PictureIt’s the small things … the way he holds his head … the way he smiles. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. There is just this uneasy feeling … the feeling something isn’t quite right. It’s always been there, if I’m honest, but I’ve never actually articulated it to anyone. I can only entertain the thought in the darkest moments. Most of the time I push the idea away and tell myself not to be silly. It couldn’t possibly be true. It would be ludicrous. How could it happen in this day and age of modern hospitals and modern medicine? No, no, no.

But then there are the hazy dreams, the half-remembered moments, coming round from the general anaesthetic when you were taken out of the cradle of my arms, I don’t know why, to be weighed, to be checked. A large bustling nurse, I can see her now, leaving the room, leaving with you, and I wanted to call out to say ‘stay’ but I was too tired from the drugs and I just had to watch you go. My enduring memory is of your tiny arm and tiny hand poking from the blanket as you disappeared out the door.

Later, after a sleep, I woke to see the cot beside my bed was empty. And the baby I was handed by a different nurse was not you.

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There is the flutter of the letter flap and the gentle thud of the post landing on the mat. You never run to the door in expectation these days, because there is no point. With email and mobile phones, who uses the post? It’s lost its significance.

When I find the time, I flick absent-mindedly through todays’s offering. There is no excitement, no anticipation. It’s a bill, a statement, a flyer, a clothing brochure, but never anything personal – no one reaching out to make a connection.

But what is this? A postcard addressed to me with looping handwriting and on the front a vintage scene from Blackpool. The beach with the tower looming behind, from a time when people wore bathing hats and bathing costumes and rode donkeys on the beach. The pier is alive with people, arm in arm, promenading up and down. It would have been the hay day of the English Riviera, before we upped sticks and went looking for the sun and the paella, when every B&B would have been booked out for the summer.

How kind of someone to find an old postcard. Who can it be from?

Dear Louisa, I’m strolling along the beach at Blackpool, as we used to do, and I can only think of you. How I wish you were here. I have saved up my pennies for the one armed bandit machines and if I win, I’ll eat fish and chips and go to the end of pier show. Or perhaps I’ll visit Madame Zelda again for a fortune. I often think about her prediction for us and wonder if it can possibly turn out to be true! With all my love, S x

And I am left wondering if the strangest thing about this postcard with spidery writing is that I have never walked hand in hand with someone along the beach in Blackpool or that it is dated 15th June 1939, a date some forty years before I was even born.

This is inspired by the beautiful and moving ‘Memories from Conney Island’ episode of the Love and Radio podcast.

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Not long after taking up my position as the local police constable for Bury-cum-Chorley, I was summoned to a hastily-convened meeting in the village hall.

Now before I go much further with my story, I should point out that this was almost twenty-five years ago when life meandered along at a decidedly slower pace than it does today. I-pods were the stuff of fiction, mobiles were the size of bricks and I was shuffling real paperwork from my in tray to my out tray at the police station, with barely a computer in sight.

You may laugh – I can hear some of you chortling now – but all these gadgets and gizmos don’t necessarily make life easier. Although I wouldn’t want to go back to those days, if I’m absolutely honest, we’ve lost something along the way … I would call it an enjoyment in the simpler pleasures of life.

Gardening is most definitely one of those pleasures. I still get excited when I think of the annual cycle of sowing seeds and watching them grow into young plants, before they swell in size to become carrots, lettuces, radishes, leeks. In Chorley, as we referred to the village amongst ourselves when there was no danger of it being confused with Chorley Bottome or Chorley Green, the growing season culminated in the annual vegetable competition. It was always hotly-contested, and for some reason it was the pumpkin category which brought out the villagers’ fighting spirit. In fact, I would go so far as to say that pumpkins brought out a very nasty streak in some people, and in the year of 1990, it was particularly bad.

Like many things, when we talking pumpkins, size is what counts. ‘And the perfect conditions?’ I hear you ask. In equal measures, sunshine and rain, the perfect pumpkin you will gain, so the old wives’ tale goes. And boy, the weather didn’t disappoint that year, delivering us a bumper crop. One day at the end of summer I peered over the wall at Chorley Manor and saw Lady Gerard had turned over half her vegetable patch to the bright orange beauties. With the evening sun glinting off their backs, if you’d told me someone had been out there polishing them, I wouldn’t have been surprised. And it wasn’t just at the manor; all over the village, the locals were indulging in their passion for pumpkins. I had to turn a blind eye to some rather excessive watering regimes during the hose pipe ban. But I couldn’t altogether blame the villagers for their exuberance, when I too had been bitten by the pumpkin-cultivating bug.

