My brother named his two boys after our childhood dogs. In fairness, the first boy’s name was probably a coincidence. But the choice for the second was not. When Boy Number Two was imminent, my brother realised the potential for his sons to have the same names as his childhood pets. So he went for it.
If this seems a strange way to choose a child’s name, you may find yourself in the minority. From my quick sample of friends, I have discovered quite a few who can make a connection between a child’s name and a former pet. So far, the link seems to be only with the dads’ pets’ names, but that might just be my sample.
It used to be common, in parts of Shropshire, for the father to choose the name of the child. Many would often just open the Bible and pick the first name that they saw. It was also considered unlucky to mention the child’s name before the christening. This meant that the father wouldn’t reveal the name until during the christening. The upshot was that it led to some interesting and unusual names!
There are references to the consequences of names in folklore. One of my favourites is the belief that if a woman marries someone with the same surname as them, then the bread baked by this person is certain to cure whooping-cough.
I am writing my next novel and choosing names for characters has been a fun task. With Unexpected Companions, I had to go with the names my ancestors had been given or known by. This, in itself, presented challenges. The Burne side loved calling their children after themselves while in the Mello family if a child died, their name was given to future siblings. Needless to say, this made research a confusing and challenging exercise at times.
Now that I am free of the confines of other people’s choices, I am inspired by JK Rowling’s approach. Perhaps this is because Harry Potter is big in my house right now. Or perhaps it’s because I have always had a fascination with the concept of nominus determinism.
I am no Harry Potter expert but being Book 4 in, I can tell you that a lot of names follow this notion. Take the surname Malfoy, for those who aren’t into the magical spheres of Hogwarts, this is the name of a baddy family. Malfoy is two French words combined, ‘evil’ and ‘faith’. Then there’s a teacher, who is a werewolf (sorry for the spoiler if you haven’t read it). His surname is Lupin, a play on Lupine meaning wolfish. He was bitten as a child so I suppose, for a time, was not a werewolf but the signs were clearly there…
Jane Austen was another one who liked to have fun naming characters. Jane Fairfax’s surname apparently means in anglo-saxon ‘fair-head’ while the character is noted for her dark hair. Austen clearly enjoys this use of irony: Edward Ferrars, the nervous and, eventually, disinherited hero of Sense and Sensibility, has a Saxon name which can be broken down as ‘riches’ and ‘guardian’. I could go on but if you are interested, The Guardian has an article that explores Jane Austen’s naming style.
Names are important and can provide a sense of self or give an immediate impression (rightly or wrongly) to others. That’s why it’s as important in novels as it is in life. After all, if you’re not called Ernest you’re not worth knowing.
We stepped off the plane to a haze of heat. The sky was a brilliant blue and the thinnest of breezes the only indication of the ocean nearby. It was August and we had come to Bermuda to visit family. But for me, this was more than just a family holiday; it was also an opportunity to see Bermuda through the eyes of Amy Mello.
I had already heard a lot about Vicinity House – the home that Amy built in the 1930s – but had never seen it. This visit was my chance. Being Bermuda, my mother-in-law knew the people who lived there. So, one sunny morning, we drove down a narrow lane to the very end where a house, now painted cream with green shutters, stood.
In Amy’s time, it had been pink and red – a colour combination that, even by Bermuda standards, was daring. Very little else about the home had changed; the porch where Amy’s mother used to sit was still there and, inside, many of the features familiar to my mother-in-law’s childhood were present: the small kitchen with the large breakfast bar and intricately decorated cupboards, the dark wooden staircase whose railings Amy’s grandchildren, Karen (my mother-in-law) and her sister, Diane, had been made to polish, and the bookcase of the same dark wood in the hallway.
Even the layout was the same.Karen pointed to where Amy had once sat watching her soap operas and to the dining room where the family had gathered for celebrations and Sunday dinners. Our timing was fortuitous as the owners of the house were soon going to be renovating it and much of the features Amy had lovingly planned would be gone.
Having finished our tour and with the heat growing, I insisted on a couple other stops. Idragged my mother-in-law and four year old daughter to the cemeteries where Amy and other relatives are buried. Amy is buried in a vault with several other family members. It is bright white, low lying and rectangular in shape. Most notably, it is devoid of any indication as to who is buried there. This seems to be a common style of burial in Bermuda as there are rows of these vaults, each with a different family in them – some are named but most are silent about the occupants within.
The wider Mello and Simons family, however, were more considerate to future genealogists and their burial sites are marked with traditional tombstones. This enabled me to embrace my Burne genes and I wandered ‘happily’ around this cemetery searching out family names. I was hoping to solve an unanswered question over the fate of one of Amy’s young nieces, however I didn’t find a trace of her. I should probably consider this a good thing but I was, perversely, a little disappointed.
We headed home passing the orange house that Amy’s best friend, Mary, had lived in. It is at the bottom of a steep road and, on several occasions, she had had cyclists misjudge the gradient and end up in her garden!
Amy’s American Dream
Amy’s life was as much about Massachutsus as it was about Bermuda. Unfortunately, time and budget have yet to allow me to visit these personally. However, Diane made several trips to Cambridge while I was researching Amy in 2018 so I sent her a list of addresses to investigate.
We discovered that many of Amy’s residential buildings have disappeared to the march of progress. However one house, where Amy had lived with Jose, was still there although it is now apartments. It looks like it has been modernised and, I imagine, is now larger than when Amy was there. Behind the house, an old warehouse looms and we think it was the one that Amy and Jose worked in. This location would have made for a commute most city-dwellers would be envious of. Additionally, opposite their house was a Portuguese meeting hall. The combination of these remnants to work and community was a good reminder as to why Amy and Jose would have chosen this part of Cambridge. It is an aspect of Amy’s life that I explore in my book.
The photos of Diane standing in snow, wrapped in coats and scarves, is in stark contrast to the humidity of Bermuda. Despite living in the USA for over 10 years, I can’t help thinking that Bermuda was a balm for Amy after the trials of her American Dream. If nothing else, having moved at least 7 times over 10 years, she went back to Bermuda and built a permanent place that she called home for the next 30 years.
Fairies often seem to be blamed or held in suspicion in folklore. The Surrey tale of Matthew Trigg and the Pharisees (the county’s word for fairies) is no exception. But what if these magical creatures are simply misunderstood? I wanted to see how this tale might have been told from their perspective.
Nettle lounged on the tree branch. Her leg swung back and forth like the pendulum of a clock. She was meant to be planting seeds before the last of the daylight faded. But the work was boring and she had something better to do: she was on watch.
Below her, she heard the voices of her friends heading back to the grove with their baskets. Their melodious tunes circled her like a soft breeze, enticing her to join them. She waved the sensation away and pulled up her leg but it was too late; she had been spotted.
‘Hi! Nettle!’ Balder called up. ‘What are you doing up there?’
‘I’m waiting,’ Nettle said, leaning as far over the branch as she dared.
‘Waiting for what,’ Balder said, putting his basket down.
‘Nothing you need to worry about. Just mind your own business,’ Nettle said.
‘What business?’ Balder said.
‘Yours!’ Nettle said, climbing up the tree trunk to the next branch as Balder leaped up the branches below her.
‘Hey, wait,’ Melanie called, putting her basket down too and scurrying up the tree trunk. Soon they were all on the same branch.
Nettle put her hands on her hips. ‘Well, you’ve ruined this now.’
‘Ruined what?’ Balder asked. He looked around, his young face aglow with curiosity.
‘What I am doing, that’s what.’ The birds were singing in the trees around them, telling anyone who would listen that the sun would soon set. Melanie took Balder’s hand, ‘Com’on,’ she said. ‘We need to put the baskets and tools back in the garden huts before it’s too dark.’
Balder looked around and back at Nettle and then nodded.
‘You coming?’ Balder asked.
‘I’ll be right behind you,’ Nettle said, her voice gave away her relief that their intrusion was to be short-lived.
Suddenly, an unfamiliar sound wafted up; the low shuffle as something was half-dragged along the ground and the sound of a ‘tap, tap, tap.’ They all looked at each other, knowing what that noise must mean. Melanie bit her lip, Balder’s eyes widened and Nettle crouched on the tree branch, peering out through the leaves to the path below.
‘He’s back again. Look, there on the path,’ Nettle whispered.
‘Who is he?’ Melanie asked.
‘His name is Matthew and he’s from the village,’ Nettle said. ‘He used to come here with a woman but now it’s just him.’
‘Where’s he going?’ Balder said, leaning over Nettle to get a better look.
‘To Fir Tree Mound. He just sits there and then comes back once the sun has set.’
‘Humans are weird,’ Melanie giggled.
‘Let’s follow him,’ Balder said.
‘We have to get back,’ Melanie said.
‘Oh come on,’ Balder said. ‘Please. Let’s see what he’s up to. We’ll be careful. Please?’
The two older fairies looked at each other. Nettle shrugged, ‘I’m good with that.’ Balder cried out, jumping up and down on the branch so much the leaves shook.
