Category Archives: WRITING

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

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A WRITER’S SAFARI by A M Smith©


Because of the Pandemic, I have no travel stories to tell, and an uneventful life at home. So here is one of my long stories, about an amateur writer who goes on a family fishing holiday on the Zambezi River. It describes another lifestyle, another country, another time. Remember: this is fiction! Enjoy

There’s small glossary at the end, should you need it.

Zambezi tigerfish

The two Land Rovers forged noisily northwards, bypassing Harare, through Rusape, past ruined tobacco barns, past  rotted polythene growing tunnels; past deserted mud huts, thatch threadbare and holed, past straggly stunted mealies, past ragged children who waved listlessly at the small convoy, past all signs of cultivation or human habitation until finally there was nothing but bush.  Virgin bush on every side, up to the horizon which was framed by the clear blue sky.  Aileen gave a sigh of contentment.  This was what she had worked for,  saved for, dreamed of and slogged for with iron determination.  Just bush, and a glorious ten days of no office, no telephones, no kids.  Just bush, the river and some fishing and finally, the chance to get down to some serious writing.   Perfect!

Up front Uncle Harry drove, completely on automatic pilot,  intent on a PhD level discussion with Neville  on the new Bok team to play Scotland.  Next to Aileen in the back, Aunt Susie sat knitting, also on automatic pilot.

Clive drove the second Landy, with George as navigator, and Phineas and Enoch as passengers.  Uncle Harry believed in camping in comfort with all mod cons, which included hot and cold running camp staff, hence the presence of Phineas and Enoch.  In his scheme of things the perfect fishing trip did not include fire making, water carrying, dish-washing, fish gutting and cleaning, camp site cleaning or the digging of latrines and erecting of shower shelters.   However, Phineas and Enoch also  benefited  from  fishing trips to the river, as they filleted and smoked the fat Zambezi tiger fish  which they  later sold at an enormous  profit in the Bulawayo townships.  Everybody happy.

That evening the party relaxed by the fire after a long hot day’s drive to the river.  The night was warm and utterly dark, frogs creaked on the river banks, the mosquitoes sang busily but this was all part of the bush experience and Aileen loved every bit of it.  A long day’s travel is best followed by an early night and the party thankfully crept into their two-man tents.  Aileen was too tired to even attempt her usual day’s end diary entry.  Tomorrow, she thought sleepily, tomorrow I’ll ………

Phineas arrived at 5 a.m. with mugs of tea. So  getting up very  early to catch the freshness of the river at sunrise was no hardship.  Aileen and Neville set up-river with George and Clive, the rubber-duck making good headway against the strong current.   Clive piloted them to an old favourite fishing spot and they settled down to  enjoying the  coolness of the early morning, competitively  identifying bird-calls, spotting a pod of hippo further upstream on the far bank, casting out their lines, waiting for the tell-tale bob of the float, the tentative tug on the line. 

Aileen planned to use river scenery details  in the novel  she was working on, and scratched around in her backpack for her Writer’s Notebook, greatly irritating the men who knew that Zambezi fish have ultra-sensitive hearing easily disturbed by  the sounds  generated by females flapping around in small boats.  She glared at them, and continued to dig fruitlessly in her backpack.  Damn!  She must have left her vital  notebook back in their tent.  Oh well.  She began to make mental notes about the sounds, colours, smells, sensations and   string together a few handy phrases, when her reverie was interrupted by Clive who angrily hissed that her line had drifted across his and now look what had happened!  Lines  crossed and inextricably tangled!  Lines and peace were finally restored, but since the fish were not in a co-operative mood, breakfast seemed like a good option.

Enoch and Aunt Susie had produced a mammoth breakfast.  Uncle Harry, a man of fixed view and pronounced paunch, held that a substantial breakfast around 9 a.m.  followed by a light snack lunch of beer around mid-day (too hot to eat, anyway, proclaimed Uncle Harry) and then a decent early braai was the only sensible catering scheme for fishing trips. Fortified by breakfast the party applied sunblock and determination in equal quantities and fished until lunch-time, returning from the river with ten  fat tiger fish  and powerful  thirsts. 

