So you are allowed to venture to more places now, as long as you have booked in advance, taken six negative Covid tests, have a vaccination certificate and don’t mind queuing. To save stress why not visit places and attractions nobody else will want to visit?
Monday marked the penultimate stage on the English roadmap out of Covid and like the real paper road maps of old, there are lots of creases and you can’t read the parts where the folds are. Most of us are convinced the roadmap will be folded up again, but in the meantime…
I didn’t go anywhere exciting on Monday as I had a hospital appointment, but there was the hope of rounding it off with a treat. The hospital destination was the furthest away in our conurbation, but the easiest to get to. The journey encompasses almost the whole of the bus route and takes an hour, but stops right outside the hospital. Every seat has a phone charger so I could catch up with blogs and emails – if anyone reads any strange comments from me that is because it’s not easy tapping on a phone jolting along. I had a pocket full of coins as it was too early to use my bus pass – easily accessible coat pocket as I didn’t want to be fumbling around in my purse and exasperating the driver. I still exasperated him as he could not hear what I was saying with my mask on and behind his plexiglass screen. When he did grasp my destination I could not hear how much he said with his mask on.
The hospital is built halfway up a hill, a delight for hospital architects whose main aim is to make it impossible for anyone to find their way around. They now have different colour routes, plus instructions on your hospital letters. I had been this way before so no problem, upstairs, follow purple route, out the back door and down a long ramp then off to a totally separate building. When I was in the waiting room a lady came to the reception desk and said ‘I am completely lost, I can’t find the car park. ‘ She was advised to ‘go back upstairs to the Ladybird Suite and start all over again.’ After my appointment was finished the receptionist asked if I could find my way back. I smugly assured her I could as I had done it before, forgetting that last time I mysteriously ended up at the north entrance, which fortunately came back out onto the main road. This time I was aiming for Costa Coffee near the main entrance, but I did not pass any familiar landmarks such as shops, glass dome, information desk. Luckily a person pushing a trolley asked if I was lost and directed me to the nearest stairs. Of course, if you go upstairs on the outward route it helps to go down on the return route. At last I reached my destination.
I am not a Costa addict, preferring to visit independent places and I don’t like takeaway cups, but even though the coffee was lukewarm by the time I had checked in with my NHS app and realised you had to ask for sugar, it tasted wonderful. At last I was actually sitting inside on the first day coffee shops and cafes were open properly again. I nearly forgot to take my mask off, that felt strange and I exchanged remarks with the lady at the next table at how excited we were to be in a coffee shop.
Monday is England’s next step on the ‘roadmap’ to normality. Wherever you are you may be closing down or opening up or more likely your leaders are doing another u-turn. Normality is a long way off and though you might read messages on line from your favourite places – ‘Welcome Back’ – do they really mean it? Here are some nice places you probably won’t be able to go to…
Bridges open, but one way only, bad luck if you’re on the wrong side of the river.
Dreaming about eating out? Stick to dreamland, everywhere else is fully booked.
Must have beach app on phone to check if you are allowed to visit.
Lighthouses – good for social distancing, but only one visitor at a time.
Someone else got their first, closed until further notice.
Cruises currently limited to passengers who have been vaccinated and are good at rowing.
Wales, different rules to England, you may not be allowed to cross the border.
Cathedrals are always interesting to visit, but this may be as near as you can get. Enter only if you are fully masked and have had a negative Covid test.
Museums are popular outings, especially if it’s raining, but book in advance for your thirty minute slot, book separately in advance for a cafe fifteen minute slot.
Scottish holy island – ferry only goes once a day. Scotland has different rules to England and Wales so you may not be allowed across the border… what a shame, you would really have loved Iona…
National Trust houses always popular for an outing; they are opening up again – of course you have to book in advance and once inside will have to walk round in single file, one way only, no stopping or turning back…
Chances of getting inside here for a look round? Very unlikely…. unless you live there.
When Lynne arrived at her bubble friend’s house for their morning coffee she was surprised to find Eleanor in a state of agitation.
‘Are you okay, the effects of the second jab?’
‘Yes, no… let me get the coffee and I’ll tell you my news.’
