La Femme Sans Tête

We’d been on the road for a couple of weeks, savouring the wines, cheeses, gorgeous verdant countryside, idyllic camping beside glistening, rushing rivers, we were in our own version of Heaven.  We arrived in Burgundy and were not disappointed by the beauty of the vineyards and the majestic roads that appeared to be endless tunnels, so shaded by trees from either side.  One of our favourite parts of being on the road was getting lost, for that was when we found the most interesting and exquisite places and the day we arrived in Burgundy was no exception.  Hopelessly lost, we came across a small village, a typical one of many, as you well-travelled folk will know.  Protected and shaded amongst tall, wizened old trees sat tiny, crumbling old houses with, in this case, sky blue shutters, it sat alongside a gently running river, a quaint, quiet, typical village.  We we sat down to lunch on the tiny terrace of the only restaurant in the village, beautifully shaded by vines and heavenly scented by huge pots of lavender and rosemary, our wine poured, we raised our glasses to the smiling old man sitting opposite us.  ‘Salut’ we all chimed and swallowed the nectar of a local red burgundy.  We asked the man, Gerard it turned out, about the village and the unusual name of the river we were all admiring and his eyes lit up as he began to tell us the story of why this village and particularly the river, whilst not famous, was infamous in the region.  We made ourselves comfortable and settled in for a very long lunch and an incredible story we could hardly believe.

Back in 1751 there was a race taking place, a competition was being held between all of the villages in the Burgundy region, the winner of which would be pronounced the creator of the most perfect mustard recipe which would thence be known as ‘Dijon’ mustard.  Anyone and everyone could enter and the whole area was engulfed in the heady scent of mustard seeds, verjuice and a cornucopia of assorted spice smells as the entire population of Burgundy proceeded to perfect their recipes.  Each creator closely guarded their recipe, constantly watching over their shoulders as they crushed their seeds and spices and they hid their coded notes in the most secret places they could conjure; as time went on and paranoia became their constant partner, some were even known to memorise their notes and eat them.

It was an extremely busy year as chefs, cooks, housewives, scientists, inventors and even the clergy! submitted their mustards to the judges for tastings.  Hundreds, possibly thousands, were to return to their homes, heads downcast, tears pooling at their feet, as their recipes were rejected.   Finally, it came down to the final three, each had a sublime recipe and the judges’ final decision became an impossible task.  After several days of taste upon taste, burned, peeling lips and bloodshot eyes, the judges decided that they needed to recuperate, to cleanse their palates and allow their taste buds to return to their former glory and so they determined to allow the final three to return to their kitchens, to make ultimate tweaks, adjustments and improvements and upon a final tasting, the winner, with the honour of having their mustard known as ‘Dijon’ mustard, would be announced.

They were three very different mustard concoctors, there was Madame Soufflé, a bakers wife (yes really, apparently), blonde, bouncy curls, mischievous, sparkling blue eyes which almost disappeared into her rosy cheeks when she laughed, she was cheerful, plump, pretty and unassuming, on the surface, but bubbling underneath the simpering façade was a woman fiercely determined to win.  Madame Dupres was a middle-aged innkeeper, always impeccable, never a hair fallen from the tightly wound bun at the back of her head, hooded indigo eyes, which were known to cause the most raucous of farmers to stop in his tracks when she glared imperiously down the length of her magnificent nose at him.  She was famous through many regions for her delectable food, her lack of humour and her fearsome temper. Monsieur Naigeon was the third finalist, from the city of Dijon, tall and slender, always a little unkempt as all true creators are wont to be, a quiet, unassuming gentleman, already noted as an extremely talented producer of mustard.

Coincidentally and somewhat unfortunately, the two ladies both hailed from this tiny village that you and I are sitting in and yes, war ensued.

Competition between them was intense and aggressive, it’s said Madame Dupres screeching was heard as far as the next village, five kilometres away and Madame Soufflés plumped up cheerful veneer was replaced with a grumpy, sagging, half empty bag of flour face.  Each was accusing the other of attempting to steal their recipes, both sending children (and in the case of Madame Dupres, a fully trained raven) to spy on the other, verbally attacking each other on the street and ultimately resulting in such cat fights that they had to pulled apart by their long-suffering spouses.   Monsieur Naigeon was blissfully unaware of these explosive dramas as he gently crushed, mixed and stirred in his kitchen laboratory.

As the final judgement loomed the ladies became frantic, neither slept nor left their kitchens other than to secretly gather more spices, they forfeit their families and their daily chores, they were obsessed with both winning and with beating each other,

They were trying and testing so many different types of mustard seeds and spices that their heads were swimming with mustardy madness! It was generally accepted in the village that Madame Dupres and Madame Soufflé had gone insane.

With days to go Madame Dupres knew that she needed to pull an extremely large rabbit out of her bonnet if she was going to win.  She sent her nephew, Florian, a small, mousey, forgettable child, quick and sly, to steal a pot of Madame Soufflé’s most recent mustard, she desperately needed to taste it, then she would know for certain if she had made a better mustard and, sacre bleu! if not, to determine how to better it.  Florian arrived with the mustard, Madame Dupres gingerly tasted and went immediately into one of her terrifying tantrums, throwing the offending pot of mustard at Florian and thankfully just missing his somewhat empty head, whereupon she slumped to the ground and fell into a deep pit of depression.  She reluctantly admitted, but only to herself, that Madame Soufflé had produced the better mustard.   Armed with this disheartening knowledge, Madame Dupres went into a frenzy of activity, she collected all the spices she could find, taking no heed of what they were or where they had come from, she had mounds of them along with salt, mustard seeds, sugar and gallons and flagons of verjuice and even vinegar.  Her home vanished within a spicy, scented haze of smoke as she pummelled, pounded, ground and stirred, faster and faster in a feverish, tunnelled vision of mustard perfection.