Aileen had discovered that her essential Writer’s Notebook was not in the tent, or anywhere else.  Seemingly she had left it behind in Aunt Susie’s spare bedroom. The only other paper in camp was Aunt Susie’s beloved collection of Agatha Christie novels and removal of the spare flysheets at the back of the books was  unthinkable.  This pillage would have been fatal to their battered constitutions.  What to do?  Oddly enough Phineas came to the rescue with  a modest blue Croxley writing pad.  “Madam can use this,” he offered.  Aileen seized it gratefully and hastily jotted down some of the rapidly vanishing phrases from her  morning sunrise on the river.  Better than nothing, she supposed, writing extra small, so as to save precious paper.

Her main writing task on this trip, now that she had some time and head-space at her disposal, was to  plot the frame-work of her novel, get the story-line into shape, and work out where best to insert the main dramatic events that befell her heroine, a young Scottish lass, newly emigrated to the colonies and faced with life in the raw on an African tobacco farm. Lions , migrating herds of game, yes, all the details of old pristine Africa, the challenges of pioneer-style living, and of course, the romance.  Aileen was undecided as to whether the romantic interest would best be served by a pale young DC with a mystery history ( a remittance man?  Aristocratic black sheep?) saved by the love of a good woman; or maybe a better foil for the Scottish lass would be a sunburned but silent white hunter? While pondering these options the snack lunch and the furnace heat of mid-day took their toll, and Aileen slept.

Phineas toiled around at 4.30 with fresh installments of tea, and fishing resumed against the gaudy backdrop of the African sunset over the Zambezi.  The sun died in a glorious burst of crimson, peach and gold while the pale blue sky  turned  suitably to deep mid-night blue.   Sunburned, relaxed and replete the fishing party gazed sleepily into the roaring camp-fire.  Mmmh, thought Aileen, the smell of woodsmoke, the utterly dark sky, night sounds of the bush – oh, the peace! She savoured it.  Peaceful, and tranquil, no worries, no crime, no high-jackings, just the blessed, blessed bush.  She could have sat in her canvas camp chair all night but Neville prised her out and they wandered off to their tent by the light of their torch.  Disturbed by her departure, the large adult puff-adder under her camp-chair  gathered itself together and  slithered off in search of a frog, leaving a sandy signature in its wake. 

“Hau, Madam was lucky last night,” said Phineas chattily, offering an enamel mug of tea at 5 a.m. “big njoka under Madam’s chair last night!”  he chortled, trundling away with his tea-tray.  “Don’t worry babes,” said Neville comfortingly, “they only bite if you step on them.   No need to catch such a skrik!”

The days settled into an easy pattern of early mornings, days on the river, snack lunches of beer, nights around the fire with  jovial and embroidered accounts of the monsters that got away, together with the eternal minute analyses of the Boks’ performance at rugby and cricket.

 Aunt Susie cooked and knitted.  The tstetse flies feasted on the party, save for Phineas and Enoch whose fish-smoking activities would have proofed them against attach by rabid vultures, never mind hungry tstetse flies.  The mercury climbed effortlessly into the high 30’s, early 40’s.  Enoch had to dig another pit to tidy up the mountain of empty beer cans.

Nothing much else happened.  Aileen loved it.  Daily after lunch she sat down with the blue Croxley pad and wrestled with the plot, which was proving difficult.    Somehow the romantic episodes were proving the most difficult of all.  She loathed the bodice ripper style of encounter, all that thrusting and  heavy breathing and quivering: ugh!  Her novel would be sensitive, tasteful, yet passionate and earthy.

Hmmmmm.   Her own experience in this area was limited, due to an early marriage and a husband who took a workmanlike approach to his love life which might best be described as thorough, but uninspired. Apart from his curious habit, she mused, of muttering rugby players names just prior orgasm.  She had never understood this odd foible and he had made it clear, long ago, that he did not intend to explain.

 The answer was simple of course: by mentally reciting the names of every Springbok player since 1960, Neville was able to delay orgasm very successfully, until he could no longer withstand the urgent tide. And what was even more curious, she ruminated, was that she had distinctly heard George (or was it Clive?) shout out Os du Randt! last night, well after lights out.  Surely to goodness those wretched men didn’t dream about rugby all night as well as talk about it all day ? Aileen doodled distractedly on the blue Croxley pad seeking inspiration. 

Neville’s sportsmanlike approach to sex had proved equally inspiring to George and Clive, after he had revealed his formula for a happy marriage to the pair one hot afternoon when they had the boat to themselves and the fish were off the bite. It must have been the effect of an usually hearty snack lunch  that had encouraged him to reveal these confidences.  George and Clive had been impressed by this useful approach and had earnestly assured him they would remember this sage advice when the next suitable occasion presented itself.

