Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Rising

            The Forest of Dean is England's first national forest park
                                             Photograph: The Forestry Commission
We are still recovering and it is likely we shall be considerably more careful with nature in future. Oh of course we heard the 'Green' message and there were all kinds of messages about how to 'save the planet', when what we meant was saving ourselves. But we had reckoned without one key ingredient. There were warnings in the weather. Extremes of hot and cold, floods that covered vast areas of countryside and even the Great Flood that made the river Thames flood its banks and made London look like a dirtier version of Venice.
Still there were the usual responses; panic in the press, terror among the public and the sonorous tones of a government without a clue. But we did not learn. When the news came later of a tsunami that had struck New York and flooded that big city some people began to take notice of the scientists and some of the religious leaders who remarked as had been remarked before that 'God' was angry. Nobody saw that somewhere in the cracks of our existence, where science and religion and even politics did not exist. Outside of the edges of our human awareness there was something we had overlooked in our self-styled superiority. So when that anger finally became manifest we were taken by surprise. Nothing we had could help us. Our fabulous technology was helpless.
It began on what has become in our memory Green Tuesday. That morning, when our dear England was enjoying a period of stability, George Lakenham woke up to the sound of trumpets and horses. He prepared himself for the day as usual and went downstairs to make breakfast, sure that he was dreaming. He had just poured his coffee when he heard a rude pounding at his front door.
George, who was a portly, creaking gentleman of a certain age, sighed. He ran his hand over his thinning hair and stirring his coffee, left the kitchen and headed to the door, his coffee mug in his hand. He was a stable gent was George. An accountant by profession, he was thorough, unruffled and calm. Nothing however had prepared him for this. When he opened his front door he found a tall green haired man with pale, green-tinted skin. The man was wearing green armour that was both beautiful and frankly archaic. It was covered in symbols that George did not recognise.
"Er, can I help you?" George asked.
He noticed the troops of horses in his garden with similar men astride them. One of the horses was taking an interest in his garden, eating its way idly through his primulas.
"Are you the king of the mortals?" the man demanded testily.
"King? No, we don't have a king. There's the Queen of England, but she's in London. I don't think she rules the country though, that's the Prime Minister's job," George answered before finally asking,
"And who might you be?"
The green-haired man drew himself to his full height, which was a lot higher than George.
"I am the Green Man and your mortal race has a reckoning to make," the man answered.
"Of course, silly of me. Er, what reckoning?" George asked tentatively.
"You mortals have been using and abusing Nature as if you had a right to. It's time the abuses were paid," the Green Man told him.
"I don't know that I quite understand," George said with an increasing sense of worry.
But the Green Man had turned away and mounted a large green horse. He turned his troop away and they marched off towards London. Even as George watched them he saw with astonishment the trees that grew up through the road and pavements in their wake. Willoughby Road suddenly became a forest.
So much for Surrey. In Sussex, a land known for legends, the long dragon beneath the South Downs hills awoke and stood sending chalk and flint cascading from him. Small villages were uprooted and people fled into the fields.
In Leicestershire, Black Annis was seen by two children who escaped her by running home. Beneath Bradgate Park the rocks were seen to rise until they were not rocky spikes, but the back ridge of a large black dragon.
All over Britain, there were dragons and dark things rising. Faeries rode in their Rades, tall, beautiful and terrifying. All of them kept the people indoors frightened and silent. The government was commanded by the Faerie Queen to return all money to the land. The metals to make coin came from earth, all paper notes came from fabric and must be returned to the earth.
In vain the government protested that money was needed for the economy. The Faerie Queen herself took over the governance of Britain. She abolished our system of capitalism completely and brought in new practices and procedures. Food and clothes were given to all the people, sustainability was made law. Forests were returned to much of the country and only certain areas were given over to farm for the various communities. Buildings were confined to specific areas also. Many people fled the country to Europe and America, only to find that similar practices were taking place also.
The Americans had taken to war to defend their way of life, but were swiftly overwhelmed. A dragon cannot be harmed by bullets or arrows, the native spirits were immortal and invulnerable. Religions were equally confined by the Faerie and the Elementals to towns and cities - where human lived. No invasion of nature was allowed.
So, they have taken over and are transforming our ways of living. Every day we are growing out of our old selves and being transformed. Not by science or religion or even politics, but by those we had forgotten - by She whom we had forgotten and ignored. Nature and her allies of the elements. We mortals live and die, but we are constantly being reminded that we are not in charge of this planet of ours but merely a part of it.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Empty, Empty

There used to be a mud path going past Barnswyck in the old days. But when the people started using it more, the council widened it and decided to build a road. For a while there were machines and men going along the wider path and it was closed off. For three months the construction was a nuisance. It meant going the long way through the main streets of Barnswyck with all the distractions and people. But after the three months the new road was opened with a small ceremony. The mayor of Barnswyck cut a ribbon and the road was opened to new traffic. There was a path and a large culvert beneath the road where Hode's Bridge had been over the stream.

For a while all went very well and the road became popular. There was a pavement on both sides so people could walk as well as drive past Barnswyck. A text on the road had been painted that said Fullforde, which was irritating to the locals who knew where the road went.
I don't know when exactly it changed, but Martin and Pete were going along there when they noticed that the text had changed. It read, 'Empty Empty' and they joked that Fullforde had always seemed full when they'd been. But as they got nearer, Pete felt unaccounably uneasy and then actually frightened, though he could not tell Martin why. He was curious that Martin did not feel the terror that filled him. Still Martin teased him and pulled at his arm, but Pete pulled himself free and ran back along the road. He heard a deep rumbling short laugh, then a short scream and when he turned back to the road, Martin was gone.

