Maryika’s Christmas

palekh-troika-for-christmas-2016

Today’s story for https://www.facebook.com/christmaswithcrookedcats is full of magic and wonder – with a modern twist.

Maryika’s Christmas

Christmas Eve, 2016.

“It’s not fair.” Andre ran from the room, slamming the door as he went. Maryika followed, more slowly. At twenty-two she should be above her brother’s adolescent rages. She agreed with him, though. It wasn’t fair.

Their mother had made it all sound so reasonable. “We have so much. All our needs are met. Christmas is just one more occasion to give each other gifts that we can give at any time of the year. And it’s such a worthy cause.”

It was. That was what made it so hard to object. Their parents’ decision to donate to the charity War Child all the money that they would usually have spent on Christmas gifts was a harsh surprise for their children. But their mother was also right: they had so much, and it wasn’t a terrible idea to give some of what they could spare to help children to go to school, or get the medicines they needed, or keep themselves warm and safe in this winter season.

Christmas was a time for giving. Of course they should give as well as receive. Even Andre had to admit it was selfish to argue otherwise. He hadn’t lost the plot until Mama had told them she had asked all their relatives to donate the money they would have spent on gifts to the charity. This Christmas no-one would be giving any gifts at all.

Which somehow made the generous gift to the charity feel like robbery. Especially to Andre. At sixteen he was still half a child, and the thought of Christmas without mounds of presents under the tree, and cupboards full of treats to raid when he thought Mama wasn’t looking – well, it wasn’t surprising he’d lost his temper.

Maryika wandered into the kitchen, where Baba was making vatrushka, one of Maryika’s favourites. “I thought there weren’t going to be any treats this year,” she said.

Baba glowered. “Simple peasant bread,” she said, folding the delicious doughy mass over and over with her hands, kneading it gently until smooth and ready to rise. Once cooked, the sweet, soft bread rolls would be perfect with stewed fruit and cream, or just as pleasurable to eat by themselves with a cup of coffee. The old lady sniffed. “Nobody told me we were not to eat,” she said, covering the rounded shapes with a muslin cloth. “No point everybody dying of hunger to save some children we don’t even know.”

“Baba!” Maryika was shocked. “There are children who can’t even go to school, or buy medicines if they have conditions like diabetes. Their families have lost everything. We’re just trying to help them as much as we can.”

Baba looked her over, black eyes shining in the heat of the kitchen. She poked Maryika in the arm and made her yelp. “I thought you didn’t like the idea?”

“It’s a good idea. There’s a real need. It’s just… I think Andre’s afraid it won’t feel like Christmas. And so am I, really.”

Baba’s face softened. “It will still feel like Christmas,” she said. “I can promise you that.”

She turned back to the stove. Maryika sat down at the table and watched her grandmother bustle around the kitchen. Upstairs there was a muffled concussion as Andre banged another door.

Baba turned back and pushed a mug across the table towards her. Maryika sipped the hot milk, smelling of nutmeg and cinnamon. It tasted like childhood. She closed her eyes, lulled by the sound of Baba’s voice. “Tonight you will dream a wonderful dream. You will be part of the miracle of Christmas.”

Maryika opened her eyes again to see Baba gazing at her, al the wrinkles of her face deepening as she smiled. “Now go talk some sense into your brother, before he knocks the whole house down in a rage.”

Maxim Lyotov stood at the window, looking out over the landscape but seeing nothing. Sonya was crying again. He couldn’t bear it. He had to bear it.

She had received the news yet again of her failure to conceive. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. The doctors had done their best, but for no particular reason it seemed that she could not bear a child, or he could not engender one. Their bodies produced sperm and egg as required, and the two seemed perfectly happy to merge and produce embryos, but one by one each implanted pregnancy failed.

Worst were the attempts which seemed to be working. Sonya would begin to bloom, trying all the while to deter conversation about the baby, superstitiously behaving as if talking about the pregnancy could be fatal, only for it to end in blood and pain, long before the child began to properly grow. This time had been easier – no sooner begun than ended – but she was still devastated. She was exhausted with the process, and he couldn’t stand to see her distressed any longer.

Today he’d told her that there would be no more attempts. He forbade it. They were not meant to have children, and that was an end to it. Now she was crying over his cruelty. Maxim clenched his fists in his pockets, by long habit concealing his emotions. He’d learned from experience that success came more readily to a man who seemed steady and controlled, free from passion.

He was the last, and now anonymous, prince of a tiny principality once swallowed up by the great Soviet, and now released into the grasp of one of the new countries: shaky, half-imaginary nations invented by Stalin, peopled with incompatible tribes and ethnicities, struggling to find cultural identities of their own. There was no room for princes, or titles, in the new reality.

Old blood still counted for something, though. It had got him into a good English-speaking school. He’d worked hard at the school, where the other pupils knew him as Max Winterson. They’d guessed, some of them, that he was from somewhere to the east of the European continent, but he’d never discussed his roots. ‘High born family fallen on hard times’ was a label that could have been applied to many of the boarders, and it didn’t make him stand out.

Brains and hard work had got him into Oxford, and out again, with a double first: into the diplomatic service and eventually to the post of UN Special Envoy to S___. The post was not without its rewards, including a generous salary which paid for the flat in Vienna with its floor-to-ceiling windows, and for the repair and upkeep of his family’s dacha.

Maxim peered out of the window of the dacha at the forest edge a few metres away. Winter wasn’t the best time to be here, despite the comforts of a roaring fire and a bed heaped with furs, but Sonya had wanted to get away for Christmas. Somewhere they could be alone. He understood it, he supposed. Her emotions were too raw to expose to Vienna’s party season, and the night of the Christ Child’s birth was bound to be difficult for her, with its extra reminder of a baby, both loved and unloved all at once, crying out in a need that Sonya yearned to meet.

The stars were blurring as cloud blew in. At some point tonight there was going to be snow. Maxim turned away from the window and went to comfort his wife.

The night wind was cool off the water and Zander shivered, drawing his thin cardigan around his shoulders. Zoe crouched at his feet, feeding the baby. Hana was a tiny child, hardly strong enough to bear the weight of such a portentous name. Hope. The flower of their happiness, if they could only escape. The foundation stone of their new life, or so he told himself, straightening his spine and squaring his shoulders as befitted the head of a household.

Father had given the last of his money to the traffickers, staying behind to face his own likely death at the hands of the fighters of one side or the other; they were all as bad as each other. Why they were fighting, no-one knew any more. Only that each side believed they had God on their side, and were therefore ultimately unbeatable.

Life everywhere had degenerated into survival, and then incarceration in a prison the size of a city. Getting out of the country, getting to Europe, was the only way to ever escape the violence. The family’s life savings had paid for their freedom.

It had only got them as far as the border, though. There the traffickers dumped them into a locked room in a small house; two dozen or more children, thrown together by their common fear of the men to whom they had been sold. The traffickers said they needed more money. They let the children use a mobile phone, to contact their families. Some must have paid, because those children were removed from the house and not seen again.

Often it was the older girls who were taken, and, once, one of them was brought back. She hid in the corner until the traffickers left, and the younger girls went to her. Zander could not hear the story she whispered to Zoe, and when he asked his sister told him it was not for boys to know. The daily mobile phone calls continued. Zander’s father was trying to raise the money. He asked Zander to tell the traffickers that he would get it; they were to be patient.

