Category Archives: Books

It’s me, I’m Cathy…


Regular readers of my blog will know my daughters and I make at least one pilgrimage a year to Haworth, home of the Brontes’. (Still haven’t figured out how to type an umlaut on a PC.)

This year, we visited Ponden Hall, Purportedly, Emily’s inspiration for Thrushcross Grange, home of the Linton family in Wuthering Heights.

It’s a rather exclusive B&B now. I can imagine Bronte pilgrims from farther afield (ligature!) would love to put it on their itinerary either for a stay or just a nosey around. And that’s where we come in. The rather delightful owner, Julie, must be fed up of people ringing her doorbell on her day off, not to book a room, but to see the room where Cathy torments Heathcliff by scrathcing on his window.

What?! I hear aficionados grumble. That didn’t happen at Thrushcross Grange, that happened at Wuthering Heights, the home of the Earnshaws’ and Heathcliff!

And you’d be right.

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What is widely believed is that Emily transposed the interior of Ponden Hall and plonked it into the wilds of Wuthering Heights.

We know that Emily and her siblings were regular visitors to Ponden Hall to peruse their considerable library, (which reputedly, was the best in West Yorkshire at the time), and stayed there on numerous occasions.

Perhaps Emily even stayed in the room where Heathcliff endures his nightmares. Whether that is true or not is hard to say, but what is easier to suppose, is that Emily was actually in the room that I am about to show you, as it is virtually identical to Heathcliff’s in Wuthering Heights.

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What is unusual is the bed chamber in the corner of the ‘suite’. As you can see, the bed is boxed off with oak panelling, (for privacy, one presumes). It’s not a room per se as the bed is flush to the panels. So you would have to climb into it and slide the door shut. And yes, you can actually stay in this room.

On closer inspection, (photo taken courtesy of my daughter), we see the tiny window which Cathy appears at to persecute her paramour.

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Spoiler alert:

“I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand!” – Excerpt from Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

Here’s a slightly wider shot for context.

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I don’t know about you, but I always get goose bumps when I imagine treading the same floorboards (or ramparts) as a figure from history. Whether that be Emily Bronte at Ponden, a Roman centurion on Harian’s Wall, or a Druid perambulating a stone circle. It gives me a greater sense of connection to the earth and the universe.

Anyway, it was a grand day out, topped off with a giant Yorkshire pudding filled with sausages and onion gravy at Emma’s cafe on Haworth Main Street. And, if that doesn’t anchor you to the universe, I don’t know what will.

Addendum.

My friend, Denis Goodbody, over in sunny Dublin, suggested that the panelling was probably more to do with keeping warmth in rather than privacy, which is a very good point. One which, having gas central heating, I hadn’t considered.

I can’t finish a post about Haworth or Wuthering Heights without adding links to the following:

My favourite film adaptation of Wuthering Heights by Andrea Arnold.

And yes, Kate’s classic…

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Ten Orbits of the Sun – update.


Well, I didn’t progress further than the shortlist for the Mind Short Story Competition. Still, I’m very proud to have made it this far.

Anyhoo, a few folks said they would like to read my short story, so here it is. The theme for the competition was ‘Journeys’, either literal or metaphorical.

P.S. I’ll always be grateful to Mike O’Toole for his stunning front cover photography.

P.P.S. Here’s a quote from a Mind judge/organiser:

“Believe me, I was definitely rooting for 10 Orbits of the Sun to go through to the judges. Both myself and one of the shortlisters cried reading your story. It was so beautifully written and emotive.”

Ten Orbits of the Sun.

By David Milligan-Croft.

Something changes inside of you when you have a child. Obviously, things change inside of a woman, quite literally. But I’m talking about changing from a man’s point of view – philosophically.

Up until my late thirties, I never wanted kids. Why would I? They’d be a burden. I had a fabulous career, a few great friends, a fantastic salary and a nice little crash pad overlooking a languid river.

Then, for reasons I don’t fully understand, I got all broody. And I just wanted a baby. Specifically, a baby girl. I don’t know why I wanted a girl. Perhaps I found the thought of a rambunctious boy quite off-putting. Or maybe it was because I didn’t want a boy to turn out like his father.

It stands to reason that I had to find a suitable mother first, which took a little longer than I had anticipated. I met Suki on an online dating website and, as we were both pushing forty, we decided it would be prudent to start a family sooner rather than later. We had a lot in common, we both loved the arts and books, she even shared my passion for antiques. She worked at the local hospital as an ER nurse, while I worked in a large design agency working on global brand campaigns. When we got married I decided to quit the industry and open up an antique shop in a trendy part of town. Something I’d dreamed of doing since my twenties.

Anyhow, I got my wish. And I was the proud father of little Tallulah. When I said that something changes inside of you, I meant that something changes chemically as well as philosophically. Nothing else, nor anyone else, matters quite so much in the world. Every cell in your body is geared toward protecting this little being. It starts from the moment of conception. I used to sing lullabies to Suki’s tummy and recite poetry to her. I’d talk to her and tell her how much I loved her and how much I was looking forward to seeing her. It’s a love that’s hard to describe. You would do anything for your charge. Yes, even kill for them. Die for them. It’s quite primeval on one level. Yet deeply spiritual on another. I can understand why some parents conceal their children from the law if they have committed a crime.

