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Butter and Whiskey: The Ballad of Maggie Doyle

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Butter and Whiskey: The Ballad of Maggie Doyle.

After an affair with a local priest, Maggie Doyle, an unhappily married woman in Southern Ireland, gives birth to a baby with tiny wings. Father John, meanwhile, abandons her and heads for the mainland, in disgrace. When The Vatican sends its Cardinal to investigate, Maggie takes an horrific course of action that will send her spiraling into madness and despair.

Years later, they have both ended up in London where, unbeknownst to either, their fates become once again entwined. Whilst each finds friendship and love in unexpected places, someone is watching Maggie, and Father John is haunted by his guilt. And why is Maggie dreaming of a strange young man, she has never met before?

On the night that their paths finally cross, the past too seems to have caught up with them, and Father John sees an opportunity to atone for having abandoned Maggie, in her hour of greatest need. 

What readers are saying about Butter and Whiskey:The Ballad of Maggie Doyle

From United Kingdom

LizzieB 5 out of 5 stars Breathtaking and compelling Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 17 March 2021 – I was mesmerised from the start. The in depth detail of the catholic church, Ireland, the 80s, London, art and the burden of guilt all made this tale compelling to me. The quality of language was also impressive (apart from an overuse of certain expressions such as “ she drank in….”. The characters mattered to me as actual people. The intensity of the narrative caused emotional turmoil in me until the end….I waited for the inevitable and, when it happened, it was very different from what I had expected. Congratulations, Judith Glover, on this fist novel. I look forward to more.

Alison T 5.0 out of 5 stars A good read Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 1 March 2021 This is a thoroughly good read. I highly recommend this book. It’s a page turner that you want to read to the end.
The story starts with a bit of magical realism, then follows a woman journey in dealing with a trauma and learning to live a full life. This is interwoven with a pursuit by the catholic church. It’s unusual-but works well. My book group read it and it provoked a really good conversation.
I really cared about the characters, particularly Maggie, and wanted to know what happened to her and was moved by her ups and downs.
London is painted very vividly– which I really enjoyed as its where I spent my youth.
Hope to see more of this author and to hear about the next chapter in Maggie’s life.

Ms A C Dancocks 5.0 out of 5 stars A beautifully written book which will leave you wanting to read the sequel Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 26 February 2021 I loved this book and fell in love with Maggie, the main character. It is beautifully written and takes you back in time to London in the early 80s. It is a story of guilt and remorse and takes us on a journey of salvation. The book touches on psychiatry, the art world and the catholic church and how they are all brought together in an attempt to find redemption. I am looking forward to reading the next chapter in Maggie’s life.

Hils1066 5.0 out of 5 stars Highly Original Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 21 March 2021 A highly original, well written novel, exploring the mental and physical complexities of life, relationships and self discovery against the background of a supernatural event and archaic belief. The main character, Maggie Doyle is sympathetically and affectionately written, which drew me in and enabled me to emphasise with her. All is not what it seems – or is it? A compelling read. I really enjoyed it. Recommend.

Sarah j fox 5.0 out of 5 stars Magical Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 7 March 2021 This is a beautiful magical book set in the 1980s that takes you on a wonderful journey of heartache, love, friendship and mystery. I was enchanted by Maggie and all the characters actually. I simply couldn’t put this book down and look forward to reading more from this talented writer. One person found this helpful

Robert M 5.0 out of 5 stars An author to watch Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 1 April 2021 A great read – well-written prose is so hard to find these days, this author will go far.

Maggie Doyle’s journey is vividly described as are the locations – 1980s Ireland and London. You get immersed into the worlds of art, therapy and the Catholic church, but not in that order!

Maggie is an ordinary, extra-ordinary character made real by an exciting new author.

Taster Butter and Whiskey: The Ballad of Maggie Doyle

Opening Prologue

Another rainy Monday morning. Maggie Doyle is sorting the weekly wash. She examines the yellowed tide marks and grimy cuffs of her husband’s work shirt and wrinkles her freckled nose in vexation. Is this truly what her life has come to? She spies a greasy stain on the shirt-front and sighs. Out damned spot! Reaching for the stain-remover soap that she bought on offer in the supermarket, she lathers up her little scrubbing-brush and attacks the stubborn mark with grim determination. Eliminates everyday stains, the packet had said. “Well, we’ll soon see about that,” mutters Maggie out loud. Yet, even as she scrubs, her mind wanders to bigger questions.

