Apostrophes & Passive Errors

It’s not often that I would dare accuse Oxford Dictionaries of getting it wrong but I’m going to stick my neck out in a pedantic dispute over apostrophes.

The OED – and its online edition – is normally one of my Bibles. It’s where I go when in doubt about a spelling or the correct usage of a word.

But I think they’ve got it wrong this time.

I work part-time as a sub-editor for a newspaper and the other day – in a moment of boredom – I had a go at an ‘Apostrophe Challenge‘ on their website. Hoping, of course, to get 10 out of 10!

But I was flummoxed by one question where all of the possible answers included an apostrophe and, according to the answer given, we should refer to “a 1940s’ building”.

Huh?! If we were talking about a building belonging to the 1940s then I would follow the logic but surely in this sense we’re using 1940s as an adjective. Therefore, no apostrophe should be used.

If you wrote out the numbers would you use an apostrophe? E.g. “a nineteen forties’ building”. Or if talking about “sixties’ heartthrob Adam Faith”. I think not.

The logic of using an apostrophe also falls down if you think about other historical eras. If we were describing a building as “Victorian” or “colonial” we wouldn’t use an apostrophe. The words here would be adjectives so why take a different approach to the 1940s?

I’d be interested to know what others think. I asked around in my office and the unanimous reaction was there should be no apostrophe. My news editor said it’s the kind of mistake we’re always trying to get junior reporters to stop making in their copy!

I must hold my hand up to one of my own errors though. The first reviewer on Amazon.com for my new novel, Church of the White Rabbits told me off for the ‘affectation’ of using the passive form “is/was sat” when I should use the active “sits/is sitting”.

Guilty as charged! I’m not sure it’s an affectation, though, more of an unconscious error. I think I use this form quite often unintentionally. I don’t actually mean to infer that a third person has “sat” the person involved on a chair – which grammatically is what I’m implying, it’s just the way I speak/write.

I get thrown sometimes by American using the form “gotten”, which no longer exists in British English. Anyone else got any grammatical quirks to share?

 

Perma-Free, Perma-Problem?

Are books that are perma-free causing a problem for writers trying to crack Amazon’s crucial top 100 listings?

As most authors know, once a book gets into the top 100 – whether for a specific genre or for all books on Kindle – the number of downloads can soar.

For those of us (and it’s a huge number) who use it, Amazon’s KDP platform enables us to offer our books free for five days every quarter.

Now, giving away books is satisfying on one level purely because I know that at least some of those people who download my book will then read it. (Even better, some will post reviews, which helps hugely with future sales.)

But giving your book away for free is also excellent marketing. Every time someone downloads your free book, there’s an increased chance of your book’s title and cover appearing in that wonderful ‘customers who bought this item also bought…’ feature on Amazon.

I generally find that every time I give away a few thousand free copies an immediate bump in actual sales follows. And not only is it deeply satisfying to know some readers are prepared to pay money for my work but it’s also good to know there’s going to be more money coming into my bank account!

When plugging a freebie, there are many websites willing to help you – sometimes for free but more often for a small sum. Which is all well and good but those Amazon top 100 lists are still what we need to aim for.

Why? Well, according to Anthony Wessel of Digital Book Today: “Once an author is able to get their book onto an Amazon Top 100 Free Books in a sub-genre category list, the 800-pound gorilla which is Amazon takes over and usually trumps all other book sites on the market in terms of driving discoverability and potential downloads for your free book listing.”

But when I look at those lists on Amazon, I see a lot of the same titles time and time again. Sometimes it’s old classics that have been reissued but sometimes it’s books by other indie authors (some of which I’ve read).

However, I know from the frequency they appear in the free lists that they’re on offer for far more than five days every three months.

I understand this is possible because of Amazon’s price-match policy. If an author offers a book free through other publishers, Amazon will then match the price, making books effectively perma-free (or on offer so often as to make no difference).

Because being in these lists creates its own momentum, it also means that books regularly in the top 100 will inevitably get dozens of reviews from the tens of thousands of downloads they’ve had. Look in today’s list and you’ll see some books with 1,000+ reviews – twice as many of some of the classics!

Why does this matter? Well, like I say, I’ve read some of these books and they’re good. Not necessarily great but good. (Some are probably more like okay but that’s just my opinion). But because they’re perma-free and have so many reviews then more readers keep on downloading them, they stay in the top of the lists… and they’re very hard to knock off those top spots!

Personally, I think Amazon should either review their policies or bring in a new category – Top 100 Free Offers – and limit those lists to books that are temporarily free not perma-free.

Anyone got any other opinions?

Scrabbling Around For The Apposite Word

Anyone who’s played Scrabble will know the feeling. You’ve got seven letters to play with and you’re convinced they should make a word in some language.

Just not English.

Which – unless you’re playing some alternative version of the game – can be so frustrating. (Particularly if you pride yourself on having a good vocabulary and still can’t make sense of what’s in front of you.)

So it’s always good to have a store of obscure letter combinations to trot out when under stress. (And to impress your opponents.) I find short ones like ka and id often come in handy.

And I’ve just found some new oddities, courtesy of a list of weird and wonderful words from the Oxford Dictionaries website.

Got too many vowels? Try aa – a kind of frothy lava! Or an etui - apparently an ornamental case for needles, cosmetics etc. Or there’s a gaita - a kind of bagpipe played in northern Spain and Portugal.

Want something a bit longer? What about gallux - which is the anatomical term for the big toe. Or while we’re in that area, try flews - the pendulous lip of a bloodhound.

Some words are way to long to ever appear on a Scrabble board. To absquatulate means to leave abruptly. Want to go and see an ecdysiast? That’s the posh term for a stripper! But don’t worry if you’ve got a humdudgeon – it’s just an imaginary illness.

I’ve always loved words. Hope you enjoy these ones – there are many, many more on the list.

Do NOT ‘Like’ This Post!

Blogging can feel like talking to yourself. So there can be a sense of relief when someone ‘likes’ your post or follows your bog – ‘it’s not just the voices in my head, someone else understands what I’m saying’.

But how genuine are those likes and follows?

As a writer, I started my blog simply to have a platform for my novels. Last year, though, it developed into something more. I wrote quite regularly about a range of subjects, often only loosely connected with writing, and got into some interesting online conversations with other writers/bloggers.

However, with some bloggers I had a sense there was an etiquette involved: if I follow you, you should follow me.

Huh? I follow other bloggers for a simple reason. I found something they wrote interesting/provoking/entertaining and wanted to know more. If someone follows me that doesn’t automatically mean I like what they say (or that they’ve got something interesting to say).

There’s also a limit on how many blogs I can follow – I’ve only got so much time to read them.

On my own blog, I’ve currently got just over 380 followers. Some are fellow writers or other people I’m interested in enough to also follow their blogs. Others I’m not so sure about. Like the ‘follower’ that goes by the name ColombianCuties.

Yes, I do like good-looking women and I realise ColombianCuties may be a great lover of literature but…? What do you think? I’ve never clicked on their name. Should I?

I think it’s like Facebook. Some people only care about how many friends they’ve got, not the quality (or point) of that friendship.

My impression is there are (hundreds of) thousands of other writers out there: some published, some not. All want publicity and one (limited) way of achieving that is by luring as many other people to your blog as possible. This ignores the fact that the vast majority of the bloggers in the ‘writing’ niche are too busy trying to sell their own books to want to buy yours.

Or am I just a jaded wannabe who’s not playing the game?

I’ve got similar issues with ‘likes’. There have been times I’ve published a 600-word plus post and someone has liked it within seconds. Call me cynical but I don’t think there are that many speed readers who can go that fast. Do you really ‘like’ my post or are you just trying to get me to visit your blog as a way of boosting your ratings? (And what is the point?)

