Monday, 22 December 2014
THE END OF YOUR LIFE BOOK CLUB by WILL SCHWALBE
My second memoir about reading in this list of favourites! The year was bookended by very personal mediations on how reading can heal and bring people back together. Here's what I wrote at the time:
"It's a lovely, warm meditation on how readers know that, when they read, they're taking part in the 'human conversation.' It's about how readers are never lonely, bored, or alone, and how they are always *included*. It's such a warm and loving book, too, and I've spent hours and hours with it in the past week - reading and rereading sections and whole paragraphs."
Sunday, 21 December 2014
JAUNT! by ANDY DAVIDSON
In a year with so much wonderful non-fiction, there had to be an example of a great TV episode guide, and this year there was Andy Davidson's wonderful book on the Tomorrow People. Exhaustive, opinionated and intrinsically silly, this volume more than made up for the dishwater-coloured arsefest that was this year's US revival of the show.
Saturday, 20 December 2014
Friday, 19 December 2014
FESTER AND THE CHRISTMAS MOUSE
By Paul Magrs
I suppose this is meant to be like a Christmas story kind of thing. Paul’s saying I should write one for his blog. Like, maybe think about some nice things that happened in the past and do a story about it. Probably to publicize his bloomin’ book. Well, it was my book, really, of course – The Story of Fester Cat. It’s all about me and I wrote all the words and there’d be no book without me, and no Christmas story either. So, here goes.
This is from when I first started realizing what Christmas was all about and stuff. When I saw that those two dafties who’d adopted me – Paul and Jeremy – made such a big fuss about Christmas and all. They put a big tree in the front room. Massive, and it was all cluttered up with decorations they brought down from the attic in big boxes. There were decorations going back years, from different houses they’d shared and places they’d lived in separately before they’d known each other. The tree was like all the Christmases they could remember and it was pretty good, yanking at the decorations and scritchy-scratching my claws on the trunk when they weren’t paying attention. Hoiking down that duck-wearing-a-headscarf or the robin made with real feathers and giving them a good mauling.
Not that I maul anything much with my one and a half teeth. But at least they aren’t sore these days, after all that dental work I had. There was a big operation, did you know? I went to the hairdressers on the Stockport Road and Mr Joe kept me in overnight in his strange cat hotel and when I woke up my mouth didn’t hurt like it used to and I could crunch up biscuits and stuff no bother.
There’s a lot of decent food around this place at Christmas. Part of the thing of looking forward to it is knowing there’ll be crispy bacon and slivers of smoked salmon and bits of roasted offal and, eventually, when they have their dinner, steaming cuts of succulent turkey flesh. They set me a place at their table and I sit there properly, with the fire blazing away, and that’s how we round out the day each Christmas, before they watch all the TV shows and I doze clutching my Santa mouse to my chest. (They bought me a toy mouse in a Santa hat. I kind of hugged it between my paws to look like I appreciated it and was caring for it, but I was planning to eviscerate it later, but maybe not on Christmas because ripping little animals to pieces isn’t very festive, apparently.)
Anyhow, the story is about a Christmas mouse. But it wasn’t a toy mouse. That Christmas it was a real mouse who was causing a fuss round at ours, and getting in the bloomin’ way and stuff.
He wasn’t really any good at talking. I guess it was because he was just a baby mouse, but even if he could have made himself understood, he was so frightened all the time I don’t think I’d have known what he was on about. He kept going ‘Gleep! Gleep!’ the whole time I knew him.
Christmas that year was so cold and, as a result the basement mice had got a bit cocky. I’d been watching my feeding station in the kitchen pretty vigilantly. There were holes and knots in the wood of the floorboards and the little devils would come shinning up the pipes and the brick walls and stuff, just to get into our kitchen and the first thing they went for was my Smorgasbord of cat food. I suppose they must have been really starving to risk everything like that. Cos I was watching a lot of the time. I’d sit on the kitchen table, right on the corner with my shoulders hunched, hiding between the piles of papers and letters and books and the heaps of crockery and the vase of pink lilies. Waiting and watching and ready to pounce.
They must have been really starving down there in the cellar to send up the youngest one of the family. ‘Gleep! Gleep!’ he went in that tiny bloomin’ voice.
I first saw him on Christmas morning. I was bounding down the stairs with Paul at six a.m. It was our usual routine, of course. Every single morning I’d lead him round all the things he had to do to make the house properly habitable – putting on the lamps and opening the curtains on the darkness of the street and the garden. He’d open the front door and I’d sit patiently while he fetched in the milk and I’d sniff the air for the morning news. Those mornings were very fresh but through the clean frost I could smell the trains that had gone by in the night and the cars that had slithered past on the slushy road, and the pin-pricky footsteps showing that the family of foxes from the embankment had all been out hunting in the dark.
We went bounding down the stairs and Paul was telling me about the treats I’d be getting. Remember last Christmas? It’d be all the same marvelous stuff. I’d get the hot roasted heart of the turkey again, and I’d try not to let it roll away under the table this time. I was drooling with anticipation as we went downstairs and there, right at the bottom, I heard this ‘Gleep! Gleep!’ and Paul with his human hearing didn’t notice it, of course. Nor did he see that dark little huddled form, no bigger than one of my paws. It was crouching and panting in the muddle of shoes under the hat stand. Gleep was hoping to stay in the shadows and he would have gone unnoticed, but my eyes are pretty keen, and I spotted him at once, and I jumped on him.
