The crooks of my elbows were starting to ache. With the whole weight of his many years in my hands, Baxter suddenly seemed so much larger than he had in life. The sweat was starting to trickle down my face as I threw him up my arms a bit further. It helped for mere seconds before the aches began to set in and the salty sweat reached my mouth. Every step I took wasn’t bringing me any closer to the brown door with the black scorpion knocker. In fact, with ever forced footstep, the scorpion seemed to be mocking me and my lack of going to the gym. My breathe was starting to wheeze and the panic of having another attack was rising.
Finally I grabbed hold of his tail and swung hard, not able for more than one knock. The agonising seconds ticked by, my knees now shaking with Baxter’s weight until she finally opened the door. She being Dr Mabel Lillian Pickering, the most terrifying and yet fascinating woman I had ever seen. Her chestnut hair was tied in a top bun on the top of her head, with a net covering it in case a tiny felt the urge to escape her regimented styling which extended to her clothes. She was wearing a crisp, tailored white shirt with sensible black trousers but no shoes. Her toes were perfectly manicured though. With her curious grey eyes, that looked as if she could see the beginning of every goose bump now raised on my arms, she looked over Baxter nodding and sighing every now and then. My hands were now beginning to turn purple and I wanted to scream at her to hurry up before I dropped the big black lump on her toes.
"I will take him. I’ve never done a dog of this breed before so doubt it will be a challenge but I can’t resist that beautiful coat of his and that snout.”
She then made a noise, almost feline like, that rumbled from her throat. It was so sensual that it made me wonder what about her job was it that she enjoyed exactly and suddenly I wanted to run away with Baxter and just bury him in the back garden but the thought of never seeing him again made my stomach sink to its lowest depths so instead I held him out for her to take.
“Are you special? A woman of my size carrying a dog of that stature? No, No, No. Place him on the trolley and then you can leave.”
“Can’t I stay and watch?”
“Unless you are planning to sit in my workshop on a very cold stool for three weeks and not say a word then no, you cannot stay.”
“Three weeks? But I can’t be without Baxter for three weeks.”
“I don’t see how the alternative would be any better do you?”
A resigned sigh escaped from my lips as I tried not to let Baxter slump onto the trolley. A stream of sunshine danced across his fur as he lay there and brought me back to summers in the garden when he would have one of his afternoon naps right in the middle of the best sunny spot. I held back the tears as I said an awkward goodbye to Dr Pickering and bumbled out past her scorpion.
The house seemed so empty without him. There was lots of cleaning to be done but I couldn’t bear to take out the hoover in case she needed an extra hair or some saliva from his dog bowl so I just made a cup of tea and sat and waited. It would be great to have him back again. Coming home from work and just seeing his tongue wagging and his eyes popping out of his head with excitement. I closed my eyes smiling and drifted into dreams of being together again.
On the 21st day exactly the phone rang. It was her. He was ready. I had been sitting by the telephone with my coat already zipped so I left straight away trying not to walk too quickly so as to force another asthma attack. My feet, however, had other ideas and I was staring the scorpion in the face quicker than a flash. Three short raps and the door opened.
I followed her down an extremely beige corridor to a green back door which led out into her garden. For someone so clean cut and sharp, her garden was a mess. Wild flowers grew in a meandering waterfall of colours. Shrubs nestled together the whole length of the bright green lawn and there were even a few cherry blossoms shedding their petals giving the impression of a spring snowfall. There were no weeds or nettles anywhere though which made me think it was intentional.
“Your garden is beautiful.”
“Thank you. It was my husband’s pride and joy before he passed. I try to keep it how it liked it but I don’t seem to have the flare that he had. I always cut the lawn too short.”
“It looks wonderful to me.”
We had come to another door at the bottom of the garden. This was not protected by a scorpion but a butterfly. Inside the walls were covered with shelves and shelves of stuffed animals; hamsters, frogs, lizards, rabbits and even a regal looking cockatoo. There was a long wooden bench on one side of the room on which tools were lying about in a much organised, size related order. And in the middle of all this was Baxter. His tongue was hanging out and his eyes were bulging with excitement. He was back. He looked a lot cleaner than normal but he was back.
