Flash Fiction: The Lion and Saint Jerome

If you prefer, you can imagine me in a darkly-panelled study. Imagine it similar to that which, many centuries later, will be engraved by a certain long-haired German artist. Here I am then, in my study amongst my books. As usual I am shown with a long beard, a quill pen and a ledger. This is because I lived to be old, and wrote a lot.

The German engraver has not included my eyeglasses. In the latter years of mortal existence my eyesight became very bad. After dusk I was unable to make out the letters in Greek manuscripts, even with the help of a candle. It greatly hampered my studies.

A skull gathers dust in the window-seat. This is what they used to call a memento mori, to remind us that life is short and we have only a limited time to earn our place in heaven. It is also meant to remind you that I have become very wise in my old age. Angels, apparently, whisper divine truths into my ear.

Closest to you, viewers, is my lion. He does not sleep but lies relaxed on the wooden boards, luxuriously extended within swiping distance of a plump German corgi. What a tasty snack that dog would have made for my lion, in the old days.

The artist is gifted but cannot, I think, have had a real lion in front of him as he worked. Before lions were available to view, in zoos and such, artists seemed to imagine them the size of extra-large dogs. In real life, my lion was an impressive sight indeed. He was taller than me when standing on his hind legs, and could have ripped me apart in seconds. I am eternally grateful that he chose to love me instead.

The musculature and the claws are excellent and the tail, if not quite accurate, is at least decorative. But he is too small, as I have said, and this Dürer fellow has given him the face of a domestic cat; those charming, bristled whiskers, those Siamese eyes. The ears appear to belong to another creature entirely – a bear, perhaps, or even a mouse’s, scaled up. And the creature is smiling to himself. Neither cat nor lion would be likely to do so, but we can allow him a degree of artistic licence.

They say I removed a thorn from my lion’s paw, and in fact I did. It was a very long time ago, when I lived in a monastery. He was limping badly, and made straight for me, as if he had been sent. The others ran away, in any case. He sat before me and lifted his paw, that I might inspect it. I fetched water and cloths and cleaned the wound, and then could see the great thorn he had in it. So great was it in size that I could grasp it firmly between finger and thumb, without resort to an implement.

“This will hurt, my Brother,” I said, looking straight into his eyes. He put his head on one side and gazed straight back into mine. I gave the thorn a quick, sharp tug and out it came in a gush of blood and infected matter. Afterwards I applied the same healing herbs as I would have used for my monastic brothers, binding them into a paste with spiders’ webs and wild honey. My lion sat patiently as I bound up that giant paw with linen strips.

How, what shall I say happened between me and the lion? From my vantage point I can see both past and future, and I know that my lion has become a kind of fairy-story. They say he was attached to me by mistake, centuries later. They claimed that my lion was but a fable for the entertainment of credulous pilgrims to Bethlehem, where I left behind the mortal shell that was Jerome or, as others called me, Hieronymus.

You may believe what you like. My lion died of old age some years before me. He and I are back where we began, in the All and the Everything. We are one, my lion and I. You may sense us around you; within, enfolding and permeating you. We lift up our paws to you in supplication. We rest our golden heads upon your frail human shoulders.

We purr, and yes, we smile.

durer 4

Flash Fiction: Fishnet Tights

It all started with Miriam. She was a suspicious woman, particularly when it came to a pair of tights in the glove compartment of Alfred’s taxi-cab. It wasn’t as if Alfred hadn’t strayed before, just that she hadn’t realised his tastes were so exotic. She knew immediately that they were his tastes, not those of some new mistress or tart. No woman in Alfred’s age bracket would have contemplated fishnet.

What went with the tights, she wondered; one of those teensy maid’s outfits with frilly petticoat beneath? Maybe Alf was into bondage and liked to be attired in fishnet and frilly petticoat whilst some giantess flayed him with a black leather thingummy.  Or perhaps he just liked to dress up in women’s clothes when she was out. He couldn’t be mincing around in her clothes, however. She was a good twenty-four dress size and Alf was – smallish. So where was the rest of the outfit? If he’d hidden it anywhere around the house she’d have found it by now. Miriam was a demon housewife.

Should she confront him, she wondered, or let sleeping tights lie? In the end, curiosity got the better of her. He went as red as a beet and confessed, after a lengthy pause. Yes, he said, he was a transvestite. He hadn’t liked to tell her. He didn’t sound entirely sure, so Miriam wasn’t entirely sure either.