The next day the men took Zoe. When they brought her back, Zander could see a terrible thing had happened, but Zoe turned her face to the wall and refused to speak to him. One of the traffickers had formed an attachment to her, and took her out again and again for a few weeks. One day, however, he pushed her back into the room with her face cut and bruised, and he did not come for her again. By summer it was obvious she was with child.

Zander knew he was supposed to reject her. She was unclean. She had lain with those men, those monsters. But it was clear that she had not had a choice. And besides, she was his sister, and he was responsible. At last his father had provided the money – borrowed or begged or stolen, Zander did not know – but it was enough for the next stage of the journey. They waited, on the darkest night of winter, for the boat that was to take them at last to safety and a new home.

Maryika lay snuggled into the warm depths of her bed, sinking slowly into sleep. She sighed, and burrowed deeper, as she closed her eyes.

She opened them on a vista of fields and forest, under a sky sprinkled with stars. Everything was dark except, with true dream-logic, the thing she was looking at. To begin with, it was three horses, grazing at the far edge of the field. It was night, and she couldn’t make them out clearly, but somehow she knew that one was white, one a fiery bay, and one golden as the sun with flaxen mane and tail. As she watched, Flaxen Mane lifted his head and came trotting towards her.

A movement caught her eye, and Maryika glanced to the left, into the face of a boy… a man… no, definitely a boy. He had the kind of ageless face that could belong to a male of twelve, or twenty-two, but surely no older. His eyes were brown, deep as peat bogs, and looking into them Maryika somehow knew that here was the oldest person she had ever met. “I am Nikolai,” he said, nodding to her. “Your grandmother told me you would come.”

Behind him was something that glimmered. Maryika focused on it, and saw that the boy was standing in front of a troika, harness in hand. Flaxen Mane trotted up to Maryika and pressed his nose into her palm, then moved towards the boy and stood before the troika. The boy fastened the harness, and the horse stood quietly until he was finished, whereupon he shook his head and a merry tinkling of bells rang out.

The boy whistled, and the white and bay horses came in their turn to be tied into the harness, either side of Flaxen Mane. The bay shook his red mane and snorted at Maryika, in a not-altogether-friendly fashion. The white stood calmly, its eyes fixed firmly on Flaxen Mane, taking no notice of the harness or the boy. Nikolai removed a scarf from around his neck and held it out to her. He wore another, identical – beautifully woven in patterns of multicoloured snowflakes out of some fine, silky material.

Maryika took it, expecting it to feel cool, but it warmed immediately in her hands. Only when she wrapped its warmth around herself did she realised how cold the wind had become. Its strength was rising, and there was ice in it.

The boy clambered aboard the troika and held out his hand to her. “Please,” he said. “I have a difficult task ahead of me, and I cannot complete it without you.” Maryika climbed up beside him, and he pulled a fur wrap over their knees and flicked the reins. She gripped the seat tightly, not expecting such a burst of speed, as they galloped over the frozen ground and into the air, over the trees, the fields, the tiny, scattered houses, far below, and out over a vast expanse of black water.

Up here the air must have been icy, and fat flakes of snow whipped towards them like a blizzard, but the wind was drawn aside as the three horses shouldered into it, leaving the boy and girl sitting comfortably in a calm, sheltered space. The troika dipped lower, and Maryika began to see movement in the dark waters below. The boy leaned his head towards her.

“There is a boat on the winter sea tonight,” he said. “A poorly made boat, owned by evil men whose only thought is to milk their victims for all that they can give before disposing of them. There are children on the boat; children who believe they are going to a safe haven, who do not know they are going to die.” Nikolai frowned, and for a moment an ageless light shone out of his eyes. “It is in my nature to want to change such things, if I can. Are you with me, Maryushka lisichka?”

Maryika ignored the endearment (he wasn’t the first to comment on the hint of red in her hair, and being called a fox by a stranger of indeterminant age was not something she wanted to draw attention to). But the thought of children, in danger, in the middle of the vast cold sea below them filled her with horrors. “Let’s do it,” she said, before she could change her mind.

She gasped as the troika dropped, hauled in the wake of the three straining bodies before them. In the inky darkness above the water the three horses shone with an inner light, white and red and gold, like a sudden sunrise. Below she could see a little boat, half swamped by the waves. There were already people in the water.

Nikolai snapped the reins and they went lower still, until they hung in the air just above the sinking boat. He leaned out and hauled a man into the troika. Maryika got down on the floor and reached towards a woman who was in the water. Their hands touched, but instead of grasping her, the woman thrust a bundle into Maryika’s hands and fell back, her head going under. The bundle wriggled, and a small child climbed out and disappeared into the back of the troika, which seemed larger than she’d first thought. There were already a half dozen or so people back there, and they were hauling others up to join them.

The woman who had sunk under the water suddenly shot up again, and Maryika grabbed her. She could see that the woman was being pushed aloft by hands and arms made of water. As the woman scrambled past her, Maryika saw that the water was alive with the bodies of women, all dark, all beautiful… all made of the same black water as the sea. Rusalkas. In Baba’s stories, they were figures of sorrow (drowned maidens) or fear (they would drag a traveller beneath the surface of their watery homes and keep him forever). She had never heard of them rescuing drowning people before.

Before her, some of the older and more able-bodied passengers were clambering onto the backs of the horses. Strangely, the horses’ bodies were growing, elongating, like the troika. No matter how many climbed up, there was always room for one more. With a frisson of fear, Maryika recognised another of her childhood nightmares: the water horse, able to carry its prey upon its back deep into the dark tarns and pools of the steppes, there to suck the flesh from their bones. As she thought this, the fire-coloured horse turned and grinned at her, pinpoints of red deep in its eyes.

She screamed, but the white horse glowed suddenly brighter, and Flaxen Mane shouldered the bay and bit its flank. The bay stood still in the air, its skin shivering, but tolerating the people on its back, who looked as frightened as Maryika felt. Those on the back of the white horse seemed to have fallen asleep.

Maryika reached again, to a young man whose white face was turned up to hers. The arms of the watery women were already around him, but instead of lifting, they were pulling him down. He struggled in the water, fear etched on his face. “No,” Maryika shouted, and reached again. Her fingertips touched his – they were warm, and very human.

One of the fluid forms drew up to the troika and hissed, “My sisters have claimed him.” Maryika shook her head and reached again. One shapely arm reached up and caressed her cheek. “This one has done great evil. He is ours now. Let him go.” The troika rose suddenly, and the young man’s form dropped away.

Maryika curled up around her distress as Nikolai snapped the reins and they began to move. She stayed that way as they galloped over the deep waters and up onto the shore. All she could see was that pale, terrified face sinking below the water, drawn ever deeper as the rusalkas put their hands on him, and she wondered what would have happened if only she had reached further, tried harder. They said he was a bad man, but perhaps he might have done some good, someday, if only she’d been able to hold on to him.

They landed as lightly as a feather, on a field adjacent to a great array of tents. The place didn’t smell very nice, but the people seemed glad to be back on solid ground, and stumbled away towards shelter. Nikolai held the reins in one hand and wrapped the other around her, pulled her into a hug. “The rusalkas saved many, tonight,” he said, “but they have the right. They will always take some.”