Sure, not all parents feel this way. And I’m not trying to say that I’m unique in feeling like this. Plenty of parents are doting and plenty are neglectful.

It was three years before I had a full night’s sleep or a hot meal. I’d be bouncing Tallulah on my left knee to keep her entertained whilst trying to eat a bowl of lukewarm pasta with my right hand. Or driving her around the suburbs to get her off to sleep. Every day brought a new parenting challenge or experience. Like the time I pursed my lips and asked her to give me a ‘smacker’, so she slapped me across the face! Or the time she pulled at my cheek and asked: “Daddy, why is your skin like a raw chicken drumstick?” Charming.

Because I’d had a child later in life, other parents in the park would ask if I was her grandad. It didn’t help that I’d gone grey early in life. She found it funny at first, but as time went on I think it began to annoy her. That I wasn’t like the other dads who were all much younger than me. It used to worry me that I might not be around for her later in life – when she was at university, or if she got married, if she had children. I wondered if I had been selfish having a child so late on.

I watched my little girl flourish and blossom over the years. She was a happy kid. Loved to read. Loved to write her own stories. She’d make little 8-page books and fill them with fairy tales and drawings. She loved to ride her bike and occasionally we’d go to McEvoy’s farm and she’d ride Ruby, the chestnut brown mare. She didn’t care much for video games or TV either and would much prefer to concoct experiments out of things she’d find in the garden and around the house.

I remember one time, when we were going for a drive in the desert in my old jalopy, she’d said: “Daddy, how far is it around the sun?”

“What? The Earth’s orbit?” I’d said.

“Yes.”

“About 585 million miles, give or take a couple of hundred thousand. Depends on the time of year, I think.” I turned the volume down on the car stereo so I could hear my inquisitive daughter better.

“Why does it depend on the time of year?” she said, turning the volume back up again so she could hear the trashy pop song that was playing.

“Not a hundred percent sure. Something to do with the ellipse of the Earth’s orbit,” I tried to draw an ellipse in the dust on the dashboard. “And the tilt of the Earth’s axis.” Astronomy isn’t my strong point and I got the distinct impression that Tallulah guessed I was busking a little.

Tallulah looked out of the open passenger window from behind her sunglasses at the scorched desert dotted with parched brush and spindly shrubs.

I stole a glance at the side of her pensive face, her golden hair was tantalising her cheeks. “Why d’you ask?”

“By my next birthday, I will have travelled 5.8 billion miles around the sun. Pretty amazing, huh?”

I pursed my lips. “When you look at it like that, kiddo, it is pretty amazing.”

“And that’s not including all the miles we’ve done down here on Earth,” she said wistfully.

I didn’t know how many miles we’d clocked up on Earth, and, in the great scheme of things, it probably wouldn’t affect Tallulah’s ‘orbital total’ very much. But it was still a significant amount for mere Earth dwellers.

I don’t know why this memory of my daughter springs to the forefront of my mind. Perhaps it is because it’s to do with heavenly bodies. The very fact that she came up with this concept amazed me. She could often be very abstract in her thinking. While other kids were busy playing with Barbie dolls, Tallulah was calculating how far she’d travelled in the universe. I always imagined her growing up to be a great children’s writer one day. Or maybe even a scientist.

Tallulah didn’t make it into double figures before she was taken from me. It was that God-damned bike I’d bought for her ninth birthday. She was cycling home from school when a truck cut her up at some traffic lights. The driver said he didn’t see her coming up on the inside.

I’d always been uncomfortable with her riding to and from school. Not because she was a careless rider but because of careless drivers. However, her friends all did it, so she wanted to do it too. I guess I should have been a stronger father and forbidden it. Up until then I’d always dropped her off and picked her from school in the car. But peer pressure had reluctantly forced me to concede.

I was at the shop when it happened. I don’t know, but around the time of the accident, I recall being overwhelmed by a sense of grief. Like, somehow I’d had this telepathic connection with her, or something. Sounds ludicrous, I know. Though, I didn’t put it down to anything bad having befallen my little girl at the time. I just thought it was due to my mood swings.

I got a phone call from my distraught wife about an hour later. She had been working in the ER department when Tallulah was brought in. It was hard to make out what Suki was actually trying to tell me through her hysterical sobs. When the penny finally dropped, I felt the world disappear from beneath my feet and I was suddenly floating in a black void. I was dizzy. I felt my insides twitch and heave and I vomited over a glass cabinet containing antique duelling pistols. I think the customers must have thought I was hungover as they stared at me disdainfully and left the shop.

I closed the store and rushed to the hospital. But it was too late. The truck had already crushed the precious life out of her. Had the driver been there when I found out I imagine I would have killed him. Not that I would do that now, having had time to reflect on the incident. I know it was an accident. He didn’t mean to kill her. But he should’ve taken more care. Particularly at that time of day, being near a school and all.

