A post about Pancake Day, Shrove Tuesday, British traditions and my ground-breaking philosophy of pancakes
Writing a couple of years ago about the nature of celebrations, after inadvertenty discovering that my second marriage had officially outlasted my first one (more on that story here), I had a Eureka moment about Pancake Day, which I’m going to share here today to mark this special Shrove Tuesday tradition.
For my international friends who may not know what Pancake Day or Shrove Tuesday are, I should first explain those terms.
Shrove Tuesday is the last “normal” day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Lent, the 40-day countdown to Easter during which many Christians choose to deny themselves something they enjoy, in memory of Christ’s sacrifice.
Chocolate is a popular option, because that’s a sacrifice you can revoke with a vengeance on Easter Sunday with the arrival of chocolate Easter eggs. But any bad habit or indulgence that you’re trying to relinquish is fair game – alcohol, cigarettes, overeating, etc. Coming less than three months after New Year, it’s a handy fresh start to those New Year Resolutions that you’ve probably broken by now. For the religious, sticking with it is a test of faith; for atheists, it’s more a test of character, especially if you’re like me and embrace any opportunity for a new beginning.
One of the traditions on Shrove Tuesday was to use up the last of any indulgent food in the house to make pancakes, including fatty food – which is why Mardi Gras translates as “Fat Tuesday”. These days, few people in the UK will be unaware of the general will to make and devour pancakes today, even if they have no intention of giving anything up for Lent. Pancake Day is an end in itself. Every supermarket in the country will have special displays of pancake mix, lemons, and special pans for frying pancakes. (If you want to snap up a pancake pan for a bargain price, hit the supermarkets tomorrow, when they’ll all be selling them off to cheap to clear their shelves ready for Easter eggs and hot cross buns.)
Pancake Day has thus become an end in itself. We British know how to celebrate – no crazy drunken festivals for us of the kind that you find on continental Europe or South America. No Mardi Gras or Fascing or Carneval here. No, we settle for a nice quiet meal around the tea table, delicately squeezing lemons, quietly sprinkling sugar on our pancakes. Mind you, in some parts of the country, they take this a step further by holding public Pancake Races. These are simple running races made more challenging by each participant having to hold a frying pan in one hand, tossing a pancake over and over as he or she runs.
My Family’s Pancake Traditions
This may seem strange to those of you who live in countries such as the Netherlands, where pancakes are standard daily fare, but when I was a child, my brother, sister and I would get very excited about the prospect of Pancake Day, and my mum would toil endlessly in the kitchen cooking them as fast as we could eat them. That was possibly the only day in the year when we’d have fresh lemons in the house – though more usually it was squeezy Jif lemons, juice preserved with God knows what in little plastic lemon-shaped bottles.
When my daughter was little, she loved pancakes, and as she was a fussy eater, I was quick to identify pancakes as a great opportunity to get protein and calcium inside her. Eggs, flour, milk – that’s all it takes to make a pancake.
One day, when she was about three, she requested a “pancake boat”. I had no idea what she meant, so using a pair of scissors I cut a pancake into a sailboat shape. Using the principle of the old joke about sculpting, I just snipped away anything that didn’t look like a boat. She was delighted.
A couple of years later, the pancake boats were still mooring regularly on our tea table, so you can imagine our delight when on a trip to Amsterdam, in which we stayed at the pleasingly named Hotel Botel (yes, it was a boat), we found ourselves looking across the water to a big red floating restaurant called the Pannenkoekenboot (Pancake Boat).
Laura’s love of pancakes has grown up with her, and it’s an easy catering option to make pancakes for her friends when they come to tea. I’ve never yet met a child that dpesn’t like pancakes, whether with lemon and sugar, in the traditional English way, or with other toppings. Nutella and banana go down well in this household, while I personally favour ham and mushrooms diced into the batter. Pancakes are always perceived as a treat in this country, thanks to their ancient Shrove Tuesday heritage, even though they are so cheap to make and about the simplest and quickest dish to cook. It’s much easier to get a pancake right than even a boiled egg.
And so I come at last to my ground-breaking conclusion: though I wish everyone Bon Appetit for their Shrove Tuesday pancakes tonight, don’t let respect for tradition make you hold out for another year before your next indulgence. It’s not Christmas Day, you know.
Every day can be Pancake Day. All you have to do is mix the batter and buy some lemons.
Happy Pancake Day, however you choose to celebrate!