Melanie sighed, ‘I can’t let you two go off by yourselves. You’d get lost, or be seen, or both. So, ok. Let’s go.’
She climbed down a couple of branches, paused, looked back up at Balder and added, ‘But we have to be quiet. And when I say it’s time to leave, we leave.’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ Balder said, sliding down on a leaf and landing with a loud thump on the ground. Melanie sighed and Nettle grinned.
With the baskets tucked away in a nook in the tree roots, they flitted over the leaves and twigs that decorated the ground. Where the sun’s rays had snuck past the leafy barrier, ferns and brambles grew.
Matthew was now settled on a log just below the crest of the mound. He stared out over the tops of the trees, watching the sun’s progress towards the horizon’s edge. Behind him a row of fir trees stood tall like soldiers, their features blurring with the dying light.
The three fairies scampered across the grassy carpet that the open area of the mound provided, stopping only when they were in the sanctuary of the weeds around the log. They waited, peeping occasionally to check he was still there, but he didn’t make a sound; just sat there staring out at the kaleidoscope of colours painted on the horizon.
‘Let’s go,’ Melanie whispered after a while. She pulled at Balder’s arm but he refused to leave his hideout. The weeds rustled around them and Nettle raised her hand, ‘Shhh, listen.’
‘Well, Susan. Not a bad sunset. Nicest for a while now. You would’ve liked it, I’m sure. All those pink and orange colours. You always were fond of orange,’ he said.
He paused and Nettle wondered if he was going to say anything else. Then he cleared his throat.
‘Children in the village still noisy and bothersome. I know, I know, you don’t have to remind me – they mean no harm.’
Balder peered further around the log, his neck craning to see over the tall grass.
‘Whose he talking to?’ Balder said.
‘Get back, you’ll be seen,’ Melanie hissed.
‘I’m trying to -’ Balder lost his balance and disappeared among the grass blades. There was a scuffling noise and then Balder came scrambling back, breathing heavily, his face glowing and his eyes sparkling with excitement.
‘There’s no one else there’ he said. ‘He’s talking to himself!’
‘No,’ Nettle said. ‘He’s talking to a ghost.’
Balder jumped and pressed himself against the log. ‘A ghost? No! Really?’
Nettle sighed, ‘Not literally. It’s his wife, who he used to come up here with. Reckon she’s died so now he comes alone.’
‘That’s so sad,’ Melanie said and she crept towards the edge of the log. Matthew started coughing and she leaped back making Balder laugh so hard he had to put his fist in his mouth to stop the sound from escaping.
‘Stop laughing, Balder,’ Melanie said. ‘It’s not funny.’
‘Shhh, he’s saying something else,’ Nettle said waving at them to be quiet.
‘Now my dear, I’m afraid this might be one of the last times I come up here,’ Matthew said. ‘It’s getting to be so hard walking up the hill, even with the stick. I never thought it would come to this. I miss you. I know we were never one for such talk but it’s true. I miss sharing these sunsets with you. I will try to come one more time but I will need a miracle to help me up the hill quite soon.’
With a grunt, he heaved himself upright, knelt on the stick for a second and then tottered gingerly down the hill. The three fairies watched him until he vanished into the trees.
‘Poor old man. We should help him,’ Melanie said.
Nettle looked at her in surprise. ‘How?’ she asked.
Melanie shrugged. ‘Dunno, but there must be a way.’
Nothing else was said as they walked back. Nettle absent-mindedly drew circles in the soil with a stick as she waited for Melanie and Balder to retrieve their baskets.
‘We create a toadstool circle,’ she said suddenly bending down to look at her circles. ‘Bring him into our world and then cure his limp. There’s a song for curing things like that – my mum sang it to me once when I fell out of a tree. It might work on him too.’
Melanie shifted her basket and studied Nettle. ‘Only Mistletoe and other senior fairies are allowed to create toadstool rings.’ She glanced around. ‘Even talking about it might be enough to get us into trouble.’
‘But don’t you see, it’s the only way to help him,’ Nettle said.
Melanie stared at the circles then walked off to the path and studied the ground. A dent in the soil and a tear on a leaf betrayed where Matthew’s stick had been.
‘We could make the toadstool ring here. He has to pass this way to go up the hill,’ Melanie said. ‘If we can get him to stand in it then we can get him to our grove.’
‘So you’re in?’ Nettle asked.
‘It’s dangerous,’ Melanie said. ‘And we could get into serious trouble.’
‘But you’ll help?’ Nettle said again.
‘Yes, I’ll help. As long as all three of us do this together.’
To commit them all to the task, the three fairies stood in a small circle, put their hands in the centre and Melanie sprinkled fairy dust over them.
Two days later, Balder rushed through the woods, dodging stones and shoots of flowers. Melanie and Nettle stood on the path, waiting for him to appear. They heard his footsteps before he came into view and Melanie frowned at him.
‘You may as well have put up a big sign telling everyone what we’re doing you were so loud,’ she said.
‘Sorry,’ Balder said. ‘I couldn’t get away. Mistletoe made me do an extra round because she couldn’t find Nettle.’
Nettle laughed and flicked a strand of her orange hair out of her face, ‘I’ve been too busy with this to worry about digging holes and waking insects.’
‘Well, she’s cross and others are beginning to grumble about it too,’ Balder scuffed his shoe against a stone.
‘We can deal with that later,’ Melanie said, pulling a vial of fairy dust from her bag. She pulled the acorn lid off it and looked at her two companions. ‘Are you ready? There’s no going back once we start.’
Balder nodded and Nettle said, ‘yes, yes, come on. I can hear him!’
They took their places, Melanie whispered a spell as she put some fairy dust in their cupped hands. The fairy dust in their hands began to tingle and shimmer and Melanie nodded at them. They scattered the fairy dust along a line they had drawn in the ground earlier until they had created a sparkling circle. Nettle held her breath and watched Melanie who was concentrating on the glowing ring. Suddenly five toadstools appeared, their tops bright red with golden spots.
They hid in the undergrowth just as Matthew came into view. ‘I need to see,’ Nettle said and pushed the fern leaves out of her way. Matthew was just a few steps from the toadstool ring but even from that distance Nettle could see he wasn’t going to step into the ring; he would step over it instead. She pushed through the fern leaves to get closer.
‘Nettle,’ Melanie whispered but Nettle ignored her. It isn’t going to work, Nettle thought. Our whole plan depends on him stepping into the ring. If he doesn’t, it will all be for nothing.
She moved right up to the path’s edge. Tap went the stick, shuffle went his bad leg. One more step and he would be past the ring. Nettle looked around, her heart pounded and her mouth was dry but her focus was sharp. She saw a large pebble and an idea bubbled.‘Help me, Balder,’ she hissed. Balder dashed forward and together they pushed the pebble onto the path just as the stick came down. The stick ricocheted off the pebble and Matthew stumbled from the interruption of his rhythm. His bad leg fell down sharply, he cried out and his good leg lurched forward into the toadstool ring.
Instantly, a shimmering cuff closed on his leg and Matthew fell letting go of his stick as he hurtled to the ground. Instead of hitting the earth, however, he fell through it and landed on a soft cushion of moss.
The three fairies watched him sit up, rub his head and look around. When he saw the fairies he cried out and tried to stand but the cuff was still on his ankle and he couldn’t. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ Melanie said. ‘We are here to help you.’ Matthew cried out again and scratched at his ankle trying to find what was holding him to the ground.
‘Try again,’ Nettle said and Melanie repeated her assurances.
‘I don’t think he can hear you,’ Balder said.
‘Or maybe he doesn’t understand?’ Nettle mused.
‘Well, either way, we need to keep going before the magic wears off,’ Melanie said. She raised her hands and the cuff disappeared. Matthew up but with another flick of her hand, he hovered in the air. He yelled out and flayed his arms about.
‘What’s he doing?’ Balder asked. Melanie cocked her head and frowned. ‘Not sure. Can humans grab air?’
‘No,’ Nettle said. ‘He’s panicking. But for the spell my mum used to get to work, we need him to be constantly moving so this is a good start. Melanie, see if you can use your magic to get him moving even more.’
Melanie nodded and raised her hands to the trees. A wind picked up and swirled around, the leaves swished as it raced through the branches and Matthew’s limbs moved faster as they were pushed and pulled by the wind.
Nettle watched for a few moments and then started to recite in a soft, melodious voice. ‘Grace of birds, power of wind, hear these words, let these limbs grow strong, wonders of trees, hear my song.’
Her voice lifted into the trees, the wind swirled the words around Matthew whose breathing rasped against the effort of dancing in the air. Balder began to dance as the magic grew around them.
‘It’s working, it’s working!’ Balder cried.
Nettle began to sway to the melody as she repeated her song. Only Melanie remained steady against the tide of movement. She watched Matthew’s face, seeing his mouth open and shut as he tried to say something. Suddenly, he looked up into the sky and her gaze followed his. A large and cumbersome shape was heading towards them. It came closer so that the glittering wings and large hooves could be made out as it flew across their glade.
‘Dobbin,’ he whispered.
