From 2011: The Year of All Things Wild and Woolly

Talking about sad episodes, it’s time to mention our polytunnel. Our earnings were a little healthier now that we were with Angling Lines, but there still wasn’t a lot of spare cash. Now, we’d been mulling over the idea of getting a greenhouse or polytunnel for several months. We ate a lot of tomatoes and lettuces but these didn’t thrive outdoors. Despite digging lots of poop from assorted animals into the area of ground we designated as the vegetable patch, the soil remained poor. The only things that did grow were courgettes and pumpkins, and you can definitely have too many of those. Hence, the desire to grow a wider variety of veggies. After a lot of pondering, we opted for a low budget polytunnel off eBay. Stop laughing and bear with me. It looked good in the advert, and was the right sort of size so we paid up and eagerly awaited its arrival. It wasn’t too long coming and we got it up in one afternoon. Given the number of bits of framework and the unhelpfulness of the instructions, that was surprisingly fast. We chose a south-facing spot behind the barn. It was in the female llamas’ field and they were delighted. They had a very interesting time watching us grapple with poles and plastic. Llamas are so wonderfully inquisitive. Once it was finished they seemed very pleased with the new addition to their field and inspected it every now and again. We’d have to make sure to keep it closed, or they’d be in like a shot.

We got to work constructing some workbenches from recycled building materials and quickly covered them with seedlings in yoghurt pots. My inner gardener blossomed. I spent many happy hours pottering around potting things up in there, and Chris likewise. It started to look very impressive and productive. We took the precaution of wiring the framework to two very heavy iron bars that had come with the farm. We had no idea what their original purpose might have been, but we knew they’d come in handy one day and so we left them where they were, on the grass beyond the hangar, and regularly tripped over them. However, all those stubbed toes were worth it as the bits of iron now came into their own.

They, the bits of wire and a few bits of bent framework were all that were left after the first slightly windy night we experienced after erecting the polytunnel. A few moderate gusts of wind and the whole thing fell apart. The plastic ripped and fluttered off around the farm, sending our seedlings flying, only to be consumed or trampled on by the llamas. What a disaster. All that hard work wasted. Evidently the polytunnel was intended for indoor use only. We sighed and collected up any salvageable pieces of debris, and they weren’t many, ignoring the llamas’ giggling.

We learnt our lesson from that act of cheapskateness and decided we would have to invest in a real, proper, heavy-duty polytunnel with thick plastic and a weighty metal framework. It would be worth dipping into our savings if it meant we bought something that would last longer than a couple of weeks and withstand a gentle breeze. And so our new polytunnel duly arrived. This was more like it. It came on two pallets and weighed a ton. Never mind several hours, it took several weeks to erect. The main supporting framework needed concreting in place, wooden doorways had to be constructed and it took the whole family to help with fitting the rest of the frame together and fitting the plastic over, stretching it carefully to fit and cutting off the excess. Leaving a central walkway, Chris built a raised bed to each side which, over a few days, we filled with barrowfuls of llama and chicken poop. The ten-metre long and four-metre wide polytunnel accommodated an awful lot of poop, I can tell you. We were delighted, and, although a bit late, set to on a second splurge of growing seedlings. We hung up a thermometer and marvelled at the tropical temperatures reached in the polytunnel. On a cloudy day when it was 20 degrees outside, the tunnel clocked up 35 degrees. And when it was hot and sunny outside around the 30 degree mark, the thermometer showed upwards of 45 degrees. Surely our lettuces and tomatoes would flourish now.

Word must have got round about our polytunnel because out of the blue, a young man turned up. He explained he was a neighbour, relatively speaking – he lived a good few kilometres away but there weren’t many other habitations between us and him so I guess that did make us neighbours – and that he’d just taken over Les Chapotiers and planned to make a living growing bio (organic) fruit and veg. We’d detected a hint of hippie. He had a polytunnel on order and asked if we’d come and help him erect it when he arrived. We replied that so long as he wouldn’t object to a good bit of swearing going on during the process, then no problem, count us in. We’d found from our few years of heavy labour in France that swearwords are as crucial an ingredient in constructing something as the physical constituents. Cussing concentrates the mind. We weren’t the first to think so. I remember from my childhood Dad going round to help our neighbour, who I knew as Uncle Will, with a car problem. “Damn, I won’t be able to swear so it’ll take ages,” Dad grumbled as he set off. Uncle Will was indeed a gentle soul. We’d often call round as kids and be treated to a biscuit in the kitchen. I only saw the living room once, and the walls were festooned with beautiful embroidered pictures. All Uncle Will’s work.

The young guy never turned up again.

Another #SampleSunday, another extract from my forthcoming ‘Total Immersion: Ten Years in France’. We’re in March 2009, and we get to meet our first home-born baby llama and Chris has a very close encounter with a fox.

We’d moved Gabby, the mother llama, into a stable so she’d be warm and cosy when delivery time came and we checked on her frequently. We coated the stable floor with hay, and counted the days. We were starting to give up. She seemed intent on exploding rather than giving birth, just to spite us.

This cria is actually Sir Winter, born Jan 27 2017. My photos of baby Lulin are on another computer. But he’s equally as cute as she was!

It was a fine, sunny morning during the kids’ winter holiday fortnight so we decided to go for a walk. We did one of our local strolls, the Chambon shuffle we call it (ch = sh in French, so it’s a nice alliterative name). Coming back along the green lane between fields, we spotted a fox in the hedgerow, but it didn’t run away. We peered close and saw that it had a metal snare around its stomach, getting tighter and tighter every time the animal moved. It was probably stupid of us, but we couldn’t leave it like that. Chris had gloves on and tried to free the fox but it bit him, not surprisingly really, and we were forced to abandon the rescue mission for the time being. When we got back, Chris went to put Germolene on his bite and then find thick gloves and wire cutters for a second attempt. I went to look in on Gabby. And there, in a hideous, spindly heap, was a llama cria. Gabby had chosen the darkest, dirtiest corner of the stable to deliver in, studiously avoiding the birth-friendly hay carpet we’d put down.  The baby was cold and grubby. Caiti and I got busy with towels drying the little female down while the boys went off to deal with the fox.

