Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Changelings: A short story for a gloomy day

This is something I wrote for a workshop at the Winchester Writers' Conference a few years ago. One of my Facebook friends, Joyce McCombs, a librarian at Delta Junction in Alaska, was wondering whether anyone ever ran away from the circus to have an ordinary life - so Joyce, here is a story just for you!


Arabis Elsworth walked slowly down the road, placing her feet very precisely along the edges of alternate paving stones. She was in no particular hurry to get home: her father would still be busy with the after-school drama club, and her mother was hosting a pottery party in her studio in the basement. Their house would be full of screaming seven-year-olds and odd, misshapen lumps of clay.

            A girl was standing in the front garden of one of the houses, twirling a long chiffon scarf above her head. Arabis couldn’t remember having seen her before. Their eyes met.

            ‘Hello,’ said the girl, still twirling.

            ‘Hello,’ said Arabis.

            ‘What have you got there?’ The girl looked at the tie-dye shoebag slung over Arabis’s shoulder.

            ‘Tap shoes,’ Arabis replied. ‘I’ve just been to a class.’

            ‘Can I have a look? What size are they?’

            Before Arabis knew quite what was happening, the tap shoes were out of the bag, and then on the girl’s feet, and she was showing her some basic steps on the pavement: heel-toe, toe-heel, click twice, heel again. She wasn’t bad, this girl - her footwork was rather sloppy, which was only to be expected from a beginner - but there was no need for all that business waving her arms about and pulling faces.

            ‘Do you want to come in for a drink?’ the girl said at last, blowing her fringe out of her eyes. She had long dark hair which needed a good brush, and her eyes were very blue.

            Arabis knew better than to go anywhere with a stranger, but this girl was about her own age and the house looked tidy and well-kept. The patch of front lawn was immaculately trimmed, with extremely straight edges. For once, she decided to take a chance. ‘All right, I will,’ she said.

            And then came the question she always dreaded. ‘What’s your name?’

            Arabis began to frame the word. Then, perhaps because it was turning into such an unusual day, she suddenly said, ‘Ann. My name is Ann.’ Very decidedly, just like that. How easy it was! Why had she never thought of this before? ‘What’s yours?’

            ‘Sapphire. Sapphire Wilkinson,’ said the girl, shaking back her straggly hair. She led the way up their garden path, through the front door, down the hall and into a neat and tidy kitchen. There, she made two glasses of orange squash which they drank, looking at each other. Arabis could hear the sound of a television coming from somewhere else in the house. They didn’t have one at home: her parents said it stifled creativity.

            ‘Do you want to come up to my room?’ Sapphire asked. ‘I’ve got loads of costumes you could wear for dancing.’

            As they walked back down the hall, a voice called out from the front room, ‘Susan? Is that you?’

            Sapphire pulled a face. ‘Don’t say anything. Come on upstairs.’

            Sapphire’s bedroom was knee-deep in clothes. It was hard to tell which were dressing-up clothes and which were ordinary weekend ones. After twenty minutes of trying things on (this was mostly Sapphire), Arabis asked hopefully, ‘Do you want to go and watch television?’

            Sapphire shook her head. ‘It’ll just be one of those stupid game shows my parents like watching,’ she said, wrapping herself in a long velvet cloak.

            ‘I’d better go home, then,’ Arabis said. ‘See you. And thanks for the drink.’

            ‘Susan?’ called the voice again as she came downstairs, and a large, comfortable-looking lady in a cream cardigan looked out of the front room into the hall. ‘Oh, hello, dear. Are you a friend of Susan’s?’

            ‘Sapphire’s!’ came a shout from upstairs.

            On the television, two teams of people were making up words out of a series of random letters. Arabis looked longingly at it through the open living-room door. She loved board games and crossword puzzles: there was something so satisfying about filling up the squares.

            ‘Would you like to watch for a while?’ Mrs Wilkinson said. ‘You’d be very welcome.’