Lynne could not imagine what the news could be, not much happened in Covid times and certainly nothing to put her friend in such a state, but there was something different about the house. The usual vase of cut flowers on the hall stand had disappeared and so had the orchid on the window sill. As she followed Eleanor into the kitchen she was puzzled to see the cupboard door handles tied together with stout string.
‘Go and sit down Lynne, I’m just trying to remember where I put the coffee.’
‘Okay, I brought that jigsaw, I’ll put it on the dining room table.’
There was a strange crackling underfoot as Lynne walked into the dining room and she realised she was walking on plastic sheeting that covered the carpet. Eleanor hadn’t mentioned that she was going to have decorators in. The exquisite mahogany dining table, recently inherited from an aunt, was covered in a heavy duty plastic tablecloth, perhaps her friend was planning to do some messy crafts.
When Lynne moved into the usually elegant front room her confusion increased; it now seemed most likely her friend had been burgled. The fireplace looked bare, gone was the antique urn with its arrangement of dried flowers and the crystal vase Lynne had given her for Christmas was no longer on the windowsill. She glanced around the room and took in a bizarre scene. The glass cabinet had a heavy quilt secured round it and the occasional tables all had wodges of foam taped to their corners. The three piece suite was covered in throws that looked like they had come from Wilkos rather than John Lewis and there was no sign of the embroidered cushions.
Eleanor walked in with two scruffy looking mugs.
‘Sorry about the mugs, they’re the ones Anthony used to keep down at the allotment. I’ve packed all the bone china away. I’m afraid I didn’t have time to make a cake… well I have been baking, but not for us…’
Before any explanation was forthcoming there was the sound of frantic yapping and Eleanor went to open the back door for Covina, the little dog she had acquired from the dachshund rescue centre. The dog rushed into the room to greet Lynne.
‘You’re surely not moving house, Michael hasn’t persuaded you to go over there?’
‘Goodness no, I wouldn’t even go to that dreadful country on holiday; they’re coming back to England, out of the blue, arriving at Heathrow early afternoon. It seems they are allowed to quarantine with relatives, me.’
‘Oh that’s wonderful news, at last you’ll get to see the babies.’
‘Hardly babies, three and four now and if they are like Michael was at that age… my head spins just seeing them on Facetime. So I have taken a few precautions, I don’t want to be responsible for them ending up in A&E. Forty four years old and Michael still has that scar on his forehead from the fireplace at our first house. I was going to ask, you know you said you would love to have Covina to stay if I ever managed to go on holiday, do you think you could possibly have her now?’
‘Yes of course, though I’m sure the children would be gentle with her.’
‘I’m worried she might bite them; the charity did say she was best suited to a quiet home with an older person. I remember that time with my brother’s dog when Michael was three; it was his fault of course, shoving his hand in the dog’s mouth.’
‘Covina’s hardly a pit bull, but I suppose tiny fingers could be a worry. I shall enjoy having her.’
Eleanor kept looking nervously at the clock, she had the hands free house phone and her mobile by her side.
‘Relax you’re all organised, except… perhaps now the charity shops are open again you could get a few toys for them…’ she looked at the expression on Eleanor’s face ‘or maybe order on line.’
As if in answer to that suggestion they heard the door bell being rung frantically.
‘Ah that will be the Amazon parcels; Michael asked me to get some Lego sets for them.’
‘Aren’t they a bit young for Lego, choking hazards?’
‘Oh dear, I hadn’t thought of that.’
Ten minutes later Eleanor had located the scissors she had hidden away and they manged to get the boxes open to reveal several brightly coloured Lego sets.
Eleanor examined the writing and pictures on the boxes.
‘Strange people and vehicles, but it seems only under threes choke, so that’s a relief. But really Lynne I’m getting too old for all this; you wait years to get some grandchildren, then they go abroad and then there’s a world wide pandemic and nobody gets to see their grandchildren…’
Two days later Lynne turned into Eleanor’s road on her way to the post office and was alarmed to see an ambulance outside Eleanor’s house. After all the precautions she wondered what mishap had befallen the precious grandchildren. She wasn’t being nosy, she had to walk that way anyway. As she got closer there was a further shock when she saw Eleanor on a stretcher being wheeled down the front path.
‘Oh Lynne, isn’t this embarrassing, Michael will tell you what happened.’