I have never known grief like it.

I don’t believe in heaven and hell.

But this was hell.

The depths of Christian hell could not provide me with such torment. I went over all of the things that I might possibly have done for Tallulah not to have been at that particular spot at that particular moment in time. Not buying her the bike was top of the list. Me picking her up was a second. Taking gymnastics class on a Tuesday instead of violin on a Wednesday was another. Or letting her go to her friend Maisie’s house after school so she would have taken a different route. There were an infinite amount of possibilities. Of variables that would have put her at a different point in the universe at that moment in time. And I didn’t take any of them. It was my fault, not the truck driver’s.

As you can imagine, my wife was inconsolable too. But I had to put on a more stoic face for everyone else: the police, doctors, funeral directors, family, friends. I know people mean well by wanting to offer their condolences, but the last thing we wanted to do at that time was talk to anybody. Shout – yes. Scream – definitely. Why? Why Tallulah? What had she ever done to anybody? To me, it was further proof that there is no god. How could an all-powerful, loving deity let a beautifully perfect little girl be killed in such a horrific way? What the hell was the point of existence?

That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in some form of afterlife. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. Perhaps we’re reincarnated. Or, maybe we rise to a higher dimension. I once had the notion that the afterlife was an emotion rather than a place. Sort of like ecstasy or bliss. That one’s spirit melded back into the universe in a kind of eternal rapture. Most likely, there will be nothing. I don’t know. But it’s a chance I’m not prepared to take.

Of course, I haven’t discussed this with Suki. What would she say? She’d say I was being irrational. And I guess I am. No rational person decides to take their own life. She’d say I needed to see a doctor. That I was depressed. Not thinking straight. Get some pills or bereavement counselling. On the other hand, I could also see why my thinking is completely rational. It wasn’t fair on Suki, I know that. To lose a child and a husband. But what choice do I have?

You know what I miss the most about Tallulah? It’s a sound. Specifically, a word. It’s a word I’ll never hear ever again: “Daddy.” There isn’t a more perfect sound in the entire universe. Perhaps her mother would disagree.

Like I said at the beginning – having a child changes you. You’d do anything to protect them. And I have failed in that respect. Why should my parental duties end in this life? Lots of religious people believe in heaven and hell. But they don’t think twice about giving up on their dead loved ones. If their faith was so resolute why wouldn’t they follow them to paradise?

Perhaps Tallulah and I will both spend eternity in black nothingness. In which case, it won’t matter a jot to either of us. But if there is something else, I’m certainly not going to let my beloved daughter wander the afterlife all by herself.

What kind of father would I be?

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Happy 200th birthday, Emily.


Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Emily Bronte.

Haworth, where the Brontes lived, holds a special place in my, (and my children’s), hearts.

We visit the place as often as we can.

Here’s a little haiku I penned after a walk on the Moors with my daughters a couple of years back.

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Knee deep in heather,

Bright red sock wavers aloft,

Boot stuck in peat bog.

Brontë Parsonage Museum

Brontë Parsonage Museum

 

Brontë dining room

Brontë dining room

This is the room where, Emily, Anne and Charlotte did most of their writing. And that is the actual sofa in the background that Emily died on aged just 30. (I didn’t pass that information on to my children.)

Patrick Brontë's study

Patrick Brontë’s study

If you haven’t read Wuthering Heights yet, I urge you to do so. I promise you, it’s like nothing you have ever read before. It’s a complex and staggeringly passionate tale of unrequited love and dastardly deeds, set amidst the bleak and rugged Yorkshire Moors.

And, if you get the chance, watch the recent film adaptation by Andrea Arnold. It’s a pretty radical take on the book and one of the best interpretations I’ve seen to date. (See trailer below.)

wuthering-heightsIt’s not just the collective brilliance of the Brontë siblings that I find inspiring, but the whole beautifully barren backdrop of the moors. That, coupled with the picturesque cobbled streets of Haworth itself, makes perfect for a day out.

Haworth

Haworth

"Top Withins" Emily's inspiration for Wuthering Heights. (Now a ruin.)

“Top Withens” Emily’s inspiration for Wuthering Heights. (Now a ruin.)

"Top Withens" as it would've looked back in Emily's day.

“Top Withens” as it would’ve looked back in Emily’s day.

P.S. It’d be positively churlish of me not to also include this classic by Kate Bush… whose 60th birthday it also is today. Bit of a spooky coincidence, don’t you think?

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On the curriculum…


Had a nice surprise the other day.

A poem I wrote after the tsunami in Japan in 2011 is on the school curriculum at a group of London schools.

I appreciate that it’s year 6 primary and not a masters in English Lit. But it’s still very flattering.

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Opossum is a federation of schools which includes Newport Primary, Dawlish Primary, Oakhill Primary and Thorpe Hall Primary.

I also came across some samples of poems the students had written after they had studied mine and I was mightily impressed.