            Arabis sat next to Mr Wilkinson on the beige settee. There was a holder over one arm for the remote control, and pens, and a rolled-up newspaper. It was lovely - everything you could want was to hand. A dish of boiled sweets stood on top of a nest of three tables, stacked one under the other. Arabis could imagine Susan’s mother bringing out the tables, one for each of them, and the family having their supper together in front of the TV. Something easy to eat, most probably, like sausages on little sticks and sandwiches in triangles with the crusts cut off.

She watched the whole of the word programme with Susan’s parents - who didn’t seem to mind her being there at all - and afterwards she helped Mr Wilkinson with his crossword puzzle, and then she had to go home.

            ‘Come again, dear,’ Mrs Wilkinson said. ‘What’s your name, by the way?’

            Arabis felt she ought to tell the truth this time.

            ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ A startled look had come into Mrs Wilkinson’s eyes.

            ‘But people sometimes call me Ann,’ Arabis added quickly.

            ‘Certainly easier to get your tongue around,’ said Mr Wilkinson, folding up his newspaper for the recycling box.

            Arabis found herself calling round at Susan/Sapphire’s house on her way back from tap class quite often after that, and soon it did not seem to matter whether Susan was there or not. Sometimes Susan stayed up in her room, twirling and thumping about, and didn’t even bother to come downstairs and say hello.

            ‘Wouldn’t you like to bring your little friend back here for a change?’ Arabis’s mother, Amber Elsworth, asked her one day. They were having tea in the pottery studio because her father’s drama group, the Thetford Thespians, were rehearsing their new play upstairs in the kitchen.

            ‘I can’t bring Sapphire here,’ Arabis said, balancing a heavy bowl of stir-fried beansprouts on her lap. ‘It’s too much of a muddle.’

            ‘Sapphire! What a beautiful name!’ Mrs Elsworth was delighted. ‘I’m sure she won’t mind a bit of mess.’ 

            Sapphire didn’t. She loved everything about Arabis’s house, from the Native American dreamcatchers and wind chimes in the front garden to the authentic Mongolian yurt at the back. She had a second helping of Quorn and brown rice risotto, and a whole bowlful of Tofu whip, and then she performed a dance which she had been improvising for the occasion.

            Arabis looked at her parents’ delighted faces. She didn’t feel jealous; it was as though she had brought them a lovely present, and that made her happy. Quietly she slipped out of the house and made her way over to Susan’s. There was a programme on television that evening about testing your IQ which she and the Wilkinsons had planned to watch together. It didn’t finish till late, so Arabis rang to ask her parents if she could stay over at Susan’s that night. They said of course, that was fine, and Sapphire might stay with them (if the Wilkinsons didn’t mind), since she was reading for a part with the Thetford Thespians.

            At first it felt rather strange, sleeping in Susan’s bed. The next night, Arabis tidied away all the clothes into a large cardboard box and then the room seemed more like hers. She had popped home after school that day to collect a few things she needed, letting herself in with the spare key under the mat. The house had been empty so she’d left her parents a note, saying that she might stay at the Wilkinsons a little longer as the IQ programme was on every evening that week and she wouldn’t like to miss any of the episodes. They could contact her any time, since they knew exactly where she was.


Some months later, Arabis was sitting in the Wimpy in town, eating a sizzling steakburger. Amber Elsworth walked past the window, her arm around Sapphire’s tie-dyed shoulder. Their eyes met.

            ‘Eat up, Ann,’ Mrs Wilkinson said. ‘Is something the matter?’

            ‘No, nothing.’ Arabis quickly looked away. Her mother did the same.