Paul saw straight away what was happening. ‘Fester, don’t!’
I think he thought I’d swallowed little Gleep down in one go.
Don’t think I hadn’t thought about it!
I might be thoroughly at home and domesticated and all that, but I still have the instincts of a hunter and a killer! Oh, yes. But I was looking forward to my salmon and stuff and I wasn’t going to spoil my appetite on a pesky little morsel like this. Also, he tasted a bit like the damp cellar did, kind of vegetably and dark.
He was going ‘Gleep! Gleep!’ inside my mouth, scared out of his wits, I reckon.
‘Fester, let him go! Spit him out!’ cried Paul, like a dafty, sounding scandalized I was doing something as horrible as what nature intended on Christmas morning.
He insisted I spat out the little mite, even though all I was doing was a bit of safekeeping and making sure he never ran away.
I relinquished Gleep and he shot across the floorboards, seeking shelter inside one of Jeremy’s leather shoes. Paul hurriedly picked it up and carried it like it was something special or precious to the front door, which he quickly unlocked.
‘Ungow!’ I shouted at him, because I realized what he was going to do. ‘Ungow!’ You can’t! You can’t just empty that shoe into the front drive. You can’t just shove that tiny gleeping thing into Chestnut Avenue at six in the morning on Christmas bloomin’ Day!
‘Sssh, Fester,’ he said to me – a bit tersely, I thought. ‘No, you can’t have him to chew on. I’m rescuing the poor little fella.’
I could hear Gleep shouting his own name, sounding all frantic and shrill. Paul emptied him out under the hedges and then he brought the shoe back inside.
‘Shush, Fester. You’ve got fancy cat food and stuff for breakfast. I’m not letting you eat a little mouse like that on Christmas morning.’
But I wasn’t shouting cos of that. He should have known that. I was shouting because Gleep was stuck out there now. I don’t think there was a way back into our cellar from the street outside. Not even for someone as tiny as he was.
He was stuck out there. He was separated from the rest of his family and he probably didn’t have the wits in his tiny head to think up a way to get back. So he was completely doomed. Unless I did something to bloomin’ well help him.
This was in the days before I became a house cat and stopped going out so much. I was still youngish and I never thought twice about skipping out of doors and perambulating the whole neighbourhood. Up and down Chestnut Avenue checking out all our other local cats and seeing what was what.
So, a little after breakfast on Christmas morning I left Paul with his toast and a glass of Prosecco and I was off down the street. ‘Keep off that road, though,’ he warned me. He had been a bit funny about me and the road out front since he saw me rolling about on the warm tarmac one afternoon in the late summer, sunning myself.
Out I went, to hunt through the undergrowth between the hedges and the houses.
‘Gleep?’ I called. ‘Gleep…?’
It was such a bloomin’ foolish noise. That mouse was so tiny and insignificant and silly that he didn’t even have anything sensible to say.
‘What are you doing, Fester Cat?’
Suddenly I could hear the snarky, snickering voice of that old Bessy. I sighed. Of course she’d have to be there. Of course she’d have noticed I was up to something interesting and she’d start being all sarcastic about it.
‘Happy Christmas, Bessy,’ I said, carrying on about my business.
Bessy was once a member of our household. Paul and Jeremy let her move in for a while because the big old bruiser looked like she was beaten up and destitute. Once through the doors she proceeded to eat them out of house and home, and thought that she could call all the shots. She bullied me out of my favourite beds and perching spots and life wasn’t the same around ours until she decided one day – quite out of the blue – that it was time for her to move on.
Bessy with the great big bollocks. Bessy with the bad attitude.
‘If you’re looking for that mouse,’ said Bessy, chuckling, ‘Then you’re too late. I already found it.’
‘That damp-smelling baby mouse?’ She examined her claws and rolled her bright green eyes. ‘Is that what you’re looking for?’
I had to tell her that it was. ‘You haven’t eaten him, have you?’
‘Hardly! I’m not that hungry.’
You could never tell with Bessy. She was sly and liked causing bother. ‘Where have you taken him?’
She considered this. ‘I suppose you and those dafties round yours are having turkey for dinner, then?’
‘You could be, too,’ I burst out. ‘You’re the one who moved out. You were living with us last Christmas. You could have stayed…’
‘Nah,’ she shrugged her big shoulders like she was wearing a very luxurious coat instead of a ratty old thing. ‘I got itchy paws. I prefer living rough.’
‘Ungow,’ I said. I didn’t point out that when I lived rough, as one of Bessy’s street gang, it wasn’t just itchy paws we had – it was itchy bloomin’ everything. ‘Look, will you tell me where Gleep is?’
‘Why should you care about some little mouse? He’s not even a gobful. He’s just a scrap of a thing. Not really a living creature at all.’
‘I want to take him home,’ I burst out. ‘Down to the cellar.’ And I felt like biting my tongue. You should never tell Bessy what you really want because she’ll find some way of turning it against you.