Melanie grabbed at Balder, who tried to swing her around. She yanked her arm out of his reach. ‘Nettle! There’s a flying a horse!’ Melanie shouted.
‘There’s no such thing!’ Nettle laughed.
The sun disappeared then as a shadow lurched over them. The distraction was enough for Matthew to grab at the mane of the flying horse as it hovered by him. As quick as a goldfinch, the horse and the man had disappeared. Nettle waved and shouted at the air, ‘Wait! I hadn’t finished the spell. It might not have worked! Wait!’
But the only reply came from the rustle of leaves falling from the trees.
The bags were heavy even after she had planted most of the seeds and plants. Nettle carried them one at a time. Her wings were sore and so her progress was slow. She had to go further away from the fairy grove than usual to complete her task. Somehow the Queen Fairy had discovered about the attempt to help Matthew and, between that and Nettle’s poor tally of planted Spring flowers, she was in disgrace. To make up for it she was doing the tasks that no fairy ever wanted to do: going to the edges of the wood to wake the last of the slumbering insects and plant the larger shrubs and flowers.
‘Oh, you stupid bag,’ she grumbled as it tumbled over a rock and the contents spilled out across the path. She kicked at a trowel and watched it land in some brambles.
‘Nettle! Nettle!’ Balder shouted.
‘I’m here. What is it,’ she shouted back, scooping seeds and tools back into the bag. Balder bounded up, beaming as he saw her. ‘We have a surprise for you.’
‘Well, it will have to wait. I’ve got to get these bags back to the huts.’
‘Leave them! This is more important. Come on.’ He disappeared into the brambles and, with only a small niggle of hesitation, Nettle followed him. He stopped a few minutes later and waved for her to be quiet.
‘What’s this all about?’
‘Shhh and listen.’
‘All I hear are some human footsteps. Hardly worth leaving my bags for.’
‘It depends on whose footsteps they are.’ He smiled mysteriously and the gloom Nettle had felt for the last week left her as she spotted the owner of the footsteps.
Matthew now walked with solid steps, the walking stick no longer needed, laughing at a group of children who ran alongside him, peppering him with questions. The children ran on and as he passed the fairies, they could hear he was humming the tune last heard in their grove.
This folktale about how a piece of land came to be called Crawls has stayed with me since I first read it three years ago. I have always enjoyed stories of how places are named, but this one left an impression thanks to its purposeful and determined heroine crawling, against all the odds, to get what she wanted. I have copied out the original tale, which can be read here.
Her servant paused at the sound of shuffling. Elizabeth didn’t hear the noise and carried on, glancing back only when she realised she had lost her light. Behind her, it bobbed along until it was back by her side and she could make out the outline of her servant. Sally’s face was partly visible behind the orange glow, her small brown eyes darting side to side while her mouth stayed frozen in a frown. Elizabeth smiled at this look of nervous resignation.
‘I ‘eard sommat,’ Sally said peering into the darkness. Leaves crunched and a twig snapped nearby. ‘There,’ she hissed. Elizabeth didn’t stop to consider the noise but carried on crawling. Steadily, she covered the ground, one hand and opposite knee, then the other hand and knee. Repeat.
‘It’s just a badger or fox,’ Elizabeth said, repositioning her hand as it made contact with a pebble.
‘I wunna be so sure, like,’ Sally said. ‘Thems more frittenin to be seen out at night than brocks and the fox.’ The wind picked up and Sally forgot the ghosts as she struggled to keep the torch lit. They had reached the corner of the field forcing Elizabeth to stop as she went through her mental map of her father’s land.
‘Why dunna yo just do this field?’ Sally said. ‘I’m sure yore father will think it mighty grand to ‘ave scrawled round all this.’
‘No,’ Elizabeth said, staring straight ahead. ‘I only get what I crawl around so I am not just going to do this field.’ She tugged at a strand of loose hair that swished across her face.
‘Yo canna do this all night.’
As if spurred on by this declaration, Elizabeth continued crawling until she got to the gate. She pushed it open and crawled into the next field.
‘There are sheep in here, Sally,’ she said, ‘so please make sure the gate is securely shut. It will not do to lose the sheep.’
The light bobbed behind her as light rain glazed everything it found and Elizabeth tuned out her servant’s well-meant grumbling. Instead her mind took her back to the person whose introduction only a month ago changed her destiny.
It was the evening of the feast that her father always held for his tenants and the hall was crowded with polished faces and scrubbed clothes. Peasants and lower nobility muddled together over large cuts of roast meat and jugs of mead. It was one of Elizabeth’s favourite days of the Christmas festivities and she was immersed in her role as lady of the house when an unfamiliar face caught her attention.
She turned to her cousin. ‘Gwen, who is that?’
Gwen glanced across the room at the tall man who stood talking to two of the Hall’s farmhands. For a moment her forehead creased in concentration as she tried to place this apparition. Elizabeth suppressed a smile. She knew that Gwen prided herself on knowing everyone in the area and was amused she had found someone whose name and background were flummoxing her.
Gwen’s forehead cleared and she smiled. ‘I believe he is one of the sons of Sir Robert of Turley Manor… A younger son,’ she added as Elizabeth continued to watch him, ‘not the one that is going to inherit the estate; small as it is.’
‘Let’s go speak to him,’ Elizabeth said.
‘We can’t just go and speak to him,’ Gwen spluttered.
‘Why not? He is in my house.’
‘We don’t know him.’
‘That is why we should go and speak to him. Get to know this curious man who chooses to speak to the labourers over his peers.’
‘That is probably why we shouldn’t.’ Gwen looked around as if for support but Elizabeth dragged her across the room, around tables being cleared to make space for dancing, over the reeds that were still filling the air with a hint of herbs. They stood near the small huddle which included this younger son of Sir Robert’s and suddenly Elizabeth’s confidence left her. She hovered nearby brushing imaginary creases out of the soft red velvet on her bodice and adjusting the pearls that clung to her neck. Gwen glanced up at her puzzled by the abrupt change in countenance. One of the labourers saw them, nodded obsequiously, and the conversation stopped as the other men turned in their direction. Elizabeth’s confidence surged back. Her hand dropped to her side and she stepped into the circle, Gwen her nervous shadow.
For the rest of the evening Elizabeth and George, the younger son with no inheritance, didn’t leave each other’s side; dancing and talking the evening away. She had never met someone as interesting as him before. He had stories of travelling through France and clashes of war. He was thoughtful and honest, not sharing daring wartime wonders that the heralds sing of but of a cold reality that sang of loneliness, boredom and sudden fear-filled excitement. Most importantly, he listened to her. No one listened to her. Even her father, who many thought odd for how much emphasis he put on her education, would not listen to her ideas for the estate. But here was someone who not only listened to her ideas but encouraged them. Elizabeth drank up his presence like one who had found water in a desert.
Letter after letter accompanied the final days of Advent and beyond into January still they wrote to each other until one day he wrote a note that took her breath away. She didn’t hesitate and wrote back immediately. Then followed the first argument she had ever had with her father.
‘I absolutely forbid it!’ Sir William had said.
Elizabeth’s ears rang with the thud he had made on the table and she tried to ignore the servant scurrying near him to pick up the fallen goblet.
‘But Papa, if you only knew him I know you would change your mind,’ she said.
‘Know him! Of course I know him – the son of a poor knight. Barely an inheritance to pass around and what there is is going to his older brother.’
‘That is what he is but not who he is. Papa, I really do believe you would be impressed with what he has achieved for himself. He has been promoted to knight bachelor and plans —‘
‘Knight bachelor,’ Sir William sniffed, ‘serving under another’s banner. Hardly an impressive feat.’
‘But Papa, he has ideas and is clever and I know would bring so much to the estate —‘
‘Your innocence is a blessing, Elizabeth, yet, you’re so green.’ He stopped and took a breath before continuing.
‘Men like Sir George, with no income or anything to offer, are only interested in what you can provide. As the heiress to all that I have achieved, I have a duty to make sure you do not fall prey to a fortune hunter.’
‘Sir George is not a fortune hunter,’ Elizabeth said. ‘He gave all his spare money to the poor during Advent because he does not value excessive wealth. He…he helped one of the tenants on his father’s land re-roof their cottage. These are not the acts of a selfish person.’
‘Elizabeth, did you see him do this for yourself?’
‘Well, no. Of course not but —‘
‘He said those things to fool you.’
Elizabeth slumped in her chair, her head low and her shoulders hunched.
‘You do not know anything of this world, child,’ Sir William said. ‘If only your mother was still here.’
She looked up at him and felt fury at the tears that burned her eyes. ‘If my mother was still here, she would agree with me.’
His fist hit the table, the goblet wobbled frantically, and the roar that he let out pinned Elizabeth to her chair. ‘That is enough! I have given you my answer and it is no. You will not marry him.’
Three days later, Elizabeth set out on her daily walk. She was halfway around the gardens when a shout, coming from the direction of the Hall, caught her attention. Sally was rushing along the path, waving her hand frantically at Elizabeth.