And if that poem floats your boat, why not pop over to Amazon where you can avail yourself of my complete collection of poetry and help keep me out of penury!

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I [heart] America


There’s been a lot of hullabaloo this past couple of years because of the Cheeto-in-Chief of the good ol’ U S of A.

What with cosying up to dictators and alienating allies he certainly cuts a divisive figure. Unfortunately, this has had a backlash against America in general and its people.

So, to redress the balance, I wanted to write a positive post about some of the things I love about America. After all, one Mango-Mussolini shouldn’t taint the whole country.

In no particular order…

MUSIC

From Elvis Presley to Tom Waits to the Talking Heads. Who could argue that America has produced some of the greatest artists and genres the world has ever seen. Who are your favourites?

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Next up, MOVIES.

When we think of American movies we tend to think of Hollywood blockbusters. But there are so many unbelievable directors and actors. Here are some of my favourites, who are yours?

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As I have a penchant for the Arts, I’m going to pick out a few photographers who have inspired me over the years.

PHOTOGRAPHY

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Marilyn Monroe by Eve Arnold

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Gloria Swanson by Edward Steichen

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Vivian Maier

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Ansel Adams

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Cindy Sherman

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Saul Leiter

Understandably, most people couldn’t give a rat’s ass about advertising. But I do, because I worked in it for 30 years. When Doyle, Dane, Bernbach set up shop in the 1960s they revolutionised advertising. They focussed on simple product truths. Their ethos/philosophy permeated continents and generations. Still does. I had the privilege of working for DDB Dublin.

ADVERTISING

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Leading on from advertising we have GRAPHIC DESIGN, and this iconic classic by Milton Glaser for the New York tourist board. which has been ‘parodied’ a trillion times. (Yes, including me.)

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Milton Glaser

Next up, ARTISTS. Again, a multitude to pick from. Here are a couple of my faves.

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Jean Michel Basquiat

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Edward Hopper

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Mary Cassatt

Moving on to something non art related – LANDSCAPE. America has such a diverse landscape, from snow-capped mountains to sun-scorched deserts.

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I’ve always loved CLASSIC CARS, Mercedes, Jaguar, Citroen, Volvo. But I also love American cars for their sheer ostentatiousness.

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I couldn’t write a post about America without including a few WRITERS. Too many to choose from. Here are a few of my heroes who have inspired me over the years. Recommendations anyone?

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What else do I love about America? I really like their ARCHITECTURE. Whether it be a monumental skyscaper or the traditional colonial white-picket-fence style complete with veranda.

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You won’t get very far in the States without some top-notch tucker. What is more quintessentially American than the humble DINER?

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Who says Americans don’t get irony? They make some fantastic COMEDY and have some wonderful comedians. Obviously, you’re not as funny as us Brits. But you’re getting the hang of it. (Benny Hill.)

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There you have it. Have I forgotten anything, anyone? What would you have included?

Obviously, there is one other thing I would like to give credit to. And that is the American people. (Well, only those that didn’t vote Trump.) You’re an innovative and inspiring bunch. Not only that, you saved our asses in two world wars! So, cheers for that.

My, (our), world would be a lot poorer without you.

 

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Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine.


 

Except she isn’t.

She’s far from fine.

She’s turned 30.

She’s abrupt.

She’s friendless.

She has a massive scar from her temple to her chin.

She has an abusive mother.

Together, with an unlikely friend, Raymond, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a journey of discovery to unlock a hidden, sinister past.

I found it utterly compelling and read it in three sittings. Eleanor Oliphant is such a well-crafted and complex character. She’s funny, she’s intelligent and she’s to the point!

Her story is told with humour and heartbreak. (Yes, I even blubbed at the end.)

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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You Have 1 New Friend Request


Okay folks, here’s the second idea I had for a novel.

It’s called, ‘You Have 1 New Friend Request’.

Here’s the basic premise:

Social media romance, or elaborate Facebook phishing scam?

What begins as an innocent correspondence between an English hack and a French-Canadian furniture restorer, soon descends into the seedy underworld of the French sex industry and people trafficking.

Will Ted and his daughter be able to save Natalie before she disappears into the murky French underworld? Or is she just a ruse to lure in his daughter?

So, same as yesterday, really. If you have the time to have a read, I’d appreciate your feedback. And, whether you think it has potential. Also, whether you prefer this idea to the one I posted yesterday. Don’t ask for much, do I?

Your help is greatly appreciated.

You Have 1 New Friend Request.

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By David Milligan-Croft.

CHAPTER 1.
COUCOU!

Ted was scrolling through his Facebook news feed when he heard the ping of a notification and a little red number ‘1’ appear over the ‘friends’ icon. He clicked the silhouetted couple and saw the tiny profile picture of what looked like a beautiful woman with a name he didn’t recognise. He immediately felt curiosity and suspicion in equal measure. He clicked on the profile of Natalie Marceau, and when he saw an enlarged image his heart did a double beat.