But in the main, I should stress, the art of fostering pumpkins has to be naturally done – no meddling, no injecting the lovelies with extra water. George Mortimer did that to his detriment in 1983 and was banned from entering the squash category for 5 years. But as it turned out, his little misdemeanour was nothing compared to what was to unfold in the autumn of 1990.

Where was I? Ah yes, I was called to a meeting in the village hall. If the glum faces I met on arrival weren’t enough to tell me something wrong, the fact that the urn wasn’t on the boil for a cup of tea, certainly was.

‘There’s a pumpkin saboteur on the loose, Constable,’ said Burt Finch, without any of the usual niceties.

‘He’s mutilated a whole section of my pumpkin field,’ said Lady Gerard. ‘What a sight met my eyes this morning. I can only thank my blessings that he must have been disturbed from his business, otherwise I would have nothing to show at the vegetable competition on Saturday.’

‘Let me get this straight,’ I said, ‘you think someone has had a go at your pumpkins. Are you sure it wasn’t an animal?’

‘I would love to know what kind of animal has the skill to do this,’ replied Lady Gerard moving aside to show me a table containing two of her prize pumpkins, both sporting leering, toothless grins and hollow eyes.

‘He carved faces in them?’ I asked.

‘Yes, it’s his calling card,’ continued Burt. ‘Beth and John Jury, Phil Robinson, and Greg Atherton have all had their pumpkins ruined.’  I followed Burt’s gaze to the far end of the hall and saw the full extent of the saboteur’s work. Eighteen orange faces grinned back.

It didn’t take me long to realise the connection between the villagers who had been targeted: all previous winners of the squash category in the Chorley vegetable competition. As a hopeful contender for the 1990 trophy, I was sorely tempted to rush back home and check on my own pumpkins, but duty comes first. I turned my attention to the table of jack-o’-lanterns, which now had officially become evidence; pumpkin after pumpkin leered up at me, taunting me to solve the case.

Beth Jury whimpered when I picked up what was left of her cherished vegetable: ‘Betsy was our best pumpkin for years, I watched her grow from seed; she’s the fifth generation descendent from big Bertie which won in 1985. I was sure we were in for a win again this year.’ Phil Robinson looked mournfully at what was left of his pride and joy when I questioned him about events. And Greg Atherton was quite simply apoplectic with rage: ‘when I find out who did this, they won’t dare step foot in Chorley again.’

The next day at breakfast, over my toast and tea, the headline of the Chorley Echo caught my eye: ‘pumpkin hopes squashed’.  It never takes long for Jack Mane, the local reporter, to sniff out a story, I thought to myself. He had even managed to get a photo of the devastation in Lady Gerard’s garden, probably unauthorised, and a quote from Greg Atherton in his fury.

I set off on my bike to make inquiries. The first stop, my prime suspect: George Mortimer. Alright, I admit I wasn’t applying the most strategic of police thinking, but I had to start somewhere, and the fact that George had stooped so low as to inject his pumpkins with water showed that he was willing to bend the rules to win the vegetable competition. Perhaps he would even stretch to criminal activity.

‘What? Do you think I had something to do with this?’ he asked me as we stood in the front room of his little cottage. ‘I admit I’ve made some mistakes in the past and been a bit over competitive, shall we say, but I paid the price for that. Besides, I’m done with squashes; I’m much more interested in roots now. In fact, I don’t care too hoots about pumpkins.’

I found him a little too quick to express such a disinterest in pumpkins, but with no evidence to suggest he had anything to do with the crimes, I went on my way. I paid calls to all the victims that day, and drank enough tea to sink the QE2, not wishing to be disrespectful to our great Queen, of course.

To my annoyance, wherever I went, I found I was following in the footsteps of the reporter, Jack Mane. And in spite of this being an official police investigation, everyone had been happy to talk to him. Whether he’d had more success in his so-called investigations, I couldn’t say, but my inquiries hadn’t produced a single clue. It felt like a wasted day. The only thing to do was to wait for the pumpkin fiend to strike again. And in the end, we didn’t have to wait too long.

I was off duty that evening and was just coming out the Dog and Duck, after indulging in a pint of Gurglers cider, when I heard a chilling scream coming from the direction of the church. I set off at quite a pace, I can tell you, and found a distressed May Turner standing in her front garden.

‘It’s horrible,’ she screamed, ‘my largest pumpkin has been massacred.’ I followed her round the side of her cottage, into her kitchen garden and sure enough saw her pumpkin, which was the size of a small fridge and set to tip the scales at 300 pounds, lying on its side, mutilated. This wasn’t the measured face-cutting crime which had befallen the other pumpkins; there was a wildness here which I had not seen in the crimes to date – May’s pumpkin was covered in large gashes and orange flesh was spewing from its wounds. It was a messy business and the culprit would certainly have walked away with pumpkin juice stains on his hands. The pumpkin innards trailing half-way across the lawn suggested the villain had made his get-away over the hedge and into Tinker’s Wood.

