Tuesday 25 July 2017

NYC Midnight Challenge. Write a Flash Fiction story in 48 hours. Word limit 1000. My prompts were Historical Fiction, Mansion, a kitten

Set in England at the beginning of the First World War this story recounts one ten-year-old boy’s desire to peep into the house his grandmother worked in before her marriage.

The summer of 1914 in England was ‘picnic perfect’ promoting confidence that nothing could falter in such glorious weather. Thus it was a shock to Albert when war was declared against Germany on 4th August. Albert was ten years old and after the initial anxiety and distress he resumed his usual pursuits, happy on holiday with long days to fill. There was no radio at home and he was not much interested in reading newspapers so war seemed far from his realm.

Albert and his friends spent hours chasing the humming, jangling trams, which they could outstrip with ease. Sometimes they would jump on and ride for a few yards before the conductor chased them off, yelling, ‘Oi, scarper.’ Giggling, they would run off, punching each other’s arms. After that they went looking for ‘empties’, glass Codd bottles that had been cast aside. They had to decide whether to return the bottles to the local shop for the penny deposit or smash them to retrieve the glass marble stoppers. Usually the marbles won.

One of Albert’s favourite pastimes was visiting a copse overlooking Maidling, a striking mansion set in extensive grounds. His grandmother had often taken him there when he was younger. He remembered the swish of her long skirts in the grass and the dust on her boots.

‘I went into service at Maidling when I was a girl, starting as a scullery maid. Your grandfather delivered the groceries there. When I left to marry, I was the under-cook. In those days female servants had to give up their positions when they wed.’
‘Was everything delivered?’

‘Everything except the fruit and vegetables - they were grown in the gardens. Once a week a man brought a basket of fresh fish for Cook to buy. Cook was called Mrs Whiting. That always made me laugh.’

‘You said you had to leave when you married.’

‘That’s right. Mrs Whiting wasn’t married but cooks were always called Mrs, just like housekeepers were. It made them more respectable.’

She told Albert about the beautiful objects in the house and how the family always left Maidling at the end of July to travel to the Isle of Wight for Cowes Week and thence to Scotland and the grouse moors.

This year, Cowes Week had been abandoned because of the war. The grouse season would proceed as usual so, the week before the Glorious Twelfth, he saw servants bustling about, packing trunks into motor cars. Most of the servants would accompany the family but a few would remain to safeguard the house and see to the horses.
Albert watched the motorcade depart for the railway station. As the last car drove sedately through the gates at the end of the drive he slipped into the grounds. The servants would be busy covering the furniture with dust sheets as they always did when the family left. He hoped he would escape notice.

He kept close to the trees lining the drive, excited at the prospect of seeing inside the house. He had never plucked up courage before but now he was ten he felt capable of manly things. Mainly he thought he was fleet enough of foot to escape should the need arise.

He didn’t ascend the steps leading to the great double doors but went round the side of the house where the Library was located. Ever since Albert was a baby his mother, though not an educated woman, had read to him and encouraged him to enjoy books. The Library had floor to ceiling windows and high bookshelves filled with leather bound volumes.  His nose pressed to the windowpane, his breath misting the glass, he jumped as a hand squeezed his shoulder and a man said, ‘What d’you think you’re doing, sonny?’
Albert trembled but stumbled out the explanation that his grandmother had been in service at Maidling and he’d always wanted to peep through the windows.

The man asked about her, then smiled. ‘I remember your grandmother. She was kind to me when I was a lad here, missing my family. Come and have a look-see.’

Albert was entranced by wonderful Japanese vases, lacquered cabinets, gilded mirrors. He gazed at crystal chandeliers glittering in sunlight glancing through tall windows. As they passed through each room Albert noticed pretty wall-lights and asked why they were not glowing.

His guide explained, ‘They’re electric. They can’t be turned down like gaslights so they’re switched off when not in use.’

He demonstrated and Albert wondered if his home would ever have anything so exotic. As they walked from the house towards the copse Albert saw a little tabby cat scurrying into one of the loose boxes. He called, ‘Puss, puss, puss,’ but the cat ignored him.

