Can’t Fool Me – By Fiona Glass

We have a cracking short for you on the blog today, revisiting Greystones from Got Ghosts by Fiona Glass. Enjoy.

***

Karen saw the advert on Twitter while looking for something else. Ghoulish type-face, cute ghost graphics, a picture of a wobbly-looking old stone house. And words that might have been meant for her:

Can you handle the ghosts of Greystones Hall? Spend a whole night in the house this Halloween and win £5,000. We bet you can’t!

Smug, she thought. So sure of themselves. Probably got a whole load of special effects set up to scare decent folk out of their own bodies and into someone else. Well, she was above all that. She’d seen it all before, she was Ms Cynicism, she ate special effects for breakfast. And dinner. And probably lunch, too.

It cost £50 to take part, apparently, but that was a mere snowflake in the wider storm. Fifty quid could buy her those box sets she’d been looking at, or a decent meal with a couple of bottles of plonk. But neither of those came with a sure and certain hundred-fold return.

“Ghosts? Pfft.” She clicked her fingers at ghosts, and filled in the form.

Halloween came around and she followed the directions she’d been sent down a maze of country lanes. Tall hedgerows, clumps of woodland, pretty villages where old stone cottages huddled around fords. All very idyllic, all so very roses-around-the-door. And Greystones fitted in perfectly. Mellow stone glinting gold in the last of the October sunshine and yes, there was even a rose. But not much sign of ghosts.

There were three other cars parked up on the gravelled driveway. Karen wedged her BMW into the last remaining space, grabbed her hold-all and headed for the door. Before she could knock or ring the bell it opened, swinging on ancient hinges with a lusty squeal.

“Hello?” But there was no one there. She grinned. Clever, that. Must be set up with sensors or a pressure pad, and pulleys from another part of the house. She’d seen it before, at work. She stepped inside, half expecting a shower of bats or a bucket of water on her head, but there were no more surprises. Just a hallway full of ancient furniture, smelling of polish, gleaming in the sun. The same low sun picked out dust motes dancing in the air. And something more. A blur… some movement… was that a face?

Karen’s skin prickled, just for a moment, until sanity came back. A film projector, no doubt, casting a diffused picture across the dusty air. More cleverness. Whoever ran this place was quite a pro. The money was a bonus. She was going to enjoy tonight.

There was a bell on the table; she tinkled it and after a pause a door swung open. More dodgy electrics? Another movie show? Not this time, just a quiet-looking bloke of about forty or so, whose face was instantly familiar. “Guy Beaumont. It’s good to meet you at last.”

He advanced with a smile. “You too. It’s not often we get fellow professionals staying here.”
“Especially ones with so much insider knowledge?”
The smile became wry. “There is that. Can I take your bag? You’re in the Blue Room.”

She followed up a winding flight of stairs and along a creaking corridor. The room was cosy, with modern radiators (thank God), forget-me-not wallpaper and a solid four-poster bed. And probably a raft of devices set to deliver shocks and weirdness in the middle of the night. She eyed the bed hangings, the pictures, the wooden panelling, weighing up which to start searching first.

“Don’t worry, you won’t find anything out of place in here.”
Damn, Beaumont had caught her at it. “Sorry, was I that obvious? Force of habit, I suppose.”
“The crew used to say you were harder than anyone to convince.”
“I didn’t realise I was that famous.” She had a feeling they used to call her Smartypants Kaz behind her back, but there was no need to mention that.
Beaumont grinned. “I’m told the series took a downward turn after you left.”
“It wasn’t that great to start with.”
“Ah. Not a fan?”
“Let’s just say I’m not keen on things that pretend to be something they’re not.”
“And was it all a pretence?”
“Well of course. There’s no such thing as ghosts.”

Too late, she realised he was a medium and probably did believe in ghosts. Would he be angry? No, he was too much of a professional for that. A blankly pleasant mask slid over his face. “Of course not. Right, I’ll leave you to unpack. I hope you enjoy the show.”

You bet, she wanted to yell, but was too polite. And make sure you have your cheque book ready. You’ll be needing it.

She unpacked her holdall into a creaky wardrobe, noting the sounds it made. No surprising her later with squeaks and groans. Then she checked every corner of the room for wiring, bugs, or hidden microphones. But Beaumont had been right – apart from a stray leaf near one of the windows nothing was out of place. Except… a sudden tang of pipe smoke on the air. But that was probably drifting in from somewhere else. The garden, through that same open window. Someone walking down below. She grinned. If that was the best they could come up with, this would be even easier than she’d thought.

Downstairs the group – two middle aged woman and a man with an impressive beard – had gathered in the Drawing Room. It was a pleasant space with faded floral curtains and a real wood fire. The logs crackled and spat, a cat washed itself on the hearth rug, and it couldn’t be less ghostly if it tried. There was no sign of the owners, but the other guests had bagged the best sofa and were out-bragging one another with wild tales of nights spent in other supposedly haunted properties. She listened with half an ear to the talk, which was all fifty seven floating orbs in one corner of the room and I’m telling you, her head just wasn’t there. Ridiculous the rubbish people could make themselves believe if they wanted it badly enough. She poured herself a G & T and headed for another room.

The first door she tried led into the Great Hall, a magnificent space with a minstrels’ gallery and softly-playing Medieval music, which made her smile. The next was a library, full to bursting with books, plus a desk, a comfortable armchair – and a complete lack of ghosts. What a relief. She picked up a slim volume about the history of the hall and settled in the chair, sipping her gin and flicking through pages about every period of British history from the Normans on. It was only as she was getting to the Georgians that she realised she wasn’t alone. An old man stood by the fire, puffing on a pipe. She jumped. The first time she’d actually been startled since she’d arrived, but only because she hadn’t heard him come in. Had he been here all along?

“Sorry, I hope I’m not intruding. It’s just the others were telling ghost stories and I couldn’t, you know…”
The old man smiled. He had a nice smile, she thought – warm and slightly conspiratorial. “It can get tiresome.”
“You must hear a lot of it if these weekends are a regular thing.”
“One of my grand-daughter’s more… challenging ideas. But I believe it’s proving very popular.”

She’d almost finished her drink; the refills were in the other room. A toss up. Stay thirsty, or venture back? But it had been good – one of the new artisan-type gins. She put the book back and stood up. “Can I get you one?”

The old man’s smile became wistful. “Thank you, my dear, but these days I don’t drink.”

She was about to say something about a pipe being okay when there were voices outside the door. “…this the dining room? I heard someone talking…” It was the rest of the gang, led by the bloke with the beard. He looked faintly startled. “Oh, sorry. I was sure I heard… Who were you talking to?”

 “The owner’s grandfather, I think he said. That’s right, isn’t it, Mr…?” But a quick glance at the fireplace showed there was no one there. How typical. And how clever. The best trick yet. She grinned ruefully. “There’s more to this place than I thought.”

“That’s why it’s the most haunted house in England, you know.”

She laughed it off, but all through dinner it continued to puzzle her. How had the owners made that one work? If it had just been the old man’s figure it could have been a projection, like the face in the dust – and a hidden transmitter could even have provided some sound. But that would have been stock phrases, while she’d had a whole conversation with him, question and answer, back and forth. Surely there was no way of programming that. Unless she was losing her touch.