I set to work inspecting May’s hedge for clues. Then something snagged on a twig caught my eye and I smiled to myself; this clue could just lead me to the saboteur, if I could only get them to admit to it.

It is possible that I may have over indulged on Agatha Christie novels, but what better way to conclude the affair, I thought, than to call a meeting at the village hall. All the residents duly turned up at the appointed time and took their seats. Beth Jury came in comforting May Turner, who still looked in shock from the events the night before. George Mortimer was there at my request. Burt Finch arrived in full gardening regalia after his day at the allotment. And of course the reporter Jack Mane couldn’t resist coming too, hoping to get a scoop.

They sat in front of me on their small wooden seats, eagerly waiting for me to share what I had learned.

‘This village has had to endure some appalling crimes this autumn,’ I began. ‘Our prize pumpkins have been desecrated. People who should even now be buffing their pumpkin skins ready for the competition on Saturday are instead mourning the loss of their produce.’ I paused for dramatic effect. ‘And someone here is the scoundrel. You thought you could get away with it, but you didn’t realise that you left some evidence behind.’

They all looked at one another nervously, trying to work out who it could possibly be. A number of eyes settled on George.

‘I didn’t do it’ he shouted.

‘No, you didn’t do it, George,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry for suspecting you – an elementary policing mistake.’

He smiled smugly at the rest of the villagers.

‘Well, tell us who did do it,’ said Lady Gerard.

‘It’s interesting that you ask, Lady Gerard. I mean one way you might have chosen to throw the scent off you would have been to massacre your own veg. In fact, that argument would work for any one of you sat here.’

‘How dare you, constable! I didn’t come here to be insulted,’ she retorted.

‘My apologies, Lady Gerard. Of course it wasn’t you.’

‘Well, hurry up and get this ridiculous meeting over and done with. We’d all like to get home,’ she replied.

‘It was May Turner’s pumpkin which produced the first piece of credible evidence, something which was dropped by the culprit. Have you got your pen poised to take this down for tomorrow’s headline, Jack?’ I said.

‘Oh right,’ he said, rustling around in the top pocket of his mac for his pen.

‘Do you need a pen?’ I said, holding out a biro emblazed with the name of the Chorley Echo on the side. ‘Is this what you’re looking for?’

‘Oh, ta,’ he said, initially coming forward, and then suddenly halting in his tracks. ‘Err, actually, do you know what? I don’t normally make notes. I’ve got this great memory for quotes.’

‘Do you? Do you have a great memory for what happened yesterday? I found this biro from the Echo nestling in the hedge in May Turner’s garden. How could it have possibly found its way there?’

‘You’re not suggesting that I had something to do with this, are you? What would I possibly have to gain? I don’t even grow pumpkins.’

‘No, but you are in the business of growing newspaper sales – by whatever means possible, it would seem.’

‘I would like to see you try and prove it. Anyone could have dropped that pen to try and deflect the blame onto me.’

‘Well, they could have done, that’s true, but you see I paid a visit to your wife today while you were busy at the Echo. She was pretty tight-lipped but she couldn’t refuse my request to use the little boy’s room. And what did I find? Strange orange flesh in the plughole of your bath and some suspicious seeds in the wastepaper bin – all concurrent with massacring a pumpkin the size of a small kitchen appliance, I would suggest!’

‘Oh alright, it was me. I had to do something to make the local news more exciting. There has to be more than school sports day, summer fetes and the endless debate on pot-holes. Come on, you have to admit, it has livened things up a bit around here.’

The villagers didn’t look at all amused and slowly made their way home, muttering under their breath. He got a fine to cover the damages and for once a rank outsider won the squash category in the vegetable competition. That year too, an unusual number of jack-o’-lanterns adorned the windows in the village. In fact, it remains a firm tradition in Chorley to carve pumpkins and place them in the window at Hallowe’en, although I must say the faces do always have a look of Jack Mane about them.

Illustrated by Laura Elliott. See more of her brilliant work at http://drawesome.co.uk

IMG_0757The Derwent, the Lune, the Itchen, the Wear – cast your fishing rod into their depths and what waits beneath? Barbel, gudgeon, chub and dace – primeval creatures of the deep. Ripples deflected from ridges, fins and scales disturb the surface and grey shadows lurk below. Can those bulging eyes detect movement from the bank? Do those scaly bodies feel the water tension tear as the fishing line slices through? Can they gauge the gilded, lifeless fly promising a juicy morsel but offering instead a tug of war from water into suffocating air?