If you’re ever in Amsterdam and want to share the Pancake Boat experience, you can find our more at www.pannenkoekenboot.com.
Here’s the link to the post in which I first put forward my pancake philosophy, when I realised that my second marriage had lasted long than my first: Something to Celebrate
Yes, I know the REAL saying is “there are no certainties in life but death and taxes,” but I’m an optimist, and without birthdays there would be no deaths, so take that, Benjamin Franklin!
There’s been an air of finality in my study this week, because since my last post here I’ve despatched two things that I was glad to see the back of:
my tax return
The only redeeming feature of January is my birthday, which leaves the last two weeks of the month with nothing positive about them at all.
Actually, when you get to my age, even a birthday isn’t something to celebrate, other than to rejoice in the fact that you’ve made it through another year without necessitating an obituary – UNLESS of course it is a very special birthday, preferably with a 0 at the end.
Celebrating My Mum’s 80th Birthday
Such was the most recent birthday of my lovely mum, who celebrated her 80th birthday on 31st December. When your birthday falls on the last day of the year, you can’t avoid celebrations even if you want to, as most of the rest of the country will be marking the day in style.
Like my father who turned 80 in September 2012, my mum is an inspiration to anyone who is frightened of old age. While a lifetime Oil of Olay habit (branded Oil of Ulay when she started using it, before pan-European labels mattered) might account for her flawless, smooth complexion, I don’t think even that old beauty trick can take the credit for her lively mind and spirit, and her willingness to tackle new challenges.
Her special request for her 80th birthday present was her own laptop, so that she could computerise the stories she’s drafted over the years by hand. We bought her a small, feminine netbook in a smart shade of red.
My mum learnt to type on what my 10-year-old daughter recently referred to as “one of those keyboards that goes ping” – a manual typewriter. The class learned to type to music, carefully chosen to match their target keystroke speed.
As anyone of the same vintage will know, typing on a typewriter requires a much stronger fingerstroke than a computer keyboard. It took her a little while to adjust to her netbook’s sensitivity, but she’s taken to the technology enthusiastically.
Not one to shy away from other modern trends, she also joined me in a “selfie” on her special day, and admired her grandchidren’s Christmas onesies.
I wonder what new skills and interests I’ll be acquiring when I’m her age? It’ll be the year 2040 then. Wherever technology takes us, I think I’d better invest in some Oil of Olay before it’s too late…
(How the gift of a jigsaw puzzle made me recognise interesting truths about writing and the subconscious mind)
When my 10 year old daughter presented me with a jigsaw puzzle on Christmas Day, I knew it was just what I needed to take me out of myself and away from my keyboard for a much-needed mental rest.
She was surprised that I hadn’t guessed what her gift was after her not-so-subtle question on Christmas Eve:
“What’s your favourite number of pieces for there to be in a jigsaw puzzle?”
Fortunately my answer matched the puzzle that she’d bought: 1,000 pieces. What’s more, the picture was the kind I like best in a jigsaw puzzle: an array of small pictures combined together.
I couldn’t wait to get started on it. I seldom take time out to piece a jigsaw together, but every time I do, I get a frisson of pleasure from the reminder offered by jigsaw puzzles of the workings of the subconscious mind.
Subconscious Solutions for Jigsaw Puzzles
I love the way that you can pick up a piece and slot it immediately into place without thinking. You find your hand has already placed the piece in its correct position before you’ve made a logical appraisal of where it might fit. Only afterwards does your conscious mind catch up, realising, for example, that the slender grass stalk down one side of the piece lines up perfectly with its tip on the piece above. It’s as if some jigsaw-loving higher power is using your hand as its vehicle.
As I was slowly piecing my new puzzle together, it occurred to me that assembling a jigsaw is a lot like writing a book.
No matter how carefully you prepare the component parts – the corners, the edges, all the pieces with blue sky or Persian carpet or Delft tiles or pink flowers – the assembly of the puzzle never goes entirely according to plan.
When daunted by what seems like an insurmountably difficult section, you realise that if you only apply yourself, one piece at a time, you really can conquer the challenge.
Sometimes it works best if you switch your conscious mind off for a bit and let the subconscious take over.
So it is with writing a book.
Different Approaches to the Jigsaw Puzzle
Not everyone tackles a jigsaw puzzle the same way, any more than authors follow the same formula for writing books:
When I do a puzzle, I like to keep the box in view, so that I can study the picture and monitor my progress. Every time I look at it, I spot new and helpful details.
