Friday, 23 January 2015

From daffodils in Devon to snowy owls in Bermuda

We woke up to a very hard frost today. The field outside our bedroom was white as white – as was the scut on a rabbit that was running along the hedge line. I’m not sure how cold it was during the night but the temperature certainly started with a minus sign.


Since my last blog we have received copies of two more editions of Postcards From the Past - the UK Large Print and, below, the German hard back.
Only a week ago we were basking (well, everything is relative) in daytime temperatures in double figures with the nights rarely dropping below 5°. It is the effect this contrast is having on the plants and wildlife around us that has been in my mind the last few days. For example, last Wednesday as we drove from Totnes towards Avonwick we passed a bank on which there were daffodils in full bloom: in January.

In Cornwall they grow daffodils in their hundreds of thousands and when the fields down there are in full bloom – usually in February – they are a wonderful sight even though the flowers are picked whilst the buds are quite tight. The sale of these blooms, most of which go to London, are an important part of the local economy as are the sale of bulbs.

When I trawled through the various photographs of daffodils that I have taken, I find that the one below was taken on 3 March in 2011 which was a ‘late year’ compared to 2012 (when, for some reason I didn’t take any). It is not that this year is proving to be an ‘early’ one but that it is totally muddled. Following a wonderfully mild autumn and early winter we are now in the grip of extreme cold (extreme for this part of the world that is) and I fear for the plants – and probably animals, too – that have been fooled into thinking spring had arrived.


My main worry is to do with timing – although I fully appreciate that the weather this winter is in no way unique and nature is extremely good at solving these problems. Nevertheless, they do cause difficulties for some species. 



One of my favourite birds is the blue tit: they are pugnacious little people who always wear an expression of intense irritation. Baby blue tits are fed almost exclusively on “green caterpillars” and most bird books state quite simply that the parents “time their breeding to coincide with the hatching of various species of insects which start life as green caterpillars”.

2009 was a good year for the blue tits. Here are a brood of six youngsters, still in their juvenile yellow feathers, braving the rain and feeding on peanuts.

This is just not really true: I am sure that the birds are aware of changes in the weather and do everything they can to get the timing right but it doesn’t always work. If they get it wrong, the young blue tits often fail to fledge and the associated insect species then have a very good year with many more reaching adulthood. It’s a bit like the lemmings and the snowy owls in the northern parts of Scandinavia although there is becomes a very regular cycle.

A lemming
(Photo: Flickr user leo_seta under a Creative Commons license.)
Year one: there is an abundance of lemmings with the result that the snowy owls are able to able to read larger than usual broods. That means that in year two the lemming population is depleted because there are so many more owls. Nevertheless, the owls still rear a goodly number of youngsters. Their problems start in year three because there are so few lemmings and large number of owlets fail to fledge. In year four both species start from a low ebb but that gives an advantage to the lemmings and by the end of the year their numbers are well up. Then, of course, we start the cycle again. I should add that although snowy owls are the main lemming predators they also face attack from skuas and Arctic foxes – and that this explanation of the lemming cycle is not universally accepted.

Snowy Owl. Photo: Pat Haines under a Creative Commons license
No matter how it came about 2013 was a bumper year for lemmings and, as a result, there was a population explosion among the snowy owls. But a rather odd thing then happened – odd in the sense that this is a first. Some snowy owls left their usual territories and decided to explore pastures new by moving south in North America. They have become common place in south east Canada and a few seem to have taken up residence in Washington, D.C. There is even a report that one was seen as far south as Charleston in South Carolina and another in Bermuda. Bermuda? A snowy owl? Well, the report seems the be genuine. As I remarked, nature has a wonderful way of sorting things out.

Have any of you seen anything unusual? If so, please leave a comment below.


Meanwhile, you may remember that I mentioned that Marcia had been ‘interviewed’ using emails by a girl in Poland. Click here if you want to see read that interview – in English as she publishes her work in both languages.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Punctuation

You jolly nearly had to do without a blog this week: following some updates that were downloaded by Microsoft and which were then automatically configured when I switched it on yesterday morning, my computer refused point blank to boot up properly. This is somewhat scary at this precise moment because I have a few rather urgent tasks that were already ‘embedded’ on the hard drive.

This is not a blog which calls for illustrations. This last week has seen the first of this winter's snowfalls in the West Country so I thought I would put up some photographs from my collection showing a few snowy scenes.
One is rather nice: there is a girl in Poland who runs a blog all about writing and literature (actually she runs two blogs: one in Polish and one in English). Whilst the main object of the exercise is to promote Polish literature she also reviews books which have been translated into Polish and carries out email interviews with the authors of such books. Marcia had just finished her last responses and one of my first jobs was to be to email these across to Agnes.

The other urgent task was to finalise the copy editing of the next book, Summer on the River, so that Marcia’s agent, Dinah Wiener, can send the revised manuscripts to Marcia’s foreign publishers.