As scared as he was, Pete thought Martin was playing a trick on him. He did not think anything terrible and carefully went back along the road towards Fullforde. He did not feel scared this time, indeed a deep sense of calm and peace filled him. He came to within sight of the writing on the road and saw that now it read; 'Full Full'. He frowned in puzzlement, the previous sign was not there and somewhere at the base of his mind the terror niggled at him, faintly. He turned and returned to our village.

Over the next few days, reports came in of people disappearing and even a few vehicles. An articulated lorry that was due in Fullforde was never seen again. The company set the police on the trail of the driver, but they found nothing. Traffic behaved strangely too. The driver in front would see the words 'Empty Empty' and joke about it. The drivers behind would stop with a panicky sense of terror that made them turn around and return to our village.

The old people met in the leisure centre for their weekly get-together and discussed the matter. Granny Holle, had come to our village from no-one knew where. She was a jolly soul who kept her little house clean with a besom broom, so the children wondered if she was a witch. She laughed at the thought and teased the children, but she was always kind to them.
She arrived at the meeting and said nothing, knitting away quietly as the other old people talked. Little Sam peered in at the door and catching his eye, Granny Holle winked and smiled at him. Sam tried to wink back but he was not quite as good at it and eventually he waved and went away.

A little later he saw Granny Holle go walking along the road to Barnswyck and he followed at a trot. Yet, to his surprise, he could not catch up to her. He saw at a little way behind her the sign on the road, 'Empty Empty' and felt the sense of terror gathering in him. He stopped and shouted out to Granny Holle, begging her with tears in his eyes to come back. But she only paused, turned and smiled at him, giving him a little wave of her hand. Or was it a wave? Perhaps it was more that she was waving him back. Through his tears, Sam was sure he saw a large creature, shaggy and with a big nose grab Granny Holle around her waist and disappear as if underground. Then he remembered the bridge and he ran forward until he saw the sign on the road that for some reason still read, 'Empty Empty'.

There was silence for a long time. Sam walked backwards, afraid to turn his back in case the huge creature grabbed him too. As he did so, he saw Granny Holle climb up the bank and onto the pavement again. She paused to push pin up a lock of her long white hair, patted it into place and strolled towards him.

"Well now Sam, come along. It's time for tea and then I'll take you home," she said.

"But Granny, what was that - thing?" Sam exclaimed.

"Thing? Oh that. That was only a troll, my dear. Nothing to worry about any more. If you like, I shall tell you a story about a troll and some goats. I know quite a few tales about trolls my dear," she said giving his hand a little squeeze and smiling at him.

"But it was going to eat you wasn't it?" Sam asked her in wonder.

"Well yes, but that sort of thing is really not very sociable, so I had to drive him away," she answered, adding with a wink, "After all, I am a witch, aren't I?"

Sam did not believe that for a minute, but he did not know what to say. He went home with Granny Holle to have tea and cake, before his mother picked him up and took him home. He told her about the troll and Granny Holle and his mother smiled and cuddled him.

"When you are a good deal older Sam, I will tell you all about Mother Holle. That's what some people call her," she said.

I went along the road recently. The words 'Empty Empty' were still there, but faded and worn now. I smiled to myself and went on to Fullforde singing.

Monday, 23 December 2013

The Fox-child and his Dam

It is said that many years ago, in the time of the House of Keys, when its powers held sway over the Wildwood there were both good magicks and those most malicious. Stories are told in the villages not far from the vast Wildwood. In Goat-wyck and Lambton, even as far as Stoneburgh a particular tale is told of the Fox-Child's Dam.

It seems that a vixen gave birth to a litter of cubs in a quiet hollow beneath the roots of an old oak. This Skulk of Foxes, for so a group of foxes is known, stayed around that oak for quite some time as they grew. Every day it is said, their Dam, or mother went hunting to feed her cubs and returned often with a rabbit or a pheasant that her three cubs shared.

Now a poacher with some hedge-magicks entered the wood and coming across the by now juvenile foxes, killed two of them and chased after the third who fled. Young as this fox was, he sought his dam, but could not find her. Being possessed of his own magick the fox left the wood and hid in a barn. There he came across a small boy and vengeful of the slaughter of his siblings by a man, he fell upon the boy intending the child's death. But his own magick rose up in him and instead of bloody death, there was a merging of the fox and the boy. Knowledge, such as it was filled them both and the boy's mousy hair became russet, his eyes green and yet the fox's nature was within him.

So he hid well in the barn and when the poacher came into the barn, following the fox, he saw only a boy asleep, the fox trail confused and lost. So he left the boy asleep and went away.

Much later, when the sun had run his course and his pale sister the moon arose from her bed, the vixen returned to find her cubs gone and blood around the oak. She screeched her wild rage and grief at the forest canopy and called upon all the ancient dryads of the wood. In that instant, the dryads took pity on her and told her all that had befallen her cubs.

From that moment, the vixen in her fury swore vengeance and tracked the poacher to his village a little beyond the wood. There had been, some hundreds of years before, some faerie blood in her line and this was still strong in her. From the edge of the wood, she sang to the poacher's oldest child to come to her. The child, a handsome boy like his father, fell into a trance and walked out of the house and into the wood.