‘Bring me the turkey’s heart,’ Bessy said. ‘And I’ll get you your stupid little mouse.’
‘But the turkey won’t be cooked for hours yet,’ I gasped. ‘Gleep can’t wait that long to go home. He’ll freeze out here!’
‘Gleep, is it?’ snickered Bessy. ‘Do you always go round naming animals?’
I frowned at her and felt my lip go up in a snarl round my single tooth.
‘Some salmon then,’ she said, salivating and looking stupid with hunger. ‘Bring me some of that lovely salmon. I know they’ll have some. I can wait for the heart. And then I’ll take you to your awful mouse.’
Bessy was chuffed as muck. She wolfed down what I brought her and reeked of salmon all day because she had it all round her mush and didn’t clean it off. Her habits were as mucky as ever, it seemed.
We were stopped in the street by Whisper and Three-Legged Freddy from next door. ‘Who’s got the smoked salmon then?’ yowled the Siamese. I’ve never really liked her much. I’ve always found her a bit bloomin’ insinuating. She was weaving around like she wanted to mug us both.
‘I can smell something nice – huff huff,’ sighed Three-Legged Freddy. He was going round in circles on the frosty path. He’d been doing that a lot with his damaged leg and since his stroke. His fur was all in clumpy tatters and he looked like he’d been out drinking stagnant water or something.
I wished I’d brought them something from our fridge, too. It seemed unfair that only Bessy had got fed, when she didn’t deserve anything.
‘I’m on a rescue mission,’ I told them proudly.
‘He’s got it into his head he’s gonna rescue a cellar mouse and reunite it with its family,’ Bessy scoffed. ‘I think Fester’s gone a bit doo-lally in his old age.’
‘I wouldn’t mind a mouse as a pal, huff huff,’ mused Freddy. ‘It would be nice to have a pal you could just – you know, huff huff – eat, kind of thing, when you got bored with playing or having the same old conversation.’
‘Can we go past?’ I say, doing the ritual thing of asking if it’s okay to cut across their little span of the world in front of their house. Can we cross their front garden to next door? Freddy and Whisper are flattered by my lovely manners and stuff, and let me pass. They glare at Bessy. Actually, not many round here are that fond of Bessy. She keeps causing rows, is the problem.
‘Is this where you brought him?’ I ask Bessy, looking up at the minister’s tall house. It’s the next house in the terrace and here lives the oldest, most venerable cat in our avenue.
‘Might have,’ Bessy shrugs. She’s decided to be unhelpful again.
Minutes later I’m in the back garden there, in the long grass and under the frozen hawthorn branches. I nod good morning to the cats from the last house in the terrace – Rowan and Scooby – who don’t appear to know much about my kidnapped Christmas mouse. I believe it when Scoob says he doesn’t know anything – he always looks as if his mind is on loftier things. But Rowan – through she’s sweet and sometimes affectionate – has a look about her that says, ‘I could have seen him, or I might not have done. I might have eaten him and forgotten all about it. Why would I tell you anything?’ I’ve seen Rowan go after birds and leap a mile into the trees after squirrels almost bigger than I am.
Off they go for their own Christmas breakfast indoors – they’ve got a cat flap. Bessy watches them with her usual slow, envious eyes.
But the person we’re out in the frosty garden to see is the king of cats round here. It’s Smokey. He sits regally, like a great mound of soft white and charcoal fur, beside a small pond. It’s frozen solid and he’s peering at the dim shapes of frogs and fish like he’s a human watching morning cartoons on the telly. Are they real frogs and fish frozen down there, I’m wondering? Or just the vague shadows and memories of fishy things from the summer?
‘Good morning, Fester Cat,’ he rumbles pleasantly. ‘Merry Christmas. Ungow.’ Those huge amber eyes look on me with fondness. I know Smokey’s always had a soft spot for me. He looks more askance at Bessy, who’s sucking on her claws and between her stinky toes and pretending like he isn’t even there, or she couldn’t care less. Her usual way.
I explain about Gleep, being as brief as I can.
And I tell Smokey something I haven’t told anyone yet.
‘Gleep was after food in our house because the mice are all desperate, down in the cellar. He’s too young to forage. He’s really tiny. It’s because his dad’s dead and – little as he is – he’s the best at climbing and getting through gaps and stuff.’
‘How do you know so much about his family circumstances?’ asks Smokey.
‘We found his dad’s body,’ I sigh. ‘Just a few weeks ago. It was under our boiler, in the kitchen, all curled up. He’d been there long enough to dry out completely. When Paul picked him up in a tissue he weighed nothing at all.’
‘Dessicated mouse,’ laughs Bessy. ‘Yum. Fry him up with breadcrumbs. Dip him in salsa. Cover him in sour cream and jalapenos and cheese.’
‘Ignore her,’ Smokey frowns.
‘The boys – my boys – put out some poison, a little while ago. I tried to tell them – ungow! Don’t! – it’s nasty stuff to have about the place. But I think they learned their lesson. Paul was upset when he found that tiny, dried-out mouse. It was the thought that, as he was dying, that mouse went to the boiler for warmth. He went right under the metal box that houses the flames – the pilot light kind of thing. It’s red hot down there. Too hot, really, but the father mouse must have been shivering and losing his sense of what was cold and hot as the poison went through him. He was all curled up like he was asleep.’
