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Storms Over Lochalan

The sleepy Highland village of Lochalan is seen very differently by two of its residents – but who will be leaving? A short story I wrote for Woman’s Weekly

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The Sunday Express Magazine asked me to write a short story on the theme of the first anniversary of Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton. I must say I think it came out particularly well and it’s one of the short stories of which I am most proud

It Should Have Been Me

“Doesn’t she look lovely!” my mother breathed as a smiling Kate Middleton glided up the red-carpeted aisle. Mum glanced at my father who was buried in the Weekend FT. “Simon! Imagine if that was you!”

Dad looked briefly up at the small screen of the kitchen telly, grunted and returned to his share prices. He, I knew, had long relinquished the dream of being in the position of Michael Middleton, now dispatching the most important flight of his career. My mother, on the other hand, still clung to the fantasy of being Carole, clutching her bag and watching with bated breath from a pew.

Personally, I expected to be on the other side of the world at the time of the Royal Wedding, building a school for poor children in Mexico. Then the funding for the project had fallen through and I was back at home, kicking my heels in the rambling Hampshire farmhouse in which I had grown up. Here, among the landowners and stockbrokers who were my parents’ friends, it was impossible to avoid the great event. “Come on, Ellie! Tell us about Kate,” they would cry. “You were at uni with her, weren’t you? With them both. Just think, it could have been you!”

And, actually, it could have been me. Except that where Catherine – sorry, Kate – went right, I went wrong. Just how wrong I have never admitted, certainly not to my mother. Perhaps wrong is not the word, after all, did I really want to marry a prince, be the focus of the world’s fascination and never have a private moment to myself for the rest of my life? Possibly not, but neither did I want to be an unemployed charity worker with no future, no boyfriend and parents livid about the lack of return on the expense of my education. Carole and Michael Middleton had obviously no complaints on this score.

“Ellie was supposed to be moving in to the same hall of residence as William,” Mum would say, face crumpling with brief anguish. “I pulled every string I could to get her in. I’ve never really understood what happened.”

I would clear my throat and look away. It was true that I had been given a room in St Salvator’s Hall, the university hall of residence known as Sally’s and known for being where all St Andrew’s Sloane Rangers congregated. In the same building, as everyone also knew, was Prince William, two Old Etonian friends forming an upmarket buffer zone in rooms either side of him. I knew them too, they were friends of my brother’s. But at the last minute I decided to resist my mother’s social engineering and go to one of the more modern halls. “Oh, you’re not leaving!” one of Wills’ Old Etonian friends exclaimed. “You’re the prettiest girl in the hall!” You can guess who got my place, and who subsequently – and famously – got voted Prettiest Girl At Sally’s.

“Ellie even did the same subject for a while,” Mum would add, rather despairingly.

“History of art!” the friends would exclaim. Everyone knew everything about 'Kate' now, of course.

Yes, I’d started off doing History of Art, but after a year I got fed up of it and wondered about doing another subject. Actually, it was a certain Catherine Middleton, who I sat next to at lectures, who put an end to my dithering. She was incredibly encouraging and said categorically that I absolutely should switch to something else and in the end I swapped History of Art for Geography at the exact same time as the heir to the throne made the reverse decision.

Then there was the time in Tesco’s I bumped into yet another Old Etonian I knew and he asked me if I’d make up a four in a house he was renting. I said I was happy where I was, only afterwards did I discover one of the other three was HRH. A year or so later I was offered the chance to move into a farmhouse on someone’s estate. I said no thanks, it sounded a bit remote, but a few weeks later I heard William was living there and Catherine was moving in too.

“Of course,” my parents’ friends said, “it was really that fashion show where she really caught his eye. That see-through dress. That was the moment, wasn’t it?” They would be so busy agreeing with each other that none of them noticed my red face.

Oh, that fashion show! “Ellie!” a girl I knew from school shouted at me one day from across the street in St Andrew’s. She hurried over. “Look, I really need you to help me out, okay? We’re doing this charity fashion show and there’s this, well, quite daring see-through dress…”

“See-through?” I interrupted, doubtfully. “I’m not sure it’s me, Bella.”

“But darling, it’s a real show-stopper. And we need someone with a really fantastic figure to model it? I mean, there are a couple of volunteers, but none of them will look quite as knockout as you. Will you wear it for us?” Bella paused, then added, confidentially. “Wills is going to be in the audience, you know.”

This made me hesitate. I had by now spotted a pattern in the opportunities I had missed. Fate was clearly trying to put us together. I decided I may as well go along with it. “OK,” I said.

As Catherine drew near the altar and Wills turned to look at her, it all came back to me. Ringing up Bella on the mobile saying I was too ill to do the show, heaving in the halls of residence loo at the exact moment Catherine, my replacement, was mincing down the catwalk in her see-through dress. As the bells rang out all over London I asked myself yet again. Had a rogue prawn curry from St Andrew’s most notorious takeaway come between me and History?