She was stunning. Model stunning. Movie star stunning. So why was she ‘friending’ Ted Miller – an average looking 40-something? He looked on her profile page and she appeared to have about half a dozen friends, all of whom seemed roughly the same age as him if not a little older.

‘Probably phishing for old pervs,’ he thought to himself. ‘Then plead some sob story to extort money.’

She was 25 years old, living in Brittany, France. Originally from Montreal, Canada. He clicked on the photos header and was aghast. Her auburn hair cascaded over her slender shoulders. Her blue eyes shone with a light emanating from her vivacity and her smile was luminescent with joy. Whilst she was sensationally attractive, she had a natural air about her, as though she was almost unaware of the fact – or didn’t care. Ted’s finger slid up the track-pad of his MacBook, the cursor hovering over the ‘accept or decline’ button. Deep down, he knew this was a mistake. A scam. But the romantic in him could not resist. He clicked – Accept.

No sooner had he accepted Natalie’s friend request, a message appeared in the chat icon. Tentatively, he clicked the button.

Natalie Marceau: Coucou!

Ted opened up two pages of Google translate in his browser. One to translate from French to English, the other from English to French. He cut and pasted the word into the text panel for translation: Coucou = Cuckoo or hello.

Not being up on French colloquialisms, Ted opted for a more formal reply.

Ted Miller: Bonjour.

He remembered a little French from school and from various holidays in the South of France but not enough to hold a conversation. He could get by ordering things in restaurants and hotels, but the problems began when anyone replied in French. They’d usually speak much too quickly for him to comprehend any of the key verbs.

The three dots made a wave to signify that she was typing. If, in fact, this was a ‘she’ at all. Ted had visions of a twenty-stone Russian spot-welder sitting in his vest and underpants in front of a laptop with the stump of a cigar hanging out of the corner of his mouth tapping away at his keyboard. That, or a Nigerian banker in Lagos promising to deposit $10 million dollars into his bank account for a paltry administration fee of two hundred dollars.

Natalie Marceau: Are you good?

‘That depends.’ Ted thought. ‘On whether you mean, ‘am I a good person’ or ‘am I feeling okay?’ He opted for a response to the latter.

Ted Miller: I am very well, thank you for asking. How are you in sunny France?

‘I bet she’s impressed with my French.’

Natalie Marceau: I do not understand. You want to know if France has sun?

‘Shit,’ Ted clicked the ‘suggest alternative translation’ tab.

Ted Miller: Sorry, Google translate. Probably didn’t come out too well. Do you speak English?

Natalie Marceau: Not much.

Ted Miller: Don’t you speak English in Canada?

Natalie Marceau: Not in Montreal. Is French. Not British.

‘That’s me told, then.’ He walked to the fridge and opened a bottle of San Miguel then sat back down at his laptop. He glanced out of the window, ship lights were shimmering off the blue-black water of the harbour basin. ‘C’mon, Miller. Think of something interesting to say. It’s what you’re supposed to do for a living, for God’s sake.’

Ted Miller: Yes, you did indeed win that particular skirmish. But we kicked your arse at the Battle of Waterloo! (Winky face.)

‘Stick that in votre pipe, Ivan!’

The circular green dot that indicates that a person is online to chat disappeared.

Ted leaned back in his swivel chair and took a swig from his beer. ‘Maybe not a Russki after all.’

He scrolled through some of Natalie’s other photos. She looked like she had a stylish apartment. In some photos she wore her hair piled on top in a bun, in others it flowed in waves about her cheeks and shoulders. Her clothes were elegant and chic. In some, a blouse button opened provocatively. In others she wore large, black-rimmed spectacles. He wondered if they were for show. They certainly gave her that librarian look. Most of them were selfies, so there weren’t many full length shots. Although, she did look tall and slender, but it was difficult to tell. Ted began to wonder if he had been a bit quick to be cynical. Surely, not everyone on the internet was a potential fraudster. Perhaps he should try and make amends. Or, perhaps, this was exactly the tactic they use to lure you in. He was just about to type a conciliatory message when the chat box suddenly read: This message has been temporarily removed because the sender’s account requires verification.

‘Oh well,’ he mused. ‘It was fun while it lasted.’ He pulled the computer onto his lap and swivelled the chair to put his feet on the window ledge. His reflection blurred with the orange and yellow neon of Media City beyond. He downloaded a photo of Natalie to his desktop then dragged it into Google images to check the source of the photograph.

‘Nothing unusual there.’ He tried with another, then another. All the photos of Natalie seemed above board. No links to other identities or spurious sites.

Ping! Another friend request. ‘Wow, I am popular tonight.’ He clicked on the button and it was Natalie again. Ted’s brow furrowed in consternation. How could he not? He clicked accept and immediately began typing.

Ted Miller: Where did you go?

Waving green buttons.

Natalie Marceau: Sorry. I think someone was hacking my account.

Ted perused her FB page. This time, he was her only friend. ‘Ah, so I’m the only one that took the bait, am I? Or did one of the other old pervs report you to Facebook?’