       The Lamb of God washes away our sins, Father John had said, yet can we truly start afresh, free from stain, free from sin? Will all the water in the Liffey suffice to wash away the stain of the fruit from the Tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil?

Maggie Doyle worries about these things; worries that the little brush will wear away the very fabric of the shirt, like the nun who washes raw her sinful flesh, in order to be pure. Clothes wear thin and so do souls, frayed ragged by the grind of daily life and the weekly bleaching of purification. How can the soul that is constantly cleansed be whole and vital? Wash with care, says the label. That’s about right, thinks Maggie as she sets the brush to one side and bundles the shirt into her top loader.

In the afternoon, Mrs Kelly drops by for tea. She speaks of Mrs Murphy’s influenza and the price of shin of lamb at O’Rourke’s this week. Maggie’s attention flutters away and hovers somewhere just behind the netted curtains of the parlour windows. Mrs Kelly feels the slight. She clinks the silver teaspoon impatiently against the delicate rosebuds on Maggie’s best porcelain teacup, but Maggie’s errant thoughts are not so easily called to heel.

Mrs Kelly’s eyes follow Maggie’s gaze into the street outside. Over the road at number thirty-four, Father John is making his parish rounds, stepping courteously around the edge of the neatly mown lawn and up the gravel drive to the front door. No crossed corners for the Holy Roman Church. Even without her glasses, Maggie’s vision is still sharp enough to make out the greying temples and handsome features of his face. He raps the door-knocker and steps back with patient anticipation but the occupant seems in no hurry to answer the door. He shifts from one foot to the other, then he turns to look across the road towards her own house. Maggie’s heart all but stops a moment. She flushes and plucks unconsciously at the crucifix around her neck, but now old Ma McGinty is opening the door, pulling her crocheted shawl around her to keep out the cold. He turns back, then nods and steps inside. Maggie can breathe again. Mrs Kelly makes a small coughing noise. Aware, all at once, of the other woman’s gaze upon her, Maggie suffers the mortification of blood rising to her cheeks.“Sure, but we’re all going to burn in Hell over that one,” says Mrs Kelly in a low voice.

Maggie Doyle is all aquiver. It has been seven years since Mr Doyle last laid his hands upon her, and even longer since she had felt anything like the itch of even the most pedestrian desire for his pallid body. Every night they sleep like strangers in their barren marital bed, conjugal duty abandoned, the scornful reproach of her empty womb as effective an inhibitor to her husband’s feeble libido, as any bromide. But here, right now, in the Catholic Women’s Union meeting in the draughty parish hall, she is all on fire, and fire such as no demon in Hell could contrive for her torment. Maggie swallows and gasps for breath when Father John’s fingers brush against her own, as he helps himself to tea and ginger snaps. She is wicked, shameful, wanton, she tells herself and digs her fingernails into her palm in penitence. But she wants him all the same, and the conviction of her contrition is as empty as the church’s poor box.

Father John can hardly be immune to such passion and feels the spark.  He has a gentle way with him, with that wistful smile and deep blue eyes that penetrate a woman’s very soul. Brought up on the Beatles and sixties’ liberalism, he is a modern Catholic – all love and no condemnation. He sees how the flowers of a woman’s middle years blossom unappreciated, like lilies growing by the side of a busy highway. It cannot but touch his heart.  He has so much love to give, and Mrs Doyle wants so much to take it. If God is love, then how can love be sin?

Sheltered in the rosy bower of the faded bedroom wallpaper, Maggie holds her holy lover between her legs and groans. Yet even as she approaches the climax of her ecstasy, her mind is on the sinful sheets that she will have to wash anew, though there are still another five days till washing day. Every Wednesday afternoon, when he has dressed and gone, and the bed is cold, she cannot help but shed a tear of grief. It never fails to break her heart to see the stains of wasted life that mar the white perfection of her immaculately laundered linen. Maggie wants to be filled with love. She wants a child. His child. It is not too late. So, this afternoon, when he groans then starts to pull away from her, she clasps him all the more closely to her arching body and he cannot break free.

Three Mondays later, Maggie Doyle sorts through the weekly wash with a secret smile. She dreams of matinee coats and bibs with yellow ducks.  There are some things that cannot be washed away and lost. Things that grow and thrive inside, long after the moment of passion is over. Maggie knew long before she missed the familiar bloody stain upon her sensible Marks and Spencer’s cotton briefs, knew, that her prayers had been answered.