Not long ago, I started publishing extracts from my new novel in instalments. Again I had quite a few likes but no actual responses to the story.

It made me wonder if anyone was actually reading it. So, at the bottom of the last published extract, I included a poll, asking readers to rate the story from 0-5. I’ve still not had a single person click on the poll even to diss it!

Unsurprisingly, I’ve given up on the instalments. But the published version of Church of the White Rabbits  is now available on Kindle with a print edition coming soon.

Which brings me back to the beginning of this post. Am I just talking to myself? What do you think of ‘likes’ and ‘follows’ by people who don’t really care about you or your blog?

(I’ve had very worthwhile exchanges with some of you in the past so please don’t think I’m putting all bloggers into one category!)

Thanks for reading this far. Now, please, do not like this post. If you do, I promise not to reciprocate. Instead, assuming you’ve read this far and have an opinion, do share your thoughts and leave a comment.

Opening The Hutch

White Rabbits medWorking now on the final bits and pieces ahead of the publication of Church of the White Rabbits.

The editing is complete, the cover is there… only a few details left to tweak.

The Kindle version should be out first, with a print edition to follow.

It’s a departure in style for me – no murders, mysteries or mayhem.

Just lots of eccentric folk, a few feuds and plots, a love story or two… and lots and lots of fluffy white bunnies.

Oh well, it’ll be interesting to see what readers think.

Of Worms & Cakes – Part II

Chapter Three of Church of the White Rabbits continues…

It’s misty outside and the two boys skid on the wet cobbles as they turn the corner. Nathan grabs Davey for support and they both almost fall. Laughing, they tumble through the open doorway and out of the rain.

‘Bloody hell!’ Davey brakes to a halt and grabs his nose. ‘What’s that stink?’

Nathan pulls a face. An oily smoke billows towards them. It smells like an unholy combination of bacon, old socks and herbal bath oil. ‘Is your uncle experimenting again?’

‘Smells like it, don’t it.’

‘He’s not going to make us try it, is he?’

‘Bloody hope not.’

An eruption of coughing comes from the bakery. In its wake comes a figure wearing a long white apron. Streaks of flour cover the material: some of them hiding more questionable stains.  Arthur waves the smoke away and blinks at the two friends. ‘Oh, it’s you two. I heard voices and thought it might be customers. You can come through if you want.’

Davey looks suspiciously at the cloud of smoke. It’s still hanging in the air and looks even thicker than when the pair of boys arrived. ‘Yeah but is it safe?’

‘Of course it is. I was testing a new recipe. Trying to perfect my breakfast muffins.’

‘Breakfast muffins?’

‘It was an idea I had. Put bacon, cheese, sausage and bits of egg into a muffin, add a few herbs and voila! Everything a man could want in one bite.’

‘Voila?’

‘It’s French, it means…’

‘Yeah, yeah. I know what ‘voila’ means, Uncle Arthur. They make us learn French at school you know.’

‘Well,’ interrupts Nathan, ‘that’s not quite true. They try to make us learn French. Except Davey talks Spanish to annoy the teacher.’

‘You know Spanish do you?’

‘Ah, si, senor, muchos grandes bolas.’

Arthur raises his eyebrows. ‘That’s Spanish is it?’

‘Kind of. Anyway, looks like your breakfast muffins are on fire.’

‘Oh, no!’ Arthur turns in dismay. The smoke has got denser and it’s hard to see far beyond the doorway. He rips off his apron and waves it in the air, trying to clear the smoke before he plunges back into the growing cloud.

 

By the time the rest of the Judds arrive, total disaster has been averted. Arthur’s breakfast muffins, however, have been consigned to the dustbin of lost causes, a large plastic barrel in the back yard that’s filling up fast. Davey and Nathan haven’t ventured any further into Arthur’s new domain; instead, they’re now sitting on stools by the front door munching boulder-sized rock cakes.

George is first to come in. He sniffs the air and gives a slight smile but says nothing. Close behind are Davey’s younger sisters, Kim and Jessica. Bringing up the rear is Sally, who bends over with a sigh of relief as she sets down the newest member of the Judd family group.

A pair of small feet hit the floor with a thud and two dark little eyes lock onto what’s in Davey’s hand. ‘Cake!’ With a determined, almost ferocious expression, Gracie Judd launches herself at her prey. ‘Daya! Cake!’

‘Uh oh.’ Davey grins as his little cousin stomps towards him. ‘Little Elephant’s on the attack!’ He breaks off a chunk of rock cake and holds it towards her in his right hand.

Gracie smiles as she closes in. She veers briefly towards what’s being offered. Then bypasses Davey’s right hand and grabs the rest of the cake from his left before he’s had time to realise his mistake.

Nathan erupts with laughter before trying to twist away as Davey lunges for his cake. Soon pieces of rock cake explode all over the boys and the floor. Gracie makes a quick withdrawal, retreating to the protection of Sally’s legs, where she starts cramming cake into her own mouth as fast as she can.

* * *

Padraig slides the large glass of sweet sherry along the bar to the perspiring churchman. Leonard Presley takes it with a grateful nod and downs half in a thirsty gulp. He shakes his head and breathes out slowly before taking out a purple handkerchief and wiping some of the sweat from his brow.

‘Well, you look as if you’ve had a long day, Reverend.’

The Bishop’s Secretary nods. ‘Yes indeed, Mr Picard, yes indeed. And not a good one either.’

‘Ah, your congregation heckling you again are they?’

‘Heckling?’

‘Sorry.’ Padraig shakes his head. ‘Just my joke. I’m sure no one on this island would have a bad word to say about your sermons. But I was wondering what’s put you in such a rare fluster.’

‘Oh, it’s terrible news, terrible.’

‘It can’t be that bad, surely?’

‘It’s not good, Mr Picard, not good at all.’

Padraig looks sympathetic. It’s an ability he’s cultivated over many years and one at which he’s extremely good. He’s always had a talent for making people open up: knowing which questions to ask and when to stay quiet and let them fill the silence.

Leonard Presley takes another large swig of sherry. He looks into the glass and sighs mournfully. ‘I just hope our Christmas celebrations can go ahead, I really do. It would be a disaster if we had to close the cathedral at this time of year.’

Padraig’s eyebrows rise. ‘And why on earth would you even consider such a thing? What’s the problem with the cathedral?’

‘Oh. It’s terrible. Simply terrible.’

‘But what is it?’

‘I’m not sure I should say.’

‘Oh well, if it’s something confidential you keep it to yourself.’

‘It’s not that. It’s just such bad news and I really don’t want to upset everyone on the island.’

Padraig shakes his head. ‘Now come on, Mr Presley. You know what they say: a problem shared is a problem halved. And besides, if you’re talking about closing the cathedral I don’t really think that’s going to go unnoticed. You’ll have to tell people something.’

‘You’re right.’ The Bishop’s Secretary looks resigned. ‘Oh well. I suppose I might as well tell you: it’s our bell tower. We had a very important expert come to visit us today. He was interested in listing our cathedral in a guidebook on exceptional church architecture. But while he was examining the building he made a very unfortunate discovery. The whole bell tower is riddled with woodworm and death watch beetle.’

‘Hmm. That doesn’t sound good. But surely it can be treated with a few chemicals.’

‘No!’ Leonard Presley throws his hands up in a gesture of despair. ‘It’s too far advanced. He’s not certain but we might have to replace a large number of timbers and that’s sure to cost an enormous amount of money.’

‘But surely the cathedral has a bit salted away for occasions like this.’

