NaNoWriMo with Labradors – the first week

NaNoWriMo with Labradors – the first week has gone better than I ever expected. There’s something very motivating about sitting down each day knowing that you’re not going to give up until you’ve at least come close to your word count.

As I’ve said before, I discovered when I came back to this book that I’d written more than I realised, although it was a bit all over the place, with a series of unconnected scenes. They weren’t all bad though. In fact I was really happy with some of them. Others were interesting but just not right for this book. I quickly realised that the first two chapters were probably the reason I found it so difficult to progress when I first started to work on this book last year. They slowed the book down unbearably from the beginning and kept impinging on the action later on as I had to justify their existence by keeping those narratives going. I’ve scrapped them completely and rewritten the following chapters to fit in and I’m now very happy with the start of this book.

Including the remaining excerpts which will either be scrapped or incorporated into the book when I get to them, I’ve now got seventy-nine thousand words, which is probably more than half the book. It’s going incredibly well. I’ve sent the first four chapters to my editor, just to read through, and she loves it, so I think I’m on the right track. To complete a first draft before the end of May I need to write an average of three to four thousand words a day, and I think I can probably manage that. After that will be a major edit, but I’m hopeful this book will be out before the end of the year, which makes me very happy after the disasters of the previous two years.

I love writing about Hugh Kelly and Alfred Durrell but in order to be able to tell the full story of the siege of Tarragona I needed men on the ground. As with the storming of Castro Urdiales in An Unmerciful Incursion, the British army wasn’t involved in this campaign. In that book, I solved the problem by giving some of my regular characters a reason to be in the town at the time of the siege. At Tarragona, I found that there were several published narratives written by men on the ground. Both General Suchet and General Contreras wrote their own accounts of what happened at Tarragona giving me some excellent source material to put alongside the account of Captain Codrington of the Royal Navy. 

Accordingly, this will be the first outing for the French Captain Gabriel Bonnet of the 30th légère who later makes an appearance in An Indomitable Brigade. From the Spanish side, I’ve introduced a brand new character who is presenting me with an interesting challenge. Captain Bruno Ángel Cortez, ADC to General Contreras who commanded the Spanish garrison in Tarragona is a complex individual who is not  always likeable and not easy to write. I’ll be interested to see how this one goes.

It’s the start of a new week. I’ll keep you updated on progress on my Facebook page, so keep an eye out for posts there. I’m very excited to see where this book takes me next.

Oscar and Alfie are excited as well, as you can see…

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the early part of the voyage to Tarragona. Enjoy.

Hugh turned his attention to his sextant. It was a bright clear day, making the readings easy. Beside him Manby worked out his latitude in a small notebook and there was silence over the group of observers who were suddenly intent on their work. When the master had finished, he walked aft to where Lieutenant Pryce, the officer of the watch waited. Pryce accepted his report of noon along with the degrees and minutes of the latitude observed.

Hugh watched, hiding his smile, as Pryce approached him to make the same report. Manby had needed to walk past him to reach Pryce, but it would not have occurred to the master to report directly to Hugh and Hugh would not have asked him to do so. The daily rituals of shipboard life were important, not because of routine days such as this when Hugh was present and available, but for the one day when he would not be, and a crisis might occur.

Pryce saluted, announced that it was twelve o’clock and gave the latitude which Hugh already knew. Hugh nodded.

“Make it twelve, Mr Pryce.”

“Aye, sir.” Pryce raised his voice to the mate of the watch. “Make it twelve, Sanders.”

“Aye, sir.” Petty Officer Sanders turned to the waiting quarter-master. “Sound eight bells.”

The quarter-master stepped onto the ladder and called below. “Turn the glass and strike the bell.”

As the first stroke of the bell rang out, Pryce turned to where Geordie Armstrong waited, his whistle ready. “Pipe to dinner, Bosun.”

Hugh stood watching as officers and men dispersed. The officers dined in the wardroom at one o’clock and then Hugh dined an hour later, theoretically in solitary splendour. In practice, if he had no other guests, Hugh dined with his first lieutenant. He knew that one or two of his other officers during the past few years had looked askance at his close friendship with Durrell. There had been mutterings of favouritism, particularly after Walcheren when Hugh had stood by Durrell against all attempts to put him on half-pay.

Hugh could see Durrell now, his long form leaning against a grating. He was demonstrating something in a notebook to two of the midshipmen, waving his pencil in the air as he explained. Hugh had no idea what he was teaching them, but he knew it would be accurate, very well-explained and incredibly detailed. Hugh had received many such lectures from his junior and at times they had driven him mad, but he had also learned a great deal. He stood waiting for Durrell to finish, watching the midshipmen. Mr Clarke was staring into space, looking as though he would rather be somewhere else. His companion, one of the new boys by the name of Holland, was scribbling frantically in his own notebook, looking up every now and again with something like hero-worship at Durrell’s oblivious form. Hugh made a mental note to spend some time with Mr Holland and came forward.

“Mr Durrell. As it’s our first day at sea, I’ve invited the other officers to join us for dinner.”

Durrell smiled. “We’re very grateful, sir.”

“I’m sure you’ll be willing to act as my second host. And I’d be grateful if you’d do the same tomorrow when I’m hosting the midshipmen. I may need help with that.”

Durrell laughed aloud. “I’d be delighted, sir. I’m sure the young gentlemen will be on their best behaviour.”

“They’d better be.” Hugh surveyed Durrell’s two pupils. “Mr Clarke, I hope you’re studying hard. Mr Holland, you’re new to us. How are you enjoying your lessons?”

“Very much, Captain.”

“Excellent. You were taking notes there.”

“Yes, sir. Mr Durrell was explaining the difference between various instruments when making calculations and how they…” Holland stopped suddenly and blushed scarlet. “It was very interesting,” he said lamely.

“It’s fascinating,” Hugh said, amused. “I applaud your ability to rein in your enthusiasm but don’t do it with me, you’re exactly the kind of young officer I’m looking for. I’d like to get to know you better, you’ll sit beside me tomorrow at dinner. Now go and get your own dinner before your messmates eat it all.”

He watched as the younger men raced away to their meal then turned to Durrell. “Are you sure you’re ready to help me at this dinner tomorrow?”

“Of course I am, sir. There are one or two very promising men among the new midshipmen, but Mr Holland is my favourite so far.”

“I can see why. If he’s as good as he seems, why don’t you find him some extra duties that will give you a chance to work with him?”

Hugh saw his first lieutenant’s eyes light up. “Thank you, sir. I’d like that.”

“Excellent. I’ll see you at dinner. As my clerk is struck down with sea-sickness, I intend to spend the next hour setting out my accounts book.”

Hugh heard the gloom in his own voice. Durrell laughed. “Would you like me to do it, sir?”

“Yes, but you’re not going to, you take on far too many duties that are not yours, including schooling the midshipmen. I…”

Hugh broke off at the sound of raised voices from the gangway. Before he could move, Durrell was ahead of him. Hugh watched as his first lieutenant crossed the deck and barked an order. Three boys scrambled up onto the deck and lined up before him and Durrell looked them over unsmiling.

“Mr Oakley, Mr Bristow. Can you explain to me why you’re brawling with Lewis when you should be on your way to dinner?”

“Not a brawl, sir. Just joking around.”

Durrell said nothing. He let the silence lengthen until the boys were shuffling their feet. Hugh could feel their discomfort and he did not blame them. Durrell’s withering expression was enough to discompose even the liveliest midshipman.