Panic stations. I really did now know what to do: the usual techniques of trying everything on offer and, that having failed, rebooting the computer a few times did nothing to solve the problem. This was the first “computer panic” since we moved back to the south so I had no idea who to contact. Luckily my laptop was not involved and after trawling through the various options I found on the internet I decided to contact a company called Brandan Computer Solutions Ltd. It needed a visit to put things right but all is well now and the silver lining to this particular cloud is that Marcia has met Warren Dobbs and they got on very well indeed so she now knows who to contact should anything happen when I am not around.

Thus, I am able to keep my promise and talk about punctuation.

Punctuation is one of the most difficult subjects on which to write and one of the subjects about which – in my opinion – far too much has been written already. You could say exactly the same about grammar. What is the point of punctuation (and grammar) other than to facilitate the reader’s understanding of the words that have been written?

The only other possible reason is so that the pedantic writer who follows a particular code for both grammar and punctuation can feel a glow of superiority over other writers who do not follow that code. Apart from the fact that this is a rather ignoble glow, it fails to take into account that there are many different codes and that none of them agrees in all respects. Indeed, the triad that underpins all writing (vocabulary, grammar and punctuation) are all living entities that change from moment to moment.


There was a time when the most important language in the world was French. Then the French academics – aided and abetted by some French politicians – fought hard to keep French ‘pure’: to stop French evolving in a smooth and organic fashion. Although this was not the only factor it certainly helped to ensure that English would become the language that would be understood over most of the globe.

To return to punctuation: it is my contention that good writers use it (or not, as the case may be) not only to facilitate the reader’s understanding but also to influence the reader’s mood, emotions and engagement. In other words, punctuation is one element that creates the individual styles that writers inevitably develop – and which their readers like.

As an example of what I mean: I generally do not like the use of the Oxford comma and I especially dislike it in a sentence which does not require the reader to ‘draw breath’ as they read.

That last sentence is a case in point. What would be the point of the Oxford comma after the word ‘comma’? In my view, the ideas expressed in that sentence are an entity even though the two phrases could each stand as separate sentences. Thus there are a number of options. The first is that shown above and the others are as follows.

I generally do not like the use of the Oxford comma, and I especially dislike it in a sentence which does not require the reader to ‘draw breath’ as they read. With the Oxford comma.

I generally do not like the use of the Oxford comma: I especially dislike it in a sentence which does not require the reader to ‘draw breath’ as they read. Using a colon to indicate that the second phrase in some way adds to the first.

I generally do not like the use of the Oxford comma. I especially dislike it in a sentence which does not require the reader to ‘draw breath’ as they read. Two separate sentences.

This is all about style, isn’t it? It is about creating – or not as required – flow. It is about changing the pace of the writing by using shorter or longer sentences.



The nuances involved are tiny and it is probable that few, if any, readers are at all conscious of the way a piece of writing is punctuated. You could argue that if they are there is probably something wrong. Nevertheless, as one of those three foundation stones of all writing it is terribly important and I think I detect a good deal of muddle in the punctuation of a lot of modern writing – especially in the newspapers. On the other hand it could merely be that I am stuck in my ways and what I am seeing is no more than the good old English language gently evolving to meet the needs of the modern world.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Moonlight

Yesterday I had a wonderful idea: I was going to tell you about the problems that I had in trying to take a photograph that Marcia wanted. It was when she was writing Postcards from the Past. You may remember the opening paragraph.

There are two moons tonight. The round white shining disc, brittle and sharp-edged as glass, stares down at its reflection lying on its back in the black water of the lake. Nothing stirs. No whisper of wind ruffles the surface. At the lake’s edge the wild cherry tree leans like an elegant ghost, its delicate bare branches silver with ice, yearning towards the past warmth of summer days. Tall stands of dogwood, their bright wands of colour blotted into monochrome by the cold brilliant light, guard the northern shore of the lake and cast spiked shadows across the frosty grass.

We were then at The Hermitage and it was watching the moon reflected above the pond that gave Marcia this idea and she would have liked a photograph of that scene to have beside her as she wrote. So I blithely agreed to take one. Only it turned out to be impossible. Yesterday I decided that I would show you the ‘failures’ as I tried to meet her wishes but I can’t do that either: at some point I deleted them as being of no great value.

Instead I will use some ‘moony’ photographs that you might enjoy and try to explain the problem in words.

This gives you some idea of the problem. Here the moon is exactly as Marcia wanted it to be but is so tiny - and this image doesn't even come down to ground level in the foreground.
You are standing to the north of the pond (in the Northern Hemisphere – can those of you living on the other side of the equator please adjust their thoughts accordingly). The moon has risen and is exactly where I want it – due south – and is almost full. It could not be more perfect so what was the problem. Well, when you look up at the moon and glance down at the surface of the pond you see exactly what Marcia described but it isn’t quite like that. What your brain does is to reduce the distance between the moon and its reflection so that it forms a pleasing whole in your brain.

Full moon but before it has risen very high in the sky and while it is retaining some of the colours of sunset.
The camera doesn't work like that. It shoots what is there with no distortions. The result is that the moon overhead looks tiny and the reflection in the water doesn’t look like a mirror image of the moon even though it is.