‘Well? Did you find out anything?’ Elizabeth said as she ran up to Sally. Sally was breathing heavily from running and at last managed, ‘Yes, that I did.’
Three more deep breaths and finally Sally could talk unimpeded.
‘I bin to Ludlow as yo ast but all I could find was that they had bin late payin’ the butcher.’
‘That’s it? A late payment?’
Sally nodded and Elizabeth sighed, trying to control her disappointment.
‘But then I wuz going through Bromfield and I saw Anne Evans, who ‘elps ‘ere on washin’ day. She had jus’ bin to market and had such a bundle of potatoes. Quite a surprise gi’en it’s January.’
‘Sally, did she say anything about Sir George?’
‘Yes, tha’s what I’m tryin’ to tell you.’
Elizabeth bit her lip.
‘As I wuz sayin’, she’s one for spinnin’ street yarn and said she’d ‘eard of a deed that Sir George had done.’
Sally paused and adjusted her cap, carefully tucking a strand of dark hair back into place. Elizabeth stared at her, resisting the urge to tap her foot.
‘Which were what?’
‘What had Sir George done?’
‘He had mixed the hoof of old Mr Chuff’s in Bromfield.’
‘Do you mean fixed the roof?’
‘Oh…that there does make more sense. ‘tis often hard to know what Anne says…she does so snoffle.’
‘But Mr Chuff isn’t on their land.’
‘Yes, that’s why them’s spoken on it. Turned up with all the rushes and thetchin’-pegs and all. Just because he had ‘eard him vexin’ about it leakin’.’
Elizabeth glanced at the Hall. Sunlight shone on the windows hiding any spying eyes so she turned and beckoned her servant to join her on her walk.
‘Anne said ‘er hadna bin surprised because Sir George were known fur such acts of kindness,’ Sally said.
Elizabeth beamed at Sally, ‘Thank you Sally. You have eased my mind. I knew I hadn’t misjudged him. I will marry him as I promised. I gave him my word and I will not go back on it, no matter what my Papa says.’
‘Oh Miss, yo shanna go against yore father, like. He said he wunna leave yo anything if yo did.’
Elizabeth waved her hand, ‘So what if he does. Sir George is capable and well-regarded and I can make do with less.’
Sally wrung her hands. ‘M’dear Miss, please dunna go at it holus-bolus. Bein’ poor is nought sommat to look for. Dunna be ticed with romantic ideas of living in a craitchety cottage.’
Elizabeth laughed, ‘It won’t come to that, Sally. Once we are married, Papa will come around. He will find it easier to forgive than to give permission.’
She tapped her finger to her lip as she thought. ‘We must wait until we are married so it will have to be a quiet affair. Sir George has spoken to a priest who is happy to do the vows so all we need is a witness each.’ She looked intently at Sally who took an involuntary step back.
‘I canna do such a dog’s leave! I plead pardon but without yore father knowin’, it would be more than my life’s worth,’ Sally exclaimed, looking around as if worried the trees might be listening.
‘But there is no one else I can ask,’ Elizabeth said, the despair edging through her voice. Sally looked at the ground, her hands bunched together and shook her head again. Elizabeth sighed. ‘I’m sorry, Sally. You’re right; it is too much to ask.’ She bit her lip, her mind whirling through her options. Finally, she agreed that she would speak to her father the night before her wedding. Elizabeth’s chest tightened at the relief on Sally’s face.
That is how she found herself, on the night before her wedding, crawling around muddy fields. Her hands burned with cold, her knees bruised despite the leather breeches she wore. Sally passed her a chunk of bread and Elizabeth took it with muddy hands, tearing at it with her teeth as she crawled. Soil crunched against her teeth as it mingled with the bread she chewed but she didn’t care.
She also didn’t stop crawling. The sun had not yet risen but she could see that the darkness had dissolved from the horizon and a soft glow emanated now like an advance party marching to warn of the sun’s approach.
Determination and cold fury had spurred her on throughout the night, her father’s face, red and bloated with rage, never far from her mind.
‘I am sure yore father never meant for yo to take his words t’heart,’ Sally said (not for the first time).
‘You mean you don’t think I am headstrong who must take her own way?’ Elizabeth said, her tone betraying the sardonic smile on her lips. The rain had stopped hours earlier and now the frosted grass crunched under her weight.
‘Well, that be as it may, I dunna think he meant for yo to go scrawling all around the fields all night.’
‘He said…of all his broad lands…’ Elizabeth struggled for breath as she crawled up a small but steep hill. ‘I should have none but what I could crawl round by morning light.’ She gasped the final sentence out as she reached the top and the far end of the field spread out before her. Through the low mist, she could just make out Oakley Park Hall beyond.
‘Yes, but just because he says it, it dunna mean he meant it.’
‘He used the word “vow”. “I vow you should have none but what you can crawl round”. I am determined that he will keep his vow just as I am determined to keep mine.’
She heard Sally sigh. She crawled on and reached the gate just as the sun sneaked over the horizon. With that she stopped and leaned against the fence, tired but elated with her achievement. Sally passed her the flask of mead and she drank heavily before pulling herself up.
‘Come on,’ Elizabeth said. ‘He is always up early and we don’t have much time before I need to be at church.’
The fire in the hall was already lit and the sudden warmth sent tingles through Elizabeth’s fingers and toes. She wiped her cheek but only managed to smear more mud across her face. Her father was sat at the table and he didn’t look up when she came in. She walked towards him, her shoes spraying mud as she went, her steps snapping at the flagstones.
‘I did as you said, Papa, and I crawled round as much fair meadow as I could, reaching as far as Downton.’
Her father’s head jerked up and he stared at her taking in her dirty face, tangled hair, and the simple woollen dress, torn and caked with mud. His mouth fell open and he sat staring at her in stunned silence. Then he let out a fierce roar. Sally skittered towards the door. His body began to shake and he slammed his hand on the table, before letting out another roar. Elizabeth stood calmly in front of him, a small smile flickering at the edges of her mouth.
‘You mean to tell me you crawled all night around as much meadow as you could because I said if you did you could keep it?’
He sat back and his eyes sparkled with cunning mischief, ‘How am I to believe this? You might have simply arisen early and rolled in some mud.’
‘Sally was with me the whole time.’
A stammer and stutter came from behind her and Elizabeth saw her father absorb Sally’s crumpled appearance. Sir William threw back his head and let out another roar of laughter. Elizabeth allowed her smile to grow.
‘You have my brave spirit, I’ll grant you that!’ he said, his face beaming in delight. ‘You can keep the land you crawled around. In fact, I will go further,’ he said pointing a finger at her, ‘and won’t disinherit you. And if you insist on it, you can marry this impoverished knight of yours.’
Elizabeth smiled, ‘Thank you, Papa.’
He waved her smiles away, ‘Yes, yes. You earned it my clever daughter.’ He stood up and took her arm. ‘Come, we don’t have much time if you are to be cleaned up. And I must find my best doublet and cap in order to escort you to the church.’
As they waited for the horses to be brought to the front door, Sir William gazed across his lands. ‘You crawled across all that.’
‘All that to Downton.’ Sir William shook his head and laughed again. ‘They’ll say I’ve gone mad.’ ‘Maybe,’ Elizabeth grinned, ‘but it will make a great story.’
In folklore, there are many beliefs associated with Christmas but for this story I focussed on those around love. Although there are plenty of love superstitions that don’t need it to be Christmas-time, in this light-hearted tale, I have brought together some of those that were believed to only work at this festive time of year. If you are interested in Christmas superstitions, in general, a good starting point is Folklore Thursday’s Christmas Superstitions: a Festive Survival Guide.
‘I’ve made a decision,’ Faye said. Ruth raised an eyebrow but Faye ignored her. ‘I am done with online dating. I’ve deleted the apps, cancelled my subscriptions. No more dumb dates based on who a stupid computer thinks I will like. Nope. I am going to let Fate decide.She raised her glass with unsteady abruptness sending red wine rushing up the sides; precariously close to spilling.
‘That’s great, good for you,’ Ruth said. ‘Does that mean you want me to set you up with Damien from work?’ Faye waved her hand and leaned forward. ‘No, it means I am going to let Fate decide.’ She looked intently at Ruth and nodded her head vigorously. Ruth glanced at the half-empty wine glass and back at her friend.
‘Ok,’ Ruth said. ‘Fate. Nice. So just going to sit back and see if anyone approaches you. That is certainly my philosophy. If it happens, it happens.’
Faye shook her head again. ‘No, you might be happy with that but I want something more guaranteed. No. I mean going back to how people used to find their True Loves.’ Ruth almost spat out her wine, ‘Like arranged marriages? Not sure they were always True Loves.’
Faye laughed and pulled out a book from her bag. ‘No, I mean by helping Fate. It’s all here. It explains it all and makes so much sense.’ Ruth took the book, Christmas Traditions and Customs, and began to flick through it as Faye carried on talking. ‘I got it as a secret Santa present at work but it’s really good – it talks about all sorts of things that can be lucky or unlucky at Christmas time. Christmas time is a particularly big time for luck and to get it wrong can mean bad luck all year.’