‘Show us your dress, then, and your makeup and – all the other stuff.’ In spite of herself, she was fascinated. How did he manage the bosoms? Where did the willy go? Perhaps that didn’t matter in a frock.

And so it came about that next afternoon Alf was pacing around Marks & Spencer in the High Street searching for something long and glamorous in electric blue satin with high heels to match, this being what he imagined a transvestite – had he in fact been one which, in spite of his confession, he was not – might wear with fishnet tights. Miriam could have told him that Marks & Spencer was not the best bet for electric blue evening gowns, but she was at home making rock cakes.

That evening, having fortified himself with several of Miriam’s rock cakes washed down with a mug of strong tea, Alfred retired to the bedroom to transform himself into his alter ego. He was not an imaginative man and all he could come up with for a name, should he be asked, was Alfreda. The whole process was nerve-wracking since this was the first time he had done it.

He wasted quite a bit of time rearranging socks inside a black bra, which he had also purchased, anxious not to appear amateurishly lumpy. The fishnet tights were also a problem. His toenails, which he hadn’t considered at all, were in need of cutting and his toes kept getting snarled up in the net. By the time he’d got them on the tights had acquired several ragged tears rather than the ladders he had been half-expecting. Luckily the dress was ankle-length and would cover that.

He had gone for a rather swish emerald number in the end. It had slightly over-the-top puff sleeves and a lot of subtle “ruching” around the bodice, a technical term which the saleslady had explained to him in rather more detail than he had patience for. At her suggestion he had added a sea-green chiffon scarf – ‘so flattering to the mature décolletage’. He had not asked her to explain décolletage.

Finally, Alfreda’s makeup. Alfred was not so daft as to plaster it on and end up looking as if he’d escaped from the circus. Stroke of luck, he’d been into model-making some years back – battlefield dioramas, that sort of thing. An eye for detail and a steady hand were qualities he’d discovered then.

He was in the middle of his demonstration, wobbling up and down on the living room carpet in full kit whilst Miriam looked on, making short work of the rest of the rock cakes, when there came a knock at the door. Alfred froze – no time to run, and anyway how, in the unfamiliar heels? So it was Miriam who opened the door to the two uniformed police officers.

‘In planning to execute a bank robbery,’ said one, ‘your husband would have been better advised to go for Sun Mist, winter weight. Fishnet is somewhat…’

‘Transparent,’ said Alfreda, emerging from the living room with a sigh.

Did History Happen?

My father had this weird idea about history. Every now and then he would repeat it, which would embarrass my mother and bewilder me. My mother told me not to get into arguments with him about it, because Dad was a bit like the Incredible Hulk – you wouldn’t like him when he was angry. However, I did get into arguments with him about it. I was one of those horribly logical children, and if I had to say something I had to say it, even if it earned me a slapping. I couldn’t bear that he would come out with anything so obviously wrong and not at least attempt to explain why he thought it was right.

The only thing he ever said was this: when he was at school, which I suppose must have been in the thirties, he was shown a map of the world and a huge part of it was coloured pink. The pink bit was the British Empire. I can’t remember exactly what his teachers told him about the British Empire, but it was something to do with the British Empire stretching from pole to pole, destined to go on for ever and full of grateful natives who just loved us for bringing the gift of civilisation to them. Hideous claptrap, obviously. So far so good.

Then he got conscripted and shipped off to India, where he discovered that things were not as he had fervently believed as a child. So far so good, again.

But somehow he extrapolated from this that no history had ever actually happened. He seemed to literally believe this. I remember trying all the usual teenage arguments on him. But what about your memory? You can remember the past, at least that bit of it that took place in your lifetime. And what about fossils? And books, written before we were born? What about pieces of music written in the past, and paintings painted? What about the stories my grandmother told me, about her past, her mother, her sisters?

None of this had any effect, apart from calling forth the Incredible Hulk, in his green, shirt-bursting form.

Many years later, my parents and I used to go to Leeds Castle. We all enjoyed Leeds Castle. My mother saw it as a magnificent addition to her small garden at home. I liked the lake and the quiet, being able to see to all the way to the horizon, no houses in between. Mum and I used to repeat the tour of the castle every now and again, to see the Queen’s Bed and Henry VIII’s (amazingly broad and short) suit of armour and a cupboard full of gorgeous, if dusty, 1920s shoes. My father refused to go in. He would sit on the wall and read his newspaper because – yes, the past had never happened. Did he believe that Henry VIII’s armour was a fake? By this time I knew better than to ask. It still annoyed me, though.

