Cinder Toffee

Vee Walker

This short story won the Fiction Prize for the Hugh Miller Writing Competition 2019 and was first published on the Scottish Geology website, which no longer seems to exist. I have added a few pictures for local colour! Recipe for Cinder Toffee available on request…

‘Well, he is not going to be happy with us, John.’ The speaker, a broad-faced, tweed-clad and generously-rumped male, did not for some reason sound altogether sorry.

The wall clock in the echoing stone hall outside the Edinburgh University office chimed the hour of their appointment. The friends sat awkwardly on a pair of wooden chairs rather too small for their bulk. Both had removed their deerstalker hats and were kneading them between their hardened and scarred palms, tattooed with grit from a lifetime’s work. Their draft report, all 800-odd pages of it, and the precious box of samples, took up a third spindly chair between them.

Although neither realised the other was imitating his own actions, each would reach out and lay a hand on the substantial mound of their findings, seeking reassurance as the moments to their ordeal ticked down.

Their mission had been quite plainly set before them several months before, in the very office of the British Geological Society (Edinburgh Branch) which they were about to re-enter. Professor Archibald Geikie, no less, had requested their presence. There he had sat, peering at them over gold-rimmed spectacles from behind his vast rosewood desk. He proceeded to fulminate at the upstarts who had dared to question the clear and the logical and indeed, to his mind, the natural order of things geological.

‘Geology is formed of layers, gentlemen!’ he had spat. ‘Immense layers which form over the course of aeons, but which must, logic dictates, follow the chronological settlement of all creation. What is geology save one sedimentary layer formed on top of another since the time of the Flood, as Murchison has pointed out so often.’

The younger of the two listeners unwisely cleared his throat to interject, ‘But… Lapworth?’

‘All his nonsense about those uppermost rocks in some dismal corner of the Highlands proving otherwise? Pah! Young Lapworth is merely spouting the heretical writings of his false idol Nicol. It is all bunkum, d’y hear me? Utter bunkum!’ John had found himself agreeing, more out of awkward politeness and the sheer force of The Great Man’s presence than assent.

His friend instead chose to hold his tongue.

‘You do not share The Great Man’s views then, Ben?’ John asked him, as they traipsed with relief down the staircase towards the damp, grey Edinburgh air.

Ben had smiled at John’s use of their ironic nickname for a crusty superior and shrugged. ‘Not that long ago, all Old Red’s theorising about fish growing paws and clawing their way out of the mud was portrayed as the ravings of a lunatic, remember? Now Darwin and everyone else seem to be in agreement.’

John nodded, thoughtfully. Hugh Miller – nicknamed Old Red for his beloved sandstone – had been a favourite of all their circle until his sad demise; a blend of gentle Highland rustic and touchingly devout self-taught academic. Ben shook out his black umbrella at the foot of the stairs, looking down and prodding the last step with the toe of his boot. ‘See, he would have liked that. Hugh’s sandstone used for the fine new university. He wondered whether we are becoming too greedy for the treasures of the earth. We take them without thought.’

John nodded again. ‘Greedy for knowledge too?’

‘Sometimes only insofar as it accords with one’s own views,’ Ben chuckled.

Once out on the Caithness flag pavement, he grinned at John from under his umbrella. ‘If I have learned one thing from my life in science thus far, it is that utter certainty of any scientific fact can be a dangerous thing,’ was all he chose to add.

John understood his friend perfectly. For upstairs, Professor Geikie, puce-faced with professional ire by the end of their interview, had been very clear in his instructions; all but ordering the two geologists to go and prove that he and his mentor Roderick Murchison were in the right.


Six months had passed since their last encounter with The Great Man. He had penned several increasingly terse letters enquiring as to their progress, which they had felt it best to ignore. Now here they were once more.

They sat in silence until the younger of the two snorted, ‘How I should prefer to be back up on the road to Ullapool instead, eh Ben?’ The other nodded. Neither was in his natural habitat, there in that cold and echoing vestibule. They belonged instead among the rough heather and steep hillsides of the North-Western Highlands with only each other, and an occasional golden eagle, for companionship.

‘D’ye recall that day?’ Ben continued. ‘We’d paused to catch our breath after that steep section. Eyeing our meat-paste sandwiches made by the landlady in Cròic a Chnocain.’

‘Ah yes. The damp little croft overlooking the burial ground.’

Very poor sandwiches,’ reflected his companion, shifting his considerable weight from one buttock to the other, making his chair groan. ‘The same every day, too. The only lodgings to be had that near to the Crag, though.’

‘Certainly closer than that rather grand hotel. And she was a kindly enough old thing.’

‘No English, only the Gaelic.’

Fìor fhìor! No packed lunch on the Sabbath, remember?’

‘Ah, but that extraordinary sweet confection she made…’

‘Wrapped in brown paper.’

‘Quite delicious, wasn’t it? Made up for everything else.’


Transported by their shared memory, the friends allowed themselves to recall that extraordinary day: again they felt the clean air and rain on their faces, again they heard the rattle of a ptarmigan from high on the slopes above the crag. They had been glad to pause for a while and rest, even if it meant consuming their forlorn meat-paste sandwiches. Lochan an Ais lay spread below them, its grey, rain-pitted surface broken only by a lone great northern diver, its plumage sleek and oily in the downpour. Cul Mor soared beyond, her face veiled in heavy mist.

‘A bitty dreich, as they say in these parts.’ John could feel the canvas bags which would contain their specimens for the day were growing heavy with rain already.

‘Indeed. But see how the wet brings out the fine pattern in the rocks, John.’ The younger man glanced at the speaker with considerable affection. How many times had he heard Ben bring out this phrase as mitigation for the most atrocious West Highland weather? He knew the debt he owed his old friend. He, John, had the technical skills: could sketch accurately, write plentiful notes and find a perfect turn of phrase to describe a specimen, but he was the first to acknowledge that it was Ben who had the eye. It showed in his paintings of the hills.

That morning the crag had shimmered in the bright light, every available rock surface wet. As he stared upwards, Ben’s head had inclined slightly to one side in a thoughtful manner which John had come both to anticipate and, occasionally, dread. ‘Up yonder today, I reckon, laddie. Perhaps we may reach the base of the cliff before we drown, eh?’ John was no longer a laddie by two decades or more; but Ben had been gently teasing him about his comparative youth for as long as he could recall.

They worked methodically as usual, measuring, pacing, at times with the whole drenched hillside between them; at others, hunched head-to-head over a specimen, magnifying glass in hand. They spoke only in geological labels at such times:

‘Pipe rock. Perfectly clear, look there, and more here. Durness limestone too.’

‘Fucoid beds, Salterella Grits. Only what one might expect. The correct sequence. And yet…’ John searched for words which would capture the nature of these oddly compressed sediments.

They had spent months now working slowly around several other crumbling cliffs in the area. In fair weather and foul, they were up and out just after dawn, providing a generous food source for midges and the occasional tick, nourished daily by hip flasks of whisky, dubious sandwiches, and sublime confectionery. In pencil, in dozens of notebooks, they meticulously recorded their still-inconclusive findings. What they had found was a curious mix. Perhaps it was due to glaciation, this odd jumble of layers, they had thought at first. Freezing and thawing can crack and shatter rock. And yet each of them knew in the depths of his soul that the answer did not lie in a glacial event of mere thousands of years ago.

They paused to eat their dismal ‘pieces’, rendered even less palatable than usual by the steady rainfall. ‘John, I must be getting old,’ said Ben, rising even as he chewed from an area of limestone where he had crouched and been prodding. ‘I am feeling the damp in my bones today.’ For a fleeting moment John wondered if his colleague were suggesting they call a halt and retreat, but no such thing. ‘Come, a little treat. Let us warm ourselves by ascending fast to the foot of the crag instead. We might find shelter from the rain in its lee, too.’ He was up and off like the proverbial mountain goat, leaving John to pack the morning’s specimens and plod up the zig-zagging cragside deer track in his wake.

Ben’s cry rent the still air asunder. ‘Here! John, hurry! This is it!’

John had no need to ask what it meant. It was their Holy Grail, the conclusive proof – or disproof – they had been instructed to seek. 

John dropped the bags and began to scramble recklessly straight up, the flaky scree slipping beneath his feet. Ben was on his knees at the foot of the crag, as though at prayer. ‘At last, John. See? Clearly Pre-Cambrian, yes? Schists, great sparkling layers of them. And all so… so altered.’

John joined him in worship at the shrine, impervious to the wet now soaking through the tweed of his plus-fours.  He touched the pale gold outcrop with disbelieving fingertips. ‘None of this should be visible! It is surely millions of years more ancient than the Cambrian layers we recorded below?’

‘Yes, as though something has thrust the very burning bowels of the earth upwards, to raise them to the surface. Ye Gods, what mighty force can have brought this about?’ demanded Ben. He was pale now, shaking. John was at once more concerned about his friend’s wellbeing than their momentous discovery. He rummaged in his pocket and drew out the small packet of brown paper. ‘Here you are, old fellow,’ he said. ‘It’s a shock. Eat some.’

Instead Ben held a piece of toffee up against the hot-yellow, cold-bubbled rock before them. ‘John,’ he said unsteadily. ‘How do you think she makes this stuff?’

Puzzled, John replied, ‘Well. Sugar, clearly. Then…’ Light dawned. ‘Then, she must superheat it. Mixes in something else to change its nature, as it boils?’

Ben nodded, still staring. ‘I watched her once. Bicarbonate of soda. The mixture surges upwards in the great iron pot as a scalding, foaming mass, quite altered. Then she pulls it from the fire and tips it out on to a buttered tin tray to cool.’

‘And when it is hard,’ said John softly, ‘She borrows one of our hammers.’

‘Yes! Bang! Bang! Bang! Elemental powers, John. Pressure, heat. We have been seeing the rocks as too fixed.’

‘Exactly. Given sufficient force they can be changed, turned topsy-turvy. This proves it. Wonderful!’ said John, already pulling out his notebook. Then he paused. ‘I say, Ben. The Great Man. Lapworth…’

‘Yes,’ said Ben. ‘Quite. But we tell no-one. Not yet.’

They then fell on the rain-sticky cinder toffee with the appetites of men half-starved.


At last they were summoned. John cradled the report to his chest as Ben hefted the box, its small yet irrefutable samples from Knockan Crag cushioned within.

Archibald Geikie’s voice boomed out of his office as they approached the door. ‘Ah, good-day to you both, gentlemen.’ There was no apology for having kept them waiting. ‘So, what have you brought me, eh?’

It was then that Ben Peach caught the widened eye of John Horne and, albeit fleetingly, winked.

Copyright Vee Walker 2019.

