There you are child. Come sit by the fire and I’ll explain your duties. I’m not getting any younger, about time I had someone to help with the chores. Hopefully you’re not afraid of hard work. Everyone expects me to drop whatever I happen to be doing, wave a magic wand and turn their problems into happy-ever-after. Well I’m having to be far more discerning these days. Clients are making all manner of impossible demands since the princess sold her story to Messrs Grimm. I know times are changing but being immortalized in print is hardly ideal when one needs complete obscurity for dreams come true.
Personally I’ve never seen the need to advertise when word of mouth has proved perfectly satisfactory. You see I earned my reputation by never refusing a wish once committed, even where the final outcome seemed totally impossible. It’s taken many years to perfect these happy endings and I don’t accept disappointment lightly. I know there’s been some criticism regarding my latest case but nothing was due to my failings. Such a pretty girl but working as a skivvy did nothing for her language. I’ve a cache of spells for making even the most lacklustre girl appear glamorous, that’s really quite easy, and Prince Charming fell hook, line and sinker for her beauty, but I never guarantee what the far-distant future might hold. I suspect the Prince formed some early misgivings at the wedding breakfast after being seated next to the bride’s step-mother. Brimming with intellect she was not. After she’d drowned her sorrows in the ‘never-ending’ champagne she enquired about my services for her other daughters. One must be discreet but there are some things even I can’t fix.
Is it any wonder we fairy godmothers are a vanishing breed? Recently I was even accused of elitism. But surely one has to have standards. We can’t go granting wishes to just anyone who happens to recite the magic words and I’ve rarely received any on-the-job support so is it any wonder my methods are somewhat out-dated. Once upon a time I trained another apprentice, far younger than you; taught her how to grant simple wishes so I could concentrate on providing a better-ever-after service but she wasn’t comfortable with the world of fantasy and so very slovenly she failed to drum up any real sparkle and without sparkle there’s simply no magic.
Many thought me foolish for choosing such a calling but the truth is I’ve always aimed high and it didn’t take long to discover I was blessed with natural aptitude for happy-ever-afters. And servicing an exclusive clientele keeps me out of mischief, although there have been times I felt tempted. You see it’s never been about limitless riches, in fact in Cinder’s case it was in memory of her mother, poor soul. In the deep distant past I granted her wish to attend an exclusive finishing school but then, without so much as a by-your-leave, the little fool fell head-over-heels in love with a clothier’s son. I’ve always said that untold wealth is rarely the best basis for wedded bliss. Agreed, he was handsome, but lacking even basic people skills. When she died of a broken heart he was soon hoodwinked by that money-grabbing witch and her repulsive daughters. I daren’t think what would have become of young Cinderella if I hadn’t been alerted to her fate. I’ve an excellent informant in Rumpelstiltskin; he may be old but keeps his ear to the ground. Yes…I’ve heard the rumours about blackmail but needs must as the saying goes. I’ve learned to stay on my toes.
Speaking of toes I wish I knew how to put to a stop to those wicked red shoes but I never dabble with vanity, my talents being better tuned to match-making. I wish I could boast a career of infinite successes but, be warned child, during my formative years I made some dreadful mistakes. It’s easy to forget that nightmares are born from misused spells. Take heed from the sorcerer’s apprentice… such an impossible boy. And never, ever, underestimate the opposition, particularly if they favour dressing in black. Nor should you be persuaded to allocate any form of responsibility to dwarves. At best they can be scatterbrained but once in their cups there’s no reasoning with them and I can’t agree that manual labour offers any excuse for wholesale inebriation. Snow White was almost lost that day. Another lesson learned, as they say, which is why I now insist on complete jurisdiction from the very beginning. Reputation is everything.
Obviously I worry about the future. After that last fall I rather lost the will to fly yet I dread what the future of true-love will be without some sort of magical intervention. I can’t be alone in suspecting that the current generation of princes lack back-bone? Last time I chose an eminently eligible consort to wake a beautiful princess with a single fateful kiss he proved such a limp lettuce I was obliged to prune the undergrowth before he’d enter her chamber. While I agree one hundred years of neglect had left its mark I anticipated a little more gusto.
Now child, would you mind dropping off this pumpkin on your way past the lodge and don’t take any nonsense from the mice. If you must use the wand keep within your capabilities and, be warned, magic doesn’t work once they’ve forgotten how to dream.
Just got my copy on Kindle, can’t put it down.
Sophie’s Appeal was founded in memory of Sophie Louise Barringer and supports the social, emotional and educational welfare of children, their families, nursing and support staff and provide a caring and supporting environment in both local hospitals and in the community. There are many ways the Trust provide support to parents, carers and schools who find themselves suddenly faced with the reality of cancer.