Aileen’s thoughts turned to George and Clive – what marvelous heroic prototypes those two were, deeply tanned from days in the veld on the farm, strongly built, clean shaven, clean cut in fact.  Maybe she could model her fictional hero on them.  She wondered why they’d never married, two attractive men like that.  Just as well perhaps, because when Clive had been kicked off his farm by the war veterans George, on the next-door farm,  had generously taken him in, and Clive had simply stayed on, two years was it now?  No wife would have tolerated that she thought, but still what a pity, such a good looking guy.  She dozed off, stunned by the snack lunch and the sun, to be awoken hours later  by the ever obliging Phineas, offering a tray of tea.

“Madam is writing more letters?” enquired Phineas eyeing the blue Croxley pad. “Umm no, not letters” replied Aileen suddenly shy  about  explaining  her literary aspirations to Phineas, even though he was the generous donor of precious paper. “I, uhh” she began but was interrupted by a stentorian bellow from Uncle Harry demanding assistance with the cleaning of his days’ catch of tiger fish.  That’s a relief she thought as Phineas briskly sped away down to the river bank, his white  Bata takkies twinkling brightly through the short grass.  However could she even begin to  explain the  plot of a romantic novel, set in Pioneer Days, to Phineas?

Phineas in fact, had literary problems of his own. Aileen was not alone in her troubles.  Had she but known it, he could have provided a very sympathetic ear.  His German publisher was snapping at his heels and demanding, via a stream of hysterical  phone calls, sight of the first four chapters of the new novel, and he was two months in arrears with his translation from the Ndebele  into English of the traditional saga about the Nyami-nyami legend of the mythical water creature that lived in the deep pools of the Zambezi below the Vic Falls.  He hacked viciously into the fat belly of a tiger fish and the entrails spilled out in a slimy, bloody knot – curse all publishers, all agents, all accountants, all lawyers, if he could consign the lot of them into the jaws of the nyami-nyami he would!

 With rapid harsh movements he de-scaled the tiger fish. A savage stroke beheaded the next fish from the awaiting pile. The glassy fish-eye on the disembodied head reminded him suddenly of Rolf, his drug dealer in Cologne.  He looked around covertly.  He was alone on the river bank. He stabbed the fisheye repeatedly muttering “you bastard, you bastard” until the terrible craving had subsided.  Phineas sank back on his haunches, exhaled deeply, and let the scaling knife drop onto the sand.  He washed his bloody hands in the river and noted with irritation that he’d got blood on his Bata tackies.  He’d never hear the end of it from Uncle Enoch.

Uncle Enoch was very, very proud of Phineas’ accomplishments and very, very condemnatory of his dissipated European lifestyle.  It was Uncle Enoch who had offered Phineas a refuge, a bolt-hole, while he tried to shake off the drug demons and tried to start writing again.  As a strategy it had worked beautifully.  Who would have dreamed of looking for star writer Phin Makawira, prize-winning novelist Phin, in the cook-boy’s quarters of Uncle Harry’s Bulawayo mansion?  Certainly not Rolf, certainly not those hyenas from the lawyers and accountants and publishers.

 Phineas hurled the fishy debris as far as he could into the river and watched with respect as a knobbly head surfaced briefly and swirled around the sinking mess. Crocodile would be too good an ending for those people he thought grimly, swinging his pail of fish as he headed for the camp kitchen.

All too soon it was time to pack up camp and drive back to Bulawayo, step back into the real world of business, home and kids.  Aileen loved her terrifically relaxing trip and redeemed herself by catching the biggest tigerfish , nearly 9 kgs.  Enoch had tenderly entombed it in the gas fridge, and it would be rushed to the taxidermist  in Bulawayo at the first opportunity.  So much for women messing around in small boats and disturbing the fish thought Aileen smugly.  On the whole she hadn’t done much writing and had returned the now rather tatty blue Croxley pad to Phineas who had  remarked “Madam has the writer’s block too?”  She must have misheard him, what a strange thing to say. 

Nothing hugely  exciting had happened on the trip, except perhaps the night when Clive (or was it George?) had shrieked Francois Pienaar! At the top of his lungs late one night and startled the  eleven hippo who had been grazing quietly on the grass between the tents,  and in their mad rush back to the water,  had careered into the guy ropes of Uncle Harry’s tent, causing it to collapse on the occupants.  The entire campsite was startled into groggy wakefulness and it took some time to calm Aunt Susie and re-erect the tent.  Clive had been very apologetic about startling the hippo  – must have been dreaming and shouted out, he muttered, sorry chaps!