The churchman looks uneasy. While Leonard Presley is an innocent in many ways he’s not too sure about discussing cathedral business with a relative stranger, particularly one who’s an Irishman to boot and could well be a Catholic. However, the Bishop’s Secretary has taken a liking to Padraig. The Irishman has come over on holiday to watch the island’s birds and seems a decent sort. He’s certainly very generous and always happy to buy a sweet sherry for a friend. The Reverend Presley sighs. ‘I’m not sure we have, Mr Picard, not sure at all.’

‘Then a bit of fundraising?’

‘I don’t know, I really don’t. We’re not a wealthy community. This is a small island and our congregation is not a rich one.’

‘Oh I suppose I can understand that but you must have some assets you could draw on, surely?’

‘Well, the cathedral owns a bit of land on the island and I believe we have a few investments but nothing that returns the kind of income to pay for major repairs.’ He sighs. ‘To be honest, we can’t even afford to employ an accountant. I try to make sense of the books but… oh, they’re such a mess and very confusing. If the truth be told, I’m not really quite sure what we do have and what we don’t have.’

‘Then let me help you.’

‘What? But how?’

Padraig smiles. ‘Well now. I’m here on holiday as you know, having a little rest from business. But over there on the mainland, dealing with finances is what I do for a living. Stocks, shares and investments: that’s my bread and butter. If you’d like, I’d be happy to come and look at the books with you. Offer some advice if I can.’

Reverend Presley looks hopeful but cautious. ‘That’s very generous, Mr Picard, very generous indeed. But I’d have to warn you: we wouldn’t be able to pay you for your time.’

Padraig laughs. ‘Please, Reverend, don’t insult me. I wouldn’t dream of asking for payment. I’m happy to help out a friend in need and seeing as it’s for the church, well, I’d count it as my own small contribution to your own good works. It would be an honour and a privilege, if I was able to help you out.’

* * *

George looks around. The others went home a few minutes ago and now it’s just him and Arthur. They’re sitting on a pair of old chairs, pulled up next to the oven so they can make the most of the heat still oozing from it. A bottle of whisky sits on the table and both have a generous measure in their tumblers.

To be continued…

Sorry – I forgot to post yesterday’s instalment. I underwent a minor medical procedure a few days ago and my mind hasn’t been as focused as normal!

I’m curious, though,what readers think. If you’ve made it this far, please click on one of the choices below to rate the story so far. Comments welcome but not obligatory.

Of Worms And Cakes – Part I

A day late, but here’s the start of Chapter Three…

3: Of Worms And Cakes

In which the island’s religious leaders get a nasty surprise regarding Great Agnes, we glimpse plans to bring a taste of the modern world to Black Island and witness a murderous kidnap plot.

It’s December 2000. The man with the clipboard wipes his brow with relief as he steps off the crude ladder. He takes a moment to get his breath back and then pulls a face, looking troubled. ‘I hate to be the bearer of bad news, Bishop, particularly at this time of year but you’ve got a problem.’

‘Oh dear. You mean you’re not going to be able to list us?’ The Bishop of Black Island looks disappointed. ‘What a shame. I thought you said our church was a unique example of, what was it again… neo-primitive Palladian sacred architecture?’

The expert shakes his head. ‘I’m afraid that’s not the issue.’ He glances around at the squat rows of tinsel-adorned columns that recede into the nave’s murky distance. ‘This is definitely a fascinating and… most unusual building. However, what I’m worried about is your bell tower.’

‘The bell tower?’ The Bishop looks confused. ‘There’s something untoward with our bell tower?’

‘You could say so, yes.’

‘Oh dear.’ The Right Reverend Mosswell Milford looks as if the news has made him unsteady. He turns for support to his Secretary, who is standing just behind and stretches out an arm. The wisp-like Bishop clutches it and sways sideways, robes billowing around his scarecrow figure.

‘Is it serious?’ The Bishop’s Secretary is the physical opposite of his master. Several chins and a set of bulldog jowls wobble in an agitated fashion as the Reverend Leonard Presley speaks.

‘I’m afraid so. Yes.’

‘Oh my. Oh no.’ The Bishop shakes his head. ‘But it’s almost Christmas, we can’t have problems now.’

Reverend Presley looks equally glum. His eyes lift accusingly, not so much to the heavens but towards the bell tower that’s more immediately above them.

The three men are standing in the area of the cathedral known as the sanctuary. Directly in front of them is the altar: a squat slab of polished granite about six feet square. Relief carvings of the disciples adorn its sides. The craftsmanship involved is not the most sophisticated and the saints around the altar appear somewhat menacing. For some, the overall effect is unfortunate: the huge stone block reminding them more of a sacrificial table used by some of the bloodier pagan cultures.

Over on the other side of the altar is a shallow apse. Its centrepiece is a multicoloured stained-glass window. At first glance, the figure it contains could be Christ stooping to offer his blessings. But the appearance is deceptive. The window depicts the cathedral’s founder, Colonel Huntley Black, and the devout pose is one that wouldn’t have been recognised by anyone who knew Black Island’s second governor in real life.

None of that registers, though, with the Bishop’s Secretary. The cathedral, for all its quirks, is the only church the Reverend Presley has ever known. He glances briefly at the patterns of coloured light below the colonel’s image. He’d been hoping to set up the Nativity scene in the apse tomorrow morning. ‘Oh, this is a bother,’ he says. ‘But do we have to worry about it now.’

Their visitor pulls a face. ‘Well, there are no guarantees. Things might stay as they are for another year. But it’s a potentially dangerous situation. I wouldn’t want to take any risks if it was me.’

The Reverend Presley frowns. ‘Can’t we… I don’t know, put a sign up. Tell people to keep out of the bell tower. It’s not as if anyone goes up there often anyway.’

‘I’m afraid it’s not that simple.’

‘Why not?’

‘It’s not people going up into the bell tower I’m worried about.’

The Bishop’s eyes widen and his florid-faced Secretary gives a gasp.  ‘What in heaven’s name do you mean?’ asks Bishop Milford. ‘Is there something nasty in the bell tower?’

The trio lift their gazes upwards. The ceiling in most of the cathedral is extremely low: the central nave only twenty feet high and the aisles barely half as tall. It’s a strange design, mostly because Colonel Black couldn’t see the point of employing an architect. Instead, he drew up the plans for the building himself, guided more by supreme confidence in his own god-given talents rather than any skill. The colonel also decided importing workers with experience of ecclesiastical architecture would be too expensive. Instead, he opted for a simpler solution: having his cathedral built using convicts from the prison of which he was also in charge.

There may still have been a chance of the cathedral looking relatively normal if the colonel had hung around to keep an eye on matters. In that case, the cathedral’s founder-cum-designer might have realised some of his measurements were written down as feet when what he’d meant was yards. Unfortunately, Colonel Black never took the time to check on his great work. He was away in Europe: busy riding horses, bedding whores and fighting Napoleon. Instead, the colonel appointed a foreman who doggedly followed the design he was given without the slightest deviation. Lacking any oversight from its benefactor, work on the cathedral continued regardless — even when it became apparent to everyone else on the island that there was a major problem with its proportions.

By the time the roof went on it was too late. The new cathedral looked as if it had been squashed by a giant foot. Not that the colonel cared. He was dead, having lost his head to a stray cannon shot during the Battle of Waterloo.
Around where the two churchmen and their visitor now stand, there’s a bit more headroom. It’s not quite the lofty, soaring space envisioned by its creator but there’s just about enough space for the window depicting Colonel Black in his uncharacteristic Christ-pose. Most of the window anyway. The piece of stained glass — also designed by the colonel — should have shown him treading on a horde of defeated and subhuman Bonapartists. In the end, though, there wasn’t room for the whole thing. Colonel Black’s feet — and the devilish Frenchmen — had to be cut off and left out of the picture. It was either that or his head.

