New Year Cards – 2022


About Holistic

by Leo

No, the heading doesn’t mean I’m going to write about greeting cards for the New Year.

My topic concerns Cards for the Year Ahead. These symbols suggest themes for the coming year.

Here we have a brand new, shiny year: what might it hold for us? Gifts or gloom? Success or sorrows? Anything could – and probably will – happen.

One thing I always do, at the beginning of the year, is work out the Year Card for our planet. What does this mean? By adding the numbers of the year, in this case: 2 + 0 +2 +2, total = 6/VI …. The Lovers card. So 2022 will be a card overseen by Card VI/Lovers.

What might the implications be? A year of universal love? Hardly likely, given the divisive nature of international affairs. For instance, look at the recent uproar over the Djokovic Aussie visa!…

View original post 183 more words

Leave a comment

Filed under HUMOUR

HELLO SUMMER


Seems like Summer finally blew in on the heels of a roaring South-Easter. I say finally, because for most of December, the temps have been lurking  in the very low 20s, with minimums in the low teens, plus plenty of overcast days and showery drizzle. A sort of reprise of Winter.

Personally, I enjoy cool weather. The soaring 30s reduce me to a  limp sweaty rag, unable to think, let alone function. Tomorrow’s forecast is 34 degrees Celsius .  Aaaarrrrgggh.  Whisk me off to Greenland, on your sled, please Santa.

But my garden is smiling. Look at the Lantana, blazing brightly. The bright, clear yellow is one of my favourites, plus the flowers have a soft, sweet somewhat banana-like perfume. And my new Potato  Bush  is blooming prettily, which cheers me no end.

I’ve left the best until last: brag, brag : look at the Amayllis!  I’m thrilled with the vivid red flowers.  My first attempt at growing the bulb.  I was so encouraged by the beautiful display that the Freesia bulbs produced this winter, that I  went quite mad and bought more bulbs,  two Amaryllis bulbs.  Worth every cent!

14 Comments

Filed under DAILY LIFE IN CAPE TOWN, gardening, SOCIAL COMMENT

GIFTS


I think we often get it wrong when it comes to choosing gifts. If the recipient frequently says : oh I do wish I had a new i-phone, or I do wish I could get more of my favourite perfume, then the way is clear. No problem. All we need are deep pockets or an elastic credit card.  

But when the Wish List is empty, or never revealed, then what?  Perfume? But we need to know – does she prefer sweetly floral or dangerously oriental? And we have no idea.

Chocolates?  And then we discover she has an allergy to nuts. Liquor? Nope, ain’t gonna work, never touches a drop.

Now what? A gift voucher? Too impersonal.

Sometimes the simplest thing can give enormous pleasure, with little damage to the donor’s budget.  For example, I was thrilled to receive a large container of blueberries as a Christmas gift. Firstly, I like the fruit, and secondly they are a hell of a price, so in my modest little life, a large punnet of blueberries is a treat!

And then there were the Festive Face Masks. You know it’s a Covid Christmas when your prezzie contains these two fun items:

I once gifted a friend with one of my long short stories. I printed it out, created a decorative cover, bound it with ribbon, and presented it. Voila! A unique gift. The recipient was charmed.

In the past I’ve both given, and received, packets of herb seeds, and flower seeds. Inexpensive, and provide pleasure all round.

This year, in view of the Covid-ridden shops, my Christmas shopping was minimal. I gave away a couple of my books, which I knew the recipient wanted to own, and bingo! Another happy friend.

In short, ingenuity is kind to the budget and  avoids crowded shops crammed with dodgy anti-vaxxers, plus plastic whats-its, definitely made in China.  They can keep ‘em. Both of them.

At the end of the day perhaps we need to ask a crucial, Marie Kondo-esque question:  Will my gift spark joy in the recipient?

7 Comments

Filed under DAILY LIFE IN CAPE TOWN, HUMOUR, SOCIAL COMMENT

DECEMBER 2021 –  END OF YEAR STORY


Over the past few years, I’ve posted a Christmas themed story on my blog in December.  Inspiration failed me this year, but what I can offer you is an excerpt from my Fantasy Trilogy, The Magical Musical Magian. The theme of the chapter is Gifts: appropriate for year end. What would be your ideal gift? Read below to discover magical, other-wordly gifts. I flirted with the idea of trimming down the chapter, but I had such fun writing it that I decided to post the original. Theoretically you should be on holiday with plenty of time for reading. So enjoy.

A brief synopsis: Selene is a 40-something New Age lady, transported from Benoni, South Africa, who lands up on  the Magian’s island. Selene and the Magian fall in love. Life on the Magian’s island is lonely, with only Odo the hunchback dwarf, the Magian’s servant, as a companion.  However, the Magian’s gifts keep life interesting …..

Gifts from the Magian   – A M Smith ©

“Dearest one,” said the Magian in affectionate tones “I have a gift for you”. A brief trill of flute and penny-whistle decorated his announcement.

Selene looked up at the Magian. He was hanging in a relaxed pose from a trapeze bar, just above her head.  His hands were empty.

“No, no” said the Magian “I do not have it here, at this moment, but Captain Odol will bring it within the day.”

“You spoil me,” said Selene happily, “and I love it”.

A soft chord of mellow stringed instruments swept over the pair, as they gazed into each other’s eyes. “Ah me,” said the Magian at last, “I must go now, I have matters  to attend to,” and he swung away in a graceful arc. Selene watched him disappear into the highest regions of his webbed net. She often wondered what he did all day long, high up in his hammock, but whenever she asked the Magian, he was evasive.

She wondered what the gift would be. Some of the Magian’s gifts had been unsuccessful, to say the least. There had been the crock of pickled – what? sea-slugs? Snails ? Selene had no idea what they were, but they tasted disgusting. And then there was the ornate flask of perfume. As Selene wrestled to remove the rose-shaped stopper, one drop of perfume fell on the sand. The drop of perfume released a nose-fracturing combination of roses and sulphur, and immediately burned a hole in the sand where it fell. Luckily none of the perfume had fallen on Selene. “Ah,” said the Magian as he watched the episode “I had forgotten that the perfume makers of Underr-Hell enjoy their little jokes.  I must remember to send them one of my musical pranks sometime, and return the jest.”  A grim rumble of bass drums followed his threat.

Recently Captain Odol delivered a giant sea turtle which sulked inside its shell for days before poking its head out and making a surprisingly fast bee-line for the beach and the ocean.  Selene hadn’t really minded. As a pet, the sea turtle didn’t really shape up.

 Unlike the delightful little furry animal delivered by Captain Odol, on his next supply visit. Quite what it was Selene didn’t know, but it was warm and furry with enchanting round brown eyes, a long white and  chocolate striped tail, chocolate ears and paws and a lush, coffee coloured silky coat.  Released from its cage it bounded into Selene’s arms, chirruping madly and snuggling into her shoulder. Fortunately it seemed to enjoy the bland diet of fish and coconut, in fact it was prepared to eat anything edible that was on offer.  As was the silver wolf, who had snapped up the little creature when it unwisely strayed too far down the beach. A snap, a crunch, three big gulps and that was the end of Selene’s pet. Fortunately she had not witnessed this sad incident, and it was  Odo who found a few sad wisps of chocolate coloured fur and some bones in the sand, and immediately realised why they could not find the little animal. 

“I hate the silver wolf,” wept Selene.  “Why did it have to eat my little Pushkin?”

“Mistress, I am truly sorry, but we need the silver wolf to guard us,” said Odo.

“But no-one ever comes here – never!  I’ve never seen anyone even try, or come close.  Only Captain Odol”.

“Yes, Mistress, and why do you think that is?” replied Odo.  “The silver wolf is greatly feared. None dare come to the Magian’s island.”

On Captain Odol’s  current  supply-run he delivered a stout leather trunk, studded with brass, boasting a massive bronze padlock.  It took the combined efforts of Odo and two terrified sailors to get the trunk out of the dingy, up the beach and parked in Odo’s store yard.  While Odo was rowing the sailors back to Odol’s ship, the Magian suddenly swung into view, announcing his arrival with a short trumpet voluntary.

“Dearest one,” he said, dangling effortlessly above Selene’s head, “I see my gift has arrived at last.  I hope it eases your sore heart a little.”  He gestured to the trunk.

“Oh,” said Selene, “this is a surprise! But what a huge  padlock – where is the key?”

“Oh pshaw!“said the Magian “keys, keys – we have no need of keys.  Stand back”.  He produced a small flute, blew a piercingly high series of notes which caused Selene to cover her ears in pain. The lock glowed bright blue and exploded in a shower of metal fragments.

“There – now you can open it.  Go on.”

Selene advanced cautiously towards the trunk.  The Magian’s idea of suitable presents did not always coincide with her expectations. She was conscious of the Magian hovering on the edge of his network, watching her. She took a deep breath and pushed up the heavy lid. “Oh,” she gasped, “Oh my!”

