Friday, 7 October 2011

Ben the God of Lego

My friend Ben is brilliant.

He only has to look into my box of Lego to come up with the best ideas for space ships, armed fighter jets, power-propelled underwater zoom subs. Even the names are his; I usually just make boats and cars and aeroplanes.

The sound of rummaging and digging and scattering fills the house when Ben comes round to play. Last time we made an intergalactic star-station filled with sub-humanoid creatures and ectoplasm that was actually playdoh, but when Ben had twisted it into strange and wonderful shapes, I really believed it could be ectoplasm. He took apart my police helicopter and the dinosaur my sister had made to create the star-station pod walkways and a range of alien monsters that looked a bit like giant spiders.

‘They look a bit like spiders,’ I said.

‘They’re not spiders. They’re semi-anthropoid beings made of unidentified matter from the planet Clag. Pass me that boat; I want to make a Speeder Tank.’

Just before Ben’s dad comes to collect him, we put all the Lego that Ben had made on display in my bedroom. Then, after he’s gone, I look at it and think; I wish I was as good at Lego as Ben. He’s brilliant.

I wish he hadn’t broken up my police helicopter, though.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011


My hair and I have lived separate lives. There have been times when we seem to have followed a similar trajectory, most mostly I think we are together by chance.

It began life as a halo; wispy silky strands that fell upon my cot pillow as quickly as they appeared, embroidering it with gold. It grew long and fringed, then bobbed and short and long again, almost without me noticing. It rose and fell with the seasons and the years and my mother’s whims.

When I was eight she took me to her hairdressers with a picture of a pageboy and instructions to cut my fringe so short that there was nothing left to hide behind. I am not sure I have ever recovered from that.

At seventeen it went scarlet in response, I thought, to the shock of exams, before taking on a more gothic hue and roping itself into tangled locks that I knotted with coloured rags and ribbons. Carrying its weight and wearing it like a badge that stated my intentions, I strayed out of school and into a far away university where I became known as the Girl with the Purple Hair. But really, it was the Purple Hair with the Girl; I was content to live underneath its shadow in relative obscurity.

A teary afternoon behind rain-streaked glass, steamy on the inside and alive with the insect clip- clip of scissors saw the last of the purple locks fall to the floor, swept up and away like the vestiges of my mismanaged romance. I was the Girl with Nothing, no identity salvaged. ‘I look like a six year old boy!’ I wept all the way home and the pain of that almost transcended the dull ache of my heart.

It was sober and sleek for my first job; empowered and even sleeker during subsequent promotions while I spiralled out of my depth. It went away completely in the aftermath of the illness, to return tentatively as brittle and curly as a wiry dog. I would look at myself in the bathroom mirror, hand over my head, then hand over my face, trying to decide which one was me. ‘Why did you desert me?’ I scolded, but nevertheless touched it gently and lavished it with expensive conditioner to prevent it from littering my pillow again.

I believed that hair and illness hung in a fine balance. While one stayed and grew strong, the other would not come back.

‘You look so different, it suits you,’ said my friends. But of course it didn’t. It never has. It has only suited itself.

Nowadays I am red-cheeked and brisk, feeling my old age like a delicate gift. I get on with things, a real do-er. I run groups, nurture my grandchildren and my garden with kindly absent-mindedness. I am busier than I ever have been, but my hair is finally still; white and peaceful in its old-lady crop. I have forgiven it; it has, if you like, found peace.

A Murder of Hummingbirds

It was the hippos that started it.

‘I don’t see why we should be known as a crash and you get away with being a charm,’ complained Grand Lady Hippo as she adjusted her tail before daintily seating herself. ‘I for one have never been part of a crash of hippos and I never shall be.’

The hummingbirds to whom she was directing her comments settled menacingly upon the branch above her head. Their leader snarled at her. ‘Don’t get ideas, lady. There’s nothin’ charmin’ about us. We’re hard, we’re nasty. We mean business. We want to be in a murder, like the crows.’

‘Well, be my guest,’ replied the crow loftily, looking up from his newspaper. ‘I think I speak for my fellow crows when I say that the collective term ‘murder’ has never appealed and we would be more than happy to exchange. For example, we all feel that a culture of bacteria is completely wasted on them. I’ve never seen one read a book in its life! Whereas I have several degrees and my wife is a master of philosophy.’

‘Yeah! Yeah!’ twittered the hummingbirds (‘What’s a bacterial?’ asked one. ‘Never you mind,’ growled the leader through gritted beak, ‘you just get on with robbing that nest.’) ‘That settles it then, us lot will be a Murder of Hummingbirds, and you lot,’ he waved a wing at Grand Lady Hippopotamus, ‘can be a Charm of Hippos and you high and mighty crows can be a Culture. And them bacterials can be whatever they want.’

