw her depressed. Throughout, we kept in touch by phone and odd notes; I always visited at Christmas and Easter, and for parties and special occasions, just as she or they visited me in various places I lived – gregarious and great company, CB always revelled in entertaining, or being entertained by, her many good friends. However, things were about to change drastically; her phone-call to tell me of a certain unplanned but happy event is a vivid memory – as is a weekend we spent on my boyfriend Steve’s boat when her already ginormous bump threatened to overbalance her at any second. As guests, she and Tim got the luxury of the pointy end, basically one great big triangular bed, while Steve and I slept in the main cabin. It wasn’t long after we’d retired that the rocking began, gentle at first them gradually building to a crescendo with the boat’s rubber buffers squeaking rhythmically against the mooring. A comparatively recent couple, Steve and I were first amazed then deeply envious of their staying power, especially with CB in such a condition. I wasn’t surprised to see them looking smiley and satisfied next morning, which CB attributed to a splendid night’s sleep; she, however, was surprised  when I retorted sourly, ‘I bet’, and accused her of keeping us awake and resentful (albeit impressed) for half the night. We eventually established that it wasn’t rumpy-pumpy that had rocked the boat, but the wake of an enormous barge which took a very long time to subside.

The twins duly arrived, (not to mention several generations of kittens from matriarch Custard – I was particularly fond of Spike and Merlin). I first met Sally and Amy one sunny afternoon in Doncaster when they were just a few weeks old, CB still boggling at having produced two such perfect little beings; and felt selfishly pleased and relieved when she didn’t go baby-gaga, but retained her own life and identity as a woman as well as a mother. She and Riff turned from relatively affluent dual-income-no-kids homeowners to broke, frazzled parents overnight, of course; but the girls were tremendous fun, the first children outside the family I ever loved and regarded as friends in their own right. And it obviously did them good to have such a strong female role model and a male primary carer – look how well they’ve turned out.

Marriage came a lot later, and as a complete surprise to me. CB’s relationship with Tim had always seemed perfect as it was, and despite having known her so well for so long, I didn’t know she was actually yearning to be wed. But I was honoured to be asked to deliver the bride, stunning in her emerald green dress, to Louth registry office in 2004 for a lovely personal ceremony followed by an equally lovely party at the Crow’s Nest – the nicest wedding I ever attended apart from my own three years later!

To me, the crowning glory of CB’s professional career was her exemplary work for Grimsby College, turning an inefficient, moribund department into a huge, profitable success, and I felt very proud of her. Inasmuch as I thought about her future, I assumed she’d carry on in this, her last and best job (after a self-employed interlude teaching music, invigilating exams and marking papers), for a few more years; then retire on a nice fat pension to enjoy her beautiful home, husband and family, playing her posh new guitar with the Grim Gits, doing her handicrafts, walking with her ladies’ group, going to the pub, gym and pool, travelling and taking holidays with Tim, and staying with loved ones at home and abroad; and we’d end up as a pair of daft old biddies doddering along Cleethorpes prom in Afghan hats and baggy jumpers, or cackling over a bottle of wine while Bob shot the sheriff and we put the world to rights.

Prior to September 2019, CB generally enjoyed robust health – I seldom recall her suffering anything much more serious than a cold. So it was shocking to see her that Christmas in severe pain from her hip – and devastating to learn a fortnight later that it wasn’t curable sciatica after all, but incurable cancer with (as I later discovered online) a poor prognosis for long-term survival. Throughout everything that followed, CB amazed me with her philosophical, practical, positive attitude. ‘It is what it is,’ she repeatedly said, always making the absolute best of her good times, and lightening the bad with black humour. ‘I know I shouldn’t,’ she’d say, lighting another fag, ‘but what the hell, I don’t have to worry about cancer.’ I’ll be eternally grateful that, albeit unable to hug, we saw nearly as much of each other in 2020 as in an average year. A good response to initial treatment freed her from pain, restored full mobility and gave hope for a longer remission, enabling her and Tim to squeak in a weekend visit in early March, when for once they could stay in a room we’d refurbished largely for their comfort as our only regular overnight guests, and we went to see the fantastic Damien Hirst exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park; we also managed a summer picnic lunch between lock-downs before the next hammer-blow of bad news fell in the autumn and dashed our hopes – the cancer had escaped to continue its rapid, relentless invasion.

We began talking funerals. I offered to send a draft eulogy so she could read all the nice things I was going to say about her – an offer she didn’t take up, so I hope she’s listening in spirit today. She passed a series of milestones: Evelyn’s birthday, Peach’s birth, Christmas, New Year ‘21 and the anniversary of her diagnosis, Tim and the twins’ birthdays in January, and her own sixtieth on March 29th. We saw her for the last time at home at Easter shortly afterwards, looking frail but in typical good spirits and eating like a horse, trying to regain weight and strength for Sally’s wedding. My heart leapt to see those beautiful photos of the day with CB on her feet, stunning in a pale blue trouser-suit, looking so well that if I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought she was perfectly healthy, if thin; and I was glad to hear that after treatment to restore her in the wake of this supreme effort, she’d be leaving St Andrew’s hospice to spend her final weeks – maybe stretching to months – in her own home.