She ran her hands through a cascade of  garments, reverently stroked  fur trims, caressed silken fabrics, and pulled out a long gown of purest sea green.  “To match the colour of your eyes, my dearest one,” purred the Magian. “Find the purple gown – I am curious to see it”.

 She carefully laid the green gown down on the trunk lid, and delved down through the layers of  fabrics, delicate gauzy garments, intricate lace,  jewel encrusted brocades, scarves edged with tiny silver bells, soft leather slippers, ornately embroidered waistcoats, brightly coloured leather gloves, soft  velvet cloaks. The trunk seemed bottomless, with an endless cargo of beautiful garments. She found the purple gown and carefully extracted it. The fabric shimmered with threads of silver, intertwined with moonbeam greys and white. It was a garment of darkness and twilight, a whisper of romance and passion.

“Oh” she gasped “I –  its so beautiful – I …” words failed her.  She turned towards the Magian who huskily said “Put it on. It is my special gift to you, my beloved.” A vibrant wave of  stringed chords, mounting to a magnificent crescendo rolled out of the Magian’s web.

                                                                        ********

Selene was intrigued with the prospect of yet another gift.  What could it be?  After the  gorgeous treasure trove inside the trunk, it was hard to imagine anything to surpass it.  But she reminded herself not to get too excited. Apart from the disastrous animal gifts, and the diabolical perfume, recently there was another  very unsettling gift which Selene mentally referred to as  The Book Trap. The book arrived in a tightly sewn parcel of sail-cloth, which had taken Odo several hours to unpick with his sharpest knife.  She had been overjoyed at the prospect of a book – she’d really missed her book, magazines and newspapers, and somehow the Magian was aware of this.  How she did not know, because she never complained about the lack of reading matter. So it was with excitement that she took the book from Odo’s shaking grasp. She looked at him with concern : “Why are you trembling, Odo?  was it so hard to undo all that stitching?”

“No, Mistress, no.  But I am not sure that you should look inside this thing . I am not sure …”

“Why ever not Odo? its only a book, and the Magian has given it to me as a gift – of course I’m going to look inside,” and with that she undid the thick metal clasp that held the book closed. The book covers were made of grey animal hide, scaly and rough, scuffed and scratched. There was no title or ornamentation of any kind on the cover, which was odd.  Odo nervously backed away, with an expression of extreme distrust. 

The cover was heavier than she had anticipated, and when she opened the book  it revealed a blank first page. The first page was surprisingly stiff, and heavy, more like cardboard than paper. The colour was a faded sepia, the texture heavily ribbed, and felt surprisingly warm to her fingertips.  Intrigued, she turned over the blank first page and to her astonishment discovered that the next page was transparent and hard. It looked and felt like glass. She stared at the glass page, and then realised that the book was in fact, a box. A  box lay  concealed within the covers of the  book.

 The box appeared empty.  She gripped the book firmly in both hands and gently shook the box , then  peered into the interior. A misty smoke now filled the cavity.  As she continued to look downwards into the box the smoke cleared and to her astonishment revealed a scene, perfect in every detail, like a miniature stage set. Green grass in the foreground, sloping up a gentle hill to a small castle perched on the hilltop, its pale grey stone turrets bathed in  sunlight, with a  blue sky bordering the scene.  “What on earth ?” gasped Selene, raising her puzzled glance to Odo, who muttered “Mistress, I told you, I told you – close it. I beg of you, close it!”

Selene returned her fascinated gaze to the tiny scene within the box-book. She could not have closed the box-book for all the money in the world. As she surveyed the miniature landscape, a shadow passed over the grey castle battlements. A massive red dragon with leathery wings and spiky scales appeared in the top right hand corner, circled twice, and landed heavily on the grassy field below the castle.  There was no sound accompanying the developing action, but when the dragon raised its sharp snout and breathed out a flaming gout of smoke she felt the roar and rush of hot air and flames, she could smell the bruised grass, she …

“Mistress, Mistress – stop – you must go no further” cried Odo, wrenching the box-book from her hands, and hurling it onto the sand.

“Wha? Huh ? what you doing, Odo?” stammered the dazed Selene. “Let me –  I want my book – there’s, there’s a castle, an a dragon, an I wanna see,” she wailed.

“No Mistress”, said Odo, quaveringly but firmly ,“leave it – it is an enchanted box, a dragon box, they are very dangerous, those who look too long into a dragon box become enslaved – some say by the dragons inside the box, other say it is a mighty magic from olden times, but it is powerful magic and will harm you. Come Mistress, let me get you water and wine, come and sit in the shade a while.  The enchantment will pass.”

Selene obediently followed the hunchback and collapsed under the nearest palm tree. Odo bustled up with watered wine, and a few dates.  The water revived her and the sugary dates  drove away the dreamy hypnosis  of the box-book. She felt exhausted. “Odo, “ she said slowly “have you seen a dragon box-book before?”

“No, Mistress, but I have heard tales – they are very ancient and very powerful.”  He lowered his voice and whispered furtively “I do not know why the Master would give you such a thing as a gift – he knows they are dangerous.”

In that moment Selene wished that Ruby was with her – Ruby would know what to do; or Jules.  Jules would have been fascinated with the box-book. Selene knew that although the Magian loved her, he had a dark side to his nature. He had a dangerous and unpredictable streak which flashed out briefly, and it was at these times that she longed for somebody to confide in, somebody from her own world, somebody normal.  Slow tears ran down her cheeks.  Odo hopped from foot to foot in agitation.  “Mistress – shall I bring you a calming cordial?”

“Dear Odo – no, I shall be alright, in a little while.  Just leave me here.  I need to rest and .., I just need to be alone.”

That evening Selene confronted the Magian. “Why did you give me a dragon box-book?  If Odo hadn’t stopped me, I would have been trapped inside the box-book with the red dragon – how could you give me such a dangerous thing? What were you thinking? What have I done that you place me in such peril?”

“Selene, Selene – calm yourself; Odo’s head is full of old wives’ tales. I thought you would enjoy a box-book – they are very diverting, it is like owning your own theatre with players. There are infinite stories contained in box-books. Did you really think I would permit harm to come to you, my beloved?” A smooth succession of sitar notes hung in the warm evening air.

“I .. I was frightened” she stammered, gazing up at the shadowy form of the Magian as he hung casually from a low trapeze bar, just above her head.

“I am sorry,” the Magian said, “perhaps it was not a wise choice of gift for you. Remember, you are the first other-world being that I have befriended, and sometimes I forget that you are different, perhaps not as strong as I am, and not as accustomed to magic as I am.  Forgive me, I will be more careful in future.  Come, let me play you a sleep-song and banish your worries – you will feel better in the morning.” With that a gentle lullaby swelled over Selene and she dropped to the warm sand, unable to resist the Magian’s sleep-song. 

                                                And the saga continues  …    

3 Comments

Filed under LONG FICTION

REDDINGTON’S HAT


Man posing in the dark with a fedora hat and a trench coat, 1950s noir film style character

I don’t feel festive.

 What I do feel is anxious due to the rapidly rising 4th Covid Wave.

 So I’m going to talk about something inconsequential.  Reddington’s hat.

Whose hat?

You don’t know who Raymond Reddington is?

Clearly you have not been watching The Blacklist TV series.  Tsk tsk.

Despite this failure, I can confirm the world is still turning and your non-participation or my participation doesn’t matter one iota, in the greater scheme of things. But I have to confess to my slightly guilty addiction of watching the weekly episode of this thriller crime series and I also have to admit to a certain  enjoyment of watching the world’s master criminal, Raymond Reddington, evade justice and continue to thrive.

He’s one of those villains that exhibits style and charm, despite his amoral attitude and ruthless attitude to slaughter to further his own devious plots. He reminds me of Leslie Charteris’ The Saint/Simon Templar, the early prototype of the Gentleman Thief. Not the villain you love to hate, but the villain you sneakily admire for his brilliant mind and his debonair behaviour. Which brings us to the topic of Reddington’s hat.

If outdoors, he always wears a hat. No matter the weather, or the location. You could  say its his trademark. But on the other hand, Reddington is bald, so he needs to protection from the sun. My bald Dad always wore a hat, but nothing stylish –  a pith helmet to deflect the rays of the tropical sun. No, I’m not kidding. Back in the day, in Central Africa, that’s what men wore. In fact, Mum and I wore them too. But I digress.

I got to thinking about Reddington’s hat, and consulted Google. Instant information about the style of hat, it’s a Fedora, described in a respectful paragraph from the grateful  manufacturer. Followed by a slew of articles on Reddington’s stylish wardrobe and accessories.

Perhaps I enjoy Reddington so much because he’s impeccably groomed and dressed. I detest the current popular half-shaven, grizzled look adopted  by 75% of TV characters. Most of them look like they desperately need  a good wash and a shave.  So there it is: the appeal of Old School has another fan. How about you?  

