Monthly Archives: October 2013

All About The Eve

This is a story that I entered back in September for the  Fall 24-Hour Short Story Writing Contest. It was obviously intended to be a Halloween theme, which is why the results came out today (I didn’t win). The bit in italics was the prompt and we’d to continue from there. Some of the lines, by the way, are stolen from a post I wrote a few months ago about white witches, in case you think they sound familiar..

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She wiped her hands on the apron, peering out the window. Red and orange leaves hurried by as the cold autumn wind battered the small cabin. The girl should have been back from the errand by now. At that moment she saw the red flying braids as her daughter raced across the yard. The Devil’s Mark on her right cheek, a constant reminder, was clearly visible, even at dusk. The girl, breathless, burst through the wooden door.
 
“Ma! Come quickly!”
 
Rachel sighed. This was unlikely to be good news.
 
She followed her daughter out into the yard. The girl pointed to the dog-kennel, inside which sat a large bucket of whitewash.
 
“Buster?” guessed Rachel.
 
“Yes,” said her daughter. “I’m sorry, Ma, I was just waving at him.”
 
Rachel realised that it was really her own fault. She had sent the girl to gather wood for the fire, so when she had waved at the dog she had effectively been pointing twenty wands at him.
 
Rachel had so hoped that the girl would not turn out to be a witch like her. There was nothing magical about her father (in every meaning of that phrase, Rachel now realised), so she had hoped that her daughter would be a normal human being. From the moment she was born, however, she had had a small purplish blotch upon her cheek. The nurses had called it a birthmark, but Rachel had known better, that it was the Devil’s or Witches’ Mark. All the baby had inherited from her father was his red hair.
 
She had planned to call the baby Alison, but once she saw the mark she knew that she would have to choose a witch’s name.
 
The child was now witch Hazel. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you Google something in a hurry.
 
Now Rachel took her own wand from her apron and waved it. Buster re-appeared, sniffing suspiciously as if trying to determine why he could smell paint.
 
“Come on, honey,” she said to her daughter. “It’s nearly dinner time.”
 
Hazel’s baby and toddler-hood hadn’t been too bad, if you forgot her ability to turn her bath-water into orange juice, to change the channel you were watching to one with the Teletubbies on it, and to fart soap-bubbles. In time her father had turned into a pig, not via magic but in personality, and had left, leaving Rachel to raise Hazel alone.
 
Hazel grew. While the other girls of their small town had loved Barney, Barbie and Justin Bieber her heroine had been Ginny Weasley.
 
But there was no Hogwarts in real life, so she had had to attend the local school. At first everything had been fine, the kids had teased her more about the colour of her hair than the mark upon her cheek, but soon things had started to happen, unexplained, unexplainable things.
 
All of the school books had one day translated themselves into Portuguese. On another day the school bus had arrived at the school, with the kids enthusiastically singing The Wheels On The Bus Go Round And Round. The wheels were certainly doing this, but to little effect since the bus was travelling two feet above the road. Then came the disastrous day when Hazel had got a fit of sneezing, and in the space of ten seconds the headmistress had turned into a toad, then a frog, then a prince, and then a 1972 Dodge pick-up truck.
 
Rachel had taken Hazel from the school (“I can’t keep her here, the place is obviously haunted”) and had moved out to a small cabin in the woods. She was well aware that she was perpetuating a stereotype by doing so, she might as well have added a pointy hat and a cackle. She even had a broomstick, though only to sweep the yard with.
 
Out here she taught her daughter herself. After all, she reasoned, at school they teach that Reading, Writing and Arithmetic all start with the letter R, and she was sure that she could do better than that. She also taught Hazel about witchcraft, about how herbs and lighted candles and burnt incense could promote serenity and positive energy.
 
White Magic, in other words. Or Aromatherapy, if you prefer.
 
Now Rachel took the bundle of sticks from Hazel’s arms and turned back to the cabin. She could see smoke coming from the window, so she rushed in to the little stove and sure enough the meat in the frying-pan was now a charred black solid lump.
 
“Well I’m almost like witches throughout the ages,” she thought. “I’ve been burning the steak.”
 
She threw the meat to Buster, made a quick salad and called Hazel for dinner. Afterwards Hazel did her homework (how to avoid warts) and then got ready for bed.
 
