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.
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 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:
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.
“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…
We have a guest post today on Writing With Labradors, an interview with Tovi from the Sons of the Wolf Saga, who has travelled all the way from the eleventh century to join us, with the help of author Paula Lofting.
Tovi is one of the younger sons of Wulfhere and his story, along with that of his family is told in Sons of the Wolf, Paula’s series of novels set in the years leading up to the Battle of Hastings. I’ve read and reviewed both books previously, so it’s a great honour to have a chat with Tovi himself…
Good afternoon, Tovi, how are you?
Hello Lynn, thank you for being willing to talk with me.
I know that recently you had an interview with Stephanie, which my readers can find here. I read it and it was really interesting. I’ve got some different questions for you, but because some of my readers won’t know who you are, could you just tell me a little bit about yourself and your family, just to introduce yourself?
Of course. So I have just entered into my fourteenth winter and it is 1059. I am the son of Wulfhere who is the thegn of Horstede, a village in the land of the South Saxons. We have a large family – I have three younger sisters and one older. I also have two older brothers – twins – and they are terrible. I also have another half sister. But we don’t talk about her. Not all of my siblings are still alive but I won’t say which, for my scop (author) said I should not give too much of my story away.
No, we must not spoil the story for those who have not read the first books.
My father works for the king but he is also commended to Earl Harold. He spends 2 months at a time at court. And whilst he is away things can go very awry
Yes, I have read about some of the things that have gone wrong. Have you met the King. Can you tell me something about him and his relationship with your family?
My father never spoke much about King Edward, but I remember when I was very young, that there was a time when my father had to make a choice between supporting Earl Godwin – who was my Lord Harold’s father and lord before Harold in Sussex – and the king. I remember listening when I should have been asleep, to my father and his friends talking about the situation where King Edward and Earl Godwin had fallen out. My father and his friends had ridden to a meeting with the Godwinsons, and the king had demanded that Earl Godwin hand over all of the king’s thegns who had been commended to him, which was the king’s right to do. My Father and his friends did not want to abandon the Earl but in the end, Earl Godwin told them to go, because it was their duty to serve the king before him and my father was quite angry and upset about this, because from what I could make out, the trouble had not been of Godwin’s making.
So I don’t think that Father liked the king very much, but we must keep this quiet, because my father would lose his land and possibly his life if anyone were to find out. My father holds his land from the King and so therefore he is a king’s thegn and owes military service to the king in return.
I have met the Earl Harold who everyone thinks is more important than the King.
I was going to come on to Earl Harold next.
Earl Harold and my father used to be good friends and grew up together. But lately, my father is not happy with him
Tell me more about Earl Harold, then. What is he like and why has your father fallen out with him?
I first met Earl Harold when I was just ten summers old and he came to my father’s homestead with his family and I thought he was magnificent. He looked like a god, tall and handsome. I was in awe. Around this time my eldest sister Freya’s started sneaking off to meet Edgar who was the son of Helghi, my father’s enemy. We children knew that it was forbidden to speak with any of that family, but we did not know why. Freyda didn’t care. She has fallen in love with Edgar and one night the pair of them hid in Helghi’s barn and caused a fire to start that burned almost all of their buildings! There was hell to pay and Lord Harold insisted that the in order for the feud to end between our families, Freyda and Edgar should be allowed to marry. Well Father was forced to agree, but eventually he found another suitor for Freyda and married her elsewhere. The feud had started long ago but until now had been quiet. This just made it begin all over again and Lord Harold was not best pleased and made my father promise to give my other sister in marriage to Helghi’s son when she is old enough. So my father is no longer happy with the Earl.
I can see why.
Aye. My mother was furious
Is it usual for a lord such as Harold to intervene in the marriage plans of his thegns families?
He is the king’s representative as the Earl of Wessex and therefore he has the right. I think it’s common for blood feuds to spill out into the wider communities- you only have to look to the northern provinces of England to see what turmoil they have caused there. So I suppose he wanted to stop that from happening.
Did Harold hope the marriage would end the feud then? I can see why he might have wanted that. Do you have any idea why the feud began?
Yes that’s exactly why, and marriage alliances are a god way of doing this. And no, we children don’t know, but we think it started with my father’s father and Helghi’s father. And there has also been mention of what happened to Edgar’s leg.
What happened to Edgar’s leg? Was this all part of the feud?
Edgar has a limp. I thought he fell out of a tree, but I heard some people talking and they said my father sold Helghi a badly shod horse for Edgar when he was a child and he fell off the horse and my father got the blame. But I know my father would never do that. He is an honest man. Then because my Father refused to pay compensation, Helghi burnt his stables and killed some of his horses! I also think there was a woman involved but I don’t know the full story
That’s how feuds continue, sometimes for generations. Do you think the marriage between your eldest sister and Edgar might have put an end to it? Did they love each other?
I think Edgar did. Freyda obviously didn’t love him enough because although she refused at first, she grew to like Aemund and soon forgot Edgar. I think she just wanted to rebel against our mother and father. Poor Edgar. I really liked him. He was kind to me. He was always at the homestead and would do anything for anyone. I think it was my mother who bullied father into finding a way out of the oath. They hate Helghi because he is a ceorl and therefore of lower status. Mother was furious that father gave in to the Earl. Edgar was heartbroken. He actually set a trap for a Freyda and kidnapped her.
What about the sister who is now supposed to marry into that family, how does she feel about it?
Well I’m not sure because I’m not at home at the moment. I was banished from home by my parents so I’m not sure what’s going on there. But I think that if I know Winflaed she will want to make things all right. So she might just agree to it.
Where are you living at present, Tovi?
I’m in a collegiate in Waltham. It’s where Earl Harold resides with his wife Eadgyth. He started a school to train boys to become priests for his new church. I hate it. It’s quite a long way from home in the lands of the East Saxons
Are you homesick?
Yes I am homesick. I didn’t want to go but they made me. I miss my sister Winflaed. I miss my father even and Father Paul our priest, and Aelfstan the blacksmith and Sigfrith our maid.
Do you miss your brothers, the twins? And what about your mother?
I hate my brothers. And I love my mother but in hate her too. It’s the same with my father too. I will never forgive them for making me go away
Why do they want you to become a priest? What would you rather be, if not a priest?
I always thought I was destined to be a warrior like my father. But my mother- it’s hard to speak of…. She wanted me to go because she was scared I would tell my father something she did and she couldn’t bear to look at me. I tried to tell her I wouldn’t tell, but she made him send me away anyway and Father did not fight for me.
Do you think that might change one day? That your father will want you back?
I hope so.
What are you learning at Waltham? What kind of education are you getting?
Greek, Latin, Frankish. Mathematics, and I am learning to read and write and to recite mass amongst a number of things.
Can all of your family read and write?
My sisters can read but they never learned to write. Father can also read and write. The twins know to read and write also. My youngest sister is simple so she hasn’t learned. Oh and my mother speaks French and she and my oldest sister Freyda can recite poetry
So quite a well educated family then.
Most of our social class can at least read and write
Tovi, I don’t know much about how things work among your people, and probably my readers don’t either. As a younger son, would you have inherited any of your father’s property? Or would you have been expected to go out into service with another lord and make your own way in the world? As a warrior, perhaps?
Yes I can. But it depends on what he puts in his will. It’s always up to one’s father at the end of the day. If he doesn’t like you, he may not leave you anything. And there’s no law of primogeniture here yet. Many young men go into service for a lord or someone if they are landless. In the hope that their lord will be good to them and reward them.
Do you think that’s something you might still be able to do when you are older, if you don’t wish to become a priest?
Oh I’m not going to be a priest.
I had a feeling you might say that…
I’ll kill myself before I do that. I will run away. I’ve done that before when I was younger and they kept bringing me back and beat me till I stopped doing it. But I’m older now. If I have to run away I will make sure they don’t find me again.
How long have you been at Waltham now?
Two and a half years
Have you been home during that time?
No never, but I have a feeling I will soon
Who would you say you are more like, in your family, your mother or your father? And who would you wish to be like? What do you admire about them, and what do you dislike?
Apparently I look more like my mother. But I don’t think I’m like either of them. Father lost his back bone and can’t stand up for himself with her. I think I do stand up for myself. And I’m not like mother, because I don’t think I am selfish like she is. If I had to be like anyone, I’d be like Earl Harold. No matter how hard I try not to show it, I think I have a boy crush on the man
That was going to be one of my next questions – who is your hero? But I think you’ve answered that for me. What do you admire about Earl Harold?
I’m not certain but I think there is something that draws people to him. He makes you feel good about yourself. He is very self effacing. He is kind, fair and he takes notice of you. And people love him. Who doesn’t want to be loved? I suppose it’s his confidence I like as well.
If you could make your dreams for the future come true, would they include being in service to Earl Harold?
Absolutely. But we have a saying. “Wyrd bid araed.”
Wyrd bid araed? What does that mean?
It means fate is inexorable…you cannot escape your destiny. You never know what threads the spinners will spin for you. I find it hard now to wish for anything because it is too painful if it doesn’t happen.
You must have dreams though? A hall of your own one day? A wife and children, maybe? Have you met a girl you like yet, Tovi, or have you not had a chance among the priests?
I do have dreams of one day being a great warrior. And as for girls or having a wife and children I’ve not really seen anything that makes me think having all that is a great idea. My mother and father hate each other and they hurt their children. Why would I want to do that myself?
Maybe you’ll do it differently, Tovi. Maybe you’ll learn from your parents’ mistakes and create a happy family. I hope so.
Perhaps I will. There is a girl I like.
Can you tell me about her?
Well you have to promise not to tell anyone.
I won’t mention it to anybody you know…
Because the priests tell me her father would cut my balls off if he found out
Oh my goodness, we can’t have that. Who is she?
Her name is Gytha. She is the Earl’s daughter
Earl Harold’s daughter?
Aye! She has been really kind to me whilst I’ve been here. We sometimes meet secretly, but just to talk. Nothing else, she is only eleven. She reminds me of my sister Winflaed and it feels nice
Being friends is a very good start and it has probably helped with your homesickness
Yes indeed. She was there for me.
Tovi, it’s been really good to talk to you today, and I feel as though I’ve got to know you a lot better. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two books in the series. I have asked your author to send me some information about herself and the books for my readers, but I would also like to ask you – if you were talking to my readers about your books, what would you say to make them want to read them?
Tovi pauses to think very carefully.
