Samhain at the Cave

Samhain at the Cave

Samhain at the Cave

It’s been so long since I visited this place that I am strangely afraid. Afraid that it will not be here, or I will not be welcome. Or that I will find everything changed beyond recognition.

I need not have been so afraid. While I cannot remember precise details, I find that when I pass into the lighter part of the cave, I feel that sense of coming home that always greeted me on arrival. I expected cobwebs and dust and perhaps for small creatures to have nibbled at the belongings I left here, but the floor is without footmarks in the deep soft sand, and the ledges are untouched, and the items stored as fresh as when I last came.

It’s early morning; the damp air is filled with the scents of an autumn forest. From the lower slopes of the forest I can smell the tang of fallen leaves, that spiced mushroom fragrance mixed with woodsmoke. From higher, I can smell the pines and the other evergreens that cloak the peaks. I can even smell the distant odour of snow, though the clouds today hold only rain.

A small movement catches my eye; rising up from the path at the edge of the clearing is a figure I had not realised how much I missed. The clear shining eyes are the colour of morning sun on spring water rising through peat-rich soils, that luminous, glowing brown. We greet each other, and I run my hands through the warm pelt that feels like rough silk, and lean my head against the strong neck of the reindeer who is my guide. I do not apologise for my long absence; for time does not run the same here, and apologies are not necessary. I am here now and that is all that counts.

We spend the day gathering against the coming winter: nuts, a final crop of berries to dry and store, wood, the last batch of herbs and barks to see the winter through. Soft rain falls all the day, but it does not matter. At midday I light a fire in the fire-pit at the edge of the cave; the smoke does not fill the cave but is drawn away and lost. I make pine needle tea to warm and restore me; it’s a good source of vitamin c, and of good cheer. There is a stoneware jar in a niche to the back of the cave; it’s stoppered with a well-worked bung of wood, and I lever it open to find that it is filled with honey. Thick golden goodness and some comb. I put a small spoonful into my tea for the glory of it.

By mid afternoon, I can feel the pull of muscles unused to this work and am glad when Reindeer suggests we have done enough. I stoke up the fire and we sit companionably, me with a blanket around my shoulders and Reindeer a little further from the fire. We watch the light fade from the sky, and the forest below becomes quieter. I can hear the wind in the remaining leaves, rustling them. I think I hear something else, but I convince myself I am imagining it. I walk to the edge of the clearing, where the ground drops away steeply into the forest. There are paths which wind down this mountain, and into the forest, but few use them but me. This night is the night when the ancestors may walk among us, but I cannot sense anything this year. Previous years I have seen the glimmer of souls passing by to reassure me that they are not lost, but this year, I see nothing. The forest is lost in a dense, velvety blackness. I look down; in the very far distance I see the flicker of a few lights, camp fires perhaps, but most of the forest is in comfortable darkness.

As I turn to go back into the shelter of my cave, for the night is raw with rain and a wind that is starting to chill me to the marrow, I see a light. Two lights, in fact, which are approaching up the steep path from the forest. It takes me a moment to realise that the lights are actually eyes, reflecting back the glow of my fire in the overhang. I ought to be afraid but I am not. I ought to run for cover, to grab flaming brands from my fire but I do not. I step back, to allow my visitor to enter the open space before my cave.

It is a great she-bear.

Reindeer stands beside me, unconcerned, and nudges me, reminding me of my duty.

I clear my throat.

Greetings, sister,” I say. “You are welcome to share our fire and our food.”

She-Bear turns her head this way and that so that she can look at us both, but she does not speak. I see that she is thinner than she should be at this time of year and there are wounds on her flanks, which look only half healed. She grunts, softly, and we all move back into the cave mouth. She-bear skirts around the fire, cautious but not afraid, and lies down, still watching us.

I bring food. I find dried, smoked fish (salmon, I suspect) and berries and even some dry bread, and then I remember the crock of honey. I unstopper it, and pour it onto one of the slabs of smooth bark that serve here as plates, and place it close to She-Bear. She sniffs at it, and throws her head back in what I interpret as delight, before licking the plate clean. I give her half the crock, and then she eats fish and berries, but declines the bread. Then she yawns. Her teeth are huge, and frightening, but she is a good guest and we do not fear her. Instead, we sit together, the three of us, and we talk, in our own ways. Of those we have lost, of our fears, of our memories and of our hopes. I do not know how it is that we understand each other, but somehow we do. I learn that She-Bear has come to guide me, to be my guide as well as Reindeer, but that her lesson now is that of rest. I learn that the deep rest of winter is essential, and that I have not rested sufficiently in previous years. I have fretted and refused to rest.