Once within the wood, the vixen had him. She pounced on him with all her rage and tore the boy to pieces until cruel death closed his eyes. Now the vixen returned to the edge of the wood, for she would have all the poacher's cubs. But a cat who had once been a witch's familiar had heard the song of the fox and guessed at it. He had been too late to save the boy, but the little girl he would protect. As the vixen's song called out once more to the little girl so that she too fell into a trance, the cat sat upon the gate post. He sang a deep song, a hearthside song, a mother's love and a gentle song. This song alone interrupted the vixen and the little girl began to cry. Her mother came to her, picked her up and held her until the girl whimpered with the two songs in her head.

The vixen would have leapt upon the cat, but the poacher's hedge-magick had awoken and he went outside with his gun. The vixen melted back into the cover of the woods and she fled back to the oak, tears of anger and loss streaming across her fur.

So the villagers say, that when the nights are dark and cold. When winter comes, grey, cold and hard as stone; keep your children indoors by the hearth. Place cold iron over the doors and windows to guard against faerie-magick, for then the Vengeful Vixen sings her bewitching song to avenge her lost cubs. If a child goes, trancelike out of doors and into the Wildwood, they will never be seen again. Mothers tell their children of the Vixen and keep  the little ones indoors. If the children misbehave they are told that the Vixen may get them.

As for the fox-child, nobody knows if he has found his dam. It was said that only Lisanna of the House of Keys might know and even she would not tell. Villagers watch for the fox-child and those few children, especially boys that are born with red hair are blessed at the kirk and wear iron crosses about their necks to keep away faerie magicks. Despite the tale of the fox-child, red-haired children are loved as much for their rarity. They are called flame-haired, copper-haired and seen in the villages as the most beautiful. The girls especially are treasured if they have flaming red hair, for their eyes are green or blue and they are said to have faery blood in them, which strangely is seen as good. It protects them in this dangerous world.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Fox-Child's Gratitude

Winter had come in all its wildness to the House of Keys. The wind was wild and bitterly cold, cutting across the land like Death's own scythe, steely and sharp. It had rained the day before, but now that rain had turned into sleet and thence to snow. Deceitful snow that appeared pretty and soft, but could kill in its cold grip.

Lisanna gazed out of the tall windows of the House of Keys and watched the gardens turn white with the blowing snow. The library was warm and rich with colour in contrast to the bluish-whiteness and greys and black outside. She was about to turn away when a flash of colour in the large gardens caught her eye and she turned back to the window, peering through the haze of falling snow. Beside a bush she saw a russet patch of colour and recognised it as a fox.

"Poor thing," she murmured, for she was a sympathetic young woman.

Still and all, it was a wild thing too and she turned back to the warm fire blazing in the hearth. On the armchair near the fireside her cat, Grimoire was curled up tightly, only the gentle rise and fall of his side showing he still lived. Lisanna crossed the room in her salmon pink slippers of kid leather and leaning over the cat, she caressed him. He purr-meowed briefly and sighed, but did not move.

Lisanna sat on the sopha and took up her book again. After a little while, the door opened and she looked up. Bonnie the housekeeper entered with a stony look on her face.

"Sorry to disturb miss, there's a wild boy wishes to see you. I'd have him removed myself, but I know your wishes," she said firmly.

"Bring him up Bonnie, and bring a little hot broth too. It's bitterly cold outside and the poor thing may freeze else," Lisanna replied.

Bonnie harrumphed quietly but turned to fetch the boy in.

He dashed in and suddenly so that Lisanna sat up quickly fearing that he might hurt himself in his haste. But more astonishing to her was Grimoire's reaction. The cat suddenly sprang from the armchair and fled under the sopha, hissing at the newcomer.

The boy's hands and feet seemed to be black to the elbows and knees. The hair on him was thick and reddish. His eyes were green and wild and his ears had something of a pointed nature that was somehow indefinable. He sat upon the floor squatting on his haunches and looked at Lisanna closely.

Lisanna felt in that instant a strong thrill of terror as if he meant her ill. But he was only a boy, ragged looking and with a strong scent she had never come across before. She smiled, as much for her benefit as his and said softly,

"Would you like some broth, dear? It will warm you up."

The boy thanked her in a low growl of a voice and prowled towards the fire. He did not go too near it, just close enough to warm himself. He shut his eyes in pleasure and licked his lips. In that moment, Lisanna felt her heart leap with recognition at an impossibility. She watched him settle on his side by the fire, his elbows on the floor and his head turned to look at her.

"You are most kind mistress," he said with a smile that was both sly and predatory at the same time.

"You're welcome I'm sure sir," Lisanna answered in a quiet murmur.

"My dam is somewhere, but I am not entirely sure where. A little food and a few moments rest would be greatly appreciated, mistress," he said with an assurance unusual in small boys.

He rested and Bonnie brought him broth with cooked chicken and pork in it. He ate it with a great deal of pleasure and, Lisanna could not help but notice, savagery. He ate out of the bowl like a dog rather than a boy.

"You are," Lisanna hesitated and then continued in a rush, "you are a fox-child aren't you?"

The boy paused and turned to look at her.

"Look like a fox, eat like a fox..." he said and pushed his pointed face back to the dish.

"What do you wish in the House of Keys?" she asked him.

Many strangers had come to this house and most with bad intentions. They wanted Lisanna's hand in marriage, or her life and the Keys of the Wildwood that gave whoever owned them, power over the woodlands. So she did not ask the question idly.

The fox-child smiled at her and licked his lips,

"A little food and a few moments rest are all, mistress. I do not wish the Keys, nor you. We who are of the wood trust your powers. You have been kind to us so far. It is enough," he said.