Then things changed with bewildering speed: no longer home but hospice, no longer weeks but days – make that hours. CB wanted to see me, and unlike too many relations and friends living further afield, I could get there in time. I walked in prepared to find her asleep or unresponsive; but she’d saved a huge amount of her last mortal energy to stay conscious and hold a conversation for three-quarters of an hour. It was intensely emotional with moments of joyous connection, completely unlike any harrowing or heart-rending death-bed scene I’d ever experienced or imagined. The physical shell was too ravaged to stay in, but the quintessential Carole, her spiritual presence, was still there in such full force and beauty she made my eyes boggle; not the remotest sense of her passively fading into non-existence, more actively gathering herself to float free and move on. We agreed to try and give each other a call once she got to wherever; I hope I armed her to go with all my love and blessings, as she armed me to stay and bear her departure twenty-six hours later without the utter, howling devastation I’d been expecting and dreading ever since her diagnosis. On the contrary, CB is, and ever will be to me, simply elsewhere now, differently alive. So I had a little party for her next day, drinking toasts, playing our old favourite albums, and dancing round the house wearing the ring she gave me at Easter. In the middle of ‘Satisfy My Soul’ I erupted in flurries of goose-flesh; I hope that meant she’d torn herself away from jamming with Bob, Bolan and Bowie, and come to dance with me in joy and relief that her earthly ordeal was over at last – a suitable point to break off for the second of her musical choices:

*Love Interlude*

According to the Greek philosopher Socrates, death is either the best night of dreamless sleep you’ll ever enjoy, or a reunion in spirit with your late loved ones – and either way, not so bad. A great sleeper like CB would surely agree – just as, if she could give you a last message apart from her love and farewell, it would surely be, as she cautioned me, ‘Do your poo tests.’ However, having had the extraordinary privilege of witnessing her in a process of transformation rather than cessation, I can only believe in the latter, and trust that she’s embarked upon an eternity of fun with all her beloved souls.

And that’s the end of my tale. But as I said at the start, you all have your own Carole stories to tell – so tell them. Cook up a feast, crank up the sounds, crack a bottle or three, and laugh about all the crazy, wonderful things you did together over the years. I can’t think of a better way to honour the incomparable woman who enriched us all so much, enjoyed life so fully, and engaged in it so wholeheartedly, to her very last day. Party hearty in Heaven, CB.

New Year, New Website: introducing herstorywriting.com!

Sometimes life obliges us to do something we hadn’t planned or particularly wanted to do; then it works out so well we’re really glad we did it – in fact we wish we’d done it ages ago!

Such was the case for me with my brand-new WordPress website, herstorywriting.com. I didn’t want a new website. I was happy enough with the simple, info-rich, advert-free old sites helencox-herstorywriting.co.uk and lay-of-angor.co.uk, even though, (as work-hungry web designers never tired of spamming to tell me), they looked stale and outdated. They’d been wonderfully easy for a complete novice to set up on what would become ‘Classic’ WebEden, and easy to maintain despite a few annoying glitches with the software which I learnt to work round. But they needed the recently-obsolete Flash Player to run; so in autumn 2020, like it or not, I had to review my options and get a new site built before Flash expired at the end of December.

One might think that a quick, simple option would be to import the content to the new WebEden platform. However, for reasons I don’t understand, this facility wasn’t made available to users. I couldn’t even add a New site to the account I’d held there for 10 years, but had to create another separate account (something which generated a flurry of complaint on the company’s Facebook page from other Classic users in my position). Well, OK… I wasn’t happy, but decided to give it a go for the sake of continuity/to save the time and bother of searching for a new provider.

The first issue I ran into was one I subsequently found to be a common one with build-your-own website providers: a bewilderingly huge catalogue of themes to choose from, but all very ‘samey’ and none especially appealing. On Classic WebEden, it had been easy to flick between them and compare. Not so on New. I eventually selected a design I thought I could work with, couldn’t make head or tail of the software, (totally different to/less intuitive than Classic); then when I decided I didn’t like the look of it after all, I couldn’t escape from the damn thing. I searched vainly for a command to go back, collapse, close, replace, exit etc etc, growing crosser and crosser until in the end I hit ctrl-alt-del. Talk about user-unfriendly! I thought it was an extremely poor advert for the company, and atop all the other frustrations and technical problems I’d experienced, made me unwilling to persevere with the impenetrable software.