Dinner was excellent but the atmosphere anything but. The beardy guy challenged her over the tiger prawns. “Do I get the impression you’re not a Believer, then?”

Usually she’d have launched into ‘no such thing as ghosts’ but in deference to the company she paused, shredding breadcrumbs off her roll. “I design special effects for films and television,” she said at last. “It’s hard to believe when you can spot the fakes a mile off.”

“But there must have been some times when it wasn’t faked?”.

“Not that I’ve ever come across.” She could have said more, but even that was too much judging by the frosty stares. At the end of the meal, full but far from satisfied, she headed back to the library to find the secret passage the old man must have used. That would explain how he’d got into the room unheard, and how he’d left again without her noticing. It probably came out somewhere just beneath her bedroom since that’s where she’d first smelled smoke. All she had to do was orientate herself, then bang on all the panelling until something moved.

It was harder than she’d thought. The house was such a maze that working out what went where was almost impossible. Eventually she thought she’d start with the wall next to the fireplace – and that’s when she had her second shock. The old man was there! Staring right at her out of the gloom and looking, dare she say it, mischievous. The room wasn’t well lit, just one small lamp on a side table near the door. It was a good few seconds before she realised what she was looking at. A painting! Of course. She took a deep breath and stilled her pounding heart. How ridiculous, to get herself so wound up. Everything had a logical explanation. She needed to remember that.

A sudden outbreak of screaming made her jump again. No special effect this time, by the sound of it, but the rest of the group elsewhere in the house.

“I think we can safely say they won’t be collecting their cheques.”

She leaped so hard she banged her hip on the desk. “You’re going to have to stop doing that. My heart can’t take much more.” Then she looked at him. Really looked, past the smug expression and the inevitable pipe. He seemed solid enough. How was he getting in and out? “That’s the best one yet. False fireplace? Is it painted on? Then you just open it up and step through the panelling?”

He waved his pipe, a thin coil of smoke dissipating into the air. “Why do you insist on avoiding the obvious?”

“What, ghosts, you mean? Pull the other one.” She rubbed her hip. That had hurt. But the money would make it all worthwhile. Five thousand quid, and the rest of the group had left. Nobody to share it with. The old man was looking at her as though he could hear her thoughts. An odd, quizzical look, but one tinged with sadness too.

“Does money mean so much to you?”

“I, er, no, of course not.” Damn him for seeing through to her soul. “I’m not that shallow if that’s what you mean. I can’t say it won’t be useful – bills to pay, things to sort out. But it’s my professional integrity at stake. You can’t fool a fooler, you know. And I’m the best there is at fooling everyone else.”

The scent of pipe smoke was very strong, suddenly. He seemed to loom over her, larger than the portrait, larger than life, larger than was really possible. “Perhaps not everyone, my dear. Or perhaps you’re simply better, in the end, at fooling yourself.” And he turned, waved the pipe one last time, and walked straight through the solid slate fireplace, leaving her in a completely empty room.

In the hall Guy Beaumont watched the tail lights of the BMW speed away from the house and grinned. Not only had he put one over on Smartypants Kaz, but it was another night when they wouldn’t have to pay the five grand out. This scheme of Em’s was working better than he’d dared to hope.

There was a faint shift in the air beside him; when he looked, Gramps was back from his escapades in the library. “You’re a terrible old rogue, you know that, don’t you?”

The old man smiled. I do my best.

Happy Halloween

I love Halloween. I love masks and mayhem and all the whispered promises of the coming winter. So this year we have a Halloween tale by the utterly marvellous Tracy Fahey.

Grandma’s Tale: The Girl Who Loved A Ghost

It was dark outside, dark as only autumn can be; a velvety midnight blue sky, no stars. Vivian shivers and draws the curtains. Inside, the sweet peat-smoke from the open fire warms the air. Grandma stands, stirring the pot of stew on the stove. From time to time she hums; an abstract, repetitive little melody.

‘I’m going out now,’ says Vivian.

Grandma turns.

‘Just over to Tommy’s.’ Vivian can read the unspoken question. ‘We’re picking out our trick-or-treat outfits.’

‘You’re going out tomorrow night?’ Her grandma looks troubled.

‘Yeah.’ Vivian is surprised. ‘We always do it in Dublin.’

Grandma looks at her steadily. ‘It’s a dangerous night at the best of times, but more so in the country than in the city. There you have precious little of the old ways left; it’s all bright lights and new inventions. The Good Folk are nearly gone from that place.’

‘But here…?’

‘But here they’re still strong. And never more so than on Samhain.’

‘Samhain?’

‘You call it Halloween. But it’s just a shadow of the ancient festival of Samhain.’ Her voice has taken on that familiar cadence, low and strong. ‘It’s the time of great power for na Sidhe, the Good Folk, the fae. They’re at their most devious then, during that time when the veil between the living and the dead grows thin.’

Vivian is fascinated. ‘So people stay indoors then?’

Grandma looks at her seriously. ‘They do, child.  Sure your own grandfather’s family know well what can happen if you don’t.’

‘The MacArthurs?’ Vivian is intrigued. Her grandma seldom mentions the infamous MacArthurs.

‘Yes. I could tell a story about them…’

She doesn’t need to say any more. Vivian grabs her grandma’s hand. ‘Tell me.’

#

The Girl Who Loved A Ghost

A long time ago, way back further than you or I could even imagine, hundreds of years ago, your grandad’s family lived in the Big House in the village here. They were a proud, haughty family that didn’t mix with the villagers. They charged a hard rent, they cared not one bit about the ordinary people. All bar one of the family, that is. There was a girl, Nora, a few years older than you. Nora was her name. Her mother was dead, and her father was often absent. Her older sisters were fine ladies who went to balls in Dublin and wore dresses made of the finest silks.

But Nora was different. She liked to roam around the countryside by herself. She spent her days watching birds, picking flowers, eating berries from the hedges. ‘You look like a beggar,’ said her sisters with scorn. But Nora didn’t care.

One autumn day when she was on her travels, she met an old woman carrying a bag who was trying to cross a river. The water was low, but the old woman moved stiffly, afraid of overbalancing.

‘Let me help you.’ Nora was a kind girl. She took the old woman’s arm, and steered her across the ford.

‘Thank you,’ said the old woman, once they reached the other side. She put her hand in her bag and pulled out an apple.

‘Thank you,’ said Nora, always pretty-mannered, and raised it to her lips. It was a lovely apple, shiny red like blood, and its warm scent smelled like summer. The old woman raised a hand.

‘Don’t eat it now,’ she said. ‘Leave it in your pocket, and only bite into it if you’re in danger.’

It was an odd thing to say. Nora watched the old lady until she reached the bend of the road. A wind swirled up and carried the leaves from the ground into a twirling stream that blotted her from view. When Nora looked again, she was gone. She shrugged, and went on her way, the apple in her pocket.

#

The next day was  Samhain. Now all the local people knew that this was a dangerous time. On Samhain the dead go walking. The new dead can come home, but only for one night. So to this day, on that night we light candles in the window to see them home, we set the table to entice them in with food, we sweep the floors and make the house neat for their return.