Another striking feature of the cathedral’s sanctuary are the massive columns that stand in each corner where the nave and transept cross. Modelled on the Greek Doric style, the elephantine pillars are ten feet thick at the base and heavily fluted. Between them rises a tall, circular tower, its sides broken only by a few arrow-slit windows.
The design might have been impressive if the scale had been right. Sadly, the result looks more like the inside of a factory chimney than an elegant cathedral reaching for the heavens.

The tower’s simplicity is also spoilt by the rickety ladders climbing to the bell loft almost sixty feet above. As he looks at them now, the man with the clipboard decides he’s owed a considerable bonus for having even attempted the ascent. The good thing though is it’s highly unlikely the Bishop or his Secretary will try going up to check what he’s telling them.

He backs into the nave, making the two churchmen look at him in surprise. ‘You know, it might be best not to stand underneath the tower.’

Reverend Presley frowns. ‘Why ever not?’

‘Well, that bell you’ve got up there… The big one.’

‘What, Great Agnes?’

‘It’s a big piece of metal. It must weigh quite a lot.’

‘About seven tons.’ The Reverend Presley glances up. He and the Bishop are directly beneath the bell tower and something in their visitor’s words begins to penetrate.

The Bishop’s Secretary draws his boss down the steps into the nave and away from the tower. Turning to the man with the clipboard, the Secretary leans forward and whispers. ‘What’s wrong? Is Great Agnes safe?’

‘It’s woodworm.’

‘Woodworm?’

‘And deathwatch beetle.’

‘Up there?’

‘Afraid so. It’s the worst case I’ve seen in a while. You’ve got beetles in your belfry.’

* * *

It’s misty outside and the two boys skid on the wet cobbles as they turn the corner. Nathan grabs Davey for support and they both almost fall. Laughing, they tumble through the open doorway and out of the rain.

‘Bloody hell!’ Davey brakes to a halt and grabs his nose. ‘What’s that stink?’

Nathan pulls a face. An oily smoke billows towards them. It smells like an unholy combination of bacon, old socks and herbal bath oil. ‘Is your uncle experimenting again?’

To be continued…

Next: Arthur tries to develop new talents and Padraig offers his assistance with the cathedral’s problems.

Refugees – Part IV

The white rabbits make a re-appearance in the fourth – and final – section of Chapter Two…

Padraig strolls along the ridge, following it towards the summit of Beacon Hill. There’s a cairn of stones at the top and as he gets nearer he notices someone sitting in its lee.

The man by the cairn has his knees drawn almost to his chest, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He’s staring out to sea and looks deep in thought. Padraig thinks about taking a detour but wants to reach the summit. He’d also like someone to talk to. He’s feeling a touch unsettled; he was always told there were some odd sorts on Black Island: and he’s now had first-hand experience.

Padraig stops half a dozen yards short of the cairn. He turns and looks at the view. It is magnificent. To the west the Atlantic Ocean stretches away to a horizon that’s only slightly hazy. Back, behind him lies the line of triple peaks known as Tryhuder or the Three Wizards. The interior of the island is to his left, with Black Mountain itself away in the distance. King’s Port is directly south but out of sight, hidden in a valley. Beyond, Padraig can see the island’s fifth mountain: the great lump of land known as the Guragh that juts out to the southwest.

Early writers dismissed Black Island as a ‘remote and barren fastness’, an ‘inconvenient parcel of land’ and ‘a forsaken lair of pirates and primitives’. Among sailors it’s also long been known as ‘the drowning giant’. That’s because the island rises from the wild waters of the open Atlantic like an enormous hand clutching at the air. The Guragh — meaning witch or hag in the old language of the island — is the thumb, a great blunt slab of a hill nearly nine hundred feet tall. Black Mountain forms the index finger, jabbing up just over a thousand feet, while the pinnacles of the Three Wizards form the other three fingers. The interior, a rolling landscape of bogs and moors is the palm; several small rivers form the lines that would allow a fortune teller flying overhead to read the island’s future.

Padraig isn’t sure what that makes Beacon Hill; it’s barely five hundred feet tall but still quite sizeable: a large callus or a mutant sixth finger?

Up here on the summit, the ground is covered with a mixture of heather, cropped grass and bracken: kept short by a combination of the wind and grazing animals. A scattering of dried out rabbit droppings lies in a shallow scrape. Padraig scuffs them with his foot and frowns.

Then, resuming his usual jaunty air, he approaches the cairn. The man sat at its foot is a good size: six foot tall and built like a wrestler, with brown curly hair. Next to him is some kind of parcel wrapped in white blankets. Apart from being lost in his own world, the man looks normal enough and some company and conversation are what Padraig is after.

‘Well, good afternoon,’ he says as he strolls up. ‘It surely is a beautiful day to be up here on the top of the world.’

The man looks sideways. ‘Huh?’ His gaze is distant: he looks as if he’s having trouble coping with both his thoughts and someone speaking to him at the same time.

‘It’s a fine beautiful day. A rare treat to be up here in the sunshine with everything laid out around us.’

‘Oh. I suppose so.’

‘You don’t sound convinced.’

The seated man gives a hollow laugh and shakes his head. ‘Can’t say I’d really noticed the view.’

Padraig’s eyebrows rise. ‘Hmm. Well there’s a funny thing. Myself, I’d have said it was hard to miss.’ He lowers himself down onto a chunk of stone next to the man and extends a hand. ‘My name’s Padraig, Padraig Le Picard.’

The man looks at the proffered hand blankly for a moment and then takes it with a firm grip. ‘Arthur. Arthur Judd.’

‘Well it’s a pleasure to meet you Arthur Judd.’ Padraig smiles. ‘In fact it’s a relief.’

‘A relief?’

‘Oh, it is. I had the strangest experience a little while ago. You see: I’d gone for a bit of a walk over to the north there. I was told there was a way over the hills to a place called the Cauldron.’

‘The Cauldron? Oh yeah. You need to go between the Wizards. It’s an easy enough walk.’

‘That’s what I was told and I think I was going the right way. But the track I was on went up past what looked like an old mine. There were old piles of stones and a few little tunnels.’

Arthur nods. ‘That’d be right. Old copper mine I think it was. Nothing there now.’

‘Ah but there is.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Yes indeed. White rabbits. Dozens of them: they’re all over the place. I could hardly believe my eyes. At first I thought it was a very cute little scene. But then this most bizarre fella came out of one of the tunnels. Looked like some ancient prophet he did, all long hair and huge bushy beard. He wasn’t wearing much more than rags, either. Started ranting and raving and waving this big stick. Next thing I knew he was chasing me back down the track. I don’t rightly know if he was dangerous or not but I didn’t intend staying to find out.’

Arthur shakes his head. ‘Ah. That’ll be Ned Hawkins.’

‘Is he dangerous?’

‘Dangerous? Don’t think so. Not really… Well, not unless you bother his rabbits.’

‘Right… Well if I go that way again I’ll remember to take an offering of carrots with me. Gave me quite a fright he did. I was quite glad to put a mile or two between us. And so when I saw yourself sitting here I was mighty relieved to see you look like a relatively normal fella.’

Arthur gives a grunt in reply and the two men sit in silence for a moment until a soft cry comes from the bundle of blankets. Padraig’s eyes widen. ‘Is that a child you have there?’

‘Seems that way.’ Arthur reaches over and gently lifts the blankets. Padraig sees two small arms stretching up.

‘Come on then, little ‘un,’ says Arthur. He picks the child up and lifts it into his embrace. One small arm snakes around his neck. The other sends a thumb mouth-wards. Two eyes, the darkest Padraig has seen in a long time, stare out at him from under a mop of curly brown hair.

‘Hello there, my beautiful.’ Padraig waves a hand gently. ‘I’m Padraig. And what’s your name?’