This is the last but one of a sequence in which I watched the cloud shaped like some strange animal seem to gobble up the moon.
Then there is another problem: getting the focus right. You look up at the moon and your eyes focus on it and you retain that image as you look down onto the surface of the water. Your eyes again focus, this time on the reflection and that is all very satisfying.

This photograph says almost nothing but I rather like it.
Not so the camera. To focus on the moon you need to have the focus set at infinity. To focus on the pond surface at something in the order of twenty feet. You can’t have it both ways (although if it was a very brightly lit scene you could (at least in theory) by stopping down and so extending the depth of field. Even then you are pushing it: the moon is 225,623 miles from the earth which works out at 1,191,289,440 feet or 59,569,472 times as far away as the pond surface. It is probably possible with some sort of equipment but it is definitely beyond the scope of anything I possess (so I plead guilty to the charge of blaming my tools). The odd thing is that the moon just looks horrid if it isn’t in focus – and the reflection has to be crisp to make any sense.

Here the moon is in focus but the tree is not.
 Yes, I know that I was going to talk about punctuation this week but I am hoping you will not be too disappointed if I put it off until next Friday.


This is the nearest I have to the image Marcia wanted. But here we are looking over a large stretch of water, the surface is not smooth so the reflection is disturbed, it was too early for the sky to be dark enough and the moon is far from full. Apart from that . . .

Friday, 2 January 2015

Light

First things first: a big thank you to all of you who – through Transworld or Dartside Press – have sent us letters and cards this Christmas and New Year time: they really are much appreciated.

Light. Where would we be without it? Not only do we rely on it in our daily round but it figures in all our senses: physical, mental and spiritual. To be blind is one of my pet fears and my admiration for those who manage to live without sight is huge. So, light of my life, let there be light.

Four photographs taken from the bedroom window on the same day starting here about twenty minutes before sunrise.
Light is of special interest to photographers, and I include myself in that group, and for painters such as my mother. She was fascinated by the junction of the land and the sea and many of her paintings were set in coves or on rocky headlands. She would paint the same scene time after time – but it was not, of course, ever the same scene because the light was always different. One of her favourites was Lannacombe Cove which she painted scores of times. None of them contained people: she was not interested in people, just the play of light on water, rocks and the beach.


The sun has risen but as yet all it is doing is slightly colouring the sky.
I have become equally fascinated by the scene from our bedroom window. This started because it was what I spent a good deal of the time, when I was neither sleeping nor reading, looking at it. Not surprisingly it never looks quite the same but what is slightly odd is that there are times when the trees the other side of the field look as though they are miles away and other times when it seems you could lean out of the window and touch them. The same applied to the hills of Dartmoor as seen from our old house, The Hermitage. It is, of course, all to do with the light.


That's more like it.
At this time of the year, Transworld send to us the manuscript of the next book with suggestions for changes made by Yvonne Holland who has been the Copy Editor for most the books that Marcia has written. Her input is invaluable: she checks everything. To my (our?) shame some of the corrections she makes are for errors that one of us really should have seen but didn't. One such: in this book the boat float at Dartmouth features. Marcia wrote this as boat-float but Yvonne took the trouble to check this out and discovered that it is generally written as Boat Float. That may not really matter but the devil is in the details and Yvonne is a master at making sure they are right. It is impossible to over state how important her role is in producing the finished novel nor how good she is in that role.


And, sure enough, we are in for another lovely day.
Where, possibly, there is a small conflict between the way she and Marcia think it is in the matter of punctuation. Now, why do we punctuate sentences? There was a time when I acted as a consultant to some legal practices and the documents I then wrote had to be written with no punctuation at all. The rationale there is that it is important that these documents must not carry more than one possible interpretation and punctuation can lead to disputes as to what that interpretation might be.

In real life, of course, that is not really a problem. So – why has punctuation evolved and how important is it? I shall leave that question hanging in the air until next week.


I do hope that each and everyone of you has a wonderful 2015.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Boxing Day Thoughts

Christmas morning and we awoke to a bright sky just a little before sunrise. Marcia went downstairs to make her early morning tea and my coffee – she has been doing this daily since I hit the buffers instead of our usual turn-and-turn about. I shall try to repay her when I am better.

Anyway, she returned just as the sun was rising and the light on the field and hedge outside was truly wonderful: we are so incredibly lucky to have this just outside our window. No sooner was Marcia back in bed than she spied a fox wandering along the hedge line. What a way to start Christmas Day!

The white Vinca that covers a low wall just outside the sitting room in full bloom when I took this picture on Christmas Day and the sun was shining. Today, sadly, it is gloomy and raining and cold.
I was up quite early (well, compared to how it has been in recent times) and decided that it would be good to go for a potter around the garden. The sun was bright and there was not a breath of air so, despite a thermometer reading of eight degrees centigrade (that's about forty-six in Fahrenheit), it was really warm but what was astonishing was that so much was in bloom. I mean, here we are in the depths of winter and there are all these plants behaving as though it was a mild early autumn day. I have no idea what is going on with the world's climate but I am sure of one thing – something is!