Hospice UK are the national charity for hospice care, supporting over 200 hospices in the UK. Their aim is to make sure that everyone with a life limiting or terminal condition rightly get the very best care, and hospices are critical to achieving this.
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On Saturday one of our oldest customers came to our workshop because she needed a ring re-sized. It was commissioned 35 years ago by her husband and she reminded me that when the ring was made Michael and I had just started our jewellery business and were still working from home. ‘It was so cosy’, she said, ‘and my husband loved looking at all the lovely designs before deciding on our commission. He used to look forward to coming to the workshop and watching Michael at work. Although he died many years ago whenever I come to visit he seems to be here with me.’ We both shed a few tears as we slipped down memory lane.
There was a time I wouldn’t have empathised so openly. My parents didn’t approve of sentiment and in order to please them I learned to conceal whatever I felt (good or bad), truly believing that if I didn’t allow my emotions any scope they might diminish or at least become more manageable. However the opposite happened, some emotions hurt more than physical pain, and then I discovered that if I articulated what I felt (on paper and in secret) I could actually cope. So I began to write prolifically. Gushy poems (as teenagers do) alongside many many pages of fast-action stories where my plucky heroine would make the world a better place. Of course nobody ever got to read these outpourings but writing helped abscond the pain.
I’ve always felt I’ve somewhat failed in the maturity stakes. Surely being grown-up means emotion gets easier to contain? My mother rarely attaches sentiment to anything (the only old things she keeps are photographs) whereas I can’t bare to let anything go if I feel an emotional attachment. I still have the tiny leather purse my best-friend Janet gave me on my tenth birthday, just before she emigrated to the USA, and the hand-made elephant Michael gave me on my fifteenth birthday. If our last house hadn’t burned to the ground I’d still have all the gushy poems and story-filled exercise books but perhaps that disaster did me a favour. Very little survived and what I keep in store is doubly valued.
At the same time my elderly customer and I were reminiscing a young bride-to-be and her fiancé arrived to collect their wedding rings. All the metals we’d used had been recycled from their own old and broken jewellery and they started to describe the store of precious memories contained in these new-made rings – treasure not of our making. Also could we extend great gran’s string of pearls so the bride could wear them on her wedding day? They already knew the pearls were made of glass but wearing them would bring another memory to the occasion and everyone knows the rhyme – Something old, Something new, Something borrowed, Something blue – only the last sentence is often forgotten, A silver sixpence in my shoe.
Silver and gold have always been valued. Metal is a solid, hold in your hand, reminder of what something is worth. Though not a coinage we use today the very fact a sixpence is made of solid silver makes it immediately desirable. But the value of sentiment is immeasurable. Even now (in their mid-eighties) my parents rarely show emotion and generally appear detached. It’s taken me a lifetime to understand that they don’t mean to be unfeeling but in their eyes sentiment is an act of self-indulgence, they prefer to show what we British like to call a stiff upper lip, but I’m finally bidding good riddance to such total self-restraint because I was born a melt-in-the heart sentimentalist.
A twenty-four hour break seemed just enough to charge our memories because there was once a time, when my son was learning his trade, when we needed to drive along the A76 three or four times a month. Except I’m hardly a glutton for nostalgia and had almost forgotten the compelling beauty of this landscape, its low rolling hills and broadleaf forests, the few snatched glimpses of the glistening River Nith. The ancient road links Dumfries to Sanquhar and beyond, and its sense of history is compelling as it weaves through places that recall times past. And November is a time for remembrance.
Being Border Country the land was once dotted with castles. Proper castles, with sheer stone walls that fail to radiate warmth and hospitality. Castles undoubtedly occupied by ruthless nobles who jealously guarded their patch. Many were destroyed to fulfil a treaty with the English back in the 1300’s. Poor King David II was being held hostage in London and the price of his freedom was utter humiliation. But being Border Country the nobles were quick to rebuild.
After leaving Dumfries the first place of note is Thornhill, a perfect example of a traditional Scottish town. Neat stone houses line boulevard wide streets and shops provide essentials like oil lamps, hearth tools and treacle licks. There is a sense that time is marked differently in this corner of Scotland except yellow coated contractors are busy installing super-fast broadband cables beneath the sandstone slabbed pavements. Not even a mobile signal today!
The weather was becoming increasingly dreich so we dived inside a café for lunch. Soup of the Day was broth – just like my grandmother used to make, a thick kaleidoscope of root vegetables jewelled with beads of barley, inviting any spoon to take root. Soup that braves the elements. Except we didn’t.