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leslie_Charteris

5 Comments

Filed under HUMOUR, TV SHOWS

DEEP-FREEZER DISCOVERIES


The Team Leader from Save-U-Time Cleaning Services, eyed me sternly, and announced that from henceforth my deepfreezer would be defrosted every six months. This declaration after her staff   spent  three hours chipping away at pre-historic ice deposits inside my freezer. 

Many icy mysteries  were revealed during the excavation. One was a bakkie/container of frozen garlicky green peppers. Long forgotten by Yours Truly, but once revealed, triggered a memory from the lean years of single parenting in Rhodesia*.

I  held the icy bakkie and remembered a budget dish that often appeared on  my table, and overcome  by  nostalgia, decided to put the peppers to good use and make the dish: Spanish Rice. Naturally the recipe is long gone, but I had a hazy memory of rice, green peppers, tomatoes,  grated cheese, onions – obviously, I mean who makes anything without onions? – and  the vital ingredient, a packet of Royco Minestrone soup powder. Not forgetting the final gourmet touch: Bay Leaves sticking through the cheesy crust.

 Rhodesia was not famed for its gourmet cooking in those years.  Famed for its beef – world class steak –  and for its tobacco. But gourmet cooking? Not so much.

I scratched around in my cupboards and found most of the ingredients, tossed in a few more vintage  survivors from the freezer, carefully positioned the bay leaves to decorative advantage, and in to the oven  it went.

Result? Not bad. Tasty. Economical. But not rave material. Some memories are best sighed over, and quietly left behind.

*Renamed Zimbabwe

1 Comment

Filed under DAILY LIFE IN CAPE TOWN, FOOD

HELLO STODELS !


What’s that? I hear you ask.

It’s a garden centre in my area. Such a pleasure to visit the open area leading out of the shop into a wonderland of flowers, shrubs, trees, herbs, veg, you name it; if its green and growing, Stodels have it on offer.

Furthermore, there are walkways between the displays set out in rows, or mounted on circular display stands. Everything bears a sign, giving the botanical and popular names, plus handy info like “plant in full sun”. The cherry on top are the staff who are friendly and knowledgeable. You flag down the nearest person wearing the yellow Stodel’s shirt and ask your question. The amazing thing is, you always receive an informed answer! In South Africa this is miraculous. Residents will know what I mean. Phoning up one of our call centres is an instant ticket to insanity. But: back to Stodels.

 Much to my dismay, my old salt bush is dying, slowly withering to dry brown patches amongst the remaining grey-green foliage. So I need to buy new shrubs to replace the old faithful.  To my joy, I discovered two Marmalade bushes, blooming  warmly with red, yellow and orange flowers. Next, I found a Potato Bush, that has a neat purple flower. Done!

At which point, I should have gone home, but continued my happy meandering. I succumbed and bought two Amaryllis Bulbs, which the tag shows as bright red flowers titled Christmas Star. What could be more appropriate at this time of year? I’ve never grown Amaryllis before, but I like their big, showy lilies.

Let’s hope I can display more photos early next year to reveal  my colourful patio.

16 Comments

Filed under DAILY LIFE IN CAPE TOWN

IT’S THAT TIME OF YEAR


A HAPPY TRADITION

This morning I  selected six cheery, festive cards, wrote a sincere greeting  and the date, December 2021; neatly wrote the addresses, carefully stuck my Sender’s Label on the back of the envelope and felt the  happy glow of a job well done. 

You guessed it: Christmas Cards. 

Yes: I know about e-cards. Cute, seasonal and all the rest of it.

But I’m old fashioned. I enjoy sending and receiving Christmas cards from friends and relatives overseas.  Every year I fix the latest crop (dwindling alas, year by year) to the inside of my front door, where the reds, greens, golds and the occasional bit of glitter make me feel Christmassy and festive.

I have to mail them super early, due to our unreliable postal system, but  fuelled by hope that my local PO will  actually offer stamps on sale, and despatch my mail speedily, I shall mail the cards and hope they arrive sort of on time.  In previous years, I’ve received overseas cards in February, but on the upside: they arrived!

I wonder if any of my readers still send out Christmas cards?

8 Comments

Filed under DAILY LIFE IN CAPE TOWN, SOCIAL COMMENT

SYBIL’S  GIFTS


By A M Smith ©

Time for another story. This one is long, but I hope you enjoy reading it. I wrote it in 2016 as a competition entry, and it was awarded first place in the category of Stories over 5 000 and under 10 000 words. If you’re wondering where on earth I came up with the idea, the answer is simple: a TV doccie on the Whitby Horse Fair. Read on, to discover the significance.

  Sybil was attuned to  the weather. No doubt about it. Always was, right from babyhood.  As a baby she was quite content to lie on a blanket in the sunny back garden, gazing upwards for hours, staring at the swaying tree branches, waving at the swiftly racing clouds, clumsily trying to wipe raindrops from her eyes when she was outside in her pram, and a brief shower sprinkled the garden.

  She grew into a wispy, frail child, with pale skin, watery grey eyes, and straggly  mouse brown hair. She missed out on her mother’s dark prettiness and her father’s sandy sturdiness. Her arms and legs were stick-thin, although her mother force fed her malt and cod liver oil, in an attempt to fatten her up. But to no avail. Sybil stubbornly remained stick-insect thin and pale.

  When given crayons and paper, Sybil mostly drew clouds – sometimes big fat black ones, decorated with dramatic yellow lightning zig-zags; sometime she drew fat, puffy white clouds, against a clear blue sky.  “Draw a picture of Buster”, urged Mother, “look at his curly tail, and you’ve got a nice brown crayon for his coat, and black for his eyes – let’s see what you can do. Buster would love a picture, wouldn’t you?” she asked the dog, who obligingly wagged his tail and danced around, claws clicking on the kitchen tiles. Sybil produced a poor picture of a dog with a round body, four stick legs, no tail, and directly above, a fat black cloud, spitting rain onto his hapless head. Mother sighed. It was no use. Sybil only wanted to draw clouds.

  Sybil’s kindergarten teachers had no more success. They instructed, they threatened, they coaxed. But Sybil stubbornly continued to draw clouds in every possible way – clouds at dawn, clouds at sunset, clouds over the sea, clouds over the landscape. In fact, her cloud pictures were amazingly skillful for a child so young.


  Around the age of five, Sybil began to make weather predictions. “It’s going to rain today,” she’d announce, looking out onto the blue, sunlit day. “Don’t be silly”, said Mother, “there’s not a cloud in the sky; now go and brush your teeth – or you’ll be late for the school bus.” Sybil trudged off and brushed her teeth. At lunch time an enormous storm rolled in, and drenched the town for an hour. “Pure co-incidence,” muttered Mother, shaking out her wet brolly and hanging up her raincoat.

  But day after day Sybil’s pronouncements on the weather proved correct. Mother confided in Dada, one evening.   “George, I’m telling you: when it comes to the weather, Sybil’s always right. “

  George raised a skeptical eyebrow. “You’re imagining things.”

  “No, I’m not! You ask her – you watch – you’ll soon see.”

  “Sybil”, said Dada after breakfast on Saturday, “I want you to come with me to the Village Cricket Match today. There’ll be other kids there, the ice-cream van always comes, and besides, you want to see your Dada bowl out Tidebury’s captain, don’t you?”

  Sybil raised her eyes, and said” No thank you, Dada; it’ll rain at teatime and the cricket will stop. But if you really want me to come, I will,” she added dutifully.

  “Yes, I do!” said Dada briskly. “Go find your hat, let’s enjoy this sunny summer day – we don’t get that many of them.”

  Sure enough, at teatime, Dada and Sybil huddled in the Tea Tent, along with forty other players and spectators. The rain swept across the Village Green cricket pitch in grey shifting curtains. “Looks like you made a lucky guess,” said Dada, “who would’ve thought it? Out of a clear blue sky, too.” They trudged home in a fine drizzle, which didn’t let up until late afternoon. A watery sun tentatively poked its head through the low cloud, but the summer’s day was definitely defeated.

  “Just a lucky guess, that’s all,” said Dada to Mother, after supper, when Sybil was in bed.

  Mother said with ominous calm: “Really? You wait and see.”

                                                            ***

  “What a pity it’s such a rotten day,” said Dada gloomily peering out at the racing low clouds, and the thrashing tree branches. “I was looking forwards to our trip to Shelly Cover – didn’t you want to swim and hunt for starfish, like we did last time?”

  “We can still go,” said Sybil, “the sun’s shining there – it’s a lovely day at the beach. Oh please, Dada, let’s go?” and she turned an imploring face up to Dada, for once showing a vestige of enthusiasm.

  ”But … look outside, child!  There’s no point.”

  “Yes there is, please let’s go, Dada,” said Sybil, unusually persistent.

  “Yes, lets,” chimed in Mother, with a deeply significant look at Dada. “I’m sure Sybil will be right – I’ve already made a picnic lunch, let’s give it a try”.

  Sybil was correct, of course, and the family spent a glorious day at the beach.