As her friend was loaded into the ambulance a frazzled looking man emerged from the front door with a wriggling, screeching child in his arms.
‘Nee Nah, Nee Nah, I want to go in the hambliance.’
The man’s voice was muffled through the child’s hair. ‘Nice to meet you Lynne, I hear you have been a great support, but we’re here now; just as well now this has happened.’
‘What did happen?’
‘I’m not exactly sure; Mother was tidying up all the mess in the dining room after breakfast and she stood on some Lego and slipped on the plastic sheeting.’
I got back from the greengrocers’, dumped the shopping in the kitchen, put the kettle on and went in the front room to fetch the vase for the bunch of daffodils. Geoff was lounging on the sofa watching the news channel.
‘I’ll have a cup of tea if you’ve got the kettle on.’
‘Okay, I’ll just put the daffs in water.’
Back in the kitchen I put the vase under the tap and turned it on too fast, splashing my face and soaking my sleeves, but the cold water shock was nothing to the cold realisation that paralysed me and left me incapable of turning off the tap. Geoff couldn’t be sitting on the sofa, he had been dead for five months.
Shakily turning off the tap and clutching a towel to my face I turned to the kitchen door. It must have been an hallucination. Since Geoff died I had not had any funny feelings, no sense of his presence. Not like my friend, whose late husband seemed to have turned into some sort of household god, steering her to the right drawers and cupboards to find things, being ‘present’ when she watched their favourite programmes. If Geoff was a manifestation it served me right for thinking she was going out of her mind…
I forced myself to go back to the front room, but even before I lowered the towel and opened my eyes I could hear that familiar heavy breathing and humming as he did the crossword and followed the news updates.
‘Cathy, what’s the matter, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.’
‘I have, I mean I know you’re not real, perhaps I should have gone for counselling. I told everyone I was fine, after all there are families in this pandemic who have suffered far worse and lots of wives have lost husbands.’
‘Cathy, what are you talking about, you’re not going down with dementia are you?’
‘Geoff, there’s no easy way to say this, you died five months ago.’
‘Ha ha, very funny, I know it was scary, me being carted off in the ambulance yesterday. Hey lucky me, it was only one of my asthma attacks, negative for covid.’
Six months ago he had been carted off in an ambulance. It was covid, but he was lucky, no intensive care though I couldn’t go and see him. They let him come home, needed the bed no doubt, to isolate and continue recuperating; me to dial 999 if there were any problems.
That’s how I knew for sure he had died, not unrecognisable in hospital covered in tubes, me trying to talk to him via Facetime on my ipad… he was at home when it happened.
We had just had dinner. Geoff was catching up with the news and telling the politicians what they should be doing. I went in the kitchen to tidy up and make coffee, when I came back in I sensed the silence straight away. There he was, crossword still in hand, head back, silent, switched off.
Instinctively I turned off the television, thinking he would not want to be watching it now. Geoff had said when he came out of hospital, so relieved just to be home ‘Now don’t you worry if I die in my sleep, you know what they said about my heart, it’s a good way to go, better than those poor buggers on machines in intensive care. And I don’t want you trying CPR on me, you couldn’t do it right on that dummy when we did our first aid course.’
So I didn’t do anything.
‘Geoff, you did die, right there, five months ago, do you remember?’
Silly question, how could he remember if he was dead and why was I talking to a figment of my imagination… why was he talking back?
‘Cathy, if you think I am a ghost, come and feel me, solid as ever, too solid you were always telling me.’
He held out his hand and for the first time I moved close to him. His hand was warm and firm. Tentatively I put my hand on his chest, he felt real and his chest was moving, he was breathing. Five months ago I would have given anything to have him back irritating me with his breathing and humming as I tried to read my book. If he had walked back in the door then I would have hugged him… But now I needed to get away, this was the laws of nature turned upside down or I was going insane. I pulled my hands away and retreated to the doorway.
‘Geoff, I know you are dead, I was here when you died, Andrew has the DVD of the live streaming of your funeral at the crematorium, though I suppose that isn’t proof. Your ashes are in the cupboard in your office; I’m sorry, we haven’t been able to get together to scatter them, still in lockdown. I have your death certificate… and those clothes you’re wearing went to the charity shop months ago.’