The sky has begun to clear of rain clouds, and the temperature has dropped, as the stars begin to show in the dark sky. I can feel frost starting, and my other senses can feel the snow that waits, not many weeks away. The sharp, bright, invigorating smell of cold and ice and snow is still muted by the soft spicy scent of autumn, but I can smell it. Unconsciously, I find myself leaning back into the dense fur of She-Bear, her breath sweet from the honey and the hawthorn berries she has eaten, and I find her solid warmth extra comforting. I curl up in the space between the two animals, pull my blanket around myself and allow myself to sleep, guarded by two sentinels who I trust entirely.

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‘Tis the season to be spooky…

…and I have some spooktacular* offers for you to enjoy.

I have (for the duration of the season and maybe beyond) made my shorter works a little cheaper.

This means that my novella The Hedgeway is now just 99p or whatever the equivalent is worldwide. Here’s the blurb to tempt you:

Leading from the overgrown grass and thicket of brambles were the distinct signs of feet passing: small, bare human feet.
A child had walked here, breaking the crisp coating of hoar frost, and had stood only yards from the kitchen window.
Cathy thought: They’re only footprints, so why do I suddenly feel so scared?
Daniel’s grandmother’s house seems only a few years from becoming a ruin but the roof is still sound and unlike his rented accommodation, the whole place is his. It seems the perfect time to ask girlfriend Cathy to move in with him and together they plan to renovate the house. But the old house has secrets that it wants to share with them whether they want to know or not.

Then there’s The Wild Hunt, also for 99p:

Six short stories of encounters with forgotten deities and demi-gods and otherworldly beings.
The Piper at the Back Gate ~ a woman discovers a primeval forest beyond her night time garden and waiting there is someone from her childhood days.
The Wild Hunt ~ a wakeful woman joins the hunt first as prey, then as hunter, in a frozen land millennia ago.
Snag ~ a man meets a strange girl who seems to know all about everyone, to great effect.
Snuggle ~ as a premature baby lies hovering between life and death, a girl sits spinning wool in the hospital foyer.
Snip ~ an arrogant young man fights a battle with post-operative infection and his conscience.
The Faery Trees ~ an angry child discovers why you should never fall asleep beneath the elder trees.

And finally, also at 99p is The Moth’s Kiss:

A collection of ten short stories to unsettle, disturb, chill or terrify. From the creeping unease of The Moth’s Kiss of the title to the eeriness of A Fragrance of Roses, the stories seep into the consciousness of the reader. Shivers down the spine and a need to check doors and windows are a probable outcome of reading this collection alone at night. You’ll never look at willows or mosquitoes the same. Or moths.

If you are not keen on the spooky stuff, but do want something that reflects the season somewhat, then Strangers and Pilgrims, a book many readers have found to be comforting and uplifting as well as enthralling, is set during the three days of All Hallows Eve (Halloween) All Hallow’s Day and also All Saints day. It’s not on offer at this time but at £2.99 for a full novel, that’s not a bad deal anyway. Here’s the blurb:

“My heart is broken and I am dying inside.” 

Six unconnected strangers type these words into an internet search engine and start the journey of a lifetime. Directed to The House of the Wellspring website, each begins a conversation with the mysterious warden, to discover whether the waters of the Wellspring, a source of powerful healing, can heal their unbearable hurts. 

A journey of self discovery and healing awaits them, but will the Warden grant them their wish? Invited to spend some days at the House of the Wellspring each of the strangers comes with the hope of coming away whole again. 

But where is the Warden they all longed to meet and where is the Wellspring they all came to find?

 

All books also available in paperback. I recently did the required migration from Createspace to Kindle Direct; it was easier than I feared though I did get very stressed about it. Most of the books are a little cheaper now than they previously were.

Shares very much appreciated. For all other Amazon stores, please change the dot co dot uk in the URL to whichever dot you need. Or put the title and my name into the search facility.

 

  • sorry about that. It’s also the season for very bad puns.

Gerhardt the Monster-Hunter

 

Gerhardt the Monster-Hunter

Gerhardt’s obsession with the paranormal that led to him becoming a semi-professional monster hunter began when he was barely four years old. His eccentric aunt Grethe invited the whole extended family to stay at her rambling, ranshackle old mansion for Halloween one year. It was a wonderful chance for family to catch up and for the hordes of cousins to meet each other. Much of the family was dispersed over great distances, so this was the first time Gerhardt had ever met most of the cousins who came to stay. The house seemed packed to the rafters with people, and at four, he found himself feeling rather shy and overwhelmed. A huge array of costumes had been provided for the children to find themselves outfits; Gerhardt opted to don a bright orange pumpkin-shaped beret. He’d never seen a pumpkin before and a gigantic one dominated the dining room where it peered over the room from the mantle-piece. In the carved face someone had put an old glass eye; it fascinated him with its shine and the way it seemed to follow him, and when no one was looking, he prised it out of the vegetable socket and popped it in his pocket. Years later, when much else had faded, he still kept the eye, on a little stand on his desk, as a kind of talisman against doubts.