  “Well?” asked Mother, after supper when Sybil was in bed. “What do you say now, George?”

  George wasn’t convinced. “You know how changeable the weather is in this part of the country. I don’t know. It’s crazy!” he burst out. “How can a six year old know what the weather’s going to do?”

  “Haven’t a clue,” replied Mother, “but you must admit she’s always right”.

  In the end, Dada had to tacitly admit Sybil was always right. He won a few modest bets down at the pub on local sporting events, his casual enquiries to Sybil about the likelihood of rain the next day, or on Saturday, always resulted in a confident reply. And she was always right. Once Dada asked her: “how do you know whether it’s going to rain or blow, Sybil?”

  Sybil was baffled. “I dunno,” she replied, “I just do.”

   Over the years Dada and Mother went through a series of heated arguments on the topic of Sybil’s strange affinity with the weather. Mother was all for leaving well alone “I’m sure she’ll grow out of it, once she gets a bit older – you know – when she gets to that age “ . Mother wasn’t comfortable discussing puberty with George.

  He, on the other hand, wanted to have Sybil tested, to find out how she did it, what it meant. Mother’s reaction was characteristically unhelpful. “And just who are you going to ask? Dr Widdows? The Rector?” She had a point. Dr Widdows, the local GP, was heading for a doddery eightieth birthday; the Rector was as deaf as a post.

  “We could take her to the University,” he suggested.

  “And say what?” asked Mother. “Tell them we have an eight year old daughter who’s a weather prophet?”

  George dropped the idea. But Sybil’s strange talent gnawed away at him. How did she do it? Neither he nor Mother had any scientific training, any university education; or any particular interest in meteorology, for that matter. It was very odd. He did a bit of research on the Internet, at work. During the lunch-break nobody came into the Stores, and he could play on the computer to his heart’s content. His workmates teased him about watching porn, but he shrugged off their innuendo, and continued to research his daughter’s unusual gift.

  “I don’t suppose,” he said cautiously, “that your Granny or any of your old Aunties, could do this weather thing, could they?”

  Mother shook her head, but looked pensive.
  “Well,” prodded George, “out with it”.

  Mother slowly said, “I do remember my Granny Lee telling me about her mother,  I never met her, I think she’d already died by the time I was born – something about my great-Granny  …“ she stopped and fiddled with the teaspoon in her teacup.

  “Yes?” prompted George “Go on. What about her.”

  Reluctantly Mother said in a low voice “Well, I think my Great-Granny – and that part of the family – I think they lived in caravans.” She raised her troubled face to George, who looked mystified.

  “Don’t you understand? They were gypsies!“ snapped Mother. “There. I’ve told you!” she leant back in her chair and glared at George.

  “So?” replied George. “They were gypsies. What of it? That’s all long ago and far away. Now I know where you got your pretty black curls!” and he grinned at his wife.

  His attempt at humour fell flat. “It’s a gypsy curse, I’m telling you,” said Mother ominously, “this is no gift.”

  George looked steadily at his wife. “Now, Betty,” he said in his most reasonable voice, “please: think about what you’re saying. Why should it be a curse? Why can’t it be a  talent, a gift? Maybe her fairy godmother flew over her cradle at the christening, and we didn’t notice”, he continued, trying to lighten her sombre mood.

  “No”, replied Mother, “you didn’t notice, did you? At the christening. Those two old women at the back of the church.”

  George’s face was a picture of incomprehension. “Well, I noticed them, even if you didn’t,” replied Mother in a defiant tone. She’d done her best to blot out the memory  these many years, but it was a relief, in a way, to talk openly about it now. She could remember them, as if it were yesterday. Both old women were skinny, dressed in black, with black lace headscarves over their grey hair, a glint of gold in their wrinkled ears, a touch of gold on their wrists and fingers.  She remembered spotting them when she handed baby Sybil over to the Rector, but the baby’s loud crying over the cold water on her forehead had distracted her, and when the family left the church, the women had disappeared. She’d  dismissed them from her mind, but once Sybil’s strange weather talent  emerged, the memory  crept back.

  There’d been other odd instances over the years; tiny nosegays of wild flowers would appear on the baby’s blanket, out in the garden, or a sun-ripened plum would appear on Sybil’s windowsill. Another time, one autumn, six chestnuts on a leaf appeared on the back step. Little seasonal tokens, little signs of unseen visitors. Betty always swept away the signs, or gifts, or whatever they were, and never spoke of them to either George or Sybil. She didn’t want to think about them.

  Betty and George shelved the topic of gypsy heritage; it was too far-fetched for George to embrace, and too uncomfortable for Betty to deal with.

  And then there was the recent episode with the birds. Mother sighed heavily. On  Sybil’s eleventh birthday, she’d found a raven with a broken leg, on the path outside the kitchen. Without hesitation Sibyl picked it up, carried it to her bedroom, and nursed the bird back to health. The raven hardly made a sound, but croaked quietly whenever Sybil fed it.

  After three weeks it disappeared. Just flew away. Betty wasn’t sorry. She didn’t like the bird. Ravens were a sign of bad luck, death even.  Later, the bird reappeared at intervals, landing neatly on Sybil’s windowsill, despite its crooked mended leg, carrying  gifts in its beak. Thus far it had brought a shiny gilt button, the handle of a broken plastic fork, a tiny, shiny white stone, and a golf tee. 

  Following  the raven episode, Sybil brought home a series of wounded birds and doctored them back to health. She simply ignored her Mother’s complaints and questions, serenely going about her business with the birds, busy in her own little world.

  It came as no surprise to George and Betty that Sybil failed her 11-plus examinations that year.

 “Sybil shows no interest in her schoolwork. She has no friends. We strongly suggest an appointment with the School Psychologist. We can arrange it for you,” said the headmistress.

 Unanimously, Betty and George  chorused “no thank you”, and departed, leaving the headmistress perplexed.

 “Now what?” asked Betty, looking piteously at George. They both knew that Sybil was different, a child of the winds and airs; not exactly handicapped, not exactly fey,   but not exactly your average 11-year old either.

  “Don’t worry, Betty,” said George “I’ve been working on a plan for a while.  Let me explain.” He made Betty a cup of tea, and revealed he’d made a tidy nest egg over the years, quietly using Sybil’s weather forecast powers to make winning bets on sporting fixtures. He’d mastered the skill of on-line betting, succeeding in remaining  anonymous, placing his bets around the country, never going for the jackpot, just a steady stream of winning bets.

   “I think we should  take her out of school – let’s face it, she’s not interested is she? She can read and write, do some figure-work, but I can’t see her going to college or holding a job, can you?” Reluctantly Betty nodded agreement. “Maybe  if we tell people she’s being home-schooled, then we can leave her be. She’s no trouble to anyone, you must admit,” proposed George. “We live in a quiet village, there’s plenty of countryside for her to roam, play with her birds, just be herself. And if I carry on with the betting, we’ll be able to buy her a little cottage of her own when she’s grown, and we’ve .. well, gone.”

                                                            ***

  Sybil gently drifted through the years, preoccupied with her birds, spending hours dreamily surveying the sky.  Her teenage years slipped past without any of the normal tempests experienced by her one-time peers. The village girls blossomed  into extravagant makeup, tight revealing clothes, hormone induced sparring with the local lads, binge drinking whenever they could get away with it.  George saw them in the pub over weekends, young , loud, drunken, and loutish.

   His Sybil was the exact opposite. She preferred her own company, wafting inconspicuously through the house, their garden, the surrounding farms and countryside. Her clothing was always in pale shades of blue or grey, or cloudy, long gathered skirts, or faded dungarees and tee-shirts. Dippy Hippy! Yelled the local boys, catcalling, but always from a good, safe distance.

   They still remembered the time Darren Gooden tried to grab Sybil and mess around with her, behind the Village Hall one placid summer’s evening. Sybil had been in her usual trance, strolling home, when Darren jumped out, grabbed her wrist, and pulled her roughly to him: “How’s about a kiss Hippy Girl?” he leered. Out of nowhere, out of a clear sky, a blizzard of black feathers targeted the boy, a veritable hail of crows and ravens, cawing, croaking, screeching, pecking and clawing at his head, hands, legs. It was a maelstrom of feathers, thrashing arms, pumping legs, yelling – like that old Hitchcock film – The Birds , reported one bemused onlooker who’d run out of the Village Pub, alerted by the yelling.

  Darren pelted off, trying to protect his head with his arms and his anorak, pursued by a cloud of vengeful black birds. Sybil was nowhere to be seen. Darren’s face, arms and legs were a bruised scabby mess for weeks, and after that, the teenage population gave Sybil a very wide berth indeed. They might mutter weirdo under their breath, when they saw her in the Village, but they took care to mutter quietly.

                                                            * * *

  Life flowed smoothly until the day George watched TV coverage of the traditional Appleby Horse Fair.  He was so engrossed in the scenes of horses, colourful crowds, the traditional painted caravans sprinkled amongst the modern motor-homes, that he was unaware of Sybil’s presence, behind his armchair.