Father John does not visit anymore. Angry over the seed she stole from him and frightened for his reputation and career, he keeps his profile low and faces God and Father O’Brien’s wrath in the confessional one Friday morning just before Pentecost. His desertion had stung her deeply at first, but Maggie, seated beside her frigid husband in the wooden pew on Sunday morning, is a study in impassivity. She does not need him now. “The wages of Sin,” Father O’Brien reminds the congregation, “are death”. Yet, she knows that the wages of love are life, new, miraculous life. She feels it throbbing through her veins and surging throughout her organs like aqua vitae. Her soul is whole and bright. No more will she run it thin through the mangle of repentance. She gazes into the Blessed Virgin Mother’s face and for the first time in her life, understands the secret rapture in those lowered eyes.

For six months Declan Doyle wears his cuckold’s horns with sullen rage. Those whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder. But God had the sense never to get himself married.He bites his lip and eats his joyless dinner as usual, yet his eyes follow his wife with stifled loathing.Maggie rises above it on her cloud of bliss, yet his hatred seeps out, filling up the house; a subtle poison that makes her unborn child stiffen and writhe inside her. When Maggie starts to show, vows or no vows, he can take no more. He packs his bag and calls a taxi. Then clutching a bottle of whiskey, he heads home to Mammy, cowering on the back seat of the cab to avoid the gossiping eyes.

Father John can’t look at Maggie Doyle. Can’t bear to see the fruit of his loins as it swells and burgeons inside the softness of that body, which had so recently been his exclusive domain. He busies himself with parish business and avoids her whenever he ventures out to tender to the needs of his sick and ailing flock. But it is Father John who is sick at heart and sick of soul, and even as his former lover blooms, his handsome looks and manly graces seem to fade, like tall grasses in the summer’s drought.

On Friday 13th, at ten-fifteen in the damp October morning and six whole weeks before her time, Maggie’s waters break.  She packs an overnight bag. Her turn now to call a taxi.  The back seat of the shabby Ford Escort reeks of curry, beer and stale tobacco. Struggling not to gag, she doubles up in a sudden spasm of agony. The waves of pain from her first contractions crash down upon her, like the Red Sea upon the Pharaoh’s men. She fixes her eyes on the Saint Christopher’s medallion which dangles from the rear-view mirror. She prays that the kindly man who bore the little Lord to safety so long ago will bear her unborn child to safety now.

Arriving, at last, at St Jude’s Hospital for Women, she hobbles down the echoing corridor to the maternity suite, alone and for the first time, afraid. It is too soon, far too soon, but the child is coming now and nothing can stop it.

The labour room is sanitized of germs and comfort, save for a wooden crucifix hanging on the wall. Maggie pants and moans, and calls upon Our Lady to deliver her, but the Virgin has closed her ears and closed her heart. Perhaps the wages of sin are Hell, after all, pondersMaggiewretchedly, as lost in her own private Purgatory, she strains and burns. 

At last, just as she fears she must surely die, the infant tears free of her sullied flesh, pure and new, and ready to scream. Maggie falls back upon the sweat-soaked pillows. She smiles and sighs then holds out her waiting arms. But the midwife and the doctor hesitate, huddling together around the child and whispering in hushed voices.

    “My child, my darling babby,” pleads Maggie, arms still outstretched. The midwife turns, exchanges an anxious glance with her colleague, then places the hopelessly tiny infant on his mother’s breast. Maggie stares into his unfocused eyes then holds him aloft for inspection, half with fear and half with admiration. From his back protrudes a pair of tiny wings, perfectly formed and covered in the purest white down.

     “It’s a miracle,” gasps Maggie Doyle, clutching him to her swelling heart, “God has granted me a miracle!”

     “Abomination!” cries Father O’Brien and almost flings himself out of the pulpit with the force of his rancour, the following Sunday.  Tongues, even the most Christian, will wag and by this time the news has reached all but the most isolated hermit in the tiny town of Ennisgowan. Filled with zealous piety, he spits out Hellfire and Damnation upon his trembling congregation and shakes his fist in the face of Satan. He will be damned himself before he sees such a creature baptized. Such an affront to decency and Our Lady’s Holy Church. It simply shall not be countenanced.