Ruth looked cynically back at her. ‘It says here not to drink alcohol on Christmas Eve.’
‘Oh, some of them are just superstitious crap, for sure. And besides I’m not after general luck, just love luck.’
‘Right,’ Ruth said. She burst out laughing, ‘Wow Faye, for a second I thought you really meant to,’ and she began to read, ‘ “…find a kneeling donkey and make the sign of the cross on its back”.’
‘I’m not joking, Ruth,’ Faye said looking genuinely hurt. ‘It all makes sense.’ She grabbed the book and flicked through the pages. ‘Look here, “you should never give shoes as a Christmas gift as you are giving the recipient the means to walk away from you”.’
‘So…last Christmas I gave Andrew shoes! And then he walked away from me.’
‘Well, technically he flew away from you. And not because of you but because he got transferred back to America.’
‘But that’s just it. He still left, not six months later. No suggestion of doing long distance.’
‘Faye, he was moving back to San Diego…never mind…I think that is just a coincidence rather than Fate.’
‘I’m not prepared to risk it. So I have a list of things that can only be done on Christmas Eve, all before midnight.’ Faye paused. ‘And I was hoping you would come with me.’
‘Come with you where?’
‘Nowhere far. Local places I promise.’
‘It’s pitch black.’
‘We can use our phones as torches.’
Ruth felt there must be tons of other reasons she could give but she also knew her friend well enough to know she would do this venture with or without her. ‘Ok, fine. I will come with you but I am not, under any circumstances, actually taking part.’
‘Thank you!’ Faye stood up and grabbed her jacket.
‘What, right this second? We still have wine.’
‘We’ll bring it with us,’ Faye said screwing the cap back on and tucking it inside her jacket.
Faye and Ruth jostled their way through the pub until they were finally outside and the noise of merriment was a muffled backdrop. They headed down the lane with a childhood familiarity that gives the confidence to walk sure-footed in the dark. Ruth pulled out a small packet of mince pies.
‘No, thanks. Oh actually yeah, I’ll have one. You know what they say about mince pies? The number of mince pies you eat during the Christmas season is equivalent to the number of months of happiness for the coming year.’
‘Oh come on,’ Ruth said, scattering crumbs as she took a bite. ‘That doesn’t make any sense. I mean what if you have 13? Do you get to roll one over to the year after?’
‘I don’t think the idea is you gorge on mince pies.’
‘That’s not gorging – that’s not even one a day. Or what if they are the mini ones? Does that only get you two weeks of luck?’
The bantering stopped when Faye stepped into a siding. ‘Ok, first stop,’ she said.
‘Not here here, we have to go into this field.’
Ruth peered into the darkness. ‘What if there’s a bull in there?’
‘There’s not, I checked earlier,’ Faye said climbing over the locked gate. Ruth followed and jumped down straight into the mud. ‘Urgh, I’m wearing suede boots.’
‘You’ve become too city to go to the country with suede boots. Come on.’ Faye began to trot through the field, now and again the light from her phone would disappear as she stumbled in divots but soon she stopped again. Ruth glanced at Faye, ‘So what happens now?’
‘I have to knock on that hen house,’ Faye said with a nod towards the small wooden structure that stood a few feet in front of them. ‘If a rooster answers, I will be married but if there’s silence I will never marry. I thought I would start with this belief because if the rooster doesn’t answer, then I know I’m not going to get married, so the other folklore divinations, which tell me about who I will marry, are irrelevant, aren’t they?
‘Oh yeah, that’s very sensible.’ Ruth tried to sound sincere.
Faye approached the hen house and knocked quietly on the door. No answer. Ruth watched Faye’s shoulders droop and her head sink as the silence from the hen house stretched around them. ‘It was quite a quiet knock, Faye,’ she said. ‘Maybe knock louder so the rooster can hear you.’
Faye tried again, this time rapping her knuckles firmly against the wood. Still no answer. Ruth came closer and put her ear up to the side of the coop. ‘You sure there are even chickens in this thing?’
‘Of course there are.’
‘It’s really quiet. I mean I get that I’m all city-fied now but don’t hens normally make some sort of noise, even at night?’
Faye put her ear to the hen coop too and then jumped back as Ruth started to open the door. ‘Don’t do that! What if they escape?’
‘Just opening it a little…it’s empty.’ With the light of the phone, Ruth and Faye peered into the bare hen coop. Only a few strands of straw suggested evidence of it being previously inhabited.
‘Never mind, hon. Shall we go now?’
‘No,’ Faye said. ‘There’s more to do.’ With that she headed to the other end of the field and towards the back of the farmhouse whose field they were in. Before Ruth could catch up with her and stop her, they were on the stony track leading to the cowsheds. The farmhouse was blanketed in darkness, the curtained windows gave the house the appearance of sleeping. Just before the cowshed was the pigsty and this is where Faye finally stopped.
‘This is crazy, Faye,’ Ruth hissed. ‘What if Sarah wakes up? She won’t know it’s us and might shoot us; farmers out here all have shotguns.’
Faye waved her hand dismissing Ruth’s concerns, handed her the wine bottle and started to climb the wall around the pigsty. It wasn’t tall but she still was struggling to get to the top.
‘Help me!’ she said.
‘What are you going to do when you get in with the pigs exactly?’ Ruth was beginning to regret agreeing to this. Faye was stranded; her body half over the wall while her right leg tried to find purchase to push her up.
‘Young women who go out and hit pigs with a stick at Christmas can tell the age of their husbands-to-be: if the first pig that squeals is old, that means an old husband but if the first pig to squeal is young that equals a young husband,’ she recited as she made a third attempt to pull herself over.
‘No offence, but do you think you are still ‘young’?’
‘Twenty-five is not old.’
‘It might have been considered so back when all these superstitions were being thought up.’
A dog started barking. Faye catapulted herself off the wall. A light came on. They bolted down the track, out onto the road and, panting and laughing, headed home. They took swigs from the bottle of wine as they walked and arrived at Faye’s parents’ house as the church clock chimed 11pm.
‘There’s one final thing and then I promise you can go,’ Faye said.
‘No more trespassing, or trying to get close to animals.’
‘This can be done in my parent’s garden. We need a pear tree.’
‘They have a pear tree?’
‘I think so. Or it might be an apple. But pretty sure it’s pear.’
They stood in front of the tree which hugged the boundary fence; it seemed small and cold without its leaves. Faye began to walk around it backwards but she hadn’t gone more than a few steps before she stumbled and fell into the tree.
‘Help me will you? I have to do this nine times so that I can receive a vision of my future love.’
They held hands and both walked backwards, scratching their hands as they squeezed between the fence and tree, stumbling over unseen exposed roots and generally getting dizzier and dizzier.
‘Nine! Done,’ Ruth said with relief.
‘Oh! Just remembered another one I can do to see if I will get married within the year,’ Faye said as they headed up the garden. As they approached the backdoor, she started to pull off one of her trainers but the laces were tight. ‘I just need to…,’ she said tugging at the shoe, ‘throw a shoe… at a door.’ She hopped about on the patio before pulling it free, throwing it towards the door and, at the same time, fell over face-first. The shoe missed the door and hit the kitchen window with a loud thud; Faye sat up slowly, blood dripping from her forehead and nose. Ruth heard the tread of footsteps coming through the kitchen and then looked up into the bleary-eyed face of Faye’s dad.
For all that Faye’s dad can be a bit offish, he’s been pretty cool about this, Ruth thought as they waited for him to get the car from the hospital car park. Faye flicked through her book, her nose still had tampon-looking cotton wool up both nostrils and her forehead was a criss-cross of sticking tape but she didn’t seem to care.
‘Hey, no wonder the chicken thing didn’t work!’ she said, waving the book in excitement. ‘You’re meant to do it between 11 and midnight. We were there too early!’
At that moment, the doctor who had cleaned Faye up, walked out. No longer in his scrubs, it took Ruth a minute to register who this person was standing next to them.
‘You ok to get home?’
‘Yeah, thanks. Just waiting for her dad to bring the car round.’
He nodded. ‘Well, here’s my number if you need anything else or if you have any questions,’ he said scribbling his phone number onto the back of an old train ticket.
‘Oh, ok. Thanks.’
They both watched him walk off.
‘He’s cute,’ Faye said. ‘And a doctor…’
‘I’m not calling him. Who gives their number out like that?’
‘You HAVE to call him.’
Ruth gave Faye a funny look. ‘You really did bang your head.’
‘Don’t you see, it works! You walked around the pear tree nine times and then suddenly a cute doctor is giving you his number. It’s a sign! A brief encounter you could argue is like a glimpse…like a vision…’ She pointed at her book.
Ruth laughed, ‘There are no holes in that argument. But here,’ she said handing Faye a mince pie, ‘let’s stick to finding happiness in mince pies.‘
With many people putting their Christmas Trees up early this year, I thought it would be appropriate to start the Christmas season with a story about how the Christmas Tree came about. There are various folk tales about the origins of the Christmas Tree but I like the Christmas Fairy Of Strasburgthe most as it contains a wonderful mix of magic and love.
