Blood Magic Chapter 5 – the story continues!

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

Chapter 5: Day 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Oi, you two! Quarter to curfew!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I froze, holding my breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blood Magic, 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-’

‘No!’

‘-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: 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).

BLOOD MAGIC: A NOVEL FOR YOUNG ADULTS

Preface

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.’

‘What?’

‘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.’

What?

‘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.’

Santa Claus is Coming to Town…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henry Wowler & the Cat of Christmas Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henry frowned. “Nick of time for what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do we have any good spirits among us?”

TAP! said the table.

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

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

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

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

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

“In-cog-what?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Achoo!”

“What was that?”

“What was what, Ethel dear?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oow-ow-oooow,” MC crooned along.

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

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

Are any evil spirits here among us today?”

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

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

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

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

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

Henry Wowler trod hard on the button. Tap!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yow-owl,” MC added helpfully.

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

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

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

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

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

Twing.

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

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

Henry Wowler pressed lightly again on the rosebud. Twing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henry stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Merry Christmas, MC.”

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

Amazingly Fat Cat

This week saw our Henry Wowler’s least-favourite day of the year: the day he gets poked about by a stranger then jabbed in the neck. Yes, it’s annual medical time!

We heaved his cat-basket into the van with considerable effort, braced for a scolding about his heaviness; and in the vet’s waiting room I read a poster, ‘How to Tell if Your Cat’s Overweight.’ Can’t feel its ribs? Check. Saggy dewlap? Check. Lack of interest in playing? Check – sort of. As soon as Henry learnt to kill things, he went off toys, although he still enjoys savaging his Christmas catnip mouse, playing ‘knock on the patio window then run away when they open it,’ and chasing the odd leaf or twig round the garden; but on the whole, if it doesn’t bleed, he deems it not worth bothering with. Lazy and lethargic – um, how do you tell with a creature that spends 18 out of 24 hours asleep?

DSCN2654

With Wowler, it depends on the weather, (when it’s fine, he spends more time outdoors doing cat stuff ), and whether anyone’s at home, (Mummy and Daddy-cat’s arrival means dinner, irrespective of how early we finish work – cue for him to wake and start prowling round hassling for food). So no check here – I’d call him averagely active for a cat of his age and temperament. Hesitates before jumping up onto furniture? Check. Mind you, Henry does like to consider the pros and cons – often at some length – before he acts, to avoid any taint of slavish obedience when invited to jump on the bed or onto Mummy-cat’s lap for a cuddle. I’m not sure if that counts as ‘hesitation’ – he’s perfectly capable of jumping without it when the occasion demands, and agile enough to make a standing leap onto the kitchen worktops (attested by the trail of small muddy rosettes I find after rainy nights). And he still has a visible (if substantial) waist, and no problems with flexibility or grooming his hard-to-reach areas. How overweight can he be?

We soon find out – 6.9 kilos! Amazingly, despite receiving exactly the same diet all year – a half-tin of meat and two handfuls of biscuit a day, plus his ration of toothy-bics (ie the dental-care type) – he’s gained 500g since his last weigh-in. Oops. Henry Wowler is, once again, officially Too Heavy; although to my great relief, he hasn’t topped his highest weight of 7.2 kg, recorded three years ago. But despite being a big, solid cat, he should weigh nearer six than seven kilos; so we discuss his intake with the vet, who recommends that I weigh the handfuls and cut back to no more than 30g of dry food per day.

OK. Next morning I duly chuck two heaping handfuls onto the scale, nervously wondering how much we’ve been over-feeding him. It weighs 35g. In other words, the absolute maximum he’d get on the rare days he succeeds in whingeing extra breakfast out of Mummy-cat and conning his bedtime biscuits out of both cat-parents, is a paltry 5g more than the vet’s recommendation. I reduce it to 25g, which looks more like his average daily portion. Phew. I’m delighted that we generally give him less than the recommended 30g – but amazed that, notwithstanding, he’s still managed to put on a pound. How did that happen?

