Syce

CNV00007Six months after I got married I began to have scary dreams. Two men were hunting for me. I hid under the floor boards and heard them telling each other, ‘I know she’s under there.’ They were going to kill me. The wierd thing was that during the day I looked forward to my terrifying dreams. Until I got married, aged twenty three, I had hitchhiked round Europe living by my wits, getting any work I could where ever I landed up. I defended myself from potential rapists with a stiletto knife given to my by my pre-husband boy friend. When I became a wife in the tea estates of South India my life became safe – and in the isolated bungalow – a little dull. Till a neighbour offered me his horse. I stopped having the scary dreams after I got Cromwell. He was a sixteen two Australian whaler. He arrived with two men. They held a rope over his head while I mounted. This, they said, was to prevent him rearing up and falling on top of me. I was six months pregnant. Cromwell threw me off a week later. I landed a bit bruised and bloody on a rock. I did continue to ride him, though. I even entered him for a race. There was a little confusion at the start. The horses were recalled but Cromwell was off. He was too strong for me. He did the entire course before coming back to the start where the other riders wre smugly waiting. He didn’t stop then either, He went through the waiting riders on their fretting mounts, crashed through the rails, and with a shatter and splinter of white planks, we landed in the river below. I got back into line at last and came third.
Then syce arrived. He was tall, turbanned and looking for a job. He had tried selling vegatables in the market but had gone bust. I was advised not to employ hm because he was quarrelsome. I just liked him. He became my syce, my groom. I had other horses after Cromwell. There was Dinah, who had wobbly front legs. I used to sing ‘Dinah, is there anyone finer, in the State of Carolina’ as we cantered along the tracks through the tea. She moved her ears in time to my singing, so I knew she understood. Then came Tough Baby. She was the fastest horse in South India. Over two furlongs. The shortest race was three furlongs. Tuffy and me had to go very very fast at the beginning to win a race in Madras. She had to wear a hot water bottle filled with ice on her head in Madras, because she was intolerant to heat. Syce slept in front of her stall for the whole month of the races, to prevent her being ‘nobbled.’ Once she won two races in a day and I was reprimanded by the Muslim manager of the Hyderbad riding club. Tough Baby, he said, bore the thumb prints of the Prophet Mahommed and such a blessed horse must never be asked to run twice in one day.
I began to long to ride in longer races. I wanted a horse that could do a mile. And then I met Kartick.. He was huge and proud and clever. And a bargain. His trainer let us have him for unpaid fees.
The Muslim manager bought Tough Baby. A year later she came last. ‘It’s very bad for Baby’s nerves to win races, the Muslim manager said.
That evening, after buying Kartick, people kept coming up to me and saying, ‘Are you going to ride him? My goodness you must be brave!’
I couldn’t get him up to the start, He tried to throw himself, and me too, backwards over the rails.
We took him to our tea estate home in the hills. I planned to gently train him, and get him over his fear of racing. Syce wanted to run beside me. Absolutely not, I told him. I’ll be OK. Really I will. Every corner I turned, there syce would be, hiding behind some bush or tree, holdng a rope at the ready to rescue me. He oiled the stirrup leather clips so that they kept coming off when I was dring. It’s so annoying I tod him. He kept oiling them. Of course in the end he was right. Kartick hurled himself backwards over a precipice, me on top of him. I fell first, my feet in the stirrups, leathers still on. Kartick fell below me, blotting out the sky briefly. The oiled clips had saved my life.
When we moved to Bengal and started a dairy farm Syce became our cowman. He only talked Tamil, but he did it loud and slow so that in the end the Bengalis understood. We went to Assam after that and the Assamese, also, were treated to loud slow Tamil.
Violence came to Assam. Young men wearing dark glasses and tight white trousers, imitating the Tonton Macout, began attacking Bengalis,saying they had taken all the jobs. Bengali tea planters had been beaten up. One had been burnt to death in his tea factory. My husband was Bengali. One day a hundred of them came to our bungalow demanding to see my Bengali husband. I said he was on tour. They didn’t believe me. Syce appeared suddenly and plonked himself between me and the young men. ‘If they are being rude to you I’ll kill them,’ he told me in Tamil. One old man against a hundred young ones. ‘I promise you they are being terribly polite,’ I tried to assure him but he must have sensed how scared I was. Perhaps he saw how I was trembling. He persisted in standing aggressively facing them, his first clenched.
They went away in the end without hurting us. I think Syce saved my life again.