The party was filled with games and jokes and everyone dressed up, including all the adults. Cousin Colin had found a vampire outfit and looked very scary with his fangs and dripping blood; aunt Grethe was a very convincing witch. Ghosts in sheets, zombies, wizards, ghouls and werewolves all gorged on sweets and cakes. By bedtime, Gerhardt had consumed almost his own body weight in candy. As his parents snored away in the big bed and the house fell first quiet and then silent, a raging thirst began to torment him, and taking Teddy and his blanky in hand, he ventured out to find some water.

Houses always seem very different at night, but even so, Gerhardt wandered down what seemed like countless corridors and stair cases, becoming more and more confused and lost in the semi-darkness. A few dim bulbs glowed in cobweb-bestrewn shades, creating more shadows than they banished. Behind him, he was sure he could hear footsteps but he told himself it was just the echo of his own feet on the bare wood floors. He clutched Teddy tighter, because as we all know, teddy-bears are guardians of frightened children and talismans against evil. A night wind blew through the passage way, catching the gauzy curtains and making them billow out as if someone were behind them. The sound of rasping breath from the end of the corridor were the darkness was deepest, made him hold his own breath and hear his heart begin to pound like jungle drums. As his nerves reached breaking point, from the deep shadows stepped two stooping figures. Dressed identically in old-fashioned school frocks, their long lank and dirty hair falling over their faces so that even their eyes were hidden, two thin girls lurched towards him, arms held out and fingers wriggling at him.

It was too much; Gerhardt fled screaming, pyjamas damp with the sudden shock, and ran away as fast as his legs would carry him. Later, his twin cousins Jessica and Jennifer confessed that they had also been out of bed, wandering the house in search of candy their other cousins had missed, but by then Gerhardt and his parents had gone home, and the family became estranged for all sorts of very trivial reasons, so that for Gerhardt, this became the only family gathering he ever attended.

The experience that night scarred him; he became a geography teacher. He took refuge in the routine, the mundane and the predictable for many years; yet a seed had begun to grow, and he started to explore the paranormal. A hobby at first, ordering books from the library, subscribing to many magazines and joining various groups, the arrival of the internet was a great boon to his studies. Eventually, his website dedicated to seeking monsters and spooks, became very successful, possibly due to being targeted by trolls, though not the type that live under bridges and eat goats.

He learned to be very cautious about how he responded to the many messages inviting him to investigate hauntings and sightings of paranormal beasts. Most proved to be pranks or misguided people who probably needed to get their spectacles checked. But sometimes there were ones that seemed so promising he followed them up, laden with his (mostly self-built) equipment and accompanied by his faithful ghost-hunting pooch Bob. Knowing that animals generally sense the presence of departed spirits and discarnate entities, Gerhardt had considered both cats and dogs, but eventually settled on Bob the dog because if nothing else, Bob would always give him an excuse to be out at night without looking like a prowler or a weirdo.

The email from a young couple who had stumbled upon a ruined church and a forgotten crypt intrigued him. The church had become ruinous many years ago, shortly after the final interment in the crypt of a lady whose family had been massacred by an axe-wielding maniac. Unable to forget what she had seen, she had fallen to her death in the river; compassionate lee-way was given to her regarding her burial in hallowed ground, and once the family crypt was resealed, building work hid the entrance. Like many remote country churches it fell into disuse, then disrepair and finally, the lead nicked from the roof, it more or less fell down. But the young couple had found the crypt entrance and had gone down with torches only to see phantoms and figures flitting around. Would Gerhardt like to come and investigate further?

So, weighed down with devices and protective amulets (the old glass eye tucked in his pocket) and with Bob the dog prancing along, Gerhardt arrived at twilight in the overgrown churchyard. There was no sign of his hosts, so he picked his way among the gravestones and table tombs, and tried not to trip up as the ground descended steeply towards the shadowy shell of a church. The ghost-monitor was beeping loudly, and the ectoplasm sensor was blinking, but Bob seemed unperturbed, so he carried on, picking his path with care as the darkness grew ever deeper.

Bob leapt up at him, startling him, and gave a little woof. Something or someone was watching them. Gerhadrt stiffened, a cold sweat breaking out beneath his tweed jacket with the leather elbow patches. Doggedly, he plodded on, when the earth broke open around a tomb with a terrific roar and from the blackness emerged a tall gaunt figure. Red-silk lined the heavy black cloak that swirled around the apparition, whose bloody fangs and white-streaked locks proclaimed his identity as a vampire.