Eventually, Durrell moved his gaze to the third boy. Teddy Lewis was a wiry ex-pickpocket from Southwark who had been pressed as a landsman and had chosen to remain as a volunteer, acting as Durrell’s servant. He was sixteen and smaller than most of the boys but made up for it with a belligerent willingness to fight even the biggest of them. Durrell glared at Lewis for a full minute then looked back at the other two boys.

“Aboard a Royal Navy vessel, a midshipman is considered a young gentleman. I happen to know that you both qualify by birth if not behaviour. Repeatedly picking on one who is both smaller and below you in rank because you think he cannot fight back is not the act of a gentleman or a future officer, it is the act of a snivelling coward. Please do not be under the misapprehension that because you joined this ship as midshipman, you will necessarily remain so. If you persist in bullying the other boys I will have you broken to common seaman, and you’ll find that below decks the men will be unimpressed with your status. Now get to your dinner. I will see you at four o’clock after the watch is called and we will spend some time improving your mathematics.”

“But sir, study time is over then,” Bristow said in appalled tones.

“Not for you, Mr Bristow, since it appears that you struggle to find constructive ways to spend your leisure. Dismissed. Not you, Lewis.”

When the other boys had gone, Durrell regarded his servant thoughtfully. “Are you hurt?”

“No, sir.”

“Did they take anything?”

Lewis hesitated and Hugh could see him considering whether he could get away with a lie.

“I will find out, Lewis, and you will regret it.”

“My lesson book, sir.”

“Did you get it back?”

“It’s spoiled, sir. In the animal pen, it’s covered in shit…I mean dung, sir.”

Durrell did not speak for a moment. When he did, his voice was pleasant and even. Hugh could tell that he was furious.

“Go to the purser after dinner and get another one, with my authorisation. When you’re not using it, you have my permission to keep it in my cabin. The money will be deducted from their pay. In the meantime, Lewis, in addition to practicing your reading and penmanship, I would like you to practice walking away. If you spend your time defending every inch of your dignity you’ll never rise above able seaman and that would be a shame, because you are more intelligent than either of them. Now go and get your dinner.”

NaNoWriMo with Labradors: Introduction

NaNoWriMo with Labradors: Introduction

NaNoWriMo with Labradors appeared in my brain when I was trying to get back to sleep at 3.45am. I often struggle with sleep due to back problems, but I do try not to actually think when I’m awake. Thinking is fatal as I have the kind of brain which, once it’s fired up, sets off a series of ideas like a row of fireworks going off. This is really useful when creating fictional plots but a complete pain in the early hours of the morning. Let’s just say I’m going to be tired today.

Those of you who have grown old waiting for the release of An Indomitable Brigade will know that I’ve been struggling to be productive since the beginning of the pandemic. I was absolutely delighted to finally publish book seven of the Peninsular War Saga and even more pleased at how well it’s been received so far. This has given me a really good push to get on with the next book.

 

This Bloody Shore is book three in the Manxman series and is centred around the Siege of Tarragona in 1811. I started to write this book immediately after the publication of An Unmerciful Incursion in July 2020 and made a good start, but after a while I stalled and simply couldn’t get moving with it. Eventually I decided to set it aside and move back to the 110th in Spain. Hugh and Durrell have waited ever since, fairly patiently for them, until last week when I hauled them off half-pay and back aboard the Iris, setting sail for the Mediterranean.

 

I realised I’d written a lot more of this book than I thought, which was excellent news. Even better, most of it is very good with the exception of the first two chapters which were utterly superfluous to requirements and probably explain why I struggled with this book first time around. I’ve come up with some new ideas, done some more research, invented a useful new character (with major links to the other series, incidentally) and am ready to go.

That’s when I came up with this mad idea. I’ve never seriously done NaNoWriMo. Partly it’s because I write all the time anyway and have never felt the need to do a particular push like that. Partly it’s because the allocated month is November and that’s not generally the best time for me to be going all out on a novel. I’ve always quite liked the idea of a determined push like that, though, and as I’d really like to get another book out this year, it occurred to me that I could do my very own NaNoWriMo to try to get at least the first draft of this book finished.

For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month which usually takes place every November. Writers can register on the website and log their daily word count, as well as receiving encouragement and finding writing buddies. It’s a great resource and I suspect an amazing way to get people started. I’ve made a couple of half-hearted attempts at it, but the timing has just never been right for me.

So, my plan is, starting tomorrow, to write between four and five thousand words a day between now and the end of May. That’s probably going to be quite variable, because life will get in the way, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ll post regularly giving my word count and to let you all know how I’m getting on.

My notebook is ready, my laptop is fired up and the desk army and navy are ready to offer support. This book is happening people…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oscar and Alfie are excited about this new initiative at Writing With Labradors, as long as it doesn’t interfere with walks, playtime and mealtimes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Bloody Shore: Book 3 of the Manxman series.

It is 1811.

A desperate struggle takes place on the Eastern coast of Spain. The French are threatening the coastal town of Tarragona and Bonaparte holds out the glittering prize of a Marshal’s baton if General Suchet can capture the town.

Far from Wellington’s theatre of war, the town is held by Spanish forces under the Marquis of Campoverde. Supporting them is a small Royal Navy squadron, including the 74-gun third rater, HMS Iris.

After the frustration and political wrangling of the Walcheren campaign, Captain Hugh Kelly is missing Roseen but is relieved to be back at sea under the command of a man he trusts even though the situation in Tarragona is more complicated than it appears. Lieutenant Alfred Durrell is keen to put his family troubles behind him, but an unexpected encounter in London has left him feeling unsettled.

On shore, two very different men face each other across the walls of Tarragona. Captain Gabriel Bonnet, a scarred cynical veteran  discovers a surprising sympathy for one particular victim of war. Captain Bruno Ángel Cortez is a former Spanish Bonapartist but the atrocities he has seen have turned him into an implacable enemy of the French.

Meanwhile in England, Faith Collingwood’s long months of banishment are ended by an event which will change her life forever.

As Suchet’s troops creep ever closer to the walls, the armies, the navy and the townspeople are swept up in a brutal conflict which ends on the bloody shores of Tarragona.

 

 

 

Here comes 2022

Here comes 2022 at Writing with Labradors, though it’s arriving a little late. Many apologies, and Happy New Year to you all. In many ways, though, the fact that I’m late with my usual New Year’s greeting is in keeping with the whole of the past year. I had such big plans for 2021 and very few of them came to fruition. Mired down in the misery of restrictions, and beset by family difficulties, it’s been a slow year here at Writing with Labradors and at times, I’ve felt like a complete disaster. Still, things are steadily improving and it’s good to look back because it reminds me there have been some highs as well as lows during this year.

#Low. Restrictions didn’t go away. Instead, we had more lockdowns and vaccine passports

#High. Vaccines mostly work.

#Low. My sister became very ill after her vaccine, and I couldn’t go to see her.

#High. She’s slowly improving, and I’ve seen her now.

#Low. Three of the five members of my family had covid at different times despite being vaccinated.

#High. None of them were really ill.

#Low. All my planned research trips were cancelled due to restrictions.

#High. Once I could travel to the UK, I organised my very own writer’s retreat which was absolutely brilliant and improved everything.

#Low. I didn’t manage to publish a book last year, for the first time since I began publishing.

 

#High. I finished book 7 of the Peninsular War Saga and it’s currently with my editor, so will be out very soon.

#Low. Writing this year has been difficult.