Um. I guiltily recall the odd scraps of Spam or chicken he gets off our plates; doesn’t happen often, but that’ll have to stop – as will giving him any chance to steal scraps I put out for the birds. Plus I suspect he recently went through a phase of pinching a feline neighbour’s food, because he kept coming home in the afternoon looking smug and suspiciously fat, (but still demanding his usual dinner). Luckily, if that was the case, I think the neighbour must’ve got wise and either stopped leaving food outside, or started locking the cat-flap when they feed their own cat. And we can’t control the number of rodents he pogs overnight, (or even necessarily know about it, unless he leaves bloody remnants in the kitchen) – but however good the hunting, it never stops him demanding his full daily ration of cat-food. (Perhaps he thinks mice contain no calories, like chocolate eaten in secret).

Whatever, the upshot for Henry Wowler is no more unscheduled treats, and no more than a measured 25g biscuit and 12 toothy-bics with his meat every day. I’ll also try to make him run about a bit more, (although that only seems to sharpen his appetite). Then I’ll keep my fingers crossed that when we take him to have his teeth cleaned in the New Year, the vet will find our amazingly fat cat has shed a few ounces…

A Happy Gardener

After my abrupt, unplanned career change in September 2017, (from freelance writer, Wars of the Roses interpreter/walk guide, funeral celebrant and general rent-a-gob  to full-time professional gardener), a friend and regular client told me, ‘You’re such a good public speaker, you’re wasted on gardening.’

I was extremely touched by his kind compliment – but explained that, although I’ll always enjoy doing speaking engagements, for many reasons I felt happy to let that part of my career come (largely) to a natural end. And here’s one of them…

I dare say my dear late friend Kate would’ve laughed like a drain (in a sympathetic way) to hear of the travails that preceded her funeral service this morning. As celebrant, I set off early enough to make the 50-odd minute journey to Doncaster’s Rose Hill Crematorium with a good half-hour in hand to compose myself, confirm final arrangements, meet Kate’s guitarist friend, Roy, who’d be playing her in with a heartfelt blues instrumental, and prepare myself in a suitably relaxed, respectful way.

On previous occasions when I – and Roy – have done services at Rose Hill, that’s pretty much what happened. But not today. Today, to my horror, I found the A638 out of Wakefield gridlocked, my lane blocked by a broken-down truck. Instant mega-stress. Map-less, sat-nav-less, (well, I thought I knew where I was going), I was too distracted and panicky to work out the obvious alternative: simply hang a left and take the M62 and A1 South. No, I queued for 20 agonising minutes, wringing my hands and muttering uselessly, ‘Please please please move,’ before I got round the obstruction and back on my road where, police or no police behind me, I floored it. At least, (barring further incident), I knew I’d be there to start the service on time; but as for arriving in a suitably composed and dignified fashion – it was way too late for that.

Unlike on previous occasions, I didn’t take a wrong turn or go to the wrong car-park. Arriving with a quarter-hour to spare, (phew!) it turned out I did have time to greet a few people, go to the loo, get a cup of water, and lay out my orders of service. And, luckily, to check the music running-order, because there’d been a slight mistake which we soon rectified. What I didn’t have, as the minutes ticked on, was a musician… Luckily the unflappable crematorium assistant stopped me having hysterics by substituting a terrific blues track; I was too flustered to mention it at the requisite point in the service, but if you were there and wondered about it, the song was ‘Sad Sad Day’ by Muddy Waters. I hope Kate would have approved.

Meanwhile her cortege had arrived, but still no Roy. So we went with his understudy Muddy, and kept Kate waiting at the gate while we fannied about with the sound system. From that point on, things settled down and resumed their expected order and pace. Then, part-way into the service, someone came in: tall, cowboy hat, dressed all in black. Even without seeing his Facebook photo I’d have recognised Roy – looking like that, he just had to be a musician. I later discovered he’d also been having the morning from hell, including breaking a guitar string shortly before he was due to set off – hence his failure to turn up as planned. He stood considerately at the back while I managed to get through the important bits without my voice breaking. It was a different matter the second I got out of the chapel – I clung onto and blubbed freely over friend, acquaintance and stranger alike if they said a kind word. But the tabby cat who wandered in as we were leaving cheered me up – cat-mad Kate would have liked that. (I hope she would’ve liked the service, too).