 Phineas and Enoch had rushed in to assist and Aileen couldn’t help but notice that Phineas had the most dreadful scars on his thighs, and, would you believe, Calvin Kline underwear. Probably  Taiwanese rip-offs from the market she thought.  So she wouldn’t really have anything terribly exciting to report to her Writers’ Circle meeting when she got back, other than her embarrassing lack of progress on The Novel.  Nothing like the exciting literary tours that Piet  from her Writers’ Circle kept going on, she thought wistfully, wish I could hobnob with famous writers like he does!  Oh well, she had at least the glory of that magnificent 9kg tigerfish, if nothing else.

GLOSSARY

Bok team = South African Springbok rugby team

Mealies = maize plants

Njoika = snake

Skrik = fright

Bata takkies = ubiquitous brand of sandshoes, known as plimsolls in British English

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A RE-POST FROM JULY 2017: SLOW BLOGGING


*JAP:  SLOW BLOGGING

IMG_20190714_115307_resized_20190714_020251292 (3)

Today I discovered a new literary blog  on WordPress – dolcebellezza  thanks to the industrious blogger on bookertalk.wordpress.com  who is a marvellous source of info on literary topics.  Anyway, when I was reading the About  section on dolcebellezza,  she made an interesting remark on the topic of Slow Blogging, saying that having reached her 10th Blogging Anniversary (I’m impressed) she’s come to realise the  satisfaction of Slow Blogging. The capitalisation is mine, not hers. In essence it’s about  no longer being driven, or feeling you have to blog daily – or weekly – or instantly – whatever crazy targets you have set for yourself. Instead you blog whenever you have the inclination  and take time to enjoy the process. Kind of like the  Slow Food movement  I suppose? Things that take a long time to cook, whether prose or pumpkin, generally taste much nicer when you get to savour that deep flavour.

Theoretically I have a target of one blog per week, for each of my two blogs * but it doesn’t always turn out that way. Does it matter? Hell no. I blog because I enjoy it, so  less of the whip and treadmill technique can only be good news.

*(Just a Paragraph:  when I’m short of time and/or inspiration, I keep my blog ticking over with ‘just a paragraph’: random thoughts, reflections, comments, ideas … little snippets)

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MEANINGS AND MEMORIES


Very occasionally I share my creative writing on my blog. Here is a short piece on the theme of STORM .

STORM (n) – violent weather with wind, rain or snow.

STORM (vb) –  attack or capture (a place) suddenly

STORMING (adj)  – characterised by or displaying dynamism, speed or energy

STORMY (adj) – characterised by storms  *

 

I remember words have  an abundance of  variations .

I remember  storms in teacups.

I remember storms of outrage.

I remember storms of criticism.

I remember  stormy emotions.

I remember stormy tears.

I remember dust storms.

I remember  hail storms.

I remember Highveld summer storms.

I remember Cape winter storms.

I remember storming  winds.

I remember storms of laughter.

I remember storms of applause.

I remember storming  passion.

I remember I’ve forgotten hundreds of other storms over the legion of years that march towards the end  of my long life.

I remember I’ve now forgotten more than I am able to remember.

 

* Source – Collins SCRABBLE Dictionary

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TO BLOG OR NOT TO BLOG? THAT IS THE QUESTION


Catching up on my WordPress Reader I found a number of Bloggers reviewing their 2017 blogging year. At one end of the spectrum was the unbelievably dedicated, productive Alec Nevala-Lee who revealed he has written a 1 000 word blog post every day of this year. Respect, Alec! How did he do it? We all know perfectly well how he did it. He single mindedly sat down and applied himself until his daily piece was written. This, mark you in addition to his work as a novelist and freelance writer.

 
At the other end of the spectrum I read a post by 746 Books in which Kathy confesses that 2017 was not a productive blogging year for her. She said it had been difficult to carve out time for writing on her blog, and that her reading (she’s a bookworm, like me) progress had been unsatisfactory. She wondered whether she should stop blogging altogether? These salutary thoughts on her 4th Blogoversary.

 
I know how she feels. Whilst I am not in her league when it comes to compulsive book buying, it is a factor in my life. Let’s face it, I’m more of a reader than I’m a writer. Then I read Ann V Klotz post titled Writing is Everything. Do I feel that way? No, I don’t, but part of me wishes I did. The title is a little misleading, in that she details the myriad events that keep her from the keyboard. I know the feeling well!