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Short Story for Sunday Express – February 2012

Just look at the queue!” Jenny gasped as they followed the crowd through the Métro station.
It had sounded so simple in the guidebook. Get off at Louvre, then follow the signs to the underground entrance. In practice, this had meant shuffling off the packed train and then inching along in a heave of humanity through crowded passages to the point where a line of dark-anoraked tourists stopped at least a mile short of the entrance.

If he stood on his tiptoes – Dan was not especially tall – he could see the gleaming Perspex screens and tills like a distant glimpse of El Dorado. It seemed unlikely that they would reach it before Valentine’s Day next year.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered to Jenny, who stood beside him, no doubt sweltering in her padded nylon coat.

Even the weather was against him. The forecast had been for cloud and brisk chills, and he had been careful to warn her. But it had turned out brilliantly sunny with spring-like warmth.

She gave him a hesitant smile. She felt sorry for him, Dan could see. Was that better or worse than anger?

The whole thing had been a gamble. Perhaps it had been too soon to start suggesting jaunts to Paris, the traditional capital of romance. His friend Paul had certainly thought so. “Slow and steady, mate,” Paul had counselled as they sank a post-work pint round the corner from the bank where they both worked and where Jenny had recently joined as a clerk. “You’ve only been with her two weeks. You haven’t even slept with her yet.”

Dan blushed. “I never told you that.”

“Don’t have to, mate.”

Dan changed the subject hastily, not wanting to say that he would wait as long as Jenny liked. His love went beyond mere lust; it was nearer worship.

He had known that within three minutes of meeting her. Short, dark and plump to her cool, tall, blondeness, he had been amazed when she agreed to a date, let alone a whole weekend. Well, she would be regretting it now. Now she knew he was chaotic, disorganised, hopeless, incompetent and had no style or savoir-faire.

He had been sure that fortune would favour the brave and that the special offer “Paris Loves Lovers” break that came with his credit card bill would move things up a level.

But everything had gone wrong, right from the start. There had been a delay on the Tube and when, red-faced and sweating, he panted to the St Pancras rendezvous, Jenny had been already waiting half an hour beneath the huge bronze calves of the woman in the awful skirt. Then an old lady had been sitting in his seat on the Eurostar. Rather than cause a fuss, he’d stood the whole way in the lobby. In Paris, the hotel had fallen some considerable way short of what the brochure had led him to expect, the room not only tiny but carpeted halfway up the walls with revolting black shag pile and with a lurid female nude screwed to the wall above the bed. With that as the presiding spirit, anything more than lying awkwardly back to back, pretending to sleep, was out of the question.

At least the first-night dinner had been fine – until he had found with the presentation of the bill that his credit card was missing. Under the acidic eye of the waiter, Jenny had handed over hers.

He had pinned his failing hopes of impressing her on the visit to the Louvre and the Mona Lisa. But as the queue stretched remorselessly ahead of them, the prospect of the legendary painting with its enigmatic smile receded, as did any possibility of even getting inside the building. He drew a deep breath and tried to think positive. Perhaps if he could distract her with a few jokes…

“Well,” said Hector, turning to Sophie. “Isn’t this better than queuing?”

She nodded. The concierge of their five (or was it six?) star hotel had swung it, as Hector had assured her he would. With the passes he had given them inside Hector’s Smythson wallet, they had stepped from the gleaming hotel limo through the entrance along the riverside that only locals knew about. They had breezed in as easily as if the Louvre had opened for them alone. Hector’s handsome features, as he pointed at the long black line of queuing tourists, positively radiated self-satisfaction.

“You see, you’re going to be in good hands with me,” he told Sophie as she passed her Hermès tote – a Valentine’s gift from Hector – to the security woman, who appraised it enviously. “Happy?” he added, bestowing upon her a dry little kiss.

Sophie jerked her lips in an obedient smile. Why should she not be happy? She was, as her mother never tired of emphasising, very lucky to be marrying Hector, who was from a far grander family than her own, such a gentleman, and doing terrifically well at the bank.

And he had taken her on this Valentine’s trip to Paris – their last as an unmarried couple – staying at a grande luxe hotel with a celebrated spa. Everything was the best, from the champagne massages to the tables in impossible-to-reserve restaurants to the It-bag that mere mortals spent months waiting for. All obstacles melted before the heat of Hector’s money. Even the queue at the Louvre.

“Come on!” He was hurrying ahead up the polished marble stairs in his ginger cashmere coat with the black velvet facings. He had, she imagined, worn scaled-down versions of such coats since he was small. No doubt he would expect any children they had to do the same. She could see them now: patent shoes, side partings, glum faces…

“This way to the Mona Lisa,” Hector urged, turning impatiently as they entered the first of the vast galleries filled with huge, gilt-framed paintings. Sophie slowed.

Was that a Murillo over there? The dark, brooding gaze of a Velázquez? She had studied history of art and she would have liked to stop and look. But her fiancé was moving rapidly ahead towards the museum’s main attraction. He kept looking over his shoulder in panic, evidently desperate to beat the crowds.