I would say that the era in which I lived is of great importance to our country. What happened in 1066 was a huge turning point for us English. It wasn’t just a case of out with the old and in with the new. Our people suffered greatly by the take over. The flower of our English youth – it has been said – was lost that day in battle. They were fighting for their families, their homes, their lands, their customs and the right to be free. The enemy was fighting to take that away from us. Our nobility was virtually decimated, and thousands of people died through famine and slaughter.
Very often our ancestors, the ordinary people, not the great and powerful are forgotten and what my people lost and how they suffered should be remembered. People I often speak with don’t understand what happened before that day in 1066 and my story – not just mine but that of my family and friends, explains the whys, the wherefores, and the whats. It was no simple case of a crown being promised to a man and then taken by a usurper. It was far more complex than that, and our story reflects that through the eyes of a wide range of classes of English folk.
The story is told in such a way that you will laugh, cry, and fight with us. You will want the good to succeed and the bad to fall foul. You will live among us, eat, feast, and love with us. You will know what it was like to smell the smoky halls and fill your belly with stew from the huge cooking pot as it hangs from the rafters. You’ll hear the wolves howling at night as we listen to tales of times gone by during hearth time, feeling the fire warm you, as you experience all the good and bad life has to give. And when all is said and done, you will know the joy of winning and the horror of losing just as we will.
Sons of the Wolf is an epic tale that will touch you like no other.
Paula Lofting started her writing career much later than she would have liked to. As a little girl, she had dreams of being an author but had to wait until she was in her forties to publish her first book Sons of the Wolf, which she first did in 2012 with Silverwoods books. In 2016 she rereleased it herself with Longship and then shortly after the second book in the series was published, The Wolf Banner.
She is now working on the third in the series which is set in the Eleventh Century in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest of England and promises to be an epic saga that will cover the Battle if Hastings and the rebellions after.
You can find out more about Paula and her work here:
A Winter in Cadiz is my Valentine’s Day short story for 2021. It takes place during Lord Wellington’s brief trip to Cadiz and Lisbon during winter quarters 1812-13 which is mentioned during An Unmerciful Incursion. As always, the story is free so please share it as much as you like.
The glorious painting above was borrowed from here.
I had intended to do something with more of a Spanish theme for this story, but Captain Graham has been in my head for a while, prodding me from time to time and reminding me that I introduced him at the beginning of An Uncommon Campaign and have barely given him a job to do since, let along a chance of romance. I hope he’ll be happy now.
Thanks so much to all my fabulous readers for continuing to read the books, love the characters and constantly nag me to write more. I’m on the job, I promise you.
A Winter in Cadiz
“I have been three days longer on my journey than I intended, owing to the the fall of rain, which has swelled all the torrents, and I am now detained here by the swelling of the Gevora. I hope, however, to get to Badajoz this evening.” (Wellington to Beresford, 18 Dec 1812)
“The weather is foul and the roads are impassable, we are held up every day by floods and even Lord Fitzroy Somerset is low in spirits. His Lordship’s temper is so bad that the men of our escort invent excuses to scout the area to avoid him and Lord Fitzroy and I are counting the days until we reach Cadiz so that he will at least have somebody else to shout at. I wish he had chosen someone other for the honour of accompanying him so that I could have joined you for Christmas. (Captain Richard Graham to Major-General Paul van Daan, 18 Dec 1812)
Cadiz, Spain, 1812
Captain Richard Graham had almost forgotten about Christmas. During his army career he had spent the season in a variety of places, some of them extremely uncomfortable. During their long, wet, miserable journey from Freineda to Cadiz he had fully expected to spend the day huddled in a draughty farmhouse listening to Lord Wellington complaining. They arrived in Cadiz at midday on the 24th and Richard was swept from drenched, muddy misery into surprising luxury in a matter of minutes. Lord Wellington and his two aides were conducted to an elegant house in a side-street just off the Plaza San Antonio and Richard found himself in a comfortable bedchamber with a maid bringing hot water and wine and the information that a light meal would be served before his Lordship joined the parade through the city.
Wellington was in the salon and Richard drank wine and listened to his commander being charming to his host and hostess as though the irritability of the past weeks had not existed. Colonel Lord Fitzroy Somerset, Wellington’s young military secretary, appeared at Richard’s side eating a chicken leg.
“Grab some food, Captain, while you can. We’ll be off shortly and I’ve attended these things before, it could be hours before we see food again.”
Richard headed for the silver platters laid out on a sideboard. Filling a plate, he said: “Should I take some to his Lordship?”
“I just tried,” Fitzroy said. “He looked at me as though I’d offered him a dead rat then waved me away like the under-kitchen maid. Feel free to see if you do any better.”
“Does he even need food?” Richard said, spearing a slice of cheese.
“Yes. He just doesn’t remember that he does. I’m not too worried, there’ll be some kind of ball or banquet this evening, he’ll be hungry enough to eat by then.”
“Well if he’s not, I definitely will be,” Richard said philosophically and Fitzroy laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.
“I’m very glad he chose you for this journey, Captain, you are so blissfully even-tempered. Most of the others would have been worn down on the way but it doesn’t matter what he says, you don’t flinch.”
Richard felt absurdly flattered. “I’ve no idea why he chose me, sir. I’m by no means his favourite ADC.”
Fitzroy gave a little smile. “You’re mine,” he said. “The others are all very good fellows, but when I need something done without a discussion about whose job it is, you are my absolute favourite, Captain Graham. And although he hasn’t the least notion how to express his appreciation, I suspect he feels the same way.”
The thought cheered Richard. He had arrived in Portugal eighteen months earlier with a position on Lord Wellington’s staff after a miserable few years in the Indies. His appointment had been the result of a good deal of hard work by a cousin at Horse Guards and Richard had arrived with the strong sense that he was here on sufferance. His discomfort had initially increased when he realised that Lord Wellington’s staff consisted almost entirely of young sprigs of the English aristocracy plus the twenty-one year old Dutch Prince of Orange. Richard’s fellow ADCs had been polite but puzzled and Wellington had been coolly civil. Richard, who was not particularly sensitive and knew how fortunate he was in this appointment, gritted his teeth and smiled a good deal.
His breakthrough into acceptance had not come from within the commander-in-chief’s household, but from an early meeting with a young colonel, recently promoted to command a brigade of the light division. Richard had instinctively liked Paul van Daan, who came from a very wealthy Anglo-Dutch trade family. Paul was not of the aristocratic background of Wellington’s inner circle although his mother had been a viscount’s daughter, but he seemed to have the ability to effortlessly bridge the gap. Wellington was rigidly wedded to the existing social order and enjoyed the company of his young ADCs, but he was at his most relaxed and informal in the company of Colonel van Daan and his attractive, intelligent wife.
Richard quickly became friends with Paul van Daan. Such friendships happened in the erratic shifts of army life. Sometimes they proved as fleeting as a short posting and at other times they stood the test of sudden parting and long absences. Richard suspected that Paul’s early friendship with Wellington had been the subject of some jealousy and backbiting at headquarters although by now he was recognised as a valuable asset in managing the commander-in-chief. Certainly he appeared to understand why Richard felt like an outsider, and he invited him frequently to dine and to socialise with the officers of the 110th. Richard was grateful initially for the company, then unexpectedly for the opportunity it gave him to see his difficult, irritable commander in a completely different light. All of his first real conversations with Lord Wellington had occurred at Anne van Daan’s table and it had enabled Richard to see past Wellington’s defensive and often sarcastic manner to a man whom he actually quite liked.
Richard was not sure that Wellington reciprocated the feeling and he was genuinely surprised when he was informed that as the rest of the army settled into winter quarters to recover from the appalling hardships of the retreat from Burgos and Madrid, Wellington required his company on a visit to Cadiz and Lisbon to meet with the Spanish and Portuguese governments. He suspected his surprise had shown on his face because Wellington looked amused.
“I will not be taking my household staff, Captain Graham, just one or two servants, a cavalry escort and Lord Fitzroy Somerset. We will be riding as fast as possible as this cannot be a long trip. I have observed that you are an excellent horseman, you do not complain about difficult conditions and your Spanish and Portuguese are both very good. Please be ready to leave in two days.”
The citizens of Cadiz greeted Wellington with joyous enthusiasm, which may have been an expression of gratitude for all that he had done so far in helping to drive the French out of Spain, but might also have been a useful excuse for parades and parties. The streets were illuminated at night in a way that reminded Richard of their arrival in Madrid earlier in the year. Wellington’s every public appearance was greeted with cannon salutes, cheering crowds and women throwing flowers from balconies or running to lay their shawls and scarves before his horse’s hooves. Wellington accepted the adulation with dignified restraint. He had chosen to wear a Spanish uniform in his capacity as Duque de Ciudad Rodrigo, probably to reinforce his new position as commander-in-chief of the Spanish army.
One of the reasons Wellington was here was to address the Cortes and to negotiate the terms of his new command with the Spanish government. It was also a family reunion as his younger brother, Sir Henry Wellesley, had served as ambassador to Spain for several years, negotiating the stormy waters of Spanish politics through the years of the French siege and beyond. Richard had never met Sir Henry who had followed a diplomatic career alongside Wellington’s military success. He decided, on introduction, that there was a strong family resemblance but that Sir Henry seemed easier in his manners. There was obvious rapport between the two brothers and Richard wondered if it was a relief to his generally reticent commander to have a trusted member of his family beside him.
It relieved Richard of many of his duties. Lord Fitzroy Somerset was called upon to take notes at a number of meetings, and there was the usual enormous amount of correspondence to manage, but most of Richard’s time seemed taken up with dinners and receptions and balls as the Spanish government and their ladies vied with each other to provide the most lavish entertainment. There was a formal dinner on the day of their arrival followed by an evening reception in one of the gleaming white mansions which overlooked the bay. The English community in Cadiz consisted of the officers commanding those troops remaining in the city, diplomats and a few hardy merchants who had not fled during the long siege. Richard made small talk with a collection of Spanish politicians, paid compliments to their wives and daughters and smiled until his cheeks ached. Across the room he could see Somerset performing the same duty. There were several pretty girls clustered around him and Richard grinned. There was to be a full ball the following evening and he suspected that his fellow ADC was being importuned for dances. Somerset’s excellent manners and sunny disposition made him popular with the ladies.
Richard turned quickly, saluting. Wellington was accompanied by a young woman dressed exquisitely in a dull yellow gown with gold embroidery which looked as though it must have cost a fortune. She was small and delicately made with mid-brown hair curling around an appealing heart-shaped face. Richard was not at all surprised to find a girl this pretty on Wellington’s arm. He also recognised with some puzzlement that Wellington was desperate to get rid of her.