‘Ooh!’ cried a passing llama. ‘In that case, darlings, I don’t want to be a herd. Everyone’s a herd, its so passé. I want to be something daring, like a whoop.’

‘You can’t be a whoop,’ muttered a baboon. ‘We’re a whoop, and if you become a whoop then everyone else will want to and then you might as well have stuck to being in a herd.’

‘Oh,’ said the llama, dejected. ‘How about a congress?’

‘Nope,’ replied the baboon grinning. ‘We’re a congress, too. We have two words, you see. You’ll just have to stick to herd…Oh! What are you doing?’

The murder of hummingbirds had swooped on the baboon whose grin was fading fast. The leader sat on his nose.

‘If the lady wants to be in a whoop, sonny Jim, I suggest you let her. All right?’

‘All right,’ mumbled the baboon and shuffled away.

‘Lovely job, come on lads – let’s MAKE SOME NOISE!’ And off flew the hummingbirds, leaving all the animals happy with their new groups. Except the baboon, who wished he’d handled things differently.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Lord of the Drawers

The climb had been long and difficult but at last he heaved himself over the edge and into uncharted territory. He was in a strange place, strewn with strange cloth objects.

Suddenly someone, or something pulled his legs out from under him and he lay, helpless, among the cloth objects.

‘Who goes there?’ boomed a voice close to his ear.

‘I am the Lord of the Sock Drawer. And who, pray, are you, villain?’

‘I am King of the Underpants. No one enters my drawer without asking first!’

The Lord of the Sock Drawer got up into a sitting position and rubbed his leg.

‘That hurt. What are all these things?’

They are the Underpants. Since time began my mission has been to guard their resting place.’

The Lord of the Sock Drawer looked about him. Since time began he had been guarding the Socks, but today, for a reason he could not explain, he had felt the urge to leave his drawer and explore.

‘Do you want to come with me?’ he asked the King of the Underpants.


So they left their drawers, which turned out to be housed in some sort of large wooden box, and for many days and nights travelled across the Land of Bedroom, the Land of Landing, until they came to a room with a slippery surface.

‘The Bathroom,’ whispered the King of Underpants to the Lord of the Sock Drawer. ‘We must be very careful. I have heard bad things about this place.’


Something, or someone, ran at them with a huge stick with bristles on one end, knocking them both flat on their backs.

‘Take that! And that! I am the Queen of the Bathroom Cabinet and nobody, I repeat, nobody enters my domain without a written request and confirmation!’

‘Oh Queen, we are the Lords - (‘and Kings’, said the King) of the Drawers, exploring uncharted territories.’

‘Ah. Well you’d better come in then.’

They had a very pleasant stay with the queen, but after a few days the Lord of the Sock Drawer started to worry about his socks, and the King of the Underpants found the bathroom to be a little draughty, so they bade the good queen farewell and journeyed, over days and hours, back to the bedroom.

‘Goodbye friend,’ said the King of the Underpants.

‘Goodbye,’ said the Lord of the Sock Drawer. ‘You are most welcome to visit.’
But he knew that he wouldn’t be venturing out of his sock drawer again, not for a long time.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Lost (g)love

(One for the grown-ups...)

She was lost a long time ago.

She never saw her partner leave. She thinks he was taken away, but still, she wonders why he never looks for her. Perhaps he does, but in the wrong places.

It happened at a railway station, Euston, she thinks. And there she has stayed since the winter, on an overlooked ledge near the vending machine. Sometimes people try to pick her up but quickly they replace her, knowing she’s not for them after all.

She was lovely in her day: vanilla kid leather, delicately stitched by careful Italian hands. And well-cared for, too. She and he: a luxurious, expensive couple, used for February weddings and job interviews, lunch with an amour, dinner with a husband.

She has watched people come and go, witnessed the weather turn from rain-strewn to light-dazzled. She, on her ledge, has seen many glances and twitches, shufflings and surreptitious checking of make up, of wedding rings, of business notes.

Then, oh! Her ledge is crowded with wool – a great green hairy wet wool thing with its fingers all stretched and a hole in the palm. It stays on her ledge and over the weeks tries to be friendly, tries to start conversations, even tries a clumsy advance. But each time she turns away. This creature is not for her. Only the beautiful, vanilla, delicately-stitched partner into whose warmth she folded at the end of the day.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Ninja Hen

‘Aha!’ thought the fox.