Bessy chortles. ‘Honestly, Fester. Christmas has made you all sentimental and stupid this year. Since when did you care about something like that? Don’t you hunt them? Don’t you crunch them up and swallow them in one slippery go?’ She eyes me nastily. ‘You’re the one who had all his gums fixed. Don’t you chomp them to death by the dozen?’
I have to admit that I don’t. I like to catch them, yes, of course, when instinct kicks in and when I see them gadding about the place. But I just pop them in my mouth and walk them about a bit, as a warning. Then I return them to the door at the top of the cellar steps. I nudge them through the little gap in the wood so they can make their journey home down the wonky stonework of the steps.
Smokey laughs to hear this. ‘You’re a soft-hearted thing, Fester Cat.’
This reminds Bessy of her hunger. ‘He’s promised me the turkey heart if I bring back his baby mouse alive and unharmed.’
‘Well then,’ says Smokey. ‘Then you better had, hadn’t you, Bessy dear?’
But as usual Bessy leads me a merry dance. We hop over the garden fences and through the hedges.
‘Where are you taking me?’ I keep asking, jumping after her tail. She’s just enjoying herself, the mangy old besom. She’s pretending like it’s how it used to be, when she ruled our little gang and we all lived rough and I followed her around like this.
We pass by the back of my house, scooting over the Beach House roof and taking a breather. At the back window I can see a shape watching us. I’d know those sharp, black beady eyes anywhere. Panda never misses a trick. He knows I’m running about in the frosty morning. It’s still not even fully light and Panda can spot me from miles away, scampering about.
‘Ugh, the stupid Panda,’ Bessy snickers. ‘You know, I never believed he could really talk. I always thought it was one of the boys doing his snooty voice.’
‘Which just shows how much you bloomin’ know,’ I snap.
Then she’s got us tiptoeing along the fence. My balance isn’t as good as hers for this kind of thing. I had that ear infection and my fence-walking skills went to pot. It turns out we’re here to have a word with the squirrels.
‘Hellooooo!’ bellows Bessie, into the trees, eyeing the dark masses of the drays in the upper branches. The squirrels are there, listening – we can both sense it. Brave as they are, they sensibly keep their distance when Bessy’s abroad. I’ve seen her grab a squirrel or two in the past and it isn’t pretty.
‘Halloooooo!’ she tries again. ‘Have you seen Fester’s friend? He’s lost a mouse. A baby mouse. I had hold of him for a while, but I’m not sure where I put him… Have you seen him? He goes, ‘Gleep!’ It’s all the foolish thing can say.’
The bravest squirrel is the one with no tail. He lost it in a terrible scrap when he was much younger. He’s lean and angry and behaves like he’s got nothing left to lose.
‘I saw a mouse, yeah,’ he nods, wringing his hands together and cracking the knuckles, like he wouldn’t say no to a punch-up. ‘It wasn’t an outdoors mouse. He was all over the place. Didn’t know where he was, or who he was meant to be. It was at the front of your house, Fester. I said, come and live with us squirrels.’
‘With the squirrels?’ laughed Bessy. ‘Why would he want to do that?’
‘It’s not a bad life. Better than skulking about in corners and trying to get adopted by humans,’ Derek shrugged. ‘Anyway, he wouldn’t. He sat there quivering. He wanted to get back to the cellar.’
‘Of course he bloomin’ does,’ I sighed.
As Christmas Day lightens briefly and all the scratchy hedges and bare trees are revealed along the embankment I realise how impossible this is. We’ll never find the tiny thing. I’m going along, sniffing stuff, trying to pick up the mildewy, widdly scent of a frightened cellar mouse. I’m even calling out, ‘Gleep! Gleep!’ which sounds so silly.
Bessy is amused by the whole thing.
We even approach the railway lines and take a look at the foxes, padding about. ‘They wouldn’t bother with a mouse,’ Bessy says. ‘Hardly worth their while.’
There are amazing smells coming from all the houses. Intermingled with the woody scents of open fires there comes all this reeking steam and smoke from the roasting flesh of birds. Different kinds of birds – geese and ducks and turkeys and chickens. It could fair drive you into a tizz. We spot the dirty orange fur of the foxes. They stop tumbling and playing their daft games and sit up, alert and keen and they make strange noises low in their throats. Yes, I think it’s best if Bessy and I back off through the crackling grass to Chestnut Avenue…
The boys will be wondering where I am. Their house is lit up – every window a different colour – pink and golden and green and blue. There’s disco music blaring out of the kitchen as Paul cooks dinner. He’ll be roasting the giblets and the heart and the turkey neck for gravy…
‘You know what you must do, Fester Cat,’ says Bessy, with solemn greed.
I nod, hurrying home. They let me in the back when I yowl at the step: ‘Ungow!’ (I’ve never felt comfortable with the cat flap.)
In the kitchen, as is traditional, Paul presents me with the heart. It’s a bit hot and yes, it ends up rolling about a bit on the bare boards. Cue much bloomin’ hilarity. But then I’ve got the grisly, gorgeous thing in my mouth and I’m running out of the kitchen and down the hall with it. ‘Unngoowww!’