If you enjoyed this short story why not read Vee’s prizewinning epic novel Major Tom’s War, available as a paperback or e-reader edition from her publisher Kashi House 👇




Angry about book poverty? Do something about it with #justonebook

I am an author – and of course I want everyone in the entire world to buy my books. Over the past weeks and months, though, I have come to realise there is such a thing as book poverty.

I currently want people to buy children’s books instead of my own because I am angry that any child today should not have access to lovely new books in school for financial reasons.

Teachers are striking for better pay and conditions but also for more resources for the kids they teach. There just isn’t enough money for books in schools.

As an author I undertake many school visits. Recently I visited a Highland primary school (which will remain anonymous – no school deserves to be stigmatised for not having enough funds for new books) and was shown around by a delightful but exhausted teacher who took me into the school library.

The content wasn’t great. Very few new titles. Some books were old school prizes from the 1950s. Some were passed-on school stock from elsewhere. Several had teachers’ names in them: teachers buying new books for their school libraries out of their meagre wages because it’s the only way they can replenish the library! One was the same ‘My Learn to Cookbook’ recipe book I was given myself aged about nine. It’s a fun cookbook, if a bit sugar and fat heavy, but I am now 61!

The amazing school staff doggedly wipe and sanitise and stick back together these poor old books as much as they can but some will vanish home, never to be seen again and there’s little to no budget to replace them. Books which have been in a library for years get to look like they have, too – slightly dingy, slightly battered, slightly forlorn. Let’s be frank: old and shabby books are boring.

As the teacher said to me, the kids deserve better.

If you don’t hook a child on books early in life they will never catch up educationally or emotionally. Fact.

I cannot be the only person to lie awake and worry that society is destabilising to such a degree that some schools will soon close entirely through staff sickness and shortages, just as it is becoming nigh-on impossible to find a medical practice in certain areas. If we dare envision a future where children no longer attend a school at all but roam the streets, and where those of us who are sick may not be able to rely on medical care, we are looking into the abyss next door.

I am not a celebrity, nor am I a super wealthy person and I certainly have no political influence, but I thought: there has to be something I can do that is positive in this hideous mess that we are in. And I racked my brains for a small thing I could try, and I thought of the school library and its old, battered, uninspiring books.

If you see a poster soon in a bookshop which says #justonebook it means you can buy a child a primary school level book there – anything from early years to P7, fiction or non-fiction – and leave it at the bookshop. It will soon be collected, giftwrapped and delivered to a Highland primary school in desperate need of books. All the school will know is that it comes from ‘the magic book fairy’.

A very simple transaction in which you get to feel virtuous, a child gets to feel excited as they undo the parcel, a teacher gets a sense that other people care as much as they do – and I get to sleep just a wee bit better at night.

If you would like to know more about giving #justonebook to a Highland primary school then please get in touch by commenting below. Thanks for reading this 🙏🌹😊

Keska et le toutou

Un récit d’amour de Saint-Raphaël écrit après un séjour magnifique dans la ville cet hiver. Merci aux Raphaëlois qui nous ont si bien accueillis 🙏🌹

Il y a des jours, vous savez, pas comme les autres. Des jours que le vent se lêve et met du désordre dans les cheveux. Des jours qu’un petit chihuahua blanc arrive pour vous pisser sur la chaussure.

Commencer avec le jour de la pisse n’est pas commencer au début. Au début je ne voyais que des couleurs flous à travers du gros papier bulle. Des fois des couleurs qui se bougeaient. Des couleurs qui, au début, n’avaient même pas de nom.

Je me trouva débalée après un certain temps dans une vitrine intérieure d’un grand magasin à Nice, en face du rayon mâquillage. Là, je ne pouvais pas comprendre grande chose. Certains objets, comme moi, restèrent fixe. Des autres, tout le contraire.

Je parvins lentement à comprendre que les objets qui bougaient marchaient à deux pattes mais aussi, des fois, à quatre.

Pour passer le temps je me décida à apprendre à lire et à identifier les couleurs.

Chris-ti-an Di-or. Gi-ven-chy. Bleu-blanc-rouge-vert-jaune.

Et, des fois, un deux-pattes passa qui portait son quatre-pattes dans une boîte à main Lou-is Vuit-ton.

Je n’avais pas de nom dans ce grand magasin de Nice. Je n’étais qu’un mannequin parmi maints. On ne se parlait même pas entre nous.

Après un certain temps on me brisa un peu le front: une étagère fut tombée. Je m’attendai à être soignée, mâquillée, parce que le mâquillage, ça doit exister pour couvrir les bleus et les blessures, non? Hélas, je me retrouva mal emballée de nouveau dans du gros papier bulle, et renvoyée.

Après un grand voyage dans le noir on me déballa encore. Je voyais un joli deux-pattes aux cheveux marrons qui portait beaucoup de mâquillage (la Roche-Posay, je crois bien) devant moi.

Je me trouvai immédiatement avec un nom grâce à ce gentil deux-pattes, bien que je ne comprenne pas encore tout ce qu’elle me disait: ‘Mais Keska elle est lourde, Keska elle est maladroite, Keska il m’a pris à acheter celle-ci aux enchères…’

Am-an-di-ne sur son badge devait être son nom à elle. Son petit magasin s’appella Préf-Modes de Saint Raphaël.

Amandine venda des robes des écharpes des chaussures. Je fus là pour l’aider. Je faisais mon mieux de les rendre bien quand elle m’habillait. Amandine m’installait, d’habitude, sur une chaise dans la rue, de façon détendue. Des fois elle me tournait vers les magasins en face (il y a le Driv-ing Hotel, Co-co-ri-ri, Les Bou-quets de la Côte d’Az-ure, et quelques autres). Je préfèrais quand Amandine m’orientait un petit peu plus en direction du grand bleu mysterieux au fond de la rue.

Il y avait aussi des messages sécrets écrits au trottoir de temps en temps, et j’en aggrandissais mon vocabulaire.

Ca fait du bien à moi, Keska, de me retrouver dehors pour la première fois de mon existence. Je pus ainsi regarder passer de près les deux-pattes et les quatre-pattes de Saint-Raphaël: bien différent des deux-pattes Niçois et beaucoup moins de boîtes à main Lou-is Vuit-ton. Mais il y avait des quatre-pattes un peu partout.

Ils étaient tous les deux, deux-pattes et quatre-pattes, assez bruyants et de couleurs variés. Je préfèrais les quatre-pattes, qui me regardaient dans les yeux et qui des fois me parlaient, en disant ouah ouah ouah.

J’étais quasiment sûre que ce fut les quatres-pattes qui faisaient les sculptures qui apparaissent quelquefois de nuit au trottoir. Je supposais que un deux-pattes dut s’emparer de son quatre-pattes pour lui serrer tres fort le ventre afin de créer un de ces petits miracles luisants en spiral.

Amandine était très bruyant, surtout quand elle hurla un jour: ‘adieu pour toujours espèce de connard’ à son rectangle et le jète sur son bureau en sanglotant. Ensuite en me sortant pour la journée elle marcha dans un grand miracle au trottoir et me fit ‘mais Keska, c’est que cette salété mais enfin…’ avec une voix pleine de chagrin.

A part les deux-pattes et les quatre-pattes il y avait des autres objets qui bougeaient à Saint-Raphaël, surtout ces objets carrés-roulants multicolores qui bougaient beaucoup plus quand il faisait froid l’hiver. Quand il faisait chaud et le soleil brillait ils n’allèrent nulle part, il y en avait autant.

Quand il pleuvait, Amandine se précipita pour me rentrer dans le magasin au cas ou mon plâtre ne fonde ‘comme le coeur de son ancien mari.’ Moi, Keska, je ne vieillis pas beaucoup au fil des années mais j’entendais souvent Amandine dire à voix basse que hélas, elle n’était plus bien jeune.

Pas loin de la boutique il y eut un autre magasin magnifique, Les Atouts à Toutou. Je voyais passer des jolis sacs en papier imprimés de son nom et d’un image d’un quatre-pattes. J’ai cru comprendre que les quatre-pattes s’appellaient donc des ‘tou-tous’. Après un certain temps, moi, Keska, je me rendais compte que je voulais un toutou à moi, un tout petit toutou dans un petit manteau écossais avec une laisse rouge et un collier diamanté tout beau.

Pour cette raison j’étais bien contente quand le chihuahua blanc arriva pour me pisser sur la chaussure. Amandine courrait bien vite en criant ‘non mais, Keska…’ mais j’y étais pour rien, enfin! Le gentil deux-pattes rêveur qui tenait la laisse (rouge, je notais bien) gronda son toutou en disant ‘Pas encore! Bad dog! Mais non, Pélé, non!’ Le toutou, qui portait un beau chapeau d’hiver (achété chez Les Atouts à Toutou j’en étais sûre) me regardait de travers et se marrait.

Je connaissais donc maintenant deux personnes nommées: Amandine – et Pélé le toutou.

Le deux-pattes s’en alla vite fait, mais Pélé m’inclina polîment sa tête en passant. On allait sûrement se revoir.

Le lendemain je voyais le même grand deux-pattes sur le trottoir en face avec un beau bouquet de fleurs-jaunes-mimosa de chez la fleuriste à la main. Il n’osait pas traverser mais il me regarda, fixement et pendant longtemps, avant de repartir.

Le lendemain, Amandine me sorta sur ma chaise et alors rentra au magasin comme toujours pour boire un expresso et regarder son rectangle. Peu après un grand carré-roulant sans-plafond arriva et tout changea très vite. Je me retrouvais deséquilibrée et ensuite soulevée brusquement par des mains puissantes apartenant à un deux-pattes qui portait une masque COVID. Et me voilà qui pouvait regarder enfin autre chose que la rue: le ciel bleu et le soleil et les nuages qui flottèrent tout en haut! Il y avait aussi des pins-parasol et je pouvais enfin, si de justesse, voir que le grand bleu mysterieux fut encore plus bleu et plus mysterieux de près.

Le deux-pattes masqué me bouscula pour me faire sortir du carré-roulant, et il me semblait qu’il dût me connaître déjà parce qu’il me disait ‘mon Dieu, Keska, j’ai fait.’ En franchissant une porte étroite avec difficulté et après une escalade d’escalier encore pire, me voilà dans une petite piece foncée avec un balcon minuscule. Là se trouvait un deux-pattes aux cheveux gris, assis sur une chaise en métale.

‘Papa, voila, maman est de retour,’ disait le premier deux-pattes, en train de hôter sa masque. Je savais déjà son identité en tout cas, parce que Pele le chihuahua m’a accueilli avec un ouah ouah ouah enthousiaste qui ne faisait pas du tout chien de garde.