The Vinca was not alone: these Violas are still filling one of the borders with colour and, astonishingly, some of the Lobelia we planted back in May is also still in flower albeit by no means at its best.
The other evening, Marcia and I revisited the first part of a documentary called The American Future, a History – written and presented by Simon Schama who is, in my opinion, one of few historians who can take almost any subject and make it riveting (unlike others I will not name who can take the most fascinating of subjects and make them so, so dull!). In this part, he explains how the belief that man has it within his ability to exploit the planet without limits – what you might describe as the American dream – hit the rocks when nature bit back with the great storms in the 1930's which turned the wheat lands of the mid-west into an arid dust bowl as the wind blew away soil that had been anchored for many thousands of years by the roots of the prairie grass that had been ploughed up to create this new farmland. Furthermore, it became obvious that, especially further west, water was being used more quickly than it was being replenished. This DVD was produced about eight years ago but I suspect things are much the same today as they were then. The main difference is that we really should now know better.

There are lessons here for all mankind – not just those in the US. If humans go on over-exploiting the resources of our planet we have only ourselves to blame if we end up with a habitat that can support us no longer.

I'm not quite sure what led me to talk about that. Perhaps it seems to me very apt that at this time of the year when many of us celebrate the birth of Christ that we remember that there is so much more to life, the universe and everything than we can possibly grasp even though we are surely capable of reaching far further than most of us try.

With that thought in mind may I wish you all a wonderful 2015, a year in which I hope you are able to fulfil some of your dreams and reach some of those stars that have so far proved to be outside your reach.



Friday, 19 December 2014

Resting on your laurels - and ivy.

First of all may I thank all of you who have left comments on the blog ,sent me emails or messages through social media. They have all helped keep me reasonably cheerful so that I only shout at Marcia on rare occasions.

I am so glad that you liked Marcia's short story. As some of you might have guessed, this was later expanded into one of the Willa Marsh novels: Facing the Music. Although out of print in English, this is one of the novels presently available in French – it is published by Autrement, a literary publishing house in Paris. Autrement, having run out of novels written by Willa, is now publishing some of those written by Marcia but under the name of Willa Marsh since that author has now quite a considerable following in France and has had some very nice reviews in, amongst other French papers, Le Figaro.

Time to bring you up to date on the health front. As far as the anaemia is concerned, the blood count is slowly rising and I am just beginning to feel a lot better as a result, although I am told it will be another four or five weeks before I am back to normal. What happened, though, was very unexpected. Coming to the conclusion that there was nothing I could do for a while, I decided to just go with it and relaxed. The immediate result was that I slept for more or less the whole time for the first few days and even now am sleeping over ten hours a day. I must say that this is doing me no end of good and for the first time for many a long year I have enjoyed doing nothing very much apart from reading and thinking.

When you think about it, it was high time I had a holiday – and therefore high time Marcia had one too but that isn't on the cards just at the moment.

The last time we went away with nothing in mind but to relax – no thoughts of where a book may be set, of what fauna and flora might be around, of what photographs we need to fill gaps in the photo files – was about eighteen years ago when we spent a couple of nights in a hotel in Ilfracombe. I think that when Marcia finishes the book she is writing we would be wise to think about going away for a week or so and just chilling out.;

Our bedroom window looks out over a field which rises up so that the hedge, with its trees, is silhouetted against the sky (see above). When I first 'took to my bed' not all the leaves had fallen but today they are no more than a memory. I love it when the tracery of bare branches stands out against a dramatic sky – be it a glorious clear blue as it has been for the past two weeks or storm-wracked.



Not that this outline is devoid of all leaves for some of the trees carry a heavy burden of ivy. Ivy raises many questions: in some places it is considered to be a pernicious weed (for example it is, I believe, illegal to bring it into or to sell it in the state of Oregon) but it has its benefits.


I am not sure of the figures but well over a hundred species of insects and birds drink (if that is the right word) ivy nectar and the berries, despite being slightly poisonous to humans, are an important winter food source for a number of birds. Meanwhile, of course, it provides birds with shelter in winter as well as numerous nesting sites in spring and early summer.



It was, however, directly responsible for the loss of a large holly tree that grew in our last garden. The poor tree had become so overgrown that there were far too few leaves to sustain it. My guess is that as a result the roots had suffered because in a moderate gale the whole lot came crashing down.


No chance to get you a blog dog this week: perhaps that idea has now run its course (but I am always happy to post photos of your dogs and other pets if you want to send them to me – see top of the side bar to the right for details).

Friday, 12 December 2014

Rooks

This week with Roddy still in bed, I decided to post the very first short story that I ever wrote and hope that it will make up for the lack of photographs – and no blog dog!