Maybe if I hadn’t had such a stressful start to the day I’d have enjoyed going on to Kate’s wake to give her an appropriate send-off (she loved a bevvy, did our Kate). But I was so drained I just Wanted To Go Home in the worst way, so I gave it a miss and headed straight back to Wakefield. And at first the drive was just fine, until I ran up against a new road closure on the A638 at Wragby and had to make a diversion…

I won’t bore you with further details; suffice to say, by the time I reached The Three Houses on Barnsley Road a couple of miles from home, I was screaming with frustration. So the first thing I did when I came in was to raise a very stiff drink to Kate in lieu of going to her wake, and neck it down PDQ; and several hours later, calmed down and half-cut on Hubcap’s Jagermeister, I can laugh – as Kate no doubt would – over these funeral farces. But it wasn’t very funny at the time… my pet hates are being late, stuck in unexpected traffic, and keeping people waiting, especially for something as important as a funeral.

So that’s partly the reason, dear reader, why I’m now such a happy gardener: it doesn’t much matter if I turn up a bit late, and the only thing I have to worry about is the weather.

Henry Hates Firework Nights

Now that Slack-jawed Selfish Morons’ Firework Season (run-up to Hallowe’en, Hallowe’en, run-up to Bonfire Night, Bonfire Night, numerous extra Bonfire Nights for people unable to celebrate on November 5th, run-up to Christmas, Christmas, post-Christmas, run-up to New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Eve, post-New Year’s Eve, plus random explosions in between times) is in full swing, Henry Wowler has to spend most evenings cowering in his safety box under our bed – and given the propensity of said selfish morons to continue letting off bangers till midnight, we don’t have the heart to evict the poor little chap.

On such occasions, when he eventually feels it’s safe to emerge and wants Mummy-cat to take him downstairs and administer bedtime biscuits, he usually sits at the foot of the bed whispering, ‘Mrrp? Mrrp?’ in a very small voice until I awake. But last night, he mrrped to no avail – both worn-out cat-parents were too fast asleep to hear him; so the first I knew of his wakefulness and desire for attention was when he jumped on the bed, landed on my feet and snuggled down in the space between our legs. I stroked him. He purred. I thought, ‘Aw. This is OK – I can cope if he settles there,’ and went back to sleep (after throwing back the bedspread and sticking one leg out from under the duvet to compensate for the extra heat generated by his large furry presence).

But he didn’t settle there, of course. Night is his time to do cat stuff; so shortly he got up, went out in the pouring rain for a while, then came back upstairs shouting, ‘Wet!’ I ignored him, and- aha! Instead of pestering on to be mopped dry, he dealt with the situation himself, allowing me to doze off again to the slight, soothing sound of a washing cat. But of course the peace didn’t last – soon Henry was wowling again, obliging me to arise before he woke Daddy-cat too, escort him downstairs, give him some fuss, then lure him into the kitchen with the usual biscuit bribe and shut the door firmly behind me.

All this took place between 10.30 pm and 1.40 am; and this, dear reader, is the reason why on normal nights, if Mr Wowler tries to evade the normal nightly routine of being confined to the kitchen by hiding under our bed, he gets prodded out with a longbow…

Feline Friends!

Henry Wowler doesn’t take kindly to strangers on his patch. If visitors are human, his normal response is to hide in his safety box under our bed and sulk until they go home. If they’re feline, he’ll caterwaul terrible songs of hate and retribution at them; and if that doesn’t work, he takes more positive action. Given that he’s twice the size of most of our neighbourhood moggies, seeing the feline equivalent of a Rottweiler (sixteen pounds of spectacularly fuzzed-out Wowler) charging towards them at high speed generally suffices to see them off the premises pretty damn quick – and if that fails, he won’t baulk at resorting to violence.

So it was with some trepidation that I noticed the new kid on the block – a sparky ginger tom-kitten – had taken to exploring our garden. Last week he got stuck on the roof of our wood-box, and was so over-excited, fighty and bitey when I tried to rescue him that I had to don heavy leather gardening gloves in order to pick him up. Yesterday afternoon GK (Ginger Kitten) was back again; and when I went upstairs I was surprised to find Henry sitting on the bedroom window-sill watching him potter about down below. Not fluffed up, or growling, or even lashing his tail – just watching with mild interest, which was extremely unusual.