Too scared to even squeak, Gerhardt cringed away, but Bob the dog bounced over and began to jump up at the figure to lick at the hands.

Oh excellent!” said the vampire. “You’re here in good time. Just in time for dinner too!”

Gerhardt reeled, his heart leaping in his chest, and he staggered back, as the vampire stepped from the hole and came towards him, hand held out.

It must be almost forty years,” he said. “You have no idea how hard we had to try and track you down. Family feuds are so last century, aren’t they? You can’t have got any letters. Or surely you would have replied.”

Gerhardt felt his skin crawling as if a million ants were running all over him; his eyes began to roll as the greyness flowed over him.

You’ve not changed a bit,” said the vampire. “Surely you must remember me? I’m Cousin Colin. See, the fangs come out-”

But Gerhardt had fainted. When he came to, Colin had managed to drag him to the terrace of the old mansion, and someone else had fetched a deck chair and some refreshments. Colin held out a goblet of faintly luminous green liquid.

Here, have some lime juice,” he said. “You’ll feel much better in a minute and then you can come and meet everyone. When Aunt Grethe passed away, she left the house to all of us and we decided to turn it into a themed hotel. We’ve had such smashing Trip Advisor reviews already. Tonight’s our first Halloween since we opened. We all wanted you to be here, so we concocted that tale of the crypt to winkle you out of your hermitage somehow. Come on in, the party is just getting started…”

© Vivienne Tuffnell October 2016

(a story inspired by the Story World Tales of the Haunted House, by Caitlin and John Matthews. A collaborative brain-storming by me, Graham Edge and Elaine Blath Feainnewedd October 28th 2016)

This is the first piece of fiction I’ve shared on the blog for simply ages. I’ve been saving up my short fiction to make into another collection. There’s one in the offing that’s going to be modern fables for grown-ups and another collection of ghostly tales that might be out in time for Halloween next year.

If you fancy some proper spooky stories for this Halloween, you could always try one of the following. Or all of them.

The Hedgeway 

The Moth’s Kiss 

The Wild Hunt and Other Tales 

Strangers and Pilgrims is set during the Halloween period but it’s not a ghost story. Away With The Fairies has themes that tie in with this time of year and is decidedly spooky at times too.

Special Offer in time for #Halloween and long autumn evenings

With 41 reviews (mostly 4 and 5 star with a couple of three stars) Away With The Fairies has hit the spot for a lot of readers.

In a bid to sway the waverers, it’s on special offer for the next week, first at 99p for three and a bit days, then going up to £1.99 for another three and a bit, before returning to its very reasonable original price of £2.65.

It’s the perfect book for this time of year; with Halloween coming up on Saturday, it’s the time when traditionally the veils thin between this world and the Otherworld, and we honour those who have gone before us.

If you haven’t read it yet, now’s the time to grab it. If you have already read it, I’d love to see the review count rise with more good reviews.

 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Away-Fairies-Vivienne-Tuffnell-ebook/dp/B005RDS02A/ref=la_B00766135C_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1446019520&sr=1-2

 

And as an added bonus, The Hedgeway (a chilling tale for Samhain) is just 99p worldwide (whatever that converts to in other currencies) until All Souls’ Day.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Hedgeway-Vivienne-Tuffnell-ebook/dp/B00OW3TUY8/ref=pd_sim_351_4?ie=UTF8&refRID=1R87MPB5YAT6BQVVA10R

The ghost in the library

The ghost in the library

I had hoped to have some scary fiction to share this Halloween but the short story I wrote is either too scary or not scary enough, and I’d rather save it till I know which. I was also working on a longer story, but have stalled through lack of energy.

So, I thought I would entertain you all in the grand old tradition of telling true ghost stories at Halloween.

I’ve got a fair few odd little anecdotes about the supernatural from a life time of being something of a magnet for weird events, from being pelted with a potted hyacinth by a poltergeist to seeing the spectral form of a small child appear in the bedroom of our first house. So gather round, friends, and would someone shut the door lest the draught make the candles flicker? Throw a few more logs on the fire, pour yourself a glass of vintage port and make yourself comfortable.

Sixteen is a difficult age and while I was in few respects a true teenager, the world usually conspires to treat you as a being who falls squarely between being a child to be indulged and an adult who can be trusted. I was lucky that my post ‘O’ level work experience proved to be one where I was really given the opportunity to experience working in a museum.