My very best wishes to you all. Marcia

* * *

I saw a rook today with a straw in its’ beak and my heart gave a little upward leap of joy and hope. Then, all at once, I was back in the past hearing Elizabeth Drake saying, ‘Oh, no. 1 hate the autumn. Dank and cheerless, dark nights and winter ahead. So depressing. 1 love the spring, new life, re-birth. I’m an Easter person.’
Even now, thirty or more years on, I feel the little thread ox shame worm through me: that little hot flush of horror that comes when remembering that of which one is more than a ,little ashamed.
I was so young. That’s one of my excuses. Nineteen, twenty, I can’t remember now, perhaps old enough to now better, Anyway, my father had decided that I was quite old enough to get a job and earn some money and, though my mother and I protested, he insisted that daughters didn’t stay at home any longer, writing letters and arranging flowers and that it would be good for me to be independent. In spite, or because, of an expensive education, nothing readily rushed to mind. Perhaps my father suspected that my efforts weren’t totally whole  hearted for, one day, he returned from his game of golf to announce that he had arranged an interview for me with the Managing Director of a very large furniture store in the nearby town. My father had been playing a round with the Chairman and somehow my problem had cropped up. My problem! 1 liked that. I’d been quite happy pottering about, following up leads from my girlfriends which had unluckily come to nothing. There was nothing for it but to go.
At the time, I remember, 1 was quite surprised to be offered the job: assistant in the China and Glass Department. I knew nothing of the retail business, though I recognised a few names such as Crown Derby and Wedgewood. If I had heard of the Old Boys Network 1 didn’t apply it in my own case arid naively imagined that the M.D. liked me and saw my potential. The department was a small one and included lampshades, wall-lights etc. The window-dresser, an elderly man who wore very floral ties and would appear at regular intervals to collect up items for his displays in the ‘dining-rooms’ and ‘bedrooms’ and ‘sitting-rooms’. He had to sign a book to show that he had taken them: two Doulton figures, a set of Waterford wine goblets, a table lamp and shade etc. etc. Off he would go with his little assistant, a shy boy of about sixteen with an acne-ridden face arid floppy fair hair, clutching things or pushing them on an expensive tea-trolley.
‘Do be careful!’ Elizabeth Drake would cry. Her tone suggested, quite accurately, that she resented anything being carried out of the department. So did I but for quite different reasons. If a customer wanted to see anything that was out on display I was the one who had to get it, toiling up and down the stairs  staff weren’t allowed to use the lifts! too stupid!  and round the endless acres of carpeted floors until I found the little .Doulton figurine stuck on a bedside table in a corner of the Beds department 1 would seize it and go hurrying back  the customer might get fed up with waiting, mustn’t lose a sale  often with Mr Dickson, that was the window-dresser’s name, leaping out of the woodwork at me to ask what I was doing. Perhaps be mistook me for a shop-lifter, his eyes were, after all, very weak and his spectacles had very thick lenses.
Elizabeth Drake. 1 can picture her quite clearly. I thought her old, well, middle-aged but she was probably no more than thirty-eight. She was very fastidious. Her shirts, plain and simple, were always immaculate, her skirts, practical, were newly pressed, her shoes, sensible, were highly polished. She wore the minimum of make-up, just enough not to shine, and her dark, short hair was always in place. I could never imagine her being passionate, with, frantic At least, not in the beginning.
She was my boss, the manager and buyer of the department and she was the only member of staff who treated me as an ordinary person and, not, as I realise now was the case with the others, as a friend of the Chairman. Uh, they knew all right. I don’t know how. Certainly not through me, it never occurred to me to mention it, but they knew. Everyone was charming to me. Slowly I got to know the people in the other departments and slowly I came to realise that they all, without exception, hated Elizabeth Drake. Even now 1 don’t really know why. 1 think she committed the cardinal sin of letting them see that she felt herself superior to them, Well, she was. There’s no doubt about that. Apart from one or two little secretaries and some girls on the switchboard there were only two other female staff: Mrs Jenkins, who was the receptionist and sat behind a huge bar sort of arrangement on the ground floor, and Mrs Steed.
Mrs Steed I can see her, too. Fat, fair and forty, dressed to kill and with a bubbly charm that disguised the thinness of the brightly painted lips and the calculating coldness in the pale blue eyes. This is with hindsight. At the time I was flattered by her friendliness. As tar as I could tell she was employed mainly in bolt Furnishings but helped out with anyone who was short staffed, strutting between departments on high-heeled shoes, her ample bottom tightly encased. in short skirts admirably chosen to display plump calves in shiny stockings. She was very popular with the men. She and Mrs. Jenkins were often to be seen, heads together, in corners or in the staff-room canteen, well, they called it a canteen. It was a tiny room, tucked away on the top floor, painted a depressing green and furnished with some small tables and a few chairs, a grubby cooker next to a little sink and a supply of china, spoons etc. The staff had to supply the milk and coffee and anything else that they wanted to consume, The management would never have got away with it in this day and age but they were perfectly happy for stall to go out of the building for coffee breaks and lunch as long as they were back in time, so no-one much minded.