‘She won’t take notice right now,’ said the man. ‘She’s got a litter of kittens. Want to see them?’

Albert nodded. Nestled in a corner were three tiny creatures, one black, the others tabby.

‘Can I touch them?’ he whispered, stretching out a tentative hand. To his delight the mother butted his hand and the kittens purred and blinked at him with their milky eyes, huge ears dwarfing their faces.  

‘My grandmother loves cats. She liked the kitchen cats at Maidling. Mrs Whiting said she shouldn’t feed them as they wouldn’t catch the mice if they weren’t hungry but she fed them anyway and they still caught the mice.’

‘Has your grandmother got a cat now?’

‘No, her cat died. She misses her.’

‘How about you take one of these kittens for her as a sort of thank you for her kindness to me?’

Albert’s eyes shone. ‘Yes, please.’

‘The tabbies are toms and the black’s a queen.’

‘Could I have the queen, please?’

‘Got a name for her?’

‘I’ll call her Maidie, after Maidling.’

‘Good name. She’ll be ready in two weeks. All right?’

Albert skipped home, his brain filled with stunning images. He might never live in the mansion but he would always have Maidie and his memories.


Sunday 2 July 2017

How Doth the Little Busy Bee
The first Sunday of July was a gentle, warm, sunny day and life was busy in the garden. Two types of bumble bees were busy on the Veronica, a plant they love.
 The one with the orange overcoat is a Common Carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) and is active from April until November. Carder bees nest in abandoned mouse or bird nests, barns and sheds.

The one with the white bottom is a Buff-tailed bumble bee (Bombus terrestris) sometimes called a large earth bumble bee. This bumble bee is the UK’s largest bumble bee species.
 The photo is slightly out of focus because the bee was flying.

How doth the little busy bee   
Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

How skilfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

In works of labour or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.

Meanwhile, there was activity in the pond. Not only is the duckweed spreading rapidly but the fish are spawning, the newts are thriving and the dragonflies are visiting to lay their eggs.

These are Common blue damselflies (Enallagma cyathigerum)
They fly from April to September, occasionally October, and are abundant throughout the British Isles. Males are always blue and females may be similarly coloured, or, as in this photo, dull green.

Once the bees had departed the Veronica their place was taken by a Small White butterfly (Pieris rapae)

In the sky overhead soared Red Kites, house martins and a Common gull. They were very high and these photos have been cropped.


Saturday 24 June 2017

The Entropy Gang’s June 2017 blog

The Entropy Gang’s June 2017 blog
Herschel: It’s nearly a year since we were granted the freedom of the GARDEN. One day I caught a squirrel but when I tried to take it indoors The MAID wouldn’t let me in. I don’t know why. I haven’t bothered catching anything since, apart from an occasional dragonfly, since my efforts are not really appreciated. The birds have stopped coming into the GARDEN now, anyway. What’s a cat to do?
Jellicoe: I’ve caught more than anyone – two wood pigeons, a rat, a field mouse and a blackbird that managed to escape. Lately I haven’t been concentrating on hunting. I found a way out of the GARDEN but the trouble was that I couldn’t find the way back in again and that made me unhappy. The MASTER has been all round the GARDEN making sure that none of us can escape again. Spoilsport!
Isambard: I don’t spend any time hunting. I’d rather watch the fish or curl up with the dogs. It’s been so hot lately that none of us have done anything but flop about. It’s cooler now, though so all the SERVANTS are happier.
Herschel: Pats, the little cat belonging to Susannah, died. We were sorry, even though she didn’t mix with us. She had lived with Susannah for a very long time.

Isambard: Susannah was very upset. Now she’s found another kitten, the same colour as Pats. She is nosy and very interested in finding out about everything. Lenny is scared of her but he’s getting used to her.
Frankie with Zula
Frankie is very proud of and pleased with his little kitten

Jellicoe: Her name is Zula and she’s tiny. Bertie loves her. Bertie is a nice boy, gentle and warm. We like the other DOGS, too, but Bertie is our favourite.

Isambard: The MASTER and The MAID put in a special little door for us so that we can go in and out whenever we want to.