“It was quite difficult to get the eyes and tongue the way you wanted so I had to add some artificial bits to get it just right. Most people don’t mind that but if that makes you uncomfortable I will remove them.”
“No. No. He looks perfect.”
I looked up and she was smiling at me. It changed the entire shape of her face and she didn’t look quite so scary. In fact she looked like quite a nice person.
“Excellent. Do you need me to package him up?”
I refused. I couldn’t bear putting him in paper when he looked so lifelike. I wanted to hold him and let him see the world around him again. I picked him up in my arms and was surprised at how much lighter he felt. It made him feel alive again. The weight of death now left him. Dr Pickering escorted us back to the front door.
“I can’t thank you enough Dr Pickering.”
“You’re welcome. It is the biggest comfort to be able to keep a piece of those who have left us.”
I thought back to the wild garden struggling against the urge to be tamed and gave her a warm smile noting from now on to not judge others by the scorpions on their doors.
I’ve always wanted to write a novel but the problem is I can’t write. I second guess myself all the time, scrap every second sentence or re-write it seven times before scrapping it and eventually get to a plot point that I can’t figure my way out of and then I quit. There are hundreds of stories in several different notebooks all unfinished. But recently I was introduced to a new technique that seems to be freeing me of this meaning I’m making bigger steps with my writing than ever before and getting closer to finishing that all important first novel.
The technique is called Morning Pages and was introduced to me by the compelling Brian Astbury in his series of “Anyone can write” workshops. The idea is that you wake up first thing in the morning and before doing anything else you grab your notebook and pen and start writing non-stop for 45 minutes. No fixing bad spelling, poor grammar, re-reading sentences or adding in more descriptive words. No editing whatsoever.
It’s a wonderful technique and you’ll be surprised by what your imagination puts on the page and how good your grammar actually is when you don’t think about it. The problem is the morning. It’s difficult enough getting up at my normal time without allowing an extra 45 minted for this technique. So I have started doing it whenever I have free time. Twenty minutes here and fifteen minutes there and slowly but surely I have a whole story coming together. My head can’t get all the information on the page quick enough. And once you feel you’ve come to the end of a chapter then you can go back and take a look at it, scrap the sentences, fix the grammar, look at your description but its a lot more focused and just gets rid of all those road blocks I put up for myself.
Below is one of the first morning pages I ever wrote and has now actually developed into being the backstory of another character in another book so who knows where they will take you! Just try it!
Chapter One - The Pledge
Silent whispers danced across the walls as the echo of boots bounced off the tiled floor. His long cloak dragged behind him making him look like a peacock as he slowly came toward her. The Queen was waiting. What news had he for her today? He bowed down on one knee and the court went silent. It was as though their voices had been clipped away to some far off prison. His soft, rolling voice like a cats purr began to relay the story. The boy was doing much better now. His archery was improving and his scholarly knowledge was second to none. He still was not controlling his powers though. Squirrels lay dead and the gardens were full of scorched earth and singed trees. The stench of burning filled the air. The Queen felt a bubble of fear spread through her gut. The boy was almost of age and he had still such a long way to go. If he was put before the first challenge he would surely die.
“SILENCE!” She roared to the voices that had erupted around the room.
“Your Majesty, forgive me but I do think I can help.” A young girl with brown hair tied back in a bun with a plain face had stepped forward.
“Come forward.” The Queen hissed. The girl scurried over and took up her place on one knew. “Four years he has been working with the best Weavers from across the land. What makes you think that you can do any better?”
“Because I was like your son, I couldn’t control it. Not until the night before my first challenge. I know why he burns. Please Your Majesty, let me speak to him and if he doesn’t stop burning you can kill me. “
The voices around the room let out an inward breath. The Queen stared down at this girl, right into her hazel eyes. No lies lingered there but what if it was an elaborate scam? The Elders of the West had been rumbling lately and there had been talk of war. “Very well.“ stated the Queen, “You will have three days with him and if as the sun sets on the third day you have not stopped him, then the axe-man’s blade will be sharp and cold on your neck.”
Arabela was ecstatic. Finally she was out of her muddy cottage; away from her smothering brother and selfish mother. Now she was sitting in the Queens carriage trundling towards the young prince’s secret retreat. It wasn’t scaring her that she hadn’t the faintest idea how to help him. Ever since she was small she had been able to talk herself out of every scrape that she got herself into. This one should be no different.