‘I do not regret it. Many warned me of my fate so I cannot say I did not know the risks. They all tried to dissuade me. My advisors said I could not trust the promise of man; my maidens pulled at my dress with tears in their eyes when I resisted their pleas. But I was spell-bound and had to go to him, whatever the cost.’
Their fears were realised. She is now submerged in the Underworld, unable to enjoy a spring breeze on her face or drink the sweet autumnal dew from a leaf. It isn’t all terrible, however. It is warm, like the shaded heat on a summer’s day, and surprisingly clean. Plus, she is with others of her kind whose journeys led them to the Underworld. Even so, tonight is a special night for her because she’s permitted, for a short while, to go back. As the moment approaches, she recounts to anyone who will listen, her magical love story.
‘Many were amazed that their cold, unfeeling Count Otto had fallen head over heels. But I was not because I had seen what they couldn’t. Although it isn’t to the grove where I first saw him that I am headed, it is there that my story takes me now. Back to a time before light and before darkness.
‘I was not there when he rode into the clearing but others were and it was only seconds before I heard their urgent whispers. We rushed to the edge and peered out from behind the trees to inspect him. He was still on his horse and was looking around. His head was tilted up and I could not see his face clearly. Even so, he had a presence about him.
‘Suddenly, the sun appeared and in that moment of apricity, caught his hair so it blazed golden and made it look as if Balder himself had ridden into our sacred space. He bewitched me. I just stared at him and didn’t register the outraged gasps of the others as he jumped off his horse and walked around, letting the animal rip at our grass and make scuff marks in our ground with its hoof. I was enchanted and was pulled closer, skipping through the undergrowth, keeping myself so small even the ants didn’t notice me.
‘We were opposite each other now, the pond was the only barricade between us, but still I could not see his face. This pond, our dear Fairy Well, that only a couple of hours ago, I had gathered around with my maidens to sing songs and throw wishes out into the world. Now I wished it would shrink so I could get closer to this strange apparition.
‘He crouched down and put his hands into the water, gasping in surprise at the unexpected warmth. I slipped into the water, a force pulling me closer and closer. His hands shone palely under the water and then they disappeared. I swam closer, always keeping to the darkness.’
She swirls her hand into a different pool now and stares at her reflection, oblivious to her audience. Her face looks exactly as it did that day, all those years ago, and no wrinkle or grey hair is visible to mark the passing of time. She is waiting for the boatman and although it seems that he is taking a long time, she is patient; time has no meaning here. She continues her story while gazing at the water’s surface and, suddenly, a different face looks back: his face just as she had first seen it from the depths of her watery hideout.
‘I could see the water drops running down his cheeks, his blonde hair stuck to his forehead and as he turned his face back to the pond, I looked into his eyes and saw in them the same sad, loneliness that was imprinted in my heart.
‘His hands plunged into the water again and on impulse, I grabbed one of them. He jerked back, the movement caused his ring to slip off his finger and into my hand. Then he was gone. But I knew not for long.
‘I didn’t waste a moment and was deaf to the pleas of my maidens and contemptuous of my advisors’ warnings. I insisted and, of course, I got my way. There really was never any doubt of that for all their wrangling. It was late by the time we made our way to the castle. The night was clear and so cold the breath of the soldiers on duty wisped in front of their faces before swirling away. They didn’t sense us but the hounds did and started braying and running around in confusion. The outer walls were high and although we could scale them, one of my maidens whispered to the drawbridge and the wheels in the gate house began to creak as the drawbridge lowered.
‘Inside all was quiet except for the patter of our feet against the stone steps. Up we went and then through into the outer chamber. One of the younger girls bit her lip to stop a giggle from bubbling out. Now that we were there, reservations dissolved by the excitement of the evening. We all set to work and a couple of the maidens began to sing, their voices melodious and delicate and then others joined in and soon we were dancing and laughing, delighted with ourselves and our adventure.
‘He stepped into the room, his face awash with confusion but we finished our dance before turning our attention to him. My maidens stepped aside and I walked forward holding, in my outstretched hand, a small casket lined with diamonds. “Dear Count Otto,” I said. “I have come to return your Christmas visit. I am Ernestine, the Queen of the Fairies, and bring you something you lost in the Fairy Well.”
‘Overcome, he said nothing but drew me close to him, holding me tightly until I led him by the hand into the maze of dancers. Then the other fairies dissolved into a colourful mist that swirled out the window towards our wood leaving us together. We stood before the creation that my fairy folk had brought and decorated: a beautiful fir tree, each bough decorated with gems and precious gifts. Rubies, sapphires and emeralds hung from it while silk belts and satin ribbons looped in and out so the whole tree shimmered and sparkled in the candlelight. And so we should have lived happily. But man is a forgetful, impetuous creature.’
The boatman arrives and she steps in handing her coin of safe passage, which he looks at and nods. He is not one of her kind and comes from elsewhere, a strange looking fellow with feet like a goat and a face pockmarked and distorted. They have never spoken to each other in all the times they have done this trip. The boat slips silently out of the pond and down the river, moving with slow haste towards her destination.
Then she is back at the castle, clouds hang low in the sky and the land is enveloped in darkness. The imprint she had left on the castle gate’s stone arch on that fateful day is still there. She presses her hand into it and the clouds move so that moonlight beams down. In the window overlooking the courtyard, she can see the tree glowing brightly against the darkness. It beckons her closer, closer than she knows she should go. The window is open and she can smell the rich scent of pine. A candle on a bough wavers and the apples decorating the tree shine red and green as if they are rubies and emeralds.
She hears footsteps coming up the staircase. No longer the light tread of youth, these steps are heavy with grief and age and she knows it won’t be long until they no longer echo around this great building.
Her time is nearly up and she must prepare to go back to her other world. She looks again at the sparkling tree wondering if it knows that it too will soon lose its lustre and glow. She knows he only lights and decorates it at Christmas time. This is why she chose this time to visit; to see it and remember. She knows it’s his way of apologising. He has learnt that words should be used with care and thought, not casually discarded.
The clouds begin to drift back across the moon and the courtyard below her disappears into the darkness of night. She touches one of the ribbons that has been coiled into a bow. Its colour is the same gold as the dress she was wearing that fateful Christmas Eve, when his words were too powerful even for her to fight against.
She knows that every decoration on this tree is a symbol of their time together; physical representation of his wish that they might go back to that Christmas Eve when their time of laughter and happiness was stretching in front of them. Before he uttered the word that he had promised never to say and brought decline and silence to his world. Before he cried in a fit of impatience ‘death’ and sealed her fate, sending her to the underworld.
The Christmas tree is his attempt to go beyond words and find a gesture that will bring her back. But she is powerless to oblige and cannot return to him. The door opens within the room and the light of a candle signals his movements. She glides across the emptiness of the courtyard to the castle gate, then looks back one last time. The candle is still, hovering by the window. She blows a kiss across the distance that separates them. Then disappears.
While researching my book, Unexpected Companions, I found a Shropshire folklore tale about Nanny Morgan, an old woman who lived in Much Wenlock and was believed to be a witch. The locals were afraid of her and she met a tragic end. The short story below is my version from her perspective. Here is the link to the original text of the folklore tale, The Shocking End of the Witch Nanny Morgan, if you want to read the original text that I based my story on.
Nan held her head high, her eyes on the horizon, and ignored the shouts and laughter swirling around her. ‘Get away, ins Nanny Morgan,’ the children cried in mock horror. Their laughter danced in the field as they hid but Nan didn’t break stride. She stepped over the cob-nut that lay unvanquished in the road after the children had abandoned it, and carried on down the lane.
Further along, the sounds of the brook were a balm for Nan. Released from the sensation of curious eyes, she allowed her feet a moment of cool release. She didn’t worry about her neighbours seeing her. That was an advantage of being an outsider: anything she did was strange.
She felt alive with achievement after her day of foraging and hunting and was excited to show William what she had found. His smiling face glimmered in her mind and she smiled back hoping the real version was at home, waiting and feeling stronger than he had this morning.
Nan splashed a toe in the water, watching the brook absorb the interruption. It was almost a year since William had knocked on her door looking for lodgings with nothing but a small bag and enthusiasm. His enthusiasm to find work had ebbed and flowed like the brook over that time but in its place affection, and dare she say love, had sprung. And now they were getting married. After so long living by herself, it was nice to be a part of something again and, maybe this time, she had found someone who would stand by her.
She smiled again, took one last deep breath and returned to the lane; the wind played with her earrings, the bag with the dead rabbits swayed by her side and the hedgerow was alive with birds. The row of cottages was in sight now, with all but one of the five chimneys puffing smoke. Jane Evans knelt weeding in her front garden as Nan drew closer but, as soon as Jane saw her former childhood friend, she scuttled into her house.