At tea-time, with Wowler in his customary early-evening position on my lap, the young intruder returned. This time his reaction was what we’ve come to expect: he sat bolt upright, glaring; then dismounted and sat by the patio window, yowling.

“I’m not letting you out, Henry,” said Daddy-cat. “If you want to see him off you’ll have to use your cat-flap.” While Henry thought about this, the undaunted GK came up and inspected him through the glass, then began frolicking around the patio clearly wanting to play. Henry stopped yowling and watched. Intrigued, I took a jingly ball outside and entertained GK with it, wondering if Wowler would follow; but no, he just continued to watch.

I petted GK as he twined round my ankles, then went back indoors. “This is what he smells like,” I said to Henry. He sniffed my hand. Finally, as the kitten went on cavorting, he could stand it no longer. Hubcap and I looked at each other as the cat-flap clicked, expecting the usual mayhem and braced to rescue GK if the Wowler tried to savage him. But to our utter astonishment, he simply strolled up and held out his nose. So did GK. A mutual bottom inspection followed. “They’re greeting!” I gasped. Then came a slight laying back of ears and batting with forepaws; then Henry bounced away with his tail in the air, hotly pursued by the kitten; then the kitten came back into view, hotly pursued by Henry.

Hubcap and I watched entranced. The only other cat Wowler normally tolerates is the ginger tom from three doors down, who we’ve always jokingly referred to as Henry’s dad (as he may well be); but they don’t cosy up or play together, they just hang out in a companionable, blokey sort of way. So this was the first time in six years that we’ve ever seen Henry larking about with another feline, apparently enjoying its company, (admittedly, he did fetch GK one good clip round the ear that elicited a cry of protest, but it was no more than an uppity kitten deserved).

Delighted, I went out to fuss them both, and my amazement was complete when Henry flopped down on his back, giving the full social roll. Playful chasing then continued until Henry, in wild excitement, leapt into Hubcap’s wheelbarrow so forcefully that it overturned and scared him back into the house.

The episode was no fluke or one-off. This morning GK came back, peering in through the patio door obviously looking for his playmate. I let him in, entertained him with a piece of string, then led him to our bedroom where the Wow was asleep on the bed; and when he eventually woke and condescended to notice, another amicable meeting and greeting took place, followed by more outdoor play. It can’t just be down to GK’s youth and smallness – Henry has hated our opposite neighbour’s lovely lavender-grey pair, Boris and Doris, and chased them off with extreme prejudice ever since they were the same age as this little lad. So I can’t help but wonder whether they belong to some secret League of Red-headed Cats – whether Henry recognises GK as a fellow ginge and, like Tormund in Game of Thrones, finds him ‘kissed by fire’ and beautiful.

Whatever, at long last it seems our anti-social Wowler has a real cat-pal – and I’m chuffed to bits!

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Old School Days – and what a night!

If you went to a grammar school between the late 1950’s and early 70’s, the following speech may ring some bells: I had the privilege of delivering it at an amazing event on September 9th, and reproduce it here in the hope of entertaining members of the Final Forms 1A, 1B and 1C at Clee Girls’ Grammar who were unable to make it – as well as anyone else lucky enough to have fond memories of this sort of good old-fashioned education.

Well hello, Clementinas! Who’d have thought it, eh? 45 years later, almost to the day, and here we all are again – a whole classroom full, a third of the entire first year intake of 1972!

This is a very special occasion because we were a very special year – not just because we’re all so awesome, but because we were the last ever First Forms in the 46-year history of Cleethorpes Girls’ Grammar School.  So I’d like to start by thanking all of you for coming to this Big Reunion, and particularly those of you who made it happen. That’s primarily Carolyn Allison, Linda Dye and Kay Edwards – no offence to spouses, but to save confusion (not least my own) I’m going to stick to maiden names tonight. Those three did a sterling job in tracking so many of us down, although I know most people were able to add at least one contact to our burgeoning virtual First Form – so thanks to you, too. Thanks are also due to Carolyn and Kay for sorting out the venue and payments, to Carole Buckley for organising the music, and everyone who suggested songs for the playlist. I’d also like to say a particularly big personal thank-you to Carolyn for giving me the opportunity to make this speech. As some of you know, I work as a freelance speaker – basically, a gob-for-hire – and few things give me greater pleasure than the sound of my own voice and a captive audience to listen to it! So please charge your glasses for our first toast: Thanks, Everybody!

