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 http://www.kashihouse.com and all good booksellers.

Why not join her this Christmas for an escapist hour of seasonal art, stories and readings: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/473483370507

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 http://www.kashihouse.com and other online retailers.

The Calvert Hill Farm

I am no poet, but I stumbled across this one written back in 2019 for a very special Landscape Partnership Project in the North Pennines and northern Yorkshire Dales National Park, and I thought someone out there might enjoy it.



Inspired by visits to Teesdale and Swaledale

© Vee Walker 2019

This is the farm the Calverts made,

A nameless Calvert with Pick and Spade,

Lost his Bull to the Scots in a Border Raid,

Who builds the Walls, and digs out the Moor,

Who Gets By in Summer but often is Poor.

Who shapes a Cow’us from Stones and a Door.

Who tends his Sheep and herds his Cows

And feeds them in Winter on Ash-tree boughs

This is the farm the Calverts made.

This is the farm the Calverts made,

A later Calvert one day is bade

By his Fine Lordship, ‘go, tunnel for Lead’.

At the Mine Shop they lie three men to a Bed

With a young Lad of nine across their wet Feet.

And dream of their sweet Fields while asleep,

Of a farm that a Woman alone must now keep.

Paid twice a year by His Lordship haughty,

This young Calvert won’t see Forty.

This is the farm the Calverts made.

This is the farm the Calverts made,

Once more a Wife must tend it alone,

For Army Recruiters have hearts of stone,

The Mine’s long closed, but her Man’s still gone

To march in damp boots across the Somme,

And it’s anyone’s Guess whether her man Jack

Will return to the Farm with his Rifle and Pack

Or how he’ll be Changed, when (and if) he gets Back.

This is the farm the Calverts made.


This is the farm the Calverts are making,

With climate change, no small undertaking:

Where a Calvert has named each Field and Stone,

Where the Seasons stir deep within the Bone,

And the Land takes root in Flesh and in Blood,

Through plague and pestilence, drought and flood.

May not be worth much in pounds and in pence,

But to value it all pays in common good sense:

Home to the Calverts since times untold,

Home to the Youngsters and home to the Old,

Home to the Lapwing, home to the Lark,

Home to the Barn Owls which fly in the dark;

Home to the Gentian’s little blue Eye,

Colour of Saintliness, colour of Sky,

All of them Seeding

And Breeding

And Feeding

All hefted to place just like any old ewe,

For no other corner of land will do:


In spite of it all, still a risk worth taking

Here on the farm of the Calverts’ making.


Caroline Wickham-Jones: a generous friendship

A turning-point in life is reached when the first member of one’s own circle of close friends dies. As an archaeologist, Caroline had of course encountered death many times before and its many legacies became a profession at which she excelled: she was never one to mince her words, hence the lack of euphemism.

Caroline’s family, her friends and her colleagues will all still be in shock at her death, for Caroline always seemed a good deal more alive than most of us. She leaves a gaping hole in so many lives and hearts.

Like many of Caroline’s friends I suspect, I had not understood the serious nature of Caroline’s illness. She had enjoyed Christmas at home, then flown to Aberdeen, which I had thought planned treatment for an ongoing condition and therefore serious, but still routine in nature.

As fate decreed I found out the terrible news from Guille, Caroline’s son, just as I was in hospital being prepped for surgery myself. This was a situation which Caroline herself would I suspect have found darkly humorous (her laughter, her dear kind warm voice, I will miss them so). We shared an ability to see the ridiculous side of many of the bleaker moments of our lives, especially as mothers.

Her academic work may have been formidable, and surely worthy of its own archive, but it is her son Guille who is Caroline’s best legacy. I remember her exciting trip to Chile (at the time she was living in Edinburgh), her relationship with Alejandro Lopez, Guille’s remarkable sculptor father – and then how she settled down to embrace single parenthood and make it her own, at about the same time as I was having Matilda, my elder daughter.

Guille is a talented, sensitive young man who has inherited remarkable gifts from both his parents. He was – still is I am sure – Caroline’s pride and joy and quite rightly so. She would take great comfort in knowing how loved and supported he is at present by both friends and family.

Caroline was capable of bold moves and remarkable reinvention, both personally and professionally as a consultant archaeologist (her work in the latter field others will be better qualified to talk about in detail). Caro and I knew each other from our university days, way back in the 1980s. It is one of those old friendships whose roots are buried so far back I cannot pinpoint a precise point of origin, but it must have been a student coffee at some point. She was a year or two ahead of me. Then our paths crossed again during a Heritage Management postgrad at Ironbridge, and her old friend Jill Harden stayed with my mum in Fortrose for some reason lost in the mists of time, so I think a reconnection with Caroline may have been made then too.

It is hard to remember. Caroline has just always been there.

When Mark (my first husband, whom I met at uni too) and I moved back to Edinburgh from London in 1989 and I began to work for the National Trust for Scotland, our paths crossed once more with Caroline’s. She was generous as ever, helping us settle in as Edinburgh residents and introducing us to interesting friends. There was always a warm welcome at her elastic-walled house in ‘The Dudleys’, a curiously village-like square of flat-topped Georgian houses in Edinburgh surrounding the local bowling green.