He just laughed. ‘Well it seems I am alive and well, you obviously need a breath of fresh air to clear your head, where shall we go for our walk this afternoon?’
A walk outside, that would prove he was real, perhaps the past five months had been a nightmare; that would be easy to prove. I dashed out of the room. Geoff’s coat was not hanging on its usual peg. I stumbled upstairs and into our bedroom, his side of the wardrobe was empty. I dashed into what he used to call his office; the desk was empty. I opened the corner cabinet and the large grey cardboard tube with his ashes was still there. In the bureau was the box of sympathy cards and the neat file of paperwork Andrew had helped me sort out; inside the first plastic slip was the death certificate.
My knees nearly gave way as I started down the stairs and Geoff sauntered out of the front room.
‘I’m just going to check my emails before lunch.’
I couldn’t let him go upstairs. Andrew had taken Geoff’s computer, I had my ipad, I didn’t want it. But the fact that Geoff couldn’t check his emails was the least of my problems. The Geoff who couldn’t be real was solid and could walk and talk. If we went strolling down the road, what on earth would the neighbours say?
My experience of cruises is limited to sailing from Poole to Cherbourg, a five hour trip on the Bar Fleur, for days out or holidays in France, and our one trip to Bilbao, northern Spain.
Our voyage on the Pride of Bilbao was one of their three-night weekend mini cabaret cruises, off peak season in October, with vouchers Cyberspouse got people at work to cut out of The Sun newspaper, a paper I never let him buy! When we boarded at Portsmouth all the other passengers looked like Sun readers. On the Friday night we went to watch the cabaret and were not surprised that when it was finished the entertainers reappeared in their crew members’ uniforms.
Our inner cabin was like a prison cell; I took the top bunk, not wishing Cyberspouse to crash down on top of me.
But the next day was sunny with plenty to do on board; relaxing in the lounges, taking part in Whale and Dolphin watches on deck or from the observation lounge, going to wildlife presentations in the ship’s cinema with the resident wildlife officer from the Biscay Dolphin Research Programme.
After our second sleep came our early arrival in the port for our six hour turn around. On board we could book one of three coach trips; there was a lot of port and industry between us and Bilbao town, so you couldn’t just get off and ‘have a look around’. The fishing village outing was off, not enough takers. We had plumped for the Guggenheim Museum, but regular passengers told us it wouldn’t be opening for another hour, so we changed to the trip into town with hot chocolate and a snack at a quaint tiled coffee house. We spent the remainder of the time wandering around a nice department store near the coach pick up point, because it was cold and also I was worried we would not find our way back or be late for the coach!
That day’s sailing was very pleasant, sitting in the sun lounges, reading or writing and listening out for summons to see whales – we only ever saw distant sprays of water. I decided I enjoyed cruising. On our last night we slept well and were surprised when the next morning the Captain said we had been through a Force Eight ( or was it Sixteen? ) Gale; the Bay of Biscay is known for rough seas. I might have thought twice about going if I had known that, but it seems our inner cabin was far more stable than the better cabins.
We have been on trips to Southampton and crossed Southampton Water on the ferry, so we have seen plenty of cruise ships and most of them look like huge floating blocks of flats, how do passengers find their way around? We never could afford seriously considered going on a proper cruise.
One of the strangest remarks after Cyberspouse died was from the reclusive retired couple in our little road. It’s not that they don’t talk to us, just that they don’t engage much with the rest of the neighbours. Pre Covid He spent all his time in the driveway and garage making things, while She was always out playing golf. He had been over once to say how sorry he was to hear Cyberspouse was ill. I was in the front garden one day and surprised to see them out together and coming over to chat. When he asked how I was getting on I thought he meant as a widow of over a month, but it turned out he had missed the dying part and thought Cyberspouse was still isolating indoors. He then compounded the awkwardness by asking if I was going to do anything exciting… adding like going on a cruise! I can imagine what his wife said to him when they got indoors!
The other day I was watching an item on the news about P&O Cruises offering round Britain cruises for UK residents who have been vaccinated…
Sailing at reduced capacity and with new health protocols, the line will offer round-trip short breaks on Britannia and week-long cruises on its new ship Iona from Southampton from June 27 until September 19, 2021.