The explosion was not loud, a gentle puff that sent a small rumble through the streets of the entire village.

The villagers slowly emerged from their homes, choking and spluttering on the sickening scent and cloying dust of powdered mustard seeds and other untold spices, every building was frosted with spice and there was no roof on the Dupres inn.

They cautiously approached the inn and peeped into the now windowless kitchen, staring in horror at Madame Dupres, unmoving, a bowl of mustard still in her arms, the wooden spoon stuck forever in a static stir, her head nowhere to be seen.

It took several days to find Madame Dupres head bobbing along in the river, the obsession and passion still visible on her face.  Monsieur Dupres gently lifted her head from the river and placed it with her body in the family tomb, along with her favourite painted mustard jar, he would move away from the village soon after, to live a quiet mustard free life with his children and their children.  Madame Soufflé attended the funeral of course, effecting the perfect posture of humility and shame, she bowed her head and sympathised with the Dupres family whilst she quietly delighted in the demise of Madame Dupres, she could barely contain herself as excitement wound its way through her entire body, she was very much looking forward to reaping the rewards of creating the perfect ‘Dijon’ mustard.

As it turned out, the ladies, being so eager to out-do each other, had totally forgotten about Monsieur Naigeon who had been quietly perfecting an altogether different and unique mustard recipe, with the inspired addition of vinegar instead of verjuice (Madame Dupres was on to something after all).  The judges were unanimous in their verdict that his mustard was perfection and it was crowned ‘Dijon’ mustard for eternity.

Madame Soufflé accepted defeat with grace and upon tasting Monsieur Naigeons mustard was unable to criticise it in any way.  She went back to baking bread with her husband, her face slowly plumping, her curls regaining their bounce and her smile broadening, the memory of mustard making grew dim and eventually faded by the end of her long, contented life.

Monsieur Jean Naigeon began to produce the Dijon mustard which is now famous the world over, his name is on each jar to this day, deservedly so, don’t you agree?

That unusually named river, whose hypnotic, rythmic ripples serenaded us as we sat and listened to Gerards improbable, terrible, unbelievable tale, was ‘La femme sans tête’, named for her in 1753.  Should you decide to take a road trip through France and find yourself meandering along the E17, be sure to look out for it and whisper hello to the mustardly mad, marvellous, passionate, headless, Madame Dupres…

 

 

 

The Grotto – Part Three

And so began Emelines adventure, the two days wait seemed endless but Friday dawned and she was up, dressed and doing her chores before her mother left the house.  Her mother looked at her curiously ‘why so eager?’ she asked, Emeline stopped abruptly in her tracks, she needed to calm down to put off any suspicion, she shrugged and mumbled that the seagulls had woken her and she couldn’t get back to sleep, breathing a little sigh of relief as her mother nodded in understanding and set off for the market.

Emeline finished her chores and studies in lightning time and headed downstairs.  Happy and excited to see the light glowing in the room at the end of the tunnel, she ran to meet her new friends.  They were busy sticking shells to the walls but stopped when she arrived and they all sat down on the wonderfully springy, seaweed floor.

Emeline looked at them all expectantly, bursting to hear their story, to know who they were and why they were sticking shells on walls, in tunnels, underneath her house!

Marilla began to speak, ‘We didn’t plan to come here, there are many portals from the sea to the earth, we were travelling some time ago, entered a portal and it just happened to be underneath your home’ she spread her arms with a broad smile.  ‘The walls already had lots of shells on them when we arrived here and like you, we became fascinated by them, we could see that the shells had been placed by fellow travellers, as they tell the stories of many places that we had visited. The walls inspired us to add our stories and we’ve been coming back ever since, to add our shells to the walls, to make a lasting picture of the worlds we have seen’.  Emeline looked down at their legs dubiously and they all laughed ‘some things we can’t explain, all we know is that we enter the portal with tails and fins, enter your world with legs and when we return, we have tails again!’.

They walked back down the passage and turned to enter the other half of the circle where Emeline had entered ‘we call this The Rotunda because it reminds us of a circular temple we saw in Italy’, Emeline looked at them quizzically, they told her where Italy was and from that day began to explain the vastness of the world to her.  They took her to each of the panels of shells already on the walls and explained what they meant.  One they called Ares, ‘Ares is a Greek God’ they told her, after they had explained where Greece was!  She sat, enthralled, as they pointed out the symbols and patterns the shells made on the panel and told her all about the Gods and Goddesses of Greece and Rome and described Ares as the God of War, son of Zeus and Hera, that he was violent and wild and hated by the other Gods, even by his parents.  She was amazed when they told her that one of his many children, called Eros, was the God of Love and that he had many human children too, as did many of the Gods.

Emeline was so engrossed in the stories that she didn’t notice the time speeding past but her new friends didn’t forget and assured her, as they made her leave, that they would be there when she came back ‘but how will you know I’m coming?’ she asked ‘we’ll know’ they replied and somehow Emeline knew that they would.