Maryika gulped and wiped her tears on her sleeve. The horses had returned to normal, trotting delicately across the air, glowing only slightly, and the troika had almost returned to its original size as well. But when she turned and looked she realised that there were still two children, clinging together and staring at her with huge eyes. Three children… she noticed that the girl was clutching a tiny baby, which had begun to wail.

Nikolai guided the troika down to a gravelled driveway beside a large house. There were still one or two lights lit, and there was smoke coming from the chimney. He jumped down and lifted the children onto the porch, leaning forwards to rap loudly on the door, before turning away. He leapt back into the troika and with a jingle of harness bells they were away, sweeping to the treetops as he gave the horses their heads.

“What is it?” Sonya crept down the stairs behind Maxim, who had lifted his old gun down from its stand behind the door. “Who would come at this hour?”

The front door creaked open and her hands went to her mouth. “Oh, the darlings.” She reached out and swept the boy into her arms. He was thin, and trembling with the cold. “Who are you?” she asked.

The boy spoke, and she did not understand a word, but her husband twitched in recognition. He spoke back, musical syllables falling from his lips. Then he turned to her.

“The boy is Zander,” he said. “He speaks Arabic – they are refugees, from across the water. He says their boat sank. There is more, but I don’t understand it.”

“Oh, hurry, get them inside. It’s too cold for a child to be out.”

Zander stumbled into the warmth of the hallway and sank to the floor. Behind him, Zoe flinched as Sonya reached for her, clutching her bundle tightly in her arms. The baby began to cry. It was cold, and hungry, and wet and, unable to decide which was the most distressing, decided to wail in earnest about all its miseries at once. Zoe deigned to allow Sonya to place her dressing gown around her thin shoulders, and walked on her own into the house, where she stood, clutching her daughter and looking around herself in wonder.

Maxim hung up the gun and went to poke the fire. Sonya paused for a moment, looking up at the sky, snowflakes melting on her face as she listened to the very far, very faint sound of harness bells. “Thank you,” she whispered, putting her hand over her mouth to quell her words as she closed the door and went in, but her heart went on saying it, silently. “Thank you.”

There was a flurry of wind in her face, and a soft rush of snowflakes brushed across her cheek like a windblown mane which was, perhaps, the pale gold of dawn that now brightened the sky. A single warm huff of breath redolent of straw and stables warmed her ear, and was gone. Maryika became conscious that she was standing on her own back doorstep, barefoot in the snow. The warm, bright scarf was still around her neck, and she held another in her hands.

The door opened, and Baba stood there, both hands wearing oven mitts, holding a steaming tray. Maryika slipped gratefully into the warmth. It didn’t seem strange that Baba was not at all surprised to see her. She lifted the scarf in her hands. “Look, I have a present for Andre.”

Baba nodded and turned away, to lift the next tray from the oven. She spoke over her shoulder to Maryika. “I told you it would feel like Christmas when it came. Now, put your apron on, babushka. You can crush the walnuts for the korolevsky cake.”

The End

The picture is a palekh-style illustration of a Russian troika (winter carriage drawn by three horses). You can get news about my writing at https://www.facebook.com/TheCalgaryChessman/

or follow me @alayanabeth on Twitter.

‘Christmas Landing’ for Crooked Cat’s Christmas

Day 4 of Christmas with the Crooked Cats’ advent calendar.

Crater Under a Big Sky

Intergalactic Seed Ship Hawthorn. Second Officer’s Log.

Day 1: We’ve made it. Successful landing on the planet we’re calling Christmas, because that’s the date by which the first extraterrestrial human colony will be up and running. The preparations took years, but now our crew of three is about to begin to revive the colonists, and the day we’ve waited for will finally arrive.

Day 3: the instruments are all telling us that it’s safe to open the hatch. There’s a breathable atmosphere out there. I wonder what we’ll find.

Day 7: more of us are being revived each day. It’s starting to look like a real settlement, but I can’t help feeling depressed. We knew things would be different, but I’d hoped for trees. Green things. Something a bit more like home used to be. We’ll get to work planting just as soon as the ground is prepared, but at the moment everything is barren and dry. Not a living thing as far as the eye can see.

Of course, for all we know the ground outside the ancient impact crater where we landed is covered with lush jungle vegetation, but our settlement site was chosen carefully, to be sheltered from the wind that our atmospheric scientists told us would be fierce, and as a result our horizon is small, and close – and bare.

Day 13: I don’t believe in bad luck. I don’t. Thirteen is just a number. We have halted the revival program. Our scientists have discovered a slight, unforeseen and completely lethal variation in the radiation from the sun. Those of us already on the surface have received enough radiation to kill us – not immediately, though it is already enough to shorten our lives. We are spending as much time inside the ship as we can, but with so many awake we are all very cramped.

Tests have shown that our plants will not grow. The radiation is toxic to all forms of earth life. We are facing a slow death by starvation.

Day 17: I cannot bear being cooped up inside any longer. If I’m going to die, I’d rather it was out in the open, under the sun – feeling the wind on my face. A small group of us are going hunting. There must surely be something alive in this place. All the tests indicated that there would be.

Day 19: Well, there is life here. Still no sign of anything that you’d call a plant, and when we slogged to the crater’s rim the barren landscape spread in all directions as far as we could see, but there’s an animal: small, fat, running on two legs with stubby upper limbs. Some kind of small dinosaur, maybe. We tried to catch one, but even with the long-range pulse guns we had no luck. They’re just too speedy and maneuverable. Ensign Tolly stuck his leg in a hole and went head over heels – broke it in two places. We’re carrying him back now.

Day 21: I’m going on my own. It’s against orders, but the hierarchy has almost broken down now. Along with the replicators. Something to do with the damned radiation: it’s cooked some of the components, and now we can’t make anything other than a grey, tasteless mush. They tell me it provides adequate nutrition, but it doesn’t feel like it. I’m desperate for something with taste, and a bit of texture in my mouth. What I wouldn’t give for a bacon chop, or a nice crisp apple!

Day 22: I’ve come almost as far as I can go before turning back. If I walk any further I’ll not make it to the ship before my mush-ration runs out. I can’t bring myself to care. There’s something catching the sun to the south – flashing intermittently – for all the world like a signal. Of course it can’t be, but I’m going to take a look anyway.

Day 23: Amazing. I found the things that live here. I’ve found everything! Trees, crops, animals, bird-things – people, of a sort – all down a hole in the ground. They live in immense underground caverns, where the lethal radiation of the star is filtered through the layers of rock.

There are these little green men. Really! Hairy little guys, like skinny green orang-utans. They don’t speak – just kind of sing or hoot at each other – but they seem to communicate through the flashing of mirrors. The signals they exchange across the cavern’s expanse are quite complex, so I’m sure they have some kind of language.

They like me. I’ve been adopted. There are three or four of them that look after me – bringing me food, water, painting me with some kind of tribal colours, massaging my hands – they’re fascinated by the smoothness of my skin. They’ve sent a delegation to the ship. They’re going to invite all of us to live with them.