Friars Carse, the hotel where we were staying, owns an exceptionally long history. On a small rise near the entrance archaeologists discovered the remains of an Iron Age Fort which was later occupied by Romans. Grey Friars brought their form of Christianity here but the ecclesiastical buildings they founded were enclosed inside a fortified building that was later extended to make a comfortable home. If I had my pick of the land I’d choose this very same plot because the stately sandstone house sits atop a raised peninsula overlooking the beautiful River Nith framed in majestic trees bright with autumn colour. Some native trees possess girths which suggest a very long lifespan, no doubt charmed by their setting.
In 1809 the house became the home of Dr James Crichton, the Admirable Crichton, being renamed Friars Carse in 1895. In 1938 it became a hotel and attracts its regular clientele of anglers keen to nab salmon and trout. Our prize was to rest but first we’d anticipated taking a slow walk through the grounds before settling into our suite. Unfortunately the weather proved un-obliging and so we fell to appreciating the bottle of chilled champagne waiting in our room. The afternoon was spent reading and relaxing and dinner was divine, every morsel perfectly sumptuous. We retired entirely mollycoddled.
For me the most enigmatic attraction of Friars Carse is the tiny shed-like outbuilding called the Hermitage. Etched into one of the window panes are the following words:
Thou whom Chance may hither lead,
Be thou clad in russet weed
Be thou deckt in silken stole
Grave these counsels on thy soul.
Life is but a day at most
Sprung from night – in darkness lost;
Hope not sunshine every hour
Fear not clouds will always lour.
The person who scribed these famous lines lived less than a mile south of Friars Carse and should you follow the fast-flowing Nith for about half a mile you reach his former home, Ellisland Farm. Historians say he chose the site because he was particularly inspired by this stretch of river. However it cannot be denied the poet also enjoyed its proximity to Friars Carse. Robert Burns even wrote a poem called The Whistle to commemorate a drinking contest which took place there on 16th October 1789. Participants had to drink each other under the table. You might guess what form of trophy was awarded to the winner.
Should you be tempted: http://www.friarscarse.co.uk
This letter was found in 2009 among some papers that belonged to my father’s great aunt (Hilda Hutchinson) who lived in California. It was written by her brother George’s wife (a widow) and illustrates very clearly the terrible effect the war was having on one family.
Sunday, Jan 28th 1917
My dear Hilda,
Was more than pleased to hear from you. I thought I was quite forgotten by Uncle George’s friends for ever. Uncle Fred and Aunt Clara never come to see us now. They have been twice since Uncle has been dead, which is over thirteen years now. I do miss him, more every day, but thank goodness, I have got good children. Sorry to say, I have had one of my boys missing five months through this wicked War, left a wife, with five children.
My son George has just come home from France has been out there fifteen months he does look so ill. I am afraid be he’s done for, he does not expect to go back to France. My other son has gone in the Army. He is expecting to go out any time. All my boys are in the Army. Your mother will remember the names of them. The one that is missing (Ernest) was such a dear good boy and a real mother’s boy.
My daughter Olive has been married now two years last September, her husband is such a good fellow, but of course, he is in the Army. He is in Egypt of course, now he has gone, Olive is living with me, Olive is such a good girl for I have been ill for years now. I cannot do any work, for three years could not dress myself but Thank God I am much better and now able to do a little work, in my own home. Olive has been good to me all the time of my illness and has never left me. My other daughter Bertha is getting on as well as can be expected as she also has bad health. I don’t know if your Mother knew she has lost her husband eleven years, she has three children. One was born after her husband died. Arch has got two children a boy and a girl. The boy is 14 years and the girl 10 years.
Now about yourself. So pleased to hear you have got such a good husband and that you are so happy. You must do all you can for your husband. I don’t think there is many of them about now. I am more than pleased to think that Olive has such a good husband. We shall be more than pleased to see him come home. We shall be very pleased to see you and your husband when ever you come to England and your cousin would do all she can for you to make you happy and comfortable.
It is dreadful in England now with the War going on. I do wish it was all over. You must thank God, that you are all over there, out of this trouble, the price of food is dreadful, I do wish it was all over. Pleased to hear that your mother and father and the rest of the family are keeping well, what a large family of you. I would like to see you all again. About your Grandmother, you did not put her number – but I will try and see what I can do for you, but the weather now is so bitterly cold but as soon as it gets warmer, I will go and find it for you and will let you know as soon as I can. It is not safe to go out of a night it is so dark, all shops close much earlier. It is not at all pleasant in England now, but then we must all hope for a brighter time. Well dear Hilda, I must now draw to a close. Give my love to Mother and Father tell them I shall be more than pleased to hear from them. Tell your mother that Eveline died two years before her father. I must now close hope these few lines, will find you and your husband in good health.