My husband prefers the “mystery tour” approach, turning the box face down to create a harder challenge. He’d be the sort or writer who prefers not to start with an outline, letting the characters lead the way.
Our daughter goes for her favourite parts first, e.g. the big pig in my Christmas present puzzle. She’s named him Steve and put a note in the box so we remember to greet him by the right name in future.
But it may be only writers (or crazy people) who like to anthropomorphise the pieces. As I’m assembling the puzzle, I like to classify the different shapes into characters (clockwise, from top left):
the chubby, confident man, with outstretched arms extended for a hug
the synchronised swimmers looking up
the ballroom dancer
the tractor driver
the ballet dancer, leaping across the stage
the air-traffic controller, waving a big lollipop to guide pilots around the runway
Although my more sensible scientifically-minded husband may not make making friends with puzzle’s component parts, he does enjoy as much as I do any jigsaw containing “whimsies”. Whimsies are the fancy-shaped pieces dreamed up by the Victorians to resemble specific shapes.
Our near neighbour, the Wentworth Wooden Puzzles company, is famous for its modern whimsies. It riddles its puzzles with pieces in the fancy shapes on specific themes. After completing my Christmas puzzle, we did a Wentworth one with an Alice in Wonderland theme. Camouflaged within the puzzle were an Alice, a Cheshire cat, a white rabbit, and all kinds of other characters from the classic children’s story. The need to accommodate these fancy shapes ensures the rest of the puzzle pieces also take unusual forms. Sometimes there are straight edges in the middle of a puzzle – how anarchic is that?!
The Joy of Completion
Whatever one’s approach to puzzle-making, who can fail to experience a creative joy as each small scene falls into placec? I find it odd that so sedentary an occupation has such power to quicken the heartbeat. And, oh, the heady satistfaction at the puzzle’s final completion, even though the end result is not exactly a surprise.
Where The Similarity With Writing Ends
Of course, the similarity with writing a book only goes so far:
The writer never has the problem of finding the cat has chased your words around the table, sending a few of them skittering under the dresser, from whence you have to extract them with a broom handle.
Nor does the writer return to her desk from a break to find her husband has, annoyingly, put into place the last few pieces of a finished story, leaving the writer redundant.
No writer embarks on the act of creating a story knowing that all of the component parts are right in front of her, neatly laid out and only needing to be mechanically selected and assembled in the right order to produce the required result.
But neither does she find herself at the end of a story with the final word apparently missing from the face of the earth, never to be seen again, the trick with the broom handle having failed.
When you start a jigsaw puzzle, there is only one right solution. There are no absolute rights or wrongs about a book.
But what a good thing the similarity only goes so far. Otherwise all stories would be soulless, no matter how neat and tidy.
When writing a book, even with a clear outline from the start, all kinds of mysterious processes happen along the way to morph it into something bigger, better and more interesting than the plan made it at first appear.
Unlike jigsaw puzzle pieces, the component parts of a story often materialise as if from nowhere, sent spinning out of the subconscious or unconscious mind by the mysterious powers that govern the human brain. Sometimes the act of putting a whole story down on paper can feel like an unconscious act, especially if it’s one you’ve had simmering at the back of your mind for a long time, or if you’ve woken up, as happens often, with a complete story fully formed in your head. That’s when the act of writing becomes more like taking dictation (though any writer who works that way is best advised to spend time consciously refining and editing the piece).
No author wants to write books with the predictability of a jigsaw puzzle. But some days the notion sounds appealing: if the task of writing a book were as formulaic and straightforward as a jigsaw puzzle, we writers would have a lot more time on our hands and a lot more books in our back catalogue.
And I wouldn’t have to wait till next Christmas for my next fix of the jigsaw puzzle experience.
In the meantime, I’d better get back to my manuscript…
If you liked this post, you might enjoy other posts about writing and creativity:
Welcome to the Winter Solstice Blog Hop – a grand tour of 30 blog posts, published simultaneoulsly on a shared theme.
My contribution is a short story written especially for the event: Fear of the Dark, which you can read in full below. Then, after the end of the story, you’ll find links to the other 29 posts. Enjoy!
FEAR OF THE DARK
A Short Story for the Winter Solstice
Hitting the “speaker” button on my mobile, I flung it down on my desk, as if physically distancing myself from my sister Kate’s voice would protect me from giving in to her. But I knew it was already a lost cause.