Both missions proved successful. Caiti and I soon transformed the baby into a clean, dry, fluffy cria. She was mainly white with some pretty brown splotches on her face and back. At the time Comet Lulin was visible, and we thought that Lulin was the perfect name for a little llama. Again with the alliteration. Benj and Chris came back, fortunately with no more bites, thanks to the thick gloves. But we still had the one bite to worry about. And worry a lot about, as France was then still officially a rabid country.

We hopped in the car to go to the doctor’s. We explained what had happened, and he asked us if we had the fox’s head. I stared at him blankly. No, he can’t have said that. I must have misunderstood something there. I asked him to repeat the question at a non-Francophone-friendly speed, and the same words came out. Chris and I shot other a ‘what the heck’ look. I warily replied that we didn’t have the head. We’d left it on the fox as it clearly had need of it. There didn’t seem a lot of point in freeing a fox from a snare only to immediately decapitate it, not the thought of doing so would ever have occurred to us.

The doctor sighed and told us, in a long-suffering tone, that if you get bitten by a fox, or any other possibly rabid animal, you’re meant to kill it and bring its head with you for testing. As with so many things in France, you’re meant to instinctively know this. Well, we didn’t, and we hadn’t got a vulpine head with us, so what next? The doctor quickly cheered up and said that Chris would need to go to Guéret hospital for rabies-neutralising shots. These would start at the rate of several a week, then one a week, then one a fortnight and so on at increasingly long intervals for at least the next six months. He might have said years, I was too shocked to listen properly. This really was a blow. We’d been expecting Chris would need a few injections, but not that many or for so long.

Lulin today

The doctor phoned the nearest Department of Information about Rabies and we watched as the smile dropped from his face. Our hearts were in our boots. He must have underestimated the treatment process. But it turned out that Boussac was a rabies-free zone. There hadn’t been any cases reported here for some officially sanctioned period of time, so we didn’t need the injections after all. The doctor was clearly very disappointed about this. I think he’d been quite looking forward to having a case of rabies to tell all his medical chums about. Or maybe, odd as this may sound, he liked seeing English people suffer. All that needed doing was to give Chris some antibiotics. Our anti-tetanus shots were up to date, so no more jabs were necessary. Talk about relief. The incident has, however, left Chris with an intense dislike of foxes. He also vowed he would never try and free another animal from a snare, a vow he steadfastly kept until Christmas when we came across our next case of a snared animal, a deer this time, which, of course, we set free.

Snaring  is legal in France, under certain conditions, and also trapping. Our local friendly farm supply shop, run by incredibly nice people, has a whole rack of gruesome looking devices for these very purposes and obviously they don’t give it a second thought. It’s still a way of life for some country dwellers. We haven’t come across any trapped animals for a long while now, it has to be said. However, I don’t suppose the practice has died out, just that whoever’s setting the snares is keeping them off our usual stamping grounds. The snarer has possibly worked out that the proximity of our farm to the cut-through snares they’d laid was more than coincidental. Because they were quite close to us, the only inhabitants in a sizeable chunk of very many square kilometres. Mine were the only local chickens, or in fact livestock of any kind, that a fox might have helped itself to, so I can’t see the need for anyone to have set a snare in that location. OK, deer eat crops which must be annoying if you’re a farmer, but this snare was on a bit of fencing (erected by the gas board) bordered by scrub land. Unnecessary and unpleasant.

Now that the first draft of Haircuts, Hens and Homicide is in the bag, I’ve been able to return to part Deux of my memoir of our lives in France, Total Immersion. To whet your appetites here’s an extract from the chapter ‘2012: The Year of the Pig’.

The Big Freeze of 2017 is going on as I write about the Even Bigger Freeze of 2012 so it’s helping to put me in the mood. It’s brought back precise memories of exactly how flipping cold it was.

The year started off harmlessly enough. Once New Year was over, the kids headed back to école primaire (Rors), lycée (Caiti) and fac (Benj) and Chris and I settled into our daily routine of this time of years of jobs around the farm, lake maintenance and our online businesses. However, Chris’s inner swineherd was proving hard to ignore. He’d been becoming more and more interested in getting pigs, and talking about them to such an extent that some returning angling clients of ours gave him a book about pig ownership. Perhaps that was the deciding factor, or maybe he just felt ready for a new challenge as by now, between us, we’d mastered llama and alpaca, goat, sheep and poultry ownership. It was time to conquer another animal species.

Chris did some research and found someone who did pig management courses in Poitou-Charentes, about four hours away. He booked himself in on the next available session and sorted out a night’s accommodation nearby as there was an early start to the day’s training. All he had to do now was wait.

January was ridiculously mild, to the extent that the daffs were coming up, the chickens were laying fit to bust and buds were starting to appear on many trees. What a lovely short winter we’ve had this time, we thought with a smile. But Mother Nature had the last laugh.