Father John sits cowed within the chancel, beset by demons of his own. He prays to the Virgin Mother for guidance, but his path has never seemed so unclear. If the Father Almighty, in His wisdom, can forgive him because he makes his confession, then how can He see outcast for all eternity, his little son? “The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children!” roars Father O’Brien, as if in answer to his thoughts. But how can a father obey his duty to his church by forsaking the soul of his child, wonders Father John. And, in the end, it is John Lennon’s words, which lighten his darkness:All You Need is Love.”

Word travels far and fast. Outside the hospital, in defiance of the ugliness of such unfettered hatred, a small but growing throng of parishioners gather together in the evening drizzle to hold a candlelight vigil for the infant angel within. Maggie cannot see them, but she hears their hymns of faith and hope and for a moment at least, her spirits soar on the wings of their song.

But her hope cannot be sustained. Another Monday morning dawns.  Back in the maternity ward, Maggie Doyle’s child lies struggling for its very life, the weight of mortal flesh all too onerous a burden for so delicate a soul. The doctors, recognizing only near unviable prematurity and congenital defect, can offer no hope for salvation in medical intervention. It had been tacitly agreed; they must let nature take its course. He is in God’s hands now.

A thousand miles away, the Roman dawn steals stealthily across St. Peters Square and in through the leaded windows of the Vatican. High up among the stucco rafters of the great hall, Michelangelo’s Adam exchanges glances with his creator once again, as the miracle of the new day unfolds.

In a gloomy side office, the ageing pontiff and his advisors have been deep in discussion since the early hours of the morning. The rosy finger of light that reaches around the corner of the curtains and prods them gently on the shoulders reminds them that time is marching forward. The weary pontiff sighs and buries his face in his ancient hands. A storm is brewing and the Holy Church must move quickly and surely. How could a miracle spring forth out of sin; good proceed from evil? Yet, Christ himself consorted with the harlot Magdalene and made saints out of tax collectors. By his works shall ye know him. The world seems so complicated now, and his flock so desperate to seek a sign. The Holy Father looks up and meets the eye of his special advisor, who bends to whisper in the papal ear.  “We must use this child, one way or another,” hisses Cardinal Salvatore. One thing is for sure; they must lose no time in viewing this infant and making a full and thorough assessment. 

In the early hours of the next day, in her lonely side room, an anguished Maggie lays her fading infant in the cot beside her bed. Another feeble feed. She would drain the last drop of life-blood from her very arteries if that is what it would take to sustain him, but all she can do is sit in helpless watch. Time drags by. She tries to read a magazine, but she cannot wrest her attention from her sleeping child. How peaceful he seems. How blissfully unaware of the mortal danger that lies in wait to prey upon his little soul.

 At eight o’clock, as Maggie pushes away an untouched breakfast tray, Father John appears, as if in answer to her most desperate prayer. He wears his cassock, but as soon as he is done, he will discard his priestly garb forever and take the next boat to the mainland. Finding only hate and fear where he had hoped to find love, he has cast himself adrift in a sea of doubt. But first, he has one last priestly office to perform.  No words are exchanged, as Father John takes out the precious flask of holy water from his cassock pocket and anoints the diminutive head of his child. In Nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. His eyes are lit by tenderness as the infant wakens, stretches wide its perfect wings, and smiles. For all that he had hardened his heart, Father John cannot but feel it soften and swell within his breast. “We must call him Gabriel,” he says, squeezing Maggie’s hand, “Our little angel”.

At peace, at last, Maggie Doyle slips gratefully into sleep, her anxious face smooth and young again in repose. Father John watches over mother and child for a moment, then dropping a kiss upon her brow with a “God Bless you, Margaret,” takes leave from Ennisgowan forever.

 Late in the afternoon, Cardinal Salvatore, straight off the earliest Rome-to-Dublin flight, arrives at the hospital and wastes no time in idle conversation. “Get him out of here!”, screams Maggie, as he descends upon her infant, with all the dark menace of the Spanish Inquisition. And the doctor is obliged to prescribe sedation before she is herself again. But fear is set bone-deep in Maggie Doyle’s Catholic being and to stand against the Holy Roman Father, friendless and alone, demands more courage than she can muster.