#High. I published my usual three free short stories this year, plus a bonus one in the spring. For Valentine’s Day, we had A Winter in Cadiz, a romance set during Lord Wellington’s brief trip to Cadiz in the winter of 1812-13. My spring story was The Pressed Man, a story of the fourteen-year-old Paul van Daan’s impressment into the Royal Navy. For Halloween, there was an Inescapable Justice, a ghostly tale of bloody mutiny set aboard a Royal Navy frigate. And for Christmas, a favourite Peninsular War Saga character discovers a new responsibility and the merest hint of a future romance, in The Gift.

#Low. I’ve been struggling with chronic pain due to arthritis, and in the current situation, there isn’t a chance of any treatment.

#High. For the first time I have published a short story in an anthology. Hauntings is a collection of ghost stories by writers from the Historical Writers Forum and came out for Halloween last year. (Yes, I did have to come up with two ghost stories in one year. Don’t judge me.) My offering, An Unquiet Dream, is a spooky tale set in an army hospital in Elvas in 1812 and features a regular minor character from the Peninsular War Saga.

 

 

 

#High. I was also asked to be part of an anthology of short stories edited by Tom Williams (author of the Burke novels and the Williamson books) which will be published this year. The story is called The Recruit and is set in Ireland during the 1798 rebellion. (I see my regulars with their ears pricking up there. “Really? Who could that be about?”)

#High. My immediate family are great and doing very well. My son and his girlfriend are settled in their jobs and looking to move out soon. My daughter is in her final year studying history at the University of York and is getting firsts so far.

#High. Alfie. After a long period of Oscar holding the fort alone at Writing with Labradors and doing a splendid job, we welcomed our new baby into the family in May, and despite his well-deserved nickname of the Chaos Demon, he has proved to be a valued and much adored member of staff.

#High. I had a great time with the Historical Writers Forum last year, including taking part in a panel to talk about writing battles in historical fiction.

 

#High. Oscar. Still my baby, and possibly the most well-behaved Labrador in the country.

#High. You see, this is why it’s really good to actually write out a list of highs and lows of the past year. Because I ran out of lows, which pretty much proved that despite everything, my life is good.

There’s one very big low that I’ve not included as part of the list because it would be crass to do so. In August, after several years of watching them struggle and a year of frantic anxiety during Covid restrictions, we finally managed to persuade my in-laws to move to the Isle of Man on a trial basis.

Sadly, it didn’t go as we’d hoped. They’d left it too late, and it was very quickly clear that my mother-in-law’s dementia had got significantly worse, while my father-in-law was very unwell. Malcolm died suddenly on 30th October, of a massive heart attack, and after a difficult period, Irene returned to London to go into a care home near her daughter. The funeral was held just two weeks before Christmas.

I miss Malcolm. He was only here for a few months, but I got very used to him being around. From the earliest days of my relationship with Richard, almost thirty years ago now, Malcolm and I had a special bond. He shared my enthusiasm for history, and years ago, before I’d ever published, he bought me my first biography of Wellington, the Longford one, from a second-hand book shop. He got on well with my parents, although they didn’t meet that often, and he adored his grandchildren. He loved books and music and was interested in current affairs. He also loved technology, especially cars, and when he was younger, he could fix anything. Before I was even married, he took me for a day out to Silverstone, to watch a Formula One Grand Prix, and we had a fabulous time.

Malcolm was kind and funny and was unbelievably proud to have a daughter-in-law who was an author. One of his last acts was to blag a free copy of An Unconventional Officer for a doctor at Nobles Hospital who had been good to him during a recent stay. His favourite spot, when visiting, was my reading corner in my study. He loved the armchair and would sneak in when he got the chance and take an afternoon nap or browse through one of my books while I was working.

Richard and I went to London with a van to collect some of their possessions when we still thought they might make a go of living over here. I rather fell in love with a beautiful collection of wooden boats that Malcolm had in his study and mentioned how much I liked them as we were unpacking. To my surprise and delight, he insisted on giving them to me, to go with my wooden model of the Victory in my study. They look beautiful, and I feel as though there’s a little part of him sharing my workspace still. I’m working on a proper obituary for Malcolm. He had an interesting life, and I’d love to share it with people.

The end of the year was sad, and it wasn’t helped with two family members having covid over Christmas, though neither had anything more than cold symptoms. By New Year’s Eve, both were clear, which meant we could host what is rapidly becoming our traditional young people’s New Year Party. The kids all had a great time and we drank a toast to Malcolm at midnight.

And now it’s 2022 and we’re still struggling to sort out care homes and financial matters for Richard’s mum, which is even harder long distance. I’m trying to look ahead into 2022 and be hopeful, but I think I’m a lot more cautious than I was at the beginning of 2021. I think back then, with the vaccine in the offing, I was naively hopeful that the world would begin to calm down. This year, I’m less sanguine. The wounds left by the past few years are going to take a while to heal but heal they will. History suggests they always do eventually.

I’m hopeful for myself, though. I feel as though I’ve got my enthusiasm back for my writing, and my brain is teeming with ideas. I’m looking forward to Tom’s anthology coming out, and I’m excited for the publication of An Indomitable Brigade. Currently I’m finishing the edits for the rest of the paperbacks, and then I’m returning to This Bloody Shore, which is book three in the Manxman series.

At the beginning of last year, I had a long list of things I wanted to achieve during the year. This year, I’m reluctant to come up with a list, and yet looking at this blog post, although I didn’t manage to get the book out, I was very close, and I did manage quite a lot in very difficult circumstances.

So here goes. This year, I’d like to finish the paperback edits once and for all. I’ve got An Indomitable Brigade coming out very soon, and Tom’s anthology, and I’m determined to finish This Bloody Shore by the end of the year. I’ll be writing my usual three free short stories, and I’ve been asked to write another episode from Paul van Daan’s boyhood, which I’d love to do. I also have an invitation to write a story for another anthology which is completely out of my period and out of my comfort zone. It will be a challenge, but I’d quite like to give it a go, so we’ll see if it comes off.

I’d like to travel again. I dream of going to Castro Urdiales or Tarragona or Santander or Gibraltar, but I’m not prepared to book until I’m very confident I won’t be caught up in some last-minute lockdown. This year I suspect I’ll confine my travels to the UK, and possibly Ireland. After the restrictions of the last two years, even that will seem like a blessing.

In the meantime, Happy New Year from all of us at Writing with Labradors. I know all of you will have had your highs and lows this year, and many will be a lot worse than mine. Thank you all so much for your support and enthusiasm and your sheer love of the books, the characters and the history. Let’s hope things improve steadily through 2022.

Angry White Popham Duck II

It’s been very quiet here at Writing With Labradors, but I’m delighted to tell you that I’m kicking off a new season of blog posts with Angry White Popham Duck II.

I know that since I wrote the original post which conclusively identified Angry White Duck from our local duck pond as a quackers reincarnation of our hero Sir Home Riggs Popham, many of you will have wondered how Popham Duck has been getting on.

Popham Duck has been absent from time to time as we wandered through the winter months and into spring. For a while, he moved into the second pond, and seemed to have decided to live a quieter lifestyle with his new friends. Oscar and I quite enjoyed the break, without him yelling his litany of complaints as we passed.

Both lockdowns brought Popham back into the main pond, though. The kids were off school ( again) and that meant an endless supply of loot (bread) from bored children and desperate parents. Popham loved it, and was to be heard vocally demanding more than his fair share, protesting about the injustice of other ducks taking what was rightfully his and yelling in sheer rage any time a dog was seen in the vicinity. Even Oscar, who saved him from being eaten by a runaway dog called Nero, was not exempt from his relentless, aggressive quacking.