Le deux-pattes gris au balcon se tourna et poussa un grand cri. Il vint s’installer à coté de moi dans son fauteuil à roulettes et me saisit la main. Ses yeux produisaient une liquide claire – je savais que les jeunes deux-pattes pouvait en fabriquer, mais pas les vieux aussi. Il m’appellait ‘sa Marguerite’. Pélé, assis à ses pieds, me fait un beau sourire de complicité avec un petit clin d’oeil. A coté de nous, dans un grand seau, un bouquet de fleurs-jaunes-mimosas rayonnant.

Après un certain temps j’arrive à comprendre que ces deux-pattes furent père et fils. Pélé venait s’assoir sur mes genoux le soir et m’expliquait beaucoup de choses à travers ses regards tendres et compatisants. J’étais si heureuse de me trouver chez Pélé, Florian et Papa mais je me faisais des soucis aussi. Comment Amandine allait-elle vendre ses robes ses écharpes ses chaussures sans moi, sa Keska?

Un jour j’entends le deux-pattes fils, qui s’appellait Florian, monter de nouveau l’escalier en m’appellant. ‘Mais, Keska, je vais faire?’ Il se versa un verre de liquide ambrée avec une main qui tremblait. Je regardais le gros titre du journal qu’il avait jété sur la table à coté de Papa et moi. Il y avait un image d’Amandine devant Préf-Mode Saint Raphaël: qui à volé le mannequin du Cor des Issambres? Florian fit des allers-et-retours le long du salon en gémissant, mais son Papa, lui, n’avait pas du tout l’air soucieux. Il me tapotait la main et me souriait en disant des gentillesses à sa Marguerite, comme toujours.

Le vendredi matin, on frappa à la porte en bas. Florian descenda et rémonta avec… Amandine! J’étais si heureuse de la revoir. Florian fut devenu tout rouge mais Amandine, toute blême. Elle disait quelque chose de très rapide dont je n’ai pu saisir que ‘ma copine vit tout près…’, ‘elle a tout vu…’ ‘les flics…’ et ‘espèce de perverti…’. Elle avait son rectangle à la main.

Florian, lui, ne put rien dire face à sa colère et essaya de lui offrir de nouveau ses mimosas. Amandine les arracha de ses mains afin de les jéter par terre et marcher dessus avec ses talons rouges, en faisant des gestes et criant à tue-tête.

Florian se mit alors à genoux. Je ne comprennais pas tout ce qu’il disait à Amandine mais il y eut les mots ‘toutou’ et ‘dèces’ et ‘maman’ et ‘démence’ et ‘pitié’.

Apres une minute ou deux, Amandine se pencha pour ramasser les fleurs qu’elle avait pietiné. Florian versa un autre verre de liquide ambrée et le donna à Amandine. Elle s’assit à coté de Papa et prit sa main. Il l’appella sa Marguerite, elle aussi. Je vis une goutte de liquide claire faire une petite ruelle dans le mascara (Clarins) d’Amandine.

Et bien, après un certain temps les choses s’arrangèrent bien. Amandine arriva chez Florian et son Papa avec une petite valise. Elle apporta comme cadeau la paire de chaussures que Pele avait pissé dessus. Florian les installa au jardin pour que Pélé puisse pisser dessus à son gré.

Maintenant je repars au magasin (toujours en passant par l’avenue du grand bleu mysterieux et des pins parasol) mais je ne travaille qu’à temps partiel. Le weekend on dit a Papa que je suis partie au marché ou à la Poste. En semaine je reste avec Pélé et Papa.

A cause de la publicité, les ventes d’Amandine ont quadruplées. Une fois que l’affaire du vol se transforma en jolie histoire d’amour, les Raphaëlois s’arrêtent souvent à coté de moi pour faire des photos devant Préf-Modes et pour s’acheter une robe, une écharpe ou une paire de chaussures.

Amandine me dit des fois maintenant: ‘Keska, il fait beau,’ et ‘Keska, la vie est belle’ et je suis tout à fait d’accord. J’ai deux noms et deux boulots et ça me plaît beaucoup. Et j’ai même un petit toutou à moi tout beau tout blanc avec une laisse rouge et un collier diamanté.

Un chihuahua qui s’appelle Pélé.

L’ecrivain Vee Walker est francophone et francophile. Elle vit dans les Highlands de l’Ecosse. Si ce récit vous a plu, pourquoi pas la laisser un petit message?

Bien que Keska et le toutou ait lieu à Saint-Raphaël, les personnages et les magasins sont tous inventés. Merci aux négociants des commerces qui les ont inspirées.

Le roman de la Grande Guerre de Vee, Major Tom’s War, sera bientôt lancé en édition française sous le titre Grande Guerre, Petits Destins.

Vee va passer les mois de janvier/fevrier 2024 à Saint Raphaël de nouveau et pendant ce temps elle a déjà proposé une résidence littéraire bilingue au lycée St-Exupery et à la bibliothéque de Saint-Raphaël.

Vee fait souvent des interventions auprès des clubs lectures et des atéliers mémoirs en Ecosse et en France.

Au plaisir…

Book review: For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain by Victoria MacKenzie

Look around you for a moment. How big is the room you are in? Imagine it smaller. Men come to wall up the door, while you stand, quiescent, inside. They leave only a tiny window through which all communication will take place and through which your food will be passed.

You will now stay in this room until the day you die, and they will bury you beneath its floor and then topple the walls over you.

The term mystic conjures up mediaeval portraits of female saints and others (generally painted by a bloke, and often a priestly bloke at that). These unfortunate women are generally depicted wearing flimsy, floaty garments, with arms extended upwards, eyes rolling heavenwards in the throes of orgiastic torment.

This very different portrait of two real mystics has been created by a woman, the Fife-based author Victoria MacKenzie. Her book has made two real mediaeval women of whose existence I had been aware, but whose own writings I had not read (beyond the famous …and all manner of things shall be well quotation from Julian of Norwich) relatable and human. All female human life is here: love, marriage, childbirth, loss, grief and Divine solace sought in different ways by very different women.

I enjoyed MacKenzie’s light touch in this work. No eye-rolling here. She allows the original texts to speak within her fiction, holds back from over-explanatory descriptions of the women’s lives, and therefore the reader’s imagination is permitted to follow its own meandering path to a personal conclusion.

I particularly loved the way in which the author describes Julian’s attitude towards entrusting her precious, forbidden book to her maid and gatekeeper Sara simply as a thought which frightens her. I am left to deduce for myself that Sara could easily be in the pay of the bishop for information on any transgression Julian might risk. Illiterate, Sara might also risk ripping up the manuscript and selling fragments as relics for personal gain (she would almost certainly have creamed a tip of some kind off travellers who came for an audience with the anchoress, for that was how the Middle Ages worked).

Julian may be an anchoress confined to a cell for two long decades, but she is no fool.

Likewise, Victoria holds back from telling us why strange, stubborn Margery chooses (or is chosen for?) her own harsh path. Various possibilities – trauma from childbirth, revulsion at sex, a desire to show what she can do as a woman in a male-dominated world – are set out on the table before us, but we are not forced to dine from any particular dish. Such restrained writing is very rare these days.

I had not realised that becoming an anchoress meant being walled up in a cell for life. The unfathomable horror of this voluntary emprisonment, the trials of adjusting to the confinement, and also the eventual advantages of contemplative isolation, are clearly and honestly presented here.

In the end Julian comes to understand her own smallness in the face of God through her confinement and takes comfort from it. Her remarkable journey of faith made me reflect on the way in which many of us are withdrawing from the world through sheer disillusionment: I no longer attend church regularly, no longer buy a paper, no longer listen to the news; I try to live a small life and focus on my family, my writing, my home and garden. The world out there is too flawed and frightening a place for me and for many others at present. And yet as Julian and Margery’s lives show, we cannot escape the place and time in which we dwell altogether, wherever we may hide.

Margery also appears to have died a natural death around 1438. Quite how she avoided being burned for heresy I do not know, but this remarkable read makes me want to find out more about both Margery and Julian.

For Thy Great Pain will be one of the most discussed literary fiction releases of 2023 and is an ideal book group read. Highly recommended. Preorder your copy via this link 👇

Vee Walker is an award-winning author and editor based in the Scottish Highlands. She has no affiliation with Bloomsbury publishing and this is an entirely independent review.

Feathery feasting for Twelve Days?

The earliest published version of The Twelve Days of Christmas dating from the late 1700s

A confession. I have never particularly liked The Twelve Days of Christmas. I prefer my carols bleakly midwinterish. Angels, a star, a manger, the baby, shepherds and three wise men: or failing those a bit of brightly berried pagan greenery. It did not help that at our local church we used to have to get up and sing the fatuous Twelve Days of Nonsense accompanied by witty gestures: extrovert heaven and introvert hell.

These Twelve Days of the Christian calendar begin on Christmas Day, December 25th and end on Twelfth Night, January 5th: the time of year when darkness and light struggle for symbolic and often literal supremacy. January 29th is the fifth day after Christmas – which in the carol offers that most nonsensical gift of all, five gold rings. I suppose the recipient could always melt them down, but really? And why the dramatic pause in the carol on this line in particular? That has always puzzled me – but recently I have stumbled on a solution.

I read somewhere a year or so ago that the carol might really be a celebration of birdlife. The RSPB has since had a good stab at which the ‘other’ birds might be here 👇

While all very interesting to birdlovers, this still does not explain why an ancient carol first sung long before binoculars were invented should have been written purely out of ornithological enthusiasm. It just seems to be a bit unlikely.

The Twelve Days was first published in the late 1700s but must have been sung for far longer. It is an example of a mediaeval cumulative song or rhyme (another is The House that Jack Built, inspiring more recent versions such as A. A. Milne’s The Royal Slice of Bread and Angelo Branduardi’s A la Foire de l’Est). In this early period of human history, people did not so much admire birds as eat them. Artists painted dead birds as gory still life. And dead game birds were frequent gifts, especially when times were hard. I still enjoy an occasional brace of pheasant.

The Twelve Days was a time of conviviality and feasting, supposedly after fasting (fasting is still a serious part of many world religions but it plays little part in modern western Christianity, as our UK obesity levels demonstrate. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday were once strictly kept fast days, and Lent meant giving up rather more than chocolate or booze. In theory a 40-day Christmas fast should begin on 15th November).

Mediaeval winters were harsh and birds were eaten rather than meat or fish as ponds and rivers froze, seas were rough and as it was difficult to hunt larger animals in snow. Birds fly slower in the cold and are easier to catch.

Supposing The Twelve Days is not so much a carol as a menu?

In this light, let’s see if we can make more sense of the non-bird elements to the carol:

In a pear-tree sounds very like est un perdrix – you don’t pronounce the x in French. So the first line means ‘a partridge in English is un perdrix in French’. French chefs cooking for English tables are no modern phenomenon. Was the carol-writer lampooning a French chef with a feeble grasp of English and, perhaps, rather an ardent reputation for buying favours with food?