It’s also the night the fae are abroad. They walk with the dead, they walk with the living. And that’s why people dress up, even today. It’s to confuse the fae, so they don’t know who belongs to this world and who belongs to the next.

But Nora knew none of this. It was a beautiful late afternoon and she wanted to go walking. So as the servants were cleaning the house, and getting out the candles, she slipped away into the fields.

When she got to the river, she half-expected to see the old woman again, but there was no-one there. Only the setting sun reflected in the shimmering water. She stopped for a moment to admire the sky streaked with orange.

‘It is beautiful isn’t it?’

She jumped. Beside her was a young man, his face pale and sad.

‘Yes, yes,’ she stuttered. ‘Where did you come from? Who are you?’

‘I am James Blackwood. I live near here,’ he said. ‘Would you like to walk with me?’

And so they walked together as the sky above them darkened and the breeze grew still. Even the birds stopped their chirruping. A blank silence settled over the landscape.

And as they walked they began to talk. Nora, who had never thought about boys before, decided she liked this young man. He talked of nature, of the foxes he’d seen late at night, cavorting like dogs at play, of the beauty of cherry blossom trees shaken by the wind, scattering their confetti over the ground.

And when he put out his hand, she took it. His hand was cold, but she didn’t mind; her own hand warmed his as they walked.

‘Would you like to visit my family?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ she said, and smiled at him. They walked up a twisting path into the hills, a path she hadn’t walked before. It grew darker and the stars peeped out, pale at first, then dazzling against the blackness of the sky.

‘Is it much further?’ she asked. Her legs were tiring now.

‘Not much further,’ he said, and held her hand tighter. It was too dark now to see, but he walked along, surefooted, and she followed. Eventually he stopped.

‘Here we are,’ he said and let go of her hand.

With that, the moon rose, and in the silvery light she saw that she stood, not in front of a house, but a cemetery. Within the ancient gates she saw a large tomb with the word ‘BLACKWOOD’ engraved on it.

And then she grew cold and afraid because she knew that the young man beside her was not one of the living. She stepped back, and as she did so, the apple bumped against her leg. |She remembered the old woman’s words: ‘Leave it in your pocket, and only bite into it if you’re in danger.’ Trembling, she took it out and bit into it. It tasted sweet as honey.

As she bit into it, there was a thunderclap and a fizz of lightning and she saw she was alone. Nora turned and ran down the hill, all the way home to where the candles glimmered in the windows of the Big House.

And so, because of the kindness she showed that old fairy woman, she was saved. But for many nights after she wandered down to the river, hoping to see the pale young man again. For beside him, every man seemed ordinary and humdrum. She never married, and to the end of her days she remembered that night, the night she fell in love with a ghost.

#

‘And that, my dear Vivian,’ says Grandma. ‘That is why we don’t go out in the darkness on Samhain.’

10 Things to do before Committing to a Tattoo

Continuing our ’10 things women really want advice on’ series with another article from Molly Bruton, 10 things to do before Committing to a Tattoo.

10 Things to do before committing to a Tattoo

By Molly Bruton 

Design

Before deciding to even go and look at the tattoo parlour you need to have an idea of what kind of tattoo you want whether this is style or exact design. It is always best to have a couple of images of some other people’s tattoos that may be of a similar style so you can see how it might turn out.

The Tattoo Parlour

You’ve done the research, you’ve looked at their facebook page, you’ve found the parlour for you. Now it’s going and seeing it. Check reviews online to see what the atmosphere is like – you don’t want to go somewhere that you’ll feel uncomfortable as this will make you more tense and therefore will be a less enjoyable experience.

The Artist

You may have found a shop with multiple artists, or you may be going to a shop for a certain artist. If it’s the former, go in and ask who would be best to do your tattoo as some artists are more skilled in some areas such as portraits than others. Always chose the artist best for you.

Talk to them

Discussing your design with the artist is the best way to get what you want and what will look best. These artists have experience in that field and will want to give you the best tattoo they can, therefore if you go in with some pictures of other tattoos similar to what you (stylistically or design wise) you’ll be making it much easier for the artist to get the design right.

Don’t be afraid to speak up

If the artist is changing your design while you’re planning it, don’t be afraid to speak up and tell them that isn’t what you were hoping for. They will listen, take it into account and change it to suit you. This is your tattoo, it will be there for life, you need to love every aspect of it.

Artist Opinion

If you’re unsure of where you want your tattoo, whether you want it in black/grey or colour or anything relating to the design of the tattoo – ask the artist what they think. Although this is your tattoo, these artists know what will look good and what will fit better where and are more than happy to take the time with you to figure these things out.

Time

How long will the tattoo take? The bigger the tattoo the more time it will take – I feel like this is quite obvious, but it’s always better to ask the artist this as you can then plan around it knowing you’ll be busy for that chunk of time. It’s always better to over estimate than under estimate when it comes to tattoo timings.

Cost

Some tattoo parlours charge by the hour, some charge based on design – this is the same with artists. If it is length of time that will be much easier to work out than design. However, if you ask your artist how much it’ll be and get them to give you the largest estimate, you are able to budget for that and take that amount with you.

Aftercare

One of the most important things about a tattoo is the aftercare.  If it’s not cared for properly, or allowed to heal there’s no way the tattoo will stay in good shape or good quality. Ask what aftercare there should be and what products are best for healing a tattoo. Most places have a leaflet or handout that they can give you with everything you need to know.

Stay Calm

One of the main things about getting tattooed is knowing that it will hurt – it’s needles of course there will be pain. However, if you go in relaxed and calm and try not to get yourself worked up before hand about the pain the experience will be much more enjoyable and will end up being much less painful than your mind set it out to be. However, if you are really concerned – talk to your tattoo artist, they might be able to ease your mind a bit.

The main thing when deciding to commit to a tattoo is communication with your tattoo artist, they’re doing the tattoo and will be the best port of call for any of your concerns or queries.

 

Curious about the Italian writing retreat?

We asked Damien Seaman how he ended up inviting writers to the Italian countryside for some serious writing time in the first place…

How my dark week of the soul could help you fix your crappy novel (no offence)

By writing blogger and hotelier Damien Seaman

If you’re of a literary bent and you’ve ever had the feeling of bashing your head against a brick wall, congratulations. You must have written a novel.

Or attempted to write one, at any rate.

Why do we fools do this to ourselves?

Take my head-bashing story…

Three months, it took me. To struggle through writing the first half of the first draft of what remains my only full-length novel.

And then came my dark night of the soul.

More like a dark week, actually.

A week of crapping my pants

I reached the half-way point of the manuscript and got stuck.

Like, really stuck. Pants-crappingly I’m-a-shit-writer-why-can’t-I-ever-get-one-of-my-stupid-ideas-to-work-out? stuck.

You know.

Stuck.

The ending I’d had in mind just would not work. It refused. Downed tools and went on strike.

Whatever I did to change the perspective, I could not make the events of the book hold together in a way that concluded satisfactorily.

So I took a week off work and wandered around the house. Outside the house, too. Up and down the side of the local canal. Morning, noon and late at night.

This was some serious shit.

I would never make it as a writer. I was kidding myself. I didn’t have the talent. Or the skill. Or whatever.

Whatever a writer needs. I did not have that.