Outside the wind was really howling now, sending black clouds scudding across the face of a full moon.
 
Hazel’s Devil’s Mark was a brighter than normal purple, a sure sign that she was excited. Rachel smiled at her as she tucked her into bed. “Tomorrow’s a very special day, isn’t it?”
 
“Sure is, Ma,” said Hazel.
 
“Who’s coming tomorrow?” asked Rachel.
 
“Easter Bunny!” shouted Hazel.
 
Rachel and Hazel live in Australia, where autumn runs from March to May.

You Only Live Nince

BlofeldBlofeld settled himself in front of the camera. His collar was buttoned firmly to his chin, his chair had been raised to make him look taller, and his head had been polished like a bowling ball.

“How do I look?” he asked.

“Good,” said his assistant, Oddjob. Blofeld glared at him.

“Er, I mean bad,” said Oddjob. “Really evil.”

Blofeld smiled in satisfaction. “Very well,” he said. “Turn on the camera.”

The light at the top of the camera turned red, and Blofeld began his message. Once he was finished the transmission would be beamed simultaneously to the CIA, to the KGB, to MI6 and, due to some computer bug that his IT people couldn’t fix, to The Happy Bean Coffee Shop in Clonakilty, County Cork.

“My name is Blofeld,” he said. “I have nuclear warheads pointed at -”

His cat leapt into his lap.

“Halt the recording,” snapped Blofeld. He looked down at the cat. “Seriously, Fluffy,” he said. “This is not a good time.”

The cat simply snuggled deeper into his lap, and purred softly. Blofeld lifted her off and placed her on the floor.

“Start the camera again,” said Blofeld The light came back on and he stared again into the lens. “Er, as I was saying, I have nuclear warheads pointed at Moscow, Peking and New York. Unless I receive twenty million dollars in gold bullion, I will eeeek!”

While he was talking Fluffy had leapt back into his lap. Blofeld had tried surreptitiously to lift her off, but Fluffy had just dug her claws in, and when a cat does that while sitting in your lap it’s not a pleasant experience.

“Stop the tape,” he gasped again. Oddjob sighed and turned the camera off.

“Did I sound a bit girly there?” asked Blofeld.

“Not at all,” lied Oddjob. “You sounded just like an arch-villain – shrieking to show the world that you mean business.”

“Yes, but how am I going to get rid of her?” asked Blofeld, looking down at Fluffy.

“You could leave her on your lap,” said Oddjob. “We could keep her just below the shot.”

They began recording again. In order to pacify the cat Blofeld stroked her gently as he told of the devastation, the blame-game, the inevitable world war that would follow if his demands were not –

“Cut,” said Oddjob.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” said Blofeld. “ What’s wrong now?”

“It turns out that leaving the cat out of shot wasn’t a great idea,” said Oddjob. “You don’t want me to tell you what it looks like you’re doing.”

“So what’ll we do?” asked Blofeld.

“We’ll just have to show her on your lap,” said Oddjob. “It can be your Thing, like Indiana Jones’s hat, or Doctor Who’s bow-tie, or Goldfinger’s, um, gold finger.”

“The scar on my cheek was supposed to be my Thing,” said Blofeld. “It was supposed to create the image of a man who likes duelling. Instead my Thing is going to make me look like a spinster sitting in front of a telly until it‘s time to get ready for Bingo.”

“Yeah, well your Thing was a fraud anyway,” said Oddjob, “since the scar is actually the result of the time you tried to get Fluffy to wear a collar with a bell on it.”

Blofeld decided to ignore that. “Get her some cat-food,” he said.

Oddjob went off and returned with a bowl of what looked like the stuff you scrape off football boots after a match on a wet day. It was a brand of cat-food that claimed that eight out of ten cats preferred it, though without specifying what they preferred it to. Lasagne, perhaps – it can’t be easy getting that out of your whiskers.

In any case, it seemed that Fluffy was not one of the eight. She gave the bowl a look of haughty disdain and, to Oddjob’s horror, headed out through the cat-flap.

Oddjob had tried telling Blofeld that a cat-flap was a bad idea if your secret headquarters was underwater, but Blofeld hadn’t listened.