Two turtle doves (delicious, so hunted almost to extinction) and three French (sic) hens would have certainly enhanced any feast.

Four calling birds: well, all birds call, don’t they – but colley-birds are blackbirds (the Latin for the whole thrush family is Turdus, so let’s all just be thankful that we don’t now sing about ‘four bonny turds’ or suchlike). Colley-birds were popular pie ingredients.

Five gold rings too are birds – I have heard goldrings identified as yellowhammers and goldfinches and even ring-necked pheasants: I think though that the grand melody pause in the middle of the carol is a musical joke, and so a goldring may in fact be a goldcrest, the tiniest British bird of all, which nests in little fluffy balls woven from lichen, wool and moss, hanging from the topmost branches of conifers.

Six geese and seven swans – obviously enough to satisfy any hungry family. But eight maids a-milking? The RSPB suggests a tenuous link with the nightjar, a rare, shy bird said to steal milk from cattle while in fact catching of insects attracted by the bright light inside. I cannot find any records of eating a nightjar anywhere.

Far more likely for the ‘eight maids a-milking’ are squabs, young fat wood pigeons fed milk by their mothers, the only birds to lactate (the milky substance is then regurgitated). Squab pie was a hugely-rated mediaeval treat and pigeons – gentle, mild mothers – have an association with the Virgin ‘maid’ Mary.

Early versions of the song change the position of the final four verses. In the social order then the lords would have been at the top, then the ladies, then the pipers and the less-skilled drummers.

The nine drummers would surely be green woodpeckers (or the lovelier old name, yaffle), ten pipers could be sandpipers or curlew which both have piping calls – all birds eaten by the desperate. For eleven ladies dancing why not great-crested grebe, mirroring each others’ movements on the water in a love dance. Water-birds like grebe were reckoned to be the equivalent of fish so could be eaten on Fridays and other fast-days.

As for the twelve lords-a-leaping, this could be any member of the grouse family jumping about in the rowdy heat of the lek, driving off competition to attract the best mate. In my new version (below) I have chosen the king of them all, the huge, rare and shy capercaillie (nb rhymes with cap not cape). Yes, even the poor now-endangered caper could be eaten, although it required burying for several weeks and tasted strongly of pine needles even then. Bleurgh.

All this set me pondering the ghastly culinary process of ‘engastration’, an echo of which persists in our stuffing of turkeys with sausagemeat, chestnuts or herbs. Engastration means placing a boned bird one within the other, the outer layer being absolutely enormous (think a bustard, engastrated almost to extinction, or a mute swan) and each inner bird reducing in size like a Russian doll. The French (naturellement) refined this into le rôti sans pareil – the matchless roast – where no less than twenty birds were stuffed one inside the other, and the smallest bird – perhaps a poor goldcrest – being finished off with an olive stuffed with a single caper (everyone now vegetarian? Grand…). This monster could take a day to roast and how food poisoning was averted is a mystery: perhaps each layer was part-roasted before enveloping it with the next?

I am now convinced that The Twelve Days of Christmas is simply a send-up of a vast and varied flock of edible birds as a novelty showpiece at a noble banquet, or series of great midwinter feasts (so bon appétit to all… 🤢).

If this is the case, should we instead be singing The Twelve Days of Feathers – perhaps something that goes like this:

On the twelfth day of Christmas my twitcher sent to me:

Twelve capers-caillie (now lekking daily)

Eleven water-dancing grebe (posing, prancing)

Ten pipers sandy (little legs so bandy)

Nine yaffles drumming (set the forest thrumming)

Eight squabs all milky (fed by pigeons silky)

Seven swans a-swimming (nest by rivers brimming)

Six geese a-laying (pond to stop them straying)

In high moss-ball nests do swing; one-two-three, four, five goldring!

Four colley-birdus (in Latin – Turdus!)

Three French hens (laying eggs in pens)

Two turtle doves (cooing of their loves)

And a partridge (c’est un perdix – English from French translated, you see).

Have a very happy and healthy 2023 everyone, and if you have enjoyed this blog please comment, follow and share 😊.


Brief Encounters – in Madeira

A short story for Christmas 2022 by Vee Walker

Copyright of the author: reproduction with written consent only

It was the noise he had not expected, as the teapot slipped from his grasp to shatter into a million shards across the polished terrace tiles of the Belmond Reid’s Palace Hotel.

In the quiet gardens below, a slight woman in her fifties looked up in surprise. Oh dear, she thought. Someone will be for it. Gonçales was not one to put up with mistakes of that nature.

Faith had almost taken afternoon tea up there herself that day. She had imagined the comfortable familiarity of the exquisitely light sandwiches and dainty cakes. It was something she had often done with Gerald on his birthday or their anniversary: but at the last minute instead she had asked Gonçales if he would mind if she went down and strolled in the hotel grounds. ‘Senhora Southgate. Of course.’ His eyes had brimmed briefly with professional compassion, before he turned to click his fingers, allocating her table to a couple of delighted tourists, lurking in case of just such an opportunity.

Faith walked along the terrace and down the steps and wandered along the pebble-cobbled path as far as she could go She stood there for a long time beneath the ancient palms, quite still, looking out towards the cloud-laden horizon.

On the terrace above, guests had jumped to their feet in consternation at the noise and mess. Senior staff appeared from nowhere, profuse with apology, calling for brooms, for fresh tea. As soon as he heard the phrase ‘of course, no question of a charge, madam,’ the waiter knew he was doomed.

He had already said he was sorry to the large, loud British lady with blue hair but she had ignored him to point out his name label, with incomprehensible mirth, to her companion. ‘Well – that explains a lot, Sue,’ she said with a smirk, dabbing at her linen trousers, now now extensively mottled with lemon verbena tea-leaves.

Manuel had not really wanted to work at the Reid’s Palace anyway. He had tried to secure a job with his cousin Ricardo at the café of the Jardim Municipal, but they had just taken on a youngster full-time. Ricardo’s uncle had however worked as a pastry chef in the Reid’s kitchen for years. He wangled Manuel the job off the back of the sob story: an unforeseen change of fortune leading to a return from London, England, to his parental home. And a job was a job, nao?

Any Madeiran (unless perhaps they were his parents) could relate to this kind of broken dream with compassion.

Manuel stood before the manager’s desk, on to which he had just placed the smart white uniform with its stiff collar. The man eyed him, wearily, but not unkindly. ‘This is not the standard of service we uphold at the Belmond Reid’s Palace. And it is not as though it is the first time, Rodrigues, is it?’

‘I know. It is just, you know, those teapots are heavy, the tables very small…’ He could see the fancy porcelain tea-sets had been commissioned without the least practicality in mind, probably even without measuring the tiny tables they were to grace. Manuel was a practical man and had been mentally redesigning a rather better set when the teapot had slipped from his grasp, mid-pour.

‘…maybe so, but no-one else has smashed a teapot, stained a guest’s clothing and entirely disrupted tea service today. Have they?’

The point was unanswerable.

‘I like you, Rodrigues. I do. You are a good waiter when you are being a waiter and your spoken English is remarkable, but today, you forgot your job. Again. It is hard to come home, I know, and your head, I think it is often still in England. Sim?’

Manuel looked at the floor, humiliated. How could he protest otherwise? He nodded assent.

His manager was writing a number on a piece of paper. ‘Look. I think, perhaps, a different place to work, more relaxed, that might work better for you? I will speak to my sister tonight. Ring her tomorrow, OK? Good luck, Rodrigues. Boa tarde.’

With that, and an envelope containing his outstanding pay, he was dismissed.

As Manuel made his way to the Rodoeste bus stop he passed an entirely unremarkable woman in a lavender dress. He would have missed her altogether if she had not stumbled, reaching out to grasp the hibiscus-covered railing, giving a little moan as she did so. ‘Madam?’ he asked, quickly doubling back. ‘Are you unwell? Shall I escort you back into the hotel?’

‘No, no. Not there…’ Gerald was everywhere, even in the dappled sunlight on the cobbles of the gardens below the Reid’s Palace. ‘…just give me a moment. It’s just a silly dizzy spell.’ Only then did Manuel notice the neat surgical dressing on one side of her temple, half-concealed by a straight grey fringe.

‘I am fine, really,’ she said, opening blue-grey eyes with a ghost of a smile, ‘I had an accident a few weeks ago. From time to time everything still just spins. I was going to walk back into Funchal to get some air, but…’

‘No, that is not wise. Let me get you a taxi.’ Manuel flicked his fingers at the watching doorman. ‘Where are you going?’

A good question.

Thank you,’ replied the woman faintly, adding, after a curious pause, ‘I think I am going to the Cathedral.’

Manuel rapidly reasoned that he had nothing better to do and that the lift would probably save him the bus fare. ‘My shift has just ended, madam. I am going in that direction too. Allow me to see you there safely?’ She looked at him and appeared to make a judgement of his character from her brief scrutiny. ‘Thank you. If you’re sure? That would be very kind.’

In the taxi the woman was not especially talkative. Manuel ascertained that she had injured her head in a boating accident, that was all. He said it could happen to anyone, while thinking privately that tourists really should not be allowed out of the Funchal Marina unaccompanied.

Once at the Cathedral, she paid for the taxi, as he had hoped. He could see she had regained a little of the colour in her face and so he left her there, turning for the bus station with a wave of his hand.

Faith said Obrigada and paused on the steps, watching him go. How nice ordinary people could be, she thought, fighting back tears, before turning to enter the great tranquil building, bright with gilding and now bedecked with the glorious greens and reds of Advent. She stumbled again, but this time over the uneven polished marble hat adorning the tomb of some cardinal or other. Perhaps he had been buried there as an act of piety. Or as a warning to sinners?

The crack of wood on bone.

The ancient building enfolded her into its dark and golden heart.

Sitting on his bus as it wound its way up above the clouds, Manuel was thinking, as usual, about his daughter. Mehal was ten years old and he missed her so much it hurt. He tried not to think about his wife – he could not quite think of her as his former wife, his ex-wife, not yet – but she was the mother of his child. Their child.

The business had been going so well: the cleaning had begun as an enterprise where they themselves had cleaned the houses, but soon they had recruited more staff, all hard-working fellow Portuguese-speakers. Then his wife had had the idea of expanding into a car valeting business, and Manuel had worked longer and longer hours. Had then returned unexpectedly early one day to find his life changed forever between two heartbeats, as he heard his wife laugh, throatily, upstairs, and a stranger’s voice reply.