Having finished the broth, he stretched and yawned, throwing his head back. She admired his gracefulness and his lithe frame. He stood, though it looked awkward in him and gazed into her eyes.

"You are lonely mistress. The stewardship of the Keys is a lonely duty," he said.

"My dear, should you not find your dam? I am sure she will miss her child," Lisanna answered coolly, though she felt the truth of his words.

"It is Yule mistress, the time of sleep before wakefulness again. Tonight it is said all of us wild creatures may speak with humans. My gratitude be upon you mistress. Tomorrow morning your true love shall come and you will know him," the boy said.

He bowed and was gone before she could call Bonnie. Without him the library felt empty somehow. Grimoire stayed beneath the sopha, wary now. Lisanna took a deep breath and shut her eyes. Her responsibility was the Keys and her house. For twenty years she had kept them safe and protected.

She shrugged her shoulders and returned to her book. But her eyes did not read the words on the pages and far too quickly the tears came, splashing hot on her pretty face and cooling rapidly.

Faintly at first then stronger and stronger still, music came upon her. It was like birdsong; the trickling waters of a brook, the wind through the trees in spring and it lulled her. She fell asleep where she sat and when she awoke she did so with a start.

Had she been here in the library all night? Had the night passed so quickly then? Lisanna reached forward and saw her book on the floor at her feet. The fire had gone out and Grimoire was asleep again in the armchair. Lisanna stood and stretched; first her long pale arms, then her wings, iridescent and shining in the fierce glare of reflected light on the snow. The glare filled the room. She set the fire again and lit it with a word. Then she called for Bonnie and asked for coffee and breakfast.

"If it please you mistress, there's a gentleman come. He is a knight and a prince it would seem. He was searching for a damosel, but has not found her. Shall I show him in?" Bonnie asked her.

"Please Bonnie, thank you," Lisanna answered.

She whispered another three words and the room was scented with cinnamon and roses. The young man who entered the library was a human, not a fay like herself. His hair was dark like ink, his skin was white as snow and his lips she noticed were red as blood. She found herself smiling at him. He was about to speak and she heard his voice in her heart, and reaching out for him, she took him in her arms and held him.

They were married in the Spring and lived comfortably. How do I know? I am married to Roselle their daughter. As for the fox-child, I am sure he found his dam. I have always taken care not to harm foxes ever since. Nor it is said, did Lisanna.

After all, it is the heart of winter now, the Festival of Yule. The land sleeps and humans come together to celebrate surviving another year and prepare to welcome the return of the sun.

Good Yule, or if you prefer, Merry Christmas - especially if you are alone.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

A Good Night's Sleep

There are certain things, Princess Selena thought to herself, which a woman needs. Three good meals a day, a room of one's own with a good bed and the love of a decent person. Of course she was not in that position, having left her father's kingdom some months ago to seek her fortune.

"Now what do you want to do that for?" her mother had asked her,

"Before long you'll be ruler of this country - how much good fortune is that?"

Right now, Selena was thinking that her mother had had a point. She had been alright to start with. She had ridden her horse through several towns and spent her money carefully. She had not dressed in fine clothes so as not to attract thieves. She had even let herself go a little to hide much of her prettiness. Even so, she had skin as blushing as a pale pink rose, eyes as dark as sloes and hair as black as a raven's wing. Fortunately she had insisted as a teenager on learning the arts of war, just in case. She had not particularly enjoyed them, but she learned them as a duty in between reading and study, which she loved immensely. She had been teased by her two brothers Ferdinand and Floyd for it, called a 'bluestocking' which simply led to her wearing blue stockings in patterned fabrics. She ignored her brothers most of the time as a sensible sister does.

Now, she paused at the top of the hill and looked down into a lovely green valley with a small village of farmsteads and a few houses more central around a town hall and a large church. Her horse had been stolen, she had been swindled and mistreated, but still she persisted in walking in the world to seek her own fortune. There are those no doubt who would have thought her mad, she wondered at herself sometimes, but still she kept on going. She was still a virginal young woman with her own fire and wit and none of her thirst for adventure had gone yet. Although she was ready to drop where she stood and sleep.

She sat down for a little while and tightened her sash to keep her stomach from grumbling. She gazed into the peaceful valley and admired it even as her eyes scanned it curiously. After a little while, she got up groaning and taking a deep breath she trudged wearily down the hill towards the village. After a little while, she came upon a boy and his dog and greeted them both. The dog sniffed her hands and licked her hand. The boy said his name was Joe and who was she.

"I am Selena, pale as the moon, dark as night," she said.

For a moment the boy digested this before shrugging his shoulders. He was about to respond when a sharp cry came over the fields and he turned.

"Sorry, I've got to go or my mum will get cross," he said.

"May I come with you?" Selena asked him a little desperately.

Joe shrugged again and nodded, "Come on then," he said.

She ate supper with the family and before long was taken before the village council who passed her on to the town council a little way away. They in turn passed her on to the Royal Palace where it was established that she was Princess Selena and of Royal Blood. Along the way, she had reversed her fate. She was fed well, clothed in rough but clean new clothes and even managed to get a horse after helping the Ostler's wife give birth to a pretty baby girl.

Now it happened that the Queen in this land was a great reader herself. She was also unsure that Selena was who she said she was. So she determined to prove the young newcomer. If she is really Princess Selena then she can marry my son and if not, she can be my librarian. But for pretending there will have to be consequences. She told Selena this very firmly. Selena smiled and answered that she would be happy to be the Queen's librarian in any case for she loved books and for an hour or so after the two women discussed their favourite books.