‘Ting Song,’ says Arthur quietly.

‘Tin?’

‘Ting Song. It’s Chinese. Like her mother.’

‘Ah.’ Now that Padraig looks more carefully at the child’s face he can see the resemblance to Arthur is pretty much limited to the hair on her head. ‘So, you being the good fella and looking after her for the day are you.’

Arthur laughs dryly.

Padraig leans forward and wiggles his fingers at the child, who continues to regard him with suspicion. ‘So where’s your mummy then? She at home making your dinner?’

‘Mummy’s had to go away,’ says Arthur.

‘Oh that’s a shame. For work is it?’

Arthur turns and give Padraig a hard stare, making him wonder if he’s prying a bit too much. Trouble is, it’s in his nature. He’s never been good at keeping out of other people’s business.

‘No,’ says Arthur eventually. ‘Mummy’s gone off to get married.’

‘Ah.’

‘Yeah. Ah.’

‘I’m sorry, my friend. I shouldn’t ask so many questions. The last thing I wanted to do was to give any offence.’

‘Oh well.’ Arthur pulls a face. ‘Doesn’t matter. It’s not a secret: just a bit of a shock. Yesterday I was a single man. Today I’m a single parent… with an eighteen-month-old little girl called Ting Song to look after.’ He gives a slightly manic grin. ‘Not quite what I was expecting.’

‘No. I can see that… So, Ting Song?’

‘That’s right. Not quite what I’d have chosen but there again I didn’t even know I had a daughter until yesterday afternoon.’

‘Hmm. So does it mean anything?’

‘Graceful Pine Tree… something like that.’

‘Hmm. Graceful? Grace? Gracie?’

Arthur nods slowly. ‘Yeah. I guess Gracie might work better.’

Padraig smiles and pats him on the shoulder. ‘Well, I tell you what, Arthur. It sounds like we’ve both had some strange experiences: me with your white rabbit fella, you suddenly gaining a daughter. I reckon the pair of us could do with a drink. What do you say to that?’

‘I’ve heard worse ideas.’

* * *

Keziah picks up the pack of cards and shuffles. Her hands are a bit too stiff for this to be easy but the shuffle is an important part of the build up. Graham is sitting opposite. He watches with a slight smirk on his face. If he were really a good poker player then he’d know to keep that superior expression of his hidden. Keziah knows he expects to win and she’s not going to disappoint him straight away. Not immediately anyway.

The first hand goes according to plan. Keziah deals herself three queens but loses to Graham’s flush. He deals the second hand and wins that too after Keziah discards the ace that would have allowed her to win. Soon she’s two hundred pounds down and Graham is looking inordinately smug.

Keziah takes the pack back and gives an ostentatious shuffle. Then she sets the cards down. ‘I know what’s wrong.’

‘What’s that, Aunty Kez?’

Her hands twitch briefly but she keeps her face calm and smiles. ‘Haven’t got my lucky ring on, have I.’

‘Oh well, if you think that’ll help you, I’d better be a good sport. Give you the chance to try and win your money back.’

‘Hmm. Go and have a look on the dresser over there will you. There’s a jewellery box. Bring it over.’

‘Okay. Will do, old girl.’ Graham turns around and gets up. He strolls over to the big dressing table. He makes a pretence of not knowing what he’s after then holds up a large antique Victorian box made of walnut with brass mountings and a porcelain plaque showing four fat cherubs. ‘This the thing?’

‘That’s it. Bring it here.’

There’s a smarmy smile on Graham’s face. She wonders if he’s at all worried about her looking in the box but keeps her expression neutral as she takes it from him.

Keziah fumbles with arthritic fingers before getting the lid open. She looks at what’s inside, rummaging in a tangle of costume jewellery. Then from underneath a twist of necklaces she plucks out a silver bangle. It’s quite distinctive, a Tiffany creation set with floral designs and lapis lazuli inserts. ‘Ah, my old bracelet. Well, well. Thought I’d lost that.’

She picks it up and clicks it around her wrist. As she glances at Graham, she notes he’s gone quite pale. He stares at the bracelet as she picks up the cards and starts dealing. With his attention fixed on the bracelet, he doesn’t comment on the fact she isn’t shuffling. The distraction is intentional: this isn’t the pack they were playing with previously but one Keziah slipped from her pocket while he was at the dressing table.

She deals the next hand carefully, ignoring Graham’s slightly stunned expression. The bangle had vanished from her room about six months ago, the latest in a string of thefts. Its disappearance had left Keziah briefly heartbroken: the bracelet was one of the few items she had inherited from her mother. She never reported its disappearance to anyone else at Tower House, instead putting other inquiries in train. Luckily the bracelet’s rarity made its trail easy to follow. A month ago Padraig bought the heirloom back from the same mainland antique dealer who’d purchased the stolen item.

Now, seeing the bracelet back on Keziah’s wrist has made Graham very confused. He takes a moment to react as she pushes his cards towards him. However, the colour quickly returns to his face as he sees what he’s been dealt. He’s not really that bright and simply tells himself Keziah must have had a pair of the bracelets. The new cards consume his attention. It’s a hand that would usually be a real winner. Unfortunately, Keziah’s is better.

Twenty minutes later, Graham is nine hundred pounds down. Keziah has switched packs a second time and rescued a hidden king from her pocket along the way. The cheating wasn’t really necessary. Keziah’s mainly done it for the fun of getting away with it. She could have won most of the hands simply thanks to being a better poker player.

Now she smiles: knowing her opponent can’t really afford to lose one hundred pounds let alone nine hundred. ‘So, Graham Drake. Want to cut and run or do you fancy a chance to win your money back?’

Graham’s face is a picture. Greed and fear make his features squirm as they fight it out. ‘Uh… I’m not… oh, go on, damn it! How?’

Keziah takes a deep breath and frowns. ‘Well. Let’s see. If you win, I’ll give you back your nine hundred.’

‘Okay.’

‘But if I win… I want…’ She pauses, taking her time as if she’s thinking about it. ‘What have you got?’

‘Pah! Not much.’

‘No paintings or fast cars?’

‘What?’

‘No money, no valuables?’

‘I’ve got my stamp collection.’

‘Really? Got any rarities?’

‘I’ve got a Penny Black!’

Keziah shakes her head. ‘That’s not rare. Worth a few hundred if you’re lucky. Besides, I got three of my own.’

Graham looks flustered. ‘I can’t think of anything else you’d want.’

‘How about some of your company shares?’

‘My shares!’

‘One hundred Black Company shares. They’re not worth much.’

‘They’re worth more than nine hundred!’

‘Oh, I suppose they are.’ Keziah reaches into her pocket and pulls out a bundle of bank notes. ‘Okay then. How about this? That brings my stake up to five thousand.’

Graham’s eyes bulge. He swallows. ‘Five thousand?’

‘Told you I had a bit of luck on the horses.’

Keziah watches him. She knows Graham’s in debt: seriously in debt. Five thousand pounds would make a significant chunk of his problems disappear. She settles back into her chair. She’s quite enjoying this afternoon and has a feeling it’s going to be a profitable day.

Graham owns five hundred shares in the family company and Keziah wants those shares. Added to those she already owns they would bring her stake to twenty four percent: still some way off control but another step along the way.

And if she can’t win Graham’s shares at poker there’s always the ring. The one he stole from her room a couple of weeks ago. It’s in a pocket, ready to slip on her finger. She could even show him the photographs, the ones Padraig took of Graham selling the ring in the same antique shop. One way or another, Graham’s going to pay for thinking he could solve his debt problems by stealing from a dotty old relative.

To be continued…

Chapter Three starts tomorrow with a nasty shock for the island’s bishop.