I am dear your affectionate Aunt Polly.
Olive’s husband died in Palestine. Earnest died in Flanders. George survived the war but never recovered from his injuries.
The Sins of Muriel McGarry is only one of 39 short stories on the subject of crime and I am so very delighted to see Muriel’s story in print.
I’m pretty damned pleased that my yarn ‘Life after Life‘ will be included in Bloodhound Books‘ forthcoming Dark Minds anthology.
The charity anthology is edited by Betsy Reavley and the full cast list is as follows:
Dark Minds Charity Anthology by Bloodhound Books
1. Ten Green Bottles — B A Morton
2. London’s Crawling — Emma Pullar
3. The Shoes Maketh The Man — Louise Jensen
4. Never tell a Lie — Tara Lyons
5. A Christmas Killing — Richard T Burke
6. By the Water — Betsy Reavley
7. A Cup Of Cold Coffee And A Slice Of Life — Tony R. Cox
8. Slow Roast Pork — S.E.Lynes
9. A Lawful Killing — Ross Greenwood
10. Sticky Fingers — JT Lawrence
11. You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger — Ron Nicholson
12. The Wages Of Sin — Lisa Hall
13. Hidden — KA…
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When I worked in London one of my skills was to make patterns. At the time I was working for a company that produced very expensive one-off coats and each pattern was made to fit an individual customer. Our clients were mostly the rich and famous who didn’t have time to do more than one fitting so my patterns had to be accurate. When I began it wasn’t my area of expertise but I enjoyed the challenge and having made clothes since I was six it didn’t seem difficult although my boss called my method ‘applied guesswork’.
Most people are familiar with commercial dress-making patterns, flimsy tissue-paper sheets which are highly inaccurate and produce mixed results. I’ve had terrible failures with such patterns and when you’ve spent a fortune on beautiful fabric it’s really sad to find the result of your labours isn’t wearable. So I can sympathise with Sir Christopher Zeeman, emeritus professor of applied mathematics. When he couldn’t find a dressmaker to make a dress for his wife with the piece of hand-woven silk he’d brought from Thailand (it wasn’t long enough) he decided he would make it himself.
First he measured his wife carefully and worked out her ‘area’ in square inches. He’d never made a dress before and thought a sleeveless summer dress with a simple princess line would be the most simple to design and make. Luckily he produced a mock-up using an old sheet, because it all went horribly wrong.
‘I was particularly intrigued by the negative curvature at the small of the back.’ He said when discussing the problems during a lecture at Gresham College. ‘I slowly began to realise that I did not yet understand the basic mathematical problem of how to fit a flexible flat surface round a curved surface.’
Being ‘mathematical’ he decided he would analyse the best means to produce the necessary ‘fitted’ effect and discovered what a dressmaker calls a ‘dart’. Then, after a long and well-reasoned study of darts, he decided to write a mathematical equation that could provide the correct ratio required for a perfect fit – ‘the first approximation is to assume that the cross-section at the hips is a circle of radius r, and that at the waist is a smaller circle of radius r-x. Hence the hip to waist ratio is 2π(r-x).’
But then he encountered the ‘different vertical asymmetry’ between his wife’s back and her front. No more negative curvature, in fact there was the added problem of a bust. Subsequently he had many sleepless nights considering the best way to finish the dress because ‘there was a deep topological obstruction, analogous to the impossibility of unknotting a knot.’
Lady Zeeman commented that her husband so enjoyed his delve into the mathematics of dressmaking he worked on several projects, still in frequent use.
My point being that many English schools dropped the teaching of dressmaking when the National Curriculum decided in favour of more ‘technical studies’ such as computer skills but perhaps they would have been better taking Sir Christopher’s approach to problem solving?
So here’s the reason why my friend’s dad spent the last two years of the 2nd World War in a Scottish internment camp. And why he earned a Russian medal.
During the war he was seconded from the merchant navy to serve on a US built ship re-named HMS Dasher. Adapted as an aircraft carrier she was given to the Royal Navy under the Lend-Lease scheme and had quickly earned a reputation for being difficult to handle. So much so the RN needed experienced mariners to maintain her engines.
The Russian Gold Star was awarded to all personnel who served with Arctic Convoys sent to break the German embargo on Murmansk. Dasher was one of 26 Royal Navy ships that left Loch Ewe on 15th February 1943 but that month the North Atlantic suffered some of the worst storms ever recorded, bringing huge waves and gale force winds. Six ships turned back and Dasher reported a 60 foot hole in her side. She limped into shelter in Iceland where she was declared ‘unfit for duty’ and was quickly escorted back to Dundee for extensive repairs to be carried out.