Bedford museum had quite recently relocated to the Castle Gardens in Bedford, and the building it inhabited had an interesting history. Of the castle itself, constructed of timber shortly after the Norman conquest, only the mound still stood, and traces of the motte. The museum was a rambling old place which in its time had been a workhouse and also a brewery and when I joined for my month of experience, it was still undergoing changes. The smell of paint and plaster lingered; exhibits were being dusted down and given new labels as part of the whole programme of refurbishment.

I was originally there to work for the Archaeology Officer but I found I got on better with the curator and the Natural History Officer. As an adult I can see how hard it must have been for them to find me tasks for which I was qualified and able to do without reducing me to a tea girl, and I was first set with the task of examining and cataloguing a room full of boxes packed with magic lantern slides. They had been newly acquired but no one knew what was in most of them as there was no inventory. So I opened box and after dusty old box and methodically recorded what I found. It might have been tedious work but I found it actually quite good fun. I learned a lot about the world, too.

On occasions I got take out on trips, such as when John, the curator was asked to visit Police headquarters to help their public relations officer assess how to manage the museum housed there. That was eye-opening. I got to handle murder weapons from yesteryear and look at some quite gruesome relics of murders. Usually mid afternoon everyone at our museum came to the kitchen for a cuppa, and friends of the curator used to drop by too, several of whom worked in local government. I was included in these gatherings and enjoyed them.

The day came when I finished with my boxes of slides, and with some sense of accomplishment I handed over my inventory. I have no idea now if it was more or less what was needed but I got praised and then sent to the attic for my next assignment.

The attic was a vast long room that ran probably half the length of the building, and it was also the library. On one side of the room were lots and lots of windows, but the other walls were almost completely covered by shelves of books, floor to ceiling. It was a bright, sunny room and I suspect that it was far from the best place to store rare books but it was a pleasant enough place to work. It was reached by a steep staircase that began near the kitchen door in the private area of the museum. The stairs were solid enough but they creaked when you walked on them.

My task was to catalogue the latest batch of acquistions: a consignment of weights and measures. There was everything from the usual sets of scales (including tiny jeweller’s scales) to huge half hundredweight lumps of metal and a vast array of Chinese scales all in exquisitely made wooden cases of rosewood and velvet. I had to measure everything, and describe as accurately as I could everything about each item.

When you have measured a dozen scales, it gets boring. Really boring. On a summer afternoon, when the room has become warm, and sunshine is pouring in, a girl tends to suddenly start questioning what on earth she is doing in a museum library when she might be elsewhere. Of course, I didn’t sneak out and go and have a quiet afternoon down by the river but I did rebel a bit.

I went and found a book.

It was a bound edition of The Girl’s Own Paper from around 1900 onwards, and it was fascinating reading. From the coy problem pages to the advertisements for complexion soaps and dusting powders, I was hooked. There was a serial too. I remember little of it, because I limited myself to one paper a day. I had a guilty sense of stealing time when I read instead of cataloguing, and even though I was simply a volunteer, I wanted to make a good impression on those I was working for. So I kept the book as a secret treat.

One very warm afternoon I gave up working quite quickly. None of the windows would open and it was airless and stuffy. I worked at a big desk at the far end of the long room, and I sat side on, so that while I did not have my back to the room, I did not exactly face it. I was enjoying reading and was lost in some Edwardian beauty tips when it happened.

Directly behind me, someone sighed, loudly and with obvious sorrow. I froze, believing that one of the staff must have come up and found me shirking my tasks. I turned, ready to apologise, and saw there was no one there.

I ran through my mind what had just happened. I had definitely heard a pronounced sigh. I had felt it on the back of my neck. All the windows were closed. I had not heard footsteps coming up the creaky stairs, nor yet the same across the expanse of floor boards to my desk. I checked the room, to see if someone had sneaked up and was standing now grinning at my discomfiture.

I was totally alone. And the room that had previously been sweltering with July heat was stone cold.

I was out of that room and down the stairs in a very few seconds, landing in the kitchen white-faced and shaking. One of John’s friends was there, making tea and he was a bit shocked and my sudden arrival. Then he saw my face.

Oh, you’ve met our resident ghost, then?” he said and I nodded and was too scared to say more in case I was teased about it.

I did go back up a few days later, and while I had the eerie feeling of being watched, nothing further happened. I’ve looked up the museum now and while a lot has changed, including the name, it seems that ghostly goings on are still a feature as this Halloween they are running a paranormal investigation. http://www.thehigginsbedford.org.uk/default.aspx?page=0

 

A Devil’s Pet

 

(Disclaimer: I think this is quite possbily the most chilling thing I have ever written. Proceed at your own risk. You have been warned.)