‘Oh heck,’ thought the hen.

‘Swiftly does it, old boy,’ thought the fox, and pounced.

‘Brace yourself,’ thought the hen and gritted her beak.

‘Ouch,’ thought the hen, as she was carried off in the fox’s strong jaws. ‘Remember your training, remember your training.’

‘Yum,’ thought the fox as he dumped the hen down in a corner of his den and busied himself setting the table with salt, pepper, a knife, a fork, a red and white checked napkin (for he was a fastidious chap) and a bottle of tomato ketchup, just in case.

The hen kept her eyes firmly closed until just the right moment. She had been the best pupil in her class and now remembered everything she must do as if it were written down in front of her.

‘Woo hoo!’ thought the fox when he’d finished his preparations and licked his lips in anticipation of supper.

‘Right, now!’ thought the hen and in a swirl of feathers, a scissor kick of claws and a splicing jab of her wings, she leapt up from the corner shouting:


‘Oh,’ thought the fox, when he regained consciousness the following morning. ‘Oh dear.’

He rubbed a sore bump on his nose and wondered, as he tried to stand up and fell down again, who had tied his front paws together.

‘What happened to my dinner?’

He looked round him, but the den was empty. The table was still laid with salt, pepper, a knife, a fork and a red and white checked napkin. But in the place of the bottle of tomato ketchup was a nice, brown egg.

(In memoriam Doris and Esmeralda)

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

A boy and his bike

After clambering up the side of the steep hill dragging his bicycle behind him, it seems a good idea to rest for a while at the top. The sun beats down on the boy’s back; it’s the start of the summer holidays and six weeks stretch ahead of him like an endless plain.

From up high on the hill he can see the flash of a lake, the red of a tractor in a field, the distant flatness of sea. From here the white chalk horse is so close, etched into the hillside by who knows who.

‘One, two, three, go!’ he says to himself and taking one final look down, he kicks away the ground beneath the wheels and launches himself over the edge, skittering over stones and bumping over clumps of grass, half following the chalk path but sometimes taking a short cut. On straight bits he sticks out his legs and feels the strong wind rushing past him, hurrying in the other direction. And the little stones bound along the path with him, rolling and picking up more of their fellows, and the pricky twiggy bushes are chasing him on their stubby little legs and out of the corner of his eye he sees a white thing moving and realises the horse is now galloping close behind him, throwing up clods of earth with its hooves.

Faster and faster and faster they all go, pulling the summer behind them, the boy just ahead and the horse snorting behind. ‘I’ve got you, I’ve won!’ shouts the boy as he feels the ground flatten until finally, in a skid of pebbles and rocks the boy and his bike come to a long slow halt, panting and wide-eyed and not quite believing he’s just done that.

He catches his breath before glancing behind him. All is as it was. But if he looks carefully, he might just see the horse’s flanks panting in and out, high up on the chalk hillside.

(inspired by Louis McNeice’s beautiful poem ‘The Cyclist’)

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Mad Hat

It's raining.
And Dad says we have to walk into town because Mum's got the car and he hasn't any change for the bus.
I can't believe he thinks it's OK to walk on a day like this, but I stand outside anyway, waiting for him to find the door keys he's just put down and lost.
My hood makes me look like a tall pixie but as I'm putting it up, Mr B. from over the road runs out of his house.
'You look very miserable, Barney. Do you need to borrow a hat?'
Hmm. A hat. Not sure.
'It's a very fine hat. Old. My grandfather bought it back from China. The story goes he won it in a bet.'
'It's a magic hat.'
That’s it. I can't say no to a magic hat.
Mr B. runs back into his house and comes out seconds later brandishing the hat.
'When you don't want to wear it any more, say *$%^£**&* (he whispers a word in my ear), and remove it, quickly.'
The hat is squashy and brown and doesn't look magic. But I wave him goodbye and put it on.
It turns into a souwester!
'Nice hat,' says Dad.
I take it off to show him, but it disappears to reveal a purple and red jester's hat.
Next is a wide-brimmed fedora. I catch my reflection in a shop window and am pleased. I look like Zorro.
Underneath that is a bowler hat, then a stetson, a top hat, a tricorn.
By the time we have reached town, I am sporting a giant bearskin.
People stop me to comment on my marvellous headgear. As we get on the bus to come home, a small crowd applaud me. It has been a good trip.
'Best return the hat now,' says Dad. My mortarboard nearly caught him in the eye.
I ring Mr B's bell but he is out. No matter! The hat turns into a flat cap, and I post it through the letterbox.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

How to draw animals...