Day 25. I like my new friends, but it’s great to have human faces around me again. We’ve closed up the ship for now, although in time perhaps the others can be revived and brought to join us, but the rest of us are together, and you wouldn’t believe how happy we all are. The little green guys are pretty happy too. They’re preparing a feast for us. There is a fruit a bit like an apple, and another one rich and juicy like a peach, but it tastes of onions. They make flour from a kind of mushroom that grows on the cavern roof, and then cook it up into patties. And down a level from where I’m sitting they’re preparing the meat.

The green guys are pretty good trappers and hunters, with all sorts of ways of catching those little reptile runners. They smell really good, cooking on spits over the fire. And it turns out they taste just like turkey.

Making the Best of Things – Part 5.

Making the Most of Things

Making the Best of Things, or, Five Stay Home for Christmas

Part 5 – Christmas Day

Yawning, Annette throws back the bedclothes and puts her feet out onto the mat. It has been snowing most of the night. She opens the curtains and peers out into the morning twilight. A few flakes are swirling in the air outside her window, and the clouds are low and sullen, with a yellowish tinge that presages more snow to come. She hopes it won’t spoil their lunch plans.
Saf is well settled in her corner. During the night she’d pulled part of her fleece blanket over herself, and now peers from under a tartan counterpane. Annette shuffles out to the kitchen and makes a cup of tea. She leans against the kitchen bench while she drinks it, watching the light gradually increase outside and the snow flurries come and go. Everything is coated in white, and the houses and yards of the town are softened by snow. It’s a picture-perfect Christmas scene. The Bartholomew kids are out in their back yard, trying to roll the snow up into a snowman-sized lump, but its consistency is slightly too wet and it keeps collapsing. They give it up and begin to throw snowballs instead.
Saf emerges, grumbling, and eats breakfast, while Annette pulls on her clothes, and hunts out a warmer scarf. Just one visit this morning; then she can settle in to a good book, before it’s time for lunch.
Aggie’s already opening the door before they reach the end of the path. Behind her, two black noses poke into the cold air, twitching like fury as they read messages on the wind. Saf whines a greeting, and they reply with yips. Max sits back on his haunches and scratches behind an ear, and Aggie steps to the side to allow Saf to enter.
“Greetings of the season and all that,” she says, as Annette makes her way into the hall and pulls off her hat and mitts.
“You too.” Annette hugs her friend, briefly. It’s about as much affection as Aggie can stand. “All set for the day? What time do you think Malkie will emerge?” Aggie’s brother is not known for his early rising habits.
“He’s not here.” Aggie’s comment is short, and clipped back, as if there’s more she’d like to say but she’s resisting the urge to say it.
“What happened? Is he okay?”
“What happened is that he phoned me at nearly midnight last night, merry as Old Nick, and told me he was staying with a mate in Glasgow. “Sorry, Ags, got a better offer. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy whotsit etcetera etcetera.”
“Oh, Aggie. I’m sorry.”
“I’m not. Better off without him, the little git.”
“So, you can come out to lunch with us, then?”
“No, I’ve made my plans. I intend to stick with them. There’s no point in letting all that food go to waste.”
“Oh, Aggie. Don’t spend the day on your own. Come out and enjoy yourself with us. The food will keep until tomorrow.”
“No. I’ve made up my mind.” Aggie’s expression is obdurate. Annette knows that face well. She’s pushed things as far as she can. The best move now is to back down and walk away quietly, leave Aggie to mull things over on her own. She breaks the tension of the moment by pushing a parcel into Aggie’s hands. “You shouldn’t have.” Aggie stumps into the living room and picks up a package from under the tree, beautifully wrapped with a handmade card. Like everything Aggie does, this parcel has been thought out and planned over, to the last curl of ribbon.
She sees her friend to the door, Saf following without demur. Annette sets off down the path, holding her hand up in front of her face to waft away the snow, which is already falling more thickly. At the gate she turns and looks back, but Aggie’s already closed the door and gone back in.


Outside, the pub looks the same as always, or perhaps a little cleaner on account of its coating of snow. The street lights are orange halos in the greyness of the afternoon, the light already beginning to fade out of the sky and the snow clouds thicker than ever. Annette’s pleased she decided to leave Saf at home. It wouldn’t have been fair to make her sit in the cold porch while she was inside enjoying herself. The dog is happy enough tucked up in bed with a bone to gnaw.
In a corner of the porch, half-hidden under the coats on the rack, is a wire cage with a dog bed inside it. Sugar sits there, wearing a fetching tartan coat with a sprig of artificial holly hanging off her collar. She’s pleased enough to see Annette, and comes forward for a tickle around the gills, but she soon settles back into her cosy spot. Her spot is well sheltered from the draught, and she seems quite content to sit and wait for Sara’s return.
As Annette pushes open the door into the bar, a warm fug of hearth fire, whisky and dinner wafts out to meet her. Sara’s there, tucked in at the head of the table, and seated with their backs to her are Val and Chantelle. Their party is set up at one end of a solid wooden table that could easily seat ten. Annette sinks into the seat opposite Val and waves her hand at Michael, who is waiting on the adjacent table.
“Hi Mum. What’ll you have?”
“Blackcurrant schnapps for me. What will you have, ladies?”
“We’ve ordered our own,” says Val. “We talked it over before you arrived and decided we’d each keep our own tab.”
“Fine.” Michael bends down and kisses her cheek, and she reaches up to stroke his arm. “Happy Birthday, Mike.” He swans off to fetch her order, detouring to a woman on the far side of the room who has her hand up. The room is almost full. Their table is the only one that could possibly fit in another party, and Annette hopes selfishly that no-one else will be joining them. It’s nice to have the table to themselves.
The appetiser is a shared plate of titbits, both hot and cold, and by the time the four of them have cleared it up the blackcurrant schnapps has made a warm pocket in Annette’s tummy. She pours herself a few centimetres of wine from Val’s bottle, and sits back to await the main course. Turkey trad with all the trimmings is how Michael had described it, so she’s not expecting any surprises, but she’s looking forward to it nonetheless. Half the pleasure of eating out, anyway, is not having to do the cooking yourself. She doesn’t mind how mundane the meal turns out to be.
The lights dim and Michael appears, holding back the swing door from the kitchen. A procession of people emerges, bearing serving dishes. The other diners ooh and ah as the procession passes them: both waitresses, the sous chef, and Donald himself, followed up by Michael with a bottle of claret and a corkscrew in one hand, and a gravy boat in the other. Donald carries the largest dish, on which rests a resplendent roast goose. The others carry a small ham, studded with cloves and an assortment of roasted and steamed vegetables.
With a flourish, Donald places the goose in front of Annette, and gestures to his staff to set down the other dishes. The four women are agog; Val’s grinning from ear to ear. “Donald, you’ve done yourself proud,” she says, reaching out to snag a chestnut.
“Not my doing, Missus.”
A small, cold draught crosses the room as the outer door is opened and shut, and a moment later Aggie Matchum slides into the seat next to Annette’s. Michael is there, ready to lay out her cutlery, and offers her the claret to sample. She nods her thanks at him, and he fills her glass and sets the bottle down on the table.
Aggie pulls a little, ruby pot of cranberry sauce from her pocket and plonks it down on the table, then looks round at the faces of her friends. “What?” she says. “It’s not like I could eat it all myself.”