Ted Miller: Really? That’s a shame. Glad you’re back. (Smiley face.)

Ted Miller: Sorry about my Waterloo comment. I was only joking.

Natalie Marceau: Really? Never mind.

Ted swallowed hard. ‘I think a lot of this is going to get lost in translation.’

Ted Miller: If you don’t mind me asking, how come you wanted to be friends? It’s not as if we have any friends in common.

Natalie Marceau: Don’t you want to be my friend?

Ted Miller: Of course I do. I was just wondering, that’s all. It’s not often a 42-year-old man gets befriended by a young French goddess who could arrest a heart with a flash of her smile.

‘Bit soon for that kind of talk, Ted,’ he took a swig. He was feeling the buzz from the beer. But she didn’t take the compliment bait.

Natalie Marceau: Twenty five is not that young. Besides, age is unimportant.

‘Couldn’t agree more, my dear.’ Ted drained the last of his beer and got another from the fridge.

Ted Miller: So, Natalie, what do you do for a living all the way over there in France?

Natalie Marceau: Nothing special, or good. I restore the old furniture.

Ted Miller: That sounds great. A very noble craft – bringing something old and decrepit back to its former glory.

He resisted the temptation to make a self-deprecating joke.

Natalie Marceau: Your words write nice. You are also a romantic, no?

Ted Miller: Well, it’s been some time since I was romantic.

Natalie Marceau: You do not have a wife?

Ted Miller: I have an ex-wife. Five years now.

Natalie Marceau: So you have not had a lover in five years?

Ted almost spat his beer out over the computer screen. ‘Get to the point, why don’t you, Natalie.’

Ted Miller: I also have a daughter. Who lives with her mother.

He wondered whether the green light would flick off at this last revelation, as it seemed to be taking an eternity for Natalie to reply. He looked at the clock in the top right of the screen. It was 21:45. Quarter to eleven her time.

Natalie Marceau: Give her a big kiss from me. Well, it’s getting late. I must lie down for a while. Good night.

Ted Miller: Yes, I will. Goodnight. Sweet dreams. You too. Nice to be friends.

Everything came out in a scramble as he attempted to say everything before she switched off. Then silence. Her green light disappeared and he was left looking at her smiling face. She looked as though someone she loved had just made her laugh. He even felt a pang of jealousy. Whoever took the photograph must know her intimately enough to illicit such an animated response. A lover? A best friend?

He read her final comment again – “Give her a big kiss from me.” ‘Why on Earth would I do that? She doesn’t even know you. You don’t know her. Odd thing to say.’

There was a photo of Natalie lying on a bed holding the camera above her face. The pillow and duvet were crisp white cotton. There was a hint of wooden floorboards to the right hand side. Her ochre arms extended diagonally out of shot. Her eyes were doleful, yet she was still smiling. She was lying on top of the duvet wearing a white vest top with a simple, graphic illustration of a cat on the front. Ted thought about lying next to her, smelling her hair, touching her gossamer skin. The light was bright, as though it had been taken in the daytime, or summer.

‘Get a grip, Ted,’ he thought. ‘You’ve got about as much chance of that happening as Donald Trump being the next American president.’ He clicked the ‘shut down’ button and gently closed the lid of the laptop. He looked down at the canal basin where houseboats glowed eerily against the blackness of the water.

CHAPTER 2.
LA FILLE.

Natalie Marceau: Coucou!

The ping on his iPhone woke Ted. He unlocked his phone and read the message from Natalie, then looked at the clock at the top of the screen: 07.30. ‘Well, I guess it is half eight over there.’

Ping.

Natalie Marceau: Good morning, Cheri. Have a good day! (Smiley face, smiley face winking, face blowing a kiss.)

‘That’s a pleasant way to start the day.’ He tossed back the duvet and padded into the living room in his t-shirt and boxers to start up his computer. ‘I’ll have to download translate to my phone as well.’ He logged onto Facebook and opened the translation tabs.

Ted Miller: Bonjour Natalie. Thank you. Have a great day also.

‘Ask her a question before she disappears,’ he thought.

Ted Miller: What are you doing today?

Natalie Marceau: I told you. I am restoring the furniture.

Ted Miller: Sorry, yes, you said. But it’s the weekend.

Natalie Marceau: I work on my own so I must work all the time.

‘Jeez, tough crowd.’

Ted Miller: Yes, I should have known. Do you have any plans for tonight?

Natalie Marceau: No. I make ratatouille for me and my cat and watch a movie.

Ted Miller: Your cat eats ratatouille?

Natalie Marceau: No. That would kill him. I watch the movie with my cat.

Ted Miller: What kind of movies does he like? The Cat in the Hat?

Natalie Marceau: That is a stupid movie.

‘I thought it was quite funny,’ he thought, stretching a yawn and scratching the cotton fabric of his t-shirt under his arm.

Ted Miller: How come you’re not going out on a Saturday night?

Natalie Marceau: I have no friends.

‘I find that hard to believe, young lady.’