By early eveningshe concedes to the inspection, on condition that she remain present and that the infant is not physically touched. Cardinal Salvatore assumes his most pious smile. Maggie takes a deep breath, picks up her sleeping baby, then gently folds back his blanket to reveal the downy protrusions between his little shoulders. The Holy Father’s right-hand man all but gasps. This child could certainly pose a threat to the moral order. He stares deep into Maggie’s eyes, hoping to see a sign of Satan’s touch. Maggie shudders and hastily re-wrapping her infant, holds him tightly to her as if he were already slipping out of her grasp. But the inquisition is over. For now. The Cardinal bows and leaves without a word. There is much to ponder, and supper awaits him back in the rectory with Father O’Brien. He crosses himself and makes a silent supplication. God spare him from Irish spaghetti Bolognese. 

The following day, barely the sixth of his short and precious life, the little angel takes a deep sigh and expires. Maggie cradles the tiny, lifeless body in her arms and rocks, moaning softly to herself. She knows that Cardinal Salvatore is waiting, rubbing his hands. Waiting to dissect her beautiful child, to lay it out like a biology specimen and pick over his remains like a great black carrion crow. To label and name, judge and condemn. She can’t let it happen. But what can one woman do against the might of the Holy Roman Church?

 And she is right. On receiving the news, The Cardinal places a long-distance call direct to The Holy Father. The truth must be established. The myth of a deceased angel, the offspring of the most sinful of unions, could prove even more dangerous than the reality of a living one. Had it survived, in time, its flawed humanity would surely have betrayed its freakishness. Dead – well, there is no end to the power of such a symbol, should word of it spread. “It is imperative that we undertake the post-mortem, Your Holiness,” he whispers into the receiver, “it is imperative that we take control.”

Sister Angela wears a grey wimple in place of a nurse’s cap and exemplifies that rare and simple faith, which is fast disappearing in this complicated world. Orderly, yet kind, she nods sympathetically when Maggie begs for one final hour more alone with her baby, her darling child. She closes the blinds on the door on the way out. Sure, if ever a soul needed privacy, it would be now.

Alone in the shadowed silence, Maggie Doyle knows what she has to do. She only prays she has the strength to do it.

When Sister Angela returns and softly opens the door the promised half-hour later, she screams and faints dead away to the whirling linoleum floor. Maggie sits, mute and unresponsive, amid the blood-soaked sheets, red-stained down sticking to her mouth and chin. Like a feral cat that eats her offspring, she has devoured her lifeless infant, blood and bone, flesh and feather.

For twelve long hours, Maggie remains cocooned within her catatonia, silent and as unmoving as the statue of the Virgin in the deserted hospital chapel. The doctors shake their heads and sigh, they must simply bide their time, but the prognosis seems bleak.

The next morning, as dawn breaks, Maggie Doyle sits suddenly upright in her bed. Staring blankly ahead of her, she swings her feet mechanically onto the floor then walks the somnambulist’s walk to the sink, where she takes the bar of hospital soap and crams it into her mouth. She gags and splutters, foams and spits, and works the soap until all that remains is suds and lather. But, all the soap in the Emerald Isle will not suffice to wash away the stain of her infant’s blood from her mouth or the salty tang of his flesh from her tongue.

The Fox-wife

From A Little Book of Short Stories

When Eric was just a kitten, Julia wondered if she would ever come to love him. After all, it was not as though she had asked for another cat, and he would get under her feet so. Besides, she had never cared for kittens, preferring instead the luxurious grace and easy beauty of the feline adult. But she need not have worried. By the time Eric had reached his first birthday, he had so firmly forced his way into her affections that she would not have parted with him for all the world. And who could have resisted him? Affectionate yet independent, cheekily playful, yet never destructive, he possessed, in short, all the qualities of the perfect cat. And despite his lack of pedigree or breeding, Julia privately believed him to be the most beautiful creature she had ever seen.

One late afternoon in early October, Eric and Julia were lolling across the kitchen draining board besides the open window, just savouring the musty sweetness of the autumn air, when by and by a great red fox sauntered around the end of the fence and into the middle of the garden. Julia saw him first, gasped then nudged a sleepy Eric into alertness. The fox, hearing the hiss of her breath, froze in his tracks and looked over. Next to Julia, Eric, eyes wide open now, tensed, rose on his haunches hackles up and fixed his stare upon the interloper. Julia looked from Eric to the fox and met the deep amber beadiness of his eyes. The moment hung in the air like the last leaf of the season poised to fall. And then, with a wink, he was gone; his great bushy tail, a tawny smudge disappearing beneath the hedge. Next, all at once, and before Julia had any hope of grabbing him, Eric had sprung through the open casement and had streaked across the garden after him. “No, Eric, no” shrieked Julia in horror. But if Eric even heard, he was not for stopping. A nameless terror filled Julia’s heart. She had seen Eric stand his ground with dogs five times his size, but a fox was a wild animal, and she knew the damage they could wreak if cornered. In a heartbeat, she had scrambled onto the draining board and out of the window, in panting pursuit.

