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

Chapter 3: Three Wishes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Do you think she was a princess?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I giggled. ‘Seriously?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Mustn’t who what?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Ready, Ellie? Good! Let’s go.’  

‘Oh! Are you coming too?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I rolled my eyes. ‘Oh, puh-lease.’

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

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

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

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

‘-French millionairess.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What?’ I asked warily.

‘That you let me cut-’


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blood Magic: Chapter 2!

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

Chapter 2: After School

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

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

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

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

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

‘Did you move in over the summer hols?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sighed, picturing it. ‘How romantic.’

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

‘Oh my God! How awful.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blood Magic: Your Comments, Please!

Your feedback invited – especially if you’re teenage/young adult, or a parent or teacher of/writer for this age group, or just fancy commenting on what I hope you’ll find a lightweight, amusing read! Yes, I enjoyed my first foray into children’s fiction, Henry Wowler & the Mirror-Cat, so much I followed it up with a Christmas Dickens skit, Henry Wowler & the Cat of Christmas Past (which will go into the sequel to HW&MC). I enjoyed that so much I tried a young adult fantasy last year, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, fell in love with all the characters, (especially my hot Santa!), and came up with plots for at least two more episodes to blog for Christmas ’22 and ’23, which I may eventually publish as a novella, ‘Christmas with the Joneses.’ Meanwhile these felt like such easy, natural ‘voices’ to write in that I wanted to carry on playing with youthful characters grappling with growing up, drawing on some of the fun, farcical and frightful episodes I remember from my own schooldays and young adulthood – and the result is Blood Magic, a vaguely supernatural, silly, sinister story now 50 pages long and counting.

I plan to do something with it – enter for competitions, self-publish as an e-book, whatever – but because this is a new genre to me, I’d welcome any comments/constructive criticism. Do you like it? Would you recommend or buy it for a teen/young adult? Is it chick-lit, or does it appeal to male readers too? (Hubcap likes it, but he likes all my writing so that’s nothing to go by). Please let me know what you think of the opening – does it grab you enough to want to read on? I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

WARNING: contains one F-word, some implied bad language/ milder swears, and drug references. No sex or violence (nor will there be).



This is what happened – started to happen, I should say – the September when I was fourteen. I wrote a lot of it down at the time, even some of the conversations, in my secret diaries, the sort Mum always gave me for Christmas, with the tiny padlock I never locked because I always lost the key… although since Mamalou taught me how to remember, it’s still pretty clear in my head even ten years later. When I say clear, I don’t mean it makes sense. It never has. So I’m hoping that writing it down will help me understand, show me how much is accident, coincidence, paranoid over-thinking, and how much is – was – real, deliberate, long foreseen and planned. Hoping it’ll answer some questions. Do I wish I’d never met them, that none of it had happened, that I’d just come to terms with losing Fi and bumbled through my humdrum teens until I finally worked out what I wanted to do with my life? Was the price I paid worth it?

But it probably won’t. It’ll probably carry on dangling, a loose ending like Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, which I read that autumn, (along with Rebecca and Jamaica Inn), curled up in a mustardy armchair or lying in a hammock on the sun-deck at Hidden House, under the grapevine. Did they, or didn’t they? Does it matter now, either way? Or has she done for me at last, Raven, my torment? I’ll probably never know… and you’ll have to make up your own mind.

Chapter 1: A Day of Firsts

‘Come on, Year 10, calm down now.’ The Bald Eagle pushed up his specs and peered down his beak at us, mock stern. It was the first time our whole – well, nearly whole – class had been together for six weeks, and everyone was still high and buzzing. Except me. For the first time, I had no-one to buzz with. No-one to nudge or pass notes to, no ear to whisper in, no-one to giggle with. My stomach felt cold, empty as the space between me and Libby, my nearest neighbour. I reached for my bag and put it on Fi’s chair to see if it made me feel better. It didn’t, but I left it there anyway.

I remember these tiny details so well because that first day of term started so badly. For the first time ever, I really didn’t want to go back. I mean, really really. Not just the usual, ‘OMG, school today, what a drag,’ feeling everyone gets. No, once I was past that, I loved autumn term – harvest festivals, panto rehearsals, carol concerts, all the fun seasonal stuff. Plus we’d be in our usual nice home-room with its view of trees and playing fields, and I’d have my usual good seat, far right, third row back, next to the window – with the added attraction of Mr Benjamin Bradley Theobald for our class teacher. Everybody liked Baldy Beak. He took us for Eng Lang, Lit and Drama – my favourites – and but for his nose and specs, looked enough like a taller, thinner Vin Diesel for Fi to have a major crush on him. He used to say that big noses ran in his family, and that ‘mockers with lesser proboscises’ just envied its magnificent size. He even wore jokey ties for us: green with a Disney Pinocchio, sky-blue with tiny bald eagles, a red Rudolph for the Christmas party complete with flashing nose. And it wasn’t just the usual wobbles about going up a year, and how I’d cope with extra homework and revision and mock exams on top of the average spotty hell of adolescence, or the usual rude awakening when the alarm goes off and that sinking feeling when you realise that no, summer wasn’t endless after all and yes, it really is time to get up and go to school.

No. Today, as well as all that, I had dread. A big doomy dread I’d been running away from ever since I found out, but now it had caught me up. Today would be the first time I’d pass the McDonald house on my way to Goldthorpe Senior Academy without stopping to call for Fi, my desk-mate and bestie since Year 7. The first time, (unless she’d been off with a cold or something), I’d walk the whole way there and back without her. The first time I’d do homework alone, instead of in her room or mine, with a glass of milk and two biscuits each, (always the ration, no matter how we begged), to fuel us till dinner. It made me feel sick, and I felt even worse when I opened my wardrobe.

Mum loved the GSA uniform – white shirt, V-neck sweater, trousers or kilt, plain black lace-ups – because it was smart, sensible, and lasted forever unless you outgrew it. It was carefully gender-neutral, although except for the last day of term when Danny Thomas wore his sister’s for a dare, the only lads who opted for kilts were Rob and Stewie Lennox in Year 12. The Terrible Twins had hi-vis hair and freckles, their dad drove a tiny old car, blue with a white St Andrews cross on the roof and Scottish Independence stickers all over, and they wore kilts year-round with thick white socks and garters. But being megastars on the school rugby team, they were used to cold knees, and being built like brick sheds, no one said boo to them about it). And best of all from Dad’s point of view, you could buy it on a ‘Dress Your Kid for 50 Quid’ special offer from the local supermarket.

I hated it, though. It might’ve been OK in navy or grey instead of mouldy maroon with yellow stripes for the optional tie and scarf from GSA Online, (supposed to be ‘gold’ for Goldthorpe but looked more like dry blood and pus), and if I had less of what Mum optimistically called ‘puppy fat.’ As it was- well, the crackly-new, next-size-up shirt fitted fine, but last year’s trousers were so snug they made my bum and hips look huge. I swapped them for my old kilt with the let-down hem, a baggy jumper to hide my muffin-top, and a blazer I had to leave unbuttoned. I blamed Ben and Jerry. And Papa John and the Colonel-  

‘Eloise Morton?’ Baldy’s voice cut into my thoughts. ‘Hello? Earth to Eloise – do you read me?’

My face went hot as I raised my hand. ’Yes, sir.’

A split-second later, he moved on to the lad sitting behind. ‘Luke Myers?’

Hot needles jabbed my heart. I stared down at my desk, biting my lip, trying not to cry. Fiona McDonald, gone from the register. Erased. Deleted. As if she never existed. It was horrible, just like this morning’s journey to school had been. For the first time, I hadn’t crossed the main road at my usual place, just turned left and walked past very fast on the opposite side, looking the other way, until her house was far behind. Then I walked very slowly, checking my phone again. Still no text. Weird. But before I could look for anything else, the battery died – with all the upset I’d forgotten to charge it. I carried on walking slowly anyway. I didn’t want to get there early, didn’t want to talk to anyone. They were sure to ask about Fi, and I might start crying again-

‘There!’ Baldy ticked the last name. ‘All present and correct – for the moment.’ His eyes twinkled, then fell on Fi’s chair. The smile fell off his face. ‘Though I must say, things won’t be the same around here without Fi McD, and I know we’re all going to miss her very much.’ He raised an eyebrow at me. ‘Eloise, are you able to give us any update?’

I should’ve known. Public Speaking was very big at GSA. Readings in assembly, class announcements, speech days, school radio, Debate Group, you name it, we did it – everyone, in turns, no excuses. It was meant to ‘build confidence, prepare students for oral exams, university and job interviews, the world of work, and many other challenges of adult life,’ according to the GSA website. I didn’t mind. I quite enjoyed it, actually – apart from two things. As always, the first started heating my feet the moment I stood up, and by the time I reached the front, I was glowing to my hairline. Which made the second thing happen. I didn’t know which I hated most, the sympathetic looks, stifled smiles, sniggers, or silly comments, I just knew they made it worse until I practically burst into flames.