“Captain, allow me to present Miss Honoria Grainger. Miss Grainger was here with her Mama who has most unfortunately been taken ill and had to leave. I promised her we would take care of her daughter and see her safely home when she is ready to depart. I need to have a word with Sir Henry and one or two gentlemen before our meeting tomorrow, may I ask if you would be my deputy?”
“Of course, my Lord.”
Wellington bowed and departed at speed and Richard dug into his memory for a time when conversing with young ladies at elegant receptions had been part of his normal life. It must have been ten years ago and since then he had married and been widowed and killed men on a battlefield, but he thought he could still remember how it was done.
“It is very good to meet you, Miss Grainger. What brings you to Cadiz, is your father an officer or a diplomat?”
Miss Grainger turned a pair of frosty blue eyes onto him. “What makes you think that I am here with my father at all, Captain Graham? Do you suppose that a young female is incapable of travelling of her own accord and must remain entirely at the beck and call of her father or husband?”
Richard stared at her in astonishment. “I beg your pardon, ma’am,” he said stiffly. “I made an assumption based on Lord Wellington’s introduction and also, I confess, on my own experience so far. I would be delighted if you would tell me how you do come to be in Cadiz since it is probably a far more interesting story.”
The girl looked at him for a long moment. “I believe I was just very rude,” she announced finally. “I apologise, Captain. I am not quite myself this evening.”
“Has that to do with your Mama’s sudden illness or is that another assumption?” Richard asked.
To his surprise she bestowed an approving look on him. “How very astute you are, Captain Graham. My Mama is not at all unwell, she was simply unbearably embarrassed by her daughter and fled the field in confusion. If she had been ill, I would have gone with her.”
Richard stared at her. He was completely bewildered. “Miss Grainger, it is a very long time since I regularly attended occasions such as this, but I am sure that this is not the conversation that normally follows an introduction. Perhaps the rules have changed.”
Honoria Grainger regarded him thoughtfully and then suddenly gave a broad smile. It lit up her face and gave a sparkle to her eyes. It also displayed a wide gap between her front teeth. Richard was utterly charmed. “The rules are exactly the same and I am breaking all of them,” she said. “My mother is appalled and my father would give me a stern look if he was here. The trouble is that he is not here. And he is supposed to be.”
Richard had begun to wonder if Miss Grainger was a little mad but her last statement caught his interest. “Are you saying your father is missing?”
“Yes, I think he is. I have been trying to have this conversation with Lord Wellington but he was either disinterested or unwilling to share information with me. It is very frustrating.”
“Given that this is Lord Wellington, it could be either or both. But to do him justice, he has a great deal to do here in a very limited time. Is there not somebody else who could assist? There are a number of diplomats present, Miss Grainger…” Richard broke off at the expression on her face. “And I am treating you like an idiot, which you are very clearly not, I’m sorry. You’ve already spoken to them, haven’t you?”
Miss Grainger let out a long breath. “Many, many times,” she said. “We have been in Cadiz for four weeks, Captain. We received a letter from my father from Toulouse, suggesting that we meet him here…”
“Toulouse?” Richard said, bewildered. “What in God’s name was he doing in France?”
“He was on a diplomatic mission,” Miss Grainger said in exasperated tones. “Did I not tell you that he is a diplomat?”
“Oh. I thought I had.” The girl was silent for a moment. “I’m sorry. I am being very ill-mannered. None of this has anything to do with you, and you are probably wishing me to the devil. And I am sorry for my language as well. I think I should probably go home, my mother was right, there is no purpose to this.”
Her tone was flat and Richard saw suddenly that she was close to tears and trying very hard not to shed them. He had no idea at all what was going on but he felt a sudden need to comfort this odd, likeable girl which overrode his strong sense that he should take her home and forget about this.
“Miss Grainger, I have no idea at all what is happening here, but I can see that you are genuinely upset and more than a little angry. I can probably do nothing to help you, since I am with Lord Wellington and we shall very likely not be here much above a week. But if you wish to tell me the whole story, I’m very willing to listen and to give any advice that I can. A room full of people isn’t the best place for this. May I have permission to call on you tomorrow morning and you may tell me whatever you wish?”
Miss Grainger lifted grateful eyes to his face. “Truly? Captain Graham, thank you, that is so kind of you. I cannot remember the last time anybody actually listened to me, it is driving me mad.”
“If it helps, you’ll have my undivided attention,” Richard promised gravely. “Let’s get you home. Have you a carriage or a maid…?”
“My maid escorted my mother home, but she will have returned by now. And I am afraid we walked here, we are staying with Sir John Marlow and his wife and their house is only a few doors away. I refuse the ridiculous notion of calling for a carriage to drive a few feet.”
“Then I shall walk you home. Let me send one of the servants to find your maid.”
Richard presented himself promptly at Sir John’s house the following morning. He had wondered if he might be expected to run a gauntlet of concerned chaperones, but the girl was alone in the small salon when the servant announced him. Richard bowed and she came forward to shake his hand.
“I’m very grateful you came, Captain. You must have thought me a madwoman last night, I made no sense at all. I think, very foolishly, I had convinced myself that if I could just speak to Lord Wellington he would take my concerns seriously and I was very disappointed. Please, sit down.”
Richard sat opposite her on a brocade sofa. “Tell me about your father, Miss Grainger.”
“My father is Sir Horace Grainger. He is a diplomat and has served the foreign office in various capacities all his life. Often, my mother and I travelled with him. I have lived all over the world.” Richard thought that probably explained her surprisingly self-assured manner for such a young woman. “Why did he go to France?” “He was to visit several towns and cities where English prisoners of war are being held, particularly those civilian prisoners who were caught in France when the war resumed in 1803. He went as far as Verdun and held discussions about possible prisoner exchanges in the cases of several high-profile prisoners. He told us that the French were being asked to send a similar mission later this year.”
Richard frowned. “That surprises me. I know that the French are seldom willing to exchange prisoners and there have been repeated attempts to get the civilians released, always unsuccessful.”
“Yes,” Honoria said neutrally. “Anyway, my father travelled as usual with his valet and his groom, both of whom have been with him for years, plus a French escort. He visited the prisoners and attended a number of meetings, it was a lot of travelling. During that time, he sent regular letters home, both to the Foreign Office and to us. He told us a great deal about the countryside and the food and very little about his work but that was not unusual. His last letter was from Toulouse. He told us that his mission was over and that he would be travelling into Spain to board a Royal Navy ship from Bilbao which would take him to Cadiz. He was expecting to be detained here for some time on business so suggested we sail to meet him here.”
“And he did not come? Have you had word?”
“Nothing. It is very unlike him, Captain, he is a very affectionate husband and father. He and I are especially close. He always writes. But what is even more worrying is that the foreign office have heard nothing either. He did not board the ship as expected.”
Richard did not speak for a moment. He realised that he had been hoping he could allay her concerns, but instead he shared them. The situation on the northern coast of Spain had been volatile for months and in many places the partisans had seized control of entire areas of the countryside from the French. Richard had seen letters describing guerrilla raids and skirmishes and he could offer this girl no real reassurance. He wondered if he should lie, but discarded the idea immediately. She was far too intelligent to believe him.
“Do you think he might have been detained in France?”
“I don’t know. I have spoken to Sir Henry and he assures me that the foreign office are making enquiries, but he will not tell me any more. Letters can take many weeks and are frequently lost, especially given that it is the stated aim of the Spanish forces to disrupt French lines of communication.”
“What does he suggest that you do?”
“He suggests we go home and wait.” Honoria’s voice was bitter. “After all, that is what women are supposed to do, is it not?”
“I suppose so. It isn’t easy though.”
She studied him for a moment. “Is that what you expect your wife to do, Captain?”
Richard hoped that he had not flinched. “My wife died, Miss Grainger, along with our child. Six years ago now. I wasn’t there, I often wonder if I had been…but I’ll never know.”
Honoria Grainger went very still and Richard was horrified to see her eyes fill with sudden tears. He was annoyed at himself for blurting out so much information to a virtual stranger and one with troubles of her own. After six years it hurt less but he still hated having to explain about Sally and he felt that he had done it clumsily.
“Oh, I’m sorry. That is so very dreadful, and I’ve made you think about it. I am the worst person, I always ask the wrong questions and I never know when to stop. I’m so wrapped up with my own worries, I didn’t think.”
Richard got up and moved to sit beside her on the other sofa, reaching for her hand. “Stop it,” he said firmly. “This is not your fault, and I’m perfectly fine. I will miss her until the day I die, but I can talk of it now. In fact, I’m glad that you know, because when people don’t, there is always that uncertainty…is he married, is he a bachelor, should I ask about his family? I’m glad that you know. And probably because of Sally, I understand a little of what you feel. She hated waiting at home.”
“Sally? What a pretty name. What was she like..no, I’m sorry.”
“She was lovely,” Richard said, to his considerable surprise. “She was witty and kind and gentle and very loving. She wanted a home and children and all the things I wanted too. I felt very cheated.”
The girl’s hand squeezed his. It startled him because he had forgotten he was holding her hand. “I’m very envious, Captain. Firstly because I could never be all of those things and secondly because I suspect I want all of those things too. I’m sorry you lost her, but you must be so happy to have had her.”
Richard could feel himself smiling. “Miss Grainger, do you always say everything that comes into your head?”
“Far more often than I want to,” Honoria said fervently. “Have I offended you?”
“Not at all. Talking to you is a genuine pleasure, I don’t feel as though I need to be on my guard at all. Look, I don’t honestly know if there is any way that I can help you, but I would like to try. May I share your story with Lord Fitzroy Somerset?”
“That charming young man who asked me to reserve a dance this evening? I suppose so, but why?”
Richard was surprised to realise that he was thinking uncharitable thoughts about Somerset. “He is a senior officer, and very close to Lord Wellington. He may have an idea of how best to approach him.”
“He is your senior officer?”
“He is a lieutenant-colonel and his Lordship’s military secretary, ma’am.”
“I expect that is because he is a lord,” Honoria said sagely. “My father has often commented on some of the odd choices for promotion within the army.”
Richard laughed. “Your father is right, but not in this case. Lord Fitzroy is both an excellent officer and an excellent fellow. Also, he is my friend and will take the matter seriously. Between us, we cannot solve your problem, but we may be able to ensure you are given full information.”
“That is all I can ask, Captain.”
“Do you think you will go home?”
“I barely know my home,” Honoria said sounding suddenly lost. “We have a house in London but I have never lived there for more than a year at a time. My mother is talking of returning there while we wait for news, but I don’t want to leave without knowing.”