     Julia followed Eric pell-mell down through the garden, along the flower borders and cramming herself through the gap in the hedge, into the neighbouring garden. Unable to keep up, she had already lost sight of the little cat, but ahead she heard branches rustle and so pursued the telltale noise as it rippled into the distance. On and on she went, clambering across compost heaps and trampling over neglected vegetable patches, Eric always just ahead and out of reach, until presently the gardens gave way to fields and woodrows, and fields finally gave way to an ancient coppice. Julia bent over, hands on knees and panted hard. Her throat was burning and tears were running down her face. She tries to call the little cat, but her voice sounded raspy and thin on the cold autumnal air.

    Dusk was falling now, she edged around the coppice listening intently, but all she could hear was the rustle of dry leaves beneath her own feet, the sounds of the woodland birds tweeting their evensong and the hum of distant traffic. Eric was nowhere to be seen or heard.

    Without announcement the pale orange disc of the sun slipped below the tree line and suddenly there was complete silence.  Julia looked around, feeling suddenly lost and a tiny bit afraid.

    “Do not concern yourself … I have him here, safe.” Julia’s heart thudded against her chest at the low voice. Peering through the gloom she spied a figure leaning against a tree, as if he had been there all the time. Julia made out the features of a handsome young man with magnificent red hair and moustaches, dressed in ragged scarlet and crimson, reminiscent of a troubadour of old. Around his feet were strewn what looked like pieces of pots or porcelain, which gleamed in the half-light. And in his arms, close to his breast, he held Eric. Julia made towards the little cat with arms outstretched, but the young man whipped him out of her reach and held him aloft. Eric let out a soft mew of dismay. “Not so fast”, hissed the young man with a curl of his lips that revealed a row of sharp white teeth.

    Julia found courage she did not know she possessed and asked who he was and what he was doing with her cat.

     “My name is Renardo, but you can call me Ren.” purred the young man, those sharp teeth glinting with a menace that Julia could only half sense.

    “Nice to meet you Renardo” replied Julia with a stiffness in her voice she reserved for telesales personnel, “Now could I please have my cat back?”

    “I said call me Ren” he chided, his eyes twinkling, “and I was thinking – something you want for something I want” and with this, he held up Eric by the scruff of his neck and gazed at him quizzically.

    “And what exactly could you want?” asked Julia in a low voice, a shiver running down her neck and spine, that had little to do with the coolness of the air.

    “I need a wife. It’s a lonely life here in the woods.” Ren locked her gaze with amber eyes that had an odd familiarity about them.

    “But I don’t love you … I don’t even know you” stammered Julia.

    “So what? You will learn to love me, just as you learned to love this little fellow.” and with this, he shook Eric, who mewed again pitifully.

    “How do you know anything about me … about Eric? Give him back right this minute, I don’t know you and I certainly don’t want to marry you!”  Julia was now waiting for her chance to jump up and grab Eric and run like Hell, but the young man, reading her thoughts, lifted Eric higher aloft and out of her reach.

    “Well, I’ve tried to be nice,” he said, “ but I can see that is waste of time.” And as he spoke his lips contorted into a cruel curl. With a sudden snarl, he lunged at Eric opened wide his jaws and swallowed him in one gulp.

    Julia screamed. All at once, it was as though the picture before had sharpened into focus. As the young man turned to stretch his white fur throat and swallow, she saw the tawny bush of his tail, the sheen of his deep russet pelt; she saw that the gleaming bits and pieces at his feet were not porcelain but the scattered and fractured bones of discarded prey. Sensing the very real danger she tried to force her feet to move, but in a blink of an eye he was upon her, and had dragged away into the depths of his lair.

     Julia could not have said how many days and nights passed imprisoned beneath the damp, cold depths of the earth, but the sight of Renardo, as he returned each morning from his nocturnal wandering, came increasingly to disgust her. For it had to be said that, as handsome as he might be, he had the most appalling table manners, and smelt, well, like a fox.