On 27th March 1943 Dasher was fit to carry out training manoeuvres following her crucial repairs. A new captain had recently taken over the ship and he was determined to improve her safety record so that day was to be spent practising aircraft take-off and landings. However, as usual, the engines kept stalling and instead of steaming out into the Atlantic she was ordered to remain in the Firth of Clyde, chugging between the islands of Little Cumbrae and Arran. The mood on board would have been cheerful because all non-duty crew were due to go on leave as soon as she returned to shore at 1800 hrs.
At 1630 hrs some of the aircraft were refuelling in the hangar while another waited on deck. Suddenly, at 1640 hrs, a huge explosion ripped through the aircraft lift, shooting the whole thing into the air. While all personnel on the flight deck were toppled into the sea a plume of smoke and flames shot out of the hole and the wooden flight deck folded ‘like the lid on a tin of sardines’. Almost immediately the ship began to list backwards and the bow lifted out of the water.
Few of the 527 men on-board survived, despite being within sight of shore and having immediate assistance from the many boats present in the Firth. Of those who managed to abandon ship only 149 men were rescued, every attempt at pulling them out of the freezing water being hampered by the quantity of oil discharged. Dasher’s fuel tanks had contained 75,000 gallons of aviation fuel. Thick and slippery it floated on the surface of the water, covering survivors. And then it caught fire. Several ships involved in the recovery were given commendations for ploughing through flames to rescue seamen.
By 16.48 the HMS Dasher had sunk.
All survivors, and those who took part in the rescue, were warned they must never talk about the disaster. It still bares little mention in official records. The reason given at the time was that morale was low and the RN still had other US ships in service. Many sailors were already calling these ships ‘floating bombs’ because the aviation fuel tanks were placed too near the ammunition stores. Whatever the truth my friend’s dad was held in an internment camp because he was a merchant seaman and not Royal Navy, therefore deemed a civilian.
But the story doesn’t end there. Recent research has led to a different reason for the secrecy – Operation Mincemeat. One of the sailors who drowned in the Dasher disaster was apparently used for the deception that played a key role in diverting German intelligence from the Allied landings at Normandy.
Whatever the truth the story is a strange one. If the navy was so short of able men it seems absolutely ridiculous to keep experienced sailors under lock and key. Having trawled the internet I’ve found many stories written by descendants of Dasher’s survivors but not one ‘first-hand’ report. It seems nobody broke their oath to keep the whole affair secret.
There is a memorial to HMS Dasher and all who were lost on the fore-shore at Ardrossan.
Raffles estate, Carlisle, late Saturday night.
Mary (not her real name) hears a heavy knocking on her front door. In her eighties and recently widowed she takes a long time to reach the entrance and slot the safety chain into the frame. She’s lived on the estate all her life and knows its dangers too well. Her eyes struggle with the darkness and she can barely believe her eyes when she sees two bulky men in uniform standing to attention on her doorstep.
Clearly they’ve come to the wrong address. They’re wearing identical smart black uniforms but speak with strange foreign accents. Surely can’t be police.She asks them to wait while she phones for her son. Looking out of her window she sees their car; bigger and blacker than the Daimler hired for her husband’s funeral. And there’s a flag on the bonnet, she can just make out the colours under the street lights – red, white and blue.
Her son arrives in minutes. Known as the local enforcer his legend is usually enough to keep anyone from messing with his mum.
Aware the neighbour’s curtains are twitching he invites the strangers inside. He can barely believe it when they announce they’ve come from Moscow with a special honour for his dad. What exactly did his dad do in the war?
In a brief ceremony they present his mum with the highest honour for bravery that the Russian people can award, to a foreigner – the gold star.
As soon as the Russians leave he sits his mum down, makes a cup of tea and fires off questions. All his mum remembers is that his dad spent half the war in prison, up in Scotland. Well a sort of prison, it was really an internment camp.
But his dad was English to his bones. What on earth had he been doing that condemned him to spend half the war in prison? Was he spying for the Russians? That couldn’t be right surely.
Next day he looked through his dad’s papers, discovering that he’d served in the Merchant Navy before the war began. So what led to him being arrested? Nothing in the boxes of photographs and faded documents explained this time in prison.
That’s when he asked if I could do some research. And I discovered a dark secret that the government tried very hard to hide. So much so that everyone involved spent the rest of the war in an internment camp. And it had nothing whatsoever to do with Russia.