Hector always had to come first, Sophie reflected. Was it really so gentlemanly to be so determined to win? Or was there something rather brutal and unedifying about it? To the victor the spoils. Was she herself, Sophie wondered, part of the spoils? More to the point, did she want to be?

At least they were inside now, thought Dan. He could stop telling jokes and dredging up anecdotes, which would doubtless be a relief for Jenny.

The Louvre was enormous, the sheer physical size of the rooms and corridors like a museum for giants. And yet people were filling it, flowing like a river in the direction of the Mona Lisa. Grimly, Dan pressed on, with Jenny beside him. She would see the painting. She must.

But the Mona Lisa, it turned out, was like Madonna or Lady Gaga. She was surrounded by crowds, people holding their mobiles aloft, and there was no chance of getting near. All they could see were heads stretching away in front.

Suddenly, desperately, an idea occurred to him. Seizing Jenny around the waist, he lifted her up out of the crush. “Can you see her? Can you see her?” he shouted.

“I can see the top of her head!” Jenny shouted back. Her body was rigid in his arms.

“Can you see her enigmatic smile?” he yelled desperately.

“I can’t see her enigmatic smile!” she returned, her body shuddering with what he initially thought was revulsion but then realised was amusement, which seemed worse.

He lowered her back down and hung his head. What a chump she must think him. She said nothing and after some seconds he darted a glance at her. She was still smiling at him. Laughing. Well, he was pretty ridiculous. Pitiable, really.

“Thank you,” Jenny said, her eyes soft.

Dan stared. “What did you say?” His ears were playing tricks.

She repeated it.

He shook his head. “Thank you? But it’s been a disaster from start to finish…” He tried to hold back but out it all came, the miserable catalogue of mistakes.

She was waving her hands to interrupt. “Disaster? But it couldn’t have been better!”

He suddenly understood. “Yes, because you now know exactly how much of a useless idiot I am. It might have taken ages otherwise.”

“Yes, to find out what a gentleman you are,” she corrected, grinning. “You’re so old-fashioned and adorable, the way you stood up all the way to Paris for that old lady, the way you made the hotel room seem so funny, the way you didn’t… well…” she dropped her head, blushing, then raised it again. “You’re never rude – you’re always polite and kind, even to that horrible waiter. And I didn’t mind queuing at all – you were so funny that I’d have stood for twice as long.”

Dan thought he must be dreaming. But no, it was real, she was coming closer. A strange warmth coursed through his veins as Jenny put her arms round his neck and pressed her lips to his. The herringbone parquet floor seemed suddenly to tip away and swirl into space. He was soaring through pink clouds just like those in the paintings.

“You’re adorable, Daniel Smith,” Jenny whispered. “I think I might be falling in love with you.”

They were first to the Mona Lisa, as Hector had been determined they would be. “Here it is,” he said, proprietorially, as if he owned that too. “Impressed?”

Sophie said nothing, just stared. It looked so small, she thought, there behind its bulletproof screen, flanked by lounging security guards. What did she think, the Mona Lisa, looking out so calmly? What did she think about her and Hector?

“The great unwashed,” sneered Hector, gesturing with a signet-ringed hand at the hordes coming in behind them with mobile phones held aloft.

Sophie kept her eyes on the painting, the ochre shadows of the face, the steady eyes. Even behind the glare of antiballistic plastic, the power of that famous smile could be felt. Or was there something strained about it? Was the painting, through the bulletproof glass and across the centuries, sending her a warning?

Beside her, Hector was shifting from one polished Jermyn Street brogue to the other. “Just imagine,” he was saying, “what that painting must be worth. Millions? Billions?”

Sophie looked at him. A phrase from Oscar Wilde swam into her head, something about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Wasn’t that Hector all over? Did she really want to spend her life with someone like that?

She felt him start beside her. “I don’t believe it,” Hector said in a low, contemptuous voice. “It’s Smith. Dan Smith, one of the oiks from our clerks section. With Jennifer Davis. New girl. Well, well, well.” He gave a patronising sniff. “Who’d have thought it?”

“They look very happy,” Sophie remarked. They did, too. They were holding hands and laughing. There was something sweet and spontaneous about them. She felt a sudden, powerful stir of envy. Indignation, too. What right did Hector have to mock? Who did he think he was?

She flinched as Hector draped a stiff, cashmered arm proprietorially around her.

“Had enough?” he asked, as she pulled away.

“Yes,” she said. “Hector, there’s something I really need to tell you…”

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Short Story for Woman's Weekly, JULY 2011

The sun shone, the tropical birds sang in the bright green foliage and an impossibly azure sea glittered at the golden edge of the sand. My cherry-tomato-sized diamond engagement ring flashed on my newly-manicured hand.

The minister stepped forward, smiling, the breeze from the sea tugging at his black and white robes. “Do you, Stephen Jameson Carter III, take this woman…”

I almost jumped up and down. I never got used to hearing Steve’s name, loaded as it was with generations of blue-blood American privilege. It had sent an electric shock of excitement through me the first time I heard it; many months later, it was still a thrill.