  “What’s that, Dadda? Where’s that?”

  George jumped. “Oh – you startled me!  that’s the annual Appleby Horse Fair held in Cumbria –  it’s the oldest horse-fair in Britain, been going since 1685 they say. Horse traders and gypsies come from all over Britain  to …“

  “Oh! Dada! Aren’t they pretty!” breathed Sybil, gazing spellbound at the TV screen.

  George turned round in astonishment to gape at his daughter. Normally Sybil never interrupted him – in fact, she seldom spoke, and then usually in a semi-whisper.

  “What’s that, my lovely?” he asked.

  “Those”, replied Sybil pointing at the traditional wooden caravans.  “I want to live in one of those!”  and with that she abruptly left the room.

  George was nonplussed.  Sybil seldom showed enthusiasm for anything – a new dress, a birthday gift, a surprise outing all received the same polite, but lukewarm response.  He shook his head. Well, that was Sybil. She was different.

  Next morning Betty rushed into their bedroom and shook George violently. “Wake up! Sybil’s gone! She’s not in her room – bed not slept in – George! Wake up!”

  George and Betty searched the house, the garden and the surrounding woods and fields, but without success. No-one had seen Sybil in the village either. Betty checked Sybil’s cupboards and finally decided that a few skirts and tops were missing, along with her green rucksack, her hairbrush, her toothbrush, other basic necessities.

  “She’s definitely gone,” announced Betty. “But where? What do we do now?”

  “Here:  I’ve made tea, have a cuppa, love,” said George, “I think I know where. Listen to this.” He related the TV incident, Sybil’s fascination with the gypsy wagons.

  “Oh no,” wailed Betty when he’d finished, “I told you, there’s a curse!”

  “Nonsense”, said George robustly, “remember she’s eighteen years old, about time she spread her wings a little, don’t you think? I mean it’s not Mars, its only Cumbria, not that far away. Is it?” he added doubtfully. “I think we should wait and see – only until Monday, mind you, and then if she’s not back we’ll report it to the Police.”

  But they didn’t have to wait  for the three days to elapse. Next morning, Betty was in the kitchen clearing away the breakfast table, when there was a loud, persistent rapping on the kitchen window. She turned, and saw the raven on the sill, pecking diligently at the glass.

  “What do you want, you black devil!” shouted Betty, waving her arms at the bird, “Shoo! Go away! Sybil’s not here.”

  The bird didn’t budge. It stayed on the sill, pecking, pecking at the window glass. Clearly, it wasn’t going to stop. What on earth could it want? Betty reluctantly opened the window a crack.  To her astonishment the raven stayed on the sill, and extended a leg towards her. Betty saw something  beige – a slip of paper, maybe – wrapped round the birds leg, tied with a thin piece of string. “What in the world?” whispered Betty, eyeing the bird distrustfully. The raven looked her in the eye and bent its head to worry at the string with  pecks and nudges.

  “Okaaay”, whispered Betty, fearfully extending her hand towards the bird. She didn’t trust that strong, sharp beak, but the raven again thrust its leg towards Betty, who gingerly tugged at the string, but in the end, had to fetch scissors and snip the string to retrieve the slip of paper.  To her astonishment the raven remained docile, co-operative, even. Betty smoothed out the crumpled paper and saw it was half a train ticket – she could just make out the word Whitby. “My God,” she gasped, looking at the raven, which cocked its head to the side, and gave a low croak.

  “For goodness sake,” exclaimed Betty to George that evening, when she’d shared the exciting news, “anyone else would have picked up the phone and called us, but no! not Sybil – she sends a raven! “

  “That’s airmail for you,” laughed George, relieved and proud that his strange daughter had thought to allay her parents’ worries over her abrupt disappearance. “Come to think of it,” continued George thoughtfully, “I  don’t believe I ever saw Sybil on the ‘phone – did you? So raven-airmail makes a certain amount of sense, I suppose. If you’re Sybil,” he added with a rueful laugh.

  Periodically the raven would reappear, always with a message wrapped round its leg. There was a cross-Channel ferry ticket stub; then a shred of a till slip in French.

  “That bird ‘s clocking up plenty air-miles,” said George as they marveled over another till-slip fragment in a language they couldn’t identify. “I had no idea they could fly that far. I hope you’re offering it something, for all its troubles!”

  “As a matter of fact I am,” said Betty “last week I gave it bacon scraps from breakfast, “it loved those; it eats toast crusts too, but it wasn’t keen on the sunflower seeds I bought specially for it. Maybe you can research on the Internet what ravens like to eat ?”

  “Mmmhh”, replied George neutrally, knowing full well that ravens first choice was road-kill. “I’d stick to toast and bacon rinds, if I were you.”

                                                            * * *

  The next raven-mail was puzzling: it was a short length of plaited human hair, secured by an elastic band to the bird’s leg. Betty identified the fine wispy mouse brown strands as Sybil’s hair, but the thick, glossy black hair? Whose was that?

  “Whatever do you think it means? If only that bird could talk! I can see the brown hair is Sybil’s, but the black hair? Whose is that – and it curls!” she added, distrustfully eyeing the strong black curly strands.

    Hesitantly George said “I think it might mean she’s found a fella.”

  After this episode, the raven was absent for months.  The following Spring it arrived at the kitchen window, looking bedraggled, and extending its leg in the customary way.

  “Oh, you’re back”, cried Betty, “what a relief! Where have you been? And look at the state of you! What have you brought us this time? Why – whatever’s that?” Finally she managed to cut a grimy snippet of pink ribbon off the bird’s leg. The raven devoured every scrap she offered, and hung around for a week, demanding food every time Betty went into the kitchen.

  “I suppose this means we’re grand-parents?” said George slowly. “Who knows?”

  “I think you’re right” said Betty, “if only we could see them. I wonder where Sybil is now? Must be somewhere really far, judging from the state of that bird.”

  Finally, the raven departed, looking fatter and glossier after a week’s rest. “Bye bye”, called Betty, “come back soon”. A soft croak floated down to her, as the bird flapped purposefully away.

  It was a chilly November autumn morning when Betty awoke to a hail of pecking on the bedroom window.  She staggered out of bed and drew the curtains, “All right, all right, keep yer feathers on, I’m coming” she muttered, and then gasped. The windowsill was covered in ravens, as were all six trees in their garden. Overhead a cloud of black birds circled restlessly over the roof, swirling back and forth, cawing and croaking.

  “George – wake up! There’s something going on – wake up, do! I’m scared! Come and see the birds!”

  “What? “ said George, “wassamatter?” Betty yanked him out of  bed, and shoved him to the window. They stared out uncomprehendingly, fearful. Suddenly the entire flock of birds veered off around to the back of the house. Wordlessly Betty and George rushed downstairs, into the kitchen, and wrenched open the back door. Utter silence descended, not a bird moved.

  There, on the back step, was a woven wicker basket, filled with clothing and coarse gaily striped blankets, under which something moved feebly. Not a bird stirred. Clutching George for support, Betty cautiously threw off the clothing and the two uppermost blankets, to reveal a tiny baby swaddled up Indian papoose style, trying to wriggle out of its bindings. Springy black curls peeped out from a brightly coloured woven cap, its caramel coloured face was wrinkled with effort, and its dark red lips parted to let out an aggravated bellow. At the sound, every bird instantly took off, and the flock retired safely to the treetops, apart from the airmail raven, which hopped onto the edge of the basket, and extended a claw towards the yelling baby.

  “How the hell did that bird carry a basket?” stuttered George.

  “Don’t be silly George,” snapped Betty “it couldn’t possibly; humans must have brought it. You don’t suppose? “ she said hopefully,  her voice quavering. “Sybil! Sybil! “ she called, setting off the flock again into a cacophony of cawing. But answer came there none.

  That was the airmail raven’s  final delivery. Thereafter it devoted itself to the baby.  Despite Betty’s initial efforts to chase the raven away from the baby’s basket, she finally admitted defeat, and left the bird in peace, perched on the edge of the basket, where it served as an efficient avian baby-monitoring system.

  “What’re we going to called her?” asked George, once they’d tacitly agreed that this was indeed their grand-child, and would remain with them. “How about Raven? It’d suit those black curls and those eyes!”

  “Over my dead body,” snapped Betty “no grandchild of mine’s going to be named after that bird! Rose is a pretty name, don’t you think? Remember the snippet of rose pink ribbon the raven brought us?” So the baby was duly christened Rose Sybil in the village church. Betty surreptitiously kept an eye out for old back crones lurking in the back of the church, but to her relief, they didn’t appear. That night she casually commented on the fact to George, who grinned and said “So no gypsy curse for our little Rose, hey Betty?”