Sunday, 20 January 2013

Marvellous marmalade

'Mrs Henderson told me to work with Iris in the still room, making marmalade. The gardeners had brought in baskets full of plump, sour oranges from the hothouse: they had to be boiled for a good two hours and then cut into tiny chips before being boiled up again with sugar. A tall white sugar cone sat on the table, hard as marble, which we would have to break into chunks.'
From Polly's Story

Bitter Seville oranges are in the shops here (for a few weeks only), so it's time to make enough marmalade to see us through till next year. In fact, I slice up the orange peel before boiling it, unlike Polly and Iris in the still room. And now of course, sugar comes already ground in a bag rather than in the solid cone of Victorian times, which makes life easier. This recipe originally came from the River Cottage Preserves recipe book, and their website is a mine of information. 

You will need:
1 kg/ 2 lb Seville oranges (or you can use a mixture of oranges, grapefruit, lemons etc)
The juice of 2 - 3 lemons (about 75 ml/1/3 cup)
2 kg/4 lb brown demerara sugar
About 7 - 9 clean jam jars with lids

Scrub the oranges and remove the stalk 'buttons'; cut them in half and squeeze the juice and pips into a jug. You then need to slice the peel thinly. I find the easiest way to do this is to cut the orange halves into quarters, turn them over so the white pith is uppermost, peel away and discard the skin, then slice the peel as finely as possible with a serrated knife. It's quite a boring job, but listening to the radio makes the time pass!

Tip the peel into a large bowl and sieve in the juice - but don't discard the pips, which are a good source of pectin. Tie them up in a square of muslin and add to the bowl. Cover with 2 1/2 litres (10 cups) of water and leave overnight to steep.

In the morning, tip the peel, juice and water into a preserving pan or large saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer gently, partially covered, for about 2 hours, or until the peel is soft. Take out and discard the bag of pips. Now put a saucer in the freezer to get cold so that later you can test for the setting point.

Add the sugar and lemon juice to the pan and heat gently, stirring from time to time, until the sugar has dissolved. Then turn up the heat and boil briskly (I think the professionals call this a 'rolling boil') for about 20 - 25 minutes. Drop a teaspoonful of the hot mixture on to the cold saucer and push it with your finger - if a crinkle forms and the liquid seems to be holding its shape, the marmalade is ready. Take off the heat, leave for about 10 minutes to cool a little, then stir to disperse any scum. Pour into warm, sterilised jam jars and seal with the lids immediately.

Voila! Delicious marmalade. Try not to eat it all by February.... (It makes a great present, too.) 

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Farewell to Rascal, a loyal writing companion

I hope you'll forgive a rather sentimental post today (and those not particularly keen on animals should stop reading now), but I have been thinking a great deal recently about our much-loved cat, Rascal, whom we had to have put to sleep last year. It wasn't unexpected: he was nearly 18 and clearly failing (in fact very miserable during the last week of his life). I was away at the time so my husband had to take him to the vet and make the final decision, and when I came home, the house was empty. Rascal had disappeared from our life as suddenly and discreetly as he'd entered it, and an era was over. This is the first time I've tried to write a book without his basilisk stare and rumbling purr from the other side of the desk, and it doesn't feel the same. He liked to settle as close to the keyboard as possible, having walked over it first, and once managed to delete three pages of work by treading on the alt, control and delete keys. (I'm convinced it was a deliberate plea for attention.)

We first met Rascal at the Battersea Cats' and Dogs' Home, where he had been brought as an abandoned five-month-old kitten. At first sight he seemed a very ordinary little black-and-white cat, but when I picked him up, I couldn't believe the softness of his fur. He put one paw on either side of my neck and fixed me intently with his big yellow eyes. I understood exactly what he was saying: 'Take me home'. And so we did.

We discovered very quickly that Rascal was a Cat of Character. He particularly loved milk (though it upset his stomach) and used to appear regularly at breakfast, sitting bolt upright at the table on an empty chair and waiting for the moment when he could reach out to swipe some cereal from an unfinished bowl or surreptitiously dip his paw into the milk jug. (He would eat catfood from the tin with his paw too.) If caught in the act, he would immediately look away or pretend to be washing himself. And when I went to visit a friend in the next road, he would follow me through the neighbours' front gardens, miaowing all the way, then wait by her front door until I'd emerged and he could accompany me home again. Perhaps he thought I might get lost.