The Queen had lost her husband to war and now ruled her own realm until her son was of an age where he was likely to be responsible enough to be King. He was 20 and not nearly responsible enough yet, but she did love him for he was her son. Selena had no feelings for the young prince one way or another. He was handsome enough and quite sweet in his own way, but she saw too much of her own brothers in him.

The prince was very fashionable and loved music and pictures as well as carousing and hunting. He did not mind reading in the evenings, with his mother for he loved her very much. Had she not raised him, changed his nappies when he was a baby, fed him at her breast and taught him not to misbehave with a firm but loving hand. She had and further she had insisted on educating him too. For all that he loved his mum as who should not?

So when the Queen told him to give Selena the Groovy Bedroom, he was happy to oblige. The Queen had several mattresses placed upon the bed and under them all she placed a single dried pea. You can see she knew her folktales. Selena was grateful and went to bed without a murmur. She felt the pea as soon as she climbed into bed, got out of bed and removed it before getting back into bed and sleeping very comfortably.

The following morning she took the pea into breakfast with her.

"I do hope you slept well my dear," the Queen said, placing her coffee cup on it's saucer.

"Oh your majesty," Selena answered, "you forget that I read too. So I removed the pea from the bed and slept very comfortably thank you. However, this proves that I read, not that I am a princess. Though I am, I assure you."

"Hmm," said the Queen passing Selena some buttered toast and pouring her a cup of coffee.

Selena ate her breakfast and discussed her studies of flowers with the Queen, including the Sweet Pea (Lathyrus odoratus) and the Poppy (Papaver Somniferens). The Queen was most interested and asked her what she knew of Rosaceae the Rose family. Selena answered with both wit and intelligence through breakfast.

"Hmm," said the Queen, for she had begun to look at this young woman differently.

The following evening there was to be a ball. Selena was sent by the Queen a beautiful silk brocade dress of deepest crimson, a corset of silk and whalebone and some very pretty shoes of red and clear glass. Selena sighed and shook her head but put on the corset and the dress and a pair of charming knickers that matched the corset. She wore a new pair of dark blue stockings and even tried the glass slippers on before removing them. I can't dance in those, she thought, I'll slip all over the place. She put on her serviceable red satin Jimmy Choos instead and went to the ball. All night she danced and was admired. She ate well and drank well.

How well that dress suits her, thought the Queen, but where are her glass slippers?

She asked Selena if the young woman had not liked the glass slippers. Selena kissed the Queen gently on her cheek and replied,

"Oh your majesty, they are beautiful and I am very grateful. I am at a loss to see how Cinderella could possibly dance in them though. My Jimmy Choos are a lot easier to dance in and I should hate to slip and break the glass shoes."

"Hmm," said the Queen, pleased with the answer in spite of herself.

The following morning, she sat at breakfast with Selena (the young prince was still in bed sleeping off a severe hangover).

"My dear would you like sugar with your coffee, or salt with your kipper?" the Queen asked.

Selena chuckled and leaning over the table, she kissed the Queen on her strawberry mouth.

"Oh your majesty, really! I would like a little sugar with my coffee and my kipper is sweeter with a little salt. Now will you give over you darling?" she answered.

The Queen was at a loss. Not only was Selena clearly a Princess (she had been sent a confirmation from Selena's parents that morning), but she could not possibly conceive of the young woman marrying her son.

"Selena," the Queen began her voice shaking slightly, "If you will consent to marriage, I should be honoured to accept."

"Oh my darling, I've been waiting for you to ask me to marry you!" Selena replied, "But no more tricks. Just kiss me and let us talk about books."

And so, they were married and the prince was much relieved as he preferred carousing and hunting to books and while he liked Selena he was not THAT fond of a bluestocking. He liked Betsy Trotter the barmaid at The Crown and in time he married her. And believe it or not, I assure you that they actually did live very happily. Except for the occasional grumble, but what marriage is free of those?

Sunday, 20 October 2013

What became of Lilia.

"I remember that house well," I told the old man standing on the corner, "But how did it come to this?"

The old man looked at me bemused for a moment. I explained that I'd been away in China on company business for 15 years. He shook his head in wonderment and shuffled away. As such, I was still baffled. Where was Lilia? Where the friendly hustle and bustle of the house and the street?

I had left the firm and returned having made some advantageous speculations of my own. I was now a fairly well-off man and had returned hoping to find Lilia and renew our friendship. I had written to her while in China, the intimacy of a handwritten letter still appealed to me, it was not the impersonal text of email that I had used for business. For a while she had returned my letters with vivid descriptions of her own. Her later letters however had the sense that something was left unsaid as if she did not wish to spoil my happiness with her own sorrow. It was subtle, just subtle enough that I could not quite come out and ask what was wrong.

Did I love Lilia? Yes, in the way I love those women who are good friends, but it never occurred to me to love her any more than that. Somehow it would have felt wrong. Nor did I wish to spoil a valuable and valued friendship with that love that calls itself romantic and is nothing of the kind.

Besides, I had my books and my poetry to protect me from such 'romantic' delusions. Indeed I had become something of an amateur author myself. I wrote for trade journals about doing business in China and of the intricacies of Chinese culture, which I had come to love as much as the country. Officialdom I disliked, but I disliked that everywhere. The beauty of a Chinese garden, the wonders of the country's museums and the beauty of its people made me long to stay. Only a sickness made me have to return home to England. I was torn, for I loved China, but I loved also my homeland. I returned in late September when Summer clung on to its raiment while cold autumn sought to impose his rule.