Nan shook her head. ‘Tha’s right, run on, Mrs Evans, afore I turn yo’ into a woodlouse,’ she said to Jane’s newly painted front door. ‘She’s big-sorted. Can’t speak to an owd friend, Jane?’ she muttered as she reached her cottage, the end of the row.
One of her cats leapt off the gate, leaving it wobbling on its last hinge. ‘Ey up, Sky,’ Nan rubbed the grey cat between the ears as it wrapped itself between the folds of her skirt. ‘Would yo’ like some milk?’ The cat meowed and Nan could hear its light tread as it followed her across the overgrown paving stones. Inside, the room was quiet. Nan considered going upstairs to look for William but decided against it. He was often not in during the day; off looking for work, he said.
And if he was there, he might be sleeping. He had been acting so strangely lately that she was sure he just needed some rest. She started the fire, pulled out the plants she had collected that day, chopped them up and added garlic and rosemary to the bubbling pot so the room smelt of the outdoors.
There was a knock at the door as Nan put out a saucer of milk. Stepping over two other cats who had appeared for the treat, she found a young girl outside. The girl adjusted her cap, tried to speak, stuttered to a halt then pulled out a couple of coins which she extended to Nan.
‘Would yo’se like me to tell yore future?’ Nan said. The girl nodded, her shoes dusty from her walk. Nan was glad she was wearing her bright red scarf. ‘Come in then,’ Nan pushed the door wider, the girl peered into the darkness and scrunched her nose against the smell of damp.
‘Alrigh’, then,’ Nan sighed and took the girl’s hand. ‘Yoreself gon’ta meet a tall foreigner soon,’ she ran her finger over the girl’s palm. ‘Mighty soon. ’E’ll be ‘andsome. Hmm, you’re to come into some money. Mebbe the man, mebbe someone else,’ she rattled off. ‘I can see yore future’ll be bless’d with health an’ happiness.’
The girl thanked her with a smile and rushed to the sanctuary of the main road. The coins gave a satisfying clink as they settled in Nan’s tin. Was it her imagination or did the tin feel lighter than before? She put it back on the shelf and moved other jars to hide it.
‘Stealin’ money from most innocentest with yore blather?’ Nan’s stomach lurched. William stood in the murky light, his hair dishevelled and a scowl eating at his delicate features.
‘It mak ‘em happy. I don’t see no harm in it,’ she said.
Nan pushed a strand of grey hair back into place and stretched her hand towards William. ‘How yo’ feeling?’
He batted her hand away. The movement stung. ‘What yo’ given me tha’ made me feel queasy?’ he said. ’I had these aches all o’er. I warrand yo’ gi’en me something.’
‘I didn’t. Just the camomine tea to help yo’ sleep. Yo’ been despert bad.’
He glared at her. ‘Yo‘ poisoned me. I been at Much Wenlock an’ afore I knew, I’m wakin’ i’ bed. I’ll lose work an’ it’ll be yore fault.’
‘But, yo’ don’t have work.’
‘Tha’s because yo’ poisoned me. Yore tryin’ to get me to stay as y’know yore nothin’ without me. But it won’t work, yore witchifyin’.’ He pointed a finger at her, ‘I’m onto yo’.’
Nan opened her mouth in stunned silence and a frown creased her brow as she wondered where this outburst had come from. Overcoming her surprise, she decided to control the situation with a different approach.
‘Yo’ must be mighty clemmed,’ Nan said, ‘Yo’ sit and I’ll get yo’ some broth. Boiling right now.’
William looked at her sullenly. ‘No, I wouldn’t touch something yo’ have made. Don’t know what yo’ll ‘ave done in it. This ‘ere bread an’ cheese is meals-meat for me.’
Nan stirred the pot, her astonishment simmering. ‘Don’t be mad, don’t be in a fanteeg,’ she said in a fierce whisper.
‘Theer yo’ go, with yore gypsy talk, mungering curses. What would yo’ be around here without me? Cast out, tha’s what.’
Nan saw her reflection in the battered tray she used as a mirror above the fireplace. She knew she was still attractive but years in the sun had wrinkled her once smooth skin and her nose was no longer straight after an incident years earlier. Now, against William’s youth, she felt haggard and old. William slumped in a chair and cut a chunk of cheese. Nan pulled out the rabbits and picked up the empty sack. A brown package, hidden underneath, fell to the ground.
‘What’s this ‘ere?’ Nan asked. Picking it up and untying the string to reveal a five pronged eel spear. She weighed the handle in her hand. It was in good condition. ‘Get yoreself a spear?’
‘What o’ it,’ William said.
‘I just thought yo’ didn’t have money, tha’s all.’
‘What yo’ saying? Tha’ I stole it?’
‘No,’ Nan said. ‘Who’d yo’ get it from?’
‘One o’ yore packman friends. Said I could earn much money catchin’ eels.’ Nan said nothing. ‘I can fish,’ William said, his lips disappearing in his anger.
From her card table, a pet toad plopped onto the floor and crawled away. William kicked at it and missed. Nan picked up the toad and put it back with the others. ‘Vile animals,’ William said.
‘Them theer toads help with all sorts of aches,’ Nan said, feeling protective of her misunderstood pets. William scoffed. Nan went back to the pot and stirred in her wishes. ‘Don’t be mad,’ she said. ‘Don’t leave.’
William broke off some bread and chewed it as he watched her. ‘I’m goin’,’ he said. Nan caught her breath. ‘Where to?’ she said, her voice just a whisper.
‘It’s no matter where, I can’t abide living ‘ere with yo’ in this ‘ere swampy house.’
Nan looked at him, noticing for the first time his new trousers and waistcoat.
‘Stop peerin’ at me, like tha’, yo’ foul hag. I was bewitched to have been ‘ere so long, I know it.’ He patted his pocket nervously. Nan watched the action and deep in her mind a wheel moved into motion. William picked up the spear, put it down, patted his pocket again. Nan scuffed at the earthern floor with her toe. ‘This ‘ouse was goodsome for my mother, it’s goodsome for yo’,’ she said. William didn’t reply.
‘We’re havin’ our bands read on Sunday,’ Nan said. She clasped her hands so hard the nails bit into her palm. ‘Yo’ can’t go. What’ll yo’ do?’
‘I’ll earn money good an’ honest. Not like yo’ with yore money an’ jewel’ry an’ all got by spells an’ bewitching folk.’
‘It isn’t magic, just blather; yo’ said it yoreself.’ She heard her desperation and cringed.
‘Tha’ theer isn’t what folks say. Them theer say yore curses had’st power. Them theer say yo’ have the evil eye. An’ I can’t be ‘ere no longer being cursed an’ tricked.’
‘Isn’t magic,’ Nan said, trying to find the right words to manage his anger. ‘I love yo’. Yo’ loves me, I know it.’
He sneered at her, his face ugly with emotion. ‘Yo’? With yore onlucky ways an’ evil past? Nah, I’ve been under a spell, now I’m not though an’ I’m going.’ He leant forward to grab the rest of the bread and for a second something gold glittered before it was hidden in the folds of his pocket.
‘What yo’ got theer, then?’ Nan said. A flash of fear crossed William’s face and another wheel started to turn in Nan’s mind.
‘Nothin’,’ William said.
‘Not nothin’. What’s in yore pocket?’
‘What’s owed me, tha’s what.’
Nan stared at him, her eyes two narrow slits as she tried to make out the shape in his pocket. William shifted and then jumped up, the chair tumbling to the floor. ‘Mrs Evans says I should be sure I took what was owed. For puttin’ up with yo’ and lodgin’ with yo’ all this time.’
‘Yo’ve been talkin’ to Mrs Evans.’ Nan said. His absences over the past few weeks and strange behaviour began to fall into place. She simultaneously felt sick and angry. ‘So what do yo’ think yore owed?’ she asked. ‘Free bed an’ board not enough, eh?’ The shot slipped out before she could stop herself. She sighed and took up a different approach: ‘Yo’ look nice. Thems bobbersome clothes.’
William’s hand bothered the pocket before straightening the waistcoat. Nan watched the movement and took a step closer. The waistcoat was soft under her hand, her fingers played with the pocket, feeling the shape of the hidden, imprisoned object. He twisted away. A dull clunk finished the crescendo of ripping material and the gold watch hit the floor.
‘All as is is this,’ Nan said, not taking her eyes off the watch. The final wheel clicked into place. William shrugged and picked it up. Nan watched him.
‘It’s just a watch,’ he said, not looking at her. ‘It’s not even good enough for yore precious trove.’
‘Yo’ know tha’s not true.’
‘It was just lyin’ around. Could’ve been anybodys.’
‘But it isn’t.’
‘Tha’s right. Tis mine now.’ He stared at her, standing a little taller as he said it. Nan looked at him and then at the watch and felt something shift inside her.
‘Yo’ case-hardened scoundrel! Away to-go, if yo’ want to, but yo‘ no having the watch,’ Nan said.
‘The watch more importan’ than me? They’n be right. Yo’ just want money and jewels.’
‘Tha’ theer watch is my mother’s. Yo’ know it. Tha’s why yo’ took it, yo’ villain.’