Dad is long gone, but that argument with him has gone on in my head. It’s like being haunted, not by him but by this one bizarre conviction, because in all this time I haven’t been able to prove the reverse – that the past does exist. In despair, I googled it.

It is always a relief when you find that other people have googled the same question as you, and even discussed it amongst themselves – seriously, at length.  It seems that philosophers – actual philosophers – have done work on this problem, intermittently, and have come to the conclusion that no proof is to be had. Everything you remember, the whole of history, might just have been implanted in your mind. This is the “dinosaurs were put there by the Devil” argument.

There is also something called “Thursdayism” which holds that all memories of the past were constructed at the creation of the universe – last Thursday. Though this seems unlikely, it cannot actually be disproved.

I was listening to an interesting podcast yesterday, about problems people have with their brains. One of the cases was an American lady who runs, and regularly wins, the most extreme marathons on the planet, ie hundreds of miles over many days, without stopping, hardly sleeping. As a child she suffered a prolonged seizure which, although nobody realised it at the time, damaged a small area of her temporal lobe. As an adult, she began to have seizures again. In the brief warning period she would put on her running shoes and run – at first to the mountains but eventually for hours and hours. Running enabled her to avoid the seizure altogether.

However, eventually the balance tipped in favour of the seizures. She no longer got any warning, so could not run. As she had children, she opted for removal of that part of her brain that was causing the fits. And it worked. She had no fits after the operation, though she now had problems with short-term memory, and time. It was as if she was living in a permanent now. She also lost the ability to read maps, and navigate. However, she continued to enter extreme marathons. She says when she is running she has no idea how many days she has been running for. She runs, alone, dropping pieces of ribbon at forks in the road so that she can find her way back, if lost. She runs until she reaches her destination, being only aware of the rhythm of her feet and of her breathing, and because she does not know how tired she ought to be, she does not feel tired.

If “time” can be cut out of a person’s brain, doesn’t that mean that time is a product of the brain, something imposed on reality? This would make the brain a kind of gatekeeper.

The explanation I find easiest to accept is this – that all time is happening at once. Therefore it is meaningless to talk in terms of a ‘past’ or a ‘future’. Maybe if we substitute ‘awareness’ or ‘knowledge’ for ‘memory’ it might be closer to the truth. From the present moment we have a sense of the ‘past’ (going on now) and of the ‘future’ (also going on now). We only think of them as taking place ‘then’ and ‘now’ because a small part of our brain is designed to limit us to a linear experience of time. Maybe that is all we can cope with, without going mad.

What do you think?

Flash Fiction: Might as well be hanged for a sheep

Janice was the bane of Miss Milligan’s life. Every teacher has at least one Bane, of course, but Janice – in Miss Milligan’s opinion – came straight from Hell equipped with her own pitchfork.

According to staff-room gossip – overheard, since for some reason Miss Milligan never seemed to be included in these gossipy huddles – Janice was some kind of genius in English and Art. On the other hand, the little beast failed abjectly in any subject that failed to engage her interest. Music was one of those subjects – the subject Miss Milligan had so far failed abjectly to teach her.

The child refused to read music. Miss Milligan was sure Janice understood perfectly well how to read music, because how could anyone not be able to grasp something so very simple? After a term with Miss Milligan every girl in class could read a simple musical score, could compose a pleasing sequence of four notes and then sing them back correctly upon request.

Janice scattered notes about the stave at random; true notes and psuedo-notes incorporating some design of her own with a hat or a smiley face. When asked to sing them back she would take a deep, shuddering breath and sing four completely different notes. The class would dissolve in laughter whilst Janice stared out of the window, seemingly having ascended to a higher plane.

It was Dumb Insolence: the child was putting it on, aiming to make a fool of her teacher. But put the little wretch up in front of the whole school and she’d have to get it right, or look like a fool. Miss Milligan flattered herself she knew a thing or two about teenage girls. Consumed with self-consciousness, they were, and Satan’s Daughter would prove no different.

Forced to turn the pages for Miss Milligan during assembly, Janice hovered by her side, perspiring, her hand trembling above the score for Jerusalem (the school song) as if hoping the exact moment to ‘turn’ might be conveyed by psychic wave or other mysterious means from Miss Milligan’s head to her own. When no such hint arrived she would make a wild snatch at the page, obliging Miss Milligan to make a similar wild snatch to turn it back.