Early one morning I took my rods to an unpopular stretch of river. The locals laughed. No one ever catches anything there. Yet I cast my fly – the mottled one with the dash of red – and waited … waited for something to happen. The shadows of the oak tree shortened, edging me into the sunlight of the midday sun. I rested the rod on its stand by the riverbank and reached for the sandwiches in my bag to calm my grumbling stomach. It was then that the line went taut and the rod began to flex.

A bite.

I dropped the sandwich and took the strain, slowly winding home my prize. Would you believe? The largest catch of the day. Releasing her from the hook, I held the trout in my hands. She writhed and squirmed, one pulsing muscle of energy.

It is a mystery why the brown trout bite. Rarely feeding at the surface, what lures them from the silt to the dancing feathers in the sunlight? Perhaps there is magic in the way you cast the line or hold the fishing rod, or perhaps they sense the angler who will slip the tackle and let them go.

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The only sound in the cloisters came from the fluttering wings of a blackbird as it landed on a stone arch. Then echoing around the stone walkway, the pattering of footsteps and the swishing of habits broke the silence. The bird flew out into the walled, kitchen garden where women in broad-brimmed straw hats were hoeing the soil between rows of newly-sprouting carrots and peas.

A gnarled, apple tree spread its branches against the mottled, garden wall. In another garden, it would have been tightly espaliered against the wall, trained to grow in a straight line. But here it was allowed to grow old, unchecked, as if the tree had something to teach the new saplings breaking through the earth below. It had grown so tall its upper branches hung over the wall, dropping apples into the hands of passers-by.

‘Thank you for agreeing to talk to me, Sister Clare,’ said Fenella.

‘We don’t usually do interviews, Miss. Beeching, but there was something about your request I couldn’t refuse,’ the sister replied, smiling.

They were sitting in the vestry with the morning sun slanting through the window. Fenella had to admit that even though it was cliched to say it, there was something so peaceful and perfect about the setting that she feared her photography skills simply wouldn’t do the scene justice.

‘I thought we could start with the interview and then perhaps I could get a few shots of you, to accompany the feature… maybe in the kitchen showing the readers what an average meal might look like?’ Fenella said, indicating the large camera protruding from her bag.

‘As you wish,’ Sister Clare said.

‘As I think I mentioned on the phone, the piece is about this 5:2 diet. I’m sure you’ve heard of it – it’s where you fast for two days of the week. You can imagine why our readers at Women Today would be interested in your viewpoint – you’re an expert when it comes to fasting.’

‘I’ve neither heard of the diet, nor am I an expert in fasting. You’ll have to judge for yourself whether what I have to say is worthy of your article.’

Fenella looked at Sister Clare, the sunlight now falling gently on her head, and she wondered whether she was in any position to judge anything the sister had to say. She had purposely dressed down in a white, cotton shirt and beige slacks, but she had been unable to leave the house without applying a hint of make-up. There had been that moment of pride when she caught her reflection – she was still able to look stylish, even when she wasn’t intending to. Yet Fenella felt sure it was Sister Clare who at this moment looked most radiant, in spite of her simple attire.

‘What our readers want to know is your tips for how you get by when you’re fasting – I don’t imagine it’s easy. But perhaps you have some visualisation techniques or recipes that help you prepare for the fasting period.’

‘You’re right – it isn’t easy. We generally have rather a simple diet here – vegetable soup for lunch and perhaps a vegetable curry or stroganoff for dinner. Our own homemade, wholemeal bread for breakfast.’

‘If everyone followed that diet, it would solve the world’s obesity crisis,’ Fenella said.

‘Many people think that the act of eating as a nun is about sacrifice and suffering, but actually it’s about celebration – we often eat the food grown from the kitchen garden that we planted from seed. We try to savour the food and give thanks for it. I think often when people are eating, they are thinking about everything else except the act of eating.’

Fenella felt the interview was taking a route she hadn’t quite intended.

‘People struggle to find the time to enjoy the food they are eating. Maybe they are eating at their desk in the office or on their lap while watching the TV,’ Sister Clare continued.

‘And the fasting,’ Fenella said interrupting, ‘how do you prepare your body for managing without food? I think our readers would benefit from knowing how you cope.’

‘You see – there is something about fasting from a religious point of view – it’s about learning to think about something bigger than yourself, whereas fasting for dieting, forgive me if I appear judgemental, I would hazard a guess, that fasting for the purpose of dieting is ultimately about thinking about yourself.’

Fenella’s gaze moved to the window where the branches of the apple tree were gently knocking on the glass and she remembered as a child how she had eaten from the apple trees in her parents’ garden and how the apples had tasted so sweet and how only last week she had chopped down the cherry tree in her garden because it was shading the conservatory. She did wonder if it wasn’t just the magazine’s editorial policy which was somehow falling short.