Richard felt an irrational lift of his heart. “We are probably going to return via Lisbon but we are here for at least another week. I am really hoping you hear good news soon, Miss Grainger. It may be nothing more than an illness on the road.”
Steady blue eyes regarded him. “I hope so too. But it may be very much worse.”
Honoria was not sure why her conversation with Captain Graham made her feel so much better, since he had promised nothing and she knew that realistically he might not be able to help at all. At the age of twenty-one, she had moved in diplomatic and military circles all her life and understood very well that Captain Graham’s position was relatively lowly. What he did have, however, was the advantage of access to Lord Wellington, and temporarily to his brother, the Ambassador. Honoria was not naïve enough to assume that either of the Wellesleys would be able to produce her missing father out of thin air, but she did think that between them they possessed enough influence to push the foreign office into pursuing more rigorous enquiries.
Lady Grainger shook her head when Honoria told her of her conversations with Captain Graham. “It was not well done of you, Honoria. Captain Graham is not in a position to make demands of Lord Wellington and should not be pressured into doing so out of kindness.”
“Captain Graham is not obliged to do anything at all, Mama. But somebody should be doing something. Father has given his entire life to the service of his country, they cannot just shrug their shoulders and pretend he did not exist.”
“I am sure they are not doing so, my child. It is just they have not yet informed us…”
“It is just that we are two silly females who cannot be trusted not to swoon at the implication that something may have happened to him,” Honoria said furiously. “I wish I had been a man, they would not have fobbed me off like this then.”
“Of course, if you had married Mr Derbyshire last year, he would have had the right to enquire on our behalf,” her mother said archly. Honoria set down her tea cup with an unnecessary clink.
“If I had married Mr Derbyshire last year, Mama, I would have died of boredom by now, so it would be of no concern to me.”
Lady Grainger laughed. “He was not that bad, Honoria. I thought him very charming, and he has a very promising Parliamentary career ahead of him. I think you would do very well as a politician’s wife.”
“I think I would do very well as a politician, but we know that is not possible.” Honoria sighed. “I am not set against marriage as you seem to think, Mama. I would like all the things that go with it – a home of my own, children, a position in the world. But I cannot marry I man I neither like or respect. Marriage lasts too long.”
“I know. And neither your father or I would try to force you. It is just that you have led such an unusual life for a young girl, following your father around the world. And he has always shared so much with you, as if you were the son we did not have. I wonder sometimes if that makes it harder for you to find a man you like.”
“If I did meet a man I liked, the chances are we would have moved on before I could form an attachment,” Honoria said. She was surprised to realise that she was thinking about Richard Graham. Whatever help he might be able to give her in her search for her father, he would be gone before she really got to know him, and Honoria was faintly depressed at the thought.
“Honoria, will you at least attend the ball this evening? There is nothing more you can do now, and while we are here, I would like to see you enjoy yourself a little.”
“I must attend, since I have promised several gentlemen that I will dance with them. Mama, how long must we stay in Cadiz?”
“I was hoping to remain until your father arrived, but I wonder now if we should return to London,” Lady Grainger said. Her voice shook a little on the words and Honoria took her hand. She knew that her mother was trying to maintain a hopeful manner for her sake, but Honoria was not deceived. Her mother was as worried as she was.
“I think we should remain here a little longer. Why don’t you write to the housekeeper giving her a date for our arrival, she’ll need time to prepare. We can always change our plans if Father suddenly turns up with the news that we are all off to Cape Town.”
“I rather liked Cape Town,” her mother said wistfully. The memory made Honoria laugh.
“Apart from Sir Home Popham.”
“Oh that terrible man. He talked to me – no at me – about some kind of nautical chart for an hour or more without taking a breath. I was never more relieved than when he sailed off to South America and got himself court-martialled.”
“Father said it was the closest he’d ever seen you to failing as a diplomat’s wife.”
“Your father was no help at all, he just laughed.” Suddenly there were tears in Lady Grainger’s eyes. “Oh Honoria, where is he? What if he doesn’t come back at all?”
Honoria put her arms about her mother and held her close, trying hard not to cry with her. “We’ll be all right, Mama. I just hope he will too.”
The ball was hosted at the embassy and the rooms were crowded with both British and Spanish dignitaries. It was very warm, despite the season, and there was a smell of cigar smoke which made Honoria wrinkle her nose. Both Lord Wellington and Sir Henry greeted her pleasantly in the receiving line with no indication that they had held any conversation about her that day, but Honoria supposed that Captain Graham had not had time to speak of the matter.
A British regimental band played and Honoria danced with several gentlemen she already knew, including a dark eyed young Portuguese officer who had been assiduously pursuing her since the day she arrived. Honoria quite liked Lieutenant Souza but had no interest in any form of dalliance and she was relieved when Lord Fitzroy appeared to claim the promised waltz.
“You are a capital dancer, Miss Grainger, I am very happy you decided to attend. I was a little concerned after Captain Graham spoke to me of your father.”
“He spoke to you?” Honoria said quickly. “Oh. I had not thought…that was very quick.”
Somerset grinned. It was different to the social smile she had seen so far and it made her like him suddenly. “One of the reasons I begged Lord Wellington to bring Captain Graham on this visit, ma’am, is that he is a man who gets things done. Generally, I am very over-worked, but when I need help, he is the man I call on. Have you met him before?”
“No,” Honoria said, surprised. “Lord Wellington introduced us yesterday. I do not…I have no idea why I told him about my father. He is very easy to talk to.”
“He is a thoroughly good fellow. I asked because he approached Lord Wellington and Sir Henry this afternoon about the matter and I was a little concerned. He was very plain spoken, which Lord Wellington does not always appreciate.”
Honoria was appalled. “Oh my goodness, no. I had no intention of him doing any such thing. I hope he has not got himself into trouble.”
“I think it will be fine. Lord Wellington was very irritated and I tried to intervene, but as it happened, Sir Henry was there before me. It seems he has been very concerned about the fact that nobody is talking to you about your father. But I do not intend to say more, I will let Captain Graham tell you himself.”
Honoria danced with her mind on anything other than her partners. Her dance with Captain Graham was a country dance with frequent changes of partner and no possibility of rational conversation. She enjoyed the dance, and the few words she exchanged with him, and tried not to make it obvious that she was desperate to question him. She was not sure she was successful, because as the dance ended he bowed over her hand and said quietly:
“Thank you, Miss Grainger, that was a very enjoyable dance. May I hope for another? A waltz, if you have one free?”
“I should be delighted, Captain.”
“May I also ask if we might speak alone for a moment. Or with your Mama present, if you prefer. We could step out onto the terrace if it is not too cold for you?”
“I am not engaged for this next dance, Captain.”
Graham placed her hand on his arm, leading her through the long doors at the end of the room. The terrace was well lit and not entirely deserted, with several couples admiring the view over the lights of the lower town and out towards the lighthouse. A man stood alone at the stone balustrade. He turned as they approached and Honoria was surprised, and a little alarmed, to realise that it was Lord Wellington. Captain Graham saluted and Wellington returned it, then bowed to Honoria.
“Miss Grainger. I hope it is not too cold for you out here?”
“No, my Lord.”
“Excellent. We should keep this brief, however. Miss Grainger, I took part in a very acrimonious meeting earlier with Captain Graham, Lord Fitzroy Somerset and the Ambassador. I have to tell you that during the course of that meeting, I dismissed the captain from his post as my ADC.”
Honoria was appalled. She shot a look at Graham, who appeared completely unmoved by this statement.
“Twice, I believe, my Lord.”
“It would have been three times if I had not been outrageously bullied by my brother and my military secretary,” Wellington said crisply. “I have, however, been brought to believe that the captain may have a point. Despite the urgent requests by the foreign office in London for complete secrecy about your father’s disappearance, it is not acceptable to keep his family so much in the dark. Your distress and that of your poor mother is understandable and your determination to discover what has happened is both commendable and extremely irritating.”
“I had no wish to annoy your Lordship. I was just frantic to know, even if the news is bad. My father has never before failed to write to us for so long. I know something is wrong.”
“Very well,” Wellington said. Honoria had the impression that he wished nothing more than to get this interview over with. “You are correct in your assumption, Miss Grainger. Your father has gone missing and we have no idea where he is. I will tell you as much as I know. Like you, Sir Horace’s employers at the foreign office have not heard from him for more than a month. There has been an exchange of letters between diplomats in Paris and London. The French authorities are being extremely cooperative and appear to be as keen to discover the truth as we are. On his arrival in France, Sir Horace was met by a small escort of French cavalry. Over a period of two months, he travelled widely, visiting various prison facilities. His reports arrived frequently and were factual and very much as expected. I presume during that time he was also writing to you?”
“Very regularly, my Lord.”
“Sir Horace concluded his visit in Toulouse and his last report was written from there. He set off for the Spanish border, where a Royal Navy frigate under a flag of truce was waiting off Bilbao, to take him home. Nobody has heard from him since. Naturally, when Sir Horace failed to appear at the ship, enquiries were made, in case he had met with some accident that had delayed him. What is worrying, is that according to our French sources, his entire escort has also disappeared along with his servants and his Spanish guide.”
Honoria felt a hollow sickness settle into her stomach. She could not speak for a moment. Somebody took her hand and held it and she realised it must be Captain Graham.
“I’m very sorry, Miss Grainger. I realise this is not good news.”
“At least it is news,” Honoria said. “Is anything being done to search for him, my Lord, or is that not possible? I know that the northern provinces are in open revolt.”
“They are, and it is essential to my campaign that they continue to be so. Given the circumstances, we cannot send a battalion of troops into the region and I am not sure what good they would do anyway. I am going to write to the various Spanish leaders in the area to ask if they have any information about your father. I am also authorised by the foreign office, to send somebody else.”
Honoria studied him and realised that Wellington was uncomfortable sharing this piece of information. She watched him struggle for a moment, then said:
“My Lord, I understand that there are aspects of this matter that you cannot discuss with a civilian and that you are probably unwilling to discuss with a female. I just need to know that something is being done.”
For the first time, Wellington’s face softened into an expression that was not quite a smile. “It is not because you are a female, Miss Grainger, I have an enormous respect for intelligent women. Indeed, on occasion I regret that I cannot employ them, I am sure they would outstrip some of the men. Why do I suddenly begin to wonder if your father shared more of his work with you than he should have done?”
“He did not,” Honoria said quickly. “That is exactly why I know there is more. My father and I were very close. He never had a son and in some ways, he treated me as if I had been a boy. We talked of everything and my mother and I travelled the world with him for many years, but there were always moments when he would say nothing at all and I learned not to ask. I don’t know what my father was really doing in France, but I know it may have been far more dangerous than inspecting prison camps, which is why I am so worried.”