And now it would be my name too; I would be Mrs Stephen Jameson Carter III, wife of a one-hundred-per-cent, copper-bottomed, rootin-tootin, Harvard-educated American aristocrat whose family went all the way back to the Pilgrim Fathers. Even more excitingly, I’d be mistress of the penthouse flat in New York we’d stayed in during our first date and mistress of the green acres stretching out before the white-painted mansion in Vermont. I hadn’t visited the latter yet, but Steve had shown me photographs.

The minister turned to me now. “Do you, Diana..” he began.

Diana, yes. My real name, Dawn, was the first thing I’d got rid of that day, two years ago, when I’d decided I wanted more out of life. The second had been the surplus two stone that encased, I had always felt, the person I really was. Three gym sessions a week and a strict diet had slowly shifted it. As my collarbones and waistline had slowly emerged, so had the confidence to shop for the sort of clothes I should be wearing.

Of course, designer boutiques were out of the question. I worked in a chemist’s in Birmingham and my salary didn’t exactly stretch to this season’s Chanel. But there was Ebay, thanks to which I had amassed an entire wardrobe of Dior and YSL, all at rock-bottom prices. None new, obviously, but I’d chosen very classic pieces that would not date. Thanks to the years I’d spent advising the provincial clueless on make-up matters, I applied my own with expert understatedness. Dressed in my finery, perfectly maquillaged, my hair simply but smartly cut, I’d now looked enough of the lady to begin to sound like one too.

Along with teeth-straightening and bleaching, elocution lessons were the most expensive of my outlays. But it was money well spent. None of the wealthy men I had started to meet on the AlphaMale internet dating service doubted for a moment that I was Lady Diana Grosvenor, widow of a company director and owner in her own right of a cosmetics empire (the chemist’s had expanded in my imagination slightly). I behaved with perfect aplomb, never sleeping with any of them until I met Steve, who I initially hadn’t intended to sleep with either.

But after he’d flown me to New York, shown me his penthouse and wined and dined me at the best places in town, I was smitten. After ten minutes we were soul mates, and I fancied him madly too; tall, slim, with a fine head of dark hair and melting brown eyes. I was powerless to resist. What was the point?

Especially since Steve, ironically, didn’t seem interested in my ‘money’, or my ‘empire’. He laughed at my ‘title’, saying that, as an American, he wasn’t interested in fancy handles. He never asked any questions, apart from to ask me whether my champagne was chilled enough, my scallops sufficiently seared or whether the thread count on the Frette sheets was high enough. Given what I had to hide, those were the kind of questions I welcomed.

But I’d never welcomed any question in my life as much as the one the minister had just asked me. “I do,” I said happily.

Our honeymoon was as much of a dream as the wedding had been. I had adored the Maldives cabin with its servants and the four-poster bed draped with white linen that fluttered in the breeze. But Steve decided that we needed a change of scene and so, the day after our wedding, he announced, a big smile on his face, that he’d arranged for us to spend the next few days in a suite at the Hotel Paradis, Antibes. I gasped with delight. The legendary Riviera haunt of every famous film star on the planet! I didn’t need telling twice to pack up – or ask the maid to pack up - my designer clothes in my Louis Vuitton baggage.

The Hotel Paradis was everything I’d dreamed of, and more. It was a palace of white stucco, with views over silky green lawns down to a palm-fringed, silky-blue sea. As we sat on our balcony one soft evening sipping Bellinis, I felt the moment had finally come. I didn’t want to live a lie any longer. I wanted nothing to come between us; I wanted to be honest with the person I adored. I felt sure, given Steve’s generous nature, his enormous wealth and his love for me, he would laugh it off, anyway.

Putting my crystal glass down on the balustrade, I took my new husband’s hand in my own. “Darling,” I smiled at him. “I’ve got something to tell you.”

The sun was setting as I spoke. As it slid into the sea, some of its crimson fire reflected in Steve’s eyes. At least, I thought it was the sun, but then I saw that his entire face had gone red and he looked agitated. “What?” he said, when I’d finished.

“I’m completely penniless,” I repeated, smiling. “But that’s OK, isn’t it? You’ve never been interested in my money.”

With a sudden, wrenching, violent movement, he stormed back into the room through the open balcony doors. Seconds later, I heard the suite door slam.

You can guess the rest, I expect. Very possibly, unlike me, you guessed it all anyway.

There was not, nor ever had been, a Stephen Jameson Carter III. Certainly not one who owned a penthouse in New York – rented for one night only, it turned out – and a mansion in Vermont (the pictures he showed me were downloaded from the estate agent’s website.) I was left alone in the suite at the Hotel Splendid with no means to pay the bill.

My initial impulse was to hurl myself off the balcony. The second was hurling myself on the bed and bursting into tears. Finally, as the moon spread over the water, I summoned some of the northern grit and determination that had got me where I was in the first place (although not, admittedly, where I thought I was). I walked, knees trembling, down to the reception and asked to see the manager.