The man who drew pictures for a living was flustered. He had just one day left to create the front cover of a new book, and he couldn’t get it right. On the floor by his desk was a mountain of scrunched up paper; the bin overflowed and he rubbed his eyes with weariness.

I know, he thought, I draw a nice, big rabbit. But he drew the rabbit so quickly that it kicked its back legs in the air and ran off the page to dig a burrow. Hmm, thought the cartoonist, I’ll have to draw slower.

So he drew another rabbit, less hastily, but still it scampered off the page and hid in the first rabbit’s burrow.

Right! This one’s not getting away from me! He drew a whiskery fat rabbit with a carrot, but that rabbit looked at him knowingly from its pencilled eye and hopped away, carrot in mouth.

Grrr, thought the cartoonist. What to do? Time was ticking on, the afternoon had darkened into evening and he got up to light a lamp.

Rabbits are all wrong, he decided. I need to draw a much slower animal that will not flee, nor hide, nor dig. He scratched his head with his pencil. A tortoise! Yes, a tortoise would be perfect. Just to make sure, he drew his tortoise slowly and deliberately until finally it was finished – a beautiful tortoise that would look marvellous on the front cover of the new book.

Hooray! he shouted out loud. The tortoise, clearly startled by the sudden noise, tucked its head firmly in its shell and refused to come out, even when he poked it with his pencil. Now his beautiful tortoise looked like a big pebble. Nobody would buy a book with a big pebble on the cover. He put the tortoise to one side in despair.

The cartoonist made a cup of tea. He walked about a bit. He made another cup of tea and ate a biscuit.

Then an idea came. He would draw a dog. It didn’t matter if he drew it quickly or slowly. He made it a shaggy sort of dog, the sort of dog you’d want to hug. As soon as he finished it, the dog barked, sniffed around a bit then ran off to annoy the rabbits and the sulking tortoise. But the cartoonist whistled and the dog lolloped back, sat down and waited until the man had finished sketching its basket. It got in and barked again, so he drew it a bone to chew on while – at last! – he could finally get some sleep.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011


January is an important month for elves.

On the 30th day the exam results from the School of Elven Magic are announced. No one has ever failed in 500 years.

Except today.

As the air rings green with thousands of tiny elvish hats being thrown up in celebration, one elf creeps away, hat pulled down over his eyes. He doesn’t want to explain that he hasn’t learnt anything at all and had mostly been asleep during his exams.

‘Not to worry!’ he thinks. ‘Everyone needs an Elf. Even an unqualified one. I shall go forth and sell my skills direct.’

So he makes his way to a school playground.

‘What are you?’ yell the children, delighted at the little green chap standing on their bench.

‘I am the Weather Elf! I make the weather!’

‘No you don’t,’ replies a girl. ‘The weather is made by air and water moving around high above there.’ She pointed to the sky. ‘They make the wind and rain and clouds.’

‘Oh,’ says the Elf. ‘Then I am the Flower Elf! I paint the flowers bright colours for all to see!’

‘No you don’t,’ says a boy. ‘Flowers have colour chemicals in them to attract birds and insects.’

These children know more than he thought. ‘Then I am the Rainbow Elf!’

‘That’s water in the air, again,’ says the girl, looking a bit bored.

‘Hmm,’ says the Elf. ‘I am the Honey Elf?’

‘That’s bees.’

The Popcorn Elf?’

‘Made in a pan.’

It seems like people don’t need unqualified elves after all. The Elf waves the puzzled children goodbye and wanders about a bit until evening sets in. As he passes a garden gate he notices a gnome, fishing at a pond. The company of a gnome is better than no company at all, he thinks, and walks under the garden gate to sit next to the gnome, who doesn’t look at him but carries on fishing.

‘Caught anything?’

No reply.

‘I like your toadstool.’

No reply.

‘What a miserable chap,’ thinks the Elf. ‘I shan’t bother with him any more.’ And he lies down under the toadstool and pulls a leaf over him against the cold.

The next morning, the frost has cracked the gnome right down the middle and his head has fallen off.

The Elf looks around him to make sure no one is looking, then kicks the pieces of broken gnome into the pond, saving the fishing rod. Climbing carefully onto the toadstool, he rearranges his hat at a jaunty angle and waits to see what happens next.

Out of the back door shoots a dog and three children. ‘Oh mum!’ they cry. ‘Thanks for the new gnome! The other one was rubbish. This one’s much smilier. And he’s got a better hat.’

‘I am the Garden Elf,’ thinks the Elf, satisfied.