Graham squeezed her fingers sympathetically and Honoria returned the pressure gratefully. After a pause, Wellington said:
“Very well. I am instructed to send two of my intelligence officers along with a guide into northern Spain to try to find information about your father. I have written the letter, it will go off in the morning. Nobody here knows anything of this, other than my immediate party and Sir Henry. I am trusting you not to discuss it with anybody other than your mother.”
“I shall not, my Lord, I give you my word. Mother is not a gossip, she has been a diplomat’s wife for too many years and she will not ask any questions if I just tell her that a search is being made. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to you for telling me all this. I’m very well aware that there may be no good news, or even that we may never find out at all. But just knowing that an attempt is being made is very helpful.”
Wellington bowed. “You may thank Captain Graham, ma’am. My instinct was to share no information at all, but he argued your cause with great passion and won over Sir Henry who in turn convinced me. You may be pleased to know that Lord Fitzroy has also persuaded me not to dismiss him. You should go inside now, you are becoming cold. It may be weeks, possibly months before we have news. I do not know what your mother’s plans are, but if you will allow me to give you some advice, I believe you should return home to England where you will have the support of your many friends.”
Honoria dropped a small curtsy. “Thank you, my Lord, I imagine that is what we will do. Will you…that is to say, how will we be notified if there is news?”
“The reports will come directly to me, ma’am, and I will keep you informed with any progress.” Wellington shot a slightly malicious glance at Graham. “I believe I will make Captain Graham my deputy in this matter, since he has interested himself to such purpose. Will you excuse me, ma’am, I must return to my social duties. Captain.”
When he had gone, Graham touched her arm. “He’s right, you’re shivering. Come inside and I’ll find you a glass of wine.”
Honoria allowed him to lead her back into the house and through the hallway into a dim room which seemed to be a library. He seated her on a leather sofa and went to summon a servant, requesting a fire, candles and wine in fluent Spanish. Honoria felt numb with misery but it occurred to her that there was something very pleasant about Richard Graham’s enormous competence. She could not imagine him paying a girl flowery compliments or promising to worship at her feet, but within five minutes she was seated before a small fire with a glass of wine on the table beside her, studying her companion in the light of several oil lamps.
“You are very free with embassy hospitality, Captain.”
“Sir Henry will not mind, ma’am, he is very concerned about you. Without his help and that of Lord Fitzroy, I am not sure that I would have been able to persuade Lord Wellington.”
“I’m very grateful to all of you, Captain, but I know I owe the greatest debt to you. Nobody was listening to me. I cannot believe you have managed this so quickly.”
“I wish it had been better news.”
“It is the news I expected,” Honoria said honestly. “Since we are quite alone, and very unsuitably so, by the way, I need to tell you that I have known for a number of years that my father’s diplomatic career is often a cover for something less respectable. He is a spy, and probably a very useful one.”
“Did he tell you that?”
“No, but I’m not stupid, Captain. Sometimes one can learn a lot by a man’s silence.”
“This must be incredibly hard for you, Miss Grainger. I wondered about the wisdom of doing this in the middle of a ball, but I knew how desperate you were for news. Would you like me to find your mother to be with you?”
“In a moment. I’ll need to tell her and I imagine she will wish to go home immediately. I do myself. But if you do not mind very much, I would just like a few minutes to recover myself, before I have to…” Honoria broke off. She was horrified to realise suddenly that she was about to cry. She put down the wine glass hastily, fumbling in her reticule for a handkerchief. “Oh dear, I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Graham took the bag from her hands, retrieved the handkerchief and gave it to her. He sat beside her on the sofa, and Honoria gave up and began to cry in earnest. After a moment she felt his arm go about her shoulders and she forgot about propriety and leaned into him, sobbing. Graham held her, stroking her back soothingly, murmuring comforting nonsense as if she was a small child.
Eventually Honoria’s sobs died away. She knew that she should move, but she remained still in his arms. She needed to dry her tears and tidy her hair and be ready to face her mother’s grief when she told her the news but she was unexpectedly enjoying the sense of being taken care of, even if it was by a man she had known little more than a day. That thought made her blush and she shifted reluctantly away from him. He did not move away, but studied her with concerned dark eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” Honoria said again.
“I’m not sorry at all, I’m very glad that I’m here. You shouldn’t be going through this alone. Give yourself a moment while I find your Mama. I’ll leave you alone with her and make sure you’re not disturbed and I’ll call for your carriage.”
“We don’t keep our own carriage here, Captain, we came with Sir John and Lady Marlow. I don’t wish to disturb them…”
“Don’t give it another thought, I’ll arrange something. I’ll wait in the hallway for you and I’ll escort you both home. Call me when you’re ready.”
Richard slept badly and rose early, taking himself down to the shore to watch the dawn spreading its rose gold light over the choppy waters of the Atlantic. He could not stop thinking about Honoria Grainger. Her dignified reception of Lord Wellington’s news had touched his heart, but the sobbing misery which followed had broken it. Richard could remember how much he had cried in the months following the loss of his wife and child and he would have done anything to ease Honoria’s suffering, but he knew that there was nothing that he could do. He wandered aimlessly as the streets of Cadiz stirred into morning life around him and returned to the house on the Calle Veedor to find Somerset eating breakfast. Richard joined him at the table and Somerset regarded him thoughtfully.
“You look terrible, didn’t you sleep?”
“Not much.” Richard accepted coffee with a murmur of thanks to the maid and reached for the bread. “I’m sorry, sir, I went for an early stroll and went further than I intended. I hope I wasn’t needed?”
“No, he doesn’t need us this morning apart from to sort through his correspondence, the packet came in. But I can do that. Are you going to call on Miss Grainger?”
“I’d like to,” Richard admitted. “I don’t want to shirk my duty, sir, but they were both in a terrible state when I took them home. Do you think he’ll mind?”
“He’s left specific instructions that you’re to make yourself available to them and help them in any way possible, Captain. I think he’s feeling guilty. We have this gala dinner with members of the Cortes this evening. You should be there for that, but why don’t you finish your breakfast and go and see if they need anything?” Somerset studied him with sympathetic eyes. “Those poor women. I’m guessing they’re not holding out much hope?”
“No, and they shouldn’t. I’m not sure how much Lady Grainger knows, but Miss Grainger is very well aware that her father is a government agent and she knows that if he isn’t dead, he may have been imprisoned by the French. They shoot spies, sir.”
“He could have been taken ill somewhere.”
“Along with his servants, his guide and his entire French escort?” Richard shook his head. “If there was a simple explanation we’d have heard it. Do you know who has drawn the short straw for this very unpleasant assignment, sir?”
“Giles Fenwick. I think his Lordship has asked Colonel Scovell to find another man to go with him in case one of them is killed but I don’t know who that will be.”
“They really want to find him, don’t they? I wonder what he was carrying?”
“I don’t think even Lord Wellington knows that at present. Give the ladies my compliments when you see them, Captain, and if there’s anything I can do, please let me know.”
Richard sent in his card and was surprised when the servant returned immediately to escort him to the same small salon where he found Honoria Grainger alone. She looked calm although rather heavy-eyed and she shook his hand and asked him to sit down.
“I’m so glad you called, Captain. I wanted the opportunity to thank you for your kindness last night. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
“You’re very welcome, Miss Grainger. How is your Mama this morning?”
“She has remained in bed. I don’t think either of us slept very much.”
“I hope you did not come down just to see me.”
“No, I promise you. Although I would have done. I am far better to be up and around. Mama will be the same in a few days. I think it is more of a shock to her, since she had been convincing herself that it was all a mishap and that he was going to turn up as though nothing had happened. But she is a sensible woman and she just needs time to come to terms with this.”
“What will you do now?”
“I don’t know. Eventually we will go back to England, but at present Mama is very reluctant to leave, since it is obvious that news will reach here first. I will talk to her when she is a little calmer and we will decide. It may be that we look for a small house to rent in Cadiz or even Lisbon for a month or two, if that will make her happier.”
“Have you no male relative who might be able to support you through this?”
“Do you think the presence of a man would make this any easier, Captain?” Honoria said frostily.
“No, not at all. But forgive me, your Mama is obviously very distressed and in matters of business and finance, your father must have had someone in mind who could assist her should anything ever happen to him. It is usual.”
Unexpectedly there was a gleam of amusement in the girl’s eyes. “Oh yes, he did,” she said smoothly. “He was very farsighted about such matters since he always knew, I suppose, that he could die suddenly and a long way from home. He was very frank about it, we talked everything through.”
“Is it somebody you could write to? Perhaps we could arrange…”
“It is me, Captain Graham. I am of full age and my father taught me to understand business some years ago. He always knew that my Mama is not of a practical bent, so he arranged that she should be paid a very generous jointure and the expenses of her household are to come out of the estate, but everything else is in my charge.”
Richard stared at her and she looked back defiantly. “Have I shocked you, Captain?”
“You have certainly surprised me,” Richard said. “Your father clearly had immense faith in you, Miss Grainger, and since he knew you far better than I do, I am sure he was right. But I think this is a lot for any one person to manage alone, especially when you are still reeling with the shock of this news.”
Unexpectedly her eyes filled with tears again. “It is,” she said. “I have no wish to shirk my duty, Captain. Until we know for sure that he is dead, I will continue to manage things as I always have in his absence. But it feels very difficult today.”
“May I help?”
Honoria eyed him uncertainly. “I do not see…”
“Not to do it for you, ma’am. But just to think through what might need to be done, who needs to be notified, how to manage finances if you intend to remain in Spain for a while. I have worked for Lord Wellington for more than a year, if there is one thing I am very good at, it is managing lists and correspondence and administration. Just while I am here, of course.”
“Of course. Captain – could you?”
“Yes,” Richard promised rashly. “Give me time to speak to his Lordship, and I’ll join you. He will not object, I know, since he is keen to be of service to you and your mother, but I should ask as a matter of courtesy. After that, you shall make a list and we shall decide what needs to be done immediately and what can safely be left until later.”
It was the beginning of a very strange and curiously satisfying week. Relieved of all duties by a rather amused Lord Wellington, Richard presented himself at the house each morning where he found Honoria Grainger ready with her note tablets, paper and pens. They made a list of what needed to be done immediately and another, rather more painfully, of what would need to be done if news came of Sir Horace Grainger’s death. Honoria wrote letters to Grainger’s lawyer and man of business, his banker, the land agent who managed his estate in Hertfordshire and the housekeeper of his London home. She also penned more personal and more difficult notes to several relatives.