Herschel: We’re not allowed out at night, though, but that doesn’t bother us ‘cos we like to sleep with the DOGS and the SERVANTS.
Jellicoe: No, we’re not allowed out but Solomon got stuck outside the other night and cried to come in.
Isambard: When Jellicoe escaped none of us were allowed out unless the SERVANTS were in the GARDEN with us. The SERVANTS locked our little door but Solomon didn’t realise and banged his head trying to open the flap.

Herschel: So then he didn’t want to use the special door and that’s why he got stuck outside ‘cos he wouldn’t come in when The MAID called him. Silly boy!

Jellicoe: He’s all right now, though. I was the first to use the special door. I’m always the first to try something new. Isambard was the last. He’s so cautious it’s painful.

Herschel: Little Zula isn’t allowed into the GARDEN yet. The SERVANTS are afraid the Red Kite will grab her so she won’t go out until she’s bigger.

Isambard: I don’t think the DOGS would allow that. The Red Kite is big but the DOGS are much bigger.

Jellicoe: Zula won’t be very big, anyway, not even as big as Lenny and Solomon, although they’re mostly fur, not like us Ocicats. We’re big and strong.

Herschel: Now we must get back to what we like doing best – snoozing, preferably with a dog or, failing that, on The MASTER and The MAID’S bed. We’ll be in touch. TTFN.

Little Things

Little Things

Seeing things through a four-year-old’s eyes is endlessly fascinating and often very amusing. Frankie went to play in the conservatory as usual the other day and came running back in great distress. He had seen a ‘big, black thing’ on the floor. I went to investigate and found the cats surveying a large stag beetle with five and a half legs. I don’t know whether the cats were responsible for the amputation but the beetle seemed unfazed and I picked it up and deposited it in the garden. The next day it was back again. 

I returned it to the wild. A couple of days later a female stag beetle was being studied by the felines and a day after that another male with six legs. Clearly the cats are budding entomologists.
Stag beetles are an endangered species, though they are doing relatively well in the south of the UK. They may be further endangered by our cats, although the cats have not attempted to eat them. I should think they’d be rather crunchy. There have been no further beetle guests in the conservatory.

We spotted a tiny, pretty day-flying moth on the herbs and discovered it was a Mint Moth (Pyrausta aurata)It’s very common but we had never seen one before. 

A few days later I noticed an unusual spider on a tomato leaf. In fact, there were two, but it was the colourful one that caught my eye. 
It was a Candy stripe spider (Enoplognatha ovata), an appropriate name for such a pretty creature. Its companion on the leaf was more soberly dressed in silver, not so flamboyant but nonetheless attractive.
Again, the Candy Stripe spider is quite common but we were pleased to make its acquaintance. If only all spiders were so pretty – and stayed outdoors.

When Frankie saw the enlarged photos of the moth and the spiders it kindled his interest and it wasn’t long before he was reporting sightings of spiders everywhere and asking Barry or me to take photographs. The smallest one he found was a Money spider or Dwarf weaver spider in the conservatory and its presence was duly recorded for posterity. 
He named it ‘Tiddles’ and was pleased to see it near the front door the next day though we suspect it was probably a friend or relative of the conservatory resident.

We told him how Susannah, his mummy, had a pet spider when she was little. 
She called it ‘Sid’ but again we think there were probably several ‘Sids’. Sid was a Garden spider or Cross or Diadem spider (Araneus diadematus), an orb web weaver, and was probably a female. The females weave the webs and remain in the centre or nearby with one leg hooked on the web, waiting for prey. Sometimes Cross spiders eat their mates directly after mating.

Clearly the fascination with arachnids is genetic. I must remember to tell Frankie that Cross spiders will bite if threatened. Apparently the bite is like a mild bee sting.

Frankie was watching a bumble bee recently and asked if he could stroke it. 
Their furry bodies do look quite inviting. 
Anyway, not long ago I think he attempted to stroke what he thought was a bee but it was a wasp which expressed its disapproval of his presumption by stinging him. He howled, poor little boy, but the lesson has been learnt.

Does my bum look big in this?
Is this one better?

Saturday 29 April 2017

A lovely morning surprise!