Manuel had turned on his heel, slamming his way out of the house to make sure they understood, then changed his mand and stormed back in just as his rival was coming downstairs. Manuel had grabbed him by his expensive lapels and slammed his smug head against the wall, until his wife screamed at him to stop and he faltered, for what was the point, when all was broken. The man was through the front door and gone before he could so much as look at him. Only later did his wife identify the fellow as one of their earliest valeting clients. Manuel remembered then that she had commented at the time that this man looked a little like Cristiano Ronaldo. So while he, Manuel, had been buffing up the paintwork of his bright red Porsche, they…

He did not speak to his wife, although she tried to speak to him. He could not look at her, could not say her name to others. He stayed only to make sure that things felt right for Mehal, but slept on the sofa that night. The following day he had walked her to school, hugged her fiercely and said that Daddy was going away on business for a while. Then he left on the first flight to Madeira that he could catch, refusing all food and drink on the plane, his fists and heart still clenched. Curled around his phone in the departure and arrival halls, he willed the phone screen to bring him the message from her to say it was all a terrible mistake, and to beg his forgiveness.

When the message came, it told him instead that she loved this man and he her; that their affair had already lasted for more than a year; that she had wanted to tell him on so many occasions but it had been too difficult. And she said he, Manuel, had worked too hard, they had become like strangers. He threw his phone across his tiny childhood room at that, cracking the screen against the rough plaster of the wall, but it did no good.

That had been eleven months ago. He had not contested the divorce, for what would have been the point. She took the house – it was Mehal’s home, how could he fight that – and liquidised her stake in the business too, which had meant a swift, cheap sale to an eager competitor.

And now here he was, living once more on his parent’s smallholding in a room with a window overlooking the family banana plantation. It was worse than if he had never left, for then, he would not have known what it was to have everything and then to lose it all.

Why here and not the little English church? Faith shivered at the recent memory of the funeral: an ordeal from beginning to end, crowded with Gerald’s sailing friends. Some attended, she suspected, purely to see how Gerald’s mousy widow was bearing up. Worst of all, at the wake, Gerald’s best friend Colin, a widower himself, had got drunk and told her she could not possibly now manage alone. He had made it very plain that he expected, after a decent interval, to step into Gerald’s shoes.

No. She needed somewhere warmer, somewhere kinder to retreat to and try to order her thoughts.

She gazed a while at the crib, smiling at the simple gifts of passionfruit and bread left at the feet of the jumbo baby Jesus. Why was He quite so huge? She wondered fleetingly if an unwelcome visitor had pocketed the infant of the correct size, leading the priests to decide on a cuckoo-in-the-nest approach. Crimes could occur in the most unexpected of places, after all.

Colin had been one of the reasons Gerald had decided to move to Madeira, as he had lived there during his own naval years. As Colin told everyone through his over-long eulogy, Gerald’s first love was – had always been – the sea. The wretched man kept breaking down as he read it. All Faith could think of was how annoyed Gerald would be at such emotional behaviour.

What might it be like, she wondered timidly, to have a child of her own to support her now? They had tried for a few years, of course, when Gerald was on leave, but then their efforts had faltered, initially to Faith’s relief, then, once she realised the finality of it, to her sorrow. ‘No point in shedding tears over what’s not for you,’ he had said, surprised to find her snuffling into a hankie one day in the kitchen. ‘Now buck up, old thing, and make us some lunch, eh?’ As they ate their (white, sliced) bread and (Heinz Cream of Tomato) soup, all further talk was of his new yacht and the next race.

Colin should have been crewing that race day, of course, which the Madeiran press had taken to calling the Day of the Great Wave. He had inconsiderately (in Gerald’s view) broken his ankle the day before the last and longest day of the Madeira Sailing Club season, the one Gerald would plan for and anticipate all year.

Faith remembered the dread she had felt when Gerald slammed down the phone and turned to her to tell her she would ‘have to do’ as his crew.

Gerald had first brought Faith to Madeira on honeymoon when she was an awkward nineteen year old and he over twice her age (but a good catch, her mother had said so). They had stayed at the Reid’s Palace then, in a room with a tiny balcony overlooking the bay. ‘The old formula. Half my age plus seven! Hah!’ Gerald trotted that one out to the (impervious) hotel staff and then at every cocktail party they attended in those early years: until they both grew older and greyer and their difference in years ceased to be as significant.

In England Faith had settled into life as a naval wife quite readily, finding it easy enough to fill her days with charity committee work and various craft pursuits. Gerald’s retirement was however quite a different matter. She had struggled to adapt to his constant presence and especially to his expectations of three meals a day and a bit of baking in between, eh? His suggestion – no, more than that – his assumption that she would comply with the prospect of Madeira as their home in retirement was correct. Faith needed a change of scene too, if for different reasons.

Faith had bought a Linguaphone course and began to teach herself Portuguese. ‘What on earth do you want to bother with all that for?’ Gerald had scoffed in genuine perplexity. ‘The thing about these Madeirans is that they all speak such bloody marvellous English.’ After the move he would become impatient when she tried to order from the menu in stumbling Portuguese, talking over her with a brusque ‘yes, yes. Two white coffees and make it snappy, eh?’ Nonetheless, she learned enough to be able to communicate in basic Portuguese and that gave her a small sense of accomplishment.

She now made her way to the cathedral pew which gave her a sideways view of Our Lady of Fatima. As usual, the heavy-crowned statue’s dark and compassionate eyes appeared to seek her out. In spite of her name, Faith was not particularly religious and could not account for the sense of connection she felt with this plaster effigy among so many. Unless it was that the painted rays (presumably emanating from her sanctity) reminded her of the stormy light on the horizon on the day of the race. She had the sense somehow that the Lady had been present, that she understood how terrible it had been.

They were in second place when the vicious offshore easterly kicked up out of nowhere, sending racing vessels, including the safety boats, spinning in a multitude of different directions. Suddenly they found themselves alone, miles offshore, on a stretch of open sea as the seas heaved and the heavens split. Gerald’s warning cry of ‘Watch out, you bloody stupid woman!’ came too late. The boom caught her on the side of the head and sent her flying into the stern, snapping the rudder, seconds before the vast wave crashed over them.

Her knuckles tightened on the pew-back as the eyes of Our Lady of Fatima caught and held her own. The boom. The rudder. That sickening crunch of wood against bone. Could she ever rid her mind of it all?

‘Well, I do not know what we are to do with him,’ Sandrina said to Maria a few weeks later, the senior staff at the busy restaurant and gift shop Varadouro in Câmara de Lobos. ‘Just look at him. He greets one, then maybe two customers. Then he just stands there, staring into space, as they pass our menu and get snapped up by Diogo next door.’ She gestured to the empty tables. See? It is lunchtime. Three cruise ships are in. We should be full!’

Maria smilingly completed a sale of a striped Madeira T-shirt to a plump tourist, thanking her in flawless German. ‘Early days. Give him a bit more time,’ she said kindly. ‘Look. Now he is talking to someone.’

‘Yes,’ hissed Sandrina. ‘But see who it is… she will not eat here, will she?’

Faith walked past the line of restaurant staff (whom Gerald had always referred to disparagingly as hookers) smiling and shaking her head to to every offer of a menu, a table. Then one voice said, ‘Senhora. How is the head?’ and stopped her in her tracks.

‘Oh. Oh, goodness, it’s you, isn’t it…’


‘Manuel, of course. But don’t you work at…’

‘…not every day,’ he said hastily. ‘Would you like…’

‘…to see your menu? Thank you, but I just ate. At home.’

At home?

‘Perhaps a beer? A coffee then? A pastel de nata?

She smiled again and there in the sunlight he thought she was perhaps a little younger than he had first believed. He showed her to a table and soon established that she lived in Madeira and had done so for many years. The coffee arrived. He watched her bite into the pastel de nata, and was shocked to feel himself respond. She complimented his English. He told her he had lived in London, had had a business there. Told her in a flood of words about his wife and about Mehal and how much he missed his little one.

Then he saw Maria watching him. He realised that he had actually sat down at the woman’s table, introduced himself and been talking to her for a good ten minutes. Standing up again so fast he almost knocked over an elderly Dutch customer Sandrina was showing to his seat, he asked Faith, a little desperately, if she would now like to buy a handbag.

‘A handbag? Why would I want a handbag?’ Faith looked at the younger man, then at the other restaurant staff. ‘Ah. Are you in trouble?’

‘A little, perhaps.’ He flushed. He needed this job, yes, but did not want this woman to see how much.

‘Well, perhaps this old bag is also a little heavy.’ Gerald had given it to her for a birthday, or Christmas perhaps. It was one of many leather handbags piled in the bottom of the wardrobe where his suits still hung. ‘Come on then, show me your bag selection – Manuel.’

Minutes later Faith left the Varadouro shop clutching a cork bag she did not need. Tourist tat, Gerald would have called it: but she noticed, with surprise and appreciation, how light it was, and liked its pretty printing of blue azulejos. She decided to keep and use it and strolled on down the quay, smiling at the statue of old Sir Winston, eternally painting the bay.

‘So?’ said Manuel to Sandrina, hopefully.

‘So. You sold a 40E bag to a woman who clearly did not want it but felt sorry for you. Otherwise she spent 6E on one cup of coffee and a cake and was here for one hour. During this time, several families walked past who could have filled that table and all the others and spent ten times more.’

Sinto muito. You see, I met her already, the lady…’

‘So you know who she is?’ demanded Sandrina. ‘Senhora Southgate? She is that yacht widow. It was in the paper. The one whose husband drowned on the Day of the Great Wave.’

‘That terrible storm. Poor souls,’ added Maria, piously crossing herself. ‘That is their villa, see, up there on the clifftop. She sits on the balcony and looks at the sea, all day sometimes.’

Manuel lasted another two weeks at the Varadouro. The final straw for Sandrina was when, as he gazed across the bobbing boats in the bay to the balcony above, he allowed a cheese and tomato omelette to slither into the lap of a regular customer. The gentleman was very nice about it, and being British, still insisted on eating it, but all the same.

Sandrina could not have been kinder when she fired him. ‘It is no good, meu amigo. You are simply the worst hoj we have ever had,’ she said sweetly, one arm around his shoulder. ‘Look. Christmas is coming. The lights will be switched on at the weekend. Maybe you can help your mum and dad with the chestnut stall? And maybe think about what it is you want, Manuel, sim?’

A week after this, Manuel Rodruigez was sitting on a three-legged stool, under a smoky, striped Madeiran awning on the promenade in central Funchal the day the Christmas lights were switched on. It had been some years since he had seen this and their twinkling splendour took him by surprise. They were instantly everywhere, it seemed, delicately sparkling up every tree, enhancing every lamp-post, flickering along every tiny road snaking up the steep hills above the town. As he gazed, the knife with which he had been slicing open chestnuts slipped, nicking his thumb. He cursed under his breath. His mother dismissed him with a jerk of her head. ‘Blood and castanhas do not mix. Go, boy. Walk, look at the lights. Until it stops flowing.’