Sometimes the days between visits were wretched for Emeline, she was tense with excitement and trepidation and increasingly bored with chores, studies and her everyday life.  She could barely wait to hear more stories of other lands, she had learned so much about the her world and the worlds beyond, the different people, their Gods and their customs.  She yearned to join her friends on their travels but tried to content herself with listening to their stories and helping them add the shells to the walls, she felt that in a small way she was journeying with them.  It was difficult for her to stop herself from regaling her mother with the tales but she daren’t, her mother would think her ridiculous! Besides, Kenn had warned her of the dangers of speaking about the grotto and the existence of the Fay, as many humans wouldn’t understand and their fear might cause them to destroy the grotto.

Time passed, both quickly and yet, for Emeline at times, excruciatingly slowly.  Emeline, Kenn, Marilla and Gal grew together and became the closest friends, her life with her mother continued its slow, predictable pace of work, chores and studies and she sometimes wondered how she would survive without her secret life of faraway lands, ancient tales of Gods and Goddesses and the knowledge of worlds and cultures so far away from her own that even to her it would seem impossible if the Fay were not in her life.  The Fay continued their travels and returned to Emeline and the grotto to record their travels and adventures, they would tell Emeline about everything they had seen and together they would re-create the mysteries of the world with the shells.

They slowly filled the walls, they filled the walls of the Portal Chamber first and formed an altar where they left gifts for all of the Gods and Goddesses, one of Emelines much-loved pictures was there, it was the first she had helped to create, the Tree of Life, it symbolised life, ancestry, mythology, wisdom, lessons of the spirit, hope for the future and most importantly to Emeline, with her newly found knowledge and friends, that all life is connected.  It was this picture that not only connected her to this new world but also connected the whole grotto.

From the Portal Chamber they worked their way down what they named the Passage of the Serpent, as it winded along like the snake, each picture forming symbols from all of the cultures the Fay had seen.  As they placed the shells, they told her the stories, of The Fleur de Lys symbolizing perfection and light of life, of the Greek God Perseus the slayer of monsters, of Isis the Egyptian, Great Divine Mother and holder of eternal life and of Emelines favourite, Ganesha, the elephant headed God, remover of obstacles and ignorance, the god keeping balance among all of the worlds. They told her of Egypt, Samaria, Greece, Rome, India; of Buddhism, Hinduism, Mythology, Christianity and she learned that all the beliefs led to the same thing, life, love and hope for the future.

Emelines biggest hope for the future was to join her friends on their travels, they urged her to sit in front of the Tortoise and meditate on her dream, she did so often as they’d taught her that the Tortoise was the spirit animal of waiting and vision and would encourage her to wait with tranquil patience for her dreams to become reality.

When she wasn’t down in the grotto she was distracted, almost in a dream, she would become lost in time as she sat for hours, watching the sea in the summer or suddenly stop, staring into the sky in the middle of sowing in the Spring or simply staring into the flames of the winter fire; in this way, the seasons and the years passed.

Emeline felt her mothers worried gaze and also the guilt for the pain and distress she knew that she was causing her.  Her mother tried to get Emeline involved with village life, she took her to the village fayres and to visit neighbours with children her own age but Emeline knew that she would never belong to that small world and as she grew older she became more and more reclusive.  Ultimately, the neighbours couldn’t understand her and thinking her a little mad, they kept their distance.

As she grew, so the walls of the grotto filled with love, life, wisdom and hope.  Outside of the grotto, in what she now thought of as the dream world, life wasn’t easy.  Her mother didn’t understand her and became resentful and angry as she saw her daughter draw away from her, when cajoling and questioning didn’t work, she shouted and attempted to force Emeline to become the daughter she wanted, knowing it was futile.  They were both terribly unhappy and Emeline felt the heavy burden of guilt, for causing her mother so much sadness.

As her sixteenth birthday was nearing, her mother told her that she would be taking over the job of going to the weekly market.  Emeline was distraught, she begged her mother to reconsider, she said she would join in with the neighbours, she would do anything her mother asked and pleaded with her to let her stay at home to work the land and keep the house in order.  She told the Fay when she next went down, expecting them to be as scared as she was but they remained calm, as always and reassured her that all would end as it should and, as always, she accepted and trusted their words.

Her mother relented, Emeline did as her mother asked, she changed her ways and became friendly to the neighbours, she accompanied her mother to the church, smiled and nodded when she was expected to and as the months passed, they settled into a contented pattern.  Confident that she was making her mother happy, Emeline carried on with her secret life, with weekly visits to the grotto, enjoying the company and love of her friends, listening to the tales, meditating and feeling freedom and true happiness.

Perhaps she became too confident, complacent even, for when she came up from the grotto several months later, to find her mother waiting in the cellar, she was dumbstruck and rigid with shock and fear.  Her mother sat, silent tears pouring down her face, it was as if she didn’t even see Emeline.  She waited for her mother to speak.  ‘When did you find it?’ she asked, Emeline was astounded, her mother knew about it?  She was confused, trying to understand how that could be.  ‘Deep down, I think I always knew’ she said ‘how old were you? Eight? Nine?’  Emeline stared at her incredulously ‘Eight, how did you know?’  her mother replied that she first started to notice small changes in Emeline from the age of eight but she’d pushed the thought away, told herself it wasn’t possible, she didn’t want it to be true and so convinced herself that it wasn’t.  Emeline stood, speechless.