Engaged on one his favourite activities: sitting in something

He also had a fine line in outrage. When we got our first dog, a small terrier, Rascal was so appalled that he moved out of our house and went to live with the old lady over the road. Should he happen to catch sight of any of us on our way to school or work, he would miaow indignantly, or even hiss if he was feeling particularly cross. Sadly the old lady became ill so Rascal reluctantly returned home; he managed to live with the dog by pretending he simply didn't exist.

And another: sleeping
 Things went from bad to worse on the dog front, however, for a few years later the terrier died and we replaced him with a bouncy rescue puppy who grew... and grew... and grew. Rascal was appalled. Eventually, however, he realised that although he was about a tenth the size of this enormous interloper, he was at least ten times as clever. We once witnessed a particularly fiendish trick of his which reduced the dog to a quivering wreck. Noticing Monty underneath the kitchen table on which he happened to be sitting, Rascal crept silently to the edge and swiped him across the head, before immediately retreating to the centre of the table, out of sight. Monty leapt to his feet and stared around. Unable to see his assailant, he became so terrified that he ran straight out of the kitchen and hid in the cupboard under the stairs. 

After a similar run-in

I miss Rascal hugely: miss his softness when times are hard and comfort is needed, miss his indignant face and the sight of him trotting across the garden on some rascally mission. He used to remind me of the Walt Whitman poem:

“I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self contained;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied - not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is responsible or industrious over the whole earth.”

Thank you, Rascal, for all the joy and laughter you've brought us over the years. Taking you home from Battersea was one of the best things we ever did.

Monty, guarding a carrot; Rascal, pretending he doesn't exist

Friday, 11 January 2013

Five favourite English country houses

Following the pattern of my five favourite Edwardian memoirs in a previous post, here in no particular order are my five favourite English country houses. I'm almost certain to have left out your personal favourite, but these are the houses that I'm drawn to - the houses that seem to 'speak' to me in some indefinable way, to offer up a little of their history. 

Kingston Lacy
First off is Kingston Lacy in Dorset, to the south-west of England. A neatly symmetrical house built of grey stone in the seventeenth century and re-modelled in the nineteenth by Sir Charles Barry, who designed the Houses of Parliament, this was the place I had at the back of my mind when I first started writing my Swallowcliffe Hall books. It is certainly imposing, standing in acres of lush grounds, but on a more accessible scale than huge edifices like Blenheim Palace, where Sir Winston Churchill was born. Kingston Lacy is just as lovely inside as out, being stuffed with paintings and antique furniture, but you can also see less formal rooms like the Day and Night Nurseries, which are a reminder that this amazing house was also a family home. The Bankes family lived there for over three hundred years (having moved from nearby Corfe Castle when it was destroyed in the Civil War), and the reminiscences of Viola Bankes have been collected in this fascinating book: A Kingston Lacy Childhood. It's a wonderful account of how it felt to grow up as part of an Edwardian aristocratic family, with all its inflexible rules and stifling traditions. Highly recommended!

Belton House
Rather similar to Kingston Lacy is Belton House, near Grantham in Lincolnshire, in the Midlands. Now run by the National Trust (as is Kingston Lacy), the house was home to the Brownlow family until the 1980s, when the seventh Lord Brownlow gave the house and gardens to the Trust. I like the house and the treasures inside (including the most enormous piece of silver I've ever seen: a huge wine cooler that would need two footmen to lift), but I think it's the grounds that I love the most. I've borrowed several features to use in my books: the Belmount Tower, for example, which stands on a hill above Belton, has become the Fairview Tower at Swallowcliffe, and the boathouse which features in both Polly's and Isobel's Stories is inspired by the one that overlooks Belton's lake. An important scene in my teen novel, See You in My Dreams, also takes place in an orangerie exactly like that at Belton House. I also find Belton fascinating because of the part it played in history: mainly the abdication crisis of 1936, when the Prince of Wales renounced his claim to the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. Peregrine Cust, the sixth Lord Brownlow, was a great friend of the Prince's, who sometimes stayed at Belton - as did Wallis Simpson. When Edward succeeded to the throne in January 1936, Lord Brownlow was appointed Lord-in-Waiting to the King, and advised him throughout the whole debacle. In later years, it was also rumoured that Princess Diana wanted to buy Belton House and move there from Highgrove, which was rather too close to the home of Camilla Parker-Bowles for comfort, although nothing came of that and it may just have been a story dreamed up by a canny estate agent!
Castle Howard