Chris set off on a sunny Sunday afternoon, waved off by me and the two youngest. Once he was gone we pottered around in the warmth, doing the farm chores and getting some fresh air before focussing on getting everything ready for school next day. For Rors this was just making sure there were clean clothes ready and waiting, but for Caiti it was the usual painful process of packing the suitcase for a week of boarding. We should have had it down to a fine art by now, and we had done with Benj, but somehow every week seemed like the first with our daughter. She always left packing till the very last minute, long after parental patience had been ground down. I’ve never been a late night person and since moving to France and taking up a much more physically exhausting lifestyle, then bed starts calling at nine o’clock, sometimes earlier. So things would tend to get fraught on a Sunday evening. But Caiti inevitably produced the proverbial rabbit from the hat and was all ready for the off, although she regularly resembled the proverbial slow snail and reduced me to a nervous wreck on Monday mornings. However, as it turned out miraculously we only ever missed the bus once.

This particular Monday morning was very chilly but with Chris away I had no alternative but to load a warmly wrapped sleepy Ruadhrí into the car to be taken for the ride when delivering Caiti to the bus stop in Clugnat. The road sparkled with frost and it was nippy. One low, hill-bottom stretch of the road was, as usual, particularly cold. We called it the ‘frost bucket’. This arose from a very young Caiti mishearing us using the expression ‘frost pocket’. Well, since ‘frost bucket’ is so much better we adopted that one as a family saying. The car showed a temperature of minus three or so. Brrr.

Meanwhile Chris was getting up to minus five, which came as a bit of a shock. Fortunately he’d taken plenty of warm clothes with him as a lot of the training was done outside and the day itself was sunny and bright. He had a wonderful time learning about the finer points of pigmanship with trainers David and Lorraine. They specialised in English old breed pigs and so Chris got to meet Gloucester Old Spots, Berkshires and Oxford Sandy and Blacks. He got to eat them at lunchtime too but not the ones he’d just met, obviously! The whole point of getting pigs was to become self-sufficient in pork. We weren’t going to be a pig sanctuary – we were going into this venture with hardened hearts and a love of sausages.  Chris was immediately struck with how much nicer the pork from these old breeds was than what we were used to eating from the supermarket.

Chris learned about fencing, handling and breeding pigs, and about all the relevant legislation. There was plenty of hands-on experience of rounding up and feeding. He was struck with how intelligent the pigs are. You can interact with a pig. Llamas, alpacas, goats, sheep – not so much. The action with them is one way, i.e. from the human, with the creature in question simply regarding you vacantly as The Mysterious Being That Dispenses Food. A pig, though, will come over for a chat. A pig will listen. A pig will scrutinise you and size you up with those shrewd eyes, rather than just gaze dumbly at you. A pig is altogether a different kind of animal from other farm livestock.

Temperatures began to plummet as the day wore on. I distributed extra hay to the animals and took a hat for Rors with me when I walked to Nouzerines to meet him from school. It was the walking-to-and-from school season in the winter, but the rest of the year we cycled him in and out. Despite living the furthest away, and Chris and I being the oldest set of parents by at least a decade, we were the only ones who were able to get to and from under our own environmentally-friendly steam rather than resorting to car or bus. As well as allowing us to feel morally superior to the rest of the world, it kept us all fit and we enjoyed the exercise as a family activity.

Chris got back quite late and reported freezing fog and icy roads all the way. It was by now a good few degrees below freezing, and it was going to be several weeks before it warmed up. The Big Freeze had begun.

It seemed to come out of nowhere. Admittedly we didn’t watch the Météo, weather forecast, regularly. We’d tried and failed to adapt to French television generally. With its love of short and frankly bizarre (‘quirky’ doesn’t come close) vignettes, and its overly-verbose chat and quiz show hosts, it just wasn’t for us. The culturally divide turns into a chasm when it comes to the TV. But we soon started watching it every night. And the news, where ice-bound scenes from around the country filled most of the half-hour slot. However, we were far more concerned with our own ice-boundness, which was dramatic and wholesale.

(The artwork for the cover of Total Immersion is by the incomparable Roger Fereday. The photo is of our own Berkshire pigs, Rosamunde and Oberon.)

Here’s an extract from Something Fishy, the racy fishing mystery story by my carp fishing friend Rorie Stevens.

Marcus Summers is the narrator. He’s brought a team of 6 anglers to take on a rival team at a friend’s lake in France near Coussac. This year Marcus has the hot Fiona on his team.

 

Chapter 6

Fishing is a good sex substitute. Not if you put them side by side, of course. If a beautiful, naked, sex-starved woman (or man, if that’s the preference) came prancing along the bank just as an angler was about to cast, well, I don’t think it’s the fish that would get pulled. But as a way of keeping your mind happily and busily off the subject for a period of time, it works well. At least it usually did for me, but this week with Fi close by, it was rubbing my nose in it.

I’d once done a column about why fishing was better than sex, coming up with daft reasons like the fact that a fish will never post embarrassing video footage of you on Youtube; you don’t have to hide your fishing magazines; you can have as many fishing partners, including total strangers, as you want, and how if you catch something when you’re fishing it’s good, but if you do the same when you’re having sex, well, that’s bad. That was one of my most popular articles. It was a shame it wasn’t actually true.

I got through Sunday more or less OK. We were all anxious to get our first catches so we all concentrated hard on our fishing. I spodded like mad and built up a good bed of bait, and sure enough, by Sunday evening I was starting to land some excellent fish. Overall, our team was ahead by 41 lbs. Greg had been landing the most regularly, but he was bringing in smaller grass carp, rather than larger commons. However, no-one minds catching a grass carp – they’re always exciting and fight like crazy. Fi had brought in three mirrors over 30 lbs and she was thrilled. She was proving to be a reliable carpist.

She got a lot of teasing, because in between casts and catches, she pulled her knitting out.

“Grannies knit!” protested Derek over lunch. “Hot chicks don’t.”

Fi rolled her eyes. “So you’re saying Scarlett Johansson and Dakota Fanning aren’t hot? You’re way out of touch, Del Boy. It’s cool to knit these days. All the celebs are doing it.”

