Excerpts from The Virgin Sardine
Arson at the Wheatsheaf
The inn’s doors were locked, the customers gone to their homes and the lodgers of the Wheatsheaf safe in their beds in the upper stories on the inn. I was in the porter cellar, which is below ground, cleaning up the spillages and lining up the jugs for the next day. William and Suke Windles were in the best snuggery having a glass of brandy each, as they did most nights, waiting for me to finish my work so that the cellars could be locked. I was bone tired and half asleep as I bent over to check the tap on a barrel.
The next moment I was pushed across the barrel, one hand pressing on my back and the other grasping between my legs. For a moment I was rigid with shock. The man was breathing down my neck and his hands moved to the top of my breeches, trying to pull them down. I let out a roar and pushed him off, swinging out with my right arm - he toppled back against the cellar wall.
It was Jeremiah Smart. Before that moment I would not have been able to tell you why I did not like him, but now I could! He leant against the wall, leering at me, his black hair across his eyes.
White Island, New Zealand
Following in the guide’s footsteps, the group makes its way, Indian file, upwards towards the crater-lake over rough terrain. The path is bordered by super-heated sulphurous steamy vents. They have slowly built into mounds and columns of yellow, white and rust-coloured crystals. More black boulders, like so many grotesque elephants, surround us. The smell of gas is choking. Our guide throws a rock on the ground and the hollow sound reminds me that the crust is thin and perilous in this extraordinary place.
‘Please, follow me carefully,’ instructs the guide, ‘if rocks start falling, run to the nearest large boulder and get behind it. There’s no way you’ll outrun the falling rocks.’
Why did I come?
It’s a hard climb to reach the rim of the lake. I arrive panting to look down into its green murky water. Steam rises from its surface.
‘How deep is it?’ I ask.
‘Seventy metres below sea level.’
I shudder - whatever made them come here?
A Family Affair
Looking yet again at the letter in his hand, Peter sighs deeply, realising that the time has come for a major decision to be made. Turning to gaze up at the snow capped mountains, he draws strength from their peaks and feels somehow, deep within, that he must fight for just a little longer. Picking up his staff, he climbs steadfastly up the narrow path which will take him home to the modern, but still typically Swiss, farmhouse overlooking the land which has been in his family for generations and which he is now in danger of losing for ever.
With the Mayor and Mayoress of Reading at the launch ofThe Virgin Sardine
The Blue Sun rose like an iced diamond in the northern sky. Its cold light fell on a stream. Silver fishes flashed between green fronds and danced with the current. Gradually everything slowed. Changed from a watery paradise to frozen glass.
Birds took flight, seeking shelter in hollows, eaves or barns. Grasses, autumn foliage and the brown bark of the trees – whitened.
A farm lay as if in death. No creature could be seen and the shapes of barns and fences were like artists’ outlines. In the lowland, fields no longer ripened with the seasons. They were enclosed under artificial screens that were stiffening in the northerly breeze.
Painted on this whiteness, the farmhouse smoke swirled from the chimney and its windows were shuttered. The grey brick was coated with a clear film, its purpose to trap the heat within. But nothing could stop the ice covering the house.
A frozen world locked in a time capsule for the next ten days.
When Tessa Musgrove was twelve years old, she ran away from home to join the gypsies.
Understandably, the gypsies did not want her, and brought her straight back in a white Transit van with missing hubcaps.
‘It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, dear,’ coughed Mrs Violet Jones, ‘the life, that is; you can take it from me. Ran away meself, but no one brought me back. Now I’ve got five kids an’ a bloke what’s more at home on roofs nicking lead at night, rather than home in bed. Mind you,’ she said as an afterthought, ‘that’s not such a bad thing, come to think about it.’
She bent over the steering wheel in a paroxysm of coughing, and the van lurched dangerously from side to side.
‘Is your cough from all that cooking over wood fires?’ asked Tessa sympathetically.
‘No dear, just the fags. Anyway, I’ve got a lovely little Calor stove in the caravan. Wood fires indeed!’
Tessa’s parents had mixed reactions to her escapade.
‘Darling, are you so very unhappy at home to want to leave us? Didn’t you think how worrying it was for me?’ Her mother’s face was streaked with tears, and the sitting room floor was littered with small balls of wet, white tissues, like a golf range. ‘Just suppose someone had seen you?’
Her father simply asked, ‘Why, Tess?’ and put his arms round her.
From the safety of his tobacco-smelling jersey she replied, ‘Just wanted an adventure - you know, be a bit free, see what it was like, that’s all.’