“Of course, of course Madame,” the concierge gasped, grabbing the phone in panic, obviously fearing I wasn’t pleased with tonight’s ice sculpture or something. My ice sculpture days were over, however. I was out in the cold.

“The manager will see you now. This way.”

I followed the polished footsteps ahead of me into a small office with a view of the moon and the sea. I was expecting to see the usual manager, a rather oily six-footer with a habit of wringing his hands. He had been all over Steve like a particularly nasty rash and I was dreading explaining my spectacular reversal of fortune.

To my surprise, this manager was a woman. “Good evening,” she said coolly, rising from behind an antique walnut desk with a computer on it. “I’m Anne Beauvallon, the night manager.”

Anne Beauvallon was a smart, neat-figured blonde with a no-nonsense air. I quailed within to think about how she would respond to my nonsense. She was looking at me closely.

“How can I help?” she said, apparently reading from my stricken face that all was not well. Unable to hold it all back any longer I sat down, burst into tears and told her everything.

Throughout my speech Anne Beauvallon looked out of the window, her elegant features expressionless, her manicured fingertips pressed together. As I reached the conclusion of my tale and began crying again, she turned and looked at me.

“Well!” she said. Her tone was light, which I interpreted as especially ominous. Anne Beauvallon clearly had no intention of getting involved.

“I know,” I sniffed miserably. “You’ll have to hand me over to the police. Send me to jail.” I looked down miserably at the floor. But who did I have to blame but myself?

“That would be rather extreme,” said Anne Beauvallon. Something in her voice made me glance up to see that, while not exactly smiling at me, her face seemed to have softened slightly. “You are a beautician, you say?”

“Used to be,” I admitted miserably, seized with a sudden pang of longing for the simplicity of my old life. The highlights, the up-dos, the special-occasion make-up jobs. The scented massages, which my ladies had especially loved. I had provided such joy to so many people.

Why had I ever left what was, in retrospect, my vocation? Dependence on a rich man had not been the escape I had imagined. On the contrary, I had lost what, now it had gone, seemed to matter most. Self-respect, dignity, the ability to hold my head high.

“We need a beautician in the hotel spa,” Anna Beauvallon remarked thoughtfully.

I thought of the hotel spa. I had visited it a few times and felt that, while the marbled surroundings, the azure-blue horizon pool and mountains of white towels were perfect, the service was not all it could be. My champagne massage, for instance, had been both more painful and less thorough than the one I did myself. And the eyebrow threading had lacked finesse.

Through the redness and tears, my eyes gleamed. “I’d love to work for you,” I assured Anne Beauvallon instantly. I had no intention of letting the moment pass. She who hesitates is lost, and I was lost enough as it was.

Anne raised an eyebrow too good to be the work of the hotel spa. “You’ll have to start at the bottom,” she warned. “It will take you a long time to pay off your bill.”

I nodded, swallowing. Where on earth was I going to live, though? No wages, in an area as expensive as this one, meant destitution. I would have to sleep under a bush in the garden. But I would. I would do whatever was necessary.

“You can live here in the meantime,” Anne Beauvallon added. “There are rooms for staff on the top floor. Small, basic.” She shrugged. “Not the suites you have been used to.”

I opened my mouth to assure her that if I never saw a suite again as long as I lived it would be too soon, but then I saw that Anne was smiling. “It’s okay,” she told me. “You’ve been deceived by a man. You aren’t the first and you won’t be the last. It’s happened to me too. So I’m happy to help, you know?” Waving away my stuttered thanks, she picked up the phone and rapped into it a few words of French.

I felt like crying again, so taken aback and relieved was I by this most unexpected display of female solidarity. Having assumed it would take a man to save me, it seemed ironic that the real rescuer was one of my own sex.

This was all eighteen months ago. Now I’m head of the Hotel Paradis spa, which I’m proud to say regularly wins top billing in glossy magazine features. I’ve paid off my bill and saved enough to buy a small flat in Antibes’ picturesque Old Town. Here, at the dinner parties I sometimes throw in order to show off both my newly-acquired French and my even newer Provencal cooking, Anne Beauvallon, now General Manager and my closest friend, is a regular guest. As is Christophe, handsome, dark-eyed, divorced, who works at the agency through whom I bought my flat. If ever I think of Steve, I have to say it’s with gratitude. Meeting him really did change my life, although admittedly not quite as intended.

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Avon calling

Wendy Holden is gloriously insulted in Stratford

It’s an amazing, fortuitous coincidence that England’s most famous playwright grew up in one of its most beautiful corners during its most picturesque period. Take the garden of the Shakespeare Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, all Tudor half-timbering and roses that by any other name would smell as sweet. Even someone as hard-boiled as the Chinese Prime Minister couldn’t quite bear to leave it on his recent visit. Faced with the prospect of a car factory in Birmingham, he rushed back for second helpings and an impromptu speech.