Her mother broke the silence ‘I was eighteen’ she looked towards the tunnel entrance ‘when I discovered that place’.  ‘There was no house here then, I was roaming the land, picking blackberries when I fell down, it was as if the hole appeared by magic, I think I hit my head for I slept and when I woke, a young man was standing over me, dazzling, smiling, he lifted me to my feet and showed me what he was doing, placing shells on the walls under the ground, making beautiful pictures’.  ‘I began to visit him whenever I could and of course’ she raised her eyebrows and smiled sadly  ‘we fell in love’,  ‘he wanted me to go with him, to his world and others he said, but I was afraid and so he gave up his wandering existence to be with me, we pretended he was a sailor who decided to leave the sea to marry me, we built this house and made our living selling the crops from our land and fish from the sea’.  ‘We were happy for several years’ she paused ‘but he became restless, as a sailor might! He yearned for travel, adventure and what he called enlightenment, he became sad and it was harder and harder for me to make him smile.  Eventually I realised he had to go back, he pleaded with me to go with him but I knew that just as he was unhappy here on this earth, I would become unhappy in his world, we were both heartbroken but we knew it was the only way for us to both find happiness again’.   It was Emelines turn to shed silent tears ‘I told those that asked that he had returned to sea, people understood, the call of the sea is difficult for a sailor to resist. A few months after he left, I realised I was carrying a child’ she looked pointedly at Emeline ‘I was happy, I felt it was a gift, I would always have something of him with me’.  ‘I boarded up the tunnel and by the time you were born I’d forgotten about it’.

Slowly the significance of what her mother had said dawned on Emeline, she finally understood why she had always felt the pull of the unknown, had felt that faery tales were real and she realised that stumbling upon the tunnel hadn’t been an accident, she belonged to that world as much as she belonged to this one,  she was part Fay.

Her mother looked at her mournfully ‘you’re going aren’t you’.  Emeline was torn, she loved her mother and this knowledge only increased that love but her dream still lived, she had to go, she nodded and her mother attempted a smile ‘you won’t forget me?’ in answer she threw her arms around her mother and held her tight, knowing it was the last time they would hold each other and then turned and made her way into the grotto.  She walked to the Portal chamber, breathing deeply, trying to calm her pounding heart, Kenn, Gal and Marilla were waiting for her, the portal open.  She smiled broadly as they took her hand and stepped in.

Once more the tunnel was boarded over, this time, in the hopes of never being discovered again, the floor to the cellar was completely covered with a mixture of lime and water and left to harden.  Emelines mother left the house and never returned, others came and went, at times the house was lived in, sometimes it was left empty for years, it underwent many changes but the grotto was never discovered.  As the years passed, more and more houses were built around it until it eventually became part of the town called Margate.

In 1832 James Newlove bought the house and set to modernising it, after demolishing the cellar floor, his son was exploring and came across the grotto.  Whilst the shells had dulled over the centuries, its magnificence still shone through and it was an incredible, mysterious discovery.  James Newlove felt that such a wonder should be shared and so it became a beautiful, fascinating tourist attraction, of which part of the fun was, and is to this day, trying to work out how it got there…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A distinct lack of character

That’s me folks, totally lacking in character!  I would like nothing more than to be disciplined and focused at all times.  Oh who am I kidding? no I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t be me if I were that predictable and I think, even with my prevailing lack of character, I’m actually ok!

However, it is this lack of discipline and focus that makes writing incredibly challenging for me.  If I don’t get on and finish something straight away, I get distracted, I’d like to tell you that I get distracted by very important things but it’s more likely to be a seriously good book or Netflix series!  After becoming distracted I lose focus which leads to losing interest and more often than not I end up putting the project aside and conveniently forgetting about it.

The Grotto almost ended up in that Black Hole of unfinished projects and brilliant ideas but how could I do that this time?  I’d put it on the internet! Goodness, the pressure! I had to finish it or else all those that had started to read it would see my lack of character 🙂  So, with maximum effort on my part I’ve done it, thank goodness for the willpower which made me sit here all weekend and get it finished.

I hope all of you that read it, enjoy it and I thank you so much for taking the time and for your support.

I can’t promise to be consistent with this writing lark! but I’ll do my very best and I will always get there in the end.

 

The Grotto – Part Two

She froze, staring unblinking into the tunnel, unsure if her imagination was playing tricks on her.  She didn’t know if it had been seconds, minutes or hours when she became aware of the boy, unmoving, staring straight back at her.  Her head was yelling run! But she found herself rooted to the spot as the boy slowly began to walk towards her.  As he approached her his curious frown turned to a smile and his dazzling green eyes shone, she was mesmerised by him and realised she was not only unafraid but was smiling back.

He held out his hand and she took it, feeling inexplicably happy and excited as they walked back down the tunnel together.

It was a short journey through the small tunnel but when they reached the end she found herself in another world.  The room was filled with a soft, orange light, glowing from huge shells placed around the seaweed covered floor and all four walls of the room they had entered were shimmering with thousands upon thousands of shells.  Two more children looked up from where they were placing shells on the wall, another boy and a girl, they beamed at her, jumped up and held out their arms to welcome her but Emeline was transfixed by the walls, covered in a myriad of shells.

The other children waited patiently as Emeline stood mesmerised, her eyes wandering slowly over each of the walls, almost completely covered with shells of different shapes, sizes and colours, she could see blue black mussel shells, ivory, pale brown and pink cockle shells, dainty whelks with orange, brown, purple and white stripes, their spires pointing a little scarily from the walls, there were larger shells, oysters, some grey and white, others with black, pink and purple patches and there were many others which she didn’t recognise at all.  She noticed that some were placed with the surface of the shell outward whilst others were placed to expose the shiny, white, iridescent interiors, the effect was a beautiful, shimmering, multi coloured room that seemed to be rippling with ever changing light and colour.  One of the walls had a smaller wall coming from it, forming a shelf for the strangest plants and huge shells, the likes of which she had never seen.