“I wouldn’t have asked you if our usual sitter hadn’t come down with the lurgy, but you know the rule – I can’t have her in contact with the kids until 48 hours after she last threw up, and I can’t sentence the whole family to a sickly Christmas just because of you.”
And so it was that I found myself heading out of town earlier this evening, down unlit country lanes, on the winter solstice, the worst night of the year for anyone who, like me, is afraid of the dark. Kate’s years of legal training were not in vain. She can argue that black is white and people will believe her.
But even if it had been broad daylight, I was still not ready to go back to Kate’s, just six months after last summer’s tragedy.
Well, ok, so it isn’t really a tragedy when a 92 year old woman dies. I’m only allowed to use that word very sparingly at work when I’m writing up the obituaries, and my editor would definitely blue-pencil it in this case. But it certainly was traumatic, most of all for me, because I found her. And the 92 year old woman in question was my lovely Great Aunt Sophie.
It was Midsummer’s Eve and we were all out at Kate’s huge place in the country to celebrate her husband Tom’s 40th birthday. Normally this would be a treat for me, escaping from the confines of my poky city-centre flat to soak up fancy food and drink at their expense. Tom’s family owns a posh car dealership, and what with Kate’s lawyer’s wages too, they’re loaded. For this party, they’d pushed the boat out even more than usual, because they were also celebrating Kate’s promotion to partner at her legal firm. It felt more like a wedding than a birthday bash, and, as ever, I felt like the bridesmaid, never the bride. But I’m not complaining – I could get used to prosecco.
Relatives were invited to come during the day, with friends and work colleagues piling over in the evening. After family games for all ages in the afternoon, there followed a buffet, then dancing to a live band in a marquee in the garden. The finale was a professional firework display, with the pyrotechnics let off from the stable yard giving everyone a fine view from the vast terrace. (It was a good thing there were never any horses in the stables, only Tom’s family’s collection of vintage cars.)
Great Aunt Sophie was at the daytime celebrations of course, as she had been at every family party that I remembered. She’d even been at our house on the night that I was born, and loved to tell me of the first time she saw me, just minutes after I was born. Apparently I had rosy pink cheeks, the loudest of cries and two big tears in the corners of my scrunched up little eyes.
Great Aunt Sophie was so much a part of my life that I couldn’t imagine ever being without her, even though I knew that eventually we must part. Whenever I’d been away from home for long, such as when I went off to university for three years, I’d keep a little bottle of her favourite perfume in my handbag, so that I could get a quick hit of her summery, flowery aura whenever I was missing her. But she showed no sign of giving up the ghost on the day of Kate and Tom’s party, beating us all hollow at cards and charades. She claimed to be unimpressed by Tom’s milestone birthday.
“Forty? That’s nothing! I’m in my 93rd year, I’ll have you know! That’s you twice over, young Tom, plus your Zoe and Archie too.”
Zoe and Archie are Tom and Kate’s kids, aged ten and three.
Zoe was particularly impressed.
“So you’re me nine times over, plus an Archie,” she gasped. “No wonder you get so tired, Auntie Sophie.”
Sure enough, Great Aunt Sophie was flagging by the time the evening guests arrived, and she pottered off contentedly to bed around 8pm, shrugging off sympathetic looks as she made herself her usual bedtime mug of cocoa.
“I’ll have the last laugh on you, my dears. I’ll be fresh as a daisy at dawn while you’re all out for the count nursing sore heads.”
I chinked my prosecco glass against her mug, suspecting from my already spinning head that she’d be proven right.
Next day I awoke at 8.47am, according to the clock ticking away annoyingly loudly on the bedside table in the guest room. Trying to remember exactly when and how I got to bed the night before, I staggered out onto the landing, kicking aside my discarded clothes on the floor, to search for orange juice, my preferred hangover remedy of choice. It was a glorious bright day already, with sun streaming in through the tall stained glass window that dominates the staircase, scattering coloured shadows across the pale parquet floor. I had to turn my head away from its glare, and as I did so, I caught sight at the far end of the corridor of a white heap, crumpled at the foot of the full-length mirror on the wall. Oh God, I thought, someone’s been sick in bed in the night and dumped their sheets there for Kate to wash – charming!