 
I am experiencing December fatigue after a busy year. The end of November and beginning of December are always hectic in South Africa. On 16 December the entire country pretty much shuts down – industry, the building trade, anything that is not retail or hospitality related. Try getting anything done between now and 08 January 2018. Fuggedabtoutit, as the Americans say. So the build up to 16 December is frantic. Everyone trying to get projects completed before shut-down. Social clubs and organisations cramming in their year-end staff parties/thank-you ceremonies/ etc. By December 16th the nation is in a soggy heap, ready to go on holiday and start (or continue) partying.

 
Do I feel like blogging? Not really. Hopefully by January 2018 I will have rested and recovered, enjoyed a relaxing Christmas Family Visit in Durban, and be ready to resume my blogging . Meanwhile: Wishing all a peaceful Festive Season with your families and friends, and a happy, healthy New Year.
Over and Out.

 
Oooops, no, not quite. My alter-ego and companion Chocolat has a few scornful final words to add to my post: She says: My Personal Assistant should do as I do . Life really is so simple : find a comfy, sandy spot under the shady karee tree, and relax. Saunter indoors for a cooling sip of water and then continue napping on the PA’s feather duvet. What’s all the fuss about?

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*(JAP) SLOW BLOGGING


 

Today I discovered a new literary blog  on WordPress – dolcebellezza  thanks to the industrious blogger on bookertalk.wordpress.com  who is a marvellous source of info on literary topics.  Anyway, when I was reading the About  section on dolcebellezza,  she made an interesting remark on the topic of Slow Blogging, saying that having reached her 10th Blogging Anniversary (I’m impressed) she’s come to realise the  satisfaction of Slow Blogging. The capitalisation is mine, not hers. In essence it’s about  no longer being driven, or feeling you have to blog daily – or weekly – or instantly – whatever crazy targets you have set for yourself. Instead you blog whenever you have the inclination  and take time to enjoy the process. Kind of like the  Slow Food movement  I suppose? Things that take a long time to cook, whether prose or pumpkin, generally taste much nicer when you get to savour that deep flavour.

Theoretically I have a target of one blog per week, for each of my two blogs * but it doesn’t always turn out that way. Does it matter? Hell no. I blog because I enjoy it, so  less of the whip and treadmill technique can only be good news.

*(Just a Paragraph:  when I’m short of time and/or inspiration, I keep my blog ticking over with ‘just a paragraph’: random thoughts, reflections, comments, ideas … little snippets)

 

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THE FREEDOM OF UNSUBSCRIBING


 

 

You have no idea how liberating it is to tick the Unsubscribe box  and confirm that you no longer wish to receive e-mails from  xyz  site. 

Let’s face it: over time one’s interest can, do and should change. Why not? You’re not dead are you? Life flows swiftly by and some interests prove to have been but a passing fancy, or a big mistake. Did you really think you were going to learn Urdu on-line from Babbel.com?  Get a grip!

So I unsubscribed from the writing sites that were clogging up my Yahoo Inbox. Right now I’m confining myself to blogging and the occasional letter to long-time friends. I’m not writing short stories or working on a novel. So why do I need torrents of advice on 20 Sure fire tricks to get that Novel Finished!  or  Revision strategy?  or  How to Write a Killer Query letter   or Find your Agent, make a new Friend!

My Yahoo InBox should be breathing an enormous sigh of relief. I know I am.  Wading through the advice swamp was time consuming, to say the least of it. Now all I have to do is wean myself away from Pinterest. Think I’ll leave that until next week.  Softly softly catchee monkey, and all that.

And I’m firmly resisting the odd stabs of FOMO.  Do you know what that is? Fear of missing out.  Some genius has identified it as a new trend, symptomatic of our insatiable craving for electronic content.  They may be on to something. But: I will be strong! Subscriptions – be gone!

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POTTERING THROUGH MY NOTEBOOKS


I’m a great potter-er. Sunday is a good day to potter around my house, doing minor tasks, playing with my Stuff. Even after my recent purge (see my recent post about The Guys and the Grand Purge) I still have plenty of Stuff left to play with. Believe me.

I was paging through my  old notebooks, dating back to the early 1990s.  Regrettably I have a weakness for notebooks. I can’t resist them. And don’t let me find a sale offering bargain price notebooks, because we all know what will happen.  A quirky cover? Cute Cats? Gold and sparkly ?  Ka-ching. Ka-ching.