A Devil’s Pet

 

The fire crackled softly to itself and the sleeping baby in the Moses basket made a tiny sound and lapsed into deeper sleep, a minute bubble of milk at the corner of her mouth. Naomi relaxed again and tried to focus again on her book. One child had been demanding enough but the arrival of her second baby had put a serious crimp on her ability to concentrate on anything but the essentials. At least Joel had taken the arrival of a sibling better than most toddlers, doting on his new little sister and seeming very keen to play with her.

Mike was doing the dishes in the kitchen, humming away to himself and the sound was comforting. Apart from the sound of the fire, his was the only sound she could hear at all and she snuggled further into her shawl. The little house was warm and cosy and the scented candles filled the room with the fragrances of summer. Beyond the walls, a fine layer of snow had begun to settle and turn the mundane suburban garden into a wonderland of white icing.

A new sound caught her attention, one she couldn’t place, a faint scratching that seemed to be coming from the back door.

Mike, can you see what that noise is?” she called, keeping her voice low so as not to disturb the baby.

Mike came through, drying his hands.

What noise?” he asked and as he said it, the noise died away.

I heard something at the back door,” Naomi said. “Go and look.”

He gave her a look that clearly said, why don’t you go and look, but with a sigh, he went out into the back hall and opened the door. Freezing air flooded into the house, and in its wake came a fluttering of snow flakes like feathers from a ripped pillow and a half grown black cat.

The cat hurtled in as if there were a dog pursuing it, fur standing on end and eyes wild and frenzied, and dodged past Mike’s legs and into the living room, skidding to a halt in front of the open fire and the baby basket.

What the-?” Mike shouted and Naomi shot off the sofa and out of the door to join him in the hall.

Get rid of it, Mike,” she hissed, clinging to him and shrinking away from the living room. “You know I hate cats. Get it away from the baby. Now.”

Mike raised his eyebrows in surprise but approached the cat cautiously. He quite liked cats but he’d never really handled one before and the cat backed away, spine arched and spitting at him, and he moved away. He snatched up the baby basket and fled to the hall.

Wuss,” Naomi said. “You’re scared of it!”

So are you,” he countered but she shrugged.

Mine’s a genuine phobia,” she said. “Kick it out.”

Mike decided that he wasn’t going to risk getting mauled and he faced his wife squarely.

The poor thing will freeze to death if I kick it out tonight,” he said. “Let it stay and it can go in the morning.”

Naomi looked as if she might argue but the sleeping baby’s eyes flickered, the rosebud face became crimson and the hungry whimpering started.

OK, OK,” she said. “Leave it there for tonight. I need to go to bed now anyway; this one needs a last feed and change. I don’t want that thing here tomorrow.”

Later, under the warm duvet, Naomi moved closer to Mike and cuddled up to him.

Why do you hate cats so much?” he asked sleepily.

My Gran said that cats were the devil’s pet,” she said. “They’re evil creatures. Noah only let cats on the Ark to keep the rats from eating everything.”

I see,” he said, sleepily and drifted off into uneasy dreams.

The next morning the cat was curled up on the hearth rug,not quite sleeping to judge by the half open eyes. When Mike came into the room, it yawned and stretched and came over to greet him, rubbing against his legs and purring. It was such a contrast to its demeanour the night before, he immediately began stroking it, and the purring increased to a rumbling that seemed incredibly loud from such a small creature. This morning, the fur smoothed down, it was clear that this was scarcely more than a kitten and when Naomi came down with the baby, the cat was lapping milk from a saucer in the kitchen.

It’s starving and homeless,” Mike said defensively when she let him get a word in edgeways. “It’s the worst weather I can ever remember and until I can find where it comes from, as far as I am concerned it can stay.”

The silence between them became deafening over the next few days until Naomi found mouse droppings behind the bread bin and decided to concede that a cat might actually have a use in her home. By the following morning, a row of mangled little corpses lay by the kitchen door and that was enough for her to agree that unless someone came forward to claim the black cat, it might be considered theirs, and a collar was bought, and bowls and all the usual equipment and toys followed.

I still don’t like cats,” she said one evening. “But this little chap seems to have his uses. Just make sure he doesn’t go and sit on the baby.”

The black cat seemed to understand his boundaries and was almost always to be found next to wherever the baby was put, in basket or pushchair or cot, but never too close for Naomi’s comfort. The mouse problem vanished and fed with tinned cat food and the raw steak mince Mike used to sneak to the cat, the cat grew rapidly from an underweight scrap of rather mangy fur into a handsome glossy coated beast with a purr like a chainsaw starting.