Refugees – Part III

The next instalment of Church of the White Rabbits

Arthur walks slowly up the road. Four days have gone by since Sally caught him with the joint in his hand and he still hasn’t managed to speak to her. His sister-in-law isn’t having anything to do with him at the moment. It would be funny under normal circumstances. But he’d really wanted to get her advice before this moment: or at the least have someone to confide in.

It’s too late now though. He’s made the trip to the mainland as ordered. It’s the first time he’s left Black Island since coming home and he’s surprised just how busy and hectic the streets seem over here. The place is a village in relation with Vancouver but compared to King’s Port it’s a hectic metropolis.

Ignoring the surrounding shoppers, Arthur continues resolutely. Just ahead, he can see the Royal Hotel. Inside, Shuchun is waiting. It’s the day of reckoning.

As he enters the lobby, an overweight woman in a tight uniform is trying to rearrange a vase of dried flowers so it covers up a stain on a tablecloth. Arthur nods curtly in her direction but doesn’t say anything and marches through briskly. He’s a man on a mission and needs to keep focused and alert if he’s to survive whatever’s coming.

The lounge stretches along the front of the hotel. A gloomy bar runs along the left-hand side of the room and heavy drapes hang either side of the windows on the right. Two electric chandeliers dangle from the ceiling, both unlit.

He sees Shuchun straight away. She’s sitting in a bay window, facing away from him, apparently gazing out at the view. Arthur knows she probably watched him coming up the street but she’s not giving anything away. And although he’s aware it’s all a pose, the scene works nonetheless. She looks elegant and serene: sitting straight-backed and motionless, bathed in soft morning light that’s coming through the net curtains behind her. She’s wearing white and the sunshine glints on her immaculate head of glossy raven-black hair. The combination of light and pose is striking: Shuchun looks illuminated, almost ethereal, and the rest of the room dingy and dull.

Arthur feels a fluttering and a stirring down below that could be his stomach or his loins. His nails bite into his palms as he clenches his fists and walks over, trying to look calm.

As he draws closer to the table she’s still looking towards the window. He can’t see her eyes but he’s sure she knows he’s there. Arthur hesitates, uncertain. He wants to say something loud and cheery but feels unaccountably nervous.
Arthur’s debating whether to cough politely to get her attention when he suddenly sees the tiny smile on her face. That’s when he realises she’s been watching his reflection from the moment he entered the room.

‘Hello, Arthur.’  Finally she turns to face him and he feels his knees go slightly weak. Her face is calm, no emotion showing. But those dark eyes still have the same power to hypnotise. It’s been almost two years to the day since he last saw her. That day remains clear in his mind. Him running down the road in his underpants: her father chasing close behind waving a large kitchen knife.

‘Shuchun.’

They look at each other for a while. He’s not certain if he should shake her hand, kiss her politely or bend over and give her a big hug. It’s always been that way. For Arthur she’s the original inscrutable oriental. He’s never been able to work out what’s going on behind that perfect mask. It was the same even when they were together. One minute she’d be treating him with disdain and apparent contempt, the next she’d be pulling his clothes off. The uncertainty always made him putty in her hands, which he suspects was at least part of his attraction.

She finally puts him out of his misery by standing and gracefully offering him a cheek to kiss. He’s tempted to put his hand on the back of her head and turn it around for a full-on snog but doesn’t quite dare. Even though he can’t help wondering if that would impress her more.

Instead he merely brushes her skin with his lips and takes a seat opposite.

Arthur’s about to speak but then a waiter appears at the table. The man’s old and grey, wearing a uniform that’s been washed and pressed too many times. He rubs his hands together obsequiously. ‘May I get you anything, madam? Sir?’
Shuchun has turned away again and Arthur’s about to decline but then she lifts one hand slightly. ‘I will have tea: jasmine tea with lemon. Arthur will have black coffee.’

The waiter hesitates. ‘I’m very sorry, madam. I’m not sure if we have any jasmine tea.’

Shuchun gives the faintest sigh. ‘Earl Grey?’

‘Of course, madam.’

‘Thank you. That will be all.’

Arthur smiles to himself. He wishes he could manage to dismiss people with such ease but he’s never had the gift.

They’re silent while Arthur shuffles uneasily on his seat. Eventually he leans forward. ‘How did you find me?’

‘That’s hardly important. But it wasn’t difficult.’

‘Okay.’

Arthur studies her profile. Her skin looks as flawless as he remembers it. No make-up: or none he can spot. She’s twelve years younger than him but that’s never counted for anything. She’s the one in control and she’s obviously not intending to offer anything for free. Her gaze is steady and her mouth doesn’t move: she could be a mannequin apart from the tiny rise and fall of her chest. ‘So, are you planning on coming over to the island?’

She gives a brief, cold laugh. ‘No.’

‘You staying here?’

‘Here? No. I have to catch a flight back to Canada tomorrow morning.’

‘Okay. So, what… you want me to come with you?’

‘You think so?’

‘Well, I dunno… I thought you’d come to find me.’

‘I have found you.’

‘But… if you’re not staying, what do you want me to do?’

‘I don’t want you to do anything.’

‘Fine!’ Arthur starts to rise. ‘Well, have a good trip back.’

‘Sit down.’

He slumps back, his show of resistance over the instant she gives a command. Arthur thinks back to when they first met. He’d been working as a driver and went to a party with friends. They’d only been there minutes when the slender Chinese girl caught his eye. She was in the middle of a group of other young women: the calm focus of a whirl of exaggerated gaiety, like an elegant flower surrounded by showy butterflies. Arthur and his friends moved in on the group and he tried to edge towards its centre. But before he got close enough to say a single word his target slipped away.

Arthur was disappointed. She hadn’t been exactly beautiful but there was definitely something about her. Over the next couple of hours he kept drifting around the party hoping to spot her again. Eventually, he assumed he’d missed his chance. Nipping out into the garden for a quick smoke, he was standing by the pool when she materialised at his side. Wordlessly, she took him by the hand and led him to the cars parked outside. The first words she spoke to him were an instruction to take her home: to his house.

He shakes his head. She had made the running from then on. They were together for about six months after that. But never exactly a couple. It was not a relationship of equals. She wanted him for her own purposes and always at her convenience. The one time he tried to take charge she walked out on him and he didn’t see her again for another three, painfully long, weeks.

Now? He doesn’t know what she’s doing on Black Island or what she wants from him. ‘So… Shuchun?’

‘So, Arthur.’

‘Why are you here? Why did you want to see me?’

She smiles. ‘I didn’t want to see you.’ There’s no inflection, it’s just delivered flat: a statement of fact. Which is what makes it hurt even more.

Arthur exhales slowly. ‘Okay. So, why? Why are you here?’

‘I’m getting married.’

He blinks. Confused. ‘Who to?’

‘That’s not relevant.’

‘No?’

‘Not to you.’

‘It’s not relevant to me?’

‘Maybe but that doesn’t matter. You don’t need to know who I’m marrying.’

‘No?’

‘No.’

Arthur shakes his head. ‘Okay, well… congratulations and all that. But, why come here to tell me?’

‘I didn’t come here to tell you that?’

Arthur resists the temptation to lean across and throttle her. ‘All right. So, Shuchun: why are you here?’

She smiles. ‘I came to bring you your daughter.’

‘My daughter!’

‘Don’t shout, Arthur.’ Shuchun pulls the tablecloth back and reveals the carrycot lying underneath. Inside a soft white shawl lies a small child with Asian features and typical Judd curly hair. ‘You’ll wake her up if you make too much noise.’

* * *

Keziah reaches forwards and grabs the pot of mustard from the middle of the lunch table. As she does, a loud fart echoes around the room. ‘Ah, those pies. Give me chronic gas they do.’

On the other side of the table Cynthia Drake makes a sound of disgust and turns her head.