This story was developed after listening to an interview with Sister Catherine on BBC4’s Women’s Hour.

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Take the road out of Dorking, the ancient way used for driving chickens to market, past the Old Oak tavern where the stage coaches draw up and on to the landslip car park – a good place to tether a horse.

The pathway to the tower meanders uphill, at times through wooded glens and at times an open hillside buffeted by a wind that could ruffle the heaviest of petticoats or coat tails.

From a certain aspect, the tower is crumbling, but on other days it stands tall and erect, seen for miles through a gap in the tree canopy, set atop the highest point in southeast England.

If you visit on a day when you can climb the tower, the view from the top is worthy of note. One glance north and London rises from the skyline, St Paul’s dome, Canary Wharf and the Wembley arch standing out against the horizon. Listen carefully and you can almost hear the sounds of the hackney carriage, the omnibus or the routemaster as the pulsing heart of the capital draws closer.

Off to the south, are they birds or planes wheeling overhead? Swallows dive like spitfires. Far out in the channel, passenger jets are lining up on final approach to a landing strip hidden just out of view. On a clear day, they say you can see the sea. On another day, there is only the promise of water shimmering like a mirage in the distance.

And below, couples enjoying a walk, dogs sniffing picnic sandwiches, children running rings round parents and babies in perambulators, bonneted and booted, pushed by pinafored nurses. And sometimes, a stockinged gentleman in a powdered wig who surveys the tower with a contented look before wending his way towards Leith Hill Hall.

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Happy New Year!

A poem to start the year rather than a story. ‘Tis the season for pantomimes and fairy tales …

I could meet a wolf in the path
Out here
Where the snow lies deep
In drifts
And the lights from the village
Are far away
And out of reach.

And I must run
With a pounding heart
To the place
In the wood
Where the path divides.

And as he’s gaining
I must decide
Which path to follow
And which to leave behind.

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He’s taking up two seats on the train with his oversized bunch of flowers. He’s one of those sorts who doesn’t even attempt to clear the seat of his belongings even though the train is full. It couldn’t be more of a cliché on Valentine’s day. It isn’t a bouquet bought hurriedly at the station or a dog-eaten one from a supermarket which will die in two days, but a sculptured, ostentatious display which says more about him than what he feels for his beloved. Someone has put a lot of thought into those flowers, balancing the colours of the orchids and completing the piece of art with a green bamboo leaf twisted back on itself.

Then he gets out his mobile, dials a number and starts talking loudly – of course he’s one of those.

‘Hi – will you pick me up at the station?’ he asks.

He’s frowning. He isn’t getting the response he wants.

‘You only need to loiter around … Well if it’s too difficult, then leave it. No, leave it. That’s fine. I’ll get a taxi.’

He’s angry. The other person wants to talk, to explain, but he doesn’t want to have that kind of conversation on a packed commuter carriage. There’s no room for discussion or negotiation. Time to shut the conversation down. Have they had talks like that before, where they fail to communicate, both meaning well but ending up at cross purposes?

So the flowers, are they an apology for a previous outburst, a gesture of love or simply what one ought to do for Valentine’s day? Will they make her feel guilty that she didn’t get the car out to pick him up, even though she does worry about finding somewhere to park? Or perhaps he won’t even give the flowers to her and will dump them outside the ticket office for anyone to pick up. Or he’ll fling them from the taxi window after waiting fifteen minutes in the rain.

Then as the train approaches the next station, the young woman sitting opposite scoops up the bouquet and heads for the door.

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During high season, in the warm, midday sun the shadows of gulls flicker across the peach, terracotta and saffron facades in the port of Villefranche-sur-mer. Yachts nudge each other purposefully for the best moorings on the quayside and large cruise ships drop anchor in the bay and send tiny boats of wayfarers ashore to patronise the canopied brasseries or take the train to Monaco.

But today it’s raining, the soaking wet type that comes in sideways, and is a match for the best umbrella or raincoat. The boats remain in port with their sails tightly coiled, tugging on their moorings. The cruise ship in the bay turns on its anchor. The highly prized quayside tables are empty. The tourist trade is huddled inside restaurants or under cafe awnings. The postman and the delivery vans battle through the rain to keep the wheels of commerce turning.

Teetering on the edge of the quay, the Welcome Hotel, a tall, spindly building, had housed artists and starlets in its day. Today its less celebrated guests are champing at the bit to go outside but they are prisoners of the weather, forced to drink coffee in the glass-fronted breakfast bar, forming unlikely alliances. Watching the rain form puddles in the street, they feel safe but restricted in their bubble, like a child must feel when they are cocooned in their pram under the protective rain cover. Everything is strangely distorted through the water droplets on the windowpane – the postman’s nose has been magnified to an alarming size and the bow of the ship bends as a raindrop streaks down the glass.