Making the Best of Things – Part 4

Daisy

Making the Best of Things, or, Five Stay Home for Christmas

Part 4 – Christmas Eve

Val sets the phone back on its charger and sinks down on the chair in the hall. A fat tear rolls down her nose and drips onto the floor as she puts her head in her hands. That’s it, then. All her family Christmas calls over and done with.
She didn’t at all mind turning down the invitations from her eldest children. Their houses, and their lives, are cold and unwelcoming to her. Neither chick nor child between them – two arid marriages focused around work and money. She’s sorry not to be seeing Anne, though. That home is warm and welcoming, an untidy clutter of children and domestic disorder that’s somehow comforting.
Of course, she can visit Anne anytime, and will probably see her early in the spring, but it isn’t the same as seeing the kids at Christmas. At least she doesn’t need to worry about the gifts – she’d sent money to Anne, to buy what the wee ones most needed. They’ll get their presents tomorrow, all gathered together with Anne’s parents-in-law, who live next door.
Chatting to Anne today, and hearing the children’s voices down the phone, has reminded her how lonely it’s going to be tomorrow, waking up to Christmas alone. Still, it’s far too late to change her mind now. Besides, there’s lunch to look forward too, and the company of her friends. It could be far, far worse.
Pulling herself together, she takes her coat down from its hook and calls Karma. A walk will serve to clear the cobwebs away.

It’s dank and bleak up on the hill, and the women’s breaths puff white in the cold air. The weather is still and calm, though thick, yellowish cloud on the horizon promises fouler weather to come. Four of them stand, conversing quietly, in a tangle of dogs and leads, as Aggie forges up the hill towards them.
She’ s holding both leads in one hand, and a plastic shopping bag in the other. Just for a change, Max and Fliss are not barging each other or jostling for attention. They trot side by side, tonges lolling, all their attention focused on their mistress. They are so interested in the bag she is carrying that they pay no attention to the other dogs, even when Karma lets off a ghastly howl.
As they come abreast of the group, all the dogs begin to show interest in the bag. Aggie holds it high as Sugar leaps at it.
“Oh, no you don’t. This is for your Mum. You don’t get it till later.” Pulling open the bag, she distributes four Christmas parcels, wrapped in brightly coloured paper and labelled with the names of the dogs. She distracts the dogs by offering each of them a treat in turn, and they line up obediently to receive it.
All except Karma – who takes advantage of the other dogs’ absence to lunge at his owner. Val jerks back, but Karma has managed to get his teeth into the parcel. He pulls away and begins to growl as he worries at the parcel, shaking it fiercely.
The parcel breaks open, and its contents fly into the air. A confetti of bone-shaped treats scatters over the roadway, and the pack of dogs descends on it, gulping the treats down before anyone can stop them.
Moments later, the road is clean, and six very happy dogs are sitting at their owners’ feet, bright-eyed and satisfied. Karma wears a doggy grin the size of Christmas. Val shrugs. “Oh, well, I suppose that’s one way of handing them out!”

Saf comes bounding in from the garden, and pokes her freezing wet nose into Annette’s palm. She runs her fingers through the dog’s ruff and, feeling wetness, grabs the dog towel and gives her a quick pummelling. Saf leans against her and huffs in pleasure.
As she straightens up, Annette looks out the doorway at the gathering darkness. Streetlights and Christmas lights punctuate the night, but the sky is low and heavy without any stars. There’s a wet smell on the wind, and she wonders what the weather will bring tomorrow. Surely those are snowflakes swirling in the garden?
Later, in the deep, small hours of the morning, Michael rises quietly and sets off to work. A cold curl of wind enters the house as he leaves and disturbs Annette’s sleep, but she only rolls over and begins to snore again. Snow deposits a coating of white on his shoulders as he begins his walk down the road towards the harbour.

Making the Best of Things – Part 3

Karma and Saf

Part of the Christmas with the Crooked Cats season. https://www.facebook.com/groups/737252102990447/

Making the Best of Things, or, Five Stay Home for Christmas

Part 3 – 16th December

“Halloo…” The voice rings in the crisp, still air. Val stops mid-sentence and turns to look. Behind them, Chantelle is striding up the road, dragging a reluctant Daisy at the end of her chain. Daisy wants to stop and sniff things. Everything.
“Hello, Ladies. May I join you?” Chantelle is pink-cheeked and breathless. She wears a multi-coloured woollen helmet that looks as though it belongs to one of her kids. Her tiny feet are encased in purple, knee-length boots and she wears purple gloves and a navy raincoat. Wisps of auburn hair escaping from the hat frame her face. She makes the other women feel old and frumpy.
“Sure.” Aggie’s gesture encompasses her friends. “The more the merrier.”
Daisy introduces herself to the other canine members of the group, by bounding over to them and licking each in turn. The dogs sort out their complex, scent-based pecking order with a minimum of fuss, apart from Karma, whose contribution to the communication web seems to consist mostly of howling. Saf nips him on the ear in a minatory fashion and he subsides, tongue lolling.
Today’s walk takes them up round the top of the old cemetery. Beyond its lichen-painted walls a wide, empty pasture stretches away to the skyline. The dogs are happy to slip their leashes and run, gambolling and frolicking in the December twilight. The women talk quietly among themselves. Daisy rushes back to nuzzle Chantelle’s fingers, hoping for a treat, and stays to have her ears ruffled and flanks patted. She walks at heel, without instruction, copying Saf who has stuck close to her mistress’s legs, uninterested in cow pats and rabbits.
Fliss, Max and Karma have chased off the rabbits, but they’ve worked out that at least one is hiding in the warren on the edge of the hill. Karma is beside himself with excitement, and keeps rushing at the hole, in the hopes of flushing some game. The rabbits are having none of it. They know exactly what to do when dogs as big and stupid as this are about: you sit still and wait. The dogs will get bored soon enough. It’s the little ones that a rabbit needs to watch out for: terriers and the like; dogs that are bred to go down a rabbit hole and haul out whatever they find there. These dogs are no problem.
Aggie whistles and shakes her bag of tricks. Fliss and Max respond instantly, charging down the hill to arrive, skidding into place in a tangle of legs and muzzles, precisely at Aggie’s toes. Saf is already there, eyes focused on the bag, and Daisy is quick to spot the opportunity of free food. Aggie makes her two wait while she feeds the others: one treat each, and Fliss and Max have to beg for it. They know what’s expected of them, and perform perfectly. Karma is still up at the warren.
Aggie shakes the bag again, just as Val calls. “Come, Karma. Come.” Neither action elicits any response, but Saf barks suddenly, and Karma’s head goes up to listen. One more shake of the bag and Karma finally gets the message, inhaling his treat as Val clips the lead back onto his collar.
As they round the top of the cemetery and approach the road again, a figure is seen to be waiting by the lych gate. Sara smiles shyly as the others come abreast of her, and Karma lunges at Sugar. The two dogs go into a paroxysm of mutual delight as Val takes charge.
“This is my friend Sara. I invited her to join us, because she’s trying to build up her walking each day. We met at a …thing… we both go to.”
Annette and Chantelle are too polite to say anything, but Aggie has no such compunctions. She snorts. “Weightwatchers, you mean.” A flicker of irritation crosses Val’s face. Everyone in the group has heard about that ‘last five pounds I just can’t shift’, but the truth is that the weekly Weightwatcher’s meeting is a fixture in Val’s diary. She loves to meet her friends, gossip about their week, and commiserate with those who, like her, have once again failed to shift a single pound.
Sara’s been doing better. She’s losing a regular one or two pounds a week, and she’s already succeeded in walking to the bus stop and back without a break. Her aim is to get to the point where she can walk right down the town to the shops, and back again. Val’s taken Sara under her wing – there’s only so much mothering Karma can take, and there’s plenty more where that came from. It’s Val’s idea to introduce Sara to the group, and she’s quite nervous about it. She walks along quietly at the back of the group, as Val propounds her latest Christmas plan.
Annette interrupts. “What is everyone doing for Christmas, anyway. We know Val’s going on a Portuguese coach tour, but what about the rest of us?”
Aggie snorts, as Val retorts. “I only mentioned that as a possibility. I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
“I’m fine,” says Aggie. “I’ll be doing Christmas dinner for Malcolm, then he’ll go down the pub and I’ll take our four-footed kids for their walk. He can do the dishes.”
“I’m on my own this year,” volunteers Chantelle. “All my kids are going to my ex’s house, and he says he’s taking the dog too. I won’t know what to do with myself.” She falls silent as the truth of this washes over her. She can’t remember a Christmas that wasn’t full of kids, and husband, and work. What will she do with herself?
“It’ll just be me,” says Annette. “Michael’s around, but he’s working all day, and then he’s going to stay over at his boyfriend’s place. Saf’ll be there. We’re used to our own company. I did have an idea, though.”
Aggie interrupts. “What about you, Sara?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“Come on, what will you be doing on the day? Got any romantic plans?” Annette winces at Aggie’s lack of tact, but it seems to suit Sara. She squares her shoulders and answers more confidently. “As a matter of fact, I’ll be by myself on Christmas Day. I was thinking about eating out.”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking.” Annette grins at Sara, who smiles back, suddenly feeling more welcome. “I think we should all go out together for Christmas lunch. Who’s with me?”
“I’ll join you,” says Chantelle. “It sounds like a great idea.”
Val’s less certain. “I might not be here,” she points out. “But I’ll do it if I decide not to go away. What about you, Sara?”
“I’d love to. If that’s okay with everyone.”
“Of course it is.” Val blithely speaks for everyone. “What about you, Aggie?”
“I’ve already told you, I’ll be feeding Malcolm and walking the dogs. You can join me for a walk in the afternoon if you want. Go ahead and eat together – it’s no skin off my nose.”