He certainly listened now, to the sound of gallons of water pouring in, to the sound of the equipment around him beginning to spark and then explode, to the sound of nuclear missiles toppling sideways from their gantries, to the sound of a female voice intoning “T minus thirty seconds, and counting”.

When James Bond arrived two hours later he was surprised to find only wreckage on the surface of the ocean, with Oddjob clinging to a plank and Blofeld wearing a toilet-seat as a life-belt. Fluffy, determined not to get wet, was sitting in Oddjob’s upturned bowler hat.

Bond looked at Blofeld, who shrugged.

“We meet again, Mr Bond,” he said. “Do you want to buy a cat?”

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The image is from bondmovies.com.
Oh, and I know Oddjob didn’t work for Blofeld, he just seemed to fit into the story…

The Lost Plot Revisited

As Dan Brown’s new book hits the bookshelves I reckon it’s time to re-blog the piece I wrote when his last book came out in 2009 …..

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Professor Robert Langdon stared at the rows of small tablets arranged before him, each with a letter, symbol or number engraved thereon.

Katherine Solomon, his third girlfriend in as many books, watched on in admiration, taking in his firm jawline, taut biceps and magnificent physique – so typical of a, well, historian.

Langdon studied the tablets, occasionally carefully pressing one in an order pre-ordained long ago. At the end he chose one with the enticing and thrilling inscription “Enter”, tapped it delicately, and Google found the website he was looking for.

“Got it!” he exclaimed proudly. Katherine sighed with suppressed desire. She would have run her fingers through his wiry hair and suggested they go someplace private, but the chapters in the book were too short for stuff like that.

“See what I’ve found?” he said. Katherine stared at the computer screen in front of them. At the top it had the words “Worth Doing Badly”. In the article below a man seemed to be telling the World-at-Large some story about Mary Poppins, in the optimistic and mistaken belief that the W-at-L would find this interesting.

“Er, it’s a blog,” she said.

Langdon was impressed. “Oh, you’ve heard of them,” he said. “It is indeed a blog, from the old Sumatran word ‘bellock’, meaning short message.”

“Really?” said Katherine, “I thought it was short for ‘Weblog’.”

“A lot of people make that mistake,” said Langdon. “Thomas Jefferson, one of the first and greatest Freemasons, was actually the first to use a Bellock. Indeed, he wrote under the pen-name ‘Hilaire Belloc’, meaning ‘short witty message’. He used to write mostly in limericks.”

Katherine, who was fairly certain that Belloc had been a real person, felt the first tiny seeds of doubt.

“Anyway,” said Langdon, “these ‘blogs’ are now hiding among all the other websites on the Internet. They are the main method of communication of one of the oldest and most secret societies on earth – the Geeks, founders of modern civilisation.”

“Wasn’t that the Greeks?”

“Alas, what damage can be done by a simple misspelling. Most people think they know of Ancient Greece, but in fact the country was called Geece.”

“You’re kidding,” said Katherine, who was beginning to understand why Robert’s previous two girlfriends had left him.

“Indeed not,” said Langdon. “The Geeks were once the most powerful and knowledgeable race on the planet. Then all the other major civilisations – the Romans, the Spartans, the Preposterons, the Madeupnames – joined forces against them, and they were driven underground. But they have remained a secret society all these years. It is rumoured that their mantra is ‘the Geek shall inherit the Earth’. They conspire all the time to rule the world again.”

“Isn’t that a bit far-fetched?”

“Is it? Compared to a man being the Son of God? Compared to Re-incarnation? Compared to Santa Claus?”

“Er, I don’t think anyone actually believes in Santa,” muttered Katherine, but Langdon wasn’t listening.

“Unfortunately for them, I am on their trail, and now I have found the Blog of their leader.”

Katherine stared at the blog again. “This guy’s their leader?” she said dubiously. “He comes across as an idiot.”

“Only because you can’t read his Blog as I can,” said Langdon. “The signs are all there, as clear as DaVinci predicting the Television by putting one in the Last Supper (Editor’s Note: have a look, it’s right there at the front). Look, for example, at the first symbol in the Blog’s title.”

“The ‘W’?”

You see a W. I see a Spider – symbol of deceit – upside down.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course. Need I remind you that I found this site on the Web.

Katherine could feel the beginnings of a headache. Also she was starting to notice that his jawline wasn’t really that firm, his biceps that taut, or his physique that magnificent.