Joel, their three year old son seemed to have inherited his mother’s dislike of cats, and had been put on the Naughty Step innumerable times for kicking out at the cat or pulling its tail. The cat had not retaliated with claws or teeth until one day when Mike and Naomi were alerted by screaming and ran into the living room to be confronted with a sight that chilled them both.

The baby basket was tipped over on the floor, the baby flung across the hearth rug and was squalling red-faced and with flailing limbs while the cat stood, back arched in fury, his mouth gaping wide to show needles of yellow teeth and yowling fiercely at Joel who was himself screaming fit to burst their eardrums, clutching his hand that bore the unmistakeable lines of a cat’s claws.

Naomi screamed too and ran to snatch up the baby while Mike scooped up his wailing son and examined his hurt hand. The cat simply vanished, leaving the scene like a streak of black lightning. As Mike struggled to calm both wife and son, and the baby quietened down, Mike picked the basket up and set it back on its stand. To his surprise, he saw that the poker had been moved from its usual place on the rack by the fireplace and lay now partially under where the basket had fallen.

The cat remained absent for the rest of the day and came in at twilight to eat and go to sleep by the fire again. Mike convinced Naomi that in all likelihood Joel had finally grabbed at the cat and got what he deserved and that the baby basket had been tipped over in a scuffle. She eyed the cat with dislike as he ate but didn’t seem inclined to take action beyond banning the cat from the house during the daytime when she was around.

Joel needs to know he can’t just treat a live animal like a stuffed toy,” Mike said, reasonably. “He won’t try to hurt him again. He’ll have learned his lesson.”

The livid marks of the cat’s claws were covered with a small bandage but Joel said nothing about what had happened. He was not very advanced in his speech anyway and the health visitor had said that his speech might well be slowed by the arrival of a new baby. At night though, Mike could often hear him babbling away to his stuffed animals just as if he were a general ordering his army around. There weren’t many words that you’d recognise as English but he seemed quite fluent in whatever baby language he spoke.

The baby was a source of concern. From initially being a placid baby who only cried when hungry or wet, she had begun to howl like a banshee for hours on end and fretted at the breast and often when Naomi thought she’d settled her, minutes after she left the room, the baby would be screaming as if in pain. Joel played on with his toys, apparently oblivious of the noise. Tiny scratches and bruises showed up on the baby’s rose petal cheeks; she cut the baby’s tiny finger nails to stop her scratching at her face but still the marks appeared.

I don’t know what to do,” Naomi said, anxiously when the health visitor came. “Joel was never like this. He was such a good baby.”

She placed the baby back in the basket and gently rocked it a little. Stiffening slightly, as the cat sauntered in and took up his old place next to the basket, she gazed beseechingly at the health visitor.

What a handsome cat!” said the health visitor.

It’s Mike’s,” Naomi said, hastily. “I wouldn’t have one. Aren’t there legends about cats smothering babies?”

Myth, in all likelihood,” the woman replied. “A way of explaining sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Pets are good for children; gets their immune systems going properly for a start. See, Baby likes the pretty pussy cat; she’s gone to sleep now.”

Sure enough, with the arrival of the cat, the baby’s cries had ceased and she was now sleeping peacefully.

Cats can be very calming; did you know their purrs can help heal broken bones?” the health visitor put in and Naomi smiled politely.

Just as long as my baby is OK,” she said. She had no faith in the idea of cats being anything more useful than mouse killing nuisances.

Baby is fine,” said the health visitor soothingly. “But Joel does rather concern me though. He’s not talking as much as we’d expect for his age. Nothing to really worry about yet, but worth reviewing properly at his next developmental checks.”

Joel heard his name and looked over.

Nothing wrong with his hearing, anyway,” Naomi said.

That evening, she and Mike sat in front of the fire and watched the television without really taking anything in. Mike could sense she was worried and upset but knew better than to try and broach it before she was ready to talk. The cat lay curled on the hearth rug, purring softly and in the basket nearby, the baby slept peacefully.

He was about to suggest they go to bed when the living room door opened and Joel stumbled in, rubbing his eyes and grizzling as only a small child can. He toddled over to the baby basket and in an instant, the cat was awake and transformed from the purring bundle of shining black fur into a demonic shape, bristling and growling as if a dog had suddenly barged in. Spine arched, the cat lashed out with claws extended, and swiped at the child’s legs.

Naomi leapt to her feet and chased the cat out of the room, furious. When she came back, the baby was starting to cry and Joel was wailing while Mike inspected his legs for damage.

It’s OK, it didn’t hurt him,” he said hastily.

Naomi sat down heavily on the sofa cuddling the baby into sleep again, and Mike took Joel back upstairs. When he got back, she was crying.