Still, I stood tall, took a deep breath, and told the back wall, ‘Yes, we text every day. But Britain’s five hours ahead of Canada, so we can only really talk after Fi’s Sunday brunch, which is just after our Sunday lunch. Her new house looks nice, they’ve got a big garden with pine trees and a swimming pool and a hot tub, but school starts earlier than here so she had to go back last week. She says it’s OK though, and Montreal’s pretty cool, and, um, her dad likes his new job. And she sends love to everyone, especially Caro and Libby – but especially not to Jake Adams.’ I enjoyed the giggles and seeing him go bright red for a change. Fi hadn’t really said that. I just made it up because I knew he secretly fancied her, and because he sat on the front row, and he was always grinning and holding his hands out to warm them on me when teacher wasn’t looking, and I wanted to pay him back.

‘Oh yes, and they’re coming over to spend Christmas with her gran,’ saying it aloud made me smile, and I felt my face cool a degree. ‘So she says to please still buy her presents, but only small things that won’t make her suitcase too heavy.’ Then I dried up. I couldn’t talk about Fi being homesick, and hating everything, especially her parents for making her go, and saving up for a one-way ticket so she could come home to live with us the minute she hit sixteen in exactly 398- no, 397 days. (I hadn’t asked Mum and Dad yet, but they loved Fi so I was sure they wouldn’t mind, like I wouldn’t mind sharing my room).

 Luckily the Eagle swooped in before the silence got uncomfortable. ‘Thanks, Eloise. Now,’ he waved me back to my desk, ‘before we get down to business with the timetable, I have an important announcement to make, and I hope you’ll be as glad to hear it as I was. Yes, folks – we’re about to get a new addition to Year 10, a student who’s recently moved up here-’

My stomach went boing like it does when I see Joshua Brown. I didn’t hear what Baldy said next. Like everyone else, I was too busy listening to the clicking footsteps and rapid-fire voice of Principal ‘Batty’ Bates fast approaching. I got butterflies inside and goosepimples outside as two dark shapes passed the panel of wobbly glass in the corridor wall, pulling our heads with them like balloons on strings. Even though we were all looking at the door, I still jumped when the loud KNOCK-KNOCK came. Then it swept open and Prince Batty swept in, black academic gown billowing round her sharp black suit, and so tall with her killer heels and high-piled grey bun that she had to duck. (She dressed like that to intimidate difficult parents – it worked on mine, they were petrified of her – but to us and the teachers, she was a total pussycat).

‘Good morning! Good morning, 10 BT!’ she beamed. ‘How nice – how very nice to see you all back again, looking so fresh-faced and expectant! I trust Mr Theobald’s briefed you about our good news? Splendid, splendid! Then let me present the person you’ve been waiting for so quietly- come along, come along, my dear.’ Pushing the door wider, she ushered someone in. ‘Time to meet your new classmates.’

I didn’t realise I was holding my breath until I let it out. The new girl was tallish, with a black wavy bob, spot-free pale skin, pink cheeks, and a neat nose dotted with freckles. She was wearing the same clothes as me, but the rotten plum colour suited her, and her slim-but-curvy figure made it look more designer suit than superstore school-wear. She stood very still, hands clasped in front, eyes fixed politely on Batty gushing on about lovely warm Goldthorpe welcomes, being kind and helpful to the newcomer blah blah blah.

‘I speak for the entire staff when I say that we’re thrilled – absolutely thrilled! – to have Fiona McDonald’s place filled so soon by another student of Oxbridge calibre, who comes to us with such glowing reports from a highly-regarded London Girls’ Grammar School-’

My stomach sank. I knew what was coming. Little Miss Perfect was going to sit at Fi’s desk, on Fi’s chair, and I was going to hate her. But as the Prince burbled on, ‘-so she’s sure to keep you all on your toes, and I’m sure she’ll have lots of fascinating stories to share about her travels too, and her exciting life in our capital city,’ I saw her look down and blush. Prettily, of course, just a shade deeper pink on the cheeks. Her lips went tight and white, though. And her knuckles, gripping and twisting a small silver ring on her right hand. And I realised she was completely furious, and that maybe I wasn’t going to hate her quite so much.

‘Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must dash. So without further ado, I’ll leave you in Mr Theobald’s capable hands,’ Dr B patted her shoulder, ‘and let you introduce yourself to the class in the time-honoured way.’ With a nod to him and, ‘Enjoy your day,’ to the rest of us, she ducked out.

          As the door closed, Baldy said to the new girl, ‘Well, that rather puts you on the spot! Are you OK with it – good to go?’

          She nodded. ‘Yes, sir.’ Moving to centre front, she struck a pose like a TV presenter, (her posh school must’ve taught PS as well, unless she’d just had a crash course from Batty), and launched into Module 1, ‘Getting To Know Me/You.’

‘Hi, everybody. I’m Raven Moon-Childe.’ She pronounced her surname as two words, not Moonchild like I would if it was mine, in a nice voice, the sort that says ‘barth’ and ‘parth’ instead of ‘bath’ and ‘path,’ but without sounding too stuck-up. ‘I’m very happy to be here, I prefer small towns to big cities, and I’d rather go to a mixed school than girls-only.’ Raven smiled at the lads hanging on her every word, Josh Brown at the front with his mouth hanging open, I mean, literally. I felt sick, if not as sick as Chardonnay Jenkins, (his latest squeeze/class hottie since Year 8, when her boobs inflated to 34 C), who looked like she was sucking a wasp.  

‘I know you’d rather have your friend here than me.’ Raven met my eyes. Hers were an oddly dark blue, almost navy, with the sort of long, thick lashes that don’t need falsies or mascara, and tidy natural brows. ‘But I can’t help being glad to get a place at Goldthorpe, it looks like a great school, and I’ll do my best to fit in. My favourite subjects are languages and geography, and my least favourite are algebra and calculus. I like athletics and swimming and gym, but I’m rubbish at team sports and anything involving balls,’ she paused for the predictable sniggers, ‘so don’t ask me to play tennis, either.

‘I can play guitar though, and I love all sorts of music, particularly folk, jazz and world, and all sorts of animals, particularly cats. The qualities I prize most in people are kindness, honesty and a good sense of humour, and the faults I despise most are cruelty, greed, and selfishness. My greatest fear is that humans will wreck the planet for every other species, and my greatest ambition is to do something about it. So I’d like to study earth science and politics, and be an ambassador for some big organisation like Greenpeace. Or,’ Raven grinned, showing lovely straight white teeth, not like my ugly metal mouthful, ‘become Britain’s first Green Prime Minister.

‘My favourite place on Earth is at home with Mum in our new house, and the people I’d most like to have round for dinner are Greta Thunberg, Jeremy Corbyn, and Sir David Attenborough. And you, of course.’ She grinned again round the whole room. ‘I’m fifteen next Sunday, Mum’s throwing me a big birthday party, and you’re all invited to come.’

‘Yay!’ Jake Adams did a drum-roll on his desk. ‘Party time!’

Suddenly everyone was clapping, me included. Raven transformed on the spot into a Hollywood starlet, eyelashes fluttering, hands clasped to her chest then flung wide, bowing low, milking it. You could practically see the spotlight and hear the crowd roar. Then everyone laughed, while Baldy gave her the eagle eye.

‘Well done, Raven. I can see you’d be an asset to Westminster… and you certainly would be to my drama group. Right then, go sit yourself down.’ He gestured to the only free chair. ‘I know I can trust Eloise to take good care of you, and we need to crack on.’

As she neared the desk Raven met my eyes, the corner of her mouth pulling down in a tiny grimace. She pointed. ‘May I?’

‘Oh, yeah, sorry.’ I grabbed my bag and hung it on the back of my own chair. She took hers – a battered brown leather thing that looked older than my dad – off her shoulder, hung it on the back of Fi’s, and sat down in a waft of something gorgeous that made my stomach boing again.

‘Thanks, Eloise,’ she whispered, smiling. ‘Cool name.’

I smiled too. ‘Not as cool as Raven Moonchild.’

‘It’s Moon-hyphen-Childe,’ she hissed back, frowning ever so slightly.

Nice one, Ellie. Piss off your new deskie in one easy sentence, why don’t you? ‘Sorry,’ I muttered, instantly scarlet. I couldn’t say more because Baldy was calling up the Year 10 master timetable and unlocking the stationery cupboard. (I’d nearly fainted in Year 7 when I first saw a six-day timetable and thought we had to come to school on Saturdays. Then when I discovered how they work, I liked the way it mixes the weeks up and stops you getting so bored, although Mum was forever moaning that she couldn’t keep track of when to wash and iron my sports kit).

‘OK, 10 BT, you know the drill,’ he said. ‘Let’s get that well-oiled machine into gear!’

The front row – Linsey Ackland, Jake Adams, Josh Brown, Tamsin Bryant, (lucky cow), Janey Collins, Tom Cooper, Caz Drury and Zack Edmonds – filed up one by one for stuff to hand out and began working up and down the aisles without jostling past or bumping into each other, and putting things down properly, no tossing or slapping, finishing with their own desks then one by one, sitting back down. The rest of us started filling in Name/Class No. labels with new black biros and sticking them on new white General ring-binders, (which we’d have plastered with graffiti and more interesting stickers by half-term).

Raven leaned close to whisper a rush of goosebumps down my neck. ‘Wow! Great timing. It’s like watching a ceilidh.’

‘Mm.’ I’d seen and done it a thousand times, so I wasn’t that impressed. I just inhaled and felt giddy, partly from relief that she couldn’t be that cross or she wouldn’t be speaking, and partly from her woody, earthy – almost mouldy – herby, heady scent. ‘What is that smell?’ I blurted aloud. ‘Is it you, or your clothes?’ Another nice one – if we were being graded on Making Polite Conversation, I’d be heading for a big fat F.