Derek snorted.

“Anyway, I’m a yarnbomber, not a knitter.”

“You what?” Derek looked at her blankly, like the rest of us.

“Yarnbomber. Knitted graffiti street artist, if you’d rather.”

“Knitting’s not art,” grumbled Andy. “Knitting’s jumpers and stuff.”

“Not necessarily.” Fi put him straight. “There are quite a lot of us who brighten up public places with our artwork. You know, a hat on a postbox,  a scarf round a statue’s neck. Some yarnbombers have knitted covers for tanks and buses!”

“They need to get a life,” tutted Josh sadly.

Fi ignored him.

“Have you done any of that stuff at Haverton?” asked Norm.

“No, not yet,” admitted Fi. “I’ve been too crazy with work. But I’ve got the time now so I shall rustle up something for Coussac. It’s bound to have a statue somewhere that needs a makeover. Are we going into town soon?” she asked me.

“I was reckoning on tomorrow or Tuesday morning,” I replied. “I need to buy more food, and it’s always interesting to have a poke around there. It’s a nice little town. You’ll like it – it’s got a very picturesque old part.”

“Has it?” said Derek, surprised. “I didn’t know that.”

“How many years have you been coming here?” I grilled him.

“Eight now, I think.”

“Yeah, and for each of those eight years you only ever go to the same bar each time we go into Coussac!” I reminded him. “That’s why you haven’t done any sightseeing yet.”

“Oh, I see sights in that bar,” smirked Derek. “There are some fit babes in Coussac.”

We sat around for a while longer, then Fi got up.

“I need a shower,” she announced.

“Thank God for that,” grinned Liam. “I wondered what that funny smell was.”

“Ha ha, very mature,” riposted Fi.

She collected her wash things from her bivvie and disappeared up the path to the barn which housed the new shower room. But she was back ten minutes later, still dry, and carrying a camp shower. All the others had gone back to their swims.

“The proper shower’s bust,” she grumbled to me. “Julian says he should have it fixed by tomorrow evening. So he’s given me this thing. He says if I hang it up first thing in the morning in a sunny spot, the water should be good and warm by midday.”

“Keep that thing in sight the rest of today,” I warned her.

“Oh?”

“Yes. Never forget there are people round here with a mental age that matches their hook size. These same people are into silly practical jokes. I remember a camp shower episode a few years ago that involved worms and other creepy crawlies!”

“Eeyuw!” grimaced Fi. “Thanks for the heads up. I shall go and stash it at the back of my bivvie and stand guard.”

I smiled as I watched her hurry off with it.

Next morning, she vanished early with it, into the woods at the far end of the lake. I was the only one to see her go. No-one else was up yet. I’d had a broken night with three runs so I was tired. Two of those had resulted in fish on the bank, so I was well pleased. But damn, the thought that in a few hours Fi would be naked somewhere in those same woods was definitely arousing. I tried to think about something else – what I’d write in my next column, how things were going at the fishery, had I got enough cash for the shopping today, but that was no good. The mental picture of wet, soapy Fi wouldn’t budge.

The other lads only found out about the shower over lunch, when Fi happened to remark that the water had still been on the chilly side when she’d last checked it, so she was going to give it another hour. All eyes were on her.

“Do you want someone to hold your soap?” offered Nat. “So you don’t have to keep bending down to pick it up.”

Eleven minds’ eyes saw a nude Fi bending down. That was something worth seeing.

“Come to think of it, it would be better if I held your towel rather than your soap,” Nat corrected himself hastily with a smile. “So you have to bend down!”

“In your dreams,” chuckled Fi. “I shower alone.”

“What if a wild boar comes along?” suggested Greg. “You should have a lookout to scare it away.”

“I’ll take my chances with the local wildlife,” replied Fi firmly.

Rob rustled up some cups of tea. I noticed Andy and Derek slip out. Not too hard to guess where they were going. They came back about half an hour later, sniggering like schoolboys. I watched them go round the lake, talking to Rob’s guys and then Greg and Norm. Everyone seemed to be giving them cigarettes.

“What are you up to?” I demanded when they finally got to me.

“We know where Fi’s shower is!” smirked Andy. “For half a dozen fags, we’ll tell you.”

I looked at them hard. “That’s a bit mean isn’t it? I mean, this is Fi, she’s our friend.”

“Are you telling me you don’t want to see her in the buff?” Andy cut to the point.

“No,” I sighed. “I’d love to, but I don’t think it’s very nice to go leering at her.”

“Suit yourself,” shrugged Derek. “You’re the loser.”

Just then, Fi came out of her bivvie with her towel. Everyone pretended to be busy with their rods. She snuck a look round, then hurried off to the woods again. A minute later, all the lads started following.

I watched them giggle off. I felt cross. No way were they going to eyeball Fi in the nude. I was determined to be the one out of us who got to see her naked first, but voluntarily on Fi’s part. I was going to get that girl. I pulled out my mobile, hoping Fi had got hers with her.  I quickly texted a message:

‘You wl hv audience. Lads r follwng u.’

I was relieved when my phone chirped almost immediately to tell me her reply had come.

‘Tx! Wl relocate fast!’

This I had to see, so I brought in my rods and trotted after the others.

“I changed my mind,” I lied shamelessly to Andy and bunged him a handful of fags.

“Knew you’d see sense,” he smirked.

We followed Andy and Derek through the shady woods. Everyone was trying to be quiet but not really succeeding. There were too many twigs cracking underfoot and too much laughing. I needn’t really have warned Fi. She’d have heard us coming, no problem. We climbed up some banking and then Andy and Derek beckoned to us to approach slowly and bent low. We looked down over the lip of the slope to where the lads were pointing. But neither Fi nor shower were anywhere to be seen. Derek and Andy looked gobsmacked.