When they were within a few bars of turning the next page, Miss Milligan waited for the girl to give in and turn it, but she did not. Miss Milligan resorted to a heavy nod. Janice did not appear to understand what was meant by the nod, and any case was now frowning at a stain on one of the floor tiles. Assembly hymn-singing proceeded in fits and starts, and with each fresh fit or start came a wave of stifled giggling. The Headmistress was also frowning at a floor tile.

Miss Milligan resolved to move the battle to an alternative field – left-handedness. Sinistrality might be an unavoidable defect in a small percentage of boys but was quite unacceptable in a girl. Miss Milligan was on the school dinner supervision rota, as were most of the teachers, and had spotted Janice lifting her dessert-spoon to her mouth with the wrong hand.

Today was jelly-and-custard, the ideal test. Miss Milligan positioned herself close to the Devil’s Spawn’s table. When it came to dessert, and the wrong hand started to convey the jelly upwards, Miss Milligan took a brisk step forward.

No, Janice – other hand.” Janice sat there, her mouth hanging slightly open, as if trying to process this perfectly simple instruction.

“In polite society, Janice, we eat with our right hands. So pick up your dessert spoon in your right hand, and eat.” Impossible to tell whether the surrounding brats were sniggering at the girl or herself.

Janice picked up the spoon in her right hand and carefully loaded it with red jelly. With equal care she lifted it towards her mouth, but failed to locate it. The spoon collided with her nose. She lowered the spoon, reloaded it, this time with a mixture of custard and red jelly, and tried again. Once again the spoon drifted wide. By now the whole room had fallen silent.

“Can I be of some help, Miss Milligan?” Miss Milligan had not been aware that the Headmistress was in the room.

“No, thank you very much. The situation is under control.”

“One more try, Janice.”

Janice was scarlet in the face and Miss Milligan scented victory. Any minute now she’d start to cry and that would teach the awkward, sullen brat. If she’s been in the WAAFS –

When the jelly – not just a spoonful but the entire plate – collided with Miss Milligan’s chest, she could not for a moment believe it. The jelly was cold, the custard even colder, and both were sliding downwards. Triumph arose in Miss Milligan’s soggy breast. Assault on a teacher: the girl would be expelled for this.

The same thought seemed to have occurred to Janice, for a whole tableful of jelly-and-custards were subsequently hurled, left-handed, with surprising accuracy. If only the girl played cricket –

And were the other girls actually passing jellies to her? Was she to be the recipient of a whole dining-roomful of red jellies?

“Headmistress!”

But the Headmistress seemed to have temporarily left the room.

Flash Fiction: The Wearing Of The Green

She found the green cloth in the market, on a stall run by an old woman. The other fabrics – greys and browns destined to make overalls and jackets for field workers, had been thoroughly picked through but this one remained neatly folded. It was of a green at once dark and bright, and reminded her of the wood beyond the village. At once she pictured herself in the gown she would make of it.

How much for the green? She hoped she sounded only mildly curious.

More than you have in your pocket, young lady.

And how would you know how much I have in my pocket?

I see through cloth to skin, said the old woman, through skin to bone and through bone to the very soul, and I know full well that you cannot afford my cloth.

Well, it was true, and the girl turned to walk away, but the old woman caught her arm. There seemed no shaking her off.

If I were to give you the cloth, she said, you would cut it askew and sew it with clumsy stitches. It would soon fall apart.

On the contrary, said the girl. If you were to give me the cloth I would cut it most carefully and sew it with the finest of fine stitches, for I have been indentured to Morwenna the seamstress since my tenth year, and will gain my freedom shortly. I plan to set up business on my own account; there is always plenty of sewing to be done.

A woman alone?

Maybe. Or it may be that I will find a husband.

Ah yes, the ploughman Aelwyn. His master’s lands are not so far from here. No doubt you pass them most days.

How did you know? Aelwyn has barely spoken to me and has certainly not mentioned marriage.

No, but he will. How could he resist that summer-fair hair of yours, those tumbling tresses? The dress would serve as both apprentice piece and wedding gown.

If Aelwyn were to ask me.

You may have the green cloth for a wedding gift, young lady. It is too fine for these bumpkins in any case. I would have been unlikely to sell it this side of Michaelmas and by then the sun will have faded it. Take it, but with a warning. Green is a fairy colour, and they believe that only they have the right to wear it. Do not, therefore, wear that dress into the woods.