For a moment I was tempted, they won’t actually be stopping anywhere. After so long with Covid constraints, many of us will need the security of not being able to do what we like. If the ship never docked anywhere I would also be saved the tedium of queueing up to disembark with lots of old people and their walking frames ( so I have heard ) and of course my fear of getting lost and not getting back to the ship in time. I could stay in my cosy cabin writing or stroll the decks looking out for familiar parts of the coast we have visited. Perhaps I would pretend I was a famous writer going on a great voyage…
Then the presenter asked if the crew would also all be vaccinated and the answer was No, they had crew from ninety ( or was it sixty ) different countries. Then I remembered how in pre Covid days cruise ships were always having outbreaks of Norovirus – yes the vomiting etc one – and I would probably get lost on board; even in Premiere Inns, where the corridors are like being on board ship, I always turn the wrong way out of the room. So perhaps I won’t go, perhaps they are already booked up …a blogging opportunity lost.
Susan doubted that the Crafton Castle Crafters were ready for the online world, a year into the pandemic and they were only just having their first Zoom meeting. Jenny had been urging them on and as she was home schooling her six children they all agreed she was best qualified to be host.
The Crafton Castle Crafters didn’t actually meet at the castle, but at the First Crafton Scouts’ hut. They did pay a hefty contribution to be ‘Friends of Crafton Castle’and on their frequent visits, pre-Covid, they gained inspiration from the famous tapestries, carved wood panelling and beautiful gardens. Susan had been very disappointed that their various gifts of samplers, marquetry and pottery had not featured in the castle’s recent on line exhibition ‘Now and Then’. She was looking forward to hearing what the other members thought.
Susan scrolled down on her ipad to find the email with the link and soon was faced with the message Your host will let you in shortly. 7pm they were meant to start, the minutes ticked by, 7.05, 7.09… Suddenly the screen was filled with the faces of lots of grumpy old people looking confused. Then Jenny appeared in a corner of the screen.
‘Sorry everyone, bedtime stories and I had to reassure Guinevere that the Covid monster could not get in their bedroom. Now have we got everyone? Giles has managed to co opt a couple of his bored sixth formers, Josie chicken wire sculptures and Ben junk statues. Hello Josie and Ben…’
Susan peered closer at the tiny views of living rooms, offices and kitchens; not how she would have imagined Martin’s place. She didn’t recognise Graham at first with that beard and who on earth was Bryony? She was sitting on a floral sofa looking very demure and how had she managed to get her hair done so nicely during lock down, or was it a wig?
Jenny was still talking. ‘…and I’m still trying to negotiate a socially distanced cream tea in the castle gardens. Now who wants to start? I’ve finished another three dozen masks from my fabric scraps and made the curtains for the girls’ bedroom with matching duvet covers. George, we can’t hear what you are saying, you’re still on mute. Phyllis, tell us what you have been up to.’
‘Oh, um yes, can you hear me…’
‘Yes, loud and clear.’
‘I have nearly finished that bookmark knitted with sewing needles and sewing cotton… oh dear, that’s my phone ringing…’
Susan tried to keep a straight face as Phyllis heaved her bulk out of the chair. They all watched as she waddled the two steps to grab the telephone. Her voice was picked up perfectly and broadcast into all their homes.
‘Phyllis, put yourself on mute.’
‘Oh hello dear, oh no, how many bits did they have to take out? Has he got one of those bags? No it’s awful you can’t go and see him.’
‘Phyllis, you have to put yourself on mute, the rest of us can’t hear ourselves.’
‘Well I must go, we’re having a Zoom meeting. You didn’t know I was so tech savvy did you. The crafters, hilarious, they have all aged about ten years in lock down, except for Brian.’
Susan noticed a variety of expressions on the faces of the others as they tried to pretend they weren’t listening. Josie and Ben had broad grins. Phyllis was now laughing and struggling to get out her next words.
‘Yes… six foot four Woodwork Brian has become Bryony during lockdown, well you can tell, but he’s a lot more glamorous than most of our ladies. Jenny took him clothes shopping in between lockdowns.’
Susan peered closer at the top left hand square containing ‘Bryony’ and wondered how Phyllis knew all this gossip. Then she glanced down at Josie and Ben; they were obviously enjoying the meeting far more than they might have expected.