No-one had spoken.  Emeline turned to the children and looked at them quizzically, she was afraid to speak, she didn’t know if these other children could speak, were they even real?  As they all stood staring at each other, she tentatively asked, ‘what is this place’ and ‘who are you?’ The children smiled at Emeline and at each other and finally, the boy that had taken her hand spoke, ‘this place is our story’ he said ‘and we’re from the sea’.  ‘Mermaids!’ she exclaimed.  They all laughed and replied that yes, that was one name they had been given.  She looked down at their legs and raised her eyebrows dubiously.  ‘There is so much for you to discover’ they told her, ‘if you are ready and want to know?’  She hesitated, it was almost too much to take in and she still wasn’t convinced that she wasn’t dreaming, she closed her eyes and gave herself a good, hard pinch, when she opened her eyes to the glimmering room and the kind gazes of the three children she nodded, yes, she was ready.

The boy that had spoken told her his name was Bo, the other boy was called Gal and the girl was called Marilla and that yes, they were called mermaids by some but they were known by many names across the world, sirens, enchanters, nisse, water nymph, he said that they were actually fay,  just as there were fay on the earth, there were fay in the seas and oceans.  ‘Fay?’ Emeline asked, ‘faerie’ he said, with a smile and shrug of his shoulders, guessing that Emeline wouldn’t believe in faeries.  Emeline laughed aloud and told them how delighted she was, she’d always suspected that faeries were real and had never understood why her mother had insisted that they were just stories, legends and myths; but even as she said it she realised that she wouldn’t be able to tell her mother the truth of it.  She was about to tell them her name when Marilla said ‘we are so happy to meet you Emeline’, she closed her mouth abruptly and sank down onto the spongy, seaweed covered floor, shaking her head in bemused disbelief.

Emeline wanted to stay and talk, to know everything about them and what they were doing but much time had passed and the children urged her to go back upstairs before her mother returned, they told her that there would be time enough to learn everything but she needed to be cautious. The words didn’t need to be spoken for her to understand the necessity for secrecy and so they said their goodbyes and made plans for her next visit.

Her chores and studies done, Emeline was calmly preparing supper when her mother arrived home, as her mother asked about her day, her heart thumped as she told her it had been as dull as usual, her mother smiled and said ‘dull is painless Emeline, be happy for it’ she gave her mother a big smile and replied ‘Oh, I am!’

 

 

The Grotto part one

Emeline was 8 years old when she found the entrance to the tunnel.  The frosts had ended and her mother was ploughing the field, preparing for the sowing.  She was supposed to be learning her letters but feeling hungry and more than a little bored, she’d sneaked down into the cellar to find the apples, ‘mother wouldn’t notice one missing apple’ came the hopeful thought as she climbed up onto a chair and took the cellar key from the huge shell on the kitchen shelf.

The darkness overwhelmed her as she made her way down the wobbly, wooden steps and she almost turned back for fear of cellar monsters, bats and giant spiders but the gnawing in her tummy and the thrill of adventure, urged her onwards.  Emeline uneasily felt for each step, blinking rapidly in an attempt to adjust her eyes to the light; it seemed to take forever and just as she thought she could make out the cellar floor, she lost her footing and went tumbling down.

She lay there for a while, unsure what to do, she couldn’t cry out, her mother wouldn’t hear and even if she did, she would be furious that Emeline had gone into the cellar!  She sat up, and wiggling her arms and legs, thanked the Gods that she was unhurt.  She looked around in the darkness, she could barely make out her own hand in front of her face, let alone find the baskets of apples but she had come this far and decided to carry on.  She stood up and began blinking again, counting on the trick she’d learned when she woke in the night, to help her see into the darkness.  She could just make out the rows of shelves at the back of the cellar and went in search of apples.  The shelves were high and of course the boxes of apples were on the top shelf!  Being a confident climber, she proceeded up the shelves, she was half way up when she felt the shelves wobble and shake, beginning to come away from the wall. She swiftly jumped back off, landing with a thump on her back ‘this is not going well’ she thought as she lay back, considering what to do next.

As she lay there thinking, flicking the sawdust on the floor, her fingers came across a metal ring, in a hole in the ground.  Curious, she attempted to pick up the ring but it dragged her hand down as it was stuck to the floor, she tried again and pulled as hard as she could, whereupon the floor began to lift with it, startled, she quickly put it down.  At this point she had forgotten about the apples, intrigued by what could only be a trap door, she needed to investigate.  It was stiff and heavy but she was determined to see what was under there, she half stood and pulled with all of her strength; finally, there was a loud crack and the trap door jumped back and whacked her in the face, she yelped and fell back onto the wall.  She waited in a quiet panic, her mother must have heard, she was going to be in deep trouble.  Nobody came.

With the divided feelings of satisfaction and dread, she looked down into the deep hole she’d discovered.  She saw steps going down and frowned ‘a cellar beneath a cellar?’   It was pitch black and although she was afraid to go down, she really wanted to know what was down there ‘Is mother a smuggler?’ she thought, ‘how exciting!’