Since the arrival of Alfie, we’ve not spent much time up by the pond. Occasionally I’ll take Oscar up there for his solo walk, but as Alfie gets bigger we like to include him as much as possible, and I’ve been a bit wary of how he’ll be if a large white duck starts calling him rude names. Not all dogs are as placid as Oscar, and as Alfie is still very much a novice in terms of lead walking, I didn’t want to find myself jumping in the pond after him.

Today we set off for a short walk as it was a warm afternoon. I didn’t consciously think about heading for the ponds but Oscar paused by the path leading up that way, looking at me hopefully. Alfie was being particularly good on the lead today, so I decided to be brave and go for it.

The walk up to the ponds was fairly uneventful, apart from a delightful moment when three small children playing in a front garden managed to kick their football into the road. Mum must have been in the house and the kids were very well trained and knew they shouldn’t go after it. They stood staring at it, trying to work out what to do as we came past. There were no cars passing, so I crossed the road towards them, and allowed Oscar to push the ball back to them with his nose. I could hear one of them running shrieking with excitement into the house, shouting that a lovely dog had brought their ball back for them. Oscar strutted away, looking proud.

As we arrived at the pond, it was very quiet. There weren’t even any kids in the play park, I’ve no idea where everybody was this afternoon. I approached the edge of the main pond very carefully, and there he was. Initially, he was sitting on Duck Island dozing with his friends, but Popham Duck has a special dog warning sensor (probably invented by him, and better than all other dog warning sensors, because he’s a genius) and was very quickly in the water and swimming towards us to check us out.

Oscar stopped to watch the ducks. Alfie was initially fascinated by the smells on the grass beside the pond, probably because it smelt mostly of duck droppings. Eventually though, he realised that something interesting was afoot and went to join Oscar in observing the approach of Angry White Popham Duck. I took a very firm hold of both leads and waited.

Popham came on. It was very clear that he had seen the lurking dogs. Alfie’s tail was wagging furiously, but he said nothing. I was holding my breath. Most puppies will bark when they see a new creature, out of sheer excitement. Alfie couldn’t take his eyes from Popham but he still made no sound. He glanced sideways at Oscar a few times, maybe for reassurance. Oscar was his usual calm self and it worked. Alfie watched Popham for a bit longer then settled down for a rest.

Popham swam up and down for a bit, but strangely, he didn’t say a word. I was baffled. It’s so unlike our belligerent hero not to make his views known that I was beginning to wonder if one of the residents of the nearby houses had buckled under the strain and had his quack surgically removed.

It wasn’t until we walked further round the pond, that Popham gave a few quacks. They were nothing like his usual aggressive yelling. It was more like a friendly warning not to get too close. And I could suddenly see why. There were ducklings, swimming frantically around their mother.

We stood and watched them for a while, since I am a sucker for ducklings. Popham swam backwards and forwards, clearly on sentry patrol. After a bit, Alfie started to get restless so we set off on the last part of our walk. He didn’t bark once. I’m very proud of my little boy.

I’ve no idea why Angry White Popham Duck was so unusually mellow today. Maybe it’s the warm weather or perhaps he had an enormous shipment of bread today and is too stuffed to quack. Perhaps those ducklings are related to him, and he’s looking out for their welfare. I did wonder about that, as there were an awful lot of them and we know the Pophams ran to big families…

Alternatively of course, it might be that there is a worn out and angry mother duck on that pond, who has been up every night for two weeks, guarding her babies from passing seagulls and visiting Assassin Cats. Many of us would understand her feelings when her brood finally settles down for a nap and are immediately woken up by Angry White Popham Duck giving his all on the subject of a passing poodle.

“Popham, is it you making that racket?”

“It is indeed, Madam. I was made aware of an approaching threat in the form of two spaniels from the east and a white poodle from the south, and I felt it was my duty to warn you all, before seeing them off in fine style. No need to thank me…”

“Thank you? Listen to me you noisy, overbearing, meddlesome duck, if you do that once more when my ducklings are trying to sleep and I’m just catching a nap myself, you are going to find yourself locked inside the rusty shopping trolley in the second pond with half a ton of duckweed tied around your enormous webbed feet! Have I made myself clear?

“Admirably so, ma’am. Although I was only trying to help…”

“Don’t.”

“And I thought that if your ducklings were in danger…”

“They’re not. You will be, if you do that again.”

“Well. Very well. If that is your idea of gratitude, I shall keep perfectly silent from now on.”

Whatever the story, it was certainly a pleasant introduction to the duck pond for Alfie. It was quite a long walk for him at this stage, and on a warm afternoon as well.

“Did you enjoy meeting the ducks, Alfie?”

“I did, Mum. And seeing all those people, and the cars and the trees and the flowers…zzzzzzzzzz”

“Did you enjoy it, Oscar?”

“I loved it, Mum. Reminds me of when I used to go out with Joey. He’s pretty good on the lead now, isn’t he? Alfie, I mean.”

“He is. I’m looking forward to many more walks with you both, baby boy.”

“Looks as though Alfie is taking a nap before dinner. I might just join him…”

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading Angry White Popham Duck II. Check in again with Writing With Labradors for further adventures of Oscar and Alfie, history posts both silly and sensible, travel posts, free short stories and plenty of news about my books. You can follow me on social media for more updates.

 

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Angry White Duck: the Popham Connection


Angry White Duck: the Popham Connection

The adventures of Angry White Duck have been a regular feature on my Twitter feed for quite some time. During the working week, I tend to take Oscar out on a local walk every day and we often walk past the local duck ponds. There is a collection of ducks who inhabit these two small areas of water, and most of them are peaceful creatures who spend their time swimming about, gobbling up bread from the local kids and cleaning their feathers.

Then there is Angry White Duck. A photograph of Angry White Duck doesn’t really do this chap justice and I’ve never managed a successful video of him in action. This is because it’s hard to take a video with a lively Labrador on a lead, and Angry White Duck only kicks off when he sees a dog. He hates dogs. This must be exhausting for him, because the pond is in the middle of a busy estate where dogs go past all the time.

I’m assuming that at some point in his life, Angry White Duck had a bad experience with a dog. That dog was not my dog. Oscar is angelic around ducks and I can walk him right past them on the lead and he doesn’t even bark. By now all the other ducks on the pond are used to him and don’t even bother to jump back in the water as we pass. This is Oscar, they seem to say, and Oscar is all right. Oscar likes to watch the ducks and if it’s not too cold we sit on our favourite bench for a bit to observe that all is well in duck world. But the moment Angry White Duck sees Oscar, all hell breaks loose. That duck has the loudest quack I have ever heard, and it’s incredibly aggressive. The minute he sees a dog he will swim backwards and forwards or sometimes perch on Duck Island, quacking furiously until somebody takes the four-legged fiend away. Often, we can still hear him yelling after us into the distance.

Can we see a resemblance?

During a recent discussion on Twitter, my friends came up with a number of theories about why Angry White Duck is so furious. Given that this is Napoleonic Twitter, where literally anything can happen, it quickly became established that Angry White Duck was probably a duck reincarnation of Sir Home Riggs Popham who wants to vent about the unfair treatment he gets from the other ducks and how they don’t appreciate his genius. Since then, Angry White Duck has been formally renamed Popham.

A few weeks ago, Oscar and I went out later than usual It was dusk when we reached the pond. Popham was sitting on one of the two little islands in the middle of the main pond, looking important. It was too cold to sit, so we made our way past, grateful that in the fading light, Popham did not seem to be able to see us. For once he was quiet, cleaning his feathers and preening himself. There was nobody about and it was a pretty evening.