“And that’s not the only clue,” said Langdon. “Hidden inside the third word, visible only to a Scholar such as myself, is the word “Bad”, often used as another word for evil.”

Katherine made a sound that can best be shown in print as “!”

“And the final proof,” said Langdon smugly, “is the name this man has chosen. He has selected “Tinman”, from the Ancient Myth Of the Oz Wizard. The “Tinman”, according to the legend, had no heart, and therefore was not human at all. Clearly our Tinman sees himself as a god.”

Ah, for fuck’s sake,” thought Katherine, looking around for her coat.

“Not only that,” continued Langdon, as only he could, “he has added two symbols to the end of his name – a 1 and an 8. Not a lot of people know this, but if you add 1 and 8 you get 9, and an inverted 9 is a 6, and 666 is the Number of the Beast.”

Unnoticed behind him, the sound of clacking high-heels grew more and more distant. Katherine had accepted that her spinsterhood had a while to run yet.

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Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, in a quiet room which he had entered via a Portal (or door, as they called it in Ireland), Tinman read the last page of the new Dan Brown book, sighed a deep, deep sigh, and rubbed his hands over his steely, piercing eyes (sorry, the writing’s infectious).

His head felt as if someone had syringed the StayPuft Marshmallow Man into it through his left ear.

His mind was stuffed to capacity with symbolism, symbols, and cymbals (he had distinctly heard the sound “B’dum, tish” in his brain everytime Langdon had solved yet another mystery).

He knew that they were going to remain there until he could blot them out by reading another book.

He had to get to a Library – fast.

If You Want This Choice Position

BBC News has revealed that many years after releasing Mary Poppins, Disney had plans to make a sequel…

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Mary Poppins reached into her carpet-bag.

Mary PoppinsShe took out a box of tea-bags, a sugar-bowl, a pint of milk, a packet of McVities Digestive Biscuits and a mug that said “Old Nannies Never Die, Their Knitting Just Unravels”. She made herself a cup of tea, then reached back into the bag, pulled out a rocking-chair, and sat into it.

Her mobile rang. She looked at the number, smiled to herself, then rejected it.

They wanted her to go back into the field again.

For years she had been the star employee of the Miss Chivers Till-The Wind-Changes Nanny Agency. Rescuing the Banks family from themselves had been only one of her achievements. It was she who had invented the naughty step, the restorative lollipop as a cure for grazed knees and the imaginary friend for shy children.

She had invented “quiet time”, a boon for parents all over the world.

But the world had changed, gradually, and younger nannies had come to work for the agency. They had laughed at her, at her hat, at her apron, and at her flying umbrella, which they referred to as “Virgin Airways”.

Which had been not just cruel, thought Mary, but totally inaccurate. Bert had been her lover for many years now. He was always cheerful, utterly devoted to her, and had an astonishingly long brush, which was useful for hard-to-get-at cobwebs.

He did still sound as if he was trying to chew toffee in Australian, but you can’t have everything.

Such as job security, for instance. Over time more and more of the work that came in had been allocated to the younger women, and one day Miss Chivers had called Mary into her office and had broken the news to her.

No-one wanted a nanny anymore. They wanted an au-pair.

The new star employee was Maria Poppinska, a blonde Eastern European with long legs and a longer list of things that were bad for children. Top of this list was the spoonful of sugar, which caused dental cavities and hyperactivity. She was a great believer in muesli, carrot smoothies and a vegetable she called broccoli, which Mary was sure she had invented herself.

Whilst Mary had believed in children being allowed to laugh themselves to ceiling-level, Maria believed in them being grounded, especially if they had done something wrong.

And she laughed scornfully at the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, on the basis that her own middle name was longer than it.

But now her job was vacant.

Mary had been, in her own words, kind but very firm. Maria, on the other hand, was a strict disciplinarian. It turned out, though, that this was only with the man of the house, and it had been the discovery of that by the woman of the house that had got her fired.

Now Mary sat in her rocking-chair on the balcony of her Cote D’Azur home, looking out at the sea.