The next most obvious solution was to build the new site here, where I have my blog and reasonable proficiency with the software. WordPress sensibly maintains a much smaller stable of themes with a bit more individuality and imagination to them, and I easily spotted a couple I liked; but what if there was something even better out there? After an hour or so searching on-line, I concluded there wasn’t; at least, nothing eye-smackingly wonderful enough to compensate for missing the convenience of having my main internet presence all under one roof, so to speak.

So back I came to WordPress, tinkered about on one template, decided it didn’t work, and lo! was able to import what I’d done into a design I liked better. Easy-peasy. Keeping my domains? That was harder. WordPress doesn’t support .co.uk domains, so I couldn’t transfer them as I’d hoped; I’d have retain WebEden as supplier, and map the site instead. But I could no longer log in to do so through Classic, because Flash Player no longer works – and then found I couldn’t log in through New, either! I tried every permutation of likely passwords, searched my diary in vain for the new log-in details, eventually admitted defeat and hit ‘forgotten password’ – and the re-set link failed to come through. (Twelve hours later, I’m still waiting).

That really was the final straw. The desire to keep my domains because all my publications sold or in stock carry the old .co.uk website addresses was outweighed by a sudden, overwhelming desire to ditch WebEden and all the hassle that goes with it. So I promptly launched the basic framework of the new site on WordPress as herstorywriting.com, trusting that everyone who wants to will find me when I’ve updated all the search engines and references. I must admit, I’m chuffed to bits with the fresh new look, revamped text and new images, and looking forward to building it up with all sorts of features, including slide-shows of my Sandal Castle, Battle of Wakefield and Battle of Towton tours. (One of these days I’ll get round to building a new lay-of-angor.com site on here as well). So do take a peek – I hope you’ll enjoy it and keep coming back to see my new blog posts and other developments!

Henry Wowler & the Cat of Christmas Past

Henry Wowler always liked a certain midwinter day when his Oomans fed him turkey, and treats, and gave him a fresh catnip mouse. But he preferred a day which came round a couple of weeks beforehand – a rare day when he could go UP. UP was Henry’s Most Special Place, right at the top of the house, under the roof. The Oomans worked in there sometimes, making it into a store for things they seldom needed but wanted to keep, like Christmas decorations. So they’d given UP a boarded floor covered with worn rugs and odd scraps of carpet, shelves along its sloping sides packed with boxes, books, games and old toys, and piled a great assortment of stuff, from electric drills to Henry’s outgrown cat-basket, on the floor underneath.

To Henry Wowler, UP was a magical kingdom, dark and mysterious despite its skylight window, full of hidden corners where mice might someday nest. Going UP to check for them was a rare treat which only happened when the Oomans decided to go UP themselves. And it was special because he’d made a nice comfy den there so secret that they could never find it, no matter how hard they looked. And so on a certain morning in early December he was excited to hear the tell-tale click of the loft-hatch being opened, a boinging of springs as the ladder unfolded, a creaking of rungs, then the sound of Ooman footsteps crossing the ceiling overhead.

Henry jumped down off the bed and went to watch from the doorway as his She-Ooman backed carefully down the ladder holding a box labelled CHRISTMAS, a string of fairy-lights round her neck and a roll of wrapping paper clamped under her chin. Then he darted past and quickly climbed the ladder.

“Oh no! Don’t do that, Henry Wowler! Oh, you bad cat!” She cried, putting down her load. Then, sighing, She followed him into the loft. Naughtily, Henry hid in the shadows while his Ooman dropped a giant carrier bag of gift-bags down the ladder, hung a sparkly bunch of tinsel over one arm, and collected a last box of trimmings. Then She called, “Henry Wowler? Come on down, there’s a good boy. It’s freezing up here.”

Snug in his thick furry coat, Henry Wowler didn’t care; and determined to stay and carry out his full mouse patrol, he crept behind the chimney-stack into the dark narrow gap beneath the eaves, hidden from view by a rolled-up mattress, and wriggled into the den he’d hollowed out in a heap of paint-spotted dust-sheets. His Ooman poked around uselessly, calling, pleading, growing impatient then angry. Then She stomped down the ladder, cursing Henry for making her leave the hatch open on such a cold day.

Meanwhile he set off happily to inspect UP’s every long-neglected nook and cranny. As usual, he didn’t find any mice; but he did find a big black hairy spider, which ran away when he poked it with his paw. Henry chased it out of the darkness and across the floor, swiping madly with his forepaw as it scurried up some bulky object draped in a dirty old sheet. His claws caught that instead of the spider, and dragged it down to reveal an ugly old mirror leaning against a stack of picture frames. It had a heavy dark frame, carved to look like twisted rope and dotted with woodworm holes, and dull, tarnished glass with big brown freckles where the silver had flaked off. Still, through a thick layer of dust and cobwebs, Henry could make out a dim, ghostly reflection.