Suddenly, without warning, there was an almighty noise of barking, followed by a great deal of ineffectual screeching. Something very fast went past us, and then there was an enormous splash. A woman ran past shrieking:

“Nero! Nero!”

Nero appeared to be a fairly young and very large dog who had pulled away from his owner and dived into the pond. Dogs aren’t allowed in the duck pond, but Nero didn’t care about that. Nero had seen the ducks and he had a plan. Clearly he was a naval chap, and he was swimming strongly towards the ducks. In the background, his owner screeched a lot and waved her arms in the air.

The ducks weren’t happy. They all kicked off. For once, it wasn’t just Popham expressing his views. There was a lot of quacking. Popham the Angry but Aggressively Handsome and Resourceful Duck stood atop Duck Island, louder than any of the other ducks in his squadron. But the other ducks quickly realised it was time to retreat. They left the islands and began to swim towards the opposite shore. Pretty damned fast.

Popham Duck was horrified. The cowards! It was just like the Red Sea all over again. Only, you know, different obviously. By now, it was clear that Nero the Dog was in the employ of Lord St Vincent, Popham’s arch enemy. Popham Duck stood his ground, quacking even louder. He was not going to retreat.

At this point, I was beginning to think that Popham Duck might be about to join his long-departed namesake in the history hall of fame. But there was a new hero.

Oscar had been staring at the chaos in stunned silence up to this point, but he suddenly discovered his inner policeman. Oscar knows that there are places you swim and there are places you don’t. And the duck pond is one of the latter. Oscar began to bark furiously, something he very seldom does, and it was clear that in dog language, he was yelling:

“Get out of that pond, you numpty.”

Nero took no notice at all. His eyes were on the prize and he was getting closer to Popham Duck. At this point, Oscar realised he needed to intervene personally. After all, Popham Duck might be annoying, but a trusty Labrador can’t stand by and see him murdered. He took off at speed. Oscar has never done this before, and it turns out he’s a lot stronger than I am. I let go. It was better than being dragged into the pond.

Oscar ran into the pond and then stopped and barked at Nero. Nero turned in some surprise. Oscar barked again. To my amazement, Nero abandoned his assault on Duck Island, changed direction and swam back to join Oscar. Both dogs trotted out onto the bank and had a good sniff at each other. I retrieved Oscar and Nero’s sobbing owner retrieved him with heaps of thanks. I don’t know why, I didn’t do a thing. I just smiled.

Popham Duck stood alone on his island glaring at the other ducks. You could see that he was thinking that they weren’t getting a share of the prize money (bread) as they’d done nothing to earn it. As Nero left, he quacked a few more times then settled down for a snooze. Oscar and I walked home, and I gave him a treat for saving Popham Duck even if he didn’t deserve it.

Continuing with the Popham theme, and in conversation with our Popham expert, Dr Jacqueline Reiter, we have come up with the theory that if Angry White Duck is Popham in this scenario, and Nero was clearly hired by Lord St Vincent to make this cowardly attack on our hero, then is it possible that Popham Duck sees Oscar as Lord Melville, his long-time patron. This would make perfect sense, if all that aggressive quacking were not Popham complaining about Oscar, but Popham complaining TO Oscar, giving him a long list of problems that need solving.

Presumably, after this traumatic event, Popham Duck went off to compose a lengthy explanatory memorandum about the incident which he recited to Oscar next time we’re passing. To me, this sounded like a highly aggressive version of:

“Quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack…”

But according to Dr Reiter, who knows about this stuff, it really means:

“When I was totally minding my own business doing something great and secret (see attached letter from Lord Grenville, which is totally unrelated but shows how much trusted I have been by high-ranking people who can crush my enemies like a gnat, especially savage dogs with no manners), an agent of Lord St Vincent came charging at me and it was only by the skin of my beak that I survived at all. Now, sirs, let me continue at great length about how persecuted I have been by…etc, etc, etc.”

We didn’t see Popham Duck for about a week after that and I was a bit worried, although reassured by the expert that he’d probably just popped off to mount an illegal invasion of South America and would be back on Thursday. This proved to be the case. Popham Duck shows no gratitude to his brave rescuer and still recites a long list of complaints every time we walk past.

I’m in two minds as to the motives behind Oscar’s rescue mission. It’s possible that he just snapped because Popham was getting on his nerves and he wanted him to shut up, or maybe he really did feel obliged to help. Myself, I think there was a policeman element to it.

“Now then, my lad, you can’t go around scaring the ducks in this pond, it’s just not on. I know that one’s irritating, but you just have to learn to ignore him.” Probably the real Lord Melville felt the same way about the real Popham.

With Popham Duck back in his rightful place, things have continued as usual on our walks and up on the duck pond until today. With this blog post in mind, I wanted to try to get a couple of photos of Popham Duck, so I stopped off on the way back from the post office and Oscar wasn’t with me. Just as well, as it turns out, because the policeman in him would certainly have objected to THIS.

Clearly, after the failure of Nero to deal with the most irritating duck in the world, Lord St Vincent found a new and far more subtle agent. Assassin Cat strolled out of the bushes just as I was snapping a few sneaky photos of Popham, gave me a swish of the tail, then sauntered down to the water’s edge.

Astonishingly, Assassin Cat seemed to have no fear of the water. He paddled daintily in the shallows and had a drink. I could tell that this was a ploy to throw our hero off his guard and I’m sorry to say that it worked a treat. Popham Duck clearly thought that compared to Nero, this was a negligible threat, and made straight for the intruder, quacking furiously. He wasn’t the only one. Once again, all the other ducks (the ones with brains) swam AWAY from Assassin Cat, quacking loudly. I don’t speak duck, but even I could translate this.

“What are you doing? Popham, you bleeding idiot, come away from there! He’s a cat, he’s not going to jump in and swim, but DON’T GET OUT OF THE WATER!!!”

Popham ignored them. He always does. He swam closer and closer, and Assassin Cat pretended not to look. I wasn’t fooled. That cat had his orders, and he was prepared to carry them out. I wasn’t sure who I was worried about. Popham is a good sized duck, and that cat wasn’t very big. One thing was certain though. Somebody was going to get hurt unless I intervened.

Before Popham got to the edge, I went to stroke Assassin Cat. Being a typical feline, it wasn’t hard to distract him. A few compliments and a tickle under the chin, and he was following me back up the bank. Behind me, I could hear Popham’s enraged quacking.

“Come back here, you furry coward! I’m not afraid of you. You’re looking at the duck who once guided the entire navy through treacherous waters into the safety of a place that they weren’t supposed to be. You don’t scare me.”

I am hoping that with Assassin Cat out of the way, the ducks of Popham’s squadron will manage to explain to him that when you’ve got an advantage, you don’t squander it by making an unnecessary attack. If they don’t, sooner or later, that duck is going to get himself into a situation he can’t get out of. Who knows what will happen then, possibly an unwelcome posting to India or the West Indies.

In the meantime, I think Oscar has become so used to Angry White Popham Duck, that he quite enjoys his regular rants. He looks over at the pond as we go past, knowing that at any moment, the litany of complaints are going to begin.

“Quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack…”

“He’s in good voice today, Mum.”

“He is, Oscar.”

“Maybe we should bring him some bread tomorrow, see if it will cheer him up. And a treat for me, of course.”

“Why not. You’re a very good boy, Oscar.”

“Thanks, Mum. You’re a good girl, too.”

My thanks to John Haines who came up with the original identification of Angry White Duck as Popham and Jacqui Reiter who contributed to the rest of the story. Maybe we’ve all been in lockdown for too long…

Also to Oscar, for being wonderful.