It’s a huge sacrifice.
But here you are, Bessy. It’s the greatest gift I could ever give.
‘Thank you, Fester Cat,’ says she, looking moved. ‘I’ll enjoy that. And thank you, not just for that.’
I give her a suspicious look. ‘What else?’
‘For running about outside with me. For being in my gang again and following me around. It was a bit like old times, wasn’t it?’
Then Paul’s found us, chatting like this. ‘Bessy!’ he goes. ‘Have you come back for Christmas?’
But she grabs her heart and off she pops. ‘I’ll see you later, loser,’ she snickers at me, and is gone.
‘But what about bloomin’ Gleep?’ I shout, as she bounds away, back out the door.
For the rest of the day I’m worried sick, though I pretend not to be for the sake of my boys. I pounce about the living room when we’re all together, jumping on the chairs and into their laps. I let them stroke me and pretend to fall asleep, even doing a bit of singing to show I’m content. They’ve bought me the most ridiculous bloomin’ present – it’s a furry blue snake on an elastic string that bounces and dances and thrashes about. It’s supposed to look as if it’s alive and I’m meant to go daft trying to catch it. But I can see it’s only a toy – it’s obvious what it is. But to make them happy I do some jumping and scampering, for a few minutes at least.
Then I flomp down in front of the fire, hugging last year’s toy mouse – the one in the Santa hat. Letting my dinner settle, contemplating the flames as they twerk about in the hearth.
‘He looks distant and thoughtful,’ Paul tells Jeremy. ‘He looks like he’s worried about something…’
Jeremy tells him he’s being daft. Paul’s always over-dramatizing things, especially when it comes to my world, he says.
The two of them drift off to the settee and all their human telly stuff, which I’m never all that interested in…
And after a little while, I reckon I can hear singing outside.
It’s not carolers or anything like that. The time for that is finished and Christmas has come and is on its way out again. No humans are traipsing about in all the cold and singing tonight…
I jump onto the dining table, tiptoeing through the rubble of blue china and glasses and tangled streamers and remains of crackers, and I poke my head through the curtains at the street beyond.
There’s a special cat passeggiata happening tonight.
I have to be out!
I hop down from the window sill and rush to the hall, and I’m doing a whole lot of scratching at the front door. The heavy purple curtains are pulled across to keep out the freezing drafts. I carry on shouting ‘Ungow!’ until the two dafties know that I need to be outside.
‘Are you sure, Fester Cat?’ Jeremy asks, unlocking and unbolting everything.
I’m bloomin’ sure.
Off I dash into the frost, down the front drive and into the Avenue.
They’re all waiting for me, under the trees. It’s rare that you ever see them altogether. If they are, it’s because there’s a fight on and everyone’s crowding to watch and spit. But here’s Smokey and Rowan and Scooby, and Three-Legged Freddie and Whisper, and even Ralph and a few others I don’t recognize, from further afield round our way.
They’re all singing together. It’s a proper cat jamboree for Christmas night.
It’s not a song like any of you humans would recognize, of course.
Bessy! Bessy’s with the rest of them, puffing out her impressively fluffy chest and singing with gusto. She winks one of her green eyes at me and looks as if she’s chewing something. Maybe she’s still got that roasted turkey heart, working it round like a gobstopper? Her manners were always bloomin’ awful.
‘Come and join us, Fester Cat!’ shouts the venerable Smokey, over the wobbly noise of the others. ‘Come and sing-sing-sing!’
And so I head over the road to join my fellow cats from Chestnut Avenue.
Peace on Levenshulme. Good will to all moggies.
I’ve just taken up my place amongst them and started to sing like mad, when Bessie turns to look down at me.
‘Got a present for you!’ she snickers and, before I can react, spits something at me.
A wet little hairy thing that lands at my paws. For one horrible moment I think she’s coughed a furball at me. It’s the kind of thing she’d do.
But then I look at what’s wriggling at my feet on the pavement.
‘Gleep!’ goes Gleep, looking deeply worried.
Bessy looks smug.
She’s been carrying him around in her mouth all day long. ‘He’s been warm, anyway,’ she shrugs. ‘He was in no danger.’
I can’t believe her.
I get to the end of the song and make my excuses to the others. I’ve got to get this mouse home to the rest of his family before he freezes in a coat of Bessy spit.
‘Happy Christmas!’ the others all go, as I hold Gleep tenderly in my toothless jaws and hurry home.
Much later that night, after I’ve snuck down into the basement and back, and there’s been a shrill reunion in the dark, between the boy, his siblings and his widowed mother, I return to the fire. It’s there that I realise Bessy only held him trapped in her huge mouth all Christmas so that she could spend most of the day with me. That’s all she got out of the whole thing. The poor old giant-bollocked dear must have been lonely.
Well, tonight no one’s lonely round our house, and that’s good. I can remember Christmases not so long ago when things were much less settled. Everything is better than ever tonight.