‘Until he finds his wits, you mean.’ His father’s grumble was meant to be overheard. There were two kinds of Madeirans to his parents – those who stayed and those who left. They had never visited him in London. Now he had returned they had made room for him again but did not quite know who he was. They had not once spoken about his wife. The photograph he had sent of Mehal as a baby was still propped up on the dresser but the photograph of their wedding day had gone. The day he arrived home, his mother had just made a bit more cozido, his father had handed him a knife and they had gone out together in silence to tend the banana plants which grew in front of their small, precious chestnut wood. Nothing was said. Nothing would ever be said.

Faith was also startled by the lights – she had forgotten that it was the day of the switch-on – and turned away from their brightness towards the dark face of the sea, now reflecting a million tiny stars. She had taken a decision: she would soon return to England. There was too much sea here. Too many memories she could never escape. In her head, the cycle began again. The boom. The rudder. The crunch of wood on bone.

As he walked, Manuel took snaps of the miraculous lights and WhatsApped them to Mehal. She messaged back that she and her Mum loved them and he felt his heart contract. It was then he looked up and caught sight of a familiar figure some distance ahead. He quickened his step, trying to keep sight of her among the excited crowds, faces and phones turned upwards to the brilliant lights. He lost her, looking all around, then thought he glimpsed her silhouette. She was walking out along the unlit concrete breakwater inside the pebble beach which had been constructed. A place for lovers, not a woman alone. What was she thinking of?

He began to follow her.

Faith was thinking of Gerald as she walked. Of how, that day, he had made her row him out to the yacht in their tiny dinghy to build up your muscles, dear, as he said: (the dinghy was named Titanic – as close to humour as Gerald would ever now achieve).

Faith had learned long before that doing whatever Gerald demanded was always easier than trying to reason with him, or (worse still) to argue. Her hand went again to her forehead to trace the scar where the boom had hit her, and where other bruises had once bloomed, then faded.

Minutes later she regretted her choice of route, as she glanced over her shoulder to see a man was following her. Madeira was such a safe place, but recently there had been talk of a foreign gang targeting the unwary. What would Gerald have done?

Shout. If in doubt, Gerald always shouted.

He grew closer and she spun round and yelled, ‘What the hell do you think you are doing?’ just as Manuel realised his error. ‘Lady! No. Mrs Southgate. Please. I am so sorry…’ Too late, he saw her handbag – the very cork handbag he had sold her at the Varadouro shop – slip from her startled shoulder and into the waves lapping the breakwater.

‘Blast!’ said Faith, torn between relief and anger. Then ‘No!’ but it was already too late. Manuel had kicked off his shoes and dived into the sea, fully clothed. ‘Oh God, no!’ Where was he? She counted the seconds, her own breath held.

Diabo!’ Even in December it was hardly cold, but it was still a shock. This had better be worth it, thought Manuel. And thank God cork floated. Swimming one-handed, the wretched bag in the other, he pulled for the concrete caltrops which formed the shoreline, watching Faith Southgate bend to pick up his shoes, then rush back towards him.

He held up the dripping bag for her but as Faith clambered down to take it, she hesitated. As she did so, Manuel’s spare hand brushed a spiny ouriço-do-mar and he yelped. She reached for the bag and his other hand and pulled him from the sea.

🌲 And so it is that half an hour later we find Manuel and Faith, Manuel wrapped in a blanket, drinking poncha at a table at the friendly little café of the Jardim Municipal. Once Ricardo and Nicolau have stopped laughing at his plight, kind Rubina finds Manuel an unlikely assortment of clothing left behind by café visitors over the years. Jéssica produces a sewing needle and Faith bends over Manuel’s hand to remove the sea urchin spines. She feels his hand shaking. Cold? No. Looking up into his face, she sees that he is laughing. She thinks then that he is perhaps a little older than she first thought, and he has kind eyes. She catches the moment and laughs with him. It has been funny, after all.

‘Faith… I may call you Faith now…?’

She nods, continuing to probe his thumb for spines. He does not have the heart to tell her that boiling water would melt away the pain, for he is enjoying her hand, warm and soft against his own.

‘For a moment there, when I was in the water, I thought you would not take the bag; would not help me?’ Faith lifts her needle and looks away from him.

‘I know. Forgive me. It just reminded me of… of the race. The boom. The rudder.’ The crack of wood on bone. He sees her touch her head oddly, as though it is not her own.

He takes her hand in his this time and holds it tight. Perhaps his future could be different with this woman, he thinks. Perhaps their paths could lead them back to England together – a new life for them both?

As for Faith, she may be smiling up at Manuel, but she is also far out at sea; the boom, the rudder. She scrambles up, blood streaming down her face, drenched by the same wave which has just washed Gerald overboard. And yes, there he is, floundering in his life jacket as another wave breaks over him. He comes up gasping, roaring at her, swearing at her, ordering her to help him, dammit.

It is then she feels her cold fingers tighten around the stiff wooden handle of the dinghy paddle.

And so let us leave them there, Faith Southgate and Manuel Rodrigues, strolling together through the glittering December splendours of Funchal: two people who may, just may, be able to save one another.

Feliz Natal

Vee Walker is an author who loves Madeira. Last year’s short story can be read in her blog too. Although she has borrowed names from a few lovely people all characters and events are fictional. All places are real. Corrections to Portuguese and details welcome!

Vee’s prizewinning novel Major Tom’s War is available direct from as an ereader and paperback edition.

Why not join Vee and her friend the art historian Eleanor Bird for Twelve Days – a feast of seasonal painting, poetry and prose at 3pm UK time on December 28th 2022 : book here 😎

Locally Heroic psycho-geography

Hello. My name is Vee and for the past forty years or so – most of my adult life in fact – I have lived, part-time at least, in the village of Ferness.

For those who have never visited, Ferness is to be found simultaneously both on the east and the west coast of northern Scotland. It is a wee fishing community with one pub, one church and no school (there’s just the one baby…).

As a Fernessian, I love a ceilidh in the local drinking-hole. I have a weakness for red telephone boxes. Also for pimply biker boys named Ricky. I buy extra normal shampoo, occasionally have aspirations to mermaidhood and avoid menus which include rabbit.

Especially rabbits named Trudi.

Bill Forsyth’s extraordinary film Local Hero is forty years old and to celebrate this anniversary, author and journalist Jonathan Melville has written a book about its creation.

I appreciate after this interesting read that it could have been a very different film: it is only thanks to Forsyth’s genius in casting and then the subtleties of the process of editing that the nuanced scenes we love have been whittled into existence.

The book is structured by describing iconic scenes chronologically in each chapter (so impossible to avoid spoilers, but no-one who has not seen the film is likely to buy the book anyway). Each of these scenes is followed by a description of a different aspect of the making of the film, with many interesting crew and cast comments woven in.

Forsyth seems to feel he has said enough about Local Hero already, so was not interviewed for the book, although he did provide the author with some rare and wonderful photographs. Melville has done well to transcribe and blend 2013 directorial interviews with fresh material drawn from other members of the production team and cast.

And what a cast it is: Denis Lawson, Peter Riegert, Jenny Seagrove, Fulton Mackay, Jennifer Black, Peter Capaldi (then unknown) and the Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster among so many other familiar faces. The early discarded options for the casting of some of these key characters are hair-raising (I won’t spoil the discovery for you). Forsyth was particularly insistent on Riegert playing MacIntyre, saying that without him there would be no film.

Local Hero has a lot to answer for me personally. It evokes the oil boom cowboy Highlands of my 1970s//80s youth. And there was a turning point in my life 20 years ago when I faced a straight choice between moving from England to France or moving to back to the Scottish Highlands. By then I had seen the film so many times that I no longer needed to: Mark Knopfler’s seductive score – my desert island music for sure – wound itself into my subconscious to such a degree that the film played on a loop in my head whenever I heard it. I realised I was homesick down there, out of place in the brash England of the early noughties. I longed for Ferness – and I came home to the Black Isle (where I was brought up) to find it.

In a way, for the next few decades, I did.

I know this may sound a bitty pompous, but the thing about Ferness is the essential truth of the place. It is a decent representation of the less worldly Highlands I was raised in. Forty years on, there are still echoes of Ferness in Black Isle life. People who have never left (if they are not farmers or landowners) still manage somehow to exist, with good humour and with dignity, adapting to whatever it is life throws at them.

Scratch the surface however and both Ferness and the Black Isle are rather less Brigadoon and rather more Wicker Man. In Local Hero, the people of Ferness seem intent on becoming rich through an oil deal which they know, and yet do not understand, will destroy their homes and way of life: they will not let anyone, even one of their own, stand in the way.

The dark heart of my home became apparent during Lockdown as various toxic local grievances ignited (there is another screenplay there, Bill, if you’re reading this). While 2020 Black Islers sniped and snarled and vilified each other on Facebook until the pieces settled again into an altered normality, 1980s Ferness folk (when Felix Happer’s sanity, or possibly insanity prevails to ‘save’ their village) simply accept their change in community destiny with typical Highland fatalism.

Both communities emerge from their time of trial with everything and nothing changed: they can never go back, but not going forward is not an option either. Ach weel

Much as I love Mark Knopfler’s music, I am not altogether sure about the wisdom of the musical version which opened before Lockdown and has not yet resurfaced. Perhaps Forsyth sensed the impending schmaltzification of his masterpiece and that was why he withdrew from further involvement.

Bill Forsyth is said now to be uncertain of his virtues as a director. What a shame, for the man is a genius. This could have been a rather different book had he been interviewed for it, but he seems now to have distanced himself from the film world, and for good reason. There is no place among the money- driven Hollywood-and-Netflix hot air for his special brand of quiet, clever creativity, more’s the pity.

To me Local Hero was, is and always will be the perfect film. It is tender and honest and steers clear of that saccharin twee-ness which is always the risk in film-making about northern Scotland.

Thank God there has never been any question of a remake…

An index for future film buffs would (in my view) have been the only useful addition to this very good tribute to a cherished piece of Scottish cinematography. Well done Mr Melville. It will enhance any Christmas stocking it happens to land in.

Happy reading!

Vee Walker is an author and editor from the Black Isle. Her first novel Major Tom’s War was a prizewinner at the 2019 SAHR Military History Fiction Awards: it is available in paperback and audiobook from and all good booksellers.

Why not join her this Christmas for an escapist hour of seasonal art, stories and readings:

Local Hero – Making a Scottish Classic by Jonathan Melville is available from Polaris Publishing at £16.99.

Walking though Treacle

I suggest this blog is read only by those who have already read Alan Garner’s Booker-shortlisted novel Treacle Walker. As there will be as many interpretations of the book as there are readers, I would not want to spoil the experience for anyone.

When I finished reading Treacle Walker by Alan Garner for the first time, I confessed on Twitter to not having ‘got it’. This came as a shock, as I had expected to love it.