“Hello?” he said, putting his face close to the glass, trying to see better. “MC? Is that you- achoo!” The dust, tickling his nose, made him sneeze violently, three, four times; and when Henry looked again, he saw he’d blown clear a circle just the right size for the Mirror-cat to peep through.

“Henry Wowler! How fortuitous!” MC exclaimed happily. “Do come over, my dear fellow. You’re arrived in the very nick of time.”

Henry frowned. “Nick of time for what?”

“No time to explain. Suffice to say you’ll enjoy it.”

The Mirror-cat didn’t sound quite like his normal self, thought Henry Wowler, more like a character from the old talking book his Oomans always listened to at Christmas. Feeling very curious, he took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and pressed slowly through to the Other Side. He immediately bumped into something warm and soft. “I beg your pardon, Henry Wowler,” it said, “but I felt obliged to stop you lest you step off the plank. For I fear the plaster would not bear your weight, and I should hate to see you fall through the ceiling.”

“Oh, er – thanks.” Henry opened his eyes and gazed round an UP very different to his own. Overhead, instead of neat white insulation boards there were only bare roof slates, with chinks of daylight showing and a cold wind whistling through. Underfoot were only bare wooden joists with strips of black sooty plaster in between, and several rough planks laid over them beside the hatchway. And this UP was completely empty but for cobwebs, wasps’ nests, and a few pieces of junk piled on its bit of makeshift floor – including the mirror, leaning against a wooden crate with a cat-shaped patch of dust missing from its surface.

“Brr.” Henry shivered. A cloud rose from his fur. “Achoo!” He shook himself to get rid of the rest, and sneezed again. “Achoo! Well, I’m not enjoying it so far. Please can we go somewhere else?”

“Yes, indeed,” said MC. “Permit me to conduct you to the parlour. You’ll find it far more agreeable – besides, our presence will be required there very shortly.”

He disappeared through a simple square hole with no trapdoor to close it, and bounced nimbly down a ladder; not a fixed, sturdy ladder like the one Henry was used to, with broad flat rungs and a thick carpet underneath to cushion his landing, but an ordinary stepladder propped on the hatch frame and standing on bare wooden floorboards. In fact the whole room below was very bare, Henry saw, peering nervously down. No carpet, no curtains, no paper on the cracked plaster walls. No cosy radiator, just a little black grate that didn’t look as if it had held a fire in years. No light fittings, even; and nothing in it but dusty suitcases, hat boxes, leather-bound trunks, and baskets and bags of every size and type stacked around the walls – and the Mirror-cat, of course, waiting expectantly.

Henry put a careful paw on the ladder. It wobbled. He gulped. Then gathering all his courage, he skittered down the first three rungs, took a flying leap from the fourth, and landed with a resounding thud on the hard floor.

Downstairs, a door opened. “Marmaduke?” a voice cried. “Master Carrot, is that you? Come here at once, you wicked cat!”

Marmaduke Carrot?” Henry tried not to laugh. “Seriously? Is that what MC really stands for?”

MC nodded. “It does here. Yes, indeed, Marmaduke Carrot, companion and assistant to the Widow Carrot – she’s a medium, you know – and honoured to be at your service, Master Wowler.” He bowed his head politely. “Now we really must go, or we’ll be late.”

Henry followed him out of the lumber-room onto a dark, gloomy landing with sludgy green walls, dark brown woodwork, and waxed floorboards with a strip of dull red carpet running down the middle and on down the stairs, fixed to each one by a shiny brass rod. At the foot of the stairs was a hall with black and white tiles on the floor, a red and white stained glass window in the front door, and six candles burning in a crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Its furniture looked very strange to Henry: a coat-stand draped in black cloaks and bonnets next to a big grey wrinkly animal’s foot with enormous toenails, and a walking stick and two umbrellas poking weirdly out of it; a big floppy plant in a green enamelled planter on a spindle-legged stand; a huge wall-mirror with two more candles burning in holders on either side of its heavy oak frame; and lurking in the shadows under the stairs, a very tall clock in a dark wooden case with a long swinging brass pendulum and a very loud tick.

Bing-bong! it said as they passed, making Henry Wowler nearly jump out of his skin and MC exclaim aloud, “Oh, my – quarter to, already!” He speeded up to a trot. “Make haste, Henry Wowler! We must be ready to start on the hour.”

Waiting for them in the parlour doorway was a She-Ooman in a dress of floor-length black silk, with a black lace veil over her bun of silvery hair, and a black lace shawl around her shoulders, pinned with a black jet brooch. “Oh, there you are, Marmey! Thank goodness! I thought you were lost. What a bad pussy you are to worry me so.” She plainly didn’t see Henry Wowler trotting close behind. “I do hope you’ll behave better for the Circle.”