     Each morning she had to prepare his food, and clear out the debris and detritus from the night before. And each night he would take her, face down in the straw, gripping the back of her neck with his sharp little teeth, so that every morning she awoke with fresh bruising and swollen flesh. Yet always in front of her eyes floated the image of her darling Eric. For though she could scarcely recall the life that she had led before, still the memory of Eric’s dear little face and how he purred when she would stroke him, presented itself as warm and vivid as the spring sunshine. In these moments she would weep with the bitterness of her loss and her tears would water the seed of hatred that was growing in her heart against Renardo.

     In the beginning of her captivity, she had, of course, tried to escape. On countless occasions, whilst she was supposed to be doing her chores, she had run off into the woods; but somehow, each time her path led her back to the lair, and the sight of Renardo leaning against the entrance, sharpening his claws, with an air of smug triumph, which smarted infinitely more than the cuff he would give up with his great paw. And so finally she had given up. And at first, she had searched high and low for a weapon, but it was useless. Renardo seemed able to sniff out her intentions, with his long keen animal nose, and besides he was as tough and as a fast as the devil himself, and would surely have torn her  flesh and splintered her bones with those razor sharp teeth, long before she could get close enough to inflict any harm upon him with a stone or lump of wood. There seemed no hope.

     Untold days of thankless drudgery melted into nights of bleak despair and silent tears. Time passed and the seasons changed. Just as the wood crocuses announced the Spring, Julia found herself in the family way, and one morning, gave birth to a litter of three fine russet cubs. For an instant, she felt her heart swell with tenderness as she held up each helpless mewling cub to inspect them. But then she remembered Eric and her heart stiffened like washing left out to dry on a frosty morning. One by one she drowned the fox children in the sink of water at the back of the lair, and by the time Renardo came home, their little bodies lay concealed and cold in the earth in one of the lair’s abandoned tunnels.

     Spring turned to summer, and though the sun warmed her face and body, as she gathered wood, and she felt the light rain as gentle as fairy kisses on her bare arms, the sun could not reach her heart. Twice more she bore Renardo a litter of fine fox sons, and twice more, were they drowned and interred, secret memorials to her hate.

     Then one afternoon, as winter crept on icy toes and fingers towards the entrance of the lair again, Renardo sent her out to gather firewood as usual, whilst he gnawed and belched on the bones of breakfast. The sun hung limply in the sky, as though it too had at long last given up the struggle. And indeed, it seemed impossible to believe that Spring would ever come again.

     Julia tramped around her usual path, picking up fallen branches and twigs, barely aware of the surroundings that had become the backdrop to her daily resignation. But this morning, something tugged at her attention. Something was different. The woods around her had changed.  Up ahead trees lay hewn and logged in a small opening, that had not been there the day before. Julia held herself statue-still in her tracks. She listened intently but no sound of man or saw or chopping reached her ears. She crept closer to where the trees lay felled. The clearing was deserted. But then she spotted an axe that a woodcutter had left lying idly on the ground, next to a pile of freshly spit logs.  Without daring to breathe, Julia darted towards the woodpile, seized the axe and concealed it deep within in her bundle of kindling.  With racing heart, she scurried back to the entrance of the lair, and placed the axe carefully in a dark corner, out of sight, all the while half terrified that Renardo would sniff out her guilty deed. But perhaps Renardo had grown complacent because he only started momentarily from his slumber with his usual low growl of annoyance, whenever she disturbed his peace and quiet by setting down the wood next to the fire, then fell back asleep.

     That evening as Renardo sat eating his supper, Julia’s blood chilled, when she realised he was watching her. She looked across at him warily, but he was smiling, as sweetly as it possible for a fox to smile, and said “You are a good wife Julia. I don’t know what I would do without you.” She gave a half-smile and quickly lowered her eyes as she breathed a secret sigh of relief. But if this could have softened her resolve one iota, the memory of Eric quickly hardened it again.

     That night, as Renardo lay sleeping, Julia clattered about the foxhole with exaggerated din to make sure he was truly asleep. Now and again he groaned and turned over, smacking his lips in his dreaming, but never roused. She tiptoed to the entrance of the lair and felt around in the dark until she felt the wooden handle of the axe. She picked it up with absolute stealth and made her way back to where Renardo lay, snoring gently now.