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Something Marvellous

Ranjit has read what I have written below and he says he translated it from Punjabi, not Sanscrit.

I can’t see it anywhere

To see it would be enchantment

Searching for it I wander everywhere

And then, Sadaarang – it comes, we meet!

Ranjit translated this from the Sanscrit yesterday. Unlike sanscrit there is no English word for that which has no gender, but yet is (somewhat and marvellously) human. ‘It’ does not seem right. Would ‘you’ be better? Or perhaps something more than words, whatever the language, is needed. Anyone got any ideas?

LANGUAGE.

That will be the theme for the Oxfringe Sharkspark. The true storytelling even will take place on Friday June 7th, at 8 pm at the Turl Street Kitchen, entry £4.
There will be an open mike.
Come and tell a story, listen to other stories. You never know who you might meet, what you light hear.
There is a Sharkspark on the last Monday of every month, same place, same time, and £2 entry. Or even come and have a meal first!

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How to care for honey bees

‘Writing on Skin’ e-book costs 99p for the nrxt two weeks!
But the bees are more exciting! They are gushing in and out of both my hives, and carrying lots of pollen.
Well, the thing is, I have discovered, that they are better at caring for themselves, than I am at caring for them I take out some honey in September, put in lots of sugar syrup in October, and reluctantly put in strips and drips as required to cope with varoa. Today they are out in glorious numbers and some are even carrying pollen. Probably snowdrops!

Writing on Skin by Sara Banerji published by Bloomsbury big Amazon promotion! @AmazonKindle #BigDeal http://tinyurl.com/assplup

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Writing on Skin

WS cover You just never know what’s going to happen next in the world of books and publishing. Amazon.com (US only) have chosen Writing on Skin to be part of their ‘Big Deal’ promotion, which will run from February 22 – March 10. During this time Writing on Skin will be available for $1.99 in the US. ‘Big Deal’ is Kindle’s largest merchandising event, and Amazon will be supporting their chosen titles with the kind of publicity I couldn’t even imagine when I wrote the book. The publishers, in those days, did send me to stay in some nice hotels for literary festivals, and threw a spiffing launch party in Blackwells Bookshop! No booze this time, I’m sorry to say.
link: http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Skin-Bloomsbury-Reader-Deal,”

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Getting Old

CNV00008

My mother on her wedding day. Weirdly, she had written 6/6/31 under the photo. Weird, because I born on 6/6/32. And she died on 6/6/93.

Circumstances compelled Lady Arabella Cunningham Smythe to start taking interest in life, instead of trying to die, after her granddaughter was abducted. And I plan for her to have a new and dreadful adventure every year (her year). And she will outwit the villains every time. That’s the lovely thing about being a writer of fiction. Lady A won’t ever be whacked in a ‘home’ or starved in a hospital, because I say so!
Today I got an advert from India for a ‘Marigold Hotel’ kind of old folks home. It sounds wonderful. You could expect to have more fun there than you had ever had in your life, according to the advert. But India is awfully far away. And people are even smacked and starved here, with relatives nearby and inspectors and the NHS on the guard.
When my mother got dementia my husband and I moved next door to her and there was an interjoining door between our houses. I cooked all her meals and she popped into our house, sometimes at two in the morning, shouting, ‘Lunch is ready!’ The arrangement worked pretty well, though I would not say it was perfect. In addition to us there was an elderly man who lived in a downstairs room and who had been there so long that he and my mother had got used, even dependant on each other.
When Mother was eighty four we had to go away for Christmas. I had the feeling that this would be her last Christmas and I wanted it to be really fun for her, so before leaving I bought crackers, and cooked a whole Christmas lunch, turkey, pudding, brandy butter, sprouts, the lot, and left it for the relative, who would be taking my place, to warm next day. My husband gave my mother and Colin, the elderly tenant, a bottle of vintage champagne I told the relative to make Mother’s Christmas really jolly and noisy. His only task was to set the table and warm the food.
Alas, we got back to discover that the relative had not given Mother or Colin any of the things we had left for them. They had had no Christmas lunch at all. The relative had sat watching tv till it was so late that Mother got tired and went to bed, then he took everything, even the champagne, to amazed and grateful friends and spent Christmas evening with them. So it would seem, sadly, that when you are old there is nobody, not even family, with whom you are safe.
Is there an answer? Was there ever one.