Luckily no-one else heard – like us, they were busily buzzing, popping binders open and shut, stuffing plastic pockets with rough-work paper, and loading them in between coloured card separators. And Raven only said, ‘Both,’ as if she didn’t mind at all, then reached into her ugly bag, brought out a little brown bottle and showed me the label. Clarity, I read, in pretty, curly handwriting with little flowers inked around. 

 ‘Hold out your wrist.’ I did. She unscrewed the black pipette lid and dripped on an oily drop. ‘Now rub them together, warm it up.’

I rubbed hard, buried my nose in between and sniffed deep. ‘Ooh… mmm… it’s gorgeous.

‘Yes, it’s my favourite – frankincense, sandalwood, patchouli, bergamot and clary sage.’ Raven put the top back on and held the bottle out to me. ‘You can keep it if you like.’

‘No! Seriously?’

‘Yes, seriously. We’ve got tons at home. Mum’s big into aromatherapy, making her own perfumes and soap and stuff.’

‘Oh. Well then, um, thanks very much.’ I slipped Clarity into my desk, feeling guilty now for hating Raven on sight when she was turning out to be so nice. I tried being nice in return and said, ‘I love your ring. It’s really striking.’ It had struck me because we weren’t allowed to wear jewellery at school, only plain gold or silver studs if you had pierced ears (I didn’t), because of Health & Safety. And this was a proper signet ring, round and flat with a keyhole shape where her finger showed through. It reminded me vaguely of something… just as Raven herself reminded me vaguely of someone. ‘I’m surprised they let you keep it on, though.’

Peering closer, I spotted two engraved capital Ms, and suddenly it clicked. It wasn’t a keyhole, it was a logo, a child’s head and shoulders silhouetted against a full moon. I gasped, ‘Moonchild Music!’ One of my favourite singers was on that label. ‘Oh my God! You’re not related to Gray Childe, are you?’ That was who she reminded me of – his face had been all over the news. ‘Is he your dad?’

Raven’s eyes bugged wide. ‘SSHHH!’ she hissed through clenched teeth, twisting the ring, turning the Moonchild’s face into her palm.

Oh my God. Not again. ‘Why?’ I asked weakly. ‘What’s the matter? What did I say?’

She shook her head. ‘I can’t tell you. Not here. Not now.’

Not that we had time to talk. Baldy got us filling in timetables, with the core subjects we did together – English Lang/Lit, Maths (ugh), French, Art, Gen Studs, Rel Studs, and Sport – already printed on, for us to add our GCSE options round with our new felt-tips, a different colour for each subject. I felt a bit disappointed to see Raven pick out blue for Bio, cherry for Chem, and pink for Phys. I was using dark green for Geog, light green for Germ, and brown for Hist, (I suppose they couldn’t find a colour beginning with H), because I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do when I left GSA, I just knew that it wouldn’t be science. But I was pleased Day 1 gave us double Lit first (yay!) here in our homeroom, then break, then French till lunch in the Language Lab next door – a nice, easy way to slide into term. And Raven was pleased when Row 2 started handing round our lavender Lit binders for Period 1, plus stuff to stuff them with, and well-thumbed copies of our Set Novel (Classics).

She pounced on it. ‘Far From the Madding Crowd? Awesome!’

My eyebrows shot up. ‘You’ve read it?’

‘Oh yes. And seen the film versions. Mum’s a total Thomas Hardy freak, we read the most famous ones together while she was dragging me and Dad round ‘Hardy’s Wessex.’ At least, she dragged Dad. I thought it was ace. We went to Stonehenge – that crops up in Tess – and Salisbury and Winchester, and all sorts of other lovely old places where the stories are set. Anyway, there’s a chapter,’ she began leafing through, ‘where the anti-hero’s showing off to the heroine, trying to seduce her with his sword- yes, page 238, ‘Hollow Amid the Ferns.’ It’s pretty sexy for late nineteenth century, you should read it-’

‘Ahem!’ Mr Theobald interrupted. I went bright red, realising the whole class had gone quiet, listening, waiting, but Baldy seemed more amused than cross. ‘All in good time, Raven! Meanwhile, since you’re such a Hardy fan, after I’ve given the intro you can start us off reading aloud from Chapter 1.’

This was Baldy’s way. He never called us alphabetically, and you never knew if he’d stop you after a paragraph or a page, so you had to follow the reader and not go to sleep because you could be next any second. But at least we could read from our desks instead of the front, which meant I went less red and cooled down quicker. And Gabriel Oak sounded like a good guy, if a bit of a boring hero, (which I guessed he must be because he’s the first person mentioned, which usually means someone’s important).

When we’d all taken a turn and the chapter was finished, Baldy put our homework questions up on the screen for us to copy into our binders. Then it was our row’s turn to go to the stationery cupboard. He must’ve seen her panicky face because he said to Raven, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll manage. Just tag on behind Eloise, take your time, and mind you don’t fall over anyone.’

He gave me a stack of Set Plays: William Shakespeare, Henry IV Part 1. I groaned inside. That sounded seriously heavy. But when we sat down again, Raven looked happy, so I said, ‘Don’t tell me you’ve read this as well. No-one reads Shakespeare for fun.’

She giggled. ‘I know what you mean. But the history plays are quite fun, actually. They’ve got bits of real history in them – what people thought at the time, anyway, or what Shakespeare thought Queen Elizabeth wanted to hear – and some truly awesome speeches. We did H4 1 and 2 last year at the Grammar, and there’s a part- brr!’ Raven broke off, rubbing her arms. ‘I come out in goosepimples just thinking about it, I love it so much I learned it by heart-’

Baldy, who’d been handing round Glossary sheets to explain the weird words, went back to the front and clapped his hands. ‘Right, folks – time for a dash of your favourite Billy Shakespoke.’ There was a chorus of groans and barfing sounds, mainly from the boys. ‘Oh, come on. You know you love it really. And to get us in the mood, would anyone care to perform a party piece from our last foray into Elizabethan theatre? Perhaps Daniel could show us his Bottom.’

Danny Thomas (class clown) muddled through a speech from our Year 9 end-of-term production Midsummer Night’s Dream – he’s a pain at times, but he can be very funny. (I’d quite enjoyed Dream because I only had to be prompter, so I could hide in the wings where it didn’t matter if I stayed bright red the whole way through). Then Raven’s left hand neighbour, Fi’s and my friend Libby Lyons, did a snip of Titania, Queen of the Fairies, with Jake Adams as her King Oberon.

‘Well done!’ said Baldy. ‘OK, let’s leave comedy now and turn to history. Raven, I gather you read Henry IV at your previous school,’ he must’ve been earwigging, ‘and there’s a part you’re particularly fond of. Would you like to share it with the class?’

‘Oh. Um, yes, sir.’ Raven took Henry with her to the front, leafing through for the place. ‘It’s this bit where the nobles are talking about the Prince of Wales and his household coming, ‘All furnish’d, all in arms, all plumed like estridges-’ She held the book open for show, but I could tell she was reciting, not reading; and when she came to, ‘I saw young Harry with his beaver on, his cuisses on his thighs, gallantly armed, rise from the ground like feather’d Mercury,’ her face was glowing with hero-worship and she had such love and admiration in her voice that suddenly I saw him too, armour shining in the sun, vaulting lightly onto his snorting horse, making it prance and wheel around to show off what a good rider he was, and felt myself come out in goosepimples and get a proud, painful lump in my throat because he was my Prince Hal too, riding bravely off to war, and I wanted to find out what happened to him, whether he survived, and I got quite excited and thought that maybe Shakespeare wasn’t so bad after all.

No-one said much after that because we had to listen to Baldy explain the plot, and who Henry IV was, and that in Shakespeare’s time old people still talked about him because they’d lost grandfathers and great-grandfathers fighting for or against him. Then he checked to see if we’d understood, (Raven never put her hand up, but if he asked her something, she always knew the answer).

Then the bell went, and as soon as he said we could go, she jumped up. ‘Please can you show me where the loos are. Eloise? I’m bursting for a pee.’

I hurried her off to the nearest before it filled up with Year 11s trying to smoke out of the window, but she stopped me at the door. ‘I don’t really want to go. I just wanted to escape before- oh, you know, people started Getting To Know Me, asking questions I don’t feel like answering.’ She smiled. ‘So go on then, show me some ropes. What do you normally do at break-time?’

Right on cue, my stomach grumbled. I’d felt too sick to eat any breakfast and I was suddenly starving. So I took her to the tuck counter in the canteen and was reaching for my usual mega-Mars Bar when Raven said, ‘You don’t want to eat that.’

I went bright red. ‘Why not?’

‘Because you’re fat enough already.’ That was what I expected to hear, or something like. Instead, Raven gave me a Look.

‘Seriously? Because it’s poison! Non-recyclable plastic full of palm oil and nasty chemicals – I mean, have you ever actually read the label?’ She shuddered. ‘Ugh. I wouldn’t eat it if you paid me. I’d rather have a banana. They’re much healthier.’

‘Mm. I suppose.’ Reluctantly, I picked a ripe one and a pack of prawn cocktail Pringles.