Natalie Marceau: It’s complicated. I tell you later. I have to go to work now. Gros bisous.

And, with that, the green dot disappeared.

He cut and pasted ‘gros bisous’ into translate, even though he was fairly certain he knew what it meant.

‘Big kisses.’

‘Big kisses to you too, Natalie,’ he thought, allowing himself the warm glow of affection that it might all possibly be real. Then, cynicism returned. ‘You really are an idiot, Ted.’ He jumped up out of the chair and headed to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. Then, realising what he was doing, ‘Wait, what the fuck? I’m going back to bed.’

Ted awoke after a restless two hours bathed in sweat. He went to the kitchen and filled a large glass of water and took his medication to slow his heartbeat down. It was a condition he’d only recently discovered he had. Tachycardia, as it was known is when the heart beats excessively quickly. Often times, it would beat so fast that he could ‘hear’ it through his pillow, preventing him from sleeping.

It was 09.35. He was due to pick up his daughter from his ex-wife’s in an hour. Before he showered he opened up his laptop to see if Natalie had sent anymore messages. Nothing. A thought occurred to him – he searched her name on Twitter. Nothing. ‘Not unusual. Most Twitter users have daft names anyway.’ He tried Linked In. Also nothing. There was no trace of Natalie Marceau on Pinterest, Tumblr, Tinder, Instagram or Snapchat either. He even tried eBay. The only place she existed was on Facebook. And only to him. He closed the lid. ‘Fuck it, what’s the worst thing that can happen?’

He pulled up outside his ex-wife’s house. Or rather, their old house. It was a grand Victorian semi-detached over three floors in the leafy Manchester suburb of West Didsbury. He had barely got out of the car when the front door of the house opened and the sturdy frame of his ex-wife filled the doorway at the top of the stone steps.

‘Still driving that heap of junk?’ Morag said, arms folded.

‘Hello to you too,’ he said, smiling. ‘This beauty? It’s a classic.’

‘Daddy!’ Audrey said, pushing past her mother’s hips and bolting down the steps.

‘Not so fast!’ rebuked her mum, then sighed at the futility of her request.

Audrey jumped into her father’s arms and he swung her around on the pavement.

‘Hello, sweet pea,’ he said. ‘Got me any presents?’

‘Hey!’ she said, thumping him on the arm. ‘That’s my line!’

‘What time you bringing her back tomorrow?’ Morag asked.

‘Usual time,’ he replied. ‘About six-ish.’

Just then, Kevin emerged from the shadows behind her, placed his arms around her waist and rested his chin on her shoulder. Ted cast his eyes down toward the pavement and opened the passenger door for Audrey.

‘Hey Ted,’ Kevin said.

‘Hi,’ Ted replied, but doubted it was audible enough for it to have reached the top of the steps. ‘Are you going to the recital tomorrow?’ He directed his question to his ex-wife.

‘Oh, we can’t, can we, darling?’ she craned her neck and planted a kiss on Kevin’s cheek.

Audrey gave a look of disgust. ‘We’re going to London this afternoon. You know… gotta make the most of a free night. Can’t wait. Won’t be back till late.’

‘How late’s late? Audrey can always stay with me tomorrow night as well. Save you busting a gut to get back.’

‘No, no. We should be back in time.’

‘Suit yourself,’ Ted said, walking round to the driver’s side. ‘See you…’ But when he looked up they had already gone inside and closed the door. He sat down and slammed the door.

‘So, little lady, where to?’

‘Anywhere away from here,’ Audrey folded her arms and pouted. ‘You should have called him egg head. And no, not because he’s clever!’

Ted smiled, patted his daughter on the knee and pulled off down the road.

‘And just so you know,’ she said, staring out of the passenger window. ‘I think your car’s cool. Better than his poncey Beemer.’

‘He treats you well though, doesn’t he?’

Audrey huffed. ‘S’pose so.’

‘I mean, that’s all I care about is that he’s good to you.’

‘Yeah, I guess.’

‘Look honey, I know it’s hard, but try not to be a hard-ass to him all the time. It’ll only come back on you.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean, if you keep knocking him back he’ll probably stop trying to care. And neither of us wants that.’

‘You and mum could always…’

‘That’s never going to happen though, is it, love? That ship has sailed, hit an iceberg, got torpedoed, then hit by a kamikaze pilot and sank without a trace. And, by the looks of things, old Kevin’s got his feet firmly under the table. Has he moved in yet?

‘Might as well have. He’s never out of the place. Spends more time in the bathroom than mum. And that’s saying something.’

Ted laughed. ‘You know, we could always go to the cinema if you like. They have a Studio Ghibli film on.’

‘Really! Which one?’

‘My Neighbour Totoro.’

‘Cool! I’d love that.’

After the movie, they went to Pizza Express for a late lunch. Audrey was perusing the menu while Ted was checking his phone to see if he’d had a message from Natalie.

‘Expecting an important phone call?’

‘No, why do you ask?’

‘You keep checking your phone.’

‘No, I don’t,’ he said defensively.