  Betty glared at him, but didn’t rise to the bait. She  needn’t have worried. Rose grew into a sturdy child, chubby arms and legs, round face, framed with bouncy black curls.  Her eyelashes were thick and black, and her dark eyes sparkled with lively curiosity. Around the age of three she entered the Why Phase: Why this? Why that? George exhibited saintly patience with the endless questions, Betty less so. Inevitably one day, when she was nearly five, Rose asked the question: “Grampy , why do I live with you and Nanna?  Where’s my Mummy? “

  Without even thinking George replied “Oh, your Mummy’s out there somewhere, exploring the wide world, drifting along with the clouds … that’s why she sent you to us with the Raven, so we could look after you and love you lots – that’s the why of it.”

  Rose looked thoughtful, and George held his breath. Then her face cleared and she asked “Grampy, will you play French cricket with me after tea? Please, please!”

“Of course, my lovely,” he said, breathing a sigh of relief.

THE END

SYBIL’S GIFTS

Sybil was attuned to  the weather. No doubt about it. Always was, right from babyhood.  As a baby she was quite content to lie on a blanket in the sunny back garden, gazing upwards for hours, staring at the swaying tree branches, waving at the swiftly racing clouds, clumsily trying to wipe raindrops from her eyes when she was outside in her pram, and a brief shower sprinkled the garden.

She grew into a whispy, frail child, with pale skin, watery grey eyes, and straggly  mouse brown hair. She missed out on her mother’s dark prettiness and her father’s sandy sturdiness. Her arms and legs were stick-thin, although her mother force fed her malt and cod liver oil, in an attempt to fatten her up. But to no avail. Sybil stubbornly remained stick-insect thin and pale.

When given crayons and paper, Sybil mostly drew clouds – sometimes big fat black ones, decorated with dramatic yellow lightning zig-zags; sometime she drew fat, puffy white clouds, against a clear blue sky.  “Draw a picture of Buster”, urged Mother, “look at his curly tail, and you’ve got a nice brown crayon for his coat, and black for his eyes – let’s see what you can do. Buster would love a picture, wouldn’t you?” she asked the dog, who obligingly wagged his tail and danced around, claws clicking on the kitchen tiles. Sybil produced a poor picture of a dog with a round body, four stick legs, no tail, and directly above, a fat black cloud, spitting rain onto its hapless head. Mother sighed. It was no use. Sybil only wanted to draw clouds.

Sybil’s kindergarten teachers had no more success. They instructed, they threatened, they coaxed. But Sybil stubbornly continued to draw clouds in every possible way – clouds at dawn, clouds at sunset, clouds over the sea, clouds over the landscape. In fact, her cloud pictures were amazingly skilful for a child so young.
Around the age of five, Sybil began to make weather predictions. “It’s going to rain today,” she’d announce, looking out onto the blue, sunlit day. “Don’t be silly”, said Mother, “there’s not a cloud in the sky; now go and brush your teeth – or you’ll be late for the school bus.” Sybil trudged off and brushed her teeth. At lunch time an enormous storm rolled in, and drenched the town for an hour. “Pure co-incidence,” muttered Mother, shaking out her wet brolly and hanging up her raincoat.

But day after day Sybil’s pronouncements on the weather proved correct. Mother confided in Dada, one evening.   “George, I’m telling you: when it comes to the weather, Sybil’s always right. “

George raised a sceptical eyebrow. “You’re imagining things.”

“No, I’m not! You ask her – you watch – you’ll soon see.”

“Sybil”, said Dada after breakfast on Saturday, “I want you to come with me to the Village Cricket Match today. There’ll be other kids there, the ice-cream van always comes, and besides, you want to see your Dada bowl out Tidebury’s captain, don’t you?”

Sybil raised her eyes, and said” No thank you, Dada; it’ll rain at teatime and the cricket will stop. But if you really want me to come, I will,” she added dutifully.

“Yes, I do!” said Dada briskly. “Go find your hat, let’s enjoy this sunny summer day – we don’t get that many of them.”

Sure enough, at teatime, Dada and Sybil huddled in the Tea Tent, along with forty other players and spectators. The rain swept across the Village Green cricket pitch in grey shifting curtains. “Looks like you made a lucky guess,” said Dada, “who would’ve thought it? Out of a clear blue sky, too.” They trudged home in a fine drizzle, which didn’t let up until late afternoon. A watery sun tentatively poked its head through the low cloud, but the summer’s day was definitely defeated.

“Just a lucky guess, that’s all,” said Dada to Mother, after supper, when Sybil was in bed.

Mother said with ominous calm: “Really? You wait and see.”

                                                            ***

“What a pity it’s such a rotten day,” said Dada gloomily peering out at the racing low clouds, and the thrashing tree branches. “I was looking forwards to our trip to Shelly Cover – didn’t you want to swim and hunt for starfish, like we did last time?”

“We can still go,” said Sybil, “the sun’s shining there – it’s a lovely day at the beach. Oh please, Dada, let’s go?” and she turned an imploring face up to Dada, for once showing a vestige of enthusiasm.

“”But … look outside, child!  There’s no point.”

“Yes there is, please let’s go, Dada,” said Sybil, unusually persistent.

“Yes, lets,” chimed in Mother, with a deeply significant look at Dada. “I’m sure Sybil will be right – I’ve already made a picnic lunch, let’s give it a try”.

Sybil was correct, of course, and the family spent a glorious day at the beach.

“Well?” asked Mother, after supper when Sybil was in bed. “What do you say now, George?”

George wasn’t convinced. “You know how changeable the weather is in this part of the country. I don’t know. It’s crazy!” he burst out. “How can a six year old know what the weather’s going to do?”

“Haven’t a clue,” replied Mother, “but you must admit she’s always right”.

In the end, Dada had to tacitly admit Sybil was always right. He won a few modest bets down at the pub on local sporting events, his casual enquiries to Sybil about the likelihood of rain the next day, or on Saturday, always resulted in a confident reply. And she was always right. Once Dada asked her: “how do you know whether it’s going to rain or blow, Sybil?”

Sybil was baffled. “I dunno,” she replied, “I just do.”

 Over the years Dada and Mother went through a series of heated arguments on the topic of Sybil’s strange affinity with the weather. Mother was all for leaving well alone “I’m sure she’ll grow out of it, once she gets a bit older – you know – when she gets to that age “ . Mother wasn’t comfortable discussing puberty with George.

  He, on the other hand, wanted to have Sybil tested, to find out how she did it, what it meant. Mother’s reaction was characteristically unhelpful. “And just who are you going to ask? Dr Widdows? The Rector?” She had a point. Dr Widdows, the local GP, was heading for a doddery eightieth birthday; the Rector was as deaf as a post.

“We could take her to the University,” he suggested.

“And say what?” asked Mother. “Tell them we have an eight year old daughter who’s a weather prophet?”

George dropped the idea. But Sybil’s strange talent gnawed away at him. How did she do it? Neither he nor Mother had any scientific training, any university education; or any particular interest in meteorology, for that matter. It was very odd. He did a bit of research on the Internet, at work. During the lunch-break nobody came into the Stores, and he could play on the computer to his heart’s content. His workmates teased him about watching porn, but he shrugged off their innuendo, and continued to research his daughter’s unusual gift.

“I don’t suppose,” he said cautiously, “that your Granny or any of your old Aunties, could do this weather thing, could they?”

Mother shook her head, but looked pensive.
Well,” prodded George, “out with it”.

Mother slowly said, “I do remember my Granny Lee telling me about her mother,  I never met her, I think she’d already died by the time I was born – something about my great-Granny  …“ she stopped and fiddled with the teaspoon in her teacup.

“Yes?” prompted George “Go on. What about her.”

Reluctantly Mother said in a low voice “Well, I think my Great-Granny – and that part of the family – I think they lived in caravans.” She raised her troubled face to George, who looked mystified.

“Don’t you understand? They were gypsies!“ snapped Mother. “There. I’ve told you!” she leant back in her chair and glared at George.

“So?” replied George. “They were gypsies. What of it? That’s all long ago and far away. Now I know where you got your pretty black curls!” and he grinned at his wife.

His attempt at humour fell flat. “It’s a gypsy curse, I’m telling you,” said Mother ominously, “this is no gift.”

George looked steadily at his wife. “Now, Betty,” he said in his most reasonable voice, “please: think about what you’re saying. Why should it be a curse? Why can’t it be a a talent, a gift? Maybe her fairy godmother flew over her cradle at the christening, and we didn’t notice”, he continued, trying to lighten her sombre mood.

“No”, replied Mother, “you didn’t notice, did you? At the christening. Those two old women at the back of the church.”

George’s face was a picture of incomprehension. “Well, I noticed them, even if you didn’t,” replied Mother in a defiant tone. She’d done her best to blot out the memory  these many years, but it was a relief, in a way, to talk openly about it now. She could remember them, as if it were yesterday. Both old women were skinny, dressed in black, with black lace headscarves over their grey hair, a glint of gold in their wrinkled ears, a touch of gold on their wrists and fingers.  She remembered spotting them when she handed baby Sybil over to the Rector, but the baby’s loud crying over the cold water on her forehead had distracted her, and when the family left the church, the women had disappeared. She’d  dismissed them from her mind, but once Sybil’s strange weather talent  emerged, the memory  crept back.