‘Nah, you don’t want those, either.’ She took the tube from me and put it back. ‘I’ve got something you’ll like better, I promise.’

Not feeling very happy with Raven, I led her out into the little quad where we ate our packed lunches on nice days, because today was my favourite sort of September, apple-crisp, the trees impossibly bright gold and burnt-orange against a brilliant blue sky, with odd leaves drifting down in ones and twos and an exciting pungent whiff from the caretaker’s bonfire, one of my all-time favourite smells. (Although that might’ve been Year 12 sneaking a spliff in the bike-sheds hardly anyone used any more, at least not for bikes). She headed for the table under the birch tree which nobody liked because of pigeons, dumped her bag down among the white splats and unbuckled the flap. Sitting opposite wolfing my banana, I saw a name inked inside in faded blue, not hers, and read it upside down: M-L Moulin.

‘Help yourself.’ Raven unpacked two brown paper bags and a stainless-steel flask. ‘Mum always gives me way too much.’

Dubious, I peeped into the bag with the grease-spots. Hmm. Funny-coloured crisps. ‘What are these?’

‘Peppered carrot, sweet potato, parsnip and beetroot.’ Raven scrunched into a purply-red one. ‘Yum! They’re the best.’

I found I preferred parsnip; but they were all gorgeous, sweet, crunchy with sea-salt and black pepper, and now I was glad I hadn’t wasted my money on Pringles. The other bag was full of dried figs, prunes, raisins, and apple rings, which were good too. So was the yoghurty, minty drink she called lassi, and as we sipped it in turns she asked,

‘What did you think I was going to say to you in the canteen? Your face went all stiff,’ (tactfully, she didn’t mention its colour), ‘like you expected me to bite you.’

I went bright red. Looking down, I was about to say, ‘Oh, nothing.’ Then I looked up again into her eyes, soft with concern, and suddenly it seemed pointless to hold back. So I told her exactly what, and why. ‘I knew the second you walked in that you’d be put next to me and I’d be OFF again, same as with Fi-’

‘Off again?’ Raven frowned – prettily, of course. ‘What do you mean, off?’

‘Obligatory Fat Friend. Because she was so cute. You know, blonde, petite,’ I drew Fi in the air, half a head shorter than me and half as wide, ‘or UFF. You can guess what that stands for. It’s what some of the older lads used to call us. As in, ‘Lookout, guys, here comes Fi McD… and She’s OFF!’ Or Laurel and Hardy. Or Little and Large.’

Raven’s face sort of froze. Then she scowled. That wasn’t pretty at all, her eyes went so black and cold I felt almost frightened. ‘That’s horrible.’ She reached across and squeezed my hand, and I noticed the Moonchild had worked its way back to the right place. ‘Well, they’ll never say it round me, Ellie. Trust me on that.’

‘Thanks, Raven.’ I squeezed back gratefully, though I wasn’t sure how she could stop them. Then I blurted again. ‘I’m really glad now you’ve come, I thought it was going to be awful having someone else in Fi’s place but it’s actually really nice having a new deskie, much better than sitting on my own. And I’m sorry I upset you asking about your dad, it was stupid of me, and for getting your name wrong and thinking you’d be a snobby stuck-up swot.’

‘It’s OK. I’m not upset, and I don’t blame you. Teachers can be so clueless. Talking about you as if you’re not there, bigging you up, boasting about you – it drives you insane.’ (I wouldn’t know, I never had the problem). ‘They think they’re encouraging people but they’re not, it’s obnoxious and embarrassing and stupid because it just sets you up to be hated. I mean, when Doctor Bates was yapping on, you didn’t think ‘ooh, lucky us, a clever newbie from a top London school, must try really hard to keep up with her,’ did you?’

‘No,’ I giggled. ‘I hated you.’

‘There you go. But you can’t exactly tell teachers to fuck off, can you?’ Sly little dimples appeared in her cheeks. ‘Not unless you want to get expelled.’

I gasped, not just from the F-word. ‘Oh my God! You’ve been expelled?’

‘Yep. From my poxy boarding school.’

‘Oh my God, Raven! How did it happen? What did you say?’

‘Well, we’d just come back from Christmas vac – and I really didn’t want to, but Dad made me because he’d upfronted a full year’s fees to get me into the stupid place – and in assembly the Head hauls me up on stage and starts giving it this,’ she made her hand look like a quacking beak, ‘about me getting a special prize for getting 100% in French for the whole of my first term, and what a shining example I was blah blah bleurgh. And I mutter, ‘This is such bullshit.’ And he says, ‘What did you say?’ So I say it again louder, and he tells me to go straight to his office, and I tell him to go eff himself. I didn’t just say ‘eff,’ obviously. Then I tell the school they’re a bunch of spoilt, shallow, worthless wankers who can all go eff themselves too, and the Porsches they rode in on.’ Raven grinned. ‘It was sweet, totally worth getting ragged out by Dad when he came to pick me up. And Mum thought it was hilarious. Dad was even angrier when they only refunded half his money because Spring Term had already started. Serve him right, I never wanted to go there in the first place. Ha, ha, karma.’ Grinning, she waved the Moonchild at me. ‘It’s why I’m wearing this. I forgot to take it off before hockey – God, I hate team sports! – and some fool cracked my finger with her stick, and now I can’t get it over the knuckle. And it was Mum’s wedding ring, so I’m not having it cut off – the finger or the ring.’

Then the bell went BRRRRRRING! and my stomach went boing because we’d have to walk to the Language Lab past the old Sixth Form Block where the Year 13 to 14s lived, join the maroon streams pouring into and out of various doors, and I’d be OFF again. Only something weird happened instead. Of course, everyone stared at Raven because her face was strange as well as stunning – I saw the Lennox Lads actually stop dead, twin ginger heads swivelling to watch her go by – and everyone stared at me because I was with her. And we got smiles and waves from people I knew in other classes, and odd smirks and sniggers, and bitchy looks from some of the older girls, but no-one said a word except ‘Hey, Ellie!’

 It was even weirder when we went inside. The corridor babble rose and fell, voices hushing as we passed, chattering log jams parting as if an invisible bubble was forcing them gently aside. I glanced sidelong at Raven, walking tall, confident, radiating authority, acknowledging the stares with tiny nods as if she was the Queen. ‘What’s happening- what are you doing?’ I hissed from the corner of my mouth. ‘Are you playing Prince Batty?’

‘No, I’m Prince Hal.’ She favoured a fit Year 11 with a small smile. ‘And you’re Hotspur. So act like him – swagger!’

I giggled, feeling silly. ‘I can’t. I don’t know how.’

‘Then copy me.’ Raven put an arm round my round shoulders, pulled them square, and spoke in the other Prince’s voice. ‘Just fake it till you make it, my dear. Fake it till you make it!’

In French, re-christened Corbelle by Mlle Joubert because it made conversation easier when our names sounded French, (mine didn’t need to change, apart from adding accents), Raven had to introduce herself again. She kept it simple: ‘Mon nom est Corbelle, j’ai quatorze ans, j’ai les cheveux noirs et les yeux bleus, j’aime bien les animaux et la musique, j’habite chez Maman à la Maison Cachée’ and so on.

Then we all had to plug ourselves in. I enjoyed French Language, though I wasn’t so keen on the Lab; hearing my own voice in my ears embarrassed me, much more than speaking in normal class, and most of all when the Joob listened in and tried to get me to say my Rs properly. She told us that this year we were Going To France, with modules on Getting Around: Buying Tickets, Booking Rooms, Ordering Meals, Buying In Shops etc, and that today we’d be Visiting Paris. Slides flashed up showing Places To Go, while the narrators Jacques and Jacqueline took turns telling us about them, and we repeated their words floating white across the screen. I couldn’t tell how Raven was getting on until the bell went and we heard, ‘OK, allez déjeuner, tout le monde! Au revoir,’ in our ears. Then as everyone started chattering and grabbing bags and filing out, I saw the Joob beckon her over and my stomach went boing. Usually, this wasn’t good.

‘We’re off for lunch, El,’ said Libby, as I dawdled with my pencil-case. ‘You coming?’

‘Um- no,’ I said. ‘I ought to wait for Raven.’

Libby and Caro made faces at each other. ‘Well, we’re not waiting,’ said Libby. ‘We’re starving.’

‘Yeah,’ said Caro. ‘Leave her. She can find her own parth to the carnteen if she’s so bloody clever.’

‘Um.’ I dithered. ‘Yeah, but Baldy told me to take care of her, so perhaps I’d better-’

‘Feh – whatever. Just don’t blame us if the table’s full when you get there. C’mon, Lib,’ Caro said. ‘Let Miss Goody Two-Shoes wait for Miss Poshy-Pants.’

I trailed behind as they giggled out, then hung round the Lab door to earwig. If Raven was getting told off, it was in French too fast and blurry for me to understand, with a weird accent that made Oui sound like Oo-weh. I could only catch odd words, Rive Gauche, apartement, arrondissement, and wondered if they were swapping addresses. Then they parted with French kisses (on both cheeks, I mean); and as she came out, waved off by a beaming Mlle Joubert, Raven shrugged at me.