Almost my favourite thing in Stratford are those people dressed in Tudor costume who give talks in the various Shakespeare Houses run by the Birthplace Trust. In Anne Hathaway’s stunning Cottage, a woman a bit like Sue MacGregor held forth on the etymology of various well-known expressions: “They used to change the straw – the thresh - on the floor once a year. It was held down by a wooden bar at the door, called [pause for effect] the threshold.” Later, we learnt that everyone slept on the floor apart from the marriageable women of the household. “They slept on a raised platform known as the shelf. So if you hadn’t got married by a certain time you were [pause for effect again] left on the shelf.”

“Get me out of here,” muttered my husband.

We got four miles out to the adorable complex of antique buildings called Mary Arden’s Farm, former home of Shakespeare’s granny. Here I asked a man attired as a Tudor labourer what the daftest questions he got asked were. Apparently some people enquire if Mary is at home! We enjoyed anachronistic cappuccinos and milkshakes (MilkShakespeares, as our children called them) at ‘Mary Arden’s Pantry’, as well as a game of ‘Merrelles’ – a sort of seventeenth-century noughts and crosses. The farm is set in wonderful countryside and on the lovely wild-flower-fringed walks were some interesting displays about what the Warwickshire countryside would have looked like to young William. He never saw grey squirrels, only red, and never saw a field either. Those hedge-bordered squares of farmland that surround Stratford so charmingly were long strips in his day; plough and furrow.

I imagine that what Shakespeare really took in was what a nightmare seventeenth-century farming was, if the displays of enormous, awkward harrows, vast scythes and blown-up woodcuts of people in ruffs and full sleeves bringing in the sheaves under a blazing sun are anything to go by. Pretty though it is, especially in its modern manicured guise, a boy of Shakespeare’s wit and brilliance would have wanted to be anywhere but here.

He is here, though. Unmistakeably. Upstairs in the farmhouse is a bare and whitewashed room where you can assemble a string of Shakespeare’s insults using cut-out cards of nouns and adjectives. ‘Tardy-gaited pignut’, ‘misty-witted bladder’, ‘weedy maggot-pie’ are some of the ones I made. ‘Beef-witted puke stocking’, ‘plume-plucked bum barley’ and ‘beetle-headed foot-licker’ are some of my children’s creations.

The Birthplace Trust are not alone in hitting on rude remarks as a ‘way in’ to the Bard. Down by the river, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre complex, now newly-refurbished and reopened, has a marvellous ‘Insult Chair’ in the Swan Theatre bar. It’s big and carved and has a leather seat which unleashes a loud, fruity Shakespearean jibe (each recorded by a famous actor) as you sit down. Like a particularly erudite whoopee cushion, in fact. The same room also has drawing and craft materials for children, as well as a theatre trail to do; a godsend for parents needing a sharpener. There are two theatres in the complex, the big new Royal Shakespeare Theatre at the modern end of the building, and the smaller Swan at the Victorian Gothic end. My tip is to hit the Swan bar during intervals at the RST, as the latter’s supposedly fab new facilities are overcrowded and inefficient. Nor do they have an insult chair.

We went to Macbeth at the RST; a rousing new interpretation where the Macduff children double up as the witches. Having seen enough gurning hags stirring cauldrons over the years, I thought this device very moving and effective. The new theatre is wonderful. The old auditorium, where seats in the gods put the stage as distant as the moon, has been replaced with a gallery style theatre reminiscent of the pub yards, Globes and Roses Shakespeare’s plays were performed in originally. It’s a tad more sophisticated, its big, comfy seats designed by an Italian racing car firm, each dedicated to an RSC luminary (my Dr Who-loving son was delighted to be behind ‘David Tennant’). And yet there is a pub-yard closeness and intimacy; you can see the whites of the actors’ eyes from practically every seat.

Afterwards, I went on a tour of the theatre. I’d recommend this if you’re interested in how many sound cues The Merchant of Venice has, or how recently the Swan Theatre’s carpets were replaced. But those, like me, hoping for a glimpse round a dressing-room door or some star-studded gossip, will be disappointed. We were kept well away from any thespians and the nearest thing to gossip our guide dispensed was that an unnamed actor once came on stage with a coathanger attached to his cloak. But if you want to see what the lighting computer looks like, don’t let me put you off. I got up close and personal with Jonathan Slinger, who'd been an awesome Macbeth, afterwards, anyway. He was out of his breeches and in trendy civvies, holding forth to an adoring crowd of ladies outside the theatre. “I just wish,” he was telling them, “that there was a speech where Macbeth actually says he wants to be King.” Thoughtful nods. You get a better class of fan in Stratford.

But no wonder. As national cultural jewels go, the RSC is one of the most multifaceted and brilliantly glittering. And by no means as expensive as that suggests. If you are a student at Birmingham, Warwick or Oxford universities, for example, for certain performances they will actually send a bus for you and take you back afterwards, £17 all in! And from the end of September to the end of October they are doing Shakespeare-based plays for children for as little as £5 a ticket. There's plenty going on for free as well; The Dell stage in the RSC gardens has plays by various amateur theatre companies throughout the summer.