If I ever hear someone say, ‘Schooldays are the happiest days of your life,’ it’s always my year at the Girls’ Grammar I think of – it was certainly the best and happiest year I ever spent at school. For a swotty kid devoted to Enid Blyton’s Twins at St Clare’s stories, Clee Grammar was hog heaven and I was absolutely thrilled to go there… even though I was scared shitless too, because it all sounded so strict and formal, and I thought everyone except me would be terribly posh. I vividly remember that great long uniform list arriving, and Mum taking me to Lawson & Stockdale in Grimsby to buy everything… then being petrified that the metal eyelets on my plain black lace-up shoes made them too fancy and I’d get sent home! I don’t know whose bright idea it was to dress 400 adolescent girls entirely in petroleum by-products, but I’ll say one thing for that uniform – it was bloody hard-wearing (I still wore that hooded tracksuit top to go jogging when I was well into my twenties).

I also vividly remember my first day in 1A, surnames A to H: there we all were, 26 eleven and twelve year-olds in our white polo-necks and ankle-length navy gymslips turned up with about eighteen inches of hem – plenty of growing room so they’d last us right through to 5th form – with enormous sturdy blue knickers underneath. Dear Miss Hutton of the tweedy suits was our form mistress, and I remember the shock when she wrote that 6-day timetable on the board for us to copy – I thought, ‘God, does that mean we come to school on Saturdays?’ And I remember the first words I ever whispered across the aisle to Carole Buckley in my best attempt at a posh voice: ‘Excuse me, can you tell me what computation is?’ As you may recall, it turned out to be doing sums on those strange contraptions like bus conductors’ ticket machines, something I’d never encountered before – or, indeed, since – and I can’t say I’m sorry that the advent of the pocket calculator very soon rendered them obsolete!

They were such innocent days in a much simpler time, which seems so quaint and antiquated compared with 21st century schools – no such things as computers and smart-screens, classroom assistants, mobile phones or cyber-bullying. No, ours were the days of blackboard and chalk, Quink and fountain pens and blotting paper, slide rules and leather satchels…  Days of discipline and respect, when we expected to leap to our feet whenever a teacher came into the room, to do several hours of homework a night, and deliver it on time – for which we were rewarded by being treated as responsible secondary pupils and trusted to stay in at break times – a wonderful relief after all those junior years of being evicted to the playground! They were the days when we all read the same things: comics like Bunty and Judy, and of course Jackie magazine, poring over the Cathy & Clare problem page to see if it held any answers for us, and trading the free gifts of plastic jewellery and little pots of make-up. Days when we all watched Top of the Pops and the Partridge Family, Blue Peter and Magpie, listened to Ed Stewart and Kid Jensen, and cut out the pictures of favourites like Donny and David, and stuck them inside our desk lids.

Yes, it was an unforgettable year in so many ways. I never admitted to this at the time, but I was thrilled to discover that our science teacher would be one Mr Hunter, who wore a pale blue tweed jacket the same colour as his eyes – I’d had a secret crush on him ever since I saw him conducting a choir at an inter-schools choral performance when I was at Reynolds Street Juniors. So I later felt terribly guilty when I heard that our high-spirited antics – including POCTWA, the Prevention of Cruelty to Worms Association, founded by Debra Gray and Michelle Dobson – drove the poor man into a nervous breakdown. I remember going to our First Form ‘Cowboys & Indians’ themed fancy-dress Christmas party wearing a big black fuzzy fake moustache and dancing to Crocodile Rock – Kim Akrill was there sporting a real gun-belt, and lovely Mrs McCleary the English teacher in a black Stetson hat complete with a Western drawl and a cheroot stuck in the corner of her mouth. Then there was our school concert, when 1A’s song was ‘Lemon Tree,’ accompanied by Carole Buckley on guitar… I still remember the looks of consternation we exchanged as she struck up the first chords and her guitar was out of tune… and, ladies, I have a confession to make: that was My Bad. I’d been standing idly fiddling with her tuning knobs as we waited for our turn to perform. When the implications sank in, I tried desperately to put them back to their original position, but it didn’t quite work… so if we didn’t win I’m afraid it was All My Fault.