‘Don’t they make you fart?’

Cynthia ignores the old woman, wishing yet again the revolting crone would either keep to her rooms or get on and die. She’s sure Keziah gets cruder and more irritating with every year that goes by. Unfortunately, although it was her seventieth birthday this year, the last of the Blacks looks as fit as ever. If only there was a home they could send her to: somewhere she could be with people her own age. Anything that meant they wouldn’t have to eat at the same table.

Keziah grins and slathers another coating of mustard on her pie. She takes a large bite and chews vigorously, mouth open. There’s a big spot of mustard on her upper lip. She can feel it there but makes no attempt to wipe it away: knowing its presence will only aggravate Cynthia more.

A couple more minutes pass and Cynthia wipes her lips with a napkin and leaves the table. The only two left in the room now are Keziah and Graham Drake.

Graham watches as his cousin leaves the room and gives a sigh of contentment. ‘There are times when I think you dislike her as much as I do, Aunt Keziah.’

‘I like pies. Particularly the mutton ones.’

‘Yes, but your gas doesn’t agree with Cynthia.’

‘Gas is natural.’

‘Hmm. Possibly. But not at your rate of production, old girl.’

Keziah stares at him. She’s never liked Graham Drake much: and the way he addresses her doesn’t advance his cause. ‘Old girl’ might be half-accurate but she’s certainly not his aunt. Technically they’re second cousins twice removed but she’s not going to even try to explain that one.

She wipes the mustard off her lip: it’s done its job. ‘You know how to play poker, Graham?’

He looks around in surprise. ‘Poker?’

‘Card game. You bet on it. For money.’

‘Money?’

‘Unless you prefer strip poker.’

A momentary look of horror crosses Graham’s face but he masks it quickly and smiles. ‘Er… that’s okay. You want to play poker with me?’

‘Why not? Scared I’ll beat you?’

He laughs. Being invited to play cards with Keziah threw him for a moment: she doesn’t normally have any more to do with Graham Drake than any of the others who live in Tower House. But poker is his favourite game. He thinks he’s good at it; although he’s had an unlucky streak recently. He grins patronisingly as he looks at Keziah with the overconfidence of a man who has no idea what’s in store. ‘Sure. I’ll give you a game of poker. Did you want to play now?’

Keziah shakes her head. Her phone was vibrating during lunch and she wants to go and see who was calling. ‘Not now. Got to have my afternoon sleep. Later. How about five o’clock?’

‘Okay.’ Graham still looks a bit uncertain but the lure of a game of poker is tempting. ‘Where’re we going to play?’

‘My rooms. Don’t want Cynthia or Margaret watching over us and getting all disapproving do we?’

‘No.’ Graham smiles. ‘You want me to find some coppers to play for?’

‘Coppers?’ Keziah shakes her head. ‘No. I had a bit of luck on the horses last week so I’ve got a bit of extra money to play with. Why not make it more interesting? Shall we say a minimum stake of fifty pounds?’

Graham’s eyes widen and Keziah can almost see the calculations going on in his head: working out how much he might be able to take off the old woman.

* * *

Padraig strolls along the ridge, following it towards the summit of Beacon Hill. There’s a cairn of stones at the top and as he gets nearer he notices someone sitting in its lee.

To be continued…

Tomorrow, Arthur tries to come to terms with having a daughter and Keziah takes some revenge.

Refugees – Part II

The second part of Chapter Two. Boys will be boys…

Arthur knocks cautiously. George should be down at the harbour: his boat’s in dock having its hull scraped. Still, Arthur feels nervous. There’s no reason he should be but he always feels a bit guilty where Sally’s concerned. Plus he wonders what goes through his brother’s head when he sees the two of them together.

There’s no answer and Arthur tries the door. It’s open but he can’t hear anything from inside.

He wonders for a moment about turning away but knows he’s only putting off the inevitable. He needs to talk to Sally. Normally he manages to avoid situations where the two of them are alone together: partly because of George but also because he still hasn’t worked out how things stand with Sally. He keeps thinking he should say something about it. Trouble is, he has no idea what to say. Today, though, things are different. He desperately needs advice and there’s no one else he can turn to with this present situation.

Arthur draws a deep breath and enters the house. He closes the door quietly and takes a moment. When the others are around there’s no chance to stop and take it in. He might have thought he was already a man when he walked out of the house and fled Black Island. All those years seem to dissolve, though, when he’s in the old family home on Goat Street. There’s something about the place that makes him feel he’s still a little boy.

He smiles to himself. Perhaps it’s the ghost of the old man: waiting behind the door to belt him one for not doing his homework, his chores or some job on the boat. Or it could be the cooking smells reminding him of his mum: the security of her big warm embrace, burying his face in her apron when he’s in trouble again.

Arthur pauses. He sniffs. Hmm. There’s definitely a smell in the air but it’s certainly not his mother’s cooking. He doubts it’s anything Sally’s baked either.

Moving quietly, he steps around the old sofa in the front room and approaches the door into the hall. The smell is definitely stronger and he lets his nose lead him through the house. As he gets closer to the back door he hears giggles. It sounds like two boys: almost hysterical with laughter.

Arthur slowly pushes the door until he can see out. The back yard isn’t big but for a moment he doesn’t spot the boys. Then he blinks. Young Nathan from down the road is on his hands and knees in the rabbit pen. His head is under a pile of hay and several carrots are sticking out of his mouth. Davey is sprawled in the wheelbarrow with a flowerpot on his head. In his hand is the fattest joint Arthur’s seen in a long time.

Arthur watches for a moment, grinning. He thinks about leaving them to it. Then he shakes his head. The boys are only twelve.  He opens the door and gives a stage cough.

Davey’s eyes slowly widen. He stares in blank amazement at his uncle. After some delay the message finally reaches his brain and he tries to stand up, hide the joint and take the flowerpot off his head: all at the same time. He doesn’t do well at any of the tasks. Instead, as his legs and arms flail impotently, the wheelbarrow topples over and Arthur’s nephew falls in an ungainly heap, the terracotta pot landing next to him with a loud crack and splitting in two.

His friend Nathan makes a strange noise that sounds more guinea pig than human. Crawling forwards, he sticks his head in the rabbit hutch. Arthur watches in bemusement. He’s not sure if Nathan’s trying to hide but the boy’s head is the only part of him that fits inside the hutch.

With a shake of his head, Arthur strides over. He plucks the joint out of Davey’s trembling fingers. He gives it a quick glance: it’s impressive, built with at least half a dozen cigarette papers and as fat as a big cigar. Judging by the glaze on Davey’s eyes, he guesses it’s not the first the boys have smoked either.

Davey’s still having trouble co-ordinating his limbs. Arthur bends over and picks the boy up by his collar. ‘Well then Davey. What’s this?’

Davey looks up with wide, bloodshot eyes. His bottom lip trembles and then he sniggers. ‘Huh. ’s a Cabelwell carrot, Uncle Arfur.’

‘A what?’

Davey pulls himself upright. He looks proudly at the joint in his uncle’s hand. ‘It is a Cabelwell carrot.’ The boy sways. ‘My very first Cabelwell carrot. Bloody good ‘un too. Used twelve skins like you’re s’posed to.’

‘What… why…’ Arthur shakes his head. ‘Okay, carrot: I get that. What the hell is it a ‘Cabelwell’ carrot?’

‘Whufn’ll.’ The strange squeak of response comes from the direction of the rabbit hutch.

‘Yay,’ said Davey. ‘Tha’s righ’. Amazin’ fillum.’

‘What are you two talking about?’

Davey takes a deep breath. Steadies himself. Looks his uncle in the eye. Giggles and then reaches out for Arthur’s arm. ‘You know! Withnail And I. That film where they… smoke a Cabelwell carrot.’