ONE NIGHT IN ITALY by Lucy Diamond
Romcoms were my favourite this spring and summer - and in Lucy Diamond I discovered a new favourite. Also, it's a romantic novel set in the north - and I really loved the combined voices of this female ensemble cast. There are three lead characters, whose chapters rotate, each with their separate, very engaging strands, and there's a wider cast in the Italian evening class that brings them together. There's a touch of Mama Mia and a dash of Calendar Girls about this - and that's no bad thing. There's a facility with voices at work that has us believing we're sitting down with old friends to hear what's been going on.
Thursday, 18 December 2014
MRS WIBBSEY'S FESTIVE DIARY
I’ve been putting together a few festive treats, just in case YOU KNOW WHO comes back.
The past couple of Christmases I haven’t heard from him, but he’s bound to return soon, isn’t he? Hexford Village was where he loved coming home to at Christmas, he always used to say.
I’ve been across the green to the village store and I bought some nuts. Just a plain bag of mixed nuts. And some satsumas. I’m toying with the idea of doing my special stewed prunes again. He did admire them.
That Deidre Whatsit stopped me on my way back. Full of the joys, as per usual. Her face all aglow. She says she hopes I’ll join them for some eggnog on Christmas Eve. Just like last year. She and Tish Madoc, her snooty so-called cousin (who lives in with her) haven’t seen much of me lately, says she. Yes, I thought, and there’s a reason for that.
I’ve kept out of their way since Tish published her silly novel about us all. ‘Romance in the Milky Way’ indeed. I’m only relieved no sensible publisher would touch it and I’m not forced to see the ghastly thing when I go to the library or peruse the paperback carousel at the post office. Tish Madoc had absolutely no right to novelise our strange adventures in space and she knows it. It caused a proper rift between Mike and her. Put the kybosh on their blooming romance, or whatever kind of ménage was going on next door. Well, naturally it did. He’s military, isn’t he? Signed the official secrets act back in 1971 when they found lizard men living under Wenley Moor, did Mike, or so he told me. Everything’s on a need-to-know basis with him and he doesn’t want it all written about and published as an e-book, does he? We’ve seen neither hide nor hair of him in Hexford since Tish’s launch at the village hall.
What’s that funny buzzing? I’ve been hearing it all day. Something electrical. Not insects. Definitely not hornets. No, it’s like a hairdryer’s been left on in a distant room. Or the speakers on a faulty gramophone. A deep humming note.
Oh, but the cottage is quiet.
Funny, I’ve felt all day like someone’s watching me. I’ve been scrubbing out my smalls and it’s like someone’s looking right over my shoulder. My hackles have gone up.
Snow on the green today, and all over the hedgerows. I put on a festive record to cheer the place up and wondered about trimming a tree. I never bothered last year. All the decorations are gathering dust in the attic and if that’s not symbolic I don’t know what is.
Saw the vicar on my way to the butcher’s. I’ve put my name down for a big bird. In a fit of optimism I plumped for a whole turkey. Surely there’ll be surprise company this year. Surely there will?
You know, I think there will be. I can feel it in my water.
The vicar asked if I’d be coming to the pantomime on Boxing Day. He’s wearing that woebegone look, like I let them all down by not taking part this year. Well, they can lump it. Fenella Wibbsey can’t be at everyone’s beck and call. I had to stay here, didn’t I? I couldn’t be out gallivanting and rehearsing every night and running up costumes for Sleeping Beauty. My duty is to be here, at the cottage. Waiting for the call to arms. Sooner or later the Doctor’s going to turn up, out of the blue, and need me. I just know it.
I gave the vicar short shrift and came home to get on with my rough puff pastry. That got rid of a few of my frustrations, walloping that lot about. I made two dozen mince pies. Far too many. I imagine they’ll all go stale like last year’s did.
Strange. I can hear that electronical noise again. And a smell… there’s a smell like burning wires. I went round checking all the sockets and fuses, but I can’t see anything amiss. Then I went to sit back by the fire and poured myself a little sherry. I’ve been knitting the longest scarf you ever saw. Just in case.
There was a thump at the door very early on. I was up and mopping the floors. I heard the letterbox rattle and thought: that’s curiously early. I never went running. Let them wait.
I forgot about it and later, passing through the hallway I saw there was a little card shoved under the door. Another takeaway opened up, I thought. Or hate mail.
But it wasn’t. It was like computer print-out lettering. It read:
‘Mistress. I knocked but you were out. This unit will call again.’
This unit, I thought? What the devil’s that about? And why are they calling me mistress?
I felt a bit cross and – I must say – rather nervous. I’ve reached a point in life where I don’t want or like new and unexpected things.
I surprise them all at The Hollyhocks next door. And I actually turn up. I even put a nice dress on for them, and a bit of lipstick.
Tish Madoc opens the door and her eyebrows go up. ‘We didn’t think you would, my dear!’
‘Well, here I am,’ say I stiffly, and push a half-empty bottle of Tio Pepe into her arms.
It’s everso festive in there. Deirdre Whatsit is wearing a summer frock and everyone’s got party hats on. It’s very noisy and jolly and they’re full of talk about the pantomime and other goings-on around Hexford. I start to regret being so distant of late. I’ve been cutting myself off.
There’s a lot of talk about that curious occasion, two Christmases ago, when the whole of our village was transported to a far distant planet. And then it got brought home again at the start of the new year. People talk about it in hushed tones and eye me through the press of bodies in Deirdre’s living room. I can see them doing it. They think they’re space travelers. They know I know more about the whole business than they ever will.