Elizabeth Drake always went out. Brisk, looking neither to right nor left, pulling on her gloves, she would leave the department, descend the stairs and, by way of the staff entrance,  staff were not allowed to use the main doors! too stupid!  vanish into the throng outside in the town. Once she’d gone one or two of the staff would gather together and the whispering would begin. In the early days I was left well alone. Perhaps no-one quite knew whose side I would take and what I might say to a higher authority. Anyway. The chief whisperers were Mr. Baxter from Carpets, Mrs. Steed and Mr Griffiths. Everyone called him Griff and he was the manager and buyer of Soft Furnishings. I thought he was the funniest man I had ever met. He had spent most of his life working in the London branch of the company and had only recently moved to the provinces. He could smell out the people who came into the store to avoid the rain or waste time and was brutal to them. I remember him advancing on a woman who had been roaming about for some time, She’d already been round the China and Class department and had moved into soft furnishings. The departments were next door to each other and I watched him approach her.
‘Can I help you, madam?’ he asked. He had a peculiarly menacing smile, I remember. He never opened his lips. His silvery hair was plastered to his skull and he always wore a pin-stripe suit. The woman was now riffling half-heartedly through a pile of bedspreads. She straightened up.
‘No, no thank you,’ she said. ‘I’m looking for a friend.’
‘Well, you won’t find her in there, madam,’ he said.
I remember hiding behind a display cabinet to stifle my laughter. We had lots of laughs together when Elizabeth Drake was out. He was always asking me questions about the department: how were our sales, figures for the month, our budget and so on. When Elizabeth Drake found out she was furious.
‘And I suppose you tell him everything,’ she exclaimed bitterly.
By this time I was used to her antagonism to the staff and her dislike or my overtures of’ friendliness towards them.
‘Hardly,’ I said, ‘1 don’t know any of the answers.’ Nor did 1 care, Perhaps that was implicit in my tone because she managed a smile.
‘I suppose not. It’s just none of their business,’
Fine. Didn’t bother me either way. She and I got on very well. She always called me by my surname, I remember, like at a boys’ school.
‘Come on, Beauchamp,’ she’d say. ‘Get the duster out.’
She’d pull my leg about being privileged.
I remember her saying to me, ‘I thought that the first time I saw you attempting to put a lampshade into a paper bag I’d die laughing. Have you ever been asked to do anything useful?’
I used to 1augh with her. Didn’t bother me a bit. And anyway, it was perfectly true, We had some pleasant moments but, even in the early days. 1 was irked by her attitude of isolation, the feeling of ‘them and us’, that the department was an oasis amidst the infidel. I was young, light-hearted, the job wasn’t that important. I wanted to laugh with Gritf and Mr. Baxter, gossip with Mrs Steed and Mrs Jenkins. I realise now that she was worth the lot of them put together. She had fine ideas, a high moral-tone a sense of duty and with the unerring shallowness of youth, when I chose, I chose Mrs Steed and. Grill,
Mrs Steed. had a boyfriend, It was Griff who told me and. it came as the most dreadful shock. 1 had had a sheltered upbringing and. was still naive enough to think that married women didn’t have boyfriends. Grill had great pleasure in telling me. He was that sort of man. He enjoyed shattering youth’s illusions, discrediting his friends and making it all sound great fun arid perfectly normal. Hindsight, again. At the time I thought that I was being treated as one of the lads and belt grown-up and important. Mrs. Steed’s boyfriend came into the store one day. Boyfriend! He was thirty-five it he was a day! I shook my head, mentally, in disbelief. Still, it was all great fun, lots of jolly jokes and laughs and, apparently, Mr. Steed knew all about it and was perfectly happy. So, I joined in and was introduced. Needless to say, Elizabeth Drake was at lunch.
‘Where’s the gorgon?’ I heard the boyfriend say ‘Gone to Mass?’
I have to admit that I laughed with the rest. It was the first I’d heard, though, of Elizabeth Drake being a Roman Catholic. 1 recalled a conversation we’d had about abortion, She’d. been unusually heated. about it, saying that it was a crime, murder Well, of course, if she was an RC that would. explain it.
It was about that time that we had the conversation about spring I has told her how much I loved the autumn, the colours, the woodsmoke and Christmas at the end of it.
‘Oh, no,’ she said. ‘I hate the autumn. Dank and cheerless, dark nights and winter ahead. So depressing. I love the spring, new life, re-birth. I’m an Easter person. Wait ‘till you’re older, Beauchamp, you’ll feel as I do,’
‘But Christmas,’ I pressed her. ‘Surely you like Christmas?’
Her face closed. ‘I hate Christmas,’ she said. And that was that.
Time passed and my birthday arrived. She gave me a little leather bound book of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. She’d written on the flyleaf. It was a quote about friendship and values. I can’t for the life of me remember it now and I’ve lost the book, At the time I was more excited by Mrs. Steed’s present of some silk stockings.