There’d been other odd instances over the years; tiny nosegays of wild flowers would appear on the baby’s blanket, out in the garden, or a sun-ripened plum would appear on Sybil’s windowsill. Another time, one autumn, six chestnuts on a leaf appeared on the back step. Little seasonal tokens, little signs of unseen visitors. Betty always swept away the signs, or gifts, or whatever they were, and never spoke of them to either George or Sybil. She didn’t want to think about them.

Betty and George shelved the topic of gypsy heritage; it was too far-fetched for George to embrace, and too uncomfortable for Betty to deal with.

And then there was the recent episode with the birds. Mother signed heavily. On  Sybil’s eleventh birthday, she’d found a raven with a broken leg, on the path outside the kitchen. Without hesitation Sibyll picked it up, carried it to her bedroom, and nursed the bird back to health. The raven hardly made a sound, but croaked quietly whenever Sybil fed it.

After three weeks it disappeared. Just flew away. Betty wasn’t sorry. She didn’t like the bird. Ravens were a sign of bad luck, death even.  Later, the bird reappeared at intervals, landing neatly on Sybil’s windowsill, despite its crooked mended leg,  carrying  gifts in its beak. Thus far it had brought a shiny gilt button, the handle of a broken plastic fork, a tiny shiny white stone, and a golf tee. 

Following  the raven episode, Sybil brought home a series of wounded birds and doctored them back to health. She simply ignored her Mother’s complaints and questions, serenely going about her business with the birds, busy in her own little world.

It came as no surprise to George and Betty that Sybil failed her 11-plus examinations that year. “Sybil shows no interest in her schoolwork. She has no friends. We strongly suggest an appointment with the School Psychologist. We can arrange it for you,” said the headmistress.

Unanimously, Betty and George  chorused “no thank you”, and departed, leaving the headmistress perplexed.

“Now what?” asked Betty, looking piteously at George. They both knew that Sybil was different, a child of the winds and airs; not exactly handicapped, not exactly fey,   but not exactly your average 11-year old either.

“Don’t worry, Betty,” said George “I’ve been working on a plan for a while.  Let me explain.” He made Betty a cup of tea, and revealed he’d made a tidy nest egg over the years, quietly using Sybil’s weather forecast powers to make winning bets on sporting fixtures. He’d mastered the skill of on-line betting, succeeding in remaining  anonymous, placing his bets around the country, never going for the jackpot, just a steady stream of winning bets. “I think we should  take her out of school – let’s face it, she’s not interested is she? She can read and write, do some figure-work, but I can’t see her going to college or holding a job, can you?” Reluctantly Betty nodded agreement. “Maybe  if we tell people she’s being home-schooled, then we can quietly leave her be. She’s no trouble to anyone, you must admit,” proposed George. “We live in a quiet village, there’s plenty of countryside for her to roam, play with her birds, just be herself. And if I carry on with the betting, we’ll be able to buy her a little cottage of her own when she’s grown, and we’ve .. well, gone.”

                                                            ***

Sybil gently drifted through the years, preoccupied with her birds, spending hours dreamily surveying the sky.  Her teenage years slipped past without any of the normal tempests experienced by her one-time peers. The village girls blossomed  into extravagant makeup, tight revealing clothes, hormone induced sparring with the local lads, binge drinking whenever they could get away with it.  George saw them in the pub over weekends, young , loud, drunken, and loutish.

 His Sybil was the exact opposite. She preferred her own company, wafting inconspicuously through the house, their garden, the surrounding farms and countryside. Her clothing was always in pale shades of blue or grey, or cloudy, long gathered skirts, or faded dungarees and tee-shirts. Dippy Hippy! Yelled the local boys, catcalling, but always from a good, safe distance.

 They still remembered the time Darren Gooden tried to grab Sybil and mess around with her, behind the Village Hall one placid summer’s evening. Sybil had been in her usual trance, strolling home, when Darren jumped out, grabbed her wrist, and pulled her roughly to him : “How’s about a kiss Hippy Girl?” he leered. Out of nowhere, out of a clear sky, a blizzard of black feathers targeted the boy, a veritable hail of crows and ravens, cawing, croaking, screeching, pecking and clawing at his head, hands, legs. It was a maelstrom of feathers, thrashing arms, pumping legs, yelling – like that old film – The Birds , reported one bemused onlooker who’d run out of the Village Pub, alerted by the yelling.

Darren pelted off, trying to protect his head with his arms and his anorak, pursued by a cloud of vengeful black birds. Sybil was nowhere to be seen. Darren’s face, arms and legs were a bruised scabby mess for weeks, and after that, the teenage population gave Sybil a very wide berth indeed. They might mutter weirdo under their breath, when they saw her in the Village, but they took care to mutter quietly.

                                                            * * *

Life flowed smoothly until the day George watched TV coverage of the traditional Appleby Horse Fair.  He was so engrossed in the scenes of horses, colourful crowds, the traditional painted caravans sprinkled amongst the modern motor-homes, that he was unaware of Sybil’s presence, behind his armchair.

“What’s that, Dad? Where’s that?”

George jumped. “Oh – you startled me!  that’s the annual Appleby Horse Fair held in Cumbria –  it’s the oldest horse-fair in Britain, been going since 1685 they say. Horse traders and gypsies come from all over Britain  to …“

“Oh! Dada! Aren’t they pretty!” breathed Sybil, gazing spellbound at the TV screen.

George turned round in astonishment to gape at his daughter. Normally Sybil never interrupted him – in fact, she seldom spoke, and then usually in a semi-whisper.

“What’s that, my lovely?” he asked.

“Those”, replied Sybil pointing at the traditional wooden caravans.  “I want to live in one of those!”  and with that she abruptly left the room.

George was nonplussed.  Sybil seldom showed enthusiasm for anything – a new dress, a birthday gift, a surprise outing all received the same polite, but lukewarm response.  He shook his head. Well, that was Sybil. She was different.

Next morning Betty rushed into their bedroom and shook George violently. “Wake up! Sybil’s gone! She’s not in her room – bed not slept in – George! Wake up!”

George and Betty searched the house, the garden and the surrounding woods and fields, but without success. No-one had seen Sybil in the village either. Betty checked Sybil’s cupboards and finally decided that a few skirts and tops were missing, along with her green rucksack, her hairbrush, her toothbrush, other basic necessities.

“She’s definitely gone,” announced Betty. “But where? What do we do now?”

“Here:  I’ve made tea, have a cuppa, love,” said George, “I think I know where. Listen to this.” He related the TV incident, Sybil’s fascination with the gypsy wagons.

“Oh no,” wailed Betty when he’d finished, “I told you, there’s a curse!”

“Nonsense”, said George robustly, “remember she’s eighteen years old, about time she spread her wings a little, don’t you think? I mean it’s not Mars, its only Cumbria, not that far away. Is it?” he added doubtfully. “I think we should wait and see – only until Monday, mind you, and then if she’s not back we’ll report it to the Police.”

But they didn’t have to wait  for the three days to elapse. Next morning, Betty was in the kitchen clearing away the breakfast table, when there was a loud, persistent  rapping on the kitchen window. She turned, and saw the raven on the sill, pecking diligently at the glass.

“What do you want, you black devil!” shouted Betty, waving her arms at the bird, “Shoo! Go away! Sybil’s not here.”

The bird didn’t budge. It stayed on the sill, pecking, pecking at the window glass. Clearly, it wasn’t going to stop. What on earth could it want? Betty reluctantly opened the window a crack.  To her astonishment the raven stayed on the sill, and extended a leg towards her. Betty saw something  beige – a slip of paper, maybe – wrapped round the birds leg, tied with a thin piece of string. “What in the world?” whispered Betty, eyeing the bird distrustfully. The raven looked her in the eye and bent its head to worry at the string with  pecks and nudges.

“Okaaay”, whispered Betty, fearfully extending her hand towards the bird. She didn’t trust that strong, sharp beak, but the raven again thrust its leg towards Betty, who gingerly tugged at the string, but in the end, had to fetch scissors and snip the string to retrieve the slip of paper.  To her astonishment the raven remained docile, co-operative, even. Betty smoothed out the crumpled paper and saw it was half a train ticket – she could just make out the word Whitby. “My God,” she gasped, looking at the raven, which cocked its head to the side, and gave a low croak.

“For goodness sake,” exclaimed Betty to George that evening, when she’d shared the exciting news, “anyone else would have picked up the phone and called us, but no! not Sybil – she sends a raven! “

“That’s airmail for you,” laughed George, relieved and proud that his strange daughter had thought to allay her parents’ worries over her abrupt disappearance. “Come to think of it,” continued George thoughtfully, “I  don’t believe I ever saw Sybil on the ‘phone – did you? So raven-airmail makes a certain amount of sense, I suppose. If you’re Sybil,” he added with a rueful laugh.