“You had better read these, Captain, to ensure that I have not said anything indiscreet. I cannot hide the fact that he is missing, since people will soon be asking questions, but I have simply said that we fear some mishap and that enquiries are being made. Will that do?”
“It will indeed, ma’am. Very well-worded and very discreet. You are your father’s daughter.”
Honoria smiled as though he had paid her a compliment. “Thank you. I’m proud to be so.”
After lengthy discussions with Mrs Grainger, and some hasty research on Richard’s part among the English community in Cadiz, Honoria inspected a small house on the edge of the old town, which had previously been occupied by a Scottish major and his wife. It was conveniently situated although in need of a good clean. Richard asked the embassy housekeeper to help him find servants and watched admiringly as Honoria ruthlessly supervised operations. He thought it was rather a shame that she had not been a boy, since she set about every task with a military precision that Lord Wellington would have loved.
Neither Honoria nor her mother felt able to attend the many parties and dinners being held in honour of Lord Wellington, but Richard insisted that she leave the house each day to take the air. He asked her to show him the town and after a little hesitation, she did so willingly. They were fortunate with the weather, which was unusually dry for early January, with several warm afternoons. Followed at a considerable distance by a bored Spanish maid, they walked through the narrow streets and explored the castle, various churches and the old lighthouse which was situated on the long, dangerous reef known as Porpoise Rocks.
The town overlooked a bay which was around twelve miles long. They walked up to Fort Catalina, its cannon pointing solid defiance at the French or anybody else who might try to take this Spanish island city. There were spectacular views over the surrounding countryside, dotted with villages and criss-crossed with vineyards, orange groves and grazing cattle. Honoria pointed out the distant spires of the town of Medina Sidonia.
“You are a very knowledgeable guide, Miss Grainger,” Richard said, leaning on the stone parapet. “How do you know so much about this place, when you only arrived a few weeks before I did?”
“Lieutenant Sousa,” Honoria said, pulling a face. “He was here during the siege and is now stationed here. He is a most estimable and very romantic young man, who believes it is important to learn as much as possible about every place he visits.”
Richard gave a choke of laughter. “Which he then conveys to you?”
“With inexhaustible detail. I have heard things about the stonework of the cathedral they are building that I hope never to hear again. Have you seen enough, Captain? The wind is growing cold up here.”
“Of course. It’s beautiful though. Would you like to go home?”
“Not yet. I thought we could walk down the Alameda.”
She took his arm as they turned onto the broad avenue, lined with ornamental trees and plants and blessed with wide views of the open sea. The Alameda was the main promenade of the city and the wealthier citizens of Cadiz could be found strolling there on any dry afternoon. Honoria asked him questions about his home and his family and Richard told her about Sally and his hopes for their future which had been cruelly snatched away. He wondered if it was wrong of him to speak so freely of loss to a girl who was experiencing it herself, but Honoria seemed genuinely interested. In his turn, he asked her about her father, and she made him laugh with stories of Sir Horace’s illicit passion for Spanish cigars.
“My mother loathed the custom and would never allow him to smoke them, so he used to sneak out to the garden in all weathers and with the most flimsy excuses. I used to cover for him from a very young age.”
“It sounds as though you were very good friends.”
“We were. Are. I don’t know, of course. I think he is probably dead, but there is a part of me that dreams of him arriving unexpectedly with some horrendous tale of danger and narrow escapes. He is a very good storyteller.”
“I think you’ve inherited that from him. I’m afraid we must go back. We are to attend a concert after dinner and I should not take too much advantage of his Lordship’s goodwill.”
“Does he enjoy music?”
“Very much, as it happens. I believe he used to play the violin in his youth, although I find it hard to imagine.”
“Do you like him?”
Richard thought about it. “He is a difficult man to like,” he said after a moment. “He’s a very private person. He can be irritable and sharp-tongued and when something has displeased him, he is appallingly sarcastic. I’ve seen him reduce an officer to tears. He’s hard to know. But…”
“But he can be very kind and thoughtful at unexpected moments. He has very few close friends and I don’t count myself among them, but when I see him with those people, he is like a different man. And he’s funny. Even on his worst days, there are times when he makes me laugh aloud.”
Honoria was studying him with a little smile. “I think you do like him, Captain Graham. What is more, I think he likes you too.”
Richard grinned. “Honestly? I have no idea, ma’am.”
“We were supposed to be attending the concert,” Honoria said, and Richard caught the wistfulness in her voice.
“Are you musical, ma’am?”
“Very much so, it is my greatest love.”
“Then come. It is not the same as a ball or a reception, you will not be obliged to speak to many people, and it will do you good.”
“My Mama is not well enough.”
“Come anyway. Join our party, I’ll speak to his Lordship, I know he’ll agree.”
“I feel guilty for wanting to go out when my father is…when I do not know if he is alive or dead.”
“What would your father say?” Richard asked impulsively.
She looked up at him and he could see that he had said the right thing. “He would tell me that it was stuff and nonsense and that I should do as I liked.”
“Your father is a very wise man. I will call for you at seven o’clock.”
Two weeks was not enough.
Lord Wellington’s departure for Lisbon was delayed once again by appalling weather and reports of a flooded road, and Honoria and her mother were unexpectedly invited to dine at the embassy. Lady Grainger had barely left the house during the previous week but she studied the invitation then looked up at her daughter.
“Would you like to attend, Honoria?”
“Yes,” Honoria said honestly. She was trying not to think about Richard Graham’s departure. He had spent the previous day with her, going through the rooms of their new temporary home and confirming when the carters would arrive to convey their belongings to the house. He had been kind and funny and helpful and the thought of the next weeks, miserable about her father and trying to comfort her mother, without his steady presence at her side, was unbearable.
“I think we should. Lord Wellington has been so kind in our trouble, I would not wish…”
“Lord Wellington?” Honoria exploded. “Allow me to tell you, Mama, that if we had left the matter to Lord Wellington we would know nothing about what happened to my father. Lord Wellington was perfectly happy to treat us like two empty-headed females who cannot be trusted…it was Captain Graham who intervened on our behalf and it is to him that we owe all the help and comfort we have received this past fortnight. I must say…”
“No, dearest, do not say it again, I think I have understood,” Lady Grainger said. She sounded amused. “I presume if we are to dine with Sir Henry and Lord Wellington that Captain Graham will also be present. It will give me an opportunity to thank him again and to say goodbye.”
The meal went very well. Lord Wellington was unexpectedly entertaining and put himself out to be kind to Lady Grainger. As the group finally broke up, a servant went to call for the carriage and the ladies’ cloaks and Sir Henry drew Lady Grainger to one side with a question about her new residence. Honoria found herself face to face with Richard Graham.
“Will you be all right?”
Honoria nodded. “Sir Henry has been very kind and has said we may call on him for any assistance.”
“How long do you think you will remain here?”
“I am not sure, Captain. I think perhaps until we have news. Or until we are told that there is no news. You promised that you would write to me…”
“Everything that I know, you will know, I give you my word. Should I address my letters to your Mama or to you?”
“To me,” Honoria said. “If there is distressing news, it’s better that she hears it from me.”
“I understand. You are, after all, the head of the household.”
“You are teasing me, Captain Graham.”
“No, I’m not. You’re the most extraordinary young woman…may I write to you about other matters?”
“Other matters. What kind of other matters?”
“I don’t know. Anything. What the weather is doing and where we are marching and what kind of mood Lord Wellington is in that day. And you shall tell me if your new harp has been delivered and if the stove in the kitchen is working properly and whether you think of me at all as you are shopping in the Calle Ancha with your maid.”
“I will think of you and your kindness in every street in Cadiz, and I would very much like to write to you, Captain, if you will promise to reply.”
He smiled, reached for her hand, and raised it to his lips. “You’ll get sick of reading them,” he said.
Freneida, May 1813
With the preparations to march complete, Richard rode out through the dusty little village which had housed Lord Wellington’s headquarters for two winters and wondered if they would come back. Wellington seemed convinced that they would not. He had spoken to his staff on the previous day, giving orders and explaining his plans in more detail than Richard was used to. There was an energy about the commander-in-chief which made Richard believe that this time, Wellington did not expect to have to retreat again.
There was little to see in Freineda, so Richard rode further afield, through small villages and stone walled towns where people had begun to return after long months of exile. Farmers were planting again and houses battered by shot and shell were being gradually rebuilt. Richard absorbed the sense of hope and renewal and prayed that it would last and that the war had finally moved beyond these people so that they could resume their lives.
Much of the army had already moved out, and Lord Wellington’s staff were packed and ready to go the following morning. Riding back into the village, Richard dismounted, handing his horse to a groom, and went into the long low house which Wellington had occupied through winter quarters. His chief was in his combined sitting room and study with Somerset, Colonel Murray, his quartermaster-general and the tall fair figure of Major-General Paul van Daan of the light division. Wellington turned as Richard entered.
“There you are,” he said irritably, as if he had sent a summons which Richard had failed to answer. “I have been waiting to question you about that blasted female.”
Richard was completely at sea. “Blasted female, sir?”
“Yes. She has just arrived, completely unannounced, apparently on her way back to Lisbon to join her unfortunate mother. What can have possessed her to make such a journey without any warning, I cannot imagine, but I did not know what to do with her, since I cannot delay my departure for her.”
“Miss Honoria Grainger, Captain,” Somerset said. He was grinning broadly. “It appears that she journeyed by ship to Oporto to visit her father’s grave.”
“Oh my God,” Richard said appalled. “Is her mother with her? What on earth is she doing here?”
“That is a question to which we would all like an answer,” Wellington snapped. “I presume you wrote to her telling her how he died?”
“You know I did, sir, I told you. She replied, thanking me. I’ve not heard a word since, I thought they’d be on their way back to London.”
“Which is what any normal female would have done.”
“Where is she?” Richard said. His voice sounded very strange in his own ears and he wondered if the others could tell. “I mean, where is she going to stay? There’s nowhere here…”
“Evidently not,” Wellington said. He sounded slightly calmer. “I see that you are as surprised as I am, Captain, which is most reassuring. Fortunately, I have found a solution. Or rather, General van Daan has. Mrs van Daan and her household have not yet left the Quinta de Santo Antonio as there was some delay in transporting the final patients from the hospital. They will follow the army in a day or two, with an escort of the King’s German Legion under Captain Kuhn. Miss Grainger has gone to join her, she can rest her horses for a few days before resuming her journey to Lisbon and then on to London.”