‘So shoot me, I’m bilingual,’ she said as we set off down the corridor. ‘Mum’s French, I was born in Paris, my grandies still live on the Left Bank, and I’ve been going on hols there forever. Which is why getting 100% in French is no big deal for me, which is why I went ballistic in that assembly because the Head knew perfectly well, Dad had banged on about it enough trying to get me in there. You won’t tell anyone though.’ Raven’s eyes were serious. ‘You know why. Just like you won’t tell anyone about Gray Childe. Will you, Ellie?’ I shook my head, liking her more and more for not being a show-off, and feeling sorry for her because of her dad. ‘Where are we going, anyway?’ she added as we passed the Assembly Hall and Sports Block. ‘I thought the canteen was back there.’

‘It is. But I need to go out to the shop,’ (the tuck counter was closed at lunchtime to try and make us eat a proper meal), I forgot my sandwiches and it was too late to sign up for school dinners.’ Then I remembered what she’d said about honesty. ‘Um- actually, I didn’t forget. I just felt too rubbish this morning to even think about food.’ I didn’t now, though, and my mouth watered as I tried to decide whether I most wanted something from the chippy or a Cornish pastie and chocolate Swiss roll from the baker’s next door. Then I suddenly felt sick again, because when I slipped my hand into my blazer pocket all I could feel was a 50p left over from last time I wore it, not the fiver Mum had left on the little hall table where we keep the keys, where I could pick it up on my way out. Oh, great. I dug in every other pocket, slowed down to look in my bag. No joy. Cup of soup from the drinks machine, then. ‘Um- sorry, Raven, we’ll have to go back, I actually have forgotten my lunch money.’

She shrugged. ‘No worries, we can share my pack-up. Let’s go and have a picnic on the playing field.’

We cut between the hard tennis courts and came out onto the fields, which have trees and tall hedges all round to keep in wild balls and screen them from the road along the top, and a few benches round the sides where you can sit to re-lace your boots or wait to be called in to play. We didn’t bother with those, we just picked a nice sunny spot and sat down on our blazers, turned inside out in case of grass stains, and took our jumpers off too because it was so warm.

Raven pulled out a long oblong tin from the bottom of her bag and opened it. One end was filled by a light brown box, like a shell, and the other by a banana curled round a pear, with brown paper bags tucked between. Pulling the box apart, she shook half its contents into the top and handed it to me. ‘Here you go, Mum’s version of Waldorf salad. It’s better than the recipe, she puts toasted seeds and pine-nuts in as well.’

‘What are those?’ I pointed to some crinkly brown chunks among the chopped celery, apple, and grape.

‘Marinated tofu.’ She popped a piece into her mouth. ‘Try some, it’s delish.’

I did, and it was. But I couldn’t see how to eat the salad without getting mayonnaise down my new shirt and getting killed by Mum, so I said, ‘Um- have you got a fork or something I can borrow?’

Raven grinned. ‘You don’t need one.’ To my surprise she opened her mouth wide, took a huge bite of the box and started crunching. ‘Hemp,’ she said when she could talk again. ‘Place Mum buys them does edible plates and bowls too. Brilliant idea, isn’t it?’

I nibbled the edge, which reminded me of crispbread or a savoury Cornetto. ‘Mm – yeah.’ It was too chewy to say much more until we’d finished. Then as Raven gave me her pear because I’d already had a banana, she punched me in the stomach with a question I hadn’t expected.

‘So what happened to your friend Fiona? She’s not dead, is she?’

Boing. More of a clench, actually, as if icy fingers had just grabbed my insides and squeezed hard. ‘No, but she almost might as well be!’ I blurted. Tactless, but I was suddenly too upset to think what I was saying. ‘She’s in Canada. Five thousand miles away! And she didn’t want to go but she had to because of her dad’s stupid promotion, and she used to live round the corner, and we saw each other every day- I mean, every day, our mums took turns feeding us on school nights, and at weekends she usually stayed at ours because of her brother.’ (Eight-year-old Jamie, ‘lively’ to his mum, was ‘a total pain’ to me and Fi, always messing with her stuff and barging into her room when we were in there, unless she remembered to wedge her door shut). ‘But now we can’t even talk when we feel like because of the time difference, only for an hour on Sundays!’ The hand squeezed again as I remembered I couldn’t text either until I got home and re-charged my phone.

‘Oh. Sorry, Ellie.’ Raven squeezed my hand, which felt much nicer. ‘You must miss her a lot… had you always been besties?’

‘No, we went to different junior schools, I only met her when we started here. We were both shy and scared stiff, and sort of clung together even when we’d settled in and got to know other people. So yeah, I miss her, and everything’s been horrible since we found out.’ My eyes filled as I remembered that Wednesday night. I’d been at Fi’s as usual till our nine o’clock curfew and was just getting ready for bed when she came racing round, banging on our front door in hysterics – like I was, when I finally understood what she was trying to tell me. Ugh. ‘You know, her folks didn’t say a word about Canada at first. Not a word! Fi thought her dad was just away on business when he went for his interviews, even the second time when her mum went with him, because it was no big deal, she often did,’ I grimaced, ‘and if they were just off for the evening, a works dinner or something, me and Fi used to babysit Jamie. Anyway, they said they didn’t want to upset her for nothing in case he didn’t get it, so they waited till it was official, then announced they were emigrating, and she wouldn’t be coming back to GSA this term – two days before we broke up!

‘It was awful at school for the rest of that week. Obviously, her mum told the Prince but Fi had to tell the class, and she started crying again, and got sent to Batty’s office to have a cup of tea and calm down, then on her last day we had a special assembly with a slide show about Canada, and Fi had to stand up at the end while everyone clapped and said goodbye.’

Raven rolled her eyes. ‘Oh my God.’

‘Yeah, and all the grown-ups trying to be kind, cheer us up, saying what a great country, what a wonderful opportunity, you’ll soon make new friends blah blah, and Jamie practically bouncing off the walls because he can’t wait… and then we only had four weeks left, and that was all packing, and getting rid of stuff she couldn’t take with her, and helping her help her folks get the house ready to sell.’ I gulped. ‘The only good bit was the massive leaving party they threw in town. Everybody went, even some of the teachers – it would’ve been brilliant if it hadn’t been so sad. And that was it – they left next day to get settled in before Fi’s term started on the twenty-eighth, and her dad started his new job on September the first.’

‘What does he do?’

I didn’t really know. I wasn’t sure Fi did either, although she’d tried to explain. ‘He’s something called a Logistics Manager, and he works- I mean, used to work, in Leeds for a company called CanCom. They organise and televise big concerts and sports events.’ I’d been quite excited at first when Fi told me that, but her dad never got to meet famous stars, his job was doing important but boring stuff behind the scenes, like making sure the stadium ordered enough toilet roll for fifty thousand people. ‘And their head office has just opened some new section in Montreal, and they picked Mr McD to go and Logistics Manage it – worse luck for Fi and me.’

‘Oh my God.’ Some of the pink had gone out of Raven’s cheeks. ‘I don’t believe- this is so freaky.’


‘CanCom Montreal. Their new section – It’s called NAMCom, North American Music Company, and it’s going to produce music for Canadian and American bands as well as promoting them and organising gigs and stuff. I know, because it stands for North American MoonChild as well… it was CanCom that Mum sold the business to.’


‘Uh, yeah. See what I mean about freaky? Fiona’s over there, and we’re here, and it’s all sort of our fault. Sorry, Ellie.’ My mouth opened and shut like a goldfish. ‘It’ll be OK, though,’ Raven added hastily. ‘Mum says everything happens for a reason, and maybe this has happened because we needed to meet. I mean, I know I can’t replace Fi and I’d never try, but I don’t know a soul here my own age, and I could really use a friend I can trust, so maybe I could- well, cling to you for a bit?’ Her eyes appealed, softly blue. ‘If you don’t mind. If you don’t hate me too much now.’

I still couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Then suddenly my stomach thawed, and a huge, melty rush of relief bloomed on my cheeks, making them feel (for once) just warm, and pleasantly pink. I didn’t want to be Ellie No-Mates, or odd one out with Libby and Caro, and it was much too late to hate Raven because the thought of being friends with her made me feel better than I had for weeks. So to tease her, I looked away, stuck my nose in the air.

‘Mm. Whatever. But Baldy told me to take care of you, so I’ll have to suck it up.’ Then I poked her in the ribs. Raven poked me back with her banana and caught a tender spot that creased me up. Then we had a poking fight and giggled ourselves silly. ‘It’s not really your fault though, is it?’ I said when I got my breath back. ‘I mean, it’s not like your mum tried to mess up our lives on purpose. Besides,’ I looked down, suddenly shy, ‘mine doesn’t feel so messed up now.’

‘Whew. Thanks, Ellie – that means a lot.’ Raven unzipped her weapon and chomped off the end. ‘I’d explain why, but it’s a long story- oh, I know! Come back to ours for tea and I’ll tell you the whole thing! Mum’ll be really glad I’ve started making friends already – and she won’t believe it when she finds out who you are, and how we’ve come to meet.’

My mum was glad too, I could tell by her voice when I borrowed Raven’s phone to ask if it was OK. And I was practically sick with excitement because of what Raven might tell me, the gory details that hadn’t made it into the papers or gossip mags, and I couldn’t wait- which must be exactly why she didn’t want people going on about her, or knowing who her dad was, because they’d be just as nosy as me – which made me feel so ashamed I had to stuff my mouth with her pear to stop it saying anything stupid.