She and Bert had lived here for many years. Having been made so suddenly redundant after spending her life grind, grind, grinding at that grindstone, and therefore facing an old-age of poverty, Mary had decided to take action. One night Bert had reverse-torpedoed himself down a chimney into the Dawes Tomes Mousely Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank and had opened the door from the inside. With the Little Old Bird Woman keeping watch from the steps of St Paul’s across the road, Mary had stepped in and had emptied the entire contents of the safe into her cavernous carpet-bag.

They had escaped to France in a fishing boat belonging to a man with one leg named Smith (he had lost his other leg to a shark, so its name was irrelevant), and had made their way here.

Mary’s phone rang again, and again she rejected the call.

They wanted her to go out into the field again.

They could go fly a kite.

C’est La Guerre

*

“Not tonight, Josephine,” said Napoleon.

Josephine

Josephine (and her pet White-Spotted Giant Toad, apparently)

Josephine sighed. When she had taken up with this Frenchman she had expected beaucoup d’amour, a sexy accent and a really long baguette. What she had got was a short guy with delusions of grandeur, a naval hat worn sideways and seemingly no interest in un peu d’autre. History would point out that Josephine bore Napoleon no children. Given her lack of opportunity for setting such a train of events in motion it was a bit unfair, a bit like History pointing out that Galileo never won Wimbledon.

“Why not, cheri?” she asked. She was dressed as alluringly as possible, in a basque, a long diaphanous robe and French knickers, or knickers as she referred to them. This seemed to have no effect on Napoleon. She might as well have been wearing overalls and deep-sea divers’ boots.

“I must plan for Moscow,” said Napoleon.

“We’re going to Moscow?” asked Josephine excitedly. “How wonderful. I believe they have an excellent ballet.”

“Bolshoi,” nodded Napoleon.

“No, really,” said Josephine. “And a really good state circus. It has a performing bear.”

“What does it perform?” asked Napoleon, momentarily diverted from his plans.

“Bach, I think,” said Josephine. “He plays it on the clavicle.”

Napoleon was about to point out that a clavicle was a collar-bone, but decided not to bother. He reflected, not for the first time, that while Madame Sardhine’s Finishing School for Young Ladies might be excellent at teaching deportment, the importance of extending one’s pinky finger whilst drinking tea, and the ability to walk with a pile of books on your head, it wasn’t too hot at imparting general knowledge.

“I’m not going there on a weekend break,” said Napoleon. “I plan to conquer it, then to change the name. I’m going to call it after you.”

“How sweet,” said Josephine. “Though that might kill the tourist trade. It’ll be hard to fit “I ♥ Josephinedebeauharnaisburg” on a T-shirt.”

Vrai,” said Napoleon. “Perhaps I should just call it Jo’burg.”

“Suit yourself,” said Josephine. “Anyway, won’t this be dangerous?”

“Why?”

“Well, isn’t Russia really big?” asked Josephine. “They’ll have a huge army, and I’ve heard that each of their soldiers has another smaller one inside, and another one inside that.”

“We will prevail,”  said Napoleon. “We will take them by surprise. I plan for my army to march on its stomach. They won’t see us coming.”

“When are you going to go?” asked Josephine.

“Next month,” said Napoleon.

“Er, isn’t that winter?” said Josephine.

Napoleon did that shrug-and-moue gesture that only the French can manage. Monsieur Zhardin’s School Of Warfare might have been excellent at teaching how to move stuff around a map with a mini hockey-stick, the importance of keeping one hand on one’s weapon inside one’s coat at all times, and the value of brightly-coloured uniforms as camouflage in snow, but it taught sod-all about climate.

“it will be fine,” said Napoleon. “We’ll wear longue-jeans.”

*

(The image is from Wikipedia)

Skylight

Ice Cube Aurora by Carlos Pobes

Ice Cube Aurora, by Carlos Pobes

Most people think that Santa’s Grotto is just a cave at the North Pole, where small elves with smaller hammers toil all year making Christmas gifts such as Barbies, Harry Potter Box-sets, and socks. In fact Santa’s Grotto is actually a huge compound with many buildings, each with its own fun-filled function.

There is Ice Cream Parlour, where the elves make a wide range of creams, from whipped to shaving to anti-wrinkle, all of them because you’re worth it. There is Ice Station Zebra, where they paint stripes on horses, foxes and squirrels to make zebras, raccoons and Pepe LePew.