So there I was, reminiscing with my notebooks when I was struck by a thought: what will happen to my notebooks when I die? Will the family be sufficiently interested to read them? Always assuming, of course, that they can read them. My handwriting varies from the semi-legible to a jerky scrawl …

Added to which I have developed a  series of abbreviations over the years, which enables me  to write quickly, and the chances of anybody else working out what I  intended, are not good. I spent years slaving behind a typewriter, and latterly a keyboard, which means I can type much, much faster than I can write. I can type at the speed of my thoughts. Very satisfactory, and also legible. But obviously notebooks are handwritten, in a variety of places – coffee shops, aeroplanes, retreat centres, other people’s spare bedrooms – anywhere and everywhere, and the  notes are not always legible.  Even to my eye.

The notebooks contain ideas for future  blog posts, draft poems, notes to self, articles, writing exercises, outpourings of angst, lists, titles of books and authors and  must-reads. And so on. Let’s face it: because I’m not a famous writer, nor a noted social diarist, it’s doubtful that anybody else will be remotely interested in my scribbling.

On the topic of noted social diarists, some very famous people e.g. Winston Churchill, or famous  writers e.g. Noel Coward  kept detailed – and regular – diaries. I own a copy of a fascinating compilation of diary entries, arranged by date and kicking off around the era of  the mid 1660’s (Samuel Pepys)  up to the late 20th century  (Alec Guinness, Brian Eno, Andy Warhol), titled The Assassin’s Cloak,  edited by Irene & Alan Taylor.   Of course, the social diarists entries are a delightful  mix of gossip, innuendo and scandal, whilst the politicians are dealing with weighty matters of state, or declaring war and so forth.  A far cry from my notebooks.

Thinking it over, I should probably tear out the written pages, burn them, and donate the remaining unused notebook to a charitable scheme collecting stationery for  disadvantaged school kids.  That’s what I should do . I probably won’t get around to it, and my family will stare in dismay at the pile of notebooks and say : “What the hell are we going to do with these?” Good question.

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THE DAYS OF MY YOUTH by A M Smith ©


 

 

Periodically I post my short fiction on my blog.  The following short memoir could have been titled “Interview with a Monster” but I opted for “The Days of my Youth”  because it was written in response to the question: what happens before or after a famous fictional event? So I chose Thomas Harris’ famous fictional creation, and  wondered what sort of a childhood could produce such a complex, monstrous character? The character is being interviewed by a brave journalist:

 

 

I’m hoping to set the record straight, by agreeing to this interview about my earliest childhood experiences.  Everyone seems to think that people like me emerge from the womb dripping with wickedness, right from the start.  It’s not so – nothing could be further from the truth.  I had a perfectly normal childhood.  Normal –  whatever that is. It’s all relative isn’t it? But perhaps you don’t agree.

My earliest memory? Mmm, let’s see. I remember Mother pushing me up and down the garden path in my pram, humming quietly under her breath, trying to get me to drop off to sleep no doubt.  Father didn’t like to be disturbed, he made it very clear he would not tolerate a screaming baby, and once he was in his workroom he definitely didn’t want to be disturbed.  I remember being allowed to visit his workroom, I might have been four or five, maybe?  I was allowed in, on condition I sat on the stool and didn’t touch anything.  I remember the smell of the formaldehyde, and being enchanted by the box containing the glass eyes – I was longing to touch them, and play with them, but I sat on my hands, and looked around at the animal heads mounted on the walls, the glass fronted display case containing the most delicate examples of Father’s craft, the birds, seemingly caught in mid-flight. No, no, I don’t think Father’s taxidermy had anything to do with my interests in later life.

Oh – one of my fondest memories from my early years, was Spot.  My dog – I loved him dearly.  He had black spotty patches on his white coat, and so lively, as only fox terriers can be!  And I’d like to emphasize that I did not spend my boyhood  doing unspeakable things to small animals!  Really, you have no idea, no idea at all, of the dreadful letters I receive on this subject – I often wonder whether the authorities have locked up the right person when I read those letters. Trust me, some of those letter-writers ought to be in here, if what they write is to be believed.  I’m sorry, but I feel strongly about this and again it takes me back to my first question : what is normal?