See? I stand apart from everyone else. My adventures in the universe make me different to them all.
Tish Madoc brings over some nibbles from the buffet and corners me. She wants to know all about the other adventures. The ones I never talk about. She’s avid for impossible details. And I think, well I’m hanged if I’m telling you anything. Just so you can write another of one of your silly e-books. I’ve seen her sitting in the conservatory at the back of Deirdre’s. You can see right in from the back of Nest Cottage. Tish Madoc at her electronic typewriter, writing e-books and smoking e-cigarettes.
Is it her electronic typewriter I’ve been hearing, I wonder? Has it become louder, somehow? Or is it… and this seems absurd even as I think it… is it somehow creeping round my door of its own volition and trying to get in? Is her typewriter as keen as she is on getting hold of my stories of outer space?
They all wish it had been them. The villagers all saw a little bit of time and space that Christmas and, even though they were terrified and thought they’d never get home, they still want more.
But that magic has gone. Those chances have fled.
I slip out of the party at the Hollyhocks as it starts getting rowdy. Deirdre cranks up the sound on her stereo and they roll up the rug in the living room and they’re starting to dance. Jitterbugging about.
And I go home.
I go in through the back kitchen. As soon as I’m in there, clicking on the light, I know I’m not alone in Nest Cottage.
If my hair wasn’t in this bun it would all be standing on end, I can tell you.
I know what having intruders is like. I’ve had aliens and ghosts and robots trespassing in here. I keep a cricket bat under the sink, ready to wallop them. As I hug it to my chest I move carefully towards the main sitting and dining room. I can hear that queer electronical noise again.
‘Regrets, mistress,’ pipes a high, tinny voice. ‘You were not in and so I had to melt the front door lock.’
I stare and stare and still the thing doesn’t make any sense.
It’s a metal dog on the flagstones in front of the stove. Looking up at me with a single red, glowing eye.
‘Keep back,’ I brandish the cricket bat at him.
He seems to frown and take a step closer. No, not a step. He glides along the floor.
‘Mistress, violence is not necessary. I mean you no harm.’
‘What are you? Who sent you? And where do you come from?’ But even as I bark out these questions I realise I already know the answers.
It’s Christmas Eve and I am alone. I draw all the curtains and shut out the noise of the warbling, awful carol singers on the Green. I light the fire and microwave myself some scrambled eggs.
He won’t have a dish of water or any kind of food. He says he doesn’t need it.
I sit down in the chair by the hearth and stare at him. ‘Well, then. How is he?’
‘Do you mean in the time period relative to the Mistress or to this unit?’ says the dog-thing, and I don’t know what he means.
‘Is he well? Since he was last here, I mean…’
The dog looks helpless. ‘I don’t know,’ he says.
All night the dog roves about the house, sniffing in cupboards and hunting through drawers. When I lie in my bed up in the attic I can hear wooden doors crashing, and then the unearthly buzz as he floats up the staircases. He’s prying into every room. Before I went to bed he wouldn’t tell me what he was looking for.
He showed some interest in the old books the Doctor keeps in his study. Those lurid books he had delivered from Ebay. ‘Ah, not just ordinary Ebay, Wibbs,’ he beamed at me as the curious-looking postman came up the garden path. ‘Ebay in a different dimension, slightly tangential to this one.’
Those are the books the dog unit set about scanning with his red laser eye. Took him a good couple of hours. I left him to it and went to bed. Happy Christmas Fenella, I thought.
I’m sitting up in bed and at first it’s like the devil himself has come in my room. I let out a shriek before I realise it’s that blessed robot dog.
‘Forgive me, mistress,’ he says in that strange, polite voice, and then, all of a sudden it’s like he’s reading my mind.
No, more than that.
I can see my past floating out in front of me. Like ectoplasm.
Long time since I saw ectoplasm. All that floaty, nasty stuff, like candy floss but with a supernatural aspect.
Not since the days of Mr Wibbsey. Not since him. And his peripatetic spiritualist church.
And I can see him now. High up in the cab of that van, with me at his side, chugging through the winding roads of Norfolk, visiting each small village in turn. I was his unwilling helpmeet. I wanted nothing to do with all that dark stuff. Turning up in villages and calling up the dead. Scaring the locals out of their skins when all they wanted was a bit of peace and reassurance. He was a devil, Mr Wibbsey. I’ve tried for so long to forget him.
Why’s this robot dog reminding me?
He’s perching on the bedclothes. His little castors are resting on the candlewick bedspread. Somehow that impassive face of his looks regretful. He’s sorry for making me relive moments from my dreadful past.
I see the day I left Mr Wibbsey. That terrible day when the old man tried to stop me. When I smashed his crystal ball and he howled like all the demons in hell were after him. He went running into the sea and I never stopped him.
When they dragged him back up the shingle the next morning his eyes were gone. The Cromer police were horrified.
I knew already though, that Mr Wibbsey had never had no eyes.
Not in his head.