A two-hour train journey north from Grantham takes you to the city of York, and from there you can take a coach to probably the most beautiful house I've ever seen: Castle Howard. When I first visited in 1999, Christian, the elder daughter of Geoffrey Howard the Liberal MP, had just died, and there were family flowers for her in the chapel - a personal touch which made me feel like an intruder in somebody's private home. The house is on a much larger scale than the two previous ones, and is full of views and treasures that will take your breath away. The television and film adaptations of Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited were filmed at Castle Howard, although the book, Madresfield: the Real Brideshead, by Jane Mulvagh, makes the point that Waugh had a smaller, homelier house in mind when he wrote this novel. He was a friend of the Lygon family, who lived at Madresfield, and was a frequent visitor there. Jane Mulvagh's book is an engrossing account of one country house through the ages and the various generations who have inhabited it.

Chatsworth House, www.peakdistrictinformation.com

Another country house on a vast scale is Chatsworth House, a little further south from Castle Howard in the beautiful Peak District. The first sight of Chatsworth, standing proudly against the wooded hills behind, always makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It has been lived in by the Dukes of Devonshire since the seventeenth century, and was one of the first country houses to develop commercially and become self-financing as a tourist attraction. Deborah, the youngest and last of the famous Mitford sisters still living (described by journalist Ben Macintyre as 'Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover, Nancy the Novelist, Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur,') is the eleventh (now Dowager) Duchess of Devonshire and is a witty and accomplished writer. Her book, Wait for Me: Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister, is another must-read for anyone interested in the English country-house world, as is The Chatsworth Cookery Book. On a personal note: my family lived near the Peak District when I was a teenager, and my parents met the Duchess several times. She was always completely charming and down-to-earth - a lady through and through. Her son has since inherited the title, and she now lives happily in a Dower House on the Chatsworth Estate. It's typical of her lack of pretension  that she once described the main house as 'a terrible place to house-train a puppy'.

Leeds Castle
And last but not least, in Kent, to the south-east of England, lies the fairy-tale Leeds Castle, the oldest of these houses, which was originally a Saxon manor dating from the ninth century. Surrounded by a moat, the castle has the most gorgeous gardens and is particularly lovely to visit in the spring, when the carpets of daffodils are blooming.  Heavy death duties meant the place had to be sold in the 1920s by the Wykeham Martin family, who had owned it for a century (relative newcomers!). Randolph Hearst, the American newspaper magnate, was looking to buy an English castle (as you do), but so much work was needed, he was discouraged, and it was eventually acquired by the Hon. Mrs Wilson-Filmer, later Lady Baillie. She transformed the castle into one of the great houses of England and entertained politicians, various royals and film stars within its secluded walls. During the Second World War, the castle became a military hospital (as Swallowcliffe Hall became in the First), and later Lady Baillie bequeathed it to the nation. I love this portrait of her with her daughters, painted in1947; she is smoking so insouciantly, staring straight out of the picture, while her daughters (two elegant English roses) look shyly into the distance.

So these are my favourite country houses. I've left out Sissinghurst with its wonderful gardens created by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson, and Chartwell, Winston Churchill's beloved family home, and romantic Ightam Mote, and many hundreds more - not to mention Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed. Which house would you like to live in, if you could choose?