I remember hockey in winter, and tennis in summer; the horror of gym in that ghastly towelling jumpsuit, and making the wrap-around skirt to go over it in Needlework – an experience which seems to have left lasting scars on many of us. I remember cookery, which I adored: making scrambled egg in our first lesson, and later various different types of sponge cake, including a rather rubbery Swiss roll. I remember learning the recorder, with all of us sitting there in music class tootling the Skye Boat Song, Greensleeves and Turkey in the Straw – and that lovely occasion in the winter term when we were taken into Grimsby to sing carols with the Salvation Army under the big Christmas tree in St James’ Square. And of course, who could forget the redoubtable Dorothy Vallins, ‘the Dev,’ in her pink and purple check suit trilling to us in assembly that we were ‘la crème de la crème, girls – la crème de la crème!’ Although oddly enough, despite all these vivid memories, I’ve completely forgotten the tune and every word of our school song – so you may be relieved to hear I won’t be leading you in that tonight.

But I do remember many people who can’t be with us tonight, in some cases because they live too far away – and what an irony that Claire Draycott and Wendy Skerratt, who were good friends at school, both moved to the other side of the world and now live within striking distance of one another in Australia! In other cases, the reason is very sad. I suppose the law of averages makes it inevitable that some members of any given population will die prematurely through accident or illness, and unfortunately this is true of some of our form-mates including Kim Weed, maths whizz-kid Sharon Pearson, who I remember had a rather atypical crush on Eric Morecambe, and lovely Lynn Sutherland, with whom I used to twag off cross-country and go round to her house to drink coffee… and it’s on behalf of all these fellow pupils, living and passed on, that I’d now like to propose another toast: to absent friends.

I think it’s fair to say that none of us were so keen on what came after that year… although when our beloved Girls’ Grammar morphed into the Lower School of Lindsey Comprehensive, we still had some good times and went on to see each other through all the trials of puberty and adolescence. Spots. First dates. The utter self-conscious misery when spots and dates happened at the same time. The perennial question: ‘Have you started yet?’ Doing a certain exercise and chanting, ‘I must, I must, I must increase my bust.’ Trading nail varnish to mend ladders in the tights we were forever snagging on the old wooden benches and desks… not to mention the sort of embarrassing personal crisis that never seems to happen in adult life, like the sudden snapping of your bra strap or knicker elastic. Playing silly schoolgirl japes with fake ink-blots and the disappearing ink Nicky Fraser once squirted on Mr Smith’s shirt in maths – he wasn’t amused – or our 3rd year piece de resistance, hiding our chairs in the suspended ceiling during one lunch break. So perhaps this is a good time to raise a glass to our long-suffering teachers…

The Upper School brought us the serious growing up stuff, the swotting for exams, the decisions on which options to take and what to do next – and I like to think our old teachers would be proud of the women we’ve become, the things we’ve achieved, and the many and varied paths our lives have taken. Alas, I’d developed such a loathing of Lindsey by the time I finally wiped its dust off my shoes that I made no effort to keep in touch with school chums – unless I bumped into you in the pubs around Grimsby and Cleethorpes – and the idea of coming to any sort of school reunion made me shudder. That is, until Carolyn Allison emailed me out of the blue about 18 months ago… and then came the wonderful excitement of last spring when our virtual First Year started to re-form on Facebook. I still remember the buzz, the thrill of making contact again, of logging on obsessively to find out who else had joined, the fun of sharing our memories and photos – the sheer warmth and sense of fellowship that immediately sprang up between us again, and the plain simple delight I felt at rediscovering old friends and finding out what you’d all been up to. It was one of the best things ever to happen to me on social media, and it reminded me of something I’d lost sight of – to paraphrase Lou Reed: with such perfect days, I’m glad I spent them with you… and I’m very glad you’re all back in my life again now.

So three cheers for Cleethorpes Girls’ Grammar School – and now, 45 years after our first meeting there, I’d like to close with another toast to all Clementina Clees past and present, to our Big Golden Reunion in five years’ time, and many smaller meetings in between – and  to staying in touch!