“Why is she here, my Lord?” Richard said.
“I think it’s something of a pilgrimage, Richard,” Paul van Daan said quietly. “She went to Oporto to see where Sir Horace was buried and then she travelled here overland, because she wanted to speak to Captain Fenwick and Captain O’Reilly about her father’s last days. She’d hoped to be here days ago but she was delayed on the road, a broken carriage wheel, I believe. It’s unfortunate, but I’ve told her that I’ll ask them both to write to her.”
“Did she receive his effects?” Richard asked. There was a hollow pain in his stomach. He knew that on the night before the march he could not possibly ask for leave to visit her. He had no formal relationship with Honoria Grainger, and a dozen or more letters, stored carefully in his baggage, would not be considered reason enough. Richard had thought himself resigned to not seeing her again and found himself praying that she would remember him and that he had not imagined the connection between them. It might be several years before he could return to England and during that time she would emerge from her mourning and into the world and there would be many men, younger and more handsome and wealthier than he, who would find Sir Horace Grainger’s outspoken daughter to their liking. His chances were very slim but he allowed himself his dreams anyway.
“Yes,” Paul said. He was regarding Richard sympathetically. Richard wondered if he was that obvious. “She was very surprised to discover that he’d written two letters during his last days, one to her and one to his wife. It seems he was too weak to write properly but he dictated them to Brat, Michael O’Reilly’s servant. He managed to sign them himself. I’ve no idea what they said, but it seemed to affect her very strongly. I only met her briefly, but she’s a fine young woman, her father would be very proud.”
“Yes,” Richard said numbly.
“Very well,” Wellington said. “General van Daan, my compliments to your wife, please thank her for her assistance. We will be ready to move out at dawn towards Ciudad Rodrigo, you will join us then, and you may ride on to your brigade from there.”
Richard turned miserable eyes to the general. “Please give my respects to Miss Grainger, General, and tell her how sorry I am to have missed her.”
“I will, Captain. Goodnight.”
It was barely light when the headquarters party, including Major-General van Daan, assembled in the square outside the church. Richard checked the baggage wagons and spoke to the muleteers and grooms while Wellington and Murray gave a pile of letters and some instructions to a courier. It was already warm, with the promise of a hot day. Richard looked around with an odd feeling of finality, then went to his horse and swung himself into the saddle. Vaguely, he was aware of the sound of horses’ hooves and he turned to look. Two riders were approaching at a canter. All the men in Wellington’s party turned to watch and the swirl of dust resolved itself into a woman mounted on a pretty black mare, dressed in a striking wine coloured riding dress and followed by a dark haired groom. The woman slowed her horse and trotted into the square. Nobody spoke for a moment, then Major-General van Daan said pleasantly:
“It is very good to see you, bonny lass, but I thought we’d said our farewells for the time being.”
The woman flashed him a dazzling smile. “We had. You are safe, General, I am not here for you. Lord Wellington, good morning. I’m so sorry to interrupt your departure, it will take just a moment. I need a word with Captain Graham.”
Richard jumped at the sound of his name. He stared at Anne van Daan in some surprise. “Ma’am?”
“Don’t ‘ma’am’ me, Captain. Did I, or did I not tell you that I wanted to see you in the clinic before you rode out?”
Richard searched his memory and drew a blank. “Erm…I do not perfectly recall…”
“Ha!” Anne said triumphantly. “I knew you would say that. Men! You are all the same. You will not admit to the least discomfort, but if you attempt to ride out without treatment, you are going to be completely incapable of continuing beyond Ciudad Rodrigo. It is utterly ridiculous that you refuse to submit to a small operation that will make you much more comfortable. And I can see by his Lordship’s face that you have not even told him.”
Wellington stared at her then turned an arctic glare onto Richard. “What has he not told me, ma’am?”
“Boils, sir,” Anne said, triumphantly. “Given the size and position of them, I am surprised he can sit that horse at all. Let me tell you that of all the boils I have treated these are…”
“No, indeed, ma’am, do not tell me anything about them at all,” Wellington said, sounding revolted. “General van Daan, are you aware that your wife has been treating this gentleman for…oh dear God, could anything be more unsuitable?”
“Probably, sir,” Paul said. Richard thought that his voice sounded rather muffled as though he might be trying hard not to laugh. “My dear, do you need to see Captain Graham before he leaves?”
“Yes. I’m sorry, but if he tries to ride like that, he’s at risk of serious infection. He’s just trying to hide it because he doesn’t wish to miss the start of the campaign.”
“Utterly ridiculous,” Wellington snapped. “Captain Graham, not another word. Go with Mrs van Daan and get this problem dealt with. Preferably by a male doctor, if one is available. Join me as soon as you are able, I need you.”
Richard met Anne van Daan’s lovely dark eyes gratefully. “A day or two, no more, sir. I’m sorry, it was stupid. I didn’t want to let you down.”
“You never let me down, Captain. I value you, your health is important to me. I will see you as soon as you are fit.”
Anne van Daan said nothing until they were out of earshot of the departing headquarters party then she shot Richard a sidelong look. “I’m sorry it had to be boils, Captain, it is just that I needed something that Lord Wellington would not wish to discuss in detail. I was right too, did you see the look on his face?”
The study at the Quinta de Santo Antonio looked oddly bare without the litter of ledgers and correspondence of brigade headquarters. Honoria Grainger was seated in a wooden armchair reading a book. She looked up as Richard entered, then rose, setting the book down. The mourning black made her look older and rather more lovely than Richard had remembered.
“I cannot believe you are here. I thought I’d missed you.”
“I thought I’d missed you too,” Richard said.
They both stopped, smiling. Then Richard said:
“Miss Grainger, I’m so sorry you had a wasted journey, but I promise you I’ll speak to Captain Fenwick and…”
“I didn’t have a wasted journey. I didn’t travel all this way to speak to Captain Fenwick. I wanted to see you before I returned to London. If that seems too forward or too…”
“No, it doesn’t. Oh God, it doesn’t. Honoria, please tell me I’ve not got this wrong?”
Honoria smiled and Richard felt his heart turn over. It was ridiculous. “No,” she said. “Although I’ve been terrified all this way in case I had. I just needed to see you. To say…to ask…”
Richard stepped forward and took her into his arms. He kissed her for a long time, and she clung to him, convincing him beyond all doubt that he had not made a mistake. When he finally raised his head there were tears in her eyes.
“I went to his grave,” she said. “I sat there for a while, talking to him in my head.”
Richard’s heart melted. “Oh, love, I’m so sorry. It’s so awful for you and I can’t even be here to take you home and look after you. And we’ve so little time.”
“Mrs van Daan said she thinks we can have two days.”
“Two days?” Richard thought about such bounty and found himself smiling again. “I thought I’d have to wait two years. I’ve a lot to say to you in two days, Honoria. Will you marry me?”
She was laughing and crying at the same time. “Yes. Yes, of course I will.”
“Thank God. I’ve read every one of your letters a hundred times, trying to decide if I was being a fool or if you might feel the same way. I even thought of trying to say it in a letter, but I couldn’t find the words. Besides, it didn’t seem fair when I’ve no idea when I’ll get back to England. And even now…it’s so long to wait, love.”
Her smile was luminous. “Richard, do try not to be an ass, it is very unlike you. Do you seriously think I would have made this mad journey in the worst conditions if I was not very sure?”
Richard kissed her again, deciding that she was right. For a time, it was enough just to hold her, revelling in the sense of her in his arms, but Honoria had an inquisitive nature and he was not surprised when she finally stepped back and asked the question.
“Richard, how did you manage this? I asked to see you but Lord Wellington said it was impossible, that you were about to march out and that you would not have time. I truly thought I had missed my opportunity.”
“What did you say to Mrs van Daan?” Richard enquired.
“I couldn’t say much at all. I was so disappointed, I’m afraid I cried a lot, and then I told her the truth. Did she do this? But how?”
“Boils,” Richard said. “Let us sit down. It is rather a painful story.”
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.
I really hate lockdown
Oscar really loves lockdown. “All my people are here!!!”
Reading the news in lockdown is a form of self-harm
So is talking to people about lockdown, Covid or Brexit
Talking to people about history is great
I’m not good at rules
Or being locked up
Given 7 and 8, probably best not to take to a life of crime
Dogs don’t understand social distancing
I love my study and my own desk with a deep and abiding passion
I’m incredibly lucky
The Isle of Man is pretty good at working together when it has a common aim
Even if the aim is to go out and get blind drunk in the pubs on Saturday night
I’m sort of proud of us
Did I mention I hate lockdown?
The phrases “covidiot” “stay safe” and “new normal” cause actual psychic trauma by now every time I read or hear them
I’m pretty odd though
My family are great and I adore them
My friends, both local and online are also great and keep me sane
So I need them all to stay safe.
Can’t believe I just said that.
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?”
“And their humans won’t be wearing muzzles?”
“That’s right, Oscar.”
“That sounds great to me. Let’s go to Derbyhaven Beach.”
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…”
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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?”
“Did you wear your muzzle?”
“All the way round. I didn’t bite anybody at all.”
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!”
“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.”
“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…
It’s the first proper day of lockdown on the Isle of Man.
I awoke with great intentions of getting up early and taking Oscar for a walk, but grey skies and a steady drizzle put paid to this. Oscar got as far as the front gate, sneered a bit, did a wee over the footballing garden gnome as he usually does, then went back inside for breakfast. After that he headed for the sofa with the air of a dog who has seen what the outside world involves and has no further interest in it. We’ll try again later.
We’re working in the living room today, since my son is now working at home for three weeks so I’ve heroically given up my desk to him, as multiple zoom meetings are difficult to manage in the middle of family life. I don’t mind working in the living room, but today it includes my daughter writing an essay discussing whether or not the seventeenth century could be called a century of revolution. My girl is a very vocal worker and likes to share the experience of essay writing with anybody who is willing to listen. Or anybody who would rather not listen. It goes rather like this.
“Mum, listen to my opening paragraph.”
“Have you changed it since last night?”
“No, but I’m about to.”
“Why don’t you rewrite it and then read it to me.”
“Because you’ve probably already forgotten it from yesterday, and I want you to tell me if you think the new one is better or worse.”
“What makes you think I won’t have forgotten it by the time you’ve rewritten it.”
“Don’t be silly, you’re not that demented yet.”
That’s possibly true, but I’m going in the right direction.