But then, my eyes adjusting to the shadows, I realised that it wasn’t a soiled sheet at all, but a pristine cotton nightdress – and contained within it was the frail body of my Great Aunt Sophie. I ran towards it, thinking I’d help her to her feet after a fall, but before I even reached her I realised she was beyond my help.
Even so, I reached out hopefully to touch the smooth, papery skin on the back of her hand, as familiar as the taut flesh on my own. Worn smooth as old silk by her age, exuding her favourite night-scented stock hand cream, its raised veins were still.
I only realised I had screamed out loud when I saw Tom behind me, reflected in the mirror, standing over us both. He’d staggered out of his and Kate’s room, looking nauseous.
“Christ,she looks how I feel!” he began. “I thought Sophie was on tea and cocoa, but maybe it was her who drank that litre bottle of sherry?”
Kate bustled along from their bedroom, hastily tying the belt of her scarlet kimono.
“Tom, you moron, she’s not drunk, she’s bloody dead!”
Tom’s face turned ashen. He must be mortified, I thought – no that’s the wrong word, change it to gutted.
A more appropriate choice, it turned out, as straight away he dashed to the bathroom to be noisily, violently sick.
I never saw Great Aunt Sophie again.
After the funeral was over – I have to report that the post-mortem decided it was natural causes, by the way – normal life carried on for us all, except Great Aunt Sophie, of course. The only difference for me, apart from Sophie’s excruciating absence, was that I began to find excuses to avoid going back to Kate’s house. I couldn’t bear to see again the place where my beloved aunt had died. Until tonight, I thought Kate had understood. She had at least been letting me off the hook.
Of course, I knew I’d have to go there some time. I tried to bring my objective journalistic judgement into play. Surely I wasn’t going to let the inevitable death of one old lady cut me off from the rest of my family? But why did it have to be tonight, of all nights? The longest, darkest night, which I usually spend at home with all the lights on, the telly on full blast, trying to distract me from my fear of being alone in the dark.
I don’t know why the dark upsets me so, but I can’t remember a time when it didn’t. I always slept with a nightlight on in my childhood bedroom, swapping it for a brighter one after Kate had moved into her own room. I even took my nightlight away with me to university.
Although as a local paper reporter, I’m positively penniless compared to Kate, I’m still happy to spend a sizable chunk of money on my electricity bill every month, just so that I can keep all my lights on. I once went to stay with an environmentally-minded friend who only ever lit up the room she was actually in, turning the lights off and on obsessively wherever she went around her house. If I had to do that in the winter, I think I’d die. Either that, or I’d have to move into a bedsit, so I had only one room to worry about.
I think in a former life I must have been something like a swallow. I need light and warmth to thrive, and I long to fly south as soon as the nights draw in each winter. Then I’d only return when the nights are only as long as the time I need to sleep.
Fear of the dark dominates my life. Although the power never goes off in the city, I keep a wind-up torch and candles in every room, in a place where I know I can put my hand on them, just in case we’re ever plunged unexpectedly into blackness.
What would happen if I had to spend time in the dark? I don’t know, because I’ve never had the courage to find out.
When I got to Kate and Tom’s this evening, my heart was still pounding from driving through dark lanes with no street lighting. How do people live out in the sticks like this, with only the moon and stars to brighten the night? I’d had to drive the last three miles with the map-reading light on in my car to compensate. When I reached their house, I pulled my car up as close to their front door as I could. Thankfully, their security light came on just after I swung the car door open. My foot crunched down on the gravel, sounding for all the world as if I’d stepped on a pile of light bulbs. I nearly jumped out of my skin.
When Kate let me in, I realised she must have been feeling guilty about dragging me out here, as she’d crammed the coffee table full of upmarket snacks – olives, pistachios, kettle chips,Belgian chocolates – alongside a newly-opened bottle of Rioja on the hearth. She knows Rioja is my absolute favourite, even better than prosecco in the winter.
“I can’t drink that, I’ve got to drive home later,” I objected ungratefully, already worrying that those lanes would be even darker after midnight.
“Don’t be stupid, you must stay here, I’ve got the guest room ready,” said Kate.
I thought it better not to tell her that I wasn’t prepared to go upstairs. After all, that’s where the childrens’ bedrooms were. What kind of babysitter was I?