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Blood Precious

Naomi.is my grand daughter, because she is Verity’s child..

    I will never forget Jack’s delight when he was told Verity was having a baby. He loved being a grandfather and even in the later stages of his illness, always recognised her. Sometimes she would gently take his hand and her touch seemed to soothe him as nothing else could.

    I had, in fact, tried to persuade my daughter to have a baby ever since she fell in love with M’buta ten years before, when she was twenty five. That was when she told me she was never going to have children.

    ‘You will be sorry when it is too late,’ I said. ‘Even though you are a lesbian you should swallow your distaste and become pregnant. You are not too bad looking. I’m sure there must be some man somewhere who will oblige, even though you are cohabiting with another woman. You needn’t get married, or anything and can always have a shower after.’

    ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about, Mother,’ she said crossly.

   ‘If that was the case, how do you think I and your father produced you?’ I asked her.    

    I felt I had scored a point there but instead of taking it up she said, in a self pitying voice, ‘I don’t know why you even bothered to have a child.’

   ‘What? Are you saying I wasn’t a good mother? You can’t possible accuse me of neglecting my duty in that area.’ I was outraged.

   ‘Well, you weren’t cuddly,’ she said.

    ‘You were a great joy to me when you were little.’

    ‘Really?’ she said. ‘I never knew.’

    ‘I did not like the way she spoke at all,’ I told M’buta later. ‘There was a distinct ring of sarcasm in her tone.’

   ‘You ought to wrap it up a bit, Ladyma.’ M’buta said. ‘She loves you a lot inside her heart.’

   ‘What do you mean?’ I asked her crossly. ‘Now what have I done wrong?’

   ‘Couldn’t you tell her you love her a bit?’ asked M’buta. She sounded quite shy to say the word, ‘love.’.

   ‘Since you tell her that all the time, I can’t see any need for me to do it, ’ I told her sternly. 

    I and Jack were married for more than sixty years and in all that time never once did I use sentimental language   Even our decision to do away with ourselves when the separation time was approaching was done in a businesslike, practical and unsentimental manner. We collected the sleeping pills without even bothering to hide them, those being the days before I had people poking through everything.

    Unfortunately, after Jack died, they found the pills and threw them all away.

    Later I heard Verity whispering to M;buta, ‘You don’t think Mother kept those pills on purpose and was planning to do away with herself, do you?’

   I did not catch M’buta’s answer, but ever since, they have kept thinking up things ‘to cheer me up.’

    ‘I do not need cheering up,’ I told them.  When you are a bereaved person, you can be as furious as you like and no one likes to say boo to you. ‘I do not even want to be cheered up.’

   But nothing stopped them. They kept organising silly outings, inviting me to come and do things that I had never had the smallest appetite for, a visit to the zoo, shopping at Harrods, an afternoon at the cinema. They even wanted to take me to see the remake of  ‘Mary Poppins.’ You really would think I had become a child again. It when they suggested a picnic by the sea, that an idea came to me. They all seemed gratified and hopeful when I accepted. They did  ‘there, she’s coming out of it’ looks to each other. By this time I had managed to assemble a new small collection of sleeping pills, by pretending to put them in my mouth when Verity gave them to me. Not enough to do the full job, but enough, I thought to be effective when in the sea.

   ‘And I shall go in the sea,’ I told them. ‘So please go and buy me a bathing suit,’

   Verity and M’buta went rushing, as though the sun had come out suddenly, after a lot of rain. 

   I waited till they were all sitting on the Brighton beach, if you could call that heap of oil stained cobbles a beach when I said I thought I would have a little paddle in the sea before lunch. ‘In memory of Jack. I would like to be alone, please.’

   Verity and M’buta nodded,  looking moved and un-suspicious. Gump, who follows me everywhere, leapt up and tried to come after me, so I asked Naomi to be a dear little girl and hold onto him while I paddled because I didn’t want him to get wet and shake water all over the picnic rug. Gump adores Naomi, and when he joyfully snuggled into her arms I felt a brief pang of irritation at his fickleness, and lack of intuition.. Surely he must know what was about to happen. I thought dogs had instincts about things like that.