Medium? She looks pretty small for an Ooman to me, thought Henry. And I wonder what a Circle is? Keen to find out, he followed them into another strange room lit by oil-lamps and a crackling fire, the daylight shut out by thick red velvet curtains. Crammed within were a fat cushioned sofa, two matching armchairs and a footstool, a round polished table with six wooden chairs, a massive oak dresser laden with porcelain dogs, blue-patterned crockery, and Toby jugs shaped like little fat Oomans in old-fashioned clothes, a glass-fronted cabinet full of curios and trinkets, a piano with sheet music heaped on the stool, a big gilded concert harp, a music stand, several stands of potted plants, and three tall ornament stands; a stuffed raven stood on one, a crystal ball and a pack of Tarot cards on another, and a glass dome covering a bouquet of flowers made of sea-shells on the third. The carpet was patterned with red roses and the wallpaper with red and cream stripes, largely hidden by paintings in fancy gold frames, brown-tinted photos in silver frames, embroidered samplers in rustic wooden frames, stuffed fish and bright butterflies in glass cases, and colourful pictures made from pressed flowers in all sorts of frames, large and small.

Rather stunned by it all, Henry Wowler sat down on the tufted rag hearth-rug. “Tell me, MC, why’s everything so weird here? Why does your Ooman wear such funny clothes? Why does She have so much stuff? And what’s happened to your voice? You don’t sound like you.”

“Old mirrors show old reflections,” MC replied simply. “I’m afraid I haven’t time to explain more until after the game. Speaking of which, do join in when it starts. You’ll find it highly entertaining, I assure you.”

“But I don’t know how,” protested Henry. “You haven’t even told me what we’re playing!”

“Oh, an easy, teasy game. There are no rules, we just make it up as we go.” The Mirror-cat’s eyes glinted with mischief. “I recommend you sit under the table to begin with, Master Wowler, until you get the gist of how it works.”

Henry Wowler couldn’t imagine what this game might be. Extremely curious, he perched on the back of an armchair, his eyes following the Widow as She bustled about, fussing with the musical instruments, adjusting her chair, and bending to feel the carpet round its feet, all the while glancing over her shoulder as if she felt someone watching. Then She turned the lamps down low and put a screen in front of the fire, making the room very dark. Finally She sat down, breathed out a long breath, and laid her palms flat on the table. Seconds later, much to Henry’s surprise, the piano went plink-plonk and the harp went twing-twang.

“Do we have any evil spirits here among us?” She asked in an odd, high-pitched voice.

A sound came from under the table. Tip-tap!

“Do we have any good spirits among us?”

TAP! said the table.

Nodding in satisfaction, Widow Carrot chanced to look in Henry’s direction at the exact moment he jumped down from the chair and ran to inspect the still-quivering harp-string. She blinked rapidly. “What- what was that? Did I see-? Is there a good spirit present? Ernest, my love, is it you here with me?”

Henry froze. “MC!” he hissed. “She saw me! What shall I do?”

Jingle-jangle-jing! said the doorbell before MC could reply. Footsteps pattered across the tiles as Janey the maid went to answer it. A babble of excited voices broke out as five members of Ethel Carrot’s Spiritualist Circle came into the hall, and began taking off their outdoor things for Janey to hang up.

“Oh my goodness! My ladies!” Forgetting Henry, the Widow leapt to her feet, grabbed MC, tugged a black velvet ribbon from her pocket, and tied it in a bow round his neck. Then leaving him guarding her chair, She went to greet her guests.

“Here come today’s players,” whispered MC as three heavily-veiled figures filed into the parlour. “May I present the Misses Blewitt, Faith, Hope and Charity. Their father Reverend Blewitt doesn’t approve of mediums, so they’re obliged to attend incognito.”

“In-cog-what?”

“Nito. Incognito. Anonymous. Not known,” said MC, when Henry went on looking blank. “So that no-one can see their faces and report them to the Vicar. And now here’s Miss Lavinia Crabtree, whose great-grandfather died at Waterloo. The battle, that is, not the railway station.”

Henry Wowler crept under the table to escape from their long, swishing skirts as a fifth She-Ooman entered, dressed all in black like Widow Carrot.

“Ah,” said MC, “and lastly we have Mrs Victoria Makepeace, named after the Queen, who can’t get over losing her husband, either.”

Bong! The hall clock struck one. “The hour is upon us,” cried Widow Carrot. “Take your seats, Sisters!”

Henry Wowler, crouched under the table, found himself hemmed in by a rustling wall of silk skirts from which wafted a riot of smells he didn’t recognise, although MC could have told him what they were: lavender sachet, carbolic soap, laundry starch, mothballs, button polish, shoe polish for high-buttoned boots, and damp leather footwear, all mixed together with dusty carpet wool. It tickled his nostrils. He rubbed his nose hard with a forepaw, trying desperately not to-

“Achoo!”