As the time approached for her to take her holiday she became agitated. She went off to see the M.D. and came back looking grim.
‘I asked him to let me leave you in charge,’ she said, ‘but he won’t, He says you haven’t enough experience. Mrs Steed’s going to be in here with you.’
I opened my mouth to say, ‘what fun!’ and shut it again. She spent all day putting things away and locking drawers and leaving me with endless do’s and dont’s. Mrs. Steed came into the department during the afternoon to see if she had any instructions for her. Dislike crackled tangibly between them, beneath their icy politeness and I could see, just round the corner, Griff rubbing his hands and smiling to himself, I left with her that evening and wished her a happy holiday.
The next two weeks were carnival. The department became a place of fun and laughter. Mrs. Steed’s friends dropped in, including the boyfriend, and other members of staff stopped off for little chats,
‘You see it doesn’t have to be like a mausoleum,’ Mrs. Steed said to me on more than one occasion. ‘You poor girl we really feel for you, you know.’
I said things like, ‘oh, she’s not so had, you know,’ and ‘she’s OK. really,’ but they wouldn’t have it and I began to feel that perhaps, after all, I was rather hard done by in having such a stiff, unfriendly stickler, for a boss.
When Elizabeth Drake came back it was like going back to school after the holidays. She went through the department from top to bottom, checked for dust and then settled down to go through the figures. Members of stall gave me little winks and nods of sympathy and I felt as though, somehow imperceptibly, I had moved from her side to theirs. Her behaviour didn’t help, she was cool and stilt and wouldn’t talk much about her holiday. She set me to completely change the department round, no doubt to throw off any lingering memory of Mrs. Steed, and I was hard at it all day.
‘Shame,’ whispered Mrs. Steed as I passed her going out to lunch. ‘Miserable old cow. We had such time, didn’t we?’
‘Shame,’ whispered Grill. ‘Pity she didn’t drown on her holiday. Janice Steed should run your department.’
‘Shame,’ mumbled Mr. Reed who was an alcoholic and worked in Beds, He used to chew garlic to disguise the whisky and the result was very interesting. He was often to be found sleeping it off in one 01 the big wardrobes in his department and snoring gently. He’d rather enjoyed the party atmosphere in our department during the last fortnight and had brought his hip-flask along.
I definitely began to feel hard done by. A few days later Anthony Lachlin strolled into the department. He was the chairman’s son and I’d known him forever.
‘I couldn’t believe it when I heard,’ he drawled gazing round with eyebrows raised in disbelief. His glance rested on Mrs. Steed and Grill, peering from Soft Furnishings and Mr. Baxter hovering at the edge of Carpets. He nodded at them regally. ‘My dear Caroline, what are you doing here.’
‘Daddy thought I ought to get a job, It’s all your father’s fault,’ I said crossly
He burst out laughing and Elizabeth Drake raised her head and gazed at him coldly from her desk in the corner. It was a huge old-fashioned wooden thing with plate glass almost to head height.
‘Shut up,’ I whispered pulling at his sleeve, ‘I have to work here.’
‘Not for much longer, 1 hope,’ he said. ‘Everyone’s over fifty by the look of it, Dreadful collection of old fossils. What can father have been thinking oft Well, never mind, I’ve got a splendid idea. A friend of mine’s trying his band at an antique shop and he needs an assistant. Much more your thing.’
I walked with him to the top of the stairs and then, to my horror, he kissed me on both cheeks in full view of all the first floor staff.
“Bye, darling,’ he called as he descended the stairs, ‘don’t forget, eight o’clock on Saturday.’
Elizabth Drake met me at the entrance to the department.
‘I really must protest, Miss Beauchamp,’ she began, loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘at your using the department as a place to entertain your friends.’
Now this was really unfair. Apart from Anthony only one or two of my friends had ever been into the store. These had taken in the hushed atmosphere, the ‘old fossils’ and the deep gloom generally and fled. I always met them outside in the town. What she was referring to were my mothers’ friends who, in town for some shopping, would descend with shrieks of joy, ‘Caroline, darling, your mother told us to be sure and look you up. Now, do you get commission? Oh, goody. Come on Connie,’ or Mary, or Jane, ‘let’s buy a little something to swell the coffers.’ then they’d swoop round picking things up and putting them down whilst Elizabeth Drake nodded frostily to them room behind the plate glass. The problem was that nearly all of them were account customers so there was nothing she could do and, after all, they’d always buy a little something and rush off with it calling goodbyes.
I apologised. Sullenly. I could feel waves of sympathy emanating from the rest of the store and old Mr. Dickson came over specially to say that he wanted to change the window display and could I help him carry some things as his boy was away. Grudgingly she said I could and I went with him gratefully.
Things didn’t really improve and, when Anthony told me I could have the job at the antiques shop if I wanted it, I jumped at it, I went at once to the MD’s office to give in my notice. He seemed reluctant to take it. He looked tired and worried, his fingers pressing constantly on a point just above his waistline at the front. On his desk stood a glass of milk.