Emeline heard footsteps pacing the floor upstairs and realised she had been down there far too long, her mother was back from the fields.  She quietly replaced the trap door, brushed herself down, sneaked up the stairs, out of the back door and into the yard, after a few minutes she casually sauntered in, as if from a visit to the outhouse.

As Emeline laid down to sleep that night, she couldn’t get the image of the steps under the cellar out of her mind, she had to know what was down there. But it would be several days before she could investigate, her only days for secret adventures were Tuesdays and Fridays, when her mother worked the markets.

Tuesday came, Emeline was up with the larks and her mother, she counted down the minutes in her head as her mother listed the chores for the day, almost wanting to push her mother out of the door in her excitement.  Once she felt the coast was clear, she climbed the chair and released her tightly held breath of apprehension as she grabbed the key from the shell.  Her heart was pounding as she unlocked the cellar door, lit a candle and made her way down to the unknown.

She squatted down and with all of her strength, pulled open the trap door.  With just a little trepidation, she made her way down the steps and found herself in a tunnel, she looked both ways uncertainly, thought ‘eeny, meeny, miney mo’ and turned left.  The tunnel had rough walls, it wasn’t much wider than she was and it had an arched ceiling which she couldn’t reach, she felt as though she were walking in a circle.  The thought came to her that she might be in a giant mole hole and just as was about to turn and run back up the stairs, she noticed that she had reached another tunnel, leading away from the circle.  She stopped at the opening to the new tunnel, her breath catching in her throat as she saw a flicker of light and shadow at the end…

 

 

 

 

 

The Marvelous, Mysterious, Margate Shell Grotto

My friend Mel and I quite recently visited the incredible shell grotto in the centre of Margate, Kent.  With around 4.6 million shells set into walls of deep, underground tunnels, it is truly magnificent and awe inspiring.  It was stumbled across in 1832 when James Newlove, the new owner of the cottage above the tunnels, began renovations, it was excavated and became a tourist attraction.  There are all sorts of theories regarding its conception but nobody knows for sure, it is a mystery…or is it?

A New Life Part Four

She loved her new home, she even loved the sunken, avocado bath with the red curtain surrounding it (although she wouldn’t say no when her dad offered to put in a shiny, new white suite!)

They had a wonderful first summer home, slowly re-adjusting to the British confusion of sun and rain, they were relaxed and in high spirits, spending their time catching up with family and old friends and sitting in the garden with Theo and her hippies, resolving the worlds problems with lively debates.  Theo was clearly happy to have them home but their relationship was fragile, she had allowed the sixteen year old Theo to decide where she wanted to live but she realised now that it had been a mistake to accept her decision without question.  She had been foolish and selfish, she wanted to move away and so convinced herself that Theo would be happy.  She watched her vulnerable daughter, desperately trying to be cheerful and hide the resentment and anger that she was feeling. She knew that there would be attacks and recriminations ahead, she was ready to take it and she hoped that her explanations and apologies would be enough to earn Theos forgiveness.  It appeared to her that Livvy and Jake had never been away, they settled so swiftly into UK life.

She went back to working with her dad but was forced to abandon her ‘Luddite’ nature when she found that he had been brought into the 21st Century with a computerised system (which, once learned, she grudgingly admitted was much quicker and easier, and she even enjoyed using it).  It felt good to be working again, to feel useful; and having her own money, she was back in control of her life.

She was certainly happier but she couldn’t pretend that her life was perfect.  She’d been away for four years and it wasn’t just the office system that had changed.  She found that relationships between her friends had also changed, with each other and towards her.  Some of her closest friends had now become part of a clique that she didn’t feel a part of, she tried to ignore the feeling that she wasn’t wanted, it was too much to bear after four years of being an outsider, the thought that it could be happening again, with her best friends, was intolerable.  The same friends that had spent the last four years holidaying with her, enjoying the sun, sea and her hospitality were now uncomfortable inviting her to their homes, she tried to tell herself that she was being paranoid, she needed time to adjust, things change and move and and she had to move with them…

Branka came to visit, it was perplexing to realise that she now felt more at ease with her than with some of her oldest friends.  She arranged to go for dinner with Marie and Jane, Branka had met them several times, she was sure they would have fun ‘like old times’ came the naive thought.  Branka regarded the discomfort of the three friends, her lack of English couldn’t obscure the awkwardness.  Marie and Jane spoke about a birthday dinner they’d booked, ‘thanks for the invite’ she joked, Marie looked her in the eye and said ‘it’s a couples evening’.  She was gobsmacked, she blinked and floundered and finally answered ‘does that mean I won’t be invited to anything now?’ they both laughed and told her not to be silly, Jane then joked ‘actually no, you won’t, in case you try and steal our husbands’.  ‘I’ve just got rid of one twat’ she thought ‘why would I want either of yours?’ but she laughed along, not that belly laughter she craved but the polite, ‘keep it civilised’ laughter that she hated.  They said their goodbyes and Branka turned to her and said with regret ‘with friends like that, I don’t think this is going to be so easy for you’ and she knew that she was right.

The children started their new, international school, it was strange for them to be back in uniform, they did miss being able to chuck their jeans on and go.  Jake had hoped that he wouldn’t have to go to school anymore once he had moved back, but once over the disappointment he soon settled and made friends.  Livvy, as always, adapted very quickly, made fast friends and got her social life in an immediate whirl.  As she’d expected, Theo began to show her anger, she would go out drinking and then come home in a rage, condemning her for leaving, accusing her of being a terrible mother for abandoning her.  She took it, time after time but eventually, after continual explanations and apologies she had to say ‘enough, forgive me or forget me, I can’t change what I’ve done, I can only be the best I can be from now’.  She was thankful that Theo didn’t want to forget her, her love outweighed the anger and they slowly began to rebuild the closeness they had always shared.