“What was that?”

“What was what, Ethel dear?”

“That sound.” Henry froze as Widow Carrot’s face appeared under the table, peered around, frowned at him, then withdrew.

“I didn’t hear anything,” said the other voice. “Did you, Faith?”

“Not I. Or, well, maybe a coal hissing on the fire.”

“Or maybe the spirits are with us already!” Black skirts shook as Widow Makepeace bounced with excitement. “Maybe my Fred’s come at last! Oh, please, Ethel, can we get on and find out?”

“Hush, Vicky dear. Do try to remain calm and receptive.” Widow Carrot settled MC on her lap. “Yes, we should make a start – let’s join hands, Sisters. We meet in this holy Advent season in hopes of communing with the spirits of our dear departed… hopes which will surely be fulfilled today, for I feel blessed with a powerful sense of their presence! So remember, whatever might happen, do not be afraid – and above all, do not break the circle. The circle. Ooh,” she began crooning in unearthly tones, “ooh, yes, the eternal circle of life, death and rebirth, endlessly renew-ooh-oohed.”

“Oow-ow-oooow,” MC crooned along.

“Into our own Circle we invite any and all benign spirits, and from it we banish any and all that are evil.”

Henry Wowler heard a faint rustle, and saw Widow Carrot’s feet poke out from beneath her black hem, and ease off her black velvet slippers.

Are any evil spirits here among us today?”

Her right big toe in its black silk stocking pressed twice on the centre of a red carpet rose.

Tip-tap! Henry Wowler flinched as two raps sounded directly above his head. The Circle let out a chorus of “Oohs.” So did MC. “Oow-ow-oooow,” he yowled.

“No! Heaven be praised! Yet we do have a presence among us, as we have heard and Marmaduke Carrot plainly sees. So tell us, Spirit – are you a good soul?”

Widow’s Carrot’s toe moved again. Henry Wowler looked up, just in time to see a tiny metal hammer, painted black, jerk downward then spring back to strike the underside of the table with a loud, clear Tap! Squinting through the dim light, his cat-eyes made out a thin black wire running from the hammer to the edge of the table, down the leg nearest Widow Carrot’s chair, and across an inch of floor to disappear into the rose. He crept over and sniffed the place. It smelt of Ooman toes. And there was something round – a button? – poking through a little round hole in the carpet. And all of a sudden, Henry Wowler understood the game. It seemed cruel. His tail lashed back and forth. He liked cruel games. And if Oomans could be so easily fooled, he wanted to play Circle with them!

“In that case, Good Spirit, we bid you a hearty welcome! Have you come to speak to any particular person-”

Henry Wowler trod hard on the button. Tap!

Widow Carrot’s foot twitched in alarm. “Er- yes, it appears.”

“Oh!” cried Widow Makepeace. “Is it me? Is it a message from my Fred? Or is this him? Is it darling Freddie himself?”

“Hush, dear! Do leave the talking to me. The poor soul can’t be expected to answer when you molest it with so many questions at once.” Widow Carrot’s left big toe inched towards a red carpet rosebud. “So tell me, Good Spirit: what would you like to say to this particular person?” Her toe pressed the rosebud, again and again.

Twing-twang-twing-twang-twong,said the harp.

“Ah – a musical soul, choosing to speak through an angelic instrument-”

“Oh, no, Ethel!” interrupted Miss Charity Blewitt. “Angels don’t play the concert harp.”

“No, indeed,” Miss Hope agreed. “They’re normally depicted carrying something much smaller, like a Celtic harp. Or a lyre.”

“Yow-owl,” MC added helpfully.

“Be that as it may, a concert harp is still a harp and makes heavenly music!” snapped Widow Carrot.

Henry Wowler picked that moment to rear up high on his haunches, come down fast, and smash both forepaws together, as hard as he could, onto the rosebud. The resulting TWANG! didn’t sound heavenly at all. It made the whole Circle jump, and several cry out in alarm.

“Wow!” yowled MC. “Jolly well played, Master Wowler! A most timely contribution.”

Shocked rigid, Widow Carrot stammered, “H-hold tight, l-ladies! D-don’t break the circle. Our spirit sounds angry… perhaps it didn’t like hearing us argue.”

“Quite. And you started it, Char, interrupting like that,” said Miss Faith. “So perhaps you should apologise to Ethel and our Good Spirit.”

Twing.

“There, see? I was right, it wants you to say sorry,” She finished smugly. “That’s why it spoke softly again.”

“Oh, very well,” said Miss Charity. “I suppose it was rather rude of me. Please accept my humble apologies, Good Spirit – you too, Ethel dear.”