The two middle-aged Irish and Welsh couples are sitting together trading travel stories. The husbands have got onto the state of airport security. Their wives pipe up with comments, well-timed for dramatic effect: ‘you’ll never believe what happened next’. On the adjacent table is a retired grande dame who every summer launches herself on the Cote d’Azur. Her short stay at The Welcome Hotel has been mired by trying to avoid people like this. Now it seems collision is impossible. They probably assume she is in need of company.

‘Do you drink the water?’ one of the wives says.

The older woman pauses, unsure whether she should deign them with a response, but it is so exceedingly dull being inside and you have to make some sport for yourself. She leans in conspiratorially towards the women, looks left and right, opens her handbag and indicates that they should look inside. They oblige and see a bottle of water nestling between a silk scarf and a powder compact. They nod knowingly.

‘How do you manage with the food?’ the other wife whispers.

‘I do my best, but it is a strain. Have you found the supermarket in the square, stocked with an English corner? It’s been my lifeline while here on the continent. When I’ve been near my wit’s end, I’ve consoled myself with a Walkers’ crisp butty baguette on the loo – I wouldn’t want to get crumbs in the bed.’

The wives smile weakly. She didn’t really look the sort to be surreptitiously cramming her face with crisp sandwiches. They return to the familiarity of their husbands’ stories.

Mischief is in the air and it is proving infectious. The proud, young, Swedish family on the next table are bound for Corsica but the boat is refusing to sail in this weather. The mother, in slim designer jeans with a Chanel bag sitting obediently at her heel, is irritated by the delay and is flicking through a magazine as though she is swatting flies. The boy is tiring of his drawing book and is throwing crayons at his step father’s newspaper

‘Why don’t you boys ask at the reception for a board game?’ the mother asks.

The boy takes this as licence to head for the hotel atrium at top speed. The stepfather stands up wearily and follows him out of the breakfast bar.

The officious, self-assured waiter is strutting round the room like a peacock. Rarely does he have such a captive audience.

‘Another coffee, madam? You have a very lively son. It must be frustrating when he wants to be outside.’

‘We’re all rather frustrated … sitting inside. How long will this weather last?’

‘You should be able to sail tomorrow.’

‘So I have one more night to make the most of Villefranche. Any suggestions?’

‘Suggestions?’

‘For a diversion … say if my husband and son were busy this evening?’ she says, smiling.

How very bold, thinks the young, English women, sitting on the next table with her new husband.

‘Shall we go to Monaco, as planned, if the weather clears up?’ her husband says in a matter of fact way that didn’t really need a response.

‘Actually I was thinking I would prefer to go to the Rothschild Villa. I hear it has beautiful gardens. If it dries up, I’d like to make the most of our time left.’

He meets his wife’s direct gaze with mild surprise. Was it the first time she had offered her opinion with quite such authority?

‘Waiter, I’ll have another hot chocolate please and a croque monsieur,’ she continues. ‘That was one of the first French words I learned at school.’

‘That’s rather a lot … You’ve only just had breakfast.’

‘I know but if you can’t enjoy yourself on your honeymoon, when can you?’

The guests look up as the Swedish man re-enters the bar.

‘It’s alright, we can sail today,’ he announces to the room.

The guests go quiet. They turn to look at the port scene, laid out in front of them through the window like a stage set. While they had been talking, the intensity of the grey clouds has brightened and people are emerging from their houses like the start of a play. The moment in the bar is broken. The scene is shifting outside.

‘It looks like the delights of Villefranche will have to wait for another occasion,’ said the Swedish lady, dropping a twenty Euro note on the table next to her coffee cup.

The Welsh wife turns to the older woman to ask her if she would like to join them for lunch, but their new companion seems to have disappeared. And the honeymooning couple decide a visit to the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild might be more interesting than a trip to Monaco after all.

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Yellow Duck

My niece asked me if I would write her a story, so this week’s Teabreak Tale is for a younger audience, or a young at heart audience, and is dedicated to Emily.

It was bath time in the McGregor household. Emily was splashing the water over the side of the bath when her mum wasn’t looking and giggling. She upturned a beaker and let the air escape with a burble. Little Yellow Duck bobbed up and down, feeling happy – bath time was fun.

Soon it was time to pull the plug and watch the water disappear. Little Yellow Duck did sometimes wonder where all the water went, but there was never time to think about that for too long. Miss Muffet, Humpty Dumpty, Incy Wincy and the Marie Celeste boat were all packed away in their linen bag and Little Yellow Duck was placed in pride of place on the edge of the bath. Mrs McGregor lifted Emily out, dried her and swept her hair up into a big bundle on the top of her head in a lovely warm towel.