Periodically the raven would reappear, always with a message wrapped round its leg. There was a cross-Channel ferry ticket stub; then a shred of a till slip in French.

“That bird ‘s clocking up plenty air-miles,” said George as they marvelled over another till-slip fragment in a language they couldn’t identify. “I had no idea they could fly that far. I hope you’re offering it something, for all its troubles!”

“As a matter of fact I am,” said Betty “last week I gave it bacon scraps from breakfast, “it loved those; it eats toast crusts too, but it wasn’t keen on the sunflower seeds I bought specially for it. Maybe you can research on the Internet what ravens like to eat ?”

“Mmmhh”, replied George neutrally, knowing full well that ravens first choice was road-kill. “I’d stick to toast and bacon rinds, if I were you.”

                                                            * * *

The next raven-mail was puzzling: it was a short length of plaited human hair, secured by an elastic band to the bird’s leg. Betty identified the fine whispy mouse brown strands as Sybil’s hair, but the thick, glossy black hair? Whose was that?

“Whatever do you think it means? If only that bird could talk! I can see the brown hair is Sybil’s, but the black hair? Whose is that – and it curls!” she added, distrustfully eyeing the strong black curly strands.

Hesitantly George said “I think it might mean she’s found a fella.”

After this episode, the raven was absent for months.  The following Spring it arrived at the kitchen window, looking a bedraggled, and extending its leg in the customary way.
“Oh, you’re back”, cried Betty, “what a relief! Where have you been? And look at the state of you! What have you brought us this time? Why – whatever’s that?” Finally she managed to cut a grimy snippet of pink ribbon off the bird’s leg. The raven devoured every scrap she offered, and hung around for a week, demanding food every time Betty went into the kitchen.

“I suppose this means we’re grand-parents?” said George slowly. “Who knows?”

“I think you’re right” said Betty, “if only we could see them. I wonder where Sybil is now? Must be somewhere really far, judging from the state of that bird.”

Finally, the raven departed, looking fatter and glossier after a week’s rest. “Bye bye”, called Betty, “come back soon”. A soft croak floated down to her, as the bird flapped purposefully away.

It was a chilly November autumn morning when Betty awoke to a hail of pecking on the bedroom window.  She staggered out of bed and drew the curtains, “All right, all right, keep yer feathers on, I’m coming” she muttered, and then gasped. The windowsill was covered in ravens, as were all six trees in their garden. Overhead a cloud of black birds circled restlessly over the roof, swirling back and forth, cawing and croaking.

“George – wake up! There’s something going on – wake up,  do! I’m scared! Come and see the birds!”

“What? “ said George, “wassamatter?” Betty yanked him out of  bed, and shoved him to the window. They stared out uncomprehendingly, fearful. Suddenly the entire flock of birds veered off around to the back of the house. Wordlessly Betty and George rushed downstairs, into the kitchen, and wrenched open the back door. Utter silence descended, not a bird moved.

There, on the back step, was a woven wicker basket, filled with clothing and coarse gaily striped blankets, under which something moved feebly. Not a bird stirred. Clutching George for support, Betty cautiously threw off the clothing and the two uppermost blankets, to reveal a tiny baby swaddled up Indian papoose style,  trying to wriggle out of its bindings. Springy black curls peeped out from a brightly coloured woven cap, its caramel coloured face was wrinkled with effort, and its dark red lips parted to let out an aggravated bellow. At the sound, every bird instantly took off, and the flock retired safely to the treetops, apart from the airmail raven, which hopped onto the edge of the basket, and extended a claw towards the yelling baby.

“How the hell did that bird carry a basket?” stuttered George.

“Don’t be silly George,” snapped Betty “it couldn’t possibly; humans must have brought it. You don’t suppose? “ she said hopefully,  her voice quavering. “Sybil! Sybil! “ she called, setting off the flock again into a cacophony of cawing. But answer came there none.

That was the airmail raven’s  final delivery. Thereafter it devoted itself to the baby.  Despite Betty’s initial efforts to chase the raven away from the baby’s basket, she finally admitted defeat, and left the bird in peace, perched on the edge of the basket, where it served as an efficient avian baby-monitoring system.

“What’re we going to called her?” asked George, once they’d tacitly agreed that this was indeed their grand-child, and would remain with them. “How about Raven? It’d suit those black curls and those eyes!”

“Over my dead body,” snapped Betty “no grandchild of mine’s going to be named after that bird! Rose is a pretty name, don’t you think? Remember the snippet of rose pink ribbon the raven brought us?” So the baby was duly christened Rose Sybil in the village church. Betty surreptitiously kept an eye out for old back crones lurking in the back of the church, but to her relief, they didn’t appear. That night she casually commented on the fact to George, who grinned and said “So no gypsy curse for our little Rose, hey Betty?”

Betty glared at him, but didn’t rise to the bait. Betty needn’t have worried. Rose grew into a sturdy child, chubby arms and legs, round face, framed with bouncy black curls.  Her eyelashes were thick and black, and her dark eyes sparkled with lively curiosity. Around the age of three she entered the Why Phase: Why this? Why that? George exhibited saintly patience with the endless questions, Betty less so. Inevitably one day, when she was nearly five, Rose asked the question: “Grampy , why do I live with you and Nanna?  Where’s my Mummy? “

Without even thinking George replied “Oh, your Mummy’s out there somewhere, exploring the wide world, drifting along with the clouds … that’s why she sent you to us with the Raven, so we could look after you and love you lots – that’s the why of it.”

Rose looked thoughtful, and George held his breath. Then her face cleared and she asked “Grampy, will you play French cricket with me after tea? Please, please!”

“Of course, my lovely,” he said, breathing a sigh of relief.

THE END

10 Comments

Filed under WRITING

CATCH UP POST : KLOOF AND HIGHWAY SPCA


A bird on the roof, one on the wall, and a mousy peahen on the ground

As I said in the preface to my recently posted story, The Writer’s Safari, I haven’t traveled anywhere for a year, and am living quietly at home, so I have no new adventures to share.  But I do have photos taken three years ago, whilst visiting my family in Kwa-Zulu Natal, that never made it on to my Despatches blog.  After my visit I was too busy running round, involved in activity – we all remember those days, don’t we? But now I have the time to sort through my pics, and put together a post or two.

This post  shows one of my favourite places: The Kloof and Highway SPCA. The large property is situated in a wild, hillside area close to the commercial area, but it could be a million miles away, due to the tropical vegetation and the wildlife.

 The chief attraction for me  is their second-hand bookshop – literally thousands of books in a thoroughly awkward space, punctuated by  sudden, unexpected, spine- jolting steps, invisible in the badly lit space. An upmarket shop it ain’t. I know the roof leaks and in the thick, humid tropical climate, that doesn’t do books a lot of good, as you can imagine. Notwithstanding this, I’ve unearthed some real treasures over the years. And the money supports their wonderful non-profit organization. Where would we be without the SPCA?

If you’re THAT beautiful, of course you’re admiring your image on the glass door

But the other major  attraction are the spacious grounds, covered in tough kikuyu grass, shaded by enormous old  tropical trees and wandering around completely at ease, are magnificent peacocks, screaming at the top of their raucous voices . Their  noisy cries are equalled  by the constant chorus of barking from the dog kennels. Help! bark the dogs, Where am I? why am I locked up? where are my humans?  It’s heart breaking. You just want to adopt them all, and of course, you can’t.

But notwithstanding the soundtrack, the peacocks are wonderful to watch as they parade around, pecking up ants in the lawns, or roosting noisily atop the buildings.

Peacock pest control

And added to their displays, are the hordes of monkeys running confidently around the grounds, leaping onto roofs, swinging from tree to tree, constantly on the lookout for  food or other diversions.

Can you spot the monkey on the roof?

 An SPCA volunteer grumbled to me that the monkeys would invade the buildings and raid any unlocked drawers or cupboards, on the hunt for food and apparently addicted to sugar. Woe betide any distracted volunteer who left out the sugar bowl after making coffee, because a crafty monkey would soon materialize and make off with their favourite treat! Those clever black paws had even mastered the simple locking devices  installed on cupboards, so the war between monkeys and humans never ceases.

And should you be relaxing  with a cuppa in the tea-garden, located on the lawns underneath the shady trees, you needed to be super vigilant about your cream scone (and the sugar bowl!) because beady eyes in the surrounding trees are monitoring your every move and just waiting to swoop down and steal a morsel.

Kids loved chasing the monkeys when the monkeys swing down from the branches  into the playground area; along, through, under and over the Jungle Gym and swings – far more agile than the clumsy kids pursuing them. 

I wrote about the Kloof & Highway in a previous post, way back in  May  2011, and here’s the link if you’d enjoy reading more about the place. https://wordpress.com/post/despatchesfromtimbuktu.wordpress.com/138  VISITING THE SPCA

https://www.facebook.com/SPCAKloofandHighway/

4 Comments

Filed under TRAVEL