‘Byebye dear, yes and you… ‘
Phyllis put the phone down.
‘Sorry about that everyone.’
‘Well I’m sure we shall gradually get used to Zoom’said Jenny. ‘I think Phyllis has rather pre-empted the announcement Bryony wanted me to make on hi… her behalf.
Susan felt the gloom of the past few months lift, what a fun evening, she couldn’t resist speaking out.
‘Well, we’re really members of the BLTGCHQ Community now.’
I have not invited anyone to a Sunday Salon for a year; blame that on Covid, we’re not allowed to have visitors! I also got behind with reviewing the books I have read – and got behind with actually reading books. I also like to review television programmes and films. I have not been to the cinema for ages, who has? But I did get to watch that Korean film on Netflix… meanwhile here are some of the books I have enjoyed. As usual Amazon rejected all my reviews and it’s not just books. I have needed to order a lot on Amazon this past year, essentials and presents, nearly always with success…except for the picture frame. It came with the glass broken! So when Amazon asked if I was happy with the delivery I put a sad face and wrote a review, which they rejected! The story had a happy ending as I also noticed you could email the frame company direct and they replied quickly and sent me a replacement that was plastic.
All these reviews are on Goodreads and on my Facebook Author page. I am not a book reviewer, I write short reviews, but I do aim to review every book I read and flag up my enjoyment or interest.
You Beneath Your Skin by Biswas Damyanti – 5 Star review
I enjoy reading about other countries, other cities and interesting characters and situations. This is a powerful story of complex characters with a jigsaw family put together in a loving home contrasting with the hard life of the streets and the various layers of society in a foggy New Delhi. Crime, corruption and touching love at the heart of a difficult investigation keep us totally absorbed.
Marriage Unarranged by Ritu Bhathal – 5 Star review
I have not been to India, but the pictures the author paints are how I imagine from stories told by British Asians ‘going home’ and others visiting for the first time. This is a romantic story, but also an amusing one, young people on holiday to India without their elders hiring drivers and keeping to an agenda. They want to visit a real cinema, not the new multiplex, travel around like locals. There is glamour, for this is also a business trip for Aashi’s older brother who wants to reinvent the family fashion shop, but solemn moments as they contemplate dark historic events. As the five visit the Golden Temple there is an insight into the faith of the Sikhs. New friendships are made, Aashi’s broken heart might be mending, but how will life work out when they all return home to Birmingham? I would love to see this as a Bollywood movie, the settings in India and the wonderful clothes they have a chance to model, fashions they hope to take back to Birmingham.
Little Big Boy by Max Power 5 Star Review
This is a story about a little boy’s first love, his mother. It is not autobiographical, but is so powerful readers might assume it was, with its vivid evocation of early childhood. It is more than that, a story of families, of Ireland in the early nineteen seventies. There are many things that are dark inside and outside the home, that will make you angry, but the tale also bursts with life, of young boys exploring and having adventures with their friends.
Warning Signs by Carol Balawyder 5 Star Review
More vivid than a television murder drama, this is an intelligent psychological thriller with the killer trying to understand why he could be tempted to kill and how he can stop himself. It is also the story anyone will recognise of young women looking for love, the dating game. Everyone is a stranger when you first meet them, when do we start trusting a person and when you begin dating someone how do you know if you are safe? A great story that kept me on edge all the way through.
With Love Comes Hope 4 Star Review
A poignant and rare opportunity to have in one book views from many different parts of the world. All the contributors are writing in the first half of 2020 about the first half of 2020; their impressions, worries and hopes about this unique experience that has affected every human being. The atmosphere of the first lockdown now seems quite different from the various lockdowns we have had since, will we see again streets quite so empty? Every country has had different approaches to containing the virus and we have only seen what’s happening outside our own countries from news programmes. This book gives us the insiders’ views.
The little girl stood on tiptoe and peered over the stout cliff top fence at the sparkling blue sea.
‘I wish I could go in the sea Mummy.’
‘It’s much too cold.’
‘But there are people swimming in the sea.’
‘Beach Bubble people are used to it, you wouldn’t like the horrible salty water going in your mouth, Sally, the swimming pool is much better for swimming.’