‘You look like the Queen of Sheba,’ said Mrs McGregor.

Emily ran out of the bathroom shouting, ‘I’m the Queen of Sheba.’

Mrs McGregor switched out the light in the bathroom and the bath toys drifted off happily to sleep. Quiet finally reigned on the McGregor household, except if you listened very carefully, you might hear Miss Muffet snoring or Humpty Dumpty complaining that Incy Wincy was kicking him with his many legs.

The next day the sky was as blue as blue and the McGregors were having stick races in the river at the bottom of the garden. Mr McGregor told Emily and Jasmine to stand ready with their sticks at one end of the decking and when he shouted ‘go’, they had to drop their sticks into the water. The stick that reached the other end of the decking first was the winner.

‘Go!’ he shouted.

Emily and Jasmine threw their sticks in. They watched the two sticks as they were born along by the current in the water. This time it was Emily’s stick that won.

‘Hoorah,’ she said doing pirouettes round the garden – she had just learnt how to do them in ballet. Jasmine, who was still very little, didn’t seem to mind that her big sister had won and she started dancing round the pear tree.

‘I’ve got at idea,’ Emily said, running into the house.

She came back a few minutes later, holding something behind her back.

‘Can we do another race?’ she said.

‘Well, go and choose your sticks’ said Mr McGregor.

Jasmine and Emily lined up and when Mr McGregor said go, rather than dropping a stick into the river, Emily pulled out Little Yellow Duck and threw him in instead. She knew he would be faster than a dirty, brown stick.

For Little Yellow Duck, it was great fun. ‘Wee,’ he said as he sped along the riverbank. ‘Look at how fast I’m going,’ he cried out.

He was going so fast that the fields looked like a green line from one of Emily’s paintings. He spun round to see if Emily was watching, but he couldn’t see her anymore, he couldn’t see the McGregors’ garden and he couldn’t see their house – the river was flowing so fast, it was taking him away from his home.

Little Yellow Duck was washed past tall reeds and rushes, past people who were enjoying a leisurely walk along the riverbank and past an inquisitive black dog that tried to fish him out with his paw. Little Yellow Duck called out but no one could hear him. On and on the river flowed, until finally Little Yellow Duck came to rest in some brown reeds. He had no idea where he was and he wondered if he would ever see the McGregors again.

Then he heard a loud ‘quack’ and a creature floated past him – it had a beak and wings and a feathery tail that it was waggling, in fact it looked just like Little Yellow Duck, and following on behind were four tiny creatures. They were real, live ducks – the kind which would hate living in a bathroom.

As the duck family floated past, he moved out of his hiding place and joined the end of the procession. From the front of the line, Mrs Duck shouted ‘halt’ and the ducklings stopped so abruptly that Little Yellow Duck banged into the duckling in front of him.

Mrs Duck began to count: ‘One, two, three, four, five … good … wait … five?’ Mrs Duck couldn’t understand why she suddenly had five ducklings. She looked at number five suspiciously.

‘Who are you?’ she said.

‘I’m Little Yellow Duck. I’m lost.’

‘We can’t have little ducks floating around the river on their own. You’ll have to join our family,’ she said in a kindly voice.

So Little Yellow Duck became duck number five in Mrs Duck’s family. It was fun being a real duck – he now had four other brothers and sisters who he could play hide and seek with. But he could never get the hang of diving under the water – all the other ducklings could do it, in fact some of them could hold their breath and dive right down to the river bed, but no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t manage it.

One day the Duck family were swimming along the river when Little Yellow Duck saw a large grey and white heron flying overhead. Now a heron can be a scary looking bird if you’re a little duck. Mrs Duck and all the other ducklings were able to dive under the water out of sight, but they forgot that Little Yellow Duck couldn’t dive. Little Yellow Duck looked around for some reeds where he could hide, but the heron had already seen him. He swooped down and in one swift movement snatched Little Yellow Duck from the river in his long beak.

High up into the air went the heron with Little Yellow Duck in his beak. Over fields and houses they flew. They were so high that the cars far below looked like tiny toys. Little Yellow Duck looked down to see if he could spot the sandpit and swing in Emily’s garden, but all the houses looked the same. The fields looked like green, yellow and brown squares, a bit like the patchwork quilt on the bed in the spare room. Little Yellow Duck had never imagined that the world looked so beautiful from above.

Slowly the heron began to descend. He landed on a large, grey rock on a sandy beach and stood completely still looking out to sea.

‘Please don’t eat me,’ Little Yellow Duck said. ‘I don’t think I would be very tasty.’