 

 

Lockdown with Oscar: the End

Lockdown with Oscar: the End

When I began these posts I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue them all the way through lockdown. I didn’t really have a plan when I started, I was just trying to cheer myself – and any readers – up a bit. It did work to begin with, but after a few days I experienced a bit of a lockdown slump, and that is definitely not something I wanted to share with my poor readers.

I wanted to come back to this though, now that it’s over. We’re back to where we were before as from today, with life returning to normal in our lovely little bubble, apart from closed borders and even more stringent quarantine restrictions for anybody who leaves and wants to return. And the vaccine of course, which is being rolled out gradually, and which we hope one day will allow us to make choices about our own lives again.

At least daily walks with Oscar should get easier. After a few days of experimenting with the best way of walking Oscar in lockdown, I decided that driving to somewhere a bit less busy is a good idea. Usually in the week I just walk him from our front door, but the streets have been much more crowded through lockdown with people getting their daily exercise. Some of the pavements and footpaths are very narrow, and some people are more nervous than others. Add dogs into that mix and it’s just good to find some space. Accordingly my daughter and I have been taking him to the beach or down to St Michael’s Isle where it’s relatively empty and he can run around, swim and jump in puddles without upsetting anybody.

It’s been a joy to have my daughter on our daily walks and I’m going to miss her dreadfully when she goes back to University, which she’s decided to do this weekend. There will be on online teaching of course, and the library is still closed, but now that she can travel, she wants to be back in her student house with her friends, even if they can’t see anybody else. She’s already left home in her head and these weeks of uncertainty and not knowing when she can go back have been miserable. I’ll miss her, but I understand.

Covid rules do odd things to people. I heard a story from somebody I know  about being yelled at for not wearing a mask in the street. From the other side of the road. Needless to say there were no rules about wearing masks out on a walk, and there is no way to know if somebody has a good reason for not doing so anyway. It’s extraordinary how this crisis brings out the best in so many people and the worst in others.

I’ve set myself some difficult writing goals for this year, but since I’m unlikely to be interrupted very much by inconvenient holidays or family visits, I’ve decided to go for it. I’m currently four chapters in to book three of the Manxman series, which is called This Bloody Shore and it’s going very well. I struggled this time to decide which book to write next. Technically, it should be the Manxman, as I tend to alternate the two series, but when I finished An Unmerciful Incursion I was so immersed in the world of the 110th that I began book seven straight away.  For a few weeks I worked on both, then Hugh and Durrell began to demand my attention and point out that it was their turn.

For the first time in a few years, I’m aiming to get two books out this year. Both of these are already well planned out, and as the subject of book seven is relatively easy to research (although the plotline is difficult) I think I might well manage it. Certainly it will keep me very busy and that’s a good thing. I’m incredibly lucky to have a job that I love so much that I can completely immerse myself in it. I am not convinced that life in 1811 would have been much fun, but writing about it is a wonderful way of removing myself from the current situation.

It’s good to know that we have a measure of freedom again, although I think I’m very aware of how fragile that can be. I really hope that my friends elsewhere in the world can achieve the same thing soon. I miss you all very much.

I miss travel and libraries and seeing my sister. I miss planning research trips and going to conferences. I miss big things like my holidays and I miss silly things like watching football on the TV and seeing real fans at Old Trafford. I miss my daughter being able to come and go from Uni freely, without worrying. I miss new films at the cinema, and shows coming over from the UK at the theatre and being able to look ahead and plan. I think we all miss different things, and I don’t think we should feel guilty about it. Whatever the awfulness in the world, it’s natural and normal to miss things that have been taken away from us. The key is to try to find other things to make us happy.

In the meantime, some lessons from Lockdown with Oscar: the End.

  1. I really hate lockdown
  2. Oscar really loves lockdown. “All my people are here!!!”
  3. Reading the news in lockdown is a form of self-harm
  4. So is talking to people about lockdown, Covid or Brexit
  5. Talking to people about history is great
  6. Also dogs
  7. I’m not good at rules
  8. Or being locked up
  9. Given 7 and 8, probably best not to take to a life of crime
  10. Dogs don’t understand social distancing
  11. Sensible creatures
  12. I love my study and my own desk with a deep and abiding passion
  13. I’m incredibly lucky
  14. The Isle of Man is pretty good at working together when it has a common aim
  15. Even if the aim is to go out and get blind drunk in the pubs on Saturday night
  16. I’m sort of proud of us
  17. Did I mention I hate lockdown?
  18. The phrases “covidiot” “stay safe” and “new normal” cause actual psychic trauma by now every time I read or hear them
  19. I’m pretty odd though
  20. My family are great and I adore them
  21. My friends, both local and online are also great and keep me sane
  22. So I need them all to stay safe. 
  23. Can’t believe I just said that.
  24. I want this to be over for everybody.

“Mum. Mum. What are you going on about, you said this would be a short post and then we’d go out.”

“Just coming, Oscar.”

“Is it true I can play with all my friends again?”

“Yep.”

“And their humans won’t be wearing muzzles?”

“That’s right, Oscar.”

“That sounds great to me. Let’s go to Derbyhaven Beach.”

“Come on then, I’ll get your lead.”

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Five

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Five

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After a very successful walk yesterday, it’s both raining and blowing a gale outside. Oscar has made a few forays into the garden to do the needful, and a quick trip up the road, but apart from that, he has decided against the outside world today.

When he doesn’t want to go for a walk, Oscar actually drags his paws. You wouldn’t think a Labrador could do that, but in fact this is the second one I’ve had. Joey, our old yella fella, would stride out in any weather regardless but Toby, our first black Labrador would get to the end of the driveway and freeze in position if he didn’t like the look of the weather. Nothing shifted him. I tried bribery, training, yelling and tugging on the lead. Toby would do his business against the gate post then turn back towards the house in a purposeful manner.

I don’t bother to argue with Oscar. He’s so active that the odd day without a long walk doesn’t hurt him. I’m not so keen myself today either. I had a poor night last night and after a reasonably productive day work wise I hit a serious afternoon slump at about ten to four. I’ve officially given up now and I’ve lit the fire and am dozing on the sofa with Oscar as I’m not cooking tonight.

One of the good points of my son working from home and being unable to go out with his friends is that he’s almost always willing to cook. He’s an excellent cook who can produce restaurant quality food and it’s quite a nice break for me. Steak is happening in the kitchen and it smells good.

I’ve almost finished chapter two today. I don’t yet have a sense of how long this book is likely to be. My last couple were fairly long, but the Tarragona campaign itself was very short. Still, there are several plotlines running through it. More to the point, I will actually get to spend a bit more time at sea during this book. Both my previous naval books have been joint campaigns featuring both the army and the navy, but this one is purely from the naval point of view, so I’m doing a lot of background reading. Oscar is doing less background reading and more snoring, but he seems happy.

“I’d be a lot happier if you’d move that laptop, Mum. That clicking is disturbing me.”

“You mean my typing?”

“Yes. So noisy.”

“I do apologise, your Lordship. I was trying to do some work.”

Lockdown is odd, because my own routine doesn’t really change that much, but because my family is all at home all the time, my schedule is very disrupted. I quite like them all being around though, it’s very social. Oscar adores it and spends the day going from one workplace to another so that none of us feels left out.

The Man I Married is a bit obsessed with the news at the moment. Mostly, I try to avoid it, but when we meet up for lunch, I get my daily rundown of the latest from the USA. It’s like watching a really weird version of the West Wing but without a lot of the witty remarks. Still, it does take your mind off the UK.

My daughter has finished her essay. The pain is over. The trauma is gone.