For a while I took rooms in Cavendish Square in London and recovered my health in relative quiet. Another dear friend looked in on me, brought me newspapers and books and welcome talk of people we both knew. She also reported what news she had of the landlady's cat, a large, rumbustious creature, very handsome and friendly to all the local children. He was a hunter in the brick jungle and among the weeds of neglected neighbourhood gardens. My friend knew how much I loved cats and their ways.

By the second week of October, I was recovered and restless. I phoned Lilia, but there was no reply. I took walks about London and met the ginger tomcat to whom I became quite attached and he to me. Soon enough I was summoned by a letter that finally took me back to Hallamwyck. There, I stepped out of the old familiar station and was shocked to realise that the town I loved so well had changed beyond measure. I had been away almost twenty years after all. I bought a map and went out into the town. I was looking for Branlington House and longing to see Lilia again. So you may imagine my shock to find the house covered in builders scaffolding and the windows temporarily replaced with plastic. Worse, I did not know where to find Lilia, or even if she still lived.

I wandered like a lost soul, stunned by what I had found until I came across the Pot & Plate, a familiar anchor in this shifting town. I stepped inside and was taken aback to find that it had not changed very much at all. Old Grumble the cafe's resident dog had presumably died some years ago, for I could not see him sprawled on the hearth of the old fireplace.

I ordered a plate of the house speciality and a pot of coffee from a young woman who seemed familiar. I asked her if she knew what had happened to Lilia Branlington and she became brusque.

"If you'll take a seat I'll bring your order, sir," she said firmly, a snap in her tone.

I obeyed more out of shock. Had I said something wrong?

I sat by the window and tried to absorb it all. The downfall of the house and the disappearance of my dear Lilia. A woman came from behind the counter with my food and the pot of coffee and placed them in front of me.

"We don't talk of the Branlingtons here sir," she said, setting my order before me.

I looked up at her tone and she gasped before sitting opposite me.

"Oh William! Oh my dear, I am sorry, I should have known you would ask. Eat your food sweetheart and come back after five. We'll talk then, when I'm not so busy," she said.

"I see Old Grumble's gone, Glenda," I said.

She smiled and her lovely face softened. Glenda McLeod had always had a lovely friendly face. It positively sparkled when she smiled.

"Oh bless you, no. He died of old age five years ago. Just went to sleep on the hearth and never woke up, poor old thing," she said.

She sighed and reaching across the table she took my hand. Her fingers were warm and moist - and comforting. I felt that at last I had met my old life and recognised it.

"Then my George went, doctor said it was his heart. Now there's just me and Sula. I think she was just a little girl when you left. I missed you William, you were always very kind. I remember you feeding Grumble when you thought I wasn't looking! That dog could be a right scrounger when he wanted," she chuckled.

I laughed,

"I didn't think you knew. He would look at me with those big eyes and I couldn't resist. Glenda, what happened? Where is Lilia?" I asked her.

"Come back later William, it's not something to tell you quick and sharp. Where are you staying?" she asked.

I had not given it much thought, I was so sure I'd see Lilia again. We are so fixed in time ourselves that we do not quite expect the world to change around us so quickly. I told Glenda I had to see a lawyer at 2 o'clock and then I had intended to spend a little time with Lilia catching up. I told her that I was living in London at present and hoped to invite Lilia to come up and visit me there.

"Oh sweetheart! Go see your lawyer, take a look around and come back here at half-four. When the shop's closed up, we'll go up and talk. You'll spend the night here. I'm telling you William, not asking," she said wagging a finger at me.

I grinned,

"Far be it from me to argue Glenda," I answered.

"Good. Then I'll tell you all I know and we can catch up, ok?" she asked.

I nodded and she came around the table and hugged me. I put my arms around her and inhaled her scent of warmth, cooking and the delicate scent of jasmine perfume. Then she stood back and smiled a little wistfully.

"You look good William. I'm glad you came back," she said.

I thanked her and she left me to eat my food. After I had supped I thanked Sula, the young woman behind the counter and said I'd be back later.

"Righto," she said cautiously.

Then I went back out into the town and with the help of the map found the offices of the lawyer whose importunate letter had summoned me. I sat for a while in silence in a hushed waiting room that had an air of solemnity. After some minutes I had made a decision and yet it was contingent on what I did not yet know. A young man called my name and I followed him into the office of Sally-Ann Matthews the lawyer. She sat straight behind her desk and smiled briefly gesturing me to sit. Her heavy ash-blonde hair was gathered on the back of her head in elegant waves and her grey eyes were depthless. She had aged well and while a few lines crossed her face, she was still a handsome woman. She was, fortunately, also a highly intelligent woman.

"You summoned me Ms Matthews and I am come," I said with a smile.

"I asked you to come because of your part in a legacy, sir," she said, fishing for the file on her desk and opening it.

"A legacy? What part do I have Sally-Ann, my parent's are long gone and their affairs settled," I answered.

"Someone else William. You have been left a large box and it's key. I am not at liberty to tell you who left you the box, but you may or may not know who when you see it," she said.

"Is it Lilia?" I asked leaning forwards with a terrible presentiment.

"I am not at liberty to tell you William. I will say, as it will not compromise me that Lilia Branlington is not the deceased. Be easy on that score. I can if you wish have the box sent to your residence. It is not a big box, but it is heavy and a little cumbersome to carry," she said.