The response to this was interestingly polarised: some agreed with relief, others disagreed with a passion, but few could put into words precisely why they felt the way they did about Treacle Walker. One or two folk then went so far as to say said that they would not now buy the book because of my initial knee-jerk reaction. That really bothered me: I would hate to put any reader off buying any book, let alone a book by a favourite author, Alan Garner. All reading is subjective after all and even Garner himself is reluctant to say what his books are about, leaving that to his readers to determine. Encouraged by several friends on Twitter, I decided to persevere and try to fathom what it was that had made me react as I did.

To summarise, I found the book too divergent from my anticipated ‘treat’ read to enjoy. I found parts of it alienating – and in places it drew me back to times of my life I cannot recall with any fondness. I felt left behind by the crafted cleverness of the book from time to time and unsure whether the author would care about this – or the opposite. It was an unforgettable but unsettling read.

Alan Garner played a huge part in shaping my childhood and adolescent psychology through books such as The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Owl Service and Red Shift. Brought up in that 1960s/70s era of Garner and Cooper and le Guin. I believed (and beneath a thin veneer of sensible adulthood still believe) in the kind of magic they fashioned so well: the magic of parallel worlds and thin places; of primeval forces only partly understood by young people who have the power to act for good or evil, and who often have that choice forced upon them. (J K Rowling clearly read them all too, but let’s not dwell on that…)

Since then, other than his excellent memoir Where shall we run to, I have not read Garner’s more recent works, and this may well be my issue. I was hoping to revisit some childhood joys through Treacle Walker but what I got instead was something darker, something which has evolved far beyond: magic, yes – but this is omega magic, not alpha.

Treacle Walker is a deliberately spare and (I would argue) incomplete book. Chapters have gulfs of incomprehension between them, perhaps deliberately intended as disconnected moments of lucidity, perhaps not. I found myself wondering, churlishly, if anyone else would have been able to publish this slim volume at all, let alone make the Booker shortlist. These days it is the job of a battalion of agents and editors to make sure that a book emerges complete into the world: a whole ready-to-eat meat pie, not a bag of ingredients for pastry and directions to the local slaughterhouse. Garner has had the clout and the nerve to resist this pressure and to do what he wants but many of us are unused to such challenging and experimental writing as this. It made me think, but not always in a good way.

Wading into Treacle Walker felt a little like reading Kit Williams’ golden hare-hunt Masquerade for the first time: all the clues are there, reader, so now it’s down to you to find the treasure. As the reader’s own response directs the individual’s take on Treacle Walker, I was reminded of a favourite Freeman Tilden quote from the 1950s, meanings are in people, not things.

Garner also uses a great wadge of Latin early on, presented for some reason as an optometric chart. I am of the last generation to ‘do’ Latin at school, so could approximate a translation as I read, but I must surely be in a minority. How many readers must have given up then, alienated? Why does any book have to become a test of intellectual staying power? Bother to delve further and the same words are, apparently, to be found inscribed on the Philosopher’s Stone created by Carl Jung: very clever, but really, what is the point of it all?

Even though some way further on Treacle Walker approximates a translation of this Latin chart/inscription, he renders exilis as ‘small’ (which would surely be more parvum?) whereas its meaning here should be more ‘thin’ or ‘slight’. This thinness, this boundary between different worlds of consciousness which wear away as life draws to a close, is central to the book. Why say small here, not thin? Is it just to see if anyone notices a deliberate error? If so, at this point the double-bluffing cleverness of it all has lost me. This is a provocative book in the original Latin sense of the word, pro vocare, to call forth a voice.

I was also deeply uncomfortable with the voices – the painful memories – which reading Treacle Walker evoked for me personally. The final section I found I was reading with breath held and in dread.

Why? Well, treacle will always be bitter-sweet stuff. It is the slightly sinister aftertaste of Halloween scones. It is the sticky, dark interior of Christmas cake and plum pudding, loved by some, loathed by others. And anyone who has spent time with someone who is dying will know that the smell (or stink, for let words be nice) of death is sweet and, yes, treacly. It catches in the back of the throat. It remains in the nose and in the tiny cavities of the brain, for weeks, even months after the bereavement, so that long after you know you cannot, you think you can still smell it. Alan Garner must have encountered that smell of death on many occasions in his long life. It is not something often spoken of, nor is it something ever forgotten.

This above all, I think, is what made me reject the book at first exposure. I instantly read Joe as the soul of a dying man (and by extension the bogman Thin Amren as his body). Joe lives alone in a house which consists of just three rooms. (My own remembered childhood home is now a labyrinth of rooms and mock-Tudor timbering surrounded by box hedges. It smells of peas, and the giant summer house nearby of TCP. How about your own?) Early memories are richly sensory yet illogical. They are the last we review before we die.

This scene-setting reminded me of L’Enfant de la Haute Mer, The Child of the High Seas, the brilliant short story by the Franco-Uruguayan surrealist writer Jules Supervielle, where a child lives alone in an empty submarine village, a child conjured into life by a sailor longing for his family.

The chimney and hearth at the centre of Joe’s three rooms may represent a gateway to heaven, or to whatever comes next, at any rate. Treacle Walker – the boatman across the Styx? – and Joe face each other over its ‘cold ash’ – a nod to cremation and the phoenix-like cuckoo whose forboding song reverberates about the book? This hearth itself seems to represent sanctuary and perhaps the route from the limbo of purgatory to the next stage of the afterlife, but this, unexpectedly, is not where the book leads us. Amid the turbulence of dying, when Joe admits (Latin again – to allow to enter or to give in and comply) the possibility of death after it raps three times at his door, the chimney remains the still heart of the house – and Treacle Walker looks up it, with longing, in the final pages.

Joe, standing on the threshold of death, is then tested and judged as worthy in some way, from his selection of a small and insignificant grail-like chipped pot among much fine and fancy china. The pot contains a green-violet ointment, the colour of Treacle Walker’s own eyes. Joe’s dying is compounded with the frailnesses of early childhood – a lazy eye, being poorly, the need to stay out of the sun: heat and old meat don’t marry, says Treacle Walker.

That smell again.

The traces of ointment in the pot give the boy, quite literally, double vision. Joe now has the ability to see beyond the humdrum into a terrifying alternate reality where his very soul may be in danger. His troublesome Lindow Man of a body (Thin Amren) will not settle down to sleep/die and in the end Joe must stake him/it down with alder in the treacly bog. Even though Thin Amren greets him as his beloved – it becomes clear that Thin Amren sees Joe himself as Whirligig, an eternal energy which remains constant as life and time and water swirl around it – as good a definition of a soul as any. Thin Amren does not resist his final ending, but Joe still weeps as his old body drowns into eternal rest.

What larks.

There are allusions to morphine within the text too, notably the reference to giant poppies transforming from young greenery to rattling seed heads. As she lay dying, her passage soothed by morphine, my own mother thought she was walking through a pine forest. When they substituted a synthetic morphine at one point through shortage of supply, her dreams lost that natural quality which so comforted her in her last days. Morphine is just heroin in a white coat, after all.

The ritual of the donkey stone burnishes the threshold of Joe’s consciousness and gives him an illusion of control, but death continues to stalk him and eventually, inevitably, enters the house. The block capital comic-book antics of Joe’s subconscious – Wizzy and the Brit Bashers etc – I found as nonsensical and difficult to digest as the Roald Dahl/BFG-style neologisms, but perhaps that is the point – the dying brain is not logical.

This thin book is Dantesque in ambition. It leads us through a comic-book inferno and a boggy purgatorio but it is Treacle Walker, his own genie-like capacities reversed by Joe. Treacle Walker is enabled to continue to paradiso instead while Joe joyfully takes the ragbone man’s place as the ‘ferryman’, settling for an exploration of that thin place which lies between heaven and hell as his eternity.

Is this Garner telling us that that is where he will wait for us, once he too has crossed the final gleaming threshold?

I am still conflicted about Treacle Walker. I wanted so badly to love it and I cannot – but it has certainly been worth several readings to try to fathom why not.

It’s only little, but it’s a big book.

I would love to know what you made of it too?

I can recommend this fascinating RNIB podcast (which I have listened to after writing this blog) where Alan Garner is interviewed about Treacle Walker. Garner was a sickly child – he came close to death several times – who conjured stories from the bare white walls of his sickroom. Garner reveals the starting point of his book as the discovery of a real northern tramp named Treacle Walker who considered himself a healer (of anything but jealousy). Garner could not understand how this uneducated eccentric could have come to call himself Treacle, for treacle was once an ancient and long obsolete name for an antidote: how could he possibly have known this?

Platinum Jubilation

The thing about Her Majesty the Queen is that she looks very like my own late Aunt Liz. I have therefore always had the strangest feeling we are somehow related, although we are of course nothing of the kind. It also means that her family feels like my family, sort of, and I am interested in them, in a kind of distant cousin once-in-a-while contact way.

I have met HMQ three times: twice on board HMS Belfast (and on the first occasion her train was late and she and Prince Philip had clearly had a contretemps – he asked me where the nearest pub was, and I took him to The Old Thameside I think, and he had a Guinness – but that’s another story); and once when on the security detail for a royal Garden Party at Falkland Palace. It was a sunny day and she was wearing an emerald green hat and dress.

The thing about HMQ is that whatever one’s opinion of the monarchy, she is Always There, and she always has been, in my 60+ years of existence. She is however looking very frail now and I suspect she may not Be There for very much longer.

And so much will change when she is not.

I do not label myself a Republican or a Monarchist. Labels are dangerous things. These are just people to me. Like it or not, however, we are all of her era; we are all Elizabethan.

I approve of some aspects of monarchy and deplore others. As a tour guide in London (my first job out of uni) I witnessed at first hand the extraordinary tourism pulling power of the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace and Horse Guards Parade and Kensington Palace and Windsor Castle. They – she – were the reason why many had come. French tourists whose forebears had decapitated a monarch would hang off the railings, eager for a glimpse of a member of the Royal Family.

When I have met The Queen she has always been charming, good at her job, appearing at the visit or opening or gala or garden party, rotating her three questions (‘have you come far?’, ‘have you been waiting long?’ and ‘what is it it that you do?’) with apparent sincerity and warmth. Some of her offspring I find less warm, less sincere.

The British Monarchy is a curious anachronism, but because it is a British anachronism it sort of works, if a tad weirdly in the 21st century. Holding the top job – being Queen – has however become a life sentence of service – and some might say of servitude, which is only one step above slavery. Once her uncle, Edward VIII, had abdicated and her father became King, the future Queen Elizabeth II became the slave of our nation.

Monarchs lose so much when they come to the throne, often even their names (HMQ was fortunate to keep Elizabeth; her father lost Bertie when he became become King George VI).