We shared a love of cats and I remember how her large and friendly cat (either Kilmory or Harris, can’t recall which) became a Six-Dinner Sid, enjoying the hospitality of at least three other households in the square. Once, when called for his tea, Kilmory (or Harris) trotted straight for home across the centre of the bowling-green where a nail-biting national competition was taking place, much to the amusement of all – except the competitors.

Cats were always a purrmanent fixture in Caroline’s home

With her lifelong interests in anthropology and archaeology, art and craft, her house in Dudley Gardens was crammed with wonders, each artefact attached to a fascinating or funny anecdote from her travels. Her illustrated lectures from this time were jaw-dropping: I remember visiting both Outer Mongolia and Easter Island with her over the years through her remarkable slides and reminiscences of people and place. Her ability and generosity as a landscape archaeology photographer should be celebrated too.

One of Caroline’s photographs of Kilmore on Rum where the Rhum Brew discovery helped make her name

In those early years Caro was working part-time for the Society of Antiquaries for Scotland as its Secretary, affectionally – and not inappropriately from her tenure there – dubbed ‘The Antics’. I briefly became an ‘Antic’ myself and enjoyed some excellent heritage site visits she organised, notably to the costume collection at the Victorian Gothic Shambellie House, getting to know her interesting, clever parents, who sometimes came along too.

Caroline’s move to Orkney was an inspired one both for her and for Guille. Surrounded by rich archaeology and a kind and nurturing community they both thrived there, Caroline producing some of the definitive archaeological guides to the archipeligo.

Her list of publications – her writing style always curious, accessible and readable – is phenomenal. Her support and advice to other authors, like myself, was unstinting, reassuring and kind, even in the face of archaeological idiocy, and she found our ineptitude (‘but why wouldn’t they have pulled standing stones along upright and from the front…?’) a source more of amusement than of irritation.

I am certain Caroline will become acknowledged as one of Orkney’s great documentors by future generations, as they discover and rediscover her peerless work.

When I was writing Major Tom’s War Caroline was one of my key beta readers. She was so encouraging and gave me some excellent advice, recommending I go with a smaller publishing house and not one of the big boys. We shared a common need to control our work and ensure it was of the highest quality possible.

Caroline was so naturally intelligent and talented that she could often unsettle others in her field less confident of their abilities. At times she found the backbiting (and occasional backstabbing) tiresome, especially when linked to institutional misogyny, but I know she did also rather enjoy ruffling establishment feathers on occasion.

When our children were all small and after I relocated from London back to the Black Isle in the early 2000s, we often holidayed in Orkney. I deeply regret having only been able to come up to stay with Caroline twice in recent years, attending my first St Magnus Festival in (I think) 2017, then 2019, when I spoke on Major Tom’s War. Caroline has been quietly accommodating St Magnus Festival performers and attending festival events for years and was always ready to support community activities in Orkney.

Orkney visits will never be the same again.

Caroline’s other more personal achievements too should be recorded. The purchase of the field beside her house to prevent house construction and to secure wild mouse-hunting land both for her feline friends and the ghostly cattieface owls or hen herriers which glide up and down it at dusk was a huge source of pleasure and pride. She was also beginning to channel her love of the Orcadian landscape into artwork, producing some remarkable felted standing stones in exactly the right shapes and colours. If you have one (I do not, alas) treasure it!

Caroline, standing, among stones!

It is a small consolation to me that we did see each other here in the Black Isle fairly recently, as Caroline was able to attend my second wedding in December 2019, a happy small gathering of our very closest friends and family. In her usual practical way Caroline asked me what she could do to help, and we agreed on some flowers for my hair designed by her talented flowery friend Ruth Alder. It was an unimaginable little touch of luxury and I have dried and kept the circlet. We had the only sunny day that winter and Caroline took some of our best pictures on the icy beach afterwards.

The blushing bride at sunset – taken by Caroline on Rosemarkie Beach on 31st December 2019

I always felt that Caroline ‘got’ me, when not everyone does, and I suspect that is a sentiment many of her friends may share, that ability to relate to us all as a valued individual. All the friends who attended that wedding day are like family to me, and I mourn Caroline now as I would a relative.

The last time I saw her was fleetingly and by chance in Academy Street, Inverness. We had already met up for a late lunch and a catch-up at Storehouse of Foulis during that brief period when early Lockdown eased. She had booked a hotel in Inverness for a few nights just to have a breather from home turf. I was coming out of lovely Leakeys book emporium just as she was going in – a favourite haunt for us both. She looked happy and relaxed and we laughed at the coincidence and then parted, without any idea that it could possibly be for the last time. And COVID of course meant I could not hug my friend goodbye that day.

COVID has deprived us of so much in the way of normal contact with friends and family and I am only relieved that the restrictions had eased enough to allow Guille to be with his mum in hospital at the sudden end of her all-too-brief but loving and brilliant life.

Caroline Wickham-Jones packed more into her years on planet Earth than most centenarians. She should be an inspiration to us all: if there is something you need or want or should do, then do it now, generously and with a smile. Carpe diem, seize the day.

Maths Year 2000 revisited

In response to the clamour for maths-related ideas on the Group for Education in Museums e-list I have just photographed the Maths Year 2000 booklet I wrote with project manager Alan Newland (not John Bibby as I first thought, apologies to both lovely gents).