“Where is she then?” demanded Mike, one of Rob’s team.

“Yeah!” said Josh, a giant of a man who made me look small and puny.

“The shower was definitely here earlier,” promised Andy.

“Lying bastards!” accused Liam. “I’ll have my fags back please.”

“Yeah, me too,” I added, hoping to appear genuinely disappointed.

“Um, we’ve smoked most of them,” admitted Derek.

“Already? Shit!” Josh wasn’t impressed.

“We’ll buy some tomorrow for you,” added Andy.

“Proper ones, like, not weird French camel-poo ones,” grumbled Josh.

“Do you get camels in France then?” enquired Liam.

I rolled my eyes.

“You have our word,” nodded Derek.

The two of them looked very abashed. Not a common sight, that.

Suddenly Josh laughed. “You had us all going!”

“Yeah, I believed you!” confessed Rob.

“We were telling the truth.” Andy didn’t like being accused of trickery.

“Yeah, whatever.” Phil, the quiet one on Rob’s team, shrugged good naturedly.

We traipsed back to the lake.

“Let’s have a beer at the cabin before we get fishing again,” suggested Greg.

Everyone muttered assent so we headed down to the cabin. And there was Fi, with wet hair and wrapped in a towel, unhooking the campshower from the tree branch just outside it.

“You had your shower? Here?” Andy couldn’t believe it.

“Finished about a minute ago. Yeah, it’s a nice sunny spot here,” she smiled. “Pllus I thought I’d get some help. I realised I’d been a bit stroppy with you all yesterday. It was so kind of you wanting to hold my soap and towel. So I came here, looking for willing volunteers, but you’d all gone. Such a shame.” She sighed melodramatically. “I really needed someone to scrub my back for me.”

She winked at me then sashayed along the bank, back to her tent, while ten pairs of eyes watched in abject misery. I watched trying not to laugh. Good old Fi!

Chapter 1 Talk About Gobsmacked

We were having tea – me, my half-brother Orly and Granny Paradise, my step-grandmother. Does that sound complicated? Sorry, but the complicating factor is my mother. She is a walking disaster zone, as you’ll see.

We were waiting for mum to come home. She’d been away for two weeks to stay with her awful friend Sheila in France – two glorious mum-free weeks that had shot by all too fast. Two weeks without amateur dramatics every five seconds over pathetically trivial things, two weeks without running out of milk or teabags or toilet roll or some other basic household item every day, two weeks without having to avoid the latest person mum had managed to mortally offend, two weeks without her bringing home some geeky guy to patronise me and Orly. Instead we’d had two weeks of normal family life at our gran’s with scrummy meals, two weeks of fun and laughter, two weeks of me not having to be mother to Orly, two weeks of being a typical sixteen-year-old. It had been brilliant.

But now it was over. We heard her car crunch its way up the gravel drive to the doorway.

“Mummy, mummy!” yelled Orly, leaping up from the table. His pudding went flying across the room. That sort of thing was perfectly normal with Orly. He’s nine and amazingly clumsy. He has mild learning disabilities. I love him to bits. He’s more my kid than mum’s since I’ve been the constant in his life. Dads have come and gone, and poor Granny Paradise gets banished regularly by mum so she’s not always around. I’ve pretty much brought him up, and I have to say I’ve done a good job. He’s a super kid. His only drawback is that he adores Mum.

“Well, at least someone is glad to see your mother back,” remarked Granny Paradise drily.

I sighed. Granny Paradise shot me a sympathetic look.

“Go on, you’d better go and greet her,” she said, standing up to clear up Orly’s mess.

“OK,” I shrugged reluctantly. Actually, I was overdoing it a bit. Mum drives me demented, but you have to admit that life is certainly not dull when she’s around. It would be kind of nice to see her again. For five minutes anyway. After that, I’d be fed up with her again.

Orly was dancing around Mum when I got to the door of Granny Paradise’s house.

“Where’s my present, where’s my present?” he was chanting.

Mum laughed and ruffled his hair. She looked fabulous. She’d picked up a beautiful suntan while she’d been away. She’d also got some new clothes by the looks of it – a skin tight pair of crop jeans, and a skimpy, lacy top. They were gorgeous. I was green with envy.

Mum tottered towards the house in one of her hallmark pairs of ludicrously high stiletto-heeled sandals. She had a bulky shoulder bag covered with rhinestones. Bars of chocolate and a couple of bottles of perfume stuck out of it.

“Hi Mum!” I managed a smile.

“Hi love.” She planted a kiss on my cheek.

Orly barged past me, following her into the hall.

“But my pressie!” he wailed. “Where is it?”

Mum teetered into the kitchen and plonked herself down on a chair, her bag beside her. Orly jumped on her lap.

“You did get me a present, didn’t you?” He was getting worried now.

“Yes I did,” laughed Mum. “But it was too big to bring home, so I left it in France.”

Well, that was dumb, even for Mum. How was Orly supposed to get it then?

“Don’t worry sweetie. We’ll go and get it very soon,” she told Orly. Orly frowned. He didn’t want to have to wait that long.

I frowned too. I was more concerned about this going to France thing. Term started in ten days’ time. I was really looking forward to sixth-form college, even though I wasn’t even vaguely prepared. We hadn’t got round to going into town yet to buy the textbooks and stationery I needed.

“What’s going on, Mum?” I asked.

Mum dropped her bombshell. “We’re moving to France!”

I stared her at in horror. Granny Paradise dropped the piping-hot dish of beef casserole she’d just got out of the oven.

“What?” we both screeched.

Orly merely grumbled: “But I want my pressie now!”