You think my name might have been an influencing factor? Well – I must admit it is an unusual name – Mother was obsessed with the ancient world and she chose my name. Of course, once I went to school, I was teased mercilessly about my name. And then, later, the newspapers had a field day inventing that silly rhyming couplet to describe me.  So juvenile, don’t you agree?

My first love? Oh, that’s an easy question to answer: she was the prettiest little girl (I have a soft spot for pretty women – but perhaps you’ve heard). Anyway, she sat in the desk in front of me in Primary School.  She had long brown ringlets, and her name was Clare.  It’s a name that keeps recurring in my life, quite strange really. Very recently a young woman came to interview me and her name was Clarice.  But not a pretty girl, I have to say, rather thin mousy hair and a pale, strained face.

Another vivid childhood memory?  Well, let’s see. I know!  it was Uncle Gregor’s visit. I must have been about seven at the time. I found him very exotic, with his thick accent and funny foreign clothes. But what I remember most clearly is the night he took us out to dine, in a restaurant, what an occasion! The starched tablecloth, the smart waiters, the bright lights, the odours of food, wine, cigars, the buzz of voices – so different from our usual quiet life at home.  What? What did I eat? Do you know, I can’t remember, but I do remember what Uncle Gregor ordered. I’d never seen or heard of it before – hardly surprising, Steak Tartare was not a feature of our modest suburban cuisine. I remember being fascinated by the deep redness of the raw steak, and the intoxicating rich, sharp bloody smell of the meat – somehow it struck a deep note in the depth of my being. Hmmm. Now that I look back, perhaps a seminal moment.

What? Sorry, I was wool-gathering. More about my school days? Well, I don’t know – nothing really springs to mind.  My favourite lesson? Oh – biology I suppose, especially when I reached Senior School, and we started dissecting specimens. I was quite handy with a scalpel, Father’s tuition paid off there, and it was always so intriguing to slice through the muscle tissue and come to those perfect little organs, those tiny little mouse-hearts glistening with the blood … Are you alright? You’ve turned quite pale. Maybe you should call the guard and get some water?  Or should we stop now, perhaps it’s enough for one day.

But I must say I’ve enjoyed re-living my childhood memories with you, it’s not often that anybody shows any interest in Hannibal Lecter’s youth, no, they always want to hear about my later career. Oh well, that’s the way of the world, I suppose.

 

 

 

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DIGGING FOR DINKIES by A M Smith ©


morrisPeriodically I post my short fiction; here is a Christmas story – not so short, but enjoy!)

I was digging in the garden when my spade struck something metal.

Hello, I thought, what’s this?  I knew the allotments had been checked and cleared by the Bomb Squad years ago, once the War was over. I leant on my spade and looked down. Saw nothing.  But there’d been a definite  clunk, and it was a metallic clunk, not a rocky thunk. I’ve done enough digging  in my 75 years to know the difference.  Okay. I slowly scraped the earth away, gently dug down and after a while, there it was. Whatever it was. Actually, I knew what it was.  I mean a trapdoor is a trapdoor, innit? Even if it is painted dark green with a pattern of … bells – bells?? …round the border and two twisty handles. How come the paint looks fresh? Buried under a good eight inches of muck. Not possible. But there it was.

 

Now what? I looked around. Dusk was falling, the allotments were deserted. I wanted to know what lay under the trapdoor. I grabbed the handles and tugged.  Bet you would’ve done the same. The trapdoor flew open.  Just like that! Amazingly easy.  And would you believe, there was a metal slide, like you get at WaterWorld for the kiddies, but it was wide, not kiddy-sized. So, obviously, I stepped down and whoosh! Away I went. Down, down, down through the darkness, round a bend and thump! I landed on my bottom inside a wide, sandy tunnel.

 

Further down the tunnel  I could see a bright yellow light, and hear the sound of, well, it sounded like a – a – workshop, I suppose, hammering and banging and clanging.  You know, like people working, making stuff. I dusted off my trousers and crept down the tunnel. Luckily the rocky wall bulged out, so I could hide in the tunnel and  peep round the rock to see what was what.

 

It was a workshop all right. Hammering, and sawing, painting and sanding, cutting and grinding, a real proper workshop, but  – and I rubbed my eyes and squinted hard: why were the workers all so short,  and wearing red caps with bells  on? And green jackets with brass buttons, and green and white striped tights, and their shoes! No workboots here – Health & Safety would’ve had a field day: no yellow hard hats, no boots – pointy red soft shoes, ending with curled up toes, and  bells on the curly tips. Bells on your shoes – well, I never!