In my defence it was one of my very first consulting contracts more than 20 years ago – the proof, if any were needed, is that the lass holding the River and Rowing Museum salmon below is my daughter, now 26 and training to be a teacher herself.

Bear in mind that most if not all the faces will have changed (and some names are truly the late greats of museum learning), contact details will be out of date and even some museums will be no more (I had a real lump in my throat when it came to The Livesey in Southwark). I have omitted two pages of 2000 event dates but otherwise all is here.

Back in December 1999 many people genuinely believed that all technology would crash at midnight as the millennium turned. Heady times and maths enthusiasts quite naturally took the chance to up the profile of their subject.

I have always struggled with maths myself so I approached this project as though it needed to be fun and not just mathematical. The year’s contract taught me that maths is just another universal language, and one of the most ancient.

This was a free Museums Association publication sent out with Museums Journal in late 1999. I am an MA member and I hope I am not transgressing copyright rules by reproducing it here. If I am, message me and I will take it down right away. It was simply the quickest way to get it to ‘out there’ again to those interested. It seems to me we need another Museum Maths Year…



A – Z of maths case studies in UK museums

Vee Walker is an author and heritage consultant, now living in the Black Isle just north of Inverness. Her WWI novel Major Tom’s War was awarded a prize for military fiction at the SAHR Awards and in the same year she was awarded the Hugh Miller Writing Competition prize for fiction. You can contact her via her website at http://www.majortomswar.com.

A day trip to Raigmore Hospital

The Ancient Greeks have a lot to answer for when it comes to hospital vocabulary.

Fun facts on Hysteroscopy courtesy of the NHS

The prefix hyst- in a word refers to the womb. It was ‘changes in the womb’ which the Ancient Greeks believed provoked hyst-eria – an uncontrollable outburst of laughter or other emotion attributed solely to women, and originating (allegedly) in their womb.

It also gives us the word hyster-ectomy – and yes, I realise most gentlemen will stop reading at this point, since I am now writing, shock horror, about matters Down There. Hysterectomy means the removal of a problematic womb through surgery. I find this squeamishness quite entertaining, since many gentlemen spend a lot of their younger lives trying to get Up There, and many of the issues women can face later in life relate directly to their earlier enthusiasm.

So somewhere in between the manic laughter and the possible removal of a womb we have a procedure called a hysteroscopy, which basically just means ‘having a look in the womb’, often accompanied by the removal of any polyps present and a biopsy. This is the minor surgical procedure I had performed two days ago at Raigmore.

This can be done under a local anaesthetic, but when I hit the ceiling the day he tried my kindly gynaecologist did not proceed and recommended a general anaesthetic instead.

The appointment came through surprisingly rapidly – in fact I was offered two dates over Christmas I could not accept as family were staying and I could not have isolated.

On the day, I was called in for 11am (having not eaten since the previous night) but this arrival time only meant that surgery would take place at some point after this. I came armed with plenty of reading matter. The cheery nurses on 5C settled me into a room looking out over the helipad towards Ben Wyvis. They took a long time checking I was me and what I was having done and this was repeated at every stage. About 1pm I’d be seen, maybe, they thought. I was second on the list.

1pm came and went. I had watched the big red and white chopper land and some poor soul come in on a stretcher. Theatre space is in demand and emergencies must of course take priority.

By 4pm I was pretty hungry, it was getting dark and the room much colder – single glazing dating from the original 1980s tower building at a guess, plus extra COVID ventilation. I ended up putting my jumper back on over my surgical gown and wondered if they were maybe going to have to send me home. The ward nurses had begun to make funny faces at me through the window – great entertainment.

Then my phone rang.

It was the son of a very dear friend ringing to tell me she had just died in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. An awful shock. I wept, at which point the nurses rushed in thinking I had completely lost it over either their attempts at cheering me up or the op. I explained – and they could not have been kinder – but then suddenly I was on my way downstairs to the theatre reception (forgot my slippers, so clomping along in a flimsy surgical gown and my winter boots).

Once down there I began to feel very shaky and shocked. The theatre reception nurse noticed I was not ok and came and sat and talked, then wrapped me up in a heavenly warm white blanket. She also told everyone else involved in the op from that point onwards. Grief can affect your heart rate, your breathing. I was glad they knew.

Once into the anaesthesia room I clambered on to the trolley and the lovely anaesthetist started gently patting my hand to try to find a vein into which he could insert a canular, a practical port which means you don’t need jab after jab during surgery. I was still a bit cold so the veins weren’t showing and I ended up giving my own hand a good slap which amused the team: ‘oh, we’re not allowed to do it that hard,’ said one, approvingly.

My gynaecologist then came to say hello. They had recognised my name from the Black Isle Noticeboard admin team, so as I drifted into oblivion on a delicious trickle of morphine or something similar through the canular, we were (I think anyway…) engaged in a lively conversation about Black Lives Matter and the lamentable descent into trolling on the noticeboard during Lockdown. Great distraction technique!

Waking up from an anaesthetic and op is never very pleasant and I am usually a bit sick, but the recovery team were kindness personified, as were the staff back up on Ward 5C. Two hours later I was heading for home, feeling a bit tired and sore and of course very sad – but so thankful for the skilled, kind people – from India, from Australia, from Jordan and from all over the Highlands – who have brought together their hard work and skills to use for the good of us all at Raigmore Hospital.