Henry Wowler pressed lightly again on the rosebud. Twing.

Goodness me – apologies accepted all round, by the sound of it,” Widow Carrot said faintly. “So, er, may we continue? We have with us a good, musical soul who speaks to us through the harp and dislikes argument.”

“It can’t be Great-grandpapa then,” sighed Miss Crabtree, “unless the afterlife has improved him. I’m told that in this life he was tone deaf and exceedingly contentious.”

“As I was saying,” resumed Widow Carrot, “does that mean anything to anyone?”

“Well,” Miss Hope began hopefully, “our late Mother adored harp music-”

“Yes!” Widow Makepeace said over her. “My Frederick was a musician, and very mild-mannered.”

“Your Frederick played the trombone, not the harp,” Miss Charity objected.

“He might’ve liked playing brass, but he liked listening to strings. The fiddle, mainly. But he was fond of harps, too. So I’m sure this must be Fred-”

Twing.

Yes! It is him! Oh, my. I feel quite overcome.” Widow Makepeace snatched her hands back from her neighbours, buried her face in them, and burst into noisy tears.

“Oh, you poor dear. I know what you need – a nice cup of hot, sweet tea for the shock,” said Miss Crabtree. “I’ll run and tell Janey to make some.”

A chair slid back and a gap opened up in the skirts. Henry Wowler wandered out and saw Widow Makepeace rocking backwards and forwards, sobbing uncontrollably. On her left sat Miss Faith, hugging her shoulder, patting her knee, and saying, “There, there.” On her right sat Miss Hope, offering fresh handkerchiefs. Opposite them sat a pale-faced Widow Carrot, clutching MC on her lap, staring dumbly at her harp, with Miss Charity beside her, twiddling her thumbs and biting her lip with impatience.

“Bravo, old chap!” MC greeted his appearance. “You play remarkably well for a novice, if you don’t mind me saying. Moves timed to perfection.”

“Thanks. And you were right,” Henry replied, “it’s a good game, I’m enjoying it. So, what happens now?”

Charity Blewitt snapped. “For heaven’s sake! Vicky doesn’t need tea, she needs something stronger. Then perhaps she can pull herself together, and we can get back to the Circle.” Shoving back her chair, She marched off to get brandy and smelling-salts. Unfortunately, on the way, She tripped over Henry Wowler and fell headlong into the table with the Tarot pack and crystal ball. It overturned. The cards scattered harmlessly, but the heavy crystal, flung like a cannonball, crashed into the curio cabinet, sending broken glass and china flying everywhere.

“Ee-ooo-ow!” screeched Henry. Fleeing blindly, he ran smack into a tall, top-heavy plant-stand. It fell over onto the glass dome, shattering it and the sea-shell bouquet, and cracking the glazed planter in half. He made a flying leap for the piano stool to escape the dangerous mess of sharp splinters, shell flowers and soil. The pile of sheet music shifted under his paws. Panicking, scrabbling, he leapt again, dislodging a dozen sheets which wafted to the floor like autumn leaves.

Plink-plink-plonk-plank, said the piano keys he landed on; and plonk-plonk-plank-plink as he moved; and a long, resounding ploooom as he sat down at one end to get his breath back and plan his next move.

Janey and Miss Crabtree returned with the tea things at the very moment the piano began to play itself – not any sort of tune, but a random collection of notes as if an invisible cat was jumping about on the keyboard. They froze in the doorway, gaping. Then with a loud shriek, the maid dropped her loaded tray, threw her long white apron over her face, and scurried away at top speed to lock herself in the laundry-room.

Miss Crabtree’s horrified gaze swung from the piano to the spilt tea steaming from the carpet. For a few seconds she swayed; then her eyes rolled upward, her knees gave way and She fainted, collapsing among the scattered sugar-lumps, saucers and spoons.

The piano fell silent as Henry Wowler stopped prancing to survey the damage and chaos. I can’t believe I did all this by accident, he thought. A delicious naughty feeling, a familiar madness, ran through him. No rules, eh? Then let’s see what I can do on purpose…

Widow Makepeace stopped crying to watch open-mouthed as the parlour came alive, with a great stirring of air as if an invisible demon was racing round in circles, screeching horribly as it went. The fire-screen toppled down onto the hearthrug. The fire-irons fell with a great clatter and clash onto the hearth tiles. A row of Christmas cards, flicked by an unseen tail, sailed off the mantelpiece. The stuffed raven flew one last time as his toppling stand threw him into the air to land in a potted aspidistra, which fell off its plant-stand and broke. Cloths to protect the upholstery from hair-oil crinkled and slid about on the backs of the sofa and armchairs, and dents appeared in their plump cushions. The music stand fell, hit the harp with a loud TWING-TWANG-TWONG and bounced onto the floor. Two china dogs and a particularly ugly Toby jug flew off the dresser and smashed on the wreckage below. Then the Widow stood up and screamed at the top of her voice.