The robot dog shows me – pictures coming through that glimmering, pinkish cloud that hovers over my bed – how I found happiness of a sort. Living in that little town. Finding a job in that museum. How it became like a palace to me. I was so proud of being in charge of all the Curiosities.
This creature must be a spirit to know all of this. And to know about the eyes of Mr Wibbsey. Mechanical or not, he must be a hound from hell. Made of minerals and metals forged by the spirits down below.
‘Get out! Get out!’ I shriek at him and the dog stares at me sadly.
Then he turns and glides out of the attic room.
Dawn’s coming up. It’s Christmas morning out there but I find myself still stuck inside the faraway past.
Even with all the goings-on in the night I’m feeling unusually festive when I go downstairs on Christmas morning. I shall treat myself to hedgerow jam on my toast and cream in my coffee. Let’s push the boat out.
In a way, it would be nice if there was a knock at the door and someone was calling. It would be lovely to have a surprise.
Down in the dining room before the hearth that strange devil dog is waiting to greet me. Cheery tone as he wishes me a Merry Christmas. Taking me aback somewhat.
I make coffee on the stove and when I return he’s looking at those books again. I sit and watch him. He uses a fuzzy kind of torch beam that comes out of his nose to turn the page and memorize everything he sees.
They look like kids’ books to me. Lurid illustrations. Very peculiar stories. They remind me of the only book I had as a child – The Wonder Book. I haven’t thought of that in years. Its cover was black and gold and I used to polish it up, I was so proud of having a book of my own.
‘Shall I read to you?’ asks the metal dog.
‘Why not?’ I smile and sip my cooling coffee. The Doctor used to sit here and tell me outlandish tales, whenever the mood took him. Outrageous things he claimed had happened to him on the journeys he made into the Omniverse in the days before he knew me or the days when he slipped off and left me here to mind the cottage.
The dog tells me about a queer kind of place. A world the Doctor once visited with his friends Sarah and Harry. A world where the men went off to live in the jungle. They actually lived within the fleshy leaves of huge cabbages. They were hiding from the women, who had turned rebellious and noisy, having fallen under the influence of a terrible yellowish-green monster. It was a cloud of vapour that approached from the horizon under a sky the colour of tomato soup.
‘The Sinister Sponge!’ I interrupt excitedly. And then I roll my eyes. ‘Oh, I know all about that awful old thing. The Doctor brought one back in the Tardis and kept it in the downstairs bathroom for more than a month. He was supposed to be returning it to its own dimension, somewhere or other. Then he forgot all about it and the ghastly thing just hung there behind the shower curtain in a horrible mood. I had to clean up after the wretched monster. Even after it had tried to take over my mind…’
The fire crackles and the grandfather clock ticks. It must be telling the wrong time. Surely it’s later than six in the morning. Outside it’s light, but a very muzzy, unclear sort of light that sparkles the frost. There’s no one out and about. The windows around the village green are all dark still.
The dog is telling me a tale about a world of spiders. They were bigger than even the spiders of Metebelis Three. And what’s worse, these spiders of Pergross had large, staring eyes for bodies. They built webs inside intricate, slime-filled jungles and they lured their victims by mesmerizing them with their spiraling irises. Their victims walk straight down a dark, all-seeing tunnel into the mind of the spider itself and there they find a sofa and a television set. And on the television set plays films of their whole lives and everything they ever did wrong…
‘Yes,’ I murmur. ‘I think I’ve heard of them… I think we even went to see the Eye-Spiders of Pergross once, the Doctor and I…’
But the dog has moved on and he’s describing the shrieking Sto-Cat: a robot made of bricks that floated through space boasting on many frequencies. And the Doctor’s friend Swee, who’d gone to the bad. Like so many old friends who’ve gone to the bad. And wasn’t it me – Fenella Wibbsey - standing in that alien desert, looking up to see the face of a Sphinx and realizing the thing was alive? Then it woke and looked down at me with the oldest eyes imaginable and I felt so tiny, having these adventures in space.
Do I remember these things because I was there, or do I just remember the Doctor’s voice telling me all about them? We were sitting in front of this fire when he told me improbable stuff and I always scoffed, though I knew there was a germ of truth in everything he said. But maybe I actually was there in the psychic jungle with his friend who looked like a cheetah? And I was in the Neuronic Nightmare world ruled by the man whose face was on fire. And the blue baboons who flew about the place on ships that looked like spoons and I laughed at first when I saw them and the Doctor said: hush! We’re at the very edge of the universe and those are the Thousand and One Doors to Elsewhere, Mrs Wibbsey.
Or was I just here in Nest Cottage? Peeling spuds, carrying out the rubbish and feeding the rabbits?
All at once the dog jerks into life. He’s off. The books he’s spread out on the floor slam shut of their own accord and he reverses across the stone flags, back into the hall. He bumps into the elephant foot umbrella stand and opens the front door wide.
‘Mistress Wibbsey!’ the dog calls me, and I hurry to catch up as he sets off down the garden path into the crisp morning. I’m on his trail, into the lane, and my slippered feet hardly touch the ground.
‘Dog? Where are we going?’
Now he’s running across the Green and the frost crackles underfoot. He’s gliding and I’m accelerating too… Nothing aches. Nothing breaks. I’m running like I used to when I was a girl.