“I’ve bought a darling little cottage for us,” Mum beamed.

“What?” Granny screeched again.

“What with?” was my hypersonic question. We were permanently broke.

“I had a bit of money put aside,” replied Mum vaguely. “My rainy day fund.”

First I’d heard about that.

“So what is my pressie?” demanded Orly petulantly.

“It’s a new home with a huge garden, which has a stream and pond,” Mum explained to Orly. Then she turned to me. “Sheila and I were going for a drive and we went past the cottage, and I totally fell in love with it at once. So I bought it. I’ve only actually signed the first set of papers. The final sale goes through in about three weeks.”

“But, but …” There were about a million things I needed to ask Mum, but I just couldn’t get the words out. I couldn’t even get up to help Granny Paradise clean our tea up off the floor.

Mum had excelled herself this time. Granny Paradise hurled the casserole and food into the bin and stormed out. If only I could have regained the power of movement, I’d have followed her.

Mum sighed melodramatically and rolled her eyes. “Just the reaction I thought I’d get. But aren’t you excited?” She looked at me expectantly.

“I … I … it’s … er …”

“You’re overwhelmed,” interpreted Mum, looking pleased with herself. ”It’s such an opportunity for you. I know you’ll thank me one day. Now, I must go and tell everyone the news.” She headed for the phone.

I stared after her, so furious I could have exploded. Opportunity? Thank her? No flipping way! But overwhelmed? Darn skippy I was overwhelmed. So frigging overwhelmed, I could do some serious damage to my mother right now. Orly brought me back to earth.

“Brownie, I don’t understand. Has Mummy got me a pressie or not?” he pouted.

“Yes, my big O, of course she has. Here we are.” I rummaged in Mum’s bag and pulled out two bars of chocolat au lait. “Mummy was teasing you.”

Orly was quite happy with that explanation and ripped open the bar. He broke it clumsily into halves and gave one to me. He’s such a generous kid.

“I’ll give Granny the other bar,” he announced, through a mouthful of chocolate.

“That’s my kind boy,” I tried to smile.

“Don’t you want your choccie?” Orly asked, watching me as I just sat looking at it. Normally I am the world’s greatest pig where chocolate is concerned.

“I’ll save it till later,” I told him. “I need to find Granny now. You stay here, honey. I’ll be back in a tick.”

I trotted outside into the garden and soon saw Granny Paradise in the greenhouse, aggressively watering the tomatoes and talking to herself angrily. I slowed down. It was probably best to leave her to cool down, at least emotionally. The greenhouse was only going to make her redder in the face. I did not want to see Mum. I was so furious with her. Yet again she was mucking up our lives. She was so good at that. Oh for the calming influence of a sensible dad.

It’s time to talk about my dads. I’ve had a good few. Dad One was my biological dad, but I never knew him, and the only thing Mum ever told me about him was that his name was Paolo and he was Portuguese, or possibly Spanish, but definitely southern European. I have his colouring and dark brown eyes. He was mum’s boyfriend for just a few weeks, but that was long enough. Apparently he took off at the speed of light when he found out Mum was pregnant with me. Enter Dad Two when I was three. He’s Orly’s dad and he’s brilliant. His name is Winston Jackson and he’s in the U S Navy. He’s from the Bahamas. Granny Paradise is his mum. Dad Two met Mum while he was on shore leave from his ship. He fell in love with her and married her as soon as he could and set up home here in the UK. He was away for a lot of the time with his job. Orly arrived when I was six. Granny P left her sunny home and came to live nearby. Poor Granny Paradise, she hates this country. She’s always cold and never wears fewer than three cardigans, even in summer. Anyway, Dad Two was a really good influence on Mum, for a few years at least. But she got fed up being a sailor’s wife and dumped him. She ran off with Dad Three, a complete and utter loser from day one. He spent what little money we had and then deserted us. Granny Paradise amazingly took us in for a year or so while Mum vaguely pulled herself together and got a job. Then along came Dad Four. He was fun. He was a computer programmer, I think. Mum thought that meant he was rich, but he wasn’t. Just really nice. I have loads of brilliant memories of our time with him. But, usual thing, Mum got bored and divorced again. She left Orly and me with Granny Paradise for about eighteen months this time and travelled round the world, trying to find herself. She found Dad Five instead, in Denmark. So we went out there, but Mum hated all the snow so back to Granny P’s we trailed, without Dad Five.

Since then, thank Heavens, Mum hasn’t had a long-term relationship. She hasn’t had a long-term job either, but she’s worked enough for us to get by. There’s just been a string of very temporary boyfriends. We’ve moved in with a few of them, and some have moved in with us. All in all, it’s been a crazy life so far. I’d hoped that perhaps Mum had finally settled down. We’ve been living in the same tiny rented flat for just over a year now, which I think is a record. But now, evidently, we were off again.

But, France. I liked France. We went there twice on holiday with Dad Four. It was warm and sunny, I remembered, and I loved the food. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad …

No, hang on. What about French? I wasn’t very good at it. Actually, I wasn’t very good at anything, apart from maths. I’d been to that many schools, there were whole chunks of the curriculum I’d never come across, whereas others I’d done half a dozen times at different schools. I’d only just scraped through half my exams this summer. I’d been lucky to get into the sixth form college I really wanted to go to. My mates were going there. It had looked like being a good time, but not any more. What was I going to be doing school-wise? Crikey, that was a scary thought.

Why did Mum have to do these things to us?

Granny Paradise came out of the greenhouse, still muttering but looking a bit calmer. I sidled up. We looked at each other. We didn’t need to say anything. Mum strikes again. I slipped my hand into hers and gave it a squeeze. She squeezed it back.