“Hello, may I speak to Michael, please?”
“Who is this calling?”
“It’s his mother.”
“One moment.”
Saf bumps Annette’s leg and she strokes the dog absently, waiting for Michael to come to the phone. She doesn’t like to call him at work. You never know what urgent task you might be interrupting. However, two in the afternoon is a fairly safe time – midway between the busy points of lunch and dinner.
“Mum, how are you?”
“I’m fine, Michael. Listen, I’m hoping you can help me with something. Is Donald opening up on Christmas Day?”
“Yes, just from one to three in the afternoon. Late lunch. Christmas trad with all the trimmings.”
“Does he have many bookings?”
“Only two so far, I think.”
“Good. Could you pencil me in for a party of four. No, better make that five. Will you join us? It is your birthday, after all.”
“No thanks, Mum. I’ll be pretty busy. Donald needs me, and anyway it’s a good day to get tips.”
“Please yourself. I’m sure you can spare your old mother five minutes for a birthday kiss. So – a table for five.”
“Care to share?”
“Oh, just an idea I’ve got. Tell Donald I’ll let him know by the end of the week if the booking’s definite.”
“Will do. Love you, Mum.”
“Love you too. Bye now.”
Annette walks back into the living room and sinks into an armchair, positioned by the window looking out over the bay. Her hands run slowly through Saf’s coat, over and over again. It might just work. The others are mostly on board already. Aggie’s likely to be the most difficult. As always. Aggie will resist just for the sake of it. Perhaps the best approach is for Annette to pretend that she doesn’t care whether her friend joins the party or not: a bit of reverse psychology.
If she really thinks they don’t care, she’ll be moving her plans to make sure she is included. Aggie can’t bear to think she might be missing out. Annette grins to herself. You are a wicked witch, Annette Miller. The sun goes down behind the hills across the harbour, and the clouds glow crimson and gold as she stirs herself into action. Time for tea.

Making the Best of Things, or, Five Stay Home for Christmas. Part 2 – 5th December

Sugar

Here’s part 2. Page down to read part 1 of my Christmas story, or sign up to https://www.facebook.com/groups/737252102990447/ for Christmas with the Crooked Cats, a seasonal fest of stories from my fellow authors at Crooked Cat Publishing. I’ll post the rest of this 5-part story over the course of today. Enjoy.

“And then Lionel says to me, ‘it’s all sorted. You’re to stay with Anne on Christmas Eve, and either I or Liz will have you on Christmas Day, and the other one on Boxing Day. The only thing you have to arrange is your Travelodge on the journey, and tell Anne what time you’ll arrive.’ It’s typical.”
Val has been in full flight for ten minutes, long enough to walk up the lane and cross into the road that runs past the church. Annette’s beside her, listening, with an occasional sympathetic grunt to let Val know she’s still being listened to. Not that Val would notice if she stopped responding.
“I know exactly what the problem is. None of them want me. Christmas is ‘family time’. As if I’m not family. Anne must have got in quick and volunteered to do Christmas Eve, and now Liz and Lionel have to slug it out to see who has to have Mother on Christmas Day. I’ve a good mind to book a package holiday in the sun and tell them I’m not coming. That would serve them right.”
All the time that Val is talking, Karma pulls ahead, at the full stretch of his lead. His eyes bulge as he wheezes, trying to get one more centimetre of stretch out of his collar. Every now and again he makes ugly choking noises and Val releases another inch or two of the extendable lead, but he’s almost at the limit of it now. Saf is trotting beside him. Like a worried mother escorting a fractious toddler, she nudges him occasionally to break his stride. The distraction causes Karma to stop pulling for a moment, and gives him the chance to catch a much needed breath before he starts to choke himself again.
“I thought I might go to New Zealand. It’s supposed to be gorgeous there at this time of year. But you should see the prices they’re charging for air fares. Daylight robbery. I can’t believe they’re allowed to charge that much money for shoving you into a tiny seat, between a screaming kid and a shoebomber. Have you seen how many people they get into one of those 747s? Criminal. Anyway, I can’t afford it. I’ll be lucky if I can afford Portugal, the way things are going, that is if I still have a job in the New Year. Gone are the days when you put up with low Council wages for the job security. Nothing’s secure anymore.”
Behind the two women, Aggie strides up the hill, flanked by twin, white, bullet-shaped figures, each trying to veer in a different direction. They wear full harnesses, so pull as they might there’s no risk of choking. All that happens is that every now and again Max pulls a bit hard and Aggie yanks him back into line, momentarily lifting him off his feet. Each time this happens, Fliss barks at him. This ever-repeating scenario forms a percussive backdrop to the endless drone of Val’s voice. Aggie moves a bit closer and interrupts.
“Didn’t I see Sara Fraser at the bus stop with you again?”
Val takes no notice, but Annette turns her head while continuing to walk.
“Yes. That wee white dog is her Sugar.”
“West Highland Terrier, isn’t it?”
“That’s right. She’s a little darling. Bit jumpy and yappy for me, though. I prefer a big dog.” Annette looks complacently at Saf, who hasn’t needed a lead for years. On rare occasions when one is required (such as when walking at a beach or park adorned with notices specifying that ‘dogs must be on the lead’) she puts the lead on Saf and then gives her the end of it to hold in her mouth. Saf is perfectly happy to lead herself, and if anyone comments (as busybodies sometimes feel they have the right to do) Annette can point out that her dog is clearly on the lead, and the law has been complied with, to the letter.
Val is still talking. “I might just as well stay at home. At least then I wouldn’t need to worry about Karma. He doesn’t travel well, and I’m not sure kennels are the right place for him. They don’t appreciate his needs.” Karma pauses in his relentless struggle with the lead, to sniff an interesting deposit in the road before eating it. Saf sits on her haunches and looks at Annette. Eating another dog’s poo is definitely beyond the pale, as far as she’s concerned. Karma wags his tail and looks pleased with himself. Another successful foraging expedition. His face smiles as he pants, tongue lolling, and waits for them all to catch up.