The heron opened its beak to speak, but as it did so, his grip on Little Yellow Duck loosened and Little Yellow Duck tumbled out of his mouth, rolled down the side of the rock and into the sea which was even now lapping up against the edge of the rock. Then just as he feared he might be caught by the heron again, the sea pulled him backwards out of harm’s way. It was the waves, moving up and down the beach, that had saved him.

Back and forth the sea pulled him – sometimes he was on the beach and sometimes he was in the water again. Then after a time he realised that there was more water around him than sand and that he was heading away from the beach and was being taken out to sea.

The beach got smaller and smaller until it was just a yellow line on the horizon and he wondered if it was even there at all. The sea was all around him. It was moving like the water did in the bathtub when Emily had races from one end to the other. It was a much darker blue than the water in the bath or the river where Mrs Duck lived with her five, now four, ducklings. Did they miss him? Did anyone notice he had gone?

How long he drifted, he didn’t know. Then he saw a colourful patch of water floating nearby. As he drifted nearer, he realised the colourful patch was talking. There wasn’t just one voice, there were hundreds of different voices, all speaking in different languages which he couldn’t understand. Before long he was in the middle of the colourful haze and he realised it was actually a group of lots of different bath toys – there were red octopuses, blue boats, pink fish, purple dolphins, green turtles and of course there were lots of little ducks too.

‘Where are you from?’ Little Yellow Duck asked a green frog which was nearby, but none of the toys could understand him.

Then he heard a little voice speaking in his language. It was a bright orange starfish with a cheerful smile.

‘We were on a ship being transported to our new homes, when the container we were in fell into the sea. What brings you here?’ he said.

‘I’m lost,’ said Little Yellow Duck. ‘I’m trying to find my way back home.’

‘That’s easy – you can use the sun and the stars to help you. We’re on our way to the port of Tacoma, but if you’re looking for the nearest land, I estimate you head off in that direction,’ the Starfish said, pointing behind Little Yellow Duck.

‘Thank you,’ shouted Little Yellow Duck as a wave took him away from the group of toys. ‘Good luck finding your way to Tacoma.’

But as he moved away, he began to wonder which direction the Starfish had meant. At sea, every direction looked the same.

As he was thinking which way to go, suddenly, in front of him the large bow of a boat appeared. He managed to move out of its way, just in time. ‘Phew,’ he said, ‘that was close.’ Then he felt a strange feeling – he was being lifted up out of the water. The boat was a fishing boat and it had put out its net to collect fish – as it was reeling in its net of squirming fish, it had also managed to catch Little Yellow Duck. There was Little Yellow Duck stranded in the net. The fishermen pulled the net onto the deck of the boat and released their catch. How surprised they were to see Little Yellow Duck tumble out with all the silver fish.

One of the fisherman with a curly white beard bent down and looked Little Yellow Duck right in the eye.

‘Well, well, look at you,’ he said. ‘How did you get here? I’m going to take you and enter you in the duck race tomorrow. If you can survive at sea, the race down the river will be easy.’

Then the fisherman picked up Little Yellow Duck and put him inside his warm jacket pocket. Little Yellow Duck soon fell asleep. When he woke up, he could hear the sounds of laughter and talking. The fisherman took Little Yellow Duck out of his pocket and Little Yellow Duck found himself on a bridge above a river which was flowing through a town. Crowds of people lined the banks of the river.

‘Here we are, little one, the start of the duck race. Swim as fast as you can,’ said the fisherman. And with those words, he tossed him into the river. Little Yellow Duck landed with a splash in the middle of hundreds and hundreds of little blue ducks with red beaks. They were all jostling with each other to get near the starting line which was marked by a long, red ribbon stretching from one side of the river to the other. Little Yellow Duck stood out like a sore thumb as he was the only yellow duck among the hundreds of blue ones.

Then the was a loud bang. The people lining the bank cheered as the ribbon holding all the ducks in one place was released. The race had begun. Little Yellow Duck swam as fast as he could. He was passing blue ducks right, left and centre. He knew he was in with a chance to win. It felt as though all the people were cheering for him as he rode the river current round the river bend. The finish line was in sight when a group of little blue ducks came from behind and nudged him towards the bank.

‘Oh no,’ he said coming to rest in a some reeds, ‘now I’ll never win the race.’

Then he heard a voice.

‘It looks like Little Yellow Duck.’

He recognised that voice – it was Emily with Mr and Mrs McGregor and Jasmine. They had come to watch the duck race.

‘Where have you been?’ said Mr McGregor. ‘We thought we’d lost you.’

So Little Yellow Duck didn’t get the chance to win the annual duck race, but he didn’t mind one little bit. He was just happy to be returning home with Emily to the bath tub. He wondered if Miss Muffet, Incy and Humpty would believe half of what had happened on his adventure.

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You can find a full list of my stories on the archive page.

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