Kate chucked a couple more logs on the blazing open fire before tipping about a third of the bottle of Rioja into one of those big balloon glasses, the comforting sort that sit nicely in your hand in pubs, the kind they give you to make you drink more. I glanced around the room, scanning for candles. There were plenty of big fancy scented ones with multiple wicks in glass jars, the sort that cost about as much as a standard lamp. I felt in my pocket to reassure myself that I’d got matches and my smallest torch to hand.
“We’ve got a taxi booked for half past midnight, so we’ll see you about one,” said Kate, wrapping a crimson pashmina about her shoulders. “But feel free to go to bed before we get back if you want to. That would be fine.”
I scowled. There was no way I was going upstairs. There were shadows and dark corners, and no light switch within reach before you got there. I picked up the Sky remote to distract myself. My self-hypnosis would begin the minute they went out the door.
A slight figure in pink Barbie pyjamas appeared in the living room doorway.
“Hello, Emma,” said Zoe, who recently dropped the Auntie title on the basis that she’s nearly a teenager. (Nearly? She’s 10 – she must be as bad at maths as Kate.) I hadn’t seen her for a few months, and for a moment I was startled by how similar she is to Kate – same long-lashed green eyes, same fine dark hair, falling in shiny waves to her shoulders, which, just like Kate, she shrugs in a particular way when she’s restless or bored. In fact, I always think of Kate as being about 10, as that was how old she was when I first became aware of ages. I must have been about 5. Archie is much more like me: straight lighter hair, pale blue eyes, serious look. Sometimes, when we’re all out together – which has happened much less often lately – people assume he’s mine and that only Zoe is Kate’s. It’s funny how these genes seem to side-step through family trees sometimes, mannerisms and ways of speaking too.
“Archie’s in bed already, because he’s been a bit zonked since having his latest cold ,” Zoe was saying. “I’m off to bed too now, night night.”
She came over to give me and her mum a kiss.
“Please will you tuck me in before you go out, Mum?”
So much for the nearly-teenager.
I awoke, shivering on the sofa, just as the ten o’clock news was finishing. The log fire had dwindled to ash and barely a spark. Hauling myself up off the sofa, I shuffled over to the fireplace to add a handful of kindling then chucked on a couple of logs. The logs weighed much less than I expected from the look of them; they’d probably been stacked in the stables to dry since last winter. What luxury to have so much space. Soon sparks were crackling like gun shot in the grate, popping out of the dried ivy clinging to the bark. I jumped at every tiny explosion.
Turning my stiff back to the fire to warm it, I admonished myself that I still hadn’t adjusted my office chair as I’d meant to. I always seemed too engrossed in bashing out my latest news story to remember to sit with the health-and-safety-approved posture.
It was only while I was surveying the room with a rapidly warming bottom, like some lordly Victorian gentleman, that I remembered that Kate and Tom didn’t bother with curtains in their house. All around me, in every wall, were large, black windows, with views of nothing but the darkest of nights. Why did they need so many windows, for heaven’s sake? I could see one wherever I turned. And I really didn’t want to look.
Ever since we read Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw at school when I was about 14, I’ve had a thing about not looking out of windows after dark. I have a vivid memory of terrifying scenes in which the dismissed, disgraced servants come back to press their faces against the chill glass at night, sinister with some unspoken threat. I cannot think of anything more frightening. I’m not even sure now whether I’ve misremembered the story, but I daren’t re-read it to check, in case it makes my fear worse, not better.
I cupped my hands round my eyes, attempting to create the effect of a horse’s blinkers, screening myself from the threat of the dark windows. I tried concentrating on the telly, but was distracted by my pulse thundering too loud in my ears. I rummaged in my pocket for my matches and stooped down to light an exotic-looking, five-wicked candle in the fireplace. I didn’t like to calculate the cost of each minute’s burning of those five little flames, I just needed all the light that I could get.
Slumping back on the sofa, gazing unseeingly at Kate’s huge television screen, I tried some deep breathing exercises to calm my nerves. The sound of my pulse was just receding when there came another noise – the creaking of a door. I gave a little shriek and looked around, before realising, to my relief, that it was upstairs. It was probably just Zoe going to the loo or getting a glass of water, rather than a burglar or a ghost down by me. I tried to attend to the panel game that was just starting up Channel 4, and to ignore the glass of Rioja tempting me to take Dutch courage. Zoe’s bedroom door creaked again as she pattered back across the parqueted landing to her room.
Then just before the start of Round 3, a noisy coughing started upstairs. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, hoping the noise would quickly abate. The cough was shrill, definitely Archie, not Zoe.