Panic? Yes, you could call it that.

But at the end of my week of furious pacing, I had my ending right in my mind. Somehow. Don’t ask me how, cause I couldn’t tell you.

The threads lead where they ought, though. And at that point, it took only three weeks to write the second half.

That’s the thing with plotting a novel. Devilish difficult, no?

And time-consuming.

I mean, I wasted a whole week of my free time just to wear a hole in my shoes because I was stuck writing a book no one would read.

Not writing, mind you. Just pacing. And thinking.

Talk about mad.

You don’t have to suffer like I did

Well, now that I’m co-running a small hotel in northern Italy, I haven’t forgotten those dark, dark days.

Nor the fact that it had taken me three years of stopping and starting and researching and abandoning book ideas before I’d got far enough into writing one to even have my dark week of the soul.

Three years!

The real madness is that I did not have to go through all of this. There is always a simpler way.

If you have the humility for it.

I’m talking about asking someone else for help.

Another writer or a writing tutor, that is.

I mean, your significant other might be lovely and cuddly and supportive. But what do they know about writing?

Your parents? They’re still mad at you for not becoming a doctor.

And your kids? Please. Those guys are just idiots.

No, let’s be real for a moment…

All work and no play making your novel a dull read?

“I have written two novels to date, one of which I think may have some mileage but with necessary revisions to the plot and central character but not sure how to effect these changes…” one woman from Scotland told me in a recent email.

“…am on my second novel but stuck on it!” wrote another.

Aside from both feeling stuck with their novels, these women have something else in common. 

They’re coming along to our trouble-shooting retreat this October to solve their writing woes. 

Do you feel this way about your current work in progress?

You’re likely too close to it to see the problems. Much less how to solve them.

The good news is that you don’t have to go round in circles. Or start chasing your family with an axe, like Jack Nicholson in that Shining movie…

Instead, creative writing tutor, author and publisher Amanda Saint has crafted this exclusive writing retreat in Italy. To help you…

  • See and solve your story issues
  • Grip your reader and never let go
  • Create characters that leap off the page
  • Develop the right pace for your story
  • Write the very best version of the book that’s inside you

The two women I quoted above will be there to work through the problems with their novels.

They’ll be joined by a half dozen other authors. All of them looking to get that breakthrough in their work. And to get to know other aspiring novelists – just like you. 

If you’re interested, check out the details here: https://albergoleso.com/escape

And, if you’re a Skulk member, you can also get 10% off the price.

(The details for the discount are on the skulk members page)

Damien Seaman is a restaurateur and hotelier in training in the mountains above Verona, where he day dreams of working in a shitty office. He also interviews authors and publishers and puts the results on his blog

 

 

Secret Identities : The Many Faces of a Chinese Woman in Publishing.

by Xueting Christine Ni

Let me tell you a secret.

I lead a double life.

By day, I work at one of the UK’s largest publishing houses, producing illustrated novelty books, helping to develop them from concepts to finished products, negotiating with suppliers and collaborating with sales teams and creative professionals to ensure the books are to spec, within budget, manufactured correctly and delivered on time across the globe.

By night, I am China Woman, delivering talks, articles, books and translations to further the understanding of China, protect Chinese Culture from misrepresentation, fighting Sinophobia and stereotyping wherever I go.

Lately, I am finding that in order to rise up and respond to the challenges posed by the current politics of fear, my two roles are coming into contact and beginning to clash…

For nearly a decade and a half, my day job has afforded me little to no opportunities to interact my heritage. Day in day out, I am finding China being confused with Japan or Korea, where my culture deliberately avoided or ignored, by colleagues who wish to gush about their adopted pet Asian country, or by senior management who would resort to Google Translate, Wikipedia and other great lengths to hide their ignorance, rather than consult a native resource within their workforce, even as the majority of suppliers we use across the industry shifts to my homeland. When I start talking about Chinese culture, magically, the whole office becomes an expert on the subject, and whilst the mainly middleclass office takes great pains to be considerate of minorities, from queerness to religion, to gluten intolerance, derogatory insinuations to the Yellow Race as well as the belief that “made in china” may as well continue “..out of radioactive third rate plastic” persist.

I have generally responded to these by keeping my head down, and turning them into fuel for my Chinese culture work when I get home.

I could be kind, if I were inclined to, and say that China doesn’t do a lot to promote its cultural highlights. My social circles have consisted of largely occidental geeks and Japanophiles, the UK geek convention scene has heavily promoted Japan, and despite my efforts to make these gatherings into Pan-Asian culture festivals. Even the BBCs (British Born Chinese), have exhibited an aversion when it comes to their heritage, preferring anime style avatars, Japanese net names and turning up to events in kimonos and Gothic Lolita dresses. At the same time, my friends who’ve come over from Mainland China, have tended towards Anglophilia, desperate to fit in and sublimating their native culture to do so. This self-loathing by the Chinese was something I saw very visibly in the 1990s and early 2000s, and was one of the factors that motivated me in my work to make traditional Chinese culture accessible, as well as showcase the fantastic range of nascent pop culture coming out of a society changing at an astonishing pace.

I could also say, if I felt like being kind, that it’s not as if they have a lot of contact with Chinese colleagues. Like many BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic), I had to jump over the hurdle of Family. For Chinese parents, the only jobs one should even consider going into are Banking, Finance and “The Professions”. At gatherings of my family and their friends, you could be assured of bankers to recommend investments, stock brokers who’d try and double it for you, doctors who could write out a handy little prescriptions for pick-me-ups to help them through 20-hour work days, and friendly lawyers who’d get you acquitted if those pills caused someone’s heart to explode. It was a respectable cabal of the soulless, and whilst they may all take day trips out to country houses, none of them seemed interested in the great tradition and culture behind these, a tradition that produced the likes of Brontes, Gaskell, Collins and Foster.

These were the writers who accompanied me through my adolescence. My love of literature was dismissed as ‘a hobby’, until I told my parents I wanted to decline my UCAS offers in Economics, to study English Literature, and study that at university. It was half a year before my mother spoke to me again, despite living in the same house, and I took a part time job to pay for my college fees (something absolutely unheard of in my family social circle). English literature is one of the most popular arts and humanities degree in the country, and Publishing, the most common career of choice for graduates of this subject, yet for me, they were hard won life choices.

Even when we make that leap into the industry, it’s often just the beginning of the battle for BAME. Like everyone who loves literature, I thought I would be working up through the various iterations of editorial assistance, to become an editor. Soon after I had landed my first job at a major publishing group, I was already getting commissions for fiction translation in my “vigilante” capacity, so I felt assured of my dreams.

When an internal vacancy came up, I leapt at the opportunity, and was not at all surprised when I was asked in for an interview.  Little did I know though, that the interview would be one of the shortest I’d ever had; how all the literary talent and organizational know-how with which I was going to impress my interviewer, would remain unsaid, and that the first question I was asked, “is English your first language?”, would in their minds, bar me from that whole side of the industry. The dejection I felt at this off-hand rejection was light compared to the years of self-doubt that followed, exacerbating the fractured sense of identity I’d already been struggling with, and the thought that maybe my parents had been right, and all we were good for was statistics and money. It has been a long battle, and I now have a string of successes and milestones I can use to remind myself that in fact, I’m damn good at this, and in many cases, maybe down to the effort I have had to spend to achieve these skills, far better than a native speaker who has had the English language handed to them on a plate.