  Herschel snoozes
   It was early Saturday morning and we were enjoying a leisurely lie-in, idly watching rugby and occasionally dozing off. Susannah had taken Frankie to his swimming lesson and then carried on to her gym class.
Bertie  and Jellicoe share a bed. He couldn't be a hunter, could he?
Bertie and Roxy were stretched out on our bed, joined from time to time by Herschel and Jellicoe. Isambard was lying on my legs so naturally I couldn’t get up – it’s very bad manners to disturb a cat. Jenna and Gus were snoozing in their beds.

We could hear sounds of cats playing. At least Solomon and Lenny weren’t screaming at each other so all was peaceful and there was no urgency for us to get up and proceed with the day. Susannah returned and there was an exclamation of disbelief and horror as she realised she had trodden on a dead but still pliant wood pigeon.

‘You’ve got to see this,’ she said so we duly arose. The hall was a mass of feathers surrounding a defunct avian. The scene in the garden of the capture and possibly the execution  was clearly demarcated by a sufficient number of feathers to make us believe there might have been more than one casualty. How can one bird have so many feathers? Still, as the old tongue twister has it, 'There are forty thousand feathers on a thrush' so there must be at least that number on a wood pigeon. I can understand why Labradors dislike picking up pigeons – all those feathers coming loose.
Not quite the remains of the day  . . .
After clearing up (We now have a clear idea of the colour of a pigeon blood ruby) we set about using our deductive skills to determine the culprit. We thought about Susannah’s cats. Solomon is little and likes catching dragonflies. 
Could it have been Lenny? Possibly. He may have lain on the poor bird. Lenny is ‘plump’ and lazy and limits his hunting exploits to moths.
It could not have been Isambard as he was pinning down my legs and in any case is not keen on leaving the company either of us or the dogs. 
Isambard watching the fish
Herschel caught a squirrel not long after he was given the freedom of the garden but is not given to excessive hunting. We concluded it was probably Jellicoe. He watches the birds more than the others and so far this year he has killed a rat, a field mouse, a dunnock and a wood pigeon. He also caught a blackbird but it escaped. So, he’s not the most prolific of killers but he does his best, sadly.
What is this?'
Our garden used to be busy with birds, particularly at this time of year when adults are feeding their young, but word seems to have got around in the bird fraternity that it is a no-go area. While we miss seeing them we are glad they no longer frequent our feeders. It is a small price to pay for the joy of seeing our elegant felines prowling through the shrubs, watching the fish in the pond or sunning themselves.

Fish shall safely swim . . .

. . . and so the year rolls on . . .

. . . and so the year rolls on . . .

The UK is about to celebrate the Early May Bank Holiday on Monday 1st May. This means that families may get together for a barbecue, likely to take place under lowering skies and/or driving rain. Others may choose to take a long weekend break, clogging the motorways in a bid to escape the humdrum of daily life. Those who choose to stay at home often decide to use the extra leisure time to catch up on (or start) some gardening, decorating or d-i-y projects. This results in logjams of cars streaming to garden centres and d-i-y stores and then attempting to find parking spaces. 

Customers impatient to begin their appointed tasks shoulder their way through crowds of other like-minded souls, locate their items and then queue to pay for them. By the time they reach home again, some two or three hours later, the will to achieve anything is dissipating. Of course, there are some organized folks who have already laid in their supplies but these are the people who work steadily at keeping everything in their houses and gardens tickety-boo, surely the most sensible way to proceed in life.

UK citizens enjoy – or endure – just eight Bank Holidays a year and for only two of them, Christmas Day and Easter Sunday, are the large shops shut (though not in Scotland on Easter Sunday) Small shops are free to open as they please on these days. Nonetheless, particularly if visitors are to be hosted, a siege mentality takes hold and huge amounts of provisions are amassed, with every conceivable potential taste being accommodated. It’s no good reminding anyone that the shops will be open again in twenty-four hours’ time.

The next surge in bulk buying, that is, the next Bank Holiday, will be at the end of May. Perhaps Summer will have arrived by then. If not, surely the August Bank Holiday will come up trumps – and speaking of Trump, who knows what he may have set in motion by then.

Anyway, whatever you are planning, even if it’s nothing, enjoy your weekend J