   ‘I’ve never known you to mind about a thing like Gump wetting us, before, Mother,’ said Verity in a surprised but pleased voice.

   ‘I am trying to follow your and M’buta’s advice and be less selfish,’ I told her and managed to put on a saintly sort of smile which did not, this time, draw from her the question, ‘Is your mouth hurting, Mother? Why are you stretching it like that?’

    When I reached the sea and looked back, Gump had fallen asleep in Naomi’s arms and looked comfortable and happy. I felt shocked at his treachery.

   By the time I reached the water, I could just make out Naomi waving.

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Blood Precious

Chapter 1

I did not realise a suicide note – I believe that what it is called – was so hard to write, till I tried to do it..
I started for the fifteenth time, ‘Well, that was that…’ then once again tore up the paper. The waste paper basket was starting to overflow with my abandoned letters but, even for me, that start wouldn’t do under the circumstances. I didn’t have to have the letter composed till Tuesday morning, the day that no one came to see me, so I had time. I could not do it on any other day or I risked being found unconscious and resuscitated. Resuscitation is the bane of those trying to commit suicide.

Jack had died a year ago and I had been planning the suicide ever since.
On the morning of the day he died his mind had seemed to briefly operate again like the sun unexpectedly shining through clouds.
He was sitting by the fire as usual. He was always cold in those days, no matter what the season. We used to have a coal fire then, though this has now been replaced by an ultra safe electric one. He would sit for hours, staring at the glowing embers, not speaking, not moving. Sometimes saliva would dribble from his lips and I would wipe them with his handkerchief. He had stopped doing things like that for himself long before.
‘I shall be an ember,’ he said.
A pain of joy snatched at my heart because it was his old, clear, coherent voice.
. We had evolved a theory how after we were dead we might have a way of becoming united again. After death, we had decided, one’s essence glows like a hot coal that cooled over a period of time. If, we told each other, both he and I died while our coals were still smouldering, our hot essences would blend together and become fused for eternity. It had only been a fancy really, a way of thinking round the unthinkable but it had lodged in Jack’s muddled mind as a proven theory.
‘Yes,’ I said now. ‘Oh, yes.’ I felt that breathless excited feeling that I had had more than sixty years ago when I heard his dear voice for the first time..
His voice went tremulous again. ‘You…ember…Me,’ Now he was completely quavery.
I caught at the sleeve of his jersey, trying to wake him, to bring back, even for another moment, the Jack of my life, that clever marvellous person who once had known so many peculiar things and now knew almost nothing.
He never spoke again. Those were his last words. Hot embers. He and I melted together.
I began my letter again, ‘As you can see I have killed myself..’ Stupid. Of course they were going to see. I tore up that one too. Something simple maybe. ‘Farewell..’ No, no. Ridiculously archaic. ‘’Bye bye, daughters…’ ‘Tootleoo, kith and kin..’ ‘I set off on a mysterious journey..’ Perhaps a long essay was the right thing. The problem was that I had never written a letter like this before and, of course, considering its substance, never would again. I even considered abandoning my principles and employing slop and sentimentality, two things I abhor.
I had long ago abandoned hope of getting the letter right first time and was writing it in rough to copy tidily later, in spite of the risk of being discovered. My daughter, Verity, or even M’buta might see early drafts in my wastepaper basket, but I had no option but to take that chance.
M’buta is my daughter’s friend. Well. More than friend really and when, after Jack died I went to pieces Verity, said. ‘You need some one to look in on you when I’m working and M’buta is willing to come around regularly and give you a helping hand. She used to be a nurse so she’s good at looking after people.’
I had felt numb at the time. Only people who know the feeling of numb can understand this. I did not feel in the mood to do anything, not eat or wash or go to bed or anything. M’buta would appear, do all the things that were needed ..that she said were needed.. I didn’t mind if she came or not. A year later, she’s still around. I’ve allowed her to take too much control. I suppose, if I had the energy, or the time, I could take matters back into my own hands. But what’s the point now? I shall be dead by Wednesday. Why annoy Verity and offend M’buta, who in spite of everything is always kind to me?