‘You so do! You’ve checked it about twenty times since we left the cinema.’

Ted raised his eyebrows and placed the phone on the table and picked up the menu. As he was studying it, his phone beeped. Before he could drop the menu and pick it up Audrey had already grabbed it.

‘Whoa! Who is she?’

‘Give it back, Audrey.’ Ted reached out for his phone but Audrey slid her chair backwards slightly making the legs screech across the tiled floor.

‘Wow. She is hot. Who is she?’

‘I don’t know, do I?’ Ted said tartly. ‘Because somebody has my phone.’

‘Natalie Mar-ceau, it says.

‘She’s just a friend on Facebook,’ he said, pretending not to mind and looked at the menu again.

‘Please tell m you’re not dating her, are you?’

‘Of course I’m not! Now give it back,’ he said irritated.

Audrey pulled the phone close to her chest. ‘Good. I’d hate to have a step-mother who was younger than me,’ she laughed.

‘She is not younger than you!’ Ted was getting angry. ‘You are 12. She is 25.’

Audrey did a quick calculation in her head. ‘She’s still closer to my age than she is to yours,’ she said cheekily.

Ted sighed as the waiter arrived. ‘Large glass of house red, please.’

Audrey sensed her father’s irritation and slid the phone back across the table. He picked it up, glanced at the screen then placed it back down.

‘What does it say?’ Audrey asked?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t speak French,’ he said flatly.

‘So how do you guys communicate?’

‘There is such a thing as Google translate, you know.’

‘Excuse me for asking.’ Audrey folded her arms.

Just then, the waiter arrived. ‘I’ll have the Quattro Stagioni, please,’ Ted said. ‘But, can I have it mixed up?’

The waiter scribbled on his order pad and nodded.

‘Pizza Diavlo and a Coke, please.’

‘Try again,’ Ted said.

‘Sheesh, sparkling elderflower, please,’ she handed the menu back to the waiter. ‘Kevin lets me have Coke.’

Ted smiled as he handed back the menu. ‘Good for him. But I’m not Kevin. See, he’s not all bad. You never know, you might end up preferring him to me.’

Audrey gave her father a kick on the shin. Ted burst out laughing.

‘Aren’t you cross that he lets me have Coke?’

‘I don’t make the rules in your mother’s house,’ he said. ‘But she knows how I feel about it.’

‘Why did you split up?’

‘Audrey! We’ve been through this a thousand times.’

‘No we haven’t! You say we have, but we never do. You just fudge around the subject.’

The waiter arrived with the drinks. Ted took a large gulp of red wine. ‘Your mother misread the marriage vows; she thought they said, “In health and in wealth”.’

‘See! There you go again! What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘It means I’m not as well off as I used to be when I worked for The Guardian,’ he said.

‘You still work for a paper though,’ she said.

‘Not a national. It’s just a local rag.’

‘How come you can afford to live in Media City then?’

‘It’s a friend’s. He’s on secondment in Beijing for two years so he said I could flat-sit for him. He gave me a really good rate. The rent would normally be double what I’m paying.’

‘That was kind of him. What you going to do when he gets back?’

‘Move out, I guess. Let’s not think about that, it’s a long way off. Tell me about school.’

After the meal they drove back to his apartment in Media City overlooking the canal harbour. Audrey sat at the kitchen table drawing Manga cartoons while Ted checked Facebook for news from Natalie. There were four messages.

Natalie Marceau: Coucou!

Natalie Marceau: Bonjour!

Natalie Marceau: Bon soir!

Natalie Marceau: You are obviously busy.

Ted Miller: Hi Natalie! I’m here now. I’ve been out all day with my daughter. Sorry. How was your day?

Natalie Marceau: I want you to know I am ordered, but not obsessive. I do not like the mess and I like things to be in their place.

I am loving, very affectionate, not stuffy. I’m not possessive or jealous. I am not excessively envious or pathological. I demand you to be faithful. That is not my fault because I was born under a sign of love.

I am calm and quiet, polite, discreet, very reserved, but when I have something to say, I say it to the face. I am courageous but nonviolent. I am extremely patient, (e.g. I can stay to wait hours anywhere).

I am not vindictive, I let the wheel turn, even if it takes time to turn, because I know it will turn one day or another, and when I have said what I had to say everything is over.
I am faithful in friendship as in love. I am fair and just. I hate when one is attacking the weakest (oppressed). I am able to lead the fight against injustice and racism.

I’m looking for a loving man, funny, generous, caring, faithful and sincere who will respect me and love me for who I am. A man that will teach me to love him with all my heart. If you are that person!!!!!

‘You’re also a fruitcake,’ Ted thought.

Natalie Marceau: All I look for is a man who will support me, that will not make me suffer and who will love me for what I am, nothing more. I’m not materialistic nor bad. I am just a little heart to take. A generous woman, sincere and kind who wants to live a beautiful story.

‘Bloody hell, that escalated quickly,’ he said aloud.

‘What did?’ Audrey asked, looking up from her drawing.

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