"I'm grateful to you Sally-Ann, please do have the box sent to my home in London. If that's all, allow me to say that it is a real pleasure to see you again and to see you so well," I remarked.

She sat back in her chair, placing her hands across her stomach and smiled.

"Thank you William. I hear you've been unwell, nothing serious I suppose or we might have lost you. You look well enough. I also understand that you've been in China, are you going back there?" she asked.

I told her of my return and how it was unlikely that I would be returning. I felt a strong inclination to embrace her, for like Glenda she was another anchor in this shifting town. I resisted the urge to do so, for I had too much respect for her. After a little more chat, I got up to leave. To my surprise she got up and came around her desk to me.

"I've never done this to you William and most likely never will again," she said and put her arms about me.

We stood there for a few moments in each other's arms and I kissed her cheek as I released her.

"A great shame," I said, "That we never got to know each other better. I'll leave my address with your clerk. Should you get the chance to come to London, let me know. I shall make up a spare room for you. I would truly like very much for us to become friends Sally-Ann. I have always had the greatest of respect for you," I told her.

She smiled and kissed me.

"Oh William, how very sweet of you," she said, "I shall certainly be grateful to visit you and yes, let us get better acquainted," she said.

I left her office and made my way to the museum. There was, I knew, a full-length portrait of Lilia by Adams in the gallery - unless it had been removed to the store-rooms. I entered the museum and paused. It was so familiar and precious to me that I almost wept to see it again. I took a deep breath and glanced at the clock, It wanted a few minutes to three-fifteen. I wandered up the grand staircase to the main gallery and entered it. It was a high and long room full of paintings. Along the centre of the gallery at intervals were elegant padded benches where visitors might sit. I strolled along the gallery meeting the paintings again as one meets old friends not seen in some years. Unlike we mortals, the paintings rarely visibly age, they remain as fine as when they were painted for the most part. There, at the centre of the gallery was the painting I had never forgotten. My hand flew to my mouth as if to stifle a cry. There as in her life was Lilia in the deep red dress trimmed with bright orange ribbon and old lace. Her skin was as pale as milk, her hair a cascade of inky blackness and her twinkling eyes as dark as a raven's. I remembered Snow White - skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood and hair as black as a raven's wing and I smiled in spite of myself. I always recalled Snow White when I looked at this painting.

I sat and gazed at her face. She was smiling as if Adams had said something he shouldn't have and it had amused her. I recalled her voice, her scent and her laugh. I recalled little things she had said, her opinions and her jokes. I recalled her pouring coffee for the two of us; teasing me that I would get fat if I had more than one teaspoon of sugar in my coffee. I sat and gazed upon the image of Lilia, upon my dear, dear friend and I wept.

After a little while, I took a deep breath and stood up. I wiped away the tears from my face and felt that I should never see Lilia again. Somehow I felt sure that she was dead and would only, could only live in the memories I had of her. I left the main gallery and wandered aimlessly through the museum until it dawned on my to ask an assistant the time. I had about a quarter of an hour to return to the Pot & Plate.

I hurried there and took a cup of tea and cake in sombre mood. The place was busy now and Sula had only time to place the cake and tea before me, hurrying away to fetch another order. It took another half hour before she showed out the last customer and locked up the door. I asked if she needed a hand clearing up and she smiled and shook her head.

"'S alright, but thanks," she said, moving in fluid motion about the cafe.

Glenda came out of the kitchen and I stood by the counter.

"I did offer to help," I said, "But Sula's got everything under control."

Glenda smiled and took my hand,

"Come on you, let's go up to the flat," she said.

Once we were seated Glenda took my hand in both of hers and sighed.

"You know there was a garden behind the house," she said.

I told her I knew about it. I'd been in it one summer with Lilia. We'd sat on the grass and had tea. She'd worn a pale green dress and a matching hairband.

"Well, it seems that Lilia was persuaded by someone, I don't know who that she should have a well put in. Lilia was all for it, but then an old lady showed up and told her it would be a bad idea. She told Lilia that the Fair Folk wouldn't like it. Well, Lilia laughed at that and the old woman went away in a fury. The well was dug and put in. It seems that one night, Lilia woke up and went out into the garden. She was no sooner on the grass in her bare feet then she changed into an apple tree. A maid who couldn't sleep saw her. The problem was, that the next morning the garden was full of apple trees. The police were baffled. Then the old woman shows up and says that only someone who loved her might return her. They would have to kiss the right tree though. If they didn't, Lilia would forever be an apple tree. Nobody dared, in case they got it wrong.

That was ten years ago. Now the house is up for sale and the orchard is to be uprooted. Most of us think Lilia will die if that happens, but it needs - well someone like you William. If you can kiss the right tree, Lilia will live again," Glenda told me.

I sat for a moment taking this in. A faery curse on Lilia did not seem real. I could not imagine Lilia being cursed by anyone. Then I stood up.


"I'm going over there Glenda. I'm going to kiss the right tree. I never fell in love with Lilia..." I blushed, I had fallen in love with Glenda, but she married George.

"I know William, I know. But I didn't realise until after you'd gone. Now I have Sula and I'm not the beauty I once was, no man wants me. But Sula and me get on ok," she said with a smile.

"I did love Lilia, Glenda, but always as a dear and precious friend. Now I have to do what a friend must do - help the friend in trouble," I said.

Glenda chuckled gently and sat up.