‘It’s not like it’s a state secret,’ Raven went on as if reading my mind. ‘I don’t care if people find out gradually, just not till after my party. I want them to get to know me as me first, without sucking up to Gray Childe’s kid for what they think they can get or hating me for things I can’t help and never wanted in the first place. And you will come, won’t you, next Sunday?’ She raised a neat eyebrow. ‘It’ll be brilliant, just like the old days. You’ll love it.’

‘Um- yeah, look, about your party… are you sure you want to invite everyone? I mean, the whole class?’

Raven’s eyebrow went higher. ‘Yes, why not? It wouldn’t be fair otherwise.’

 ‘Um, well-’ I hesitated. It seemed only right to warn her, though I didn’t like being a grass- then again, Chard could be a real bitch and she was going out with the lad who made my stomach go boing, so I didn’t feel I owed her anything. ‘It’s just that- well, the Year 12 lads let Josh Brown and Jake Adams and Chardonnay Jenkins share their spliffs in the bike sheds because she shows them her Wonderbra. With her chest in, I mean,’ I mimed unbuttoning my shirt, ‘she doesn’t just bring one to school. So they’ll probably try and sneak some weed or alcopops or something in so they can sneak off somewhere and get smashed.’

‘Oh. Thanks for the heads-up, I’ll tell Mum.’ The sly dimples reappeared in Raven’s cheeks. ‘I’m sure we can handle a few teenage stoners. And shall I tell her I’ve had my first RSVP?’

My braces flashed in a big steely grin. ‘Yes, if she’s catering!’ By now we’d finished the last bits of dried fruit, drained the last dregs of lassi, and split a yummy cherry-almond flapjack. I felt nicely full, but not over-stuffed and sleepy like I often did in the afternoon, and very grateful that Raven had saved me from starving, going home to be told off for forgetting my money, or worst of all, getting a cardboard cup of powdery lumps from the drinks machine with my lonely 50p. ‘Yeah, thanks for sharing your lunch, I really enjoyed it.’

‘My pleasure. We can do it every day if you like. I never manage to eat the whole lot on my own, no matter how hungry I am.’ Raven folded up the paper bags, put them back in the tin with her empty flask, put the tin back in her bag, and her sweater back on. ‘And now please can you show me where the Science Block is? I’ve got Double Physics there after registration.’

‘No problem. But don’t worry if you forget the way, you can always follow Caro. She does Phys too.’ I shuddered. ‘And Chem and Advanced Maths.’

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:,, 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

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

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-”


“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.”

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


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 – I hope you’ll agree, and enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed editing it!

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.”


“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-


“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.”


“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-”


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.”

The White House Farm Murders

In the early hours of 5th August, 1985, a horrible gunshot massacre took place at White House Farm in Essex. The killer apparently planned to despatch householders June and Nevill Bamber, and their six-year-old twin grandsons Nicholas and Daniel Caffell, asleep in their beds. As a precaution, the kitchen phone was left off the hook to disable the upstairs extensions and prevent calls for help. Then, using a ten-shot rifle fitted with a sound-moderator, (‘silencer’), a single close-range shot was fired into the head of each child. Both died without waking. The remaining eight rounds were emptied into their grandparents. Both initially survived, obliging the assailant to run downstairs to reload, pursued by a badly injured Nevill Bamber. While June, shocked and bleeding, struggled to reach the telephone on her husband’s bedside table, he was in the kitchen, fighting desperately for possession of the gun. Struck repeatedly with the barrel, he tripped and fell awkwardly by the Aga, where he was executed by four shots to the head. Rifle fully re-loaded, the murderer returned to the master bedroom and killed June Bamber with three shots to the head and neck, then pumped another six bullets into the twins. The rifle was subsequently found lying on the body of Sheila Caffell, the Bambers’ adopted daughter and mother of the boys, who had died from two shots to the throat.     

Local police were called to the scene by Sheila’s adoptive brother, Jeremy Bamber – according to whom Nevill had phoned around 3 am to say that she was ‘going mad with a gun.’ Officers arrived braced for an armed siege, only to find an apparent murder-suicide. The resulting investigation was biased towards supporting the senior officer’s unshakeable belief that Sheila Caffell was responsible – notwithstanding her unusual double wound, the absence of trace evidence/blood other than her own on her nightdress, the paucity of her fingerprints on the weapon, and complete lack thereof on the bullets. Opportunities were therefore missed to seek vital evidence, such as blood- and gunshot residue-spattered garments worn to commit the murders, or signs that she had ‘ritually cleansed’ herself after shooting her family. Furthermore, the question of whether it was physically possible for her wounds to have been self-inflicted was – and never could be – convincingly answered, because the bodies of Sheila and her parents were cremated soon after the inquest.  However, forensic evidence suggests otherwise, since the rifle had to be re-loaded again, and the sound-muffler removed, to inflict her second, fatal wound.

Today, matters would be handled very differently – partly as a result of the painful lessons learned by police after the debacle of White House Farm. Firearms involvement would mean an automatic presumption of homicide, and the victims’ bodies would be retained accordingly. A thorough search of the crime scene would reveal clues overlooked at the time, including the bloodstained sound-moderator put away in a downstairs cupboard, and Nevill’s bedside telephone hidden under a pile of papers in the kitchen. Ballistics, forensics and blood-spatter experts would minutely reconstruct the course of the shootings. Jeremy Bamber, as the last person to see his parents, sister and nephews alive, face-to-face, and having ample means, motive and opportunity, would be the prime suspect. His clothing and body would be examined for trace evidence and signs of injury from fighting with Nevill. His car, cottage, (where June’s bicycle was found), and the likely routes between his home and the farm, would all be searched; as would the home of his then girlfriend Julie Mugford, who might have told the full truth from the outset rather than risk being charged as an accessory. DNA analysis of the sound-muffler might conclusively show the presence of Sheila’s blood, thus (since it was not found with her body) proving that she was murdered. Conceivably, faced with such a strong prosecution case, Jeremy Bamber might have pleaded guilty (and would probably be time-served, rehabilitated and free by now); otherwise, the weight of evidence would likely have ensured a unanimous verdict from the jury, and provided better closure for the bereaved families and friends.  

As it was, a month later and following the break-up of their relationship, Julie Mugford cracked under the strain of a terrible secret. In a shocking statement to police, she revealed how her ex had discussed plans to kill his family, and had long known a way to enter and leave the apparently secure farmhouse. Her information, combined with additional physical evidence, led to further investigations by a new, more rigorous team and the subsequent arrest of Jeremy Bamber; tried and convicted of all five murders by a majority 10:2 verdict in 1986, he was duly sentenced to life imprisonment.

Bamber has stayed in the public eye ever since, protesting his innocence, backed by many supporters who believe he has suffered a gross miscarriage of justice. However, his defence has yet to supply any fresh concrete proof, relying instead on nit-picking irrelevances, (like the play of light on a window which caused a twitchy officer to briefly believe he’d seen movement – ‘evidence of life’ – inside the farmhouse), searching for legal loopholes, accusing the police of everything from incompetence (valid, up to a point) to corruption and evidence-tampering, and the prosecution witnesses of being mistaken, if not lying outright.

Most recently, the case came to renewed, wide public attention thanks to a major TV series, White House Farm, starring Freddie Fox as Jeremy Bamber. It fired my own interest to such an extent that I bought Carol Ann Lee’s book on the case to find out what had really happened, and whether the drama had portrayed events accurately (it had).

Having previously read One of Your Own, Lee’s biography of Moors Murderer Myra Hindley, I was not disappointed by The Murders at White House Farm. Just as meticulously researched, scrupulously referenced, and narrated in the same lucid prose, it sets the scene with a prologue describing Colin Caffell’s ominous journey to take Sheila and their sons on what would be their last visit to his former parents-in-law. The main narrative then opens with a family history which goes some way to explain why either of the young Bambers could have been driven to murder: a troubled background of well-intentioned but inadequate parenting, emotional repression, recurrent mental illness, and excessive, controlling religiosity. On the face of it, Nevill and June should have been ideal parents. An attractive, intelligent couple, each had a distinguished war service record and devout Christian faith, and enjoyed a prosperous business, a comfortable home and a well-off middle-class lifestyle. But at the time of their marriage, post-war society was extremely conservative, with any deviation from the norm disapproved of, or even – like homosexuality – illegal. Divorce was frowned upon, as were pre- and extra-marital sex, and illegitimacy was considered so disgraceful that many single women were forced to procure illicit abortions or give up their babies for adoption. Even infertility was a stigma, with childless women the objects of pity, suspicion and scorn, and a pain deeply felt by June when the longed-for babies failed to arrive.

She received medical treatment for the resulting severe depression, which was in some ways exacerbated rather than cured by the adoption of two new-born babies. Although the children were desperately wanted and loved, the Bambers remained painfully conscious that they were not biological parents; and while they enjoyed relaxed, natural relationships with their nieces and nephews, (of which Sheila and Jeremy were deeply jealous), June remained insecure and awkward as a mother. Ever fearful of censure by the adoption agency, she may have raised her daughter and son literally by the book – the notorious Dr Spock method of strictly regimented routines – explaining Sheila’s early memories of being left to cry for hours in her pram in the garden, watched over only by the family dog. And ever anxious to give their children every possible advantage, she and Nevill packed them both off to boarding school at a relatively young age – another baffling rejection to compound the abandonment by their blood-parents. Predictably, both suffered; Jeremy was bullied by his schoolmates as ‘the bastard’ and by his cousins at home as ‘the cuckoo.’ The resulting low self-esteem arguably contributed to Jeremy’s psychopathy and Sheila’s mental breakdown, especially as June’s religiosity increased; dismayed by an increasingly permissive society, she was terrified of the male attention attracted by Sheila’s growing beauty, and applied every kind of pressure to control her daughter’s sexuality (and her son’s, to a lesser degree). Predictably, in their teens, both rebelled against parental strictures and expectations, and struggled to live their own lives – often with painful consequences all round, including an abortion for Sheila and problems thereafter with carrying a baby to term.