Vast meadows stretched for miles out of the window of the carriages the road twisted on. The grey mountains in the West looked so small in the distance that it was hard to believe so many men had died trying to reach the summit. The carriage jolted and Arabela was flung forward, her head banging off the seat in front of her and her knees hitting the floor hard. The carriage door swung open and there were all the household staff staring at her.
“My ring fell!” she said with a smile as she pretended to twist it back on. “What a dignified way to meet you all!” she said with such a charming giggle that they all instantly warmed to her. The Duke who had met her in the court introduced her to the rest of the staff whose names she made sure never to forget. “And the prince?”
“He’s in his nursery – too afraid to come down in case he burns you.”
“Well then, let’s go to him!”
The secret cottage was grand for something that sounded so quaint. Mahogany wood panelled all the walls, on which hung beautiful, large paintings depicting the Hiacles wars of long ago and the conquering of the Bacoo. Up a spiral staircase, she was taken to a brown door with black hinges which spread out like fingers. The Duke rapped once on the door before entering. Arabela’s eyes went wide. Lining the walls were thousands of books from the floor to the ceiling, strewn across the room was every toy you could imagine, there were plush cushions of every imaginable colour adorning an opulent couch in the corner and there in the middle of it all was a young boy of eight years of age just sitting and staring at his hands.
“This is Arabela, Sebos. She has come to help you.”
The prince did not make a movement.
“Perhaps I should talk to him Duke?”
The Duke bowed his head to her and left the room. She looked at the boy before walking towards the bookshelves and reading all the spines. She went from shelf to shelf reading what each spine said. She was doing this for about twenty minutes before a small voice spoke and said “I thought you wanted to talk to me alone. “
“Oh I do!” she said, “But only when you want to talk to me too.”
“The maids tell me that you have given up your life to come here and help me. It won’t work.”
“Oh and why is that?”
“Because dozens have tried before and failed.”
“And what makes you think I’m like them?” She was now crouching in front of him. “Tell me, have they ever let a woman help you before? Have they ever let someone who wasn’t a Weaver? Someone without a furry beard and who doesn’t start every sentence with ‘Since Weaver times’?” The boy chuckled. “No? Well then, what makes you think that I can’t help?”
The boy’s face fell and he brought her to the window. He pulled back the curtains and there were the gardens but they were completely scorched. Trees were black as the night sky and smoke was still rising form the fallen branches. The glow of fire recently departed flickered on the ground and the bushes curled up in a brown mass of dryness.
“It’s getting worse.”
The Duke was leading her down the corridor to the right of the boy’s room.
“Your bags have been brought up already and there has been a supper placed in there for you but normally you will eat with us.” She nodded and they stopped outside another large brown door with hinge-like fingers. “Your challenge begins when the sun rises in the morning.” He handed her the key and marched away with his cloak swooshing behind him.
She went inside a much simpler room than the boys but grand compared to anywhere she had slept before. She sat down on the four poster bed and wept. The images of scorched earth and the fear of death in that little boy’s eyes. What had she done? What had she got herself into?
Homemade marshmallows are the BEST!! It’s like eating clouds. delicious, delicious clouds!
What You Need
455g granulated sugar
1 tbsp of liquid glucose
9 sheets of gelatine
2 Large egg whites
1 tsp vanilla extract
Oil, for greasing
Icing sugar, for dusting
Cornflour, for dusting
Equipment: Sugar thermometer, heavy based saucepan, metal or pyrex jug, baking tray and palette knife (or a spatula)
How to Make Them
1. Soak the gelatine in 140ml of cold water
2. Put the sugar, glucose and 200ml of water in a heavy based saucepan. Bring to the boil and continue cooking until it reaches 127°C/260°F.
3. Meanwhile, beat the egg whites until stiff
4. Once the syrup reaches the right temperature, carefully slide in the softened gelatine sheets and the water. The syrup will bubble up and can burn so be careful children! Pour the syrup into the jug.
5. Continue to beat the egg whites while pouring in the hot syrup from the jug. The mixture should have a shine to it and begin to thicken.
6. Add the vanilla extract (you can also add food colouring at this point if you want different colour marshmallows!) and continue whisking for 5-10 minutes until the mixture is thick enough to hold its shape on the whisk.