I was given a handful of leaflets about the hysteroscopy as I left. Reading through them the text was well-explained and in nice plain language, but it might have been good to have had them in advance. The cross-section illustration doesn’t name what it’s showing you – it left me with many more questions than answers – here is my tongue-in-cheek annotated version highlighting the problem.

Even after two children I know my own anatomy about as well as the surface of Mars which is really something I (and all women) need to put right.

I am still hopeful of hanging on to my womb – it gave me two fabulous daughters, so I am attached to it in more ways than one – but if I do ever have to proceed to the next ‘hyst‘ on the list, I know I will be in very good hands.


Mrs Nobody in Madeira

A short story by Vee Walker

The Feira do Livro in Madeira had been little more than an excuse to get away, as May Anstice’s literary agent, Millicent, had pointed out. ‘It’s only an hour’s gig, May. They want you to kick off with ten minutes of you reading in English, followed by some nice Portuguese chap reading from the translation, then a bit of chat. Blah blah, easy-peasy. Five days in the Madeiran sun. And they’re paying for your flights. What could be better?’ Her agent had then lowered her voice into what May recognised as its cajoling tone. ‘And you never know, May. You might find Madeira inspiring. It’s time you got away, really, after…’

After. It was still hard for others to say it, she knew; even harder for May to believe that her dull, kind and reliable husband of thirty years had, just a few months earlier and entirely unexpectedly, left her for the woman next door.

May also knew that the word inspiring on Milly’s lips contained more than a hint of a threat. Millicent Carter was one of the best agents in the business. It was now five years since she had launched May’s début novel Terrified, to critical acclaim. It was an epic historical romance set in the aftermath of the French Revolution – la Terreur – which had taken May blood, sweat, tears and seven long years of her life to write.

Terrified had done rather well for both May and for Milly. It had won a minor literary prize, and had subsequently been translated into several European languages – most recently, of course, Portuguese. Hence the trip to Madeira.

Five years is a long time in publishing and although May had begun another novel or two they had all somehow petered out. Publishing was a cruel business. She knew there were younger, fresher, authors hammering at Milly’s door every hour of every day, authors who were not middle-aged, stale and deserted. Her agent wanted more than she could give.

Terrified was rooted in May’s undergraduate days, studying at the Sorbonne in Paris. Which was of course also where she had met Malcolm, then an earnest PhD student ten years her senior. How could she replicate such intensity in another work? May was well and truly blocked. Even her beloved daughter did not seem to understand why.

Jonquille, known as Quills, had been so phlegmatic about her father’s departure for pastures new that May had suspected her of foreknowledge, which Quills flatly denied. ‘Look Mum, maybe there is a reason why this has happened? I love him, and I know you do, or did, but Dad can be deathly dull. God knows what this Geraldine woman sees in him.’

Geraldine Fawkes and her husband had been their neighbours: she then became a widow who wore her grief with elegance. May had even encouraged Malcolm’s kindness in the early days of Geraldine’s loss, never suspecting that it would lead to fireworks of this kind. She had believed Malcolm to be rather past that kind of thing at 60. He had certainly seemed to have been with May.

It had all been so steelily amicable. As far as everyone else – Malcolm and Geraldine and Milly and even Quills – were concerned, the transition seemed to be done and dusted. And yet May herself continued to relive that terrible day when, after their ritual morning coffee, Malcolm had simply picked up his ready-packed suitcase, pecked her on her pale, shocked cheek and moved in next door.

Whenever May saw them together (which was almost every day given the circumstances) the pair positively oozed happiness. Malcolm might look years younger, but May felt decades older. She could function in day-to-day terms but existed only on automatic pilot, with the words but he promised, he promised pounding at what remained of her heart. She felt unloved, dishonoured, uncherished and yet could tell no-one.

Her plane had made several hair-raising attempts to land in Madeira in the late afternoon, prompting passenger applause when the pilot finally made it down through the storm. As she drove into Funchal from the airport through a dark deluge so fierce she could hear the taxi driver praying aloud, May wondered why on earth she had agreed to come at all.

In the light of all this it would be hard to describe the brief Madeira book festival appearance of the once-bestselling author May Anstice as a wild success. She had rashly agreed with Milly to speak on the evening of her arrival ‘just to get it over with’.

She found herself in a leaky open air tent being interviewed by someone whose English was so heavily accented that she struggled to make out his words above the din of rain on canvas. A sweet Madeiran youngster read from the new translation of Terrified rather better than she had in English. There were questions, of course, and polite scattered applause, but her audience had no cover and was cold and soggy. Her host kindly offered refreshments afterwards but she could hardly believe he was sincere in this weather and declined, pleading a headache. Instead she trudged through the wet streets (beneath a free bookfest umbrella) to the apartment of Milly’s friend in Ribiero.

How typical of Milly, she thought, as (soaked in spite of the brolly) she scrambled crossly through the main door of the apartment block with her wheeliecase. Her agent had arranged accommodation through some contact instead of a nice hotel: Milly’s little black book was limitless. God knows what this place would be like.