“Oh child,” she sighed heavily. I knew what she was thinking. She’d left her lovely warm home in the Bahamas to be with her son and then her grandson. She was devoted to Orly, so even after Dad had gone back to the States, she’d stayed in cold old Ireland. She’d helped Orly up and also taken me under her wing, even though I was no relation to her at all, and she’d stuck with us through thick and thin. And now Mum was taking us all away to another country, far from her. Dragging us off into all sorts of mess and muddle, if things went according to usual. Who knew how often Granny P would be able to see us? Mum was so selfish and uncaring.

We were back at the house by now. I kissed Granny P on the cheek and headed off to find Mum. She was making herself a cup of tea, or rather a cup of sugar with a bit of tea mixed in. She had an extremely sweet tooth.

“OK Mum. I want answers,” I declared, folding my arms and glaring at her. “How have you managed to buy a house? And are you completely and utterly mad? Have you given even a thought about what this is all going to do to Orly? You know how he hates changes to his routine. And he’s just starting to do so well at school. Why are you doing this?”

Mum waved her arm around vaguely. “I needed a change. And don’t fuss, Orly will be fine. It’s good for him to be challenged and stimulated.” She ran her eye over my outfit. “Really, that awful top just doesn’t suit you, dear. It makes you look so frumpy.”

I rolled my eyes. The top was fine. Mum was simply being nasty.

“The house, Mum,” I reminded her. “Where did the money come from?”

“From Dominic.”

“Dominic?”

“You know, Dominic. Dad Four you call him, the computer guy.”

“Mum, his name is Donovan,” I informed her. “Why has he given you money? You hate him.”

“He left it to me, dear,” said Mum airily. “He died last year and left me a nice little lump sum. We were very close for a while. I did so much for him.” Yeah right. “It’s taken ages for it to come through. So I thought I’d invest the money in property, for you and Orly of course.”

Oh, for goodness sake! Mum never did anything for anyone else. She was doing this for her. She could just have put the money into the bank for me and O, not buy some undoubtedly crappy dump in a foreign country.  It was hardly a watertight investment.  I was sad to hear about Dad Four. He’d been a good guy. I’d have to grieve for him later though. There was too much to find out now.

“When do we go?” I demanded.

“About ten days’ time, once we’re all packed.”

“But what about our education? I’ve got my place at college and Orly is so happy at his special school. Can’t you just think about us for once?” But I knew that was a rhetorical question.

“I don’t know why you’re so sniffy about education,” snapped Mum. “You’re not exactly top of the class, are you?”

“And whose fault is that? Dragged from one school to another, never helped at home cos you’re never there – I haven’t had much chance to be the next Einstein, have I?” I was right and she knew it.

So she ignored that and made a predication. “You’ll be fluent in French in no time. That’ll be good for your education? You know, I think you should part your hair on the other side. It would look so much nicer. And that blackhead on your nose is ready for squeezing.”

I stomped off. We were going to hell in a handbasket and I couldn’t do anything about it. But in 379 days I would be 18 and I would leave home. Probably at one second past midnight. I had it all planned out. I would get a job, anything would do, find somewhere to rent and then Orly could come and live with me. And if I should happen to get a really well paid job, I’d buy a holiday in the tropics for Granny Paradise to warm her up. And a motorbike for me. You see, all planned out.

So Mum had really messed things up. As she always did.

 

 

 

 

Oh Gran! will be hitting Kindle soon. Here’s a taster and a peep at the great cover artwork by Roger Fereday.

Chapter 1 News Time

“Has anyone else got any news?” asked Mrs Crowley.

It was Friday afternoon, which was end-of-the-week news time at school. Teresa Barry had just told everyone how she’d passed her first Tae Kwondo exam the night before. She now had a yellow-tip belt. (Frank Feeney, sitting in the back row, decided he had better stop teasing her in the yard.)

“Surely someone has more news?” persisted Mrs Crowley.

No one put a hand up.

Mrs Crowley’s eye fell on Emily.

“Emily, have you got some news?”

Emily had, but she didn’t feel much like sharing it.

“Not really, Mrs Crowley,” muttered Emily, wishing her teacher had picked on someone else.

Mrs Crowley refused to be put off.

“There must be something you can tell us about, Emily. Now, come up here and share your news.”

Emily knew when she was beaten. She shuffled to the front of the classroom and turned to face the others.

“My news is that Gran is coming to look after me this weekend because Mum and Dad won a holiday in a competition so they’re going away.”

Emily shot back to her seat, her cheeks burning.

“Why, thank you, Emily,” smiled Mrs Crowley. ‘That’s nice news. I’m sure you’ll have a great time with your granny!”

Emily and her friends weren’t so sure. They talked about grannies at break time.

“Gosh, poor you,” said Mary Roberts. “Whenever my granny comes she makes us turn the telly down so low that we can’t hear it!”

“Yes, and my granny’s always telling me to wash my hands and brush my hair and stuff,” groaned Dermot Halloran.

“Has your granny stayed before?” asked Niamh Desmond.

“Not for ages and ages,” Emily answered. “You see, after  Grandad died a few years ago, Gran went to live with my Auntie Hilary in Australia. Then just after Christmas she decided to come back to Ireland. We were going to go up to Galway to see her, but I got chickenpox so we I couldn’t. But now she’s coming down to look after me. She said she would pick me up from school today.!

Her friends pulled sympathetic faces. Grannies weren’t considered cool.

 

 

Chapter 2 Gran Arrives

Emily was quite nervous when the bell rang at the end of school. To be honest, she couldn’t exactly remember what Gran looked like! It must be more than three years since she’d seen her. Mum kept sending photos of Emily to Gran, but Gran never sent back any of herself.