We stayed in the very pretty, friendly Arden Hotel, which is owned by the RSC and is just across the cobbled street from the theatre, creating the cosy impression that in staying there you are in the acting swim too. We stayed in a Master Room, which was spacious and stylish - big enough for the children too in a roomy sofabed. It had a fabulous bathroom, all polished caramel stone, vast tub and humungous shower. The Arden do some tempting theatre break deals and it’s hard to think of a better spot to stay in Stratford, right by the beautiful river with its bevy of appropriate swans.

Alongside the Avon the RSC gardens stretch from the theatre up to Holy Trinity Church. Here the Bard is buried and warns the would-be graverobber that ‘cursed be he that moves my bones’. En route, there’s a pitch marked out for something called Nine Mens’ Morris, which has nothing to do with cramming people into a small Seventies car but is a Tudor game whose rules are apparently available at the info desk at the RST. While I had no intention of playing it, not before the stares of a curious public anyway, the embarrassing possibility was a great deterrent to misbehaving children. “Do that once more and I’m going straight to get those rules for Nine Men’s Morris..”

Then again, I might just have a go next time. And I’ll definitely be back on the Insult Chair. If only you could get them at B&Q.

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Decorative dividing device


My Weekly Short Story October 2010

"Iwant to look like Cheryl Cole," announced the woman opposite me. I nodded understandingly. So did I, as a matter of fact; so do we all, surely? Who wouldn't?

But while most of us realise it's not going to happen, third-time-around brides-to-be, like the woman before me, have a different perspective on things.

"You're a make-up artist," she continued, her hazel eyes bright with hope. "You can do it, can't you?"

"Course I can," I assured her instantly. Actually, I had no idea whether I could or not.

This was the fourth would-be Cheryl of the current wedding season and the furthest from the original so far. I wouldn't want to go into details, suffice to say that her features, while pleasant, were best described as lived-in.

She had my sympathies, nonetheless. I wanted to help her. Her ambition seemed, not ridiculous, but somehow touching. Perhaps going once more into the marital breach, after two previous failures, is a such triumph of hope of experience that anything – including the wedding make-up – seems possible.

Nonetheless, best practice demanded that I at least tried to present her with an alternative. "You're quite sure?" I said. "All I'd say is that Cheryl's skin tone is quite dark and you're really quite fair and perhaps pinks and beiges might suit you better…"

"I want to be Cheryl Cole!" the woman repeated, a warning glint in her eye now. I capitulated instantly. "Of course. No problem. We'd have to get a wig of course, and extensions, but with a bit of clever shading here and there we should be able to manage it."

I smiled at her cheerfully; she looked back at me suspiciously.

"Clever shading?" she demanded.

"Yes, you see, Cheryl's got very good high cheekbones and we'll need to use quite a lot of blusher to create the same effect with you…not that you don't have wonderful cheekbones too," I added breathlessly, as the forehead before me creased slightly, "but as they're a slightly different shape, we'll have to use a different method…"

I listened to myself rabbiting on. The patter was familiar; the selfsame one I'd used the week before to the fifteen-stone woman who'd wanted to look like Victoria Beckham and the one in her sixties who wanted a stab at Sarah Jessica Parker. I wished them all well and did my best in each case; while the results never looked like the celebrity in question, I always made them look as glamorous as possible and they seemed content with that. Perhaps all any of them ever wanted was to look beautiful on their big day, and why not, after all? But that was never the instruction. They demanded to look like someone famous and I had to pretend that they did.

I had had a lot of time to ponder on all this. In my professional capacity, I spent almost every summer Saturday at weddings; it was a case of always the bride's make-up, never the bride. I'd been single for months. And while I was a working girl with a career and happy enough, my solitary status was, you could say, highlighted by my weekend work.

It wasn't worrying me, exactly, but I was starting to think about it. And while I didn't need a man for my self-respect or to buy me expensive handbags, it would be quite fun to have someone to go for nice dinners and to country pubs with. Was that so wet?

What was wrong with me, anyway? I was outgoing, pleasant, helpful, nice. Was it the way I looked? Perhaps as a reaction to the vast amount I was obliged to cake on everyone else, I wore very little make-up. Probably I looked washed-out; I was pale, thin, wore an unvarying uniform of jeans and T shirts and my light brown hair, which worked best short, was cut into a sensible blunt bob. I was beginning to wonder if I should try and look like Cheryl Cole myself.

Particularly as there was someone I had my eye on. My day job was doing make-up on a daytime TV soap, and there was a stills photographer I had noticed. His job was taking pictures of the actors for use in programme promotion and PR. He was dark and serious, utterly unlike the highlighted peacocks among the actors, all bleached teeth, mascara and far too much foundation, and that was before they even sat down in front of me.

The stills photographer's name was Dan and in the course of a few exchanges we had whilst queuing in the canteen, sitting about between scenes and so on, he told me a bit about himself. He said little about himself but slightly more about photography, about which he was obviously serious. After I managed to prod out of him that he wanted people – a great many people – to sit up and take notice of him, I guessed that he would not be spending his whole life snapping pictures of bleached-teeth Z-listers to go out with press releases.