Drago had become an oppressive shadow in their lives, he began bullying the children, forcing them to visit him, he gave them no choice and when they visited him, he left them with his equally bullying parents.  They didn’t want to go but initially, she still felt guilty as he constantly reminded her that ‘she had taken his children from him’, so she made them go.  All of her attempts to reason with him, asking him to listen to the children, to let them make their own decisions, were met with derision, ‘they have no choice’ he said ‘they will do what I say’.  It came down to money in the end, he paid a pitiful maintenance for a few months and then stopped, she became exhausted, sending unanswered emails practically begging for money and was reduced to threatening not to send the kids over to see him if he didn’t help them financially.  He responded in the expected way, threatening courts and lawyers ‘they had to visit him, it was his right’, with no mention of the money that he didn’t send.  Ultimately, it was taken out of her hands when the children told him themselves that they would be deciding when they saw him, she knew that it was the beginning of him losing them and that he would blame her for it, but she was past caring, her conscience was clear and she just felt pity for him.

She began to truly live again, her loneliness was gone, there was joy and laughter in her life, she slowly became strong again, she removed herself from Marie and Janes lives, she felt no anger or malice towards them but she couldn’t disrespect herself by trying to be friends with people that had no place for her in their lives.  She immersed herself in life, taking pleasure in everything her home had to offer, both the art and culture and the immense diversity of the people she was surrounded by.  She made new friends and enjoyed the company of the old friends still in her life. She grieved, for her marriage, for wasted years and for lost friends but as time passed, the sadness slowly melted away and she was content.

One year later.  She sat on her rickety garden step, sipping her coffee, listening to Theo, Livvy and Jake roaring with laughter at some silliness, she looked down at her considerably deflated stomach and smiled.

A New Life – Part Three or Planes, Trains and Automobiles

‘Thanks so much Felix, don’t wait, we’ll be fine from here’ she said to her soon to be ex brother in law as they pulled into Treviso Airport.

They walked into chaos, hundreds of people crowded into the tiny Treviso Departures ‘what’s going on’ she asked the furiously frazzled businessman standing at the end of the queue she’d joined.  ‘There are no planes going anywhere’ he ranted ‘There’s been bomb scares on planes, something to do with bottled water! It’s just utter confusion!’  She looked around at the angry, buzzing crowd and her mind went into overdrive ‘I have to get home’ she thought ‘what to do, what to do?’  She grabbed the bags and the kids and headed for the taxi rank ‘Venice Airport’ she told the driver.  The arrived twenty minutes later and headed straight to the ticket desk, her hesitant query of ‘are there any flights to the UK’ receiving the expected ‘sorry, no’.  She noticed a flight to Paris showing on the board and felt the lightbulb ding above her head as she thought ‘Eurostar!’ feeling a glimmer of hope, she asked ‘Can you get us on that flight to Paris?’ ‘Yes, we have three seats available, the cost will be one thousand euro’.  ‘Shit’ she thought, ‘a thousand euro for flights and then the Eurostar, how am I going to do this?’  She opened her purse and fingered the ’emergency’ credit card her dad had given her, ‘this definitely classes as an emergency’ she thought ‘now to convince this girl to let me use it!’  She didn’t know if it was the desperation in her eyes or the pleading looks from her pretty children but her luck was in and the girl put her hesitation aside and let her use the card.  Four hours later they were on the Metro, heading for Gare du Nord and train tickets home.  Once again they were greeted with endless queues ‘seems all the Brits had the same idea’ she grumbled to the kids ‘well, we’ve got this far, let’s wait it out and get on a train’.  They waited for what seemed an eternity and eventually got to a ticket booth, ‘three tickets for any time today please’ she said ‘I’m very sorry Madame but we have no tickets for today, the earliest train you can get is at 3pm tomorrow’ he blushed as he continued ‘this is on fold down seats and the price will be the same as for the regular seats’.  She raised her eyebrows, as much of a protest as she could muster at this point and handed over a bundle of her dwindling cash ‘let’s go find a hotel’ she said to the kids.  They walked across to the Hotel Terminus Nord and couldn’t believe their luck as the receptionist sold them the last available room, she did a mental fist pump as she gave the couple behind her an apologetic look.  ‘We did it!’ she screeched as they fell on their beds, convulsed with exhausted laughter and relief.

She woke early the next morning, unable to keep the smile from her face as she reflected on the craziness of the last twenty four hours.  She thought about how she had sat back for the last fifteen years and let Drago handle all of their travelling, allowing him to convince her that she was too scatty to organise pretty much anything and ultimately destroying any faith she had in herself.  She called Theo, at university in Canterbury, and arranged for her to collect them from Ashford, they could all go home together.  The kids woke up and they continued their mini adventure, indulging her sons fascination with the Da Vinci Code, they set off for the Louvre.  Their Eurostar experience wasn’t the most relaxed, fold down seats not being too comfortable but she convinced the kids it was all part of the adventure, as she shifted her aching bottom every ten minutes.  They trudged out to the car park at Ashford and there was Theo in her beat up little Peugot, stuffed to the brim with Hippies and guitars ‘you don’t mind if Simon and Gabe join us do you mum?’ her eldest daughter chirped.