One of the things I enjoy about lockdown is how quiet it it. We live fairly close to a main road, and though the traffic here is nothing like the traffic in the UK, we can hear a steady stream of cars when we’re outside in the garden during rush hour. This morning there was nothing, just the pitter patter of raindrops and the sound of a seriously aggravated bird in the Rowan tree. I’ve no idea what upset him this morning, maybe a seagull got to his breakfast first, but it was the most aggressive tweeting I’ve ever heard. Must put bird food out shortly to shut him up.
Going into the kitchen was the first irritation of the day. As my son and his girlfriend cooked last night (delicious stir fry with crispy chicken) I cleared up. It’s good for my mood to come down to a clear kitchen so I religiously loaded the dishwasher and washed all pots and pans. Coming down this morning, I realised that the Phantom Night Chef had been at work. My son has the ability to eat at all hours, and it doesn’t occur to him to make do with a packet of crisps if he wants a snack at midnight. God knows what he cooked, but the smell of garlic is going to keep us safe from vampires for months. Ignored pots and pans and sat down to work.
“Mum. Listen to this and tell me if you think I’ve got two separate arguments in this paragraph.”
Twenty minutes goes by.
“Mum. You need to see this.”
“You want me to read another paragraph?”
“No, I want you to look at this video of polar bears playing in the snow.”
“Maybe it’s lunch time.”
Oscar jumps off the sofa. He understands the word lunch.
I managed to get a good couple of hours in this afternoon and I was pleased with what I’d done. The rain finally stopped so I called Oscar for his walk before it started again. Oscar looked at me. I think he’d decided we weren’t going to do that today. Eventually, grumbling a bit, he heaved himself off the sofa. There was a bit of a discussion in the kitchen about whether we could take Stripy Bunny with us. Getting bored with the tug of war, I gave in. Three minutes up the road, I stooped to pick up Stripy Bunny and put him in my bag. We’ve done this before.
There are some things about the previous lockdown that I rather liked. One of them is the variety of artwork that sprang up on fences and walls around the island. I’m not sure if they were done by bored children or if some of the adults decided to break out a bit during their time off, but they do brighten the place up on a grey afternoon. This one is in the next road to us and I’m very fond of it.
In the same road, I could hear loud music. As I reached the house, the garage door was open and a young couple were on the driveway washing their cars with a hose. It was freezing out, but they were wrapped up in hats and scarves and dancing around to the music as they worked. Spotting us, she grinned and waved, while he looked a bit embarrassed but then waved as well. Oscar was dying to go and say hello but we’re socially distancing so we didn’t.
After half an hour, I remembered the things I love and the things I don’t about lockdown. The lack of traffic is a joy. We have at least one quite awkward road to cross on this route, and it’s bliss just to stroll across. On the other hand, the island is now full of people with bored kids and it’s finally stopped raining. The world, his wife, their entire families including their dogs were out and about, with bikes and scooters. Oscar’s tail was wagging frantically at the sight of ALL THE NEW FRIENDS!!!!! Mine was not.
“Oscar, sit. Stay. Let them go past.”
“But she’s smiling at me, Mum, she wants to play.”
“I know, Oscar, but you can’t. It’s lockdown.”
“Boo. Don’t like…OMG look!!!! It’s a dog!!! He wants to be friends!!!!”
“Oscar, come back. Sit. Stay. We can’t, not today.”
On the footbridge we met a small boy wheeling his bike, probably about eight, whose face lit up.
“Can I stroke your dog?”
Too late. Clearly this kid comes from a dog loving family and his arms were around Oscar before I could say any more. Oscar enthusiastically returned the love. I waited a moment, at the length of the lead, then gave a gentle reminder to wait for permission next time, because of social distancing and because the dog might not be friendly. I got a big gappy grin in return.
“Oh, it’s all right. I could see he was friendly. And you as well.”
Sussed out by an eight year old, we carried on.
Further down the narrow path we met a selection of people with dogs, kids, bikes and scooters. It was a challenge, but we all managed to keep the distance until we came across an older couple with a small dog which was off the lead. I pulled Oscar over to the side yet again, but their dog waddled up to say hello.
“It’s all right, dear,” the old lady said. I gritted my teeth a bit. It was all right, but she didn’t actually know it was going to be, not knowing my dog, and if they’d got into a spat, we’d have had to get very close to separate them. Dogs are supposed to be on a lead down this path, but usually I wouldn’t care. This week I’m trying to do the right thing.
Almost home, and we met a genuine challenge, The dog was huge, a big black bear of a hound, being walked along the narrowest bit of pavement by a woman. She saw us and paused, looking around. There was nowhere to pull over and it was clear that both dogs wanted nothing more than a play session right here and now. Which would be great on the beach but this was not the time or place. I called Oscar to heel and crossed the road for a minute, out of the way. She passed with a big grateful smile and a wave. Her dog glared at me for spoiling his fun.
“He looked like fun, Mum, why couldn’t we play?”
“Not by a road, Oscar. Cheer up, it was a nice walk and if it’s better weather tomorrow, we’ll take the car and go somewhere I can let you off for a run.”
“Great idea. It’s getting dark now anyway.”
“Here we are. Let’s get your lead off and have a drink.”
“And dinner. Is it dinner time, Mum?”
“Another hour, Oscar.”
“Boring. Might have a nap then. I’ll just settle here by your feet with Owl and Floppy Bunny and Hilda the Sheep.”
“Enjoy your sleep, baby boy. Now where was I? Ah yes, a beach in Norfolk, 1810…”
Lockdown plus number 2: People are so friendly out and about. Although I loathe the phrase with a passion, I have to admit there is a genuine sense that we’re all in this together. Except when I remember the Panic Buyers Without a Brain Cell but as I avoided shops today, I could forget about them.
Lockdown minus number 2: I miss working at my own desk in my own study. I know it makes more sense for my son, but I still miss it.
Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors for 2021
I generally do a short post at the beginning of each year, but for some reason this year I feel moved to do it at the end. This is probably to do with the extraordinary nature of 2020, where the world turned upside down for so many people. The internet is full of memes and jokes about how happy we’ll all be to see the end of 2020, and it’s certainly a year that very few of us will forget in a hurry.
Those of you who follow me on Facebook and Twitter or read my blog posts, will know that with very few exceptions, I stay firmly out of contemporary politics. This doesn’t mean that I’m not aware of what is going on around me, it just means that I find the climate of political debate both toxic and pointless at times. There are people out there who can have a rational discussion on a public forum, but they’re few and far between. Overall, I prefer to keep conversations about the rights and wrongs of Brexit, Lockdown and the teaching of Black History in schools to my close family and friends.
This year it’s been harder than ever to do that, watching the flood of information and misinformation rushing through both traditional and social media. It has felt at times as though the whole world has gone mad, and the values of tolerance, acceptance and understanding that I was raised with have got lost in the compulsive collective need to prove a point, put down other people and above all, to be right. But it isn’t all doom and gloom.
What 2020 has confirmed for me is that there are people out there whom I’ve met both online and in person, who are simply great. They come together both online and in person, drawn by a love of reading, writing, history and good fun. They’re excited by new books, new ideas and photographs of cuddly Labradors. They speak to each other with respect and affection and acknowledge their differences with humour and tolerance. They are not all the same. Some are highly educated and well-respected in their field. Others are self-educated and come to the discussion full of questions, often bringing new ideas. The thing that they all have in common is an enthusiasm for learning about people both fictional and in real life. They are entertaining, they are generous with their time and knowledge and they are kind.
A lot of you will recognize yourselves in this, and you are all my people. While there are people like you in the world, the madness will never win. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart for everything you’ve done in 2020. Every review, every humorous comment, every mad exchange on Twitter and every time you’ve answered a call for information with more than I could ever have hoped for, you prove the pessimists and the doomsayers wrong. Let’s all keep doing it.
For me, 2020 has been a very mixed year. The pandemic has closed down the world and left me marooned on this little island in the middle of the Irish Sea, with none of the freedom to travel that I used to enjoy. At the same time, it’s made me appreciate where I live more than ever before. Watching how the people of the Isle of Man have dealt with this chaos makes me proud of my adopted homeland.
In family matters, it’s been a happy year. My son is very settled with his lovely girlfriend, who has become a member of our family. If all goes well, I doubt he’ll still be living here this time next year, a thought which makes me happy and a little sad. My daughter has embarked on her second year in York with great panache, coming out with firsts so far and treating quarantine and lockdowns as a minor inconvenience. The man I married has utterly failed to miss travelling to London for work and is becoming more Manx by the day.
“You’re going all the way to Peel for the evening? Are you staying over, then?”
It’s seven miles.
It took a long time to adjust to the loss of Joey, and it still catches me every now and again. Oscar has proved a worthy successor to my two old fellas, and when we can find a suitable puppy, we’ll be bringing in reinforcements for him on the staff of Writing with Labradors. I can’t wait.
Professionally, it’s been my most successful year to date, although the stress of the first lockdown and the pandemic generally definitely slowed my writing down a lot. Sales have been good, and reviews have been excellent. For the second year in a row, I had a book shortlisted for the Society for Army Historical Research fiction prize, this year with This Blighted Expedition. I was invited to take part in the amazing Waterloo Remembered online celebrations earlier this year, and I’ve been interviewed on various podcasts and blogs through the year.
I completed and published book six of the Peninsular War Saga, An Unmerciful Incursion. I’ve begun research and planning for two new books. I also found a new editor, who is oddly enough an old friend of mine, and who is working out brilliantly so far.
Things I didn’t manage to achieve. Well obviously, my annual research trip was cancelled this year, as were all the conferences and historical events I hoped to attend. I didn’t manage to finish getting the books out in paperback, for which I apologise. The work is still ongoing, and it will happen, I promise you.
I have big plans for 2021. Next year I aim to publish two books at least. One will be This Bloody Shore which is book three in the Manxman series, and the other is An Indomitable Brigade, which is book seven of the Peninsular War Saga. I’m currently working on both and still haven’t completely decided which is going to come out first. I’ll let you know when I’m certain.
I also aim to get all the books edited and available in paperback, and I’ll be writing my usual three free short stories for Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Christmas, with a possible extra one in the summer. And if the current two books go well, I would love to get off book three of the Manxman as well, although that might be asking a bit too much. We’ll see.
When I’ve finished this, I am off to organise the house for the New Year’s Party we’re hosting this evening for our young people. I’m so conscious of how privileged I am to be doing this, at this moment in time, when other people are buckling down for another lockdown and more restrictions. Even tomorrow’s clear up won’t seem so bad this year, as I’ll feel lucky to be doing it.
Well, maybe not that lucky.
Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors for 2021. I hope you’ll all manage to celebrate in whatever way you can, and I look forward to hearing a lot more from you all in the coming year.