Sara runs the duster over the glass shelf above the TV. She lifts the ornaments one by one, wipes and replaces them. Wafting the cloth over the bookshelf exhausts her and she sinks onto the sofa and picks up the remote control. Flicking through the channels, she leans back into her seat. Sugar whines hopefully and jumps into her lap.
With the dog draped across her knees, Sara settles down to watch. The other day she saw a pretty sapphire necklace she really wanted. Maybe today there’ll be something else she likes. Maybe today she’ll phone the number on the screen and order one. She knows she won’t, though. What would be the point of buying pretty things to wrap round such an ugly body?
Sara knows she’s ugly because her husband told her so, many times, before he died five years ago, still complaining. Before marriage, it had been her mother who told her what a disappointment she was. Now that her girls have grown up and left home, there doesn’t seem to be any point in trying to stay strong. She’s free to wallow.
On screen now, a massively obese woman is walking across a park accompanied by a fit looking man in shorts and a vest. Whatever he’s saying to the woman is drowned out by the little voice in the back of Sara’s head. “Pull yourself together, girl. How do you expect to find a man looking like that?” I got one, she thinks to herself. I got one all by myself. But she can hear Paul’s voice too, never satisfied, always wanting to improve her. “If you lost thirty pounds you’d be a goddess.”
Instead, she put the weight on, more and more of it, and now it’s a struggle to haul herself out of the chair and get back on her feet again. She does it: the program’s crap, and anyway she needs a cup of tea. On the way to the kitchen she takes one chocolate from the bowl in the corner. It’s only one. That doesn’t count.
While the kettle’s boiling she washes up the dishes from last night’s dinner. This is good. She’s in control of her life. Sugar sits adoringly at her feet, eyes fixed on her face, head moving to follow every movement. Sugar loves her. If it wasn’t for Sugar she thinks she might have just laid down and died when Kelsie left home.
Merys and Kelsie are Sara’s wee girls. Not so wee, these days: Merys is living in Dubai with her business consultant husband, and Kelsie’s at university in Glasgow. Kelsie’s going to spend Christmas with her boyfriend’s family in Aberdeen. They’re getting on with their lives. She’s glad of that: it proves she was a good mother. Neither of them is making the mistakes she did.
It’s lonely, though, now they’re gone. Some days it hardly seems worth getting out of bed, except for Sugar. With a sudden burst of energy, Sara gets the collar and lead and pushes her feet into her boots. It’s not fair on Sugar to keep her shut up at home. She needs a walk. Today Sara’s determined to make it all the way to the bus stop and back. There’s a flip-up seat in the bus shelter, so she can take a rest before heading up the hill to home again. She can do this. She’s doing it for Sugar.

Making the Best of Things – Part 1

Here at last, and only a little bit later than planned, is the first instalment in my Christmas story. Come over to https://www.facebook.com/groups/737252102990447/?ref=ts&fref=ts and join us for a season of stories – and read the rest of this one, to be published here and on Facebook on 27th December 2014.

Fliss and Max

Making the Best of Things, or, Five Stay Home for Christmas

Part 1 – 27th November

“Fliss! Fliss! Put that child down and come here.”
“Aww, Missus Matchum, don’t be mean. She’s lovely. I think she might follow me home.”
“From your mouth to God’s ear, son. Fliss’ll follow anyone home, if she thinks there might be food or a cuddle in it. Get over here, ye daft bitch. Heel.” The white bulldog trots reluctantly back to Agatha Matchum’s side as the child runs off down a side street.
“Did you win, then?” Annette is curious. Surely the name issue has already been settled, and not in Aggie’s favour.
“Win what?” Aggie flicks her iron grey bob behind her ears and hauls at the leads, positioning one bull terrier on each side of her. The dogs eye one another round the swing of her tweed skirt and leather boots and elect to behave. For now.
“The Royal versus Fliss argument.”
“Argument? There is no argument. He says, okay, Max is my dog, but the female is his, and he wants to call her Royal. I say: if I’m the one walking her, then I’m the one naming her. She got her shots last week. It says Fliss Matchum on the bill, and I don’t notice him rushing to pay it.” Aggie’s brother Malcolm lives with her, in between stints on the oil rigs. Hardy souls have been known to remark that he’s worked his way through a series of careers, each of which takes him further away from his sister. More charitable (or cynical) types note that he always comes home again.
Aggie puts the dogs in gear and marches forward. Annette’s shepherd bitch, Saf, falls obediently into line and the two women set off uphill towards the bus stop. Annette is dark and plump, and wears her hair in a braid. She’s fond of loose, comfortable clothing in flower prints and bright colours, which conceal her figure and make her look like the ageing flower child she is. She finds Aggie brash and overbearing, and they make an odd couple, but nonetheless they’re best friends. Annette can’t imagine life without her. Ahead of the two women a howling arises, interspersed with yips. The dogs pant and strain at their leashes. Company is waiting.
Near the top of the hill two women are huddled together in the bus shelter, trying to keep out of the wind. In front of the shelter a small, white bundle jumps up and down excitedly, yapping at the top of its voice. Above its head a worn leather lead juts horizontally into the street. One end is attached to the collar of a beautiful samoyed, gleaming white, lovingly brushed and frothing with the effort of pulling against the lead. Inside the shelter Val Collins braces herself against her dog’s pull as she carries on her conversation. Every now and again her voice floats out over the sound of barking.
“Sit, Karma. Sit now, there’s a dear.”
Her voice has no effect on the dog, whose eyes are bulging as it chokes itself against its own collar. Fortunately, Aggie and Annette reach the others just before Karma collapses from asphyxia. The dogs mill round together, sniffing each other’s bottoms and tangling the leads. Karma collapses into a white, hairy pile in the roadway and pants ferociously, saliva dripping from his tongue. Sugar finally ceases yapping and piles into the fray, whining and nipping at the larger dogs. Saf bears her patiently, shouldering her away from time to time, while Max and Fliss ignore her altogether. They are too busy licking up the pools of Karma’s saliva from the gutter.
Eventually, the women get the leads sorted out and start off along the ridge.