She took a deep breath as they squeezed themselves and their bags into the car, she wanted to scream but she had a lot of making up to do with Theo and she knew that this would be the first of many tests.

As she drifted off to the gentle guitar strumming from the Living Room, she felt her body releasing the last four years of tension and loneliness, the journey home had filled her with a sense of her own power and she felt a renewed confidence, she was looking forward to tomorrow…

A New Life – Part Two

It got mixed reviews.

She tested the waters with Drago, tried subtle hints to see if it would open him up to going back to the UK.  She should have known better, it would take a lot more to blast through that thick skin and arrogance.  After several weeks of  dropping ‘I really miss that about England’ or ‘that wouldn’t happen in England’ or less subtly ‘I hate this fucking place!’ into practically every conversation, she finally said it ‘I want to go home’.  He laughed at her as he walked out of the door, cock sure that it was never going to happen.

‘If you had the choice’ she asked her son ‘where would you live?’ his reply was a vehement ‘this is a disaster mum! why did you bring us here?’ ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time’ she replied sheepishly, her daughter, a little less dramatically replied ‘England, Mum’.  ‘Phew’ she thought ‘he’s outnumbered, he’ll have to agree’.  But no ‘the children don’t know what they want’ he said ‘and neither do you’.

She called her mum, idly chit chatted and then casually dropped the bombshell ‘mum, I hate it here, I really want to come home’.  Silence for a few moments and then nervous laughter ‘I can’t believe it! Really? You were so sure! I thought you were happy there?’  A barrage of questions and finally. ‘What about Drago?’  ‘I’m not too sure what he thinks, we’ve barely said two words to each other since I told him, I’m guessing he’s pissed off!’ she replied with a giggle, already feeling better now that the words were out and they were laughing their way through them.  Then she heard the only question she needed ‘What can we do?’

She told the two friends she had made that she’d decided to go home, she saw the sadness in their eyes, they would miss her and she realised with a jolt that she would miss them too, but they agreed it was the right thing, they had never understood why  she had left England to live there in the first place.  She told her English friends that she was coming home, expecting excited whoops (or at least a yay!) it was a little unsettling when some of her closest friends didn’t appear too entrhralled at the idea but she pushed the uneasy feeling aside, she was surely imagining it.

She took a trip home and started house hunting, with no money, no job and no idea if her husband would be coming back with them. The one thing she did have was the unquestioning support of her family, there were no judgements, just a simple ‘are you sure?’ her yes was all it took, they helped her to find a house, a school and her father assured her there was a job waiting for her in the family business, she knew how lucky she was, she dreaded to think what would have happened without the good fortune of having a loving, generous family.  ‘Imagine being stuck in a foreign land, no friends, no family, no money and no way out’ she thought.

It took just a week to find the perfect house, the owners shared her maiden name, the wife was an artist and there was a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone by their bed!  ‘This is meant to be my house’ she thought, smiling down at the book.  She thought that this could finally convince Drago that it was the right thing to do, he couldn’t possibly refuse to come back now; but as she watched her father sign on the dotted line, the niggling doubt was in her mind and she tried to block the hopeful thought that he wouldn’t come with them ‘he is the father of my children’ she thought guiltily

Arguing is destructive and stressful, being completely ignored is almost torture.  He wouldn’t talk to her.  Every time she mentioned moving back, the new house, how great the school was, he just sat there in angry silence, in complete denial, it was as if he felt that if he didn’t talk about it, it wouldn’t happen and then he would go out, again.

It had been two years since that dawning of realisation on the patio, two years of anger, fear, sadness and loneliness, sipping her stress away with grappa at the computer every afternoon; two years of painstaking planning and trying to convince Drago to go back with them, and now the date was set, they were flying home on 10th August, with or without him.  He was still non-committal, trying to pull her strings and control the situation, thinking that she’d back down for the sake of the family, he didn’t understand that he wasn’t a part of the family anymore, his misguided sense of self importance had blinded him to the fact that none of his family wanted to be around him and he was unable to believe that his wife and children didn’t want to live with him in ‘Paradise’.

Her brother arrived, the man with a van, and helped her load her meagre belongings, she decided to leave most of it behind, just taking their clothes, photos, books and a gorgeous old table that her friend Branka had given her.  ‘I don’t need any of this stuff’ she thought, as she looked  around the house ‘let him have it, it’s clearly more important to him than having a family’.  She tried one last time to talk to Drago, still hoping that he might open his eyes to her unhappiness and come to her rescue ‘I watch too many rom coms’ she thought with a smile.  They were strangers by now but she still didn’t have the strength to say the words to end it.  As she left to meet him, her wise daughter said ‘Mum, you need to divorce him, don’t worry about anything else’.  He grudgingly said that he would go back if he could find a job that paid enough.  She looked at him, wondering how it had taken her so long to see who he really was ‘don’t strain yourself Harry’ she thought, but she said ‘enough of this bullshit, we both know you aren’t coming back’ he smirked and said nothing.  After a while he managed to blurt out ‘if you turn my son against me I will take you to court’, she looked at him incredulously, and his daughter? ‘Balkan to the core’ she thought, she tried to tell him that he was doing a great job of that himself but he didn’t want to hear and so she sighed and as she thought ‘what an idiot’ she promised that she definitely wouldn’t turn his son against him.

The next morning, Drago thankfully absent, they waved her brother off in the van, stepped into her brother-in-law’s car and set off for Treviso Airport.