“Mum. I’m bored.”

“When does your new reading list come out?”

“This week, I think.”

“Why don’t you e-mail them?”

“Are you trying to get rid of me?”

“Not permanently, love. Just until you’ve got something else to do…”

In the middle of all this, I find myself thinking about people with kids who are both working and trying to home school during this chaos. I remember how I was when the kids were young, and I was utterly devoted to them both and couldn’t wait to get them out the door to school or nursery. They needed the stimulation of mixing with other kids and adults and I needed some time away from them. It’s much the same now.

“Mum. I’m so ready to go back to York.”

“I know, love.”

“Bet you’re ready for that too…”

“Mmmm.”

Evenings are nice, though. Generally, we have a tendency to drift off to do our own thing, but without the social aspect of work or seeing friends, our youngsters are more inclined to hang around the kitchen or living room watching TV, playing games or just listening to music. I’ve heard a few parents with teenage or adult kids saying the same. Ours are quite lovely generally, but very busy, so this is a bit of an oasis.

I’m also very happy that my son’s girlfriend has chosen to isolate with us again, and grateful that her poor mother doesn’t mind. She’s a joy to have and I don’t know how either of them would have coped apart. It does make me think about all the couples who weren’t at the point of living together who must have struggled with very tough choices through this.

We’re lucky. We’re lucky to be able to be together, even though we can’t all be where we really want to be. We’re lucky that so far we’ve had no job losses or financial disasters because of this mess. I’m so conscious of those who have, that I almost feel guilty. It’s a fragile security, but sometimes that has to be enough.

Lockdown minus point 6: When it’s raining there’s nowhere indoors to go.

Lockdown plus point 6: Apart from home, which is a pretty nice place to be.

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Four

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Four

It’s Sunday, and after a wild night of compulsory Beer Pong with some of the younger members of the household, neither Oscar and I are up for an early start.

The Essay from Hell is almost done. We’re at that stage where Girl Child is studying it, and saying in dispassionate tones:

“This is actually not bad.”

Given that at various stages, this was the worst essay ever written and she was going to fail her entire degree because of it, that probably means she’ll get a first. All I have to do now is proofread, admire and leave her to it. Phew.

It’s quite a nice afternoon, so Oscar and I take the car and head up to Groudle Glen. I was hoping it would be quiet, but it turns out that on a dry afternoon in lockdown, the glen is the place to be. Some of the paths are very narrow, so there’s a lot of stopping and stepping to one side to let people pass. It’s all very amiable though. We meet a few dogs including an alarmingly cute pair of dachshunds.

“Mum, this is fun. Why are some people wearing their muzzles?”

“People are worried about catching Covid, Oscar.”

“You’re not wearing one.”

“You don’t have to, out here, only in shops or indoor places. We’re not getting close to people, I’m not worried about catching it here.”

“Why is that dog wearing a muzzle?”

“That’s got nothing to do with Covid, Oscar. Probably she bites.”

“Ugh. Can I paddle in the river?”

“A bit further down. Once we get past the water wheel.”

It’s the first time I’ve been down the glen since the old Victorian water wheel was back in place. It was removed for restoration, and it’s lovely to see it back, looking splendid. Oscar was very interested, but the water is very fast here, with a series of rapids, so we moved on to shallower parts before I let him off the lead to play in the water. He loves it, and will just run up and down in the river for the sheer joy of it.

“Mum, can we go to the beach?”

“If it’s not too busy, Oscar. There are a lot of children about today.”

“I won’t chase the children, I promise. I just want to SWIM!!!

The beach was fairly deserted apart from one family group and a woman with a teenaged daughter and their dog.

“Mum! A DOOOOOG! Can I go and play?”

“I think so, Oscar. Off you go.”

Meet Moz. I didn’t get too many details about him, as we had to socially distance, but he was lovely. His owners and I took turns to throw sticks in the water and Oscar and Moz chased them. It was a lot of fun. At one point they were actually swimming while holding the stick between them, which reminded me of Toby and Joey. I wish I’d got better photos, but they didn’t keep still for long enough.

“Mum, that was GREAT! Where shall we go tomorrow?”

“I don’t know, Oscar, let’s see what the weather is doing then decide.”

“Can I run and play over there?”

“NO! Absolutely not.”

“Why?”

“Because that area is pure bog, and if you run into it, you might get stuck. When Toby was young, before we even had Joey, he took a flying leap into there thinking it was solid ground, and couldn’t get out.”

“Ugh. What did you do?”

“I waded in to rescue him. Above my knees in black, smelly mud. It wasn’t good.”

“I’m glad you told me. I’ll give that a miss.”

Back at home, the essay is over and Girl Child is finishing the referencing. I head out to start cooking dinner and there’s no sign of Oscar. After a while, I go to check.

“Are you tired, Oscar?”

“Very tired, Mum. Is it dinner time yet?”

“Almost, baby boy.”

“Think I’ll stay here with Anya until it’s ready. She says I’m a big help…”

“It looks as though you are, Oscar. Sweet dreams.”

Lockdown minus point number 5: Playing hide and seek on narrow paths through the glen.

Lockdown plus point number 5: We have the glens

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Three

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Three

Today was the day. The big day. The day I’ve been putting off.

Today was Shopping Day.

For those of you who feel that my reaction to shopping in lockdown is somewhat over-dramatic, it’s clear there are some things you don’t know about me. One of them, is that this response is only slightly more dramatic than my usual reaction to a weekly food shop. I loathe supermarket shopping with a passion that’s hard to describe. Spending more than five minutes in a supermarket hurts my soul.

To avoid this traumatic event, I tend to be a daily shopper. Working from home, and living only ten minutes from Shoprite, it’s relatively easy to nip out to buy a few things for today’s dinner, and as long as I have a Plan, I can be in and out of the place in about fifteen minutes. Or I’ll be in town to use the library or go to the bookshop and I can nip into Marks and Spencer’s food hall. It’s like pretending that food shopping isn’t really happening.

Of course that means I never buy items like baked beans, tomato ketchup and toilet roll. Those go on the Big Shopping List. Eventually the day comes when I can’t put it off any longer. We’re down to our last tin of tomato soup and there are no bin bags and Big Shopping has to happen. Members of my family always know when that day comes. The fuss I make about it, half the island probably knows when that day comes, and plans to be somewhere else. And this is in normal life.

Now we have lockdown, ffs. Not only do I have to do The Big Shop, but I have to do it sensibly. With social distancing, Knobs Panic Buying and the strong chance that Mother Nature, who has a funny sense of humour, will throw in a gale so the boat can’t go, I can’t rely on daily Pretend Shopping. Also there’s Brexit. I still can’t really take that seriously, but ever since I read that Northern Ireland might be deprived of Percy Pigs if Boris, Merkel and Macron can’t get their act together, maybe I should at least wave to it.

I could barely speak this morning as I gathered my shopping bags, packed my hand sanitiser, wipes and muzzle, and prepared to leave. The family hung around looking awkward, and telling me occasionally how much they loved me. I can’t decide if this was in the nature of a last farewell in case I didn’t come back, a burst of gratitude for my self-sacrifice or an act of self-preservation in case I lost the plot and lobbed a half bottle of Carex anti-bacterial wash at their heads. I wasn’t happy but I was slightly mollified. It’s always good to be a hero.

Arriving at Shoprite was a bit of an anti-climax. Earlier in the year, the social distancing queue often ran round the back of the shop. Today there was nothing apart from a masked security guard, looking a bit like the Lone Ranger, checking that we were all muzzled-up before entering the shop. I grabbed my trolley and advanced, keeping an eye out for enemy skirmishers.