STOP! Oh, please, Fred, please, please stop!”

Henry stopped.

“I know why you’re so angry, and I know it’s all my fault. And I’m so, so, sorry, my darling, and I’ve been so desperate to reach you and tell you how bitterly I regret what I did.”

“What did you do?” Recovering from her faint, Lavinia Crabtree sat up shakily. “What have I missed?”

“I killed my Freddie, same as if I’d murdered him deliberate.”

“Oh, no. No, Vicky dear,” said Miss Faith. “You didn’t kill him! Frederick died naturally. His heart failed.”

“Broke, you mean! With him home alone while I gossiped with the chemist’s wife instead of coming straight back with his medicine! If only I’d done that, he’d still be alive… that’s why he lost his temper, and why all this mess is my fault. I’m terribly sorry, Ethel. I should never have come – but I’ve been praying for a chance to say goodbye, and tell Fred how much I’ll always love and miss him, and beg him to forgive me.”

A sweet, rippling sound filled the room as Henry Wowler drew a gentle claw over the harp-strings.

“Well, dear, there’s your answer.” Ethel Carrot smiled. “Frederick forgives you most willingly – and asks in turn that you forgive, and cease to blame, yourself. Only then can he truly rest, knowing that his beloved wife has peace of mind.”

The Circle left an hour later, babbling with excitement. “Incredible experience… conclusive proof… eye witnesses… report for the newspapers… greatest medium in England… thank you so much, Ethel dearest… goodbye and God bless… Merry Christmas… goodbye!”

While the Widow and Janey, (brave on medicinal brandy), finished clearing up the ruined parlour, the cats crouched on a rag rug in front of the kitchen fire sharing Marmaduke Carrot’s wages, a dish of boiled cod cheeks in cream.

“I always hated those china dogs,” said MC as they sat washing their whiskers afterwards. “I shall be eternally grateful to you, Master Wowler, for ridding me of their silly grinning faces.”

“My pleasure,” said Henry. “Although I never planned to do so much damage. It started by accident when that Ooman fell over me, then the rest- well, you know, it just happened. Things worked out fine in the end though, didn’t they? Everyone seemed happy, in spite of all the cleaning up they had to do.”

MC nodded. “That’s why I play the game. It comforts other Oomans, and makes them feel better when they’re sad. It isn’t all trickery, either – Widow Carrot gives wise advice and She really does have a sixth sense. It’s just not very strong, because She can’t sense Him. Ernest. The Constant Presence.” He rubbed his cheek lovingly against a transparent, faintly glowing hand. “Ernie was devoted to Ethel, and a dear friend to me and Janey, and so happy living with us in this house, that He says Heaven’s right here in His own home and so here’s where He’ll jolly well stay. She’d be overjoyed to hear it, and I’ve tried to tell Her many, many times– alas, thus far to no avail.”

“Well, keep trying.” Henry Wowler looked up at Ernest Carrot, who smiled and stroked his ears with a feather-light touch. “If She believes She brought the spirit of Fred Makepeace here today, maybe She’ll believe She can bring Ernest too. Then they’ll both be comforted, won’t they?”

“Ah, yes. I perceive you grasp the essence of this sacred season, Master Wowler,” MC looked at him approvingly, “as well as of the game. And I feel privileged to have played it with such a natural talent.”

“Likewise,” said Henry. “Although I’m not sure I want to play it again. No… the past has been very interesting to visit, but I think I prefer my own time. And now I think it’s time I went back there. No offence, MC.”

“None taken, dear fellow. Come, then. Let us leave Ernie toasting his slippers by the fire, and I shall escort you back to the looking-glass portal.”

Five minutes later, Henry Wowler bounced thankfully down off his own solid, safe loft-ladder, landing with a dull thud on a soft carpet in a relatively warm, comfortable room. He heaved a sigh of relief, glad to be back here and now, feeling the warm, glowy feeling that for once he’d managed to do something good – if only by accident, and at the same time as doing something bad.

Then his She-Ooman came out of the bedroom next door. “Henry Wowler! At last! You wicked cat,” she softened the words with gentle hands, rubbing the special place on his back, “upstairs feels like a fridge, thanks to you.”

Henry only had time for a last wistful glance before she folded the ladder away, shut the trapdoor tight, and made UP disappear until next time. He sat for a minute picturing Marmaduke Carrot on the Other Side, sitting on the lumber-room’s cold hard floor. And even though cats don’t really celebrate it, he said the words aloud.

“Merry Christmas, MC.”

Straining his big ginger ears, he caught the faint, ghostly reply. “Merry Christmas, Master Wowler! God bless us, every one.”