May had however found the Residence Arriaga easily enough and had soon collected the key from the elderly porteira. There was a lift, thank God, she had feared the worst. The multiple mirrors reflected back a plump middle-aged face with grey eyes and bedraggled, wild hair. Was this the woman Malcolm had once loved, then come to hate? Little wonder.

The lock was a little stiff but the door finally opened to reveal a spacious and warm apartment. She found the bedroom and ignored the rest, stripping off her wet clothes and leaving them where they lay before getting into bed. Rather a comfortable bed, she registered, just before exhausted sleep claimed her.

She awoke to the sound of more water falling. Did it never stop raining in Madeira? Wrapping a white bath sheet around herself she padded across the polished marble floor to the window, preparing herself for the disappointment of the continued downpour. Instead she sighed with surprise as the warmth of a blue-skied Madeiran late autumn day embraced her.

Below her lay what she would soon discover to be the Jardim Municipal – the Municipal Gardens. Palms swayed over an esplanade and tree ferns cast leafy shade over a pool where three large fountains now played. ‘Wow!’ exclaimed May, impressed in spite of herself. She had noticed none of this in the previous night’s downpour.

‘Welcome,’ read the sheet of notes on the kitchen work surface adjacent to a large bowl of fresh fruit. ‘Have a lovely stay. I’ve popped a few bits in the fridge. Lots to see and do, there are some brochures on the table. Your nearest eatery is the cafe in the park. Bom apetite!’

May, who seldom relaxed and normally lived out of a suitcase on work trips, surprised herself by taking time to unpack, placing her few possessions in the drawers and wardrobe. She then poured herself a large glass of orange juice from the bottle in the fridge and found herself drawn back to the unexpected view from the window. The juice was sweet and tasted fresh. Yellow taxis came and went, Madeirans bustled and tourists strolled in the street below. A tall, thin boy came flying round the corner from up the hill laden with cardboard boxes, whistling cheerfully, and disappeared among the lush greenery of the Jardim Municipal.

Once showered and dressed, and after checking three times that she had the key (Malcolm had always looked after their keys and passports) May went downstairs, this time avoiding eye contact with herself in the mirrored lift. Outside, the gentle sunshine made her gasp with pleasure – it had been just above freezing when she had left home.

She crossed the patterned cobbles to enter the gardens and as she did so, each step gave her the oddest sensation that beneath her feet, the tree roots somehow knew she was there, shifting like snakes deep within the red Madeiran earth. She found a corner table in the shade, still feeling conspicuously alone among the cheery couples and families.

The whistling boy she had noticed earlier approached her table holding a menu. ‘Something to drink, Senhora? Something to eat? You just arrive in Madeira? How long you are stay?’ She told him five days, asked for a black coffee and flicked through the battered menu, settling on a safely dull hamburger.

She thought the boy shrugged slightly as he took her order and when he returned with her coffee (which she sniffed appreciatively – Malcolm had always made their coffee) there was a shiny tartlet on the side. ‘I say, young man, I didn’t order this,’ she exclaimed, over-emphasising her very British gestures of error and rejection. If only she spoke Portuguese as well as she did French.

‘You not want? Is gift. My aunt Ana, she makes. Pastel de nata. Very tasty.’

‘Oh. Oh I see. Well, thank you. Please thank your aunt.’ She bit into the warm custard and crisp pastry. My word, but that was good. Three bites and it was gone.

The hamburger was perfectly acceptable when it turned up, if a little unexciting. She ate it more slowly, turning the pages of her disappointing airport novel for company.

‘May I?’ She started and looked up at the sudden voice. A masked man with silver hair and rather a military bearing stood before her, pointing at the second chair. Was she really so obviously British? She had no real wish to share her table, but the esplanade café was busy and so she gestured to him to take a seat.

‘Forgive me, but aren’t you May Anstice, the author?’ That surprised her into a smile, for few authors can resist the seductive lure of recognition. ‘Yes. Yes I am.’

‘Charles Hamilton.’ He extended his hand then turned it into an awkward knuckle bump. ‘Sorry. It’s so easy to forget about COVID here. I heard you read from Terrified last night. It was… well… terrific.’

May smiled at him. ‘It was terrifically wet,’ she said, with feeling.

‘Yes, that too.’ The young waiter brought him his coffee without being asked, May noted. The boy had added a jug of frothy milk on the side which he then poured into Charles’ cup: a regular, then.

Charles ignored the boy, all his attention on May. He removed his mask, smiled and sipped his coffee.

‘What an absolute stroke of luck, seeing you here,’ he continued. ‘Terrified is some book. I lived in Paris with my wife, years ago. Quite a city too, eh!’

May was reassured by his mention of a wife but still had no desire to outline her own personal circumstances to a stranger. She chose instead to ask him if he too was in Madeira on holiday.

‘Goodness me, no,’ he laughed, revealing good teeth. ‘I live here now. My wife and I arrived on board our yacht seven years ago and we never left. It is five years now since I lost her. Do you sail, Mrs Anstice?’

Which did he mean by lost, boat or wife? ‘I’m so sorry,’ said May, because that would do for either, adding, ‘No, I don’t sail. And do please call me May.’ Mrs Anstice felt a bit formal for the circumstances: especially now she was (technically) Mrs Nobody.