The sun shone in Sally’s eyes, taking her to a dreamland. The sun warmed her face. She loved being up on the cliff top, but now she was tall enough to see over the fence she could not stop asking questions.
‘I wish I could go on the beach, what is sand like, Mummy?’
‘Horrible, you can’t walk on it properly, the wind blows it in your mouth.’
‘Well the Beach Bubble people look like they are having fun playing in the sand.’
‘That’s because they have nowhere else to play. You wouldn’t like to live down there, especially in winter.’
‘Why don’t we live down there?’
‘Because we’re the Cliff Clan, we live up here and they live down there.’
‘Why can’t we visit them?’
Sally’s mother sighed. ‘How many times have I explained darling, we have to keep separate; them, us, the Forest Folk, T’othersiders, Town Team, City Crowd… You sing that song at school, you should know by now, but there are more bubbles than even I can remember. Besides, we don’t need to visit them, we can meet them all on Zoomtime.’
‘Tell me what it was like when you were six.’
Sally’s mother smiled at her daughter, the child never tired of her stories.
‘Well we couldn’t go to school, no one could come to our house and when we went outside we had to wear a great big hot suit and a very heavy helmet. But we hardly went outside because there was nowhere to go; the shops had all closed down before I was born.’
‘How did you get your food?’
‘Once a week a helicopter flew over our road and dropped a great big crate on a parachute. My Daddy was very important as he was in charge of unpacking the crate and making sure each house got their box of rations. Out the door he would go in his suit with his air tank and mask and yellow gloves, then deliver each box to the doorsteps. So you see how lucky you are.’
‘And I only have to have an injection once a year?’
‘Yes, we had to have a great big needle in our bottom every four months, when the yellow van came round with the scary robodocs to give us our medicheck.’
Sally squealed in horrified delight.
‘How come we have real people doctors, what happened to the robodocs?’
‘I’ll tell you about that when you are older. Now do you know what Daddy and I have planned for your sixth birthday treat tomorrow? We’re all going on the train.’
‘The train, the real goods train with the special carriage on the back?’
‘Yes, we have lucky tickets to ride in the observation saloon.’
‘Where are we going to go?’
‘Wait and see.’
The next morning Sally tripped happily ahead of her parents as they walked to Cliffton Station. She had never been inside the old building, let alone stood on the platform. From the footbridge they often watched the long solar powered train glide silently into the station to deliver supplies for the Cliffton shops.
Standing on the platform, the train looked much bigger and they had to help Sally up the steps into the carriage. They said hello to the other passengers, who all knew it was Sally’s birthday, everyone knew each other in Cliffton and they were happy to let Sally’s family have the best seat facing the viewing window at the end of the carriage. They glided smoothly out of the station looking backwards down the long snaking line. The platform passed by, they went under the bridge, houses disappeared into the distance, then suddenly it went dark. Sally gripped her parents’ hands.
‘It’s okay,’ said Daddy ‘we’re just going through the tunnel, leaving Cliffton and going into the forest.’
Sally stared as if her eyes would pop out, so many trees and then an open field, people were waving at the train, others were riding horses. The little girl was excited to be going somewhere new at last. The train started to slow down and a platform slid alongside as they stopped. A sign said Forest Halt.
‘Are we getting out here?’
‘No, no, they’re just dropping off supplies for the Forest Folk.’
The train started again and Daddy pointed left at a huge stretch of flat water with colourful boats floating idly.
‘Lakeland, where your Aunty Kate lives.’
Soon the train stopped again at a lovely little building covered in flowers.
‘Can we get out here and visit Aunty Kate?’
‘No darling, but you can tell her on Zoomtime we have seen her station, she’s the station master and plants all these lovely tubs and baskets of flowers.’
All too soon the train gathered speed, the lake was left behind and they went through another tunnel. The scenery began to look familiar; Sally thought she glimpsed a flash of blue sea in the distance, then more and more houses appeared and very soon platforms slid alongside them. Sally felt a catch in her throat and her eyes welled up; even before she saw the sign she realised where they were.
‘Here we are ‘ said Daddy in a jolly voice ‘home again.’
Sally looked up at the yellow and blue sign ‘Welcome to Cliffton-on-Sea’.