Arthur gave a short laugh. ‘A ‘Camberwell’ carrot.’

‘That’s what I said.’

‘You made it with twelve papers?’

‘Had to. Not a Cabelwell carrot if you don’t use twelve skins.’

Arthur blinks and looks at what’s in his hand. If Davey has used a dozen cigarette papers to make the joint then it’s little surprise how stoned the two boys are. Particularly not considering what his brother’s home-grown is like. ‘And you’ve watched Withnail And I have you?’

‘Yay-up.’ Davey nods enthusiastically. ‘Dad’s got it on thingy.’

‘Does he know you’ve watched it?’

Davey exhales noisily and looks sideways. Hesitates a moment. ‘Never said we couldn’t.’

Arthur rolls his eyes. ‘And what about this?’ He holds up the joint. ‘Does he know you smoke this?’

Davey purses his lips and tips his head from side to side, considering the question. ‘Well… not egzackerly… but he’s the one what grows it!’

There’s a rustling sound from the hutch and Nathan stands up. He’s smaller than Davey and normally still looks an innocent little boy. Today though, with his wild eyes, a pile of hay draped across his head and a carrot in each hand he looks more like a deranged pixie. Nathan gives a wide-eyed, goofy smile. ‘The rabbits like it. Doesn’t do them no harm.’

Arthur blinks. ‘You feed it to the rabbits.’

‘Nah.’ Davey shakes his head. ‘But they escapes sometimes and they’re always trying to sneak into the greenhouse and eat Dad’s weed. Don’t think they’ve tried smokin’ it though.’

The boys erupt into giggles and Arthur tries not to join them. ‘Yeah,’ he says as sternly as he can manage. ‘That’s all well and good but I don’t think you should be smoking your dad’s weed.’

‘Well you do.’

‘What!’ Arthur blinks. ‘When have you ever seen me smoking joints?’

‘In the summer: after that barbecue we all had. We’d gone up to bed and you and dad were sitting out here smoking and smoking. You was laughing and laughing.’

Arthur shakes his head, trying hard not to smile. ‘Oh that was just roll-ups. Tobacco.’

‘You liar!’

Arthur keeps shaking his head but knows he is sussed.

‘Our window was open and you was sitting right under it. All the smoke was coming in and you weren’t smokin’ roll ups!’

‘Yeah. Well maybe. But you’re way too young to be smoking anything.’

‘How old was you when you started then?’

‘Not that young.’

‘How old then? Eighteen? Sixteen? Younger?’

Arthur gives Davey a glare but his heart has gone out of it. He’s tried being the responsible adult but somehow it’s backfiring spectacularly. He’s supposed to be the one doing the telling off and now here’s his nephew giving him the third degree. Arthur sighs and is about to say something when he suddenly hears footsteps in the corridor. He turns as his sister-in-law appears in the doorway.

‘Hello, boys. Are you cleaning out those rabbits…’ Sally’s voice dies away. For a moment Arthur thinks she is just surprised to see him and then he realises her eyes are focussed on his hand. She gives a deep sniff. Her expression turns hard and angry.

‘Oh, shit.’ Arthur closes his eyes.

‘Arthur! You do not smoke that stuff in front of my boys.’ Before he can even react, Sally strides across the yard. She snatches the joint, throws it to the floor and grinds it under her foot. ‘You get out of here right now.’ She grabs his arm and starts to tow him away. ‘I’m ashamed of you, Arthur! They’re still children.’

He hears a stifled giggle from behind him and opens his mouth, trying to think of something convincing to say. But nothing coherent comes out of his mouth and, taking his inability to speak as evidence of his guilt, Sally isn’t stopping to hear any of it.

Before Arthur can do much more than splutter in disbelief he is being propelled out of the house. ‘I’ll deal with you later,’ she says as the door closes in his face.

* * *

Padraig looks around as they make their way back towards the side door. It’s the first time he’s been to the island and he’d got a shock when Keziah named the prison for their rendezvous. Black Island has an ambivalent place in his family history and the prison represents a lot of what’s bad.

Keziah gives him a glance. ‘So. Pleased to see the family home?’

He blinks. Had she been reading his mind or are his feelings that obvious? There’s definitely something witch-like about the old woman but he’d thought that was just to do with the way she looked.

‘Home?’ he asks. ‘Do you mean the island or this little place?’

They stand and look around. The walls are massive and grim. It’s foreboding enough in its current state of abandonment; it’s easy to imagine how soul-crushing it would have been for those incarcerated here.

Keziah gives an amused snort. ‘Well. I didn’t mean the prison but I suppose it’s… part of it all.’

‘Yes.’ Padraig feels cold at the thought of living within these walls. ‘A cruel-looking place is it not?’

‘Not to me.’

‘No?’

She shakes her head. ‘I’ve got the keys.’

Padraig laughs. ‘Ah well that is a big relief, Miss Black. A very big relief indeed.’

He chuckles again but his humour is only fleeting. The prison isn’t something his family talked about. Back home in Ireland, he’d grown up on stories of Black Island. Sat around the fire of an evening, the old ones — grandparents, uncles and aunts — would tell stories about life on the island; they talked about the quarries, the town, fights with the fishermen and about the Blacks. But not about the prison. Being a convict wasn’t really something civilised people liked to boast about.

The truth is, though, this place plays a significant role in the story of the Le Picard family. And now here he is: crossing the courtyard next to the main prison yard.  Padraig stops. It occurs to him that he’s on the wrong side. Once, his family would have been the ones on the other side of the railings. The guards would have been this side: men with sticks and clubs to beat anyone stepping out of line. His ancestors were the prisoners, the ones who worked the quarries and lived a dozen to a cell. He shivers again. ‘Would you mind terribly if I was the first of us to leave, Miss Black?’

Keziah watches Padraig leave. She’s not met him in person before, although they’ve communicated by letter for a few years now. His family may be exiles but they still maintain a link with the island and Padraig Le Picard makes an ideal agent for certain of her mainland dealings.

Once his slim figure has disappeared down the track towards Quarry Town, she pulls the door closed again. She could sense Padraig’s unease as they crossed the yard. It suited her to let him make his escape first; now she gets to enjoy the comfort of its big walls and empty spaces for a bit longer.

Keziah finds a kind of poetic irony in the fact her family spent more than two centuries imprisoning people in this building but now she uses it as a place to escape. She’s read about the prison in the family archives. Prisoners were sent to Black Island as early as the 1500s. Various monarchs found it a conveniently remote place to dispose of embarrassments: such as troublemakers they couldn’t execute outright but wanted removed from circulation.

The first convicts sent here lived a miserable and generally short existence, housed in crude huts and caves in the surrounding hills. It was the island’s first official governor, Lord Augustus Black, who put them to work building a proper prison. Not out of consideration for their well-being but because prisoners who were worked until they dropped were less likely to have the time and energy on developing inconvenient escape schemes.

Most of those sent to Black Island weren’t really expected to return and with no shortage of labour or raw materials, Augustus Black set about making sure his prison was both strong and secure. The prison walls are ten-foot thick, which is probably why it’s stayed so dry in here. Even after decades of being abandoned, the prison remains weathertight: ideal for roosting pigeons and reclusive spinsters who need a place for secret assignations.

* * *

Arthur walks slowly up the road. Four days have gone by since Sally caught him with the joint in his hand and he still hasn’t managed to speak to her. His sister-in-law isn’t having anything to do with him at the moment. It would be funny under normal circumstances. But he’d really wanted to get her advice before this moment: or at the least have someone to confide in.

To be continued…

I hope that chunk wasn’t too long. Tomorrow, Arthur gets a big surprise and Keziah shows what she’s like at poker.

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