It’s no good,” she said. “I’ve done my best but I can’t have that thing in my house any longer. Tomorrow, it goes. Either to the cat rescue people or the vet’s. I won’t have it attacking my children. I told you there was something evil about cats. Look what it tried to do to Joel. He didn’t even do anything that time.”

The poor animal is scared of him,” Mike said. “Which isn’t surprising. I caught him the other day with the poker, chasing the cat with it. He should be old enough to understand it’s wrong.”

He’s only a baby,” Naomi protested. “He doesn’t know any better.”

Then he’ll have to learn,” Mike said. “And so will you, darling. It’s just a cat, but we took it in and we can’t just get rid of it like that. Think how many mice he’s caught.”

Naomi just cried harder but Mike was determined not to be undermined on this issue as he had been on so many others. She knew him of old; confrontation on something he was set upon simply was pointless. There were of course other ways. Cats would not stay in a home where they were ill treated so over the next days, she ignored the cat when he mewed to come in out of the cold and left the feeding to Mike. If the cat approached her, she made a rush at it to chase it away.

But the cat seemed just as determined to get close, not to Naomi but the baby and try as she might, whenever she turned her back, the cat came back and was settled near wherever the baby way. It made her at first uneasy and then angry.

Leave my baby alone,” she would hiss, chasing the animal away. But it made no difference. As soon as she turned away, the cat returned.

It came to a head when the cat took to accompanying them on the short walk to the shop at the corner of the street, where their quiet residential avenue met a main road. People seemed to think it was cute that the cat would walk along with them but Naomi hated it. She paused outside the shop, hoping that the cat might actually just wander off if she left it out there alone long enough, and just as she was about to manoeuvre the buggy into the shop, Joel started to reach into the pushchair to pat his little sister’s face and the cat erupted into a spitting mass of fury, striking out at the toddler rapidly. Joel shrieked and to Naomi’s shock, he didn’t rush to her for protection but instead began kicking at the cat, driving it away from the pushchair and into the road. Naomi yelled and ran after her son, snatching at him and pulling him back out of the traffic.

There was a shrill sound of brakes being slammed on and a terrible soft wet thump as a car hit the fleeing cat, crushing the life out of it instantly. Naomi felt her knees go weak and pressed her son’s face into her legs, trying to shield him from the horrifying sight. The driver was as horrified as she was; the guy came tumbling out of his car, shaking and exclaiming, “Oh my God, oh my God,” over and over again.

The cat lay limp and bloody and unmoving and the driver stood over the body, almost weeping with the shock.

Is it your cat?” he asked her finally and she just nodded.

I am so sorry, so sorry,” he said and very gently he managed to lift the mangled remains onto the pavement. “Can I call somebody? Your partner? Your mum?”

Still dazed, Naomi said nothing but she relaxed her grip on Joel and he detached himself from her skirt and turned and looked with blank eyes on the dead cat.

Bad kitty,” he said very clearly and then stamped on its head.

The next few hours were a horrible mess of emotions, guilt and anger and most of all a powerful sense of revulsion. Mike came home from work in response to her incoherent phone call and her guilt was made all the greater when he wept as he buried the cat in their back garden.

Joel should be here too,” he said, blowing his nose as he patted down the last clods of earth. “He needs to know the cat is gone for good.”

I think he already does, Naomi thought but she was unable to tell her husband of that last action of violence towards the cat. It baffled and horrified her still and she had no way of explaining it adequately.

The next morning, breasts aching with milk, Naomi went through to the baby’s room to wake her for her morning feed and found the baby silent and cold and totally unresponsive. Neither her efforts nor Mikes nor that of the paramedics made the slightest difference and she was pronounced dead at the hospital, her tiny face slightly blue.

I don’t understand. How can she just die?” Naomi said from the haze of tranquillizers the doctor had administered to try and calm her.

She held the silent bundle, Mike standing weeping at her side. Joel was playing with some toys the nurses had found for him, oblivious of the tragedy that was around him.

Sadly it does happen,” said the doctor. “Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I’m afraid there will have to be a post mortem, but at least that means you can have some peace that there was nothing you could have done. I am so sorry for your loss.”

He left the grieving couple alone slipping unobtrusively from the room; as the door shut, Joel seemed to notice his parents crying steadily and came over, a large floppy teddy bear in his hands.

Naomi looked at him, her eyes swimming with tears.

Come here darling,” she said, her voice husky with crying. “Baby’s gone to be with Jesus and the angels now.”

Joel faced her with those blank eyes and leaning forward he peered at the still face of his baby sister cradled in his mother’s arms. A tiny frown appeared between his brows and Naomi thought he was going to start wailing himself. He took the teddy bear and laid it very solemnly over the baby’s face and patted it firmly down.

Bad baby,” he said, and smiled.