I would like to say my work as “China Woman” has been plain sailing, but alas, nothing worthwhile is ever easy.  Even though I was moved to the UK just before my teens, I had always kept myself aware of what was happening in China. Not just the news, but what my friends were spending their pocket money on, or watching on TV. As a grown-up I was lucky enough to return, and study my home country’s literature and culture in more depth, reconnect with old friends, and make plenty of new acquaintances. When I came back to the UK at the end of the 2000s, I fully launched myself into my Chinese culture work, relying on an unique insight that comes from total immersion in both China and Britain, combined with incisive abilities in cultural and literary analysis, and a passion for research, and most importantly, a desire to bring the best of China out and put it on display for my second home country. Yet I found myself competing against the confident, authoritative voices of white academics, who dominate China-related media circles in the West, and my work being used wholesale and uncredited on several occasions. It was grating to find these people, who had never set foot on anything but a main street, and whose Mandarin did not extend past “Wo Yao Yi Bei Zhong Bei Na Tie”, appearing on national radio to exploit whichever strain of Sinophobia that was doing the rounds, in order promote their field of expertise or full series on Sky Arts. Some, who quite happily ignored China for decades while they eulogized manga and anime in their book deals and public appearances, are suddenly jumping on the China bandwagon; often with such low levels of knowledge of the country’s history, culture, and outlook, that I’m often surprised they don’t burst into flames when they present themselves as the fount of wisdom for another culture.  

Over a decade of learning, commentary and development would gather some critical mass, against whatever odds. Eight years after my rejection by the editor and several unpleasant incidents at other publishers that happened due to a lack of understanding of minority perspectives, I finally found confidence in being myself, both as a person and as a writer. The growth of internet usage, especially social media, both in China and around the world, have not only widened my audience and readership, but facilitated direct contact with them. My website and my posts are now a lot more visible to festivals, organisations and institutions around the world, who can easily reach out to me for talks, commentary and interviews via email, Twitter, or WeChat. It was thanks to this shrinking of the canyons between creators and publishers that I got my first non-fiction commission from a US publisher a few years ago. Chinese deities was hardly a subject I’d dreamt of writing on, but a hungry female BAME author makes the most every opportunity she is offered, and rather than a book on religion, I moulded my creation into a window into Chinese society and culture.

There has been a positive shift to embrace cultural and ethical change around the world. It has led to multiple campaigns, movements, support groups, and many parts of the media to move from mere tolerance to integration, even to the active embracing of diversity. It’s not all Utopian peace and harmony yet, but the subjects are being broached, and where one organization may still be as white as a roll of Gardapat Bianka, others have been actively redressing the balance and seeking out more representation where it is needed.

It has been my pleasure to be invited to teach Chinese cinema, as part of one of the only Contemporary World Cinema courses in the whole country, and although I had to practically start my own press junket on the UK release of Big Fish & Begonia, cinemas such as The Genesis, are starting to recognize the value of having a bicultural speaker introduce films steeped in Chinese tradition and culture to the British audience, rather than just picking the loudest white hack they could most easily get hold of. It has taken me ten years since my last one to find another suitable opportunity to publish my translations in print, but with this coming collection of Chinese Science Fiction, I hope to help English-language readers discover the fantastic range of genre fiction coming out of China.

China’s economic rise has led to a new-found domestic confidence and prompted many around the world to seek opportunities within the country. Together with the accessibility of online platforms, this has encouraged well-researched, accurate and in-depth reportage of China to the West. We no longer have to view China entirely through the lenses of international and colonial politics that traditional media outlets have tended to adopt, though even these are starting to improve. I have been lucky enough to be invited by the BBC to produce content on Chinese sci-fi cinema following the success of “The Wandering Earth”, and Disney’s upcoming live action “Mulan”.

As China becomes a bigger player on the world stage, fear of it, is, I’m afraid, again on the rise, and with it, a targeted attack of stereotyping and misperceptions of China. It serves certain organisations to present China as a land of mindless automatons flooding the West with cheap goods, a nation that can produce but not create. But even this hideous view is now being overshadowed by more modern Fu-Manchu villainy, depicting the country as a powerful polluter, sinister spy or a monstrous monoculture thirsting for world domination. The super-heroine, China Woman, has her work cut out for her, and the next time someone in the office talks of fake rice and spying cell phones, I might not just bite my tongue.

Visit Xueting Christine Ni’s website

10 Things That are Improved with Googly Eyes

by Heide Goody

Step into summer! Ten summer things that are improved with googly eyes.

Pack some googly eyes with your summer holiday gear and you’re guaranteed more fun, whatever your destination.

Here are the top ten ideas to see you right through summer.

Keep an eye on what you’re eating

Eating healthily is tough. Turn fruit into eye candy and watch out for admiring glances!

Be fashion-forward

Turn heads with a pair of statement shoes. The statement is “I’m watching you”

Be drink-aware

Are you the designated driver? Do you sometimes feel as though you’re missing out? Not anymore. Add googly eyes to your drink of choice. Here’s mud in your eye!

Take care of the plants

It’s easy to forget the plants when you go away over the summer. Give them some googly eyes and they’ll feel so good that they might forget that you didn’t water them.

Refresh your grooming regime

Don’t lose sight of the basics during summer. Keep an eye on your daily body care regime.

Don’t overlook essential household maintenance

In the heat of the summer we might forget those household fixtures that work so hard during the winter months. Give them some googly eyes so they can enjoy summer too! Then they will see you right during the darker months.

Keep up with current affairs

World affairs won’t stop because you’re on holiday. Make them more tolerable with googly eyes.

we are only permitting this because it’s on bog roll and has googly eyes. – Ed.

Summer reading

A good book is a must for your holiday. How can you be doubly sure that you’ll enjoy it? Add some googly eyes.

Summer tunes

Make any music the soundtrack to your summer. Don’t be afraid to raise eyebrows along with the volume.

Yourself

Go makeup-free this summer! Cheaper than cosmetic surgery and won’t react with chlorine in the pool (probably). You’ll be a vision.

10 Ways to Wear it Like a Surrealist!

Red is dead, blue is through,
Green’s obscene, brown’s taboo.
And there is not the slightest excuse
for plum or puce — or chartreuse.