Chantelle closes the oven door and straightens, rubbing the small of her back. Steam has condensed on her fringe and it hangs limply in front of her eyes. She pushes it back behind her ears and shouts. “Jared? It’s your turn to walk the dog.”
There’s no response from upstairs, but the rocker on the floor under the kitchen table begins to wail softly. Chantelle reaches out one foot and pushes the rocker into motion again. The baby quiets, while she continues preparing the dinner.
“Jared?” It’s no use. It looks as though she’ll be walking the dog again. Funny how ‘family dog’ inevitably becomes ‘Mum’s dog’ when it comes to exercise. The potatoes come to the boil and she turns them down to simmer. She decants a pile of chopped green beans into the pot with the carrots and pushes the hair out of her eyes again. With luck there’ll be just enough time to change Alice, feed the dog and persuade the twins to lay the table before serving up. Daisy’s walk will have to wait until after bedtime, as usual.
Chantelle sighs. Things seem to be getting harder every day. It’s at times like this that she really misses having another adult around the place – even though he’d been pretty useless when it came to household chores. She misses having someone to keep an eye on the baby while she nips out to get the washing in, or to take the chicken out of the oven when the timer goes (and stop the dog from eating it) while she rounds up the troops.
Sometimes she feels it needs the skills of a Sergeant Major to keep five kids and a dog in line. That was another of Gary’s complaints. “You’re always telling me what to do. You’re so grumpy all the time.”
“You just try keeping a household of seven (plus dog) in order by yourself, Gary MacEwan, she mutters, kicking the table leg. Bloody coward. He’d been fine in the early days – caring and helpful during her pregnancies, patient and loving afterwards – and there’s no doubt at all that he loves the kids, especially Jared once he’d become old enough to be interesting – but somewhere along the line the spark had gone out of their marriage, and he hadn’t cared enough to help her keep it alight.
It’s understandable, she thinks. After all, by the time they had four children she’d been pretty well exhausted, and the work is hard. There isn’t much room for romance in her life. But right now, with ten year old Jared, eight year old Georgie, twins Tim and Luke (six) and the baby, she really can’t do it all on her own.
She smiles down at Alice. She’d been the baby that Chantelle had hoped would restart their marriage, and bond them all together. It hadn’t worked out that way. Instead, by the twenty-week antenatal check she’d been doing it all on her own, while Gary was away across town in his new house, with his new girlfriend and soon enough his brand new baby. Little Molly is a model baby with yellow curls who never cries, or keeps her parents awake all night with colic. To add insult to injury, she is  two weeks older than Alice – a fact that causes Chantelle to fantasize about scratching Gary’s eyes out whenever she remembers it.
The front door opens and closes again, sending a cold draught down the hallway and banging the kitchen door shut. It opens, and a pretty girl with brown hair in braids peers round the doorway.
“Hello Georgie, how was Guides?”
“Really good. I’m nearly ready to sit my First Aid badge.”
“That’s great.” Chantelle unbuckles the baby’s safety strap and lifts her, releasing a distinctive smell of dirty nappy.
“Give her to me, Mum. I know what to do.”
“Georgie, you’re a star. What would I do without you?”
Georgie takes the baby to the bathroom, and Chantelle drags the twins away from their computer game, to screams of anguish as the screen goes black. With identical scowls they stomp around the kitchen, slamming plates down on the table and pretending to stab one another with forks. One stands on Daisy’s paw and she yelps, jumping out from under the table, and taking refuge in the utility room, coincidentally ending up right next to her food bowl. Chantelle takes the hint and feeds her, closing the door to shut the dog away from the family dinner. The chicken ought to be about ready by now.

Writing for Rescue

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Writing-Rescue-Karen-Taylor-ebook/dp/B00QZEI4GC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1418933255&sr=8-1&keywords=writing+for+rescue

Just published – all money raised goes to support an initiative that helps to treat (including spaying/neutering) and if possible rehome stray cats and dogs in Romania. Believe me, it’s a good cause. I’ve seen some of the conditions these animals are living in. I have two stories in this book, and there are other great stories in there – something for everyone, and it’s only £3.92. We’ve all donated our stories, and Karen Taylor has worked like a demon to get it published in time for Christmas. Go on – put that extra packet of mince pies back on the shelf and do your mind and your waistline a favour – and help out a few creatures along the way. You know you want to.

Leroy and the Camel – A Short Story for Christmas

Here’s today’s offering from the talented authors at Crooked Cat. Don’t forget, there’s a great range of titles and it’s not too late for Christmas posting! https://www.facebook.com/groups/737252102990447/?fref=ts

Vanessa Couchman

Christmas with Crooked Cats

Continuing the Christmas with the Crooked Cats seasonal feast of literary offerings, here is a short story about a Santa with a difference.

Apologies for the possible lack of political correctness. Not to be taken seriously.

[P.S. Check out our books at the Crooked Cat Bookstore – plenty of Christmas ideas there.]

Leroy and the Camel

It was Leroy’s 25th year in the store as Father Christmas. He hated it a bit more every year.

When he applied for the job, Ralph, the Toy Department manager, had sucked his teeth.

“I don’t know; a black Father Christmas. Mmm. Well, why not? It’s a novelty. Might well draw in the punters.”

Warming to his theme, he mused out loud, “Since you come from Africa, we can’t have a reindeer. What do they have down there? Lions – no that’ll frighten the kids. Elephants – too big. I know – a camel!”

Leroy sighed…

View original post 653 more words

Island Lifelines – what would we do without our ferries?

TCC cover art frontOnly two days until I post the first installment of my Christmas story to https://www.facebook.com/groups/737252102990447/

In the meantime, here’s a sample of The Calgary Chessman – one that seems quite topical today, as I’ve just got back from the mainland, and a nail biting wait to see if the ferry would dare the winds and high seas today.

Anywhere that can be reached on a calm day, will be. The
vast sweep of the Pacific, with its myriad of tiny islands, was
settled by brave Polynesians who set off eastward, always sure
they would find another land, following only their hearts, the
spoken knowledge of their ancestors and the signposts of
seabirds, ocean currents and cloud patterns. At last, they
reached New Zealand, and Hawaii, and Easter Island, and so
stitched together the greatest body of water on the globe into a
patchwork of human dispersal. All over the world, places have
been settled, raided or just plain visited because they can be,
and because we humans are a curious species.

I shaded my eyes against the glare off the sea, and thought
about ocean distances in the world of the Lewis Chessmen.
Sometimes I find it difficult to imagine what life must have
been like back then. Post-industrial revolution Britain is such a
different place from even three or four hundred years ago, let
alone a thousand. But here in the Hebrides it isn’t so hard to
picture. Life would still have to go on, whatever the weather, so
that houses could be built, food provided and necessities
produced or traded for. People would have been waiting for the
regular visits of ships to provide what they couldn’t grow or
make for themselves.

The only difference now is that the sailing birlinns have been
replaced by powered vessels. The ferries are still the life-blood of
the islands, and even tourism is nothing particularly new.
Samuel Johnson, he of the dictionary, and his friend Boswell
visited Mull and Ulva, and there were plenty of others like
them. The basics of life have remained comfortingly familiar,
despite all our technological advancements.

Previous Older Entries