‘Yo’ lying. Mrs Evans says yo’ have nothin’ from yore family. No one wanted nothin’ t’ do with yo. They’n set the cottage to yo’ as no one else could live in this ‘ere craitchy house.’
‘Mrs Evans a reg’lar owd cant. It would look better on her to mind her own business. Talked her husband to death, tha’s what them said.’
‘Yo’ cursed ‘im. Tha’s what happened.’
Nan laughed coldly. ‘Give a cat a canary! I wasn’t livin’ ‘ere when he died. How can I o’ cursed him? Yo’ pathetic nauf.’
‘Yo’ gypsies can do things.’ William nodded, still gripping the watch. It struck Nan how foolish she’d been, pinning her efforts on this person. She looked at him with fresh eyes: his features, once beautiful, now had a snake-like appearance to them and his arms, that she had loved holding her, looked thin and weak, drowned by his ill-fitting shirt.
‘Yo’ no having the watch,’ she repeated, her contempt ablaze on her face. She turned back to the pot, catching her reflection. She looked younger, her eyes had light in them once more.
‘By-leddy, I been bewitched by yo’,’ William muttered. ‘Nothing but cold-fires.’
‘I’ll give yo’ what for, usin’ foul words in my home,’ Nan said. She waved her spoon towards the door. ‘I have no use for yo’ an’ yore fallal. Go on, yo’ want to be off, get yo’ gone.’
‘I’ll go when I’m ready,’ he growled. ‘I ain’t bein’ told what to do by a nineted owd gypsy as yo’.’
He stared at her, his face betraying his rage, but she didn’t care anymore. Let him go. Let them say what they want. ‘An’ I know ‘bout yore brevitting in the money tin.’ Her eyes went over his clothes.
‘No’ne would believe yo’ even if it was true,’ William said. ‘They would believe me.’ His anxiety betrayed his words and fuelled Nan on.
‘ An’ bless me, I never seen such a man as yo’ for lozzocking and huddmuckery ways!’ She glared at him his jaw clenched. A toad croaked into the silence. William kicked the table breaking one of the legs and sending it crashing to the floor. Nan stared at the splintered leg, the toads hopping about in confusion and the cards scattered on the floor. Her eyes locked onto the four of clubs; she shuddered but made no attempt to fight it.
‘They’n believe me,’ he said again but he didn’t sound anxious this time. Nan turned away and saw William’s reflection put the watch on the table. ’Vengeance’n come for yo’,’ she said in a hushed tone as she stared into the frothing pot of water. Nan felt his fury fill the room and take every last inch of air. A cat jumped onto the windowsill, she watched the glow of the fire sparkle on the blackened pot and savoured the smell of the broth as it foamed and frothed. She heard the scrape of the spear. She shut her eyes.
My thoughts on homeschooling are this: don’t do it. It is stressful, chaotic and the only thing a child learns is that their parents haven’t got a clue.
I probably need to caveat that I can say that as my daughter is not at secondary school studying for exams or even in the final years of primary school psyching herself for the Eleven Plus. She is of an age that other countries consider too young for formal education. So I can shrug and say ‘well, in Finland she wouldn’t even be at school.’ (This line is just as useful during normal school time for anyone with a reception child who can’t get the difference between a ‘d’ and a ‘b’, no matter how many times you yell it at them.)
My child, however, thinks homeschooling isn’t so bad. She misses her friends and the playground but she doesn’t miss my packed lunches (which she had informed me were ‘boring’).
A lot of homeschooling, as far as she is concerned, involves asking me a question and then running off halfway through my fascinating answer on why moles live underground. Most of all, homeschooling to her seems to just be screen time. In the past I have given grey hairs to limiting her screen time – the irony that I now cannot get those same grey hairs dyed properly is not lost on me.
First of all, there are the videos from the teachers, then there is the Zoom class gathering and then there are the activities all done via the medium that is my iPad. The novelty of this has yet to wear off (for her, that is, for me, the novelty of never having any battery power wore thin long ago).
And even when we are doing non-screen lessons, it almost always ends up reverting back to the iPad. Take the other day, for example, when we were reading words that had ‘sh’, ‘ch’, or ‘th’ in them.
I pointed to a word:
‘Shed,’ said my daughter.
‘No,’ said I, all patience and kindness, ‘read it again. Ch…Ch…’
Her eyes never leave my face. ‘Shhheeeeed,’
‘No, it’s not shed. Sound out the letters, don’t guess.’
She barely glances at the carefully written out word, ‘Shhhheeeed.’
I unclench my jaw. ‘No honey, it’s church.’
I suppress a sigh (or try to).
‘Here’s my iPad, why don’t you play your monster game?’
For anyone who has a child learning to read, I can highly recommend Teach Your Monster to Read as a great way to not have to do it yourself.
All this homeschooling reminded me of a letter I found when researching one of the women for my book. The woman’s name was Charlotte Burne and she went on to be the first female president of a learned society but when she was 9 years old, her mother wrote to her requesting that she improve her handwriting and provided a sample of a previous letter where the writing was better. At the time, I laughed to think of such an overbearing mother. But that was pre-Lockdown. I now appreciate that she had the tricky task of homeschooling her child. I thought of this after I lectured my 4 year old on the importance of writing between the lines and not letting her sentence cascade down the page like a waterfall.
This is what I chose to make a fuss over – not the fact she had missed out words or that she had spelt castle ‘caser’. No, I focussed on her handwriting style. So it would seem that you can inherit more than just features from your ancestors!
I have not missed my calling as a teacher and I am even more grateful to them for taking on the task of learning my child so I don’t have to. When we all meet again, I am gonna give them all a ginormous hug and then run for the hills before my child realises I’ve left.
Over the Easter weekend, I completed my lockdown target; I ran around Richmond Park. This is something I’ve wanted to do for ages but never found the time (or the inclination). But now that this lockdown means that the day has more hours in it than it did before, I found the time to train and run the 8 miles needed to complete this target.
However, this is an exception and, like New Year’s resolutions, the majority of my lockdown targets have not even been started. The French books my inner-“Tiger Mom” bought for my daughter have barely left the packaging (and not because of some desire to quarantine packages for three days). The chances of her knowing more French at the end of all this than she knew going into the lockdown: c’est minimal.
Despite a few baking attempts I haven’t found my talent for pastry or bread making and am unlikely to be applying for the Great British Bake Off any time soon. Given that flour seems to be a luxury good at the moment perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing!
Now that I don’t have a target to aim for and with the lockdown promising to see us into May (please don’t say June, I have to remain optimistic), I am focussing on the small positives:
The silence. I used to be able to tell the time in the morning without opening my eyes. That was because we live under a flight path and by 5.30am planes start their descent to the promise land of Heathrow. Now, I sleep happily until I’m woken by the birds charming the morning (or more likely, a child shouting ‘the sun is up’ as her Gro Clock lights up).
I no longer have someone breathing down my neck as I stand in a queue. To have someone desperate to shout their coffee order over your shoulder as you take up their precious seconds paying for your caffeine fix is something I can happily live without. And now, thanks to the Lockdown I can. Although I also have to make do without coffee made for me by a professional, at least now when queuing if someone stands too close to me, I can say in a loud clear voice, confident that social opinion will be on my side: ‘Excuse me but if you can touch me, you’re too close to me.’
I have spoken to my family a lot more than I ever did before. To be clear, I am not referring to the family I am embracing Lockdown with – I spent an acceptable amount of time with them before all of this. No, I mean extended family. Before, it was tough to get hold of my mum because she was always off somewhere and a challenge to chat to a sibling because they always had plans. Now all these people are much more available and the only thing that holds us back is technology and/or the user’s ability of said technology. (You know who you are, Mum)
It brings out my creative side: I now know lots of ways to get groceries given online supermarket delivery slots are elusive and available produce is just as rare. I have also found new depths for what I am prepared to do to entertain my child. This has seen me gluing paper to balloons and building mini theatres. Neither of which my daughter appreciated or wanted but it kept me entertained for hours!
I can be a social butterfly and still be in bed by 10pm. I am guaranteed a seat, there is no queue at the bar and a glass of wine is decent value. Apps like Zoom and Houseparty have helped keep people socially sane and at the same time enable us to embrace the things that are not fun about going out: I don’t need to worry about what I’m wearing, flitting from one party to another is completely acceptable and within minutes of saying goodbye I can be in bed without rushing for the last train or splashing through rain late at night.
The worry and loss that this lockdown has inflicted on people and the scary realities of Coronavirus, does make this list seem a bit trivial. I am so grateful that we are currently healthy and safe and surrounded, virtually and otherwise, by family and friends. I hope anyone reading this is in the same situation. Although these positives may not balance out the negatives, perhaps they can help us stay optimistic.
While we stare at the impending month(s) of blank calendars because our main plans are ‘to stay at home’, I think there are still more positives we can all take. When this is over and we can meet again, perhaps we will resist the urge to go back to the hectic lifestyle of pre Coronavirus days and also manage to remember how nice it is to be kind to people, even strangers.