‘Think Pink’ from Funny Face (lyrics by Leonard Gershe)

Looking for that quel-que chose for your summer or fall clothes? Have you not seen the headlines, darling?! The world is falling into chaos. Fascists have taken over — and not just on the runway. The only way to fight back?
Dress like a surrealist!
hb_2002.456.1
Look at Leonora! White leggings in the autumn? Rules are not made for her! She breaks them all. Hair wild, hyena by her side — everyone will be wanting one after Milan this year! The soft brown silk of her top sets off the verdant cropped jacket perfectly (and yes, it has pockets naturalmente!). Shoes by Fini.
finiowl2sm  144022
And speaking of Fini, Leonor has more in store with the ne plus ultra of the season: masks! Feeling tired, uninspired or totally wired, no one need know if you wear your mask. Animals are all the rage — and why not? They are enraged as we destroy their environment, relegating them to slow death. And once they have expired, they make terrific masks with only a few laborious steps. Repurpose those passed on! Hide your brutal humanity behind their faces and amaze all your friends — or shock your enemies! What does it matter at the slow dance before oblivion?
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Dorothea Tanning says, ‘Go bold!’ Will they notice your pert breasts before or after the adorable beast at your feet? What about the seaweed? You can refresh it daily for that ‘just rose from the sea and don’t know how the fish can survive in all that plastic’ feeling. The lace cuffs and gold ribbon give a luxurious feel as we prepare to step through the door into the new Roaring Twenties. Barefoot may be comfortable but revel in the rich layers of voluminous Midnight linen in her skirt. Cool enough for summer but it won’t look out of place in Paris this fall!
Colquhoun, Ithell, 1906-1988; Gouffres amers
Ithell Colquhoun is going for the stripped down look. Looks like slimming is the only thing on the summer resort menu, ladies!
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Accessories, cries Remedios Varo. Layers, layer, layers, yes! But accessories are a must. As you velocipede through London this year, don’t neglect to make the most of your accoutrements. Books, flowers, portraits of your lovers can all be buttoned into the ample space of her latest creation. The wheels are charming and so functional — and don’t forget your cat!
self-portrait-with-scorpion-1938
We’ll give the last word to Fini, because you know she will take it. And that word is SCORPION! Darling, you cannot do without one. Keep a spare in your glove for that next important meeting and you will leave an indelible impression.

‘Keep your eye on your inner world and keep away from ads, idiots and movie stars.’
Dorothea Tanning

Christmas Day! Enjoy a story on us.

SOOT

K.A. Laity

She hated London.

The grind, the grime, the grit—and that wasn’t even mentioning the basement flat. Lucky, she had been lucky to get it, everyone said so at the lab—and for the price! It was unheard of. Chance connections: her aunty Barbara who knew this woman from secretarial school back in the day—back when they had things like secretarial schools. This strange woman Mrs Cuttle who only rented to people after examining her crystal ball for the truth. The ball was not clear like glass but a smoky quartz—or so she said. What did Diana know about things like that? Hooey. That’s what her dad would have said but he was five years gone. With mum gone this summer in the slow free-fall of cancer, she was alone alone alone in this big city. Her first Christmas in London and she was on her own.

Diana was so low on Christmas spirit that when the fella in the shop around the corner wished her ‘Happy holidays!’ she very nearly snarled, ‘Bah humbug!’ Yet she found reading Dickens soothing. Not that one of course. She picked up a copy of Dombey and Son in Skoob Books, and read it on the bus, enjoying the characters’ suffering. Unmoved by little Dombey’s pathetic death scene, Diana did find some spark of interest in Alice’s plans for revenge. Revenge was an emotion she could nourish. Pity there was no one to aim it towards. You can’t kill death.

The habitual need to invest in holiday cheer would die hard though. Diana stirred herself to buy some baubles to hang around the room to try to make it look festive, though it looked more bedraggled than ever. The light was wrong. Perhaps it was the angle. The windows were small and because it was a basement flat you only saw feet, endless feet. Maybe it was the strobing effect: there really ought to be a warning for the flat like they have at the start of films: May cause seizures.

 

Foot parade until suddenly there weren’t any feet because it was the end of the working day. Single pedestrians wandered. It was worse because you heard each step distinctly on the pavement. There weren’t many: it was a cul de sac and there was no pub down the street to draw them, not even a café to get latté-drinkers. Diana found it mesmerising: the tap of shoes out of sight, getting louder, passing by, then fading away. She couldn’t tune it out. The only street light was a distance away so depending upon which direction the person walked from their elongated shadow would either fall before you saw the feet or linger afterward like some kind of ghostly presence.

Then there was the coal stove with its ash pit drawer. Mrs Cuttle made much of it as a feature of the flat. ‘Antique and very valuable! Why if I sold them off I could probably buy the house next door, too. Incredible iron works!’

‘So why don’t you?’ Diana asked, mystified.

Mrs Cuttle stared at her. ‘What would I do with two houses?’ Rapacious London capitalism seemed to have passed entirely by her notice.

The coal stove didn’t supply the heat, thank goodness. There was an entirely modern and efficient boiler set with hot water and heat so the little flat was snug and warm. Too warm at times, so she would open the doors on the coal stove. There was a little cool air that came in where once the coal burned or the ashes fell. It made Diana feel a little less suffocated by the subterranean rooms.

She must have been dreaming that night, of course. Or it was the lingering effects of her mother’s death. Grief ebbs and flows unpredictably: a tempest one moment, a puddle splash the next. Diana awoke to the sound of her mother’s laboured breathing and then wondered where she was. There was no hospital beep. As she stared off into the strange gloom she saw eyes glow golden.

Not her mother’s eyes. She caught her breath and then stayed silent. Some childhood memory persisted, warning that silence and stillness would protect you from whatever assailed you in the dark. For a few moments Diana clutched the covers of her bed and listened. The whole of London seemed to have disappeared in the night and there was only she and the eyes that watched her.

Then a blink and they were gone.

Diana heard a clicking noise and then only her own breath and wondered if perhaps it, too had been a dream. She lay back down, intending to sleep, tossing and turning and checking her phone for the time every forty minutes or so until it was nearly time to get up and only then falling asleep. Her alarm jarred her awake with its jaunty steel drums far too soon.

The whole day she felt out of step. She went to the lab although Dr Abbott had shooed them away until after the first of the year. Diana did not need to be there. She could have been anywhere: in Bruges, in Bucharest, in Brigadoon. No one needed her. Her aunty Barbara invited her to come back home and share the holidays with the endless brood of sons, daughters, children and grandchildren and the other foundlings that made their way to her door, their sad stories told and retold until they lost all meaning.

Diana did not want to be one of the foundlings. Better to be alone. Mrs Cuttle didn’t believe that. She invited Diana up for a rousing cuppa or to make gingerbread or toffee. Sometimes Diana found it too exhausting to fight against the constant cheer and submitted, drinking the milky tea and eating whatever was proffered, allowing the stream of running commentary to run over her like a cool breeze. Mrs Cuttle seldom required a response, so secure was she in her knowledge of the world. Whether she was talking about the man who came to dinner and surprised her with his scheme for renewable energy that required only a small investment on her part, or delineating the gremlins known to affect the baking of breads in the winter months and how to allow for their influence without altering the taste of the loaf, Mrs Cuttle was up to the challenge.

‘You don’t mind the stove?’ she said abruptly, startling Diana with a direct question.

‘Mind it? No.’ Why should she mind it?

‘Generally its good to have a source of iron in the place as it keeps ‘em away.’

Diana was confused. ‘Keeps who away?’

‘Why, the Gentry of course!’ Mrs Cuttle was off and running on the topic with such enthusiasm and a sure sense that her listener shared its familiarity, that it was some time before Diana figured out that by the ‘gentry’ the older woman did not mean people in DeBrett’s but those in the Sidhe.