The second section examines the eight months from New Year 1985 to the night of the murders, by which time Sheila’s marriage to Colin Caffell had failed and her mental health become precarious, while Jeremy tried to reconcile himself to farm work and eventually succeeding Nevill in the family business. Meanwhile, finding Sheila’s mental state hard to handle, resenting the financial aid June gave to her and the Church, he began thinking, and talking to his girlfriend, about how he might become sole inheritor of the estate. Sheila’s arrival with her sons provided the opportunity he had planned and waited for, and the section closes with a description of the family’s final hours on the evening of 4th August: an argument, causing Nevill and June to sound tense and distracted when talking on the phone; and Jeremy roaring home in his car at 9.30 pm, then phoning Julie to tell her words to the effect, ‘It’s now or never’.

Part Three picks up with Jeremy’s report to police in the early hours of Wednesday 7th August. Allegedly woken by Nevill’s panicked phone-call, abruptly cut off, Bamber rang Julie Mugford at around 3.15 am before calling local police rather than dialling 999. He then drove so slowly that the police overtook him and arrived first at the scene. According to Jeremy, he’d been afraid of what he might find – thereby removing an automatic degree of suspicion, with police to witness that he did not enter the property, find the bodies or tamper with evidence.  Based on his story, the lead officer became so focussed on the murder-suicide scenario – despite peculiarities like the two shots needed to kill Sheila – that he failed to pursue the only other obvious line of enquiry. Luckily, others kept more open minds, working with relatives and uncovering further clues until Jeremy could be arrested and charged on all five counts of murder.

The fourth and final section, from 30th September 1985 to July 2015, covers the trial. Bamber’s defence maintained that Mugford, and other prosecution witnesses who gave evidence of Jeremy’s dislike of his family, were lying, and otherwise relied on some highly doubtful speculations: that Julie Mugford, while visiting White House Farm with Jeremy, had discovered for herself a faulty window which could be locked from the outside by banging the frame; that Sheila Caffell, (only known to have fired a gun once in her life), had developed a proficiency with the murder weapon to the extent of knowing how to fit the sound-moderator, clear a jammed cartridge, and reload repeatedly under stress; that despite the debilitating effects of her medication, she entered a homicidal frenzy so unstoppable that she could overcome the wounded Nevill Bamber in a physical fight, and execute her entire family by shooting them in the head; and finally shot herself not once, but twice, in order to take her own life. Defence witnesses were obliged to concede that none of these things were impossible, no matter how unlikely they seemed individually, or how ludicrously improbable when considered all together. The jury eventually reached a majority verdict of guilty, and the remainder of this short section gives an outline of the aftermath, Jeremy Bamber’s life in prison, and his ongoing campaign for release, steadfastly proclaiming his innocence as the only means of getting what he wanted from the start: family money.

The epilogue rounds off the story with a summary of what happened next to various people whose lives were deeply affected by the tragedy, including Julie Mugford and Colin Caffell (whose impassioned plea for Bamber to remain incarcerated appears as Appendix 2), while Appendix 1 gives the best reconstruction possible, based on all the evidence and expert opinion, of the murders as carried out by Jeremy Bamber.

What the book doesn’t – and has no reason to – do is examine the alternative scenario which Bamber and his defenders would have the world believe: that while her family were sleeping, a deranged Sheila Caffell rose in the small hours, stripped naked, (explaining the absence of high-velocity blood spatter or gunshot residue on her nightgown or any other clothing), went downstairs, loaded the rifle and fitted the sound-moderator – having first put on gloves, since none of her fingerprints were found on the cartridges, and none of her long nails were broken or unduly chipped. Leaving the kitchen phone off the hook, she then crept upstairs to remove her sons from June’s baleful interference, and save her parents from the misery she felt responsible for causing. After failing to kill the adults outright, she fled downstairs and was in the midst of re-loading when Nevill staggered into the kitchen. Shot twice in the mouth and jaw, he nonetheless managed to ring Jeremy, without getting blood on the phone, to say that she had ‘gone crazy’. With the gun partially re-loaded, Sheila (a slender 5’ 7”) then got into a violent fight with her father (a robust 6’ 4”), overturning furniture and taking a gouge out of the Aga surround as she beat him around head and shoulders with the gun-barrel – all without sustaining a single detectable injury herself.

After executing Nevill then fully re-loading, she cleared a jammed cartridge on her way back upstairs, finished off June, and fired six more ‘overkill’ shots into the bodies of Nicholas and Daniel. For some unaccountable reason she then hid Nevill’s bedside phone in the kitchen, ‘ritually cleansed’ and dried herself thoroughly, put her nightwear on, and returned to her parents’ bedroom. Lying on the floor with June’s Bible beside her, she shot herself in the throat with the last bullet. The clumsy shot was not immediately fatal. Sheila recovered, removed the moderator and put it away downstairs, loaded another bullet, returned to the master bedroom, shot herself again under the chin, and died.

It seems incredible that a woman sufficiently disturbed to murder her whole family could be, at the same time, so coldly calculating – and an amazingly good shot under high-stress conditions, hitting a target with all but one bullet. Jeremy Bamber, on the other hand, had learned to shoot at school and was a proficient, experienced marksman, familiar with/having access to a murder weapon purchased at his instigation; he stood to inherit an estate worth more than £1.5 million in today’s money; and knew how to get inside the locked and bolted farmhouse at a time when all the people standing between him and a fortune were together under its roof. He therefore had more cause to lie than any witness, could easily have provoked a family argument to cause tension on the eve of the murders, and fabricated ‘Nevill’s phone-call’ to add plausibility to his account and place the blame on Sheila.

His guilt seems inescapable when Lee’s book is read in conjunction with one of her primary sources, Colin Caffell’s moving memoir In Search of the Rainbow’s End. Like Lee’s book, this is divided into chronological sections, although Caffell’s boundaries are looser and his narrative flows back and forth in time between chapters. In Search opens with forewords from the two editions, (1994 and 2020), and a prologue summarising his early life, meeting and love affair with ‘Bambs’, and impressions of her parents. Part One then begins on 7th August 1984 with the immediate aftermath of the murders, and Caffell’s painful recollections of the last time he saw his ex-wife and sons: Sheila medicated and monosyllabic, vegetarian Daniel afraid of being scolded for not eating his meat, both twins anxious about being forced to kneel and pray – and both so desperate not to be left at White House Farm that they seem to have had premonitions of disaster. A second short section covering the lead-up to Bamber’s arrest describes Jeremy’s grossly inappropriate behaviour, sniggering over (then trying to sell to a tabloid) explicit nude photographs of his late sister, and stripping out the twins’ room in her flat/dumping the contents into bin-bags instead of offering their father the chance to carry out such a sensitive task. Caffell endured the further pain of seeing Sheila’s name dragged through the gutter press with wild and lurid speculation, then the sickening discovery that he had been deceived and bereaved by Jeremy, the brother-in-law who once callously referred to his beloved boys as ‘millstones round his neck.’ The third section continues the story of Colin’s life with and without Sheila, as he strove to come to terms with his overwhelming loss and gradually reached a place of spiritual calm and deep philosophical acceptance. Reserved, ladylike June Bamber emerges as a terrifying ‘house monster’ in a series of disturbing drawings – only described by Lee, but reproduced here – by Daniel Caffell, to illustrate a (sadly forgotten) story. The twins loved, but were also clearly frightened of their grandmother, disliked her preaching and forcing them to pray, and were upset by her distorted mind-set which perceived their naked bodies as ‘dirty’, and the innocent fun of their bathing together as ‘sinful.’ Colin Caffell’s observations flesh out his son’s portrait of a repressed, unhappy woman feverishly pursuing good works to the detriment of her family and health, to atone for her own sterility and the sins of her adopted children; furiously puritanical and beset by harsh concepts of sin and punishment; frequently cruel and manipulative towards Sheila; and unhealthily preoccupied, to the point of obsession, with controlling the sexuality of others while Nevill stood by, a hapless pig-in-the-middle. The toxic emotions Caffell experienced within this ostensibly ‘normal’ middle-class family make it easier to understand why White House Farm became the breeding-ground for a psychosis which resulted in such appalling tragedy. The last two brief sections tie up loose ends, and conclude on a positive note with Colin Caffell, having come through his traumatic ordeal as a stronger, wiser, more deeply enlightened and compassionate person, now happily remarried and established in Cornwall as a successful sculptor and ceramic artist.