 

And then I noticed the slanty eyes, and .. omigod … the pointy ears … Mr Spock had nothing on this lot!  I clutched the rocky outcrop, and took a deep breath. Where was I?

 

I inched cautiously round the rock, just a little closer, so I could see what the … the .. umm …  elves, I suppose , were making. Toys, that’s what they were busy with. You name it, they were making ’em. Toy trains, dolls, and doll-houses, rocking horses, teddy bears, and I don’t know what all. Even some of those modern X-box thingies.  And then I spied them: they were making Dinky cars!  I collect Dinkies. I’ve loved them ever since I was a kid. Just love ‘em. But they’re hard to find these days, they went out of production years ago. But not down here, apparently.  I looked around, and worked out that if I sneaked under the workbenches I could get right up close to the dinkies. I was dying to get a good look, and see if they were real Dinkies.  So I did. Holding my breath, quiet as a mouse, a bit of scientific crawling, and  there I was. Crouched under the  workbench opposite the Dinky  makers. Luckily I’m a skinny little man, take after my Dad, who was a Jockey.

 

Anyway, I spied a blue Morris Minor Traveller that I’d been after for years. The car came out in 1953. I think it was the English answer to those huge American station wagons, only being British, ours was more modest  – utilitarian, even.  My Dad had a green one, and I thought it was the smartest car, ever. Nobody else in our street had one. Only us. I’ve always admired the shiny yellow wood trim along the sides. It complimented the classic bull-nose of the front view.  And there it was, a beautiful, shiny new Dinky. Could I? Should I? Oh – what the hell : why not? There’ll never be another chance like this , that’s for sure.

 

I took a deep breath, popped my head and shoulders out from under the workbench, closed my fist over the Dinky, and was preparing to whip back my arm and slither away as fast as I could, when: “What’s this then?” bellowed a deep, bass voice. An angry deep bass voice.

 

I craned my neck and saw a huge pair of black shiny boots next to the bench, and two red-clad legs, big as oak tree trunks, but my view upwards was blocked by a vast red bulge.  A massive hand, decorated with a white fur cuff on a stout red sleeve grabbed my arm, shoulder and then the rest of me. I was hauled out  and held up, eye to eye, facing  very irate bright blue eyes under bushy white eyebrows.  The round red apple cheeks glowed red with rage.  Dimly I notice the silence. The hammering and banging stopped.

 

“Well? “  roared Santa.  “Explain yourself! You miserable little shrimp!”  he shook me hard, but I hung onto my precious new Dinky like grim death. I wasn’t letting  it go, not for anything.

 

Santa’s popping blue eyes narrowed a fraction, “Oh, I see”, he growled. “This is all about that Christmas when you were nine, isn’t it? No presents, no money for the gas meter, no Christmas Dinner. I’m right, aren’t I? Of course I am, I’m always right!” He plonked me back on my feet and glared down at me from his gigantic height.

 

“Errm”, I began, had to clear my throat, my voice wasn’t working.  All that shaking must’ve rattled my voice box loose, I reckon.

 

“Save your breath, you miserable little man.  I’m too busy to worry about you and one little green Dinky. Look at our production line – down to a standstill. Back to work you nosey lot!” he bellowed. An  immediate  salvo of hammering and drilling  broke out. Somewhere in the background I heard what sounded like neighing – what? horses, down here? Surely not? Then it dawned on me: oh, the reindeer, of course. Fleetingly I wondered what they ate, so far underground, but maybe they were taken up-world to graze. My dazed thoughts were jolted rudely when Santa scooped me up in a meaty paw, swung  back his arm and hurled me upwards … into the blackness.

 

When I came to, I was lying flat on my back, next to the  hole I’d dug, and  Debbie’s shrill voice was berating me:

“Grandpa! Just look  at you! Flat out in the muck – in the dark, on your own – bet you’ve been at your dandelion wine again, Granny’s going to give you what for, I can tell you. Good thing she sent me to fetch you home for supper. What’re we going to do with you?  And what’s the big hole about, then? I thought you were planting leeks? Looks like you were digging down to Australia more like it! C’mon, upsadaisy, on your feet. Put your arm around my neck, let’s get you  home. What’s that in your hand? Lemme see – wherever did you find that? It looks brand new – going to add it to your Dinky collection, I expect. Funny place to find a new Dinky, I must say.”

 

 

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