 

Away with the fairies suddenly made so much sense: Mrs Cuttle and her crystal ball that wasn’t and her peculiar habits. Lucky, she was, lucky to get this flat, Diana reminded herself when she finally managed to extricate herself from the too-warm kitchen, the gingerbread and the elderberry wine—‘just a little, for your health!’

If her mum had lived it might have all been very funny to tell her about over their long phone calls but there was no one who might have been amused by it. Nursing someone over a long illness tended to cut down on your social life. Aunty Barbara remained steadfast but few others did. Mum’s bridge club sent baskets. But the day to day trudge made Diana wish for the umpteenth time that she had not been an only child.

‘You should get a pet!’ Mrs Cuttle had cried earlier. ‘What a comfort Fifi is to me.’ She turned to pat the old dog on the chair where it lay snoring. This indeterminate ball of fur woke long enough to snort, as it was perpetually short of breath, and fart noisily before lapsing back into its murmuring dreams. Diana blanched. She could not imagine anything less comforting than that smelly creature.

Yet lying wide-eyed in the dark later she wondered if there were not something in the idea. Without the lab to go to her days hung long and limp, waiting to be filled with something. Even Dickens was letting her down. Her eyes glazed over poor Florence’s fretting. She kept losing her place. Maybe she ought to have picked up something cheerier—Wodehouse or Heyer—but she could not bear the thought of such sparkling happy folk. Perhaps something fun but with a little suffering too: Trollope? Pym.

Contemplating possible novels finally allowed her to drift into troubled sleep until she woke with a start of fear. She could not breathe. A heavy weight lay on her chest. I’m dying. It’s a heart attack. A sliver of light shot across the room to illuminate the black shape that hovered upon her chest.

Diana cried out and the black shadow floated up and away in silence, disappearing into the darkness or perhaps the coal stove. For a moment all she could hear was the tell-tale beat of her heart—assuring her it was very much working—and her own ragged breath.

Was it a dream? The shaft of light had hit the shape with an uncanny accuracy. The room was dark once more. Diana took a deep breath and then shot out of bed, crossing the room in a bound to close the door to the coal stove, not daring to look inside. She had to kneel down to reach the ash pit door, so she dared a look inside. Golden eyes glowed back at her and she yelped, slamming the door shut.

She hopped back into the bed, tucking all her limbs in safely. A childhood belief that inside the covers was inviolable stuck with her. I’ll never get back to sleep now! Yet in what seemed like a twinkling Diana blinked awake in dappled sunlight interrupted by the legs of the morning commuters and shoppers.

Throwing back the covers she gave a cry of dismay: her hands, the blanket, the sheets all bore the blackness of coal, as if the creature had bled grim death upon them. Shaking Diana hastened to wash it off her hands. The coal dust swirled down the sink as if it were heading back to the pit.

What happened? Maybe it was a dream. Maybe she had imagined it all and had gone to the stove to slam the door—which was certainly closed now, both of them. There had been no weight, no golden eyes, no weird creature from her imagination and certainly no ray of light from the window with pinpointed accuracy like the lantern in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ of course.

Diana sat down at the little table in the kitchen area and rubbed her face. Some coal dust appeared on her fingers so she went back to the sink and looked at the mirror she normally avoided and grimaced. There was black on her neck and chin, doubtless from the bedding. She would have to do some laundry today.

Moving like an automaton, Diana stripped the bed and stuffed everything into the little washing machine, throwing her nightshirt in, too. I really need to get out. She took a quick shower, shivering because the washer monopolised the hot water. Throwing on random clothes, Diana shoved Dombey in her bag and headed out the door, locking it behind her and wondering if she was locking anything in there.

For a moment she stood on the pavement uncertain, allowing people to stream around her like a current. It was Christmas Eve. Where could she go? Maybe the British Museum was open at least for a little while. It gave purpose to her stride, yet when she got there it was shut. Diana wandered through some of the nearby shops, pretending to browse. Her eyes glazed, staring through windows as if to find answers—or at least to resist thinking a little longer.

In the window of Atlantic, her gaze fell upon a vintage book promising to reveal the secrets of the fairy folk and her heart leapt up. But then Diana caught herself and turned away from the colourful shop window. Are you mad?

After a beat, she thought what if I am?

Diana wandered along intending to buy something if only as a distraction. You need food, she scolded remembering nothing much would be open the next day. Diana treated herself to the upscale grocery store and even bought a bottle of wine and some cheese before losing the will to shop any more. As she came out the back entrance she spied that Skoob was indeed open that day and descended with gratitude into its depths. Books would never lose their allure. Definitely Trollope or Pym—funny but sad—or perhaps a Brontë to remind her what feelings were.

Diana reached up for a Pym on the new arrivals shelf and instead grabbed a book on the history of fairy folk. She set it down as if it were on fire. Her vision clouded with black soot for a moment, then she fled the shop.

‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost,’ Mrs Cuttle cried as they passed in the foyer. Diana tried to smile though she could feel only her teeth. ‘Come round tomorrow midday for sherry and mince pies, do. It’s a tradition here!’

Diana escaped to her flat. The winter light shone weakly, catching stray motes in the air. She put the groceries in the wee fridge and got the bedclothes out of the washer. Would they have time to dry before the night? No matter. She could curl up in the comfy chair. Maybe she would sleep better.

Fishing Dombey from the depths of her bag, Diana sat down to read. Five minutes later she still stared at the same page. Maybe some television. She reached for the remote and clicked it on.

‘…about the fairy tradition in Cornwall.’ Click.

This is madness. When you start connecting coincidence you might as well get your own crystal ball. Diana stood up, took a deep breath and strode over to the coal stove. One, two, the doors were open. Fine: there was nothing there. Let’s be really sure.

Diana grabbed her phone and tapped on the torch app. The light glared with a savage fury. The iron guts of the stove were black with old fire and burnt coal. The chimney pipe disappeared into the house above. Diana knelt to look through the ash pit. Like the stove above it the walls were black from the past burnings and a layer of ash coated the bottom. It seemed to be angled down. Where did the ashes go? Perhaps there was an exit door.

In any case, there was nothing in the stove.

All at once Diana felt exhausted. She washed the ash off her hands, turned on the television to some quiz show and sat in the comfy chair until she nodded off. When she woke it was dark. Everything felt wrong.

It took an effort but she got up, sliced some cheese and put it on a plate, poured a glass of wine and sat down again. There was some brash holiday show on now. Diana chewed the food and sipped the wine and tasted nothing. She considered another glass of wine but fell asleep before she could fetch one.

Something brushed her leg. She gave a startled yelp and her hand clanked against the empty plate on the little table. A documentary about some kind of factory was playing on the television. Her hand reached for the remote and snapped it off.

There was something in the room. She could hear it over her own breath. Or she imagined it. Had she left the stove open? Diana couldn’t remember. Her eye adjusted to the light. The drying sheets loomed in the darkness like an abandoned circus tent. Then they billowed as something moved behind them.

Fury more than fear propelled her from the chair. Diana snatched at the sheets and the rack clattered to the tiles. Out of the corner of her eye some vague black shape slipped away into the darkness leaving her all alone.

Diana wrapped the sheets around her like a shroud and curled up on the bed, willing herself to sleep.