Because Caffell writes from personal knowledge rather than objective journalism, his book fills in gaps and answers questions left by Lee. Two highly significant revelations are the reason for Nevill Bamber’s uncharacteristically low mood towards the end of his life, and why he began putting his affairs in order: he feared that Jeremy planned to kill him in a ‘hunting accident’, and may have been compiling a dossier of supporting evidence to present to police; and an anecdote from someone who saw Jeremy trying (and failing) to persuade Sheila to load the new rifle, presumably to get her fingerprints on the ammunition, a clear indication of pre-meditated, first-degree murder (subjects omitted from the trial as hearsay or too prejudicial). Subsequent spiritual revelations suggest that Nevill feared only for himself, not suspecting that other family members were also in danger of death; and whether or not one believes in communication with the spirit world, this is entirely consistent with Nevill’s reported actions and state of mind during his last months.

The combined effect of these two fine publications leaves me firmly convinced that Jeremy Bamber is guilty of the murders at White House Farm. I find it impossible to believe that Sheila Caffell was mentally or physically capable of doing half the extraordinary things she must have done in the murder-suicide scenario – and given the way it was staged, there is only one other viable suspect. However, I’m equally convinced that Bamber has suppressed the memory of his crimes to such an extent that he genuinely believes himself innocent – the comforting fantasy to which he must cling in the hope of release and recompense for thirty-five years of wrongful imprisonment. In this respect he is like Myra Hindley, unable to accept that the only path to rehabilitation and release is full confession, co-operation, demonstrable remorse, and efforts to atone; and I trust that as long as he persists in this futile denial, he will stay locked up where he belongs.   


Caffell, Colin, In Search of the Rainbow’s End, Hodder & Stoughton, 2020

Lee, Carol Ann, The Murders at White House Farm, Pan Books, 2020

Fantasy Writing: The Lay of Angor Trilogy

As a newcomer to the magnificent Game of Thrones, I was wryly amused to discover how many of its motifs and themes crop up in my own opus, Lay of Angor: messenger ravens, cold northern and warm southern kingdoms, graphic sex, torture and battle violence, consensual brother-sister incest, jolly prostitutes, same-sex romps, creatures not too far removed from living species and plotlines drawn directly from real-world history. I was a bit dismayed too, lest I be thought derivative, because this is purely accidental; the Lay is mine own, begun long before I’d ever heard of George R.R. Martin – but I suppose it’s inevitable that in the realm of fantasy writing, imaginations will sometimes collide.

And that’s where the similarities end. My world of Urth, a planet not unlike our own, is a smaller, cosier place than Westeros and the story revolves around one principal heroine and hero (Elinor, Princess of Gondarlan, and her suitor Jehan Sol-Lios, Elect of the Republic of Angor). It’s a tongue-in-cheek homage to the ‘high fantasy’ style I’ve always loved; a coming-of-age story in which Elinor finds herself (and finds out what a prissy, spoiled idiot she’s been all her life!), leavened with a thread of farcical humour; and unlike Game of Thrones, it’s now finished!

Yes, after more than 12 years of endeavour, false starts and re-writes, the trilogy is at last complete and all three volumes available in electronic and paperback form. It’s been a very strange and occasionally rough ride; friends from back in the manic ‘virgin author’ days will probably remember my glazed expression and abstracted presence as I split between Urth and the here-and-now, the former often more insistently real to me than the latter as the story constantly played out behind my eyes and the characters nattered in my ears. I could see and hear it all so clearly that I felt like an inept secretary trying to minute a meeting and simultaneously describe the surroundings while the participants wandered through the rooms of a palace – a most curious sensation, and sometimes deeply frustrating as it took hours and pages to capture on keyboard scenes and conversations which flashed through my mind in a matter of seconds. (I wouldn’t be surprised if this is quite a common experience for authors).

But gosh, it was fun – and it became even greater fun as the story progressed, all the characters were introduced and plot threads laid down, and I simply had to develop them. Gondarlan, the first book, took by far the longest to write and required the most revision; if it hadn’t been radically cut it would have ended up the length of War and Peace and I doubt if I’d ever have finished! But Breath of Gaia rolled along much faster, and Wolfsbane came out at breakneck speed as I sensed the end in sight, together with the chance to finally write some climactic scenes I’d envisaged almost from the start of the project.

Now it’s done, I’d like to thank everyone who read and commented on the work in progress, and put up with me while I was so consumed by it (especially my long-suffering husband); and I hope other people will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you happen to be in the North Yorkshire area on Saturday 2nd August, you could drop in at The Crooked Billet on the B1217 Wakefield Road between Garforth and Towton from noon – 5 pm; I’m launching Wolfsbane at the Towton Battlefield Society Yorkshire Day event, and you can snag copies of the full trilogy, signed by my fiction alter ego Rae Andrew, for a mere £9.99 (saving over £13 on the RRP). Otherwise, you can get the same deal (plus P+P) from by quoting ‘Trilogy Offer’ – or pick them up at £2.99 apiece on Amazon Kindle or e-pub from Kobo books. Happy reading!

Literature Matters: The Adventures of Jack Moon

The Adventures of Jack Moon: The Curse of the Body-Snatchers by Keith Souter, 2012, Golden Guides Press, ISBN978-1-78095-003-7, £7.99; also available on Kindle and e-pub.

Looking for a last-minute stocking-filler for an older child? I can recommend The Curse of the Body-Snatchers, the first Adventure of Jack Moon by Wakefield-based author, Keith Souter (who joins me below to chat about his work). Body-Snatchers begins with the 12-year-old hero, Jack Moon, secretly burying the body of his best friend in a spooky cemetery in Victorian London, and goes on to become a cracking adventure yarn full of twists and turns. Jack falls into the hands of the sinister phrenologist Professor Stackpool, who purports to diagnose his low character from the shape of his head, (a form of quackery much in vogue in the 19th century); is rescued and given a job by the benevolent Sir Lionel Petrie; and befriends Sir Lionel’s pretty grand-daughter, Olivia, who is soon overtaken by a horrible fate…

I don’t want to give more of the plot away; suffice to say that it’s a gripping period piece with plenty to engross intelligent older children or young teens – and an entertaining read for their parents, too!

Its multi-talented author Keith Souter is a prolific writer in various genres; as well as non-fiction medical books and a health column in the weekly Wakefield Express, he writes historical fiction for adults, crime novels under the pen-name Keith Moray, and Westerns as Clay More! So I’ll ask Keith to join me now to answer a few questions about Body-Snatchers and his other works:

HRR: Keith, your literary output is staggering, and puts mine to shame! How many hours per day (or week) do you spend writing?
KS: Firstly, thank you for having me on your blog, Helen, I appreciate it. Actually, I have no set schedule. I usually have several projects on the go at once and have to be a bit of a plate-spinner. I devote however much time is needed to keep the various projects moving along. In part it’s deadline driven, in that my agent arranges book deals so I have a contracted time in which to deliver each book. I have an absolute minimum of 300 words a day, but I once did 9000 in a day.

HRR: Do you have a favourite genre and/or character – and if so, what?
KS: I like writing in all genres, but curiously, when I’m writing one I want to be doing one of the others! I read many years ago that if you want to write, you should aim at having at least two genres to help stop you going stale. The very first things I wrote were children’s stories for The People’s Friend, a Scottish family magazine, and for the Kingston-Upon-Hull telephone exchange. They had a dial-a-bedtime-story service, so parents could ring up and get a tuck-me-up tale for sixpence. Then I started writing medical articles, and when we moved to Wakefield I was fortunate enough to be asked to write for the Express – which I’ve now been doing every week for the past thirty years! About ten years ago, I started writing my Western novels. After three of those I turned to crime fiction, then to historical fiction with my Sandal Castle mysteries – then Jack Moon popped into my head and I returned to where I started, writing children’s stories.

HRR: Body-Snatchers has some rather gruesome scenes – what age-range are you pitching it at?
KS: It’s aimed loosely at 8 – 13-year-olds, but a lot of young adults and adults have read it and seem to have enjoyed it. One very interesting thing you learn in writing for youngsters is not to use clichés like, for example, ‘my heart was breaking’. You have to be far more careful with your choice of language.

HRR: The cliff-hanger ending of Body-Snatchers suggests there might be a sequel… am I right, and if so, when will it appear?
KS: Oh yes, it’s the first in a series. I’m working on the second, but other projects with deadlines have had to take priority.

HRR: What was your inspiration for Body-Snatchers?
KS: I love Dickens and always wanted to set a story in Dickensian London. I had been working on a book entitled Medical Meddlers, Mediums and Magicians – the Victorian Age of Credulity and had delved deeply into phrenology, spiritualism – that is, fraudulent spiritualism as it was practiced then – and the stage magicians of the age, who exposed their frauds. Then one misty day I looked out of my study window, and for a moment imagined I saw a Victorian urchin staring in at me from the mist – and Jack Moon was born. I immediately grabbed a notebook and the plot started to unfold.

HRR: What projects are you working on now?
KS: The fifth in my series of crime novels, along with two medical books, one on stroke and the other on depression. I’m also working on a collaborative novel with some American Western writers, and a series of Western short stories for an ebook publisher called High Noon Press. These are about Doctor Marcus Quigley, a dental surgeon, gambler and occasional bounty hunter, and are coming out one a month – each is a separate adventure but they build into a complete tale, like the old Saturday matinee serials. All in all, I’m having a lot of fun!

HRR: Keith, you must find more hours in your days than I have in mine! Many thanks for sharing this – and the very best of luck with all your ventures.