     Grasping the axe with all her strength, she swung it as high as the low earth ceiling would allow and brought it crashing down right in the middle of the fox’s forehead. All at once the lair was filled with the sound of a  terrific crack as Renardo’s skull split clean in half, and out jumped a small black cat; and then another and another. Julia choked in surprise and delight. But the cats kept coming, a tidal wave of fur and claw and dismayed mewing: a small black Eric for every day she had spent in her dank underground prison.

     Cat after cat leapt out from Renardo’s cloven cranium and towards Julia until she felt herself stumble under the weight of so many tiny feline bodies. All became darkness as she sank unconscious beneath the depths of the furry tsunami, which bore her along and out through the mouth of the lair, down a forest track until it reaching a clearing, it spread and dissipated and deposited her like so much flotsam on a grassy bank.

     “Now, now Miss, don’t panic …” A voice came through the darkness and the pressure of gentle hands restraining her, as she startled into awareness. “You likely took a trip on one of these here roots and knocked yourself out is all”. Julia’s vision began to clear. But it was still night time, and the stars twinkled between the twigs and branches overhead. Above her, she could just make out the kindly face of a local woodsman. She weakly returned his smile, then remembering, ran her hands searchingly down her body. And there she found Eric snuggled in the crook of her arm. She squeezed him joyfully and tried to sit up, and this time the woodsman helped her to her feet.

    “Me and Bob here found you, Miss. The lord knows how long you had been here”. Bob woofed as if in greeting, and Eric suddenly wriggled out of her arms and bounded towards him. They touched noses, Bob wagged his tail and then Eric arched his back and bristled slightly, just to show he was not be trifled with. “I don’t think there is any harm done” continued the woodsman, once Julia was secure on her own two feet, “But can I suggest that me and old Bob just see you safely home, these woods can be a strange place at this time o’night.” And Neither Julia nor Eric needed any convincing as to that.

     When they got to her house, Julia fumbled for the spare key she kept hidden beneath a plant pot and opened the front door.  Everything seemed just as they had left it, save for the pile of junk mail and bills that had piled into a small mountain behind the letterbox in the hallway. Julia thanked the woodsman and Bob and they all made their goodnights. Once in and the fronted door was closed, she hurriedly locked and bolted all  the doors and secured the windows. Then Julia looked at Eric.    

   “Well?”

But Eric just mewed ambiguously and headed for his milk bowl.

    The following days and weeks Eric stayed close to Julia, never offering to go beyond the bounds of the garden fence. Whenever Julia did venture out, she seemed haunted by glimpses of small black cats streaking around corners and up alleys, or scampering down from fences as she passed. Some nights, when she and Eric heard a vixen bark or a dawn clattering around the dustbins, he would sneak beneath the bed covers and cower by her side, trembling softly in the darkness. Julia would hold onto him tightly and bury her face in his fur.

     One morning following a particularly loud and sustained racket around the garbage bins just before sunrise, Julia decided to up sticks and move to a nice little flat right in the town centre. She got no argument from Eric.

New cover for kindle A Little Book of Tall Short Stories

I found this gorgeous photograph of a red fox and thought of that handsome villain Renardo from one of the short stories – The Fox- wife. I am posting the story for anyone unfamiliar with it.

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Vessey @jeremeyvessey

Paperback Available on Amazon now and in Kindle 1st March 2021 https://read.amazon.com.au/kp/card?preview=inline&linkCode=kpd&ref_=k4w_oembed_Jc9M2zFzi6ftyY&asin=B08W4YZDG3&tag=kpembed-20

Butter and Whiskey: The Ballad of Maggie Doyle.

After an affair with a local priest, Maggie Doyle, an unhappily married woman in Southern Ireland, gives birth to a baby with tiny wings. Father John, meanwhile, abandons her and heads for the mainland, in disgrace. When The Vatican sends its Cardinal to investigate, Maggie takes an horrific course of action that will send her spiraling into madness and despair.

Years later, they have both ended up in London where, unbeknownst to either, their fates become once again entwined. Whilst each finds friendship and love in unexpected places, someone is watching Maggie, and Father John is haunted by his guilt. And why is Maggie dreaming of a strange young man, she has never met before?

On the night that their paths finally cross, the past too seems to have caught up with them, and Father John sees an opportunity to atone for having abandoned Maggie, in her hour of greatest need.