She woke at dawn, exhausted, and made the bed properly. Her mother’s edict: if you make your bed you begin the day right. Happy Christmas, mum. I miss you. She sat down on the bed and cried. When she had cried enough, Diana forced herself to get up, shower and dress. After a few cups of tea she had the will to face the day.

Unable to manage reading, she watched mindless holiday television programmes until it was time to go to Mrs Cuttle’s little do. There were only a few people there yet the hubbub suggested a party three times the size. Music blared from tinny speakers whilst the television competed for attention. Everyone talked at the same time.

‘You made it! Have some sherry. Watch out for the mistletoe. There are mince pies on the table and chocolate and some kind of nut thing that Mr Cosmo brought.’ Mrs Cuttle had already downed a lot of sherry. Everyone had. Diana wondered how they would manage dinner later. Perhaps they didn’t.

She was the youngest there by decades. Miss Lastima, the Spanish boarder as Mrs Cuttle always called her, was probably nearest in age. She looked like a model, taut and impeccable, probably fifty though she looked a careful forty in her Prada jacket.

‘I think something’s got into the flue of the coal stove,’ Diana shouted to Mrs Cuttle when she could think of nothing else to do or say to these people.

She only nodded and bellowed back, ‘Mr Cosmo hears singing in his.’

‘Singing? In his coal stove?’

‘Yes, or maybe it was the bathroom vent. It’s not you, is it? No, I suppose not. Too far up.’ Mr Cosmo had the flat at the top of the flat with a view of Tavistock Park she claimed, though Diana suspected that was only if you were to hang out the window an squint a bit.

Mr Cosmo was conferring with three men in hats who looked as if they might be part of some secret government organization or perhaps some remnant of the Golden Dawn still haunting Bloomsbury. Diana decided it was not worth quizzing him on something so ephemeral.

‘I have a message for you,’ Mrs Cuttle said absently, as if it had just come to her then, though she added that it had come via the crystal ball. ‘Carpe diem, the spirits say. You must seize the day!’

Pithy as a mass-produced fortune cookie. ‘Oh yes, I see.’

‘Ah ha, a Sagittarian no doubt!’ Mrs Cuttle wandered off to pour more sherry all around and Diana helped herself to some cheese sticks and sausages before slipping out to head down to her flat.

The desultory baubles looked especially bereft now. There was no tree, there were no presents. Just Dombey waiting on the kitchen table. She could not stomach Florence just now. Diana poured a glass of wine and watched television until her head nodded again. Too early to go to bed, the winter light protested weakly. I’m the boss of me, Diana reflected. She put on an oversized t-shirt and got in bed.

She woke once more in a panic, a heavy weight on her chest. I’m dying!

With an effort, she shouted, ‘Get away!’ In a flash the black shadow leapt off her chest and bolted for the coal stove. Diana hopped out of bed and flicked on the lights. Black soot covered her chest and left a trail across the floor. She grabbed her phone and put on the torch. She drew a breath and crouched down to look into the stove.

It was a cat.

For a moment she just stared open-mouthed while its bright eyes took her in with panic. Then she laughed so loud that Mr Cosmo must have heard it through his sherry stupor four floors away. The black cat tried to flatten itself to the floor of the stove then started scrabbling up the flue.

‘No, come back!’ Diana cried. Thinking quickly she grabbed a bowl and poured the last of her cream into it. Cats liked cream or else cartoons lied. She put it in the stove near the door. ‘Here puss, puss, puss.’

Nothing.

Diana sat there for an hour, alternately calling the cat and babbling about all the stupid things she had imagined, the coincidences that she had weaved into magic and fairy tales. Finally she saw the green eyes peek out at her. Slowly the cat dropped from the flue and stared at her. Its eyes dropped to the bowl and then flashed back at Diana.

‘It’s all right now. The scary part is over,’ Diana said and cried because that’s what her mum always said after the Ghost of Christmas Past had gone.

The cat crept up to the bowl and started to lick at the cream. Droplets appeared at the end of the black whiskers. ‘I’m sorry if I scared you. I thought you were a nightmare. Maybe I should call you Nightmare. Or Night.’ Diana laughed. The cat seemed less spooked now.

It took another half hour to coax it out of the stove, but when it came out—warily sweeping the flat with its gaze—it crossed over to where Diana sat cross-legged. ‘Curiosity always, eh?’ She held out a hand to see if it would allow her. The cat sniffed her fingers and then brushed lightly against the hand. Diana ran one finger along its spine. It came away black.

‘If you don’t belong to someone already, I think I’ll call you Soot,’ Diana said with a laugh as the cat circled around her, fearless now.

Neither of them noticed the pair of golden eyes that blinked twice from the ash pit before disappearing into the black.

~THE END~

Countdown to Christmas Day 22

Christmas Magic and Traditions by Penny Jones Part 2

Where did I put the bloody scissors?

The second part of our Christmas traditions comes when we are wrapping the Christmas presents. Again for this mind numbing, finger cramping, sellotape sticking fiasco, we want something cheery and Christmassy to pass the time. So as I peel the sellotape (and the skin) from my lips (ouch! Yes it did bloody hurt and I no longer rip the sellotape with my teeth), try to find the scissors which have gone walkies again, and wonder why we thought our second cousin’s baby would want a set of handkerchiefs. We put on the ever so Christmassy “Box of Delights”, again another Christmas staple I’m sure of many people. This BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s novel has the Christmas spirit in spadefuls.

From the moment it starts with the tinkling refrain of “The First Noel”, to the snowstorm and Christmas Eve Carol service at its finale, the whole series screams Christmas, and scream it certainly does. With witches, evil clergyman, demons and pagan magic; this is what Christmas is surely about.

 

Christmas Countdown Day 21

Christmas Magic and Traditions by Penny Jones Part 1

The Gordian knot of Christmas lights

Christmas is a time of magic and tradition. But although I’m sure some families gather round their Christmas tree to eat mince pies and drink mulled wine, whilst others may go to their local church for midnight mass or to attend the carol service. Happily watching as their precious cherubs shuffle down the aisle whilst wearing a tea-towel on their head, or scratching at their tinsel halo. Our family have their own traditions (Okay we may do all of the above too; except for the mulled wine, I really hate mulled wine). However our traditions are sometimes a bit darker than the expected jolly frivolity of the season, but I’m pretty sure that when you look closely at your own family traditions, you’ll wonder yourself whether you are waiting for Santa or Satan.

Our festivities start when we put up our Christmas tree. The children (now 21 and 19 years old), still come up for the annual swearing at the tangled mess of lights, “picky food” (their term for a buffet), and the first annual showing of “The Muppet’s Christmas Carol” (one year we made the mistake of watching it before they came up, and they still haven’t forgiven us). Now that all sounds lovely and sweet. I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself, how Christmassy, and yes it is. There is a long tradition of ghost stories of Christmas, and The Christmas Carol is a wonderful reminder of the joys of the season. The loneliness of Scrooge, the slow starvation of the Cratchits, and the looming death of their son Tiny Tim, the family arguments with Scrooge’s nephew Fred, and of course poor Bean Bunny freezing on the streets of London.

So the four of us, safe in our warm house and with full bellies, decorate a superfluous tree with decorations that cost an arm and a leg, whilst singing along to the jolly songs that tell the story of greed, death and redemption. Oh happy times.