‘Pity. Wonderful sailing around Madeira.’ Ah. So it was the wife he had lost.

They made small-talk for a few minutes longer and then he stood and took his leave, pleading a phone appointment with his stockbroker. Just as he prepared to go, he seemed to think again and turned back. ‘Look, don’t think this too forward of me, May, will you, but would you care to have dinner with me tonight? There’s a nice little Madeiran-Italian place just over there behind the trees. Portaliano. See it?’

May saw it. She opened her mouth to say she really couldn’t possibly and yes came out of its own accord. They agreed 7pm. She watched as he counted out the exact cost of his coffee in coppers and looked at his expensive watch. ‘Where’s that blasted Diogo got to? Head in the clouds half the time. His uncle runs this little place. Probably nowhere else would have him.’ Charles left the coins on the counter and walked away, turning to raise his hand. May surprised herself by registering in that fleeting moment that blue-eyed Charles Hamilton really was rather a dish.

Once Charles had gone, voices were raised behind the bar. Diogo and his uncle were having a loud exchange of views and, May noticed, kept looking in her direction. She wondered with a flash of insight whether the little pastry had been Diogo’s own initiative. Perhaps his uncle was angry with him. She resolved the matter by leaving the boy a hefty 10E tip on top of the cost of her meal and started walking towards her apartment block, but at the edge of the park she heard footsteps running behind her. Clutching her handbag to her chest she turned to find Diogo waving the note. ‘O Senhora, forgive me, I not mean to fright you. Madeira is very very safe place, you know? But this, this is too much for tip.’ He pressed the 10E note back into her hand. Before she could explain he had darted back between the busy tables and was gone.

I have nothing to wear, thought May, back in the apartment. Her smart bookfest suit was still damp and a bit formal anyway. Nothing else she had brought was suitable, so she decided, on impulse and with mounting excitement, to go to buy a new outfit. Several hours of unaccustomed self-indulgence later she emerged from a boutique in a little arcade nearby with a rather lovely dress in flowing gold wool. It had a belted waist and soft, wide skirt and a smart wrap to match. Just the colour of that custard tart, she thought, as she eased the dress over her head and shoulders. It felt so good next to her skin. She felt good, for the first time in many months, even (if she were being honest) in many years.

The window kept drawing her back to its view of park and vertiginous landscape beyond. She saw that an exotic version of Christmas was starting to fill the Jardim Municipal. A white pigeon sitting on a wire overhead was trying to seduce a mate with a piece of golden tinsel which one of the decorations had shed on the way in. Giant red conical Christmas trees trimmed with hearts and bows stood out uneasily against the authentic tropical plants. Reindeer trotted across the café esplanade, pulling Santa’s sleigh. Diogo was helping someone in official overalls erect the roof of what could only become Santa’s grotto. And yet it was warm, as warm as a sunny summer’s day at home. May could feel herself unfurling in the heat, all rooted in the pleasure of her new frock and a chance encounter.

It did begin as a lovely evening. Charles was waiting at the restaurant door, smart in a dark suit. As he seated her in the window overlooking the eastern boundary of the park, she noticed he was wearing diamond cufflinks and was glad she had bought the new dress. The food was sublime – little savoury dumplings with a crisp filling followed by a madly daring squid-ink pizza for her; prawns and a steak for Charles. They drank a bottle of vinho verde, then another of vinho tinto. When she got up to visit the ladies she felt her head spin. Was the wine somehow stronger here? She seldom drank more than a glass at a time at home.

It was as Charles paid the bill – at his insistence – that his hand brushed her own. Surely an accident? He then told her she looked beautiful, laughed it off and said, ‘Now, what would Mr Anstice say?’

As May wrote under her maiden name, there was no Mr Anstice (and even if there had been a ‘Mr Anstice’ he was no longer of the slightest concern to her). Her book blurb, of course, still mentioned her husband.

She was about to confide all this when a slight movement outside caught her eye. There was the ubiquitous Diogo, balanced on the roof of a tiny candy-coloured cabin intended to represent a traditional Madeiran house. He was trying to twist fairy lights among the branches of a large plant with pendulous white flowers which appeared to change to pink as they aged. ‘Oh look!’ she said.

At that moment Diogo lost his footing and disappeared from view, almost knocking over a camera-laden tourist as he did so. Charles looked out of the window and saw only the tree and the lights. ‘Oh yes. They decorate for Christmas here every year. Pretty lights everywhere. Employs half the island. You’ll just miss the big switch-on, that’s a shame. Can’t you stay a bit longer?’ Again, his hand brushed hers. This time she was less sure it was accidental. She drew back from him a little. What was she thinking? He was a chance acquaintance, no more, and she was behaving like a schoolgirl.

‘I really meant look at the plant,’ she said, trying to distance herself from his burgeoning familiarity.

‘That? Oh it’s just a brugmansia. Very beautiful and all that, but really rather deadly. Be very wary.’ May stood, and clung to the back of her chair, dismayed at how unsteady she felt. She really should not have accepted the large glass of Madeiran rum poncha which Charles had suggested to round off the meal.

‘I must see you safely back to your hotel, May,’ murmured Charles, his soft hand now firmly holding her elbow. ‘Remind me where it is you’re staying?’