"The spare room's got a double bed. Go save the girl, hero. I'll keep an eye for you," she said.

I went down the stairs, my heart thumping in me. I went out into the street, the painting of Lilia in the museum, burning in my memory. There was a fence around the site, but I climbed it. The builders had gone home and the street was mostly empty. A woman shouted out, something about the police, but I ignored her.

I went around the side of the house and a strong wind blew up. I entered the garden and rain began to fall. I stood with my back to the house gazing at the apple trees. Their branches were weighted with apples, green and red. The gnarled bark and winding branches creaked in the storm that had sprung up.

"You will never have her, she belongs to us now," a voice made of wind and rain murmured about my ears.

I stared at the trees and suddenly noticed something I had not seen before. I dashed forward my arms up about my head, branches lashing at me and clasped the slim trunk of one tree. I held on tightly and kissed the rough bark. Very suddenly there was a whimper in the garden. I thought it had been me. The rain dashed at my face and neck as if it would drown me, the wind tore at my clothes and hair. Still branches lashed me unmercifully.

Suddenly I was aware of a heart beating against mine, of warm limbs and a howl of anguish rent the air. With as much suddenness as it had begun, the storm died away. The apple trees in the garden creaked terribly. I took the living being in my arms and lifted her up. I carried her away from that cursed garden and the house. Only in the evening of the road did I look down to find Lilia unconscious in my arms. I took her across the road to the Pot & Plate and Glenda opened the door silently.

I sat all night with Lilia. She slept as if dead. I gently caressed her cold brow, stroked her ink-black hair and her pale, pale face. Sometime in the very early morning I must have fallen asleep. I awoke to my name being spoken, aware I slept on a soft stomach. I raised my head to find Lilia awake with a cup of coffee in her hand.

"Dear William, I owe you so much," she said gently.

I yawned and stretched and grinned at her.

"I leave you alone for a few years and look what happens," I told her.

She chuckled.

"Lucky for me I have good friends," she said, adding, "Glenda has something to ask you".

I turned to Glenda and waited. She took my hand and put down her coffee cup. Then she went down on her knee. Reader, I married her. What else should I do?

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The beach at Fecamp - by C. Monet

I heard about the man when I moved to the little fishing village some years ago. It seemed that I had moved into the house he had lived in. Many of his old things were still there and I had packed them up and put them into the cellar, which at least was dry.

It seemed that I looked a little like him, tall and scrawny with dark hair and eyes. But he had been a painter and I was a writer. My last novel had done very well so that I had been able to buy the small cottage by the sea. There was a small train station from where I could get to the city and to the nearby town for shopping. The cat who lived with me had sniffed around the small cottage and settled in. I sat every morning to write looking out over the promenade to the beach and the sea. The beach was shingle, not sand but I liked it. The sharp tang of the sea and the saltiness of the brisk cold air had a wildness to it.

My predecessor had come to the village to forget a woman who had it seemed left him. Unlike me, he had been quiet and solemn-faced. Spoke only when spoken to, walked with his face to the ground as if pavement and road could only fascinate him. His paintings were of the sea and the landscape around the village. It seemed that after a little time his paintings were of animals and finally of people. They were not conscious portraits but from sketches or drawings. I took some of them to the city and had them framed. I even wrote some short stories based on his paintings.

When I had first moved in I was more concerned about finding room for my books and clothes. I had spent money refurbishing the kitchen and bathroom to my taste and setting up the rest of the house with my own things. As a result it took me two months before I finally went down to the cellar and went through the former resident's things. It seemed that he had been alone in the world like me. There was no next of kin and nobody to pass on his things to. I felt a need to respect them, conscious of my own lone-ness in the world. I had friends, certainly, but they had their own lives in which I was a small part. I kept in touch by email and the occasional letter. Once I met a friend for coffee in the city when she came down on business, but until then I had no friends come to my new home.

So I sat in the cellar with the harsh fluorescent light and went through the former resident's remaining property. His painting materials I kept aside to sell, but much of the time was spent going through his books and his paintings. He had some novels that I had and some art books that I had too. I went through them with pleasure, putting some of them aside for myself and some for sale. Then I went through his paintings. They were all signed and dated which made it easier to see how he had progressed from the dark mood he had been in to the brighter mood as his heart mended over time. But the mood changed when he had come across somebody new. I did not know if they had actually met and nobody would tell me. But he had been clearly struck by her dark hair and blue eyes. There was something almost feral about her expression, like that of a wild thing even when she smiled. He caught that at first but her face seemed to change in his portrayal of her. Her clothes and her expression. She was often painted or drawn on the shingle beach staring out to sea. As if she would rather be there than on the land. As if, the thought came suddenly to me, she belonged there and wanted to go back. Yet, the sea was always rough, green, purple and dark in those paintings. I did not know if that was how he saw her or he was painting only what he saw.

If there was something between them it ended badly. It seems that she disappeared after a while. Nobody has been able to tell me where she came from, but when she went, the painter walked down to the sea one day when the sea was rough and a storm was threatening. Only a man walking his dog saw the painter. He said the painter was weeping or that his eyes were watering from the winds coming off the sea. He said that he saw the painter walk down the shingle to the sea's edge and keep walking into the sea. The painter did not respond to the cries for him to turn back, but kept on going.

It is said that his body was never found, perhaps he had weighed himself down with stones in his pockets. In any case he too was never seen again any more than the dark-haired, blue-eyed beauty. Only seals were seen afterwards, a pair with ink-black eyes and friendly faces and they did not stay long.