His big sister will sort him out, I told myself, hopefully. They don’t need me upstairs. I’m not going upstairs, anyway. I’m staying by this bright and cosy fire.
As the intense jasmine scent of the candle started to weave its way down into my lungs, a little spluttery cough of my own brought me to my senses. Kate may be my sister, I suddenly thought, but she’s also a lawyer. I daren’t let her son die of neglect just because I’m too afraid to go upstairs.
On impulse, I knocked back half the glass of Rioja. There was still time for it to wear off before I had to drive. Then I seized a pale woollen shawl that was lying artistically draped across the rocking chair and wrapped it tightly around my shoulders, symbolic armour against the dark. Cautiously I crossed hall to the foot of the dark oak stairs and began to climb them carefully.
Please stop coughing, please stop coughing, I urged Archie at every tread. Don’t make me come all the way up there.
I proceeded as quietly as I could, as if silent passage might reduce any risk lurking in the shadows.
Archie went on coughing.
Having reached the dog-leg half-landing, I hesitated for a moment, deciding whether to continue. The higher I went, the darker it got. I couldn’t believe Kate hadn’t left the landing light on. Weren’t unlit stairs a tripping hazard? It wasn’t as if Kate couldn’t afford the bill.
Archie’s coughing was becoming shriller, tighter, grating on my nerves.
At least he’s still breathing, I comforted myself. No real harm done yet. But what was Zoe thinking? Why wasn’t she in there helping her poor little brother?
A tiny streak of moonlight glinted down through the skylight, and as I reached the top of the stairs and turned left towards the children’s bedrooms, I stood stock still. For there, at the far end, who should I see but Great Aunt Sophie, standing in the spot where she had died? Shrouded in white, she stared back at me. Her long pale hair had come adrift from her habitual bun and streamed down her shoulders, thicker and lusher than I’d ever seen it in life.
Who was it that said “Death becomes her?” And why do such random thoughts spring into our brains at the least helpful time?
I didn’t know I’d screamed until Zoe flung open her bedroom door and flicked on the hall light switch, casting a full 100 watts upon me – and on Great Aunt Sophie. Except it wasn’t Great Aunt Sophie at all, but me, staring at myself in the full-length mirror like a frightened rabbit caught in car headlights.
Then I realised that Archie had stopped coughing.
Tearing into his room, with Zoe right behind me, I snapped on the light switch on the wall (no nightlights in this house, cruel mother that Kate is) and dropped to my knees at the side of his tiny bed. Archie’s is the sort of bed that you pull out to make a bit bigger as your child grows. It reminds me of a child-sized coffin. Archie’s eyes were closed, his cheeks pale, his body still, and sticking out of his mouth was a small plastic toy zebra. I grabbed it quick, flung it across the room, and, seizing him by the shoulders, I began to shake him.
“Archie, Archie, for God’s sake, breathe!”
After what seemed like hours, Archie stirred slightly and took a noisy deep gasp. Once he’d puffed it out, he resumed his normal steady breathing, tinged with a snuffly baby snore.
As I lay him gently down on his side, he didn’t even open his eyes. Hoping that my vigorous shaking hadn’t dislocated any bones, I was relieved to see him settle immediately into the easy sleep of a small, untroubled if slightly nasally-challenged child.
Zoe, meanwhile, calmly collected the toy zebra from the other side of the room, gave it a token wipe on her pyjamas, and stood it up neatly beside its twin on the gangplank of Archie’s Noah’s Ark.
“I don’t know why you’re making such a drama out of it, Emma,” said Zoe. “Anyone would think you were scared of the dark.”
I emitted a false little laugh and hoped it fooled her.
“Haha. Back to bed now, Zoe, or your mum will be cross with you.”
“No, she’ll be cross with you, Auntie Emma,” replied Zoe firmly.
Forgetting her near-teenage status one more, Zoe trotted obediently back to bed.
After I’d made sure there were no other choking hazards within Archie’s reach, I pulled his door to not quite closed, to be on the safe side, and turned back to stare at myself in the mirror. With Kate’s pale shawl around me and the shadows cast across my face by the moonlight, I really did look a lot like Great Aunt Sophie. As I stood there smiling at my reflection, I felt strangely comforted. Maybe she wasn’t as far away as I had thought.