She had not told him about the apartment and was suddenly glad she had not. Halfway across the Esplanade, only the café lights still lit up the darkness. Diogo was barrowing the folded umbrellas into the store at the back of the building. He stopped and stiffened when he saw Charles and May approaching. Charles said something sharp in Portuguese and Diogo was about to reply when his uncle barked an order and he turned back for the bar.

‘Diogo, wait!’ May grasped at the lifeline. ‘Charles, do forgive me. I really think I have had a bit too much to drink. I’m not used to it. I’ll stop here for a coffee, if you don’t mind, just to clear my head. It’s been such a lovely evening. Thank you.’ With that, she sat down.

Charles recovered well, but not quite fast enough: she had seen the brief flicker of anger, quickly masked by concern. ‘In that case I shall enjoy one with you, my dear May, and then see you safely back.’ He sat down beside her. Damn.

May looked, she hoped desperately, towards Diogo at the bar. The young waiter soon returned with a tray holding two cups of coffee, both black, plus the jug of frothy milk. He placed the cups on the table and lifted the jug with a theatrical flourish, then appeared somehow to trip over the table leg and lose his balance. May watched as the jug of scalding milk emptied itself instead into her dinner companion’s crotch.

A stream of unexpectedly fluent Portuguese escaped Charles’ lips, which brought Diogo’s aunt Ana scurrying to see its cause. She shouted at the boy for his clumsiness and even in Portuguese May could tell she was saying that Diogo was lucky his uncle was not present. Diogo made apologetic noises to May, to Charles and to his aunt, all the while maintaining steady and reassuring eye contact with May, until the old lady hustled him back behind the bar. Charles was sponging his trousers with a napkin which was now, May saw, staining his expensive khaki chinos blue.

All at once May felt a wobble of guilt. They had had a nice time, hadn’t they, until they had left the restaurant? And he had paid for dinner. Perhaps Charles was just lonely and had come on a bit too strong. And wasn’t she lonely – and more than a bit drunk – herself? She fiddled, awkwardly, with her wedding ring.

Charles, still dabbing his ruined trousers, made his apologies. ‘Such a lovely night ruined by that idiot boy. I must go and change. Shall we meet tomorrow to make amends? Coffee perhaps, but not here, clearly. 11ish? Where shall I call for you?

She searched for a polite way to say no and failed, but did at least avoid telling him the location of her apartment, agreeing instead to meet him on the corner of the park by a statue the following day. I can always not be there, she thought, watching him depart with considerable relief.

Diogo was swiftly at her side, his aunt still watching his every move. ‘Thank you,’ she croaked, her eyes filling with tears. Drat it, she really was drunk. Get a grip!

‘No. No. Senhora. Wait, I bring you more coffee. All is well. This man is go now.’

So he had understood her predicament. ‘Thank you. Do you know Mr Hamilton?’ Diogo shook his head. ‘My uncle and aunt, they, they know this man.’ Could she detect a warning in his words?

‘Does he live nearby?’

He nodded. ‘I think. He is here most every day.’ His aunt said something else and he smiled. ‘My aunt say I must bring you safe to your house when I finish.’ Old Ana smiled her own confirmation from behin the counter. May felt gratitude flood her.

Some time past midnight, once the cafe was secure, Diogo walked beside May for the short distance to her street door. ‘You have key?’

She showed it to him. ‘Thank you, Diogo. I’ll see you all tomorrow I expect.’ She tried not to slur her words, feeling foolish. Once inside, she turned and waved to him through the glass as he walked away.

In the lift she still felt a little queasy. When it stopped she stumbled across the landing to her door and pushed the key into the lock, where it chose that moment to refuse to budge. It had been stiff before, drat it. She rattled it, pulled it out and pushed it back in again but still it would not turn. She was just wondering if she could possibly wake the old porteira at this hour when suddenly her blood ran cold. There were voices. Coming from inside her apartment. She took a step backwards, the key still in her hand as the door opened, just a crack. A stream of Portuguese invective flooded out of the dark hallway within. Oh God. Oh no. Wrong floor. Wrong bloody floor. And of course all the floor layouts in the block must be identical!

Then someone switched on a light inside the doorway and illuminated its occupants.

‘Oh hell, said Charles. And ‘Guten abend, sweetie,’ said the blonde boy behind him, one languid hand resting possessively on Charles’ shoulder. It was only once May had stammered her apology and fled back into the sanctuary of the lift that she realised both men had been clad only in rather inadequate hand-towels.

May now pressed the 4th floor button instead of the 2nd. She tumbled in through the door of her own apartment, slamming it and bolting it behind her. Gasping against its security for some moments, she tried to work out what on earth had just happened. Then she went to the fridge, poured more orange juice with a shaky hand, and again opened the window overlooking the park. As the cool air slowed her pounding heart, she felt unexpected and uncontrollable laughter rise up through her throat and erupt into the Madeiran night. She laughed until tears rolled down her cheeks, great healthy sobbing gusts of hilarity, and thought: that was a narrow escape. Although from what, she was not yet certain.

When she heard the indignant window slam two floors below her, it set her off all over again.

When Milly rang May towards the end of her stay to ask how she had fared, the incident with Charles already seemed like ancient history. Sitting at the café as she waited for her airport taxi, she was conscious of babbling with enthusiasm about her holiday.