7. Lightly oil a shallow baking tray and dust it with sieved icing sugar and cornflour.
8. Spoon the mixture onto the baking tray and smooth it over with a palette knife.
9. Leave to set in the fridge for at least an hour - longer if you can resist the temptation!
10. Dust the work surface with more icing sugar and cornflour.
11. Loosen the marshmallow from the tray with the palette knife onto the dusted surface.
12. Cut into squares with a wetted palette knife and roll in icing sugar and cornflour.
13. Leave to dry a little on a wire rack and then pop into an airtight container or your mouth!
Pre-heat the oven to 180oC/Fan 1600C/Gas 4. Grease two 20cm (8inch) sandwich tins then line each tin with baking parchment.
Blend cocoa and boiling water in a large bowl, add the remaining cake ingredients and beat until the mixture has become a smooth, thickish batter. Divide the cake mix equally between the prepared tins and level the surface.
Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 25-30mins or until well risen and the tops of the cake spring back when lightly pressed with a finger. Leave to cool in the tins for a few minutes then turn out, peel off parchment and finish cooling on a wire rack.
To make the honeycomb, put the sugar and syrup into a saucepan and stir together to mix. You mustn’t stir once the pan’s on the heat, though.
Place the pan on the heat and let the mixture first melt, then turn to goo and then to a bubbling mass the colour of maple syrup - this will take 3 minutes or so.
Off the heat, whisk in the bicarbonate of soda and watch the syrup turn into a whooshing cloud of aerated pale gold. Turn this immediately onto a piece of reusable baking parchment or greased foil.
Leave until set and then bash at it, so that it splinters into many glinting pieces.
To make the buttercream, beat the butter until pale yellow then add in the sifted icing sugar a tablespoon at a time while continually beating the mixture. Once all the icing sugar has been added add the honey and keep beating until you get a thick creamy mixture that doesn’t drip of the whisks.
Grind up some of the honeycomb into a fine dust and stir into the buttercream mixture. The amount you use is to your own personal taste.
Sandwich the cake together using the honeycomb buttercream (keep a tablespoon of it aside for decoration).
For the ganache, place the cream in a saucepan over medium heat and bring to the boil. Remove from heat and add the chocolate. Allow to melt slightly and then stir until it is glossy and smooth. Set aside to cool to a spreadable consistency.
Spread the ganache over the cake. I did one layer first (the crumb layer) and put the cake in the fridge for a few minutes to allow that to stiffen and then added the final layer.
Place the tablespoon of buttercream on the top of the cake to hold the wedges of honeycomb in place and grind up some more honeycomb to decorate the sides.
All the others were staring at Simon aghast. There’s no way he could do it. It was way too high. The murmurings were growing louder but Simon just took a long breath and focussed on what he was about to do. A small crack, a silent gasp and off he went. Falling majestically through the air swaying softly from side to side. He spread out further, enjoying feeling like he was part of the world, part of the daily hustle and bustle that he had spent his life always looking down on. As he was wishing that this feeling would never go away he landed softly on the ground. He had made it. A loud cheer went out from above.
The other leaves couldn’t believe it. He’d actually done it. He was amongst the groundlings. He was part of the Movement. Jealously and excitement overtook them all and they began to wriggle. Snap. Snap. Snap. One after the other they broke off and fell to the ground. Trickling through the sky in a majestic golden rain. A rain that was blown apart by a sudden sharp wind. Swirling through the sky, screaming trying to regain control, the leaves panicked for there lives. The Overseers, a family form the top of the tree, were flung into a puddle and one by one they drowned in it’s ripples. The other leaves began to struggle against the wind terrified of meeting a similar fate. A bunch of them made it to the ground but were swiftly sent flying into the air by a big red rubber boot. The sound of screaming and veins breaking echoed through the air.
Eventually the wind died down. A broken, wet golden mass left behind. Families were separated. Babies were crying. A mother, who had held her baby close through the whole ordeal and was now huddled against a lamp post, was staring up at the bare branched haven they had just left. Without a moments thought.
“Mummy I’m cold.”
“I know baby but don’t worry the sun will be back soon.” she comforted while in her stomach she knew that they would not last the dark night that was now enveloping them.