The dress took many months to make, by which time the market was long gone, the leaves fallen from the trees and the old woman’s warning forgotten.

ploughman

 

When Aelwyn the ploughman became very old he was forced to rely on the kindness of his four sons. His wife had long since died and his once powerful muscles were knotted with pain. In winter a rocking-chair in the chimney-corner was his customary retreat, but when the weather was warmer he liked to get out, walk by the fields he had worked, feel the sun on his shoulders. When the sun became too hot one day, with the help of his stick he decided to venture a little further, into the cool of the wood.

It was not a large wood but by the time he got to the middle of it he found himself both weary and confused. I used to know these woods so well, he thought. Yet now the trees are dancing around me, and changing their places each time I look. So he sank down next to a comfortable-looking willow tree, half knowing that this was unwise and that he might not be able to get up again without help.

The ground here was damp. Willows thrive in damp places, he reminded himself, half asleep already. And there he remained; his aching back relaxing against the smooth, warm bark. And beyond the wood the sun was beginning to sink.

When I was a young man, he told the willow tree, there was such a pretty girl – a seamstress with yellow hair that fell all around her face. She often passed where I was ploughing. Once or twice she even glanced in my direction, but before I could get up the nerve to speak to her, she vanished.

It was fifty years ago. Before you grew here, probably. They say she was carrying a green dress over her arm, her apprentice piece, so proud of it that she was taking it over to show her cousin in Sawley. She would have come through here. Might you have seen her?

Trees do not have the languages of men, and the willow did not reply. But as Aelwyn sank into a deeper and deeper sleep she sighed, reaching down with her long and tangled tresses to stroke his beloved face.

Rinse and Repeat

Is that even a thing?

I have heard people use this expression on television but it’s the first time anyone has actually asked it of me. I now feel quite hip!

It was English Sister. We’d been texting, kind of randomly. She asked me how my tummy upset was. I tried to work out a way to tell her that it was actually sciatica, without appearing to ask her why she thought it was a tummy upset.

She told me she was going to make a cut-and-come-again cake. In the next text she told me that the whole house was filled with the scent of shepherd’s pie. I decided not to ask.

I told her I gave a cat a bath today, something I had never attempted before. I told her the cat had been so very smelly and filthy that even after two sinks full of water and liberal application of cat shampoo the water was still the colour of an Irish bog. And that’s when she asked me

cat shampoo – is that even a thing?

It is. And it’s expensive. The one I have is meant to smell like peaches. I can only say that at the end of her bath this particular cat still smells – if less so – of dusty fur and dried poop, so I am going to give her a few days to dry off and regain her dignity before repeating the procedure.

It could have been worse. She made a token attempt to climb out of the sink rather than the yowling, scratching, biting resistance I had been expecting. Being blind and confused handicapped her a bit. I felt bad – never in all my years as a cat mummy have I deliberately tipped water over a cat – but then she began to purr. By the time it was over I was very, very wet, in spite of my Christmas Cat apron, and two bath towels were ruined.

As I shampoo-d I recalled that there was one kind of cat that was supposed to like water – a swimming cat. So I looked it up. They are called Turkish Van cats and often have odd-coloured eyes. This is connected, genetically, with their unusual piebald colouring, but it doesn’t make them deaf. Deafness is more likely in white cats with two blue eyes.  They have gingery markings, but confined to their heads and tails.

Turkish Van Cat

They have other peculiarities. They grow very big – up to 7kg for a male. My cats all average around 4kg – males a bit more, females a bit less, old or sick cats even less – so 7kg is impressive. Also they are very strong, and can spring from the floor to the top of a tall refrigerator with ease. Also – they have odd coats, with no fluffy underlayer. This gives them an odd, rabbit-like texture but also makes them waterproof. Which would explain the swimming, if indeed they do swim. It also makes them difficult to bathe.

This tells me two things:

  1. That other people really do bathe their cats, and
  2.  It’s a good thing that I can’t afford a creature as beautiful and “collectable” as a Turkish Van, because if he or she got grubby I wouldn’t be able to resort to the cat shampoo. Although of course I could just fill the bath up and fasten a little diving-board to the edge…

Flash Fiction: The Hapless Hannah

Branston was concerned that Markie, her current hubby, was exhibiting certain retrogressive traits. He would occasionally seem to forget his gender and attempt to patronise her.