I was right. The Monday after Cheryl Cole IV I arrived to find another photographer doing the stills. "Dan? Just one of the freelancers we use," said the studio manager when I asked. "I've got his number somewhere if you want it." He looked at me knowingly, and I shook my head. What would I do with a number? What would I say?

The summer rolled on and my client list got more and more fanciful. Brides had gone celebrity crazy. They wanted to look like everyone from Samantha Cameron to Marilyn Monroe. One asked me to channel Mrs Kruschev at the Kremlin Christmas party circa 1965. Another wanted me to do the men in the wedding party as well, on the grounds that they were sure to fight the night before and she didn't want shiners at the altar. And while everyone I dealt with seemed to be delighted with my work, I doubted myself increasingly.

And the more I doubted myself, the more I imagined Dan somewhere, taking arty photographs of people that really resonated, that were important. Making people sit up and take notice of him. With each would-be Dannii Minogue that came in, I was more conscious that I did seemed ridiculous in comparison. With each Angelina Jolie-a-like, my inferiority complex increased.

The idea of Dan as a serious artist had unleashed something in me, something that required attention. I was no longer content with being just a make-up artist. I wanted to be an artist full stop. I wanted to show the world what I could do creatively. I wanted to push the boundaries; I too wanted to make the world sit up and take notice.

And so I joined an evening art class. "I want to be taken seriously as an artist," I told the organiser, a somewhat vague-looking man with wispy hair called Jasper.

"Yah, well that's great," said Jasper, leading me over to an easel and inviting me to sketch the life model sprawled on the chaise longue in front of me. She was very large and sported many tattoos. I was surprised to find out that she worked for the local council housing department.

Perhaps the tattoos put me off, but I was never able to manage a convincing likeness. This was frustrating, considering how comparatively easy I found it to transform women of a certain age into convincing approximations of Rihanna or J-Lo. I stuck at the drawing, however; I was determined to be an artist. But however hard I tried, a doubtful "um…yah…not bad," was all I ever managed to extract from Jasper.

Towards the middle of the summer I had a meeting with a bride who wanted a Casablanca feel to her wedding. As she was a five-foot-nothing brunette, making her a statuesque Nordic blonde was going to be a big ask. At least, I was assuming it was the Ingrid Bergman character she had in mind; admittedly, she more closely resembled Bogart. As she wittered on I felt more in the grip of doubt even than usual.

This was not what I had become a make-up artist for. I wanted to enhance people's normal looks, not make them think they looked like someone else. I was about to say as much when the doorbell rang and the bride to be leapt to her feet. "That'll be the photographer. I wanted you to meet him so you could discuss how to get the Ingrid effect together. He's great. My friend recommended him. She's fat with frizzy hair but she wanted to look like Grace Kelly when she got married. He did a great job with the pictures."

She returned to the room with someone in tow; someone tall with his hands thrust awkwardly in his jeans pockets. He flicked me a look from under his dark and dangling fringe and his serious expression jolted with surprise. It was Dan.

Supplementing his income as a trainee big shot photographer, I assumed. Why else would he be bothering with weddings? I was surprised, however, at the patient way he listened to the bride's instructions, the notes he took, the questions he asked.

"You seemed to be taking it very seriously," I joshed him afterwards as we left together. He looked at me in surprise. "I do take it seriously," he said.

I returned his gaze, half-laughing. "You can't," I claimed. "I thought from what you told me at the studios that you wanted to do important work, work that really mattered."

He nodded, his eyes searching mine. "Well I do. I am doing. Taking pictures like these is an incredibly important job. My photographs will stay with these people for the rest of their lives. They'll become part of their family history. They're a great responsibility."

I stared. "But I thought you wanted to make people sit up and take notice."

Dan smiled. "Have you ever seen a wedding photographer in action?"

"Of course I have," I riposted. "I see them in action every weekend…oh, I see what you mean." The penny had suddenly dropped.

"Absolutely." Two dark and twinkling eyes met mine. "I don't just make them sit up and take notice, I make them stand up, walk about, arrange themselves as all women, as all men, as the groom's side, as the bride's side, you name it. I could make them stand on their heads if I wanted."

I nodded, absorbing his meaning. My shoulders slumped. So he had a crucial role; where did that leave me?

"I have to say," Dan added as we walked along, "that it's a real privilege working with you. I've seen pictures of your wedding make-up and it's incredible. You're definitely the best around. I was hoping we'd meet up like this because it's great for me to work with such an artist."

A jolt of delight passed through me. "You think I'm an artist?" I gasped, staring into his eyes.

He nodded, and I noticed how his fringe of shining dark hair slid over his forehead with the movement. His eyes crinkled at me, sending a wave of nervous delight through my insides. "Not only that," Dan grinned, "but I think it would be nice to go for a drink sometime. You free, ever?"

I smiled back at him. "Most evenings, yes. But not at weekends. You see, I go to rather a lot of weddings."

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