And then there is Ice Cube Aurora. It is the rocket-gantry for a huge firework, and every November the elves light the fuse and then run like blazes, with one of them shouting “fire in the hole”, because, well, that’s what you do. The rocket ignites and arcs across the night-sky, like a comet, and then, when it reaches a height of two miles, the firework explodes.

The resulting beautiful, magical, haunting display is known to everyone as the Northern Lights, or the Aurora Borealis.

As soon as the rocket has taken off elven builders move in to begin repairing the Ice Cube, and eleven engineers (elven ones, too) start work on constructing the following year’s rocket. Meanwhile the ignition team, the Red Adairs of the elf world, fall exhaustedly into bed and hibernate for the winter.

They are the origin of the phrase “light the blue touch-paper, then retire”.

(This was written, with the photo as the prompt, for this weeks Flash! Friday competition)

Dog’s Life

She was dozing happily in the sun when she heard the sounds, the sounds that she had heard so often before. The yelp of terror, the whirring of a rope uncoiling, the thump of someone hitting dry earth, and the echoing clank of the same someone being hit on the head by a tin bucket.

Timmy had fallen down the well again.

Lassie sighed, climbed to her paws, and set off to let somebody know.

Other dogs didn’t have to put up with this crap, she told herself. Timmy and his four owners spent each summer holiday in search of dark catacombs, hidden treasure, and high teas. Snoopy spent most of his life asleep on top his kennel. The Hound of the Baskervilles (or Snuffles, as all they knew him) got to terrorise the entire Devonshire moors with his huge footprints, flame-red eyes and blood-freezing late-night yowl.

Lassie, however, got to be the pet of a congenital idiot. It was lucky that the well had dried up decades ago, or Timmy would have drowned several times over by now.

In fairness, she told herself, if Timmy was a moron it wasn’t hard to see why. As Lassie trudged off to face his family she was dreading the pantomime that would soon ensue.

She approached them as they did some work on their fence that was obviously far more important than looking out for their seven-year-old son. Lassie barked.

“What is it, Lass?” asked Timmy’s dad.

Lassie was unable to answer questions, of course, since she did not have the gift of speech. This had never deterred the family, however, who seemed to labour under the impression that she was Scooby-Doo.

The guessing started. This was the part she hated most.

“Fox got into the chicken coop?” asked Timmy’s dad.

Lassie barked. This could have meant “yes”, “no”, or “what are you, mental?” but the family kept going.

“Is Mr Benson from the next farm being still carrying on his affair with Lola from the café?” asked Timmy’s mum, who loved juicy gossip.

It’s not easy to shrug ignorance when you’ve no shoulders, but Lassie managed it.

“Have we been invaded by vampires?” asked Uncle Jeb. Jeb was regarded as a bit simple by the family, which was rather like being considered the short one by the rest of the Seven Dwarves.

“That couldn’t happen, Jeb,” said Timmy’s mum kindly. “At last, a bit of common sense,” thought Lassie.

“Because it’s broad daylight, and vampires only attack at night,” continued Timmy’s mum. Lassie closed her eyes as if in pain.

Timmy’s dad’s face suddenly brightened, possibly because of the light-bulb that turned on almost visibly above his head.

“Is this to do with Timmy?” he asked.

“Woof!” said Lassie, encouragingly. Nearly there, she thought.

“Has he fallen down the well again?” asked Timmy’s mum.

“Well, duh,” thought Lassie. She turned her back.

“She wants us to follow her,” said Uncle Jeb. In fact, in sheer contempt and because it was impossible for her to give them the finger, Lassie had been merely showing them her arse.

An hour later all was well. Timmy had been rescued, and then gently scolded. Lassie had been given a bone, and then ignored.

This made it easy for her to creep out of the gate. She looked back and could see Timmy already making his way down to the well again, but the last thing that Lassie had done before she left was drag a huge board across the top of the well, something that never seemed to have occurred to Timmy’s family.

The next few months were spent on a long journey across mountains, ravines and white-water rapids, the kind of journey that Disney film when they aren’t making cartoons, but at last Lassie arrived in London.

She now lives happily on the very best in dog-food in the Blue Peter studio, watching while the presenters show a pre-pubescent audience how to construct a rabbit-hunch using Brillo-pads, toilet-roll-cores and sticky-backed plastic.

She has had to change her name to Getdownshep, but she reckons it’s worth it.