As it turned out, the enemy had retreated. In fact, the whole thing was very simple. Shelves were mostly full, people were generally socially distancing, and the whole thing wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been for the muzzle.

It’s not my first experience of having to wear a mask in shops. I did it earlier in the year when I was in the UK with my daughter. I was very responsible about it, didn’t make a fuss and just got on with it. That’s the grown-up thing to do.

Who am I kidding? It is absolutely f**king foul and I loathe every minute of it. I don’t moan, but that’s only because there’s nobody to moan to who can do a darned thing about it. But inside my head, there is a constant toddler whine going on. “I hate this. It’s so hot. It’s so nasty. I can’t see so I have to take my glasses off. Now I can’t see, because I don’t have my glasses on. I can’t breathe. My nose is running. I’m sweating. I’m feeling very weird…

Actually, I am feeling weird. Realising it stops me in my tracks, and I’m outside, abandoning my trolley for a few minutes, gulping in fresh air. Claustrophobia is the most illogical thing in the world, but no amount of talking sense to myself makes it any better, so I give it another minute then get myself back in there before somebody removes my trolley and I have to do the whole thing over again.

I emerge at the end victorious but with one or two things still to do. I need to go to Boots, so park in M & S carpark which is virtually empty. Once I’ve been to the chemist, I decide I might feel brave enough to see if I can get the final few items on my list. Donning my muzzle, to prevent me biting anybody who gets between me and the last cauliflower, I enter the fray.

The first thing I see at the entrance to the food hall is the florist section, and right at the front, a bucket of green stemmed, tightly closed up flowers. I stop and stare, my heart doing a funny little jump.

Daffodils.

I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of this. Generally speaking, after the fun of Christmas is over, the first daffodils arrive in the shops and my spirits are automatically lifted. Daffodils are a family talisman. My mother adored them, my sister and I feel the same and they are, unsurprisingly, my daughter’s favourite flowers. I’ve planted a ton in my new garden, and they’re already starting to come up although they won’t flower for a while.  Daffodils in vases around the house, along with a pot of hyacinths in the living room and kitchen, are a symbol of hope, of the ending of the long winter months, a promise of spring and a brighter future. If ever I needed daffodils it is now, and here they are.

As if it was a good omen, I find my cauliflower and the few other items I needed. I load up the small trolley and head to the checkout. The lad studies my shopping on the conveyer. I can’t tell if he’s smiling, as they’ve had to muzzle the staff as well in the post-Christmas rage, but I try desperately to convey an air of good cheer through the thick black gag over my face and hope he gets the point. The shopping goes through. It mostly consists of daffodils.

“You like flowers, then?”

I see. A sense of humour. I try to look deadpan, then remember he can’t see my face properly anyway. 

“Panic buying daffodils. Thank God you’ve not rationed them yet.”

He makes a funny noise. It might be laughter at my wit or possibly the muzzle is choking him. I choose to believe the former.

Outside, it’s sunny, and I can take the damned muzzle off. I drive home in a much better mood and start unloading the endless shopping. My daughter wanders in, mired in the final stages of her essay. She sees what’s on the worktop.

“Daffodils. Oh my God, I forgot they’d be out!”

The sheer joy in her voice makes me happy. We put away the shopping, playing with Oscar as we do it, then take him outside into the garden to play and inspect our own early stage daffodils.

“Mum. Didn’t Joey and I have daffodils that went on our collars once?”

“You did, Oscar.”

“Do we still have them?”

“I bet we do. I’ll go through your box and find them tomorrow.”

“I’d like that. Reminds me of the old Yella Fella. Can we go to the beach tomorrow?”

“Definitely, Oscar. In the meantime, shall we go and feed the ducks?”

“Good idea, Mum. As long as Angry White Duck isn’t there. He doesn’t like me.”

“He doesn’t like anybody, Oscar.”

On the way back, it’s growing dark and getting very cold.

 

 

 

“Isn’t the sky pretty, Mum?”

“Beautiful, Oscar. Are you hungry?”

“Starving. Did you buy my favourite food?”

“I did.”

“Did you wear your muzzle?”

“All the way round. I didn’t bite anybody at all.”

“What a good girl.”

“Cheeky beggar. Come on, let’s get you fed.”

Lockdown minus point 4: Muzzles

Lockdown plus point 4: Daffodils

Lockdown with Oscar: Day 2

Lockdown with Oscar: Day 2

Today was meant to be a Shopping and Errand Day. With this in mind, I set up shop in the kitchen, so that I could use the table to sort out my overflowing admin file and work out what needed to be done. This is always a job I have to do early in January. I have the sort of brain that has to make admin a project. I’ve been trying for my entire adult life to deal with paperwork as it comes in and not let it pile up, but I now understand that I am never going to be that person. Over any busy period, such as Christmas, I am never going to deal with admin on a daily basis, so I’ve trained myself to keep a proper file so that when I do get around to doing it, I’ve got everything in one place and I don’t have to search for vital pieces of paper stashed in odd drawers and on shelves.

I didn’t do badly with the admin and as a reward, I allowed myself to sit and write for a bit. Three hours later, I am willing to acknowledge that Shopping and Errand Day might not happen today. We’ve got enough to manage…

Essay writing is going well, I think, but as it’s happening in a different room today, I’m not quite so involved. Occasionally the laptop is thrust under my nose and I get to learn new and interesting facts about seventeenth century government finance, but mostly life is peaceful. Even my afternoon walk with Oscar didn’t happen today, as he was stolen by my son’s girlfriend, who is on a fitness kick. Oscar bounded out the door with huge excitement, and returned an hour later full of beans.

“OMG, Mum, I went on a walk with Rachael!”

“I know you did, Oscar. Did you enjoy it?”

“It was brilliant. We’re going to do it again! We saw loads of people again. Some of them were wearing muzzles again!”

“Masks, Oscar.”

“Whatever. It stops them from biting each other, which is good. Anyway, I’m just off to tell Rachael how much I love her again.”

I leave Oscar to it, listening to the shrieks from Rachael as Oscar leaps onto her as she’s sitting on the sofa and tries to climb onto her head. I’m sure she’ll be fine…

Eventually, worn out with so much love, Oscar comes back to the kitchen. We’ve moved his favourite bed next to my chair so he can be nice and close, and it’s clear the walk has worn him out.

“Mum. Is it dinner time?”

“No, you’ve got a couple of hours yet, Oscar. Have a snooze.”

Ten minutes pass.

“Mum. As we didn’t get a walk today, do you think we could go down the glen this evening, to see the lights?”

“If it’s not raining, Oscar.”

“It’s not going to rain. I can feel it in my tail. What’s for dinner?”

“Dog food, Oscar.”

“What else?”

“We’re having take away, it’s Friday.”

“Mmm. That sounds interesting. I might go and see Jon, he’s talking to the computer again.”

“Oh no you don’t. He’s on a zoom call with work.”

“Oh. Don’t you think they’d like to meet me?”

“Maybe later. Settle down, baby boy.”

Another ten minutes.

“Mum. I like lockdown.”

“Why’s that, Oscar?”

“You’re all here.”

“That’s a fair point, Oscar. Want to come into the garden and play?”

“Yes, please! Now, who shall I bring? Red snake hasn’t been out for a while.”

Sometimes, I think Oscar is a very wise dog. Maybe there are some good points to lockdown after all.

Lockdown plus point 3: We’re all together.

Lockdown minus point 3: I will need to wear my muzzle in the supermarket and the post office when I go tomorrow. Still, at least it will stop me biting anybody…