As I pottered slowly back down the stairs, I began to wonder what my children will look like, when I get round to having them. Will they get any of Sophie’s genes, and mine, or will they turn out like Kate or Mum or Dad? I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.
I finished the Rioja while I was busy writing in the shorthand pad that I always keep in my satchel a garden centre shopping list. I was planning the scented plants I’m going to put in my window boxes this spring: narcissus, wallflowers, hyacinths, and Great Aunt Sophie’s favourite, of course, night-scented stock. When the days are at their longest, I’ll be sitting on my balcony, a glass of something cool and refreshing in my hand. I’m, looking forward to gazing out to the views beyond the city, breathing in the perfumes of the flowers of long summer nights.
The scrunch of car tyres on gravel alerted me to Kate and Tom’s arrival. Kate thought I didn’t notice her fall off one of her designer heels as she emerged from the cab, but I’d seen them through one of the big picture windows in the lounge.
“Kate, had you ever noticed how much I look like Great Aunt Sophie?” I said casually when she came in, hoping that she would agree.
Kate gave me that knowing look that only big sisters can pull off.
“Of course you bloody do, have you only just noticed? Now get to bed, you look knackered.”
I heaved myself up from the comfortable wallowing position that I’d sunk into on the soft leather sofa, and gave her a light goodnight kiss, though not so light that it didn’t leave a Rioja-coloured mark on her cheek.
“Thanks for having me,” I said, unnecessarily, and trotted off upstairs, not forgetting on the way past the children’s room to give Great Aunt Sophie a little wave in the mirror.
And now, on with the blog hop!
The theme of the blog hop is throwing light amidst the darkness, and it’s down to each author to interpret this brief however they wish. They might unravel a mystery, reveal a little-known fact, or share a short story with darkness and light at its heart – or anything else that takes their fancy.
Whatever the blogger’s take on the theme, you can be sure each post will brighten up this longest, darkest night for us all. (Unless, of course, you’re reading this from the southern hemisphere, in which case you’re enjoying your longest day!)
Huge thanks to the tireless historical novelist Helen Hollick inspiring and organising us all.
And now, pour yourself a drop of your favourite midwinter tipple, sit back and enjoy the journey…. And when it’s over, take heart, for after tomorrow, the nights will start drawing out again!
Happy Winter Solstice!
Take the Tour
Helen Hollick : A little light relief concerning those dark reviews! Plus a Giveaway Prize
This time last year, I had the honour of having one of my short stories, The Reason Why We Eat Turkey at Christmas, featured on the Mumsnet Advent Calendar.
Mumsnet, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is a highly-regarded, well-read parenting website. Dads are by no means banned from it, though some may be intimidated by the name.
Mine wasn’t a children’s story (though older children may enjoy it), because the calendar was aimed at parents – and what parent doesn’t love an advent calendar, big kids that we all are?
But in this age of the e-reader, another fun festive trend is emerging to get us in the mood for Christmas: the rise of the special Christmas e-books. These are usually short stories rather than full-length novels, because who has time to read much when there’s Christmas shopping to be done? Nor the budget to buy them – so these e-books are usually priced low, designed to provide an affordable treat that offers light relief from the stresses of Christmas preparations. Speaking as one who has yet to write a single Christmas card, post a parcel or finish my shopping, it’s a service made to measure for me. I’ve just enjoyed two very different such stories by my friends Joanne Phillips and Andrew Peters.
On finishing Andrew’s book, it dawned on me that here was a bandwagon (or perhaps I should say sleigh) on which I, as a self-publishing author, ought to jump. So last night I entered the fray, and hey presto, via the digital magic of Amazon, I’ve conjured up a new Kindle e-book of my Mumsnet Christmas story, under the new, snappier title of The Owl and The Turkey. As its original name suggests, it is a fun, frivolous and ever so slightly silly fable that suggests the real reason that we eat turkey for Christmas. The tale begins when a young Queen, bored of wild boar, despatches her Royal Huntsmen on a quest to find the medieval answer to fast food. No birds were harmed in the writing of this book, which is suitable for vegetarians of all ages.
The Owl and the Turkey is now for sale on Kindle at just 77p/99c here.
And while you’re reading it, I’d better make a start on those Christmas cards….
While we’re in wintry mood, make a mental note to come back to this site on Saturday, when I’ll be taking part in a special feature about the winter solstice, with links to fun and fascinating contributions from 30 other writers, kindly choreographed by my friend the historical novelist Helen Hollick.