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.’

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

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

Author: Rae Andrew

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

ISBN: 978-0-9928514-2-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The photo on which Janet based her cover painting

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

Chapter 1: Cat in the Hearth

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

“Good morning.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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