On with that letter. I sighed and began again, thinking that maybe I need give no explanation for my act. My reasons were fairly obvious, well, on the surface anyway. A poor, old, ill and bereaved woman who had lost the will to live. The truth was a little different, but the people around me were so lacking in imagination that there was no way I could have explained it to them. But it seemed a pity to go out in silence. This was my last chance of making any mark at all on the world. ‘Goodbye’ perhaps? Which meant, ‘God bide with you.’ No, no. I did not even believe in God. There is one thing I do believe in and that’s the truth. I refused to allow my final statement to be a lie. Also, even if it had not been for its religious context. I felt the word ‘goodbye’ had become devalued by time and overuse. ‘Fare well?’ Yes, I definitely wished that those I left behind to fare well. No matter what they thought of me – only quite recently Verity had called me an ungrateful old woman because I said I did not want her nosing around among my things. I did not want M’buta bossing me around either, I said. But I don’t want to cause hurt to anyone. I like M’buta in spite of her being intrusive. There are sides to her that are really nice. When I feel lonely, I look forward to her company. – I felt well intended towards Verity and M’buta. I mean, look at the way in which I plan to take care not to be a nuisance to them afterwards.
I want to look decent after I’m dead, but don’t want to put them to the trouble of doing my corpse up so I have determined to titivate before I die. I had already planned out carefully what I would be wearing and which jewels to put on.
An idea came to me. Should I just this once, as it was a special occasion, pop a little word of affection in. ‘Good bye, darlings,’ ? I even went so far as to put it down, but it looked quite quite wrong. Not me at all. I hastily scratched it out again. Fancy me being remembered by such a trite phrase.
‘She was really an old sweetie inside, not matter how much she might pretend otherwise,’ I could hear M’buta saying. And people laughing and telling tales of other old people who pretended to be nasty but in truth had hearts of sugar syrup. With a shudder, I scribbled through the sentimental words about ten more times so that they shouldn’t even be legible when raised to the light. I did not want them to know that the thought had even occurred to me.
‘I expect you will relieved to be free of me.’ Ah that was more like it. ‘And I will be at peace as well.’ How did I know I would be at peace? I cannot imagine there is much peace while you are being rotted under the ground or cooked in a crematorium, or whatever it was they planned to do with me. Which, of course would not be me, because the true part of me would be with Jack, the glowing clinker, blending with Jack’s red hot one.
I began to feel like my granddaughter, Naomi, when she toiled over writing a ‘thank you’ letter for her birthday present For a moment I contemplated inviting Naomi round now, to help me. But dropped the thought in a moment. You can’t ask a four year old to help her grandmother write a suicide note and anyway, because of the sweetie packets, I have not been able to have her round lately.
I began again. ‘Dearest family…’ This would include M’buta, who being my daughter’s partner, was in the role of my son in law.
I had chosen the paper for my letter with great care. It was hand-made, acid free, and very expensive. Because, after I was gone, this letter would be the only thing my family would have to remember me by, I did not want the paper I wrote it on going acid or brittle.
My door handle gave a turn. Verity. When she could not open it, she called, ‘Mother, have you locked it? What are you doing in there?’ her voice stern and suspicious, the voice I had used to her when she was little and was doing something naughty.
I tried staying still in the hope that she would think I was asleep, even did a few snoring sounds, but she kept rattling on the door handle ‘Mother, open up at once.’
. ‘Go away,’ I shouted, abandoning my pretence. ‘Leave me alone.’ I knew it was useless though and if I did not open up to her, her suspicions would be aroused. Later she would surreptitiously search the room. They did that these days, I’m sure they did. Sometimes, when I opened a drawer I would feel sure someone had been searching among my things. And now I had had so much trouble gathering up enough pills to do the job, I did not want to lose them. You might as well be a toddling child or a pet dog by the age of eighty, the way in which people take control of every aspect of your life, I thought as, reluctantly I put my pad back in its hiding place, behind the dressing table mirror and dropped a couple of disguising tissues on top of the paper in the basket. Sooner or later they would find everything, unless Tuesday came first. It’s because they found me out the first time, when I went with them to the seaside, that they are now watching me so closely. Since that first and failed attempt, I have been getting no privacy or peace.