The Queen is an intelligent and politically experienced woman who loves her dogs, horses and family – probably in that order at present. She may appear to have immense wealth and land and privilege but can do little with any of them. Her life is mapped out until the moment she dies, regimented by the day, by the hour, by the minute. There is little room for spontaneity. And now, clearly, she is limited in what she can do by pain. It is no fun being old. It is even less fun being old and The Queen.

What would her life have been like as a minor aristocrat married to a naval Lieutenant? A life spent in the quiet shires, wearing wellies and tweeds and headscarves, raising an occasional racewinner’s cup? As she herself might say, it doesn’t do to dwell on it.

When I think of HMQ, I am torn between admiration for a dutiful life well lived in the service of the nation; and deep pity for the life she has not been able to live, a life of ordinary sociability and small pleasures.

After her will (presumably) come King Charles III, who will try far too hard to be a good king, and who will therefore prove controversial and unpopular. His shorter reign will at least enable Prince William and his family to live a life more ordinary, more shielded from the public eye for longer, until William too becomes King in middle age.

It is William’s son George who bothers me the most. Will this chubby little boy grow up to have absolutely no say in his own destiny, like his great grandma? How do you say to him that he must reign until the day he dies? That level of expected servitude in a little boy cannot be something to be proud of as a nation. To me it all feels grotesquely TrumanShowesque. Imagine the conversation: ‘when I grow up, I want to be an astronaut… or a fireman… or a lion-tamer…’. Awkward pause. ‘So sorry, darling, but you will be a King, and a King until your death, when your son or daughter will be crowned.’ Even abdicated kings have hellish lives at the hands of the media and those who believe them weak or feckless.

I do not think either politicians or members of the ‘Firm’ as they themselves refer to it, should be expected to behave as paragons of virtue. The former should try to run the country well and the latter to become good representatives of our nation both at home and abroad. That’s it.

The media feeds on all aspects of the monarchy, adoring the conventional, shiny ‘Kate ‘n’ Wills’, deploring ‘Harry ‘n’ Megan’ for choosing to step off the regal conveyor belt, salivating over the misdemeanors first of Charles and then of Andrew. Most unite in fawning adulation of The Queen herself, but the papers and the TV coverage have all but destroyed her family. The hypocrisy of this is staggering.

If only we had inspiring, charismatic political leaders as an alternative media focus to the Royal Family but we don’t. The coverage is relentless. Even the Independent ran a drearily speculative piece on who was sitting next to whom at a Jubilee service. It’s vile. I am not in the least bit interested in who who has fallen out with whom, still less in who princes or politicians may choose to sleep with (so long as their partners are A. human, B. consenting and C., of legal age).

If people in ‘high places’ ever lie, I would like them to be honest when found out, but this today seems almost impossible: lying is the default position. Lying has wrenched our country from the safety and prosperity of Europe. Lying has lost a referendum and won an election. It is now the norm and we are living with the malign consequences. Worst of all, this lack of accountability is what children – including small royal children – will grow up believing is acceptable.

The way the Jubilee is being used for political and nationalistic capital worries me, but I would not like to deprive The Queen of a period of celebration for her life’s work either. God knows we all need a little fun after years of sickness and fear. I may be more soggy sagging homemade bunting than rows of regimented Union Jacks printed in China, but I still hope Her Majesty The Queen enjoys – and survives – her special weekend.

It’s cruising, Jim, just not quite as we know it… Queen Mary II Transatlantic March 2022

P and I married back in 2019, a happy Hogmanay gathering of friends and family. We had booked a Queen Mary 2 (QM2 to her friends) literary cruise in 2020 as a honeymoon, part organised by the Cheltenham Literary Festival. After lengthy discussions with CLF and with Cunard, the new paperback edition of Major Tom’s War was due to be the book club choice on board.

In March 2020, however, COVID hit and everyone’s world, including that of Cunard (part of the massive Carnival Group) changed.

Every time since that initial cancellation it proved feasible to rebook a cruise (and it was any cruise at that point to be honest, he wasn’t fussy) P. did so – Transatlantic, Canada, Suez… I had to witness his disappointment (and feel guilty at my own relief) every time it was cancelled. Until this year I just did not feel that the benefit would merit the risk of sailing.

So here we are at last on our four-times-postponed honeymoon, having once more ‘crossed the pond’. As I write this we are chugging down to the Caribbean on board the last ocean-going liner in the world, the Cunard Line’s QM2.

I am not a natural cruiser and so my condition of travel for a long journey this time was that I work my passage! I brought my laptop, which I have never done before. Writing and blogging as we travel helps me feel less indolent, less guilty. On board QMII (and no other cruise ship) one can still feel like a voyager at sea and not a tourist.

I suppose I feel about QM2 rather as I feel about HM The Queen, Elizabeth II. Both are the real deal for me; QM2 is a true monarch of the seas, and not some jumped-up -commoner-princess cruise ship. While I cannot possibly comment on the proportions of her (real) Majesty’s bottom, QM2 has the deep keel of an ocean-going liner, complete with a reinforced icebreaking hull, just in case.

Beside her, bog-standard cruise ships are just so many multi-storey hotels at sea: my nautical father might have referred to them disparagingly as ‘flat-bottomed b*st*rds’. We have tried many of these too, including Cunard’s other two luxury vessels, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth, but we come back to the QM2 when we can as we feel at home here.

People change when they board QM2 and it is a joy to witness. Often tetchy and tense from a long journey, the lines of the face will soften as the voyage unfurls. On gala nights one dresses formally for dinner (as rare now as the correct usage of ‘one’): stiff backs straighten and sore feet glide in spangled silken slippers across the dance floor. It is a small and just-about-still-affordable miracle.

For me QMII is particularly special because I boarded her in Southampton 2010 with the tiny itch of an idea for a book in my head. It had been tickling away for years but I had never had that precious period of time or that amount of spare head space to scratch it. I had not really planned to write, but did so, and found myself wandering around the ship begging sheets of plain white A4 paper from kindly crew members. I wrote a chapter longhand, then another, with one of the trusty black and gold Cunard pens (long since consigned, I suspect, to history by post-COVID cutbacks). Soon the Pursers’ desk team were handing me a pile of sheets of paper before I had even asked.

No surprise then that my books invariably feature travel by sea, on vessels ranging from horse transport across the English Channel on a converted dredger to P&O rustbuckets out of Calcutta and even, yes, Cunard First Class from New York.

Like Her (real) Majesty, QM2, launched in 2004, is understandably feeling her age. There is for example a strange metallic grinding sound emanating from above our cabin (which Cunard will keep calling staterooms, a misguided Americanism here when room proportions are modest and there are thousands of them on board) which may be a lifeboat scraping against a bulkhead. Such things may irritate for the first 24 hours, but after that become part of the soundscape of the ship. I’ll probably even miss it once I am home. The odd blind is broken. Rust is showing along many decks and seams. The hull is flaking paint. Maintenance is ongoing, and she is only sailing at 2/3 capacity.

This is also partly due to COVID of course. We wear masks onboard constantly unless in the cabin or eating/drinking, and thank God we do – it keeps everyone safe. In the first few days self-appointed mask vigilantes roamed the passenger lounges snarling at elderly ladies who removed their mask in what they deemed to be the wrong location. The psychological scars left by Lockdown run deep but after the first week the miracle of the cruise begins to work and it seems to have stopped happening.

In spite of testing at the ports and repeated antigen testing on board (in The Queens Room, previously only associated with elegant afternoon tea and ballroom dancing), we do have a few COVID cases on board. Everyone holds still as the announcement is made after the latest tests. Bing-bong. Would Mr and Mrs Geoffrey Burton of Deck 11 and Jane Smith and Peter Jones of Deck 5 please return to your stateroom and ring the Purser’s Office on 22200 (in order to have your holiday ruined for the next week or so…).

Collective exhalation when everyone else learns they have been spared.

Infected passengers are moved to an isolation quarters with a balcony. These isolation cabins are discreetly tucked away aft (wind direction?) behind storm doors usually only closed in very rough weather, which means some lift exits go nowhere. Meal dishes are delivered to and removed from little tables outside the doors. We have seen an occasional crew member in full HazMat spraying down a vacated cabin. All this is praiseworthy and vigilant activity on the part of Cunard and does not dent our cruising pleasure one iota.

There is of course still a small risk that those incubating COVID on arrival (ie who only just tested negative at the port) will transmit it on board. We sanitise hands before eating every time and only remove masks to eat and drink yet still it seems to spread among us. Access to certain islands – Curacao, Dominica – is apparently limited to Cunard trips only, but that appears to be the only restriction still in force.

It is a real delight to find that the ship is packed with staff and the legendary QM2 service is unaffected by economy in staffing levels. I would rather eat slightly more repetitive food and slightly less tender beef and see dozens of nationalities in employment – over 60, I think the chatty and charming Azerbaijani Captain Azeem Hashmi said. Mentions in despatches so far to Ukrainian sommelier Sergey, his family stuck in Odessa; friendly egg chef Sheryl, who treats everyone at breakfast as individuals; the long-suffering Commodore Club bar staff who no longer dare serve P his single malt whisky over a tumblerful of crushed ice; and the diminuitive Rosalina who rules her guest cabins with a cheerful rod of iron (and keeps hiding any shabbier undergarments, but I don’t hold that against her).

As I write this the ship eases her way (well offshore to avoid the northbound Gulf Stream) southwards into warmer seas and skies. New York was bitingly cold. After our stroll around Central Park we stood and awaited the Macys Shuttle back with flurries of snow cutting short each breath.

The weather can be unpredictable Transatlantic so onboard speakers need to be a resilient lot as I know from personal experience. A mixed bag this time: a slight surfeit of a charming retired NASA director; not enough of a fascinating prison governor; a rather embittered Titanic bandsman descendant; a posh but not entirely engaging Chelsea Flower Show garden designer; and an intriguing lady adventuress so excited about the tales she has to tell that she was slightly falling over herself to get them all out (will buy one of her books).

There is still a slight feeling of the second-eleven about the speakers and entertainment on board. It may be that the A team is as yet reluctant to travel. And speakers are only as good as their presentation skills – as I know from experience. Those who inflict death by Powerpoint and read aloud dull and text-laden slides should be keel-hauled pronto.

My only target for now on this outbound leg of the journey, however, is to write a chapter a day – and so far I am 28 chapters into The Patiala Letter. A conundrum I had faced at the end of the plot has just been neatly solved by a chance conversation about RMS Titanic with a charming couple encountered on Deck 8.

So God bless QM2 and all who serve and sail in her.

Major Tom’s War was first published in hardback in 2018 but the editions I recommend are either the ereader edition (2019) or the paperback (2020). All are available from my publisher and other online retailers.