“So how am I supposed to recognise her, then?” grumbled Emily.

She had a vague image in her head of someone small, smiley and rather wrinkly. But that was all.

She dawdled out of school, wanting to be one of the last out so that her friends wouldn’t see her with her granny. Plus it would be easier to work out who Gran was if the other parents and relatives had already gone home with their children. But Emily’s friends were curious about her granny. They dawdled out too so they could see what she looked like.

Glaring at them for being so nosy, Emily led a gaggle of her friends to the school gate. She looked across the road to where the remaining mums and dads were a waiting. She recognised all of them except for a motorcyclist wearing a black leather jacket. So where on earth was Gran? Emily was dismayed. Mum and Dad would be at the airport by now. Gran was meant to be here to pick her up.

Emily looked at all the faces again. Had she missed Gran somewhere? Unless, no, surely not! Emily watched in amazement as the motorcyclist pulled off a tiger-striped helmet and revealed the smiling face of an elderly lady. It was Gran!

Emily’s mouth dropped open in astonishment.

“Where’s your gran then?” hissed Niamh.

“l can’t see a walking stick anywhere!” joked Dermot, not very nicely.

“Yes, where is she?” asked Mary.

“There! She’s there!” croaked Emily, pointing to her leather-clad Gran.

Her friends fell silent in horror.

Oh Gran! thought Emily. I will never live this down.

Well, my second book is now up on Amazon in Kindle format. It’s Beat the Hackers, a work of juvenile fiction about hackers and computers with a strong female protagonist. Daughter Caiti designed me a brilliant cover:

And here is a sample from it to whet your appetites. It’s from near the end of the book. Heather and her father Ray are on the run from Domination, a mysterious company that created a universally popular, free anti-hacker software. However, it’s not quite what it seems, and Ray, with Heather’s help, is the only person who can prove it. They have just one possibly ally – Lucien Montgomery, head of Teuthras Communciations. They are meant to meet with him at midday:

Heather wandered over to the coffee bar. She chose four of the stickiest looking muffins they had and ordered two tall, double cappuccinos. She took the heavy tray to a corner table and waited for her father to join her.

They idly watched the passers-by as they ate and drank. Then gradually Heather became aware that they were being watched. She felt a prickling at the back of her neck. She casually glanced around. A few tables away, two people were sitting, apparently minding their own business. But they weren’t ordinary people. The man was tall and blonde and had deep blue eyes. He was immaculately turned out in some sort of designer suit. The woman with him was stunning. She had a beautiful figure and wore a fantastic tailored trouser suit. The perfect couple, thought Heather. Suddenly she stiffened. Perfect. That was it! She thought back to the photos of the perfect people her father had collected when he was researching Domination. Her blood ran cold. These people were too perfect. They were Domination perfect! And they were watching her and her dad.

She glanced away. This time her eye was caught by a tall, good looking man, pretending to window shop a short distance away. Beyond him was another perfect guy, trying to look inconspicuous in an Armani suit and browsing at postcards outside a newsagent’s.

Yes. Domination had definitely found them.

“Don’t look now, Dad,” said Heather quietly, trying to swallow her fear, “but there are some Domination people around. At the table behind us, and two more in the mall.”

Ray almost dropped his cup in alarm.

“What?” he hissed. He glanced around nonchalantly, checking out Heather’s claims. “That’s them, all right. We’re trapped!”

“Stay cool, Dad. Goodness knows how they tracked us down here. But never mind that now. We can run for it, I reckon.” Heather was beginning to make plans.

“We can try,” he said, but without much hope. “Look, I’ll slide you a set of USBs under the table. If we get separated, take these to show Montgomery on your own, OK? If you can’t, never mind. There’s still Marcus to back us up.”

“OK, Dad,” nodded Heather.

Ray discreetly fumbled in his bag and then pushed something under the table towards Heather with his foot. She carelessly leant down, on the pretext of adjusting her sock, picked up the USBs in their bag and slipped them into her jacket pocket.

“Fancy a refill?” she said loudly.

Ray looked at her puzzled for a moment. He was about to say he’d had enough caffeine for now, but Heather winked at him. “Get ready to run,” she hissed. “I’ll slow Mr and Mrs Perfect here down.”

“Thank you, more coffee would be lovely,” trumpeted Ray.

Heather walked up to the counter, passing close to the Domination people. She didn’t look at them, but she could feel their blue eyes on her.

“Two large black coffees, please.”

The counter assistant handed them over. Heather paid and began to walk back with a mug in each hand. She saw her father poised for taking off. She came to Domination’s table. She paused by it. The man and woman looked up at her, intently.

“Here. The coffee’s on me!” cried Heather, and she flung the scalding coffee into their laps.

Pandemonium broke out. The pair leapt up, shouting in pain and shock. Heather had the presence of mind to tip the table over on them too, knocking them down, before she took to her heels with her father. The counter staff began yelling. Out of the corner of her eye, Heather saw the two lurking Domination members in the mall start to run after them.

But she and Ray had a good few metres’ start. If they could just get themselves out of the shopping centre, they’d be able to lose themselves in the crowd outside. The exit wasn’t far. But then disaster struck. Ray’s shoelace had unravelled and sent him flying. Heather could hardly believe he’d fallen over for the second time that day. She stopped and turned back to help him, but he roared at her to leave him.

For a fraction of a second Heather hesitated, uncertain what to do. She didn’t like to desert her father, but the Domination guys were onto them. He was right – she had to go. So with a last despairing look at her father, she turned and fled.

She didn’t stop running for at least five minutes. She barged her way through the shoppers, who grumbled complaints at her. She wove in and out of the crowd until at last she had to pause for breath. She chose a busy corner, close to a flower stall, to stop and take stock.