So as to put them off the scent, lately I had been trying to appear jolly and though Verity kept asking me, ‘Are you all right, Mother? Is your mouth hurting? Why are you stretching it in that funny way?’ M’buta was quite taken in. She is really a very kind person and I should not complain about her. She even complimented me for looking so well and bearing up so wonderfully. But after a while I heard Verity tell her, in one of those silly whispers that people do when they want you to hear and pretend they don’t, ‘Don’t be taken in by Mother. It’s some new trick.’ In fact the only one who had seen through my play acting right from the start was my granddaughter, Naomi. She is only four and has special abilities. ‘Why are you crying in the middle, Grandma?’ she asked.
Well, of course I was. Jack and I had been married for sixty one years. After he died, M’buta said, ‘At least you’ve got a daughter. And me. And a granddaughter. Some people don’t have any one. You are luckier than a lot of people.’ Well who bloody cares about a lot of people. And it’s not just M’buta who goes on like that. It’s everyone. When I went to the eye hospital to tell them that my sight had gone so blurry that I could hardly read any more, they said, ‘Your eyes are really good for your age.’ Same with my hearing. ‘There’s no way of improving your hearing any further, dear. For your age it’s very good.’ What they really mean, of course, is, that I’m lucky to be alive at all, let alone be able to hear or see. And how I wish they wouldn’t call me ‘dear.’ When M’buta first became my daughter’s lover and called me ‘Arrabella,’ I told her I had not given her permission to address me thus. After all she is a girl several years younger than my own daughter. She had had the grace to look embarrassed. ‘What would you like me to call you?’ she asked.
I like, in general to be addressed by my full name by everyone who is more than ten years younger than me, whether I know them well or not, apart of course for child or grandchild. But there was a problem with this as far as M’buta and names are concerned, for due to her relationship with my daughter, I could hardly expect her to call me ‘Lady Cunningham-Smythe’. Mother-in-law, or even Mother might have been OK if she had been a male but did not seem to be appropriate in M’buta’s case either.
For a while there seemed to be no solution to this problem and she told me that she was worried in case the house caught fire and she was unable to call me to alert me to the danger. Which is a situation that does not worry me at all, because I was planning to die anyway. But to M’buta, me being burnt to death is a bad thing.
Chrissy, the woman who has been doing for me for about twenty years, and is the sort that takes liberties when it suits her, calls me by my full name because she is a snob. Apart from that, though, she behaves in ways that I find unpleasantly familiar. After Jack died, because I could not stand her awful\ humming and prancing any more, I gave her the sack. I told her I no longer needed her. I said that as from Monday, she must not come. You would have thought she had not heard a word I said. She continued to turn up as usual and did her non-cleaning making-a nuisance-of-herself as merrily as ever.
‘I told you to leave,’ I shouted on Monday morning.
‘Oh, did you, Lady Cunningham-Smythe.?’ she said vaguely then continued dancing round with her useless duster whacking which always produces more dirt than it removes.
‘Depart, woman,’ I roared. Nothing would budge her.
‘ I couldn’t abandon you, Lady Cunningham Smythe. It’s not in my nature to abandon the sick and aged.’
‘She does a good job of cleaning, no matter what you say,’ said Verity. ‘M’buta thinks so too. And we both like to think there is someone keeping an eye on you when we aren’t around.’ They are all in cahoots. There’s nothing I can do with a gang like that.
I mean, look at the problems I had collecting the pills. It would have been perfectly simple if I had not been suspicious that they were prying. Paracetamol is only sold in little packets of ten tablets. You know – so that people will find it difficult to gather enough to commit suicide. Therefore you need to go to several chemist shops to gather enough to do the job. And with my mobility problem, of which all these experts also say, ‘You get around very well for your age, dear,’ this is not easy. For a while I tried saving up the sleeping pills the doctor had given me, but M’buta found them and threw them away saying, ‘My goodness, look what I’ve found, Ladyma.’ – that’s how we have solved the problem of names in case the house burns – ‘You might have taken an over dose by mistake. They might have killed you.’
‘I can’t see that that would have mattered very much,’ I retorted.
She looked at me with loving disapproval. ‘Imagine how sad Verity and Naomi would be, let alone myself. And Gump. How could you even think of abandoning your poor little dog.’
I love Gump. Once I whispered in his ear, when I was sure no one was listening, ‘I love you, Gump.’ I admit I felt instantly embarrassed. He may be only a dog, but who knows what dogs understand? But all the same I thought it would be a good thing if I was out of the way and someone younger and more agile looked after him.

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