‘I wonder, Miss Beauchamp, if you’ve given it long enough,’ he said. ‘I can understand that it’s not too exciting for a young person of your age but soon you’ll be able to start learning how to buy . He droned on and on . . .
At last, when I really thought that he was not going to accept my notice I said, ‘To be honest 1 really don’t want to work with Mrs Drake any more. We’re not really compatible.’
He sat up straight then, ‘Ah, so that’s it,’ he said. ‘Well, of course, we’ve had complaints before. Well, if that’s the case you can leave it to me. Mrs Steed can run the department. You get on very well with her, don’t you?’
I stared at him. ‘Yes, but that’s not the point . . .’
‘Don’t worry, my dear.’ He stood up and came round the desk. ‘I’ll get it all settled. She’ll be no loss, I assure you.’
‘You don’t understand,’ I began, but he was hustling me out or the door.
When Elizabeth Drake appeared in the department later I tried to hide. She seized me by the arm, her race was red, her eyes watered and her mouth was stretched into an ugly shape.
‘Why did you do this?’ she cried. ‘We’ve got on very well. Why did you say you couldn’t work with me?’
‘I didn’t,’ I tried to free myself, shocked by her appearance. ‘I didn’t actually say that. I’m leaving anyway. It’s nothing to do with you.’
‘Will you say that? Will you come with me now and say that?’ She was dragging me towards the stairs, oblivious or the interested stares. I was hot with shame and embarrassment. I knew that I had done something dreadful.
‘Please,’ I begged her, ‘please wait. I will go. Be calm.’ But she wouldn’t listen, Mr. Harrigan, the Assistant Manager was coming down the stairs and she flew at him dragging me with her.
‘Miss Beauchamp says that it’s nothing to do with me,’ she cried to hum. ‘She’s prepared to go now and say so. It’s all a mistake. Please . . .’
It was dreadful. I wondered how on earth she could contemplate continuing to work there having exposed herself so completely to her enemies. Mr. Harrigan hustled her away and presently appeared and suggested that I should go to lunch. When I came back she’d gone. No sign of her was left behind and, in her place, was Mrs. Steed, triumphant at last, The place was agog. Rumours raced round the departments. Elizabeth Drake had gone mad, hit the MD, had fallen on her knees and begged for mercy.
‘White as a sheet she was when she left,’ reported Griff, smiling. ‘I watched her. She passed right by me,’ How he would have enjoyed it.
‘So that’s that,’ Mrs. Steed could barely hide her exaltation. How well I had played her cards for her. ‘Let’s tidy up a bit, shall we?’
I left anyway. I went to say goodbye to Mr. Harrigan. He was a gentle, quiet man with a limp and had been patently distressed by the scene on the stairs. I told him how sorry I was, how it had all been a hit of a muddle, It made me feel a bit better to say that. Less guilty.
‘Poor woman.’ He shook his head. His mild gaze roamed the middle distance, ’Such a tragic story. Her husband is an invalid, you know. He was knocked down by a drunken driver one Christmas Eve, The child was killed.’
‘Child?’
His gaze returned to me. ‘She told me once but no-one else ever knew. That’s how she wanted it. I shouldn’t have mentioned it but she’s gone and you’re going anyway. Don’t tell anyone else please.’
I said again, ‘Child?’
He sighed. ‘Yes, She had a child, He was two or three, I think, After the accident it was found that her husband would never be able to provide her with another. It was a dreadful grief to her. She has to work to support them, now.’
He turned away and began to pull himself up the stairs with his odd salting gait.
‘Mr. Harrigan,’ I called after him. ‘Where did she go? Can you give me her address?’
He looked down at me and shook his head.
‘Well, she’ll be in the phone book.’
He shrugged. ‘She worked under her maiden name,’ he said and went on his way.
I searched for her for weeks. When I’d done all the stores I tried cafes. No luck. Lime passed and I got married. Some years later, when I’d almost forgotten, I was pushing my second child through the China and Glass department of a large store when I saw her. She looked relatively unchanged to me. There’s not a great difference between the mid-thirties and the mid-forties. I watched her for a bit and then went up to her.
‘Hello,’ I said. After a moment she smiled, coolly, warily.
‘I looked for you,’ I said, ‘I wanted to apologise. Can you ever forgive me?’
She smiled again. ‘Ill try,’ she said. And then she saw Freddie, Her face lit up. ‘You have a child,’ she said and came right round the counter to look at him. I felt my throat constrict.
‘Two, actually,’ I said. She crouched beside him arid he stared at her stolidly, thumb in mouth. She looked up at me. ‘I have a son, too,’ she said. And her face blazed with love and pride. I stared. She touched Freddie’s cheek with her finger and stood up.
‘I couldn’t get another job, you see, so we decided to adopt. You get all sorts of help and allowances. He’s started school, now, so I’m working part tame.’
I swallowed. ‘I’m so glad. What’s his name?’
‘Andrew. So you see, it worked out very well.’ Her smile, this time was warmer, ‘I forgave you long ago, actually. When Andrew arrived.’
I nodded words were difficult. ‘So you don’t hate Christmas anymore?
‘Not any more. But I still like spring best.’
I never saw her again. But it all came back to me when I saw the rook with the straw in his beak,
I wish I could find that book of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, though.


© Marcia Willett 1995