An example: Markie didn’t as a rule pay much attention to politics or economics, but on this particular day he must have caught the tail end of an aircast whilst loading the dishwasher. It had something to do with the PM’s decision to impose selective economic sanctions upon what little remained of the United States. When Branston came in, after a stressful day at the office, Markie had launched into an explanation of this complex news item – and in words of one syllable, as they might have said last century.

It was galling, especially as she had a Masters in Geopolitics and he had a – what was it? – certificate in “Green Cuisine” from some second-rate finishing school.

Worse, on that visit to the solicitors the other day to renew their annual marriage contract Markie had so far forgotten himself as to open the door for her, as if she might be too feeble to open it for herself. The boy on reception had been watching them, and tittered behind his black-varnished fingernails.

At that point Branston seriously considered not renewing their contract at all, but she worked long hours and selecting a mate was so time-consuming. Besides, she had grown used to Markie over the four years she had had him, and he was quite good at the sex part. Of course, when he ceased to be –

She was discussing this with her colleague and sometime-lover McKaig, over lunch. The waiter was tiresomely slow in coming over to take their order, and as he passed McKaig snapped her fingers at him, causing him to jump and drop the tray he was carrying. Whilst the fool was grovelling about in the gangway trying to clear up the mess he’d made, Branston asked McKaig if she had ever experienced anything similar. She had.

What did you do about it?

I purchased a Hapless Hannah, old girl. Some men have this residual sense of superiority and entitlement, a genetically-programmed need to protect their “womenfolk”. Can you imagine it? Something to do with their hormones. But it’s easily managed. Our Hannah lives in the cupboard under the stairs, easily stowed away when not in use. When I go out, if he feels the urge hubby can set her going. And hey presto! The cyborg can be as useless and/or dependent as ever he wishes. By the time I get home he is – satiated. You should get one. Here, this is their website.

The salesman suggested that Branston make an actual analogue visit to their out-of-town showrooms.

It sounds rather as if your – colleague – has the Hannah 2.1. All right in its day, Madam, but we’re now up to the Hannah 2.7. The 2.7, unlike the 2.1, is equipped with the replaceable oh-dear-please-rescue-me pheromone cartridge, in addition to the standard don’t-know-what-to-do psycho-wave generator. The two combine to make her devastatingly effective. We also have a range of alternative ‘bleatborgs’ – our affectionate nickname, Madam – the Silly Susan and the Foolish Freda, to name but two –

Branston summoned an autax, tapped in the destination code, swiped her payment card and off they set at a steady 120 mph. Even at that speed it was a good ten minutes before the autax purred to a stop outside a chrome-and-glass display space with a window full of borgs.

She left it to Markie to unpack the 2.7 from its crate – warning him to be careful when using a sharp knife – and to wade through the instructions. After all, it was to be his little toy, and she had a finance report to finish.

At first all seemed to be going to plan. Markie was noticeably more relaxed, had even started singing over the ironing board, but most importantly he made no further attempts to patronise her. One evening Branston asked him to demonstrate the Hannah.

Markie was somewhat bashful – understandably, since this was his private little peccadillo – but she insisted upon it, and the Hannah was wheeled out. It was remarkably lifelike in its little gingham apron, a pink lurex bow askew amongst those ditsy curls. Oh dear, it said. We haven’t been introduced. I’m Hannah. Markie, please help me. Should I have curtsied just then?

Markie cleared his throat, casting a furtive glance in his wife’s direction. Don’t worry, Hannah. You only need curtsy to royalty.

Royalty? I haven’t met any royal people yet, have I Markie? Oh dear, so much to remember. I’m not sure my head will hold it all.

Sick-making, but Markie was lapping it up. After that he relaxed a bit more, to the extent that he would sometimes neglect to put the borg away before Branston got in. There the little sap would be, in the corner of the living area.

Hello, hello? Carpet robot seems to have run out of electricity. Could you remind me how to plug him in? If you can spare the time, that is?

The problem began when Branston realised the Hannah was starting to affect her too, presumably an undisclosed side-effect of those all-singing-all-dancing pheromones. Even when the Hannah was safely tucked away out of sight, Branston would be getting these embarrassing urges – just to peek in and see if the poor dear was all right, alone in the dark, not crying softly to herself or in need of a hug. Hannah must actually be appealing to Branston’s – whisper it – maternal instincts – in addition to Markie’s patronising, protecting ones.

The bleatborg was headed for the scrapheap.

And so, she then realised, was Markie.