She told Milly all about Diogo and the café and Diogo’s new wife (he had shown her a photograph of his identical twin boys).

Then there was the trip May had taken high through a rutted and thrilling mountain pass in a jeep driven by Diogo’s cousin, all the way to Porto Moniz through ancient laurel forest and down to the rugged coastline beyond.

She raved about the food too: bolo do caco bread, the fruit (she had developed a weakness for custard apple and passionfruit) and even the scabbardfish with local fried banana which Diogo’s aunt cooked to perfection.

The apartment – full of original art and with every possible home comfort – had become a true home from home.

On her last day she had visited the botanic gardens of Madeira, high above Funchal, taking the rickety bus up the steep route rather than the more popular cable car overhead. After a morning spent idling through the terraces and parterres, she suddenly spotted Charles at a café table, in earnest conversation with a tearful young woman. Struck by a thought, she looked around and, sure enough, not far away, was a tall, blonde tourist wielding a camera with a very long lens, apparently engrossed in photographing a tree fern – but in reality, doubtless, capturing every intimate moment of the encounter.

God. They must have thought they had struck paydirt when Charles had bumped into May after the bookfest. May was not exactly famous but certainly well known. How much would she have paid to prevent a ‘Mr Anstice’ – or the literary press – from seeing a compromising photograph of her with Charles during a drunken coupling? How much had others paid before her?

And, she reflected, how very awkward indeed for Diogo and his family if the dodgy Charles (if that was his name) were local, and a regular café customer.

May did not hesitate this time. She walked over to the young German and waggled her finger straight into his lens, startling him. He scuttled off at gratifying speed. Then she strolled over to his partner in crime, who had his back turned, and was she saw clasping the hand of his latest intended victim as he gazed into her eyes. ‘Oh there you are, Charles darling,’ May trilled into his appalled face. ‘I have to pop home now, so could you just pick up some cereal – for the twins – when you’ve finished here?’ She then turned on her heel with a flick of her golden dress and left them both, without waiting to see the impact of her actions. She had given the girl a chance. It was up to her now.

‘You sound much better,’ said Milly on the phone. ‘Not brooding over Malcolm any more, then?’ May just laughed. She had honestly not thought of Malcolm and Geraldine once since her first visit to the café. She had just thrown a few bits of stale bread to the muscovy ducks on the fountain pond and, as an afterthought, had tossed her wedding ring in after it.

She told Milly that when she got home she planned to put her house on the market. A move was in order. She could go anywhere, live anywhere. She was free.

‘You’re better off without the jealous bastard anyway,’ snorted Milly. ‘He never could bear you earning more than he did.’

Was that it? Was that really it? The final trace of shadow over May’s heart detached itself and evaporated into the clear Madeiran air.

‘And,’ added Milly, as May knew she would, ‘Dare I ask if the muse has struck?’

At that moment Diogo brought May one last coffee, another tiny pastel de nata nestling on the saucer. She smiled up at her friend. ‘Do you know, Milly, I think it has. Thank you, Diogo. Obrigada, Madeira.

All characters in this short story are entirely fictitious. All the places are entirely real, including the apartment in the Residence Arriaga where Vee stayed. Feedback most welcome

You are welcome to share this story to friends and family if you have enjoyed it, but please remember it remains her copyright and no commercial use is permitted.

Vee Walker is an author based in the Black Isle in the Scottish Highlands. Her prizewinning WWI love story Major Tom’s War is going down a storm with book groups worldwide. It is available in paperback, ereader and hardback from its publisher http://www.kashihouse.com and from all good booksellers everywhere.

(C) Vee Walker 2021


(with apologies to Lewis Carroll)


‘Twas brillig, and the slithy tomes
   Did pulse and glisten on the screen;
All whimsy where the bloggers roam
   Amongst agents, unseen.

“Beware the Jabberword, my son,
   The blurb that bites, the quotes that catch!
Beware the Cov-Cover words; and shun
   The Celebrity Endorsnatch!”

His vorpal debit card in hand
   Went forth the Boy to quest his book,
“Something new,” quoth he, “From a small indie,
   In a real Shop of Books shall I look.”

As down the High Street he didst brood,
   The Jabberword, with deals aflame,
Scrolled through the Amazonian wood,
   Discounting as it came!

One, two! Three, four! A box set! More!
   His card filled up his online shelf;
Once dumped at his door, not one, he swore
   Selected by himself:

” I bought this turd from the Jabberword!”

  “Yes, more for less, son, not all bad!
Bargain prices, eh? Caballoo! Caballay!”

  “So it’s bitten us both? How sad…”


‘Twas brillig, and the slithy tomes
   Did pulse and glisten on their screens; While unseen books in need of homes…

Remained the stuff of dreams.


Vee Walker (Author of an unseen book or two)

Please consider shopping at your local bookshop. They’re knowledgeable, friendly people who are not driven by an algorithm based on your browsing history.

If you’re too busy, or live too far from a real bookshop to visit, try the wonder that is http://www.uk.bookshop.org. It’ll send you (or your friends/family) a book but channel the benefit through a local bookshop.

Genius. We can slay the Jabberword. #GiveIndieBooksThisChristmas